The burglar, a slender and clean-cut chap just past thirty, was rifling a drawer in the bedside table when Archer Trebizond slipped into the bedroom. Trebizond’s approach was as catfooted as if he himself were the burglar, a situation which was manifestly not the case. The burglar never did hear Trebizond, absorbed as he was in his perusal of the drawer’s contents, and at length he sensed the other man’s presence as a jungle beast senses the presence of a predator.
The analogy, let it be said, is scarcely accidental.
When the burglar turned his eyes on Archer Trebizond his heart fluttered and fluttered again, first at the mere fact of discovery, then at his own discovery of the gleaming revolver in Trebizond’s hand. The revolver was pointed in his direction, and this the burglar found upsetting.
“Darn it all,” said the burglar, approximately. “I could have sworn there was nobody home. I phoned, I rang the bell-”
“I just got here,” Trebizond said.
“Just my luck. The whole week’s been like that. I dented a fender on Tuesday afternoon, overturned my fish tank the night before last. An unbelievable mess all over the carpet, and I lost a mated pair of African mouthbreeders so rare they don’t have a Latin name yet. I’d hate to tell you what I paid for them.”
“Hard luck,” Trebizond said.
“And just yesterday I was putting away a plate of fettucine and I bit the inside of my mouth. You ever done that? It’s murder, and the worst part is you feel so stupid about it. And then you keep biting it over and over again because it sticks out while it’s healing. At least I do.” The burglar gulped a breath and ran a moist hand over a moister forehead. “And now this,” he said.
“This could turn out to be worse than fenders and fish tanks,” Trebizond said.
“Don’t I know it. You know what I should have done? I should have spent the entire week in bed. I happen to know a safecracker who consults an astrologer before each and every job he pulls. If Jupiter’s in the wrong place or Mars is squared with Uranus or something he won’t go in. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And yet it’s eight years now since anybody put a handcuff on that man. Now who do you know who’s gone eight years without getting arrested?”
“I’ve never been arrested,” Trebizond said.
“Well, you’re not a crook.”
“I’m a businessman.”
The burglar thought of something but let it pass. “I’m going to get the name of his astrologer,” he said. “That’s just what I’m going to do. Just as soon as I get out of here.”
“If you get out of here,” Trebizond said. “Alive,” Trebizond said.
The burglar’s jaw trembled just the slightest bit. Trebizond smiled, and from the burglar’s point of view Trebizond’s smile seemed to enlarge the black hole in the muzzle of the revolver.
“I wish you’d point that thing somewhere else,” he said nervously.
“There’s nothing else I want to shoot.”
“You don’t want to shoot me.”
“You don’t even want to call the cops,” the burglar went on. “It’s really not necessary. I’m sure we can work things out between us, two civilized men coming to a civilized agreement. I’ve some money on me. I’m an openhanded sort and would be pleased to make a small contribution to your favorite charity, whatever it might be. We don’t need policemen to intrude into the private affairs of gentlemen.”
The burglar studied Trebizond carefully. This little speech had always gone over rather well in the past, especially with men of substance. It was hard to tell how it was going over now, or if it was going over at all. “In any event,” he ended somewhat lamely, “you certainly don’t want to shoot me.”
“Oh, blood on the carpet, for a starter. Messy, wouldn’t you say? Your wife would be upset. Just ask her and she’ll tell you shooting me would be a ghastly idea.”
“She’s not at home. She’ll be out for the next hour or so.”
“All the same, you might consider her point of view. And shooting me would be illegal, you know. Not to mention immoral.”
“Not illegal,” Trebizond remarked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a burglar,” Trebizond reminded him. “An unlawful intruder on my property. You have broken and entered. You have invaded the sanctity of my home. I can shoot you where you stand and not get so much as a parking ticket for my trouble.”
“Of course you can shoot me in self-defense-”
“Are we on ‘Candid Camera’?”
“Is Allen Funt lurking in the shadows?”
“No, but I-”
“In your back pocket. That metal thing. What is it?”
“Just a pry bar.”
“Take it out,” Trebizond said. “Hand it over. Indeed. A weapon if I ever saw one. I’d state that you attacked me with it and I fired in self-defense. It would be my word against yours, and yours would remain unvoiced since you would be dead. Whom do you suppose the police would believe?”
The burglar said nothing. Trebizond smiled a satisfied smile and put the pry bar in his own pocket. It was a piece of nicely shaped steel and it had a nice heft to it. Trebizond rather liked it.
“Why would you want to kill me?”
“Perhaps I’ve never killed anyone. Perhaps I’d like to satisfy my curiosity. Or perhaps I got to enjoy killing in the war and have been yearning for another crack at it. There are endless possibilities.”
“The point is,” said Trebizond, “you might be useful to me in that manner. As it is, you’re not useful to me at all. And stop hinting about my favorite charity or other euphemisms. I don’t want your money. Look about you. I’ve ample money of my own-that should be obvious. If I were a poor man you wouldn’t have breached my threshold. How much money are you talking about, anyway? A couple of hundred dollars?”
“Five hundred,” the burglar said.
“I suppose. There’s more at home but you’d just call that a pittance too, wouldn’t you?”
“Undoubtedly.” Trebizond shifted the gun to his other hand. “I told you I was a businessman,” he said. “Now if there were any way in which you could be more useful to me alive than dead-”
“You’re a businessman and I’m a burglar,” the burglar said, brightening.
“So I could steal something for you. A painting? A competitor’s trade secrets? I’m really very good at what I do, as a matter of fact, although you wouldn’t guess it by my performance tonight. I’m not saying I could whisk the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre, but I’m pretty good at your basic hole-and-corner job of everyday burglary. Just give me an assignment and let me show my stuff.”
“Hmmmm,” said Archer Trebizond.
“Name it and I’ll swipe it.”
“A car, a mink coat, a diamond bracelet, a Persian carpet, a first edition, bearer bonds, incriminating evidence, eighteen-and-a-half minutes of tape-”
“What was that last?”
“Just my little joke,” said the burglar. “A coin collection, a stamp collection, psychiatric records, phonograph records, police records-”
“I get the point.”
“I tend to prattle when I’m nervous.”
“If you could point that thing elsewhere-”
Trebizond looked down at the gun in his hand. The gun continued to point at the burglar.
“No,” Trebizond said, with evident sadness. “No, I’m afraid it won’t work.”
“In the first place, there’s nothing I really need or want. Could you steal me a woman’s heart? Hardly. And more to the point, how could I trust you?”
“You could trust me,” the burglar said. “You have my word on that.”
“My point exactly. I’d have to take your word that your word is good, and where does that lead us? Down the proverbial garden path, I’m afraid. No, once I let you out from under my roof I’ve lost my advantage. Even if I have a gun trained on you, once you’re in the open I can’t shoot you with impunity. So I’m afraid-”
Trebizond shrugged. “Well, really,” he said. “What use are you? What are you good for besides being killed? Can you do anything besides steal, sir?”
“I can make license plates.”
“Hardly a valuable talent.”
“I know,” said the burglar sadly. “I’ve often wondered why the state bothered to teach me such a pointless trade. There’s not even much call for counterfeit license plates, and they’ve got a monopoly on making the legitimate ones. What else can I do? I must be able to do something. I could shine your shoes, I could polish your car-”
“What do you do when you’re not stealing?”
“Hang around,” said the burglar. “Go out with ladies. Feed my fish, when they’re not all over my rug. Drive my car when I’m not mangling its fenders. Play a few games of chess, drink a can or two of beer, make myself a sandwich-”
“Are you any good?”
“At making sandwiches?”
“I’m not bad.”
“I’m serious about this.”
“I believe you are,” the burglar said. “I’m not your average woodpusher, if that’s what you want to know. I know the openings and I have a good sense of space. I don’t have the patience for tournament play, but at the chess club downtown I win more games than I lose.”
“You play at the club downtown?”
“Of course. I can’t burgle seven nights a week, you know. Who could stand the pressure?”
“Then you can be of use to me,” Trebizond said.
“You want to learn the game?”
“I know the game. I want you to play chess with me for an hour until my wife gets home. I’m bored, there’s nothing in the house to read, I’ve never cared much for television and it’s hard for me to find an interesting opponent at the chess table.”
“So you’ll spare my life in order to play chess with me.”
“Let me get this straight,” the burglar said. “There’s no catch to this, is there? I don’t get shot if I lose the game or anything tricky like that, I hope.”
“Certainly not. Chess is a game that ought to be above gimmickry.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said the burglar. He sighed a long sigh. “If I didn’t play chess,” he said, “you wouldn’t have shot me, would you?”
“It’s a question that occupies the mind, isn’t it?”
“It is,” said the burglar.
They played in the front room. The burglar drew the white pieces in the first game, opened King’s Pawn, and played what turned out to be a reasonably imaginative version of the Ruy Lopez. At the sixteenth move Trebizond forced the exchange of knight for rook, and not too long afterward the burglar resigned.
In the second game the burglar played the black pieces and offered the Sicilian Defense. He played a variation that Trebizond wasn’t familiar with. The game stayed remarkably even until in the end game the burglar succeeded in developing a passed pawn. When it was clear that he would be able to queen it, Trebizond tipped over his king, resigning.
“Nice game,” the burglar offered.
“You play well.”
“Seems a pity that-”
His voice trailed off. The burglar shot him an inquiring look. “That I’m wasting myself as a common criminal? Is that what you were going to say?”
“Let it go,” Trebizond said. “It doesn’t matter.”
They began setting up the pieces for the third game when a key slipped into a lock. The lock turned, the door opened and Melissa Trebizond stepped into the foyer and through it to the living room.
Both men got to their feet. Mrs. Trebizond advanced, a vacant smile on her pretty face. “You found a new friend to play chess with. I’m happy for you.”
Trebizond set his jaw. From his back pocket he drew the burglar’s pry bar. It had an even nicer heft than he had thought “Melissa,” he said, “I’ve no need to waste time with a recital of your sins. No doubt you know precisely why you deserve this.”
She stared at him, obviously not having understood a word he had said to her, whereupon Archer Trebizond brought the pry bar down on the top of her skull. The first blow sent her to her knees. Quickly he struck her three more times, wielding the metal bar with all his strength, then turned to look into the wide eyes of the burglar.
“You’ve killed her,” the burglar said.
“Nonsense,” said Trebizond, taking the bright revolver from his pocket once again.
“Isn’t she dead?”
“I hope and pray she is,” Trebizond said, “but I haven’t killed her. You’ve killed her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The police will understand,” Trebizond said, and shot the burglar in the shoulder. Then he fired again, more satisfactorily this time, and the burglar sank to the floor with a hole in his heart.
Trebizond scooped the chess pieces into their box, swept up the board and set about the business of arranging things. He suppressed an urge to whistle. He was, he decided, quite pleased with himself. Nothing was ever entirely useless, not to a man of resources. If fate sent you a lemon, you made lemonade.