I insert the tension wrench into the bottom of the keyhole and apply a little bit of pressure. Not too much, though, or I’ll make the driver pins bind below the shear line. I ease the Bogota rake into the top of the lock, all the way to the back. I use my left hand to maintain slight pressure on the tension wrench and use my right to scrub the rake inside the plug. I pull back the pick while lifting up to apply pressure on the pins.
Will leans over my shoulder. I can feel his warm, sticky breath against my neck.
“Know what you’re doing?”
Sometimes it takes less than sixty seconds to pick a standard pin and tumbler. Sometimes it takes an hour, and sometimes you just don’t do it at all. You apply too much pressure on the rake, or not enough, and have to start over again. You turn the cylinder the wrong way. You drop a pin. The weather is too cold and your hands shake. You sneeze, cough, or turn around too abruptly to check for cops (if you don’t have a lookout). There are a thousand ways to blow it and only one way to do it.
I’ve done the thousand ways.
And now there’s just the one.
I turn the cylinder and unlock the door.
James Pierson is one of the most prominent art collectors on the Upper East Side. He owns four galleries in Manhattan, a 163-foot luxury yacht, a fleet of Ferraris, a horse track and corral boasting three of the top Thoroughbred Fillies in America, and eighteen townhouses throughout the world.
On the outside, he’s what you’d call a good man. He’s a philanthropist, having donated untold millions to special tearjerker causes for starving children in Third World nations and for Climate Change, respectively. He’s the Leonardo DiCaprio of the art world, a man who was born to smile into cameras.
But on the inside, James Pierson is not a good man. He has two weaknesses, both of which I aim to exploit tonight. The first being his propensity for Old World comforts and amenities. He still uses pin and tumbler locks, for one, and his alarm system is outdated and archaic — it only took me two minutes to download the specs, another three to disable it remotely. But that is not his real weakness. His second weakness, the one that brought us here in the first place, is his addiction to Kiddie porn.
How do I know this? Don’t ask me how I know this. Ask me why nobody else does.
I close the door behind us, the sounds of the city muffled.
“You sure he’s gone?”
“Stop asking questions you already know the answers to.”
“Sorry. I’m scared as hell, Dylan.”
“Well stop it. Fear is irrelevant.”
We enable the night vision app on our cell phones. Period hardwood floors light up in green-black glitter. Stairs loom before us, polished mahogany banisters, handrails carved of dark, ancient oak. We ascend them quietly, though there’s no need; our good man, Jim Pierson, is having dinner with Jeffrey Deitch over at Masa. Their waiter texted me five minutes ago to say they had been served their hors d’oeuvres.
I have the power.
The landing now, a 16th century hand-knotted Persian rug. The smooth wooden door of the study, the dented brass knob I remember so well from previous visits, cold in spite of the constant, steady heat. Cold like the Catacombs.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Calm down. It’s only a painting.”
That’s a lie, it’s not only a painting, it’s one of the last great paintings Monet made before he died: The Garden Beyond the Lilies, 1917–1920. Jim Pierson bought it at auction last year for thirty million dollars. Chump change. Pennies in a jar.
The door creaks open like a cackling old witch. The study is vast, full of ancient vellum books, two priceless Louis XIV chairs, a medieval globe, Oriental carpets. A bright Rothko hangs on the wall full of blazing orange squares, a Dali lay dull and moribund against a chair as though bound for some wet and bottomless pit, unloved in the dark. A grotesque Picasso sits on the mantle, faces squealing with agony, eyes bleeding pools of putrid joy. And there, past all the darkened novelties, the Grand Prix — the angel atop the Christmas tree.
Even in darkness the painting commands a surreal kind of awe. Will, who by no means is a connoisseur, stands rapt before it like Napoleon gazing up at the flattened apex of the Great Pyramid. A miasma of dappled colors — azure, violet, rouge — painted with fervor like a madman given rise to genius. Whispers of roses, a brightening sky, cascading ripples round a bird bath; all of it painted with detail so vivid yet left entirely to the imagination.
You see beauty in life. You see it in rainbows, in the smiles of children, in the great mountains and forests yet to be ruined by our vicious hands. You see it in sunrises and sunsets. In the clouds, and in the ebb and flow of a raging sea. Rarely, though, do you see it made by your fellow man. Sure, we build skyscrapers. We write books. We send monkeys into space. We engineer new spacecraft and elegant cars, make new cellphones, watches, and computers every day. But that’s not beauty; it’s distraction, distraction from the meaning of life itself. In Monet’s time there were no distractions. He lived and breathed the beauty of life; he created it.
Creation is a lost art. We have degenerated into blind imitation, into narcissistic originality. We have lost the magic.
“Help me ease it off the wall.”
I take one corner of the frame and Will takes the other. We lift it off the wall and set it against the padded back of a chaise lounge. Will with his hands on his knees, breathless, nervous, excited.
My eyes dart toward the bookcase on the far side of the room.
“You brought the blowtorch.”
He riffles around in his knapsack and brings it out. A bright blue bottle. We head toward the bookcase.
Creation has been forgotten. Beauty, truth, the liberation that comes from spiritual freedom — lost. You don’t find it in your iPods and iPhones. You don’t find it in your tweets or Facebook chats, in your kissy-lip pictures, your brand new Porsches or between your mistress’s thighs. You don’t find it because it’s not there. It’s somewhere else. Monet knew. Renoir knew. Da Vinci, Tesla, Einstein, Bacon, Rousseau — they all knew. They tried to teach you but you wouldn’t listen. You were too busy, too distracted with your sissy games and ignorant theatrics.
Well, allow me to end your distractions. Because that’s what we do, and we’re pretty damn good at it.
“You sure it’s there?”
“What’d I tell you?”
“Right. It’s there.”
We slide the bookcase across the floor. The door is there, sure as sugar, with a laminated steel padlock to keep it closed. Will fires up the blowtorch and gets to work. I don’t even have to tell him to.
“I still can’t believe it,” he says.
“He looks so nice on T.V.”
“Everybody looks nice on T.V. Except for the people whose resources we want to steal.”
Will shrugs noncommittally.
The padlock falls to the floor with a heavy metal thump. Will cuts the flame on the torch and I open the door.
Hundreds of DVDs lining shelves. The names on them read like a cruel imitation of the Sotheby art catalogues Jim Pierson collects: Jaime, 1996; Heather, 1997; Jackson, 2001; Nancy, 2005.
And on it goes.
I scan the films with repressed loathing. If I were to let it out I would destroy the DVDs, the room, the house, and set it all on fire. Set the world on fire. But I have the power. I must keep it contained, where it is. I have the power.
Will picks up one of the DVDs and shines a flashlight on it. “Jesus Christ.”
“No, try Satan.”
“There’s tons of them.”
He looks at me.
“How’d you know?”
“Keep working with me. You’ll find out.”
“So many heroes in this world, Will. So many of them just devils pretending to be men.”
“Put that back where you found it, we got what we came for. It’s time to call the police.”
On the street a few blocks from Jim Pierson’s house, I ask to borrow a passerby’s cellphone. I’m white. I’m wearing a suit, my hair slicked back, and I know I look good. Not like one of those bums over in the Bronx, not like one of those 610,000 homeless people starving and groveling on the streets of this glorious nation.
No, not me.
He lends me the phone.
“Hello, this is 911, what’s your emergency?”
“I see flashlights on the third floor of 154 West 120th Street. I think there’s been a break-in. Two men wearing ski masks went inside. They had guns.”
The bored voice now bleeding with interest.
“I’m sending dispatch over there right now. And your name, sir? With whom am I speaking? Sir?”
I hang up the phone and hand it back to the man. He stares at me like I’m some zoo animal, some creature from another planet — some lost art. Maybe I am.
Will smiles, still holding the painting under his arm covered up in a blue silk chemise we found in Jim Pierson’s closet. We cross the road amidst the distant cry of police sirens, the streets cast in a lively neon glow.
Will trains the video camera on me. I’m not worried about him catching my face; we’ll rub that out in the editing process.
“Man, are you sure you want to do this?”
“That’s thirty million dollars you’re holding there.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Thirty million dollars.”
“You don’t get it. It’s not about the money; money isn’t real. It’s just paper and ink. This is about the freedom of so-called ‘civilized’ man. This is about the salvation of his soul, yours, mine. If we don’t show them what they’re missing how will they ever stop destroying it? How will they ever change?”
“But that’s — ”
“A rhetorical question, Will, hold the camera steady please. What I’m saying is if you want to change something you’ve got to shake things up a bit. If you want to change someone, or rather, a race of people, you’ve got to hit them where it hurts: their weak spots.”
“Their weak spots.”
“You destroy what they love. You do it until they realize that they themselves are destroying the very same thing. What they love. The Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth, but what it doesn’t say is there won’t be anything left by the time of their inheritance. There’ll be nothing left to burn.”
“Start filming, Will. It’s time.”
The red dot blinks on the camera. I hold up the Monet for the whole world to see, hold it aloft like Atlas with his globe, and then I set it down on the ground and light the flame on the blowtorch.
“Hello, fellow citizens, and welcome to the new world.”
I set the torch against the painting.
It burns hungrily.