Crissa pulled the ski mask over her face, shifted the front-end loader into neutral, looked across the blacktop at the ATM, the redbrick bank beyond. Heat lightning pulsed on the horizon.
The loader chugged and shook around her, the vibration coming up through her boots. With a gloved hand, she cleared condensation from the windscreen. At the far edge of the parking lot, near the trees, Hollis flashed the headlights of the stolen pickup.
She worked the bucket control lever with her right hand, heard the mechanism clank and hum. The bucket rose slowly. She’d stolen the loader from a construction site a half mile away, driven it here down back roads with the headlights off. They’d chosen the bank because of its location. Woods on three sides, and a highway in front. But at 3:00 A.M., the cars were few and moving fast.
She braked, pushed the steering column lever into first gear, stepped on the throttle pedal. The loader surged forward, eager. She tried to steer around a curb, but caught the edge, the big tires rolling over it, the cabin rising and falling.
The ATM was on a concrete island, the farthest of the three drive-through lanes. She came in at the wrong angle, had to brake, back up. The reverse sensor beeped, barely audible over the engine. As she backed and filled, she could see Hollis watching her through the windshield of the pickup, getting nervous.
She ran it in again, this time got the bucket lined up with the ATM, braked. On the screen, she could see flashing advertisements, one fading into another, the screen never dark. She raised the bucket so the bottom edge cleared the concrete island. If she misjudged, smashed the ATM rather than toppled it, she could back up, try again, but that would take more time, more exposure.
She was in range of the security cameras now, the point of no return. Her hands were clammy inside the gloves. Hollis started to ease the pickup forward, waiting for her. She let her breath out slowly, engaged the bucket safety to lock it into place, and hit the throttle.
The loader shuddered as the bucket’s edge met the base of the ATM, punching into plastic and metal. The ATM groaned, tilted forward into the bucket. The screen blinked out. An alarm began to sound within the bank.
She braked, worked the bucket control. With a screech and grind, the ATM began to come away from its base. It tilted farther into the bucket, then hung there, still bound to the island with cables and framework.
Hollis was out of the pickup now, ski mask on, pry bar in hand. Crissa raised the bucket half a foot higher, sparks hissing from the shattered base. This was the risky part. If the ATM broke loose before it was fully in the bucket, it would topple back and away. It would take too much time to right it again. They would have to leave it.
She shifted into neutral, hauled on the emergency brake. Hollis had his bar wedged into the base of the ATM, working it back and forth. The machine tilted another few inches, enough for him to walk up its back face, and bear down with his weight. He jumped down then, backed away. She raised the bucket again. Resistance at first, metal screaming, and then the ATM came out of the ground all at once, trailing wires and broken masonry, crashing deep into the bucket. She heard glass pop and break.
Hollis ran back to the pickup and threw the pry bar into the bed. She backed away from the island, the beeper sounding. Bits of plastic and glass littered the blacktop. Ten feet back, she stopped, braked.
Hollis drove the pickup in front of the loader. It was a big Dodge Ram with heavy-duty suspension and an oversized bed. In this part of South Carolina, it had been easy to find. He’d stolen it from the driveway of a darkened house only an hour ago.
He got out of the pickup to direct her, waving her to adjust in one direction, then the other. When he gave her the thumbs-up and stood back, she uncurled the bucket. The ATM crashed onto its back in the truck bed, the Dodge rocking on its springs. She reversed again, watching the rearview to make sure she cleared the curb. She backed toward the trees to the spot she’d picked, where the loader couldn’t be seen from the highway, then killed the engine. She pocketed the square ignition key. It was a universal fit for all John Deere loaders. This was the sixth time she had used it.
She opened the door, climbed down into the heat. Hollis had pulled the tarp down over the ATM, and was back behind the wheel of the pickup. She walked quickly to the truck, looked up into the glassy eyes of the two cameras mounted on the bank wall, then got in on the passenger side. In the distance, she could hear sirens.
They pulled away, the truck sluggish from the weight, the shocks squealing. He drove the wrong way out the entrance, bumped onto the highway.
“That one came up easier than the others,” she said. She took off her mask, shoved it into a pocket of her windbreaker. Her face was damp with perspiration.
“Could have fooled me.” He was watching the rearview for lights. The sirens grew louder.
“Mask,” she said.
She reached over to steady the wheel while he pulled off his mask.
“Up here,” she said. “On the right.” They’d rehearsed the route, but it was easy to miss the turn in the dark. He steered onto a side road that led into woods.
“You can turn on the lights now,” she said. “And slow down.”
He popped the headlights on, eased off the gas. His dark face glistened with sweat.
“Don’t forget that mask when we’re done,” she said. “DNA.”
“I won’t.” The windshield was fogging now. He leaned over the steering wheel, and wiped at the glass with a gloved hand.
“You don’t need to do that,” she said. She fiddled with the dashboard controls, turned on the defroster. The fan hummed, and the glass began to clear. In the harsh light of the headlamps, the trees on both sides of the road seemed to be reaching toward them.
“This thing’s built for heavy loads,” he said. “Handles good even with all this weight. Maybe we should keep it, use it next time.”
“No way.” They’d stolen a different pickup each time, abandoned it when they were done. “Last thing you want is to be driving around in a hot truck.”
“We can switch out the plates.”
“Forget it. Besides, there isn’t going to be a next time. Not for me.”
He looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve done this six times now, each time the same way. How long before they start staking out construction sites close to banks? Or disabling front-end loaders?”
“But we’ve moved around. Three different states—”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time. It was a good gig, but we played it out. Time to walk away.”
“Hate to hear you say that.”
They were on a hill now. The ATM slid in the bed, thumped one of the walls. He shifted into low gear. She heard the far-off rumble of thunder.
“You and Rorey want to keep working it, I’ll teach you how to run a loader,” she said.
“It’s not hard, and you’ve got the key. But my advice is to move on. We’ve all made enough from this anyway.”
“Rorey,” he said. “Only reason I’m working with that cracker is because of you.”
She’d brought Rorey in, on the word of a contact she had in Georgia. It was Hollis’s gig, but the two men he’d been using—one a laid-off heavy equipment operator—had both landed long bids on drug charges. Hollis had found the man in Georgia, who found Crissa. She’d come on board, and helped Hollis fine-tune the plan to only hit machines on Friday and Saturday nights when they were loaded for the weekend. She’d brought Rorey in as the third man, but there had been friction between the two from the start.
“Dump him,” she said. “Find someone else. Rorey’s an adult, he’ll get over it.”
“When he starts talking that good ol’ boy bullshit, I like to bend that crowbar over his head. No way I’d work with him without you there.”
“Then there’s your answer.” She looked out the window at woods passing by. The road had leveled off now, and soon she could see darkened farmhouses, fields, grain silos.
“Not too fast,” she said. “You’ll miss it.”
She unzipped a windbreaker pocket, took out the disposable cell phone, powered it up. She dialed Rorey, and waited. When he answered, she said, “How’s it look?”
“Good to go. Everything quiet. You?” If something had gone wrong on either end, their code word was “zero.” It meant things had fallen apart, one way or another, to split up and keep going.
“All good,” she said. “We’re close.”
“I’ll leave the light on. See you in a few.” He ended the call.
“So, what are you going to do next?” Hollis said.
“Like I said in the beginning, I was just down here to build up the nest egg. I need to head back north.”
“Nice nest egg.”
Each of the ATMs they’d hit had carried from $30,000 to $150,000 in tens and twenties. When Hollis had first told her about the work, she’d doubted him. The numbers sounded too high. But they’d taken $125,000 from the first machine; $80,000 from the second. At her hotel back in Columbia was a pair of suitcases containing $175,000, her split of what they’d taken so far.
“It worked out,” she said. “Thanks for bringing me in.”
“You made it better. Improved my game. Now I have to start from scratch.”
“If I ever get up north, put something together, is there a way I can reach out to you? Someone you use up there?”
“No,” she said. “Not yet. Not anymore.”
She thought about Hector Suarez, dead in the trunk of his car on a Jersey City street. Cut and shot over trouble she’d brought down on him. He’d been her contact for the three years she’d lived in New York. She hadn’t had another since, just a loose-knit group of people she trusted to varying degrees, none very much.
She’d settled the trouble up there, but the name she’d been using—Roberta Summersfield—had been compromised. She’d left the city with nothing but the clothes on her back and a suitcase full of cash. Since then, she’d been Linda Hendryx, the name on the forged passport and driver’s license she’d kept for emergencies. The only people who knew her as Crissa Stone were back in Texas. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life there and had fled long ago.
“Up here on the left,” she said. “See the mailbox?”
He slowed, then turned into a gravel road that led through a tobacco field. The ATM slid in the bed again as they made the turn, bumped up the road. He switched off the headlights. At the end of the road was a big tractor barn, slivers of light leaking out from around closed doors. A flashlight blinked at them, Rorey out front, signaling the all-clear.
“Just take it easy,” she said to Hollis. “We’ll all be out of here in an hour. You don’t ever have to see him again if you don’t want to.”
“With that motherfucker, it’ll be too soon.”
Rorey was pushing open one of the big doors. Hollis braked, waited. When the opening was wide enough, he drove through onto a concrete floor. Rorey began to push the door shut behind them.
“Pull up farther,” she said. “We need room to work.”
There was a single drop lamp hanging over a workbench, a pool of light on the floor beneath it. Moths fluttered around the bulb. Her rented Ford was parked on one side of the barn, out of the way, nose out. Next to it was Rorey’s battered white van. Rorey had found this place, sat on it for three days to make sure it was out of use. Hollis shut the engine off. From outside, another rumble of thunder.
“Remember what I told you,” she said.
She got out. The barn smelled of oil and straw, the air heavy with humidity. Rorey came toward her. He wore a white T-shirt, his thick forearms covered with fading blue tattoos.
He played the flashlight beam into the truck bed. “How’d we do?”
“Good enough.” She opened the gate, let it clank down. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
“I heard sirens.”
“Alarm went off soon as we hit the machine. But they were pretty far off. We never saw them.
Hollis got out. Rorey hopped up into the bed, pulled the tarp back to expose the smashed screen. “Let’s get it out on the floor.”
She climbed up beside him, went to the top of the machine, and pushed, putting her weight into it. It barely moved. Rorey jumped down, found a handhold on the bottom of the machine, and began to pull. He looked at Hollis. “You crippled?”
“You heard me.” Rorey let go of the machine.
“Hollis,” she said. “Give me a hand up here.” He looked at her, then back at Rorey. He climbed up onto the truck bed.
“Equal shares, equal work,” Rorey said.
“Do not start that shit,” Hollis said, not looking at him. He bent beside Crissa, and together they braced themselves against the top of the ATM.
“What shit is that?” Rorey said.
“Quit it,” she said. “Let’s get this thing down.”
They began to push, the ATM sliding across the bed. Hollis grunted with the effort. Rorey pulled until they got the machine onto the open gate.
“Hold it there,” she said. She was breathing hard. Beneath the windbreaker, her T-shirt clung in patches to her skin.
She hopped down, found a grip on the base of the machine.
“Easy now,” she said to Rorey. “Let’s tilt it so it lands right. Watch your feet. On my count.” She looked at Hollis. “You ready?”
He nodded, bent against the machine.
“Here we go,” she said. “One, two, three.”
Hollis groaned, pushed, as she and Rorey pulled. The machine hung there on the gate for a moment, resisting, and then suddenly it was sliding toward them, tipping.
“Watch it!” Hollis said. They moved back fast, out of the way. The ATM crashed facedown onto the concrete, dust rising high around it.
“Jesus Christ,” Rorey said. “What the hell’s your problem?”
“I said ‘watch it.’”
“Almost broke my Goddamn foot.”
“Maybe you need to move quicker.”
“I move quick enough. You want to find out?”
“Enough,” she said. “If you two can stop measuring dicks for a little while, I’d like to get this done and get out of here. Rorey, get your torch.”
He glared at Hollis for a moment, then turned away and went to the workbench. An acetylene tank was mounted on a handcart, hose wound around the gauges, the silver torch nozzle hanging. It was the only piece of equipment they’d taken from job to job. Everything else had been stolen as needed.
“Come on,” she said to Hollis. “Take a walk with me.”
He jumped down from the bed as Rorey wheeled the tanks over, a pair of heavy gloves under his arm. They met each other’s eyes, but Hollis kept moving. Crissa opened the barn’s side door, looked out into the night. The air was thick and still. Lightning flashed on the horizon.
Behind her, gas hissed as Rorey opened the valves. He pulled a crumpled pack of Marlboros from the pocket of his T-shirt, shook one out. Studying the ATM, he speared his lips with the cigarette, then pulled on the gloves, triggered the igniter. Flame leaped from the torch nozzle. He adjusted it to a thin dagger of blue and yellow, then pulled on a pair of safety goggles. He used the torch to light his cigarette, blew smoke out.
Hollis looked at him, shook his head, and turned away. Rorey walked around the ATM, picking his spot. Then he leaned over, and brought the torch to bear. Sparks began to arc past his shoulder.
When Hollis joined her, she shut the door behind them to keep the light in. They stood in the night air.
“That fucking guy,” Hollis said.
“Half an hour and we’re out of here.”
Beyond the tobacco field, a hill sloped down into the unbroken darkness of woods. Far in the distance, they could see a cluster of flashing red, yellow, and blue lights surrounding the bank.
“There they are,” Hollis said. “Looking for their money machine.”
“They’re too late,” she said. “It’s gone.”
Copyright © 2012 by Wallace Stroby