When these two get together, anything can happen, and usually does.
I sort of panicked and twisted my head to find Jim. He was looking at me; he shook his head, just slightly, and with his arm and hand flat on the table, pushed his hand toward me with his palm facing me. I got the message: stay where I was. Then he twisted his pointer finger in a quick circle. I took that to mean turn around, to stop looking at him. So I looked first at the guy with the gun, the gun still pointed at me, and looked down at my feet. I wanted to seem as little of a threat as possible.
Maybe that helped, because when I looked back up, the man seemed to be trying to look at everyone in the place all at once, then back at the jukebox where I was, then away again. I stood there, staring at the machine and not moving a muscle.
“This is a stickup,” the man said, speaking way too loud for the size of the diner, still moving the gun around, pointing at everyone for a half second before moving on. “Do what I say or I’ll shoot you. I will. I don’t give a crap about any of you. I’ll shoot you.”
He paused, looked scared, then defiant. He took a step into the restaurant. “Money,” he said. “Give me your money.” Then he looked at the waitress who was at the cash register only a couple of steps from him. “You,” he said. “Open that up and give me everything in it. I’ll kill you!”
She quickly opened the drawer, then stepped back away from it, back into the space between the counter and the wall behind it. “Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot anyone. There’s the money.” She pointed at the open drawer.
The man looked confused, then stepped to the cash register. He started to reach for the drawer but was holding the gun in that hand. He looked at it and at the drawer, and he seemed even more uncertain. He looked up then, first at the waitress, then at the very old man who was doing the cooking. The cook was staring at him just like the rest of us were.
“What’re you looking at?” the man suddenly said, then raised the gun, pointed it at the cook and fired.
The gun had been waving when he’d pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit high above the cook. The cook raised both his hands, one holding a spatula, and started shaking.
That’s when I heard a voice. Jim’s.
“What the hell you doing, man? This is the worst shakedown I’ve ever seen. You nuts or what?”
The man turned to look at Jim, holding the gun more or less pointed in that direction and taking a step toward him. They were about as far apart as they could get in that diner.
Jim let him come a step closer, then said, “See? You’re screwing up again. You don’t have any idea what you’re doing! Jesus, man! Look, you walk down this way toward me, everyone behind you will escape, and you haven’t even got their money yet. You haven’t ever done this before, have you? You’re terrible at it.”
The man stopped walking. He was only looking at Jim now, ignoring everyone else. His hand holding the gun wasn’t a bit steady. Jim kept shaking his head. “You’d better listen to me. I can talk you through this. What’s the first thing you should have done, something you didn’t even think of? What, no idea? Well, here’s a hint. What if someone in here was carrying? Huh? You consider that? No, I didn’t think so. The first thing to do when robbing a place and you’ve got bystanders to deal with is make sure they don’t have any weapons. Now, what’s the best way to do that?”
The man was standing still now, facing Jim, a blank expression on his face. I could see his face was sweating, though it really wasn’t hot in the diner. His eyes looked even bigger, if that was possible.
“So, you want me to tell you?”
The man didn’t seem to understand, but then finally nodded.
“Okay, this is what you do. It serves two purposes. Doing it this way, you’ll be safe from weapons, and you’ll have access to their money. Both good things for you, bad things for them. You tell them to undress and toss their clothes to you. But you have them do it one at a time. If they all do it together, there’s too much commotion, too much going on, and you can’t watch them all. So you have them do it one at a time. Start with the one closest to you, because if that one has a weapon, they’re close enough to hit you if they shoot at you. See, there’s a reason for all this. You have to think these things through if you want to make a career of this. You’re shit at planning, even worse at pulling it off.”
The closest one to the man was the waitress. He turned to her and pointed the gun at her and said, “Strip!” His voice sounded so nervous the word was almost unintelligible.
She looked as scared as he was and immediately began taking off her clothes. When she was down to only a bra and panties, she stopped and crossed her arms over her chest.
The man looked at Jim, and Jim just shook his head, looking disgusted. “Man, are you ever crap at this. Look, you’re the one in charge here. If you want to see them all naked, that’s up to you. But you should be more worried about someone having a gun than getting a peep show. You watched her undress and didn’t look at anyone else while she was doing it. You’re really not cut out for this. I’d guess no one has a gun or they’d already have shot you. Up to you whether you go on with the stripping or just start collecting their money.”
Jim was giving the guy a choice, and that simply further confused him. I could see him thinking, and it looked like it was hard for him. Then, after a moment, he said to the cook, the next closest to him, “Now you. Strip.”
The cook did. He left his underwear on as well. The man didn’t make a point of it. The little old ladies were next. He looked at them, they returned his glare. “Strip,” he said, pointing at one, and she said, “No.”
“I’ll shoot you,” he said.
“Then you’ll fry in hell. No way am I showing my underthings to all these nice people even if they are strangers.” She scowled at him and sat up straighter. No doubt about it, she looked ready to meet her maker.
I couldn’t believe it, but the man then looked back at Jim. He wanted Jim’s advice!
“Up to you, man,” Jim said, “but little old ladies usually don’t have much money, they almost never walk around packing, and as you haven’t killed anyone yet, seems a waste of time and a bullet to start with her. Besides, you’re wasting time and you have no idea how much you have. If it were me, I’d just rescue her purse from her if you’re strong enough to do that. You might ask her nicely to toss it to you.”
The man hesitated, then did just that, and the other old lady quickly grabbed the purse from her defiant friend and tossed that and hers to the man with the gun.
Next came the family with the small child. The mother was holding him in her lap, his head against her breast. Her husband was showing all kinds of mixed emotions. I felt for him. He had to be feeling he needed to protect his wife and child, but he had no gun. How could he do that? He was torn. I was afraid he might decide to attack the man and get shot just to prove a macho point.
“You,” the gunman said, and pointed the gun at the man. The man slid out of the booth, stood in the aisle facing the man with the gun, and slowly stripped. He kicked his clothes to the gunman, then sat back down again.
The gunman pointed at the woman and opened his mouth, and Jim spoke. “You ever hear about sow bears and their cubs? I’d leave her alone. He’d have any money they had, and no way would she allow a gun anywhere near that child, so she certainly wouldn’t have one. You got to be smart with these things. Just leave her be.”
The man at the counter was next. He seemed a little senile to me, like he had no idea what was happening. He’d gone on reading his paper up till now, and when the man called out to him, telling him to undress, he said, “What?” and put his hand behind his ear.
That happened a second time. The man with the gun started to move closer to him, but then realized it would make it possible for the waitress to run out the front door. He looked undecided, then turned back to look at Jim again.
“Think, man, think,” Jim said, sounding frustrated. “That guy has no money. Look at his clothes. I’ll bet he doesn’t even pay for breakfast. Look at the cars in front. There aren’t enough. He didn’t come in one. He walked. Probably comes in here every day and they freight him his breakfast. You got to cut your losses and keep your eyes on the big prize. Stay with the game, man. He’s got nothing. The clock’s ticking.”
That left me next. The man looked at me, raised the gun and said, “You’re next. Strip off.”
I’d known I’d be next. I’d also figured out there was some reason Jim was doing what he was. I knew full well that this was what he did: get into and out of situations like this. I knew he was good at it. I had no idea what he was doing but wanted to help all I could. So I’d been glancing at him while he was speaking, trying to figure out if he wanted anything from me, and if so, what.
I couldn’t ask him. But then I realized, I wouldn’t have to. If he wanted me to do something, he’d find a way to tell me. All this came easily to him.
I’d reached for my shirt. I didn’t really mind stripping. At least not the fact of it, the being-bare part. I didn’t like being told to do it, that was all. But I started to. Then Jim said, “You’re wasting time again, man. Look, I run meth. I’ve got a delivery to make. Got a ton of the stuff in my car, just sitting there, and you’re making me late to my drop. I can’t fuck around with you like this. And now you’re working on some kid who doesn’t have squat. You can see he’s empty-handed. No place for a gun. And kids don’t have money. Worse yet, they don’t like being told what to do. So he gives you some attitude, tells you to go fuck yourself, what you gonna do, man? Shoot him? You do that and everyone in here is going to be all over you, to say nothing of what the cops’ll do to you. They won’t take to you shooting an innocent kid. No, the way you should treat a snotty kid is give him what’s what up the side of the head. That’s what they understand. Look, I don’t like kids. Never have. This one gives you any shit, I’ll help you out. But I think you’re wasting your time, man. Either way, make it quick.”
“You got meth?” That was all the guy seemed to have got from what Jim had said. I’d gotten more. I knew what he wanted from me now.
“Yeah, out in the car? You want some? You got money?”
“Sure.” The guy pointed at the cash register and all the clothing lying at his feet.
“Then what’re you fucking around with the kid for? Jesus! Let’s go outside and deal.”
That’s when I spoke up. “Wasn’t going to strip for this guy anyway.”
I think the guy with the gun would have ignored it. He’d heard the word meth and that was all he could think about right then. Jim, on the other hand, had heard what he wanted to hear.
“What’d you say, kid? What’s that? You weren’t going to do what he told you to?” He looked at the guy with the gun. “See? Punks, all of them. Need to learn a lesson. Here, I’ll bring this kid up to you. You show him what happens when he disrespects you like that. You can’t let him get away with that, especially in front of a bunch of people. You’d look weak. You’d lose their respect. Can’t have that. Matter of control, which starts with respect.”
So saying, Jim got up, came down the aisle to where I was and grabbed my arm after walking past me, putting him between me and the sweating, jittery man with the gun. Then he started pulling me up the aisle. I resisted so it wouldn’t only look real, it would be. Jim turned to look at the gunman, who had let the gun drop so both his arm and the gun were pointing at the floor now. “I’ll bring him to you and hold him. I’d suggest you take that gun and pistol whip him a couple of times. Do him up good and proper. Cut him up some so he’ll never forget what that lip of his got him. He won’t go mouthing off at anyone again for a long, long time after that.”
The man was watching as Jim pulled me forward. He seemed oblivious to the fact that in a few more steps, Jim would be standing right next to him.
When we reached him, the man began to raise the gun, Jim nodded and said, “Yeah, like that,” and then all at once he let go of me and smashed a fist into the guy’s nose. The man went down, and Jim went down with him, landing on his stomach with his knees.
The man was flat on his back, trying to catch a breath, but he was still holding the gun. I stepped forward and kicked it, hard, knocking it loose from his hand. Then I stepped over and stood with one foot on it. I didn’t want to touch it, and I didn’t want anyone else to, either.
“Someone call the cops,” Jim said, looking at the waitress.
She didn’t even bother to dress first. She got to the phone hanging on the wall and placed the call. Meantime, Jim was handing purses back to the ladies and clothing back to those who’d removed it.
Jim, his eyes twinkling, turned to the cook who was just buttoning his trousers. “My eggs ready yet?”
We were in the car and gone before the cops arrived. Jim got the cook to give him an old apron that he didn’t use any longer and tore it into strips. He used them to tie the man’s hands behind his back. He tied his ankles together, too, and said that that should be enough. The waitress said the cops would probably be there in ten minutes, and Jim told them we needed to be long gone by then and not because he was a meth dealer. He told them that had simply been a ruse to get the guy to accept him as he walked up the aisle toward him. But, he said, he had an appointment he had to keep, and the cops would delay him unnecessarily asking question after question that any of them in the restaurant could answer.
I told them to be sure no one touched the gun.
By then, people could see Jim and I were together and realized he’d just saved them. They’d begun thanking him, and Jim was getting very restless. So I grabbed his arm and pulled him away from them, saying, “You’re going to be late. Come on!”
Then, after getting in the Escalade, I had to get back out again. I’d forgotten all about water and a burger for Fitz. He hadn’t forgotten at all. He’d looked at me with sad and shaming eyes, and I had to go back inside. I didn’t have time to get a burger cooked, but Fitz wasn’t all that particular. Anything from well done to raw, that was fine with him.
No one could do sad eyes like Fitz.
We drove in silence for a while, then Jim gave me a look and a grin. “How’d that make you feel?” he asked, and I knew what he was talking about.
“I should have been scared, right? And you saw I wasn’t?”
He nodded. “Most guys your age would have been terrified.”
“Maybe I’m like you?” I said.
I snorted. “You know what I mean. You told me once you like your job because of the rush you get when you’re in danger and how it feels to plan and work your way out of it. What gets me is how fast you can do it. As soon as that guy walked in with a gun, you already knew a couple of things. One was that you’d talk him into forgetting to be scared of you, and two, that it would be better if he didn’t know we were together.”
Jim smiled a wan smile. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been in that sort of situation too many times before. But I knew that to keep you safe, you needed to be a separate entity. I didn’t realize how to use you till I saw that opportunity, which you gave me by smarting off to him. You saw what was needed just as quickly as I did. You were thinking, not just standing there being scared. That told me you wouldn’t object to being part of what came next.
“I knew you hadn’t minded last year; you enjoyed being a part of what we did then. I hadn’t been sure about now. Maybe you’d gotten domesticated in the last year.” He grinned, and I laughed.
“That’s why you asked how I felt. Confirming your suspicions that domestication hadn’t reared its ugly head. Well, you’re right. I got a rush out of what we did. I felt alive, on edge, while it was going on.”
“You might have saved my bacon again. I wasn’t sure where the gun was after hitting him and jumping on him. I thought he’d lose it when he went down, but he still had it. Then there you were and he didn’t have it any longer.” He glanced over at me again and gave me a quick smile full of warmth.
“You knocked the wind out of him,” I said. “Still, I wasn’t taking any chances. I didn’t even think about kicking the gun away; I just did it.” I shook my head, remembering. “Then all I could think about was fingerprints on it. Anyone’s.”
“So you liked the adrenalin rush.” He didn’t voice it as a question, more a statement for him to mull over.
“Yeah, I guess,” I agreed. “Just like you did.”
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