For Roald Dahl
In heaven, or wherever he may have gone
Laszlo Oxbreast bound old and rare books. His work required the utmost caution and particularity, so taking breaks was as much a part of the craft as the binding itself. You had to treat yourself, he knew, or else you’d go babbling cross-eyed and make terrible mistakes.
It was a summer day, bright and yellow and slightly too warm. He reclined in a tweed armchair and suckled a sweaty glass of strawberry juice. Ice clinked as the condensation drew black ink from his fingers onto the glass. The sun sighed through the blinds, lulling him toward sleep. But just as his head dropped to his chest—
Laszlo dragged himself up and over to the front door, one hand buried in the pocket of his tangerine boat shorts, one hand swinging his glass. Who on Earth could it be? It was Sunday, so it wouldn’t be the mailman. And he didn’t have any friends. At least none who knew where he lived.
The visitors were identical twins in their twenties. One man, one woman, standing shoulder to shoulder. They were both long-nosed, bone skinny, and had wavy hair the color of fool’s gold. They wore black long-sleeve shirts, black jeans, black gloves, and rolled black ski caps.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the young woman, “may we invade your home?”
Laszlo took of sip of his strawberry juice. And he’d thought this day would be boring.
“Well,” he said, “since you asked so politely . . .” He stepped aside, letting the pair into his foyer, then shut the door behind them.
The twins ogled the entryway decorations: a pure silver lantern atop a small table engraved with frilly-necked fencers; three bronze statuettes of regal toads with sapphires for eyes, sitting on heaps of coins; a pearl-inlaid music box with a seahorse instead of a ballerina at the center; block-print depictions of Hell from Dante’s Inferno. Beyond the foyer, more treasures caught the twins’ eyes.
The young man whistled, long and tunefully. “Geez Louise. If you don’t mind me saying so, this is one of the most robbable houses I think we’ve ever been in.”
Laszlo sipped his juice. He smacked his lips. “One does try. My name is Laszlo, by the way.” Laszlo extended his hand and noted the young woman took it first. Ah, we have our little leader.
“Olivia Prawns,” said the young woman. “And this is my brother, Miles.”
Laszlo shook Miles’ hand, noting, And giving away our last names. Oh, we are babies, aren’t we? Those could, of course, be false names—but no. There was too much ease in the saying, too much honesty in those cheeks. Doubtful they were that good already.
“Glad to meet you,” said Laszlo. “So. Now that I’ve bade you entrée, what can I do for you?”
“Well, yes,” said Olivia. “We are robbers, sir, and we’re very interested in robbing you blind.”
“Oh, that’s an interesting prospect. I have to admit, I’m not really in favor of that. And, if I can be bold, I don’t think it’s wise to tell the people you plan on robbing that you plan on robbing them.”
Miles stepped in like a lawyer. “It would seem that way, but, if you think about it, it’s really the smartest way to do things. The traditional way is so hard, what with the weeks of planning, tracking police routes, checking for security systems, casing the joint—that’s a phrase we use in the business, sir, ‘casing the joint’. It means—”
“Oh, I’m familiar with the term,” said Laszlo. He dabbed a trickle of juice from the corner of his mouth with his inky middle finger.
“Then there’s the nightmare of breaking and entering,” Miles continued. “It’s a lot more trouble than TV shows have you believe, and frankly, sir, Olivia and I just got tired of the stress. This way, sir, we bypass all the annoying parts. We found it’s a ton easier to just ask a person if we can invade their home rather than sneaking into it. Plus, there’s much less chance they’ll call the police on you if they’ve invited you in, isn’t there?”
“Aren’t you clever,” smiled Laszlo. He knew this was a con, but there was more here than the sheer surprise of incongruent politeness. He just couldn’t quite see the whole thing. It was like looking at globe.
He got butterflies in his stomach.
He liked a puzzle.
Olivia clapped her hands together. “So, do you mind if we look around?”
Laszlo was hardly going to stop this train now. He gestured further into the house. “By all means.”
Miles had not been blowing smoke when he said Laszlo’s house was robbable. The place was a museum of expensive esoterica. Hardly a surface went unadorned with something eye-catching and peculiar: ivory-and-oak tables, vases painted with violent battles, nonsense triptychs, a bejeweled lemur skull, a filligreed locket of meteoric iron, combs made from black abalone, a set of piglets carved from the uprooted tooth of a mastodon, a seven-pound camel carved from gold and sequined with tiny white gems.
Laszlo watched the twins’ skin grow dewy with excitement, their fingers become twitchy.
“You have incredible taste, sir,” Olivia said. “What sort of work do you do?”
“I’m retired now,” Laszlo said. “I used to be in the art trade, buying and selling, that kind of thing, but now it’s all just”—he sipped his juice and grinned—“amassing and admiring.”
“I had a feeling you were into something like that. I said to myself, ‘Anyone with an eye for things this good must be a professional.’ That’s really what I said to myself, just now. We’re kind of similar in that way, sir.”
“Like three peas in a pod,” Laszlo replied. “And just Laszlo is fine. ‘Sir’ makes me feel too goodie-goodie.”
The twins meandered onward with Laszlo in tow, picking up this and that, inspecting things closely, picking at things with their fingernails, smelling things, tasting things, getting a keen sense of the highest value items in the house. Laszlo allowed them free reign, so charmed by their creativity and the oddness of this mini-mystery. They moved through the kitchen, the living room, the bathrooms, and Laszlo didn’t intervene—until Miles put a hand on the locked workroom door. Laszlo clamped down on the young man’s knuckles.
“Off limits, I’m afraid,” Laszlo said.
Miles smiled dearly. “Ah. That’s where you put all the good stuff, huh? The gold bullion, right?”
“No,” was all Laszlo said.
Miles lifted his hand from the doorknob. “Won’t go where we’re not wanted. That’s not our style.”
Laszlo gestured toward the den a few steps away. The den housed over one thousand books. Laszlo called it his adorable little fire hazard. Many volumes resided in floor-to-ceiling shelves, but several dozens were locked away in glass-fronted display cabinets.
The twins split apart, each peering into different display cases.
“Afraid they’ll run away?” Olivia joked.
“Oh, very,” said Laszlo. “On someone else’s feet.”
“Expensive books?” Miles asked.
“Priceless, in some cases.” Laszlo pointed. “That case there, and that case there. The rest are just very valuable.”
“Are they first editions or something?” Olivia asked.
“Some of them,” Laszlo said. “Some are signed. Some are one-of-a-kind. Some are misprints. Like I said, I’m in the amassing business these days.”
“Well, they are beautiful. How much do you think all this is worth?” asked Olivia.
Laszlo puffed his cheeks, pretending to calculate on the spot. “Between thirty and forty thousand, abouts.”
Miles spiraled off a whistle. “That’s a lot of money.”
The twins then inspected the rest of the room.
Were they trying to play disinterested? Or were they searching the shelves for hidden treasures, believing Laszlo misdirected them? It was hard to say, but Laszlo could say one thing for these two: they showed nothing in their faces. That easy amiability never waned, not for a second, as if their faces were sculpted from plaster and wire instead of muscle and bone.
By the time the twins were satisfied with the den, it was after five ‘o’ clock. Four hours had whizzed by while Laszlo had been having his fun, watching and dissecting, considering this wonderful performance.
Miles’ stomach growled, and with that sound came a new chance for intrigue.
Laszlo slapped his forehead. “God, how rude of me. You’ve been here all this time and I never once offered you anything to drink, even.”
“We-ell,” said Miles, “we can’t blame you. It’s not very usual to show hospitality to robbers.”
“Not that we’ve really robbed anything yet,” Olivia noted with a laugh. “So far we’re just guests, huh?”
They were not being pushy, just planting seeds, reminding him of their harmlessness, softening him to their presence. It wasn’t working, but he appreciated the effort so much he allowed them to believe.
“Listen, why don’t you two stay for dinner?” he asked.
The twins looked at one another.
“Oh, we couldn’t impose,” said Olivia.
“We’re not trying to put you out,” said Miles.
“No at all,” said Laszlo, strolling toward his kitchen. “As you say, at this point you’re guests. It’s rude not to invite you, and I’m not a fan of rudeness. If anybody can understand that, I’m sure you two can understand that. Besides, I hardly ever get company all the way out here. It would be nice to eat with someone else for a change.”
From the living room, Olivia called: “You know what? Why not?”
Laszlo finished his strawberry juice, now only sweet syrup congealed at the bottom of the glass. He smiled.
“Fantastic!” he said.
Laszlo was a natural cook, and he liked to flex when he could. So he presented the Prawn twins a luxuriant meal: charred salmon steaks glistening with garlic butter and balsamic vinegar, roasted asparagus on a bed of cauliflower rice, and a small nest of browned oyster mushrooms.
Their wolfish expressions did not shatter—but something chipped. Their eyes widened for a moment. The corners of their mouths flattened. They were surprised, possibly concerned, confused.
“This is . . . one heck of a meal,” Miles said.
“Hm?” said Laszlo, lifting a mushroom to his mouth. “Oh. True. I suppose it is. But, you know, company, etcetera, etcetera . . .”
The Prawns hesitated—slicing the food, stirring it, inspecting it under the guise of admiration, like foreign ambassadors without their poison taster. Laszlo extracted his own private joy from this moment of trepidatious agony. The Prawns ate slowly at first. After they were convinced the food would not kill them (or that it was too late, so they might as well enjoy themselves) they ate quickly. For dessert, they all had three scoops of pistachio ice cream, then slid down in their chairs and grinned at each other over their mountainous bellies.
“Well,” said Laszlo, “I suppose it’s time for you to get on with it.”
The twins tried to stand. There was a lot of groaning involved. Miles huffed. Olivia yawned.
“If I’m being honest, Laszlo,” said Olivia, “I can’t help but think the moment’s passed.”
“Oh, ridiculous,” Laszlo said.
“No, really. I could burst. I could fall asleep right here.”
“You’ve got to remember,” said Miles, “robbing is a very physical job. Lots of lifting, moving. Hard to do when you’re ready to conk out. Can’t go into it groggy, or you’re liable to get hurt or break something.” Miles arched his neck backward to check the grandfather clock. “Geez Louise. Is it really after nine already? We won’t make it home now ‘til early in the morning.”
The twins turned to one another and conversed through nigh imperceptible muscular twitches.
“I suppose . . .” began Olivia.
“It might be worth asking . . .” added Miles.
They returned their attention to Laszlo, who feigned obliviousness.
“Would it be possible for us to spend the night here?” Olivia asked. “We don’t need much. Just some couches. We’ll even take the floor.”
Ah . . . Now things were really punching up. A damn bold move on their part. Laszlo was impressed—still partly in the dark but very, very impressed. There was something beautifully insidious going on and he couldn’t wait to find out what it was. He thought it vital he play to certain expectations.
He rubbed his chin. “Well, I mean, I have no problem with overnight guests, per se. I have a spare bedroom, so no worries there. But there’s a conflict of interest, as I’m sure you agree. Probably not too wise to let self-proclaimed burglars spend the night in my house.”
The twins nodded knowingly.
“We get your hesitation,” Olivia said.
“We wouldn’t trust us, either,” Miles said.
“But we have been totally honest and straightforward, haven’t we?”
“We asked to come in. When you told me I wasn’t allowed in that room, I didn’t push it.”
“And you’ve been so nice to us, with this meal and everything . . .”
“We’re not about to disrespect you now. We might be criminals with a flagrant disregard for the law, but we’re not mean.”
“I can’t argue with a word,” Laszlo said. “The spare room is yours. There’s a bed and a foldout couch. I suspect you can divvy them out on your own.”
“I think we can just about manage,” Olivia said.
They cleaned up the dishes, and at half past nine the three shuffled up to bed for what was sure to be a restful, uninterrupted night’s sleep.
It was two a.m.
Laszlo was dead awake, dressed in a canary yellow bathrobe and rocking on a wooden chair, a glass of strawberry juice in one hand and a snub-nosed revolver in the other.
He swirled the juice.
He twirled the revolver.
He waited for something to happen.
Then, something happened.
A soft clicking sound, barely audible even in the night’s absolute silence. He recognized the sound at once. It sounded like the clumsy fornicating of two steel crickets: the tick of someone fiddling with a lock.
Laszlo released a single, hushed laugh, then ambled downstairs, swaying into the inky black of his living room. As he peered down the hallway, into the den, he glimpsed part of a sloped, fidgeting figure working away at one of his display cases.
Would it be Olivia or Miles? Olivia seemed to be the one in charge, so perhaps Miles was the skill man, the dexterous weasel to Olivia’s charismatic rat. Then again, would Olivia leave such an important job to anyone else?
He would soon find out.
Laszlo got behind the hunched figure and said, “You could have just asked for the key.”
The figure whirled around. It was a man, but not one Laszlo recognized. Instead of the Prawns’ blondish locks, this stranger had a close-trimmed dome of a dark hair. His face curved inward and his nose resembled a pear. He was far bigger than the Prawns—broad, tall, a sailor-type; not muscular, as that implies uniformity and proportion, but rather a sack of muscles, numerous and lumpy.
The man swung a heavy fist into Laszlo’s neck.
Laszlo spun to the floor.
The man elbowed through the display case glass, stole a few books, then ran for it. He was not fast, but, then again, bulldozers seldom are.
Gasping and dizzy, Laszlo scrambled to his feet and rushed after the stranger, leaving one slipper behind. He flung himself onto the man’s back, but the man kept running. Laszlo pummeled the stranger’s head and shoulders with the butt of his revolver. In return, the stranger threw himself against the dining room wall, smashing Laszlo with his great girth. The breath erupted from Laszlo’s lungs. Pain crunched through his shoulder blades and up his spine. Laszlo held fast to the stranger’s neck, but felt less like an assailant, more like a cape. The stranger reached back, took Laszlo by the robe collar, and wrenched him loose. Laszlo knocked his skull against the floor, sparking purple flares across his vision. Half-smacked into a dream, Laszlo raised his gun. The stranger kicked it out of his hand—not that it much changed the situation. The gun wasn’t loaded. He’d taken it for theatrical value, but that was before things got so dramatic. The stranger staggered toward the front door.
“Book!” Laszlo yelled.
No sooner had he burbled the word did the Prawn twins appear. They saw Laszlo. They saw the man. Like an expert trapeze team, they ran, sprang, grabbed, flipped, and landed, smashing the stranger into the floor with a grand thuum! Laszlo watched the pile squirm like irritable ferrets. Olivia managed to wrestle the books free, but Miles could not restrain the stranger long. The man sprinted from the house, disappearing into the night.
Miles lay panting on the floor.
Olivia helped Laszlo to his feet. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“Who the hell punches a man in the neck?” he replied.
“A man in a panic?” Oliva said.
“I can get over how much it hurt,” Laszlo said, massaging his jugular, “but it’s just plain uncivilized!”
“Yeah, well, either way, he’s gone now . . . I guess you were lucky we were here, or else he would’ve gotten away with these.” Olivia handed the books back.
Laszlo examined what had been taken for the first time. A first edition volume of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and Other Poems and a first edition volume of Mark Twain’s Adventures Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade). The former, wrapped in brown leather and accented by a marbled gold and green trapezoid, was worth around eleven-thousand dollars; the latter, a dulled forest green with golden accents, was worth around sixty-five-hundred dollars. These two books were among the more valuable in Laszlo’s possession, but the thought of nearly losing them was not what tweaked him. It took a very lucky thief to choose these at random, especially considering the stranger couldn’t have been inside the house for more than a minute or so. Laslzo would have heard. No, the man knew exactly what he was looking for and exactly where to find it.
Laszlo smiled at Olivia.
Lucky they were here, indeed.
Laszlo nearly laughed out loud. He’d nearly been taken in by that little assault, nearly convinced that the forces of coincidence conspired against him. The Prawns understood the blanketing power of blindsiding fear, of being knocked off your feet. They knew that logic and long-held belief falter in the face of something truly unexpected—not always for long, maybe only for a day, an hour, a few minutes, thirty seconds, but long enough for the quick to capitalize. Nobody could pull the wool over your eyes better than yourself. They only had to provide the sheep.
The rest of their con needed work. Few people would let them inside their houses. Few would suffer their presence more than a few minutes. Few would show them the valuables. Few would invite them to dinner or let them spend the night. They were clearly new at this. They were young. But, oh, was there cleverness tucked inside those blond heads! Wicked, magnificent cleverness. With time, with learning, they could be great. Laszlo was proud of them—not for what they’d done, but for what they might do, who they might become with the right reinforcement. Grade A fleecers, top-notch crooks. Maybe one day they’d be even better than Laszlo—though he didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
Laszlo handed back Huckleberry Finn. “Here,” he said. “I think, all things considered, you’ve earned that.”
Olivia looked perfectly astonished, as if she’d been practicing in a mirror. “Oh, man, Laszlo, we couldn’t take anything after the night you’ve had.”
“I insist. Those who do good should be rewarded.”
Olivia looked to Miles, who nodded. She took the book.
“Well, thank you very much, Laszlo,” she said, “I—oh.”
“What?” Laszlo asked.
“Well, it’s only . . . We are robbers, remember? It just feels . . . wrong to be given something. It’s not in our nature. We’re takers, you know?”
Laszlo nodded sagely. “More than you can imagine. How about this? I’ll shut my eyes. When I open them, you will both be gone.”
“That would mean the world to us,” Olivia said.
Laszlo brought his hands to his face.
“Thank—” began Miles.
“Ah, ah!” said Laszlo. “I am being robbed blind. No talking.”
There was silence—good, clean, efficient silence—and when Laszlo opened his eyes again, the Prawns had vanished. Even the door had been shut.
Laszlo sighed with melancholic pride: the sound a parent makes when their child inevitably leaves the nest and you can only hope you gave them enough to thrive in the big, scary world alone.
He returned the Poe to the cabinet and shut the doors. He needed to replace the lock because the third man, that clumsy idiot, jammed a tumbler, so the key would not take.
But such was life.
He sighed, too, just a little, for himself. He quite liked that Twain volume. It was among his first truly convincing forgeries and was precious to him as a totem. Not that it was ever sellable. Any halfway decent appraiser would see through it. The Prawns would learn that, and they’d grow warier, they’d grow smarter, less trusting and more critical; and maybe when they thought about him—after they finished being furious, which they would surely be—they would feel gratitude for a lesson well-taught, for pain offered lovingly.
Laszlo yawned. It’d been a long day. He was tired. He gathered up his revolver, massaged his cracked rib, and shuffled to bed, hoping with all the love in his heart he’d never see the Prawns again.