The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Series: Evan Tanner #1

Genres: Mystery , Thriller

Chapter 1

The Turks have dreary jails. Or is that conjecture? The plural might be inaccurate, for all I truly knew, there might be but one jail in all of Turkey. Or there could be others, but they need not be dreary places at all. I sketched them mentally, a bevy of Turkish Delights bedecked with minarets, their floors and walls sparkling with embedded rubies, their dazzling halls patrolled by undraped Turkish maidens, and even the bars on the windows lovingly polished to a glowing sheen.

But, whatever the case, there was at least one dreary jail in Turkey. It was in Istanbul, it was dank and dirty and desolate, and I was in it. The floor of my cell could have been covered by a nine-by-twelve rug, but that would have hidden the decades of filth that had left their stamp upon the wooden floor. There was one small barred window, too small to let very much air in or out, too high to afford more than a glimpse of the sky. When the window turned dark, it was presumably night; when it grew blue again, I guessed that morning had come. But, of course, I could not be certain that the window even opened to the outside. For all I knew, some idiot Turk alternately lit and extinguished a lamp outside that window to provide me with this illusion.

A single twenty-five-watt bulb hung from the ceiling and kept my cell the same shade of gray day and night. I’d been provided with a sagging army cot and a folding cardtable chair. There was a chamber pot in one corner of my chamber. The cell door was a simple affair of vertical bars, through which I could see a bank of empty cells opposite. I never saw another prisoner, never heard a human sound except for the Turkish guard who seemed to be assigned to me. He came morning, noon, and night with food. Breakfast was always a slab of cold black toast and a cup of thick black coffee. Lunch and dinner were always the same-a tin plate piled with a suspicious pilaff, mostly rice with occasional bits of lamb and shreds of vegetable matter of indeterminate origin. Incredibly enough, the pilaff was delicious. I lived in constant fear that misguided humanitarian impulses might lead my captors to vary my monotonous diet, substituting something inedible for the blessed pilaff. But twice a day my guard brought pilaff, and twice a day I wolfed it down.

It was the boredom that was stifling. I had been arrested on a Tuesday. I’d flown to Istanbul from Athens, arriving around ten in the morning, and I knew something had gone wrong when the customs officer took far too much time pawing through my suitcase. When he sighed at last and closed the bag, I said, “Are you quite through?”

“Yes. You are Evan Tanner?”


“Evan Michael Tanner?”




“You flew from New York to London, from London to Athens, and from Athens to Istanbul?”


“You have business in Istanbul?”


He smiled. “You are under arrest,” he said.


“I am sorry,” he said, “but I am not at liberty to say.”

My crime seemed destined to remain a secret forever. Three uniformed Turks drove me to jail in a jeep. A clerk took my watch, my belt, my passport, my suitcase, my necktie, my shoelaces, my pocket comb and my wallet. He wanted my ring, but it wouldn’t leave my finger, so he let me keep it. My uniformed bodyguard led me down a flight of stairs, through a catacombic maze of corridors, and ushered me into a cell.

There was nothing much to do in that cell. I don’t sleep, have not slept in sixteen years-more of that later-so I had the special joy of being bored, not sixteen hours a day, like the normal prisoner, but a full twenty-four. I ached for something to read, anything at all. Wednesday night I asked my guard if he could bring me some books or magazines.

“I don’t speak English,” he said in Turkish.

I do speak Turkish, but I thought it might be worthwhile to keep this a secret. “Just a book or a magazine,” I said in English. “Even an old newspaper.”

In Turkish he said, “Your mother loves to perform fellatio upon syphilitic dogs.”

I took the proffered plate of pilaff. “Your fly is open,” I said in English.

He looked down immediately. His fly was not open, and his eyes focused reproachfully on me. “I don’t speak English,” he said again in Turkish. “Your mother spreads herself for camels.”

Dogs, camels. He went away, and I ate the pilaff and wondered what had led them to arrest me, and precisely why they were holding me, and if they would ever let me go. My guard pretended he could not speak English, and I feigned ignorance of Turkish. The high window turned alternately blue and black, the guard brought toast and pilaff and pilaff, toast and pilaff and pilaff, toast and pilaff and pilaff. The chamber pot began to approach capacity, and I amused myself by calculating just when it would overflow and by trying to imagine how I might bring this to the attention of a guard who refused to admit to a knowledge of English. Would either of us lose face if we talked in French?

The pattern changed, finally, on my ninth day in jail, a Wednesday. I thought it was Tuesday-I’d lost a day somewhere-but it turned out that I was wrong. I had my usual breakfast, paid my usual tribute to my chamber pot, and performed a brief regimen of setting-up exercises. An hour or so after breakfast I heard footsteps in the hallway. My guard unlocked my door, and two uniformed men came into my cell. One was very tall, very thin, very much the officer. The other was shorter, fatter, sweaty, and moustached, and possessed an abundance of gold teeth.

Both carried clipboards and wore sidearms. The tall one studied his clipboard for a moment, then looked at me. “You are Evan Tanner,” he said.


He smiled. “I believe we will be able to release you very shortly, Mr. Tanner,” he said. “I regret the need to have dealt so unpleasantly with you, but I’m sure you can understand.”

“No, I can’t, frankly.”

He studied me. “Why, there were so many points to be checked, and naturally it was necessary to keep you in a safe place while these checks were made. And then you acted in such a strange manner, you know. You never questioned your confinement, you never banged furiously on the bars of your cell, you never slept-”

“I don’t sleep.”

“But we did not know that then, don’t you see?” He smiled again. “You did not demand to see the American ambassador. Every American invariably demands to see the ambassador. If an American is overcharged in a restaurant, he wants to bring the matter at once to his ambassador’s attention. But you seemed to accept everything-”

I said, “When rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.”

“What? Oh, I see. But that is a sophisticated reaction, you understand, and it called for explanation. We contacted Washington and learned quite a great deal about you. Not everything, I am quite certain, but a great deal.” He looked around the cell. “Perhaps you’ve tired of your surroundings. Let us find more comfortable quarters. I must ask you several questions, and then you will be free to go.”

We left the cell. The short man with the gold teeth led the way, my interrogator and I followed side by side, and my guard trailed along a few paces behind. Walking was awkward. I’d evidently lost a little weight, and my beltless pants had to be held up manually. My shoes, lacking laces, kept slipping off my feet.

In an airy cleaner room a floor above, the taller man sat beneath a flattering portrait of Ataturk and smiled benevolently at me. He asked if I knew why they had arrested me so promptly. I said that I did not.

“Would you care to know?”

“Of course.”

“You are a member”-he consulted the clipboard-“of a fascinating array of organizations, Mr. Tanner. We did not know just how many causes had caught your interest, but when your name appeared on the incoming passenger list it did line up with our membership rosters for two rather interesting organizations. You belong, it would seem, to the Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society. True?”


“And to the League for the Restoration of Cilician Armenia?”


He stroked his chin. “Neither of these two organizations is particularly friendly to Turkish interests, Mr. Tanner. Each is composed of a scattering of-how would you say it? Fanatics? Yes, fanatics. The Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society has been extremely vocal lately. We suspect they’re peripherally involved in some acts of minor terrorism over Cyprus. The Armenian fanatics have been dormant since the close of the war. Most people would probably be surprised to know that they even exist, and we’ve had no trouble from them for a very long time. But suddenly you appear in Istanbul and are recognized as a member of not one but both of these organizations.” He paused significantly. “It might interest you to know that our records indicate you are the only man on earth to hold membership in both organizations.”

“Is that so?”


“That’s very interesting,” I said.

He offered me a cigarette. I declined. He took one himself and lit it. The smell of Turkish tobacco was overpowering.

“Would you care to explain these memberships, Mr. Tanner?”

I thought this over. “I’m a joiner,” I said finally.

“Yes, I’m sure you are.”

“I’m a member of…many groups.”

“Indeed.” He referred to the clipboard once more. “Our list may not be complete, but you may fill in any significant omissions. You belong to the two groups I mentioned. You also belong to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Clann-na-Gaille. You are a member of the Flat Earth Society of England, the Macedonian Friendship League, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Libertarian League, the Society for a Free Croatia, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajadores de España, the Committee Allied Against Fluoridation, the Serbian Brotherhood, the Nazdóya Fedèróvka, and the Lithuanian Army-in-Exile.” He looked up and sighed. “This list goes on and on. Need I read more?”

“I’m impressed with your research.”

“A simple call to Washington, Mr. Tanner. They have a lengthy file on you, did you know that?”


“Why on earth do you belong to all these groups? According to Washington, you don’t seem to do anything. You attend an occasional meeting, you receive an extraordinary quantity of pamphlets, you associate with subversives of every conceivable persuasion, but you don’t do much of anything. Can you explain yourself?”

“Lost causes interest me.”


It seemed pointless to explain it to him, as pointless as the many sessions I’d had with FBI agents over the years. The charm of an organization devoted to a singularly hopeless cause is evidently lost on the average person and certainly on the average bureaucrat or policeman. One either appreciates the beauty of a band of three hundred men scattered across the face of the earth with nothing more on their mind, say, than the utterly unattainable dream of separating Wales from the United Kingdom-one either finds this heartrendingly marvelous or dismisses the little band as a batch of nuts and cranks.

Next page