Authors: Timothy Hallinan
Also by Timothy Hallinan
The Junior Bender Series
The Fame Thief
The Poke Rafferty Series
A Nail Through the Heart
The Fourth Watcher
The Queen of Patpong
The Fear Artist
The Simeon Grist Series
The Four Last Things
Everything but the Squeal
The Man With No Time
The Bone Polisher
Copyright © 2012 by Timothy Hallinan
All rights reserved.
Published by Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
Illustration by Katherine Grames
To my supremely talented brothers
PK and Michael
If I’d liked expressionism, I might have been okay.
But the expressionists don’t do anything for me, don’t even make my palms itch. And Klee
doesn’t do anything for me. My education, spotty as it was, pretty much set my Art Clock to the fifteenth century in the Low Countries. If it had been Memling or Van der Weyden, one of the mystical Flemish masters shedding God’s Dutch light on some lily-filled annunciation, I would have been looking at the picture when I took it off the wall. As it was, I was looking at the wall.
So I saw it, something I hadn’t been told would be there.
Just a hairline crack in the drywall, perfectly circular, maybe the size of a dinner plate. Seen from the side, by someone peeking behind the painting without moving it, which is what most thieves would do in this sadly mistrustful age of art alarms, it would have been invisible. But I’d taken the picture down, and there it was.
And I’m weak.
I think for everyone in the world, there’s something you could dangle in front of them, something they would run onto a freeway at rush hour to get. When I meet somebody, I like to try to figure out what that is for that person. You for diamonds, darling, or first editions of Dickens? Jimmy Choo shoes or a Joseph Cornell box? And you, mister, a thick stack of green? A
troop of Balinese girl scouts? A Maserati with your monogram on it?
For me, it’s a wall safe. From my somewhat specialized perspective, a wall safe is the perfect object. To you, it may be a hole in the wall with a door on it. To me, it’s one hundred percent potential. There’s absolutely no way to know what’s in there. You can only be sure of one thing: Whatever it is, it means a hell of a lot to somebody. Maybe it’s what they’d run into traffic for.
A wall safe is just a question mark. With an answer inside.
Janice hadn’t told me there would be a safe behind the picture. We’d discussed everything but that. And, of course,
meaning the thing I hadn’t anticipated—was what screwed me.
What Janice and I had mostly talked about was the front door.
“Think baronial,” she’d said with a half-smile. Janice had the half-smile down cold. “The front windows are seven feet from the ground. You’d need a ladder just to say hi.”
“How far from the front door to the curb?” The bar we were in was
south of the Boulevard, in Reseda, far enough south that we were the only people in the place who were speaking English, and Serena’s Greatest Hits was on permanent loop. The air was ripe with cilantro and cumin, and the place was mercifully lacking in ferns and sports memorabilia. A single widescreen television, ignored by all, broadcast the soccer game. I am personally convinced that only one soccer game has ever actually been played, and they show it over and over again from different camera angles.
As always, Janice had chosen the bar. With Janice in charge of the compass, it was possible to experience an entire planet’s worth of bars without ever leaving the San Fernando Valley. The last one we’d met in had been Lao, with snacks of crisp fish bits and an extensive lineup of obscure tropical beers.
“Seventy-three feet, nine inches.” She broke off the tip of a tortilla chip and put it near her mouth. “There’s a black slate walk that kind of curves up to it.”
I was nursing a Negra Modelo, the king of Hispanic dark beers, and watching the chip, calculating the odds against her actually eating it. “Is the door visible from the street?”
“It’s so completely visible,” she’d said, “that if you were a kid in one of those ’40s musicals and you decided to put on a show, the front door of the Huston house is where you’d put it on.”
“Makes the back sound good,” I’d said.
“Aswarm with Rottweilers.” She sat back, the jet necklace at her throat sparkling wickedly and the overhead lights flashing off the rectangular, black-framed glasses she wore in order to look like a businesswoman but which actually made her look like a beautiful girl wearing glasses.
Burglars, of which I am one, don’t like Rottweilers. “But they’re not in the house, right? Tell me they’re not in the house.”
“They are not. One of them pooped on the Missus’s ninety thousand-dollar Kirghiz rug.” Janice powdered the bit of chip between her fingers and let it fall to her napkin. “Or I should say,
of the Missus’s ninety thousand-dollar Kirghiz rugs.”
“There are several women called Missus?” I asked. “Or several rugs?”
“Either way,” Janice said, reproachfully straightening her glasses at me. “The dogs are kept in back, and they get fed like every other Friday.”
“Meaning no going in through the back,” I said.
“Not unless you want to be kibble,” Janice said. “Or the side, either. The wall around the yard is flush with the front wall of the house.”
“Speaking of kibble.”
“Please do,” Janice said. “I so rarely get a chance to.”
“Does anyone drop by to feed the beasts? Am I likely to run into—”
“No one in his right mind would go into that yard. The only way to feed them would be to throw a bison over the walls. The
Hustons have a very fancy apparatus, looks like it was built for the space shuttle. Delivers precise amounts of ravening beast-food twice a day. So they’re strong and healthy and the old killer instinct doesn’t dim.”
“So,” I said. “It’s the front door.”
She used the tip of her index finger to slide her glasses down to the point of her perfect nose, and looked at me over them. “Afraid so.”
I drained my beer and signaled for another. Janice took a demure sip of her tonic and lime. I said, “I hate front doors. I’m going to stand there for fifteen minutes, trying to pick a lock in plain sight.”
“That’s why we came to you,” she said. “Mr. Ingenuity.”
“You came to me,” I said, “because you know this is the week I pay my child support.”
Janice was a back-and-forth, working for three or four brokers, guys with clients who knew where things were and wanted those things, but weren’t sufficiently hands-on to grab them for themselves. She’d used me before, and it had worked out okay. She didn’t know I’d backtracked her to two of her employers. One of them, an international-grade fence called Stinky Tetweiler, weighed 300 hard-earned pounds and lived in a long, low house south of the Boulevard with an ever-changing number of very young Filipino men with very small waists. Like a lot of the bigger houses south of Ventura, Stinky’s place had once belonged to a movie star, back when the Valley was movie-star territory. In the case of Stinky’s house, the star was Alan Ladd, although Stinky had rebuilt the house into a sort of collision between tetrahedrons that would have had old Alan’s ghost, had he dropped by, looking for the front door.
Janice’s other client, known to the trade only as Wattles, worked out of an actual office, with a desk and everything, in a smoked-glass high-rise on Ventura near the 405 Freeway. His company was listed on the building directory as Wattles
Inc. Wattles himself was a guy who had looked for years like he would die in minutes. He was extremely short, with a belly that suggested an open umbrella, a drinker’s face the color of rare roast beef, and a game leg that he dragged around like an anchor. I’d hooked onto his back bumper one night and followed him up into Benedict Canyon until he slowed the car to allow a massive pair of wrought-iron gates to swing open, then took a steep driveway up into the pepper trees.