Good Behaviorby Donald E. Westlake
Dortmunder agrees to do a dangerous favor for a gang of nuns
It was supposed to be a simple caviar heist. Dortmunder is almost in the building when the alarm sounds, forcing him up the fire escape and onto the roof. He leaps onto the next building, smashing his ankle and landing in the den of the worst kind of creature he can imagine: nuns. Although/b>… See more details below
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Dortmunder agrees to do a dangerous favor for a gang of nuns
It was supposed to be a simple caviar heist. Dortmunder is almost in the building when the alarm sounds, forcing him up the fire escape and onto the roof. He leaps onto the next building, smashing his ankle and landing in the den of the worst kind of creature he can imagine: nuns. Although decades removed from his Catholic orphanage, Dortmunder still trembles before the sisters’ habits. But these nuns are kinder than the ones he grew up with. They bandage his wound, let him rest, and don’t call the cops—for a price. The father of the youngest member of their order, disgusted by their vow of silence, has kidnapped his daughter, locked her in a tightly guarded penthouse apartment, and is attempting to convince her to renounce her faith. The nuns ask Dortmunder to rescue the girl. It’s an impossible assignment—but one he cannot refuse.
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By Donald E. Westlake
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Donald E. Westlake
All rights reserved.
Dortmunder opened the door and a distant burglar alarm went CLANG angangangangang ... "Hell," Dortmunder said, and shut the door again, but the angangangangang went on and on and on. "Hell and damnation," Dortmunder said, while from some distance away a police patrol car's siren went whoop-whoop wiggle-wiggle-wiggle whoooooooooopp, the sound rising from the grid of New York City's streets up five stories through the two A.M. air to this quiet blacktopped roof. The burglar alarm kept nagging: angangangangang. WHOOP-WHOOP; the patrol car wasn't so very far away after all.
"Goodbye," O'Hara said.
Dortmunder looked at his partner in crime; in this crime, anyway. "Where you going?"
"Florida," O'Hara said over his shoulder. He was already halfway across the roof to the fire escape.
Raising his voice just a teeny-weeny bit, hoping O'Hara could hear him but none of the neighbors would, Dortmunder said, "Maybe you shouldn't do that."
"I'm gone," O'Hara called back, climbing onto the fire escape. "It's too hot around here, I'm going to Florida to cool off." And he disappeared from view.
Dortmunder, as he replaced his burglar tools in the special inside pockets of his black sports jacket, dubiously shook his head. He just had the feeling O'Hara was making a mistake, that's all, which would be his second of the night, it having been O'Hara who'd paused on the way up the fire escape to "neutralize" the burglar alarm. Either those jumped wires had failed to do their job or the proprietor of this importer's warehouse had a second alarm system unknown to Mr. Chepkoff, the food wholesaler who'd commissioned this evening's operation. In either event, it was clear now that the recent shipment of Russian caviar three stories below this roof, the object of Mr. Chepkoff's current intentions, would not after all be removed from the premises this evening, which was a pity.
Quite a pity. In the first place, Dortmunder could use the money. And in the second place, he'd never tasted caviar, and had been looking forward to lifting one or two cans from the shipment—Mr. Chepkoff would never know—and trying them out in the privacy of his own home, swigged down with a nice bottle of Old Milwaukee Light beer. His faithful companion May had even brought back some imported crackers to try the caviar with from the Bohack supermarket where she worked, and was waiting up, butter knife poised, for Dortmunder's return.
The WHOOP-WHOOP had stopped now, but the angangangangang just went on and on. It was too bad. Dortmunder hated to go back to May empty-handed. On the other hand, he'd hate it even more if he didn't get home at all. O'Hara's decision to go to Florida via fire escape had been a hasty and unwise one, but departing these premises in one fashion or another was definitely a good idea.
Dortmunder sighed. The caviar was so close he could almost taste it—if he knew what caviar tasted like. Resigning himself, he crossed the roof to a spot on the edge near the fire escape, from where he could look down at the sidewalk and at O'Hara, engaged in unsatisfactory conversation with two uniformed cops. Unsatisfactory to O'Hara, that is; even from here, the cops could be seen to be very satisfied. Soon they'd find the stolen truck backed up to the loading dock on the side street, and then they would begin to wonder if O'Hara had brought any friends along tonight.
In fact, as two more patrol cars—lights flashing, but no sirens—came to a stop at the curb down there, one of the original cops started up the fire escape. A young and agile cop—very unfair, that—coming up two steps at a time, flashlight in one hand, pistol in the other.
Time to go. This building was on the corner of two streets in a southwestern area of Manhattan recently rechristened Tribeca, which means "the Triangle Below Canal Street," and whenever any section of New York gets a cute new name—SoHo for South of Houston Street, Clinton to replace the honorable old name Hell's Kitchen, even NoHo for North of Houston Street—it means the real estate developers and gentrifiers and condominiumizers have become thick as locusts. It means the old handbag factories and sheet-metal shops and moving companies are being replaced by high-ticket housing. And it also means there's a long transition period of years or even decades when the plumbing supply places and the divorced advertising executives coexist, uneasy neighbors, neither entirely approving of the other. When Dortmunder turned away from the cop-laden fire escape, therefore, he looked down a long block of rooftops over who-knew-what. All the way to the next cross-street the rooftops were at the same level, each with its telephone-booth-like structure on top like the one Dortmunder had so innocently opened, giving access to the stairwell. But down those stairs, what might he find? A tool manufacturer, his premises girdled with burglar alarms? A Wall Street lawyer with a pet Doberman pinscher?
Not a cop with a flashlight and a gun, anyway. Dortmunder loped away across the rooftops, a tall bony middle-aged man who ran stiffly, like Pinocchio before he became a real boy, and whose burglar tools went rattle-rattle and clank-clank in his jacket pockets.
First door, locked, no knob or keyhole, just a blank metal sheet. Drat.
Second door, similar. Third. Fourth. There wasn't time now to jimmy a door, not with that cop on the way, and what were the odds on finding one of these doors unlocked?
Last roof. Dortmunder looked back and saw the flashlight beam on the roof above the caviar, drawing white lines on the night, up and down, back and forth. The cop hadn't seen Dortmunder way down here yet, but he soon would.
But this wasn't exactly the end of the block. There was one more building, broad and square, between here and the corner. Unfortunately, it was only three stories high, its jumble of A-shaped roof sections a good twenty feet below where Dortmunder now stood.
Back there, the bobbing flashlight had started to move in this direction. "Oh, boy," Dortmunder said.
What were his choices? (A) Prison. And, since this time he'd be classed as an habitual offender, it would be prison for all eternity. (B) A broken ankle. (C) If that cop's flashlight and eyes were good, prison and a broken ankle.
"Might as well go for the whole thing," Dortmunder told himself. The low wall at the edge of the roof was topped by arched slippery sections of tile. Dortmunder climbed over, clutching to the tiles, letting his feet dangle, his arms straight up, his nose and cheeks feeling the rough cool brick surface of the building wall. He could sense every single molecule of air in the vast distance between the worn soles of his shoes and the slanted top of that building down there. "I better not take the chance," he told himself, changing his mind. Maybe he could hide behind one of those stairwell constructions, or find some other fire escape to go down. "Too dangerous," he told himself, and pulled to get back up onto the roof, and his hands slipped.CHAPTER 2
Good heavens, thought Sister Mary Serene, it's barely two o'clock, my vigil's only half over, and my knees are killing me. But, mercy, think how much better off I am than all the people out in the world, forced to ride subways, talk to one another all day long, earn livings, watch television, eat meat, be distracted from contemplation of the One. For it is the One, the Eternal, toward Whom our thoughts should ever be directed, the One Who raises us above the mundane world through contemplation of Him, and Who, at the end, will lift us to eternal joy in the Bosom of His Peace and His Contentment. The mystery of the One who Is Three and yet One, Who created this world only for the purpose of renouncing it, Who created us in His image but Is Himself incomprehensible and unknowable, that One Who ...
It was easy to get back into contemplation; like falling off a log. Sister Mary Serene was an old hand in the contemplation game by now, having renounced the world, the flesh, the devil and an efficiency apartment in Jackson Heights some thirty-four years ago, entering this convent as a troubled and uncertain young woman and finding at once within its portals, by golly, that peace that does surpass understanding. If only everybody could be a cloistered nun, she frequently thought, what a nice and peaceful world this would be. Still to be renounced, of course, but nevertheless nice. Though not to be compared with Heaven, with the Afterlife, the abode of that One Who ...
And so on.
Here in the silent chapel of the Convent of St. Filumena on Vestry Street in downtown Manhattan there were at all times throughout the twenty-four hours of the day and night at least three nuns—four at the moment, being sisters Mary Serene, Mary Accord, Mary Vigor and Mary Sodality—on their knees and engaged in the primary task of their order, the contemplation of the Godhead in silence and veneration. The sacristy light above the altar and the sconced candles between the Stations of the Cross along both side walls were very subtly enhanced by indirect electric lighting on a dimmer switch—a contribution by Sister Mary Capable's brother, a New Jersey contractor—giving just enough illumination to show the half-dozen rough wooden pews, the simple altar, the thickly mortared brick walls and the high cathedral ceiling criss-crossed with rough-timbered rafters. In this silent and medieval setting, one's mind quite naturally and without urging turned to thoughts of the Church Militant here below, the Church Triumphant there above, and the Supreme Being over all, that Essence Whose spiritual effusion ...
Of course, even for a pro like Sister Mary Serene, contemplation did occasionally pall. Fortunately, at such moments there was always prayer to fall back on, with the usual litany of requests: long life to the Pope, an early depopulation of Purgatory, the conversion of Godless Russia. And recently there was something of even greater urgency for which to pray; namely, the return of Sister Mary Grace:
Dear Lord, if it pleases You to return to us our sister, Sister Mary Grace, from out of the tents of wickedness and the skyscrapers of the deceiver, our little Sisterhood would be eternally grateful. Eternally, Lord. We know it is Sister Mary Grace's ardent wish to return here, to Your dominion, to this life of contemplation and duty. It is our wish also that she return among us, and if it be Your wish and desire—
Klok. Sister Mary Serene turned her head, and on the pew beside her lay a screwdriver, fairly large, with rough black tape around its handle and most of its haft, leaving only the last inch of gleaming metal to reflect the candlelight. Now here was a distraction!
Ker-chunk. A small canvas bag fell to the pew beside the screwdriver. It was gray and grimy, but neatly tied closed with a pair of canvas strings. Sister Mary Serene picked up this object, untied the strings, and opened out a kind of small toolkit with many pockets containing a number of well-oiled metal objects, some flat, some curved, one spiralled like a corkscrew. Here were tiny needle-nose pliers, here was an oblong of soft springy aluminum, here was a double-pronged electric line tester, here was a pair of wires ending in small alligator clips.
Here, in fact, was a rather good set of burglar tools.
Sister Mary Serene might be unworldly, but she wasn't stupid. It didn't take much to figure out the purpose for all this equipment. She raised her eyes and looked upward, and there was the burglar himself, high above, clinging to the rafters. Thank you, Lord, she thought. Our prayers are answered.CHAPTER 3
Dortmunder looked down at a lot of nuns. His ankle gave another twinge, and his grip on this rough-timbered rafter became less sure by the second, but what mostly bothered him was nuns. He had many reasons to be depressed by the sight of them all, scurrying back and forth down there twenty or thirty feet below, occasionally looking up in his direction, gesturing at one another, running in and out of this church or chapel or whatever it was, many reasons he had to be depressed, and all of them good.
Nuns, for instance. Well, just to leave it at that; nuns. Was that crowd likely not to call the law when some clown loaded with burglar tools comes through their roof? Not a chance. So, because it was nuns he'd fallen among—oops; almost fallen among, keep holding tight—it meant that among the choices he'd enumerated for himself up there on the roof he'd won the daily double: a broken ankle and prison for life.
Also, for a second reason to be depressed, nuns. Born in Dead Indian, Illinois, and abandoned at three minutes of age, John Dortmunder had been raised in an orphanage run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and when you mentioned nuns to him no sweet images grew in his mind of kindly penguins feeding the homeless and housing the hungry. No, what Dortmunder visualized when he heard the word nun was a large, bad-tempered, heavy-shouldered woman with a very rough and calloused right hand, usually swinging. Or wielding a ruler: "You've been quite bad, John. Put out your hand." Ooo; a smack across the palm with a wooden ruler can create quite an impression. Just looking down at those black-and-whites—still in the traditional uniform, he noticed, not updated with the rest of the Church—just looking at them, even after all these years, could make his palm sting.
Like his ankle. Having decided not to drop onto that lower roof, having started to climb back up, he'd been in the wrong posture when his hands had slipped and he'd fallen any which way, landing heavily on an angled roof, bouncing, hitting various portions of himself, and rolling at last down into a trough, his head dangling over the edge, staring down maybe thirty-five feet at extremely hard sidewalk.
Had he yelled when falling, or when he'd hit? He didn't know. He did know he had a whole lot of new aches and bruises and pains and stings all over his body, but he also knew that the sharp fiery twinges in his ankle made all the other pains pale in comparison. "Just like I figured," he muttered, rolled over, managed not to slide off the edge of the roof, and looked back up at the dark mass of the building he'd just left. No cop yet, no flashlight yet, but there sure would be.
Scrambling up the steep slope on all threes—his left ankle hurt by now most of the way to the hip—he came to a small dormer, with a square wooden louvered shutter instead of a window on its front. This shutter was merely held in place by four small metal wings which could be turned aside, so Dortmunder turned them, crawled through into a small dusty black space and pulled the shutter closed behind himself. It kept wanting to fall away from the window, so he reached a narrow screwdriver through the louvers and put two of the little retaining wings back in place.
The space in which he found himself was absolutely black, and apparently quite small; not an attic, not a useful area, but merely a bit of waste between the outer and inner designs. Turning this way and that, trying not to hit his ankle against too many hard unyielding surfaces, Dortmunder blundered across the trapdoor, opened it, and found just below him the wide rafter far above the chapel. Having no choice, out he went.
At first, it had seemed as though he could crawl across this rafter to a pillar on the far side, then shimmy down the pillar (somehow), and thus make good his getaway, but this goddam rough-hewn timber was a little too rough-hewn; every time he touched it he got three more splinters. Trying to protect his hands and his ankle and everything else, he'd struggled along to just about the middle of the timber before he'd lost his grip and almost fallen. That's when his coat fell open, and tools began to drop. And now here he was, stuck, above a sea of nuns.
Silent nuns. Even in his present difficulty, Dortmunder noticed that strangeness. The first little group of nuns, having spotted him up here, had run off to get more nuns, all of them seeming very excited, pointing at him, gesturing at one another, waving at him to remain calm, running back and forth, but never saying a word, not to one another and not to him. Robes whiffed down there, soft-soled shoes went pid-pid, beads and crucifixes klacked, but not a word did they speak.
Excerpted from Good Behavior by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1985 Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950s, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and a ruthless criminal named Parker. His writing earned him three Edgars and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
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Have been readding them in order and this one is terrific.