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62

JOHNNY EPPICK AND Mr. Hemlow, having started north in Mr. Hemlow's limousine after lunch, didn't reach the compound until half past four. The trip up, with Mr. Hemlow's wheelchair buckled to the floor so that Mr. Hemlow faced forward toward Eppick on the rear-facing seat behind Pembroke, was not devoid of accomplishment. By the time they arrived, they'd come to a number of satisfactory conclusions.

Mr. Hemlow began, once they were north of the city, by saying, "Johnny, I must tell you, you chose well."

"I'm pleased with John," Eppick agreed. "And his companions, too."

"There are five of them now?"

"That does seem to be what it took." Eppick grinned in an admiring way. "I talked with a couple friends still on the Job, and I must say what they did was as smooth as Mister Softee ice cream. They went up against half a dozen armed professional security men, and pulled the job without a shot being fired, with no violence of any kind, without even a threat. Sir, it was a heist even your granddaughter would approve."

"Oh, she'll approve the result, I have no doubt of that." Mr. Hemlow brooded out the window a bit, Eppick watching that profile that itself looked a bit like a Mister Softee ice cream. Then he turned back to Eppick to say, "They will expect to be paid."

"Yes, sir, they will."

"If I intended to sell the set," Mr. Hemlow mused, "it would be a simple matter of giving each a percentage. And you, too, of course."

"Thank you, sir."

"But that would require destroying the set, extracting the individual jewels and melting the gold down into ingots, which would be a far worse crime, in my opinion."

"Absolutely, sir," Eppick said piously.

"So," Mr. Hemlow went on, "since converting the set to cash is out of the question, let us consider what we should offer these fellows as recompense for their good work."

"It will all be coming out of your own pocket, Mr. Hemlow."

"I realize that. On the other hand, my pockets are deep enough to allow me such an indulgence. And when the day is done, I and my descendents will still have the set, with all its value intact."

"That's true, sir."

Mr. Hemlow brooded at the Hutchinson River Parkway a while, and then said, "The question is, what would constitute a proper payment? How much should I offer? What amount would fellows like that think was fair, and what would they think was insulting?"

"That's a very good question, sir," Eppick said. "Give me a minute to think about it."

"Of course."

Now it was Eppick who brooded a while at the Hutch, occasionally nodding or shaking his head as the argument progressed within. Finally he turned back to Mr. Hemlow to say, "If it were me, sir, I would begin by offering them ten thousand dollars apiece. They would not be satisfied with that number."

"I shouldn't think so," Mr. Hemlow said.

"So you would allow them to negotiate with you," Eppick explained, "to argue you up to fifteen or twenty thousand. I'm believing a payout of a hundred thousand dollars would be all right with you."

"Of course. Let me think about this."

"Certainly, sir."

Mr. Hemlow took his turn studying what by now had become Route 684, and did some of his own head-shaking, just visible mixed in there with his normal head-shaking. Then he looked again at Eppick and said, "I think that's too low. I think ten thousand dollars is not a strong enough bargaining first step, but would be seen as an insult. They know as well as we do they did more than ten thousand dollars' worth of work last night."

"That's true."

"I might offer them twenty, however."

"You'll still have the argument, though, sir," Eppick pointed out. "And then you'll wind up at twenty-five or thirty."

"Well, thirty thousand dollars doesn't seem out of the way, considering the job that was done."

"So that would make it a hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar payout for you."

"One hundred eighty thousand," Mr. Hemlow said.

"Sir?"

"You would be getting the same amount, Johnny," Mr. Hemlow said. "In addition to the normal fees I'm paying you."

Astounded, Eppick said, "I would?"

"None of this would have been possible without you, Johnny. You knew how to assemble the team, and you knew how to keep them in good order. You kept them honest."

"In a way," Eppick said.

"Yes, in a way."

Eppick laughed. "Mr. Hemlow," he said, "if I'm getting the same size piece as everybody else, I've been negotiating on the wrong side here."

"It was better that way, Johnny, better for you to think your advice was disinterested. I take it you would be content with thirty thousand dollars."

"Absolutely, sir."

"And the others?"

"I don't see any problem there, sir," Eppick said. "I truly don't."

"Fine."

When they gazed out at the Taconic State Parkway now, both were smiling.

Pembroke buzzed them in at the gate, and they drove the winding road up through the massive pines. Pale late-afternoon light was steadily darkening, the snow around the trees looking gray and tired and old. They drove part of the way up to the house and then Mr. Hemlow barked, "Pembroke! Stop."

Pembroke stopped, and Eppick turned to see what Mr. Hemlow was staring at. Out there, in a small clearing beside the road, on green tarpaulins, were two armies of chessmen, one the brightest crimson, the other deepest black.

"Beautiful," Mr. Hemlow breathed. "No one would guess what lies beneath that paint. On, Pembroke."

Pembroke drove on.


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