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Nobody's Perfect

Donald Westlake


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 wastebasket, 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 telepathed 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 worktable, 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 1

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.