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The Dead Key

By:D. M. Pulley

PROLOGUE


Midnight fell at the First Bank of Cleveland with the lonely clang of the great clock in the lobby. Its dull ring wandered past the heavy doors and empty chairs of the banking floor, down the hallway to the dark room where she hid. It was the first sound she’d heard in an hour besides the whisper of her own breath. It was her cue.

She eased the door to the ladies’ room open and peered out into the darkness. Down the gloomy corridor and into the banking room, long shadows slashed across the floor, making familiar daytime objects sinister. Someone was watching—the night guard, her boss, someone—she was sure of it. There was always someone watching at the bank. She stood frozen in the doorway, knowing what would happen if she was caught. She would be arrested. She would be fired. She would lose everything. But then again she didn’t have much to lose. That’s probably how he talked me into this mess, she thought, shaking her head. She couldn’t believe she’d agreed to go through with it. But she had. After a full minute, she stepped out of her hiding place and let the door swing shut behind her.

Her tiny footsteps clacked on the stone slabs of the banking floor, rippling through the silence. Wincing, she tiptoed past the teller booths and into the lobby. The large clock ticked out the seconds as she crept by the revolving doors and floor-to-ceiling windows that separated her from the dark night outside. The headlights of a large sedan caught her through the glass as it turned down Euclid Avenue from East Ninth Street. Frozen, she didn’t breathe until the car had passed. When it finally did, a low whimper escaped her throat. She wanted to run back to the bathroom and hide there until morning, but she kept going. He was waiting for her.

The watchful portrait of the bank president, old Alistair Mercer, glared at her as she slipped under him and down the corridor to the left. There was no sign of the security guard at the elevator desk. It was just as he promised.

The street lights streaming through the lobby windows faded as she made her way around the corner and down the winding stairs into the darkness below. Somewhere down there he was waiting. With each step, she gripped the brass key tighter, until it felt lodged in her fist. She had stolen it from the safe the day before, hoping no one would notice. No one did.

No one had noticed when she hadn’t left with the others at five o’clock. The guard had snapped off the light in the ladies’ room without even checking the stalls. He had been right about everything so far.

The still air seemed thicker when she reached the bottom of the stairs. The red carpet had disappeared in the blackness, but she could tell by the cushion beneath her feet it was still there. She pictured the door to the vault and made her way silently across the floor. Her heart pounded in her ears as she strained to hear the sound of a flashlight clicking on, a ring of keys rattling, or the dull thud of heavy footsteps. There was nothing. Slowly adjusting to the dark, she could just make out the clerk’s desk in the corner. It was a black barricade guarding the entrance to the vault. She hurried over to it, crouched down behind the counter, and waited.

When nothing happened, she slipped open the drawer to the left of the chair and blindly felt the objects inside until she found the one she wanted. It was another key. As she straightened up, a hulking shadow loomed over her. She opened her mouth to scream. A large hand clamped down.

“Shh!”

The leathery palm crushed her lips, smothering her voice. Her flailing arms and fists were bound up in the shadow’s grip. She was caught.

“Hey, it’s me! It’s all right. It’s all right. Sorry I scared you. You okay?”

Her straining muscles went limp at the sound of his voice. She nodded and nearly crumpled to the ground. His hand was still over her mouth.

“Did you get it?” he asked.

She nodded again.

“Good.” He released his hand so she could breathe. “Come with me.”

He grabbed her wrist and led her through the round doorway and into the vault. She couldn’t see a thing, but she could tell by the sound of their footsteps on hard metal exactly where they were.

“Okay.” He flipped on a small flashlight and scanned hundreds of tiny metal doors lining the steel walls. “We’re looking for Box 545.”

The wall of boxes was a dim blur. Her heart still racing, she stepped toward them with a key in each hand. Gothic script labeled the metal doors with rising and falling numbers in an overwhelming array, until the one that read “545” finally emerged. She slipped each key into the door and waited a beat. Any minute she expected to see a security guard or police officer appear with gun drawn.

He pressed his barrel chest against her back, circling an arm around her waist. She closed her eyes and leaned against him, wishing they were back at her place or the hotel or anywhere but the vault. His breath was hot against her neck.

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