GANSEVOORT STREET IS part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it's been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn't in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.
Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-`a-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.
Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly's address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.
Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.
Faint light gleamed well back of those upstairs windows. The buildings to both sides were taller, with more seriously lit windows here and there. On the right was a four-story brick tenement that had undergone recent conversion to upscale living, with a very elaborate entrance doorway flanked by carriage lamps. The building on the left, three stories high and also brick, extended down to the corner, with shops on the street floor, plus a small door that would lead up to what looked like modest apartments above.
Dortmunder and Kelp stood surveying this scene a few minutes, being occasionally passed by indifferent pedestrians, they all bundled up and hustling because the wind was pretty brisk over here by the river, and then Kelp said, "You know, I read one time, if you're stuck with a decision you gotta make, there's rules."
"Yeah. Depending on circumstances, you pick the most active, the earliest in time, or the one on the left."
"That's what I was thinking, too," Dortmunder said.
"That house on the right there," Kelp said, "that's shielding a very valuable family."
"I know that."
"Whereas, on the left there, the top floor apartment on the right is dark."
"Maybe they're out to that bar we were in," Dortmunder suggested.
"Maybe they'll stay a while," Kelp said, and they crossed the street to find that neither the street door nor the second door behind it offered much resistance.
This was a walk-up, so they walked up, where a narrow hall led them rightward to a door with a brass 3c on it and no light visible through the peephole.
"Could be early to bed, though," Dortmunder said.
"On a Friday night in this neighborhood? I don't think so," Kelp said. "But we'll go in quiet, not to disturb anybody."
"And not to leave any sign we were here."
"Not this time."
Kelp did the honors with the door, and they entered a semi-dark kitchen, illuminated only by distant streetlights from below this level, plus the red-ember glows of all the clocks and other LED lights on all the appliances, giving the room a faint speakeasy air.
"Joe sent me," Kelp whispered.
The kitchen led to a living room of the same size, making the kitchen fairly large and the living room pretty small. And that led to a bedroom which would also have been the same size except that a third of it had been walled off for a bathroom.
The only illumination in the bedroom to boost the streetlights' glow came from the red numerals on the alarm clock. The double bed — happily empty — was on the left, against the bathroom wall. The window to the right looked down at Gansevoort Street, and the one straight ahead beyond the bed, looked down at the roof of Perly's building, which was considerably deeper than wide and featured a large skylight in the rear half.
"I like that skylight," Kelp whispered.
"There's nobody here," Dortmunder said, in a normal voice.
Surprised, Kelp looked around and said, also in a normal voice, "You're right. And I still like that skylight."
Perly's tar-paper flat roof was about six feet below this window. Whatever light they'd seen through his windows had to be toward the front, because nothing at all showed below the skylight glass.
"I like the skylight, too," Dortmunder said, "but there's no point looking in it now."
"No, I know that."
"I wonder," Dortmunder said, "about utility access."
It is not only burglars in New York City who occasionally have trouble getting to the parts of buildings that interest them. In the older and more crowded sections of the city, like the far West Village, the small old structures pressed together in every direction can also make headaches for electric company meter readers, telephone company installers, cable company repairmen, and city inspectors of various stripes. Alleyways, basements, exterior staircases and unmarked doors all have their parts to play in making it possible for these honest working folk to complete their appointed rounds, and just behind them here tiptoe less honest folk, though in their way just as hardworking.
This window out which Dortmunder and Kelp now gazed was a normal double-hung style, with a simple lock on the inside to keep the parts closed. Dortmunder turned this to unlock it, raised the lower sash, felt the cold wind and heard it ruffle papers and cloth here and there behind him, and leaned forward to look out.
Not much snow on the flat roof below, and none on the skylight, which would be warmed from underneath. The roof of Perly's building extended to the left past the end of the building Dortmunder and Kelp were in, and it looked as though there was also space between the far end of the roof and the rear of the building on the next street.
Would anything out there provide utility access of the kind he was looking for? "I can't see," he decided. "Not good enough."
Dortmunder stepped aside so Kelp could take a turn leaning out the window, but then Kelp came back in and said, "I tell you what. I'll go out and see what we got. When I come back, you can help me shimmy up."
Kelp, an agile guy, sat on the windowsill, slid his legs over and out, rolled onto his belly and slid backward out the window, holding the sill, coming to a stop with the top of his head just parallel to the bottom of the window opening. "Be right back," he whispered, and headed off" to the left.
Dortmunder considered; should he close the window? That was a pretty nippy wind. On the other hand, Kelp wouldn't be gone that long and he wouldn't want to come back to a closed window.
Lights, somewhere behind him. Doorslam.
Nobody cried out, "I'm home!" but nobody had to. Two rooms away, a tenant was shucking out of his or her coat. Two rooms away, a tenant was headed in this direction.
Dortmunder didn't go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn't want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, "Hey!", which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.
Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, "Hey!"
"Who's out there?"
Nobody nobody nobody.
"Is somebody out there?"
"I'm calling the cops!"
Fine, good, great; anything, just so you'll get away from that window.
Slam. Suppressing a groan, Dortmunder crawled up the wall until he was vertical and lurched forward, looking out ahead of himself for Kelp.
Who was not there. Was nowhere to be seen. Dortmunder risked stopping for just a second, hand braced against the wall as he scanned the roof, the skylight, the upscale building over to the right with its draped and gated windows, and there was no Kelp. None, not anywhere.
So there was a way off this roof. A way other than back past the person now explaining things to 911. Encouraged by the thought, Dortmunder hobbled on, until the wall to his left came to an end and he could look straight down into inky black.
Now what? No ladders, no staircases, no fire escapes. If there were any way to get down there into that darkness Dortmunder didn't see it. And he was looking, very hard.
The rear of Perly's building was his last hope. He gimped over there, to the low stone wall that separated the roof from empty air, and at first he didn't see anything of use in this direction, either. And then, maybe he did.
There was a larger apartment building across the way, its lighted windows giving some dim illumination to the back of Perly's building, and there, over to the right, some kind of square wrought iron thing like a basket protruded from the wall partway down. He moved over there and saw that it was a kind of tiny iron porch with no roof fronting a second story entrance, with a fire escape leading downward from it.
But how to get to it? The porch or basket or whatever it was looked very old and rickety, and was at least ten feet below where he stood.
Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.
Wishing he didn't have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?
Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.
But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he'd expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.
And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat — an arthritic cat — if the thing gave way.
But it didn't. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?
Let's not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!
The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.
Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.
Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?
Apparently; the rungs stopped here. Lunge; one hand was on the rail. Lunge; one foot was over the rail but not reaching all the way down to the floor. Lunge; the other hand was on the rail and he tipped forward over it, landing headfirst onto the floor, which shrieked in complaint though it didn't entirely separate from the building.
Up. Holding on to everything he could reach, Dortmunder got to his feet, turned to the wall, and found that the doorway had been bricked up many years ago. This metal structure had not been used for a long time, and it was feeling its age. It seemed to be thinking about leaving the building, what with all this new weight to carry and all.
But here was the fire escape, extending down at a diagonal across the rear of the building, down one flight to where it stopped at another metal landing, this one with a ladder mounted up against it that could be slid down to descend from there.
Descend? The Perly building was only two stories high. So this space back here went all the way down to basement level.
I'm never gonna see the upper world again, Dortmunder thought. I'm in some kind of horror story, and this is the entrance to Hell.
Well, there was nothing for it; time to descend. Dortmunder started down the fire escape and found it the least horrible part of the experience so far. It was solid iron, securely fastened to the stone of the building, with a good railing and thick gridwork steps.
Too bad it stopped before it got anywhere. Dortmunder reached the lowermost step, which was another platform, though sturdier than the one above, and next to it was the ladder. Studying this, he saw that it operated with a counterweight; if he stood on it, his weight would make it lower. If he got off, the counterweight would lift it back up again. It was clearly an anti-burglar device, operating on the theory that burglars would approach it from below and would be unable to reach up to the bottom rung.
Okay; let's go for a ride on the ladder. Dortmunder stepped onto it, holding tight to the sides, and, after a second's trembling hesitation, it slid smoothly downward with small mouselike chirps and squeaks, descending just like an elevator except, of course, for the elevator cab and the elevator shaft.
The bottom. Dortmunder stepped off onto the cluttered concrete, and the ladder more silently rose away. Only after it departed did he stop to think he'd just now effectively cut off his own retreat. From this point on, there was no way to turn back.
All right, let's deal with what we've got, which is what, exactly? The rear of Perly's building, with more bricked-up windows and a gray metal door, stood before him. The door was rusty, its hinges were rusty, its handle was rusty, and its keyhole was rusty, but the point was, it did have a keyhole. Dortmunder bent to study this keyhole as best he could in the darkness, and it seemed to him Kelp had done a good job in getting through this door without leaving any traces.
And Kelp had to have gone through here. There was no other way. This messy rectangular concrete area back here was one story below street level, enclosed by high walls on all sides. This door was the only way out. Kelp had been ahead of him, and wasn't still in this hole in the ground, so Kelp had to have gone through this door. Could Dortmunder do it just as well, leaving no trace?
Now his competitive juices were stirring, and he forgot all those various aches and pains he'd picked up along the way since toppling out that window. In various interior pockets of his jacket, mostly in the back, were several small tools of his trade, skim-brushed with flat black enamel to keep them from reflecting light. Reaching back there, he brought out a number of these, bent over that lock, and went to work.
Very stiff, the lock was; it reminded him of himself. Except for Kelp, it looked as though nobody'd used this door in quite a while. But at least this stone-and-brick carton he was in was out of the wind, so he could work in relative comfort, without distraction.
And there. The door abruptly jolted a quarter-inch toward him, with a popping sound like a cork coming out of a bottle of wine that's turned bad. Dortmunder pulled on it and reluctantly it opened, hinges screaking in protest. As soon as the opening was wide enough, he slid through and pulled the door shut behind himself, creating pitch-blackness.
Now from those useful pockets at the back of his jacket came a tiny flashlight, shorter than a finger. He hadn't wanted it before this, when surrounded by apartment windows, but this kind of interior blackness was perfect for its use. It was sold for the alleged purpose of being attached to a keychain for people wanting to enter and start up their automobiles after dark, but it had other advantages as well, such as giving Dortmunder, when on the job, exactly the amount of light he needed to see that he was in a stone-walled corridor lined with metal storage shelves heaped with the kind of junk people are never going to use again but can't quite bring themselves to get rid of.
Ignoring all that, he stepped down the corridor, and through a doorway on the right he saw a concrete staircase going up. He went up.
The door at the top of these stairs was also gray metal and locked, which seemed excessive, but Dortmunder was on a roll now and went through it with hardly a pause and leaving not a trace of his handiwork. He brushed through the doorway, elbowed the door shut behind himself, and looked around at a place that didn't seem at all converted from its prior industrial uses.
Here was the building's plain metal front door, and over there the garage door, gray rather than green on the inside. A concrete ramp curved upward from the garage door. The space under the ramp and stretching back through the building was taken up with storerooms facing a central corridor and all fronted by barred doors like those on jail cells; unfortunate image.
Dortmunder and his small flashlight took a quick curious look at these rooms and they were full in a way the word «miscellaneous» couldn't quite cover. There was furniture, there was statuary, there were at least two motorcycles, there were office safes piled one atop another, there was what looked like a printing press, there were stacks of computers and other office equipment, and there was a painting of the George Washington Bridge with a truck on fire in the middle of it.
Very strange guy, this Jacques Perly. A private detective. Did people pay him in goods instead of money?
Dortmunder went back to the front of the building and was about to let himself out the street door when he glanced again at that ramp going up. The light source, dim but useful, came from up there.
Would Kelp have checked out the second floor? No. Something told him that Andy Kelp was long gone from this neighborhood. Probably he figured Dortmunder wouldn't be agile enough to get out that window and clear of trouble and so would be somewhere in custody right about now, meaning he'd not be a good person to stand next to for some little while. Dortmunder didn't blame him; if the situation were reversed, he himself would be halfway to Philadelphia.
But what about that ramp? As long as he was here, inside this place, shouldn't he at least take a look-see?
Yes. He walked up the ramp, which curved sharply to the right then straightened along the front wall. This concrete area, just wide enough to K-turn a car in, was flanked on the left by a cream-colored stone wall with a very nice dark wood door. High light fixtures provided the low gleam he'd seen from the street through those industrial windows now high to his right.
Was this nice wooden door locked? Yes. Did it matter? No.
Inside, he found a neat and modest receptionist's office illuminated by a grow light over a side table of small potted plants, all of them legal. He ambled through, and the next door wasn't locked, which made for a change.
This was Jacques Perly's office, very large and very elaborate, spread beneath that skylight. Aware that a private eye might have additional security here and there — even Eppick had had a couple of surprises in his office — Dortmunder tossed the room in slow and careful fashion, using his little flashlight only when he had to, very mindful of that skylight observing him from just above his head.
There were a couple of fruits from this endeavor. On a round oak table in an area away from the main desk, he found notes in a legal pad in crisp tiny handwriting that described the security arrangements to be made to accommodate the coming presence of the Chicago chess set, and those arrangements were elaborate indeed. He also found a copier, switched it on, and copied the pages of notes, putting the copies into a side pocket of his jacket and the legal pad back precisely where he'd picked it up.
There was nothing else much of interest in Perly's office; not to Dortmunder, anyway. He left it and looked at the receptionist's room. Would there be anything of use in here? Very unlikely, but as long as he was passing through he might as well check it out.
It was in the bottom right-hand drawer of the desk that he found it, tucked in the back of the drawer under various cold medicines and lipstick tubes. It was a garage door opener. It was dusty, it was clearly the second opener the company always gives you when the garage door is installed, but it had never been needed and so was long ago forgotten.
If this was the right opener. Dortmunder stepped out to the parking area at the top of the ramp, aimed the opener at the garage door down there, and thumbed it. Immediately the door started to lift, so he thumbed it again and it stopped, with a four-inch-wide gap. A third push of the thumb and back down it went, to close the gap.
Well, this was something. The garage door wasn't quiet, God knew, but it was a possible way in. Dortmunder tucked the opener into the same pocket as the security notes, closed the office door behind himself, and went home.