The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian

Chapter One

It was a slow day at Barnegat Books, but then most of them are. Antiquarian booksellers, after all, do not dream of retiring to the slow and simple life. They are already leading it.

This particular day had two high points, and as luck would have it they both came at once. A woman read me a poem and a man tried to sell me a book. The poem was “Smith, of the Third Oregon, Dies,” by Mary Carolyn Davies, and the woman who read it was a slender and fresh-faced creature with large long-lashed brown eyes and a way of cocking her head that she must have learned from a feathered friend. Her hands—small and well formed, unringed fingers, unpolished nails—held a copy of Ms. Davies’ first book, Drums in Our Street, which the Macmillan Company had seen fit to publish in 1918. And she read to me.

“Autumn in Oregon—I’ll never see

Those hills again, a blur of blue and rain

Across the old Willamette. I’ll not stir

A pheasant as I walk, and hear it whirr

Above my head, an indolent, trusting thing….”

I’m rather an indolent, trusting thing myself, but all the same I cast a cold eye on the Philosophy & Religion section, where my most recent visitor had stationed himself. He was a hulking sort, late twenties or early thirties, wearing low Frye boots and button-fly Levi’s and a brown wide-wale corduroy jacket over a darker brown flannel shirt. Horn-rimmed glasses. Leather elbow patches on the jacket. A beard that had been carefully trimmed. A headful of lank brown hair that had not.

“When all this silly dream is finished here,

The fellows will go home to where there fall

Rose petals over every street, and all

The year is like a friendly festival….”

Something made me keep my eyes on him. Perhaps it was an air about him, a sense that he might at any moment commence slouching toward Bethlehem. Maybe it was just his attaché case. At Brentano’s and the Strand you have to check bags and briefcases, but my customers are allowed to keep them at hand, and sometimes their carryalls are heavier upon departure than arrival. The secondhand book trade is precarious at best and one hates to see one’s stock walk out the door like that.

“But I shall never watch those hedges drip

Color, not see the tall spar of a ship

In our old harbor.—They say that I am dying,

Perhaps that’s why it all comes back again:

Autumn in Oregon and pheasants flying—”

She let out a small appreciative sigh and closed the little book with a snap, then passed it to me and asked its price. I consulted the penciled notation on its flyleaf and the tax table that’s taped to my counter. The last hike boosted the sales tax to 8 1?4 percent, and there are people who can figure out that sort of thing in their heads, but they probably can’t pick locks. God gives us all different talents and we do what we can with them.

“Twelve dollars,” I announced, “plus ninety-nine cents tax.” She put a ten and three singles on the counter, and I put her book in a paper bag, fastened it with a bit of Scotch tape, and gave her a penny. Our hands touched for an instant when she took the coin from me, and there was a bit of a charge in the contact. Nothing overpowering, nothing to knock one off one’s feet, but it was there, and she cocked her head and our eyes met for an instant. The author of a Regency romance would note that a silent understanding passed between us, but