(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.
You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change. It’s almost a requirement of the form. I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack. They can’t possibly do the missionary, right? Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces. A body like that you don’t want to damage. I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story. An eloquent silence, let’s call it.
Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves. Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.
As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me. I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right? Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up. But we still try.)
Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment. God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts. He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey. But yeah, old. Him and the whiskey both.
The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.
Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth. The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit. He reached for a second glass on the table.
“No. Thank you.”
“I’ll pour you one anyway. You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.
“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?” Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him. If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time. Of course, He had eternity.
God’s face got serious. “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John. Understanding you, and the others. What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two. It was never easy. I got it wrong sometimes. But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you. To hear your prayers. I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.” His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.
Dortmunder noted the past tense. “You retiring or something?”
“After a fashion. I won’t be telling any more stories. You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t. Moving on.”
God spread His hands. “I’m not that omniscient. It is what it is. I’ve got an author too. Maybe He’s got one as well. Or She. I’d prefer a She. Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”
This was going nowhere. “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own. Best as I can tell, I always was. I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”
“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit. Call it an homage.”
“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”
“I’m sure you can. Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary. You or the Other Guy. Words were never going to be your thing.”
“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“The one I made damn sure you never met. Don’t say I never did anything for you. I protected you more than I ever did him. I gave you better scores. A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies. A more reliable string. You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John. You surprised me. That’s the best thing a creator can hope for. C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”
Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank. It was good. Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey. That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.
“Remember that, do you? Not one of my better efforts.” Lips pursed, in self-disapproval. “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle. Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”
“Get out of my head!”
“You’re always in mine. You and a host of others. Tormenting me with all your potential. That most of you never came close to using. But that’s free will for you. I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not. You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”
Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.
“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole. How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him? But I had to look into that abyss…..”
God was starting to ramble. An occupational hazard, perhaps.
“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.” Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.
“Be a little more specific. I mean, there was so much…..”
“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”
“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”
“You invented parimutuel betting!”
“That was Joe Oller. A higher deity than myself. Anyway, it was always going to be something. You had fun spending it, right?”
“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs. I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat. This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”
“Yeah? Meet anybody that day?” Looking much too pleased with Himself.
A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes. The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.
“You’re welcome. See? Give and take. Can’t have one without the other. If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist. It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session. Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.
“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”
“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate. What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis. You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department. But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand. Might as well be playing a video game.”
“So you’re saying I was lucky.”
“I’m saying it could have been worse. You had friends. You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you. You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness. They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin. So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”
“Yeah. Him.” A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.
“That’s not on me. I told you, most people make bad choices. They had all the information they needed to make good ones. I can’t do everything for you people. You need to take responsibility for your mistakes. But I have to say–that was a doozy.”
“I didn’t vote for him.”
“You never vote.”
“Nobody I know voted for him.”
“Most of them don’t vote either. Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”
“You made Max Fairbanks!”
“I made a lot of people. If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”
God was pissed now. He proceeded to wax wroth.
“You want life to be fair? You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir. I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf. If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”
“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”
“I served five. You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six. It felt like a lifetime. I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time. But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”
“I felt it anyway. You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again. You kept changing the rules. It wasn’t fair.”
“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful. Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game. While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”
He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.
“You’re not supposed to swear.” Dortmunder looked more subdued now.
“I didn’t take my own name in vain.” God looked embarrassed at having lost his temper. “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”
“What’s that mean?”
“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before. You could do it again. I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”
All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”
“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you. But no. If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine. That’s really all anyone should have to do. That’s all I did, most of the time. I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though. Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know, à chacun son goût.
(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo? But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)
God seemed to be wrapping up now. “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled. But it’s time I was out of here. Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you. You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview. You should be proud.”
“I’m overcome by the honor.” Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.
God was delighted. “Sarcasm! See, I never could manage that with the Other Guy! Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.
“What did he have to say when you braced him?”
“What did I just tell you? I didn’t. I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit. Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally? He knows me by a different name. I’ve got a lot of them. You might say my name is Legion.”
God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.
“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected. “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”
The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look. “Say–that’s right! I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things. I’m the narrator. Nothing gets narrated without me! What gives? Stop, thief! I still have copyright!”
He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself. “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time. All the hallmarks of an amateur. I just hope it’s not a script treatment. Too wordy.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know. They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”
“What did you call me?”
“Who do you think wove that basket you came in? Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”
Dortmunder did not like the sound of that. “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while. Meet the gang.”
“I made the gang. But you were always my fair-haired boy. Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood. But lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon. My Own Brand, you know.”
He was gone.
Dortmunder blinked. He looked at the bottle. Still there. Still more than half full. He sipped. Still much too good to be from the OJ. Something had happened. But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.
He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar. He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale. That’s what it sounded like, anyway.
Cries of “DUDE! Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch. (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)
And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.
“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from. He was holding a tray with more glasses.
“There was somebody else here. Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out. He left us some good stuff. Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy? You too, J.C.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door. “The day I’ve had, I could use it. So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets. Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country? That guy owes me money! Who else wants some of this?”
Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.
“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded. “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore. I might as well indulge. Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.” (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)
“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.
They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business. “There’s two things to discuss. First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh. John and me had a look, seems like a possible. Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”
“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.
“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly. “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”
“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.
“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score. He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash. Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.
“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”
Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab. The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books. This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor” Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.
“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused. “What did he say about this information he wants us to get? It’s about the election?”
“Connected with that, yeah. Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it. They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing. It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”
“Pass,” Tiny decided.
“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.
“John?” Kelp inquired.
“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.
As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity. “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor. “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”
Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed. “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”
“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.
“We don’t have a back door.”
“He made one.”
As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.
“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.
“I’ll walk. Need to clear my head.”
“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”
“Stan? You got a car nearby?”
“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste. “Sure, why not? Just drop me at the A train.”
“Great, I’ll get an Uber. Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”
Uber? Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation. Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb. A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”
“You all know about congestion pricing, right?” It was Gladys Murch.
“Mom! Not you too?! This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”
“Got to get with the times, Stanley. Cash or credit? It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”
Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.
He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all. What was he supposed to do? Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks? Not likely.
But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks. That had all been settled in Vegas. If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune. Nothing to do with him.
He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee. That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.
He got to the shop. He stopped. His jaw dropped.
It was boarded up. Covered by a wood scaffolding. Along with everything else on the block. They were out of business. For real. Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone. No more store. No more score.
He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility. Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure. Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises. Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries. Oh shit.
Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.
Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.
He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now. And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon. Because its author had left the building. By the back door. That sly bastard.
“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward. “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”
And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively. Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn. Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.
A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier. She dutifully relayed it onwards. It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it. And a note saying only “You win.”
Max was enraptured when he got it. Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself. It fit like it was made to order. This really was going to be his year.
And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY YOU.” Happy New Year. I mean, why not, right?