Put a Lid On It
By Donald E. Westlake
Published by Mysterious Press 
May 2002; 0-892-96718-8 ; 240 pages

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Put a Lid on It by Donald Westlake1

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.

Copyright 2002 Donald E. Westlake
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

No other American writer surprises, delights, and sometimes terrifies quite the way Donald E. Westlake does. From The Ax to The Hook, from comic John Dortmunder classics to such hot Hollywood properties as Payback and What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Westlake does comedy, drama, and satire with equal aplomb. His newest novel takes a keen, hilarious look at the big money, dirty tricks, and little minds of Washington D.C. where a longtime thief will confront a whole new breed of crooks.

PUT A LID ON IT

Francis Xavier Meehan (Meehan to his friends, "Halt!" to the cops) has ten thousand rules to live by, but only one way to make a living: stealing. Then a man in a checked jacket from Washington comes to meet Meehan in the Manhattan Correctional Center with an offer Meehan cannot refuse.

For somewhere out there is an October Surprise that may dethrone the sitting president of the United States. The Washington man wants Meehan to steal the incriminating evidence and keep the president's secret in the dark. What Meehan gets out of the deal is his freedom—and maybe a little something on the side. What the president gets is another term in the White House—instead of one in jail.

Yet on the plane ride down to meet more guys from Washington (but with better suits), the well-thought-out plan begins to unravel. The problem Meehan faces is that no one in Washington can keep a lip buttoned—and a bunch of politicos, spies, and thugs are leaking trouble his way. Suddenly it seems that Meehan's mission is about to go the way of Watergate. There's only one difference: This time they chose the right guy for the job. Hail to the thief!

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Author

Donald WestlakeDonald E. Westlake was born in Brooklyn in 1933. After serving in the U.S. Air Force he began his writing career with The Mercenaries in 1960. He has written dozens of novels over the past thirty-five years, under his own name and a rainbow of pseudonyms. Named a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master in 1993, he lives with his wife, the writer Abby Adams, in rural New York State.

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