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Richard Stark

Lemons Never Lie



Grofield put a nickel in the slot machine, pulled the lever, and watched a lemon, a lemon, and a lemon come up. The machine coughed fourteen nickels into the chrome tray. Grofield frowned at them; what the hell do you do with fourteen nickels? Besides bag your suit.

A happy stout woman of fifty in Easter Sunday clothes – pale blue – and carrying a black raincoat, a lavender umbrella, a red and white shopping bag, a blue airline bag, and a large black imitation alligator purse paused to say, "You're very lucky, young man. You're going to really sock it to 'em here."

Grofield never watched television, and therefore didn't know the woman was quoting a popular line of the day. He took the statement at face value, as a result, and just looked at her for a second, astounded that a woman who looked like that would say such a weird thing.

A thin farmerish man with a chicken neck was with the woman. "Come on, Edna," he said, irritably. "We gotta get the bags." He was carrying a camera case, a shopping bag, and an airline bag.

The woman said to him, "Didn't you see what this young man did? Now, that's what I call luck. Steps off the plane, plays the slot machine once, and look what he wins. That's what I do call luck."

"Bad luck," Grofield said, and pointed. "Lemons. You know what they say about lemons."

"Nooo," said the woman, and looked roguish. "But I know what they say about Chinese girls!" She was really on vacation.

The man said, "Come on, Edna."

Grofield shook his head, looking at the lemons. "I hate to use the luck up all at once. It's a bad sign."

The woman, while still looking happy, also now looked a little puzzled. "But you won!" she said. The other passengers were streaming by, down the gauntlet of slot machines from the plane to the baggage area and the taxis. None of them stopped at the machines, though a lot of them smiled and looked excited and pointed the machines out to one another.

Grofield shook his head at the lemons once more, and turned to say to the woman, "I don't gamble. Every time I come to this town, I put a nickel in one of these machines on the way in, and another nickel in on the way out. I think of it as dues. They never tried to give me back my dues before, and I consider it a bad sign."

"You don't gamble?" In her home town, she would have given the same reading to the sentence, "You don't go to church?" She was one hundred percent on vacation.

"Not if I can help it," Grofield said.

"Then what do you come to Las Vegas for?"

Grofield grinned and winked. "That's a secret," he said. "Bye, now." He turned and started away.

The woman called, "You left your money!"

He looked back, and she was pointing at the fourteen nickels in the trough. "That's not my money," he said. "It belongs to the machine."

"But you won it!"

Grofield considered telling her it was seventy cents. He shook his head, and said, "Then I give it to you. Welcome to our city." He waved, and walked on.

At the far end, where the corridor curved to the right, he glanced back and saw the couple standing back there in front of the machine. Their goods were stacked in a semicircle around them like an impromptu fortress. The woman's right hand was pushing the nickels in and pulling the lever down. Grofield walked on.

He had to wait ten minutes for his suitcase. When he got it, he turned away toward the taxis and saw the chicken-necked man getting change at an airline counter. Feeling a little guilty, Grofield went out and joined the passengers waiting for cabs.


The wrestler in the turtleneck shirt patted Grofield all over, while Grofield stood with legs slightly apart and arms extended straight out at his sides, like an illustration in an exercise book. The wrestler had bad breath. Grofield didn't suggest anything to him, and after a minute the frisk was done and the wrestler said, "Okay, you're clean."

"Naturally," Grofield said. "I came here to talk."

The wrestler made no response. He'd been hired as a doorman, and that was it. "They're in the other room," he said.

Grofield went on into the other room, feeling pessimistic. First the three lemons at the airport, and now this. Myers, the organizer of this thing and a man Grofield didn't know, had set himself up in a two-room suite in the tower section of one of the Strip hotels. Why would a man spend so much money on a meeting place? Why meet in Las Vegas in the first place? It hinted of a blowhard somewhere in the tapestry.

Grofield hoped not. He wasn't going to permit his need to interfere with his common sense and his professional judgment, but the fact was, his need was great. Mary was back home in Indiana, sleeping on the stage. This trip was taking most of Grofield's available capital, after a season of summer stock that any conglomerate would have been happy to have for their tax loss. If Myers turned out not to have anything, there were going to be some lean winter days until something did appear.

A member of an increasingly disappearing breed of professionals, Alan Grofield was an actor who limited himself to live performances before live audiences. Movies and television were for mannequins, not actors. An actor who stepped before a camera was in the process of rotting his own talent. Instead of learning to build a performance through three acts – or five, if the season is classical – he learns facile reactions in snippets of make believe.

No purist can hope to do well financially, whatever his field, and Grofield was no exception. Not only did he limit his acting to the live theater, where the demand for actors declines still further every year, but he insisted on running his own theaters, usually summer stock, frequently in out-of-the-way places and invariably at a loss. To support himself, therefore, he from time to time turned to his second profession, as he was doing now.

He stepped into the second room, closing the door after him, and looked around at the three men already in the room. He knew none of them. "I'm Grofield," he said.

The florid-faced man in the ascot and madras jacket came over from the window, hand outstretched, saying, "I'm Myers." He had an Eastern-boarding-school accent, the sort that sounds affected but isn't. "So glad you could come."

Grofield, not entirely believing the situation, shook the hand of the man who was supposed to be masterminding the robbery. Everything was wrong so far, the lemons had not lied.

Who was Myers? He couldn't be a professional. He now took Grofield around and introduced him to the other two. "This is Cathcart, he'll be driving one of the cars. George Cathcart, Alan Grofield."

In Cathcart's eyes, Grofield detected a guarded echo of his own bewilderment, and by an infinitesimal measure he relaxed. At least there were some professionals here. He took Cathcart's hand in honest pleasure, and they nodded at one another.

Cathcart was a stocky man, short, with the broad low tugboat build that most good getaway drivers seem to have. He had obviously tried to dress himself to match his surroundings, but that brown suit wouldn't have belonged in this hotel even when it was new. And wherever it was Cathcart usually lived, did men really wear black shoes and white socks with brown suits? Possibly Newark, New Jersey.



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