Burn One Down
by Jeffrey A. Cooper
on Tour June 11 – July 13, 2018
Retiring thief Jack Apple is offered a low-risk, six-figure payout to heist a medical marijuana dispensary from the feisty and impetuous Diane Thomas after Diane steals the robbery plans from her shady ex-husband Alvin, hoping to beat him to the score.
Diane promises to stay out of Jack’s way but she can’t help interfering, forcing them to take hostages inside the dispensary when the robbery is interrupted by law enforcement, inciting a media circus that deteriorates into a full-on urban riot.
To escape, Jack and Diane must negotiate the hostages, their agendas, an army of Sheriff’s deputies, the tenacious local news media, crooked deals, corrupt politicians, rioters, Diane’s shady ex-husband Alvin, and their growing attraction to each other.
Read an excerpt:
We are all thieves and criminals.
Jack Apple had too much pride to let people look down him because he’d been in prison. Most people were hypocrites. Their own lawbreaking might not extend past trivial offenses like unpaid parking tickets or racing past the posted speed limit, but if right was right and wrong was wrong then Jack Apple was someone who believed that everyone breaks the law at one time or another. People justified their behavior based on their own personal sense of morality just like he did. It wasn’t his fault that he aimed higher than they did. But that part of his life was over. Thievery and criminality were all behind him now. Jack Apple was a changed man.
At least he would be after tonight.
Jack swung himself over the top of the twelve-foot stone wall surrounding Leo Dorsey’s home and laid flat across the top for a good look at the property. Leo Dorsey was the owner of Ledo Luxury Automobiles, a limousine and hired car service that fronted for a long list of illegal activities including drug trafficking, gun running, extortion, prostitution and probably about six or seven other things. As a rule, Jack didn’t rob people in the trade out of professional courtesy, but Leo had stolen money from a friend of his, so Jack would let that rule slide on this one. If he really was ditching the trade for good, this was something he needed to take care of first. He planned this job before prison and knew there was a decent chance Leo would have the $80,000 he still needed to open his new business. In the trade, they called that a win-win.
The business Jack wanted to open was a gas station, positioned on the lower right-hand corner of a busy “Y” street traffic pattern that fed into two distinct thoroughfares, and was a popular route for locals to access the freeway. In addition to the pumps, a small retail store sold cigarettes, lottery tickets, energy drinks and lousy coffee. A service area hadn’t been operational since the days when they used real steel for bumpers, but it was a space ripe for expansion. The property had just been listed, and Jack knew it wouldn’t be on the market long. It had everything. What was the old adage?
Location, location, location?
The word came this morning that Jack needed to move on the property. Other parties were sniffing around, ready to make an offer, and there would be no time to raise money.
While Jack had money stashed away from his recent ATM fiasco, there was still a lot of heat on that job, and that money would need to stay buried for a while. He needed a quick score no one could trace, no one would report, and that he could do alone. Hitting Leo Dorsey was perfect. It had to be.
A series of motion detectors captured Jack’s movement and flooded the area with bright white light. Jack jumped down off the wall and hid behind tall landscaped shrubbery, waiting for a response. Instead, an automated voice spoke from a speaker sitting on top of the stone wall, giving Jack a terse warning in both English and Spanish.
“You are trespassing on private property. Security cameras are recording your movements. There is an armed response to all trespassers. Leave this property immediately.”
Jack moved toward Leo’s house and saw a large man in an open window staring into the yard. It looked like Leo, but Jack remembered a slighter man, guessing that this version topped out between three hundred fifty and four hundred pounds. Leo had become very successful since Jack had seen him last, but it did nothing for his disposition. Leo was still a miserable shit.
“Idiots! There’s something wrong with that security system!” Leo shouted at two haggard employees who were clearly showing early signs of PTSD. “Why do the lights go on for no reason? There it goes again! What don’t you simpletons understand? Get it fixed!” The employees looked at each other, certain that Leo was talking about the other one.
“Boss, I…,” one hapless employee pleaded.
“Get away from me,” Leo interrupted. “I’ve had enough stupid for one day. I’m going to bed now. Try not to burn the house down before I wake up. And make sure those dogs go out again, too. I don’t want them shitting all over my floors again.”
“Dogs,” Jack whispered to himself, grimacing. “Why is it always dogs?”
Jack slipped through the garden and climbed up to the veranda outside Leo’s bedroom with a backpack full of safecracking tools while he waited for Leo to finish browbeating his employees and go to sleep. Leo’s nightstand confirmed his notorious longtime habits of pills and a three-finger glass of Scotch was still current, telling Jack that sleep probably wasn’t far away.
Jack stretched out his shoulder. His thirty-five-year-old body was sending him reminders that it wasn’t about to put up with the kind of abuse he’d heaped on it all these years for much longer. While he tried to keep in shape in prison, his long, willowy frame strong from years of street running and urban gymnastics, Jack couldn’t do anything about getting older or the damage that twenty-three hours a day of lockdown did to a body. His guilty conscience chimed in, reminding Jack of everything he had risked: his health, his family, his freedom, his youth. All for money. Things. Shit. When would it be enough? Would it ever be enough?
Doubt. Crippling, stifling doubt. This was why he was getting out. He’d already been arrested and sent to prison once, so he obviously wasn’t the master thief he once thought he was. Could he even make it on his own? Jack always worked with partners and recent history would seem to indicate that he couldn’t work without them. He’d nearly been bested by a 70-year-old hermit and his English bulldog two weeks ago.
It was reasonable to ask that maybe his time in the trade had passed. He heard Leo through an open window, talking in drunk guy loudspeak.
“You think I dunno what you think I dunno but I know what you think I dunno ya know?” Leo enunciated every syllable as an almost empty glass of Scotch dangled from his fingertips, then dropped to the floor without breaking. He stumbled to a large double-door safe adjacent to his changing area, his head foggy from drink and drug. Leo focused on the keypad, entering the combination numbers at a slow, deliberate pace, then he pulled open the door with his right hand. Jack watched Leo through a monocular as he wrote the safe combination in pen on his pant leg, thankful that the tools in his backpack would no longer be necessary. It was nice of Leo to save him all that work. Maybe he’d send him a fruit basket later.
“I’ll be right outside if ya need me, Boss,” Leo’s other employee said, assuring him as he shut the bedroom door behind him. Leo said nothing. He wasn’t assured at all.
“Lock th’ door!” Leo barked with a pronounced slur. He took off his Patek Philippe watch and put it in the safe along with the bankroll from his bathrobe pocket. Leo inspected it all with a listless shake of his head then closed the large double doors, pulling on the handle again to make sure the safe was locked. He turned, his beefy feet squeaking along the marble tile as he stumbled back to his bed and fell face down on the mattress, fast asleep before his head even hit the pillow. His snores were deep and guttural. It was no mistake Leo slept alone.
Jack waited through several minutes of uninterrupted snoring next to a window underneath a security camera aimed at the French doors leading to Leo’s bedroom. He picked the lock as he waited, sliding the window open with little effort and easing himself inside. He looked around, wary of alarms or motion detectors. Once he was confident he could move without disruption, Jack stepped forward and immediately set off a motion detector that turned the overhead lights on and lit the space with lighting dimmed for the evening hours. Jack moved back to the window, ready to bail out. He listened. Nothing. No sound. No movement. No one was coming. It was quiet except for Leo, who was fifteen feet away and snoring like a champ.
“Okay, no more surprises,” Jack whispered.
He moved into the large room with caution, gently walking past the bed straining under Leo’s sleeping body and toward the safe, where he zeroed in on the combination keypad and the numbers he’d scribbled in pen on his pant leg. Forty-two. Eight. Thirty-one. Five. Jack pulled the handle to open the safe door, but the door remained locked.
Maybe I entered the numbers wrong?
No. He wrote the numbers down exactly as Leo entered them. Jack tried the series again, re-entering the numbers one at a time and pulling on the handle, but the safe still would not open. This time the repudiation was accompanied by a message on a small LCD screen: BIOMETRIC ACCESS DENIED. Your BioMetric Identification has been declined for the second time. For your protection, the safe will be locked if additional biometric identification is refused.
Jack looked at the handle. At the top was a thumb pad with a painted-on thumbprint he hadn’t noticed during his previous attempts. The numbers he’d entered were correct. The safe didn’t open because it needed a thumbprint, specifically Leo’s thumbprint, to open the door. Jack wondered what the odds were of chopping Leo’s thumb off without waking him up. He sat, considering his options. Technology sure was making it tough for a fella to earn a living.
At close to four hundred pounds, getting Leo to the safe over fifty feet away from the bed was a challenge. Jack rolled Leo over on the bed and was startled to discover Leo’s eyes were wide open despite Leo being in a deep, sound sleep. Jack waved his hand in front of Leo’s face. Leo didn’t blink, and the snoring got even louder once there was no mattress to contain it.
Jack mapped out his strategy. An office chair on wheels, probably for Leo’s shell-shocked employees, would suffice for moving Leo across the marble floor. That part was easy. The challenge would be getting Leo into the office chair. It was like moving a Smart Car by hand.
Jack pushed Leo up off the bed and reached his hands around his barrel chest, clenching his hands together the best he could across Leo’s massive sternum. Jack bent his knees, took a deep breath, then pulled Leo to the edge of the bed. Leo greeted the move with a loud snort, then went back to a steady snore, his drugged eyes still open as wide as the sky.
“Pull him up, right into the chair,” Jack coached himself. He used the same strategy as before, which this time pulled Leo off the bed too fast. His momentum landed Leo right on top of Jack, who howled. Leo, for his part, wasn’t disturbed by the fall at all.
“You know, you’ve really let yourself go, Leo!” Jack wailed before pushing Leo off of him. Jack stood up, grabbed Leo’s arms and leaned back, groaning, using the remainder of his strength to hoist Leo into the office chair, which creaked under the strain. Jack backed away, hoping the chair would hold. It would be a long, slow drag to the safe otherwise.
Jack positioned himself behind the chair but struggled across the marble floor. The chair moved slow but steady, gaining momentum once Jack picked Leo’s legs up and pulled him instead of pushing. After a heroic effort from Jack and especially the chair, Leo was positioned in front of the safe. Jack caught his breath, hoping that he didn’t give himself a hernia.
The lock on the outer bedroom door clicked, and the door opened. Leo’s employees, having heard Jack’s howling, came to investigate. Jack swiveled the office chair toward the door, pushed Leo’s head forward and ducked behind Leo’s mammoth frame. The employees looked around until they saw Leo in the chair, his eyes still wide open, staring at them.
“You okay, Boss? I heard something. Everything all right?”
Leo, who was still sound asleep, said nothing. His snoring sounded like a growl, especially to these two. “Just making sure you’re okay, Boss,” the nervous employee said in his awkward rush to get out of the room.
Jack swung the office chair back around and stood up. He entered the series of numbers on the combination pad, then lifted Leo’s stubby hand and placed it on the handle, so Leo’s thumb pressed down on the biometric sensor. This time the lock on the safe clicked and the doors opened. Inside the safe were three $10,000 stacks of hundred dollar bills and the large roll of money from Leo’s bathrobe, which Jack estimated at around $3,000. He could hock the watch, too. It wasn’t a bad haul, even though it was far less than Jack was expecting.
Isn’t it always less than you’re expecting?
Jack took what there was and left Leo on the overworked office chair in front of the open safe. He went back to the window he entered through and got out as easy as he came in, even taking time to re-lock the window behind him. The motion detector lights clicked on and off as Jack climbed down from the second story veranda. That’s when Leo’s dogs, two female German Shepherds outside to do their evening business, saw Jack and started barking in a frenzy.
“Nope,” Jack said once he saw them at the bottom, waiting for him to come down. “No dogs.” He climbed back up to the veranda, content to find another way. The only people in the house were Leo’s employees who, from the sound of it, weren’t nearly as smart as the dogs. Jack slipped back into Leo’s bedroom, where Leo was still snoring heartily in the office chair that would be lucky to last the night. At the bedroom door, Jack heard voices in the hallway.
“Keep those dogs quiet before they wake him up!” The two employees were in a panic, apparently unaware of how deep and sound Leo slept after his bedtime snack of pills and Scotch. Their panic gave Jack an opportunity to get to a stairwell at the end of the hallway that he hoped would lead him outside. Jack listened first then moved quietly, soft-stepping his way down the stairs, peeking his head over the railing as he went. He saw the two employees at the stairwell door window on the first floor, so Jack slipped down another level to avoid them.
The stairwell emptied Jack into nondescript hallways of white concrete and white tile floors. The stairwell door locked behind him, so Jack had a choice of the single steel door ahead of him or a hallway that led off to the right. As Jack approached the hallway, the two German Shepherds sauntered around another corner from a hallway fifty feet away.
There was a moment of silent recognition. They all stood still, sizing each other up. The dogs looked at Jack, then to each other, then back to Jack. Everyone jumped at the same time. The dogs took off after Jack, who sprang into action, running down the hallway toward the door.
“Why is it always dogs?” Jack screamed.
Jack raced through the door and pushed it closed behind him. He didn’t suppose the dogs were smart enough to follow, but they figured it out, jumping up together to push open the door’s exit bar and continue their pursuit down the long hallway. The dogs, whose nails clicked like icy rain on paws that were slipping and sliding across the waxed hallway, were gaining ground. There were several doors along the hallway that Jack tried to open, but each one was locked. When Jack finally found an unlocked door, he got inside and pulled the door shut behind him, half a second before the snapping jaws of the German Shepherds took a sizeable bite out of him.
“Okay. Big dogs. Very big dogs,” Jack wheezed.
His hands felt around in the dark until Jack found the light switch inside the door frame, revealing the janitor closet that was now his safe refuge. “What did I ever do to a dog?” Jack panted, catching his breath. He opened the door slightly and saw a door leading to the outside thirty feet further down the hallway. “All right. I’ve been in worse situations,” Jack said. His voice activated the dogs, who barked as he shut the door. “I’ve never been food…”
The dogs paced back and forth outside the closet door, waiting for Jack to come out. They heard a sound; a scraping, grinding noise coming from deep inside the janitor’s closet. The dogs cocked their heads to the side, confused. The doorknob moved, and their ears perked up. The pin on the door unlatched, and the dogs sat crouched, ready to strike. When the door opened the dogs rushed in, then stopped all at once. From inside the deep janitor closet came the loud, abrasive growl of a stand-up vacuum cleaner that Jack parriedout of the closet after them, and now was using to chase the German Shepherds back down the hallway.
“Ha-HA!” Jack jeered, quick on their heels. The dogs reached the exit door and jumped up against the bar to let themselves outside, but Jack wasn’t letting them off that easy. He went out after them, confident and mocking. “Mess with me, and you know what happens?”
The cord for the vacuum cleaner pulled taut and yanked out of the wall. The pitiful motor on the vacuum cleaner died down with a slow, agonizing, mournful wail. The two German Shepherds stopped to listen, then turned their heads around slow. Jack could swear they were licking their lips.
“Idiot,” Jack said. He jumped for the closing exit door, and the dogs were on top of him. One had Jack’s pant leg while the other held the bottom of Jack’s shirt. The shirt ripped when the dog tried to pull back, sending one German Shepherd onto her back, while the other dog tried getting a better grip on Jack’s pant leg. Loose for the split second he needed, Jack took advantage, getting inside and pulling the door closed, with the vacuum cord preventing the door from closing tight.
“Hey! Stop right there!” Leo’s two employees came through the first exit door and saw Jack pulling the exit door closed on the dogs.
Jack ran away. The employees were quick on his heels until they passed the exit door. The tenacious German Shepherds forced open the door at the exact moment the employees ran past, and the dogs sprang into action, jumping into the hallway and biting the first thing they saw.
“No! Him! Get him!” The first employee said as he was being mauled by the first dog.
“That one, girl! That one! Ow!” The second employee shook his free arm, pointing down the hallway. His other arm was firmly planted in the second German Shepherd’s jaw.
Jack’s only option at this end of the hallway was the window straight ahead of him. He pulled opened the window and looked out, craning his neck in both directions, but this was no time to get particular. Jack hoisted himself up and pushed through the window until momentum took over and he dropped ten feet to the ground. The soil was dry and loose, and Jack hit hard, flat on his back, before sliding down the sloped hill head-first and backward. The drop knocked the wind out of him, but Jack shook off the fall, spit dirt from his mouth, then scaled the twelve foot stone wall and jumped down on the other side. His pursuers knew Jack could still hear them.
“We know what you look like, pal! You’re on camera, dumbass! We’re gonna find you, you sonofabitch! You messed up bad, man, you messed up real bad!”
Jack ran for his life down the hill surrounding Leo’s house but couldn’t tell if the sounds he heard, of rustling trees, branches snapping, or running through fallen leaves was the sound of someone following him or the echo of the noise he was making all on his own. Jack turned his head to see the lead he had on his pursuers, but the night was dark, and it was difficult to see. What wasn’t difficult to see was the tree branch that caught Jack above the sternum when he turned back around, the one that clotheslined him flat to the ground. He slid down a steep, sloping hill, twisting and turning his body to avoid the rocks and tree stumps in his path before launching himself off an even larger, brush-covered hill.
Jack landed at the bottom of the hill next to a roadway, right at the feet of Diane Thomas, who stood next to her car like she’d been waiting there for him all along. Diane was dressed in black jeans and a black leather coat with a torn red t-shirt underneath. Her hair was long, with an easy, natural curl that fell over her flawless soft brown skin. Her necklaces and bracelets were tasteful; piled on but not overdone. Black boots were highlighted with metallic studs that covered the backs to the heels. She looked like trouble. Jack liked trouble.
“Something tells me you’re Jack Apple.” Diane stood in front of an idling muscle car, the headlights creating a silhouette that captivated Jack’s attention through his hazy thinking.
Jack asked, “Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” Diane said with a smile. “But you will.”
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