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Odds Against Tomorrow [Secure eReader]
eBook by William P. McGivern

eBook Category: General Nonfiction
eBook Description: The situation is a nightmare waiting to happen--a racist ex-con gets drawn into the planning of a heist by a crooked ex-cop, and they are forced to include a young black man who is in debt to a mobster. What can go wrong does go wrong in Odds Against Tomorrow, a bleak, mesmerizing thriller by William P. McGivern, published in 1957 and reminiscent of the novels of W.R. Burnett. An ex-con named Earl Slater and a disgraced former cop named Dave Burke agree to work together to rob a small bank in a small Pennsylvania town. Circumstances force them to include a young singer named Johnny Ingram, whose ex-wife and young daughter have been threatened by a low-life mobster to whom Ingram owes money. The problem is that Ingram is black, and Slater is a bitterly prejudiced man who taunts Ingram, humiliating him by calling him Sambo. With the tension already high, the robbery is a tactical disaster. Everything goes wrong, beginning with Earl Slater being recognized by a service station attendant, and the inevitable conflict arising between Ingram and Slater at the worst possible moment when Dave Burke falters. With the cops chasing Ingram and Slater, they are chasing each other, reconciling only when time runs out for both. McGivern's unflinching style, supported by a clockwork plot and an inspired set of characters, is enriched with the inclusion of a black character whose mere presence threatens to destabilize the planned heist, an illuminating touch that was rare in genre fiction before the 1960s. Odds Against Tomorrow recalls W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle in its clear-eyed depiction of fringe characters doing each other in out of greed, bitterness and neurosis--a brilliant thriller of uncommon perception.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 1957
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2002

"...a first-class thriller ... the reader is bowled along dizzily from the moment the plot is hatched to the last fusillade."--Saturday Review

"...a powerfully exciting action-melodrama."--New York Times

Chapter 1

For what seemed a long time he couldn't make himself cross the street and enter the hotel. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and frowned at the revolving doors and canopied entrance, indifferent to the nighttime crowd drifting past him, his tall body as immobile as a rock in a stream. People edged around him carefully, for there was a look of tension in the set of his shoulders, and in the appraising frown that shadowed his hard even features.

It was the finality of the thing that worried him, he realized, not the consequences....

He knew the hotel, a middle-class commercial establishment close to the heart of the city, an old stone building that had been brightened up with a neon sign and shiny aluminum facings around a black and silver canopy. Lorraine had met him in the lobby once, he remembered; it wasn't far from her job. They'd had some beers before going home.

Finally he lighted a cigarette and flipped the match toward the sidewalk, hardly noticing the people strolling in front of him. In the end he didn't make up his mind at all; he simply started toward the hotel, urged forward by a pressure that seemed as inevitable as it was pointless. He sighed and thought: Why not? Why the hell not?

He stopped just inside the revolving doors and glanced alertly and cautiously around the lobby. Several groups of people stood talking near the newsstand, and a number of middle-aged businessmen sat about on hard, functional couches leafing through the evening papers. From a lounge off to his right, he heard the sound of loud juke-box music and the noisy laughter of men at the bar.

He skirted the groups of people and moved tentatively toward the reception desk at the end of the lobby, his hands pushed deep into the pockets of his old overcoat, the faintly worried frown still darkening his face. At the desk he waited behind a woman with two children tugging at her skirt, controlling his exasperation as the room clerk told her how to reach a suburb of the city by streetcar.

"My brother would have met us, but he had to work," the woman said apologetically. "He's with the gas company, and they can call him out any time."

"You won't have any trouble, I'm sure."

"Yes -- thanks a lot. Come on, children."

The clerk, a young man with thin blond hair, smiled up at him. "Yes?"

"I want to see Mr. Novak. Frank Novak. What room is he in?"

"Is Mr. Novak expecting you?"

The question irritated him, and he took his hands from his pockets and drummed his fingers on the counter. "Sure, he's expecting me. I wouldn't be here if he wasn't. What room's he in?"

"I'll ring him." The clerk smiled impersonally. "It's a house regulation. Whom shall I say is calling?"

His anger died quickly; he felt empty and foolish. "Sure, I see," he said, shrugging as if the matter meant nothing to him. "But he knows me. My name is Slater. Earl Slater -- he might know me as Tex Slater. That's just a nickname. It stuck to me from the Army."

"I'll call Mr. Novak."

Earl Slater put his big bony hands back into his pockets. Running on like a fool, he thought: Stuck to me from the Army. So what? What difference did that make? His irritability twisted around inside him, sharpening as it searched for some release or outlet.

"Room Ten-six," the clerk said. "Mr. Novak would like you to come up."

"Well, thanks," Earl Slater said with a stiff little smile. He wanted to say something more, something that would readjust the exchange in his favor, but he couldn't think of anything that might help; words were like crutches to him, difficult, makeshift means to a limited end. The clerk was already talking to someone else in any case, so Earl turned from the counter and walked slowly toward the elevators. What was the room number? Ten-six....

Facing the closed elevator door, he hesitated again, the frown deepening on his forehead. He lighted another cigarette quickly, and the tension in him charged his movements with a curious significance; he was like an animal in open country as he glanced nervously about the lobby, alert and graceful and wary.

Earl Slater was thirty-five years old, but he looked much younger; his complexion was the kind a woman might envy, clear, smoothly tanned, and he handled his rangy body like a well-conditioned machine, using it with a suggestion of careless precision and efficiency.

For all this, people weren't often attracted to him; they might be touched by the hunger in his eyes, or impressed by the power of his body, but the cold and delicate anger in his face usually kept them at a distance.

He dropped his cigarette into a sand-filled urn as the elevator door slid open. Straightening his shoulders, he stepped into the empty car and said "Ten-six" to the operator, a young Negro in a green uniform. "That the tenth floor?"

"Yes, sir," the colored boy said, snapping his fingers in a slow rhythm. "We're going right up. Right up." Turning, he smiled at Earl. "You hear the final score on the Eagles game?"

Earl Slater stared at him, his eyes shining and blank: he might not have been seeing him at all. "I don't care about football," he said gently.

"No?" The operator was still smiling. "What's your sport then?"

"Riding nice quiet elevators," Earl said, and let his soft Southern accent come down between them like a wall.

The colored boy's smile faded until it was no more than a little twist at the corner of his mouth. "I read you, Mister," he said, closing the door and throwing the starting lever with a lazy flick of his wrist. He hummed softly under his breath until the car came to a stop at the tenth floor. When the door opened, he inclined his head and said, "Don't mention it, Mister. Nothing at all."

Earl stared at him until the door closed, and then he let his breath out slowly, trying to check the frustrating anger pumping through his veins. A smart one, he thought. A real smart one. Turning he walked down the quiet corridor to Novak's room, forgetting everything for the moment but an exasperating dissatisfaction with himself; why hadn't he said something? That thought drummed in his mind. Why did he stand and take it like a block of wood?

Novak himself opened the door, grinning and extending a muscular hand. "Come on in. I'm Frank Novak," he said. "You're right on time, Slater." Novak was short, but put together compactly and powerfully, a dark-haired, dark-complexioned man with cold little eyes. "You're a big one," he said grinning at Earl, surveying him with eyes that remained cold and hard. "Come on in. I want you to meet a friend, Dave Burke. Dave, shake hands with Earl Slater."

Burke was standing in the middle of the room, a tall paunchy man with gray-blond hair and a complexion that had reddened by the rupturing of tiny blood vessels in his cheeks. He smiled and gave Earl an awkward little salute. "How're you?" he said. "Sit down and make yourself comfortable. You feel like a drink?"

"All right," Earl said. "Something light."

"How about a whisky and water? That sound okay?"

"Sounds great," Earl said. Burke laughed as if this were funny and turned to a dresser on which there were several bottles and a collection of glasses. "You use ice?" he said.

Earl didn't see any ice around, so he said, "No, never mind."

Burke laughed again, and Novak said, "Sit down, Earl. Take that chair. It's better than the others. You want a cigar?"

"No, thanks." Earl sat down with his overcoat in his lap, but Burke took it away from him and said, "Let's don't get this wrinkled up, Earl. I'll put it in the closet."

"It doesn't make a lot of difference. It's pretty beat-up."

Burke laughed at this too, and Earl realized he was a bit tight; not drunk but loosened up to the point where everything was striking him as mildly funny.

The room was small and cheaply furnished but the view from the double windows gave an impression of space, with thousands of bright little lights blinking far below against a big darkness.

Novak sat on the edge of the bed, hands resting on his knees, and studied Earl with a faint smile. "It's not Buckingham Palace, is it?" he said.

"It's okay," Earl said, coloring faintly; he didn't feel at ease. "It's fine. I never stayed here, but I've stopped at the bar downstairs."

"And why not?" Burke said, laughing softly. He gave Earl a dark-brown whisky and water, and said, "Why not stop at the bar, eh?"

Novak said, "Sit down, Burke, and take a load off your mind." He was still smiling, but a thread of annoyance ran through his voice. "We might as well talk business."

"Sure thing," said Burke. This time he didn't laugh; he sat down carefully and rubbed a hand over his coarse, red features. "Sure thing."

Novak lighted a cigar, and when it was drawing smoothly he smiled through the smoke at Earl and said, "How old are you?"

"Thirty-five. Why?"

"Just curious. No offense." Novak leaned back on the bed and the overhead light touched the speculative glimmer in his little eyes. "It's a kind of a decisive age though. At thirty-five a guy should know whether or not he's going to make it." He grinned at Earl's puzzled frown, and then his eyes wandered casually over Earl's suit and shoes. "How do you figure you're doing? Got it made yet?"

"I don't know." Earl shifted his hands and feet, feeling harried and uncomfortable. "I never thought much about it. I'm not rich," he said, grinning awkwardly; but the admission irritated him, and a confusing anger grew in his breast. "I'm doing all right, I guess," he said, shifting his feet again, and looking down at his drink. "Right enough, anyway."

"You're not working, are you?"

"Well, not just now, no." "When did you work last?"

"Couple of months back, I guess."

"That was the job at the Circle Garage, right?"

Earl smiled uncertainly. "How did you know that?"

"We've checked on you, kid," Novak said. "When I called you this morning you didn't know me from Adam. I mentioned a name to you, Lefty Bowers, a guy you were in jail with. That's all you know; that I'm a friend of somebody you knew in jail. Right?"

"I guess so," Earl said. He shrugged. "Yeah, that's all I know."

"I'm not trying to be mysterious," Novak said. "I just want you to understand a few things. First, Lefty told me you were a good guy, knew how to keep your mouth shut, could drive a car."

"Is that what you want? Somebody to drive a car?"

Burke laughed and Novak glanced at him with a little frown. He said, "Get me a drink, will you, Dave?"

"Yeah, sure thing," Burke said, heaving himself to his feet. "Sure thing."

"It's a little more than driving," Novak said. "That's why we checked on you. Burke used to be a cop, and one of his old buddies helped us out."

"A guy I knew for years," Burke said. "A great guy."

"It must be pretty big," Earl said. He tried to smile. "If you went to all that trouble it must be big."

"I hoped you'd understand that," Novak said quietly. "It's big enough, don't worry. But more important, it's safe." He tilted his head and studied Earl through the smoke curling up from his cigar. "I'd rather try for a hundred bucks and make it than get caught going for a million. I want you to understand that. I'm a serious guy, a businessman." He drew an envelope from his inside coat pocket and removed a thin sheaf of papers. After glancing through them for a few seconds, he said, "Well, here's what we found: Earl Slater, born in Texas, son of a farmer. Got into the Army at sixteen by lying about your age. Tried for the paratroopers but got transferred to the infantry after a training accident." Novak glanced at him. "Right so far?"

"I broke my leg jumping," Earl said, trying to be casual about it, to control his confusion and excitement; but the images Novak had recalled flashed through his mind like the flickering designs of a kaleidoscope. "One of my lines fouled and I came down too fast." He could remember the ground coming up at him, the corn stubble in the field sticking up like tiny red whiskers. They said he'd hit like an express train; the heels of his jump boots had been driven deep into the hard earth by the weight of his plunging body. He was sure he had heard the bone in his shin snap like a piece of dry kindling, but the medics told him that was just his imagination at work.

"You spent five years in the Army," Novak said. "Pretty rough deal, eh?"

"I guess so."

"Two years after the Army let you go you were arrested for stealing a car in Galveston. You served eight months of a two-year rap. Next time you were arrested it was for assault and battery in Mobile, Alabama, and that time--"

"Listen, I didn't steal that car," Earl said hotly. "I was drinking with the guy who owned it, and he told me to take it. But the bastard wouldn't say that in court because of his wife."

Burke laughed at this, his eyes almost disappearing in his fleshy red face, and even Novak smiled faintly. "Okay, you didn't steal the car," he said. "But after the three-month stretch in Mobile there was a rap for manslaughter. They hung four years on you that time."

"It was like the car," Earl said, with a weary, hopeless anger in his voice. "A guy in a bar came at me with a bottle. I clipped him good, and he busted his head on the bar railing. But his friends told the cop he didn't swing the bottle."

"Well, that was bad luck," Novak said. "I guess you've had your share of it, eh?"

"You're damned right I have," Earl said. He glanced from Novak to Burke, feeling the pressure tightening about his chest like an iron band. He hated having people pry into his past, classify him as this, that or the other thing because of the lies they found in old dusty records. "So what about it?" he said angrily. "I've done time, I'm out of a job. Are you guys any better off?" He stared at Burke. "You used to be a cop, eh? Well, what happened? They dump you for boozing?"

"Now hold it, sonny," Burke said. He didn't sound angry, but he began to rub his big fat-looking hands together slowly. "Just hold it, eh?"

"Well, what's the big deal?" Earl said, getting to his feet. "You're both sitting here with a patch on your pants in a four-dollar room. You think I give a damn what you found out about me?"

"Relax," Novak said sharply. "What we found out made us think you were right for a cut of this job. There's nothing personal about it. So don't go popping off."

"Well, okay," Earl said. He locked his hands together to control his trembling fingers. "What do you want with me?"

"It's a bank job," Novak said. "I'll tell you a little about it, then you say whether you want in or not. If you want in, I'll give you the whole deal by the numbers. If you want out--" He shrugged his big, powerful shoulders. "That's what you get -- out."

"A bank job? You're sticking up a bank?"

Burke smiled, but he didn't laugh. He studied Earl speculatively, his eyes glinting in pockets of puffy flesh. "It's a small bank," he said dryly.

"Are you interested so far?" Novak said.

"I don't know. It's -- well, I don't know."

"You want some details, sure." Novak stood and paced the floor in front of Earl, holding the cigar like a pointer in his big hand. "It's a small bank, like Burke says. A big one doesn't figure. First, you need too many guys." He shrugged. "Lots of guys, lots of talk, that's been my experience.

"Then the big banks are in the big cities. That means traffic. A car stalls in front of you, a fire truck blocks you off, an accident happens -- bang! You're dead. Two, the big banks are ready for trouble. They got guards behind peepholes, they got alarms a teller can let off by touching his toe to a foot pedal, they got the local cops, the FBI, Brink's and Pinkerton all standing by to answer those alarms." Novak stopped and looked down at Earl. "I've done research. To take a big bank means men, cars, a hideout, guns, explosives -- so the profit, if there is any, goes into overhead. You following this?"

Earl nodded slowly. "Yes, I guess so."

"With a friendly little bank in a country town, most of the problems disappear. That's what we're going after -- a small, friendly bank that has one fat guard, and two middle-aged female tellers. The take should be good -- around two hundred grand. There's four of us in the deal, and the split is four ways. How's your arithmetic, Earl?" Novak put the cigar in his mouth. "Can you divide four into two hundred thousand?"

"Fifty grand apiece?"

Novak patted his shoulder. "On the button."

"It seems like a lot of cash for a small bank," Earl said.

"It's there, don't worry," Novak said. "This is a wealthy community, with lots of classy people around. And it's got a business and industrial side to it -- supermarkets, a canning factory, a couple of dozen wholesale mushroom houses. The bank stays open Friday nights from six to eight. Most of the factories pay their workers on Saturday, so the bank is loaded with payroll cash and the weekend deposits from the big stores and shops." Novak paused for effect. "When the bank closes there's close to two hundred thousand bucks in untraceable cash sitting in the tellers' cages. A half-dozen clerks stick around for another hour or so straightening out the books. One sleepy old guard is all that's standing between us and that dough. So what do you say? You want your share of it?"

Earl shifted in his chair. "Well, I don't know."

"I've spent weeks checking the area," Novak said. "I've figured out a foolproof plan -- how to get into the bank, get the money, and get the hell away free and clear. There's no guesswork involved. It's a solid deal." He paused, frowning at Earl. "So?"

"It's your turn to talk," Burke said.

"Well -- it's a big decision to make in a hurry," Earl said.

"Take your time," Novak said. "Burke, freshen up his drink."

"I've never been in on anything like this before," Earl said, trying to smile.

"Well, here's a chance to move up to the majors," Burke said. "Let me have your glass."

"Thanks." He was glad to have this immediate pressure taken off; he had always hated decisions. They worked up a tension in him, made him confused and angry and miserable. That was one nice thing about the Army, he thought, almost wistfully; someone else was paid to do the thinking. But now it was up to him to make the plans and give the orders. It had seemed simple this morning. Novak had a job for him -- that was all. There might be something wrong with it, but what the hell? You couldn't pick and choose forever. Grab it, that had been his first cheerful reaction. Take any chance to get off the treadmill....

That had seemed logical and inevitable. But now he wasn't sure of anything at all....

"Well?" Novak said. "What's the verdict?"

"Damn, I don't know." Earl searched through his pockets for cigarettes, while Novak watched him with an irritable frown. "So what's worrying you?" he said.

"I don't know enough about the deal," Earl said, puffing nervously on his cigarette. With a surge of relief he remembered something; Burke had said it would be a four-way split. "Who's the other guy?" he said. "You said there's to be four in on it. I got to know something about the other guy."

"If you buy in, you'll meet him tomorrow," Novak said. "He's all right. He fits the job like a glove."

"Like a black suède glove," Burke said, laughing softly.

Earl felt that he was being hounded into a corner. "Can he keep his mouth shut? I mean, is he a dependable guy? I don't want to get mixed up with any clowns." He realized that he sounded frightened and foolish, and that brought a surge of color into his cheeks. "I can handle my end of things but I want to know who's backing me up. It's like the Army -- you've got to be sure of every man in the platoon."

Novak said quietly, "I told you he's okay. That means he's okay. All you got to do is nod or shake your head. In or out. Understand?"

"Well, I can't make up my mind this fast," Earl said. He put out his cigarette, relieved to have postponed his decision; he wanted to get out of here now, get away from all this crowding, insistent pressure. "I'll call you tomorrow. Is that okay?"

"No, it's not okay," Burke said. He came to his feet, rubbing his big hands together slowly. "We want to know how you stand now. Not after you've talked it over with your girl and the parish priest."

Earl looked at him steadily for a moment. He wasn't conscious of coming to a decision but he suddenly knew what he was going to do: tell Novak to go to hell and knock this big rummy, Burke, flat on his tail. But before he could move, Novak put a hand on his shoulder and said easily, "Another day won't matter, Earl. It's okay. Call me first thing in the morning."

"Okay," Earl said. "Sure." The anger drained out of him and he nodded slowly. "I'll give you a call, don't worry." He felt grateful to Novak for making this concession to him; it made him feel important. "Thanks a lot."

After he had gone Novak and Burke regarded each other for a few seconds in a curious silence. Finally Burke smiled and began to make himself a drink. "Just what we need," he said. "A hillbilly full of temperament. To give the job a little tone."

"I think he'll do," Novak said. He picked up his glass and frowned at the bubbles on the surface of the liquor. "He's dumb as hell, but he'll do. Once he comes in, he'll stick."

"I don't know," Burke said. "He strikes me as trouble. I was a cop long enough to recognize the type. They're like ticking bombs." He shrugged his big, soft-looking shoulders and settled himself in a chair. "They go off in your face and you never know what hit you. I was a cop long enough to see it happen lots of times."

"You weren't a cop long enough to collect your pension," Novak said dryly.

"Okay, so I was canned," Burke said. "You want to say it, go ahead. That make you feel better?"

"I feel fine," Novak said, walking over to the window. For a few seconds he stared at the dark skyline and the sliver of moon that was emerging from behind the tall bulk of an office building.

"I'll bet he won't call you," Burke said. "Two to one he won't come in."

Novak shook his head. "I wouldn't take your money. He's hooked. Hooked solid."

Copyright © 1957 by William P. Mcgivern

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