Crime caper / A bike shop / A glass eye / 998w
Alf Olsen liked matching sets of things. Among the sets of things Alf owned: eighteenth-century encyclopedias (in English and Norwegian), wood-heeled brogues, faux suede loveseats, steel cookware, white Pomeranians, and vintage teapots. He was feeling a touch agitated that all these things were back in his apartment in Norway, occupying an ordered miniature world that could not have been more different from the grimy New York bicycle shop in which he presently found himself. He needed to replace the chain on his bicycle, and it had proven difficult to find a shop with the part. His edginess was compounded by the fact that strapped to his back, sheathed in acid-free paper and cardboard, was Edward Munch’s nineteenth-century masterpiece “The Scream.”
“What’s taking so long?” he asked the attendant, Leon, a greasy man with a cloudy-looking glass eye.
“Got a guy looking for the chain, pal,” Leon said. “We don’t get a lot of this model in here.”
Pal wasn’t a word Alf had ever learned in his years of English classes. From the man’s tone, it was derogatory. Alf gripped the crossbar of his bicycle—one of two that he owned. His English had certainly been good enough to conduct his research. With some intelligent googling, he had developed an understanding of industry-standard practices in fine art transportation. Then, he’d only had to determine the dimensions of “The Scream” and assemble a sealed, paper-wrapped decoy. The swap itself had been fraught, of course, but by the miracle of general human negligence he had managed. Now, he was – according to his pocket phrasebook – on the lam.
What kind of a man would cross an ocean with a bicycle to steal a priceless work of art from a billionaire banker? A man whose country owned only three of the four versions of the work in question, and whose near-religious sense of rightness and goodness could not permit the fourth to languish alone in some foreign land. Also, a man who cared about his carbon footprint.
There was a siren nearby, and Alf flinched. It was New York City; there were a lot of sirens. But wasn’t this one coming from the southwest, where sat the luxury apartment building from which Alf had just absconded? Leon was looking at him curiously with his good eye.
“It’s a bit urgent,” Alf said, even as he attempted nonchalance.
“What’s that you got there?” Leon asked, gesturing to the package on Alf’s back.
“It’s a pizza I’m delivering.”
“Funny shaped pizza. Big, too.”
“We’re a specialty store.”
“Aren’t all the toppings falling off?”
“Have you found the chain yet?” Alf snapped, flustered by the flimsiness of his cover story. “I have to deliver this on time.”
“Where’s the address?” Leon asked. “You can just borrow one of our used bikes for sale ‘til yours is ready.”
The thought of leaving one half of his classic black Sprints was painful, but the sirens had multiplied. Alf’s barge (with its very light security measures) was due to leave in thirty minutes, and the National Gallery in Oslo had to receive its anonymous donation on time. (As for whether or not the painting’s previous owner would object, Alf had decided that because it had been en route to join an American museum’s collection anyway, it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference. This was probably an error in judgment on his part.)
“Fine,” Alf said.
Pedaling west down Houston Street, he looked for University Place, his next left. Here Alf had again erred in his planning, as he was not a career criminal; Houston was one of the most heavily police-patrolled streets in the city. He had also failed to realize that rules were merely a suggestion to New York City bicyclists. As dusk fell, he attracted attention to himself by obeying traffic laws and using hand signals. And, as Leon the bike shop attendant had suggested, carrying a pizza box vertically on one’s back did not make sense. What did make sense, to local beat cop Manny Santos, was that a thief inept enough to show his face on security cameras might also be inept enough to bike through Manhattan traffic with a conspicuously painting-shaped parcel. Manny glanced at the image on his phone, glanced at the cyclist signaling “left” in the next lane over, and sounded his siren.
Alf panicked and took off, pedaling like mad. By weaving between cars, he left the patrol car behind quickly enough, but he had missed his turn. Frantic, he jumped the curb, thinking to abandon the bike between buildings, but his narrow front wheel immediately plunged into a subway grate. He pitched forward, landing on a mountain of atrocious-smelling garbage bags. The fourth “The Scream” thwacked hard against his back.
He was quickly surrounded by the backup that Officer Santos had called. Officer Michael Black tore the package off Alf.
“Be careful!” Alf said.
“Shut up, you nutjob,” Officer Black said. “It isn’t the real thing.”
Alf could only blink in confusion, as brownish garbage slime oozed down his cheek.
Black tore open the cardboard box and the thick layers of paper, pulling a blank canvas from inside. The sense of near-serenity, of near-wholeness that Alf had been enjoying flickered out like a spent bulb.
“You think those guys are amateurs?” another police officer said. “The real one left weeks before this ‘move’ happened today.”
“What do you mean?” Alf said, reflexively. Of course he knew what the officer meant. He was staring at something that looked not unlike his own fake.
He hadn’t even made it ten blocks. He thought of the three “The Scream”s in Norway, hanging on three different gallery walls, and tried to reconcile himself with their incompleteness. Abruptly, he wanted nothing more than to be at home with his twin Pomeranians and his china cabinet.
As he was handcuffed, Alf asked, timidly, “Can I have both decoys?”
Officer Black snorted, and his partner threw the blank canvas on the pile of garbage bags.
I recently dated a guy who told me that he personally knew the owner of one version of “The Scream,” so when I was thinking about what might be worth stealing, this came to mind.
I was excited to try a crime caper, but I think Alf ended up a bit more bumbling than crime caper protagonists typically are. Elements of the genre, aside from the perpetration of a crime by the protagonists, are “acts of unusual cleverness or audacity, and offbeat humor.” Well, here’s Alf. He doesn’t have OCD. He’s just an oddball. I do like the more distant narration I accomplished here, and the ending feels more complete than most of my others thus far.
Things I googled while writing this: Norwegian first names, Norwegian surnames, famous bicycle models, dimensions of “The Scream,” museums in Norway.
Things I didn’t google: how fine artwork is transported