Here’s a more recent story, never published.
Partly Cloudy and Windy
by Jeff Somers
THERE WERE seven of us. I’d already given them all nicknames for easy reference, just in case I had to choose which one of them should be killed instead of me, in some sort of horrifying turn of fucked-up events. I had also decided I would have no mercy.
There was Jumbo—of course there was Jumbo. Every fucked-up situation has a Jumbo, a man so large you are awed. A man so large you can feel a very slight but definite gravitational pull. Pencils and paper clips on nearby desks fluttering as if in a stiff breeze when he enters the room, thisclose to being sucked into orbit around him. Jumbo wore a faded and somewhat sordid looking track suit, a huge pale man whose head seemed far too small for his body. A pinhead. Looked like he’d been sweating since he woke up, salt deposits on his skin and a creeping stain on his jacket that waxed and waned like the tide. Jumbo’s head was shaved very close, and you could see the drops of perspiration on his skull, clinging with a jittery urgency. He clutched his checkbook in one meaty hand and quivered, ever so slightly, where he sat, a perpetual motion of jiggling fat.
I liked Jumbo. He looked like an entertaining guy. Plus, if the fucked-up situation got even more fucked up, I figured we could eat him. For weeks, if need be.
There was Dessicated Lady, a woman so old and dry I imagined dust and pieces of lint being blown through her leathery veins, eventually settling in the empty space of her skull and pushing out through her scalp, becoming an amazing swirl of battleship gray hair, kindling-dry. Just looking at her made me want a drink of water. She was wearing a bright green pantsuit and a heavy cloth coat, and had the peculiarly perfumed smell of very old women. Despite the slow increment of hours piling up around us like husks of dead bugs, she’d so far refused to remove her coat. It was hot, stifling, and she remained in her heavy coat without a drop of sweat. My head hurt when she flicked into my peripheral vision—she must have a core temp of about five hundred degrees, the dust in her veins turning molten.
She looked like the sort of woman who cut up your rubber balls when you played stickball in the street and accidentally launched a dinger over her garden wall.
There were the Sorority Twins, tall, leggy girls in tight jeans and turtlenecks, coked-out expressions and bottled tans, their bracelets jingling with every movement they made. Their huge, brown sunglasses remained on, giving their faces distinct fly-like appearances. They were attractive in a bizarre, repulsive way that kept me imagining their thong underwear despite being pretty much convinced that said underwear would instantly convey several venereal diseases in my direction.
For a while the Sorority Twins had done nothing but complain, an endless chain of bitching that encouraged violence. Their vapidity and ignorance was obvious from the moment that they opened their mouths, and constant repetition was not necessary to prove the point—but, their sorority ethic refused to let them do a half-assed job in any aspect of their lives, so they persevered, repeating inanities that exponentially increased my desire to pop them both in the mouth, over and over again, screaming something terrible as I did so.
There was Boogie Down, a skinny black kid in baggy clothes and a lot of gold chains, dark glasses, attitude. Here we had evolution, because when Boogie had entered the bank all so long ago, he’d been all about the Pimp Roll, his headphones, and ignoring the rest of us. As his batteries had run down, though, so had his attitude, and when his sunglasses had come off he’d suddenly become a frightened fourteen-year-old kid whose pants wouldn’t stay up. And I found myself unable to hold his poor fashion sense against him, especially since if I were in his shoes I’d be pretty pissed about being stuck in those pants during a crisis. If you suddenly find yourself needing to run away and you’re tripping over your own pants, it can bring you down. I felt him.
There was, of course, the manager and the one poor unfortunate teller who’d been on duty. The manager was a Bowling Ball, a round ball with spindly arms and legs, dressed in a nice suit that was undermined by his ridiculous spherical shape. His head was a round ball, too, balding and shaved close, leaving him stuck with a rather disastrous Michelin Man appearance. He was high-waisted, too, and as always I became fascinated with what his physical experience must be. How did people who looked like uncomfortable feel, day-to-day? Myself, I was the Princess and the fucking Pea, any little thing that went out of whack concerning my body left me whiny, depressed, and obsessed. If I’d had the Bowling Ball’s body, I doubted I’d be able to function, so distracted by my own hideousness would I be.
The teller turned invisible every time I stopped thinking about her. She was tall and gangly, one of those tall, gangly, breastless women who’d undergone some sort of trauma during adolescence, leaving her to embrace her tortured skinniness. Her hair was pulled back in an extreme ponytail, and she wore plain, long clothes and plain, nerdy glasses. She had remained remarkably calm, sitting next to Bowling Ball with a dazed, placid look on her face. I had little doubt that if she were asked to perform her job duties she would simply and wordlessly rise up and float over to her window, smooth some papers down, and look up to request that the next person in line step forward.
These were the people I would quite possibly die with.
Outside the room, a small, dusty office crammed full of paperwork our heroic employees had been too lazy or too disorganized to tackle, two men with an impressive array of weapons prowled the bank, occasionally shooting up a garbage can or desk that annoyed them. Outside the bank itself, fifty cops in various states of physical and mental readiness waited with their own weapons drawn. We, the temporary inhabitants of this room, had no weapons. Unless panic and desperation were considered weapons.
The bursts of gunfire didn’t even phase us any more. They came every few minutes, punctuated by loud cursing as one of our Nobel Laureates vented some frustration. I sympathized; I’d be frustrated too if a quick dip into a small bank for some spending cash had turned into an endless hostage situation that most likely ended with everyone shot to death in a clusterfuck of stupidity, bureaucratic thickheadedness, and bad luck. That was, in fact, almost exactly what had happened to me, and I realized that the Nobel Laureates were pretty much my brothers. I resolved to be more sympathetic to them when they next entered the tiny office in order to terrorize us, which they did whenever their slim confidence needed a boost.
“What’s happening out there?” I asked Manager Bowling Ball. He was seated with his back against a bank of filing cabinets, and had a direct line of sight into the bank proper, and out the plate glass into the street.
He licked his round, oddly soft lips and grimaced. “Nothing. Nothing, okay? I can’t even see any people. Just flashing police lights. Quit asking me.”
“I’d get up and look myself except they’d probably shoot me in the head,” I reminded him cheerfully. People amazed me.
There was nothing else to do but annoy everyone. There was simply no other source of entertainment available to me. Besides, it was easy, so damn easy, all I had to do was speak to them and they got all upset. I’d been dishing it out in little dabs here and there, getting a feel for my material, which was first-rate. This was survival of the fittest time. I’d never been particularly fit—I’d always skipped gym and spent the period smoking cigarettes behind the school, showing up breathless and weak as a kitten to my next class, and I’d never been particularly bright or handsome. I was not the fittest man in any room—even rooms which contained Jumbo, who looked strong, and Dessicated Lady, who sounded bright. I needed to find advantages, and if I could find none—and with guns in the next room I didn’t see any—I had to make them.
“That’d be a shame,” Bowling Ball muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Nothing, okay?”
I licked my lips, heart pounding. “Fuck you, fat man. Didn’t you get some training for these situations? Isn’t there something you’re supposed to be doing? We’re your fucking customers, man—there’s got to be something you’re supposed to be doing, instead of sitting on your ass complaining.”
I didn’t look around at everyone else, I wanted to keep my eyes fixed on the fat bastard, so I didn’t know how that went over. He didn’t look at me. Confrontation avoidance in full swing, the sick knowledge that someone was challenging you, looking right at you and daring you to look back, with the certainty that if you do look you’ll just be punished for it. On the one hand a direct challenge to your manhood. On the other, surety that answering that challenge will make things worse. Men like Bowling Ball usually degenerated into inaudible mumbles.
“Hey, Fat Man,” I hissed. “Is sitting on your ass and quivering in the fucking employee handbook?”
This was a good approach because he was the manager, and was probably struggling with the accusations that he wasn’t taking charge. He probably did feel a little responsible, although under normal circumstances his good sense would have convinced him to just sit tight and let the cops handle this. I figured a wart on his fanny might get him thinking, and Bowling Ball looked like a man for whom thinking was always a bad idea.
Of course, everyone was starting to hate me, and I supposed if the place went up in a terrible explosion and I became trapped under some flaming furniture, pleading desperately for rescue, my fellow hostages might spit on me and kick me in the head as they exited the room, leaving me to die. That was okay, though, because I thought it much more likely that the day would end with our criminals—the Nobel Laureates—putting bullets into selected heads.
Suddenly one of our hosts was in the doorway, brandishing his gun, with was long and heavy-looking, gleaming dully. “Shut the fuck UP!” he shouted. He had an accent, but i couldn’t place it. He still wore his ski mask. The area around the nose was wet. I know what it was like to have a piece of hot synthetic material stretched over your head all day.
We stared at him in silence. He remained in the doorway so long it seemed like he actually thought a demand to shut the fuck up—enforced by a deadly long-range weapon—should be verbally answered. Then his partner loomed up behind him, one gloved hand landing on his shoulder and whipping him around. They began shouting at each other in a language I neither understood or recognized, and moved back into the main part of the bank.
“Good fucking going, asshole.” Dessicated Lady growled. She sounded like she’d been eating cigarettes whole for years.
I pointed a finger at her, delighted. “Blow me, lady. You think that’s helping? You think the fucking Nobel Laureates out there will just walk out and give themselves up if we just stay quiet?”
She didn’t say anything, just sniffed a little and looked away.
“That’s your solution?” I continued, mercilessly. It all depended on misdirection and herding. You had to ride herd on them, keep them outraged, keep them distracted. “Sit tight? Do nothing?”
I heard one of the Sorority Twins mutter jerk. Jumbo rumbled, summoning the strength to take a deep breath.
“Man, you better shut the hell up.”
I’d been threatened by a man who could barely lift his sausage-like arms over his head. This was fantastic. There was another blast of gunfire from outside. I decided to see if I could get Jumbo so riled up he’d risk instant heart attack and try to stand up. What the fuck. I had nothing else to do.
“Listen, Jumbo,” I said, trying to keep the ragged joy that shot through me from showing, unable to call him Fat Man because then I’d have two Fat Men and it would get confusing. One of my many shortcomings was being easily confused. “I know you can’t do anything except make bags of chips disappear, but don’t hold the rest of us responsible for your inabilities.”
Jumbo began to vibrate. Boogie Down let out a long, low whistle, and Jumbo vibrated. I’d never seen a human being shiver like that, as if something was erupting out of him, an explosion below the surface. I stared and wondered if I had actually caused a heart attack. Finally, he raised a flabby arm and pointed at me, gasping.
“I don’t like you,” was all he said.
I nodded. “No one does. And no one here can carry you if the shooting starts, so consider the possibility that this is going to be your final resting place.”
“Jesus,” Bowling Ball said. “Why don’t you just shut up?”
“Yeah,” one of the Sorority Twins added. “No one wants you to talk.”
This was going better than I’d expected. “No one wants me to talk? What the fuck does want have to do with anything? If any of us got what we wanted, sweetheart, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now, would we? So want all you want. All I’m saying is that if some of you people who want to get out of here actually did something about it, maybe we’d be making some progress.”
“Man,” Jumbo said, waving a heavy sausage arm, “you ain’t doin’ anything either.”
He said either like eethah.
“The fuck I’m not, Jumbo. I’m trying to agitate this fat prick into doing something. He’s the fucking manager. He knows this place, the procedures, the layout, everything. He’s been trained for this shit. But he just sits there. He just sits there and tells me to shut up, when he’s supposed to be helping us.”
“Fuck off,” Bowling Ball muttered.
Ah, but I had them. They hated my guts, but it started to click into place what I was saying, and ignorant people are always glad to be told who they can blame for their misfortunes. Every one of my fellow hostages gave Bowling Ball a sidelong glance and decided hell’s yeah, this bastard was the manager of the bank—he must be in charge. And being in charge means you take it up the ass when things go wrong.
“You know anything that could help, maybe?” Dessicated Lady rasped. “Anything?”
Bowling Ball was looking nervous. “No.” He looked around, sensing that the tide had shifted. He looked hurt, appalled that the universe that had fed him a steady stream of cheeseburgers and milkshakes for decades had suddenly, without warning, served up a steaming plate of corn-encrusted shit. “Listen, they tell us to just do what the robbers say. They tell us not to make waves.”
“Fuck,” Boogie Down said, stretching out the vowels so that it was fuuuuuuck, “You prob’ly got a back way out and shit.”
Bowling Ball actually managed to look annoyed. “If I had a back way out, why am I sitting here with you?”
The brush fire I’d started got its first real blast of wind and erupted into a forest fire. “You’d fucking leave us, man?” Jumbo panted. “Fuck you.”
Bowling Ball’s expression became, amazingly, more tragic. “What?”
Boogie Down snorted. “Fuuuuuuck you, man.”
From outside, one of our hosts suddenly shouted “Shut up in there! I SAID SHUT UP!”
Bowling Ball didn’t seem to hear. “Fuck me? Fuck you! I wouldn’t lift a finger to help some piece of trash like you! Not a finger! You rude piece of shit!”
“I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
“Piece of shit?” Boogie Down drawled, his voice exactly the same volume and tone. “Shiiiiit, man. You the fat fucking piece of shit.”
Bowling Ball’s face had gone crimson. I was in awe of my powers. He started to struggle to his feet. “What?!?! What did you—”
There was a series of sharp explosions, Bowling Ball did a little jig, and then he fell backwards awkwardly and lay on the floor. Immediately a black stain began to spread around him silently. The Sorority Twins screamed.
“I said,” one of our ski-mask friends panted, standing in the doorway, “shut the fuck up.”
We all stared back at him in complete silence, except for the twins, who were each snuffling pathetically and murmuring mournfully. You’d think someone had shot them. Then, without another word, he turned and went back out into the bank proper, leaving Bowling Ball sitting there in a pool of his blood like a giant turd we’d collectively dumped on the floor. I didn’t feel bad. I didn’t feel any guilt. Like most dead people, he had only his own stupidity to blame.
Still, I thought it best to shut the hell up for a moment and see which way the wind blew.
“Damn,” Jumbo obliged me, shaking his head. “Stupid cracker motherfucker.”
“Stupid fat cracker motherfucker,” Boogie Down added.
“That was terrible,” Dessicated Lady added severely, admonishing the room. Her eyes blazed with a dry, scratchy rage. “Terrible.”
I was, admittedly, operating without a clear plan—just seat-of-my-pants thinking. Just throwing things out there and dancing my obscure dances. “Jesus,” I said, trying to sound shaken. I didn’t think I succeeded very well, but you couldn’t do it all. “Jesus, we should do something.”
This was met with a wall of silence. I looked around, and no one was looking at me.
“We should do something,” I whispered.
“Jesus,” Dessicated Lady snapped. “Like what, smart guy?”
“Like get shot,” Boogie Down supplied. “Another stupid white man. It’s a goddamn epidemic.”
“He got shot! He didn’t do anything—none of us did anything. Nothing, and he got shot.” I shook my head. “Fuck that. We’ve got to do something.”
I was pleased with how well this dovetailed with my earlier position. It was inspired.
“Shut up!” One of the Sorority Twins hissed back at me. Her twin had her head in her hands, and looked like she was trembling. “Shut up!”
Jumbo was staring at me, a peculiarly constipated expression on his face. After a few shocked moments, I realized the fat fuck was thinking. Finally, he passed whatever obstruction was clogging his neurons—probably some misplaced Cheetohs—and cleared his throat.
“Fuck, maybe he’s fucking right,” he wheezed.
“What?” Boogie Down snapped, leaning forward. “You getting high over there?”
“No, man, listen.” Jumbo continued. “Maybe he’s got something here: We’re just sitting on our asses, and these guys come in and fucking shoot us. We just gonna sit here and let them walk in a shoot us? I don’t know. Maybe we ought to do something.”
Boogie Down grinned, a shocking slash of white in his dark face. “Who, you? Maybe we could roll you out there like a fucking bowling ball, knock everyone down.”
Jumbo didn’t appreciate that, and stared at Boogie Down with that constipated look on his face again, seeking a comeback. “No, man: You. You gotta try somethin’.”
Boogie Down grinned again. “Say what? Shiiiit, man, now I know you’re high.”
“Listen, I can’t do nothing, I’m too fat.” Jumbo underscored this by gesturing to his heft with his tiny, T-Rex arms, as if no one had noticed his girth yet. “Who else? This cracker?” This with a gesture at me. “I wouldn’t trust this fucker to do nothing. Who else? The women? Fuck no, you don’t send girls out to get shot. It’s you.”
Jumbo didn’t trust me. That hurt me deeply. And delighted me.
Boogie Down didn’t like where this was headed, and I gave him another point for brains, bringing him to one point in my book. He put both hands up and grinned his shockingly white teeth at Jumbo. Jumbo’s teeth were a nice tan color. The sort of teeth you couldn’t believe remained in his head.
“Naw, naw, man, you’re fucked up. Try what? Try and get shot to death like this jackass? No way, fatboy. No way. You wanna roll in there, try something, be my guest. Not me.”
There was an awkward silence as we all contemplated such abject cowardice. I thought it was time to step up and take some risks.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go. Fuck all this sitting around shit.”
Everyone looked at me like I’d just leaped into the middle of the room and taken a dump on the dead body of Bowling Ball. The Sorority Twins each looked at me with their racoony heroin eyes and then looked away, and Dessicated Lady gave me the full, blank-faced force of her dry, lifeless eyes. Jumbo just snorted.
“No way. You’d fucking leave us here to rot, no doubt. I wouldn’t let you dial 9-1-1, man,” he said. “Naw, man, it gotta be you.” He added to Boogie Down.
“No,” I said firmly. “He doesn’t want to do it. So I will.” I looked around, peering about for any obvious things I could try. I thought about standing up, but that was too dangerous: If trigger-happy came back in here he was likely as not to shoot whoever was standing. That was the opposite of my intentions.
“Sit the fuck down,” Jumbo snapped, even though I hadn’t moved. “Boy, get yo ass in gear.”
“And do what?” Boogie Down demanded.
Jumbo’s eyes scanned the room. He paused, and I followed his gaze to a small window over a bank of filing cabinets. “See if you can squeeze out that window,” Jumbo instructed. “Maybe see a way out for us, maybe just go talk to the cops, tell them how many we are, what the situation is. Might help them get in here without killing all of us.”
Boogie Down squinted unhappily at the window. His manhood, I sensed, was now on the line: Without a plan or specific goals, he could always cry bullshit and not be far wrong. Now that there was something he could conceivably do, it would be hard to beg off without appearing cowardly. Cowardly, of course, meaning sensible as far as I was concerned.
It was inevitable, of course, that just as Boogie Down was mounting the filing cabinets, one of our hosts appeared in the doorway. We all saw him, but no one made a sound. We stared, horrified, at him while Boogie Down, oblivious, continued to curse and mutter as he tried to get up to the window. For some seconds we were frozen in this tableau.
“Hey,” the bank robber said, conversationally. Boogie Down froze, then turned his head slowly to stare back at him. After another second, there was a quick burst of noise and Boogie Down fell back onto the floor, a bloody pulpy mess, right next to Bowling Ball.
“Fuck, people,” the robber said through his ski mask, sounding peeved, “Just sit fucking still, okay?”
He stood in the doorway for a moment longer, staring at something, someone, and then turned on his heel back into the bank. For a minute or so we all just sat there, silent.
And then, the Sorority Twins started to wail.
I didn’t know if it was strain or a sudden crash in blood sugar or just a sudden sobering up, but the two of them started to scream as if they shared one throat, one horrified brain. I could understand why they were screaming, sure, but I didn’t know why they chose that particular moment, as opposed to all the other horrible moments they could have chosen. I decided to go with the theory that they’d suddenly hit the 100% sober level, and the sudden clarity and pain had coalesced into a primal urge to commit suicide.
“Shut up,” the gunman said. His voice was flat and disturbingly quiet.
The sorority twins kept screaming. They were clutching each other, and not really making words, just screeching noises. The rest of just stared. Even I started to wish they’d save themselves and shut up—it was like watching a car crash on video; you knew what was coming every time and you wished it would go different this time, but it never did.
“I said, shut up,” he hissed, glancing over his shoulder. Looked like he wasn’t wearing the pants in this robbery, at least, and we didn’t want him to get in trouble, did we? The Sorority Twins weren’t listening, though, they just kept on screeching. When he raised the gun to point it at them, they just screeched harder.
“What the fuck!” the other guy shouted from the main part of the bank.
“Shit,” the guy in the doorway muttered, the same way I imagined married men muttered under their breath when their wives yelled at them, and his gun spat some incredibly loud flashes of light, and the screeching stopped. I didn’t look at them. I was too busy making sure the bastard with the gun kept on walking.
Then I took a deep breath, but Jumbo held up a flabby arm.
“You don’t say a fucking word, okay?”
I closed my mouth and swallowed a grin. A smile would not be appreciated, I didn’t think. I took the tally: Four morons dead. Was I responsible? In a sense, sure. I had set things in motion. I had planted suggestions. But seriously, you cannot be blamed for what amounts to the stupidity of others. If I tell you to jump off a roof, and you do, am I really responsible? Aren’t you a little to blame? Just a little?
I looked at them, cooling piles of flesh, and I didn’t feel sorry for any of them. I’d ducked behind them in order to survive. I didn’t regret any of it.
Based on the quiet and dragging calm that seemed to have surrounded the bank, unfortunately, I didn’t think rescue or resolution was coming any time soon. Which meant I had to keep throwing up cover if I was going to survive with two heavily armed assholes in the next room. I considered the materiel left to me: Jumbo didn’t trust me and would be a pain in the ass to get into motion, but who else was there? Dessicated Lady had resolved to sit very still and hope for the best, aside from a generally disapproving glare she through in all directions, on a steady basis.
Suddenly, there was the Teller.
I’d forgotten about her. I think I looked right at her and didn’t see her for a moment, as if she was wearing a dress in the same pattern as the wallpaper. And then it was like she faded into sight, a little bit at a time. She was just slumped there, staring at the floor, not causing any trouble. But she looked reasonably fit and flexible, and smart enough to get into trouble if she was led in the right direction. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t remembered her, but I guess I’d been dazzled by the low-hanging fruit.
I gave her the yellow eye, real quick. Spinster: No ring and no indication she had any life outside of her many, many cats, whose shedded fur layered her clothes thickly, like she was turning into a cat, slowly, before our eyes. It was going to be hard, I thought, to get her moving—she looked sedentary and slow, the sort of woman in huge, magnifying eyeglasses who blinked in alarm any time fast movement was required.
As I studied her, she suddenly looked up and stared back at me. She didn’t look away, or evince any kind of surprise or worry, just a blank, flat stare that creeped up my arms and settled around my neck, making me itch. I felt suddenly sorry for anyone who had to work with this dried out bitch, and glanced at Bowling Ball in sudden, belated sympathy. Working with a ballbreaker like this, I think I might have run to the machine-gun toting villains in my bank with open arms, a smile on my chubby face, eager for the sweet release of death.
Still, she was my best bet to shoehorn up off the floor and into the path of psychotic bullets which might otherwise come hurtling towards me. I was running out of collateral damage, and there was a risk that I’d miscalculated—or, amazingly, overestimated the Sorority Twins—and would run out of materiel before the psychos were done shooting the place up. The EndGame was going to have to played carefully, with a terrible drought of pawns.
I ran my eyes over Jumbo and Dessicated Lady, searching for tiny crumbs of usefulness. Jumbo was sitting dejectedly, staring at the pile of bodies, the pool of blood, the twisted limbs. He was like a quivering mountain of gelatin, and I realized, with a start, that he was weeping—a dry-heave sort of weeping, but weeping nonetheless. I couldn’t tell if he felt somehow responsible for Boogie-Down’s demise, or if it was just stress. Or if maybe Jumbo was a sensitive soul to whom all life was sacred and thus to be mourned with real, sincere sorrow. Sincere sorrow steeped in Twinkie cream and pig knuckles, but sincere nonetheless.
Dessicated Lady was still competing in a statue contest. I think she’d seen the Teller’s invisibility trick and decided it wasn’t a bad idea, and I gave her points for it. All it had taken was four people dead before the old hag realized the best idea was to pretend to be dead already.
There was no way I was levering Jumbo up off the floor. There was probably no power in the universe capable of levering Jumbo off the floor. He wasn’t held to the Earth by the Earth’s gravity, it was the other way around.
Dessicated Lady had the thin look of someone one the verge of screaming, and I thought the right nudge might make her do something crazy. Whether it was something I wanted her to do was going to require some skill and planning.
Then we all jumped as one, because the loudest noise I’d ever heard boomed from out in the bank proper. And suddenly there was screaming and smoke.
“Holy shit,” Jumbo hissed, panting, pronouncing shit like sheeit. “They’re storming the fucking bank!”
“We’re hostages,” Dessicated Lady said. “They can’t just storm in here with us here!”
And then the Teller spoke, and her voice was scary, rough, like she’d been smoking cigarettes—or, my new pet theory, blooming in my mind like an oily flower, like she hadn’t used her voice in so long, like she hadn’t had anyone to talk to in so many years, it was just a rusted gear squealing into outraged motion.
“No,” she said slowly. “The cops know they’ve started shooting the hostages. They don’t have a choice now.”
She stared at me as she said this. I smiled in shock.
Jumbo, who still had a clear view of the main room, suddenly shivered, as if he was suddenly contemplating moving, the signals from his brain being returned to sender in confusion as his muscles awaited confirmation of such a strange and unfamiliar order. There was a lot of commotion and noise, and I even started to contemplate getting up off my ass and hiding behind something—Jumbo himself seemed the wise choice—when the noise and commotion burst into the room in the form of out Nobel Laureates, the bank robbers. More accurately, the hostage-takers, since they hadn’t actually successfully robbed anything yet. They tumbled in and slammed the thin wooden door behind them, looking around at the room and not seeing us at all. I think we could have jumped up and started dancing and they wouldn’t have seen us.
And then I was proved wrong when one of them, Tweedledum, turned around and reached down to lift Dessicated Lady up off the floor. He held her up with one arm and jammed the barrel of his gun under her chin.
“Listen to me, you old—”
With a spasm of his trigger finger, he blew Dessicated Lady’s head—and three or four of his own fingers—clean off. They both dissolved into a reddish mist, and he stared dumbly at her gushing stump for a moment as it slid to the floor, and then at his own gushing stump.
“Fucking moron,” Tweedledee muttered.
Tweedledum didn’t collapse into squealing horror, though, which surprised me. The noise outside our little universe was increasing, and he manfully ignored the grievous wound he’d just inflicted on himself and looked around the place. I figured shock would hit him soon enough. His eyes would roll up into his empty head and he’d slide to the floor, possibly squeezing off a dozen random rounds as he did so, just to make it more exciting. Then there’d be one less Nobel Laureate and a gun in play. Not that I thought a gun would help me in any way, with my lack of coordination and complete ignorance of modern marvels like the fully automatic weapon.
Tweedledum swept the room, seeking a replacement hostage. Someone was going out there with them, as a shield against the police. Someone was going to have that bastard’s barely controlled gun shoved into their back be forced to walk with them to stop the cops from shooting. Except there were probably happy-go-lucky SWAT snipers stationed on some roof nearby who wouldn’t want their buddies to think they were pussies who wouldn’t take the shot. I thought the odds were 50-50 that whoever got shoved out there in front of these yahoos as they made their brilliant escape from their brilliant robbery was going to end up chowder.
The play was obvious: They had to take either Jumbo or the Teller.
Jumbo presented obvious logistical problems for any man, even geniuses, and thus was obviously not going to be the choice of our two hosts: Just getting him up off the floor would prove to be difficult. Jumbo was turning out to be the smartest one in the room, as he sat hyperventilating, eyes wide and sweat flowing freely. He looked exactly like the sort of man you didn’t want to get close enough to smell. This was brilliant strategy. In contrast, both the Teller and I looked inoffensive: Recently showered, somewhat groomed, not nearly as likely as Jumbo to have years old skidmarks in their pants. And weighing less than the planet Mercury.
I started to run through the thought processes behind choosing me or the Teller, then stopped myself: There were no thought processes. Tweedledum was going into shock, had lost a lot of blood, and was probably fighting the grey urge to pass out. He was going to just pick whichever of us looked the least troublesome, grab them, march them out into the bank proper (assuming his gun did not just go off in a spasm of bad luck) to be target practice. Whoever got left behind would be able to spend a few profitable moments bonding with their newfound brother, Jumbo, and then be rescued by the police.
He wasn’t going to pick the Teller. He couldn’t even see that bitch, that cunt. She’d gone invisible again. I had to make him see her.
In the corner of my eye, Jumbo, quivering like a mountain of jelly. Beautiful, in a way: He was huge, and quivering, and yet silent, like grass in a high wind, seen from far away.
“What’s the matter, you fat fuck,” I hissed in sudden inspiration. “What are you waiting for?”
There was cacophony outside our little room. Cops, moving through gas and smoke, shouting clear at each other. Everyone in our little room paused to squint at me in momentary confusion.
“You said you were going to fuck these faggots up if they came back in here,” I said, trying for a note of bitter recrimination. “You fucking fat shit, you fucking pussy, here they are! Fuck them up!”
Jumbo shook his head, his whole body undulating. “No. . .no. . .you’re crazy, man.”
Blooding dripping from his hand at a steady pace, Tweedledum looked unsteady on his feet. He blinked slowly at Jumbo. “You fucking said that?”
“No,” Jumbo pleaded, staring down at the floor. Or where the floor would have been except for his immense physical presence. The unfairness of this had paralyzed him, the fact that someone, a fellow human traveling this unfortunate stretch of road with him, would so eagerly offer him up on a bed of lies. It was stunning, apparently, because Jumbo just quivered. Suddenly, the Teller’s voice appeared as if from nowhere.
“Yeah, what happened to the big plan? You said you were going to shove those guns up their ass.”
The bad grammar was more shocking than the words. Jumbo just shook his head, having graduated from quivering to shaking. Tweedledum was looking a little shaky himself, a little gray. He lowered his gun so it rested against Jumbo’s head.
“You were gonna fuck me up, huh?” he asked.
Tweedledee glanced over and frowned. “What the fuck you doing? Just get one up.”
Jumbo was sobbing now, just fleshquakes of terror rippling through him. I didn’t look at the Teller. She didn’t look at me, either, I was sure. Tweedledum was swaying, pale and sweaty, and I started to will him down, to will him to just pass out. It would make everything easier.
“Get up,” Tweedledum slurred, jabbing Jumbo in the face with his gun. Jumbo blubbered and I was then witness to one of nature’s marvels: Jumbo levering himself up off the floor. No doubt tides were affected halfway across the world, no doubt the Earth’s orbit was nudged a few micrometers off track for a moment as Jumbo got his ridiculously underpowered legs under him and began laboriously struggling upwards, grunting and moaning—and still clutching his fucking checkbook in one T-Rex hand.
“Jesus,” Tweedledee muttered, grabbing his partner’s shoulder and spinning him around. “Don’t fuck around with that fat piece of shit—take the fucking girl and let’s get the fuck out of here!”
They lapsed back into whatever language they spoke, harsh syllables and glottal stops. Tweedledum recovered and steadied, the adrenaline, maybe, making the difference. After thirty seconds of this—during which Jumbo hovered painfully in-between getting to his feet and the peaceful dream of being allowed to sink back onto his cushioned ass, sweating and trembling, ligaments stretched to their natural limits—Tweedledee just gestured at me.
“Fuck! You take her and I’ll take him—and we go out together!”
Jumbo allowed himself to sink back onto his ass with a sigh of relief, the motherfucker. I was trying to think of what to say to get the lucky bastard shot when Tweedledum, still pale but not as bad as a moment before, nodded and turned to face Jumbo again, casual almost, and without a word sent a burst of invisible, magic gunfire into Jumbo.
Jumbo twitched feebly, not even death powerful enough to move him, and lay still, blood oozing. I stared in surprise, thinking that perhaps I was a fucking demigod after all. And then, seconds later, while I was still gloating over having killed Jumbo with my mind, The Teller let out a little gasp, her eyes rolled up into her head, and she fell to the floor, limp and unconscious. The three of us stared at her. I didn’t know what the Nobel Laureates were thinking, but I was bitterly in awe.
Tweedledee and I looked right at each other, and he smiled—a hard, dislikable smile. “Come along, mijn vriend,” he said. “Last man standing, eh?”
I glanced from him to his partner. An odd moment of calm had spread out like smoke between us: No noise coming from the outer bank, no sound from within our chummy little room. Tweedledum was pale and shaky, his mutilated hand hanging limp at his side, but he seemed sound enough and my hopes for a loss of consciousness were fading fast. The stupid are always tough, like gristle. Tweedledee was marginally smarter, and grinned at me in a friendly way calculated to calm the hostage. Don’t worry, mijn vriend, it said. All will be well. Just accompany us to whatever ridiculous escape we’re going to pull out of our ass—a plane to Columbia, a helicopter, a pair of fucking roller skates and safe passage to the nearest steep hill—and you’ll be okay, ya? Fucking hell. I was going to get killed by these morons. I could taste it in my mouth like metal, copper.
The Teller, I looked back at her and she was staring at me with a blank, neutral expression on her face. I knew that look. I knew her. She was dancing in triumph but knew that any hint of emotion, and false note, would upset the careful balance and things could go off the rails.
I looked back at Tweedledee, who was still grinning his calming grin.
“Come on,” he said mildly. “It will be over soon.”
I knew it. Nodding at him, I glanced back at The Teller. “See her?”
I waited for him to look over my shoulder, a split-second glance. He nodded, prepared to be indulgent.
“She works here,” I said briskly. I studied him, and thought I saw a flicker of recognition, a memory of her standing in the cage when they’d stormed the place, standing in the cage surrounded by all that money.
“She’s got, I don’t know, like a million fucking dollars taped to her skin under her clothes. She showed us. Said you’d never figure it out.”
Behind me, I heard a sharp gasp. I didn’t turn. I kept my eyes on Tweedledee. Next to me, Tweedledum whipped his gun up to point it at her.
Tweedledee and me, we stared at each other. Did we recognize something? Something in the eyes? He was still smiling.
“That true, bitch?” Tweeldedum snapped. “You trying to pull that shit on us? On us?”
With the stress implying that we should be properly impressed by their genius so far. Noise again, the police shouting through a megaphone, Tweeldedum shouting at The Teller, The Teller, bad form, shouting back at him, calling me a fucking liar. I just stood there, calm, and smiled back at Tweeldedee, my new bestest friend.
His eyes flicked over my shoulder at his partner, who had advanced on The Teller and out of my peripheral vision. He looked back at me, still smiling that calm, happy smile.
I nodded. Why the fuck not? What was I going to do? I supposed there was a chance that I wouldn’t get killed by the clusterfuck brewing out there. A small chance. I closed my eyes.
Sound, then. Just sound. Tweedledee shouting through the door to the police, making demands and giving assurances, using the word hostage six times. Tweeldedum shouting at The Teller. The sound of ripping clothes, The Teller screaming. Cops, shouting back, wanting information, answers.
Gunfire, a short burst, to my right and behind me, and a second of silence.
I opened my eyes and stared straight ahead as Tweeldedee reached for the door. This was some horrifying fucked-up turn of events, and I had no one left to withhold mercy from.