Story by Eric Lomax Contributor & Graphics by Nathan Zankich Art Director, Olga Kryvokon Assistant Art Director, Nolawi S Wolde Yohannes Illustrator
When Tom entered the convenience store, the first thing he noticed was the smell. Some sort of incense was burning, but when he looked around he couldn’t find the source. He saw a dozen other things that looked out of place instead: a floor fan instead of an AC unit, an ATM that looked a decade old, a wooden sign above the exit. It was written in Latin and he couldn’t read it. It all looked so rustic, which he didn’t expect from the modern exterior. The most important thing he did not find was a security camera. He grabbed a candy bar and walked to the counter.
Tom and the man at the register were the only people in the room. He was a short, old white man with a closely cropped beard and a loose-fitting silk shirt. It surprised Tom when he spoke with a thick Middle Eastern accent. “One dollar and fifty cents,” he said.
“Here you go, sir,” Tom replied. He was masking his natural voice, making it softer and almost at a higher pitch. He wouldn’t want to be recognized later. As he handed over the cash, he casually leaned in to look behind the counter. He wasn’t seeing enough. He needed to extend the conversation and gather more information.
“How’s business doing? This store must be new, I haven’t seen it before.”
“Slow. I am surprised it is still open. It wouldn’t be if it weren’t for men like you.”
Men like me? Is he on to me? he thought. Tom figured he was letting his nerves get to him and tried to play it off.
“Well maybe you’re just blessed.” People are always less suspicious of religious folk.
The old man chuckled. “No. No, I don’t think I am.”
That threw Tom off enough that he just wanted to leave. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere.
“Sorry, sir, if you’re not religious,” he said as he backed toward the door.
“I am a God-fearing man.”
“Good day.” He didn’t know why, but Tom was resisting the urge to book it. Something about that shop unnerved him and it wasn’t that he was planning on robbing it.
Chuck was waiting in his truck outside. Steel-toed boots connected to faded jeans laid across the dashboard. Tom could see the cigarette smoke filling up the cab as he approached. When he opened the door, he heard Chuck lazily singing along to the radio.
“I’m all for giving the devil his due.” He paused to take a drag. “Burn out the day. Burn out — “
Tom cut him off by turning off the radio. They needed to talk.
“So how did ‘vetting the place’ go?” Chuck asked mockingly.
From the smoke emerged Chuck’s figure. A wife-beater revealed tattooed arms with a hint of muscle and a gut with none. Once, Tom asked Chuck if he was Greek because the cross tattoo on his left arm was an Orthodox one. Chuck responded by saying he never went to church and just thought the cross looked badass.
Chuck did not wait for a response to his question before he continued. “I still don’t see why you went. All those places are the same. Let me guess. There was a bell when you entered, one camera in the back right corner, and an Indian guy behind a glass divider at the counter.”
“None of those things, actually.”
“No shit, no cameras.” Tom watched Chuck sit completely upright for the first time during the whole trip. “Well then, let’s go hit the bastard right now.”
“We need to give it time. If I walk in with a Fleetwood Mac t-shirt and khakis and he’s robbed five minutes later by a guy in the same shirt, he’ll be able to recognize me. Put two and two together and point me out to a sketch artist.”
“Then why the hell did you need to go in to check it out? I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.”
“It will be fine if we wait. At least for enough time for me to change my clothes.”
“The store closes at ten. Let’s get back here at nine.” Chuck flicked the radio back on and returned to singing along to old rock songs as they pulled out of the parking lot.
Though it was only a quarter ’til nine on a summer night, the lot was as dark as if it were midnight. As Tom pulled out their pistols, Chuck dug his head into the shopping bag for their ski masks.
“Oogedy boogedy boo!” Chuck exclaimed when he popped his head back up. To Tom’s surprise, it wasn’t simply black, but instead a red rubber mask with gnarled fangs, bright yellow eyes and two disproportionate horns.
“The hell is that? Where are the ski masks?” Tom asked.
“Relax, I got those too. But I figured this would be funnier for us and more intimidating for the chump inside.”
“And a lot more recognizable when they track us.” Chuck only laughed at that.
Tom continued. “I’m serious, what about when the police ask the only party store in this tiny town who the last person to buy demon masks was?”
“Ugh, fine,” Chuck replied as he pulled it off. “You know, I’m the one who got you into this whole robbery thing.”
“You say that like I should be thanking you.”
“Well, gratuity is always appreciated, but what I mean is, why are you taking the lead?”
“Because I have a lot more riding on this than you,” Tom growled as he pulled the black cloth over his face. “You’re in this for kicks and a quick buck. I’m doing this so loan sharks don’t break my kneecaps. Now let’s go already.”
They got out of the truck silently, as planned. Tom made sure to double check that his pistol was loaded and his partner did the same. They had agreed Tom would collect the money, but Chuck grabbed the bag and started for the door. Tom tried to be quiet, despite the fact it would get very loud in just a moment.
“Hands in the air, nobody move or I’ll shoot,” Chuck screamed as he kicked open the door with needless bravado. Following behind, Tom felt relief seeing that there were no customers, only the old man from before.
“This is a robbery. Stay calm and cooperate and you won’t get hurt,” Tom added with a rougher tone than normal. “We’re going to hand you a bag. When we do, fill it with all of the cash in the register.”
The old man was complicit, but there was an air of indifference. He barely raised his hands over his shoulders and he didn’t reach out to catch the bag when Chuck tossed it to him.
“Fill the bag or I will shoot and do it for you, old man,” Chuck yelled, pushing his weapon forward as if to make his point more clear.
“Please lower the weapon so we can talk, Charles,” he replied, as calm as he was earlier.
“What the — “ Chuck started before Tom cut him off.
“I don’t know who the hell you’re talking to,” Tom said. He looked to Chuck and he seemed to catch on.
The old man turned to look at Tom. “Excuse me, but I was trying to talk to Charles.”
The roughness of his accent had disappeared. His English had improved, but more than that he sounded younger and more educated.
“Fuck this, he knows my name.” The bang that immediately followed was much louder than any time Tom had fired the gun before, so much so that he winced at the noise. When he recovered, he heard screaming coming from his side. Chuck was on the floor, with a bloody stump of a hand and shrapnel in his torso. The gun misfired and exploded. What the hell is happening?
Tom re-aimed at the cashier and barked, “Did you do this to him?”
“He did it to himself.”
“I don’t want any riddles or — “
“You’ll do the same that he did?” The lights above the old man were starting to flicker, but they never went out completely. It was just enough to make the shadows dance behind the counter and make his whole frame seem larger.
Tom paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. Either this man knew they were coming beforehand and sabotaged their plan or he was a damn good bluffer. He tried backing up slowly, but bumped into a shelf and nearly fell over. Was that behind me before?
The old man broke the silence. “Will you please lower your weapon? I just want to talk.”
Tom decided to play along. “We can talk with gun up,” he replied. “Speak.”
“What would you like to talk about?”
Tom didn’t want to talk, he wanted to bolt. But somehow this man was in control of the situation. He heard Chuck wheeze.
“I want to know if my friend’s gonna die.”
“Everybody is going to die.”
“Don’t be coy. I mean tonight, from those wounds.”
“Oh yes, he will. My turn for a question. Why did you come here tonight?”
“To make money,” Tom replied. He didn’t want to drag this out if Chuck was dying. “My turn. How can I get out of here?”
“You beat my game.”
“How do I — “
“My turn.” This was the second time the old man interrupted Tom. It wasn’t like when Chuck constantly talked over him and he let his voice fade out. When the old man spoke, the very breath in his throat seemed to disappear. “Why did you follow Charles into this job when you clearly had reservations?”
This was getting weirder by the second. “Because he’s my friend. Now how did I win your game?”
“Prove me wrong. Make me look like a fool, though I’ll warn you I’m always right.”
Tom tried to take a moment to think.
The old man’s eyes were focused now, not moving away from Tom for a second. Tom could only focus on his best friend writhing in pain on the floor.
“So why a life of crime? Petty crime at that?”
“That sounds like two questions,” Tom responded.
“Then I’ll rephrase it. Why a life of petty crime when you are intelligent enough to do more?”
“Because the people that deserve to come out on top never do.”
“And you think you deserve to?”
Tom became visibly frustrated, his fingers gripped hard enough to show the whites of his knuckles. “Now that definitely was two questions in a row. Can’t you even play by your own rules?”
“No.” Shit, that was a question. “I think that is your problem. You cannot deviate from a set path very well. I changed the rules and you got flustered enough to make a mistake. Tonight is a perfect example. You plotted a convenience store robbery as if it were a bank heist. Even now you are stalling to think of a plan.”
That made so much sense to Tom that it made him sick. Even worse, it gave him an idea. A horrible, frightening idea. He looked down at Chuck, still moving but hardly making any noise. If somehow his lung got pierced, he was already one foot out the door.
“Now for my next question,” the old man began, but he wasn’t given the chance to finish.
Tom turned and shot Chuck in the head. In his mind it was a mercy killing. The shrapnel would have killed him more slowly and more painfully. Tom tried to look away before he saw the worst. It was irrational, really, to try and move my head away before the bullet hit. It didn’t splatter as a watermelon would, like he had seen in the movies, but that somehow made it worse. Instead it jolted back and in an instant, every squirm and gasp just stopped.
“There,” Tom said through clenched teeth. “I proved you wrong. He didn’t die from his wounds.”
The old man opened his mouth as if to make another quip, but stopped himself to think for a moment. After a second he, nodded in quiet satisfaction before speaking. “I didn’t know you’d do it.”
“Am I free to leave?”
“You always were.”
That sent a pang of guilt to his stomach. Had he killed his friend for no reason other than a mind game? No, this guy was supernatural, or something worse. He reached down to Chuck’s corpse to get the keys.
“I think he left the keys in the truck bed,” the old man jutted. “Oh, and you forgot this.” He tossed the brown bag to Tom’s feet.
Tom picked it up hesitantly, then nearly ran out of the store.
As soon as he found a trashcan, he dumped the cash. He wouldn’t take money for Chuck’s death. After a moment, he dumped the gun too. Tom just won one bet with the devil, he didn’t want to risk a second.