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34

A BLUSTERY SUNDAY IN March, and Dortmunder and Kelp trudged back across the snowy warehouse roof, following their own reversed footsteps toward the distant fire escape. They were dressed in black parkas with the hoods up, black wool trousers, black leather gloves and black boots, and the wind snaked through it all anyway. The plastic backpacks they wore, also black, were just as empty as when they'd come up onto this roof, and they were going to stay that way, at least for today.

It was Kelp who'd lined up the customer for the video games said to be stacked like candy bars in the warehouse below, and it was this customer who'd told them everything they needed to know to effect entry to the place from above. Everything, that is, except the existence of the two pit bulls down there, gleaming like devils in the safety light.

At first, Kelp had suggested they might be a hologram: "It's a video game place, why not?"

"Go down and pet one," Dortmunder suggested, so that was that. While the pit bulls stared upward, yearning to be best friends but unable to climb the steel rungs mounted on the wall, Dortmunder and Kelp quietly closed the trapdoor they'd opened and turned back, empty-handed. Days like this one could be discouraging.

All at once the opening chords of Beethoven's Ninth burst across the windy air. Dortmunder dropped to the snowy roof, staring around in panic for the orchestra, and then realized Kelp was fumbling in his trouser pocket and murmuring, "Sorry, sorry."

"Sorry?"

"It's my new ringtone," Kelp explained while, without a pause, the invisible orchestra leaped back to the beginning and started all over again.

"Ringtone."

"I usually," Kelp said, finally managing to drag the cell phone out of his pocket, "keep it on vibrate."

"I don't want to know about it," Dortmunder said.

Kelp made the racket go away, put the machine to his head, and said, "Hello?"

Dortmunder turned away, brushing himself free of dirty snow and reorienting himself vis-a-vis the fire escape, when Kelp said, "Yeah, hold on, wait a minute," then extended the phone toward Dortmunder with a very strange expression on his face: "It's for you."

Dortmunder didn't believe it. "For me? Whadaya mean? People don't go around calling me on roofs!"

"He doesn't know where you are," Kelp said. "It's Eppick. Come on, it's for you."

Eppick. Dortmunder hadn't thought of that guy in three months, and had been perfectly prepared to never think of him again, but here was this phone, on this roof, with snowy wind all around, and he was supposed to talk to Johnny Eppick For Hire.

So all right. He took the phone: "Yar?"

"You don't have a cell."

"No thanks to you."

"That's pretty cute," Eppick said. "You weren't at home, you don't have an answering machine either, you might not even have indoor plumbing for all I know. I was gonna leave a message with your friend, call me, but here you are."

"I have indoor plumbing."

"Glad to hear it. Mr. Hemlow is back."

"No. I don't want him back."

"But this is good news," Eppick said. "The granddaughter has maybe come through after all. I don't know the details yet. Mr. Hemlow wants to lay it on the two of us."

Dortmunder was about to say no, he hadn't found much profit in his dealings with the firm of Hemlow & Eppick, and besides, Eppick no longer possessed those overly candid photos, but then he thought about the pit bulls to whom he'd so recently been introduced, and his other current prospects, which added up to a round nil, and he thought there might be worse roads to travel than the one that led back to Mr. Hemlow, with whom, at least, with luck, he would not be bit.

But there had to be conditions. "No more taxis."

"I understand, John," Eppick said. "I tell you what. Tell me where you are now, I'll come pick you up."

Dortmunder shook his head. Some days, you just can't win. "I'll take a cab," he said.

Dortmunder stepped into the Riverside Drive lobby as Eppick rose from the rhinoceros-horn chair and dropped somebody's New York Post on the seat. The green-uniformed doorman welcomed Dortmunder like an old stranger: "The other gentleman"

"I remember him."

Eppick stepped forward, serious-faced, arm out as though to shake hands, about which Dortmunder was very ambivalent, but then fortunately he only wanted to grasp Dortmunder's elbow and say, "A word, John, before we go upstairs."

"Sure."

They strolled to a rear corner of the lobby among the oriental rugs on both floor and walls, and Eppick said, "As far as I'm concerned, you know, bygones are bygones."

"That's nice," Dortmunder said.

"Fortunately," Eppick said, "my insurance covered almost everything."

"That's nice."

"And it was a good learning experience, to know where I had to beef up security."

"That's nice."

Eppick peered closely into Dortmunder's face, still holding, though not tightly, Dortmunder's left elbow. "You know what I'm talking about."

"No."

"That's fine, then," Eppick said, and released his elbow to give him a friendly, if perhaps slightly hostile, whack. "Let's go up and have Mr. Hemlow give us the good news."

There was a new extraneous green-uniformed operator hovering over the controls in the elevator. Dortmunder nodded at him. "Harya."

"Sir."

"The other guy go on to pilot's school?"

"I wouldn't know, sir. I'm new here."

"You'll get the hang of it," Dortmunder assured him.

The doorman leaned his head in to tell the newbie, "The penthouse."

"Yes, sir."

So, to the penthouse they went, and there in his wheelchair was Mr. Hemlow, about whom the best you could say was that he probably didn't look any worse. Or not much worse.

"Welcome to you both," Mr. Hemlow said, nodding that head that looked as though it might roll off the medicine ball at any minute. Below, the busy leg tangoed.

"Nice to see you, Mr. Hemlow," Eppick said, and Dortmunder contented himself with a nod, deciding to let Eppick have spoken for both of them.

"Well, come along."

Apparently, everybody was friends again, because the speeding wheelchair led them back to the view and the two chairs side by side. Once they were there, Mr. Hemlow said, "May I offer you two something to drink?"

This was something new, a level of sociability heretofore unknown. Dortmunder might have tried his luck on a bourbon request, but Eppick said, "Oh, we're fine, Mr. Hemlow. So things worked out well for Fiona, did they?"

"Very well indeed." That head might be beaming, in grandfatherly pride. "It seems that Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler," he said, "the person Fiona improperly approached, blamed herself for Fiona's being fired, sought her out to be sure she'd be all right, and, in a word, hired her as a personal assistant."

"No kidding!" Eppick loved it.

Mr. Hemlow chuckled, or something. "At an actual increase in pay," he said. "Not much, but some."

"That's great, Mr. Hemlow."

"But that's only the beginning," Mr. Hemlow told him. "Although I'd assured Fiona, and it was the truth, that I had no further interest in the stolen chess set, she now felt she might be in a position to help us all lay our hands on it."

"That would be something," Eppick said.

"Yes, it would. Not wanting to risk her reputation even further, Fiona operated very slowly and carefully, gradually inculcating in Mrs. Wheeler's mind the idea that there just might be something not entirely on the up-and-up about that chess set."

Interested, Eppick said, "How'd she work that, Mr. Hemlow?"

"There was the difference in weight between the rooks," Mr. Hemlow said. "Also, the lack of provenance from before its appearance in Alfred Northwood's possession. Northwood had no family, no money, no discernible background, all matters of supreme significance to a woman like Mrs. Wheeler. Where had this supposedly so valuable object come from?"

Admiring, Eppick said, "Fiona got that point across, did she?"

"She was aided, I have no doubt," Mr. Hemlow said, "by Mrs. Wheeler's natural paranoia. But yes, she did become convinced there was something dubious, shall we say, about that chess set, and now she's given Fiona the task of establishing the set's bona fides."

Eppick gave a single bark of a laugh. "Those bona fides are gonna be tough to come by," he said.

"I don't doubt," Mr. Hemlow said, "that a diligent researcher could trace the set back to Sgt. Northwood's arrival in this city in 1921 on the train from Chicago. He wouldn't have announced the set's existence at that time, wouldn't have brought it out at all into public view until twenty-seven years later, when he felt secure enough, respectable enough"

"Rich enough," Eppick suggested.

"That, too." Mr. Hemlow tremored a nod. "Solid enough, let us say, that he dared to put the set on display in the lobby of his real estate offices. Announcing without ever quite saying so that this elaborate toy of kings was the source of the Northwood fortune."

Eppick said, "What about before when was it? 1921? When he brought the set on the train from Chicago?"

"Yes, 1921." Various parts of Mr. Hemlow, squeezed as they were into the wheelchair, tremored and tangoed and fidgeted and possibly even shrugged. "Before that date," he said, "there is no trace. We three in this room know the actual owner a little prior to that time would have been Czar Nicholas II, but even there the property rights are clouded, since apparently Nicholas never actually received the gift. Nor can we ever know the gift-giver's identity or ultimate intention."

"Good for us," Eppick said.

"Possibly." Mr. Hemlow nodded and said, "We can only assume the chess set reached Murmansk sometime in 1917, just as the First World War and the Russian Revolution were both breaking out. The set could move no further, since all the land between Murmansk and St. Petersburg was being fought over, and all trace of it, all paperwork connected to it, even the identity of the sender, all were lost in the double turmoils of war and uprising. By 1918, Nicholas and his entire family had been slaughtered by the Bolsheviks, leaving the question of ownership, if it would ever even arise, further and further in doubt. Surely the Bolsheviks could not be thought to have inherited."

"Not from their own crime," Eppick said.

"Exactly. By 1920, when the American platoon stumbled across the set in a pierside warehouse in Murmansk, who was the rightful owner? If ever there were such a thing as legitimate spoils of war, that chess set is it. So I suppose it would be permissable to say, if there are any potential claimants to ownership of the set, they are the descendants of the ten men in that platoon, including of course myself and my granddaughter."

Dortmunder said, "And the Livia Northwood Whatever. Her."

"Yes, of course," Mr. Hemlow said. "Not all of Mrs. Wheeler's worth is ill-gotten, only ninety percent of it."

Eppick barked that laugh again. "We'll leave them a couple pawns," he said.

"Amusing," Mr. Hemlow said, "but I think not."

Dortmunder said, "How's your granddaughter gonna try to find out where that thing come from if she already knows where it come from but can't tell anybody?"

"Well, you see," Mr. Hemlow said, perking up as though Dortmunder had just put his finger on a very positive and a very strategic point, "that's the beauty of it, John. Since she knows the answer, she knows what to avoid. She knows to provide Lydia Northwood Wheeler with clues and evidence that lead firmly in some opposite direction."

Dortmunder said, "Which opposite direction?"

"Whichever direction," Mr. Hemlow said, "will lead Mrs. Wheeler to demand the chess set be taken out of that vault"

"Now you're talkin," Dortmunder said.

"and examined by experts."

Eppick said, "Mr. Hemlow, this is great news."

"Yes, it is." Was that a smile of satisfaction down there in the blubber somewhere? "I wanted you both to know this situation is brewing," he went on, "because I will want you both available when the time comes. But let me remind you of the ground rules."

"Keep away from your granddaughter," Eppick said.

"Exactly so. She survived the previous danger, but I don't want it to happen again."

"Fine by us," Dortmunder said.

"At this point," Mr. Hemlow said, "Fiona is on her own, attempting to steer events. Whatever news may develop, she will communicate it to me, I will communicate it to you, Johnny, and you will communicate it to John."

"Absolutely, sir," Eppick said.

A beady eye from out of the folds focused on Dortmunder. "Is that clear to you as well, John?"

"I don't need to chitchat with granddaughters," Dortmunder told him. "When that thing comes up outa that vault, just tell me where it is. That's all I need."

"We're all business," Eppick assured Mr. Hemlow, "all the time. Aren't we, John?"

"You bet," Dortmunder said. He was wondering about suggesting he be put on Mr. Hemlow's payroll this time, next to Eppick, but decided not to waste his breath. He knew what the answer was.

"Well, gentlemen," Mr. Hemlow said, and down inside there he might have been smiling. "It would seem, once again, the game's afoot."


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