(Disclaimer: Turns out disclaimers aren’t legally required, and who would ever believe I could come up with characters this good? Not for nothing, but I’ve yet to shoehorn a single Mary Sue into this thing. If I ever did, her name would be Mary Fred, and that’s been done.)
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot;
Or garden tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.
From Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope.
MUCH AS DORTMUNDER HAD ALWAYS AND WOULD ALWAYS LOVE NEW YORK, his devotion was not of the sightless kind. He knew very well the bellicose burg he had chosen as his lifelong abode must test the constancy of her myriad suitors, by periodically attempting to kill them. If you can’t put up with the odd attempt on your life, her reasoning ran, maybe city life isn’t for you. For Dortmunder there was only the one city, so he learned to duck early and often.
Multifarous are Manhattan’s murderous methods, and it was a chore keeping up with them all. Dortmunder read the papers, knew there was some new kind of flu bug or whatever going around, but since the primary means of avoiding it was staying far as you could from the madding crowd (which he did as a matter of course) he figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
He did note with professional interest the normalization of wearing masks in public, but was skeptical of their efficacy. Cops could probably still recognize you from just the top of your face. He was looking for something with more coverage. And then something found him.
Sitting at the dinner table one evening, looking down with satisfaction at a steaming portion of May’s famed tuna casserole, he leaned down to savor a prefatory whiff–and whiffed again. The anticipated aroma was not detected. He forked some into his mouth–not only had the salt lost its flavor, but all the other ingredients as well. Come to think of it, he wasn’t hungry, though he’d skipped lunch to knock over a jewelry store (conveniently closed for the duration).
He asked May if she’d left anything out of the casserole–tuna, perhaps–she gave him a narrow look. Out came the thermometer (oral, thankfully). Into her eyes came something he didn’t often see there. And upon him dawned the realization he’d ducked one time too few.
Dortmunder’s profession had its perks, but health insurance didn’t number among them. No doctors, no hospitals. May vetoed any notion of his finding another place to stay. Not like she could go work at the supermarket now, anyway. She did lay in a large supply of necessities, prior to announcing her leave of absence–even paid for some of them. They had shared everything else, after all. He tried to object, but was already too weak to put up much of a fight.
Her symptoms, when they came, were mild. Dortmunder’s, predictably, were not.
The thing he most objected to was breathing, something you tend to take for granted, until you realize you shouldn’t have done that. Not since that wretched reservoir in Putkin’s Corners had he felt so in danger of going down for the last time, but this time he was drowning on dry land, which was somehow worse, though not so muddy.
Just as May told Dortmunder she was going to call 911 whether he liked it or not, in waltzed Kelp, his arms loaded with boodle from a medical supplies warehouse, including this boxy gizmo. (Kelp and his goddam gizmos). He said it was a Nebulatizer, Nebu-louser, something like that. (It was all pretty nebulous for Dortmunder by that point).
Kelp showed May how to hook it up, told her to stay out of the bedroom when it was on, so she wouldn’t be further beladen with bug. Dortmunder just had to wear this mask thing (bit late now, wouldn’t you say?) and respire. Oxygenation got easier. Kelp’s gizmo had worked. Just one more thing for Dortmunder to feel sore about. But he had pills for that.
In one moment of near-delirium, the Nebu-louser droning away in the background, he thought he saw God again, bald and bespectacled, leaning over him with a look of what might have been concern, but was probably more like annoyance. “Sorry, John. No early parole for you. You still have time to serve.” Well didn’t that just figure?
Finally well enough to watch TV in the living room, he saw President Fairbanks, telling the entire planet this was no big deal, minor hiccup, definitely not his fault (no one had asked him if it was). Just go about your business, it’ll all be fine, if you catch it spread it around, herd insanity. You can wear a mask if you like, but they’re so out of fashion. He spoke as if he was literally The Boss of Everybody, and had caught them all lallygagging at the water cooler–back to work, layabouts! Then he went golfing.
Dortmunder was good with getting back to work. Sooner the better. He began to feel stronger. Unresolved vengeance issues had that effect on him.
So he started making calls. On the landline. Touchingly archaic as that might be. (He’d have used a payphone, but forget that now–if they weren’t already gone, the powers that be would have probably ripped them up to avoid further spread). A meet at the OJ was clearly called for, but as Rollo dolefully informed him, that wasn’t an option for the near future.
Then Kelp proposed this video chat thingy, which Dortmunder begged Kelp not to tell him about, but Kelp went blithely on regardless, until Dortmunder conceded the point, just to stop the explication. Equipment was installed, by Kelp, at no charge naturally (if Dortmunder had only realized Kelp would have paid him for the sheer delight of bringing the cyber domain into Dortmunder’s, at long last–ah, what a tangled web we weave….).
An (appropriately) illegal connection to some unfortunate neighbor’s WiFi was devised with Wally Knurr’s assistance. They assured Dortmunder that measures had been taken to prevent their private communications from becoming public. Dortmunder didn’t believe one word of it, but if this was the only way to move the Fairbanks Agenda forward, he was willing to pretend he did.
So when the meet began, he was there, however grudgingly, a laptop atop his lap (if you’re not supposed to put them there, why are they called that?), and he had witnessed the distracted proceedings with the firm and unastonished conviction that this was even worse than all the previous communications advances Kelp had stubbornly insisted on informing him of. He endeavored to say this, only to find himself unable to join in the audiovisual melee, until something Wally did loosed the digital logjam, and now it was his turn to expound at some length.
“What are any of you talking about? How are we ever going to get the the point of anything, if you keep dancing around it? Stan is jacking a car, Tiny is making everyone wear a mask, Herman is leading another revolution, Wally is still waiting for Myrtle, and that’s all dandy, but Quid lucrum istic mihi est, you know? The issue at hand is how do we take down Fairbanks while making bank? We did it before, we can do it again. Am I right?”
A long embarasssed silence.
Kelp spoke in the low humble tones he used when Dortmunder required placating. “John, we were just waiting on you. It’s a new thing, this video-meet, we needed some practice anyway. And we always used to socialize a bit at the OJ before getting down to business.”
“Okay, so the greet part of the meet is now concluded. Unless there’s somebody else who hasn’t gotten to tell us what he did on his vacation?” Dortmunder knew he’d regret those words the moment they left his mouth, but it being impossible to recall them, he waited fatalistically, and not long.
“Um, guys, it’s me. Victor.” Said Victor. Kelp’s Nephew. Who worked for the FBI. Hard to be confused about that, since they could all see him clearly on their screens. Based on the official-looking photograph of President Fairbanks visible on the wall behind him, he was sitting at his desk, at the Bureau, as he spoke. Either that or he was a fan.
“Why is there a Fed at our meet?” Rumbled Tiny, who reached up to make sure his mask was still on tight.
“Victor, I said I’d fill you in later.” Mumbled Kelp, who was starting to see the flaws in this mode of communication.
“You said what!?” Exclaimed Herman, who remembered Victor very well and not fondly from a previous job that had not gone well, but Victor hadn’t been an active-duty cop at the time.
“Victor, you know, I was only kidding about this car being stolen.” Explained Murch, now parked at Maximilian’s Used Cars, conveniently near the city line, not that it mattered if this was going to be a Federal rap. Maybe as long as he didn’t drive it over a state line?
“You’re Victor? I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’ve heard great things!” Enthused Wally Knurr, who knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.
“Victor, it’s fine. You can join in. Why the hell not?” Philosophized Dortmunder, who wondered idly to himself what else could go wrong, but didn’t ask that question out loud, because you really do need to learn from your mistakes.
“I shouldn’t be here, I know, but–”
“How are you here?” Inquired Kelp, with a befuddled look. “I didn’t give you the number to call.”
“You gave me your PMI, Uncle Andy–for that one-on-one conference we had the other day. You mentioned what time you were holding it. Not hard at all–it’s just that I needed to reach you right away, and….”
(As Victor went on, Dortmunder thought nostalgically of the days he would have been stupid enough to ask what ‘PMI’ stood for. Pure Mad Idiocy?)
“Listen, you guys don’t have to worry.” Reassured Victor, with a worried look on his face. “The Bureau isn’t going to find out about any of this. That’s really what I needed you to know. My office is terminating its involvement. Budget cuts. And there’s too few people left here who can be trusted to keep quiet.”
“And this is why you’re talking to us from your office?” Interjected somebody. (It doesn’t matter who, since they were all thinking it).
“I’m supposed to be on desk duty today. I don’t have good enough internet at home, anyhow.” Excused Victor, threadbarely.
“Victor, I’d be happy to help you out with that.” Volunteered Wally, always eager to make a new connection, both digital and personal.
“Hey, would you?” Importuned Victor, whose nerdishness was of a different order than Wally’s. “I keep meaning to upgrade my personal equipment, it’s just that I was never very good at that kind of—”
“ENOUGH!!!!!” Concluded Dortmunder. “We are here to discuss a job. Victor, are you in or out? You can do it off the books if you like.
Victor wrestled with his conscience, but that was never a lengthy match–early filler, well before the Main Event, which would presumably involve The Undertaker. “Sure, I’d love to. I can take a leave of absence. There have been hints about that from upstairs, anyway.”
“Good to have you aboard. Now if there’s nothing else, we can–what’s that?”
Looking down at the laptop screen, Dortmunder had suddenly discerned what appeared to be text messages (Kelp had also insisted on telling him about those) flashing across the bottom of it. Disconcertingly, it appeared to be a free-ranging discussion of their discussion, with numerous asides. A sort of virtual peanut gallery. Perhaps with actual peanuts. Maybe a few beers. The style of discourse seemed oddly familar…….
Dortmundweiser is giving ’em hell!
That ain’t his name, it’s Dortmiller.
I thought it was Coorsmunder?
I hear he had Covid-19.
How did we miss the other 18, is what I want to know.
I think it was in beta before now.
Is there a VHS version?
What do they have against Fairbanks? He made America great again!
Grate again, maybe.
I don’t see how he can be President. Isn’t he from Alaska?
You’re thinking of Gnomes. Gnomes are from Alaska. That’s why they always wear those hats.
Alaska is America, moron!
You have to drive across Canada to reach it. That means you need a passport to get there. Therefore, not America. QDE!
What’s QDE mean?
Quite Definitely Explained. It’s Latin.
No lousy Brazilian can tell me what’s America or not!
Don’t Brazilians speak Brazilese?
Only at home. So the children don’t forget their mother tongue.
Nobody got an earful from my ma ever forgot her tongue, I’m tellin’ ya.
This isn’t happening, Dortmunder thought to himself. I’m still delirious, hooked up to the Nebu-louser, and maybe they put the wrong meds in this time. Or May really did send me to the hospital, and I’m being ventilated. Or I’m dead, and this is Hell. That would explain why God showed up.
Unable to persuade himself of these happier alternatives, Dortmunder was forced to conclude that these were in fact the OJ Bar and Grill regulars. Watching their meet. Online. Commenting on it. Possibly tweeting about it. Yes, he knew about that now as well. Damn Kelp anyway. Not that this explained anything. The OJ was closed. That’s why they were doing this, right? There had to be some reason.
“Rollo? Are you here? Everybody else is. Olly olly oxen free.” Dortmunder waited patiently, and in a sconce, the balding bluejawed bartender himself appeared on everyone’s screen, wearing an apologetic look under his face mask (which had the letters ‘OJ’ stenciled upon it, along with the image of a brimming beer mug. If you care.)
“The other bourbon shared his PMI thing with me too. I figured I’d be the bug on the wall. Gets boring here.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Dortmunder said drily. “Did he ask you to cater the event?”
(Kelp was being very quiet now.)
“Nah, just wanted to gab. Said he missed the place. I forgot to tell him we’re doing takeout now. Anyway, some of the guys were picking up eats when we were chatting, I guess one of them recognized him, took a pic of the PMI thing with his phone from where I wrote it down, shared it with the others. They’ve stayed in touch, you know–online–keep the home fires burning and all. Thing is, they were always curious what you guys were doing in the back room. They used to talk about eavesdropping, but they were too scared of the Vodka and Red Wine.”
“If they think they’re scared now–” Tiny didn’t finish his thought. The text messages had abruptly ceased appearing. One could imagine the regulars now discussing the price of a one way ticket to Brazil. And how hard could it be to learn Latin? It’s a lingua franca.
“So you’re doing takeout now.” Dortmunder observed.
“Yeah, it’s working out better than I thought. Nobody can go to the bar, so everybody wants to order from the bar. Next best thing to being there. Worked it out with Otto in Florida. You wouldn’t believe what we get away with charging, it’s–”
“So people are allowed inside now.” Dortmunder persisted.
“We talked about curbside pick-up, but some of the regulars kept saying that meant they had to be standing out in the street, and the others said they didn’t feel like buying a car, so–”
“So you can let us use the back room now.” Dortmunder stated.
“I’m not sure that’s legal.” Rollo objected.
“So when has this been an issue?” Dortmunder riposted.
“I know, but–” Rollo wavered.
“So no food. No drinks. We’ll mask. And distance.” Dortmunder insisted. More distance the better, he was thinking, but you can’t do a job like this without a string, more’s the pity.
“Yeah, okay.” Rollo relented. “We close 7pm now. Come in around then, and I’ll pretend your orders are delayed until everybody else is gone. What day do you want to do it?”
“Why don’t we discuss that over the phone?” Dortmunder switched off the laptop, placed it in a nearby wastebasket, and went to heat up some tuna casserole.