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54

OPERATION CHESS GAMBIT went off, at least in its earlier parts, without a hitch. The operation, code-named personally by Chief Inspector Francis Xavier Mologna of the NYPD before he'd taken himself off to his home, his wife and his comfortable and capacious bed in Bay Shore, Long Island, began at eleven o'clock, when, just exactly on time, two uniformed and armed operatives of the Continental Detective Agency, plus two of the agency's technical people, rang the street bell at Jacques Perly's office and, having identified themselves through the intercom, were granted admittance. Their unmarked small van drove up the curving ramp, parked next to the Lamborghini, and for the next fifty minutes Perly and the two operatives contented themselves with awkward conversation while the tech people laid out their special gadgets, including sensors on the windows and on the trapdoor to the roof.

When they were finished, the tech people turned their van around with some difficulty, due to the Lamborghini taking up so much of the available space, and at last, after a lot of backing and filling, they drove down the ramp and away. Perly spent another ten minutes giving the operatives last-minute instructions about what was on-limits and what was off-limits in this office — he'd noticed that one of them had already managed to drop a bath towel on the floor — and then he turned the Lamborghini around with not much trouble at all, because he didn't have a second vehicle to contend with and was in any event used to the space, and also drove away, headed for Westchester.

Once Perly was gone, one of the operatives phoned a fellow operative standing by up at the C&I International bank building, to tell him everything was ready for the cargo to be transferred, and then both found themselves comfortable places to sit and curl up with their books. Being a Continental operative could be slow work if you weren't a reader.

Meantime, up in the Bronx, the armored car drove out of the Securivan secure garage facility a few minutes early, at 12:25, and made terrific time coming down to midtown Manhattan, arriving at the C&I International building at 1:10, nearly an hour ahead of schedule. The driver chatted for a while with the four Continental operatives there, all uniformed and armed, who would be doing the heavy lifting, and then somebody said, "Listen, why wait till two o'clock? We're here now, the guys are ready downtown, let's call the cops and tell them we're starting now."

Everybody thought that was a good idea. Get the job done early, get home before sunup. So the NYPD was called, and by the time the Continental operatives, assisted by the guy from the bank, had the chess set mounted on its dolly and brought up out of the vault and across the lobby floor to the entrance there were four patrol cars in position out front.

Sometimes a task has a lot of screwups and irritations in it, but every once in a while you've got a job to do and everything works just fine, not a single problem, and that's how this chess set move went, at least for a while. There was no trouble moving the set, no trouble installing it in the armored car with the four operatives on the bench in there to guard it, and no trouble driving down the mostly deserted streets, accompanied now by only one patrol car.

They arrived at Jacques Perly's building at 1:27 exactly. One of the Continentals in with the chess set radioed the guards upstairs to open the garage door, which they did by pushing the button they'd been shown on the secretary's desk, and down in the basement the five poker players jumped up and said, "What's that? It's the garage door! It isn't even one-thirty!"

They had planned to relieve the guards of their duties and their uniforms at two o'clock, which would have given them a solid half-hour before the chess set would arrive. Fuming, Stan said, "Doesn't anybody keep to a goddam schedule?"

"Only us," Dortmunder said. "Come on, let's see what this is."

The five hurried up the stairs just in time to watch the armored car nose into the building and groan tentatively up the ramp, while outside the patrol car went about its business, its nursing detail done. The five stared, all hope gone. This was disaster. They absolutely had to get their hands on that goddam chess set before it got into that impossible circle of security inside Perly's office, that was the whole point here.

Over there on the ramp the armored car, angled upward like a turtle crawling over a log, stopped. It moved backward a little, then stopped. It moved forward a little, and very loud scraping sounds were heard. It stopped, moved backward, hitched itself around like a fat man adjusting his shorts, moved forward, and reproduced the scrape sound effect.

"It's too big," Judson said. He sounded stunned.

"These people," Stan said, "can't do anything right."

"Enough is enough," Dortmunder said, stepping forward from the stairwell. "Stan, get the van. Take the kid with you. Tiny, Andy, come on."

Everybody did as they were told, Stan and Judson exiting through the nearby door, Kelp and Tiny following Dortmunder, Kelp saying, "John? What's our plan?"

"We're getting what we came for," Dortmunder said, and yelled at the armored car as it did that scrape thing again, "Hey! Cut it out! Whadaya wanna do, knock down the wall?"

The armored car was completely inside the building now, on the ramp, in a position where it scraped the wall just as much when it went backward as when it went forward. The driver, over on the far side in his closed cab, looked out his right window at Dortmunder and shrugged his arms up in the air: "Whadaya want from me?"

Dortmunder went to the rear door of the armored car and banged on the bulletproof window. Cautiously, the door opened an inch, and the Continental in there, his hand on his holstered sidearm, said, "Who are you?"

"We work for Perly," Dortmunder told him. "We're the outside security, keep an eye on the place while you people are here, and brother, you need us. I got a van here," he went on, as Stan and Judson arrived with it. Turning to Kelp, he said, "Tell him to back it in. As close to the armored car as he can."

Kelp, looking awed, went away to instruct Stan, while Dortmunder said to the Continental, "You're gonna wreck this place. We'll get the chess set out and into the van, then get your truck outa here, then take the set up the ramp with the van. Also, we gotta take pictures of the damage."

"That's Securivan," the Continental told him. "That's not us."

From up above, one of the two Continentals already in position called down, "You need help down there?"

"Stay there," Dortmunder yelled up to him. "You don't wanna compromise the security you got there." Then he had to move briskly out of the way as Stan backed the van into the building and over to the rear of the armored car.

"I guess that's all we can do," the Continental said, and turned to tell his friends in the armored car what was going on. They all climbed out and, with all nine of them lending a hand, it took no time at all to transfer the chess set and its dolly into the van.

Once it was in and the van door shut, Stan drove the van out to the curb with Judson on the seat beside him, Kelp and Tiny sort of vagued themselves out of the scene and down the block, and Dortmunder said to the four Continentals, "You guys want to get in position where you can guide this driver. He's all messed up in here. You two go round front, you get on this side, you get on that side, I'll stand here by the door, be sure there's nobody coming."

Everybody got into position, and Dortmunder stepped back and thumbed the opener in his pocket, then galloped over to shove into the van next to Judson, which then left. The Continentals ran to the closing door, but didn't get there in time. If one of them had been a little spryer he might have been able to roll out under the closing door, but none of them were that spry.

Eventually they got the door open again, with a lot of shouting and recrimination, but the van was nowhere to be seen. Also, nobody had noticed its license number.


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