The bank robbers wreaking havoc across the South are carrying out their heists with such skill and precision that they remind Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson of the raids he once led as an Army Ranger. In fact, their techniques are so like the ones in the Ranger Handbook that he can’t help wondering if the outlaws are former Rangers themselves.
And that’s definitely going to be a problem. If Colson stands any chance of catching them, he’s going to need the help of old allies, new enemies, and a lot of luck. The enemies, he has plenty of. It’s the allies and the luck that are in woefully short supply...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Ace Atkins
“I guess I got the idea about the time I got fired from the Ford dealership,” Rick Wilcox said. “Some big-money swinging dick had hired me to motivate the sales staff, pep talks and all that bullshit, and do a bunch of commercials. To be honest, I didn’t like the whole thing. He wanted me to dress up in combat gear and read this corny-as-hell line while I saluted the viewer. It made me want to puke.”
“What was the line?” Opie asked.
“Christ, Ope,” Wilcox said. “Why do you want to know all of this? I mean, right now? At this very moment? I find it highly inappropriate.”
Wilcox looked at his watch. Nearly five minutes to the Wal-Mart delivery, the mission, and the action. He and Opie sat up front in the white Ford van, smoking Marlboro reds just like they had back in all those mud-slapped Zamindawar compounds. Cord was in back loading the AR-15s they’d modified, duct-taping the magazines back-to-back for easy loading. The guns were untraceable. The van stolen. They’d picked it off that morning at the Oak Court Mall in Memphis, switching the plates taken off a similar model.
“You got me into this, least you can tell me how it all happened,” Ope said. “If you hadn’t noticed, we’re knee-deep in Shit City.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to talk about it?”
“You brought it up,” Opie said. “You said it was the reason you and Crissley got into it. Since she has no fucking clue what we’re doing, she wanted you to go back and beg for your old job.”
“She was pissed,” Wilcox said. “She thought she was going to get a cherry-red Mustang out of the deal.”
“So what’s the line?”
“Come on, buddy.”
“Why the hell not?”
“OK, OK,” Wilcox said. “You really want to know? So, I’m dressed in my battle fatigues and salute the camera and say, ‘At Big T Southaven Ford, we never leave a customer behind.’ The fat-ass sales guys look to me and salute back. Then a flag unfurls out of my ass and the band strikes up, ‘God Bless America.’”
“Damn,” Opie said. “You’re right. That fucking sucks. Humiliating. Are you even allowed to wear your uniform? I mean, isn’t that against regulations?”
“I didn’t wear my dress blues,” Wilcox said. “Just some utilities. And a helmet. They made me wear a fucking helmet. It was something from Word War II.”
“What about your medals?”
“They wanted me to wear them, but I told them hell no. I mean, I do have a speck of dignity somewhere I forgot. I’d run out of money. It’s not like winning a Silver Star led to some financial reward. I figured if anything, it might help jumpstart my country music career, but you know how that turned out.”
“I thought you sounded great,” Opie said. “Kind of like a more hard-edged Kenny Chesney.”
“That hurts, Ope,” Wilcox said. “You know how much I hate that bald-ass pussy. If I hear that song ‘Me and Tequila’ one more time, I’m going to blow my fucking brains out.”
Opie, freckle faced and jug-eared, grinned. That was the one thing about Ope, he could drive you crazy with his diarrhea mouth, but damn if he wasn’t game for walking into hell itself with a positive attitude. He was the kind of guy who’d make jokes while you were tip-toeing though the poppy fields waiting for an IED to blow off your dick. “I remember how you hated that song when you found me down in Florida.”
“Find you, hell,” Wilcox said. “I fucking rescued you.”
“Rescued me from pouring cocktails to women in bikinis,” Opie said. “Tough gig.”
“You were picking up trash on the beach and living with your grandpa,” Wilcox said. “Those women all over you were cashing their Social Security checks.”
Jonas Cord moved up between the two front seats of the van and looked out the windshield. They’d done a week of recon last month, hours of laying out the plan on maps, timing every mile and stashing the Kawasakis. The only thing they couldn’t have predicted was the damn rain. Great falling sheets of it between where they’d parked and the target. Jonas, hard, muscular, and absolutely humorless, leaned up between them and said, “Can’t see shit.”
“Life ain’t all blueberries and paper airplanes,” Wilcox said. “We say we’re going to take the hill, we take the hill. I don’t care if we’re ass-deep in hailstones or a monsoon.”
“Well, we got a monsoon.”
“Spring showers,” Wilcox said. “Bring spring pussy.”
“They’re late,” Cord said.
“Two minutes,” Wilcox said. “Get your panties out of a twist.”
“What if it’s longer?”
“That we adapt,” Wilcox said. “Adjust. Overcome. Clint Eastwood shit. Have you forgotten everything you’ve learned, sergeant?”
Cord grinned and disappeared back into the back of the van. A minute later, a big gray armored truck rolled up in front of the Jericho First National bank and idled there with its headlights shining bright onto the entrance, red taillights glowing. When the guard stepped out into the rain and reached for the big sacks, Cord hit the timer on his watch.
“Did you see his commercial?” Opie said.
“Yeah, I saw it,” Cord said. “Also saw him open up for a Jimmy Buffett tribute band at the dog track in West Memphis. I’d say I’ve seen too much.”
“How was it?”
“He had one good song,” Cord said. “Real tearjerker about coming home from war and finding out momma didn’t know his name.”
“That one was true.”
Opie and Cord didn’t say anything, knowing they’d gone one place that a Marine just couldn’t tread. Talking about another Marine’s momma. After all, there were tattoos for that and everything. As American as apple pie and a gallon of milk. Cord handed him and Opie a couple of masks to cover their faces, Donald J. Trump, and two AR-15s locked and jacked with a double-dick magazine. Cord would stay behind the wheel, he and Opie would run into the bank and make a large withdrawal.
“This looks like a nice town,” Opie said, sliding the Trump mask over his face and pulling the rifle’s charging pin. “White lights in those old trees on the Square. A big gazebo. Should we feel bad?”
“Nope,” Wilcox said. “Life isn’t fair. Look at you guys and then look at me. It should be a crime that I got to be born so damn good-looking.”
Wilcox checked his watch and put on his mask, remembering last time it had been Yoda and before that Santa Claus. He liked Trump better, it’d scare the crap out of folks and would also make the news. Wilcox loved making the news. The Trump Bandits. He could see it now.
The guard appeared back outside the bank and crawled up front with the driver. Two minutes later, they were gone and the diversion well in motion. A little tight but manageable. A minute later, they heard the sirens. A cop car passed, and then two more headed toward Highway 45. It almost looked like a parade.
Wilcox and Opie got out of the van and walked together in the rain. Both carried their guns in big, oversized black canvas bags. The rubbery latex mask caught in a puckered gesture, yellow fake hair flapping in the wind.
Inside, Wilcox pulled out the weapon, shot at the ceiling, and shouted, “Anyone moves and I’ll grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Earlier that morning, Quinn Colson sat in a back booth of the Fillin’ Station diner finishing his third cup of coffee. He signaled the waitress, Miss Mary, for a refill right before Boom Kimbrough walked through the door and took off his jacket. He’d known Boom for most of his life, the two growing up and hunting and fishing all over Tibbehah County. Boom still doing his fair share of hunting, coming in that morning dressed in an orange vest, even though he’d had his right arm blown off six years ago while serving in the Guard in Iraq. He now wore a bright silver prosthetic device that Boom bragged was good for about any job except for wiping his ass.
Mary refilled the coffee and noticed Boom. She walked back toward the kitchen for his morning sausage biscuit and tall Mountain Dew without being asked.
“I saw that big-ass Tom,” Boom said. “So close, hearing that gobble-gobble call. But man. He knew I was around. Got spooked and flew back into the woods.”
“He’ll be back.”
“You coming on or going off?”
“On,” Quinn said. “Lillie’s off today. Spending time with her kid.”
“She still pissed at you?”
“Why?” Quinn said. “She’s the one who wanted me to run. After a woman takes down a local hero, there’s nowhere else for her to go but down.”
“This county wouldn’t have elected a woman anyway,” Boom said. “Men don’t have the nuts. A woman like Lillie Virgil scared the shit out of them. She talks straight and tells the truth.”
“Too qualified,” Quinn said. The previous fall, the acting sheriff, Lillie Virgil, had charged the longtime football coach with molesting kids, and the whole town blamed her for the fallout. Instead of the coach. The locals didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But Lillie told Quinn that if he didn’t step up and take her place, everything they’d worked for would turn to shit.
“And they settle for your broke-down ass.”
Quinn saluted him with the coffee mug and leaned back as Mary slid two sausage biscuits before Boom. The woman had been waiting tables at the Filling Station since Quinn was a kid, back when his Uncle Hamp had been sheriff and took visitors every morning at the same booth. More business getting done at the diner than at the office where Quinn had been sheriff for nearly five years, except for a year or so where he had been voted out of office. He was dressed in a stiff khaki uniform shirt, crisp Levi’s, and polished cowboy boots. His Beretta 9mm rested on his belt and his uncle’s old rancher coat hung by the front door.
“Listen,” Boom said. “I don’t want to cause no trouble. But ever since the first of the year, old man Skinner been riding my ass. He wants me gone from the County Barn and he wants to put in his own people.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“From Skinner,” Boom said. “That motherfucker been shitting on everything since he took over the county supervisors. You know what he was like before he retired and said he was out of the life, letting Stagg run things. He’s too old and too mean to do Jericho any good.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Quinn said. “First of the year, Skinner announced to the supervisors and county employees that he intended to make Tibbehah a more godly place. Just like it’d been when he was a boy. Leaving out the parts about the Klan, killings, and moonshine wars. But that’s exactly the kind of horseshit people around here believe and trust.”
“And how’d you get elected?”
“Nobody else wanted the job,” Quinn said. “Including Lillie, if she was really honest about it.”
“How’s your momma and them?”
“Hadn’t heard a word since he shagged ass.”
Quinn drank some coffee and watched Boom shove most of an entire biscuit in his mouth and chew. He watched him eat, not wanting to discuss a good woman who’d been a terrible match for him. Boom knowing full well that Ophelia Bundren had once thrown a steak knife at Quinn’s head, barely missing. With his damn family and county politics, he’d had enough crazy in his life.
“How about we go look for that big-ass Tom this weekend and not speak a word about women or politics?” Quinn said. “Later I need to burn a brush pile before the weather turns. We can smoke some cigars and tell lies.”
The Fillin’ Station was packed that morning filled with old farmers, fancy town women, camo-covered hunters, and local politicians glad-handing. Three old men sat at the closest table, all in tall-crown ball caps, smoking cigarettes and downing cheap coffee. One of them muttering something about goddamn China, bringing to mind the late Mr. Jim, who’d run the barber shop, and Judge Blanton, who fiddled with local affairs until his untimely death. The old diner had been a gas station well before Quinn was born, the linoleum floor unchanged, propane heaters glowing a bright orange against the walls under endless rows of framed hometown heroes and yellowed news. Somewhere up there, young Quinn had survived ten days in a national forest, his father had jumped a dozen Ford Pintos, and sometime in recent memory he’d graduated Ranger training and gotten a Purple Heart in Iraq. All that was now as yellowed as the rest.
“Will you talk to Skinner?”
“We still on for supper at Miss Jean’s?”
Quinn nodded again. “Fried chicken,” he said. “And collard greens.”
“It’s good to have you back, man.”
Quinn nodded. He drank some coffee and listened to the old men talk about how things used to be better when they were young.
Boom leaned toward Quinn and said, “Not for my people.”
“Y’all weren’t happy working the cotton fields at gunpoint?”
“I think Skinner will do everything in his power to turn back the clock.”
“He’s too old,” Quinn said. “It won’t last. Nobody can stop how far things have gone.”
“Evil don’t die,” Boom said. “Least with Johnny Stagg, you knew where you stood.”
“How about we not talk about Stagg, either?’
“No Stagg,” Boom said. “No Ophelia. Times do change.”
“If you ask my sister, she’ll say it’s all part of God’s divine plan,” Quinn said.
“But you don’t believe it?”
“How about you ask me when we both get old?”
“Too late,” Boom said. “That clock sure is a bitch.”
Quinn rubbed his weathered, lean face. Damn if he wasn’t coming up on forty and no one had bothered to tell him.