Beer Wine Snacksby Fred on 12-26-2008 • Category: Fiction
(Originally published in Plots with Guns, May/Jun 2003)
The Shadows Lounge had become my favorite bar out of sheer convenience. I could walk there from my apartment in about ten minutes. For months I had been making the trek every weekend, and lately I've been going in the middle of the week, too. Call it restlessness.
Two blocks from Shadows, there's a small liquor store on the corner of Madison and Fairgreen. Going by the stenciled red letters painted on the dusky white brick facing the street, the store's name is Beer Wine Snacks. It was another part of my routine to stop there to buy cigarettes on my way to Shadows. I walked through the door to Beer Wine Snacks at about 11:30.
When you first walk into the store, the cashier's counter is directly to your left, a high service window in a solid wall of wood, forming one side of a corridor that leads to the aisles of beer coolers and overpriced canned goods. There were only two people in there that night, the young woman behind the counter and a guy standing in front of her. The guy turned to face me and I got my first clue that something was wrong. He was wearing a ski mask.
I like to think I'm a pretty together guy, but when I saw the mask first, and the gun in his hand second, all I could think was, Shit! He whipped around and pointed the gun at me. "Hold it! Hold it right there! Just don't... just... just hold it!"
Hearing that the guy was as frightened as I was made me feel a little better, until it occurred to me that someone might get shot by accident. I raised my hands to shoulder height, fingers pointing at the ceiling. "It's okay, man. I'm not gonna get in your way. I'll just wait right here 'til you're done."
He kept the gun aimed at my chest. "Get the money!" he barked over his shoulder. "Come on, hurry up!"
I stayed where I was, standing to one side of the door with my hands up like a schmuck, while the trembling blonde behind the counter stuffed money in a paper sack. He reached across himself to snatch the sack with his left hand and went for the door, still pointing the gun at me as he went. He crab-walked out, facing me the whole time. The moment he hit the sidewalk he took off at a dead run. He turned the first corner and that was the last I saw of him.
I put my hands down and looked at the girl. "You okay?"
"Oh, Jesus," she said. She had one hand over her mouth. "Oh, Jesus Christ."
I figured she was okay. I walked to the counter and said, "I don't suppose you set off an alarm or anything."
Her eyes finally acknowledged my presence. Two light brown irises floating in popping white orbs. "What did I do?"
"Is there an alarm or anything?"
"Maybe we should call the cops, then."
The clerk got her wits about her and picked up the phone. I leaned against the counter and listened while she answered all the usual questions. "Cops are on their way," she told me as she cradled the phone.
"We got time," I said. Since no one had a bullet in the stomach, it would probably be fifteen or twenty minutes before a prowler arrived.
"Are you gonna wait for them?"
"Might as well. I'm a witness." For what little my testimony would be worth.
The clerk took a few deep breaths. I tried to watch her without staring. She was a pretty girl, young, with a nice smooth complexion. Delicate chin. Small, even teeth. Medium length hair tied in a high ponytail, leaving a provocative view of the nape of her neck. I had seen her in here plenty of times, but I had never said more to her than was required to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights. I wondered what I should say to her now. "Is this your first holdup?"
She looked at me like I was nuts. "You think I'd still be working here if this happened all the time?"
"It's an occupational hazard," I said offhandedly.
She shook her head violently. "Not for me, it isn't."
"You know," I mused, hoping to break the ice, "I worked at a convenience store when I was in high school. My first day on the job, I learned that everybody else who worked there had been robbed at least once. Everybody. The manager had been robbed three times."
"And you worked there anyway?"
I shrugged. "I needed the money."
She murmured her understanding. "Yeah. Me too." Her expression softened a little. "So did you ever get robbed?"
"No. I quit after a month."
That earned me a smile. "Wish I could afford to quit."
We regarded each other for a moment. I plucked a pack of Marlboro Lights from the display stand next to the register and said, "Any chance I can still buy cigarettes?"
Her smile grew. "I can't make any change."
I laughed. Finally, the ice was broken.
Her smile lasted a moment longer before she turned serious. "Did you, uh, get a good look at the guy?"
"Not really, no."
"You think you'd recognize him if you saw him again?"
"What, you mean that distinctive black wool ski mask? I doubt it."
"Did you notice what he was wearing?"
"Vaguely," I said, picturing him. "Jeans, I think. His jacket had studs in it. Big ugly boots. That's all I really noticed."
"Yeah, me too. Not much chance they'll catch him, huh?"
"Not much. How much did he get away with? Couple hundred? Cops aren't likely to form a task force to find the guy."
"Yeah, I guess not."
I lit a cigarette and we made small talk about nothing in particular. Eventually, a squad car pulled up to the curb. Two patrol cops walked into the store, oozing authority. They were what we would have called "I Spy cops" when I was a kid: one black, one white. They eyeballed the store with their hands on their holsters, then came to the counter to talk to us. The clerk came out from behind the counter. Since I had never seen her except through the service window, it was the first time I had ever seen her legs. They were as nice as the rest of her.
I gave a statement, my name and address, and everything else that rookie cops are trained to collect from witnesses. Neither of the cops seemed to recognize me. I prayed that the young patrolman who took my statement wouldn't realize who I was. My name didn't seem to strike a chord, so I counted myself lucky.
The clerk, whose name I learned was Anne, gave the best description of the perp she could. Caucasian. Black ski mask. Black leather jacket with metal studs on the shoulders. Jeans. Snakeskin boots. I agreed with her description and added that the gun was a .25 semi-automatic.
"Are you sure about that?" the black cop asked me.
"Positive," I said. "It was one of those cheap Ravens."
In addition to our testimony, there was a security camera behind the counter that had caught everything. Anne told the police that the recorder was locked in a back room and Sahid, the owner, would have to get the tape for them. She ran the night's receipts on the register and determined that the robber had gotten away with four hundred thirty dollars and some change.
Potential customers wandered into the store every few minutes, but Anne turned them away. About midnight, a thin, swarthy man burst through the door with a look of concern plastered across his face. "What's going on?" he demanded in a faint Middle Eastern accent.
This, I guessed correctly, was Sahid. Anne told him about the robbery. Sahid listened hungrily to every word. He expressed relief that Anne was unhurt, then quickly switched to anger that he hadn't been in the store when it happened.
"There's nothing you could have done, Sahid," Anne said. "I'm just glad nothing happened to me or Walter." I was happy to hear that she had bothered to remember my name.
The police work didn't take more than twenty minutes. The patrol cops told us that a detective would be in touch.
There was an awkward silence. Anne said, "Sahid, if you don't mind, I don't think I'm up to working anymore tonight..."
"Oh, sure," Sahid said agreeably. "Sure, go on home. But you will still come in tomorrow, right?"
"I don't know, Sahid. I'll call you in the morning."
"Okay, that's good. Go on, go home."
"I'll walk you out," I offered.
Anne smiled politely. "Thanks."
Outside, I decided to take a chance. "Listen, you've had kind of a rough night. Why don't you let me buy you a drink?"
She waffled. "I don't really think I'm up to it..."
"Come on. Since I wasn't macho enough to tackle the stickup man, at least I can be a gentleman and buy you a drink."
"Okay." She grinned. "One drink."
We walked the two blocks to Shadows. Even on weekends, this place doesn't get wall-to-wall crowds. Being that it was a Thursday, it was practically deserted. The bartender, a chunky brunette in her forties, was taking care of two regulars staring dully at the TV. She gave me a smile and a familiar nod as I stepped up to the bar. I ordered a couple of drafts and carried them to a table.
"You come here much?" Anne asked as we sat.
"Enough to know that you don't."
"No. First time I've been here, actually. I usually hang out downtown."
"Like at the Temple?" The Temple was a popular nightclub with the college kids.
"I'm a little old for that crowd," I admitted.
Her even teeth shone in the light from the neon beer ad on the wall above us. "I'm getting a little old for it myself."
The conversation lagged for a while. I lit a cigarette while Anne stared into her beer.
"I'm sorry if I'm not very good company right now," she said. "I'm still kind of in shock, I guess." She looked up at me. "But what am I telling you for? You went through the same thing."
"Yeah, but I've got a little experience with it."
That confused her a little. "What, you've been robbed before?"
"No, but I used to be a cop."
"Really?" She leaned backwards, stunned. "But you're not anymore," she said, not quite asking.
"No. I left the force two years ago."
"Because of this." I tapped my finger against the scar branching from my left eye.
"You know, I thought it would be impolite to ask, but since you brought it up..."
"I got shot."
Her eyes widened. "In the face?"
"Yep. I was lucky not to lose the eye."
"Jesus. That's awful."
"It's not so bad. One of these days maybe I'll get plastic surgery for the scar. Until then, it doesn't really bother me."
"But you lost your job over it."
"Disability. I'm partially blind in the one eye."
"So what do you do now?"
"I'm a private investigator."
"Wow." She set her elbows on the table and cradled her chin. "That sounds really interesting."
I cracked a smile. "It's not as interesting as you might think."
"Still, it's gotta beat working in a liquor store."
I shrugged. "You do what you gotta do, right? I've worked a couple Joe jobs in my time."
"How old are you? If you don't mind me asking."
"Thirty-two. How old are you?"
"Twenty-six." She made a face. "Too old to be working in a liquor store."
"You're still young," I assured her. "If you want to find something else, you've got time to look."
"God, I hope so." She scratched her cheek. "I don't know. Maybe I'll become a waitress."
Another silence crept between us. It seemed like as good a time as any to tell her what was on my mind, so I took a deep breath and dove into it. "Anne, I think I should warn you what to expect tomorrow. I worked plenty of holdups when I was a beat cop, so I know. Whenever a job like this happens, the first person they suspect is the employee."
"Oh, yeah. A lot of times, the clerk steals the money themself and fakes the holdup. Luckily, you have the security camera, plus me as a witness to prove the stickup man actually existed."
"Well, thank God for that."
"Yeah. And don't worry, I won't tell them you knew the gunman."
Her drink stopped halfway to her mouth. Eyelids fluttered, face tightened. "Excuse me?"
"I'm guessing you knew the gunman, right?"
She slammed the glass onto the table. "Where the hell is this coming from?"
"I can't help it. I still think like a cop."
"No, I mean why do you think I knew the guy?"
"Couple reasons. First thing was the way the gunman acted when I came into the store. He kept the gun on me the whole time and gave you orders out the side of his mouth. He didn't seem very concerned about you. You could have a gun back there, or you might trip an alarm. At the very least, he should have backed up a step so he could keep us both in his line of sight. Instead, he acted like I was the only one he had to worry about. He knew you weren't gonna pull anything."
"Maybe he just didn't expect a chick to get froggy."
"Yeah, maybe. But there's also the boots."
"You told the cops the guy was wearing snakeskin boots. There's no way you could have seen them through that service window. You couldn't have seen anything below his waist."
Her mouth dropped open. I could see her brain working behind her eyes. "You told me they were snakeskin."
"No, I didn't. I said they were ugly. So how did you know he had snakeskin boots on?"
She kept staring, trying her damnedest to keep a blank expression.
I shook my head. "Don't worry. I'm not gonna turn you in. What the hell do I care if you stole a few hundred bucks? Like I said, I'm not a cop, I'm an ex-cop. It doesn't matter to me anymore." She still didn't respond. "Look, I'm sorry I brought it up, all right? I guess I just like to show off how smart I am. Let's just forget the whole thing, okay?"
She pressed her lips together. Her eyes went to the table, where I had set the Marlboro Lights and a book of matches. "Mind if I get one of those cigarettes?"
She fumbled with the matches getting it lit. "So you're not gonna say anything?"
I shrugged. "You seem like a nice girl. Why would I want to felonize you over one stupid mistake?"
She finally made eye contact with me again. "That seems like a strange attitude for a cop. Even an ex-cop."
"I don't have the fond memories of the force that some ex-cops have."
"Because of your eye?"
She gave me a sympathetic look. "What happened?"
"I'll tell you some other time."
I was grateful to see her smile return. "Does that mean you want to see me again?"
"I'd like to, yeah."
She wrote her phone number on a cocktail napkin. I paid the tab and we walked out.
On the sidewalk, I said, "Which way do you live? I'll walk you home."
"Oh, I'm just a couple blocks down Fairgreen. I'll be okay."
"You sure? It's kinda late."
"Well, my brother might be there, and... I don't want him to know you know. You know?"
"Yeah, I know. It'll be our secret."
She cast her gaze at the sidewalk, then looked back at me. "It wasn't my idea to do it. My brother needed the money..."
"It's okay. We'll talk about it later."
"Okay," she said softly.
"Well," I resolved with a sigh, "I'll probably see you at the station tomorrow."
"If not, I'll give you a call."
"I hope so," she said with another small grin.
There was an awkward moment while I wondered how we'd say goodbye. She answered that question by kissing me on the cheek, just below my scar. It was only a peck, but I took it as a promise of things to come.
I watched her trot across the street before I followed my shadow home. As I walked past Beer Wine Snacks, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't paid for the Marlboro Lights. I chuckled about it all the way to my apartment, giddy despite the fact that I had only had one beer. I fell asleep on my couch listening to a Rolling Stones CD, wondering if tonight was a sign that I was getting better or worse.