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26

WHEN DORTMUNDER GOT back to the apartment May was already off to her job, but she'd left a note on a Post-it stuck to the six-pack in the refrigerator, where he'd be sure to see it. "Call Epic on his cell," it read, and gave the number.

"I'd like to call Eppick in his cell," he muttered, but transferred the note to the wall beside the phone and dialed.

"Eppick!"

"It's, uh, John. You wanted me to"

"That's right." Eppick sounded in a hurry. "Grab a cab, come"

Dortmunder waited. "Yeah?"

"In the lobby."

"What?"

"I'll be there before"

"Where?"

Silence. Not a hovering silence, or a pregnant silence, more of a bat cave silence; they're all asleep in there. Then a dial tone, so he hung up.

Try again? Why? Dortmunder turned back toward the refrigerator, remembering the six-pack that had been used so effectively as a means of communication, and the phone rang.

Well, there were some things you simply had to go through. He went back and picked up the phone: "Yeah?"

"I'm in this cab, the recep buildings bounce soon as you read me?"

"No."

A little silence, then, " These cell phones!" It sounded like an expletive might have been deleted.

"I understand," Dortmunder said, "they're the wave of the future."

"Then the future's looking bleak. I want you to" Dial tone.

"Good-bye," Dortmunder told the dial tone, achieved a can of beer from the six-pack and went to the living room to get the Daily News May had been reading earlier this morning. He brought it back to the kitchen table, because he knew damn well Eppick was not a guy to give up, and sat there for a while turning newspaper pages. Since he didn't look at the paper more than a couple times a week, usually when he found one on a subway seat, he could never figure out what all those comic strips were all about. Were those supposed to be punch lines over there on the right?

In the sports section, the standings were about as expected. It occurred to him that sports might be more interesting if the football players wore basketball uniforms and the basketball players wore football uniforms, and the phone rang.

Okay; he went over and answered: "Here."

''That's better. John, you gotta grab a cab and come right up to Mr. Hemlow's place."

"The reception's a lot better now."

"I made the cab stop at a pay phone. Come up right away, John, Mr. Hemlow isn't happy."

"Why should Hemlow be happy?"

"No, he isn't happy about you. I'll be in the lobby."

Eppick was in a rhinoceros-horn chair in the lobby, and got up from it when Dortmunder was let in by the doorman, who looked as though he wasn't entirely certain this was the right thing to do.

"All right," Eppick said, still impatient. "Let's go."

In the elevator, Dortmunder said, "I seem to be laying out a whole lotta cab money."

"That's because," Eppick said, "you're an independent contractor."

"Oh," Dortmunder said, and the elevator opened, and a fuming medicine ball awaited them in his wheelchair.

"Gentlemen," Mr. Hemlow spat. Dortmunder hadn't known you could spit a word like "gentlemen," but Mr. Hemlow made it sound easy. "Sit down," he ordered, and the wheelchair spun away toward the view.

Once everybody was in position, Dortmunder and Eppick side by side in the antique chairs, Mr. Hemlow facing them in the middle of the view, Mr. Hemlow, over the tempo-setting twitch of his right knee, lowered a glower at Dortmunder and said, "I understand you spoke to my granddaughter this morning."

"Yeah, I did," Dortmunder said. "Not in the place, on the sidewalk out front."

Eppick glared at Dortmunder's right eye and ear. "You accosted her? On the street?"

"I didn't accost her. It was a little conversation."

Mr. Hemlow, the lid barely on his rage, said, "You asked her to take part in a criminal act."

"I don't see that," Dortmunder said. "Where's the crime? I didn't even ask her to jaywalk."

Eppick said, "Sir, could you back it up a little here? I don't really know what's going on. What did he ask her to do?"

"I just"

"I'm not asking you" Eppick spat. Now everybody was spitting. "I'm asking Mr. Hemlow."

"As I understand it," Mr. Hemlow said, "your associate here has decided it's too much trouble to make his way into that bank vault and retrieve the chess set, so he wants"

Appalled, Eppick cried, "Your granddaughter to go down there?"

"No, not quite that bad. He wants Fiona to approach Livia Northwood Wheeler and"

"I'm sorry, sir," Eppick said. "Who?"

"She is the Sgt. Northwood descendant," Mr. Hemlow explained, "who is represented by Fiona's firm in the family lawsuits."

"Oh," Eppick said. "Thank you, sir."

"Fiona's firm represents Livia Northwood Wheeler," Mr. Hemlow went on, those little red eyes glowering at Dortmunder. "Fiona doesn't represent her, does not have any legitimate reason to speak to the woman, even if she were willing to do what you asked of her."

Eppick said, "Sir, what did John here, ask?"

"Perhaps John himself should tell you," Mr. Hemlow said.

Eppick turned a judgmental gaze on Dortmunder, who shrugged and said, "Sure. We can't get down in there, so I figured, maybe we could get the thing to come out instead. The specs and stuff the granddaughter gave me, which by the way I think was more legally iffy than what I asked her today, those specs showed one piece was too light, and we figure the sergeant switched it for a phony"

"To give himself a stake," Eppick said, nodding, agreeing with himself. "Very smart."

"Nah, anybody could figure that."

"I meant him."

Mr. Hemlow said, "John here took this information to Fiona and asked her to pass it on to Mrs. Wheeler with a recommendation that she have the entire chess set appraised."

"Which," Dortmunder said, "would bring it up outa that vault."

"Were Fiona to address a client of the firm," Mr. Hemlow said, "without being asked specifically to do so by a partner or an associate, she would be let go at once."

"Fired, you mean," Dortmunder said.

" 'Let go' conveys the same information," Mr. Hemlow said.

Eppick said, "Sir, let me have a word with John, if I may."

"Certainly."

Eppick nodded his thanks, then turned to Dortmunder. "I see what you were trying to do," he said, "and it wasn't bad. I understand that vault is maybe a little tougher than some places you've seen in the past."

"All places I've seen in the past."

"Okay. And the idea to get the thing out of the vault to somewhere maybe a little easier to get at, that's good, too."

"Thank you," Dortmunder said, with dignity.

"The problem is, though," Eppick said, "you can't use the granddaughter, not for anything. She started the ball rolling, but now she's out of it. We gotta protect her, we gotta protect her job, we gotta protect her reputation."

"Uh huh."

"She is not," Mr. Hemlow said, "an asset."

Dortmunder frowned, not getting that, but decided to let it slide.

Eppick apparently understood it, though, because he nodded in approval and said, "Exactly." To Dortmunder he said, "But the idea's a good one. We just gotta find some other way to make some other member of the family want experts to take a look at the chess set."

"Then," Dortmunder said, "Mr. Hemlow, I gotta ask you this. There's one last thing I'd want from your granddaughter, and I think it's okay, but you tell me."

Dubious, head rolling down over the medicine ball more than ever, Mr. Hemlow glowered up through his eyebrows and said, "What would that be?"

"She said, she told me one time, there's seventeen family people in this, everybody suing everybody, all with their own lawyers. Could she get me a list of the seventeen, and which lawyer each one's got?"

Mr. Hemlow thought a minute, but the head was nodding while he did it, not in time with the metronome knee. Then he said, "She could do that."

"Thank you."

"I will arrange for her to compile such a list and give it to me. I will convey it to Johnny here, and he can pass it on to you."

"Great."

"But then," Mr. Hemlow said, "that is the end of it. You will never have contact with my granddaughter ever again."

"Oh, sure," Dortmunder said.

Riding down in the elevator, Dortmunder said," Whadaya mean, independent contractor?"

"It's one of the job definitions," Eppick told him, "you know, that the government has. Like, if you work for wages, you're a salaried employee, so you can be in a union, but if you're an independent contractor you can't be in a union."

"I'm not in a union," Dortmunder said, and the elevator door opened at the lobby.

Leaving the building, Eppick said, "We're both going downtown. Come on down to the corner, we'll grab a cab. I'll even pay."

Dortmunder said, "But you don't want to give the doorman a dollar to get a cab right here."

"Neither do you," Eppick told him.

So they walked down to the corner and eventually found a cab without help, and as they rode downtown together Dortmunder said, "Tell me more about this independent contractor. Whadaya mean, it's a government definition?"

"It shows where you fit in the workforce," Eppick said. "There's certain things you gotta match up with, and then you're an independent contractor."

"Like what?"

"You don't get a fixed salary every week."

"Okay."

"You don't work in the same office or factory or whatever every day."

"Okay."

"You carry your own tools on the job."

"I do that," Dortmunder said.

"You work without direct supervision."

"You know it."

"There's no withholding tax on what you make."

"Never happened yet."

"The employer or whoever doesn't give you a pension or health care."

"This is my profile to the life," Dortmunder said.

"Then there you are," Eppick said. "And now, go to work on those family members. I think you're onto something there."

"Soon as I get the list," Dortmunder promised.

When May got home that evening, Dortmunder helped by carrying one of the grocery sacks. In the kitchen, he said, "I found out something today."

"Oh?"

Dortmunder smiled. "I am an independent contractor."

She looked at him and put the cereal away. "Oh," she said.


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