The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling - By Lawrence Block


I suppose he must have been in his early twenties. It was hard to be sure of his age because there was so little of his face available for study. His red-brown beard began just below his eyes, which in turn lurked behind thick-lensed horn-rims. He wore a khaki army shirt, unbuttoned, and beneath it his T-shirt advertised the year’s fashionable beer, a South Dakota brand reputedly brewed with organic water. His pants were brown corduroy, his running shoes blue with a gold stripe. He was toting a Braniff Airlines flight bag in one ill-manicured hand and the Everyman’s Library edition of The Poems of William Cowper in the other.

He set the book down next to the cash register, reached into a pocket, found two quarters, and placed them on the counter alongside the book.

“Ah, poor Cowper,” I said, picking up the book. Its binding was shaky, which was why it had found its way to my bargain table. “My favorite’s ‘The Retired Cat.’ I’m pretty sure it’s in this edition.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot while I scanned the table of contents. “Here it is. Page one-fifty. You know the poem?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’ll love it. The bargain books are forty cents or three for a dollar, which is even more of a bargain. You just want the one?”

“That’s right.” He pushed the two quarters an inch or so closer to me. “Just the one.”

“Fine,” I said. I looked at his face. All I could really see was his brow, and it looked untroubled, and I would have to do something about that. “Forty cents for the Cowper, and three cents for the Governor in Albany, mustn’t forget him, and what does that come to?” I leaned over the counter and dazzled him with my pearly-whites. “I make it thirty-two dollars and seventy cents,” I said.


“That copy of Byron. Full morocco, marbled endpapers, and I believe it’s marked fifteen dollars. The Wallace Stevens is a first edition and it’s a bargain at twelve. The novel you took was only three dollars or so, and I suppose you just wanted to read it because you couldn’t get anything much reselling it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I moved out from behind the counter, positioning myself between him and the door. He didn’t look as though he intended to sprint but he was wearing running shoes and you never can tell. Thieves are an unpredictable lot.

“In the flight bag,” I said. “I assume you’ll want to pay for what you took.”

“This?” He looked down at the flight bag as if astonished to find it dangling from his fingers. “This is just my gym stuff. You know—sweat socks, a towel, like that.”

“Suppose you open it.”

Perspiration was beading on his forehead but he was trying to tough it out. “You can’t make me,” he said. “You’ve got no authority.”

“I can call a policeman. He can’t make you open it, either, but he can walk you over to the station house and book you, and then he can open it, and do you really want that to happen? Open the bag.”

He opened the bag. It contained sweat socks, a towel, a pair of lemon-yellow gym shorts, and the three books I had mentioned along with a nice clean first edition of Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus, complete with dust wrapper. It was marked $17.50, which seemed a teensy bit high.

“I didn’t get that here,” he said.

“You have a bill of sale for it?”

“No, but—”

I scribbled briefly, then gave him another smile. “Let’s call it fifty dollars even,” I said, “and let’s have it.”

“You’re charging me for the Steinbeck?”


“But I had it with me when I came in.”

“Fifty dollars,” I said.

“Look, I don’t want to buy these books.” He rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Oh God, why did I have to come in here in the first place? Look, I don’t want any trouble.”

“Neither do I.”

“And the last thing I want is to buy anything. Look, keep the books, keep the Steinbeck too, the hell with it. Just let me get out of here, huh?”

“I think you should buy the books.”

“I don’t have the money. I got fifty cents. Look, keep the fifty cents too, okay? Keep the shorts and the towel, keep the sweat socks, okay? Just let me get the hell out of here, okay?”

“You don’t have any money?”

“No, nothing. Just the fifty cents. Look—”

“Let’s see your wallet.”

“What are you—I don’t have a wallet.”

“Right hip pocket. Take it out and hand