A compelling psychological thriller of madness and salvation
To the Sacramento art community, Albert Metzer is the handsome, successful owner of a cutting-edge gallery. But Albert has secrets he dare not tell.
Beneath the floorboards of his gallery lies a hidden room, which Albert clandestinely converts into his private gallery. He then befriends Jerry, a homeless man suffering from PTSD, and enlists him to help steal thirteen masterpieces, including one that depicts a captivating young man to whom Albert finds himself strangely drawn.
As Albert's perfect crime unravels, so does his grasp on reality. The young man from the painting startlingly comes to life, convincing Albert to do his dark bidding.
Can Albert's fragile mental state withstand the trauma of a shattered love affair, his growing doubts about Jerry's unreliable brain, the dogged pursuit by a criminal investigator, and most importantly, the malevolent power of the young man from the painting?
Read on for the first chapter of Thieves.
© 2015 by Lu Erickson
2:14 a.m., March 24, 1976, San Francisco, California
I flinch. Perhaps Jerry's tried to get my attention before. I've been so engrossed, watching for the last customers to leave the bar across the street.
"What?" I say, my voice thick with irritation as I turn to him.
His bulk fills the passenger side of the van, his big hands clutch his kneecaps. "I'm all jittery. I need a smoke."
"There's no time. And you're certainly not smoking in here."
"How much longer?"
He sounds like a sulky child. I breathe deeply and summon my patience. "A few more minutes," I say, softening. I can't have him bolting before we've even begun. "Everything's going to be fine."
We both gaze out the windshield toward the four-story mansion a half-block up on the right. Hints of its Venetian Gothic architecture emerge through the thick fog. The graceful lines of the lancet windows, the intricate façade. The stone building rises seemingly without weight. For a moment I drink in the grand beauty of it.
Inside, the guard sits at the front desk--most likely reading a pedestrian paperback or playing solitaire while glancing begrudgingly at the bank of security screens. The guards are unarmed. At minimum wage they can't be trusted not to shoot off a toe or maim a Degas. Their job is to observe and report.
The Elizabeth Powell Gallery covers about five thousand square feet. It served as Mrs. Powell's primary residence from 1931 until 1953 when she died of liver cancer. But before that, the eccentric heiress amassed one of the most extensive private art collections in the country.
The heart of the collection is Johannes Vermeer's The Recital, a seventeenth century Dutch painting of perfection and the object of my heart's longing. It's located on the third floor, in the room dedicated to Dutch art. There, it stoically weathers the false eyes of the weekend philistine, the school children who paw at it with grimy hands before the docent can instruct them on gallery etiquette, and the curious tourist who wanders in off the street with no ability to understand what he's seeing.
After tonight, that will all change.
I can feel the blood pulsing in my fingers as I grasp the steering wheel. "As soon as the bar closes, we'll move in."
We watch the door to the bar. The other businesses are dark and deserted. A loud "whoop" catches our attention as three men and two women stagger out. Their voices penetrate the fog even though their forms are muted. They disappear within seconds, dragging their laughter behind them.
The bar lights go out. No one else appears. I assume the proprietor has left through the rear alley.
I inhale to steady my nerves. "It's time," I say, reaching for the door handle.
We both get out. Jerry meets me at the van's rear door and watches as I withdraw a large canvas bag that I designed and sewed myself. The inside pockets are filled with two carpet knives, two pairs of smooth leather gloves, a hammer, a roll of duct tape, a length of rope, and a large green plastic bag.
"Do you have everything?" Jerry asks.
I don't respond. Of course I have everything. Planning this night has been the sole focus of my life for two long years.
I shut the rear door and turn to him. It rankles me that he takes no pride in his appearance. Even the navy perma-press slacks look dumpy on him. "Tuck in your shirt and straighten your badge. Try to look convincing." I know I should make an effort to be kind, but when I'm tense, primal nature overrides my better intentions.
Yet, he complies without rancor, accepting that I notice things he has no ability to perceive.
I settle my cap low on my brow and make sure Jerry's is in the same position so the bill will shadow his face. The angle of the lighting in the lobby will make it difficult for the guards to see our faces. We're both dressed in authentic police uniforms, complete with handcuffs and flashlights attached to our belts. And of course, the thirty-eight special resting at my hip, even though my intention is more to complete the uniform than to shoot anyone. Still, I thought it prudent to load it. Despite best efforts, one can never completely ensure how events might unfold, particularly when engaging in criminal activity.
We walk silently toward the stone staircase that leads to the tall arched entry doors. The fog is so thick it mists my face. My right hand rests on my revolver, my left clutches the straps of the canvas bag.
Jerry is fidgeting with the snap on one of the compartments on his utility belt. A cutting remark is on the tip of my tongue. I manage to push it back, telling myself that rushing him will only make matters worse. I wait for him to lower his hands to his side, then ring the intercom that has been installed for after-hour use. It's gallery policy not to let anyone in under any circumstances, but I'm wagering the police uniforms will trump protocol.
Static comes across the intercom. "What can I do for you?"
"San Francisco P.D. We received a call of suspicious activity at the rear entrance. A man was seen climbing the fire escape."
A pause. More static.
"We don't have anything here on the security screens." Those would be the screens that play the feed from the courtyard, the front, rear, and side doors, and the main rooms of the gallery. The guard should also have a visual right now of Jerry and me, dressed as San Francisco's finest.
"Did you have any visitors in the last half-hour?"
"No," he replies. And then after a brief pause, "There's nothing recorded in the log either."
"My partner and I better check it out. Open the door, please." I run my fingers under the bill of my cap. I'm sweating despite the chill from the mist.
A moment passes. I wonder if the guard is making a phone call, checking policy, requesting approval--
The lock clicks and the guard opens the right side of the double doors. We follow him into the lobby, back toward the security desk at the foot of the main staircase. He's thin as a reed and younger than my thirty years, probably a college student trying to keep himself in beer and cigarettes.
I take a quick glance around the lobby, always a visual delight. The mosaic tile floor has a Moorish flavor in shades of yellow ochre and deep blue. The wood of the massive staircase is a highly polished walnut and the ornately carved lion-head newel posts are almost a foot thick. The lights on the second and third floor landings are dimmed, revealing very little of the recessed, hand-painted ceiling--a work of art in itself.
"Are there any other guards on duty?"
"Better call him up here."
"Sure." The guard reaches across the counter and grabs his walkie-talkie. He presses the button and asks the other guard if he's seen or heard anything unusual. He nods, then tells him to come to the front desk. The police are here.
I ask a few questions about the security system as we wait. It's nothing that I don't already know, but it keeps the guard distracted, keeps him from recognizing that gut feeling that things aren't what they seem.
The sound of approaching boots echoes across the tile floor before the second guard enters the lobby.
He flashes Jerry and me a toothy grin. "Hey, what's the problem, officers?"
He's big boned with a ruddy face, thick fingers, and red hair standing up in a neat crew cut. We're near the same height, but he outweighs me by about forty pounds of muscle. But I've got Jerry. And the revolver.
He walks to the security desk. His eyebrows arch with expectation.
I take a step forward. "Face the wall with your hands on your head." I say it with the confidence and authority bestowed on me by the uniform I'm wearing.
The guards look at each other. Confusion reigns. I can't blame them.
The second guard frowns and tilts his head. "What's this all about? We didn't do anything."
The first guard's mouth is open, as if he wants to protest but isn't sure what to say.
"Against the wall," I say again, this time drawing my revolver.
"What the fuck?!" the first guard says, his voice rising with agitation. There's a moment when I think the second guard may make a move. His eyes dart around the room. He looks from me to Jerry and back to my gun. Jerry, to his credit, is looking quite convincing, his stance wide, his mouth set, an attitude reminiscent of the soldier he once was.
Reluctantly, the second guard complies, turning and stepping toward the wall. The other guard follows his lead.
I try to regulate the breath of relief escaping my lungs as I motion to Jerry. Jerry stands behind the first guard, takes down one hand and cuffs it, and then the other. He moves to the second guard and does the same.
I jerk the skinny one around and nod toward the office chairs behind the security desk. "Take a seat. Both of you."
They move toward the chairs.
"I don't understand," the first guard says as I give him a little push into the chair.
"Really?" I ask. "Where's your imagination?"
Now they really look baffled. I sigh and take pity on their small minds.
"My friend is going to secure you to the chair, and if you cooperate, I promise you won't be harmed. There, is that better?"
While Jerry stands guard, I holster my revolver, retrieve the duct tape from the canvas bag and toss it to him. "Start with their mouths."
Jerry rips a piece of tape and seals the first guard's mouth. He covers the eyes with a second piece. He does the same to the second guard and then uses long strips of tape to secure them to their chairs. He's enthusiastic in his task, leaving them looking like a couple of Halloween robots.
When he's satisfied with his work, he turns to me with a cock-eyed smile. As always, he craves my approval, but this isn't the time or place.
I grab the canvas bag and pull out the leather gloves. I toss a pair to Jerry, then pull on mine.
I sweep up the stairs to the third floor with Jerry close behind. I know exactly where I'm going. I pass through the Italian Hall. In my peripheral vision, I sense more than see the paintings that line the Hall. The gallery rooms are integrated with furnishings and artifacts from the period.
So many treasures. But they can't break my focus.
I reach the Dutch Room and go directly to the Vermeer. I know I must hurry, but the thought of this masterpiece being truly and only mine overwhelms me. On the canvas before me, a young woman sits at the harpsichord, engrossed in her playing while a beautiful young man lounges in a nearby chair, his dark hair flowing over his shoulders, his mouth set in a wistful smile. And the eyes--I could say they were cerulean with a swirling of aquamarine blue, but to what end? Words cannot convey the color. The lighting of the work is transcendent, infusing the young man with life. He knows why I'm here. He's ready.
"Come on, come on!" Jerry urges. "You said we need to hurry so we don't get caught!"
I take the work down from its mounting on the wall. It's amazingly easy. No screws, no trip wires.
"Hand me the hammer," I say to Jerry without taking my eyes from the painting. Like a surgeon who must cut to save, the most difficult part lies ahead. Turning the painting over, I raise the hammer high. Even though I know what's required, I hesitate, repulsed by what I must do. But then I remember everything that has led to this moment.
I slam the hammer into the frame again and again to free the canvas. The room shudders with each blow as the wood splinters and falls away.
"Give me the knife," I tell Jerry. He hands me the carpet knife. As quickly and carefully as I can, I slice the painting from its stretcher leaving a slim border of canvas behind. It's done.
"Hold out your arms."
"Hold out your arms."
I drape the canvas over his extended arms. "Do not drop this," I say, my gaze holding his.
There are two other paintings in the Dutch Room, a Rembrandt and a Bruegel, that I must have, and soon two more paintings are stacked in Jerry's arms.
I've finished. Now, we have only to make good our escape.
"Follow me." I pick up the canvas bag and quickly walk from the Dutch Room toward the stairs. But as I'm traveling back through the Italian Hall, my eyes spy the Raphael and the Titian, and I see now that I must have those, too.
"What are you doing?" Jerry asks. "You said we were just taking three paintings."
"I've changed my mind."
I whack the paintings from their frames and slice them from the stretchers, then add them to Jerry's stack. I'm drunk with possibilities. I move on to the Masaccio and the Caravaggio. No sooner do I have those, then I think about the Impressionist paintings on the second floor.
I fly down the stairs with Jerry mumbling at my heels--he's not happy with the change in plans, I'd only said three paintings, we're spending too much time, he's sure he's having a heart attack.
"Quiet! I'm almost finished."
The lights are low in the Impressionist Room, and I stumble over the curved leg of a Rococo side table. My reflexes are quick and I catch myself. The Cezanne hangs on the north wall. Before I'm through, I've removed five paintings from the Impressionist collection.
"Now can we go?" Jerry pleads.
I walk toward the rear stairs. They're tucked behind a narrow, non-descript door and were used by the servants who tended to Mrs. Powell's needs when she was in residence. I can hear Jerry lumbering behind me, breathing hard. I should have enrolled him at a gym as part of our preparations.
I reach the bottom of the stairs and the door that opens onto the first floor. The gallery is so quiet--only a squeak now and then from Jerry's and my rubber-soled boots on the tile.
The security director's office is just ahead. He, of course, is home with his family, tucked into bed with his sweet wife, dreaming of surveillance systems and armored trucks and art thieves roasting on a spit.
The door is locked.
I wave Jerry forward and take the paintings out of his hands. "Kick it open."
Jerry raises his foot high and comes down hard near the door's edge with his boot. The hallway rings with the sound, and the door slams open, hitting the wall with an echoing bang. I enter, leaving Jerry standing just outside the door with the paintings. I probably should have told him this was part of the plan, but it can be tedious trying to explain things to him. He's not one for details.
On the table behind the security director's desk are the same screens that were at the guard desk in the lobby. To the side is the VHS recorder. State of the art. Mrs. Powell left precise instructions in her will that no cost be spared to ensure the gallery's protection. Unfortunately for the gallery's artwork, it isn't money that is lacking, but initiative.
I stop the recording and push the eject button. The tape pops out. Whatever was caught of our images during our time in the gallery is contained on this tape. I slip it into the canvas bag. I'll destroy it when I get back to Sacramento.
Or maybe not. Perhaps I'll buy a VHS player of my own and relive this evening's triumph whenever life's little torments weigh me down.
The side door is only twenty feet beyond the Security Director's office. As I re-enter the hallway I give Jerry a nod to follow me. He's not holding up well. Even in this light I can tell he's flushed and sweating.
Above the door there's a camera, but I rendered it blind when I stopped the recording and removed the tape. We cover the distance to the exit within seconds. When we reach the door, I pull the large green plastic bag out of the tote and flip it open with a snap. I turn to Jerry. He stands like Frankenstein's monster with his arms out before him. I slip the bag over the paintings, take them from him, and loop the tote over one of his wrists.
"Come on. We can go now."
"About time," he mutters.
I ease open the door and look around. As we leave the building, the mist hits me in the face. Exhilaration vibrates through me like the chords of Beethoven's Fifth. I walk to the van in long strides, with Jerry matching my steps. In my hands is treasure beyond value.
Jerry and I get back in the van. I start the engine and drive away. Every cell in my body is singing with life. Liberating the paintings has been my one abiding purpose since my father died. The Elizabeth Powell Gallery was his university and his passion.
Until they forced him out.
We're almost to the Bay Bridge. I turn up the radio and settle in for the hour-and-a-half ride back to Sacramento.
A siren blares. I clutch the wheel. Are they after us? It can't be!
"Fuck!" Jerry yells. He turns his head sharply. "We're fucked!"
Blood rushes into my head. I search the mirrors for flashing red lights.
They're quickly gaining on us. But the height of the light bar isn't right for a cruiser.
It's a fire truck. Or an ambulance.
"It's okay," I tell Jerry, even though adrenaline is slamming through my body. "We're fine."
A blue-and-white ambulance screams by.
"Jesus Christ!" Jerry says, slumping into his seat. "I almost had a goddamned heart attack!"
I can't help but laugh. We're both breathing easier now. I notice Grand Funk Railroad is playing "We're an American Band" on the radio. It's a horrid song. I turn the knob and the dial crosses some static and blips until I catch Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." That's better. When the chorus comes on, Jerry starts singing. He's off tune but he's putting everything he has into it.
I chuck him on the shoulder. He turns to me and grins.
What a night. Everything I'd planned for and more. Ten more, to be exact.