Here we are kiddos! And this chapter’s a big one:
“Good morning Las Vegas, this is your favorite guest DJ serving up the world’s worst music and sending a message out there to all you lucky sweepstakes winners!”
Celeste. She was nearly barreled over by the shock of it as she stepped inside the store. Celeste was alive, and thankfully well enough to briefly impersonate a lively radio personality, though Neve had no clue why. She stood near a keychain rack and pretended to inspect it as she strained her ears for more.
“Yessir, to the lucky winners of this morning’s casino raffle, you’re welcome to come claim your prize! We’ve arranged a little meeting in a big bowl, so grit your teeth and get down there!”
What that meant, Neve couldn’t say, but she turned the words over and over again in her mind to try and memorize them. This had to be something important if she’d gone through the trouble of breaking into a radio station to say it. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the disinterested cashier move a hand to change the station and pulled out her glock. She pointed it in his face as he raised his hands meekly. The door opened and someone shrieked and ran out, but she had more important things to focus on.
“That’s right, we’ll all be there, and we’ll all be getting paid! And let me tell ya, I want mine. So make the trek today, or you’ll regret it!” Celeste said, and then the radio went completely silent. Neve stood still a moment, baffled, and then it hit her. A code. A way to communicate to the whole team without the cops letting on. It was entirely genius. Now she just had to figure out where.
“Got a map?” She asked the store clerk, and scowled when he shook his head. “In a souvenir shop?”
“I’ve got a map of the strip on a T-Shirt.” He sputtered, and she groaned. In the distance, sirens sounded out, and she hoped for a moment they were for Riley nearby, but when she glanced out the window she saw people either staring at her or running and knew she had no such luck.
Wordlessly, she lowered her weapon and ran out the door and down the road as people shrieked and she shoved a few out of her way. No way was she escaping a casino heist only to be caught in a gift shop; she could just hear Feb asking her if she’d gotten the rest of the crew a few mugs. She turned a corner and ran as fast as her legs could carry her as the sirens grew even louder, then spotted a gas station and paused. They’d have a map.
She took the risk and rushed into the convenience store, then slowed and walked to the shelves with a faux sense of calm. She found a map quickly and unfolded it to reveal the entirety of the city; she could see the airstrip she was supposed to be at, the mountains Sorrel may have gone to, even the casino she just robbed.
“I’m here.” She mumbled to herself as she placed her finger firmly downtown. “And Celeste was here.”
Her eyes moved north to the radio tower a ways outside the city, then up and off the page. Her mind was on the location, the dusty red desert littered with brown weeds and rattlesnakes. In the really old days, when it was just she and Feb and Aidy was only a long-distance friend, the pair would mug hikers after enticing them with cold water and snacks. They always drank the water themselves and laughed in the strangers’ faces, but after Feb found a scorpion on her jeans that operation ended quickly, despite Neve’s insistence that they didn’t have the lethal kind in Nevada.
What she was looking at distracted her from those memories, though. The inattentive clerk didn’t notice what the security cameras were recording, but Neve saw an officer approach the back door, and others stood at a distance from the front. They must have been planning to rush in on one end in hopes that she would run out the other.
Very calmly, she walked towards a magazine rack next to the ‘Exit Only’ back door, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and slammed it to the ground. The whole stand blocked the door effectively as the magazines fell and slid all over the linoleum. She stepped back and hid a grin as she heard the cashier groan his displeasure.
“Oh dear!” She gasped in her most dainty tone and gave the clerk an apologetic look. “How clumsy of me, I’m so sorry.”
He waved it off and moved towards her, and she moved aside to let him through to the mess, then looked up to the camera. The cop was jiggling the handle, but it was caught on the rack and the door was effectively sealed. As she edged closer to the front door, he said something into his radio, and she winced. Outside, the officers and their very poor attempt at nonchalance began to shift uneasily. They may have been planning to storm the place, but even if they weren’t she had nowhere to go.
This was the worst situation she could be in. Totally cornered with all the cash and none of the advantages. What she needed was to buy herself more time, but she couldn’t think of any way to do that besides barring the door and calling this a hold-up. That would’ve only escalated it all, and that was the last thing she needed. Behind her, she heard the cashier groan again as he bent down to scoop up some of the many fallen magazines, and she fought a sigh herself. There was no other way – out of the pan and into the fire.
She stood in front of the front door, pulled out her gun, and fired once into the ceiling. People screamed and ducked as plaster rained down from the bullet hole, and she gave the closest shrieking man a cutting glance to shut him up.
“This is a robbery!” She yelled. “Everybody shut up and get on the ground!”
Everyone in the building fell, and she opened the door just a hair to yell to the officers outside.
“Looks like we’re in a hostage situation, boys!” She yelled to them, and they all gasped and held their heads in their hands. It had been a rough day for these guys. “Don’t even try coming over here or I’m gonna murder civilians so fast my finger’ll be a blur on the trigger!”
She slammed the door so hard it pained her ears – so much for that false sense of calm she had been working on. Quickly, she stepped away from the windows before a sniper could get her, as Celeste had done for their crew before. But after that, she didn’t have much of a plan. Everyone was cooperating, lying on the ground exactly as she told them, but an escape route didn’t magically appear from nowhere and she didn’t have any new answers. At least she still had the map.
She unfurled it once more and found her own location, then Celeste’s again. Pointless. She wasn’t telling them to go to the radio station, that would be a terrible idea since everyone listening had known where she was. Even now she had probably already abandoned the place.
“‘Little meeting in a big bowl.’” Neve mumbled to herself. A guy on the floor was sobbing, but she rolled her eyes and ignored him. “‘Grit your teeth and get down here.’”
It would likely be a place they all knew, somewhere personal or a tourist attraction, but she couldn’t think of a tourist attraction that had anything to do with a bowl. Maybe Lake Mead, near where the chopper had been hidden before they began the robbery. In the distance the officers were speaking amongst themselves and pointing at and around the building, and she knew she was short on time. She had to figure this out.
“Grit your teeth.” She mumbled. A dentist office? “We’ll all be getting paid.”
Those were bold words from someone who had no clue where the money was or who held it, but Neve saw the meaning behind them. A declaration of trust, an incentive for them to stick together. It wasn’t the deadpan sort of thing Celeste would say at a time like this – those were Feb’s thoughts guiding this speech, she was sure of it. They were together.
A black van pulled up, and Neve recognized it as the SWAT team. Great. Soon they would stream in tear gas and drag her out unconscious into an awaiting pair of handcuffs. She did the only thing she could and looked back down to the map.
“Make the trek today.” A trek was an arduous way to go, possibly a hike. The meet-up must have been a difficult place to get to. “Get down there.”
That may have meant elevation, but Lake Mead wasn’t especially low and there were plenty of roads to easily access it. She searched the map frantically, but couldn’t see anything else and was starting to really stress: she would bet anything this wasn’t what Celeste meant when she first suggested they grit their teeth. She groaned and looked up and noticed herself in the security camera, then turned and pointed her gun to the clerk.
“Turn off the cameras.” She said, and waved him over to the monitor with her weapon. He rushed over to it, hands raised, and disabled the cameras as she looked around. “You, come here.”
She’d picked the strongest looking person there, a woman who must have been a gymnast or dancer or something that involved having massive pecs. She stepped forward wearily, and Neve unzipped her bag to reveal the stacks and stacks of cash it held. The woman’s eyes went wide, and Neve knew exactly how she felt; it was too gorgeous a sight for even the most moral person to not even momentarily consider a life of crime.
“Cops can’t see us. One thousand dollars if you can break that door down.” She said with a jerk of her head towards the emergency exit. It was still a bad option, but she figured there were fewer cops out there than at the front, maybe few enough to escape from. And if all else failed, she might as well go out fighting.
She had been hoping that the woman didn’t notice how stingy she was being and would just take the cash and do as asked before she had to switch from bribery to threats (the whole thing would really derail if she had to start screaming at her captives to get help with breaking out of there). Instead of cowering or demanding more, the woman puffed out her chest.
“No offense, but it might make more sense to bust that window and go out the side.” She said pointedly. “Figure I can hurl the register hard enough.”
Neve thought a moment, then grinned. Out the side was still a risky play, but if she weaved between buildings and through enough backlots and private property it would be more than enough to escape a bunch of officers weighed down by tactical armor.
“Five grand.” She beamed, and the woman stretched as Neve pulled out the bills.
As she accepted the money and stuffed it into her back pocket, a thought suddenly occurred to Neve. Grit wasn’t just a verb, it was a noun. Loose sand, bits of rock. Celeste was telling them to go someplace with grit, and there was only one spot in Las Vegas with tons of grit, a low elevation, and could be vaguely described as a bowl: the massive abandoned quarry on the west side of town.
The window smashed and the sound rang in her ears as she hopped out and ran almost thoughtlessly. Men were yelling as she vaulted over a fence and raced through a parking lot with the sound of bullets going off behind her, but she could hardly care. She knew where both she and Feb were meant to be going, and that meant she was going to see her boss again and they could actually fix all this. Well, fix what they could before Neve had her own bit of mayhem and revenge, but it was still a nice starting point.
She continued to run, but it was so endlessly easy now, even with people firing in the distance. There was a thrum of determination singing in her chest as she flew through streets, pitched through alleyways and finally paused in a narrow alley behind a dumpster, certain she’d long lost them. But after a few heavy breaths she heard the sound of an incoming helicopter and went pale. A police chopper was a little bit excessive for one little hold-up, but not too surprising after this morning’s big event; it was a bit humiliating for them to let all seven of their crooks get away.
She craned her neck to spot it, but was floored to see not a navy and white helicopter, but a sleek all black chopper that she recognized all too well. She stole it and hid it in the Black Mountains before the heist began, after all. It was meant to be Sorrel’s getaway vehicle.
For a moment, Neve hesitated. She was still furious at Sorrel’s wife, at Riley, at this whole situation, and maybe reaching out would only further sour her mood. But that was her team-mate approaching and she couldn’t just ignore that, especially when Feb had sent out that message to unite them. She pulled out her walkie-talkie and took a deep breath.
“Sorrel? Aidy? You guys in range?” She asked with baited breath. After a moment, the radio crackled.
“Neve? I can’t believe it’s you!” Sorrel replied, and the helicopter hovered over the alley, close enough that the wind picked up Neve’s tight curls and whipped them into her face. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” She brushed her hair away with only mild annoyance. “How are you? How’s Aidy?”
“I’m fine, too.” Sorrel replied after a moment, but Neve couldn’t help notice that she only answered one of those questions. “What’s going on? Is Celeste okay? Do you know where Mica is?”
“Mica’s looking for you.” Neve responded, and decided she could only give partial answers, too. “She figured you would go to the airstrip to meet up with Feb.”
“I’m trying to stick to the plan.” She admitted. “But I just wanted to see my family. I can’t believe you spotted me.”
Neve felt a sudden stab at her gut at that. Despite her raging, she so badly wanted to see all of them, too. But when she thought of Mica and Riley the anger was practically scalding.
“Your wife abandoned me at the casino.” She said in her moment of ire, though she knew no good could come of it. “She was a coward and she left me for dead.”
Sorrel stayed silent for a long time. Neve wished she could see her expression from the ground, but all she saw was her faint silhouette with an empty chair beside her.
“Unfortunately, I can relate.” She said softly. “You got out, didn’t you? Sorry, Neve, but I’m not hurting too bad for ya.”
Neve’s blood boiled.
“She’s supposed to be the tough one! I’m her family and she couldn’t stick it out for me!” She yelled. “She let Riley sweep her away like I was nothing to them!”
“But you’re alive.” Sorrel reminded her a tad sharply, and Neve sensed something was wrong that she wasn’t telling her. “Where’s Celeste?”
“Where’s Aidy?” Neve bit back immediately, concern mingled with enmity. There was a long pause. “El! You and your wife, I swear you’re both caustic to the rest of us!”
“How dare you? We’re trying!” Sorrel shouted. “You’re not the only one dealing with this right now!”
“I’m the only one who was betrayed and yet I’m still trying harder than the rest of you!” Neve shot back. “And you know what, even if I did know where Celeste was, I wouldn’t tell you.”
There was another moment of silence, and she knew that was too far, but she couldn’t care at the moment. She had just been so wronged she couldn’t help but lash out.
“That was harsh, Neve.” Sorrel sounded unexpectedly choked up. “And in case you haven’t noticed, those cops showed up way too early – there’s no chance they could’ve known about the heist without one of us telling them. We were all betrayed.”
Neve was stock still a moment. It made sense, and after the day she’d had it didn’t surprise her as much as it should have. Nor did it cause the pain she would have normally anticipated, which almost worried her. She was chiefly just bitter and suspicious at that point.
“I’m going to the airstrip to get Mica.” Sorrel spoke up after a minute. “And I’m going to pray Celeste is alright. And from the bottom of my heart Neve, chill out.”
Neve groaned her agitation and practically threw her walkie-talkie, but instead she raised it to her mouth for one final rebuttal.
“You think you’re so fantastic because you’ve always been the favorite. They’ve always liked you the most.” Neve spat. “But I will always be stronger than you. I will always be more clever than you.”
Sorrel stayed silent, and Neve would give anything to know what she was thinking. Was she ashamed? Threatened? As angry as the one ranting and raving from the ground?
“You may be just like Feb, but you’re a kid and you can’t sweep in and take her away from me. I will always be her heir.” She said finally, and Sorrel’s response was as determined as she had always been.
“Next time I see you Neve, I’ll have proved you dead wrong.” She warned in a voice that shook with disturbance, and flew off without another word.
Neve shrieked and hurled her radio so hard against the dumpster it broke apart, and in a moment of fury, she threw the bag on the ground and unzipped it. After all this effort, all this work to help her family, she had finally had it with all of them. She had been an authority to all these missing girls and traitors and they’d all pushed carelessly back at her. Fine. She tried to help them, and not only did they refuse it, they hurt her in the process, so now she would strike back.
She looked into the dumpster and practically cackled. Some phone books had just been distributed, and there they sat, pristine and likely unopened. She grabbed at them and pulled them out, then pulled the cash and bags of chips from the duffel bag and shoved them in. As she tossed the money into the dumpster, she heard the wail of sirens, likely after her, but she ignored them.
When they all reunited, she and February could split the money, maybe even with Aidy and Celeste if she was feeling generous. Until then, no one else needed to know where it was. Satisfied and with her anger temporarily quelled, she zipped up the bag and took off once more. She ran down streets, past an abandoned accountant’s office, another under renovation, and then a high-end hotel, the sirens just behind her all the while.
It wasn’t until she reached a run down strip mall that she paused to take a breath, but by chance, way off in the distance, she saw a rather strange figure and squinted. Riley had broad shoulders and wore all black, her dirty blonde hair high and tight in a ponytail, but she held something large in her hands as she walked briskly away.
“Riley?” She called out, not quite certain it was her and not quite certain she wanted to see her anyway. But that bundle in her arms filled her with a curious dread, and she picked up speed to follow the other woman. They continued for only a few minutes before Riley reached a mid-grade hotel, and Neve watched her deposit something into the driver’s seat of a flashy red convertible before she realized that something was a someone.
Her heart dropped down to her gut as she stepped closer, her legs suddenly lead. Logic told her Celeste was safe, she was with Feb, but the form in that chair was so familiar and just so small. Her breath hitched when she got close enough to see her unusually pale face and just a hint of her deep brown eyes, completely heedless of her presence. And then they closed, and she knew her poor friend was gone.
Riley stood still over the body, her back to her, and Neve forgot their quarrels a moment from a look at her slumped shoulders. Her eyes blurred as she took another step forward – betrayal or no, with or without her plot to take the cash, she couldn’t leave either of them like this.
“Riley?” She asked, and Riley turned around and stared at her in white-faced shock.