WHEN THE PHONE RANG, Dortmunder was in the can, reading an illustrated book about classic cars. Apparently, some of these cars really were very valuable, but on the other hand, it seemed to Dortmunder, the people who valued these cars were maybe a little strange.
“It’s Andy. Shall I tell him you’ll call him back?”
“No, I’ll be right there,” Dortmunder said, and was. Holding his place in the book with the first finger of his left hand, he took the phone in his right, said, “Thanks, May,” then said, “Yar.”
“Chester gave me the list,” Kelp said.
List. For a second, Dortmunder couldn’t figure out what Kelp was talking about. A list of classic cars? He said, “List?”
“Remember? You asked him for a list of the other things Hall collects, so we could find out what’s useful to bring along as cargo.”
“So he gave me the list, that you were gonna take to Arnie Albright.”
Dortmunder’s heart sank. “Oh, right,” he said, in tones of deepest gloom, because Arnie Albright, the fence with whom it was occasionally necessary for Dortmunder to deal, was a fellow with a distinct personality problem. His personality problem, in short, was his personality. He’d said so himself, one time: “It’s my personality. Don’t tell me different, Dortmunder, I happen to know. I rub people the wrong way. Don’t argue with me.”
This was the person, or the personality, that somebody was going to have to show Chester’s list, and then stick around in order to discuss it.
Wait a minute; was there an out? “Chester gave you the list,” Dortmunder said. “So why don’t you take it on over to Arnie.”
“John, he’s your friend.”
“Oh, no,” Dortmunder said. “Nobody is Arnie’s friend. I’m his acquaintance, and so are you.”
“You’re more of an acquaintance than I am,” Kelp said. “Listen, you want me to drop the list off at your place, or would you rather pick it up over here?”
“Why me? You’ve got the list.”
“It was your idea.”
Dortmunder sighed. In his agitation, he now realized, his finger had slid out of the book and he’d lost his place. Would he ever get back to the right spot, in among all those cars? He said, “I tell you what. I’ll come over there—”
“Good, that’ll work.”
“And we’ll go see Arnie together.”
“John, it’s just a piece of paper, it doesn’t weigh that much.”
“Andy, that’s the only way it’s gonna happen.”
Now it was Kelp’s turn to sigh. “Misery loves company, huh?”
“I don’t think so,” Dortmunder said. “Arnie Albright is misery. He doesn’t love company.”
So it was that, a little later that day, Dortmunder and Kelp both approached the apartment house on West Eighty-ninth Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue, where Arnie Albright lurked. Chester’s list was now in Dortmunder’s pocket, Kelp having insisted on making the transfer before he’d leave home, to remove himself, however slightly, from the center of the conversation to come.
There was a shopfront on the ground floor of Arnie’s building, currently selling cell phones and yoga meditation tapes, with a tiny vestibule beside it. Entering the vestibule, Dortmunder said, “He always yells my name out. Through the intercom. You can hear him in New Jersey. I hate it.”
“Put your hand over the grid,” Kelp suggested.
Surprised and grateful, Dortmunder said, “I never thought of that.” Feeling slightly better about the situation, he pushed the button next to Albright, then pressed his palm against the metal grid where the squawking yelling voice would come out. They waited thirty seconds, and then a moderate voice said something that was muffled by Dortmunder’s hand. Hurriedly removing the hand, he said, “What?”
“I said,” said the voice, an ordinary plain moderate voice, “who’s there?”
This did not sound like Arnie. Dortmunder said, “Arnie?”
“No,” Dortmunder said. “You. Isn’t that Arnie Albright’s place?”
“Oh, I get it,” said the voice. “Would you be a customer?”
Dortmunder wasn’t sure how to answer that. He looked helplessly at Kelp, who leaned closer to the grid and said, “Would you be a cop?”
“Ha ha,” said the voice. “That’s funny. I’m a cousin.”
Dortmunder said, “Whose cousin?”
“Arnie’s. Oh, come on up, let’s not shout at each other over the intercom.”
As the buzzer sounded and Dortmunder pushed open the door, he said to Kelp, “That sure doesn’t sound like any cousin of Arnie’s.”
“Well,” Kelp said, “Cain and Abel were related, too.”
Inside, the narrow hall smelled, as always, of old newspapers, probably damp. The steep stairs led up to the second floor, where there was no one in sight, not Arnie, not a cousin, not a cop. Dortmunder and Kelp thudded up the stairs and at the top, on the right, there was Arnie’s door open, and standing in the doorway with a friendly smile of greeting was a short skinny guy with a frizz of wiry pepper-and-salt hair draped over his ears below a round bald dome. He did have Arnie’s treeroot nose, so maybe he truly was a cousin, but otherwise he looked completely human, dressed in tan polo shirt and jeans. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Archie Albright.”
“Well, come on in.”
The apartment looked different without Arnie’s presence, like a place where a curse has been lifted. Small underfurnished rooms with big dirty windows with no views, the apartment was decorated mainly with Arnie’s calendar collection, walls spread with many of the Januarys of history under illustrations variously patriotic, historical, winsome, and erotic, with here and there a May or November (incompletes).
Closing the door behind them, Archie Albright waved at the few uncomfortable chairs and said, “Have a seat. John, huh? I bet John Dortmunder.”
Dortmunder, about to sit warily on an armless kitchen chair next to the last rabbit-eared television set in Manhattan, lurched and remained on his feet. “Arnie told you about me?”
“Oh, sure,” Archie Albright said, still smiling, very much at his ease. “The only way we let him come to the family get-togethers is if he’ll tell us stories.” Nodding at Kelp, he said, “I don’t know which Andy you are, but I’ll get it.”
Very quiet, Kelp said, “We didn’t know we were features in Arnie’s stories.” They were all still on their feet.
“Come on, it’s just in the family,” Archie assured them. “And we’re all in the business, one way or another.”
“Fencing?” Dortmunder asked.
“No, that’s just Arnie. Siddown, siddown.”
So they all sat, and Archie said, “Most of us, as a matter of fact, we’re in counterfeiting. We got a big printing plant out in Bay Shore, Long Island.”
“Counterfeiting,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp said, “What do you do mostly? Twenties?”
“Nah, we gave up on American paper,” Archie told him. “Too many headaches. We mostly do South American stuff, sell it to drug dealers, ten cents on the dollar.”
“Drug dealers,” Dortmunder said.
“It’s great for everybody,” Archie said. “We get real greenbacks, they get bogus purplebacks good enough to pass. But if you guys are here, it’s not for the funny papers, it’s you got something to sell.”
“Well, this time,” Dortmunder said, “what we got is something to discuss. When is Arnie gonna be back?”
“Nobody knows,” Archie said. “The fact is, we did an intervention.”
Dortmunder said, “Intervention?” He realized his conversation was consisting mainly of repeating things other people said, which irritated him but which he seemed unable to stop.
Kelp said, “Intervention is where a guy is too much of a drunk, right? Then his family and friends get together and make him go off for rehab, and they won’t like him any more if he doesn’t shape up.”
“Well, Arnie doesn’t have friends,” Archie pointed out, “so it was just family.”
Kelp said, “Arnie had a drinking problem? In addition to everything else? I didn’t know that.”
“No,” Archie said, “Arnie doesn’t hardly drink much of anything at all. And absolutely no hard drugs.”
Dortmunder, happy to hear himself come up with an original sentence, said, “Then how come you intervented?”
“For his obnoxiousness,” Archie said. “You know Arnie, you know what he’s like.”
“To see him,” Kelp said, “is to wanna not see him.”
“Right.” Archie spread his hands. “You know, you get to choose your friends, but your family chooses you, so we’ve all been stuck with Arnie all these years. So finally the family got together for a powwow, out at the printing plant, without Arnie, and we decided the time had come for an intervention. It took place right in this room.”
Dortmunder looked around the room, trying to imagine it full of an entire family that had had enough of Arnie Albright. “That must have been something,” he said.
“Very emotional,” Archie agreed. “Weeping and promises and even a threat here and there. But at last he agreed he had to do it, he had to go get his personality cleaned up.”
Dortmunder said, “Where do you send a guy like Arnie to rehab?”
“Club Med,” Archie told him. “He’s down there right now, on one of them islands, and the deal is, he has to stay there until the manager says he’s improved enough for the family to meet him without having to immediately put him to death. So nobody knows how long he’s gonna be gone.”
“And the manager’s in on it,” Kelp said.
Archie said, “He says it’s the first intervention like this he ever seen, but if it works out it could be a whole new market. He’s very excited about it.”
Kelp shook his head. “A rehabilitated Arnie. I can hardly wait.”
“Well, you’ll have to,” Archie said. “The manager agrees, Arnie’s a tough case. That’s how they know, if they can fix him, they got a market with legs. In the meantime, maybe I could do something for you guys myself.”
Feeling he had nothing to lose, Dortmunder pulled Chester’s list out of his pocket and said, “What we were gonna ask Arnie, which of these collections of collectibles would it be worth our while to bring him some?”
Archie accepted the list, glanced at it, and said, “I’m not in that business myself, but I tell you what I could do. I could fax this to Arnie, he could fax back the answer.”
Dortmunder said, “Isn’t that a little open?”
“We got a code going,” Archie said. “Phone and fax, both. Arnie’s paying for his own intervention down there, because none of us would give a dime for the son of a bitch, so his business has to keep going. We take turns hanging out here for when the customers show up. I’ll send him the list; tomorrow, the next day, you’ll have your answer.”
“It’s a funny way to do things,” Dortmunder said, “but okay.”
They all stood, and Archie said, “Phone here tomorrow afternoon, there’ll be somebody from the family here, tell you did we get the answer yet.”
“Fine,” Dortmunder said.
As they walked to the door, Kelp said, “Tell Arnie, don’t give up. He’s on the right path, at last.”
“I will,” Archie said. He opened the hall door, then grinned and pointed at Kelp. “Kelp,” he said. “That’s which one you are.”