Friday Morning, July 14, 2017
It was like…
It was like…
He didn’t know what it was like.
Wait. Yes, he did. It was like a deep pool slumbering in the recesses of a cavern, its dark, glassy surface reflecting his image, a smoky mirror in which, if he looked long and hard enough, his future might be revealed.
The cherry surface of the vintage Jasper secretary glowed, reflecting Bernard Earls and the crisp outline of his dark blue pinstripe suit. So clear was his image, he could almost tie his tie by it. Said tie was already perfectly knotted at his throat, but he adjusted it anyway, just because he could, and for good measure smoothed his dark, wavy hair although it waved perfectly over the crown of his head. He indeed looked dashing, as always, but the wood’s red grain lent him an extra dose of devilish charm.
He wanted it.
In fact, he wanted everything here. The room was crammed to the hilt with beautifully crafted, beautifully cared for, museum-quality furniture. Rich cabinetry, rich desks, rich chairs with richly upholstered seats, rich bookcases stuffed with tomes antique and modern. The place reeked of expensive wood polish.
A stiff butler had deposited Bernard here to wait for his host, one Alexander Hamilton Plaskett, who Bernard’s research revealed had fistfuls of old money. The Plasketts didn’t seem to actually do anything with their wealth aside from retain lawyers to sue each other, but he assumed they had serious investments. How else could they keep their litigation war raging decade after decade? Bernard liked that in an employer. Money, that is. He couldn’t care less about the family dynamics. But why would such a man need his services, and more to the point, how had his name come to Plaskett’s attention? That part was a bit troubling.
Apparently, Bernard didn’t rank high enough to warrant a quick reception. He wandered for half an hour among the furnishings, inspecting himself in every glass panel and shiny wood surface, surreptitiously checking walls, ceilings, and every possible hidey hole for security cameras. Evidence of security proved entirely lacking. Odd, that. He studied the titles of at least a hundred books, too, books ranging from classics to polemics to schlock. He pulled an occasional volume from its shelf, paged carefully through it, and replaced it. Some of the bindings were old, but obscure works didn’t interest him. He couldn’t possibly estimate their value on the fly.
Then one particular title caught Bernard’s eye. He casually surveyed the room to make sure he was still alone and the door still closed, then he gently slid it from the shelf and opened it. A first edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales, published in 1845. He didn’t know the title, but he sure knew the author. This had to be worth a grand, at least.
After another casual look around, Bernard gently pulled aside the left panel of his suit coat and slipped the volume into one of the larger pockets secreted beneath. He then smoothed the fabric, strolled easily to the glassed-in front of another bookcase, and checked his image for unsightly bulges. The book didn’t give itself away. Satisfied, he spent the remaining ten minutes of his wait browsing other titles but found nothing worth nabbing. Just as well. He only had so many pockets.
Bernard started, not having heard the door open. He might have started anyway, as the voice behind him was thin, old, and cranky. When he turned, he found the man emitting it to be fat, old, and cranky. His white hair and wrinkled face and trembling hands signaled his age, while his scrunched-up mouth and narrowed eyes broadcast severe crankiness.
“Mr. Plaskett,” Bernard acknowledged.
Plaskett didn’t offer a handshake. Instead, he lumbered forward and rounded the mahogany desk near the great window that looked out upon a lightly wooded hill. He scowled at Bernard and tugged his cream polo shirt into better position, then lowered himself into a well-leathered chair. “Sit,” he said. He might have been commanding a dog.
Unfazed, Bernard took the dark leather chair opposite him and gazed serenely across the desk.
“I can’t believe I’ve sunk to such depths.” Plaskett sucked in a long breath and spewed it out again. “You probably think I’m desperate, calling in someone like you.”
Rule number one, Bernard reminded himself. Never irritate a potential client. This fellow sounded plenty irritated right off the bat, and all Bernard had said was hello. He donned a serious face, nodded, and waited.
Plaskett seemed to be chewing on his own tongue. “All right. I’ll admit that I am, but don’t you dare tell anyone.”
“Discretion is my middle name,” Bernard assured him.
The grouch hardly looked assured. “My older brother, having bartered his soul in exchange for the services of Lucifer’s personal lawyer, has been granted by the court possession of a certain family heirloom. It has little intrinsic worth, but its sentimental value is astronomical.”
Bernard inclined his head in sympathy and waited for the details.
Plaskett, however, had finished, and when nothing more than sympathy materialized, he snapped, “Well?”
“What is it, where is it, and how much is its restoration to its rightful owner worth?” He could have said “stealing it,” but he never overlooked the importance of proper phrasing, especially during negotiations.
Bernard wasn’t sure how, but Plaskett’s irritation intensified. “I might have expected that appalling suggestion from you.” He rose slowly and tugged his polo shirt again. “You’ve offended me. Don’t speak with me again. Don’t speak with anyone in my household.” He passed by Bernard, leaning a hand on the desk as though he might fall. “In fact, once family and staff learn of this meeting, I’ll wager only that infernal scoundrel Ruggles would tolerate your presence.” He lumbered to the door while Bernard scowled at the window.
Bernard got it. Plaskett had not uttered an incriminating syllable. If the heirloom was stolen, he hadn’t suggested it. Ruggles and Bernard might be on the hook, but not Alexander Hamilton Plaskett.
“By the way, Mr. Earls. My family relies on sophisticated surveillance technology to protect their valuables.”
Bernard could hear Plaskett’s eyebrows arch significantly. Obviously, the cameras were well-hidden. With an inward sigh, he pulled back his jacket, removed the Poe, and set it gently on the desk. “I had to be sure,” he explained as though it were the most sensible thing in the world. “Tight security complicates matters. In its absence, simplicity is best.”
Whether or not Plaskett believed him hardly mattered. The door closed with a gentle click. Bernard gazed longingly at the book. He reached out a hand and stroked the leather spine. He opened it with his fingertips and leafed through a few pages, mesmerized by the print. “A beautiful piece of work,” he pronounced as he closed it.
While he considered how to fake restoring it to the shelf, the door sighed open. Someone new stood behind him, silent, waiting.
Bernard sat back, resigned to leaving Poeless. “So,” he guessed without looking. “You must be Ruggles.”
A small crowd jostled each other at the counter of the coffee shop huddled in the corner of the Papyrus World bookstore. When the server called out number sixty-three, Melody Earls rose up on the tips of her elegant white open-toe heels and waved her ticket as though she’d just won the lottery. “Here!” she cried. “Over here!” The lake of people parted for her, smiling, and she clip-clopped up to get her latte. They kept on smiling while she warmly thanked the server and smiled after her as she clip-clopped back to one of the little round tables by the storefront window.
She got that a lot and liked it. She knew from personal experience in front of a mirror that it was hard not to smile at her Five eight, elegantly sculpted, elegantly dressed, auburn hair and blue eyes, enthusiastic about everything—when you saw her, you just knew she loved life and life loved her right back. How could you not smile?
Reaching the table, she slipped into a green padded chair and shoved it close to the other person sitting there, a geeky college man surrounded by textbooks and electronics. He smiled at her, too, probably not because he was in love with her—not quite, anyway—but because out of all the young men in this place, this drop-dead gorgeous woman he’d never met before had chosen to sit with him and talk to him and maybe even—
Yeah, well, if that’s what he was thinking, he’d gotten way ahead of the game. Besides, she was a married woman. She just wanted to talk. She’d never seen so many gizmos and gadgets at one table before: a laptop computer, a tablet computer, a cell phone, noise-cancelling headphones, one of those things you wore on your wrist to measure your heart rate and breathing and blood pressure and maybe how much of your brain you were using at any given moment. A quick glance at the wrist device told her the man’s heartbeat had soared since she returned to the table.
And one other device, which he cradled in his left hand. “So, Shawn,” she said, tapping the unit, “tell me again how this works.” She leaned close to him so she could see the screen.
Shawn swallowed and tugged at his collar as though feeling too warm in spite of the air conditioning. Outside, the temperature had soared to ninety-eight, but in here Melody found it a bit chilly.
“It’s an e-reader. You buy e-books on the store’s website. They download to the reader, and then you can read them. See?” He paged through the list of titles he had stashed. She didn’t recognize any of them, but she rather liked some of the covers. She could well imagine herself as one of those female warriors, wearing a chain mail bikini and brandishing a sword or laser or whatever. She did have to wonder about the utility of armor that left so much uncovered, though. Wasn’t that dangerous?
“You can store over a thousand books and take them with you wherever you go,” Shawn added.
“A thousand books,” she breathed. “That’s amazing. A thousand books in your pocket or purse.”
He breathed, too, like something was amazing, but maybe not the thousand books. He had to swallow again before he could speak. “Yeah, your whole library whenever you want it.”
“No wonder they call it an eager reader.”
Shawn blinked then laughed. “E-reader.”
“Oh.” She tried to imagine holding a whole library in the palm of her hand. Books, magazines, movies, stacks, reference librarians, everything. She almost got it. But then she realized the impracticality of this scheme. It couldn’t possibly work, unless—
“Does it read them for you?”
“Some have text to voice,” Shawn replied, “but not this one.”
“No,” Melody said. “I mean text to brain.”
His eyes widened.
“Can they beam books right into your brain?”
“Er, no, I don’t think so. Why?”
“Well, you certainly can’t read a thousand books just like that. I can barely read one book every few months. A thousand of them…“ Her face scrunched up in concentration as she worked it out. “That would take me two hundred fifty years! What’s the point of carrying around all those books if I’ll die before I can read even half of them?”
Shawn blinked at her.
Shawn blinked at his e-reader.
Shawn’s mouth opened and “Um,” came out. He lifted his coffee cup to his lips, but nothing came out of that. He shook it. Empty. “I need another drink,” he mumbled. He handed the e-reader to Melody. “Here, give it a try.”
Melody smiled her thanks as, still in a daze, he rose and made his way toward the crowded coffee counter. With some affection, Melody watched him go, then she gently set the reader on the table. She pushed back her chair, quietly collected her latte and Shawn’s tablet computer, and sauntered out into the mid-day heat before he had decided what to order.
Compared to the Plaskett mansion, their apartment had all the charm of a dog kennel. Oh, the furnishings were okay. You could get comfortable on the plush tan sofa, plenty of reading material huddled in the Swedish assemble-it-yourself bookcases, and the big flat screen TV hanging on the wall shoved the picture close enough to your face. But the sheer ordinariness of the place got Bernard down. No first-edition Poe slumbered among the books, certainly, nor could he admire his suave form reflected in the kitchen table’s surface.
In fact, he couldn’t even see the kitchen table’s surface. It was covered in sale flyers, computer printouts, and the detritus of this morning’s breakfast, including cereal boxes, used cups and bowls and spoons, and an open box of sugar cubes. In the midst of it all, their Persian cat Fifi lay curled into a slumbering mass of hair. Why had Melody left this mess? She was usually so neat.
He took off his suit coat and slung it over the back of one of the wooden chairs, then undid his tie. Head cocked at an uncomfortable angle, he tried to read some of the papers. They proved to be lists of laptop computers and tablet computers and e-readers and other gizmos peddled by discount retailers, each device boasting a price tag he didn’t want to think about, discounted or no. Some of the items had been circled. That puzzled him. He already had a laptop, ancient though it might be, and Melody could barely operate the TV remote. Why would she be shopping for this stuff?
Fifi opened her eyes and gazed at Bernard. Apparently, she couldn’t answer his question, either, so she stretched and shoved some of the papers off the edge. They flapped to the floor. Yawning to display her impressive carnivore dentition, she rolled over, curled up again, and closed her eyes. Bernard carefully picked her up and deposited her on the floor. While he gathered up the spilled papers, Fifi rubbed a healthy supply of fur into his pant legs. Once he was properly insulated, she circled him, jumped back up on the table, and balled herself up.
“You’re useless,” he grumped, but he scratched her behind the ears anyway.
Better clean up, he decided. He cleared away the used dishes, stashed the breakfast items in the kitchen cupboard, and stacked the papers sufficiently far from feline paws to keep them safe. Or so he hoped. One could never tell. Cats must be made of rubber, given the impossible lengths to which they could stretch.
That done, he went to the corner of the living room and opened his rolltop desk. It wasn’t a Plaskett rolltop of fine mahogany polished to a sheen, but Bernard had fallen in love with it the moment he saw it at the cut-rate furniture store. He could at least pretend it was eighteenth century veneered particle board.
He rolled up the top and pulled forward his laptop. He had just powered it on when keys rattled in the apartment door’s lock, the door swung open, and Melody bounced in, radiating happiness. “You home, Bernie?” she called. “Look what I got!”
Oh God, he thought and braced himself for the worst. “How much did it cost?”
“I didn’t buy it yet. This nice young guy let me borrow it. I want to be sure it’s right for me before I spend money.”
With a heavy sigh, Bernard swiveled around in his chair. Melody practically skipped across the living room and shoved the tablet into his face. “What do you think?” Before he could answer, she turned it over a couple of times and rendered her own opinion. “Boring color, mostly black. But the screen size is good, yeah?” She handed it to him and chewed her bottom lip while waiting his assessment.
Bernard switched the device on. The manufacturer’s logo paraded around the screen while cheery chimes signaled what a great time the user was about to have. Then the password screen came up.
“What! Come on, Bernie, Shawn showed me everything. Email, photos, videos, all kinds of cool stuff. It’s great!”
“Shawn, huh? Well, I imagine Shawn knows his own password.”
Melody snatched the tablet back, her cute little mouth scrunched up in cute little puzzlement. Then inspiration struck. “Oh, that’s easy.” She tapped out something. “There.”
When she returned the gizmo to Bernard, it was unlocked and ready for action. What the hell? he demanded of himself. How did she do that?
His face must have broadcast the question. “There’s this girl, see. Her name’s Felicity. She doesn’t know Shawn exists, but he really wants her to be his girlfriend. So Felicity has this dog named Groucho. She calls him that because he’s mostly white but has this black spot on his muzzle that looks like a mustache. I’m not sure why that makes her think he’s a grouch, but whatever. Anyway, Groucho really likes Shawn because Shawn feeds him bits of cheeseburger. The thing is, Groucho prefers his burgers on sesame seed buns. If Shawn has a burger on a ciabatta roll or a pretzel roll or something, Groucho won’t touch it. Isn’t that weird? You’d think he’d at least eat the beef, but no. It’s awkward, because Shawn really does prefer pretzel rolls, but he also likes to feed Groucho. Anyway—“
Bernard put up a hand. “Wait a minute. How is it you know Shawn’s entire life story?”
“He showed me his pictures on the tablet. Here, give me that.” She took it back and fiddled with it. “This is Felicity. Nice looking girl, yeah? No wonder he likes her. And here’s Felicity with Groucho. Cute doggie! And here’s Groucho playing with a pull toy. Shawn’s holding the other end. That’s his fingers. And here’s—“
Bernard gently took her hand to stop her from flicking from picture to picture. “You said Felicity didn’t know Shawn existed. What’s he doing feeding her dog?”
Melody rolled her eyes. “Obviously she knows he exists, but she doesn’t know he exists. Not in any romantic sense. They live off-campus in the same apartment building and have some classes together. He helps her study math because she’s no good at it and he is. But she’s never asked him to spend the night, and he’s too afraid to ask her. I think the most she’s done is bake him a pan of brownies, which are good but not—well, you know. You’re a guy. You can figure it out.”
That was the last thing Bernard felt like figuring out. He had a heist to plan, and Melody’s little escapade stood in his way. “So what’s his password?”
Some days, Bernard felt the whole world had lost its mind. Maybe most days. But it didn’t matter. “Great. Now that you’re in, I suppose you’ll want me to erase all his stuff and get it set up for you.” He tried to take the tablet from her, but she yanked it back.
“Don’t you dare! This is Shawn’s!”
“Really. I suppose he gave it to you.”
“Of course not. He lost it, and I found it.”
“So it’s yours now.”
She hugged the device to her chest like a baby. “Bernie, I’m surprised at you. This isn’t just a computer thingie. It’s Shawn’s whole life. His pictures, his videos, his memories. You can’t erase a person’s whole life.”
Bernard gave up. When Melody was in one of these moods, there was no reasoning with her. Often there was no reasoning with her anyway. “So you’re going to give it back?”
“I sure am.”
“Without getting caught.”
“That’s right. Don’t you worry. I’ll handle it.”
That much he could believe. Melody’s luck bordered on divine. Why the Almighty would look with such favor on a kleptomaniac he didn’t know, but in truth Melody never got caught. If one of them landed in a jam, it would be him. “Fine. Meanwhile, I have work to do.”
“Oh!” She abandoned her electronic baby on the bookcase and perched on the edge of the sofa. “Mr. Plaskett hired us!”
“So?” She bounced a little in her excitement.
Like everyone else in the world, Bernard couldn’t help but smile at her. For all the aggravation she caused him, he couldn’t resist her enthusiasm. He leaned forward and spoke as though sharing a confidence, which of course he was, even though nobody else was there to hear. “There are five Plaskett siblings. In order of seniority, we have Paul Revere Plaskett, Alexander Hamilton Plaskett, Betsy Ross Plaskett, James Madison Plaskett, and Dolley Madison Plaskett.”
“Sounds like a distinguished family,” Melody said with no trace of sarcasm.
Bernard nodded. “And cuckoo to boot. Our Plaskett is Alexander, the second oldest. The family originally hailed from England. They were already filthy rich when they got to the U.S in the nineteenth century. None of them has ever done an honest day’s work.”
“Not like us,” Melody said seriously.
“Nothing at all like us. They’d make Shawn grovel for his pictures, and then they’d sneer as they deleted them.”
Disgusted, she muttered, “Terrible. Just terrible. I almost wish they hadn’t hired us.”
“Think of the money, love.”
She beamed at him, so she must have thought of it. “So what do we steal?”
“The Plasketts have a family heirloom,” Bernard told her. “It’s a sterling silver statue of a pine marten. It’s supposed to belong--”
Melody’s beam morphed into puzzlement. “What’s a pine marten?”
“It’s a kind of weasel that lives in England. Here, I’ll show you.” Bernard turned to his computer and in a moment had a photo of the creature on display. Rich brown, tending toward black on underbelly and legs, it bore a cream tuxedo, a slender face with a pointy nose, and large, pale ears. It gazed from the screen with dark, intelligent eyes.
“Aw,” Melody purred. “He’s cute!” She reached out as though she might pet the little darling.
“He’s a weasel,” Bernard reminded her. “Like the rest of the Plaskett family. I’m not surprised this is their mascot. As I was saying, the metallic version is supposed to belong to the head of the family.”
“That would be Paul, right?” Melody asked. “He’s the oldest.”
“Except their father threatened to cut Paul out of his will. I think daddy died before talking to his lawyer, but the rest of them refuse to accept that Paul has any right to the marten.”
“So it does belong to Alexander.”
Bernard shrugged. “Except Alexander has no children, and the others say it should belong to someone who can pass it to the next generation.”
Melody put a finger to her lips and thought. “That makes sense. Betsy? A woman is better suited to take care of the silver anyway, I’d think.”
“Except Betsy married a destitute divorcé. She made him sign a prenuptial agreement that prevents him or his descendants from his first marriage inheriting any Plaskett money, but the document’s wording contains a glitch. He may be able to inherit noncash property. The rest of the family flies into hysterics when they think of the marten in his hands.”
“There sure are a lot of exceptions here,” Melody said. “What about James?”
“Drunkard. Nobody wants him to get it.”
“Former hippie. Supports legalization of recreational drugs. Nobody wants her getting her hands on the marten. God only knows what would happen to it if she did.”
Bernard nodded sagely. “The Plasketts have sued each other back and forth over this marten, among other things, for decades. Lawsuits are a hobby for them. At one time or another, they’ve each found a judge willing to hand it over to them. Alexander kept it until a month ago when Paul won his latest suit and took possession.”
“What’s so funny?”
“All that for a glittery weasel?”
Put that way, it sounded more ridiculous than even Bernard had realized. He couldn’t help but laugh with her.
“That must be one special critter,” she said. “So how do we get it?”
“Good question. All the Plaskett mansions have solid security.” He’d found that out the hard way but figured it might be best not to mention the Poe incident. “Alexander employs a company called Fitzroy Fortresses. I noticed their name and logo on a sign outside the front door and on the security system keypad inside.”
“We don’t know them, do we?”
“Not that I recall. I was about to look them up when you came in.”
“I’ll let you get to it. How much will Plaskett pay?” Melody stood and retrieved the tablet from the bookcase. Once she had it in her hands, she had eyes only for it.
“He won’t admit to paying anything, but I got Ruggles up to seven thousand, plus expenses. That’s more than the weasel is worth. The marten, I mean. Plaskett’s worth is disgustingly high.”
“Mmmm,” Melody said, but Bernard wasn’t sure she meant the money. “Who’s Ruggles?”
She giggled again. “The butler did it.”
Bernard tweaked her ear. She smiled and stroked the tablet.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Once this job is done, I’ll buy you a tablet of your very own.”
For that promise, he got a bit more than a tweak in return.