An old cellmate asks Dortmunder for help robbing a reservoir
In his day, Tom was a hard man. He came up with Dillinger in the 1930s, and pulled a lot of high-profile jobs before the state put him away. They meant it to be for good, but after twenty-three years the prisons are too crowded for seventy-year-old bank robbers, and so they let the old man go. Finally free, he heads straight for John Dortmunder’s house. Long ago, Tom buried $700,000, and now he needs help digging it up. While he was inside, the government dammed a nearby river, creating a reservoir and putting fifty feet of water on top of his money. He wants to blow the dam, drown the villagers, and move to Acapulco. If Dortmunder wants a clean conscience to go along with his share, he needs to find a nice way to get the money before Tom’s nasty instincts get the best of both of them.
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.
As gray dawn crawled over the city, Dortmunder went home to find May still up, dressed in a baggy sweater and green plaid slacks. She came out of the living room into the hall when she heard him open the door, but instead of asking, as she usually did, "How'd it go?" she said, sounding nervous but relieved, "You're back."
He answered the usual question anyway, being tired and out of sorts and not at his most observant. "Not so good," he said, opening the closet door. With slow and tired motions, he took tools from the many inside and outside pockets of his black jacket, placing them with muffled clanks on the closet shelf. "The jeweler's gone, moved to Rhinebeck; there's a pasta restaurant in there now. The antique guy's switched to Disney collectibles. And the check-cashing place got a dog." Taking his jacket off, he held it up and looked at the new ragged tear at the bottom in the back. "Mean goddamn dog," he said.
"John," May said. She sounded tense. Her left hand pretend-smoked, fiddling with an imaginary cigarette, flicking ghost ashes on the floor, something she hadn't done since just after she'd quit.
But Dortmunder was full of his own problems. Hanging up his torn jacket, he said, "It's almost enough to make you rethink a life of crime. I did get a little, though, after I locked the dog out and he ran away." He began pulling crumpled money from inside his shirt, putting it on the hall table.
"John," May said, her eyes very round and white, "there's somebody here."
He paused, hand over the money. "What?"
"He says—" May glanced at the doorway to the living room, apprehension and mistrust defining her features. "He says he's an old friend of yours."
"Al?" The voice, hoarse and ragged but somehow self-confident, came from the living room. "Is that you, Al?"
Dortmunder looked bewildered, and then startled. "No," he said.
A man appeared in the living room doorway. He was as gray and cold as the dawn outside, a thin gristly bony old guy of just over six feet tall, dressed in a gray windbreaker over a faded blue workshirt, and baggy gray pants and black worn shoes. He had a craggy rectangular head sitting up on top of his stony body like a log redan full of guards. His eyes were bleak, cheeks ravaged, brow furrowed, hair gray and thin and dead and hanging down over his large leathery ears. "Hello, Al," he said, and when he spoke his lips didn't move; but what ventriloquist would use this for an alter ego? "How you doin, Al," the hoarse gray voice said through the unmoving lips. "Long time no see."
"Well, I'll be goddamned," Dortmunder said. "They let you out."
The gray man made a sound that might have been meant for a laugh. "A surprise, huh?" he said. "Surprised me, too."
May said, "So you do know him." She sounded as though she wasn't sure whether that was good news or bad news.
"Tom and I were inside together," Dortmunder told her, unwillingly. "We were cellmates for a while."
The gray man, who looked too flinty and stringy and knotted to be named anything as simple and friendly as Tom, made that laugh sound again, and said, "Cellmates. Pals. Right, Al? Thrown together by the vagaries of fortune, right?"
"That's right," Dortmunder said.
"Why don't we sit in the living room," Tom suggested, his lips a thin straight line. "My coffee's gettin cold in there."
"Sure," Dortmunder said.
Tom turned away, going back into the living room, walking rigid, like a man who's been broken and then put back together a little wrong, using too much Krazy Glue. Behind his stiff back, May waggled eyebrows and shoulders and fingers at Dortmunder, asking, Who is this person, why is he in my house, what's going on, when will it end? and Dortmunder shrugged ears and elbows and the corners of his mouth, answering, I don't know what's going on, I don't know if this is some kind of trouble or not, we'll just have to wait and see. Then they followed Tom into the living room.
Tom sat on the better easy chair, the one that hadn't sagged all the way to the floor, while Dortmunder and May took the sofa, sitting facing Tom with the look of a couple who've just been asked to think seriously about life insurance. Tom sat on the edge of the chair, leaning forward, lifting his cup from the coffee table, sipping with deep concentration. He looked like the background figure in a Depression movie, a guy hunkered over a small fire in a hobo encampment. Dortmunder and May watched him warily, and when he put the cup down he leaned back and sighed faintly, and said, "That's all I drink now. Lost my taste on the inside."
Dortmunder said, "How long were you in, Tom, all in all?"
"All in all?" Tom made that sound again. "All my life, all in all. Twenty-three years, this last time. It was supposed to be for good, you know. I'm habitual."
"I remember that about you," Dortmunder said.
"Well, the answer is," Tom said, "while I been eating regular meals and getting regular exercise and a good night's sleep all these years on the inside, the world's managed to get worse without me. Maybe I'm not the one they should of been protecting society from all along."
"How do you mean, Tom?"
"The reason I'm out," Tom said. "Inflation, plus budget cuts, plus the rising inmate population. All on its own, Al, without any help from yours truly, society has raised up a generation of inmates. Sloppy ones, too, Al, fourth-rates you and the wouldn't use to hold the door open."
"There is a lot of that around," Dortmunder agreed.
"These are people," Tom went on, "that don't know a blueprint from a candy wrapper. And to pull a job with a plan? When these bozos take a step forward with the right foot, they have no really clear idea what they figure to do with the left."
"They're out there, all right," Dortmunder said, nodding. "I see them sometimes, asleep on fire escapes, with their head on a television set. They do kinda muddy the water for the rest of us."
"They take all the fun outta prison, I can tell you that," Tom said. "And the worst of it is, their motivation's no damn good. Now, Al, you and the know, if a man goes into a bank with a gun in his hand and says gimme the money and a five-minute start, there's only two good reasons for it. Either his family's poor and sick and needs an operation and shoes and schoolbooks and meat for dinner more than once a week, or the fella wants to take a lady friend to Miami and party. One or the other. Am I right?"
"That's the usual way," Dortmunder agreed. "Except it's mostly Las Vegas now."
"Well, these clowns can't even get that much right," Tom said. "The fact is, what they steal for is to feed their veins, and they go right on feeding their veins inside, they buy it off guards and trusties and visitors and each other and probly even the chaplain, but if you ask them why they ignored the career counselor and took up this life of crime for which they are so shit-poor fitted, they'll tell you it's political. They'll tell you they're the victims."
Dortmunder nodded. "I've heard that one," he said. "It's useful in the sentencing sometimes, I think. And in the parole."
"It's a crock, Al," Tom insisted.
Gently, Dortmunder said, "Tom, you and I've told the authorities a couple fibs in our time, too."
"Okay," Tom said. "Granted. Anyway, the result is, inflation makes it cost more to feed and house a fella in the pen in the manner to which we've all become accustomed, and budget cuts—Did you know, Al," he interrupted himself, "that health-wise, long-term cons are the healthiest people in America?"
"I didn't know that," Dortmunder admitted.
"Well, it's the truth," Tom said. "It's the regularity of the life, the lack of stress, the sameness of the food intake, the handiness of the free medical care, and the organized exercise program. Your lifers are the longest-lived people in the society. Any insurance company will tell you so."
"Well," Dortmunder said, "that must be some kind of consolation, I guess."
"Yeah." Tom made that laugh sound again. "Just knowing if you were out somewhere having fun you'd die sooner." Tom slurped coffee without apparently opening his lips, and said, "So, anyway, with all of those things coming together, with its costing more to house the and feed me, plus you've got these budget cuts so they got less money to do this housing and feeding, plus you've got the entire male population between seventeen and twenty-six clamoring to come in to be housed and fed, the governor decided to give me a seventieth birthday present." Grinning closed-mouthed at May, he said, "You wouldn't think I was seventy, would you?"
"No, I wouldn't," May said.
"I look younger than Al here," Tom told her.
May frowned at Dortmunder. "John," she said, "why does he keep calling you Al? If you do really know him, and if he really knows you, and if you really lived in the same cell together, and if your name is John—and it is John—why does he call you Al?"
Tom made a sound that might have been meant for a chuckle. "It's a kind of an inside joke between Al and me," he said.
Dortmunder explained, "It's Tom's idea of comedy. He found out my middle name's Archibald, and I don't much love that name—"
"You hate it," May said.
"It's one of the worst things about being arrested," Dortmunder said. "When they look at the and say, 'John Archibald Dortmunder, you are under arrest,' I always cave in right away, and that's why."
May said, "And when this man found out how much you hated that name, that's what he decided to call you from then on?"
"That's right," Dortmunder said.
"And his idea of a nickname for Archibald is Al?"
"Right again," Dortmunder said.
"Inside joke," Tom said, and made the chuckle sound again.
"That," May said, "is his idea of humor."
"You're beginning to get the picture," Dortmunder told her.
"Al," Tom said, "are you really close with this woman? I mean, can I talk in front of her?"
"Well, Tom," Dortmunder said, "if you plan on talking much in front of me, you'll be talking in front of May. I mean, that's the way it is."
"That's okay," Tom said. "I got no problem with that. I just wanted to be sure you were secure in your mind."
Dortmunder said, "Tom, you want something."
"Of course I want something," Tom told him. "What do you think I am? You think I do reunions? You think I make my way around the country, drop in on old cellmates, cut up a lot of old jackpots? Al, do I look to you like a guy sends out Christmas cards?"
"Like I said, Tom," Dortmunder answered patiently, "you're here because you want something."
"Yes," Tom said. "I want something."
"Help," Tom said simply.
"You mean money?" Dortmunder asked him, though he didn't think that could be it. Tom Jimson was not a borrower type; he'd rather shoot you and rob the body than be reduced to begging.
"Well, it's money in a way," Tom said. "Let me explain, okay?"
"Go right ahead."
"You see," Tom said, "it's like this. What I always did when I made a good-sized haul, I always stashed some or all of it, hid it somewhere so I'd have it if I needed it later on. I learned that when I was just a kid, from Dilly."
May said, "Dilly?"
Dortmunder told her, "John Dillinger. Tom started out with Dillinger, and that's what he called him."
May said, "To his face?"
"Lady," Tom said, "I never had a lot of trouble gettin my own way. I want to call this fella here Al, I call him Al. I wanted to call Dilly Dilly, that's what I called him."
"All right," May said. The wary look in her eyes was on the increase.
"So anyway," Tom said, "Dilly and I kind of come out together, in a way of speaking. What I mean, he got out of the pen in Indiana in 'thirty-three, and that's when I was just gettin started myself. I was fourteen. I learned a lot from Dilly that year, before he pulled that fake death of his, and one of the things I learned was, always stash some of it away for a rainy day."
"I remember that," Dortmunder said. "I remember, while we were cellmates, every once in a while you had to tell some lawyer where another of those stashes was so he could go dig it up and pay himself what you owed him."
"Lawyers," Tom said, his voice rasping more than usual, and his lips moved slightly, just enough to give a glimpse of small, white, sharp-looking teeth. "They got their hands on a lot of my stashes over the years," he admitted, "and they never gave me a thing for it all. But they didn't get the big stash, and they weren't going to. That one I held out, even from the lawyers. That one's my retirement. There's a place in Mexico I'm goin, way down below Acapulco on the west coast. That money's gonna get me there, and once I'm there that money's gonna keep me happy and healthy for a good long time. I'm gonna be an old man, Al, that's the one ambition in life I got left."
"Sounds good," Dortmunder said, wondering why Tom didn't just get on that southbound plane. Why come here? Why tell this story to Dortmunder? Where was the part he wasn't going to like?
"What it was," Tom was saying, "it was an armored car on the Thruway, taking money from Albany on down to New York. We had a nice clean hit, but then my partners ran into some trouble later on, and it wound up I had the whole seven hundred thousand."
Dortmunder stared at him. "Dollars?"
"That's what they were using back then," Tom agreed. "Dollars. This was a year or two before I went up the last time. I was pretty flush, and what with one thing and another I didn't have any partners to share the stuff with, so I got me a casket—"
"A box, you mean," Dortmunder said.
"A casket, I mean," Tom told him. "The best kind of box there is, Al, if you want to keep something safe. Airtight, watertight, steel-encased."
"Sounds great," Dortmunder said.
"It is," Tom said. "And, you know, you can't just go out and buy one of those. The company that makes them, they keep those babies under very tight control."
Dortmunder frowned. "They do?"
"They do. See, they don't want you to take it into your head to buy a box and stick old granny in it and shove her in a hole in the back yard. Free-lance burial, you see. The law doesn't like that."
"I suppose not," Dortmunder said.
"So it happened," Tom went on, "I happened to know this undertaker around that time. We did business together—"
Dortmunder and May exchanged a look.
"—and he slipped me a box out of his inventory. Sunny-side Casket Company's best, and worth every penny of it. It's a crime to waste those boxes on dead people."
"Uh-huh," Dortmunder said.
"There was a little town up there," Tom went on, "not far from the Thruway. Called Putkin's Corners. I went in there one night and went out behind the library to a spot where you couldn't be seen from any windows where anybody lived, and I dug a hole four feet deep, and I shoved the casket in and covered it up, and I drove away, and nobody in the entire world—except now you two—ever knew I was ever in a town called Putkin's Corners in my entire life."
"And that's what you need help with?" Dortmunder asked. "Getting that casket full of money back out of Putkin's Corners?"
"That's where I need help, all right," Tom agreed.
"It doesn't sound like it should be that much trouble," Dortmunder assured him, thinking Tom meant that, now he was seventy years old, he wasn't up to all the digging and lifting required.
But Tom shook his head, saying, "A little harder than you might think, Al. You see, about four years after I went up, a while before you come in to be my cellmate, the state of New York condemned all that land and houses and four villages up there, including Putkin's Corners, and made everybody move away. And then the city of New York bought up all that land, and they threw a dam across partway down the valley, and they made themselves another reservoir for all you people down here."
"Oh," Dortmunder said.
"So that's why I need help," Tom explained. "Because as it stands right now, that stash of mine is under three feet of dirt and fifty feet of water."
"Ah," Dortmunder said. "Not easy."
"Not impossible," Tom said. "So here's the deal I'd like to offer. You got a head on your shoulders, Al—"
"Thanks," Dortmunder said.
"So you come into this with me," Tom finished. "We get that box of mine out of Putkin's Corners, you and me and whoever else it takes, and when we get it we split down the middle. Half for me, and half for you, and you share your half how you like with whoever else you bring in. Three hundred fifty thousand. I can live to be an old man on that much, especially down in Mexico. What do you say?"
Drowned Hopes (John Dortmunder Series #7) 4.7 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
I laughed out loud so hard at so many times that I had to put the book down to get a grip. This was truly hilarious and left me craving more of this group of rag tag, cranky, loveable, skilled, yet hopelessly unlucky misfits of society. What a caper!!
More than 1 year ago
Funny, kind of droll, a story about some lovable crooks. Really enjoyed reading it.
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