Tooling across the American southwest in their giant Winnebago, Max and his nephew, Owen, seem harmless enough, the actorly old fellow spouting Shakespeare like a faucet while his young charge trots him through select tourist destinations along the road. But appearances, as you might imagine, can be deceiving.
Old Max is actually a master thief, and young Owen's summer vacation is his careful apprenticeship in a life of crime. Pulling heists is scary enough, but ominous signs point to the alarming fact that The Subtractors are on their tail, criminal bogeymen who stop at nothing to steal from other thieves. The road trip soon turns into a chase, by turns comic and horrifying. The most disturbing twist: Owen's slow realization that the person he loves most in the world is the one who can do him the most harm.
About the author
Giles Blunt grew up in North Bay, Ontario, and is the author of the acclaimed crime fiction series featuring John Cardinal. The most recent Cardinal novel, By the Time You Read This, was a Globe and Mail Best Book and was nominated for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the most prestigious crime fiction award in the world. After spending twenty years in New York City, Giles Blunt now makes his home in Toronto.
Excerpt: No Such Creature (by (author) Giles Blunt)
On a cool night in late June the traffic on Highway 101 was not heavy – not for a Saturday night, anyway – and moved along at a steady clip, people cruising out to restaurants or movies or to spend the evening with friends.
There was one car travelling north from the city – a midnight blue Lexus. An old man was driving, his considerable belly pressed up against the steering wheel, and the passenger seat was only partially filled by a blade-thin boy who looked to be in his late teens.
As the Lexus rounded a curve, it broke away from the rest of the traffic and veered across an entire lane. A sharp left, and then it bounced into the parking lot of a gas station and made a swift circle so that it came around again, nose pointed toward the highway.
Inside the car, the boy took his hand from the dash, where it had been bracing him against becoming a highway statistic, and said, “Would you mind telling me what that was all about?”
“Final wardrobe check.”
“We already did that, Max. Why do we have to do it over again?”
“It’s your hide I’m looking out for, Owen, me lad. You know I never give a thought to myself – I’ve been accused of it many times. ‘Max,’ the doctor said to me – cardiologist, I hasten to point out, knows a thing or two about this sorrowful organ we call the human heart. ‘Max,’ he said, ‘the fact is you are suffering from magnacarditis. Your heart’s too big. An albatross borne down by giant wings. You care too much for other people, and it’s driving you to an early grave.’”
“The only thing getting bigger on you,” the boy said, “is your gut, and if you had a decent doctor – not that I believe you ever went to see a doctor – he’d tell you to cut back on the Guinness and the single malts, not to mention the hamburgers, the milkshakes and the shepherd’s pie.”
“It pains me to hear such cynicism from one so young.” Max placed a hand over his heart as if to protect that overworked organ. “The world is a barren, comfortless place when a seventeen-year-old –”
“– when an eighteen-year-old addresses his mentor this way – insulting the sage and learned man who’s raised him up as his own and taught him everything he knows.”
“I know lots of stuff you didn’t teach me. The capitals of Africa, the rivers of South America, how to calculate the area of an irregular surface.”
“Trivia,” Max said. “Tell it to Roscoe. But you wound me, boy.” He tapped a plump finger on his heart and sighed. “I’m a gentle creature, beset by a heartless teenager, no doubt an incipient gangbanger. You, of course, are a warlike American, whereas I remain your humble Warwickshire yeoman, and ever shall.”
“I’d like to visit Warwick one day. I’d love to hear from somebody other than you what you were like as a kid. I have a feeling they’ll be telling a very different story about Max Maxwell over there.”
“Nonsense. They would recall a heroic figure, just as you see me today.”
The boy examined himself in the rearview mirror. “Okay, so how do I look?”
Max squinted at him, ginger eyebrows furrowing. “Terrifying. Perfect young Republican.”
They had decided on a dark wig and vigorous curls for Owen, and neatly trimmed sideburns. A gorgeous black Armani jacket and pants were set off by an expensive white T-shirt that showed off his fatfree abdominals. Owen’s first draft of the look had been red hair, freckles and polka-dot bow tie, but Max overruled him: too on-the-nose, he called it, a parody. And besides, it was important to make optimal use of Owen’s heartthrob potential. The curls did give the boy’s profile a touch of the Greek god, not that Owen believed that heartthrob business for one minute.
“You don’t think the hair’s too curly?”
“It’s perfect. Gives you a bit of the Kennedy – to which even the most granite-hearted Republican is not immune. And me?” Max smoothed his ginger moustache. Even up close it looked completely natural.
“I’d say you were a real bastard. Kind of guy who owns several mines and seriously mistreats his workers.”
“Hey, Max, I bought you a little present.”
“No time, boy, no time.” Max started the car again. “We must get a wiggle on.”
“Hang on. You’re gonna love this.” Owen pulled it from an inside pocket and held it out.
“A cellphone?” Max furrowed his new ginger brows. “Why in the name of heaven would we need another cellphone?”
“We don’t. Try to make a call from your cell.”
Max gunned the motor, eyeing the traffic whizzing by. “Owen, time is of the essence.”
“We’ve got plenty of time. Try to make a call.”
Muttering, Max extracted his cellphone and dialed Owen’s number. “Nothing happening,” he said. “Completely dead.” He showed the tiny blank screen to Owen.
“Exactly,” Owen said. “Because what I have here is not a cellphone. It’s a cellphone jammer. Good for up to five hundred yards.”
“You actually found one?” Max said. “Sweet boy, you are my very Ariel.”
Owen put on a thin, reedy voice – he was good at voices, and this one made him sound like a tiny alien. “All hail, great master! I come to answer thy best pleasure, be it to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire!”
Max laughed. “You’re a good lad, Owen. Truly, it’s not every boy who’s cut out for a life of crime.”
The old man slid the gear shift into drive and the Lexus eased back onto a highway peopled with innocent civilians.
The home of Margot Peabody was lit up like a Chinese lantern, all four storeys of it, a beacon to the rich, the Republican and the reprobate. It was an ornate wooden structure located in the most exclusive segment of Belvedere, purchased by pulp and paper magnate Cyrus Peabody (now defunct) some ten years previously for a comparative song. Expensive automobiles gleamed in a semicircle of driveway, their uniformed drivers absorbed in the sports pages.
Owen’s usual stage fright kicked up a notch.
“We’re gonna be coming right back out,” Max said to the teenager directing traffic. His accent was now American, a touch of the East Coast in it, but not much. “Put us somewhere we can make a fast getaway.”
“Sure thing, sir. Just park it over there under that tree. I won’t let anyone block you.”
“First class, kid.” Max handed him a rolled-up bill. “First class.”
At the door they were met by an Asian houseboy in white livery. His hair was so slick, his skin so flawless, he looked as if he had escaped from a waxworks.
“Good evening, sir. What name shall I say?”
“Carter and Christopher Gould, but it’s hardly worth the bother,” Max said, “we can’t stay.”
In the vast cathedral of space before them, men in dinner jackets mingled with well-tended women too thin for their hairdos. Owen looked up at the beautiful redwood beams supporting a ceiling that had to be at least forty feet high, but Max had taught him never to comment on such things, to act as if he took luxury and service for granted. Under massive skylights, a redwood mezzanine ran around the entire great hall.
The butterflies in Owen’s stomach took flight up into his chest. But he loved this moment, this sense of balancing on the edge of the high dive, poised to plunge into triumph or disaster. It would be a hard thing to leave behind.
“Turn around, kid,” Max said to the houseboy. “Just let me use your shoulder, I’ll write a cheque right now and we’ll be out of your hair.”
The houseboy obligingly turned, tilting his head slightly, and Max whipped out a chequebook.
“This state has had a Republican government for nearly eight years and I want to make sure it stays that way. Twenty thousand should help. If it was legal to give more, I’d do it in a shot. Carter, your turn.”
Owen pulled out a chequebook and wrote out a similar figure, signing it Carter P. Gould with a flourish.
“Now, where do we drop these?”
“In the large bottle by the stairs, sir, but I must tell Ms. Peabody you’re here.”
“Relax, kid, put your feet up. Margot!”
Max waved to a woman just emerging from the crowd in an ivory summer dress tied at the waist. The sandals laced elaborately round her ankles hinted at ancient Greece, besotted fauns and massive hedge funds.
“How lovely to see you,” she said with a smile that gave no hint they had never met. Max was always meticulous about his research, and had assured Owen that Margot Peabody was renowned for a spectacular collection of jewellery. It was not much in evidence tonight: a single strand of pearls, perfect milky spheres, circled her throat. “Come and have a drink on the lawn. I’m sure you’ll find scads of people you know.”
“Sorry, Margot. Can’t stay. Gotta be in the capital first thing in the morning.” He waggled the cheque at her and popped it into the bottle.
“Oh, stay for one drink, I insist. I’m trying to remember where it was we met.”
“Hah! You’ve got me there. The Leonardo drawings?”
“The Getty! Of course, of course! And is this your son?”
“Nephew. Carter Gould – doesn’t like to use the numerals. Grumpy teenager, way they all are.”
“A handsome teenager nevertheless.” She reached out a hand that was pure gristle. He gave it a brief squeeze. “Are you really such a grump?” she asked.
“Not at all, ma’am,” Owen said. “Pleasure to meet you.” He inserted his cheque into the mouth of the bottle and tapped it home.
“You’re both too, too kind. Now follow me.”
She led them through the crowd toward a pair of French doors. Owen noted earrings, necklaces, brooches, watches; your honest, God-fearing Republicans were not averse to a little ostentation. What’s the point of owning diamonds if you never wear them?
Under a snow-white canopy out back, a cover band was doing an earnest version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the singer sounding in imminent danger of aneurysm. Sausalito glittered across the black water, and off to the south the arc of the Bay Bridge. In the dark of the waterfront, the house seemed to blaze and shimmer.
Ms. Peabody led them to the bar and made sure they got their drinks – gin and tonic for Max, Coke for Owen. She introduced Owen to a busty debutante who shook his hand and smiled shyly. He tried to engage her in conversation, but she blushed and looked at her feet.
“To be perfectly honest,” Margot Peabody said to Max, “I don’t think we’re in much danger of losing in November, but we do want to be on the safe side, don’t we.”
“Absolutely,” Max said. “Have to generate a healthy investment climate, get those returns growing again.”
“Well, yes. And property values.”
“Excuse me,” Owen said, “back in a minute.” He headed into the house at a clip that suggested serious discomfort.
“Poor kid,” Max said. “Ever since the accident he’s had the bladder of a little girl.”
“High-strung filly. Took a nasty tumble.”
Ms. Peabody spread that gristly hand, fanlike, over her heart. “A riding accident! He’s lucky he didn’t end up paralyzed, or in a coma.”
“He was wearing the regulation helmet, thank God.”
“He was playing polo? There’s nowhere near here, is there?”
“Cirencester, U.K. Charity match. Three princes there that afternoon, and I guarantee you not one of their horses balked. I was ready to blow a gasket, but you know you can’t say anything to a royal – raise an international stink. They did send a nice card, I’ll give ’em that.”
“The least they could do, under the circumstances. You probably could have sued them.”
“Nah,” Max said. “Polo’s a tough game. Have to expect to get knocked around a little.”
“How delightfully macho,” his hostess said, and gave a musical laugh.
Inside, Owen bounded up the front stairs two at a time.
“Sir! Sir!” the houseboy called after him, “there are plenty of restrooms down here.”
Owen found a sumptuous bathroom halfway along the hall. He stepped in and checked himself out in multiple mirrors. The black Armani looked great, he had to admit, and the new curls seemed to be working wonders with the female element. He flushed the toilet and set the tap running in the sink so the bathroom would sound occupied, then shut the door from the outside. At the end of the hall a pair of double doors was closed. Under Max’s tutelage he had developed an instinct for such things.
If you want to rob a Republican, your best time is suppertime, Max had taught him. They always have company, the place is full of strangers, and every alarm is exactly where you want it: off.
Five minutes, he wouldn’t need more.
The master bedroom was all rustic wood and white fabric, but Owen made straight for the dressing room, a compact chamber redolent with aromas of cedar, Guerlain and shoe leather, and got it right on the first guess: the set of library steps gave her away. He reached up into the space between the ceiling and the top shelf and pulled out a highquality wooden chest secured with a paltry lock that he snapped in less than two seconds.
Inside, there was a diamond brooch that had to be worth thirty or forty grand, an exquisite jade cameo, and a gold and ruby bracelet. But the real showstopper was the pair of emerald earrings, emeralds being more valuable even than diamonds. Both gems looked free of inclusions and were at least twelve carats, the light and clear green of a cat’s eye. Hundred and twenty grand on a bad day.
Owen lifted the tray out of the chest. Underneath, he found two fat packets of hundred-dollar bills. He had no idea why Margot Peabody would be stashing approximately thirty grand in her jewellery box, but he certainly wasn’t about to complain.
“God, I love this job,” he said softly. He stuffed his pockets, closed the doors, and returned to the bathroom to shut off the water.
When he emerged, a somewhat offkilter babe in a shimmery blue dress was having trouble making it up the last few stairs, pressing a cellphone to her ear with one hand and clutching a martini in the other. She snapped the phone shut, eyeing Owen.
“What are you doing up here?” she said, an edge in her voice.
“There are bathrooms downstairs,” she said, slurring a little.
“They were occupied.”
“One of Canada’s best crime novelists.”
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