Tough-luck racecar driver and ex-convict Ringer accepts a job as wheel man for a bank heist only to be betrayed--but his betrayer will soon learn to never cross a man with nothing left to lose.
Tough-luck racecar driver and ex-convict Ringer accepts a job as wheel man for a bank heist only to be betrayed--but his betrayer will soon learn to never cross a man with nothing left to lose.
FEBRUARY 1990, SOUTHEASTERN OKLAHOMA
The wounded, black-and-blue sky dumped its rain on the little town’s deserted main street with the sudden, gushing force of a severed artery, and the fat, pelting drops blended with the thick layer of red Oklahoma dust covering the Chevy, taking on a bloody color and texture as they ran in slow crimson rivulets down the windshield, obscuring Ringer’s view of the wide, empty avenue.
It made him think of the opening to a particularly scary, low-budget horror film: Technicolor curtain of blood gradually coating the wide screen from top to bottom as the credits roll and weird violins play one sustained, shivering note on the soundtrack …
A jarring clap of thunder followed the abrupt meteorological hemorrhage and Ringer flinched at the bone-rattling noise. He glanced uneasily at the big, black .45 automatic on the seat next to his leg. The presence of that hand-held cannon was making him edgier than the knowledge that he was sitting behind the wheel of a getaway car, waiting for three bank robbers to hop in with their satchel-full of money so he could drive them all full-speed away from the reach of the law.
Cursing his tattered nerves, Ringer snatched open the glove compartment with his gloved hand, tossed the .45 inside and slammed it shut. Then he flipped a switch and watched the wipers cut twin arcs of clarity out of the murky mess on the glass.
The street was still empty but suddenly much darker. The windows of this dreary little farm town’s storefronts seemed blacker and more vacant than before. The beheaded parking meter posts lining the curbs were like skinny silver grave-markers for an extinct population, casting eerie rippled
reflections on the rain-glazed pavement. Apparently, paid parking had been discontinued in this little burg, probably sometime in the recent past.
Down at the end of the block, Hubble’s only traffic light, suspended from crisscrossing power lines over the intersection, bobbed and swayed in the wind and rain like a haywire pendulum. At the moment, the light this way was green.
Ringer checked the rearview mirror in time to see the last of the sanguine coating of mud slide off the back window. He adjusted the mirror so he could see the plate glass entrance of the bank back there to the right. He was parked in front of what had once been a Rexall drug store next door to the bank (the faded orange-and-blue sign was still intact above the front windows), and from this angle he could see only a narrow slice of the bank’s bright fluorescent interior through the plate-glass front. No movement visible.
He shifted the mirror again to get a look at the computer-controlled FARMERS MERCANTILE BANK sign over the entrance, flashing the time and temperature in reflection-reversed numerals that translated to 4:08 p.m., 29 degrees. The mercury had already dropped ten degrees in the eight minutes he'd been parked here. Still another two minutes remained until the others were due to come strolling through those glass doors and down the sidewalk to the car, all nice and easy and calm. If luck held out, Ringer might even have time to obey the local speed limit on the way out of town without attracting unwanted attention.
That was if nobody screwed up the timing, or bolted into some tragically stupid act, like pistol-whipping some uncooperative teller, or shooting a security guard who had sudden delusions of cowboy heroism.
Things like that -- awkward, spontaneous violence -- happened often around Darryl-Jack Chaney, who was one of the three men now inside that bank. Something in Darryl-Jack's gleefully reckless, intimidating nature seemed to trigger foolish impulses in the most rational and otherwise non-violent of people who came in contact with him.
But Chaney's experience in carefully planned, cool-headed armed robbery of a guarded and well-wired financial institution -- a fucking bank for chrissake -- was as limited as Ringer's.
Fortunately, the other two men inside the bank -- Scully and Johnson -- were as seasoned in their line of work as Ringer was at high-speed precision driving. Ringer was fairly confident, after the few hours he'd spent with those two old pros in the back-room planning sessions they'd held at Chaney's bar in Oklahoma City, that Scully and Johnson would take care of their end -- which involved the brandishing of cocked, loaded firearms and a way of barking orders that made people sit down and shut up right away. Then it would be Ringer's turn, to pilot this deceptively ramshackle-looking '64 Chevy over a treacherous, twisting course of two-lane mountain highway and one hell of a rugged back road.
Which brought up another worry -- the weather. The pavements would be sheened with ice very soon, at the rate the temperature was dropping and the rain was starting to freeze.
Something caught his eye, up by the intersection. He squinted through the slush-blurred windshield, saw the bouncing, antique traffic light change from green to red. As it changed, a pair of headlight beams cut bright slits in the curtain of freezing rain and premature dusk. Ringer squinted harder to make out the car that followed the lights into the intersection from the side street. The car turned this way; Ringer blinked as the lights raked across his windshield. Now the other car was coming slowly down the street toward him, gliding along the opposite curb. As it drew closer, Ringer saw the red lightbar mounted on the roof, and even at this angle it was easy to read the word POLICE stenciled in plain black letters across the driver's door of the white Ford Galaxie.
Except for the involuntary tightening of his sphincter muscle and his heart trying to kick its way out of his chest, Ringer did not move. He glanced at the blinking lights of the police radio scanner he and Chaney had installed below the Chevy's dash. It had been absolutely silent for the last 10 minutes; he was reasonably sure no one had called for this guy. He continued to sit casually slouched behind the wheel, right arm draped along the top of the seat, just like a bored husband waiting for his wife to finish shopping. Never mind that there was no place left to shop in this hick ghost town that had been all but emptied of life long ago by the farm crisis and the crash of the Oklahoma oil boom just a few short years ago.
Is there a problem, officer? If you think there's something suspicious about my presence here, how come there's still a bank worth robbing in this dead-end place? And for that matter, what are you doing here, officer?
According to Chaney, who had cased the town several weeks in advance, Hubble had only two part-time cops -- actually auxiliary deputies of the LeFlore County sheriff's office -- and only one of them was supposed to be on duty at any given time.
But there was the stalwart officer, moving his white Ford slowly but steadily closer. At least he hadn't turned on his red flashers yet, which could cause someone inside the bank to panic.
Ringer cut his eyes to the rearview mirror again and saw Scully come out of the bank and start along the sidewalk toward the Chevy, having pulled a black ski mask off of his head beforehand. Scully couldn't possibly have missed seeing the prowl car creeping this way, but the tall, lanky old man didn't break stride even for a second as he moved along with his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his long, gray, rumpled raincoat. Just some old codger who'd made it to the bank before closing time, despite the freezing rain, to cash his Social Security check, or maybe make a payment on his farm loan. Ringer had to smile admiringly at Scully's cold-blooded calm. The lean, pale, hollow-cheeked old bastard looked like an undertaker dying of cancer, but he sure had steel nerves. He just walked right up to the Chevy at an unhurried gait, folded his long frame into the front seat next to Ringer and pulled the door shut with a loud chunk.
"Just relax, kid," he said in his customary low rasp. "Don't honk or rev the engine to warn the others or do anything nervous." He reached out a bony, big-knuckled, gloved hand and toyed with the flickering police scanner. But for the occasional short burst of static, it was silent. Scully said, "He ain't on the radio to anyone yet. Just a jerkwater cop being conscientious about making his rounds. Maybe he'll drive on by."
"Thanks for figuring all that out for me," Ringer said, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice. Being called "kid" rankled almost as much as being told not to panic. No one had ever questioned his brass before. As for maturity, well, he'd never see thirty-five again.
Both men watched out of the corners of their eyes as the patrol car rolled to a gentle halt against the curb directly across the street from the Chevy. Taking his time, Ringer fastened his seatbelt and pulled his webbed black-leather driving gloves tighter on his fingers, flexing them until they were snug.
"Johnson will handle himself fine when he comes out," Scully said, staring out the windshield, his gloved hands resting easy in his lap. "On the other hand, your buddy Chaney seems to get a little high-strung when things get tense. You know him better than I do. You think he'll do something shit-headed when he comes out and sees that cop?"
Ringer shook his head slowly, eyes fixed on the rearview mirror. "I dunno. It's hard to say what Darryl-Jack's gonna do from one minute to the next. But he leads a charmed life. Even when he fucks up he manages to get clear without a scratch."
"Mmph," Scully grunted. "What's that do for the rest of us?"
Good question, Ringer thought, starting to feel pretty scared now. Out of the corner of his eye he was painfully aware of the patrol car across the street. He allowed himself a look, slowly swiveling his head to the left. There it was: a five-year-old Ford with all the trappings of the law, right on back to the old-fashioned fishing-pole antenna snapping to and fro in the wind. He couldn't make out the face of the cop behind the wheel; just a pale oval wearing a cowboy hat, peering back at him through a fogged-up window. Ringer mustered a faint smile and nodded at him, feeling foolish because the cop probably couldn't even see the gesture. Ringer turned his attention back to the rearview mirror just as Calvin Johnson yanked the right rear door open and clambered into the back seat. Ringer hadn't even seen him coming.
"Da fuck izzis shit?" the big black man complained as he dropped a large black valise on the seat beside him. He sounded more peevish than worried, as if the cop across the street were just another irritation, like the weather.
The whole car bounced a little as he adjusted his hulking frame back there, getting comfortable. Johnson sounded slightly out of breath; he was a Floridian and cold weather didn't agree with him. On top of that, Darryl-Jack Chaney had Johnson's blood up.
"That crazy muthafuckin' redneck gonna start World War Three when he comes outta that bank and sees The Man sittin' over there. Shit, I got the money. Let's leave his ass."
"Just relax," Scully said without looking around.
"Fuck relax, Scully," Johnson snapped. "Way he was wavin' that shotgun in ever'body's face, yellin' and screamin' at 'em, I thought we was gonna have a slaughter on our hands. Fucker's insane."
Scully said to Ringer, "Be ready to punch it if anything goes wrong."
Ringer didn't like being classified with Darryl-Jack as a potential fuck-up, and was about to say so when movement in the rearview mirror grabbed his attention. He saw the bank doors swing open, saw Darryl-Jack Chaney stride out onto the sidewalk looking for all the world like a superstar athlete modeling expensive Western wear: multi-shaded snakeskin boots, sharply-creased dress jeans encasing long, powerful legs, and an off-white, thigh-length sheepskin coat hung from shoulders that would have made Brian Bosworth look slouchy. And above all the ritzy rodeo raiment protruded the leonine head of a Greek god: square, jutting jaw, high forehead, wide-set eyes squinting beneath prominent, thick blond eyebrows, long Romanesque nose sloping down over a smallish, full-lipped mouth that seemed permanently curled in an Elvis-like sneer. Long, wavy, pale-yellow hair spilled down around his movie-star good looks, and since he was too vain to wear any kind of hat, his head was tucked low in the upturned collar of his fleece-lined coat. He was wearing gloves as well; fleece-lined, of course, but at least his fingerprints where covered, like everyone else in the getaway car.
As he walked toward the Chevy he was glowering distractedly at his expensive boots which were getting wet on the puddled pavement, so Darryl-Jack didn't even notice the cop parked across the street until the cruiser's door swung open and the metallic rasp of a police radio spilled out into the cold, wet air.
In the mirror, Ringer saw Chaney freeze in mid-stride, saw his head snap up and spot the prowl car and the cop who was climbing out of it with his right hand on the butt of his holstered weapon.
Chaney hesitated only a moment, then pulled his coat open, revealing a flowery silk cowboy shirt (by Nudie, $67) and a sawed-off double-barreled Marlin that had been tucked under his right arm.
"Shit," Ringer hissed, and he rammed the floor shift into reverse, popping the clutch and stomping the accelerator as he whipped the steering wheel sharply to the right. Scully and Johnson both started swearing at once as the rear wheels spun on the slick pavement for an instant, then dug in, shooting the Chevy backward, bouncing its passengers violently as the right, then the left rear tire jumped the curb and the battered Bel Air lurched back along the sidewalk at a crazy angle, front tires still on the street, front-end fish-tailing around to the left.
Darryl-Jack, just raising the shotgun to draw a bead on the cop, saw the Chevy slewing toward him and jumped back, flailing his arms and almost dropping his weapon to keep from crashing through the plateglass front of the bank. Ringer slammed on the brakes when the rear bumper was inches from Chaney's knees.
"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," Calvin Johnson ranted, trying to right himself in the back seat.
With its rear end up on the sidewalk, practically pinning Chaney to the building, the Chevy was now aimed straight across the street at the cruiser, where the cop was still frozen halfway through the act of climbing out, one booted foot on the pavement. The cop's face was partially obscured in the shadow of his hat brim, but Ringer could see the man's mouth gaping in stupid amazement as Ringer shifted to first and the rear wheels of the Chevy dropped to the street again. Ringer floored it and the old car lunged straight at the cruiser. For a terrible instant, he thought the cop might be too frightened to move, but at the last possible second the cop tumbled back into the cruiser, slamming the door shut just as the Chevy broadsided it. The cruiser rocked with the impact, the driver's door crumpling inward so that it wouldn't be opened again without the aid of a jaws-of-life tool.
Ringer twisted to his left and reached back to throw open the rear passenger door on that side for Darryl-Jack, who was now lumbering across the street holding the Marlin at port arms and howling like some demented cowboy mercenary. He started to turn the weapon for another try at shooting the cop, who was now scrambling out the other side of the cruiser. Ringer levered into reverse again and the Chevy roared backward. He gauged it perfectly with a subtle flick of the steering wheel and hit the brakes as the open door clipped Darryl-Jack just hard enough to knock him sprawling on his back in the street, discharging one barrel of the Marlin deafeningly but harmlessly at the rainy sky.
"Get in, goddammit," Ringer shouted over his shoulder.
Cursing furiously, Darryl-Jack scrambled up from the wet pavement and heaved himself into the back seat as Ringer again gunned the Chevy in a tight reverse arc.
"You crazy son of a bitch," Chaney bawled angrily in Ringer's ear, "you tryin' to kill me?"
Ringer was wondering about that himself as he was now desperately jimmying the Chevy into first gear and the overworked transmission was protesting with a nerve-grating gnashing of metal teeth. They heard an explosion then and a golf-ball-size hole appeared in the center of the windshield, a spider-web of cracks radiating from it. The rear window frosted into thousands or cracks and collapsed in an avalanche of silvery particles as the exiting bullet passed through.
"Shee-it, move this thing!” Johnson shouted, shrugging violently as the shower of glass covered his head and shoulders. "That law is shootin' at us!"
Still grinding gears, Ringer glanced over there and saw the officer, hatless now, aiming a large smoking revolver at them over the roof of the cruiser.
"Fuck him," Darryl-Jack said, and he put the Marlin to his shoulder, resting the barrels in the V formed by the still-open back-seat door. The Marlin boomed and the cop ducked behind his car just as the double-aught charge struck the cruiser's light bar, shattering red Plexiglass and sending the whole thing spinning off the roof like an out-of-balance helicopter blade. At the same moment, the Chevy's gears caught on and the powerful old junker roared down the street leaving twin plumes of rubber-smoke and spray in its wake. Darryl-Jack yanked the smoking shotgun back inside as the sudden acceleration slammed the door shut beside him.
When they were shooting through the intersection under the wind-jostled traffic light that had just turned green, Ringer heard Chaney growl some unintelligible profanity, glimpsed his maniacal grimace in the mirror as Darryl-Jack raised the sawed-off shotgun to ram the stock into the back of Ringer's head. Ringer willed his hands to stay on the wheel, holding the car on its straight, rocketing course, hunching his shoulders in anticipation of the blow, knowing that when it landed he would almost certainly lose control and they would all die in a tumbling hell of twisted metal and shattering glass.
And in what he was sure were the last few seconds of his time on Earth, he wished he had listened to his wife's desperate pleas. Last night, in a fit of alcoholic rage, she had screamed, "He'll get you killed, you fool! You can't trust him! He's mean and he's crazy and he doesn't care about anybody. Don't you know that by now?"
Early this morning, she had awakened to find him dressed and ready to leave for his rendezvous with Chaney and the others, and she had made a tearful last-ditch effort to talk him out of this thing. But he had remained rock-stubborn, and had coldly turned his back and walked out, and now he knew that that might have been the last time he would ever see Julie, and she would probably never forgive him for allowing this to happen, and now he only hoped the blow would knock him unconscious and spare him the agony of the 70-mile-an-hour disaster that was about to take him out ...
But the blow never came.
There were sounds of a scuffle in the back seat -- barely audible over the thunder of the Chevy's twin pipes heard through the glassless rear window -- and then the unmistakable thump of flesh-and-bone against flesh-and-bone. Ringer risked a look in the rearview mirror. Calvin Johnson was settling back in the seat with the shotgun in his lap now, nonchalantly brushing particles of window glass from his shoulders like so much dandruff. Ringer moved the mirror with a shaky hand and saw Darryl-Jack slumped in the other corner, out cold, with a thin ribbon of blood trickling down his chin from the corner of a smashed lip.
Chaney was big and mean, but as vulnerable as anyone to a sucker punch from Calvin Johnson, the ex-prizefighter who was just as big and at least as mean as Darryl-Jack.
Within minutes they were climbing into the timbered hills east of Hubble, heading for the Arkansas border via a specially-selected, little-known route, and Ringer was preoccupied with negotiating the curves of the two-lane state highway that was becoming highly polished with ice by now. But he wasn't too distracted to break into a delayed smile of self-satisfaction as the old man's compliment sank in. Scully had left off the "kid" that time.
In the back seat, Calvin Johnson turned up his overcoat collar and hugged himself against the bitter wind and rain whipping through the shattered rear window. "Hey. Let's turn up the muthafuckin' heat," he complained. "Shee-it."
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Gene Triplett is a veteran newspaper journalist who served ten years as city editor of The Oklahoman, the state's largest daily source of print and online news. He's won numerous awards for his breaking news and entertainment coverage, film and music reviews, and feature writing. He lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with his wife, Carol. Wheel Man and Mr. Gone are his first two novels.