Bottom’s Up

A theater heist of Shakespearean proportions.

A pink pump and a green tennis shoe.

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One problem with the criminal lifestyle is that it’s somewhat limiting in terms of fashion, as Bex explained to me.

“You look ridiculous,” is what she said when I showed up for the heist in my new yellow wedges, and before I could protest, she shoved her sneakers into my hands.

They were gorgeous, those wedges, bright as a lemon meringue, with creamy cloth straps that tied in a bow halfway up the calf. I’d seen an almost identical pair the week before in a magazine spread on celebrity cankles, but Bex was staring at the Pumas with a significant expression, if you know what I mean, so I plopped down on the futon and started unknotting the straps. Deefer gave them a sniff and then snuggled back into the futon with a sort of whuffling noise.

Ordinarily Bex is an absolute champion of dramatic footwear, which is a lovely quality in a roommate — especially one with liberal views on sharing. Her own style is fairly theatrical: bright tights and chunky jewelry and whatnot. But today she was dressed like a stagehand in black tee, dark jeans, and work boots that tapped the tiles like she was trying to send a message on one of those thingummies you see in old movies, telegraph machines, and that message was clearly not meant to be go-ahead-Izzy-and-take-all-the-time-you-need.

“Do you need help?” she asked.

“Don’t be snippy.”

“Well, pick it up.”

I tightened the laces and bounced to my feet saying “Let’s roll,” but she was already out the door, so I tossed Deefer a milk bone and dashed after her. Crime waits for no one, so they say, and it seemed unlikely crime would be more patient with us.

The soon-to-be getaway car was a navy blue Honda Civic, courtesy of the good people at ZipCar. Bex adjusted the mirrors while I flipped through the stations in search of a soundtrack for criminal enterprise. Considering how often you hear old people griping about music today and its corrupting influence, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard, but I went around the dial twice without finding anything but ads and chipper pop ditties, so I gave it up.

The rain was plunking down on the windshield as we pulled onto the highway, and I tightened my seatbelt as Bex pulled directly into the left lane without signaling. She sniffed, twice.

“Did you come straight from work? You smell like a schnauzer convention.”

“You know, if you don’t want my help —”

“No, seriously, is that you? Because if it’s the car, I’m filing a complaint.”

I sighed. “There was a local Kennel Club meeting at the hotel today,” I admitted. “There were a lot of dogs, and it was very wet out.”

“You need a new job.”

“At least I can pay the rent without resorting to burglary.”

“This isn’t burglary,” Bex said in a darkish sort of voice. “It’s liberation.”

 

She was right, of course, at least about the job. When you ask little kids what they want to do when they grow up, passing out hotel keycards and disputing mini-bar claims rarely tops the list. And nobody dresses up as a desk attendant for Halloween, not even a slutty one. But, as I said, it paid the rent, and rent was something of a sore subject in our home at the moment. Because Bex needed a new job even worse than I did, or we wouldn’t be driving downtown on a Friday night in sensible shoes to rob the Federal Theatre. Or, as Bex would have it, to liberate a few items from its workshop.

I hadn’t really wrapped my head around the specifics of the scheme, to be honest, but I’ve seen some heist movies, and as far as I could figure, the general blueprint boils down to: get in, get the goods, and get gone. Bex seemed to have a handle on the details, and that was good enough for me. My job was to haul the loot and keep an eye out for the theater manager, which I’d happily agreed to once I learned that they would most likely be lightweight and absent, respectively.

“So, do you do this sort of thing a lot?” I asked, trying to ignore the fact that our car was not, strictly speaking, in a lane. I had a feeling we were going to reach our destination very quickly or not at all.

“I suppose that depends on what you mean by a lot.”

“Often,” I said helpfully, but she didn’t reply, and it occurred to me that there were a lot of things I didn’t know about Bex.

I’d met her fairly recently after my ancient landlord finally went to that big old basement sublet in the sky and her son gave me and Deefer two weeks to find new digs. Bex had just lost a roommate and was desperate to find a new one before the first of the month, irregular cash flow being somewhat of a theme in her life. I had a job and she had a room and there was a small yard for Deefer, so I moved in on New Year’s Eve and we’d been pretty cozy ever since.

I’d never known anyone quite like Bex. She was short and thin and sort of wild looking, with curly brown hair that kind of spronged off her head like that pasta that goes round in corkscrews. And she was always coming up with schemes and pranks and that sort of thing. But we got on like peas in a pot, as they say — the world might be boiling around us, but we’d bubble to the top.

I taught her how to microwave cake in a mug. She taught me to make duct tape wallets, and she looked after Deefer when I was out of town. I watered her houseplants. She talked me out of bangs. And she was interesting. I’d come home from a day at the hotel and find her on the porch fitting a leather cap onto a taxidermied goose or spray-painting a dozen old-fashioned roller skates. She was better than television. In short, Bex is probably the best thing I ever found on Craigslist, after Deefer of course, but right above the orange futon and those hairy wool mittens. So when she announced her intention to rob the Federal, naturally I offered to help.

Now there are plenty of people who would tell you I’m not cut out for the criminal element — she doesn’t have the nerve for it, they’d say, or the shoes — and they’d be right. But Bex has got both, and more. She’d resisted at first, but eventually conceded that a second pair of hands would allow her to double her haul. We ran through the plan the night before, spooning cake out of Goodwill mugs, and the plot was brilliant, as far as I understood it. Bex would sneak us into the building and identify the items to be liberated. I would put them into a sack and swivel my head around to confirm that the stage manager was nowhere in sight, and together we would skulk back to the car.

The only trick was timing: That very night, the Federal, as all readers of local papers and gossip rags knew, was opening a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Olvin Vega, a hot young thing who was trying to establish his artistic bona fides after graduating from a child star production mill, and the curtain was set to rise at 7 p.m. sharp. There was a narrow window when the theater’s workshop would be largely empty, and our plan hinged on arriving after the shop crew left for the day and skedaddling before the actors arrived to transform themselves into fairies and beasties and such.

You know those little suckerfish you see sometimes on Shark Week, glommed onto a big old shark as she swishes past the camera? Vega was like that, only instead of fish it was photographers. They followed him everywhere with their faces smashed against the front of their cameras, clicking and snapping like mad. Vega always struck me as a twitchy little thing, all hair gel and anxiety, but I suppose there’s a market for that sort of thing. And since photographic evidence wasn’t really in keeping with the spirit of a covert operation, our success depended on reaching the theater before Vega and his suckerfish did.

Parking in D.C. is homicide-inducing at the best of times, and never more so than when you’re running late for a happy hour or a baby shower or a heist, as the case may be. Bex was drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, and her shoulders crept up toward her ears. She sighed dramatically as we took our third spin past the theater, which was plastered with posters of lithe young fairies, who seemed to have misplaced a lot of their clothing, and a nervous-looking Olvin Vega.

“Why does Olvin Vega always look panicked?” I wondered.

“This is a disaster!” Bex’s sour spirits made me nervous, and for the first time I felt a little twinge of doubt.

“What if this doesn’t work out?” I asked. “Is there a backup?”

“I’m sure his publicist has a plan,” she said. “A public breakdown or some trendy addiction, and after rehab his handlers will flood the gossip blogs with photos of him wind-surfing with A-listers until somebody offers him a reality TV spot.”

“What?”

“Joking,” she said. “You having second thoughts?”

She slammed on the brakes as an Audi pulled out in front of us and expertly flipped off the driver while reversing into his spot. Well, I was, a bit, but after all the trouble parking, I hated to mention it, so I put on a cheery face.

“No way,” I said. “It’s foolproof, right? They ought to just give you the money now and save themselves the trouble.”

And Bex said, “That’s the idea.”

 

The rain had let up, but the air was still heavy and dampish as we trotted toward the theater.

If you’re a fan of the movies, you know that the approach can be as difficult as the getaway, which is why your cinematic burglar always has rappelling hooks and a schematic of the security lasers and a bottle of chloroform to subdue the beefier guards, but Bex had an exceptionally clever method, I thought, which was to go around by the back entrance and knock.

The door opened at once, and we slipped inside to find a tall man with thin hair and a droopy face that looked as if it were about to slide down the front of his shirt. He nodded glumly at the clock and growled, “Should have come sooner.”

He sounded like he smoked a pack of cigars every morning and freshened up by gargling rocks.

“Nice to see you too, Jackson,” Bex said, bounding up the stairs. He shook his head sadly and his lips sloped further toward his chin as he trudged after her.

“The Bear is early,” he grumbled, and Bex froze, but only for a moment, before pushing through the door at the top of the steps. I staggered after her, stunned. This Bear was the very stage manager who was supposed to be absent, and while I had been instructed to keep an eye out for her, our pre-heist plans had heavily emphasized her likely absence. So we hadn’t really covered what I was supposed to do if she should stroll into my field of view.

You probably don’t remember Veronica Bayer, but your parents might, most likely as the sassy police secretary from the Cuff ’Em! franchise or the dreaded Principal Shaw on Operation Mathlete. The true fan might have a playbill from her short Broadway run in The Empty Suitcase or the slightly longer off-Broadway production of Pills! Pills! Pills! And the truly obsessed know that since she left the stage she has been managing a series of progressively smaller theaters — first in New York, then Chicago, New Haven, and now here. And she was the one person Bex had truly wanted to avoid, even more so than Olvin and his shutter monkeys. If she caught us in the theater, we’d be up a creek in a hard place, as they say, and Bex would be out of a job.

Bayer was, Bex had said, a shrewd, calculating and ruthless boss. You never hear about people being ruthy, have you noticed? I suppose ruth is one of those things you just don’t appreciate until it’s gone, and in the case of the Bear, reportedly, it had vanished long ago.

“Hope you got a plan,” Jackson said as we followed Bex into the room.

“I have had a most rare vision,” she replied and ducked through a door at the back. The specter of the Bear had made me a bit queasy, but Bex seemed quite at home now that she was in her workshop.

Jackson sniffed, then paused and sniffed again in a somewhat accusatory fashion.

“Do you smell dog?”

He was whispering — we all were — but even at low volume his voice rumbled like something wet caught in a garbage disposal, and it made me nervous.

I was a bit jumpy, to be honest. We’d planned around an empty workshop — mostly because Bex didn’t want to get any of her coworkers in trouble. But this Bear business was a new element. I wanted to get the goods and get gone before she showed up, as I suspected petty crime was unlikely to induce a rush of ruthiness in her cold and calculating heart. But I’d never been to Bex’s workshop before, and who knew when I’d have another chance to see it?

Honestly, it would be hard to find a place less like the hotel front desk which was my professional headquarters. A dozen tables were jumbled in the center of the room, bowed under the weight of sewing machines and heaps of fabric. The walls were crammed with ribbons and buttons and sequins and feathers in every color. At the far end of the room stood a cluster of headless dummies in various states of dress, like a costume party from an elegant nightmare.

All around us were velvet capes and chainmail and cotton aprons and silky ball gowns. Glittering swords crowded an umbrella stand by the door, and the sofa beside it was piled with gauzy veils and golden crowns encrusted with bright plastic jewels. A feathery cascade of lilac wings was propped against a wall, looking as soft as the clouds in a toilet paper commercial, and just as beautiful.

“Don’t touch those,” Jackson murmured. “The glue hasn’t set yet.”

“They look expensive,” I whispered.

“They weren’t cheap, but you’d be surprised. There’s only one really valuable thing in here, and that’s —”

But I never heard what the most valuable item in the workshop was because as he was speaking, I suddenly became aware that somebody was standing directly behind me. I hadn’t heard anyone approach, but I could feel them, lurking, just behind my shoulder. I took a deep breath and turned to find myself nose to snout with a disembodied donkey’s head. And I really think, given the circumstances, that my response was perfectly reasonable, albeit a bit screamy for a covert operation.

“Izzy, hush!” Bex whipped the head off her shoulders and glared at me. “I’m just messing around. Put this in a sack and I’ll get the rest.”

She pushed the head into my hands and I blinked at it for a moment until I realized that this was the loot we had come for. It didn’t look like it would go for much on the black market, but before I could ask any questions, I heard a sound that made my blood freeze: the staccato clip of footsteps in the downstairs corridor. Then the door creaked and a woman’s voice called, “Jackson!”

It was a crisp, cool, calculating sort of voice. Ruthless, you might say.

Jackson jabbed his finger at the far corner of the room, where bolts of fabric tilted against the walls, but Bex and I were way ahead of him, padding rapidly across the room in our sneakers and sliding behind them. We crouched low and Jackson pulled a few more bolts over us, then stationed himself at a table just as a pair of fuchsia stilettos crested the stairs and strode into the room.

They were exquisite — bright and shiny as a piece of candy, with an arch that plunged like a rollercoaster. They were exactly the kind of shoes you don’t imagine a person wearing as she files charges against you for breaking and entering. The rest of her, what I could see from my hiding spot, was equally impressive. She had glossy brown hair swept up into a loose chignon and a perfectly tailored cocktail dress and very tasteful gold earrings.

“Ms. Bayer.”

“This workshop is a disaster,” she snapped, stilettos clipping across the tiles. “My God, this whole show has been a cluster. We didn’t get the shoes back until last night and half of them were ebony, when the work order clearly said coal. We’re lucky Rebecca was able to fix it. Where is she? I’ve got a hat needs mending before Act III or little Vega’s going to have another meltdown.”

“She went home,” he said. “Hours ago.”

“Nonsense! I just heard her.”

The stilettos paused, pointing directly at us. There were so many things I did not know about the D.C. penal system, I realized. Like the penalty for unlawful entry, for example.

“Just me.” he said, shifting to stand in between us and the stilettos.

“So that was you shouting just now?”

She sounded skeptical, and I could see why. I’d really hit the upper octaves when Bex pulled her little donkey prank, and Jackson sounded like a bargeman with bronchitis. If you made one of those chart thingies of our vocal ranges, a Venn diagram I mean, they’d just be two lone circles with no overlap.

“Mm,” he growled. “Cut myself.” He pressed a finger to his droopy lips as if stemming the flow of blood, and the stilettos scuttled backward.

“Well, keep away from the wings,” she said sharply. “We can’t afford to redo them. And clean up this workshop tomorrow. It smells like kibble.”

She clip-clip-clipped down the stairs and we heard the door shut behind her.

“Cripes,” Bex said, pushing a bolt to the side and shivering like a slinky. “Let’s move. Izzy, grab that ass.”

With Jackson’s help, I wrapped the head in a sheet and dropped it into a bag. Bex disappeared once more into the back room, emerging with a bulging sack that clinked softly as it shifted against her back. We crept down the stairs — me swiveling my head like a champion — and cracked the door. Rain slashed in and puddled on the linoleum.

“It’s pouring!” I cried.

“You know, Izzy,” Bex said drily. “When you’re right, you’re right.”

I shifted my sack as a fire engine blared past.

“It’s clear,” she said, peaking through. “But we’ll have to book it. Ready, set —”

Three things happened in rapid succession: First, Bex hollered, “Go!” and dashed for the car in a mad sprint. Second, the side door slammed open and caught my bag, knocking me, quite literally, ass over elbows. Third, I found myself face to face with a pair of fuchsia stilettos.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to haul a donkey’s head in a plastic sack as you sprint down a wet sidewalk while pursued by a surprisingly speedy former starlet, but if you ever find yourself in that position, I cannot emphasize enough the tactical advantages of practical footwear.

Whatever may be the advantages of a stiletto, or a wedge, say, in accentuating the calf or complimenting a jumper, it’s simply no match for an athletic tennis shoe in terms of rapid propulsion, and has the added benefit of evenly distributing force should you have to, for example, physically encourage a well-manicured assailant to remove her hands from the car door before you slam it shut and speed away, spattering her with a glorious geyser of curb water.

Bex pumped a fist in the air while I scrabbled for my seatbelt.

“Success!” she cried, swinging the car into an illegal U-turn. “Now let’s find a bar. I need a drink.”

 

I was surprised by her choice — not the drink, which I heartily endorsed, but by the bar, which was only two blocks from the theater and dangerously close to the scene of the crime, or so it seemed to me. But Bex was the brains of the operation, and when in doubt, do as the Romans and all that.

The bar was sandwiched between a bank and a bodega, and its entrance was cluttered with umbrellas. It was one of those cozy, filthy spots favored by grad students and kickball teams and other undesirable types. While I endorsed a drink at a leisurely pace, Bex upended the sack and the head fell among the coasters with a thunk that made every head turn in our direction. These theater people have a real flair for drama, no question, but I was starting to question her commitment to the covert aspect of this operation. The ass was a thing of beauty: dopey black eyes and long silky ears and smooth, clean, bunny-soft fur. Bex ruffled its mane affectionately and smoothed out its ears.

“It’s surprisingly light,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. “He’s got to wear it for a few scenes, and I didn’t want him to be too top heavy.”

“How long did it take you?”

“Start to finish? About three weeks.”

She started tapping at her cellphone.

“Who are you texting?” I asked.

“The Bear.”

I spat my drink onto the table.

“You know, I’ve never seen a real live spit-take,” Bex noted with clinical curiosity, like she was a doctor who’d just noticed that I had gills. “You’ve got a bit of drama in you after all.”

“Are you insane?!” I sputtered. “This was not in the pre-heist briefing.”

“I knew you’d freak out,” she sighed. “This is exactly why I didn’t tell you.”

“She’ll call the cops!”

“Not a chance,” Bex said, and it turns out she was right. Ten minutes later, the door banged open and Veronica Bayer stormed in. She’d changed into a black dress with a plunging neckline and a pair of scarlet stilettos with pointy toes, like an elf might wear — an elf who was ready for a night on the town and some gin fizzes after a long week of cobbling. She had no umbrella and her hair clung to her neck in wet clumps. I noticed that her mascara was a bit smeary, but she didn’t look like she was in the mood to discuss makeup tips.

“Veronica!” Bex said cheerfully. “Come join us! Or will you be late for the show?”

“Give me the costumes, Rebecca,” Veronica growled.

“Sure,” Bex smiled. “You know the cost.”

“Are you seriously going to pretend you didn’t just steal that ass out of my workshop?”

“Are you going to pretend that you paid for it?”

“We’ve discussed this —”

“Yes, we signed a contract in fact — and one of us has violated the terms of payment.”

Bex had pressed the pads of her fingers into the table and was leaning forward. A lot of the kickballers were tilting their ears toward us and looking very deliberately in a different direction. Something dangerous flickered in Veronica’s eyes, and she leaned forward too until her face was just inches away.

“You little thug,” she snarled. “You think I won’t destroy you? I’ll tell every theater in town. You’ll be lucky to get a gig selling silk-screened T-shirts out of a kiosk.”

“Well, good luck staffing a theater when every freelancer in town finds out you’re not making payroll,” Bex said in a voice that was not particularly quiet, and Veronica’s eyes narrowed.

She took a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. Then she straightened up and shifted the bottom half of her face into something like a smile.

“All right,” she said, in a voice that was probably supposed to sound friendly. “You win. But give us a week. You know we’re tight until the first ticket sales.”

“I know you owe me $3,000,” Bex said. “I know you promised to pay me weeks ago. And I know you’ve got just over an hour to fix that problem. And we both know your actors won’t go on until you do.”

The Bear stopped smiling and her lips pursed into something that looked like the twisty side of a balloon.

“Fine!” she said, but she said it like she meant a different word entirely, and she pulled a checkbook out of her purse with a dramatic sigh. She scribbled a signature, ripped a check out, and shoved it at Bex, who did not touch it. Veronica grabbed the sack and started feeding the donkey’s head into it, then paused.

“Where’s the other bag?” she asked.

“In a safe place,” Bex said. “We’ll deliver it after the check clears — unless you’d rather cancel this one and write me a cashier’s check.”

She raised her wrist deliberately and eyed her watch, saying, “The bank next door closes in about 15 minutes.”

This statement was followed by a long pause that had more than the usual amount of eye contact and less than the usual amount of blinking. It was all very exciting. Then Veronica Bayer screwed her face up even tighter and said something they don’t let you say on television. She stomped over to the door, slammed it open with a flat palm and marched toward the bank. The kickballers goggled.

“That was amazing!” I gushed. “But are you sure she won’t call the cops?”

“No way,” Bex said. “She won’t want them looking at the books. And besides, what’s she got on us?”

“Trespassing,” I said.

“In my own workshop? Hardly.”

“Theft?”

“Of my own work? That she never paid for?”

And you know, when she put it like that, it all sounded very reasonable.

Soon enough the door opened and Bayer stomped in again, kicking at the umbrellas. She marched back to the table, stilettos squelching with each step, and pushed the cashier’s check toward Bex with a thin, white finger.

“You have 20 minutes to get that sack to the theater,” she hissed. “Or I’m calling the cops.” But even I could tell she was bluffing. Then she gathered the ass in her arms, and if ever a woman in a damp ball gown and muddy stilettos marched through a bar holding the severed head of a donkey with dignity, that woman was Veronica Bayer. She gave me the shivers.

Bex and I paid up and raced to the bank, where she deposited the check, then we returned to the scene of the crime. Bex was skipping, and the sack rustled cheerfully as it bounced against her back.

“I’m curious,” I said, eyeing the sack. “What is the most valuable thing in your workshop?”

“The sewing machine, probably.”

“That doesn’t look heavy enough,” I said, and she laughed.

“It’s all relative,” she said, shaking the sack. “Parts and labor, this is probably about $500. But for something like this you don’t necessarily need the most expensive props — just the ones they can’t do without.”

The door swung open before we even knocked, propped by an enormous fist that turned out to belong to a massive man with a face like a Virginia ham. He had a deep, enormous, lumberjack laugh, but he was wearing a shimmery dress and a violet robe with gold brocade, which I couldn’t really imagine your average lumberjack pulling off.

“Well played, Bex,” he chortled. “Cold-blooded brinksmanship! But you’d better run to the changing rooms or they’ll turn on you.”

“They’re not too mad?”

“About to riot!” he guffawed, leading us through the side door and down a damp hallway. A pale woman in a headset raced past us, followed by three shivering fairies. “The Bear was threatening to force them on regardless — breach of contract, blah blah blah. Little Vega’s about to pass out. His therapist ought to pay you a commission. They’ll be talking about this for weeks.”

Bex snorted and skipped down the hall, ducking around stagehands and photographers. She threw open a doorway and marched in to a chorus of hearty cheers.

“I’m still confused,” I said. “What did she take?”

The fairy king snorted. “Codpieces! Every single one. And these costumes weren’t exactly designed to be worn without them.”

We’d had enough drama for one evening, so Bex and I decided not to stick around for the play. At home, we changed into our pajamas and split a bottle of wine on the futon, with Deefer stretched out between us.

“You never answered my question before,” I said, scratching him behind the ears.

“Which?”

“Do you do this sort of thing a lot?”

“Hardly ever,” she said. “Usually people pay me. And you were great, Izzy. Thank you. I couldn’t have done it alone.”

“I don’t know,” I said, eyeing my yellow wedges. “It’s like they say, you know? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him a cow, or however it goes. I mean this was all very exciting, but I’m never going to be a cow, or a criminal mastermind, I don’t think.”

She nodded slowly and sipped her wine.

“You know, Izzy,” she said, “when you’re right, you’re right.”

Featured image: cunaplus / Shutterstock

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