Read Burglars Can't Be Choosers Online

Authors: Lawrence Block

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

Burglars Can't Be Choosers (6 page)

BOOK: Burglars Can't Be Choosers

“It’s hard to believe you’re not at ease with everyone.”

“What a nice thing to say!” Her eyes—I’d learned by now that they ranged from blue to green, varying either with her mood or with the way the light hit them—her eyes, as I was saying way back at the beginning of this sentence, gazed shyly up at me from beneath lowered lashes. “It’s turned into a nice day, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has.”

“It’s a little chilly out but the sky is clear. I thought about picking up some sweet rolls but I didn’t know whether you’d want anything besides just coffee.”

“Just coffee is fine. And this is good coffee.”

“Another cup? Here, I’ll get it for you.”


“What should I call you, Bernie or Bernard?”

“Whichever you like.”

“I think I’ll call you Bernie.”

“Most people do,” I said. “Oh, sweet suffering Jesus,” I said.

“It’s all right, Bernie.”

“God in Heaven.”

“It’s all right.” She leaned across the table toward me, a smile flickering at the corners of her mouth, and she placed a small soft-palmed hand atop mine. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she said.

“There isn’t?”

“Of course not. I know you didn’t kill anybody. I’m an extremely intuitive person. If I hadn’t been pretty sure you were innocent I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of knocking the plant over in the first place, and—”

“You knocked it over on purpose?”

“Uh-huh. The stand, anyway. I picked up the plant itself so nothing would happen to it, and then I kicked the stand so that it bounced off the wall and fell over.”

“Then you knew all along.”

“Well, your name’s all over the papers, Bernie. And it’s also all over your driver’s license and the other papers in your wallet. I went through your pockets while you were sleeping. You’re one of the soundest sleepers I’ve come across.”

“Do you come across that many?”

Incredibly enough, the minx blushed. “Not all that many, no. Where was I?”

“Going through my pockets.”

“Yes. I thought I recognized you. There was a photo in the
this morning. It’s not a very good likeness. Do they really cut a person’s hair that short when they send him to prison?”

“Ever since Samson pushed the temple down. They’re not taking any chances.”

“I think it’s barbaric of them. Anyway, the minute I looked at you I knew you couldn’t have murdered that Flaxford person. You’re not a murderer.” She frowned a little. “But I guess you’re a genuine burglar, aren’t you?”

“It does look that way.”

“It certainly does, doesn’t it? Do you really know Rod?”

“Not terribly well. We’ve played poker together a few times.”

“But he doesn’t know what you do for a living, does he? And how come he gave you his keys? Oh, I’m being dull-witted now. What would you need with keys? I saw your keys in your pants pocket, and all those other implements. I must say they look terribly efficient. Don’t you need something called a jimmy to pry doors open with?”

“Only if you’re crude.”

“But you’re not, are you? There’s something very sexual about burglary, isn’t there? How on earth did you get into a business like that? But the man’s supposed to ask the girl that question, isn’t
he? My, we have a lot to talk about, and it should be a lot more interesting than all that crap about Roger Armitage and the feed business in South Dakota, and I’ll bet you’ve never even been to South Dakota, have you? Although you do string out a fairly convincing pack of lies. Would you like some more coffee, Bernie?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I think I would.”


y six twenty-four that evening the chaps at Channel 7 had said all they were likely to say about the five-state manhunt now under way for Bernard Rhodenbarr, gentleman burglar turned blood-crazed killer. I set one of the foxy old Colonel’s better chicken legs on my plate and crossed the room to turn off Rod’s Panasonic. Ruth sat cross-legged on the floor, a chicken leg of her own unattended while she muttered furiously about the perfidy of Ray Kirschmann. “The gall of that man,” she said. “Taking a thousand dollars of your hard-earned money and then saying such horrible things about you.”

In Ray’s version of the proceedings, I’d crouched in the shadows to take him and Loren by surprise; only his daring and perseverance had enabled him to identify me during the fracas. “I’ve felt for years
that Rhodenbarr was capable of violence,” he’d told the reporters, and it seemed to me that his baleful glower had been directed not at the TV cameras but through them at me.

“Well, I let him down,” I said. “Made him look foolish in front of his partner.”

“Do you think he really believed what he said?”

“That I killed Flaxford? Of course he does. You and I are the only people in the world who think otherwise.”

“And the real killer.”

“And the real killer,” I agreed. “But he’s not likely to speak up and nobody’s going to take my word for anything, and you can’t do much in the way of proving your case. As a matter of fact, I don’t see why you believe me to begin with.”

“You have an honest face.”

“For a burglar, maybe.”

“And I’m a very intuitive person.”

“So I’ve been given to understand.”

“J. Francis Flaxford,” she said.

“May he rest in peace.”

“Amen. You know, I can never bring myself to trust men who turn their first name into an initial that way. I always feel they’re leading some sort of secret life. There’s just something devious about the way they perceive themselves and the image they present to the world.”

“That’s quite a generalization, isn’t it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Look at the record. G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt—”

“Fellow burglars, both of them.”

“Do you have a middle name, Bernie?”

I nodded. “Grimes,” I said. “My mother’s maiden name.”

“Would you ever call yourself B. Grimes Rhodenbarr?”

“I never have. Somehow I doubt I ever shall. But if I did it wouldn’t mean I was trying to hide something. It would mean I had taken leave of my senses. B. Grimes Rhodenbarr, for God’s sake! Look, plenty of people have first names they’re not nuts about, and they like their middle names, so—”

“Then they can drop their first names entirely,” she said. “That’s open and aboveboard enough. It’s when they keep that sneaky little initial out in front there that I don’t trust them.” She showed me the tip of her tongue. “Anyway, I like my theory. And I wouldn’t dream of trusting J. Francis Flaxford.”

“I think you can trust him now. Being dead means never having to do anything sneaky.”

“I wish we knew more about him. All we really know is that he’s dead.”

“Well, it’s the most salient fact about him. If he weren’t dead we wouldn’t have to know anything at all about the sonofabitch.”

“You shouldn’t call him that, Bernie.”

“I suppose not.”

De mortuis
and all that.”

De mortuis
indeed. She gnawed the last of the meat from her chicken bone, then gathered together all of our leavings and carried them to the kitchen. I watched her little bottom as she walked, and when she bent over to deposit the chicken bones in the garbage I got a lump in my throat, among other things. Then she straightened up and set about pouring two cups of coffee and I made myself think about the late Francis Flaxford, with a J. in front of his name and an R.I.P. after it.

The night before I’d wondered idly if the dead man was actually Flaxford. Maybe some other burglar had been working the same side of the street, taking advantage of Flaxford’s scheduled absence and arriving there before me. Then he’d managed to get his head dented and had been there when I showed up.

But who would have killed him? Flaxford himself?

No matter. The corpse was truly Flaxford, a forty-eight-year-old entrepreneur and dabbler in real estate, a producer of off-off-Broadway theatrical ventures, a
bon vivant,
a man about town. He’d been married and divorced years and years ago, he’d lived alone in his plush East Side apartment,
and someone had smashed his skull with an ashtray.

“If you were going to kill somebody,” Ruth said, “you wouldn’t use an ashtray, would you?”

“He liked substantial ashtrays,” I told her. “There was one in the living room that would have felled an ox. A big cut-glass thing, and they say the murder weapon was a cut-glass ashtray, and if it was a mate to the one I saw it would have done the job, all right.” I looked at the
story again, tapped a fingernail against his picture. “He wasn’t bad-looking,” I said.

“If you like the type.”

He had a good-looking, high-browed face, a mane of dark hair going gray at the temples, a moustache that his barber had taken pains to trim.

“Distinguished,” I said.

“If you say so.”

“Even elegant.”

“Try sneaky and shifty while you’re at it.”

De mortuis,

“Oh, screw
de mortuis.
As my grandmother used to say, if you’ve got nothing good to say about someone, let’s hear it. I wonder how he really made his money, Bernie. What do you suppose he did for a living?”

“He was an entrepreneur, it says here.”

“That just means he made money. It doesn’t explain how.”

“He dabbled in real estate.”

“That’s something you do with money, like producing plays off-off-Broadway. The real estate may have made money for him and the plays must have lost it, they always do, but he must have done something for a living and I’ll bet it was faintly crooked.”

“You’re probably right.”

“So why isn’t it in the paper?”

“Because nobody cares. As far as everybody’s concerned, he only got killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A mad-dog burglar happened to pick his apartment at random and he happened to be in it, and that was when J. Francis kept his appointment in Samarra. If he’d been wearing ladies’ underwear at the time of his death he’d make better copy and the reporters would take a longer look at his life, but instead he was just wearing a perfectly ordinary Brooks Brothers dressing gown and that made him dull copy.”

“Where does it say he was wearing a Brooks Brothers robe?”

“I made that up. I don’t know where he bought his clothes. It just says he was wearing a dressing gown. The
says dressing gown. The
calls it a bathrobe.”

“I had the impression he was naked.”

“Not according to the working press.” I tried to remember if Loren had blurted out anything about
his dress or lack of it. If he did, I didn’t remember it. “He’ll probably be naked in tomorrow morning’s
Daily News,
” I said. “What difference does it make?”

“It doesn’t.”

We were sitting side by side on the Lawson couch. She folded the paper and put it on the seat beside her. “I just wish we had someplace to start,” she said. “But it’s like trying to untie a knot when both ends of the rope are out of sight. All we’ve got are the dead man and the man who got you mixed up in this in the first place.”

“And we don’t know who he is.”

“Mr. Shmoo. Mr. Chocolate Eyes. A man with narrow shoulders and a large waistline who avoids looking people right in the eye.”

“That’s our man.”

“And he looks vaguely familiar to you.”

“He looks specifically familiar to me. He even sounded familiar.”

“But you never met him before.”


“Damn.” She made fists of her hands, pressed them against her thighs. “Could you have known him in prison?”

“I don’t think so. That would be logical, wouldn’t it? Then of course he would have known I was a burglar. But I can’t think of any area of my life in or out of prison that he fits into. Maybe I’ve
seen him on subways, passed him in the street. That sort of thing.”

“Maybe.” She frowned. “He set you up. Either he killed Flaxford himself or he knows who did.”

“I don’t think he killed anybody.”

“But he must know who did.”


“So if we could just find him. I know you don’t know his name, but did he give you a fake name at least?”

“No. Why?”

“We could try paging him at that bar. I forget the name.”

“Pandora’s. Why page him?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you could tell him you had the blue leather box.”

blue leather box?”

“The one you went to—oh.”

“There isn’t any blue leather box.”

“Of course not,” she said. “There never was one in the first place, was there? The blue leather box was nothing but a red herring.” She wrinkled up her forehead in concentration. “But then why did he arrange to meet you at Pandora’s?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure he didn’t bother to show up.”

“Then why arrange it?”

“Beats me. Unless he planned to tip the police if I showed up there, but I don’t think that makes
any sense either. Maybe he just wanted to go through the motions of setting up a meeting. To make the whole thing seem authentic.” I closed my eyes for a moment, running the scene through my mind. “I’ll tell you what’s funny. I have the feeling he kept trying to impress me with how tough he was. Why would he do that?”

“So you’d be afraid to double-cross him, I suppose.”

“But why would I cross him in the first place? There’s something funny about the guy. I think he was pretending to be tough because he’s not. Not tough, I mean. He talked the talk but he didn’t walk the walk. I suppose he must have been a con artist of some sort.” I grinned. “He certainly conned me. It’s hard to believe there was no blue box in that apartment. He had me convinced that it was there and that he really didn’t want me to open it.”

“You don’t remember him from jail. Do you think he’s ever been arrested?”

“Probably. It sort of comes with the territory. However good you are, sooner or later you step in the wrong place. I told you about my last arrest, didn’t I?”

“When the bell was out of order.”

“Right, and I wound up tossing an apartment while the tenants were home. And I had to pick a man with a gun and an air of righteous indignation, and then when I told him how we ought to be
able to be reasonable about this and pulled out my walking money, he turned out to be the head of some civic group. I’d have had about as much chance of bribing a rabbi with a ham sandwich. They didn’t just throw the book at me, they threw the whole library.”

“Poor Bernie,” she said, and put her hand on mine. Our hands took a few minutes to get acquainted. Our eyes met, then slipped away to leave us with our private thoughts.

And mine turned, not for the first time, to prison. If I gave myself up they’d undoubtedly let me cop a plea to Murder Two, maybe even some degree of manslaughter. I’d most likely be on the street in three or four years with good time and parole and all that. I’d never served that much time before, but my last stretch had been substantial enough, eighteen months, and if you can do eighteen months you can do four years. Either way you straighten up and square your shoulders and do your bit one day at a time.

Of course I was older now and I’d be crowding forty by the time I got out. But they say it’s easier to do time when you’re older because the months and the years seem to pass more rapidly.

No women inside. No soft cool hands, no taut rounded bottoms. (There are men inside with taut rounded bottoms, if you happen to like that sort of thing. I don’t happen to like that sort of thing.)

“Bernie? I could go to the police.”

“And turn me in? It might make sense if there was a reward, but—”

“What are you talking about? Why would I turn you in? Are you crazy?”

“A little. Why else would you go to the cops?”

“Don’t they have books full of pictures of criminals? I could tell them I was taken by a con man and get them to show me pictures.”

“And then what?”

“Well, maybe I’d recognize him.”

“You’ve never seen him, Ruth.”

“I feel as though I have from your description.”

“A mug shot would just show his face. Not his profile.”


“That’s why they call it a mug shot.”


“I don’t think it’s a viable approach.”

“I guess not, Bernie.”

I turned her hand over, stroked the palm and the pads of her fingers. She moved her body a little closer to mine. We sat like that for a few minutes while I got myself all prepared to put my arm around her, and just as I was about to make my move she stood up.

“I just wish we could
something,” she said. “If we knew the name of the man who roped you in we would at least have a place to start.”

“Or if we knew why somebody wanted to kill Flaxford. Somebody had a reason to want him dead. A motive. If we knew more about him we might know what to look for.”

“Don’t the police—”

“The police already know who killed him. There won’t ever be any investigation, Ruth, because as far as they’re concerned I’m guilty and the case is closed. All they have to do is get their hands on me. That’s why the frame works so perfectly. It may be that there’s only one person in the world with a motive for killing Flaxford, but no one will ever know about it because Flaxford’s murder is all wrapped up and tied with a ribbon and the card has my name on it.”

“I could go to the library tomorrow. I’ll check
The New York Times Index.
Maybe they ran something on him years ago and I can read all about it in the microfilm room.”

I shook my head. “If there was anything juicy they’d have dug it up and run it in his obit.”

“There might be something that would make some kind of connection for us. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

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