The moment I’d scanned the outside of the building, I turned to Bruno and said, “First impressions, it looks straightforward.”
Honestly, I’m not kidding. Straightforward. That’s what I said and I guess it’s fair to assume I happened to believe it too. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what I was thinking. I mean, put that line at the opening of a crime novel and it’s practically a guarantee that everything is about to get complicated. And there I was, a crime writer myself, saying the self-same sentence. What I should have done, if I wanted to complete the picture, was wear a T-shirt with the words “Catastrophe Here” printed across my chest.
Poor Bruno, though, knew none of this.
“Excellent,” he replied.
I held up a finger. “But first impressions can be misleading. And this isn’t something you want to rush into.”
“So what do we do?”
“We case the job. Find out what we’re up against.”
Bruno nodded, concentration etched into his features. I could see the glint of excitement in his eyes, something I recognised from my own first outing as a thief. Otherwise, it would have been hard to guess he had criminal ambitions. He looked every inch the respectable young Frenchman: close-cropped hair, a dusting of stubble, jeans, a polo shirt, scuffed trainers.
“There’s plenty we can tell from over here,” I went on. “I can see the buzzers beside the door and I count eleven of them.”
“One is hidden towards the bottom, where the light is not so good.”
“Huh,” I said, and wondered how much the booze in my system was affecting my focus. I was tipsy, for sure, but I didn’t feel drunk. “Okay, so twelve apartments. And I count, what, two sets of lights at the front of the building?”
“Normally, I’d allow for the same at the rear, meaning we should assume at least four apartments are occupied.”
Bruno’s brow tangled. “These people could have gone out and left their lights on.”
“It’s possible. But let’s be cautious. And more importantly, you said the apartment is on the third floor, front-facing, and there are no lights on there. At least, I can’t see any.”
“There are none, you’re right.”
I gestured towards the window we were concerned with. “And the curtains and those shutters aren’t drawn either, so unless the person who lives there has gone to bed at, what, a quarter to ten in the evening without blocking out the glare from that street lamp, we can assume the place is empty.”
“We could find out,” Bruno said, turning to me.
“Press the buzzer.”
“True,” I told him, “but you’re forgetting the night concierge.”
I pointed through the glass double doors at the front entrance of the building towards a plump, balding gentleman who was sat behind a polished wooden counter. The man was swivelling from side to side on a high stool, meanwhile glancing down at a folded newspaper. There was a pen in his hand and a puzzled expression on his face and I felt pretty certain he was working on a crossword. Not that it mattered. All that concerned me was the fact that he was there.
“Think about it,” I said. “If you go up and press that buzzer and nobody answers, and then afterwards you try and make your way inside to visit the owner of that apartment, the concierge is going to know something’s up.”
“I had not thought of it.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here.” I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Now, you said the front doors are always locked. My thinking is the lock could go one of two ways. Chances are it’s old – maybe it’s been there as long as the building itself – so it could be rusted up and tough to open even if you happen to have a key. On the other hand, the pins could be so worn down from everyone coming and going all the time that we’ll be able to pop it in less than a second. Either way, we can’t have the concierge watching, especially with you being a beginner.”
Bruno squinted at me, as though I was a distant figure on a far-off horizon. “What do you suggest?”
“A diversion, to get him away from his desk. Here, help me collect some rubbish.”
Oddly enough, finding litter wasn’t difficult in the Marais. As desirable as the area might have become, filled as it was with pricey boutiques, exclusive galleries and très chic brasseries, there were countless green plastic litterbags dotted around. We both collected a bag from inside the colonnaded archways of Place des Vosges and then I led Bruno back to Rue de Birague.
I jutted my chin towards the darkened service alley running alongside the building we were interested in. A wheelie bin was stationed there, looking as if it belonged to the late-night greengrocers situated just to the right
“For you,” I said, handing Bruno my bag of litter and wiping my hands clean on my trousers. “Now, follow me.”
“But the concierge – he will see.”
“Not if we’re quick. He’s reading his newspaper, remember.”
Before Bruno could challenge me any further, I darted across the street, grinning at the absurdity of what I was proposing. Never in a million years would I try this on one of my own jobs. It was really just for show, something to make Bruno feel as though he was getting value for money. I mean, any professional thief will tell you that the simplest solution to a problem is nearly always the best and, given a few days, I dare say I could have come up with a dozen easier ways to bypass the concierge. Odds were, a quick check of the rear of the building would reveal a service entrance or a fire exit that could make the whole issue redundant. It might even be possible to gain access through the greengrocers or the two-star hotel on the other side of the building. So sure, Bruno struck me as a nice guy, but he had to be a little short in the brains department to buy into my litter stunt.
I entered the service alley, raised the lid on the wheelie bin and peered inside. It was empty, though it reeked of over-ripe fruit. I lifted the bin clear from the floor and carried it to a square of ground adjacent to a side-entrance to the building. The smartly painted door had a laminated notice tacked to it that read Poste.
“My guess is this door backs onto the concierge’s desk,” I said.
“So the plan is, we put the litterbags in the bin and set light to them, then we knock on the door and head back to the front of the building. While the concierge is busy putting the fire out, we pick our way inside.”
“You do not think he will be suspicious?”
“Not at all,” I said, waving Bruno’s quite valid concern aside. “He won’t have time to think. He’ll act. And while he acts, we’ll act. And once we’re all through acting, you and me will be upstairs in the apartment we’re after.”
Bruno hefted the litterbags. “Do you think this will burn okay?”
“Sure,” I said, freeing the bags from his hands and stuffing them inside the wheelie bin.
“Because I was thinking,” he went on, “we could maybe use your book?”
Bruno grinned at me, revealing a set of perfectly aligned teeth, and then he stooped down and removed a book from the backpack he had with him. He held it before my eyes. I smiled back as if he was a regular comedian but really I wanted to smack him in the windpipe and split his nose with my kneecap for good measure. Why? Because the book he was so casually suggesting we should burn had taken me more than a year to write. It had been the hardest thing I’d ever worked on. I’d sweated every sentence, every damn word, and here was good old Bruno, someone I’d known for a little under three hours, cracking funnies about torching it.
“Not a good idea,” I said, as calmly as I could.
“You think maybe the cover will not light? Should I rip it?” he asked, gripping the hardcover as if to do just that.
“No,” I said, grabbing his wrists. “I think we should apply a little logic to what you’re suggesting. You wanted me to show you how to break into this place without getting caught, right? Well, lesson one, Bruno, is I think the idea of burning a book with my name on it, a book I’ve personally inscribed to you, might be just about the dumbest thing I ever heard. Suppose we knock on this door and the concierge comes out before the book has burned right the way through? Or suppose the book doesn’t catch properly? It’s going to look kind of fishy, isn’t it, if an apartment gets knocked over on the exact same night a charred copy of my memoir is found by the concierge?”
Bruno grinned again. “It’s okay,” he said, squeezing my arm and then caressing the cover of the book. “I am just joking with you, Charlie.”
“Look, I put the book away,” he said, returning my novel to his backpack. “It is safe. So, can we light the fire now?”
I muttered dark thoughts to myself, then reached inside my jacket and pulled out a cigarette packet. I lit a cigarette, took a calming draw and tossed my lighter to Bruno, watching as he leaned inside the wheelie bin and triggered the flame. Moments later, curls of blackened smoke emerged.
I exhaled, meanwhile rooting around in my trouser pocket until I found a short, flexible plastic implement. To the untrained eye, it might seem at first glance like one of those throwaway drink stirrers you find in coffee houses, but someone looking just a bit closer would notice a single row of plastic bristles at one end of the shaft. The bristles give the device the appearance of a very small, very painful toothbrush.
“You’ll need this,” I said, handing the tool to Bruno and taking another lungful of smoke.
“What does it do?” he asked, turning it in his sizeable hands.
“It’s known as a rake. You slip it into the keyhole on a lock and brace it against the pins that are preventing that lock from opening. Meanwhile, you insert a screwdriver into the base of the lock and exert some sideways force.” I passed him one of my micro screwdrivers - the one with a red, hexagonal handle. “Then you whip the rake out. With a simple lock, the plastic bristles’ll jog the pins up to the exact right height so the lock can turn.”
“And you think this will work on the front door?”
I took another draw on my cigarette, held the smoke in. “I think it’ll work on the lock on the front door, but you’ll need to turn the door handle to get all the way inside.” I threw my cigarette into the litterbin. Already, the flames had taken hold and I could smell burning plastic and the scent of warm, rotten bananas. “Normally, I’d wear gloves. But we should be okay without. You ready?”
He met my eyes and nodded solemnly.
“Well alright then,” I said, and rapped loudly on the wooden door.
I knocked three times, then gave Bruno a shove, pushing him in the direction of the street. He lurched forwards, caught his balance and broke into a run. I followed close on his heels. At the end of the alleyway, Bruno shaped as if to veer right but I reached out and yanked him back by his collar.
“Not so fast,” I cautioned, pushing him against a display of fruit belonging to the greengrocers. “We need to check he’s gone first.”
I crept forwards and craned my neck around to peer through the glass windows in the two front doors. I caught sight of the concierge’s brown cardigan sleeve as he disappeared into the back room behind the service desk and then I motioned Bruno over to where I was standing.
“Rake first,” I said, watching him insert the rake into the lock and then seizing his wrist and moving his hand firmly upwards so that the bristles were forced against the pins inside the locking cylinder. “Good. Now add the screwdriver. Excellent. Now, whip the rake out and turn the screwdriver clockwise at almost exactly the same moment.”
“I just pull this out and turn?”
“Yep. Just whip and turn and go for the door handle.”
“Wait.” He peered up at me. “I have to turn the door handle too?”
“I’ll do it,” I grunted. “You just focus on the lock. Okay?”
He nodded once more.
And blow me, he did.
“Superb,” Bruno said, as the bolt snuck back and I twisted the door handle at just the right instant.
“After you,” I replied, and ushered him inside.
THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO PARIS. Copyright © 2008 by Chris Ewan. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.