by Robert Roehl, Nov 30, 2016
It felt good hunkered down like this, wedged up against cool concrete, legs locked, dully aching, the breathing slowed, the mind slowing with it. His eyes, mere slits, took in the unmoving scene—this house, its back yard, the darkened windows—with steadfast attention, as if his watching, this unwavering act of vigilance, kept everything in place.
The last hours always passed this way. No longer fettered with the details of planning and casing, his mind probed the moment, his thoughts drifting upward, rising on the heat of inner tensions held in check.
“Steady on now, lad,” Uncle Eddie used to say back when they staked out together. “Steady on.” So you’d know he wasn’t asleep and you’d better not be either.
It was then, when they waited, on the verge of action, that he felt free to wonder—about a world so vast, so empty, so filled with nighttime and opportunity that they could get away with this, skulking around in their own private time and space. It seemed such a great secret, such easy advantage over their marks. He thought about them too, the marks—asleep, oblivious, left out of this—how their world would change, how they would know his world soon, how they would take it. And now, many years later, when that same hour came, he thought about them too and what would happen next, though not in the same why. Back then he never wondered why he did it. Back then he knew. Now he worked to avoid the question, why he risked the place he’d finally made in that other world to reenter this one. Steady on now, lad.
When he was young, after he had been caught, and well after Uncle Eddie was gone, he had thought about it with the shrinks, articulating his actions, telling them what he knew, conjuring reasons, excuses, lies. Not guilty by reason of insanity to eight counts of felony theft took some articulation. He was nineteen and he was white. The shrinks wanted to understand. They wanted to blame his runaway mother and the early death of his father and the poverty and neglect that followed and the appearance of Uncle Eddie—an immigrant and a con—his influence on the boy. They talked about preexisting guilt, unconscious motives of revenge, cyclic dynamics and even narcolepsy. Seeing the way out, he went along, maybe even seeing some truth to it. He remembered sounding very reasonable, hiding all the while like he knew how to hide, staying very still, and waiting as if lying in wait, like he did on a job, like he was doing now, invisible, alive, and alone. None of their explanations nor any of his touched this, the feeling, the force and clarity of a job—casing it, staking it out and finally, putting on the sneak.
He still had it.
He spent the entire night here exactly a week ago just like Eddie said a good watcher should do. Sprawled flat in a tattered sleeping bag in the overgrown garden of the house across the way, unwashed and wrapped in grimy layers, poised to act the homeless drunk—an empty pint bottle of gin within reach on the off chance that he was discovered. He thought he would sleep, like Eddie had often done despite his cautions to the contrary (he’d had to jostle Eddie on occasional to quieten his snoring). He was nearly the same age now as Eddie had been when he came over from Yorkshire—to avoid, as he put it, becoming a long-term guest of Her Majesty. “Forced redundancy,” Eddie had said, as if it were a predictable glitch along the path of his chosen occupation. “High time, anyway, ya know, I pass on the knowledge to a younger rank.”
But he hadn’t slept. He stayed alert and watchful until the first scent of morning dew. Nothing much happened. The fogged glass of a second story window illuminated at four-fifteen and glowed dully for several minutes then went out. A milk truck came down the street at five forty-five just as he was leaving, but it didn’t stop. The newspaper never did come.
For the last three nights, he had parked on the street two houses down. The neighborhood, barely middle-class, had few driveways or garages, his car one of many along the curb. “Never choose a fat target,” Uncle Eddie had advised. “The best marks—the easiest—are those who have little to lose.” They need only have more than we had and back then, that was almost anyone. He followed the same rule now, though for different reasons.
The master bedroom lights went out by eleven or so each night with the regularity of a two-job household. The boy, probably not sixteen—still riding to school with friends in the mornings—stayed awake the longest in a ground floor room, it’s windows enlivened by the glow and flicker of television. When that TV went off, the lights in the bedroom adjacent came on for a short time before the boy finally went to sleep. From where he sat, up against the protruding casement of the neighbor’s fireplace, he could see those windows now, all of them dark for over an hour, as was the sliding glass door.
He had tried that door last night. It was the third blade of his jimmy that worked it, a bent pick with a hook on the end, thickened for strength. It took him thirty seconds to pop the latch. Tonight it wouldn’t take ten. And then he would be in.
It was time now to move yet he hesitated. His mind teased him with last minute doubts, thoughts of consequence, the ludicrous nature of breaking and entering for sport. But that wasn’t what held him back. There was always resistance and he knew how to handle it. How to handle the fear. Uncle Eddie had taught him that. Fear, he told him, was merely emotion. “You can shape it, use it, make it work for you. Keeps you on your toes.” He felt it now as an even inner hum, flowing through his arms and legs, tweaking his muscles, sharpening his senses. And he watched as his mind quietened once again. He would go through with it. The deciding excited him, demanded of him this sweet state.
He moved quickly from the shadow of the fireplace across the yard, knowing from the night before where to step and where to look. The smell of damp earth and overripe pumpkins rose from underfoot. A dog barked a few houses down, speculative, probing, without authority. He waited for it to die off, noting again the pockets of darkness under still leafy trees and the deep shadows running along the wood slat fence. The night before, in what Eddie had called, “a backyard exercise”, he had taken twenty minutes to go this next thirty feet.
“You go in and out wit’ nowt,” Eddie instructed. “That’s when you find out how you’re gonna get nicked. And if you get nicked then, it’s not holdin’ the bag. But if you don’t, you’ve sussed out the terra firma, ya know? So when it counts, you’ll know where to go.”
Moving to the blind spots in the landscape, he checked the angles of vision and light. No noise came from his movement, no light from his form. Listening, his mind was as clear as the indigo sky, silent spaces between distinct points of cognition and assessment.
Once at the door, he worked the jimmy. Click and it was done. He slid it open knowing there was no chain, no security bar. Stepping in, he closed door, then sidestepped against the wall to extinguish his silhouette. His blood flowed palpably now and his heart beat like a distant drum. This was the new terrain, new and alive, for there were others in the midst. This you could not rehearse.
“Once you’re in,” Eddie’s words reminded him, “you’re in their world. You bring your world into theirs. And you always leave something behind.” But this was no warning, no caution. This to him was the point. What would they think of it? How would they feel when they came across the trail he left behind?
He waited, listening, savoring the quiet and the warmth, and taking in the unique display of other people’s lives. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand…” A half minute of dead calm, listening for movement, adrenaline pumping smoothly, he felt confident enough to case. The gray light seeping through the glass doors allowed him to see an oversized TV console and L-shaped couches. Bookshelves and built-in cabinets lined the wall and a doorway in the corner led into a bathroom. Directly across from where he stood he detected the darkened rectangle, the opening of a hallway. Just before it, a closed door. This was the boy’s room, the door covered with bumper stickers and reflective emblems. At the base of the door there was no line of light. He would go in there on the way out.
He moved slowly, deliberately, as if testing the thickness of ice underfoot. “The whole secret,” Eddie had said, “is to move slow. Slower than time. Keeps you in your own world.” Across the room and down the hall he stopped at the foot of stairs leading upward. Silver light angled through the front windows from a distant street lamp, enough to give dimension to the living room, a split-level between this floor and the one above. From where he stood he could see through wrought iron railings to the far end of the room and the front door with its arched window of pebbled glass. Moving past the stairs, another doorway led into what must be an office, LED lights shining green along a desk-high plane. That was it for downstairs. If there was trouble, he knew now where it would come from and where he would go.
He returned to the TV room. Working this room would test the soundness of the boy’s sleep while still in range of a quick retreat. At the bookshelves, he removed books at random and spread them on the floor, stacked them on the countertop, put some on a chair. He rummaged cautiously through cabinets unloading things from there: linens, stacks of magazines and coffee table books, some tools. He arranged them on the couches and some on the floor, careful to leave a pathway for escape. Then he pushed the coffee table up against the couch and repositioned a chair, then decided to lay it on its side as if it had been thrown. After a quick satisfying sweep of his eyes and a glance at the still dark crack at the base of the boy’s door, he moved on down the hall.
Stepping into the office, he closed the door then eased into the chair in front of the computer. Feeling along the desk surface for the mouse, a green-tinged screen saver came up when he touched it, illuminating the room. He clicked on several icons on the screen, arbitrarily opening files without reading anything. Leaving it, he swiveled in the chair to face the filing cabinet and carefully pulled open each drawer. Within this relative seclusion, his movements were quick and exact, confident of his limits. In the third drawer of the cabinet he found a box. “There’s always a box,” Eddie used to say. This one was metal with a handle on its lid and a worthless trinket of a lock built onto the front of it. Lifting it carefully, he turned and set it on his lap under the light of the computer monitor. Before he touched the lock with his blade, the lid came open in his hand. He smiled. Inside were some folded papers, a thin packet of money in a clip, and several sets of keys. He put the money and papers in his hip pack. Gathering the keys gingerly, he stashed them at the bottom of the wastebasket. He set the metal box on the desk top, open and emptied out.
Moving from the chair, he approached a closet, the bi-fold doors yielding silently to his touch. Winter clothing hung there. Hangers were tricky, but he managed to unhook a bulging garment bag from the rod with only the slightest rustle. He lay it out on the floor noting its resemblance to a body bag. Then the room went dark, the timer on the screen saver kicking in. Time to move on.
Making his way back to the stairs, he stopped and listened. He waited, counting to thirty, noting that his pulse had slowed. Though the adrenaline still coursed through him, the tensions in his muscles had eased. He felt strong and agile, completely in control. Placing his feet on the treads where they met the wall and carrying some weight with his hands on the railings, he climbed the stairs to the living room without a sound. Calmly and quite slowly, as if strolling through the least interesting nook of an art gallery, he made his way around the living room. As he went, he gathered knickknacks off the end tables and gewgaws from the mantle and crowded them, two at a time, onto the doily-covered surface of the coffee table.
Soft-stepping into the adjacent dining room, he opened the china cabinet and removed a few items from the shelves, placing them around the centerpiece of silk flowers on the table. Once he had made room for it, he moved the flower vase into the cabinet and closed the door, allowing himself another smile.
In the lower compartment, he discovered a collection of family albums. Always a favorite find, he set them open over the place mats. On one inside cover, a large photo filled the page. Even in the dim grayness he could tell this was the official family photo, a studio portrait of mom and dad, son and daughter. He hadn’t known about the daughter, no signs of her from the stakeout. Removing the photo with careful finger work, he took it with him into the kitchen and held it under the bluish light of the microwave clock. The boy appeared younger in it, the photo apparently several years old. The daughter thin and petite, looked slightly younger than her brother. In which case, she would still be here.
The furnace came on with a dull thump and a low whine. It sent a spike of juice into his chest, but he realized the opportunity. With this low hum as cover, it was time to go into the bedrooms. Time to enter their dreams. Folding the picture into his hip pack, he went back through the dining room.
The master bedroom was another half-flight up. With the furnace running, he took these steps more quickly. At the top, he found a bathroom door open directly in front of him. The master bedroom, he knew, was down the hall to his right and another door stood closed on his left. There was a chanil outlined heart-shape mounted on the door. This must be the girl’s room. From in the alley and on the street, he never saw lights come on in that corner of the house. Most likely it was empty, the girl away at school or overnight friends. To leave it till later was low risk. And the job wasn’t done—not consummated, as Eddie would say—until he was in and out of the sleeping quarters of the master of the house. “Aye, ’at’s the trophy,” Eddie used to brag, “for a second-story man worth his salt.” To lift that wallet from the top of the dresser or the nightstand or the pocket of the discarded trousers of the man who slept just inches away. That was the brass ring.
In long, slow steps, listening to the whoosh of forced air heat, he brought himself to stand outside the master bedroom door. He gently wrapped his fingers around the knob and with firm, upward pressure, took twenty seconds to turn it until it would go no further. Then he eased open the door just past the jamb and, counting again, let the knob unwind. No background light to worry about this far down the hallway. But if the hinges were dry or mounted wrong, they might give off a squeak. Opening the door would be an all or nothing move, one of many in a reasoning burglar’s progress. Gripping the edge of the door, his breath arrested, he knew he was ready. Yet again, he willed himself to wait. His muscles urged him on like someone else’s impatient thoughts. Conceding the emotion, he waited and listened. He heard the silence of the moment beyond the sound of the furnace and his own breathing and nothing else. Standing there in the dark, between two worlds, his body perfectly still yet imbued with strength, a sense of density infused him and a smile that he felt before it tinged his lips grew slowly, like the joyous final sigh of some gentle, dying creature. In one quick motion, he swung open the door.
He listened. Airflow through a heat vent covered his exhalation of breath. He could smell the body warmth in the atmosphere of that room.
Though the curtains were drawn, a digital clock emitted light enough to see. Leaning forward, he could make out the bed and two rumpled mounds that misrepresented the shapes of human creatures. Beyond the sound of the furnace he could hear no breathing. No one snored, which was good, denoting a deeper sleep.
The darker outline of a dressing table came into view just in front of him. To his right, another black rectangle, this one chest high. He began counting again, watching the sleepers, as he extended one foot forward. Ten seconds to shift his weight, no noise, nothing. Another step, another ten seconds, then one more and he was at the dressing table just shy of the mirror above it. He floated his hand along the surface. Fifteen seconds and he found another box, textured carving on the lid. “Did I tell you ’bout the time,” Uncle Eddie had told him, “that I lifted a music box?” It was a good story. “Brahman’s Lullaby, it was. Woke up the whole house.” But this was no music box, no knobs or buttons underneath. Opening it, he could see the jewelry in side. It wouldn’t be anything worth lifting. Leaving the lid up, he placed the box on the floor just beyond his feet. Still leaning slightly forward, he tried a top drawer. It slid open on rollers. Dipping his hand in, he felt cloth, maybe undergarments. He slowly gathered them into his fist and lifted then set these onto the floor. Two minutes, ten seconds total.
Straightening up, he lifted his forward foot and, like the arm of a crane, swiveled his leg toward the dresser on his right. Once there, on its surface he found a man’s watch, and slipped it on his wrist. He also found another box, this one wooden, heavy and masculine, not likely to have music. He opened the lid and left it. Further along, he found the wallet. Just like that, he had it. A moment’s satisfaction gave way to anticlimax. No need to make the move to the bedside table. Brimming with pluck, he contemplated going for it anyway, snagging the man’s book or reading glasses or whatever lay there. Just to leave the sign, that close, that free. But then the furnace switched off.
He stood perfectly still, holding the wallet. His measured breathing was quiet enough to allow him to hear the rhythmic breaths from the sleepers on the bed. They slept the sleep of angels while he wrestled with the urge to create. This room was the centerpiece. What they would keep coming back to, what would haunt them—how close he had been.
“You’ve got ta’ know your self,” Uncle Eddie always said. “You’ve got to know what you want. What’s enough and what’s too much. You go past it, ya’ gonna get nicked.”
Waiting, he let the decision settle in. He watched the sleepers, counting past sixty, until the slightest feeling of relief came on him. It was time to move.
He counted twenty seconds moving one leg and shifting his weight. There’s a tendency to go faster on your way out, coming down, familiar with the terrain. “It’s where the tyros trip up,” Eddie used to say, “Gettin’ out’s the real drill.”
Two minutes, fifteen seconds, he had the door closed on the master bedroom without hearing a sound above his own breathing and theirs. Eddie would be proud.
Without the furnace for cover, he took it slow going down the hall, stepping next to the walls. At the girl’s doorway, he looked at the heart on the door. It may have been a Valentine’s Day card, maybe homemade. He waited, listening. He could hear a distant hum downstairs, probably the refrigerator, and he noted background light reflected through the front windows. Nothing much. Gripping the doorknob, he started counting. He had the knob fully turned in less than twenty seconds. Had he lost some edge? Instead he knew he sensed the absence. When he was ready, he pushed open the door, less taken by the moment. He listened, moving his eyes at intervals to help bring shapes into focus. The shades were only partially drawn, the room not as dark as her parents’ room had been. What he could see confirmed it. The girl wasn’t there. A row of stuffed animals took shape along the perfectly smoothed bedspread, neatly arranged against the headboard where pillows should have been. No one slept here recently.
Aware that the boy’s room was directly below, he forced himself to slow down, shifting his weight in ten second spans, easy for him really. Moving to a dressing table, there was a small teddy visible on its surface there, seated up against an oval mirror. He opened the top drawers and felt neatly folded clothes beneath his hands. He removed some and fanned them along the floor and put the teddy on top.
Stepping carefully across the room, he pictured rearranging the other stuffed animals, moving them from the bed. As he did so, the neatness of it struck him—too neat, really, to be lived in. There were no clothes, no toys, no messiness visible and the only dolls he found were arranged by size amidst the stuffed animals, as if on display. Nothing in this room got played with. A ten- or twelve-year old girl did not live here.
He stopped and took in the rectangle outline of the dresser again. He saw something there flat beneath the arching lampstand and his curiosity drew him to it and he moved too fast. A floorboard squeaked beneath the throw rug, freezing him in step. It would squeak again when he picked up his foot.
He nearly cursed himself, but the jolt of that impulse, its caustic inner tang, stopped him. “Ya’ don’t get ticked off,” Eddie used to say. “It’ll start a panic in ya’.” It would weaken your control, distract your perceptions, feed the fear. “Merely emotion…keeps you on your toes.”
He counted to fifty—and it was hard—shifting his weight back slow enough to absorb the squeak. Taking a different route and counting more purposefully now, he made his way to the dresser, though his gut still stirred. On its top surface, he found a flat book, another photo album or a scrapbook. Opening it, he could make out only squares and gray shapes, some of them photos but others had a less glossy texture. He sensed a question here and felt that this book held the answer. He decided to turn on his headlamp, the one he wore underneath the wool cap. “It’s best to work in the dark,” Eddie always said. “You get used to it. Like a cat.” And it worked when you didn’t need details which, given his purpose he didn’t. But this was something else. Back-stepping along the wall to the window, he scanned the nearby houses for lit windows, signs of life. Nothing there. He counted to thirty closing the curtain, then made his way again back to the dresser. He was getting tired. A low-grade impatience gnawed at him. Impatience was the enemy. Ya’ don’t get ticked off.
Standing over the open scrapbook, he flicked on the 6-watt bulb in his headgear, careful to hold his head and the light perfectly still. An eight-by-ten photo of the girl filled the first page, straight blond hair, wide smiling eyes, not more than ten years old. She looked happy, normal enough. The next page framed a clipping from a local newspaper, cut from the top of page three. The same photo, smaller, graced the upper left-hand corner, next to the headline:
GIRL, 9, ABDUCTED FROM SCHOOL
Like coolant through a freezer coil, his blood ran cold.
“Never,” Uncle Eddie urged, “never let the mark get to ya. ’E’s just a mark.”
But that voice faded into the darker corners of the room. And new darkness closed in, shrinking around him like a collapsing tent, suffocating him and ensnarling his thoughts. As if cowering under some hateful, glowering gaze, he strained to lift his eyes to the top of the page. The date was less than two years ago.
He should have let it go, he knew it. He heard that voice, maybe it was Eddie’s, maybe his own. Against it another impulse compelled him, a stirring. What must have happened, he needed to know. Some inner longing seemed connected to it—weak, amorphous, a distraction—but it made him turn the page.
PARENTS MAKE PUBLIC PLEA
The date, three days later. There was a picture of them in front of a cluster of microphones, chubby arms wrapped around each other, pale round faces strained with intent.
There were more pages, more articles, progressively smaller and with smaller headlines. The dates ran further apart as he kept turning. Several pages on, he found what he knew he was looking for, back again on page one of the local section.
AURORA GIRL’S BODY FOUND
It was five months after the first article.
He was shaking, that’s what brought him out of it, his thigh muscles, his whole lower torso. He had sunk into a kind of half crouch and had stayed there for a while—too long for his quads to hold up—leaning against the dresser as if trying to push it through the wall. The front edge dug into his chest and his hands shot pain when he finally released his grip from the side molding. When he began to recall where he was, his thinking crumbled and his mind leapt beyond, as if the top of his head opened up from inside, opened to a view like he’d heard happens just before you die. As if he saw everything that had brought him here in huge chunks, vast inner vistas—these patterns and links, the lost faces flying by, the hidden passage of time—yet each baneful misstep building a case for these paltry undertakings. He saw Eddie there too, angry and protesting, yet scrawny and pathetic, and he remembered then and clearly how that life had ended. He felt as if he had been thrown into this world, so completely at its mercy, and into this place, this room where he was still standing, and why. It came into his thinking only vaguely and he thought at first it was an illusion or dream. Then he remembered the family, the girl, and how he had, so slowly, so quietly, so assiduously, crashed their frugal lives. It hit him like blood on his face. And again he almost fainted, but then that escape seemed no longer available. He had fallen into the depth of their lives, impelled by something as if beyond himself. Yet it was no thing other than himself standing there, the feeling of himself. It was as if he could not move again until he let that feeling in, made space for it, let it be part of him, as if it were going to take him over anyway.
He found himself standing there. With too much effort, he peeled back a sweat-dampened sleeve and saw that it was past four. The sleepers would be nearer the surface. He had to move and now he thought he could. But all his strength was gone, his sense of discipline a distant dream, someone else, a mistake. He didn’t know how to move or, questioning this, he didn’t know why. But there were consequences for the body too, and it had a voice and it told him to get out of there, to let it do the work. Reaching up to turn off the headlamp, his joints worked stiffly, his arm a rusted club. Waiting for his eyes to adjust, the girl’s picture floated in his mind’s eyes in the swirl of darkness above the scrapbook. When he turned away, his guts tightened and he strained against it, muscle fighting muscle. Because there were things he had to do.
Moving to the bedside, he rearranged the dolls and stuffed animals like they were before, recalling as best he could. As he moved, the shaking subsided some but didn’t stop and he was cold now from the perspiration. He looked with loathing at the jumble of clothing that he had arranged on the floor, the teddy on top, the joke. Yet refolding these small-sized articles was beyond him. Grabbing them up in a heap, he stuffed it all back in drawers by the handfuls, then replaced the teddy up against the mirror. He could hear the noise he made but he couldn’t count, couldn’t slow himself, couldn’t care about it that way anymore. This was new to him, and dangerous.
When he opened the door, the hallway seemed bright with grayness but outside it was still dark night beyond the street lamp. He stood and looked down the hall toward the door of the master bedroom. No way could he go back in there. No way.
Turning to the stairs, he descended the steps weak-kneed, boards creaking underfoot, warning sirens going off in his head. But his attention dispersed as if not cleanly connected to that part of his mind that told him what it meant, and another part unwilling to let go of this other vision. And someone who contained both of these, seeing it, but moving too fast for his thinking. In the dining room, he removed the watch from his wrist and set it on the table and emptied the contents from his hip-pack: the wallets, the money, the family photo. He looked around this room and the living room adjacent. It was a puny, selfish display.
He turned away and descended to the lower level.
As he entered the TV room, the jangle of a doorknob stopped him cold. The door to the boy’s room swung back into darkness. No lights, no movement, but the boy stood there facing him.
Nothing happened, there was no sense of time. He couldn’t tell if he was seen, if the boy was looking at him. But he knew—the catman in him knew—that he would have to get past him. And it was then that he saw—not only his escape, but also his freedom. He saw himself away from there and shed of this place. But also shed of the catman, separate from him, different. He saw himself, what was left over, who he was before all this and who he was now. And he didn’t want to move. He didn’t want anything to move.
Flooring creaked above him and light shone down the stairwell from behind and in that faint light, the boy appeared in front of him, a hazy profile, tall and thin. He took a step back into his room and started to swing the door closed, but then he stopped. The catman was seen too, of course, but he didn’t move. They stared at each other and a stillness seemed to take hold of them, an unbearable sense of presence, yet somehow sustained. Wordless, before words, even a thought would disrupt it, anything would start it all in motion again. But nothing did.
He wondered if he could just stay there, if there was a way they all could just let him stay. If he could talk to the boy, if they could make friends.
A woman’s voice, restrained panic, a mock whisper, floated down from above. Then a man’s response, a raspy falsetto, almost like the woman’s. He thought something would happen but nothing did. And he knew how to go on.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice so weak that he didn’t know if his sounds became words. He said it again, in a man’s voice now and the boy stepped back and his intake of breath was audible. The catman moved, leapt to the door and slid it open and dashed through the yard and over the fence. And from along the narrow corridor of alleyway, the man heard the young boy calling out: “Mom!…Mom!”