Lazlo didn’t have to read the note to know he was screwed.
The sealed white envelope, alone on the otherwise spotless mahogany desk, told him everything. He assumed it contained a pithy remark or a morbid pun, but Lazlo was too damn tired to read the Old Man’s grim joke. Making a 30-story vertical ascent up the glass skin of a skyscraper could do that to a guy. So he just stood there dripping sweat on the crimson carpet of a dark room, with a glass cutter around his neck, a coil of rope around his waist, and a twenty-pound pack on his back…staring at the desk, feeling exactly like a man in his shoes should feel.
“Hello, Lazlo,” came a quiet voice from across the room.
The thief’s head dipped and only half-turned toward the source.
“Vince. Figured it’d be you.”
The voice’s owner edged out of the shadows. Lazlo knew Vince would have his gun drawn, leveled at him. With pained, slow effort, Lazlo dropped the suction-cups he’d gripped for the last hour.
“Figured, huh? When did the little voice inside your head start telling you this was your last job?” He sounded completely cool. Totally calm. Totally, well…Vince.
“About five stories ago.”
“Why didn’t you listen to it?” Vince asked.
“It was only whispering then. Didn’t start screaming until I saw the note.”
“Y’know, the notes aren’t my idea. The Old Man writes one every time somebody gets… fired. Thinks it shows style or something. ‘Course he’d use a fancier word.”
Lazlo propped two aching hands on his hips and chuckled.
“Style…” he murmured.
Vince moved closer and at an angle, getting between Lazlo and the door to the outer hallway.
“Just out of curiosity,” Vince asked, “why did you think it’d be me waiting? Organization’s big… you know he has plenty of choices.”
“No matter what I think of him, I gotta admit the Old Man’s a pro. He picks the right people for the job. The best people. He needs something stolen, he calls me,” Lazlo raised his head and his chin jutted out.
“I’m the best.”
Then he turned to face Vince head on. “And if he needs someone…fired…he calls you.”
Vince nodded at the compliment. Lazlo put his hands on his hips and frowned.
“What’s wrong?” Vince asked.
“Aside from the fact you’re gonna fire me?”
Lazlo scanned the ceiling and shook his head repeatedly. Sweat dripped from his chin with each shake.
“Because I knew something was wrong. Knew it like I know my own equipment. Something the Old Man said when he offered the job.”
“What was it?” Vince looked interested, although his aim never wavered.
“He said ‘Lazlo, it’s a low-risk, high-reward shot. Simple robbery compared to last time. Do this final job for me and you’re done…you can walk away. Consider it a victory lap.’”
“Victory lap, y’know, like in the Olympics, when somebody wins the gold, they take one slow lap around the track while the crowd watches. One last time on the field of battle, just so everyone can cheer and know you’re the best.”
“Yeah, did to me too. That’s why I took the job. Should’ve known better.”
The thief’s mouth turned into a sad grin.
“Because Vince, guys like us don’t get victory laps. Or get to walk away.”
“What do we get then?”
The grin faded away, and the thief nodded toward the desk.
“We get notes.”
The two stood motionless for minutes, neither man knowing quite what to say. Then, Lazlo’s eyes flashed in the darkness, and his crooked smile returned.
“Vince, will you do me a favor?”
“Look, I’m not going to beg. I know what you’re here for. I just don’t want to go out like a chump. I want a shot.”
Vince cocked his head to the side, questioning.
“What kind of shot?”
Vince stared at the sweating, obviously exhausted man. He knew Lazlo couldn’t grip a doorknob, much less escape from a room with a gun pointed directly at his chest.
“What did you have in mind?”
“I’ve got about thirty feet of rope on me. Lemme tie it to the desk and give that the hole in the window a try.”
Vince shook his head. “What good would jumpin’ out the window do?”
“Don’t know for sure. If I can grip the rope tight enough…might be able to swing out and back. Maybe blast through one of the windows of the floor below us.”
“You’d never make it. Even if you did, there’s a couple guys in the lobby. Just in case.”
Lazlo was shaking now, focused on Vince. “Believe me. I know the score, I just…”
The thief bowed his head.
“…sometimes it’s better to resign than get fired.”
Vince stared into the eyes of a man accepting his fate. He took two steps back and lowered the gun to his side.
Lazlo removed the rope from his belt, and tied it to the desk. He didn’t bother to check the knot. He moved toward the window, just like Vince expected a professional thief to move: quiet, smooth. Lazlo looked at the night sky outside the window, a world beyond desks with notes. The thief took a deep breath before turning back.
“Vince, let me ask you something.”
“You think one day there’ll be a note in a dark room, waiting for you?”
Vince saw no reason to lie. “Yes.”
The two men looked at one another with equal measures of respect and pity.
“Crappy job, isn’t it?” said the thief.
Vince laughed. “Yeah.”
Lazlo took three steps backward to get a running start, then hunched down and focused on the window—a sprinter in the starting blocks who’d already lost the race.
“Bye, Vince,” he said without looking over.
Vince holstered his weapon.
It wasn’t until Lazlo broke for the window that Vince realized how quiet a backpack full of burglary tools could be, especially when running. The pack made no noise—no metal clanging against metal—almost like there weren’t any tools in it at all. As Lazlo dove through the opening, Vince noticed a shiny aluminum handle on the thief’s belly.
Looked like a ripcord.
“Son of a bitch,” Vince breathed.
His own note in a dark room suddenly felt a whole lot closer.
Trey Dowell lives in Saint Louis, Missouri with his Anatolian Shepherd proofreader, Lulu. Trey has won First Prize honors in Writersweekly.com’s 24-hour short story contest, as well as been a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Annual Genre Fiction competition. His crime short story Ballistic, published by Untreed Reads, is available in e-book format at Amazon.com and all the usual places. Trey also has a short story in the Rainstorm Press print/e-book anthology, Nailed, due in February 2012. His debut novel, The Aphrodite Way, will be finished in Spring 2012. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.