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Dortmunder slumped on the hard wooden chair, watching his attorney try to open a black attaché case. Two little catches were supposed to release when two bright buttons were pressed, but neither of them worked. In other cubicles all around this one, defendants and their court-appointed attorneys murmured together, structuring threadbare alibis, useless mitigations, attenuated extenuations, mathematically questionable plea bargains, chimerical denials and hopeless appeals to the mercy of the court, but in this cubicle, with its institutional green walls, its black linoleum floor, the great hanging globe of light, the frosted-glass window in its door, its battered wooden table and two battered wooden chairs and one battered metal waste-basket, nothing was happening at all, except that the attorney assigned to Dortmunder by an uncaring court and a malevolent fate couldn't get his goddam attaché case open. "Just a—" he muttered. "It's always a—I don't know why it—I'll—It's just a—"
Dortmunder shouldn't have been here at all, of course, waiting for his preliminary hearing on several hundred counts of burglary and knowing he was merely the victim of another accident of fate. Two weeks, two solid weeks, he'd cased that TV repair shop—he'd even brought in a perfectly good Sony table model and let them charge him for six new tubes and nine hours' labor—and not once had any police patrol gone down the alley behind the row of stores. A prowl car cruised past the front from time to time, but that was all. And the cops were definitely never there when the pornographic movie house around the corner let out; at those moments they were always parked across the street from the theater, glaring through their windshield as the patrons came slinking past, as though their moral disapproval would somehow make up for their legal ineffectuality. "If we could arrest you," they telepathic at the pussyfooting porn devotees, "and if we could turn you over to the proper authorities for castration and rehabilitation, by the Blessed Virgin we'd do it." And the customers knew it, too; off they'd go, scurrying, hands deep in pockets, shoulders hunched against society's disapproval, while the theater marquee flashed its enticements at their backs: SEX SORORITY sex sorority SEX SORORITY sex sorority....
Dortmunder, well aware of his own history of bad luck, had done his best to cover every possibility. A quick check of the timesheet Scotch-taped to the movie cashier's window had told him Sex Sorority's schedule for the evening: 7:00, 8:45, 10:30. Meaning the last show would finish at 12:15. Therefore, at 10:30 exactly on this crisp clear November night, Dortmunder had nosed his station wagon into the alley, had driven slowly past the repair shop's rear door, and had parked two or three shops farther on. Using two keys, a crowbar and the heel of his left foot, he'd effected entry into the shop, and during the next hour and a half he'd assembled most of the TVs and radios and other appliances over by the rear door, his work illuminated by a combination of the streetlight outside and an anti-crime nightlight over the empty cash register. At 12:15 by his watch, by the clock over the rear-room work-table, and by nine digital clock-radios he'd rejected as too penny-ante for the effort, he had opened the rear door, picked up two television sets—a Philco and an RCA—and stepped outside to the sudden dead-white glare of four headlights. (Leave it to cops to keep their high beams on in the city.)
Tonight—tonight—one of the cops all of a sudden had to take a leak. In fact, Dortmunder, handcuffed and advised of his rights and disencumbered of the TV sets, had had to wait in the back seat of the prowl car while the goddam cop went over to some garbage cans and proceeded to relieve himself. Relieve himself. "I could also use some relief," Dortmunder had muttered, but no one had heard him.
And now, this excuse for an attorney. He was young, possibly fourteen, with scruffy black hair, round cheeks, and pudgy fingers that poked and poked at the buttons on his attaché case. His tie was loud and lumpily knotted, his checked jacket clashed with his plaid shirt, and his belt buckle sported a bucking bronco. Dortmunder watched him for some little time in silence, and then finally he said, "Would you like me to help?"
The attorney looked up, pudgy face hopeful. "You think you could?"
This was the fellow supposed to keep Dortmunder out of jail. His face expressionless, Dortmunder reached over, took the attaché case by the handle, swung it in a great loop once around over his head, and slammed it down onto the table. The catches snapped, the lid popped up, and a hero sandwich fell out onto the floor.
The attorney hopped in his chair, his face becoming a lot of round O's—eyes mouth cheeks nostrils—and then he stared at his now-gaping case. Messy documents mingled in there with a folded-up News, amid several sealed plastic packets of ketchup and mustard and salt and pepper, a small bottle of nasal spray, a pocket pack of tissues, and a scattering of used movie ticket stubs. The attorney gazed at all this as though he'd never seen it in his life before, and then Dortmunder picked up the hero sandwich and plunked it back into the case, saying, "There. It's open."
The attorney now stared at Dortmunder, and Dortmunder could see he was about to get on his high horse. Perfect. All he needed. Icing on the cake. Now his own attorney was sore at him.
"Well," said the attorney, as though still trying to decide exactly how to phrase what he had in mind. "Well."
Explain? Defend? Apologize? Dortmunder considered all the various things he might say, and could see already that none of them would do any good. This was one defense attorney who'd be bargaining with the prosecutor for a longer sentence. Dortmunder sighed, and the cubicle door was flung open. A person had arrived.
No, not a person: a Personage. He stood framed in the doorway, filling the cubicle with the effulgence of his presence, as though he had been borne to this place atop a golden cloud. His large head, like some Olympian mountaintop, was haloed in a great white cloud of hair, and his barrel body was smoothed and stroked with impeccable pinstripe tailoring, accentuated by crisp white shirt, precise dark tie, gleaming black shoes. Sparks flashed from his eyes, his well-padded cheeks promised peace and prosperity, and his pepper-and-salt moustache assured reliability, dignity, and the support of a long-established tradition. The faint echo of a fanfare of trumpets seemed to follow him through the doorway and hang in the air about him, as he stood with one hand dramatically grasping the knob.
He spoke: "John Archibald Dortmunder?" The voice was a remarkable baritone, mahogany and honey, a soft juggernaut.
Dortmunder had nothing more to lose. "Here," he said. "Present."
"I," announced the manifestation, moving forward, "am J. Radcliffe Stonewiler. I am your attorney."CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST CHORUS
Leonard Blick had been a member of the New York bench for twelve years, seven months and nine days, and the last time he'd been surprised by any occurrence in his court had been some twelve years, seventh months and three days ago, when a prostitute had dropped her pants in front of him in an effort to prove she couldn't have solicited the undercover police officer since it was the wrong time of the month. Having gaveled that enterprising young woman into her clothing and out of his courtroom, Judge Blick had settled down to year after year of ordinary drunks, thieves, wife beaters, non-supportive ex-husbands, traffic-ticket scofflaws and Army deserters, with nothing ever to attract his attention. A few murderers had come before him for their preliminary hearings, but they'd been of no interest; they were the sort of murderer who pulls a knife in the middle of a barroom argument. It was all so dull, so drab, so tediously predictable, that more than once Judge Blick had said to his wife Blanche, in their pleasant airy home in Riverdale, "If I ever get an interesting crook in front of me, I'll let the son of a bitch go." But it had never happened, and of course it never would.
"Thirty dollars or thirty days," he announced to a defendant of such low quality that the fellow actually started adding things up on his fingers. "Next case."
"Bail to be set at five hundred dollars. Remand in the custody of—"
"License suspended for ninety days."
—"to be enjoined from communication of any kind with the said ex-wife—"
"Bail to be set at four thousand dollars. Remand in the custody of—"
"—to be turned over to the military authorities at—"
"Bail to be set at seven hundred fifty dollars. Remand—"
"Bail to be set at forty-seven dollars." (Complaint from the public defender.) "You're quite right, Counselor, I wasn't thinking. Bail to be set at eight hundred dollars. Next case."
The next case, according to the papers on Judge Blick's desk, was a grand larceny. Not very grand; the fellow had been caught stealing television sets from a repair shop. John Archibald Dortmunder, unemployed, forty years of age, two convictions and prison terms for robbery, no other convictions, no known source of income, being represented by an attorney appointed by the court. A loser, obviously. Another dull fellow, another dull crime, another dull two and a half minutes in the judicial career of the Honorable Leonard Blick.
A stir in the courtroom, as of a sudden breeze across a cornfield, caused Judge Blick to look up from his papers at the two men approaching the bench. It was clear which was the defendant; that thin glum-looking fellow in the gray suit with the lumpy shoulders. But who was that striding next to him, causing shock waves of astounded recognition among the pews of drunks and whores and lawyers? Judge Blick frowned once more at the papers before him. "Attorney: Willard Beecom." He looked up again, and that was no Willard Beecom advancing on the bench, that was—
J. Radcliffe Stonewiler! By God, it really was! One of the most famous lawyers in the country, a man whose nose for the glamorous, the wealthy and the powerful was only matched by his instinct for publicity. If an enraged actress smashed a paparazzo on the head with his own camera, it was J. Radcliffe Stonewiler who defended her from the charge of assault. If a rock group was found smuggling heroin into the country, J. Radcliffe Stonewiler was certain to be there for the defense. And who would defend an Arab oil minister from a paternity suit lodged in a Los Angeles court? Who else but J. Radcliffe Stonewiler.
So what in Blackstone's name was the man doing here?
For the first time in his judicial career, Judge Blick was hornswoggled.
And so was almost everybody else in court. The spectators murmured to one another like a crowd scene in a Cecil B. De Mille movie. Never had Judge Blick's court seen such excitement, not even when that hooker dropped her drawers. About the only person not impressed by it all—except the defendant himself, who simply stood there like a ragman's horse, gloomy and fatalistic—was Judge Blick's bailiff, who arose and read out the charge in his usual sloppy-dictioned way, at the finish requesting the defendant's plea.
It was Stonewiler who answered, in a large, round, confident voice, announcing, "Not guilty."
Not guilty? Not guilty? Judge Blick stared. What an idea! The concept of somebody entering his courtroom who was not guilty was so startling as to verge on the physically impossible. Judge Blick frowned at the defendant— who was guilty as hell, you could tell it by looking at the man—and repeated, "Not guilty?"
"Completely not guilty, Your Honor," Stonewiler declared. "It is my hope," he continued, declaiming as though for multitudes, "to prevent, with Your Honor's assistance, a tragic miscarriage of justice."
"With my assistance eh?" Judge Blick narrowed his beady eyes. No funny business in my courtroom, he told himself, and said to the bailiff, "Is the arresting officer here?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Officer Fahey! Officer Fahey!"
Officer Fahey, a huge beefy Irishman in dark blue, came confidently forward, was sworn, and told a simple story. He had been on radio-car patrol with his partner, Officer Flynn, and they had started a routine check of an alley behind a row of stores when they saw the defendant—"That fella right there"—emerging from a doorway with a pair of TV sets in his hands. The fella had frozen in their lights, they had stepped out of the car to investigate, and they had found approximately thirty other TVs and similar appliances stacked just inside the door, apparently for easy removal to the defendant's automobile, parked nearby. The defendant had made no statement, and had been arrested, advised of his rights, brought to the precinct and booked.
Judge Blick listened to this tale with the soothing calm of long familiarity. How nicely policemen testified! Thud thud thud came the facts, each word following inexorably like the brogans of a cop walking his beat. Judge Blick nearly smiled as he listened to it, this gentle lullaby, and at the end said, "That seems very straightforward, Officer."
"Thank you, Your Honor."
Judge Blick turned a suspicious eye on defendant's counsel. "Does Counsel wish to cross-examine?"
J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, smiling and at his ease, bowed his gracious thanks. "If Your Honor pleases, I would reserve the right to question the officer a bit later. Not that I have any argument with his presentation of what he himself observed. I consider that an excellent recital of the facts, and I would like to congratulate Officer Fahey on the clarity and precision of his testimony. Perhaps a bit later we could clear up one or two minor points together, but for now I would like my client sworn, and with Your Honor's permission I would ask him to tell his story."
"Certainly, Counselor," Judge Blick replied and the defendant was duly sworn and seated, and proceeded to tell the following absurd story:
"My name is John Archibald Dortmunder, and I reside by myself at 217 East 19th Street. In my past life I led a life of crime, but after my second fall, when I was on parole, I gave all that up and became a square citizen. I got out the last time three years ago, and while I was on the inside everything changed in the movies. When I went inside, there were two kinds of movies, one kind that you went to a movie and you saw it and one kind that you went to a smoker or some guy's garage and you saw it, and it was people, uh, men and women. But when I got out, there weren't any more smokers, and that kind of movie was in the regular movie houses. I never saw one of them in a movie house, and I was curious about it, so last night I went to a different neighborhood where nobody knew me, and I parked my car in an alley so nobody would recognize it, and I went to look at a movie called Sex Sorority."
(At this point, defendant's counsel interrupted to enter into evidence the movie theater's schedule showing that the final performance of Sex Sorority last night had finished at 12:12, just five minutes before the 12:17 given on the arrest report as the time of the defendant's apprehension. Counsel also offered to have defendant recapitulate the story line and incidents of Sex Sorority to demonstrate that he had actually seen the film, but the bench felt that was unnecessary, and the defendant was instructed to go on with his ludicrous invention.)
"Well, Your Honor, when I got out from seeing Sex Sorority, I went back around to the alley where I left my car, and I saw these two guys with a car doing something at the back door of one of the stores there, and I shouted at them, like this: 'Hey!' And they looked at me, and jumped in their car and took off. So I went down to where I saw them, and it was the back door of this repair place, and they left two TV sets outside in the alley. So I figured, somebody's gonna steal these things if they stay out here, so I picked them up to put back inside the store when the officers came by and arrested me."
Judge Blick gazed with something like disappointment at the defendant, and said, "That's your story? That's it?"
"Yes, it is, Your Honor." But he himself didn't look all that happy with it.
Judge Blick sighed. "Very well," he said. "And would you mind explaining to the court why you didn't tell this very interesting story of yours to the police officers when they apprehended you?"
"Well, Your Honor," Dortmunder said, "like I mentioned before, I used to live 1a life of crime, and I'm a fellow with a record and all, and I could see the way it must of looked to the police officers, so I just didn't see any point in trying to convince them of anything. I thought I ought to just not say anything, and wait till I had a chance to tell my story to the judge."
Excerpted from Nobody's Perfect by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1977 Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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