The Magic of Heists

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

Written by Greg van Eekhout

I don’t like thieves. After I lost my first bike to a thief, it became hard to think of thieves as charming rogues. They’re people who would steal a kid’s sweet, sweet ride, a very special ninth birthday gift equipped with front shocks and a plastic bit that looked like a motorcycle gas tank. Thieves are jerks. And yet, I love heists. I love them so much I wrote an entire trilogy full of them, beginning with California Bones. The results of a heist are the same as those of a theft: someone takes something that belongs to someone else, and the thing taken may well be missed. But the word “heist” implies planning. It implies craft. Perhaps some style. And, sometimes, magic.

Just a couple of examples:

At 1:24 AM on the morning of March 18, 1990, security guards let two men into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The two men were thieves, and they walked away with $500 million in works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and other pieces. One might ask why on Earth the guards admitted them into the museum, these two men, these jerk thieves, who stole half a billion dollars in art. The men were dressed in police uniforms. And they were wearing fake mustaches. The mustaches are critical. The mustaches did amazing things. They transformed criminals with ill intent into trustworthy authority figures. The mustaches overcame the physical barriers of doors and steel locks and overtook the minds of the guards. The fake mustaches became powerful magical objects. Not really magical, but they functioned as well as magical objects, so we might as well consider them magic mustaches. They did the trick.

When a magic mustache won’t get the job done, a thief might turn to sleight of hand. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida used to possess a gold bar from a 1622 Spanish shipwreck. After 5:13 PM on August 18, 2010, the museum no longer possessed it. The bar was substantial, a 74.85-ounce, 11-inch long piece of heavy metal, worth an estimated $550,000. It was displayed in a case of lexan bullet-proof glass with a small hole in it so visitors could insert a hand and lift the bar, but not be able to remove it from the case. In video surveillance footage, you can see the thieves wandering around the museum, dressed like schlubs in t-shirts and baggy jeans and baggy shorts. Their outfits were not accidental. It takes big pockets to hide an 11-inch long gold bar, which is what the thieves did after approaching the lexan bullet-proof glass case and cracking the edges such that they could poke a hand in and lift the bar and exit the museum with it. One of them smokes a cigarette on the way out. You can watch the footage on YouTube. You can actually see the moment one of the thieves take the bar. You will have no idea how he actually did it. As with any good act of sleight of hand, you know it’s not actually magic because actual magic doesn’t exist, and yet what you’re witnessing is magic.

Again, I don’t like thieves. They cause pain, loss, and consternation. A thief stole my awesome bike. And yet, I love heists, and I am far from alone. It would be overstating it to say we love the sin but hate the sinner. But in our admiration of a good heist, we often do overlook both sin and sinner while admiring the act of sinning. And making us do that is a nice bit of misdirection and illusion, which are, after all, the essence of effective magic.


From the Tor/Forge June 2nd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.


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