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The Masterpiece


Roman Velasco climbed the fire escape and swung over the wall onto the flat roof. Crouching, he moved quickly. Another building abutted the five-story apartment house, the perfect location for graffiti. Right across the street was a bank building, and he’d already left a piece on the front door.

Shrugging off his backpack, he pulled out his supplies. He’d have to work fast. Los Angeles never slept. Even at three in the morning, cars speed along the boulevard. This piece would be seen by anyone driving east. He’d be at risk until he finished, but dressed in black pants and hooded sweat shirt, he’d be hard to spot, unless someone was looking for him. Ten minutes. That’s all he needed to leave a parade of Monopoly game characters dancing on the wall, the last one leaping toward the street. He’d stenciled a top-hatted businessman laden with money bags going into the bank across the street.

The paper stencil hooked on something and tore. Swearing under his breath, Roman worked quickly to tape it. A wind came up, pulling a portion away. It was a long stencil and took precious minutes to secure it. Grabbing a can of spray paint, he shook it. When he pressed the button, nothing happened. Cursing, he pulled out another can and started spraying. A vehicle approached. He glanced down and froze when he spotted a police car decelerating One had come by an hour ago, when he’d been heading for the bank. He’d walked with purpose, hoping they’d think he was just some guy heading home from a night shift. They slowed, checking him out, and then moved on. As soon as they disappeared down the street, he’d done the work on the glass door of the bank building.

Heart pounding, Roman went back to work. He only needed another few minutes. He kept spraying. Brake lights glowed hot red on the street. The police car had stopped in front of the bank. A white beam of light fixed on the front door. One more minute. Roman made two more sweeps and started the careful removal of the stencil. He’d had to use more tape than usual, and it took longer.  The last section of paper peeled away, and he added three small black interlocking letters that looked like a bird in flight.

One officer was out of the car, flashlight in hand.

Roman crouched low, rolled and stuffed the stencil into his backpack with the spray cans of paint. The beam of light rose and moved closer. It flashed right over him as he started moving across the roof. It traveled down and away. Relieved, Roman shouldered the pack and rose slightly. Big mistake!

The light returned, silhouetting him against the wall. He kept his face averted as he bolted.

All the planning and dry runs and still everything was going wrong!  First, the side street access was blocked with some work project. He had to park his car on a side street in a residential area six blocks away. A torn stencil, wind and a defective can of spray paint? He felt like someone was messing with him.

The beam of light tracked his escape across the roof. He heard men’s voices and racing feet. Heart hammering, Roman took a flying leap onto the next building. He hit hard, rolled to his feet and kept going. He wasn’t a teenage kid anymore, facing community service for doing gang tagging on a wall. The police department probably had a file on The Bird’s work. If he got caught now, he’d do jail time. Worse, he’d destroy the budding reputation Roman Velasco was earning as a legitimate artist. Graffiti earns credits on the street, but not in a gallery. 

One officer had returned to the squad car. Tires squealed as he backed it fast, keeping pace with his partner. They weren’t giving up.

Roman spotted an open window and climbed up instead of down. A car door slammed. A man shouted. Must be a slow night if these two cops wanted to spend this much time hunting a graffiti artist. Roman swung over the edge of another roof. A half-empty can of spray paint fell out of his jostled pack and exploded on the pavement below. The startled officer drew his gun and pointed it at Roman as he climbed. “LAPD! Stop where you are!”

Gripping a ledge, Roman pulled himself up and went in through the open apartment window. Squatting, he held his breath and listened. A man snored in the bedroom. Rising, Roman crept forward. He hadn’t gone two steps before bumping into something. His eyes adjusted to the dim light from the kitchen appliances. The occupant must be a hoarder. The cluttered living room could be Roman’s undoing. He left his backpack behind the sofa.

Opening the front door quietly, he peered out and listened. No movement, no voices. The man in the bedroom snorted and stirred. Roman slipped out quickly and closed the door behind him. The emergency exit door was stuck. If he forced it, he’d make noise. He found the elevator, his heart pounding faster as it took its sweet time rising. Bing. The doors opened. Stepping inside, Roman punched the button for the underground parking garage.

Just stay cool. He shoved the hood back and raked his hands through his hair. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The elevator doors opened. The basement parking lot was well lit and filled to capacity. Roman held the door open and waited a few seconds to scope out the area before he stepped out. Relieved, he headed for the ramp up to the side street. The police car sat at the curb. Doors opened.

For a split second, Roman debated inventing a quick story for why he’d be heading out for a walk at three-thirty in the morning. Maybe it was their body language, but he knew no story was going to keep him out of cuffs. He bolted up the street toward the residential neighborhood a block off the main boulevard. The officers followed like hounds after a fox.

Roman went down one street, down a paved driveway and over a wall. He thought he was home free until he realized he wasn’t alone in the back yard. A German Shepherd leaped to its feet and gave chase. Roman raced it across the yard and over the back fence. The dog hit the fence and clawed at it, barking fiercely. Roman landed hard on the other side and knocked over a couple of garbage cans in his haste to get away. Now, every other canine up and down the street was sounding the alarm. Roman swore and moved fast, keeping low and to the shadows.

Lights went on.

He could hear voices. Inquiries would slow down the cops, and they’d be less likely to go over fences and trespass. Roman moved fast for a few blocks and then slowed to a normal gait to get his breath back. The dogs had stopped barking. He heard a car and slipped behind a privet hedge. The police car crossed the next street, not slowing as it headed back toward Santa Monica Boulevard. Maybe he lost them.

Rather than push his luck further, Roman waited another few minutes before venturing out to the sidewalk. It took him an hour to make his way back to his BMW. Sliding into the driver’s seat, he couldn’t resist driving east to check out his work.

The bank would have their front door cleaned by noon, but the high piece on the wall across the street would last longer. The Bird had gained enough notoriety over the past few years that some building owners left the graffiti untouched. He hoped that would be the case tonight. He’d come too close to getting caught to have the work buffed and forgotten in a day or two.

Freeway traffic had already picked up. Fighting exhaustion, Roman turned on air conditioning. Cold air blasted him, keeping him wide awake. Drained and vaguely depressed, he drove up into Topanga Canyon. He should be reveling after his successful night raid instead of feeling like an old man in need of a recliner. Slowing, he turned onto the gravel drive down to his house. The push of a button opened the garage door. Three more cars bigger than his 740LI could fit the space. He shut off the engine and sat for a few seconds as the door whirred closed behind him.

As he started to get out of his car, a wave of weakness hit him. He sat still for a minute, waiting for the odd sensation to pass. It hit him again when he headed for the back door. Staggering, he went down on one knee. He anchored his fist on the concrete and kept his head down. He’d had these spells before. They passed quickly, usually after a few seconds.

He needed sleep. That’s all. One full night would be fix him up.

The spell passed, and Roman stood slowly. He opened the back door to dead silence. He’d bought the place as an investment. The few people he’d invited inside the house had been impressed. Hadn’t he felt he’d finally made the grade when he walked in the front door? It hadn’t taken long to realize all he’d changed was location.

Roman’s footsteps echoed. Unzipping and removing the black hoodie, he headed down the hallway to his bedroom. He was too tired to take a shower, too tired to turn the air conditioner down to sixty-five, too tired to eat, though his stomach cramped with hunger. Stripping off his clothes, he sprawled across the unmade bed. Maybe he’d get lucky tonight and sleep without dreaming. Usually, the high he got from one of his night raids earned a payback of nightmares from his days in the Tenderloin. White Boy never stayed buried for long. 

Morning shot spears of sunlight. Roman closed his eyes, craving darkness.


Grace Moore got up early, knowing she would need plenty of time to cross the valley and arrive on time for her first day as a temp worker. She’d spent the last two months searching for a job with benefits and pay enough to find a small apartment for herself and her son, Samuel. The longer she lived with the Garcias, the more complicated things became.

Selah and Ruben were in no hurry for her to leave. Selah still hoped Grace would change her mind and sign the adoption papers. Grace stayed because she had nowhere else to go. The sooner she found a job, the sooner she could start saving for a place of her own. Every day that passed increased her desire to be independent again. And every day that passed, Grace felt Selah hoping and praying Grace would change her mind again, sign the papers and turn Samuel over to the Garcias. Grace wanted to pick up the pieces of her own life and start fresh, but she didn’t want to give up her.

She had to stop second-guessing whether she was doing the right thing. Right now, she had to concentrate on finding a way to make a living wage.  She’d sent out dozens of resumes over the past months and only received a few calls back for interviews. None had produced a job. Every employer wanted a college graduate these days, and she’d only completed two years before putting her education on hold so she could support her husband, Patrick, until he graduated. He had made promises and broken every one of them.

Aunt Elizabeth had warned her. Grace just hadn’t been willing to listen.

Samuel stirred in his crib. Grace lifted him gently, thankful he was awake. She’d have time to nurse him and change his diaper before handing him over to Selah Garcia. “Good morning, Little Man.” Grace breathed in his baby scent and sat on the edge of the twin bed she’d just made. She opened her blouse and shifted him so he could nurse.

The circumstances of his conception and complications he’d added to her life ceased to matter the moment she first held him in her arms. He hadn’t been an hour old when she knew she couldn’t give him up for adoption, no matter how much better his life might be with the Garcias. She’d told Selah and Ruben as much, but every day brought its own anguish as Selah took over his care while Grace went out looking for a way to support herself and her son.

Others do it, Lord. Why can’t I?

Others had family. She only had Aunt Elizabeth.

God, please let this job work out. Help me, Lord. Please. I know I don’t deserve it, but I’m asking. I’m begging.

Thankfully, she’d passed the interview and tests with the temp agency and been added to their list. Mrs. Sandoval had a job opening. “I’ve sent this man five highly qualified people, and he rejected every one. I don’t think he knows what he needs. It’s the only work I can offer you right now.”

Grace would have agreed to work for the devil himself if it meant a regular paycheck.


The sound of chimes pulled Roman up out of the darkness. Had he dreamed he was in Westminster Abbey? Groggy, he rolled over. His body had just relaxed when the chimes started again. Someone had pushed the doorbell. He’d like to get his hands on the owner who installed the blasted system. Cursing, Roman pulled a pillow over his head, hoping to muffle the song that could be heard from one end of the five-thousand-square-foot house to the other.

Silence returned. The interloper had probably gotten the message and left.

 Roman tried to go back to sleep. When the chimes started again, he shouted a four-letter word and stood up. A wave of weakness surged again. Knocking over a half-empty bottle of water and the alarm clock, he caught himself before he pitched face-first onto the floor. Swaying, he gripped the bedside table. Three times in less than twenty-four hours. He might have to resort to prescription drugs to get the rest he needed. But right now, all he wanted to do was unleash his temper on whoever had rung his bell.

Pulling on sweats, Roman grabbed a wrinkled T-shirt off the carpet and headed barefoot down the hall. Whoever stood on the other side of his front door was going to wish they’d never set foot on his property. The chimes started in again just as he yanked open the door. A young woman glanced up in surprise and then took two steps back when he stepped over the threshold.

“Can’t you read?” He jabbed a finger at the sign posted next to the front door. “No solicitors!”

Hazel eyes wide, she put hands up in a conciliatory gesture. Her dark hair was inches shorter than his, and her black pants suit, white blouse and pearls screamed office worker. A faint recollection flickered in his mind, but Roman dismissed it.  “Get lost!” He stepped back and slammed the door. He hadn’t taken two steps when she knocked lightly at his door. Yanking it open again, he glared down at her. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

She looked scared enough to run, but stood her ground. “I’m here on your orders, Mr. Velasco.”

His orders? “Like I want a woman on my doorstep first thing in the morning.”

“Mrs. Sandoval said nine o’clock. I’m Grace Moore. From the temp agency.”

He spat a four-letter word. Her eyes flickered, and her cheeks filled with color. He raked a hand back through his hair, his anger dissolving like salt in water. Great!  Just great. “I forgot you were coming.” She looked like she’d rather be anyplace than here, not that he could blame her. He debated telling her to come back tomorrow, but knew she wouldn’t. He was up now. He might as well stay up. Jerking his head, he let the door drift open. “Come on in.”

He’d gone through four temps in the last month. He didn’t want a drill sergeant, maiden aunt or amateur psychologist to analyze his artist’s psyche. Nor did he need a curvy blonde in a low-cut blouse who pushed papers around, but didn’t have a clue where to file them. She had ideas about what an artist might want besides a woman with secretarial skills. He might have taken her up on her offer if he hadn’t had enough experience with women like her. She lasted three days.

Mrs. Sandoval was losing patience faster than he was. “I’ll send you one more, Mister Velasco, and if she doesn’t work out, I’ll give you the name of my competitor.”

Not hearing any footsteps behind him, Roman paused and looked back. The girl hadn’t stepped over his threshold. “What’re you waiting for? An engraved invitation?”

She entered and closed the door quietly behind her. She looked ready to bolt. He offered an apologetic smile. “Long night.”

She murmured something he didn’t catch, and decided not to ask her to repeat it. He felt the onset of a headache, and the click of her high heels on stone wasn’t helping. He was thirsty and needed caffeine. He went into the kitchen adjourning the living room. She stopped at the edge of his sunken living room and gaped at the cathedral ceilings and wall of glass overlooking Topanga Canyon. Sunlight streamed through the windows, reminding him most people were serving time on their nine-to-fives by now.

Opening the stainless steel Liebherr refrigerator, Roman grabbed a bottle of orange juice. Removing the cap, he drank from the bottle. Lowering it, he frowned. “What’d you say your name was?”

“Grace Moore.” 

The Masterpiece
by by Francine Rivers

  • Genres: Fiction, Romance, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 1496407903
  • ISBN-13: 9781496407900