Late Monday morning, in the dusty parking lot of Inman Yard, Stuart walked casually past several parked vehicles until he came upon the light blue 1960 Corvette. It wasn’t hard to spot, as it stuck out a little, parked there amongst older sedans, station wagons and some well-worn pickup trucks of the other railyard workers. It sat, top down, basking in the hot Atlanta sunshine, the black and gold New York license plate also distinguishing it from the varied red and white Georgia plates that adorned other cars.
Stuart stepped around the car, looking curious and admiring now that he could see it in the daylight. Although not brand new itself, it was the newest car amongst its parking mates, yet it had as many miles, if not more than most of the vehicles in the lot. Almost 65,000 to be exact.
Stuart stepped away from the car and frowned. The high mileage only added to his mild curiosity about the car and the two young men he knew that accompanied it. He dug into the pocket of his short sleeve shirt for his cigarettes, slipping one out of the box and paused a moment to light it. The car otherwise appeared well cared for and would fetch a good price. The odometer could be rolled back, he concluded. Nobody would know any different.
In the distance, he heard the blast of a train horn and the metallic squealing of rail cars rolling along tracks. He didn’t need to linger any longer. If the boys were working, they would probably be in Atlanta for a while and he figured he would see them again at the club on Thursday. Taking a drag on his cigarette, he left the parking lot.
Before noon, he returned to The King and went to Silas Doyle’s private office. After entering he took a seat in one of the Victorian style chairs and helped himself to a starlight mint from a tray on the desk. “I found that Corvette.”
“Good,” Silas said, closing his ledger book. “Where?”
“The freight yard.”
Silas looked up. “The freight yard?”
“Apparently that’s where those boys work.”
Silas frowned and shook his head, not even bothering to try to figure that out. “Is it worth it?”
“Oh yeah, it’s worth it. It’s in a good shape, would fetch a very nice price.”
“What year is it?”
“It’s either a ’59 or a ’60. We’ll be able to tell once we have it.”
Silas nodded. “Good. You said that car’s been here two weeks in a row now?”
“Yeah. I think Diane likes one of them, I’m just not sure which one yet.”
Silas gave a caustic chuckle. “What makes you say that?”
“She lingers longer at their table when she sings to the customers near the stage.”
“Any idea which one owns the car?”
“The name on the registration card is Tod Stiles. I think that’s the blond.”
“Then setting him up shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Nope. As long as he keeps coming back.”
“Well, you just tell Diane to make sure she does whatever it takes to keep him coming back. Whether she likes him or not.”
After her Friday night show, Diane came out to the lounge and to the bar. She saw Tod approaching and for the first time she had mixed feelings. He was the new target so she had to turn on all the charms, but she found she didn’t have to fake it as much for him – clearly a bad sign.
She obliged the few autograph seekers and then turned her attention to Tod and smiled. “Back again?” she said as she slid up on a bar stool.
“Back again,” he replied, sitting next to her. “That surprise you?”
“No. But there’s a lot of nightclubs in Atlanta. I figured handsome new comers like you and your friend would want to see all the variety in a new town.”
Tod shrugged. “I dunno, this place seems to have some pretty good variety.” He slipped his pack of cigarettes from inside his shirt pocket and shook it, bringing a couple of cigarettes up out of the pack. He offered Diane one.
She took it and he followed up smoothly with a match lit for her. She took a drag on the cigarette and carefully blew smoke away from Tod, sliding an ashtray on the bar closer.
After lighting one for himself, Tod looked toward the bartender and waved him over. “A drink for the lady, whatever she’d like.”
Diane smiled. “My usual, Jerry.”
“Sure thing.” He left to get the drink.
“So tell me,” she said, “What brought you to Atlanta?”
“Originally we were just passing through,” Tod said. “But the car broke down and while we were waiting for it to be fixed we decided to stay awhile.”
“Well, I’m glad you did. You may think there’s variety here but for me, it’s the same old crowd.” Jerry returned with her scotch and water. She glanced at the drink and then looked at Tod. “I could get used to having someone like you buy my drinks.”
“I’d like to buy you more than just a drink. Perhaps dinner?”
She smiled. “I’d like that.”
Across the lounge, Stuart watched Diane and Tod. He could see enough to know that the young man’s Corvette was as good as in the warehouse right now.
On Wednesday the rains came but stopped by the time Tod picked up Diane at her apartment. The top was up on the Corvette and the evening air was warm and still damp but did nothing to damper Tod’s spirits. He wore a silly grin on his face the whole drive.
Diane, meanwhile, felt the humid air pressing on her along with her apprehension about this set up. She waited just outside the main entrance of her apartment building, watching for when Tod pulled up, dressed in a simple dark green short sleeved cocktail dress with a matching shawl. Her heart fluttered when the Corvette pulled up to a stop.
It fluttered again, much to her surprise, when she saw Tod step out of the car wearing dark slacks and a plaid sport coat. She pushed her apprehension aside, settled into her business mode and walked toward him and the car.
“Hi,” he greeted with a smile.
“Hello fresh air,” she replied, smiling back. Tod chuckled and opened the passenger door for her. She stepped into the car and he closed the door. A moment later he returned to behind the wheel and they drove away.
Diane picked the restaurant, one that featured French cuisine, near Buckhead and she directed Tod as to how to get there. Once there, they were seated at a table for two and presented menus. Diane watched with some surprise as Tod selected a wine from the menu for the both of them, could pronounce the French name for it and ordered it with ease.
After the waiter dashed off to get the drinks, Tod looked at Diane and saw her peculiar expression. “What?” he asked with genuine innocence.
“You really work in a freight yard?”
Tod chuckled. “Yes. What, a railroad worker can’t enjoy a fine French wine?”
“Not around here usually. C’mon….” She leaned forward a little. “You’re some rich kid from some old New England family and you got all kinds of money you don’t know what to do with so you’ve come south to see how the other half lives to keep you humble is that it?”
Tod lowered his gaze, mildly offended. “No,” he said. He looked at Diane again. “I am from New England originally, Connecticut, and I used to be rich.”
“Used to be?”
“Used to be.” Tod paused. “My dad had a shipping company in New York. I worked for him, in between school semesters and would have joined the company permanently once I finished at Yale. Only that never happened. My dad got sick, the company started to have financial problems and then…he died. I didn’t go back to Yale because I spent the next year navigating the bankruptcy court in New York, liquidating not only every asset of the business but also family assets to pay off the creditors. When it was all over, I broke even. I at least walked away with a clean slate. But all I had left were some personal belongings and my car. As for humble, believe me I had pretty big slice of that pie during those 12 odd months. Working this freight yard job, along with the other jobs Buz and I have done over the past year or so, has been a privilege.”
Diane leaned back. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Tod shook his head. “How were you to know?”
“I drew a conclusion about you, a wrong one. It was just, I couldn’t reconcile you sitting there, very polished and poised, ordering a French wine that I can’t even pronounce, and yet you work some job in a freight yard. What do you do at the freight yard?”
“I work in dispatch, keeping track of what’s coming and going for freight pickup.”
“And your friend?”
“He works in the yard, unloading the containers from the trains to the trucks that come to pick them up.”
“And your father’s business was shipping and transport?”
Tod nodded with a half-smile. “Yeah. You could say Buz and I had a lot of previous experience.”
The conversation paused as the waiter returned with the wine and poured a glass each for Tod and Diane. Tod raised the glass and sniffed and then took a sip. He nodded to the waiter. “Excellent.”
The waiter smiled. “Very good, sir. Are you ready to order now or do you need a few more minutes?”
“If we could have a couple more minutes,” Diane said.
“Certainly. I’ll be back.” The waiter exited.
Tod lifted his wine glass to Diane. “Here’s to being humble.”
Diane raised her glass and the two lightly tapped. There was a tinge of guilt and Diane lowered her gaze as she drank to the toast. Humble, indeed…
During dinner, Tod talked about a few of the places he and Buz had been so far. Diane encouraged him on, asking questions about what they’d done and who they’d met. It kept her mind off the whole point of this date, but only made her pending job that much more difficult as she enjoyed his stories and realized she really did like him.
“What about you?” Tod asked when they finished dinner and were concluding the meal with a cup of coffee. “I’ve talked enough about me, now I want to know about you.”
Diane shrugged. “There’s not much to tell, certainly not anything as exciting as what you’ve been doing for the past couple of years.”
“Are you from Atlanta?”
“No…I’m from Savannah originally. I came to Atlanta when I was 18, right after high school, to pursue my singing career.”
“Which was, what, a year ago?” Tod asked, implying she didn’t look very old.
Diane chuckled. “More like 10 years ago.”
“Really? You seem to be doing pretty well, headlining at The King, pulling in a good crowd.”
“Yeah, it’s been…good,” she said, not quite convincingly. “But I can’t headline at a small jazz club in Atlanta forever though. Not if I’m ever going to make it to Vegas and be the next Mitzi Gaynor.” She shrugged. “But I can’t complain.”
“Mitzi Gaynor,” Tod said with a grin. “You dance?”
“I…used to. Small jazz club doesn’t lend to a song and dance show.”
“What about recording an album?”
“Oh I’d love to Tod,” she said wistfully. “I’d love to make a record.”
“Why haven’t you?”
She looked at Tod and then lowered her gaze. She shrugged. “Just…hasn’t happened.”
Tod sensed there was a mixed bag behind her answer. He didn’t press it though and instead offered an encouraging smile. “Well, I hope someday you do get to record an album. And make it to Vegas. And give Mitzi Gaynor a run for her money.”
Diane gave a half smile. Tod picked up the check presenter and looked it over. He then figured up the tip amount in his head and added it to the check and totaled it.
“If you’ll excuse me, Tod, I’m going to go to the powder room,” Diane said, gathering up her purse and shawl. “I’ll meet you outside.”
As Diane headed away from the table, she felt guilty and she cursed herself for it. This was business. This was the same set up she’d done dozens of times before to help rip off expensive cars from men who had been obnoxious, rude, over bearing and bragging about their business dealings, their exploits, their conquests and above all, themselves. Tod Stiles was none of these men. The freckle faced kid already had the rug pulled out from under him when he lost his father and the family fortune. Why add a slap in the face to it?
In the hallway to the rest rooms there was a payphone. Diane checked to make sure she was out of sight of Tod and then picked up the phone, dropped her dime in and dialed. Stuart answered after one ring.
“Hi,” she said. “We’re leaving now.”
“Ok. Me n’ the boys will be there waiting. Nice job.”
Stuart noticed her tone was much different this time. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Let’s just get this over with.” She hung up. She paused as the change jingled in the payphone and she put her game face back on. She walked away from the phone and went to the ladies room.
A few minutes later, she returned to the entrance of the restaurant where Tod was waiting. She managed a smile as she hooked her arm with his and they walked out to the parking lot.
Once in his car, they drove back to her apartment. Tod pulled to the curb and shut the motor down. There was an awkward pause as Diane forced herself to play the game. “I had a nice time tonight,” she said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Maybe…we can do this again?”
Diane nodded. “Yeah…” No, there would be no next time. “Listen, I’m sorry I wasn’t very chatty tonight though.”
Tod chuckled. “I think I more than made up for it.”
Diane smiled and it was mostly genuine. But it only reminded her of the figurative knife she was about to stab into Tod’s back. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately,” she said. “It wasn’t fair to you. Um, why don’t you come up and let me fix you nightcap?”
Tod considered it a moment and then nodded. “Sure.” He got out of the car and went around to open the passenger door for Diane. She went to hand him her shawl and a thread snagged on her diamond tennis bracelet, causing the clasp to release. The jewelry fell somewhere between the seat and the center console.
“Oh I just lost my bracelet…” She took Tod’s hand and stepped out of the car. “That damn clasp, that’s the second time that’s happened to me this week.”
“I’ll see if I can find it…” Tod opened the glove box and took out a flashlight. He shined the light around the floor but the batteries were weakening. He felt around under the seat but wasn’t finding anything. “It probably went down between the seat and the console,” he said. He clicked the fading light off and returned it to the glove box. He closed the passenger door and turned to Diane.
“I’ll find it for you tomorrow, I’ll bring it to the club.”
“Ok. Thanks, Tod. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, don’t be. I’d be coming to see you perform anyway.” He smiled and took her gently by the arm and they walked to the front door of her apartment building.
Parked across the street, Stuart and two other men watched from a pickup truck. Once the front door of the building closed, Stuart paused for only a few beats before moving. “Let’s go…” The three men exited the truck and moved quickly across the street. Stuart and one of the men went to the car while the third man went up the block to act as a lookout.
Stuart pulled the door latch first, on the off chance the car was unlocked. It wasn’t.
The other man held up a baseball bat. “Stand back, I’ll bust it open for ya.”
“No,” Stuart said. “Give me that slim jim.”
“Oh not that stupid thing.” The man put his baseball bat down and pulled the thin metal tool out of the duffle bag he was carrying. He handed it to Stuart.
“Beats a wire coat hanger,” Stuart said. He slipped the thin metal in between the window and the door, near the door lock.
“Which doesn’t beat a brick. The time you spend dickering with that thing is time wasted.”
“But not money wasted. If we bust the window, Donnie, then we have to replace it and that eats into the profit.”
“How many cars you boosted with that thing?” Donnie asked.
“Three so far. It takes some practice. The more I use it the faster I’m going to get with it. Now shut up and let me work this thing…”
Up in Diane’s apartment, Tod casually wandered around the living room, noting the books on the bookshelf and the furnishings. The lighting was warm and the place was nice, upscale, about what he would have expected for her. Diane was in the corner, at her mini bar, preparing two drinks. She then brought the drinks around from the bar. “Here we go…” she said. She met Tod half way across the living room and handed a glass to him.
She smiled. “My pleasure. Here, sit down…” She gestured to her sofa and the two of them sat down.
Down on the street, the third man who was acting as lookout, gave a shrill whistle. A car was coming upon the intersection. Stuart slipped the slim jim out of the door and he and Donnie hurried away from the car and on to the side walk, appearing like they were just walking along.
The car passed them and turned down another street. Stuart and Donnie spun around and went back to the Corvette.
“Forget that thing,” Donnie said, grabbing Stuart’s hand that held the slim jim. “Let’s just bust the window and get out of here.”
“You don’t care much for expense do you?”
“I don’t care to get caught.” He directed Stuart to stand aside and winded up with the baseball bat. In one quick, brutal swing, the window smashed. Donnie knocked some of the jagged glass away and reached in, unlocking the door. He opened it and Stuart stepped forward, tossing the slim jim on to the passenger seat and then brushing the shards of glass off the driver seat. He then crouched to reach under the dash to hot wire the car.
The car was started and running in short order. “Ok, go!” Stuart said, getting behind the wheel. Donnie signaled to the third man and turned to return to the pickup truck. Stuart closed the door of the Corvette and pulled away from the curb in a hurry. A moment later the pickup truck swung around and followed.
It was about thirty minutes later when Tod finished his drink and bid goodnight to Diane, leaving her with a kiss on the hand. After he left, Diane went to her window and looked down to the street below. She could see where the Corvette had been parked, and the tiny sparkles of glass that remained on the street. A few moments later, she saw Tod walk up the sidewalk and then slow when he reached the spot. There was the slump of shoulders and the disbelieving look up one end of the street and down the other. He spotted the broken glass and squatted down to check it before straightening up again and turning back to the apartment building.
Diane could have timed it, having done this routine a few times now. She moved away from her window and stood in the middle of the apartment, anticipating his return and pushing the guilty feeling aside. She was ready when he knocked.
What she wasn’t ready for was the devastated look on his face when she opened the door.
“I need to use your phone,” he said. “Somebody stole my car…”
“Oh Tod…” she opened the door and let him in. “I’m so sorry…”
It was a couple hours later when Tod finally returned to the boarding house in a cab. He paid the cab fare and told the driver to keep the change. He exited the cab and headed up the stairs to the porch of the house, his steps slow and exhausted.
The theft of the Corvette felt like a piece of himself had been stolen too. He tried to remind himself as he entered the house that it was a just a car, but the problem with that was for him, it wasn’t just a car. It was the last connection he had to his father, somebody taken much too soon from Tod’s young life.
Upstairs, Tod tried to open the old wooden door of the room he shared with Buz quietly but the heat of the Atlanta summer made that impossible. Even at 2 a.m., it was muggy enough for the door and frame both to protest at being opened, answering back with a crack.
The noise rustled Buz from his sleep. He listened, hearing the old floor creak at Tod’s arrival and the door was shut again. A moment later the small lamp on the table on Tod’s side of the room was clicked on, giving enough light to Tod to maneuver around without disturbing his buddy’s sleep. If Buz had still been asleep.
Buz opened his eyes and looked at the alarm clock on his nightstand, seeing it was after 2 a.m. He grinned and turned over to look at Tod.
“You’re past your curfew, junior.”
Tod was sitting on his bed, removing his shoes. He sighed and looked back at Buz, who was topless under the sheet and had a big grin on his face.
Tod shook his head. “I wish it was for a good reason.”
Buz’s smile faded. “What happened?”
“The car was stolen.” Tod stood up, slipping his sport coat off and loosening his tie. “I’ve spent the past couple hours at the police station.”
“Stolen?” Buz sat up. “When?”
“Sometime while I was at Diane’s place for a nightcap. Whoever it was they brute force took it, there was broken glass all over the road.”
Buz frowned and watched Tod head for the washroom, seeing his buddy’s defeated posture. He knew how much that car meant to him. “Tod, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Tod answered from the washroom. “Hey, it’s just a car right?”
“Wrong. At least, not for you it’s not just a car. I know that.”
“Yeah. That’s what I get for being a sentimental slob.”
“What’d the cops say? They have any ideas?”
“What do you think?”
Buz nodded to himself. He figured as much. “Yeah, I hear ya,” he said. “So what are we going to do?”
“We’ll have to get another car. We can take a cab to the railyard for now but we gotta have wheels.”
Buz nodded. “Ok. We got enough?”
“Yeah.” Tod gave a snort. “As long as it’s inexpensive. Maybe we can finance something, not take a big chunk out of what we’ve saved up.”
There was a long pause as Tod finished changing into pajama bottoms and a t-shirt and then reemerged from the bathroom again. He was too wound up to sleep so instead he took a cigarette from the pack off his nightstand and lit up.
Buz watched him. “Well, besides the car, how was your date with the lovely Miss Lovely?”
Tod shrugged. “Ok.” He carried the ashtray over to the chair by the open window putting it down on the sill and sitting down. “Turns out Lovely is a stage name. Her real name is Diane Svenson.”
“The date was ‘ok’? That’s it?”
Tod took a drag and shook his head. “She’s a nice girl, she just seemed preoccupied by something. I couldn’t really get her to talk much.”
“And you rambled on.”
Tod snorted. “Yeah…” He gazed out the window to the darkened neighborhood.
And he likes her. A lot. Buz could tell. The stolen Corvette weighed on his buddy’s mind, but obviously there was a part of him pondering the possibilities with Diane. Tod didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. Buz knew. And he let his buddy have the silence of the night to ponder the thoughts.