A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 23

TIME FOR ME to start a little clandestine operation, Calendar style. The window was no problem at all. Simply take a piece of plastic to move the latch and slide it open. I cut some anonymous plastic from a water canister, to use a credit card was very amateurish and could prove very embarrassing if lost on the job.

I had to remove some little crystal animals from the windowsill and climbed in carefully; put the stuff back on the sill. The little Maglite shone through the bedroom and showed an empty, clean bed with a quilt on it and some colored cushions. The door to the living room was open, so was the door to the bathroom.

Phoebe Eastman had not picked up the phone when I called her house from a payphone just minutes before, so I was comfortably sure that she wasn’t at home. Two of the windows had the circulation vents open so the air in the apartment was fresh.

I closed all the curtains and switched on the lights in each room. It looked much the same as it did the week before when Ron and I had visited her.

When I worked an apartment, it was usually to find jewelry or valuables. Except for what I had researched in order to come prepared, I generally had no direct connection to the owner of the property. But this time, since I was looking for indications of involvement into another crime, it was a little different. I was looking for anything that would give Phoebe Eastman away as the burglar of the Altward Gallery, the stolen Maximilian Jewelry or any other. I was also checking for insider alarm traps that would reveal to a careful owner that someone had searched the apartment. Little things such as positioning a bottle in the kitchen at an invisibly marked spot or sorting the socks in a special order. If little Phoebe was indeed in the same business as me, I was sure to find some indications.

Scanning the room, I decided to start with her personal affairs.

The small secretary in the corner of the living room didn’t offer anything spectacular. The obituary of her father, cut from the San Diego Chronicle. Some notifications from the police regarding the murder, the coroner and some insurance paperwork. Her father’s life insurance policy was worth a little over thirty thousand dollars, nothing spectacular. Another one from the security company where he had worked, another ten thousand. I found her checkbook; she was not rich, steady income from a job or some such in the five hundred dollar per week range. Some other incoming checks in various irregular periods with some thousand dollars over the last year or so. Seemed that this money was what kept her afloat and enabled her to live in La Jolla. Money from Altward?

She had a small laptop on a writing desk. I booted it up, got stopped by a Windows login screen. I inserted my little do-it-all-stick with useful hacker tools, rebooted and bypassed the security. But nothing worth mentioning on the disk. Some harmless private e-mails to relatives and friends. Some e-mails from Altward when he appeared to be traveling. Typical ‘I miss you dearly, can’t await our next time’ content. A few letters to various galleries. Some pictures of unknown people and places. That was your life, Phoebe Eastman.

I moved on. No hidden doors, hollow wall spots or loose floorboards that I could find. A box with fashionable jewelry in the back of a drawer, nothing expensive, low and mid level retail. A diverse range of regular clothes from medium priced chain stores and some expensive designer stuff here and there. An expensive pair of jeans by D&G. An Armani jacket. A Versace bikini. Probably gifts from Altward or some other rich boyfriend.

Nothing that I found indicated that Phoebe was a cat burglar like me. Or she was as careful as I was, which would really bug my ego. But so far, nothing was out of the ordinary, a perfect simple life with few highlights.

I did some more searching, poked the sugar bowl, searched the freezer, and did the toilet water closet thing. Even found her little stash of grass, tucked away between ramen noodle soup packages. But this was California.

I scanned the pages of the few books she had, unpacked some boxes that didn’t look like they had been unpacked for a long time, found college and school stuff in there, old diaries. Speed-read some of the diary pages, schoolgirl stuff of broken hearts, football jock dates with guys called Ken, Henry and Paul and a slight fascination with her body mass around the time she was eighteen.

I stashed everything away exactly as I had found it, made a last relaxed look around the rooms; sometimes I had an inspiration for hiding places. Nothing.

Call it a night. Looked as if Mundy’s theory had been shot. Phoebe was nothing but a night watchman’s daughter with a rich boyfriend. Or, and that disturbed me significantly, she was as clever as I was. Had she searched my apartment as I had just searched hers, she would have learned exactly as much about me as I did about her.

I let myself out through the window, re-latched it and faded away into the night.

I stopped my car near a public phone and gave two rings to Mundy’s home number, indicating that everything was OK and that I was on my way to number two. Poor Mundy, he had insisted on coming along for the little mission but, of course, it was more important for him to provide me with a solid alibi.

Newport Beach was a beach-harbor community along the Balboa Peninsula in Orange County, pretty nice, at least in summer. On this dark autumn night, it was a bleak affair, maybe compounded by the exceptionally chilly 45-degree night. That was in my favor because at this temperature, South Californians without a proper wooly wardrobe tended to stay inside and study their heater instructions. The map had shown Altward’s weekend home to be on the beachfront of Newport Beach, near the small car ferry over to Balboa Island. I parked the car several blocks away from Altward’s house and walked to the correct address, looking over my shoulders to see whether a late night patrol was cruising the area. I crossed the street, took a small passageway between houses and walked the seafront promenade for the last yards to his address. Altward’s summer apartment was on the ground floor with a small balcony. I pondered for a second whether to enter from the front door or from the balcony. The yellow light from the promenade overhead light was murky, blending the details, making it hard to see. I turned at the walkway to check out the front of the building. There was a central well-lighted entrance to the apartment units. That was that. Too many risks to enter from the front. Small unit probably meant that the inhabitants knew each other by sight; I remembered that Juanita had spoken to neighbors who knew Altward by name. And I hadn’t had the time to check for the type of front door lock.

So I continued my stroll, out of the complex and back to the promenade. I went as far as where the apartments ended; Altward’s balcony was still in sight. I sat down in the night shadow of a group of beach palms and spent about half an hour checking the surroundings.

It was about two o’clock in the night and all I saw were three lights going out in other apartments, one dog owner taking a brisk night stroll and a couple coming home from late night entertainment.

I walked in the darkness on the beach back to the apartment and took my night glasses out of my knapsack. I had bought them in Chicago at a flea market of some Russian army immigrant. They were excellent for my purpose, much higher quality than anything similar made in the USA. I powered them on and the apartment complex was bathed in greenish colors, super sharp details. Even though everything seemed quiet, you never knew how many neighbors were victims of insomnia or took a late night walk to the fridge. Another fifteen minutes of curtain and window checking brought up nothing. No movements whatsoever, a quiet neighborhood. My throwaway cell phone glowed in the dark as I made the check-up call with Altward’s apartment. Not even a machine picked up. I packed away the night glasses and the cell phone, walked up the beach to the promenade, looked left and right and then soundlessly climbed over the railing of Altward’s balcony, dropping out of sight.

I peered through the slits in the curtains, couldn’t make out anything but darkness and checked the frame of the balcony door for any alarms and such. No wires showed, no magnetic contacts could be seen from outside in my focused Maglite beam and the lock seemed to consist of three bolts on the upper, middle and lower section of the sliding door. I got out my little electric drill and made two strategic holes on the upper and lower section of the frame. The secret was to make it look like intentionally functional holes, such as for removal of condensed water. It didn’t fool a well-educated policeman—but an ignorant homeowner. And in my case, there would be nothing missing. Two matchsticks and my trusted lock picks later I was able to slide the balcony door open, enter the apartment and close the door behind me.

I listened for a minute in complete darkness, heard the cracks of the house, water in the pipes and the hum of the air conditioner. I looked for electronic eyes staring at me but there were no movement sensors in the corners of the room.

Even though the air conditioner was on, the air was stale in the apartment, as if Altward had forgotten to clean the dishes.

I made sure that the curtains behind me were closed properly and then I switched on the lights. Nicely selected furniture in the room, very good mixture of dark brown polished wood antiques and modern design items, mostly chrome and white. While the style was different from in Altward’s San Diego home, one could see that someone with good taste had decorated the apartment.

There was some selected art on the walls, but since the apartment wasn’t wired for an alarm, I was sure they were prints, not originals. A bookshelf, some magazines, none current, an unread weekend paper from four weeks back on the table. The kitchen counter was clean, the fridge well stacked with non-perishable goods of all kinds.

I opened the door, a small corridor, turned left, found a small bedroom that had been converted into an office. A Macintosh computer was looking at me, early generation iMac. A Yucca plant at the small window, indestructible. Some binders on a shelf and paper stuffed into three trays on the table. I gave them a quick scan but they turned out to be apartment related bills and information, the facility management company had changed over a dispute with the owner, the new keeping company introduced itself and Andrew Altward had forwarded some bills to the Altward Art Foundation, probably the institution that paid all the property related stuff. Lucky bastard.

The binders on the shelf turned out to be a collection of articles on some art projects in the San Diego area; I recognized some of the names. Pleas for sponsorship with local businesses, opening invitations and drafts of folders and brochures. Another binder with similar stuff. And another one. Boring.

I gazed around the room and my eyes fell on some folders that were thicker than the others in the in-tray were. Carefully, I picked them up with my latex gloves. There were two of them; both labeled ‘MX.’ The first folder was very interesting; it had most of the documents I had already gotten from Benito Salanca on the subject of the Maximilian Jewels. But there was also some more information, another article in Spanish, another one written in a funny looking Spanish, maybe Portuguese? They were copied from journals of the last year or so and had the subject of Aztec tribes and outstretched hands for help to the white man. Or something like that. Official looking translations followed later in the stack of paper. Now and then, I stopped reading, listening, checking the time. Going toward three-thirty.

I unbound the folder and placed the papers I didn’t have in my possession onto the desk and got out my digital camera. They make nice and convenient copy machines and I snapped away merrily at the missing stuff.

Then I opened the second folder and its content made me sit down right away. The first stack of papers was a detailed description of the Maximilian Jewels, complete with pencil drawings and a notation of every item. My heart raced with excitement as I looked at the sheets stating the make and weight of each piece of jewelry, the location and cut of the stones. I quickly went over all the descriptions and sure enough, on page 23, a careful drawing of the necklace Phoebe Eastman had been wearing was looking back at me. The drawing was simple and quite accurate, but the mere sketch and dry description couldn’t match the actual look of the item I had seen around Phoebe’s neck.

The excitement of the descriptions and the drawings had me hopping a little bit back and forth on my feet, something I hadn’t done for a while, for years actually. I felt like a little girl before coming down on Christmas morning.

And suddenly, I needed to pee.

Great, in the middle of a heist and a great finding and I had the needs of a little girl. I closed the description, thumbed further ahead and found a notarized valuation of a well-known institute for gem research in Chicago. Followed by another expert valuation, estimating the total value at around eight million dollars. And after that, even better, some letters to and from ‘investors.’ It actually said ‘Dear investor… ‘ on the letter and it congratulated the addressee for the interest in a very rare item to own… I couldn’t read on because my need became very pressing.

I sighed and, because rules are rules, I put everything I had found back where it belonged before I left the small room to search for the toilet. I stepped back and looked at the desk; everything looked in order. Strapped on my little knapsack, went to the corridor and followed it in the other direction, passed the front door and silently opened the door of what appeared to be the sleeping room where I hoped to find the bathroom. The Maglite did a little dance over the corners of the ceiling and interior. I froze, switched off the Maglite, and felt the hair on my hand and scalp standing up. Something was not right here! The air was even stuffier than in the rest of the apartment, slightly smelly, maybe Altward hadn’t changed the bed in a while. There was a taste to the smell that I couldn’t yet place.

My still urgent need pulled me out of my hesitation and overrode my fear. I tiptoed over to the window. The eerie feeling of unease sweeping over me like a wave, I checked that the curtains were drawn tight. Then I switched on the bedside light. Again, I found a combination of antique brown polished wood and modern chrome and white furniture. The bed was unmade, maybe that had made me stop in the first place, sheets crumbled and the day blanket folded lazily at one end. But first things first, now ‘it’ was getting urgent. I hated doing this on a job and it was probably only the second time in many years that I had to use a toilet in an object. But this time, I had staked out the apartment for too long and had spent too much time reading the Maximilian articles and descriptions. I moved over to the bathroom, opened the door, the Maglite shining into the dark room revealed the toilet, the bathtub and in the bathtub the deformed blue body of Phoebe Eastman, her face frozen in a mask of a violent death behind a clear plastic sheet wrapped tightly around her.

I stumbled back into the bedroom, slamming the door shut by accident, it made a hell of a bang in the silence of the apartment night. I barely managed to pull up my sweater to my face and puked into the fabric, to prevent me from spilling the few remains of my late night snack onto the carpet of Andrew Altward’s bedroom. At the same time, my bladder gave away and I wet myself. I had to fight myself not to faint. I rolled to the side, trying not to leave any urine or puke stains. Breathing in, breathing out, panic washing over me, drowning me, I started hyperventilating.

First, finding the night watchman on the Altward Gallery job, now finding his dead daughter. Too much for a girl like me. When I found the door to the safe room open in the Altward Gallery, I already had the feeling that something was wrong and that something bad lay ahead of me. And although the night watchman was lying face down in his own blood with quite a gash on the back of his skull, I hadn’t been too shocked at that time because I was mentally prepared.

But nothing prepared for the look of Phoebe Eastman’s face. A tie or scarf was pulled very tightly around her slender neck, her face grotesquely swollen, bluish white in the Maglite, her eyes bulging, her hair wild around her head. Her body was wrapped in a thick transparent foil, normally used for wrapping large objects like carpets or construction materials but one could see that she was naked except for the scarf.

I was still lying on the floor with the contents of my stomach in front of me in my sweater, sour and acid smell everywhere and I had to retch again. Without looking, I opened my knapsack and got out a plastic bag that I always had with me on a job to transport jewels or gems that had been stored in a freezer or in food—whatever creative idea the former owner had to avoid putting the valuable stuff into a regular safe. I managed to clean my face with a part of the sweater that was not ruined. Then I transferred the whole mess, without dripping anything on the floor, into the plastic bag. I went quickly into the kitchenette, stole one towel from the cupboard and awkwardly cleaned up between my legs, left it there to soak up the urine. Messy.

I glanced at the kitchen clock, already four-thirty. It was getting too early, I had to count in the drive back to Redondo, and I had planned to be there before sunrise. But not possible now.

A minute or so went by without anything happening at all. Sitting in a fetal position in the living room, I thought about my next steps. But everything I thought of was somehow dwarfed by the fact that a dead young woman was lying a few yards away in the bathroom. Uncle Mortimer, who had educated me for this type of job, had given me one universal piece of advice, “Have the heart of a lion but the courage of a chicken.” Though I never have shaky hands on a job nor was I afraid of being caught, this was definitely chicken time. So I decided to abandon mission, checked the kitchen, no one would miss one towel when they found a dead girl here. In the bedroom, I thought for a second to check on poor Phoebe once more, to see whether I found any clues, or whatever, but then my inner chicken got the better of me and I saved myself more future nightmares.

I checked the floor of the bedroom carpet for urine or puke stains, didn’t find any, and made my way back to the balcony door. Hopefully, my smell collection would very soon be overridden by Phoebe’s decay.

Not photographing the folders with the drawings was my biggest regret as I closed the sliding door behind me, locked it back with the toothpick trick and glued in the mock screws to hide the drilling holes in the frame. At least one thing worked out right.

The morning was slowly approaching in the east when I was back on Freeway 5, driving north on cruise control and fully automatic navigation.

Dancingalong on the road in front of me was the face of Phoebe Eastman, her bluetongue pulled further out of her mouth than I had never thought possible with ahuman.

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