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31

LIKE MANY MEMBERS of the NYPD, past and present, Johnny Eppick had not lived within the actual five boroughs of New York City for many years; not, in fact, since his second year on the force, when he'd married and left his parents' home in Queens to set up his own new family — two boys and one girl, eventually, now all starting families of their own, none following him into the Job — farther out on Long Island.

Unlike some of his fellows, Eppick had never maintained a little apartment in the city, containing one or a string of surrogate wives, he being of the sort who was content with one family and one home, just so it was completely separate from the Job. The place on East Third Street was new, since his retirement, since he and Rosalie had come to the realization that, while they still loved one another and had no desire for change, it was also true that neither of them could stand his being around the house all the time. He was retired from the Job. Tough; go there anyway. Thus Johnny Eppick For Hire.

He wasn't the first ex-cop to go into private detectiving. The city pension was good, but there isn't a pension anywhere that couldn't use a little supplement, though that wasn't the primary reason so many ex-cops wound up with security companies or armored car outfits or banks. The primary reason was boredom; after the tensions and horrors and pleasures of the Job, it was tough to sit around all day with the remote in one hand and a beer can in the other. Leave that life to the young slobs who hadn't come out of their cocoons yet.

In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown. It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out. So he got his private investigator's license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn't feel he was going to have to impress anybody. All he needed was files and a phone. Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.

Once he had his tag and his address, Eppick had caused there to be made letterhead stationery and a business card. He'd spread the word through the cops and the lawyers and the other people he'd met over the years through the Job, and the first fish in the net was Mr. Horace Hemlow.

And what a fish. A keeper, Eppick had thought, rich and honest and dedicated to his obsession. Putting every other potential client on hold, changing his answering machine message to deflect other possible business, he'd devoted himself to Mr. Hemlow, even researching that scuzzy band of crooks to handle the actual dirty work without any possibility of double-cross.

And look what he got for it. Time and expenses. He might as well deliver newspapers, for that kind of money; that would also keep him out of the house.

Okay. After the chess set debacle, Eppick changed his answering machine message once more, made another round of soliciting phone calls, and started to receive smaller but at least not irritating offers of work. Here a jealous wife, there a health freak searching, for genome reasons, for his natural father. It kept him on the move.

On a blustery Monday two weeks after the farewell in Mr. Hemlow's apartment, the first Monday in December, Eppick drove to the city, left his Prius in its monthly parking spot in a garage a block from his office, walked the block, took the elevator to his office, entered, and saw in an instant he'd been robbed. Burgled. Cleaned out solid.

Just about everything was gone. Phone, fax, printer, computer, TV, DVD, toaster oven, even the less heavy half of his exercise equipment.

The whole thing had been done with an economy and a professionalism that, even through his outrage, he had to recognize and admire. There was barely a mark on the locks. His three alarm systems, including the one that should have phoned the precinct, had been dismantled or bypassed with casual, almost disdainful, assurance. Everything was gone, and not a footprint was left to mark its passing.

Eppick of course immediately phoned the precinct — on his cell phone, the office phone and answering machine being gone — though he hadn't the slightest expectation anybody would ever track down those crooks. But he needed the report for his insurance, and this haul would certainly lead to a very hefty insurance company check.

And many headaches between now and then, while he replaced everything that had gone away, integrated the new systems, estimated just how much his personal and professional privacy had been violated, and worked out what additional security measures he would have to take to keep the bastards from coming back for a second dip.

The cops who came to make the report were unknown to him, he never having worked in this precinct. They were sympathetic and professional and just a little scornful, exactly as he would be if the roles were reversed. He hated the interview, and ground his teeth in rage once his responders had departed.

Now, the next thing to do was hide this disaster from his two current clients. It would never do for a professional private detective to himself become a crime victim; all credibility would be lost forever. Therefore, after a quick trip farther downtown to an area of electronics stores, he came back with a new telephone — answering machine, which he set up on his ravaged desk and into which, using a much more grating voice than normal, he placed this message:

"Hi. Johnny Eppick here. I came down with something over the weekend I hope isn't flu, so I'm not in the shop today. Leave a message and I hope I'll be here and healthy first thing tomorrow."

The rest of the replacement equipment he'd buy out on the Island, to avoid New York City's sales tax, so he might as well get to it. There was no point hanging around the ransacked office all day.

It was while driving out the LIE, just east of the city line, that the penny finally dropped and one word came into his mind, as though in neon: Dortmunder.

Of course. In the first shock, he hadn't been thinking straight, hadn't connected the dots, but what else could this be? Dortmunder. He had to get even for not scoring anything out of the chess set caper. And, whining all the time about something as minor league as taxi fares, that gave you the measure of the man.

The son of a bitch had waited exactly two weeks, Monday to Monday, just long enough so Eppick wouldn't be able to prove it but he'd have to know it.

And there was more to it than that. All of the other things that were taken were just smoke screen, just icing on the cake. The only theft that really mattered was the computer. That little box where the incriminating pictures of John Dortmunder were stored.

Yes, and when he got back to the office tomorrow and looked in his files — a thing that hadn't occurred to him until just this minute — the copies of those pictures that he'd printed out would also be gone.

I no longer have a handle on John Dortmunder's back, Eppick thought. Dortmunder had needed that handle off of there. Why? Because he's up to something. What is he up to?

Eppick frowned mightily as he drove east toward home.


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