DORTMUNDER HAVING COME INTO POSSESSION OF SOME CERTAIN coins of a particular value, and the merchant named Stoon having recently returned to the slammer upstate, he decided it was time to go see Arnie Albright. Nothing else to be done. Therefore, shrugging his shoulders and pocketing his Ziploc bag of coins, Dortmunder took the West Side IRT up to 86th, then walked on up to 89th between Broadway and West End, where Arnie’s apartment moldered upstairs over a bookstore.
Dortmunder entered the vestibule. He thought about ringing the doorbell there, but then he thought about not ringing it, and liked that thought better, so he went through the interior door with a shrug of a credit card. Climbing the stairs, he stopped at Arnie’s door-it was a particularly offensive shade of dirty gray-yellow-green-and rapped the metal with his knuckles.
Was Arnie out? Impossible. Arnie was never out. It was practically against a city ordinance for Arnie Albright to go out of his apartment and mingle with ordinary people on the ordinary street. So Dortmunder rapped again, with the knuckle of the middle finger of his right hand, and when that still produced nothing he kicked the door instead, twice: KHORK, KHORK.
“WHAT?” demanded a voice from just the other side of the door.
Dortmunder leaned close. “It’s me,” he said, not too loudly. “John Dortmunder.”
“Who you tryin’ to tell, the people in Argentina?”
Many lock noises later, the door opened and Arnie Albright stood there, the same as ever, unfortunately. “Dortmunder,” Arnie cried, already exasperated. “Whyn’tchoo ring the doorbell, like a person?”
“Because then you yell at me on the intercom,” Dortmunder explained, “and you want me to yell back, and tell my business to everybody on the street.”
“I gotta protect myself,” Arnie said. “I got things of value here.” He gestured vaguely behind himself, as though he couldn’t quite remember which things of value they were, or where exactly he’d put them.
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Arnie, a grizzled, gnarly guy with a tree-root nose, a skinny, deeply lined person who could have been any age from four hundred to a thousand, stepped back and gestured Dortmunder inside, saying, “So Stoon’s been sent up again, huh?”
Surprised, because this was very new news, Dortmunder said, “When’d you hear that?”
Arnie shut the door. “I didn’t. But when I see you coming to Arnie, I know Stoon’s outta business.”
“Oh, naw,” Dortmunder said.
“Don’t tell me, Dortmunder,” Arnie said, leading the way across the living room, if that’s the word. “If Stoon was out and about, up and around, coming and going, it’s him you’d go see in a minute, even though I pay better dollar.”
“Naw, Arnie,” Dortmunder said, following, wishing he didn’t have to spend so much time lying when he was with Arnie.
The Albright apartment had small rooms with big windows, all of them looking out past a black metal fire escape at a pano-ramic view of the brick rear wall of a parking garage maybe four feet away. For interior decoration, Arnie had hung a lot of his calendar collection around on the walls, all of these Januaries starting on all different days of the week, with numbers in black or red or, very occasionally, dark blue. Also, to break the monotony, there were the calendars that started in March or August, the ones Arnie called incompletes. (Being a serious collector, he was full of serious collector jargon.) The top halves of all these calendars were pictures, mostly photographs (fall foliage, kittens in baskets, the Eiffel Tower), except that the pictures of the girls bent way over to pump gas into a roadster were drawings. Excellent drawings in very bright colors, really artistic. Also, the religious pictures, mainly the Sermon on the Mount (perspective!), were drawings, but generally not as artistically interesting as the girls.
Arnie led the way through the decades to the table over by the parking garage view, saying, “So what have you got for me today? Huh? Not a piano, I bet, huh? Not a piano? Huh?”
It was amazing how quickly Arnie could become tiresome. “Some coins, Arnie,” Dortmunder said.
“Damn, you see?” Arnie said. “It didn’t work.” “It didn’t?”
“Just the other day,” Arnie said, his voice full of accusation, “I read this self-improvement thing, see, in some goddam magazine in the garbage, ‘Lighten Up, Asshole,’ something like that, it said, ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, piss and moan and you piss and moan alone.'”
I heard that,” Dortmunder allowed. “Something like that.
“Well, it’s bullshit,” Arnie said. “I just tried a joke there-“
“You did?” Dortmunder looked polite. “I’m sorry I missed it.”
“It’s my personality that’s wrong,” Arnie said. “It’s just who I am, that’s all. Somebody else could tell that joke, you’d be on the floor, you’d need CPR, the Heimlich Maneuver. But not me. I’m a pain in the ass, Dortmunder, and don’t argue with me about that.”
“I never argue with you, Arnie,” Dortmunder said.
“I get on people’s nerves,” Arnie insisted. He waggled a bony finger in Dortmunder’s face. “I make them sorry they ever met me,” he snarled. “It don’t matter what I do, I even put on perfume, would you believe it?”
“Well,” Dortmunder said cautiously, “you
“Different, yeah,” Arnie growled. “Not better, just different. I put on these
Dortmunder sniffed, not a lot. “It’s not that bad, Arnie,” he said, though it was.
“At least you lie to me,” Arnie said. “Most people, I’m so detestable, they can’t
Dortmunder sat by the open window, at the wooden chair by the table there, and it did help a little; the honest reek of old parking garage and soot helped to cut the cloying aromas of Arnie, who smelled mostly like a giant package of artificial sweetener gone bad.
On this old library table Arnie had long ago laid out a number of his less valuable incompletes, attaching them with a thick layer of clear plastic laminate. Dortmunder now took out his Zip-loc bag and emptied it in the middle of the table, onto a June where two barefoot, freckle-faced, straw-hatted lads were just arriving at the old fishin’ hole. “This is what I got,” he said.
Arnie’s dirty, stubby fingers brushed coins this way and that. “You been travelin’, Dortmunder?” he wanted to know. “Seein” the world?”
“Is that one of those jokes, Arnie?”
“I’m just askin’.”
“Arnie,” Dortmunder said, “the Roman Empire isn’t there anymore, you can’t visit, it’s been gone, I dunno, a hundred years, maybe. More.”
“Well, let’s see,” Arnie said, giving nothing away. From his rumpled clothing he withdrew a piece of old rye bread and a jeweler’s loupe. Putting the bread back where he’d found it, he tucked the loupe into his left eye and bent to study the coins, one at a time.
“They’re good,” Dortmunder assured him. “It’s a big sale of the stuff, at a hotel in midtown.”
“Mm,” Arnie said. He lifted one coin, and bit it with his back teeth.
“It isn’t an oreo, Arnie,” Dortmunder said.
“Mm,” Arnie said, and the doorbell rang.
Arnie lifted his head. For one horrible moment, the loupe stared straight at Dortmunder, like somebody looking out a door’s peephole without the door. Then Arnie put his left hand in front of himself on the table, palm up, lifted his left eyebrow, and the loupe fell into his palm. “There,” he said,
“I’m already here.”
“Lemme just see what this is.”
Never knowing when it might become necessary to remove oneself to a different location, Dortmunder scooped the ancient coins back into the Ziploc bag, and the bag back into his pocket, as Arnie crossed to the intercom grid near the door, pressed the button, and said, “WHAT?”
A voice, distorted by all the kinks in the intercom wires,
“WHO WANTS TO KNOW?”
“NEVER HEARDA YA.”
Arnie turned to cock a look at Dortmunder, who pushed his
chair back a bit from the table. The fire escape was a very comforting presence, just outside this open window.
“WHICH JOE? JERSEY JOE OR PHILLY JOE?”
Arnie reared back, releasing the button. He showed Dortmunder a gaze rich in wonder and confusion. “There really is an Altoona Joe,” he whispered.
“Never heard of him,” Dortmunder said.
“He’s inside, been in awhile. Petey Fonanta?”
“Never heard of him either.”
The doorbell rang. Arnie whirled back, stabbing the button: “HOLD ON!”
Arnie released the button and frowned at Dortmunder in an agony of indecision. “Now a partner,” he said.
“Let them in or not,” Dortmunder suggested.
“Why didn’t I thinka that?” Arnie turned to chop at the button: “WHADAYA HEAR FROM JOE?”
“He’s still in Allentown, another two three clicks.”
Button release; turn to Dortmunder. “And that’s true, too. I’m gonna let them in, Dortmunder. Don’t say a word.”
Dortmunder nodded, not saying a word.
“You’re my cousin from outta town.”
“No,” Dortmunder said. “I’m from the block association, I’m here to talk to you about a contribution.”
Arnie glowered. “Now you don’t even wanna be related to me.”
“It isn’t that, Arnie,” Dortmunder lied. “It’s, we don’t look that much alike.”
“Neither did Cain and Abel,” Arnie said and turned back to push the button once more: “COME ON UP.” He pushed the other button, and the buzz sound could be heard, faintly, from far away downstairs.
Dortmunder stood and pulled his chair around with its back to the wall, so it wasn’t exactly at the table anymore, but the fire escape was still extremely handy. Then he sat down again. Arnie opened the apartment door and stood there looking out and down the stairs. Feet could be heard. A normal human voice, without intercom distortion, said, “Arnie Albright?”
“I didn’t change in one flight a stairs,” Arnie said. “Come in.”
Two people came in, and it wasn’t hard at all to tell which one was Petey Fonanta. He was the non-woman. He was maybe 30, a little bulky, black-haired, blue-jawed, in chinos and thick shoes and a maroon vinyl jacket with a zipper. The woman was very similar to Petey, except her short hair was yellow, her jaw was white, and her vinyl jacket was robin’s-egg blue.
It wasn’t a total surprise that Petey Fonanta’s partner should be a woman. Crime has been a politically correct gender-blind equal-opportunity career for a long long time, much longer than fireperson or mailperson or even doctorperson. Bonnie Parker, Ma Barker, Leona Helmsley; the list goes on.
Petey and the woman stopped in the middle of the room and looked at Dortmunder, who got to his feet and smiled like he was just a stranger here, passing through. Arnie shut the door and came around his new guests to say, “So Altoona Joe sent you, huh?”
“Yeah,” Petey Fonanta said. He was still looking at Dortmunder.
“Altoona Joe can’t stand my guts,” Arnie remarked, and shrugged. “But neither can anybody else. And the same with you two.”
The woman said, “What? What’s the same with us two?”
“By the time you leave here,” Arnie told her, “you’ll be so disgusted, all you’ll want to do is punch Altoona Joe in the mouth, and there he is in the pen, safe. I’m surprised he didn’t warn you about me, paint you one a them word pictures? You owe him money or something?”
Petey Fonanta ignored all that, because he was still looking at Dortmunder, and now he said, out of the side of his mouth, “You didn’t introduce your friend.”
“Acquaintance,” Dortmunder said.
Arnie said, “That’s John-“
“Diddums,” Dortmunder said, in a hurry, not knowing what Arnie might have come out with.
Petey Fonanta frowned. The woman said, “Diddums?”
Arnie said, “John’s my cousin from outta town.”
“Once removed,” Dortmunder said, giving Arnie a dirty look.
Petey gestured at the woman: “This is my partner, Kate Murray. That’s all she is, we’re partners.”
“That’s right,” Kate Murray said. She looked and sounded determined. “Just partners, that’s it.”
“And Altoona Joe sent you,” Arnie said, looking thoughtful.
“He said, we come to town,” Petey answered, “we should look you up.”
“That’s some friend you got there,” Arnie said. “He sends you to
“Well, we got something you might want,” Petey said.
“Yeah,” Kate said.
“And what would that be?” Arnie asked.
Petey lowered his eyebrows in Dortmunder’s direction. “Can we talk in front of the cousin?”
“Why not?” Arnie asked. “He’s still my cousin, no matter how much he removes.”
Dortmunder said, “Blood is thicker than water.”
Petey considered that. “They both spill the same,” he said.
Kate said, “Petey, if it’s gonna go down, let’s do it.”
Petey shrugged. “Okay.” Turning at last away from Dortmunder and toward Arnie, he said, “What we got, we got television sets.”
Arnie did an elaborate act of looking all over Petey, up and down, his clothing and hair and everything, before he said, “They must be awful
That was the joke again, going by there. Dortmunder recognized it this time, but he still didn’t feel like laughing. And Petey just stood there and moved his shoulders like a guy overdo for a workout and said, “What?”
Arnie spread his hands at Dortmunder. “You see what I mean,” he said. Then, to Petey, he said, “Where are these television sets?”
“In the truck outside.”
Kate said, “You can have the truck, too.”
“For trucks I got no interest,” Arnie told her. “With the alternate side parking on this block, I wouldn’t even have a tricycle. You found a parking place, huh?”
“We’re double-parked out front,” Petey said. “Which is why we’d like to move this transaction a little.”
“Transaction,” Arnie said, tasting the word. “So you got a truck out there with some televisions.”
Kate said, “We got a extra-long semi with Ohio plates and four hundred television sets.”
Arnie stared at her. “Double-parked on 89th Street?”
Kate said, “Where else would you put it?”
“It’s not a question comes up a lot,” Arnie said.
Petey, sounding impatient, said, “Well? Are you up for this or not?”
“You come all this way,” Arnie told him, unruffled, “and you’re such a good friend of Altoona Joe, the least I can do is look at the goods. Okay?”
“Sure.” Petey nodded heavily at Arnie, and then nodded heavily at Kate, saying, “Stay with the cousin.”
Petey and Arnie left, and Dortmunder said to Kate, “Why not sit down?”
“All right,” she said, and sat on a lumpy brown sofa under a lot of January mountain ranges and waterfalls. Dortmunder took again his chair by the window, and she looked at him and said, “You here for a transaction, too?”
Transaction. Dortmunder said, “I’m here being a cousin, that’s all. Once removed.”
“You aren’t in the business?”
Dortmunder looked very interested. “What business?” he asked.
Conversation ceased after that, like a plant that’s never been watered, until Arnie and Petey returned, arguing about the potential value of four hundred Taiwanese television sets in a depressed economy. “I gotta make a phone call,” Arnie announced, “see can I get these things off my hands again, should it happen I put them
Arnie went into the other room, from where the faint murmur of his phone call could soon be heard. Petey sat on the sofa next to Kate and patted her knee, saying, “How’s it going?”
Petey looked at Dortmunder. He smiled, which Dortmunder didn’t believe at all, and said, “We interrupt you guys doin’ business?”
“No, just being cousins,” Dortmunder assured him.
“He’s a civilian,” Kate said.
Petey considered that, looking from Dortmunder to Kate and back. He seemed unconvinced, but didn’t say anything, and conversation again dropped into nothingness.
Arnie walked into the room and looked around at the three silent people seated there. “What is this?” he wanted to know. “Did I die? Is this my wake? I didn’t expect so many people.”
Petey never much liked anything that anybody ever said about anything. Glowering at Arnie, he said, “So? Do we have a deal or not?”
“We have a wait,” Arnie told him. “I hate to have to tell you this, but you’re gonna have to put up with my presence a little while longer. Until the guy calls me back.”
Kate, with a worried frown at her partner, said to Arnie, “How long?”
“Five minutes? Maybe ten minutes?”
Petey lifted his wrist to look at a watch the size of a pizza covered with black olives, and said, “Ten minutes. Then we’re outta here.”
Arnie said, “You want my cousin to drive the truck around while we wait?”
Petey gave him a look. “Do we look like we’re worried about a ticket?”
Kate said, “And nobody’s gonna
“You’re right, there,” Arnie said.
Funny how conversation kept dying. This group just didn’t have much to say to one another. Also, Petey was not a patient kind of person, in the normal way of things, which was becoming increasingly evident. About the fourth time he looked at the pizza on his wrist, Arnie said, “I could turn on the radio, you like, find some music, you two could dance.”
Petey glowered. “We’re just partners,” he said.
“Right, right, I forgot.”
Dortmunder got to his feet, as though casual. “Well, cuz,” he said to Arnie, “maybe I’ll go back outta town.”
Petey switched his glower to Dortmunder. “Why don’t you stick around instead?” he said.
“Yeah, Door-Diddums,” Arnie said. “Stick around.”
Although Dortmunder did say, “I don’t see why-” nobody heard him because at that moment a whole
Petey and Kate stared at one another wide-eyed. Dortmunder stared at the fire escape; if Arnie could only stall the cops for thirty or forty seconds . . .
Arnie strode briskly to the apartment door and flung it open. “Took you guys long enough,” he said.
Dortmunder and Petey and Kate all reacted to that remark, staring open-mouthed at Arnie as the room filled up with uniforms. There then followed a great deal of noise and confusion, during which Dortmunder and Petey and Kate found themselves standing in a row against a wall of Januaries-baseball players, old cars, chrome-covered diners-while a number of fierce-looking cops pinned them there with gimlet glares.
When at last there was comparative silence, except for everybody’s heavy breathing, a plainclothesman came in through the open door and pointed his lumpy forehead at Arnie to say, “Arnie, what the hell are you up to?”
“Nothing, Lieutenant,” Arnie said, “as you well know. I’m retired, and reformed, and off the fence.”
“Crap,” the lieutenant said, and sniffed. “What stinks in here?”
“Me,” Arnie said. “As usual.”
“Worse than usual, Arnie.” The lieutenant’s forehead considered Dortmunder and Petey and Kate. “What’s with this unlovely crowd?”
“What I told you on the phone,” Arnie reminded him. “Them two tried to sell me stolen TV sets.”
Petey said, “We never said they were stolen.”
“Sharrap,” the lieutenant told Petey. To Arnie, he said, “These three, huh?”
The lieutenant’s forehead expressed all sorts of disbelief. “This isn’t a crook?”
“Absolutely not,” Arnie said. “I’m the black sheep of the family, Lieutenant. John there, he’s my inspiration for honesty. He runs the family grocery store in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania.”
The lieutenant frowned at Dortmunder. “Where the hell is Shickshinny?”
“Pennsylvania,” Dortmunder said, being in no mood to contradict Arnie.
The lieutenant thought things over. He said, “Arnie? You’ll come downtown, make a statement?”
“Naturally,” Arnie said. “I told you, I’m the straight goods now.”
“Will wonders never cease.” To his armed forces, the lieutenant said, “Take those two, leave that one.”
Kate cried out, “This is a
“Shut up, Kate,” Petey said, and Kate shut up. But she fumed, as she and Petey were taken away by all the uniforms, followed by the lieutenant, who closed the door.
Dortmunder dropped into the chair by the window like something that had fallen out of an airplane. Arnie came over to sit across the table and say, “Quick, lemme see those coins. We don’t got a whole lotta time.”
Wondering, handing over the Ziploc bag, Dortmunder said, “Arnie? Why’d you turn those two in?”
“You kidding?” Loupe in eye, Arnie studied coins. “They were cops. Undercover. Entrapment, like they like to do. That’s probably what got your pal Stoon.”
“Cops? Are you sure?”
The loupe looked at Dortmunder; still an uncomfortable event. “What’s the first thing they said when they come in? ‘We’re just partners.” Dortmunder? Were they just partners?”
“He put his hand on her knee, while you were out on the phone.”
“They do the four-hand aerobics, am I right?”
“If two regular, honest crooks walk in here,” Arnie said, “and they’re a guy and a broad, what do they care what we think about whether they’re schtuppin’ or not, am I right?”
“But an undercover cop,” Arnie said, studying coins again, “when he’s out on the job, he’ll pretend to be a druggie, a burglar, a murderer, a spy, any goddam thing. He’ll say he’s anything at all, because everybody that matters knows he really isn’t. But the one thing he can’t say is he’s getting it on with his partner, because when
“You had me very worried, Arnie,” Dortmunder said. “I probably didn’t show it, but I was really very worried.”
“They won’t uncover themselves until they get downtown,” Arnie said, “so we got a little time. Not much.”
“Really very worried,” Dortmunder said.
“I may be ugly, stupid, bad-smelling, antisocial, friendless and a creep,” Arnie said, “but I don’t get entrapped by officer Petey and officer Kate. I tell you what I’ll do with these coins.”
From his pocket Arnie took the piece of rye bread and a set of truck keys. The keys he dropped on a January of a boy carrying his girlfriend’s books home from school down a country lane, and the bread he started to eat. “I palmed those when we went down to look at the goods,” he said, around the stale bread. “I got no use for trucks
“I know him.”
“An even swap,” Arnie said. “I’ll take the coins, you take the truck and the TVs.”
Dortmunder scooped in the keys and got to his feet. “Better give me the Ziploc bag, Arnie,” he said.
“To carry the loot in.”
Arnie gaped at him, bread an unlovely mass in his mouth. “The TVs and the truck? In a Ziploc bag?”
Dortmunder smiled upon him.