The critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Ax and The Hook is back in rare form as he introduces Meehan, a character who keeps the lid from blowing off Washington politics. Meehan, a career thief staring at life without parole, is awaiting sentencing at the Manhattan Correctional Center when he is called to a meeting by someone masquerading as his lawyer. The man, it turns out, represents the presidential reelection campaign committee now finding itself in need of a little professional help. So they outsource Meehan in return for a walk from all pending criminal charges. All he has to do is steal a compromising video tape before the other side springs an October Surprise on the president. A shrewd burglar, Meehan bites—and shows just how easy Watergate would have been had they left it to the professionals.
Release date: December 12, 2008
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 256
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Put a Lid on It
Donald E. Westlake
THE ELEVENTH DAY Meehan was in the MCC, the barbers came around to 9 South; two barbers, a white one for the white inmates, a black one for the rest. Each dragged a chair behind himself, with a guard following, and they set up in opposite triangles of the communal room, which was shaped like a six-pointed star, the cells outside that, in two facing lines in sword hilts sunk into five of the star's crotches: the exit to the concrete room where the elevators came was at the sixth.
So that was another difference from state or county jugs; no separate room for the barbers to ply their trade. After eleven days, Meehan was thinking he might write a monograph on the subject, was already writing it in his head. Never put anything on paper in stir: that was one of the ten thousand rules.
Of course, the primary difference between the Manhattan Correctional Center, which was where bail-less federal prisoners in the borough of Manhattan, city and state of New York, waited before and during their trials, was the attitude of the guards. The guards thought the prisoners were animals, of course, as usual, and treated them as such. But in this place the guards thought they themselves were not animals; that was the difference.
You get into a state pen, any state pen in the country—well, any state Meehan had been a guest in, and he felt he could extrapolate—and there was a real sense of everybody being stinking fetid swine shoveled into this shithole together, inmates and staff alike. There was something, Meehan realized, now that he was missing it, strangely comforting about that, about guards who, with every breath they took, with every ooze from their pores, said, “You're a piece of shit and so am I, so you got no reason to expect anything but the worst from me if you irritate my ass.” These guards here, in the MCC, they buttoned all their shirt buttons. What were they, fucking Mormons?
Meehan had never been held on a federal charge before, and he didn't like it. He didn't like how inhuman the feds were, how unemotional, how you could never get around the Book to the man. Never get around the Book. They were like a place where the speed limit's 55, and they enforce 55. Everybody knows you enforce 70.
Shit. From now on, Meehan promised himself, no more federal crimes.
And this one was a wuss, this one was so lame. Him and three guys, whose names he would no longer remember, had a little hijack thing, off a truckstop, Interstate 84, upstate fifty miles north of the city, there was no way to know that truck held registered mail. Not a post office truck, a private carrier, no special notices on it at all. The truck Meehan and his former allies wanted, from the same carrier, was full of computer shit from Mexico. Meehan wasn't looking forward to making that plea to some jury.
But in the meantime, for who knows how long, here he was in the MCC, downtown Manhattan, convenient to the federal courts, thinking about his monograph on the differences between federal and non-federal pounds.
There were a number of ragheads on 9 South, Meehan presumed either terrorists with bombs or assholes who strangled their sisters for fucking around, and they all lined up to get their hair cut by the white barber. Johnson, a white inmate who'd been friendly and palsy with Meehan since he got here and who Meehan took it for granted was a plant, came over to help him watch the barbering, the two of them seated at one of the plastic tables in the middle of the communal room. “Every time,” Johnson said, “those guys are first in line, get their hairs cut, never does any good.”
Meehan, polite, said, “Oh?”
“Their hair grows too fast,” Johnson told him. “It's something about the sand or something, where there's no water, you look at these guys, haircut haircut, end of the day they're back the way they were, they still look like a Chia toy.”
“Chia toys take water,” Meehan said.
“And sparrows take shit,” Johnson said.
What was that supposed to mean? Meehan watched the piles of curly black oily hair mount up around the raghead in the chair, like they were gonna finish with a Joan of Arc here, and it occurred to him to wonder, as it had never occurred to him to wonder in a state pen, how come barbers were such a total criminal class. Everywhere you went, the barbers were inmates who happened on the outside to be barbers, so this was how they made bad money and good time on the inside, but the question was, how come so many barbers were felons? And what kind of federal crime can a barber pull? Maybe what happened, every jail around, whenever a barber was gonna finish his time, the word went out to the police forces of the world, keep your eyes on the barbers, we need one May 15. Could be.
A guard came into the block. His tan uniform was so neat, he looked like he thought he was in the Pentagon. Maybe he really was in the Pentagon; who knew?
The guard came over to Meehan: “Lawyer visit.”
That was a bit of a surprise. There wasn't much Meehan and his lawyer had to say to one another. But any distraction was welcome; rising, Meehan said, “I'm with you.”
Johnson, friendly and genial, said, “Expecting good news?”
“Maybe I'm being adopted,” Meehan said.
Turned out, he was.
THE FIRST THING Meehan noticed, the guy wasn't his lawyer. His court-appointed lawyer was a frizzy-haired skinny Jewish woman, maybe forty, dressed in that hairy crap they do, might as well be a chador, big golden hoop earrings for that feminine touch. And the second thing he noticed, the guy wasn't a lawyer at all.
But this was the place where the felons met up with their mouthpieces, down here on 4, a honeycomb of cubicles of leaded glass embedded with chicken wire, all the doors and door frames black metal, desks and chairs black metal, everything metallic and tight, everything you touched made a sound like the guillotine. Nice place.
“Come on in, Meehan,” said his non-lawyer, gesturing from where he sprawled at the small metal table in the small glass room. A tan manila folder in front of him on the table provided a wan touch of color.
The guard stood behind Meehan, there was nowhere else he planned to go, so he shrugged and went to sit in the metal chair opposite the ringer, not bothering to read the tab on the folder, while the guard shut the door and went away, to give them as much privacy as you ever get in a place like this, which is none.
The ringer said, “How you doin, Meehan?”
Meehan lifted his right hand. First he did a come-to-me beckoning gesture, first finger, right hand, then he did a writing-on-a-pad gesture, then he put that hand palm down on the cool metal surface of the table.
The ringer was quick; at least there was that much. He reached into his gray-green checked sports jacket and came out with a small lined notepad and a retractable pen. He put both on the table near Meehan's hand, and Meehan opened the pad, past several pages of tiny unreadable black-ink notes, found a blank page, and wrote on it, “You're not a lawyer.” Then he turned the pad so the guy could read it.
Which he did, scanned it quickly, nodded, shrugged, and said, “Ms. Goldfarb was reassigned to—”
Meehan held up his hand. When the guy stopped, Meehan slid the pad back, underlined the a, faced it around to the guy again: “You're not a lawyer.”
This time, the guy actually studied what Meehan had written, then gave him a look that was curious, nothing more. He said, “Why do you say that?”
Meehan shook his head. He wasn't going to get along with this guy. “I didn't say it,” he pointed out, “I wrote it.”
“All right,” the guy said, “why did you write it?”
“Because you don't say things in here.” That was another of the ten thousand rules.
“Well, you've started,” the guy said, “so go ahead. Why do you believe I'm not a lawyer?”
Meehan thought it over, and decided: what the hell. He said, “There's two kinds of—What do I call you?”
The guy seemed surprised. He said, “Jeffords.”
“Okay, Mr. Jeffords. There's two kinds of lawyers come in here, boy lawyers and girl lawyers. The boy lawyers know they're representing scum, and they want to be thought of as something better than that, so they dress over the top, like a really successful Moscow pimp. Two-thousand-dollar suits, four-thousand-dollar watches, gold rings, Italian shoes the Pope couldn't afford. They don't get haircuts, they get coiffed, and they want you to know it.” This was another monograph he'd done in his head. Continuing from it, he said, “Girl lawyers got a different situation. They can't come on like sexual beings, not in a place like this, so they go for the dikes-on-a-camping-trip look, your baggy wool slacks, bulky Irish-knit sweaters, Beatles haircut. None of them, boys or girls, dress like you, like you're going to a neighbor's barbeque. And none of them sprawl, like you're doing, they all sit up straight, because they're at work. The guy on this side of the table slouches, the guy over there sits up. Nobody sprawls. Also, and not least, there's your briefcase.”
“I don't have a briefcase,” Jeffords said.
“That's the point. The lawyers have briefcases,” Meehan told him. “Old, battered, scuffed, packed full of paper. They're coming in for thirty seconds, tell you the delay was denied, we're going to trial Thursday, they're outta here, they still carry that briefcase. The purpose of that briefcase is to let you know, you're not the only scum they're taking care of around here, they don't have all that much time to spend on you. So for all of these many reasons, plus I notice you don't have your fingernails professionally attended to, you aren't a lawyer, and what that means is, we don't have a lawyer-client privilege.”
Jeffords gazed on him in a dumbstruck way for a few seconds, as though listening to a simultaneous translation, and then a big goofy smile lit up his face, like a haunted house going up in flames just as the sun comes out, and he said, “Wow. Mr. Meehan, did I luck out with you.”
And what was that supposed to mean? Sparrows take shit. Meehan could see this was gonna be a day of conundrums, and he could get along without such a day. If there was an upside to jail time, it was at least you got some rest. He said, “Does this luck work both ways?”
“If you're as smart as you appear to be, yes.” Suddenly businesslike, actually sitting upright, Jeffords opened the folder in front of himself, rested his forearms to flank the papers within, leaned forward like a bombardier, and read, “Francis Xavier Meehan, forty-two, no fixed abode.”
“This place is pretty fixed,” Meehan told him.
Jeffords looked up. “They call you Frank?”
Jeffords waited, his silence inviting Meehan to tell him what “they” did call him, but Meehan didn't feel like getting into all that. Barbara used to call him Frannie, which nobody else did. When he was a kid he was mostly Francis, except a few of the guys he hung out with called him Zave, which followed through into the army and for a while after that. Now and again, somebody thought it was cute to nickname him Professor, but it never took. The last ten, fifteen years he was called Meehan, which generally eliminated confusion.
Giving up without a fight, Jeffords bent his head to the folder: “Divorced from Barbara Kenilmore, two—”
“That's her maiden name.”
Jeffords looked up. “She went back to it.”
Meehan grinned. “That'll put me in my place,” he said.
“You're already in your place,” Jeffords told him, “but we'll see what we can do about it.” He looked down again. “Two sons, Bri—”
“I know their names,” Meehan said. “I even know their ages, their birthdays.”
“We'll move along, then,” Jeffords agreed.
Meehan said, “You're not gonna reel off my arrests and convictions, are you? I'll do what in court they say, stipulate. I'll stipulate to that. Many many burglary arrests, six, no seven trials, two convictions, lot of waiting time in places like this around the country because nobody ever thinks I'm worth bail—”
“Do you think you're worth bail?” Jeffords said.
Meehan had to laugh at that. “The judges would do it, don't get me wrong,” he said. “It's the bondsmen. They look at me, they know they'd rather not have to find me.”
Jeffords leaned back, morphing toward his natural sprawl. He said, “So we both know everything that's in here.”
“But this is your first federal rap,” Jeffords pointed out.
“I'm not glad I switched brands,” Meehan told him, “if that's what you want to know.”
Jeffords looked thoughtful, almost kindly. “Federal prisons,” he said, “are not easy places.”
“So I've heard.”
“They've got you, you know,” Jeffords said. “Witnesses, fingerprints—”
“It shouldn't be federal,” Meehan insisted. “I'm not one to bitch against the system, but this is a fucking truck, Mr. Jeffords, supposed to be full of computer chips. This isn't blowing up army bases. This isn't even fucking stock fraud.”
“The feds don't want to let you go,” Jeffords said. He sounded as though he knew what he was talking about.
“Shit,” Meehan said, and he meant it.
“Forever,” Jeffords told him. “You're looking at life, no parole.”
“For a truck.”
“I wish I could help,” Jeffords said.
Meehan gave him a keen look, while that sentence just lay there in the room with them. There's a reason we're having this conversation. He said, “Mr. Jeffords, I'm sorry, I feel awful about this, but I've just got this miserable memory. Already I'm starting to forget your name.”
“No no, Frank,” Jeffords said, “you've got—”
“Well, I suppose it had to happen,” Meehan said.
Thrown off stride, Jeffords frowned at him: “What?”
“That somebody would call me Frank. Sure hope it doesn't happen again.”
Jeffords took a slow half minute to think about whether he might get pissed off, then decided no, which Meehan found very interesting. This guy really wanted Meehan's cooperation. It was only too bad he had nothing to give him. I regret I have but one life to give for my federal penitentiary.
“Mr. Meehan,” Jeffords said, “let me clear up any confusion between us.”
“Go ahead,” Meehan said.
“I'm not interested in the past,” Jeffords said.
Was this another conundrum? Jail, courts, holding cells, the past was all they were ever about, because the future is already determined and set. Everybody knew Francis Xavier Meehan's future; they just had to tidy up his past before they could send him on to it.
While Meehan tried to work out what this was all about, Jeffords turned his notepad to another blank page, wrote in it fast, then turned it and the pen toward Meehan, who leaned closer to read
If you might want to help me,
I might want to help you
Meehan studied this ballot, while Jeffords said, “If you could see your way clear to help the federal authorities on this hijacking case—”
Surprised, doubly surprised, Meehan looked up to see Jeffords' head shaking back and forth like a metronome while he talked: Ignore the words coming out of this mouth.
“—I think I might be able to help you in a variety of ways, particularly choice of penal institution, that sort of thing.”
Meehan picked up the pen. “I'm really sorry, Mr. Jeffords,” he said, “I just can't.” He voted YES, a big X inside the box.
“Well, that's a shame,” Jeffords said. “It was worth a try. Goodbye, Mr. Meehan.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Jeffords.”
THAT WAS THE afternoon 9 South had library privileges, three to five. Meehan had checked out the library when he'd first been tossed in here, but didn't think much of it, though everybody else loved the place, went there every chance they got.
Essentially, the inmates' part of the library was two rooms, the first a fairly big rectangle with two long library tables and some chairs, the walls lined with bookcases, the shelves full of fairly recent fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paperback. There were no stacks, just the wall shelves, because stacks would give you a place to hide, exchange contraband, shiv an associate. That first room was where Meehan went, twice, to see what they had that might be of interest. Both times, he checked something out, only to realize he'd already read it.
The room beyond the normal library was the law library, which was smaller, with a wall-mounted shelf containing four electric typewriters on one side and a counter with a volunteer lawyer behind it on the other. Every typewriter always had an inmate banging away, with every range from two fingers to nine, while two or three behind him waited their turn. Behind the lawyer, out of sight back there, was another room—or maybe rooms—full of law books. The volunteer lawyer was there to answer questions, discuss situations, go back to find the relevant law books, Virgil the inmate through the narrow byways of the law.
This is where the inmates came to work on their cases. That's what they called it, they were working on their cases. Stick around in there long enough, you could come out with a pretty good grounding in tort law, which some of them did. But, since they were mostly assholes, it rarely helped. Still, working on their cases kept them out of trouble and made the volunteer lawyer—young, idealistic, from some seventh-rate diploma mill—feel useful in life.
Meehan didn't work on his case. He knew what his case was, and he knew working on it wouldn't make it any . . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...