BY: BRADLEY W. WRIGHT

Justin Vincent is a San Francisco based artist who leads a secret double life as a cat burglar. He likes the freedom, money, and self-determination his unusual career provides but also increasingly feels that it is a life he fell into by accident. When a valuable painting is stolen from his lover, Valerie, Justin agrees to use his underworld contacts and knowledge of the black market to help. The search leads him to an antiquities dealer who has fallen on hard times and a mysterious European middle man. With the help of his friend Ashna, a skilled hacker, and Gabrielle, owner of an art gallery in Nice, Justin gathers clues that lead him to a mysterious chateau in the South of France and a dangerous web of secrets and lies. To escape with his life and complete his objective, Justin’s skill, luck, and perseverance will be tested to their utmost limit.

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Old Gold Mountain by Bradley W. Wright, Justin Vincent is an artist, and an art thief. During the day, he’s a successful sculptor, and by night, he’s an equally successful cat burglar. When his lover, Valerie, has an important painting stolen from her house, Justin uses his skills to track down the painting. But the painting has been sold on the black market, and the search will take Justin to the limit of his skills and endurance, and he will be lucky to escape with his life.

Wright combines superb character development, vivid descriptions, and fast-paced action to create an exciting and suspenseful thriller. A really great read.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Old Gold Mountain by Bradley W. Wright is the story of a sculptor/art thief, Justin Vincent, who has begun to have second thoughts about his secret life. As he struggles with his dilemma, his lover, Valerie, has a valuable painting stolen from her home. Even though the painting is insured, the artist is a friend of Valerie’s, and he left the painting in her keeping. Too embarrassed to tell the artist that she’s lost the painting, she begs Justin to use his skills and contacts in the black market art community to find the painting and get it back. The hunt takes Justin from the hills of San Francisco to Italy and then the South of France, dealing with antiquities dealers, crooked lawyers, and mafia members, barely escaping with his life, and requires the use of all his skills, his wits, and the help of a computer hacker. Not exactly your average heist.

Old Gold Mountain is an intriguing mystery, a tense thriller, and an adventurous romp. Combining mystery, suspense, action, and exotic settings, this one will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

CHAPTER 1

July 12 ~ December 9:

I had Hilary Hahn’s recording of the Bach Partitas on the stereo. The car windows were open and the smell of the sun warmed Northern California redwood forest was intoxicating–simultaneously sweet and pungent, clean and earthy. It was a nice place for a drive but an even better place for a walk. Rounding a gentle curve, I spotted my turn off, slowed, and bumped off the edge of the pavement onto soft dirt and pine needles. The single-lane access road led straight into the forest, ending after about two hundred yards at a small dirt-and-gravel trailhead parking area. I set the brake and shut off the engine. For a moment, I just sat there, enjoying the silence and earthy smell drifting in. A glance at the clock on the dashboard reminded me I was on a schedule, though, so I rolled up the windows, climbed out of the car, and retrieved my daypack from the rear seat. Before leaving the city that morning, I had outfitted myself in typical hiker garb: cargo shorts, trail runners, T-shirt, and hooded fleece pullover in drab colors. My pack was probably a bit larger than average but not enough to attract attention. On my wrist was a recently purchased, aggressively masculine GPS watch. I wasn’t much of a gadget person but the GPS unit was going to come in handy. I also had a well-used SLR camera on a shoulder strap.

It was my fourth trip to this particular spot in the last few months. I’d been taking pictures of trees and posting them to a photo sharing site, and I’d also told a few people casually that I was working on an art project about trees.

I had a pretty good hike ahead of me, so I locked the car and set off, gnawing bites of salmon jerky while I walked and snapping occasional pictures. The forest was fragrant and damp. I saw some fresh chanterelles poking up from the duff a few feet off the path but left them. After a couple of miles, I came to a diverging path, less wide, with lower branches creating an almost solid roof of foliage, and turned onto it. There was a stream paralleling this new trail and I could hear the gurgling water as I walked.

After another mile, I stopped and checked my GPS. This was the spot. I sat on a rock to rest and drank some water. A couple of minutes later I was ready. I found a space between two trees and left the path. Now I was bushwhacking through redwood forest, carefully hopping over ferns, using fallen trees as pathways. Redwood forest was not too bad when you were off-trail but you could step on a rotten log and twist an ankle if you were not careful. I had done some off-trail hiking over the last weeks to practice, and I had a good idea of how much distance I could cover in a fixed amount of time. I knew how far I needed to go and calculated it should take about an hour.

I checked my GPS regularly to make sure I was on course. After about forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw the road below which meant I had been moving faster than I thought–probably a bit amped up. I slowed and crept carefully down the slope until I was about twenty feet from the road. I had hit it almost dead on. The house was twenty yards down the road to my right so I moved across the slope until I was even with it. I had a good view, and I was well concealed in the trees, so I went ahead and changed into the clothes I had packed in my backpack: black cargo pants, long sleeved black T-shirt, black knit cap. I stowed various items in my pockets including a thin pair of black gloves and some tools. I also took a telescoping tube three inches in diameter at the widest end out of my bag and hung it by a small strap crosswise over my shoulders. I was early, as I often was, so I sat down, leaning against a tree trunk, and thought back over the series of events that had led me to this place…

***

It had started several months before with a job–a catering gig. I saw an ad for on-call catering help and applied via email. A few days later, they responded. I used a throwaway email address and a fake name. I had forged papers to go along with the fake name, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t ask any questions. I had done that kind of work before so I knew a lot of my co-workers would be undocumented. Like most service industry employers, large catering companies didn’t worry much about identity and background checks. They would be chronically understaffed if they did. The company was called A Touch of Elegance. I went in for a brief interview, and they said they would reach out when they needed help.

My fake ID and Social Security card listed me as Dustin Cruz. I had to think of something, and that was the name that popped into my head. It was an amalgamation of the names of two friends from high school. A friend of a friend had recommended a guy, who could do the work, so I made an appointment and showed up at his apartment in West Oakland in the middle of the day on a weekday. I guess it wasn’t unusual for people to forget to come up with a name before they arrived at his kitchen table. Or maybe people just assumed it was part of the service. I remember his blank stare and the smell of his filter-less cigarettes. His supplies were neatly arranged on the surface of the table which was buckled from spills and scarred with burns. Three small children were watching cartoons in the next room. One little girl kept wandering into the kitchen doorway and staring at me with huge, dark eyes. The papers were high quality and I had used them several times. Dustin was similar to my real name Justin. I went through a phase in my teens when I read a lot of old hard-boiled detective novels–Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. A piece of advice from one of those books stuck with me. It said when choosing a fake name, you should go with something that sounds like your real one. That way you will respond more naturally. It seemed to work fairly well. When I was on a temp job, I was Dustin. My real last name, Vincent, sounded nothing like Cruz, but it was what I came up with, and I stuck with it.

An email from A Touch of Elegance showed up in the inbox of my disposable account a couple of days later. It was from a manager named Fred and asked if I could do setup and help serve at a house party. The catering company mainly did private parties at people’s homes which was why I had answered their ad instead of somebody else’s. I didn’t need the money. I was after something different: anonymous access to nice houses. I was free the night of the party so I wrote back and accepted.

The address Fred gave me when he forwarded the details the next day was up in Mill Valley, not far from Muir Woods, off a curving road running up the lower slope of Mt. Tamalpais. When I saw the address, I had a good idea of what it would be like–quiet, wooded, and serene. Mill Valley real estate was very expensive and very exclusive. The particular area where the house was located was, if anything, even more so.

I arrived early and parked my borrowed car in the lot of a church a quarter mile down the road as instructed. They didn’t want the help taking up prime parking near the house. It was a Saturday, and I was the first to arrive so the lot was empty. The long shadows of redwoods and the reddening afternoon sunlight looked good stretching across the blacktop surface of the lot and climbing up over a carved wooden sign near the street advertising Sunday Services, All Welcome.

I pushed the button to lock the car and set off walking up the hill in the eerie silence of the semi-rural Marin suburbs. A red tail hawk was circling high up above, and I heard small creatures rustling in the underbrush, hiding out under the leaves, trying not to be dinner for the raptor.

It was a good ten degrees warmer than in the city, and I had worked up a light sweat by the time I made it up to the top of the hill. The residence was what the real estate people called a “snout house” with double garage doors facing the road, a blank second story rising up among the trees, and not much more of the house visible from the front. The lot was large and sloped with plenty of forested land on either side. I guessed at probably one lower level, built into the hill, with walls of windows facing the wooded hillside and looking out over the Bay. Probably a great view. I had mapped it before coming out and I knew there was state and federal park land across the road and also on the slope below the house. A number of public hiking trails passed close to the location. There were other houses on the road but the closest was over a hundred yards away and hidden by trees.

I found some shade under a big old redwood across the road and waited. it was pleasant sitting there on a mossy boulder in the warm afternoon shade just staring at the house and letting my mind wander. I didn’t spend much time in nature. I lived in the city and spent most of my time there. My childhood though, was spent in the country, and when I sat in nature my mind flowed back to that feeling of peace and silence. After about fifteen minutes, I saw the catering van coming up the road, flashing white between the trees, and walked out to meet it.

Fred, the crew manager, parked in the driveway and got out. He was a middle-aged guy with an acne-scarred face, wearing a white chef’s jacket already starting to show rings of sweat under the arms. We exchanged pleasantries while he retrieved his clipboard from the van and took a minute to read over the instructions, occasionally running a worn rag from his back pocket across his forehead.

“It says we can pull into the garage and unload. The owners won’t be here till later. Got a garage opener here somewhere.” He dug through the console in the van and eventually came up with the opener.

The door rolled up revealing a big space all nicely finished and painted. Everything in the garage was neatly arranged–rakes, shovels, weed whacker, clippers, etc. all hung on evenly spaced hooks. At the far end and wrapping around halfway across the back wall were matching white plastic bins stacked on industrial shelving. I imagined if I started opening those bins I would find one for Christmas decorations, one for camping gear, one for extra blankets and sheets, one for cleaning products…I shuddered. Suburban living gave me the creeps. I’d lived in the country and in the city but never in the weird, liminal in-between. I’m sure it’s fine. I’m just not used to it.

A white Range Rover was parked beside the open spot. Fred pulled the van in, and we began unloading tables, bins of prepped food, bags of ice in coolers, and more bins of plates, silverware, napkins, table cloths. Once the van was empty Fred parked it out on the road. He came back and checked his clipboard again, running a short, callused finger along under the text as he read.

“The door should be unlocked. There’s a security system. Wait here.” He opened the door that led from the garage into the house, stepped up into a dim hallway, and disabled the alarm system via a panel opposite the door. He was standing between me and the keypad so that there was no angle from which I could see him entering the code. We started carrying everything inside and I saw right away that my earlier guess was correct. The short hallway opened into a soaring entry with a grand staircase leading up to the second story and also down to lower levels. It was a modified Cliff May style Northern California mansion with open plan, concrete floors, high ceilings, and lots of raw wood. The second floor ended at the midpoint of the house. The back half had a full height, peaked ceiling. Under that ceiling was an informal living room area with sofas and chairs. To the right of that was a giant open kitchen with the ubiquitous, stainless steel restaurant grade appliances. There was a wall of windows, and a balcony wrapping the entire back side of the house. The view, as I had guessed, was good. I could see the bay in the distance and the red-orange flare of low, late afternoon sunlight reflecting off the water.

As we moved back and forth between garage and kitchen carting food and equipment, I began to surreptitiously check out the art on the walls. This place was a bonanza. I saw two Rauschenberg prints, some good photos by Sherman and Leibowitz, a few big abstract paintings by unfamiliar artists, and, glimpsed through a high, open entryway to the formal dining room, a Lichtenstein lithograph.

Just as we were finishing packing all the gear in I heard the garage door open, a powerful engine purr and die, and, not long after, footsteps clacking across the polished concrete floor toward the kitchen. A small man entered, dressed casually but expensively in jeans, loafers, and a well pressed blue Oxford shirt. He was middle aged and handsome with a receding hairline, gray at the temples, and sharp features. A few steps behind him came another man, also handsome but rangy and larger boned. He was similarly dressed but with more flair and pops of bright color. He wore architectural glasses with aquamarine frames. To my surprise, I saw that he was carrying a large, brightly colored tropical bird on his wrist. I don’t know much about birds. It might have been a parrot, maybe a macaw. The bird turned sideways, glaring at us with one bright eye, and raised a purple/yellow/blue wing, bobbing its head slowly up and down.

“Hello,” said the first man, “Looks like you got in all right. I’m Carl, and this is Bill. And this–,” He gestured to the bird. “–is the birthday girl Lucille.”

Lucille let out a piercing shriek and flapped her wings. Bill walked over to a large tangle of what appeared to be driftwood suspended from the ceiling by several steel cables. Lucille carefully clambered off his wrist onto a branch. I noticed then that the floor below the hanging driftwood was covered with seeds, shells, bits of chewed plastic, and large, irregular circles of dried bird shit.

Fred stepped forward, shook Carl’s hand, and they went off toward the formal dining room to go over the plan for the evening. I kept my face turned away from the home owners as much as possible, unloading bins onto the counters. Bill brushed by me, took a diet soda from the giant refrigerator, gave Lucille a pat on the head, and headed off up the grand stairway leaving me alone with the bird. The master suite must be upstairs, I thought. Several moments later, I jumped and almost dropped the two champagne flutes I was unloading, when the bird let out another massive shriek and shouted very clearly in a creepy, high-pitched but human-like voice, “Lucille is the birthday girl.”

Carl’s answer rang out from the dining room in a baby talk voice I wouldn’t have expected from him. “Yes, she is, Yes, she is!”

Soon, a crew of house cleaners arrived, then more catering crew members trickled in by ones and twos. One of the cleaners set to work on hands and knees cleaning the area under Lucille’s perch. Canapés were assembled and slid into the oven on large baking sheets, tables were set up, wine placed in decorative buckets full of ice to chill, glasses set out at the ready. Before I knew it, we were into what I thought of as the swirl–a state familiar to me from the old days when I was in college and worked banquets at fancy hotels. There was no time to stop, no time to escape the bustle, you just had to surrender to the swirling, clanking, well-choreographed but intense dance of preparation, service, clean up. At some point, a string quartet arrived and set up in one corner, tuned their instruments, and began playing a Bach prelude to warm up. I slipped into a guest bathroom and quickly changed into my service outfit of black pants, white shirt, black waiter jacket.

A few minutes after I finished dressing, Lucille’s birthday party commenced with the arrival of the first guests. I soon learned that the proper terminology was hatch-day party. This seemed to be Carl’s running joke for the evening, and I heard him repeating it to several different groups of guests as I passed through the various rooms with constantly replenished trays of hors-d’oeuvres. Through the blur of amiable conversation, well-dressed guests, baroque strings, lipsticked mouths gobbling canapés, champagne flutes drained and placed on my tray, I found time to glance at the art on the walls and my initial impression was reinforced. There was probably two million dollars or more worth of fine art hanging in the house. I liked Carl and Bill’s taste. It was good stuff, well chosen. Their taste in furniture was nice too, simple but conservative. I didn’t see a lot of the obvious stuff you’d see in every nouveau-riche tech worker’s loft. I’d been to social events at more than a few houses, condos, and apartments where the host’s idea of decorating was apparently walking into the fancy modern furniture store and ordering one of each.

Around nine p.m., the guests were all called into the living room/kitchen area and brought to order by Carl banging a fork on a wine glass. “Happy Hatchday” was sung to the accompaniment of the quartet with a series of shrieks and chatter from Lucille who was standing on her branch and bobbing to the music. Cake was cut and served. Lucille got some sort of bird treat that looked better to me than the sheet cake with too much icing the other guests were eating.

Not long after that, the party began to wind down. I ran into Fred, and he gave me the okay to leave. The workers who had arrived later would be staying to clean up and pack out. He handed me his clipboard so I could write in my hours next to my name. As I was filling in my hours, he turned to speak with Bill who had tracked him down to let him know that the downstairs bar was out of Chardonnay. I took the opportunity to glance at the top sheet on the clipboard. There it was, the code. I memorized it quickly and handed the clipboard back to Fred. It seemed to be a date, easy to remember.

Outside the house, I passed a couple standing by the driver side door of a sleek black SUV, both obviously tipsy, fighting in low but strident voices over who was more sober. I recognized the woman. She was wearing a white wrap dress and shook her head of black, shoulder-length hair in a familiar gesture just as I was approaching. She held the car keys in a white-knuckle grip. She owned one of my sculptures. The man–I knew, though I had never met him–was a multimillionaire from the first tech boom, employee number three or four in one of the big ones. He was tall, wearing a sports coat, button-up, and jeans, with just the right amount of stubble covering his face. I ducked my head and gave them a wide berth. It was unlikely that they would recognize me, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

As soon as I was well away, walking briskly down the hill, the cool night air of Marin on my face, I took out my phone, opened a new note, carefully entered the code, and saved it.

***

Now, months later, I was back for my second visit to the bird house. The slope where I sat put me at the same height as the second floor of the house. Unfortunately, there were only two second floor windows at the front. During the party, I had wandered upstairs with a tray of hors-d’oeuvres as if I thought there might be hungry guests lurking in the master suite. While up there I had quickly checked the layout. I knew that one window belonged to a study, the other to a guest bathroom. The master suite was at the back. Still, I could see that all the lights were on downstairs.

I had a small, homemade device with me that I needed to place on the garage door. I dug through my pack until my fingers closed on the plastic box. I had painted it the same medium warm gray color used on the exterior of the house. I had also prepared it with a dual sided adhesive strip on the bottom. I peeled away the thin piece of plastic covering the adhesive and thumbed the switch to turn the device on. At the edge of the trees, I stood absolutely still for a moment, holding my breath. No sound of cars on the road. No neighbors out walking their dogs. I darted across the road, up the driveway, and adhered the box to the garage door near the ground. The color match was good. I was confident they wouldn’t notice it.

Back in my hiding spot among the trees, I got a protein bar out of my pack and sat back to wait and observe. I knew Carl and Bill would be going out. When Fred from the caterers sent me the email asking me to work the party, he had lazily forwarded a general inquiry from Bill with details of the date, time, number of people needed, etc. This gave me Bill’s personal email address. After the party, acting on a hunch, I tried logging in to Bill’s account with variations of the bird’s name as the password. It only took three tries:

Lucille!

A friend of mine once told me that even the most intelligent people usually have stupidly simple passwords–kid’s names or birthdates, pet names, or one of the hundred or so most common passwords like 123456, password, etc. It was easy to find the lists online. My friend had a whole theory of human psychology built around this fact.

After that, I monitored Bill’s email every few days. Nothing creepy, just looking for invitations and RSVPs. Tonight the couple would be attending a small dinner party at a friend’s house in the city which meant they would be gone for at least three hours, probably longer.

After thirty-five minutes of sitting and waiting, I finally saw some movement through the small window above the front door. Indistinct figures moved past the window this way and that, engaged in last minute preparations before leaving: keys, jacket, phone. Soon, the garage door rolled up, I heard muffled sounds of car doors closing, and the Range Rover backed out. Carl was at the wheel, Bill in the passenger seat. I saw Carl reach up and press the button on the remote clipped to the visor. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, and the door began to close. The roll-jam device was working. It was getting dark now. Just before it disappeared around a curve, the bright headlamps of the Range Rover flicked on, turning the road and trees for an instant into a brilliant, artificial-looking tableau.

I sat back to meditate and wait for the last bit of daylight to drain out of the valley. Thirty minutes later, I stood and made my way down the slope to the edge of the road. The roll jam was simple but ingenious. It worked by capturing the code the remote broadcast and also jamming the signal so it didn’t reach the receiver on the garage door opener. When the user tried again, it captured the second code, still jamming the signal, and then broadcast the first code it captured. This way, the door closed and the user thought it was a momentary glitch, but the device had the second code saved, which could then be used to open the door. I waited a moment, listening as I had before, then crossed the road, and pressed a button on the device. The garage door began to rise. I entered quickly and sent the door trundling back to its closed position.

Now was the moment of truth. Would the security code still work? If not, I would have decisions to make. If they were smart, the code would have been changed after the party. Or maybe their security system allowed for one-time codes. I pulled a small piece of paper from my left front pocket just to verify one last time the numbers running through my head. A date. Just then it struck me: the date was the date of the party. Almost certainly a single-use code. Hard to believe I hadn’t noticed it before. But the year was wrong. Twelve years in the past. Twelve years struck a bell. I remembered a snatch of conversation from the party.

“How old is the bird?”

“Twelve, I think.”

“Twelve! How long do these things live for?”

“Dear god, forever. Forty or fifty years.”

“You might as well have a real child. At least you can kick them out when they’re eighteen.”

Twelve years. The date was Lucille’s birthday. Or ‘hatch day’ I should say. Knowing this, I was certain the code would work. It had probably been chosen when the system was installed and had never been reset since.

I pulled my gloves on. The door connecting the garage to the house was locked, but the knob set was cheap. Interior doors seldom had good locks. I decided to try a bump key first. I pulled my lock pick set out of a cargo pocket and spread it open on the floor. I had several bump keys for different knob sets. I selected the right one, inserted it into the lock, and rapped on the end several times with a screwdriver handle. The lock disengaged and turned easily, but I kept the door closed, holding the knob while I put away my tools with my free hand.

With my tools stowed back in my pockets, I turned the handle, stepped through, and quickly entered the code on the security panel to disable the alarm system. The LEDs blinked green three times, and a robotic female voice reported that the system was disarmed. I took a moment, then, to close my eyes and go through my memory of the interior and the layout. My plan still seemed good. I pushed the button on the knob to lock it from the inside then fished a small tube of superglue from one of my cargo pockets and squirted some into the keyhole. If they did come home for some reason, they wouldn’t be able to get through the door, and that would give me plenty of time to disappear out the back and off the balcony. I went to the front door next and repeated the super glue trick but left it ajar just a crack. That was my exit path. I could pull it closed if needed but would leave it open for the present.

On my previous visit, I had seen all the rooms, except for the master bedroom. I wanted to take a quick look before proceeding with my plan, so I carefully ascended the stairs in the dark. The bedroom was large and sparsely furnished. I walked the perimeter with a small flashlight, checking out the art. Nothing caught my eye until I shined the light on the wall above the headboard of the massive California king bed. Was that a Kline? Shit. I stepped up onto the bed and took a closer look. It did seem to be a Franz Kline mixed media work. Small but with those unmistakable, powerful lines. Mentally, I increased my estimation of the total value of the art in the house by perhaps a million. Still, the Kline didn’t change my plan. I didn’t want to try to move that kind of art.

Back downstairs, I started with the Rauschenbergs. I took each print off the wall. They were in very nicely constructed shadowbox frames. I popped the backs off the frames and carefully peeled the prints away from the backings where they had been stuck on with archival double-sided tape.

Next, I went to the dining room. The Lichtenstein’s frame was screwed to the wall. I pulled a small, battery operated screwdriver from a cargo pocket and reversed the screws out of the wall. The frame came off cleanly, and I dismantled the back and removed the lithograph.

Next, I carried all three artworks to the coffee table in the seating area and stacked them neatly. Just as I was reaching around to pull the tube hanging against my back forward and slip the strap over my head, a deafening screech slashed through the dim room, and I jumped, spinning mid-air in the direction of the sound. Directly in front of me was a tall object covered by a sheet or blanket. Heart racing, I stepped forward and lifted a corner of the fabric. Thin metal bars. I lifted it farther. A cage. I lifted it farther still and saw Lucille’s angry eye shining in the dark, glaring back at me. She clacked her beak a couple of times then seemed to deflate as her eye slowly closed and her breathing became deep and regular. I carefully lowered the fabric. I had forgotten about the bird.

Quickly, I rolled the art up and fitted it into the tube. I ran through an inventory of the things I had brought in with me, took one last look around, then left via the front door. Pausing in the shadows of the front porch, I held my breath and listened. The way was clear. I darted to the garage door and yanked the roll jam off then bolted across the road and into the woods. It took a moment in the dark, but I found my pack and hastily changed back to my anonymous hiker outfit then took a long drink of water from my bottle. I had a few of hours of night hiking ahead of me, but I would be back to the car, across the Golden Gate, and home before midnight. I hoped I’d be able to spot those mushrooms again in the dark. Some fresh pasta with wild chanterelles, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan sounded good.

© 2018 by Bradley W. Wright