When the robbers burst in at twelve past twelve on that bright August afternoon, Edward didn’t notice. Leaning over the tabletop, ignoring his lobster sandwich, he was explaining commodities futures to a potential client. So focused on making his argument, so zeroed in on his goal, Edward did not see that everyone around him had started to raise their hands. Conversations lurched and sputtered. People began pulling out their cell phones and holding them in the air. Only when the client broke eye contact and gasped did Edward turn and see three men with guns stomping among the fine linen tables issuing orders.
Edward had never been in such physical danger before—he’d never even been in a fight—but he knew in that instant he was a coward. He pulled out his cell phone from his suit’s breast pocket and held it aloft and stared at a granule of sugar on the linen. His concentration had constricted as tightly as possible.
“Don’t worry folks,” one robber announced. “Everyone stay calm and this will be over in a couple of minutes. One of us is going to take the cell phones and one of us is going to collect the wallets. You’ll get your cell phones back at the end of this. Everyone stay calm.”
The man coming around to collect the cell phones in a white plastic trash bag was composed, even polite. He wore a plastic mask of some kind, though Edward couldn’t bring himself to look directly at it when the man got to him. Instead he stared at a drop of condensation on his water glass as a voice, raspy and deep and measured, requested “Cell phone, please, sir?” When Edward handed it over, the man snapped it out of his hand and dropped it in the bag. Then he moved on.
Another man came around to collect wallets into a black plastic bag. He wore a similar mask, but it seemed too tight. He breathed heavily through the plastic slits and didn’t say anything as he took Edward’s wallet.
Like a child squeezing his eyes shut to avoid the dark, Edward continued to stare at the condensation as it dripped onto the linen and soaked into the cloth. Then the oddest thing happened. It happened so slowly, Edward was forced to see it.
A few feet away from him, an older woman in a business suit, with short gray hair and flashy earrings, stuck out her foot and tripped the polite robber with the cell phone bag. She said, “C’mon Bill”—speaking perhaps to the terrified little man trembling next to her—and tried to jump on the robber.
It was such an absurd attempt at heroism it angered Edward. The robber knocked her to the floor, and everyone in the restaurant seemed at once to gasp. No one moved to help the woman. No one moved at all. Even the other robbers stopped. The polite robber stood up and took a step toward the woman. She was on her hands and knees, struggling to get to her feet. The robber pointed his gun at the back of her head and pulled the trigger.
When time resumed everyone had jumped and people were screaming and the woman lay dead on the floor. Edward, realizing he had a drop of blood in his eye, wiped it away.
The police questioned everyone. The robbers had fled in a blue Windstar with New Jersey license plates. They dropped the bag of cell phones at the edge of the parking lot, one investigator explained, to avoid the GPS.
Edward left after he was questioned, but he didn’t go back to work. He didn’t say a word to his lunch companion. He didn’t have a wallet or any money. He walked to his car, but the thought of sitting down made his stomach lurch.
He kept walking. The riverfront was nearby, so he wandered over to it. The water was as calm as a baptistery.
What was she thinking? C’mon, Bill.
Who was she? What had led her to that moment? A lifetime of idiocy, perhaps. Maybe she was the stupid person at work who’d always thought too highly of herself.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe she was an amazing human being, one who’d overcome a lifetime of troubles, who’d always come out on top because of pluck and daring.
Either way she was dead.
Along the riverfront people moved, ran, shifted. Mothers and fathers watching children playing on a swing set. Leaning against the long black railing, two teenagers locked in a undulating kiss. One old man sitting on a bench, rubbing his moist eyes.
Edward walked up to the railing and stared down at the placid surface of the water.
He climbed over the railing, walked through the weed-pocked mud to the water’s edge. His shoes sank, his slacks absorbed the muck. He walked into the water. The mothers and fathers pointed at him. The couple stopped kissing. He waded further in. The mud sucked away one shoe. He waded out until the water, still and calm, rose to his waist. He stared down at the clouds swaying in the river. He slapped the water gently and watched the sky ripple.
Jake Hinkson's stories have appeared at FFO in the past, as well as Crime Factory and Beat To A Pulp. My novel Hell On Church Street will be released by New Pulp Press in January.