|Old Gold Mountain By Bradley W. Wright|
Rounding a gentle curve, I spotted my turn off, slowed, and bumped off the edge of the pavement onto soft dirt and pine needles. The single-lane access road led straight into the forest, ending after about two hundred yards at a small dirt-and-gravel trailhead parking area. I set the brake and shut off the engine. For a moment, I just sat there, enjoying the silence and earthy smell drifting in. A glance at the clock on the dashboard reminded me I was on a schedule, though, so I rolled up the windows, climbed out of the car, and retrieved my daypack from the rear seat. Before leaving the city that morning, I had outfitted myself in typical hiker garb: cargo shorts, trail runners, T-shirt, and hooded fleece pullover in drab colors. My pack was probably a bit larger than average but not enough to attract attention. On my wrist was a recently purchased, aggressively masculine GPS watch. I wasnâ€™t much of a gadget person but the GPS unit was going to come in handy. I also had a well-used SLR camera on a shoulder strap.
It was my fourth trip to this particular spot in the last few months. Iâ€™d been taking pictures of trees and posting them to a photo sharing site, and Iâ€™d also told a few people casually that I was working on an art project about trees.
I had a pretty good hike ahead of me, so I locked the car and set off, gnawing bites of salmon jerky while I walked and snapping occasional pictures. The forest was fragrant and damp. I saw some fresh chanterelles poking up from the duff a few feet off the path but left them. After a couple of miles, I came to a diverging path, less wide, with lower branches creating an almost solid roof of foliage, and turned onto it. There was a stream paralleling this new trail and I could hear the gurgling water as I walked.
After another mile, I stopped and checked my GPS. This was the spot. I sat on a rock to rest and drank some water. A couple of minutes later I was ready. I found a space between two trees and left the path. Now I was bushwhacking through redwood forest, carefully hopping over ferns, using fallen trees as pathways. Redwood forest was not too bad when you were off-trail but you could step on a rotten log and twist an ankle if you were not careful. I had done some off-trail hiking over the last weeks to practice, and I had a good idea of how much distance I could cover in a fixed amount of time. I knew how far I needed to go and calculated it should take about an hour.
I checked my GPS regularly to make sure I was on course. After about forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw the road below which meant I had been moving faster than I thought--probably a bit amped up. I slowed and crept carefully down the slope until I was about twenty feet from the road. I had hit it almost dead on. The house was twenty yards down the road to my right so I moved across the slope until I was even with it. I had a good view, and I was well concealed in the trees, so I went ahead and changed into the clothes I had packed in my backpack: black cargo pants, long sleeved black T-shirt, black knit cap. I stowed various items in my pockets including a thin pair of black gloves and some tools. I also took a telescoping tube three inches in diameter at the widest end out of my bag and hung it by a small strap crosswise over my shoulders. I was early, as I often was, so I sat down, leaning against a tree trunk, and thought back over the series of events that had led me to this place...
It had started several months before with a job--a catering gig. I saw an ad for on-call catering help and applied via email. A few days later, they responded. I used a throwaway email address and a fake name. I had forged papers to go along with the fake name, and I was pretty sure they wouldnâ€™t ask any questions. I had done that kind of work before so I knew a lot of my co-workers would be undocumented. Like most service industry employers, large catering companies didnâ€™t worry much about identity and background checks. They would be chronically understaffed if they did. The company was called A Touch of Elegance. I went in for a brief interview, and they said they would reach out when they needed help.
My fake ID and Social Security card listed me as Dustin Cruz. I had to think of something, and that was the name that popped into my head. It was an amalgamation of the names of two friends from high school. A friend of a friend had recommended a guy, who could do the work, so I made an appointment and showed up at his apartment in West Oakland in the middle of the day on a weekday. I guess it wasnâ€™t unusual for people to forget to come up with a name before they arrived at his kitchen table. Or maybe people just assumed it was part of the service. I remember his blank stare and the smell of his filter-less cigarettes. His supplies were neatly arranged on the surface of the table which was buckled from spills and scarred with burns. Three small children were watching cartoons in the next room. One little girl kept wandering into the kitchen doorway and staring at me with huge, dark eyes. The papers were high quality and I had used them several times. Dustin was similar to my real name Justin. I went through a phase in my teens when I read a lot of old hard-boiled detective novels--Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. A piece of advice from one of those books stuck with me. It said when choosing a fake name, you should go with something that sounds like your real one. That way you will respond more naturally. It seemed to work fairly well. When I was on a temp job, I was Dustin. My real last name, Vincent, sounded nothing like Cruz, but it was what I came up with, and I stuck with it.
An email from A Touch of Elegance showed up in the inbox of my disposable account a couple of days later. It was from a manager named Fred and asked if I could do setup and help serve at a house party. The catering company mainly did private parties at peopleâ€™s homes which was why I had answered their ad instead of somebody elseâ€™s. I didnâ€™t need the money. I was after something different: anonymous access to nice houses. I was free the night of the party so I wrote back and accepted.
The address Fred gave me when he forwarded the details the next day was up in Mill Valley, not far from Muir Woods, off a curving road running up the lower slope of Mt. Tamalpais. When I saw the address, I had a good idea of what it would be like--quiet, wooded, and serene. Mill Valley real estate was very expensive and very exclusive. The particular area where the house was located was, if anything, even more so.
I arrived early and parked my borrowed car in the lot of a church a quarter mile down the road as instructed. They didnâ€™t want the help taking up prime parking near the house. It was a Saturday, and I was the first to arrive so the lot was empty. The long shadows of redwoods and the reddening afternoon sunlight looked good stretching across the blacktop surface of the lot and climbing up over a carved wooden sign near the street advertising Sunday Services, All Welcome.
I pushed the button to lock the car and set off walking up the hill in the eerie silence of the semi-rural Marin suburbs. A red tail hawk was circling high up above, and I heard small creatures rustling in the underbrush, hiding out under the leaves, trying not to be dinner for the raptor.
It was a good ten degrees warmer than in the city, and I had worked up a light sweat by the time I made it up to the top of the hill. The residence was what the real estate people called a â€œsnout houseâ€ with double garage doors facing the road, a blank second story rising up among the trees, and not much more of the house visible from the front. The lot was large and sloped with plenty of forested land on either side. I guessed at probably one lower level, built into the hill, with walls of windows facing the wooded hillside and looking out over the Bay. Probably a great view. I had mapped it before coming out and I knew there was state and federal park land across the road and also on the slope below the house. A number of public hiking trails passed close to the location. There were other houses on the road but the closest was over a hundred yards away and hidden by trees.
I found some shade under a big old redwood across the road and waited. it was pleasant sitting there on a mossy boulder in the warm afternoon shade just staring at the house and letting my mind wander. I didnâ€™t spend much time in nature. I lived in the city and spent most of my time there. My childhood though, was spent in the country, and when I sat in nature my mind flowed back to that feeling of peace and silence. After about fifteen minutes, I saw the catering van coming up the road, flashing white between the trees, and walked out to meet it.
Fred, the crew manager, parked in the driveway and got out. He was a middle-aged guy with an acne-scarred face, wearing a white chefâ€™s jacket already starting to show rings of sweat under the arms. We exchanged pleasantries while he retrieved his clipboard from the van and took a minute to read over the instructions, occasionally running a worn rag from his back pocket across his forehead.
â€œIt says we can pull into the garage and unload. The owners wonâ€™t be here till later. Got a garage opener here somewhere.â€ He dug through the console in the van and eventually came up with the opener.
The door rolled up revealing a big space all nicely finished and painted. Everything in the garage was neatly arranged--rakes, shovels, weed whacker, clippers, etc. all hung on evenly spaced hooks. At the far end and wrapping around halfway across the back wall were matching white plastic bins stacked on industrial shelving. I imagined if I started opening those bins I would find one for Christmas decorations, one for camping gear, one for extra blankets and sheets, one for cleaning products...I shuddered. Suburban living gave me the creeps. Iâ€™d lived in the country and in the city but never in the weird, liminal in-between. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s fine. Iâ€™m just not used to it.
A white Range Rover was parked beside the open spot. Fred pulled the van in, and we began unloading tables, bins of prepped food, bags of ice in coolers, and more bins of plates, silverware, napkins, table cloths. Once the van was empty Fred parked it out on the road. He came back and checked his clipboard again, running a short, callused finger along under the text as he read.
â€œThe door should be unlocked. Thereâ€™s a security system. Wait here.â€ He opened the door that led from the garage into the house, stepped up into a dim hallway, and disabled the alarm system via a panel opposite the door. He was standing between me and the keypad so that there was no angle from which I could see him entering the code. We started carrying everything inside and I saw right away that my earlier guess was correct. The short hallway opened into a soaring entry with a grand staircase leading up to the second story and also down to lower levels. It was a modified Cliff May style Northern California mansion with open plan, concrete floors, high ceilings, and lots of raw wood. The second floor ended at the midpoint of the house. The back half had a full height, peaked ceiling. Under that ceiling was an informal living room area with sofas and chairs. To the right of that was a giant open kitchen with the ubiquitous, stainless steel restaurant grade appliances. There was a wall of windows, and a balcony wrapping the entire back side of the house. The view, as I had guessed, was good. I could see the bay in the distance and the red-orange flare of low, late afternoon sunlight reflecting off the water.
As we moved back and forth between garage and kitchen carting food and equipment, I began to surreptitiously check out the art on the walls. This place was a bonanza. I saw two Rauschenberg prints, some good photos by Sherman and Leibowitz, a few big abstract paintings by unfamiliar artists, and, glimpsed through a high, open entryway to the formal dining room, a Lichtenstein lithograph.
Just as we were finishing packing all the gear in I heard the garage door open, a powerful engine purr and die, and, not long after, footsteps clacking across the polished concrete floor toward the kitchen. A small man entered, dressed casually but expensively in jeans, loafers, and a well pressed blue Oxford shirt. He was middle aged and handsome with a receding hairline, gray at the temples, and sharp features. A few steps behind him came another man, also handsome but rangy and larger boned. He was similarly dressed but with more flair and pops of bright color. He wore architectural glasses with aquamarine frames. To my surprise, I saw that he was carrying a large, brightly colored tropical bird on his wrist. I donâ€™t know much about birds. It might have been a parrot, maybe a macaw. The bird turned sideways, glaring at us with one bright eye, and raised a purple/yellow/blue wing, bobbing its head slowly up and down.
â€œHello,â€ said the first man, â€œLooks like you got in all right. Iâ€™m Carl, and this is Bill. And this--,â€ He gestured to the bird. â€œ--is the birthday girl Lucille.â€
Lucille let out a piercing shriek and flapped her wings. Bill walked over to a large tangle of what appeared to be driftwood suspended from the ceiling by several steel cables. Lucille carefully clambered off his wrist onto a branch. I noticed then that the floor below the hanging driftwood was covered with seeds, shells, bits of chewed plastic, and large, irregular circles of dried bird shit.
Fred stepped forward, shook Carlâ€™s hand, and they went off toward the formal dining room to go over the plan for the evening. I kept my face turned away from the home owners as much as possible, unloading bins onto the counters. Bill brushed by me, took a diet soda from the giant refrigerator, gave Lucille a pat on the head, and headed off up the grand stairway leaving me alone with the bird. The master suite must be upstairs, I thought. Several moments later, I jumped and almost dropped the two champagne flutes I was unloading, when the bird let out another massive shriek and shouted very clearly in a creepy, high-pitched but human-like voice, â€œLucille is the birthday girl.â€
Carlâ€™s answer rang out from the dining room in a baby talk voice I wouldnâ€™t have expected from him. â€œYes, she is, Yes, she is!â€
Soon, a crew of house cleaners arrived, then more catering crew members trickled in by ones and twos. One of the cleaners set to work on hands and knees cleaning the area under Lucilleâ€™s perch. CanapÃ©s were assembled and slid into the oven on large baking sheets, tables were set up, wine placed in decorative buckets full of ice to chill, glasses set out at the ready. Before I knew it, we were into what I thought of as the swirl--a state familiar to me from the old days when I was in college and worked banquets at fancy hotels. There was no time to stop, no time to escape the bustle, you just had to surrender to the swirling, clanking, well-choreographed but intense dance of preparation, service, clean up. At some point, a string quartet arrived and set up in one corner, tuned their instruments, and began playing a Bach prelude to warm up. I slipped into a guest bathroom and quickly changed into my service outfit of black pants, white shirt, black waiter jacket.
A few minutes after I finished dressing, Lucilleâ€™s birthday party commenced with the arrival of the first guests. I soon learned that the proper terminology was hatch-day party. This seemed to be Carlâ€™s running joke for the evening, and I heard him repeating it to several different groups of guests as I passed through the various rooms with constantly replenished trays of hors-dâ€™oeuvres. Through the blur of amiable conversation, well-dressed guests, baroque strings, lipsticked mouths gobbling canapÃ©s, champagne flutes drained and placed on my tray, I found time to glance at the art on the walls and my initial impression was reinforced. There was probably two million dollars or more worth of fine art hanging in the house. I liked Carl and Billâ€™s taste. It was good stuff, well chosen. Their taste in furniture was nice too, simple but conservative. I didnâ€™t see a lot of the obvious stuff youâ€™d see in every nouveau-riche tech workerâ€™s loft. Iâ€™d been to social events at more than a few houses, condos, and apartments where the hostâ€™s idea of decorating was apparently walking into the fancy modern furniture store and ordering one of each.
Around nine p.m., the guests were all called into the living room/kitchen area and brought to order by Carl banging a fork on a wine glass. â€œHappy Hatchdayâ€ was sung to the accompaniment of the quartet with a series of shrieks and chatter from Lucille who was standing on her branch and bobbing to the music. Cake was cut and served. Lucille got some sort of bird treat that looked better to me than the sheet cake with too much icing the other guests were eating.
Not long after that, the party began to wind down. I ran into Fred, and he gave me the okay to leave. The workers who had arrived later would be staying to clean up and pack out. He handed me his clipboard so I could write in my hours next to my name. As I was filling in my hours, he turned to speak with Bill who had tracked him down to let him know that the downstairs bar was out of Chardonnay. I took the opportunity to glance at the top sheet on the clipboard. There it was, the code. I memorized it quickly and handed the clipboard back to Fred. It seemed to be a date, easy to remember.
Outside the house, I passed a couple standing by the driver side door of a sleek black SUV, both obviously tipsy, fighting in low but strident voices over who was more sober. I recognized the woman. She was wearing a white wrap dress and shook her head of black, shoulder-length hair in a familiar gesture just as I was approaching. She held the car keys in a white-knuckle grip. She owned one of my sculptures. The man--I knew, though I had never met him--was a multimillionaire from the first tech boom, employee number three or four in one of the big ones. He was tall, wearing a sports coat, button-up, and jeans, with just the right amount of stubble covering his face. I ducked my head and gave them a wide berth. It was unlikely that they would recognize me, but I didnâ€™t want to take any chances.
As soon as I was well away, walking briskly down the hill, the cool night air of Marin on my face, I took out my phone, opened a new note, carefully entered the code, and saved it.
Now, months later, I was back for my second visit to the bird house. The slope where I sat put me at the same height as the second floor of the house. Unfortunately, there were only two second floor windows at the front. During the party, I had wandered upstairs with a tray of hors-dâ€™oeuvres as if I thought there might be hungry guests lurking in the master suite. While up there I had quickly checked the layout. I knew that one window belonged to a study, the other to a guest bathroom. The master suite was at the back. Still, I could see that all the lights were on downstairs.
I had a small, homemade device with me that I needed to place on the garage door. I dug through my pack until my fingers closed on the plastic box. I had painted it the same medium warm gray color used on the exterior of the house. I had also prepared it with a dual sided adhesive strip on the bottom. I peeled away the thin piece of plastic covering the adhesive and thumbed the switch to turn the device on. At the edge of the trees, I stood absolutely still for a moment, holding my breath. No sound of cars on the road. No neighbors out walking their dogs. I darted across the road, up the driveway, and adhered the box to the garage door near the ground. The color match was good. I was confident they wouldnâ€™t notice it.
Back in my hiding spot among the trees, I got a protein bar out of my pack and sat back to wait and observe. I knew Carl and Bill would be going out. When Fred from the caterers sent me the email asking me to work the party, he had lazily forwarded a general inquiry from Bill with details of the date, time, number of people needed, etc. This gave me Billâ€™s personal email address. After the party, acting on a hunch, I tried logging in to Billâ€™s account with variations of the birdâ€™s name as the password. It only took three tries:
A friend of mine once told me that even the most intelligent people usually have stupidly simple passwords--kidâ€™s names or birth dates, pet names, or one of the hundred or so most common passwords like 123456, password, etc. It was easy to find the lists online. My friend had a whole theory of human psychology built around this fact.
After that, I monitored Billâ€™s email every few days. Nothing creepy, just looking for invitations and RSVPs. Tonight the couple would be attending a small dinner party at a friendâ€™s house in the city which meant they would be gone for at least three hours, probably longer.
After thirty-five minutes of sitting and waiting, I finally saw some movement through the small window above the front door. Indistinct figures moved past the window this way and that, engaged in last minute preparations before leaving: keys, jacket, phone. Soon, the garage door rolled up, I heard muffled sounds of car doors closing, and the Range Rover backed out. Carl was at the wheel, Bill in the passenger seat. I saw Carl reach up and press the button on the remote clipped to the visor. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, and the door began to close. The roll-jam device was working. It was getting dark now. Just before it disappeared around a curve, the bright headlamps of the Range Rover flicked on, turning the road and trees for an instant into a brilliant, artificial-looking tableau.
I sat back to meditate and wait for the last bit of daylight to drain out of the valley. Thirty minutes later, I stood and made my way down the slope to the edge of the road. The roll jam was simple but ingenious. It worked by capturing the code the remote broadcast and also jamming the signal so it didnâ€™t reach the receiver on the garage door opener. When the user tried again, it captured the second code, still jamming the signal, and then broadcast the first code it captured. This way, the door closed and the user thought it was a momentary glitch, but the device had the second code saved, which could then be used to open the door. I waited a moment, listening as I had before, then crossed the road, and pressed a button on the device. The garage door began to rise. I entered quickly and sent the door trundling back to its closed position.
Now was the moment of truth. Would the security code still work? If not, I would have decisions to make. If they were smart, the code would have been changed after the party. Or maybe their security system allowed for one-time codes. I pulled a small piece of paper from my left front pocket just to verify one last time the numbers running through my head. A date. Just then it struck me: the date was the date of the party. Almost certainly a single-use code. Hard to believe I hadnâ€™t noticed it before. But the year was wrong. Twelve years in the past. Twelve years struck a bell. I remembered a snatch of conversation from the party.
â€œHow old is the bird?â€
â€œTwelve, I think.â€
â€œTwelve! How long do these things live for?â€
â€œDear god, forever. Forty or fifty years.â€
â€œYou might as well have a real child. At least you can kick them out when theyâ€™re eighteen.â€
Twelve years. The date was Lucilleâ€™s birthday. Or â€˜hatch dayâ€™ I should say. Knowing this, I was certain the code would work. It had probably been chosen when the system was installed and had never been reset since.
I pulled my gloves on. The door connecting the garage to the house was locked, but the knob set was cheap. Interior doors seldom had good locks. I decided to try a bump key first. I pulled my lock pick set out of a cargo pocket and spread it open on the floor. I had several bump keys for different knob sets. I selected the right one, inserted it into the lock, and rapped on the end several times with a screwdriver handle. The lock disengaged and turned easily, but I kept the door closed, holding the knob while I put away my tools with my free hand.
With my tools stowed back in my pockets, I turned the handle, stepped through, and quickly entered the code on the security panel to disable the alarm system. The LEDs blinked green three times, and a robotic female voice reported that the system was disarmed. I took a moment, then, to close my eyes and go through my memory of the interior and the layout. My plan still seemed good. I pushed the button on the knob to lock it from the inside then fished a small tube of superglue from one of my cargo pockets and squirted some into the keyhole. If they did come home for some reason, they wouldnâ€™t be able to get through the door, and that would give me plenty of time to disappear out the back and off the balcony. I went to the front door next and repeated the super glue trick but left it ajar just a crack. That was my exit path. I could pull it closed if needed but would leave it open for the present.
On my previous visit, I had seen all the rooms, except for the master bedroom. I wanted to take a quick look before proceeding with my plan, so I carefully ascended the stairs in the dark. The bedroom was large and sparsely furnished. I walked the perimeter with a small flashlight, checking out the art. Nothing caught my eye until I shined the light on the wall above the headboard of the massive California king bed. Was that a Kline? Shit. I stepped up onto the bed and took a closer look. It did seem to be a Franz Kline mixed media work. Small but with those unmistakable, powerful lines. Mentally, I increased my estimation of the total value of the art in the house by perhaps a million. Still, the Kline didnâ€™t change my plan. I didnâ€™t want to try to move that kind of art.
Back downstairs, I started with the Rauschenbergs. I took each print off the wall. They were in very nicely constructed shadowbox frames. I popped the backs off the frames and carefully peeled the prints away from the backings where they had been stuck on with archival double-sided tape.
Next, I went to the dining room. The Lichtensteinâ€™s frame was screwed to the wall. I pulled a small, battery operated screwdriver from a cargo pocket and reversed the screws out of the wall. The frame came off cleanly, and I dismantled the back and removed the lithograph.
Next, I carried all three artworks to the coffee table in the seating area and stacked them neatly. Just as I was reaching around to pull the tube hanging against my back forward and slip the strap over my head, a deafening screech slashed through the dim room, and I jumped, spinning mid-air in the direction of the sound. Directly in front of me was a tall object covered by a sheet or blanket. Heart racing, I stepped forward and lifted a corner of the fabric. Thin metal bars. I lifted it farther. A cage. I lifted it farther still and saw Lucilleâ€™s angry eye shining in the dark, glaring back at me. She clacked her beak a couple of times then seemed to deflate as her eye slowly closed and her breathing became deep and regular. I carefully lowered the fabric. I had forgotten about the bird.
Quickly, I rolled the art up and fitted it into the tube. I ran through an inventory of the things I had brought in with me, took one last look around, then left via the front door. Pausing in the shadows of the front porch, I held my breath and listened. The way was clear. I darted to the garage door and yanked the roll jam off then bolted across the road and into the woods. It took a moment in the dark, but I found my pack and hastily changed back to my anonymous hiker outfit then took a long drink of water from my bottle. I had a few of hours of night hiking ahead of me, but I would be back to the car, across the Golden Gate, and home before midnight. I hoped Iâ€™d be able to spot those mushrooms again in the dark. Some fresh pasta with wild chanterelles, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan sounded good.
There was a particular golden, Mediterranean quality of light we got in the Bay Area sometimes. It was one of those days, although I could already see wisps of condensing vapor swirling up over the edge of Twin Peaks. Late afternoon would bring cool air and fog spilling over the hills and rolling across the city toward the bay. The Chinese immigrants who came to California in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush called San Francisco èˆŠé‡‘å±±. That translated to Old Gold Mountain. San Francisco was dirty, lawless, and remote back then. Now, though, with the fog held back by the hills and the warm sun shining down, the city looked pretty golden. I was sitting on a big rock on the summit of Bernal with the roofs of homes, churches, schools, and warehouses all spread out beneath me. Farther, past Bernal Heights and the Mission District, I could see the dense neighborhoods of SOMA and Hayes Valley, Potrero Hill, and the bay to my right, the downtown skyline in the distance straight ahead.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and checked the time. I had twenty-five minutes until my appointment. It was about five miles in city traffic through busy neighborhoods. Reluctantly, I stood, walked my bike to the road that spiraled up the hill, and hopped on.
Snaking down through the residential streets, I stood on the pedals and leaned on the brakes until I hit the flats at the bottom of the hill, crossed Cesar Chavez, and veered into the bike lane on Valencia. In the Mission, I passed hipster boys with Grizzly Adams beards and fixed-gear racing bikes. That trend seemed to be waning. It was hard to tell what would replace it. The Mission was my old neighborhood. Everything was different now, though. The new Mission involved a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers double parking in the bike lane and European tourists wandering around with guidebooks, looking for the artisanal coffee and food Valencia street was now becoming famous for. It was a far cry from the derelict storefronts, auto shops, and dive bars that had lined the street when I first moved to the neighborhood. Passing by Dog Eared, I was glad to see it still in business. It was one of the best book stores in the city and an old haunt of mine. Borderlands Books was still going strong too. They had opened a new cafÃ© next door. Just past Fifteenth Street, I swerved out into traffic and back into the bike lane to get around an SUV dropping a group of shoppers off outside one of the streetâ€™s fancy boutiques. Convincing people to call what was essentially an unregulated taxi service â€œride sharingâ€ was an impressive bit of legerdemain but it annoyed me.
Crossing under the 101 off ramp, I smelled piss, spray paint, and weed smoke, then Valencia ended, and I turned onto Market, lucked out on all the lights, stood, and pedaled hard to get across Van Ness just as yellow turned to red. The part of Market Street just east of Van Ness, I had recently learned, was now called Mid-Market or MIDMA. For years it had been a shambling, drunk, marginal, and squalid extension of the Tenderloin. Walking around that part of town used to make me feel like I had stepped through a secret door onto the set of Blade Runner, but the area had undergone a rapid transformation since they gave all the tech companies tax breaks to move in. They were starting to get fancy coffee shops over here too. That always seemed to be the first wave.
I dodged between a taxi and a MUNI train, turned off Market onto Kearney, and geared down for the hill. Just a few more blocks, left on Columbus, and I was passing by Chinatown and heading into North Beach. North Beach was where my fence, Domenico, kept his office. I reached back and patted my backpack reflexively, feeling the PVC tube inside.
Officially, Domenico ran an import/export business. I didnâ€™t know how he made it look legitimate. That was not something we discussed. I was on my way to his office to trade the bird house haul for a wad of cash. I would put the cash in my backpack and Domenico would put the art in his safe. It wouldnâ€™t stay there long, though. It would be twenty-four hours max before the art would be in the hands of an intermediary and on the way to an art dealer who wouldnâ€™t ask questions. One of my rules, and I knew Domenico felt the same way, was to never keep any stolen goods in my possession longer than necessary.
Iâ€™d met Domenico half way through my second year in art school. I had started out as a painting major and then switched to sculpture in my third year. We were having a little reception for a show of student work, and a big guy with a bristly crew cut and a nice suit was wandering around by himself. He stuck out in the crowd of students and instructors, but he didnâ€™t seem to notice. He was looking at each painting intently, getting really close and wrinkling up his eyes. I guess he picked me because my style was highly realistic. I was a Vermeer groupie back then and would spend countless hours on drawing, underpainting, and layers. I was even grinding my own pigments. Domenico materialized at my side, smelling like baby powder. The event was winding down, and the gallery was almost empty. He wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief and said he had a business proposition.
I met him at a bar a couple of doors down from the gallery. I ordered a whiskey, and he ordered soda water. It turned out he wanted me to paint a copy of another painting, working from high-res photos. It took eight months, but I did a good job, painting it up in layers and thin glazes just like the old masters, then drying time, then varnishing. There was no way it would pass for the real thing under careful observation, but I guess it was good enough to fool the owner for a while until the real painting was long gone, out of the country probably, and in somebody elseâ€™s private collection. Or maybe the owner was half-blind, and my painting was still hanging in some grand old Pacific Heights mansion, nobody the wiser. I had a pretty good idea, even then, why Domenico wanted the copy, but I was a student, and he paid me a lot more than I was getting for my legitimate paintings--which was either nothing at all or another studentâ€™s artwork in trade. I thought the painting was by a semi-famous artist, but I resisted doing any research. That was before online image search tools made it simple to find information for just about any artwork. I was very careful not to leave any fingerprints in the varnish.
Thinking back on it now, I guess maybe he saw something in me other than just a painter who could do the job. It was hard to explain, but it was as if there was something broken, or something wired differently in people like me and Domenico. It came through. We recognized each other. Other people saw it too, but they didnâ€™t know what it was. It made them nervous, so they talked. I thought it was like throwing stones into a well. That dark, gaping hole in the ground was weird, and people wanted to find a way to sound it out, comprehend its depth. I had often met people for the first time and had them nervously tell me their whole life story. This trait had been useful to me in a number of ways. I was not saying everybody who was wired like me became a thief. It could manifest in different forms. Anyway, that was how we met. I didnâ€™t see him for a while after that, but, eventually, I looked him up again when I needed his services.
I had this episode just about every time I finished a job, usually the next day but definitely within a few days, always when I was at home and by myself. It started with a tightening in my stomach--a heaviness like my guts were twisted around something cold and hard. I could hear muffled sounds from outside--trucks passing, wind, the constant, low white noise of the bay--but those outside noises only seemed to make the silence inside more stifling and soon they were drowned out by the thumping roar of my own heartbeat pulsing in my ears, and the prickly, itchy feeling of nervous sweat breaking out on my forehead, lower back, palms. I usually walked carefully over to my favorite chair--a rehabilitated Eames lounge reproduction I rescued years ago from a pile of discarded furniture on the sidewalk--lowered myself into its familiar leather embrace, and just sat there, gripping the armrests until it was over. I looked it up. According to Google, those were the symptoms of a panic attack. Seemed reasonable. Iâ€™d never thought too hard about it. Iâ€™d always assumed it was a sort of release of the tight control and stress that built up when I was planning and executing a job. I did know that I had come to dread it, though. Maybe that was part of why I was glad to see Valerie. It was one of those days.
I lived near Pier 70 in a neighborhood called Mission Bay or maybe the Dogpatch depending on what oneâ€™s personal idea of the boundaries was. When I moved here, it was all old warehouses, stretches of blighted industrial land surrounded by cyclone fences, brake shops, and--here and there--dark bars exhaling stale beer and cigarette odors which catered to blue-collar, after-work drinkers. The city was growing, though, filling out--now for every block of warehouses and garages, there was a brand new condo development. Few of them were worth looking at twice. Most were just gray or tan boxes with bay windows and useless, decorative balconies grafted on. The Silicon Valley tech workers in jeans, hoodies, and start-up T-shirts poured out of them in the mornings, got on the company buses, returned, and flowed back into them at night. Other businesses were starting to appear too, just like the early days of gentrification in the Mission. Artisanal sandwich shops. Food trucks. High end bars with cocktail menus. People had fixed up the old Victorians west of Third Street. Families were moving in. I saw them walking their dogs. The only dogs I used to see here were lean, vicious Rottweilers chained to the trailer hitches of RVs parked on the side streets. Dogpatch was one of the only parts of town where you could get away with living out of a vehicle. Those RVs and their inhabitants reminded me of the people and trucks in old dust bowl era photos. They were long gone. I didnâ€™t know if there was any part of the city where you could park an RV now.
Farther north toward downtown, theyâ€™d thrown up a bunch of glass and concrete boxes to house the first wave tech startups and biomedical research institutes, and they were working on more. A lot of that land used to be covered with weeds, broken concrete, and interesting pieces of scrap metal. Along with my other, more lucrative occupation, I was a sculptor--mostly welded pieces. I missed jumping those chain link fences and wandering through the weeds looking for materials, but I guess it was progress. When the last vacant lot was turned into million dollar lofts, I could always move to Detroit. Iâ€™d rather stay, though. The weather was better here.
My building was a two-story cinderblock cube. It was the very definition of non-descript, and I liked to keep it that way. From the front, you couldnâ€™t tell anything. There was just a gray door a little darker than the gray wall, a small sign in traditional Chinese characters, and a mail slot. It was a rental when I first moved into the unfinished upstairs unit. It was supposed to be a studio space. Not a live/work. I rented it with my girlfriend at the time. We broke up, she kept the rent-controlled apartment in the Mission, and I moved into the studio. A couple of years later, the landlord decided to sell. I was sitting on a decent amount of money at the time from a lucrative eveningâ€™s work, so I joined the ownership class. On the ground floor was a sweatshop run by Mr. L.C. Lee. It wasnâ€™t really a sweatshop, but I liked to call it that to get him worked up. Heâ€™d been renting the lower half of the building for something like forty years. I inherited him when I bought the place. I lived on the top floor. They turned off the industrial sewing machines and steam irons at five oâ€™clock sharp, and a stream of middle-aged ladies flowed out the door and across the street to the bus stop. They stood there, drinking hot water out of Dollar Store thermoses and chattering in Cantonese until the bus came and took them away. Sometimes I wondered where they lived. What part of the Bay Area was still affordable enough for them? I had considered getting on the bus and riding until they get off so I could find out where that was. The machines started up again at eight a.m. the next morning. It was a cycle Iâ€™d come to depend on.
The sun was still out, but it was cold, and the wind was blowing dust in my eyes all the way down Third Street. I saw Valerieâ€™s car from a block away, parked across the street from my building. She drove an expensive-looking car. A long, low, shiny thing with one of those paint jobs that changed color from charcoal to puce to deep burgundy depending on the light and your perspective. It was hard to miss in this neighborhood, but in a year or two, it would probably fit right in.
Iâ€™d known Valerie for years. I wasnâ€™t sure I could explain our relationship in any conventional way. She owned a popular art gallery downtown on Geary. It was one of those places with high ceilings, exposed beams, big abstract canvasses on the pure white walls. There was always minimalist orchestral music playing in the background by some obscure Icelandic or Estonian composer I was not cool or connected enough to know about. We met when she wanted to include a few of my pieces in a group show she was arranging. Sometimes we slept together--when one or the other of us was feeling maudlin, which was most of the time. Mostly she tried to use me as an escort for various lectures, gallery openings, museum soirees. I generally resisted because I didnâ€™t want my face to be too well known in the tiny SF art world. Valerie was the only person, other than Domenico, who knew that I was a thief. She figured it out on her own. It didnâ€™t bother her, though--she was a profoundly amoral person. She cared about art, expensive clothes, and mid-century furniture. Like me, she had her own system of ethics. I guessed I maybe used my relationship with her as a way to avoid having a serious relationship with anybody else. Sometimes I thought that if she was doing the same thing, if we were both working hard and seriously to avoid anything serious, maybe we should just give in and let it happen. Or not happen. It was complicated.
Valerie was just starting her car when I pulled up. I heard the purr of the engine stop. She stepped out of the car and looked me up and down with a peeved expression, hand shading her eyes. â€œFor godâ€™s sake, Justin, why donâ€™t you answer your phone? I was just leaving.â€
I fished my phone out of a jacket pocket and looked at the screen. Two missed calls. â€œSorry, didnâ€™t hear it ring,â€ I answered, shrugging.
â€œAsshole,â€ she said and stepped up for a hug but wrinkled her nose and pushed me away almost as quickly. â€œYouâ€™re sweaty, and this dress just came back from the cleaners. You need to shower and put on something presentable. Weâ€™re going to the Heidrich opening reception at SFMOMA tonight,â€ she said, looking at her watch. â€œYou have seven minutes.â€
She looked at me defiantly. â€œHeâ€™s my best artist. I told you about this two weeks ago. You know I represent him. Iâ€™m premiering a new work by him this weekend. You are also on the hook for that opening.â€
â€œWell, okay. Come on up. I guess I probably remember that conversation,â€ I said over my shoulder, rummaging in my backpack for my keys.
The main door was unlocked and, near the back of the shop, I saw Mr. Lee in his little glassed-in office, beyond the ghostly shapes of cutting tables and dress forms. The filthy blinds covering the back windows were closed. It was after six oâ€™clock, and the workers were all gone for the day. Mr. Lee looked up from a pile of papers as we came in and waved then bent his head back to his work.
â€œHi, Mr. Lee, I found him,â€ Valerie called out.
Mr. Lee waved dismissively, not bothering to look up a second time.
I shouldered my bike and climbed the steep stairway up to my second-floor unit. After hanging the bike on the hooks above the landing, I unlocked my door and pushed it open, allowing Valerie to enter first. She swept in and immediately strolled back toward my workshop while I turned on the lights. My place took up the entire top floor of the building, and it was all open, except for the bathroom and a loft where I slept, both of which I framed and finished myself shortly after purchasing the place. I wanted to at least protect my bed, clothes, and towels from the gritty black dust that blanketed everything when I welded. Through the many-paned windows at the back of the building, I could see the Oakland hills across the bay looking brown and desiccated, Valâ€™s tall form silhouetted against them. She flicked on my studio lamps and began to appraise my latest piece--a kind of large, welded basin built on a platform. It was an experiment for me.
When finished, the piece would be wired up with a microphone that would capture the sound of water dripping down into the basin from a large chunk of melting ice suspended above. The sound would be amplified and run through some audio filters then played throughout the exhibit space. I was constructing it from scrap metal and some nicely weathered pieces of two-by-four I found on the sidewalk. She walked around it slowly, tilting her head to the side so that her long bangs fell into her eyes. She swept her hair back with a quick gesture and folded her arms across her chest, lips pursing.
â€œAre you sure about this,â€ she said, pointing. The tone of her voice made it obvious that she, at least, wasnâ€™t sure.
â€œOh come on, Val, I just started that piece.â€
This was a long-standing argument. She was about to let me know what she didnâ€™t like, but just then her attention was caught by a large painting in progress hanging on the far wall.
â€œWhatâ€™s this?â€ she called. â€œA painting? Have you gone back to painting? I hate it.â€
â€œItâ€™s not mine,â€ I answered. â€œA friendâ€™s working here during the day. He got kicked out of his studio. You know the story--developer bought the building, everybody evicted, protestors are protesting, but it will be condos before you know it. I knew you wouldnâ€™t like it. Itâ€™s not your taste, but you have to admit itâ€™s not terrible.â€
She nodded, now standing in front of the piece. â€œI have some customers who would buy this kind of crap.â€
â€œThereâ€™s some wine in the fridge. Iâ€™ll go hop in the shower.â€
â€œDonâ€™t forget to shave,â€ she called as I closed the door.
In the bathroom, I got my razor out of the medicine cabinet, absent-mindedly taking it apart, putting in a new blade--all the time thinking about the wad of cash in my backpack, pinpricks of sweat on my forehead.
Have you heard the one about inbred aristocracy? Itâ€™s not really a joke. They mostly knew it wasnâ€™t a great idea, but they really wanted to keep the money and the land in as few hands as possible. They wanted to literally keep it in the family. Almost all the pharaohs during the Ptolemaic Dynasty of ancient Egypt married full or half siblings. In Europe from the late Medieval period up almost to the present, aristocratic inbreeding was common. Jean V of Armagnac married his sister Isabelle. Ferdinand I of Portugal married his half-sister. Francis II of the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine married his double cousin Maria Theresa. Charles II of Spainâ€™s mother Mariana of Austria was his father Philip IVâ€™s niece. I guess that means his mother was his cousin. Many others married first cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. There were plenty of deformities, adverse hereditary conditions, and mental deficiencies stemming from this practice. The â€œHapsburg Jawâ€ is one of the most well-known. Hemophilia and hydrocephaly were not uncommon.
The international art market was kind of like that: Inbred. Artworks passed from collector to thief to dealer to auction house to collector and so on. It was like a game of hot potato and, just like potatoes, the hot art works cooled as time passed, became more respectable, were imbued with a provenance. Everybody involved knew that a good proportion of the art that was bought and sold in the auction houses was probably stolen from somebody at some point in its history, just like the earl of wherever knew that his betrothed was his cousin, but it had become so normalized and accepted that nobody spent any time worrying about it. Most works of any value passed through the auction houses at some point, got stored at the Geneva Freeport, went back to an auction house, entered the black market, resurfaced at another auction. By some estimations, the international black market for art was the fourth largest in the world. Nobody asked questions when there was money to be made. It was one of the most corrupt industries there was.
This was why you invariably saw the same faces, made small talk with the same acquaintances, and caught up with the same old friends when you attended an event like the one Valerie and I were on our way to. As soon as Valerie pulled up to the curb outside the museum and we stepped out of the car, I began to recognize people. There was the bald head of the dean of the fine arts school I attended bobbing through the crowd and disappearing through the entrance. A well-known CEO of a tech firm shouldered past me with a beautiful woman on his arm. Valerie exchanged her keys for a claim ticket without so much as glancing at the valetâ€™s face and turned to wave to an older couple who had recognized her but were being inexorably pushed toward the entry by the flow of other attendees. One of the reasons I was able to case fancy homes the way I did was that, to rich people at parties, the workers in uniform were pretty much invisible, just interchangeable cogs who could park the car, fetch a drink, clean up a spill. As if to prove my point, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with none other than Carl and Bill as we began to make our way toward the door.
â€œCarl. Bill,â€ Valerie sang out, â€œWonderful to see you. This is Justin, a friend and a very talented sculptor. Youâ€™ve probably seen his work at the gallery.â€
I turned, shook hands, and exchanged nice-to-meet-yous with the couple, looking first Carl, then Bill in the eye. There was not the slightest flicker of recognition. As we passed into the vast museum lobby, Valerie launched into a conversation with the two about Heidrichâ€™s recent work, leaving me free to study the crowd. I liked to size people up at these events based on their place in the black-market cycle. Most of them, of course, were buyers and collectors--wealthy people who legitimately loved art or who liked the cultural capital they got from art, or some combination of the two. You could move those two sliders to describe a different ratio for each person who bought art, but they were all suckers, compared to the dealers and auction houses. The even bigger suckers, of course, were the artists who provided the raw material for the market but, except in rare cases, reaped almost none of the financial benefit. The artists and the collectors were sort of like the workers and patrons of a casino. The workers got paid minimum wage, and the patrons occasionally hit it big, but the house--the dealers and the auctioneers--always won. Before long, I thought I saw my friend Roberto--who fell solidly in the sucker category--about fifty feet away across the black-and-gray-striped expanse of marble floor. I excused myself and wove through the elegant crowd to intercept him. He was an old friend from school and was the artist whose half-finished painting, currently hanging in my house/studio, Valerie had disliked. He had stuck with painting when I bailed and was now managing to make a living from his art, just barely. He was sleeping on another friendâ€™s couch and was planning on moving to Oakland where he would join the mass exodus of artists leaving or being pushed out of the city by rising costs. I was surprised to see him at the opening. He had always been very critical of Heidrichâ€™s work.
He saw me coming and waved enthusiastically. He seemed to be trapped in an awkward conversation with an eccentrically dressed woman. Turning to me as I approached, he greeted me with obvious relief. â€œMy old friend Justin is here. Justin, this is Mrs. Stella Robards, a collector known for her distinctive eye.â€
Mrs. Robardsâ€™ hand felt like a small birdâ€™s nest. It made me awkwardly aware of my own calloused and battered appendage. The type of sculpture work I did was not kind to the hands.
â€œSuch a nice compliment, Roberto,â€ she trilled without letting go of my hand or my eyes. There was something predatory in her gaze, an unflinching reconnaissance of my essence, and she maintained her grip on my hand with an unexpected strength. â€œAre you an artist too, Justin?â€
â€œYes, he is,â€ Roberto broke in, throwing his arm around my shoulder and pulling me back away from her. â€œA sculptor. Justin and I have a date to view the exhibit together. It was such a pleasure running into you, Mrs. Robards.â€
â€œPlease, call me Stella. Youâ€™re so formal, Roberto. And do get in touch to let me know when you will be available.â€
Roberto was pulling me along the whole time she was speaking, and we were already several paces away.
â€œPleased to meet you, Mrs. Robards,â€ I called as we were swallowed in the crowd moving toward the gallery where the Heidrich show was on display.
â€œGlad I ran into you,â€ Roberto said then sighed, letting go of me. â€œSecond time sheâ€™s cornered me. Wants me to come to her house and â€˜consult on the proper hangingâ€™ of one of my paintings.â€ He made air quotes with his fingers.
â€œWell,â€ I replied, â€œyou know you canâ€™t sell art if you donâ€™t Sell Your Art.â€
Roberto laughed. It was an in joke, a line from a course called Marketing for Artists we were required to take before graduating.
â€œDear god, can you imagine? Even if I liked women...â€ Roberto threw his hands in the air.
â€œWhat are you doing here anyway,â€ I asked. â€œYou hate Heidrich.â€
â€œYou know, Iâ€™ve changed my mind about him. Iâ€™ve been studying his work pretty intensively. Looking at his brush technique, his layering of color. There are minute details I never noticed before. I even did a few studies, copying sections from some of his paintings...â€ Robertoâ€™s voice trailed off. â€œThatâ€™s boring, though. Letâ€™s look at the art.â€
We walked through the exhibit, stopping at each painting and taking our time. Half way through, we ran into Valerie who was schmoozing with yet another client--a tall man in an antique three-piece suit with an impeccable beard and the jowly, red nosed, loose bellied look of an alcoholic on the downward slope of a long decline. She wrapped her long fingers around my upper arm in a donâ€™t-go-anywhere grip while she finished her conversation.
â€œTen more minutes,â€ she whispered in my ear, and she kept her word. We left Roberto deep in conversation with another acquaintance and made a quick exit. Outside, while we waited for the car, the wind picked up, and damp, chilly waves of fog were rolling by. As usual, Val had not thought to bring a sweater or coat. She lived in the present and always dressed for whatever the weather was like at the moment she happened to step outside her condo. Years of living with the capricious weather of San Francisco had not altered her behavior.
â€œLetâ€™s go to my place,â€ Val said, shivering, arms wrapped around me under my jacket, â€œI have a bottle of wine a client gave me. A reserve vintage from his winery.â€
I didnâ€™t need more convincing than that.
The next morning, Val offered me a ride, but I refused. I felt like a walk in the fresh air might help clear out the wine-soaked cotton balls that seemed to have replaced my brain while I was asleep. As I walked down the Embarcadero, the bay on my left slopping against the sea wall and smelling like cold miso soup, I found myself ruminating again on a line of thought that had been preoccupying me recently: Why did I steal art?
It was actually an easy question to answer. If you were going to be a burglar, you should be a professional, and you should specialize. Art and jewelry were the most logical specialties. They were both easy to sell and had high value-to-risk ratios. Most burglaries were not committed by professionals. Amateurs broke into random cars and houses and took whatever they could find. Only about seventeen percent of those crimes were solved by police. Seventeen percent was low, but I wouldnâ€™t bet my personal freedom on those odds. Professionals were almost never caught because they planned carefully, executed with precision, and covered their tracks. So, jewelry or art? Precious metals and gems had never appealed to me. I didnâ€™t know anything about them and didnâ€™t have much desire to learn. Art, on the other hand, I knew a lot about and cared a lot about. It was an easy choice, if you could really call it a choice. Which led me to: Why did I steal?
That was a much more difficult question and one that I couldnâ€™t answer. I liked being able to answer questions, especially ones about things central to my life. Maybe that was why I had been coming back to this question, off and on, lately.
In the beginning, it was just because I needed money. It started when I was fresh out of school and broke, barely making enough money to pay my rent and eat. The occasion was a party in a â€œlive-workâ€ loft. Live-work was a scam that started in the late eighties when San Francisco passed an ordinance that was supposed to result in affordable housing for artists in areas previously zoned for industrial use. Developers took advantage of the law and built giant loft apartments with expensive furnishings that were neither affordable, nor designed for artists to work in. Eventually, after about fifteen years and thousands of units built, the city council was shocked, shocked to find that developers had not been building artist housing, and an indefinite moratorium was imposed. The loft where the party was held was a typical example--beautiful wood floors, granite counters, balcony with a view of downtown, expensive appliances, located in a completely renovated warehouse. The only piece of the original warehouse left seemed to be the heavy fire doors. It was a housewarming party, and the new owner was still in the process of moving in. Boxes full of his possessions were pushed up against the walls, brand new furniture and carpets were being trampled by the guests, who were mostly already drunk or rolling on MDMA when I arrived. House music loud enough to induce seizures was blasting from a shiny new audiophile-quality stereo system. It wasnâ€™t my type of scene.
Near the front door, there was a table with a stack of prints still packed in cellophane envelopes from the galleries where they had been purchased. There were also several large paintings leaned against the wall and one smaller one. I recognized the artist of the smaller painting. He was a â€œrising starâ€ LA painter who did graffiti-inspired work. His stuff was selling for good money: maybe twenty-five thousand for a small piece like I was looking at. Clearly, the owner, or maybe a hired decorator with a generous budget, had gone shopping and hadnâ€™t had time to frame and hang the art before the party. The friend I came with was having fun, but I decided to leave after about half an hour. There was a wide, short, dark hallway that led from the main room of the loft to the door. On my way out, I was alone in that hallway and, acting on impulse, I picked up the smaller painting and walked out with it tucked under my arm. I canâ€™t remember my exact thinking or mental state. I was probably acting on more of an anarchistic, punk-rock impulse than a rational decision to take the thing and sell it.
The painting sat in the back of my closet for a couple of months but then, short on cash for rent, I got in touch with Domenico and found out how easy it is to move stolen art into the black market. Standard payment was about ten percent of the auction value. It was enough to cover my rent for a couple of months. After that, I became a little obsessed. I read every book I could find about famous burglars: Daniel Blanchard, Bill Mason, Vincenzo Pipino, Charles Peace. Those books convinced me that stealing from famous people or stealing famous things was stupid. I also read a lot about the industry, how stolen art moved through the marketplace, how the people who didnâ€™t get caught did what they did. That reading convinced me that staying under the radar and making a good living would be pretty easy.
Was it wrong to steal? I donâ€™t think that question has an easy answer. Nobody wanted to have their stuff stolen, but nobody wanted to be poor either. I had always, if I spent any time thinking about it, rationalized my avocation by the logic that rich people stole, too, but they did it via power. Money equaled power. Power allowed people to shape society and political systems to fit their own needs and desires. That power normally led to rich people gathering more and more wealth at the expense of poor people. So, using skill and intelligence to take some of that wealth away from them hadnâ€™t ever seemed like a moral failing to me. Now, though, I felt my philosophy shifting gradually, adapting. Maybe there was something to be said for the passion people put into the collection of their troves of art--
I looked up, breaking out of my thought bubble, and realized I was almost home. The street was deserted. I walked the last half-block, digging my keys out of my pocket. There was an old blanket and some greasy, flattened cardboard boxes in the doorway. I kicked them out of the way and let myself in.
It was a rare cold day in the city, the beginning of a cold front that would stay around for a few days, according to my weather app. I spent the morning and afternoon inside working on the sculpture. I cut two-by-fours, drilled long holes through them for the narrow-gauge steel rod that would hold them in place, and laid them down to form a sort of floor below the basin. By late afternoon, I was working with my battered old Makita grinder, smoothing down the welds along the corners of the central basin. I was grinding away with my respirator on to keep the steel dust out of my lungs, feeling like Darth Vader and making similar breathing noises, when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. It was a text from Valerie:
>Heidrich reception tonight. Meet gallery 7 p.m.
Shit. Another social event. I was an introvert. Not the kind who couldnâ€™t handle being out in public and dealing with people but definitely the kind who liked to keep social interactions with large groups to a minimum. I had promised Valerie, though, so I knocked off work around five-thirty, got cleaned up, ate some leftovers from the fridge, grabbed my backpack, and headed out by bike, aiming to arrive early in case they needed help setting up.
It was a cold ride. My fingers and ears were aching, and I was fog damp by the time I arrived at the gallery. I brought my bike to the alley around back and buzzed. Valâ€™s assistant Emilio let me in. He was in a panic.
â€œJustin! So glad youâ€™re here. Valerie ran late, and I need to get the tables set up and the wine...â€ His voice trailed off as he pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and winced, squeezing his eyes closed.
â€œHeadache?â€ I asked. He nodded, eyes still closed. â€œDonâ€™t worry, weâ€™ll get it set up. Go take six hundred milligrams of ibuprofen, STAT. Iâ€™ll get the tables out.â€
He gave me a pained smile. â€œYouâ€™re my hero, Justin.â€
I found Valerie in the main gallery space, checking over details.
She stood back and squinted at my clothes, looking me up and down. â€œAcceptable, barely.â€
â€œAlways nice to be accepted,â€ I replied and began setting up tables for wine and snacks.
Valerie had recently completed an expansion of the gallery into a space that had become vacant next door. â€œBecome Vacantâ€ was a nice euphemism for the old tenant having been priced out by a huge rent increase when their lease was up. This was a trend in neighborhoods around the city. There had been a few outraged articles in small, left-leaning community newspapers, but Valerieâ€™s clients were wealthy people who didnâ€™t much care if a non-profit immigrant-rights organization had to relocate. Valerie cared, but she also wasnâ€™t one to let an opportunity to expand slip away. Her reasoning was that her neighbor was going to have to move out one way or another. If she didnâ€™t seize the opportunity, somebody else would. At any rate, the gallery looked nice with its newly added space.
GÃ¼nther Heidrich arrived by taxi at exactly seven p.m. He was a short man in his late-sixties with thin gray hair, a barrel chest, and the compact muscular build and ruddy complexion of a mountain climber. He was wearing gray jeans, a black button up tucked in, and purple suede Pumas. What was it, I wondered for the fiftieth time, about European jeans that made them immediately distinguishable from American jeans? Heidrichâ€™s jeans were obviously European, but Iâ€™d never been able to put my finger on what it was that was so obviously different. The fit? The wash?
Valerie introduced me, and he shook my hand with a firm grip. I noticed bushy hair sprouting from his ears and nostrils and equally bushy eyebrows. Heidrich had been painting for almost fifty years in near obscurity before suddenly being â€œdiscoveredâ€ by the international art world. His current work was highly abstract and, to my eye, nothing special. Sometimes it just took one or two reviews from respected writers, a retrospective, a fancy gallery deciding to represent your work, and the art world hive mind kicked in. Before you knew it, paintings from thirty years ago were selling for millions at auction. To his credit, he seemed unfazed by the buzz. Also to his credit, he hadnâ€™t forsaken Valerie, who had been championing his work for years. An artist of Heidrichâ€™s fame did not normally place new work in a San Francisco gallery. Famous artists premiered work at Zwirner, Gagossian, or one of the other five or so galleries in that league. Heidrich was giving Valerie the chance to show a new piece, though, and it was a big deal for her.
â€œJustin is an artist too, GÃ¼nther,â€ Valerie said as we were shaking hands. â€œI also show his work.â€
â€œA sculptor, I am guessing. Because of the hands,â€ Heidrich replied.
â€œYes,â€ I said. â€œSculpture. Pleased to meet you. Look, people are arriving. You two had better go greet the guests.â€
I skulked around the back rooms of the gallery for most of the reception, on the pretense of helping out with logistics. I even ran out to the market down the block for more wine, at one point. I did come out for the unveiling of Heidrichâ€™s new piece, though. It was more or less what I expected, but I found that I liked it. It was about six feet by four, vertical. The ground was dark and mottled, almost black in some places, deep grayish brown in others. Broad slashes of vermilion and phthalo blue stood out from the dark ground. These was a small patch of alizarin crimson near the top left, and a larger patch of mustard yellow a bit below the midpoint on the right. It was an abstract work, but it reminded me strongly of walking through the redwoods at night. I was pretty taken with it, actually. I stood and stared for some time, reliving that night walk, the cool air, the spider webs on my face, rotten bits of leaf and bark finding their way into my shoes, occasional glimpses of the moon through the trees. After a while, I felt an elbow poke me in the side. I looked over. Heidrich was standing next to me, nodding his head, smiling.
â€œA good one,â€ he said.
I nodded, too. â€œYes,â€ I replied, looking back at the painting.
â€œI save this one for Valerie,â€ he continued. â€œShe understands my work.â€
We stood silently side by side for a while. Both taking in the painting and thinking our own thoughts.
After the reception was done and the last guests had finally stumbled out, Valerie sent her helpers home and locked up. She had an excellent alarm system and very good locks, which I had helped her pick out. Heidrich had declined Valâ€™s invitation for a late dinner in favor of room service and sleep. We drove through crowds of revelers, club goers, and peep-show connoisseurs in North Beach to Valâ€™s condo, parked in the underground lot, and rode the elevator up. The place was dark when we walked in. Through the big, north-facing windows I could see the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog. The french doors that let onto the balcony were open a crack, and a cool breeze was fluttering the drawn curtains. Val took my hand and led me toward the bedroom. We stood at the foot of the bed, both tired, pressed together in a languid embrace. I ran my hands slowly up and down her back, down to her hips, while she nuzzled into my neck. I was looking at but not really seeing the wall above Valâ€™s bed. Something was nagging at me, though. Something was different. I focused and made a conscious effort to see what had changed.
â€œWhat happened to that painting you used to have above the bed?â€ I asked.
â€œAbove the bed? I didnâ€™t--â€ Val turned, stopped speaking, breath caught.
A moment later, she whirled, flipped on the light switch, jumped onto the bed, and placed her hands on the wall above the headboard. In the light, I noticed there was a picture hanger still nailed into the wall and a square of slightly brighter paint where the painting had hung. She ran her hands over the bare wall then turned to look at me. Her eyes were manic, her body tense. â€œTell me this is some kind of joke, Justin.â€
â€œNo joke,â€ I replied. â€œWas it there when you left for the gallery?â€
â€œYes, I think so.â€ She stepped down off the bed and started frantically pacing the room, looking everywhere. â€œIâ€™m sure it was.â€
â€œDid you have cleaners scheduled today?â€
â€œNo. They come on Wednesdays.â€
â€œDid you leave your balcony door open?â€
She looked at me, suddenly focusing. â€œNo. I never leave it open.â€
â€œIt was open when we came in. Was it locked?â€
â€œMaybe not. I donâ€™t know. I was in a hurry.â€
â€œLetâ€™s see if anything else is missing,â€ I said, turning toward the door.
Valerie grabbed my arm, pulling me around to face her. â€œI donâ€™t care if anything else is missing.â€ She was on the brink of tears, a tight, almost hysterical, edge to her voice. She raised her hands, placed them over her ears, shaking her head back and forth. â€œI donâ€™t care. That painting is the only thing I own that I care about, Justin.â€
I was standing close to her now, gripping her shoulders. â€œWhy? Whatâ€™s special about that painting? I never liked it very much.â€
â€œItâ€™s a Heidrich, you fool. He gave it to me ten years ago almost, when I first started showing his work. We had a good show. Sold everything but one painting. That one. He was happy. Didnâ€™t want to ship it back to Germany with him. He told me to keep it for him.â€ Her eyes were glassy now, turned inward, remembering. â€œI hung it above the bed. Itâ€™s been there ever since.â€
â€œShit. That painting is probably worth two million. He gave it to you? Or he asked you to keep it for him?â€
She was still shaking her head. â€œGave. Loaned. I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s been years. Surely he would have asked for it back--â€
â€œIs it insured?â€
â€œOf course, itâ€™s insured! Of course. And recently appraised too. I used it as collateral for the loan to expand the gallery. Insurance wonâ€™t get it back for me, though. I donâ€™t care about the money, Justin. I love that painting. Itâ€™s one of the only things Iâ€™ve ever had that was just mine. Not for public consumption, not carefully chosen to fit an image. I canâ€™t tell him itâ€™s gone. How could I tell him? Heâ€™s my most important artist.â€
I stood staring at her face. Her lower lip was quivering, mouth pinched tight at the corners. I had never seen her this upset before. Maybe I had never seen her betray real emotion in this way. I couldnâ€™t think of a time when she had. As this realization hit me, I also understood, suddenly, how facile our relationship had always been. I felt like I was looking into the eyes of a stranger. The shock of the missing artwork had opened her up, and I needed to respond.
â€œOkay,â€ I said, â€œI understand. This is important. Let me go take a look around the apartment. Iâ€™m going to get you a glass of brandy. Sit here.â€ I pushed gently on her shoulders, and she sat on the edge of her bed, eyes blank, retreating. Just then something caught my eye. I got down on hands and knees. Something was under the bed--just a corner showing. I reached under and pulled it out. It was a picture frame, empty. I looked at Valerie, and she nodded. It was the frame from the Heidrich painting.
I brought her the brandy then took my time examining the scene. Nothing else in the condo had been disturbed as far as I could tell. The lock on the french doors did not seem to have been forced. I turned on the balcony light and went out. Everything seemed normal. The balcony was recessed with the concrete structure of the building, and the balcony above formed the walls to right and left and the roof. Along the open side, there were metal safety bars with a stomach height railing about two inches square. I walked the perimeter, carefully examining the railing. At the center, equidistant between right and left walls, I thought I could make something out, but the light was too dim. I went inside and found a flashlight. In the bright glare of the flashlight beam, I could definitely see a partial shoe print on the railing, as if someone had walked through dust, then stepped on the railing. It looked like a sneaker sole. I leaned out and looked up. Valerieâ€™s condo was one floor down from the top. Simple to rappel down, I thought. But risky if the condo above was occupied. I told Val I was going to the roof. She looked up for a moment then bent her head back down, eyes closed, and took a tiny sip of brandy.
I knew the way to the roof. We had gone up there one time to watch the fireworks over the bay on the fourth of July. I clanged up the metal stairs, each step echoing down through the floors below. At the top, there was a little landing and a door leading out. Shining the flashlight on the floor there, I saw fine gray dust covering the concrete and several footprints, some pointing toward the door, some toward the stairs. The pattern seemed the same as the one I had seen on the railing, but I would have to compare to be sure. I took out my phone and got a picture of the best print.
Outside, I walked across to the point I guessed to be above Valerieâ€™s condo. There was a waist high wall around the edge, two feet thick and capped with aluminum that wrapped down around the edges of the wall to form a bezel. I shined the flashlight on the corners of the bezel and walked back and forth a couple of times. About four feet to the left of the point where I started, I saw marks where the aluminum was cleaner, as if something had forcefully rubbed off many yearsâ€™ worth of accumulated car exhaust and other particulate matter to reveal the metal below. Maybe something like a rope holding the weight of a man? I leaned out and looked down. There was Valâ€™s balcony, two floors down and directly below.
I went back downstairs and found Val still sitting where I left her. I sat down next to her on the bed. â€œThe news isnâ€™t great,â€ I said. â€œThis looks like a pro job. Somebody came after that painting in particular. They knew it was here and knew you would be out. Probably also knew your neighbors upstairs would be out.â€
She turned to face me. â€œTheyâ€™re always out. Call the Police?â€ she asked.
I shrugged. â€œI donâ€™t think so. Not tonight anyway.â€ I sighed, standing up and pacing. â€œYou know as well as I do that the police are no good at this. They donâ€™t know anything about art. They donâ€™t even know where to start with an investigation like this. Youâ€™ll want to call them tomorrow, so you can file a claim. Let me do a little digging. I have some connections. I can ask around. I need to ask you some questions first, though.â€
Val nodded, focusing. â€œWhat?â€
â€œHow many people knew about this painting, and who are they?â€
â€œNot many. You know I donâ€™t normally let people into my bedroom.â€
I remembered Val telling me one time about how horrified she was when the hosts at a party she attended piled guestsâ€™ coats on their own bed. â€œThe bedroom is sacred space,â€ she had said, â€œget a coat rack, put it by the door.â€
â€œI have parties sometimes,â€ she went on. â€œA few people may have wandered in here over the years. It would be dark, though. The cleaners, of course, but I donâ€™t think they would recognize it for what it was. The signature is on the back, not visible in the frame.â€ She glanced at the remains of the frame near her feet.
â€œI thought Heidrich didnâ€™t sign his paintings,â€ I said, confused.
In fact, Heidrich was famous for not signing his work. I had read an interview with him one time in which he spoke forcefully about not sullying the picture plane with an autograph. He carried this prohibition even to the back of the work, saying that he was just a channel for the creative force of the universe, and it would be an unacceptable sign of ego to put his name on something that came to him that way.
â€œItâ€™s an early painting. He didnâ€™t develop those ideas until later. At the time, he still signed a few. Not many. I think he really just forgot to sign them. Heâ€™s absent minded. He probably came up with that bullshit philosophy on the spot when somebody asked him to sign a piece they bought.â€
â€œWhen was the last party?â€
She closed her eyes, thinking back. â€œA couple of months ago. A dinner party. All gallery people. Two couples, one or two singles. You were in LA for that opening.â€
I nodded. â€œIâ€™ll need a list of the people who were there.â€
â€œAlso, who did the appraisal?â€
â€œChathamâ€™s. Their twentieth-century-painting specialist. His name was Meyer, I think. Or Mather.â€ Valerie took a ragged breath. â€œChristoph Mather. That was his name.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good,â€ I said, â€œIt could be meaningless, but we need to think of everybody who knew about this painting. We need a full list of people who were here for dinner and also anyone else you can think of who might have known about it.â€
We spent the next hour talking it over, making lists. By the end of the hour, Valerie was exhausted, her voice edged with fatigue and emotional turmoil. We both collapsed into bed. As I was drifting off, her fingers closed around my wrist.
â€œI know itâ€™s unlikely, Justin, but if you can try for me, try to find it...â€ Her whisper trailed off, then, still whispering but slightly louder. â€œI canâ€™t tell Heidrich itâ€™s gone. I canâ€™t. I donâ€™t know what he would say. I donâ€™t even know that the painting is mine. I have to drive him to the airport tomorrow.â€
The next morning, I woke early. There was a sliver of red-tinged light falling across the bed. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked out the window. I could see the sky brightening over Angel Island. Valerie was tangled in the blankets, her hair a wild mass piled above her head. I pulled on my clothes and crept out, leaving a note on the bedside table:
Going to check with some contacts. Will let you know how itâ€™s going. Iâ€™ll find out what I can, but itâ€™s a long shot.
I walked out the front doors of Valerieâ€™s building and stopped, standing stupidly on the sidewalk and squinting in the bright sunlight. Why had I told her I would try to track down the painting? It was a massive long shot and would probably just lead to more heartbreak. I, of all people, was well aware of how the system worked. Stolen art was almost never recovered because it was so easy to just drop it into the black market--like a leaf into a stream, out of sight in moments, and impossible to trace. Still, something bothered me about this job. It seemed like a major coincidence for the painting to be stolen while Heidrich was in town for only a couple of days, the very night of Valerieâ€™s opening. It was almost as if somebody wanted him to know about it.
My eyes were adjusted to the light now, and I let my gaze rest on the building across the street. It was a grand old art deco, eight stories high, with rounded corners and stepped toward the top to create large patios for the upper level units. Easy climbing, I thought, probably some good old art in those fancy condos. The doorman had his eye on me. I waved to him, chose a direction at random, and began walking. My jacket was zipped as high as it would go, hands buried in my pockets, my shoulders hunched. It was chilly out, despite the sun. Probably below fifty degrees. Not for the first time, I thought about the freezing temperatures in the rest of the country, the snow and ice I used to think was no big deal when I was a kid growing up in the country. Living in coastal California tended to turn people into wimps who couldnâ€™t handle cold weather. I was no exception.
The first order of business would be food and coffee. I got my bearings at the next corner and turned west on Lombard, heading for my favorite breakfast spot. It was a small place and didnâ€™t look like much, but they had the best omelets in the city. The secret ingredient was fresh eggs from the proprietorâ€™s chicken coop out behind the restaurant. She had taken me back to see it one time. The building was an old Victorian with the diner on the ground floor and the familyâ€™s living space above. In the back yard, the hens had a ten-by-twenty-foot patch of sad-looking grass and dirt to run around on. There was an old stove rusting by the back fence. Those chickens must have found a lot of good bugs and worms to eat, though, because the eggs were amazing. I had wandered into the diner at random years before. In small letters at the bottom of the menu, it said: special egg + $2. Intrigued, I asked for special eggs, and that was how I made the discovery. I didnâ€™t think many other patrons bothered.
Mrs. Park greeted me when I came in and gestured toward an empty seat at the counter. The diner was crowded and warm, and the windows were fogged. A television high up in the corner was showing a soccer match with the sound off. The text on the screen was Korean.
â€œThe usual?â€ she asked.
I nodded and sat down, and soon a steaming cup of strong black coffee appeared on the worn, sun-wasted linoleum in front of me. I let my thoughts drift back to Valâ€™s painting. The weird thing, the thing that was nagging at me was that Heidrichâ€™s work was red hot. Selling a recently stolen Heidrich at auction would be tough, even if it was shipped to Europe or Asia. The assumption would be that the piece had been reported missing, and the theft would have made enough of a splash that somebody might see it and recognize it. This was precisely why I, and other smart thieves like me, preferred to steal less well-known work or pieces like the Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein prints.
Prints were perfect because there was normally at least a small run, so other very similar prints were out there on the market. This tended to muddy the waters for anybody trying to trace the origin. My best guess was that the theft had been commissioned, meaning that somebody wanted that specific piece and hired a thief to get it. If that was the case, my chances of recovering it were slightly better. Still pretty dismal though, all things considered.
I took out my phone and pulled up the Proton mail app. I had been using Proton for several months for all sensitive communication on the advice of my friend Ashna. She told me it was the only service the NSA couldnâ€™t access.
All their servers were in Switzerland and encryption was end to end. Not that I thought the NSA was interested in reading my email, but it never hurt to be safe. After entering two passwords--Ashna had explained why I needed two passwords: â€œone for your account and one to decrypt your data,â€ but I still wasnâ€™t totally clear on how the tech worked--I started a new email and addressed it to an acquaintance:
Need to ask you something. If you are free today, send me time/place, and I will be there.
I hit send and started another email, this one to Domenico:
Need to speak with you briefly. Time today? If so, please let me know when/where to meet you.
I put down my phone just in time to see Mrs. Parkâ€™s thirteen-year-old son, who was the weekend waiter/cashier and styled himself like a character from Dragonball Z, bringing a plate to my spot at the counter. He nodded to me and moved on, his prodigious wave of swept up anime hair barely moving. The omelet looked delicious as ever and smelled even better.
An hour later, after watching the Jeonnam Dragons defeat FC Seoul 1-0, I carried my check to the register, paid cash, and stepped back out into the brisk air and bright sun, bells ringing behind me as the door swung closed.
My bike was still in the back room at the gallery where I had left it the previous evening. I decided to walk over and get it.
The gallery wouldnâ€™t open until eleven but the walk would take a while, and I could get more coffee somewhere nearby and wait if I had to. Emilio usually arrived thirty minutes early to get the place ready for customers.
I walked over to Columbus and turned south, passing Washington Square Park and the cathedral poking its spires up into the clear air on my left. I always thought about Brautigan when walking that particular block. Then, after Brautigan, I thought about Dante and the first line of the Paradiso which was carved across the facade of the Cathedral:
La gloria di colui che tutto muove per lâ€™universo penetra e risplende.
(The glory of him who moves everything, penetrates, and illuminates the universe.)
It would be nice to believe that. The tourist trap restaurants of little Italy were just starting to fill up with early brunch crowds. I decided to turn up Stockton and head straight through Chinatown and down past Union Square to Geary.
A dense mass of humanity was already out in Chinatown. I wove my way through the crowd, passing ladies in quilted jackets with rolling market carts full of vegetables, small children darting in and out of shops, old men on bikes, everybody emitting little puffs of condensed breath into the still air. The pungent aroma of dried herbs drifted out of open markets and blended with the ubiquitous incense and sewer gas. A couple of blocks and the throng became less dense. Soon, I was walking freely uphill, passing by the neoclassical port cochere of the Ritz when I felt my phone vibrate. I took it out and saw that I had a new email--a response to one of the emails I had sent earlier. It said simply: Ferry Building. Red Rocket. 12:45 p.m.
Red Rocket. Good coffee but it made me jittery. I was normally happy with crap coffee. I would even drink instant if it meant not waiting. I did appreciate fine, handmade, artisanal things but there was a line beyond which artisanal became fussy. You thought you were just getting coffee at an ordinary coffee shop but, all of a sudden, you found yourself caught up in someone elseâ€™s fiendish obsession while you waited ten minutes for the intricate ritual dance of coffee preparation to culminate so you could finally get your caffeine fix. Still, Antoine had agreed to meet me on short notice so I couldnâ€™t complain about the location.
I passed by Union Square, where the ice skaters were out and the giant tree was twinkling. There was a different kind of crowd here. Holiday shoppers. They seemed happy and red cheeked now, but they would be in foul moods by the afternoon--tired and hungry and aggravated by the amount of money they had spent. I gave silent thanks for the fact that I didnâ€™t have to buy Christmas presents for anybody as I slipped through the tumult and turned up Geary.
Emilio was already at the gallery. I saw him inside through the front windows, sweeping. The steel security grill was still closed. I reached through the bars, knocked on the glass, and waved. He looked up, smiled, and mouthed, â€œItâ€™s open,â€ pointing toward the back, so I went around and let myself in. He came into the back room, broom in hand.
* * *