The Burglar in the Library - By Lawrence Block



At three in the afternoon on the first Thursday in March, I got Barnegat Books settled in for the weekend. I dragged my table of bargain books inside, closed the door, and turned the cardboard sign in the window from OPEN to CLOSED. I ran the cash-register tape—the work of a moment, alas—and took the checks to my desk in the back room, where I filled out a deposit slip and prepared a mail deposit. I returned with a box a little over a foot in length. It was shaped like a little house in a child’s drawing, peaked roof and all, with a handle where the chimney ought to be. I opened the hinged top, set it on the floor, and looked around for Raffles.

He was in the window, treating himself to a few rays. I called his name, which might have worked if he’d been a dog, but he’s not and it didn’t. Raffles is a cat, a declawed unmanned tailless gray tabby, and if he even knows his name he’s not letting on. True to form, he didn’t stir at the sound of my voice, but lay motionless in what little sunlight there was.

So I crumpled a sheet of paper, and that worked. We have a training ritual that involves my hurling paper balls for him to run down and kill. It probably looks like a game to the casual observer, but it’s serious business, designed to sharpen his mousing skills. I guess it’s working; I stopped finding gnawed book spines and suspicious organic matter on my shelves the day he moved in.

I threw the ball of paper and he was off and running. He had it before it stopped rolling, sank the memory of his claws deep into it, took it in his mouth, shook it fiercely to and fro, and left it for dead.

A dog would have brought it back so I could throw it again. A cat wouldn’t dream of it. “Good job,” I said, and crumpled a fresh sheet, and he made another clean kill. I congratulated him again, prepared a third paper ball, and tossed it gently into the open cat carrier.

He looked at it. Then he looked at me, and then he looked at the floor.

A few minutes later there was a knock on my door. “We’re closed,” I called out without looking. My eyes were on Raffles, who had removed himself to an open spot in the Philosophy & Religion section, on the same high shelf with the bust of Immanuel Kant.

The knock was repeated, and so was my response. “Closed for the weekend!” I sang out. “Sorry!”

“Bernie, open the door.”

So I looked, and of course it was Carolyn, looking larger than life in a down-filled parka. There was a suitcase at her feet and a frown on her brow. I let her in and she blew on her hands and rubbed them together. “I thought you’d be ready by now,” she said. “We’ve got a train to catch, remember?”

“It’s Raffles,” I said.

“What about him?”

“He won’t get in the cat carrier.”

She looked at me, then at the cat carrier, then bent over to retrieve two paper balls from it.

“I thought maybe I could get him to jump in after them,” I said.

“You thought that, huh?”

“Well, it was just an idea,” I said.

“You’ve had better ones, Bern. Where’d he go?”

“He’s sitting up there with the father of the categorical imperative,” I said. “Which figures, because it’s imperative that he get in the cat carrier, and he’s categorically opposed to it. I don’t know, Carolyn, maybe it’s a mistake to take him. We’re only going to be gone three nights. If I put out plenty of food and water for him, and leave the radio on to keep him company…”

She gave me a look, shook her head, sighed, and clapped her hands fiercely together, calling the cat’s name in a loud voice. Raffles sprang down from his perch and flattened himself against the floor. If he’d lowered his center of gravity one more inch he’d have been in the basement.

She bent over, picked him up, and put him in the carrier. “Now you stay there,” she told him, in a tone that brooked no argument, and snapped the lid shut to give him no choice in the matter. “You can’t con them into it,” she explained. “You have to get physical. Ready, Bern?”

“I guess so.”

“I hope that coat’s warm enough. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees since lunch. And the forecast’s calling