There was almost eleven-thousand dollars on the low-slung table in front of me. The neatly-banded blocks were all relatively small bills, none larger than a twenty, and were lined up straight and piled into little towers, organized by denomination. It looked like a city skyline in miniature. It was the most money I’d seen in a long time. It was mine—mine and the kid’s, rightfully—but I didn’t dare spend a dollar of it. It was too hot. But that wasn’t my fault. Not a bit.
I looked across the motel room at the kid, Dennis. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He talked to himself in a constant low drone.
I realized I couldn’t remember his last name, just that it was different from his sister, Mattie’s. They had different dads, I remembered that much. None of it meant anything now, though. The only things that mattered were the blood splattered across the kid’s t-shirt, slowly turning brown as it dried, and what would happen next. I should never have let him have a gun. Mattie warned me that he was a little twitchy, but it didn’t make sense to go into the place with only one of us armed and he swore to me that he could handle it. Believing him was my first mistake.
My second mistake was letting the girl drive the car. She held up fine the two other times she drove for me, but that was with my old partner, Jake, and nothing ever went wrong with Jake Barsi around. God, I missed that big, stupid bastard. He was dumb as a post, but his nerves were rock-solid and he took directions well. Who could have guessed that he would end up in prison for not paying child support? All those years and I didn’t even know he had kids.
That left me in the lurch, though. Mattie wasn’t really a partner so much as a fill-in, and the kind of job I could do alone wasn’t worth even trying to pull off. Too much risk for too little pay-out. When Mattie suggested her brother as a new third, I said no way. She told me to just meet the kid, give him a chance. He was an amateur, with no more experience than nickel-and-dime stuff. Literally–he busted open vending machines, Mattie told me, going on about how clever he was. A little twitchy, a little weird maybe, but clever and eager to learn.
Nothing about what she said seemed clever to me. I read once that crime, when you broke it down year by year, was the lowest-paid “profession” on the planet. Risking two to three years for maybe a few dozen bucks stolen from a vending machine didn’t seem smart to me. That’s why I went for the big stuff, and before now, I never had much trouble.
Maybe Jake was my good luck charm. Aside from a couple early jobs, he was my only partner and without him, I was seriously considering finding another line of work. But Mattie liked the excitement of being with an outlaw, pretending as if we were Bonnie and Clyde. She wouldn’t like the idea of my getting out of the racket. We’d also been balling long enough for me to know that she wouldn’t give up until I at least agreed to meet her brother, so I caved.
The kid was maybe twenty-three. He was small and wiry, with short, sandy hair and cheeks that looked like they never needed shaving. But he spoke well enough, and he had more or less the right answers to the questions I asked him. After a couple hours, I told him it was nice meeting him and that I’d let him know. When Mattie and I left, she wanted an answer. I told her I’d think about it and maybe we could try something if the right opportunity came along.
A few weeks later, it did. A buddy of mine told me about a check-cashing place, way on the other side of the state, where a friend of a friend used to work. This acquaintance got the can, doesn’t matter for what, and wanted a little revenge. He sold everything he knew about the place—its routine, its security, and so forth—to my buddy’s friend, who was willing to pass it along in exchange for a percentage.
My buddy offered me the same deal and when I heard the details, I figured it sounded safe enough. Two employees, one manager-cashier and one guard, came in for pre-opening around seven in the morning, and then another cashier came in at eight to open the place. It stayed open until seven at night, Monday through Saturday, two cashiers and a guard on at any given time. On Friday mornings, they had an extra cashier because a lot of people got paid that day. They were flush with cash for the same reason. That came in Thursday afternoons.
The security sounded solid, but unexceptional. All electronic locks, the PIN for which would be changed whenever an employee left. Except there were manager’s master codes for both the doors and the safe which were never changed, cuz the guy worked there for years and thought nobody knew about them. At least three people knew them now and at least one of us was going to make use of that knowledge.
I told Mattie about it, giving her enough detail to let her know what was going on and that, if I thought Dennis was up for the challenge after talking to him again, I’d give him his chance. She was pretty pleased and I was happy with the way she proved it to me. They may only have been half-siblings, but she wanted good things for her little brother–better than robbing vending machines, anyway.
So I agreed to bring the kid in, figuring this was probably the safest way I’d find to test him out. With the manager’s codes and only three people in the place, I almost figured Mattie and I could do it alone, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving an empty car running out back of the place. That would only draw attention. That, and Mattie never used a gun; she preferred to drive. She told me Dennis used to go plinking with his dad, so he knew the basics of firearms, at least. Since he really only needed to point a gun at a couple of people and make sure they stood still, it should be fine. Anybody could handle that much, she argued. I caved again.
The next Thursday afternoon, I got Mattie and her brother into the motel room I rented a day earlier. I outlined everything to them, all the details. The girl was excited, and Dennis pretended to be. It got into his nerves before I even finished talking. Mattie could tell it was bothering me, the way the kid was acting, but she took me aside, reminded me it was too late to back out and promised Dennis would be okay. “It’s just nerves. It’s his first time.”
“Sure,” I told her. “And what happens if he blows it all up in our faces?”
“He won’t.” She leaned up and kissed the side of my neck, the way she knew I liked. “Love me?”
I didn’t think I did, but I liked her well enough, and now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Sure.”
“Then trust me, Paul. I know my brother. He’ll be fine.” She kissed me again, on the lips this time. She broke away and said, “And when it’s all over, when we’ve got the money, I’ll really show you how much I appreciate you giving him this chance, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to imagine it, but succeeding only in thinking about how everything could go wrong.
As bad as my imagination was, the reality was worse.
We waited until just after seven before barging into the back door of Cash Express. It opened into a counting room where a withered-looking little woman in a yellow and red polo-shirt with the chain’s logo embroidered on the sleeve was seated at a cramped desk, sneaking a smoke. The safe, a waist-high job bolted to the floor, was to her right. She turned left as we entered and her eyes went wide, stretching the folds of skin around them. But she didn’t say a word, just let the cigarette fall to the floor and raised her hands over her head. We were both old pros.
“Who else is in here?” I asked.
“Just Sunil, the other cashier, and Hank, the evening guard.”
“Get them in here.” I gestured with the .38 revolver in my fist.
The old woman went to the door and called out, “Sunil? Hank? Come back here a sec, will you?”
Behind me, I could feel the energy pouring off of Dennis. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He had his own gun, a .380 automatic Mattie got for him somewhere, clasped close to his chest. His knit ski-mask was identical to the black one I wore, except his was red and it was already showing darker spots on his forehead where the sweat was soaking through. I could practically hear his knees knocking together.
The old woman turned back to the room, nodded at me and stepped off to one side, pausing only to grind the cigarette into the floor before again raising her hands over her head. A moment later, a handsome, dark-skinned guy a little older than Dennis appeared in the doorway. His eyes met mine and went as wide as the old woman’s had, but he never got a chance to do anything else. A bam sounded right by my ear and then a bright-red spot appeared among the lively colors of the handsome kid’s shirt, dead-center on the heart. He fell to the floor without making a sound, collapsing face-first onto the linoleum. A pool of blood began to spread beneath him.
The old woman screamed and made for the door, colliding with a middle-aged guy wearing a grey uniform coming from the other side. I turned to see Dennis holding the gun at arm’s length, his eyes huge and staring through the holes in his mask.
“You stupid fuck!” I spat as I made for the front of the room, leaping over the dead kid, avoiding the pooling blood. I slammed the door shut, wedged the desk-chair under the handle, and then turned to the safe in the corner.
My fingers were clumsy with nerves, anger, and adrenaline, but on the third try the manager’s code for the safe worked just as well as the one for the door had. I started shoveling banded bills into the plastic grocery bags I brought for that purpose. Every instinct told me to run, to cut my losses, but I’d be damned if I left empty-handed.
I threw another look at Dennis and saw the kid had pulled his mask off and was on his knees, leaning down over the guy he shot. The gun was on the floor nearby and he was trying to turn the other kid over. “What the hell are doing? Grab a bag!”
Dennis shook his head. “He might still. . . I didn’t mean it! Maybe we can help him!”
“Too damned late! We got maybe thirty seconds before that guard thinks of the back door!”
I turned back to the safe. Two bags full of cash. I had two more, but decided not to press my luck. It’d be a miracle if we got out of here and another if we didn’t get picked up right off the bat. I should have listened to my gut and ignored Mattie’s arguments about her brother.
“Pick up that mask and gun,” I said, shoving a last packet of bills into the pocket of my jeans as I stood. The kid was motionless, just staring down at what he’d done.
“Get your god-damned shit together!” I shouted, leveling a kick at the kid’s ribs. It connected and seemed to jolt him back to himself. He looked at me, tears in his eyes, then snatched the mask and gun up, found his feet, and stumbled to the backdoor.
That was when the shit really hit the fan. The alley was empty, except for a couple of dumpsters and the kind of crap that accumulates in alleys everywhere. No car. No Mattie. My heart jumped in my chest, the same way it did when Dennis fired the gun. My hand went to the burner in my back pocket, but that was no good. Even if Mattie answered, the cops would be there before a call could connect.
We were fucked, but there was no time to dwell on it – not unless I wanted nothing but time to think, sitting in a cell somewhere. I wasn’t going to let that happen, not if there was any way to avoid it.
“Run!” I told the kid, shifting the bags to my left hand and setting out at the kind of fast lope I learned as a cross-country runner in high-school. It was a long time since my school years, but I was still in reasonably good shape, and there wasn’t any other option. I could hear sirens not too far off.
Keeping to alleys as much as we could, somehow we found our way to the cross-street that connected with the highway where the motel was. We saw other people on foot and every once in a while, a passing police cruiser, but fortunately it was dark enough that nobody noticed Dennis’s shirt.
It took maybe half an hour to reach the highway and two hours more, walking far off the edge of the road, to make it back to the motel. Every few minutes, I tried calling Mattie’s cellphone, but there was no answer. Along the way, I ditched the masks and Dennis’s gun in a foul-smelling slough a couple of miles from the motel. There was no reason for anyone to go in there and I hoped the smell would keep the stuff from being discovered any time soon.
Dennis chattered the entire way, mouth moving a mile a minute, alternately making apologies to the kid he killed and worrying about the cops coming after him. Sometimes, it sounded like he thought they already had him and he was trying to explain what happened, as if that would do any good. More than once, I told him to shut the fuck up, but it was like he couldn’t even hear me. After a while, when we were out along the highway, I punched him squarely in the jaw out of sheer frustration, knocking him to the ground, but even that only quieted him down for a couple of minutes.
I was angry enough to shoot him, but I’d never killed anyone before and now wasn’t the time to start. Another body wouldn’t do anyone any good. More than ten years in this business, and I’d never had a job go so badly wrong. At least I knew what Dennis’s problem was–he was “a little twitchy.” That didn’t explain his sister leaving us high and dry. I’d give her a chance to explain, but who knew? I might still kill someone that night.
The moment we got into the motel room, I dropped the bags on the scarred coffee table and tried calling Mattie again. It began to ring–from the bathroom. She used it before we left and must have taken the phone out of her purse for some reason then forgotten it. That was just great.
I spent over an hour stewing, counting the money, and listening to Dennis ramble--to himself, to a handsome dead kid, to imaginary cops. Mattie had my car and I had no way to contact her. Dennis had no change of clothes—my shirts would all be suspiciously big on him—and his face might well be on camera at the check-cashing place, so we couldn’t go far from the room. There wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope Mattie came back.
After a while I started to calm down a little. Soothed by the sight and feel of all that money, my thoughts came together better. Things went just about as bad as they possibly could, but despite everything else, as long as Mattie didn’t get picked up and she came back before too long, I wanted to believe that we might still be okay.
That stopped me. With what already happened, Mattie being picked up was a possibility I hadn’t even thought about before. When did she leave, exactly? When Dennis fired that shot? Or did something else spook her first? In all the confusion that was happening inside Cash Express, I had no clue what might have been happening outside. Maybe she knew something I didn’t.
I was getting worried all over again and about something I had absolutely no control over. I stood up and began pacing the room, trying to think of something, some way forward, some path out of this fucking maze I was trapped in. My eyes fell on the piles of cash and I wanted to spit. All that money and it couldn’t do me any good–not until I was far, far away from this place.
I walked back and forth, trying to squeeze an idea out of my brain. I was drawing a blank. I grabbed up my jacket from the back of the chair by the door and said, “I’m going out.”
Dennis hadn’t really shut up in hours, no matter what I said or did to him. It was like he was in his own world. Now, finally, somehow I got through to him. “What?” His voice was small and lost-sounding.
“I’m going out.” I slipped my arms into the jacket.
There was a convenience store across the highway from the motel. There was really no place else to go and it was as good a destination as any. “Across the street. Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?”
Dennis shook his head, his eyes falling again to the table, to the money and my gun. I put it down the moment we got back to the room and I intended for it to stay there until we checked out. Unless you’re actively on a job, carrying a gun is stupid. In a lot of places, that’s inside time right there, even if the cops never connect you to anything else. So the gun stayed here, along with the cash and Dennis. I wasn’t too worried about that, anyway. I figured what happened tonight would turn him off guns, maybe permanently.
Dennis tore his eyes from the table and looked up at me. His lips started moving again, but now, no sound came out. I went over to stand in front of him, but he wasn’t really seeing me anymore.
I said, “Maybe I can get you a shirt over there, too. You should get out of those clothes and take a shower.
The kid’s voice started getting louder, saying he was sorry over and over again.
“Hey,” I said. “Look at me.”
There was no answer except the chanted “sorrys”.
“Hey!” I clapped my hands right in his face.
Dennis jumped back so hard he half-turned over the chair he was in, setting it thumping back against the wall. If there were neighbors, they’d love that.
“Listen to me, you little fuck.”
Dennis finally looked at me again. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were still moving, but I knew he saw me.
“Don’t go anywhere, okay? And don’t open the door for anybody.”
“I can’t go to prison,” he half-whispered. He grabbed my arm and said, “You can’t let them take me. I didn’t mean it.” The tears were running down his cheeks now.
I sighed and pried his fingers from me. Part of me wanted to grab the bags and start walking up the highway just to get away from him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, not really sure if it was meant for his benefit or mine. I went out without waiting for him to respond.
Across the highway, the lights from the convenience store were like an island of light in an ocean of darkness. I went inside and saw a dark-skinned guy, Indian or Pakistani maybe, behind a plexiglass-protected counter. I flashed on the kid Dennis killed and a little pang went through me. Nobody ever got hurt on any of my jobs before. This wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t really help. It wouldn’t fly with the cops if we got picked up, either. Either Mattie had to come back or I needed to find another way out of town.
“Evening,” the guy at the counter said. I nodded, grabbed a basket, and went around the store, gathering up snacks and drinks. I wanted a beer in the worst way, but I needed a clear head.
Up by the register, there was a corner stuffed full of hats and t-shirts and hoodies, all with the logos of local sports teams. I picked up a shirt with a pair of stylized red socks on them and winced. The price-tag said forty-five bucks. Sometimes, the legal ways to rob someone seem more dishonest than just doing it with a gun. Gritting my teeth, I paid and got the hell out.
Outside, I stood for a moment under the night sky, wondering what was going to happen next. At the very edge of the parking lot, headlights flashed. I turned and after a few seconds, it happened again. All my senses went on high alert, but I forced myself to relax. Cops wouldn’t flash their lights at me, not headlights, anyway, and nobody knew I was here except Dennis. Was it possible the kid did something useful and found us a car?
I walked towards the car, just out of range of the sun-bright lights that splashed the tarmac around the gas-pumps. I recognized it as my own and when I was within ten feet, the window rolled down and Mattie’s voice said, “Paul! Paul!”
I kept my pace casual, pretending to be unsurprised, and angled towards the passenger side. I opened the door, slid into the car, grabbed her arm, and squeezed as hard as I could. “Where the fuck have you been?”
Mattie flinched. “I got scared. I heard the gunshot and just sort of took off. I went back, after, but there were cops all over the place. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then kind of ended up here. Are you okay? Where’s Dennis?”
I let my grip loosen. “At the motel and no, I’m not o-fucking-kay. Things were going fine until your dipshit brother randomly started shooting.”
“Oh shit. . . ” she whispered.
“He killed a kid.”
My hand fell away from Mattie’s arm, but then her hand found mine in the semi-darkness. She squeezed gently and said, “I’m sorry. I really am. But I never been so close to a gunshot before and all this crap started popping into my head and I got scared. That never happened to me before. Everything worked so smooth the other times.”
“That’s because Jake was with us.”
We were both silent a moment, then Mattie asked, “You got the money?”
“I got some money.”
I shook off her grasp, but her hand was persistent and found my thigh. “Dennis is okay?” she asked.
“I guess. . .” He was definitely not okay, but there wasn’t a thing either of us could do to help.
“Cops didn’t see you, obviously.”
“Not me, no. I got no idea who might have seen your brother. The little fucker took his mask off and actually tried to help the kid he shot. His face is probably on video.” I turned to her. “You swore to me he’d be okay.”
Mattie’s hand roamed across my lap. “I was wrong. . . I’m sorry. I really thought he’d get over the nerves. But it’s all gonna be fine, right? Nobody knows us around here and we got the money. We just gotta get out of the area.”
I moved her hand away from my crotch. “Let’s go. We’ll talk about it later.”
“We got a little time, don’t we?”
I turned and in the light that reached the car, I saw she was giving me a puppy-dog look, the kind she always used when she wanted to make extra nice.
“Paul. . . I told you I’d show you how much I appreciate you giving my brother a chance, didn’t I?”
“And I wanna show you how sorry I am. I was so scared something was gonna happen to you. We got a little time, don’t we?” she asked again.
Again, I ignored my instincts, and admitted we did. Mattie’s hand was in my lap again, fiddling with my zipper now, and a moment later, her head followed.
When we were done, we switched seats. I started the engine and drove across to the motel. I parked the car in front of the room. The lights were out inside. Maybe Dennis finally went to bed. It would do him some good, if so. I could use some sleep myself, for that matter.
I said to Mattie, “I wanna get out of here, but we better stay ‘til check out in the morning. Look bad if we just disappear.”
“Sure, if you say so, Paul.”
I pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. Despite myself, I tried to forgive her for screwing me and her brother over by disappearing. I wasn’t the type to forgive easily, but I did a lot of thinking while Mattie was hard at work proving how sorry she was. I decided that, aside from the handsome, dark-skinned kid’s death, the plan wasn’t really that changed. I felt bad about that kid, but I didn’t pull the trigger and getting caught wouldn’t bring him back to life. Maybe there was a way to give Dennis up without getting myself arrested, but Mattie would never forgive me and she knew too much about me and my life to risk pissing her off and then cutting her loose. There was no way I was ever working with her brother again, but that was a discussion for another day.
“Before we go in, just a word of warning. . . your brother’s not okay. He’s kind of messed up over what happened. He’s been rambling about how sorry he is and shit like that.”
Worry flashed across Mattie’s face, but she just nodded. We both got out of the car. Mattie grabbed the bag from the convenience store without my even asking. She really was eager to be forgiven.
I looked up at the sky again. I had a good chunk of money, I had the car and my girl back, and nobody saw my face. Things would work out okay as long as we kept a leash on Dennis.
At the door of the room, I turned to the girl and said, “Shooting that clerk really screwed with his head. Just give him the kid gloves, okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
I put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. The key fit fine, but it was like something was holding it in place, keeping the cylinder from turning. “Son of a bitch. What now?”
“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.
“The god-damned key.”
I jiggled the key and it shifted a little. I thought I heard something move inside the room, but I wasn’t sure. Something like hurried footsteps. Mattie looked at me; she heard it, too. “Dennis?” she called softly.
There was no answer, though, and the sound wasn’t repeated, so I twisted the key again. Finally, it gave with a small, metallic sound and the lock turned. Mattie flashed a sheepish grin. “Some night, huh?”
I opened the door, and gestured for Mattie to go ahead of me. The room was dark when I opened the door, but it was immediately lit up by an explosion of light and sound. Mattie screamed and fell backwards, the bag flying from her hand and blood spewing from her neck. Before I had a chance to understand what I was seeing, a giant fist punched me high on the side of the head and I joined her on the concrete curtain of the parking lot.
“I won’t go!” Dennis screamed, his voice just barely audible over the sound of repeated gunshots. “You can’t take me! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault! I won’t go!”
I fell on my side, Mattie directly in front of me. As my vision went dim, she stopped thrashing and lay still.
The sound of a hammer clicking on empty chambers and Dennis screaming began to fade out, like I was moving away from him, down a long padded hallway that absorbed all sound.
I tried to push myself up, but my arms and legs ignored me as ice began to spread through my body. Every instinct I’d been ignoring for days was screaming at me again, mocking me now. A little voice in my head sneered, “Just a little twitchy.”
Then everything was black and quiet and none of it mattered anymore.
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