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39

WEDNESDAY WAS THE most jam-packed day of Judson Blint's life, beginning when he got to the office in the morning and J. C. paid him for his first week's work, and ending when he rode in the rented Ford Econoline van full of his earthly possessions through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan just before midnight. And in between, he'd joined a gang and learned a skill.

The start was nine in the morning, when he entered suite 712. He started toward his desk, and J. C. stuck her head out from the inner office to say, "Come on in. It's time you got paid."

He'd wondered about that. He'd been working here a week now, taking care of all the businesses J. C. didn't need any more, Intertherapeutic and Super Star and Allied Commissioners, and apart from a few cash advances he still hadn't seen any money. Yes, this was essentially a criminal operation going on here, or a whole bunch of criminal operations, but he still needed to get some kind of salary.

However, he hadn't yet figured out how to raise the subject, so it was a relief that J. C. had brought it up herself. "Good!" he said, and followed her back into her office, still a neater place than his own.

She gestured to him to sit in the other chair, herself sat behind the desk, and opened a drawer to take out a ledger book and a gray canvas sack with a zipper on it and a bank logo across the side. Setting the sack apart, she opened the ledger and said, "You started here last Wednesday, so I guess it's just easiest to put you on a Wednesday to Tuesday week."

"Okay."

"I gave you a couple advances a hundred fifty so that comes out of it."

"Uh huh."

She took a wad of cash out of the sack and started counting it on the desktop as she said, "Your take this week comes to seven hundred twenty-two, but I don't do singles, so we round it down to seven-twenty, subtract the yard and a half, five-seventy, and here you are."

Five hundred and seventy dollars, a thick wad of cash, was thrust toward him. He took it, gaped at it, gaped at her. "J. C, uh," he said, "can I ask?"

"What, you don't think that's enough?"

"No, it's fine! It's more than I But you said, my take for this week. I don't understand. How did you get to that number?"

She looked surprised for a second, then laughed and said, "That's right, I negotiated your deal for you, and then I never got around to telling you the agreement you made. You get twenty percent of the scams you're covering. The rest goes to me for office upkeep and thinking them up in the first place."

"Twenty twenty percent of all those checks?"

"Judson, I just don't think I can get you a better piece. Believe me, I"

"No no," he said. "I'm not complaining. Twenty percent, that's fine. Fine. I didn't, I didn't realize it was going to work that way."

"What'd you think I was gonna do, pay you by the hour? Do you want wages? Or do you want a piece?"

"I want a piece," he said. Some answers he knew right away.

Later that morning, when he brought into her office today's mail for Maylohda, he said, "I want to come back late from lunch. I'm pretty much caught up out there."

"Got a nooner?"

Peeved with himself for blushing, but feeling the damn blood in his cheeks anyway, he said, "No, I just thought I need my own place in the city, I thought I'd go look for an apartment."

She nodded. "Furnished or unfurnished?"

"Furnished for now, I mean, I don't"

"Studio?" At his blank look, she said, "An L-shaped room, sofa over here, bed over there, separate kitchen, separate john."

"Oh. Yeah, that'd be good." Did she also rent apartments?

Reaching for her phone, she said, "Lemme make a call. There's a woman in this building, down on four, she's got a pretty good agency. Muriel, please. Muriel, it's J. C. Making a living. Listen, I got a jailbait boy here needs a furnished studio. Well, he can go two, but he'd rather not." She looked at Judson. "East Side or West Side?"

"I don't know, really."

"West Side," she told the phone. "Maybe downtown, one of the Spanish parts of Chelsea. He doesn't wanna pay MBA rates. He works for me, if that's a vouch. His name is Judson Blint." Hanging up, she said to Judson, "Go down to four oh six. They'll give you the address. Go now, come back after lunch."

"Thanks."

"Welcome to Big Town," she said.

He never did see Muriel. Four oh six said Top-Boro Properties on the door, and inside was a very high-class reception area with a very high-class receptionist. He gave her his name and she said, "Oh, yes, here you are," and gave him a card.

It was Top-Boro's business card, with Muriel Spelvin on the lower right. On the back was an address on West Twenty-seventh Street, and the name Eduardo.

"That's the super," she said. "Ask for him, he'll show you the place, if you want it, come back here."

"Thank you."

Not knowing any better, he walked the two miles, and found the block to be half very old tenement-type buildings in brick, with high stoops, and half tallish old apartment buildings in stone. The address he wanted was one of the original tenements, and at the top of the stoop was a vertical line of doorbells, half with names attached. The bottom one said SUPER, so he pushed it, waited, and a short, heavy guy in undershirt and work pants and black boots came out from under the stairs to look up and shout, "Hoy?"

"Eduardo?"

"Si."

"I'm Judson Blint, I'm here to see the apartment."

"Hokay."

Eduardo trotted up the stoop. He had shaved this week, but not today. He was friendly but distracted, as though in some other corner of his life he were busy cooking an elaborate lunch. He said, "Come wit me."

Judson went with him into the building, up two narrow, dim flights of stairs, and to the leftward of the two doors at the rear of the hall there. Elaborately he undid three locks, then opened the door, walked in first, and said, "Empty three weeks. I keep it clean."

It was clean shabby, but clean. All the furniture looked gnawed somehow, as though some previous tenant had kept small, nervous wild animals in here. The layout was exactly as J. C. had described, though she hadn't mentioned how small the kitchen and bathroom would be no tub, just shower or how old the appliances. The refrigerator door was propped open.

"Is the electricity off?"

"You call Con Ed, they turn it on," Eduardo said. "Switch your account from your old place."

"I don't have an old place."

Eduardo shrugged. "You call Con Ed."

The bathroom and the bedroom end of the L-shaped room each had a window, old, large, double-hung, guarded by expanding metal gates. Judson peered through the metal strips at half a dozen plane tree branches and the back of a building similar to this one.

"S'okay?"

"I like it," Judson said.

"See you around."

Back at Top-Boro he signed a lease that the receptionist assured him was full of loopholes, so he could always walk away if he found something better. The rent was seventeen forty-two fifty-three a month, which meant he immediately owed three thousand, four hundred eighty-five dollars and six cents, none of which he had, but which the receptionist assured him his employer was taking care of. He left with a dizzy head, a copy of the porous lease, and a lot of keys, all to the same apartment.

Upstairs, he went into J. C.'s office and said, "You're paying the rent?"

"Because you don't have it," she said. "I'll take it back from your piece, ten percent a month, one percent vig."

He thought he understood what that was. "Thank you," he said.

She nodded. "You got more stuff to do?"

"Con Ed."

"Right. And open a checking account people don't trust you if you give them cash."

"I will."

"And no matter how late it is, come back here and finish up today's stuff. You don't wanna let things pile up."

"No, I won't."

It was quarter to five before he got back, but he now had an apartment, electricity, and a checking account. He was becoming, he realized, an actual person.

J. C.'s door was open, and she was coming out, ready to go home, looking terrific in white dress and white heels. "Call Andy Kelp," she said. "I put his number on your desk."

"Okay. Thanks." Proudly he said, "I have an apartment and a checking account."

"Today you are a man," she said, but she seemed to be grinning to herself as she left.

Casting that from his mind, Judson phoned Andy Kelp, who answered right away, saying, "Hello, Judson, I understand you're moving to town."

"In a couple days, yes," Judson said, because he planned to start setting the place up tomorrow and make the move over the weekend.

But Kelp said, "No, Judson, you've got the place now, why not move in? You've got your electric?"

"I just came back from Con Ed."

"Good. Here's what I'm gonna do for you, my kinda welcome wagon. When you get done your work, call me, then go to your place, I'll meet you there. I have a little training session for you, then we're gonna rent a van, you and me, and while I drive you'll practice some more, and when we come back to town with your goods you'll do a little something for me, then give the van back and go to your new home and sleep like a baby."

It was after seven before Judson could phone Andy Kelp and say he was ready. "I'll walk down now, I'll be there in half an hour."

"Take a cab," Kelp said.

"Oh. Okay."

So he took a cab more grownupness and Kelp was waiting for him on the sidewalk, a big cardboard box standing next to him. "Give me a hand with this," he said.

The box was about the size of a wheeled suitcase and pretty heavy. They lugged it up the stoop and then had to wait while Judson figured out which key opened the front door. The two flights up from there were tricky, with a number of banged elbows, but then they got to the door of Judson's apartment, he figured out those keys, too, and they carried the box in and set it down.

The only change from this morning was that the electricity was on. The refrigerator door was still open, spreading light and cool into the kitchen, so the first thing Judson did was shut it, while Kelp was figuring out how to open the gate over the main room's window so he could open the window. Turning from that, he said, "My recommendation, get an A/C. Either that, or rent the apartment in front, too. What you want is your cross-ventilation."

"I don't know this place yet," Judson said.

"No, I know that," Kelp agreed, and turned back to the box. "Let's have a little training session, then grab a bite, then rent that truck."

Judson watched as Kelp opened the carton and pulled out of it a dark gray metal box, laying it on the thin dark rug on the floor. It was an alarm box. It looked exactly like the alarm box on that building Tiny had been studying. "That's the alarm box," he said.

"The one you wanted to be boosted up to, yeah," Kelp agreed. He was now pulling out of the carton a packet of soft black leather, which he unrolled to show a toolkit. "We got a better idea," he said. "Also, it turns out, the manufacturer did some modifications on these things since the last time I met one.

"How'd you find that out?"

Kelp shrugged. "I went on their Web site. People will tell you anything if they think they can make a sale. So I lifted this one from their warehouse so we could study it. And also use it." He rooted around in the box, came out with a little pamphlet. "Okay, here's the instruction manual. It'd be better if it was attached to a wall, but we don't wanna mess up your place, so we'll do it on the floor. I'll read from the manual, and you do like it says. Here, take the tools."

Judson took the toolkit, admiring the softness of the leather, and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the alarm. Kelp sat on the sofa, bounced experimentally, and said, "My advice, get a sheet a plywood, put under the cushions. Your springs here are but a memory."

"Okay."

"Okay. Now, the first thing we do, we're gonna learn how to remove the cover." Kelp bent over the instruction manual. "You will notice four Phillips-head screws in the corners of the cover."

"Uh huh."

"You will remove them in the following sequence. Any other sequence, the alarm turns on."

"Pretty sneaky," Judson commented.

"All's fair in love and theft. The sequence is, top right, bottom left, top left, bottom right. What'd I say?"

Judson repeated it to him, and Kelp said, "Good. Do it."

Judson chose a screwdriver from the toolkit, then hesitated over the alarm. "If I do something wrong, will it make a lot of noise?"

"What, that one? No, it can't, it isn't plugged into anything. Go ahead."

So Judson removed the screws, then followed further directions to remove the cover, revealing a very complicated interior apparently operated by many tiny computer chips.

At this point, Kelp handed him a six-inch length of fairly thick wire with alligator clips on each end. "Your electric feed is from that black box on the upper left. Follow the green wire."

"Uh huh."

"Clip it at the other end."

"Okay."

"Your phone connection is the sheathed black wire comes up from the bottom, fastens to the works with a nut over bolt. Undo the nut."

Judson found pliers in the toolkit and undid the nut.

"Bend the phone wire back, put the other alligator clip on the bolt."

"Got it."

"Now, there should be a red button in there, it's the manual override."

"It must be that one."

"When you push that, you just unlocked the garage door. Go ahead, push it."

Feeling a little silly, because this alarm wasn't attached to a garage door or anything else, Judson pushed the red button. "Done."

"Fine. Now, when we do it, you would put the cover back on, and you wouldn't have to worry about the sequence because at this point the alarm is out of the loop. But this time, don't put the cover on yet. Instead, put everything back the way it was. Exactly like it was."

Judson did that, and then Kelp said, "So, do you wanna run through it one more time before we go?"

"Well, it seems pretty simple," Judson said. "I don't see a problem with it."

"What you gotta remember," Kelp told him, "if you get one thing wrong with the real alarm, you're gonna suddenly be reenacting New Year's Eve on Times Square."

"I know how to be careful," Judson assured him.

"That's good," Kelp said. "Because, the thing is, you're gonna be doing the real one in the dark."

With the rented Ford Econoline van from a place on Eleventh Avenue in the Forties, and with the alarm back in its cardboard box on the floor in the back of the van, out they headed for Long Island. Once through the Midtown Tunnel, Kelp pulled over to the side of the toll plaza and said, "Get in back and practice some more."

So Judson unalarmed and alarmed the alarm all across the Long Island Expressway as evening turned into night, so that he gradually did learn to do it in the dark. They drove like that all the way out to his former home, just into Suffolk County, where he introduced Kelp to his bewildered parents, who had been briefed in advance by Judson but still didn't get it. So they simply stood and watched as their third child of seven not that big a deal, then and his shifty-looking companion Kelp was never at his best on Long Island carted out of the house everything of Judson's he thought he'd need in his new life, including, at Kelp's suggestion, his bed linen. "There's furnished and there's furnished," Kelp pointed out.

On the return, with the back of the van pretty full, Judson got to sit up front. Also, "The later the better," as Kelp phrased it, so on driving back to the city, coming through the Mid-town Tunnel just before midnight, they went first to his new residence to cart everything upstairs, where many hands four, anyway did make light work.

Then, not long after one in the morning, they drove uptown and through Central Park, then stopped at the curb on the park side of Fifth Avenue in the Seventies, so they could get Judson and the alarm both up on the roof, which was more curving and slippery than it looked. However, Judson held on tight and Kelp drove carefully, and in no time at all they were making the turn slowly onto Sixty-eighth Street, where Kelp stopped, then backed around into the driveway indentation and stopped with the rear doors of the van snug up against the garage door.

Kelp stayed in the van, in case it should be necessary to leave earlier than expected, while Judson knelt in front of the alarm and reached for the toolkit. Windows loomed all around him, but every one of them was dark. He noticed that he had, in fact, more illumination from streetlights out here than he'd had inside the van.

Proper preparation is all. When he at last did get to the job, it was a snap.


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