The Good Thief's Guide to Murder by Chris Ewan is a short story in the Good Thief's Guide series featuring master thief Charlie Howard. Read our exclusive excerpt and learn how you can read the entire story for free!
Cat burglars are pretty cool, right? I’ve always thought so. They climb in through high windows. They dangle from ropes. They scale rooftops. They’re agile. Added to that, they’re usually suave, sophisticated and cunning, and they always get away with the goods and evade the police.
Well, not me.
I don’t like heights. I’d rather smoke a cigarette than hone my climbing skills. I’m actually allergic to cats.
But we do have something in common because the truth is I like to steal things and I usually get away with it, too. The only difference is I prefer to go in and out the front door.
Naturally, just about every front door I’ve ever come across has been protected by a lock. But believe me when I tell you that every lock is susceptible to being picked. That was true of the door I was standing in front of in Antibes in France. It was an aged and warped slab of oak, the timber heated by the pounding Mediterranean sun. The lock was a standard pin and tumbler allied with a dead bolt that remained stiff and immobile for only as long as it took me to whip out my picks and tickle it into submission. I tugged on the door. It creaked open on old hinges. Then I snatched a breath and stepped inside.
Crossing the threshold gave me a rush. It always does. But this time the rush was even more intense because the owner of the house meant something to me. If you’re a book or movie fan, chances are he means something to you, too.
William Brandt, American novelist and screenwriter, famous recluse. Brandt had written two of my favourite crime novels, both of them published in the late 1950s. In 1961 and ’62, his prize-winning noirs were given the movie treatment. The first won an Oscar for Best Picture. The second won for Best Screenplay. Willie Brandt had penned both scripts. His success was as brilliant as it was short-lived. Following the completion of his second movie, he’d published nothing since.
Why? Well, there were rumours that Brandt was blocked. Others claimed that he knew he couldn’t possibly top his early work so why bother trying? But the most persistent rumour concerned the female star of both movies. Her name, of course, was Betty Franklin and she was the woman Brandt fell in love with, romanced and ultimately lost.
Willie and Betty were engaged to be married during the filming of Brandt’s second movie. They split in ’63. Betty was killed in a car crash the following summer, the same year that Brandt left LA for Antibes and a villa, legend had it, that he’d rarely left since. The talk was that Betty’s death had destroyed him.
And what was inside Brandt’s secluded French villa? Again, nobody knew. One persistent myth had it that the place was filled with completed manuscripts that would be published following Willie’s death. It was a theory I could believe in. I was a mystery writer myself. And sure, I wasn’t a success like William Brandt. The thrillers I penned about a burglar called Faulks had never troubled the bestseller lists or stirred much interest among critics. But I had ambitions to change that one day. I was a thief, it’s true, but in my heart I was a mystery writer. I’d been bitten by the bug early and I couldn’t imagine a time when I might stop writing. So to think that a novelist with Brandt’s talent could call it quits seemed inconceivable to me.
Now, as I crept inside his villa, I half-expected to be confronted by piles of dusty manuscripts stacked floor-to-ceiling. But there was one thing I had no doubt I would find. On the night of the Oscars in 1962, Betty Franklin had worn a stunning sapphire necklace with matching earrings. The jewellery was a gift from Willie. When she left him, she returned the sapphires. In his one and only press interview in the entirety of the 1970s, William Brandt had told the Paris Review that the famous jewellery set was stored in a safe in his study. The sapphires would have been worth a significant sum on their own terms, of course, but with the history and Hollywood glamour attached to them, they were worth a great deal more than that.
My intention was to steal them. But how do you break into the home of a recluse and take their most valuable possession? Well, Step One is you wait. Then you wait some more. Step Two comes when you receive a phone call that changes everything.
The phone call was from my literary agent, Victoria. She’s the only person outside of a fence I work with in Paris who knows what it is I do in my less than law abiding moments. Some days, I think she gets more of a kick out of my thieving than I do.
‘Charlie,’ she began, ‘I have something for you to steal.’
‘And good morning to you, too, Victoria. How’s London literary life? Have you succeeded in convincing my so-called editor that the cover design he sent through should be shredded and burned and never spoken of again?’
‘Hey, I’m serious.’
‘Me too. You promised me you’d speak to him over a week ago. The burglar doesn’t even look like a burglar, Victoria. I can live with the black and white striped jumper – even though I think it’s moronic – but I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground saying no to the beret.’
‘I’m going to talk to him, Charlie. But I do have other clients, you know.’
‘You have two other clients. And you don’t like either one of them.’
‘And I’m starting to not like you. Stop being so needy. For your information, I have a meeting scheduled with Dominic for later this afternoon. I’ve cleared the time in my diary.’
‘That must have taken some clearing.’
‘And I have no doubt we will reach a sensible compromise.’
‘A compromise? He put a Frenchman on the cover of my book! Where are we planning to draw the line? Do we say no to the string of onions and the baguette?’
‘It was an innocent mistake and we’ll sort it. You know we will. What are you worried about?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’m worried that my editor approved a cover design that he obviously didn’t so much as glance at. But now that you mention it, I guess I’m also a little troubled by how you opened this conversation. Don’t you remember how well it went the last time you asked me to steal something?’
‘That’s because you said no.’
‘Huh. So what makes you think it’s going to be any different this time round?’
I reached for a cigarette packet and peered out of the window above my makeshift writing desk. My view was of the old port in Cannes. Beyond a dusty town square and a line of palm trees, sunlight glittered off the cobalt blue waters and the gleaming white hulls of the luxury yachts moored alongside the Jetée Albert Edouard. It was a view I’d quickly come to love and it was one I was going to miss.
I’d been living in my cramped bedsit above a corner tabac and a pavement bar just back from the main promenade for three weeks now. The Cannes film festival was still several months away, but I already knew that I wouldn’t be living here when it rolled around. My landlady had warned me before I took the lease that she’d be kicking me out for the fortnight of the festival itself. She knew that during the festival she could hike the rent to an exorbitant level that she also knew I wasn’t inclined to pay. Not that I minded too much. I was already planning to move along the Riviera to find a cheaper place to lay my head while the festival was on. And the less people who knew I was in town, the better it would go for me.
My plan was to drift back, you see. And not because I thought I could interest a film producer in the rights to any of my burglar books. No, I wanted to return because I knew there would be lots of film industry types descending on Cannes. Many of them would be in meetings. Lots of them would be at parties where it pays to be seen, or trying to get in to parties where it pays to be seen, or perhaps failing to get in and pretending they had other, more important parties to attend. And meanwhile, I would be dipping in and out of their hotel rooms and rental villas, filling my pockets with their belongings. If all went well, I hoped to earn enough to see me through the rest of the year. Enough time, anyway, for me to write another book for my editor to sabotage in some previously unexplored way.
‘What’s going to be different?’ she asked me now. ‘Well, how about this? I have two words for you, Charlie: William Brandt.’
‘And the Franklin Sapphires.’
‘Well, that’s six words, Victoria.’
‘Yeah, but you’re interested. I can tell.’
I was silent for a moment, smoking my cigarette. The day was creeping towards noon and I was almost ready for a nap. I’d been out late the night before, casing a penthouse apartment in Saint-Tropez. I half wondered about setting the phone down next to my pillow and closing my eyes for a time. Perhaps whatever nonsense Victoria was about to say next would lull me to sleep.
‘Victoria,’ I said, ‘Willie Brandt is a recluse. An infamous recluse.’
‘I know that, Charlie.’
‘He has a villa in Antibes. I’ve driven past it many times and I’ve never seen him outside of it. I’ve seen some of his staff come and go, but not Willie himself.’
‘I remember you saying.’
‘He never leaves. That’s kind of the deal with a recluse. Which makes it tough for me to sneak in.’
‘Yes, Charlie. I get all that. But what if I told you he was definitely going to leave? What if I could give you an exact date and time?’
Copyright © 2017 Chris Ewan.
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