Vain attempts to rob a bank.
What worried Vain most about robbing a bank wasn’t the danger, or the cops, or getting caught. No, it was that it might not work, and then she’d need to consider Roman’s insane and unworkable plan to get normal jobs. But jobs, even temporary ones, meant staying in one place. Talking to other people. Trapping yourself. Pass, pass, and pass.
Was it her first bank robbery? No way to tell. She had no memory of anything before the Hotel, so possibly, she’d been an expert. Maybe that had been her past life; going from town to town, robbing banks, making her getaway while clutching dollar-sign inscribed sacks to her chest.
Probably not. More likely this was her first, and something cool to cross off her bucket list. Item number one on her bucket list was to create a bucket list. A problem for later.
Her original plan included dressing up like cowboys and talking in a western drawl because western bank robberies ruled, but Roman pointed out that while entertaining, it would draw more attention. She reluctantly agreed but insisted on wearing a cowboy hat, which made him laugh. Their lives didn’t hold enough joy, and the risk was worth it to make him smile.
“It’s nearly six.” The enormous cowboy hat fell over her eyes and she pushed it back. “Bank-robbing time, y’all.”
“I’m not sure an ATM counts as a bank,” Roman said. “And stop talking in that horrible accent.”
“See here, little lady. An ATM machine counts as a bank.”
“I’m not a lady, and ATM stands for ‘Automated Teller Machine’, so you don’t need to add the ‘machine’ at the end.”
“After we rob this ATM machine,” she said, emphasizing the last word, “we should have enough cash to keep us going for a while. Yeehaw.”
Going where, though? She had no idea, although she’d never admit that to Roman. He counted on her to keep them moving and invent plans to keep them safe. Deal with today and make it to tomorrow. Life, since the Hotel, came in heartbeats.
From their vantage across the street, Vain scouted the ATM nestled into the building’s brick exterior. Cars and pedestrians made it easy for them to hide in the open. Downtown Denver buzzed with crowds this time of night and no one paid attention to them, rad cowboy hat notwithstanding. Even if anyone looked, all they’d see is a mild-faced, brown-haired man and a girl with huge eyes and angular features wearing an absurd ten-gallon hat. Two people out for a stroll, staring intently at a bank, talking in cowboy lingo. Standard, everyday stuff.
Vain cracked her knuckles, impatient to get started. The best plans were like wrestling matches; not a detailed list of moves, but rather a series of big spots that led to a finish. Lock up, do a table spot, nail a suplex, done.
“A good plan is a lot like wrestling,” she said to Roman so he’d have a chance to acknowledge her clever comparison.
“I’ve told you before,” Roman said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “A good plan is exactly unlike wrestling. A table spot? Like when a wrestler gets thrown through a table? What’s the analogous ‘table spot’ in this specific plan?”
“Shush.” She waggled her finger at him. “Should be showtime soon. Y’all.”
They had been scoping out that ATM for a few days. Every night at six o’clock, the bank guy came, opened the door, and refilled the money with stacks of bills from his giant money truck. That would be their moment to strike.
“If this were a movie, I’d say something like ‘Roman, let’s go over the plan one last time’ and dump a bunch of exposition.” She liked movies.
“Yeah, movies are great. Screenwriters are hacks. The guy is coming. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” She pulled a sliver of energy from him. It filled her up; inflated her. He trembled, almost imperceptibly, but she noticed. No matter how he tried to hide his discomfort from her, she always saw. Screw the Hotel for making them like this.
The bank guy opened the ATM and Vain got to work. She concentrated the energy into a circular shape, no bigger than a plum. To anyone watching, it would appear like a girl in a cowboy hat was having a staring contest with a wall. She guided the invisible energy ball past the man’s shoulder and into the opening of the machine. It was hard to see that far across the street, but she didn’t need to be precise. She only needed to wedge it into the compartment of the ATM.
“Got it.” She pushed the ball into place.
“Okay,” Roman said. Sweat glistened on his forehead despite the cool night air. “Anchor it.”
They’d never tried anything like that, but they were almost out of money and entirely out of options. Roman didn’t like stealing, but Vain reminded him that banks weren’t people, they were things, and it didn’t technically count as stealing. She likened it to removing lint dust from a vacuum cleaner, another kick-ass analogy he seemed to find deeply unsatisfying.
“Come on.” She plucked his sleeve. “Time to go.”
A tree-filled park across the street provided plenty of nooks and alcoves to hide in. They’d picked out their spot already, a couple yards inside the tall gates and off to the side. A dirt path branched off the main paved strip and led to a wooden bench behind some broad bushes. The bank was no longer visible, but they were close enough for Vain to control the energy ball. No one would bug them.
Eventually, the ATM-guy would finish his work and close up the machine with her invisible energy ball inside. All they needed to do was wait for dark and then she’d detonate it, breaking the door and giving them access to all that sweet, sweet guilt-free money. Money that Roman believed would be destroyed along with the door, but he didn’t have any better ideas.
She played with her fingers while she waited and Roman rested his head on his jacket. He closed his eyes, his breath coming out in shallow puffs. Was he greyer? Maybe. Maintaining the energy ball meant pulling from him constantly. Only a little, but it took its toll.
She loved Roman. He was her best and only friend in the entire world. It bothered her when he suffered, even a little, and she wished her ideas didn’t require her to suck energy from his body like some kind of horrible leech. For the hundredth time, she promised herself that one day they wouldn’t need to do this anymore. She’d stop the Hotel. Somehow.
Plans and strategies whirling through her head, she hardly noticed when someone entered the alcove and sat on the bench between them. Roman groaned and opened his eyes.
Vain bristled, ready to tell this new person to scram when she caught a better look at him. She gasped and her heart did cartwheels. Tall dude. Suspicious eyes and light brown hair. Permanent frown. Cauliflower ears.
He’d found them. Vain tried to get to her feet, but the Wyatt gripped her arm, painfully. With his other, he jammed a gun into Roman’s side. She froze.
“Sit down, Vain,” said the Wyatt.
All thoughts of ATM robberies vanished from her mind. She dropped the link to the energy ball but kept the conduit to Roman open. With the Wyatt holding her in place, her entire body stiffened. Roman recoiled when he realized who had joined them.
“Good girl,” said the Wyatt. It took all of her self-control to prevent herself from trembling at the sound of his smooth and greasy voice. He pressed against her; touching her. She wanted to throw up. “We’ve been following you for days. Appreciate you finding the perfect spot for this chat.”
“I appreciate you being a jerk,” she stammered. God. What a terrible comeback. The Wyatt's unexpected appearance had her rattled. How did the Hotel find them? They’d been so careful. The Wyatt pressed his gun in Roman’s side and her eyes froze on it. A gun. Pointed at Roman. Her Roman.
“I know you have the Padlock on you,” the Wyatt said. “Give it to me. Once I have it, we’ll talk about what happens next.”
“I threw it in the river,” she said. Shoot, did Denver even have a river?
“You’d never part with it. We both know that. Listen, Arthur doesn’t want to hurt you, okay? He wants his property back. You give me the Padlock and I’ll let you go.”
The Wyatt was lying. His aw-shucks smile hid the monster underneath. The instant he had the Padlock, he’d kill them both. Roman licked his lips and gave her a terrified glance.
“The Padlock is in my shoe,” Vain lied. The Padlock rested in her pocket. Close enough. “I need to stand up to get it. Okay?”
“Don’t try anything, Vain. If you so much as breathe funny, I’m shooting your battery. I don’t need him. I don’t need you, either. No weird stuff. Clear?”
“Clear.” Vain rose to her feet. The Wyatt dropped his grin, all business now, and pushed the gun further into Roman’s side. “I’m going to bend over and get the Padlock from my shoe.”
“I’m serious,” said the Wyatt. “A single twitch and I’ll kill him. I’m not joking.”
“I don’t think you’re joking,” Vain said. Theoretically, she could take him out with an energy blast to the skull. Easy; pull from Roman and attack. But if she looked at the Wyatt while doing it, she’d squint, or her pupils would dilate, or something. Wyatts were tricky, and they knew the signs when a Utility pulled from a Conduit.
She’d need to strike without looking at him. Risky, but she didn’t see any other way.
She bent over to fumble at her shoe, eyes on the ground. He wouldn’t be able to read any signs from her. All she needed to do was fire off a blind shot and hope it hit him, not Roman. Half a foot separated them. Almost nothing. She might miss. If she missed, she’d kill Roman. Where had the Wyatt’s head been? She concentrated to her left, praying she didn’t miss. Her mouth flooded with sour bile.
“You’re taking too long,” the Wyatt said, and she fired an energy blast with her mind. Something wet splatted against her cheek, and she gasped. From the corner of her eye, Roman’s worn sneakers pressed against the Wyatt’s leather shoes. Neither moved. She couldn’t make herself turn her head.
“Holy shit,” Roman said.
Vain jumped to her feet. The Wyatt hung over the back of the bench, half his head missing. Blood dripped off Roman’s face, and he wiped it with his sleeve. Vain’s eyes were suddenly misty. Allergies? Probably allergies. She fanned herself with both hands.
“Roman,” she breathed. “Roman.” It was all she could say. He was alive. It worked. She didn’t kill him. Why were her allergies acting up, though? Strange.
“Vain. I’m okay. I promise.” Roman said. He had his frowny face on. He didn’t touch her because she didn’t like that.
“I know you’re okay. I didn’t worry for a second.” She wiped allergy-based moisture from her cheeks. He was safe. Her stomach unclenched, letting her breathe again.
“How did he find us?” Roman asked.
“Doesn’t matter.” Now that the danger had passed, her mind revved into overdrive. “We have to go. Now. How much cash do you have on you?”
“Less than a hundred,” he said. Vain bit her lip. She had around six hundred bucks. Hardly enough.
“The train station,” she said. “We’ll take a cab there and get on the first train.”
“What about our stuff back at the motel?”
“It’s gone. We’re leaving it. We have to go. Come on. Use your jacket to wipe off the blood. You look like Carrie at the prom.”
Roman nodded and cleaned himself up. He still looked horrible and rust-stained, but it was a marginal improvement. He knew the drill, same as she did. If one Wyatt appeared, there would be more. They hunted in packs.
Her dumb cowboy hat had fallen from her head in the commotion, and she left it in the dirt, feeling stupid. What if the hat led the Wyatt to them? But she knew the truth. It wasn’t the hat. It was the Padlock.
She reached into her pocket and removed it, turning it over in her hands, as always struck by how improbably heavy it was for its size. It had a burnished gold base, with the word SAFE scratched into the metal. It emitted a faint glow and vibrated ever so slightly in her palm. All their problems traced back to that simple object; that Device; that thing they stole a year ago when they left the Hotel. Such a small thing to cause all that trouble.
“Chin up,” she said. Chin up felt like something to say in that kind of situation; something a spy would say, or maybe a war hero. “Stay sharp,” she added. She wasn’t scared. She wasn’t. There were more Wyatts out there, but she would keep her chin up and stay sharp. What else?
“Keep your head on a swivel,” she finished. There. Perfect.
“Come on,” Roman said. Without sparing a backward glance for the dead Wyatt, they ran onto the main road. Time to put all of her advice to use. Chin up. Sharp. Swivel head.
There, on the corner. Another Wyatt. Same brown hair, same angry face, same weird bowlegged way of walking that made it seem like he wanted to knock down an invisible wall with his forehead.
“I see one,” she said. Her voice sounded small. The fist around her heart squeezed. Hard.
“Me too.” Roman pointed to the opposite end of the street. Another Wyatt. That Wyatt signaled and walked towards them, followed by another.
“I think we should run.” She tried to sound brave, so Roman wouldn’t panic. Her heart thumped, but that was probably because she’d run out of the park.
“I agree,” Roman said. He sounded terrified.
Vain picked a direction at random and ran, shoving her way through the crowd. Behind, the Wyatts also picked up speed, realizing that the chase had started.
“Stop them,” one of the Wyatt’s yelled from thirty feet behind. “They stole my wallet!”
The world being what it was, the Wyatt’s plan backfired. Now that the crowds of pedestrians believed her and Roman to be criminals, they parted to either side, giving them a clear path down the sidewalk.
Two could play at that game. “Stop them,” she yelled over her shoulder. What was worse than stealing a wallet? “They’re chasing us because they want to steal our… tennis rackets.” People moved further apart, and she reflected that everyone, generally, sucked.
They sprinted for three blocks, her ragged gasps getting louder and louder in her ears. A one-way street littered with orange pylons and construction vehicles forked off from the main road. She skidded into the turn, and Roman crashed into her back, sending them both tumbling to the ground. Her elbow banged against something hard, and her teeth came together with a painful clack.
“Come on.” Roman hoisted her to her feet and wiped his forehead. Rivulets of sweat created jagged tracks through the dried blood on his cheeks.
Vain’s breath sawed through her lungs. The Wyatts. Where were the Wyatts?
“There.” She pointed between two buildings. “The alley.”
“Really?” Roman asked.
She shoved him and got moving.
Only a few feet separated the buildings. She dodged between overflowing dumpsters and discarded cardboard boxes filled with filthy rags. The odor of frying grease clung to everything, and she gagged through the scent, trying to breathe through her mouth. Every breath sent a stitch of misery down her side. At the end of the alley, a rusted chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top blocked their exit.
She slammed her palm into the fence. “Fire escapes. Where?” was all she managed to gasp.
“Wrong city. Not New York.” Roman bent over to catch his breath.
The Wyatts appeared at the mouth of the alley, and Vain bit off a moan of fear. The fence was too high to climb. They needed to move.
A sign over the nearest door said, ‘deliveries in front’. Vain kicked it open, thinking she probably looked sort of cool when she did that. They stumbled into the middle of a crowded kitchen. Dozens of people carrying sizzling pans of food stopped what they were doing, mouths hanging open.
“Hey!” A man with a stained apron yelled at them. “You can’t be in here.”
In front of her, a rack covered in pastries made a tempting target. She knocked it over as she ran past, followed by yells of outrage.
“The people chasing us will pay for the cakes.” She shouldered through the doors into a noisy restaurant.
“At the back,” Roman said. “Stairs.”
She ran ahead of Roman, ignoring the cries behind them, ignoring the commotion they were causing, ignoring the intensifying stitch in her side that reminded her she had not prepared for this much running.
They hustled up five flights of stairs before stopping at a fire escape. She pushed the door open and stumbled out onto a gravel-covered roof. They both bent over, sucking in huge gasps of air.
“Did we lose them?” Roman asked.
“I’m positive we did,” Vain said as the rooftop door slammed open and three Wyatts burst out.
Everything happened at once. Two Wyatts threw themselves at Roman while one tackled her to the ground. She kicked and scratched, but the Wyatt outweighed her by about a hundred pounds, and he pinned her underneath his body. One hand gripped her throat; his other hand rummaged through her pockets. She choked and struggled. Muffled grunts and the sound of fists hitting flesh came from somewhere to the right.
“Leave him alone,” she coughed.
“Leave her alone!” Roman yelled at the same time.
The Wyatts addressed neither of their complaints and instead continued to hammer them both. A huge, meaty Wyatt fist thumped against her head and spots blossomed in front of her eyes. She fought her way out from underneath him, inching towards the building’s edge. A three-foot lip circled the roof, and she pressed her back up against it. The two Wyatts threw Roman to the ground beside her and he groaned. Bruises showed on his face. Her lip curled back into a growl.
Maybe it was the end.
She wanted to tell Roman how much she loved him, how much his friendship had meant. Christ, hug him. Why couldn’t she hug him? She’d never done any of those things but wanted to. Someday. As long as she drew breath, she’d fight for that.
“Take another step and I’ll drop the Padlock.” She stood and held her clenched fist over the lip of the building, glaring at the Wyatts. One shrugged.
Vain’s chest heaved. Roman spat bright red blood onto the roof and cradled his face in his hands. In the distance, a lone bird let out a solitary cry. One Wyatt scratched his nose. The silence stretched.
“I mean it,” she tried again.
“We believe you,” the lead Wyatt said. “We will pick up the indestructible magic Padlock from the ground below after you drop it. It’s irritating, but whatever.”
“You stupid clones.” She poured all her contempt into the last word.
“No. We’re not clones. Clones would imply we’re identical copies.”
“It’s more accurate to call us instances,” the second Wyatt said. “We’re each a unique instance of the same person.”
“We find the term ‘clone’ to be offensive,” said the third. “After we finish this violent abduction, you owe us an apology.”
Vain rubbed her forehead in frustration.
Her bond to Roman allowed her to sense his presence. He was like a permanent resident in her head. She couldn’t make out his thoughts or emotions, but the essence of him always existed. He was too beat up to take any more from without rendering him unconscious. But without energy, her powers didn’t work. She was defenseless. Option A equaled bad and option B equaled terrible.
But maybe she didn’t need a full amount. Maybe a trickle would do.
Okay, so that was a tough spot to be in, but she could be scared and useless, or she could do something.
“Don’t kill me.” She dropped to her knees, hands in front of her, locked in prayer. “I’ll give you anything you want. Sexful things.” She tried to make her eyes smouldery and puckered her lips.
One Wyatt sighed and snapped at the other. “Take it from her.”
She allowed a bit of Roman’s energy to flow into her. It was barely anything; a feather-light kiss. As the Wyatt approached, she held the Padlock in the palms of her hands like an offering. He reached out.
She pulled the Padlock behind her back with one hand and grabbed him with the other. She bound him to her in an energy ball and pulled with all her strength. It caught the Wyatt off-balance and he lurched forward. She released the energy, and he tripped, going over the edge of the roof.
“Ha!” she said.
Unexpectedly, he pulled her with him.
“Shit!” she said.
The sensation of falling took her by surprise, but less so than the reality of her plan not working.
As the ground rushed up to meet her, her final thoughts were of Roman.