John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness. Now, like an excessively starry sky, a thousand thousand fluorescent lights in great rows under the metal roof of this huge barnlike store building came flickering and buzzing and sqlurping on, throwing a great glare over all the goods below, and over Dortmunder, too, and yet he knew this vast Speedshop discount store in this vast blacktop shopping mall in deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor, did not open at ten minutes past two in the morning. That's why he was here.
Speedshop was a great sprawling massproduction retailer stocked mostly with things that weren't worth more than a quarter and didn't cost more than four dollars, but it had a few pricier sections as well. There were a pharmacy and a liquor department and a video shop and an appliance showroom. Most important, from Dortmunder's point of view, there was a camera department, carrying everything from your basic lowprice PhD (Push here, Dummy) to advanced computerdriven machines that chose their own angles.
In two Speedshop tote bags, canvas, white, emblazoned in red with the Speedshop slogan: ! SAVE FAST ! at !! SPEEDSHOP !! Dortmunder could fit ten thousand dollars' worth of such highend cameras, for which he would receive, no questions asked (because the answers are already known), from a fellow in New York named Arnie Albright, one thousand dollars in cash. Ten minutes inside the store, no more, after he'd bypassed the loading dock alarm systems, and he'd be back in the Honda Platoon he'd borrowed forty minutes ago from an apartment complex farther up the highway, and well on his way home to the peace and quiet and safety of New York City.
But, no. As tote bags full of cameras dangled from his bony hands and he loped down the silent, semidark aisleslittle nightlights here and there guided him along his wayhe was suddenly bathed in this icewater deluge of a harsh white fluorescent glare.
Okay. There must have been something, some motion sensor or extra alarm he hadn't noticed, that had informed on him, and this big store would be filling up right this second with many police officers, plus, probably, private Speedshop security people, all of them armed and all of them looking, though they didn't know it yet, for John Dortmunder. Didn't know it yet, but soon would.
What to do? First, drop these bags of cameras behind a kids' sneaker display rack. Second, panic.
Well, what else? He'd come in from the loading docks at the back, which they surely knew, so they would come in from the back as well, but they would also come in from the front. And they would leave guards at every entrance, while the rest of them fanned out to search inexorably forward like volunteer Boy Scouts in pursuit of a lost hiker. Any second now, groups of them would appear at the ends of aisles, visible far away. And he would be just as visible to them.
Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men's clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on. Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder's histrionic capabilities.
He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.
Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder's brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.
As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their threestrikesyou'reout lifeimprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody's credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician's office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.
It wasn't until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business. Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that's the color.
The optician's shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight. A glass counter and display case full of spectacle frames faced the door, and little fitting tables with mirrors and chairs stood to both sides. Against each side wall was a small settee where customers could sit and wait for their prescriptions to be filled, with magazines stacked on a nearby table. The light in here at this time of night was only the long, dim bulbs inside the display racks, mostly showing the frames on the glass shelves.
Dortmunder dashed around the end of the counter and found the cash register, which for once he didn't want. But under it was the credit card swiper, which he did want. He found the blank receipts, swiped one with the credit card he'd used on the door, filled in the receipt with some stuff$139.98, that seemed like a good numberlooked at the name on the credit card, and signed it more or less the way it looked on the back: Austin Humboldt.
Customer copy, customer copy; here it is. Glancing at the windows across the wayno cops out there yethe pocketed the customer copy, found the stack of used receipts under the cash register, and added Austin Humboldt's near to but not at the top of the pile. Out of his wallet and into his shoes went all the IDs not named Humboldt. Then he started around the counter again.
Wait a minute. If he was buying glasses, he was somebody who'd wear glasses, right? A display on the rear wall was twothirds full of glasses; he grabbed a pair at random, slapped them on, and realized he was looking through nothing. No glass, just frames.
Try it? No; up close, it would be obvious, and he had the feeling he'd be inspected up close very soon now.
Time, time, timethere was no time for all this. Down to his left, another display of glasses, and these bounced dim light at him from a hundred lenses. He lunged down there, praying they wouldn't be blindasabat prescription specs, threw on a pair of delicate but manly tortoiseshell frames, and looked through glass. Clear glass, clear. Okay! Now he could run around the counter, collapse onto the nearest setteeit wasn't very comfortablegrab a threemonthold People from the little table, open it facedown on his lap, and flop, eyes closed.
It took them three minutes to find him. He slumped there, unmoving, telling himself to relax, telling himself, if worse came to worst, he could probably eventually escape from prison, and then he heard the rattling of the metal knob on the glass door.
Don't react, he told himself. Not yet, it's too soon. You need your sleep.
Banging and knocking on the glass door and the plateglass wall. Indistinct, muffled shouting.
Dortmunder started, like a horse hearing a pistol shot, and stared around at the optician's shop, at the magazine sliding off his lap, and at last at the glass wall, which had become an active mural of cops peering in at him, staring pressing faces to the glass, waving and yellinga horrible sight.
And now he realized these glasses he'd put on were not exactly clear lenses, not exactly. They were some kind of magnifiers, reading glasses or whatever, which made everything just a little larger than usual, a little closer than usual. He not only had this horrible mural of Your Police In Action in front of him, he had them in his lap.
Too late to change. Just stagger forward and hope for the best. He jumped to his feet. He ran to the door, reaching for the nonexistent knob, bruising his knuckles against the chrome frame surrounding the glass, because it wasn't exactly where he saw it, then licked his knuckles. Cops crowded close out there, the other side of the glass, calling, intensely staring.
Dortmunder stopped licking his knuckle to show them his most baffled face. He spread his hands, then pointed at the door, then made a knobturning gesture, then shrugged like Atlas with an itch.
They didn't get it yet. They kept yelling at him to open up. They kept pointing at the door as though he didn't know where it was. He did his little repertoire of gestures some more, and then two of them, one at the door and one at the wall next to the door, pressed their faces to the glass, so that they now looked like fish in police uniforms, and squinted to try to see the inside of the door.
Now they got it. And now Dortmunder, once they understood he was locked in hereit's a lockedroom mystery!began to exhibit signs of panic. He'd been feeling panic all along; it was nice to be able to show it, even though under false colors.
He bobbed back and forth along the wall, waving frantically, gesturing with great urgency that they should release him. He pointed at his watchdo you people realize what time it is?he mimed making rapid phone callsI got responsibilities at home!he tried to tear his hair, but it was too wispy to get a grip on.
Now that he was excited, the cops all became calm. They patted the air at him, they nodded, they made walkietalkie calls, they came close to the glass to mouth, Take it easy. Easy for them to say.
It took them fifteen minutes to unlock the door; apparently, none of them was a good credit risk. While more and more of them, cops and rentacops both, came streaming in from all the aisles of Speedshop to stare into this oneman zoo, Dortmunder kept ranting and raving in pantomime, flinging his arms about, stomping back and forth. He even ran around behind the counter and found the phone, intending to call his faithful companion, May, sleeping peacefully at home in their nice little apartment on West Nineteenth Streetwould he ever see it again?just so the cops could see the frantic husband was calling his worried wife, but a recorded announcement told him he could make only local calls from that phone, which was even better. Let May sleep.
At last, another team of cops arrived, with special vinyl jackets in dark blue to show they were supercops and not just trash cops like all these other guys and gals, and they had several strange narrow metal tools with which they had at the door.
God, they were slow. Dortmunder was just looking around for a helpful brick when at last the door did pop open and maybe twenty of them came crowding in.
"I gotta call my wife!" Dortmunder yelled, but everybody else was yelling, too, so nobody could hear anybody. But then it turned out there actually was someone in authority, a gruff, potbellied older guy in a different kind of important uniform, like a blue army captain, who roared over everybody else, "That's enough! Pipe down!"
They piped down, surprisingly enough, all of them except Dortmunder, who, in the sudden silence, once again shouted, "I gotta call my wife!"
The man in charge stood in front of Dortmunder as though he were imitating a slammed door. "Name," he said.
Name. What was that name? "Austin Humboldt," Dortmunder said.
"You got identification?"
Dortmunder pulled out his wallet, nervously dropped it on the floorhe didn't have to pretend nervousness, not at allpicked it up, and handed it to the boss cop, saying, "Here it is, you look at it, I'm too jumpy, my fingers aren't working."
The cop didn't like handling this wallet, but he took it, opened it up, and then spent a couple minutes looking at several documents the real Austin Humboldt would be reporting stolen six hours from now. Then, handing the wallet back, waiting while Dortmunder dropped it again and picked it up again and returned it to his pocket, he said, "You broke into this building half an hour ago, came in here, got locked in. What were you after?"
Dortmunder gaped at him. "What?"
"What were you after in this shop?" the cop demanded.
Dortmunder stared around at all the displayed eyeglass frames. "My glasses!" "You break into a store at"
"I didn't break in!"
The cop gave him a jaundiced look. "The loading dock just happened to be open?"
Dortmunder shook his head, a man besieged by gnats. "What loading dock?" "You came in through the loading dock"
"I did not!"
Another look. "Okay," the cop decided, "suppose you tell me what happened."
Dortmunder rubbed his brow. He scuffed his shoes on the industrial carpet. He stared at his feet. "I don't know what happened," he said. "I must of fell asleep."
A different cop said, "Captain, he was asleep when we got here." He pointed at the settee. "Over there."
"That's right," said several other cops. "Right over there." They all pointed at the settee. Outside the plate glass, some of the other cops pointed at the settee, too, without knowing why.
The captain didn't like this at all. "Asleep? You broke in here to sleep?"
"Why do you keep saying," Dortmunder answered, drawing himself up with what was supposed to be an honest citizen's dignity, "I broke in here?"
"Then what did you do?" the captain demanded.
"I came in to get my prescription reading glasses," Dortmunder told him. "I paid for them, with a credit card, two pair, sunglasses and regular, and they told me to sit over there and wait. I must have fell asleep, but how come they didn't tell me when my glasses were ready?" Looking around, as though suddenly realizing the enormity of it all, he cried, "They left me here! They walked out and locked me in and left me here! I could of starved!"
The captain, sounding disgusted, said, "No, you couldn't of starved. They're gonna open again in the morning, you can't starve overnight."
"I could get damn hungry," Dortmunder told him. "In fact, I am damn hungry, I never had my dinner." Struck by another thought, he cried, "My wife is gonna kill me, I'm this late for dinner!"
The captain reared back to study his prisoner. "Let me get this straight," he said. "You came in here earlier today"
"Around four this afternoon. Yesterday afternoon."
"You bought two pairs of glasses, you fell asleep, and you want me to believe the staff left without seeing you and locked you in. And it was just coincidence that somebody else broke into this building tonight." "Somebody broke in?"
Nobody answered; they all just kept looking at him, looming outside these glasses, so finally Dortmunder said, "How often does that happen, somebody breaks in here?"
The captain didn't deign to answer. Dortmunder looked around, and another, younger cop said, "Not a lot." But he sounded defensive.
"So it happens," Dortmunder said.
"Sometimes," the younger cop admitted, while the captain glowered at this underling, not pleased.
Dortmunder spread his hands. "So what kind of a coincidence is that?" The captain leaned closer; now the glasses made him look like a tank with eyes. "How did you pay for these glasses? Cash?"
"Of course not." Now the damn glasses slipped down his nose, and he fingerpushed them back, a little too hard. Oow. Blinking, eyes watering, which didn't help, "I used my credit card," he said.
"So the receipt should still be here, shouldn't it?"
"Let's just see," the captain said, and turned to one of his flunky cops to say, "Look for it. The credit card slip."
Which took about a minute and a half. "Here it is!" said the cop, pulling it out of the stack he'd placed on the counter.
In stunned disbelief, the captain said, "There's a credit card slip there?"
Dortmunder, trying to be helpful, said, "I've got my copy in my pocket, if you want to see it."
The captain studied Dortmunder. "You mean, you really did come in here this afternoon and fall asleep?"
"Yes, sir," Dortmunder said.
The captain looked angry and bewildered. "It can't be," he insisted. "In that case, where's the burglar? He has to be in the building."
One of the rentacops, an older guy with his own special uniform with stripes and epaulets and stars and awards and things on it to show he was an important rentacop, a senior rentacop, cleared his throat very loudly and said, "Uh, Captain."
The captain lowered an eyebrow at him. "Yeah?"
"The word went out," the senior rentacop said, "that the burglar was caught."
The captain got that message right away. "You're telling me," he said, "no one's watching the exits."
"Well, the word was," the senior rentacop said, "he was, you know, caught."
Dortmunder, honest but humble, said, "Captain, would you mind? My wife's gonna be really, really, really irritated, I mean, she doesn't like me to be ten minutes late for dinner, you know, and"
The captain, furious at everybody now, snapped, "What? What do you want?"
"Sir," Dortmunder said, "could you give me a note for my wife?"
"A note!" The captain looked ready to punch a whole lot of people, starting with Dortmunder. "Gedaddahere!"
"Well, okay," Dortmunder said.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Donald E. Westlake