The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams

CHAPTER

One

“Not a bad-looking Burglar,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to have a decent Alibi?”

I didn’t hear the italics. They’re present not to indicate vocal stress but to show that they were titles, or at least truncated titles. “A” Is for Alibi and “B” Is for Burglar, those were the books in question, and he had just laid a copy of the latter volume on the counter in front of me, which might have given me a clue. But it didn’t, and I didn’t hear the italics. What I heard was a stocky fellow with a gruff voice calling me a burglar, albeit a not-bad-looking one, and asking if I had an alibi, and I have to tell you it gave me a turn.

Because I am a burglar, although that’s something I’ve tried to keep from getting around. I’m also a bookseller, in which capacity I was sitting on a stool behind the counter at Barnegat Books. In fact, I’d just about managed to forsake burglary entirely in favor of bookselling, having gone over a year without letting myself into a stranger’s abode. Lately, though, I’d been feeling on the verge of what those earnest folk in twelve-step programs would very likely call a slip.

Less forgiving souls would call it a premeditated felony.

Whatever you called it, I was a little sensitive on the subject. I went all cold inside, and then my eyes dropped to the book, and light dawned. “Oh,” I said. “Sue Grafton.”

“Right. Have you got ‘A’ Is for Alibi?”

“I don’t believe so. I had a copy of the book-club edition, but—”

“I’m not interested in book-club editions.”

“No. Well, even if you were, I couldn’t sell it to you. I don’t have it anymore. Someone bought it.”

“Why would anyone buy the book-club edition?”

“Well, the print’s a little larger than the paperback.”

“So?”

“Makes it easier to read.”

The expression on his face told me what he thought of people who bought books for no better reason than to read them. He was in his late thirties, clean-shaven, with a suit and a tie and a full head of glossy brown hair. His mouth was fulllipped and pouty, and he’d have to lose a few pounds if he wanted a jawline.

“How much?” he demanded.

I checked the penciled price on the flyleaf. “Eighty dollars. With tax it comes to”—a glance at the tax table—“eighty-six sixty.”

“I’ll give you a check.”

“All right.”

“Or I could give you eighty dollars in cash,” he said, “and we can just forget about the tax.”

Sometimes this works. Truth to tell, there aren’t many books on my shelves I can’t be persuaded to discount by ten percent or so, even without the incentive of blindsiding the governor. But I told him a check would be fine, and to make it payable to Barnegat Books. When he was done scribbling I looked at the check and read the signature. Borden Stoppelgard, he had written, and that very name was imprinted at the top of his check, along with an address on East Thirty-seventh Street.

I looked at the signature and I looked at him. “I’ll have to see some identification,” I said.

Don’t ask me why. I didn’t really think there could be anything wrong with him or his check. The lads who write hot checks don’t offer you cash in an attempt to avoid paying sales tax. I guess I just didn’t like him, and I was trying to be a generic pain in the neck.

He gave me a look that suggested as much, then hauled out his wallet and came up with a credit card and driver’s license. I verified his signature, jotted