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15

WHEN DORTMUNDER WALKED into the O.J. Bar Grill at two-thirty on the morning of Friday, August 13, the place had been closed for three hours, and the only illumination inside, other than faraway streetlight glow through the time-grimed windows, was the amber tube over the space-age cash register. Closing the door as silently as he'd opened it, putting away the spatulas and doohickeys that had steered him safely through the locks and alarm system, Dortmunder made his way across the empty tavern and around behind the bar, into Rollo's realm.

The first thing he noticed back there — and a lucky thing he did — was that one section of the duckboards Rollo was wont to tread on had been pulled back over the rest, and the long trapdoor beneath had been left in its upraised position, leaning against the shelves under the bar. That could be a nasty fall if you didn't watch yourself, particularly since the stairs started down from the far end of the rectangular opening.

Whether it was sloppiness or a snare for unwary burglars, Dortmunder didn't know, but he knew he needed to move around back here, so he found the hook that held the door open, unhooked it, and eased the door back down where it belonged. He didn't move the duckboards, though — no need to.

Standing on the closed trapdoor, he opened the first of three drawers in a row under the backbar beneath the cash register, and found it was full of officialdom: fire inspections, coil cleanings, health code violations, water meter bills. Nothing that would explain why this terrible fate had struck the O.J.

The other two drawers were equally useless from a mystery-solving point of view, though it was interesting to note that one of the drawers contained a gun, a Star Model F automatic, very dusty but also very loaded; the safety, however, was on. It lay next to some Oriental parasols.

Closing the drawers, Dortmunder looked around and saw nothing else that might be of help. What about correspondence, gaming chits, threatening notes? Why wasn't there anything useful in here?

Well, there wasn't. He was just about to give the whole thing up when a sudden metallic skritching noise, like a robot mouse gnawing on a copper carrot, came from the front door.

Keys! Somebody with keys, coming in.

Where to hide? Nowhere. The bar could not be more open, and both pointers and the back room could not be more closed cul-de-sacs.

Where? Where? Up front, several locks had to be dealt with, which Dortmunder had just recently learned, but time wasn't the problem; space was. He had to have space in which to disappear.

The basement! The trapdoor he'd closed. Quickly he hopped onto the duckboards and bent to lift the door, while up front that other door was about to open. Should he close the trapdoor after himself? No, too awkward. Also, there was nothing he could do about the duckboards.

Hook the trapdoor open, skitter down the stairs, his furrowed brow sinking below bar level just as the street door opened and several guys trooped in. At least several.

"Dark in here."

"There's lightswitches behind the bar. Hold on a second."

The basement was absolutely black. With hands splayed out in front of himself, eyes uselessly staring, Dortmunder inched across the unseen floor into the unseeable black.

"Jesus Christ! Look at this!"

Dortmunder froze, fingers twitching at the end of his outstretched arms.

"What is it? Manny? What's the problem?"

"This goddamn trapdoor's open! I just about dropped myself into the cellar."

"Holy shit, close that thing."

"How? I can't see in here."

"Wait, don't move, I think I know where the lightswitch is. That Rollo's getting too damn careless."

"I think he's lost his job satisfaction."

"He can lose all he wants to, we gotta keep him on until we're done in here, because we don't want him opening his yap to some of these wholesalers. Here's the lightswitch!"

Sudden light flowed down the basement stairs, swaddled Dortmunder, and streamed on to give faint yellow-gray light to his surroundings. A rough stone wall stood directly in front of him, less than a foot from his outstretched fingers, which he now dropped to his sides. A long rectangular room extended to his right, under the main room of the bar. To his left, a doorway in a wooden wall suggested a corridor beyond. Afraid his feet could still be seen from certain angles upstairs, Dortmunder turned left and tiptoed toward that corridor.

Darkness. Almost as total as before, except that when he looked back, he could see a rectangle of thin yellow lines up above in the black, outlining the trapdoor that had just been lowered.

A sound of voices came from up there. Saying anything useful? In movies and on television, people are always just happening to be hid someplace when other people have a conversation that explains the whole thing. Could that be happening here?

Dortmunder tiptoed back to stand beneath that thin yellow rectangle overhead. What were they saying?

At first, nothing; they seemed to have stopped talking just as he got there. And then all at once there came a painful irritating screech and scrawk, which of course had to be the duckboards being slid back into position — a problem to think about a little later. But then at last, the duckboards were in their proper place, almost the entire yellow line of the rectangle had been blotted out, and people up there began again to speak, muffled but legible:

"Remember, only the Russian."

"Gotcha."

"And the gen-u-wine French."

"I got some Polish here."

"Forget that. We bring back Polish, he'll hand us our heads."

"Well, I'll take a bottle for myself."

"This cash register's empty."

"Sure, they empty it every night."

"What's with this safe here?"

"Forget that, we'll take care of that later."

"Is this French?"

"No! What'sa matter with you? What you want is Dom Perig-none."

"Dom Perig-none."

"There should be more in back."

"Remember, when a boss's daughter marries, only the best Russian vodka, only the best French champagne. Or they'll find us in the Meadowlands."

"Stoli, right?"

"Now you're talking."

The voices faded, moving into other parts of the bar, but Dortmunder could follow their progress by the dull thuds of their shoes on the floor. From here and there, from everywhere, the feet moved toward the front door and away from it again, as the soldiers up there carried the cases of Russian and French out of the place, to prepare for the celebration of the fact that one of their major scumbags was going to replicate himself.

Well, it had sort of worked. They hadn't known he was hiding here, and they had told him certain things. They weren't the things he wanted to know, but still, the principle had proved out.

A faint visual memory came back to him, from that brief moment after the upstairs lights had been switched on and before the trapdoor had been shut. The memory told him there was a lightswitch on the wall that had been facing him when he'd stood there at the foot of the stairs. That was the right place for a lightswitch, the foot of the stairs; could he find it again? Would it make so much glare they'd notice it upstairs?

Dortmunder pondered. He remembered basements from earlier in his life, remembered the lighting arrangement in the back room of this very bar, even remembered another quick visual memory of one single lightbulb in the ceiling of the rectangular room in which he now stood. All in all, it seemed to him worth the risk, to light one little lightbulb rather than curse the darkness.

He was right. When he found the switch and flipped it on, that forty-watt bulb in the middle of the ceiling created an effect very like the shadowed insubstantiality of the Kasbah at midnight, or a teenagers' party when the folks are out of town. In its fretful murk, he could see rows of kegs: beer kegs, wine kegs, even kegs handmarked in white chalk, Amsterdam Liquor Store Burben — hmm.

The place was also cluttered with broken barstools and tables, open tall metal lockers in which hung the remnants of waiters' uniforms from some era of O.J. history before Dortmunder's time, and many cartons of empty bottles, some of them bearing the logos of long-extinct bottlers.

And halfway down one side wall, close to that overhead light source, which was a blessing, there stood a battered old gray metal desk, with an equally battered gray metal swivel chair in front of it. The kneehole was on the left of the desk, while on the right were two tall file drawers.

Okay, that's more like it. Dortmunder settled himself into the squeaking chair with his left elbow on the desktop, opened the upper squeaking drawer, and let his fingers do the walking among the folder tags in there, stopping when he came to "SLA."

SLA. The State Liquor Authority, the god of the taverner, whose rules are the closest thing in their world to Holy Writ, because they have the ultimate power of life and death: they can shut you down.

The SLA folder was more than an inch thick. When Dortmunder opened it on the desk and bent low to read it in the uncertain light, he saw that the papers were roughly in chronological order from front (old) to back (new), and that the earliest documents were forty-seven years old. That was when Jerome Hulve and Otto Medrick, d/b/a Jerrick Associates, applied for and eventually received a liquor license for the O.J. Bar Grill at this address. (Why the reverse of initials? Maybe the J.O. Bar Grill didn't sound as melodic to them.)

Thirty-one years ago, Otto Medrick, now d/b/a O.J. Partners, bought out the half-interest from the bar now in the possession of the estate of Jerome Hulve and had to go through a whole lot of paperwork all over again, as though he were a brand-new guy. And six months ago, Otto Medrick, whose address was now given as 131-58 Elfin Dr., Coral Acres, FL, sold O.J. Partners to Raphael Medrick of 161-63 63rd Point, Queens, NY, for no cash down and a percentage of profit over the next twenty years.

Raphael Medrick, when taking the reins, also had to present the SLA with a bushel of paperwork, even more than Otto thirty-one years before, and some of the extra paper was interesting. Letters attesting to Raphael Medrick's rehabilitation had been proffered by his attorney, by a judge from Queens County Court, and by Raphael's former probation officer. All wrote that Raphael's previous (brief) life of crime had been nonviolent, totally repudiated by Raphael himself, and caused by association with bad companions from whom Raphael was now forsworn. A letter from Otto Medrick further assured the SLA that Otto had complete confidence in his nephew Raphael, or he would certainly not turn over to Raphael his every asset in this world.

When Dortmunder at last lifted his head from this family saga, nearly an hour had gone by since he'd first switched on the basement light, and he realized it had been quite a while since he'd heard movement from the troops upstairs. Aware of a new stiffness in his back caused by the need to bend so close over the papers in this uncertain light, he creakily straightened himself, cocked an ear, and listened.

Nothing. When he looked over toward the stairs, he could see no lines of yellow light in the ceiling.

He stood, did a couple deep knee bends, regretted them, and walked over to look more closely up the stairs at the unbroken ceiling. No light. He stepped to the wall, switched off the basement light, and still no illumination from upstairs. So he flipped the light back on and started up the stairs to see if it would be possible to get out of here.

All by itself the trapdoor was pretty heavy, being made of wood thick enough to walk on. When you put lengths of duckboard on top of it, what would that do?

Nothing good. Dortmunder went up the stairs, bending forward, until his back was against the bottom of the trapdoor and his knees were bent. He was on the side away from the hinges. He braced himself, pressed upward with legs and back, and nothing happened except that little bolts of pain shot here and there through his body.

Not good. Not at all good. In order to get on with his life, which he very much wanted to do, he had to get out of this basement. Come on, it can't be that heavy.

Going back down the stairs, he rooted among the broken bits of furniture till he found a cracked-off wooden barstool leg, tapered like a simplified bowling pin. Grasping this, he went back up the stairs, leaned up to the farthest corner he could reach, and insisted that it lift, just insisted and insisted, and then it did lift, and immediately he slid the leg into the new narrow space. A beginning.

Next it was an entire barstool he brought, carried it up the stairs horizontally, and forced the curved back of the seat into the narrow opening he'd made. He levered the stool downward, pushing the trapdoor minimally upward, until the broken leg fell out, which he immediately wedged upright between trapdoor and the second step from the top. Freeing the barstool, he jammed it in, standing up, between the trapdoor and the fourth step, causing the leg to fall over.

It was slow work, and tiring, but with every move, using different pieces of furniture, he made the trapdoor infinitesimally lift, until eventually there was a wedge of space at the top of the stairs just large enough for a person to squirm through, being very sure he didn't kick any props out of the way behind himself as he went.

He was very tired. It was almost daylight. Still, if he didn't put everything back the way it was supposed to be, they would know they'd had a visitor, and that wouldn't be a good thing for them to learn.

Weary, Dortmunder dragged the duckboard out of the way, opened the trapdoor and hooked it, then went back to the basement, took documents from the SLA folder containing uncle and nephew Medrick's most recent addresses, put everything in the basement back where it had been, switched off the light down there, and went back up by the amber light over the cash register.

Weary. On the way out, he grabbed a bottle of Stoli the wedding guests had left behind. You kidding? He deserved it.


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