What’s So Funny? – Chapter One

 

 

WHEN JOHN DORTMUNDER, RELIEVED, walked out of Pointers and back to the main sales floor of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue a little after ten that Wednesday evening in November, the silence was unbelievable, particularly in contrast with the racket that had been going on when he’d left. But now, no. Not a word, not a peep, not a word. The regulars all hunched at the bar were clutching tight to their glasses as they practiced their thousandyard stare, while the lady irregulars mostly seemed to be thinking about their canning. Even Andy Kelp, who had been sharing a bourbon with Dortmunder down at the far end of the bar while they waited for the rest of their group to arrive, now seemed to have settled deeply into a search for a rhyme for “silver.” All in all, it looked as though a whole lot of interior monologue was going on.

 

It took Dortmunder about one and six-seventeenth seconds to figure out what had changed while he was away. One of the seldom used side booths, the one nearest the street door,was now occupied by a person drinking something out of a tall clear glass, revealing both ice and bubbles within, which meant club soda, which probably meant nonalcoholic. This person, male, about forty-five, who apparently still permitted his grandmother to cut his thick black hair, wore on his lumpy countenance the kind of bland inattention that did not suggest interior monologue but, rather, intense listening. A cop, therefore, and not only that but a cop dressed in what he no doubt thought of as civilian attire, being a shapeless shiny old black suit jacket, an emerald green polo shirt and shapeless tan khakis. He also seemed to subscribe to the usual cop belief that the male body was supposed to have bulges around the middle, like a sack of potatoes, the better to hang the equipment belt on, so that your average law enforcement officer does present himself to the public as a person with a lot of Idaho inside. As Dortmunder moved around the corner from the end of the bar and started past the clenched backs of the interior monologists, two things happened which he found disturbing. First, the lumpy features of the cop over there suddenly became even more bland, his eyes even less focused, the movement of his arm bringing club soda to his mouth even more relaxed and even.

 

It’s me! Dortmunder screamed inside,without letting anything— he certainly hoped—appear on the surface, it’s me he’s after, it’s me he wants, it’s me he’s got the tag sale duds on for.

 

And the second thing that happened, Andy Kelp, with such studied nonchalance he looked like a pickpocket on his day off, stood from his barstool, picked up his glass—and the bottle! their shared bottle!—and turned, meeting no one’s eye, to sit in the nearest of the side booths, as though to be more comfortable there. Not only that, but, once seated, he contrived to lift his feet under the table and put them on the bench seat on the other side, so that not only was he more comfortable here, he was alone.

 

They all know it’s me, Dortmunder acknowledged to himself. Even Rollo, the meaty bartender, his back to the room as he taped a home-lettered-on-shirt-cardboard-in-red-Crayola “we don’t accept food stamps” sign to the backbar mirror, even Rollo, by the unusually cementish appearance of those stocky shoulders, made it clear that he too knew why Cap’n Club Soda was here, which happened to be himself, the individual who had just entered the arena.

 

Dortmunder’s first thought was: escape. But then his second thought was: can’t. The only exit was just beyond the cop’s black wool left elbow; unachievable, in other words. Maybe he should turn around and go back to Pointers, take a seat there, wait the guy out. No; the cop could just follow him in and start talking.

 

Then what about hiding out in Setters? No, that wouldn’t work either; an irregular would be sure to come in and start yelling and carrying on.

 

Whatever this is, Dortmunder thought, I gotta go through with it. But not without my drink.

 

So, with barely any break in stride at all for his own interior monologue, he headed down the bar toward that distant but worth the detour drink. And as he went, the cop signaled to him. Not with any blunt stare or finger-point or hey you, none of that. All he did was pick up his glass, smile in an appreciative way at the club soda inside it, then put the glass back down on the table and look nowhere in particular. That’s all he did, but more plainly than an invitation edged in black it said, comon over, siddown, let’s get acquainted.

 

First things first. Dortmunder reached his glass, saw there wasn’t enough liquid left in the bottom of it to put out a firefly, drained it and turned hopelessly toward the booths, carrying the empty glass. Along the way, not looking at Kelp, who likewise did not look at him, he paused beside that first table to replenish his glass from their bottle—their bottle!— then trudged on down the row of booths to stop next to Mr. Doom and mutter, “This seat taken?”

 

“Rest yourself,” the cop said. He had a soft deep voice, a burr with some gravel in it, as though he might sing the Lord’s lines in some church choir somewhere.

 

So Dortmunder slid in across from the cop, keeping his knees away from those alien knees, and put his head back to sluice down a little bourbon. When he lowered glass and head, the cop was sliding a small card across the table toward him, saying, “Let me introduce myself.” He didn’t exactly smile or grin or anything like that, but you could tell he was pleased with himself.

 

Dortmunder leaned forward to look down at the card without touching it. A business card, an ivory off-white, with fancy lettering in light blue, it read in the middle:

 

JOHNNY EPPICK
For Hire

 

and in the lower right corner an address and phone number:

 

598 E. 3rd St.
New York, NY 10009
917-555-3585

 

East Third Street? Over by the river? Who ever had anything to do way over there? That was a part of Manhattan so remote you practically needed a visa to go there, and if you needed a reason to go there, there weren’t any.

 

Also, the phone number was for a cell phone, that was the Manhattan cell phone area code. So this Johnny Eppick could say he was at 598 East Third Street, but if you called that number and he answered, he could be in Omaha, who’s to know?

 

But more important than the address and the phone number was that line under the name: For Hire. Dortmunder frowned at that information some little time and then, head still facing downward, he swiveled his eyes up to look toward Johnny Eppick, if that’s who he was, and say, “You’re not a cop?”

 

“Not for seventeen months,” Eppick told him, and now he did grin.“Did my twenty, turned in my papers, decided to freelance.”

 

“Huh,” Dortmunder said. So apparently, you could take the cop out of the NYPD, but you couldn’t take the NYPD out of the cop.

 

And now this no-longer-cop did a very cop thing: out of an inside pocket of that black suitcoat he took a photo, color, about twice the size of the business card, and slid it forward beside the card to say,“Whadaya thinka that?”

 

The picture was what looked like an alley somewhere, grungy and neglected like all alleys everywhere, with what looked like the rear entrances to a row of stores in an irregular line of brick buildings. A guy was moving near one of those doors, carrying a computer in both arms.The guy was all dressed in black and was hunched over the computer as though it were pretty heavy.

 

Dortmunder didn’t really look at the picture, just gave it a skim before he shook his head and said, with regret,“Sorry, I never saw him before.”

 

“You see him every morning when you shave,” Eppick said.

 

Dortmunder frowned. What was this, a trick? Was that himself in the picture? Trying to recognize himself in that burdened figure there, that crumpled-over dark comma against the bricks, he said,“What’s goin on here?”

 

“That’s the back of an H & R Block,” Eppick told him. “It’s Sunday afternoon, it isn’t tax season, they’re closed.You took four computers out of there, don’t you remember?”

 

Vaguely, Dortmunder did. Of course, when you’re at your job, after a while the work all blends together. Carefully, he said, “I’m pretty sure that isn’t me.”

 

“Listen, John,” Eppick said, then paused to pretend he was polite, saying,“You don’t mind if I call you John, do you?”

 

“Kinda, yeah.”

 

“That’s good. John, the point is, if I wanted to turn some evidence on you over to some former co-workers of mine, you’d already be in a place where everything goes clangclang, you know what I mean?”

 

“No,” Dortmunder said.

 

“It seems to me pretty clear,” Eppick said. “One hand washes the other.”

 

Dortmunder nodded. Pointing his jaw at the picture, he said, “Which hand is that?”

 

“What you want, John—”

 

“Well, the negative, I guess.”

 

Sadly Eppick shook his head. “Sorry, John,” he said. “Digital. It’s in the computer forever.One you won’t be carrying anywhere, not even to that fence friend of yours, that Arnie Albright.”

 

Dortmunder raised a brow in surprise. “You know too much,” he said.

 

Eppick frowned at him.“Was that a threat, John?”

 

“No!” Startled, almost embarrassed, Dortmunder stuttered, “I only meant, you know so much, I don’t know how you’d know all that much, I mean, whadaya wanna know all that much about me for, that’s all. Not you know too much. So much.You know so much, uh, Mr. Eppick.”

 

“That’s okay, then,” Eppick said.

 

At this point there was a slight interruption as the street door beside their booth opened and two guys walked in, bringing with them a touch of the outer nippiness of the air. Dortmunder sat facing that door, while Eppick faced the bar, but if Dortmunder recognized either of these new customers he made no sign. Nor did Eppick seem to notice that fresh blood was walking past his elbow.

 

The first of the fresh blood was a carrot-headed guy who walked in a dogged unrelenting manner, as though looking for a chip to put on his shoulder, while the other was a younger guy who managed to look both eager and cautious at the same time, as though looking forward to dinner but unsure what that sound was he’d just heard from the kitchen. These two didn’t become aware of Eppick until they’d already entered the place, the bar door closing behind them, and then they both faltered for just a frame or two before moving smoothly on, unhurried but covering ground, passing Andy Kelp with no recognition on either side and making their way without unseemly haste around the end of the bar and out of sight in the direction of Pointers and Setters and the phone booth and the back room.

 

Hoping Eppick had made nothing of this exit and entrance, and trying to ignore the army of butterflies now investigating the nooks and crannies of his stomach, Dortmunder tried to keep the conversation on track and his voice unbutterflied by saying, “I mean, that’s a real question. Knowing all this stuff about me and having this picture and all this. What’s the point in here?”

 

“The point, John, is this,” Eppick said. “I have a client, and he’s hired me to make a certain retrieval on his behalf.”

 

“A retrieval.”

 

“That’s exactly right. And I looked around, and I looked at old arrest records, you know, MOs of this guy and that guy, I still got my access to whatever I want over there, and it seemed to me you’re the guy I want to help me in this issue of this retrieval.”

 

“I’m reformed,” Dortmunder said.

 

“Have a relapse,” Eppick suggested.“Recidify.” Picking up the picture, he returned it to his coat pocket, then pushed the business card closer to Dortmunder, saying,“You come to my office tomorrow morning, ten a.m., you’ll meet my employer, he’ll explain the whole situation. You don’t show up, expect to hear knocking on your door.”

 

“Urm,” Dortmunder said.

 

Rising up out of the booth, Eppick nodded away, grinned in an amiable fashion, and said, “Give my hello to your friend Andy Kelp. But it’s just you I want to see in the morning.”

 

And he turned and walked out of the bar to the outer sidewalk, leaving behind a sopping dishrag where there once had been a man.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Donald Westlake

 

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