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21

TURNED OUT CORAL ACRES, Florida, Otto Medrick's waiting room for departure, was about as far north in Florida as you could go and still be in Florida; but on the other hand, you were still in Florida. The way to go there was to fly Continental from Newark to Jacksonville, and then Coral Acres was on an estuary off St. John's River south of the city, between the river and the ocean.

The trouble was to get there. At first, because everything about air travel is so revolting, from the food to the security to the crowding to the simple fact of being thirty thousand feet in the sky, Dortmunder thought maybe it would be more restful to take the train from Penn Station, but unfortunately that would be a little too restful: two and a half hours by air, seventeen hours by rail.

Still, there had to be an overnight in it. There were no flights north in the late afternoon, and he'd have to give himself time to find the town, find the guy, and tell him the story. So it looked as though he had to fly down from Newark at nine Sunday morning and then come back from Jacksonville starting at nine the next day.

Fortunately, if that word could be used for any part of this experience, once it became clear to everyone that Dortmunder really meant to go ahead and find the O.J.'s former owner way down there in Florida, he got various kinds of help. J. C. Taylor, for instance, went on the Web and got him bargain rates for the airfare and a motel out by the airport and a rental car. Murch's Mom offered to drive him to the airport and back without throwing the meter, but her son Stan said he could find a much more comfortable car than a New York City hack, so he'd do the driving.

Other help. Kelp, also a dab hand with the computer, got him printout maps showing exactly how to get from JAX, the airport, to 131-58 Elfin Drive, Coral Acres. May got him up early Sunday morning and gave him his favorite breakfast Wheaties and milk and sugar, in a ratio of 1/1/1 and then there was nothing to do but take the damn trip.

"Otto Medrick?"

"Maybe."

"The O.J.'s going out of business."

Not a sound from the man under the black cloth. Dortmunder watched, and the black cloth seemed to tremble a little, but that was all. The guy must have heard; Dortmunder decided to wait him out.

What was he doing under that black cloth anyway, him and that wooden tripod standing under there with him? Dortmunder, having driven through mile after mile of suburban landscape among low flat-roofed houses full of glass although what view did they have, except of each other? had found 131-58 Elfin Drive with far less difficulty than he'd expected, thanks to the Web maps Kelp had conjured for him. He'd parked the little yellow Nissan Pixie on the shiny black driveway in front of the little avocado-and-pink house, identical except in color scheme to every other house in Coral Acres, had scrunched up the crushed-clamshell walk to the front door, and been just about to ring a doorbell when he'd realized he was looking completely through the house, through the living-dining room, through plate glass doors at the back there, and out to the parched backyard, where a bent-kneed man in gray work pants crouched next to a tall tripod under a black cloth draped over his head and upper body. So Dortmunder had walked around the house, delivered his news, and now waited for a response.

Which at last arrived: "Gimme a minute," snarled the man under the cloth.

"Sure."

Dortmunder waited some more, and something said click under the black cloth, and then at last it was lifted and the man beneath came out from under.

He was short; that was the first thing. He was short and gristly, with wiry gray arms extruded from an ancient gray sweatshirt YWHA, ASTORIA with its sleeves cut off. His head was beaked, with Brillo hair and a pointy pepper-and-salt goatee that looked sharp enough to do damage, so that all in all, he mostly resembled a pocket Lenin. Or maybe a collectible Lenin doll for your whatnot shelf, except that he also wore heavy, dark-framed eyeglasses jammed up onto his forehead.

Now he glared at Dortmunder, wriggled his brows, and those glasses dropped down to his nose, so he could see through them as he said, "And who the hell are you?"

"I'm a guy goes to the O.J. sometimes," Dortmunder said, "and I thought you oughta know what's happening there."

"I'm here," Otto Medrick told him, "so I don't hafta know what's happening there, I got family looking after it."

"No, you don't," Dortmunder said. "Your nephew Raphael, I have to tell you the truth, I met him, and I don't think he could look after a pet rock."

"Yeah, you met him all right," Medrick agreed. "But there's the rest of the family, his mother, cousins by the dozens."

"Nobody," Dortmunder said. "Whatever they're supposed to be doing, they're busy doing something else."

"By God, that sounds like those useless sonsabitches," Medrick said, and peered all at once more closely into Dortmunder's face. "I bet," he said, "you're one a them back-room crooks."

Dortmunder blinked. "One a them what?"

"You know Rollo, my bartender."

"Naturally."

"For years," Medrick said, "he was my eyes and ears in that joint."

"Then," Dortmunder said, "he's gone blind and deaf."

"No, it's not him," Medrick said. "I told him, I'm outa here, let somebody else collect the tsouris. Rollo don't even have my phone number. So what's happening?"

"Raphael," Dortmunder told him, "turned control over to a guy named Mikey, whose father's a mob guy, who's busting it out."

Medrick thought hard, then said, "Remind me."

"Buy buy buy on the store's credit," Dortmunder explained, "everything from booze to cash registers. Use up the credit, then some night move everything out, sell it all someplace else, let the joint go bankrupt."

"My joint?"

"The O.J. Bar and Grill," Dortmunder agreed, "on Amsterdam Avenue."

"I know where it is!" Medrick squinted past Dortmunder at his house, thinking again, and then said, "What's your name?"

"John."

Now Medrick squinted at Dortmunder and slowly nodded. "Could be true," he decided. "Come inside, it stinks out here."

It did. Following Medrick through the sliding glass door into the house, Dortmunder said, "What's with the tripod, anyway? If you don't mind my asking. And the black cloth."

Medrick gave him a surprised look as he slid the door closed, then nodded through its glass. "That's my camera," he said.

"It is?"

"I was doin a close-up," Medrick said, pointing at his small backyard, "that sundial back there."

"No kidding."

"I only count sunny hours," Medrick quoted, and shrugged. "Hah. Nice if you can get away with it. Come over and sit down. You want ice water?"

Not an offer you'd expect from a bar owner, but in fact, Dortmunder realized, he was thirsty, so he said, "Yeah, nice."

"Take a seat there," Medrick said, and waved a hand, and stumped away.

Dortmunder sat in a living room that was small, neat, and impersonal, as though Medrick had brought none of his possessions south with him but had started afresh, in discount stores. After a minute Medrick came back with two glasses of water, no ice, sat facing Dortmunder, said, "Use the coaster," and then said, "This isn't supposed to happen."

"You thought the family was gonna cover you."

"Years ago," Medrick said, "when the issue first come up, I told Jerry, whadawe want with a bar?"

"Jerome Hulve," Dortmunder said. "Your partner."

"Well, you do your homework," Medrick said, "What it was, for forty-two years I had a camera store on Broadway. Jerry was the dry cleaner next door. He's the one found this tavern was up for sale, got all its licenses, the bar and the fixtures all in place, the price is right, just open it up and that's it."

"I never saw you there."

"You never saw either of us there." Medrick shook his head. "I was reluctant to get into it, but I have to admit, up to now, Jerry was right. The place was never a big problem. On the other hand, it was never a big earner, either."

"It gets a lotta trade," Dortmunder suggested.

"If you call that trade." Medrick shrugged. "At the start," he said, "we thought we'd do a dinner business, it's a neighborhood, all apartments around there. We had waiters, cooks, silverware, the whole thing. Never happened. The trade we got, it was a bar trade."

"That's true."

"In all the years we had the place," Medrick said, "nobody has ever seen any of our customers eat."

"No, I haven't, either."

"But at least no trouble." Medrick made a disgusted face. "But now," he said, "if it all goes to hell, it doesn't just land on Raphael. That piece of paper between us, he still pays me off, I still got the responsibility. These mob guys, they're gonna what-you-say bust it, that comes to my doorstep. How'd you like it, a dozen New York City wholesalers, coming after you?"

"I wouldn't like it," Dortmunder said.

"These are guys," Medrick opined, "don't want you to return that deposit bottle, they got uses for that nickel. Florida is not far enough away, Mars is not far enough away, you stiff those guys, they'll eat your flesh, a little more every day."

"Then," Dortmunder said, "I think you gotta do something about it."

"I'm in Florida," Medrick pointed out. "Raphael is in cyberspace. What am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know things like that," Dortmunder said.

"I had a cat once," Medrick told him, "used to bring dead things into the house this is after we moved out to the Island she'd bring them to wherever I was, drop them at my feet. I'd say, 'Hey, what's this? I don't want no bloody corpse, she'd give me a look: 'Not my problem. Stroll back outside." Medrick lowered a dissatisfied brow in Dortmunder's direction. "Now," he said, "I wonder what made me think of Buttercup after all these years?"

Dortmunder said, "What would you do with the bodies?"

Medrick sighed, looked exasperated, looked at his watch, said, "Rollo, on a Sunday, he comes in at four. I used to have a home number for him, but I didn't bring it south. I can call him then, see what he says. You had lunch?"

Remembering the flight down, Dortmunder said, "No."

"I ate a little before twelve," Medrick said, "but I could have a soup with you."

"A little before twelve?"

"When you're very young or very old, you get to eat whenever the hell you feel like it, which, when you're very old, is just a little bit earlier every day. Six o'clock, five forty-five I figure, the day you sit down to supper at four o'clock, that's God saying hello. Will that car of yours seat two?"

"Well," Dortmunder said, "you're short."

Medrick led him to a no-name eatery in a sprawling one-story half-empty mall where most of the parked cars were the largest Cadillacs made twelve years ago. Over lunch in which the only thing Dortmunder recognized was mashed potatoes, Medrick explained that he'd been a widower for six years "Esther was a wonderful person until the end, when there was nothing good about it" and he'd been in a relationship with a widow named Alma the last two and a half years. "We don't live together," he said, "we aren't gonna get married, but we hang out, we kanookie."

"How come you aren't gonna get married?"

"The government," Medrick said. "If you're on Social Security and you get married, it costs you actual money out of your benefits, so what you got down here, you got an entire state here of people, been upright citizens their entire lives, in their golden years they're living in sin, because the government's got these rules. The government. These are the same people talk about the sanctity of marriage." Medrick rubbed a thumb and forefinger together. "We know what sanctity they care about."

During dessert key lime pie should sue for libel Medrick explained about the camera in the backyard. Having spent all those years selling cameras and camera equipment, he finally got the shutterbug bug himself and started taking nature pictures around and about, figuring he'd found a hobby that would satisfy him for many years of retirement.

"Then came digital," he said, and shook a disgusted head. "What you got with digital, you got no highs and no lows. Everything's perfect, and everything's plastic. You see those Matthew Brady pictures from the Civil War? The Civil War! I'm talking a long time ago. You try to take those pictures with digital, you know what they're gonna look like?"

"No," Dortmunder admitted.

"Special effects in a Civil War movie," Medrick told him. "People look at it, they say, 'Wow, that's great, that's so lifelike! You know what is it, the difference between life and lifelike?"

"I think I do," Dortmunder said.

"Well, there's fewer and fewer of us. Digital finally drove me out of the business. I mean, I was gonna retire anyway, but digital made me go a few months early."

Which was why, in recoiling from the advances of photography, Medrick had bounced back farther and farther in time, until he had settled at last on his current choice, a 1904 8x10 Rochester Optical Peerless field camera, with the mahogany body, nickel trim, and black leather bellows.

"The negative is full-size," Medrick explained, "no enlargements, no loss of detail."

"Sounds great," said Dortmunder, who couldn't have cared less.

At the end of lunch Dortmunder somehow paid the entire tab, not entirely sure how that had happened, and then they went back to Medrick's place, where, for the next two and a half hours, Dortmunder lost at gin, at cribbage, and at Scrabble until, at five minutes past four "Give him a chance to put on his apron," Medrick said, playing pluckier across the double-double Medrick finally phoned the O.J.

"Rollo? Medrick. It's sunny, it's hot, whadaya want? Listen, I got one of your back-room guys here, he says some mob people are killing the place. Yeah uh huh yeah uh huhyeah uh huh yeah uh huh yeah"

Dortmunder was just about to stand and go out to the backyard to look at Medrick's camera for a few hours, when Medrick abruptly said, "Good-bye, Rollo," and hung up.

Dortmunder sat. He looked at Medrick, who turned a bleak gaze on him and said, "Rollo says, they're moving everything out tonight."


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