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Authors: Richard Stark

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BOOK: Lemons Never Lie
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7

When the phone started to ring, Grofield was on the ladder, a paint brush in his hand. He was putting a new coat of white on the words MEAD GROVE THEATER that filled the whole side of the barn facing the country road.

"Crap," he said. Mary was at work, he'd have to answer it himself. He put the brush in the bucket standing on the ladder top, and went hurriedly down to the ground.

He was now about midway between the two phones, one extension in the box-office to his right and one backstage near the lightboard. He hesitated, while the phone started a third ring, and then trotted around to the big open doorway leading to the stage. He went up the wooden ladder fixed to the outer wall and headed across the stage. Dan was sitting on the leather chair in the living room set, crossways to the house so he could get a little sun from the open door. This was the first day he was up and around, after being here a week. He looked pale and thin, but itchy and impatient. He lifted a hand in a slow weak wave as Grofield trotted by at an angle toward the lightboard.

"Hello?"

"Grofield?" The voice was male, heavy, somewhat indistinct.

"Speaking."

"This is Barnes."

The name had a familiar sound to it, but Grofield made no immediate connections. He said, "Barnes?"

"From Salt Lake City.".

"Oh!" Now he remembered, and an image of Ed Barnes flashed in his mind – a tall man, very broad in the shoulder but somewhat gone to fat, about forty years old, with thin black hair and a lumpy formless nose. Grofield had worked with Barnes once, on a bank job in Salt Lake City.

Barnes was saying, "You free?"

"As a bird," Grofield said.

"Could you get to St. Louis tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"Meet Charles Martin at the Hotel Hoyle."

"Done."

Grofield hung up and went back across the stage toward Dan. "I'm leaving tomorrow for a while," he said.

Dan looked sour. "You got something?"

"You know Ed Barnes?"

"I worked with him once or twice."

"If it works out," Grofield said, "you'll probably be gone before I get back."

"Could they use another man?"

"Dan, you aren't ready."

"I know it, goddam it." Dan glowered toward the wings. "When I get my hands on that son of a bitch-"

"Be sure you're ready first," Grofield said.

"I'll be ready."

Grofield nodded, and said, "I'm going back to work." He walked over to the doorway and was about to jump down when Dan called his name. Dan's voice was all right until he tried to shout, and then it thinned out.

Grofield looked back, and Dan called, "Thanks."

"Sure," Grofield said, and jumped to the ground, and walked back around to finish painting the letters.

PART THREE

1

Grofield wrote
Charles Martin
on the registration card, and pushed it across to the desk clerk.

"Yes, Mr. Martin. And you'll be staying with us how long?"

"I'm not sure yet. A day or two."

"Yes, sir. That will be room four-twelve."

"Are there any messages for me?"

"One moment, I'll check."

The clerk rippled through an uneven stack of envelopes. "Yes, sir, just the one."

Grofield took the envelope. "Thank you."

"Front!"

The bellboy took Grofield's suitcase. Grofield put the envelope away in his inside jacket pocket, and followed the bellboy to the elevator. The Hotel Hoyle was old, and old fashioned, in a downtown section of St. Louis that hadn't been fashionable since before World War I. It was now a competent commercial travelers' hotel, and the lobby carpeting had paths worn in it, like rabbit trails in the woods.

The elevator was self-service, a nice combination of modernization and economy. The bellboy, a skinny black youth who looked as though he lived on a diet of bones, pushed
4,
and the elevator rose slowly upward in its shaft. Grofield could hear the clicking of the descent guards all the way up.

The room was small but functional, dominated by a wide old-fashioned window that overlooked a blacktop parking lot and the many-faceted face of an office building. Grofield gave the bellboy a dollar, double-locked the door after him, and opened his envelope.

Wood's Bar, East St. Louis, Eleven P.M.

2

St. Louis, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, is a city, like any other. East St. Louis, across the bridge on the Illinois side, is the city's underbelly. Here are the late-night bars, the cruising hookers, everything you can't find in the Yellow Pages. The streets are dark, the neon seems undernourished, and the soldiers and airmen from the bases around the city keep the money supply fat and moving.

Grofield sat at the bar in the long blue-gray room called Wood's Bar, and nursed a bottle of Budweiser- support local business. On a narrow stage up behind the backbar a tired and aging mixed-race jazz quintet tried to figure out how to make the transition to rock. So far, all they were sure of was the volume level; you couldn't hear yourself think. Looking at the conversations going on up and down the bar, and in the booths behind him, Grofield decided the place must be full of lip readers.

He'd gotten here five minutes early, and now it was five minutes late. Where the hell was Barnes?

A hand touched his shoulder. He turned his head, and Barnes nodded at him and went toward the door. Grofield considered finishing his beer, but it had no head left at all by now, so he left it, got off the stool and followed Barnes out to the street.

"Glad you could make it," Barnes said, and pointed to a Pontiac parked across the way. In this light, it looked black, but it probably wasn't.

They went across the street, and Grofield waited on the curb while Barnes unlocked the driver's door, got in, and reached across to unlock the door on Grofield's side. Grofield slid in and said, "I hope this one works out. I went out on a dud about a month ago."

"You're gonna like this," Barnes said. "Simple, fast, and fat."

"You just described my ideal."

Barnes drove a dozen blocks and turned in at the shut door of a parking garage closed for the night. "Go give a triple knock on the door," he said.

"Right."

Grofield went out and knocked, and a second later the door slid up. The inside was a big square, low-ceilinged, concrete-floored, half full of parked cars. An office with windows all the way around was in the middle; the only light was in there, a fluorescent fixture hanging from the ceiling.

Barnes drove in, Grofield walked in beside him, and the door slid down again. Barnes steered the Pontiac on over to the office, and Grofield walked after him, getting there as Barnes was climbing out of the car. "They're in here."

Two of them; Grofield didn't know either one. One was sitting on the chair beside the filing cabinet, the other was standing beside the small littered desk.

Barnes made the introduction- "Alan Grofield. Steve Tebelman. Fred Hughes."

They all nodded at one another. Steve Tebelman was the one sitting in the chair. He was dressed in a somewhat shabby dark suit, as though he'd come out for a job interview and really needed the job. Fred Hughes was the one standing by the desk, and he was in dark green workshirt and matching pants, with
Hughes
in yellow script lettering sewn above the shirt pocket.

Barnes nodded at Hughes. "Fred's our set-up man."

Grofield raised an eyebrow. "It's a local job?"

"Belleville," Hughes said. "About twelve miles east of here."

Grofield looked at Barnes. "That isn't usual," he reminded him. Usually the organizational meetings before a job took place in some other part of the country from where the heist would be. It was better to spend as little time in the neighborhood of a robbery beforehand as possible.

"I know," Barnes said. "But I told you, this one's fast. Fred's a pro, he knows what he's doing."

"It's already cased," Hughes said.

Grofield didn't say anything. He looked at Hughes, thinking about it. He could be a professional, but how good could he be and have a job parking cars? And how good could he be and want to pull a caper in his own neighborhood?

Hughes said, "I know what you're thinking. I been here six months is all. I belong in Florida, and I'll go there a couple months from now."

Grofield said, "Not right after we pull this."

Hughes had a very dry thin way of smiling. "No," he said. "I've had a run of second-best hands. I know I don't look my best right now, but I'm not a busher."

The other one, Steve Tebelman, said, "Let's get down to it." He was about the same age as Hughes, early thirties, and something about his dry brown hair and the crumpled cigarette he was smoking made Grofield think he was a hillbilly, out of Tennessee or Kentucky or someplace like that. And out of prison not too long ago, that too.

"That's a good idea," Barnes said. "I already know about it. Fred, tell Steve and Alan."

"Right." Hughes leaned back against the desk and folded his arms. "They got an Air Force base out there, called Scott. They get paid twice a month, the last day of the month and the fifteenth. By check. So the whole town is full of money twice a month."

Barnes said, "This is a big air base they got out there, it covers miles. It's like a training base, with all kinds of schools."

Grofield nodded, listening.

Hughes said, "There's a Food King Supermarket out on the highway near where the married guys live with their families."

"Food King?"

"Like A&P," Barnes said. "It's a chain out around here."

"A lot of the Air Force wives," Hughes said, "they cash their husbands' paychecks there twice a month, when they buy the groceries. So what Food King does, the second and last weeks of the month they don't make any deposits in the bank. All the cash they get in they keep, because they need so much cash on payday."

Grofield asked, "They've got a safe on the premises?"

"Right. Five years ago three guys from the air base tried to get into the place late at night and blow the safe. They never got near it. Once the store closes down for the night, you use any method you want to get in there, and two things happen. First, a light flashes down at the Belleville police station, and you've got local and state cops all over your back. Second, a siren lets loose, and the Air Police on guard duty at the gate across the highway come over to see what's what."

Barnes said, "And besides that, a county sheriff's car drives into the parking lot and back out again every half hour from eleven at night till seven in the morning."

Grofield grinned. "So far, it doesn't sound very easy."

"Depends how you do it," Hughes said, "and how much you know about the set-up."

Grofield said, "Where's your knowledge come from?"

"I went with a woman down in Florida that came from here. She was a cashier at Food King till they found some rolls of quarters in her bra. She was sore at them for giving her the boot, and she told me their whole layout, even gave me a map."

Grofield said, "What's the likelihood of the cops getting to her after we pull this? They'll check out past employees, they always do."

"They probably won't find her. Last I heard, she was going to New York. The type of woman she was, she could be anywhere by now. And even if they do, they won't get from her to me. We went together only about a month, and she's had herself a pretty active life, and I wasn't using any name then I plan to use again."

"The background she gave you," Grofield said, "are you sure it's still current?"

"As sure as you can be from just going to the store and buying some eggs and taking a look around. They're real pleased with their burglar alarm system, there's no reason they'll want to change it."

"What about the safe?"

"We got to figure they still got the same one," Hughes said. "She described it to me and I described it to Ed, and he knows what it is."

"An old Mosler," Barnes said. "Six feet high, four feet wide, four feet deep. It's free-standing, but they've built plasterboard walls around it, like it was built in. It's the kind you can peel with no trouble, start at the top corner above the lock and peel it like a Polaroid print. Those three Air Force guys were amateurs, it isn't the kind of safe you want to blow at all."

"The only problem," Hughes said, "is that it's in the front of the store, facing the windows. See, across the front are the cash registers, starting at the left, where the store entrance is, and going most of the way across. Then there's the manager's office, that's built up on a platform. When you're up in there the walls are maybe shoulder height. You know, so the manager can look out and see the store all the time."

"I've seen that kind of set-up," Grofield said.

"Yeah, but here's the difference. Most places like that, the safe is pretty small, and it's right up there in the manager's office. But this place, because they keep so much cash around all the time, they have to have this big monster, and I guess they were worried about the weight up on the platform or something. So it's down at floor level, between the manager's office and the side wall. The office and the safe are set back about five feet from the windows, the same as the check-out counters, and there's a waist-high wrought-iron railing across from the window to the corner of the manager's office, to keep the customers out of there. And there's a door on that side of the manager's office, and steps down, so they can go straight from the office to the safe, which is facing the windows."

Grofield said, "So that anybody working on the safe can be seen from outside."

Hughes nodded. "From the parking lot, right."

Grofield said, "So a guy with binoculars should be able to pick up the combination."

"Sorry," Hughes said, and grinned. "They're onto that. They always crowd the safe close when they open it, shield the lock with their body."

"It can be peeled like that anyway," Barnes said, and snapped his fingers.

"Right there by the window," Grofield said.

Steve Tebelman, who'd been very quiet up till now, said, "I'll tell you the truth, I need the money. I keep hoping you're going to tell me how it's going to be easy and safe, and you keep making it sound worse and worse."

Hughes grinned at him. "Don't worry, Steve," he said. "I didn't ask you to come here just for the hell of it."

Grofield said, "You've got it worked out, have you? What to do about the windows?"

"Right," Hughes said. In a quiet way, he was proud of himself.

"And about the burglar alarm?"

"Definitely."

Steve Tebelman said, "The fifteenth is a week from today, next Tuesday. Is that when you want to do it? I mean the night before, Monday?"

Hughes shook his head. "That's when they're the most alert," he said. "They've got the maximum cash in there. The next day, around noon, an armored car comes out from a bank in Belleville with however much more cash they need, but that's never a hell of a lot, not in comparison."

"With what?" Grofield asked. "How much are we talking about?"

"Anywhere between forty and seventy-five thousand."

Tebelman smiled. "That's nice," he said.

Grofield said, "But when do you want to do it?"

"This Friday," Hughes said. "We'll lose two days take, Saturday and Monday, but Friday's the big shopping day anyway, so we'll still make out. And there's other reasons."

"Because of your plan," Grofield suggested.

"Right."

"I can hardly wait to hear it," Grofield said.

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