Surviving Ice Page 2

Tossing my purse onto the old metal desk that serves as a catchall for mail, office supplies, the archaic security-monitoring system, and anything else that might land there on our way through, I reach for the cowbell hanging against the wall. A gag gift that Ned’s kept for years, even though the sound of it makes him wince and curse. I use it to irritate the shit out of him every chance I get.

A shout freezes my hand.

“Quit playing fucking games, old man!”

I hold my breath and try to listen, but the rush of blood flooding my veins and ears suddenly makes it hard to concentrate.

“Don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about,” Ned grits out, and his voice squeezes my chest, because I can tell that he’s in pain. That odd, muted sound of knuckles hitting flesh followed by a groan pulls a gasp from me, and I immediately purse my lips and dart back and out of sight, panicked. Was that loud enough to be heard?

Whoever is up front obviously didn’t hear me come in. Ned always jokes that I have the natural graces of a cat burglar, silent and stealthy even when I’m not intending to be.

An aluminum baseball bat leans against the wall next to the cowbell. If I were stupid, I’d grab it and run out front kamikaze-style. But Ned is two-hundred and twenty-five pounds of hardened man, Tree Trunks is even bigger, and someone has gotten the upper hand on both of them. I can only imagine how fast they’d have a hundred-and-ten-pound female subdued, even one that kicks and claws like a rabid wolverine. I don’t even know how many guys are out there.

The security camera.

I dive for the old thirteen-inch tube monitor sitting on the desk and hit the Power button, desperate to get a glimpse of what’s happening out front.

But only gray static appears. They must have busted the camera lens.

I do the only smart thing I can think of. I fumble for my cell phone, my fingers shaking as I dial 911. Hoping my whispers don’t carry as I beg for police backup for a robbery in progress. Can I get to safety? the dispatcher asks. I’m not leaving Ned, I snap. Stay on the line, the woman responds. We’re sending help.

The ding of the cash register sounds, and I hazard a peek around the corner and down the long hall, past the private room, and to the open-concept space at the front where Ned does as much of his work as he can. A hulkish man in dark cargo pants and a black turtleneck, with a black balaclava pulled up over his brow, hovers over the register, emptying it of cash with his left hand.

In his right, he grips a gun.

I squeeze my phone—pressed against my ear—tighter.

Beyond him, the window and front door are covered, the shades pulled to block anyone’s view inside. They weren’t like that when I left. I’m sure the front door is now locked, too, though it’s too far to see from here.

“I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be on the giving end of a tattoo gun,” a man with a deep voice and a Chicago accent says, and it’s not the same guy I see standing at the register, which means there are at least two of them. Where the hell is Tree Trunks, anyway? Is he in on this? I haven’t heard his croaky voice. “I just step on this pedal, right?” The buzz of the tattoo machine fills the shop, followed closely by a series of grunts.

Somehow, I know that it’s Ned making those sounds.

“Hurry!” I hiss into my phone, tears streaming down my cheeks, torn between the urge to run out there and pure fear.

The guy who was at the cash register is now searching front desk drawers. He glances behind him. “You know, you’re a sick bastard, Mario.”

Mario. I have a name.

“My ex used to say that to me.” A sinister chuckle sends shivers down my back. God, what are they doing to Ned? He has ink in a dozen different places. I did a design for him along the web of his finger when I got here seven months ago and he barely flinched then. “Go and see what you can find in the back.”

The back.

I’m in the back.

I duck behind the wall, my heart hammering in my chest as heavy footfalls approach down the hallway toward me. The back door is right there, and yet it’s not an option because it’s in his line of sight and he has a gun.

I have nowhere to run.

“Shhh!” I hiss into the phone, hoping the dispatcher will understand me, will stay quiet so I don’t have to hang up on her. I dive under the metal desk, tugging the chair in as far as I can, until my body is contorted around its legs and my entire left side is crammed against the wall. I thank God that I’m dressed in all black and hope it’s enough, that he won’t spot my bare skin. The female dispatcher hides with me under here, my phone pressed against my chest, smothering any sound she might make. She’s my only connection to the outside world—and perhaps the last person I’ll ever speak to—and she can surely hear my heartbeat.

Polished black combat boots appear around the corner. They stop for five seconds, and I feel each one of those in my throat.

And then those shoes swivel and stalk toward me.

I can barely focus through my fear anymore, sure that I’m about to find myself looking down the barrel of a gun. Where are the police? They should be here by now. We’re not far from Daly City, hands down the worst area of San Francisco, where cruisers circle the streets like crows over a ripe cherry tree.

Around me, boxes topple and papers shuffle, and I pray to whoever watches down from above that this guy doesn’t decide to check beneath the desk.

“Found something!” he shouts. It’s followed by a snort and a low mutter of, “People still use these fucking things?”

I know what he’s found. The VHS player that records the feed from the camera in the front on a continuous loop. Ned’s never been one to keep up with technology trends and, instead, swears by what he knows.

Sirens wail in the distance. They’re so faint at first that I think I’m imagining them.

“Fuck! Did you trip an alarm?” That angry voice—Mario—out front yells, and I allow myself a shaky breath of relief because he’s heard them, too, so they must be real. Only a few more seconds and we’ll be safe.

Ned’s laugh—deep and throaty—carries all the way back. Good. Whatever that guy just did to him, Ned’s still capable of laughing. Tough bastard.

“Come on! We can’t get caught here,” the guy above me shouts. He starts fussing with the VCR, first pressing, then slamming the Open button. I know that’s what he’s doing because she’s a temperamental bitch and I’ve done the exact same thing once or twice when Ned’s asked me to change a tape over. “Fuck it,” he mumbles, and he begins to tug at the cables plugged in beneath the desk. He’s taking the entire machine. He wants whatever video proof might be on there, I guess.

And if he reaches down to unplug the cord, he’s going to find more than just a power strip.

I yank the plug out of the socket for him and hold my breath.

The sirens grow louder, three distinct wails now. “Come on!” His boots shift away from the desk. Footfalls pound down the hallway, and the guy named Mario appears, also in polished black combat boots. I can see him only from the waist down, but it’s enough to see him peeling a black glove off.

A splatter of blood coats his wrist.

“Who the fuck called the cops? I could have gotten him to talk. I just needed more time.” I guess he was obviously expecting to work Ned over at a leisurely pace. I ruined that for them, at least.

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