At the King nightclub, Diane approached the closed door of Doyle’s office, hesitating a moment before knocking.

Doyle called for his visitor to enter. He turned toward Diane as she came in and he smiled. “Ah, Diane…” He stepped to her and kissed her on the cheek. “You look stunning as always.”

She gave him a small smile for thanks.

“You did very well the other night,” he said, turning back to his desk. He picked up an envelope. “I couldn’t do this without you, you know…” He turned back to her and handed the envelope to her.

She accepted it wordlessly.

He studied her a moment. “Stuart told me that you seemed to have a problem with this job though.”

“No. No problem.”

“Oh come now. You’re an open book, Diane. Even I can read it. The young man got to you.”

She gave a small shrug. “What of it? You got the car.”

“Yes. Like I said, I couldn’t do this without you.”

“Is that all I’m good for around here? Bait? If I’m such an open book, how come you don’t bother to read the other chapters?”

“Oh but I do,” he said. “I know what you want, what you wish and desire more than anything. And I promise you, you’ll have it. Record contracts, TV shows. Darling, you’ll make us millions. But these things take time.”

“How much time? How many more years? How many more cars do I have to help steal?”

Doyle leaned to her to kiss her and she turned away from him. He grabbed her face forcefully and turned her to face him.

The light was gone in his eyes. “Until I say when. Until I say enough. And until then, you’ll continue to do as I say or else I will break you…” He held her face a moment longer and then let her go. “Now…I have a job for you to do…”

After 4pm, Tod had the Bel Air out on the track. The V8 coup reached 80 miles an hour with ease and Tod pushed it further, watching the RPMs and the speedometer.

He had looked over the engine prior to the run and checked the plugs, lines and fluid levels. Otherwise, he changed nothing, figuring to establish a baseline and see how the car handled completely stock.

From the pit road wall, Buz watched the car and as the Bel Air was coming out of turn four, he saw Tod wave. Buz held the stop watch ready to clock as soon as Tod crossed the starting line.

Buz clicked the watch when the Bel Air passed. The Chevy eased into turn one and went up along the embankment, cruising around to the back stretch.

There were several cars on the track and most of them passed Tod easily enough. There was an audience of other drivers and crews and even a few people in the grandstands to watch. Buz wasn’t the only one watching the blue Bel Air. Up in the stands a man in a suit and tie, with a fedora hat and wayfarer sunglasses was watching too.

Buz kept an eye on the Bel Air through the back stretch and then into turns three and four. As soon as the car hit the start/finish line, he clicked the stop watch. He scribbled the time down on the notepad.

Tod did a few more laps and Buz timed him on a couple more. Tod then brought the car in off the track and back into the garage area.

After he stepped from the car, Buz handed him the times that had been clocked. Tod made a face.

“Car seemed kind of poky out there,” Buz said.

“It was. I could push a hundred but that’s about it. If I’m going to keep up with the rest of the field, I’m going to have to do some work, see if I can get some more speed out of it.”

“You’re also going to need a roll cage,” another voice said.

Tod and Buz looked to see Donnie standing by the back of the car. They didn’t know him and at that moment at least, he wasn’t sure of them. He looked the car over. “You got the wrong tires too.”

“Yeah, we got a lot of work to do,” Tod said. “We just bought the car this morning.”

“I’m Donnie Gaulin.” He put his hand out to Tod.

“Tod Stiles,” Tod replied, shaking hands. “This is Buz Murdock.”

Donnie nodded and shook hands with Buz. “You boys ever raced before?”

Buz pointed to Tod. “He has.”

Donnie looked at Tod. “Where?”

“Up north and out west. Formula racing mostly. I’ll admit the stock car racing is going to be different.”

Donnie raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never raced stock cars before?”

Tod shook his head.

“And you’re entering the Skull Cracker for your first race? You two guys gotta be crazy.”

Buz grinned. “It’s all about the experience.”

If Donnie thought the two were crazy, Harold Jepson was just as surprised when Tod and Buz returned to his lot just before closing with a request.

“We were wondering if we could use one of your garage stalls to work on the car,” Tod asked.

“What’s wrong with the car? I can have Tommy look at it for you.”

Tod shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with the car, except it’s not fast enough to qualify for that race in two weeks.”

“Race?”

“The Skull Cracker 125,” Buz said with a grin. “Tod’s gonna enter and try to blow everybody’s doors off.”

Jepson wasn’t smiling. “That’s not funny. You two have got to be kidding, that’s no gentlemen’s race.”

“Well, we’re not exactly feeling like gentlemen,” Buz said. “Since this Doyle cat owns the car dealership we last saw the Vette at, and he sponsors this race, we figure it’s a way for us to ask him for the car back. Gentlemanly, of course.”

“Besides, top prize is $5000 if I win,” Tod said.

If you win,” Jepson said. “Even though it’s advertised as an amateur race it’s really not for amateurs! I’ve heard those boys can be rough.”

“Tod’s not exactly an amateur,” Buz said. “And we’re not looking to win anyway, just to get a line on Doyle and try to find the Corvette.”

Jepson studied the two young men a moment and just shook his head. “I think you’re crazy. But yeah, go ahead and use one of the stalls.”

“Thanks. And we’ll pay for parts,” Tod said. “Buz and I will have to do most of the work at night, when we get off shift at the freight yard. Will that be a problem?”

Jepson shook his head. “Each stall door has a lock, I can leave the key with you. You can stay as late as you need.”

Tod nodded. “Great. Thanks, Mr. Jepson.”

At the King nightclub, Donnie eased through the lounge area, nearly full to capacity with a Saturday night crowd listening to Diane sing her songs. He found Stuart at a back table and sat down across from him.

Stuart kept his eyes on Diane until Donnie spoke.

“Tod Stiles has entered the Skull Cracker race.”

The young car thief’s attention was grabbed instantly. “What?”

Donnie nodded. “Stiles is running a car in the Skull Cracker.”

“What car?”

“He’s got a Bel Air. He and his buddy were at the track this afternoon. He ran a test run, completely stock.”

“You sure it’s Stiles?”

“It’s him. I talked to him.”

“He race before?”

“Yeah, open wheel racing out west.”

Stuart paused in thought, taking a drink.

“These two already tried to cause trouble at the dealership,” Donnie said. “It’s no coincidence they’re showing up now for the race.”

“So? Let ‘em race. I suspect these two are so far out of their league anyway. We’ll keep an eye on them and take care of them when Silas says so.” He put his hand up and waved a waitress over. “Now, why don’t you order a drink and calm your nerves.”

Back at the boarding house, as the sun was pulling a dark orange blanket over the early evening sky, Mrs. Gebhardt came to her front door and looked out onto her porch. Sitting in one of the wicker chairs, smoking a cigarette was Tod, who looked like he was in another world somewhere as he stared off into the dusk shadowed distance.

She opened the screen door and stepped out. “Tod?”

Broke from his thoughts, Tod looked her way and smiled. “Evening Mrs. Gebhardt.”

“It is nice evening to be out here,” she said. “Where’s Buz?”

“Oh he’s out gallivanting.”

“You didn’t go with him?”

“No. Didn’t really feel like it after everything today.”

“You should have gone. You need to have some fun.”

“Yeah, that’s what Buz said but…” Tod shook his head. “I just didn’t feel like going. Besides, he’s going to be spending the next several nights with me working on getting the car ready for a race, I suppose I can let him have a night off for himself.”

“Race? What race? Your new car?”

Tod nodded. “There’s an amateur race in a couple of weeks.”

“What the devil you doing that for?”

Tod grinned. “Well, because I like to race and I’ve never done stock car racing. And the race is sponsored by the guy we think stole the Corvette.”

Mrs. Gebhardt gasped. “What? You do? Who?”

“Silas Doyle. Ever heard of him?”

“Doyle… yes, I see his ads in the newspaper for his car dealerships. You think he stole your car?”

“We think it was somebody who works for him, yeah. Buz and I didn’t get the chance to tell you all what happened this morning when we went looking for a car….”

Tod told Mrs. Gebhardt about spotting the Corvette at Doyle’s dealership and what happened when they confronted the salesman about the car, and then how the car was gone when they went back with a police officer in tow.

“Oh my,” Mrs. Gebhardt said and shook her head. “That’s terrible. And for that officer to not even believe you.”

“Well, he could only believe what he could see at that point, but a little benefit of the doubt would have been nice.” Tod paused to take a drag on his cigarette. “After that display this morning I don’t think the Atlanta police are all that worried about finding my car anyway,” he said.

“On the contrary Mr. Stiles,” said a voice from the sidewalk in front of the house. “The Atlanta police department is very interested in getting your car back.”

Tod and Mrs. Gebhardt looked toward the sidewalk and the man who had spoken stepped forward down the walkway to the porch. He was a thin man in a lightweight suit and a fedora hat. “I’m Captain David McGrath,” he said as he came up the steps, digging into his suit jacket and removing his badge holder. He flipped it open for them to see.

Mrs. Gebhardt looked at Tod, whose expression was neutral.

“I couldn’t help but overhear as I was coming up the sidewalk,” McGrath continued, removing his hat, revealing a balding head, “that you think Silas Doyle had something to do with the theft of your vehicle.”

Tod said nothing.

“I’m also aware of what happened this morning at Mr. Doyle’s dealership. I read the report from Officer Frank O’Donnell. The car, of course, was not observed by him as being on the lot.”

“It was on the lot,” Tod said. “Buz and I saw it. It was gone by the time we went back with Officer O’Donnell.”

McGrath nodded. “Yes, a very likely scenario.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“On the contrary, Mr. Stiles, I do believe you.”

Tod should have been glad to hear that, but instead he just looked at the police captain with more suspicion.

“I do,” McGrath said.

“Then where’s my car?”

“That I don’t know. But if you’ll have some patience and allow the police to do their work, I think the odds are pretty good we’ll recover your car.”

The doubt was obvious in Tod’s green eyes. He took a drag on his cigarette.

“I saw you at the track today,” McGrath continued. “You race stock cars, Mr. Stiles?”

“I’m going to try it. Do you?”

McGrath smiled. “I was merely there as a spectator. You’re entering Mr. Doyle’s race?”

“I am.”

“I’ve heard that’s a rough race.”

“Yeah, I’ve been told that too.”

“Some guys have gotten hurt pretty bad in that race. Ended their race careers before they even had a chance to start them.”

“Captain, is there something you want to tell me? Because the tap dancing is getting a little old.”

McGrath’s expression hardened a little. “Mr. Stiles, you and your friend are out of your league when it comes to Silas Doyle. If you think you’re going to be able to get your car back on your own somehow, I strongly suggest that you abandon any such thoughts.”

“Are you telling me this as an honest policeman or is this a second hand message from Doyle himself?”

McGrath bristled. “I am an honest policeman, Mr. Stiles, who is more aware of the situation than you are.  For your own safety I’m advising you to not pursue trying to recover the car yourself. Let the Atlanta police department do it.”

“I never said I was going to try to get the car back,” Tod said and stood up from the wicker chair. “All I said was I’m entering an auto race that’s sponsored by the guy that I think stole my car.”

“Mr. Stiles, let’s not fool ourselves. Why else would you enter into a competition for a class of auto racing that you’ve never done before?”

“For the challenge,” Tod said and grinned. “See, I like a challenge, I like to try new things. That’s what Buz and I do. And we never back down from a challenge either, Captain. So, I appreciate your concern about the risk with the race but I’m going to go ahead with it.”

“You’re a foolish young man, Mr. Stiles.”

“Maybe. Good night, Captain.” Tod turned and opened the front door, holding it for Mrs. Gebhardt allowing her to step back into the house ahead of him.

At the King nightclub, Buz was sitting at the bar watching Diane’s show. He was thinking how Tod really should have been there, and that maybe seeing Diane would help cheer him up a bit.

Buz, nonetheless, was feeling pretty cheerful himself. He had spotted Vicky, the waitress he’d taken a bit of an interest in and when she stopped at the bar to load up on a tray of drinks, he hopped over to the bar stool nearest to her. Her back facing him, he tugged one of the pleats on her skirt.

She turned, with an expression that was ready to tell the offender to bug off but when she recognized Buz she broke into a grin. “Buz! Hey, how come you’re not at a table?”

“It’s just me tonight. All alone. By myself.”

“Aww…”

“Sitting at the bar like some wretch, drowning my sorrows and dreaming of lovely ladies in blue.”

She chuckled. “You are a wretch.”

He smiled. “Hey, what time you get off? Maybe we can go for coffee or something.”

“Buz I’d love to, but I can’t. We’re not supposed to fraternize with the customers.”

“I won’t tell anybody. I know a nice little out of the way place, real hole in the wall, nobody will know.”

“I’d know,” the bartender, Jerry, spoke up.

Buz looked at him. “Well, you don’t have to tell anybody.”

Jerry gestured with his finger to Vicky to take her tray and deliver her orders. Vicky gave Buz an apologetic smile and took her tray.

“C’mon,” Buz said to Jerry. “How do you enforce a rule like that anyway? You keep tabs on all the girls?”

“You harass her anymore and I’ll have you thrown out.”

Buz blinked. “What? I’m not harassing her!”

“The girls don’t fraternize with the customers, that’s the rules. Remember it.”

“Yeah, ok, I heard.”

The bartender walked away to the other end of the bar and Buz turned to watch Diane’s show some more. And watch Vicky when he could see her in the dimly lit lounge. Certainly they couldn’t bounce him for looking could they?

A few minutes after she finished her show, Diane emerged from beyond the stage and came out by the bar.

Buz had been lucky enough to be on the right bar stool as she stood nearby graciously obliging a few autograph seekers from the crowd. Buz watched the scene while sipping his drink.

When the last autograph was signed, Diane turned to the bar and ordered a drink.

Buz smiled at her. “You’re an enchantress on that stage you know.”

She glanced at Buz and gave a polite smile. “Thank you.”

“You are. You wield that old black magic over the whole room. Believe me, I know. You snagged me but you really did a number on my buddy, Tod.”

Diane smiled again and then picked up her drink.   

“I’m sorry Tod couldn’t be here,” Buz continued. “I tried to get him to come along but he wasn’t up to it.”

“Tod?”

Buz paused. “Tod Stiles. The fella that took you to dinner a couple nights ago?”

Diane looked at Buz, now recognizing him. “Oh. The one whose… car was stolen.”

“Yeah, him.” Buz studied Diane a moment and grinned. “Tod didn’t leave much of an impression I take it?”

“I’m sorry, it’s been busy this week. How is he? Did he hear anything about his car?”

Buz shook his head. “Nah. We picked up a new car this morning. But we’re still going to try to get the Vette back.”

Diane looked at him, suddenly. “What do you mean?”

The reaction surprised Buz and he only paused a beat before smiling. “What do I mean? I mean we’re going to try to get the car back. We think we know who has it.”

“Oh Buz, uh…” Diane hesitated on her words, suddenly careful. “Might that be…dangerous? Shouldn’t you let the police handle that?”

“Hmm yeah the police,” Buz said. “No offense to the Atlanta constabulary but Tod and I were less than impressed today.”

“Today? What happened?”

“Well, this one dealership Tod and I went to, there was Tod’s car sitting on the lot.”

“It was on the lot?”

“Yeah, can you believe that? We confronted the salesman, of course he had all kinds of papers and stuff phonyed up. We left and went back with a cop but by then the car was gone and the cop apparently was one of their best customers.”

Diane turned to her drink. “That’s…incredible.”

“Yeah. Tod was pretty burned up by it. I was too. Anyway, I tried to get him to come here tonight, figured seeing you might cheer him up.”

Diane took a drink to try to fortify herself. She had to get away from Buz and back to her dressing room before she broke down. “I’m sorry,” she said, her apology almost out of place. “That he, that he couldn’t come.” She stood up from the bar stool and looked at Buz. “Tell him I said hello will you?”

Buz nodded. “Sure.”

She turned and walked away, hurrying. Buz watched her and frowned, not understanding her sudden skittishness.

After breakfast with Mrs. Gebhardt on Sunday morning, Tod and Buz took the Bel Air to Jepson’s garage. The car lot and garage were closed for business on Sunday so the boys were able to work undisturbed.

Tod lifted the hood up and Buz looked in to the engine bay. “So what’s it going to take to get more juice out of this thing?”

“Well, I can put high performance spark plugs in, swap the two barrel carb there for a four and install a bigger air filter. And I’ll replace the fuel lines with stainless to reduce the risk of anything rupturing.”

Buz nodded. “Doesn’t sound too complex.”

“Nope. Those are the easiest and least expensive ways to get some more horsepower out of this thing. Plus pulling the backseat out to make room for a roll bar will lighten the weight a bit. We’ll just have to remember to pull the spare tire and the jack out of the trunk too.”

Buz nodded. “Where are we going to get a roll bar?”

“Good question. We’ll have to ask around, see if we can get one fabricated.”

Buz paused looking at the engine bay again then to his friend. “That cop really try to talk you out of the race?”

“Yeah. And he’s got it figured that we’re looking to get the Corvette back by doing this race.”

“What’s he think of that?”

“Says it’s not a good idea.”

“Hmph. He would.”

“Says I should leave it to the police to recover the car.”

“Right. Do you believe the police are going to recover your car, Tod?”

Tod paused. “Normally I would. They haven’t given me much reason to believe they’ll find it especially after yesterday. I know we’re outsiders, Buz, but…” Tod shook his head. “Is courtesy dead?”

“Nope. But it may be misplaced…”

Chapter 5