The Byzantine Fire is much more than a ninety-carat ruby. As a stone it’s worth over a million dollars, a value vastly increased by its pure gold band—but its history makes it priceless. A ring that has been fought for with sword and pen, and passed from nation to nation by all manner of theft and trickery, it finally made its way to the United States. The US has agreed to return it to Turkey, but it’s about to be stolen twice more. A gang of Greeks armed with Sten guns burst into the security room at JFK Airport and escape with the priceless stone, which they deposit in the safe at a small jeweler’s shop in Queens. A few hours later, unlucky thief John Dortmunder, expecting a routine robbery, steals it again. Much blood has been shed for this little ruby, and Dortmunder’s could be next.
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
By Donald E. Westlake
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Donald E. Westlake
All rights reserved.
"Hello," said the telephone cheerfully into Dortmunder's ear, "this is Andy Kelp."
"This is Dort—" Dortmunder started to say, but the telephone was still talking in his ear. It was saying:
"I'm not home right now, but—"
"—you can leave a message on this recording machine—"
"It's John, Andy. John Dortmunder."
"—and I'll call you back just as soon as I can."
"Andy! Hey! Can you hear me?"
"Leave your message right after you hear the beep. And do have a nice day."
Dortmunder held both hands cupped around the mouthpiece of the phone and roared down its throat: "HELLO!"
Dortmunder recoiled from the phone as though it were just about to explode, which he half expected it would. Holding the receiver at arm's length, he watched it mistrustfully for a few seconds, then slowly brought it closer and bent his ear to the earpiece. Silence. A long, hollow, sort of unreeling kind of silence. Dortmunder listened, and then there was a faint click, and then the silence changed, becoming furry, empty, and pointless. Knowing he was all alone, Dortmunder nevertheless asked, "Hello?" The furry silence went on. Dortmunder hung up the phone, went out to the kitchen, had a glass of milk, and thought it over.
May was out to the movies, so there was no one to discuss this situation with, but on reflection it seemed to Dortmunder pretty clear what had happened. Andy Kelp had got himself a machine to answer the telephone. The question was, why would he do such a thing? Dortmunder cut a slice of Sara Lee cheese danish, chewed it, mulled this question, drank his milk, and at last decided you just could never figure out why Kelp did the things he did. Dortmunder had never talked to a machine before—except for an occasional rude remark at a car that refused to start on a cold morning—but okay; if he was going to continue to know Andy Kelp, he would apparently have to learn to talk to machines. And he might just as well start now.
Leaving the glass in the sink, Dortmunder went back to the living room and dialed Kelp's number again, and this time he didn't start talking until the machine was finished saying, "Hello, this is Andy Kelp. I'm not home right now, but you can leave a message on this recording machine and I'll call you back just as soon as I can. Leave your message right after you hear the beep. And do have a nice day." eeeepp
"Sorry you aren't there," Dortmunder said. "This is Dortmunder and I'm—"
But now the machine started talking again: "Hey!" it said. "Hello!"
Probably a malfunction in the announcement mechanism. Well, it wasn't Dortmunder's problem;he didn't have any goddam gizmo on his telephone. Doggedly ignoring the machine's irruptions, Dortmunder went on with his message: "—off on a little job. I thought you might come with me—"
"Hey, it's me! It's Andy!"
"—but I guess I can do it on my own. Talk to you later."
As Dortmunder hung up, the phone was saying, rather plaintively, "John? Hello!" Dortmunder went to the hall closet, put on his jacket with the burglar tools all tucked away in the hidden interior pockets, and left the apartment. Ten seconds later, in the empty living room, the phone rang. And rang. And rang ...CHAPTER 2
Nestled on a deep soft background of black velvet, gleaming under the bright glare of the overhead fluorescent tubes, the Byzantine Fire shone a lustrous carmine, reflecting and refracting the light. If machines could bleed, a blood drop from Univac might look like this; cold, clear, almost painfully red, a tiny faceted geodesic dome of deep color and furious light. Weighing ninety carats, the Byzantine Fire was one of the largest and most valuable rubies in the world, worth possibly a quarter million dollars merely in itself, not even counting its setting and its history, both of which were impressive.
The setting for the Byzantine Fire was a large and intricately carved ring of pure gold, in which the central figure of the ruby was surrounded by fourteen tiny blue-and-white sapphires. While this perhaps doubled the overall value, it was the stone's history—ranging through religious wars, thefts, treaties, murders, diplomacy at the highest level, matters of national pride and ethnic identity and theologic significance—that raised it beyond all questions of value; the Byzantine Fire was priceless, like the Kohinoor Diamond.
Therefore, security during this first move of the Byzantine Fire in nearly ninety years was extremely tight. This morning, three separate teams of armed couriers had left the Chicago Natural History Museum, traveling by three different routes to New York City, and not until departure had even the couriers themselves known which team would carry the ring. It was now nearly midnight in New York, and the team with the ring had just been met at the TWA terminal in Kennedy Airport by a security escort from the United States Mission to the United Nations. This new group would carry the ring the rest of the way into Manhattan, to U.S. Mission headquarters in United Nations Plaza, in preparation for tomorrow's ceremony, when the Byzantine Fire would be gravely and solemnly returned to the sovereign nation of Turkey (which in fact had never owned it). After which, thank God, the damn thing would be Turkey's problem.
Until then, however, it remained America's problem, and there was a certain tension among the eight Americans crowded into this small, bare room in the security area of the TWA terminal. In addition to the courier from Chicago with the attaché case chained to his wrist, plus his two bodyguards, there were a three-man escort team from the U.S. Mission and two blasé New York City policemen in uniform, the cops being there simply to represent the city and to observe the ritual of transfer. Nobody really expected any trouble.
The Chicago bodyguards began the transfer by turning over their attaché case keys to the New York team, who duly signed receipts. Next, the Chicago courier placed the attaché case on a table and used his own key to remove the handcuff from his wrist. Then he unlocked and opened the attaché case, reached into it, and opened the smaller carrying box within, which was when everybody clustered a bit closer around the table, looking down at the Byzantine Fire, the deep red ruby, the warm encircling gold, the winking little blue-and-white chips of sapphire, all against the black velvet lining of the box. Even the two jaded city cops moved in closer, looking at the ring over the shoulders of the other men. "That's some cherry," one of the cops said.
The balder man from the U.S. Mission frowned at such nonseriousness. "You men should—" he said, and the door behind them opened and four men strode in, wearing black coats and gas masks, lobbing smoke and teargas bombs, carrying Sten guns, and speaking Greek.CHAPTER 3
The jewelry store door said snnnarrrkkk. Dortmunder pressed his shoulder against the door, but the snnnarrrkkk hadn't done the job. Glancing over his other shoulder—Rockaway Boulevard here in South Ozone Park in the borough of Queens remained empty, the extra wire bypassing the alarm box over the front entrance remained unobtrusive, and the hour remained a quiet midweek midnight—Dortmunder returned his attention to the door, which remained shut.
It was having to be his own lookout that was causing this delay, interrupting his concentration on this blessed door. He'd hoped to have Kelp along for that purpose; too bad he hadn't been home. Since most of the people Dortmunder knew were under the impression that Dortmunder was a jinx—bad luck, rather than incompetence, clouded his days and chilled his nights—it was very tough to find anybody willing to go out with him on a little piece of work. And he didn't want to risk delaying this job another night; who knew how long the owner would be away?
It was the sign in the window—"Closed For Vacation To Serve You Better"—that had first attracted Dortmunder's attention to Skoukakis Credit Jewelers, and when he'd recognized the burglar alarm box over the front door as an old friend, a make and model whose charms he had often rifled over the years, he had felt that destiny was surely—as far too infrequently—smiling on him. Yesterday he'd seen the sign and noted the alarm box, last night he'd studied the lay of the land, and tonight here he was, simultaneously looking over his shoulder and jimmying this infuriating door. "Come on," Dortmunder muttered.
snik, responded the door, yawning open so unexpectedly that Dortmunder had to grab the frame to keep from hurtling forward into the Timex watch display.
Sirens. Police sirens. Far distant police sirens, south and east toward Kennedy Airport. Dortmunder paused in the entrance, satisfying himself that the sirens weren't coming his way, and when he saw the headlights of a car that was coming this way he stepped into the store, shut the door, and prepared to go to work.
The car stopped, out front. Dortmunder froze, looking through the mesh-covered window in the door, watching the car, waiting for something to happen.
Well? A car parks and nothing happens? A moving car comes to a stop at the curb, and then nothing happens? No one climbs out of the car? No one locks the car and walks away to his destination, permitting an honest burglar to get on with his evening's task?
The car's headlights switched off.
There, that was something. And now for something else.
Nothing else. Dortmunder couldn't see how many people were in that car out there, but none of them was in any kind of motion. And until they were, until something else took place, Dortmunder just didn't see how he could with an easy mind proceed with his original program. Not with an occupied car out front. His expression grim with impatience, Dortmunder leaned against the door and looked through the metal mesh—which would shield him from the car's occupants—and waited for those idiots to go away.
Instead of which, they were joined by more idiots. A second car arrived, driving much more hurriedly than the first, angling sharply to park near the curb just ahead of the first car. Two men at once hopped out of this car, not even pausing to switch off the headlights. There, that's the way to do it.
And now at last someone also climbed from the first car: one man, from the driver's seat. Like his two more hurried companions, he was dressed in a black coat that was maybe a trifle too heavy for this raw-but-not-cold March night. Unlike them, he seemed in no hurry at all. It was obvious to Dortmunder that this man, as he walked at no great speed around the front of his car to the sidewalk, playing with a ring full of keys, was being exhorted by the other two men to more haste. The slow one nodded, gave soothing patting motions to the air, selected a key, and moved directly toward the jewelry store door.
Holy shit! The jeweler! A stocky older man with a black moustache and black-framed eyeglasses and a black coat, he was coming this way with a key stuck out. Who would end his vacation at such an hour? Twelve-forty a.m., according to all these Timexes. Twelve-forty a.m. on a Thursday. Was this a time to reopen for business?
The key rasped in the lock, as Dortmunder faded with careful rapidity deeper into the dark interior of the store. He already knew there was no back exit. Was there a rational hiding place? Was there even a rational explanation for this owner's presence?
(Not for a second did Dortmunder consider that this might be a second set of burglars, perhaps attracted by the same sign. Burglars don't park out front and then just sit there a while. Burglars don't leave their headlights on. And burglars don't just happen to have the right key.)
Fortunately, Dortmunder's jimmying methods did not ruin a door for future use. Had it been bright daylight—had the owner, let us say, returned to his store at a sensible hour tomorrow morning—certain scratches and dents might have been noticeable as he unlocked that door, but in the darkness of twelve-forty a.m. there was nothing to suggest to Mr. Skoukakis, if indeed it was he, that his defenses had been breached. Therefore, as Dortmunder ducked behind a display counter featuring cufflinks employing Roman themes, the calm unlocking continued, the front door opened, and the three men stepped inside, all of them talking at once.
At first Dortmunder assumed the reason he couldn't understand what they were saying was because of their simultaneous transmissions, but then they sorted that out for themselves and began to speak one at a time, and Dortmunder still couldn't understand what they were talking about. So it must be some foreign language, though Dortmunder had no idea what. It was all Greek to him.
The two most recent arrivals were doing most of the talking, in quick excited staccato bursts, while the other man—a bit older, slower, more patient—made soothing calm responses. All of this in the dark, since no one had bothered to turn on any lights, for which Dortmunder was thankful. On the other hand, what were these people doing here, talking their foreign language in the dark of a closed jewelry store well after midnight?
Then Dortmunder heard the plok-chunk of a safe door being opened, and a very annoyed expression crossed his face. Were these burglars? He wished he could rise up above the counter level to see what they were doing over there, but he couldn't chance it. They were between him and the vague illumination from the street, so at best they'd be lumpy silhouettes while he might be identifiably a gray face in motion. So he stayed where he was, and listened, and waited.
Chock-whirrrrrr. That was surely the safe door being shut again, and the dial spun. Does a burglar reshut a safe when he's finished with it? Does a burglar spin the dial, to reassure himself that the safe is locked? Shaking his head, hunkering down as comfortably as possible behind the counter, Dortmunder continued to listen, and to wait.
Another flurry of foreign language followed, and then the sound of the door opening, and the voices receded. Dortmunder lifted his head slightly. The voices abruptly dropped to the faintest murmur as the door was slammed shut. A key rattled in the lock.
Dortmunder eased upward, stretching his neck, so that first to appear above the glass counter was his dry, thin hair-colored hair, like dead beach grass in January; then came his narrow forehead, creased with a million old worries; then his pale and pessimistic eyes, looking left and right and straight ahead, like some grim gag-item from a novelty shop.
They were going away. The three men were visible out there, crossing the sidewalk to their respective cars, the older man still slow and methodical, the others still brisk. Those two got into their car first, started the engine with a roar, and had raced away before the older man even got behind the wheel.
Dortmunder moved upward another inch and a half, revealing gaunt cheekbones and a narrow, long crooked nose, the bottom of which he rested on the cool glass of the countertop.
The older man got into his car. A period of time went by. "Maybe," Dortmunder muttered against the wooden sliding door on the back of the display case, "his doctor told him to slow down."
A match flared in the car. It dipped down, then flared up; dipped down, flared up; dipped down, flared up; dipped down. Went out.
A second match flared.
"A pipe smoker," Dortmunder grumbled. "I might of known. We'll be here till sun-up."
Flare-dip; flare-dip; flare-dip. Flare, out.
The car engine started, without a roar. After another little interval, the headlights went on. Time passed, and abruptly the car whipped backward two or three feet, then jolted to a stop.
"He put it in the wrong gear," Dortmunder commented. He was beginning to hate that old fart.
The car moved forward. In no hurry at all, it angled away from the curb, joined the stream of no traffic, and disappeared from view.
Bones cracking, Dortmunder unlimbered himself and shook his head. Even a straightforward jewelry store burglary couldn't be simple: mysterious intruders, foreign languages, pipe smokers.
Excerpted from Why Me? by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1983 Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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