Moonlight streamed in after Harper as the window clicked shut behind her. The shape of her body was outlined softly across the grey carpet, and she watched it disappear as she stepped into the shadow of the wall to her right. It was a bedroom, with an empty canopy bed set in the centre, gauzy white curtains catching in the grey light and puffing out slightly from the small breeze that had entered with her.
She looked back the way she’d come, noticing the rigging swaying gently from the roof. A curse whispered past her lips. So much for not leaving a trace. Only a few minutes in and she’d already messed up. She tried not to take it as an omen.
Fingers shaking, she swung her backpack silently off her shoulders and rummaged inside for her little notebook – her bible for the night. The soft black cover was comfortingly familiar as she flipped it open, tilting the pages into the moonlight to see the meticulously drawn map inside.
Shifting her weight from one foot to the next, she tucked the book safely back into her pack and checked the time on her watch. It was 4:45 am, she still had plenty of time to accomplish what she’d come for.
Despite the trembling in her knees, her hands balled into fists at her side as she stalked past the empty bed, towards the heavy wooden door on the opposite side of the room. She twisted the knob slowly, peering around the corner into the hall before leaving the relative safety of the guest room.
There was no light in the hallway, save for the dim yellow floor lights spaced at precise, two-foot-long intervals. She didn’t mind. If anything, she would have preferred complete darkness. She paced away from the guest room at a steady clip, pausing only when she passed the door that she knew led to Richard’s room. Richard Hall. The owner and the man who had wrecked her life. She made herself keep walking.
The hall began to open up ahead, causing her to slow again. Like most thieves, Richard Hall was paranoid, and she knew there would be security cameras to contend with on her way to the art room. She took a deep breath, picturing the beach and the tide moving in, then out. Quickly her thoughts spun to brushstrokes and gilded water, a setting sun and rosy cotton-candy clouds on the horizon, the feel of the brush in her hand as she dabbed paint onto the canvas. She remembered every stroke of that painting. Every inch of canvas and the layers she’d perfected to mimic the movement of the waves. She grit her teeth. It was her masterpiece. This was the reason she was here. He’d stolen from her, and she would steal it back.
She stopped at the edge of the hall, retrieving her notebook once more. The cameras were a puzzle. The first swung right, and the second left, which meant she had to move opposite to them. There were six total, with very tight blind spots between them, so she would have to move quickly. She went over the directions in her head. Left, right, right, left, right, left. Don’t stop. Don’t forget. She could see the first camera from where she stood, placed so it could scan over the large staircase that led down to the first floor.
She pressed the notebook to her chest before reaching behind to put it away. She could do this. She had to. The painting would be gone by tomorrow if she didn’t.
Another breath with the tide, in, then out. Left, right, right, left, right, left. It was a mantra in her head as she moved. Left down the staircase, right towards the wall, right, behind the pillar, left, towards the centre of the room, right, pressed next to one of the busts standing guard outside the art room. Left, in front of the door.
Three seconds to punch in the code before the camera caught her. 0042, the exact number of pieces Richard had pilfered for his collection so far. Forty-two artists trampled on his stairway to undeserved fame and recognition. Three, she held her breath and the tide held. Two, - the keypad buzzed, and the door swung open.
Slipping inside and shutting the door behind her, fluorescent lights flickered on overhead, burning her eyes. There were pallet shelves against three of the walls, two holding artwork, rows of brightly coloured canvases, and one holding frames, tinted and brushed with metallic sheens, and adorned with everything from vines to geometric patterns.
Eagerly, she stepped towards the canvases, beginning to pick through them one by one, looking for her perfect ocean scene. There were so many masterpieces here. A gorgeous depiction of a snowy white temple, a portrait of a young man that held more emotion than paint had any right to contain. A yellow desert with sand so detailed it looked to be shifting on the canvas. Another life-drawing, this one artful and flowing, the woman’s skirts flaring out around her as she twirled. But where is mine?
She searched through all the paintings. Twice. It was nowhere. It didn’t make sense, this was where Richard kept all his art, there was no reason why hers shouldn’t be here. Her gut twisted as she imagined the possibilities, half expecting to hear sirens in the distance. Relax. Think. Where else would Richard have stowed it?
Frantically, she reached for the notebook once more, flipping through the crisp pages to skim every note and sketch she’d compiled about Richard’s home. Her heart fell into her stomach. Of course. It was right there on her map. The wall safe in Richard’s bedroom. Her painting would be sold tomorrow, under his worthless name, so naturally he wanted to keep it close.
She paced the length of the art room, debating her options. She could leave now. Escape from the ground floor like she’d planned and accept her failure. They’d have the rigging but nothing else to trace back to her. Or. She could try. Her fingers twitched at her sides. Her eyes traced over the canvases surrounding her. She wished she could save them all.
In the end, there were no other options. This was her life; it was her blood and sweat and tears and she couldn’t walk away without doing something about the injustice she’d been dealt.
Standing opposite Richard’s room, she studied the door. Carved simply, with leaves and branches, she hoped it wouldn’t creak. Richard’s bedroom had deep blue carpet and yet another canopy bed in the centre, this time occupied. The curtains were heavier than in the guest room, a wine colour that soaked in light from the open balcony door. Her feet sank into the high pile as she walked to the safe. There were four numbers noticeably worn on the keypad, one more so than the others, so she could assume the code was at least four digits, probably more.
She glanced behind her at Richard’s sleeping form, wrapped in a duvet cover and breathing softly in the bed. Her eyes caught on the glowing numbers of the alarm clock on his bedside table. 5:25 am. Her breath caught. She had five minutes before his alarm went off and brought her plans tumbling down around her ears. She turned back to the safe. What did she know about him? What would a man who thought he was clever make the passcode to his safe? A man who thought of himself as an artist? A man who assumed he had the upper hand on everyone he met? A man who was cocky, slimy, self-assured and overconfident?
Her thoughts raced, tumbling over each other like foam in a wave. She thought back to the art room. Would it be the name of a piece? No, he probably didn’t care about their names. Something about himself? Too obvious. She thought about the bare canvases and the frames, waiting to be filled. Her eyes fell to the letters on the keypad.
The tide flowed in and out. Her hand was steady, though her knees were weak. 372633. FRAMED.
There was a soft hiss, and the safe swung open. Her heart leapt, and her hands reached for the painting, scanning over the arcs, the texture of the paint, the yellow hues of the sunlight. It was perfect. It was framed, waiting to be hung. Without further examination, she slid it into her canvas bag and slipped the strap securely across her body. She was about to close the safe when she noticed there was something else inside.
Not just something. Stacks upon stacks of bills – the buyer must have already paid Richard for the painting. A wicked grin swept across her face. A lost painting – an artist could come back from that disgrace, provided he refunded the buyer. But a missing art piece and twenty thousand dollars gone? There was no recovery from that sort of mistake. It was career-ending.
There wasn’t much time left, but she couldn’t pass up this opportunity. After piling the money into her backpack, her eyes flickered back to the alarm clock display. 5:29 am. Her heart lurched. She had seconds left, and there was no way she could make it back to the ground floor like she’d planned.
She spun on the spot, faltering, until her eyes met with the open balcony door. It looked like her mistakes were about to pay off.
She tread as quickly as she could across the room, slipping out the door and jogging to the edge of the balcony. Hanging just in front of her, still swinging slightly in the breeze, her rigging remained. She leaned over the edge, reaching, just as a shrill beeping started up behind her. Her hands seized around the rope and in a burst of adrenaline she dragged herself off the balcony, pulleying down towards the ground and taking the rigging with her.
In, then out. The tide flowed freely again. Her smile was as piercing as Richard’s scream as she fled into the night.