After doing her show for the night, and her obligatory appearance at the lounge bar to sign autographs, Diane returned to her dressing room with her drink. She sat down in front of her vanity and heaved a sigh. Doing the early supper date to set up another car to be stolen, then doing her show, had made for a long evening. And poor Mr. Jepson. Sweet man who took the theft of the car pretty hard.
He really had been very sweet…. She shook her head and picked up her glass to take a drink. Here I go again, she thought.
Truthfully, playing the tantalizing bait for car theft was starting to get old. She was tiring of the game. And she was especially growing weary of the same old routine every week. The only time she felt right was when she was on the stage singing. But when the show ended and the lights came up, the reality was becoming more and more harsh.
She sighed and pushed the thoughts from her mind. It was late and she was tired. She carefully removed her earrings and unclasped her necklace.
In the back alley of the nightclub, a car pulled up. Donnie, Monty and Stuart all stepped out and then Buz was pulled out of the backseat. His hands were bound behind him and he’d been gagged since his outburst during Doyle’s phone call to Tod. He was pushed along to the back door.
Although her door was shut, Diane heard the racket in the hall as the men came in. Buz wasn’t one to go quietly and he gave Monty and Donnie a struggle as they shoved him toward a dressing room door. He was pushed into the dark room and the door was slammed shut.
Diane moved to her door and listened.
“I don’t like that we brought him here,” Monty said. “We shoulda left him at the warehouse.”
“And give him a chance to escape and take the Corvette with him?” Stuart said. “No way. Silas said to bring him here so we can keep an eye on ‘em until Sunday…”
Diane heard the men go past her door and she waited a moment before opening it. The hall was empty and across from her the door to one of the spare dressing rooms was closed, but she could hear somebody rustling around in there.
Diane wasn’t sure what was going on. She stepped across the hall and listened at the other door. Her hand lingered at the door knob and then turned it.
In the dark of the room, Buz sat still looking toward the door and the sliver of light from the hall. The door opened wider and the light of the room was turned on.
Diane gasped seeing Buz on his knees in the middle of the floor, with a gag around his mouth and his hands bound behind him. He looked over at her and tried to say her name through the gag.
She shut the door and came over to him. “Buz… what in the world?” She untied the gag that was around his mouth and pulled it away.
“Doyle put you up to this too?” he asked. “Comforting his prisoners?”
“What are you talking about? Buz, what’s going on?”
“Did you have a nice dinner date tonight? Too bad that Jag got stolen eh?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Because I was hiding in the trunk.”
Diane stared at him, the implications becoming clear now. “Oh Buz…” She shook her head. “You didn’t…”
“Yeah, we did. Tod and I set it up, with a little help from Harold Jepson.”
“Was Tod…caught too?”
“Would that make much difference to you?”
Diane avoided Buz’s dark eyed gaze and stood up.
Buz watched her. “You like stock car racing, Diane? Tod’s driving in one this Sunday. If he wins he saves me. If he loses, well, then Tod and I both lose. If Tod’s smart, he’ll get out of Atlanta while he can. But I know him…and he won’t. He’ll run that race and get himself killed.”
Diane knew this all too well. “Why?” she blurted. “Why did you have to go and do this?! Was Tod’s car worth that much?!”
“No, but seeing the people who’ve had their lives stolen by Silas Doyle was worth it. People like you…”
“Stolen? I haven’t had anything stolen! If it wasn’t for Silas I’d be stuck back in Savannah.”
“If it wasn’t for Silas you’d be off to New York or California by now, making records. Yeah, maybe he got you your start, but he’ll never let you have your finish.”
“Oh shut up!” Buz’s words were truth and they hurt like hell. “Just… shut up!” She picked up the gag and tied it back around Buz’s mouth again. With tears in her eyes she hurried to the door, shutting the light off and closing the door on him.
Putting Buz in the dark and keeping him imprisoned in the room didn’t change what was happening. Diane knew what would happen to him, and to Tod. She ran back to her dressing room, closing the door and broke down, bawling.
Tod returned to Mrs. Gebhardt’s late, long after she had turned in for the evening and he was right back up early Saturday morning, before she was and was out of the house. He left a note, saying that he and Buz had a lot of work to do on the car to get it ready for the race on Sunday. He couldn’t face the sweet woman and try to lie about where Buz was, or worse, try to explain what had really happened. It was going to be just as bad trying to explain Buz’s absence to Vernon Tate and his friends when they showed up at Jepson’s dealership to help with the exhaust swap.
Tod pulled into Jepson’s lot and parked in front of the garage stall that he and Buz had been using. He unlocked the stall door and then moved the Bel Air inside. He was the only one at the dealership so early in the morning and he didn’t exactly have a lot to do to keep himself busy until Vern showed up, which would be sometime around eight.
Since he skipped breakfast at Mrs. Gebhardt’s, he started his day with a cigarette, hoping it would calm his nerves a bit. He had hardly slept the night before. He stood outside the garage, where the morning sun shined brightly and wondered how did he and Buz get into this mess? More than that, how the hell were they going to get out of it? He paced in and out of the garage, lost in his thoughts. Tod knew his chances of winning that stock car race on Sunday were somewhere between slim and forget-about-it. And Doyle was no fool. Even if Tod did somehow miraculously win, he and Buz weren’t going to be allowed to just walk away.
When the cigarette was finished, Tod crushed it out in an ashtray in the garage. It was six-thirty and he’d drive himself nuts if he didn’t find something to occupy himself with. He lifted the hood of the Bel Air and went to work checking the timing.
Around seven, Mr. Jepson and Maggie arrived. Tod saw them out of the corner of his eye as he leaned over the whirring engine bay and pulled the throttle.
“What’d you do? Stay here all night?” Jepson asked after the engine settled down.
“No, I’ve been here since about six.” Tod straighten up and slipped into the driver’s seat to shut the car down.
“Why so early?”
“I couldn’t face Mrs. Gebhardt, the lady we’re boarding with, and try to explain where Buz was at. I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Have you had breakfast?”
Jepson turned to his daughter and dug his wallet out of his back pocket. He slipped out a few bills. “Maggie, go down to Pickford’s and get a couple of those ham and egg sandwiches and some coffee.”
Maggie smiled and nodded, accepting the money. “Yes, Papa.” She turned and hurried off.
Jepson turned back to Tod as the young man stepped out of the car and closed the door. “Aren’t you supposed to have a number or something on there?” he asked, gesturing toward the door.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to either paint it on or use decals.”
Jepson nodded. “And I’ve seen pictures of stock car racers, they usually have the name of their sponsor splashed on the back quarter panel.”
“Yeah. I don’t have a sponsor though.”
“Sure ya do.”
Tod looked at him. Jepson smiled.
“Mr. Jepson, with all that’s going on you want to put your business name on this car as a sponsor?”
“Why not? Doyle already knows I’m mixed up with you two. Might as well rub his nose in it a little.”
Tod’s half smile was sad.
Jepson patted him on the shoulder and then walked with him back toward the office.
Maggie returned with the coffee and breakfast sandwiches and the three ate in the office. Jepson explained that Maggie could do the lettering and decals for Tod’s car, as she had done some of the advertising signs and window art for the dealership. She was more than happy to do so for Tod’s car.
When Vern Tate and his friends arrived at Jepson’s dealership a little after 8, they were fired up and raring to go to get Tod’s car ready for the race the next day. Tod hated having to put a damper on their enthusiasm especially when Vern asked where Buz was at.
“He’s…not here.” Tod paused.
Vern looked at Tod already sensing something was wrong. The shift of the vibe in the room was obvious and even Vern’s buddies had quieted. “Mistah Stiles, where is he?”
“Doyle has him.”
Vern waited for an explanation.
“We set up another car as bait,” Tod explained. “Figured we could find where cars were being kept, maybe find the Vette. Buz got caught.”
Vern’s buddies all glanced at each other and at him. They knew, as did Vern, that the stakes had suddenly gotten very high.
“You’re still runnin’ the race?” Vern asked.
“Doyle says if I win, I get Buz back. But if I lose…I lose everything.”
Vern slowly shook his head. “Mistah Stiles, you’ll never finish that race, you realize that?”
“What else can I do? I can’t just walk away, I can’t abandon Buz.”
“Naw, I know that. But you get out on that track you’ll be racin’ to yer own death. Doyle won’t let you win, he won’t even let you finish. You n’ Mistah Murdock both are good as dead right now.”
Tod closed his eyes and drew a breath.
“Tod…” Mr. Jepson said. “Maybe we should go to the police.”
Vern shook his head. “Ain’t no cop in this town worth trustin’, Mr. Jepson. Doyle’s got too much influence, there ain’t no way to tell who to trust.”
“He’s right,” Tod said. “Buz and I are strangers in Atlanta, I wouldn’t know who to go to. I was detained last night by a cop when I was trying to tail the Jag. I had a cop pay me a visit last week, a police captain, tried to warn me off from getting the Vette back. A captain. How high up could Doyle’s reach go?” Tod paused, looking at the faces that looked back at him. “Look, despite the thin chance I have to win that race, let alone finish it, that’s nothing compared to the dying I’d do if I just leave Buz behind. I’ve been all over the country with him, we’ve been to hell and back. There’s been times he’s driven me nuts and I’ve thought of leaving him at the next bus stop but I haven’t. And I won’t.” Tod looked at Vern. “So let’s get to work.”
Vern nodded. “You got it.” He turned to his buddies. “You heard da man…”
Diane awoke late on Saturday morning after a fitful night of sleep. Even another glass of scotch when she had come home from the club hadn’t helped to dull her mind. She thought of Buz being held hostage and Tod who would run that race and…
She knew. She had heard stories over the years about the Skull Cracker race. It was so named for Silas Doyle’s own moonshining history and had been something of a testing ground for drivers for Doyle’s operation. It also had earned its name in the literal sense as several drivers had been hurt over the years and Diane knew of at least two that had died in a horrific wrecks.
Accidents they were called. Nobody would ever know for sure and for Tod it would be no different.
“….lives stolen by Silas Doyle…” Buz’s words haunted her. Doyle had stolen so much from people. He’d stolen plenty from her.
No matter how tight she closed her eyes or pulled the covers over her head it didn’t stop the cycle of images in her mind, the freckle faced innocence of Tod, the warning voice of Buz ringing in her ears and the darkening realization that her own indifference was merely the lock on her cage built by Silas Doyle.
She threw the covers off and sat up in bed, the tears coming again. She had limited options as to what to do and neither one was easy.
But only one felt “right.”
Although Jepson’s garage had a hydraulic lift, the Bel Air sat lifted up on jack stands while the exhaust swap was done which allowed Maggie to work on painting the numbers on the doors and the lettering on the rear quarter panels.
The exhaust needed to be done before 4 o’clock, which was when the qualifying times were being run. For all the talk there had been about Tod possibly not finishing the race, he still had to qualify to even run the thing in the first place.
A little after noon time, Maggie had the number, 44, painted on the doors and only needed to finish the lettering on the right rear quarter panel when the racing exhaust was completely welded in and ready to be tested. The car remained up on the jack stands and Tod climbed in behind the wheel. Mr. Jepson came out of his office and Maggie stepped away from the car to stand with her father.
“This is gonna be pretty loud, folks, so be ready,” Vern said to the Jepsons. He then looked at Tod. “Ok, Mistah Stiles, fire ‘er up.”
Tod turned the key and the engine fired right up followed quickly by a sudden crack of thunder within the garage. Maggie flinched at the noise and then laughed and Vern and his racing buddies hooted and hollered when Tod revved the engine and the Bel Air roared with each press of the throttle.
Tod then let the Chevy compose itself down to a healthy sounding rumble and Vern and his cousin checked underneath the car for any exhaust leaks.
Vern’s cousin flashed a thumbs up and Vern relayed the message to Tod. The car was shut down.
“Yer good to go Mistah Stiles,” Vern said. “She’s gonna fly for ya now.”
Tod grinned. “Thanks, Vern. I appreciate the help, from all of you.” He stepped out of the car and looked at his watch. “And with time to spare.”
“Just enough time for me to finish the lettering!” Maggie said.
Later that afternoon at The King, Diane came in a little later than usual. Her appointment for doing that ‘one right option’ has been long and exhausting. She’d be a hero, she was told. She didn’t care about being a hero, she just wanted the nightmare over with.
Halfway across the lounge, Stuart caught up to her. “Where you been?” he asked.
His question was casual with no accusation implied but given the company Diane had just been with, who would not have been approved by Doyle, she was startled. “I…slept late,” she replied. “And I had a lot of errands to catch up on.”
Stuart nodded. “Silas is looking for you. Got something he wants you to do.”
Diane sighed. “Not another car is it?”
“No. We have a guest he’d like you to join with for an early supper.”
Diane felt the knot tighten in her stomach. “Guest?” she said.
“He’ll tell you all about it.” Stuart turned and disappeared to another section of the club leaving Diane momentarily dumbfounded in the middle of the empty lounge.
Maggie finished up the lettering just before three o’clock. No longer legal for the street due to the exhaust, the car was loaded on to the trailer Vern and his friends had arrived with and they headed off to the track.
They arrived with just enough time to get the racing tires on and make a few last minute adjustments on the car before seeing Tod off on to the track to do his qualifying run. When it was all over, Tod qualified 12th out of a 22 car field.
The car was trailered back to Jepson’s dealership and Vern recommended keeping the car under lock and key for the night to discourage any sabotage attempts. Tod agreed and Mr. Jepson concurred, happily locking the Chevy up in the garage stall Tod had been using to work on it.
Vern and his friends would meet Tod at the dealership the next morning to trailer the car back to the track and get set up for the race with fuel and tires. They bid Tod good night, each man just a little subdued knowing just exactly what the stakes were with this race.
Mr. Jepson thought of this too, but pushed the thought aside for the time being. He offered to drive Tod back to the boarding house.
When they pulled up to the end of the driveway, Tod looked and saw the lights on and knew there was no avoiding Mrs. Gebhardt this time.
He paused, not exiting the car just yet. “I didn’t really sleep last night,” he said. “So I…packed my suitcase up and Buz’s too. I’ll take them with me in the morning. I didn’t want her to have to tend to that.”
Jepson just looked at Tod sadly. Even Maggie, ever the cheerleader, couldn’t find an encouraging word.
Tod looked at Mr. Jepson. “Thanks for all you’ve done, Mr. Jepson. I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to say much tomorrow so, I’ll say it now.”
Jepson nodded. “I wish I could do more, Tod. I wish you didn’t have to run that damn race.”
Tod nodded and looked back at Maggie. “You did a nice job on the car, Maggie. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said softly.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Tod said. He opened the door and stepped out of the car.
Jepson and his daughter watched him walk up to the house. Maggie put a hand on her father’s shoulder. “Papa…”
He reached up with his hand and touched hers. “I know…” he said.
When Tod walked into the house, Mrs. Gebhardt was waiting in the living room. He could have easily just slipped up the stairs and not said anything, not looked. But he looked, and there was no avoiding her, especially once he saw the concerned look on her face. He stepped into the living room.
“How did it go?” she asked. “The racing today?”
With all the dire thoughts in his head, the question caught Tod off guard. “Oh, I qualified for the race tomorrow.”
“That is good.” She paused. “Are you boys planning to join the racing circuit?”
It would have been so easy to lie to her right then and there. Yeah, Buz and I have this great opportunity. We’ll be leaving after the race tomorrow… Tod met her gaze and just could not lie to her. He shook his head. “No.”
“I saw your suitcases were all packed up. I thought maybe…”
Tod came over and sat down in a chair near the couch where Mrs. Gebhardt sat. “I wish it was something like that,” he said. “And even if I said it was, I think you’d know I was lying.” He paused. “Buz and I are in trouble. A lot of trouble. You probably won’t see either of us again after this.”
She shook her head. “Oh I had such terrible feeling. I knew something was wrong. It is that man, the one that stole your car?”
Tod nodded. “It’s not even about the car anymore. He’s done so many awful things to a lot of people. Buz and I thought we could even things up a bit.”
“Where is Buz?”
“I don’t know…”
“He is dead?!”
“No…” Not yet.
“Oh Tod! This is awful! What about the police? Can’t you go to the police?”
“You remember the police officer that came here last week?”
“Would you trust him?”
“Mrs. Gebhardt, I wanted to spare you most of this. At least, as much as I could. I packed everything up to take with me tomorrow because I didn’t want to burden you with it. You’ve been very kind to me and Buz since we’ve been here…” Tod chuckled softly. “I think I’ve put on ten pounds since we’ve been staying with you.” His smile then faded. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Gebhardt.”
She shook her head. “This is wrong. This is so wrong, you boys don’t deserve this. That man, he will kill you won’t he? All for a car?”
“If I could trade the car for Buz’s life and mine, I’d do it. But it’s beyond the car now. Doyle plays for keeps. Unfortunately, Buz and I do too.”
News of Tod’s qualifying run had reached The King nightclub by 6pm, where Silas Doyle was sitting at one of the far side tables of the lounge with Diane, who was trying not to look nervous. Although the club was open, the lounge was only half full with people at this hour. She looked up with Doyle as Donnie approached the table.
“The qualifying runs are done,” Donnie said. “Stiles starts twelfth.”
Doyle nodded. “Not bad. And he’s never run a stock car race before?”
“Apparently not. But he ran that track like he’s been doing it all his life.”
“Hm. Damn shame. With the right persuasion and a little teaching sounds like he could have been a racer or a runner for me.” Doyle shrugged. “See that everything’s taken care of tomorrow eh?”
Donnie nodded. “Will do.” He walked away.
Diane looked across the table at Doyle. “What do you mean he could have been a runner for you?”
Doyle smirked. “Just what I said.” He studied her a moment. “You would have liked that too, wouldn’t you?”
Diane lowered her gaze. “It’d be better than what you’re planning to do to him tomorrow,” she said.
Doyle chuckled. “My business bothers you now all of a sudden. I guess ignorance truly is bliss.”
“Yeah, I was better off not knowing,” she shot back. “So why the grandstand play here? This ‘last supper’ for Buz? Why do I have to be here?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” Doyle looked across the lounge toward one of the bouncers, Dusty, and gave a nod. Dusty and another bouncer headed to the back dressing rooms where Buz was still being held.
A few moments later Buz was brought out through the lounge, free of any restraints but the bouncers on each side of him half marched, half dragged him across the lounge toward Doyle and Diane’s table.
Once there, Buz was shoved down into a chair. He paused, looking at Doyle and then Diane before returning his gaze to Doyle. The two bouncers stood guard just behind his chair. Doyle dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
Buz looked behind him as the bouncers walked away.
“Don’t bother thinking you can make a run for it Mr. Murdock, my boys will be covering all the exits. And although the crowd in the lounge at this hour is small, I’m sure you’d prefer not to risk anyone getting hurt because of your foolishness. Especially Miss Victoria.”
Buz turned back to the table and glared at Doyle. “To what do I owe this dishonor?” he asked. “If you’re looking for confession you can forget it because I’m not feeling very chatty.”
“Are you hungry, Mr. Murdock?” Doyle asked.
“Well, I thought perhaps you’d like to dine in the presence of more pleasant company tonight, unless you like lukewarm burgers and cold French fries.”
“What French fries?”
“There, see? Tonight, no food will be taken away from you.”
“You’re all heart.”
Doyle raised a hand and signaled to someone somewhere else in the lounge. He then turned his attention back to Buz. “To be honest, Mr. Murdock, I simply wanted to talk to you.”
“You coulda done that in the back room you got me in and brought your own two by four instead of going to all this trouble. Because I already know what you’re going to say. This is where you make me an alternate offer, to do something in exchange for Tod not getting himself killed in that race tomorrow.”
Doyle gave a snort. “Why would I do that?”
“Because Tod and I had the brass tacks to come after you. Two strangers, Yanks no less, came in and kicked the sand in your sandbox. You don’t like it but you respect it on a certain level.”
Doyle raised an eyebrow, surprised. “Well, you’re half right. I can admit to a certain level of respect for what you and your friend tried to do, but there will be no bargaining for a separate peace. Your friend will not finish that race tomorrow, that’s just the way it has to be.”
“To save face?” Buz said. “Who was the dummy that put the car on your lot?”
“That issue has been corrected. You and Mr. Stiles are just a couple of lose threads to be pulled and discarded. It’s business, Mr. Murdock, I suspect you understand that.”
“Sure. What I don’t dig is this,” Buz looked at the table, where food was now being delivered.
“Your last supper, as it were.”
“Wonderful. I hope Tod at least got a free beer out of this.”
“Mr. Stiles was allowed to qualify for the race this afternoon – without any interference. That is the extent of my courtesy for him. I’m told he’ll be starting 12th out of a 22 car field.”
There was a pause in the conversation, as plates with steak and vegetables were placed down before each of them at the table and wine was poured into glasses. Warm dinner rolls in a basket were placed in the middle of the table.
Diane lifted her fork and began to poke at the veggies. Buz made no move to eat right away, although the dish did smell good. Nothing was spoken until the servers left.
Buz looked at Doyle who was cutting into his steak. “What if he hadn’t made it?”
“The ending would still be the same, although… he would probably be here dining with us this evening before I send the two of you off on a very long journey.” Doyle glanced at Diane. “The world is full of disappointments.”
Buz looked at Diane, who avoided his gaze and then back to Doyle again. “Not that I don’t mind the pleasant company but why are you subjecting her to all this?”
“Well… even Judas dined with Jesus before He was crucified.”
Diane looked up at Doyle now. Buz glanced at her and then turned back to Doyle, who was fishing in his jacket pocket for something. He came up with a diamond tennis bracelet and tossed it into the middle of the table.
Diane and Buz both looked at it. Diane recognized it as the bracelet she had worn, and lost, the night Tod’s car was stolen. The same bracelet Tod had seen her wearing afterwards and had figured out she had set him up for the steal.
Buz knew this too and he looked from the bracelet to Doyle.
“Tell me Mr. Murdock,” Doyle continued, “how did you and your friend figure out that I had anything to do with the stealing of your Corvette?”
“You were dumb enough to put it on the sales lot of your dealership.”
Doyle shook his head. “That wouldn’t make you suspicious that I stole it, only that I dealt in stolen vehicles. That my salesmen would look the other way if someone were to bring in such a vehicle to trade for something else. Not that I do that but that more likely would be the initial suspicion. No, that’s not when you figured it out. Tell me when you figured it out.”
Buz said nothing. It appeared Doyle already knew anyway and Buz wasn’t going to agree to throw Diane to the wolves.
“Wasn’t it when your friend saw Diane here at the club after the car was stolen, wearing the very bracelet she had lost in his car that night? Wasn’t it when your friend had a heated discussion with Diane upon seeing this diamond bracelet back on her wrist again and demanding to know why she had set him up?”
Diane blanched. Although she had never come out and said directly to Tod that she had set him up, she had thought she spoke cryptically enough, and hushed enough, not be overheard.
Doyle looked at her. “The bouncers aren’t just there for your protection, Diane, they’re there for mine too.” He looked at Buz again. “She betrayed you and your friend. Actually…she betrayed both of us.”
“I’m not sorry she betrayed you,” Buz said.
“I didn’t figure you would be. Nonetheless, her betrayal of me comes with a price that you and your friend will be paying for. Unfortunately. I’ve come to learn that loyalty is sometimes too easily earned but betrayal is always such a hard price to bear.” Doyle lifted his wine glass and held it toward Diane. “To loyalty.”
Diane hesitated and then wordlessly lifted her own glass to chime with Doyle’s. Buz offered no such salute. When Doyle’s toast was finished, Buz then raised his own wine glass.
Doyle snorted as Buz drank to the solitary toast. “You should eat Mr. Murdock. Tomorrow will be a very long day.”
“Yeah, it will be…” Buz reached to the dinner rolls and took one. “For this I’ll give thanks,” he said as he broke the roll in half. He then placed both pieces on Diane’s plate. “This is my body, and Tod’s, which is given for you.” His dark eyes met Diane’s. “Do this in remembrance of us…”