“Alex, I need to ask. Can you still open a safe with a prayer and a whistle?”
“What kind of a question is that?”
My reflexes are good, honed in courts of law. Question, answer. Service, volley. Even if in this case my answer is more a lob aimed at the baseline. I don’t believe Pete is wearing a wire, but using my name in a sentence together with open and safe is damn casual. We’re having drinks on the terrace of the country club after a round of golf and members are milling about. They’re too wrapped up in their tales of lucky putts and hazards averted to pay much attention to our conversation, but still. I’m Alex Ritter, Assistant District Attorney of Barwin County, and I’m well-known in these parts.
I haven’t cracked a safe in twenty years and Pete knows it. He was there.
“It isn’t something you forget, right?” Pete says. “Once you get the hang of it? It’s like biking or screwing.”
“Unlike bicycles and ladies, the technology has evolved, Pete, and I never touched the tough, complicated ones anyway. Strictly amateur hour, dials and stuff.”
Pete grins. I know what he thinks. That I’m too modest to take credit.
Modest, my ass. I was a cocky fifteen-year-old, and proud to crack these suckers, just too smart to make it a career. There are pros. I never considered following in their footsteps. They lead straight to prison.
“You were so good. I watched you,” Pete says. “I loved watching you. The way your fingers moved, so slow, tender, seducing the metal. It wasn’t metal anymore, it was silk, and flesh, and …”
“You’re making me thirsty.” I wave at the server and signal for two more.
Pete is a photographer, a great one. He knows a thing or two about seduction and patience. He plants his tripod in a marsh and waits for the wildlife to come to him. I couldn’t do it. I’m good at waiting but I love the quick kill. That’s why I’m a prosecutor and not a defense attorney. We all find our groove eventually.
“It’s exactly the kind of antique box you like,” Pete says. “And it’s a recovery mission, totally righteous.”
“Repo? Fill in the paperwork.”
“It’s a bit more complicated.”
Isn’t it always?
“What do you know about Lillie Langtry?” Pete says.
Jersey Lily. Judge Roy Bean’s crush. Stunning in a corset. Hobnobbing, and more, with royalty … I know more than I thought I knew.
“It’s about her,” Pete says.
Three weeks later, I’m squatting in front of a bulky slab of black painted metal with copper accents. I wear thin leather gloves – latex makes my hands sweat – and a tux, with the bowtie undone because I can’t stand the stupid thing. Above my head, in the main ballroom, the party is hopping. Pete is by my side, dressed in a server uniform, with a badge from the catering service, in case people risk confusing him with a guest. The badge says Wilson, which happens to be Pete’s middle name.
“Can you do it?” he stutters.
It’s a tad late for second thoughts, but that’s Pete, he radiates stress so bad he’d blow a Geiger counter. A little weed would relax him but I insisted on rigorous sobriety. This endeavor is stupid enough as it is, I don’t need my partner swaying like an herb garden in the breeze.
“Go wait in the hallway, in case somebody comes down here. Don’t breathe on my neck, it gives me goosebumps. Shoo.” I point at the bulky backpack hanging from his shoulder. “Leave that here.”
“But I like to watch.” He sounds just like he did when we were kids, when we thought rules weren’t for us because we had nothing to lose.
“Fuck, Pete! You want me to go back to the party and get sloshed? It’d be my pleasure.”
He raises both hands in submission and trots to the hallway.
Alone, at last with this beautiful safe that Arnold Haraldson, heir to the Haraldson oil and gas fortune, bought at a Western memorabilia sale. Artifacts of the Old West are the man’s passion. I’m surrounded by glass cases containing ancient six-shooters, spurs, saddle gear, and branding irons. A Gatling gun ready to spit its rounds sits on a podium. It’s the star of the show. I’m glad it’s not pointed at me. The back wall is a collection of mug shots – Wanted posters, genuine. Update the clothes and hairstyle, add some ink, and the ruffians look all too familiar. I wonder what Miss Lillie Langtry, the reason for this little jaunt, would think of the criminal bunch. I bet she’d wrinkle her pretty nose and tell them to get a bath.
This isn’t my first visit to Haraldson’s museum. He gave another party, in April, on the anniversary date of Jesse James’s death. The citizens of this town think the parties are a hoot, I believe the man has a screw loose. Today’s shindig is officially for Mrs. Haraldson’s birthday. It’s also the day Billy the Kid bit the dust. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Maybe the special date is why he married the woman. Last year, he timed the festivities with Bonnie and Clyde’s demise. That was stretching it a bit, they’re not strictly Old West, but maybe the man plans to expand the gallery. If he latches onto Dillinger, I’ll dust off my fedora.
I get down on my knees in front of the dial. The biggest problem with an antique is the condition of the locking mechanism. Properly oiled and maintained or full of gunk. I take a picture of the dial – to be able to leave it in the exact position I found it – then give the wheel a couple of turns to feel how well it moves. Smooth. Good. To work.
Pete is right about the sensual nature of the job. My fingertips seem to grow new nerve endings that can feel inside the metal panel. I can’t rely on sound, the noises from the party are too distracting. It’s all touch, a matter of millimeters, and absolute focus. The exhibits, the room, the entire house vanish. The world is reduced to my fingers and a glossy wheel.
I haven’t lost it.
Pete is back the moment the safe door is open. I stop him before he reaches in. “Don’t touch anything, you’re not wearing gloves.”
There are stacks of documents and small black pouches that might contain jewelry, but that isn’t why we’re here. I retrieve a round hat box and put it on the floor, next to Pete’s backpack. There’s another hat box in there, not an exact match but similar enough.
“Open the box,” Pete says. “I want to make sure.”
Good point. The box contains a pale straw hat with a silky ivory chin strap. A fluff of pink ostrich feathers and blue velvet flowers weigh down the brim on the left side. It’s simple and charming. The hat could have belonged to Lillie Langtry. It looks old enough.
Pete is satisfied. “Do the swap.”
His box goes in the safe and the other one goes in the backpack. I turn the dial back to the starting position. The odds Haraldson thought about a trick like that are tiny, but why take a risk? Pete doesn’t want the man to know he’s been hit.
I swipe my knees clean and stick the gloves in my jacket pocket. Hopefully there’s champagne left upstairs. I don’t bother to fix the bowtie. It’s late, by now jackets must be off, and maybe, maybe, the tall brunette in the green dress I noticed on the way in is still around and unattached.
“I’ll see you at the apartment,” Pete says.
He stares at me, sighs. “Okay. You must be wiped. Tomorrow afternoon?” He smiles. “I have a surprise for you.”
Surprise? I’d rather not, buddy.
Pete slings the backpack over his shoulder and slips away toward the kitchen and the parking lot.
There were gallons of champagne left and her name was Sandy. She was a friend of the Haraldsons’ daughter in town for a week vacation. The green dress had a long, long zipper in the back that I played with until she told me to stop fiddling.
“It’s like you’re defusing a bomb,” she said, more right than she knew. “You have beautiful hands.”
My fingertips were still tingling. She was warm and soft. It took a while but she took my mind off smooth dials.
“Meet Toni,” Pete says. “She’s my fiancée and thanks to you, we can get married.”
Toni throws her arms around my neck and kisses me on the corner of the mouth. She’s a sporty freckled redhead with a smile big enough to swallow the hallowed hat box sitting on the dining room table.
“We owe you so much,” Toni says. “You have no idea how devastated we were when we found out the hat was missing.”
Missing. Right. Pete told me his mother sold the thing on eBay. Haraldson paid three hundred dollars for the hat. If it really belonged to Lillie Langtry that might have been a steal, but I’m no expert in historic hats.
“It was all a big misunderstanding,” Pete says.
It’s the kind of story that would make a gaggle of inebriated lawyers choke with laughter in their single malts. Sadly, it isn’t for public consumption. It’s a family secret and a tradition of which I am now part, a slightly befuddled part.
The story told by Pete goes like this. Lillie Langtry’s straw hat with the ostrich feathers and velvet flowers is a family heirloom. It’s passed from father to son to be placed on the bride’s head as a symbol of life commitment. Considering Miss Langtry’s life story, this is highly ironic. Pete’s mother, in a fit of spring cleaning, decided the dusty bonnet had to go. She only remembered the family tradition when Pete told her he planned to marry Toni.
Pete could have said sod the straw and kept me honest. I could also have told him I had early onset arthritis and my fingers were no good.
Although a long zipper on a green dress comes damn close.
M.E. Proctor is currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. The first book in the series will come from TouchPoint Press in January 2023. Her short stories have been published in Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern Flash, Bristol Noir, Fiction on the Web, The Bookends Review and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. On Twitter: @MEProctor3.