“I’m puking in here!” Priyanka called back. “I’ll be taking my sweet-ass time unless you’re looking to get projectile vomit all over your face and the horrible slacks you’re no doubt wearing!”
“Ew,” I said.
“I’m getting the manager!”
“You do that,” Priyanka called back. “Stomp away like a little baby and go cry to Mommy.”
We all chose to ignore the venomous string of cursing that followed.
“Anyway, I still think you need to hit me,” I said, trying to sound as reasonable as someone could while asking to be punched. “In the eye, and maybe in the mouth to bust my lip open again.”
“Why?” Priyanka said. “Why do you want me to hit your adorable face? Why are you so cruel to me?”
“I’ve been on televisions and in newspapers and magazines for years now,” I said. “You really don’t think people are going to be able to make a visual ID of me?”
“Speaking from experience,” Roman said, his hair wild and teased up, “don’t underestimate the power of context. You’ve made it this long without being caught. They’re not going to expect you to be this careless now.”
“And look at you,” Priyanka said, turning me back toward the cracked mirror. I could barely make out my reflection through the thick layer of graffiti, but what I could see was a study in extremes. Hard and soft, bright and dark. And, like always, the truth was somewhere in between.
“All right,” I said. “But if something goes wrong, and they do make a visual ID of me—”
“Then we’ll abort the mission and fall back on Plan B.”
“Isn’t Plan B the one where we drive to and fro aimlessly until we happen to find another clue about where Ruby might be?” I asked.
Outside, the sound of car engines had turned from a faint murmur to an unending roar.
“We’ll be all right,” Roman said, rising from his perch on the toilet seat lid. “But if they see you hesitate, they’ll take a closer look. Whoever you’re choosing to be, be that person boldly.”
I gave him a small salute. “We doing this?”
Priyanka shook out her shoulders and arms, then reached for the tire iron resting against the door. “If I fall, avenge me.”
I took up my own tire iron, which I’d grabbed from a nearby auto body shop. “No. No one’s doing any kind of falling. If someone pulls a gun, and, this being Texas, they likely will, immediately put your hands up and get on the ground.”
“How long have you been waiting to say that?” Roman asked Priya.
“Pretty much from the moment I forgot to say it while we were on the Turner job.”
“That was three years ago.”
“It calls for a very specific kind of situation, Roman. I have to feel the moment—”
“Focus,” I said, passing Roman the baseball bat. “Ready?”
He inspected the chipped wood, running his hand over the broken end of it, then nodded. Priyanka took a deep breath, her look of confidence flickering. Then she shoved the door open with her shoulder, spilling the hot glare of bleach-white Texas sun over us.
An hour ago, when we’d arrived, there had been a few cars lined up for the weekly gas ration. Now they wrapped down the dusty, otherwise barren street. The businesses and homes nearby had recently been bulldozed and the debris was still piled high. It looked like a scene out of the apocalypse.
The man who’d yelled at Priyanka earlier was wearing slacks and a faded button-down, and looked old enough to be her grandfather. His sunburned skin flushed a deep shade of purple as Priyanka dragged the sharp edge of the tire iron down his front.
“All yours, big guy,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder with the tire iron as she sauntered by.
The boots had added three inches to Priyanka’s already towering height, and she worked them, swinging the tire iron as we passed by the convenience store and moved toward the cars already at the pumps. I kept my head down, watching for trouble out of the corner of my eye. Inside the store, the woman working the counter picked up the phone, her face visibly paling through the glass.
Roman veered away from us, coming up behind the police officer keeping watch. The man grunted as Roman snatched his gun out of its holster and tossed it away, letting it skid across the pavement. With startling efficiency, he got the policeman in a headlock, applying just enough pressure until the grizzled man collapsed in a dead faint.
Priyanka took a running leap onto the hood of a sedan at the pump, then stepped onto its roof. “Ladies and gentleman, you’re just in time for today’s freak show and, lucky you, you get to play a starring role! Turn over your gas ration cards and maybe we won’t electrocute you or burn this place to the ground.” She tapped her heel on the sunroof of the car she was standing on. “That means you, too, handsome.”
The man all but fell out of the door, scrambling to run away.
The cars at the end of the line peeled off, racing down the street to avoid trouble. Phones lit up across my mind like fireworks, suddenly active as they placed emergency calls. A dozen. Two dozen.
I walked over to the nearest SUV, where a woman was cowering inside, and smashed the passenger window in. I shoved my arm through the broken glass, holding out my hand to her.
“It’s—it’s already in the machine,” she stammered, pressing her back up against her window.
I tried deepening my voice, with mixed results. “Take it out, then.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the obnoxious whirring of drones that came first, buzzing overhead. Priyanka waved an arm and they crashed to the ground, smashing into heaps of metal, glass, and fire.
The flurry of movement and shouts came to a dead stop.
“Did you think I was kidding?” she called to them. “Who’s next? Who wants to bake inside the
ir own car when I turn it into an oven?”
Roman brushed by behind me, muttering a faint “Jesus” before knocking a side mirror clear off a minivan.
“Stop where you are, you fucking freaks!”
All of us pivoted toward the far end of the line, where a man had braced a long rifle over the hood of his truck. Three others, two women and another man, had pistols and rushed toward us. One fired off a shot, likely by mistake—it slammed through the metal overhang above the pumps. Priyanka jumped down for cover.
“Careful!” someone shouted. “Christ, you’ll light the whole place up!”
“All right, all right!” Priyanka said, holding her arms up.
“Get down!” one of the armed women growled. “Right now, before I plug one into your freak brain.”
“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it,” Priyanka muttered.
A hard barrel pressed into my back at the same moment someone gripped my arm and wrenched me down onto the burning pavement. I saw Roman snarl, lunging for whoever was behind me, as the other armed woman appeared at his side, gun trained on him. The assessing look he gave her chilled my blood, even with the scorching air baking us through our dark clothing.
“No,” I said sharply. He looked at me, at the place the man pressed my cheek to the ground. I struggled against his weight, the way his knee drove into the small of my back like he was trying to break my spine, twisting just enough to turn my face upward. The sound of the Amarillo police’s sirens sang out in the distance.
And then I got what I’d asked for—the man’s free fist sailed down toward my face, and I dissolved into heat and darkness.
THE STEADY ROCKING, THE LOW, even drumbeat, the stifling, sleepy air, the scent of leather and warm, clean skin—it all made it that much harder to rouse myself from sleep. But the gentle pressure against my wrists was enough to remind my body of its many complaints. And my face…