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Authors: Donald E. Westlake

Tags: #General Interest

Don't Ask

Donald E. Westlake
Don't Ask
CIP
'g,. cort, l'aul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert: Dortmunde all, and who would have guessed.

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder's left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City--"If there ain't snow on the road, there's construction crews"____________________ and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder's right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn't any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles. Cold drips. "My ankles are freezing," he announced. As if anybody cared.

"Nobody's gonna freeze anymore," Kelp assured him. "Not with global warming."

"I can't wait," Dortmunder said. "The bones in my ankles are getting all cracks in them. I got ice water from the air conditioner squirting all over my ankles now. I'm never gonna walk again. I can't wait for the globe to get warm."

"The thing about getting on a bridge," Stan Murch said, "once you're on it, you're on it. No changing your mind on a bridge. No turning off, turning around, take a little detour. You're on a bridge, you're on a bridge, and that's it until you get to the other side, and, the way I see it, we ain't gonnaget to the other side."

"Enough is enough," Dortmunder decided, and leaned forward to peer at the dashboard's array of controls. After one false start--the windshield had needed washing anyway--he found the knob marked A/C and switched it off.

Which didn't help. Apparently, the air-conditioning system had already collected enough frigid condensation in its innards to keep raining on Dortmunder's parade (or his tarsals, at least) well into the next century, which was how long Stan announced he anticipated they'd be stuck on this goddam bridge. Dortmunder twisted around to the right to hide his ankles behind Kelp's, but there wasn't really room over there, and in any event Kelp was a kicker, so it was back to the January thaw.

Inch by inch they crept across the bridge, among all the rest of the smoking, snorting, stinking traffic, Dortmunder only glad the interior of the truck cab remained cool enough (probably because of the ice water gathering in a tam at his feet) so that neither Kelp nor Stan insisted on turning the air conditioner back on. Think what a cataract, what a cascade, it could produce if left on for the whole trip. But the sun was behind them, since they were driving east--or pointing east, anyway--so the truck cab was in the shade. A nice shady spot, with a waterfall.

The trip to Farport, on Long Island's southern shore, should have taken an hour and a half, max, but with most of the population of New York State fitted out in bright orange vests and told to stand around in the middle of every highway and byway and look busy, it was nearly four hours before the trio and their fish truck drove at last into the yard at the Ocean Deeps Processing Plant, where their load/loot would be commingled with fish brought here more conventionally--that is, by boat, from the ocean--and eventually driven back to New York in a similar fish truck and possibly even to the same fish wholesaler who'd been anticipating its arrival today.

Except, no. When George of Ocean Deeps snapped the lock and raised the big articulated door at the rear of the truck, the odor that came out was strong enough to plant beans in. 'Jesus Christ!" George prayed, and yanked down the door, though not before two nonsmokers in the office across the yard fainted.

George backed away from the truck as he stared at his alleged suppliers in outrage and disbelief. "You turn off the AC?" he demanded. "On a day like this?"

"Oh," Dortmunder said, while eyes from both sides turned and did laser things to his cheekbones. 'That's why the cab stayed cool."

The ride back to the city on the Long Island Railroad was a quiet one.

They'd abandoned the truck a block from the station, and, when last they'd looked back, the thing had a kind of shimmery quality to it, as though it were just about to be tele ported to another planet, or another time. Which wouldn't be a bad idea.

Dortmunder had too much dignity to try to alibi himself in front of his onetime friends____________________ cold water, ankles, no assistance from them, A/C clearly marked on the knobwhile apparently neither Kelp nor Stan trusted himself to speak, so the three sat in silence all the way to Penn Station. Dortmunder had paid for all the tickets--it seemed like he should, somehow--but nevertheless it was Kelp who was glumly looking at the glum suburbs outside the window and Stan sitting with his big brogans in the aisle and giving the fish-eye--pardon; staring back at any passerby who seemed to be considering a complaint, while Dortmunder was still seated in the middle. At least there wasn't any ice water.

It was well after seven o'clock in the evening before Dortmunder finally tmlocked his way into his apartment on Nineteenth Street and walked back to the kitchen, where his faithful companion May said, "Good," got up from the table where she'd been reading "Seven Fast-Track Careers for You" in last month's Self, and hit the STAWT button on the microwave Dornaaunder had brought home late one night a couple months ago. "Dinner in four minutes."

"Don't ask," Do-taaunder said.

May had no intention of asking. One look at Doiaunder's face told her the day had not gone well. "Beer or bourbon?" she asked.

"Definitely bourbon," Dortmunder told her, and went away to wash up.

On his return, she handed him a glass and said, "Tiny called, before.

He'd like a meet tonight at the OJ, ten o'clock."

"He's got something?" Anything, Dortmunder thought, to erase the memory of those fish.

"I guess so." May sotmded dubious, or confused."He kind of chuckled and said, 'Tell Dortmunder, it's exactly his kind of thing.' Whatever that means."

"Nothing good," Dortmtmder surmised, and the microwave beeped in agreement.

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at ten that night, the regulars were discussing why the big annual automobile race called the Indy 500 was called the Indy 500. "It's because," one regular explained, "they run it on Independence Day."

Rollo the bartender was nowhere to be seen.

"They do not," a second regular responded. "Independence Day is the Fourth of July."

Dortmunder walked over to the bar to see what was what with Rollo.

The first regular reared back and stared at the second regular in aggressive astonishment. 'WVhat boat did you get off?. The Fourth of July is the fourth of July!"

The duckboards behind the bar were lifted and leaning against the backbar and the trapdoor was open. Dortmunder settled down to wait.

"And the Fourth of July is Independence Day," the second regular said, with the calm confidence of the well-prepared scholar. "They run the Indy Five Hundred on Memorial Day, if you want to know."

"They why don't they call it the Memo Five Hundred?"

"The place where they run it--" started a third regular; but, no. Not a regular at all, or he would not have allowed himself to be interrupted.

Which he was, by the first regular, still as calmly confident as ever, explaining, "The reason they call the Indy the Indy is because they named it in honor of the guy in Ra/ders of the Lost Ark. On account of what a terrific driver he is. Indigo Jones, nickname Indy."

"You know," mused a third regular, "it's only called the Indy Five Hundred this year." Yes; this is the third regular. "Next year," he informed the world at large, "it'll be the Indy Five Hundred and One."

Everybody paused to think about that.

"It's called the Indy because____________________ " said the nonregular.

"Are you telling me," the first regular said to the third regular, "the Indy Five Hundred started in the sixteenth century? Are you sure they had cars then?"

"They used chariots the first few years," the third regular explained.

"That's where the movie Ben-Hur came from. It's like the Super Bowl, with the numbers, ex-ex this and ex-ex that. Only they use American numbers. Five hundred. Five hundred and one." "Indianap--" said the nonregular.

"It isn't Indigo," said the second regular.

The first regular reared around to confront this new challenge to his scholarship: "Whatisn't Indigo?" 'ўI'he guy's name," said the second regular. "An indigo is a kind of fruit, like an orange or a quincy." 'I'hat's right," the third regular said. "My first wife made pies."

The first regular did another half turn on his stool to lower an eyebrow at the third regular. "Indigo pies?"

"And quincy pies. And rubabayga."

Rollo came heavily up the basement stairs, screwing the top onto a full bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon--"Our Own Brand." When he saw Dortmunder looking down at him, he pretended he wasn't screwing the top on, that the top had been on all along. 'ўI'he other bourbon said you'd be along," Rollo said.

"Andy Kelp's here?" He's telling Tiny, Dortmunder thought, about the fish.

"And the beer and salt," Rollo said. "And two vodka and red wines."

"Two?"

"Your big friend brought another guy," Rollo said. He put the bottle of muddy brown liquid on the backbar, stooped with a grunt to close the trapdoor and drop the duckboards into place, then pretended to go through the process of opening a brand-new fresh bottle, using the bottle he'd just come upstairs with for the demonstration. He placed this triumphantly open bottle and a glass in front of Dortmunder and said, "I told the other one you'd bring it in."

"Thanks, Rollo."

The regulars were now discussing whether or not it was permissible for a person who'd only been married once, and was still married, to speak in terms of"my first wife." There were many opinions expressed on this topic. "Not in front of her," the non regular advised, but of course no one listened to him.

Dortmunder picked up the bottle and glass and carried them past the regulars and down beyond the end of the bar and down the hall past the doors decorated with black metal dog silhouettes labeled voir,rr,v,s and sEarv, Rs, and past the phone booth with the string dangling from the quarter slot, and on to the end of the hall, where the knob of the green door stymied him for just a second, until he figured out how to hook the glass with one finger of the hand holding the bottle, leaving the other hand free to open the door.

"--nobody ever did hear him cry for help. I guess he's still there."

Dorhnundcr noddcd to the spcakcr as he cntcrcd the room and bumped the door shut bchind him with his behind. The spcakcr, who lookcd mostly like a hillsidc brought to lifc by Claymation, was a man monstcr____________________ or monstcr man--named Tiny Bulchcr by somconc with a grim scnsc of humor, or fast lcgs, or both. In the company of human beings of normal size and shapc, Tiny Bulchcr looked.., diffcrcnt. He rcmindcd most pcoplc of the thing they uscd to bclicvc livcd in thcir bedroom closet at night, when they were vcry vcry small, and they would wake up, and it would be really really dark in the whole house, and thcy would lie in bed and know just how small they were, and the closet door was the only thing in the entire vast universe they could see, and they just knew that inside that closet right now, reaching for the doorknob on the inside there, was… Tiny Bulcher.

"Hello, Tiny," Dortmunder said, and crossed to sit at the table near an aloof Andy Kelp, placing the bourbon bottle between them.

"Hello, Dortmunder," said Tiny, with a voice like a seaplane engine with gasket trouble. He chuckled, with a sound like small bones being crushed, and said, "I understand you went fishin. Only the fishin stunk."

"Hell hell," Dortmunder said.

The scene of this good-natured teasing was a smallish square room with a concrete floor. Beer and liquor cases lined all the walls, leaving a small open space in the middle, containing a battered old round table with a stained green felt top. Half a dozen chairs, all but one now occupied, stood around this table, and the only light came from one bare bulb under a round tin reflector hanging from a long black wire over the very center of the table.

The unoccupied chair had its back to the door; this was never a popular chair. To its right sat Dortmunder and to its left Stan Murch, who even without a steering wheel managed to look as though he were driving. To Dortmunder's right, Andy Kelp poured bourbon into his glass without saying thank you, and beyond him, facing the empty chair and the door, lurked Tiny Bulcher, in his massive paw a minuscule glass of what looked like cherry soda but was, in fact, a combination of vodka and Chianti that Tiny seemed to find restorative. And beyond Tiny, between Tiny and Stan Murch, was another one.

Another glass of noncherry soda. Another massive paw. Another man monster. Not quite as large as Tiny, but then, there are some villages out west that aren't as large as Tiny. But this guy came close.

It was mostly his shiny baldness above and the thick, heavy black beard below that made his face look like a boulder on a mountaintop. His shirt was black, with black buttons, an dover it he wore a vaguely military runic kind of thing, the Nehru jacket's homicidal cousin, in a dark olive green; exactly the color of an ornamental pond that hasn't been cared for right. The hands emerging from the black loop-embroidered sleeves of this tunic were depressingly large and thick and knobbly, with rings embedded in them here and there. Up at boulder level, the eyes were small, dark, brooding, and too close together, under a single hairy black caterpillar of brow resting on the ridges of his craggy forehead.

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