Read an Excerpt
An Alan Grofield Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1969 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
Grofield jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the empty satchel in the other. Parker was out and running too, and Laufman stayed hunched over the wheel, his foot tapping the accelerator.
The armored car lay on its side in a snowbank, its wheels turning like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep. The mine had hit it just right, flipping it over without blowing it apart. There was a sharp metallic smell all around, and the echo of the explosion seemed to twang in the cold air, richocheting from the telephone wires up above. Cold winter afternoon sunlight made all the shadows sharp and black.
Grofield ran to the front of the armored car, running around the big old-fashioned grill, sideways now at chest level. Through the bulletproof windshield he could see the uniformed driver in there, turned every which way but conscious and moving around, getting a phone receiver out from under the dashboard.
The day was cold, but Grofield's face was sleek with perspiration. He raised a hand to his mouth and was surprised when he touched cloth, forgetting for just a second the mask he was wearing. The hand he'd raised was the one with the gun in it, and that surprised him too. He felt disoriented, weightless, invisible, an actor who's walked through a door onto the wrong set.
In a way that was true. He was an actor, a legitimate stage actor, at some times, but that was no way to earn a living. He earned it this way, with a gun in his hand and a mask on his face.
So it was time to get back into the right part. After the smallest of hesitations he moved forward again, heading for the driver's compartment. Inside there, the driver was talking quickly into his phone, watching Grofield with nervous eyes.
Both doors were intact. The explosion should have sprung at least one of them, but it hadn't. There was no way to get in at the driver.
Grofield heard the second explosion, short and flat and unimpressive, and the armored car jerked like a wounded horse. That would have been Parker, blowing the back door.
Grofield gave up on the driver and hurried to the rear of the armored car, where the door was now hanging open at a weird angle. There was nothing but blackness inside.
Grofield said, "He's on his phone in there and I can't get at him."
Parker nodded. There were no sirens yet. They were in the middle of a large city, but it was the most isolated spot on this armored car's route, a straight and little-traveled road across mostly undeveloped flats from one built-up section to another. At this point the road was flanked by high wooden fences set back on both sides, the gray fence on the left being around the ballpark and the green one on the right being around an amusement park. Both of them were closed at this time of year, and there were no private homes or open businesses within sight.
Parker rapped his gun against the metal of the armored car. "Come out easy," he called. "We don't want anybody dead, all we want is money." When there was no response he called, "Make us do it the hard way, we'll drop a grenade in there with you."
A voice called from inside, "My partner's unconscious."
"Drag him out here."
There was a shuffling sound from inside, as though they'd uncovered a mouse nest. Grofield waited awkwardly, his role calling for nothing from him right now. Movement he could handle, but waiting and wounded people were problems. They didn't exist onstage.
The blue-coated guard backed out, finally, bent over, pulling his partner by the armpits. The partner had a bloody nose.
As soon as they were out, Grofield handed the empty satchel to Parker, who ducked and went inside. Grofield showed the gun in his hand to the conscious guard, who looked at it with sullenness and respect.
The other one was lying on his back in the snow, dark red blood trickling across his cheeks, and the conscious one stood over him with worried looks, not knowing what to do about him. Grofield said, "Put some snow on the back of his neck. You want to make sure he doesn't strangle on his blood."
The guard nodded. He went to his knees beside the unconscious man, rolled him onto his side, held a handful of snow to the back of his neck.
A siren, far away. Grofield and the guard both raised their heads, like deer scenting a hunter. Grofield glanced back at the Ford, and Laufman was staring this way, his face round and nervous. Exhaust was coming out of the Ford in white puffs like smoke signals, because Laufman's foot was jittering on the accelerator.
Grofield looked back at the guard, who was still kneeling there pressing snow to the other man's neck. Their eyes met, and then Parker came back out of the armored car, carrying the satchel, now obviously full. The siren was still far away, it didn't seem to get any closer, but that didn't mean anything.
Parker nodded to Grofield, and the two of them ran back to the Ford. They clambered in, Grofield in front next to Laufman, Parker in back with the satchel, and Laufman stood on the accelerator. Wheels spun on ice and the Ford slued its rear end leftward. Grofield braced his hands against the dashboard, grimacing with strain.
"Easy!" Parker shouted from the back seat. "Take it easy, Laufman!"
Laufman finally eased off on the accelerator enough so the wheels could grab, and then they started moving, the Ford lunging down the road. It was like hurrying down the middle of a snowy football field with a high gray fence on the left sideline and a high green fence on the right and the goalposts way the hell around the curve of the Earth somewhere.
Far away ahead of them they saw the dot of flashing red light. Laufman yelled, "I'll have to take the other route!" Grofield, glancing over at him, saw Laufman's face white and wide-eyed with panic. His fists seemed welded to the steering wheel.
"Do it, then!" Parker told him. "Don't talk about it."
They'd worked out three ways to leave here, depending on circumstances. The one behind them they'd ignored, the one ahead was no good any more. For the third one, they should take the right at the end of the green fence, go almost all the way around the amusement park and wind up in a neighborhood of tenements and vacant lots where they had three potential places laid out to ditch the Ford.
They had plenty of time. The end of the fence was just ahead, and the flashing red light was still a mile or more away. But Laufman was still standing on the accelerator. They had known Laufman was a second-rate driver, but he was the best they could find for this job and he did know the city. But he was coming too fast at the intersection, way too fast.
Grofield was still braced against the dashboard, panic flickering now in the back of his mind. "Laufman!" he shouted. "Slow down! You won't make the turn!"
"I know how to drive!" Laufman screamed, and spun the wheel without any deceleration at all. The side road shot by on an angle, the car bucked, it dug its left shoulder into the pavement and started to roll.
Grofield's hands could no longer push the dashboard away. The world outside the windshield was going topsy-turvy, flashes of white ground and white sky, a gray chain-link fence rushing closer, the windshield rushing closer, and Grofield opened his mouth to say no but all the white turned black before he had a chance to say it.CHAPTER 2
"... when he wakes up."
"He is awake," Grofield said, and was so surprised to hear himself speak he opened his eyes.
Hospital. Himself in bed. Two thin thirtyish men in dark business suits standing at the foot of the bed, their heads turning to look at him. "Well, well," one of them said. "The sleeper wakes."
"Have you been listening?" the other one asked. "Or do we have to fill you in?" Grofield had been filling himself in, remembering the holdup, the getaway, Laufman going into panic, the car rolling over and over, and then the abrupt lights out. And now? He was in a hospital, those two guys weren't doctors, the future didn't look bright. He looked at them standing there and said, "You're cops."
"Not exactly," the second one said. He came around the foot of the bed and sat down in the chair to Grofield's left. At the same time, the first one moved farther away, over to the door, and stood there casually, arms folded, back against the door.
Grofield found it painful to turn his head and dizzying to look at the seated one through his nose, so he shut the off eye and said, "Nobody's not exactly a cop. Not exactly means not local."
The seated one smiled. "Very good, Mr. Grofield," he said.
Grofield squinted the open eye. "You have my name."
"We have you cold, my friend. Name, prints, history, everything. You've been a lucky boy up till now."
"That was the first time I was ever involved in anything like that," Grofield lied.
The other's smile turned sardonic. "Not likely," he said. "Laufman is a pro. The one who got away is a pro. They brought in an amateur to help out? Not likely.
So Parker had gotten away. Grofield said, "With or without the money?" "What?"
"Somebody got away. With or without the money?"
The one at the door barked, but when Grofield looked at him in astonishment he saw the bark had been intended as a laugh. The barker said, "He'd like to go collect his share."
"A workman wants his wages," Grofield said. "I don't suppose there's any point my claiming I was kidnapped by those two and forced to help them."
"Oh, go ahead," said the seated one. "But not with us, we don't particularly care about the robbery."
Painful or not, Grofield turned his head and put two eyes to work studying the guy seated there. He said, "Insurance dicks?"
The barker barked again, and the seated one said, "We work for your government, Mr. Grofield. You can think of us as civil servants."
"Why hardly? What else is there besides the FBI?"
"Your government has many arms," the seated one said, "each devoted to aid and protect you in its own way."
The room door opened, bumping the barker, who looked annoyed. A cop came in, burly and middle-aged, in uniform, with a hatbrim full of fruit salad. An important cop, an inspector or some such. He didn't quite salute, but stood poised and hesitant in the doorway, like a waiter anticipating a large tip. "Just wondering how you gentlemen are coming along," he said, smiling with curiosity and eagerness to please.
"We're doing fine," said the barker. "We'll be out in just a few minutes."
"Take your time, take your time." The cop glanced at Grofield in the bed, and for just a second his expression went kaleidoscopic, as though he didn't know what his attitude toward Grofield was supposed to be. It was impossible to read anything in the gyrations of his face except possibly that he had gone temporarily insane.
"Thank you for your interest, Captain," the seated one said, without smiling. It was a clear-cut dismissal, and the cop understood it. He began nodding and nodding, his waiter's smile flashing on and off as he said, "Well then, I'll ..." Still nodding, not finishing the sentence, he backed out and shut the door.
The seated one said, "Is there any way to lock that?"
The barker studied the knob. "Not from this side. But I doubt he'll be back."
"We'll make it fast," the seated one said, and looked back at Grofield. He said, "I want straight answers to a couple of questions. Don't worry about self-incrimination, this is between you and us."
"Go ahead and ask," Grofield said. "I can always say no."
"Tell me what you know about General Luis Pozos."
Grofield looked at him in surprise. "Pozos? What's he got to do with anything?"
"We told you our interest wasn't the robbery. Tell me about Pozos."
"He's president of some country in Latin America. Guerrero."
"Do you know him personally?"
"In a way."
"I saved his life one time. Not on purpose."
"You've been a guest on his yacht?"
Grofield nodded, which was also painful. His skull seemed to have been removed and replaced with sandpaper, so that he was all right when he lay still but moving made things scrape. So he stopped nodding and said, "That was after I saved his life. Some people were going to kill him, and I ran into a girl who knew about it, and we went and broke it up."
"You aren't in contact with him now?"
Grofield restrained himself from shaking his head. "No," he said. "We don't travel in the same circles."
"Have you ever been employed by him?"
"What is your feeling about him?"
"I don't have one."
"You must have some feeling."
"I wouldn't want him to marry my sister."
The barker barked. The seated one smiled and said, "All right, what about a man named Onum Marba?"
"Can he marry my sister, is that what you want?"
"I want to know what you know about him."
"He's a politician from Africa. I forget the name of his country."
"Undurwa," the seated one said, with the accent on the middle syllable.
"Right. Makes me think of underwear."
The seated one made an impatient face. "Does it," he said. "Tell me about Marba."
"I never saved his life. He and I were houseguests together at a place in Puerto Rico last year, that's all."
"You never worked for him."
"No. And I'm not in contact with him now."
"And your feeling about him?"
"He's a sharp cookie. He could marry my sister."
The seated one nodded and sat back and looked at the barker. "What do you think?" The barker studied Grofield, who met his eye and took the brief time out to try to figure out what the heck was going on. He was a professional thief—as a means of supporting himself in the unrewarding vocation of professional actor, self-limited to the legitimate stage—and after twelve years of quiet success at his two crafts disaster had befallen. He'd appeared in a turkey, the show had folded on the road, but it looked like it would be a long, long time before he would again be, in the actor's phrase, at liberty.
But what had General Pozos from Latin America and Onum Marba from Africa to do with a busted armored car heist in a northern American city? And what had these government employees who were not with the FBI and who didn't care about the robbery to do with Alan Grofield?
The barker finished his inspection of Grofield before Grofield finished his inspection of the situation. He looked away from Grofield and nodded, saying, "Try him."
"Right." The seated one faced Grofield again. He said, "We're going to offer you a deal, and you can take it or leave it, but you'll have to decide right now."
"A deal? I'll take it."
The seated one said, "Listen to it first."
"Does it involve me going to jail?"
"Just listen," the seated one said. "We can arrange to change your status in the robbery from participant to witness. You'll sign a statement, and that will be the end of it."
Grofield said, "I'm trying to think what I have that I want badly enough to keep so you'll trade all that for it, and I don't come up with anything."
The barker said, "How's about your life?"
Grofield looked at him without moving his head. "You want me to kill myself? No deal."
It was the seated one who answered, saying, "What we want you to do will maybe risk your life. We can't know ahead of time."
Grofield looked at the two faces, then at the door the captain of police had come so obsequiously through just a minute ago, and said, "I'm getting a glimmering. It's secret agent time, espionage, all that Technicolor jazz. You birds are CIA."
The seated one made a pouting face, and the barker said, "Sometimes I can't stand it. CIA, CIA, CIA. Don't people realize their government has some secret intelligence organizations?"
The seated one told him, "I had an uncle in the Treasury. People had him down for an FBI man so damn much he took an early retirement."
Grofield said, "I didn't mean to offend you."
"That's all right," the seated one said. "The general public likes things clear-cut, that's all, just a few simple organizations. Like remember how happy everybody was when the Cosa Nostra first came out?"
"Like chlorophyll," the barker said. "The public loves brand names."
"And you people," Grofield said, "are brand X, is that it?"
"A perfect description," the seated one said cheerfully. "We're brand X, that's it to the life." He turned to the barker, saying, "Huh, Charlie? Is that nice?"
Excerpted from The Blackbird by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1969 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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