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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Red Highway
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There was a great silence in the room. The five or six customers who had been lined up at the tellers' windows raised their hands slowly without waiting to be told. The head cashier saw out of the corner of his eye that the other two bank employees had done the same. Then he raised his own hands, pausing only to resettle his spectacles on his prominent nose.

“Not you,” said the Indian, twitching the muzzle of his pistol. “You're gonna need your hands.” He unfolded the small burlap sack he'd been carrying beneath his arm and opened it. “Fill 'er up.”

The cashier slid open his cash drawer and began loading bundles of bills into the sack. He couldn't resist the urge to count them mentally as they disappeared down the burlap mouth. His salary for the previous year went by the first fifteen seconds.

One of the bank's customers, a woman, dropped her purse and it hit the floor with a thump. The innocent-looking young man whirled at the sound and thrust his Luger in the woman's direction. His finger was prevented from squeezing the trigger when the Indian dropped his sack and grabbed his partner's wrist. “Calm down!” he snapped.

The cashier hit the alarm button with his foot. The bell above the door began clanging. Twisting free of the Indian's grip, the young man aimed his Luger at the cashier, seemed to think better of it, wheeled, and shot the bell. It exploded in a cloud of torn metal and went on ringing in a different key.

“Let's clear the hell out!” The Indian snatched up the half-full sack and ran out the door on the heels of his companions. The Studebaker was rolling by the time they had the doors open. In the next moment it was gone, its passing marked by a swiftly settling cloud of red dust.

“I should've plugged that sonuvabitch cashier the minute we walked in.” Virgil, in shirtsleeves and vest, stared down at the moonlight rippling across the surface of Lake Lawtonka. A moth fluttered and banged at the screen door a few inches in front of his face, struggling to get near the light.

Ralph, slouched in an overstuffed chair beneath a wrought iron floor lamp, grunted above his copy of the
Literary Digest
. “I wish to hell you'd quit grousing,” he said. “There ain't nobody around to hear it anyways.” He turned the page and admired a full-length shot of Arnie Rothstein.

“What in God's name did Roy go to Elgin for anyway, this time of night?”

“Movie. ‘The Mark of Zorro.' Doug Fairbanks.” Ralph made a parrying motion with his right hand, swinging an imaginary sword. “Ron was driving.”

The moth was still clinging to the screen, fascinated by the light.

“Eight thousand goddamn dollars. We did better than that in Dawes.”

Ralph wasn't listening. Arnie Rothstein. Ten million dollars a year.

“The trouble with these jerk bank tellers, they don't respect guns.”

“Shut up. Floyd's tryin' to sleep.”

“Guns aren't just for looks. We got to teach them that. What we got to do, we got to start using 'em, like in Dawes.” Virgil felt the weight of his Luger pulling against the shoulder holster beneath his vest. He had bought the rig on the way across the state, from a high-class sporting goods store outside of Guthrie, and had not yet stopped congratulating himself on the purchase. It felt good.

“The next time we walk into a bank,” he said, “we got to kill somebody.” He reached out and crushed the moth.

Farrell, seated on the end of the wooden dock, finished baiting his hook and dropped the line into the water. The red-and-white bobber danced twice on the metallic surface and sat still.

Ralph Moss watched it for a few seconds, then directed his attention back to his boss. He was standing above Farrell, hands thrust deep into his pockets. “We got to do something about Virgil,” he said at last.

“I know.” The gang leader fished a cigarette and lighter from an inside pocket of his jacket, placed the cigarette between his lips, and lit it one-handed. “What else did he say?”

Ralph shrugged. “That was it. He says, ‘We got to kill somebody,' and goes upstairs. Nothin' else.”

“Think he meant it?”

“He meant it, all right. Virgil don't joke much.”

“Yeah.” The bobber jiggled and returned to its original position. A nibble. “He almost shot that dame back in Apache.”

“He would of, too, if you hadn't stopped him. That boy's bad news, Roy. We can't afford to have him around no more.”

“That's your lookout. You hired him, remember?”

Ralph sighed heavily. “I was afraid you'd say that.” He watched a duck come in low over the water and brake to a standstill on the surface, like a seaplane. “Okay, I'll tell him he's got to go.”

“You don't have to tell me nothin'!”

Ralph turned. He heard the dock creak and knew Farrell had done the same. Virgil, hatless, his jacket unbuttoned, was standing on the bank at the other end of the dock. His face was a mask of fury. “You four-for-a-quarter sons of bitches,” he hissed.

“How long you been standing there?” Ralph demanded.

“Long enough.” Virgil strode across the dock, drew back his fist, and smashed Ralph square in the face. The solid Oklahoman staggered backward, scrambling to keep from losing his balance and toppling into the clear water. He succeeded, then charged toward Virgil, snorting like a mad bull.

“Hold it!” Farrell reached out and took hold of Ralph's ankle. His momentum carried him forward and he pitched facedown onto the dock. “Knock it off!” The gang leader indicated the peaceful cottages on the other side of the lake. “You want somebody to complain and call the law down on us?”

Ralph, who had climbed to his hands and knees, relaxed somewhat. He got to his feet and brushed the dust off his trousers.

Virgil's face was flushed. “You bastards can worry about the law by yourselves from here on in. I'm clearing out.” He wheeled and headed back toward the cottage.

“What are you gonna do?” Farrell's voice carried across the lake and came back. He was resting on one hip on the end of the dock, watching the young man's progress up the grassy bill.

Virgil stopped and turned, looking down at the two figures on the dock. “Read the papers,” he shouted. “You'll find out.” He hesitated a moment longer, then spun on his heel and resumed his journey toward the house and the black roadster parked before the garage.

Part II

Escapee

The bloodhounds strain at their leashes, baying around the legs of Oklahoma City Sheriff Roger McCracken. He is a big man, a barrel balanced solidly upon a pair of long and incongruously lanky legs, his square head surmounted by a broad-brimmed approximation of a Western hat. His uniform consists of tan breeches stuffed into the tops of a battered pair of half boots and a heavy black jacket zipped halfway up the front with a star insignia on the upper left sleeve. He reaches down, grabs a thick fold of loose dog flesh, and shakes it. “Best damn hounds on this side of Tulsa.”

“Where the hell have you been?” Farnum, a faceless shadow in the mouth of the alley, fingers the butt of his machine gun nervously. “He could be in Missouri by now.”

The sheriff squints distastefully at the trench-coated figure before him and spits onto the invisible pavement. “Fuck you. I had to wake up the guy in charge before I could get the dogs.”

Farnum ignores the sheriff's belligerence. “Let's get going.” He leads the way out into the street, where the glow of a number of flashlights points out the locations of the various lawmen. The drizzling rain splatters loudly against the sidewalks and pavement. A few brave souls, awakened by the gunfire of a few minutes before and the persistent baying of the hounds, have ventured out of their doors, but they remain in the shelter of their porches, out of the way.

“Jake! Take these things off my hands, will you?”

The lanky deputy sheriff trots over to relieve his superior of the noisy dogs. He is either chewing a fresh wad of gum or is still working at the old piece. Another deputy, who has been holding Sheriff McCracken's shotgun, hands the weapon back to the lawman.

“All right,” snaps Farnum. “We'll stick with this street. Sheriff, take your men and search the alleys and side streets. Leave the dogs with us.”

The sheriff glares at Farnum. In the peripheral illumination afforded by the flashlights, the special agent's ruddy face is hard and tense. His mind is clearly concerned with his prey and nothing else. The sheriff nods his assent and turns away, signaling his deputies to follow him.

The hounds, their leashes now held by a special agent, fall silent, sniffing the air. They get the scent and lunge forward, baying and snapping as the agent scrambles to keep up with them.

Sheriff McCracken watches as the trench-coated agents move on in the hounds' path. Then he turns and leads the way into a narrow alley. Jake, the gangling deputy, follows his superior's broad back, along with the other men in uniform. Soon the street is silent.

Chapter Seven

December 24, 1926.

The thick record wobbled around and around inside the portable crank-up phonograph, occasionally taking time out between scratches to allow Ruth Etting's voice to come through, warbling “Silent Night.” George Shipman, proprietor of “Shipman's, the most well-equipped drugstore in Okmulgee,” was working late to fill a prescription for his wife's mother. Christmas or not, people still got sick. He finished the last few capsules and slid them into a sterile glass bottle, funneling them through the round neck via a narrow slip of white paper.

Outside the plate glass window, tiny flakes of snow swarmed and swirled through the night air, flashing like fireflies as they caught and reflected the light from inside the store. Freezing winds whined around the corners of the brick building, making Shipman doubly grateful for the warmth emanating from the little olive-drab furnace in the corner behind the counter. It cheered him to look up from his work and see the hearty little flame glowing through the thick glass window in the side of the furnace and reflecting the colorful ornaments on the small Christmas tree standing on the nearby display table. It made the holiday seem worthwhile.

He wiped the top of the bottle with the slip of paper and shoved in the stopper. Then he transferred the tiny container to the pocket of his white coat. Behind him, the phonograph had stuck and the record went on, over and over: “Tender and, tender and, tender and—” Shipman lifted the arm and set it down again closer to the center of the disk. It resumed playing.

He was turning back to the counter when the bell above the door jangled and somebody came in, bringing a gust of icy wind in with him. The stranger was a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, well dressed in a suit and heavy topcoat that hung to his knees. Shipman was unable to see the man's face beneath the broad-brimmed hat he had pulled low over his eyes. He strode down the aisle, brushed past a cardboard cutout of Santa Claus set up to display a table of cosmetics, and stopped before the counter.

The proprietor could now see his customer's face in the light of the shaded lamp that hung from the ceiling. It was a young face, freckled slightly from the Oklahoma sun, and set off by a pair of cool blue eyes that regarded Shipman steadfastly. His nose was finely structured, so much so that, from the front, one could only make out the slight depression above the bridge and the contours of the well-formed nostrils, while the rest of it disappeared against the background of the evenly tanned face. Only the mouth, the wide, thin-lipped mouth, set as it was, served to suggest the possible presence of a violent temperament. It was a cruel slash in what was otherwise a peaceful visage. Shipman also noticed a few wisps of sun-bleached hair which the somber hat had been powerless to imprison. Obviously a farm boy who had made good in the city.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” the druggist said smiling. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yeah.” The young man brought an ugly, foreign-looking automatic pistol from his coat pocket and aimed it at him, “Reach.”

Shipman's eyes flitted to the gun, then back to the stranger's face. He smiled uncertainly. “Why—what kind of a Christmas joke is this?”

“I said reach!” The man's voice was savage. He brought the gun up higher.

The druggist was puzzled. Was this for real? Surely no Christian would consider robbing his fellow man on Christmas Eve! He hesitated, searching the stranger's face for some sign that he was joking. Then the man fired.

Shipman heard the pistol roar and saw the flames leap from the barrel before he felt anything. Then something red hot drilled into his insides. He gasped and doubled over, feeling the warm blood flow between and over the fingers he had clapped over the wound. He sank to his knees and toppled sideways to the well-swept floor, hearing the rattle of the stranger's hand in the drawer of the cash register. Footsteps hurried away, the little bell jangled, and the door banged shut. Then came darkness.

Above his head, the record had stuck again. It kept repeating, “Sleep, sleep, sleep.”

Virgil wound the second-hand Buick around the corner and into Tulsa's business district. He liked the spacious sedan, but every time he put his foot down on the accelerator, he missed the little Marmon roadster he had been forced to leave behind in Stillwater. If he had plugged that jerk in Chickasha who had seen him escape from the Farmer's Bank & Trust job in the little black bomb, he would still be using it. It was the all-points bulletin put out by the Stillwater police that had turned the trick; he'd barely had time to ditch it and buy the Buick before every damn cop in town had zeroed in on his trail. But he couldn't complain about the used heap, for it had been in his possession over a year without incident. He was glad nobody had seen him leaving the drugstore back in Okmulgee, or he would have to give up this one, too.

It was January, 1927, the dawn of a new year, but Tulsa hadn't changed. Bigger, perhaps, than when he had last seen it, and noisier; Virgil didn't notice it. The multi-laned streets were no less confusing than they had ever been, and the skyscrapers still reached high into the air on both sides, making a tunnel of the broad avenue. A few buildings had been added since his last visit, their clean new facades contrasting sharply against the drab grays and browns of the edifices around them. Not far away, construction was under way on still newer buildings. Bricks and lumber and equipment and bags of cement were piled in stacks in the center of vacant lots and near half-finished foundations, some of the stacks spilling over onto the sidewalks. Some rich bastards showing off their millions, thought Virgil, and turned the corner. The big business boom had infected everybody. Including bank robbers.

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