Three minutes after she walked in the front door, Crissa had the manager and two clerks facedown on the floor, their hands bound behind them with plastic cuffs.
She took away their guns—snub-noses in belt clip holsters—and dumped them in the flip-top trash can against the wall. All three had been wearing their guns openly, but they hadn’t gone for them. She’d drawn the Glock, come around the counter fast, gesturing at the floor, and they’d knelt without protest, hands behind their heads. They knew the drill, valued their lives more than the money.
She put the Glock away, went back and locked the front door. Rain slanted out of the gray sky, ran down the plate-glass window. Only 4:00 P.M., but nearly night already. They’d turned on the neon sign that read CHECK CASHING MONEY TRANSFERS PAY DAY LOANS. She hit a wall switch and the sign buzzed, went dark. She flipped the old-fashioned door placard to CLOSED.
When she crossed behind the counter again, the men hadn’t moved. All three were Latinos, one older and grayer, the manager. They were lying still, waiting it out.
She went through a door into the back room—desk, filing cabinets, a big green Honeywell safe. The safe door was ajar, as expected. She found the breaker box on the wall, clicked everything to OFF. The office lights blinked out; the computer on the desk hummed and died.
At the metal fire door, she listened, heard the sound of an engine outside in the alley. She rapped twice with gloved knuckles. After a moment, there came an answering knock from outside. She set her hand on the panic bar, paused. If the rear door alarm was connected to a separate breaker box—one she hadn’t found—they were in trouble.
She took a breath, pushed. The lock clicked open, the door swung out. Charlie Glass loomed in the rain, in a gray trench coat like hers, baseball cap pulled low. She stepped aside to let him in, saw the Toyota SUV in the alley, wipers on, cargo door open, Smitty at the wheel.
Glass knelt in front of the safe without speaking, took a canvas bag from his coat and shook it open.
She went back out to where the men lay. One of the clerks twisted his face from the floor to look at her. The manager hissed something at him.
“Silencio,” she said. “No se mueva.”
She went to the window, looked out. The rain was coming down harder, bouncing off the sidewalk. No one walking around out there. Cars splashed by with their headlights on.
A short whistle from the back. She said, “Relájese. Es casi sobre,” to the men on the floor and went into the back room again.
The bag was open on the desk, half full of banded stacks of cash. Glass was using a screwdriver to pry open the tray of the DVR recorder on a shelf. It was fed by three surveillance cameras, two in the front, the other back here. She looked around, saw the second recorder on another shelf, in an opposite corner near the floor. She’d missed it the first time.
“Backup,” she said, and pointed. He nodded, popped the disc from the open tray. While he worked on the second one, she began opening filing cabinets. The third was full of silver DVDs in slim plastic cases, dates written on them in black marker.
“Got ’em,” she said. She’d been in the store a week earlier, would be on that day’s surveillance disc. She took all of them to be sure, spilling them into the bag atop the money. He dropped the other two discs in, drew the bag’s drawstrings tight, hefted it on his shoulder.
They went out into the rain. Glass tossed the bag into the rear of the SUV, got in behind it, and pulled the cargo door shut. She went around to the passenger side, climbed up. Smitty pulled away without a word. When they reached the end of the alley, he switched his headlights on and made a left onto the street.
“Any problems?” he said.
“No.” She slipped off the long dark wig, folded it carefully, put it inside the black plastic garbage bag at her feet. She flipped down the visor and looked in the mirror there, ran her fingers through her close-cropped hair where the wig had flattened it.
They were on a busy street, early rush hour traffic slowed by the rain. Smitty stopped at a red light, and they sat there, the only sound the clicking of the wipers. He began to tap stubby gloved fingers on the wheel, looked up at the light. He was a mechanic, had stolen the SUV the day before from a long-term lot at the airport. The theft likely hadn’t been discovered yet, but she knew there was always the risk, the window of exposure before they were safe again.
She leaned over the seat. Glass lay under a blanket in back, the bag in there with him. He was black, bald, and six-four, hard to miss. He’d stay out of sight until they were clear of the city.
“You okay?” she said.
“A little longer.”
When the light changed, they went up a block, then turned onto the big yellow bridge that spanned the Monongahela. A cargo barge chugged along far below them, wake churning behind it. Rain swept the surface of the river.
She powered the window down halfway, felt the wet wind on her face, took her first deep breath since she’d walked into the store. She let it out easy, closed her eyes, willed her heartbeat to slow.
“Man, do I need to take a piss,” Smitty said.
When she opened her eyes after a while, they were in the hills, trees on both sides of the road. She rolled her neck to work the stiffness out, adjusted the dashboard vents so the heat blew directly on her legs.
“I mean a serious piss,” Smitty said.
She looked behind them, no cars. A sign ahead said WELCOME TO MOON TOWNSHIP.
Five minutes later, they pulled into the gas station, stopping alongside the cracked concrete isle where pumps had once been. She got out, the wind pulling at her, went to the closed bay doors. She caught the handle at the bottom of the right-hand door, heaved up until it was at chest level, then ducked through.
Inside was as they’d left it. Her rented Taurus and Glass’s Acura were parked side by side in the other bay, noses out. She pushed the door up the rest of the way, stepped aside as Smitty drove in. When he shut the engine off, she caught the handle, using her weight to drag the door closed.
Smitty left the headlights on, got out. He’d found this place for them, the station abandoned for years, the lifts and hydraulic equipment gone, rusted parts and old tires left behind. She opened the back latch, and Glass climbed out with the bag. Smitty went to the far wall, unzipped, and began to urinate loudly against the concrete.
Glass thumped the bag onto the hood.
“Let’s have a look,” she said.
He set the DVDs aside, and they counted the money together, passing it between them, lining up the stacks on the still-warm hood. Smitty came back, zipping up.
“Ninety-four five,” she said when they were done.
“I’ve got the same,” Glass said. “Shit.”
“Ninety-four?” Smitty said. “Are you sure? I thought we were talking close to three hundred?”
“That’s what I was told,” Glass said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Crissa looked at the money. Thirty-one five take-home. Hardly worth the trip. No wonder they’d given it up so easy.
“I could tell it wasn’t three hundred when I started pulling it out of the safe,” Glass said, “but I didn’t want to say anything until we counted it. They must have moved some money, made a deposit the night before.”
“Or they had another safe somewhere else,” she said, “and we missed it.”
“God damn it,” Smitty said.
“A Friday,” Glass said. “They should have been flush. I need to get with my guy, find out what happened.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “We’re not going back.”
“God damn it,” Smitty said again.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get moving.”
She disassembled the Glock, dropped the parts into an open fifty-five-gallon drum of waste oil against the wall, watched them sink. It was the only weapon any of them had carried.
Glass was dividing the money into three piles on the hood, using rubber bands on the loose bills. She popped the trunk of the Taurus, took out an overnight bag. Glass had gotten his own suitcase from the Acura and opened it on the floor. He began filling it with cash. Smitty was still looking at his share of the money on the hood.
“Count it all you want,” she said. “It’s not going to change. Way it goes sometimes. Nothing for it.”
She put her share of the money into the bag, zipped it shut, and carried it back to the Taurus. It went into the trunk alongside another suitcase. Folded beside it was her thigh-length leather coat. She took off the trench coat, dropped it in, put on the leather, and shut the lid.
“It didn’t turn out the way we planned,” she said, “but that was good work. Both of you.”
Smitty loaded his money into a canvas gym bag. Glass stowed his suitcase in the Acura’s trunk.
“This got fucked up,” he said, “and that’s on me. But this isn’t a bad thing we got going.”
She looked at him.
“You going in front, all innocent like that,” he said. “It’s under control before they even know what happened. You stick around out here, we can do some more work.”
She shook her head.
“You’re breaking up a good thing,” he said.
“Some other time.”
She found a rusted brake shoe, got the bag with the wig out. She dropped the shoe in, tied the top of the bag, and sank it in the waste oil.
“I’ll take the discs with me,” Glass said. “Burn them.”
Wind blew against the bay doors. Smitty had wedged the gym bag behind an empty tool cabinet and was stacking tires against it. He’d drop the SUV somewhere in the city, keys in the ignition, then come back for the money, was trusting them enough to hide it in front of them. But he and Glass were locals. If one stole from the other, it would get settled sooner or later. Their world was too small.
“I guess that’s it,” she said. “See you both down the road.”
Glass went to the other bay door, unlatched it, began to push it up. She got into the Taurus, started the engine. As the door rose, she waited to see police cars beyond, flashing lights, men with guns.
The lot was empty. Trees swayed in the wind.
He stepped aside as she pulled out. She turned wipers and headlights on, steered out of the lot and onto the road.
Two miles later, she pulled into a truck stop across from the interstate ramp, parking beside a green Dumpster. She popped the trunk and got out, rain slashing down in the gray half-light. She bundled the trench coat, tossed it through the Dumpster’s open hatch, got back behind the wheel. Then she pulled out of the lot and cut across the road and onto the ramp, headed east.
* * *
A half hour out of Pittsburgh, the rain turned to snow. She was in mountains now, on curving roads that ran through dry tunnels and then back out into weather. The wind was worse, too. Twice she felt the Taurus drift on the wet blacktop.
The snow was blowing almost horizontally, enough of it on the road that she couldn’t see the center line anymore. On her left was a high rock wall. To her right, a low guardrail and a long drop into the trees below.
The wipers swished, ice crusting on the blades. Her fingers were tight on the wheel. She’d known the storm was coming, had hoped to beat it, be clear of the mountains before it got serious. Now, with snow on the road and a six-hour drive ahead of her, she could feel the tension building in her back and neck.
Out of a lit tunnel and into a downgrade, and the Taurus’s rear end began to slew to the left, into the opposite lane. She turned in the direction of the skid, worked the brake and gas until the car straightened again. She let her breath out slow, her palms damp inside the gloves.
The windshield was fogging, so she switched the defroster to HIGH. The glass began to clear. A car hadn’t come from the opposite direction for more than five minutes. The storm was keeping everyone home.
She felt wind push the car, the wheels slip again. Ahead of her, the road curved and another tunnel opened. Lights inside, tiled walls, and she relaxed as she felt the tires grip dry pavement. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. On the other side it was dark as night, snow swirling in her headlights.
The speedometer needle hovered at thirty-five when she passed the scenic outlook, the brown and white police cruiser parked there. She slowed to thirty, looked in the rearview, saw the cruiser swing out after her, rollers on.
She watched as it closed the distance, waiting for it to go around her, pass. It hung there in the rearview, red, blue, and yellow light painting the inside of the Taurus. Then a quick touch of the siren. She signaled, braked, and steered onto the shoulder, felt snow crunch under the tires.
The cruiser pulled up behind her at an angle. Two figures inside. She thought about the money in the trunk. Nothing for it. Nowhere to run.
She switched her hazards on, rested both hands on top of the wheel.
They kept her waiting while they ran the plates. She watched them in the rearview, the driver on his mike. Wind rocked the Taurus. Then both doors opened and they got out on either side—yellow raincoats, Smokey the Bear hats with plastic covers. State police. She watched them come up, one on each side, heads down against the wind. The driver had opened his coat. His right hand rested on a holstered sidearm.
When he reached her window, he made a rolling motion with his left hand. The second trooper played a flashlight beam into the backseat.
She powered down her window. The trooper was young, thick-necked, the bulky outline of a bulletproof vest beneath his uniform shirt.
“License, registration, and insurance please.”
“It’s a rental,” she said. “Hang on, I’ll get the contract.”
She unsnapped her shoulder belt, flicked the dome light on and leaned across the seat, got the glove box open. The flashlight beam shone through the passenger window, settled on her. She got the yellow rental contract out, then reached into a coat pocket for her wallet. The driver took a step back, his hand on the gun.
She flipped through the wallet, took out the laminated Connecticut driver’s license that said her name was Roberta Summersfield, the same name as on the contract.
He took the license and contract without speaking, looked at them briefly, walked back to the cruiser. The other trooper circled the Taurus, fanning the flashlight beam against the bodywork.
She settled her hands atop the wheel again to keep them from shaking. In the rearview, she could see the driver back on the mike. The other trooper watched her through the windshield, expressionless. Snow drifted through the open window, settled on the inside of the door, the sleeve of her jacket, melted.
The driver got out again, came up to her window, the license and contract in his left hand, the right on his weapon.
“Where are you headed, ma’am?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Pittsburgh. Business trip.”
He nodded, handed the documents back, looked at the other trooper. He clicked the flashlight off, shook his head.
“We had a hit-and-run on this road earlier,” the driver said. “We’re checking out all vehicles matching that description.”
She slid the license back into its plastic sleeve.
“You’ve got bigger problems, though,” he said.
She looked at him. The other trooper hadn’t moved.
“What’s that?” she said.
“It’ll snow most of the night, ten to twelve inches, likely. We’ll be closing some of these roads. Long a drive as you have, I’d strongly suggest you get off at the next exit—that’s Salisbury—check into a motel. Roads should be clear by morning.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that,” she said. She put the contract back in the glove box, shut it, breathing again now. “I was starting to get a little nervous out here anyway.”
“Half mile ahead on your right. It’s a steep exit ramp, so be careful. Have a good night now.” He touched his cap.
“I will,” she said.
She watched them walk back to the cruiser, get in. Lights still flashing, they U-turned, headed back the way they’d come. She watched their lights in the rearview until they were out of sight.
When she could trust herself to drive, she powered the window up, then pulled back onto the highway and into the storm.
Copyright © 2011 by Wallace Stroby