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Bumbling comic criminal John Dortmunder is in hot water as he tries to keep a nasty old man from blowing up a dam to unearth $750,000. Dortmunder must devise a safer scheme to get the loot . . . before the old coot's trigger finger gets too itchy. "Entertainment of the highest order."--San Diego Tribune. Reissue.
I was in the basement, digging, when Ronald Cornell first appeared. I was alone in the house—Bill was at school and Kate was off to her part-time job in the department store— and the first I knew he was there was when a soft male voice called down the cellar stairs, "Hello? Is anyone home?"
For just a second I felt a chill up my back that had more to do with the irrational fears of childhood than anything else. I was standing knee-deep in a freshly dug hole, my surroundings as poorly lit by bare bulbs as most basements, and a stranger had suddenly appeared at the head of the stairs—the only exit.
From where I was, I couldn't see him. I automatically took a tighter grip on the shovel as I called, "What is it?"
"Mr. Tobin? Mr. Mitchell Tobin?"
Wasn't this the way people used to be called to Heaven—or to Hell—in those horror movies I used to see on Saturday afternoons as a boy? Aware of the foolishness of my reaction, but stupidly unable to do anything about it, I shouted, more forcefully than I'd intended, "What do you want?"
He started down the stairs. My view was from the far wall across the open stairs, so I could see as much of him as was below the level of the basement ceiling, and what came into sight first were his shoes; they were brown, with brass buckles. Leather and metal both gleamed in the yellow light.
He was saying, in his soft and frail-sounding voice, "I'm sorry to bother you. I rang the bell. The door wasn't locked, so I thought perhaps there was something wrong."
His trousers were plaid, in shades of green and brown. They flared below the knee. It was snowing out—this was January 7th, winter's fist was firmly clenched—but there was no sign of bad weather on his shoes or trousers. Nor on the dark green silk socks that showed between.
I stepped up out of the hole, but kept my grip on the shovel. There was nothing rational in my mind at all, nothing but confusion.
His jacket was tan, a bit darker than the usual color of camel's-hair coats, and seemed to be of some very soft material, like cashmere. It was fitted very tightly at the waist, and flared out below, making him look as though he had large soft hips.
There were simple wooden railings on both sides of the staircase, and now his hand appeared, resting on the rail nearer me. Like everything else about him, the hand was soft-looking, the fingers somewhat thick and blunt. Emerging from the end of his jacket sleeve, over his wrist, was a ruffled white lace shirt cuff.
Only a few seconds had gone by since he'd started down the stairs, and he continued to talk as he came: "I hope you don't mind my barging in like this. I suppose I should have called first, but I was afraid you'd say no, and I really am desperate."
Desperate? He didn't sound desperate. Or was I, filled with my own foolish first impressions, simply unable to hear the overtones in his voice?
He wore a fluffy ascot, in shades of rust and green. But now he had descended far enough for me to see his face, and all at once I knew who—or that is to say what—he was. I leaned the shovel against the cement wall, and took a step toward him.
I was never assigned to the Vice Squad, but in the course of my eighteen years as a New York City cop I had inevitably gotten to know quite a bit about the local homosexual community: the more common stereotypes in which they appear, and the kinds of individuals who prey upon them.
My visitor was a type I recognized at once; what I thought of as the Bruised. Slender, weak-looking, with a delicate round head that was balding in a way he surely found embarrassing, he wore the (habitual?) self-deprecating apologetic smile of the person who doesn't expect anyone else to take his pain seriously. This is the kind of queer that is found beaten and robbed in parks, in public restrooms and empty alleys; they seldom want to press charges, even on those rare occasions when their attacker is picked up. Occasionally they are found dead. Something in them, perhaps their very vulnerability, so palpable and total, seems to evoke a wild savagery in their attackers, and the deaths are often terrible.
But the clothing was all wrong for the pattern. This type, the Bruised, is normally employed as a clerk in some large corporation or somewhere in Civil Service, and dresses appropriately in drab conservatism. This one's clothing belonged to a different category entirely; what a friend of mine on the force used to call the Creative Queen. I wasn't sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject to be sure, but from my television talk-show viewing I thought it a safe guess that my visitor's clothing was as current and "in" as it was possible to be.
He was saying, as he reached the bottom of the stairs, "Please forgive me if I seem pushy. I just didn't know where else to turn."
I said, "What did you want?" I was feeling irritable now, partly at having been interrupted in my digging, partly at having so foolishly frightened myself, and I made no attempt to keep my annoyance out of my voice.
He began to blink, very rapidly, and to flutter his hands in front of himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "If I'm interrupting—I'll come back if it would be better—I don't mean to, I know you're busy." And he gestured vaguely at the hole behind me.
I had forgotten how easy it was to panic people like this. Homosexuals of the Bruised type usually are the result of a violently dominating father, and they tend to crumple at any demonstration of harsh authority. I was immediately embarrassed at what I'd done, and tried to make amends. "I'm digging a sub-basement," I said, feeling the need to explain myself. "For storage. There's no rush on it."
"I could come back another time," he said. One buckled shoe was already back up on the lowest step.
"No, you're here now. What's the problem?"
"Thank you." He tried a tentative smile, but kept on blinking. "Uh—Well." The frightened smile flashed on and off again. "Now that I'm here, I don't know where to start."
"With your name," I suggested.
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry! My name's Ronald Cornell. I live on Remsen Street, over in Brooklyn Heights?"
"I know where it is."
"Yes. I have a little shop over there. A male boutique?" He tended, I could see, to make statements as though they were questions. People who live in two worlds—immigrants, homosexuals, some criminal types, some show-business types—often develop that mannerism as a result of talking so often to people outside their own tight sphere.
"A men's clothing store," I said now, to show him I understood what a male boutique was. (I also understood now the contradiction between his face and his clothing.)
"Something like that," he said, and I nodded to indicate I understood that there were undoubtedly crucial differences between a male boutique and a men's clothing store. "My place," he said, "is called Jammer?"
"I'm afraid I don't know it."
"It's just a little neighborhood shop," he said, as though that were the reason.
"You have a problem with the store?" I couldn't understand yet what he was doing here.
"No, it's my—" The blinking started again, more violently than before, and an expression of remembered agony dragged his face into downward arcs. "My partner," he said.
"In the store?"
He hadn't made that one a question, but I nodded anyway. "I understand. What about him? What's his name?"
"Jamie. Jamie Dearbuh—" He shook his head. "I'm sorry, forgive me. His name is Dearborn. Jamie Dearborn." And he looked at me with such desolation that I suddenly realized there had to be death in it somewhere. Nothing else gives human eyes quite that expression of loss.
I said, as gently as I could, "What happened?"
"He said it was the Changeable Sailor. Is that a police term?"
"The Changeable Sailor? I never heard the phrase before."
"I wasn't sure if he'd made it up or not," he said, and gave a quick nervous smile that made no sense.
I said, "Who made it up? Jamie?"
"No, the detective." He shook his head, the nervous smile twitching on and off, and made vague indefinite movements with his hands. "I'm sorry, I know I'm saying this all wrong, you don't have any idea what I'm talking about. It's just that I don't want to say the main thing, you see, that's what it is, about Jamie being, you know, dead." He looked away from me, smiling blindly at the stairs.
I said, "When did this happen?"
"Last weekend. Saturday."
Today was Wednesday; no wonder the wound was still fresh. I said, "The police say a sailor did it?"
"No. Not exactly." His hands folded across his waist, and the fingers of his right hand began to twitch at the lace over his left wrist. Head down, watching his fingers move, he said, "I wish he could explain it to you himself. Manzoni. Detective Manzoni." He looked quickly at me. "Do you know him?"
"No, I don't. What was it he said about the sailor?"
"He said—" Cornell looked down at his twitching fingers again, and talked to them. "He said it happens all the time. He said a sailor gets off a ship in New York, he's been weeks or months at sea, he's only got one night on shore, and he wants a woman. So he goes to bars, and he drinks, and he doesn't find a woman, and finally a—someone tries to pick him up. Some boy." A quick look at me, and away. "Some homosexual, you see."
"Yes," I said. I knew where the story was going.
"And the sailor," he went on, "decides to go with the boy. Because he can't find a woman, and he doesn't want his time on shore to be a complete waste, and something is better than nothing. And they go to the boy's place, or somewhere else, somewhere private, and then the sailor changes his mind and gets mad because things didn't work out the way he wanted, and he takes it out on the boy. He beats up the boy. And sometimes he kills him."
"Yes," I said.
"That's what he called the Changeable Sailor," Cornell said. "Manzoni did."
"A good enough name for him," I said. "That kind of thing does happen."
"But not to Jamie!" Cornell cried, and was suddenly staring directly at me, all his pain on the surface. "To me, that could happen to me if I didn't have—if Jamie hadn't come into— But not to him." He scrabbled into his inside jacket pocket, saying, "Here, look at this. You'll see. It isn't possible, it just isn't possible."
He came out at last with a page torn from some glossy magazine, folded over twice. Hurriedly, but almost reverently, he unfolded it and handed it over. His eyes were shining.
I took the page and looked at it. It was a full-page ad from a clothing manufacturer, for the same style of apparel as that being worn by Cornell. The bottom quarter of the ad had copy, black lettering on white, but the top three quarters was a full-color photograph of a young man standing in a dramatic pose on a huge boulder in a field. In the background, a herd of horses was running pell-mell from right to left.
The young man was a Negro, with very light skin: milk-chocolate. He was lean and graceful, with the body and stance of a dancer. His face was handsome, firm-jawed, strong-looking, and at the same time quite obviously homosexual. His hair was worn in the natural style lately popular, but not to any wild excess.
This was the Creative Queen, this was the one for whom this clothing was made. The difference between Ronald Cornell, fidgeting awkwardly and looking both forlorn and ridiculous in his finery, and the young man in this photograph, who wore the equivalent finery as naturally and appropriately as any cavalier, was cruel and complete.
I looked up from the picture to see Cornell gazing hopefully at me, his expression for some reason expectant. Then I understood; the lover awaiting admiration for his beloved.
I said, "This is Jamie?"
"You see it's not possible," he said. "You see he wouldn't pick up a sailor."
"Or anyone else? Did he never do anything like that?"
"Jamie?" I handed him back the picture; he turned it so he could look at it, and said, "Jamie could have anybody he wanted. He didn't have to go after strangers, they all wanted Jamie." He looked at me again and shook his head. "Jamie never cruised," he said. "He never did."
"All right." I thought I knew now what it was all about, and I said, "But I suppose this Detective ..."
"Yes. I suppose he's satisfied with his sailor theory, and isn't looking around for anybody else."
"He isn't doing anything. He says it's hopeless, and he isn't even trying."
I took a deep breath, and said, "Before you go any further, let me explain a couple of things to you. I used to be on the police force, I'm not any more."
"I know that."
"I don't have a license to practice as a private detective," I said. "If I were to try to do Manzoni's job, I could get into very serious trouble."
"Oh, no," he said. "That isn't what I want. No, that's up to me. I wouldn't expect anyone else to do it. I have to find Jamie's murderer myself."
I frowned at him. "Then what do you want from me?"
He got fidgety again, but this time it seemed to be more embarrassment than emotion. He said, "I don't know if you put much credence in astrology."
"Astrology?" Now what?
"Well, it doesn't matter," he said. "I wouldn't try to convert anybody. The point is, what I need to know is people's birthdays. And not just the date, but the exact time of their birth. It's on everybody's birth certificate, what time you were born."
"I'm not following you," I said. "What do you need this information for?"
"Well, if you don't believe in astrology you'll probably think I'm foolish."
"I won't think anything," I said. "I just want to understand what you have in mind."
"Well," he said, "it will be in the stars, won't it? I mean, if all the important things in our lives are in the stars, recorded in the stars, then the murder will be there too, won't it?"
"You're going to find the murderer through astrology?"
"I have to try," he said. "What else can I do?"
I shook my head. What he was saying was nonsense, of course, but what else could he do? The New York City Police Department, like every other facet of municipal government, is understaffed and overworked. Detective Manzoni was merely following the line of least resistance in assuming that a normal pattern of violence held true in this case. If what Manzoni called the Changeable Sailor really was the murderer—as in most cases like this he in fact was—then there was nothing Manzoni could do, and he would be justified in filing the case in the Open file and forgetting it. I would be tempted to do the same thing myself, were I still on the force.
So what were the choices open to Ronald Cornell? There'd be no point in his trying to get any more action out of the police by going over Manzoni's head; the detective on the case wasn't likely to be reversed by his superiors without a great deal of solid evidence against him, and particularly not when the complainant was an obvious homosexual, against whom official bias would be subtle, unacknowledged and inevitable.
Jamie Dearborn had obviously been vitally important in Cornell's life; no doubt Cornell had never expected to land so enviable a "partner," and knew it would never happen to him again. There would be no more Jamies in Cornell's life. So how could he do nothing about the loss of Jamie? And where there was nothing rational to be done, that left only the irrational. He would find Jamie's murderer through astrology; the name would be found written among the stars.
It wouldn't be, of course, and eventually Cornell would have to give up the idea. In the meantime, though, it seemed harmless. It would give him something to do while learning to forget, and it would keep him from a futile assault against City Hall.
So I didn't argue with him about his plan. Let him occupy himself in busywork; wasn't my own life built on the same irrational soil? Wasn't I digging this sub-cellar? Wasn't I, when the weather was better, working on my wall?
I said, "I still don't see what you want me to do."
"I asked around," he said. "I was told about you, that you used to be on the police force. I thought you would know how I could find out the birthdays. I don't know how to go about it."
"You need date and time of birth?"
"Yes. It's always on the birth certificate."
"I know that. How many people?"
I looked at him in astonishment. "You have it narrowed to six?"
"Yes. I made a list of the suspects, and found out who had alibis, and these six are left."
"How did you make a list of suspects?"
"Well, it had to be somebody that Jamie knew. He was very careful about letting people into the apartment, he would never have let a stranger in. Not even the grocery boy, he'd make him leave the package in the foyer. He'd put the chain on the door, and open it just enough to give him the tip."
"So you made a list of people Jamie would have let in."
"And eight of them had alibis."
"You've done all this in four days?"
"Two days, actually," he said. "I didn't start until Monday, when I finally saw that Detective Manzoni wasn't going to do anything."
Excerpted from A Jade in Aries by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1970 Tucker Coe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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