“Did the police investigate?” Bob said.
“Sure, but there were no witnesses to the actual drowning. In the end it was marked down as an ‘accidental death by drowning,’ but I knew, hell, everyone knew, what had really happened. Edwards was always impulsive, had a terrible temper. He still does, and if you cross him he’d just as soon get rid of you. So now you understand my dream, right?”
Bob shifted in his seat. The story had taken a turn he wasn’t at all prepared for.
“You see,” Emile Bardan said, dabbing the tears off his cheeks once again, “I’m not only afraid he’s going to take the mask, but that he’s going to kill me when he does.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
Emile shrugged and shook his head.
“I was barely aware of it, I suppose,” he said. “I mean, I’ve always known, but not known, if you know what I mean. Murder is something that happens to other people.”
“Yes, I know,” said Bob. “But why would he bother to kill you? It’s the mask he wants, not your life.”
“Not exactly,” Emile said. “He wants control. He wants to have complete freedom. You know what Edwards was in college? A utopian leftist. I was always a centrist politically, but not old idealistic Colin. He believed in a new world, and all that. A real fanatic. But when he couldn’t get it, oh man, you just don’t know. Those are the worst kind, Doc, the ones who have the big dreams. It’s the same with the artists in the world. I love painting and I love sculpture, but the people who make it, the ones who won’t compromise or play the game, they’re the ones you have to fear, because they don’t really give a shit about people. They live for ‘ideas’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘God’ or some other abstraction. They’re bad news. A guy like Colin could kill me tomorrow and never lose a single night’s sleep over it.”
Bob looked down at the rug. For a second he’d felt that Emile Bardan had been describing him, not Edwards.
“Time’s up for today,” Bob said, looking at his watch. “But I think we’ve done some important work.”
“Yeah, I think so, too,” Emile said. “Hearing myself talk about Edwards, I just realized something.”
“What’s that?” Bob said.
“If he comes after the mask, and I’m around, what I have to do is shoot him in the fucking head.”
“A very bad idea,” Bob said.
“Maybe, Doc,” Emile said. “But outside of this bastard I have a good life. And I don’t intend to let the son of a bitch do to me what he did to Larry. I mean, what would you do?”
“I’m not at all sure,” Bob said. “But I don’t think that it’ll come down to shooting a gun.”
“I hope not,” Emile said, as he went out the office door. “But if the bastard comes around, I’m going to shoot first.”
Bob slumped down in his chair. The session had left him exhausted and shaken. He thought about Emile’s version of Colin Edwards. Was it possible the man was actually a killer? Maybe it was true and, if so, perhaps Emile Bardan was eminently sane.
And then he thought about what Emile had said to him. You had to fight if you loved something. But how much would he risk now that he was in love? How far would
go to protect his new life?
Bob was due over at Jesse’s in an hour. Then they were going to Victor’s restaurant down at Harborplace for Lou Anne’s birthday. Christ, Bob could already see the bill there. He’d have to put it on his card, which was already ridiculously overextended. But what choice did he have?
He locked the front door behind him and took a walk toward the harbor. As he neared the pier the wind whipped up, pushing him back. He put his hands in his jacket and pushed forward. The cool air refreshed him. He looked at a big freighter anchored eight or nine miles out, and heard a ship’s horn in the distance. He loved it here. He could think, open his mind, and then suddenly there was something coming to him … something he felt that had been there for quite a while … maybe months … but up till now he hadn’t been able to really picture it.
But he could feel it coming now.
He felt the wind whip off the water, the sea spray hitting his face, and then he had it. He saw and felt it as clearly as he could see the tide and the steam coming from the freighter’s stacks.
The thought was so clear, so vivid, that he laughed out loud and did a little dance, a kind of a jig, on one foot.
How could he have not seen this before? Because he had never considered this answer before. It was almost like stories he’d read of scientists who were blinded by an old paradigm. They couldn’t solve the problem until they came up with a whole new question. What was that book they’d all read years ago? Kuhn’s
The Structure of the Scientific Revolution
? Yes, that was it. It was just like that. You had to attack an impossible problem by changing the way you saw the problem to begin with. And that, finally, was what he’d just done.
Bob walked down to the water’s edge and sat down, kicking his legs up and down against the seawall.
They thought he was a bumbler, Mr. Good Guy, the kind of nerd who could never get in step with the real world. An adolescent who never grew up, really … lost in kiddy dreams of impossible utopias and doomed to live a life of lonely martyrdom. But that very image—the loser, the amateur, the hopeless utopian—was going to be the very thing that made it easy for him. Because no one would suspect him. No one. He was too dreamy, too soft, too
to pull off anything as brazen as stealing from his own patient.
But they were wrong, all of them, because that was precisely what he planned to do. Steal the mask from Emile and sell it to Colin Edwards.
How much could he get? He had to do some research. But if the mask was really priceless, why not two, three, even five million dollars?
And once he had the money, he’d wait a year or so, just in case anyone
suspect him, then take Jesse away with him to—to—hell, to any place they both wanted to go. Rome, Florence, Greece, Mexico … Spain …. He’d always wanted to see Barcelona.
Just the two of them traveling, eating and drinking, making love.
Living for pleasure, until they found the right place and settled down.
But how would he deal with the guilt? Wouldn’t it gnaw at him, tear him up inside?
That was a problem, of course. There was no getting around it. But somehow he had a feeling that he’d handle it just fine. Hadn’t he spent thousands and thousands of hours helping people at his old free clinic, which the city had closed for “lack of funds”? Hadn’t he given therapy to old people and blacks and immigrants from El Salvador and Chile for a fraction of the cost he might have charged?
Hadn’t he, of all the old gang at Hopkins, been the only one who lived out their dreams of being downtown shrinks for life, living among the people who really needed both therapy and a radical perspective on their lives?
So hadn’t he accrued points, thousands upon thousands of points, like a kind of moral good cholesterol that could be charged off against this one bad act?
Besides, if he had that much money (millions!) he could use some of it to help the poor, but
help them. Not just give them his useless pep talk, but a grant. The Bob Wells Grant to Deserving People. People Bob singled out as worthy of his help. A single mother who was trying to put her kids through school. A struggling artist who couldn’t paint because of poverty. A handicapped man who wanted to start a clinic for other handicapped people. Yes, why the hell not? He could be a kind of modern Robin Hood!
All he needed was a plan, and some help. What did second-story men call their gang? A crew. That was it. He needed a crew of guys….
And he knew right where to start. Ray Wade. His old friend, Ray Wade, he of the six-inch sideburns and the fifties DA. Ray Wade, whom he’d have to watch like a hawk, but who wasn’t all that bad of a guy. Slick Ray would help him put together the right crew.
But before contacting Ray he had to do some work on his own. He had to find this Colin Edwards and see if he really did want the mask. That was the first piece of business. Bob threw his head back and laughed.
It was terrible what he was going to do. It went against everything he’d ever learned, everything he stood for. By all rights he should be sick to his stomach for even thinking about betraying his patient, becoming a criminal.
So how come it felt so right? How come he was standing here by the pier, freezing from the cold winds, and laughing his ass off?
Because he was, for the first time in more years than he cared to think about, standing up for himself. Fighting back. And nothing felt better than that. Besides, Emile Bardan was a rich man. In the end, he’d probably be better off without the damn mask in his life. He’d move on, forget the whole thing. And hell, he must have insurance on the goddamned thing. So really, the only loser was some crooked insurance company, people who, if you really thought about it, probably deserved to get ripped off.
Really, it was a win-win situation.
One little move. One little crime and he and Jesse would be set for life.
This was good, Bob thought, as he walked toward Jesse’s. This was the best idea he’d ever had and the truth was, moral qualms aside, he couldn’t wait to get started.
Practicing psychology was such an ambiguous profession. He was never sure how much he’d really helped any of his patients or, to be honest, if, even after years of therapy, he’d helped them at all. In fact, he was pretty sure that there were at least a few patients who’d gotten worse under his care. But crime … crime was like … well, business. You stole something, you sold it to another guy, and you reaped the rewards. It was straightforward, American. You didn’t have to justify your profession by saying that somewhere along the line maybe you’d done some good. You had your reward sitting there in front of you. Cash! And plenty of it! And in the end, Bob told himself, wasn’t this what people really valued? Power? Money? No matter what else they gave lip service to.
So he would do it at last. Lay his absolutist morals aside—okay, temporarily aside—and make some real money. But that led him directly into his first problem.
What was the mask actually worth? Somewhere in his patients’ notes, Bob found that Emile had said it was “priceless.” But what the hell did that mean? For the next three days, Bob traveled to various public libraries to use their computers, so no one could trace the searches back to his home.
What he found out was a little disheartening.
Utu was known in ancient Babylon as the ruler of heaven and earth, a god who “lived to render justice” and “who dealt out swift punishment to those who broke the law.” From his shoulders he “issued bands of light,” the “light of justice,” and in his hands he carried a “many-toothed saw,” presumably to hack the limbs off criminal offenders.
Jesus, Bob thought, just his luck. He finally has a shot to cash in big but he’s got to offend the god of justice himself. He shut his eyes and envisioned Utu coming for him like … like … Leatherface from
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
a screaming power saw aimed at his neck. The very thought of it made him break out in a sweat.
Of course, he told himself seconds later, the whole idea of Utu was absurd. Just some primitive way of keeping the citizenry in check. It wasn’t like he was really up there in the sky watching Bob, getting his new Skarie Skill saw ready to hack him to bits. Bob only felt nervous, he was sure, because the whole thing—betraying the trust of his patient, stealing a valuable work of art—well, all of that would be enough to make
honest man nervous. And especially Bob, who had always been so intent on doing the right thing, the moral thing, as though God were watching him, keeping tabs on his efforts. That was it. He’d always had this feeling he was being watched, graded by the Big Teacher in the Sky, so now he was simply transferring his feelings of the Big Moralistic Sky Daddy from Jesus and Karl Marx to Utu.
Of course, that’s all it was.
What he had to do was literally say, Fuck all that. Fuck Jesus in the sky, and fuck old Big Daddy Karl, and fuck Utu, too. Yeah, that was it. Fuck Utu and the whole nervous-making “god of justice” bit.
After all, where was the justice in his wife leaving him for Rudy fucking Runyon, the old fraud? Where was the justice in a guy like George Bush becoming president of the United States? No, wait, stealing the presidency from AI Gore? Where was the justice for the millions of Negroes who had been slaves?
But the hell with all that. Forget justifying what he was going to do. He had to be practical, find out what the fucking mask was worth. Like any real criminal would.
He ran a Google search and found that the mask was sold by one Lawrence Stapleton to an “undisclosed buyer” in 2003, and that it was, indeed, “considered priceless.”
An “undisclosed buyer.” That must be Emile.
But there it was again. “Considered priceless?” Christ, how many times in movies and novels had he seen the word “priceless” used? Usually by some ascot-wearing, crooked art dealer in forties movies, Clifton Webb maybe, a golden cigarette holder in his trim hand. “Yes, my good man, that etching is priceless.” But in those movies guys like Webb always knew exactly how much money “priceless” really meant.
Bob, on the other hand, had no idea. “Priceless” might mean one million, it might mean twenty. How the hell did he know what to ask?
He ran another Google search, looking up “Utu,” and after an exhaustive effort found that the mask had been purchased for between nine and ten million dollars in 1956.
Bob felt his heart start racing. Nine and ten million dollars? The thought was too much for him. He couldn’t imagine walking up to Colin Edwards and demanding that much. The guy would laugh at him or maybe just shoot him in the head.
No, what he had to do was to find Edwards and convince him that he could deliver the mask at a price. So the question then wasn’t
how much was the mask worth, but how much did Bob and Jesse need? Bob was much more comfortable when he thought of the heist in that way. Why, it was almost a Marxist solution to the problem. “To each man according to his needs.” So how much did they need, then?