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9

WHEN DORTMUNDER into the O.J. Bar Grill at ten that night, the regulars were clustered, as usual, down toward the left end of the bar, while Rollo, whose apron was well on its way to becoming a regional cuisine all by itself, stood some way to the right, doing nothing in particular as he leaned against the high-tech cash register he never used, preferring to operate it with its till jutting open until all advanced technology should someday retreat out the door.

Dortmunder aimed himself at Rollo, and was halfway there from the front door when he realized something was wrong. It was silent in the joint. Not just quiet silent. Not a regular was stirring. Apart from them and Rollo, there was only one occupied booth, over on the right two guys in satin-bright polyester shirts, one emerald and one apricot, with wide contrasting collars, and except for their shirts those two were silent as well.

What was going on? Was it a wake around here? Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough. They, all of them, men and the women's auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option. In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats. Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

Nothing from Rollo, either. He stood against the cash register with his meaty arms folded, and gazed at his domain with what had to be at least a hundred-and-fifty-yard stare of his own. Dortmunder made sure to get directly into the line of sight of that stare, and then said, "Rollo?"

Rollo blinked. "Oh," he said. He could be seen to recognize Dortmunder, but whatever welcome was rising toward the surface never made it. Instead, he shook his head. "Sorry," he said.

"We thought we'd meet," Dortmunder told him, "in the back room." And he pointed generally toward the back room, in case Rollo had forgotten its existence.

"No can do," Rollo said, and shook his head again.

This was unexpected in fact, unprecedented. Dortmunder said, "You got other people back there?"

"No, it's in use," Rollo said, which sounded an awful lot like a contradiction.

Dortmunder was baffled. When the time came to get the string together, to discuss the situation and work out the possibilities, the place to do it was the back room at the O.J., always had been. The room was secure, the management minded its own affairs, and the drinks were priced with repeat business in mind. So this is where they would come. This is, in fact, where they were all coming tonight, summoned by Dortmunder himself.

Trying to get around this sudden bump in the road, Dortmunder said, "I suppose we could wait a while, you know, till it frees up, sit in one of those"

The Rollo headshake again. "Sorry, John," he said. "Forget about that room."

Dortmunder stared at him. The entire world had gone mad. "Forget about it? Rollo, what's"

"Any problem here, Rollo?"

Dortmunder looked to his right, and it was the emerald shirt from the booth, with its pterodactyl collar. The man with it was short but strong-looking, as though his body were made of one hundred percent gristle, with a head on top full of outsize parts, so that he could only look reasonable in profile. Sideways, he could have been somebody on a Roman coin, but head-on he looked like a hawk that had gone through a windshield.

This person didn't actually look at Dortmunder, but he made it clear he was aware of Dortmunder's existence and wasn't made particularly happy by the fact. "Rollo?" he asked.

"No problem," Rollo assured him, though he sounded very gloomy when he said it. To Dortmunder he said, "Sorry, John."

Dortmunder, still trying to find the old terra firma, said, "Rollo, couldn't we"

"He said he was sorry, John."

Dortmunder looked at the emerald. "Do I know you?"

"I don't think you want to, my friend," the emerald told him, and without actually moving anything he seemed to suggest that Dortmunder look past his emerald left shoulder to where, back at the table he'd come from, the apricot now watched Dortmunder with the fixed ferocity of a cat watching a chipmunk.

What Dortmunder might have said or done next he would never know, because movement farther to his right attracted his attention, and here came Andy Kelp, cheerful, smiling in sunny ignorance, saying, "We're the first? Hey, there, Rollo, whadaya say?"

"No," Rollo said.

"John, you got the bottle? We gotta"

"Rollo told you no," said the emerald. "Politely. I heard him."

Kelp reared back to look the emerald up and down. "What flying saucer did this come out of?" he wanted to know.

The emerald wore his magnificent shirt outside his pants, and now his quick move toward his waist at the middle of his back did not suggest a sudden lumbar distress. Kelp cocked an eyebrow at him, interested, half smiling.

"Andy," Rollo said, with a kind of muffled urgency, and when Kelp turned toward him, still smiling, still bland, he said, "We don't want any trouble in here, Andy. Believe me, we don't want any trouble in here."

The emerald was still in position, hand at his back, eyes fixed on Kelp. And here came the apricot, saying, "Some kinda problem, Rollo?"

"Everything's fine," Rollo said, though not as though he meant it. Then he said, "John, listen, wait a minute," and both his hands dove under the bar.

Everybody tensed. Even the regulars rustled slightly. But then Rollo came up with a quart bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon "Our Own Brand," holding it in both hands like an abandoned baby, which he thrust toward Dortmunder, saying, "On the house. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for your patience."

Dortmunder found himself holding the bottle. He'd never gotten a freebie bottle in here before, but somehow the circumstances clouded the gift. "Rollo," he said, "is there anything I can do?"

"Go home, John," Rollo suggested, but then he leaned forward, lowered his voice so that only people in the bar could hear him, and said, "Do me a favor. Don't let Tiny get upset."

Kelp said, "He will, you know."

"Please," Rollo said.

Kelp looked at Dortmunder. "John?"

There was nothing to be done. Dortmunder sighed. "He did say please," he said, and turned toward the door.

All the way out, they could feel those eyes on the backs of their heads.


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