Part I "So you see, kid," Herbie said, "we're like Robin Hood. We steal from the rich and we give to the poor." "How do we give to the poor?" I asked. "I said we were like Robin Hood, not a slavish imitation of Robin Hood." "So we're sort of like Robin Hood," I said. "Yeah," Herbie said. "If you squint." Chapter One Ur-Hamlet 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, yankyour- 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. Chapter Two The Only Piece of Paper That Could Kill Him Wattles once told me he was always happy in the morning because he hadn't hurt anybody yet. So it's easy to imagine him singing something late-sixties/early-seventies--"Take It Easy," maybe, or "Born Free"--as he clumped out of the elevator in the black-glass, medium-rise office building where he did all the bad things that comprised the business of Wattles, Inc. Easy to imagine him, sport-jacketed and red-faced, following his beach-ball gut down the hall, dragging his left leg behind him like a rejected idea and looking, as he had for twenty years, like he'd be dead in fifteen minutes. His hair would still be damp. His shave would be aggressively successful. He'd reek of Royall Lyme aftershave, forty bucks a bottle, with the little lead crown on the cap. As he would say, class stuff. Taken together, then: all these characteristics identified Wattles as he undid the cheap locks on the outer door to his office. Identified him externally, that is. Wattles's interior landscape, a column of dark, buzzing flies looking impatiently for the day's first kill, was tucked safely out of sight. Tiffany, the new receptionist, was, as always, at her desk, wearing her permanent expression: pretty in kind of a plastic way, happy, perpetually surprised enough at something to be saying, Oh! A brunette this week, she was wearing her LaLa the French Maid costume, although Wattles actually preferred Nurse Perky. Still, change was good. He'd had to replace his first receptionist, Dora, when a truly lethal crook named Rabbits Stennet had nearly discovered her secret, which was that she had been modeled on his wife, Bunny, about whom Rabbits went all Othello whenever anyone even looked at her. Rabbits had once backed his car over a parking attendant at Trader Vic's because the man had taken the liberty of turning on Bunny's seat-warmer. So Dora had been hastily shredded in bulk, all two hundred of her, and replaced by Tiffany: same latex blow-up doll, different nose, different eye color, different wigs. Wattles had probably squinted at Tiffany as he went to the office's inner door and its array of very good locks, because she was sagging a little. He might have heard the soft hiss of a leak, which meant that he would have to find the little battery-powered pump and top her off. Or maybe just pop the valves and let her deflate, replace her with another one. After all, there were more than three hundred and fifty of her boxed up in the closet, waiting for the mail-order lovers who were the clientele of Wattles's one legitimate business. $89.95 a pop, although Wattles wasn't sure that was the best way to put it. All the blow-ups leaked sooner or later, thanks to the low manufacturing standards of the Chinese factory where they were produced, which Wattles hadn't complained about because it ensured re-orders. Maybe he'd put a new one at the desk. Nurse Perky again. Or maybe Venice Skater Girl, although that was kind of informal for the office, and the shoes were expensive. So he was probably singing, full of illegal plans, thinking about blowing up a new Tiffany, and smelling all limey when he tried to stick a key into the first of his very good inner locks and couldn't. It wouldn't go in. He leaned down, grunting a little as the movement squeezed his gut, and saw that the inner tumbler was upside down. So were the others. The door had been opened, and whoever had undone those very good locks hadn't even taken the trouble to lock things up again. He went inside, leaving Tiffany to hiss in desolate solitude, and got the TV remote that opened the panel in the wall opposite his desk, but when he turned to aim it, he put it back down. The panel was open. So was the door of the safe behind it. He didn't even bother to go look. The one thing that was sure to be missing was absolutely going to be the piece of paper that could kill him. He wheeled his chair over to the window and plopped down, watching the San Fernando Valley work up its daily output of smog. Wattles knew whole battalions of crooks, but he could only think of one person who knew where his office was, could pop those particular locks, and was also enough of a smart-ass to leave them popped. He could also only think of one person who could help him figure out whether he was right. Problem was, they were the same person. And this, unfortunately, was where I came into the narrative, because both those people were me. Excerpted from Herbie's Game by Timothy Hallinan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.