It all starts with a bank robbery. But can a retired psychiatrist get out of it alive, even if she is telepathic?*
*This chapter contains strong language, violence and a one-eyed dog.
1. S is For Safety
I looked up from my deposit slip just in time to see them rush through the door. I probably felt their tension before I looked, but I was still shocked to see that they were wearing black ski masks and two of them were carrying illegally modified shotguns.
The two with the shotguns flanked the one in the middle; he had a shock of blond hair coming out of the back of his ski mask and a little automatic that looked like a toy next to the shotguns. He was the one that shouted, “Everyone down! Get flat to the damn ground with your hands behind your heads!”
I dropped to the floor so fast I hit my knee on the tile and bit my tongue. The one closest to me was flexing his finger against the trigger of his shotgun, testing the tension, grinning behind his mask and in his head.
I dare you to move, you fuckers, any one of you. Yeah, you’re all down on the ground; you don’t want any of this do you? That’s fucking right you don’t. You don’t want any of this.
He was more pumped and excited than nervous and that was enough to scare me. With my hands clutching the gritty tile, I wanted to be invisible, I wanted to forget what I was supposed to do.
But a drill done enough times becomes second nature--preprogrammed action.
I shifted my head slightly so I could see the all three of the robbers. Or at least the electric blue sneakers of the closest one, then the blond one at a teller window pointing his gun, and past him the third one, a woman covering the other side of the lobby with her shotgun. Only three of them. If this was a smash and grab they’d have a wheel man outside too, but only three guns inside to deal with. Statistically it was the most likely scenario. Of course statistically I was more likely to win the lottery than be in this situation, so maybe they had the building surrounded. There was no way to know without a little digging.
I was already sure that the kid, the closest one who felt young and angry and excited, wasn’t the leader. And the leader was the first thing. Find the Leader, figure out how they were Organized, get their Attention, Negotiate for the Safety of the hostages and yourself. LOANS, a hostage situation diffused in one clever little acronym.
I’d always thought the S should have come first. It was ridiculous to train every telepath in the country to deal with this shit anyway. That was what they paid the cops for.
I didn’t have to try hard to find the leader. The blond one was thinking so loud it was like he was shouting at me. Can’t look soft, just stick to the plan. The plan is key. He was gripping hard at the handle of the huge black duffle bag so no one could see his hand shaking. His gun hand was steadier. Get in. Get the people on the floor. Get the money. Get a hostage. Get out. Get to the other van. He repeated it again and again in his head like a litany. He was thinking it so hard it was a wonder he wasn’t saying it too. Under the words little images flashed by, of the maps he had drawn, the plan in list form on creased yellow legal paper, the van they had, the one they were switching to and the usual flotsam of memories in between. For some reason he kept coming back to a broken down Doberman with one eye.
That made things easier. I didn’t even have to try the woman, I had the leader and the plan. I only had to get their attention. I could feel the cold tile through the knees of my khakis as I tensed, ready to move. I would have to get noticed without being too obvious.
It turned out that all I had to do was brace my hands against the floor. I pulled them in a little so I could lift myself, and got a sharp blow to the small of my back. Not just a blow. I felt like I had been hit with a bat. I saw stars behind my eyes and curled involuntarily onto my side. For a minute all I could feel was my back on fire and the guy on the floor next to me repeating his own litany. Don’t wet yourself. Don’t wet yourself. Don’t wet yourself.
“The man said get down.” I heard over the panicky thoughts next to me.
When I opened my eyes I was looking at the blurred barrel of the shotgun. I had to cross my eyes to see the barrel properly but I looked away fast, up to the kid who was pointing it. Past the barrel a pair of glittering green eyes were watching me. Past them was a flicker of his groping adolescent attention on my cleavage and then a movie flash of how my face would look if he shot me. It was a cartoon image, the fiery blast and then white teeth showing through a vague splash of red and my jawbone coming off. The lower half of my face gone and bloody. And for some reason my eyes bugging out on stalks before I fell slowly backward. And smoke trailing dramatically from the end of his gun. Which he calmly blew away with his coolest look.
That image excited him more than his vague ideas of what he was going to do with my tits.
I felt a stab of panic that started my heart fluttering against the inside of my chest and made my palms go slick with sweat. If this kid was really excited by death, if he thought that that was what it was like, if he thought it was a show, pull the trigger and there’s a red paint splash and then look cool and move on, he really was dangerous. Very dangerous.
But of course there was Lee. Jumping forward from where he hid in the back of my brain. He liked the little cartoon fantasy and wanted to do the kid one better. I saw another flash, from my own mind, of the kid duct taped to the dentist's chair Lee had used for most of his victims. The kid’s blood was warm through the latex gloves as we pulled his intestines out in long loops and showed them to him. His eyes weren’t quite bugging out like a cartoon, but they were realistically wide and they had a much more satisfying look of terror this way.
If the kid had been a telepath I could have made him see it too, from Lee’s perspective, pulling out his own guts. The little shit would have dropped his gun. Still, even without really feeling it or reading me he saw something in my face that made his arrogant grin slip under the mask and his shoulders go up defensively beneath the black jacket. His eyes hardened and he touched my forehead with the cold metal circle of the barrel, his finger shifting against the trigger. There was no clear thought, just a quick image of a blond man backing him into a wall, intimidating him with weight and size, not hitting him but cowing him. Making him feel weak with a threatening look so he could feel angry and impotent afterward. He saw the same threat in my face.
His trigger finger shifted again, pulling. Seeing the blond man instead of me.
I was going to die and Lee had faded back to wherever he lived taking his vicious excitement with him. There was no part of me left that enjoyed the danger or the chance of blood.
“Bo- hey, we’ll take that one. Let’s go.” What is Bobby doing over there? The leader sounded tense and foolish stuttering over the kid’s name.
The gun swung away from me with a burst of surprise and anger. For the briefest second his arm twitched to aim it at the blond man. Then the feeling passed and the kid stooped down and jerked me to my feet.
Well, you have their attention, I thought grimly. Knowing I’d succeeded didn’t make me feel better. I was the only hostage being shunted toward the door. Hurried along with a shotgun prodding my side, the kid’s hand on my shoulder and the woman’s hand clamped so tight around my other arm that my fingers tingled.
Her grip was daring me to try something, anything. Fucking weak women, all the same. She didn’t even try to fight, didn’t try to twist away from Bobby. I could take Bobby. My little sister could take Bobby.
I wasn’t as concerned with her appraisal of me as I was about the speed at which we were moving. Everything I had done so far was starting to look more stupid than useful. Who was I helping? It sure as hell wasn’t me. I was being shoved into a van and we were pulling away from the curb before I could do anything about it.
In the van I was pushed across a bench seat, jammed between the woman and the kid. When the driver skidded out into traffic I was slammed into the woman's side. She gave me a sharp shove that sent me into the kid and his gun so hard I felt something crack.
The leader wasn’t much better off, he was on his own bench facing us and his skull smacked hollowly against the tinted window. He ripped his mask off and rubbed his head where it hit. Shit that hurt. Larry better quit driving like he’s nuts or we’ll get nailed. He hit the driver’s seat behind him with his elbow and called over his shoulder, “Quit driving like a drunk Larry, we don’t need to get pulled over.”
“Sure thing boss,” Larry said placidly, no spark of anger or irritation at the leader, no hurry to defend himself, just driving a little slower with the surface of his mind as smooth as a piece of glass. It almost made me think he was a telepath too, but even then he should have had some surface chatter related to the tension pouring off the rest of them. It was fascinating and I had to force myself away from digging deeper. He wasn’t the one I needed to worry about.
My attention was divided between the blond man and the shooting pain whenever I took a deep breath. I could feel sweat running down my sides and I was sure my face was burning red.
The leader turned back around, satisfied with Larry’s answer. Our eyes met with something like surprise. I was surprised that he’d left his mask off and he was surprised that he’d forgotten about it. I had that moment to see his face etched with worry lines, brown eyes slightly wide, ears red against his light hair, one sideburn shorter that the other. I had that moment to decide if he was the one I should talk to. I wished I could touch him to get a better read. With skin contact I wouldn’t have to try at all. His entire mind would be open to me; I’d know what he was going to do with me before he did. But unless the van started lurching again there was no subtle way to do it. I’d have to try and read him as best I could and guess the rest.
I glanced quickly out the window but there was too much glare to see where we were. Talking was more important than location. Knowing where we were wasn’t going to get me away from them. “Are you going to let me go?” I asked, instinctively shifting further away from Bobby and his shotgun.
The leader’s eyebrows went up slightly and the kid jabbed me in the ribs making me wince and jerk back. “Quit doing that. She’s not going anywhere,” he said sharply before turning to me. “We’re only holding you until we’re sure we’ve lost the cops.” In his mind he was helpful enough to clarify. Almost there, almost done. We change vans. Drop her off, let her see that we’re heading out of town and then we can turn around and head back with all the cops and roadblocks out on the highway.
Yeah, sure, let’s drop her off now that she’s seen your face you stupid shit. He should just let me shoot her. If I shot her now would it go straight through and get Sarah too? The barrel nudged my side as the kid thought about it and I was afraid to move or wince again. Between his gory cartoon of buckshot chewing through my gut and into Sarah, and the bouncing of the van, he was going to pull the trigger whether he’d decided to or not.
Then it wasn’t going to matter how fucking telepathic I was, or what plan I could come up with, I’d still be dead. Not that I had a plan, only an urge to run, to do anything to get Bobby and his shotgun away from me faster.
It wasn’t what I was supposed to do. The unwritten rule was that if there was no immediate danger it was my duty to stall them until the police could catch up with us. If I had been conscientious or braver I would have been doing that, or at least thinking hard about how to do it. It’s not like they’re on a killing spree, well the kid might go on one eventually, he has that in him. But the rest of them are just stealing money and heading back to town. The cops will nail them with one of their paths later. And I’ll give them descriptions, and tell them about the kid so he’ll get counseling. No harm done.
Then I could explain to Charlie why I was late for work. Though if the rib was really broken I could call out sick. I’d never get there in time to take out the first group anyway. I’d just have to call him as soon as I could. I could leave depositing the checks for another day. Maybe at an ATM instead of going into the bank this time. I could get a tea to fight the caffeine headache creeping up on me. And if I had a couple of days off I could go shopping for those boots I wanted in the middle of the day when it wasn’t crowded. That would be much better than-
She looks like Casey. Or maybe how Casey will look when she grows up. I wonder if they have the same smile? the leader was thinking, staring at my face and breaking me out of my spiral of inane thoughts. With the name Casey I got a glimpse of a little girl with wavy brown hair, a round face, and big brown eyes like mine, clutching the mangy Doberman he’d been thinking about before.
Everything was falling into my lap today. He has a hostage that looks like his daughter? It was something I could work with. That was the other thing they drilled into us. There was no set way to negotiate out of a hostage situation, take whatever the captors gave you. I had to fight my natural urge to smile and tried to look like I was nervous about his stare.
But things were still moving too fast. Or I was still too off my game. Before I could find something to say to play up the thoughts of his daughter, the van had stopped and the leader was opening the sliding door.
With the woman, Sarah, pulling, and Bobby prodding with that damn shotgun I was out of the van fast. We were in some industrial garage with a burgundy conversion van parked next to the van we’d just piled out of. There was a table next to the second van and a door behind that. There was another door closer, near a wall-like stack of boxes. Maybe one of them led out?
“Take her over there,” the leader said, giving the kid’s shoulder a push and walking over to the table.
Bobby’s finger twitched against the trigger again and in his mind he raised the shotgun smoothly and took the back of the leader's head off. That’d show him, he decided before he turned and pushed me hard toward the boxes.
I had just enough warning to put my hands out and catch myself before I went face first into the cardboard. The palm of my right hand caught the hard corner of a box. There wasn’t any give, they were full of something heavy, and they didn’t slide much when I fell on them. The kid’s attention was still on me so I turned and sat on a box without looking up, not wanting to provoke him.
His focus slid away, settling on the other three just out of earshot, talking about where they would leave me. The kid’s frustration at not being able to hear them almost blocked their thoughts out but I could tell that the woman would rather get rid of me now, she was reminding the leader that I'd seen his face. The driver just looked calmly on, his mind starting to rise in agitation over being delayed.
Two opposed to the leader, that gave me an opening. Careful. This will either work or get you shot faster. “You could just leave me here. There aren’t any cops yet. I don’t know where you’re going,” I said low and quick, instantly sure I'd said too much.
For a second I knew the kid was going to shoot me. He was imagining it again. Enjoying his cartoon blood this time coming from the center of my chest, blood pouring straight out. Then with no warning he frowned and turned his head toward the others. There was a rip in the back of his ski mask showing red hair. The shotgun pulled away a few inches, aimed at the floor. “Hey, what are you doing over there? Baking a cake? Let’s get out of here!” he shouted across the room. His mind wasn’t clear except that he wanted to provoke the blond man. It wasn’t even as focused as that. It was a plea for attention.
With a wave of annoyance and agitation they all turned to look at him.
He flinched mentally, but his gun hand was steady and he stared right back.
“We’re deciding where to drop her. You just keep watch,” the woman said, speaking audibly for the first time. Her voice was just as belligerent as her mind and condescending too. I could have told her that wasn’t how to deal with this kid.
The gun swung away from me completely. He took a few steps toward the group, seething, teeth grinding. Talks to me like I’m a fucking kid. Like I don’t know the score? “Let’s fucking leave her and get out of here. The cops could be here any minute,” he said as though it had been his plan all along.
I couldn’t have anticipated how fast he’d jump at the leader but there was no time to congratulate myself on the idea. There were still a lot of guns and I had to keep my attention on them. The leader came closer, looking grim, the other two trailing behind. They were all standing so close that their thoughts jumbled together. They were angry. I couldn’t quite hear what he said but the leader pushed the kid, hard. Bobby stumbled back and raised his shotgun.
That got everyone’s attention. None of them were looking my way. Not when they could see the end of that barrel. I took the chance to check the doors. The big rolling door we’d come through was out, too hard to lift quickly. There was the door on the far side of the room but the way it was positioned opposite the garage door it probably led back into the building. The door behind me might lead into the building too but it wasn’t as likely. And it was closer. Even if it led into the building I could play hide and seek until they got worried enough to leave without me. If the kid didn’t shoot them all first.
I was sliding back off my box before I’d clearly decided to do it. My eyes were carefully scanning them for signs of attention and one quick glance behind me told me which way to move.
I was behind some boxes and had my hand on the door knob when the kid shouted. “I’m not a fucking kid! Stop talking to me like that!”
I opened the door and the hinge squeaked as I slid through it. I pulled it shut too hard and too fast but didn’t have to worry about them hearing the slam, the shotgun going off was much louder. I scrambled to my feet, clutching my ribs and moving away from the door, watching it all the time, sure the kid was going to burst out and shoot me too.
Over here Maggie.
I stopped in my tracks, looking wildly around. I didn’t see who had called me at first. I knew that voice but all I saw was a wall of police surrounding the building, aiming their guns over the hoods and doors of the cruisers strung out in a standard barricade formation.
Come on Maggie, you’re in the way, the voice called again, too direct to be anything but another path. Too smug to be anyone but Carl. I finally saw him beckoning me from one of the cruisers. Same razor straight side part and tailored suit pants, the only thing that was different was the bullet proof vest with FBI on it.
I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding and jogged over to him.
You couldn’t have showed up twenty minutes ago when they were threatening to shoot me? I asked, letting him take my arm and lead me to the ambulance.
He pulled off one of his gloves with his teeth and held out his bare hand. Here, he offered.
I hesitated, taking in Carl’s strained expression. He didn’t really want me to touch him anymore than I wanted to do it, but it was the fastest way to see what was going on. I grabbed his hand and let him lead me through the cars. Touching him I saw it all in rapid flashes. I saw how slow his team had been to roll out, how late they’d been called in. How frustrated he was having to work with the cops. How shocked he’d been to sense me in the garage. Once I saw myself running across the gravel toward him, clutching my ribs, I pulled my hand away and put it in my pocket. I didn’t really like having anyone’s mind completely open to me anymore; mine already had too many residents.
“Here, let these guys take a look at you, ok? I have to go tell the chief which entrance the SWAT guys should use,” he said with a sarcastic smile.
“Sure Carl.” You’ll be back? I asked with more concern than I meant to show.
He nodded reassuringly but he looked worried. Yeah, I’ll be back. You just sit tight. He turned and walked away, his shoulders tense. It was what I got for avoiding him since I moved back to town. He was twice as worried as he should have been, and would treat me like I was made of glass.
“Ma’am? Can I take a look at you?” A young paramedic with a mustache was looking at me with a touch of wariness. I bet she’s a path if she knows Carl Childers, he thought looking down nervously.
“Yeah, it hurts when I breathe in,” I told him distractedly. Of course they all knew Carl was a path if he was working with them but I still preferred to tell people if I wanted them to know.
I was preoccupied enough to be surprised when the paramedic prodded my side. “Ow dammit,” I said, looking at him sharply.
His face went five shades of red. “Sorry, rib’s probably broken but your pulse is ok. You’re sure you don’t have pain anywhere else?” he said, stumbling over his words.
“I’m sure,” I said, scooting slightly away from him.
He scratched the back of his head with his gloved hand. “Well we’d better take you to Mercy for x-rays,” he said not as firmly as he wanted to, gesturing to the back of the truck for me to get in.
I shook my head. “I’m waiting for Carl. He can take me,” I said with authority.
The paramedic took a deep breath that made his mustache twitch slightly. Got to say it man, he told himself. Doesn’t matter who she is. “I have to take you in ma’am.”
I rolled my eyes. “Give me the AMA form and I’ll sign it, ok?”
He looked so shocked and worried that I’d dug the information out of his mind that I had to clarify.
“I’m a doctor. I know about the ‘against medical advice’ forms all right? I’ve had more than one difficult patient sign herself out,” I told him, trying to lighten the mood. He didn’t need to know I wasn’t practicing anymore.
His shoulders relaxed a fraction and he nodded. “Ok, doc, it’s up to you. I’d still get in to the hospital sometime today just to make sure things are copasetic.” He blinked slightly, not exactly sure why he’d used that word. Where did I even hear that?
I took the form from him and did my best not to laugh. I was still filling it out when Carl came back. I didn’t realize, until I looked up and saw the blond man being led into a cruiser, that the crisis was over. The kid hadn’t shot him.
Shot the woman in the leg, Carl clarified, catching my train of thought. I was still keyed up and I got more, he had seen the lumpy burgundy-black mess where her knee had been. I even caught his undercurrent of nausea to go with mine. I had never been good with blood. Made my residency hell.
“We need you guys over in the garage for one of the suspects,” he told the paramedics, projecting a little urgency into their minds because he liked to see them jump.
They did jump and the nervous one with the mustache glanced back at us several times before we were blocked from view by the SWAT van. I almost said something to Carl about teasing fives like that, but it was pretty funny and it was one of those little moments that made me wish I could project.
I dropped the form on the bumper of the ambulance and stood up gingerly. “Want to drive me to the hospital so they can tell me I broke a rib and I need to keep it strapped tight for a few weeks?” I asked, leaning on his offered arm.
He tried to think brightly, and because I wasn’t touching his skin I could almost believe it. I’ll do you one better. I’ll stick around till you’re done making trouble for the residents and then I’ll take you to dinner.
In the strictly professional capacity of taking my statement and getting out of working for the rest of the day? I asked feigning the same brightness. Anything to put off all of the questions he was dying to ask. To clear up the rumors he’d heard. To find out if I was really walking dogs for a living.
You know me so well, he agreed, holding the door of his Cadillac open for me.