David “Slag” Miller had no idea what his friend was talking about. The two were sitting on a patch of grass behind old Sara Parker’s house, a tall row of hedges obscuring the train tracks of Lowburg Station in front of them.
“You want me to become a mouse?” Slag asked.
Chapleton Ratcliffe took another toke on his cigarette. He coughed harshly upon exhaling.
“No, man, that’s not what I’m sayin’. I want you to be like the mouse in that nursery rhyme. He runs up the clock, the clock strikes one, he runs back down. Got it?”
Slag processed this. “You want me to steal a clock?”
“No, Slag! I want you to steal the old lady’s jewelry, the stuff she keeps in that white box on the dresser. The one that we can see right now!”
Slag’s eyes followed the direction of Chapleton’s finger to a small beige vanity with the box in question directly under the mirror.
Chapleton took a final drag on his cigarette, tossing the butt into the hedges. He ran down the logistics again. Sara Parker left her house every morning at 7:55 to buy lottery tickets at Zaprosta’s Deli. Since she walked, it took her about 20 to 25 minutes. A freight train went by from 8:00 to 8:03 every day. Real loud. As soon as they heard the train, Slag would smash the window of Sara Parker’s bedroom, reach in and open the lock, then climb through. He’d grab the jewelry box and skedaddle.
Slag was caught on the last word.
“Skedaddle,” Chapleton repeated. “Means scoot, scram, hightail it outta there.”
“Never mind that!” Chapleton said. “Just grab the jewelry box and get out!”
“Why don’t we get it now?” Slag suggested.
Chapleton shook his head. “Not now. I’m too tired. Besides, we don’t know where the old bag is.”
Slag’s brain made an illegal U-turn. “What bag? I thought we were grabbing a jewelry box.”
His friend’s look said it all. But Chapleton reinforced it anyway. “Are you a complete moron?”
Slag considered his answer carefully before deciding that the question was rhetorical.
Packed with caffeinated commuters, the 7:48 a.m. whistled its way south towards the city as the train pulled out of the station. Seven more minutes, Slag thought. Where was Chapleton? Then suddenly his friend materialized at the edge of the parking lot. Slag waved, a gesture which Chapleton didn’t acknowledge. Instead he broke into a run, stopping to catch his breath when he arrived at the bench where Slag was sitting.
Slag grinned. “Good morning.”
Checking the time on his cellphone, he sat next to Slag.
“7:49,” he announced. “At 7:55, I want you to go out front by the newspaper kiosk, like you’re buyin’ the paper, and when you see the old lady leaving, give the word.”
“Give the word,” Slag repeated.
Chapleton patted him on the shoulder. “You got it, bro’.”
“What should I say to her?”
Chapleton drew in his breath with a hiss. “You don’t say anything to her! You tell me, then we go behind the house. Okay?”
Six minutes shot by. Chapleton nodded to Slag. Puzzled, Slag nodded in return.
“Go, you idiot!” Chapleton told him.
Slag went. In 44 seconds he was back.
“The word,” he said playfully.
The aspiring burglars got into position. The shade on the bedroom window was drawn this time, which made Slag a little nervous.
“Why do I have to be the mouse? I mean, you could smash the window, unlock it, and climb in, and I could stand guard.”
“Because you’re a wiry little guy,” Chapleton explained. “I’m 6′ 1″, 222 pounds.”
“But your last name is Ratcliffe. And a rat is basically a big mouse.”
Chapleton glared at him. Then he handed Slag a cloth grocery bag containing a pair of work gloves and a ball-peen hammer.
“Put on these gloves. And when you hear that freight train roll by, you smash that window, unlock the latch, and climb in. Grab the jewelry box, hand it to me, then climb back out. Fast.”
Slag slipped the gloves onto his trembling hands. “But the shade. I can’t see.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can pull up the shade after you smash the pane. Be cool, buddy. I’m right here.”
A rumble in the distance, followed by an ear-piercing wail, heralded the approach of their not-so-silent partner. Then came the roaring mechanical monster. Slag drew the hammer back gingerly, then closing his eyes, dealt the first blow. Opening his eyes to gauge the damage, he saw that several more blows were required. These he duly delivered. He turned to Chapleton for reassurance.
“Go! Go!” his friend urged.
Slag reached inside and fumbled with the lock, while Chapleton grew noticeably more impatient. Finally the lock yielded. Slag slid the broken window to the left, then hoisted himself into the opening, his feet fluttering like a scuba diver’s fleeing from a shark. Tipping forwards, he accidentally kicked Chapleton in the face with both feet, then tumbled onto the hardwood floor with a painful thump. Closely following the stream of profanity from Chapleton was the sound of the window shade’s falling off its hooks and on top of Slag, who also cursed.
Slag struggled to his feet. “Chap, you all … ?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just go.”
The object of their quest lay before them. Slag approached the jewelry box like a ninja stalking his victim. With each furtive step, he came closer to his inanimate quarry. Two more steps … His foot struck a small porcelain bowl, sending the object flying into the vanity and shattering.
“What the … !”
Chapleton watched helplessly from outside. “Slag, come on, man! What’s the matter?”
“She’s got a bowl lying in the middle of the floor!”
“Forget the bowl! Get the box!”
Yes, the box. He could reach out and grab it now. But instead he stopped and stared, mesmerized by its sheer plainness. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it, and Slag’s limited mental capacity found this absolutely remarkable.
“Slag!” Chapleton called. “Pick up the box and hand it to me! Do it, man!”
Obediently, Slag did. Holding the box delicately in front of him, he walked towards the open window. Then he stopped, turned around, and set the box back on the vanity.
Chapleton was fuming. “What are you doing?”
Slag was calm now. “I’m checking the contents, Chap. We don’t want to steal an empty box.”
Chapleton slapped his forehead. Slag lifted the delicate bronze latch and pulled the lid open. Three or four pearl necklaces. A diamond tennis bracelet. A gaudy ring set with a huge ruby. Half a dozen sparkling earrings, one pair consisting of dangling rows of emeralds. A jade bracelet and a gold-and-onyx scarab broach. A man’s white-gold wedding band.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!”
Closing the box, Slag started to turn around towards the window, his means of ingress and egress. What he noticed higher up on the wall stopped him. A magnificent looking old clock, made of some dark, exotic wood and complete with golden chimes hanging from the underside.
He had one word. “Wow.”
“Slag, if you don’t get outta there now, I will come get you!” Chapleton said.
“Chap, this here’s one beautiful clock. Might be worth something.”
But Chapleton was already engrossed in climbing through the open window. Grunting and cursing about halfway through, he realized that he could go no farther.
“I’m stuck! What did I tell you, Slag? Get me outta here!”
Thinking quickly, possibly for the first time in his life, Slag grabbed Chapleton’s hands and pulled. The stubborn window yielded a little, and Chapleton slid forward about an inch. He grimaced. Slag grunted, yanking his friend until his waist was flush with the windowsill. But this was as far as he got.
Slag panicked for just a second. Then his face lit up.
“I’ve got an idea!”
“Great,” Chapleton muttered.
Opening the bedroom door, Slag dashed down the short hallway to the front door and turned the handle. After three tries, he finally thought to turn the lock counterclockwise. He ran around to the back of the house, and standing behind his friend’s protruding lower torso, slammed his palms repeatedly into Chapleton’s backside.
“Slag, get your hands off my … !”
Immediately Slag complied. Taking a step back, he raised his right knee and with a jump kicked his friend in the pants. Neither he nor Chapleton saw the humor in the latter’s response.
“I’m gonna kick your butt, Slag!”
But Slag persisted, with the result that Chapleton, sore in both senses of the word, finally fell through the opening and onto the floor of Mrs. Parker’s bedroom. He lay there groaning for a moment, then stood up, and looked at Slag like he wanted to kill him, which he might have done had he not been startled by a sudden noise behind him. Unbeknownst to the bumbling burglars, the timepiece that Slag had been admiring was a cuckoo clock, set to go off every half hour. And it was 8:30 a.m.
Without first turning around to determine the source of the noise, Chapleton raced toward the treacherous window, soon finding himself in the same predicament as he had been a minute ago, with the obvious difference that he was facing the opposite direction. Eyes wide with terror, Slag grabbed Chapleton’s arms and pulled. And pulled.
“Ow!” Chapleton whined.
The mechanical bird retreated into its ornate wooden nest. Then another sound came from farther behind Chapleton. A woman’s voice. Old Sara Parker!
“Is anybody here?” she called.
“Slag, quick! Pull me out! The old lady’s back!”
Seizing his friend by the shoulders, Slag summoned all his available adrenalin and with a mighty grunt, extricated him, ripping the sleeves of Chapleton’s shirt in the process. By the time the bedroom door opened, both young men were tearing across the parking lot, without their intended plunder.
Chapleton wasn’t angry. When Slag called at about nine that night, he himself took the responsibility for the botched break-in.
“Don’t beat yourself up, dude. It was my bad … Yeah, I know that, but you wore gloves, so they can’t get any prints off it … Who knows how she can sleep with a damn cuckoo clock going off every 30 minutes? Maybe she’s half deaf … I gotta go into the restaurant tomorrow night from 5 to 11 … I wash dishes, man … Okay, you too.”
Opening a bottle of Southern Comfort, he settled into his recliner and flicked on the TV. About 15 minutes and three ounces later came a knock. Heaving his aching frame out of the seat, he trudged toward the door and swung it open. A couple of policemen were waiting.
“Chapleton Ratcliffe?” one of them asked.
Chapleton nodded. He was sure glad that he had showered and changed his clothes earlier.
“I’m Officer Berger, and this is Officer Weinstock. We’d like to ask you a few questions. Can we come in?”
Moving away from the door, he gestured for the pair of patrolmen to enter. In his right hand he still clutched the Southern Comfort.
“Where were you this morning between 7:30 and 8:30?”
He was at home in bed, he told them, and no, there was nobody who could confirm that. He was neither indignant nor intimidated, and his answers, if not true, aroused no cause for undue suspicion, he thought. He didn’t know about any burglary or vandalism or whatever. The officers pressed a bit, asking him if he and his friend David Miller liked to hang out at the train station.
“Sometimes, yeah. But we never did anything wrong. Besides, I don’t even own a ball-peen hammer.”
“We said that a hammer was used,” Berger informed him. “Nobody said it was a ball-peen hammer.”