“I guess we should just shoot every damn one of ‘em.” Joey said with a wink as if to signal some kind of joke between the two of us.
Was he serious? Could this be some sort of inside joke? If so, Joey had not let me in on it.
Any trace of humor vanished as I looked through the big windows at two cops walking on the sidewalk in front of the Plymouth Quality Market. The little grocery store only stretched about two hundred feet front to back, so the hostages had to be kept absolutely silent. My breath stopped. The cops paused for a moment, and I waited for them to come through the front door. Everything froze for a moment. My heart skipped a beat and then with a jolt began pounding quickly as the pair kept walking. Even so, I felt like all of the energy had left my body.
I looked around at the people forced to huddle at the back of the store. There was a frazzled, dark-haired young woman with two small, ebony-haired children clinging to each of her hands, a fortyish businessman in a dark blue suit looking irritated and inconvenienced. Nearby, an elderly couple held hands resigned to whatever happened. Next to them was an attractive, nervous, blonde in her late thirties wearing too much makeup and clothes clearly designed for a teenage girl.
The thought struck me the whole bunch seemed straight out of central casting for some B-grade television crime drama. The idea of my life being any sort of entertainment almost caused me to laugh out loud. A glimpse of the room’s remaining occupant made me choke off my chuckle.
The old man had a head topped with a wild tuft of thin silver hair that looked as if no attempt to comb it had ever been made. This guy used to be called a bum or hobo or tramp, but now he was simply homeless. His wrinkled, dirty clothes looked as if he had not only slept in them but spent a number of days living in them. He was a few feet away sitting on the floor in the corner with his legs stretched out and trying to get a round white breath mint out of a little shiny blue roll.
But none of it was what caught my eye and caused me to freeze. It was the smile. The pale, pockmarked face was swallowed up by the broad expression which stretched the skin tight. Yellow teeth revealed themselves. I couldn’t say right off what it was about the smile that bothered me so much. Considering the situation, a smile was clearly and completely out of place, but that was not what made me stop. I mean a guy smiling at the idea of getting shot was strange, but people react to stress in all sorts of ways. No, the thing that grabbed me was how this smile shone throughout his body. It was like a light bulb was on somewhere deep inside him. I looked quickly around the store, but nobody else seemed to notice the weird glow.
There was an awful lot of bizarre stuff going through my mind. No doubt about that. Just then, another thought floated in. It was about how people say that pregnant women have a sort of glow. It was something about the radiance brought on by a new life growing inside or some such crap. I am not saying that this dirty old guy was like a pregnant woman. It was just this light around him. But the glow coming off of the old man in the back of the room was not at all comforting or warming or anything good. Instead, it made me feel like I needed to take a hot shower to scrub it off. It somehow reminded me of maggots burrowing out of spoiled meat. I know it is an awful lot to get from a look at some old man sitting in the back of the room sucking on a peppermint Lifesaver, but that is what I got.
I am not sure how long I was gazing at the old guy, but it must have been a long time since everyone was staring at me when finally I looked around. I felt my eyes turn bashfully to the floor, my face get warm with embarrassment.
I forced my eyes up to make contact with the nervous blonde woman. But just as our eyes met, my attention was drawn back to the old man by the sound of his high-pitched, hysterical giggle.
I have seen my share of speed freaks, and that is just what the old guy looked like to me. He was almost vibrating. His movements were too fast. He kept giggling like an idiot but probably did not even realize he was doing it. Our eyes locked together for just an instant before he jerked them away. The volume on the giggling went up a little.
“Hey, old man! You best shut the hell up if yer figgerin’ on tastin’ yer next bottle of rot gut!” Joey wasn’t much for sugar-coating things, but his words sure quieted the old guy right down. The old man’s shoulders slumped a little and his eyes darted around the room like some cornered weasel.
Having dealt with the disruption, Joey turned back to the matter before him and asked, “How long does it take tuh open a goddamn safe?”
He was standing a few yards away at the door to a closet-sized room which served as the store manager’s office. My short, dark partner in crime peered inside the office as he repeated the question for effect.“How long does it take tuh open a goddamn safe?”
A stammering voice inside the office could just be heard saying, “Sorry…uh… it should be... just… I... I… almost….just a second.”
There was some rustling around before the tall, thin, worried-looking store manager appeared at the office door. “Here you go.” He said, handed a white cloth bag to Joey, and forced a twisted, insincere smile to his mouth.
Joey grabbed the bag and looked inside. After what seemed like a long time, he slowly raised his head then his arm shot out like a snake striking to take the arm of the manager. Before he realized what was happening, the startled manager had been spun back around to face the way from which he had come and shoved inside the office.
“Where’s the rest of the fuckin’ money?” Joey’s voice was low but intense.
I looked around the room. Considering the lifeless body of a middle-aged woman containing two bullets from Joey’s gun tucked behind the checkout counter of the store, the anxious expressions were not surprising. What surprised me was the broad grin stretching across the face of the old guy in the back of the room. I could hear his quiet humming. The tune was familiar, and I was trying to remember the name of the song when my thoughts were interrupted by Joey’s shouting.
“A hundred and ninety-six dollars! Where’s the rest?”
“Uh…that’s it. We make…um… a bank deposit every night so there’s never too much in the store.” There was a long pause then the voice continued with a pleading tone. “With the rolls of coins in the bag, it comes to two hundred and sixty-six dollars.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about the rolls of coins! They’re right here in the bag!” Joey’s cheerful voice was followed by a chuckle and several moments of silence.
A dull thud like the sound of a fist slamming into a side of beef broke the silence. A whimper stopped abruptly by the sound of another dull thud. Several more thumps were heard, each immediately preceded by a grunt from Joey.
What followed was one of life’s more awkward moments. I looked first to the nervous blonde but found her eyes darted around the room in every direction in order to avoid my gaze. I got the same response from everyone in the room even the two little kids. They all seemed to find things more interesting than me to look at. I should not say everyone in the room avoided looking at me. That is not right. The strange old guy had a pair of strikingly clear blue eyes fixed upon me even while he kept humming that tune.
Now it was my turn to quickly shift my eyes around the room to keep from making eye contact with him. If I had taken the time to really think about it, I could not have explained why it seemed so important not to look into his eyes.
Happy Days Are Here Again! It suddenly occurred to me what tune the old guy was humming. It was Happy Days Are Here Again. Considering the current situation, the upbeat song was completely out of place. But making the whole scene seem totally unreal, the out-of-place tune was combined with an expression of complete delight on the weathered face.
As much as I didn’t want to do it, I found it tough not to look into the old man’s eyes. It’s like the trick of someone saying, “Don’t think about a blue horse” and then you can not help but to think of a blue horse. The second that the idea of not looking into the old man’s eyes entered my brain I was doomed to look into his eyes. My eyes shifted around the room briefly before finding their way to the old man’s eyes.
Like I said, the old guy’s eyes were bright blue. As weird as it sounds, they had a sort of shine to them. Not the wild, glassy, bloodshot eyeballs you would expect to find rolling around in the skull of an old drunk. In the instant I made eye contact with the old bum, Joey came storming from the office.
“Get the cash outta the fuckin’ register!” He shouted. In his right hand, he was carrying the Glock 17 pistol that was his most prized possession. It was what he held in his left hand that caught me off guard and, judging by the gasps I heard, surprised the others as well.
In his left hand, Joey held the cloth bag that had been white but now looked to be more of a pink color with areas of dark red. Something else clung to the bag. It looked sort of stringy. I knew what it was even though I did not want to know. A picture of the store manager curled up in the fetal position on the floor of the office with his skull crushed and moist brains exposed flashed into my mind.
One of the little kids let out a whimper, and Joey seemed to suddenly realize what he was holding in his hand. As he looked down at the bloody thing in his hand, a grin curled his mouth like he was seeing something that tickled him. I think hewould have laughed out loud if the sound of laughter from the back of the room had not beaten him to it.
Instead of laughing, Joey spun around to unload his fury on the old man.
In an instant, the room filled with the sort of tension which comes from knowing that there will soon be an explosion.
Another whimper came from one of the kids, and the business guy cleared his throat. The elderly couple held each other with all their might as Joey strode past them on his way to the back corner of the room.
I knew better than to get in Joey’s way when he had one of his rage-driven moments. I’d seen too much blood stream from people who did not stay out of his way. So I started toward the cash register at the front of the store expecting to hear the sounds of a brutal beating behind me. What I heard instead caused me to stop dead in my tracks.
A roar of laughter rocked the room, the kind of laughing you would do if a great friend told some great joke that sent uncontrollable waves through your body.
Glancing around at the others in the room, it was unclear which made them more uncomfortable the recent sounds of a man being beaten to death with a bag of coins or the current laughter echoing through the room.
My eyes found their way to the source of the sound.
The old man still sat on the floor. Joey stood to his left bent over just a little. Both of them shuddered with giggles. They sure looked like a couple of old friends enjoying a good joke. The notion of them being somehow connected floated through my mind and then disappeared, but an uneasy feeling stayed behind.
The laughter continued for what seemed like an hour, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been that long. Then in the middle of all the chuckles and giggles, the old man managed to catch his breath long enough to get a phrase out.
“A hundred and ninety-six dollars!” He gasped and continued laughing. But this time, he was the only one laughing.
At the words, Joey froze. In an instant, the relaxed figure that had been laughing was gone. It was replaced by a cold, emotionless, unmoving form. This was the scene for a few long seconds. All of a sudden, his hand holding the gun shot out and the barrel was pressed against the old man’s forehead.
I don’t know if the feeling of the gun barrel pressed against his head or the vision of his brains splattered over the back wall quieted the old guy. But whatever it was, he calmed down and stared straight into Joey’s eyes. Everything was still for another bit which I am sure seemed longer than it really was. Judging by the silence that filled the room, everyone’s eyes were locked on the pair at the back of the room.I could see, or at least imagined I could see, Joey’s finger tighten on the trigger of the Glock. This continued and my body tensed up in anticipation of the coming gunshot. My tension was amplified by the others and filled the room until it was suffocating. This tension added to the feeling of weirdness about the old bum’s reaction.
He actually smiled. Here he was with the barrel of a Glock 17 pressed into his skull about to blow a hole through his brain, and he was smiling! Not only smiling, he then started giggling.
“A hundred and ninety-six dollars!” He cackled.
For a moment, the only sound came from the old man with the gun pressed against his head. Then there was the explosion. But this explosion was not the kind I had expected. The sound of merriment coming from the old man joined with a booming laugh bursting from Joey’s chest.
“You forgot about the coins!” He managed to squeeze out between his laughs as he lowered the pistol. The old man had a red circle where the gun had been pressed against his forehead.
Joey continued to chuckle as he shook his head and looked at the old guy. “Crazy old fuck!” He looked at me as if seeking confirmation of his diagnosis of the old man’s mental condition.
Before I could make any comment, the strange old guy said, “I know where you can get more than a hundred and ninety-six dollars.” The numbers set off the crazy laughter once again. “A whole lot more!”
This time, my partner did not join in. Instead, he stepped closer to the man. It was obvious that his interest had been captured by the promise of a big score.
“Okay, I wanna hear more. But I’m only gonna tell yuh once, if I think yer fuckin’ with me then I’m gonna put a bullet in yer face, old man.” Joey straightened himself to his full five foot six inch height as if to emphasize the seriousness of his threat.
“Oh, I have no reason to lie about this.” The old man was clearly pleased to have someone listening to him. “I know of a place where we can make a huge killing.”
Joey grinned broadly but without warmth. “Um, ‘a place where we can make a huge killing’? I ain’t real sure ‘bout this we part, but you got my attention. I wanna hear exactly what yer talkin’ about.”
I took a few steps in their direction. “Joey, you can’t be seriously thinking about what some old drunk is saying.”
Still grinning, he looked at me and said, “Thomas, I am shocked at yer lack of respect for yer elders. I just wanna hear what Mr.…uh…”
“Stoaffer. My name is Louis Stoaffer.” His whole body straightened with pride at the sound of his own name.
“Okay, Mr. Stoaffer, let’s hear yer story.” Joey’s voice suddenly took on a tone of genuine concern and interest.
“Joey, we don’t have time for this.” I could see the start of something bad. “Let’s just grab the money from the register and get the hell out of here.”
“Uh…Thomas is it?” The old guy, Louis Stoaffer, turned his unnaturally bright blue eyes on me. “Thomas, if you just allow me a few minutes of your time, I am certain that you will find it worth your while.”
I felt like this Stoaffer guy had changed almost before my eyes. Seconds earlier he had been a barely coherent crazy old drunk with some kind of disturbing glow about him, and now he was coming off like someone who could be our key to the big time. Of course, I was not ready to accept the idea.
Joey was standing there with a big grin on his face. I just started shaking my head.
“So whadda yuh think?” He looked at me, and I knew he had already made up his mind.
“I think you’ve already decided to follow a crazy old drunk on some wild goose chase.”
“So whadda yuh think?” Joey repeated with a wider grin. “It ain’t like we got lotsa great ideas.”
He actually seemed to be enjoying the whole thing. It must have been boyish enthusiasm for adventure or something. It kind of made you forget that he had just beaten a man to death with a bag of coins.
I glanced over at Louis Stoaffer. He was no longer shaking like some speed freak. If anything, he now seemed to be relaxed. And the strangest thing was his face that had been pale and pockmarked now looked a lot more normal. Any further consideration of the old guy’s change in appearance was pushed aside by a noise from our audience of hostages.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, but…” The businessman, who had been looking impatient at being delayed, was now walking toward us.
Before the man had taken more than three steps, Joey whipped around, raised the gun, and fired a bullet into the place where there had been a nose. His body stayed upright for a few seconds. Then his knees gave way and the body tumbled forward.
All of this happened so quickly that the room was absolutely silent for a few seconds as the body twitched on the floor. Then a scream from the young mother broke through. Her scream was from being scared by the sound of the gun not from seeing what had happened. Luckily, an aisle full of bread and cookies blocked the view of the hostages. The last thing we needed was for the group to get hysterical.
Right then I realized that Joey’s plan was to kill all of these people before we left the store. That actually made sense. They had seen us very clearly and could give the police good descriptions. Logically, killing them would be the way to go. But I wasn’t here to kill people. I could justify robbery, burglary, mugging, extortion, and a whole lot of other stuff. But murder was different.
“Okay, if you think listening to some crazy old drunk is going to pay off, I’ll tag along.” I said quickly to Joey. My words were to distract him rather than show any true optimism about the plan of action.
Before anyone else had a chance to speak, Louis Stoaffer cleared his throat and announced enthusiastically, “Great! It’s settled then. Shall we get started?”
Joey and I and maybe everyone else in the room stared at the old man as he continued, “So what should we do with these fine people?” He nodded toward the group of hostages and then turned his gaze to Joey. “Any ideas?” he asked with a wink.
It seemed to be another inside joke where I was on the outside.
Joey answered with a wink of his own, raised the pistol, pointed it in the general direction of the terrified hostages, and started to slowly swing it between them.
“Hold on!” I surprised myself by stepping forward. “I have a better idea.”
Louis Stoaffer looked at me with a sort of amused expression.
I looked around the area quickly and not seeing what I wanted moved into the office. All the while, the others watched me with confusion. Well, not everyone appeared confused. The old man continued to look on with amusement.
On the concrete floor in the corner of the office, I found what I wanted and quickly returned to the other room.
As I moved toward the others, I quickly flipped through the magazine. It was some movie magazine with lots of pictures of famous actors. There was a picture of Brad Pitt with George Clooney. I considered using this one, but they were too well known to work. Finally, I saw an advertisement with a couple of guys standing around a truck supposedly discussing the great gas mileage and dependability of the vehicle.
“Okay, I want everybody to look at this picture and describe the two men.” I walked closer so that they could get a better look.
The blonde leaned near so that she could see. “Okay, there is one thirty-ish looking guy with brown hair and a light brown beard. He’s kind of husky. And…”
She was interrupted by the young mother. “And the other man is older with dark black hair. He might be the other one’s father…”
The elderly man spoke up, “No I think he’s an insurance salesman.”
“It doesn’t matter what his job is! I want you to describe him!” My comment came out more loudly and more impatiently than I had intended, and the people in front of me recoiled a little.
After a moment, the elderly woman spoke up to correct her husband. “No, he looks too athletic to be an insurance man. Look at those muscles. He is very fit. I think his hair looks a little fake like maybe he’s wearing a toupee.” “
Yes! Her husband agreed with her. “You’re right, Gwen. He looks like he works out.”
“Good! What else?” I was actually enjoying this.
“The younger guy has no wedding ring but the older guy does,” The blonde observed..
“Interesting point,” I commented lightly.
The humor was not lost on the others as they laughed enthusiastically. For a brief instant, everyone seemed to forget the dangerous predicament in which they found themselves. Joey quickly stepped forward to remind them.
“Good thinkin’, Thomas. Better to have a false ID than a pile of bodies,” Joey said, and the laughter instantly stopped. “Anyways, looks like we’re all havin’ a good time here. So as long as we’re gettin’ to know each other so good, I want ev’rybody to give me their driver’s licenses.”
For a few seconds, no one moved as if confused as to what they should do.
“I want yer driver’s licenses!” Joey cleared up the confusion instantly He turned to Louis Stoaffer. “You too.”
With a flash of a smile, the old man responded, “I have to apologize. I lost that important document about ten years ago.” His chuckle was shared by Joey.
Licenses were quickly removed from purses and wallets and passed forward to Joey who made a show of looking at each carefully.
“Oh, Jennifer, put on some weight, haven’t you?” He commented to the blonde woman. Her reaction was a brief look of cold hatred before lowering her eyes.
“Okay, Jennifer, William, Gwendolyn, Laura, and…” Joey looked at the children with a puzzled expression. “What’re the kids’ names?”
Laura looked up with a face full of terror and appeared unable to speak.
Joey continued, “Oh, it don’t really matter. What alluh yuh should remember is we know yer names and where yuh live. What my very smart friend here did was show yuh the description to give tuh the police.”
He looked around at his audience who appeared to be listening carefully and so he continued but in a louder voice, “Now, jus’ so we understand each other, if I look in the paper or watch the news in the next coupla days and see a little drawing that don’t look like those fags in the magazine, I’m gonna come back here to-” He pulled a license out of his hand. “I’m gonna come back here tuh four forty-five Almond Drive.” The elderly couple looked up with the expected frightened response. “And then, I’m gonna pay a visit to… Well, yuh got the idea.”
“What about him?” The blonde asked indicating the old man.
“Whadda yuh mean?” Joey answered impatiently.
“How should we describe him?”
I could see the genuine confusion on her face as well as sense Joey’s growing annoyance. “Don’t you think the police will know what he looks like? I asked quietly.
She turned her eyes to me. “Well, I’ve lived here since I was six-years-old, and I have never seen him before. So I don’t know that the police have.” The others nodded in agreement.
“Well, I guess you can tell them whatever you want about him or just leave him out. I don’t expect him to be with us too long any way.” I turned to see the old man smiling at the slightly-veiled threat.
I felt a little uneasy with the news that no one there had seen Louis Stoaffer before then.
Before I had much time to consider this fact, Joey broke in, “Okay, let’s tape them up.” He produced rolls of silver duct tape from somewhere.
We quickly went to work on them. For my part, I tried to place the tape as gently as possible without hurting anyone. This effort was not made by Joey as I heard squeals of pain from the elderly woman.
As I taped her hands, feet, and mouth, the blond looked at me with the same hatred she had directed earlier at my partner. Once done with her, I looked into the very frightened eyes of the children as I stuck strips of tape across their mouths as gently as possible. It was not a sight that was easily forgotten.
Once we were finished, Joey looked over all the tape as if he didn’t quite trust my dedication to the job. When he was satisfied that they were secured, he asked, “Okay, yuh ready to get outta here?”
Just as I was about to answer, I looked towards the old man snatching rolls of peppermint candy off the shelf and shoving them in his pockets. Then something caught my eye from beyond him outside of the front window. The same two cops that I had seen earlier were walking slowly by. Luckily, they seemed completely uninterested in anything that might be happening inside the store.
Without waiting any longer, Joey moved next to Louis Stoaffer and grabbing the back of his arm just above the elbow pushed him toward the door at the back of the store.
And I followed.
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