You think I’m a monster? Let me tell you that I am not. I did what anyone else would have done under the circumstances. Just because I see that guard’s eyes every night when I go to sleep and every morning I wake up proves that I’m sorry—that I had to pull the trigger. But, I did, and I can’t undo it, so you should accept that I’m human. Same as anyone else.
Look, I was tired of catering to all those rich folks with their villas full of empty walls and gardens without sculpture. Anyway, they have no taste, only money to buy art to impress the hangers-on they call friends. What good are thirty rooms with no one in them? So, they buy art, from me. They buy expensive museum-quality original art and then they never look at it. So, you see why I did what I did. I had no choice. I have no choice but to move on—to transition from poor to rich and forget about what it took to get here.
I first met Rudy at the Paris gallery, where I sold on commission–barely eking out a living. He had been wandering around the place for hours, eating the free hors d’oeuvres and drinking the cheap champagne. Each time I approached him, he’d move into a conversation with another browser or disappear into the men’s room. By his accent, I guessed that he was Swiss. Finally, I cornered him.
“You’ve been here quite a while, are you looking for something in particular?”
“Oh, hi sweetheart—I have a question. How much is this piece?”
“In Euros? €800,000”
“What’s your commission?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because I may be able to offer you a better deal.”
I hesitated and to this day, I don’t know why I gave in so easily except I hadn’t sold anything for six months and if I didn’t produce, I’d be out waitressing again in some tourist dive.
“Once I make my salary, which I haven’t yet this year, I’ll get 5%. So, if you buy this today, I’ll reap an additional €10,000.”
“With some patience, I can make you rich. How big is your client list?”
I locked up for the evening, and we carried the conversation to my two-room apartment. As I made us coffee, I kept wondering about my sanity. I didn’t know this man and we were now alone conjuring up some sort of scheme. Meanwhile, Rudy anxiously paced the floor and never sipped from the mug I set on the table. Instead, he outlined his objectives, as if he had them neatly bullet-pointed in the air.
- He knew where the recently discovered Picassos, that had been in the news, were stored.
- He had a plan to heist them.
- If I had the clients and they were willing to wait five years for delivery they could have them for half their worth.
- We’d split the proceeds 50/50 and never work another day in our lives. I’d become one of them—an easy transition to a life of wealth and privilege.
* * *
“What took you so long?” Rudy said as he secured the van door. “I couldn’t find you, so I loaded everything already. This is a robbery, not a picnic.”
“I can’t breathe—I think I killed him.”
“Killed who? The guard? He was tied up tight, what happened?”
“I went to check that we hadn’t triggered the silent alarm and he must have wiggled free. He came up behind me with his gun drawn—I reacted—I shot him—I wasn’t supposed to kill anyone. You told me I wouldn’t have to kill anyone. He pleaded—he pleaded with terror in those brown eyes—he said drop your gun, and I pulled the trigger before he could—I killed him. I’m sure I killed him—I can’t breathe.”
“Never mind, it’s some bad luck. Get in the van; I don’t think the alarm sounded, but we’ve got to get outta here, now.”
“Maybe I should go back? What if he’s not dead? What if we could save him?”
“Are you nuts? Get in the van, or I’ll leave you here for the police.”
What choice did I have? What was done, was done. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Only Rudy knew where the paintings and sketches were warehoused. So little security. It was going to be an easy steal. One guard and a basic alarm system—an easy heist with no one hurt. Why did that guy have to get free? Why didn’t he stay put? The art was insured—not worth risking his life. Damn!
* * *
The heist made headlines around the globe. I couldn’t pick up a newspaper, magazine, or turn on the radio or TV without hearing every minute detail. The man I killed had a family—a wife, son, and daughter. He worked two jobs. A schoolteacher during the day, he took a second night-watchman gig to set aside money so that his kids could one day go to good universities. TV interviews with his wife pictured a distraught woman pleading for any information regarding the murder. Each time I saw it, I screamed at the newscast that it was an accident—not murder. I didn’t mean for it to happen—I was sorry—I’m not the monster they think I am. The substantial reward wasn’t even close to the estimated 100 million euros that the collection was worth but enough to put plenty of investigators to work. I had to get out and get out soon. After a tormented week, I called Rudy.
“Hello?” Rudy’s voice sounded hoarse.
“Rudy? It’s me, Juanita.”
“Are you crazy? I told you not to call me.”
“Look, can we meet somewhere? Somewhere public? I quit my job, and I’ve got to get out of here. I want to leave the country, or I’ll lose my mind over this. Do you hear me? I’m losing my mind.”
“Okay, okay. Meet me on the Concorde Metro platform in an hour, and we’ll think of something. But don’t call me again.”
It took one look at me, and Rudy knew that if I stayed put, that somehow, I’d say or do something to expose us. We had to hide ourselves and the merchandise for five years before we could deliver the goods and I was fluent in Spanish. It only made sense to transport me somewhere cheap to live, and he finally agreed to fly me to Mexico. I got off the plane in Puerto Vallarta with enough money to rent a cheap apartment and get by until I found a job at a local taqueria.
“Hey Juanita, you look like shit this morning. You’re not going to make much in tips with those bags under your eyes. Don’t you ever sleep?” asked my boss Carlos about a week after he hired me.
“I don’t sleep much—keep having nightmares.”
“Well I don’t know what a pretty woman like you has to hide, but if you keep coming in here dead tired, I’ll need to find someone else. The tourists want a lively senorita, not an old bruja.”
What can I say, I had to pull it together, and after a month or two, I controlled the dreams. Occasionally the brown eyes would pop up unannounced in some nocturnal vision, and I’d wake in a cold sweat. Slowly they subsided and stopped altogether. Some days I felt as if nothing had ever happened. Almost five years to the day, I got the long-awaited phone call from Rudy. We had kept in touch periodically by postal mail, and I had mailed him a cell phone number attached to a prepaid disposable phone.
Today, Rudy met me on the beach by the lifeguard station. He said we could move the loot. It’s in a Swiss bank, ready to be disbursed as soon as he sends instructions. He’ll arrange everything else. So you see. Now I can move out of this hovel and buy a real house somewhere. Maybe Australia, or New Zealand. Someplace warm—I could stay here in Mexico or move further south to Central or South America. We won’t get caught, but even if we do, a real prison is better than this poverty stricken one that’s invaded by ghosts and demons. So, you see why I did it. It wasn’t my fault. I’m not a monster.
Elaine Webster http://elainewebster.com/ writes fiction, non-fiction, memoir, essays, and poetry. Her memoir of the 1970s, Balanced on the Edge of the Crowd, employs the same memoir-style writing as the author’s non-fiction works: Jesse’s Tale: Overcoming Fear Aggression and Separation Anxiety in an Adopted Greyhound and Heartfelt: Caregiver’s Guide to Cardiomyopathy and Mitral Valve Surgery. Elaine’s poetry has appeared in Redwood Writers anthologies, The Sound of a Thousand Leaves, And The Beats Go On, and Wordforest’s Sisters Born, Sisters Found.