It was raining over Maximilian’s Used Cars. Actually, it was raining over this entire area, the convergence of Brooklyn and Queens with the Nassau County line, the spot where New York City at last gives up the effort to go on being New York City and drops away into Long Island instead, but the impression was that rain was being delivered specifically to Maximilian’s Used Cars, and that all the rest was spillage.
Dortmunder, in a raincoat that absorbed water and a hat that absorbed water and shoes that absorbed water, had walked many blocks from the subway, and by now he looked mostly like a pile of clothing left out for the Good Will. He should have taken a cab—he was rich these days, after all—but although it had been cloudy when he’d left home (thus the raincoat) it hadn’t actually been raining in Manhattan when he left, and probably still wasn’t raining there. Only on Maximilian’s, this steady windless watering-can-type rain out of a smudged cloud cover positioned just about seven feet above Dortmunder’s drooping hat.
One thing you could say for the rain; it made the cars look nice. All those !!! CREAMPUFFS !!! and !!! ULTRASPECIALS !!! and !!! STEALS !!! shiny and gleaming, their rust spots turned to beauty marks, their many dents become speed styling. Rain did for these heaps and clunkers what arsenic used to do for over-the-hill French courtesans; gave them that feverish glow of false youth and beauty.
Plodding through these four-wheeled lies, Dortmunder looked like the driver of all of them. As he approached the office, out through its chrome metal screen door bounded a young guy in blazer and chinos, white shirt, gaudy tie and loafers, big smile and big hair. He absolutely ignored the rain, it did not exist, as he leaped like a faun through the gravel and puddles to announce, “Good morning, sir! Here for wheels, are we? You’ve come to the right place! I see you in a four-door sedan, am I right, sir? Something with integrity under the hood, and yet just a dash of—”
The young man blinked, and water sprayed from his eyelashes. “Sir?”
“I’m here to see Max.”
The young man looked tragic. “Oh, I am sorry, sir,” he said. “Mister Maximilian isn’t here today.”
“Mister Maximilian,” Dortmunder said, “has no place to be except here.” And he stepped around the young man and proceeded toward the office.
The young man came bounding after. Dortmunder wished he had a ball to throw for the fellow to catch, or a stick. Not to throw. “I didn’t know you were a friend of Mister Maximilian’s,” the youth said.
“I didn’t know anybody was,” Dortmunder said, and went into the office, a severe gray-paneled space where a severe hatchet-faced woman sat at a plain desk, typing. “Morning, Harriet,” Dortmunder said, as the phone rang.
The woman lifted both hands from the machine, the right to hold one finger up toward Dortmunder, meaning I’ll talk to you in just a minute, and the left to pick up the telephone: “Maximilian’s Used Cars, Miss Caroline speaking.” She listened, then said, “You planted a bomb here? Where? Oh, that’s for us to find out? When did you do this? Oh, yes, yes, I know you’re serious.”
Dortmunder moved backward toward the door, as the gamboling youth entered, smiled wetly, and crossed to sit at a much smaller desk in the corner.
Harriet/Miss Caroline said, “Oh, last night. After we closed? Climbed the fence? And did you change the dogs’ water while you were here, were you that thoughtful?” Laughing lightly, she hung up and said to Dortmunder, “Hi, John.”
Dortmunder nodded at the phone. “A dissatisfied customer?”
“They’re all dissatisfied, John, or why come here? And then they call with these bomb threats.”
Jerking a thumb over his shoulder, toward the cars outside, Dortmunder said, “Those are the bomb threats.”
“Now, John, be nice.”
Dortmunder seemed to be doing a lot of gesturing; this time, it was toward Peter Pan in the corner. “I see you got a pet.”
“My nephew,” Harriet said, with just a hint of emphasis on the word. “Have you met?”
“Yes. Is Max in?”
“Always.” Picking up the phone again, she pressed a button and said, “Max, John D. is here.” She hung up, smiled, started typing, and said, “He’ll be right out.”
And he was. Through the interior door came Maximilian himself, a big old man with heavy jowls and thin white hair. His dark vest hung open over a white shirt smudged from leaning against used cars. For a long time he’d smoked cigars, and now, after he’d given them up, he continued to look like a man smoking a cigar; a ghost cigar hovered around him at all times. Chewing on this ghost in the corner of his mouth, he looked left and right, looked at Dortmunder, and said, “Oh, I thought she meant John D. Rockefeller.”
“I think he’s dead,” Dortmunder said.
“Yeah? There goes my hope for a dime. What can I do you for?”
“I dropped a car off the other night.”
“Oh, that thing.” Max shook his head; a doctor with bad news for the family. “Pity about that. A nice-looking car, too. Did you notice how it pulled?”
More headshaking. “The boys in the shop, they figure they can probably do something with it, they can do anything eventually, but it’s gonna be tough.”
Max sighed. “We know each other a long time,” he said. “You want, I’ll take it off your hands.”
“Max,” Dortmunder said, “I don’t want you to do that.”
Max frowned: “What?”
“I don’t want you to load yourself up with a lemon,” Dortmunder said, while Harriet stopped typing to listen, “just on account of our friendship. I wouldn’t feel right about it. The thing’s that much of a turkey, I’ll just take it away, and apologize.”
“Don’t feel like that,” Max said. “I’m sure the boys can fix it up.”
“It’ll always be between us, Max,” Dortmunder said. “It’ll be on my conscience. Just give me the keys, I’ll see can I get it started, I’ll take it off your lot.”
This time Max scowled. “John,” he said, “what’s with you? Are you negotiating?”
“No no, Max, I’m sorry I dumped this problem in your lap, I didn’t realize.”
“John,” Max said, beginning to look desperate, “it’s worth something.”
“For parts. I know. I’ll take it to a guy can strip it down, maybe I’ll get a couple bucks off it. Harriet got the keys?”
Max stepped back, the better to look Dortmunder up and down. “Let’s change the subject,” he decided. “Whadaya think a the weather?”
“Good for the crops,” Dortmunder said. “Harriet got the keys?”
“You met Harriet’s nephew?”
“Yes. He got the keys?”
“I’ll give you twelve hundred for it!”
Dortmunder hadn’t expected more than five. He said, “I don’t see how I can do that to you, Max.”
Max chewed furiously on his ghost cigar. “I won’t go a penny over thirteen fifty!”
Dortmunder spread his hands. “If you insist, Max.”
Max glowered at him. “Don’t go away,” he snarled.
“I’ll be right here.”
Max returned to his inner office, Harriet returned to her typing, and the nephew opened a copy of Popular Mechanics. Dortmunder said, “Harriet, could you call me a cab?”
The nephew said, “You’re a cab.”
Harriet said, “Sure, John,” and she was doing so when Max came back, with an old NYNEX bill envelope stuffed with cash, which he shoved into Dortmunder’s hand, saying, “Come back when it’s sunny. Rain brings out something in you.” He stomped back into his office, trailing ghost cigar smoke.
Dortmunder read an older issue of Popular Mechanics until his cab arrived. Then, traveling across the many micro-neighborhoods of Queens, he reflected that he’d just done much better with Maximilian’s Used Cars than ever before. Was it because Max happened to have the same first name as the guy who stole May’s uncle’s lucky ring, and this was a kind of revenge to beat down all Maxes everywhere? Or was he just on a roll?
That would be nice. He’d never been on a roll before, so he’d have to pay attention to what it felt like, if it turned out that’s what this was. Eight hundred fifty dollars more than he’d dared hope for; so far, it felt good.
Home, he unlocked his way into what should have been an empty apartment, since May would be off at work at the supermarket, and there was Andy Kelp in the hall, walking toward the living room from the kitchen, a can of beer in one hand and a glass of orange juice in the other. “Hi, John,” he said. “Where you been?”
Dortmunder looked at his apartment door. “Why do I bother to lock this thing?”
“Because it gives me a challenge. Come on in. Wally’s got your rich guy pinned to the wall.”