A small South American republic has decided to capitalize on its national symbol: a prized gold statue of a dancing Aztec priest. The president asks a sculptor to make sixteen copies of it for sale abroad. The sculptor replaces the original with one of his fakes, and ships the real one to New York City for an under-the-table sale to a museum. The statues travel to America spread out among five crates, labeled to ensure that delivery goes as planned. But it doesn’t work. Asked to pick up the crate marked “E” at the airport, delivery man Jerry Manelli, confused by his client’s Spanish accent, takes crate “A” instead. The statue disappears into the city, leading him on a baffling chase, which—if he comes up with the wrong Aztec—could cost him his life.
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About the Author
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950s, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and a ruthless criminal named Parker. His writing earned him three Edgars and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
Read an Excerpt
By Donald E. Westlake
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Donald E. Westlake
All rights reserved.
Everybody in New York City is looking for something. Men are looking for women and women are looking for men. Down at the Trucks, men are looking for men, while at Barbara's and at the Lib women are looking for women. Lawyers' wives in front of Lord & Taylor are looking for taxis, and lawyers' wives' husbands down on Pine Street are looking for loopholes. The hookers in front of the Americana Hotel are looking for johns, and the kids opening cab doors in front of the Port Authority bus terminal are looking for tips. So are the riders on the Aqueduct Special. So are the cabbies, the bellboys, the waiters, and the undercover narcs.
Recent graduates are looking for a job. Men in ties are looking for a better position. Men in suede jackets are looking for an opportunity. Women in severe tailoring are looking for an equal opportunity. Men in alligator belts are looking for a gimmick. Men with frayed cuffs are looking for ten bucks till Wednesday. Union men are looking for increased benefits and a nice detached house in New Hyde Park.
Nice boys from Fordham are looking for girls. Rock groups from St. Louis staying at the Chelsea are looking for gash. Male and female junior executives along Third Avenue are looking for a meaningful relationship. Bronx blacks in Washington Square Park are looking for white meat. Short-sleeved beer drinkers in Columbus Avenue bars are looking for trouble.
The Parks Department is looking for trees to cut down and turn into firewood for local politicians. Residents of the neighborhood are looking for politicians who will stop the Parks Department from cutting down all those trees. Fat chance.
Bowery bums with filthy rags in their hands are looking for a windshield to wipe. Cars with Florida plates are looking for the West Side Highway. Cars with MD plates are looking for a parking space. United Parcel trucks are looking for a double-parking space. Junkies are looking for cars with NYP plates because reporters sometimes leave cameras in their glove compartments.
The girls in the massage parlors are looking for a twenty-five dollar swell. The Wednesday afternoon ladies from the suburbs are looking for a nice time at the matinée, followed by cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf. Tourists are looking for a place to sit down, con men are looking for tourists, cops are looking for con men.
Old men on benches along upper Broadway are looking for a little sun. Old ladies in Army boots are looking for God-knows-what in trash cans on Sixth Avenue. Couples strolling hand-in-hand in Central Park are looking for a nature experience. Teen-age gangs from Harlem are in Central Park looking for bicycles.
Picketing welfare mothers on West 55th Street are looking for Rockefeller, but he's never there.
At the UN they're looking for simultaneous translation. On Broadway they're looking for a hit. At Black Rock they're looking for the trend. At Lincoln Center they're looking for a respectable meaning.
Almost everybody in the subway is looking for a fight. Almost everybody on the 5:09 to Speonk is looking for the bar car. Almost everybody on the East Side is looking for status, while almost everybody on the West Side is looking for a diet that really works.
Everybody in New York is looking for something. Every once in a while, somebody finds it.
IN THE BEGINNING ...
Jerry Manelli was looking for a box marked A.
It was a pleasant sunny Monday afternoon in June, and the big metal birds out at Kennedy Airport roared and soared, while Jerry drove his white Ford Econoline van through the cargo areas toward Southern Air Freight. On the shiny white sides of the van blue letters read Inter-Air Forwarding, with an address and phone number in Queens. White letters I-A were on his blue baseball cap, and his name in script—Jerry—was sewn on the left breast pocket of his white coveralls. He steered the van around mountains of mail sacks, stacks of cartons, cartfuls of luggage, and he whistled as he worked.
Approaching Southern Air Freight's terminal, where the plane from Caracas had just been off-loaded, Jerry saw that a brand new gray-uniformed security guard was on duty here. A stranger. Jerry took one look at him, put on his aviator's sunglasses, and reached for his clipboard. Braking to a stop on the tarmac, he hopped out wife the clipboard in his hand and the sunglasses sparkling in the light, and gave the new guard a big cheerful grin, saying, "Hi You're new around here."
The guard, a tall black man with a bushy mustache and a suspicious manner, said, "They transferred me out from the city. They been too much pilferin' out here."
"Jerry's the name," Jerry said, still grinning, and he jabbed a thumb at the name sewn over his heart.
"Hiram," said the guard. "You work around here, huh?"
"Internal cargo shipment."
The guard nodded as though he understood something. "Ah," he said.
Jerry consulted his clipboard. "Got a pickup here. One wooden box from Caracas, Venezuela."
"We got a whole mountain of wooden boxes," the guard said, "just come in from South America somewheres."
"Lead me to them," Jerry said.
Last night's phone call had come in just after the eleven o'clock news. The voice had been heavily accented, very Spanish sounding: "There weel be five wooden boxes. You want thee one marked with an A. You onnerstand?"
"Sure," Jerry had said. "Marked with an A."
"You weel make deleevery at midnight, in thee Port Authority bus terminal parking garage, top level, southeast corner. You onnerstand?"
"Port of Authority? You mean in Manhattan?"
"Ees something wrong?"
Jerry had shrugged, saying, "No, that's okay. Port of Authority bus terminal parking garage, top level, southeast corner, midnight."
"Weeth a box marked A."
So here he was, the next afternoon, following the new guard Hiram through the piles of cargo to a stack of five wooden crates, each about the size of a case of whiskey, and all addressed to:
Bud Beemiss Enterprises
29 West 45th St.
New York, N.Y.
Each crate was marked with a stenciled letter, A through E, a different letter on each crate. The one marked A was at the bottom of the stack.
"Wouldn't you know it," Jerry said, and kicked the right crate. "That's the one I want."
"Always works that way," the guard agreed.
Jerry put his clipboard on another pile of crates. "Give me a hand, will you, Hiram?"
Hiram gave him a hand, and pretty soon the box marked A—which fortunately wasn't very heavy—was stowed in the back of the van with the sack of registered mail from Northwest Orient (cash, stocks, maybe jewelry) and the package from Seaboard addressed to a dental supply house (possibly gold), and Jerry was saying, "Thanks a lot. See you around, Hiram."
"Have a nice day," Hiram said.
PRIOR TO WHICH ...
Until he'd come up with the idea of Inter-Air Forwarding, Jerry Manelli had mostly just lived along from hustle to hustle, starting when he'd dropped out of high school at sixteen and went to work for the numbers people, running their paper. When he saw how profitable that game was, he started carrying some of the action himself. That is, he'd only turn in three quarters of the tickets and cash he'd received, keeping the rest for his own benefit. If any of those players ever hit he'd have to pay their winnings out of his own pocket, but that never happened once. A very nice hustle.
But a little scary, considering who his bosses were. So after a while he quit that and lived on the profits until it was time to hustle again. Then he connected for a while with his brother-in-law Frank McCann's brother Floyd, who was with a construction crew, and the two of them spent a couple evenings a week loading a Hertz truck with concrete blocks or brick from the work site and driving them out to Patchogue on Long Island, where some Irishman friend of Floyd's named Flattery had his own construction company and liked to buy his materials at a discount. But after Floyd nearly got caught one time, Jerry retired again, and when no new hustle came along he went to work in a body shop where the boss was hustling the customers so hard there wasn't any leverage left over.
Shortly after that. Jerry hooked up with an old friend from high school named Danny Kolabian who had just been fired by a vending machine company, and the two of them put together a very nice hustle, except it only worked a couple weeks. What they did, on Monday morning Jerry and Danny went to the vending machine company's warehouse, using a key the company didn't know Danny had, and they put one of the jukeboxes from the warehouse into a company truck. They crossed the wires to start the truck, and then drove to fourteen different bars that were customers of the vending machine company, and in every bar they said, "We're here to switch the jukeboxes." The Monday bartenders didn't know any different, so at each place Jerry and Danny carried in the machine from the truck, switched it with the jukebox already in the bar, and on the way to the next place they'd rifle the machine's coin box for the weekend's take. They made eleven hundred dollars the first Monday and thirteen fifty the second Monday, but the third Monday four guys were waiting in the vending machine warehouse with autographed baseball bats. Jerry had good legs and good wind so he got away, but Danny was hit twice and recognized once and had to leave town, and was now either somewhere on the West Coast or buried over in New Jersey.
For the next several years life went on like that, from hustle to hustle, until two years ago, when Inter-Air Forwarding had come along, since when Jerry had become almost respectable, a successful private businessman with his own truck and his own route.
The idea had been one of those sudden strokes of genius. Jerry's sister Angela and her husband Mel Bernstein had taken a vacation in Israel, and it was Jerry who'd picked them up at Kennedy on their return to the States. But there was a delay because of a bomb scare—the Arabs again playing the fool—and Jerry had to hang around the airport for an hour and forty-five minutes. Mostly he just sat near the big windows and stared out at the airplanes, until he began to notice all the little trucks. Blue trucks, red trucks, yellow trucks, white trucks, zipping and zapping among the planes, skittering around like ants dressed up for Mardi Gras. Some had airline names on their sides, but others had obscure company names or no name at all. Now and again, one of the trucks would stop near a pile of boxes or canvas mail-bags, and the driver would hop out and toss a couple things into his truck, and off he'd go again. Jerry watched that several times, and gradually his boredom changed to interest. "Hmmnmmmm," he said, and leaned forward in his seat.
When Mel and Angela finally got off their plane and through Customs—Angela had stashed her new gold bracelet where Customs was very unlikely to find it—Jerry tried to talk to Mel. "Comere," he said. "Take a look at all those trucks."
"I've got a headache, Jerry," Mel said. "I've been on that plane a month."
"Just take a minute," Jerry told him. "Look at those trucks."
Mel said, "You've heard of jet lag?"
Angela said, "Jerry, talk to us tomorrow, okay?"
But Jerry had been sitting there alone a long time. "What if," he said, "what if you had one of those trucks yourself? You go from terminal to terminal, you pick up whatever looks good."
Angela wasn't listening. "Come on, Jerry," she said.
But Mel had listened, even with his jet lag, and now he frowned at Jerry, frowned out at the trucks, thought it over, and then shook his head. "No," he said.
"No? Why not?"
"It isn't that easy," Mel said. "It can't be."
"I'm going home," Angela said.
Jet lag makes people irritable. Mel said, "Forget it, Jerry, will you? They've got security."
"The hell they do," Jerry said, and that ended the conversation for then, because Angela was walking out of the terminal. But that Saturday when they were all having a beer-and-hot-dog picnic in Frank and Teresa McCann's backyard Mel himself brought it up once more, and the result was Inter-Air Forwarding, with all the families chipping in to buy the van. There were Jerry, and his brother-in-law Mel, and his other brother-in-law Frank McCann, and Frank's brother Floyd. As originator of the idea and driver of the truck, Jerry took 50 percent of the profits, with 15 percent to each of the others and an honorary 5 percent for Jerry's parents, who were retired now and trying to live on a fixed income.
It isn't true that airports have no security at all; an honest citizen can hardly get into the men's room without a luggage search and a body frisk. But airport security is meant mostly to impress honest citizens and insurance companies, and secondarily to catch hijackers and other crazies. There is no security against a man with his own truck and his own clipboard, and Inter-Air Forwarding was a safe, reliable financial success from the beginning.
At first the partnership worked only with items picked up from the cargo areas and value rooms out at JFK, but the process of fencing the merchandise put them in contact with customers who had another use for Inter-Air. These were people who would pay to have specific items collected before they went through Customs. The occasional anonymous request would come to Jerry by phone, he would make the pickup and delivery, he would collect his fee, and there was never any trouble.
Until the box marked A.
THAT NIGHT ...
In a place called the Gateway Garden on Queens Boulevard, Jerry was dancing the Hustle with a girl named Myrna. "Tough," Myrna said. "Very tough."
Jerry grinned. He liked to dance, and he liked Myrna. "We're here to satisfy," he said, and spun her left and then right and then out at arm's length.
Back again, torso to torso, with the record of "Love to Love You, Baby" by Donna Summer booming from the speakers, they dipped and weaved through the other dancers, and Myrna spoke close to Jerry's ear: "I got a bottle of Lancer's rosé in the refrigerator. You ever try that?"
"It's pink and it sparkles," Jerry said. "Just like you."
Myrna grinned, not exactly like a little girl. "You wanna drink me, Jerry?"
"You're close," Jerry told her.
"Come on to my place later," Myrna said. "The kid's with her grandmother."
"I got a thing to do in the city," Jerry said. "Maybe after that, like around one o'clock."
"Manhattan? This hour of the night?"
"A guy I got to see." They dipped together, moving with the music, and Jerry grinned at her, saying, "After that, we'll drink a little, eat a little. Have some nice rosé."
"Nice," said Myrna. "Very tough."
Jerry had found himself married one time, seven years ago when he was. twenty-two, but the marriage had only lasted four months before he'd realized it was her hustle. "I'm not the Welfare Department," he'd told her, and that was that. Now he had the life he wanted. The attic of his parents' house in Bayside had been converted into an apartment for him, with an outside staircase for privacy. He had a good income from Inter-Air Forwarding, he had a nice place to live, he had a good wardrobe, and most nights he was out dancing with girls like Myrna. What more could anybody want?
The record ended. "You have good moves, girl," Jerry said.
"Very very," she said. "There's a guy over there waving at you."
"Yeah?" Jerry looked at Mel, over by the entrance. "Time to go. See you later."
"Who is that guy?"
"Yeah? He looks Jewish."
Jerry laughed. "What do I look?"
"You look terrific," she said. "I'll put a couple glasses in the freezer. It's nice when they get that frosting on them."
"Don't you get any frosting on you" Jerry said, and patted her hip, and the next record started: "You Sexy Thing," by Hot Chocolate.
Jerry walked over to Mel, who looked past him, saying, "That's a great-looking girl."
"She thought you looked good, too," Jerry said.
"Yeah?" Mel tugged at his shirt buttons, staring across the room.
Jerry said, "Your wife is my sister."
"I can look," Mel said. "Come on."
Mel's station wagon was outside, with the box marked A in the back. Mel drove, and Jerry sat there humming Hustle tunes to himself while he looked out at Queens Boulevard, wide and dull, flanked by red-brick boxes. Mel said, "What's her name?"
Excerpted from Dancing Aztecs by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1976 Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Westlake knows precisely how to grab a reader, draw him or her into the story, and then slowly tighten his grip until escape is impossible." --The Washington Post Book World
"Westlake has no peer in the realm of comic mystery novelists." --San Francisco Chronicle