It’s everyday business when Wattles, the San Fernando Valley’s top “executive crook,” sets up a hit. He establishes a chain of criminals to pass along the instructions and the money, thereby ensuring that the hitter doesn’t know who hired him. Then one day Wattles finds his office safe open and a single item missing: the piece of paper on which he has written the names of the crooks in the chain. When people associated with the chain begin to pop up dead, the only person Wattles can turn to to solve his problem is Junior Bender, professional burglar and begrudging private eye for crooks.
But Junior already knows exactly who took Wattles’s list: the signature is too obvious. It was Herbie Mott, Junior’s burglar mentor and second father—and when Junior seeks him out to discuss the missing list, he finds Herbie very unpleasantly murdered. Junior follows the links in the chain back toward the killer, and as he does, he learns disturbing things about Herbie’s hidden past. He has to ask himself how much of the life he’s lived for the past twenty years has been of his own making, and how much of it was actually Herbie’s game.
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Eighteen minutes in—just two minutes short of my limit—I was ready to write the place off.
It was a very nice house in a very nice part of the Beverly Hills flats. A very nice car was usually standing in the driveway, a BMW SUV so new the odometer hadn’t hit the hundreds yet, and I could smell that canned new-car fragrance through the closed windows. The locks on the house’s doors, it seemed to me during my week of taking the occasional careless-looking careful look, would yield to a persuasive argument. No bothersome alarm tip-offs. Inside, I was sure, would be a lot of very nice stuff.
And I was right: there was a lot of nice stuff, although most of it was too big to lift. A European sensibility had expressed itself in a lot of stone statuary, some of it very possibly late Roman and some of it, for variety’s sake, Khmer, plus a gorgeous polychrome German Madonna in painted linden wood, possibly from the sixteenth century. As tempting as these pieces were, they were all too heavy to hoist, too bulky to carry, and too hard to fence, especially since my premier fence for fine art, Stinky Tetweiler, and I were on the outs.
So I was adjusting to the idea that the evening would be a write-off as I went very carefully through the drawers in the bedroom, putting everything back exactly where I’d found it and counting down the last ninety seconds. And, as is so often the case, the moment when I gave up was also the moment when fate, with its taste for cheap melodrama, uncoiled itself in the darkness, and my knuckles bounced off one of the things that sends a little sugar bullet straight through a burglar’s heart: a jewelry box. It was cardboard, not velvet, but it was a jewelry box, and it rattled when I picked it up.
Ever since my mentor, Herbie Mott, taught me the rules of burglary, I’ve practically salivated at the sound of something rattling in a small box.
But . . . the lid was stuck. It felt like it hadn’t been popped in years, and the accumulation of humidity and air-born schmutz had created a kind of impromptu mucilage. The word schmutz, I reflected as I ran a little pen-knife in between the box and the lid, had entered Middle English via Yiddish and German, where it meant, as it means now, dirt, specifically, a kind of sticky, yank-your-fingers-back-fast dirt.
The top pulled free from the box with a little sucking noise, like an air-kiss. I shook out one—no, two—objects and aimed my little penlight at them.
And heard the hum of an engine: a car, coming up the driveway.
Hurrying will kill you more often than taking your time will. I looked at the two objects closely, listening for the motor to cut out, listening for the slam of a car door.
One of the pieces I recognized immediately, a glittering little slice of history and bravery—valor, even—in platinum, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. It looked real, it looked fine, it looked like about $12,000 from a good fence.
The brakes let out an obliging soprano note as the car stopped, and the engine cut out.
The other piece, well . . .
The other piece looked like something that had been made in the dark by someone who was following directions over the radio or some other medium with no replay button. Slap it together from whatever was at hand, don’t make a second pass, don’t look at it too closely. It bore a sort of ur-resemblance to the $12,000 one, in the same way that a supposedly crude revenge play that scholars call the ur-Hamlet is thought to be the direct ancestor and inspiration of Shakespeare’s greatest hit, but this piece wouldn’t have fooled an inanimate object at forty paces.
A car door closed. Then I heard another.
The two pieces were in the same box for a reason. I replaced the lid, slipped the box into my pocket, put the drawer back in its original order, and let myself out the back just as the front door opened.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty thriller series and the Junior Bender mystery series. After years of working in Hollywood, television, and the music industry, he now writes full time. He divides his time between California and Thailand.