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Nothing Short of Highway Robbery

Lawrence Block

  Nothing Short of Highway Robbery

  Lawrence Block

  Copyright © 2013, Lawrence Block

  All Rights Reserved

  A Lawrence Block Production

  I EASED UP on the gas pedal a few hundred yards ahead of the service station. I was putting the brakes on when my brother Newton opened his eyes and straightened up in his seat.

  “We haven’t got but a gallon of gas left if we got that much,” I told him. “And there’s nothing out ahead of us but a hundred miles of sand and a whole lot of cactus, and I already seen enough cactus to last me a spell.”

  He smothered a yawn with the back of his hand. “Guess I went and fell asleep,” he said.

  “Guess you did.”

  He yawned again while a fellow a few years older’n us came off of the front porch of the house and walked our way, moving slow, taking his time. He was wearing a broad-brimmed white hat against the sun and a pair of bib overalls. The house wasn’t much, a one-story clapboard structure with a flat roof. The garage alongside it must have been built at the same time and designed by the same man.

  He came around to my side and I told him to fill the tank. “Regular,” I said.

  He shook his head. “High-test is all I got,” he said. “That be all right?”

  I nodded and he went around the car and commenced unscrewing the gas cap. “Only carries high-test,” I said, not wildly happy about it.

  “It’ll burn as good as the regular, Vern.”

  “I guess I know that. I guess I know it’s another five cents a gallon or another dollar bill on a tankful of gas, and don’t you just bet that’s why he does it that way? Because what the hell can you do if you want regular? This bird’s the only game in town.”

  “Well, I don’t guess a dollar’ll break us, Vern.”

  I said I guessed not and I took a look around. The pump wasn’t so far to the rear that I couldn’t get a look at it, and when I did I saw the price per gallon, and it wasn’t just an extra nickel that old boy was taking from us. His high-test was priced a good twelve cents a gallon over everybody else’s high-test.

  I pointed this out to my brother and did some quick sums in my head. Twelve cents plus a nickel times, say, twenty gallons was three dollars and forty cents. I said, “Damn, Newton, you know how I hate being played for a fool.”

  “Well, maybe he’s got his higher costs and all. Being out in the middle of nowhere and all, little town like this.”

  “Town? Where’s the town at? Where we are ain’t nothing but a wide place in the road.”

  And that was really all it was. Not even a crossroads, just the frame house and the garage alongside it, and on the other side of the road a cafe with a sign advertising home-cooked food and package goods. A couple cars over by the garage, two of them with their hoods up and various parts missing from them. Another car parked over by the cafe.

  “Newt,” I said, “you ever see a softer place’n this?”

  “Don’t even think about it.”

  “Not thinking about a thing. Just mentioning.”

  “We don’t bother with nickels and dimes no more, Vernon. We agreed on that. By tonight we’ll be in Silver City. Johnny Mack Lee’s already there and first thing in the morning we’ll be taking that bank off slicker’n a bald tire. You know all that.”

  “I know.”

  “So don’t be exercising your mind over nickels and dimes.”

  “Oh, I know it,” I said. “Only we could use some kind of money pretty soon. What have we got left? Hundred dollars?”

  “Little better than that.”

  “Not much better, though.”

  “Well, tomorrow’s payday,” Newt said.

  I knew he was right but it’s a habit a man gets into, looking at a place and figuring how he would go about taking it off. Me and Newt, we always had a feeling for places like filling stations and liquor stores and 7-Eleven stores and like that. You just take ’em off nice and easy, you get in and get out and a man can make a living that way. Like the saying goes, it don’t pay much but it’s regular.

  But then the time came that we did a one-to-five over to the state pen and it was an education. We both of us came out of there knowing the right people and the right way to operate. One thing we swore was to swear off nickels and dimes. The man who pulls quick-dollar stickups like that, he works ten times as often and takes twenty times the risks of the man who takes his time setting up a big job and scoring it. I remember Johnny Mack Lee saying it takes no more work to knock over a bank than a bakery and the difference is dollars to doughnuts.

  I looked up and saw the dude with the hat poking around under the hood. “What’s he doing now, Newt? Prospecting for more gold?”

  “Checking the oil, I guess.”

  “Hope we don’t need none,” I said. “ ’Cause you just know he’s gotta be charging two dollars a quart for it.”

  Well, we didn’t need any oil. And you had to admit he did a good job of checking under there, topping up the battery terminals and all. Then he came around and leaned against the car door.

  “Oil’s okay,” he said. “You sure took a long drink of gas. Good you had enough to get here. And this here’s the last station for a whole lot of highway.”

  “Well,” I said. “How much do we owe you?”

  He named a figure. High as it was, it came as no surprise to me since I’d already turned and read it off of the pump. Then as I was reaching in my pocket he said, “I guess you know about that fan clutch, don’t you?”

  “Fan clutch?”

  He gave a long slow nod. “I suppose you got a few miles left in it,” he said. “Thing is, it could go any minute. You want to step out of the car for a moment I can show you what I’m talking about.”

  Well, I got out, and Newt got out his side, and we went and joined this bird and peeked under the hood. He reached behind the radiator and took ahold of some damned thing or other and showed us how it was wobbling. “The fan clutch,” he said. “You ever replace this here since you owned the car?”

  Newt looked at me and I looked back at him. All either of us ever knew about a car is starting it and stopping it and the like. As a boy Newt was awful good at starting them without keys. You know how kids are.

  “Now if this goes,” he went on, “then there goes your water pump. Probably do a good job on your radiator at the same time. You might want to wait and have your own mechanic take care of it for you. The way it is, though, I wouldn’t want to be driving too fast or too far with it. ‘Course if you hold it down to forty miles an hour and stop from time to time so’s the heat won’t build up—”

  His voice trailed off. Me and Newt looked at each other again. Newt asked some more about the fan clutch and the dude wobbled it again and told us more about what it did, which we pretended to pay attention to and nodded like it made sense to us.

  “This fan clutch,” Newt said. “What’s it run to replace it?”

  “Around thirty, thirty-five dollars. Depends on the model and who does the work for you, things like that.”

  “Take very long?”

  “Maybe twenty minutes.”

  “Could you do it for us?”

  The dude considered, cleared his throat, spat in the dirt. “Could,” he allowed. “If I got the part. Let me just go and check.”

  When he walked off I said, “Brother, what’s the odds that he’s got that part?”

  “No bet a-tall. You figure there’s something wrong with our fan clutch?”

  “Who knows?”

  “Yeah,” Newt said. “Can’t figure on him being a crook and just spending his life out here in the middle of nowhere, but then you got to consider the price he gets for
the gas and all. He hasn’t had a customer since we pulled in, you know. Maybe he gets one car a day and tries to make a living off it.”

  “So tell him what to do with his fan clutch.”

  “Then again, Vern, maybe all he is in the world is a good mechanic trying to do us a service. Suppose we cut out of here and fifty miles down the road our fan clutch up and kicks our water pump through our radiator or whatever the hell it is. By God, Vernon, if we don’t get to Silver City tonight Johnny Mack Lee’s going to be vexed with us.”

  “That’s a fact. But thirty-five dollars for a fan clutch sure eats a hole in our capital, and suppose we finally get to Silver City and find out Johnny Mack Lee got out the wrong side of bed and slipped on a banana peel or something? Meaning if we get there and there’s no job and we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, then what do we do?”

  “Well, I guess it’s better’n being stuck in the desert.”

  “I guess.”

  Of course he had just the part he needed. You had to wonder how a little gas station like that would happen to carry a full line of fan clutches, which I never even heard of that particular part before, but when I said as much to Newt he shrugged and said maybe an out-of-the-way place like that was likely to carry a big stock because he was too far from civilization to order parts when the need for them arose.

  “The thing is,” he said, “all up and down the line you can read all of this either way. Either we’re being taken or we’re being done a favor for, and there’s no way to know for sure.”

  While he set about doing whatever he had to do with the fan clutch, we took his advice and went across the street for some coffee. “Woman who runs the place is a pretty fair cook,” he said. “I take all my meals there my own self.”

  “Takes all his meals here,” I said to Newt. “Hell, she’s got him where he’s got us. He don’t want to eat here, he can walk sixty miles to a place more to his liking.”

  The car that had been parked at the cafe was gone now and we were the only customers. The woman in charge was too thin and rawboned to serve as an advertisement for her own cooking. She had her faded blonde hair tied up in a red kerchief and she was perched on a stool smoking a cigarette and studying a True Confessions magazine. We each of us ordered apple pie at a dollar a wedge and coffee at thirty-five cents a cup. While we were eating a car pulled up and a man wearing a suit and tie bought a pack of cigarettes from her. He put down a dollar bill and didn’t get back but two dimes change.

  “I think I know why that old boy across the street charges so much,” Newt said softly. “He needs to get top dollar if he’s gonna pay for his meals here.”

  “She does charge the earth.”

  “You happen to note the liquor prices? She gets seven dollars for a bottle of Ancient Age bourbon. And that’s not for a quart, either. That’s for a fifth.”

  I nodded slowly. I said, “I just wonder where they keep all that money.”

  “Brother, we don’t even want to think on that.”

  “Never hurt a man to think.”

  “These days it’s all credit cards anyways. The tourist trade is nothing but credit cards and his regular customers most likely run a monthly tab and give him a check for it.”

  “We’ll be paying cash.”

  “Well, it’s a bit hard to establish credit in our line of work.”

  “Must be other people pays him cash. And the food and liquor over here, that’s gotta be all cash, or most all cash.”

  “And how much does it generally come to in a day? Be sensible. As little business as they’re doing—”

  “I already thought of that. Same time, though, look how far they are from wherever they do their banking.”


  “So they wouldn’t be banking the day’s receipts every night. More likely they drive in and make their deposits once a week, maybe even once every two weeks.”

  Newt thought about that. “Likely you’re right,” he allowed. “Still, we’re just talking small change.”

  “Oh, I know.”

  But when we paid for our pie and coffee Newton gave the old girl a smile and told her how we sure had enjoyed the pie, which we hadn’t all that much, and how her husband was doing a real good job on our car over across the street.

  “Oh, he does real good work,” she said.

  “What he’s doing for us,” Newt said, “he’s replacing our fan clutch. I guess you probably get a lot of people here needing new fan clutches.”

  “I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. “Thing is I don’t know much about cars. He’s the mechanic and I’m the cook is how we divvy things up.”

  “Sounds like a good system,” Newt told her.

  ON THE WAY across the street Newt separated two twenties from our bankroll and tucked them into his shirt pocket. Then I reminded him about the gas and he added a third twenty. He gave the rest of our stake a quick count and shook his head in annoyance. “We’re getting pretty close to the bone,” he said. “Johnny Mack Lee better be where’s he’s supposed to be.”

  “He’s always been reliable.”

  “That’s God’s truth. And the bank, it better be the piece of cake he says it is.”

  “I just hope.”

  “Twenty thousand a man is how he has it figured. Plus he says it could run three times that. I sure wouldn’t complain if it did, brother.”

  I said I wouldn’t either. “It does make it silly to even think about nickels and dimes,” I said.

  “Just what I was telling you.”

  “I was never thinking about it, really. Not in the sense of doing it. Just mental exercise, keeps the brain in order.”

  He gave me a brotherly punch in the shoulder and we laughed together some. Then we went on to where the dude in the big hat was playing with our car. He gave us a big smile and held out a piece of metal for us to admire. “Your old fan clutch,” he said, which I had more or less figured. “Take hold of this part. That’s it, right there. Now try to turn it.”

  I tried to turn it and it was hard to turn. He had Newt do the same thing. “Tight,” Newt said.

  “Lucky you got this far with it,” he said, and clucked his tongue and shook his head and heaved the old fan clutch onto a heap of old metallic junk.

  I stood there wondering if a fan clutch was supposed to turn hard or easy or not at all, and if that was our original fan clutch or a piece of junk he kept around for this particular purpose, and I knew my brother Newton was wondering just the same thing. I wished they could have taught us something useful in the state pen, something that might have come in handy in later life, something like your basic auto mechanics course. But they had me melting my flesh off my bones in the prison laundry and they had Newt sewing mail sacks, which there isn’t much call for in civilian life, being the state penal system has an official monopoly on the business.

  Meanwhile Newt had the three twenties out of his shirt pocket and was standing there straightening them out and lining up their edges. “Let’s see now,” he said. “That’s sixteen and change for the gas, and you said thirty to thirty-five for the fan clutch, so what’s that all come to?”

  It turned out that it came to just under eighty-five dollars.

  The fan clutch, it seemed, had run higher than he’d thought it would. Forty-two fifty was what it came to, and that was for the part exclusive of labor. Labor tacked another twelve dollars onto our tab. And while he’d been working there under the hood, our friend had found a few things that simply needed attending to. Our fan belt, for example, was clearly on its last legs and ready to pop any minute. He showed it to us and you could see how worn it was, all frayed and just a thread or two away from popping.

  So he had replaced it, and he’d replaced our radiator hoses at the same time. He fished around in his junkpile and came up with a pair of radiator hoses which he said had come off our car. The rubber was old and stiff with little cracks in the surface, and it sure smelled like something awful.

  I studie
d the hoses and agreed they were in terrible shape. “So you just went ahead and replaced them on your own,” I said.

  “Well,” he said, “I didn’t want to bother you while you were eating.”

  “That was considerate,” Newt said.

  “I figured you fellows would want it seen to. You blow a fan belt or a hose out there, well, it’s a long walk back, you know. ‘Course I realize you didn’t authorize me to do the work, so if you actually want me to take the new ones off and put the old back on—”

  Of course there was no question of doing that. Newt looked at me for a minute and I looked back at him and he took out our roll, which I don’t guess you could call a roll anymore from the size of it, and he peeled off another twenty and a ten and added them to the three twenties from his shirt pocket. He held the money in his hand and looked at it and then at the dude, then back at the money, then back at the dude again. You could see he was doing heavy thinking, and I had an idea where his thoughts were leading.

  Finally he took in a whole lot of air and let it out in a rush and said, “Well, hell, I guess it’s worth it if it leaves us with a car in good condition. Last thing either of us wants is any damn trouble with the damn car and I guess it’s worth it. This fixes us up, right? Now we’re in good shape with nothing to worry about, right?”

  “Well,” the dude said.

  We looked at him.

  “There is a thing I noticed.”


  “If you’ll just look right here,” he said. “See how the rubber grommet’s gone on the top of your shock absorber mounting, that’s what called it to my attention. Now you see your car’s right above the hydraulic lift, that’s cause I had it up before to take a look at your shocks. Now let me just raise it up again and I can point out to you what’s wrong.”

  Well, he pressed a switch or some such to send the car up off the ground, and then he pointed here and there underneath it to show us where the shocks were shot and something was cutting into something else and about to commence bending the frame.

  “If you got the time you ought to let me take care of that for you,” he said. “Because if you don’t get it seen to you wind up with frame damage and your whole front end goes on you, and then where are you?”