IT BEGAN on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.
At the junction of the Fort Scott and Nevada roads that cuts Highway 54, the trunk road from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, there stands a gas station and lunchroom bar: a shabby wooden structure with one gas pump, run by an elderly widower and his fat blonde daughter.
A dusty Lincoln pulled up by the lunchroom a few minutes after one o’clock. There were two men in the car: one of them was asleep.
The driver, Bailey, a short thickset man with a fleshy, brutal face, restless, uneasy black eyes and a thin white scar along the side of his jaw, got out of the car. His dusty, shabby suit was threadbare. His dirty shirt was frayed at the cuffs.
He felt bad. He had been drinking heavily the previous night and the heat bothered him.
He paused to look at his sleeping companion, Old Sam, then shrugging, he went into the lunchroom, leaving Old Sam to snore in the car.
The blonde leaning over the counter smiled at him. She had big white teeth that reminded Bailey of piano keys. She was too fat to interest him. He didn’t return her smile.
“Hello, mister,” she said brightly. “Phew! Isn’t it hot? I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
“Scotch,” Bailey said curtly. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and mopped his face with a filthy handkerchief.
She put a bottle of whiskey and a glass on the counter.
“You should have beer,” she said, shaking her blonde curls at him. “Whiskey’s no good to anyone in this heat.”
“Give your mouth a rest,” Bailey said.
He carried the bottle and the glass to a table in a corner and sat down.
The blonde grimaced, then she picked up a paperback and with an indifferent shrug, she began to read.
Bailey gave himself a long drink, then he leaned back in his chair. He was worried about money. If Riley couldn’t dream up something fast, he thought, we’ll have to bust a bank. He scowled uneasily. He didn’t want to do that. There were too many Feds around for safety. He looked through the window at Old Sam, sleeping in the car. Bailey sneered at the sleeping man. Apart from beingable to drive a car, he was useless, Bailey thought. He’s too old for this racket.
All he thinks about is where his next meal is coming from and sleeping. It’s up to Riley or me to scratch up some money somehow—but how?
The whiskey made him hungry. “Ham and eggs and hurry it up,” he called to the blonde.
“Doesn’t he want any?” the blonde asked, pointing through the window at Old Sam.
“Does he look like it?” Bailey said. “Hurry it up! I’m hungry.”
He saw through the window a dusty Ford pull up and a fat, elderly man get out. Heinie! Bailey said to himself. What’s he doing here?
The fat man waddled into the lunchroom and waved to Bailey.
“Hi, pal,” he said. “Long time no see. How are you?”
“Lousy,” Bailey grunted. “This heat’s killing me.”
Heinie came over. He pulled out a chair and sat down. He was a leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side. He was always picking up scraps of information, and often, for a consideration, he passed on any useful tips that might lead to a robbery to the small gangs operating around Kansas City.
“You can say that again,” Heinie said, sniffing at the ham cooking. “I was out at Joplin last night covering a lousy wedding. I was nearly fried. Imagine having a wedding night in heat like this!” Seeing Bailey wasn’t listening, he asked, “How’s tricks? You look kinda low.”
“I haven’t had a break in weeks,” Bailey said, dropping his cigarette butt on the floor. “Even the goddamn horses are running against me.”
“You want a hot tip?” Heinie asked. He leaned forward, lowering his voice.
“Pontiac is a cinch.”
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