Read The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian Online

Authors: Lawrence Block

Tags: #Fiction, #Library, #Mystery Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Murder, #Rhodenbarr; Bernie (Fictitious character), #General, #New York (N.Y.), #Hard-Boiled, #Thieves

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian

BOOK: The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

This is for
Lynne Wood
with special thanks to
Michael Trossman
who taught me how to prepare the canvas
Laurence Anne Coe
who helped me assemble the frame



It was a slow day at Barnegat Books, but then…


Of course he didn’t take my word for it.


At the eleventh-floor landing, I paused long enough to…


“The cat,” I Said.


A sign on the counter said the suggested contribution was…


“There’s the answer,” Carolyn said. “We’ll destroy the painting.


I didn’t keep Leona Tremaine’s quarter for very long. I…


For a moment I thought I’d made a horrible mistake.


“Gosh,” she said again some minutes later. Our clothing was…


I unlocked the steel gates, opened the door, scooped up…


“What gives me the most trouble,” Wally Hemphill said, “is…


“She must have killed him,” Carolyn said. “Right?”


When I got back to my shop the phone was…


“Don’t fall in love with her,” I told Carolyn. “She’s…


“You can rent ’em for only fifty bucks a month,”


Back at the store, I checked the premises for bodies…


“Hold this,” Denise Raphaelson said. “You know, I can’t remember…


It was somewhere around eleven when I left the Narrowback…


I stood in a doorway on West End Avenue and…


It was lunch hour when I hit the downtown financial…


“What you got in there?” the child demanded. “Fission poles?”


Afterward, the hardest part was staying awake long enough for…


“Oh, great,” I said. “Everybody’s here.”


After a few urgent words to his wife, something about…


“This is a nice place,” Carolyn said, “and they make…

t was a slow day at Barnegat Books, but then most of them are. Antiquarian booksellers, after all, do not dream of retiring to the slow and simple life. They are already leading it.

This particular day had two high points, and as luck would have it they both came at once. A woman read me a poem and a man tried to sell me a book. The poem was “Smith, of the Third Oregon, Dies,” by Mary Carolyn Davies, and the woman who read it was a slender and fresh-faced creature with large long-lashed brown eyes and a way of cocking her head that she must have learned from a feathered friend. Her hands—small and well formed, unringed fingers, unpolished nails—held a copy of Ms. Davies’ first book,
Drums in Our Street,
which the Macmillan Company had seen fit to publish in 1918. And she read to me.

“Autumn in Oregon—I’ll never see

Those hills again, a blur of blue and rain

Across the old Willamette. I’ll not stir

A pheasant as I walk, and hear it whirr

Above my head, an indolent, trusting thing….”

I’m rather an indolent, trusting thing myself, but all the same I cast a cold eye on the Philosophy & Religion section, where my most recent visitor had stationed himself. He was a hulking sort, late twenties or early thirties, wearing low Frye boots and button-fly Levi’s and a brown wide-wale corduroy jacket over a darker brown flannel shirt. Horn-rimmed glasses. Leather elbow patches on the jacket. A beard that had been carefully trimmed. A headful of lank brown hair that had not.

“When all this silly dream is finished here,

The fellows will go home to where there fall

Rose petals over every street, and all

The year is like a friendly festival….”

Something made me keep my eyes on him. Perhaps it was an air about him, a sense that he might at any moment commence slouching toward Bethlehem. Maybe it was just his attaché case. At Brentano’s and the Strand you have to check bags and briefcases, but my customers are allowed to keep them at hand, and sometimes their carryalls are heavier upon departure than arrival. The secondhand book trade is precarious at best and one hates to see one’s stock walk out the door like that.

“But I shall never watch those hedges drip

Color, not see the tall spar of a ship

In our old harbor.—They say that I am dying,

Perhaps that’s why it all comes back again:

Autumn in Oregon and pheasants flying—”

She let out a small appreciative sigh and closed the little book with a snap, then passed it to me and asked its price. I consulted the penciled notation on its flyleaf and the tax table that’s taped to my counter. The last hike boosted the sales tax to 8 1?4 percent, and there are people who can figure out that sort of thing in their heads, but they probably can’t pick locks. God gives us all different talents and we do what we can with them.

“Twelve dollars,” I announced, “plus ninety-nine cents tax.” She put a ten and three singles on the counter, and I put her book in a paper bag, fastened it with a bit of Scotch tape, and gave her a penny. Our hands touched for an instant when she took the coin from me, and there was a bit of a charge in the contact. Nothing overpowering, nothing to knock one off one’s feet, but it was there, and she cocked her head and our eyes met for an instant. The author of a Regency romance would note that a silent understanding passed between us, but that’s nonsense. All that passed between us was a penny.

My other customer was examining a buckram-bound quarto volume by Matthew Gilligan, S. J.
The Catogrammatic vs. the Syncogrammatic,
it was called, or was it the other way around? I’d had the book ever since old Mr. Litzauer sold me the store, and if I’d never dusted the shelves it would never have been picked up at all. If this chap was going to steal something, I thought, let him hook that one.

But he returned Father Gilligan to his shelf even as Mary Carolyn Davies went out the door with my demure little poetry lover. I watched her until she crossed my threshold—she was wearing a suit and matching beret in plum or cranberry or whatever they’re calling it this year, and it was a good color for her—and then I watched him as he approached my counter and rested one hand on it.

His expression, insofar as the beard showed it, was guarded. He asked me if I bought books, and his voice sounded rusty, as if he didn’t get too many chances to use it.

I allowed that I did, if they were books I thought I could sell. He propped his attaché case on the counter, worked its clasps, and opened it to reveal a single large volume, which he took up and presented to me.
was its title, François Duchardin was its author, and Old World butterflies and moths were its subject matter, discussed exhaustively (I can only presume) in its French text and illustrated spectacularly upon its color plates.

“The frontispiece is missing,” he told me, as I paged through the book. “The other fifty-three plates are intact.”

I nodded, my eyes on a page of swallowtail butterflies. When I was a boy I used to pursue such creatures with a homemade net, killing them in a mason jar, then spreading their wings and pinning them in cigar boxes. I must have had a reason for such curious behavior, but I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been.

“Print dealers break these up,” he said, “but this is such a desirable volume and in such good condition I thought it really ought to go to an antiquarian book dealer.”

I nodded again, this time looking at moths. One was a cecropia. That and the luna are the only moths I know by name. I used to know others.

I closed the book, asked him what he wanted for it.

“A hundred dollars,” he said. “That’s less than two dollars a plate. A print dealer would charge five or ten a plate, and he’d get that easily from decorators.”

“Could be,” I said. I ran my finger over the book’s top edge, where a rectangle enclosed the stamped words
New York Public Library.
I opened the book again, looking for a
stamp. Libraries do divest themselves of books, just as museums deaccession some of their holdings, though Duchardin’s
hardly seemed a candidate for such treatment.

“Those overdue charges can mount up,” I said sympathetically, “but they have these amnesty days now and then when you can return overdue books with no penalty. It seems unfair to those of us who pay our fines without protest, but I suppose it does get books back in circulation, and that’s the important thing, isn’t it?” I closed the book again, set it deliberately into his open attaché case. “I don’t buy library books,” I said.

“Somebody else will.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“I know one dealer who has his own

“I know a carpenter who drives screws with a hammer,” I said. “There are tricks to every trade.”

“This book didn’t even circulate. It sat in a locked case in the reference section, available by special request only, and because of its value they found ways to avoid letting people have access to it. The library’s supposed to serve the public, but they think they’re a museum; they keep their best books
from people.”

“It doesn’t seem to have worked.”

“How’s that?”

“They couldn’t keep this one away from you.”

He grinned suddenly, showing clean if misaligned teeth. “I can get anything out of there,” he said. “Anything.”


“You name a book and I’ll lift it. I’ll tell you, I could bring you one of the stone lions if the price was right.”

“We’re a little crowded around here just now.”

He tapped
“Sure you can’t use this? I could probably ease up a little on the price.”

“I don’t do much volume in natural history. But that’s beside the point. I honestly don’t buy library books.”

“That’s a shame. It’s the only kind I deal in.”

“A specialist.”

He nodded. “I’d never take anything from a dealer, an independent businessman struggling to make ends meet. And I’d never steal from a collector. But libraries—” He set his shoulders, and a muscle worked in his chest. “I was a graduate student for a long time,” he said. “When I wasn’t asleep I was in a library. Public libraries, university libraries. I spent ten months in London and never got out of the British Museum. I have a special relationship with libraries. A love-hate relationship, I guess you’d call it.”

“I see.”

He closed his attaché case, fastened its clasps. “They’ve got two Gutenberg Bibles in the library of the British Museum. If you ever read that one of them disappeared, you’ll know who got it.”

“Well,” I said, “whatever you do, don’t bring it here.”


A couple of hours later I was sipping Perrier and telling Carolyn Kaiser all about it. “All I could think of,” I said, “was that it looked like a job for Hal Johnson.”


“Hal Johnson. An ex-cop now employed by the library to chase down overdue books.”

“They’ve got an ex-cop doing that?”

“Not in real life,” I said. “Hal Johnson’s a character in a series of short stories by James Holding. He goes off on the trail of an overdue book and winds up involved in a more serious crime.”

“Which I suppose he solves.”

“Well, sure. He’s no dope. I’ll tell you, that book brought back memories. I used to collect butterflies when I was a kid.”

“You told me.”

“And sometimes we would find cocoons. I saw a picture of a cecropia moth and it reminded me. There were pussy willow bushes near the school I went to, and cecropia moths used to attach their cocoons to the branches. We would find the cocoons and put them in jars and try to let them hatch out.”

“What happened?”

“Generally nothing. I don’t think any of my cocoons ever hatched. Not every caterpillar gets to be a moth.”

“Not every frog gets to be a prince, either.”

“Isn’t that the truth.”

Carolyn finished her martini and caught the waitress’s eye for a refill. I still had plenty of Perrier. We were in the Bum Rap, a comfortably tacky gin joint at the corner of East Eleventh Street and Broadway, which made it just half a block from both Barnegat Books and the Poodle Factory, where Carolyn earns her living washing dogs. While her trade provides relatively little in the way of ego gratification, it’s more socially useful than looting libraries.

“Perrier,” Carolyn said.

“I like Perrier.”

“All it is, Bernie, is designer water. That’s all.”

“I guess.”

“Got a busy night planned?”

“I’ll go out for a run,” I said, “and then I may bounce around a bit.”

She started to say something but checked herself when the waitress approached with the fresh martini. The waitress was a dark-roots blonde in tight jeans and a hot-pink blouse, and Carolyn’s eyes followed her back to the bar. “Not bad,” she said.

“I thought you were in love.”

“With the waitress?”

“With the tax planner.”

“Oh, Alison.”

“The last I heard,” I said, “you were planning a tax together.”

“I’m planning attacks and she’s planning defenses. I went out with her last night. We went over to Jan Wallman’s on Cornelia Street and ate some kind of fish with some kind of sauce on it.”

“It must have been a memorable meal.”

“Well, I’ve got a rotten mind for details. We drank a lot of white wine and listened to Stephen Pender sing one romantic ballad after another, and then we went back to my place and settled in with some Drambuie and WNCN on the radio. She admired my Chagall and petted my cats. One of them, anyway. Archie sat on her lap and purred. Ubi wasn’t having any.

“What went wrong?”

“Well, see, she’s a political and economic lesbian.”

“What’s that?”

“She believes it’s politically essential to avoid sexual relations with men as part of her commitment to feminism, and all her career interaction is with women, but she doesn’t sleep with women because she’s not physically ready for that yet.”

“What does that leave? Chickens?”

“What it leaves is me climbing the walls. I kept plying her with booze and putting the moves on her, and all I got for my trouble was nowhere fast.”

“It’s good she doesn’t go out with men. They’d probably try to exploit her sexually.”

“Yeah, men are rotten that way. She had a bad marriage and she’s pretty steamed at men because of it. And she’s stuck with her ex-husband’s name because she’s established professionally under it, and it’s an easy name, too, Warren. Her own name is Armenian, which would be more useful if she were selling rugs instead of planning taxes. She doesn’t exactly plan taxes, Congress plans taxes. I guess she plans avoiding them.”

“I plan to avoid them myself.”

“Me too. If she weren’t so great looking I’d avoid her and say the hell with it, but I think I’ll give it one more try.
I’ll say the hell with it.”

“You’re seeing her tonight?”

She shook her head. “Tonight I’ll hit the bars. A couple of drinks, a couple of laughs, and maybe I’ll get lucky. It’s been known to happen.”

“Be careful.”

She looked at me. “
be careful,” she said.


A couple of subway trains whisked me home, where I changed to nylon shorts and running shoes and ducked out for a quick half hour in Riverside Park. It was mid September, with the New York City Marathon a little over a month away, and the park was thick with runners. Some of them were of my stripe, the casual sort who knocked off three or four sluggish miles three or four times a week. Others were in marathon training, grinding out fifty or sixty or seventy miles a week, and for them it was Serious Business.

It was thus for Wally Hemphill, but he was following a program of alternate short and long runs, and the night’s agenda called for four miles so we wound up keeping each other company. Wallace Riley Hemphill was a recently divorced lawyer in his early thirties who didn’t look old enough to have been married in the first place. He’d grown up somewhere in eastern Long Island and was now living on Columbus Avenue and dating models and actresses and (
puff puff
) training for the Marathon. He had his own one-man practice with an office in the West Thirties, and as we ran he talked about a woman who’d asked him to represent her in a divorce action.

BOOK: The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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