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My flashlight arced across ancient political cartoons: menacing eagles with the leering faces of long-dead politicians, incredibly stout laughing men labeled "The Railroads," tall slender downcast women trailing banners in the dust. Each print had been carefully preserved, mounted, framed and fronted by non-reflecting glass, and given a guard—me—to protect it at night from thieves and vandals. My shoes made echoing sounds on the uncarpeted wooden floor, and I angled the flashlight from left to right as I walked along the white-walled corridor where the cartoon display was hung.
Until I became aware that not all the sounds were echoes of my own movements. I stopped, and listened, and heard someone far away knocking on the museum's front door. My watch said ten forty-five; who would be coming here at this hour of night?
My normal route would next have taken me through the section labeled "Comic Strips Between the World Wars," but by turning left at the next doorway, I could instead cut through "Advertising in the Fifties" to the main staircase, and from there directly down one flight to the front entrance. As I went that way, striding but not running, the tock-tock at the door stopped, then repeated itself briefly, then stopped again. Whoever was out there was insistent, but not urgent.
This was the third night of my third week at this job, and I still wasn't sure in my mind whether I would keep it or not. In many ways it was the ideal employment for me, but somehow that very fact frightened me and made me leery of staying with it very long. For instance, one of the advantages of the job was its solitude—I was alone here four nights a week, nine P.M. till seven A.M.—and in the eleven nights I'd worked so far, this was the first interpolation from another human being. I both welcomed and resented it, which is why I strode but didn't run, and also why I wasn't sure this job would be healthy for me over a long period of time.
The main entrance to this building, the Museum of American Graphic Art, was a wide wooden door with a small square speakeasy panel in it. I wasn't afraid of armed robbery— the contents of the museum, while no doubt valuable, required protection more from destructive teenagers and overenthusiastic collectors than from professional criminals— but it was easier to slide open the panel than unlock the door, so that's what I did.
At first I didn't recognize her; she was only a short slender blond woman standing out there in the semi-dark, her features and expression hard to read in the dim spill from a nearby streetlight. It had been nearly three years since I'd seen her, and her face was in shadow, and I'd never expected to see her anywhere ever again; still, I should have known who she was.
But I didn't. I said, "Yes?"
She peered at me; I suppose she was having trouble with recognition herself, both because of my own impersonality and the uniform hat I was wearing. Then she said, "Mitch?" and the voice did it. I knew who she was.
"Oh," I said. I don't know what my own voice could have sounded like. I was unable to move.
"Can I talk to you?"
I didn't say anything. I didn't do anything. Our faces were framed for each other by the open panel—like those cartoons upstairs—and I couldn't think of a word to say, or a single thing to do.
"It's about Danny," she said. She spoke both apologetically and reassuringly, letting me know that she wouldn't have come to me to talk about herself, or about us.
"Danny," I repeated. Everyone else called Linda Campbell's husband "Dink," and he was by profession a burglar. I had met her, in fact, while arresting her husband for plying his trade; that had been in my fourteenth year on the force.
"Please," she said. And that one word was so complex, begging so many things for so many different reasons, that it compelled a simple answer to resolve it. Either a final yes or a final no, but nothing in between.
"Hold on," I said, admitting defeat, "while I unlock the door."
I closed the panel just as she was starting to smile, but I didn't immediately do anything about the three locks that had to be unfastened before I could let her in. I stood where I was for a moment, the fingertips of both hands touching the door without actually pushing against it, my eyes on the closed panel, and what I sensed mostly was this thickness of wood between us.
And time. Seven years ago I had met Linda, when my partner Jock Sheehan and I went to the Campbell apartment to pick up Dink for a burglary he'd recently done. It had taken Linda and me over a year to go to bed together, by which time Dink was already serving his time for the charge on which I'd arrested him. We were, I suppose, an irretrievably shabby couple, both of us married, I the cop who'd arrested her husband, but somehow none of that ever seemed to intrude in the hours we spent together. We seemed to have no history with one another, and while sex always remained important between us, talk was important, too. I don't know what about—books, movies, politics, the weather, what does it matter?
It is an accepted truism that a contented husband doesn't have affairs, but was I discontented at home during those years? I don't think so. Kate and I even at the best of times have had a relationship long on mutual acceptance and short on conversation, and I do know I always liked to talk to Linda more than to Kate, but in the length of my marriage Linda has been my only adultery. And that took so long to come about, and seemed so removed from the rest of my life, that it never really appeared to me as adultery at all; except that it had to be hidden from Kate.
It was only while on duty that I could see Linda, of course, which meant one other person knew the secret: my partner, Jock. He covered for me during the hours I spent with Linda, and was covering for me when he was shot down by a numbers runner who'd unexpectedly turned to narcotics, turning an arrest that should have been a simple one-man job into a disaster that had ended Jock's life and my police career. After eighteen years on the force and three years in Linda's bed.
I hadn't seen her since that final meeting, during which Jock had been killed forty blocks away, and in the last three years I had just started to adjust myself to life with the multiple betrayer I knew myself to be. I had spent over two years unemployed, supported by savings and by Kate—who had forgiven me even though the Department had not—and only recently had taken out a private detective license, with the help of one or two old friends from my days on the force. I still couldn't bring myself to work with other people, but I could now take one-man jobs, and was listed as a part-time operative with three agencies in Manhattan. I had gone down very close to suicide or a mental breakdown, and was only just starting to come back up again; only just starting to ease the weight of guilt and permit myself to come back up again.
And now here was Linda, just the other side of this door. Bringing it all with her again, like swirls of fog around her coat.
There was nothing else to do; I unfastened the three locks and pulled open the door. "Come in," I said.
When she stepped forward into the light it was as though the last three years had ceased to exist, as though I'd dreamed them. Her face was unchanged, even to the hesitant private smile with which she had always greeted me, and her voice was as well-remembered as a song from childhood. "Thank you, Mitch," she said.
I was so stunned by the discovery of my still wanting her that at first I couldn't say a thing. I gestured to her to come further into the lobby, and busied myself with closing and relocking the door; all three locks, as though the mixture of memory and desire she'd brought with her were still outside, and could be kept at bay.
"I followed you," she said, talking to the back of my head. "I've been outside in the car since nine o'clock."
I didn't want to want her, and I knew I wouldn't do anything about trying to get her back, but still I was very nervous, and afraid that when I turned I would show her something in my face or manner that would tell her the truth. I had never gone back to see her after learning that Jock was dead, and so far as I knew, she never had made any attempt to contact me. In a small way, I felt guilty about having turned my back so completely and abruptly, but that guilt had been for a long time buried beneath too many much larger guilts, and now lacked the force to drive me to action.
The three locks were refastened. Reluctantly I turned and faced her smile again and said, "Hello." I was afraid to smile because I knew I wanted to take her in my arms and I didn't want to know if she would let me.
"I should have come to see you at home," she said, still with the same small deprecatory smile. "It would have been better, to talk to you with—your wife." She had never met Kate, nor had I ever talked with her much about my wife or my marriage.
We had to get out of the past and into the present, and right away. I said, "There's a problem with Dink?"
"Yes." She looked around the small lighted furniture-less lobby. "You're the only one I could come to," she said, and faced me again.
"If I can help," I said, and stopped there.
"Don't be cold to me, Mitch," she said. "I'm not going to—"
Drag me into the past, she meant. I was suddenly ashamed of myself, and said, "Come on into the office, we can sit down."
I had switched on the lobby light on the way in, and now I turned it off again on the way out and we went down the hall behind my flashlight beam toward the white rectangle of the office. It was the only room I kept lighted all night, where I would sit and listen to a transistor radio between my hourly rounds.
As we walked down the hall, side by side but not touching, once again indistinct to each other in the darkness, she said, "I just couldn't do it, Mitch, go see you in your home. I was there yesterday, and again today, and I just stayed in the car and looked at the house."
"And followed me here."
"Yes. And finally came in. Because of Danny."
"Is he getting out?"
"He is out," she said.
At the office doorway I switched off the flashlight and gestured for her to precede me. I wanted to shut the door behind me and close us in, as though to keep us from being seen by eyes in the darkness, but I left it open. I said, "Are you living with him?"
She turned in the middle of the room. "Of course," she said. "He's my husband."
"Does he know about us?"
"About you?" I noticed the change of pronoun; she said, "Yes, he does, Mitch. We've gotten past it."
"Good," I said, and hoped the regret didn't show. "Sit down."
In addition to a couple of desks and swivel chairs and filing cabinets, the office contained a maroon leatherette sofa and armchair; Linda took the chair, and I sat near her at one end of the sofa.
"Danny has a job," she said, and was suddenly embarrassed, I couldn't think why. "He's working for a cardboard box maker over in Brooklyn."
"That's fine," I said.
"He doesn't want to get involved in all that old stuff again."
"I'm glad," I said. These were just sounds I was making, true enough but superficial: the police officer pleased to hear of the ex-con going straight. But at the same time I was trying to understand the source of her embarrassment.
Then she said, earnestly, "He's really doing very well, Mitch. This time he's going to make it, I know he is." And I finally saw why it was she was so embarrassed; it was difficult for her to show me, the ex-lover, just how totally Dink Campbell was the center of her life.
I knew, of course, that if Linda had come back crying to start our affair again, I wouldn't have done it, I would have pushed her away with fear and an utter lack of desire. I knew that even now I didn't truly want her back, and would make no attempt to recapture her. But her unavailability was so complete that it permitted other feelings to rise in me, undampened by fear of consequences; we had been together for three years, and it had not been through the desire of either of us that it had come to an end.
So that what I was feeling wasn't truly desire, but merely regret, which is desire's shadow, and to be ignored. The easiest way to ignore it would be to focus myself entirely in the present, so I said, "If Dink is doing well in an honest job, and if things are good between the two of you, then it has to be something else. Somebody putting pressure on him?"
"Yes," she said.
"Old friends," I suggested, "wanting him to come back in with them, work a few jobs."
"That's part of it," she said. "You know he was always the lock specialist."
"Yes, I know."
"We're saving our money now," she said, "so he can open a locksmith's shop."
I suddenly found myself grinning, with tension almost completely gone. I said, "Dink Campbell as a locksmith. He'll be a good one."
Her answering smile agreed to the comedy, but also took pride in her man. "Yes, he will," she said. "If they give him the chance."
"They don't have another lockman, is that it?"
"That's right. Then there's some money they want."
"I don't really understand it," she said. "There was a job they were on one time, and they had to split up, and two of them say Danny had the money, and now they all want their shares."
"He says he didn't have it?"
"He didn't have it. He doesn't have it."
"All right," I said.
"They say Danny should either give them the money, or help them on a few more jobs until they make it up."
"And if he won't?"
"They'll lean on him," she said. "Beat him up sometime. Maybe come beat me up while he's at work. They gave him time to think it over."
"How much time?"
She shook her head. "Until they come back," she said. "Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month."
"What's Dink's attitude?"
"He doesn't want to go back," she said. "If he gets caught again, he'll spend the rest of his life in prison and he knows it, and he doesn't want it."
"He doesn't want me to get hurt," she said. "I know that's what it is. If he was on his own he wouldn't worry, he'd handle it somehow, but he hates the idea of going to work and leaving me alone."
I said, "How many of them are there?"
"You know their names?"
I got up and went to the nearest desk and found pen and paper. "Okay," I said.
She said, "Mitch?"
I looked across the room at her.
She said, "Danny doesn't know I'm here. He wouldn't like me asking you to help him."
"All right," I said.
"You can understand that."
The things I had done to Dink made me look down at the blank sheet of paper again. "Yes, I can," I said.
"So if you can do something—"
"Dink shouldn't know it's from me."
"I'm sorry, Mitch, I wish—"
Quickly I said, "It's all right. I can't do anything officially myself anyway, so my name will have to stay out no matter what."
"Thank you," she said.
"Who are they?"
"One of them is named Fred Carver. He's the one in charge."
"I know him," I said, and wrote his name down.
"Then there's one Danny calls Knox. I don't know his first name."
"Right," I said, putting the name down. It was new to me.
"And one called Mort."
I looked at her. "Mort Livingston?"
"I don't know."
It was too common a first name, and I didn't know if Mort Livingston was even around any more. Dink had been put away seven years ago, and I myself had been off the force three years; a lot of faces change in three years. I just wrote down the first name, and let it go at that.
"The fourth one is just a kid," she said. "Named Willie Vigevano."
"Never heard of him," I said. "How do you spell the name?"
She spelled it, and said, "He's just a kid, no more than seventeen or eighteen. But he's the one who scares me. Him, and Fred Carver."
I remembered Fred Carver as a bruiser, a fairly unintelligent man who became leader of small groups by cowing them with the threat of his fists. He'd been sent up once or twice, but not as yet for anything serious, though that was clearly in his future.
I said, "That's four. That's all of them?"
I put the paper away in my wallet, and said, "I was making my rounds when you knocked. Walk with me, I want to ask some questions."
"All right," she said.
The rounds could have waited, I suppose, but I did feel a certain responsibility to do the job well, and I had already made myself late. Also, there was a strangeness and discomfort in being alone in a room with Linda, the two of us in a conversation so unlike the past, our eyes of necessity meeting from time to time; it had been easier while walking down the dark hall with the flashlight, and I wanted to reconstruct that.
I didn't go back to where I'd left off, but started at the beginning again, doing the ground floor first and going up the rear stairs afterward. The rounds took longer than usual, Linda being distracted from time to time by different things on display, as I had been myself the first week here. I allowed us to move at her pace, shining the light on whatever took her interest, and made no hurry out of asking my questions. I wanted to know her address, and the address of the paper-box factory where Dink worked in Brooklyn. I wanted to know where Fred Carver and the others hung out these days, and where they had met Dink, and what had been said on both sides, and whether or not they had been to Linda and Dink's apartment; they had. I wanted to know what the chances were of Dink moving away to some other city, and she said they were very poor, Dink still being a man full of the wrong kind of pride, who would wither and die if he ever allowed himself to be driven away from his home by threats.
Excerpted from Don't Lie to Me by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1972 Tucker Coe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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