The Little Red Car





Captain Lee Crane floored the gas pedal, feeling the power that surged under the hood of the Shelby Cobra. After several miles, he let up on the accelerator to allow a small pebble to disengage from the sole of his foot. That felt strange; driving barefoot, but everything else felt very, very good. The wildly strange night had ended well. He was heading to his motel on a very remote country road in Napa valley that allowed him to test the power under the hood of his new acquisition. After a few hours sleep, he’d be on his way down to the sweetest job on earth. Life was good….


Something flashed in his peripheral vision and Crane glanced over his shoulder. He cursed his single-minded optimism, as well as his stupidity. Had to test the car as soon as he got it. He couldn’t wait to test his new baby on Institute grounds, could he? With a groan, Crane slowed and pulled the Cobra onto the shoulder of the road.







Admiral Harriman Nelson dragged on his cigarette twice before realizing it was dead. Blueprints were scattered all over all over his desk. He could not quite figure what needed to be done to make his new invention work. The same people who had laughed at his proposal for a giant privately owned submarine with windows were waiting for failure on his latest endeavor—a flying submarine. He stubbed out the dead butt, more in frustration than in any need for personal health. What was he missing?


The phone rang and he almost growled aloud in irritation. A quick glance at his watch told him Angie had left an hour ago. Whoever was calling at this hour could just jolly well leave a message, he thought. The phone rang three more times and the machine that he had improved from a rather bulky model bought last year, clicked into action. Nelson returned his attention to the blueprints.


“This is the office of Admiral Harriman Nelson,” came Angie’s sweet, but business-like voice. “No one is available to answer your call, but if you will leave a name and number, we will call as soon as possible. If you are calling after hours, we will return your call on the next business day.”


“Admiral, I know you’re still at the office. Would you pick up? I need your help.”


Nelson’s head jerked up in surprise at the voice and the tone of that same voice. Lee? Lee was up north talking to a prospective supplier and getting a bit of R & R. He grabbed the phone with one hand while he switched off the answering machine with the other. “Lee? Is everything all right?”


“No, Admiral, it isn’t. I need you to send Jerry Fallon up here a.s.a.p.”


Jerry was the Institute’s legal equivalent of JAG. In fact Lt. Commander Fallon had been with the JAG office for some years before going into the reserves and then hiring on with Nelson. “Where is here and why do you need Jerry’s help?” Nelson cut to the chase. “What’s wrong, Lee.”


“I’m in the Napa County jail.”


“What?!?” he shouted into the phone. “What the hell for?”


“It’s a long story, Admiral, or rather a short story that doesn’t have an ending yet.” Nelson could hear Lee taking a deep breath. “I’d rather not discuss this in great detail over the phone.”


“What have they charged you with?”


“Nothing but minor stuff yet, but they picked me up on grand theft auto.”


Nelson was sitting up straight, now wishing the cigarette was still lit. “You were up there to meet with a parts supplier, Lee. How did you get involved with criminal activity? How could anyone charge you with stealing a Karmann Ghia? A slightly beat up one at that?”


There was a pause. “Admiral. I don’t have that anymore. I have a Shelby Cobra.”


Nelson choked and almost dropped the phone. Before he could say anything, Lee continued.


“I told you it was complicated. I won it in a poker game. Uh, could I tell you in person, sir? After Commander Fallon straightens this all out?”


“Sure, Lee. I would love to hear this one.” Him and about 99 percent of the rest of the Institute. “I’ll contact Jerry and send him right up.” Nelson looked at his watch. There should be a couple more shuttle flights heading to San Francisco this evening. “Should be up there in four or five hours.”


“Thanks, Admiral.”


Nelson held the phone to his ear after the click in the receiver told him Lee had hung up. Grand theft auto. A poker game? Who would be using a Shelby Cobra as the pot in a poker game? Mason Grundy? He was rich enough, but was he that stupid? If so, Nelson wasn’t sure he wanted him as a supplier. He dialed the attorney’s number.


“Jerry? Sorry to bother you at home, but this is pretty urgent….  Oh, tell Kathryn I’m sorry to disturb dinner, but I need you to fly up . . . with me to San Francisco.  When? Now; as soon as I get tickets.” As quickly as that, Nelson decided he needed to be in on this one. It boded to be interesting, if nothing else. He would rather get the straight story as it was told, rather than hearing scuttlebutt. “One of the men is in trouble and I would like to deal with it as quietly and quickly as possible.”  The admiral coughed at the response. “Yes, I know Lee is up there. No, I don’t know exactly what is going on. He didn’t want to discuss it over the phone….  Um, yes, he does tend to be discreet when the occasion warrants. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. You can use my mobile to contact the authorities up there.”






Before seeing Lee, Jerry talked to the desk sergeant and read the files. There wasn’t much, but there was a photo and the Cobra’s title, neatly signed over to Lee by one Corby Lawson. Nelson shook his head. He didn’t know whether he wanted to shoot Lee or congratulate him. In the end, he did neither. The files said practically nothing, except that the arrested party refused to say anything until his attorney was present. The photo, apparently taken at sunrise, showed a smiling Crane next to the Shelby Cobra. His shirt was not tucked in, his hair was unkempt and he had no shoes on his feet.


When Lee Crane was escorted into the briefing room, Nelson was gratified to note that the man had gotten his shoes back.


“Admiral! You came up, too,” Crane stated the obvious.


“With as little information as you gave, you expected me to sit back in Santa Barbara and wonder what the hell you had gotten yourself into this time?


“I was hoping things would have been resolved by the time I called you, sir, but they weren’t. Uh, no sir, I guess you wouldn’t,” Lee said with a sheepish grin on his face.


Fallon motioned to a chair and Lee sat down. “Maybe you’d better begin at the beginning and then I can see how much of Lawson’s claim I want to fight.”


“I hope you want to fight all of it. I didn’t coerce Corby Lawson to do anything, including play poker or offer his car up as part of the pot.”


“The beginning, Commander,” Fallon reminded Crane.


Lee thought back to the beginning of the celebratory party. At first he’d been inclined to skip the celebration and just go back to the motel and get a good night’s sleep before heading down the coast to Santa Barbara. However, Grundy wouldn’t take no for an answer and neither would his partner, Corby Lawson. First it was drinks, which Lee did decline, except for one short beer. He had some desolate mountain roads on which he had to travel to the motel. Later on, when Lee excused himself again, Lawson invited him to a boy’s night out poker game.


Lee figured it wouldn’t take much time out of his sleep because he wasn’t a Cracker Jack poker player and he didn’t have a lot of money on him. They all drove down to a nearby winery, which turned out to be partly owned by both men. There were two other men already waiting for them. One was the vintner, who sported a knowing smirk on his face and the other a man named Harold Winston. Lee found out later that he was the owner of a rival vineyard.


“It started innocently enough,” Lee said. “The pots weren’t that great and everyone was in a good mood. I realized I had been taken when Winston kept playing despite having lost all his money. During the next hand, he pulled off his shoe and placed it in the middle of the pile.”


“You mean….?” Nelson began


“I mean I was in a strip poker game, Admiral.”


“Why didn’t you just bow out then, Captain?” Fallon asked.


“Because I was too pissed off. They had included me in the game like I was some kind of rube, easy to pick and have a laugh over.  I didn’t come up here to become a laughing stock..”


“Did you drink anything at the table?” the lawyer asked.


“Part of a beer. Early in the game. After I found out what they were doing, I didn’t have anything but tonic water.”


“Okay, so you were mad enough to continue the game….”


“I paid closer attention. I won a couple of hands. Winston lost his shoes and socks in one hand and then he won them back.” Lee continued. He detailed the whole night, hand by hand, leaving little out. Crane had lost his socks, shoes and belt, and then won them back. He didn’t bother to put them on at the time.  He began winning more hands as he realized the behavior patterns of the other players were perfectly discernable. It really got interesting when Corby Lawson began losing, partly due to his three gin and tonics.


“The Cobra’s owner,” Fallon said.


Lee nodded.


“So the owner was . . . inebriated,” Fallon confirmed.


Crane shrugged. “Almost everyone was except me and the vintner, Morgan. Grundy lost his pants, but he was a good sport about it, or else he was simply a happy drunk.  Harold Winston was ambivalent. At least he didn’t grouse about it. He even did a little strip routine when he lost his shirt.” 


“So how did the Cobra come into it?” Fallon asked. Nelson sat back and listened. He could picture the scene and it was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud.


“I had some incredibly good hands. I had a pile of cash, almost an entire wardrobe and was looking at four queens. Lawson was getting desperate. I don’t know why he just didn’t quit, but he sat there in his underwear, still playing. I guess he felt he had a winning hand. I don’t know, but when the dust cleared I had won the pot and the others were grinning like Cheshire cats, waiting for Lawson to shuck his briefs.” Crane sat back. “I was ready to hand him back his clothes so he could cover up. Not fun sitting across from someone who wears size 50 Hanes.”


Nelson did chuckle at this.


“His buddies were giving him such a hard time; I was ready to call it a night anyway. Then he up and offers his car in place of his skivvies.”


“You’re kidding,” Fallon said.


“I am not kidding. He sent Winston out to his car to get the title. When Winston returned, Lawson signed it over to me, just like that. ‘Are you sure,’ I asked. He said he was sure. Sweat was rolling down his face like he was up against the wall in front of a firing squad. So I just signed that I had received it.”


“Did you know it was a Cobra at the time you signed?”


Lee shook his head.


“When did you realize what you had?”


“When I gathered up my belongings, my cash and said my goodbyes. I gave everyone their clothes back, picked up the keys Lawson had dropped next to the title and headed out the door. I saw that sweet car sitting there and looked at the keys and title. I almost dropped everything, including my own pants. Grundy followed me out with his Polaroid. He took a picture of me next to the car, laughed and then asked. ‘How you going to get your old car home?’ I got out the title of the Karmann Ghia, signed it and told Grundy to give the car to Lawson to take home when he was sober enough to drive.”


“I take it the reason you’re here is because Corby Lawson sobered up enough to have second thoughts,” Nelson said.


Crane nodded.


“Why didn’t you just give it back to him, Lee? You had a car.” Nelson was sure he knew the answer.


“Because by the time the police stopped me, I felt almost the same way with the Cobra that I feel about Seaview.” He turned to Fallon. “Make this stick, Jerry. The others will corroborate that no one even suggested he give me the car.”


“But he was drunk at the time, Captain.”


“He wouldn’t have minded taking off his underwear if he’d been that drunk,” Lee snapped.



The next day Crane and Fallon, Lawson and his lawyer sat across a table from one another. Nelson stood by the door.


“Mr. Lawson, are you sure you want to pursue this? I have already heard some rumors flying about town,” Fallon pointed out.


Lawson’s lawyer shook his head, but the large man ignored him. “I have decided not to go any further with this,” Lawson said. “Your old car, Captain, is more than enough. You won the Shelby fair and square.”


Nelson had no idea why the man had acquiesced so easily, but was glad he did. Lee positively beamed when they left.


Crane invited the admiral to drive home with him and Nelson accepted the offer.  He had to admit it was a sweet riding machine. Not sure it was worth the negotiations, but Lee was happy.  That was what counted the most. Still, “I can’t figure out why Lawson gave in so easily.”


Lee grinned. “The man is married, Admiral. Mrs. Lawson started hearing scuttlebutt about him dancing buck-naked at a poker game, which she had been told was a night working on the books. She threatened to divorce him if this got to court with all the dirty details.” Lee gave a snort of laughter. “It was pretty much her money that had paid for the vineyard and everything else Lawson was running, so she had the last word.”


Nelson laughed heartily.


Yes, indeed, Crane thought as the wind whistled past. All was right with the world.  His baby purred in agreement.