Authors: Jeffrey Littorno
Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey Littorno
All rights reserved.
Put simply, I could not have written this
book without help from many others. Among
those who helped, I wish to thank the following
people for encouraging, inspiring, assisting, and
making it possible for me to write this book:
Thanks for your proofreading skills and
providing much-appreciated praise.
Thanks for your feedback and helping me to see
the characters with a
set of eyes.
Thanks for showing me that books
dealing with supernatural things can still make
insightful points about human nature.
Thanks for giving me the means of
turning my dream into a reality.
Thanks for having the patience
to endure a distracted husband and
giving me the energy to see this through.
“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 the 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 began pounding quickly with a jolt 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 in 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 might happen. 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 a hobo or a tramp, but now he was simply called 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 that stretched his 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 was an awful lot to get from a look at some old man sitting in the back of the room sucking on peppermint Life Savers, but that was 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 I looked around the room. My eyes turned bashfully to the floor, and I felt 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 offering a white cloth bag to Joey and forcing his mouth into a twisted, insincere smile.
Joey tucked his pistol into his belt, 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 and grabbed the manager’s arm. 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 back inside the office.
“Where’s the rest of the fuckin’ money?” Joey’s voice was low but intense.
I looked around the room. Considering that tucked behind the checkout counter of the store was a lifeless body of a middle-aged woman which contained two bullets from Joey’s gun, 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.
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 manager’s voice continued in 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. “This thing’s pretty heavy.”
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 at the nervous blonde but found her eyes darting 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 he would 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. It was 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.