The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza - By Lawrence Block



Around five-thirty I put down the book I’d been reading and started shooing customers out of the store. The book was by Robert B. Parker, and its hero was a private detective named Spenser who compensated for his lack of a first name by being terribly physical. Every couple of chapters would find him jogging around Boston or lifting weights or finding some other way to court a heart attack or a hernia. I was getting exhausted just reading about him.

My customers shooed easily enough, one pausing to buy the volume of poetry he’d been browsing, the rest melting off like a light frost on a sunny morning. I shlepped my bargain table inside (“All books 40¢ / 3 for $1”), flicked off the lights, let myself out, closed the door, locked it, drew the steel gates across the door and windows, locked them, and Barnegat Books was bedded down for the night.

My shop was closed. It was time to get down to business.

The store is on East Eleventh Street between University Place and Broadway. Two doors east is the Poodle Factory. I let myself in, heralded by the tinkling of the door chimes, and Carolyn Kaiser’s head emerged from the curtain at the back. “Hi, Bern,” she said. “Get comfy. I’ll be right out.”

I arranged myself on a pillow sofa and started leafing through a copy of a trade journal called The Pet Dealer, which was about what you’d expect. I thought maybe I’d see a picture of a Bouvier des Flandres, but no such luck. I was still trying when Carolyn came in carrying a very small dog the color of Old Crow and soda.

“That’s not a Bouvier des Flandres,” I said.

“No kidding,” said Carolyn. She stood the little thing up on a table and commenced fluffing him. He looked fluffy enough to start with. “This is Prince Valiant, Bernie. He’s a poodle.”

“I didn’t know poodles came that small.”

“They keep making them smaller. He’s a miniature, but he’s actually smaller than the usual run of minis. I think the Japanese are getting into the field. I think they’re doing something cunning with transistors.”

Carolyn doesn’t normally do short jokes for fear of casting the first stone. If she wore high heels she might hit five-one, but she doesn’t. She has Dutch-cut dark-brown hair and Delft-blue eyes, and she’s built along the lines of a fire hydrant, no mean asset in the dog-grooming trade.

“Poor Prince,” she said. “The breeders keep picking out runts and cross-breeding them until they come up with something like this. And of course they breed for color, too. Prince Val’s not just a mini poodle. He’s an apricot mini poodle. Where the hell’s his owner, anyway? What time is it?”

“Quarter to six.”

“She’s fifteen minutes late. Another fifteen and I’m locking up.”

“What’ll you do with Prince Valiant? Bring him home with you?”

“Are you kidding? The cats would eat him for breakfast. Ubi might coexist with him but Archie’d disembowel him just to keep in practice. No, if she doesn’t show by six it’s Doggie Dannemora for the Prince. He can spend the night in a cage.”

That should have been Val’s cue to give a cute little yap of protest, but he just stood there like a dummy. I suggested his color was less like an apricot than a glass of bourbon and soda, and Carolyn said, “Jesus, don’t remind me, I’ll start drooling like one of Pavlov’s finest.” Then the door chimes sounded and a woman with blue-rinsed gray hair came strutting in to collect her pet.

I went back to The Pet Dealer while they settled Val’s tab. Then his owner clipped one end of a rhinestone-studded leash to the beast’s collar. They walked off together, turning fast when they hit the pavement and probably bound for Stewart House, a large co-op apartment building that runs heavily to blue-rinsed gray hair, with or without an apricot poodle on the side.

“Poodles,” Carolyn said. “I wouldn’t have a dog because of the cats, and if I didn’t have the cats I still wouldn’t have a dog, but if I did it wouldn’t be a poodle.”

“What’s wrong with poodles?”

“I don’t know. Actually there’s nothing wrong with standard poodles. Big black unclipped standard poodles are fine. Of course if everybody had a big black unclipped poodle I could hang up my shears and go out of business, and that might not be the worst thing in the world, anyway, come to think of it. Would you live with one of those, Bernie?