My brief career as a burglar ended the night I tried to rob the Browns.
On paper, it looked easy. The Browns’ place had an easy-to-climb white picket fence, like a tornado had picked up a little piece of middle America and dropped it here in Hexborough. A path led along the bottom of the back garden, and the house across the path was hidden by conifers. I’d seen where they hid the spare back door key, under a plant pot on the patio.
There was a doghouse, which worried me at first. Then I saw the occupant. It was a goofy-looking white beagle that mooched around like it was in some doggy daydream. It never barked, never even wagged its tail. I doubted it was a biter, but I packed a couple of dog biscuits anyway.
It was a mild October night. Cloudy and still, which was how I liked it. Creeping unobserved down the path, I pulled on my balaclava and gloves. I picked a part of the fence overshadowed by a tree in the Browns’ garden, and threw my jacket over it to pad the pointy tops of the boards. One leg over, other leg over- simple. I kept perfectly still for a while, watching and listening. No lights. No movement. I tiptoed towards the house.
Then came the music.
I froze. Someone, somewhere, was playing a toy piano. It sounded very close, but slightly muffled. To my astonishment, I recognised the music as the Fugue in D-Sharp Minor, BWV 853/2, from Book 1 of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”
I should mention that although I was a burglar, I was not altogether uncultured. I’d nicked car stereos in some pretty ritzy areas. I took any cassettes I found, too. The previous year I’d hit the jackpot, scoring a four-tape set of Glenn Gould playing the forty-eight preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The music blew my mind; I got lost for hours in its complexities and shifting colours. A few months later, I harvested the replacement stereo from the same car, and what do you know? they’d replaced the Bach as well. This time it was a rather more purist interpretation by András Schiff. So I knew the “48” pretty damn well, is what I’m saying.
And this mysterious toy-pianist was better than Gould or Schiff. Technically perfect, for all the limitations of the instrument: each line of the counterpoint was clear and well-articulated. That D-sharp minor fugue is a long and serious one. The unseen player gave it a sense of dignified purpose in the shadow of tragedy, the main theme patiently leading the way through all the wild and melancholy key-changes to the hard-won light of day. It bought tears to my eyes and sent a shiver down my spine.
The music finished, and I remembered where I was: stood on one foot in someone else’s garden at 2AM, a balaclava pulled over my face. Still I couldn’t move.
The dog came out of the doghouse.
It was walking on its hind legs like it was the most natural thing in the world. That ugly white dog stopped, and looked right at me. It raised its front paws and wiggled its… I can only call them fingers. Agile, clawless digits, short but disturbingly human. The dog grinned at me, a wide, wide grin full of sharp yellow teeth.
I ran. I don’t even remember getting over the fence, or which way I ran. I ran all the way home, three and a half miles. Later, as I put my trousers in the wash, I resolved to live an honest life from then on.