The only picture of me that I’m genuinely smiling in is my mugshot. Or rather mugshots, plural. There were quite a few before I improved my craft, but in all of them I wore the same wide-eyed, exhilarated grin.
This wasn’t exactly where I’d expected to end up. It’s not the kind of dream job you’d draw in preschool and hang up on the wall between your classmates’ clumsy stick-figure drawings of firemen and doctors. You don’t see newspaper job ads that list five different ways of breaking and entering without tripping any alarms as the basic skill requirements. There aren’t guidebooks or courses, no “Burglary for Dummies,” but that never mattered to me. I was a thief by profession, and, eventually, a damn good one at that.
Two weeks after my debutante party announced my first appearance in fashionable society, my first arrest announced my criminal record debut. It was a simple jewelry store robbery spoiled by my inexperienced mistakes, an ultrasonic detector that I missed. Three minutes and twenty-seven seconds after I broke the lock, the trusty boys in blue arrived; another eight minutes and thirty-three seconds later, zip-tie restraints and metal bars separated me from my freedom.
“Smile,” the cop behind the camera sneered. I gave him the grin I used in my valedictorian photos.
Two hours later, on the car ride home, my father sighed.
“You really need practice.”
My father had an impeccable golf grip; his grip on a gun wasn’t half bad either. In his prime, he led a legendary string of forty-seven successful jewel thefts in a row; now, he was a reformed “family man,” having met my mother when they both cased the same museum collection (theft number twenty-one). But sticky fingers tend to get restless. Luckily, he found a protégé in me, a toy-pilfering child menace who was all too eager to turn from plush animals to precious metals. As my older brother went into accounting , I entered the criminal underworld.
But all the training in the world couldn’t prepare me for the real art of crime, for the reality of what it feels like to break a window when any wrong move could set off a hotline to the police. And for all my efforts, I simply could not pull off the perfect heist.
Attempt number two went much like the first. The back window to the museum detached cleanly from its frame. I cut and rewired the alarm. I set the cameras on loops. I got as far as blocking infrared sensors and cleanly breaking the seal on my display case of choice before the lights in the museum gallery snapped on and blue and red flashed outside.
Shortly after, the camera flashed and I gave a smirk for police posterity.
My father looked disappointed, but for a very different reason than what the officer releasing me likely assumed.
My mother made her small fortune in “art collection and trading,” which translated to her “collecting” whatever art she wanted. An actual art aficionado despite her methods of acquisition, she was the one who emphasized cultural and artistic worth while my father taught me the monetary value of things. To steal simply for monetary gain, she said, is not enough, no; you need to want it, need to love it. In another life, I think she could’ve been a life coach.
However, no matter how much I loved the thought of it, in reality I just could not pull off my perfect heist. It seemed that whatever ailed me was here to stay. Attempt number three was a nice department store that saw me fail at my goal of cleaning out the display cases of various sparkly and metallic items. Who knew that there would be a night guard, and that said night guard would have a Taser? The lady working at the police precinct’s main desk rolled her eyes. I grinned.
“Sick of me already?” I kept the smile until the shutter clicked and the cop called for the next detainee. Once again, my father was not thrilled.
“I spent nearly thirty years avoiding the police, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed seeing them three times in the past month.” I slumped low in the Bugatti’s passenger seat.
I was inconsolable, but beyond that, I was concerned. If this went on too long, I’d have to resign myself to a normal life like my brother. So I practiced. I locked myself in my room and surrounded myself with blueprints of galleries and bank vaults. I disassembled and reassembled locks with my eyes closed. I did pull-ups until pulling myself onto windowsills and ledges was second nature. Finally, I talked to my mother.
“Oh, honey,” she sighed, twisting her platinum wedding ring around her finger “three fails isn’t so bad.” I buried my head deeper under my arms as she continued. “None of the best thieves excelled at first. It took me at least ten tries before I finally got my first Monet. Even your father took eight attempts before he wiped out a bank.” I looked up, shocked. This was news for me. My father, the most successful thief in recent history, took eight tries? With this information, I set forth with a new goal: succeed in seven tries or less.
It was a good thing the limit of seven allotted me more tries, because attempt number four was not destined for success. I was rifling through safe drawers of valuables when the vault door slammed and alarms began to blare. Zip-ties chafed my wrists in the back of the police car and as I was shoved through the police precinct, but I smiled anyway, even though I was starting to see flashbulbs and concrete walls in my sleep.
My father just sighed.
The day of my fifth attempt, my brother was arrested. While we thought he had chosen the honest life, an Ivy League education and an office job, he had unbeknownst to us been the head of a massive Ponzi scheme. I had never seen my father as mad as when he received that call. Cursing, he poured himself a glass of expensive scotch and began calling in connections, trying to cut the story off before it reached the press. In our world, major media attention was death. As soon as they smelled blood, there’d be no stopping the investigations of our family’s vaguely suspicious finances.
In the end, I was foiled again that night, though at least I wasn’t arrested. A gallery guard turned a corner the same time as me, and I had to run out of the place faster than it could lock down, winking at a camera and flashing the one-finger salute as I slipped through the back exit into an alleyway and away into the night. While my brother faced five to ten years in prison, I faced only my father’s frown of disappointment.
While sorting through my closet of dark clothes, I found a crumpled old picture from kindergarten of my “dream job”, featuring a rather good drawing of future me garbed in full pirate regalia. I laughed. I guess I was mistaken; “criminal” can be a prospective job for some determined young children. I scanned over a new floor plan, this one for a distinguished jewel gallery. I was always partial to the shiny things, hence the pirate career plan. Well, this sparkly theft was for child me.
I took a blowtorch to a padlock to get in through a back maintenance hatch. It wasn’t until I was inside that I saw exactly how many alarms the place was wired with. I silently wished I was actually a seventeenth-century pirate; at least they never had to deal with this laser-sensor-alarm insanity. Reaching into my pocket, I removed a penny and threw it across the room to see if it would trip anything.
It did. The police were not nearly as amused with this as I was. Nor was my father. After grinning for what I hoped was my last mugshot, he sighed again, a sound I was beginning to hear in my head whenever I made a decision.
“If you make this a habit, I’m going to stop wiping your record.” I nodded.
I announced my plan for my seventh attempt to my father.
“Lucky number seven.” He almost smiled, but settled on a grimly encouraging frown instead. I suited up. Black shirt, black jacket, black pants, black knit hat, and my characteristic smirk. Taking a running start from the roof of my penthouse apartment, I lept across the gap to the next building, sticking the landing and continuing to run across the roofs. Many jumps to window ledges later, I reached my destination: the same gallery where I had failed several nights ago. Instead of entering directly, though, I started on the roof, where I found the transformer and circuit breaker for the building. With a flick and a snip, I cut it, and with that, I entered the gallery once again.
As I expected, with the power out, the system couldn’t run the web of alarms arming the gallery. By my estimates, I had about five minutes before the backup generators kicked in and alarms started going off. Nearly skipping, I cracked the locks on the display cases one by one, sweeping the glimmering contents into a duffel bag. As an afterthought, I pulled a sheet out of my pocket and stuck something on one of the “no touching” signs- a large yellow smiley face sticker. Smirking, I languidly jogged back to the roof, bag pulled tight against my hip. I was a few rooftops away when an alarm began to blare. A couple blocks further and red and blue swirled in the streets below, but fortunately, no one bothered to look up.
When I got home, I kicked open the door to my father’s study, tossing the bag at his feet. He unzipped it as I spoke.
“Like you said,” I grinned, “Lucky number seven.”
Finally, he smiled back.