When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station. He stopped beside the pumps, the only car here, hit the button to pop the trunk lid, and got out of the car. A bright day in July, temperature in the low seventies, a moderate-sized town not two hundred miles from Omaha, a few shoppers driving past in both directions. A dozen blocks away, Melander and Carlson and Ross would be just entering the bank.
The car, a forgettable dark-gray Honda Accord, took nine point seven two gallons of gasoline. The thin white surgical gloves he wore as he pumped the gas looked like pale skin.
When the tank was full, he screwed the gas cap back on and opened the trunk. Inside were some old rags and an empty glass one point seven five liter jug of Jim Beam bourbon. He filled the bottle with gasoline, then stuffed one of the rags into the top, lit the rag with a Zippo lighter, and heaved the bottle overhand through the plate glass window of the convenience store. Then he got into the Honda and drove away, observing the speed limit.
2:47. Parker made the right turn onto Tulip Street. Back at the bank, Ross would be controlling the customers and employees, while Melander and Carlson loaded the black plastic trash bags with cash. Farther downtown, the local fire company would be responding to the explosion and fire with two pumpers, big red beasts pushing out of their red brick firehouse like aggravated dinosaurs.
The white Bronco was against the curb where Parker had left it, in front of a house with a For Sale sign on the lawn and all the shades drawn. Parker pulled into the driveway there, left the Honda, and walked to the Bronco. At this point, Melander and Ross would have the bags of money by the door, the civilians all face down on the floor behind the counter, while Carlson went for their car, their very special car, just around the corner.
When there’s an important fire, the fire department responds with pumpers or hook-and-ladders, but also responds with the captain In his own vehicle, usually a station wagon or sports utility truck, painted the same cherry red as the fire engines, mounted with red flashing light and howling siren. Last night, Parker and the others had taken such a station wagon from a town a hundred miles from here, and now Carlson would be getting behind the wheel of it, waiting for the fire engines to race by.
Parker slid into the Bronco, peeled off the surgical gloves, and stuffed them into his pants pocket. Then he started the engine and drove two blocks closer to where he’d started, parking now in front of a weedy vacant lot. Near the bank, the fire engines would be screaming by, and Carlson would bring the station wagon out fast in their wake, stopping in front of the bank as Melander and Ross came running out with the full plastic bags.
Parker switched the scanner in the Bronco to the local police frequency and listened to all the official manpower in town ordered to the convenience store on the double. They’d all be coming now, fire engines, ambulances, police vehicles; and the fire captain’s station wagon, its own siren screaming and red dome light spinning in hysterics.
2:53 by this new dashboard clock. It should be now. Parker looked in the rearview mirror, and the station wagon, as red as a firecracker in all this sunlight, came modestly around the corner back there, its lights and siren off.
Parker wasn’t the driver; Carlson was. Leaving the Bronco engine on, he stepped out of it and went around to open the luggage door at the back, as the captain’s car stopped beside him. A happy Melander in the back seat handed out four plastic bags bulging with paper, and Parker tossed them in the back. Then Carlson drove ahead to park in front of the Bronco while Parker shut the luggage door and got into the back seat, on the street side.
Ahead, the three were getting out of the captain’s car, stripping off the black cowboy hats and long tan dusters and white surgical gloves they’d worn on the job, to make them all look alike for the eyewitnesses later. They tossed all that into the back seat of the station wagon, then came trotting this way. They were all grinning, like big kids. When the job goes right, everybody’s up, everybody’s young, everybody’s a little giddy. When the job goes wrong, everybody’s old and nobody’s happy.
Carlson got behind the wheel, Melander beside him, Ross in back with Parker. Ross was a squirrely short guy with skin like dry leather; when he grinned, like now, his face looked like a khaki roadmap. “We havin fun yet?” he asked, and, Carlson put the Bronco in gear.
Parker said, as they drove deeper into town, “I guess everything went okay in there.”
“You’d have thought,” Carlson told him, “they’d rehearsed it. ”
Melander, a brawny guy with a large head piled with wavy black hair, twisted around in his seat to grin back at Parker and say, “Move away from the alarm; they move away from the alarm. Put your hands on your head; they put their hands on their heads.”
Carlson, with a quick glance at Parker in the rearview mirror, said, “Face down on the floor; guess what?”
Ross finished, “We didn’t even have to say, ‘Simon says.”‘
Carlson took the right onto Hyacinth. It looked like just another residential cross-street, but where all the others stopped at or before the city line, this one went on to become a county route through farmland that eventually linked up with a state road that soon after that met an Interstate. By the time the law back in town finished sorting out the fire from the robbery, trying to guess which way the bandits had gone, the Bronco would be doing seventy, headed east.
Like most drivers, Carlson was skinny. He was also a little edgy-looking, with jug ears. Grinning again at Parker In the mirror, he said, “That was some campfire you lit.”
“It attracted attention,” Parker agreed.
Ross, his big smile aimed at the backs of the heads in front of him, said, “Boyd? Hal? Are we happy?”
Melander twisted around again. “Sure,” he said, and Carlson said, “Tell him.”
Parker said, “Tell him? Tell me?” What was wrong here? His piece was inside his shirt, but this was a bad position to operate from. “Tell me what?” he said, thinking, Carlson would have to be taken out first. The driver.
But Ross wasn’t acting like he was a threat; none of them were. His smile still big, Ross said, “We had to know if we were gonna get along with you. And we had to know if you were gonna get along with us. But now we all think it’s okay, if you think it’s okay. So what I’m gonna do is tell you about the job.”
Parker looked at him. “We just did the job,” he said.
“Not that,” Ross said, dismissing the bank job with a wave of the hand. “That wasn’t the job. You know what that was? That was the financing for the Job.”
“The job,” Melander added, “the real job, is not nickel-dime. Not like this.”
“The real job,” Ross said, “is worthy of our talents.”
Parker looked from one to another. He didn’t know these people. Was this something, or was it smoke and mirrors? Was this what Hurley had almost but not quite mentioned? “I think,” he said, “you ought to tell me about the job.”
It had started with a phone call, through a cutout. Parker returned the call from a payphone and recognized Tom Hurley’s voice when he said, “You busy?”
“Not in particular,” Parker said. “How’s the wing?” Because, the last time they’d been together, in a town called Tyler, Hurley had wound up shot in the arm, and had been taken out of the action by a friend of his named Dalesia.
Hurley laughed, not as though he was amused but as though he was angry. “Fucked me a little,” he said. III feel it in cold weather.”
“Stay where it’s warm.”
“That’s what I’m doing. In fact, that’s why I’m calling.”
Parker waited. After a little dead air, Hurley did his laugh again and said, “You never were much for smalltalk.”
Parker waited. After a shorter pause, Hurley cleared his throat and said, “It’s a thing with some people I don’t think you know.”
“I know you.”
“Well, that’s just it, I won’t be there. If you want it, you’re taking my place. I got a better something come up, offshore. I’m fixing to be a beachcomber. A rich beachcomber.”
“Because of the arm,” Parker suggested.
“That, too,” Hurley agreed. “These three are good boys, they know how to count at the end of the day, you know what I mean.”
Parker knew what he meant; they wouldn’t try to hog it all, at the end of the day. He said, “Why don’t I know them? They civilians?”
“No, they just work different places, different people, you know how it is. But then, it could pan out with them and then you know them, and who knows.”
“Who knows what?”
“What happens next,” Hurley said.
Letting that go, Parker said, “Where are they now?”
“They move around, like people do,” Hurley told him, “Lately, they’re based around the northwest somewhere, or maybe Vancouver. Over there someplace.”
“Is that where this thing Is?”
“No, they like to work away from home.”
So did Parker. He said, “Not around me.”
“No, in the Midwest, one of those flat states out there. I told them about you, if you’re interested I’ll give you a number.”
So one thing led to another, and here he was In the back of the Bronco with Melander and Carlson and Ross, and after all he was going to be told the who-knows that Hurley hadn’t wanted to talk about.
“It’s jewelry,” Ross said.
Parker wasn’t impressed. “That’s a dime on the dollar, if you’re lucky.”
“That’s right,” Ross said, “that’s what we’ll get.”
Melander said, “We got three buyers, ready to go, that’s what they all give us.”
Parker said, “Three?”
“There’s too much for one fence,” Ross explained.
Parker was beginning to get interested. “What are we talking about here?”
Carlson steered them up onto the Interstate ramp as Ross said, “Four of us will walk home–”
“Ride home,” Melander corrected him. “In a limo.”
“Right,” Ross agreed. “Four of us will ride home with three hundred grand apiece.”
Parker looked from Ross to Melander and back. They both seemed serious, if happy. Nobody in the car was taking any mood changers. He said, “This is twelve million in jewelry?”
“That’s the floor,” Ross said. “That’s the appraisal. It’s a charity sale, if we let it alone, it’ll go higher, but what we’ll get is the floor.”
“A charity sale. Where?”
“Palm Beach,” Ross said.
Parker shook his head. “Deal me out.”
Ross said, “You don’t want to listen to the job?”
“I just heard the job,” Parker told him. “Twelve million in jewelry all In one place draws a lot of attention. Cops, private cops, guards, sentries, probably dogs, definitely helicopters, metal-detecting machines, all of that. Then you put it in Palm Beach, which has more police per square inch than anywhere else on earth. They’re all rich In Palm Beach, and they all want to stay that way. And besides that, it’s an Island, with three narrow bridges, they can seal that place like it’s shrink-wrap.”
“All of this is true,” Ross said. “But we got a way in, and we got a way at, and we got a way out.”
“Then I still know the job,” Parker told him, “and I still don’t want it.”
Melander said, “Just out of curiosity, why?”
“Because to even think about doing your job,” Parker told him, “and to do it In Palm Reach, there’s two things you got to have. One is the insider, who’s the amateur, who’s gonna bring you down. And the other is a boat, which is the only way off the island, and which is even worse than an island, because there’s no way off a boat.”
Ross said, “That’s yes and no. We got the insider, that’s true, but he’s before the job, he’s nowhere near Palm Beach on the day, and he’s not exactly an amateur.”
Melander said, “He’s one of our buyers, we worked with him before.”
“What he is,” Ross said, “he’s an art appraiser, estate appraiser, he tells you what the paintings are worth, what the rugs are worth, what the jewelry is worth, for the taxes and the heirs.”
Keeping his eyes on the road, Carlson said, “He has a little trouble with nose powder, so he needs extra money. But he doesn’t let it make him a problem, at least not for us.
“What his occupation is,” Melander said, “he spends his life casing the joint.”
“Then he tips off you guys,” Parker said.
“And then you go in and take out the best stuff. And how long before somebody notices, when this guy does the appraisal, step two is a robbery?”
“We don’t do it that way,” Rose told him. “Our agreement is, we never touch a thing until at least two years after he’s been and gone. And this time, the Palm Beach, he wasn’t one of the appraisers.”
“He gets access to the appraisals,” Melander acded, “like anybody else in the business. ”
“He’s done other stuff in Palm Beach,” Ross said, “so he knows the place, he knows the routine, he knows everything about it, but he isn’t one of the people that looked at this particular bunch of jewels.”
Melander said, “He’s moved in that territory, but on different estates, different evaluations.”
“If they’re looking for an insider,” Ross said, “they won’t look at him, because he wasn’t inside.”
“Possibly,” Parker said. “What about the boat?”
“No boat,” Melander assured him. “I a hundred per cent agree with you about boats.”
“Then how do you get off the island?”
“We don’t,” Ross said.
“You stay there? Where? You know, you rent a condominium, the cops are gonna look at recent rentals.”
“Not a condominium,” Ross said.
“At my place,” Melander said, and grinned like a bear.
Parker tried to see around corners, but couldn’t, not quite. “You’ve got a place there?”
“It’s fifteen rooms,” Melander told him, “on the beach. I think you’ll like it.”
“You’ve got a fifteen room mansion on the beach in Palm Beach,” Parker said. “How does this happen?”
“Well, I looked at it a few weeks ago,” Melander said.
“But he’s just buying it today,” Ross said. “We got the down payment from that bank back there.”
The motel, and the car Parker would be using, was in Evansville. When they got there, while Melander and Ross counted the money on the bed, Carlson and Parker sat in the room’s two chairs, across the round table from one another, and Carlson told him more. “The mansion is cheap. I mean, for a mansion in Palm Beach.”
“It was sold maybe eight years ago to this movie star couple, you know, he’s a star and she’s a star, so when they make a picture, he gets twenty million, she gets ten million–”
From the bed, Melander said, “Still not equal pay, you see that?”
Carlson and Parker both ignored him, Carlson saying, “They bought the place, they thought they’d be stars in Palm Beach, but Palm Beach ignored them. They’re stars, but they’re trash, and in Palm Beach you can’t be trash. Or, if you are trash, you hide it, and you spread your money around.”
“Charities,” Melander said.
“They love charities in Palm Beach,” Carlson agreed. “But these stars didn’t do it right. They thought they were already entitled. They threw big flashy parties, they brought In rock bands, for Christ’s sake, and nobody came.”
“Well, a lot of people went to those parties,” Ross said.
Carlson said, “Not the right people. Also, the parties were playing hell with the house, messing it up. Then the stars went away to be stars someplace else–”
“Where stars are looked up to,” Melander said.
“So the house was abandoned,” Carlson said, “and the alarm systems would break down all the time, and bums would sneak in there from the beach, and they had a couple little fires and the cops finally said, we can’t keep a man on this house twenty-four hours a day, you got to put in your own security patrol, and the stars said fuck it, and put it on the market.”
Laughing, Melander said, “A fixer-upper for sale in Palm Beach. A do-it-yourselfer.”
“These stars couldn’t do anything right,” Carlson said. “If they do the fix-up, they make a lot more money when they sell the place. But they’re not interested, they’re off somewheres else, and the house sits there until Boyd comes along.”
Melander got off the bed and took a stance, shoulders squared, big body relaxed, big smile, big wavy hair framing his head. He said, in a strong Texas accent, “I do like this little town you got here, I’d like to contribute if I could, make it even better. I like that ocean you got, you know, it’s bigger than the Gulf, I like the idea of that whole ocean out there and then Europe on the other side, not Mexico. Not that I have anything against Mexicans, hard-working little fellas, most of them.”
Melander sat down to the money again while a grinning Carlson said to Parker, “Boyd can fit right in. And with all that oil money in his family, he’ll fix up that mansion good as new. Better. And when he’s got the house all done, he wants to host the big library benefit there.”
Parker nodded. “All right, he can be plausible,” he said.
Carlton looked pleased. “So you’re in?”
“No.” Parker said.
All three were disappointed, gazing at him as though he’d let them down in some unexpected way. Carlson said, “Could I ask why?”
“You’ve got a place to stay,” Parker said. “If I ask, you’ll tell me how the mansion won’t trace back to any of you after it’s all over.”
“Sure,” Carlson said.
“But that isn’t the job,” Parker told him. “That’s nothing but the safe house. The job Is still a whole lot of jewelry, twelve million dollars’ worth of jewelry, completely surrounded by people with weapons who don’t want you to get your hands on it. From this idea today, blow up something a little farther out of town as a distraction, I can see you guys like to be gaudy. That’s fine, fires and explosions have their place, but I think you mean to be gaudy in Palm Beach, and it won’t work out for you any better than it did for the movie stars.”
Carlson wanted to say something, but Parker held up his hand. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “I’m not in this, so I don’t want to know what the plan is, and you don’t want me to know.”
The three of them looked at one another. Parker watched them, waiting to see what his move should be, but nobody seemed ready to offer any threat. At last, Carlson said, “How’s the count coming?”
“Done,” Ross said. “Eighty-five and change.”
“That’s short,” Carlson said.
Melander said, “Well, we knew it could be.”
Carlson turned back to Parker. “The down payment on the place is a hundred grand. It was higher, but Boyd haggled them down to that, but that’s it, rock bottom. Two days from now, this cash here Is gonna be an electronic impulse out of a bank In Austin, Texas, but it isn’t enough. As it is, we’re gonna have to borrow black to top it up.”
From the bed, Ross said, “You see how it is. We gotta borrow fifteen, that means we gotta pay back thirty. Man, if we give you your–” he consulted a slip of paper on the bed in front of himself “–twenty one thousand, three hundred nineteen bucks, we’re gonna have to borrow almost forty, that’s a payback eighty, that begins to cut in.”
“Also,” Carlson said, being very reasonable about it all, “we still need a fourth man, the way we got it set up, so somebody has to get that fourth share. That’s why we want it to be you.”
“No,” Parker said.
Again, they looked at one another, and again Parker waited for them to make a move, but again it didn’t happen. Melander simply said, “He isn’t gonna change his mind.”
“Well, that’s a bitch,” Carlson said.
Melander said, “We knew it could happen.”
Meanwhile, Ross was counting out a little stack of money onto the bed, while Carlson got to his feet and crossed over to the closet. Opening the closet door, he pulled out two of the three suitcases in there, leaving Parker’s. Ross got off the bed and came over to hand the little stack of cash to Parker, saying, “Sorry it didn’t work out. We’ll catch up with you later.”
Parker looked at the money, and It wasn’t enough, nowhere near enough. He said, “What’s this?”
“Ten per cent,” Ross told him. “Just over two grand. When we’re done in Palm, you’ll get the full amount, so this is like interest on the loan.”
“I’m not loaning you anything,” Parker said.
Melander and Carlson were stuffing the rest of the cash into the two suitcases. Melander said, “I’m afraid you got to, pal. You don’t have a choice, and we don’t have a choice.”
Ross showed Parker a pistol, but didn’t exactly point it at him. “You shouldn’t stand up,” he said, “and you shouldn’t move your hands off the table.”
Parker said, “Tom Hurley told me you guys weren’t hijackers.”
“We aren’t hijackers,” Ross said, with simple sincerity. “You’ll get your money. The job goes down two months from now, and then the money’s yours. With Interest.”
Melander said, “Pal, I’m sorry we got to act this way, but what’s our choice? We thought you’d come In with us, and then everything’d be fine. I’m sorry you feel the way you do, but there it is.”
Carlson said, “You can count on us to pay you. I never stiffed another mechanic in my life.”
You’re stiffing me now, Parker thought, but what was the point talking?
The three exchanged glances, as though they thought there might be something more to say, and then Melander turned to Parker and spread his hands: “You know where we’re going.”
“If we were hijackers, we’d kill you now.”
The only thing to do, Parker thought, and waited.
Carlson said, “But that isn’t our style.”
Then you’re dead, Parker thought, and waited.
Melander said, “It’s just, we’d like you to stay at home, the next couple months. We’ll phone you sometimes, we’d like to know you’re there.”
Parker shrugged. There was nothing to say to these people.
Apparently, they now themselves thought they’d said enough. They moved toward the door, Ross putting the pistol away, and left, not looking back at him.
Parker sat there, hands palm down on the table, little stack of bills between his hands. His money was gone, about to become an electronic impulse in Texas. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be, and it wasn’t what it was going to be.
He got to his feet, and crossed to the phone, and called Claire, at the house up in New Jersey. When she answered, without identifying himself he said, “You remember that hotel with the shark scare,” meaning a place they’d stayed once in Miami Beach.
“Go there for a couple months, I’ll call you.”
“You can wait a couple days, till the phone rings, but don’t answer,” he said, and hung up.
© Donald Westlake 2000