DORTMUNDER, wearing black and carrying his canvas bag of burglar tools, walked across the rooftops from the parking garage on the corner. At the sixth roof, he looked over the front edge to be absolutely sure he was on the right building, and felt dizzy for just a second when he saw the distant street six stories down, floating like a ship in the glare of streetlights. Cars were parked along both sides, leaving one black lane open in the middle. A cab was going by down there, its yellow top glinting in the light. Behind the cab came a slow-moving police car; the unlit flasher dome on its roof looked like a piece of candy.
And this was the right place. The furrier’s hanging sign was visible down there, right where it was supposed to be. Dortmunder, feeling a trifle queasy about the height, leaned back from the edge, carefully turned, and walked across the roof to the opposite side, where a fire escape led down into less dizzying darkness. The building backs were crammed so close together here that Dortmunder felt he could almost reach out and touch the grimy brick wall across the way, but all of the windows along here were dark. It was three o’clock in the morning, so no one was up and about.
Dortmunder went slowly down the fire escape. The canvas bag made muffled clanking sounds whenever it hit the fire escape railing, and he grimaced and clenched his teeth at every noise. Some of the windows he was passing belonged to storage lofts and other commercial enterprises, but some were apartments, this being the kind of Manhattan neighborhood where families and factories live side by side. He didn’t want anybody to wake up, mistake him for a peeping torn, and shoot him.
Second floor. A scarred metal door, painted black, led out to the fire escape, which stopped at this level. A metal ladder could be lowered for the last flight down, but Dortmunder didn’t want the first-floor shop, he wanted the second-floor storage room. In almost total darkness, he put down the canvas bag, felt the door all over with his fingertips, and decided it would have to be a simple peeling operation. Noisy for a few seconds, but that couldn’t be helped.
Kneeling, he zipped open his bag and got the right tools out by sense of touch. The chisel. The small crowbar. The large screwdriver with the rubber handle.
He paused. He looked around and- saw nothing but the darkness. It had sounded like somebody hissing at him.
Probably a rat in a garbage can. Dortmunder stood, and prepared to wedge the chisel in at the top corner of the door.
By God, that almost sounded human. Dortmunder, feeling the hair starting to stand up on the back of his neck, clutched the chisel like a weapon and looked around some more.
He almost dropped the chisel. The hisser had hissed his name, a sibilant whisper that made the name Dortmunder sound as though it were full of esses. Here in the darkness, with nobody around, somebody—some thing—was hissing his name.
My guardian angel, he thought. But no; if he had a guardian angel, it would have given up on him years ago.
It’s Satan, he thought, he’s come to get me. The hand holding the chisel trembled, and the chisel made little skittery rapping noises against the metal door.
“Dortmunder, up here!”
Up? Would Satan be above him? Wouldn’t the devil be underneath? Blinking uncontrollably, Dortmunder looked up. Above him, the grillwork lines of the fire escape stood out dimly against the dull red light that New York City always casts up to its cloud cover at night. Something, some creature, was on the fire escape, one level above him, silhouetted vaguely against the red sky, looming over him like a gargoyle on a church roof.
“Jesus!” Dortmunder whispered.
“Dortmunder,” the creature hissed at him, “its me! Kelp!”
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Dortmunder said, and got so mad he forgot where he was and threw the chisel down. The clang it made when it hit the fire escape made him jump a foot.
“For Pete’s sake, Dortmunder,” Kelp whispered, “don’t be so noisy!”
“Go away, Kelp,” Dortmunder said. He spoke in a normal tone of voice, not giving a damn about anything any more.
“I want to talk to you,” Kelp whispered. “May told me where you were.”
“May has a big mouth,” Dortmunder said, still speaking aloud.
“So do you, fella!” a voice shouted from one or two buildings away. “How about turning it off so we can get some sleep!”
Kelp whispered, “Come up here, Dortmunder, I want to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Dortmunder said. He wasn’t keeping his voice down at all; in fact, it was starting to go up. “I don’t ever want to talk to you,” he said. “I don’t even want to see you.”
“How would you like to see some cops!” the voice yelled.
“Oh, shut up!” Dortmunder yelled back.
“We’ll see about that!”
Somewhere, a window slammed.
Urgent, shrill, Kelp whispered, “Dortmunder, come up here, will you? And keep it low, you’re gonna get us in trouble.”
Not keeping it low, Dortmunder said, “I’m not going up there, you’re going away. I’m going to stay down here and do my work.”
“You’re on the wrong floor,” Kelp whispered.
Dortmunder, bending down and feeling around for his chisel, frowned and looked up at the vague figure against the gray-red clouds. “I am not,” he said.
“It’s—there’s an extra—that’s the basement down there?’
“The what?” Dortmunder’s hand found the chisel. He straightened, holding it, and frowned down into impenetrable darkness. There was another story down there, he was sure of it. So this was the second floor.
But Kelp whispered, “Why do you think I’m waiting up here?. Count down from the roof if you don’t believe me. You’re gonna break into the store.”
“I’m just in the same block with you,” Dortmunder said, “and things get screwed up.”
A light went on in a window, off to the left. Kelp, more urgently, whispered, “Come up here! You want to get caught?”
“Okay, fella,” the voice shouted, “you asked for it. The cops are on the way.”
Another voice yelled, “Why don’t you people shut up?”
The first voice yelled, “It isn’t me! It’s those other clowns!”
“You got the biggest voice I can hear!” shouted voice number two.
“How would you like to go screw yourself?” voice number one wanted to know.
Another yellow window appeared. A third voice yelled, “How would the two of you like to go drown yourselves?”
“Dortmunder,” Kelp whispered. “Come on, come on.” Voice number two was making a suggestion to voice number three. Voice number one was yelling to somebody named Mary to call the cops again. A voice number four entered the chorus, and two more windows sprang out of the darkness. It was getting very bright back here.
Dortmunder, grumbling, muttering, annoyed into futile silence, went down on one knee and stolidly repacked his canvas bag. “A simple burglary,” he told himself. “Kelp shows up. Can’t even do a simple burglary.” Around him the neighborhood argument raged. People in pajamas were leaning out of windows, shaking their fists at one another. Dortmunder zipped up the bag and got to his feet. “A simple quiet little peaceful job,” he muttered. “Kelp shows up.” Carrying the bag, he started back up the fire escape.
Kelp was waiting, one flight up. There was another black metal door there, standing open, and Kelp made host like gestures for Dortmunder to go in, but Dortmunder ignored him and went right on by. Going past, he caught a glimpse of furs hanging on racks inside there; so he really had been on the wrong floor. That didn’t improve his disposition.
Kelp said, “Where you going?” There wasn’t any point in whispering now, not with everybody else in the neighborhood shouting at once, so Kelp spoke in an ordinary voice.
Dortmunder didn’t answer. He went on up the fire escape. He became aware after half a flight that Kelp was following him, and he considered turning around and telling him to go away, or possibly turning around and hitting Kelp on the head with the canvas bag, but he didn’t do it. He didn’t have the strength, he didn’t have a positive enough attitude. He was feeling defeatist again, the way he always did around Kelp. So he just kept plodding up the fire escape stairs to the roof.
At the top he turned left and headed across the roofs toward the parking garage. He knew Kelp was trotting after him, but he tried to ignore the fact. He also tried to ignore it when Kelp caught up with him and walked next to him, panting and saying, “Don’t go so fast, will ya?”
Dortmunder went faster.
“You were going in the wrong floor,” Kelp said. “Is that my fault? I got there ahead of you, I jimmied the door, I thought I’d help.”
“Don’t help,” Dortmunder said. “That’s all I ask, don’t help.”
“If you’d stopped at the right floor,” Kelp said, “I wouldn’t have had to call you. We could have talked inside. I could have helped you carry the furs.”
“Don’t help,” Dortmunder said.
“You went to the wrong floor.”
Dortmunder stopped. He was one roof shy of the parking garage. He turned and looked at Kelp and said, “All right. One question. You’ve got a caper? You want me in on it?”
Kelp hesitated. It could be seen that he’d had a different plan in mind for broaching his subject, a method more circuitous and subtle. But it wasn’t to be, and Dortmunder watched Kelp gradually accept the fact. Kelp sighed. “Yes,” he said.
“The answer is no,” Dortmunder said. He turned and headed again for the parking garage.
Hurrying after him, Kelp protested, “Why? You can’t even listen?”
Dortmunder stopped again, and Kelp ran into him. Kelp was shorter than Dortmunder, and his nose ran into Dortmunder’s shoulder. “Ow!” he said.
“I’ll tell you why,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp pressed a hand to his nose. “That hurt,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Dortmunder said. “The last time I listened to you, I wound up running all over Long Island with a stolen bank, and what did I get out of it? A head cold.”
“I think I’ve got a nosebleed,” Kelp said. He was tenderly touching his nose with his fingertips.
“I’m sorry,” Dortmunder said. “And the time before that, you remember what that was? That other time I listened to you? That goddam Balabomo Emerald, remember that one?”
“If you’re blaming me for any of that,” Kelp said, talking nasally because he was holding his nose, “I think it’s very unfair.”
“If I’m unfair,” Dortmunder pointed out, “you don’t want to be around me.” And he turned away again and walked on.
Kelp trailed along, touching his nose and loudly sniffing. The two of them crossed to the last roof, and Dortmunder opened the door leading to the stairs. He went down, followed by Kelp, to an open, concrete-floored area with half a dozen dusty cars parked in it. Walking across the floor, with Kelp still behind him, he went down a concrete ramp past another parking level with more dusty cars, and at the third level down walked out past a lot of less dusty cars to a brown Volkswagen Microbus with red side curtains. Kelp, still talking nasally, said, “Where’d you get that?”
“I stole it,” Dortmunder said. “Because you weren’t around, nothing went wrong. I figured to be filling it with furs right now.”
“That’s not my fault,” Kelp said. “You were on the wrong floor.”
“It was because you were around,” Dortmunder told him. “You’re my jinx, I don’t even have to know you’re there and you screw me up.”
“That isn’t fair, Dortmunder,” Kelp said. “Now, you know that.” He gestured with both hands.
“You’re bleeding on your shirt,” Dortmunder told him.
“Oh, damn.” Kelp closed his fingers over his nose again. “Listen,” he twanged, “lemme just tell you about this thing.”
“If I listen to you—” Dortmunder started, and then stopped and shook his head. Sometimes there just wasn’t anything to be done with a bad hand but play it. He knew that, if anybody did. “Screw it,” he said. “Get in the car.”
Behind the hand holding his nose, Kelp beamed. “You won’t regret this, Dortmunder,” he said, and ran around to the other side of the Microbus.
“I regret it already,” Dortmunder said. But he got into the Microbus and started the engine and drove it down and out of the garage. A man in a green work shirt and green work pants sitting on a kitchen chair out on the sidewalk did not look up as they went by. Kelp, looking out at that man, said, “Isn’t he the garage man?”
“How come you can just drive in and out?”
“Twenty dollars,” Dortmunder said. His expression was grim. “That’s something else you cost me,” he said.
“Aw, now, Dortmunder, you’re just in a bad mood.”
“Tomorrow you’ll think it over,” Kelp said, “you’ll realize it isn’t right to blame me for everything.”
“I don’t blame you for everything,” Dortmunder said.
“I don’t blame you for the Second World War and I don’t
blame you for the Johnstown flood. But everything else I
do blame you for.”-
“Tomorrow you’ll feel different,” Kelp said.
Dortmunder glanced at him, to give him an unbelieving look, and said, “You’re bleeding on yourself again.”
“Oh.” Kelp put his head back, and stared at the Volkswagen’s roof.
“You might as well tell me the caper,” Dortmunder said, “so I can say no and get it over with.”
“It’s not like that,” Kelp said, holding his nose and talking to the roof. “I got nothing to tell you exactly. It’s more to show you.”
Like the emerald. “Where is it?”
With the hand that wasn’t holding his nose, Kelp reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a paperback book. “It’s this,” he said.
Dortmunder was approaching an intersection with a green light. He made his turn, drove a block, and stopped at a red light. Then he looked at the book Kelp was waving. He said, “What’s that?”
“It’s a book.”
“I know it’s a book. What is it?”
“It’s for you to read,” Kelp said. “Here, take it.” He was still staring at the roof and holding his nose, and he was merely waving the book in Dortmunder’s direction.
So Dortmunder took the book. The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark. “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said.
“Just read it,” Kelp said.
“Read it. Then we’ll talk.”
Dortmunder hefted the book in his hand. A skinny paperback. “I don’t get the point,” he said.
“I don’t want to say anything till after you read it,” Kelp said. “Okay? I mean, after all, you gave me a nosebleed, you can anyway read a book.”
Dortmunder thought of saying several things about furs, but he didn’t. The traffic light was green. “Maybe,” he said, and tossed the paperback behind him, and drove on.