by Chris O'Grady

Chapter One
The wall phone at the end of the bar was giving Wilder nothing but a string of buzzes.

Either Milo was out, or he wasn't answering. There was no reason for him not to answer his phone, and he shouldn't be out, even if Wilder was a day late. Milo should be sitting on that phone.

Tired of listening to the buzzing, Wilder hung up in disgust and returned to his drink on the bar.

He was up on his barstool, lifting his glass, before he noticed the newcomer farther along the bar.

She was a dark-haired looker in a black silk dress. She sat with her legs crossed. A long length of thigh showed above the tops of sheer black stockings. Her skin appeared dead-white against the black sheen of the silk skirt.

Wilder gave her more than the usual lookover.

She hadn't been there when he came in awhile back, so she must have arrived while he was on the phone.

He didn't let himself take in the display too long. This was no time for him to make any kind of pass at local stuff, not the night before pulling a job in a town he didn't know at all. And there was no sense looking at the goods unless you were going to try for some of it.

A couple of hours ago, when he'd hit Thomaston, Wilder had been in a rush to make contact with Milo. Now it was starting to look like he was in for a long wait before he got any answers from Milo's phone.

He took another pull at his drink.

He was seated near the back end of the bar, where it bent in toward the wall, leaving a gap for the barkeep to get out at that end.

Absently, he glanced at the dark-haired woman again, but he was wondering how long Milo was going to keep him hung up like this.

The girl in black was easy for him to see without being obvious about it, so he watched her.

She had that look, the hot-to-go look: heavy on the makeup, lots of dark guck around the eyes, pale lipstick, almost as pale as her white skin, making her mouth appear nakeder than it would have with no lipstick at all.

She sat erect, her forearms resting on the edge of the bar, her fingertips just touching her glass. She stared steadily at the rows of bottles back of the bar, but she still looked all strung out.

Every ten seconds, she would snap no-ashes from the burning end of her cigarette.

But there weren't any takers!

The stag hotshots up near the front would slide sneaky knowing glances back at her from where they had posted themselves along the bar. One of them even leaned way back, so he could see more of her legs. But when he straightened, he just turned again to his lush-buddies, and they all had their laugh.

Along the wall across from the bar, couples in booths darted quick glances at her too, and there were small secret smiles and low-spoken comments.

But still no takers.

Wilder looked her over again.

She could be a hooker, except she didn't look tired enough, or brassy enough. That didn't mean a thing, though. She might still be so new at it that none of the signs stuck out yet.

The only thing Wilder kept getting from her was an itch, low and deep inside, each time he looked over at her sitting there. That was usually the only message he needed.

Not tonight, though.

Deliberately, he swung his eyes away from her and concentrated on his drink and waiting to give Milo enough time to get back to his phone and start answering it.

He could feel the impatience starting to build inside, even though he knew there could be a good enough reason why Milo wasn't hanging around his phone, waiting for Wilder's call: Wilder was a day late.

He'd been due up here in Thomaston last night, but there had been one more run of good luck to find out about in a floating crap game. He'd stuck with the luck until it petered out. When it was gone altogether and he knew his luck was still bad, he had rented a car and headed north. He'd have to pull the gambling joint stickup Milo had fingered.

Wilder had come up the highway from the south, after spending the afternoon checking out secondary roads down that way, in case he needed alternate getaway routes after the job. Just after dark, he'd reached Thomaston's outlying districts. When the first skyscraper lights had appeared above the horizon ahead, he'd stopped at a roadside phone booth next to a gas station to call Milo.

He didn't have Milo's address, and he couldn't look up the address in the local phone book because he didn't know Milo's last name.

It didn't matter. Usually in deals like this, all he needed was a phone number.

Except this time nobody was answering any phones.

Why didn't the jerk get an answering machine? Wilder thought.

Driving on along the highway, he'd passed a sign that said City Limit and gave the population. Getting himself a motel room, he'd taken a quick shower and went out to eat. When he got through with supper, he'd tried the phone again. Still no answer. Driving back to his motel, he stopped in this bar for a drink and tried Milo's number again, without success. By then, he knew he was in for a long evening of waiting and phoning.

Nursing his drink, Wilder wondered if his luck was completely gone. If it was, he might do himself a favor if he sheered off the gambling-joint heist Milo had set up for tomorrow night. If his luck was really out, he wouldn't get away with the grab, no matter how well he planned it.

Like tonight. He shouldn't have had to get a motel room. Right now, he should be jungled up at Milo's place, where no cops and no anyone could lay an eye on him and maybe remember afterward, from out of nowhere, that they had seen him making the scene around town.

Not that a gambling setup was like a bank. Still, a grab was a grab. Cops want you no matter who you steal from.

If gambling was going on in this town, they'd have a fix in with the law, somewhere up the ladder. Which meant that, after he pulled the job, there would be some looking for whoever did it. Maybe a lot of looking. The cops would check out recent arrivals in all the hotels and motels. And that meant he might even have to drop the Wilder name and start using another phony one.

Thinking of all that disgusted Wilder. Too many things were beginning to look bad, even before he got started. Especially that name-change. He wasn't crazy about that possibility.

He shook his head. It was too much trouble for too small a money-return. How much could you hit a gambling layout for in a city this size?

Ah, hell! He was doing too much thinking about it.

Quit the thinking, he told himself. He wasn't living this way so he could die of old age, anyway.

Time for another crack at the phone. Spinning around on the stool, he hit the floor and headed for the phone. When he tried Milo's number again and the same old buzzing kept up, Wilder cursed under his breath.

He could see the broad in the black silk dress, still perched on her barstool. Wilder knew damn well he shouldn't go near any woman the night before pulling a job ... but the way he was feeling now, he'd either get rid of it with a woman or before the night was done he'd wind up breaking someone's jaw.

When he knew the buzzing was just going to go on and on, he slammed the receiver down on the hook.

Okay, screw Milo. And the gambling joint. The job was jinxed, so forget it.

He went back to his drink on the bar.