ART THEFT, OF COURSE,” SAID THE ELEGANT MAN, “HAS BEEN overdone. By now it’s thoroughly boring.”
Dortmunder didn’t say anything. His business was theft, of art or whatever else had value, and he’d never supposed it was meant to be exciting. Nor, while tiptoeing around darkened halls in guarded buildings with his pockets full of stolen goods, had he ever found boredom much of a problem.
The elegant man sighed. “What do people of your sort drink?” he asked.
“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said. “Water. Coca-Cola. Orange juice. Beer.”
“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here. “And sherry for me.”
“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on. “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy. Vodka. Seven-Up. Milk.”
“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.
“With ice and water. People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil-“
“Do you drink Perrier?”
“No,” said Dortmunder.
“Ah,” said the elegant man, closing the subject with his preconceptions intact. “Now,” he said, “I suppose you’re wondering why we all gathered you here.”
“I got an appointment uptown,” Dortmunder answered. He was feeling mulish. When a simple walk to the subway turns into an incident with two plug-uglies, a gun in the back, a shoving into a limousine outfitted with liveried chauffeur beyond the closed glass partition, a run up the stocking of Manhattan to the East Sixties, a swallowing up into a town house
“I’ll try to be brief,” the elegant man promised. “My father- who, by the way, was once Secretary of the Treasury of this great land, under Teddy Roosevelt-always impressed upon me the wisdom of obtaining expert advice before undertaking any project, of whatever size or scope. I have always followed that injunction.”
“Uh-huh,” said Dortmunder.
“The exigencies of life having made it necessary for me,” the elegant man continued, “to engage for once in the practice of grand larceny, in the form of burglary, I immediately sought out a professional in the field to advise me. You.”
“I reformed,” Dortmunder said. “I made some mistakes in my youth, but I paid my debt to society and now I’m reformed.”
“Of course,” said the elegant man. “Ah, here are our drinks. Come along, I have something to show you.”
It was a dark and lumpy statue, about four feet tall, of a moody teenaged girl dressed in curtains and sitting on a tree trunk. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” the elegant man said, gazing fondly at the thing.
Beauty was outside Dortmunder’s visual spectrum. “Yeah,” he said, and looked around this subterranean room, which had been fitted out like a cross between a den and a museum. Bookcases alternated with paintings on the walls, and antique furniture shared the polished wood floor with statuary, some on pedestals, some, like this bronze of a young girl, on low platforms. Dortmunder and the elegant man and the armed plug-uglies had come down here by elevator: apparently, the only route in and out. There were no windows and the air had the flat blanketlike quality of tight temperature and humidity control.
“It’s a Rodin,” the elegant man was saying. “One of my wiser acquisitions, in my youth.” His mouth forming a practiced
“I really got an appointment uptown,” Dortmunder said.
“More recently still,” the elegant man persisted, “we came to a particularly bitter and unpleasant parting of the ways, Moira and I. As a part of the resulting settlement, the little bitch got this nymph here. But she
“Uh-huh,” Dortmunder said.
“I have friends in the art world,” the elegant man went on, “and all men have sympathizers where grasping ex-wives are concerned. Several years earlier, I’d had a mold made of this piece, and from it an exact copy had been cast in the same grade of bronze. A virtually identical copy; not quite museum quality, of course, but aesthetically just as pleasing as the original.”
“Sure,” said Dortmunder.
“It was that copy I gave to Moira; having, of course, first bribed the expert she’d brought in to appraise the objects she was looting from me. The other pieces I gave her with scarcely a murmur, but my nymph? Never!”
“Ah,” said Dortmunder.
“All was well,” the elegant man said. “I kept my nymph, the one and only true original from Rodin’s plaster form, with the touch of the sculptor’s hand full upon it. Moira had the copy, pleased with the thought of its being the original, cheered by the memory of having done me in the eye. A happy ending for everyone, you might have said.”
“Uh-huh,” said Dortmunder.
“But not an ending at all, unfortunately.” The elegant man shook his head. “It has come to my attention,
“He’ll tell,” Dortmunder said.
“He will, in the argot of the underworld,” the elegant man said, “spill the beans.”
“That isn’t the argot of the underworld,” Dortmunder told him.
“No matter. The point is, my one recourse, it seems to me, is to enter Moira’s town house and make off with the copy.”
“Makes sense,” Dortmunder agreed.
The elegant man pointed at his nymph. “Pick that up,” he said.
Dortmunder frowned, looking for the butcher’s thumb.
“Go ahead,” the elegant man insisted. “It won’t bite.”
Dortmunder handed his bourbon and water to one of the plug-uglies; then hesitant, unfamiliar with the process of lifting teenaged girls dressed in curtains-whether of bronze or anything else-he grasped this one by the chin and one elbow and lifted . . . and it didn’t move. “Uh,” said Dortmunder, visions of hernias blooming in his head.
“You see the problem,” the elegant man said, while the muscles in Dortmunder’s arms and shoulders and back and groin all quivered from the unexpected shock. “My nymph weighs five hundred twenty-six pounds. As does Moira’s copy, give or take a few ounces.”
“Heavy,” agreed Dortmunder. He took back his drink and drank.
“The museum’s expert arrives tomorrow afternoon,” the elegant man said touching his white mustache. “If I am to avoid discomfort-possibly even public disgrace-I must remove Moira’s copy from her possession tonight.”
Dortmunder said, “And you want me to do it?”
“No, no, not at all.” The elegant man waved his elegant fingers. “My associates”-meaning the plug-uglies-“and I will, as you would say, pull the scam.”
“That’s not what I’d say,” Dortmunder told him.
“No matter, no matter. What we wish from you, Mr. Dortmunder, is simply your expertise. Your professional opinion. Come along.” The elevator door opened to his elegant touch. “Care for another bourbon? Of course you do.”
“Fortunately,” the elegant man said, “I kept the architect’s plans and models even though I lost the town house itself to Moira.”
Dortmunder and his host and one plug-ugly (the other was off getting more bourbon and sherry) stood now in a softly glowing dining room overlooking a formal brick-and-greenery rear garden. On the antique refectory table dominating the room stood two model houses next to a roll of blueprints. The tiniest model, barely six inches tall and built solid of balsa wood with windows and other details painted on, was placed on an aerial photograph to the same scale, apparently illustrating the block in which the finished house would stand. The larger, like a child’s dollhouse, was over two feet tall, with what looked like real glass in its windows and even some furniture in the rooms within. Both models were of a large, nearly square house with a high front stoop, four stories tall, with a big square many-paned skylight in the center of the roof.
Dortmunder looked at the big model, then at the small, then at the photograph of the street. “This is in New York?”
“Just a few blocks from here.”
“Huh,” said Dortmunder, thinking of his own apartment.
“You see the skylight,” suggested the elegant man.
“It can be opened in good weather. There’s an atrium on the second level. You know what an atrium is?”
“It’s a kind of garden, within the house. Here, let me show you.”
The larger model was built in pieces, which could be disassembled. The roof came off first, showing bedrooms and baths all around a big square opening coinciding with the skylight. The top floor came off, was set aside and showed a third floor given over to a master bedroom suite and a bookcase-lined den, around the continuing square atrium hole. The details impressed even Dortmunder. “This thing must have cost as much as the real house,” he said.
The elegant man smiled. “Not quite,” he said, lifting off the third floor. And here was the bottom of the atrium-fancy word for air shaft, Dortmunder decided-a formal garden like the one outside these real-life dining-room windows, with a fountain and stone paths. The living and dining rooms in the model were open to the atrium. “Moira’s copy,” the elegant man said, pointing at the garden, “is just about there.”
“Tricky,” Dortmunder commented.
“There are twelve steps down from the atrium level to the sidewalk in front. The rear garden is sunk deeper, below ground level.”
“Ah, our drinks,” the elegant man said, taking his, “and not a moment too soon.” He sipped elegantly and said, “Mr. Dortmunder, the workman is worthy of his hire. I shall now outline to you our plans and our reasoning. I ask you to give us your careful attention, to advise us of any flaws in our thinking and to suggest whatever improvements come to your professional mind. In return, I will pay you-in cash, of course-one thousand dollars.”
“And drive me uptown,” Dortmunder said. “I’m really late for my appointment.”
“OK, then,” Dortmunder said, and looked around for a place to sit down.
“Oh, come along,” said the elegant man. “We might as well be comfortable.”
Tall, narrow windows in the living room overlooked a tree-lined expensive block. Long sofas in ecru crushed velvet faced each other on the Persian carpet, amid glass-topped tables, modern lamps and antique bric-a-brac. In a Millet over the mantel, a French farmer of the last century endlessly pushed his bar-rowload of hay through a narrow barn door. The elegant man might have lost his atriummed town house to the scheming Moira, but he was still doing OK. No welfare housing necessary.
With a fresh drink to hand, Dortmunder sat on a sofa and listened. “We’ve made three plans,” the elegant man said, as Dortmunder wondered who this “we” was he kept talking about; surely not the plug-uglies, giants with the brains of two-by-fours, sitting around now on chair arms like a rock star’s bodyguards. “Our first plan, perhaps still feasible, involves that skylight and a helicopter. I have access to a heli-“
“Loud,” Dortmunder said.
The elegant man paused, as though surprised, then smiled. “That’s right,” he said.
Dortmunder gave him a flat look. “Was that a test? You wanna see if I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s fine, give me my grand and take me uptown,’ is that it?”
“To some extent,” agreed the elegant man placidly. “Of course, apart from the noise-a dead giveaway to the entire neighborhood, naturally, the house would swarm with police before we’d so much as attached the grapple-still, apart from that noise problem, a helicopter
“Illegal,” interrupted Dortmunder.
“You can’t fly a helicopter over Manhattan after dark. There’s a law. Never break a law you don’t intend to break: people get grabbed for a traffic violation, and what they’re really doing is robbing a bank. That kind of thing. It happens all the time.”
“I see.” The elegant man looked thoughtful. Smoothing back his silver locks, he said, “Every trade is more complicated than it appears, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Dortmunder. “What’s plan number two?”
“Ah, yes.” The elegant man regained his pleased look. “This involves the front door.”
“How many people in this house?”
“None.” Then the elegant man made a dismissing finger wave, saying, “The staff, of course. But they’re all downstairs. It’s soundproofed down there and servants sleep like the dead, anyway.”
“If you say so. Where’s this Moira?”
“That sounds OK,” said Dortmunder. “What’s the problem?”
“The guard,” the elegant man explained, “outside the embassy next door.”
“Oh,” said Dortmunder. “And if you get rid of the guard. . . .”
“We create an international incident. A side effect even more severe than the breaking of helicopter-at-night laws.”
Dortmunder shook his head. “Tell me about plan number three.”
“We effect entry through the rear, from the house on the next block. We set various incendiary devices and we burn the place down.”
Dortmunder frowned. “Metal doesn’t burn,” he objected.
“A flaw we’d noticed ourselves,” the elegant man admitted.
Dortmunder drank bourbon and gave his host a look of disgust. “You don’t have any plan at all,” he said.
“We have no
“For a thousand dollars?” Dortmunder sipped bourbon and looked patiently at the elegant man.
Who smiled, a bit sadly. “I see what you mean,” he said. “Say two thousand.”
“Say ten thousand,” Dortmunder suggested.
“I couldn’t possibly say ten thousand. I might find it possible to say twenty-five hundred.”
It took three minutes and many little delicate silences before Dortmunder and the elegant man reached the $5000 honorarium both had settled on in advance.
The interior ladder down from the skylight had been so cunningly integrated into the decor of the house that it was practically useless; tiny rungs, irregularly spaced, far too narrow and curving frighteningly down the inside of the domed ceiling. Dortmunder, who had a perfectly rational fear of heights, inched his way downward, prodded by the plug-ugly behind him and encouraged by the plug-ugly ahead, while trying not to look between his shoes at the tiny shrubbery and statuary and ornamental fountain three long stories below. What a lot of air there is in an atrium!
Attaining the safety of the top-floor floor, Dortmunder turned to the elegant man, who had come first down the ladder with an astonishing spryness and lack of apprehension, and told him, “This isn’t fair, that’s all. I’m here under protest.”
“Of course you are,” the elegant man said. “That’s why my associates had to show you their revolvers. But surely for five thousand dollars, we can expect you to be present while your rather ingenious scheme is being worked out.”
A black satchel, tied about with a hairy thick yellow rope, descended past in small spasms, lowered by the plug-ugly who was remaining on the roof. “I never been so late for an appointment in my life,” Dortmunder said. “I should of been uptown hours ago.”
“Come along,” the elegant man said, “we’ll find you a phone, you can call and explain. But please invent an explanation; the truth should not be telephoned.”
Dortmunder, who had never telephoned the truth and who hardly ever even presented the truth in person, made no reply, but followed the elegant man and the other plug-ugly down the winding staircase to the main floor, where the plug-ugly with muttered curses removed the black satchel from the ornamental fountain. “You shouldn’t get that stuff wet,” Dortmunder pointed out.
“Accidents will happen,” the elegant man said carelessly, while the plug-ugly continued to mutter. “Let’s find you a telephone.”
They found it in the living room, near the tall front windows, on a charming antique desk inlaid with green leather. Seated at this, Dortmunder could look diagonally out the window and see the guard strolling in front of the embassy next door. An empty cab drifted by, between the lines of parked cars. The elegant man went back to the atrium and Dortmunder picked up the phone and dialed.
“O.J. Bar and Grill, Rollo speaking.”
“This is Dortmunder.”
“The bourbon and water.”
“Oh, yeah. Say, your pals are in the back. They’re waiting for you, huh?”
“Yeah,” Dortmunder said. “Let me talk to Ke- The other bourbon and water.”
A police car oozed by; the embassy guard waved at it. Opening the desk drawer, Dortmunder found a gold bracelet set with emeralds and rubies; he put it in his pocket. Behind him, a sudden loud mechanical rasping sound began; he put his thumb in his other ear.
“Hello? Dortmunder?” Kelp’s voice.
“Yeah,” Dortmunder said.
“I got tied up. With some people.”
“Something going on?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“You sound like you’re in a body shop.”
“Where they fix cars. You don’t have a car, do you?”
“No,” Dortmunder said. The rasping sound was
“That’s very sensible,” Kelp said. “What with the energy crisis, and inflation, and being in a city with first-rate mass transportation, it doesn’t make any sense to own your own car.”
“Sure,” Dortmunder said. “What I’m calling about-“
“Any time you need a car,” Kelp said, “you can just go pick one up.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder said. “About tonight-“
“So what are you doing in a body shop?”
The rasping sound, or something, was getting on Dortmunder’s nerves. “I’ll tell you later,” he said.
“You’ll be along soon?”
“No, I might be stuck here a couple hours. Maybe we should make the meet tomorrow night.”
“No problem,” Kelp said. “And if you break loose, we can still do it tonight.”
“You guys don’t have to hang around,” Dortmunder told him.
“That’s OK. We’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics. See you later.”
“Right,” said Dortmunder.
In the atrium, they were cutting the nymph’s head off. As Dortmunder came back from his phone call, the girl’s head nodded once, then fell with a splash into the fountain. As the plug-ugly switched off the saw, the elegant man turned toward Dortmunder a face of anguish, saying, “It’s like seeing a human being cut up before your eyes. Worse. Were she flesh and blood, I could at least imagine she was Moira.”
“That thing’s loud,” Dortmunder said.
“Not outside,” the elegant man assured him. “Because of traffic noise, the fa?ade was soundproofed. Also the floor; the servants won’t hear a thing.”
The plug-ugly having wrapped the decapitated head in rope, he switched on his saw again and attacked the nymph, this time at her waistline. The head, meantime, peering raffishly through circlets of yellow rope, rose slowly roofward, hauled from above.
Dortmunder, having pointed out to the elegant man that
Dortmunder had first thought in terms of an industrial laser, which would make a fast, clean and absolutely silent cut, but the elegant man’s elegant contacts did not include access to a laser, so Dortmunder had fallen back on the notion of an acetylene torch. (Everybody in Dortmunder’s circle had an acetylene torch.) But there, too, the elegant man had turned out to be deficient, and it was only after exhaustive search of the garage that this large saber saw and several metal-cutting blades had been found. Well, it was better than a pocket-knife, though not so quiet.
The head fell from the sky into the fountain, splashing everybody with water.
The plug-ugly with the saw turned it off, lifted his head and spoke disparagingly to his partner on the roof, who replied in kind. The elegant man raised his own voice, in French, and when the plug-uglies ceased maligning each other, he said,
The nearer plug-ugly gave him a sullen look. “That’s brain-work,
It was too loud here. From Dortmunder’s memory of the model of this house, the kitchen should be through the dining room and turn right. While the elegant man fumbled with the bronze head, Dortmunder strolled away. Passing through the dining room, he pocketed an antique oval ivory cameo frame.
Dortmunder paused in the preparation of his second
This was clearly the ex-wife, home ahead of schedule. The elegant man seemed unable to do
The screaming was merely that at first, screaming, with barely any rational words identifiable in the mix, but the ex-wife’s first impulse to make lots of noise was soon overtaken by the full realization that her statue was
“You-you-” But she wasn’t capable of description, not yet, not with the butchery right here in front of her.
“An explanation is in order,” the elegant man acknowledged, “but first let me reassure you on one point: That Rodin has not been destroyed. You will still, I’m afraid, be able to turn it over to the populace.”
“My presence here,” the elegant man continued, as though his ex-wife’s paralysis were an invitation to go on, “is the result of an earlier deception, at the time of our separation. I’m afraid I must admit to you now that I bribed Grindle at that time to accept on your behalf not the original but a copy of the Rodin- this copy, in fact.”
The ex-wife took a deep breath. She looked away from the bronze carnage and gazed at the elegant man. “You bloody fool,” she said, having at last recaptured her voice, and speaking now almost in a conversational tone. “You bloody self-satisfied fool, do you think you
A slight frown wrinkled the elegant man’s features. “I beg your pardon?”
“Beg Rodin’s,” she told him.
“You-you-” Now it was the elegant man who was losing the power of speech.
“And, having taken your bribe
“Impossible!” The elegant man had begun to blink. His tie was askew. “Grindle wouldn’t-I’ve kept the-“
The rasp of the saber saw once more snarled; Dortmunder, looking up, saw that the woman had it now, and was chasing her ex-husband around the plants and flowers with it, while the plug-ugly stood frozen, pretending to be a floor lamp. Dort-munder stood, mouthed the last of his sandwich, retraced his steps to the kitchen and went out the window.
The far-off sound of sirens was just audible when he reached the pay phone at the corner and called again the OJ. Bar & Grill. When Kelp came on the phone, Dortmunder said, “The guys still there?”
“Sure. You on your way?”
“No. I got a new thing over here on the East Side. You and the guys meet me at Park and Sixty-fifth.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Just a little breaking and entering.”
“The place is empty?”
Down the block, police cars were massing in front of Moira’s house. “Oh, yeah,” Dortmunder said, “it’s empty. I don’t think the owner’s gonna be back for years.”
There weren’t two copies of the Rodin, no; there was one original, one copy. And the elegant man had been right about ex-husbands’ getting the sympathy vote. The hired expert had accepted bribes from both parties, but he’d made his own decision when it came to distributing the real and the fake Rodins. In Dortmunder’s mind’s eye, he saw again the shiny thing hidden within the nymph’s thigh. It was the flip-off ring from a thoroughly modern beer can. “It’s valuable OK,” he said. “But it’s kind of heavy. On the way over, steal a truck.”