Published on July 8th, 2012 | by Alison Kjeldgaard0
Out Like Smoke
Sirens. Heavy footsteps thumped across wood floorboards over my head. I thought of that scene in The Birds when Tippi Hedren is trapped in the attic, and all you hear is the constant slamming of bird bodies against the roof. That goddamn familiar voice leaked through the ceiling hissing in my ear. “It’s a sure thing, boys. She’s here…We’ll find her soon enough.” And boots clumped across the floor in response like a herd of brainless cattle.
“Show time,” I whispered to myself.
Hanging lights shook over the dingy hall, and grotesque shadows played across the walls. Behind me, the mouth of the empty safe cackled silently, its empty deposit boxes strewn across the floor like freshly pulled teeth.
I turned toward the security guard sprawled on the dirty cement floor. A sandwich creeping out of its plastic wrapping lay just past the toe of his black boot, mustard oozing like a wound from between two slices of Wonderbread. I glanced at his bronze nametag: Ned. Ned didn’t seem to have much of an appetite anymore. He looked at me with bulging eyes, his fat splotchy face contorted into a toothy smile from the gag cloth wrapped tightly around his head. I bent down and patted a chubby cheek.
“Well honey, I’ve gotta go,” I said in a low voice. “Smile for me?”
As I drew away his pupils shrank in panic. He knew what came next. Drool spilled over his bloody face as he gummed the cloth and burbled.
“Memorable last words,” I laughed.
With gloved hands, I screwed a silencer onto the barrel of my revolver, aimed, pulled the trigger. Like a slug, his body left a gleaming black streak of blood behind it as it slid slowly down the wall.
Time to disappear. I slipped into a vent directly above the guard’s head, squeezed backward into the shadows, pulled the cover back on, and waited. I heard the police squad rumble down the stairs. Heard their exclamations at the sight of the guard’s still body and empty safe. That voice, that too fucking familiar voice, came last, its thin whisper jumping out at me over the scramble of echoes made by the rest.
“Poor Ned,” it said, carelessly.
My brain sang to calm my nerves. Poor Ned…Ned is dead…too much lead…to the head…Gradually, the noise faded down the hall, and then there was merciful silence. I waited for another fifteen minutes, listening to the squad rustle through the building like a giant roach infestation. I shifted nearer to the grate and peered through the slats. Cautiously, I pushed the cover loose and began to crawl out.
Suddenly, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs around the corner from the safe. My heart jumped into my throat and I scrambled back into my dark hiding place. I had just enough time to secure the slatted cover and slip my gloved fingers out of sight before an officer rounded the corner.
“…I have a feeling…” a gruff voice said slowly.
“Get your ass back up here,” someone commanded from the top of the stairs. “We have to keep it clean! Forensics is gonna scour the place in the morning.”
“Yeah, I’m coming,” the officer said distractedly. I could see him squinting down the hall, one hand resting casually on his holster, trying to discover something he instinctively knew was here.
I gripped my revolver, my stomach doing flips. Goddamn idiot, I silently shouted at him. My cover gets blown, so do you. As though he could sense the direction of my anger, his eyes locked on the vent.
“What if…” he mumbled.
I slid the revolver forward.
Sausage fingers squirmed through slats to pry the vent off. I fired at the surprised face that met mine. His towering body fell backwards and hit the wall behind him. Smack. I knew that I only had seconds. I shoved Ned over, and ripped open the back of his shirt. Packs of money spilled out like guts. I shoved them into my bag and ran for my life.
My head spun dizzily as I tried to remember the floor plan. Poor Ned’s poor head…I frantically thought. I ran to the end of the hall and pushed open the stair door. My only chance was that the squad would use the stairs near the safe and would be in the basement checking on their unfortunate colleague by the time I hit the main floor. As I ran, I heard shouting and began to gain hope that my reckless plan would work.
I paused at the door to the main floor to recollect my wits and listen for human movement. Nothing. I heard footsteps on the stairs below me. I took a deep breath and kicked open the door, lifting my revolver as soon as I was through.
“Like smoking a fox from a hole…”
That voice. The one that had haunted my dreams every night since last October when everything about my life began its steady downward spiral.
“Jesus…it’s you…” I said, the words escaping my mouth unwillingly, as though they’d been punched out of my stomach.
That ugly mouth puckered around a cigarette. “Smoked. Out.” it said, exhaling each word separately. Hot smoke words blew across my face. My eyes burned.
“You can’t disappear now,” it whispered into my ear. I felt the cold end of a pistol jab my ribs. “Now…hand over the cash.”
I never would have imagined being in this situation a year ago. A year ago I would only be in a bank between the hours of nine and six standing in line with other customers, handing a bored teller my carefully filled-out deposit slip. A year ago I would have been in bed at this time of the night.
A year ago I only knew cops from a distance. From a happy, naïve distance.
“Hand it all over. Like we planned.”
That voice again. That horrible voice contaminating my right ear, spreading into my brain. Existing singularly, bodiless. Existing on the edge of streetlight circles, in filthy alleyways, in blocked doorways. Existing as my personal dead end.
I remember a year ago laughing with my friends on the street, meeting them for a movie without being afraid of darkness in a theater. I remember eating dinner after work, and staring dreamily out the window, thinking about all of the things I wanted to do with my life.
Then, one night something happened that I haven’t told a soul.
But somehow this voice knew all of my dirty secrets. And from then on, I was its prisoner.
I could hear the rest of the squad coming up the stairs, their voices becoming clearer. It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t end with blackmail dangling its trophy over my head. Suddenly, I knew what to do. It was as if some higher power had cleared all of the smoke from my head, oiling the rusted mechanisms of my brain.
“Ok,” I breathed. “I’ll hand it over.”
I whirled around, flung open the door, and threw myself at the squad team rounding the last corner of the flight of stairs. “You bitch!” said the voice—but it was quiet and whining.
I felt a hot pain shoot through my side but I didn’t care. Not anymore. I fell in a pile at the feet of the officers. Handcuffs closed around my wrists but I felt freer than I’d been in a long time.