Bitter Taste of Victory
“Come out now or we shoot you down!” The voice called.
Angela trembled, “Someone know about the job. They waited for us to grab the goods.”
“Does that really matter now?” Crystal spat.
“I’m giving you ’til five, or we come up shooting. One…”
Angela risked a look at the way forward, careful not to expose herself. “We can make. If we zig-zag between alcoves–”
“Are you crazy!?”
Angela unholstered a gun. Crystal followed. “Get to the last one. Stay put.”
They booked it. Crystal didn’t look. Her legs pumped fury and terror. Gunfire barked ahead and behind her. She hit the first alcove after Angela. They angled for the next. Caruso’s men followed. The gunfire’s epicenter echoed nearer-by. The women bolted again. Crystal threw herself into a sideways run, hit the alcove, sprinted off again. They made the last alcove as sparks and gunpowder wafted in ‘round the corner. Small calibers echoed through the dead-night, the steps still moving, but slower. “When I say, run for the truck’s far-side,” she said, yanking away one of Crystal’s holstered TMPs out.
Angela shoved the truck keys into her hands. “What about you?”
“Just go!” Angela spat. She flicked the safety off, snapped the bolt. “Go!”
Crystal fled. Angela leaned out. The suppressed TMP burst in clacks. It cut through the barking pistol fire. Sprayed ammo forced the men to dodge for cover. Crystal reached the truck’s edge. Adrenaline boiled her blood. She shouldered her way along to the driver-side, stopped near the rear-wheel, and drew her pistol.
“Move! Move!” Crystal radioed.
Angela sprinted backward, spraying more fire across the alley. Crystal’s was aimed, accurate. One of Caruso’s men ducked from cover. Crystal forced him back in. It was a distraction: another man opposite him had stepped out, took aim at Angela. He fired off a pair of rounds. Crystal was on him. Angela yelped stumbled forward to her hands and knees near the truck. The gun followed her down. Crystal re-targeted; the man was dead before her could try for another shot. Angela skidded into a roll that put her at the truck’s bumper.
She clambered up the tailgate, fell over into the truck’s bed. “Go!”
Crystal was in the truck. The monstrous engine roared, drowned the gunfire that chased them from the alley. Spinning tires squealed in a haze of smoke. Steel divoted within it. Splintered orbs appeared in the passenger-windows. Crystal burned from the alley, all twelve cylinders firing. She fish-tailed into the street, headed for anywhere. The mobsters pursued them on foot. A block of gunfire saw another fish-tail around a corner, then another, and another, until she’d put enough distance between them to keep from being found.
Angela’s active comm echoed her words, “Son of a bitch.”
Crystal agreed, “That was too close. Are you hurt?”
Angela checked her shoulder: a minor glancing wound. If she’d been an inch further left, she’d have taken the bullet full-on.
“Nothing serious,” she said, compressing the wound. “Pull over. Let me get up front.”
Crystal did as instructed. She let Angela in, then started off again. Angela set to bandaging herself while Crystal drove for Jonas’ shop. Mid-way through, Crystal’s thoughts mounted, forcing her words out.
“You’re not telling me everything.” Angela winced, fixed her bandage in place. “Angela?”
“I heard you.”
She huffed, “Who the hell are these guys? What’d you do? This isn’t just about the museum.”
“Professional rivalry. Nothing more,” Angela said, evasively.
“Bullshit,” Crystal spat. “Something pissed these guys off. Something you did. I can’t work with you if you’re not honest with me.”
They pulled up to the pawnshop and Angela grasped the door handle, “Not now. Not here.”
Crystal growled, climbed out after her. They entered with packs filled with jewelry. The “open” sign was already off, but Jonas sat at the counter writing in a ledger-book. He raised a finger at them, mentally calculating something. He scribbled it in and shut the book.
He looked up, immediately spying the fresh bandage. “Run into some trouble?”
“Just give me the money,” Angela demanded.
He eyed Crystal’s averted gaze, shrugged, “Merchandise?” They handed over their bags. He tested their weight, “Good haul. Prick’s definitely getting his insurance check.”
“Can you make this quick, Jonas? In case you didn’t notice, I’m still bleeding.”
“Gotta’ call Curie first though.”
“Then do it,” she ordered, her irritation doubling as she compressed the wet bandage again.
He disappeared, leaving them to the growing tension. Crystal’s mind raced with questions. Anger frothed from each of them. She wasn’t even sure why. The truth wouldn’t change things. It might have been shock, but she needed to know and refused to go any further otherwise. She was about to say something when Jonas reappeared.
He eyed Angela alone, “Curie’s on the line. Wants to talk to you. Just you.”
“Stay here,” Angela instructed.
Crystal rolled her eyes. “No shit.” She fell into a lean against the counter as Angela left.
Jonas watched the exchange, waited. “That bad, huh?”
“You don’t know half of it,” Crystal said with waning breath.
“Any idea who it was– or how they found you?”
“Some mafioso named Caruso. Angela won’t tell me more.”
Jonas was suddenly squeamish. The very idea of the two being mentioned together made join act as if a wet snake were slithering up his leg.
“Jonas?” He avoided her eyes. “What d’you know?”
He grimaced, glanced back at the doorway, then leaned forward at a hush, “You didn’t hear this from me, but Caruso’s had a hard-on for Angela for a while now. She heisted some piece of his at an exhibit in San Diego– running a crew hired for the job. They set up in a ritzy hotel to case the joint, then made the play. Problem was, Caruso’s people were aware someone was going to move.”
Crystal’s voice lowered to match his, “So they were waiting for her?”
He shrugged. “Angela ran that job. It went off even with the hitch. She got in, got out, made delivery, but someone recognized one of the guys with her. He got ‘im to talk. Messed him up bad before he gave up Angela.” He glanced back again, breathed. “Three weeks later, she shows up here wasted out of her goddamn mind, ranting about Julia– her partner– being dead. Only she knows for sure what happened. Lotta’ whispers say it was retribution from Caruso though.”
Crystal’s eyes doubled in size. “He killed her partner?”
He winced. “All I can say’s she’s gone, and they were close– thicker than thieves, so to speak. A… personal thing, you know. Not my business. Catch my drift?”
Her heart and stomach were once more in her throat. Angela had said her partner left. Dying hadn’t been mentioned at all. Her face went blank and settled into indifference as Angela reappeared.
“Curie’s done,” Angela said, more calm than before. “Get us our money.”
He disappeared again. The tension returned, albeit muted. Angela said nothing, kept herself focused on her injury to avoid any questions. On the contrary, the new information was still working through Crystal’s mind. Threads still unraveled, connected. Facts fell and fitted into place like puzzle blocks, forming an image thus far obscured. She was still trying to work things out when Jonas paid them and said goodbye.
They made their way back home, and climbed out without a word. Crystal stopped a moment to survey the truck before heading in. The truck’s damage was as cosmetic as the bike’s had been, but the clear signs of a fire-fight meant it required couldn’t simply be driven again. The splintered windows and bullet divots were dead giveaways that the truck– and likely its occupants– spent time outside the law’s confines.
Crystal followed Angela into the house. She stopped at one side of the island. Angela crouched at a cabinet, dug for a bottle, and produced an aged whiskey and a pair of rock-glasses. She stepped over to the counter, poured two glasses, downed one, refilled it, then passed Crystal the other. She set the bottle aside and braced herself on the counter. She stared into her drink, the tension draining from the air, and into Angela.
“Sit.” Crystal sank onto a stool. Silence rang. Then, “I never lied.”
Crystal remained silent; it was not the time to speak. Whatever Angela had to say needed to come naturally. Her eyes remained locked on the glass and its contents. “I was twenty-four. Living on the streets. I’d celebrated my birthday by trying to drink myself to death. Nearly succeeded. I didn’t want to wake up to my life again.” She gave a small shake of her head to ward of old, evil thoughts. “I was found on the street, mostly dead. I was taken to a hospital. When I woke up, I was still alive. I didn’t know that. I figured I was dreaming out the last seconds of life.”
Crystal watched her conscious mind disappear, lost as it was in memories. She drifted back slowly, as if remembering she was supposed to be recalling something.
“Point is, I was twenty-four and wanted to die. Tried to die. The only way I could think of. The only way the streets allowed for a coward too afraid to run into traffic– or put a broken bottle to their wrist.” Her eyes rose, focused past Crystal on a point that only existed in her mind. “Julia changed that. She’d found me after taking payment for a job. Took me to the hospital. Paid my med bills out of pocket. She promised to stay while I got clean, but only if I agreed to help her later.”
She hesitated. Crystal suddenly herself mirroring Angela. She knew now how it was meant to repay the old debt.
Angela’s mind was further elsewhere, but her voice remained present. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. Julia never forced me though. She asked, every step of the way; was I willing to do this or that? Would I train with her? Would I drive for her? Eventually, we outright started planning jobs together. Running them. Celebrating. Something had… changed.”
Painful memories played. Crystal was silent, watching. Angela’s eyes shut and her head fell.
“I fell for her. She loved me too, I think–” she shook her head. “–No. She did. I know it. She showed it time and again. I just… never believed it. Not fully.”
She stiffened, gritting her teeth; her memories too unbearable. Crystal wanted to speak, to comfort her, but things needed to play out. She needed the truth– they needed the truth. Angela fought valiantly against the tears welling in her eyes. Soon though, her voice quaked, the levee broke, and they flowed freely.
“A year and a half ago, Curie sent Julia and I to San Diego for a job. Museum job. Problem was, security’d been bolstered by Caruso’s people. We were unknown to him then. But that job…. it had bad idea written all over it. The money was right, but the security was off. We did the job, nearly got popped, and fled. We came back home to make delivery and take payment… ”
She lost what remained of control and her breath stuttered. It stung Crystal’s heart, as if cleaved in two by a lone blow.
“Two days later, a few of Caruso’s guys caught us coming out of a bar. They’d been tipped off by one of the locals on the crew. None of us really knew him, but they beat him ‘til he gave us up. Killed ‘im afterward. They tracked us and–.” Her tears dripped onto the counter, her eyes fixed on her glass and face fighting for stillness. “They chased us for four blocks, cut us off, knocked us out, took us to an abandoned factory.”
Her arms shook, threatening to buckle beneath her weight and white knuckles. Crystal fought with all her might to keep from reaching out to her.
“We woke up, tied up. Caruso was there. He told us he was going to “send a message.” She choked on her next words. “He… he shot Julia three times in the chest. Set the place on fire around us. Left me for dead– or j-just to think on what happened.” Her next movements were apprehensive, conveying all the pain they could: she clutched her glass, lifted it with a trembling hand, paused, then slugged down the liquor. She exhaled hot air. “I broke free. Cut Julia from her chair. Carried her out. She’d been dead minutes. I let the place burn, hoping Caruso would think I was dead. He knows I’m not, wants to fix that.”
Crystal waited for Angela’s words to finish echoing through her mind, then swallowed in a dry throat. She sipped her liquor and finally met Angela’s eyes. A silent question of whether or not she might speak went unnoticed. Crystal took it as a sign that it was alright.
“You loved her. You feel guilty for her death.” Angela gave a lone nod. “I’m sorry. I understand why you didn’t tell me, but you should’ve known it was only putting both of us in more danger.”
Angela’s mouth twitched with guilt. “I couldn’t risk telling you until I was certain you could be trusted– as much as I wanted you to be, if you’d gone to Caruso, told him I was alive, he might’ve paid you off to set me up. I couldn’t risk that.”
Crystal understood her fear, but it didn’t change facts: Caruso knew Angela was alive, even how to find her on the job. Something had to be done. They had to put a stop to it.
“The museum job put you back on his radar?” Again, she nodded. “Then we need a way off it.”
“He’s not going to stop, Crystal,” she said with certainty. “He wants to use me to set an example that he’s not to be fucked with. Just like Julia. Your best chance is to run. Take off. Stay as far away as possible. Maybe he’ll leave you alone. No-one knows who you are. No-one’s seen your face yet.”
Crystal rose to her feet, “Angela, I’m not leaving you. Besides, if we separate, we’re as good as dead anyhow. He might even grab me just to use me as bait. We’re stronger together.” Angela glanced up, eyes wet and face red. Crystal chest fluttered with sympathy, but she stiffened against it to remain composed. “I owe you more than I could ever repay. But more than that, you’re my friend. I’m not going to abandon you. We’ll find a way out, I promise.”
Angela blinked out tears, her voice soft, “Thank you.”
Crystal stepped around the island, ready to comfort her. An alarm screamed through the house. She stopped, glanced around. Angela swore. Arthur’s voice piped in on their comms.
“Someone just breached the escape tunnel. Armed. Armored. Maybe a dozen or so.”
“Caruso,” Crystal said.
Angela drew her gun, started for the gym, “C’mon! We can’t let them get through.”
Crystal followed on her heels. They sprinted for the gym’s atrium, through it to the hallway beyond. The corridor stretched out ahead as the alley had earlier. Doorway alcoves were scattered every few feet, with the escape tunnel far ahead at the right. Angela and Crystal burst into the hall just as the sliding wall hiding the tunnel exploded in a cloud of dust and concrete. They dove for cover at opposite sides of the hall. Gunfire erupted. Angela leaned out, firing.
“Arthur, lock down all interior doors! I don’t want them getting to–” Gunfire cut her off. She growled, leaned out to keep the men from advancing. “Lock the place down!”
The alarm gave way beside Crystal to snapping bolts as they locked in place. The sounds echoed along the halls, and at either end, trapping them in with Caruso’s people.
Crystal blasted off a few rounds without looking, “Now what!?”
“Beat ’em back,” Angela yelled, wasting the last of a magazine.
Crystal leaned out, caught one man in the chest as he hurled something. Her HUD tracked it, spitting alerts across her vision. The object and warnings clicked in her mind. A grenade landed with an explosive bang and a blinding flash. Her eyes and optics reeled. Her head swam. The concussive blast blew her backward, knocked the wind from her lungs. She smacked her head against the concrete-block. The bright light receded. Her HUD deactivated to reboot. Her vision phased in and out of focus.
Moments came in pictures, seconds of blackness between. She saw the wall rise ahead, slumped back against another. Blackness. Then, Angela in a similar heap, gun firing randomly. More blackness. Black-clad figures in riot-gear rushed Angela. She struggled, tried to fight, unbalanced by the grenade. Someone prodded her. Electricity arced along her. She seized, went limp. More blackness. Crystal fought to raise her weapon. A masked man appeared. His boot rose. The last thing she saw was it coming at her before her head hit concrete and she lost consciousness.