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THE LONGEST DAY of Jacques Perly's life started, appropriately enough, before dawn, with a phone call from the NYPD that woke him from a sound sleep at, according to the green LED readout of his bedside clock, 1:57 a.m., approximately fifty minutes since he'd shut his eyes.

"Jacques? Whuzza?"

"God knows," Jacques muttered, rolling over, lifting onto an elbow, tucking the phone between shoulder and jaw as he switched on the low bedside light and reached for pen and paper, just in case, while saying, "Perly."

"Jacques Perly?"

"That's me."

"This is Detective Krankforth, Midtown South. There has been a robbery at your office, sir."

Jacques was not really yet awake. He said, "A — a burglary?"

"No, sir," Detective Krankforth told him. "There were individuals present on the premises, that upgrades it to a robbery."

"Indi— Oh, my God, the chess set!"

"There are officers at the location," Detective Krankforth told him, "who would like to converse with you as soon as possible."

"I'll be there in an hour," Perly promised, and dropped the phone into its cradle as he scrambled out of bed.

"Jacques? Whuzza?"

"Hell," he told her. "Go back to sleep."

More hell than he'd guessed. He couldn't park in his own building, couldn't even drive down that block. After being impatiently waved off by a traffic cop who didn't want to hear anything he might want to say, he found an all-night garage two blocks away and walked back, shivering in the cold. Three-fifteen in the morning now, nearly the coldest time of the night.

Two television remote trucks were parked outside the yellow crime tape that closed off the block. Whatever had happened here had caused some commotion because people leaned out windows into the cold up and down the block, and other people stood in clumps outside the yellow tape, staring at nothing much.

Perly identified himself to a cop at the tape, who radioed to someone, then nodded and let him in, saying, "See Captain Kransit in the command module."

The command module, in civilian life, was a mobile home, though sporting NYPD blue and white. A uniformed patrolman ushered Perly up the steps and in, where a disgruntled plainclothesman in brown suit and no tie, raw-boned, fortyish, craggy-faced, looking exactly like a disgruntled high school science teacher, said, "Mr. Perly? Have a seat."

The front half of the command module contained tables and benches bolted to the floor, with a closed door in a black wall partway back. Perly and Kransit sat facing one another, elbows on table, and Perly said, "The chess set was stolen?"

"We're still trying to work out exactly what happened," Kransit told him. "Somebody's coming down from C&I bank, should have been here by now. You got a valuable chess set delivered to you tonight, is that it?"

"Yes. After I left. The Continental Detective Agency provided uniformed guards, and Securivan made the transfer. NYPD provided escort coming down."

Captain Kransit didn't take notes, but did consult a yellow legal pad open on the table at his right elbow. "You were not here when this chess set arrived?"

"No, that wasn't necessary. The arrangement is, I'm renting my office to these people while the set is out of its vault for study and evaluation, so once the security people were in place I could go home. That was about twelve-fifteen" — glance at watch — "three hours ago. Can you tell me what happened?"

The microphone/speaker dangling from Kransit's lapel squawked like a chicken, and Kransit told it, "Send him in," then got to his feet. "The bank man's here. Let's go take a look at what we've got."

The command module had been warm, which Perly noticed when he stepped back out to the cobbled street. The man approaching them was black, well over six feet tall, and done up in thick black wool overcoat, plaid scarf and black homburg. He looked like a Negro Theater Ensemble production of The Third Man. "Woolley," he announced.

Introductions were made, hands were shaken, and they turned toward Perly's building, where the garage door stood uplifted. "The crime scene is still intact," Kransit said, as they walked. "The vehicle is still inside."

"Well, yes, it would," Perly started, then stopped and started. "It's on the ramp!" And there it was, tilted up, a big, dark, bulky mass of metal, crawling with forensic team members like ants on a rotted eggplant.

Captain Kransit seemed slightly embarrassed on the armored car's behalf. "Yes, sir," he said. "Seems it got stuck in there."

Three or four men in dark blue overalls had been standing near the entrance. Now one of them came over to say, "Captain, we ready to pull this mother out of here?"

"Not just yet," the captain told him. "When forensics is finished."

"It's gonna take some doing," the overalled guy said, not without satisfaction. "Those guys really stepped on their dick in there."

"I'll let you know when," the captain promised, and Perly said, "Captain, what did happen? And where are the guards?"

"They were all shaken up by the event," the captain told him. "They've been taken down to Centre Street for a little rest and then a debriefing, but I can tell you both, now that you're here, Mr. Woolley, what occurred here tonight. This armored car arrived at about one-thirty—"

"Well, that's wrong," Perly said. "It was supposed to appear at two-thirty."

"We'll find out about that," the captain promised him. "But in fact, it did get here at one-thirty, when, too late, they discovered the vehicle was too bulky to make that tight turn up the ramp. Trying to correct, back and fill, you know, they wedged themselves in tighter."

The overalled guy still stood nearby, and now he said, "We might have to take some of that stone wall out."

Perly said, "What? Now you're going to tear my building down?"

"Well, that's a very valuable piece of machinery in there," the overalled guy said.

Perly gave him a dangerous look. "More valuable, do you think," he said, "than my building?"

Becoming belatedly cautious, the overalled guy said, "I guess we'll leave that to the insurance companies. I'm out of it." And he walked away to join his pals, dignity intact.

Woolley said, "Captain, so far, we have this vehicle wedged onto this ramp. I take it something happened next."

"Five men appeared, in civilian clothes," the captain told him. "I don't have every detail, but this is based on the preliminary investigations up here, before the witnesses were taken downtown. Five men approached the armored car from over there, said they worked for Mr. Perly."

Woolley said, "They came from inside the building?"

"That's right. They were already in place before the armored car arrived. The guards in the car assumed they came from the ground floor offices."

"I don't have ground floor offices," Perly said. "That's all storage."

"The men in the armored car didn't know that," the captain told him. "These men said they were your outside supplemental security, and they had a van with them, and they assisted in transferring the chess set from the armored car to the van, which would be small enough to make the curve up the ramp. Then — the men on the scene have expressed great embarrassment and chagrin over this — the van drove away."

Woolley looked very sad. "I'm afraid, Mr. Perly," he said, "you haven't been very lucky in this affair. No sooner do you take over the responsibility for the chess set than it disappears."

Perly rounded on him. "Responsibility? I never had responsibility for that goddam chess set."

"Sir, I am a Christian."

Perly was beside himself. "I don't care if you're a Girl Scout, my responsibility does not begin until that chess set enters my office. My office." Perly pointed a rage-trembling finger. "That ramp is not my office. Not verifying the size vehicle needed was not my responsibility, and what happens to the chess set before it actually enters my office is also not my responsibility. It was still property entrusted to the bank that underwent an armed robbery, not property entrusted to me."

"Er, Mr. Perly," Captain Kransit said, "it wasn't actually an armed robbery. None of the thieves showed any weapons. They merely showed up, took the chess set, and went away."

"Which somehow doesn't make things much better," Perly told him. "But the point remains, the bank continues to maintain sole custody of that chess set, as it has for lo these many years, and as it will continue to do until the chess set crosses the threshold into my office."

Woolley shrugged; no skin off his nose. "We'll let the lawyers sort that out," he said.

Envisioning a future full of C&I International bank lawyers, not to mention all the lawyers attached to all those Northwood heirs, Perly turned to glare at that stupid Tonka toy stuck in his beautiful building. It's Clanson, he told himself. Brian Clanson, he set this up somehow. I'm not going to mention his name, not tonight, but I'm going to get the goods on that white-trash son of a bitch if it's the last thing I do.

"All done, Captain," said the head of the forensics team, as at last they all trooped out to the sidewalk, carrying their cases of equipment and samples and supplies.

"Thank you," the captain said, and turned to the blue-overalled crowd. "It's all yours, boys."

"Thanks, Captain!" The boys headed for the armored car. They were all smiling, ear to ear.

Perly closed his eyes.

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