Burning from the inside out. There was no other way she could describe it. An instant fire that raged through her whole body, receding quickly, leaving the chill of death in its place. The gun clattered to the floor moments before she collapsed. Screams reverberated in her head, a jumbled cacophony of internal and external stimuli. Her limbs were limp, legs contorted under her, cervical vertebrae crunched as her head met the marble floor and she sensed loss and abandonment. They were gone, she knew she would be too.
Singular. Alone. Panic and anguish manifest as restricted bronchioles and hypoxia. The hushed and hurried whispers around her fade as her nervous system shuts down. She barely registers the rhythmic pressure on her chest, even as her sternum cracked in protest.
Weeks of planning, every meticulously dissected variable, every well intended hope slipped away with her consciousness.
One to collect the till, two to look out, one to drive the car. The plan was flawless.
Sarah’s fingers picked at a tear near the seam of her sleeve. It wasn’t nerves, per say. They’d done this sort of thing before. But the stakes had never been this high. A sudden violent fit of coughing from the driver's seat reminded her of that. Losing Nicole wasn’t an option. This was the take that would save them all.
I wonder how it’d feel to die. Her finger slipped, the sound of split fabric pulled her from her somber musings in time to hear a whimper from Nicole and to meet Ian’s stern eye.
“Sorry.” The apology was hushed, and it was the first word spoken aloud since they’d left their apartment. It filled the air inside the car with such a weight, sobering them for the task at hand.
It had all gone according to plan. Ian entered first, strode directly for the first teller, gun drawn.
“Everybody down!” He’d yelled, boldly, his voice echoing abusively in the small, but busy lobby. She and Greg had taken up their positions at the front and back of the queue, producing matching Glocks; directing all of the customers to the floor with wordless threats.
There was a snap of a current between the three of them, a perfect marriage of adrenaline, excitement, and fear. Ian had directed each teller away from their station and then brought them back to their tills one by one, instructing them that no one would get hurt as long as they complied with his orders and stayed quiet.
Ian was sure. Steady. Even when they were kids, before, he had always set the tone. In the last decade, however, she’d learned about his internal turmoil. She’d watched him put the good of the group ahead of himself time and again, as he battled his own demons and compartmentalized everyone and everything else. He was their anchor, their port--grounding and centering them when the money ran out, when the sickness was debilitating, when they missed home or wanted to run.
Ian was the most level-headed of their collective, a born leader.
“I promise, we don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Please, no dye packs.”
“We’ll do what we need to do.”
“Last one. Get ready. ” Sarah and Greg looked up at this and watched as Ian guided the final teller to her drawer. Sarah’s eye was suddenly drawn to a movement behind Greg. An elderly gentleman in a rain slicker caught her eye. He vibrated with fear and appeared to be reaching up for the middle of his coat.
“ 5 o’clock, Greg.” Her message prompted Greg to take two large steps backward, clear his throat loudly, and aim his gun.
The old man rolled over onto his side, bringing one of his hands up in surrender, as the other pulled a small object from his pocket. The bubble of tension burst, eliciting a collective hushed gasp and a tightened grip.
“Inhaler,” the man wheezed, as he popped the cap and breathed in the medicated shhhft of albuterol and steroids. A silent tide of relief washed over the lobby, mirroring the chemical reaction in his lungs.
Across the large room and behind the desk, Ian was putting the last pack of 20s in his bag and directing the teller back to the group behind him. A quick exit and they were home free. Nervous anticipation flowed through him and he hazarded a brief half smile in the direction of his friends.
The piercing sound echoed off the marble and glass and had barely registered with Ian before flesh and tissue tore, heat and pain radiating in equal measure. The rush of trauma in his body muted out the screams and shouts around him, his nervous system unable to inform his brain while his knees buckled. He didn’t remember how to breathe, or maybe it was that he didn’t remember how to remember to breathe, and the pressure on his chest overtook every other sensation. His lungs were wet, his heart couldn’t keep up with demands of adrenaline. His eyes opened reflexively when his head bounced on landing, just in time to register the simultaneous collapse of both Sarah and Greg. He couldn’t see her, but he knew Nicole had met the same fate outside. He recalled Sarah’s errant thoughts in the car.
Ian wondered if death was this agonizingly painful for everyone. If watching someone you love die causes the same pain as actually dying; or physically feeling them dying. His brain felt heavy, full of final thoughts. The pain swirled around fleeting, disjointed images of Greg’s parents, memories of their shared childhood. He saw Sarah’s mom, and felt Nicole’s relief. He experienced the searing guilt from knowing he failed to keep his word to protect them, and the ultimate betrayal of being the reason they were all going to die.
A shoe sole struck Ian’s hand, kicking the gun out of his grip. An armed security guard came into his quickly fading view. The guard had a standard issue pistol in one hand, a walkie talkie in the other. Ian couldn’t make out the guard’s words, as darkness overcame him. It was a sudden absence. A duplicitous gift after a decade lived without respite. Nicole was gone, and just like that, he surrendered to the welcome peace of death.
Scully walked through the office door just as Mulder was pushing a video into the VCR, his crisp white shirt stretched taut across his shoulders.
“Check this out, Scully.” His features as animated as Mulder’s features could be, he pointed the remote at the TV as she placed her purse and briefcase in her chair. She leaned against a file cabinet and watched as a grainy black and white the image coalesced on the screen.
“A bank robbery?”
He spun around on his heels to face her, a grin exploding on his face. He could build anticipation for a root canal. Giddy as a schoolboy, Mulder’s introduction to a case was her favorite part of every new assignment.
“Just watch, Scully.” His head and the remote both gestured toward the screen where three masked, armed intruders fanned across the lobby of a bank. She made a number of initial observations as she watched the scene unfold. Two males, one female. Generic ski masks, probably purchased at a big box store. Identical glock pistols. Two are right-handed, the male in the lobby favors his left. Four tellers, one security guard face down on the floor with seven patrons, all who appear to be at least thirty years of age.
“First National Bank of Arizona in Phoenix, two days ago. That’s Ian Hanover up top, Sarah Alston to the left and Greg Lebeau over there. Nicole Sargeant is outside, driving the getaway car. All four are nineteen years old, from Cottonwood, Arizona. They ran away from home together three years ago.”
Scully was now only half listening to Mulder as she studied the video, perplexed. It just feels, off, she thought, scanning the image for clues as she tried to put her finger on the niggling feeling of unease. She could hear Ian speaking to the tellers and an occasional whimper or cry from the hostages. She leaned closer to the screen, studying an elderly asthmatic gentleman She jumped back when the gun went off. She watched all three robbers fall to the ground at once as a second security guard appeared on the screen. She assumed he had come from the area of the vault.
“Wait, rewind that back, Mulder.” He grinned, knowing that she was now fully invested. She knew there had been a single gunshot. Why didn’t Greg and Sarah fire at the guard?
Mulder and Scully rewatched the surveillance footage again once, and again a third time.
“They aren’t communicating,” she observed aloud.
On the fourth review of the footage, Mulder pointed out a subtle, but sudden and seemingly unprompted movement made by Greg. He’d made eye contact with Sarah and then it appeared as if he sensed he should move.
“What’s your explanation for the collapse of the other two, Mulder?” She studied the footage intently trying to find clues.
“Three,” he replied leaning back against the desk. “One shot was fired but all four of them were hit.”
Scully looked up. “That’s not possible, Mulder.”
She knew she’d only heard one shot. Her mind raced to fill in the blanks, to identify the explanation for the scenario that had played out on the screen. “What’s their status?” she wondered, scanning the periphery of the image paused on the screen, all three robbers on the ground.
“Three were DOA,” he handed her the file. “The middle-aged woman you can see on the left is a nurse, she began doing CPR on the female. She arrested multiple times. They ended up inducing a coma, but she won’t make it.” A wary eye strayed up once more to find him staring at her over the medical chart she’d been perusing.
She saw the characteristic light behind his eyes, the excitement oozing from every pore as he waited for her to initiate their standard back and forth.
“They’ve caught everyone involved. Which means that when we get there we can focus on the case.”
“What case? Mulder, the FBI has zero justification to pursue an investigation into this matter.”
“Are you serious, Scully?”
“They know who was involved, and three out of the four of them are deceased. You said yourself that the fourth is in critical condition and unlikely to survive. There’s nothing that local law enforcement hasn’t already or can’t handle.”
Mulder scoffed, but he saw an infinitesimal gleam of intrigue in her eye that belied her dismissive attitude. She was curious.
“The reason the FBI has been called in to consult on this crime, Agent Scully, is because, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, there was only one bullet fired.” Mulder’s tone was jovial as he slipped into his jacket and stepped behind her to walk to the door. He stopped and leaned in closer, stretching both of his arms forward and alongside her as he held his hands up in front of her. He made a fist with this left hand and then lifted his index finger. He raised four fingers of his right hand. “One bullet, Scully. Four shooting victims. I think that’s going to weigh on your fearfully intelligent, yet highly skeptical brain until you can explain it to me. For science.” He lingered another moment. His closeness unnerved her, and she held her breath in her throat for the millisecond before he dropped his arms and stepped away, leaving the skin on the back of her neck to tingle. It had been over a week since they’d last stood so close, the sound of Dick Clark and Auld Lang Syne muted and faded by the thrumming of her heart and his lips on hers.
She’d dropped him off at home that night with a wistful smile and a gaze that lasted a moment longer than platonically acceptable and every day since had been business as usual. A stolen glance here, a shy smile there, but business as usual. This sudden change in the air tied her stomach in knots even as she watched him head for the door.
“We fly out of Dulles at 1,” he called behind him. With a last gentle smile, he added, “meet you there.”
Shane Masterson, the local lieutenant on the case, was leaning up against the ICU nurses station awaiting their arrival just over seven hours later. A year or two past middle age, with a tall stature and a neatly trimmed beard, his posture suggested he was wasting his time while his expression respected the duty. He gave them a curt nod once they’d approached.
“Agents Mulder and Scully?” Lieutenant Masterson asked, standing at full height and extending his hand. “Name’s Masterson, I’m the lieutenant assigned to this case.” He’d taken his hat off and gestured toward Sarah’s room with it. “Can’t imagine what the FBI wants with this case,” his voice trailed off and they could both see the lie. “The attempted robbery failed and if she survives, which they aren’t expecting, she’ll be headed to prison.”
“What can you tell us about the perpetrators?” Mulder asked walking over and peering through the window at the girl. Eerily still and pale, hooked up to a ventilator. He recognized a cardiopulmonary bypass machine at her side. Scully appeared next to him, taking the chart from its place outside her door, scanning through it.
“Greg Lebeau, Ian Hanover, Nicole Sargeant all nineteen were DOA,” Masterson began. “I’m sure you read that in the report. Autopsies haven’t been completed, but they’ve been able to ascertain that Lebeau died of a single GSW that punctured the lining of his heart. The other two, and Sarah Alston in there suffered cardiac arrest at the scene. An RN who works in the ER downstairs was there and administered CPR and she managed to hold on. The docs induced a coma to try to buy time. For all the good that’ll do.”
“What do you mean by that?” Mulder asked.
“Because she has cancer,” answered Scully looking up suddenly from the medical file. “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it’s early, she probably didn’t even know.”
Masterson nodded and continued, “Cursory examination of the bodies of the deceased revealed Sargeant had late stage breast cancer. We were able to track a contact of the group to a clinic she’d been getting chemo from, self-pay.”
“Well that explains the bank job,” Mulder said, the answering silence confirming his assessment.
“Kids were classmates at Union High School near Cottonwood just north of here. Grew up together. Ran away about four years ago, been in Phoenix ever since. Hanover has a record for petty theft, on probation. They all live above a bodega where Ian and Sarah had been employed.” The lieutenant pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to Mulder. “Here’s my card with my pager number on it, parents' addresses are on the back.”
Catching the officer’s eye he questioned, “any other theories you’re working on?” Whether Mulder meant it as an accusation, it landed as such and the larger man bristled.
“I make it a point to operate on what I can see, Agent Mulder. When all’s said and done there’ll be no one to prosecute for the failed robbery.” He placed his hat on his head, matter of factly. “Theories aren’t good use in my line of work. I’ll leave that to you Feds.” With that he turned and the agents watched him walk back out the same way they’d come, Scully met Mulder with an irritated expression.
“Making friends, as always,” Mulder joked, ignoring the daggers Scully cast at him.
“You better hope we don’t need his help, Mulder.” She put the chart back, drawing her arms to cross her chest and he sensed apprehension as she asked, “do you have any theories?” He almost chuckled at that, anticipating their habitual volleying match.
With no lead in, no rational thought to soften the blow he responded, “telepathy?” She couldn’t tell if it was in jest but her jaw acted on impulse regardless.
“Oh come on, Mulder. Based on what?” The right eyebrow, ever her tell. If an angle could hold secrets, he was sure this one did. She enjoyed this just as much as he did.
“While it’s true there hasn’t been conclusive evidence of telepathy, let’s not forget Gibson Praise, Scully. Whether it’s able to be explained scientifically or reasoned away, there are people who possess psychic abilities.” He pocketed the card and ushered her toward the exit, knowing they had at least another hour drive if they wanted to interview relatives before dark.
“Mulder you’re talking about a physical response culminating in what appears to be a shared death. That isn’t even telepathy, it’s-it’s sympathy pain. It’s nothing more than extreme empathy, Mulder.”
“Then please explain your theory as to how three people could almost seamlessly carry out a bank robbery in the largest city in the state without saying a single word to each other,” he challenged as he held open the hospital door for her and they simultaneously cinched their coat belts a little tighter at the mid January Arizona cold front.
She gave him a sheepish grin, “well I don’t want to sound like a broken record but, it could be as simple as empathy. You heard Lieutenant Masterson, they grew up together and they’ve probably spent the last four years together. Being as close as they were, people can begin to develop a fundamental understanding of one another that can sometimes appear to manifest as psychic or extrasensory abilities.” When they reached the car she turned to him and shrugged, “in all actuality, they are just finely attuned to each other.” Hazel green eyes met blue, for a split second but he felt something snap between them, confirmed by the slight pink tinge sneaking toward her cheekbones. She’d claim it was the chill in the air, but he’d felt the heat too.
He let his eyes leave hers to reach out around to unlock the door and as he drew close he could feel her tense, could hear her breathing cease. He smothered the smile threatening his lips, reached into his pocket and handed her the business card. "Well, let's go see if you're right, shall we?"