Authors: Richard Stark
Grofield stopped at the baby food, and put a dozen jars in his carriage. It was early Wednesday afternoon, the day after the meeting in the garage, and the Food King was barely sprinkled with customers. Grofield walked on, pushing the carriage. He added a carton of corn flakes and turned the corner.
To his right was the row of check-out counters, most of them empty now, only three green-jacketed cashiers on duty, one at the express lane and the other two at the next two counters. Ahead of him, at the end of the checkout counters, were the head-high white partitions of the manager's office. A stocky, worried-looking man could be seen in there, up at a higher level, so he was visible from the shoulders up. He was looking at lists on a clipboard with a younger man in a white shirt and black bow tie.
The white partition of the office ran on to form a corner with the side of the building. Grofield went on down there; racks of pretzels and potato chips were in the corner, and he stood considering them a while. Considering, also, that the rear of the safe was just the other side of those racks. A plywood roof had been put over the safe and a large advertising display for Food King canned fruits and vegetables was standing on top of it.
Grofield finally selected a bag of potato chips, put them in the basket, and moved on. He roamed around the store a few minutes more, then left the carriage up by the meat counter, at the other end of the store from the check-out counters. He went by the dairy case, picked up a couple of vanilla yogurts, paid for them at the express check-out, and went outside to sunshine and the nearly empty parking lot.
In sunlight, Barnes' Pontiac was a medium blue, and dusty. Grofield slid in beside Barnes and looked through the windshield at the store. Specials were advertised in the windows with fat red or blue lettering on large sheets of white paper. Between two of them, Grofield could see the door of the safe in the right front corner, a dark metallic green, about five feet back from the window farthest to the right.
Barnes said, "Like Hughes said?"
"Seems that way. Of course, I don't know about Friday night, if they've still got the same pattern."
"They do," Barnes said, sure of himself. "Every supermarket in the country has that pattern. Friday's the big day, it empties the shelves."
Grofield nodded. "It looks good."
Barnes started the Pontiac and made a looping U-turn to take them out to the highway. One of the entrances to Scott Air Force Base was across the highway and about a hundred yards to the right. Automobiles made a more or less steady stream in and out of the place.
Traffic westward on the highway was moderate. Grofield shook one of the vanilla yogurts, to liquefy it, and then drank it from the carton. He offered Barnes the other one, but he didn't want it, so Grofield drank that one down, too, and then said, "If you see a pay phone, stop for me, okay?"
They were all the way in to East St. Louis before Barnes spotted a phone booth and pulled to the curb. Grofield got out, dropped the paper bag with the empty yogurt cartons into a litter basket beside the phone booth, stepped into the booth, and dialed the operator.
"I'd like to make a collect call to the Mead Grove Theater, Mead Grove, Indiana. My name is Grofield."
"One moment, please."
Grofield waited, heard a lot of clicks and buzzes, heard Mary's voice, heard the operator go through the accept-the-charges-ritual and Mary say sure, and then he said, "Honey?"
"Hi! How are you?"
"Fine. I should be back by the middle of next week."
"It that good or bad?"
"I think it's good. Guess who I ran into? Charley Martin. He's staying at the Hotel Hoyle."
"Haven't seen him for a long time," she said. She loved this sort of thing, it made her think of foreign intrigue.
Grofield said, "How's your cousin?"
"Getting better. He's taking a nap now."
"Tell him I asked for him."
"He's really impatient. He's getting mad at himself, he's in such a hurry to be well."
Grofield grinned. "Work him," he said. "Let him rewire the lightboard, that'll take his mind off his troubles."
"Sure it will."
"See you, honey."
"See you. Good luck."
"You bet," Grofield said.
Grofield left the phone booth and got back into the car, and Barnes drove off, saying, "You're very neat."
"It's a habit. Comes in handy sometimes."
"I can always tell when a man's on the phone with his wife," Barnes said. "The way his face relaxes."
Grofield looked at him in surprise; it wasn't the kind of observation he'd come to expect from a heavy like Barnes. He said, "You married?"
"Not at the moment," Barnes said. He said it flat, and he kept looking out the windshield at the traffic, and Grofield didn't pursue the subject.
Route 3 drops south through Illinois, ricocheting from time to time off the Mississippi River, cutting through little towns called Red Bud and Chester and Wolf Lake and Ware. Grofield, sitting beside Hughes in the pale gray Javelin, noticed that the red speedometer needle always pointed exactly at the posted speed limit. Along with setting this job up, Hughes would be their driver, and from all indications he would be a good one.
The car, for one thing. American Motors had done its part for the nation's fantasy life by putting out a car that looked like a Ronson lighter and had more cute tricks than a Boy Scout knife, for children everywhere who liked to play James Bond on the way to work; but they hadn't put much under the hood. They'd called this car Javelin, maybe because you could throw it about as fast as you could drive it. Fred Hughes had taken this car, which had a certain comicbook handsomeness, and had done something to it. The big cat that purred under the hood hadn't come from Kenosha, Wisconsin, not without modifications. The brakes, the shocks, everything about the car felt different from anything that had ever rolled off any assembly line anywhere. Now the car was sleek and powerful and perfectly under control, and Hughes drove it as though it were part of himself – as though it were a prosthetic device attached to his fingertips. Grofield, watching him in silent admiration, felt that Hughes could make the car do what he wanted simply by looking at it and raising an eyebrow.
The best driver for anything, including going quickly away from where you no longer want to be, is not the guy who will kick the car across the state, the guy who loves speed – the best driver is the guy who loves cars. He'll get more out of the car, and he'll live longer.
They did very little talking together on the drive south. Hughes at one point told him about the financing. "I'm doing it on two grand. That's probably cutting it close, but I don't want to waste money."
"I agree." The normal thing was for the string that actually did the job to repay the financer two hundred percent, if the job worked out. The risk was high enough to make that kind of repayment necessary. The two thousand Hughes had borrowed would be paid back with four thousand off the top of whatever the job brought in.
"I got a local man," Hughes said. He never looked away from the windshield, but his face changed expressions just as though he were looking at the person he was talking to. "A doctor," he said. "Can you feature that? A guy I know told me about him, two three years ago."
"As a matter of fact," Grofield said, "a guy I've used a couple of times is a doctor, too. In New York. If you ever need any financing there, look him up. Doctor Chester Ormont, on East Sixty-seventh Street in Manhattan."
"My man in St. Louis is Doctor Leon Castelli, on Grove Avenue." Hughes looked a question at the windshield. "How come doctors? I can't figure it."
"Unreported income," Grofield said. "I don't think I've ever worked a job that wasn't financed by somebody's unreported income. There's certain classes of people that tend to get paid in cash, without records, so they don't report their entire earnings to the income tax people. Like doctors, they get a lot of patients that pay cash."
Hughes grinned at the windshield. "Everybody's got a hustle," he said.
"There's safety deposit boxes all over this country," Grofield said, "packed with cash that was never reported to Internal Revenue. And these people can spend a few hundred of it, but if they start to spend in the thousands over their reported income level, they might attract the wrong kind of attention. So it's all just sitting there, in cash, in safety deposit boxes."
"Wouldn't you like the master key?" Hughes asked.
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"But why use that money to finance operations like us? I mean, I know why
use the money, but how come they give it to us?"
"They hate to see money lie fallow," Grofield said. "Doctors in particular, they're the investing kind, they like to know their money's out there working for them. The money in the safety deposit box is gravy scooped off the top, they get to keep one hundred cents on every dollar of it, but they want more. They want to see it work, they want to see it bring home some friends."
Hughes shook his head. "What good is it? Money's to spend." He grinned at the windshield. "That's why I'm broke all the time. When I've got it, I party."
"I spend it, too," Grofield said, thinking of his theater.
"But not these doctors, huh? Castelli gives me two grand, it comes out of his safety deposit box. I give him back four grand, the whole bundle goes in the safety deposit box?"
"Then what's the point? If he can't take a chance on spending the two, he sure can't take a chance on spending the four. So what the hell's the point?"
"I don't know," Grofield said. "A different kind of mind from ours."
"Yeah. So that's why they're doctors, and we're-" he shrugged, looking at the windshield "-whatever we are."
That was the end of that conversation. They drove for a while in silence, until Hughes asked if Grofield minded the radio. He said he didn't, and they listened to a hillbilly station after that.
Route 3 would have eventually taken them to the bottom of the state and across into Kentucky if they'd stayed with it, but instead they crossed the river at Cape Girardeau. They picked up 61 there, dropped south again, got onto 62, and cut southwest across the ankle of Missouri, entering Arkansas at St. Francis. Their destination was about ten miles beyond that, near Piggott.
It was a pyramid-shaped hill, fairly tall, and the whole side facing the road was strewn with junked cars and parts of cars, all silently rusting in the late afternoon sun. Three smallish trees jutted improbably out of the metal at odd points on the hillside, pale green with the fresh leaves of spring, and a narrow dirt road meandered up through the junk as though a bulldozer had gone through just once, shoving everything out of its way. Up at the top stood an old clapboard farmhouse, two stories high, rambling this way and that over the crest of the hill as though it had melted somewhat from its original shape. The siding was the gray of weathered wood that hasn't been painted for at least a quarter century.
Grofield said, "It's beautiful."
Hughes grinned at the windshield and turned off onto the twin-rut dirt road; it ran level for about a hundred feet, before climbing the hill. "I guess Purgy don't mind it," Hughes said.
They'd come two hundred twenty-five miles in just over four hours; it was now late afternoon, and the sunlight reflecting from windows and windshields up and down the hill was tinged with orange, so that it looked as though rust was reflecting light.
The fence was rusty, too, when they came to it, at the base of the hill. Eight foot high, chain link, it stretched away on both sides, hemming the junked cars in, and topped by a triple strand of barbed wire. The gate was the same height, and also topped by barbed wire, and there was a sign on it that said NO TRESPASSING –
Ring Phone For Entry.
Hughes left the motor running and got out of the car. He went over to the box mounted on the left gatepost, opened the door, and spent a minute talking on the phone. Grofield waited in the car; he rolled his window down and listened to silence. No birds, nothing but the almost-silent purr of the engine.
Hughes came back to the car and slid behind the wheel.
"Best roll your window up," he said.
Grofield looked at him, but didn't ask any questions. He rolled his window up, and at the same time the two halves of the gate opened inward – electric, remote control.
Hughes drove the Javelin through and started up the hill. Grofield twisted around to watch the gates shut again, and when he faced front there was a Doberman pinscher directly in their path, black, with brown markings.
Hughes was driving slowly up the steep incline, and he neither braked nor hit the horn, but just kept moving toward the dog, which at the last moment padded with heavy gracefulness to one side. It met Grofield's eyes through the closed window as the car went by, and it didn't look sweet-tempered at all.
"Nice playmate," Grofield said.
"Purgy don't get robbed," Hughes said.
"I bet he doesn't."
Grofield looked back, to see if the dog was following them, and now there were two, both Dobermans, both padding along right behind the car. And as he watched, a third came streaking through narrow alleys amid the junk to the right and joined the first two.
Grofield said, "How many's he got?"
"I don't know. More than enough."
"One is enough," Grofield said, and faced front after that.
There was a little open flat area at the top, in front of the house, and standing in it was a short, fat, very wide man with a bull neck and an irritable expression. He was filthy, clothing and skin and hair, wearing stained gray workpants, black work boots and a flannel shirt that had once been several colors but was now mostly a faded grayish pink. There were so many streaks of rust and grease and dirt over his arms and face and clothes that he almost looked like an Indian in war paint.
Grofield said, "That's got to be Purgy."
Purgy gave them an irritable arm wave, meaning to follow him, and tramped on around the corner of the house. Hughes drove slowly after him, and Grofield saw that they were now surrounded by at least five dogs, one of them trotting along in front. He said, "Is Dobermans all he's got?"
Hughes frowned at the windshield. "I don't follow you."
"The dogs. Are they all Dobermans?"
"Is that what they are? They all look alike, so I guess so."
Purgy had led them along the continuation of the dirt road around the side of the house, and now around to the back. Here the hill fell away more slowly, in broad steps. The first level below the house contained a dozen or more vehicles of a wide variety of kinds, all in apparently good operating order. The level below that had a rickety shedlike ten-car garage, with several cars and parts of cars on the beaten dirt in front of it, and with the chain-link fence running along just behind it. Beyond the fence were trees, a thick woods that stretched on down into the valley.
"I guess that's our truck," Hughes said.
Grofield nodded. "Looks all right."
"The sound is more important," Hughes commented.
The truck was one of the vehicles on the first level, a big tractor-trailer rig with a dark green International Harvester cab and an unpainted aluminum Freuhauf body. There were no markings on the body, but the cab door bore the legend UNIVERSAL FUR STORAGE,
210-16 Pine Street, Phone
"It's hot," Grofield said. "It's left over from a hijack."
"I already knew that. That's why we're getting a price."
"I brought my own."
"We'll have to do something about that door."
"If we take it."
And if they didn't? This was Thursday; they were supposed to move tomorrow night. Grofield said, "You got any others lined up?"
"Not yet. If this one's no good, it costs us a couple weeks."
Out there in front of them, Purgy was still walking, a steady fat man's waddle. A couple of dogs were flanking him now, and maybe half a dozen of them were around the car. Purgy led them halfway across the rear of the ramshackle house to where the dirt road made a sharp turn downward and to the left, down to the next level. They all went on down there, Purgy and the dogs and the Javelin, making a strange parade, and then headed straight for the fur-storage truck.
"He's going to want us to get out of the car," Grofield said.
"The dogs are okay. They do what Purgy tells them."
Purgy had reached the truck, and now he turned around and made a down-pushing motion with one hand to tell them to stop. Hughes left the engine running, and opened the door, and a second later so did Grofield.
It was very strange. They were waist deep in dogs, and it was like moving through a sluggish black sea full of eyes and teeth. The dogs kept circling, kept moving around without ever making a single noise, and always moved out of the way whenever Grofield or Hughes or Purgy walked anywhere. But Grofield kept being aware of them, down there around his wrists, moving, watching, waiting, and after a while the total absence of sound – no barking, no growling, nothing – became the most nerve-wracking part of it, as though tension were being built that would have to end with incredible noises and destruction.
Purgy and Hughes immediately started talking about the truck, and Grofield did his best to pay attention and not think about the dogs. In the usual manner of buyer and seller, Purgy kept pointing out how good the truck was and Hughes kept suggesting flaws it probably had. "Looks as though she was driven pretty hard," Hughes said, holding the driver's door open and leaning his head in beside the seat. "Look at that brake pedal, how she's worn on the one side. Some cowboy drove the hell out of her."
"Why, that truck's only two years old," Purgy said. He had a high-pitched voice, but very hoarse, as though he'd worn his throat out reaching for high notes. "Barely broke in," he said. "Where you going to find a truck this new at the price I'm asking?"
Grofield stood and watched. This wasn't his specialty; he was along to drive the extra vehicle if they bought the truck.
Hughes looked under the hood. "Got pliers on you?"
"You ain't gonna take it
"Just want to take a look. We need a tape measure, too."
"You don't want much," Purgy grumbled, and turned to Grofield. "See that bread truck there? Take a look in the back, there's a toolkit, bring it on over."
"Dogs!" Purgy yelled. "Stay!"
They stayed. Grofield walked across the brown dirt to the bread truck and found the toolkit in the back, and none of the dogs followed him. But when he started back he saw half the dogs back there by Purgy standing absolutely still and watching him. Six or seven of them, that was, with an equal number still moving around Hughes. Grofield carried the toolkit over and put it on the ground by the truck, and the watching dogs started to mill with the others again.
Hughes took the pliers and tape, and handed the tape to Grofield. "Size of the opening in back," he said.
The inevitable three or four dogs traveled with him as he went around to the back of the truck and opened the doors there. He climbed up into the trailer, and was half-surprised that none of the dogs leaped up after him.
The interior of the trailer was bare, except for two pipes running the length of it just above head level. To hang furs on, probably. Grofield measured the opening, spent a minute walking around the interior, stamping on the floor, pushing against the walls, and then he dropped down amid the dogs again and went back to where Hughes and Purgy were arguing over a sparkplug in Hughes' hand. Purgy was saying, "I give you this truck the way it come to me. I don't switch sparkplugs, I don't set back the mileage, I don't do nothing. It's yours, the way the guy drove it in here, for two grand."
Hughes said, "Now you know I'm not gonna pay two thousand dollars for this truck."
"Where you gonna get a truck like this?"
"As hot as this? Nowhere." He turned and looked questioningly at Grofield.
Grofield said, "Fifty-seven inches wide, eighty-four inches high."
"Narrow," Hughes said. "I'm not sure we can use it at all."
"You don't want to buy the truck," Purgy said, "nobody's got a gun to your head."
Grofield said to Hughes, "The floor seems okay."
Hughes nodded and leaned in at the engine.
Purgy said, "What are ya doin
"Putting it back."
With Hughes showing him nothing but back, Purgy turned to Grofield. "You know trucks?"
"They're bigger than cars," Grofield said. "That's about my limit."
"Well, believe me, this truck is a steal at two grand."
"You mean it's stolen," Hughes said, his voice muffled because he was still involved with the engine. He surfaced, turning back to Purgy with his hands out in front of him. "You got a cloth to wipe my hands?"
"Up on the seat of the truck. Go on up, start the engine, listen to it."
"I believe I will," Hughes said, and climbed up into the cab. While Grofield and Purgy watched and waited, Hughes started the engine, switched it off, started it, switched it off, started it, raced it, switched it off, started it, lurched the truck forward about three feet, switched it off, started it, lurched it backward about three feet, switched it off, started it, and drove it away.
Grofield watched it leave. About half the dogs stayed with him and Purgy, and the rest went trotting off with the truck.
Hughes was a first-rate driver. There wasn't that much room to maneuver in among the cars and trucks and buses and odd vehicles stored on this flat area, but Hughes threaded the maze with no trouble at all. He backed in a figure eight, he drove forward in various directions at various speeds and in various gears, and finally he drove it back over to Purgy and Grofield again, jolted to a stop, and switched off the motor.
Purgy had his hands on his hips, ready to be belligerently defensive about the truck. He watched Hughes climb down from the cab and said, "Well?"
"Brakes grab to the right a bit," Hughes said. "Trailer doesn't track very well."
"It's empty, what do you want from it? You know a truck like that isn't meant to drive empty."
"It's worth five hundred, I suppose," Hughes said carelessly.
Are you out of your mind? Don't you want me to even get my cost back?"
"I've sold you things," Hughes said. "I know what your cost is. You maybe paid a hundred and a half for this-"
"Hughes, you're a goddam fool. Who's gonna sell a truck like that for a hundred and fifty dollars?"
"The people that brought it to you," Hughes said. "They made their money out of what was in it. All they wanted is a safe place to unload it, and not leave it off a road someplace for the cops to pick up and maybe find somebody's fingerprints or coat button or something. I told you, I've
you stuff. So you paid a hundred and a half. If you take it apart and sell the pieces you can sell and junk the rest, you'll maybe make three hundred out of it."
"There's another dumb idea," Purgy said, trying to be scornful but only being irritable. "There's better than three hundred just under the hood alone."
"But we're saving you the trouble," Hughes said. "You don't have to do any work on it at all, you don't have to store the parts, you don't do anything but spend five minutes out here having a nice talk with me, and you make better than two hundred percent profit. That isn't bad."
"I told you my price," Purgy said. Now he sounded as though he'd been insulted.
"Oh, you didn't mean a number like that," Hughes said. "That was just to argue from. But it's getting late in the day, we've got a long drive ahead of us, so I figured I'd go straight to the sensible price. Five hundred."
"Now look," Purgy said, "you're an old customer and I like you, and I know you like this here truck. So I'll give you a break. I paid twelve hundred for that truck, and I'll give it to you for fifteen. Now, that's fair, isn't it?"
"Oh, come on, Purgy. You didn't pay any twelve hundred and we both know it. Now, why say a thing like that?"
"Well, I wouldn't if it wasn't so."
"Then it's the first time I ever saw you get took, and I can't take the truck. Come on, Grofield."