When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sun-lit road to the convenience store/gas station. He stopped beside the pumps, the only car here, hit the button to pop the trunk lid, and got out of the car. A bright day in July, temperature in the low seventies, a moderate-sized town not two hundred miles from Omaha, a few shoppers driving past in both directions. A dozen blocks away, Melander and Carlson and Ross would be just entering the bank.
The car, a forgettable dark gray Honda Accord, took nine point seven two gallons of gasoline. The thin white surgical gloves he wore as he pumped the gas looked like pale skin.
When the tank was full, he screwed the gas cap back on and opened the trunk. Inside were some old rags and an empty glass one-point-seven-five-liter jug of Jim Beam bourbon. He filled the bottle with gasoline, then stuffed one of the rags into the top, lit the rag with a Zippo lighter, and heaved the bottle over-hand through the plate-glass window of the convenience store. Then he got into the Honda and drove away, observing the speed limit.
2:47. Parker made the right turn onto Tulip Street. Back at the bank, Ross would be controlling the customers and employees, while Melander and Carlson loaded the black plastic trash bags with cash. Farther downtown, the local fire company would be responding to the explosion and fire with two pumpers, big red beasts pushing out of their red brick firehouse like aggravated dinosaurs.
The white Bronco was against the curb where Parker had left it, in front of a house with a For Sale sign on the lawn and all the shades drawn. Parker pulled into the driveway there, left the Honda, and walked to the Bronco. At this point, Melander and Ross would have the bags of money by the door, the civilians all facedown on the floor behind the counter, while Carlson went for their car, their very special car, just around the corner.
When there's an important fire, the fire department responds with pumpers or hook and ladders, but also responds with the captain in his own vehicle, usually a station wagon or sports utility truck, painted the same cherry red as the fire engines, mounted with red flashing light and howling siren. Last night, Parker and the others had taken such a station wagon from a town a hundred miles from here, and now Carlson would be getting behind the wheel of it, waiting for the fire engines to race by.
Parker slid into the Bronco, peeled off the surgical gloves, and stuffed them into his pants pocket. Then he started the engine and drove two blocks closer to where he'd started, parking now in front of a weedy vacant lot. Near the bank, the fire engines would be screaming by, and Carlson would bring the station wagon out fast in their wake, stopping in front of the bank as Melander and Ross came running out with the full plastic bags.
Parker switched the scanner in the Bronco to the local police frequency and listened to all the official manpower in town ordered to the convenience store on the double. They'd all be coming now, fire engines, ambulances, police vehicles; and the fire captain's station wagon, its own siren screaming and red dome light spinning in hysterics.
2:53 by this new dashboard clock. It should be now. Parker looked in the rearview mirror, and the station wagon, as red as a firecracker in all this sun-light, came modestly around the corner back there, its lights and siren off.
Parker wasn't the driver; Carlson was. Leaving the Bronco engine on, he stepped out of it and went around to open the luggage door at the back, as the captain's car stopped beside him. A happy Melander in the back seat handed out four plastic bags bulging with paper, and Parker tossed them in the back. Then Carlson drove ahead to park in front of the Bronco while Parker shut the luggage door and got into the back seat, on the street side.
Ahead, the three were getting out of the captain's car, stripping off the black cowboy hats and long tan dusters and white surgical gloves they'd worn on the job, to make them all look alike for the eyewitnesses later. They tossed all that into the back seat of the station wagon, then came trotting this way. They were all grinning, like big kids. When the job goes right, everybody's up, everybody's young, everybody's a little giddy. When the job goes wrong, everybody's old and nobody's happy.
Carlson got behind the wheel, Melander beside him, Ross in back with Parker. Ross was a squirrelly short guy with skin like dry leather; when he grinned, like now, his face looked like a khaki road map. "We havin' fun yet?" he asked, and Carlson put the Bronco in gear.
Parker said, as they drove deeper into town, "I guess everything went okay in there."
"You'd have thought," Carlson told him, "they'd rehearsed it."
Melander, a brawny guy with a large head piled with wavy black hair, twisted around in his seat to grin back at Parker and say, "Move away from the alarm; they move away from the alarm. Put your hands on your head; they put their hands on their heads."
Carlson, with a quick glance at Parker in the rearview mirror, said, "Facedown on the floor; guess what?"
Ross finished, "We didn't even have to say, 'Simon says.'"
Carlson took the right onto Hyacinth. It looked like just another residential cross street, but where all the others stopped at or before the city line, this one went on to become a county route through farmland that eventually linked up with a state road that soon after that met an interstate. By the time the law back in town finished sorting out the fire from the robbery, trying to guess which way the bandits had gone, the Bronco would be doing seventy, headed east.
Like most drivers, Carlson was skinny. He was also a little edgy-looking, with jug ears. Grinning again at Parker in the mirror, he said, "That was some camp-fire you lit."
"It attracted attention," Parker agreed.
Ross, his big smile aimed at the backs of the heads in front of him, said, "Boyd? Hal? Are we happy?"
Melander twisted around again. "Sure," he said, and Carlson said, "Tell him."
Parker said, "Tell him? Tell me?" What was wrong here? His piece was inside his shirt, but this was a bad position to operate from. "Tell me what?" he said, thinking, Carlson would have to be taken out first. The driver.
But Ross wasn't acting like he was a threat; none of them were. His smile still big, Ross said, "We had to know if we were gonna get along with you. And we had to know if you were gonna get along with us. But now we all think it's okay, if you think it's okay. So what I'm gonna do is tell you about the job."
Parker looked at him. "We just did the job," he said.
"Not that," Ross said, dismissing the bank job with a wave of the hand. "That wasn't the job. You know what that was? That was the financing for the job."
"The job," Melander added, "the real job, is not nickel-dime. Not like this."
"The real job," Ross said, "is worthy of our talents."
Parker looked from one to another. He didn't know these people. Was this something, or was it smoke and mirrors? Was this what Hurley had almost but not quite mentioned? "I think," he said, "you ought to tell me about the job."
Excerpted from Flashfire, by Richard Stark. © November 2000 , Richard Stark used by permission.