Fiction

One Lift Too Many

A short story by Carl Dow
Editor and publisher
True North Perspective

The city's PanAmerica News branch was a closed shop as tight as any Atlantic waterfront union local run by gangsters. Only this hive of criminal activity was two thousand kilometers inland. It had no links to either a legitimate union or the mafia. It was run by remnants of what the newspapers had dubbed the Inchbury Gang — teenagers who had learned to terrorize the city's west end while their fathers were away laying to rest the malicious adolescents in adult bodies who had started World War II.

Not even the depot's front office was immune from the gang's control. They had a shipping and receiving clerk planted there ten years before, when the Inchbury's were just beginning to cross the threshold into chronological manhood and saw a bright opportunity to beat the system and stay out of jail. The plant in back of the office was staffed by females now mostly in their twenties. Each and every one of them had a blind eye and received her cut.

The current leader of the Inchbury Gang was a cigarillo-smoking, sandy-haired thirty-five year old respectfully, and not surprisingly, called Sandy. It was Sandy, not the company's branch manager, who decided who would work there. When an opening developed, a recruit satisfactory to the gang was sent to apply. If not pleasing to the boss, one would follow another until the boss gave the nod. Anyone who had not been approved by Sandy, but who had somehow slipped through the gang's defenses and ended up on the payroll, was given an initiation with such enthusiasm that he or she would resign in tears within a few days. Sandy, who always drove the newest truck and always drove the boss to and from work, would be quick to commiserate with the boss that some people just didn't have the right stuff to work for PanAmerica News.

PanAmerica News was the distributor throughout the city, and to satellite cities and towns right through to Lake Erie, of paperbacks, magazines, comics, pens, pencils, and yo-yos. Last year, on yo-yos alone, the branch went eighteen hundred dollars in the hole on ten thousand dollars of yo-yos.

The branch manager was suspended. Took a holiday, it was called. A man came in from head office. He noted and made ironic comment on the shiny expensive cars that the drivers parked in the company's lot beside the building. Though they were making only twenty-seven dollars a week (low even for 1956), the drivers sported sleek new Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac convertibles. They were partial to General Motors because their employer's fleet of one-ton panel Chevy and GM trucks had those powerful straight-six engines that could be driven flat-out in each gear and never fail. The motors had been made for war and surplus spilled over to civilians until they were used up and GM could return to the more profitable built-in obsolescence.

The man from head office was convinced that there had been no sign of a break-in. Each employee was interviewed separately. Each employee was as friendly and as eager as the next to learn the truth but each was as baffled as the next. There came no explanation for the missing stock. Finally the man from head office concluded that a previous employee with a key had stolen the missing yo-yos. The locks were changed and it was ruled that only the branch manager and Sandy should have a key. The branch manager resumed his authority. Sandy resumed his responsibility to drive him to and from work, as well as to honcho the drivers and the bundle makers. Meanwhile, throughout the city and district to Lake Erie, Mamas and Papas in their usually corner stores, continued to accept ten per cent of PanAmerica News items under the counter at half the wholesale price.

Because they considered themselves nothing more than delivery boys, it was a running joke among the drivers that at city hall the company had listed them as Promotion Men. Their ironic humour led them to have a golf day just like doctors. Each Wednesday after lunch the company's seven bright green trucks with white lettering could be seen on the parking lot of a miniature golf club up on the escarpment the locals called The Mountain. Just like doctors, the Promotion Men played their considerably scaled down version of golf. They took what was to them a far less expensive reasonable facsimile just as they took about everything else the company had without being so greedy that they forced it into bankruptcy.

Sandy had married a west end beauty. They had two beautiful children. They lived in a well-kept home in the working class district, the centre of which was Inchbury Park. Working class in this city did not mean slum. Generally, unless fallen into the trap of alcohol, the men worked steady and made the going wage that had skyrocketed during and after the war with the coming of the union to the steel mills. So the Inchbury district was neat, clean, well-repaired and painted. Sandy and his wife were a happy couple and doting parents.

As plant foreman, Sandy drove the newest truck. Because he was assigned to delivering the branch manager from and to home, he had the privilege of taking the truck home each day and using it for modest personal use. Sandy was scrupulous about overuse, so each Saturday he would go to a branch of a national agency and rent a car so that he could take his family for a drive after Sunday school and church. He had been doing this for years. At the agency he was so well known that the papers would be waiting for him. All he had to do was sign them, put down the required deposit, pocket the receipt and he was gone until he brought the car back Sunday night when he took his truck home. His wife and children thoroughly enjoyed their Sunday drives in a car that was new every year.

Street crime was something from which he had been able to wean himself without too much difficulty after he caught a .32 slug in the gut. It had been one lift too many. The police were waiting for them in a carefully camouflaged stakeout.

The judge showed leniency because the gang had been armed with only realistic metal starting pistols. Everyone but Sandy got two years less-a-day and all were out in about six months on good behaviour. Because Sandy was the leader, the judge put him in the pen for three years but he was out in one. He married shortly after. When he applied, in the company of his parole officer, at PanAmerica News for a job as a driver, Sandy came clean, saying that he had been stupid, that he had learned that crime was for mugs, that he had married and wanted nothing more than to go straight. Sandy had the advantage of good looks and disarming charm to match his intelligence. He worked hard and soon became driver and shop foreman. He then began to stack the drivers and back shop in the gang's favour.

With the moderation that comes with aging, and the success of their current operation, the remnants of the gang would gather once a week over poker, and from time to time, as is natural to veterans of all wars, would wax nostalgic about their past, and, using the vernacular of shoplifters, would agree that their final bank heist had been one lift too many. They would pledge anew that they'd never be so stupid as to take that extra step that would lead to compounded failure. They were all good friends, but they took their poker seriously. Because they knew that there was no such thing as poker being a friendly game, a hard and fast rule was that they played for nothing more than penny stakes, so that even a heavy loser could be down no more than ten bucks once the night was done.

Sandy was one of the better players. He was a natural who usually knew how to handle the luck of the draw. However, he not only liked the action, as did the others, but he found himself developing an addiction to winning bigger and bigger stakes. This led him to floating poker games beyond the informality of his gang and into the arena of an underworld that meant business in gambling. Mostly he would win or break even. One time he was bitten hard and, lost to compulsion, came face-to-face with a seven thousand dollar debt, almost twice a workingman's good annual wage in those days. The thugs carried his marker and he wallowed on balance for a few weeks but was never able to break ahead enough to pay off. Soon he was politely taken aside by enforcers. He was told that he had to beg, borrow, or steal, they didn't care which, but if he wanted to stay healthy he had to produce by next Monday. He was reminded, gently, that they knew where he worked, and where he lived.

On Saturday evening after shopping with the truck and helping his wife put the kids to bed, he went to the car rental to pick up the newest Pontiac. He drove home and he and his wife gave each other baths and then made satisfying love. When his wife was asleep, he dressed, got in the car and drove to a satellite community fifty kilometers northwest of the city. He parked and walked two blocks to the main street and entered behind a row of stores by an alley. A ten-foot high fence stood between him and his goal but he was young and slender enough to leap, get a good grip, heave himself up, and take himself onto the ground on the other side.

He stopped steady, not even breathing. Listening. Satisfied that he was clear, he stepped silently to the back window of the store that he had made sure to unlock on his Friday delivery. For years he had watched the owner put money into the safe. The combination was burned in his memory. He also knew the amount of cash of the weekly receipts was about eight to ten thousand dollars that the owner would always deposit on Monday. He liked the owner. They usually had coffee together on his stops. But the owner had insurance. The owner could afford the loss. Sandy could not afford to stiff those who ran the floating poker game.

Before he touched the window he put on rubber gloves, leaving nothing to chance. Then, with a flashlight, he opened the window, climbed in and was at the safe. He knew where everything was outside, and in the safe, so stuffing his pockets and getting back over the fence took less than five minutes. He was in his car and back on the highway toward home in less than ten. Once on the open road he checked his rearview mirror again and was satisfied that there was no one following him. He had gotten away clean. He patted his pockets with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Just this once, he promised himself, just this once. A stumble, never again. He turned on the radio and lost himself in hurtin' music, thinking about how happy he was to have his wonderful wife and their lovely, healthy children. It was a good life.

The next morning, at breakfast with his family, there came a knock on the door. His wife answered. She came back to him white as bleached flour. She touched her lips with the back of her hand, her eyes round as she said, "I'll swear you were here all night. They can't make me talk. But I sure as hell would like to know where you were."

Sandy's children-friendly face tightened to denial with a slight shake of his head.

From the door one of the men, concerned for the children, palmed a piece of paper and quietly said, "Warrant."

Sandy was stunned. He had gotten away clean. "What for?"

The other man said with a flat smile, "We found this in front of the safe."

Sandy was up on his feet now, approaching, his jaw clamped. The detective was holding the car rental receipt, the only document that could have identified him. He had left everything, even his driver's license, in the truck's glove compartment. The receipt must have fallen out when he was stuffing his pockets with money.

For the sake of the kids the detectives waived the handcuffs.

As he settled in the back seat of the unmarked car, Sandy closed his eyes with a face that revealed the full force of his self-deprecation. What he had done — well, getting caught for it anyway, would throw their operation at PanAmerica News into jeopardy. The gang would be annoyed; would they be forgiving? After promising never again — for the second time in his life, he had made one lift too many.


End

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