The Burglar on the Prowl

One

The man,” said my friend Marty Gilmartin, “is an absolute…a complete…an utter and total…” He held out his hands, shook his head, and sighed. “Words fail me.”

“Apparently,” I agreed. “Nouns, anyway. Adjectives seem to be supporting you well enough, but nouns—”

“Help me out, Bernard,” he said. “Who is more qualified to supply le mot juste? Words, after all, are your métier.”

“They are?”

“Books are your stock-in-trade,” he said, “and what is a book? Paper and ink and cloth and glue, to be sure, but if a book were nothing more than those mundane components, no one would want to own more than one of them. No, it’s the words that constitute a book, sixty or eighty or a hundred thousand of them.”

“Or two hundred thousand, or even three.” I’d read Grub Street recently, and was thinking about the less-than-eminent Victorians George Gissing wrote about, forced by their publishers to grind out interminable three-volume novels for a body of readers who clearly had far too much time on their hands.

“That’s more words than I require,” Marty said. “Just one, Bernie, to sum up”—he glanced around the room, lowered his voice—“no, to impale Crandall Rountree Mapes like an insect upon a pin.”

“An insect,” I suggested.

“Far too mild.”

“A worm, a rat.” He was shaking his head, so I shifted gears and exited the animal kingdom. “A bounder?”

“That’s closer, Bernie. By God, he is a bounder, but he’s much worse than that.”

“A cad.”

“Better, but—”

I frowned, trying to conjure up a thesaurus spread open before me. A bounder, a cad…

“A rotter?”

“Oh, that comes close,” he said. “We’ll settle for that if we can’t do any better. It’s just archaic enough, isn’t it? And it’s better than bounder or cad because it’s clearly not a temporary condition. The corruption is permanent, the man is putrid to the core.” He picked up his glass, breathed in the bouquet of aged cognac. “Rotter comes very close indeed to conveying just what a thoroughgoing shitheel goes by the name of Crandall Rountree Mapes.”

I started to say something, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Bernie,” he said, wide-eyed with wonder, “did you hear what I just said?”

“Shitheel.”

“Precisely. That’s perfect, the quintessential summation of the man. And where do you suppose the word came from? Not its derivation, that would seem clear enough, but how did it get into our conversation? No one says shitheel anymore.”

“You just did.”

“I did, and I couldn’t guess the last time I uttered it.” He beamed. “I must have been inspired,” he said, and rewarded himself with a small sip of the venerable brandy. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done to merit a reward, but I had a sip from my own glass just the same. It filled the mouth like liquid gold, slid down the gullet like honey, and warmed every cell of the body even as it exalted the spirit.

I wasn’t going to drive or operate machinery, so what the hell. I had another sip.

We were in the dining room of The Pretenders, a private club on Gramercy Park every bit as venerable as the cognac. The membership ran to actors and writers, men in or on the fringes of the arts, but there was a membership category called Patron of the Theater, and it was through that door that Martin Gilmartin had entered.

“We need members,” he’d told me once, “and the main criterion for membership at this point is the possession of a pulse and a checkbook, though to look around you, you might suspect that some of our members have neither. Would you like to become a member, Bernie? Did