Chapter 2: Nightmare on the “Morpheus”
As Cody Hosk warmed up the bus’s engine and let it run for a few minutes, Rufus Lister welcomed the passengers and introduced himself and his partner, Harry Williams. Canty Lanier, the cook, also took a bow. Lister added, “We’ll be makin’ only one more stop on the way to Frisco, folks, in Ashland, to gas up. Then we’ll be on our way. Looks like we’ll have sunshine all the way to Frisco. Enjoy the scenery!”
Minutes later, when the bus was in motion, Lister appeared at the Skeens’ glass door and slid it open. He was carrying the box tray that held two mugs of coffee. He lay the tray down on the swing-up table Skeen had restored so he and Dilys could resume their reading, and closed the glass door behind him. He leaned forward and planted his hands on the table and softly asked Skeen, “Sir, you packin’ iron?”
Skeen frowned, put down his book of Supreme Court summaries, removed his feet from Dilys’s seat, and sat up. Thinking that he would have no call to use it, he had not brought a revolver along on the trip. “No,” he said. “Is there a problem?”
Dilys closed The American Mercury and also sat up.
Lister frowned and pursed his lips. “Don’t rightly know, Skeen. Mr. Hosk is packin’ one, that’s for sure. I spotted it under his jacket, bulgin’ out like a banana under his right arm. Somethin’s not right about that. And he’s nervous-like and mean-minded. Never met a driver carryin’ heat before now.” Lister paused. “I saw the dispatcher about him. He went twirly on me, said I was just imagin’ things, Hosk just pulled a six-hour job drivin’ a bus for Coastline Stage and was doin’ the Pickwick run as a favor to him.”
Skeen had apprised Cody Hosk as a brash lout as the passengers lined up to reboard the bus. Hosk stood with a clipboard and checked off the passengers’ names before they stepped back up into the bus. Hosk was brusque and unfriendly in his brief exchanges with the passengers. Skeen was not looking for anyone wearing a shoulder holster, and so had not noticed one on Hosk.
He ventured, “Maybe Pickwick’s been tipped off about a possible robbery or hijacking, and sent a man who could handle it.”
Lister hummed once as his face stretched in doubt. “Well, if we’re gonna be bushwhacked, it’d be by a gang loaded for bear, and a six-shooter ain’t gonna do much but get Mr. Hosk killed quick and final. Besides, if it was a company man, he wouldn’t be drivin’ the bus, would he?”
Skeen shook his head in agreement. He looked pensive. He asked, “Have you asked any other passengers if they’re armed?”
Lister shook his head. “No, sir. I don’t want to start a panic. You’re the only pro I know onboard I know of. I’d catch hell if it turns out to be nothin’.”
“Wise decision, Rufus.” Skeen paused. “I gather neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Lanier is armed.”
“You gather right, sir. I ain’t let them in on this, either.” He paused. “Not yet.”
Skeen sighed. “Well, Rufus, let me know if you see anything else that’s odd. If it’s the worst thing, I’d want time to figure out a plan.”
Lister nodded and rose to his full height. He placed the mugs on the table and took up his tray. He glanced once out the window and saw the familiar outskirts of Medford as the bus made its way to Route 199 and Ashland. “See you folks later.” He slid open the glass divider, stepped out, and gently closed the divider again.
Skeen reached into his jacket, took out a flask, and added brandy to his and Dilys’s mugs.
“You know,” said Dilys as she sipped the coffee, “I’d completely forgotten. Oregon is a very dry state.”
“It was the first,” remarked Skeen, “long before Prohibition.” He sat back in his seat. After a moment, he said, “I hope this isn’t what it might turn out to be – a well-planned heist.”
“And if it is?” asked Dilys.
“We’ve got to put ourselves in a command position.”
“I’m not leaving you alone, darling. You’ll be with me, if only as a spectator.”
Unable to resume reading, they sat looking out the window, sipping the coffee, watching houses grow sparser until there was nothing but trees to see.
Some minutes later the divider door opened again. Rufus Lister came in and shut the door behind him. He looked out the window. “I don’t recognize those trees, folks. We’re off the route. We’re bein’ take for a ride. And, besides, I know every turn and swerve on this route. Know it without havin’ to see outside, and I don’t feel those turns. What can we do?”
Skeen said, “First of all, if I’m to do anything, I can’t stay down here. I’ll go to the upper deck where I can better see what’s going on.”
Lister leaned on the table again. “Two couples from above got off at Medford, but one new fellow got on. He was carryin’ some odd luggage. I only saw him for a moment. He’s in one of the vacancies, this side, in the rear. Pasty lookin’ guy with a hawkish nose, in a black overcoat and a brown snap-brim. Ugly as sin. Got on last.”
“Is he on your passenger list?”
Lister shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. Checkin’ the passengers in and out is the driver’s job. I’m bettin’ he ain’t.”
It was Skeen’s turn to hum. “I’d better get upstairs.”
The bus braked a little when it abruptly turned right onto a gravel road. Lister had to hold onto the table to keep his balance. They could feel the bumps now. The coffee mugs rattled and moved. Dilys took them and emptied them in the basin near the divider door.
Lister reached into his jacket and pulled out a five-inch long leather blackjack. It made a thud as he laid it in front of Skeen. “It’s all I have, shamus. We stashed it in the galley to take care of drunk passengers with iron jaws. Never needed to, though.” With that, he turned, stepped out of the compartment, and closed the door again.
Skeen swept up the blackjack, then unhitched the table and swung it down against the wall under the window. He rose. “Let’s go, darling.”
The staircase to the upper deck was in the rear of the bus. It was carpeted and had mahogany banisters. It came out into the smoking compartment, which spanned the width of the bus. One old gentleman was its sole occupant at the moment. He sat in one of the leather chairs, placidly smoking a pipe. He unconcernedly watched Skeen and Dilys pass through the dividing glass door, and resumed looking out the left-hand window at the passing scenery. There was a slight scowl in his expression, as though he sensed something was wrong.
The bus jerked once, as though it had ploughed into something solid in the road, but kept moving.
The bus had cut its speed in half as it crawled over the gravel road. Skeen heard passengers on this deck begin to query what was going on. He paid them no attention. He spotted the two compartments Lister had told him about. They were adjoined. One was empty, its glass divider and curtain drawn back.
The second compartment’s curtain was drawn closed to conceal the occupant. Skeen hefted the blackjack in his hand, and twirled it once on its spring. He glanced once at Dilys, motioned to her to stay back, then approached the occupied compartment.
He stood before the curtain, listening. He heard muffled metallic noises. He swept the curtain aside and saw the hawked nosed man, sitting at the swing-up table, holding a Thompson submachine gun, about to fit in clip magazine into the .45 caliber killing machine.
His “odd” luggage sat before him on the swing-up table. It was an open alligator leather carrying case with a snap lock that held spare clips, a long-barreled, pearl-handled revolver of a make Skeen did not immediately recognize, boxes of ammo for the revolver, a sandwich he had begun, still in its wax paper wrapper, last month’s number of True Detective Stories with a lurid color illustration of a long-legged damsel bound and gagged and a villainous gangster leering at her, and a nickel liquor flask.
The man finally glanced up and noticed Skeen through the glass. “What the hell!” he yelled, as he finished snapping the clip into the machine gun. Skeen jerked the divider open, quickly stepped in, swung the blackjack, and sapped the man’s head solidly with an audible thunk through the brown snap-brim before the man could bring his gun to bear.
The machine gun clattered to the table as the man slumped back in the seat, his head resting on the askew hat. Skeen dropped the sap and whisked the gun away from the man’s hands. He had never handled one of these weapons before, but knew how destructive they could be on the human body. He found the safety on the left side and saw that it was on. He also noted that he would have to pull the top bolt back to begin firing, and could put it in single, semi-automatic, and fully automatic firing modes. There were crudely cut notches on the right side of the stock. He guessed they stood for Finnegan’s kills.
On the opposite seat was an open violin case, empty.
He looked out of the compartment and motioned to Dilys.
“See if you can find something to tie him up with,” he said.
The bus was slowing down and had almost stopped. Skeen looked outside. They were pulling off the gravel road. They had passed the trees, and in an open weed-covered area were two black Ford coupés and five men holding Tommy guns, some with clips, and others with drum magazines. A short distance behind them was the edge of a granite quarry, and across the space of the quarry, in the distance, were some trees, a large pasture, and some farm buildings.
Instead of waiting for Dilys, Skeen put the machine gun and the open case on the opposite seat, swung down the table, and undid the man’s necktie. He hauled the inert figure to the floor, laying him face down. He used the tie to bind the man’s hands tightly behind his back in three knots, and for extra measure undid his shoelaces and tied them together.
Dilys appeared again. “I couldn’t find anything,” she said.
The bus had completely stopped. Cody Hosk cut off the motor. All the lights went out.
“Look,” said Skeen pointing to the gang outside. “What do you see?”
“Men with guns,” said Dilys.
“And what else?”
“The two cars?”
Skeen shook his head. “The men are not wearing masks.”
Dilys looked quizzical.
“It means they plan to kill all the passengers. No witnesses to this heist.”
Skeen reached down into the open case for the revolver and checked to see if its chambers were filled. They were. It looked like a .38 Enfield but he did not take time to more closely examine the weapon. He snapped the cylinder shut and handed the revolver to Dilys. “Use it if you must.”
Some passengers crept up to where Skeen and Dilys were standing. “What’s going on here?” asked one man worriedly. “Why are we stopped? Where are we?”
As if in answer to his queries, the quiet was broken by an explosion of machine gun fire. Skeen motioned to Dilys to get down. He stooped and peered out the window. The gangsters had fired into the side of the bus. One of them, carrying a drum-magazine fitted gun, walked to the front of the bus and disappeared as he boarded it.
Leaving the other passengers behind, he and Dilys dashed back into the smoking compartment and stood at the head of the steps, he with the Tommy gun, she with the revolver.
Then they heard: “Okay, people! You see we mean business! Move off the bus and stand quietly outside and nobody’ll get hurt! Anyone who opens his trap gets to talk to my chopper here! Hey!!….”
They heard a splash, a howl of pain, cursing, then a burst of machine gun fire. Then they heard something metallic being kicked.
“And that’s what’ll happen to anyone else!”
They heard a woman scream in hysterics.
“Hey, mister, shut your tail up or you’ll both taste lead! I can’t stand screaming broads!”
They heard a male voice say something indecipherable. Skeen thought he heard the word “killer.”
“Tell it to the Marines, mister!” There was another burst of machine gun fire.
“See! Any questions, folks? Don’t be dopes! Now get up and come out of your rabbit holes and move out one at a time with your hands up!”
Skeen and Dilys heard a rustle of movement from below. The gangster yelled out, “Hey, Finnegan! You got the folks up there in hand? Anybody gives you any back-talk, spray ‘em!”
Skeen glanced over through the glass divider at the hawk-nosed man, who was still unconscious. He made a split-second decision. Silence at this point might make the situation worse. These men were willing to kill at the slightest provocation. Counting on the interior to muffle his voice, he shouted, “Yeah, I got ‘em!” Obviously the gangster below was not familiar with the bus’s layout.
Only a corner of the central aisle below was visible from the top of the steps. Skeen saw legs moving from the last staterooms on either side of the aisle to the front of the bus. He heard the gangster below. “Come on, come on! Move it!”
Then it was quiet for a moment, except for the movement of passengers to the front and the sobbing of one woman.
“Hey, Finnegan! We’re clear down here! Where are your people? Get ‘em moving!”
This time, Skeen remained silent.
“Hey! What’s the problem up there? You deaf? We don’t have all day!”
Skeen glanced at the passengers who were looking in through the smoking compartment’s divider, most of them with horror at him holding the submachine gun. He held a finger to his lips and shook his head. They still did not know what was happening below. Pickwick had done a superb job of sound-proofing the vehicle. The old gentleman with the pipe sat slumped in his chair. The pipe had dropped from his lips.
“Hey, up there! Wake up!” Skeen and Dilys heard another burst of machine gun fire, closer now. They heard glass tinkle and a breeze of cordite wafted up the steps. Apparently some overhead lights had been shot out when the gangster fired into the ceiling.
Skeen flipped the safety off on the gun in his hands, moved the lever to semi-automatic, poised a finger over the trigger, and gripped the wooden handle between the trigger guard and the stock and the one beneath the barrel. He motioned Dilys to the side and stepped out of sight to the side of the steps.
They heard a tentative step fall on the first carpeted step, then another. When he heard the third step, Skeen quickly moved to the head of the steps, and saw the gangster looking up cautiously. Before the gangster could bring his gun up, Skeen pressed his trigger, holding the gun at waist level.
As it chattered and spat out the spent shells on either side of him, the gun vibrated in his hands and seemed to want to escape his hold on it. But it was only a short burst. The gangster had a surprised look on his face, and as he fell backwards, his expression changed to one of resentful petulance. Six or seven holes had bloomed on the cloth of his overcoat, and one in his neck. When he fell on his back on the carpeted aisle below, still clutching his gun, his kicking legs sprawled over the first three steps, his gun fired a short burst as his trigger finger reacted to his death throes.
Skeen noticed that the overcoat, trousers, and shoes were wet with something other than blood.
Skeen dashed down the steps and leapt over the body, stopping only to pick up the man’s gun. The lower deck was empty of all passengers. He rushed down the aisle to the galley. The door was open. Inside, lying nearly atop each other, were Rufus Lister, the cook, and the other porter. All dead. The metal coffee urn lay between Lister’s feet. The carpet Skeen stood on squished and was soaked with still steaming coffee. They must have tried to scald the gunman’s face and missed it.
He saw the victims of the second burst of machine gun fire, a young couple seated just behind the driver’s perch, shot where they sat in the compartment. Both bodies had slid to the floor, soaked in blood.
Skeen glanced up at the driver’s seat. Cody Hosk was not in it.
He swung around and stood on the last step at the boarding door, which was open.
The passengers who had debouched stood with their hands up against the side of the bus. Facing them were the remaining four gangsters, their machine guns held at the ready. Skeen wondered why they hadn’t gone into the bus to investigate the delay of the upper deck passengers. Perhaps they thought it was just the first gunman seeing to business with his “chopper.”
The two gunmen closest to him glanced in his direction. Their jaws dropped and the gunmen pivoted to shoot at him. Skeen dropped the drummed gun, fell to one knee, and opened fire in short bursts. Just as the pair twisted and fell, firing wildly in the air, the other two gunmen saw what was happening and turned to fire at Skeen, one of them yelling, “Sheez!”
He killed them, as well. One of them, the fourth one, didn’t even bother to try to fire back, but abruptly turned and fled. It was too late. He was pelted with half a dozen slugs from Skeen’s gun and tumbled face down in the weeds.
The four bodies remained still. The passengers held at gunpoint had not had time to even drop for cover. They stood looking dumbly between the bodies and Skeen.
One of the passengers had collapsed holding a leg. He had been struck by some flailing gunman’s wild shot.
Skeen turned and saw Cody Hosk emerge from in front of the bus, a revolver in his hand aimed directly at him. He was wearing a plaid shirt now, but also the blue trousers of the driver’s uniform.
“You son of a bitch! I smelled trouble in you!”
Skeen pulled the trigger of the submachine gun. It clicked. He dropped the gun and quickly reached for the drummed weapon next to him. He just might have enough time to bring it up and fire before Hosk could.
He never knew. Another shot rang out and Hosk clutched his upper right arm with a cry of pain. The revolver dropped from his hand and he sank to his knees keening through gritted teeth.
Skeen glanced around and saw Dilys standing on the bottom step of the bus, holding the heavy, long-barreled revolver in both hands. He rose and went to Hosk and picked up his revolver.
Skeen strode to Dilys. She let her revolver droop at her side. He dropped Hosk’s gun and simply touched her arm. She stared down at him blankly. Her hands were trembling. She was in temporary shock.
“Did you aim to kill him?” Skeen asked.
“No,” Dilys answered. “I just aimed at him.”
Skeen was in a slight state of shock, himself. He turned to view the carnage before him. The passengers seemed to be in shock, as well. The man who had been hit moaned in the arms of his wife. Skeen saw a patch of blood on the man’s pants leg. He was wounded, but not mortally.
Skeen lay down the submachine gun and reached into his jacket for his cigarette case. He held the cigarette for a moment before lighting it with his gold lighter.
Dilys stepped down from the bus and joined him silently at his side.
He sighed and muttered, “What hath Skeen wrought?”