J. Eugene Raxford is not what anyone would call a debonair man of action. He has no class, no skills, and all the physical prowess of a napping tree sloth. James Bond would think twice before letting him park the Aston Martin.
Though he is a devoted pacifist, Raxford is also—thanks to a tragically consequential typo—the supposed leader of a half-baked and violent radical organization. That’s why the FBI wants him to go undercover and spy on the consortium of real-life terrorists and deadly assassins.
Now, with the help of his girlfriend—who is even more clueless than he—Raxford is about to enter a realm of danger and deception unlike any he has ever imagined. And the safety of the entire world depends on his every move.
“If the suspense doesn’t kill you, the laughter will.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Inventive . . . Wholly delightful.” —The New York Times
“No writer can excel Donald E. Westlake . . . but he has excelled himself . . . If you miss it, you’ll regret it.” —Los Angeles Times
Praise for Donald E. Westlake
“Westlake has no peer in the realm of comic mystery novelists.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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About the Author
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.
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.
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I was trying to fix the damn mimeograph machine when the doorbell rang. It wasn't the crank this time — usually it's the crank, falling off or disengaging or whatever — but something in the inking process. (Oh! Did you think I meant the man at the door wasn't a crank? No no, I meant the machine. People at doors are always cranks. In fact, people everywhere are always cranks, one way and another, if you stop to think about it. Aren't they?) At any rate, the machine wouldn't ink. I'd crank and crank, and into the chute would slide an endless stream of blank paper. (Of course, for all the effect I've had over the years, I might as well have been rolling out blank paper from the beginning.)
But never mind that, that's neither here nor there. (The main obstacle to my effectiveness, I've always felt, has been this uncontrollable tendency of mine to go off on tangents, stray from the subject, lose — as Christopher Fry puts it — eternity in the passing moment. [Minute? Moment? (There! See what I mean?)]) The point here is the doorbell, and who rang it.
I left my labors on the machine with a kind of angry gratitude, and stomped through the apartment to the front door, which I flung open with no premonition of surprise. My potential visitors were few: a Member, a process server or bill collector, a man from the FBI (or some other government agency), or a cop.
None of which this caller appeared to be. He wasn't a Member; there are only seventeen of us now, and I know each of my fellow conspirators very well. Nor was he a process server or bill collector, as he lacked the weasel-face endemic to those professions. He was neither as lean as an FBI man nor as flabby as a cop, nor as tall as either. Which made him something altogether different and new.
I gave him the attention that something altogether different and new deserves. I observed that he was of middle age and medium height, quite stocky in a well-fed yet physically fit way, and that he was by far the best-dressed person to have entered this apartment building in half a century. He was, in fact, just a trifle too well dressed; his topcoat was tailored and tapered, and sported a velvet collar. His black shoes gleamed like wet asphalt and featured toes as pointed as the pamphlet I'd been trying to run off. A white silk scarf covered his collar and tie, leaving me for the moment to wonder whether the collar could possibly be anything but wing. In his left hand — from the third finger of which winked at me a large faceted ruby — he held a pair of black suède gloves.
The face above all this Edwardian elegance did not fail to live up to the goods. Round and somewhat fleshy, it bore a glow of sunlight and good health. A neat, discreet, narrow black goatee set off the dark lips, creased now in a somewhat ironic smile which displayed beautifully white teeth. His deep, black, Italianate eyes, set beneath arched black brows and above an aquiline and extremely aristocratic nose, glinted with an intelligence and a humor that even then I sensed to be diabolic. (At least, I think I remember sensing that, and if I didn't I should have.)
My visitor said to me, in a rich, controlled, radio announcer's voice, "Mr. Raxford? Mr. J. Eugene Raxford?"
"That's me," I said.
"Ah! You yourself!" Surprise and delight animated his features.
"Me myself," I said. The mimeograph had made me somewhat surly.
"Allow me," he said ingratiatingly, not at all put off by my manner, and handed me a small white card. I took it, immediately getting ink all over it. (The damnable machine inked me just fine; it was only paper it refused to touch.)
Well. Back. The card read:
Mortimer Eustaly Curios Import & Export
I said, "By appointment of who? Whom."
"I beg your pardon?"
I showed him the card, which could still be more or less read through the fresh ink. "It says," I said, "by appointment." By whose appointment?"
His deep frown was all at once replaced by a deep laugh, full of apparently honest enjoyment. "Oh, I seel You mean, 'By appointment, purveyors of this and that to His Majesty Thusandso, or Her Serene Highness Hows your uncle.' But that's not what that means at all. I'm not a jar of marmalade!"
In a way, that's exactly what he was, with his velvet collar and pointy shoes and all, but I bit my tongue.
"It means," Eustaly meantime went on, "quite simply, it means I see my customers by appointment."
"Oh." I looked at the card again and said, "But there's no address or phone number. How do people make appointments?"
"My dear young man," he said inaccurately, "I really can't explain in the hall."
"Oh. I'm sorry, come on in. Excuse the mess." And I stepped back with an inky flourish and bowed him in.
He gave my living room the glassy smile it deserved, but made no comment. Instead, once I'd closed the door, he returned promptly to the subject. (I wish I could be like that.) "Customers," he said, "don't make appointments. The whole thing is —" Then he looked around, as though made wary by a sudden thought, and asked, "Is it safe to talk here?"
"Well, sure," I said. "Why not?"
"The place isn't ... bugged?"
"Well, we have an exterminator come once a month, but in a neighborhood like this you can't expect —"
"No no! I mean microphones, listening devices."
"Oh, those! Oh, sure, we've got lots of those. In the light switches, mostly, and here and there. But they don't work any more."
"Are you sure? You've deactivated every one?"
"Well, most of them, rats ate the wiring. The one in the toilet tank rusted — I think they must have used the wrong kind or something — and I spilled evaporated milk on the one in the refrigerator. Then I used to have two table lamps there, on either side of the couch, and the FBI switched them for two others that looked like them only with microphones inside, and one of the times I was burgled they went, so for about a year and a half now I haven't been listened to at all. Except on the phone, of course. Why?"
"What I have to say," he said, "is private, confidential, secret. For your ears only." He leaned closer to me. "There is no address on that card," he said, "nor is there a telephone number thereon, because there are no customers. The whole operation is a front, a cover."
"What whole operation?"
"Aaaahhhhhh. A front for what?"
"Mr. Raxford," he said, "the answer to that is the explanation for my presence here. If you —"
"I'm sorry," I said, "I never asked you to sit down. Do sit down, please. No, not on the sofa; it sheds. This chair's about the best I have. Would you like a can of beer?"
"No. Thank you." He seemed just slightly irritated at the interruption. "If," he said, "we could get on ..."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry, I'll pay attention now." I pulled an old kitchen chair over and sat facing the cane basket chair in which I'd placed Mr. Eustaly. "Now," I said.
"Thank you," he said, apparently mollified. Then, in deeper tones, he said, "I am speaking to you now not as J. Eugene Raxford, bachelor, thirty-two years of age, average annual income since you were ejected from City College two thousand three hundred twelve dollars per annum, solitary individual in" — he glanced eloquently around the room — "in somewhat reduced circumstances. No! That J. Eugene Raxford has no importance, is nothing and less than nothing."
Well. I'd thought and voiced and even written exactly the same sentiment myself more than once the last thirteen years, but hearing it spoken directly to my face by a total stranger was something else again. Besides, where did he come off knowing so much about me? He wasn't the FBI. I said, "Well —"
But he had other plans for the conversation. "The J. Eugene Raxford I am concerned with," he went grandly on, brooking no interruption, "is National Chairman of the Citizens' Independence Union! May he prosper, may he persevere, may he see his dreams come true!"
It suddenly occurred to me this bird was a uniform salesman. You get that sort of thing when you run a radical movement: people wanting to sell you uniforms. Army surplus weapons, blank signs. They never believe I'm not rolling in Moscow gold. My reaction, therefore, was somewhat cool to Mr. Eustaly's rhapsodic mention of the organization. I said, in fact, "What about it?"
"Mr. Raxford," he said, leaning forward and pointing a tapered clean finger at me, "have you ever heard of the American Sons' Militia?"
"The National Fascist Reclamation Commission?"
"The Progressive Proletarian Party?"
"The Brotherhood of Christ Defense Fund?"
"The Sons of Erin Expeditionary Force?"
"The Householders' Separatist Movement?"
"The Pan-Arabian World Freedom Society?"
"The Eurasian Relief Corps?"
"The Gentile Mothers for Peace?"
"The True Zion Rescue Mission?"
I shook my head.
He smiled at me. He sat back; the cane chair creaked. He opened his topcoat, flipped his scarf ends to left and right, and displayed a shirt front as gleaming white as Mount Snow on a sunny day. An olive-green bow tie surmounted it all, as though marking timber line. The collar was not at all wing; in fact, it was button-down.
"Mr. Raxford," he said softly, smiling the while, "your Citizens' Independence Union has one characteristic in common with each of the organizations I just mentioned to you." I was a little worried as to what he might say next —'They're all nut groups,' for instance — but I gave him the straight line anyway. "What's that?" I asked.
"Method," he said. His smile broadened. "Each of these eleven organizations — yours and the other ten — has its own separate, and perhaps even contradictory, program and goal. The goals are disparate, and in some cases directly opposed one to the other, but the means of attaining the goal is identical in every case. Each of the groups I have mentioned is a — terrorist organization!"
"Each of these organizations," he informed me, "believes in direct and dramatic methods. Bombs! Bloodshed! Burning! Destruction! Terror!" As he called out each word, his eyes glittered, his goatee grew sharper, his hands gesticulated.
"Now wait a second," I said, edging the chair backward, "just a second there, just a second."
"Violence!" declared Eustaly, relishing the word. "Before the new order can be introduced, the old order must be destroyed! That is the common bond among these eleven organizations!"
"Now wait," I said, getting to my feet and going around behind the chair, "you've got me wrong there, my friend. I don't want to destroy anything, except maybe that mimeograph ma —"
"Oh, of course, of course!" he cried, laughing, slapping his knees, giving me broad winks. "You can't be too careful, I realize that. What if I were an FBI agent in disguise, eh? And you made damaging admissions to me. What of that? No, you're very right to deny everything."
"Here," I said. "Wait a minute, just let me get —" I hurried over to the table by the window, riffled through the pamphlets there, and finally came up with a fairly neat-looking copy of the one I wanted: What Is the CIU? I rushed back with this and offered it to him. "Just read this," I said, "you'll see we're not at all —"
He brushed it aside, still twinkling and smirking and winking to beat the band, and said, "Really, Mr. Raxford, this isn't necessary! Let us just accept your protests as stated, and go on from there. You deny any terrorist motivation, any destructive desire. Excellent. Denial acknowledged. Now, if I may be permitted to continue ..."
"Mr. Eustaly, I really don't think —"
"But it is not at all necessary, I assure you. Please! Allow me to continue."
I considered. Throw him out? Ignore him? Continue to argue with him? But he hadn't denied any terrorist motivation or destructive desire. If Mr. Eustaly were, after all, some kind of nut — as it was seeming more and more certain he was — my best move would be to humor him.
Besides, it was a distraction from the mimeograph, than which anything was better, even a nut in a velvet collar. So I sat down again, crossed my legs, laced my fingers, rested my inky hands on my inky trouser knee — oh, I tell you, that mimeograph entertained terrorist motivations of its own — and said, "All right, Mr. Eustaly. I'll listen."
His smirk now was knowing. "Of course you will," he said slyly. "Of course you will." He raised one finger. "Now," he said. "I told you these organizations I mentioned had one thing in common, but that statement was more dramatic than true. Actually, you all have many things in common, much more than you might initially suppose. You are, for instance, all relatively small and obscure. You are all short of funds. Each of you is located, either entirely or primarily, in the Greater New York area."
He paused, but I knew it was only for effect, and though I was prepared to humor him I was not prepared to make unnecessary surprised noises for him, so I sat and swung my inky leg and waited for him to get on with it.
Which, at length, he did. "Now," he said. "I have pointed out that although the ultimate goals of these eleven organizations vary, their immediate goal is identical. That is, destruction. And I offer you, Mr. Raxford, this suggestion: That these eleven organizations could surely wreak far more havoc were they to co-operate with one another, act in concert and according to an overall plan, than they could possibly do if each continued its own way, separate and alone." He cocked his head, closed one eye, and said, "N'est-ce pas?"
"Well," I said, "it certainly does sound sensible, I'll admit that."
"Then you're interested."
He smiled genially, and fluttered his fingers at me. "Ah, Mr. Raxford, you're a careful man, I can see that. But I am not asking you to commit yourself now; of course you will have to be sure I really can deliver this, this coalition." He smiled at the word. "I am," he went on, "arranging a meeting for this evening at midnight at the Odd Fellows' Hall, Broadway and 88th Street, here in Manhattan. The full details of the plan will be outlined at that time, and the leaders of the organizations will have an opportunity to become acquainted."
Guardedly, I said, "What if I don't show up?"
He smiled at me in a Mediterranean manner. "Then that will tell me you have made your decision. Agreed?"
Anything to get rid of him. "Agreed," I said.
"Excellent." He rose, adjusting his scarf and buttoning his topcoat. "The password," he said, "will be greensleeves." The Mediterranean smile warmed me again. "It has been most enjoyable meeting you at last, Mr. Raxford. I have followed your career with a good deal of interest."
"Thank you," I said, knowing he was an out-and-out liar. If he'd so much as known my name more than two or three days I'd be mightily surprised.
He now offered to shake hands, but I showed him the state of my palm and he gave me a final smile instead and elegantly bowed himself out. "Auf wiedersehen," he said, as he stepped out to the hall.
"Vaya con Dios," I suggested, and shut the door.
I still carried the pamphlet, What Is the CIU?, now a bit the inkier for wear. If my late visitor had taken the time to open it and read it, he would have learned several things about the Citizens' Independence Union, first and foremost of which being that we are anything but a terrorist organization. In point of fact, we are a pacifist organization, begun in the early fifties by a group of undergraduates at City College of New York, in protest against the drafting of students for Army duty in the Korean War. The organization had a distinctly pacifist bent to begin with, and when the Korean War ended, bringing to a close the immediate purpose of the group, we militant pacifists within it took over the reins, and general pacifist activity became our sole concern. We join Peace Marches, distribute leaflets, picket visiting dignitaries, write letters of warning to newspapers and magazines, challenge political candidates to debates, etc., etc.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Spy in the Ointment"
Copyright © 1966 Donald E. Westlake.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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