Drama on the highway and a ruse that worked too well
B. M. MILLER
THE CHIEF had said they wouldn’t be watching the buses, but Burke didn’t know. Keeping a casual hand on the ribbon-tied candy box in his lap, he looked for the hundredth time at the jiggling reflection in the window beside him. It showed the other fifteen passengers lolling on their pillows or sitting hunched with vacant faces, their heads swaying in unison with the lunge of the bus as it swept around curve after curve of the mountain road. They were like so many dummies. Only Burke and the driver were alive, awake; the driver with his hard, muscular back set for the long night grind, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, and Burke, lounging but alert, noting every move in the seats behind him, feeling his body grow taut with anticipation whenever they slowed down for a stop, thinking “Maybe it’ll be now."
It wasn’t midnight yet, but he had been on the bus since noon and had lost all sense of time; for after dark, when the headlights were switched on and the toplights dimmed, the ride had become an endless dream repeating itself over and over. However, they were due at the next stop at elevenfifty,*md it was almost that now. If Fanning wasn’t already on the bus and Burke was sure he wasn’t he’d have to get on there. And about time, too. Burke hadn’t bargained for as long a ride as this. 1 Ie’d figured that Fanning would turn up around dusk, at one of the minor stopping places. He didn’t know him by sight, but the chief had said that wouldn’t matter. Fanning was an old hand, he’d spot Burke all right. All Burke had to do was to sit tight and keep his eyes open.
This bus idea was a screwy one anyhow. He had said as much to the chief, but had been sat on. The Government boys would be watching every plane, every train out of Coast City since the tip-off. They’d be watching suspicious cars. But there was a chance they might overlook the buses at first, because of the very fact that buses were slower. “We’re taking a broche on this anyway,” the chief had told Burke, “but the stuff’s been paid for and it’s got to be delivered that’s the way 1 do business. 1 said I’d get it out of the province and 1 will. The rest is up to Fanning.” He added: “That bird’s a smart apple. I’ve had dealings with him for three years and he’s never slipped up yet. Now you get going—and be sure to nab a front seat by the door, just in case ...”
Well, he had, and after ten hours riding he still thought it was a rotten way to travel. It was impossible to read; Burke had tried that even before the lights were dimmed. And sleep how those dopes behind him managed it, he didn’t know. You couldn’t call it sleep, really; just an uneasy kind of coma. Burke had rented a pillow along with the rest, but after struggling for half an hour to get comfortable, he had pitched it up disgustedly into the rack overhead. There wasn’t enough room in one of these seats for a man and a pillow—not unless the man was an undersized runt like the little guy across the aisle, whose thin snore formed an irritating treble to the squeaks and rumbles of the bus.
Curled up there in a ridiculous attitude, small hands tucked under what passed for a chin, weak mouth half open beneath its wispy grey-brown mustache, he looked oddly familiar—and Burke suddenly laughed aloud as he realized who the little squirt reminded him of. He was a dead ringer for Caspar Milquetoast, the Timid Soul of the comic strips. Younger, yes, but straight Milquetoast.
THE SNORE broke off in a startled wheeze as the bus passed the blazing lights and blare of a wayside carnival. Burke glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Twenty to twelve. These must be the outskirts of the stop city they were running through now. His grasp tightened on the candy box. Would Fanning approach him at the waiting room there and take it off his hands? Not likely. By this time Government men would probably be posted in every terminal, looking out for just such an exchange. No, he'd probably board the bus and strike up a conversation later when he knew the coast was clear. Provided, that is, that Burke didn't get picked up.
Don’t be a sap, he told himself silently, but his palms grew clammy as scattered lights began to appear on either side of the road. Each successive stop had been a worse ordeal. Every stranger who strolled up to the waiting bus, every glance, furtive or direct, at the glossy white box with its pink bow. had made something cold in the pit of his stomach turn over. But, “Let it stick out like a sore thumb,” the chief had said. “Put a bow on it, a big bow. Safest way in the world to get by. Hit ’em in the eye with something and they won’t see it.” Yeah. Burke thought, that’s fine and dandy when you’re not the one who has to lug it around.
They were coasting downhill now. There were streets and houses, then the river, and a few moments later the driver drew up before what looked like a combination carbarn and lunchroom, and announced, “There will be a twenty-minute stop here, folks.”
Burke got out and stood aside while the other passengers dismounted. Gradually his twitching pulse slowed toward normal, and he glanced about. There were quite a few people in the terminal—too many to pick out someone you weren’t sure of. The air was stale and smelled of orange peel and dead smoke, among other things. He ordered a cup of
coffee and leaned idly against the counter as he drank. It was good to get something hot inside of you. In a little while Caspar Milquetoast edged up to the vacant space next to him. ducked his head with a half-hearted smile which he immediately tried to cover up when Burke failed to acknowledge it, and asked for a dish of vanilla ice cream. He had to ask twice.
Vanilla ice cream. Burke thought. That’s just what the little tu irp would order. He felt better, somehow. Nobody appeared to be watching him. He strolled out of the station and walked half a block down the street and back without being followed, or even noticed, as far as he could tell. Fanning wasn’t taking any chances, he guessed. Well, that was okay with Burke. And if anyone had been going to nab him. they’d have nabbed him by this time. A relieved warmth spread through his veins. He climbed back into the front seat of the bus. It was due to start in another three minutes and he wanted to check on the new' passengers they w ere taking on.
But as the three minutes dwindled to two, and then to one, he began to feel uneasy. At 12.09 only six people had
got on—a bearded old man with his clothes tied up in a bundle, accompanied by a young country girl; a negro minister; two spotty-faced youths of seventeen or eighteen. wearing filthy sweaters and carrying no baggage; and a stout woman with innumerable parcels. The driver helped her stow them in the luggage rack; then he took his place at the wheel, stretched his thick legs in their black leather puttees, and took a last look up and down the street for possible latecomers. The clock hand moved to 12.10, the door closed with a rubbery thump, he threw in the clutch, and the bus rolled forward.
SOMETHING was wrong. None of these newcomers could be Fanning. But in that case, he must have been already aboard before they reached the stop. Bewildered, Burke checked back hastily in his mind. Of the eight male passengers in the bus when it reached the stop, five had got on when he hadso they were out. That left three. One of these had left the bus. One had two small children with him. The third was Caspar Milquetoast.
Well, Burke said to himself, you never know. But then why didn’t he speak to me there in the station? No, that w-ouldn't wash.
He drew out his timetable and stared at the bobbing lines of print. It was hardly reassuring to see that
there were no more stops till half-past four in the morning. That was too far away, out of Fanning’s territory. If he were going to board the bus at all, he’d certainly do it before then.
If he were going to—but what if he didn't? What would happen if Fanning didn’t show, and Burke was left riding aimlessly eastward, with forty thousand dollars worth of heroin in a candy box on his knee, and the alarm spreading to every city?
That nameless weight turned over again inside of him. His life wouldn’t be worth two cents if he fell down on his job and simply dumped the stuff. On the other hand, there wasn’t a chance now of getting back safely to the Coast with it. He began to curse under his breath, but pulled himself together with an effort. Getting the jitters wouldn’t help any. Fanning had never slipped up yet. He was bound to show.
At that moment, the bus, travelling fast, gave a terrific lurch to the right of the road. For a few seconds the wheels on Burke’s side seemed to be running swiftly on nothing but air, then miraculously they were sucking along on macadam again. Burke had had a flashing glimpse of the small buggy, with no lights, they had swerved to avoid. Already it was left far behind. He pulled his hat a little farther down over his eyes. “Close,” he said to the bus driver.
“Close,” the driver agreed laconically. It was only then that Burke noticed he wasn’t the same man who had brought them into the last stop.
He kicked himself mentally. Why hadn’t it occurred to him before? Then, on second thought, he shook his head. No, this couldn’t be Fanning. He couldn’t have worked it —too unlikely. But the idea stuck. Sure it was unlikely— but it was possible. Funnier things had been known to happen. He began to watch the driver surreptitiously.
If the latter noticed, he gave no sign. He had plenty to keep him busy; a heavy mist was drifting through the hills and the bus kept plunging in and out of it -tough going when you had to make time. It was growing cold, too. The driver’s collar was turned up about his ears, and Burke wished he had brought a heavier coat.
He didn’t feel any too hot, in either sense of the word. When you’re dead tired and can’t get comfortable, it’s no fun. When you’re not warm enough either, it’s worse. And when you’re jumpy and uncertain into the bargain, and the motion of the bus begins to get you . . .
These mountain roads were terrible. They were all zigzags; you were constantly being slung from left to right, and then, with a dizzying swoop, back from light to left, your ears full of the incessant droning hum of the heavy tires. Burke looked at the clock again. Only half-past one.
Three hours more of this without a stop—and no sign of Fanning. He swallowed hard and forced his stiff eyelids ojien as wide as jwssible. The motion was worse when you closed your eyes.
Some of the other jiassengers were feeling it too. Two or three of them now were sitting bolt upright, with a fixed greenish look. Then the old man in the back seat began to groan. Not very loud at first, just a long low complaining sound, and you could hear the girl with him saying, “Hush up. granpa, you’ll get used to it.” But he didn’t seem to get used to it. I lis groans grew louder, more insistent, and the girl’s voice, sharp with anxiety. "Will you shut up! Don’t make the other folks feel bad too!”
It was no good, though. He got worse and worse. Passengers craned disgusted necks. Finally a long strident buzz cut through the midst of his retching and hiccuping. The girl had pulled the emergency cord. “Stoj) the bus!” she cried out. "I le’s gotta get out. lie’s goin’ to be sick.”
rTM IEY DREW up at the side of the road. Clutching the girl’s shoulder the old man stumbled down the aisle and out into the darkness. Burke clenched his jaw against the wave of nausea that mounted in him.
“People like that,” the driver said grimly, “people like that, they ought to stay at home.”
In a few minutes they shot forward again, with the old man whimpering in the back seat. This thing was a nightmare and morning was still years off. Burke had been in some bad sjxits, but not this kind of bad. Outright danger was better. Right now, he didn’t give a hoot about the stuff on his knee, or what happened to it. What he wanted was an end of this infernal ride. I guess I’m soft, I guess 1 can’t take it, he jeered at himself. Look at that little stick across the aisle, this hasn’t fazed him at all.
It seemed like hours but it wasn’t more than twenty minutes later when the girl lurched to the front of the bus and held onto the nickel rail beside the driver.
“Listen,” she said. “He ain’t goin’ to last till we get to the next stop.”
“Who, your granpa?” said the driver. “What am I supix>sed to do about it?”
“Can’t you let us off some place where we can spend the night and go on in the morning?”
“If you exi^ect to find a Ritz-Carlton round the next bend, lady, you got another guess coming,” the driver said without turning his head.
“You don’t have to get fresh,” she snapped. “I mean any place where he could just lay still on the floor the rest of the night. I didn’t want to bring him. I—”
“There’s not even a farmhouse in the next fifteen miles, and that’s a fact.”
“How about the Lookout House, conductor?” the little man across the aisle ventured timidly. He had waked up during the conversation.
“Yeah. I can let ’em out there. They can’t give you no beds, though, sister. They got nothin’ but a lunch counter ’n’ some slot machines.”
“That’s all right,” the girl said. "How much farther is it?”
“We’ll be there in about half an hour.”
“Okay, I hope he holds out.”
She made her way back to the old man, and Burke heard her ext)laining to him.
“Peojile like that, they ought to stay at home,” the driver repeated. “Hope they’ll be somebody up when we get to the dump. I lost enough time already without having to go pull a guy out of bed.”
ALL, THE passengers were awake now, muttering and glancing back with animosity toward the disturbers of the peace. The two boys in dirty sweaters snickered and j)antomimed every time the old man moaned. No one seemed to feel at all sorry for the girl. The driver kept his foot on the accelerator as the steep hills dropped away beneath. They were nearing the top of the great ridge, and the dying moon showed in a wide sweep of open sky when he spoke again.
“We’ll be there in a comple of minutes,” he said. “See that light over to the left?”
Burke saw a yellow pinpoint winking forlornly on the next slojie. It was still considerably above the road when the bus stopped presently and the girl half dragged the old man through the aisle again.
“Just follow that path up through the trees, sister,” the driver said not unkindly. “I’d go with you, only I can’t leave the bus on this grade. But I’ll wait, and you holler if there’s any hitch.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Come on, granpa. We’re a-goin’ to git off now. Here’s the step.”
“Aaagh,” he blubbered, sagging against the door. “I cain’t do it, Mamie, I cain’t do it. Cain’t ye see I’m sick?” She had stepped onto the ground, and he half fell on her as she tried to help him down. They’d never get up the hill together. She bit her lip, dismayed.
“Look, mister,” she said to Burke. “Could you give me a hand?”
“Sure,” Burke heard himself saying. He didn’t know why he’d said it. That was what came of sitting in the front seat you got elected to the Boy Scouts. But anything for a lungful of air! He half rose before remembering . .
“Can’t I hold your package for you?” Caspar Milquetoast offered, almost boldly. He held out his hand.
Burke’s brain clicked. So it teas him, after all—and Burke’s chance to fade out! He handed the box to the little man across the aisle. Neat very neat.
With a sense of release he found himself in the cold freshness of the night. The old hillbilly bore down heavily on his helping arm, but his groans and snuffles weakened as the three floundered up the uneven path. Be a lot easier to handle if he would pass out, Burke thought savagely. 1 think I’ll bop him one in the dark beyond that next tree. But as he raised his left hand, his other arm was suddenly freed of the weight on it.
“Okay, Burke ” the old man said, standing erect. Burke goggled, and the tall figure stiffened. “Aren’t you
“Sure —sure I’m Burke, but ”
“Then give me the stuff, will you? We haven’t got all night.”
Suddenly Burke was horribly afraid. He had muffed it— and badly. He stammered.
“Fanningyou were too realistic—”
“Skip the orchids; let’s have it,” the other snapped.
“But you don’t understand.” Burke was shaking. “I didn’t know it was you! lieft the stuff behind—it’s in that candy box.” The gill gasped.
Fanning’s face seemed to glow white with rage in the dark.
“You’ll have to go back. Tell ’em you’ve decided to get off too. Tell ’em you’re sick —tell ’em anything. But get that box, see?”
BURKE stumbled down the hill. He was sick all right; appalled to think how near he had come to gumming the whole thing up. What if he had refused to get out
and help the girl, when Fanning had manoeuvred the stop ! What if the bus had gone on without him ! But it hadn’t. He felt the cold shudder of relief that comes after you have saved yourself from a nasty spill. He was just lucky, this time.
As unconcernedly as possible, he went up to the lighted bus and put his head in the door.
“Say,” he said to the driver, “I’ve decided—”
Then he noticed that the inside of the bus was oddly still. Nobody moved or took their eyes away from him. He looked past the driver’s shoulder at a tangle of pink ribbon and crumpled paper on the empty front seat opposite his own. Something began to flutter in his throat like the whirring of wings.
"Put up your hands, Mr. Burke,” a mild voice spoke out of the dark behind him.
He wheeled. Caspar Milquetoast said, “You are under arrest.”
Burke stood numb while practiced hands frisked his pockets. The bracelets clicked cold on his wrists. “Tie him in, driver— that’s right,” the little man directed. “Now start up your engine as though you were going to leave.”
He glanced at Burke almost apologetically. “Half a dozen times on that ride I felt like taking a chance and tapping you on the shoulder. But if I’d been wrong— if there had been candy in that box after all—I’d have been out of luck. Besides, I was pretty sure there’d be an accomplice. Two birds with one stone.”
The little man moved away. “I’m afraid our elderly friend is in for a surprise,” he confided. “But then, one of us has to win, hasn’t he?”
Somehow, as Burke saw him scuttle into the dark woods, he knew which one it would be.
And it wasn’t Fanning.