THERE WAS NO USE GOING ANY FARTHER DOWN THE FIRE ESCAPE. More cops were in the yard: A pair of flashlights white-lined the dark down there. From above, the
What a Christmas present.
A window, left of his left elbow. Through it, a dimly lighted bedroom, empty, with brighter light through the door ajar opposite. A pile of coats on the double bed. Faint party chatter wafting out through the top part of the window, open two inches.
An open window is not locked. It was a cold December out here. Dortmunder was bundled in a peacoat over his usual working uniform of black shoes, slacks and shirt-but with the party going on in there, the window had been opened at the top to let out excess heat.
“Larry,” said the pile of coats in a querulous female voice. “There’s somebody in here.”
The pile of coats could do a snotty male voice, too: “They’re just going to the John. Pay no attention.”
“And putting down my coat,” Dortmunder said, dropping his peacoat with its cargo of burglar tools and knickknacks from the corner jeweler, from where he had traveled up and over rooftops to this dubious haven.
“Ouch!” said the girl’s voice.
“Get on with it, all right?” Boy’s voice.
A herd of cops went slantwise downward past the window, their attention fixed on the darkness below, the muffled clatter of their passage hardly noticeable to anyone who didn’t happen to be (a) a habitual criminal and (b) on the run. Despite the boy’s advice to get on with it, Dortmunder stayed frozen until the last of the herd trotted by, then he took a quick scan of the room.
Over there, the shut door outlined in light would lead to the bathroom. The darker one would be … a closet?
Yes. Hurried, in near darkness, Dortmunder grabbed something or other from inside the closet, then shut that door again and moved quickly toward the outlined one as the girl’s voice said, “Larry, I just don’t feel comfortable anymore.”
“Of course you don’t.”
Dortmunder entered the square, white bathroom-light-green towels, dolphins on the closed shower curtain-ignored the two voices departing from the room outside, one plaintive, the other overbearing, and studied his haberdashery selection.
Well. Fortunately, most things go with black, including this rather weary sports jacket of tweedy tan with brown leather elbow patches. Dortmunder slipped it on and it was maybe two sizes too big, but not noticeable if he kept it unbuttoned. He turned to the mirror over the sink, and now he might very well be a sociology professor-specializing in labor relations-at a small Midwestern university. A professor without tenure, though, and probably no chance of getting tenure, either, now that Marx has flunked his finals.
Dortmunder’s immediate problem was that he couldn’t hide. The cops knew he was in this building, so sooner or later some group of police officers would definitely be gazing upon him, and the only question was, how would they react when that moment came? His only hope was to mingle, if you could call that a hope.
Leaving the bathroom, he noticed that the pile of coats was visibly depleted. Seemed like everybody’s plans were getting loused up tonight.
But this gave him a chance to stash his stash, at least temporarily. Finding his peacoat at last-already it was at the bottom of the pile-he took the jeweler’s former merchandise and stowed it in the top left dresser drawer amid some other gewgaws and gimcracks. His tools went into the cluttered cabinet under the bathroom sink, and then he was ready to move on.
Beyond the partly opened bedroom door was a hall lined with national park posters. Immediately to the right, the hall ended at the apartment’s front door. To the left, it went past a couple of open and closed doors till it emptied into the room where the party was. From here, he could see half a dozen people holding drinks and talking. Motown versions of Christmas songs bubbled along, weaving through the babble of talk.
He hesitated, indecisive, struck by some strange stage fright. The apartment door called to him with a siren song of escape, even though he knew the world beyond it was badly infested by law. On the other hand, a crowd is supposed to be the ideal medium into which a lone individual might disappear, and yet he found himself reluctant to test that theory. To party or not to party-that was the question.
Two events pushed him to a decision. First, the doorbell next to him suddenly clanged like a fire engine in hell, causing him to jump a foot. And second, two women emerged from the party into the hallway, both moving fast. The one in front looked to be in her early 20s, in black slacks and black blouse and white half-apron and red bow tie and harried expression; she carried an empty round silver tray and she veered off into the first doorway on the right. The second woman was older but very well put together, dressed in baubles and beads and dangling earrings and a whole lot of Technicolor makeup, and her expression was grim but brave as she marched down the hall toward Dortmunder.
No, toward the door. This was, no doubt, the hostess, on her way to answer the bell, wondering who’d arrived so late. Dortmunder, knowing who the late arrivals were and not wanting to be anywhere near that door when it opened, jackrabbited into motion with an expression on his face that was meant to be a party smile. “How’s it goin?” he asked with nicely understated amiability as they passed each other in the middle of the hall.
The party, as Dortmunder approached it, was loud, but not loud enough to cover the sudden growl of voices behind him. He made an abrupt turn into the open doorway that the harried woman had gone through and then he was in the kitchen, where the harried woman was putting a lot of cheese-filled tarts onto the round tray.
Dortmunder tried his line again: “How’s it goin?”
“Rotten,” the harried woman said. Her ash-blonde hair was coiled in a bun in back, but much of it had escaped to lie in parabolas on her damp brow. She’d have been a good-looking woman if she weren’t so bad-tempered and overworked. “Jerry never showed up,” she snapped, as though it were Dortmunder’s fault. “I have to do it all-” She shook her head and made a sharp chopping motion with her left hand. “I don’t have time to talk.”
“Maybe I could help,” Dortmunder suggested. The growl of cop voices continued from back by the apartment door. They’d check the room next to the fire escape first, but then they’d be coming this way.
The woman looked at him as though he were trying to sell her magazine subscriptions: “Help? What do you mean, help?”
“I don’t know anybody here.” He was noticing: She was all in black, he was all in black. “I came with Larry, but now he’s talking to some girl, so why don’t I help out?”
“You don’t help the caterer,” she said.
“OK. Just a thought.” No point getting her suspicious.
But as he was turning away, she said, “Wait a minute,” and when he looked back, her sweat-beaded brow was divided in half by a vertical frown line. She said, “You really want to help?”
“Only if you could use some.”
“Well,” she said, reluctant to admit there might be something in this world for her not to be mad at, “if you really mean it.”
“Count on it,” Dortmunder told her. Shucking out of the borrowed jacket, looking around the room for a white apron like hers, he said, “It’ll give me something to do other than just stand in the corner by myself. I’ll take those things out, pass them around, you can get caught up.”
Once the jacket was off and hanging on a kitchen chair, Dortmunder looked exactly like what he was: a semihardened criminal, a hunted man, a desperate fugitive from justice and a guy who just keeps slipping the mind of Lady Luck. This was not a good image. Failing to find a white apron, he grabbed a white dish towel instead and tucked it sideways across the front of his trousers. No red bow tie like the woman’s, but that couldn’t be helped.
She watched him suiting up. “Well, if you really want to do this,” she said, and suddenly her manner changed, became much more official, commanding-even bossy. “What you have to do is remember to keep moving. It’s a jungle out there.”
“Oh, I know that,” Dortmunder said.
“You don’t want to get caught.”
“You’ll get people,” she said, making hand gestures to demonstrate the point, “who’ll just keep grabbing and grabbing. You get into the middle of a conversational group, all of a sudden you can’t get out without knocking somebody over, and then-that’s a no-no, by the way,” she interrupted herself.
Dortmunder had been nodding, one ear cocked for the approach of society’s defenders, but now he looked quizzical and said, “A no-no?”
“Knocking over the guests.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked. You knock over jewelry stores, not guests. Everybody knows that.
“If you’re stuck in the middle of a group and there’s no way out,” she explained, “they’ll eat everything on the tray. They’re like a bunch of locusts, and there you are, and most of the other guests haven’t had anything at all.”
“I see what you mean. Keep moving.”
“And,” she said, “stick the tray into the middle, but don’t go into the middle.”
“I got it,” he promised her. “I’m ready to make the move.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“Sure,” he said, and picked up the tarts and went to the aid of the party.
The party consisted of several clumps of people, mostly crowded around the bar, which was a serve-yourself table in front of curtained windows at one end of the long living room. Most people ignored the big cut-glass bowl of eggnog and went straight for the wine or the hard stuff. At the opposite end of the room stood the Christmas tree, short and fat and shedding, with many tiny colored lights that blinked on and off as if to say
A sofa and some chairs had been shoved against the walls to make room for the party, so everybody was standing, except one heavy woman dressed in a lot of bright fluttery scarves who perched on the sofa holding a glass as she talked to various people’s stomachs. Occasionally, someone would bend down to say a friendly word to her forehead, but mostly she was ignored; the party was taking place at the five-foot level, not the three-foot level. And, as at most Christmas parties, everybody was looking a little tense thinking about all those lists at home.
Feeling the guard-dog eyes of the law scrape at his back, though the search party hadn’t yet made its way down the hall, Dortmunder held the tray chest high and followed it into the scrum. People parted at the arrival of food, paused in drink and talk to take a tartlet, then closed ranks again in his wake. Sidling to the center of the crush, in the party but not of it, Dortmunder began to relax and to pick up shreds of conversation as he motored along:
“There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing. We have seven already, and once we have all of the seed money. . . .”
“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist. Well, naturally. . . .”
“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK … so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”
“And then these guys in a rowboat-no, wait, I forgot. First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”
“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”
“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to
“Whatever you want, Sheila. If you want to go, we’ll go.”
Wait a minute, that was a familiar voice. Dortmunder looked around, and another familiar voice, this one female, said, “I didn’t say I wanted to leave, Larry. Why do you always put it on me?”
The couple from the coats. Dortmunder steered his tart tray in that direction, and there they were, both in their mid-20s, wedged into a self-absorbed bubble inside the larger party. Larry was very tall, with unnecessarily wavy dark hair and a long thin nose and long thin lips and little widely spaced eyes. Sheila was on the short side, a pretty girl, but with an extra layer of baby fat, driveway-colored hair and not much clothes sense; either that, or she’d just recently put on those extra pounds and hadn’t bought any new clothes for the new body.
Dortmunder inserted the depleted tartlet tray into their space as Larry said, “I don’t put it on you. You weren’t happy in the other room, and now you’re not happy here. Make your own decisions, that’s all.”
She turned her worried look to the tarts, but Larry grandly waved the tray away. Neither of them looked directly at Dortmunder. In fact, nobody looked directly at the server (
Moving on through the throng, Dortmunder heard one last exchange behind him. (“Lately, you do this all the time.”
Three of them, uniformed, stocky, mustached, irritable. They were so grumpy that the Technicolor hostess in their midst looked as though she were under arrest.
But she wasn’t under arrest, she was bird-dogging, eyeing the guests for the cops, looking for cuckoos in the nest. Unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar faces. . . .
Meanwhile, all the faces had grown just a little more rigid. It’s hard to be aware that three bad-tempered cops are looking at you and pretend you aren’t aware of it, and at the same time present an image that shows you’re innocent of whatever it is they think you’re guilty of, when you don’t know what they think you’re guilty of, and for all you know you are. Complex. No wonder every drink in the room was being drained more rapidly, even the club sodas and ginger ales.
Someone else was also observing the scene: the harried woman caterer. She’d been circulating in another part of the room with another tray, and she’d noticed the new arrivals. Dortmunder caught her looking from him to the cops and back again, and in the space between her damp hair and perky red bow tie, her thunderclouded face was an absolute emblem of suspicion. Doesn’t anybody believe in altruism anymore?
Well, it was time to grasp the tiger by the tail and face the situation. The best defense is a good despair; Dortmunder marched directly to that dark blue cloud in the doorway, shoved his tray into its middle and said, “Tarts?”
“No, no,” they said, brushing him away-even cops don’t look at servers-and they went back to saying to the hostess, “Anybody you don’t know. Anybody at all.”
Dortmunder dallied nearby, offering his last few tarts to the closest convivials as he eavesdropped on the manhunt. The hostess was a rich contralto; under most circumstances, she would have been a pleasure to listen to, but these were not most circumstances: “I don’t see anyone. Well, that person came with Tommy, his name is, oh, I’m so bad at names.”
“It’s faces we care about,” one of the cops said, and damn near looked at Dortmunder.
Who realized it was time to move on. Unloading the last of his tarts, he segued into the empty kitchen, where he briefly considered his circumstances, contemplated a cut-and-run and decided this was no time to become a moving target.
On a cookie sheet on the kitchen counter lay a regiment of two-inch-long celery segments, each filled with red-dyed anchovy gunk. Green and red, Christmas colors; pretty, in a way, but not particularly edible-looking. Nevertheless, he arranged these on his tray, making a spiral, getting caught up in the design, attempting to make a Santa Claus face, failing, then picking up the tray, and as he turned to leave, one of the cops walked in.
Dortmunder couldn’t help himself; he just stood there. Deep down inside, a terrific struggle was going on, invisible on the surface. You’re a waiter, he told himself in desperation, you’re with the caterer, nothing else matters to you. Trying to build a performance using the Method. But no. It didn’t matter how he spurred himself, he just went on standing there, tray in hands, waiting to be led away.
The cop glared around the room as though he were pretty sure somebody was there. His gaze slid off Dortmunder’s furrowed brow, moved on, kept searching.
Who’s he talking to? There’s nobody here but the waiter.
“You,” the cop said, not quite looking in Dortmunder’s direction. He pointed at the jacket Dortmunder had worn in here from the bedroom. “That yours?”
“No.” Which was not only the truth, it was also the simplest possible answer. So rarely is the truth the simplest possible answer that Dortmunder, pleased by the coincidence, repeated it. “No,” he said again, then added a flourish for the hell of it. “It was here when I came in.”
The cop picked up the jacket and patted its pockets. Then he turned, draping the jacket over his arm, and Dortmunder, in the part at last, extended the tray. “You want a, a thing?”
The cop shook his head. He still wasn’t looking at Dortmunder. He went away with the jacket, and Dortmunder sat on the now jacketless chair to have a quiet nervous breakdown. The hostess was going to say, “Why, that’s my husband’s jacket. In the kitchen? What was it doing there?” Then all the cops would come back and lay hands on him, and he would never be heard from again.
The harried woman steamed in, her own tray empty. Dortmunder got to his feet and said, “Just resting a minute.”
She raised a meaningful brow in his direction.
Which he pretended not to see. “The cops didn’t want the tarts,” he said.
“I wonder what they did want,” she said, still with that meaningful look.
“Maybe the party’s too noisy,” Dortmunder suggested. “Maybe the neighbor upstairs complained.”
“That many cops? The neighbor upstairs must be the police commissioner.”
“That’s probably it,” Dortmunder said. “What do you think? Should I make a special tray for them?”
“For the police?” This question brought her back to earth, and to business. “Nonguests are not our concern,” she said. “What’s that you’re taking out there?” She peered at his tray much more suspiciously than she’d peered at him; good. “Ah, the anchovy logs,” she said, nodding her approval.
“You don’t have to mention the name, just distribute them. And stick to the area at the other end of the room from the bar to move people away from the drinks.”
“These logs,” Dortmunder pointed out, “will drive them right back to the drinks.”
“That’s OK. Circulation’s the name of the game.”
The hostess came fluttering in, saying, “We have to
“We noticed,” the harried woman said.
“Police ruin a party,” the hostess announced.
“They sure do,” Dortmunder agreed.
He should have kept his mouth shut; this just made the hostess focus on him, saying, “Jerry, what you should do is-” She blinked. “You’re not Jerry.”
“Sure I am,” Dortmunder said, and flashed the tray of logs. “I better get out there,” he said, scooting through the door. From behind he heard the harried woman say, “A different Jerry.”
In the living room, the party wasn’t really ruined at all. The cops were nowhere in sight and the partygoers were peacefully at graze once more. Dortmunder moved his tray hither and yon, away from the bar, and soon the hostess returned, but she was not at ease. She kept flashing worried looks toward the hall.
Hmmm. His tray still half full of logs, Dortmunder eased away from the party, skirted the hostess at some little distance and proceeded down the hall to reconnoiter, tray held out in front of himself as a
He heard them before he saw them, a cop voice saying, “Which coat is yours?” Then he made the turn into the bedroom and there were the three cops, plus two more cops, plus two male partygoers, who looked worried and guilty as hell as they pawed through the pile of coats. “Snack?” Dortmunder inquired.
“Right.” Dortmunder bowed from the waist, like butlers in the old black-and-white movies on TV, and backed out of the room. Moving down the hall toward the party, he considered the possibility that one or both of those suspects would prove to have some sort of illegal substance in his coat. A happy thought, but would it sufficiently distract the law? Probably not.
Back at the party, Dortmunder unloaded more anchovy logs, and then somebody put two glasses onto his not-quite-empty tray and said, “Two white wines, pal.”
Dortmunder looked at the glasses, then looked up, and it was his buddy Larry again, who turned away to continue pistol-whipping his girlfriend, saying, “Make your own decisions for yourself, Sheila, don’t put the blame on me.”
Bewildered, she said, “The blame for what?”
The waiter wasn’t supposed to get drinks for people, was he? Everybody else was getting his own. Dortmunder considered tucking the two glasses inside Larry’s shirt, but then he glanced over and saw a cop briefly in the doorway, looking around. He decided a waiter was somebody who waited on people, not somebody who knocked people around, so he carried the tray to the drinks table. The cop was gone again. Dortmunder filled one glass with white wine and the other with tonic and carried them back on the tray, being careful to give Sheila the wine. She was saying wistfully, “It just seems as though you’re trying to push me away, but making it my fault.”
So she was catching on, was she? Airily, Larry smirked at her and said, “It’s all in your mind.”
Dortmunder made a rapid retreat to the kitchen, not wanting to be in sight when Larry tasted the tonic, and now this room was absolutely full of cops talking to the harried woman, one of them saying, “You been here since the beginning of the party?”
The cop gave Dortmunder a full frontal stare. “Both of you?”
“Of course both of us,” the harried woman said. To Dortmunder she said, “Tell them, Jerry. We got here at six-thirty.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder told the cops, then turned to his partner in crime to say, “They’re still hungry out there.”
“We’ll give them the shrimps now,” she decided, and gestured for Dortmunder to join her at the counter next to the sink, where plastic pots of cold peeled shrimp and glass bowls of red sauce awaited.
The cops stood around and growled together while Dortmunder and the harried woman worked, their fingers sliding on the slippery shrimp. At last, though, the law left the room, and Dortmunder whispered, “Thanks.”
“I don’t know what you did-“
“All I know is, you saved my sanity. Also, I still need help with these shrimp.”
“You got it.”
“There’s one thing, though, that I have to tell you,” she said as they arranged shrimp on decorative plates. “I’m married.”
“So am I,” Dortmunder said. “Kinda.”
“Me, too,” she agreed. “Kinda. But for real.”
“Sure,” Dortmunder said. “We’re just trays of shrimp that pass in the night.”
Returning to the party, Dortmunder saw Larry at the drinks table, a wrinkled look around his mouth as he poured a glass of white wine. Dortmunder kept out of his way as he circulated, distributing shrimp. The two suspects from the bedroom came back, looking shaken but relieved, and both beelined to the drinks table, where they made quite a dent.
A few minutes later, the apartment door thudded shut with a sound that gonged all the way down the hall and into the room with the party, where a whole lot of tense smiles suddenly loosened up.
Really? Gone? Given up? Dortmunder, suspicious by nature and cautious by necessity, carried his half-full tray of shrimp and sauce down the empty hall, glanced into the empty bedroom, opened the apartment door and looked out at five cops looking in.
Umm. Two of them were women cops. All five were just standing around the corridor with faintly eager and hungry looks, like lions in the Colosseum. Behind them, the door to the apartment across the hall was propped half-open.
OK. So they still think the odds are that their missing burglar is at the party, so they’ve set up this corridor equivalent of a radar trap. Each partygoer on the way out will be taken into the apartment across the hall-with that good citizen’s cooperation and approval, no doubt-and frisked. The women cops are for the women partygoers. And all five were looking at Dortmunder as though he were their first customer.
Uh-uh. True, he didn’t have the stash on him, but the identity papers he carried were in case of routine stops, not for anything serious. These documents were like vampires, they crumbled when exposed to light.
Dortmunder extended the tray, “Have a shrimp?”
“We’re on duty,” one of the women cops said, and the other cops looked faintly embarrassed.
“Maybe later,” Dortmunder suggested, and he closed the door on all those official eyes before they got the idea to dry-run their little gauntlet on the help.
What now? Eventually, this party, like all good things, must end. Until then, he was probably more or less safe, but as things stood, there was absolutely no way for him to get out of this apartment. Until they got their hands on the burglar, the police would not relax their vigilance for a second.
Until they got their hands on the burglar. Until they got their hands on
Play the hand. Dortmunder slipped sideways into the bedroom, balancing the tray one-handed as he opened the dresser drawer where he’d stashed the stash. He was careful about his selection; a proper Christmas gift should be something you’d like to receive yourself, so he resisted the impulse to keep the best swag for himself, instead choosing to sacrifice two brooches and a bracelet that were definitely cream of the crop. These went into his pants pocket and back out of the bedroom he eased, on the alert.
And here came Larry and Sheila down the hall away from the party, he still assuring her that she was the one making all the decisions, while she wore the expression of someone who can’t figure out what it is that keeps biting her on the ass. They would all meet at the midpoint of the hall, with just enough room for everybody to get by.
Well, it could have been anybody, but, in fact, Dortmunder had been thinking about Larry a bit, anyway. The guy was a smart-aleck, which was good; he’d be more likely to think he could bullshit the cops the way he was doing Sheila, more likely to rub them the wrong way and attract their attention. And now this business of sidestepping past one another in the hall just made it easier.
“I don’t want to go if
“Oops! Here, let me-“
“That’s all right, that’s all right, no harm done, everything’s fine, if you don’t mind,” Larry said with an aggressive, splay-fingered brushing down of his front, where nothing had actually spilled but where the server had been apologetically pawing and patting.
Timing is all. Dortmunder made his way back to the party, distributed the rest of his shrimp among the needy, and when he
saw the harried woman, empty-trayed, heading for the kitchen, he followed her.
Now she was putting little sausages on the tray, each with its own yellow toothpick. Dortmunder reached into his pocket for the one prize he hadn’t given Larry: an extremely nice gold brooch shaped like a feather. “Hold it,” he said, walking over behind her, and tucked it into the raveled bun of her hair.
“What? What? What’s that?” She didn’t know what was happening but was afraid to turn her head.
“When you get home,” Dortmunder advised, “have your guy fish that out of there. Not before.”
“But what is it?”
“A feather,” he said accurately, and disrobed himself of the dish towel he’d been hiding behind. Too bad that jacket wasn’t around anymore. “Well,” he said, “up the chimney I speed.”
She laughed, a happier person than when they’d met, and picked up her refilled tray. “Say hello to the elves.”
They both left the kitchen, she to continue her good works and he moving briskly but without unseemly haste down the hall toward the apartment door, through which, as he neared it, came the muffled sound of voices raised in dispute, among them the high tones of the perhaps unnecessarily loyal Sheila.
“Just who do you think you are?” And that was Larry, bless him.
Eventually, of course, Larry’s innocence-at least in this context-would be established, and the manhunt would resume. But by then the wily perpetrator would be long gone. Flexing into the bedroom, the wily perpetrator found his pea-coat at the bottom of the pile again and refilled it quickly and silently with his tools and the evening’s profits. Before leaving, he paused briefly to pick up the bedside phone and dial his faithful companion, May, waiting for him at home, who answered by saying “Wrong number,” which was her form of preemptive strike against possible breathers and objectionable conversationalists.
“I’m a little bit late, May,” Dortmunder said.
“You certainly are,” May agreed. “Where are you, the precinct?”
“Well, I’m at a party,” Dortmunder said, “but I’ll be leaving in a minute.” Leaving, to be specific, to continue his interrupted descent of the fire escape. “There was a complication,” he explained, “but it’s OK now.”
“Is it a nice party?”
“The food’s good,” Dortmunder said. “See you soon.”