The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 23

I believed this much. But I did not believe my brothers of the Left Hand would be content with a tenth portion. And I did not know how I could get to Beirut without their help, nor did I know how to accept their assistance without getting conned out of the whole treasure.

First things first. If I didn’t find the house or if the house held no gold beneath its ample porch, I could forget the whole thing.

I almost hoped it would turn out that way.

There was a moon three-quarters full that night. Around nine I began hunting for the house, and it took me until an hour before dawn to find it. My mistake, at first, was in looking for a house near the edge of the city. What had been the edge of the city forty-odd years ago was the edge of the city no longer. I wasted a great deal of time learning this, then switched tactics and walked along the railroad bed looking for a house overlooking the tracks. It took time, a good deal of time, but it was there, and I found it.

Kitty’s grandmother had given me a perfect description. The house was precisely as I had pictured it, large, towering over the houses on either side, with a huge porch with concrete sides. The rest of the house seemed an appendage of that porch, but that was no doubt attributable to my particular point of view.

The house needed painting badly. Some of its windows were broken, a few boards loose on its sides. I approached it very cautiously and came close enough for a quick examination of the porch. As far as I could tell, it had not been remodeled since 1922. The floorboards seemed to have remained undisturbed for a long period of time, and the concrete sides were uniformly black with age. There was one part where the porch might have been broken and recemented years ago-perhaps when the gold was originally hidden away there, or perhaps later when someone else had beaten me to the punch and removed the treasure. There was only one sure way to find out, and it was too close to dawn for me to make the attempt.

I drifted downtown again. I wasted the day wandering through the markets, killing time in a filthy movie house, sitting over cups of inky coffee in dark cafés. At night I returned to the house. I had purchased a crowbar at the market and had walked around all day with it hidden in the folds of my clothing. It would have been better in some ways to break in through the concrete, but I couldn’t risk the noise and was afraid I would be unable to camouflage a hole in the concrete afterward.

I waited in the darkness until the last light went out in the huge old house. After another half hour, I went up onto the porch and worked at the boards with a crowbar. It was hellish work-I had to be silent, I had to be fast, and I had to be prepared to melt into the shadows at the approach of a car or a pedestrian. I pried loose boards in a corner of the porch where I hoped no one would be apt to step and finally cleared out a large enough area so that a man could slip through. I looked inside.

Naturally I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch dark within, and I hadn’t had the sense to bring a torch.

The temptation to lower myself beneath the porch was overpowering. But it was already too late for safety, and I would have to figure out a way to close the hole after me if I wanted to go inside. I reached down, swung the crowbar down inside and touched nothing. If I just went inside for a moment or two-

Not without a light, I decided. I replaced the boards and fitted nails into enough of them so that no one would crash through, but left things sufficiently loose so that I could open up the hole again in a few minutes instead of a few hours.

Then I went back downtown to kill another day.

By the following night I had traded my crowbar for a small flashlight. I went back to the house-it felt like my home by now-and opened up the hole in the porch again. I had it open when I heard a car approach and I barely dropped from the porch and around the side of the house in time. The car was a police vehicle with a spotlight mounted on the fender. It slowed at the house, and the spotlight swung around onto the porch, and I believe I came very close to fainting. But they saw nothing but a few loose boards, and that was evidently not what they were looking for.

The car passed. I hurried back onto the porch, snapped on my pencil flash and aimed it down the hole in the floorboards into the dark area below the porch.

The beam it cast was weak. But it was enough. I was looking-wide-eyed, suddenly breathless-at the gold of Smyrna!

Chapter 16

I spent the rest of the night beneath the porch. After I dropped through the opening, I arranged the floorboards carefully in place above me. I had to be reasonably quiet. A slight noise, even if heard, might be regarded as the movement of a rat, but repeated loud noises would be sure to attract attention. It was difficult to be silent at the beginning, however. I wanted to throw back my head and howl like a hyena. I had found the gold, and there was a hell of a lot of it, and it made a beautiful sight.

There were sacks and boxes and little leather purses, and everything was stuffed with gold coins. The great majority were British sovereigns with the head of Queen Victoria, but there was a scattering of Turkish pieces and a handful of pieces in each lot from other nations. Counting this treasure was out of the question. Instead, I incorporated the small bags inside the larger gunny sacks and tried to calculate the total weight of the treasure.

My guess placed it somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. I tried to work out the value of the lot, but my mind would not behave properly. I got hung up on such points as whether to use the troy pound of twelve ounces or the avoirdupois pound of sixteen, whether to estimate on the basis of the official $35 per ounce or the $60-rate I was likely to get in Beirut. I decided ultimately that the whole question was academic. I was sitting in the exhilarating presence of somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars in gold. That was all I really had to know.

But how to get it out?

I hated the idea of a boat. The boat that Father Gregor’s cohorts might supply would probably be capable of only twenty knots or so, and a trip from the west coast of Turkey all the way around to Lebanon would take days on end. Even a fast boat would be in the sitting-duck category, easy prey to the Turks whenever they got around to realizing who was on that boat.

A plane would simplify things. If the Society of the Left Hand were such a powerful organization, a plane should be obtainable. But I was beginning to feel more and more convinced that the Society of the Left Hand was very little more than the name of an elaborate confidence game and that the boat was going to take the gold right straight back to Bulgaria where Father Gregor would devise at his leisure a way to convey the gold to Lebanon, or to Macao, or wherever he happened to want it.

It might be best to avoid the Left Hand group entirely. But could I manage to get the gold out on my own? No, I could never bring it off. I had to use the Left Hand. And I also had to keep them from knowing what the right hand was doing.

The Society of the Left Hand made contact in the market a day later. A furtive little man with smallpox scars on his chin flashed me one of the secret signs-a particular arrangement of the fingers of the left hand that Father Gregor had taught me. I could have ignored him, as he did not seem all that confident that the ragged peasant before him was really the man he sought, but I knew I would need him, and it seemed pointless to be dodging everyone in Balikesir at once. I returned the sign. He nodded for me to follow him, and I did.

When we were clear of the crowd, he slowed down and permitted me to catch up with him. He gave me another sign, perhaps for insurance, and I made the appropriate countersign. Then he asked me who my father was. I said I had a father named Gregor. He smiled briefly and led me up one street and down another until we reached a large old house in the Arab section.

“We have rented this house,” he said. “You will come inside?”

I went inside and met my four companions. There were three others, I was told. One waited in the harbor at Burhaniye with the boat they planned to use. Two others had left to make arrangements for a car. Had I found the gold? I said I had. Would we be able to get it out? I said we would.

They were all delighted.

“We will help you,” the scarred one said. His name was Odon; the others had not volunteered their names. “And we will be content with a tenth of the proceeds.”

He was the least convincing liar I had ever met in my life. If I had entertained any doubts as to their intentions-and in my wildly optimistic moments I had willed myself to believe Father Gregor’s story-they were forever dispelled. There was now only one point that was unclear. I was unsure whether or not they would kill me after appropriating the gold for themselves.

“Where is the gold?”

I explained its approximate location.

“And how much is there?”

I told him my estimate.

“We will go tonight,” Odon said. “There is no time to waste. We will go tonight in the car our men are obtaining. We will-”

“A stolen car?”

“We will purchase a car. One of our men has a Turkish driver’s license and a passport to match it. There is no chance we will be questioned. We will go to the house and load the gold into metal strongboxes. You understand? We have the boxes in the garage. Come, I will show you.”

There were two dozen steel strongboxes in the garage on top of a huge workbench. The bench overflowed with rusted hardware and tools-long rattail files, rusted padlocks, nuts, bolts, washers. Amid this sea of rusted metal the strongboxes gleamed brightly.

“Have we enough boxes?”

I calculated quickly. “Yes. They’ll hold the gold.”

“Good. We will fill them at the house. You understand? Or, for safety’s sake, you will go beneath the porch and fill them. Then, when you are ready, the car will return for them, and we will all go at once to Burhaniye. Before dawn we will all be on our way.” As an afterthought, and as further confirmation of the ship’s true destination, he added, “To Beirut, of course. We will sail at once to Beirut.”

A dismal liar.

That night clouds concealed the face of the moon. It was a bit of good luck. After midnight we drove to the house. Odon stayed in the car with two of the others. Another pair remained at the house-we were to stop for them before making the run to Burhaniye. I scurried onto the porch, opened up my little rabbit hole, and dropped down into my burrow. Another man passed the strongboxes down to me one at a time.

“Shall I wait with you?”

“No,” I said. “Go back to the car. It will take me a while. Drive around or return to the house. Come for me in an hour.”

He looked dubious. “I could come down there with you. It would go faster.”

“We might be heard.”

He went away. Eventually the car pulled off. I doubt that they all were in it. I’m fairly certain one stayed behind to make sure I did not attempt to get away with the gold.

I filled all twenty-four of the boxes. They were very heavy, but one could lift them without a great deal of trouble. I estimated each one weighed twenty-five or thirty pounds, which fitted with my original guess at the total weight of the treasure. I had finished packing the boxes by the time the car returned. Odon came to me from the car and suggested that I hand them up one at a time, and he would trek them back to the car.

That would make it a little too easy. I hopped out of my burrow. “I’m too exhausted to lift another thing,” I said. “Send one of the other men to do the lifting. I’ll wait in the car.”

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