Martin opened the refrigerator and saw precisely what he had expected. The Pearls were nothing if not consistent. A gallon of milk, long since expired, cold cuts, opened jars of jam, tomato sauce, a carton of eggs, and, in the door, what Martin had predicted: salad dressing. More salad dressing than anyone would ever need. Newman's ranch, blue cheese, Thousand Island, French, Italian, two brands of balsamic vinaigrette, and Martin's favorite, parmesan peppercorn.
In the nine years that the Pearls had been Martin's clients, he had yet to see a head of lettuce or a fresh tomato in their refrigerator, yet there was always an excellent supply of salad dressing. And unlike most of his clients, the Pearls' salad dressings rarely reached their expiration dates, so someone in this house was using the dressing, but to what the dressing was being applied remained a mystery.
Martin took the bottle of parmesan peppercorn and examined it in his gloved hand. Satisfied with its expiration date, he placed it in the burlap sack and scanned the rest of the refrigerator. The sack, which hung off his left shoulder by a length of rope, was more for appearance's sake than anything else, a means of projecting an image of which he was quite proud. In Martin's estimation, he was at the top of his game, a master of his craft. Though any bag or sack would do, and some might serve him better, he had become attached to his burlap, and so on his shoulder it remained.
Martin then checked the butter drawer and found four and a half sticks. Selecting two and placing them in his sack, he closed the refrigerator door and headed for the pantry, reexamining the list that he had tucked carefully into his coat pocket. The list was written in French, so that in the event he was one day caught, it would be indecipherable by most police officers. Realistically, Martin knew that it wouldn't take long for any self-respecting detective to have the list translated, but the cautious nature of the list enhanced the image that Martin attempted to project.
sauce salade [salad dressing]
detergent Æ lessive [laundry detergent]
conserve [canned vegetables]
Martin found the Pearls' pantry well stocked with vegetables and selected two cans of peas, a can of corn, and two large cans of whole, peeled potatoes. Had the supply of vegetables been low, he would have bypassed this item on his list, adhering strictly to Rule #1:
If the missing item will be noticed, don't acquire it.
Certain items could be taken from a home without anyone ever noticing, particularly if one is familiar enough with the homeowner's inventory to determine how long an item has been in stock. A bottle of Liquid Plumber, for example, should never be taken during its first month on the shelf, because the homeowner has likely purchased it for a specific reason. A kitchen sink is slow to drain. The bathtub is filling with water during a shower. In these instances, a missing bottle of Liquid Plumber, which isn't cheap, might be noticed. But after thirty days, it's safe to assume that the homeowner has solved whatever plumbing problem from which he or she might have been suffering, and then the bottle can easily vanish without a trace. Sure, the client might one day think, "I thought I had bought an extra bottle when it was on sale," or "I didn't think I had used it all up," but as long as Martin followed Rule #2, these thoughts would be quickly dismissed.
Always married, without children, maids, or dogs.
Rule #2 was based upon a theory that Martin had proven long ago, and one that he considered to be the keystone of his success: When items go missing in a house, the suspicion of theft occurs only if the possibility of a thief exists.
The secret behind Martin's success was that the possibility of a thief operating in his clients' homes never entered their minds. And as long as the notion of theft didn't occur to a client, he would never be caught. This was achieved by choosing all clients with great care.
Single people, particularly those living alone, made for poor clients. They were simply too incalculable. When a person lives alone, he or she can monitor household inventory rather closely, and often does. Take Martin, for example. He knew that there were two tubes of Crest whitening toothpaste in the small drawer underneath his medicine cabinet. He knew this with certainty because he was the only one doing the shopping for his household, and he alone used the products that he purchased. If a tube suddenly went missing, there was no one in the household to blame for the disappearance but himself, and therefore, someone outside the home must have taken it. If these disappearances happened often enough, the possibility and probability of a thief would eventually enter Martin's mind. And because he lived alone, the identity of the thief would prove to be quite a mystery. Mysteries promote investigation. Investigations inevitably lead to evidence. Singletons were simply too much of a risk to take on as clients.
The couple must always be married as well. Roommates made the worst potential clients, simply because household expenses are often split between roommates using odd and indiscernible formulas that inevitably lead to strife. Roommates, in Martin's estimation, seem to always be fighting over whose bologna is sitting in the meat drawer, who used whose shampoo, and who made the thirty-nine-minute call to Denver on Wednesday afternoon during peak hours. Roommates, no matter how friendly they may be, always live with a certain level of mistrust for one another, and therefore when something goes missing, it is usually assumed that the roommate took it. The possibility of theft easily and immediately comes to mind with the presence of a roommate, and thus it becomes an option to consider.
No maid or children either, because these two types are frequently blamed for theft, no matter how insignificant the loss. Sticky-fingered maids and dishonest children are so common that they have almost become cliché.
And no dogs, because dogs bark at strangers and bite.
Martin did not like being bit.
One might think that the presence of children and maids and even roommates would be good for a man in Martin's line of work, by deflecting blame from himself and placing it upon more likely suspects, but this is where Martin separated himself from the amateurs. Though it might seem initially beneficial to have a theft blamed on a maid or a roommate, their mere presence establishes the likelihood of a theft. Their existence allows for the possibility of theft to enter the client's mind, and once these maids and roommates are cleared of all charges, the suspicion of theft lingers. An investigation begins. Investigations lead to evidence, and evidence leads to discovery. No, the key to Martin's success lay in the fact that his clients never really noticed that anything was missing, and when they did notice that an item was gone, they simply assumed that they had misplaced the item, lost it, or that the item had been moved or used by their spouse.
Of course, there was the occasional married couple who lived more like roommates than husband and wife, maintaining their own checking accounts, splitting expenses, and living separate financial lives, but Martin's careful screening process also eliminated these couples as potential clients. Besides, Martin found this arrangement to be ridiculous and destabilizing to the marriage, and he preferred to work with clients whose marriages were on a sound footing.
Exiting the pantry, making sure that the door was relatched, Martin passed through the kitchen and into the adjacent living room, stopping for a moment to inventory the items in the room in the event that the Pearls had added or deleted something since his last visit. A sectional sofa, brown leather and well worn, occupied the center of the room, facing a large, flat-?screen television and an enormous fieldstone fireplace topped with a teakwood mantel, none of which showed any evidence of recent use. In fact, Martin noted that the same four logs were stacked upon the hearth exactly as they had been when Martin first entered this house more than nine years ago.
A Steinway in the northeast corner of the room (Martin took great pride in being able to identify the compass points in every one of his clients' homes) displayed a number of photographs of Sophie and Sherman Pearl at various locations around the world. A tropical beach at sunset, Cinderella's castle in Disney World, the front lawn of the Taj Majal, and atop the Great Wall of China were just a few of the couple's destinations. In each picture, Sherman, a thin, middle-?aged man with horn-rimmed glasses and an incongruous shock of curly red hair was always standing to Sophie's left, right hand around her trim waist, their smiles almost always identical. Martin doubted that the couple, who had been married for a dozen years, were aware of the photographic pattern into which they had fallen, but concluded from it that this was a couple who enjoyed the safety and stability of their marriage.
Based upon their frequent travel, Martin assumed that the Pearls had postponed children in favor of long hours at the office and exciting trips around the world. Sherman was a dentist who operated his own practice over the mountain in Avon, and Sophie owned an upscale and highly successful salon in Hartford, starting out years ago in a strip mall adjacent to a Stop & Shop but recently relocating into the center of town, doubling her business almost overnight. She looked the part of a successful salon owner. Her nails were always perfectly manicured, her dark hair was short and stylish with a streak of blond running through her bangs, and she looked about ten years younger than her actual age. Both she and her husband worked long hours, earned plenty of money, and enjoyed spending it on themselves.
The Pearls' lifestyle fit perfectly into Martin's third rule of selecting clients:
Never too rich, never too poor, and never, ever through inheritance.
Clients who inherited their wealth were out of the question. Martin believed that when individuals become wealthy by means of a parent or grandparent's prior labor, they often become overly involved with the distribution of this wealth. Sure, they may give a great deal to charity, but they are also able to account for every nickel that leaves their possession, because either they seek to honor their benefactor by using the money wisely or this is the first time the inheritor has had any money and is therefore more aware of its value.
Neither of these client types appealed to Martin very much.
He believed that taking on poor clients was an equally bad idea, as they tended to be keenly aware of everything they owned, since they owned so little.
Martin also believed that wealthy couples made the worst clients, and this is where amateurs often went wrong. He believed with absolute certainty that the wealthier an individual, the more he or she cared about the things that he or she owned. The wealthy had time to enjoy their belongings, to keep track of each item, and since the wealthy often didn't work for a living, they found gratification and self-esteem through the things they owned rather than the things that they did. These people noticed when something went missing, however mundane the item might have been. This, plus their propensity for security systems, maids, and inconsistent schedules, made the wealthy the worst choice of client.
Upper-middle-class couples, comprised of hardworking and successful individuals, were Martin's bread-and-butter clients. The ideal client was a two-?income couple who earned enough money to own nice things but simply did not have the time to enjoy them. The Pearls were a perfect example. Sherman and Sophie were able to afford a beautiful home with a fieldstone fireplace, but they never had the time to actually use it. They purchased the Steinway about six years ago but had yet to purchase a music book or take a piano lesson. The Pearls were making excellent money, more than a quarter of a million dollars a year between them, but they were simply too busy with work and travel to monitor or enjoy their things, and this made them one of Martin's most reliable couples.
Of course, Martin knew all this and much more because he had screened the Pearls for more than five months prior to signing them on as clients, and he continued to remain as informed as possible about their lives.
Martin did not believe in skimping on research.
Staying as close as possible to the west wall so as to avoid the picture window that faced the street, Martin made his way through the living room to the stairway leading to the second floor. Before ascending, he popped his head into the dining room to his right, doubting that the Pearls had changed this sparsely furnished room in any way (since it appeared that the room went virtually unused), but wanting to be sure nevertheless. An unused dining room was another sign of a couple who had no time to spend enjoying their home. Dinners were often eaten in the kitchen, in a restaurant, or in the car. The dining room, with its black-lacquered, handcrafted Italian table, was as unused as the Pearls' fieldstone fireplace and dusty Steinway.
Satisfied that the dining room was as sterile as ever, Martin climbed the stairs slowly and methodically, authenticating his purchase on each step before ascending.
Years ago, Jim, Martin's only real friend, had been reading from a book of lateral-thinking puzzles over pizza and beer when he offered this puzzle to his friend:
A man calls 911 from a home, saying that he is injured and needs help. The police and ambulance arrive, and he is taken to the hospital, where the man is later arrested. What is the man arrested for?
After more than fifteen minutes of yes-or-no questions, Martin finally solved the puzzle. The man who called 911 had been a burglar who had broken his leg coming down a set of stairs in a house that he was robbing. Trapped in the home, with no hope of escape and in great pain, the burglar was forced to call for help and was later arrested after receiving treatment at the hospital. The author of the lateral-thinking book also noted that this puzzle was based upon a true story.
As the solution to the puzzle had dawned on Martin, his heart quickened and his face flushed. Was his friend of almost thirty years aware of Martin's true career? Was he using this puzzle as a means of broaching the subject, or had this simply been a coincidence?
Martin and Jim had met over a game of Chutes and Ladders a couple weeks into their kindergarten year, when it had become clear to both of them, even at their young age, that no one else was interested in playing with them. Alone in a new world of shiny linoleum, tiny chairs and desks, and inflatable letter people, the two were forced into a friendship that had lasted for almost their entire lives. Though Jim had escaped the isolation of kindergarten and gone on to a more normal life of marriage and children, he had always made room in his life for his friendship with Martin. And for Martin, Jim was one of the only people in the world, perhaps the only person in the world, with whom he was at ease. Therefore, as he solved Jim's puzzle, he worried that he had slipped in some way. It's difficult to bluff someone who has known you longer than you've been able to read. If anyone could uncover his secret, Martin reasoned, it would be Jim.