Hero’s Curse-Chapter 1
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Nothing that comes from a human mind is ever random. Spend enough time doing anything and you’ll develop a pattern. There isn’t an exact word for this; the FBI uses the term ‘profile’ and gamblers call it a ‘tell’. These words aren’t quite right but they’re close enough. It’s almost impossible for a person to figure out his own profile or all his tells. If you want to be unpredictable, you have to cheat. I use a computer program.
I’ve been breaking into automatic tellers for years. I wrote a program that evaluates every ATM in the continental United States. It looks for two ATMs in strip malls more than 10 minutes drive from a police station and each other. The tellers have to be in upper middle class cities with independent police forces. There are over 400,000 automated tellers in the United States and at least 20,000 locations that meet my criteria. My program then randomly picks when and where I’ll go next.
I’ve been doing this for over 10 years, long enough for the FBI to have a profile of me and possibly even assign a couple agents to my case. I haven’t been caught because I’ve made it extremely difficult for them to anticipate when and where I’ll strike next and I make sure I’m not a high priority for them. Entering a life of crime is easy, getting away with it is hard. Every detail of my life is controlled. No one gets hurt during my heists and I take less than $150,000 a year which is chump change for banks. The FBI has over 14,000 special agents and, if they request, local law enforcement will help out. If every single FBI agent and local cop hung out at the right ATMs for a couple months, they’d catch me. I’m not worth that kind of effort.
For years, I haven’t lived in one place for longer than a few months at a time. I live out of my vehicle and furnished apartments with month-to-month leases. Everything I own fits easily in my truck, a late model Ford F150 with a cap on the back. I was in a coffee house in Cincinnati, Ohio when my laptop gave me a date, time, and locations of two ATMs in Cottonwood Heights, Utah—a suburb of Salt Lake City.
The next day, I left for Salt Lake City. My first stop when I arrived was at the local airport’s long term parking lot. I took a shuttle to the rental car strip and rented a full size SUV using a disposable, false ID and credit card. I drove the rental back to my truck and transferred my workbox, two pieces of luggage, and a police scanner.
People don’t notice, but there are surveillance cameras everywhere. I planned on spending the next day checking out the city, surrounding countryside, and ATM locations. The chances of being caught on tape while scouting were almost a 100%. It would have been a fool’s move to use my own vehicle. I pull my heists during the wee hours of the morning. Upper middle class cities tend to have low crime rates. It’s unusual for police forces in towns like this to have a patrol out when I’m on the job, but listening to the local police for a couple of nights to confirm shift changes and patrol patterns is always a good idea.
The first night I was in Salt Lake City, I found a secluded place and switched out the license plate on my rental. You can get used license plates from most junkyards without a problem and I had picked one up on my way here. Registration stickers are designed to fall apart if you peel them off a license plate. I look for a vehicle with an owner who is too lazy to peel the out-of-date stickers off before applying his current one. As long as there are at least three stickers on top of each other, and you have a sharp razor blade, they’re easy to steal. Very few people notice a missing registration sticker.
The next day, I drove around the outskirts of the city to check out potential escape routes and then through all of the streets surrounding the ATMs. It took about 12 minutes to drive from the police station to the first ATM and over 11 to get from the first automatic teller to the second. I tried to locate all the surveillance cameras and planned my route and parking positions accordingly. The SUV couldn’t easily be traced back to me but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t try to avoid being caught on tape. While scouting, I wore minor disguises; today a hat to cover my hair and shade my face. During the day when it wouldn’t cause notice, I wore sunglasses. I tried to look as ordinary as possible.
That night at the exact time suggested by my program, 3:12 am (all my heists occur between 2:30 and 4:30 am), I pulled into the strip mall and parked so my vehicle was out of view of the ATM camera. My welding goggles look like large ugly sunglasses. Before I got out, I made sure the goggles were on top of my baseball cap.
I have a custom built workbox. Some of my tools are fragile and can easily be knocked out of adjustment by accidental bumps; it is important to keep them protected in a padded container. There is a downside of living out of a truck; it doesn’t take much to break into one. Since I need to keep some things secure, my box has more armor and a better lock than most safes. The box is designed so it can be locked through the bed into the frame of my truck. It also has protruding metal eyes so when it’s in a rental vehicle, I can use a bicycle lock to attach it to a rear seat. The armor makes the box heavy so it’s attached to an expandable frame on rollers similar to an ambulance stretcher
I rolled my workbox to the side of the ATM out of view of the camera. I set my watch alarm to give me a warning at three minutes. I took one more look to check no one was around and I was off.
It took 9 seconds to put on gloves and welding goggles—44 seconds to pull out and ready my oxyacetylene torch. ATM’s don’t have much armor. If someone tries to move or break into one, dye is sprayed on the cash to make it unusable. With my first cut, I disabled the dye mechanism. Every so often the manufacturers change the position of the dye release, which kind of sucks. On the upside, I learn where to cut next time. The following three cuts allowed me to open the machine and just a few extra seconds later, to disable the camera.
I was packing the cash into my workbox when my watch beeped. ‘Perfect.’ I was on schedule. I used high strength foam tape to attach a metal sign, ‘Machine Down for Maintenance’ over the cuts I made with my torch. No one, not me, the banks, the police, or the manufacturers wanted it to become common knowledge how easy it is to break into an ATM. Five minutes and twelve seconds after I started my timer, I drove away from the mall. One more stop and I was good.
When I got to the next strip mall, there was a customer at the ATM. Even late at night, this occasionally happens. I parked in a spot I knew was out of view of the camera and got out. One of my best traits is I’m so average looking I’m hard to remember. I have brown hair, brown eyes, average size nose, ears, height, and build without scars or any other distinguishing features. An eye witness drawing or recollection from a person who didn’t have a good reason to pay attention to me would be worthless. I didn’t need to call off the heist.
The only reason to come here at this time is to use the ATM. It’s best to act normal when you have witnesses. I made sure to stay out of view of the camera, stood a few feet behind the guy, just another customer waiting to use the teller.
The fellow was nondescript, about 6 feet tall with a medium frame. He was clean-shaven and dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans. He turned to me in a friendly fashion. “Late night. You from around here?”
My voice was curt. I wanted to discourage a conversation. “Yeah.”
He didn’t get the hint. “You are from around here?”
Since the guy really wanted to talk and it would have been counterproductive to be rude, I replied, “No, just passing through.”
The guy lunged for me.
He looked like an ordinary guy but no one normal is all that friendly this late at night. Even in safe towns like Cottonwood Heights, you sometimes run across people who have no respect for the law; I had a Taser hidden in my hand. I saw shock in the thug’s eyes when I shot him in the face. His body froze. Since he was already throwing himself forward, he landed face first onto the sidewalk. The expression on his face was hilarious.
I’ve tased a couple muggers before; they never had much fight left afterwards. It was too risky now to break into the ATM. This guy was definitely going to remember me. I wasn’t too worried. I doubted he would call the cops but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. Once he recovered enough to pay attention to what I was doing, I was going to fake a call to the cops on my cell. He’d probably take off running as fast as he could. Even though this stop was a bust, at least I got some entertainment.
Thirty seconds later, after the electric pulse cycled off and he got control of his muscles, he tried to grab me from the ground. Since I had been expecting him to just lay there for a while, he almost got me. The guy was amazingly tough or he was high. The Taser C2 shoots only one distance cartridge but can be used as a contact weapon multiple times. Mine was sold with a tube of pepper spray attached by a cord to the Taser. I tapped his forearm with the Taser and at the same time sprayed him in the face.
He screamed in agony. ‘What the fuck!’ The son of a bitch was growing fangs! He froze for a split second and then heaved himself off the ground toward me. The Taser wasn’t broken; it had been pulsing and I had it pressed against him the entire time. He should have been incapacitated for at least 30 seconds. I felt like I was hit by a truck. Instinctively I relaxed. I didn’t resist; I allowed him to push me into a backward roll. When my back hit the ground, I thrust up with my legs throwing his body over mine. We ended up on the ground on our backs, our heads about a foot apart.
I made sure to grab the Taser, scrambled up, and turned around. Mr. Fangs and I got on our feet at the same time. Since the fight began, someone had hit the freak several times with an ‘ugly’ stick. He had bat like ears, his fangs were an inch long, he had claws, and it looked like he was turning green.
He seemed upset. He snarled, “Mortal, your death will be long and hard.”
‘Did he say mortal? Was I being punked?’ This was a scene from a B-grade horror movie, but there was no way to put on high quality makeup this quickly. I could see the huge pores on his face. His fricking tongue was forked and he smelled like rotting meat marinated in weeks old sweat. A production company wouldn’t lather on fake stank. As hard as it was to believe, this son of a bitch was real.
I never carry a ‘lethal’ weapon on a job. There’s an important difference between robbery and armed robbery. I pulled out a thin screwdriver from my back pocket. Fangs was fast but he had problems seeing. His eyes were swollen and tearing. His swing missed. I tapped him again with the Taser. In the split second he was frozen, I used my other hand to slam the screwdriver into his temple. It penetrated to the hilt. Instead of collapsing like I expected, he stood there blinking.
This was ridiculous. I grabbed the screwdriver again and wiggled it, turning whatever the hell it was’ brain into mash. It finally dropped.
‘God damn!’ It was unconscious not dead; I couldn’t believe it was still alive. What the hell was it? Could it be a vampire? Did I believe in vampires? Whatever it was, I couldn’t afford to let it stay alive. There was no way I was going to let it have a second chance at me.
I looked up. There was no one around. My watch said just two minutes had passed since I got out of my car. I had been in view of the ATM camera the whole time. The machine was an older model, the kind that still used actual videotape. I wanted that tape.
By now, every cop on duty in Cottonwood Heights was most likely at the first ATM. It had taken me 11 minutes to drive here. I had time. I got my workbox. I put on my goggles but didn’t bother with the gloves. I used my torch to cut the thing’s head off. The stink of burning flesh was awful but at least there wasn’t any blood. After decapitation, it finally stopped breathing. It almost took too long to get the video tape and the cash from the ATM (I was already in; I couldn’t resist.). I could hear sirens in the distance when I pulled out of the mall with Mr. Fangs’ body in the back.
I needed to get rid of the body. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are wilderness areas that lead straight into Cottonwood Heights. I had scouted both canyons earlier. I drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon. About 10 miles in, I pulled off at a trail head. With a flashlight guiding the way, I dragged Fang’s body a couple hundred feet up the trail until I found a boulder that looked like it was the right size in the proper position. I took another trip to grab my tools.
Having to hide a body is never a good thing. In the past, it has always been caused by an unnecessary fuckup. In this case, I didn’t see how I had a choice or how I had made a mistake. The boulder was close to four feet wide and maybe eighteen inches high. It was a grunt levering up the boulder high enough to fit two car jacks underneath, but once accomplished it was fairly simple to lift the boulder high enough to dig out a hole with hand tools. I put all the dirt I dug up onto a tarp.
If you take the time to crush all the bones into small bits, a human size body doesn’t take much space. You’d be amazed at how small the chest becomes when all the ribs are broken and the lungs deflated. I took a 3 lb sledge and did the job right. Every time I swung, I could hear the dull crack of bones being crushed. Smashing bones this way also tenderizes the meat and makes the soft tissues easier to squish and fold.
I was able to fit the body in a hole two feet deep and wide. I made multiple long slits into Fang’s belly and chest so when the body started to decay, gasses wouldn’t build up inside. I wasn’t worried about inflating gasses being able to move the boulder, but if a decaying swollen chest or abdomen pops, the stink is hard to ignore. He smelled bad enough already; it didn’t need to get worse.
Once the body was stuffed in the hole and covered with a couple inches of dirt, I lowered the boulder back into position. I took the tarp loaded with dirt and sprinkled it little by little over the hiking trail. When I was done it was close to sunrise, a few minutes before 6 am.
I hadn’t buried Fang’s head. A head is a lot easier to carry and hide than a body. I stuffed it in a garbage bag in my backpack. I went to the creek near the road and took a sponge bath in the icy cold mountain water and changed clothes to get the reek of Fang’s sweat and burnt flesh off me. I dressed like a hiker, grabbed my backpack, and then I climbed up the trail, out of the canyon and into the sunlight.
When I reached a slope that was exposed to the sun, I took out the bag and set it on the ground. I used a stick to open up the bag and expose the head to the sunlight. I expected it to burst into flame. It had to be a vampire.
It didn’t combust. It just lay there, green and ugly. Wait, was it changing color? It took minutes but it slowly started turning gray. A half-an-hour later I was looking at a granite rock that kind of looked like a head. It no longer had distinct features. What kind of monster turned into stone when exposed to sunlight? I went over to pick it up. Yup, it was a piece of granite. Way too heavy to bring back to the SUV.
I stumbled back to the SUV. I could still smell Fang’s body odor; it had permeated into the carpet. My adrenalin rush was gone. The wise thing would have been to get a hotel room; I was too tired to care about the stink or being smart. I crawled in the back and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was 2 pm.
I stash my money in a safe deposit box as soon as possible after a heist. An inch thick stack of 20 dollar bills is worth $4,640. I’d picked up about seven inches of bills last night; it had been a fair to middling haul. Banks are the safest places to keep money for everyone including criminals. As long as you keep paying for the box, no one gets access except for you. A seven inch stack of cash is suspicious and a great excuse for a cop to hassle you; safe deposit keys aren’t.
The serial numbers of the cash I had taken from the ATMs would be on bank databases for years. Optical scanners are so cheap now that even the smallest bank branches have machines that can pick up the serial numbers. Once a year, I charter a boat from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bahamas. They don’t care about serial numbers there. When I wire the money back to the US, I make sure to pay my taxes on my international investment income like every other law abiding citizen. I only work 4 to 6 nights a year and easily clear six figures. It’s seems only right I pay my fair share.
I try my best to be as normal looking as possible when I go to a bank. I needed to look like an upstanding citizen when I talked to the manager. I headed to the local 24 Fitness. The nice thing about these national chains was one membership got you into every gym they had in the country. Everyone showers at a gym. Brushing your teeth there isn’t a big deal.
I acted like a typical gym rat. I made the nautilus circuit and spent as much time looking at women as I did working out. Once I was done I soaked in the hot tub. ‘God that felt good.’
My mind kept going back to what had happened last night. I’m a rational guy. I don’t believe in monsters especially ones that call me ‘mortal’. I’d be more comfortable with what happened last night if the creature that attacked me had looked like ET, Chewbacca, or the Predator. I believe in science. Aliens from outer space make sense to me; they fit my worldview. Things that turn into rocks when exposed to sunlight and call me ‘mortal’ don’t. It would have been so much easier if it had said ‘earthling’ or ‘human’. It would have been awesome if it had a high nasally voice. ‘Earthling, your planet is doomed.’
I had just finished showering and was getting dressed when a guy approached me. He was an African-American about 6’2” and he was dressed too nicely. His suit had to have cost thousands. He could have been a male model. Handsome wasn’t the right word for him, ‘beautiful’ was better. People go to gyms to hook up. I don’t get hit on by guys often, but it happens; it was turning out to be one of those days. I got ready to turn him down nicely.
“Victor Paladin, it’s good to finally meet you.”
I’ve never regretted dumping that name. It’s almost as cheesy and memorable as Dudley Do-Right. I put on a puzzled look. “Sorry friend, but you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m John Evans. I’m pretty sure I don’t know you.”
He grinned. It was ridiculous how he even had dimples. “I’m sure you don’t since we’ve never met before, but Victor, we’re going to be great friends. Last night you destroyed a minion of darkness. You’ve joined the Great Game. I’ve been assigned to be your guardian.”
I smiled back, “Seriously, you’ve got the wrong guy. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Victor, you really think random chance brought you here? You were destined to come to Salt Lake City. You need to learn your purpose.”
I let my real emotions show. “Look man, I’m trying to be nice but if you don’t leave me alone, I’m calling security.”
The pretty guy looked even more amused. “One of the best parts of my job, I get to talk like a character in a bad made-for-TV movie. We can do this easy or we can do this hard. It’s no skin off my teeth. You’re the only one in danger. Here’s my card. Contact me when you’re ready.” He turned around and walked off before I could say anything.
I looked at the card. It just had the letter “B” and a phone number. I never stay in the town where I’ve made withdrawals. I didn’t know what was going on but it wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of. I had no interest in finding out who B was and how he knew my real name. I finished dressing and went straight out to my truck.
There are two kinds of criminal. The first has poor impulse control, seeks excitement, and spends a lot of time in prison. The second sort is methodical, avoids unnecessary risks, and rarely gets caught. Years back, when I was stupid, I was the first kind of criminal. I’m still paying for the mistakes I made back then. I try my best now to be the second.
I admit my curiosity was peaked. What had I killed? Why did B use an initial instead of a name? Why did he use the word guardian? What in the hell was the Great Game? These were all good questions. I was sure years from now I would mull them over in my mind in a cozy place far away from here. As I have gotten older, I’ve learned that an intriguing mystery is often better than an unpleasant answer. I was happy to never learn the answers to these questions.
I had planned on going to a bank. I decided it would be better to just get out of town. I could get a safe deposit box in another town. I sprayed a whole can of air freshener into the SUV and made sure to switch the plates back out before I returned the rental.
I was on I-215 when I saw the turn-off to get to I-15 South to Las Vegas. It was weird. I knew what I wanted to do; my body wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t make my hand turn my wheel to the right. I kept going straight on I-215.
I was able to get off at the next exit and head back to the I-15 interchange. Again I couldn’t make the turn to go south. I knew what I wanted to do, I couldn’t do it. ‘What the HELL WAS GOING ON?’