Change happens in the space of one breath, one heartbeat. Regimes rise and fall, destines are set and broken, people live and die. The most unlikely events set people on paths they thought best to leave untrodden; events you never expected. Especially in Manchester. In a bank. On a Saturday.
Rick, known to his friends as Rick, was very displeased to be in a bank on a Saturday (in Manchester). With a close proximity of pubs, a blood alcohol level below the legal limit was criminal. As far as he was concerned the weekend was for beer, banter and a bit of bonking (when in the mood). His friend Sandy gave him two of the three which was why he was forced to wait for her to deposit a cheque.
Yes, a cheque, they still exist.
He sighed, loud enough to hear, and wandered over to one of the wall-sized adverts. Financial Advisor Barbie was apparently overjoyed at giving you £100 when you switched banks. The joy was probably overcompensation so as not to think too hard about Stud Earring Ken at home with Pool Boy Rico. Just a guess – but there always seemed to be a pool boy in the mix.
He turned back to see Sandy had not advanced in the queue for the deposit machine. What was worse – the crowd was getting ugly. Not restless, the room was just looking more and more like a cross between a trainspotters convention and X Factor auditions. More were cramming in.
Given the sweaty, cramped conditions he was surprised Sandy remained as calm as she seemed. Even when the heavily overweight woman behind her, with an equally oversized handbag, banged into her back (rooting through it – most likely for a leftover bacon sandwich) Sandy’s only indication of anger was gritted teeth.
It was strange because she was the true embodiment of the fire-y red-head. Flaming locks of auburn hair, pale skin, and emerald eyes. She was also tall, her face almost always pulled into a scowl and had a body toned through kickboxing (and the occasional bar fight). In short, not someone to mess with. People tried, they generally regretted it. It was Rick’s favourite spectator sport.
When the gargantuan woman behind her knocked her again Sandy restrained herself. She glared – a look which the woman wilfully ignored - and resumed her wait. Rick calmly sauntered over, deciding to stir the pot a little for amusement. Also, he could let her know how bored he was.
“I’m bored.” To the point, as always.
“Then go wait outside,” she said back through those gritted teeth.
“Still doesn’t solve the drinking problem,” he pointed out. He was casually leaving out the idea that he could get started without her. However, drinking alone was obscene unless you were looking to pull. “Can’t you deposit it on Monday?”
“I deposit it on Monday, rent bounces, I get an earful.”
“Deposit it today, I’m drink depleted, you still get an earful.”
Her reply was a derisive snort and once again Rick wandered a short way off. He thought for a moment about playing with the short slidey wooden toys in the kids’ waiting area but figured he may get a few funny looks. People were so judgemental about you if you were a man-child. He instead settled for a survey of the room. The situation hadn’t even gotten any prettier. One of the bank tellers maybe but he didn’t do his best work through bulletproof glass.
It was at that moment he saw her. The moment stuck in his mind though he’d dismissed it at the time. It was only in going over and over those seconds and the repeated nightmares that he recalled the significance. It was the moment he saw the girl who in less than three minutes would be dead.
She was not particularly remarkable. She was pretty, young. The papers would say later she was only 19 – just dropped out of university to pursue her bank career full time. A rags-to-handling-other-people’s-riches story. She had hastily applied her makeup and had dressed in a hurry given the missed button on her blouse. Her ash blonde hair was pulled up and she searched frantically in her handbag as she walked towards the entrance to the staff only area. Looking for her fob? It didn’t matter really, except every detail was key.
That image was stuck. Like a piece of apple in the throat or a broken record skipping endlessly.
She passed him quickly, he allowed himself another sigh. Then the first shot went off. A cork popping deafeningly. Every person in the bank froze as though now immortalised in a photograph, the popping flash of the photographer’s camera fading. The only movement was the slow drifting descent of the dust from the now broken roof tile. He hoped no one was on the floor above.
“Nobody move!” right away he knew they were dealing with an idiot. “Everybody down on the floor!” A confused idiot. No one moved.
“Um...you said don’t move,” an anonymous voice of wisdom offered after a moment’s silence.
“Down on the floor!” followed by another motivating gunshot. The descent was synchronous, all of the crowded crouched into a huddle. All except four people.
With a ducked crowd Rick could finally see what was going on. Behind him, the young woman was backed against the staff only area door, hyperventilating in panic. Her eyes were wide with fear and her chest rose and fell in quick shallow jumps. Her eyes were blue, he remembered them clearly.
Directly in front of him was their robber. Judging by the looks of him he was barely old enough to vote. He was unshaven, wild-eyed and scruffy. He looked as close to panic as the girl. For all he knew, this was the kid’s first attempted robbery. Which made him unpredictable. Which made him dangerous.
Sandy, on the other hand, was extremely predictable – although mainly only to him. She remained standing in the queue, much closer to the robber but with her back towards him. She was still. Rick knew she was being filled with fire, spreading through her being now her dam had burst. He’d seen it happen before and the results weren’t pretty.
Evidently, the youth didn’t know Sandy, so took a step closer and shook his gun. “Didn’t you hear me? I said get the fuck down!”
She turned slowly to face him with absolute control. It would only be momentary – like the sharp intake of breath before a fall. She glared.
“What do you think you are doing?” Her words were clipped, like chips of ice.
“Think he’s robbing the place, Sandy,” Rick chose to point out, then to the robber he queried, “I assume that’s the plan?”
The robber’s level of nerves seemed to ratchet up another notch. His eyes flicked from Rick to Sandy, his tongue flickered out to wet his cracked lips. This was not going according to plan.
Rick’s calm was a facade. Carefully practised over the years. His flippant attitude had protected him from mentally breaking down every day. Beatings, bullying, bruises. His shell was indestructible but somewhere deep in the centre he saw the cold steel of the gun pointed at the only person he cared about. Somewhere his panicky dreamer envisioned endless scenarios where bullets ripped away at his happiness with bloody efficiency. But the rest of him was in the ‘there’. The ‘now’.
“I will not damage my credit rating for some pre-pubescent arse!” She was shaking now like a pressure cooker. The veins on her forehead stood out, her face was bright red.
“I said down!” The kid took another step forward, the gun now virtually in her face. It was his big mistake. Almost faster than he could see Sandy’s fist struck out and connected with his nose. There was a wet crunch, then he began to fall backward. A shot rang out, the gun clattered free of his hand as he landed hard on the marble floor. Pandemonium ensued.
Sandy grabbed the robber’s arm, pulled and twisted as she planted a heavy boot on him. He was pinned, his nose broken, his arm likely dislocated and with a mean concussion to boot. In short, he was incapacitated.
Every other person in the bank decided to run en masse out of the building creating a swirl of confusion. All was sound, screaming and stomping.
Rick felt numb. Like everything was still. His ears were ringing so everything was muffled like it was happening in the next room. He couldn’t feel his body. One sound pierced the veil – a wet hacking sound. Coming from just behind him on the left.
He turned, everything feeling like slow motion. The girl was lying on her side, a hole forming in the centre of her chest. A bright red liquid spread on her baby blue blouse, a trickle coming from her mouth as she gasped. The door was smeared where she’d slid.
He fell to his knees at her side, her body began to convulse. Her jaw clacked up and down as if she was trying to speak but her words were blood. At that moment there was only the two of them in that bank. There was only the sticky seep of warm liquid on his hand as he made a futile attempt to stop the flow. There was the tight clench of flesh, shaking, on his other hand. Finally, there were her eyes. Blue, striking.
He saw those eyes grow vacant as the pressure against both hands slackened. The red-stained name badge jovially announced: HI MY NAME IS STACEY. That more than anything made reality snap back into place. As if another breath was being drawn and blew away the stillness.
At that, he became aware of the trickle of warmth coming from his own torso. Then a blossom of white-hot flame unfolded in his abdomen. Sandy screamed his name from so far away as approaching sirens wailed. His head connected with the marble.
In one breath, one heartbeat it was done.