Robots

Even Robots Screw Up

by Caroline Taylor

The plan was simple, the execution a bit tricky, but I was ready. Man, was I ready. Or maybe I was tired of trying to figure out what might go wrong. I just wanted to get going. We’d certainly spent enough time puzzling over the damn details. And Jason was sure it would work if everyone did exactly what they were supposed to when, exactly, the plan called for it.

In other words, it was a plan destined to fail, and I should have known that from the get-go. Call it Murphy’s Law or fickle fate or whatever, nothing designed and executed by humans that relies on other humans for success works according to plan. Even robots screw up.

Twenty-four hours and counting, we had to get that stolen painting back onto the wall of my mother’s farmhouse before she returned from Hawaii. I’ve never liked the damn thing. It’s by a South American artist called Porfirio Figueroa in the Expressionist style and looks, to me, like a puke-colored mushroom cloud. Nothing you’d really like to linger in front of while cruising your local art museum. Apparently, Figueroa had minor fame, and the damn thing was valuable.

We couldn’t involve the police for two reasons: Number one was we knew who had taken the painting, and he happened to be Jason’s younger brother Ziggy. Number two was provenance. Mom doesn’t have squat. So the police were going to be thinking, how can you steal something that might already have been stolen? Without the paperwork, there was no way to prove that she and Dad had acquired the painting honestly. Ziggy knew this, so he wasn’t really worried about being arrested.

The plan Jason devised involved getting the painting back before Ziggy sold it on to one of his “connections.” You know. The kind of fella who loves puke-colored mushroom clouds mostly because he has no taste and because he doesn’t give a damn about provenance. All he wants is “a reel pitcher on da wall” of his McMansion so he can impress other guys and their dolls.

Poor Jason. His brother happens to be a nerd who does nerdy-type things for people who pay extremely well, always in cash, for information they can’t obtain legitimately. However, what Ziggy makes up for in intellect is lost when it comes to a moral compass. Thus, Jason is always having to protect him—from the police, from other guys (the ones who don’t like discovering they’ve been hacked), and, really, from himself.

Ziggy is into robots. His “clients” are paying him to devise an artificial intelligence program that would, in his words, “eliminate any trace of a human presence” that, I suspect, could otherwise be detected by the police.

Jason has tried to reason with his brother. A typical conversation:

“Look, Ziggy, I know you like robots, but this is not a good idea.”

“It’s a great idea. And I’m gonna patent it and become filthy rich.”

“I’m sure it will be outlawed the minute the authorities realize its capabilities.”

“So?”

“It’s wrong.”

Ziggy scratches his head. “Just because you aren’t as smart as me. You’re jealous.”

“I’m worried, Bro. They’ll make it a crime, and then you’ll be in big trouble.”

“Okay,” says Ziggy. “I’ll give you a third.”

“I don’t want your dirty money.”

I stay out of these things. But it is mostly my fault about the theft. The three of us were out at the farm one weekend, chilling, when I made some snarky comment about the puke-colored painting.

“I know somebody who might want it,” said Ziggy. “He’d probably pay good money, too.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” I said. “There’s a problem with provenance.”

“Prov-a what?”

“Provenance. Paperwork that shows a history of ownership of the item. Usually valuable stuff like paintings and sculpture.” At the puzzled look on his face, I added, “Nobody wants to buy something that’s been stolen. Not that my folks stole it, but they either lost the paperwork or never got any to begin with.”

Ziggy sat there, thinking. “I could put some documents together for you, you like. All I’d need is copies of your parents’ signatures.”

“No way!”

“Ziggy.” Jason was rolling his eyes. “Forget it. Nate’s mom happens to like that painting.”

“Why?”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Beats me.”

Ziggy was smiling. “You know? It would be the perfect way to beta test Frank.”

“Forget it,” said Jason. “Do your own beta testing, Bro. We don’t want ol’ Nate here to be blamed for letting some thief into the place, do we.”

“But that’s just it,” said Ziggy. “If the program works—and I’m sure it will—there’ll be nothing for the cops to investigate. They’ll probably figure Mrs. Olson dumped the thing and is just trying to collect on the insurance.” He peered at me over the top of his glasses. “It is insured, isn’t it?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, crossing my arms. “Let’s just forget it, okay? Do your testing on yourself. Have Frank steal something from you. That way, no harm, no foul.”

“No fun, either,” Ziggy muttered.

***

Boys just want to have fun, ya know. Or Ziggy did, anyway. So he beta tested Frank on my mother’s painting, only informing us afterwards that he’d done it. “You’re gonna thank me,” he’d said, “when you see how much this fella’s gonna fork over for that piece of crap.”

Both Jason and I demanded that he beta test Frank right back into the farmhouse and put the damn painting back on the wall. When he refused was when we put together our plan.

Of course, the other thing about the plan was we had zero time to execute it. Like about sixteen hours. Here’s what the plan called for and how it worked out:

STEP ONE. INTERROGATE AND ISOLATE ZIGGY. Jason didn’t know how to operate Frank. So he pretended he was really keen on seeing how Frank worked. He suggested doing another beta test, this one involving retrieving from my car the latest Grand Theft Auto, which Jason loved. I’d left the car unlocked to make things go quicker. Three hours later, after Ziggy had showed Jason how to input the necessary data, I watched in amazement as Frank zipped across the parking lot, opened the passenger-side door, “searched” the interior, and emerged with the video game clutched in his metal claws.

“I told ya,” said Ziggy, arms thrust in the air. “Man, oh man, oh man. No fingerprints. No DNA. Perfect.”

Only strange, wheel-like tracks in the dirt. But that could be a kid’s bike or a shopping cart.

“Where’d you lift it?” he asked me, waving the video game in the air.

“Not all of us are thieves,” I replied. “In fact, I’d ask you to repay me, but the only reimbursement I want is that painting back on the wall at the farmhouse tomorrow.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” said Ziggy. “Anyway, your mom can use the insurance and the money from the sale to buy something people actually like to look at.”

Isolate was a bit trickier. Jason was supposed to drop a couple of sleeping tablets into his brother’s Mountain Dew. Unbeknownst to his older brother, however, Ziggy had abandoned his loyalty to the Dew in favor of a new love, Starbucks mocha Frappuccino, which Jason had to go get, wasting precious time. In fact, he barely got there before closing. At any rate, probably because of the caffeine, it took longer than anticipated for Ziggy to succumb. Once there, however, we hogtied him to his chair and left him in dreamland.

STEP TWO. FIND THE PAINTING. Harder than we thought. It wasn’t in Ziggy’s closet or underneath his bed or behind the sofa. For a couple of panicky moments, I was sure he’d already sold the damn thing.

Ziggy’s pad was full of framed Star Wars posters, which I’d become so used to seeing, I barely noticed them. But Jason said, “Huh. That’s a new one.” He pointed to one that was just a bunch of white lines radiating out from a black background. “Hyperdrive,” he said. “Cool.”

Then he lifted it off the wall. Taped to the back was the canvas of Figueroa’s painting.

“Hey,” I said. “Where’s the goddamn frame?”

“Right here,” said Jason, pointing at the Star Wars poster.

The plan didn’t allow time for us to figure out how to get the damn poster out of the frame and the stupid canvas back inside while not breaking any flimsy wood or scratching any valuable canvas. Can’t say that Hyperdrive survived, which was going to piss Ziggy off. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Neither of us knew diddly about framing or de-framing art, and Ziggy wasn’t going to be out of commission forever. That meant we were late executing the next step.

STEP THREE. PUT THE PAINTING BACK. Frank was supposed to do that part, but Frank was sulking—or the robotic equivalent, anyway. He’d gone into sleep mode and refused to respond to Jason’s commands. See what I mean about Murphy’s Law? We detoured to a Walmart to purchase thick wool socks, so as not to leave any footprints, and mittens for a similar purpose. We’d ditch them later. The cashier was busy texting her BFF and took her sweeeet time ringing up the sale. We hit the highway with under three minutes to spare.

“We could just walk in with it,” I said. “Claim we found it by the side of the road. Mom would believe us.”

“Her flight will be delayed. They always are. We’re gonna make it,” said Jason, tromping on the accelerator.

“Don’t get pulled—”

I didn’t need to finish my words because we could both see the flashing lights behind us, signaling us to slow down and stop.

“Sorry, officer,” said Jason. “I’m just trying to get my buddy here out to his mother’s farm. Mrs. Olson on Route 6?”

“Seventy in a fifty-five,” said the cop, scribbling out the ticket. “I oughta arrest you.” He turned his head as there was a loud squawking noise coming from the radio in his car. Sprinting back, he leaned in to listen and then jumped into the car, peeling away so fast Jason’s ride was pelted with gravel. But at least we didn’t get a ticket.

The farmhouse was all lit up when we skidded to a stop in the driveway.

“She’s back.”

“You go and distract her,” said Jason, taking his shoes off and donning the heavy wool socks.

“What if she already noticed it’s gone?” I said.

Jason gave me a dismissive wave. “Think of something.”

Mom was standing in front of the fireplace, staring at the discolored rectangle on the wall where the Figueroa painting had once held pride of place. “Oh, hello, Nate,” she said when I walked in. “Your timing is impeccable. I only just got in.” No worried look on her face, just a peck on my cheek. “Want a drink?”

Did I ever. I knew I should ask her about the missing painting, but instead I said, “Hungry, too.”

“Well, let’s see what we’ve got.” She turned, and I followed her into the kitchen where she pulled some bread out of the freezer and popped it into the toaster. “I’m going to be doing some major renovations around here,” she said as she opened a jar of peanut butter. “PBJ’s okay, hon’?”

I was making as much racket as I could, rummaging for ice cubes and clinking bottles together. “Sure. Whisky or wine?”

“You didn’t notice the missing painting?” she said, as she spread strawberry jam over a slice of bread. Before I could unstick my tongue, she said, “It’s going to finance the work. Or, at least, most of it.”

“Huh?”

“Really, darling, you should listen more carefully. I had a dealer acquaintance of mine pick up the Figueroa while I was away. Depending on what he thinks I can get for it, I should be able to pay for the new roof and have enough left to refinish the deck out back.”

“You’re— You’re going to sell the painting?”

“Oh, Nate. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were so attached to it. I was thinking it might be the best way to . . . It’s just, I’d rather not have to tap into my investment accounts.”

Oh, God. “Here,” I said, shoving the glass of wine at my mother. “Got to use the john.” I skedaddled back to the living room just in time to see Jason step back from the painting. He reached out to adjust the angle of the frame. “Get it out of here,” I whispered.

What??

“Shhhh.” I laid my finger against my lips. “Just do it. I’ll explain later.”

But we weren’t lucky enough for a later. Just as Jason was reaching up to take the painting down, my mother walked in. “Well, hello, Jason. I haven’t seen you in— Oh. Is that my Figueroa?”

“Jason happens to know your appraiser guy,” I jumped in. “So we offered to bring it back for him. Save him a trip.”

Her face fell. “Oh, dear. I really thought the damn thing was worth something. I guess Alexandrov’s isn’t even going to try to sell it.” Then she noticed Jason’s socks. “How thoughtful of you, Jason, not to want to scuff up my floors.”

“Sure,” he said, giving me a panicked look.

“Are you that cold?” she asked, eyeing his mittens. “I did boost the thermostat when I got home. But I guess it takes time.” Then my mother started to cry. “Your father always thought that painting was valuable. Now, what do I do?” She began to wring her hands.

“How about we sell it for you, Miz Olson?” said Jason. “I just happen to know a guy who’s— well, let’s just say he’s looking for some art.”

“A rich guy,” I added, “willing to forget about provenance.”

“Just as we were all those years ago,” she murmured.

“This guy really likes the modern stuff,” said Jason, inching toward the door.

Mom eyed the painting under his arm. “I certainly hope so. I always thought it looked rather like a puke-colored mushroom cloud.”

About the Author

Caroline Taylor

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Caroline Taylor's stories have appeared in several online and print magazines. She is the author of three mysteries and one short-story collection. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com