Rules. They can be a tricky proposition for a thief like me. It’s not often I find myself on the right side of the law, and the truth is, I enjoy breaking most rules almost as much as I relish breaking into a stranger’s home. But there are certain rules I try very hard to obey. Naturally, the rules I’m talking about are ones I’ve devised for myself. Over the years, the list has grown pretty long, though it all developed from one simple principle:Don’t get caught.
Want to hear a selection? Well, let’s see. I never break into a property that’s occupied, unless I absolutely have to. I use my picks wherever possible, because I don’t enjoy destroying somebody’s door. I don’t ransack or leave a mess. If I’m working for myself, I target folks who can afford it, and I rarely steal anything of sentimental value. If I’m hired on commission, I only work for people I can trust or individuals who pay me enough to overcome my concerns. I always wear gloves. I always knock before I enter. I always lock up before I leave.
And, as of right now, I have a new rule to add to my list.Don’t admire the view.
The view was of a rain-drenched street in the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten was in Berlin. And so, for the time being, was I.
To be precise, I was in the third-floor apartment of one of my compatriots, an Englishman by the name of Daniel Wood. Now, I’d never met Mr. Wood, and I didn’t plan on making his acquaintance any time soon, but I’d have to compliment him on his housekeeping if I ever did.
The apartment was modern and spotlessly clean. There were two bedrooms, a well-appointed bathroom, a compact kitchen, and a spacious living room. The place had all the telltale signs of a rental home. The walls were painted an inoffensive shade of cream. The furniture was cheap and functional. There were no framed family photographs or ornaments or personal touches whatsoever.
And alas, there was no sign of the very item I’d been hired to steal.
Well, I say “the very item,” but the truth is that I had absolutely no idea what I was searching for. My client had neglected to tell me. To be perfectly frank, my client had refused
to tell me. All of which had made locating my elusive swag a good deal harder than it had any right to be.
“You’re really not going to explain?” I’d asked my client, with a noise in the back of my throat that can best be described as a scoff.
“Can’t,” he said. He was English and comfortably overweight. His speech was well mannered and he had the bearing of a fellow who’d been privately educated at considerable expense. “Top secret, I’m afraid.”
“Then how do you expect me to find this mysterious object?”
“You’ll recognize it when you see it.”
“Will I? How am I supposed to recognize something when I don’t know what I’m looking for?”
“Believe me, you’ll know. You’ll understand the second you set eyes on it. I wouldn’t hire you if I didn’t think you could work it out.”
“Save me the trouble, why don’t you? Give me a clue.”
“This is insane.” And I circled my finger by my temple, just to emphasize how loony he was being. “Seriously. What are we talking about here? Photographs? Jewels? Cash?”
He shook his bloated head.
“Tell me its size, at least?”
He shook his head some more.
“I told you.” He showed me his cushioned palms. “I can’t.”
“Animal, mineral, vegetable?”
“Listen,” he said, “what are you worried about? You get your fee whether or not you find what we’re looking for.”
“Not the bonus.”
He paused. “That’s true. Not the bonus. But if you don’t find what we’re looking for, it’ll be after you’ve broken into all four apartments. And the fee for all four apartments is pretty generous, wouldn’t you say?”
I would say. Which explains why I was currently inside the first apartment on my client’s list. And his refusal to tell me what exactly I was seeking explained why I was staring out the window in frustration.
I’d been inside the apartment for exactly twenty-nine minutes, making the time 8:08 P.M. precisely when I glanced outside. The place had been oh-so-simple to access. There was an underground car park beneath the apartment complex, and I’d waited until Daniel Wood had driven away in a mid-range sedan before ducking underneath the garage door that was automatically lowering itself behind him. From there, I’d made my way between the lines of abandoned cars, through the scent of cold rubber and diesel, and across the echoing concrete floor to the elevator. The elevator required a swipe card to be operated. But it was also fitted with an override system that accepted a plain, old-fashioned key. And since anything that accepts a key also accepts my picks, it wasn’t long before I had the elevator moving, and it took but a trifle longer for me to trick my way through the dead bolt lock on the door to the apartment itself.
Not knowing what I was searching for meant that I’d had to look everywhere I could think of. I didn’t know if the loot was flat or round, big or small, light or heavy. But after twenty-nine excruciating minutes, I did know it wasn’t in the apartment. I’d hunted inside cupboards. Behind cupboards. Above and under furniture. I’d rifled through drawers. I’d rooted through the freezer. I’d delved around inside the washing machine. In short, I’d used all my experience and applied every single trick I could think of and found absolutely nothing of consequence.
So I was feeling thoroughly vexed, and normally when I get that way, I like to smoke as I stare out a window. I do it a lot when I’m writing one of my mystery novels if I happen to be blocked on a problem scene or stumped by a tangled plot thread (which happens more often than I’d care to admit). But one of my rules was never to smoke inside an apartment I’d broken into for fear of giving myself away, so tonight I was reduced to staring out the living room window without a cigarette to ease my nerves.
It was dark outside and I could see my reflection in the rain-splattered glass. The rain was falling in sheets. It was blowing sideways in the stiff gusts of wind funneling down Kirchstrasse from the swollen river Spree toward the red-brick church at the opposite end of the street. It was bouncing off the lines of parked cars, the limbs of the evenly spaced plane trees, and the canvas canopies above the pavement cafés and bars. It was catching the glare from the street lamps. Hammering against the leaf-blown tarmac. Gurgling in the drains.
I asked myself if it would thunder and I honestly couldn’t tell. But it was going to be a long, wet night. A miserable, fruitless night, if the weather and my mood were anything to go by. And to my considerable dismay, it was about to get an awful lot worse.
Because as I scanned the windows of the apartment building facing my own, I saw something I really wished I hadn’t. And it left me with a dilemma I honestly could have done without.
Copyright © 2013 by Chris Ewan
CHRIS EWAN lives on the Isle of Man, and was voted one of America’s favorite British authors in a Huffington Post poll. He is the author of four previous "Good Thief" titles and the stand-alone thriller, Safe House, which was named by The Telegraph as one of the top ten crime novels to take on vacation. The first in the "Good Thief" series, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, was named one of the "best books for grownups" by Publishers Weekly and AARP The Magazine, and one of the best thrillers of the year by the London Times. Both Safe House and his previous "Good Thief" books have received starred reviews.