A Little Ride in the Car cover

A Little Ride in the Car

By E.E. Roberts

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1972

© 1971 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

Jack, babysitting his three-year-old son Tim, ran out of cigarettes. Surely it would be safe to go to the nearest store to buy a fresh pack, taking his little boy with him. But what then happened to Jack—could it have also happened to you? In any city in the United States? In any city in the world? And if it could have happened to you, how would you have handled the clear and present danger, the dreadful peril?

It all started out so innocently. I’d run out of cigarettes too early in the evening. Ordinarily I’d have brought a supply home, but I’d promised my wife I’d quit after this pack. Tonight, though, she was out—at her bridge club—and not expected back before midnight. As a result I was stuck home babysitting our three-year-old, and I’d soon be climbing the walls without a smoke.

A promise was a promise, of course, but I told myself as long as I quit it didn’t really matter if it was this pack or the next. So with that as a sop to my conscience I called Tim.

“Get your jacket,” I said when he looked up curiously from his play. “We’re going for a little ride in the car.” Then as a further sop to my conscience, I added, “We’ll get you an ice cream cone while we’re at it.”

At that Tim’s face turned into a sunbeam and he scampered for his jacket.

It was already starting to get dark when we left the house. But the days were shortening now with the onset of fall, and it was actually only a little past seven. And since it was Friday, the supermarket would still be open for another two hours. But the closest place was Stewart’s, a couple of blocks down. And since tonight I was more interested in saving time than money that’s where I headed.

I parked in the small unlighted lot out back, got Tim unstrapped from his safety seat, and held his hand loosely in mine as we went into the store.

As luck would have it, old Eddie Stewart himself was manning the counter.

“Well, well, well,” he said good-naturedly. “Look who’s shopping in my store.” He was a tall white-maned man with a pleasantly ruddy face which hadn’t changed noticeably in the 30 years he’d had a store on this corner. Now he leaned down over the counter to grin at Tim. “What did you do, son?” he said. “Tell your dad you wanted to see the inside of a good old-fashioned store for once?”

Tim eyed him dubiously, then grinned back.

Stewart ruffled Tim’s hair and straightened up. “What can I do for you, Jack?” he said.

“Just a pack of cigarettes,” I said.

He pulled one out of the display dispenser, handed it to me, and accepted the change I gave him in return. “And for you, young man?” he said to Tim.

“Ice cream cone,” Tim said promptly.

Stewart pulled an exaggeratedly solemn face. “I’m afraid I don’t stock ice cream cones,” he said. “How about some nice peppermint candy or—”

Tim looked up at me pleadingly. “Ice cream cone?”

I laughed. “All right,” I said. “We’ll go to another store and get you an ice cream cone.” I glanced slyly at Stewart. “Apparently your old-fashioned store isn’t as good as you thought.”

Stewart shrugged. “Can’t please everybody,” he said equably. “You ought to know that.”

I laughed again and Tim and I left. It was darker out now and beginning to turn chilly.

I was just straightening up from strapping Tim in when it happened. An arm looped around my neck, puling me back off balance. At the same time something hard—a gun—jabbed into the small of my back.

I froze for one panicky moment. Then the moment passed and I found my voice. “The wallet’s in my hip pocket,” I said carefully. “Take it and no trouble.”

“No trouble is right, pal,” a gruff voice said in my ear. The gun remained firm in my back but the arm left my neck and slipped down to pluck the car keys from my half-raised hand and flip them over the top of the car. Another man stepped swiftly out of the shadows to catch them. Then, moving with almost military precision, the other man unlocked both doors on that side and slipped in the rear beside Tim.

The man with the gun nudged me. “Now you,” he said. “In behind the wheel.”

I did as I was told, moving slowly with exaggerated care. I was afraid as I’d never been afraid before and I wasn’t going to risk any quick movements.

The man outside slammed the door after me. As he did, the man in the rear leaned forward to point a gun squarely at my head along the top edge of the seat.

Tim pointed excitedly. “Daddy,” he cried. “Look at that!” He wasn’t the least bit frightened because in all his three years he’d never seen a gun. Or met an adult who meant him harm.

The man who had grabbed me slid in beside me. He showed his teeth in a wolfish grin that split his flat high cheeked face. “See, Daddy,” he said. “Just like I said—no trouble.”

I found myself flushing under the open contempt in his voice. He saw it and his smile broadened. Without taking his eyes from me he held out his free hand for the car keys. The man in back passed them forward and the one in front stuck them in the ignition lock.

“Okay,” he said. “Now let’s go for a little ride.”

I wet my lips. “Where to?” I said.

“Just drive,” he said harshly. “We’ll get round to where later.”

I started the motor and pulled out of the lot.

“It’s7:30, Arnie,” the man in back said. “There ought tb be some news on now.”

Arnie reached out to switch on the radio. Music blared and he flicked from station to station until he picked up a newscast. We sat silently Through the remainder of the national and international reports, two commercials, and then:

“In late breaking local news,” the announcer’s voice said, “police are still searching for two men who killed a guard and escaped from city jail where they were being held pending remand to Federal custody in connection with a bank robbery in Kansas City last month.”

“That’s us, Arnie,” the man in back said excitedly. He was bigger than Arnie, with hair that came low on his forehead and small glittering eyes set in a beefy face.

Arnie shushed him with a quick movement of his hand.

“According to Chief of Police James Vector,” the radio voice went on, “the two men—Arnold Sangster and Albert ‘Mick’ Mickelson—are believed to be still within the city limits. Roadblocks on all arteries leading out of town and watches at train, bus, and air terminals have been established to prevent their escape. Both are known to be armed and should be considered extremely dangerous. Description of the two—”

Arnie clicked off the radio.

Mickelson breathed hard. “Roadblocks. Watches at the stations.”

“What did you expect?” Arnie snapped. “A free pass out of town?” He settled back against the seat. “But don’t worry. We’ll beat them yet.” He grinned at me. “Won’t we, Daddy?”

I didn’t reply.

“What’s the matter, Daddy,” he said. “You worried to be traveling around with us ‘extremely dangerous’ men?”

“Look—” I began.

Behind me Timmy started to sniffle. Arnie frowned. “Shut the kid up,” he said, “if you know what’s good for him.”

“Timmy,” I said in near desperation, “for God’s sake, don’t cry.”

Tim sniffled louder. “Ice cream cone,” he said. “You promised.”

Mickelson laughed out loud. Arnie’s mouth curled mockingly. “Shame on you, Daddy,” he said. “Breaking a promise to your own kid.”

“Look,” I said, “all you need is the car for transportation. Take the car and let us go.”

“Sure,” Arnie said contemptuously, “and have you calling the cops before we’re halfway around the next corner. Not a chance, Daddy.”

It would do no good to promise that I wouldn’t call the police. Only a fool would believe that a promise made under duress would be kept.

“At least,” I said, “let the boy go. He can’t do anything to hurt you.”

“What?” Arnie said in a tone of mock horror. “Turn your own little boy loose on the street where he might get hit by a car?”

He’d be safer there, I thought. But I said, “No, in a store. He knows his name and address. They’d see he was lost and get him home all right.”

Arnie looked at me consideringly, then his eyes flicked to the road ahead.

“Pull over to the curb here, Daddy,” he said.

I felt relief wash over me. At least Tim would be out of it. I braked to a stop.

“I’ll just—” I began, putting the car out of gear and half turning toward Tim.

“You’ll just nothing, Daddy,” Arnie said flatly. “Mick, there’s a candy store.” He jerked his head back to indicate the store across the sidewalk. “Go in and get the kid the ice cream cone he wants.”

I stared at Arnie, not sure I’d heard him right.

Mick wasn’t too sure either. “What?” he said. “You kidding or something?”

Arnie didn’t say anything, he just held his face set and grim. After a second or two Mick shrugged, stuck his pistol under his coat, got out of the car, and lumbered across the sidewalk.

“There’s a couple of things you’d better get clear in your head, Daddy,” Arnie said in a low intense voice. “First of all, that guard we killed was a cop of sorts. And cops don’t like it when one of their own gets it. So right now they’re turning this city upside down looking for me and Mick.

“The thing is, though, they’re looking for two guys. Three guys and a kid—especially a kid with an ice cream cone—now that’s something else again. In any case nobody gets off this merry go-round until I say the ride’s over. And until then, you do just what you’re told—no questions, no comments, no suggestions. Or—” He nodded with heavy meaning toward Tim and made an explosive noise with his mouth. “Get the message?” he said.

“And when the ride’s over?” I said.

“I said no questions, Daddy,” Arnie said viciously. The gun jumped forward to rake hard against my shoulder. I cried out involuntarily. Timmy began to whimper in earnest now. I looked into Arnie’s face and saw that it wouldn’t take much to push him over the edge into senseless violence. I found myself holding my breath.

Just as I thought things couldn’t go on, Mick lumbered back to the car, an ice cream cone engulfed in one huge paw. One look at the cone resolved all Timmy’s fears. He reached out and took it as Mick settled on the seat beside him.

“Thank you,” Timmy said between licks.

Arnie’s face lightened. “’Thank you,’” he mimicked. “Now isn’t that a polite kid for you?” He looked back at me. His eyes glinted but they were no longer dangerous. “No, Daddy,” he said, “you don’t have to say thank you. Just say you got the message.”

“Got the message,” I said.

Arnie smiled and waved his free hand airily. “Let’s drive.”

I put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

We drove around for an hour or so with Arnie giving seemingly aimless directions. It soon became apparent, though, that what he was actually doing was testing out the town’s defenses. And sadistically enjoying watching me sweat.

Once, while we stopped for a red light, a patrol car pulled up beside us. Mick sucked in his breath sharply, but Arnie continued to loll, smiling, on the seat beside me. As we waited, the nearest cop turned his head and looked at us. I felt moisture beading my forehead and filming my palms. But his glance swept on past, casually, without curiosity. Then the light changed and the patrol car pulled swiftly ahead and away.

“Bad moment, huh, Daddy?” Arnie mocked. “You shouldn’t have let it worry you, though. It’s like I told you. They’re looking for two men—not three men and a kid. And everything’s going to work out just fine. Just fine.”

Still, he wasn’t willing to put his theory to the test. Because each time we approached one of the exits from town and it became apparent that something was stopping traffic up ahead, he ordered a quick turnoff and reversal of route.

Finally Mick said, “We aren’t getting anywhere, Arnie.” There was more than a trace of irritation in his voice.

Arnie growled back at him. “You get a better idea then? The local man wants a thousand bucks apiece for a safe ride out of town. In advance. Which we can’t pay because we ain’t got it. So what would you do if you were in charge? Huh?”

Mick lapsed into sullen silence.

I let the car go half a block. Then I cleared my throat. “If you need money—” I began.

Arnie rounded on me savagely. “You got money, huh, Daddy?” he said.

I cleared my throat again. “No,” I said. “But I know where we can get some.”

Arnie stared at me with such hostility that I began to think I’d made a mistake. Then his face became calculating. “We?” he said.

I nodded. “If I take you to the money,” I said, “I want a share.”

No one said anything for a long moment. Then Mick breathed, “Well, what do you know?”

Arnie came out of his reverie with a visible snap. “Yeah,” he said. “What do you know?” He grinned his wolfish grin. “I’m surprised at you, Daddy,” he said. “What kind of example is that for the kid here?”

“You let me worry about that,” I said shortly. “Is it a deal or not?”

“You ain’t in any position to make deals,” Mick said harshly.

Arnie waved his fingers to shush him just as he had earlier. “All right, Daddy,” he said. “It’s a deal. Now what’s the setup?”

I swallowed hard and concentrated on my driving so they wouldn’t guess my thoughts. “A supermarket,” I said.

“They’re closed, Daddy,” Arnie said.

“True,” I said. It was a little after nine by now. The markets were just closing, the last shoppers being hurried through the checkout lines. In another thirty minutes the tallying and cleaning up would be over and the staffs would be leaving. “But there’s still money in them.” I took a deep breath and hurried on, “The big employer in my part of town is a furniture factory. Maybe half the people in the neighborhood work for it. And it pays, today, Friday. But a lot of people—especially those on the late shifts—wait until tomorrow to cash their checks. And most of them do it at the supermarkets because the banks aren’t open on Saturdays. So the markets have to hold three, maybe four thousand in their safes overnight.”

“Sure,” Arnie said scornfully. “And they got security guards to watch over them too.”

“I know one that hasn’t,” I said. “It’s an independent and the owner has to cut corners to compete with the chains.”

They were both silent for a moment. Then Mick said, “What do you think, Arnie?”

Arnie bit his lip, then shrugged. “It’s worth a try,” he said. “Besides—” his eyes glinted at me—“Daddy here knows what will happen if anything goes wrong. Don’t you, Daddy?”

“Yes,” I said.

It was too early to try the store, Arnie said, even though the last of the staff would be gone before we got there and it was now full dark. “Still too much traffic on the streets,” he explained. “We don’t make our move until things start to wind down. Around twelve thirty or one o’clock. That’s the time.”

12:30. My wife would be home by then and worrying about where Timmy and I had gone. I was pretty sure what her first reaction would be. She’d check the neighbors, then the emergency room at the hospital. But what would she do after that? Call the police?

Perhaps, I decided, but only to see if they knew anything about an accident or other emergency—not to start a full-scale search. Anyway, I hoped not. The last thing I wanted was a patrol car swooping down on us.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered even if she had, though, Because Arnie decided that cruising the streets was too risky now, and we spent the time parked at the dark end of a little used street.

Tim promptly fell asleep. So did Mick, his snores regularly punctuating the quiet. Arnie and I remained awake and warily conscious of each other’s nearness although I made it a point not to look at him. I had expected more mockery, but the only time he spoke was when he told me it was time to go.

It was a little after 1:00 when we turned into the shopping center parking lot. Arnie was right about things winding down. The streets were deserted except for an occasional late-nighter scurrying home. The lot itself gleamed empty and desolate in the half light of the few lamps left on.

Without waiting to be told I cut onto the delivery road that ran along the back of the store buildings. It was almost pitch-black here and Arnie nodded approvingly. I stopped at the big building at the far end and cut the motor. A single bulb illuminated a sign over the door opposite us: “Hanson’s Market. Delivery Entrance.”

Arnie climbed out of the car. “Both of you stay here,” he said, “while I case the joint.”

He disappeared into the dark. Mick stirred uneasily. That and Tim’s regular breathing were the only sounds.

A few moments later Arnie was back. “All right,’ he said. “I found a window I think we can get in without setting off any bells.”

Mick got out and went around the car to where Arnie was standing. I made no move to join them. Arnie grinned wickedly and opened my door from outside.

“No free rides, Daddy,” he said. “You want your share, you get your hands dirty like the rest of us.”

Mick looked at me impassively. I got out of the car.

Arnie kept his hand on the door handle. “Mick,” he said, “you stay here.”

Mick started to protest, but Arnie cut him off impatiently. “Use your head,” he said. “Somebody’s got to be lookout. I don’t trust Daddy and you can’t open the safe. I can.”

Mick hesitated, then shrugged and got back in the car, this time in the driver’s seat. Arnie slammed the door after him, then made an expansive gesture to me with his hand. “Let’s go, Daddy,” he said.

In his other hand he held an unlit flashlight he’d taken from my glove compartment. His gun was tucked snugly in the waistband of his trousers. He grinned again when he caught me looking at it. I kept my face impassive and walked toward the building. He waited until I’d gotten a short lead, then followed me.

There was no mistaking the window he meant. It was in the back wall about chest high. I stopped and let Arnie come up beside me.

“Take off your coat,” he said, “and hold it over the glass.”

I looked at him curiously but shrugged out of my jacket.

Arnie swung the flashlight viciously against the coat on the window. The glass shattered under the impact and tinkled inward.

I dropped my arms and stepped back. Still using the flashlight as a club, Arnie cleared away the last shards of glass clinging to the edges. Then he motioned me in. “After you, Daddy,” he said. “And be well away from the window when I come through.”

I grasped the edges of the sill and heaved myself through. Inside, I paused beside the window to get my bearings, then went to stand with my back against the opposite wall.

Arnie flicked on the flashlight and shined it through the window just long enough to pick me out. Satisfied I was where he wanted me, he scrambled through himself.

The gun was out of his waistband and in his hand almost as soon as his feet touched the floor. He looked around swiftly, then his teeth flashed in his old mocking smile. “You lead the way, Daddy,” he said.

Then and only then did I push myself away from the wall. “The office is up front,” I said. “The safe will be there.”

After we’d gotten a few yards away from the smashed window, Arnie switched on the flashlight again and we made our way through the darkened aisles.

The “office” was a roofless semi-enclosed space set at one end of the line of checkout counters and rising slightly above them. It was spartanly furnished with a paper-strewn desk, two chairs, and a squat metal floor safe. Arnie let the flashlight beam play over the face of the safe.

“The owner didn’t cut corners on that,” he said.

I leaned against the edge of the desk. “What’s the matter?” I said. “Can’t you open this kind?”

He glanced up sharply. “There isn’t a tinbox supermarket safe anywhere I can’t open,” he said. He thrust the flashlight at me. “Take this and hold it so I can see what I’m doing.”

I took the light and shined it on the combination dial. Arnie made me move it once, then knelt in front of the safe. He swirled the dial, keeping one ear close to it. His other hand—the one holding the gun—rested lightly on the safe. After a minute or two he grinned and tugged at the safe handle.

It didn’t move. He muttered something under his breath, laid the gun down on top of the safe, and went to work with both hands. This time his movements were slow and deliberate. And his face was fierce in its concentration. I felt the flashlight grow slippery and shifted it from hand to hand to wipe the sweat from my palms.

“Hold that light steady,” Arnie snapped without looking up.

I steadied the light. Arnie concentrated on the dial. Finally he took his hand away, paused long enough for one deep breath, then reached out for the handle again. This time it turned easily.

He gave me a triumphant grin and pulled the door open. The grin turned into a long low whistle at what he saw inside. “Look at that lovely—”

I swung the flashlight.

The sudden shift of light warned him and he dodged instinctively. But I still caught him a hard-glancing blow that sent him off balance and crashing against the partition. He had his feet back under him again in a second and was crouched ready to spring. But by then I had the gun.

I beamed the light full in his face. “Cool it, Arnie,” I said. “The odds are on my side now.”

For one long moment his face held that wild look and I was afraid he was going to lunge at me. Then suddenly he slacked against the wall. “All right, Daddy,” he said. “You win this round.”

I marched him back through the store to the meat cooler. He got his composure back quickly and started riding me again, hoping to egg me into making a mistake. But as soon as he saw where I’d brought him, he stopped short.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “I’ll freeze!”

I didn’t give his reaction any time to harden. I shoved against his back and sent him stumbling inside. Moving swiftly before he could recover his balance, I slammed the door and locked it. A moment later I could hear a faint pounding through its thickness.

I smiled grimly. “That’s fine, Arnie,” I said. “Now you know how it feels.”

I hurried back through the store, picked up a shopping bag at one of the counters, and went into the office again. The safe door was still open and just as Arnie had left it. Kneeling quickly, I scooped the money out into the bag. A couple of bills missed and fluttered onto the floor. I left them there and stuffed the full bag out of sight under the desk.

Leaving the office door open, I started back toward the broken window where Arnie and I had entered. Halfway there I remembered something and came back to unlatch the front door from the inside and push it open. That set an alarm bell jangling at police headquarters. But it would take the police four or five minutes to get here. And four or five minutes were all I needed—I hoped.

* * *

Mick straightened behind the wheel and looked at me suspiciously as I trotted panting up to the car.

“Where’s Arnie?” I said before he could speak.

Mick’s forehead creased in a frown. It made his small eyes smaller. “What do you mean where’s Arnie?” he said.

I looked around. “Didn’t he come back?” I said, trying to sound bewildered. “He was having trouble opening the safe, so he sent me to look for a crowbar. I couldn’t find one, but when I went back to tell him, the safe was open and he was gone. I figured he must have come back here to the car.”

Mick’s eyes glittered. He climbed out of the car and gripped my arm hard. “What are you trying to pull?” he said.

“I’m not trying to pull anything,” I protested. “If you don’t believe me, come see for yourself.”

I half turned and pulled in the direction of the store. After a second Mick released his grip and followed me.

We went through the window the same way Arnie and I had—me first and Mick following. Inside, he resumed his grip on my arm and hustled me through the store. He let go when he saw the open front door and the empty safe with the scattering of bills on the floor.

“The no-good—” Mick said. “He skipped out on me just as soon as he had his hands on the dough.”

Just then the first of the police cars swerved onto the lot, closely followed by a second.

“Cops!” Mick yelled and started to run. I tripped him.

After that things got hectic. There seemed to be cops all over the place and they were more inclined to act than to listen. Finally I got enough of my story out to convince them I wasn’t a thief and they let me sit on one of the checkout counters and tell the rest. When I was finished, two of them went back to get Arnie out while a third went with me to pick up Tim.

He was still sleeping. I unstrapped him from his seat and picked him up without waking him.

“He okay?” the cop said. Finding Tim where I’d said he’d be had been the clincher. He believed me now.

“Yes,” I said. “He’s fine, thank God.”

“How about you?”

I smiled wryly. “A little shaken up.”

“You were lucky,” the cop said.

I nodded and we went back around the store and in the front. Both Arnie and Mick stood in front of a checkout counter, looking smaller and seedier now that their hands were cuffed behind their backs. One of the cops flanking them was speaking into a walkie-talkie. Arnie glared at me.

“The merry-go-round ride’s over, Arnie,” I said. “And it looks like you were the one thrown off.”

“Maybe,” Arnie said. His eyes glinted. “But don’t think you have the brass ring yet, Daddy.” He turned to the cop beside me. “I don’t know what kind of a cock-and-bull story he told you,” he said, “but Daddy here’s in this thing just as deep as we are. As a matter of fact, it was his idea from the start and the whole hero bit is just a gimmick to grab all the loot for himself.

“If you don’t believe me,” he went on, jerking his head in the direction of the office, “just ask him what happened to all the money that was in that safe when I opened it.”

It was easy to see what he meant. The store lights had been turned on and the empty safe was clearly visible through the open office doorway. So were the few bills I’d left on the floor.

The cop’s eyes had gone quietly speculative. “How about it, mister?” he said.

I smiled. “It’s true,” I said. “I brought them here and I emptied the safe.” I paused and let the smile turn into a grin. “But I don’t think you can charge me with stealing. You see, this is my store—I’m Jack Hanson.”