How about two million?
Two million dollars.
Strange, but only yesterday, two million dollars sounded like a tremendous amount of money. Back in the sixties and seventies, two million dollars was all the money in the world. But now, with a fabulous-looking woman like Jesse, and a third of his life left, two million suddenly seemed like, well, chicken feed. Especially, when you considered that this was it, the big shot, his
Okay then, how about three? Three was better. “Three” had a solid sound about it. Much better than “two.” But what about relocation? Christ, moving to wherever it was they decided on. Say, Mexico, for example. For years he had thought about leaving America to live in San Miguel de Allende, but after a few looks on Google at the housing market in old San Miguel, it was obvious the place wasn’t the artists’ paradise it once had been. Christ, some of the whitewashed bungalows, with the rose trellis walls, were now going for five or six hundred thousand dollars. The days when a starving painter or poet (or retired shrink) could move down there, get himself a groovy little bungalow, and hang out at the Instituto de San Miguel attending free openings and guzzling the free chardonnay were gone forever. No, three million dollars wouldn’t last that long there, especially since it might be hard to find any kind of decent work. And what if he and Jesse moved to Mexico and hated it there? They very well might despise the rich, retired squares who hung in such a place, trying, at sixty-five, to become the painters and poets they didn’t have the guts to be when they were young. God, if that happened they’d have to move again. Which would mean an even greater expense.
To hell with it, Bob thought. Three million wasn’t going to work in Mexico.
And if Mexico was out, so was Costa Rica. Of course, Costa Rica was much cheaper, but it was also much less developed. He was used to a certain amount of action and where would he find it down there? Who the hell would his playmates be? Machete-toting guys named Juan who hung at the jungle bodega? And what would Jesse do all day, hang out with the sloths in the trees? Become a nature nut who went out with tourists to see the coatimundi or the howler monkeys? Face it, he was too old now to start over on some beach with a bunch of moronic peasants and parrots jabbering at him. They’d be worse than his patients.
No, three million wasn’t going to make it and there was no way he was being selfish or greedy here. The truth was just a lot more complex than he’d ever considered. He had a younger woman now, one who thought she was moving up the food chain by latching onto a big-time shrink as a boyfriend. She wasn’t going to dig some place where the chief social activity was taking a canoe trip down a river to find the Sacred Caiman.
That meant that the very third world countries he had always fantasized about retiring to were totally out of the picture.
Face it, he was an urban guy and he needed an urban environment. Well, most of the year anyway. What they really needed were two homes. A city home and a little hideaway, a shack by the sea.
And the price of houses being what they were in any place that anybody who was anybody would want to live was going to be exorbitant.
Three wasn’t going to make it. Hell, you buy the two houses and boom, you’re broke. It was going to take four, at least four.
But then there was the car problem. For years he’d driven a piece-of-shit, ancient Volvo, like the good, nonmaterialistic lefty he was, but he couldn’t expect a young girl like Jesse to share this sentiment. She wanted to have a fashionable car, one she’d be proud to drive around in, and hell, to be perfectly honest, he wanted her to have a cool car, too. As an older man with a younger woman he had to keep her happy. She wasn’t going to be into making sacrifices for “the people.” Hell, she
the people. She was from funky Beckley, West Virginia, and she’d done all the “sacrificing” she was ever going to do with Dwight. She loved Bob, he was sure of it, but he was a meal ticket, too, and that was cool. It made him kind of a patriarch, okay, a patriarch without kids, but a great older man nonetheless. A man with a mysterious past, a man with a swell-looking blonde babe, a man with two houses and cool cars. Maybe a two- or three-year-old Jaguar would do. For her. But he
had to have a car. Maybe a slightly battered but still great-looking Porsche.
So four wasn’t quite right, either. Nah, it would have to be five. Five million was the price and the truth was, he wasn’t really sure if they could get by on that.
But he didn’t want to price himself out of the market.
No, five was really rock bottom. He had to get five or he’d have to find another guy to buy the damn mask. Whoever that might be. And he had to think about that, too. Jesus, there was a lot to consider when you became a criminal. It wasn’t an easy gig. Not at all.
Emile had already let it slip that his office was in his house. That was good. And that the mask was in a safe within the office. Probably behind a painting or something, or perhaps on the floor. In any case it shouldn’t be too hard to find it. But before you could get to the safe you had to get by the guards. Two guards. And then there was the alarm. Somehow you had to detach it, something he knew nothing about. But even assuming you could get rid of the alarm, sneak by the guards, and find the safe, how the hell would you ever crack it? In movies guys listened to the tumblers on some kind of microphone and they just knew. Well, Bob could stand there listening for twenty years and have no idea what he’d heard. And then there was the little problem of finding this Colin Edwards person. And making the deal with him. Not to mention somehow actually collecting the money. After all, what was going to stop Colin Edwards from taking the mask and giving Bob a suitcase full of newspapers? Or for that matter, giving Bob counterfeit money? How the fuck would he know the difference?
Wait, he was moving too fast again. The first thing he had to do was find Edwards and make the deal.
How to do that? On the off chance that all this would be resolved in an easy fashion, Bob tried calling information in the Baltimore-Washington area, but there was, of course, no listing for the man.
Okay, forget it. Don’t beat up on yourself. How best to proceed?
Ask Emile about Edwards? Pry a little. And how would he do that?
“Excuse me, Emile I was just wondering where this Edwards fellow lives? I’m thinking about stealing the mask and …”
No, that wouldn’t do. Emile must never think that he had contacted his enemy.
Okay, then what did he know? Only what Emile had told him. That Edwards drove a silver BMW, that he sometimes parked near Emile’s house in order to mock or unnerve him. That was it. He’d set up a post, like a spy on reconnaissance until he saw the silver BMW, and then …
He’d have to improvise.
First, he had to lie to Jesse again. He’d tell her that there was more financial work that needed to be done. He’d have to meet with his accountant tonight. Maybe for a few nights. He hated lying to her, but he reminded himself that the ends surely justified the means.
Because if he was going to keep her around he had to have the money.
That was the simple truth of it all. Lie now. Make love later. Everything else was just idle conversation.
The only problem with Bob’s plan was that after two weeks of casing Emile Bardan’s house, he still hadn’t seen Colin Edwards or any of his so-called crew. He had tried watching the house from a stoop down the street, from the back alley, and from the roof of a burned-out row house directly across the street from Bardan’s place, but he hadn’t seen one suspicious character the entire time.
Bob’s middle-aged back hurt and his stomach rumbled from eating junk food. His fallen arches were radiating little circles of pain. Plus, he was tired, really tired, and discouraged. He thought of a line of one of his patients, a black kid who’d gotten involved in gangs. When he didn’t like somebody, he said, “Dissed and dismissed,” and that was how Bob felt now. Shut down before he’d even begun.
But he had to fight through that. Get positive again.
He told himself that the stakeout wasn’t a total loss. He’d found out quite a bit about Emile’s habits. Every Friday night Emile made the rounds of the local art shows, and ended up at the Havana Club, an illegal gambling casino out on the Ritchie Highway. From there, Emile went home with a Cuban woman named Laura Santiago. She lived on the opposite side of town, way out in the county, so Emile didn’t get back until the next morning. During that time, he left two guards at his place, one downstairs and one up on the third floor. Obviously this was where the safe was. But how he was going to get past two armed guards was anybody’s guess.
By the end of the third week, Bob became depressed. Obviously his stakeout was a flop. He’d have to find the guy some other way. But how? He’d already tried looking up Edwards on the Internet and found nothing. Maybe Edwards had lost interest. Gone off to steal some other work of art? Then what? Bob stayed up late, working on the computer, trying to find another buyer. There were a few names that kept coming up in all the stories about the missing mask. One was a man named Tommy Asahina, a Japanese collector.
The guy had served time for swindling investors in a securities and exchange scam. Maybe he would want to buy the mask. But calling him was to make himself vulnerable. Bob didn’t really want to start a bidding war. He just wanted to do this not-so-simple transaction and then disappear from the world.
By the last day of the fourth week, Bob had nearly given up hope. Sighing unhappily, he shoved his binoculars into his jacket pocket and headed on home. All his plans were on the rocks and he had no clear image of where he might go from here. He had to come up with some other plan, maybe push Emile to tell him where Edwards was now. That was risky as hell, but it was all he could think of.
Weary and aching in every joint in his body, Bob shuffled along down the street, heading back to his own neighborhood. Some damn crook he’d turned out to be. He couldn’t even find the buyer, much less grab the prize.
He turned down Aliceanna Street, trying to keep all the negative thoughts out of his mind. Every rookie criminal must go through times like this, he told himself. It was how you responded to a crisis that determined if you were going to be a great villain or just another cheap little punk. What he had to do was keep his hopes up … stay positive. What he had to do was …
Bob’s train of thought was interrupted by something he saw in front of him. Not a half block away there was a man sitting on his stoop, a guy wearing an expensive dark suit and a three-hundred-dollar haircut. His shoes were so shiny they reflected the streetlight that glowed in front of Bob’s house.
Parked at the curb in front of the man was a silver BMW.
“Bob Wells?” the man said, with the trace of an English accent.
“Yeah?” Bob said.
“Colin Edwards,” the man said, standing. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Bob walked a few more steps and reached out to shake Edwards’s hand.
“Sorry,” Bob said. “I’m not sure I know you.”
“You don’t,” Edwards said. “But you want to, right?”
“Maybe,” Bob said, taken aback by Edwards’s total confidence.
“Oh, come on now,” Edwards said. “You’ve been casing Emile’s place for the better part of a month. I’ve been watching you the entire time. You must have something you want to discuss with me.”
Bob felt his stomach lurch. It was all well and good to stalk the man, but to learn that Edwards had been aware of him the entire time was unsettling. It made him feel like … well, like what he was, a rank amateur.
“Okay,” Bob said. “Let’s walk.”
“Sounds charming,” Edwards said. “I love this area of your town. The brick houses, the narrow streets, the local fishmongers. Reminds me of my old neighborhood back when I was a mere lad.”
“Where was that?” Bob said.
“Liverpool,” Edwards said. “Dear old rotting, rat-infested Liverpool. Of course, the Beatles made it all seem charming. The Fab Four and their bar mates, all of that. But, trust me, it was and still is a hard place.”
“Like Baltimore,” Bob said.
“A lot like it,” Edwards said.
They turned left at Broadway and walked past closed and abandoned stores, toward the harbor.
Edwards took a theatrical sniff of the air.
“Ah, nothing like the smell of salt air and machine oil,” he said. “Started that way myself, you know, ordinary seaman and wiper. Went all over the world on freighters. Learned to speak eight languages and found myself interested in art. Eventually, I made it to Oxford. Had to pull a few strings to pull that off, but I never cared for university life. Too dull, predictable. Snobbery. Quit school and got into the import/export game, made a killing and began to collect. Been an exciting life, but very competitive.”
“Really?” Bob said. He had to admit rather liking Edwards’s tone. It was smooth and confident, so unlike those of his harried patients.
“Oh yes,” Edwards said. “That’s something the average person doesn’t know. They think of an art dealer as a refined gentleman who wears a vest and goes around buying pictures, in between attending polo matches and getting the old Bentley reupholstered. But that’s bollocks. People who collect art are wealthy, single-minded, and ruthless, y’know? Some of them are downright dangerous.”
“So I understand,” Bob said.
“I can only imagine what Emile has told you,” Edwards said, lighting a Gitanes. “Let me guess. He said that I tried to get his friend Larry Stapleton to back me and when Larry turned me down, I took him out to the raging sea and drowned him.”
“Something like that,” Bob said.
Edwards laughed and shook his head.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “The man is a complete fabricator. Really, you can expect anything at all to come out of his mouth. Anything but the truth, that is.”
“And what is the truth?” Bob said.
“Simply, the exact opposite of what he told you. I was the one who was the working-class boy who had worked my butt off. Emile’s company was slipping and Stapleton knew it. While they were out rowing on the river, he told Emile that he was withdrawing his money from his house and backing me instead. Emile lost his temper, there was a row, and Larry ‘fell’ overboard. Of course, Emile swore that he’d tried to save him, but everyone knew better.”