"SO, JOHN," MAY said, over the breakfast table, "what are you going to do?"
After a troubled night, Dortmunder had described his meeting with Johnny Eppick For Hire to his faithful companion, May, over his usual breakfast of equal parts corn flakes, milk, and sugar, while she listened wide-eyed, ignoring her half-grapefruit and coffee black. And now she wanted to know what he was going to do.
"Well, May," he said, "I think I got no choice."
"You say he isn't a cop any more."
"He's still plugged in to the cops," Dortmunder explained. "He can still point a finger and lightning comes out."
"So you have to go there."
"I don't even know how" Dortmunder complained. "All the way east on Third Street? How do I get there, take a ferry around the island?"
"There's probably buses," May said. "Across Fourteenth Street. I could loan you my MetroCard."
"That's still a hell of a walk," Dortmunder complained. "Fourteenth, all the way down to Third."
"Well, John," she said, "it doesn't seem worth stealing a car for."
"No, I guess not."
"Especially," she said, "if you're gonna visit a cop."
"Not for seventeen months."
"Uh huh," she said.
The bus wasn't so bad, once he and the driver figured out how he should slide May's mass transit card through that little slot. It was an articulated bus, so he found a seat next to a window in the rear part, beyond the accordion. He sat there and the bus groaned away from the curb, and he looked out the window at this new world.
He'd never been so far east on Fourteenth Street. New York doesn't exactly have neighborhoods, the way most cities do. What it has is closer to distinct and separate villages, some of them existing on different continents, some of them existing in different centuries, and many of them at war with one another. English is not the primary language in many of these villages, but the Roman alphabet does still have a slight edge.
Looking out his window, Dortmunder tried to get a handle on this particular village. He'd never been to Bulgaria — well, he'd never been asked — but it seemed to him this area was probably like a smaller city in that land, on one side or the other of the mountains. If they had mountains.
After a while, he noticed the scenery wasn't bumping past the window any more but was just sitting out there, and when he looked around to see what had gone wrong the other seats were all empty and the driver, way up there in front, was twisted around, yelling at him. Dortmunder focused and got the words:
"End of the line!"
"Oh, yeah. Right."
He waved at the guy, and got off the bus. The walk down to Third Street was just as long as he'd been afraid it would be, but then that wasn't even the end of it. Not knowing how long it would take to get to such an out-of-the-way location, he'd given it an hour, which turned out to be fifteen minutes too long, so he had to walk around the block a couple times so he wouldn't be ridiculously early.
But at least that did give him the opportunity to case the place. It was a narrow dark brick corner building, a little grungy six stories high. The ground floor was a check-cashing place, with neon signs saying so in many languages in windows backed by the kind of iron bars they use for the gorilla cages in the zoo.
Around the side on Third Street was a green metal door with a vertical row of buttons next to names on cards in narrow slots. Some of the names seemed to be people, some businesses. There were two apartments or offices per floor, labeled «L» and "R." EPPICK — that's all it said — was 3R.
Stepping back, Dortmunder looked up at the windows that should be 3R, and they were covered by Venetian blinds slanted up to see the sky, not the street. Okay; fifteen minutes. He went for a stroll.
It was still five minutes before the hour when he'd completed the circuit twice, wondering what the proper word was for a Mongolian bodega, but enough was enough, so he pressed the button next to EPPICK and almost immediately the door made that buzz they do. He pushed it open and entered a tiny vestibule with a steep flight of stairs straight ahead and a very narrow elevator on the right. So he took the elevator up, and when he got off at three there were the stairs again, flanked by two doors, these of dark wood and marked with brass figures 3L and 3R.
Another button. He pressed it, and another door gave him the raspberry. This door you had to pull, he soon figured out, but the buzz was in no hurry, it kept buzzing at him until he got the idea.
Inside, the place was larger than Dortmunder had expected, having taken it for granted a building like this would consist of a bunch of little rooms that people would call a "warren of offices." But, no. Many of the warren's interior walls had been removed, a rich burgundy carpet had been laid to connect it all, and on the carpet were separate areas defined not by walls but by furniture.
Just inside the door that Dortmunder was closing was a small well-polished wooden desk facing sideways, to see both the door and the room. Next to the desk stood Eppick, wearing his winner's smile plus, this morning, a polo shirt the same color as the carpet, gray slacks with expandable waist instead of belt, and two-tone golf shoes, though without cleats.
"Right on time, John," Eppick said, and stuck out a gnarly hand. "I'm gonna shake your hand because we're gonna be partners."
Dortmunder shrugged and stuck his own hand out. "Okay," he said, limiting the partnership.
"Lemme introduce you," Eppick said, turning away, keeping Dortmunder's hand in his own, an unpleasant experience, "to our principal."
Dortmunder was going to say he didn't know they had any principles, but then decided not to, because here was the rest of the room. To the right, along the wall under the windows with their upward-slanted Venetian blinds showing strips of pale blue late-autumn sky, was a blond oak conference table with rounded ends, flanked by eight matching blue-upholstered chairs. On the left side, where there were no windows because of the next building in the row, was a conversation area, two dark blue sofas at right angles around a square glass coffee table, and a couple of matching chairs just behind them, ready for overflow. To the rear behind the conversation area was a galley kitchen, with a simple table and six chairs in front of it, and in the final quarter, behind the conference table, stood a StairMaster and other gym equipment. Not what Dortmunder would have guessed from an ex-cop. Not from an ex-cop called Eppick, anyway.
"Around, here, John," Eppick said, and led Dortmunder around in an orbit of the front desk, aiming for the front left corner of the space, where a high-tech wheelchair that looked as though it were ready for spacewalks squatted facing the glass coffee table, opposite one of the blue sofas, with the other sofa against the wall to its left.
Someone or something hunkered in the wheelchair, inside black brogans, black pants, a Navajo-Indian-design throw rug draped over the shoulders, and a scarlet beret on top. It seemed large and soft, just barely squeezing into the available space, and it brooded straight ahead, paying no attention to Eppick as he led Dortmunder forward by the hand.
"Mr. Hemlow," Eppick said, and all at once he sounded deferential, not the self-assured cop at all any more, "Mr. Hemlow, the specialist is here."
"Tell him to sit down. There."
The voice sounded as though it were coming from a bicycle tire with a slow leak, and at first Dortmunder thought Mr. Hemlow had pointed at the sofa to his left with a chicken foot, but no, that was his hand.
Speaking of hands, Eppick finally released Dortmunder's and gestured for him to get to that sofa by walking around behind Mr. Hemlow in his wheelchair, which Dortmunder did, while Eppick went away to take up a lot of the other sofa, crossing one leg over the other as though he wanted to show how relaxed he was, but not succeeding.
Dortmunder sat to Mr. Hemlow's left, leaned forward, rested his forearms on his thighs, looked eye-to-eye with Mr. Hemlow, and said, "Harya doin?"
"I've been better," grated the bicycle tire.
Dortmunder was sure of that. Seen up close, Mr. Hemlow was seven or eight different kinds of mess. He had a little clear plastic hose draped over his ears and inserted into his nostrils to give him oxygen. His face and neck and apparently everything but those chicken-foot hands were bloated and stuffed looking, as though he'd been filled up by a bicycle pump trying to solve the tire leak. His eyes were small and mean-looking, their pupils a very wet blue, so that, under the red beret, he looked like a more than usually homicidal hawk. What could be seen of his skin was a raw-looking red, as though he were originally a very pale person who'd been left out in the sun too long. His posture sucked; he sat on his shoulder blades with his wattles on his torso, which seemed to be shaped more or less like a medicine ball. His right knee twitched constantly, as though remembering an earlier life as a dance band drummer.
While Dortmunder sat absorbing these unlovely details, Mr. Hemlow's watery eyes studied him in return; until all at once Mr. Hemlow said, "What do you know about the First World War?"
Dortmunder thought. "We won," he guessed.
"The other people. I don't know, I wasn't there."
"Nor was I," Mr. Hemlow said, and gargled out something that was either a laugh or a death rattle, though probably a laugh, because he went on living, saying, "But my father was. He was there. He told me all about it."
"That musta been nice."
"Illuminating. My father was still fighting in that war two years after it was over, what do you think of that?"
"Well, I guess he must of been a real gung ho type."
"No, he was under orders. And you know who he was fighting?"
"With the war over?" Dortmunder shook his head. "I don't think you're supposed to do that," he said.
"In 1917," Mr. Hemlow said, "the United States entered the war. It had been going on in Europe for three years already. That was the same year as the Russian Revolution. The czar was thrown out, the Communists came in."
"Busy year," Dortmunder suggested.
"The British," Mr. Hemlow said, and apparently spat, though nothing seemed to come out. "The British," he repeated, "kept a great pile of munitions at Murmansk, a deep-water port on the Russian coast of the Barents Sea, north of the Arctic Circle."
"Cold up there," Dortmunder suggested.
"Didn't matter," Mr. Hemlow told him. "All that mattered, after the Revolution, they had to keep those munitions away from the Red Army. So that's why — there's no war declared here, nothing legal about this at all — my father and several hundred other US Army and US Navy personnel went up there to fight alongside the British and keep the goddam Red Army from getting those arms. Stayed there for two years, after the war was supposed to be over. Lost three hundred men. Finally, late in 1920, the Americans came home. Only time American troops ever fought Russian troops on Russian soil."
"I never even heard about it," Dortmunder said.
Eppick said, "It was news to me, too, and I thought I knew some history."
"American soldiers," Mr. Hemlow said, with what sounded like satisfaction, possibly even pride, "are a light-fingered group, always have been. Over many a mantel in America hangs stolen goods."
"Spoils of war," Eppick explained.
"That's what they call it," Mr. Hemlow said. "Now, near the end of the invasion, a platoon of American soldiers, nine lads including my father, and their sergeant, Alfred X. Northwood, came across a surprising item in a port warehouse in Murmansk. It was a chess set, a gift for the czar, from I don't know whom, which had been shipped in by sea just in time to meet the Bolshevik Revolution, and it was the most valuable thing those boys had ever seen in their lives."
Dortmunder said, "A chess set."
"The pieces were gold, inlaid with jewels. It was too heavy for one man to lift."
"Oh," Dortmunder said. "That kind of chess set."
"Exactly. It was worth millions. In the chaos of war and revolution, nobody even knew it existed, packed away in a wooden crate."
"Pretty good," Dortmunder said.
"Most of the boys in that expeditionary force," Mr. Hemlow said, "were from Ohio and Missouri, so they made an agreement. They would take that chess set back to the States and use it to finance a dream they'd been sharing, to open a chain of radio stations across the Midwest. If they'd done it, they would've died rich men."
"Uh huh," Dortmunder said, noticing that "if."
"Sgt. Northwood," Mr. Hemlow went on, "took the ivory-and-ebony chessboard. One of the lads took the teak box that held the pieces. The other eight, including my father, took four chessmen each, knowing each of them could smuggle that much home."
"Sounds good," Dortmunder agreed.
"Back in the States," Mr. Hemlow said, "out of the army at last, they met with ex-Sgt. Northwood in Chicago, and all gave him their part of the loot, for him to convert into the loans they needed."
"Uh huh," Dortmunder said.
"They never saw Northwood or the chess set again."
"You know," Dortmunder said, "I kinda saw that coming."
"They searched for him, for a long while," Mr. Hemlow said. "Fewer and fewer of them over the years. Finally just my father and three of his friends. Their sons all were told the story, and when we seven boys were grown we took what time we could from our regular lives to look for Northwood and the chess set. But we never found either one." Mr. Hemlow shrugged, which was more like a generalized tremor. "The generation after us didn't care," he said. "It was all ancient history. Two of the boys from my generation are still alive, but none of us is in any condition to go on with the search."
Delicately, Dortmunder said, "This Sgt. Northwood, he probably isn't around any more either."
"The chess set is," Mr. Hemlow said. "The boys were going to call their company Chess King Broadcasting. One of them drew up a very nice logo for it."
"Uh huh," Dortmunder said, hoping Mr. Hemlow wasn't about to show him the logo.
He wasn't. Instead, he lowered his head, those watery eyes now turning to ice, and he said, "I am a wealthy man. I am not in this for the money. Those boys were robbed of their dreams."
"Yeah, I get that," Dortmunder agreed.
"Now, unexpectedly," Mr. Hemlow said, "I seem to have an opportunity, if I live long enough for it, to right that wrong."
"You know where the chess set is," Dortmunder suggested.
"Possibly," Mr. Hemlow said, and sat back in his wheelchair to fold his chicken feet over his paunch. "But for a moment," he said, "let us talk about you. What did you say your name was?"