Barney Legato didn’t consider himself a thief.  He liked to think of himself as a businessman, a recovery specialist, if you will.  No one ever got hurt, unless it was absolutely necessary.  He was paid by the rich to steal from the rich – or from the dead.  Either way, no one really missed anything.  And since it was usually only small, single items like jewelry or documents he “recovered,” by the time the owner realized it was missing (if they ever did), they probably thought it had been misplaced or lost.  Once in a while he was sent in for larger, more challenging items, like paintings or antique chairs.  Anything that wouldn’t fit inside his pockets or a box he could carry, or was otherwise awkwardly conspicuous, brought him a higher fee.

He typically charged either ten percent of the item’s value, or a flat rate of ten thousand dollars.  It all depended on the job and the risks involved.  Barney didn’t come cheap, but he felt he was worth it.  He never asked for names, so he could never give out any names if he was ever apprehended.  He gave each client an ID number to use when contacting him.  He could also be trusted to deliver items as promised, and not do any unnecessary damage to the homes he recovered them from.  This was important to people who loved their family dearly but had no personal objections to stealing from them.

Barney did, however, pull the occasional prank, like replacing a valuable copy of Monet’s “Water Lilies” with the five-dollar poster version.  He read an article about that job in a newspaper three months later.  The owners walked by the cheap copy every day for three months before ever noticing.  They couldn’t even give the police a definite time frame.  That one still made him smile.  A classic switcheroo.  The client on the Monet job, client number thirty-three, had been outbid at auction by the owners of the painting, and had no qualms about making fools out of them.  Barney’s little prank had also allowed his client more time to find a new buyer for the painting or do whatever they were going to do with it.  A high profile job like that, due to the increased risk involved, that brought his fee up to twenty-percent.

Barney’s number one rule of business was that he would never, under any circumstances, attempt a recovery with people in the house or anywhere on the premises.  The risk of being seen was too great.  He could and would defend himself if necessary, however he preferred to eliminate the need by eliminating the risk.  That was why he always took his time observing the places that weren’t vacant; to establish patterns and determine the best time to get inside.

Barney’s new client, number 243, had informed him the house at 28 Blackberry Lane was vacant.  The problem was, it wasn’t.  Barney had almost been seen, and he wasn’t happy.

He had left his house in Deville at 8 o’clock Thursday morning, stopped in at the Flint post office to check his P.O. Box, and found a plain white envelope inside, return address marked simply “Client 243.”  Inside were three things:  a piece of paper with “28 Blackberry Lane, Flint” typed on it;  a  black and white glossy of the item he was to retrieve from the address, this time a small violin case;  and his instructions.  These he read on his way back out to the van.

“Mr. Smith,

Payment will be your usual fee.  You should have no problems gaining access.  The house is vacant and there is no security system.  Our employer requests that you make haste.  We would like to take delivery of the item within the week.  Once the task is completed, call the contact number below for delivery instructions.”

Barney knew whereBlackberry Lane was.  There used to be a grammar school on that street, back when they still called it grammar school.  It was on a quiet, residential street that would be just about deserted by mid-morning.  He stepped into the back of the van, changed into a pair of coveralls, and sifted through his collection of bogus company decals.  He always slapped a logo on the driver side door of his van while pulling residential jobs.  Neighbors never looked twice at servicemen.  He decided on Mark’s Electrical Repair, and threw a shiny metal clipboard on top of the dash for good measure.

After a five minute drive, he was pulling into the driveway.  28 was the sort of place he wanted for himself one day.  An old brick place with floor-to-ceiling windows and a big porch with circular pillars.  He used the key that had been left for him under the back steps and entered quietly through the kitchen.  According to his instructions, the item was in an upstairs bedroom.  He was halfway up the back staircase when he heard the noise.  There was water running from somewhere upstairs.  He paused to listen for a moment, and heard the unmistakable squeak of water being turned off, and then of a shower curtain being pulled open.  Barney was putting his van into park across the street in a matter of seconds.  He dialed the contact number he was given.  A woman answered.

“Mr. Smith?”

“Yeah, this is Smith,” Barney said.  John Smith was his alias.

“Were you successful?”

Barney was seething from his near encounter, but managed to remain businesslike.

“Not yet.  Tell your employer my fee just doubled.  The house is not vacant.  If he wants me to proceed, it will be at least two weeks.  I’ll call back in an hour for instructions.”

Barney watched the house from his van.  A curtain shifted in one of the upstairs windows.  He was fast but quiet on his way back through the downstairs, but there was no way to muffle the noise of the van pulling out of the driveway.  He knew there was at least one person in the house.  He needed to find out if there were more.  Family homes were the most difficult, because he had to wait for a time when everyone was out of the house.  Determining a time that was constant from day to day meant staking the place out for days to figure out routines, learning when they left for work and school, when they usually got home, if they had a housekeeper or a dog or a tricky security system.

Once routines were established, there was the problem of getting inside and locating the item in question.  The larger the house, the more time he had to allow himself to search if the client couldn’t provide him with the location of the item.  Sometimes the items were in plain sight, even under spotlights in display cabinets, and sometimes they were locked inside a safe or hidden other places.  The obvious hiding places were under the bed or in the freezer.  Barney had once found a stunning ruby necklace inside a jar full of sugar.

The rich were an odd breed.  They were so concerned with keeping every last penny, that they didn’t even get decent security systems.  The idea of spending money to keep their money never entered their heads.   A lot of them had dogs, but dogs were easy to take care of.  Drugged meat treats were the easiest way with most.  Tranquilizer darts did the trick with the rest.

A paperboy came by ten minutes later, landing the newspaper on a bush in front of the porch.

“Come and get it,” Barney said, ashing his cigarette out the window.  No one came out.  No curtains moved.  After an hour, he called his client back.

“Are you certain someone is in the house?” The woman asked.

“Yes.”

“Did you see someone?”

“No.  I heard them.  In the bathroom, upstairs.  They didn’t see me.”

“Mr. Smith, the item in question is extremely valuable to a number of people, my employer included.  It’s not an impossibility that you have come across some of our competition.”

Barney had experienced “competition,” as she put it, before.  He didn’t like being talked to like he was some sort of amateur.

Before going into recovery, Barney was in home security.  He started out as a technician, installing systems and explaining them to customers.  After four years and three different companies, he broke out on his own and became an independent consultant.  People hired him to come into their homes and suggest what security company would best suit them.  Along the way, he became familiar with the systems he didn’t already know.  His customers didn’t know it, but they taught him the tricks of his trade.  They trusted him – a perfect stranger – with everything they held dear.  Even before Barney went into recovery, that irony was not lost on him.

To educate himself on item values, he watched Antiques Roadshow religiously, attended estate sales, and nearly bought out the entire Antiques and Collectibles section at Borders.  He became friendly with a handful of antique shop owners in the area, and could usually get them talking about item values using hypothetical or vague questions to get his answers.  If he wanted the approximate value of a certain Ming Vase or Civil War musket, or an item of questionable value, he might say something like:  “You know, my Great-Grandmother just passed away and you wouldn’t believe all of the old junk she left me…” and then go on to describe a couple of worthless items along with the valuable one.  He always made sure to mention one or two details at first, to gage their reaction, and then offer up more identifying features.  If they seemed interested enough to buy and made him an offer on the spot, he figured they were low-balling, and estimated the actual worth at about thirty to forty percent more.  Most shop owners were generally fair, and he understood that they were also in the business of making money, but there were some who could be ruthless.

Just to test the water, Barney had once described a rare, Louis XVI armoire to the owner of an antique furniture shop in Pulaski, and she offered to “take it off his hands” for two-hundred dollars.  He acted delighted, gave her a fake name and number, and took her business card.

He used the back of the business card to copy down the make and model number of her security system on the way out the door, and returned in the wee hours of the morning with his Econoline van.  He took a pair of hope chests, his assigned items, and a sturdy oak crib, off of her hands.  The crib was for his wife, and the chests were for a special client.  Once the van was loaded, Barney moved some of the furniture around to fill in the spaces left behind, and re-set the security system.  He noticed a lumpy bank deposit bag under the register, but decided to leave it.  The shopkeeper, Annette, would be quicker to notice the missing merchandise if the cash bag was gone.  The police would no doubt find it hard to believe that someone had managed to get around her security system (which was actually quite sound) just to make off with three bulky pieces of furniture and leave the cold, hard cash behind.  They would have more important fish to fry than a furniture thief.

The voice of Client 243’s contact – with that not quite slight condescending tone – instantly reminded Barney of Annette the shopkeeper.

“Tell me,” he said, “if it was the competition, do you think they would stop to take a shower?”

“Excuse me?”

“They were taking a shower.  I heard them in the upstairs bathroom, getting out of the shower.  Someone is living there.”

“Please hold for a moment,” she said.

A school bus pulled up in front of the house, blocking Barney’s view.  The driver honked his horn and waited.

“Mr. Smith?” the woman on the phone said.

“Yes?”

“Continue with the job.  We are prepared to double your fee, should you choose to continue.  If the item is recovered within the week, you will receive additional compensation.  Once you have it in your possession, you will receive your delivery instructions.”

“Understood,” Barney said, and the call was done.

Double his fee.  Barney liked the sound of that.  Despite this new complication, it should still be a relatively easy job – scope it out for a week, wait until the place was empty, then in and out in minutes.  His usual fee was a flat ten thousand.  Now he was guaranteed a cool twenty.  It brought a smile to his doughy face.

When the bus finally drove off, the newspaper was gone from the bushes, and Barney saw a woman in a pink bathrobe shutting the front door.

What Barney didn’t see was what the woman did before that.  He didn’t see her waving to the little girl on the school bus.  Or the worn violin case the little girl clutched to her chest as she boarded the bus.

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