GIVE TILL IT HURTS

IT WAS HARD TO RUN, DORTMUNDER WAS DISCOVERING, WITH your pockets full of bronze Roman coins. The long skirt flapping around his ankles didn’t help, either. This hotel is either too damn big, he told himself, huffing and puffing and trying to keep his pants up under this bulky white dress, or it’s too small.

Okay, the dress isn’t really a dress, it’s an aba, but it gets in the way of running legs just as much as any dress in the world. How did Lawrence of Arabia do it, in that movie that time? Probably trick photography.

Also, the sheet on his head, called a keffiyeh, held on by this outsize cigar band circlet called an akal, is fine and dandy if you’re just walking around looking at things, but when you run it keeps sliding over your eyes, particularly when you have to go around a corner and not run straight into the wall, like now.

Dortmunder turned the corner, and here came a half dozen of his fellow conventioneers, Arabian numismatists jabbering away at each other and kicking their skirts out ahead of them as they walked. How did they do that?

Dortmunder braked hard to a walk, to a stroll, and fixed a brotherly smile on his face as he approached the approaching sheiks, or whatever they were. “Sawami,” he said, using the one word he’d found that seemed to work. “Sawami, sawami.”

They all smiled back, and nodded, and said some stuff, and proceeded on around the corner. With any luck, the cops would arrest one of them.

Here’s the thing. If you happen to hear that in a big hotel in midtown Manhattan there’s going to be a sale of ancient coins, where most of the dealers and most of the customers are going to be rich Arabs, what can you possibly do but dress yourself up like a rich Arab, go to the hotel, mingle a little, and see what falls into your pockets? If the dealer with the heavy beard and the loud voice hadn’t also happened to see what was falling into Dortmunder’s pocket, everything would have been okay. As it was, he’d eluded pursuit so far, but if he were to try to leave the hotel by any of its known exits he was pretty sure he’d suddenly feel a lot of unfriendly hands clutching at his elbows.

What to do, what to do? Getting out of this OPEC drag wouldn’t help much, since his pursuers had no doubt already figured out he was a goof in sheik’s clothing. In fact, wearing it helped him blend in with the hotel’s regular guests, so long as he didn’t have to engage in conversation more complicated than, “Sawami sawami. Sawami? Ho, ho, sawami!”

And at least he wasn’t up in Santa Claus rig. Every year around this time, with shiny toys in the store windows and wet snow inside your shoes, wherever there might happen to be any kind of . a robbery in a public setting, the cops immediately would nick the nearest Saint Nick, because it is well known that Santa Claus is every second-rate second story guy’s idea of a really terrific disguise.

Not Dortmunder. Better a sheet among sheiks than a red suit, a white pillow and handcuffs. Leave your camel at home.

NO ADMISSION. That was what the door said, and that was perfect. That was exactly what you would look for when you’re on the run, a door that says No Admission, or Authorized Personnel Only, or Keep Out; any of those synonyms for ‘quick-exit.’ This particular door was at a turn in the corridor, tucked away mostly out of sight in the corner of the L. Dortmunder looked down both lengths of empty hallways, tried the knob, found it locked, and stepped back to consider just what kind of lock he was expected to go through here.

Oh, that kind. No problem. Hiking up his skirt, reaching into a coin-laden pants pocket, he brought out a little leather bag of narrow metal implements he’d once told an arresting officer was his manicure set. That cop had looked at Dortmunder’s fingernails and laughed.

Dortmunder manicured No Admission, pushed the door open, listened, heard no alarm, saw only darkness within, and stepped through, shutting the door behind him. Feeling around for a lightswitch, his fingers bumped into some sort of shelf, then found the switch, flipped it up, and a linen closet sprang into existence: sheets, towels, tissue boxes, soap, quart-size white plastic coffee pitchers, tiny vials of shampoo. Well, hell, this was no way out.

Dortmunder turned and reached for the doorknob and felt a breeze. Yes? He turned back, inspecting the small but deep crowded room with all his eyes, and there at the rear was a window, an ordinary double hung window, and its bottom half was just slightly open.

What floor am I on? Dortmunder had gone out windows before in his career that had turned out to be maybe a little too high up in the air for comfort and he’d lived to regret it, but at least he’d lived. But where was he now?

The window was behind shelves piled with towels. Dortmunder moved towels out of the way, leaned his head in between two shelves, pushed the window farther open and looked out into December darkness. A kind of jumbled darkness lay in an indefinite number of stories below, maybe three, maybe five. To the right were the backs of tall buildings facing 57th Street and to the left were the backs of shorter buildings facing 56th Street.

Didn’t people make rope ladders out of sheets? They did; Dortmunder followed their example, first tying the end of a sheet around the handle of a coffee pitcher and lowering that out the window, then tying sheets together and paying them out until he heard the far-away clunk of the pitcher against something hard.

Far away.

Don’t look down, Dortmunder reminded himself, as he tied the top sheet to a shelf bracket and stripped at last out of his Middle East finery and switched off the linen closet light, but then he had to figure out how to get this body from this position, standing in the dark linen closet, to hanging on sheets outside the window. How do you get from here to there? To slide between the shelves and out the window head first seemed utter folly; you’d wind up pointing the wrong way, and you wouldn’t last long. But to get up on the shelf and through that narrow opening feet first was obviously impossible.

Well, the impossible takes a little longer, particularly in the dark. Many parts of himself he hit against the wooden edges of the shelves. Many times he seemed certain to fall backward off a shelf and beat his head against the floor. Many times he had all of himself in position except one arm, on the wrong shelf, or maybe one knee, that had found a way to get into the small of his back. Then there came a moment when all of him was outside the window except his left leg, which wanted to stay. Ultimately, he was reduced to holding onto the sheet with his teeth and right knee while pulling that extra leg out with both hands, then in a panic grabbing the sheet with every molecule in his body just as he started to fall.

The sheets held. His hands, elbows, knees, thighs, feet, teeth, nostrils and ears held. Down he went, the cold city breeze fanning his brow, his descent accompanied by the music of ancient coins clinking in his pocket and tiny threads ripping in the sheets.

The jumbled darkness down below was full of stuff, some of it to be climbed over, some to be avoided, none of it friendly. Dortmunder blundered around down there for a while, aware of that white arrow on the side of the hotel in the evening dark, pointing its long finger directly at him, and then he saw, up a metal flight of stairs, a metal grillwork door closed over an open doorway, with warm light from within.

Maybe? Maybe. Dortmunder tiptoed up the stairs, peered through the grill, and saw a long high room completely encased by books. A library of some kind, well lit and totally empty, with a tall Christmas tree halfway along the left side.

Dortmunder manicured the metal door, stepped through, and paused again. At this end of the room were a large desk and chair, at the far end a long marble-topped table, and in between various furniture; sofa, chairs, round table. The Christmas tree gave off much bright light and a faint aroma of the north woods. But mostly the room was books, floor to the ceiling, glowing amber in the warmth of large faceted overhead light globes.

At the far end was a dark wooden door, ajar. Dortmunder made for this, and was halfway there when a short gray-haired guy came in, carrying two decks of cards and a bottle of beer. “Oh, hi,” the guy said. “I didn’t see you come in. You’re early.”

“I am?”

“Not very early,” the guy conceded. Putting the cards on the round table and the beer on a side table, he said, “I have this right, don’t I? You’re the fella Don sent, to take his place, because he’s stuck at some Christmas party.”

“Right,” Dortmunder said.

“Pity he couldn’t make it,” the guy said. “He always leaves us a few bucks.” He stuck his hand out. “I’m Otto, I didn’t quite get your …”

“John,” Dortmunder said, fulfilling his truth quota for the day. “Uh, Diddums.”

“Diddums?”

“It’s Welsh.”

“Oh.”

Two more guys came into the room, shucking out of topcoats, and Otto said, “Here’s Larry and Justin.” He told them, “This is John Diddums, he’s the guy Don sent.”

“Diddums?” Justin said.

“It’s Welsh,” Otto explained.

“Oh.”

Larry grinned at Dortmunder and said, “I hope you’re as bad a player as Don.”

“Ha ha,” Dortmunder said.

Okay; it looks like there’s nothing to do but play poker with these people, and hope the real substitute for Don doesn’t show up. Anyway, it’s probably safer in here, for the moment. So Dortmunder stood around, being friendly, accepting Otto’s offer of a beer, and pretty soon Laurel and Hardy came in, Laurel being a skinny guy called Al and Hardy being a nonskinny guy called Henry, and then they sat down to play.

They used chips, a dollar per, and each of them bought twenty bucks worth to begin. Dortmunder, reaching in his heavy pockets, pulled out with some wadded greenbacks a couple of bronze coins, which bounced on the floor and were picked up by Henry before Dortmunder could get to them. Henry glanced at the coins and said, as he put them on the table and pushed them toward Dortmunder, “We don’t take those.”

Everybody had a quick look at the coins before Dortmunder could scoop them up and slip them back into his pocket. “I’ve been traveling,” he explained.

“I guess you have,” Henry said, and the game began. Dealer’s choice, stud or draw, no high-low, no wild cards.

As Dortmunder well knew, the way to handle a game of chance is to remove the element of chance. A card palmed here, a little dealing of seconds there, an ace crimped for future reference, and pretty soon Dortmunder was doing very well indeed. He wasn’t winning every hand, nothing that blatant, but by the time the first hour was done and the cops began to yell at the metal grillwork door Dortmunder was about two hundred forty bucks ahead.

This was Otto’s place. “Now what?” he said, when all the shouting started out back, and got to his feet, and walked back there to discuss the situation through the locked grill.

Looking as though he didn’t believe it, or at least didn’t want to believe it, Al said, “They’re raiding our poker game?”

“I don’t think so,” said Henry.

Otto unlocked the door, damn his eyes, and the room filled up with a bunch of overheated uniformed cops, several of them with new scars and scrapes from running around in that jumbled darkness out there. “They say,” Otto told the table generally, “there was a burglary at the hotel, and they think the guy came this way.”

“He scored some rare coins,” one cop, a big guy with sergeant’s stripes and Perry on his nameplate, said. “Anybody come through here tonight?”

“Just us,” Larry said. Nobody looked at Dortmunder.

“Maybe,” one of the cops said, “you should all show ID.”

Everybody but Dortmunder reached for wallets, as Otto said, “Officer, we’ve known each other for years. I own this building and the bookshop out front, and these are writers and an editor and an agent, and this is our regular poker game.”

“You all know each other, huh?”

“For years,” Otto said, and grabbed a handy book, and showed the cop the picture on the back. “See, that’s Larry,” he said, and pointed at the guy himself, who sat up straight and beamed a big smile, as though his picture was being taken.

“Oh, yeah?” The cop looked from the book to Larry and back to the book. “I read some of your stuff,” he said. “I’m Officer Nekola.”

Larry beamed even more broadly. “Is that right?”

“You ever read William J. Caunitz?” the cop asked.

Larry’s smile wilted slightly. “He’s a friend of mine,” he said.

“Of ours,” Justin said.

“Now there’s a real writer,” Nekola said. “He used to be a cop himself, you know.”

“We know,” Larry said.

While the literary discussion went on, Dortmunder naturally found himself wondering: Why are they covering for me here? I came in the back way, I showed those coins, they don’t know me for years, so why don’t they all point fingers and shout, “Here’s your man, take him away!” What’s up? Isn’t this carrying the Christmas spirit a little too far?

The symposium had finished. One of the cops had gotten Justin to autograph a paperback book. The cops were all leaving, some through the front toward the bookstore, the rest returning to the jumbled darkness out back. Otto called after them, “In case anything comes up, how do we get in touch with you people?”

“Don’t worry,” Sgt. Perry said. “We’ll be around for hours yet.”

And then Dortmunder got it. If these people were to blow the whistle, the cops would immediately take him away, meaning he would no longer be in the game. And he had their money.

You don’t do that. You don’t let a new guy leave a poker game after one measly hour, not if he has your money, not for any excuse. And particularly under these current circumstances. Knowing what they now knew about Dortmunder, his new friends here would be replaying certain recent hands in their minds and seeing them in a rather different light.

Which meant he knew, unfortunately, what was expected of him now. If this is the quid, that must be the quo.

Otto resumed his seat, looking a bit grim, and said, “Whose deal?”

“Mine,” Justin said. “Draw, guts to open.”

Dortmunder picked up his cards, and they were the three, five and seven of spades, the queen of hearts and the ace of clubs. He opened for the two dollar limit, was raised, and raised back. Everybody was in the hand.

Since it didn’t matter what he did, Dortmunder threw away the queen and the ace. Justin dealt him two replacements and he looked at them, and they were the four and six of spades.

Has anybody ever done that before? Dortmunder had just drawn twice to an inside straight in the same hand, and made it. And made a straight flush as well. Lucky, huh? If only he could tell somebody about it.

“Your bet, John,” Justin said.

“I busted,” Dortmunder said. “Merry Christmas.” He tossed in the hand.

It was going to be a long night. Two hundred and forty dollars long.

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