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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes Fiction: The Park Allen Gang

The Gingerbread Man and Cheese
  Phil Mershon

“The feds! Park, the feds are outside. Jesus, there must be two hundred of them! How did they know we were here?”

The six of them, four men and two women, finagled their way to the head of the line as the Mal-Wart doors opened at precisely six in the morning. The sun strained to be seen over the foothills that surrounded the Phoenix valley, just enough so that the robbers could see the gleam of expectation in the shoppers’ eyes shatter like paper-thin champagne glasses in an opera house. By the time the dozens of early-risers realized what was happening, it had already happened.
 
Roscoe Young wheeled on his boots, whipping the mane of his blond wig, and sealed the entrance doors behind him with a specialty key. He smiled back at the fallen faces on the other side, the ones denied the pleasures of a daybreak sale. Behind Roscoe, leaping over the first of twenty cash registers while fingering his false mustache, Park Allen greeted the uncertain faces of the Mal-Wart staff while motioning with his Buntline Special for the accomplices to fan out through the store and round up any stray employees.
 “Now in case you haven’t noticed it yet,” Park announced. “This is a robbery. Armed robbery.” He nodded towards the gun. “I’m going to have to ask that no one operate their cell phones or any other electronic devices until the building has come to a complete stop.”
Roscoe laughed. That Park Allen could act calm at the most stressful times.
 
Park continued. “Now, don’t worry about those shoppers out there. Just worry about staying coolheaded.” He heard footsteps behind him and stepped to one side, never losing sight of the nearly two-dozen blue-jacketed employees. “Duchess?”
Stephanie crinkled her nose at the nickname. “Just this guy. Says he’s the manager. Worked here three years.”
 “Anybody works here three years,” Roscoe acknowledged, “gets to be the manager. Go stand over there with your associates. Isn’t that what you call your employees?”
 
The rest of the gang returned without report and paired off along the registers. Rachelle and Laramie coded open the first set, while Chet and Stephanie helped themselves to the second tier. Roscoe continued to mollify the crowd outside while Park kept a low hold on his revolver. “Everything okay out there?” he asked.
Roscoe nodded without looking back. “Yep. Always is.” And that had certainly been the case. The Bell Road store was their third Mal-Wart and same as always everybody cooperated, especially the folks who didn’t know what was going on.
 “Now we’ll be gone here in a few minutes,” Park explained, somewhat in an effort to speed up his gang in their work. “And after we’re gone, you’ll naturally want to notify the police. Now, you folks all know each other. Let me ask you: Who here will be the first one to call the cops on us? Who do you think?”
 One by one the employees looked up like sheep on the witness stand, their heads pointing in the direction of the young man identified as the manager.
 “Oh-ho!” Roscoe bellowed. “So that’s how you get to be the boss? You stab people in the back.”
Park Allen nodded. “Yep, same old story. Duchess, you want to do the honors?”
Stephanie crinkled again. “Please don’t call me that again and yes I will.”
From her purse she extracted a coil of twine. Motioning the manager to turn his back to her, she spun the spool around both his wrists a half dozen times, held the extended spool tight, and watched as Rachelle severed it with a pair of Mal-Wart scissors. Stephanie knotted the twine as the manager stared at his shoes.
 
“Finished?” Park called out to the entirety of his gang. They announced that they were. “Good. Okay. Now we have to be going. But we apologize for the inconvenience. I’m sure most of your customers will not have exact change, so this’ll kind of mess that up for you. Just make sure you don’t let this little weasel take our bad deeds out on you. And you!” Park addressed the manager. “Don’t be so eager to be on the side of the corporation. They were doing fine before you came along and they’ll be fine long after they’ve sacked your sorry ass. Read me?”
 “Let’s go!” pleaded Roscoe, unlocking the first of the two door keys. The gang bellied up to the entrance and as the second of the two locks spun free, they squeaked through the onrush of impatient shoppers, none of whom seemed at all concerned about the opened cash register drawers, the idle and open-faced associates, or the incapacitated store manager. More than five minutes elapsed before anyone got around to calling the police.
 
They were cruising up the 101 Loop around the Valley when Park asked, “So girls, how much did we haul?”
They sat three across in the front and back of a 1995 Ford Taurus sedan. The girls rode in the rear with Laramie. After some quick counting, Rachelle responded. “Two thousand one hundred and eighty dollars.” Roscoe leaned across Chet and said to Park, “They stash most of the cash in those underground vaults and can only get out so much of it at a time. By the time they pull out a few thousand bucks...“
Park acknowledged, “Right, right. By then the cops are lobbing in tear gas. Steph, Rachelle, don’t forget to hold out ten percent for tithing, okay?”
They nodded. Laramie shook his head, a site captured by Park Allen from his vantage of the rearview mirror. “Something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Laramie?”
He continued shaking his head. “So each one of us pulls in, what? About three hundred apiece? Lotta work for just a little payoff.”
Park had been waiting for discontent. All smiles, he tossed his disguise out the window. “I guess you think we should be going after high-tech money, right? Something more white collar?”
 “Well, yeah, I do,” Laramie spoke with stealthy defiance. “The days of nickel-diming the local mart are over, Park. These days, the real money is in bonds, municipal holdings, securities scams.”
 Park nodded, still all merry in the face. “Guess my time is up, then, huh? I mean, since I don’t know how to commit that kind of robbery? See, I figured liberating two grand from the largest employer in the world might just be a white collar crime.”
 
Laramie hardened his position while everyone else fell silent. A tension grew rigid in the car. “I think that we need new leadership.”
Park’s foot slipped on the gas and the Taurus lurched forward for just a second. “Tell ya what, Lar.” Park slowly brought the car to a stop right on the shoulder of the Loop. “Tell ya what. Since you’ve been bucking me and the rest of us for a couple weeks now, I think it’s time we cleared the air. Best thing to do is shoot it out. Right here. Right now.”
Roscoe’s head swiveled to the left. He looked at Park as if the latter might have suddenly transformed from a master thief into a self-destructive maniac. But he said nothing.
 
Laramie’s tone thawed. “Now, Park...”
Park waived him off. “Don’t you ‘Now Park’ me. You’ve been itching for this chance for weeks. Here ya go. We’ll do a duel, right on the 101. Shoot to the death. One that’s left standing gets to lead the gang. All in favor?”
Four voices let out a collective if unsteady “aye.” Park opened the driver’s side door. “Get your gun and let’s get this over with. Folks, if I lose, I wish you all the best. Laramie, you ready?”
 
Laramie cleared his throat, nodded that he was as ready as he ever would be and eased himself out of the back seat. As soon as he stood upright, Stephanie pulled shut the door and Park roared the engine, sailing the car back onto the road, leaving a querulous Laramie to wonder what the hell had just happened. Roscoe and Chet roared laughter. Stephanie’s eyes glittered. Rachelle chewed on her thumb, trying to repress a smile.
 “Well,” Roscoe reckoned aloud. “That’s almost four hundred each, after tithes.”
 
 Four of the five remaining gang members sat on the living room floor in the newly acquired safe house. Roscoe occupied himself with a series of magic card tricks, all of which culminated in turning up four queens, seemingly at random. Rachelle, his girlfriend of two years, worked a New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. Chet, the youngest of the gang, stared at the portable television set, its picture blazing, its sound muted. And Stephanie, who had met up with Park at the same time Rachelle joined, studied with some intensity the photographs in People’s wedding issue.
 
Perhaps because he was the youngest, Chet took it upon himself to break the silence. “Roscoe, how’d you and Park meet up?”
The amateur magician slid the playing cards aside and put an index finger to his lips. “Not too loud. Don’t want the neighbors to find out we’re here.”
 Chet appeared properly crestfallen.
 “It’s okay, honey,” Rachelle reassured him. “We just don’t want some local hero to call the realtor. Or the police.”
 Chet fingered the beginnings of the soul patch he’d been growing. “You all used to live here, right? But you moved out?”
Stephanie grinned. “Naturally Park saved a key. Then yesterday he called the realtor and told her he was some big shot from Pennsylvania, coming in two weeks to buy the place for cash. In other words, the realtor won’t be showing this house to anyone else for a while.”
 
Roscoe tapped the top of a playing card. “I thought you wanted to hear how I met Park?” The wounded look returned to Chet’s face.
 “Both of us,” Roscoe began, apparently with some satisfaction at having mastered Chet’s attention, “had worked for years at the same multinational. I was a marketing VP. He was in middle management. We’d never met. But we were both laid off about the same time. Neither one of us could find a job. Not as good as the one we had. You know how it goes.” He paused, not so much waiting for an answer as simply to develop the proper rhythm for a story he had told many times before. “So I ended up working as a waiter. At Denny’s.”
 “Denny’s?” Chet’s face took on a boyish quality that even the patch of fuzz on his chin couldn’t mask.”
 “Then one day in strolls Parker Allen. Looked terrible. Jeans hadn’t been washed in a month. Needed a shave. Hair all messed up. And he really looked tired. Like he hadn’t slept in a week. He draws my table and orders a ton of food. Wolfs it down. And I know this guy’s gonna skip. Can’t have any money. So I bring the check. Twenty dollars and change. He says fine, but can he have another cup of coffee? The second I go back behind the counter, he shoots out through the door.”
 Roscoe paused again, noting that even Stephanie and Rachelle, who’d heard this story at least a dozen times, were somehow drawn in, their eyes wide with imagination.
 Roscoe grinned. “I hated that damned job. $2.13 an hour plus tips. So I chased after him. He couldn’t run all that fast. He was tired, like I said. Plus he was on a full stomach. So I yelled for him to stop, and when he didn’t, I tackled him. Knocked him right down on the grass. But when I spun him over to punch him out, the bastard was laughing. Laughing!”
Chet pulled an index finger to his own lips.
The storyteller smirked. “Right. So now I’m furious. Just before I was going to knock him out, he sings in a little girl voice, ‘Run, run, fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.’ There was just no way I could hit him after that, you know.”
 
“Good thing for you, you didn’t.”
 Everyone froze, as if the room itself had just jumped. Park Allen stood looking in from the kitchen, hands on his hips, his smile beaming out across the distance. “Don’t worry,” he teased. “I just got back, so I didn’t hear all the good things Cheese was saying about me. How’s it hanging, Kid? Duchess? Rachelle? Who wants to tell me where these sandwiches came from?” He indicated the dozen or so sliced and cut lunchmeat on wheat bread sandwiches stacked on the short table.
 “Now don’t flip out, Park,” Roscoe said, getting to his feet. “The girls were over at the grocery.”
 Stephanie grabbed a sandwich, as if to protect it from eminent destruction. “The guy at the deli counter gave them to us.”
 “Really?” Park stepped closer to the stack, admiring its height. “And why would he do that?”
 Rachelle swallowed hard. “Because we were hungry?” she asked.
 Keeping his voice low, Park paced a circle around his henchmen. “Oh, you were hungry? I see. I thought we had a rule? When we need food, we steal it.” He made it back to the stack and picked up one of the offending sandwiches.
 “Aw, for God’s sake,” Roscoe admonished. “The girls were there and the guy offered.”
Park spoke around a mouthful of bologna. “Our rule is that we hit grocery stores for personal items, like razors, pantyhose, shaving cream, and that kind of thing. For food, we go to chain restaurants.”
Stephanie cradled her sandwich like a child. “You’re right. You’re right. Good though, huh?”
Park cackled as he joined the others on the floor. “Yeah, it sure is. Kid, you get one?”
Chet nodded as his gaze lowered in the manner of a modest pet praised by his owner.
Seizing the opportunity to change the subject, Roscoe asked, “You take the money to the shelter?”
Park nodded. “Yeah. One thing about it: if we ever need a place to hole up for a few hours, those Sisters will see to it. Say, what’s Laramie doing on TV? Turn that up!”
 
Sure enough, the image of their former accomplice shone from the screen in living color.
They watched the news telecast at 6pm and then again at 10pm, just to make sure they’d heard it right the first time. Laramie Ullum stood next to a podium, an attorney of his choosing on either side of him, announcing through those same attorneys that he had participated in that morning’s hold-up of the Bell Road Mal-Wart, that he had been an accomplice of Park Allen’s gang’s involvement in at least forty other robberies throughout the Southwest, that a percentage of the proceeds—estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars—had been funneled into domestic terrorist organizations, and that he—Laramie Ullum—would be testifying to all of this before the grand jury in exchange for “substantial consideration” from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office. At this time, both reports concluded, neither the Justice Department nor the Office of Homeland Security chose to comment on the case, citing potential civil liberties issues that were at stake.
 
After the first telecast, no one in the safe house spoke. Roscoe resumed his magic tricks, although he could not produce more than three queens at a time. Rachelle sputtered out the occasional soft obscenity while scratching out entries in her puzzle. Chet’s eyes narrowed to tiny hollow points as he gazed imperceivingly at the TV set. And Stephanie busied herself by writing variations of her name in the margins of her magazine.
 
For his part, the gang’s leader paced between the kitchen and living room, punctuating his stride with periodic punches of his fist into his opened hand. The only consolation, he reassured himself, was that Laramie hadn’t known about the house. They’d be safe here for at least another day, or for two at the most. In the meantime, only two parts of the news report actually troubled him, one part being easily anticipated, the other completely beyond his kin to fathom. The first part—identifying the gang members and severely exaggerating the extent of their crimes—that was typical Laramie. Hell, if that’d been true, they’d all be in some country without an extradition treaty laughing up their martini glasses at that idiot traitor. But the other part—the part about terrorism—that part worried Park Allen a considerable bit. Not that there was a shred of truth to it. The Sisters of St. Simon and Jude ran a shelter for indigents, not a terrorist organization. The government had either planted that idea in Ullum’s head or he’d thought it up on his own, although Park was damned if he could figure out why.
 
After the last broadcast, when Chet and the couples were nestled off in their respective beds, Park turned to Stephanie and explained his bewilderment. “If all Laramie’d done was tell them the truth, he’d have gotten maybe a six months suspended sentence. But when he throws in all these other crimes, plus the terrorism crap, even with that so called consideration, he’s still looking at ten to twenty years.”
Stephanie grinned at him, hoping to calm his mood. He knew she hated for him to act this way, so he eased off. She elbowed him in the ribs. “He sure looked funny standing on that freeway when we drove off.”
 Park laughed and felt peaceful as Stephanie’s giggles mingled with his bellow. He loved the sound of her laughter more than anything in the world.
Seizing the moment, Stephanie whispered, “Park, please don’t call me Duchess. I hate that. My name is Stephanie.”
 “You know why I do that?”
 She did not know, but had wondered.
 “I do that because back when I worked for a living, back when I had a big house and two cars and went to three parties a week—back when I had it made—I guess it sounds corny, but I felt empty because I didn’t have anyone important to share it with. Nobody substantial. But after I hit bottom I met you and for the first time I actually feel alive. And I promised myself almost two years ago that I’m going to make you the happiest woman in the world, someone people will look at coming down the street and honor and respect, like royalty. That’s why I do it.”
 For nearly two minutes, Stephanie lay so still that Parker couldn’t tell if she were breathing. He was about to ask if she was alright when she preempted him. “Honey, you can call me Duchess. I like it.”
 “How about Dutch?”
 She giggled again and that was the last sound Park heard that night.
 
 A little after midnight, the dreams came calling. Park had been having vivid dreams of late, something that hadn’t visited him in twenty years. This dream, or this endless loop of manifest content, replayed in his mind’s senses until nearly morning. In the dream, he sat outside a large hospital on a cold and windy day, wearing nothing but an ER gown, feeling hungry and wondering where all his friends were. He thought he saw some of them coming toward him and tried to stand to greet them, but was too weak to rise. When they finally approached, he saw it was a Mother and Father with their little daughter. “Laugh at the bum,” the Mother said. The child looked at Parker quizzically. “Go on, laugh at the bum,” encouraged the Father. Then all three of them burst into a unified laughter of ridicule. “Bum, bum, bum,” blubbered the child, pointing a bent finger at Parker, who checked his gown to make sure he wasn’t exposing himself. Looking to either side he noticed empty vodka bottles, broken mirrors with cocaine residue, and cold half-eaten sandwiches. “Let’s get the bum,” cried the little girl, and the family came toward him, their smiles suddenly full of dripping fangs. When Parker tried to stand up, he fell. When he tried to crawl away, he slipped. Against the open slit in the back of his gown he felt a breeze of hot breath with an odor of week-old death.
 
Each time he had the dream that night, he woke up safely next to Stephanie, who purred comfortably beside him. And each time he managed to get back to sleep, the dream came creeping back, like a hangover that tricks you into thinking it’s over. By 6am, he gave up and went into the kitchen to make himself some coffee. And that was when he saw through the kitchen window the first of several federal agents in the process of surrounding the house.
Stephanie shuffled and yawned her way into the kitchen, looking for Park. He tracked her movements, and before she could say a word, he whirled around to face her, made a series of spastic hand gestures, and watched her dash off to alert the others.
 
By the time she unknotted Roscoe and Rachelle, and pried Chet from whatever dream fantasy he may have been having, Park had fired up the house’s exterior public address system. Roscoe and Rachelle positioned themselves at different windows while Chet loaded revolvers on the floor. Without looking away from the glass, Roscoe made a sweeping motion with his arm, which Park took to indicate that the place was indeed surrounded.
 
Park rolled his tongue around in his mouth for a moment, as if searching for courage in the cavity. “Let’s see what happens,” he whispered, and threw the switch.
For just an instant the crackle of connecting leads escaped from the four obscured speaker boxes mounted on the brick wall in the backyard. Park inhaled, held it, and commenced to shout: “Who the Sam Hill is in charge of this operation?!?”
 
They all watched from inside as the twenty-odd agents froze their advance, seeming to grip their rifles tighter.
Park breathed deeply again and resumed. “This is Under Secretary to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General Myron Reddinck speaking! I demand to hear from the Agent in Charge of this operation! Pick up your bullhorn and speak!”
 
A tall, stout man of about thirty years lifted an orange loudspeaker to his mouth. “My name is Commander Hadley Masters, Mr. Under Secretary, sir! May I ask your position in relation to us?”
 “That’s classified, Masters! And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions here! Is that all right with you?”
 Masters looked profoundly confused. “Yes, sir!”
 “You have a face like an English bulldog! Anyone ever tell you that?”
 “Uh, no sir!”
 “Oh! Then I must be a goddamned liar! Is that what you’re accusing me of, Commander Hadley Masters?”
 “No sir!”
 “Are you a bulldog or the Commander of this operation?”
 “I am the Commander, Mr. Under Secretary, sir!”
 “Well, Masters, while your team of misfits has been parading around this house, the local police force has the Parker Allen Gang holed up in the same goddamned store they were in yesterday!”
 “Sir, the Mal-Wart?”
 “Very good, Masters! I see you got the memo! And I do not intend to lose the opportunity to subdue these pussy-faced terrorists to a squad of local cops! So, Commander Masters, you had best order your troops to return to their units and proceed to where the suspects actually are…or I’ll have you shot for insubordination! Is that clear as a Summer sky?”
 “Yes sir!”
 “As clear as an unmuddied lake?”
 “Yes sir!”
 “Then why the fuck aren’t you moving, bulldog?”
 “Sir, on whose authority shall I redeploy the agents?”
 
Parker reflected on what a good question that was. Masters should get a promotion for that, if he didn’t get an official reprimand. “On the authority, you malingering moron, of the Attorney General of the United States! You may take the matter up with him, Commander! Then we’ll reassign you to issuing sodomy citations to three-balled polar bears in Juneau, Alaska! Do you like Alaska, Commander?”
 Masters wiped the sweat from the crease above his eyes. “No sir!”
 “Do you like three-balled polar bears?”
 “No sir!”
 “Do you enjoy sodomy, Commander Masters?”
 “Sir, request permission to redirect the Commander’s agents immediately?”
 “Commander Masters, if that gang gets booked by anyone other than your agents, I will personally fly you to Juneau and tie you down while the bears shit on your bulldog face!”
 “Understood, sir! All agents, withdraw and redeploy to 8316 West Bell Road! Suspects are still considered armed and dangerous! Notify local command—”
 “Belay that last instruction, you fucking imbecile! The PD will know you’re coming when you get there!”
 “Agents! Operation is redirected! Holster and retain all firearms! Redeploy under Code 6 and move out!”
 
Sure enough, all twenty-some agents and their obedient Commander backed up, reconnected in the front yard, marched off to their unmarked vehicles, and sped away.
 A small round of applause met Park as he threw down the switch and turned around. Stephanie had even fallen over, strangling on her own laughter.
 
Park actually blushed. “Thank you, folks. But there’s not much time. They’ll be back here in less than fifteen minutes. Chet, this is important. I want you to take the women to the Toyota, drive it to the motorcycles, then ride three of them out to the campsite. I know you haven’t been there before, but they’ll show you the way. Once you’re on those bikes, if there’s any trouble, I want you to split up. Don’t lead the cops to the camp. Chet, make sure each of you has a weapon on you. Loaded.”
 Chet never once blinked. “What about you guys?”
 “Cheese and I?”
 Roscoe Young sighed. “My name is Roscoe.”
 “Then I have done you a huge favor. Cheese and I will meet you all there tonight. Remember, if they catch us all together, it’ll be a long time before anybody hears from any of us.”
 At that admonition, they all shared the same countenance: dread.
 
The camp, to the extent that it appeared to be one, rested almost twenty miles northwest of the Black Canyon Freeway in a large dry wash whose only other regular guests were the occasional Autumn run-off, rolling balls of mud-heavy sagebrush, and narrow, towering, skipping dirt devils. Nevertheless, the wash’s abrupt banks provided excellent cover, and on cloudy nights, such as this one, when the temperature dipped into the lower 40’s, you could use a small campfire with little risk of detection. The two men sat just downwind of the flames, back to back, their revolvers resting on their bended knees.
 “Listen, Cheese. When they get back, do you mind if I talk to Rachelle about something?”
 “You don’t need my permission.”
 “But she used to be a shrink, right?”
 “You think you need one?”
 “Aw, hell no. Well, I’ve been having this same nightmare over and over. Think she knows anything about dreams?”
 Roscoe adjusted his hat to better consider the question. “She might. She’s smart. So you think they’ll make it here okay?”
 “Oh sure. Like you said, Rachelle’s smart. Stephanie’s street smart. And that guy,
Chet...”
 “You know he’s been to prison?”
 Park shuddered at the utterance. “Chet? But he’s just...”
 “A kid. I know. That kid is twenty-seven. He did an eight year stretch for grand theft auto and aggravated assault. He’s only been out for two months.”
 “We only picked him up two months ago!”
 “That’s right.”
 “Wow. Some people never learn, do they?”
 
Overhead, the clouds blinked and let through just a breath of moonlight. Even with that, you couldn’t see the city. Phoenix had tentacled out a lot in just the last two years alone, but reaching the camp from any part of it still required a monumental effort. For their part, Park and Roscoe had driven the Taurus to within half a mile of the garage where they’d stashed their Kawasakis. From there they managed to dodge much of the desert’s inherent treachery, at least until they came to within five miles of the hideout. Near the foot of an enormous boulder—so enormous it blotted out the sky and so incongruous it might have been a lone meteor from millions of years ago—rested two fueled-up dune buggies. After making certain they both started, the guys picked one and sailed across a landscape that might have flipped a lunar rover.
 “How much do we have left?”
 Park smiled at the way Roscoe always adjusted his hat prior to letting his ideas roam. “One hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred dollars. You gonna shoot me for my share?”
 Roscoe ignored the question. “You ever think about what we could do with that money? All of us? Together? You’re a smart guy, Park. A good leader, anyway. I know the business world, so I could help with connections. The girls are hardworking and Chet would do anything for us.”
 
Park sneezed at the cool night air and laughed at himself for not having a handkerchief. “I know what you’re saying, Cheese. I just don’t know if I have it anymore to make it in the business world. When I lost everything else, I lost who I thought I was, too. Oh, even before the fall, I pretended to be a great hard-ass of a manager. But inside I was always somewhere else, being who I really am. Just maybe who I really am is what’s sitting here right now.” The clouds overtook the moon again and the campfire spat in response.
 
Parker understood what Roscoe was driving at. Hell, he’d considered it himself. He’d imagined the bunch of them running a bar somewhere in lower Canada, treating the customers right, and grinning as the money rolled in. But with all the things he’d done over the last two years that he’d never imagined himself doing, something fundamental within himself had changed. Or emerged. They had all changed, for that matter. Well, maybe not Chet. “So the kid was in prison? He seems so innocent.”
 
Roscoe nodded, this time without the hat adjustment. “I was thinking maybe he started out like we did. Not a manager or an executive. Just maybe full of himself. Full of anger. Ambition. Energy. And maybe he just found out one day that getting beat down wasn’t worth the trouble.”
 “Cheese, that’s pretty good. Rachelle’s not the only shrink in the gang.”
 Roscoe’s back stiffened against Park’s. “Listen. I heard something out there.”
Park and Roscoe lay on their stomachs, facing the direction of the city, facing the source of the sound. Separated by ten yards, with the campfire muted behind them, they lay with their guns drawn and secured in the dirt at the end of their arms.
 Roscoe whispered, “Who do you think it is?”
 Park said nothing.
 “Maybe it’s that chump, Masters, and his brigade?”
 Park stared straight ahead.
 “Will you say something, please?”
 At last, Parker Allen spoke. “You know what I think? I think that I need to take a piss. So I really hope it’s not Masters. I’d hate to die with a full bladder.”
 “Calm under pressure.”
 “What’s that?”
 “Nothing. Look!”
 
The beams of two flashlights twinkled and were gone. The men held their breaths. Half a minute later and a few feet nearer, the spectacle repeated itself.  Roscoe focused straight ahead as he asked, “You know what I’m thinking?”
Park nodded. “Me too. That’s okay. Let them come to us.”
 
Half an hour later, the two people signaling were close enough to be distinguished.
 “Rachelle!” Roscoe cried, getting to his feet.
 “Stephanie!” Park half-shouted.
 The girls came running.
 
Roscoe grabbed Rachelle at the hips and pulled her up to kiss her, spinning the both of them in a circle and laughing like virgin newlyweds. Park gave Stephanie a bear hug and planted a playful slap on her ass. “It’s good to see you,” everyone said.
 
Roscoe let Rachelle’s feet down to the ground. “Where’s Chet?”
She looked up at him. Even under the night clouds, he could see her eyes water over. “He’s dead,” she told him.
Stephanie broke free of Parker’s grasp. “You don’t know that, Rachelle! You don’t know that for sure!”
Rachelle turned to the challenge, as if through an air of wool. “We were on the bikes,” she explained. “Riding the Black Canyon north. Chet was in the lead. Steph and I abreast behind him. She said nothing more.
 “What happened?” the two men said together.
 Stephanie looked away from Rachelle. “We saw it before we heard it. He flipped backwards off the bike. Then we heard a shot. The bike spun out. We almost ran over him.”
 Park seized her by the shoulders. “Are you saying he was gunned down?”
 Her lips trembled. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! It had to be someone up ahead of us. So we dodged his bike and took the next off ramp. He separated at the exit and met up at the boulder.”
Roscoe looked from one of the girls to the other. “You don’t mean you just left him there?”
Stephanie stuttered, “Chet. Landed. Fell. On his head. Rachelle’s right. He has to be dead.”
Parker ran his hands across his face. “I don’t get it! Why would the cops, even the feds, shoot him? In two years we have never so much as pulled our triggers!”
Stephanie absorbed the ground with her gaze. “I don’t think it was the police. We heard on the radio. There’s a $500,000 reward for each of us. Dead, alive, who cares?”
 “Sweet Mother,” Roscoe shook. “It’s like the Old West.”
 She continued. “They know Roscoe and they know you, Park. They only know Rachelle and me by our first names, although they have pretty good descriptions. And they knew about Chet Wilkins. That was his last name. Wilkins.”
 Roscoe removed his hat altogether and held it in front of himself. “Okay, boss. This is the time for you to come up with a great idea.”
 
Parker smiled, although the smile tasted bitter, like spoiled lemons. “Tomorrow night,” he said with the solemnity of a sacred vow. “Tomorrow night we blow the vault at Mal-Wart.”
 
That next morning, at the beginning of what was—unbeknownst to half the Parker Allen Gang—their final day together, Roscoe and Rachelle had breakfast with a couple they met at the Sidewinder café. The Sidewinder catered to the more affluent set, those inclined toward ingratiating and being ingratiated, although it wasn’t always easy to tell who was doing which. The Davidsons were particularly taken by the young couple, especially Mr. Davidson, who found Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage to be quite the pleasant eyeful. The Davidsons were taken in another manner as well. Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage afforded Roscoe the opportunity to pick the wallet from Mr. Davidson’s inner jacket pocket. And so, although this half of the gang of necessity paid for four light breakfasts—thereby violating one of their own rules of conduct—they did manage to compensate by acquiring a vast array of unsecured credit and charge cards, providing themselves with one of several means to an end.
 
Two hours later, after some very fast yet calculated shopping, Park and Stephanie entered the Maricopa County Library. In his pale cream suit and hat, his grey-dyed temples and withering moustache, Parker resembled an aging academic in need of a young female assistant, a role Stephanie filled quite nicely in her flowing flower-printed dress. As they entered the facility, Parker whispered, “Duchess, I’ve never seen you more beautiful. You sure you know how to use these computers?”
 
She assured him that she did and walked him over to the first one with high speed Internet access. While passersby winked at one another over the cuteness of the pair, they busied themselves: Stephanie showing Park how to find what he wanted, and Park soaking up the information.
 
While Park and Stephanie drew condescending stares in the library, Roscoe and Rachelle, having donned a quick wardrobe change, made a call on the Foothills Construction Company. From their muddy work boots to their overpriced cowboy hats and through their starched denim overalls, they resembled middle income contract workers. It may have been Roscoe’s gold money clip or Rachelle’s ostentatious pocket watch that tipped the perceptions in favor of their being owners rather than laborers. Whatever it was that gave the nod, less than half an hour later, they left with all the explosives they would need for the evening’s festivities.
 
With their preparations complete, both couples visited Symington Park to unwind a bit and share some unhurried time together. Roscoe rented a paddle boat for himself and Rachelle to take across the lake, and Parker and Stephanie sat together on a picnic table, sharing hotdogs and Cokes, making small talk with kids playing hooky, marveling at the way the Phoenix city-scape meshed with the landscape surrounding it.
 
Mal-Wart closed at ten that evening, so a little after nine, the four surviving members of Park Allen’s Gang began entering the store. There was no similarity whatsoever in their attire, and because they staggered their entrances in five-minute increments, no one would have sensed that any of the four had connections with one another, unless the tiny headphones and battery-packed chargers they all wore gave it away, which they did not. Each of them started out with an empty shopping cart and a list of acquisitions. As someone had joked years earlier, you could find everything you needed to live on in a Mal-Wart. Well, Parker and his gang could prove that to be true. By the time each had concurred on the total number of employees in the store, their carts were half full and ten PM had arrived.
 
The instant the last customer passed through the exit, Stephanie and Rachelle began herding the employees to the front of the store, while Roscoe used his trusty key to once again lock themselves inside. Parker held the cashiers at bay, easing them with jovial chatter, and Roscoe removed half a dozen rods of curtain from his cart, draping them over the doors so that no one from the outside could see in. “That’s twenty-four of them,” Stephanie announced as she motioned the staff into the foyer. “Including this guy.”
 
Parker laughed. “Look, Cheese! It’s the same manager. Well, Mr. Manager, guess they rewarded you by putting you on the night shift. Duchess, Rachelle, you want to secure his hands, please?”
 With Stephanie and Rachelle competently guarding the Mal-Wart personnel, Park and Roscoe were free to carry on with their business. In less than five minutes, Park showed Roscoe precisely what they were looking for. In the right rear corner of the store, behind a wall stacked high with paints, a bare shelf held its own, at least until Park pulled the shelf from its mooring, at which time the base of the paint can wall displayed rollers. “See? We just slide this to the left.”  There before them was a narrow spiral staircase that descended to a very special part of the store.
 
“Be hard to tell there was a store above us from down here,” Parker observed once they made it to the bottom and crossed into a dark and low-ceilinged room.
 “How does this work?” Roscoe asked.
 Parker was pleased to explain. “Simplicity through technology, my friend. As soon as a cashier up there gets two hundred dollars in their register, they signal a manager, who comes over and removes all the currency, except for ones, fives and tens. They need those for change. But he takes the twenties, fifties and hundreds back to his office where he shoves them into different tubes...”
 “One for each denomination?”
 “Right. Then he shoots the tubes down a suctioned shaft, where it disappears. Where does it go?”
 “Somewhere down here, I’ll bet.”
 “You win that bet. You know anything about hydraulics?” Roscoe shook his head. “Me neither. Has something to do with air pressure against fluid, or fluid pressure against air. Anyway, this gage right here” he tapped it with his foot, “has to maintain a pressure of at least 20 pounds per square inch to keep those tubes securely floating in their limbo. When the pressure drops below 20, the tubes all collect right here.” Parker indicated a steel chamber that resembled a safe, only because of the built-in combination lock on it front.
 “Now that manager upstairs has no idea what the combination is. Who’d trust him with it? So what we have to do is, first, sever the link between this conduit and the money chamber, and second, reduce the pressure to under 20 psi. Swing that hydraulic jack over here, will you?”
 
A couple minutes later they had a block of wood wedged between the jack and the conduit. “Now,” Parker explained, “when we blow the conduit, the force goes up rather than down. We don’t want to blast a hole in the floor. You have that quarter-stick of blasting powder?”
 Roscoe slapped it into Parker’s hand, the same hand that wedged it at an angle between the jack and the conduit. Motioning for Roscoe to move to the far side of the room, Parker lit the fuse and joined his friend in the corner.
 
The room’s acoustics made the explosion sound nuclear.
 Roscoe screamed, “Are you telling me they didn’t hear that up there?”
 “Let’s find out.” As they walked over to inspect the damage, Parker pressed the send button on his headphone communicator. “Duchess, everything okay up there?”
She responded, “One of the employees popped the manager in the mouth because he wouldn’t stop complaining. That’s all.”
 “You didn’t hear an explosion?”
 “Nope. Nothing.”
 “See, Cheese? This room is so well insulated, they couldn’t hear one of your farts up there if you let it rip. Look, the conduit cracked!”
 “Meaning?”
 “Meaning that nothing is going past here and into the chamber. Now all we need to do is drill two holes in this section here, so the air and water are no longer pressurized. We could just blow it, but that might burn up the money. Who knows? Power drill?”
 
Less than five minutes later, Parker had drilled two holes in the hydraulic canola and both water and air began gushing out from each. “Read that meter,” Parker suggested.
 Roscoe grinned up in amazement. “Parker, you’re a genius. It’s falling! 60, 50, 40, 35—”
 “You’ll know when it gets to 20.”
 Sure enough, a few seconds later, the first of the money tubes spilled out through the crack in the conduit.
 
As Roscoe began tossing tubes into a duffel bag, Parker pointed out, “If you’ve ever wondered how this place can afford to pay people to stand at the door all day, just to catch a shoplifter, this is how. Today’s Friday. This is a superstore. Guaranteed they did eighty grand in business today.”
 
Half an hour later, both bags were filled. Parker called out on his communicator. “We’re coming up, girls!”
“Hold on,” Rachelle called back. “I think we have trouble.”
 Roscoe groaned. “What kind of trouble?”
 “Fuck me!” Rachelle squealed.
 Stephanie clarified. “The feds! Park, the feds are outside. Jesus, there must be two hundred of them! How did they know we were here?”
 Parker said to Roscoe, although not to the girls, “They know because I tipped them off.”
 “What’re you saying?”
 “Trust me, Cheese. It’s better that we know where they are. Don’t worry. Hey, Duchess, just stay inside. Don’t open the doors. Don’t let them see you. They’ll all be moving on in just a few minutes. Love ya, honey.”
 “Parker Allen, I love you to, but I hope you know what you’re doing.”
 “So do I. Hey, Cheese, you feel that vibration under your feet? Guess you know why you picked up so many explosives now.”
 Stephanie cut in from above. “Park, somebody set off a bomb!”
 “I know, Duchess. It’s the Bank One up the street. I’ll bet half the building’s gone.”
 
Rachelle squealed again, this time with glee. “That Masters guy is screaming at the whole parking lot. Fuck me! They’re leaving!”
Roscoe tapped Park’s shoulder. “They won’t come back?”
Park shook his head. “They might, except for the fact that a second bomb is going off at the BofA across from the Bank One in five minutes. And five minutes after that, M & I gets the same fair and balanced treatment.”
 
Park and Roscoe lugged two duffel bags crammed with tiny tubes crammed with cash up the spiral staircase, across the acres of store and into the foyer where everything was indeed just dandy, other than the manager, whose lower lip still oozed blood.
 “Now for the hard part,” Roscoe sighed.
 Park couldn’t meet his colleague’s gaze. “Right. You wanna tell Rachelle? I’ll talk to the Duchess.”
 
Roscoe disappeared into the employee lounge and a few moments later Stephanie emerged, her headphones dancing from one hand to the other. “What’s up?”
 “We’ve probably got about 75 grand between the two bags.”
 “Right. Quite a haul. Are we ready?”
 Park gently held Stephanie’s shoulders. “This isn’t up for discussion. There’s a black panel van out behind the store. You and Rachelle get in, hand the driver an envelope. There’ll be five thou in it.”
 “Park, what are you talking about?”
 “After Chet got shot, I realized it’s just a matter of time for us if we stay here. The driver will hand you each an envelope with fake passports and phony documents to match. Study them on your way to the airport.”
 “I am not leaving you.”
 “Don’t make this harder than it is. There’ll be two pair of airline tickets. The first pair will take you to Montreal. Stay in a hotel there for twenty-four hours. Then use—”
 “No! NO! NOOO!!!”
 “Use the other tickets to fly to Paris. Stephanie, YES! Rachelle speaks French, so you’ll be able to get along. You’ll also have a package waiting for you when you land. The Euro equivalent of $100,000 US.”
 “I said no!”
 “You have no choice. Listen to me. Cheese and I will catch up with you in about two months.”
 “If they don’t kill you first.” She brushed his hands off her shoulders and punched him in the chest.
 “Yes. If they don’t. But you two will be alive.”
 “If it’s such a great idea, why are you crying?”
 Park handed her an envelope. “I always cry at great ideas.”
 “Give me a kiss.”

A half hour later, the girls were on their way to Sky Harbor Airport and the guys had said goodbye to the employees, after securing a promise that they would not allow the manager to phone the police. The walked out the front doors, their duffels over their shoulders.
 
“You know what I was thinking, Boogie? I was thinking that maybe you and I ought to get cleaned up, maybe get a couple rooms at a nice hotel, say down in Tucson, and in the morning, have the biggest breakfast of our lives. You know, ham, eggs, French toast, bacon, biscuits and gravy, the works!”
 “That sounds fine, Park. The occasion?”
 “I was thinking we could lay low for a while. I mean,. Hell, we’ve got plenty of money, even after giving the girls theirs. We can live somewhere between modest and highfalutin  for a couple months, then hop a plane to Par-ee, and if we stop pulling jobs, the heat’ll back off.”
 “Maybe it will.”
 “That’s what I’m saying.”
 “That’s far enough, buckos!” a voice said from behind them.
 “Drop them bags, damn ya!”
 
They turned to find two grisly characters with rifles trained on them. Park and Roscoe dropped their bags.
 “Let me guess,” Roscoe sneered. “Bounty hunters?”
 The first one ignored the question as he said to his comrade, “One million bucks standing right there!”
 His associate nodded. “One goddamned million motherfucking bucks!”
 “What’s in them bags?” the first one inquired.
 Roscoe spread his hands. “It’s two of your cousins. Oh, you know them better as Mom and Dad.”
 
What happened next could have played out ten times in the span it takes to explain it. The first hunter discharged his rifle, striking Parker above the left elbow. That bullet had no more than broken flesh before Roscoe snatch-dragged his revolver from his shoulder holster and took out the shooter with a clean headshot. The second bounty hunter released his load into Roscoe’s midsection and a moment later lay dead from the retaliatory shot Park delivered.
 “Roscoe? Roscoe, how do you feel?”
 “Of all the stupid questions.”
 The gut shot had to be terminal. Parker had never seen so much blood in his life. He cradled his friend’s head with one hand and pressed against his belly with the other, trying to hold Roscoe’s guts in.
 “Park,” Roscoe sputtered. “Don’t tell Rachelle.”
 “I won’t, buddy.”
 “I never fired my gun before.”
 “You always were lucky.”
 “Park, sing me that song.”
 “What song? Oh. The song.”
 Roscoe tried to swallow and ended up spitting down his own chin.
 Parker sang, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”
 By the time the song was over, Roscoe was gone.
 
 Park had taken the precaution of securing false identification for himself. That proved to be helpful during his stay in the Arrowhead Hospital emergency room. Upon release, he called a taxi company with little idea where he’d tell the driver to take him and his two duffel bags. He waited on the corner, consumed with his own thoughts, consumed by loss, so much so that he didn’t notice the family approach as he waited by the curb.
 “Look at the bum,” cried the little girl, jarring Park Allen from the darkness of his daydream.
 The mom, who resembled an older version of Stephanie, shared a smile with her husband, who looked like a younger version of Park, and together they paused so their daughter could take in the majesty of the unfortunate situation before them.
 
 EPILOGUE
 
Twenty-seven years and a few weeks later, Damein Smith, twelve year old explorer that he was, returned home with a diary in his hands.
 “Dad!” he hollered, out of breath. “I found a gangster’s diary!”
 Mr. Smith examined the small leather-bound document. It reeked from whatever fluids had washed across its cover over the years. But each of its weather-worn pages remained blank, except for a brief section right in the middle. As best Mr. Smith could make out, the words were:
 "Being a legend is a burden. The fact is that the man you may know as Parker Allen did not die outside that Mal-Wart in October. He lived almost thirty more years, the owner of a small horse ranch south of Flagstaff. He only killed one man, and that man needed to be killed...repeatedly.
 I don’t know if life’s worth the trouble. I don’t know if love conquers all. I just know that Roscoe Young was the best friend I ever had. All these years later, I still miss him. If there’s a Heaven, he’s there
.”
 The diary was signed “David Allen Wright.”
 
Mr. Smith gave the matter some thought and threw the diary in the fireplace where it was quickly consumed. 

© Phil Mershon Otober 2004
mershonphil@hotmail.com  


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