“YES,” Dortmunder said. “You can reserve all this, for yourself and your
family, for simply a ten-dollar deposit.”
“My,” said the lady. She was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, small and
compact, and from the looks of this living room she kept a tight ship. The room
was cool and comfortable and neat, packaged with no individuality but a great
passion for cleanliness, like a new mobile home. The draperies flanking the
picture window were so straight, each fold so perfectly rounded and smooth,
that they didn’t look like cloth at all but a clever plaster forgery. The picture they
framed showed a neat treeless lawn that drained away from the house, the neat
curving blacktop suburban street in spring sunshine, and a ranch-style house
across the way identical in every exterior detail to this one. 1 bet their drapes
aren’t this neat, Dortmunder thought.
“Yes,” he said, and gestured at the promo leaflets now scattered all over the
coffee table and the nearby floor. “You get the encyclopedia and the bookcase
and the Junior Wonder Science Library and its bookcase, and the globe, and
the five-year free use of research facilities at our gigantic modern research facility
at Butte, Montana, and-”
“We wouldn’t have to go to Butte, Montana, would we?” She was one of
those neat, snug women who can still look pretty with their brows furrowed. Her
true role in life would be to operate a USO canteen, but here she was in this
white-collar ghetto in the middle of Long Island.
“No, no,” Dortmunder said with an honest smile. Most of the housewives he
met in the course of business left him cold, but every once in a while he ran
across one like this who hadn’t been lobotomized by life in the suburbs, and the
contact always made him cheerful. She’s sprightly, he thought, and smiled some
more at the rare chance to use a word like that, even in interior monologue.
Then he turned the smile on the customer and said, “You write to them in Butte,
Montana. You tell them you want to know about, uh …”
“Anguilla,” she suggested.
“Sure,” Dortmunder said, as though he knew just what she meant. “Anything
you want. And they send you the whole story.”
“My,” she said and looked again at all the promo papers spread around her
neat living room.
“And don’t forget the five annual roundups,” Dortmunder told her, “to keep
your encyclopedia right up to date for the next five years.”
“My,” she said.
“And you can reserve the whole thing,” Dortmunder said, “for a simple ten-dollar deposit.” There had been a time when he had been using the phrase
“measly ten-dollar deposit,” but gradually he’d noticed that the prospects who
eventually turned the deal down almost always gave a visible wince at the word
“measly,” so he’d switched to “simple” and the results had been a lot better.
Keep it simple, he decided, and you can’t go wrong.
“Well, that’s certainly something,” the woman said. “Do you mind waiting
while I get my purse?”
“Not at all,” Dortmunder said.
She left the room, and Dortmunder sat back on the sofa and smiled lazily at
the world outside the picture window. A man had to stay alive somehow while
waiting for a big score to develop, and there was nothing better for that than an
encyclopedia con. In the spring and fall, that is; winter was too cold for house-to-house work and summer was too hot. But given the right time of year, the old
encyclopedia scam was unbeatable. It kept you in the fresh air and in nice neighborhoods, it gave you a chance to stretch your legs in comfortable living rooms
and chat with mostly pleasant suburban ladies, and it bought the groceries.
Figure ten or fifteen minutes per prospect, though the losers usually didn’t take
that long. If only one out of five bit, that was ten bucks an hour. On a six-hour
day and a five-day week, that was three hundred a week, which was more than
enough for a man of simple tastes to live on, even in New York.
And the ten-dollar bite was just the perfect size. Anything smaller than that,
the effort wouldn’t be worth the return. And if you went up above ten dollars,
you got into the area where the housewives either wanted to talk it over with
their husbands first or wanted to write you checks; and Dortmunder wasn’t
about to go cash a check made out to an encyclopedia company. The few
checks he got at the ten-dollar level he simply threw away at the end of the
It was now nearly four in the afternoon. He figured he’d make this the last
customer of the day, go find the nearest Long Island Railroad station, and head
on back into the city. May would be home from Bohack’s by the time he got
Should he start packing the promo material back in his attach� case? No,
there wasn’t any hurry. Besides, it was psychologically good to keep the pretty
pictures out where the customer could see what she was buying until she’d
actually handed over the ten spot.
Except that what she was really buying with her ten dollars was a receipt.
Which he might as well get out, come to think of it. He opened the snaps on the
attach� case beside him on the sofa and lifted the lid.
To the left of the sofa was an end table holding a lamp and a cream-colored
European-style telephone, not normal Bell issue. Now, as Dortmunder reached
into his attach� case for his receipt pad, this telephone said, very softly, “dit-dit-ditdit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit.”
Dortmunder glanced at it. His left hand was holding the lid of the case up, his
right hand was inside holding the receipt pad, but he didn’t move. Somebody
must be dialing an extension somewhere else in the house. Dortmunder frowned
at the phone and it said, “dit.” A smaller number that time, probably a 1. Then
“dit,” said the phone again, which would be another 1. Dortmunder waited, not
moving, but the phone didn’t say anything else.
Just a three-digit number? A high digit first, and then two low ones. What kind
of phone number was…
911. The police emergency number.
Dortmunder took his hand out of the attach� case without the receipt pad. No
time to pick up the promo papers. He methodically snicked shut the attach�
case snaps, got to his feet, walked to the door, opened it, and stepped outside.
Carefully closing the door behind him, he walked briskly over the curving slate
path to the sidewalk, turned right, and kept on walking.
What he needed was a store, a movie-theater, a cab, even a church.
Someplace to get inside for a little while. Walking along the street like this, he
didn’t have a chance. But there was nothing as far as the eye could see, nothing
but houses and lawns and tricycles. Like the Arab who fell off his camel in
Lawrence of Arabia, Dortmunder just kept walking, even though he was
A purple Oldsmobile Toronado with MD plates roared by, heading in the
direction he was coming from. Dortmunder thought nothing of it until he heard
the brakes squeal back there, and then his face lit up and he said, “Kelp!”
He turned to look, and the Oldsmobile was making a complicated U-turn,
backing and filling, making little progress. The driver could be seen spinning the
wheel madly, first in one direction and then the other, like a pirate captain in a
hurricane, while the Oldsmobile bumped back and forth between the curbs.
“Come on, Kelp,” Dortmunder muttered. He shook the attach� case a little,
as though to help straighten the car out.
Finally, the driver lunged the car up over the curb, and in a sweeping arc over
the sidewalk and back down, and slammed it to a stop in front of where
Dortmunder was standing. Dortmunder, whose enthusiasm had already faded
somewhat, opened the passenger door and slid in.
“So there you are,” Kelp said.
“There I am,” Dortmunder said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kelp was aggrieved. “I been looking all over for you.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Dortmunder said. He twisted around to look out
the rear window; nothing yet. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
But Kelp was still aggrieved. “Last night,” he said, “you told me you were
gonna be today in Ranch Cove Estates.”
Dortmunder’s attention had been caught. “I’m not?”
Kelp pointed at the windshield. “Ranch Cove Estates stops three blocks
down there,” he said. “This is Elm Valley Heights.”
Dortmunder looked around at no elms, no valleys and no heights. “I must
have slipped across the border,” he said.
“I been driving up and down and up and down. I just now gave up, I was
going back to the city, I figured I never would find you.”