When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at three minutes before ten on Tuesday night, Rollo the bartender, a tall meaty balding blue-jawed guy in a dirty long-sleeved white shirt and dirty white apron, was kneeling on the shelf inside the left front plate-glass window, installing a new neon beer sign. “With you in a minute,” he said, nodding to Dortmunder, his hands full of neon tubes, electric cords, and lengths of chain for hanging the thing.
“Right,” Dortmunder said, and moved toward the bar, where the regulars were discussing those black lines that’s on everything you buy now that make the cash register go beep.
“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying. “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”
“Why do it in code?” the second regular asked him. “The Code War’s over.”
A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying, “What? The Code War? It’s not the Code War, where ya been? It’s the Cold War.”
The second regular was serene with certainty. “Code,” he said. “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.” With a little pitying chuckle, he said, “Cold War. Why would anybody call a war cold?”
The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was called the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”
The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound. “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”
The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”
“With Russian dressing.”
Dortmunder leaned on the bar, off to the right of the main conversation, and watched Rollo in the backbar mirror. The barman also had several screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers, and a corkscrew, and was using them all, one-handed, while holding up the beer sign with the other.
Meanwhile, the conversation was continuing, as the first regular rejoined it, saying, “Code. That’s what I’m talking about, the black lines. It’s some kinda conspiracy, that’s all I know.”
A fourth regular, who until now had been using the bottles on the backbar as a kind of impromptu eye test, now reared around, righted himself, and said, “Absolutely. A conspiracy.” Closing one eye to focus on the other regulars, he said, “Which conspiracy you mean?”
“The little black lines on everything you buy,” the first regular said, bringing him up to speed.
The fourth regular considered that, closing first one eye and then the other: “That’s a conspiracy?”
“Sure. It’s in code.”
“Like the war,” said the second regular, with a smirk at the third regular.
The fourth regular nodded, closed both eyes, clutched the bar, opened both eyes, closed one eye, and said, “Which conspiracy?”
The first regular was affronted by this question. “How do I know? It’s in code, isn’t it? That’s what makes it secret. If it wasn’t in code, we’d know what it was.”
The third regular suddenly slapped the bar and said, “That’s what it is. Now I remember.”
The others all swiveled around on their stools to consider Mister Memory. The first regular said, carefully, “That’s what what is?”
“The Code War,” the third regular told him. “That’s what they call those little black lines, on accounta that’s what they’re for. When they have price wars.”
“The Code War,” the second regular announced, incensed that his definition had been taken from him, “was the war between us and Russia that’s over now.”
“Wrong,” the third regular said, showing his own brand of serenity.
The first regular said, “I think everybody’s wrong,” and called, “Rollo! What’s the name of that code, all the black lines on everything you buy?”
“Bar,” Rollo answered, dropping some pliers and a screwdriver.
“There’s a one-track mind for you,” said the first regular, and all the regulars chuckled, even the fifth regular, who was asleep with his head pillowed by a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
“This is a bar, Rollo,” the third regular called, and they all chuckled again, as Andy Kelp walked in, shared a hello with Rollo, and walked over to join Dortmunder.
The first regular was saying, “There is a name, though, for those black lines, I know there is.”
Andy said, “We the first?”
The second regular, doubt in his voice, said, “Morse?”
“Yes,” Dortmunder said.
The third regular, blossoming with scorn like time-lapse photography, said, “Morse! Man, do you get things haywire. Morse code is what they put on those little notices they stick on the bottom of the furniture that you’re not supposed to take off. It’s a federal law, and it’s named after Senator Morse.”
“Civil,” said the fourth regular, with both eyes open.
The third regular turned to repel this new attack. “We’re bein civil,” he announced. “All except somebody I don’t feel I wanna mention.”
“Civil code,” said the fourth regular, being civil. “That’s what they call the black lines.”
A quick bzt sound came from the general direction of Rollo, followed by a curse, and the dropping of a lot of tools.
“No,” the first regular said, “it is not the civil code, which is something to do with the subways. It’s called something else. I’d know it if I heard it.”
Still on his knees, Rollo backed away from the window, then stood.
“Area?” suggested the fourth regular.
“No no no,” the first regular said, “area codes is another word for zoning.”
Rollo picked up his tools and the neon sign and headed for the bar.
“Zip?” suggested the fourth regular.
The other regulars all looked down at their pants.
Rollo made his way around the end of the bar, dropping his tools onto the shelf there.
“A zip is a gun,” the first regular said.
Rollo approached Dortmunder and Kelp, dropping the neon sign into the trash barrel along the way. “Nobody likes foreign beers anyway,” he explained. “They’re made with foreign water.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Kelp said.
Rollo nodded. “You want the back room, right?”
“Yeah,” Dortmunder said. “There’ll be five of us.” It had long been a tenet of his that if you couldn’t accomplish a task with five men you shouldn’t try it at all. He’d seen exceptions to that rule, of course, just as there are exceptions to all rules, but as a general guide of thumb, so to speak, he still went with it.
“I’ll send them back,” Rollo said. “Who’s coming?”
Understanding Rollo’s idiosyncracy, that he knew his customers by their drink, which he felt gave him some kind of marketing advantage, Dortmunder said, “There’ll be the vodka and red wine.”
“Big fella,” Rollo said, who was no slouch himself.
“That’s him,” Dortmunder agreed. “And the rye and water.”
Rollo considered. “Lotta ice? Clinks a lot?”
“Right again. And the beer and salt.”
“Him,” Rollo said, with a downturn of the mouth. “What a boon to business he is.”
Kelp explained, “Stan’s a driver, you see, he’s got himself used to not drinking too much.”
“I’d bet my money,” Rollo said, “he’s got a black belt in not drinking too much.”
“So that’s why the salt,” Kelp went on. “He gets a beer, he sips it slow and easy, and when the head’s gone he adds a little salt, pep the head right back up again.”
“What I like to pep up,” Rollo said, “is the cash register. But it takes all kinds. I’ll get your drinks.”
Rollo turned away, and pulled out a tray, while down at the other end of the bar the regulars had segued in a natural progression into consideration of cold cures. At the moment, they were trying to decide if the honey was supposed to be spread on the body or injected into a vein. Before they’d solved this problem, Rollo had put ice into two glasses, put the glasses on the tray, and taken down from the shelf a fresh bottle of some murky dark liquid behind a label reading AMSTERDAM LIQUOR STORE BOURBON — “ OUR OWN BRAND.” With the bottle also on the tray, Rollo turned and slid the whole thing toward Dortmunder, saying, “Happy days.”
“It’s feed a cough,” said the first regular.
Dortmunder took the tray and followed Kelp past the regulars, who were now all demonstrating various kinds of cough, and on back beyond the bar and down the hall past the two doors marked with dog silhouettes labeled POINTERS and SETTERS and past the phone booth, where the string dangling from the quarter slot was now so grimy you could barely see it, and on through the green door at the very back, which led into a small square room with a concrete floor. All the walls were completely hidden floor to ceiling by beer and liquor cases, leaving a minimal space in the middle for a battered old round table with a stained felt top that had once been pool-table green, plus half a dozen chairs. The room had been dark, but when Kelp hit the switch beside the door the scene was illuminated by a bare bulb under a round tin reflector hanging low over the table on a long black wire.
Kelp held the door while Dortmunder carried in the tray and brought it around to the far side of the table and put it down. The chairs facing the door were always the most popular ones, and tended to be taken by the earliest arrivals.
Dortmunder sat in the chair facing the door head-on, while Kelp, to his right, stood a moment to pick up the bottle, study its top, and with admiration say, “Boy, they do a good job. Looks just like a government seal, and you could swear the cap was never opened.”
“My ice cubes are melting,” Dortmunder commented.
Kelp looked in both glasses, then said, “Well, John, you know, they would anyway.”
“But not alone. My ice cubes don’t like to melt alone.”
“Gotcha.” Kelp opened the bottle, poured murky liquid over the ice cubes in both glasses, placed the glasses on preexisting circular stain marks on the felt, and put tray and bottle on the floor between their chairs. Then he sat down, as the door opened again, and a stocky open-faced fellow with carroty hair came in, carrying a glass of beer in one hand and wearing a salt shaker in his shirt pocket. He looked at Dortmunder and Kelp, seemed dissatisfied, and said, “You got here ahead of me.”
“Well, we said ten o’clock,” Dortmunder said. “It’s ten o’clock.”
“Hi, Stan,” said Kelp.
“Yeah, hi, Andy,” said the newcomer, who still seemed dissatisfied. His name was Stan Murch, and when things had to be driven, he was the driver. Taking the seat next to Kelp, so he’d have no worse than his profile to the door, he said, “They’re tearin’ up Sixth Avenue again. Would you believe it?”
“Yes,” Dortmunder said.
Stan lived in the depths of Brooklyn, in Canarsie, with his cabdriver mother, so plotting the ramifications and combinations of travel between his place and anywhere in Manhattan was his ongoing problem and passion. Now, sipping in an agitated way at his beer, taking the salt shaker from his pocket and putting it on the table, he said, “So I took the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, right? This time of night, what else would you do?”
“Exactly,” Kelp said.
“From there it’s a straight shot,” Stan explained. “Up Sixth Avenue, into the park, out at Seventy-second, over to Amsterdam, wham, bam, I’m here.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder agreed. “You’re here.”
“But not this time,” Stan said darkly.
Dortmunder looked again, but he’d been right; Stan was definitely here. He decided to let that go.
Stan said, “This time, I get up into the Twenties, there it is again, those big lumber pieces painted white and red, half of Sixth Avenue all torn up, backhoes and bulldozers and who knows what all inside there, we’re down to no lanes. And you know something else?”
“No,” Dortmunder said.
“It’s always the left side! They go along, a year, two years, the left side of Sixth Avenue all tore up, and then finally they repave it, they take all the barriers away, you figure, now they’re gonna do the right side. But no. Nothing happens. Four months, six months, and then bam, they’re tearin up the left side again. If they can’t do it right, why don’t they just quit?”
“Maybe it’s a political statement,” Kelp suggested, and the door opened, and in came a hearty heavyset fellow in a tan check sports jacket and open-collar shirt. He had a wide pleasant mouth and a big round pleasant nose, and he carried a glass full of ice cubes that clinked pleasantly as he moved. This was Ralph Winslow, the lockman, who was taking Wally Whistler’s place this time because Wally, since their work together at the N-Joy, had fallen upon a mischance. He’d been waiting for a crosstown bus and hardly even noticing the armored car parked there, in the bus stop because it was also in front of the bank, and when the armored car’s alarm went off he hadn’t at first realized it had anything to do with him, so he was still standing there when the guards came running out of the bank, all of which he was still explaining to various officials deep in the bowels of authority, which meant Ralph Winslow had been phoned and was free.
“Whadaya say, Ralph?” Kelp said, and Ralph stood a moment, glass in hand, ice cubes tinkling, as though he were at a cocktail party. Then, “I say, evening, gents,” he decided, and closed the door.
“Now,” Dortmunder said, “all we need is Tiny.”
“Oh, he’s outside,” Ralph said, coming around to sit to Dortmunder’s left, where he too could watch the door.
“What, is he getting a drink?”
“Tiny? He’s got his drink,” Ralph said. “When I came back, he was explaining to some fellas there how you could cure a cold right away by squeezing all the air out of a person.”
“Uh oh,” Dortmunder said.
“Bad air out, good air in, that’s what he was saying,” Ralph explained.
Standing, Kelp said, “I’ll go get him.”
“Good,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp left the room, and Ralph said, “I understand this one’s out of town.”
“Vegas,” Dortmunder told him.
Nodding, Ralph said, “Not a bad place, Vegas. Not as good as the old days, when they were going for the high rollers. Back then, you could put on a sheet and be an oil billionaire and unlock your way through half the safes in town. These days, they’ve gone family, family oriented, mom and pop and the kids and the recreational vehicle. Your best bet now, out there, is be a midget and dress like a schoolkid off the bus.”
“I don’t think,” Dortmunder said, “it’s gone entirely Disneyland.”
“No no,” Ralph agreed, “they still got all the old stuff, only it’s adapted. The ladies on the stroll are all cartoon characters now. Polly Pross, Howdy Hooker.”
“And the twins,” Stan said, “Bim and Bo.”
“Them, too,” Ralph agreed, and the door opened, and Kelp came in, looking a little dazed. “They’re layin around on the floor out there,” he said, “like a neutron bomb.”
“Uh huh,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp continued to hold the door open, and in came a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs. Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant. This creature, in a voice that sounded as though it had started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here, said, “Hello, Dortmunder.”
“Hello, Tiny,” Dortmunder said. “What did you do to Rollo’s customers?”
“They’ll be all right,” Tiny said, coming around the table to take Kelp’s place. “Soon as they catch their breath.”
“Where did you toss it?” Dortmunder asked.
Tiny, whose full name was Tiny Bulcher and whose strength was as the strength of ten even though his heart in fact was anything but pure, settled himself in Kelp’s former chair and laughed and whomped Dortmunder on the shoulder. Having expected it, Dortmunder had already braced himself against the table, so it wasn’t too bad. “Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you make me laugh.”
“I’m glad,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp, expressionless, picked up his glass and went around to the wrong side of the table, where he couldn’t see the door without turning his head.
“You should be glad,” Tiny told him. “So you got something, huh?”
“I think so,” Dortmunder said.
“Well, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you know me. I like a sure thing.”
“Nothing’s sure in this life, Tiny.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Tiny said, and flexed his arms, and drank, so that for the first time you could see that he had a tall glass tucked away inside that hand. The glass contained a bright red liquid that might have been cherry soda, but was not. Putting this glass, now half empty, on the table, Tiny said, “Lay it on us, Dortmunder.”
Dortmunder took a deep breath, and paused. The beginning was the difficult part, the story about the goddam ring. He said, “Does everybody know about the ring? The ring I had?”
“Oh, sure,” Stan said, and Ralph said, “I called you, remember?” and Stan said, “I called you, too,” and Tiny, who had not called, laughed. This was a laugh, full-bodied and complete, the real thing, a great roaring laugh that made all the cartons around the walls vibrate, so that he laughed to a kind of distant church bell accompaniment. Then he got hold of himself and said, “Dortmunder, I heard about that. I wish I could’ve seen your face.”
“I wish so, too, Tiny,” Dortmunder said, and Tiny laughed all over again.
There was nothing to be done about Tiny; you either didn’t invite him to the party, or you indulged him. So Dortmunder waited till the big man had calmed himself down—caught his breath, so to speak—and then he said, “I been trying to get that ring back. I tried out on Long Island, and I tried here in the city, and I tried down in Washington, DC. Every time I missed the guy, so I never got the ring, but every time I made a profit.”
“I can vouch for that,” Kelp said, and glanced over his shoulder at the door.
“But by now,” Dortmunder said, “the problem is, all the stuff I lifted from this guy, he knows I’m on his tail.”
Kelp said, “John? Do you think so?”
“The fifty thousand we took from the Watergate,” Dortmunder said. “I think that’s the one that did it.”
Tiny said, “Dortmunder? You took fifty G outta the Watergate? That’s no third-rate burglary.”
Once again, Dortmunder let that reference sail on by, though by now he was coming to recognize its appearances, like Halley’s Comet. He said, “I think the guy was suspicious before that, when we cleaned out his place in New York—”
“Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you have been busy.”
“I have,” Dortmunder agreed. “Anyway, after that, the guy changed his MO. Before then, he was very easy to track, he’s this rich guy that tells his companies where he’s gonna be every second, and Wally—Remember Wally Knurr?”
“The butterball,” Tiny said, and smiled in fond recollection. “He was amusing, too, that Wally,” he said. “Could be fun to play basketball with him.”
Not sure he wanted to know exactly what Tiny meant by that, Dortmunder went on, “Well, anyway, Wally and his computer tracked the guy for us, until all of a sudden—the guy’s name is Max Fairbanks, he’s very rich, he’s an utter pain in the ass—he went to the mattresses. Nobody’s supposed to know where he is, nobody gets his schedule, he shifted everything around, Wally can’t find him no matter what.”
“You got him scared, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, grinning, and gave him an affectionate punch in the arm that drove Dortmunder into Ralph, to his left.
Regaining his balance, Dortmunder said, “The one place he’s still scheduled for that everybody knows about is next week in Vegas.”
Ralph said, “That’s the only exception?”
Ralph tinkled ice cubes. “How come?”
“I figure,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a trap.”
Kelp said, “John, you don’t have to be paranoid, you know. The Vegas stuff was set up before he went secret, that’s all.”
“He’d change it,” Dortmunder said. “He’d switch things around, like he did in Washington and like he’s doing in Chicago. But, no. In Vegas, he’s right on schedule, sitting out there fat and easy and obvious. So it’s a trap.”
Tiny said, “And you want to walk into it.”
“What else am I gonna do?” Dortmunder asked him. “It’s my only shot at the guy, and he knows it, and I know it. If I don’t get the ring then, I’ll never get it. So I got to go in, saying, okay, it’s a trap, how do I get around this trap, and I figure the way how I get around this trap is with the four guys in this room.”
“Who,” Tiny said, “you want to amble into this trap with you.”
Ralph said, “This won’t be a Havahart trap, John.”
Stan said, “What do I drive?”
“We’ll get to that,” Dortmunder promised him, and turned to Tiny to say, “We go into the trap, but we know it’s a trap, so we already figured a way out of it. And when we come out, I got my ring, and you got one-fifth of the till at the Gaiety Hotel.”
Tiny pondered that. “That’s one of the Strip places, right? With the big casino?”
“It makes a profit,” Dortmunder said.
“And so will we,” Kelp said, looking over his shoulder.
Tiny contemplated the proposition, then contemplated Dortmunder. “You always come up with the funny ones, Dortmunder,” he said. “It’s amusing to be around you.”
“Thank you, Tiny.”
“So go ahead,” Tiny said. “Tell me more.”