Read Burglars Can't Be Choosers Online

Authors: Lawrence Block

Tags: #Fiction, #Library, #Mystery & Detective, #Rhodenbarr; Bernie (Fictitious character)

Burglars Can't Be Choosers

BURGLARS
CAN’T
BE
CHOOSERS

LAWRENCE
BLOCK

For Steve and Nancy Schwerner

Contents

Dedication

Chapters

One

A handful of minutes after nine I hoisted my Bloomingdale’s…

Two

The first cop through the door was a stranger, and…

Three

It’s a good thing the sidewalks were fairly clear. Otherwise…

Four

He was a thick-bodied man built rather like a bloated…

Five

I don’t know just when I got to sleep. A…

Six

By six twenty-four that evening the chaps at Channel 7…

Seven

The subway wasn’t doing much business by the time I…

Eight

She didn’t have to knock any plants over the next…

Nine

“An actor!”

Ten

The building was only a dozen stories high, but the…

Eleven

In the taxi heading uptown I thought about Ellie (whom…

Twelve

Most people who checked into the Cumberland had either a…

Thirteen

Her hair was still blond, and if she had changed…

Fourteen

I sat back in my chair and watched Ray Kirschmann…

Fifteen

I beat the cops to Darla’s place, but not by…

Sixteen

By the time we got back to Darla Sandoval’s little…

Seventeen

“That’s fantastic,” Ellie said. “Just incredible. You actually solved the…

Burglar’s Choice

In January of 1976 I was in a motel on…

About the Author

Praise

Books by Lawrence Block

Copyright

About the Publisher

Chapter
One

A
handful of minutes after nine I hoisted my Bloomingdale’s shopping bag and moved out of a doorway and into step with a tall blond fellow with a faintly equine cast to his face. He was carrying an attaché case that looked too thin to be of much use. Like a high-fashion model, you might say. His topcoat was one of those new plaid ones and his hair, a little longer than my own, had been cut a strand at a time.

“We meet again,” I said, which was an out-and-out lie. “Turned out to be a pretty fair day after all.”

He smiled, perfectly willing to believe that we were neighbors who exchanged a friendly word now and then. “Little brisk this evening,” he said.

I agreed that it was brisk. There wasn’t much he might have said that I wouldn’t have gladly agreed
with. He looked respectable and he was walking east on Sixty-seventh Street and that was all I required of him. I didn’t want to befriend him or play handball with him or learn the name of his barber or coax him into swapping shortbread recipes. I just wanted him to help me get past a doorman.

The doorman in question was planted in front of a seven-story brick building halfway down the block, and he’d been very nearly as stationary as the building itself during the past half-hour. I’d given him that much time to desert his post and he hadn’t taken advantage of it, so now I was going to have to walk right past him. That’s easier than it sounds, and it’s certainly easier than the various alternatives I’d considered earlier—circling the block and going through another building to get into the airshaft behind the building I wanted, doing a human fly act onto the fire escape, torching my way through steel grilles on basement or first-floor windows. All of those things are possible, I suppose, but so what? The proper method is Euclidean in its simplicity: the shortest route into a building is through its front door.

I’d hoped that my tall blond companion might be a resident of the building himself. We could have continued our conversation, such as it was, right through the lobby and onto the elevator. But this was not to be. When it was clear that he was
not going to turn from his eastward course I said, “Well, here’s where I get off. Hope that business in Connecticut works out for you.”

This ought to have puzzled him, as we hadn’t talked about any business in Connecticut or elsewhere, but perhaps he assumed I’d mistaken him for someone else. It hardly mattered. He kept on walking toward Mecca while I turned to my right (toward Brazil), gave the doorman a quick unfocused nod and smile, warbled a pleasant “Good evening” at a gray-haired woman with more than the traditional number of chins, chuckled unconvincingly when her Yorkie made snapping sounds at my heels, and strode purposefully onto the self-service elevator.

I rode to the fourth floor, poked around until I found the stairway, and walked down a flight. I almost always do this and I sometimes wonder why. I think someone must have done it in a movie once and I was evidently impressed, but it’s really a waste of time, especially when the elevator in question is self-service. The one thing it does is fix in your mind where the stairs are, should you later need them in a hurry, but you ought to be able to locate stairs without scampering up or down them.

On the third floor, I found my way to Apartment 311 at the front of the building. I stood for a moment, letting my ears do the walking, and then I gave the bell a thorough ring and waited thirty thoughtful seconds before ringing it again.

And that, let me assure you, is not a waste of time. Public institutions throughout the fifty states provide food and clothing and shelter for lads who don’t ring the bell first. And it’s not enough just poking the silly thing. A couple of years back I rang the bell diligently enough at the Park Avenue co-op of a charming couple named Sandoval, poked the little button until my finger throbbed, and wound up going directly to jail without passing Go. The bell was out of order, the Sandovals were home scoffing toasted English muffins in the breakfast nook, and Bernard G. Rhodenbarr soon found himself in a little room with bars on the windows.

This bell was in order. When my second ring brought no more response than my first, I reached a hand beneath my topcoat—last year’s model, not plaid but olive—and drew a pigskin case from my trouser pocket. There were several keys in the case and several other useful things as well, these last made of the finest German steel. I opened my case, knocked on the door for luck, and set to work.

A funny thing. The better your building, the higher your monthly rental, the more efficient your doorman, why, the easier it’s going to be to crack your apartment. People who live in unattended walkups in Hell’s Kitchen will fasten half a dozen deadbolt locks to their doors and add a Segal police lock for insurance. Tenement dwellers take it
for granted that junkies will come to kick their doors in and strong-arm types will rip the cylinders out of their locks, so they make things as secure as they possibly can. But if the building itself is so set up as to intimidate your garden variety snatch-and-grab artist, then most tenants make do with the lock the landlord provides.

In this case the landlord provided a Rabson. Now there’s nothing tacky about a Rabson lock. The Rabson is very good. But then so am I.

I suppose it took me a minute to open the lock. A minute may be long or short, significant or inconsequential. It is long indeed when you are spending it inserting burglar’s tools into a lock of an apartment manifestly not your own, and when you know that during any of its sixty seconds another door down the hallway might open and some Nosey Parker might want to know just who you think you are and just what you think you are doing.

No one opened a door, no one got off the elevator. I did creative things with my finely tempered steel implements, and the tumblers tumbled and the lock mechanism turned and the deadbolt drew itself deliberately back and disengaged. When that happened I let out the breath I’d been holding and drew a fresh one. Then I wiggled my picks a little more and opened the spring lock, which was child’s play after the deadbolt, and when it snicked
back I felt that little surge of excitement that’s always there when I open a lock. It’s a little like a roller coaster ride and a little like sexual triumph, and you may make of all that what you will.

I turned the knob, eased the heavy door inward half an inch or so. My blood was really up now. You never know for certain what’s going to be on the other side of the door. That’s one of the things that makes it exciting, but it also makes it scary, and it’s still scary no matter how many times you’ve done it.

Once the lock’s open, though, you can’t do it an inch at a time like an old lady slipping into a swimming pool. So I pushed the door open and went inside.

The room was dark. I closed the door behind me, turned the bolt, dug a penlight flash out of my pocket and played the beam around. The drapes were drawn. That explained the room’s utter darkness, and it meant I might as well turn the lights on because no one could see in from the building across the street. Apartment 311 fronted on Sixty-seventh Street but with the drapes drawn it might as well have been fronting on a blank wall.

The wall switch near the door turned on a pair of table lamps with leaded glass Tiffany-type shades. They looked like reproductions to me but they were nice ones. I moved around the room, taking time to get the feel of it. I’ve always done this.

Nice room. Large, about fifteen by twenty-five feet. A highly polished dark oak floor with two oriental rugs on it. The larger one was Chinese and the smaller one at the far end of the room might have been a Bokhara, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I suppose I ought to know more about rugs but I’ve never taken the time to learn because they’re too much trouble to steal.

Naturally I went over to the desk first. It was a nineteenth-century rolltop, oaken and massive, and I’d probably have been drawn to it simply because I like desks like that, but in this case my whole reason for being in this apartment was tucked away in one of its drawers or cubbyholes. That’s what the shifty-eyed and pear-shaped man had told me, and who was I to doubt his word?

“There’s this big old desk,” he had said, aiming his chocolate eyes over my left shoulder. “What you call a rolltop. The top rolls up.”

“Clever name for it,” I’d said.

He had ignored this. “You’ll see it the minute you walk in the room. Big old mother. He keeps the box in the desk.” He moved his little hands about, to indicate the dimensions of the box we were discussing. “About like so. About the size of a box of cigars. Maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller. Basically I’d call it cigar-box size. Box is blue.”

“Blue.”

“Blue leather. Covered in leather. I suppose it’s wood under the leather. Rather than being leather straight through. What’s under the leather don’t matter. What matters is what’s inside the box.”

“What’s inside the box?”

“That don’t matter.” I stared at him, ready to ask him which of us was to be Abbott and which Costello. He frowned. “What’s in the box for you,” he said, “is five thousand dollars. Five kay for a few minutes’ work. As to what’s actually inside the box we’re talking about, see, the box is locked.”

“I see.”

His eyes moved from the air above my left shoulder to the air above my right shoulder, pausing en route to flick contemptuously at my own eyes. “Locks,” he said, “prolly don’t mean too much to you.”

“Locks mean a great deal to me.”

“This lock, the lock on the box, you prolly shouldn’t open it.”

“I see.”

“Be a very bad idea for you to open it. You bring me the box, you get the rest of your money, and everybody’s happy.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see what you’re doing.”

“Huh?”

“You’re
threatening
me,” I said. “How curious.”

The eyes widened but only for a moment. “Threats? Not for the world, kid. Advice and
threats, there’s a world of difference. I wouldn’t dream of threatening you.”

“Well, I wouldn’t dream of opening your blue leather box.”

“Leather-covered.”

“Right.”

“Not that it makes a difference.”

“Hardly. What color blue?”

“Huh?”

“Dark blue, light blue, robin’s egg blue, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, powder blue. What color?”

“What’s the difference?”

“I wouldn’t want to bring the wrong blue box.”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.”

“If you say so.”

“Just so it’s a blue leather box. Unopened.”

“Gotcha.”

Since that conversation I’d been whiling away the hours trying to decide whether I’d open the box or not. I knew myself well enough to recognize that any lock constitutes an immediate temptation for me, and when I’ve been cautioned against opening a particular lock that only increases the attraction of it.

On the other hand, I’m not a kid anymore. When you’ve been inside a couple of times your judgment is supposed to improve, and if it seemed likely that there was more danger than profit in opening the elusive blue box…

But before I came to terms with the question I had to find the box, and before I did that I had to open the desk, and I wasn’t even ready to tackle that project yet. First I wanted to get the feel of the room.

Some burglars, like some lovers, just want to get in and get out. Others try to psych out the people they’re thieving from, building up a whole mental profile of them out of what their houses reveal. I do something a little different. I have this habit of creating a life for myself to suit the surroundings I find myself in.

So I now took this apartment and transformed it from the residence of one J. Francis Flaxford to the sanctum sanctorum of yours truly, Bernard Grimes Rhodenbarr. I settled myself in an oversized wing chair upholstered in dark green leather, swung my feet up on the matching ottoman, and took a leisurely look at my new life.

Pictures on the walls, old oils in elaborate gilded frames. A little landscape that clearly owed a lot to Turner, although a lesser hand had just as clearly held the brush. A pair of old portraits in matching oval frames, a man and a woman eyeing each other thoughtfully over a small fireplace in which not a trace of ash reposed. Were they Flaxford’s ancestors? Probably not, but did he attempt to pass them off as such?

No matter. I’d call them my ancestors, and make up outrageous stories about them. And there’d be
a fire in the fireplace, casting a warm glow over the room. And I’d sit in this chair with a book and a glass, and perhaps a dog at my feet. A large dog, a large
old
dog, one not given to yaps or abrupt movements. Perhaps a stuffed dog might be best all around….

Books. There was a floor lamp beside my chair, its bulb at reading height. The wall behind the chair was lined with bookshelves and another small case of books, one of those revolving stands, stood on the floor alongside the chair. On the other side of the chair was a lower table holding a silver cigarette dish and a massive cut-glass ashtray.

All right. I’d do a lot of reading here, and quality stuff, not modern junk. Perhaps those leather-bound sets were just there for show, their pages still uncut. Well, it would be a different story if I were living here. And I’d keep a decanter of good brandy on the table beside me. No, two decanters, a pair of those wide-bottomed ship’s decanters, one filled with brandy, one with a vintage port. There’d be room for them when I got rid of the cigarette dish. The ashtray could stay. I liked the size and style of it, and I might want to take up smoking a pipe. Pipes had always burned my tongue in the past, but perhaps as I worked my way through the wisdom of the ages, feet up on the hassock, book in hand, port and brandy within easy reach, a fire glowing on the hearth…

I spent a few minutes on the fantasy, figuring out a little more about the life I’d lead in Mr. Flaxford’s apartment. I suppose it’s silly and childish to do this and I know it wastes time. But I think it serves a purpose. It gets rid of some tension. I get wired very tight when I’m in someone else’s place. The fantasy makes the place my own home in a certain way, at least for the short time I’m inside it, and that seems to help. I’m not convinced that’s why I started doing it in the first place, or why I’ve continued.

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