Too long. The heist was taking too long. He knew it; they sure as hell knew it. Jenson envisioned the trickle of sweat behind the resin- rubber masks as faces darted from counter to door, from door to waiting car. His hand almost defied his brain with the want of punching the horn in the center of the Impala's steering wheel. Instead he looked around and seeing no one watching, whipped his arm in semi-circles.
He could see Saff's face turn in his direction and his body sway, anxious lifting of the H&K 94 as he yelled obscenities through the mouth of the zombie mask at the middle-aged female clerk. Still, she didn't seem too over-wrought from his viewpoint, she wasn't flailing around like the others before. With her caramel-colored hair slicked back in a precise coil and lacquered-make-up, she wore a dignified fear that grated on his nerves and he struck the dash with his fist and cursed his odds that it was his turn to drive. Uppity bitch; he would've loved to been the one to smash her pretenses in the teeth with the barrel of his rifle like some disgraced substitute teacher.
From the back of his mind he heard it first-that wailing siren that sent every nerve in his body fleeing inward, sinking his heart and stomach in a fateful swoop.
This time he hit the horn in two short clips as rehearsed, and gained the attention of all three riffled men, their pale zombie-faces in appropriate stupor through the plate glass.
Cargyll's hand reached out to grasp the dangling necklace from the saleswoman's hands as he ran from the store, Saff and Marc close behind, bursting through the door as a six-armed zombie trinity. Jenson cringed as the glass door swung out, nearly hitting an old man as he strolled the empty sidewalk on random luck. Then Marc does the unthinkable, breaks the rule that should've never been broken: he snatched the mask from his face, never seeing the old man that he almost hit with the door, baring his identity to the world as if it scarcely mattered now.
Saff looked from Marc to the old man and back to Marc again. "You idiot!" and he grabbed the old man's arm, lifting him up from the pavement so that his weight rested on one anchored foot upon the ground. He dragged the man along and flung him into the backseat between Cargyll and shamefaced Marc who scrambled over to make room, jamming the mask back over his head and whimpering.
"It's too late now, Stupid! He's seen your face." Saff jabbed his finger in the air. "He could pick your ass out of a Yankee's standing-room-only game."
Marc ignored Saff, pounded the back of Jenson's seat with the heel of his hand. "Go! Just drive man!"
Cargyll tried to gain some room away from the old man's bony hips against his side as the Impala slid around the corner. "Man, calm down! We've got to keep our wits."
Jenson accelerated in reverse, clipping the bumper of a passing taxi with a tinny-squeal of metal against metal. The taxi driver struck his horn and shouted with his middle finger in the air, but didn't stop to inspect for damage.
The sirens were getting closer, maybe a block or two away, Jenson estimated. But everything sounded louder; he thought he could hear everyone's heart beat in his eardrums as he strove to think above the noise and his own panic.
"Saff, quickest route to the State Bridge... there's a change of plans."
Saff tore into the glove compartment and tossed everything out until he come across the roadmap. "Take Forty-Second next... no, no! second right. Takes you straight to the bridge."
Cargyll leaned forward from his seat. "I say ditch the car someplace until we can decide what to do."
Jenson snickered, fleeting glare across the bench seat at Saff. "We can't ditch the car, remember? Some bonehead insisted we take the grandmother's car."
Saff looked straight ahead, his throat bobbing, knowing Jenson was right-but it wasn't supposed to happen like this. It was supposed to be as easy as the time before and the time before that, and he'd been afraid the trail of stolen cars they'd used would somehow catch up with them. There was something warm and cocoon-safe using his grandmother's car... like nothing dared to happen. It was a talisman against all evil -- even their own.
Cargyll removed his mask. "Guess the fun's over."
Saff lifted his mask to the top of his head, not sure yet whether he wanted to expose his face as they sped past cars along Forty-Second Street. And there was the old man to deal with now; sitting back there wordless, and Saff didn't even know what his voice sounded like, just that he looked like some strange Moses in tan slacks too short for his bony legs and a dingy-yellow short-sleeved shirt that had seen better days. His whitegray hair was snarled and long around his impassive face as he sat bible-straight in the back seat. Shitting-Sherlock, what were they going to do? He couldn't go back to prison, next time it would be for a long stay in a maxi-security. And Marc -- he had Marc to protect. He should've never agreed to let him come along the first time. He'd grown complacent, and little brother just assumed he was a partner after that.
"I think we lost 'em," Cargyll said, looking through the back windshield.
They were going over the bridge now; reasonable speed, slow lapping water below instead of the gray blur as before. Saff looked to the backseat. Law-abiding citizens traveling from one place to another just like the rest of the traffic, no worries, no hurries-just a little murder on their minds. Saff flinched; he wasn't supposed to give over to that thought. The nastiness of it made his already knotted stomach contract with nausea.
Jenson's knuckles went white on the steering wheel. "So, you going to tell me what happened back there? Should've been an easy swipe-wham! and we're on the road home free..." and though his eyes didn't leave the road, Saff knew he was asking him in particular.
Saff held his hand out to Cargyll, reminded suddenly of the one piece they'd managed to wrench from the crone's hands. Cargyll plumbed the depth of his military fatigue's thigh pocket and dumped the entwined necklace into Saff's outstretched hand.
Saff smiled at its weight; at least it was something for their troubles-. Saff handed the necklace back to Cargyll, and he returned it to his pocket. "The woman was filling in; she didn't know what keys went to what on the counter cases, and she didn't know squat about the safe." Saff pointed at the H&K in the floorboard. "If that doesn't extract the most top-secret information, nothing will."
Marc stopped his reverie out the side window. "Does it matter what happened back there? Look where we are now... shit! …what are we going to do with the old man?"
"That's the smartest thing I've heard out of you all day," Cargyll said, and Saff cut his eyes at him, warning him to back-off.
But it did bring the old man into question again. And the four fidgeted, uncomfortable with either of their two choices.
The old man raised his chin a degree. "Seems to me you have your own fates to decide," he said, sounding more ancient than he looked. Something about the voice made them uneasy. Saff rubbed the back of his neck as if the old man's breath was corrosive, as Marc closed his eyes to the whole tangled mess, leaning his head against the window and his body closer to the door.
Jenson looked into the rear-view mirror straight into the old man's eyes. "What fate? Prison or Prison?" He looked back to the road before finding the old man's face again in the rear-view mirror, stoic as before. "If I have to go to prison do you think it matters to me whether it's for grand theft or murder? It's not premeditated, I won't get the chair."
"The chair?" and the old man grumbled a laugh. "Son, if you don't let me go the chair is what you'll wish for."
Cargyll reached back into his endless pockets for his cigarette pack, lighting one and rolling his window down an inch. Taking a long theatrical drag, he said, "Congratulations to us, we've taken a fruit-loop hostage."
The old man waved at the smoke. "Benjamin, if you please, I don't like smoke." And Cargyll lost the cigarette in his lap, hopping his ass from the seat and trying to grasp it before it burned a hole in the leather bringing him further grief from Saff.
"How'd you know my name? Nobody said my name…Did any of you tell him my name?" He glared at Marc, but Marc just shook his head and hiccupped into the glass.
"I know all your names, Benjamin," the old man said in a calm, desert-dry tone.
Saff turned in his seat, and before he could utter a word, the old man said, "Yes, Carl?" which left a gapping hole where his mouth had formally been shut.
Jenson once again found his eyes looking into the rear-view mirror, scalp tingling in anticipation, and he wasn't to be disappointed as the old man smiled a gap-toothed-grin into his face and mouthed "Adam". The old man laughed silently then, as if it were a private joke. "How fitting that you should be involved with a woman named Eve."
"Eva," Jenson corrected him, but couldn't quite keep the shock from his voice or the tremor from racking his body; that alien emotion he hadn't felt since is father had left twelve years back, taking his heavy fists with him. The old man shrugged and said, "No difference," rolled his head back, chuckled, and then leaned forward-all mirth evaporated in the breadth of a second as he barely spoke above a whisper, "Follow the serpent to the apple, Adam; it awaits you."
Then something captured the old man's attention out the window, he squinted as he leaned across Cargyll, waving his spidery-hand in recognition a fraction from the glass surface. "Ahh, there's Roy! Everyone wave at Roy." The others swiveled their heads around to see the kid on a hand-made dolly, wooden plank boards and metal rollers supporting cramped misshapen legs twisted under his weight. Wide eyes followed the Impala as he began to pavement swim to catch the car; a pitiful yell-scream of anguish as he pushed with his muscular arms, knuckles scraping along the sidewalk. Impossible to catch the Impala, but still the teen surged forward, only to collide with the curb, upending himself to sprawl humpty-dumpty-pose upon the sidewalk.
"Roy stole a few bucks out of his mother's purse," he snickered, "and her battered Timex. That's what brought him to me, the wristwatch. First, tried to sell it to me and then tried to rob me. I gave him a choice... but you see what beds unbelievers lie in. Of course it was nothing like stealing a car... or precious jewels... or murder."
Out of the quiet fugue, Marc yelled, "Let me out of the car, Jenson!" His hand gripped the door release. "I'm not listening to the crazy fool another minute." But he didn't turn to look at Roy again; his window or the back of Jenson's close-shaved head was as eastward as his head would travel. Wouldn't even turn to look at his brother and god knows he hoped Carl would be alright-but he just couldn't take it anymore... and Mama, please, if you're around and looking over your boys, we're sorry, and nothing bad, nothing, he swore,would ever happen like this again. His days of petty crime and monkeying around with folks were over with a big bang-whoosh!
Marc didn't have to turn. The man placed one of his liver-spotted hands on his leg. Marc stared at the bony, pincher-hooked fingers against his jeans,no, and "Don't touch me... don't... touch." And Saff leaned over the seat to grasp the man's shoulder and wrench it back from Marc. One glance at Cargyll, huddled deep into his corner and ten shades of ghost, and he slapped the old man across his cheek.
The man didn't flinch, but pursed his thin, wrinkle-threaded lips together thoughtfully. "Your time grows short. I need your answer."
Saff retreated back into his own space beside Jenson. "I say we get rid of him and let the river take the body. Nobody's going to miss him. Hell, he's probably escaped from a mental institution. We're doing the tax payers a favor." Saff rubbed his hand along the day's growth at his chin. "Old man, you were just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I am always at the wrong place at the right time. You decide your own fate as I've told you before. Now, I need your answer. Does Carl speak for all of you? Will you show an old man mercy or death?"
Jenson twisted around, half of his body coming across the seat, his knee sliding along the bottom of the wheel and dragging the car into a wild swerve. "Shut up!"
Through the sway of the undercarriage and the rubbery-hop of the tires, the old man calmly warned, "I'm only here to help you save yourselves from yourselves."
Saff reached out his hand to steady the wheel and correct the veer. Cargyll's voice blended with Marc's, begging Jenson to stop the car.
Saff grabbed Jenson by his tee-shirt and pulled him down in front of the wheel again. "Man, you're going to get us all killed -- got to pull it together. Just stop somewhere until we can decide what to do."
They pulled along side the wharf, deserted stretch of gray gravel-rock and rotting wood that no scrubbing would ever clear the smell of fish guts from. The dock workers had gone for the day and only the gulls supplied voice over the lap-lap-lap of the water against the retaining walls and buoys. Cargyll lifted three cigarettes from his pack and handed them out to the front seat and looked at Marc, though he knew he didn't smoke, but Marc nodded and took the cigarette, determining that anything might help his nerves.
"We vote," Jenson said, blowing a long stream of ashywhite smoke from his lips and out the window.
"There're four of us, what if it's a split?" Cargyll asked. He watched his own exhaled smoke drift and curl to the roof of the car, wished it could spell what to do like in the cartoons... because he sure didn't know.
"If it's a split, then we toss a coin or something..." Saff said.
Jenson looked to the backseat. "Agreed?"
Marc and Cargyll nodded. But the old man shook his head. "I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. It has to be unanimous or you have to appoint one person to speak for all of you."
They ignored the old man. Jenson sighed. "I say we get rid of him and take our chances that nobody ever finds the body or at least gives a shit to find out if it was murder."
"That's crazy man! I want no part of this. What if... what if he's ...real?" Mark's voice broke over the strain.
Saff looked back at Marc. How could he vote against him? What if they did get caught and it was his vote that put him behind bars for murder? But it was he that had dragged the old man into the car to begin with... his fault regardless for bringing Marc into this shit.
"I think he's telling the truth. He knows things he couldn't possibly know. He gives me the creeps.." Marc said.
Cargyll threw his cigarette butt out the window. "I have to agree with Marc on this. Let him go... we take our chances."
Jenson flared. "He knows our names. Got that? Letting him go means that we surely do time for robbery. You ready for that?"
Cargyll clenched his teeth together. "A lot more than I'm ready for murder. I vote mercy."
Jenson turned to Saff. "Talk some sense into 'em would you?"
Saff stole a glance at Marc, saw the desperation in his eyes: Don't do it. Don't make me live with it. Don't make me try.
"I vote mercy."
Jenson's fists pounded the steering wheel ring. He bounded from the car, went to the back door where Marc sat. "Well, I'm going to save all your asses." He tried to pull Marc from the seat to get to the old man but Marc wouldn't have any of it and grasped the headrest from the driver's side. Saff was immediately out of the car just as Jenson was dumping Marc onto the gravel, and clutching at the old man's hair.
"Stop it Jenson. We decided to vote."
But Jenson just swung his fist into the old man's face, strange sensation like a thick rubber sack stretched full of spongy bones.
"It's on me man. No sweat-I'm doing my part bro," and he swung his fist again, this time connecting with the old man's ribcage, a knuckle slipping through into the crevice and nothingness for a brief second.
Saff stepped into the space between the old man and Jenson, his bulk overshadowing the emaciated man. "No more." But Jenson, not as firm-built as Saff, but just as head-strong, struck out in a wave of knuckles and fist.
He knocked the larger man to one knee. "I didn't want to do that Carl. So don't get in my way."
Saff held his jaw for a swift second and then bellowed as he tackled Jenson to the skin-eating gravel.
Marc skirted around to the two men, thought of trying to break it up, but decided to let the scuffle run its course.
And after a few rolls and toss-abouts, the men looked into each others huffing and red faces and broke apart. "Okay, okay, have your way. Let crazy-bags go, you're that determined to see lockup for the next ten years."
Jenson sat up, swiped at the dust on his jeans and looked over at Cargyll leaning against the Impala's broad-side, smoking a cigarette.
"Where's the old man?" he yelled, kicking out at the loose and slippery rocks in his attempt to scurry up from the ground.
All four looked around, expecting to see his dullwhite hair towing the ground and his knees plowing at the long-tooth-gravel or the wooden pier. But he'd disappeared. Vanished. Cargyll ran his hand deep into his pocket, felt the emptiness there, and tried to keep hold to his own vanishing poker-face. He turned to the long stretch of desolate pier. There would be time enough to tell the others of their own theft, but not now. Not when he could hear the echo of laughter in the lap-lap-lap of the water marking its claim on the seawall below.
Copyright © 2002 by Susanne S. Bridenbaugh and Bewildering Stories.