Friday, April 6, 2018

Only Burglars by Jessamy Dalton

Old Tom tells a story of his days as a gentleman burglar, until he and his crew picked on the wrong house; by Jessamy Dalton.

Every spring, Dustin's mother would get upset all over again about Old Tom Critchley's place down the street.

"It's a disgrace," she would say. "A junk heap. An eyesore."

"He's just an old fellow who's fallen on hard times," Dustin's father would say in a placatory way.

Dustin and his friend Matt kind of liked Old Tom's place, with its overgrown yards and collection of old cars on blocks. There was a '57 Thunderbird Old Tom let them play on whenever they wanted to. They'd get in and pretend they were in Grand Theft Auto.

"The boys shouldn't hang around him," Dustin's mother would say. "He's a poor role model."

"He's just an old fellow," Dustin's father would repeat. "He needs the company."

"He needs help," Dustin's mother would reply, but whenever she made carrot cake, she sent Dustin over with a slice.

Old Tom's front porch had fallen in long ago, so you had to go around and come in through the back. Contrary to what Dustin's mother thought, Old Tom's place wasn't horrible inside, just dusty and worn out. He ate with one set of dishes on a card table with one kitchen chair, and he watched TV from a recliner that was sprung with stuffing. The TV had a loop of wire on top. On the table in front of it Tom kept a little silver cup, and a big porcelain vase that was chased all over with gold. They never seemed to be dusty.

One rainy afternoon, when Matt and Dustin were over there looking through stacks of the Saturday Evening Post, Old Tom followed the direction of their eyes, and said, "You're wondering why I keep that old vase around, aren't you?"

"Not especially," said Dustin politely.

"You are," Tom said, pointing at them. "You're wondering why I keep it, and that silver cup, too, when I could sell them, and get my porch repaired, and maybe a new TV with one of them dishes on the roof."

"Why don't you?" said Matt.

"Well, I'll tell you," said Tom, settling back in the hollows of his chair. "I'll tell you."



It all happened way back before you were born: back in the nineteen-eighties, when telephones had cords that attached to the wall, and rang with a bell instead of a tune, and you had to walk over and pick them up to answer. I mention telephones instead of all the other things that have changed between then and now, because the story of how I ended up stuck with that vase starts with a telephone. With a telephone ringing, to be precise, and me picking it up to answer.

I was doing nothing in particular at the time, and I was sitting right beside the phone. If I hadn't been, I might not have answered it. I'm the sort of guy who likes to take it easy, and it's possible that if I'd been in another room, or even another chair, I might never have answered that phone. But I wasn't, and I did.

The caller was Soapy Finkelman. It took me a few minutes to work out what he was saying, because he was trying to talk out of the corner of his mouth.

"Someone's taken the old Schuyler place," he repeated.

"Oh, really?" I said.

"'Oh, really?'" he yodeled back. "What do you call that, a scintillating example of intelligent commentary? I said, someone's taken the old Schuyler place. You know what that means?"

His tone called for a vigorous and snappy rejoinder, but like I said, I'm a guy who likes to take it easy. "Why don't you tell me what it means, Soapy," I told him.

"It means we finally got a chance at a big score, that's what it means!"

The Schuyler place was a big old Victorian relic north of town. Some robber baronet built it back in the Gilded Age as a summer lodge: men in straw boaters picnicking with Gibson Girls under the pines, that sort of thing. The place had big rustic porches, an octagonal tower with a view of the Adirondacks, and enough gingerbread to sicken Hansel and Gretel, and it must have been quite a crib in its day. But the last of the family died out in the Sixties, and houses with eighteen rooms and a butler's pantry went out of style shortly after, and so for most of my memory, "the old Schuyler place" had been synonymous with "white elephant". A few years earlier, some yuppie stockbroker from Schenectady had picked it up for a song, modernized the plumbing, and started turning the stables into a gym and the butler's pantry into a sauna. But about five months into the renovation, he'd abruptly packed up, returned to Schenectady, and put the Schuyler place back on the market, where, despite the economy being robust and the place listed well below valuation, it sat. And sat, and sat.

To Soapy Finkelman, the failure of the Schuyler place to sell was like a personal insult. He said it was another example of our Chamber of Commerce not doing enough to attract a better class of people to the town. But then Soapy was something of a Victorian relic himself. He considered his profession that of gentleman burglar, and his idea of a better class of people was someone who left their jewelry lying around.

"I know someone's taken the old Schuyler place," I told Soapy, who was still snorting in disgust through the phone. "I heard it from Jimmy at the barbershop." According to him, and Jimmy usually knew, a family from downstate had closed on the property sight unseen, and sent a decorator out from Albany to handle the details. The Mister of the family was an Ivy League professor on sabbatical, the Missus was the daughter of a well-known Congressman, and the children all went to tony New England boarding schools. Soapy, I'd thought on hearing this, would be over the moon, and he was.

"Wealthy and cultured!" he crowed. "I seen them myself. They came into Lew's this morning, bought an Early-American epergne."

"Not too cultured, then," I said. Since gentleman burglaring didn't always pay the bills, Soapy also worked at his cousin Lew's antiques gallery. I say gallery because that was how Lew styled it, but junk store would be more to the point, with a pawn shop on the side, and Lew wasn't above fencing anything Soapy might happen to lift. I had a feeling that the epergne owed less to the Early Americans and more to Lew's tricks in his little back room. My cynicism had no effect on Soapy.

"You shoulda clocked the rocks on the dame," said he, that connoisseur of class and taste, and for emphasis he whistled calliopically into the phone.

"Very nice, Soapy," I said, holding the receiver away from my ear. "Why don't you put it all in a letter and mail it to me."

"Listen, you bum. I said we've got a chance at a big score, and I mean we've got a chance at a big score, and I'm not letting your lazy rump spoil it. Be at the Landing, eight sharp tonight."

"Why me?" I asked the dial tone, but it was a rhetorical question. I was a locksmith back then, see, a pretty good one. It happened by accident: after I left school, my old man was on me to get a job, which I didn't want because it would've meant working. So I sent off to one of those companies that advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics how you could train by correspondence for an exciting career as a typist or travel agent or hairdresser, or something. I chose locksmithing because locks are pretty small and don't take much in the way of heavy lifting. The company sent me a set of tools, a booklet full of diagrams to study, and a bunch of tests to fill out and mail in. I paid the Howard boy twenty bucks to take the tests for me, but I found the diagrams kind of soothing to look at, and so the next time my aunt Verda locked herself out after happy hour at Lenny's, I dusted off that set of tools and discovered I had a talent. Lew would call me from time to time, when he'd picked up an old locked desk or filing cabinet at an estate sale. Soapy called me from time to time, too. And it was generally easier to give in to Soapy than to argue with him, so come eight o'clock that night, I rode my old motorcycle out north of town, to the Landing.

The Landing was part of a little park by the lake. The last of the Schuylers had left the land to the county, and until the budget went in '92, the council ran it as a sort of campground, with walking trails, a scenic rock, a boat launch, picnic tables, and, incidentally, a rusty iron gate marked 'Private,' set in an untidy privet hedge. Today it leads nowhere, but back then it opened onto an old carriage path that ran along the lakeshore over to the old Schuyler place.

When I got there that evening, everyone else was already sitting uncomfortably around a picnic table beside an old VW camper bus that had to be one of Don's specials. Don McGavock worked at his uncle's used car lot, and could always procure you a reliable vehicle with no distinguishing features, which meant that he was another guy Soapy called from time to time. Then there was Big Mo Swiderski, who might not have been too nimble in the brain pan but was a good heavy lifter, and the Kid, who at maybe nineteen was a concession of Soapy's to the fact that even back then a lot of things were starting to involve computers. Soapy probably thought of us as Finkelman's Five, with Finkelman played by Frank Sinatra as Danny Ocean. The rest of us referred to ourselves as Soapy's Schmucks.

Soapy was at the head of the table, almost unrecognizable in a plaid flannel shirt and a hat stuck full of fishing flies. He was chomping on an unlit cigar; he didn't smoke much because of his asthma, but still felt a cigar lent a touch of class to the proceedings. He gave me the stink-eye for being late. I pretended not to notice, and eased onto the splintery bench. From there we had a decent view of the old Schuyler place, sitting up on its hill with its postcard-perfect lawns rolling down to the lake. A crisp pebbled drive swept around the house, and a shiny new station wagon was parked there with its back hatch open.

"Well, fellas," said Soapy, sending the cigar around his mouth from port to starboard, "as far as anyone else is concerned, we're just a bunch of buddies out on a camping trip, awright?"

Awright, we chorused. You had to let Soapy do things his way. He'd get around to the point eventually. Now he chuckled and patted the side of the VW bus with satisfaction.

"I got this thing packed with fishing rods and sterno stoves for verisimilitude," he said. "The essence of a good alibi is verisimilitude. If anybody comes around and asks us what we're doing, we say, we're out camping, right? And if they ask, what are you doing parked down this lane marked 'Private,' we say, gee, we must not've seen that sign. And they'll say, well, that's all right, sonny, anyone can make a mistake, because obviously we're a bunch of yokels with fishing rods and sterno stoves."

Soapy paused for the applause. When it wasn't forthcoming, he jerked the cigar out of his mouth. "You guys need to look sharp here! This is our big break. No more chicken feed for us." He slapped his palm on the table, mainly to get the Kid's attention off the girls over at the scenic rock. "We are done ripping off U-store units and cleaning crummy apartments outa their VCRs. We are in the big leagues now. With Harry Winston and Cartier and Louis Vuitton and Hermes and -" Soapy paused for breath.

Big Mo looked a little confused, as was his wont. "Are they guys you met at Rikers, Soapy?"

Soapy let out a bark of laughter.

"Good one, Mo," he said. "I am speaking, of course, of some of the high-end leather goods, watches, and jewelry that we can expect to find, in addition, of course, to the signed first editions, paintings and objets d'art, heirloom silver, fine liquors and wines, cameras, cash, traveler's cheques... top-of-the-line television and stereo equipment -" this last directed at the Kid, whose attention was wandering again.

"Cut to the chase, Soapy," Don growled. "What, when, and how."

"Keep your shirt on," Soapy said. The cigar made another perambulation. "As you can see, our fine new neighbors are getting ready for a little trip. The house is gonna be empty tonight, I heard 'em talking about it. That's our chance."

"What makes you so sure they'll be gone all night?" said the Kid with the skepticism of youth.

"I heard 'em talking," Soapy repeated.

As if to back him up, just then, the family burst out of the back door with their arms full of luggage and camera bags. They were a wholesome, all-American bunch, with two towheaded boys and a blond girl slightly older, a distinguished academic beard on the father, and the mother with that kind of slimness that comes specifically from having grown up with money. Like a family in a GM commercial, they started loading up the station wagon with cheerful, exaggerated gestures that made it obvious a real expedition was planned.

At one point, the father cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to the children that he hoped they'd packed enough socks because, remember, they were going to be gone all night! And the kids all cheered.

"Ok, so they're going," observed the Kid. "But they're being kinda weird about it."

"They're rich," said Don. "The rich are different."

"Different, shmifferent," said Soapy, whapping the table again. "Are you guys in or not?"

We decided we were in. What, after all, could go wrong?

The family finished their whistle-while-you-work packing job and careened merrily away down the crisp pebble drive, off to do whatever it was rich people did. The sound of their engine faded, and the dusk settled in. The girls left the scenic rock, and the old Schuyler place got quiet and forlorn. Soapy made us kill some time swatting mosquitoes until it was full dark, just to be sure, but the night remained charmed. The sky was moonless and the only sounds to be heard were crickets and the occasional plop of a fish. Don killed the lights on the bus, and we eased it through the gate, past the boathouse, and up to the Schuyler place's back door. That was my cue to get out my little tools. The Yale-style deadbolt gave me no trouble. The alarm box by the door didn't even have time to chirp before the Kid had its cover off and did something to its wires. Soapy put the cigar away and got out his black silk gloves and his stocking mask. He was all efficiency now.

"Right, Tommy, you and Don take the dining room, see if you can get into the china cabinets. Kid, you work over the library and the den. Big Mo, you come with me."

We scattered to our tasks. The house was a warren, with the rooms all done up in Mid-American Funeral Home, with paneled wood, heavy drapes and thick carpeting - which might have been why it was so easy to notice the noises when they started.

Don and I were in the dining room, searching a massive sideboard for the silver, when, from the walls and the ceiling, suddenly, there came this chittering sound - a noise in the same family as fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, burrowing into your eardrums and sending shivers down your spine. We stopped working and looked around, but it was gone.

"Mice," said Don, and we got back to it.

Next we heard slow, dragging footsteps, and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of someone mouth-breathing deep and mournfully.

"That you, Big Mo?" Don called, shining his penlight up and around. It was like a firefly in a black hole. The heavy breathing stopped, or rather changed into a plaintive sigh, and then somewhere on the other side of the house something fell over with a resonant boom.

"Damn it, Big Mo!" Don hissed, and we rushed out of the dining room, only to be met by Soapy and Mo rushing the opposite way.

"You guys got to be more careful!" Soapy snapped in a whisper.

"Don't blame your clumsiness on us!" Don snapped right back. The chittering noise had started up again, and I have to admit it made me feel like shaking out my hair and brushing myself all over to make sure nothing was crawling on me. To judge by the way Don's light was jiggling, he must've felt the same.

"Well, it couldn't have been the Kid," said Soapy. "If anyone's careful, it's the Kid."

"He still in the den?" asked Don. All the sudden, going someplace nice and bright and modern seemed like a good idea. We moved down the hall. The door to the spacious, shag-carpeted family-style room was ajar, and blue light seeped from it. We peeked inside. At first we didn't see the Kid, because he was backed up against the wall, beside a big Panasonic television.

"Look at that," he said hoarsely when he spotted us.

And he pointed to a boxy IBM word processing machine that had been set up on the other side of the room. The keys on the keyboard were slowly being depressed, in a random pattern, without a human hand to be seen. Something was being spelled out, in little glowing green letters, on the screen. We couldn't read it from where we were, and I for one had no desire to get closer.

Soapy cleared his throat. "Must be malfunctioned," he said. "Them gizmos are awful touchy; one little thunderstorm and they melt down. We'll leave it here. That TV set, though -"

But no sooner had he spoken than the screen flashed, just once, in a sudden flare of white light, and a deep distorted voice started issuing from the speaker, like an LP played at half-speed. It could've been saying anything, but I think we each decided it was saying "get out," because that's what we did, as fast as we could squeeze through the doorway.

"Malfunctioned," Soapy panted. "All of it. Lightning - power surge - worthless. Never mind: we'll stick to the good stuff. Jewelry, watches. Nice and easy to carry."

From somewhere behind us came another series of heavy thumps.

"That was not me," said Big Mo.

"Upstairs," said Soapy. "Nice and easy."

We went upstairs, two and three abreast because nobody wanted to bring up the rear. The steps were wide and carpeted, and the landing at the top had a chandelier. It wasn't lit, but the wall sconces along the hallway were turned on low, casting a little night-light that made things seem brighter all over. Soapy's neck reemerged from his collar.

"Right," he said. "Everybody pick a room and search it. Small valuables, cash, rings, watches, anything over twenty carats, you know the line. Come on, get to it!"

Don was still hanging onto the bannister. "Can't we go in pairs?" he asked, looking at the ranks of closed doors stretching around the corner into the next wing.

"You want to be here all night?"

"No..."

"Then get to it!"

When nobody moved, Soapy made a disgusted noise and stepped toward the door across the hall. The sconce beside it dimmed, and then went out.

Soapy stopped.

The sconces along the hall all went out, one after another, blink, blink, blink. When it was dark, the house seemed to give a sort of satisfied sigh.

Then the chandelier over our heads went creak.

We leapt off the steps, dived into the hallway, and covered our heads with our hands just as the chandelier tore loose from the ceiling and plummeted down the stairwell. A long, harmonious crash of crystal rang through the house like an orchestral finale, and then, in the silence that followed, one last pendant tinkled melodiously down.

Big Mo was the first to move.

"I think," he said, peering over the bannister, "something is wrong with this place."

The Kid gave a pale imitation of his usual cynical laugh. "Know what I think?" he said. "I think I've had enough. I'm out. Big score or nothing, I am out. Did you hear me, Soapy?"

But Soapy was staring at the room across the hall from us. His mouth working wordlessly, he pointed at the door.

Its knob had turned, slowly, and now the door was opening, slowly, gradually, grinding on its hinges. A pallid hand clutching a candlestick came around the edge - and then a face: white, deathly, with pale staring eyes above a wild beard.

The feeble, flickering light of the candle fell upon us. We were pressed into place as by a heavy invisible hand; we could not move, we could not flee.

Then the face puffed out its cheeks in a relieved sort of way, and called over its shoulder, "It's all right, it's only some burglars!"

A cheer erupted from behind the door: "Burglars! Hooray!" The figure with the candle put it down, strode across the hall, and shook Soapy's bloodless hand with vigor, exclaiming, "My dear fellows, are we ever so glad to see you!"

"Buh -" said Soapy. "Buh - buh - buh -"

Reality started to trickle back into our brains then, and we could see that the figure was just a middle-aged man with an academic beard, in a robe: the Ivy-League professor. He introduced his wife, who beamed at us with her father's Congressional charisma, and the children, who had all been taught good manners at their boarding schools and shook our hands politely.

"Told you they hadn't left," muttered the Kid, shuffling his Doc Martens as the two little boys stared at them admiringly.

"Ah, our little ruse," the professor said sadly. "Gentlemen, I can't tell you how desperate we are for a good night's sleep. Not since the day we took residence have we had an uninterrupted rest! That very first night, it began: disembodied footsteps. Moans in the darkness. Snatches of faint music. Doors thrown open with no one behind them -"

"Furniture hurled around rooms," said the mother.

"Picture frames falling off walls," said the daughter.

"Creepy noises!" exclaimed the bigger little boy.

"Crawly noises!" said the littler little boy.

"I believe I can confidently identify the phenomena as your standard poltergeist activity," said the father, "although it's not my field."

(All right, this wasn't exactly the way they talked - but it's as near as I can come, and it gives you the effect.)

"Identification of the phenomena, however, is only half the problem," the mother said. "Eradication is the key."

"We've tried arcane rituals -"

"Invoked ancient spirits -"

"Pleaded ..."

"Begged!"

"To no avail," the father finished. "Finally - grasping at straws - we thought that if it appeared as though we had gone away for the night, the etheric inhabitants of the house might give their activity a rest. Accordingly, we put on a show of leaving, slipped back inside under cover of darkness, and prepared in hope for a quiet nocturne. A vain hope, or so it seemed, but now," the professor favored us with a wide smile all around, "we learn that it's merely burglars! You can see what a relief that is. I don't suppose," he added a bit wistfully, "that you gentlemen could have been responsible for the whole thing, from the beginning?"

"Er," said Soapy, who, remarkably, had regained some cognitive function, "I hate to break it to you, but I don't think we're even responsible for this." He gave the professor a short précis of our attempt, and the man sagged in disappointment.

"Ex nihilo nihil fit," he said mournfully. "Well, gentleman, I can only thank you for your attempt. It -"

But we never did hear why he thought he ought to thank us for trying to burgle him; at that moment, there was a wail like that of a thousand tortured souls, rising from the bowels of the house, and the temperature of the air dropped by several degrees.

"What's that?" said Big Mo, gripping the little girl's hand.

"They're coming!" she whispered, raising a deathly forefinger.

"They're coming, they're coming," echoed the little boys, and they ran behind their mother.

"Who's coming?" yelled Don.

The professor shook his head and picked up his candlestick.

"Best get yourselves under cover," he said. "We've only seen them once, and we have no desire to repeat the experience." He attempted to re-light the candle, but a blast of icy air blew it out.

"Inside, quickly!" said the mother, holding open the bedroom door, but the same cold gusts tore it from her hand and slammed it shut. The father leapt forward and wrestled with the knob, but:

"Locked!" he cried.

Locked! We clutched each other and gibbered. Don and Big Mo started to hurl themselves against the door, but this had no effect whatsoever. Meanwhile, the horrible, throbbing moans from the depths of the house were building to a fever pitch, and lamps and picture frames were swaying all around us. A mirror smashed, and the air was full of swarming wasps of glass. And the terrible icy cold was relentless.

I was too busy being terrified to pay much attention to Soapy, but gradually it dawned on me that he was red in the face and jigging on the balls of his feet. I recognized the signs: he was getting ready to have one of his moments. When this mood came over Soapy, it wouldn't matter that he was the smallest guy in the bar, or the only one on his side of the alley: he would go ahead and pick the fight anyway. More than half the time he'd win, too. Soapy in one of his moments was sight to behold. And so now, as the furniture began to edge off the floor and hurl itself toward us, Soapy put his fists up in the air, let out a howling, yodeling cry, and charged madly down the stairs.

So the rest of us put up our fists too, and started howling and yodeling along with him. We waved our fists back and forth over our heads, and we charged after Soapy. We went down the staircase, through the hall and toward the front door in a mad, wild procession. I'll never really be sure what it was that we passed through, that night, only that it was cold in a way mere temperature could never be, and dragged at you with a force that took all your strength to resist. None of us dared stop or look, we just kept howling and running until we reached the front door. It took all our weight combined to drag it open, but drag it we did, and then we were out, and if it had been a moment later, I don't know what they would have found of us in the morning.

We tumbled down on the lawn to catch our breath. The lights in the house were flashing, curtains were flapping, and there were some heavy crashes from inside, but nothing seemed to follow us out. We watched for a while - wasn't one of us going to turn his back - but whatever was in the house seemed to be confined to the house, and after a while we started to feel better, which is to say a little silly. Soapy resurrected his cigar and raked the rest of us with a disgusted look.

"A buncha grown men," he said derisively.

"Our fearless leader," Don sneered back.

"You runned as fast as the rest of us," said Big Mo.

"Only because I was trying to keep up!"

The sound of an engine firing interrupted our bickering. We'd kind of forgotten about the family, although I'd been vaguely aware of them behind me during the mad rush from the house. Now we looked up and realized that they were in the bus - Soapy's VW bus, which Don had left parked with the keys in the ignition.

The professor leaned out the driver's side window.

"A cross-country trip, gentlemen!" he called. "That's just the ticket for us! To embrace the horizon in search of America - much better than rusticating in an old country mansion. We're even packed already! It could not be more fortuitous! We'll leave at once!"

"Hey!" Soapy yelped, the cigar dropping clean out of his mouth. "That's my van! You can't just drive off in my van!"

"Then I give you, in exchange," called the professor, "the house! The house, and everything in it, gentlemen: consider it yours!"

"Au revoir!" cried the little girl.

"Auf Wiedersehen!" said the little boys.

And with a neat spin of the wheels, the bus took off. We watched the taillights twinkle away in silence. Soapy was working his mouth. You could tell that the end of his rope was several feet above his head.

"All right," he said. "All right."

I could read his intentions on his face, and I didn't like them one bit.

"Oh, no," I said. "If you go back in there, you go alone!"

Soapy grinned. With two delicate fingers, he replaced the cigar in his mouth, fished a match out from somewhere in his pocket, and lit it.

"I shoulda thought of this before," he said.

And picked up a can of lighter fluid from the patio barbecue.

There always had been a rumor about Soapy, that he'd pulled off a few arsons in his time, and I must say he seemed to know exactly where to light the house up. Maybe too well; while the flames did keep the specters at bay, they also drove us out before we had time to grab more than a few handfuls each of silverware and jewelry and a candlestick or two. It was during this second frantic dash from the house that I scooped up the vase and stuffed it into my sack. Who knows why? It was shiny, it seemed to wink at me through the smoke. I'm lucky, it seemed to say, take me.

We got out, coughing and gasping, and stumbled down to the landing to watch with streaming eyes as the fire department roared in. It was too late. The whole Schuyler place went up in a pyre of scrollwork. If you used your imagination, you could see vague shapes in the smoke and sparks, rising upward with thin and distant cries. To release or damnation? We didn't know - or, in Soapy's case, care. He kept pacing around, bouncing on the balls of his feet and shadowboxing with the ash that drifted over. "That'll show 'em," I heard him mutter.

The Schuyler place fire was the talk of the town for weeks. The paper put it on the front page: "Samuel Finkelman, 42, who was camping with friends at Schuyler's Landing that night, said 'The place went up so fast, I don't think anyone could've helped it.'" The fire was put down to faulty wiring and the insurance company paid a nominal settlement, or so I heard. Nobody ever did see the professor and his family again, but a demolitions firm came later to remove the rubble and bulldoze the lot. All that's left now is a grassy hump and a tennis court sprouting weeds. It's a peaceful place to picnic, they say.

As for the five of us, we kept low profiles for a few months. Soapy went back to Lew's gallery, and I went back to taking it easy, and the occasional locksmithing job. I didn't see the others, but I heard on the grapevine that Don had turned into a drunk, and Big Mo had been found in his mother's house in a near-catatonic state, and taken to the State hospital. The Kid smashed up three cars driving like a maniac, and finally disappeared out west. It was almost like there was a curse on the group - but since I wasn't affected myself, I dismissed the idea as superstition and coincidence.

Around the first of October, I figured it was safe enough to bring out the proceeds of the job, and turn them into cash. The silverware and a small necklace netted me a couple of hundred in Albany, but nobody was interested in the vase. I wasn't worried. There were a couple of ounces of gold in the filigree, and I figured to mangle them out for a straight price.

Coming out of the last place, I ran into Soapy. He looked glum and unkempt. There were dark circles around his eyes like he hadn't slept, and his cheeks were hollow. Clutched in his hands he had a little cup, what they used to call a christening mug, in engraved silver.

"Cashing in?" I said, nodding toward it.

"Oh - er -" his eyes darted furtively, and I tapped the side of my nose to indicate that I was wise. I made as though I was walking away, but then got down behind a garbage bin, because I was curious to see what Soapy felt he needed to be so secretive about. He was kind of sidling toward the shop as if he could fool his feet into thinking it wasn't the destination - but at the last minute, right before the door, he snapped into an about-face and marched off down the street. I couldn't see what had changed his mind. The nearest thing you could say, though it would only sound crazy, was that the mug in his hands wouldn't let him go through the door.

I went back to my place, musing on Soapy's strange behavior. I decided that with his personality, there'd always been a danger of him going eccentric, and then I thought no more about it while I spread out some drop cloths, and got a big hammer ready to smash up the vase. I hefted the hammer into the air, and that's when everything got cold.

A terrible paralysis seemed to seize my limbs, and whispering filled the room around me. The vase was glowing - an eerie, paradoxical glow that absorbed the light.

I put the hammer down. The whispering stopped.

I picked the hammer back up, and there came again that horrible sensation of being smothered and choked and dragged at, while the room filled with something - something unseen but terrifying, threatening things you could never think of.



"I gave up and put the hammer away. I set the vase back up on the mantle, where it seemed to purr and grow smug, and I sat down in a chair and looked at it. I had a feeling that was how it was going to be from then on, and I was right."

All the while Old Tom had been telling his story, Dustin and Matt had been scooting farther and farther away from the table with the vase. Now Tom looked up and seemed surprised to find them halfway across the room.

"What're you boys doing over there?" he said.

"You said -" Matt began. "Aw, you're putting us on."

He and Dustin scrambled to their feet and came back over to the table. Dustin gingerly put his finger on the vase. It did feel kind of warm.

Tom raised his right hand. "Scout's honor, all true" he said. "Mind, I can see why you'd be skeptical. I used to get to feeling that way myself, from time to time - wondering if it weren't all in my imagination, and the vase was just a vase. Once I even put it out in the garbage; and on pickup day, the garbage truck threw a rod and plowed through my front porch. That's when I had to start using the back door. It's all right since I mostly live in the kitchen anyway. Nothing matters much so long as the vase still has pride of place. That's just the way it is."

Old Tom got up in a thoughtful sort of way, and began to re-stack the magazines the boys had been looking through.

"For a while, at first," he said, "I thought maybe the spirits or poltergeists or whatever wanted some sort of justice, or revenge, or to be laid to rest in some kind of way, and I tried all sorts of different things, but finally I concluded they mostly just wanted the company. I don't mind too much. These days I don't get a lot of company myself, and when the hours are dragging on sometimes, all that rapping and knocking and the books flying off the shelves gets to be almost homey. After Soapy died of what they called early-onset Alzheimer's, they gave me that little silver cup he always carried, and I put it beside the vase. That's the way it is, and I guess that's the way it's going to be. I don't know why it didn't affect me as badly as the others, except that I'm the kind of guy who likes to take it easy. And I guess I ought to give you a moral at the end of this tale, only I can't think of one besides crime doesn't pay, which we all knew already. I guess I'd also say that it doesn't pay to answer your phone most of the time, either."

3 comments:

  1. A humorous story, full of larger than life characters and a romp of a narrative with titillating tension. Many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. Easy to read. Liked the way you described the interior of the house. Good last line.

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  3. Ghosts, comedy, and crime skillfully woven in a story within a story. Very entertaining!

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