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The Wheelman

The .380 pistol had disappeared from his ankle holster.

Franco had passed out on a midnight ferry on the lower deck to Staten Island. Still groggy, he reached down and re-checked the holster. Empty. He scanned the other passengers. Second-shift guys guzzling tall boys, reading the paper. Latino gangbangers, hair in ponytails behind baseball caps, carried on in clipped Spanish. Two mothers rested their eyes, their children running laps, screaming. Annoying, sure. But not a threat.

After weeks of sleeping in motels, jumping back fences, staying with friends of friends, using payphones, he let his guard down. He’d buried his mother earlier that day. How could he not throw back a few whiskeys to mourn and celebrate her life? His problem was that a few whiskeys had always turned into a dozen. Bleary eyed, he’d even things out with a few bumps of coke. The coke and money were long gone.

It was ten past midnight. He must’ve passed out the second he sat down. He fidgeted on the bench, craning his neck behind again. He considered the possibility that the holster could’ve snapped open after exiting the subway, the noise masking the gun bouncing onto the tracks. No way.

He was dead. He knew that. It was just a matter of when. After the boat docked? These guys weren’t stupid. They knew that even the older ferries had surveillance cameras. They somehow found out about the pistol and waited to disarm him before taking their shot.

Franco wasn’t stupid either. Reckless, maybe. But not stupid—even though after he’d gotten pinched for crashing a stolen Porsche 911 into a parked cop car, many thought he was. How was he supposed to know the car lacked power-steering fluid?

And that’s the thing. He’d been ripping off cars since he could see over the wheel, hell riding them to the dump, or the abandoned highways in the Staten Island Greenbelt. He could drive anything, and donut it in any weather, before he’d torch it and walk home. Before he even had whiskers on his chin, his proficiency at hotwiring a vehicle put him on exceptional radar. His services were in demand.

First he spent his nights filling orders for various sports cars. Then he became a driver for debt collectors. Finally, he’d graduated to wheelman—the getaway driver who can’t be caught. It all happened so quickly, far outpacing his maturity. Those he drove for, of course, saw that as a benefit. Who’s going to suspect this 20-year old clean-cut kid of anything? And Franco was that. Thick black hair gelled back, parted to the side. Unblemished olive skin, kind brown eyes, and his cool manner—at least before he discovered coke—kept his profile low.

The coke provided Franco with a permanent twitch, an enduring paranoia. In his profession, it was a liability. He managed to keep that under the radar for a while. The thing about coke heads, though, is that their reality isn’t necessarily shared with the reality of those around them. It’s as if everyone could see the food stuck in Franco’s teeth but didn’t want to be the one to announce it. His pretty face had gone gaunt, black rings darkening around his eyes; the first acne of his life suddenly appeared. His teeth had yellowed.

Then one night he was assigned to drive for a show—that’s what they called bank robberies—out in Brooklyn. He convinced himself he could keep his shit together. He’d even cut his “coke finger,” the long pinkie nail used to scoop coke from tight containers.

Still, that afternoon in Bay Ridge got him spooked. They pulled up in a souped-up minivan from which bystanders would expect a mother and three boys in soccer uniforms to spill out. Instead, of course, it was Franco fidgeting in the driver’s seat and three guys from Howard Beach he’d never met. That’s how it worked. The less they knew about each other, the less information they could rat out if caught.

The Howard Beach guys walked into the bank old school, pantyhose stretched over their faces. Meanwhile, Franco was crawling out of his skin. His head bounced from the side view mirrors to the back mirrors. He felt like he had to piss, severely piss, but he hadn’t had anything to drink for hours. Still, he clutched his groin as a child might. He sucked in a few mouthfuls of air and spit them out. His palms sweated.

That was when he heard the first shot. Even from a hundred feet away, through the bank’s concrete walls, it sounded like the crack of a snare drum. Two more cracks came in quick succession. He didn’t have the stomach for violence. Never did. His older brother, rest his soul, had done his fighting for him.

Then all Franco heard was a hum in his head. Before he knew it, he’d thrown the minivan into drive, and sped off. The guys from Queens emerged just seconds later, their proverbial dicks in their hands, watching Franco already a block away.

Franco knew he’d fucked up severely, irreparably. No way to un-ring that bell. He used the last of his money on the .380 pistol—something he’d never thought he’d touch, let alone carry on his ankle–and a block of time at a motel in Coney Island under another name.

As he fidgeted on the ferry bench, he considered his options. He couldn’t grab one of the cops and share his story. An illegal gun to protect himself from fellow bank robbers who’d shot dead a security guard isn’t exactly a story that provoked sympathy. Maybe it would just be a first step in the right direction, though. He gives his story, testifies, and the FBI shuffles him into rehab and then the witness protection program. He could get himself a hacienda in Arizonawith a pool, maybe fix racecars.

It was all so ridiculous, he thought. He only knew New York City, a bunch of islands disconnected from the world. What the hell would he really do in Arizona? He thought about the scene in “Dog Day Afternoon” when the two robbers had the FBI usher them out of the country in exchange for their hostages’ safe release. So ignorant was the robber of the outside world that when asked what country he’d want to go, he responded, “Wyoming.”

The minutes ticked away, Franco resigning himself to whatever awaited him when he disembarked. He could no longer hear the children screaming. He couldn’t even bring himself to think about his mother. They’d been estranged for so many years since he first got pinched, that he barely recognized her at the funeral home. He didn’t cry. He didn’t feel anything.

The captain came over the P.A. announcing their imminent arrival. Franco thought he could plead with them, work for free on the next few shows. Anything. What did they care, anyway? They got away. According to the papers, they ran toward the subway, pantyhose still over their faces, before seizing the opportunity to carjack a teenager in his father’s battered Mazda Miata. The bank reported a loss of two-hundred fifty-five thousand dollars.

Franco knew it was the principle of the thing. You don’t fuck with these guys. Not never.

The whiskey commingled with adrenaline. He got to his feet as other passengers shuffled toward the front. They wouldn’t do it in front of all these people. If they were going to, they wouldn’t have bothered taking his pistol. The thought of getting shot sickened him all of a sudden. He grabbed hold of a steel-drum trashcan and heaved. Bystanders backed away. Such a common sight didn’t warrant comment.

He balled his fists in his front pockets, bracing himself. He cast his eyes down. He climbed the stairs toward the main terminal, lost in the hundreds of passengers. Two uniformed cops bullshitted with drunken young girls. Deckhands went through the motions.

Outside the terminal, Franco followed the lane toward the street, passing by the minor league baseball stadium he’d never visited. The crowd thinned considerably as he crossed the street, walking toward the bus shelter. His lips quivered.

From around the slope of the concrete bus shelter appeared two guys in black sweat jackets and jeans. Franco didn’t recognize them.

“Come over here a minute, dude. Got something to show you,” one said, his bulky accent revealing his New York roots.

“Nah, nah, I gotta go. In a hurry,” Franco said, pivoting back towards the ferry terminal.

The other guy pulled out a pistol from his jacket pocket. They were a dozen feet from Franco.

Arm locked straight in front of him, he squeezed off two rounds.

“You recognize that? Yours. Nothing worse than getting hit with your own gun, eh?”

Franco collapsed to the ground, legs tangled beneath him. His gray shirt rode up his belly, revealing a line of hair.

“He ain’t bleeding. Where you get him? I don’t see any blood. Hit him again.”

“Two to the chest. Right fuckin’ there,” he said, pointing to Franco’s upper body.

A siren blared from nearby. A police precinct was just a few blocks away. A city bus was winding toward the shelter.

He squeezed off another round.

“What a bullshit recoil on that little bitch,” he said with a laugh, tossing the pistol.

They bolted up the hill toward the library.

Franco slowly opened his right eye. They were gone. He pulled down his shirt. He sat up, and used his palms to get to his feet as two cop cars raced by, lights ricocheting off the surrounding office buildings. He brushed himself off and scooped up the pistol from the grass. It felt warm. He clicked the gear to release the clip, which he pulled out. He ran his finger along the top shell, which was headless and concave at the casing’s rim—it was a blank, like the others he had loaded. Only he never imagined how they’d save his life.

Returning the pistol to his ankle holster, he said out loud: “What are the fuckin’ odds?”

He recalled his brief conversation with the kid who sold it to him. He’d given Franco a sideways look when he asked for blanks—a rare request. Thing was, Franco had no intention of killing anyone, just maybe firing off a few shots so he could run.

He kicked a rock toward the curb. Walking along the main road, he turned up a hill. After a while he reached a leafy block with large homes. He expertly eyed the parked cars without actually looking at them. Nothing too flashy. Something reliable. A distance runner. The brown 1995 Toyota Camry would do just fine. A metal slat the length of his arm—a Slim Jim–slid out from the side of his pants. In seconds, he guided it down the driver’s window, opening the door. Crouching down under the steering column, he jangled some wires, igniting the engine into a soft purr.

He pulled away, heading toward Wyoming.


Ted Gogoll is a native New Yorker who’s working on his first novel.


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