The Caddy pulled in first, followed at an angle by the sedan. This time he didn’t wait for the door to be opened. He wore a black fedora pulled down low over his face. Approaching me, he looked puzzled.
“Victor Simpson.” I greeted him.
Victor stopped where he stood. ‘You have me at a disadvantage, Mr..?”
“St. James, James St. James, and if you’re looking for Lew Potter, he’s unavailable. He did, however, tell me about your proposal this afternoon. Upon further discussion, we’ve decided that I would be handling things from now on.”
I pulled a folded paper from inside my jacket. “This is a bill of sale. He sold me the entire business, lock stock, and barrel. I now own Lew’s Auto Sales and Salvage and all its holding. So, any ideas you have about dealing with Mr. Potter are null and void. You have to deal with me now.”
My gun never moved an inch from his chest. Victor stood still. I could see the wheels in his mind turning. He hadn’t expected to be met by someone else, much less someone armed to the teeth.
“About that deal, it was just an idea. I thought he could help me with is all. I can get someone else to do it.”
“You do that, Victor.” Victor turned on his heels and headed back to the Cadillac. His goons backed up slowly and got back in the cars. The sedan backed out, and the caddy backed out. I didn’t move a muscle. Once they were out of sight, I breathed again. I’d bluffed them once and bought myself some time, but I knew his type. I’d just slapped him with a white glove and challenged him. I called his bluff. He had to back it up.
Earlier that morning, Lew called, asking me to come to the salvage yard to discuss photos he’d received by mail the day before. The photos, taken through his living room window, showed him with a young girl that wasn’t his wife. He told me the gal showed up asking to use the phone because she was stranded. When he took her to the phone, she had thrown her arms around him and kissed him to thank him. There is no doubt that Victor fabricated the scene to put Lew in a compromising position.
Lew told me that Victor visited Lew’s shop in the afternoon and asked him to fake new titles for cars with changed VINs and make them legal again so that they could move the stolen vehicles. Cash was offered and refused, and Lew told him he’d already showed his wife the pictures, so good luck trying to blackmail him. Angry, Victor left, saying he’d be back.
When I arrived and got the lowdown, I told Lew to close up shop and leave town with his wife but had him sell me the business for a dollar before they left. Once I got them out of harm’s way, I made some calls from a payphone to learn more about Victor. Then I called Brenda at the bar.
“Hi, Hun, Walt there yet?”
“Sure,” I heard her hand the phone to Walt.
‘Listen, The case from this morning just got ugly. I need you to watch the guy’s lot and make sure it doesn’t burn down overnight. I’m going to check out this Victor Simpson and rattle his cage some more and see what else he’s up to.”
“Okay, I’m on it.” He handed the phone be back to Brenda.
“I should be back in time to help close up. Be Careful. This guy knows who I am.”
Brenda told me she had the shotgun under the bar and not to worry.
I went back to Lew’s shop and waited for Walt. Ten minutes later, Walt’s black Mercury sedan slid into view. I fired up the Packard, took off in the other direction, and headed to Lew’s house.
I swung by the home address Lew had given me. The drapes were closed, but the hairs on the back of my neck were at attention. Something was wrong. I’d had the same feeling back in the war and had learned to pay attention to it. I checked the address he’d given me. I was in the right place. I headed up the driveway and noticed his car was still in the garage—he hadn’t left. I headed to the back door and found it wide open. My blood ran cold. Nudging the door with my pistol barrel, I peeked in.
Lew and his wife were still there. Dead. Blood splattered over the wall, where Lew had slipped down the wall after a shotgun blast, fired at close range, had torn through him, cutting his insides up into ribbons. His wife was lying next to a suitcase, its tweed fabric already soaked with her blood.
“Shit!” was all I uttered. Lew hired me to protect them, and I failed. Careful not to touch anything, I left the place as I’d found it and headed for the dinner I had passed on the way and used the payphone there to call my friend Bob, an LA detective.
I reported finding Lew and his wife dead and gave him the address. He said he be right over, but before he hung up, Bob gave me what information he had on Victor that I had called him about earlier.
Bob said Victor Simpson was a wanna-be tough guy who wasn’t as tough as he thought. He only kept any muscle working for him because he paid well, but it was a mystery where he got the money. He was known to deal in stolen cars, but no charges had stuck to him.
Bob gave me a couple of addresses where they thought Victor hung out, and before I hung up, I told him about Victor’s visit to Lew the day before and my run-in with him.
The first address took me to the seedier side of town. It was a garage and looked like Lew’s place, except rundown with overgrown weeds. The main yard gate had padlocked with a heavy chain, and for a minute, I considered getting the bolt cutters from the trunk and going in anyway, but the office door looked easier to open. I popped the excuse of a lock on the door and slipped in.
A top of a small desk, pushed against one wall was covered in papers. I rifled through those and checked the filing cabinet but found nothing of interest. I entered the back office—probably Victor’s. The desk was a mess of papers, but I lucked out searching through the drawers. Buried in a bottom drawer of the desk, I found a listing of cars—makes models and old VINs with the new VINs beside them. I figured it was a list of the vehicles for Lew to create titles. There were too many numbers to copy, and I didn’t dare take the list. I jotted down the first five numbers in my notebook and stashed the list where I found it.
I needed to find the cars attached to the VINs and catch Victor with them, but I had no idea where he had stashed the cars.
The sun was beginning to work its way towards the horizon. I eased the Packard out of the driveway, heading towards the other address Bob had given me. There had to be at least fifty cars on that list, requiring considerable space to store them. A warehouse would be ideal, but the address was an abandoned salvage yard and not a warehouse.
I got out to look around, finding most of the windows broken in and the locks rusted and covered in grime. I wasn’t climbing over broken glass, so I drove around to the side to see if there was another door. The doors were chained shut, and the weeds were so tall, I couldn’t get to the door without a machete. I was no closer to Victor or his stolen cars, and the sun had disappeared, and streetlights replaced the sunlight. It was getting late. I needed to get back to the bar.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the alley behind the bar, unblocked the backdoor, and stepped inside the storeroom. My office was on one side, and Brenda’s on the other, with another small storeroom and freezer behind the kitchen.
Brenda was behind the bar serving beer to a regular when I joined her. “Yo, St. James, you finely made it.” was the greeting I got from a regular customer. I nodded yes and started helping Brenda behind the bar. After we closed, I told her about finding Lew and his wife dead.
Early the next morning, I drove to Lew’s Salvage Yard to relive Walt. He said it had been quiet, and no one had been around. While he headed home to sleep, I knew I couldn’t keep a twenty-four-hour watch on the place and still deal with Victor. I still wasn’t sure what he’d do, but it would be violent. I fished out the card he’d left for Lew from my pocket. There was a phone number.
I headed back to the bar and called the number. “Victor?”
“Yeah. Who’s this? How’d you get this number.?”
“It’s St. James. We met yesterday at Lew’s.”
“Yeah, I remember. What do you want?”
“Lew told me about the cash, but he didn’t say how much there was.”
“Twenty Grand. You want it?”
“Maybe. Lew might not have been interested in your deal, but I could be.” I let my words trail off. I didn’t let on that I knew Lew was dead.
“Yesterday, you told me to get lost.”
Yeah, I know, but I just found out I need some serious cash right away. I know some people who can move your cars.”
“What about Lew?”
“What about Lew? I own the business now.”
“So, it’s like that?”
“Yeah, it’s like that. Hate to do it to Lew, but I need the cash fast.”
“All right, The deals are the same, You get me new titles and make my cars clean again, and the twenty grand is yours.
“Fifty?” Victor’s voice raised an octave.
“Yeah, at least that much. If I do this, I need enough to disappear for good, and frankly, Lew needs some for his trouble. I want to see the cars before I start creating the paperwork.”
“You’ll see ‘em when I deliver them for the new paperwork.”
Not good enough. I want to know what I’m risking my neck for and screwing Lew over.”
“Yeah, right.” He was quiet for a minute.
“All right, You can see them. You got a number?”
I gave him the number for the third line to the bar. We only used it for my undercover work.
“I’ll call you later today.”
After he hung up, I called Bob, filled in him on my findings at the first yard, and gave him the VINs I copied. Then I told him about my deal with Victor. He wasn’t happy about my arranging the meeting but agreed it was better than doing nothing. He told me they had found witnesses that put Victor and his cronies at Lew’s house.
I spent the rest of the morning working around the bar and catching up on paperwork in my office. About noon, the third line rang.
I picked up the receiver. “Yeah?”
“St. James?” It was Victor.
“Yeah, you got the cars?”
“Yeah, I have them at one of my lots. You can come see them for yourself.”
“Where and what time? And the fifty grand?”
“Hell no, I’m not giving you fifty grand upfront.”
“Twenty upfront, rest when I’m done.”
“Yeah. That’s fine. I’ll bring the twenty.”
“That’s assuming I take the job. If the cars are all junk, I’m not doing it, no matter how bad I need the money.”
“They’re all good.”
He told me where and when and hung up. I called Bob, giving him the information.
I arrived at the lot early. Not sure what I’d find, I didn’t get too close. I spotted an old church that overlooked the lot. I decided I wanted a vantage point to get the lay of the land. I pushed in a side door of the abandoned church and climbed up the winding staircase inside the bell tower. It was dusty and full of cobwebs, but I could see the car lot from the top of the tower quite well. I noticed tracks in the soggy ground from a big rig, probably a car carrier that transported the cars here.
A movement at the far end of the street caught my attention. Recognizing Victor’s Cadillac, I hurried down the circular stairs to my car. I stood by the Packard with my hand near my revolver as the Cadillac pulled up.
Victor got out and slammed the door. The resounding thud echoed through the empty street. Victor was still wearing his hat low over his eyes, and the coat he wore looked expensive even from a distance. Up close, he oozed money, and I knew he liked everyone to know he had money. Two goons got out of a second car.
“Wells are deep. Let’s see the cars. You got a list?”
He pulled the paper I’d seen yesterday from inside his pocket. I took it and read it over. Victor played with his hat while I took my time reading the list. Most of it was for show. I wanted him to stew as much as I could.
“Okay, looks good. Let’s see if the cars match the list.”
He led me to the main gate. One of his goons ran ahead and unlocked the padlock and chain, and swung the gate open as we approached it. I saw nearly 50 cars enclosed in a tall privacy fence.”
I walked past the cars, looked at each VIN, and checked it against new ones on the list. Bob had confirmed the first five VINs I had given him were stolen vehicles. They were here.
“Let’s see the money.”
Victor grunted, and the other goon appeared with the same briefcase from Lew’s place. The goon unceremoniously slammed the case onto the hood of a 1949 Mercedes-Benz 170S. The two-door convertible was in excellent shape and would get a good price on the black market.
“Careful!” Victor growled at his henchman, who muttered “sorry” as he opened the case. Inside was the stack of bills that Lew had described. “Twenty grand as we agreed.”
I nodded and glanced at the open gate. Reaching under my jacket, I extracted my revolver. “I’ve got a new deal for you, Victor, I don’t shoot you, and you go to jail for grand theft and attempted blackmail and murder.”
As Victor reached for his gun under his fancy coat, a voice yelled out, “Don’t even think about it. Pull the gun out slowly with two fingers and lay it on the money.”
“What the hell?” was all Victor could get out.
Bob and several uniformed officers emerged through the gate. Victor turned red as he realized I’d set him up. His goons, who had drawn their weapons, carefully laid their guns on the grounds—dissuaded by the officers’ shotguns.
Bob twisted Victor’s arm behind his back and cuffed him. “I’m arresting you for the murder of Lew Potter and his wife. We have several witnesses placing you and them,” Bob pointed to the two goons, who were now in cuffs, “at the Potter house before their deaths.”
I spent the next day giving an official statement to Bob. A week later, Brenda and I attended the Potter’s funerals. That night I sat in the bar drinking a beer. Brenda sat down next to me and kissed me on the cheek. I returned the kiss.
“Look, Jim, you did the right thing and the best you could. You tried to help him, but….”
“Victor was one step ahead of me.”
“Jim, put it behind you. Victor’s going to jail, and tomorrow a new case will walk in, and you’ll do your best for them. “
Brenda kissed me again, and I slipped my arms around her. She was right. The next time that door opened, it could be a new case. I took a drink of my beer, and as I sat the mug down, I heard the bell on the entrance door tinkle. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Wonder if that’s my next case.