Page 72 of Wheels

"You two watch me, move when I do." Through the mask, Big Rufe's eyes appraised Daddy-o and Rollie. "Ain't gonna be no trouble if we do this right. When we get them guys in here you both tie 'em up good. Leroy dumped the rope." He motioned to two coils of thin yellow cord on the closet floor.

They waited silently. As the seconds passed, Rollie found himself with a sense of resigned acceptance. He knew he was in this now, that his participation would not be changed or excused whatever happened, and if there were consequences he would share them equally with the other three.

His choices had been limited; in fact, there were really no choices at all, merely decisions made by others and forced on him, which was the way it had always been, for as long as he remembered.

From the coveralls he was wearing, Big Rufe produced a heavy-handled Colt revolver. Daddy-o had a snub-nosed pistol - the same kind Rollie had been given. Reluctantly, reaching into his waistband, Rollie held his, too.

Daddy-o tensed as Big Rufe motioned with his hand. They could hear clearly - a clatter of feet coming down the metal stairway, and voices.

The door to the janitor's closet remained almost closed until the footsteps, now on the tile floor, were a few feet away. Then Big Rufe opened the door and the masked trio stepped out, guns raised.

The vending machine collectors looked as startled as any two men could.

Both wore gray uniforms with the vending company's insignia. One had a thatch of red hair and a pale pink face which, at the moment had turned even paler; the other, with heavy-lidded eyes, had the features of an Indian. Each carried two burlap bags slung over a shoulder and joined together with a chain and padlock. The pair were big-boned and burly, probably in their thirties, and looked as if they could handle themselves in a fight. Big Rufe gave them no chance.

He leveled his revolver at the red-haired man's chest and motioned with his head to the janitor's closet. "In there, baby!" He ordered the other, "You, too!" The words came out muffled through the stocking mask.

The Indian shot a glance behind him, as if to run. Two things happened.

He saw a fourth masked figure - Leroy Colfax - armed with a longbladed hunting knife, leaping down the stairs and cutting off escape.

Simultaneously, the muzzle of Big Rufe's revolver slammed into his face, opening his left cheek in a gash which spurted blood.

Rollie Knight jammed his own automatic against the ribs of the red-haired man who had swung around, clearly with the intention of aiding his companion. Rollie cautioned, "Hold it! It ain't gonna work!" All he wanted was to have done with this, without more violence. The red-haired man subsided.

Now the four ambushers shoved the others ahead of them into the little room.

The red-haired man protested, "Listen, if you guys knew . . ."

"Shaddup!" It was Daddy-o, who seemed to be over his fright. "Gimme that" He grabbed the canvas sacks from redhead's shoulder, pushing the man so he tripped backward over mops and pails.

Leroy Colfax reached for the cash sacks of the other collector. But the Indian, despite his cheek wound, which was bleeding, had spirit. He lunged against Leroy, thrusting a knee into his groin and his left fist hard into the stomach. Then, with his right hand, he reached up and snatched the mask from Leroy's face.

For an instant the two glared at each other.

The vending machine collector hissed, "Now, I'll know who . . .


He screamed - a loud, high-pitched sound which descended to a moan then subsided into nothingness. He fell forward heavily - on the long-bladed hunting knife which Leroy had thrust hard into his belly.

"Jesus Christ!' the red-haired man said. He stared down at the slumped, motionless form of his companion of a moment earlier. "You bastards killed him!"

They were his last words before unconsciousness as the butt of Big Rufe's gun crashed into his scalp.

Daddy-o, who was trembling more than he had originally, pleaded, "Did we hafta do that?"

"What's done's done," Big Rufe said. "And them two started it." But he sounded less sure of himself than at the beginning. Picking up two of the chained bags, he ordered, "Bring them others."

Leroy Colfax reached for them.

Rollie urged, "Wait!"

Outside, hurried footsteps were coming down the metal stairs.

Frank Parkland had stayed later than usual at the plant for a foremen's meeting in the office of Matt Zaleski. They discussed Orion production and some problems. Afterward he went to the south cafeteria where, at lunchtime, he had left a sweater and some personal papers. It was when he had recovered the items, and was leaving that he heard the scream from below and went down to investigate.

Parkland was past the closed door of the janitor's closet when something impinged on his consciousness. He turned back and saw what he had observed but not taken in at once - a series of blood spatters extending under the door.

The foreman hesitated. But since he was not a man given to fear, he opened the door and went in.

Seconds later, with an ugly head wound, he tumbled, unconscious, beside the vending machine collectors.

The three bodies were discovered an hour or so later - long after the quartet of Big Rufe, Daddy-o Lester, Leroy Colfax, and Rollie Knight had left the plant by climbing over a wall.

The Indian was dead, the other two barely alive.

Chapter 26

Matt Zaleski sometimes wondered if anyone outside the auto industry realized how little changed, in principle, a final car assembly line was, compared with the days of the first Henry Ford.

He was walking beside the line where the night shift, which had begun work an hour ago, was building Orions - the company's new cars, still not released to public view. Like others in senior plant management, Matt's own working day did not end when the day shift went home. He stayed on while the next shift settled down, dealing with production snafus as they occurred, which inevitably happened while the plant's people - management as well as workers - learned their new assignments.

Some assignments had been discussed during a foreman's meeting, held in Matt's office soon after the change of shifts. The meeting had ended fifteen minutes ago. Now Matt was patrolling an alert surveillance, his experienced eyes searching for potential trouble spots.

While he walked, his thoughts returned to Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production auto assembly.

Nowadays, the final assembly line in any auto plant was unfailingly the portion of car manufacturing which fascinated visitors most. Usually a mile long, it was visually impressive because an act of creation could be witnessed. Initially, a few steel bars were brought together, then, as if fertilized, they multiplied and grew, taking on familiar shapes like an exposed fetus in a moving womb. The process was slow enough for watchers to assimilate, fast enough to be exciting. The forward movement, like a river, was mostly in straight lines, though occasionally with bends or loops. Among the burgeoning cars, color, shape, size, features, frills, conveyed individuality and sex. Eventually, with the fetus ready for the world, the car dropped on its tires. A moment later an ignition key was turned, an engine sprang to life - as impressive, when first witnessed, as a child's first cry - and a newborn vehicle moved from the assembly line's end under its own power.

Matt Zaleski had seen spectators thronging through the plant - in Detroit they came like pilgrims, daily - marveling at the process and talking, uninformed and glibly, of the wonders of automated mass production. Plant guides, trained to regard each visitor as a potential customer, gave spiels to titillate the sense of wonder. But the irony was: a final assembly plant was scarcely automated at all; in principle it was still an oldfashioned conveyor belt on which pieces of an automobile were hung in sequence like decorations on a Christmas tree. In engineering terms it was the least impressive part of modern automobile production. In terms of quality it could swing this way or that like a wild barometer. And it was wholly susceptible to human error.

By contrast, plants making auto engines, though less impressive visually, were truly automated, with long series of intricate operations performed solely by machines. In most engine plants, row after row of sophisticated machine tools operated on their own, masterminded by computers, with the only humans in sight a few skilled tool men making occasional adjustments.

If a machine did something wrong, it switched itself off instantly and summoned help through warning systems. Otherwise it did its job unvaryingly, to hairsbreadth standards, and stopped neither for meal breaks, toilet visits, nor to speak to another machine alongside. The system was a reason why engines, in comparison with more generally constructed parts of automobiles, seldom failed until neglected or abused.

If old Henry could come back from his grave, Matt thought, and view a car assembly line of the '70s, he might be amused at how few basic changes had been made.

At the moment, there were no production snags - at least, in view - and Matt Zaleski returned to his glass-paneled office on the mezzanine.

Though he could leave the plant now, if he chose, Matt was reluctant to return to the empty Royal Oak house. Several weeks had gone by since the bitter night of Barbara's departure, but there had been no rapprochement between them. Recently Matt had tried not to think about his daughter, concentrating on other thoughts, as he had on Henry Ford a few minutes earlier; despite this, she was seldom far from mind. He wished they could patch up their quarrel somehow, and had hoped Barbara would telephone, but she had not. Matt's own pride, plus a conviction that a parent should not have to make the first move, kept him from calling her. He supposed that Barbara was still living with that designer, DeLosanto, which was something else Matt tried not to think about, but often did.