It could have been just another delta sunrise. A big, fat, golden ball of light rose from a restless sea. Brown with silt after the deluge of the previous day, now yellow-tinted, the river crawled through Ainville on its way to the bay. There, fresh water mingled with salt, creating a green fan which merged imperceptibly with the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico; which terminated abruptly to the south at a black wall. Hurricane Charlie was coming to town.
Sounds of hammering disturbed the stillness of the southern dawn. Most of the townsfolk had been evacuated the previous evening, after the rainstorm. But a few had postponed their boarding up to the last moment. The police were already making their final rounds, warning them to get out of town and onto higher ground. Hurricane Charlie was coming for breakfast.
Weather satellites had been tracking him for days. Charlie was no monster, barely seventy miles in diameter, and he seemed to be travelling in an entirely predictable manner. But he was strolling towards Alabama at a relentless eighteen knots.
Federal cut-backs had retarded the dredging program in the delta and the levee reconstruction work. Charlie's advance guard, the heavy rain of the previous day, had swollen the river dangerously. It was feared that it might back up under the driving force of the hurricane and flood the lower-lying region to the east.
The light morning breeze had developed into fitful gusts strong enough to carry discarded candy wrappers the length of Ainville's main street before the hammering stopped. Bursts of rain lashed the town, drumming on the roof of the loudspeaker van as it delivered a final warning. Those who had not left the town were advised to do so immediately and not take refuge in cellars, which could be flooded if the river escaped its banks.
"Charlie's on his way," remarked one of the men in the basement of the Bargain Shoe Emporium. He could just see out onto the main street through a chink in the shutter over a small window at sidewalk level.
"When we can't hear you say that," returned one of his companions, "we'll know he's here."
Water began to pour from the sky, driven in long, sloping sheets by increasingly violent winds. Night darkness swallowed the town. Dandy Jack nudged Lester with a foot and tugged at Dixie's trouser leg. Speech was impossible. The hurricane wail devoured every other sound.
The three men were dressed in one-piece coveralls. They were all gamblers, betting that they could complete the job in hand before the flood waters arrived. Dandy Jack had learned his trade the hard way, struggling to survive in the suffocating jungles of South East Asia. He was thirty-five years old, a former Marine Corps sergeant who had not adjusted well to civilian life. Lester and Dixie were about ten years younger but just as disillusioned with the American Way Of Life in the Eighties. They had picked up their skills in various state prisons. As the fingerprints of all three were recorded in the appropriate Federal files, they were all wearing surgical gloves.
Dandy Jack made a chopping hand signal. The others took refuge behind an ancient and massive iron stove. Every move from this point on had been rehearsed to a faultless drill. Their leader touched his lighter to a length of fuse. Sparking trails divided to modest charges. Brick powdered to fill the air with brown fog and concrete split to rubble. Lester and Dixie lit cutting torches to burn through reinforcing rods. Masked by the eerie shrieking of Hurricane Charlie, they worked their way through the dividing wall and into the basement of the Ainville Farmers' Bank.
It was only a small bank. The alarm system had not been designed to cope with an assault through a basement wall. Dixie shut it down in minutes. Then Lester hauled the battery-powered drill through from the shoe emporium. The squeal as it attacked the safe door seemed oddly muffled. Despite the superior soundproofing of the bank's windowless cellar, Hurricane Charlie could still make himself felt as a penetrating background grumble.
Lester circled thumb and index finger in a high-sign. Dandy Jack took over at the safe with modelling clay and nitro. When he blew the locking bar apart, there was the usual surge of pressure but very little additional sound. The hurricane was a very effective ally for the cracksman.
Dixie spun the wheel on the door and tugged. It sagged open willingly. The bank robbers exchanged grins of delight. Everything was going exactly to plan. While Hurricane Charlie raged around the bank, they counted forty-six thousand five hundred dollars into an airline flight bag. Low denomination notes made up the bulk of their eight pounds weight of used and untraceable cash. But they had a couple of bundles each of fifties and hundreds to sweeten the pot.
Leaving their equipment where it lay, the trio returned to the adjacent Bargain Shoe Emporium. Impossibly, the storm began to intensify. The very air in the basement seemed to vibrate. Nothing could be seen through the small window. Exploding rain drops fogged the gap in the shutters completely.
The bank robbers moved up to the ground floor and settled down to wait. A small pool of water had been blown under the store's back door. Dandy Jack looked at his watch and nodded to himself. Five minutes late, in accordance with his calculations, the battering rain slackened, the shrieking wind abated and light filtered past the shutters on the rear windows. Hurricane Charlie was sitting right on top of Ainville. The town was resting in the calm of his eye.
Lester drew four bolts and pushed out into the dripping morning. The floods had not yet arrived. Past experience had taught the inhabitants of Ainville to build low and strong. A few signs had been ripped away and all the street lights had been smashed, but the main street looked in pretty good shape, otherwise.
A car lay upside down and wedged across the sidewalk in front of the barber shop. The bank robbers had to step out into the stream flowing down the main street to get round it. A dry goods store had lost its shutters. The interior had been sucked completely clean. There was no trace of the steel shutters, the windows or the contents; just a cavern the size of a six-car garage. The streets of Ainville had not been swept so clean since Hurricane Julia, eight years earlier.
Their getaway vehicle was safely under cover at the northern end of town. Lester had driven it into the town the previous evening and stopped at the petrol station to complain about a strange rattling noise under the hood. The mechanic in the repair shop had listened for a few preoccupied moments, then muttered something about bearings. It was not the sort of problem which could be solved before the arrival of Hurricane Charlie.
Lester had been allowed to crawl to the back of the repair shop and leave the ambulance for attention at a less dangerous time. He had sneaked back during the night to replace the oil which had been drained to create the distressing rattle.
The eye of the hurricane measured about five miles across. Dandy Jack had calculated from Federal Weather Bureau data that the exact centre of the calm region would pass to the east of Ainville. But the bank robbers had just over twelve minutes to get their vehicle on the road before the trailing sweep of the storm caught up with them again.
"Come on, come on," muttered Dixie as Lester struggled with a wind-battered and uncooperative door.
Dandy Jack was an able leader with a persuasive tongue. He had made surprisingly detailed plans for such a small job. And Dixie had been unable to find anything wrong with his forecasts of the hurricane's speed and direction. The local weather bureau was saying much the same on the radio, but in less detail. But the howling battering of the first phase of the storm had brought a terrifying clarity to the meaning of the word hurricane. Charlie was certainly in one hell of a hurry! The thought of being caught up in the second instalment, when the eye had passed over the town, scared Dixie rigid. To him, the twelve minutes of grace seemed to be dashing past like twelve seconds.
"Got it!" muttered Lester.
They were inside the repair shop. The ambulance started at the first turn of the key. A steel shutter door rattled up to release them and down behind them. They were on their way out of Ainville.
All three stripped off their coveralls. Lester exchanged his surgical gloves for a pair of leather driving gloves and took the wheel. He was wearing a Confederate grey uniform with yellow shoulder flashes bearing the name of their private ambulance service. Dandy Jack was also in uniform. Dixie sprawled comfortably on the stretcher and hid his working clothes under a red blanket. If they ran into a police patrol, he could complain of a back injury.
When they were clear of the town, Dandy Jack threw the coveralls out of the ambulance. Their ally, Hurricane Charlie would take care of disposing of them.
"Keep your speed below twenty," Dandy Jack warned. "And watch out for the turning two miles out of town."
"Yeah, yeah," muttered Lester. He was feeling casually confident now that they were on the move.
The ambulance bowled through a pleasant morning. Brilliant sunlight poured down from an untroubled sky. No more than a breath of wind ruffled the huge lakes in the fields on either side of the road. The signpost and a tree had disappeared, but Lester had been too well briefed to miss the turning to the north east. He could see steep banks of black clouds on the horizon in every direction. Yet there seemed no reason why they couldn't follow Hurricane Charlie clear to Montgomery.
Dandy Jack was planning to cover as much as possible of the one hundred and fifty miles to the state capital before the roads brought them too close to the active area of the hurricane and forced them to take shelter.
If the state police stopped them, he could refer to a mental list of the hospitals on their route and name the nearest as their destination. Should they be offered a escort, the bank robbers were prepared to wait out the hurricane at the hospital and then proceed as planned.
After two uneventful hours on the road, Lester came to a problem. Dandy Jack was sprawled in his seat, apparently dozing. Lester shook his arm.
"What?" grunted Dandy Jack, coming alive with a rush.
He followed the direction of the driver's pointing finger. The road had disappeared. Instead, a great lake dotted with splintered telephone poles sprawled across their path.
"Keep going," decided Dandy Jack. "It might not be too deep."
Lester slowed right down and rolled into the lake at five miles per hour. The water was only about four inches deep at the crown of the road. Navigating by the telephone poles, keeping them six yards to his left, he doubled his speed. Long waves flowed away from the gliding ambulance. Spray hissed in the wheel arches.
"It's getting deeper, Jack," warned the driver anxiously.
"And I think Charlie's catching up on us," added Dixie.
The road was travelling north instead of north-east at this point, bringing them closer to the western wall of the eye of Hurricane Charlie.
"Okay, make a left," decided Dandy Jack. "Let's hole up over there."
Lester turned cautiously onto an unseen road which rose out of the water fifty yards away and climbed to a construction site at the crest of a shallow hill. A strengthening wind was buffeting the ambulance by the time they reached a concrete raft and a collection of low walls. Rusty steelwork projected from them, showing that construction was still at an early stage.
Lester bounced over the remains of a shattered wooden sign and stopped in the shelter of the nearest wall. He began to laugh when he spotted another part of the sign. The bank robbers had parked on the exercise yard of the new state penitentiary.
Light rain had started to fall. Dandy Jack hurried over to a low, concrete building. It looked strong enough to withstand ten hurricanes of Charlie's strength. Lester made short work of the lock. Dixie cradled the flight bag full of money anxiously as Lester probed the mechanism, as if afraid that the wind would steal it away. The trio entered a windowless gloom. The door slammed shut behind them.
Lester knocked something over. Glass broke on the concrete floor. A heavy, solvent smell filled the air as Dixie succeeded in striking a match. Dandy Jack yelled a warning. The whole book of matches caught fire. Dixie dropped it at once. Yellow flames licked at his ankles. He let out a yell of terror and scrabbled for the door. He raced out into the rain with his companions at his heels.
They were half way across the exercise yard before anyone noticed that Dixie wasn't carrying the bag. Dandy Jack slid to a halt and started for the hut. He had time to take three strides. Then a tongue of flame flared from the doorway, riding an explosion.
The flight bag looped into the rain; and turned inside out. A paper-storm broke over the yard. At once, the three bank robbers began to chase their loot, stuffing soggy paper into their pockets. They had collected three or four hundred notes, most of them one and five dollar bills, before the weather drove them to take shelter in the ambulance. The wind kept blowing them off their feet. Darkness and the driving rain hid any notes which had not already been blown away.
Wet and miserable, the trio counted their haul with difficulty. The wall was shielding the ambulance from the direct force of the hurricane but vacuum effects created by gusts kept rocking the vehicle. Their wet scavengings amounted to about five per cent of the contents of the flight bag; in numbers but not in value. The bias of the distribution of the notes to low denominations was heavily against them.
"Okay," said Dandy Jack, just before the hammering of the rain and the screeching of the wind made conversation impossible, "this job was a bust. But what worked once will work again. All we need is another town and another hurricane."
But in the darkness of the storm-tossed ambulance, his optimism gave Lester and Dixie very little comfort. ■