When I first started off as a professional thief, it wasn't entirely out of free will. It wasn't because I craved an adrenaline rush. It wasn't because I had a Robin Hood fantasy stuck in my head that I wanted to act out. It wasn't because I had an innate hatred of those who have more than I did. To be perfectly honest, it out of desperation. A long time ago, I worked a high position as an engineer in a home security company, designing the very systems and devices that I would one day exploit. I had a beautiful wife and a baby girl on the way, both of whom I loved with all my heart. I lived in an idyllic suburban house with a pool and a green lawn and everything that embodies what most people see as the American Dream. Perhaps this was why my ego inflated to the point where I saw no risk in drunkenly divulging company secrets at a bar one night to Bobby, a friend of mine who wanted to break into his ex-wife's house and take revenge on her lover who he felt had stolen her away from him. When he handed me a rolled up wad of cash at the bar that night, I had no idea that I had just sold away my livelihood for five hundred dollars. But regardless of my naivete, the police caught Bobby about a day after his ex-wife woke up next to a corpse with a pool of blood surrounding its freshly opened throat.
In court, Bobby called me out by name in a desperate effort to lessen his sentence. Of course, this did nothing to alleviate the life in prison that he was eventually condemned to, but what his confession did do was put me in prison for five years as well, and cost me my job, my wife, and my house. When I got out of prison, I had nothing at all to call my own. No company would hire me as an engineer with my history of incarceration. I was forced to work a job at Little Caesar's for ten hours a day, which granted me barely enough money to pay for a low-rent apartment in a slum, a used television set, an extremely low-end laptop, and the occasional bottle of liquor that I would miserably imbibe in front of the TV as I fantasized about how perfect my life would be if I had just kept my mouth shut.
Eventually, I grew sick of my awful day job and abysmal living conditions, and logged onto Craigslist to advertise myself as someone who could break into houses. It was admittedly a stupid idea, and a very risky one at that; I still have no idea how I didn't fall victim to a sting operation or some sort of prank. But, eventually, I got an offer from a man who wanted me to break into the house of a private investigator and steal compromising pictures of him having an affair. I'll admit that during my first job, I was frightened beyond comprehension. Even with five years in prison, I still had a powerful, innate fear of getting caught. If anything, my experiences in that hell hole made the prospect of going back even more terrifying.
Adrenaline surged through my veins as I crossed the street to find the two-story home at the address I had been given. But, when I drew closer to the perimeter of the domicile, something in my head clicked, and all that fear and adrenaline morphed into pure concentration. I pictured the security system of the home in vivid detail, mentally dusting off my experience as an engineer to anticipate every possible countermeasure. Before I knew it, I was in the house, tiptoeing up to the investigator's office to find the photos laid out next to his keyboard. It took me ten minutes to get in and out of the place. The investigator wasn't even remotely disturbed from his sleep, and nothing in there was moved or altered besides the pictures. That night, for the first time since I got married, I felt as though I had found my calling.
Since then, I have done a lot of jobs in many different contexts. Sometimes I would break into cars, sometimes I would sneak into office buildings, sometimes I would silently loot warehouses. With each escapade, my reputation grew among those who needed my work, and eventually I no longer required the internet to market my skills. Not only that, but my abilities grew over time as well; I began to do my homework, ardently researching the various factors I'd be up against before each job. I became calmer and more calculating as thievery became a normal part of my life. I never became careless, but rather developed the mentality that as long as I kept myself out of sight and out of mind, I had nothing to fear. But in the beginning, no matter how good at stealing I became, I never felt like a true criminal. Though I began to carry an illegally-purchased .357 revolver with me everywhere I went, I dreaded the day that I'd have to use it, and mostly just toted it around to feel somewhat safe during risky situations. I tried to avoid thinking about life-or-death situations in general. I'd usually ponder the worst-case scenario of each job for about five seconds before reassuring myself that if I did it right, then there would be no way in hell I'd have to even touch that weapon in my jacket. I don't suppose it was until I got that red envelope in the mail one winter that I truly hardened and became a bona-fide, cold-blooded crook.
I never in a million years thought that there would be a day in my life more distressing and awfully climactic than the day the police came knocking at my door ready to take me in. I was absolutely certain for the longest time that no matter what happened to me as a result of my criminal activity, I would never be as shocked or as heart-broken as I was that day. But, somehow, that damned red envelope found a way to top my arrest, and completely eclipse the memory of its emotional impact with something exponentially worse. I remember checking my mailbox one December, expecting nothing more than ads and my monthly issue of "Popular Science". All of my work at that point had come in through either email or phone call. In fact, I don't even recall giving my home address, let alone my exact apartment number, to anybody ever. But when I opened the mailbox, I found among my usual heap of mail a bright red envelope with no stamps and no address on it, only the Greek letter sigma embossed in gold on the vibrantly colored paper. I opened the envelope to find two items inside. Item number one was a stack of five one hundred dollar bills tied together with a rubber band. Item number two was a white paper card with black Times New Roman text on it. The text read:
-TO THE MAN WHO DWELLS IN THE SHADOWS -HOUSE AT 9596 QUEENWOOD AVENUE -RETRIEVE SILVER IDOL -MASTER BEDROOM, SECOND FLOOR -AUDI Q5 SUV WAITING OUTSIDE DRIVEWAY OF HOUSE AT 1:00 AM TONIGHT -1% OF REWARD ENCLOSED
Reading the card, I felt several different emotions swirl through my head all at once. I felt excitement at the prospect of earning all of fifty thousand dollars from one job. I felt tense at the fact that I'd have to do it almost immediately. I felt afraid of what would happen if I rejected this offer from someone who was either smart enough or powerful enough to find out where I live and send this request to me with no concerns about the envelope being intercepted or mistakenly opened by someone other than myself. But what really compelled me to pack up my gear that night was the same egoistic rush that I felt when I told Bobby how to break into that house all those years ago. It had been a very long time since I had such a lucrative, intriguing task before me. I was quite frankly flattered by the fact that some mysterious party viewed me in high enough regard to call for my services specifically. And ever since I began to steal, breaking into houses in particular always made me feel nostalgic for that night when I had my cherry popped. There were many things about this proposition that should have sent alarms ringing in my mind, but there were even more things about it that compelled me to drive off straight to the house on 9596 Queenwood Avenue with little hesitation.
At around 12:00 AM, I pulled my car up somewhere along the intersecting road with Queenwood, just far enough to avoid suspicion from anyone close to where I'd be working. I popped the trunk of my Chevy Impala and retrieved a satchel containing my usual equipment: a lockpicking kit, a hammer, a flashlight, a crowbar, a blowtorch, and a pair of pliers. Then, I moved aside a few layers of piled up clothing to find my revolver, which glistened vaguely in the moonlight. I tucked the weapon snugly into my jacket, and then closed the trunk with a loud thud and locked my car. I began to walk to my destination. When I saw the number 9596 at the door of a two-story home, I slipped on a black ski mask, which almost instantly warmed my face from the freezing wind that was blowing outside. As I approached the house, I noticed something strange about its exterior that I couldn't quite put my finger on at first. But soon enough, I realized what was bothering me: the master bedroom window (I had broken into several homes of this model before, and knew to look for the second floor window on the left side of the house) wasn't glowing with the usual bright, yellowish light cast by ceiling lamps, but rather with a dull, pale glow that just barely traced the perimeters of the closed blinds, leaving their inner portions darkened with pitch black coronas. No other part of the house was lit. I didn't mind this oddity very much; there could have been many normal explanations for why that room was lit so strangely. But, the tiny inconsistency did sent the faintest trace of a shiver down my spine as I approached the kitchen window and began to pry it open with the crowbar.
When I entered the house, I found that it was in a deplorable condition. Dirty clothing, chip bags, old magazines, and empty beer cans were all littered sporadically across the floor. A stale, but not quite rotten stench permeated the kitchen and living room. The stench was amplified by the fact that the air conditioning was set quite a few degrees higher than room temperature. The heat sent beads of sweat down my neck. I started toward the staircase that I had to take to get to the second floor, and as I drew closer to it, I began to hear a hushed voice coming from the bathroom next to the stairs, which was strange considering that the bathroom wasn't lit up. Before I began to climb, I paused to listen in on what the voice was saying. I heard a young woman, presumably talking over the phone:
“No, I don't know what's going on. I don't know, he's just been different lately. I come home every day from work and see the house turned into a mess, like someone had a party or something in the living room, but he's always just sitting on the couch staring at the wall. When I ask him what happened, he just gazes at me with this angry look for a few seconds and then just keeps staring at the wall. No, there's no TV. He moved it up to his room. I don't know why. No, he locks his room when he's gone, and every time I try to get in there while he's home he... he does violent shit. Like, he pulls my hair and drags me downstairs and just drops me on the floor. I've tried sneaking in, but... I know this sounds weird, but it's like he knows. I can't keep trying, Linda. He gets worse every time he catches me. Last time he left a mark on the back of my neck. No, Linda... I know this is crazy, but I just can't call the cops on him yet. Because I love him! And I know he loves me. He'll open up eventually. Stop it. Please stop, Linda, I don't want to hear it. He was there for me when mom was in the hospital, how do you expect me to just forget that? I know. I'll be safe. I promise. Night, Linda.”
The girl stopped speaking, and after a short while, she broke the silence again with hushed sobbing. I took this as my cue to go upstairs before the she calmed down and heard my footsteps. When I got to the second floor, the sobbing died out and was replaced by another, equally disturbing sound in the form of television static coming from the master bedroom. While the first floor was a total mess, the second floor was almost untouched, without so much as a stray sock on the floor. The gap around the frame of the door to the master bedroom let out that same eerie, pale glow that I saw coming out the bedroom window before. I grasped the door's knob and gave it the slightest twist to find that the master bedroom was locked. Fortunately for me, the knob wasn't meant to be locked from the inside; it was installed as a replacement for the knob that came with the house and had a keyhole on the outside. I broke through the keyhole using my lockpicking kit with the greatest of ease. Because of the loud static noise inside the bedroom, I remained undetected while I unlocked the door. As soon as I finished, I put my lockpicking equipment back in my satchel and slowly entered the room.
On the left side of the bedroom was a man sitting down on a wheeled desk chair with his back turned to me. The desk in front of him looked like it used to have a computer monitor on top of it, judging by the tower PC sitting on the floor next to it. But, there was no longer a monitor on there. Instead, an old television, probably something out of the 1980s, sat on the desk and faced the man in the chair, crackling and hissing at its surroundings with loud static, the same static I had heard since the moment I got to the second floor. The television set wasn't displaying anything besides grainy white noise, which lit up the otherwise pitch black room with the dull, pale light I had noticed before. The light from the television screen illuminated the bedroom and revealed it to be every bit as trashed as the first floor had been. Various assorted junk was strewn about the floor, making it difficult to even catch a glimpse of the inner membrane of shag carpet beneath all the garbage. The light also revealed pieces of paper nailed to the wall opposite to me with push pins, though from across the room, I couldn't make out what was on the papers with the dim light of the television screen alone. Also on the desk were two items to the right of the television set which were even more out of place: a rubber horse mask and an electric circular saw.
To the right of the desk was a queen-sized bed whose sheets were so violently crumpled and unmade that it looked as though two rabid dogs had fought to the death on top of the mattress. Finally, to the right of the bed, in the very front right-hand corner of the room, was a night stand which did not have a lamp on it, but a silver sculpture of a woman. The silver glistened brightly even with the minimal amount of light being cast on it, and the sculpture itself looked, from my limited knowledge of art styles, Greek in its design. I had found my target. The only problem was that the floor was so cluttered that one errant move would alert the man in the chair. While the static from the television obscured much of the noise I would make, the circular saw on the desk made me extra nervous about alarming its clearly disturbed owner. But it was too late to turn back. I took the deepest breath I could while staying quiet, and began to tiptoe across the room.
I could swear that it took me a good fifteen minutes to make my was across the master bedroom. The light from the television didn't exactly show me a reliable picture of what was beneath my feet, so while one second I might see a clear path to the night stand, the next I might find an empty wine bottle or a crinkled up candy wrapper in my way and nearly trip over myself trying to avoid stepping on it. The presence of the man in the chair served to torment me further; the phone conversation I had overheard on the first floor played in my head on loop, and accompanying that disturbing soundtrack was a suitable visual aid in the form of vivid, grotesque mental images of all the horrific ways in which the man could react if he were to turn around and see me. But the man didn't move for a second. He sat at his chair as still as can be, watching the static on the old television set like as if the screen were showing him all the secrets to life. When I finally reached the night stand, I grasped the silver idol with trembling hands and then sat down behind the side of the bed with the sculpture still in hand to rest and let the adrenaline wear off, while staying hidden in case the man in the chair decided to look away from the television. I let out a sigh of relief, and moments later, the paranoia and anxiety wore off. I was back in professional mode, ready to get out of this shit hole and cash in on my night's work.
Getting out should have been easy in theory; I presumably just had to sneak out the way I came in, and wait somewhere across the street for my client's car to show up on the driveway. Why the client would want to pull up on the driveway of the house I just stole from, I had no idea. But, I wasn't too worried about getting around that trivial complication; it was apparent to me that nobody in this house was too preoccupied with anything going on outside of it. I silently planned out my escape from behind the bed, taking a minute to be sure I remembered exactly which way I came in. But just as I was about to head out, I heard a faint grumbling sound amid the static. The man in the chair began to speak. When I listened in closely, I found to my horror that somehow he was repeating verbatim bits of dialogue that I heard the girl downstairs speak over the phone just a few minutes ago. “He's been different lately... Just sitting on the couch... Does violent shit... Pulls my hair... Left a mark on the back of my neck... Call the cops... I'll be safe...” And then, after a brief pause, “God...DAMN IT!”
Suddenly, the man pounded two clenched fists on his desk so hard that I swear I heard a cracking sound. He then stood up from his seat, his head now high enough to be able to see me hiding behind the bed. I froze in shock, knowing that there was nothing I could do to help this situation without giving myself away to this maniac. As my heart began to beat faster and faster, I noticed, for the first time, what was on those papers that the man had pinned to the wall, which I had ignored up to that point because I was too preoccupied with what was on the floor and the night stand. Though the papers numbered in the dozens, they were all variations on the same three things. Some of them had “KILL THE SLUT” written on them in frenzied, shaky handwriting. Others had “THE WHORE MUST DIE” inscribed on them in a similar fashion. The remaining papers contained crude stick figure drawings of a woman, identified through her being the only figure in the picture with drawn hair, performing various perverse sex acts on multiple men at once, who were identified through the extra sticks drawn from the bottom of their torsos to represent genital organs.
The material used to write or draw on the paper was the same for every sheet. It was a thick, congealed substance, perhaps low quality ink, or... blood. As I sat there helplessly, waiting to see how this would play out, I saw the man pick up the horse mask from his desk, and slowly put it on. Then, he grabbed the circular saw and turned around. At that point, I was absolutely sure that my life was over. Even if the maniac didn't see me now, he would certainly notice that the door had been lockpicked and opened, and then he would find me for sure. But, he didn't notice anything. He simply marched out of the room with the circular saw in hand and brushed the door to his side as if it didn't exist at all. He then set off for the first floor, leaving me alone in his bedroom.
At that moment, there was no way in hell I was going down the stairs. In fact, I was positive that I would take a leap from the second story window before I would follow that madman anywhere. I had seen and heard enough evidence by then to indicate that what was about to go down between he and his girlfriend wouldn't be anything remotely close to good times, but I didn't want to think about it. I just wanted to get the hell out. I pulled open the window blinds, hoping to God that I was running late and that my ride had shown up. And surely enough, there was a black Audi SUV parked in the driveway, with one of the rear doors opened for me. I opened the window up all the way and frantically waved at the vehicle hoping that somebody in there would notice me. Within seconds, the Audi's sunroof opened up to reveal a bald man sitting in the back seat next to mine. He looked straight at me, and simply held up his wrist and tapped his finger on his watch. I couldn't believe it. The bastard was sassing me.
Out of anger, I thrust both of my middle fingers out the window toward that bald asshole, but he simply shrugged and closed back the sunroof. That reaction managed to turn my emotional state from panicked to pissed. I began to stick one of my legs out of the window, no longer even remotely afraid of injuring myself by taking the scenic route out of the house, but just when the bottom of my thigh touched the windowsill, I heard a loud whirring sound coming from downstairs, loud enough to overpower even the sound of the television's static. The circular saw had been turned on. Shortly after that, I heard a woman's scream, one almost as loud as the saw itself.
This was when my lack of emotional hardness came into play. If I were in this situation today, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to just save myself and get my ass out before I become next on the chopping block. But that night, I was a different man, and hearing the woman's screams prodded at my heart in such a way that I turned from my one remaining rational course of action and did something extremely stupid. I pulled out my revolver, which I had never fired in my life, and charged down to the first floor. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, the masked psycho had already finished his work, and the girl, who would have been a very beautiful blonde twenty-something if she still had her head attached to her body, lay dead in the same bathroom where she was before, her torso, arms, and legs on one side of the room, and her severed head on the other. Her killer stood at the doorway, the circular saw in his hands now turned off. He was hyperventilating, his loud panting muffled through the rubber horse mask. Although his back was still turned to me, and I probably could have ran away before he finished spazzing out, my body was overrun with adrenaline, and as a result, I did the most primal thing that came to mind. I pointed the revolver at the psycho (with only one hand, mind you, since the other was still holding the idol), and opened fire.
None of my shots hit their target. My miserable attempt at fighting only resulted in mildly spraining my right wrist, and in prompting the maniac to turn around. When he looked at me, at first he didn't even remotely seem interested in my presence. He just stood there looking at me through the horse mask. But then, he slowly began to turn his head until the mask's nose pointed directly at the item in my left hand: the silver idol. I again found myself too scared to make a move. I just stood there as the man began to tremble and let out a crazed scream. Only when he again powered up the saw and lunged at me did I react. I was just a split second away from having my arm cut clean off, but somehow, I dodged the madman's attack, his saw only giving me a long red gash on my right arm. Granted, it was still very painful, yet somehow preferable to dismemberment.
What followed was the most instinctual, animalistic thing I have ever done in my life. I reached into my satchel with my wounded arm and pulled out the hammer with my partially sprained hand. Then, I lunged back at the masked man and wrapped my left arm tightly around his neck, proceeding to repeatedly hit the nail removal side of the hammer against his head until he stopped struggling. The first blow only penetrated the rubber of his mask, but after that, I began to hit his skull. The moment my hammer hit bone, the maniac dropped the saw on the floor and started flailing his arms around. But it was too late for him. I smashed away at his head until the cracking sound turned into squishing. Then, I released him from my stranglehold and let his corpse fall to the floor. That was the only time in my life when I have ever killed anyone. Needless to say, I got sick.
When I was finished throwing up, I walked out the front door of the house and into the black SUV on the driveway. I closed the door and looked at the bald man to find that even though he was clearly blind, with greyish white cataracts in both of his eyes, he was looking right into my eyes as if he could still see normally. But, that didn't phase me much. I had seen too much weird shit that night for something like that to make an impression. I was planning on giving the bald man a piece of my mind after his watch tapping bullshit, but I was too exhausted to say anything. I simply looked at him and waited for him to say something. “The Idol of Erida. Give it to me,” the man commanded in a thick British accent.
I gave the man the silver sculpture, and he grabbed it with a tattooed hand that had the same Greek sigma on it that I saw on the red envelope. He quickly pulled a transparent red box out of his brown coat, which looked like it was made of solid ruby, opened the box, and placed the sculpture inside before sealing it back up. Then, the bald man signaled the driver, upon which the SUV began to move. “Don't worry,” the bald man reassured me, “we're just taking you home. You'll find that we returned your car for you as well. Oh dear,” he exclaimed when he saw the gash on my right arm, “you look quite hurt. I guess such is the price for being a hero in this world, no? Let me help you with that.”
The bald man procured a small flask of whiskey and a roll of gauze from his coat. He poured the whiskey on my wound, which caused me a great deal of pain and put me in tears, before wrapping my arm up with the gauze. “All better,” he declared. Still too exhausted to speak, I stared at the bald man in disbelief at his casual tone of voice, which was shocking considering that he seemed to know exactly what happened in the house. He continued to speak. “You did a good thing tonight, my thieving friend. Heaven knows what would have happened if that wretched little artifact fell into the hands of more poor mortal souls. The world is a better place now, don't you think so?”
I continued to stare with my shocked expression. Detecting my mood, the bald man signaled the driver to hand him a briefcase from the front passenger seat. He then opened the briefcase and handed it to me. “I think this ought to cheer you up,” he chuckled, “it's forty nine thousand and five hundred dollars. I believe I gave you the remaining five hundred up front. Do spend it in good health, maybe use it to replace that old clunker you call a car. Oh, here we are. Thank you again for a job well done, good sir. Oh, and don't worry about the bodies and the collateral damage. I have some jolly good friends over at the police department, and I'll be sure to let them know to keep a low profile about all this.”
I closed the briefcase and shook the bald man's hand, before getting out of the Audi and walking back to my apartment. Surely enough, my Impala was back in the parking lot unscathed, and now I was holding more money in my hands than I ever had in my entire life. I did spend the money in good health like the bald man recommended. I got a better apartment, some new equipment, and even though I didn't replace the Impala, I certainly refurbished it a little bit with some new seats. Nothing that happened that night ever came back into my life again.
Since the red envelope job, I have become the cold, heartless criminal that I once thought I never could be. I never had another job that was quite as bizarre as that one, but my entire moral perspective changed after I left that house. Nowadays, I have no problem with letting or making people suffer in order to protect myself. I remember doing a job at a strip club a few months later where I saw a stripper being raped by her coke head boss through a ventilation cover. For a while, I thought about doing something stupid, but the moment I reached for my gun, my mind flashed back to the traumatizing image of the decapitated woman in the restroom, and the maniac in a horse mask standing next to her corpse. When that image entered my head, I took my hand out of my jacket, and just carried on.