"Look, if we're gonna do this, we gotta do it now." Dixie flicked ash off her cigarette and checked the time her phone again. "They're supposed to pick up the plates in about four minutes."
Their crew of four stood in an alleyway, across the street from the Pursuit Bank branch they intended to rob. They were standing well back from the street, hidden so their black suits, domino masks, and guns wouldn't cause panic before they could decide what they were going to do.
"We don't have a driver," Cleo reminded her, not looking up from her own phone. The driver assigned to their job had confirmed he'd be there in the Hole-in-the-Wall app, through which they arranged their jobs, but had not shown up on time. Cleo texted him continously with increasing vitriol, but recieved no response.
"So I hotwire a car and we leave. No big deal." Dixie shrugged. "Driving is the easiest job on the crew. We'll be fine."
"Oh, you know the roads around here all the sudden then?" Cleo argued.
"No, but Away in any direction'll do, won't it?"
"You know perfectly well that is a recipe for disaster."
"So we're just gonna go back to the hotel with nothin' to show for ourselves? Come on, we ain't had a job in weeks, Cleo. We need this. We either make this work or we settle down here and apply at Wal-Mart 'cause we don't have enough cash to get to another job."
"Wooooow, that inspires confidence," one of their crewmates broke in. She was a young woman with pink hair, which undoubtedly explained her codename Frenchy as a Grease reference. Syndicate controllers liked to give out referential codenames like that.
Cleo winced at Dixie's lack of discretion, but quickly turned her attentions to Frenchy's comment.
"You only have two jobs under your belt and a 2.2 rating between them," she said, backing out of their driver's profile on her phone to bring up Frenchy's. She showed the screen to everyone else so they could see Frenchy's shameful rating. "You're lucky we joined your job at all."
Frenchy shut up.
The remaining member of their crew today, a portly and timid man with a receding hairline, took a step back out of the circle so as not to tempt Cleo into dragging him too. Codenamed Mitty, he had no rating as this was his first job. To Cleo's relief, he did not appear to recognize that their scores weren't so great if they'd joined a job with such low ranking crewmates. She and Dixie had 3's, with Cleo outpacing Dixie by a few decimal points, but that was considered only competant among Syndicate crews. 4's or better had a much easier time getting jobs. Their ratings were, however, good enough to pull rank on these new recruits.
"Yeah, the grown-ups are talkin', honey," Dixie said, gesturing at Frenchy dismissively. Turning back to Cleo, she said, "Look, we didn't come to Buttfuck, Montana to leave empty-handed and I damn sure don't wanna be stuck here."
"It's too risky, Dixie! We don't know the way. We could get caught in a dead end."
"So we'll use GPS," Dixie said.
"That won't do us any good if we're in a police chase-"
"Ladies?" Mitty interrupted. The other three turned to look at him and he blushed under their scrutiny. "Maybe we could just vote on it?" he mumbled to his shoes.
"Yeah! Mitty here's got the right idea," Dixie said. Mitty blushed even harder at getting approval for his suggestion. "All those in favor, raise your hands."
Dixie shot hers in the air. Frenchy raised hers, but only up to her shoulder, as if she were being sworn into the witness stand and resented it. Mitty raised his as well, but only just, not wishing to draw more attention to himself.
"The ayes have it," Dixie said, pulling her revolver out and breaking from the circle to charge across the street. The rest of the crew stared after her until she stopped in the street and turned to look at them.
"Giddy up, motherfuckers! Let's go!" she shouted back at them. Frenchy and Mitty scrambled after her, drawing their own weapons. Cleo grimaced but readied her shotgun and followed too.
"Oh. My. GOD. What a total shitshow," Dixie said. She dropped the duffle bag of cash on the floor of their hotel room, then whirled around and flopped backwards onto the bed.
"Of course it was a shitshow!" Cleo said. She made sure the door to their room was closed completely before continuing. "We went in without a plan, with useless crewmates, and no driver!"
"Not a bad take, considerin'. What happened to Frenchy?" Dixie asked.
"I don't know," Cleo grumped. "One second she was there, the next she was gone. And I don't think she fired a single shot the whole time."
"Someone's gettin' a bad review," Dixie singsonged.
"You're goddamn right she is," Cleo said.
Cleo scowled at the whiteboard they had propped up on the desk. They brought it with them to every job. Cleo had drawn a floorplan of the bank on it the night before and went over the plan with Dixie multiple times before erasing it clean in case housekeeping came in. What was even the point of having a plan if Dixie was just going to do whatever she wanted?
"Why did you just rush in like that?" Cleo asked. The question was direct, unavoidable. "Why did you convince the others to go ahead with it?" That one was more evasive, hiding the real question of why did you undermine me in front of them?
Dixie huffed to the ceiling.
"'Cause if we didn't get something for our trouble today, we pretty much woulda had to quit altogether. Without this money, we'd have to choose between giving up and getting real jobs or robbing gas stations and hoping The Syndicate didn't notice us working outside the app." She propped herself up on her elbows. "Those bad reviews are hurtin' us, Cleo. It was do or die."
Cleo frowned and sat on the end of the bed.
She let out a long breath.
"What are we going to do?" she wondered aloud.
"Well, I figure there's about $200,000ish in that bag," Dixie said. "Once we turn it in, we'll get our 40%. We'll probably lose about half of that in cleaner costs so $40,000 divided by two, $20,000 each? That'll at least get us to another job."
Pitiful, Cleo thought. She'd shot how many cops, Mitty had died, who knew what happened to Frenchy, and all they had to show for it was forty thousand dollars between them. What were they even paying The Syndicate for? Not to arrange transportation apparently. 60% of their take, plus cleaner fees, gone. For what?
Not for the first time, Cleo had considered striking out on her own. It had always been in the back of her mind, ever since she joined up and realized the reality of the work. She had thought it would be clever Ocean's Eleven-style heists, not smash-and-grab robberies. The money was good, though, and there was security while under The Syndicate's employ. Was. Having one bout of bad luck had thrown them into a downward spiral where the drop in their ratings lowered the quality of their prospective crewmates. The lower quality crew meant lower quality takes, and therefore even lower ratings and payouts. It became a self-perpetuating cycle.
But what if they just removed themselves from the cycle? Not formally quit: one did not just quit The Syndicate so much as retire entirely. But what if they just stopped taking jobs and by all appearances dropped off the face of the Earth?
It was a delicate subject. Many Syndicate members would have considered it the highest treason to even suggest it. But Cleo and Dixie had been working together for years. It'd be a test of loyalties to ask and Cleo wasn't sure what she'd do if Dixie wasn't onboard. But maybe...
"What if we didn't turn in the money?" Cleo broached, turning around to face Dixie.
Dixie's eyebrows furrowed.
"What do you mean? Just... keep it?" Dixie snorted. "I think The Syndicate would take exception."
"Yes, but... what if they couldn't find us to do anything about it?" Cleo pressed on.
Dixie regarded Cleo, trying to discern if they were having the conversation she thought they were having.
"Cleo, are you saying we quit? Just retire on $100,000 each? 'Cause that ain't gonna get us very far in this economy."
Cleo took a deep breath.
"No. I'm suggesting that we take this $200,000 and use it to go independant. Start our own crew."
The proposition hung in the air for an uncomfortable amount of time. Cleo waited for Dixie to say something.
Finally, Dixie said, "Can we do that?"
A smile crept up on Cleo's face.
"I don't see why not. It would take them a while to figure it out. If they figure it out. They're so big now, they might not even notice we're gone at all."
Dixie frowned though.
"They're gonna know it's us though, once we get back to work. Domino masks don't do shit. They'll see us on the news and ask where their cut is."
"I know this is a real avant-garde idea," Cleo said patiently, "but what if we wore masks... that covered our faces?" She gave Dixie an "Hmm?" look.
"Huh. You know," Dixie said, marveling at the obviousness of it. She'd been in uniform way too long. Still, that wasn't her only concern.
"How are we gonna find anyone to get in on this?" Dixie asked. "We don't know anyone who isn't in The Syndicate. We don't know if there is anyone who isn't anymore. Caint do much more than gas stations and liquor stores with only two people."
"I know of at least one person," Cleo said. She bit her lip. "It's a long shot, but it's worth a try. When I first joined The Syndicate, I went on this job to steal this Fabergé egg-"
"How the fuck did you get on a job like that?" Dixie interjected.
"Not a Romanov egg! Jesus, I wouldn't be suggesting this if I was getting jobs like that. It was just, you know, one that some old lady comissioned for herself. Anyway, we're creeping the house and I bumped into this woman. She was there to steal the egg too. We ended up doing rock, paper, scissors for it." Cleo chuckled. "She won so she got to keep the egg and I lied to the rest of the crew that I didn't find it."
"Anyway," Cleo said, "she gave me her calling card." She pulled out her wallet and slid an ancient business card from one of the slots. Dixie took it. It read "Bijou" in Brush Script and had a little 90's clipart silhouette of a black cat in the bottom right corner. Dixie flipped it over; Cleo had written a phone number and address on the back.
"So you want to quit The Syndicate in order to chase down this stranger you met once during a robbery? A thief, mind you, who was fool enough to give you her phone number and address?" Dixie asked.
"She didn't give them to me," Cleo explained. I convinced an administrator at HQ to search for her in the database. From what he said, they had reached out to her, but she declined to join up."
Dixie still wasn't convinced.
"Yeah, but that had to be, what? Ten years ago, give or take? What if she's moved?"
"Look, Dixie, I don't think our standing in The Syndicate is going to get any better, and you know - you know - if we had gotten arrested today, we'd be sitting in the cooler for a year before they got us out. They didn't even let the locals know we were pulling the job, to judge by all the bullets. But we don't have to commit to quitting right now. We can call Bijou up and see if she even still lives at that address and if she's willing to help us. If not, no harm, no foul. We'll never speak of it again, take another Syndicate job, and try to make a go of it.
"But if she can help us... I mean, think of the money, Dixie! We wouldn't have to give up sixty percent anymore. We could keep it all! I mean, after laundering and expenses obviously. But that would still be way more than 40%. And we could get new names! I know you've always hated yours, and mine is so on the nose. In fact, I've just thought of a new one." She had thought of it ages ago. "Hello, my name is Cairo." She held out her hand to shake. "What's your name?"
Dixie just stared at Cleo's proffered hand.
"Cairo? I... " she sputtered. "How did you come up with that off the top of your-" She cut off as the realization hit her.
"You've been thinking about this."
Cleo smirked, pleased that Dixie picked up on that.
"It pays to have a plan," she said.
Dixie regarded her old friend and partner in crime.
"Why didn't you just tell me, man?" Dixie asked.
"I don't know," Cleo said, gesticulating the awkwardness of it. "I've never heard you say a word against The Syndicate, even though the benefits are clearly evaporating. And you know how people are about even the suggestion of it." Cleo huffed. "I didn't want to ruin a good thing."
"I owe 'em a lot. I probably woulda drunk myself to death if they hadn't invited me in. And I wouldn't have partnered up with you without them. But what have they done for me lately? Who's actually making sure I get my paper at the end of the day? A company ain't your friend."
"So you'll abscond with me?" Cleo asked cheekily.
"If that means ghost on 'em, then yeah," Dixie said. Then she frowned. "I don't know what I want my name to be though."
"Well, I picked Cairo because I've always wanted to see Egypt," Cleo explained. "What's something you've always wanted?"
Dixie thought about it.
"When I was a kid, I really wanted a mink stole. I had a Barbie paper doll and she had this huge white stole... Does Mink sound good?" Dixie didn't look convinced that it did.
Cleo bit her lip. "Mink sounds kind of... euphemistic. What about Sable?"
"Like the wrestler?" Dixie tilted her head quizzically.
"I was thinking more the animal," Cleo said.
Dixie nodded. "Yeah, I like that! It's like a real name."
Cleo snorted. "Dixie is a real name."
"Maybe if you live in a compound, it is."
Cleo shook her head and laughed.
"All right, so we have new codenames. Step 1 complete. How about we plan the rest of our lives then, Sable?" Cairo said, hauling herself off the bed. She went to the desk and uncapped her hot pink dry-erase marker.
"Start off us, Cairo," Sable said, sitting upright.