Dillinger

EXTRACT FOR
Dillinger's Deception

(Ronald K. Myers)


PROLOGUE

In the darkness, Ralph squinted toward the low hanging branches of full leaved maple trees. They seemed to be a black impenetrable wall. He hoped no one was hiding there. A ways from the wall, two roads triangulated the land he was standing on and led to the machine-gun-turret protected Jungle Inn Casino. It was 1934. In the center of the land, a man, the world thought was in prison, stood below a black and white street sign perched on top of a steel pole. Although the sign read, ‘PETROLEUM’, no streets ran alongside the sign.
Standing in grass up to his knees and making sure they weren’t being watched, Ralph surveyed the area. Then he looked up at the sign. “Is this it, Snorky?”
Snorky placed his hand on Ralph’s back. “Well, Mister Ralph Alsman, can you think of a better place to keep your money out of the FBI’s hands?”
Ralph took a moment to consider the question. As he watched dim moonlight beam down on the grass and brush-filled patch of land, he answered. I can’t think of anyplace better, but I’m still not used to being called Ralph.”
Snorky adjusted the white fedora on his head. “For a million dollars and freedom for the rest of your life, I think you’ll get used to it pretty quick.”
As if getting to do some serious work, Ralph freed the top button on his white shirt and loosened his tie. His dark vest fit perfectly, and he seemed to be comfortable. He smiled a faint smile. “Where do we dig?”
“We don’t.”
Snorky bent over, placed a weird brass key in the base of the steel pole supporting the Petroleum sign, and pushed. The pole tilted to a forty-five degree angle. He inserted another brass key at the base of the pole and pushed the pole back to an upright position. The ground rumbled. Right before Ralph’s feet, a steel plate slid back revealing a hole with a set of wooden steps. Snorky flicked a flashlight on and stepped into the hole. “Let’s get your first half of the million.”
When Ralph followed Snorky into the hole, he descended into one of the many abandoned coal mines of the area. But a lot of work had been done to this mine. Before them, at the other side of a concrete floor, a long brass vault, as big as a coffin, lay on a stone pedestal.
Snorky stepped to the vault and opened it. Except for a brown envelope and a piece of folded brown paper sewn shut like the string on the top of a dog food bag, it was empty.
Ralph grabbed the cleft in his chin and gasped. “That folded paper’s not big enough to hold a half million dollars. Did somebody take the money?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Snorky gestured to the brown envelope. “If I’m not here, and if by some unforeseen chance your money’s not here, put an IOU in the vault. That way, I’ll know you’ve been here before I had a chance to drop the money.” He pointed to the sewn-shut, folded brown paper. “That’s for the man who took my place in prison. It should be gone when you come back.
Sliding his hand along the smooth brass surface of the vault, Ralph said, “It seems such a waste to use a big brass vault just for two little pieces of paper and an IOU.”
Snorky closed the vault and patted it. “Don’t judge a vault by its cover. If someone finds your IOU in the vault, they’ll think you took all the money out.”
He reached under the pedestal and pulled out a stone the size of three bricks. Then, he reached into the opening and pulled out a long metal box. “Here’s the real vault.” He opened the box. It was filled with a long line of banded bills.
Exhaling a measured breath, Ralph reached over and ran his hand across the money. Snorky closed the box and handed it to Ralph. Then he bent over and placed the stone back in the opening below the pedestal.
Pointing to the stone, Ralph asked, “Is that where the other half will be, too?”
Snorky stood up and brushed his hands together. “Just as soon as you’re officially dead, the money will be there.”
Gripping the box, Ralph nodded. “Anna’s going to rat me out. My official date of death will be July 22, 1934.”
Smiling, Snorky patted Ralph on the back. “Okay, Ralph Alsman, after you’re dead, your picture’s going to be all over the front pages of the newspapers. We don’t want to take a chance on anyone seeing you after you’re supposed to be dead. Come directly here and pick up your money.”
Even though his picture and the news of his death were everywhere, on July 23rd, accompanied by a beautiful girl, Ralph drove a black 1933 Hudson Terraplane Eight to the mine, but someone was already there. A 1932 Chevy Phaeton with full white-wall tires and flashing spoke wheels sat alongside of the road. Although it was dark, Ralph admired the car’s light-blue body and dark blue fenders that ran the length of the running boards.
The last time Ralph had seen Snorky, the lapels on his tailor-made suit were hand-stitched. A silk tie had stood out on his white-on-white shirt, and a gold tie clasp showed the man didn’t go for cheap crap. After today, Ralph would be able to wear tailor-made suits and wear gold tie clasps for the rest of his life. He figured the Phaeton was something Snorky would buy. He proceeded to the mine to see Snorky.
When he got there, a thin man with a mustache was crawling up the steps. As he held his side, blood flowed from between his fingers. With a pleading look, the man reached up with his other hand. “Get me out of here.”
In an effort to help the bleeding man out of the mine, Ralph took the man’s hand and pulled. Grimacing in pain, the man struggled out of the hole and stood up. With labored breaths, he managed the strength to speak. “Thanks, Ralph.”
No one was supposed to know Ralph was still alive. He wanted to know who the man was. He looked into the man’s face. “Who are you?”
Wincing, the bleeding man collapsed to the ground. With his arms outstretched and his hands clawing at the ground, the man’s breath caused blood bubbles to form on his wounded side. Then the man’s hands quit clawing. His body became motionless. He was dead.
Another man, with blood trickling from one of the open gashes on his face, walked up the blood-soaked steps, grabbed the pole, and hung on.
Before Ralph could help the man, a uniformed cop appeared out of the darkness and shouted, “Hey, jackass, where do you think you’re going?”
The man holding onto the steel pole looked as if he were about to pass out. Apparently not wanting more injuries, the man cowered next to the pole. The cop reared back and lifted his huge foot to kick the man from the pole.
Ralph yelled, “Leave him alone! This wasn’t part of the deal.”
Instead of kicking the man, the cop dropped his foot to the ground and lifted his hand. “Where you’re going, you won’t have to worry about any deal.” In his hand, he held a police officer issue 38 Colt. He laughed once and fired right into Ralph’s chest. Ralph grimaced, but didn’t fall over. The cop’s old 1927 police-issued Colt didn’t have enough velocity to penetrate the bulletproof vest Ralph had stolen from the police station. Once again, the vest had saved his life.
As if there were something wrong with it, the cop looked at his Colt.
In pain, Ralph groaned. “What did you do that for?”
Surprised, the cop could only gape.
Ignoring the pain, Ralph turned in fury, pulled his own 38 Colt Super, and emptied it into the cop. The man hanging on the pole grabbed his side and collapsed. Ralph made sure the cop was dead and went over and checked the man’s pulse. He was still alive. Ralph ripped a length of cloth from the dead cop’s shirt and placed it on the man’s bleeding side. Holding the cloth on the man’s wound, he looked over his shoulder and shouted toward the beautiful girl sitting in his Terraplane, “Billie, come here!”
Billie’s lovely legs swished through the tall grass until she stopped at the man’s feet. Ralph took her hand and placed it on the cloth covering the man’s wound. “Hold this here. I have to make the withdrawal.”
After Ralph made his way into the mine, he reached under the pedestal, pulled out the secret stone and pulled out another long metal box. It felt light. When he opened it, it was empty. Snorky had not made the drop. He put the box back.
For a moment, Ralph studied the big brass vault and wondered why such a worthless object was secretly entombed in the mine. But he didn’t have time to worry about it. He hoped Snorky would come back, find out he had been there, and put the other half of the million in the box. He lifted the vault’s lid and placed in his IOU.
Back up top, Ralph closed the mine and dragged the cop and the other dead man into the Chevy Phaeton. Then, Billie and he gently placed the wounded man from the pole into the Terraplane.
Standing next to the Terraplane, Billie asked, “What do we do now?”
“Jump in the Terraplane and follow me.” Ralph pointed to the Phaeton. “After I get rid of that, you can pick me up.”
Billie tilted her cute head toward the man in the back seat. “What about him?”
“We’ll drop him off at the hospital.”
With Billie following in the Terraplane, Ralph drove the Phaeton to a place called Patagonia and stopped at the top of Myers Hill. He placed the car in neutral and gave it a big push. The Phaeton and the two dead men sailed down the hill and slid into the deep dark waters of the Shenango River.
Even though the river raged, churned, and twisted around rocks and eroded stony banks, the Phaeton would stay on the bottom until the spring floods. Then, the powerful force of tons of water would sweep the Phaeton and anything in its way downriver.
With his new identity, a half a million dollars, and the FBI no longer after him, Ralph got married and moved to Oregon.
The vault remained in the mine.

CHAPTER 1

Thirty years later, outside the shantytown of Patagonia, Pennsylvania, Freddy Crane walked around a barrel-sized trashcan overflowing with cardboard containers and rotting food. As if sweating under the punishing evening sun weren’t enough agony, roaring amplified by the whining tires came up from behind him. A hurricane of dust from the slipstream of a huge truck hit him like a hot gale. The suction wasn’t far from pulling him off his feet. Staring at the wavy glare of the heat waves that stretched down the tar and gravel road, he sauntered around the corner.
Before he got to the hamburger stand affectingly called ‘the Burp’ he knew the people would be falling over one another to be a part of Neal McCord’s humbuggery action.
With the sun making its late afternoon roll toward the horizon, a pony-tailed girl with a figure good enough to be on Playboy walked away from a 1950 Ford; and with a sensual sway, she showboated her way toward the gathered crowd. A teenage boy beamed an affectionate smile and waved her over.
The crowd was so thick Freddy couldn’t see what they were watching. The teenage boy turned sideways to talk to the girl. Then, Freddy knew what everyone was watching. And there he was: In the center of the blacktopped parking lot. Black hair slicked back, wearing his familiar black T-shirt, hunched over on his bongo board, rocking side to side on a cylinder of wood. With his feet spayed and his hips moving to and fro above his bandy-legged stance, he swayed with the rhythm of the up-beat little tune he had made up. “Dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh. Dit-a, dit-a, dit-a plonk-oh!”
Neal McCord’s very existence was something apart from the known properties of a normal human being. Even though the crazy times of the ‘60s overflowed with understanding and open minds, Neal was a person Freddy could not understand. At times Neal was half-boy, half-man. He could become a delusion, a phantom, or a mirage. At other times, he was welcomed as a savior of a boring situation. With one hand in his pocket and the other hand waving in the air, Neal looked like a bull rider; but instead of waving a cowboy hat in his hand, he clutched a wad of money.
“Watch this.” He flashed his famous Neal McCord smile in the direction of the crowd. “It’s so easy a pet monkey can do it.” With a single sway of his hips, he rolled the bongo board on the cylinder until it was at its very end. Bending one leg and holding the other straight, he stopped the board. Balancing in this unnatural pose, he threw his arms straight out from his sides and held them there. “See. Nothing to it.” He grinned. “All you got to do is stabilize yourself by distributing your weight on each side of the vertical axis.”
A teenager with a cast on his arm and a big scab on his elbow stayed perched at the end of the parking lot curb. “Yeah, that’s what you told me, and look what happened.” He held up his arm. A thick white cast coated his forearm.
Still keeping one leg bent and the other one straight, Neal dropped his arms, held the money in both hands, and thrust it toward the kid.
“You could’ve had half of this.” He shook the money at the broken-armed kid. “All you had to do was stay on for ten seconds.” He straightened one leg and bent the other until the board rolled over the cylinder and stopped on the board’s center. “You want to try it again?”
The kid lowered his broken arm. “I’m not crazy. You make it look too easy.”
Neal fanned the money out and offered it to the fifteen teenagers standing around him. “Here you go,” he said in a loud, colorful sales spiel. “Get in on the humbuggery action at the hamburger stand. It’s easy money.”
The pony-tailed girl turned her cute head toward a kid about five and a half feet tall with jet black hair styled like Elvis.
“Come on, Markey,” she cooed. “You can do it.”
Markey cringed for a moment, but his expression changed to one of a person with a casual lack of concern. He lifted his hands and held them limply in front of his chest. “Now, what would I want to do that for?”
Neal had a rhythm to life that gave him an advantage when he wanted to push people off the ragged edge of their little universe of common sense. With the confidence of a salesman who had already closed the deal, he lowered his head and lifted his arms in a what-more-do-you-want-from-me gesture, and looked to Markey. “For no particular reason.” He flicked his hands down. “That’s why.”
With all eyes on him, Markey exhaled a defeated stream of air. “No reason’s a good enough reason.” He reached for his wallet. “Here’s five bucks says I can stay balanced on that thing for five seconds.”
In one motion, Neal swept the money from Markey’s hand. Jerking a wisp of hair away from his forehead, he winked at the girl. “Hey, everybody likes to be included.” He tromped on the end of the board. It flew up. He caught it in one hand and handed it to Markey. Then with the toe of his shoe, he nudged the cylinder toward Markey. “You’re on.”
Markey put the bongo board on the cylinder, scrunched down, and placed one foot on the end of the board. With a quick hop, he slapped his other foot on the other end of the board. Zing! The board flew out from under his feet. Whap! It hit the blacktop. Markey staggered sideways, but caught his balance.
The girl covered her mouth and muffled a laugh.
With a big ear-to-ear smile on his face, Neal hooked his thumbs into his wide belt and leaned back. “How many seconds was that?”
A big groan came from Markey. “Very funny.”
As Neal put the five dollar bill in his back pocket, the kid with the cast walked up to him and stopped. “Come on, man, you know we’ll never stay on your crazy board. Why don’t we bet on a car race?”
Neal cocked his head to the side, arched his brow, and waved his hand down. “Naw, naw, naw, racing cars is out. That’s old stuff.”
The kid with the cast made a helpless gesture. “We can’t just stay here and let you take all our money. You have to do something we can bet on and win.”
A look of hurt streamed from Neal’s baby blue eyes. “You wanted to play. It’s not my fault you don’t want to win.”
A kid wearing a polo shirt waved his skinny arms. “Is betting on a bongo board all a garbage man can do?”
For a moment, Neal stood perfectly still and stared at the kid.
Freddy felt a wave of shame crawl over his body. Before he met Neal, he had a low desire to live. Although Neal and he made pretty good money hauling garbage, being a garbage man on the bottom of the success chain wasn’t what he wanted to do all his life. But it didn’t bother Neal. Without missing a beat, he waved his hand in the air. “It’s only a temporary thing, you see. There’s always bigger and better things on down the road.”
“Yeah, we know,” the kid with the polo shirt said. “Come on, you guys. Let’s quit playing penny ante and do something we can bet some real money on.”
Leaning against the bulbous fender of a 1948 maroon Plymouth, Neal held his head aloft; and as if he were searching for an answer, he looked around the parking lot of the burger stand and sat on the fender. As if on cue, the rusty springs squealed. He raised his money-filled fist.
“I’ll bet this wad of money.” He thrust his money-filled fist toward the clown-faced clock under the peak of the burger stand. “All of it.” He paused for effect. “I’ll bet all of it that we can drive from the Burp to Canada, get a cup of coffee and a souvenir, and come back in twelve hours or less.”
“That’s three hundred thirty miles one way,” a kid with a broken tooth and thick glasses said. He tapped his finger in the air as if he were using an adding machine. “You’ll be lucky to go fifty in that old clunker.” He quit tapping. “And with no stops at fifty miles an hour, it’ll take you thirteen point two hours.”
“Even if you pull it off,” the kid with his arm in the cast said. “How will we know you even went there?”
As if he were ready to go, Freddy ran to the Plymouth and jumped into the passenger side. Neal opened the driver’s side door, sat behind the steering wheel, turned back to the crowd, and rested his feet on the running board. “I’ll bring back a Canadian flag and the paid bill for the coffee.”
A skinny kid with red hair combed into a flip, stepped out from under the green awning of the burger stand and stood next to a 1956 Fireflight Desoto that had a hideous, two-tone paint job.
“That’s not so great,” he said. “Last week I drove to Cleveland just to get a cup of coffee.”
“So, what’s the big deal?” a kid with a flattop haircut asked. “Anybody with enough money could do that.”
Neal stepped out of the Plymouth. Placing each foot just so, quiet and careful, he moved easy as if he knew just what he had to do. Freddy knew he wasn’t going to jerk or get wild eyed like a little kid making up a new lie. He was about to come up with something new.
“You may have a point there,” Neal said. “But I’ve heard that everybody is always going somewhere. And when they come back they always brag about how great it was. But the thing is—” He tilted his head toward the kid. “I’ve been told by reliable sources that in Canada they got the best beer in the world, and all the bars stay open all night, and you don’t have to worry about drinking too much and getting into a wreck, cause they have taxi cabs that run somewhere all the time, and they don’t have half-witted cab drivers that get you lost and drive you around in circles just to get a bigger fare.”
The kid with the flat-top shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, anybody could still do it.”
Neal hunched over. Using exaggerated strides, he walked around the Plymouth and stopped at the driver’s side. He held his hand up in a stopping motion. “All right, gentlemen. If anybody with money can do it, then I’ll do something nobody has ever done before.” He swiveled his head around and looked at Freddy. “With no money, we’ll drive to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy didn’t know if such a feat was possible, but if he were going to share in any money there was to be made, he had to go along with whatever Neal said.
“That’s right,” Freddy said, and pointed to the road. “Canada and back in twelve hours or less.”
Reaching into their pockets, a few onlookers stepped closer.
“I’ll take a piece of that action,” one kid said, and pulled out a ten dollar bill.”
Bets were made. Bull, the stocky kid with huge arms, collected the money. The skinny kid with red hair gave Bull a twenty dollar bill. Then, in great haste, the skinny kid gave Neal a thumb’s up, jumped into his ‘56 two-tone Desoto, and drove away.
Being in his usual hurry, Neal jumped into the Plymouth and sat behind the steering wheel. “Okay, we’re set to go.” He held his hand out, palm up. “Anymore takers?”
Markey reached into his pocket, but shook his head. “I’d bet more, but I’m on empty.”
Neal turned away from the steering wheel, lifted his arm above the roof, and waved his hand in a come here gesture. Just as the pink and green neon lights buzzed on around the top of the white burger stand, a 1940 Ford coupe appeared around the far corner of the building and coasted into the lot. Neal and Freddy’s buddy, Rafferty, opened the door and stepped out.
Usually, when Rafferty’s green eyes peered from under his wave in his carrot-orange hair, he was looking for humor in a situation. When he found it, his contagious smile would beam across his freckled face; and his skinny body would shudder with quiet laughter. But this time, his face had a look of seriousness. He propped his knuckles under his chin, and Freddy could tell Rafferty was trying not to smile. But he couldn’t do it. As if a light bulb were glowing over him, his eyes crinkled and a smile spread across his face.
Freddy looked at the faces of the kids who had bet. Their strained, stunned faces showed the realization that Neal may have tricked them again. As if they were paralyzed, they stood with their attention fixed on the Ford.
Oohing and aahing, the non-betting kids gathered around the Ford.
“What’s it got under the hood?” one kid asked, and then the questions and commentary of the others flowed.
“Does it have overdrive?”
“Check out those new tires.”
“Stick shift, no waiting for an automatic transmission to shift.”
“How fast can it go?”
“It didn’t make any noise when it pulled in; probably got a six cylinder under the hood.”
“Yeah, probably can’t do over sixty.”
“How come it has Ohio license plates when Neal lives in Pennsylvania?”
In a sliver of shade, Rafferty leaned against the front fender, placed his hands behind his head, and leaned back. The pony-tailed girl peeked into the side window and pointed to the radio. “Does that thing get WLS out of Chicago?”
Rafferty smiled an engaging smile. “It’ll get any station you want, sweetie.”
In a show of jealousy Markey stepped between Rafferty and the girl. Before tempers flared, Neal stepped out of the Plymouth, sauntered toward the Ford, and opened the driver’s side door. “Okay, Rafferty, let’s get in.”
Markey and the girl stepped back. While Rafferty stepped into the driver’s side and slid to the passenger side, Freddy ran around and the car and placed his hand on the door handle.
Bull held up his hand in a halting gesture. “Wait.”
Neal held out his hand. “You got more to bet?”
“No, but we thought you were going to drive the Plymouth.”
“Well, ah, ahem,” Neal said, and gave a negligent wave of his hand. “Sorry, gentleman, but I didn’t actually say that I was going to drive a Plymouth.” He looked toward the gathered crowd. “Did anybody here hear me say I was going to drive a Plymouth?”
Markey looked to Rafferty. “Hey, Rafferty, didn’t you tell me to call on you if I had a problem?”
A mischievous grin spread across Rafferty’s face. “What about it?”
“I have a problem with you guys switching cars at the last minute. What are you going to do about it?”
Shaking his head like a simpleton, Rafferty replied, “I told you to call on me, but I didn’t say I would do anything about it.”
Shaking his head in astonishment, Markey leaned forward in a helpless heap and began cursing under this breath. As if fooling the kid was an everyday occurrence, Neal continued, “The bet is that I drive from the Burp to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy stepped into the picture. “We never welshed on a deal yet.”
Neal put his hands on his hips. “You want to cancel the bets?”
As if he had been defeated in a game of one-upmanship, Bull’s face turned sullen, but the kid with the thick glasses stepped up and put his hand on Bull’s shoulder.
“Don’t cancel anything,” he said. “Even if that Ford can do sixty miles an hour, he’ll have to keep it on those winding roads and not slow down, and he’ll have to stop for gas that he doesn’t have any money for, and he’ll have to stop to get the coffee and a bill of sale, that he doesn’t have any money for, and after he stops at the border, he’ll have to buy a Canadian flag that he doesn’t have any money for. Even if he had the fastest car in the world he would never make it in twelve hours.”
The kid with the cast on his arm bent over and looked into the grill on the front of the Ford. As if he were straining to see inside, he leaned close to the horizontal bars. “It still has the stock radiator.” He straightened up and grinned. “If this thing had a new engine in it, they would have had to change the radiator.”
Freddy knew this wasn’t true, but he wasn’t going to say anything to spoil their chances of winning the bet.
Bull stared at the kid with the thick glasses. “Are you sure they can’t make it in twelve hours?”
“If he pushes those six cylinders, he’ll burn up the engine before he makes it to the border.”
Neal’s bubbly smile sunk. “I don’t know about all those numbers,” he said, and smiled again. “But we’ll still make it in twelve hours.”
“Okay,” Bull said, with a sly grin. “Just to keep things on the up and up, empty your pockets, and let me check your wallets.”
Neal reached into his black pants pockets, pulled out his wad of money and some change, and slapped it on the front fender of the Plymouth. Then he took out his wallet, opened it, and turned it upside down. “Okay, we’re ready.”
“Not so fast.” Bull held out his hand and jerked it toward Freddy. “You, too.”
Freddy didn’t have a wallet, but he walked around the car, turned out his pockets, and put thirty-five cents on the fender.
Bull turned toward Rafferty. “You’re next.” With his usual smile on his freckled face, Rafferty handed Bull his wallet, shrugged, and plunked a few bills and two nickels down onto the front fender of the Plymouth. Bull scooped up the money and looked up at the clown clock on the peak or the burger stand. The minute hand that was the clown’s arm, rotated around with its white-gloved finger pointing to the seconds,”
“It’s two minutes to nine.” Bull said and jerked his head toward the clock. “Twelve hours from now is nine in the morning, and you’re not going to make it.”
Rafferty made a brusque gesture with his left hand. “What do you mean we’re not going to make it? What do you think we’re going to do, stop and play marbles on every street corner?”
Bull smiled. “You might as well.” He shook the bet money in front of Neal’s face. “Take a good look at it. It’s the last time you’ll see it.” He let out a deep belly laugh and jammed the money into his pocket.
With the evening bugs just beginning to crash into the buzzing green and pink neon lights of the burger stand, and girls without dates, wishing someone would take them to the drive-in movie, watching, Neal jumped behind the wheel of the Ford. Freddy and Rafferty piled in and waited for him to start the powerful V-8 engine, rack the pipes off, and impress the girls. But he didn’t.
Scarcely giving the hungry engine the gas, he hit the starter. The engine caught and begged for more fuel. To keep what was under the hood a secret, Neal tried to pull out of the lot as quiet and as slow as possible, but the powerful engine growled with awesome power. The kid with thick glasses tilted his head, and scratched his neck with his index finger. “It sounds like they got a big engine in that thing. We might lose the bets.”
As the Ford rumbled out of the parking lot, Bull lifted his palms and pushed away from his body. “No problem. We got it covered.”
Beyond the neon pink triangle peak of the burger stand with the clown’s arm on the clock sweeping away the seconds, the sun’s last rays peeked through the blowing tree branches and skittered shut. Without a cent in their pockets and bobbing their heads to Neal’s stupid ‘dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh!’tune, Neal, Freddy, Rafferty, and the bongo board were leaving the gloom of Patagonia’s grassless backyards spattered with tin cans and dirty-white chickens scratching under clotheslines where blue work clothes of mill workers flapped under a sullied sky. They were on their way to Canada.
Ten miles down the road, a huge white sign with black letters read ‘Road Closed Ahead’. Neal slowed. On the other side of the sign, a bridge stretched across a wide river. A detour sign, with an arrow pointed to the road that led to the left.
Rafferty shook his head. “That’s all we need. The other bridge is miles away. It’s going to be a long detour.”
Neal turned left and tromped on the gas. “We can still make it.”
The Ford rounded a few bends and another detour sign popped up, pointing left again. Neal rolled around the corner and continued driving at a rapid pace. A half-mile later, another detour sign pointed left. Neal followed that for a few miles and stopped at an intersection and looked up. Another detour sign pointed left. No traffic zoomed past. The road was dark and empty. Rafferty leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. “Are we running out of gas?”
“No, but I think we’re going around in circles.” Neal turned off the lights. “I just saw a flash of light. If he’s doing what I think he’s doing, he’ll come back and see if we took the bait.”
Freddy couldn’t understand what Neal was talking about. But before he could ask Neal about it, headlights flashed in the distance and headed in their direction. As it neared, the car slowed, but it was too late. Just before it came to the intersection, Neal flicked the headlights on and swung his hand down. “Gotch ya!”
The ‘56 Desoto that had left the Burp before them approached from the left. Its unmistakable light blue and dark blue two-tone paint job looked dull and disgusting. As it passed in front of them, Neal stuck his hand out the window and waved. As if he were trying to conceal his identity, the driver turned his head to the side and kept on driving. But the red hair betrayed the skinny kid. The Desoto’s red taillights faded down the road and Neal laughed with satisfaction.
“That kid’s old man works for the highway,” he said. “He put up phony detour sighs to throw us off. We could’ve been driving in circles all night long.”
He turned right and wound out the gears. In no time the Ford’s headlights were shining on the back of the lumbering Desoto. Under the end of the rounded tail fins, three taillights looked like short glasses turned on their sides. They were arranged vertically: one white in the center; and two red: one on top and one on the bottom. In the center of the almost square trunk, the raised chrome letters ‘Desoto’ spread across a short section above a big shiny chrome V.
With the horn blaring, Neal frantically waved his hand out the window and passed the heavy car.
At the bridge, Neal hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. He jumped out and kicked the ‘Road Closed Ahead’ sign down. After dragging the sign to the bridge, he bent over, picked up the sign, and threw it into the river. Brushing his hands together, he jumped back into the Ford. They were on their way to Canada, again.
On the dark road, Freddy figured he had to be crazy to be riding with Neal in another one of his mad, unfathomable schemes that would hurl him into the unknown. He wondered if there was a chance that Neal could actually make it to Canada and back in twelve hours, and he wondered how they were going to get gas with no money. Before he could ask, Neal shut the motor off, coasted into a dimly lit gas station, and stopped in front of the first pump.
Rafferty turned to Neal. “You got some money hid?”
Neal put his finger to his lips and pointed to the plate-glass window on the front of the building. Inside, partially hidden behind a pyramid of green and white cans of oil, the attendant was fast asleep. Neal got out, carefully lifted the gas nozzle from the side of the red hand-painted pump, and filled the Ford’s tank. Just as he eased the gas pump’s nozzle back into the slot, a white Pontiac pulled in. Neal opened the door to the Ford to get back behind the wheel, but paused. He looked into the station window. The attendant was still asleep. On top of the towel box a paper garrison hat sat. Neal grabbed it and placed it on his head. Then he walked to the Pontiac and looked into the driver’s side window. “Fill ‘er up, and check the oil, sir?”
“The oil’s okay,” the driver said. “Just fill it up.”
Keeping a wary eye on the sleeping attendant, Neal filled the Pontiac and collected the money. When he went to get back into the Ford, another car pulled in, then another. He waited on those cars, too, and collected the money. The cars pulled away; and just as he put the paper hat back on the towel box the attendant woke up, rushed out the building’s door, and stood in front of Neal. It seemed as if Neal was going to jump in the car and speed away, but he smiled at the attendant.
“Good evening,” he said, but there was no tension in his voice. That was Neal: Cool under any circumstances. He flapped the ends of the money in the attendant’s face. “I was just coming in to pay for the gas.”
The attendant looked at the dials on the gas pump and then looked back at Neal. “Yeah, I watched you fill it up.”
Freddy figured they were caught. If the attendant had watched Neal fill the Ford, then he surely watched him fill the other three cars and collect the money. And on top of that, to keep from having to get a Pennsylvania state inspection sticker and pay to have it glued on the corner of the front windshield, Neal had stolen Ohio plates and put them on the Ford. They weren’t even out of Pennsylvania and they would be going to jail.
But Neal was one step ahead of the attendant. He held the money in both hands ready to count off the bills. “How much do I owe you?”
The attendant rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Whatever the pump says.”
Neal paid him and turned to go.
Stifling a yawn, the tired attendant leaned on the pump and crossed his legs. “Thanks, for being honest.” He stared at the dials on the pump. “I might have my eyes closed, but I can see right through my eyelids. No one has ever stolen anything on my shift.”
Neal jumped in the Ford. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he touched his forefinger to his forehead and gave the kid a lazy imitation of a salute. “Thanks, for the gas, buddy, and keep up the good work.” He drove off into the velvet night babbling about how he used to think that it was wrong to steal anything.
“What do you mean?” Freddy interrupted. “It’s still stealing.”
“I don’t worry about it anymore,” Neal said. “Besides, I know this guy from before. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch who shorted me on change when I was a little kid.” His eyes glared. “What makes me feel bad is that the guy’s not going to pay for it. The rich ass oil company’s gonna pay. And I don’t feel guilty one bit. We’re only taking money from oil companies and banks and the assholes that got rich off other people’s misfortunes.”
Freddy sighed, stared at the open road ahead of them, and thought about how he could convince Neal that no matter how good the reason was for stealing, it was wrong, but Rafferty interrupted his thoughts.
“Okay,” Rafferty said. “We got the gas and money for more. But we wasted fifteen minutes back there. How are we going to make it to Canada and be back in twelve hours?”
“Come on, Rafferty.” Neal reached up, and pretended to be adjusting imaginary glasses. “It’s easier than balancing on a bongo board. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Back at the Burp, four-eyes said it was three hundred thirty miles to Canada.”
“It is,” Rafferty said, and cocked his orange eyebrows. “Unless you fly.”
“Old Coke-bottle-bottom-glasses thinks we’re going to cross at Niagara Falls.” A confident grin spread across Neal’s face. “But we’re going to cross in Buffalo. That cuts off forty miles, seventy miles an hour into two hundred ninety miles gives under four hours to get there and under four to get back.”
Freddy spoke from the back seat. “You said you didn’t know anything about numbers.”
Neal put the transmission into overdrive. “It’s all in the game, Freddy. If we had a straight shot, it would only be about two hundred miles, but it’s still all in the game. And with overdrive, this Ford will cruise along at eighty-five with no problem.” He smiled at himself in the rearview mirror. “There’s hardly any traffic at night. We got twelve hours and can make in under eight.”
He reached over and twisted the chrome knob until it clicked on. The tube-style radio lit up. Duane Eddy’s Three-Thirty Blues flowed from the single speaker.
Freddy snapped his fingers and leaned back. “Now we can go to Canada in style.”
With the music blasting into his brain, Freddy felt they might be the only people in the world who were not imprisoned by wanting to do the familiar and safe things. Not being afraid of what it would be like to explore something dangerously different made everything up ahead a brand new raw world of profound mystery. And they were headed right for it.
Neal thrust the shifting lever into high gear and mashed the gas feed down. For a moment the black unknown ahead swallowed them up. They flashed past houses, screeched around an elbow bend, rumbled over a set of railroad tracks, and the radio quit.

Dillinger

EXTRACT FOR
Dillinger's Deception

(Ronald K. Myers)


PROLOGUE

In the darkness, Ralph squinted toward the low hanging branches of full leaved maple trees. They seemed to be a black impenetrable wall. He hoped no one was hiding there. A ways from the wall, two roads triangulated the land he was standing on and led to the machine-gun-turret protected Jungle Inn Casino. It was 1934. In the center of the land, a man, the world thought was in prison, stood below a black and white street sign perched on top of a steel pole. Although the sign read, ‘PETROLEUM’, no streets ran alongside the sign.
Standing in grass up to his knees and making sure they weren’t being watched, Ralph surveyed the area. Then he looked up at the sign. “Is this it, Snorky?”
Snorky placed his hand on Ralph’s back. “Well, Mister Ralph Alsman, can you think of a better place to keep your money out of the FBI’s hands?”
Ralph took a moment to consider the question. As he watched dim moonlight beam down on the grass and brush-filled patch of land, he answered. I can’t think of anyplace better, but I’m still not used to being called Ralph.”
Snorky adjusted the white fedora on his head. “For a million dollars and freedom for the rest of your life, I think you’ll get used to it pretty quick.”
As if getting to do some serious work, Ralph freed the top button on his white shirt and loosened his tie. His dark vest fit perfectly, and he seemed to be comfortable. He smiled a faint smile. “Where do we dig?”
“We don’t.”
Snorky bent over, placed a weird brass key in the base of the steel pole supporting the Petroleum sign, and pushed. The pole tilted to a forty-five degree angle. He inserted another brass key at the base of the pole and pushed the pole back to an upright position. The ground rumbled. Right before Ralph’s feet, a steel plate slid back revealing a hole with a set of wooden steps. Snorky flicked a flashlight on and stepped into the hole. “Let’s get your first half of the million.”
When Ralph followed Snorky into the hole, he descended into one of the many abandoned coal mines of the area. But a lot of work had been done to this mine. Before them, at the other side of a concrete floor, a long brass vault, as big as a coffin, lay on a stone pedestal.
Snorky stepped to the vault and opened it. Except for a brown envelope and a piece of folded brown paper sewn shut like the string on the top of a dog food bag, it was empty.
Ralph grabbed the cleft in his chin and gasped. “That folded paper’s not big enough to hold a half million dollars. Did somebody take the money?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Snorky gestured to the brown envelope. “If I’m not here, and if by some unforeseen chance your money’s not here, put an IOU in the vault. That way, I’ll know you’ve been here before I had a chance to drop the money.” He pointed to the sewn-shut, folded brown paper. “That’s for the man who took my place in prison. It should be gone when you come back.
Sliding his hand along the smooth brass surface of the vault, Ralph said, “It seems such a waste to use a big brass vault just for two little pieces of paper and an IOU.”
Snorky closed the vault and patted it. “Don’t judge a vault by its cover. If someone finds your IOU in the vault, they’ll think you took all the money out.”
He reached under the pedestal and pulled out a stone the size of three bricks. Then, he reached into the opening and pulled out a long metal box. “Here’s the real vault.” He opened the box. It was filled with a long line of banded bills.
Exhaling a measured breath, Ralph reached over and ran his hand across the money. Snorky closed the box and handed it to Ralph. Then he bent over and placed the stone back in the opening below the pedestal.
Pointing to the stone, Ralph asked, “Is that where the other half will be, too?”
Snorky stood up and brushed his hands together. “Just as soon as you’re officially dead, the money will be there.”
Gripping the box, Ralph nodded. “Anna’s going to rat me out. My official date of death will be July 22, 1934.”
Smiling, Snorky patted Ralph on the back. “Okay, Ralph Alsman, after you’re dead, your picture’s going to be all over the front pages of the newspapers. We don’t want to take a chance on anyone seeing you after you’re supposed to be dead. Come directly here and pick up your money.”
Even though his picture and the news of his death were everywhere, on July 23rd, accompanied by a beautiful girl, Ralph drove a black 1933 Hudson Terraplane Eight to the mine, but someone was already there. A 1932 Chevy Phaeton with full white-wall tires and flashing spoke wheels sat alongside of the road. Although it was dark, Ralph admired the car’s light-blue body and dark blue fenders that ran the length of the running boards.
The last time Ralph had seen Snorky, the lapels on his tailor-made suit were hand-stitched. A silk tie had stood out on his white-on-white shirt, and a gold tie clasp showed the man didn’t go for cheap crap. After today, Ralph would be able to wear tailor-made suits and wear gold tie clasps for the rest of his life. He figured the Phaeton was something Snorky would buy. He proceeded to the mine to see Snorky.
When he got there, a thin man with a mustache was crawling up the steps. As he held his side, blood flowed from between his fingers. With a pleading look, the man reached up with his other hand. “Get me out of here.”
In an effort to help the bleeding man out of the mine, Ralph took the man’s hand and pulled. Grimacing in pain, the man struggled out of the hole and stood up. With labored breaths, he managed the strength to speak. “Thanks, Ralph.”
No one was supposed to know Ralph was still alive. He wanted to know who the man was. He looked into the man’s face. “Who are you?”
Wincing, the bleeding man collapsed to the ground. With his arms outstretched and his hands clawing at the ground, the man’s breath caused blood bubbles to form on his wounded side. Then the man’s hands quit clawing. His body became motionless. He was dead.
Another man, with blood trickling from one of the open gashes on his face, walked up the blood-soaked steps, grabbed the pole, and hung on.
Before Ralph could help the man, a uniformed cop appeared out of the darkness and shouted, “Hey, jackass, where do you think you’re going?”
The man holding onto the steel pole looked as if he were about to pass out. Apparently not wanting more injuries, the man cowered next to the pole. The cop reared back and lifted his huge foot to kick the man from the pole.
Ralph yelled, “Leave him alone! This wasn’t part of the deal.”
Instead of kicking the man, the cop dropped his foot to the ground and lifted his hand. “Where you’re going, you won’t have to worry about any deal.” In his hand, he held a police officer issue 38 Colt. He laughed once and fired right into Ralph’s chest. Ralph grimaced, but didn’t fall over. The cop’s old 1927 police-issued Colt didn’t have enough velocity to penetrate the bulletproof vest Ralph had stolen from the police station. Once again, the vest had saved his life.
As if there were something wrong with it, the cop looked at his Colt.
In pain, Ralph groaned. “What did you do that for?”
Surprised, the cop could only gape.
Ignoring the pain, Ralph turned in fury, pulled his own 38 Colt Super, and emptied it into the cop. The man hanging on the pole grabbed his side and collapsed. Ralph made sure the cop was dead and went over and checked the man’s pulse. He was still alive. Ralph ripped a length of cloth from the dead cop’s shirt and placed it on the man’s bleeding side. Holding the cloth on the man’s wound, he looked over his shoulder and shouted toward the beautiful girl sitting in his Terraplane, “Billie, come here!”
Billie’s lovely legs swished through the tall grass until she stopped at the man’s feet. Ralph took her hand and placed it on the cloth covering the man’s wound. “Hold this here. I have to make the withdrawal.”
After Ralph made his way into the mine, he reached under the pedestal, pulled out the secret stone and pulled out another long metal box. It felt light. When he opened it, it was empty. Snorky had not made the drop. He put the box back.
For a moment, Ralph studied the big brass vault and wondered why such a worthless object was secretly entombed in the mine. But he didn’t have time to worry about it. He hoped Snorky would come back, find out he had been there, and put the other half of the million in the box. He lifted the vault’s lid and placed in his IOU.
Back up top, Ralph closed the mine and dragged the cop and the other dead man into the Chevy Phaeton. Then, Billie and he gently placed the wounded man from the pole into the Terraplane.
Standing next to the Terraplane, Billie asked, “What do we do now?”
“Jump in the Terraplane and follow me.” Ralph pointed to the Phaeton. “After I get rid of that, you can pick me up.”
Billie tilted her cute head toward the man in the back seat. “What about him?”
“We’ll drop him off at the hospital.”
With Billie following in the Terraplane, Ralph drove the Phaeton to a place called Patagonia and stopped at the top of Myers Hill. He placed the car in neutral and gave it a big push. The Phaeton and the two dead men sailed down the hill and slid into the deep dark waters of the Shenango River.
Even though the river raged, churned, and twisted around rocks and eroded stony banks, the Phaeton would stay on the bottom until the spring floods. Then, the powerful force of tons of water would sweep the Phaeton and anything in its way downriver.
With his new identity, a half a million dollars, and the FBI no longer after him, Ralph got married and moved to Oregon.
The vault remained in the mine.

CHAPTER 1

Thirty years later, outside the shantytown of Patagonia, Pennsylvania, Freddy Crane walked around a barrel-sized trashcan overflowing with cardboard containers and rotting food. As if sweating under the punishing evening sun weren’t enough agony, roaring amplified by the whining tires came up from behind him. A hurricane of dust from the slipstream of a huge truck hit him like a hot gale. The suction wasn’t far from pulling him off his feet. Staring at the wavy glare of the heat waves that stretched down the tar and gravel road, he sauntered around the corner.
Before he got to the hamburger stand affectingly called ‘the Burp’ he knew the people would be falling over one another to be a part of Neal McCord’s humbuggery action.
With the sun making its late afternoon roll toward the horizon, a pony-tailed girl with a figure good enough to be on Playboy walked away from a 1950 Ford; and with a sensual sway, she showboated her way toward the gathered crowd. A teenage boy beamed an affectionate smile and waved her over.
The crowd was so thick Freddy couldn’t see what they were watching. The teenage boy turned sideways to talk to the girl. Then, Freddy knew what everyone was watching. And there he was: In the center of the blacktopped parking lot. Black hair slicked back, wearing his familiar black T-shirt, hunched over on his bongo board, rocking side to side on a cylinder of wood. With his feet spayed and his hips moving to and fro above his bandy-legged stance, he swayed with the rhythm of the up-beat little tune he had made up. “Dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh. Dit-a, dit-a, dit-a plonk-oh!”
Neal McCord’s very existence was something apart from the known properties of a normal human being. Even though the crazy times of the ‘60s overflowed with understanding and open minds, Neal was a person Freddy could not understand. At times Neal was half-boy, half-man. He could become a delusion, a phantom, or a mirage. At other times, he was welcomed as a savior of a boring situation. With one hand in his pocket and the other hand waving in the air, Neal looked like a bull rider; but instead of waving a cowboy hat in his hand, he clutched a wad of money.
“Watch this.” He flashed his famous Neal McCord smile in the direction of the crowd. “It’s so easy a pet monkey can do it.” With a single sway of his hips, he rolled the bongo board on the cylinder until it was at its very end. Bending one leg and holding the other straight, he stopped the board. Balancing in this unnatural pose, he threw his arms straight out from his sides and held them there. “See. Nothing to it.” He grinned. “All you got to do is stabilize yourself by distributing your weight on each side of the vertical axis.”
A teenager with a cast on his arm and a big scab on his elbow stayed perched at the end of the parking lot curb. “Yeah, that’s what you told me, and look what happened.” He held up his arm. A thick white cast coated his forearm.
Still keeping one leg bent and the other one straight, Neal dropped his arms, held the money in both hands, and thrust it toward the kid.
“You could’ve had half of this.” He shook the money at the broken-armed kid. “All you had to do was stay on for ten seconds.” He straightened one leg and bent the other until the board rolled over the cylinder and stopped on the board’s center. “You want to try it again?”
The kid lowered his broken arm. “I’m not crazy. You make it look too easy.”
Neal fanned the money out and offered it to the fifteen teenagers standing around him. “Here you go,” he said in a loud, colorful sales spiel. “Get in on the humbuggery action at the hamburger stand. It’s easy money.”
The pony-tailed girl turned her cute head toward a kid about five and a half feet tall with jet black hair styled like Elvis.
“Come on, Markey,” she cooed. “You can do it.”
Markey cringed for a moment, but his expression changed to one of a person with a casual lack of concern. He lifted his hands and held them limply in front of his chest. “Now, what would I want to do that for?”
Neal had a rhythm to life that gave him an advantage when he wanted to push people off the ragged edge of their little universe of common sense. With the confidence of a salesman who had already closed the deal, he lowered his head and lifted his arms in a what-more-do-you-want-from-me gesture, and looked to Markey. “For no particular reason.” He flicked his hands down. “That’s why.”
With all eyes on him, Markey exhaled a defeated stream of air. “No reason’s a good enough reason.” He reached for his wallet. “Here’s five bucks says I can stay balanced on that thing for five seconds.”
In one motion, Neal swept the money from Markey’s hand. Jerking a wisp of hair away from his forehead, he winked at the girl. “Hey, everybody likes to be included.” He tromped on the end of the board. It flew up. He caught it in one hand and handed it to Markey. Then with the toe of his shoe, he nudged the cylinder toward Markey. “You’re on.”
Markey put the bongo board on the cylinder, scrunched down, and placed one foot on the end of the board. With a quick hop, he slapped his other foot on the other end of the board. Zing! The board flew out from under his feet. Whap! It hit the blacktop. Markey staggered sideways, but caught his balance.
The girl covered her mouth and muffled a laugh.
With a big ear-to-ear smile on his face, Neal hooked his thumbs into his wide belt and leaned back. “How many seconds was that?”
A big groan came from Markey. “Very funny.”
As Neal put the five dollar bill in his back pocket, the kid with the cast walked up to him and stopped. “Come on, man, you know we’ll never stay on your crazy board. Why don’t we bet on a car race?”
Neal cocked his head to the side, arched his brow, and waved his hand down. “Naw, naw, naw, racing cars is out. That’s old stuff.”
The kid with the cast made a helpless gesture. “We can’t just stay here and let you take all our money. You have to do something we can bet on and win.”
A look of hurt streamed from Neal’s baby blue eyes. “You wanted to play. It’s not my fault you don’t want to win.”
A kid wearing a polo shirt waved his skinny arms. “Is betting on a bongo board all a garbage man can do?”
For a moment, Neal stood perfectly still and stared at the kid.
Freddy felt a wave of shame crawl over his body. Before he met Neal, he had a low desire to live. Although Neal and he made pretty good money hauling garbage, being a garbage man on the bottom of the success chain wasn’t what he wanted to do all his life. But it didn’t bother Neal. Without missing a beat, he waved his hand in the air. “It’s only a temporary thing, you see. There’s always bigger and better things on down the road.”
“Yeah, we know,” the kid with the polo shirt said. “Come on, you guys. Let’s quit playing penny ante and do something we can bet some real money on.”
Leaning against the bulbous fender of a 1948 maroon Plymouth, Neal held his head aloft; and as if he were searching for an answer, he looked around the parking lot of the burger stand and sat on the fender. As if on cue, the rusty springs squealed. He raised his money-filled fist.
“I’ll bet this wad of money.” He thrust his money-filled fist toward the clown-faced clock under the peak of the burger stand. “All of it.” He paused for effect. “I’ll bet all of it that we can drive from the Burp to Canada, get a cup of coffee and a souvenir, and come back in twelve hours or less.”
“That’s three hundred thirty miles one way,” a kid with a broken tooth and thick glasses said. He tapped his finger in the air as if he were using an adding machine. “You’ll be lucky to go fifty in that old clunker.” He quit tapping. “And with no stops at fifty miles an hour, it’ll take you thirteen point two hours.”
“Even if you pull it off,” the kid with his arm in the cast said. “How will we know you even went there?”
As if he were ready to go, Freddy ran to the Plymouth and jumped into the passenger side. Neal opened the driver’s side door, sat behind the steering wheel, turned back to the crowd, and rested his feet on the running board. “I’ll bring back a Canadian flag and the paid bill for the coffee.”
A skinny kid with red hair combed into a flip, stepped out from under the green awning of the burger stand and stood next to a 1956 Fireflight Desoto that had a hideous, two-tone paint job.
“That’s not so great,” he said. “Last week I drove to Cleveland just to get a cup of coffee.”
“So, what’s the big deal?” a kid with a flattop haircut asked. “Anybody with enough money could do that.”
Neal stepped out of the Plymouth. Placing each foot just so, quiet and careful, he moved easy as if he knew just what he had to do. Freddy knew he wasn’t going to jerk or get wild eyed like a little kid making up a new lie. He was about to come up with something new.
“You may have a point there,” Neal said. “But I’ve heard that everybody is always going somewhere. And when they come back they always brag about how great it was. But the thing is—” He tilted his head toward the kid. “I’ve been told by reliable sources that in Canada they got the best beer in the world, and all the bars stay open all night, and you don’t have to worry about drinking too much and getting into a wreck, cause they have taxi cabs that run somewhere all the time, and they don’t have half-witted cab drivers that get you lost and drive you around in circles just to get a bigger fare.”
The kid with the flat-top shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, anybody could still do it.”
Neal hunched over. Using exaggerated strides, he walked around the Plymouth and stopped at the driver’s side. He held his hand up in a stopping motion. “All right, gentlemen. If anybody with money can do it, then I’ll do something nobody has ever done before.” He swiveled his head around and looked at Freddy. “With no money, we’ll drive to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy didn’t know if such a feat was possible, but if he were going to share in any money there was to be made, he had to go along with whatever Neal said.
“That’s right,” Freddy said, and pointed to the road. “Canada and back in twelve hours or less.”
Reaching into their pockets, a few onlookers stepped closer.
“I’ll take a piece of that action,” one kid said, and pulled out a ten dollar bill.”
Bets were made. Bull, the stocky kid with huge arms, collected the money. The skinny kid with red hair gave Bull a twenty dollar bill. Then, in great haste, the skinny kid gave Neal a thumb’s up, jumped into his ‘56 two-tone Desoto, and drove away.
Being in his usual hurry, Neal jumped into the Plymouth and sat behind the steering wheel. “Okay, we’re set to go.” He held his hand out, palm up. “Anymore takers?”
Markey reached into his pocket, but shook his head. “I’d bet more, but I’m on empty.”
Neal turned away from the steering wheel, lifted his arm above the roof, and waved his hand in a come here gesture. Just as the pink and green neon lights buzzed on around the top of the white burger stand, a 1940 Ford coupe appeared around the far corner of the building and coasted into the lot. Neal and Freddy’s buddy, Rafferty, opened the door and stepped out.
Usually, when Rafferty’s green eyes peered from under his wave in his carrot-orange hair, he was looking for humor in a situation. When he found it, his contagious smile would beam across his freckled face; and his skinny body would shudder with quiet laughter. But this time, his face had a look of seriousness. He propped his knuckles under his chin, and Freddy could tell Rafferty was trying not to smile. But he couldn’t do it. As if a light bulb were glowing over him, his eyes crinkled and a smile spread across his face.
Freddy looked at the faces of the kids who had bet. Their strained, stunned faces showed the realization that Neal may have tricked them again. As if they were paralyzed, they stood with their attention fixed on the Ford.
Oohing and aahing, the non-betting kids gathered around the Ford.
“What’s it got under the hood?” one kid asked, and then the questions and commentary of the others flowed.
“Does it have overdrive?”
“Check out those new tires.”
“Stick shift, no waiting for an automatic transmission to shift.”
“How fast can it go?”
“It didn’t make any noise when it pulled in; probably got a six cylinder under the hood.”
“Yeah, probably can’t do over sixty.”
“How come it has Ohio license plates when Neal lives in Pennsylvania?”
In a sliver of shade, Rafferty leaned against the front fender, placed his hands behind his head, and leaned back. The pony-tailed girl peeked into the side window and pointed to the radio. “Does that thing get WLS out of Chicago?”
Rafferty smiled an engaging smile. “It’ll get any station you want, sweetie.”
In a show of jealousy Markey stepped between Rafferty and the girl. Before tempers flared, Neal stepped out of the Plymouth, sauntered toward the Ford, and opened the driver’s side door. “Okay, Rafferty, let’s get in.”
Markey and the girl stepped back. While Rafferty stepped into the driver’s side and slid to the passenger side, Freddy ran around and the car and placed his hand on the door handle.
Bull held up his hand in a halting gesture. “Wait.”
Neal held out his hand. “You got more to bet?”
“No, but we thought you were going to drive the Plymouth.”
“Well, ah, ahem,” Neal said, and gave a negligent wave of his hand. “Sorry, gentleman, but I didn’t actually say that I was going to drive a Plymouth.” He looked toward the gathered crowd. “Did anybody here hear me say I was going to drive a Plymouth?”
Markey looked to Rafferty. “Hey, Rafferty, didn’t you tell me to call on you if I had a problem?”
A mischievous grin spread across Rafferty’s face. “What about it?”
“I have a problem with you guys switching cars at the last minute. What are you going to do about it?”
Shaking his head like a simpleton, Rafferty replied, “I told you to call on me, but I didn’t say I would do anything about it.”
Shaking his head in astonishment, Markey leaned forward in a helpless heap and began cursing under this breath. As if fooling the kid was an everyday occurrence, Neal continued, “The bet is that I drive from the Burp to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy stepped into the picture. “We never welshed on a deal yet.”
Neal put his hands on his hips. “You want to cancel the bets?”
As if he had been defeated in a game of one-upmanship, Bull’s face turned sullen, but the kid with the thick glasses stepped up and put his hand on Bull’s shoulder.
“Don’t cancel anything,” he said. “Even if that Ford can do sixty miles an hour, he’ll have to keep it on those winding roads and not slow down, and he’ll have to stop for gas that he doesn’t have any money for, and he’ll have to stop to get the coffee and a bill of sale, that he doesn’t have any money for, and after he stops at the border, he’ll have to buy a Canadian flag that he doesn’t have any money for. Even if he had the fastest car in the world he would never make it in twelve hours.”
The kid with the cast on his arm bent over and looked into the grill on the front of the Ford. As if he were straining to see inside, he leaned close to the horizontal bars. “It still has the stock radiator.” He straightened up and grinned. “If this thing had a new engine in it, they would have had to change the radiator.”
Freddy knew this wasn’t true, but he wasn’t going to say anything to spoil their chances of winning the bet.
Bull stared at the kid with the thick glasses. “Are you sure they can’t make it in twelve hours?”
“If he pushes those six cylinders, he’ll burn up the engine before he makes it to the border.”
Neal’s bubbly smile sunk. “I don’t know about all those numbers,” he said, and smiled again. “But we’ll still make it in twelve hours.”
“Okay,” Bull said, with a sly grin. “Just to keep things on the up and up, empty your pockets, and let me check your wallets.”
Neal reached into his black pants pockets, pulled out his wad of money and some change, and slapped it on the front fender of the Plymouth. Then he took out his wallet, opened it, and turned it upside down. “Okay, we’re ready.”
“Not so fast.” Bull held out his hand and jerked it toward Freddy. “You, too.”
Freddy didn’t have a wallet, but he walked around the car, turned out his pockets, and put thirty-five cents on the fender.
Bull turned toward Rafferty. “You’re next.” With his usual smile on his freckled face, Rafferty handed Bull his wallet, shrugged, and plunked a few bills and two nickels down onto the front fender of the Plymouth. Bull scooped up the money and looked up at the clown clock on the peak or the burger stand. The minute hand that was the clown’s arm, rotated around with its white-gloved finger pointing to the seconds,”
“It’s two minutes to nine.” Bull said and jerked his head toward the clock. “Twelve hours from now is nine in the morning, and you’re not going to make it.”
Rafferty made a brusque gesture with his left hand. “What do you mean we’re not going to make it? What do you think we’re going to do, stop and play marbles on every street corner?”
Bull smiled. “You might as well.” He shook the bet money in front of Neal’s face. “Take a good look at it. It’s the last time you’ll see it.” He let out a deep belly laugh and jammed the money into his pocket.
With the evening bugs just beginning to crash into the buzzing green and pink neon lights of the burger stand, and girls without dates, wishing someone would take them to the drive-in movie, watching, Neal jumped behind the wheel of the Ford. Freddy and Rafferty piled in and waited for him to start the powerful V-8 engine, rack the pipes off, and impress the girls. But he didn’t.
Scarcely giving the hungry engine the gas, he hit the starter. The engine caught and begged for more fuel. To keep what was under the hood a secret, Neal tried to pull out of the lot as quiet and as slow as possible, but the powerful engine growled with awesome power. The kid with thick glasses tilted his head, and scratched his neck with his index finger. “It sounds like they got a big engine in that thing. We might lose the bets.”
As the Ford rumbled out of the parking lot, Bull lifted his palms and pushed away from his body. “No problem. We got it covered.”
Beyond the neon pink triangle peak of the burger stand with the clown’s arm on the clock sweeping away the seconds, the sun’s last rays peeked through the blowing tree branches and skittered shut. Without a cent in their pockets and bobbing their heads to Neal’s stupid ‘dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh!’tune, Neal, Freddy, Rafferty, and the bongo board were leaving the gloom of Patagonia’s grassless backyards spattered with tin cans and dirty-white chickens scratching under clotheslines where blue work clothes of mill workers flapped under a sullied sky. They were on their way to Canada.
Ten miles down the road, a huge white sign with black letters read ‘Road Closed Ahead’. Neal slowed. On the other side of the sign, a bridge stretched across a wide river. A detour sign, with an arrow pointed to the road that led to the left.
Rafferty shook his head. “That’s all we need. The other bridge is miles away. It’s going to be a long detour.”
Neal turned left and tromped on the gas. “We can still make it.”
The Ford rounded a few bends and another detour sign popped up, pointing left again. Neal rolled around the corner and continued driving at a rapid pace. A half-mile later, another detour sign pointed left. Neal followed that for a few miles and stopped at an intersection and looked up. Another detour sign pointed left. No traffic zoomed past. The road was dark and empty. Rafferty leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. “Are we running out of gas?”
“No, but I think we’re going around in circles.” Neal turned off the lights. “I just saw a flash of light. If he’s doing what I think he’s doing, he’ll come back and see if we took the bait.”
Freddy couldn’t understand what Neal was talking about. But before he could ask Neal about it, headlights flashed in the distance and headed in their direction. As it neared, the car slowed, but it was too late. Just before it came to the intersection, Neal flicked the headlights on and swung his hand down. “Gotch ya!”
The ‘56 Desoto that had left the Burp before them approached from the left. Its unmistakable light blue and dark blue two-tone paint job looked dull and disgusting. As it passed in front of them, Neal stuck his hand out the window and waved. As if he were trying to conceal his identity, the driver turned his head to the side and kept on driving. But the red hair betrayed the skinny kid. The Desoto’s red taillights faded down the road and Neal laughed with satisfaction.
“That kid’s old man works for the highway,” he said. “He put up phony detour sighs to throw us off. We could’ve been driving in circles all night long.”
He turned right and wound out the gears. In no time the Ford’s headlights were shining on the back of the lumbering Desoto. Under the end of the rounded tail fins, three taillights looked like short glasses turned on their sides. They were arranged vertically: one white in the center; and two red: one on top and one on the bottom. In the center of the almost square trunk, the raised chrome letters ‘Desoto’ spread across a short section above a big shiny chrome V.
With the horn blaring, Neal frantically waved his hand out the window and passed the heavy car.
At the bridge, Neal hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. He jumped out and kicked the ‘Road Closed Ahead’ sign down. After dragging the sign to the bridge, he bent over, picked up the sign, and threw it into the river. Brushing his hands together, he jumped back into the Ford. They were on their way to Canada, again.
On the dark road, Freddy figured he had to be crazy to be riding with Neal in another one of his mad, unfathomable schemes that would hurl him into the unknown. He wondered if there was a chance that Neal could actually make it to Canada and back in twelve hours, and he wondered how they were going to get gas with no money. Before he could ask, Neal shut the motor off, coasted into a dimly lit gas station, and stopped in front of the first pump.
Rafferty turned to Neal. “You got some money hid?”
Neal put his finger to his lips and pointed to the plate-glass window on the front of the building. Inside, partially hidden behind a pyramid of green and white cans of oil, the attendant was fast asleep. Neal got out, carefully lifted the gas nozzle from the side of the red hand-painted pump, and filled the Ford’s tank. Just as he eased the gas pump’s nozzle back into the slot, a white Pontiac pulled in. Neal opened the door to the Ford to get back behind the wheel, but paused. He looked into the station window. The attendant was still asleep. On top of the towel box a paper garrison hat sat. Neal grabbed it and placed it on his head. Then he walked to the Pontiac and looked into the driver’s side window. “Fill ‘er up, and check the oil, sir?”
“The oil’s okay,” the driver said. “Just fill it up.”
Keeping a wary eye on the sleeping attendant, Neal filled the Pontiac and collected the money. When he went to get back into the Ford, another car pulled in, then another. He waited on those cars, too, and collected the money. The cars pulled away; and just as he put the paper hat back on the towel box the attendant woke up, rushed out the building’s door, and stood in front of Neal. It seemed as if Neal was going to jump in the car and speed away, but he smiled at the attendant.
“Good evening,” he said, but there was no tension in his voice. That was Neal: Cool under any circumstances. He flapped the ends of the money in the attendant’s face. “I was just coming in to pay for the gas.”
The attendant looked at the dials on the gas pump and then looked back at Neal. “Yeah, I watched you fill it up.”
Freddy figured they were caught. If the attendant had watched Neal fill the Ford, then he surely watched him fill the other three cars and collect the money. And on top of that, to keep from having to get a Pennsylvania state inspection sticker and pay to have it glued on the corner of the front windshield, Neal had stolen Ohio plates and put them on the Ford. They weren’t even out of Pennsylvania and they would be going to jail.
But Neal was one step ahead of the attendant. He held the money in both hands ready to count off the bills. “How much do I owe you?”
The attendant rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Whatever the pump says.”
Neal paid him and turned to go.
Stifling a yawn, the tired attendant leaned on the pump and crossed his legs. “Thanks, for being honest.” He stared at the dials on the pump. “I might have my eyes closed, but I can see right through my eyelids. No one has ever stolen anything on my shift.”
Neal jumped in the Ford. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he touched his forefinger to his forehead and gave the kid a lazy imitation of a salute. “Thanks, for the gas, buddy, and keep up the good work.” He drove off into the velvet night babbling about how he used to think that it was wrong to steal anything.
“What do you mean?” Freddy interrupted. “It’s still stealing.”
“I don’t worry about it anymore,” Neal said. “Besides, I know this guy from before. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch who shorted me on change when I was a little kid.” His eyes glared. “What makes me feel bad is that the guy’s not going to pay for it. The rich ass oil company’s gonna pay. And I don’t feel guilty one bit. We’re only taking money from oil companies and banks and the assholes that got rich off other people’s misfortunes.”
Freddy sighed, stared at the open road ahead of them, and thought about how he could convince Neal that no matter how good the reason was for stealing, it was wrong, but Rafferty interrupted his thoughts.
“Okay,” Rafferty said. “We got the gas and money for more. But we wasted fifteen minutes back there. How are we going to make it to Canada and be back in twelve hours?”
“Come on, Rafferty.” Neal reached up, and pretended to be adjusting imaginary glasses. “It’s easier than balancing on a bongo board. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Back at the Burp, four-eyes said it was three hundred thirty miles to Canada.”
“It is,” Rafferty said, and cocked his orange eyebrows. “Unless you fly.”
“Old Coke-bottle-bottom-glasses thinks we’re going to cross at Niagara Falls.” A confident grin spread across Neal’s face. “But we’re going to cross in Buffalo. That cuts off forty miles, seventy miles an hour into two hundred ninety miles gives under four hours to get there and under four to get back.”
Freddy spoke from the back seat. “You said you didn’t know anything about numbers.”
Neal put the transmission into overdrive. “It’s all in the game, Freddy. If we had a straight shot, it would only be about two hundred miles, but it’s still all in the game. And with overdrive, this Ford will cruise along at eighty-five with no problem.” He smiled at himself in the rearview mirror. “There’s hardly any traffic at night. We got twelve hours and can make in under eight.”
He reached over and twisted the chrome knob until it clicked on. The tube-style radio lit up. Duane Eddy’s Three-Thirty Blues flowed from the single speaker.
Freddy snapped his fingers and leaned back. “Now we can go to Canada in style.”
With the music blasting into his brain, Freddy felt they might be the only people in the world who were not imprisoned by wanting to do the familiar and safe things. Not being afraid of what it would be like to explore something dangerously different made everything up ahead a brand new raw world of profound mystery. And they were headed right for it.
Neal thrust the shifting lever into high gear and mashed the gas feed down. For a moment the black unknown ahead swallowed them up. They flashed past houses, screeched around an elbow bend, rumbled over a set of railroad tracks, and the radio quit.

EXTRACT FOR
Dillinger's Deception

(Ronald K. Myers)


PROLOGUE

In the darkness, Ralph squinted toward the low hanging branches of full leaved maple trees. They seemed to be a black impenetrable wall. He hoped no one was hiding there. A ways from the wall, two roads triangulated the land he was standing on and led to the machine-gun-turret protected Jungle Inn Casino. It was 1934. In the center of the land, a man, the world thought was in prison, stood below a black and white street sign perched on top of a steel pole. Although the sign read, ‘PETROLEUM’, no streets ran alongside the sign.
Standing in grass up to his knees and making sure they weren’t being watched, Ralph surveyed the area. Then he looked up at the sign. “Is this it, Snorky?”
Snorky placed his hand on Ralph’s back. “Well, Mister Ralph Alsman, can you think of a better place to keep your money out of the FBI’s hands?”
Ralph took a moment to consider the question. As he watched dim moonlight beam down on the grass and brush-filled patch of land, he answered. I can’t think of anyplace better, but I’m still not used to being called Ralph.”
Snorky adjusted the white fedora on his head. “For a million dollars and freedom for the rest of your life, I think you’ll get used to it pretty quick.”
As if getting to do some serious work, Ralph freed the top button on his white shirt and loosened his tie. His dark vest fit perfectly, and he seemed to be comfortable. He smiled a faint smile. “Where do we dig?”
“We don’t.”
Snorky bent over, placed a weird brass key in the base of the steel pole supporting the Petroleum sign, and pushed. The pole tilted to a forty-five degree angle. He inserted another brass key at the base of the pole and pushed the pole back to an upright position. The ground rumbled. Right before Ralph’s feet, a steel plate slid back revealing a hole with a set of wooden steps. Snorky flicked a flashlight on and stepped into the hole. “Let’s get your first half of the million.”
When Ralph followed Snorky into the hole, he descended into one of the many abandoned coal mines of the area. But a lot of work had been done to this mine. Before them, at the other side of a concrete floor, a long brass vault, as big as a coffin, lay on a stone pedestal.
Snorky stepped to the vault and opened it. Except for a brown envelope and a piece of folded brown paper sewn shut like the string on the top of a dog food bag, it was empty.
Ralph grabbed the cleft in his chin and gasped. “That folded paper’s not big enough to hold a half million dollars. Did somebody take the money?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Snorky gestured to the brown envelope. “If I’m not here, and if by some unforeseen chance your money’s not here, put an IOU in the vault. That way, I’ll know you’ve been here before I had a chance to drop the money.” He pointed to the sewn-shut, folded brown paper. “That’s for the man who took my place in prison. It should be gone when you come back.
Sliding his hand along the smooth brass surface of the vault, Ralph said, “It seems such a waste to use a big brass vault just for two little pieces of paper and an IOU.”
Snorky closed the vault and patted it. “Don’t judge a vault by its cover. If someone finds your IOU in the vault, they’ll think you took all the money out.”
He reached under the pedestal and pulled out a stone the size of three bricks. Then, he reached into the opening and pulled out a long metal box. “Here’s the real vault.” He opened the box. It was filled with a long line of banded bills.
Exhaling a measured breath, Ralph reached over and ran his hand across the money. Snorky closed the box and handed it to Ralph. Then he bent over and placed the stone back in the opening below the pedestal.
Pointing to the stone, Ralph asked, “Is that where the other half will be, too?”
Snorky stood up and brushed his hands together. “Just as soon as you’re officially dead, the money will be there.”
Gripping the box, Ralph nodded. “Anna’s going to rat me out. My official date of death will be July 22, 1934.”
Smiling, Snorky patted Ralph on the back. “Okay, Ralph Alsman, after you’re dead, your picture’s going to be all over the front pages of the newspapers. We don’t want to take a chance on anyone seeing you after you’re supposed to be dead. Come directly here and pick up your money.”
Even though his picture and the news of his death were everywhere, on July 23rd, accompanied by a beautiful girl, Ralph drove a black 1933 Hudson Terraplane Eight to the mine, but someone was already there. A 1932 Chevy Phaeton with full white-wall tires and flashing spoke wheels sat alongside of the road. Although it was dark, Ralph admired the car’s light-blue body and dark blue fenders that ran the length of the running boards.
The last time Ralph had seen Snorky, the lapels on his tailor-made suit were hand-stitched. A silk tie had stood out on his white-on-white shirt, and a gold tie clasp showed the man didn’t go for cheap crap. After today, Ralph would be able to wear tailor-made suits and wear gold tie clasps for the rest of his life. He figured the Phaeton was something Snorky would buy. He proceeded to the mine to see Snorky.
When he got there, a thin man with a mustache was crawling up the steps. As he held his side, blood flowed from between his fingers. With a pleading look, the man reached up with his other hand. “Get me out of here.”
In an effort to help the bleeding man out of the mine, Ralph took the man’s hand and pulled. Grimacing in pain, the man struggled out of the hole and stood up. With labored breaths, he managed the strength to speak. “Thanks, Ralph.”
No one was supposed to know Ralph was still alive. He wanted to know who the man was. He looked into the man’s face. “Who are you?”
Wincing, the bleeding man collapsed to the ground. With his arms outstretched and his hands clawing at the ground, the man’s breath caused blood bubbles to form on his wounded side. Then the man’s hands quit clawing. His body became motionless. He was dead.
Another man, with blood trickling from one of the open gashes on his face, walked up the blood-soaked steps, grabbed the pole, and hung on.
Before Ralph could help the man, a uniformed cop appeared out of the darkness and shouted, “Hey, jackass, where do you think you’re going?”
The man holding onto the steel pole looked as if he were about to pass out. Apparently not wanting more injuries, the man cowered next to the pole. The cop reared back and lifted his huge foot to kick the man from the pole.
Ralph yelled, “Leave him alone! This wasn’t part of the deal.”
Instead of kicking the man, the cop dropped his foot to the ground and lifted his hand. “Where you’re going, you won’t have to worry about any deal.” In his hand, he held a police officer issue 38 Colt. He laughed once and fired right into Ralph’s chest. Ralph grimaced, but didn’t fall over. The cop’s old 1927 police-issued Colt didn’t have enough velocity to penetrate the bulletproof vest Ralph had stolen from the police station. Once again, the vest had saved his life.
As if there were something wrong with it, the cop looked at his Colt.
In pain, Ralph groaned. “What did you do that for?”
Surprised, the cop could only gape.
Ignoring the pain, Ralph turned in fury, pulled his own 38 Colt Super, and emptied it into the cop. The man hanging on the pole grabbed his side and collapsed. Ralph made sure the cop was dead and went over and checked the man’s pulse. He was still alive. Ralph ripped a length of cloth from the dead cop’s shirt and placed it on the man’s bleeding side. Holding the cloth on the man’s wound, he looked over his shoulder and shouted toward the beautiful girl sitting in his Terraplane, “Billie, come here!”
Billie’s lovely legs swished through the tall grass until she stopped at the man’s feet. Ralph took her hand and placed it on the cloth covering the man’s wound. “Hold this here. I have to make the withdrawal.”
After Ralph made his way into the mine, he reached under the pedestal, pulled out the secret stone and pulled out another long metal box. It felt light. When he opened it, it was empty. Snorky had not made the drop. He put the box back.
For a moment, Ralph studied the big brass vault and wondered why such a worthless object was secretly entombed in the mine. But he didn’t have time to worry about it. He hoped Snorky would come back, find out he had been there, and put the other half of the million in the box. He lifted the vault’s lid and placed in his IOU.
Back up top, Ralph closed the mine and dragged the cop and the other dead man into the Chevy Phaeton. Then, Billie and he gently placed the wounded man from the pole into the Terraplane.
Standing next to the Terraplane, Billie asked, “What do we do now?”
“Jump in the Terraplane and follow me.” Ralph pointed to the Phaeton. “After I get rid of that, you can pick me up.”
Billie tilted her cute head toward the man in the back seat. “What about him?”
“We’ll drop him off at the hospital.”
With Billie following in the Terraplane, Ralph drove the Phaeton to a place called Patagonia and stopped at the top of Myers Hill. He placed the car in neutral and gave it a big push. The Phaeton and the two dead men sailed down the hill and slid into the deep dark waters of the Shenango River.
Even though the river raged, churned, and twisted around rocks and eroded stony banks, the Phaeton would stay on the bottom until the spring floods. Then, the powerful force of tons of water would sweep the Phaeton and anything in its way downriver.
With his new identity, a half a million dollars, and the FBI no longer after him, Ralph got married and moved to Oregon.
The vault remained in the mine.

CHAPTER 1

Thirty years later, outside the shantytown of Patagonia, Pennsylvania, Freddy Crane walked around a barrel-sized trashcan overflowing with cardboard containers and rotting food. As if sweating under the punishing evening sun weren’t enough agony, roaring amplified by the whining tires came up from behind him. A hurricane of dust from the slipstream of a huge truck hit him like a hot gale. The suction wasn’t far from pulling him off his feet. Staring at the wavy glare of the heat waves that stretched down the tar and gravel road, he sauntered around the corner.
Before he got to the hamburger stand affectingly called ‘the Burp’ he knew the people would be falling over one another to be a part of Neal McCord’s humbuggery action.
With the sun making its late afternoon roll toward the horizon, a pony-tailed girl with a figure good enough to be on Playboy walked away from a 1950 Ford; and with a sensual sway, she showboated her way toward the gathered crowd. A teenage boy beamed an affectionate smile and waved her over.
The crowd was so thick Freddy couldn’t see what they were watching. The teenage boy turned sideways to talk to the girl. Then, Freddy knew what everyone was watching. And there he was: In the center of the blacktopped parking lot. Black hair slicked back, wearing his familiar black T-shirt, hunched over on his bongo board, rocking side to side on a cylinder of wood. With his feet spayed and his hips moving to and fro above his bandy-legged stance, he swayed with the rhythm of the up-beat little tune he had made up. “Dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh. Dit-a, dit-a, dit-a plonk-oh!”
Neal McCord’s very existence was something apart from the known properties of a normal human being. Even though the crazy times of the ‘60s overflowed with understanding and open minds, Neal was a person Freddy could not understand. At times Neal was half-boy, half-man. He could become a delusion, a phantom, or a mirage. At other times, he was welcomed as a savior of a boring situation. With one hand in his pocket and the other hand waving in the air, Neal looked like a bull rider; but instead of waving a cowboy hat in his hand, he clutched a wad of money.
“Watch this.” He flashed his famous Neal McCord smile in the direction of the crowd. “It’s so easy a pet monkey can do it.” With a single sway of his hips, he rolled the bongo board on the cylinder until it was at its very end. Bending one leg and holding the other straight, he stopped the board. Balancing in this unnatural pose, he threw his arms straight out from his sides and held them there. “See. Nothing to it.” He grinned. “All you got to do is stabilize yourself by distributing your weight on each side of the vertical axis.”
A teenager with a cast on his arm and a big scab on his elbow stayed perched at the end of the parking lot curb. “Yeah, that’s what you told me, and look what happened.” He held up his arm. A thick white cast coated his forearm.
Still keeping one leg bent and the other one straight, Neal dropped his arms, held the money in both hands, and thrust it toward the kid.
“You could’ve had half of this.” He shook the money at the broken-armed kid. “All you had to do was stay on for ten seconds.” He straightened one leg and bent the other until the board rolled over the cylinder and stopped on the board’s center. “You want to try it again?”
The kid lowered his broken arm. “I’m not crazy. You make it look too easy.”
Neal fanned the money out and offered it to the fifteen teenagers standing around him. “Here you go,” he said in a loud, colorful sales spiel. “Get in on the humbuggery action at the hamburger stand. It’s easy money.”
The pony-tailed girl turned her cute head toward a kid about five and a half feet tall with jet black hair styled like Elvis.
“Come on, Markey,” she cooed. “You can do it.”
Markey cringed for a moment, but his expression changed to one of a person with a casual lack of concern. He lifted his hands and held them limply in front of his chest. “Now, what would I want to do that for?”
Neal had a rhythm to life that gave him an advantage when he wanted to push people off the ragged edge of their little universe of common sense. With the confidence of a salesman who had already closed the deal, he lowered his head and lifted his arms in a what-more-do-you-want-from-me gesture, and looked to Markey. “For no particular reason.” He flicked his hands down. “That’s why.”
With all eyes on him, Markey exhaled a defeated stream of air. “No reason’s a good enough reason.” He reached for his wallet. “Here’s five bucks says I can stay balanced on that thing for five seconds.”
In one motion, Neal swept the money from Markey’s hand. Jerking a wisp of hair away from his forehead, he winked at the girl. “Hey, everybody likes to be included.” He tromped on the end of the board. It flew up. He caught it in one hand and handed it to Markey. Then with the toe of his shoe, he nudged the cylinder toward Markey. “You’re on.”
Markey put the bongo board on the cylinder, scrunched down, and placed one foot on the end of the board. With a quick hop, he slapped his other foot on the other end of the board. Zing! The board flew out from under his feet. Whap! It hit the blacktop. Markey staggered sideways, but caught his balance.
The girl covered her mouth and muffled a laugh.
With a big ear-to-ear smile on his face, Neal hooked his thumbs into his wide belt and leaned back. “How many seconds was that?”
A big groan came from Markey. “Very funny.”
As Neal put the five dollar bill in his back pocket, the kid with the cast walked up to him and stopped. “Come on, man, you know we’ll never stay on your crazy board. Why don’t we bet on a car race?”
Neal cocked his head to the side, arched his brow, and waved his hand down. “Naw, naw, naw, racing cars is out. That’s old stuff.”
The kid with the cast made a helpless gesture. “We can’t just stay here and let you take all our money. You have to do something we can bet on and win.”
A look of hurt streamed from Neal’s baby blue eyes. “You wanted to play. It’s not my fault you don’t want to win.”
A kid wearing a polo shirt waved his skinny arms. “Is betting on a bongo board all a garbage man can do?”
For a moment, Neal stood perfectly still and stared at the kid.
Freddy felt a wave of shame crawl over his body. Before he met Neal, he had a low desire to live. Although Neal and he made pretty good money hauling garbage, being a garbage man on the bottom of the success chain wasn’t what he wanted to do all his life. But it didn’t bother Neal. Without missing a beat, he waved his hand in the air. “It’s only a temporary thing, you see. There’s always bigger and better things on down the road.”
“Yeah, we know,” the kid with the polo shirt said. “Come on, you guys. Let’s quit playing penny ante and do something we can bet some real money on.”
Leaning against the bulbous fender of a 1948 maroon Plymouth, Neal held his head aloft; and as if he were searching for an answer, he looked around the parking lot of the burger stand and sat on the fender. As if on cue, the rusty springs squealed. He raised his money-filled fist.
“I’ll bet this wad of money.” He thrust his money-filled fist toward the clown-faced clock under the peak of the burger stand. “All of it.” He paused for effect. “I’ll bet all of it that we can drive from the Burp to Canada, get a cup of coffee and a souvenir, and come back in twelve hours or less.”
“That’s three hundred thirty miles one way,” a kid with a broken tooth and thick glasses said. He tapped his finger in the air as if he were using an adding machine. “You’ll be lucky to go fifty in that old clunker.” He quit tapping. “And with no stops at fifty miles an hour, it’ll take you thirteen point two hours.”
“Even if you pull it off,” the kid with his arm in the cast said. “How will we know you even went there?”
As if he were ready to go, Freddy ran to the Plymouth and jumped into the passenger side. Neal opened the driver’s side door, sat behind the steering wheel, turned back to the crowd, and rested his feet on the running board. “I’ll bring back a Canadian flag and the paid bill for the coffee.”
A skinny kid with red hair combed into a flip, stepped out from under the green awning of the burger stand and stood next to a 1956 Fireflight Desoto that had a hideous, two-tone paint job.
“That’s not so great,” he said. “Last week I drove to Cleveland just to get a cup of coffee.”
“So, what’s the big deal?” a kid with a flattop haircut asked. “Anybody with enough money could do that.”
Neal stepped out of the Plymouth. Placing each foot just so, quiet and careful, he moved easy as if he knew just what he had to do. Freddy knew he wasn’t going to jerk or get wild eyed like a little kid making up a new lie. He was about to come up with something new.
“You may have a point there,” Neal said. “But I’ve heard that everybody is always going somewhere. And when they come back they always brag about how great it was. But the thing is—” He tilted his head toward the kid. “I’ve been told by reliable sources that in Canada they got the best beer in the world, and all the bars stay open all night, and you don’t have to worry about drinking too much and getting into a wreck, cause they have taxi cabs that run somewhere all the time, and they don’t have half-witted cab drivers that get you lost and drive you around in circles just to get a bigger fare.”
The kid with the flat-top shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, anybody could still do it.”
Neal hunched over. Using exaggerated strides, he walked around the Plymouth and stopped at the driver’s side. He held his hand up in a stopping motion. “All right, gentlemen. If anybody with money can do it, then I’ll do something nobody has ever done before.” He swiveled his head around and looked at Freddy. “With no money, we’ll drive to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy didn’t know if such a feat was possible, but if he were going to share in any money there was to be made, he had to go along with whatever Neal said.
“That’s right,” Freddy said, and pointed to the road. “Canada and back in twelve hours or less.”
Reaching into their pockets, a few onlookers stepped closer.
“I’ll take a piece of that action,” one kid said, and pulled out a ten dollar bill.”
Bets were made. Bull, the stocky kid with huge arms, collected the money. The skinny kid with red hair gave Bull a twenty dollar bill. Then, in great haste, the skinny kid gave Neal a thumb’s up, jumped into his ‘56 two-tone Desoto, and drove away.
Being in his usual hurry, Neal jumped into the Plymouth and sat behind the steering wheel. “Okay, we’re set to go.” He held his hand out, palm up. “Anymore takers?”
Markey reached into his pocket, but shook his head. “I’d bet more, but I’m on empty.”
Neal turned away from the steering wheel, lifted his arm above the roof, and waved his hand in a come here gesture. Just as the pink and green neon lights buzzed on around the top of the white burger stand, a 1940 Ford coupe appeared around the far corner of the building and coasted into the lot. Neal and Freddy’s buddy, Rafferty, opened the door and stepped out.
Usually, when Rafferty’s green eyes peered from under his wave in his carrot-orange hair, he was looking for humor in a situation. When he found it, his contagious smile would beam across his freckled face; and his skinny body would shudder with quiet laughter. But this time, his face had a look of seriousness. He propped his knuckles under his chin, and Freddy could tell Rafferty was trying not to smile. But he couldn’t do it. As if a light bulb were glowing over him, his eyes crinkled and a smile spread across his face.
Freddy looked at the faces of the kids who had bet. Their strained, stunned faces showed the realization that Neal may have tricked them again. As if they were paralyzed, they stood with their attention fixed on the Ford.
Oohing and aahing, the non-betting kids gathered around the Ford.
“What’s it got under the hood?” one kid asked, and then the questions and commentary of the others flowed.
“Does it have overdrive?”
“Check out those new tires.”
“Stick shift, no waiting for an automatic transmission to shift.”
“How fast can it go?”
“It didn’t make any noise when it pulled in; probably got a six cylinder under the hood.”
“Yeah, probably can’t do over sixty.”
“How come it has Ohio license plates when Neal lives in Pennsylvania?”
In a sliver of shade, Rafferty leaned against the front fender, placed his hands behind his head, and leaned back. The pony-tailed girl peeked into the side window and pointed to the radio. “Does that thing get WLS out of Chicago?”
Rafferty smiled an engaging smile. “It’ll get any station you want, sweetie.”
In a show of jealousy Markey stepped between Rafferty and the girl. Before tempers flared, Neal stepped out of the Plymouth, sauntered toward the Ford, and opened the driver’s side door. “Okay, Rafferty, let’s get in.”
Markey and the girl stepped back. While Rafferty stepped into the driver’s side and slid to the passenger side, Freddy ran around and the car and placed his hand on the door handle.
Bull held up his hand in a halting gesture. “Wait.”
Neal held out his hand. “You got more to bet?”
“No, but we thought you were going to drive the Plymouth.”
“Well, ah, ahem,” Neal said, and gave a negligent wave of his hand. “Sorry, gentleman, but I didn’t actually say that I was going to drive a Plymouth.” He looked toward the gathered crowd. “Did anybody here hear me say I was going to drive a Plymouth?”
Markey looked to Rafferty. “Hey, Rafferty, didn’t you tell me to call on you if I had a problem?”
A mischievous grin spread across Rafferty’s face. “What about it?”
“I have a problem with you guys switching cars at the last minute. What are you going to do about it?”
Shaking his head like a simpleton, Rafferty replied, “I told you to call on me, but I didn’t say I would do anything about it.”
Shaking his head in astonishment, Markey leaned forward in a helpless heap and began cursing under this breath. As if fooling the kid was an everyday occurrence, Neal continued, “The bet is that I drive from the Burp to Canada and be back in twelve hours or less.”
Freddy stepped into the picture. “We never welshed on a deal yet.”
Neal put his hands on his hips. “You want to cancel the bets?”
As if he had been defeated in a game of one-upmanship, Bull’s face turned sullen, but the kid with the thick glasses stepped up and put his hand on Bull’s shoulder.
“Don’t cancel anything,” he said. “Even if that Ford can do sixty miles an hour, he’ll have to keep it on those winding roads and not slow down, and he’ll have to stop for gas that he doesn’t have any money for, and he’ll have to stop to get the coffee and a bill of sale, that he doesn’t have any money for, and after he stops at the border, he’ll have to buy a Canadian flag that he doesn’t have any money for. Even if he had the fastest car in the world he would never make it in twelve hours.”
The kid with the cast on his arm bent over and looked into the grill on the front of the Ford. As if he were straining to see inside, he leaned close to the horizontal bars. “It still has the stock radiator.” He straightened up and grinned. “If this thing had a new engine in it, they would have had to change the radiator.”
Freddy knew this wasn’t true, but he wasn’t going to say anything to spoil their chances of winning the bet.
Bull stared at the kid with the thick glasses. “Are you sure they can’t make it in twelve hours?”
“If he pushes those six cylinders, he’ll burn up the engine before he makes it to the border.”
Neal’s bubbly smile sunk. “I don’t know about all those numbers,” he said, and smiled again. “But we’ll still make it in twelve hours.”
“Okay,” Bull said, with a sly grin. “Just to keep things on the up and up, empty your pockets, and let me check your wallets.”
Neal reached into his black pants pockets, pulled out his wad of money and some change, and slapped it on the front fender of the Plymouth. Then he took out his wallet, opened it, and turned it upside down. “Okay, we’re ready.”
“Not so fast.” Bull held out his hand and jerked it toward Freddy. “You, too.”
Freddy didn’t have a wallet, but he walked around the car, turned out his pockets, and put thirty-five cents on the fender.
Bull turned toward Rafferty. “You’re next.” With his usual smile on his freckled face, Rafferty handed Bull his wallet, shrugged, and plunked a few bills and two nickels down onto the front fender of the Plymouth. Bull scooped up the money and looked up at the clown clock on the peak or the burger stand. The minute hand that was the clown’s arm, rotated around with its white-gloved finger pointing to the seconds,”
“It’s two minutes to nine.” Bull said and jerked his head toward the clock. “Twelve hours from now is nine in the morning, and you’re not going to make it.”
Rafferty made a brusque gesture with his left hand. “What do you mean we’re not going to make it? What do you think we’re going to do, stop and play marbles on every street corner?”
Bull smiled. “You might as well.” He shook the bet money in front of Neal’s face. “Take a good look at it. It’s the last time you’ll see it.” He let out a deep belly laugh and jammed the money into his pocket.
With the evening bugs just beginning to crash into the buzzing green and pink neon lights of the burger stand, and girls without dates, wishing someone would take them to the drive-in movie, watching, Neal jumped behind the wheel of the Ford. Freddy and Rafferty piled in and waited for him to start the powerful V-8 engine, rack the pipes off, and impress the girls. But he didn’t.
Scarcely giving the hungry engine the gas, he hit the starter. The engine caught and begged for more fuel. To keep what was under the hood a secret, Neal tried to pull out of the lot as quiet and as slow as possible, but the powerful engine growled with awesome power. The kid with thick glasses tilted his head, and scratched his neck with his index finger. “It sounds like they got a big engine in that thing. We might lose the bets.”
As the Ford rumbled out of the parking lot, Bull lifted his palms and pushed away from his body. “No problem. We got it covered.”
Beyond the neon pink triangle peak of the burger stand with the clown’s arm on the clock sweeping away the seconds, the sun’s last rays peeked through the blowing tree branches and skittered shut. Without a cent in their pockets and bobbing their heads to Neal’s stupid ‘dit-a, dit-a, plonk-oh!’tune, Neal, Freddy, Rafferty, and the bongo board were leaving the gloom of Patagonia’s grassless backyards spattered with tin cans and dirty-white chickens scratching under clotheslines where blue work clothes of mill workers flapped under a sullied sky. They were on their way to Canada.
Ten miles down the road, a huge white sign with black letters read ‘Road Closed Ahead’. Neal slowed. On the other side of the sign, a bridge stretched across a wide river. A detour sign, with an arrow pointed to the road that led to the left.
Rafferty shook his head. “That’s all we need. The other bridge is miles away. It’s going to be a long detour.”
Neal turned left and tromped on the gas. “We can still make it.”
The Ford rounded a few bends and another detour sign popped up, pointing left again. Neal rolled around the corner and continued driving at a rapid pace. A half-mile later, another detour sign pointed left. Neal followed that for a few miles and stopped at an intersection and looked up. Another detour sign pointed left. No traffic zoomed past. The road was dark and empty. Rafferty leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. “Are we running out of gas?”
“No, but I think we’re going around in circles.” Neal turned off the lights. “I just saw a flash of light. If he’s doing what I think he’s doing, he’ll come back and see if we took the bait.”
Freddy couldn’t understand what Neal was talking about. But before he could ask Neal about it, headlights flashed in the distance and headed in their direction. As it neared, the car slowed, but it was too late. Just before it came to the intersection, Neal flicked the headlights on and swung his hand down. “Gotch ya!”
The ‘56 Desoto that had left the Burp before them approached from the left. Its unmistakable light blue and dark blue two-tone paint job looked dull and disgusting. As it passed in front of them, Neal stuck his hand out the window and waved. As if he were trying to conceal his identity, the driver turned his head to the side and kept on driving. But the red hair betrayed the skinny kid. The Desoto’s red taillights faded down the road and Neal laughed with satisfaction.
“That kid’s old man works for the highway,” he said. “He put up phony detour sighs to throw us off. We could’ve been driving in circles all night long.”
He turned right and wound out the gears. In no time the Ford’s headlights were shining on the back of the lumbering Desoto. Under the end of the rounded tail fins, three taillights looked like short glasses turned on their sides. They were arranged vertically: one white in the center; and two red: one on top and one on the bottom. In the center of the almost square trunk, the raised chrome letters ‘Desoto’ spread across a short section above a big shiny chrome V.
With the horn blaring, Neal frantically waved his hand out the window and passed the heavy car.
At the bridge, Neal hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. He jumped out and kicked the ‘Road Closed Ahead’ sign down. After dragging the sign to the bridge, he bent over, picked up the sign, and threw it into the river. Brushing his hands together, he jumped back into the Ford. They were on their way to Canada, again.
On the dark road, Freddy figured he had to be crazy to be riding with Neal in another one of his mad, unfathomable schemes that would hurl him into the unknown. He wondered if there was a chance that Neal could actually make it to Canada and back in twelve hours, and he wondered how they were going to get gas with no money. Before he could ask, Neal shut the motor off, coasted into a dimly lit gas station, and stopped in front of the first pump.
Rafferty turned to Neal. “You got some money hid?”
Neal put his finger to his lips and pointed to the plate-glass window on the front of the building. Inside, partially hidden behind a pyramid of green and white cans of oil, the attendant was fast asleep. Neal got out, carefully lifted the gas nozzle from the side of the red hand-painted pump, and filled the Ford’s tank. Just as he eased the gas pump’s nozzle back into the slot, a white Pontiac pulled in. Neal opened the door to the Ford to get back behind the wheel, but paused. He looked into the station window. The attendant was still asleep. On top of the towel box a paper garrison hat sat. Neal grabbed it and placed it on his head. Then he walked to the Pontiac and looked into the driver’s side window. “Fill ‘er up, and check the oil, sir?”
“The oil’s okay,” the driver said. “Just fill it up.”
Keeping a wary eye on the sleeping attendant, Neal filled the Pontiac and collected the money. When he went to get back into the Ford, another car pulled in, then another. He waited on those cars, too, and collected the money. The cars pulled away; and just as he put the paper hat back on the towel box the attendant woke up, rushed out the building’s door, and stood in front of Neal. It seemed as if Neal was going to jump in the car and speed away, but he smiled at the attendant.
“Good evening,” he said, but there was no tension in his voice. That was Neal: Cool under any circumstances. He flapped the ends of the money in the attendant’s face. “I was just coming in to pay for the gas.”
The attendant looked at the dials on the gas pump and then looked back at Neal. “Yeah, I watched you fill it up.”
Freddy figured they were caught. If the attendant had watched Neal fill the Ford, then he surely watched him fill the other three cars and collect the money. And on top of that, to keep from having to get a Pennsylvania state inspection sticker and pay to have it glued on the corner of the front windshield, Neal had stolen Ohio plates and put them on the Ford. They weren’t even out of Pennsylvania and they would be going to jail.
But Neal was one step ahead of the attendant. He held the money in both hands ready to count off the bills. “How much do I owe you?”
The attendant rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Whatever the pump says.”
Neal paid him and turned to go.
Stifling a yawn, the tired attendant leaned on the pump and crossed his legs. “Thanks, for being honest.” He stared at the dials on the pump. “I might have my eyes closed, but I can see right through my eyelids. No one has ever stolen anything on my shift.”
Neal jumped in the Ford. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he touched his forefinger to his forehead and gave the kid a lazy imitation of a salute. “Thanks, for the gas, buddy, and keep up the good work.” He drove off into the velvet night babbling about how he used to think that it was wrong to steal anything.
“What do you mean?” Freddy interrupted. “It’s still stealing.”
“I don’t worry about it anymore,” Neal said. “Besides, I know this guy from before. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch who shorted me on change when I was a little kid.” His eyes glared. “What makes me feel bad is that the guy’s not going to pay for it. The rich ass oil company’s gonna pay. And I don’t feel guilty one bit. We’re only taking money from oil companies and banks and the assholes that got rich off other people’s misfortunes.”
Freddy sighed, stared at the open road ahead of them, and thought about how he could convince Neal that no matter how good the reason was for stealing, it was wrong, but Rafferty interrupted his thoughts.
“Okay,” Rafferty said. “We got the gas and money for more. But we wasted fifteen minutes back there. How are we going to make it to Canada and be back in twelve hours?”
“Come on, Rafferty.” Neal reached up, and pretended to be adjusting imaginary glasses. “It’s easier than balancing on a bongo board. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Back at the Burp, four-eyes said it was three hundred thirty miles to Canada.”
“It is,” Rafferty said, and cocked his orange eyebrows. “Unless you fly.”
“Old Coke-bottle-bottom-glasses thinks we’re going to cross at Niagara Falls.” A confident grin spread across Neal’s face. “But we’re going to cross in Buffalo. That cuts off forty miles, seventy miles an hour into two hundred ninety miles gives under four hours to get there and under four to get back.”
Freddy spoke from the back seat. “You said you didn’t know anything about numbers.”
Neal put the transmission into overdrive. “It’s all in the game, Freddy. If we had a straight shot, it would only be about two hundred miles, but it’s still all in the game. And with overdrive, this Ford will cruise along at eighty-five with no problem.” He smiled at himself in the rearview mirror. “There’s hardly any traffic at night. We got twelve hours and can make in under eight.”
He reached over and twisted the chrome knob until it clicked on. The tube-style radio lit up. Duane Eddy’s Three-Thirty Blues flowed from the single speaker.
Freddy snapped his fingers and leaned back. “Now we can go to Canada in style.”
With the music blasting into his brain, Freddy felt they might be the only people in the world who were not imprisoned by wanting to do the familiar and safe things. Not being afraid of what it would be like to explore something dangerously different made everything up ahead a brand new raw world of profound mystery. And they were headed right for it.
Neal thrust the shifting lever into high gear and mashed the gas feed down. For a moment the black unknown ahead swallowed them up. They flashed past houses, screeched around an elbow bend, rumbled over a set of railroad tracks, and the radio quit.