STAN MURCH made his call from a diner pay phone. “Maximilian’s Used Cars, Miss Caroline speaking.”
“Hi, Harriet. Max there?”
“To whom am I speaking, please?”
“This is Stan.”
“Oh, hi, Stan. One moment, please, Max is explaining the guarantee to a dissatisfied customer.”
“Sure,” Murch said. The phone booth was inside the diner, but it had a window that overlooked the blacktop parking lot, and Jericho Turnpike beyond. A dozen cars winkled in the thin October sunlight. The car Stan had in mind, an almost-new white Continental, a definite cream-puff, was parked almost in front of him. The driver had staggered in just a few minutes ago, drunk out of his mind even though it was barely two o’clock in the afternoon, and was now sprawled in a booth in the rear of the diner, occasionally spilling black coffee on himself. All things considered, Murch told himself, I’m doing that bird a favor. He shouldn’t be driving in his condition.
Munch, who had been leaning against the side of the booth and brooding at the Continental, now stood upright and said, “Max?”
“Sure. Listen, Max, you still interested in good recent acquisitions?”
“You mean where I got to do my own paper?”
“That’s the kind.”
“That’s a little tricky, Stan. Depends on the vehicle.”
“A creampuff white Continental. Like new.”
“You’re reading me my ad out of Newsday.”
“What do you think, Max?”
“Bring it over, we’ll have a look.”
“Right,” Murch said, and was about to hang up when another vehicle made the turn from Jericho Turnpike into the diner’s parking lot. It was a car carrier, with four Buick Riviera's on it: a powder blue, a maroon, and two bronzes. “Wait a second,” Murch said.
“Just hold on.”
The car carrier growled up to the diner, puffing diesel exhaust out a pipe at the top of the cab, and came at last to a shuddering stop. The driver, a stout fellow in a brown leather jacket, climbed down to the blacktop as though both his legs had fallen asleep, and then stood there yawning and scratching his crotch.
“Stan? You there?”
“Wait a second,” Munch said. “Just a second.”
The driver, done with his yawning and scratching, walked over to the diner entrance, leaving Murch’s sight for a few seconds. Murch turned around and looked through the phone booth’s interior window. He watched the car carrier driver amble across to the rear part of the diner and sit in the next booth to the sprawled driver of the Continental. Neither of them could see the parking lot from where they were.
“Listen, Max,” Murch said. “You interested in more, maybe? Other cars, maybe?”
“I’m always interested in top quality, Stan, you know that.”
“See you soon,” Murch said. Hanging up, he left the booth and the diner and strolled over to the car carrier. About to climb up into the cab, he glanced over at the Continental, sorry to have to leave it behind. Oh, well, four was better than one
Hmmmm. Murch moved away from the cab and considered the entire length of the car carrier. It was made to carry six automobiles, three on top and three on the bottom, but it only had two in each part. The rear spaces were unoccupied, top and bottom.
Hmmmmm. Murch walked around to the rear of the vehicle and considered it carefully. A kind of heavy metal tailgate was up across the back, with looped chains at both ends. Wouldn’t that tailgate double as a ramp if it were lowered?
Murch moved closer, studying the tailgate’s operation. Opening those two hooks should release the thing, then one should pay out his chain through that ratchet, and…
Might as well try it. He released the hooks, he grasped the chain, he began to feed it slowly through the ratchet. The tailgate lowered itself. Murch fed the chain faster, and the tailgate lowered faster. Tonk, the tailgate went against the blacktop. It was now a ramp.
Fine. Leaving the car carrier, Murch walked briskly but not too hurriedly across the lot to the Continental. He had his bunch of keys in his hand when he got there, but the Continental’s door was unlocked. He slid behind the wheel, tried three keys, and started the engine with the fourth. There was a strong smell of bourbon inside the car.
Murch put it in reverse, backed the Continental around in a loop, switched to drive, and steered across the parking lot and up the ramp and into the car carrier. He switched off the engine, set the hand brake, and got out of the car. He climbed through the metal struts of the side, attained the blacktop, and quickly raised the tailgate again. There wasn’t any way to chain the Continental in place, the way the Buick’s were chained, but he’d be taking it easy. He also didn’t have that far to go.
Key number two started the car carrier engine. Murch turned the big flat wheel, the car carrier lumbered forward, and slowly he made his getaway out onto Jericho Turnpike.
It took twenty-five minutes to drive to Maximilian’s Used Cars. When he got there, Murch took the side street next to the car lot, then turned in at the anonymous driveway behind it. He stopped amid tall weeds and the white clapboard backs of garages, climbed down out of the cab, and went through an unlocked gate in a chain-link fence. A path through weeds and shrubbery led him to the rear of Maximilian’s office structure, a California-looking thing in pink stucco. He opened a door, went through into a gray-paneled office, and heard Max in the next room saying, “What you got to read in the guarantee is every word.”
A very angry male voice said, loudly, “If you read every word of that guarantee, you don’t guarantee anything!”
“That’s how you say,” Max said.
Murch opened the connecting door, and stuck his head in. The customer was big and muscular, but intellectually out of his depth. He had the bewildered look of a swimmer who hadn’t known there were whirlpools anywhere around here. Murch, ignoring him, said to Max, “Max, could I interrupt?”
“I hope so,” Max said. A big old man with heavy jowls and thin white hair, he always wore a dark vest, wide open, and no tie. His white shirt was usually smudged from leaning against used cars. Now, getting to his feet from behind his desk, he said to the customer, “Read a little. Read the words. I’ll be back.”
“You better be,” the customer said, but there wasn’t any real threat in it. He was buffaloed, and he was himself beginning to understand it.
Max and Murch crossed the empty office and went out the rear door. Murch said, “That the same customer as when I called?”
“Some of them just won’t go away,” Max said. “Don’t they got homes? Some friend of yours called. On the telephone. You shouldn’t go away without him coming here.”
“A little name,” Max said, as they followed the path toward the chain-link fence. “Chip? Shep?”
“If you say so,” Max said, and they stepped out onto the driveway, now filled with the bulk of the car carrier. Max looked at it. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he said. “You stealing now in bunches? They ain’t grapes!”
“It was there,” Murch said. “I put the Continental on the back.”
Max went down along the side of the car carrier, looking at the automobiles in there. “In broad daylight,” he said. “You go talk to the customer.”
Murch shook his head. “I don’t talk to customers,” he said. “What I do, I drive.”
“So I see.” Max looked at the cars and the car carrier. “I’ll take them,” he said.
“Come around next week, we’ll talk money.”
Max pointed down the driveway. “You’ll put them around by the body shop,” he said.
“Have your people do it,” Murch said. “I’d rather not stick around.”
“What about the truck?”
Murch frowned at the truck. “What about it?”
“I don’t want it,” Max said. “You read the sign out front, it says used cars. I got no use for a truck.”
“Neither do I, Max.”
“Take it back where you got it.”
“I don’t want to drive it any more.”
“You can’t dump a stolen truck on me, Stanley, that isn’t a thing to do.”
“Take it someplace else tonight,” Murch told him. “Just park it out along the road. Have one of your people do it.”
“Why not keep it?” Max suggested. “You could drive around in it, every time you see a nice car just toss it in.”
Murch looked at the truck, considering the idea. It had a certain appeal. But finally he shook his head and said, “No, it wouldn’t be any good. Too noticeable.”
“Stan, if I got to unload this truck, it’s got to cost you.”
“Sure, Max, we’ll take ten bucks off.” Murch shrugged it away, and turned to go back to the used-car lot. Behind him, Max looked at the car carrier the way the dissatisfied customer had looked at Max. Then he shook his head, and followed Murch through the chain-link fence.
The customer wasn’t in the office. “Now what?” Max said. “I’ll tell you, he’s out front breaking windshields. We had one just last spring, came in, complained about all that stuff they always complain about, and first thing you know he’s got a wrench, he’s breaking windshields right and left. Terrible.”
“Terrible,” Murch agreed.
The two of them walked out the front door. Used cars were lined up on three sides of them, with placards in their windshields. Max pointed. “There he is! And who’s that with him?”
“That’s my friend Kelp,” Murch said.
Kelp and the customer were standing next to a dilapidated green Chevrolet. They were talking. The customer seemed less aggrieved than before. In fact, he chuckled at something Kelp said, and he didn’t seem to mind it when Kelp patted his arm.
“Ho ho,” Max said. He looked and sounded awed.
Kelp and the customer shook hands. The customer got into the green Chevrolet and started the engine. It sounded awful. Kelp waved to him and the customer waved back and drove off. Something under the car was scraping, causing an even worse noise than the engine and also causing sparks. The Chevrolet jounced down the driveway and went away.
Kelp came walking over, a cheerful smile on his face in the sunshine. “Hi, Stan,” he said.
“Mister Cheep,” Max said, “could you use a job?” “What? No, thanks, I’ve got something on the fire.” Murch said, “You wanted to talk to me?”
“Right. You want a lift somewhere?” “I left my car at a diner on Jericho Turnpike.” “I’ll take you there,” Kelp said.
Murch said so long to Max, who was still looking dazed, and went with Kelp to the car he had parked at the curb. It was a Mercedes, with MD plates. Murch said, “Still copping doctors’ cars, huh?”
“They got the best taste,” Kelp said. “Power steering, power seats, power everything. You never catch a doctor cranking his own window down. Get in.”
They got into the car, Murch pushing a paperback that was resting on the seat out of his way. Kelp started the engine, and they rolled away from the curb.
Murch said, “What’s the story?”
Kelp, pointing to the book on the seat between them, said. “That.”
Murch laughed politely.
“No, on the level,” Kelp said. “What I want you to do, I want you to read that book.” -
“Read a book?” Murch read the Daily News and several car magazines, but he didn’t read books.
“You’ll like it,” Kelp told him. “And I’ve got an idea that hooks up with it.”
Murch picked up the book. He would like it? Child Heist, by Richard Stark. “What’s it about?”
“About a crook,” Kelp said. “A crook named Parker. He’ll remind you of Dortmunder.”
“That sounds great,” Murch said, but without much enthusiasm. He riffled through the book: words on every page.
“You read it,” Kelp said. “Dortmunder’s reading it, too. And have your Mom read it. Then when everybody’s had a chance to go through the book, we’ll have a meeting.”
“Dortmunder’s in on this?”
“Sure,” Kelp said, casual and convincing. Murch}I opened the book, feeling the stirrings of curiosity.
When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, “Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on.”