An excerpt of Chapters 1 & 2 from Wallace Stroby’s new thriller about career criminals, Kings of Midnight (available April 10, 2012).
Crissa Stone is a career criminal who has pulled a number of impressive heists by knowing how to keep her mouth shut and her temper in check. Still, as good as she is, she wants to get out of the life. All she needs is one last big score, enough to bribe her lover’s way out on parole, set up a safe and stable new life, and get her daughter back. However, things keep going wrong, like when her last two partners lost their cool and fought over the take instead of walking away $150K richer. The mess they made of the job and each other has put her on the run again.
She’s not the only one. Benny Roth, a former mobster, has been straight for years, but now he has his own problems. A face from the past has popped up to tell him that boss Joey Dio is finally dead and to ask about the five million dollars that Joey was rumored to have stashed away years ago. Benny denies knowing anything about it and claims he’s out of the business. That may be what he says, but he’s willing to risk almost everything for one last shot.
With the law and mobsters on the lookout and five million dollars on the line, it isn’t long before Crissa and Benny find themselves on a collision course that neither of them can avoid.
Crissa pulled the ski mask over her face, shifted the front-end loader into neutral, looked across the blacktop at the ATM, the redbrick bank beyond. Heat lightning pulsed on the horizon.
The loader chugged and shook around her, the vibration coming up through her boots. With a gloved hand, she cleared condensation from the windscreen. At the far edge of the parking lot, near the trees, Hollis flashed the headlights of the stolen pickup.
She worked the bucket control lever with her right hand, heard the mechanism clank and hum. The bucket rose slowly. She’d stolen the loader from a construction site a half-mile away, driven it here down back roads with the headlights off. They’d chosen the bank because of its location. Woods on three sides, and a highway in front. But at 3:00 a.m., the cars were few and moving fast.
She braked, pushed the steering column lever into first gear, stepped on the throttle pedal. The loader surged forward, eager.
She tried to steer around a curb, but caught the edge, the big tires rolling over it, the cabin rising and falling.
The ATM was on a concrete island, the farthest of the three drive-through lanes. She came in at the wrong angle, had to brake, back up. The reverse sensor beeped, barely audible over the engine. As she backed and filled, she could see Hollis watching her through the windshield of the pickup, getting nervous.
She ran it in again, this time got the bucket lined up with the ATM, braked. On the screen, she could see flashing advertisements, one fading into another, the screen never dark. She raised the bucket so the bottom edge cleared the concrete island. If she misjudged, smashed the ATM rather than toppled it, she could back up, try again, but that would take more time, more exposure.
She was in range of the security cameras now, the point of no return. Her hands were clammy inside the gloves. Hollis started to ease the pickup forward, waiting for her. She let her breath out slowly, engaged the bucket safety to lock it into place, and hit the throttle.
The loader shuddered as the bucket’s edge met the base of the ATM, punching into plastic and metal. The ATM groaned, tilted forward into the bucket. The screen blinked out. An alarm began to sound within the bank.
She braked, worked the bucket control. With a screech and grind, the ATM began to come away from its base. It tilted farther into the bucket, then hung there, still bound to the island with cables and framework.
Hollis was out of the pickup now, ski mask on, pry bar in hand. Crissa raised the bucket half a foot higher, sparks hissing from the shattered base. This was the risky part. If the ATM broke loose before it was fully in the bucket, it would topple back and away. It would take too much time to right it again. They would have to leave it.
She shifted into neutral, hauled on the emergency brake. Hollis had his bar wedged into the base of the ATM, working it back and forth. The machine tilted another few inches, enough for him to walk up its back face, and bear down with his weight. He jumped down then, backed away. She raised the bucket again. Resistance at first, metal screaming, and then the ATM came out of the ground all at once, trailing wires and broken masonry, crashing deep into the bucket. She heard glass pop and break.
Hollis ran back to the pickup and threw the pry bar into the bed. She backed away from the island, the beeper sounding. Bits of plastic and glass littered the blacktop. Ten feet back, she stopped, braked.
Hollis drove the pickup in front of the loader. It was a big Dodge Ram with heavy-duty suspension and an oversized bed. In this part of South Carolina, it had been easy to find. He’d stolen it from the driveway of a darkened house only an hour ago.
He got out of the pickup to direct her, waving her to adjust in one direction, then the other. When he gave her the thumbs-up and stood back, she uncurled the bucket. The ATM crashed onto its back in the truck bed, the Dodge rocking on its springs. She reversed again, watching the rearview to make sure she cleared the curb. She backed toward the trees to the spot she’d picked, where the loader couldn’t be seen from the highway, then killed the engine. She pocketed the square ignition key. It was a universal fit for all John Deere loaders. This was the sixth time she had used it.
She opened the door, climbed down into the heat. Hollis had pulled the tarp down over the ATM, and was back behind the wheel of the pickup. She walked quickly to the truck, looked up into the glassy eyes of the two cameras mounted on the bank wall, then got in on the passenger side. In the distance, she could hear sirens.
They pulled away, the truck sluggish from the weight, the shocks squealing. He drove the wrong way out the entrance, bumped onto the highway.
“That one came up easier than the others,” she said. She took off her mask, shoved it into a pocket of her Windbreaker. Her face was damp with perspiration.
“Could have fooled me.” He was watching the rearview for lights. The sirens grew louder.
“Mask,” she said.
She reached over to steady the wheel while he pulled off his mask.
“Up here,” she said. “On the right.” They’d rehearsed the route, but it was easy to miss the turn in the dark. He steered onto a side road that led into woods.
“You can turn on the lights now,” she said. “And slow down.”
He popped the headlights on, eased off the gas. His dark face glistened with sweat.
“Don’t forget that mask when we’re done,” she said. “DNA.”
“I won’t.” The windshield was fogging now. He leaned over the steering wheel, and wiped at the glass with a gloved hand.
“You don’t need to do that,” she said. She fiddled with the dashboard controls, turned on the defroster. The fan hummed, and the glass began to clear. In the harsh light of the headlamps, the trees on both sides of the road seemed to be reaching toward them.
“This thing’s built for heavy loads,” he said. “Handles good even with all this weight. Maybe we should keep it, use it next time.”
“No way.” They’d stolen a different pickup each time, abandoned it when they were done. “Last thing you want is to be driving around in a hot truck.”
“We can switch out the plates.”
“Forget it. Besides, there isn’t going to be a next time. Not for me.”
He looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve done this six times now, each time the same way. How long before they start staking out construction sites close to banks? Or disabling front-end loaders?”
“But we’ve moved around. Three different states—”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time. It was a good gig, but we played it out. Time to walk away.”
“Hate to hear you say that.”
They were on a hill now. The ATM slid in the bed, thumped one of the walls. He shifted into low gear. She heard the far-off rumble of thunder.
“You and Rorey want to keep working it, I’ll teach you how to run a loader,” she said. “It’s not hard, and you’ve got the key. But my advice is to move on. We’ve all made enough from this anyway.”
“Rorey,” he said. “Only reason I’m working with that cracker is because of you.”
She’d brought Rorey in, on the word of a contact she had in Georgia. It was Hollis’s gig, but the two men he’d been using—one a laid-off heavy equipment operator—had both landed long bids on drug charges. Hollis had found the man in Georgia, who found Crissa. She’d come on board, and helped Hollis fine-tune the plan to only hit machines on Friday and Saturday nights when they were loaded for the weekend. She’d brought Rorey in as the third man, but there had been friction between the two from the start.
“Dump him,” she said. “Find someone else. Rorey’s an adult, he’ll get over it.”
“When he starts talking that good ol’ boy bullshit, I like to bend that crowbar over his head. No way I’d work with him without you there.”
“Then there’s your answer.” She looked out the window at woods passing by. The road had leveled off now, and soon she could see darkened farmhouses, fields, grain silos.
“Not too fast,” she said. “You’ll miss it.”
She unzipped a Windbreaker pocket, took out the disposable cell phone, powered it up. She dialed Rorey, and waited. When he answered, she said, “How’s it look?”
“Good to go. Everything quiet. You?” If something had gone wrong on either end, their code word was “zero.” It meant things had fallen apart, one way or another, to split up and keep going.
“All good,” she said. “We’re close.”
“I’ll leave the light on. See you in a few.” He ended the call.
“So, what are you going to do next?” Hollis said.
“Like I said in the beginning, I was just down here to build up the nest egg. I need to head back north.”
“Nice nest egg.”
Each of the ATMs they’d hit had carried from $30,000 to $150,000 in tens and twenties. When Hollis had first told her about the work, she’d doubted him. The numbers sounded too high. But they’d taken $125,000 from the first machine; $80,000 from the second. At her hotel back in Columbia was a pair of suitcases containing $175,000, her split of what they’d taken so far.
“It worked out,” she said. “Thanks for bringing me in.”
“You made it better. Improved my game. Now I have to start from scratch.”
“If I ever get up north, put something together, is there a way I can reach out to you? Someone you use up there?”
“No,” she said. “Not yet. Not anymore.”
She thought about Hector Suarez, dead in the trunk of his car on a Jersey City street. Cut and shot over trouble she’d brought down on him. He’d been her contact for the three years she’d lived in New York. She hadn’t had another since, just a loose-knit group of people she trusted to varying degrees, none very much.
She’d settled the trouble up there, but the name she’d been using— Roberta Summersfield—had been compromised. She’d left the city with nothing but the clothes on her back and a suitcase full of cash. Since then, she’d been Linda Hendryx, the name on the forged passport and driver’s license she’d kept for emergencies. The only people who knew her as Crissa Stone were back in Texas. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life there and had fled long ago.
“Up here on the left,” she said. “See the mailbox?”
He slowed, then turned into a gravel road that led through a tobacco field. The ATM slid in the bed again as they made the turn, bumped up the road. He switched off the headlights. At the end of the road was a big tractor barn, slivers of light leaking out from around closed doors. A flashlight blinked at them, Rorey out front, signaling the all-clear.
“Just take it easy,” she said to Hollis. “We’ll all be out of here in an hour. You don’t ever have to see him again if you don’t want to.”
“With that motherfucker, it’ll be too soon.”
Rorey was pushing open one of the big doors. Hollis braked, waited. When the opening was wide enough, he drove through onto a concrete floor. Rorey began to push the door shut behind them.
“Pull up farther,” she said. “We need room to work.”
There was a single drop lamp hanging over a workbench, a pool of light on the floor beneath it. Moths fluttered around the bulb. Her rented Ford was parked on one side of the barn, out of the way, nose out. Next to it was Rorey’s battered white van. Rorey had found this place, sat on it for three days to make sure it was out of use.
Hollis shut the engine off. From outside, another rumble of thunder.
“Remember what I told you,” she said.
She got out. The barn smelled of oil and straw, the air heavy with humidity. Rorey came toward her. He wore a white T-shirt, his thick forearms covered with fading blue tattoos.
He played the flashlight beam into the truck bed. “How’d we do?”
“Good enough.” She opened the gate, let it clank down. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
“I heard sirens.”
“Alarm went off soon as we hit the machine. But they were pretty far off. We never saw them.”
Hollis got out. Rorey hopped up into the bed, pulled the tarp back to expose the smashed screen. “Let’s get it out on the floor.”
She climbed up beside him, went to the top of the machine, and pushed, putting her weight into it. It barely moved. Rorey jumped down, found a handhold on the bottom of the machine, and began to pull. He looked at Hollis. “You crippled?”
“You heard me.” Rorey let go of the machine.
“Hollis,” she said. “Give me a hand up here.” He looked at her, then back at Rorey. He climbed up onto the truck bed.
“Equal shares, equal work,” Rorey said.
“Do not start that shit,” Hollis said, not looking at him. He bent beside Crissa, and together they braced themselves against the top of the ATM.
“What shit is that?” Rorey said.
“Quit it,” she said. “Let’s get this thing down.”
They began to push, the ATM sliding across the bed. Hollis grunted with the effort. Rorey pulled until they got the machine onto the open gate.
“Hold it there,” she said. She was breathing hard. Beneath the Windbreaker, her T-shirt clung in patches to her skin.
She hopped down, found a grip on the base of the machine.
“Easy now,” she said to Rorey. “Let’s tilt it so it lands right. Watch your feet. On my count.” She looked at Hollis. “You ready?”
He nodded, bent against the machine.
“Here we go,” she said. “One, two, three.”
Hollis groaned, pushed, as she and Rorey pulled. The machine hung there on the gate for a moment, resisting, and then suddenly it was sliding toward them, tipping.
“Watch it!” Hollis said. They moved back fast, out of the way. The ATM crashed facedown onto the concrete, dust rising high around it.
“Jesus Christ,” Rorey said. “What the hell’s your problem?”
“I said ‘watch it.’ ”
“Almost broke my Goddamn foot.”
“Maybe you need to move quicker.”
“I move quick enough. You want to find out?”
“Enough,” she said. “If you two can stop measuring dicks for a little while, I’d like to get this done and get out of here. Rorey, get your torch.”
He glared at Hollis for a moment, then turned away and went to the workbench. An acetylene tank was mounted on a handcart, hose wound around the gauges, the silver torch nozzle hanging. It was the only piece of equipment they’d taken from job to job. Everything else had been stolen as needed.
“Come on,” she said to Hollis. “Take a walk with me.”
He jumped down from the bed as Rorey wheeled the tanks over, a pair of heavy gloves under his arm. They met each other’s eyes, but Hollis kept moving. Crissa opened the barn’s side door, looked out into the night. The air was thick and still. Lightning flashed on the horizon.
Behind her, gas hissed as Rorey opened the valves. He pulled a crumpled pack of Marlboros from the pocket of his T-shirt, shook one out. Studying the ATM, he speared his lips with the cigarette, then pulled on the gloves, triggered the igniter. Flame leaped from the torch nozzle. He adjusted it to a thin dagger of blue and yellow, then pulled on a pair of safety goggles. He used the torch to light his cigarette, blew smoke out.
Hollis looked at him, shook his head, and turned away. Rorey walked around the ATM, picking his spot. Then he leaned over, and brought the torch to bear. Sparks began to arc past his shoulder.
When Hollis joined her, she shut the door behind them to keep the light in. They stood in the night air.
“That fucking guy,” Hollis said.
“Half an hour and we’re out of here.”
Beyond the tobacco field, a hill sloped down into the unbroken darkness of woods. Far in the distance, they could see a cluster of flashing red, yellow, and blue lights surrounding the bank.
“There they are,” Hollis said. “Looking for their money machine.”
“They’re too late,” she said. “It’s gone.”
When they went back in, the air was filled with the acrid smell of burning metal. Rorey was making a horizontal cut across the back of the ATM, the flame reflected in his goggles. Smoke rose around him.
She took the fire extinguisher from the workbench, brought it over. The steel plate of the ATM was molten red where the flame had stroked it.
Rorey straightened, and took the torch away, cigarette dangling from his lips. “Careful,” he said.
She triggered the extinguisher and gave the ATM a burst of Halon. White foam hissed and bubbled when it met hot steel. She fired another burst, then stepped back. The red glow of the metal faded. Vapor drifted across the floor like fog.
Rorey’s forehead was shiny with sweat. He circled the ATM like a pool player. Ash fluttered from his cigarette.
“How’s it look?” she said.
He leaned over, began to make a vertical cut with the torch. Sparks leaped up, died on the concrete floor. It was a job that needed a sure touch. Hollis had told her the first time his old crew cracked an ATM, the torch man had cut too deep, set the cash alight. They’d lost half of it before getting the fire out.
When Rorey took the flame away, she hit the back plate with another Halon blast. Hollis had come over and stood near the pickup, watching them.
Rorey waited for the metal to cool, then began to make a horizontal cut across the base. She stepped back as sparks angled toward her. When the cut was finished, he straightened, said, “There you go,” and shut off the torch.
Two more bursts from the extinguisher, the foam sizzling. She squeezed the trigger again, swept the spray along the back of the ATM until it was covered in white. “That should do it.” She set the extinguisher down.
“Give it a couple minutes,” Rorey said. He pulled the gloves and goggles off, swept a wrist across his eyes.
Hollis got two pry bars from the truck bed, handed her one. He pulled the tarp down, spread it out a few feet from the ATM.
Rorey shut off the valves, wound the hose and torch around the tank. He hung the goggles on the valve wheel, the gloves atop it, flipped his cigarette away, then stood with his hands on his hips. All three of them looking down at the cooling machine.
“Good enough,” she said. She wanted to be out of there.
She drove the wedge end of the pry bar into the vertical cut, pushed down, leaning into it. The steel plate began to buckle. Hollis drove his bar in beside hers. They pulled in different directions, peeling back the two halves of the plate, the metal squealing. She could see the innards of the machine now: circuit boards, wires, and long silver racks full of cash.
“That’s the shit,” Hollis said.
She gave a final pull on the bar, widening the hole. Faint smoke drifted out. Hollis stepped back.
“There it is, boy,” Rorey said. “Go get it.”
Hollis looked at him. He was still holding the pry bar. Rorey met his eyes.
“Knock it off, both of you,” she said. “Hollis, pull that tarp closer.”
He set the bar down, tugged the tarp toward her. Kneeling, she wedged her bar into the aluminum cash rack, snapped it with one hard jerk. Cash slid out of the rack and down into the machine. A good haul, she thought. Maybe the best yet.
She put the bar down and began to pull stacks of bills from the machine, lining them up on the tarp.
“Get your bags,” she said. “Let’s do this, and get out of here.”
Rorey went to his van. To Hollis, she said, “Yours is in the trunk. Car’s unlocked. Get mine, too.” She’d driven him to get the pickup, would drop him at his motel before heading back to Columbia.
She took more money from the machine, pulled apart two twenties that had stuck together, looked at the serial numbers. Different series, different years. The bills were mostly new, all twenties and tens, none of them sequenced. They’d gotten lucky. ATMs were unpredictable. You never knew what was in them until you cracked them. And then it was too late.
She retrieved the last of the bills from inside the mechanism. None of them was singed.
“Good work,” she said to Rorey. He set an olive drab duffel bag down, undid the drawstring. Hollis came over with two suitcases, one of them hers.
Sitting cross-legged on the tarp, she began to count the money, setting the stacks aside as she was done with them. Hollis picked up the piles she’d counted, counted them again. It was their system.
When she was done, the money was spread in a fan around her, each stack about three inches high.
“One hundred and forty thousand,” she said. “Four hundred and eighty.”
“Gotdamn,” Rorey said.
“Hollis, you get the same?”
“Oh, yeah.” He was smiling. At almost forty-seven grand a share, it was their second biggest take.
She began to divide the money into three piles. Hollis was right. It was a good gig. Easy work, minimal risk, with substantial reward. No weapons, no witnesses, no one getting hurt. But it was time to move on.
Rorey began to load his money into the duffel.
“I already told Hollis,” she said. “This is it for me.”
Rorey looked at her as he packed the last of his money in the bag. “What do you mean?”
“I’m done with this. You should be, too. We’ve been to the well too many times.”
“What are you talking about?” he said. “This is sweet.”
“Maybe. But I’m gone anyway.” She opened her suitcase, stacked cash inside. She would band the bills later, at the hotel.
Hollis had his money loaded, was latching the case.
“Maybe I’m not done,” Rorey said. “Why do you get to decide?”
“Because I do,” she said. She closed and locked her suitcase, and stood. “You get to decide, too. Like I told Hollis, you two can keep working this if you like. But I don’t think it’s worth it.”
He looked at Hollis. “Well, isn’t that just fine? You take off and leave me to work with a nigger?”
Hollis straightened and turned to face Rorey, the suitcase forgotten. “You motherfucker.”
“Back off,” she said. “Both of you.”
“What’d you call me?” Rorey said.
“You heard me, bitch.”
She tried to get between them, and then Rorey’s hand was coming out of the duffel and there was a gun in it, a blued .45 automatic. She stepped back instinctively. He pointed it at Hollis’s chest.
“Come on, nigger. You’re so tough? I’m right here.”
“Put that away,” she said, but Rorey was ignoring her, staring at Hollis, the gun steady.
Hollis smiled, took a step back, hands on his hips. They looked at each other. There was a low echo of thunder outside.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said to Rorey. “Let’s take our money and get away from here.”
“I want to hear what else this nigger has to say first.”
“Leave it. Let’s go.”
“Okay,” Hollis said. “If that’s the way it is.”
She never saw him pull the gun. One second his hand was empty, the next it wasn’t. It was a snub-nosed .38. He pointed it at Rorey. “There you go, cracker. That’s what I’ve got to say.”
She took another step back. The two were facing each other, less than six feet between them.
“Take a breath,” she said. “We’ve got almost fifty grand each in front of us. All we have to do is walk out of here. Don’t fuck things up. Put those guns down.”
“Him first,” Hollis said. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
She looked from one to the other. If she could defuse the moment, it would pass.
“What are you, a couple of punk kids?” she said. “ ‘Him first’? You’re supposed to be pros. Knock this shit off. We’re losing time.”
Rorey nodded, but his gun didn’t waver. Hollis raised the snubnose so it was pointed at Rorey’s face.
“Okay,” she said. “Now let’s—”
She couldn’t tell who fired first. The big .45 kicked up, Rorey already spinning away. Hollis kept firing, falling back himself. He landed hard on his side on the concrete. Rorey fell across the duffel. The echo of the shots chased itself around the barn.
“Son of a bitch,” Hollis said.
She went to Rorey first, kicked the .45 away. He lay on his stomach, not moving. She turned him over and saw the black hole beneath his right cheekbone, just starting to ooze blood. His eyes were half open. He was gone.
Hollis coughed wetly. She crossed over to him. He was on his back now, looking up at the ceiling with wet eyes.
“Did I get him?” He coughed again.
Gently, she took the .38 from his hand. “Yeah. You got him.”
She felt the anger rising in her. “We were almost out of here.”
“How bad is it?”
She pulled away the edges of his Windbreaker. The bullet had gone in the left side of his chest, the shirt there already sodden with blood. The shredded material around the hole fluttered with every breath. Sucking chest wound, she thought, a lung hit for sure.
“It’s bad,” she said. She put the .38 aside. He was breathing in short ragged gasps now. His chest cavity would be filling with blood.
He looked up at her. “I’m sorry,” he said, and then didn’t say anything more.
She stood, looked down at the two men, both still and silent now. Nothing she could do for either of them, and no telling how far the sound of the shots had traveled. It was time to go.
She pulled Rorey’s duffel out from under him. There was a single spot of blood on the canvas. She dragged the bag to her rental, put it in the trunk, then went back for the suitcases. She put them in side by side, shut the lid.
She looked around the barn a final time for anything that could link her to what had happened here. There was nothing. The police would find the bodies, the guns, the gutted ATM, put two and two together. The only thing missing would be the money.
She switched off the droplight, went to the big door, and put her shoulder to it, pushed it open. On the horizon, a cloud glowed for an instant, lit from within, then went dark again.
She got behind the wheel of the Ford, started the engine, realizing only then her hands were shaking. She gripped the wheel tighter, and drove out into the darkness.
Copyright © 2012 by Wallace Stroby
Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and a former editor at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. This is his fifth novel, following the acclaimed Cold Shot to the Heart and the Barry Award finalist The Barbed-Wire Kiss. He lives in New Jersey.