(Disclaimer: John Archibald Dortmunder and most other people who appear in this story are creations of the late Donald E. Westlake, and have appeared under the auspices of numerous publishers. They are currently under the control of his estate. Donald E. Westlake himself was a real person, far as I know, but so were Jesus and Buddha. Max Fairbanks is real, all too real. I am not profiting in any material sense from writing and self-publishing this, nor would I have any idea how to do that. I present this travesty as an homage, as well as an act of hubris, but mainly as an expression of latent OCD, because I know he would have written a lot of the same gags for this crew, if he’d stuck around a bit longer. It is, of course, possible he did write some of them already, and I’m just regurgitating them without realizing it. C’est la mort.)
John Dortmunder, a man chosen by fate to march resolutely against the currents of his times, was now marching disconsolately against the currents of midday traffic in Times Square, which didn’t look anything like it did when he first came to New York, though this would have been true even if he’d arrived last year.
There is some obscure and ancient city edict that militates unceasing change for Manhattan’s palpitating heart, and insists furthermore that the changes lean towards ever-increasing displays of commercialism, not that it was the Piazza San Marco to start with. The pigeons inhabiting both spaces don’t seem to care much either way, being the Philistines of the bird world. One supposes this would make Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks the Davids, but the Gotham branch of Columba Livia bears their slings and arrows with equanimity, so long as the bread crumbs keep coming.
Pausing beneath a billboard devoted to the boxer-clad crotch of a model who may have eaten at some point in life, Dortmunder’s eye was drawn to a massive video screen ahead of him, now displaying the bloated features of his old nemesis Max Fairbanks, three stories high, in glorious HD, which stood for Hellfire and Damnation, going by the expression in Max’s glazed baby blues.
The world was wrong, Max Fairbanks was right, and the world had better just grow up and accept this, was the general gist of his remarks, as spelled out in the word crawl beneath the screen (the ‘or else’ was only implied). If it were possible for a human face to look triumphant, mocking, gleeful, embittered, enraged, and terrified, all at the same time, that would be a fair description of his expression, assuming you wanted to call that a human face.
Dortmunder, who paid about as much attention to current events as he did to modern dance, had been forced, much against his will, to note the meteoric rise of his former foe, and deemed it irritating. “You are vanquished,” he muttered at the looming screen. “I vanquished you.” Max didn’t look vanquished. Dyspeptic, maybe. The scowling visage was then replaced by a Tums ad, which seemed synergistic, somehow.
Dortmunder stalked onwards, feeling the need for some digestive relief of his own, but he had an appointment to keep, which was all that had brought him through the world’s neon-crusted navel to begin with. (Nor would it have comforted him to know neon itself was a relic of the past, much as he was.)
GOING OUT OF BUSINESS read the banner over the store on Seventh, which had hung there since time immemorial, whatever that means. The display windows were a cornucupia of overpriced electronic devices, varied optical equipment, and garish objets d’art with a decided oriental twist, including what appeared to be ornately carved elephant tusks (strangely, no animal rights picketers; well the store was going out of business, right?)
Times Square is the Mecca of rubes. Suckers from all over the planet descend upon it, wallets bulging, and they don’t know that the store has been going out of business since the Carter administration. They assume they’re getting a deal. If the merchandise turns out to be defective, they don’t even try to bring it back, since that’s the chance you take when you participate in a going out of business sale.
(This visionary business plan has since been adopted by many modern mall chains, for which its originators, whoever they may be, have received neither credit nor compensation, an injustice they have accepted philosophically, since everybody’s got to make a dishonest living.)
It was Kelp’s latest idea that they should plunder this treasure cave, thus putting the store out of business for real. Dortmunder had voiced an objection to the effect that Times Square is also a Mecca for cops, not to mention surveillance cameras. It had been decided they would meet there, and determine whether Kelp’s idea was workable, as if any of them ever had been.
Approaching the store on Seventh, Dortmunder saw the familiar sharp-eyed narrow-nosed visage, out on the sidewalk. Kelp was already deep in conversation, with an invisible companion. He gesticulated with both hands in an agitated manner, pacing back and forth, as he expressed sundry emotional grievances to the world at large, in an unnecessarily loud voice. The passersby ignored all this, walked a little faster perhaps, praying there were no sharp objects concealed in the madman’s many-pocketed coat.
Approaching, Dortmunder picked up from context that Kelp was arguing with Anne Marie Carpinow, the woman he had lived with for some time, who was of course nowhere to be seen. The litany of past injustices flowed unstinting from Kelp’s agitated lips, as he laid bare to the world at large the most intimate disquiets of his private life, and then paused, as if listening to a voice in his head with many similar accusations to levy at him.
Dortmunder surveyed his colleague with bemused sympathy. He’d always known it would come to this. The slender thread that was Andy Kelp’s sanity had finally snapped. He even had some kind of strange earring on. Dortmunder had noticed these adornments on other street corner shouters. Some kind of cult?
Andy looked up from his curbside tirade and saw Dortmunder. His face brightened, and he said “Anne Marie, John’s here, gotta go. We’ll talk later, okay? Bye.” He reached down to his belt and pushed a button on the phone hanging there. “Hey John, what’s up?” He took the earring off, and shoved it into one of his waiting pockets.
Dortmunder, just then grasping that the world was not, in fact, experiencing a mass outbreak of schizophrenia, tried to conceal his relief, mingled with a certain thwarted feeling. Still just a matter of time.
“Harya,” John responded, and headed over the store window without further commentary, hoping Andy wouldn’t feel the need to share any further details regarding his domestic troubles. If May ever burned the tuna casserole (which she never did), it’s not as if Kelp would ever hear about it from him.
The ruse succeeded, Kelp snapping right into business mode. “So what do you think? Doable?”
“Probably alarmed. They don’t take those down until they really are out of business.”
“Yeah, but my feeling is response time would be slow. I’ve seen cops shopping here. Fresh out of Long Island, don’t know the score yet. When they find out, they get sore. They hate being taken for suckers, even when they are.”
“They’d always rather nab crooks like us than crooks like them,” Dortmunder observed mordantly.
“Yeah, there’s that. But anyway, I bet these guys did their alarm on the cheap. Fits the profile. And they’re middle eastern, so no dogs.”
“We could maybe get in and back out again. How much you figure all this stuff is worth?”
“Some gray-market goods, nothing first-rate, but I could unload it easy with MyNephew. Just opened a new store in Gowanus.”
“I thought Victor was back with the Feds?”
“Not that Nephew. And yeah, happy as a clam, my sister says. The job is finally what he always dreamed it would be. He landed a spot on that squad investigating the election. I guess some cops go in for the other kind of crook, after all.”
“Seems only fair,” Dortmunder said, not wanting to hear anything more about it.
But just in case someone does, let’s take a quick hop over to 26 Federal Plaza, and check in on our old friend Victor, happier at present than any bivalve mollusc born since the Cambrian Explosion. (Those were the good old days.)
Much has changed at the Bureau since last we saw him, and from his perspective, all for the better. For one thing, nobody there thinks he’s paranoid anymore. For another, the secret FBI handshake he once got in trouble for advocating is being discussed at a policy level. The true visionary always senses when his moment has arrived.
It had long been Victor’s dilemma that he identified with lawmen and outlaws at the same time, and now to his amazed delight he was both. The better he and his fellow G-Men and G-Women did their dreary fact-finding jobs relating to the last election, the more roundly excoriated they were by The Powers That Be, while the underground counterculture spoke of them as brothers in arms.
Everyone talked about shadowy government conspiracies now, without the slightest sense of self-consciousness, or in most cases, evidence. It was the fashionable thing to do. He tried very hard not to look smug, having been so far ahead of the curve.
Cable news (one channel in particular), had become a guilty pleasure. Special Agents had never heretofore been so special. To be an FBI employee now was to have all the notoriety of a bank robber, a guerilla leader, or a Colombian Drug Lord, without the need to maintain a hideout in the mountains (though Victor had one anyway). It was like being in a gang, only with health benefits and a pension. He had to hug himself sometimes, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. So far, he hadn’t woken up. So far, neither had anyone else.
But enough of selfish personal pleasures–there was work to be done. Victor had been tasked with obtaining information about a business associate of the President, the President being Max Fairbanks, which to a less febrile intellect than Victor’s might have seemed in itself so astonishing a thing as to render him jaded, innured, cynical, incapable of being surprised by anything, whereas in fact he was surprised by everything. And never unpleasantly.
Certain colleagues of Victor’s on the team had expressed faint qualms about his enthusiasm, infectious though it was, and inquiries had been made about his social media habits, only to learn he had none. Friends, love life–ditto. Not even porn. He still collected old pulp magazines and Big Little Books.
Family might have been a red flag, but the one black sheep in Victor’s fold had evaded the law dogs too well, and seemed to be some kind of secret NYPD informant on the side, for a detective who had once investigated their primary target, so bringing all that up would be a delicate matter, stones best left unturned.
A file containing a deranged-sounding letter from a police captain (retired) named Deemer, regarding a stolen bank (that can’t be right) had been mislabeled, and would not see the light of day again for many years, or the bank ever.
Might as well try to find dirt on one of those monks over on Park. Who Victor had joined for a spell, but he loved Travel, so it didn’t work out. He still sent them a card every Christmas, receiving an oaken keg of frothy brown ale in return, which always went down well at the office New Year’s party. It was concluded that if Victor was strange, the times were stranger, and the beer was fucking great, so let it go.
The information he was supposed to get would, Victor reasoned, never actually need to be presented as evidence in a court of law. It was more like information you needed in order to know where to look for information you could present. For this job, you would require people who knew how to get into a place and back out again without being detected. He reached for his trusty rolodex (try hacking that, why don’t you?) and leafed through to the K’s. If you can’t trust family……
When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar and Grill, Rollo the Bartender was writing the specials on the blackboard. There was blackened this, smoked that, and pulled whatever. The beer list was written in an obscure pidgin dialect, where every other word began with “Hop.” Hopalonius, Hopasaurus Rex, Hoparific, Hopfrog The Jester, Hop-ity Hipster, Hop Springs Eternal, The Hop Diamond, Hop Is the Thing With Feathers, Hoppy Ever After, Cross My Heart and Hop To Die, Hopalong Cask-o-Rye. (At least some of those really exist, but who has time to check?)
The OJ regulars had refused to leave when the new crowd showed up, reasoning that if anybody ever had squatter’s rights, it was they. Rollo, always the peacemaker, had made room for extra barstools, so the learned colloquy might continue apace.
“I hear we get a tax cut,” one of the old regulars said.
“Yeah? I hear the only ones getting a cut of anything are the fat cats,” retorted one of the new regulars, sporting a festive knit hat, though it was quite warm inside.
“That’s a sexist term,” complained a member of the ladies auxiliary, with a pleasingly plump posterior.
“Only sexy if it’s firm,” said a roguish regular, who got summarily slapped for his nit-witticism.
The first regular said “Way I figure it, the more they cut taxes, the faster they grow. It’s like grass. Or hair.”
Another regular, whose follicles had gone the way of all things said gloomily, “I wish it worked like that with hair.”
“Have you tried Rogaine?”
“I tried capital gains, but my accountant told me I had to get some capital first.”
“No pain, no gain.”
“They stole that from Nietzsche,” a spirited young regular with a hat and a soul patch insisted. “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”
“So Nietzsche never had a colonoscopy, I’m guessing.”
“Wasn’t he the joker who said God was dead?”
“God’s just playing dead.”
“So am I. Went out for Chinese eight years ago, never came back.”
“Don’t tell mom!” they said at the same time, and after that there was a debate over who had to buy whom a rum and coke.
Dortmunder asked Rollo, “Anybody else here yet?”
“Just The Good Bourbon.”
“Beats me. He showed up acting like he owned the place, though last I heard Otto’s still with us. Silent partner, maybe. Said you’d know him when you saw him. He brought his own booze, real top-shelf merchandise, and something told me I better not say anything about us not being BYOB. He’s in the back room.”
Dortmunder didn’t know what to make of this, but then again, how often did he get a chance to drink good liquor? He walked back, past the doors marked POINTERS and SETTERS, until he reached the door to the backroom. He opened it.
God was sitting there at the table, pouring Himself a drink from what looked to be the most expensive bottle in all creation.
“Hello, John,” The Author Of All Things said, in a vaguely apologetic tone. “Thought it was time we had a talk.”
“You son of a bitch,” Dortmunder said.
TO BE CONTINUED………