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Achy Breaky Heart
Bad luck, as my mentor and surrogate father, Herbie Mott, used to say, arrives on the wind. I’d tried without success to track the saying to its origin, but with or without an attribution, it was hard not to think of it as the wind slammed the sides of the house in which I was risking my life to steal something I wouldn’t have bought for a buck-fifty.
But whether I wanted the damn thing or not, there was work to do. I searched for good news and found some. The color looked okay, and that was about half the battle, considering what I’d been sent to swipe.
The little metal penlight gripped between my teeth had a halogen bulb, meaning it put out something very close to natural sunlight, if your idea of “natural” is reading by the illumination of a massively carcinogenic and totally uncontrolled thermonuclear reaction burning seven billion tons of hydrogen every second and perpetually on the verge of exploding, a scant eight light-minutes away.
Out loud to myself, I said, “Oh, cheer up.”
I hated this job like I hadn’t hated anything since the Great Rope Defeat. When I was eight years old, my father, who hadn’t gotten tired of us yet, made me join the Cub Scouts, either to improve my character or to get me out of the house so he could argue with my mother. This was before it was universally decreed that no child should ever be allowed to fail at anything, so we Cub Scouts of that era grew into our Cubness only through passing certain tests. The very first of these, the test that proved that you were a real human boy rather than a skillfully assembled ventriloquist’s dummy, was climbing a rope. A short rope. A short, fat rope.
I couldn’t climb a rope. I still can’t climb a rope, even today, as a relatively mature burglar, despite belonging to a profession whose members might reasonably be assumed to have occasion to scale the occasional rope. And since I never did climb that rope, I never progressed up the ranks of Cubness, and Cub Scouts for me was mainly several years of being photographed in the middle of a group of shorter and shorter children as the kids of my age moved on to knot tying and forest survival and pubic hair and . . . I don’t know, skydiving. Finally, when the Scout troop leader had taken to having me sit in a chair so I didn’t tower over all the kids of my rank, my father gave up on me. A few years later, he left us. I’m not saying the one thing led to the other, but I’m not saying it didn’t either.
Anyway, I hated this job as much as I hated the moments before and after I failed to climb that damn rope.
Putting childhood trauma aside, where it belongs, the color did look good. It’s amazing what you can do these days with the machines that Staples will let you use, right out in the open, in front of God and everyone. I’d gone into the store to copy a tiny, high-definition digital picture—courtesy of Google Images, unwitting accomplice to millions of crooks—of a bald, mild-seeming, bespectacled man, his shoulders wrapped in something that looked like a sheet, gazing benignly down to his right as though he had a kitten in his lap, posed against a background of a slightly brownish rose color. In black type, printed oddly across his chest, was the word service, all caps, in an institutional, uninteresting sans-serif type. Over the course of an afternoon, I’d made about sixty copies with minor adjustments on both sides of the color scale, messing with hue and saturation and brightness and contrast, feeding the machine with exotic paper prepared by bleaching away the images from entire sheets of old stamps of the correct size, breaking the laws of dozens of countries as the Staples staff members nodded and smiled at me and asked if I needed help. After a couple of hours, I had what I needed.
What I had was a passable replica of a little rectangle of paper, the 1948 ten-rupee Gandhi “Service” stamp, which was issued immediately after the assassination of the founder of modern India and was the least printed of all the world’s valuable stamps. Only one set was produced before someone noticed the overprinted mistake, the word service, and yanked the whole run off the press. In the entire world, only ten copies are known to exist. In 2011 one of them sold for $205,000, making it the most expensive of all modern stamps, which I was certain would have amused the ascetic Gandhi.
The man whose huge, almost threateningly ugly house I was temporarily inside owned one of those ten stamps. And I had a pretty good copy to swap for it. Not that it would fool him for long, but all we thieves need is time for the trail to cool.
Stealing stamps is (1) easy, (2) difficult, and (3) stupid. On the easy side, they’re small enough to hide and, in a pinch, can be eaten before one is searched. On the difficult side, they’re valuable enough to demand extremely frustrating locks, finding a buyer for the rare ones is essentially impossible, and there’s always the possibility of accidentally boosting a fake, what with Staples’ copy machines, et cetera. On the stupid side, valuable stamps are essentially mistakes. Stamp collectors are the only people, except maybe coin collectors, who shell out millions for screwups. Someone who collects paintings or first editions is subscribing to the best of people, people working on tiptoe, and the lucky burglar through whose hands these objects pass is getting a little whiff of genius. A collector who lusts for upside-down airplanes and typographical errors or missing colors is amassing the work of people on their worst days. What a burglar gets from handling these things is a whiff of the desperation felt by someone who’s just about to lose his job, often in an impoverished country. The average album of truly rare stamps has enough bad karma to sink a cruise ship full of philanthropists.
So the intelligent burglar, a category to which I like to think I belong, steals stamps only on assignment, and even then only when the assignment includes a guaranteed buyer, the location of the stamp, the kinds of locks it’s behind, the security status of the house, and a very good idea of where the inhabitants are going to be on the evening of the grab.
And I’d been given all those things, in addition to assurance that this job would end the deep and chilly rift between me and the San Fernando Valley’s top premiumswag fence, Stinky Tetweiler. But as important as Stinky was to me, I’d already been inside this house far too long, almost double the twenty, twenty-five minutes I allow myself. The album containing the stamp was where it was supposed to be, but so were a dozen other albums, each in several time-consuming layers of swaddling clothes, including a moistureproof and dustproof box, inside which was a rigid slipcover, inside which was the album. The albums had large, stiff pages that needed to be turned slowly and carefully, with twenty to twenty-four stamps per page, laid out in five or six rows of four stamps each. The stamps were in transparent mounts made by a company named Hawid, whose founder, Hans Widmaier, accidentally invented the protective stamp mount back in 1945 when his Berlin neighborhood was getting bombed almost hourly for its führer’s sins. Widmaier decided to bury his stamp collection, and as an improvised protective measure he wrapped them in polystyrene before shoveling the dirt over them. When he dug them up several years later in a city that had been reduced to rubble, they were undamaged, and an industry was born.
I knew all about Hawid mounts because I had spent nearly six hours putting stamps into them and taking them out again without leaving a visible trace—no ding on the stamp, no scratch on the mount, no disturbance to the adhesive that held the mount on the page. Then, just to be on the safe side, I’d done it again for two more hours, in the dark.
But owing to a little scuffle, what with the lock on the safe and the twelve albums and the dustproof boxes and the slipcovers and all those awful stamps, I was way beyond my comfort zone for the old in-and-out. I’d been assured that the owner of the stamps was going out to dinner at eight, and it was now almost nine. I was beginning to hope he hadn’t decided on fast food when finally I spotted
Gandhi and started comparing the color.
It was, as I’ve said, a pretty good match. But my heart dropped like a stone when I saw that I’d screwed up the perforations. There were a lot of them on all four sides of the stamp, and the bleached blank I’d chosen to print on was short by one on each of the two long sides. There should have been twenty-two. My blanks had twenty-one.
Squinting helplessly at the perforations, I could almost literally hear my watch ticking, and it’s a digital watch. You can go blind counting stamp perforations, and apparently I had, because I’d skipped one. I popped a modest sweat, just a film of water on my forehead, but for me that’s the equivalent of dropping to my knees and chewing my fingers.
For the money the guy who owned this house had spent on his collection of mistakes, he could have bought 5,000 prime acres in Oregon with a river running through them, a 25,000-square-foot house in the best part of Bel Air—which, actually, he already had, and I was inside it—or a third-rate Vuillard, now that prices have dropped for the impressionists. I knew that if I’d bought any of those things, I would have spent a lot of time looking, respectively, at my view of the river, at the zip code on my incoming mail, or at my painting. It didn’t seem possible that this man would spend an equivalent amount of time looking at these desiccated, fading pieces of paper. Surely he wouldn’t notice two missing perforations.
With a nail file, I eased the real Gandhi stamp out of its mount and into a glassine envelope, smooth, waterproof, and acid-free, and then slipped the file beneath the fake stamp so I could drop it into the mount, the missing perforations suddenly seeming bigger than Lake Superior. At that moment the cell phone in my pocket buzzed.
Normally I don’t carry a phone when I’m working. In addition to all the obvious reasons, if eventually the situation goes so far south that you’re a suspect and the cops can demonstrate probable cause, they can subpoena your cellular records and put you within a few hundred yards of whatever crime they’re trying to stick you with. If you were there, I mean, which, naturally, I never was. But in this case I hadn’t had time to circle the mark for a week or two to confirm his habits, so I’d set up a lookout. The house was on a cul-de-sac, which is Los Angeles French for dead end, and I’d stationed my girlfriend of the past eight months, Ronnie Bigelow, in a nice Jaguar temporarily stolen to harmonize with the neighborhood, just outside the entrance to the cul-de-sac to tell me if anyone was coming in. Ronnie had said it was her first crime, and I had acted like I believed her.
I carefully put the nail file, with the fake stamp balanced on its tip, on the table, took out my phone, which displayed unknown, and said, “Yeah?”
Jake Whelan, in his patented seventy-million-cigarette rasp, said, “Please hold for Mr. Whelan.”
I said, “I know it’s you, Jake.” I took a step toward the window, just a nervous fidget, at the same time a gust of wind knocked on the wall, and some of it found its way into the room. The fake stamp took a hopeful-looking little leap and fluttered to the floor.
“This is Bertram, Mr. Whalen’s personal assistant. Mr. Whelan will be with you in—”
“Damn it, Jake, I haven’t got time for this.”
I heard a click on the phone that sounded a lot like a mouth noise. I didn’t want to fumble around one-handed for the stamp, so I studied a hangnail for a moment. This one reinforced my conviction that hangnails don’t change very fast.
My watch almost tapped my wrist for attention. Tempus was in full fugit.
“Junior,” Whelan said, voice pumped full of his usual Hollywood brothers-beneath-the-skin enthusiasm. “How’s the best burglar in Hollywood?”
“Figure of speech, of course,” I said. “Since I’ve never been charged with a crime, much less convicted. Jake, I’m in a hurry here—”
“Back when I was working with Bob Towne,” Whelan said, figuratively putting his feet up and leaning back, “you know, the guy who wrote Chinatown? I opened every phone call with, ‘How’s the best writer in Hollywood?’ and Bob would say, ‘Who’s listening?’”
“Well,” I said, “who is?”
“You should be writing, Junior, wit like that. Hey, how you doing for money?”
I knew that Whelan, once the most dynamic producer in Hollywood, hadn’t made a movie in about twelve years and that he’d put the British Crown Jewels’ worth of imported powder up his nose, but surely he wasn’t hard up enough to borrow from me. Even broke, he went through more money in a week, between blow and shortterm leases on high-end females, than I spent in a year. I said, “Plowing a modest furrow, Jake. Enough for groceries.”
“Haven’t got eight, ten million lying around?”
“Jake, I really am tight for time right—”
“Yes or no?”
“Probably got about as much as Bertram. Interesting voice, Bertram.”
“That’s a no, then.” He was heading toward brisk.
“Yes, no is no.” In fact, I had quite a bit of money, much of which had once belonged to Whelan. “I got bus fare, Quarter Pounder money.”
“Well, that’s too fucking bad,” Whelan snarled, demonstrating the talent for instant mood swings that had terrified writers and agents for decades. Whelan was like a human pregnancy test; one minute everything’s fine, and a second later the stick turns pink and your whole life changes. “Because you’re going to need a fucking houseful of money, you little prick, if you want to—”
“Jake,” I said. “Are you mad at me?”
“Oh, no, you insignificant shit, why in the world would I be mad at you?”
“I have no idea,” I said—except of, course, I did, and my stomach muscles tightened as though someone were about to punch me in the gut.
“One word, putz,” Whelan said. “Clay.”
Bad, bad, bad. I said, “As in feet of?”
“As in Paul, funny man, Paul Klee.”
“Oh,” I said, stalling to give inspiration a little more time to drop by. “It’s funny, you know, ’cause when you said clay, I wasn’t thinking of K-L-E-E, which I used pronounce klee, to rhyme with that TV show where everyone’s singing all the—”
“You’re going to need a lot of money,” Whelan said, “if you want to buy off the guy I’ve paid to put a couple through you.”
“Put a couple through you” was twenty-four-karat Jake Whelan, the kind of clenched-teeth, popped-sweat excess that had ruined dozens of otherwise perfectly good scripts. No one ever just got shot in a Jake Whelan movie. They got “stitched up” or “nailed to the wall” or they “caught twice their weight in lead” or got “ventilated like a nursery” or something.
I said, “You’ve hired someone to do me?”
“Keep your eyes in back of you, Junior.”
I started to explain that I’d get a stiff neck, but there was a click on the line, a real one this time, and I looked to see Ronnie on the screen.
“Hang on,” I said as Jake’s voice scaled up. I hit a button.
“Incoming,” Ronnie said. “And fast.”
“On the way.” I clicked back to Jake, said, “Gotta run,” and hung up. The phone vibrated again instantly, but by then I was on my hands and knees on an extremely soft carpet—scented, swear to God, with lavender, so maybe its owner spent more time on the floor than I did—with my little penlight between my teeth again, looking for the stamp. Since it was nowhere in sight, I had time to register that the fragrant carpet was that kind of mealy-mouthed beige favored by people who are afraid of color, so the Vuillard, or even a Paul Klee for that matter, would have been lost on this guy. He deserved his damn stamps.
It had wafted, the stamp had, naturally. Had to fall fancy with frills on, had to catch the merest suggestion of a breeze, couldn’t just drop like a rock. It had wafted well beneath the circular mahogany table on which I’d put the stamp album and, like a mook, the nail file with the fake on it. I picked up the fake, a bit hurriedly, and made a faint crease across the upper right corner, which, when I got it back onto the table, I immediately began to smooth on the blank side. I heard a metallic squeal that I recognized instantly as a bad hinge on the gates, about thirty yards away, at the other end of a curving driveway. I’d heard it from around the corner when he left.
The Slugger was home. The Slugger ate babies for breakfast.