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42

BY FRIDAY MORNING, Dortmunder's irritation had cooled without disappearing. When May had come home last night and told him Eppick had actually braced her right there in the store with his message to call, Dortmunder had at first been outraged. "He talked to you? In the store? He's not supposed to have anything to do with you at all!"

May wasn't as upset as he was, but of course she'd had longer to live with it. She said, "He wasn't bad or anything, John. He just gave me the message for you and bought some lightbulbs."

"Lightbulbs? Listen, he wants to talk to me, he can call Andy, like last time."

"Well, he talked to me," she said, "and I thought it was a little weird, but there wasn't anything wrong about it."

"You know what it is?" he demanded. "I'll tell you what it is. The message isn't lightbulbs or call me or any of that. The message is, 'I can reach out to you. I not only know where you are, I know where your lady friend works, I'm on top of you any time I wanna be on top of you, that's what the message is."

"I think we already knew all that," May said. "Are you going to call him?"

"Some other time. Right now, I'm too irritated."

"Well, go in the living room, and let me get on with dinner," she said, gesturing at tonight's sack of groceries on the kitchen table.

He was hungry. "Okay."

"Have a beer as an appetizer."

"I will," he agreed, and took a can of beer with him to the living room, where he sat and frowned at the switched-off television set while he conducted several imaginary conversations with Johnny Eppick in his head, in which he was much fiercer and made much more telling points than was likely in real life, until May called him to dinner, which was a really good meat loaf, and how she'd whipped that up so fast, with all those ingredients and stuff, straight from working late hours at the Safeway, he had no idea. But it calmed him considerably, and at the end of the meal he said, "I'll call him tomorrow. Not tonight."

"Don't yell at him," she said.

He hesitated, then made the concession. "Okay."

And late this morning, after May'd headed back to the Safeway, he called Eppick's number and got his answering machine. "So this is better, is it?" he demanded. "We're in closer communication now, are we? I'm talking to a machine." And hung up.

Eppick phoned just after two that afternoon. "I'll give you a place you can walk to," he said. "Meet me at Union Square in half an hour. I'll be on a bench wherever the dealers aren't.

"The dealers won't be wherever you are."

"You think I'm that obvious?" Eppick asked him, but he sounded pleased at the idea.

"See you in half an hour," Dortmunder said, and did, walking through the park all bundled up against the raw March air, and Eppick was seated at his ease on a bench amid only civilians, and not many of them at that, because the weather was still a little below par for park bench-sitting. However, Dortmunder joined him and Eppick said, "The granddaughter has come through like a champ."

"You shouldn't talk to May," Dortmunder told him. "It upsets her."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Eppick said, though he didn't sound sorry. "She didn't look upset. Maybe we could get carrier pigeons, you and me."

They'd already veered too far from Dortmunder's practice conversations, so he said, "Tell me about the champ."

"Huh? Oh, the granddaughter." Eppick grinned, pleased at the very thought of the granddaughter. "She's our spy in the enemy camp," he said, "and she's worth her weight in chess sets."

"That's nice."

"They don't know exactly when they're gonna move the set," Eppick said, "because they're still working on the security, but as soon as they know it she knows it, and as soon as she knows it we know it. Or I know it, and you find out when the carrier pigeon gets there."

"Yeah, right."

"But what we do know now," Eppick said, "is the safe place they're gonna move it to. So this is a very nice edge," he pointed out, "because you can case it before the chess set even gets there."

"That's good."

"It's down on Gansevoort Street," Eppick told him. "It's the office of a private detective down there by the name of Jacques Perly." With an arch look, he said," You wouldn't have any trouble getting into a private detective's office, would you?

Not rising to the bait, Dortmunder said, "There's gotta be more to it than that. Some office on Gansevoort Street?"

"Well, if there's more to it," Eppick pointed out, "you've got time to find out what it is."

"I'll take a look," Dortmunder said, and glanced around at the snow-flecked park. You could see everybody's breath. "You know, it's kinda cold out here."

"It is," Eppick agreed, "but we've got privacy. But we could leave now."

"Good."

They stood, Eppick not offering to shake hands this time, and Dortmunder said, "Well, anything's gotta be better than that vault."

"Let's hope." Eppick shrugged his coat and scarf up closer to his chin. "You see your friend Kelp a lot, don't you?"

"From time to time."

"I'll leave messages with him."

"That's good," Dortmunder said. "I don't think May would like carrier pigeons."


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