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By Donald E. Westlake
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Donald E. Westlake
All right reserved.
Chapter OneASK A SILLY QUESTION
ART THEFT, OF COURSE," SAID THE ELEGANT MAN, "HAS BEEN overdone. By now it's thoroughly boring."
Dortmunder didn't say anything. His business was theft, of art or whatever else had value, and he'd never supposed it was meant to be exciting. Nor, while tiptoeing around darkened halls in guarded buildings with his pockets full of stolen goods, had he ever found boredom much of a problem.
The elegant man sighed. "What do people of your sort drink?" he asked.
"Bourbon," Dortmunder said. "Water. Coca-Cola. Orange juice. Beer."
"Bourbon," the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who'd brought Dortmunder here. "And sherry for me." "Coffee," Dortmunder went on. "Sometimes Gallo Burgundy. Vodka. Seven-Up. Milk."
"How do you prefer your bourbon?" the elegant man asked. "With ice and water. People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil-"
"Do you drink Perrier?" "No," said Dortmunder.
"Ah," said the elegant man, closing the subject with his preconceptions intact. "Now," he said, "I suppose you're wondering why we all gathered you here."
"I got an appointment uptown," Dortmunder answered. He was feeling mulish. When a simple walk to the subway turns into an incident with two plug-uglies, a gun in the back, a shoving into a limousine outfitted with liveried chauffeur beyond the closed glass partition, a run up the stocking of Manhattan to the East Sixties, a swallowing up into a town house with a garage with an electronically operated door, and an interview at gunpoint with a tall, slender, painfully well-dressed, 60ish, white-haired, white-mustached elegant man in a beautifully appointed and very masculine den imported intact from Bloomingdale's, a person has a right to feel mulish. "I'm already late for my appointment," Dortmunder pointed out.
"I'll try to be brief," the elegant man promised. "My father- who, by the way, was once Secretary of the Treasury of this great land, under Teddy Roosevelt-always impressed upon me the wisdom of obtaining expert advice before undertaking any project, of whatever size or scope. I have always followed that injunction." "Uh-huh," said Dortmunder.
"The exigencies of life having made it necessary for me," the elegant man continued, "to engage for once in the practice of grand larceny, in the form of burglary, I immediately sought out a professional in the field to advise me. You."
"I reformed," Dortmunder said. "I made some mistakes in my youth, but I paid my debt to society and now I'm reformed." "Of course," said the elegant man. "Ah, here are our drinks. Come along, I have something to show you."
It was a dark and lumpy statue, about four feet tall, of a moody teenaged girl dressed in curtains and sitting on a tree trunk. "Beautiful, isn't it?" the elegant man said, gazing fondly at the thing.
Beauty was outside Dortmunder's visual spectrum. "Yeah," he said, and looked around this subterranean room, which had been fitted out like a cross between a den and a museum. Bookcases alternated with paintings on the walls, and antique furniture shared the polished wood floor with statuary, some on pedestals, some, like this bronze of a young girl, on low platforms. Dortmunder and the elegant man and the armed plug-uglies had come down here by elevator: apparently, the only route in and out. There were no windows and the air had the flat blanketlike quality of tight temperature and humidity control.
"It's a Rodin," the elegant man was saying. "One of my wiser acquisitions, in my youth." His mouth forming a practiced moue, he said, "One of my less wise acquisitions, more recently, was a flesh-and-blood young woman who did me the disservice of becoming my wife."
"I really got an appointment uptown," Dortmunder said. "More recently still," the elegant man persisted, "we came to a particularly bitter and unpleasant parting of the ways, Moira and I. As a part of the resulting settlement, the little bitch got this nymph here. But she didn't get it."
"Uh-huh," Dortmunder said. "I have friends in the art world," the elegant man went on, "and all men have sympathizers where grasping ex-wives are concerned. Several years earlier, I'd had a mold made of this piece, and from it an exact copy had been cast in the same grade of bronze. A virtually identical copy; not quite museum quality, of course, but aesthetically just as pleasing as the original."
"Sure," said Dortmunder. "It was that copy I gave to Moira; having, of course, first bribed the expert she'd brought in to appraise the objects she was looting from me. The other pieces I gave her with scarcely a murmur, but my nymph? Never!"
"Ah," said Dortmunder. "All was well," the elegant man said. "I kept my nymph, the one and only true original from Rodin's plaster form, with the touch of the sculptor's hand full upon it. Moira had the copy, pleased with the thought of its being the original, cheered by the memory of having done me in the eye. A happy ending for everyone, you might have said."
"Uh-huh," said Dortmunder. "But not an ending at all, unfortunately." The elegant man shook his head. "It has come to my attention, very belatedly, that tax problems have forced Moira to make a gift of the Rodin nymph to the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps I ought to explain that even I cannot with any certainty bribe an appraiser from the Museum of Modern Art."
"He'll tell," Dortmunder said. "He will, in the argot of the underworld," the elegant man said, "spill the beans."
"That isn't the argot of the underworld," Dortmunder told him.
"No matter. The point is, my one recourse, it seems to me, is to enter Moira's town house and make off with the copy." "Makes sense," Dortmunder agreed.
The elegant man pointed at his nymph. "Pick that up," he said. Dortmunder frowned, looking for the butcher's thumb. "Go ahead," the elegant man insisted. "It won't bite."
Dortmunder handed his bourbon and water to one of the plug-uglies; then hesitant, unfamiliar with the process of lifting teenaged girls dressed in curtains-whether of bronze or anything else-he grasped this one by the chin and one elbow and lifted ... and it didn't move. "Uh," said Dortmunder, visions of hernias blooming in his head.
"You see the problem," the elegant man said, while the muscles in Dortmunder's arms and shoulders and back and groin all quivered from the unexpected shock. "My nymph weighs five hundred twenty-six pounds. As does Moira's copy, give or take a few ounces."
"Heavy," agreed Dortmunder. He took back his drink and drank.
"The museum's expert arrives tomorrow afternoon," the elegant man said touching his white mustache. "If I am to avoid discomfort-possibly even public disgrace-I must remove Moira's copy from her possession tonight."
Dortmunder said, "And you want me to do it?" "No, no, not at all." The elegant man waved his elegant fingers. "My associates"-meaning the plug-uglies-"and I will, as you would say, pull the scam."
"That's not what I'd say," Dortmunder told him. "No matter, no matter. What we wish from you, Mr. Dortmunder, is simply your expertise. Your professional opinion. Come along." The elevator door opened to his elegant touch. "Care for another bourbon? Of course you do."
"Fortunately," the elegant man said, "I kept the architect's plans and models even though I lost the town house itself to Moira." Dortmunder and his host and one plug-ugly (the other was off getting more bourbon and sherry) stood now in a softly glowing dining room overlooking a formal brick-and-greenery rear garden.
On the antique refectory table dominating the room stood two model houses next to a roll of blueprints. The tiniest model, barely six inches tall and built solid of balsa wood with windows and other details painted on, was placed on an aerial photograph to the same scale, apparently illustrating the block in which the finished house would stand. The larger, like a child's dollhouse, was over two feet tall, with what looked like real glass in its windows and even some furniture in the rooms within. Both models were of a large, nearly square house with a high front stoop, four stories tall, with a big square many-paned skylight in the center of the roof.
Dortmunder looked at the big model, then at the small, then at the photograph of the street. "This is in New York?"
"Just a few blocks from here." "Huh," said Dortmunder, thinking of his own apartment. "You see the skylight," suggested the elegant man. "Yeah."
"It can be opened in good weather. There's an atrium on the second level. You know what an atrium is?" "No."
"It's a kind of garden, within the house. Here, let me show you."
The larger model was built in pieces, which could be disassembled. The roof came off first, showing bedrooms and baths all around a big square opening coinciding with the skylight. The top floor came off, was set aside and showed a third floor given over to a master bedroom suite and a bookcase-lined den, around the continuing square atrium hole. The details impressed even Dortmunder. "This thing must have cost as much as the real house," he said.
The elegant man smiled. "Not quite," he said, lifting off the third floor. And here was the bottom of the atrium-fancy word for air shaft, Dortmunder decided-a formal garden like the one outside these real-life dining-room windows, with a fountain and stone paths. The living and dining rooms in the model were open to the atrium. "Moira's copy," the elegant man said, pointing at the garden, "is just about there."
"Tricky," Dortmunder commented. "There are twelve steps down from the atrium level to the sidewalk in front. The rear garden is sunk deeper, below ground level." "Very tricky."
"Ah, our drinks," the elegant man said, taking his, "and not a moment too soon." He sipped elegantly and said, "Mr. Dortmunder, the workman is worthy of his hire. I shall now outline to you our plans and our reasoning. I ask you to give us your careful attention, to advise us of any flaws in our thinking and to suggest whatever improvements come to your professional mind. In return, I will pay you-in cash, of course-one thousand dollars."
"And drive me uptown," Dortmunder said. "I'm really late for my appointment." "Agreed."
"OK, then," Dortmunder said, and looked around for a place to sit down.
"Oh, come along," said the elegant man. "We might as well be comfortable."
Tall, narrow windows in the living room overlooked a tree-lined expensive block. Long sofas in ecru crushed velvet faced each other on the Persian carpet, amid glass-topped tables, modern lamps and antique bric-a-brac. In a Millet over the mantel, a French farmer of the last century endlessly pushed his barrowload of hay through a narrow barn door. The elegant man might have lost his atriummed town house to the scheming Moira, but he was still doing OK. No welfare housing necessary. With a fresh drink to hand, Dortmunder sat on a sofa and listened.
"We've made three plans," the elegant man said, as Dortmunder wondered who this "we" was he kept talking about; surely not the plug-uglies, giants with the brains of two-by-fours, sitting around now on chair arms like a rock star's body-guards. "Our first plan, perhaps still feasible, involves that skylight and a helicopter. I have access to a heli-" "Loud," Dortmunder said.
The elegant man paused, as though surprised, then smiled. "That's right," he said.
Dortmunder gave him a flat look. "Was that a test? You wanna see if I'll just say, 'Yeah, yeah, that's fine, give me my grand and take me uptown,' is that it?"
"To some extent," agreed the elegant man placidly. "Of course, apart from the noise-a dead giveaway to the entire neighborhood, naturally, the house would swarm with police before we'd so much as attached the grapple-still, apart from that noise problem, a helicopter is quite an attractive solution. At night, from above-"
"Illegal," interrupted Dortmunder. "Eh?"
"You can't fly a helicopter over Manhattan after dark. There's a law. Never break a law you don't intend to break: people get grabbed for a traffic violation, and what they're really doing is robbing a bank. That kind of thing. It happens all the time." "I see." The elegant man looked thoughtful. Smoothing back his silver locks, he said, "Every trade is more complicated than it appears, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said Dortmunder. "What's plan number two?" "Ah, yes." The elegant man regained his pleased look. "This involves the front door." "How many people in this house?"
"None." Then the elegant man made a dismissing finger wave, saying, "The staff, of course. But they're all downstairs. It's soundproofed down there and servants sleep like the dead, anyway." "If you say so. Where's this Moira?"
"She should be in England, mired on the M four," the elegant man said, looking extremely irritated, "but the delay I'd arranged for her to undergo didn't quite take place. As a result, she is probably at this very moment boarding her flight to New York. She'll be here sometime early tomorrow morning." Shrugging away his annoyance, he said, "Nevertheless, we still have all of tonight. Plan number two, as I started to say, has us forcing entry through the front door. Three strong men"-with a graceful hand gesture to include both himself and the silent plug-uglies-"with some difficulty, can jog the statue onto a low wheeled dolly. Out front, we shall have a truck equipped with a winch, whose long cable will reach as far as the atrium. The winch can pull the statue on the dolly through the house and down a metal ramp from the head of the stairs to the interior of the truck."
"That sounds OK," said Dortmunder. "What's the problem?" "The guard," the elegant man explained, "outside the embassy next door."
"Oh," said Dortmunder. "And if you get rid of the guard...." "We create an international incident. A side effect even more severe than the breaking of helicopter-at-night laws." Dortmunder shook his head. "Tell me about plan number three."
"We effect entry through the rear, from the house on the next block. We set various incendiary devices and we burn the place down."
Dortmunder frowned. "Metal doesn't burn," he objected. "A flaw we'd noticed ourselves," the elegant man admitted. Dortmunder drank bourbon and gave his host a look of disgust. "You don't have any plan at all," he said.
"We have no good plans," the elegant man said. "Would you have a suggestion of your own?"
"For a thousand dollars?" Dortmunder sipped bourbon and looked patiently at the elegant man. Who smiled, a bit sadly. "I see what you mean," he said. "Say two thousand."
"Say ten thousand," Dortmunder suggested. "I couldn't possibly say ten thousand. I might find it possible to say twenty-five hundred."
It took three minutes and many little delicate silences before Dortmunder and the elegant man reached the $5000 honorarium both had settled on in advance.
Excerpted from Thieves' Dozen by Donald E. Westlake Copyright © 2004 by Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission.
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