From the author: Mikey, an ambitious burglar, finds a new way to make money. Note: this story was published in 1998, so the technology is a little primitive.
"Something to Sell” is a crime caper story that ran in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine twenty years ago. Younger readers may be confused by the technological details of the plot; in 1998 there was no cloud and many people did not adequately back up their computer files, and if they did it was on floppy disks that were easy to snatch.
The story’s protagonist is a Vancouver-based burglar named Mikey. I wrote three stories about him back when I was launching myself as a crime writer (before publishers started offering me money to write specific). I thought of Mikey as what I might have grown up to become if I hadn’t changed my reprehensible ways in my teens. Like Raffalon, he has good skills but bad luck.
SOMETHING TO SELL
by Matt Hughes
When he sees the piece in the morning paper, Mikey's own hand comes up and smacks his forehead medium hard, the sound like an echo of Ken Griffey's bat saying hello to a fast ball.
"Am I a dickhead?" he asks the flaking walls of his bare-bones studio in a rotting concrete high rise above English Bay. The last time the address was fashionable, so were wide-wale corduroy bell bottoms.
"I am a total dickhead. I been throwing away the jewels, selling the frigging boxes."
He cuts the item out of the tabloid and takes it over to East Vancouver to show Cheeks. His pee-o-ess Toyota pick-up with the cracked fiberglass canopy stalls on the off ramp of the Georgia Viaduct, then the battery dies before he can get it going again, so he has to give a cabbie his last twelve bucks for a jumpstart.
The fat man is in the back room, eating little cake donuts, one bite apiece, while his bratwurst fingers poke around in the guts of a Trinitron spread over the repair bench.
"You got something for me?" Cheeks says. He always looks first to see if there is anything in Mikey's hands before raising his beer-colored eyes to the burglar's face.
"I got opportunity, is what I got," says Mikey. "Check this out."
Cheeks reads the clipping, flakes of powdered sugar falling from silently moving, pink lips. Halfway through, he pushes the little square of newsprint away. "What is this crap? All I see, some broad is counting whales, somebody lifts her laptop, now she's crying about it."
"Go all the way to the end," Mikey says.
Cheeks sighs and rubs the roll of suet that is the nape of his neck, then works his way to the last paragraph. He reaches for another donut. "So?"
"You don't see it?" Mikey says. "It says five grand reward."
"So what? We ain't got what she's paying for."
Mikey wants to hit his forehead again. Instead, he spells it out for Cheeks. "Okay," he says, "the broad is a scientist, right, she's out looking at whales -- what's it say there? -- three years, making her notes, keeping track. All this work she puts into her laptop, which is this total junk Panasonic 386 that's worth, tops, ten bucks to some crackhead busts her car window and hustles it in the beer parlor."
Cheeks digs around in his teeth for a glob of donut, sucks it off his finger. "I got stuff to do here," he says. "Whattaya trying to say?"
"I'm saying, the hardware is worth dick all. The information, man, that's gold."
Another donut. "When does this add up to something for me?"
Mikey walks him through it. Two years, he's been bringing Cheeks any computer hardware he picks up. The fence breaks up the desktop PCs, reformats the disks and sells them along with the CPUs and RAM chips on the gray market. Notebooks stay in one piece, passed on whole to a collector who ships them to eastern Europe.
"But some of these decks, man, they're full of information that's worth a whole lot to the schmuck that lost them. I mean, this babe with the whales, probably doesn't own one pair decent shoes, she's ready to drop five grand. So what's some suit gonna pay, we can give him his whole business back?"
Cheeks pulls something out of the Trinitron, looks at it and gropes around under the donut box, hunting up his multimeter. "The guy's gonna have back-ups, disks."
"Miss Whale Watcher got no back-ups."
"So she's stupid."
"People weren't stupid, how'd we make a living?" Mikey says. "Sides, half the time I'm in somebody's place, lifting a deck, the back-up disks are right there, on the shelf maybe, in the drawer."
Cheeks finds the multimeter, tests the component, puts it back. He pulls at his nose, makes a horse noise with his lips, then says, "Nah. My business, I just want something to sell. What you're talking, you gotta make contact, stage a drop, use cut-outs. That's complications. One little thing goes wrong, bang, it's you in the jackpot."
"I already worked it out," Mikey says. "I got it covered, Cheeks."
Mikey lets out his breath, then says, "Listen, you don't want in, fine. But how bout you front me maybe two, three grand to set it up? I'll give you payback outa the first score, plus, say, twenty points the first year, ten points the second."
"Gross or net?" Cheeks wants to know.
Cheeks considers it, but shakes his head. After the last shake, his jowls are still moving. "Nah. People should be what they are. You're a pretty good burglar. I'm a good fence. Let's leave it like that. Bring me something I can sell."
"Okay," says Mikey, talking to the Toyota's dashboard as he nurses it back to the West End, "the hard way."
He knows there are really two hard ways. But he's not going to take the one where he goes to Angie Tedesco and borrows at six for five. Cause, it might turn out, just maybe, he doesn't have it covered the way he was telling Cheeks.
"Then I'm screwed, blued and tattooed," he says to the yuppie in the Saab who's nuzzling the pick-up's back bumper, itching to cut around and get downtown and make some more deals.
"I can't pay the vig, Angie seizes my collateral, then he twists them off."
The other hard way is one Mikey's been thinking about since the time he was on probation and working as a window cleaner and got a look into the government office at lunchtime. He still has the big squeegee and the jumpsuit he kept when probation ended and he stopped coming in.
It's daylight work, scary. But he doesn't give himself time to think. A few minutes past noon, he walks into the Sinclair Center on West Hastings. The words E-Z Kleen are stitched across his back in faded blue thread and the squeegee sticks out of a gym bag stuffed with crumpled newspapers. Mikey moves against the flow of civil servants heading for the food fair or the up-market Italian restaurant. The commissionaire looks him over.
"How's it going?" Mikey says.
The face is familiar enough that the guard nods.
Six minutes, and Mikey's in the pick-up again, pulling away. Sweat sticks the coverall to his back, but the bag on the seat beside him now holds four good notebooks, retail eight to ten grand apiece, that would not be waiting on their owners' desks after lunch.
Cheeks pays seven-fifty each for the decks. "You get more, I'll take 'em," he says. "These I can sell."
Mikey buys phoney IDs from the guy at the photocopy store, then spends a couple of days opening bank accounts, fifty or sixty bucks each, at branches all over the city, under all different names. Each account gets him an over-the-counter ATM card. He has the banks send the PIN numbers to a post office box he rents at a no-questions place on West Broadway.
From a guy he knows is okay he buys a cloned cell phone, good for a month, until the citizen paying for all the calls sees his bill. Last, he goes to an Internet cafe, where anybody can log-on for two bucks an hour, and a white faced kid with round glasses and chin stubble shows him how to do what he needs to do.
Now he has to wait a week for the PINs to come through. He spends the time scoping out targets. First he thinks it through, working out the profile of a soft hit. From the yellow pages he makes a list of one-man chartered accountant and tax consulting firms with office addresses in the better suburbs. Then he cruises the prospects, looking for ground floor locations, alleys he can park in, windows he can break. Alarms don't worry him: police response time is fifteen minutes on a slow night; he means to be faster than that.
Mikey finds three he likes, two accountants and a tax consultant. After the PINs come, he does them -- one, two, three -- between ten and eleven the same night. His method of operation is the same for each job: he puts the Toyota under a window, climbs up and smashes in with an arm-long crowbar. Inside, he locates the computer, pulls its leads free or snips them with wirecutters if they're screwed in. He pries open drawers and cupboards, loads any disks he finds into the gym bag, and carries it all to the window.
He's quick and efficient. His slowest on-the-job time this night is under three minutes: there are two desktop decks to cut free and bring to the window, but he saves time on the back-up disks, neatly boxed in the accountant's bottom drawer.
Mikey's home before midnight, too wired to sleep. One by one, he connects the decks to a monitor lifted from one of the offices, powers them up and scans the hard drives. Each one is loaded with data, a lot of the files hidden behind passwords.
"Password, my ass," he tells the monitor screen.
Mikey waits until a quarter to noon before calling the first hit -- he figures it's easier to negotiate with a guy whose belly is thinking about a Big Mac. It's a dud. When the tax consultant hears Mikey's proposition, he says, "Shove the disks up your ass. My whole operation's backed up on a notebook at home. You didn't even break my stride, prick!"
Mikey shrugs and dials the second one. He tells the girl who answers he needs to speak to the boss.
"I got your stuff," he tells the accountant.
The guy is slow. "What?"
"You didn't notice something was missing this morning. I got it."
There's a short silence. "You're the burglar?"
"Ding," says Mikey.
"What do you want?"
"I wanna sell you your back-up disks."
The man tells Mikey to do something anatomically inappropriate.
"Okay." But Mikey doesn't hit the cell's off button.
"No, wait!" the accountant says, and Mikey can see him now, chewing his lip, thinking about it. "How much we talking about?"
Go high, Mikey says to himself. "Ten," he tells the voice on the phone.
"Ten what? Ten thousand? You're outta your goddamn mind!"
"Yeah?" Mikey comes back. "So whatta you offering?"
Another silence, then, "I'll go two."
Mikey laughs. "If you're going two, then it's worth ten."
The accountant doesn't know many swear words. In only ten seconds, he's repeating himself.
Mikey cuts in. "Hey! Any more this abuse, the price goes up. Or maybe you never see your files again."
The man on the phone is choking it down. "Okay," he says, "ten. What do we do?"
"We stop thinking about calling the cops in and phone traces and all that tv crap. I'm on a cell clone, you know what that means?"
"Good. You got a cell?"
"Gimme the number." Mikey writes it on a pad. "Okay, go get the ten grand, fifties and hundreds. I'll call you back, one hour."
"Wait! How do I know you've got my files? Maybe you just read in the paper about the break-in and you're gonna try and rip me off."
Mikey is ready for the question. He reads off the names of a couple of files.
"Okay," says the accountant, "one hour."
While he's waiting, Mikey phones the third opportunity. The man is a recent immigrant. His thick Chinese accent gives Mikey a little trouble, but it doesn't take too long to make an arrangement. Mikey settles for five, and arranges to call back. It's embarrassing because the guy is crying and talking about his children.
"Man's either a great negotiator or a frigging great actor," he says to the parking lot where he stopped to make the calls.
At one o'clock, he calls the cell phone of the accountant with the ten thousand, tells him to put two grand in a certain account at the TD bank at Forty-First and Boulevard.
"How do I know you're going to come across with the files?" the man wants to know.
"If I rip you off, you'll tell your friends. Then how'm I going to do business with the next guy?"
"Then you just gotta trust me," Mikey says. "Put the money in."
Mikey waits by an ATM on Commercial Drive, sitting on the Toyota's hood, kicking a front tire with his heel. He give it twenty minutes, then puts his card in and checks the balance of the TD account. The screen says the balance is $2,050.
The bank card will only let him withdraw a thousand a day. He takes half of the two thousand, then tells the bank to transfer the remaining money to another of his accounts. Then he uses the second account's card to withdraw the other grand.
"Hoo hoo," Mikey says, and dials the accountant's cell again. This time, he wants four grand in a Bank of Montreal account on Oak Street. While the accountant is traveling, Mikey heads to another ATM.
He takes the thousand the machine will give him, then moves the other three grand to other accounts and drains them. Then he sends the accountant to another bank to drop the last installment of the ten thousand, and it works again.
"Smooth," Mikey says. The ten thousand goes into a safe deposit box at a bank where he does no other business. Then he drives out to an Internet cafe in the yuppie stronghold of Kitsilano. He calls the accountant one last time and gets the man's modem number, dials it up, and uploads the twelve data disks through the big funnel of the cafe's 56 modem.
"You seeing it come through?" he asks the accountant.
"Yeah," comes the answer.
"Here comes the last one. Nice doing business with you."
Mikey laughs and heads out the door to his pick-up. As he walks, he dials the Chinese accountant's cell. The man is blubbering again, but he's ready with the five. "Okay, stop making all the damn noise," Mikey says. "I'm trying to tell you what you gotta do."
He gives instructions, then hangs up. He thinks about the man scurrying around to get him some money. "This is how it feels," he tells the guy with the grin in his rear view mirror, "this is how it feels to be like Angie T. This is how it feels to be... more."
"You shoulda come in with me," Mikey says.
"Gimme them pan fried noodles," Cheeks says.
Mikey passes the dish. He's just picking at the ginger beef and shrimp chow yoke, a little steamed rice in a bowl. There are three more heaping piles of Chinese food on the table, and Cheeks is eating from every one, using the serving spoon that came with the rice.
The proprietor brings over a platter of garlic prawns, then goes into the kitchen, starts yelling something in Chinese. There's nobody else in the place.
"You're lucky you can eat like that," Mikey says. "A burglar, you don't keep the weight down, some night you get stuck in a narrow window. The cops come, they're all laughing at you, or maybe it's the guy owns the place, finds you, gets himself a two-by-four."
"What I'm doing now, it's better," Mikey says. He fingers his shirt. "Silk. You shoulda come in with me. I got six guys working that I trained myself. We're grossing ten, fifteen grand a night. I been clearing forty a week for six months, not counting what I get from you for the decks."
Cheeks stops eating for a moment. "You got anything for me now?"
"I got eight desktops, three notebooks."
"I'll take 'em," Cheeks says. "Something I can sell."
"They're in the truck. See that nice little Subaru out there? The weekend, I got a Porsche."
Cheeks doesn't bother to turn and look. "Yeah, nice."
Mikey leans back in the chair. "So, Cheeks, why you call me? You don't want to get in on my thing, now the money's flowing?"
Cheeks's small teeth crunch through crisp batter and into a prawn. "Nah. I just sell what people want to buy."
"I don't get it," Mikey says. "You want to sell me something?"
Cheeks says nothing. Now, Mikey notices that the only sound he's hearing is what's coming from the lips and nose of the fence as he's eating. There's not even any noise from the kitchen.
Mikey gets up, but so does Cheeks. His speed is surprising for a fat man, and he's wider than the front door.
Mikey backs a step away, turns toward the back, and freezes. He swallows and says, "Hi, Angie, how's it going?"
Angie Tedesco comes out of the kitchen, a compact man with hands too big for comfort. The guy behind him, about the size of the Marine Building but made of harder stuff, has an aluminum softball bat. He's rolling the wide rack of his shoulders to loosen them up.
"We need to talk about this new line of business you been starting," Angie says, then adds, "...for us."
Mikey turns to the fat man. "Jesus, Cheeks..."
The fence shrugs. "Mikey, you bring me something I can sell, you think I'm not gonna sell it?"
This story originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.