Derrick Winston’s skill was opening locks, getting them in and out as if they had floated through the walls. Some guys craved the adrenaline rush, but not him. He sweated every time they went out and didn’t relax until the job was over and his share was safely put away.
It had started in college, the guys he hung around with including him in small jobs, mostly so they could host parties on campus, making connections on the drug scene as well that helped them move the items they swiped … watches, cameras, video games. Minor jobs at local businesses, usually planned with the help of an insider who’d take a cut. They’d sometimes net a haul of cash, but for reasons of self-preservation they kept their ambitions under control and stayed on the outer fringes of the underworld. The take home was just enough to keep him from graduating with an astronomical amount of debt and it funded an unforgettable summer trip to Switzerland, hiking the Bernese highlands for fourteen days. He knew his nerves couldn’t tolerate this much longer but the anger over his shit paychecks was worse. He’d quit the shadows someday. It was just impossible to imagine his life without the things that he couldn’t afford otherwise
Late August in upstate New York. Rick hated the hot, humid weather, but his clothes smelled like weed and he was thankful it was a windy night, warm with clear skies. Just drive slow and don’t attract attention, he told himself. He grabbed Davis’ car keys and closed the kitchen door quietly behind him. The alley was empty and the streets were moonlit as he jogged down the block looking for the Firebird, then he drove east toward the edge of town. His usual bottomless vodka tonic was just tonic all night and he’d only smoked enough to keep away thoughts about what might go wrong … and so they’d think he was just as wasted as they were. He hated this part. He’d never gotten caught but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t scared shitless.
This had to go down in under two hours. Pulling up behind the van on East Avenue, Rick saw that he was right. There were just enough cars parked along the street to be inconspicuous, and in this neighborhood, a utility van would go pretty much unnoticed. He checked his watch; two forty-three. It was seven miles to the storage building, twenty minutes tops to load the boxes, and then three miles south to the storage unit he’d rented, and then backtrack until he was in his apartment waking up when the other guys did.
It was the early hours of Saturday morning so there were only a handful of cars on the road; others who liked or needed the cover of darkness to get from place to place. Full of potholes and strewn with trash, the driveway jolted the van’s shitty suspension. The place looked dead. There were five buildings containing rows of 12×12 storage units. From the parking lot to the road the landscape was unmowed and tall grass shot up in front of the garage doors. They chose this run down, low tech site for the same reason Rick had found a similar one a few miles away. No lighting and no security.
Number 28. There was a standard pin tumbler padlock secured on a metal latch near the bottom right-hand corner of the roll-up door. He’d brought cutters with him, but leaving behind a hacked up shank would look clumsy and unprofessional. Holding the flashlight under his arm, Rick retrieved the picks from his back pocket. Flipping the lock around, he placed the small tension wrench in the bottom of the keyhole and inserted the straight pick far into the lock and worked it backward, feeling the pins push up as the tension wrench turned. The lock snapped open and he set it on the ground, clanking open the metal latch and freeing the door to roll up.
Then, he heard a low growl. And then a second growl.
Shit. Guard dogs? Probably the dogs from Dill’s father’s scrap yard. The guys didn’t say anything about locking them in. Or did they and he didn’t pick up on it. Now what. A gun would be handy right about now. Rick didn’t own a gun, though, didn’t know how to load or even shoot one. None of the guys did. They’d relied on research and planning and knowing when to bail. Guns would’ve taken their activities to a much more serious level. He had to improvise. As he reached around for the switchblade in his pocket, he wondered if four inches of heat-treated, high-carbon steel through the skull would be enough. Rick knew the dogs. Gunner was a lean, mean eighty-five pound Rottweiler mix, and Dart was a German Shepherd, less deadly on impact than Gunner but he would run you down and finish you off with bites to the arms and legs. Both were trained to kill. This would be a good time to walk away but his gut instinct was to just finish this job, so he knew he couldn’t stand around waiting for a better idea.
The garage door lifted with a rolling metallic clang. As expected, Gunner slammed into him with his full weight, and as he fell over backward there was a loud whoosh as his lungs compressed against the ground. The dog gripped his lower left arm that was placed defensively across his face, and Rick quickly flipped the knife in his hand so he could slam it down through the dog’s skull and as far into his brain as possible. When his bite let loose, Rick pushed Gunner’s dead weight in the direction of the other dog who was used to playing fullback. Dart lunged. Instead of going for his legs as he’d anticipated, the shepherd instead jumped on his chest, trying for a lethal bite at the neck. The first jab of the knife landed clumsily about an inch below his right ear and it was a miss. Feeling the deadly grip of a bite into his upper left arm, he began frantically stabbing the dog through the top of the skull with his right hand. Finally, Dart dropped lifelessly to the side and Rick pulled the knife from the side of the dog’s neck, dazed, watching the hot blood streaming onto the packed earth. He wiped the bloody blade on his bloody shirt. This hadn’t gone well at all. He sat up slowly, removing his button-down shirt and wrapping it around his mangled arm. He was a mess and the dead guard dogs were sprawled next to him. So much for a clean hit, he thought. Standing up, he was unsteady on his feet as he walked to the van where the driver side door was open. Rick reached a shaky hand into the glove box for the pint of vodka and listened for any sounds of approaching cars.
Backing up to the open storage unit, he started loading the boxes into the van. There wasn’t much time. It wasn’t just that he was worried about taking too long, his arm would most likely stiffen up and then how would he be able to unload at the other site. Instead of nine there were twelve boxes, each roughly 20′ x 20′, and they were much heavier than he’d thought. The shipment was a haul of high-end laptops, cell phones, video equipment and video games swiped from the loading dock of an electronics store in Franklinville, along with some jewelry from a heist two years ago that they’d been holding onto so it could cool off. Three of the guys who were passed out at Rick’s apartment had driven down to Philly and then another hundred miles south to make the pick up. They were loading up again tomorrow night and driving east to a buyer in Schenectady. They wanted to unload the shipment all at once to minimize risk, but the price they’d negotiated was way too low. With a high degree of caution, Rick had decided to take the score for himself, cutting his ties with the guys he’d been rolling with for years, and driving to the west coast with the merchandise. Reorganizing it into smaller batches, he’d probably get almost double what the guys were willing to settle for. Finding buyers would take time, guys who wouldn’t know anything about him or where the haul was from. It was a new start. One that so far hadn’t gone as planned. He was still on schedule, though, so Rick refocused his thinking away from the stifling August heat and onto thoughts of the cool, snowy ski slopes of Colorado.
“There has to be a way around it. What if they return the video and you don’t sign it in and then you charge late fees to the customer’s credit card?”
“And then what? Redirect the fees to your account in the Caymans? It not only wouldn’t work, it’s small time. The late fees are credited electronically to the video store’s asset account. There’s no way to siphon them off. ”
“There has to be a loophole someplace”
“I’m telling you, everything’s corporate. And there’s a security camera pointed at us during store hours, supposedly for our own safety, but they’d be able to backtrack the footage to the precise day and time of any accounting discrepancies. It’s beyond risky. If I wanted jail time that’s what I’d do.” Birdie’s stomach growled so she lit a cigarette and opened the window a couple inches to let the smoke out. Mentioning the cops or talking about doing time was the way to shut Shawn up. He spent all his time and energy imagining ways to get paid, it was just the way his brain worked, but unlike her, he was terrified of getting caught. “You need to grow a set and go after the cash. I keep telling you, people pay cash at things like sporting events and carnivals”
“Goddammit, Birdie, I don’t mean grabbing a few hundred from a cash drawer. Something else. We need to plan something big.” His voice was raspy and tired-sounding.
“No, we don’t. I have a job. You should finish school. Find something legit.” Looking out toward the woods, Birdie laughed to herself, thinking it’d be a rush if she could talk him into something and then read about his arrest in the paper.
“Yeah, you got it all figured out with your nine-fifty an hour, living at home with your Dad. Talk about small time.” He cut the engine as a set of headlights turned into the parking lot. “What’s this asshole doing,” he mumbled.
“Who gives a shit. I’m hungry. Let’s find a drive-thru.” It was true. Living with her Dad and stepmother wasn’t much of a long-term plan. Matter of fact, they’d been hinting that she might want to move to Vermont and work at her sister and brother-in-law’s health club. First of all, Birdie thought, her sister owning a health club was a joke. She was close to ninety pounds overweight until she went away to college. Second, Birdie hated the snow and cold. Moving further north where blizzards and sub-zero temperatures were a usual thing was not a career choice that interested her.
From their vantage point behind the tree line, they watched as the white van circled each building slowly with only it’s parking lights on. They lost sight of it as the driver stopped between the first and second building.
“C’mon. Let’s have a look.” Birdie and Shawn eased the car doors closed behind them and quietly walked through the woods and around the opposite side of the second building. Peering around, there was just this one guy unloading boxes into an empty storage unit. Even in the dim light from inside the van, they could see he was a pretty big guy. He was laboring under the weight of whatever was in those boxes, and he seemed to be either limping or he’d hurt his back.
She knew what Shawn was thinking. “Not a good idea,” Birdie said, “he looks twice our size and fifteen years older. Besides, what if he’s armed?”
He leaned back against the side of the building. “We have to hurry,” he whispered, “before he locks it down. Stay here a minute.” Shawn’s lean figure jogged back to the car and then toward her again with the tire iron. He could be impulsive at times, but growing up with three older brothers had stoked some sort of vengeful fire in him and he was constantly looking for a fight that he knew would go his way.
“Listen, he’s moving slow. “I’m going to run up and hit him, knock him down so he can’t get up real fast, and you open the boxes. If it’s nothing we’ll just split.”
“And if he has a gun?” For some reason, she doubted he did. This was happening fast, though, and she knew that this could be a whole other level of dangerous than they were used to playing around with.
Shawn nodded and led the way. He was walking slow and quiet, careful not to scuff the stones on the pavement. Birdie started to follow him but she stopped about halfway from where the other guy still had his back to them. Since she was unarmed, and her part in this depended on Shawn getting him under control first, she backed off. The keys were in the ignition. If Shawn was overpowered she could just outrun the guy and leave.
Shawn was less than twelve feet away as the guy disappeared into the storage unit dragging a box. Re-emerging, he had his back to them, so Shawn ran up behind the guy and swung the tire iron, slamming him on the left shoulder. Instead of falling to the ground, though, he screamed in pain and backed up against the building. Shawn started yelling at him to get down on the ground, face down and put his hands behind his head. When the guy didn’t move, Shawn yelled louder. Birdie could hear the fear in his voice. She could tell Shawn was getting freaked out because the guy was just looking at him and holding his shoulder. He was five inches taller and about a hundred pounds heavier than Shawn, but he was breathing really heavy and actually looked like he might collapse from fatigue.
The two stood looking at each other for another fifteen seconds and then both of them jumped forward. Shawn swung the tire iron again as the guy punched him in the gut. While Shawn was holding his stomach, catching his breath, the guy moved toward him. It looked to Birdie as if he tried to punch Shawn in the chest but he was too slow. Shawn kicked his left leg out from under him. As he fell to his knees the tire iron landed just above his right ear, and Birdie could hear a horrid crunching sound as it connected with the guy’s skull. He hit the ground like dead weight and lay there, motionless.
Then, Shawn fell to the ground.
It hadn’t looked like the guy punched him that hard, but Shawn’s shirt was somehow soaked in blood. He was holding his stomach and his breath sounded raspy. Birdie looked over at the unmoving bulk of the other guy and noticed that his right hand was loosely gripping a knife.
Shawn was unconscious but he was breathing. She ran to get the car. He didn’t wake up or make any sound as she lifted him into the passenger seat and then locked the seat belt around him. Birdie couldn’t think of any way to drive the car and put pressure on his wounds to make the bleeding stop so she just had to get him to the hospital as fast as possible. Before taking off, she stopped for a minute and looked around. Trying to hurry, she dragged the other guy by the wrists into the storage unit. His shirt was drenched in blood too, so this must not have been his first run in of the night. She picked up his knife and quickly slit open one of the boxes. Music cd’s, laptop computers, pre-paid cell phones. Birdie tossed the knife towards him and rolled the door down. Then she closed the back doors of the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. After parking it in front of the garage door, she cut the engine and put the keys in her pocket.
With her leather jacket draped over him, Shawn looked like he could be sleeping. At every intersection, Birdie checked to make sure he was alive. He had a peaceful, sleepy look about him and his pale complexion shone red and then green as she sped down Main Street toward the emergency room. At three-thirty in the morning, the parking lot of the hospital looked surprisingly busy. There were ambulance drivers standing around smoking cigarettes and the place was lit up as if it was midday.
Driving away from the hospital parking lot, Birdie looked for an all-night convenience store. Locking the car, she walked toward the doors thinking that this was the same sort of dark, excited feeling she’d had the first time she smoked a cigarette, or shoplifted, the first time she had sex. Doing things that others might choose not to do. Things that, in their eyes, could change a person into someone else. It was like she was just observing this other girl’s actions, curious about how far she’d actually go when there wasn’t anyone telling her she shouldn’t. Wondering who she’d become on the other side or what could happen to her that she might regret.
Birdie bought a padlock and a vitamin water and drove back to the storage unit listening for sirens, expecting the spinning red and blue lights in the rearview mirror any minute. A plan was slowly forming in her mind. The sudden thought of hiding the merchandise someplace and then selling it herself and then leaving on her own. Could she do it? The thought of moving away from this place, of leaving her parents and the stifling job at the video store behind her suddenly put everything into perspective. Birdie knew she could be in real trouble but what was the other option? Stay and talk to the cops? Watch them smugly confiscate a small fortune in stolen electronics … a third of which would probably end up in their own homes.
This felt like a jumping off point. A way to finally take control. If she didn’t at least try, that would mean she was nothing but a twenty-two-year-old video store attendant who lived with her parents. But if she took a chance, everything might change. She could work out a cover story her family would believe and leave this crappy, dead-end town behind.
“Keep your eye on the register and re-shelve those returns. Then we can lock up.”
Birdie nodded as she was filling the cooler with soda and stocking candy bars around the register. It had been busy for a Tuesday. When the manager went into the back room she grabbed her purse from under the counter and threw in two Pepsi’s and a handful of Snickers.
She’d put off making a decision about the merchandise, trying to convince herself she wasn’t scared, just cautious. And she wasn’t sure how to feel about what had happened later that night. When she drove back to the storage unit, the garage door had been rolled up about three feet. Shit. Just what she was afraid of. She hadn’t actually checked to see if the other guy was dead or not. The keys to the van were in her pocket, so he either left on foot or he was in the woods watching for her.
Before Shawn distracted him, he’d unloaded three boxes, one of which had a bloody handprint on it. There was blood on the floor too and that had to belong the other guy since Shawn had fallen down in the parking lot. The cops would be all over this. She figured once they were on the scene they’d know there was another guy there besides Shawn and they’d focus their suspicions on him. Birdie quickly considered all options and in the end, she had to be true to herself.
She carefully leaned Shawn’s body up against one of the boxes, feeling confused. It didn’t seem possible that he was dead. Thirty minutes ago they’d been sitting in his car talking about ways they could raise hell without getting caught. Now, he was starting to turn cold. She stood up, saying a quiet goodbye and thinking that this sure wasn’t the way she wanted to go out. As Birdie rolled down the door, she realized the knife was gone too. The one she’d used to rip open one of the boxes. “If I hadn’t been in a hurry I’d have searched the guy’s pockets and then taken the knife to get rid of later,” she thought.
Birdie wiped her fingerprints from the steering wheel of Shawn’s car and left the driver’s side door open. She stood for a minute listening to the quiet, seeing the sky to the east beginning to turn light gray. Her feelings were a mix of fear, exhilaration, and a suspicion that in the not too distant future she might deeply regret the cold, calculating way she’d dealt with Shawn’s death. Turning the van toward the interstate, she drove about thirty miles to a secluded stretch of wetlands, popular for duck and geese hunting. There was a cabin that had belonged to a friend of Shawn’s grandfather who had passed away from cancer about a year ago. If the boxes were found, the connection would lead back to Shawn. And if they weren’t, then she was the only one who’d know where they were. She dragged the nine remaining boxes from the van and up the porch steps and into the cabin. She padlocked the door and checked her watch. Six forty-five.
Now, what to do with the van. She thought about trying to get it back to the storage unit, but the sun was up so that might be too risky. And she knew it needed to be as far away from the cabin as possible. Among the papers in the glove box was a work order from a construction company that had recently leased it. That gave her an idea. Driving another ten miles south she found the perfect place. There were signs up warning about road construction at the next off-ramp. Birdie exited the Thruway and drove north, finding the area of highway where traffic was detoured into a single lane. Off the side of the road was a row of vehicles, heavy machinery used to repave roads – rollers and dump trucks – and an assortment of utility vans.
“Police are continuing their investigation into the murder of 21-year-old Shawn Aarons. His body was discovered Sunday afternoon in a storage unit on Parkhaven Road, along with a cache of stolen merchandise. Police are searching for another suspect believed to be either involved with Mr. Aaron’s murder or a victim himself. His name is not being released to the press at this time. Federal investigators have arrested three local men who they believe are responsible for transporting the stolen computer and video equipment across state lines from an electronics distributor in southern Pennsylvania. If you have any information about these crimes, please contact …”
When Rick came to he was lying face down on the cement floor in the pitch dark. He sat up slowly, feeling the small indentation on the right side of his head. His shoulder was immobile but there wasn’t any warm blood on his clothes anywhere. Definitely a skull fracture and multiple puncture wounds from the dog bites. And bruising from the god-damned kid with the tire iron. He needed to get out of the dark enclosure so he could test his vision and see if he could stand up.
He pressed a button on the side of his watch. Four-thirty am. Crouching down, he slowly slid the door up as fresh air and moonlight streamed in. He rolled under, thankful that he’d thought to pocket the padlock, and crawled around the back end of the van, slowly getting to his feet. His head was throbbing but his thoughts were clear. The keys to the van were missing, along with the bottle of vodka he was going to use on his shoulder.
He jogged to the woods at the back of the parking lot and found a comfortable vantage point to rest and think. He could probably do without stitches but he’d need antibiotics, and soon. There was an Urgent Care about three miles away, and Rick thought he might be able to bypass security. No time, though. He’d have to wait until after dark tonight. The problem was, right this minute the guys were waking up in his apartment, wondering where the fuck he was. In another hour or so they would check the other storage unit and notice the haul was missing. And then he’d be a dead man.
Headlights. A brown sedan pulled in and parked next to the van. A young girl got out of the driver’s side and paused for a minute, looking under the door, and then walked around to the van and drove it forward. Rick watched as she set the kid’s body in with the boxes, rolled the door down, and then took off in the van. He ran as fast as he could to the sedan. The keys were in the ignition and he pulled out of the parking lot, following from a safe distance.Rick drove in the opposite direction when he saw the girl hitching a ride. Leaving the van at the construction site solved a problem for him as well since he’d jacked it from a plumbing company a few blocks from his apartment. Still driving the brown sedan, he decided to roll past his house. The downstairs lights were off and their cars were gone. Davis’ Firebird was a few blocks away but chances were he was with the other guys and they were probably looking for him. If they’d seen the dead guard dogs and realized what happened, they could be waiting for him inside. He decided to chance it and run in to pack a bag.
The back door was unlocked. As Rick stepped into the kitchen, the sound of his knife flipping open echoed through the quiet apartment. The place was empty but he had to hurry. Starting in the bedroom, he changed his clothes and placed the blood-soaked shirt in a plastic bag to toss in a dumpster. With a warm, soapy washcloth, he scraped the dried blood from the jagged cuts on his arm and shoulder. They were sore and a deep shade of red but the bleeding had stopped. There weren’t any bandages large enough in his first aid kit, so Rick pulled on a clean, dark blue t-shirt and buttoned up a denim shirt. He threw a sweater and a pair of jeans, as well as some socks and underwear into a duffel bag. Getting what he needed from the bathroom, he closed his bedroom door and found his laptop and toolkit. Adding these to the bag, he went through the kitchen but there wasn’t much he could take with him. He threw in some crackers and a bottled water and locked the door behind him.
After hitting a drive-thru for a coffee, Rick waited in the parking lot of the bank where each of them had a safety deposit box. He cautiously kept an eye out for the other guys’ car or anything out of the ordinary. His vision had started to get blurry and he felt like nodding off, but the caffeine seemed to be helping. What was starting to worry him most was his left arm. Dart had punctured his upper arm and shoulder with bites. It was becoming hot to the touch and his lower arm and hand were beginning to swell. Rick decided he couldn’t wait until past midnight to find some antibiotics.
He withdrew $3,500 from his checking account, the limit the ATM would allow, and drove the sedan down side streets to a building on West Avenue. The physician he went to for his allergies shared a suite with a urologist whose office he knew was closed on the weekends. The building had perimeter security as well as cameras in the hallways, but there weren’t any guards. If an alarm was triggered, a cop would eventually respond, and any other breaches in security were investigated after the fact by downloading the footage from the time in question. Meaning, he might be identified, but he’d probably have time to break in, get what he needed, and get a safe distance away.
The building was open. Rick took the stairs two at a time to the fourth floor, holding his left arm up so his hand would stop throbbing. Pretending to read the office hours, he stood in front of the door listening for sounds. Other businesses on the floor were open on the weekends, but it was early enough in the day that the hallway was empty. He was through the doorknob lock in a matter of seconds but the deadbolt took him close to three minutes. He knew he’d probably trip an office alarm system as soon as he opened the door, so he looked through the window first to see which door would lead to the back office. Actually, it looked like he could just climb through the reception desk window.
Rick looked around the hallway and then slipped inside the door, locking himself in. Sure enough, a clear, high, blaring noise rang through the office. Hopping up on the counter, he swung his feet over a desk and into the reception area. To his left was a short hallway with two doors on each side. The patient rooms were open, but the second door on the left was locked and had the doctor’s name on it. That lock also only took about thirty seconds … but then he was stopped dead in his tracks.
A row of stainless steel cabinets along the wall to his right probably contained medications, but each of them was locked and there was no way of knowing what was inside without opening them all. Some of the cabinets had rows of drawers and each of these were individually locked as well. A phone in the outer office began to ring. He started with the middle cabinet, opening four others before he found what he needed. He was sweating profusely as he stuffed his jacket pocket with syringes, and looked for vials of what might be an antibiotic. He guessed that anything ending in “in” would do, so he grabbed handfuls of tiny bottles with names like gatafloxicin and ampicillin. A shelf with basic first aid supplies contained some antibacterial cream and gauze. He zipped up his pockets.
Now, time to run.
There were voices in the outer hallway. If he jumped over into the waiting room he’d be visible from the windows alongside the outer door. He quickly shoved aside three-ring binders, a plant, and a coffee mug that said ‘hot married urologist’. He unlatched the window, climbing out onto the ledge and down the emergency escape ladder. Jumping to street level, he knew how visible he’d been climbing down the side of the building, awkwardly looping his sore arm around the rungs, but he tried to stay relaxed as he jogged to the brown sedan parked a block away. He carefully drove east toward the interstate, wondering how long he had before they found the kid in the storage unit and started looking for his car.
It was five months later but she felt about ten years older. Birdie was sipping a jack and coke outside the door of her motel room, listening to the kids playing in the pool. It was only about three in the afternoon, but she’d finished a run last night and she had one more day off from the video store.
She thought back to the day she’d ditched the van at the construction site and hitched a ride home. News reports about Shawn’s death started on Sunday and the police came to the house to talk to Birdie that evening. She told the cops the truth, that Friday afternoon Shawn had picked her up after work and they drove around for awhile. They had stopped at a convenience store where he used the ATM and Birdie bought a pack of cigarettes. Then, he dropped her back at her car in the parking lot of the video store and she’d gone home. Luckily they’d stayed out of sight when they hooked up after dark that night. Her parents hadn’t heard her leave so they thought she’d been home.
A week later, she’d transferred to the Camden branch of the video store, using Shawn’s death as a reason for wanting to move to South Carolina. The creepy guy who lived next door to her family had expressed an interest in her ’79 Mustang, so she reluctantly traded it to him for his boring but practical Kia Sorento. The car, the job, and her room at the Sunrise Motel were temporary, she kept telling herself, necessary to provide cover while she was cautiously driving north to bring the merchandise south in manageable quantities.
She’d opened up one of the laptops at the cabin and stayed for a few days creating an inventory of the stolen electronics. Then, she’d driven down to Miami to quietly search for buyers. The dvd’s, video games, and prepaid cell phones were easily unloaded on the street for the gas money she’d need to drive the round trip from South Carolina to New York, New York to Miami, and then back to Camden.
The items with the highest value, the laptops, cameras, video recorders, and cell phones, all had tags that could be linked to the shipment that was stolen from an electronics store in Franklinville. She needed to find an inroad to a black market dealer who could ship those items out of the country. That had taken a little more time but she’d finally found a mid-level guy who agreed to talk to her and, for her own safety, she only brought him small batches of merchandise at a time, telling him she might be able to get her hands on more in a week or two.
She’d been able to schedule a run every three to four weeks and they eventually trusted her enough to give her a contact number. The timing was tricky. She had her shifts at the video store to work around. It was a nine hour drive to New York, being careful to arrive at the cabin after dark, and then almost twenty hours to Miami, stopping just at a rest stop to sleep for a few hours. The drop off took some time. She had to text her contact and wait for the buyer to tell her when and where. After the transaction, it was another eight and a half hours back to Camden, arriving during business hours so she could have immediate access to her safety deposit box.
The bourbon had chilled her brain and for just that minute she didn’t have a care in the world. Birdie stood at the railing facing the cooling wind and holding her light brown hair off of her neck. She was in jeans and a sleeveless blouse in mid-December. The warm weather of the south is where she belonged. Smiling to herself, she was thinking that this was starting to feel like a life she wanted to be living.
Rick’s room was diagonal to hers on the square-shaped second floor of the motel. Looking out his window, he could watch everything the girl did. And that was just the beginning. He knew where the haul was hidden. He’d placed a GPS tracker on her Sorento so he had the locations of the last two drops in Miami. He’d even soundlessly broken into her room while she was asleep, accessed her phone, and retrieved the cell numbers of her contact. She had no idea how fucked she was.
The boy had looked to be a year or two younger, but she was probably in her mid to late twenties. Rick had shut away the memory of that night, still finding it difficult to accept the reality that he had taken the life of a young kid. He didn’t want that darkness to become a permanent part of him. He’d been balancing on that line for years so he knew what each side had to offer. Finishing school and working a nine-to-five had made him feel responsible, stabilized. Watching the game with his buddies, drinking beer, dating women they set him up with. When he went on jobs, though, he was on his own, turning his back on the ordinary, predictable life that he envisioned for himself. He could function in the dark but he knew it wasn’t who he was. And the only reason he couldn’t get free of it was the money. The limits of ordinary were stifling at times.
But it didn’t matter which one of his two identities he was comfortable with. He’d left that life and all those years behind him. Rick knew he could never go back. And he didn’t allow himself a second of anger or regret. He’d committed murder and so far he’d gotten away clean. This time he’d be careful. He would take what he needed and then put things back in place as he walked away. That girl happened to be in the right place at the right time, but she had taken what didn’t belong to her. Sure, she was turning the loot into cash in a way that Rick had to admit was well thought out. He wondered if he’d have been able to line up a buyer the way she had. And having the patience to spread the risk out over months, the miles she was driving across state lines – he almost couldn’t believe she pulled it off.
When he left New York, he’d spent almost everything left in his tackle box to get a new license and credit cards. He had the $3,500 from his checking account and that was it. Landing a legitimate job wasn’t an option just yet. Too many background checks. When he took back what was his, she’d just continue working at the video store. She’d have to swallow losing the cash but she was young and she’d get over it. He was leaving tonight and taking a ride to the cabin to get a rough idea of how many more runs she had to make. How much time before he would confront her with a new reality that would wipe out the past year of her life.
Birdie sat and watched the sunset over the western horizon. She’d had a little too much to drink but she could sleep late in the morning. The video store manager had scheduled her to work the day after, and she was thinking it might finally be time to quit. The safety deposit box contained $348,509. When she drove away from the cabin two days ago, the night sky was alive with bright yellow and orange flames, sparks scattering into the surrounding trees. Gasoline poured over the empty cardboard boxes and a lit match. She’d pocketed the padlock from the door and walked to her car, looking back as the flames climbed the walls and exploded the windows, sprinkling shards of glass in every direction.
When she’d woken up late the next morning, her mind felt hazy from something other than just the drinks. She’d had a restless night filled with vivid dreams of highway lines speeding beneath her car and bright flashes of light in her rearview mirror. Probably just a reaction to the stress I’ve been under, she thought. She went to get a coffee and a bagel, still unable to shake the feeling that she was forgetting something, or missing a vital piece of information that was just out of reach. Was she in danger?
She’d spent the previous day relaxing in her room with the door opened to the bright sun in a cloudless sky. Kids had been running back and forth from the rooms to the swimming pool. There were others sitting outside their doors, talking and drinking and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. Around the motel, Birdie kept to herself, mostly. The room to her right was unoccupied, and in the room to the left was an old woman, Marcy, who looked to be about eighty, but Birdie had seen her practically jogging up the motel stairs. She had tea someplace with her friends every morning and kept her door open in the afternoons, reading or knitting and listening to people come and go. Birdie was standing at the railing with a drink in her hand, not realizing she was being watched.
“Seen that gentlemen friend of yours again, dear. A bit old for you, isn’t he?
Birdie turned around, annoyed. Marcy was reading a newspaper inside her open door. “I don’t have a boyfriend, Marcy, I told you that.” A few days ago, she’d asked Birdie how she’d had the energy to work a day shift after sneaking in a night of romance. At the time Birdie shrugged it off, figuring the old bag had a screw loose. She had looked over in the direction Marcy was pointing. A group of college guys had been playing cards outside their door, but they didn’t glance her way.
Wait a minute. She suddenly realized that this is what was bothering her. She hadn’t thought about it at the time but she’d seen him out of the corner of her eye. A dark figure inside one of the rooms, looking out the window in her direction.
She thought about it again. An older man? Birdie opened her door and looked around. It was a Sunday morning and the balcony was practically empty. She grabbed a towel from the bathroom and walked to the left, toward the rooms on the other wing of the motel. Passing the connecting rooms where the college guys were staying, she continued walking toward the stairway that led to the pool. Was it the third or fourth room where she thought she’d seen the shadow behind the curtains. As she walked past the next door, she casually turned her head and saw a black switchblade knife sticking up out of the window frame inside the room. A sick feeling of terror gripped her insides. It was the knife. She was sure of it. The one that had killed Shawn. The one she’d picked up and used to slit open one of the boxes to see if there was anything worth stealing. Worth stealing from this guy. The guy in that room following her … watching her.
When Rick arrived at the cabin, a light dusting of snow flurries was falling on the dark, jagged ruins. He slammed the car in reverse, backed down the driveway, and sped toward the interstate.
He knew the old woman in the room next to hers had seen him, but now he was hoping the girl wasn’t aware of him tailing her. He had planned to burn her last drop in Miami, scare the shit out of her, and then take her back to Camden with him to retrieve the cash in exchange for letting her go. He didn’t want to hurt her. She needed to believe she was in way over her head so she’d do anything just to be left alone.
Rick arrived at the motel around six forty-five Sunday evening and her car wasn’t in the lot. The banks open at nine tomorrow so she could be planning to make a grab at the cash. He walked past her room and looked in the window. There was a small pile of clothing on the bed and an open laptop sitting nearby. Either she hadn’t left yet or she knew he’d be watching.
The Sorento was stashed at a park-and-ride bus stop a few blocks away and Birdie was on foot. She looked boyish but inconspicuous in jeans and a gray t-shirt with her hair tucked under a baseball cap. From her vantage point inside a store across the street, she watched as the dark green Lexus drove into the parking lot and the tall guy from the storage unit climbed out and walked toward his room. Passing his own doorway, he casually looked around and walked toward her room, pausing to look in the window. Then, still glancing around, he went into his room and closed the door.
Birdie knew she was in danger. She figured she had two choices. She could empty the safety deposit box and make a run for it. Drive west and try to lose him. Or, she could go to a public place, a cafe somewhere, and wait for him to come in and talk to her, try to negotiate with him for her safety and some of the cash. As for plan A, outrunning his Lexus was probably impossible. And when he ran her off the road and took the money did she really believe he’d just say ‘thanks’ and drive away? Plan B. Birdie reminded herself that he had killed Shawn and that she was vulnerable because of her age and size. She seriously doubted he’d talk with her as if she had any leverage.
Then she thought of a third plan. One that frightened her more than either of the other ideas, but didn’t require her to touch the cash and Birdie knew he couldn’t follow her. She drove around Camden for an hour or so, stopped for fuel and a map, and drove north and then west to Pollock, Louisiana.
“And who the hell are you.” Davis Bartlett had the phone to his ear, glaring at her disinterestedly through the glass. He was waiting for divorce papers any day now, but there’s no way this scrawny little thing sitting across from him was a lawyer.
“Let’s say my name is Ruby.” Birdie replied. “I have a problem that I think you might be interested in helping me solve.”
“Seriously doubt that. What the fuck are you talking about?” Davis brushed his long black hair over his forehead and away from his unshaven face. He was about 34 or 35. Probably the same age as the guy waiting for her back in Camden.
“The package you misplaced … I found it and it’s taken care of. The matter is resolved.” Birdie was saying as little as possible. “The problem is, the one you were looking for is looking for me. I was thinking that if we had an agreement in place then we could each go our own way without having to worry about who’s in the rearview mirror.”
Davis stared at her. His look went from slightly bored to suspicious, and his angry glare was redirected to a nearby security guard with a similarly bored look on his face. “And you actually think you’re a player in this?”
“Yes,” Birdie said, hoping her voice wouldn’t shake, “I’m the one who ran it past the finish line. It’s all in one place, but I understand that this is a complicated matter.”
“And just how do you think you’ll resolve this ‘complicated matter.’” He was laughing at her. Birdie knew this would happen, that these men would think she was a joke.
“There’s enough for a five-way split, twenty each. I’m owed for working out the exit route. If you could get the fourth party on board, make peace with that, we could talk about setting up the drops.”
Davis was paying attention now, annoyed that she knew so much. “Just how do I get in touch with this fourth party.”
Birdie took a slip of paper out of her purse and slid it under the partition. “When do you have phone access.” She was going to put Plan B into action, thinking she’d just sit across from the guy and hand him the phone.
“Daytime, between noon and three. So you have a direct line to the guy?” What the hell was going on out there? The three of them had been stunned that Rick not only tried to steal the haul out from under them, but he’d killed a young kid in the process. Just didn’t sound like the guy they knew. If he ever got caught he’d be doing harder time than they were. If this girl is alive, must be he doesn’t know where the cash is.
“Day after tomorrow, one o’clock. Call this number.” She just stared back at him, unblinking. He looked at the paper for a few seconds, then at her. He crumpled it up and threw it back at her, nodding. She stood up first, trying not to run out the door.
Rick lost sight of her all day Monday, but he’d kept an eye on the bank. She was probably setting up a new location for the cash, he thought. That evening, he stopped and ordered a sandwich and then drove to the motel. Not only was her car in the parking lot, she was leaning on the railing outside her room smoking a cigarette. When she saw Rick’s car, she stood up and went into her room, closing the door. The game was on. Each one knew the other wouldn’t be far away.
He had been studying her for months and he knew her usual routine. She’d go for a coffee every morning around seven, work afternoon shifts at the video store, and otherwise she just kept to herself at the motel. The following morning, Rick sat across from the cafe and waited. Right on schedule she parked across the street from him and walked toward the cafe, striding to the door and then slowing to hold it open for an older couple. He put his sunglasses on and leaned his head back. The heat was really getting to him. The a/c unit at the hotel made so much noise that it was an even tradeoff between being cooled off or having it quiet.
Suddenly, Rick sat up. What the fuck? She was crossing the street and walking straight toward him. He rolled down his window and she wordlessly handed him a sheet of paper, and then turned and walked away. It was a menu for the cafe with “tomorrow, 1:00” written at the top. He looked over and she was sitting in her car, sipping her coffee and glaring at him. He stared back until she drove away, toward the motel. Rick drove in the other direction, finding a parking place with a line of sight to the entrance of the bank.
At twelve forty-five she sat down at a table near the front window with a cup of decaf, nervous about the timing. If the storage unit guy arrived early, she’d have to explain that they were waiting for a call. There’s no telling how he might react. And over in Louisiana, Davis had been sitting in his cell since Monday thinking about their conversation. If he called when Birdie was alone, she’d have to listen to his inevitable questions about who she was, how she’d sold off the merchandise, and who the fuck did she think she was, taking their money. Birdie sipped her coffee and set the phone on the table in front of her just as the dark green Lexus drove into the parking lot, coming from the direction of the bank. He glanced down at her as he walked past the window, then opened the door to the cafe, took off his sunglasses, and sat down across from her.
“Birdie,” she said.
So that was his name. The police hadn’t released it and she couldn’t ask Davis without sounding incompetent. He had on jeans and a short sleeve button down shirt with dark stains under the arms. His brown hair was cut short and as he sat down across from her, Birdie could see that his eyes were dark blue … and angry. He was just quietly looking at her.
“We’re waiting for a call,” Now Birdie wished she’d tried to make a run for it.
“Pollock minimum security prison.” Birdie watched his eyes carefully. There was a spark of surprise, possibly even fear, and he sat back against the wall with a look of angry disbelief. Birdie took a deep breath, “What I’m trying to do is …”
“You listen to me,” He interrupted. Rick leaned forward, trying to keep the fury in his voice to a whisper. “You can’t possibly understand what the fuck you’ve gotten yourself into. That’s not your fucking money. Do you get that? You don’t know anything about those guys, or me, and you’re in way over your head. What you need to do is walk over to that bank and get the cash. You and I can make a deal about your handling charges. You set up the deals on the back end and you should get a percentage for that. But that’s it. Then you need to return to your quiet little life at the video store and stop involving yourself in things that could get you hurt.”
Birdie tucked her hair behind her ears and looked at him square in the face. “No, you listen. I talked to Davis. I told him there was enough for each of us to get an equal cut. If you don’t agree to go along with it then they send some guys down here to help me with the cash and you don’t get anything. It’s the right thing to do and I’m getting away safe one way or another. And with a fair share or else these past six months were for nothing. Shawn’s death was for nothing.”
It was seven minutes after one. At the mention of Shawn’s name, Rick cringed. He began looking around the coffee shop and out the window at the cars parked along the street. “You talked to Davis in person on Monday?” he asked.
“That’s right.” Birdie said.
“I think we need to leave. You shouldn’t have trusted him. He isn’t going to call and his guys are already here.” Rick stood up and the two of them walked out of the cafe and towards his car. “Get in.”
“No way. Wait a minute. He doesn’t know my real name. There’s no way he could’ve found me.” Shit this was all wrong and happening way too fast. Birdie was trying to yank her arm from his grasp just as a truck pulled up beside them and the guy behind the wheel started to roll his window down. Rick opened the driver side door of his Lexus and shoved her in. Revving the engine, he pulled ahead into traffic and sped down a series of side streets leading north. He kept glancing in his rear-view mirror.
Birdie was gripping the door handle and shouting. “Listen. Those guys must have somehow found you. The timing is just a coincidence. This has nothing to do with me visiting Davis. They’re after you for what you did in New York.” She slid across the seat, banging her head against the window as Rick took a sharp left on Broad Street, heading for the open road outside of town.
“Your cell phone number, your license plate number … Just shut up, would ya? You’re being naive.”
Chances were those guys had his Lexus tagged. They needed to change vehicles for a while to throw them off. And since Rick only had about three thousand dollars on him they’d have to borrow one. They needed something fast and quiet. He sped north on the 601 until they were in downtown Kershaw, following the signs toward Kershaw Memorial Hospital. They drove through the parking garage. Perfect. A dark gray Jag. These newer series of sports cars featured a keyless entry security system that continually changes it’s entry code so that only the driver could gain remote access. But Rick could break into just about anything. To bypass the locking system, he connected what looked like a small USP flash drive into his cell. The device could manipulate the access code, reprogramming it to correspond with an entrance code that would unlock the vehicle. He parked the Lexus a couple of rows away, searching the car for a GPS tracker and not finding one. Possibly these guys weren’t as sharp as he thought. Birdie silently watched as he unlocked the Jaguar. She glared at Rick but climbed inside and fastened her seatbelt.
“You know what we need to do. We need to get the cash and run.” Rick looked over at her. “They probably figure that the cash is in a safety deposit box but they might not know which bank. We need to find a way to get you in without them seeing us. Create a diversion or something. And I need to know exactly how much is in there.”
“I could request after-hours access to the bank. They wouldn’t be expecting that. But that might take too long and they could still be waiting for us, right?” Birdie looked over at Rick’s profile as he quietly nodded. She ignored his question about the cash. “What happens to me when we get the money.”
“I’m not going to kill you if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“Look, I’m in this much deeper than you are. You can return to your life. Just show up at the video store, stay at the motel. They’ll leave you alone as long as they believe you’re broke. But they’re coming after me whether I have the money or not. I need to leave the country. Now exactly how much do we have to work with?”
So this was it. Birdie couldn’t think of a way to get to the cash on her own and get away. Ironically, Rick was keeping her safe from Davis’ guys, and since Davis had fucked her she’d much rather take her chances with him now. But she needed leverage.
“About three hundred thousand,” she said. Rick looked over at her with his eyebrows raised. He had doubled back and they were approaching Camden from the west. Birdie said, “So, you’re thinking about making a grab for the cash now and then driving right to the airport.”
“Not exactly. I bought a new identity in New York but I didn’t wait around for a passport. So I need to drive north, wait a day or two, and then probably fly out of JFK or Newark.” Rick slowed down and pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall about a mile outside of town.
“Well, what if I had a better plan than that.”
Looking around, he shut the engine off. “Let’s hear it.”
“First, how long before they start looking for this car.”
“Depends. It’s mid-afternoon. Whenever the doc gets off his shift and notices it’s missing. This is what we need, though, to outrun them when we leave the bank.”
“Right. Okay. Going back to the hotel is out of the question. If we’re going to the bank this afternoon then I say we stop in there,” Birdie pointed to the mall, “and get a sack to put the cash in and whatever gear we’d need to last a couple of days on the road. Then we empty the safety deposit box and I say we head south, not north. Better driving this time of year and I have my contacts in Miami who could help me lay low and could get you a passport.”
“Not bad,” Rick said slowly. He turned to Birdie, “You know there’s a chance this could all go really wrong. I’m not going to hurt you but those guys pretty much want me dead. I not only tried to steal from them, they’re the ones doing time, and thinking about me getting away with the cash made them call in these guys who aren’t exactly here to negotiate with me.”
“I know. I get that. But I want my share. My half. And I don’t trust you so I need to stay close to the money.” Birdie waited to see if he’d react to her saying she expected an even cut. He didn’t respond. They went into the mall and found a sporting goods store. They bought a duffel for the money, a change of clothes, and some protein bars and bottled water.
Rick drove to the bank, circled the block a couple times, and parked on a side street. If Davis’ lookouts spotted them, they might just be stupid enough to call the Jag into the cops. Getting caught with a stolen vehicle was bad enough, but carrying a bag of cash would make it much worse. As they walked into the bank, Rick cautiously looked around and couldn’t see anyone watching them. He waited while Birdie accessed her safety deposit box. They placed the cash in the duffel and zipped it closed.
Rick and Birdie stood looking at each other for a minute. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and Rick was thinking that she looked younger when she was scared. He smiled at her and grasped the bag with a steady hand. They walked out of the bank together, into the warm afternoon sun.
Birdie spotted Rick the fifteen he needed for his passport in exchange for the keys to his Lexus. They divided what was left.
After leaving the bank they’d driven the Jag to Kershaw with no sign of the cops and only Davis’ guys trying to follow them. They had plenty of time to ditch the doc’s car a few blocks from the parking garage. From there they changed direction, driving the Lexus on side roads east and then south, taking their time, making sure they weren’t tailed. They looped around the freeway, stopping in towns along the way to find a diner and to fuel up. Three days later they arrived in Miami where they went in opposite directions.
The postcard read: