Preston should have known this would be the end result, watching Sarah back away from the broken balcony railing twenty feet above him, as he bled out onto the bleached concrete. At a karaoke bar, the first night they met, she picked “Country Death Song” by the Violent Femmes. Who does that? Only a woman with his taste.
She could have been the one, but he never actually dated Sarah. They were college classmates, drinking buddies. Sarah could down a six pack faster than any guy he knew and her twisted sense of humor rivaled his own. But the romance never ignited. Preston nearly went in for a kiss once underneath the neon sign of a local pub, but even in his inebriated state he knew better and refrained. But looking up from the concrete at this very moment he realized she was more like him then he ever realized.
He wanted to smile ruefully, but that part of his face didn’t seem to be working any more. This was all supposed to look like a prank. I guess the joke’s on me. He tried to laugh, but the blood filling his lungs only allowed for a weak choking sound. He wondered if Hal had been in on it, too. Where was he, anyway?
Sarah looked down at the knife in her hand with a frown. Probably overkill. Literally. The thought almost made her giggle but she stifled her mirth—as much as she wanted to revel in the moment, there just wasn’t time. She resisted the urge to tiptoe back up to the edge and peer down at Preston. No time for morbid curiosity, however. For the rest of the plan to work—and it had to, now—she needed to move. That idiot Hal would pull up any minute. The smile creeping from her lips faltered momentarily. Probably best not to assume Hal’s acuity at this point. Assumptions about mental agility hadn’t done Preston any favors. Her smile returned, blooming now like a dark rose.
She was wearing a floral patterned sundress, the brevity of which made Lou almost trip over the cord of the pulsing floor waxer he was navigating through the aisles of the deserted department store, a discount barn where the mannequins were more battered than thrown out furniture. Still, Lou harbored an affection for each one. Unlike the women on the streets in the sunlight, the girls inside the store never rebuffed him for his urge to peek underneath their skirts.
Night security had begun to lose their sense of humor about discovering awkwardly positioned store mannequins in varying states of disrobe while on their nightly patrol, and while they had never caught Lou with any of his current or former paramours, they were certainly keeping a closer eye on him.
Rose was his favorite; the one he fondly called “the ex” after the store had bought new mannequin parts to assemble into a form for the store’s front window. Despite Rose’s position at the back of the house, she was the one he checked on most often. But as Lou made his way over to the clearance aisle, something seemed off with his girl. Even with her advancing age, she could pull off nearly any clothing ensemble, but tonight she wasn’t her alluring self. She stuck out sideways from the sundress.
Lou flipped off the waxer and made his way over to the mannequin. He touched her face and then the neckline of her dress. When he bent down, he noticed the odd red stains on her spring skirts. When he lifted them, he unveiled the horror. Rose’s left leg was missing, replaced by a broken piece of balcony railing covered in blood.
He froze in mid-reveal. This wasn’t right. Not at all. Where there should have been a pale, pleasant curve, he found a straight, spattered length of varnished wood. He resisted the urge to touch it, to see if the minimal after hours light of the store was playing tricks with his aging eyes. But he didn’t have to touch it, he knew. He had seen enough blood to recognize that particular shade of dark brown was formerly a lively red. And from the look of it, it had been fresh not long ago.
He slowly allowed the floral pattern of the skirt to slip through his fingers and back in place. This was all wrong. He wasn’t the only person on the floor tonight. The thought careened into his mind and skidded to a stop. He glanced around, but noticed the night guard hadn’t gotten to this area of his route yet. The cameras weren’t trained on this section, but anyone who actually bothered to review them might notice that the guy supposed to be waxing the floors had disappeared from the frame for far too long. And Lou didn’t know how long he had been standing there.
Lou reclaimed his equipment, and resurrected it with the flip of a switch. He couldn’t stop glancing back at Rose, but he wouldn’t be able to investigate further until security was back on the ground floor.
What did they do to you, baby?
“Remind me again why I should give a shit about that trophy?” Sarah feigned a yawn, even though the prospect of the heist still excited her.
“Because it’s mine. Little late in the game for cold feet, sweetheart.” Preston gave Sarah an appraising look. Like him, he knew she couldn’t hide her enthusiasm. Almost game time.
Sarah’s eyes narrowed, and her smile compressed. “Keep calling me sweetheart and I’ll remind you how sour I can be.”
“Yeah, Trish told me what you taste like.” The smile disappeared completely now.
“Seriously you two, can’t we just relax for one night?” Hal jumped from the impact of the cold gazes now directed at him. He opened his mouth to say more, but his lips got stuck before the words came out. After a moment, Preston smiled again, the wide healthy smile of a football quarterback in a state where football was religion.
“You’re right, Hal.” Preston slapped Hal a little too heavily on the shoulder, causing him to tilt in his chair.
Sarah’s face softened again as she watched ungainly Hal try to right himself. Poor Hal. Things probably wouldn’t work out well for him after this. But that’s what you get for playing flunky.
“You are right, Hal. We won’t be doing this again anytime soon, so here here.” She raised her pint, the other two followed suit and clinked glasses in the small space between the trinity–Sarah eyeing Preston, Preston eyeing Hal, and Hal completely entranced by his beer.
Sarah drained her draught and slammed the empty glass down on the bartop. “Be right back.” She gave Preston one more size-up and turned toward the direction of the bathrooms.
“Have fun” Preston intoned suggestively, his smile turning crooked. Sarah’s middle finger trailed in response as she walked away. His eyes followed her for a bit, unable to stop from admiring the sway of her ass as she sauntered to the back of the bar. At this point, his feelings for her didn’t travel much past what a resigned ex might feel–but he still appreciated a well crafted body. Especially when accompanied by that middle finger attitude.
Preston had discovered that Sarah was as smart as he was years ago. And he finally decided that if he couldn’t have her, he’d use her for his own purposes. Just as sporty as he was intelligent and cocky, Preston was in line for the Heisman Trophy in football, but hapless Hal got in the way as usual. It wasn’t even a real game, not with that simpleton. The practice game led to a sporting nightmare with Preston being carted off to the hospital, his shin bone protruding from his flesh. That day ended his football career just shy of achieving the notoriety he was so eager to gain. And with Sarah knocking him out for Valedictorian, Preston was destined to stand in second place his entire senior year.
If he could just get Sarah to the 3rd floor of the University tower where the trophy sat, he could have his glory. The trophy– his trophy– was lost and given to a quarterback with not even half his potential. If he could lift it, then at least Preston would be victorious in outsmarting them all. But it would take a planned maneuver to rescue such a treasure from behind the glass walls. If anyone could pull it off with him, Sarah could.
Sarah let her proudest finger linger in the air for a good ten feet before finally holstering it and turning down the hallway to the bathrooms. She walked past them, and approached the store room door. Good, they still hadn’t fixed the lock. She resisted the urge to look back for traffic–there was always a chance of people coming out of a bar bathroom at this time of night, so close to a college–and instead decided to walk right in as if she had every right to.
Sarah didn’t like to be played by men. She could smell what they were up to before they had even finished formalizing their plans. Preston was no different. She thought at one point she could respect him, but his inability to stay on top, even in their senior year proved to her that he didn’t have the chops. The idea that some stupid trophy would make a difference after graduating, grated on her nerves. Sarah never compromised and she never let defeat stand between her and the next challenge. If Preston thought he could pull off a trophy heist, she’d help him, but she had to get some satisfaction out of it, too. Pulling Hal into the action would keep her from getting too arrogant, overconfident. Hal was bound to foul something up and this would ground her–and make for an excellent patsy. Besides, if she could pretend to help Preston steal his damn trophy, while ridding herself of his presence, she’d eclipse his fame and never be suspected.
She flicked the light switch on and looked down in the right corner. Jesus, Hal. He was supposed to hide the knife behind the cleaning supplies and instead it was resting right on top of them, in full view of anyone who came in the closet sized room. And it was ridiculous, some sort of large hunting knife that would be tough to conceal in a pocket. Fortunately, she planned on such an oversight and brought a purse big enough to accommodate. She grabbed it, only admiring its potential lethality for a moment, and buried it at the bottom of her purse.
After a quick stop in the ladies’ room–she did actually have to go–she made her way back to the bartop and her waiting co-conspirators. She knew there was a good chance that Hal would tell Preston about the knife. He might have even done so while she was retrieving it. But she also knew that Preston’s conceit and overestimation of his own intelligence would keep him from letting on that he knew. He would come up with a contingency plan. He would think he was still in control. And that would make it even easier for her to win.
“Everything go as planned?” Preston tried not to appear too smug. Hal had told him about the knife days ago, he didn’t know what she had planned for it, but he would be ready.
Sarah quickly gauged his demeanor, and decided that he probably knew. No matter. “Always does. Alright, shall we go over it one more time?” Preston looked a little irritated. Hal looked like he might cry. But they both agreed.
The plan was simple enough. Preston and Sarah would enter the University tower, the one showcasing the trophy, about an hour before it was officially locked down. They would get there shortly before the security guard shift change, with the idea that whoever was working the overnight shift wouldn’t see them enter the building. They’d hide in the bathrooms respective to their genders, and wait. While the building was routinely patrolled, what the guards did on their patrols was not so routine. Sometimes they checked the bathrooms, sometimes they didn’t. When they did, the men usually didn’t check the women’s bathroom. The women seemed to be less worried about invading the men’s. But either way, no consistency. They had watched for weeks, and at first the unpredictability of the patrol was seen as a potential deal-breaker–but Preston and Sarah egged each other on until they agreed it was a challenge that neither wanted to back down from. Hiding in separate bathrooms, on separate floors, seemed to give them the best chance of success–and lessened the chance they would have to use the heavy sedative syringes they would be carrying with them. They would both have backpacks, posing as students who had been using one of the two study lounges on the first floor. If they were caught together, they would pretend to be young lovers seeking a new venue for public affection. Separately, they would employ the sedatives.
While the building didn’t have anything as sophisticated as motion detectors, or even cameras, there were plenty of bodies with flashlights and pepper spray wandering around, and the numerous narrow hallways of the old building meant the routes to the trophy case had to be planned meticulously. Once they reached the case, Sarah would work her magic on the alarm, and Preston would make the switch. Sarah didn’t see any reason to leave something in place of the trophy, but Preston was insistent. He wanted the school to not just feel loss, but embarrassment. They batted around several ideas. Most of them were ridiculous, but in the end Hal had the best, and most transportable idea. A stuffed tiger, the mascot of the school’s closest rival. Not only would it satisfy Preston’s need to snub his alma mater, it might put the authorities on the wrong trail. A school prank, easily resolved.
Preston had to admit, the whole plan really wasn’t much more than a prank–on the surface. That trophy belonged to him, but it wasn’t like he’d be able to put it on display on a fireplace mantle. But Preston had bigger plans than the trophy now. The tiger would conceal a surprise. One that was going to finally put Sarah in her place.
“Everything OK, Lou?” Lou spun and nearly tipped the waxer into a glass jewelry display.
“Oh, Hal, forgot you were on tonight.” Lou liked Hal. He had never given him any grief, and was always polite. And if he had heard the rumors about Lou’s suspected . . . habits, he didn’t let on or look down on him for it. “Yeah, yeah . . . just a little tired, I guess.”
He thought about telling Hal what he saw, about Rose’s “new” leg, but as nice as Hal was, he still wasn’t sure he could trust him. He didn’t really trust anyone after he got back from Iraq, and he hadn’t been given much of a reason to change his mind about that. Hal wasn’t all that bright either, and Lou wasn’t sure he had the right words to explain what he had seen earlier.
Hal inspected Lou and nodded his head, apparently satisfied with what he saw. “Alright Lou, well you take it easy man. I’m gonna finish my rounds, be in back if you need anything later.”
“OK, Hal, thanks.” Lou watched Hal amble away. Sweet guy. Was it normally his shift tonight? He couldn’t remember. But maybe he would take him up on his offer after he finished up. Maybe Hal would know what to do about Rose.
Things couldn’t have gone more smoothly for Sarah and Preston. Not only did it seem that the security team was short-staffed that night, but the two that they knew took a page from their plan and had been seeking new venues of public affection themselves in one of the study lounges with the doors closed but the lights on. Preston wanted to linger at the small window to the lounge and satisfy an oddly timed voyeuristic impulse, but Sarah pulled him away and kept them focused. The route she planned took them the long way to the trophy room, and by the time they got there both were breathing heavily.
Preston leaned over, hands on his knees, and tried to take slow, deep lungfuls of air. He didn’t realize how out of shape he’d gotten since he stopped playing. “There it is.” He looked at Sarah and smiled triumphantly.
Sarah smiled back, hands on her hips and visibly less winded than Preston, but she wasn’t won over by his confidence. “We’re not done yet. Get ready.” She moved to the back wall where the alarm panel was and opened up her backpack. The alarm system was a simple one, and she didn’t need much more than a screwdriver and a pair of wire-cutters to bypass it–but bringing the other tools along made it easier to hide the knife at the bottom of the bag. She wasn’t even sure she would need it, the route she took them on had exhausted Preston even more than she had hoped–but she needed to have it ready. Especially since Preston was expecting it. This thought made her a little nervous about having her back to him, but until the alarm was deactivated, he would need her.
“The doors first.” Preston stood by the french doors opposite the trophy that led out onto a terrace where invite-only luncheons were held by the school’s board of directors. He held a length of knotted nylon rope, which would be tied off to the balcony railing and used for a quick exit. He knew she would have him go first. And that she would use the knife to cut the rope and send him plummeting to his death. But he had other ideas.
Sarah carefully removed the face plate from the old fashioned system and clipped the first wire. “Done.”
Preston gingerly tested the doors, and when no alarm sounded, swung them open and launched out onto the terrace to secure the rope. Sarah watched him for a moment and then turned back to the panel, pretending to busy herself with the contents of the bag. As she suspected, there was no alarm on the case. The blinking light they had noted on the top of the case was just for show. She removed the knife and tucked it into the back of her pants as she turned to face the open doors. He strolled back in, radiating self-satisfaction. Sarah didn’t know what his plan was to deal with her expected betrayal, but her senses spiked in awareness.
“We’re ready. The case?” Preston nodded at the trophy. They were going to be so surprised. So was Sarah.
“We’re set . . . I think. I haven’t seen anything like this before, not in the schematics I found. But we should be good.” Sarah fought hard to keep the slyness from her face.
Preston’s smile fell for the first time since they had reached the 3rd floor. “What do you mean you think?” He stopped himself and breathed heavily, trying to keep his voice from rising any further.
“Look, we knew this might happen, that’s why we planned the quick getaway. Get the stupid tiger, exchange it for your stupid trophy, and let’s get the hell out of here.” Sarah looked pointedly at her watch. “Hal should be pulling up any minute now.”
Preston stared at Sarah, calculating. He hadn’t thought for a second that Sarah wouldn’t be able to disarm the case. Still, she was right. Even if the alarm did go off, they would be gone far too quickly to be caught. Well… he would. He walked over to the trophy case, removing the tiger from the backpack as he went. Pinned to the tiger was an earring he lifted off of her a couple weeks before. He set the backpack on the ground, and held his breath as he began to slide the glass away from the right side of the case. No alarm. He exhaled heavily and made the swap, his triumphant grin returning as he closed the glass and admired the new, fuzzy, orange and black occupant of the University trophy case.
Preston turned toward Sarah. Almost time. “Alright, let’s get the . . . “ Alarms pierced the stillness of the late night.
Sarah did her best to feign surprise and yelled over the cacophony “. . . hell out of here!!”
They scrambled out the door, and as they neared the railing Preston started to turn to tell Sarah that she, in fact, would be going first, and not him. But when he tried to talk, the words seemed to catch on something. The knife in his gut. He looked at Sarah in disbelief, trying to grab at her but their momentum was carrying him toward the rail. His arms were caught between wanting to pinwheel for balance and latch onto his attacker. Sarah pushed him away quickly, before his meaty hands could find purchase, and watched him crash through the railing and out into the night. She had loosened the railing on a previous recon trip, but instead of falling with him it swung open and remained attached at one end. She absently noted the sound of Preston’s demise as he landed, and decided to pull the rest of the short section of railing off and bring it with, sliding the rope off of the end and letting it drop to join Preston. So long, sweetheart.
Hal was waiting for her in the lot just outside of the back entrance. While the security truck may have had the department store’s faded name on one side, from even a short distance in the dark it looked close enough to a campus security pick-up to be discounted, at least at first. The window of escape was small, but manageable. Whoever found Preston would certainly notice the stab wound, but their first guess at cause of death would be “long fall”, and they wouldn’t be looking for anyone else right off the bat.
“What’s with the railing?” Hal looked at Sarah as she jumped breathlessly into the truck.
“Souvenir. Drive.” She looked over at sweet, unaffected Hal, and for a brief moment felt a pang that the railing would be used to implicate him in Preston’s death. But only a moment. She had just come up with a very creative way to plant the evidence, and that, more than anything else that evening, made her smile openly. “Is everything ready at the store?”
“All set. You’ll have to wait in the maintenance room while I make sure the coast is clear, then you’re home free.” Hal joined her smile with his own.
Lou wasn’t sure what he was looking at anymore. He had gone into the back to tell Hal about Rose, after another hour of waxing and thinking he just couldn’t keep it to himself anymore. But he didn’t seem to be around. He finally found himself in the maintenance room, where some of the spare mannequin parts were stored, thinking maybe while Hal was in the bathroom or whatever he was doing, he might find Rose’s real leg.
He found a real leg alright–but as he approached it, he slowly realized it wasn’t Rose’s. In fact, it might not even be a mannequin’s, at least not the cheap kind they use at this store. Lou stared for a long time before finally gathering the courage to reach out and touch it.
“That’s Sarah.” Lou wheeled around to face Hal startled for the second time that evening. “She’s new.”
© 2015 Aaron Deck