Liars & Thieves
When Dorsey O'Shea walked into the lock shop that morning in October, I was in the back room trying to figure out how to pick the new high-security Cooper locks. I saw her through the one-way glass that separated the workshop from the retail space.
My partner, Willie the Wire, was waiting on a customer. I don't think Willie recognized her at firstit had been two years since Dorsey and I were a number, she had changed her hair, and as I recall he had only met her on one or two occasionsbut he remembered her as soon as she said his name and asked for me.
Willie was noncommittalhe knew I was in the back room. "How long has it been, Dorsey?"
"I really need to see Carmellini," she said forcefully.
"You're the third hot woman this week who has told me that."
"I want his telephone number, Willie."
"Does he still have your phone number?"
That was when I stepped through the shop door and she saw me. She was tall, with great bones, and skin like cream. "Hey, Dorsey."
"Tommy, I need to talk to you."
"Come on back."
She came around the counter and preceded me through the doorway to the shop. I confess, I watched. Even when she wasn't trying, her hips and bottom moved in very interesting ways. But all that was past, I told myself with a sigh. She had ditched me, and truth be told, I didn't want her back. Too much maintenance.
In the shop she looked around curiously at the tools, locks, and junk strewn everywhere. Willie wasn't a neat workman, and I confess, I'm also kinda messy. She fingered some of the locks, then focused her attention on me. "I remembered that you were a part owner in this place, so I thought Willie might know where to find you."
"Inducing him to tell you would have been the trick."
Obviously Dorsey had not considered the possibility that Willie might refuse to tell her whatever she asked. Few men ever had. She was young, beautiful, and rich, the modern trifecta for females. She came by her dough the old-fashioned wayshe inherited it. Her parents died in a car wreck shortly after she was born. Her grandparents who raised her passed away while she was partying at college, trying to decide if growing up would be worth the effort. Now she lived in a monstrous old brick mansion on five hundred acres, all that remained of a colonial plantation, on the northern bank of the Potomac thirty miles upriver from Washington. It was a nice little getaway if you were worth a couple hundred million, and she was.
When I met her she was whiling away her time doing the backstroke through Washington's social circles. She once thought I was pretty good arm candy on the party circuit and a pleasant bed warmer on long winter nights, but after a while she changed her mind. Women are like that ... fickle.
I had the Cooper lock mounted on a board, which was held in a vise. I adjusted the torsion wrench and went back to workwith the pick. The Cooper was brand-new to the market, a top-of-the-line exterior door lock that contractors were ordering installed in new custom homes. They were telling the owners that it was burglarproof, unpickable. I didn't think there was a lock on the planet that couldn't be opened without a key, but then, I had never before tried the Cooper. I would see one sooner or later on a door I wanted to go through, so why not learn now? I had already cut a Cooper in halfruining several saw bladesso I knew what made it tick. I had had two pins aligned when Dorsey came in, and of course lost them when I released the tension on the wrench and walked around front to speak to her.
She eyed me now as I manipulated the tools. "What are you doing?"
"Learning how to open this lock."
"Why don't you use a key?"
"That would be cheating. Our public would be disappointed. What can I do for you today, anyway?"
She looked around again in a distracted manner, then sat on the only uncluttered stool. "I need help, and the only person I could think of asking was you."
I got one of the pins up and felt around, trying to find which of the others was the tightest. The problem here, I decided, was the shape of my pick. I could barely reach the pins. I got a strip of flat stock from our cabinet and began working with the grinder.
"That sounds very deep," I said to keep her talking. "Have you discussed that insight with your analyst?"
"I feel like such a fool, coming here like this. Don't make it worse by talking down to me."
"It's not that I didn't like you, Tommy, but I never understood you. Who are you? Why do you own part of a lock shop? What kind of work do you do for the government? You never told meanything about yourself. I always felt that there was this wall between us, that there was a whole side of you I didn't know."
"You don't owe me an explanation," I said. "It was two years ago. We hadn't made each other any promises."
She twisted her handsI couldn't help glancing at her from time to time.
"Why don't you tell me what's on your mind?" I said as I inspected my new pick. I slipped it into the Cooper, put some tension on the torsion wrench, and went to work as she talked.
"Every man I know wears a suit and tie and spends his days making moneythe more the betterexcept you. It's just thatoh, hell!" She watched me work the pick for a minute before she added, "I want you to get into an ex-boyfriend's house and get something for me."
"There are dozens of lock shops listed in the yellow pages."
"Oh, Tommy, don't be like that." She slipped off the stool and walked around so that she could look into my eyes. She didn't reach and she didn't touchjust looked. "I feel like such a jerk, asking you for a favor after I broke up with you, but I don't have a choice. Believe me, I am in trouble."
Truthfully, when she dumped me I was sort of subtly campaigning to get dumped. I wasn't about to tell her that. And you don't have to believe it if you don't want to.
I glanced at her. The tension showed on her face. "You're going to have to tell me all of it," I said, gently as I could. At heart Dorsey was a nice kid ... for a multimillionaire, which wasn't her fault.
"His name is Kincaid, Carroll Kincaid. He has a couple of videotapes. He made them without my knowledge when we were first dating. He's threatening to show them to my fiancé if I don't pay him a lot of money."
"I didn't know you were engaged."
"We haven't announced it yet."
"Who's the lucky guy?"
She said a name, pronounced it as if I was supposed to recognize it.
"So why don't you ask him for help?" I said.
"I can't. Tommy, even if I pay blackmail, there's no guarantee Kincaid would give me the only copies of the tapes."
"So you want me to break into his house and get the tapes?"
"It wouldn't really be burglary. He made the tapes without my permission. They are really mine."
Amazingly enough, when we were dating the thought never crossed my little mind that she might have a stupid stunt like this in her. I made eye contact again, scrutinized every feature. I decided she might be telling the truth.
I was trying to think of something appropriate to say when I felt the pick twitch and the lock rotated. It was open.
I put the tools on the table and was reaching for a stool when she moved closer and laid a hand on my arm. "Oh, Tommy, please! Blackmail is ugly. I am really in love, and it could be something wonderful. Kincaid is trying to ruin my life."
I reflected that sometimes having money is really hard on a girl, or so I've heard. And the prospect of burglary always gets my juices flowing. She gave me Kincaid's address. I made sure Dorsey understood that I wasn't promising anything. "I'll see what I can do." She gave me her cell phone number, started to kiss me, thought better of it, and left.
I sat wondering how that kiss would have tasted as I listened to her walk through the store. When the front door closed Willie came into the workshop.
"I don't know what you got, Carmellini, that drives all the chicks wild, but I'd sure like to have some of it. They're troopin' in here all the time wantin' to know where you are, what you'redoin'makes a man feel inadequate, y'know? Maybe you oughta open a school or somethin'. Sorta a public service deal. Whaddaya think ?"
"I got the Cooper opened."
"How long it take you?"
"I wasn't timing it. I was"
"Three minutes for me," Willie said with a touch of pride in his voice. "'Course I wasn't looking at a dish like that when I did it. What does she want you to dosteal the silver at the White House?"
"I can beat three minutes blindfolded," I told Willie, and by God, I did. And I had to listen to a lot of his b.s. while I did it.
I went into Kincaid's place the following night. There was no one home and he forgot to lock the back door. When I found that the door was unlocked, I sat down at his backyard picnic table while I thought things over. For the life of me, I couldn't see what Dorsey would gain by setting me up. She was waiting in my car halfway down the block with a cell phone to call me if Kincaid returned while I was in the house.
If she was playing a game, it was too deep for me, I concluded. Even smart people forget to lock their doors.
I opened Kincaid's back door and went inside.
After thirty minutes I was certain there were no homemade videotapes in the house, although I did find three high-end videocams and a dozen photographer's floodlights in the bedroom, which had a huge round bed in the center of the room and electrical outlets every three feet around the walls. This guy was more than kinkyhe was set up to make porno flicks.
So where were they? There were boxes of videotapeall unopened, still wrapped in cellophane. Nothing that looked like it had been in a camera.
I was going through his files at his desk in his denhe was reasonably well organized, I must saywhen I found a receipt for a safe deposit box at a local bank. From the amount he paid, he must have rented a large box. The receipt was dated a month ago. The box key wasn't in the desk, and I didn't expect it to be.
I couldn't find a receipt or record that hinted that he owned a storage unit. He might have stashed a suitcase full of stuff at a friend's house, but I doubted it. These days everyone had curious friends. His car was a possibility, though an unlikely one. If some kid took it for a joyride he could be ruined. Of course, he could have delivered the tapes to whatever lab processed them into movies. But if he did that with a tape of Dorsey and some porno kings, why try to blackmail her?
Dorsey was chewing her lip when I got into the car. "No videotapes," I said. "Has a nice little home movie setup, but no tapes."
"I could help you look. They must be there."
"They aren't. He didn't even lock the back door." I started the car and got it rolling down the street. "He's set up to film some hot porno action. The raw tapes would have to be digitized and edited, and the equipment for that isn't in the house."
Her color wasn't good. She didn't meet my eyes.
"When did he first approach you demanding money?"
She thought about it. "Three weeks ago, I think. Labor Day weekend. I had some friends over for a small party, and he showed up unannounced."
The time frame seemed to fit. I decided the safe deposit box was a definite possibility.
I didn't make a habit of burgling houses for ex-girlfriends, even if they were beautiful and rich and being blackmailed. During the day I worked for the CIA. It wasn't something agency employees talk about, and I had never mentioned it to Dorsey. I think I did once mention that I worked for the General Services Administration. She probably thought I was some kindof maintenance supervisor. Maybe that was the story I told herI don't quite remember.
Usually I worked overseas, breaking and entering for Uncle Sam, planting bugs, stealing documents, that kind of thing. Every now and then I did a few black-bag jobs stateside for the FBI, strictly as a favor, you understand, one federal agency helping another. I sometimes heard rumors that the CIA asked the FBI to ask for my help on domestic matters, but being a loyal employee, I immediately discounted and forgot those ugly whispers. In those days I was just another civil servant beating in time, working toward that happy retirement on the old fifty-fifth birthday, followed by a life of golf and restaurant meals courtesy of future taxpayers.
After my abortive inspection of Dorsey's ex-flame's house, I took her back to her car and dropped her. She was in a foul mood, chewing her lip.
I waited until she got inside her vehicle, then drove away to find a bar. As I swilled beer I compared how I felt two years ago when she dumped me and how I felt walking through the porno guy's digs.
A few days later I had to leave work after lunch for my annual physical, so after the doc finished with the rubber glove I took the rest of the day off. I went by the neighborhood bank where Kincaid had his box, parked, went in and rented one for myself.
It was a typical suburban branch bank, with a drive-through window and an interior lobby. A security door that had to be opened from the inside prevented people from entering the loan officers' half of the building, and that was where the small safe deposit vault was. I filled out the form and was admitted to the vault. A bank of boxes formed each wall. The largest boxes wereon the bottom row. Beside the door was a cabinet that contained envelopes holding keys for the empty boxes, and on top of the cabinet were two steel boxes containing the cards that each patron had to sign every time he wanted into his box. A single surveillance camera was mounted high on the wall opposite the door to the vault.
My escort in the vault was a young woman named Harriet who was wearing a wedding ring and maternity clothes, although the baby wasn't showing much. I commented on that, and she told me she had five more months to go. It was her first child. She and her husband were so excited.
"You're lucky we have a large box available. This is the only one. It became available last week when the lady who had it was transferred to Europe. She's with the State Department."
She gave me my key, and we checked that it opened my new box. The locks for the individual boxes were lever tumbler locks, which is the universal standard in American safe deposit vaults. Each box had two keyways. As usual, she had to insert the master key, which she carried, into one keyway and my key into the other and turn them both simultaneously for the box to open. Fortunately Willie had a bank of four safe deposit boxes complete with their lever tumbler locks back at the shop.
I confess, I was a little disappointed, although I tried not to show it. Some banks were getting in the habit of breaking off one of their master keys in the lock of each box in the vault, then admitting box holders to the vault without an escort. Needless to say, these boxes were a breeze for guys like me to pop. I had my hopes up, but it wasn't to be. This bank was still doing it the safe, old-fashioned way.
I told Harriet I might be back in a few days to put some stuff in my new box, thanked her for her time, and departed.
Back in the shop Willie and I discussed lever tumbler locks and disassembled one from his safe deposit boxes. Lever tumbler locksrequire an L-shaped pick, the prong of which must be precisely the right length. I used my key to measure the length I needed and made myself three picks, each a slightly different length, just in case.
I spent the weekend practicing on Willie's locks. My best time was twenty-six seconds, but two minutes was the average, and if I hurried or wasn't paying strict attention, I couldn't get the lock to open. Willie spent some time watching me, and even opened one a few times himself.
Willie the Wire was twenty years older than me, a slim, dapper black man who worked Washington hotels in his younger days as a bellboy. Finally he quit carrying bags into the hotel for guests and specialized in picking locks and carrying luggage outsans tip. The last time he got out of prison he promised himself an honest job, but with his reputation, no one would hire him. A friend of mine knew him and mentioned his plight to me. We had dinner a few times, and he showed me a couple of things I didn't know about locks, so I bankrolled this establishment and we became partners. He knew I worked for the CIA, but we never talked about it.
That weekend as we played with the locks on his sample safe deposit boxes, he wanted to talk about Dorsey O'Shea. "This might be a setup, man. You ever think about that?"
"Why would Dorsey want to set me up?"
"Maybe somebody who don't like you wanta burn youhow the hell would I know, man! You're the fuckin' spy, you tell me."
"I can't think of any reason under the sun."
"She look like real money. That right?"
"She's got it, yeah."
"You don't know what the hell you gettin' into, and that's a fact. This man got somethin' on her besides movies of her gettin' cock. Whoever looks at faces in those flicks, anyway? You in over your simple head, Carmellini."
Perhaps he was right, but Dorsey O'Shea didn't hang with Willie the Wire's crowd. Although being a porno star wouldn't hurt your rep in some circles, a lot of minds weren't quite that open. If Kincaid was a real son of a bitch he could squeeze her for serious cash.
That's the way I had it figured, anyhow. On the other hand, maybe I just wanted to see if I could pop Kincaid's box at the bank. I had never done a safe deposit box before, so what the hell.
I called Dorsey on Monday morning, right after I called the agency and said I was sick. "Today's the day. Pick me up at my house at ten o'clock."
She showed up ten minutes late, which was amazingly punctual for her. I got in with her and directed her to a costume place that a friend of mine owned in a strip mall in Silver Spring. When we came out, she was wearing a maternity dress. We had a hard plastic shape strapped to her stomach to fill out the dress. I thought she looked about seven months along. I pushed on her new stomach and it felt real to methe proper resistance and give. On the way to the bank I drove and briefed her.
"I don't know if I can do this, Tommy," she said when I finished.
"Do you want those tapes or not?"
"I want them."
"You have two choicespay up or do a deal. Killing Kincaid will leave the tapes for the cops to find. Odds are he has the tapes in his box at the bank. He thinks they're safe there. He may have duped themI don't know. If we clean out that box we may get something he wants bad enough to trade for. Everything in life's a risk."
"My God!" she whispered.
"We're about a mile from the bank. Think it over."
When we pulled into the bank parking lot she looked pasty and haggard, which was fine. Anyone who looked at her could see she was not her usual self.
"All right," she said.
I went through it again, covering everything I could think of, including contingencies.
"Make it good," I said, and handed her the small bottle I had brought with me. She made a face and drank half of it.
"All of it."
"Jesus, this tastes bad."
"All of it."
She tossed off the rest of the goop and threw the bottle on the back seat.
We went into the bank and sat outside the security door until Harriet finished a telephone call and came to open it for us. I had a leather attaché case with me, but it was empty.
A female loan officer was seated behind her desk talking on the telephone in one of the small offices off the main office area. The walls of all these spaces had large windows in them so everyone could see what was going on everywhere in the bank. The only privacy was in the vault, a series of cubicles for customers to load and unload their boxes, and the employee restrooms, which were right beside the vault. I didn't see any other employees in this area of the bank.
Dorsey and Harriet compared due dates after I introduced them, then Dorsey sat at a chair by Harriet's desk. While Harriet retrieved the master safe deposit box key from her desk, I checked that none of the surveillance cameras were pointed into the vault. They weren't.
Inside the vault, Harriet asked, "Do you remember your box number, Mr. Carmellini?"
"Number six, I think. It was one of the large ones." I pointed at it.
Harriet opened the card catalog and looked me up while I watched over her shoulder.
She removed my card from the box. "If you'll just sign and date this ..."
I did so and handed her my key. She inserted her master key into my box lock, then mine, and opened it.
"Do you want to take your box to our privacy area?" she asked.
Before I could answer, I heard Dorsey moan, then I heard a thud as she hit the floor.
"My God!" I said, and darted out of the vault. Harriet was right behind me.
Dorsey lay facedown on the floor, moaning softly and holding herself. The woman from the loan office rushed out and bent over her. Dorsey began retching.
"The bathroom," Harriet said, and grabbed one arm. The other woman took her other arm, and they assisted her to her feet. Dorsey gagged.
As they went through the door of the ladies', I faded into the vault. Bless Harriet, she had left the master key sticking in the keyway of my box!
I turned sideways to the camera and removed a halogen flashlight from my trouser pocket. I snapped it on as I aimed it at the camera. The light was so bright I had to squint for several seconds. I placed the light on the cabinet beside the card file and arranged it on a flexible wire base so it was pointed at the camera. The beam would wipe out the picture.
I knew that Carroll Kincaid also had a large box, based on the amount he had paid in rent. It took just seconds to find his name in the card catalog. He had box number twelve and hadn't visited it since he rented it.
Leaving the lock on my box open, I used the master key on Kincaid's, inserted one of my picks and a torsion wrench in the second keyway, and went to work. After ten seconds, I decided I had the wrong size pick and tried another.
I closed my eyes so that I could concentrate on the feel.
Perspiration beaded on my forehead. That never happens to James Bond in the movies; it's a character defect that I just have to live with.
I concentrated on the feel of the pick.
Bang, I got it, and felt the lock give the tiniest amount. Keeping the tension on the torsion wrench, I turned the master key ... and the lock opened.
Kincaid's box had something in it. I didn't open it. I merely transferred his box to my vault and put my empty box in his, then closed the lock flap. I replaced the master key in the lock on my box, closed it, retrieved my key and the halogen flashlight, and was waiting in the lobby with my attaché case when the women came out of the restroom.
Dorsey looked as if she had been run over by something. Her face was pasty and her hair a mess.
Harriet and the other woman helped her toward the door.
"I'll get her home," I said, and slipped an arm around her. "Thank you so much."
Dorsey murmured something to the women, then put her hand over her mouth as if she were going to heave again. Harriet opened the door and I half carried Dorsey through it.
I put her in the passenger seat of the car and got behind the wheel.
"You son of a bitch," she snarled. "I nearly vomited up my toenails."
"Remember this happy day," I remarked, "the next time somebody wants you to star in a fuck movie."
"Did you get the tapes?"
"I got something. I'll go back in a couple of days and get whatever it is."
"I'll go with you. I want those tapes."
"Those women have seen you for the last time. When I get the tapes, I'll call you."
She didn't like it, but she was in no condition to argue.
When I went back Wednesday afternoon, Harriet gave me a strange look. "How's your wife?"
"Better, thank you. You gotta be tough to have a baby."
She obviously had something on her mind. "After you and your wife left Monday, I had the strangest call from our security officer."
"Apparently the surveillance camera in the vault stopped working while we had your wife in the restroom."
I shrugged. "Did it break?"
"Oh, no! Merely stopped working for a few minutes. They monitor them from our main office in Silver Spring."
"That is odd," I admitted. "While you were in the bathroom I used the time to put the items I brought into my box."
"The master safe deposit key was still in the lock of your box after you left."
"You have it now, I hope."
"I really appreciate the way you and the other lady helped my wife," I said warmly. "I apologize for the inconvenience, but you know how these things are. I've written a letter to the president of the bank. I feel so fortunate that the bank has such wonderful employees."
We opened the locks, and I pulled my box from its shelf. I carried it to a privacy cubicle. There were a dozen videotapes, four whopping big stacks of cash with rubber bands around them, and a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, which was loaded. I put a handkerchiefaround my fingers as I checked the pistol. The box was the best place for it, I decided; I left it there. The money and tapes I put in the attaché case.
Harriet and I chatted some more while I put the box away, then I left.
I played the tapes on a VCR I had at home. Dorsey was on three of them. The same men were on all twelve. I didn't recognize any of the other women. When I finished with the nine tapes Dorsey wasn't on, I smashed them with a hammer and put them in the garbage, where they belonged.
The cash amounted to twenty-seven grand in old bills. I held random bills up to the light, fingered them, and compared them to some bills I had in my wallet. It was real money, I concluded. Tough luck for Carroll Kincaideasy come, easy go.
I met Dorsey that Friday evening in downtown Washington at a bar jam-packed with people celebrating the start of the weekend. As the hubbub washed over us, I gave her the three remaining tapes. I put my mouth close to her ear and asked, "Is any of these men Carroll Kincaid?"
"No." She refused to meet my eyes. "I don't want to talk about it."
"For whatever it's worth, you weren't the only one."
She grunted and slugged her Scotch down as if it were Diet Coke.
"A thank-you would be in order," I said.
She laid a hand on my arm, tried to smile, got up, and walked out.
I drank a second beer while I contemplated the state of the universe. On my way home I stopped by the first church I sawit was Catholicand went in to see the priest.
"Father, I have unexpectedly come into some serious money. I won't burden you with an explanation, but I wish to donate it to the church to use in its ministry to the poor."
The priest didn't look surprised. People must give him wads of cash every day. "As you probably know quite well, the need is great," he told me. "On behalf of the church, I would be delighted to accept any amount you wish to donate."
I handed him the money, which I had put in a shoebox and wrapped in some Christmas gift wrap I had left over from the holidays.
He hefted the box and inspected my wrapping job. "Do you want a receipt?" he said, eyeing me.
"That won't be necessary." I shook his hand and hit the road.
A few weeks later the agency sent me to Europe, where I spent most of the winter and spring. I didn't hear from Dorsey O'Shea during my occasional trips back to the States, and probably would never have run into her again had I not gotten into a jam the following summer.
LIARS & THIEVES. Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Coonts. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.