Meet Kevin Pulaski, the hero of Cobb’s fourth novel, West on 66. Here Pulaski is an Indiana teenager, years before becoming an L.A. police detective. But his penchant for fast cars and fast thinking already are well established.
By James H. Cobb
Man, right up until then it had been a really, really smooth night.
You know, the kind we get back here in Indiana a lot during the summer. Two gajillion stars overhead and warm enough to let you cruise ’til dawn with the top down. However, it was just past midnight when I wheeled my black Deuce-nosed ’29 into the empty parking lot of the Route 22 Diner, spraying gravel and feeling good.
I gave the little fenderless Ford a friendly slap on her hood because she had been a very good girl that evening, then ambled on in through the stainless art deco doors of the Route 22. Parking myself on one of the counter stools, I slapped my palm on the Monel counter top. “Innkeeper, a malt of the chocolate persuasion, if you please. Make it an extra thick.”
Eddie, the night counterman, rolled his eyes toward the tin ceiling and reached for a malt tumbler.
“You’re happy and rich tonight, Pulaski. Somebody must have been suckered.”
I reached into the pocket of my leather jacket and flashed the trio of Lincolns. “Five dollars a gear with a college guy from Indy. He and his buddies were out cruising in his dad’s new ’48 Caddy convertible, feeling real impressed with themselves. You’d figure somebody bright enough to go to college would realize that there ain’t no way a big showboat Cadillac can accelerate with a stripped-down and gowed-up Model A.”
“Yeah, but he should have busted you once you hit the high end,” Eddie replied, dumping a scoop of vanilla into the blender can. “That track roadster of yours is quicker ’n spit off the line, but the big V8s can still kill you in top gear.”
While Eddie’s not a rodney himself, our pack of local hop-up hounds have hung around his joint long enough for him to pick up on the jive.
“That is the truth,” I agreed, “but, you see, I sort of organized for this race to take place over on that little side street near the airport. It’s prime for drag racing; all paved and straight and no traffic. The thing is, there isn’t too much of it. We went up through the gears and that college guy finally got that big ’ol Caddy cranking and he was just starting to move in on me when, dang, we ran clean out of road.”
The little counterman sighed and dusted a last pinch of dry malt across the top of my shake. “Pulaski, unless you manage to wrap yourself around a telephone pole first, somebody is going to shoot you one of these days.”
“Either way, man, I hope I go out grinning.” I reached over and flipped a nickel into the counter Play-O-Matic.
I was taking my first pull from my glass when the sound of a distant car engine leaked past Peggy Lee’s latest.
“You got two customers coming in,” I said. “Steve Roccardi and Julie Kennedy will be walking through that door inside of a minute.”
Eddie cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “Now how do you know that?”
I tapped the side of my shake tumbler. “Bet you the tab for this malt. Double or nothing.”
For the second time that night, it was no contest. The two-toned, rippling snarl grew in intensity and swung off the highway. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder and out the windows to know that a T-Bucket roadster, channeled, Indy-nosed and fire engine red, was parking beside the A-Bomb. I also didn’t need to look to know that my buddy Steve would be driving the little rod. The tricky part was Julie, but the odds favored her sitting at Steve’s side these days.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Eddie grumbled, filling a couple of water glasses and setting them on the counter.
The thing was, when I did get around to taking a look at my friends, I could see that we had grief. Steve has dark, Greek-sailor kind of good looks and generally is a pretty genial kind of guy. Tonight, though, he looked mad enough to spit thunderbolts. Julie’s pretty blue eyes were red from a whole lot of crying, too. It was time for ol’ Uncle Kevin to make with the inquiries.
Steve and me are what you call muy simpatico, even though he’s graduated while I’m still making the high school scene. Both of our dads work for the railroad. Both of us are outsiders who’d come to Fairmont at about the same time, and both of us live and breathe hot rod. We’ve swapped car parts and speed tips and have stood as pit crew to each other at half of the unsanctioned circle tracks in Indiana.
Julie on the other hand is a local who comes from the other side of our dads’ tracks. She’s a rare dish of a sweet little blonde and, of late, she and Steve have been spending a lot of time staring deep into each other’s eyes.
And therein lies the hitch. You see, Julie’s father owns Fairmount’s only jewelry store, and while the little hole-in-the-wall place isn’t exactly Tiffany’s, you’d never know it from the way Mr. Kennedy acts. His one-man consensus is that his daughter is way too good for the Spanish-Italian son of a GM&O section man. Of late, whenever Steve looked honked and Julie had tears, it was generally because of some hang-up with ol’ Daddy-O.
“What’s tickin’, gang,” I commented as they claimed the stools beside me. “What gives with the bringdown?”
“The usual, Kev, only more of it,” Steve replied grimly. “Static with Julie’s dad. Big-time.”
I dug my half-squashed pack of Luckys out of my jacket pocket and offered him one. “So, like, what else is new?”
Julie gave a kind of shuddery sigh. “This is different, Kevin. Today Dad put his foot down. He says I can’t see Steve anymore. Ever.”
“And I’m talking to a mirage here?”
My friends grinned in spite of themselves. “Nope,” Steve replied, reaching over to squeeze Julie’s hand. “But I guess it’s time for a showdown. Julie and me have to make some decisions, and we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do.”
Heck, I knew what they needed to do. So did most everyone else in town who’d ever seen them walking around totally gooney in love with each other. Steve and Julie just needed a chance to talk themselves into it.
“Okay, so lay the word on me. Maybe the Kev can help.”
They hit Eddie up for a couple of cokes and started the yarn.
“I’ve been helping Dad out in the store this summer,” Julie began. “And late this afternoon, yesterday afternoon now I guess, Steve dropped in for a minute to see me. Dad doesn’t like it when Steve hangs around, but I couldn’t see how it could hurt just for a little while. Anyway, Dad had been called down to the bank, and I always feel kind of nervous minding the place myself.”
Julie gave another shuddery sigh and took a disinterested sip of her coke. “We were just standing at the counter talking, when all of a sudden my father comes storming out of the back room. I mean he just tears into Steve right there and then. I don’t think it even would have made any difference if we’d had any customers. He just starts threatening Steve and yelling these awful things.”
“Yeah,” Steve added scowling. “I could have taken it if he’d just kept it to me, but he went after my family. He called my father a damn, dirty wop and a bunch of other stuff. And then he said some things about Julie, too. I’m tellin’ you, Jackson, I almost decked him on the spot. As it was, I said some stuff back and walked out before I blew totally.”
“Smart move, kid” Eddie commented. And it was. You know what they think about teenagers these days. If Steve had hung a fat lip on Julie’s old man, no matter how well deserved, he’d have caught hell for it.
“So then?” says I.
Steve shrugged, “So nothing. I was so steamed I couldn’t stand being still. I got in the T-Bucket and I started cruising. Man, I burned a full tank of gas just driving around all over the county trying to cool down. Once I did, I came back to town and picked Julie up. We have to start getting some things straight.”
“Didn’t her dad have anything to say about that?”
Julie smiled one of her “for Steve only” smiles and rested her hand on his shirt collar. “We got lucky. Dad got called down to the store for some reason tonight, and I snuck out the back door when I heard Steve’s car drive past. I’m sure Mom’s called Dad by now, but I don’t care. They’ve already grounded me ’till I’m about 40, so what else are they going to do?”
I gave her a thumbs up. “Cool, Sweetness. That’s flyin’ with Doolittle.”
I dig hanging around with fighters.
I’d just started thinking about my friends’ problems when one of my own showed up. Gravel crunched in the parking lot and a black and white Ford sedan with a Fairmont police badge on the door pulled up in front. A few moments later the massive, slope-shouldered silhouette of Officer Hyram Dooley loomed in the doorway.
Dooley’s been playing Elmer Fudd to my Bugs Bunny for better than a year now, ever since the A-Bomb and I started to develop our rather rapid reputation on the local back roads. He hasn’t caught us yet, of course, but hey, he’s always in there pitchin’, you know? Generally I don’t pack a grudge about it. In a way, having somebody like old Dewlap hanging on your tailpipes isn’t such a bad thing. It keeps a guy from getting sloppy.
Dooley’s patrol partner follows him into the diner, and the two cops eye us balefully, trying to look ominous.
“Top ’o the evenin’ Officer Dooley,” quoth I, rotating my stool to face the justice merchants. “What can I be doin’ for ye this foin night?”
My natural suspicion is that this has to do with that little acceleration contest out by the airport. However, I’m swiftly proved wrong.
“Nothing, for once, Pulaski,” he growled back. “Beyond keeping your trap shut and staying out of my way. I’ve got business with Roccardi here.”
Steve’s brows came together. “Me? What’s the problem, officer?”
“No problem, son. We just want to talk to you.”
When a cop tells you that in that tone of voice, yeah, there is a problem.
Julie, Eddie, and I watched as they leaned Steve against the counter for a pat-down. “Alright, Roccardi,” Dooley said crisply. “Where were you about 10:30 tonight?”
“Uh, just around.” Even to Julie and me it sounded a little lame. And we knew what he was talking about.
“What do you mean by ‘around?’”
“I mean that I was just cruising around. I couldn’t say exactly where I was at 10:30. Out east of town somewhere, I guess.”
“Or maybe you were around Main Street at about that time,” Dooley’s partner cut in, double-teaming Steve.
“No, I was clear out of town.” Steve started getting a little hot under the collar. “Hey, what’s going on here? What’s with the questions?”
Dooley answered with another one. “You mind if we have a look at your car, son.”
“You have a reason you don’t want anyone looking at your car, boy?”
This was an accusation, not a question.
“No! But I wish somebody would tell me what you’re looking for.”
“Don’t worry, son. You’ll know if we find it.” Dooley gave his partner a curt nod and the second patrolman headed out to the parking lot to shake down Steve’s rod.
It got real quiet in the diner. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Steve’s fingers start to curl into fists. “Be cool, man,” I murmured. “Be cool.”
“Listen to your friend, Rocarrdi,” Dooley growled. “For once he’s making sense.”
It didn’t take ’em long to score.
Dooley’s partner came back inside, holding up a plastic-handled screwdriver. “I found this under the front seat,” he announced, “It’s the same make of screwdriver as we found in the store. It looks like it might be part of a set. I found these, too.”
The patrolman held out his other hand. Gold gleamed in his palm.
Dooley dug a folded sheet of paper out of his shirt pocket. Flipping it open, he methodically consulted it. “One opal ring in a gold setting and a gold chain necklace. Yeah, they’re both on the preliminary list Kennedy gave us.” He turned to Steve and unhooked the handcuffs from his belt. “Okay, son, you’re coming with us. Don’t make any more trouble for yourself by making any trouble for us.”
It was a hard call to say which of us was the most stunned, Steve, Julie, or me.
“Under arrest? Why?” Julie cried, her voice rising as she came to her feet.
Dooley finished slapping the cuffs on my bewildered buddy. “It seems, Miss Kennedy, that someone broke into your father’s store tonight and cleaned the place out. And we’ve just found some of the stolen jewelry in your boyfriend’s car.”
Things got kind of crazy after that. I called a mutual friend of ours to come out and pick up Steve’s car. Then, leaving the T-Bolt’s keys with Eddie, I took a halfways hysterical Julie back to her place. After that, I headed down to the Fairmont police station to get the straight skinny on what was going on.
I’m sort of persona non grata at the local justice dispensary, but one of the younger automotively oriented cops knows me from the dirt track circuit, and he passed me the word.
Late on last evening, Ben Schyler, the night watchman hired by the Fairmount Merchant’s Association, had been making his rounds along Main when he spotted what looked like a light inside Kennedy’s jewelry store. He crossed the street to take a closer look, and just as he started to check the front door he heard a hot rod blasting out of the alley behind the building.
Mr. Schyler is sort of stove up, so it took him a minute to get around in back. By that time, the car was long gone, but the busted rear door of Kennedy’s Jewelry was still standing open.
Schyler yelled for the cops and when the night cruiser showed up, they found that several of the display cases inside the store had been cleaned out. They found some other interesting stuff, too. An 18-inch screwdriver that had been used as a jimmy and a two-cell flashlight, dropped apparently when the burglar had fled the scene. Steve Roccardi’s name had been scratched on both.
Steve’s fingerprints had also been found all over the place, although Steve had an explanation for that. What he couldn’t explain was what his screwdriver and flashlight were doing inside the jewelry store. Last time he’d looked, both items had been rattling around under the seat of his car.
Likewise, Steve couldn’t provide the name of anyone who could prove his whereabouts between his gassing up on the outskirts of town at 8 o’clock and his arrival at Julie’s place shortly before midnight. Between those hours he’d just been a set of headlights on a back road.
It looked rank, man. Steve would have had more than enough loose time to do both the dirty deed and stash the loot.
Steve’s dad showed up, looking kind of blasted, like someone you’d see wandering around in the road after a bad car crash. Because of Steve’s otherwise clean record, and because he was technically still only “under suspicion,” he was released to his father. There would be a hearing at 10 the next morning, when the call would be made as to whether charges would be pressed.
I had a hunch this was only a formality. From the way things were sounding, they already had Steve convicted and in the can. I could only give Steve a thumb’s up as he and his dad took off. Then I headed for home, feeling lower then a bull snake’s balls.
It was almost 3 o’clock by the time I turned the A-Bomb into the alley behind our house and the lights were glowing in the kitchen. I was way past due and the folks were waiting up. For once I was glad.
Dad’s a big, old, raw-boned, pan-faced Pollack with dark hair and eyes and the only beard in town worn by anyone under the age of 60. The beard sort of gives him a little bit of a sinister air, like the classic image of a Bolshevik bomb-thrower. (In fact, during one rather heated election meeting down at the Railroad Workers Brotherhood, Big Red Sullivan actually accused Dad of being a Bolshevik. However, Red apologized after Dad threw him down two flights of stairs, so there weren’t any hard feelings.)
Mom’s a lot more like me, brown-haired and blue-eyed and on the short and quick side. She does smiles as well as Dad does scowls, but even she was frowning as I came through the back door.
Dad gave me one of “those” looks from his seat at the kitchen table. “Three o’clock,” he said.
“Yeah, dad, I know,” I replied hanging my ponyskin up by the door. “But for a change, I got a good reason.”
I pulled a chair up to the kitchen table and started laying out the story. By the time I was finished, Mom had materialized a slab of cherry pie and a glass of milk at my elbow so I knew all had been forgiven.
Dad frowned and shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like the Steve Roccardi I know. Joe Roccardi is a good man, and I haven’t heard anything different about his son. A little hotheaded maybe, but no kind of thief.”
“I can’t see it either,” my mother added, “but even the best people can surprise you at times.”
“Ah, come on, Mom, no way! Somebody is setting Steve up on this thing.”
“That’s a pretty melodramatic claim, son,” she replied, arching an eyebrow. “Most people in town will prefer the simpler explanation, that your friend did commit the burglary.”
“But there isn’t a living soul in town who can say they actually saw Steve bust into Mr. Kennedy’s place. Even the night watchman only saw a light in the front window. All the evidence is, what do you call it...”
“Circumstantial,” Mom finished. “That’s true. But a lot of people have been convicted and sent to prison on circumstantial evidence alone. All the prosecuting attorney needs is enough of it.”
Mom worked as a secretary for a law firm before she married Dad, so she’s up on this legal jazz.
“You also have to remember that the boy had a powerful motive beyond mere theft. Retaliation against Mr. Kennedy over the matter of his daughter. And as your father said, Steve apparently has a reputation as a hothead. This doesn’t look good, Kevin.”
“He also has the reputation of running with a pretty wild crowd,” Dad added, giving me one of his patented pointed looks.
“Oh, jeez, Dad! Come on! There’s all the difference in the world between, uh, engine testing out on Alsbury Pike and knocking off a jewelry store!”
Dad cocked a bushy eyebrow. “You know that and I know that, but a lot of people around this town aren’t going to see it that way. Young people these days seem to have a knack for making older people nervous.”
“Yeah, well, that’s their tough luck. I don’t give a damn, sorry Mom, about what people around this town think. Steve’s being sold up the river for something he didn’t do. And if nobody else is going to do anything about it, I am!”
“Good,” Dad said, stealing my last forkful of pie, “You’d best get at it, too. It looks like it’s going to be a job of work.”
Man, that left me with my jaw hanging open.
Dad nodded. “If you really believe your friend is innocent, then probably you’re the best man to go about proving it. You know how he thinks, what he does, where he goes. You know the situation and the people involved. If anyone can prove that Steve Roccardi is, in fact, being railroaded for this burglary, likely it’ll be you.”
That’s my Dad. Go to him and say that you’re setting out to do just about any damn fool stunt you can name and he’ll probably just nod and say, “Have fun.”
The thing is, once you’ve made your brag, he expects you to deliver. And he isn’t going to sit there and hold your hand while you try.
“Yeah, I guess so.” I got up from the table and took my pie plate and glass to the sink.
“Well, I guess I’ll turn in. I’ve got some thinking to do.”
“I imagine so, son. Good night and good luck.”
As I climbed the stairs up to my room I heard Mom say quietly. “Joe, are you sure it was such a good idea to encourage Kevin to get involved in this thing? It could cause trouble.”
Dad gave a short laugh. “I never worry about my sons causing trouble, Mary. Some of the greatest men in history have been troublemakers. My concern is that they always do what’s right. And, by God, a man standing up for a friend can’t be wrong.”
It’s easy to spot the dividing line between my brother’s half of the room and mine: The pictures of the football and baseball players stop and the cars start. You can also get a clue from the pinups. Frank has a chubby blonde fixation, while my taste runs toward slim brunettes.
Frank halfways woke up while I was getting ready for bed and grumbled at me and I told him to kiss my ass, in a brotherly fashion. Switching our radio on low, I dialed in Indianapolis. With a whisper of rhythm and blues playing, I flopped on my bed to do that heavy thinking.
I’m not really a big whodunit fan, you know? So I’m not up on this detective jazz. Cars take up most of my free time. (Girls, too. That’s another story.) But one thing I learned from putting the A-Bomb together is that you have to be methodical. If you aren’t working to a plan, you’re in trouble from the start.
Another thing I learned is that you have to have a specific starting point to work from. With my rod, it was a Riley four-port racing head for a Model B Ford engine that I picked up for three bucks at a junk sale. The whole rest of the car sort of grew outward in all directions from that one component as I mixed and matched parts and figured out what worked and what didn’t.
Could I apply the same technique here? And what kind of starting part did I have to work with?
All I had at the moment was this sense down deep where I lived that there was no way my buddy could be guilty of the crime he was charged with.
And you want to know something funny? That was enough.
Oh, it took awhile to work out who’d set Steve up. And it took even longer to figure out what I could do about it. The sky beyond our bedroom window had gone from black to gray to blue by the time I’d worked all of the details out, and the birds were yelling about how neat the new day was going to be.
I rolled out of bed and started to get dressed. I was running empty on sleep, but that didn’t matter. Steve’s arraignment hearing was at 10 o’clock, and I had a lot to get organized.
I guess that an attorney is supposed to wear a suit and a tie into the courtroom. However, I’d had to lay under a couple of cars that morning preparing my case and Mom would have killed me if I’d wrecked my Sunday blue serge, good cause or not. They were going to have to take me as I came, in Levi’s and a greasy leather jacket.
They were all there, the center aisle of the little hearing room dividing the accused from the accusers. Steve and his parents were on the right. His dad, pale and haggard under his work tan, his little plump mom, despairing, yet proud. And Steve, still defiant but kind of resigned, like a gladiator who knows he’s going to get the thumbs down no matter how hard he fights. I hadn’t had the chance to talk to him yet, so he had no notion that maybe the cavalry was coming.
On the other side sat Mr. Harmon Kennedy of Kennedy’s Quality Gold and Jewelry, pink, bald and generating sweat and self-righteousness in equal amounts. A comfortably cool breeze flowed in through the open hearing room windows, but still every few seconds a white handkerchief would flash nervously across his set features.
Officer Dooley was there, a redheaded mountain, and Mr. Schyler too, wearing his night watchman’s uniform and with his bummed-up leg stretched out ahead of him. There was another legal-looking customer there, as well. I recognized him from campaign posters, Mr. Frank Archer, the town district attorney.
It looked like everyone was lining up to take a swing at Fairmont’s first genuine juvenile delinquent.
And straight at the head of the aisle was the lean and vulturey figure of Judge Carl Johannson, a man I’d worked very hard not to come to the attention of. That was going to change here in a few minutes, though.
I kept my mouth shut during the first part of the hearing, keeping cool on the back bench while the DA deftly laid out his case. The break-in at the Kennedy store. The hot rod pulling away into the night. Steve’s fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The evidence recovered from the store and Steve’s car. Steve’s lack of an alibi. He dolled it all up with the appropriate questions asked of the appropriate people and managed to insinuate Steve’s lousy relationship with Mr. Kennedy as well as broad hints about Steve’s wild and antisocial ways. Oh, Mr. Archer just did a honey of a job painting the accused as a budding John Dillinger.
And then the DA was finished and Judge Johannson was set to make the call and man, it was time to choose off and drop the hammer. I stood up.
“Your Honor, (Damn it, what was that phrase they use in the movies? Oh yeah.) may I approach the bench?” Judge Johannson gave me the cold, cold eye, but after a second he nodded. “You may approach the bench, son. What can we do for you?”
I approached the bench, that being the five-dollar word for Judge Johannson’s desk. “My name is Kevin Pulsaki, your honor, and with the court’s permission, I’m here to offer evidence in the case against Steven Roccardi.”
Johannson frowned. “Well, firstly, son, this is not a trial. It’s only a hearing into the charges.”
“I understand that, your honor. My Mom, er, my legal adviser has explained that this is a hearing to ascertain if enough evidence exists to bind Steve over for trial. I think that if you’ll give me the chance, sir, I can show that there isn’t.”
“What the hell is going on here?” I heard the stage whisper behind me, and I glanced back over my shoulder. Mr. Kennedy was leaning over and angrily tugging at the DA’s sleeve. Mr. Archer didn’t look too happy either as he stood to address the judge. “Your honor, the city has already presented its case in this matter. There is more then ample evidence to bind Steven Roccardi over for trial on the charges of burglary in the first degree. I fail to see how this disruption could further the cause of justice.”
Judge Johannson didn’t reserve that cold stare of his just for teenagers. “I’m sure that the District Attorney’s Office feels this is the case, Mr. Archer. However, this hearing is to review the evidence outstanding against Steven Roccardi. All of it. If there is more to be heard on this matter, then it will be.”
The Judge looked back to me and somehow he didn’t look quite as spooky as he did a second ago. “Proceed, Mr. Pulaski. You seem to indicate you can refute some of the county’s evidence against Mr. Roccardi. How so?”
I swallowed hard and started speaking the words I’d carefully laid out in my mind. “This is how it goes, your honor. There are three pieces of evidence against Steve. One is that his fingerprints were found in Mr. Kennedy’s store. Well, that really isn’t a big deal. Anyone can tell you that Steve hangs around there a lot, because of Julie, uh, Mr. Kennedy’s daughter.
“Next is the fact that a screwdriver and a flashlight belonging to Steve were found in the Kennedy store and some of the stolen jewelry was found in Steve’s car. Heck, Judge, you know how it is around Fairmont. Who ever locks their car? Besides, Steve drives an open roadster, usually with the top down. It would have taken only a second for someone to swipe those tools out of his rod or to plant that jewelry, tying Steve into the crime.”
The Judge cocked an eyebrow. “And you have proof this was done, young man?”
“No, I don’t, your honor, but you have to admit the potential exists for it to have been done.”
After another deliberate pause, Judge Johannson nodded again. “The court concedes the possibility. Continue.”
“What I would like to do, your honor, is work on the third piece of evidence, the one that’s supposed to put Steve at the scene of the crime. If it’s okay with the court, I’d like to ask Mr. Schyler a couple of questions.”
Ben Schyler is sort of Fairmont’s personal war hero. He went off to New Guinea during the Pacific campaign and came back packing a Silver Star and a load of shrapnel. He’s too banged up for regular work but he’s also too proud to take charity, so the night watchman job is sort of a town make-do for a brave guy. He looked up at me with a scar-twisted smile as I approached him.
“What do you want to know, son.”
“I know you’ve already told your story here once, Mr. Schyler, but I need to make sure about a couple of things,” I replied. “For one, you never actually saw the car that drove away from behind the Kennedy jewelry store.”
“No, I couldn’t get around the building fast enough, but I sure heard it haul out of there.”
“But even though you never saw it, you’re certain it was a hot rod?”
“It’d be hard to mistake that. It was so loud it rattled the windows when it took off.”
“So it’s safe to say, Mr Schyler, that you heard that car real good.”
I crossed the hearing room to its windows. “With the court’s permission, I’ve arranged for a kind of a demonstration here today.”
Judge Johannson’s hearing room was on the ground floor of the Fairmont courthouse, separated from the city parking lot by only a narrow strip of lawn. A row of cars sat in that parking lot now, four of them hot rods and one that wasn’t. And in each set of wheels sat a kid who wanted to see that Steve Roccardi got an even break.
I gave a wave out the window and held up one finger. Out in the A-Bomb, One-Speed Dean fired up the engine of my little roadster. In a moment the familiar light, fast-revving snarl of her four banger power plant reverberated in through the open window. I let One-Speed blip the gas pedal a couple of times, letting the RPMs peak out, then I drew my finger across my throat in the “cut” gesture.
The Bomb’s mill grumbled down into silence, and I turned back to face the hearing room.
“That’s my car. A ’29 Model A Ford with a Model B four-cylinder engine in it. I run a split manifold and a set of gutted stock mufflers on her. I oil-burned and tuned those cans myself, and they sound pretty good if I do say so.”
I held two fingers out of the windows and a second engine started, a rolling motorboat bubbling that rose and peaked and then backed off again with a sharp angry crackle.
“That’s Jeff Muiready’s ’40 Ford Deluxe coupe. He’s got a half-race Mercury flathead with a custom-built Hollywood exhaust system by Mellowtone. There’s some money tied up in that car.”
I extended three fingers. A third engine kicked over, a deep and vibrant purr that climbed smoothly into a solid, flowing roar of power. It made the windows buzz in their frames, then faded into a rumbling shut down.
“That’s Clint Flock’s chopped ’35. He’s running a Lincoln V12 with Porter steelpacks and 3-inch pipes. A real cherry machine.”
“Is there some purpose behind all this, Mr. Pulaski?” Judge Johannson asked impatiently.
“Yes, sir, there is,” I replied, returning to face the judge’s desk. “I’m what you call establishing a precedent. You see, your honor, every hot rod ever built has a kind of a fingerprint. Something about it that is totally different then any other car in the world. The sound of its engine exhaust.
“It has to be that way. Hot rods are one-of-a-kind creations. Different cars with different engines set up different ways. Different exhaust system with different mufflers and different pipe lengths and diameters, all unique.”
I started back toward the window again. “Mr. Schyler has told how he heard a hot rod pull away from behind the Kennedy jewelry store last night. The thing is, every time he’s said ‘hot rod’ everyone here has heard ‘Steve Roccardi.’ Sure, Steve’s a hot rodder and he drives a rod, but that doesn’t necessarily signify.”
I shot a look at the night watchman. “Mr. Schyler, I’ve got another car here for you to listen to. Listen carefully please.”
Crossing to the window again, I held up four fingers. Out in the parking lot, Steve’s T-Bolt lit off. Julie Kennedy, her face pale and pinched sat behind the wheel of the low slung little bomb, revving its engine, fighting for her guy the only way she could. The sharp-edged, two-tone snarl of the T-Bolt lifted and peaked and held for half-a-minute and then faded as I gave the “kill” signal.
“Okay, Mr Schyler,” I said, turning back to face the hearing room. “Is that what you heard last night behind Mr. Kennedy’s store?”
The night watchman’s expression became puzzled and thoughtful. “No,” he said after a second, “the car I heard last night didn’t sound like that at all.”
It took three fast steps back to the judge’s desk. “Your honor, Steve runs a real unusual set up with his rod, a 270-cubic-inch GMC truck engine blowing through a homemade 2/4 split manifold and a set of Smitty mufflers. Probably not another set of wheels in the state comes close to sounding like it. That is Steve’s car, and I can bring 50 kids in here who can testify to it.”
The judge had a thoughtful expression on his face now, too. And the DA, and Officer Dooley. At long damn last, they were thinking and not just assuming. Everybody but one.
“Your honor. This is ridiculous!” Mr. Kennedy exploded. “Why is the court wasting time with this ridiculous dog and pony show. This young thug’s a crony of the Roccardi boy. Probably he was in on the robbery, too. So maybe they borrowed another car or stole one. I want this wop punk in jail!”
I kind of went cold inside then. I’d given him his chance. I mean, Mr. Kennedy could have admitted there was a reasonable doubt to Steve’s guilt now. I would have been willing to let it go at that. The thing was, he wasn’t, and so we were going to have to go all the way, even though it was going to hurt some people.
“Your honor, I think I’ve proved my point about hot rods all sounding different,” I said, starting back for to the open window for the last time. “But that rule doesn’t apply to unmodified Detroit assembly line automobiles. Mr Schyler, there’s one more car I want you to listen too.”
I held up five fingers.
Out in the parking lot, Amy Vickers pressed the starter of the sedan she’d borrowed from her dad’s car dealership. A hoarse chugging roar echoed in from the parking lot, louder then any other car we’d heard so far. I let it run on for a minute or so, then signaled Amy to kill it.
I didn’t even have to ask the question, Ben Schyler was already nodding. “Yeah, that’s it. That’s a lot more like what I heard last night.”
“Your honor,” I said. “That’s a stock Pontiac straight eight with the muffler taken off to make it sound like somebody’s idea of a hot rod.” I turned slowly to face that somebody. “Mr. Kennedy, you drive a ’47 Pontiac Chieftain, don’t you?”
The perpetual pink flush had drained from the jeweler’s face, and he wordlessly rose to his feet. But then Officer Dooley was at his side, pushing him back down into his chair.
All of a sudden, that night without sleep caught up with me and I felt really tired. “Hey Dooley,” I said. “If you go out and have a look under Mr. Kennedy’s car, you can see the marks on the exhaust pipe where the muffler was recently removed and remounted.”
Even though I was the guy who’d solved the thing, I got chased out of the hearing room pretty quickly after that. I replaced Amy’s dad’s muffler and turned the other rodneys loose with my thanks. Then I staked a claim on a park bench across from the courthouse and awaited developments.
About an hour or so later, Dooley came out and crossed the street, looking like a man who needed to sit in the shade for awhile. As he approached I untwisted a pack of Luckys from my t-shirt sleeve and offered him one. He gave me an instinctive glower, then halfways smiled. Accepting the smoke, he sat down on the bench beside me.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s pretty much wrapped up,” Dooley replied. “Kennedy isn’t exactly a hardened criminal, so he spilled. He sank every dime he had into that jewelry store of his and come to find out, Fairmont isn’t big enough to support it. He’s in debt up to his ears, and he has mortgage payments on both his house and store coming due. When he got desperate enough, he decided to try and fake a robbery. Between his insurance and the money he would have gotten selling his stock to a fence, he figured he would have been able to get out from under.”
“Yeah, and by railroading Steve for the job, he’d be killing two birds with one stone. He’d get rid of the boy he couldn’t stand seeing his daughter with.”
The big cop nodded. “That’s about the shape of it. Kennedy’s confessed to planting both the flashlight and the jewelry and to gimmicking his car to sound like a hot rod. He timed his fake burglary to coincide with Ben Schyler’s rounds specifically to throw additional suspicion in the direction of the Roccardi boy, gambling that Roccardi wouldn’t have a solid alibi for that time frame. And it almost worked.”
“So what happens now? How bad is Mr. Kennedy going to get burned?”
“That’s hard to say. The DA and the judge are working that out now with Kennedy’s lawyer. Kennedy has a couple of things going for him. For one, he hadn’t filed his insurance claim yet, so technically he can’t be hit for insurance fraud. And for another, the Roccardi boy has refused to press charges. That’ll help. Still, though, the Kennedys have some hard times ahead.”
Across the street, a little group of people left the courthouse. The Roccardis, plus one. Julie Kennedy was with them. Steve’s arm was around her shoulders and his mom and dad were walking family close. No matter what, Julie at least wouldn’t be facing her hard times alone. And who knows, Mr. Kennedy might even come to realize that his future in-laws were pretty good folks after all.
“Okay, Pulaski,” Officer Dooley went on. “Now you can tell me something. All that business with the car exhausts was pretty cute, but what I want to know was what put you onto Kennedy in the first place? Was it just because he had a grudge on against Roccardi?”
“Sure, there was that, Dooley,” I replied, snubbing my cigarette butt out on the arm of the bench. “But there was something else, too. Something that, when you thought about it for a while, pointed straight to Mr. Kennedy and nobody else.”
The Dewlap looked puzzled. “Okay, I’ll bite. What was it?”
“The jewelry you guys found planted in Steve’s hot rod. Look at what you call ‘the chain of events’ yesterday. Steve goes over to the Kennedy jewelry store late in the afternoon to visit with Julie. Her dad walks in. There’s a big blowup and Steve honks out of there feeling frosted. In fact, Steve is so honked off, he cruises around the county all evening working off his mad. When he does hit town again, he goes over to Julie’s place, picks her up, then goes straight out to the diner where you pick him up.
“Get it, man? There is no way anyone could have put that jewelry in Steve’s rod after the burglary because, from the time of the burglary on, Steve was sitting in his car. At a minimum, those pieces of jewelry must have been planted several hours before the burglary was ever committed. And the only guy who could have done that was Mr. Kennedy himself. Probably he stashed the stuff under Steve’s seat at the same time he lifted the tools out of the car, just before he picked that big fight in the jewelry store. You dig?”
Dooley nodded his head and gave a grudging smile. “Yeah, I ‘dig.’ I have to admit it, Pulaski. That was a smart piece of detective work.”
“You think?” I slouched down on the bench, stretching my legs out onto the gravel path in front of me. “I don’t know. All the time I just had this feeling in my gut that it wasn’t Steve.
“Guts and brains are what its about, Pulaski.” Dooley paused for a second, then continued. “Hey, kid, you ever thought about going on the cops?”
I threw my head back and had the best laugh I’d had all day. “Me? A cop? Come on, Dooley!”
After a minute he started laughing, too.