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The clerk slid a photocopied sheet of paper through the slot under his reinforced window. The lexan was scratched and nicked, making the clerk's face blurry. A circle of quarter-inch drill holes in the window had been covered over with a newer slab of polycarbonate, held in place by lag bolts. Finn wondered what exactly some inmate had shoved through the holes when they were open.
He looked at the sheet, two columns of nearly unreadable small type. "What's it say?"
The clerk shrugged. "Don't fuck up, or we'll see you back here."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"If you can't read, you can listen to a recording."
State law must have mandated counseling. Socorro Correctional was a contract prison, run for profit, and they tended to follow the minimums. New Mexico legislators certainly didn't care.
"I don't think I forgot how yet," said Finn.
Behind him, the escort guard grunted and leaned against the door, clunking it against the wall. The clerk had turned away, digging through a heap of paper and plastic on his side of the counter. He found a one-gallon ziploc and shoved it through the slot along with another form.
"Sign the paper and give it back," he said.
The bag bulged with a wallet and phone and loose change and a length of light steel chain. Finn's name had been scrawled on the outside in heavy marker.
"What about my clothes?"
"Sign the form," said the clerk again. "We only store clothing eighteen months. You can keep what you're wearing."
Finn looked at him a long moment. "Okay." Cheap denims, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and canvas shoes. Before pocketing the wallet, he looked inside: a few hundred dollars and nothing else.
He never carried anything but mad money on a job. Nothing that could fall out of his pocket for a CSI tech to find later.
"Are you closing your commissary account?" asked the clerk as he took the paper Finn slid back to him.
The clerk shrugged again. "Some guys, they figure they're coming right back, they don't bother."
"Maybe they just can't believe how little they made." Finn studied the check the clerk passed him. At thirteen cents an hour, seven years of prison labor had netted him $841.31. "You withheld taxes?" "We do things right around here."
The guard led him out one more corridor, through two final sets of electronically sealed gates, and then pointed at a simple metal door.
"Out you go," he said.
Finn felt an unexpected rush of emotion — elation, fear, uncertainty, adrenaline. Through a window alongside the door, he could see a parking lot, dusty and white in the desert heat, with riot wire fencing the perimeter and an empty road stretching into the scrubby badlands.
"When's the bus?" he asked.
"Haw." It might have been a laugh. "You ain't got nobody picking you up, you can walk. Turn left — town's four miles."
"Right." Finn took a last look: a concrete floor, blank walls with broken holes leaking gypsum. The guard didn't offer to shake hands. "Have a nice day, you hear?"
Outside, he walked away from the building, tipped his head back, and closed his eyes. The sun blasted down, maybe 110 degrees of shadeless heat, with a few slight puffs of breeze. Behind him, faintly, the sounds of a compressor, some window air conditioners in the administrative offices, a pair of tractor trailers idling somewhere. In front of him, a slight rustling as wind pushed across the desert, and nothing else.
A car door slammed. Footsteps.
"How are you, Finn?"
A female voice. His eyes snapped open.
Dark hair, not too long, silky white shirt tucked into jeans. Average height, shorter than him. Easily the most beautiful woman he'd seen outside a magazine for a very long time.
"Who the hell are you?"
She grinned. "You're late."
"By about seven years." He looked around the parking lot: a few SUVs, some four-doors — nothing too small or Japanese. The cars were all empty. "I wasn't expecting to be met."
"I don't have much time." She held up a key ring. "Come on, I'll drive you to town. We can talk in the car."
"Who are you?" he said again.
"Emily Hale." She held out a hand.
Her grip was firm and surprisingly calloused. Out of practice, he had to remind himself to let go.
"You have anything?" She looked past him at the prison's entrance, like the bellboy would be pushing out a luggage cart any second.
"Okay then." She began to walk toward a white sedan parked under the DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS sign. When Finn didn't follow, she looked back.
"I work for Wes Schiller," she said.
He kept his face still, empty of reaction. Seven years had given him plenty of practice at that.
"I'm done," he said. "Out."
"Wes just wants to talk."
"No more jobs. It's over."
"Scared straight, were you?" She put a hand on one hip but seemed amused.
"Something like that."
"You don't know what he wants to talk to you about."
One of the tractor trailers at the receiving dock rumbled to life — diesel coughing, a tap on the airhorn. It turned left and faded down the road.
"I don't remember you," Finn said.
"No reason you would."
Which was true. Wes didn't exactly invite him in for office conferences. "How long have you worked for him?"
"Less than you've been on the state's nickel." She lifted her sunglasses and looked at him with the deepest, greenest eyes Finn had ever seen. "You don't really want to walk to town, do you?"
For a long moment, Finn pretended he couldn't decide, then shook his head slightly and said, "I guess not."
Her rental was an anonymous four-door, new and somehow rounder and more bug-eyed than had been the style when Finn went in. She beeped the lock and he opened the door, but he paused before getting in.
Four people had known that Finn planned to rob the ore train. Jake, Asher, and Corman were three of them, of course. But all of them went to jail, too, just like Finn. In seven years, he hadn't been able to think of a single reason why any of them would have turned.
The fourth person was Wes.
Five minutes later, the air-conditioned rental brought them into town: dusty streets, dusty buildings, shuttered storefronts with dusty plate glass papered over. Emily parked on an angle on the main street, near what seemed to be the single stoplight. A check-cashing outlet, a lottery-and-cigarettes hole-in-the-wall, and a diner.
"Something to eat?" she said.
"It's on account."
He was hungry.
An hour past lunchtime, the diner was almost empty: one woman behind the counter and an old guy in overalls on a stool. A radio on a shelf blared an argumentative talk show. Finn looked at the menu, unable to decide.
Emily watched him. "Nothing you want?"
"Just haven't had to make choices for myself for a while," he said but managed to order a pork sandwich and fries. They were in a booth at the end, alongside streaked plate glass.
Emily sat straight, hands together on the table. "I read up on you. Wes plays it close, you know? So I did my own research."
Wes ran investments, mostly commodities. They'd cooperated on two occasions, after a chain of unlikely intermediaries had brought them together. Finn had highly specialized, even unique, skills, but to exercise them fully, he needed setup money. His kind of jobs couldn't be run on the cheap. Wes, in turn, had the money, over in the legitimate world — at least, as legitimate as superrich Wall Street investors could be — and he was always looking for what he called "exotics."
Unusual investment opportunities. High-risk/high-return ventures. Lots of alpha and zero beta, whatever that meant.
A match made in heaven.
"You can't believe anything they write in the newspapers," Finn said.
"Court transcripts." Emily had an amused look again, mouth quirked up on one side. "Investigative records, including some private detective's backgrounder."
"Let's see. An autorack of Mercedes S-Coupes. An entire industrial machine line, just after it was installed, before they even started using it. Five containers of copper scrap on its way to China." She shook her head slightly. "Did you ever steal something that weighed less than twenty tons?"
"I've never done a day of time for anything except the molybdenite."
"A truckload of rocks."
It was all public information after the trial. But those green eyes watched him steadily, observing, measuring ... judging.
"Two trucks," he said. "Seventy tons of ore. At the time, molybdenite was going for six fifty, seven a pound. The roaster wouldn't have paid full price, of course — not for a delivery at the back gate in the middle of the night."
"Only three plants in the United States take the raw ore and cook it down into molybdenum. We had —" He cut himself off.
Emily raised an eyebrow.
"Hypothetically," Finn said. "Some other ore thief might have negotiated all that ahead of time. Maybe a forty-percent discount. You can do the arithmetic."
She barely paused. "Six hundred thousand dollars."
Wes had funded the job, and he would have taken one-third right off the top. Maybe Emily knew that, maybe she didn't.
The waitress arrived with food, setting down the plates and dropping silverware rolled in napkins and two straws with the iced tea.
"Anything else I can get you?" she said cheerfully, stepping back.
Emily looked over, but Finn was still reacquainting himself with being politely asked his opinion on things. "Um ..."
"We're fine, thanks."
The sandwich was unbelievably good. Even if it wasn't, Finn would still have eaten it as fast as he could. Prison habits.
"Wes has a problem," Emily said. Her hamburger sat untouched.
"I told you —"
"You could help." She paused. "You're probably the only person in the world who could help."
"Wes is doing quite well."
"Good for him."
"But if this ... problem ... isn't solved ... then his business becomes very, very difficult."
"What I'm saying," she plowed on, "is that Wes is extremely motivated to have you on board. No messing around."
"Uh-huh." Finn spoke through a mouthful of sandwich. "In my experience, desperate people make the absolutely worst partners."
"Fair point. 'Desperate' might be overstating the case."
Sunshine glared through the window beside them.
"Before, I always talked to Wes directly." Finn raised one hand as Emily started to speak. "That's not the point. I'm retired. Tell him I'm sorry."
"Seven years I was in there." He paused long enough to drain his iced tea. "The world's different now. Bernie Madoff, you remember him? Goldman Sachs? All those fucking banks? The guys stealing a million dollars today, all they have to do is hit a few keys on a computer. Change a couple of decimal places. Done. And it's probably legal, too, the way the game is rigged. The only people actually stealing things anymore are junkie bank robbers and celebrity shoplifters."
"I don't know —"
"I'm a dinosaur," Finn said. "I'm not looking for one last glorious raid, then off to Bolivia. I'm going to sit on a lawn chair somewhere, listen to baseball. Thanks but no thanks."
Emily finally took a bite of hamburger. After a while, she said, "I told you, I read the court transcripts. From your case."
"The whole thing?"
"All three hundred pages."
She looked up at him. "The prosecution called nine law enforcement officers. County police, state troopers, the New Mexico Mounted Patrol — whatever that is — and the FBI."
Finn didn't say anything.
"The DEA was never mentioned. The drugs, yes. The drug smugglers, the stateside gang — guilt by association, I suppose. But actual drug enforcement agencies? Not a single reference."
"They didn't have to explain how they knew to ambush us," Finn said. "Not in the trial. Or at least not in my trial. I don't know what they said at the others."
"There wasn't a trial for the drug gang. They all pled out."
For seven years, Finn had been thinking about this question.
"We weren't bycatch," he said.
"No." She nodded. "They were."
"The FBI knew. They knew exactly when and where we were going to hit the train. So the obvious question is ..." He let it hang.
"Well." Emily put her hands together on the table. "There are only a few possibilities. Did you tell them?"
He smiled. "No."
"Nothing in the transcripts even hinted at a prior investigation."
"My lawyer tried to bring it up, and the judge shut him down. Immaterial."
"True enough. But the question remains, and the likeliest possibility — well, you've no doubt thought it through."
"Yes." Seven years.
"So." She studied his face. "Who?"
"I don't know."
"Your three partners. One of them dimed you out."
Finn waited, wondering if she would —
"Or Wes," she added.
"He didn't know," Finn said. "I mean, he knew what we were doing — hell, he funded it. But I never told him where or when."
"The other three had no reason, either," Emily said.
The waitress dropped the check on her way past. The old guy at the counter started a conversation with her — grazing rights, politics, something. He did most of the talking.
"Thanks for lunch," Finn said.
"What are you going to do now?"
He shrugged. "Look up some old friends, maybe. You know. Catch up."
"Yeah." Emily gave him a knowing look as they stood from the booth. "One thing."
She recited a phone number starting with 917. "Don't write it down, please."
"What if I forget?"
"I read your file, Finn. You don't forget anything."
"Whose is it?"
"Mine." She held out her hand again. This time Finn was quicker on the draw. They held on a few seconds longer, and when she let go, the sensation of warmth and pressure stayed in his hand.
"Have a safe trip back."
"I was wondering ..." Emily said.
"You could have given Wes up. Any time before sentencing, it probably would have cut those seven years back some."
When Finn didn't say anything more, Emily nodded. "Call me sometime if you want to talk."
"Whoever." Her crooked smile flashed again, and she was gone.
Two days later, Finn stepped from an almost-empty GCT bus into a humid Georgia morning. The bus spewed exhaust and ground away, disappearing into Gwinnett County suburbia. Finn yawned and rubbed grit from his eyes, squinting in the bright sunshine.
To the extent he had a plan, it wasn't complicated. He was going to talk to Jake. Then talk to Asher. Then Corman. And then he figured he'd know.
After that, there were options, but first, he had to know.
Of course, to travel around the country looking up his old pals, he needed money. Driver's license long since expired, no relatives still talking to him, the eight hundred bucks evaporating faster than he could keep track. When did everything get so damned expensive? Five dollars for a cup of coffee?
Fortunately, he had a safe-deposit box here at Gwinnett Trust Bank. It was the only one the prosecutors didn't find — even his lawyer didn't know about it, thank God, or Finn would truly be down to nothing. But here, in the anonymous Atlanta suburbs, he'd hidden away sixty thousand dollars. Once, it hadn't seemed like so much, not when he was knocking down three or four times that on every job. But now — a fortune.
The problem was that Gwinnett Trust Bank no longer seemed to exist.
The building was as he remembered, faux-Federal brick with a drive-through. The sign on the facade, however, read NORCROSS NATIONAL CREDIT UNION. A recent change; lighter patches in the brickwork's pointing revealed where the earlier, larger sign had been attached.
He hesitated another moment, then brushed his hands on his pants and went inside.
"You'll have to contact the state's abandoned property office."
The bank officer was a woman about Finn's age. She smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry."
"But — what do you mean? They just shut my bank down?"
"Almost five years ago. The FDIC came in Friday afternoon, and it was under federal receivership by Monday."
"I don't understand." He looked around, out the glass walls of the woman's tiny office. "It all looks the same. Same counters, same teller row —"
"We didn't acquire Gwinnett Trust." She made a serious face. "No one did. Too small and too bankrupt. So the regulators had to act. Of course, no one lost any money. You should have received a notification — did you have an account with them?"
"Just the safe-deposit box." Finn was still stunned.
"Even so. They would have contacted you. If you didn't respond, the box's contents would have been turned over to the state."
Of course they wouldn't have been able to contact him, since he'd used a false ID. He started to put his face in his hands, stopped.
Excerpted from "The Downside"
Copyright © 2017 Mike Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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