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Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (4 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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But Zoe has no intention of
fiddling
with this playback. She has one easy goal—although for
that
her deadline is much shorter than twenty-three minutes. She probably wasted a good five minutes after the shooting, and there had to be six or seven minutes before that when the bank robber was already out of control.

Ten minutes, Zoe estimates. She has ten minutes to contact the police and warn them about a robbery in progress. Zoe doesn't especially like police. Being in the system, she has had several encounters with them and feels that the best of them are perhaps good-hearted but ineffectual, and the worst made the career choice to justify being bullies. Still, they're professionals. To be fair, they're
probably better trained to deal with armed felons than with socially disadvantaged teens. The police should be able to prevent anyone from getting killed. And by
anyone
, she has in mind
customers
or even
bank staff.
She is not such an altruist as to be particularly concerned about a thief who would bring a gun into a bank and be prepared to use it.

She wipes her hands on her jeans, unable to rid herself of the sensation that they are speckled with the blood of two dead men. Even though she can see they are not.

Zoe looks around. From what she has heard, there
used
to be pay phones scattered throughout the city, available for those who needed to contact somebody before cell phones were invented. She supposes there probably still are pay phones somewhere, but she doesn't have time to search one out.

She sees a girl who looks about her own age, though Zoe suspects that, without makeup, she herself looks younger than she really is, perhaps closer to junior high than high school. Still, here's a girl who is probably about fifteen or sixteen, very chic in a short skirt and high heels that would never be good for a quick getaway—for whatever that's worth—and who is talking on a cell phone.

“Excuse me,” Zoe says, falling into step next to her. “I don't have a phone and I absolutely need to make a call. It's an emergency. May I please borrow yours?”

The girl looks up at her as though she has never, ever, in her entire life, had anyone ask for such an outrageous favor. She tells the person at the other end of the call, “Just a sec,” then says to Zoe, “I don't have, like, an unlimited plan.”

“OK,” Zoe counters. “But this is, like, literally life-and-death.”

Without answering, the girl turns abruptly to enter a gift shop.

Zoe considers following her in, but decides against it. If the girl is frightened of her—or even just annoyed by her—and if she complains to the shopkeeper, there's no question with which of them the people in the shop will sympathize.

Instead, she looks around some more. There are a couple of young guys, wearing uniforms from a fast-food place, who are sitting on the edge of one of the huge sidewalk planters. They are talking and texting and laughing, but Zoe dismisses them because there is always
such
a chance of misunderstanding where guys are concerned. Similarly, she doesn't give serious consideration to the grandfatherly guy walking the big dog that looks as though it could eat small children for a snack, or to the biker guy who has a Chihuahua at the end of
his
leash. She spots a woman walking with a girl and a boy, both preteens, and she zeroes in on them.

“Hello,” she says, “I'm sorry to bother you—but, please, I need help.”
Bad choice of words
, she reprimands herself, even as they're coming out of her mouth. What if the woman thinks she's asking for money? She should have thought this out beforehand. Hurriedly she adds, “Do you have a phone I could please, please, please use? It's really important. A local call. It won't take a minute. Please.” She hates groveling but figures her pride is less important than a life.

The boy, who looks all of about eleven, demands, “Why don't you have your own phone?” and the mother drapes her arm around his shoulders in what might be a case of oh-isn't-my-boy-the-most-precious-thing-ever pride, or might be gentle chastisement. Zoe's own mother, whom she hasn't seen in almost two years, was never gentle with her chastisements. Meanwhile, the little girl reaches
over to clutch her mother's free hand. Clearly, Zoe makes her nervous. Clearly, this child has had impressed on her the dangers of speaking to strangers.

Still, Zoe hopes the mother is thinking that should her own children ever be in trouble, some friendly soul would be willing to help them. And, in fact, the woman digs a phone out of her purse and, though somewhat reluctantly, hands it to Zoe.

Zoe stares at it for a moment before the woman explains, “Press the green button, then the numbers you need.”

It isn't that the phone is too complicated to figure out: Zoe has been distracted by noting the time—1:22. Assuming the first woman was right, Zoe has squandered only five minutes. There's still plenty of time.

Except at that exact moment, the sky opens up. Zoe, the woman, and the children rush to huddle under the nearest store's awning. The woman sighs, no doubt already regretting the generous impulse that has left her and her kids standing in the rain with this phone-borrowing stranger.

Zoe presses the green button, then 911.

Whether the woman can see which numbers Zoe has pressed or guesses by how few have been pressed, she raises her eyebrows, looking a bit apprehensive.

“911,” the dispatcher announces. “What number are you calling from?”

Why do they always ask that?
Zoe wonders. She knows for a fact that the number has shown up on their equipment. She knows this from the time when Rasheena and Delia were arguing, while Mrs. Davies was in the kitchen, and Delia grabbed the phone and hit 911 before one of the other girls was able to get the phone back
and hang up. But still, two minutes later, someone from 911 called back to see what the emergency was. And even dispatched a police car, despite the fact that everyone—including Delia—said, “Oops. Never mind. Mistake.” Mrs. Davies had not been amused.

So now the dispatcher has asked for the number, and Zoe says, “I don't know. I'm calling from somebody else's cell phone. Do you need me to find out?”

“No, that's all right,” the man on the other end of the line says. “What's your emergency?”

Zoe takes a deep breath. “I saw a man with a gun. Entering Spencerport Savings and Loan on Independence Street.”

The woman whose phone she's borrowed throws a protective arm around each of her children, even though Independence Street is two and a half blocks away, and the bank is halfway down the block after turning the corner.

“No, I'm not in the bank,” Zoe answers when the dispatcher asks. In response to his next question, she tries to remember what the man looked like. “I don't know. Forty, fifty.” Old people are old; how is she supposed to be able to tell
how
old? “White guy … no, I couldn't see his hair. He had a hoodie and a baseball cap … tan raincoat … taller than me,”—which is ridiculous since the dispatcher can't know how tall she is—“shorter than …”

She cuts herself off. She was thinking that he was a bit shorter than the guy he ended up killing. She remembers how the thief's arm was angled up to press against the young man's throat, pinning him against the wall, the gun against his temple … She once again feels the spatter of the warm blood against her face and chest, and she can't stop her free hand from reaching up to her hair, to
feel for the bits that have lodged themselves there.

Zoe starts shaking and can't talk anymore. She cuts off the connection halfway through something-or-other the 911 dispatcher is saying and holds the phone back out to the woman with the kids.

“Is that true?” the boy demands, sounding like a district attorney cross-examining a hostile witness. Obviously, this child's mother has let him watch way too much TV. “You came all the way here from Independence Street before you could find
anybody
to let you borrow their phone?”

“Sherman, hush,” the mother says, taking the phone. But she once again glances back in the direction of Independence.

The phone rings. Well, actually, it plays the theme from the Indiana Jones movies. The woman sees the calling number and holds the phone out to Zoe.

Zoe shakes her head and takes a step away.

The woman's face immediately grows red enough that she looks ready to burst. “You better not have used my phone to make a crank call,” she practically spits out.

“I didn't,” Zoe protests. “I saw him. He—”

The boy interrupts. “And he let you leave during the actual robbery? Or did he take the gun out on the street for all the world to see and
then
walk into the bank?”

“No,” Zoe says. “I …” But her voice drifts off. How can she possibly answer? Telling people about playback has caused more problems than playback itself.

The boy continues in his scornful tone: “And he didn't even wear a mask to hide his face?”

Zoe pictures it again: How the man shot out the cameras that
would have left a record, as though not concerned about the human witnesses. The moment when Zoe had the realization that he was going to kill them all. When she would have played back, except he was holding onto her at the time.

“No,” Zoe tries to explain. “But he had a hoodie. And his collar up. And …”

The obnoxious kid is sneering, unwilling to believe the most believable aspect of her story.

“There was a man with a gun,” Zoe repeats. “In Spencerport Savings and Loan. And I can't simply dawdle”—
dawdle
was one of her mother's words—“around here and
chat
with you.”

She turns on her heel and steps back out into the rain, walking rapidly away from them, away—even more so—from Independence Street and the bank that is about to be held up.

“Hey!” the woman calls after her. “Hey!” The Indiana Jones theme, which had stopped briefly, starts again.

Zoe begins running, despite the rain-slickness of the sidewalk.

She turns down Franklin and makes another turn when she gets to Valencia. The woman can't conceivably be chasing after her. The boy on his own might—probably would, in best cop show tradition—but not the mother. Definitely not the mother with the timid little girl in tow. Zoe just hopes they won't talk the 911 people out of believing her call.

She stops to readjust the folder, which is digging into her side, which is when she starts to hear sirens.
Good
, she thinks. Though surely the police wouldn't approach a bank robbery with their sirens blaring, alerting the robber, would they? And yet the noise seems to be coming from behind her, in the general vicinity of the bank.

None of your business
, she reminds herself yet again.

She has to have been in this story line at least seventeen, eighteen minutes by now.

Twenty-three, and it will be irrevocably lost.

She hopes the one guy—the one who, in this particular twenty-three-minute interval, she has not met, so who has not been kind to her—she hopes he has managed to not get himself killed this time. And she tries to avoid picturing all that blood on the wall behind where he'd been standing. That blood. And hair …

None of your damn business
, she mentally yells at herself.

Leave well enough alone.

Ooh, that's one of Mrs. Davies's sayings.

Perhaps because of that, she does the opposite thing: She starts running back down Valencia. Past Franklin, past North Main, past Academy. Independence is the next cross street, and she sees police cars have it blocked off.

Gawkers are pressed against the barricade, but Zoe pushes through the crowd. Police cars are all over the area. Ambulances, and even a fire truck, are at the ready farther back. At the ready for what, exactly? Police in full protective gear are crouched behind any cover they can get, holding an impressive array of impressive weapons. There's glass on the street, the front window from the bank shattered from the inside out. There's also a body—no, two—on the street, and one on the sidewalk.

Once again, she wipes the shadow of blood from her hands.

“What happened?” Zoe's nearly breathless from her run, and her words come out barely a whisper.

“Hostage situation in the bank,” someone tells her. There's
always someone eager to share bad news. “Lots of shots fired. Including through the window, out into the street, as the police were arriving.”

The man points to the body on the sidewalk, outlined in a pool of blood. “Lady,” he says, “pushing a stroller.”

Oh no oh no oh no.

Zoe finally notices the stroller, tipped on its side. At least the toddler strapped inside is kicking his legs, the only encouraging sign at this scene.

“That guy,” the witness continues, pointing, “was only a passerby trying to help. Other one's police.”

His voice is drowned out by the
whup-whup-whup
of a helicopter overhead.

What's going on
inside
the bank? With the gunman shooting out into the street, surely that's an indication the bank guard, at least, is dead. So … three for sure dead on the street. Almost certainly at least one dead inside. And probably others. The guy with the jacket? No telling.

What have I done?
Zoe thinks. This is even worse than before. She should have known. Only rarely has she had good luck with going back and trying to change what has happened—and then it's usually been only with small one-variable things, like knowing to untuck the hem of her skirt from her waistband before leaving the restroom instead of
after
walking into a courtroom full of people for her shelter hearing, the day she was removed from her parents' home.

The witness beside her is trying to draw something-or-other to her attention, even though the noise of the helicopter prevents her
from hearing his words. Her gaze strays to his cell phone—he has been recording the goings-on, but she can see the time displayed on the screen. Just a few seconds short of 1:39. The twenty-three minutes is almost—if not already—over.

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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