Authors: Loren D. Estleman
The wild scenery of the Osage Hills shot past the window; black, deformed trees competed with the thorny underbrush to blot out the softly curving countryside, closing in on the narrow dirt road and forming a bleak tunnel that stretched endlessly ahead of the speeding truck. It looked remarkably like the barbed-wire fortifications behind which McNeal had crouched during the Great War, and which had been reproduced in the six-column picture adorning the front page of the newspaper on the seat beside him. It was captioned “A Remembrance,” and was meant to give strength to the headline that was boldly emblazoned across the top: NINE-POWER PACT SIGNED. Something about the United States and Europe meeting to prevent a confrontation in the future.
Now, four years after the war, it mattered little to McNeal what the nine powers did, as long as they kept him out of it. The newspaper belonged to his boss, Nelson Garver. Garver, a retired Army colonel, spent all his leisure time devouring news concerning war, reading it, interpreting it, and making predictions as to each maneuver's outcome. The amazing thing about it was that all his predictions seemed to come true sooner or later. McNeal couldn't help thinking how much the Army had lost when Nelson Garver decided to go into manufacturing moonshine liquor.
Garver's explanation for this choice of occupation was simple enough: money. He had been investing in moonshine stills since before Prohibition, because he knew it would be coming, and when national law made it impossible to obtain liquor legally, there was going to be a lot of thirsty people willing to pay top dollar to quench that thirst. So another of the Old Man's prophesies had been proven correct.
As for McNeal, however, he himself harbored serious doubts concerning the wisdom of going to all this trouble on such a shaky premise. A nondrinker himself, the truck driver could not believe that people would go on paying Garver's exorbitant prices, Prohibition or no. Sooner or later they would start drifting away, in search of cheaper entertainment, and Garver would be stuck with a worthless estate and hundreds of moonshine stills that would do him no good. But for the present, the driver was being paid well enough to transport a few loads out of these hills to forestall any complaints about the future of his chosen profession.
He removed his greasy cap and replaced it on his broad head. His hair, plastered with sweat, hung limp and damp down the back of his neck. As the air came rushing through the open window at his side, the sweat dried on his skin, to be replaced by an icy chill. Although McNeal felt a summer cold coming on, there was nothing he could do about it, for the glass in the window was broken.
The massive truck had been barreling downhill at a steady pace, hurtling toward the village at the foot of the slope. The white specks of the houses and shops could be seen from time to time as they flashed amid spaces between the branches, then disappeared behind the heavier overgrowth that flanked the dry road. It was there that McNeal was going to unload his cargo, behind the brick building that housed the office of Uncle Bob's Real Estate Company. From there, “Uncle” Bob's rumrunners, in the guise of realty salesmen, would distribute the illicit liquor to various outlets throughout the state of Oklahoma. It was a sweet system, and, as long as local authorities accepted Garver's hush money, a safe one.
It was while McNeal was down-shifting the big truck and slowing down to take the upcoming curve that he found out how unstable the system really was. As the vehicle began its slow crawl around the turn, something flashed into the driver's peripheral vision and landed with a thump on the left running board. He turned his head to see what it was, but stopped when something hard and cold was placed against his temple. “Pull over and stop,” hissed a voice in his ear. The driver obeyed, wheeling the truck to the side of the road and cutting the engine. He set the brake with an unsteady hand.
The newcomer leaped to the ground and stepped back. “Get out.”
McNeal opened the door and stepped down. A blond youth was standing in the road, a wicked-looking pistol gripped in his right hand. McNeal lifted his hands without being told.
“Step away from the truck.”
The big man did as he was ordered, moving toward the center of the road, where he stopped. The fellow with the gun was little more than a boy, though he was tall and lean and determined-looking. His face was smooth and beardless, topped by a mop of strawlike hair. Little lumps of determination bulged on either side of the jaw, which, considered with the straight, pouting mouth, belied the frank innocence in his flat blue eyes. The black revolver remained steady in his slim hand.
McNeal wet his lips before he spoke. “Is thisâis this a hijack?”
The boy sneered. “Shut up.” He circled past the driver, eyes trained warily on him, heading for the truck. He hesitated a moment, the gun held steady on McNeal, then opened the door on the driver's side and swung himself up into the leather seat. The engine growled, coughed, and turned over, launching into a deep-throated rumble that seemed to echo around the surrounding hilltops.
The tousle-headed boy behind the wheel looked down at McNeal, who was still standing in the road, his hands in the air. The frank blue eyes regarded him thoughtfully. Then he spoke. “How much you figure this stuff is worth?”
McNeal hesitated before answering. “Two bucks a jug. I reckon three hunnert dollars'd cover it.”
“Thanks.” The boy let out the clutch and the steel behemoth began rolling. McNeal stepped out of the way as it pulled into the road and stood watching as it picked up speed and disappeared around the next turn, dust billowing behind. Then he let down his hands and began walking in the direction of town.
He'd recognized the boy, of course. He'd seen him from time to time hanging around Garver's house, and had assumed him to be one of the youngsters his boss hired to make small deliveries to special customers. He'd even heard his name once. What was it again? Ballard. Virgil or Vincent or something like that. But then, it really didn't matter what he called himself, because Nelson Garver was going to find him sooner or later.
“Three bucks a jug.” The tousle-headed young man leaned forward across the counter, hands flat on the drink-spilled top, staring into the bartender's fat face.
The fat bartender looked at him incredulously. Was he dreaming, or was this fresh-faced punk actually trying to roust him in his own bar? He went with the latter speculation. “Hell, kid,” he said, smiling derisively, “you're in a world of your own. I ain't never paid more'n two bucks for a gallon of this Osage panther piss.” He indicated the red earthen jug at his elbow. “I don't get but four out of it myself. I got to live you know.”
“So what are you complaining about? You're making a buck's profit on this load.” The kid was smiling too. He knew by the tone of the man's voice that he was in the market for what he was selling. “Three bucks. Take it or leave it.”
The man behind the counter studied the jug, brooding. “Can I taste it first?”
“Go ahead. This one's free.” As the fat bartender uncorked the jug and hoisted it to his lips, Virgil Ballard took the opportunity to study his surroundings. It was a small bar, lighted dimly by seven of twelve overhead lamps that dotted the ceiling. Considering the quality of the food that must have come from the grease-coated grill behind the bar, thought Virgil, it was perhaps a good thing that poor lighting interfered with the customer's ability to see what he was eating. There were fewer than half a dozen tables in the room, but the ten round, red leather-upholstered stools that lined the bar were expected to take care of the overflow. If the establishment did the same kind of business daily as it was doing now, he reflected, eyeing the single customer passed out across a table near the door, the likelihood that there would ever be such an overflow was practically nil. Beyond the tables, a large, segmented window looked out across the dusty main street of Southwest City, Missouri, and the better quality bar across the street. His eyes widened as the sporty-looking Saxon Six touring car pulled up in front of that bar and two men got out, heading for the door. The car belonged to Nelson Garver.
“I said, would you settle for two-fifty?”
The young man started and forced his eyes back to the bartender, bewildered. “What?”
“Two-fifty. I asked you if you'd take two-fifty per jug.” The cork had been rammed back in the bottle, and the bartender was wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
Virgil was preoccupied. “Two and a half's fine. In cash.”
The other man looked flabbergasted. “That's three hunnert an seventy-five bucks! I ain't got that kind of money around!”
“How much have you got?” The kid was becoming agitated.
“I'll take it.” Virgil held out his hand for the money.
The incredulity showed plainly on the bartender's fleshy face. “Ninety? For the lot?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Virgil rapped on the counter impatiently. The two men had left the bar across the street and were heading for this one. “Gimme the money.”
The bartender punched the cash register and the bottom drawer sprang open. Before he could move, however, the youth reached in, grabbed a fistful of money, and went around the bar in the direction of the back door.
As he swung open the door, the bartender caught sight of the big Mack truck sitting out back. “Hey!” he called. “What about your truck?”
Virgil didn't look back. “Keep it!” He was off and running by the time the two men entered through the front door.
A shiny new Chevrolet was parked in the narrow alley between the bar and the drugstore next door. Virgil tugged open the door and climbed behind the wheel. Miraculously, he found that the key was in the ignition. He hit the starter and nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. Not even a growl. He scrambled out, banging his ankle painfully on the emergency brake handle, limped to the front of the car and flung open the engine cowling. He saw what the trouble was immediately. One of the wires had worked itself free of the shiny black cap atop the distributor and was lying placidly on the edge of the engine block. Working furiously, Virgil replaced the cable and hammered it home with the edge of his fist. He then slammed down the cowl and hurried back into the driver's seat, this time avoiding the wicked brake handle. The key was turned on and he was hitting the starter when a powerful hand closed on his arm.
Two men were standing beside the car. It was the smaller of the two, a wiry, ferret-faced hood in a wrinkled light blue suit and oversize felt hat, who was holding on to Virgil's arm. The other man, a big brute in work clothes and a greasy black jacket, stood by quietly, a small revolver in his corded left hand.
Ferret Face sneered. “Now, I'll just bet you thought you could get away with it, didn't you?” There was a trace of Brooklyn accent in the man's tone, distinctly un-Oklahoman in flavor. With his free hand, the hood frisked Virgil, found the revolver in the pocket of his flannel work pants, and removed it.
Virgil let his foot slide from the starter, resigned to his fate. “How'd you find me?”
Sneer. “Kid, there just ain't that many Mack trucks around this part of the country. People remember.” The sneer gave way to a grim expression. “Get out.”
Garver was waiting for them when the big Saxon finally jolted to a stop in front of the mansion. A young man about Virgil's age stepped up to the car and opened the door. He looked in at the ferret-faced man, then at Virgil, and jerked his head toward the house. “He's inside.”
The big brute in the driver's seat got out first, then circled around to help Virgil out of the back seat. He and Ferret Face kept the youth between them all the way up to the door. The other youth led them into the plush, high-ceilinged entrance hall, down a long and expensively decorated corridor, and stopped before a paneled oak door in what Virgil divined was the south wing of the rambling mansion. He rapped softly on the door.
“Bring him in.” A strong voice, with a faint hint of Missouri. Colonel Garver.
The door opened and Virgil found himself in the middle of a carpeted study, the walls of which were lined with row upon row of ponderous volumes, most of them, as far as Virgil could tell by the titles, dealing with the history and theory of war. Across the room, a velvet curtain opened onto a windowed foyer. Through this, the sheer pristine beauty of the Osage Hills could be seen rolling and stretching until they disappeared in a blue haze on the horizon. Only the stark coarseness of the dozens of oil derricks that studded the countryside served to mar the poetic nature of the placid scene.
A stack of books stood on a marble-topped desk in the corner of the room, the top one opened to a middle page. It was this page that Garver was studying when they came in. He was a tall, distinguished-looking man, with a crop of iron-gray hair brushed straight back from his high forehead. A small moustache of a military cut reposed beneath his aquiline nose, but it was not enough to disguise the cruel slash of a mouth that betrayed the man's true nature. He had deep-set eyes, and these were hidden in the shadow of his sculptured brow, so that it was impossible to read any expression in them. Virgil looked to his cruel mouth for this.
“âEverything is very simple in war,'” read Garver aloud, “âbut the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction beyond the imagination of those who have not seen war.'” He closed the book and came around the desk toward Virgil, reciting from memory. “âThe influence of innumerable trifling circumstances, which cannot be properly described on paper, depresses us, and we fall short of the mark.'” He stopped reciting, his hidden eyes directed full upon Virgil's youthful face. “You, young Mr. Ballard, are a trifling circumstance.”
The two thugs who had brought Virgil from Missouri remained at his sides. The other youth, dark and foreign-looking, was leaning backward against the tier of books on Virgil's left. He seemed uninterested in what was going on.