The Stranger Was a Hero
The back doors to the ambulance slammed shut and two paramedics went to the front, got in, slammed their doors closed, and the driver turned on the siren, screeching away from Sal’s Stereo Center. Less than a minute later, he turned off the siren. The driver grinned at his partner saying, “Don’t know what I was thinking. Ain’t no rush, is there?”
People stood around the police barricade, all of them trying to see inside the store. Police were walking around, a few trying to keep the spectators from getting to close to the crime scene, while other policemen were getting statements from those inside during the attempted robbery and double murder, of which those who were still alive, gladly gave their statements. Many of them said the same thing.
They didn’t know who he was, but the stranger was a hero.
Four Hours Earlier
Friday is Sal’s biggest day. Sales Day at Sal’s. Salvatore Poppatino, is a big man, heavy set, balding, and always smokes a cigar. Regardless of the new smoking laws; it was his store. His rules. Sal always greeted his customers when they walked into his store. It was one of the things people liked best about him. He genuinely took take a personal interest with every person who walked through his doors. As Sal was fond of saying, “It makes for good PR.”
At 1:20, Sal had five customers. Two single men, a young woman with two children, and a young couple. Counting himself and two employees, one of which being his daughter, ten people were in the store.
Sal had just finished selling the main features on a Pioneer Stereo, wall-to-wall Sound System with a five-CD changer. It could be remotely set up to every room in the house (even the bathroom), with a small portable speaker placed wherever they chose. It also operated by remote to adjust sound level. The young couple was impressed, and Sal, knowing the sale was in the bag, because he threw in eight small remote speakers at no charge. Sal would get the whole thing on their Visa card. “Love those credit cards,” Sal would say.
His daughter had just finished ringing up a purchase to a man for a set of speaker wires, when three men walked in, locked the door and drew out their guns.
The mother of the two children stifled a scream. The wife of the couple who couldn’t wait to hear the new stereo in her home, fainted; her husband catching her before she fell to the floor and gently laid her down.
Sal let the cigar fall from between his lips to the floor. In eighteen years, this was the first time anyone has tried to rob him. He wasn’t going to take this lying down. Sal was going to teach these punks a thing or two. You bet’cha.
Sal’s daughter remained motionless behind the counter. The man who made the purchase started to shake, and another man stood still, but he didn’t appear to be scared.
Unnoticed in the back room, was Sal’s other employee.
“Hey! What the hell do you punks think you’re doing? Get outta my store before I call the cops! Out, beat it!” Sal was so infuriated, his face was turning red.
The tallest of the three robbers, in three strides reached Sal and rose his right arm and brought his gun barrel down, slicing across Sal’s face, sending him to the floor, next to his now burned-out cigar. Sal was unconscious.
The mother of the two children had them run behind the counter, then kneeled down to help Sal.
“What the hell you think your doin’, lady?”
She looked up at him with both fear and defiance in her eyes.
“I’m a nurse scared as hell is what I am. But as a nurse, I’m going to do what I can to help this man.”
The man who hit Sal, raised his head and looked around the room.
“Alrighty then, lissen’ up. I don’t like repeatin’ myself so pay attention the first time. Everybody be cooler than the old man and nobody else needs to get hurt. I want all of you to throw your money on the counter next to the register.”
Looking at Sal’s daughter, he yelled, “And you, you sweet-thing, you; just empty the cash box and make it quick or you’ll get more than a thumpin’ like the old man did. When ya get done doin’ that, I know you got a safe here someplace; open that up and get the cash out and be quick about it!”
Frightened, she opened the register, and emptied the contents into a plastic bag with the store’s name, address, and phone number emblazoned in blue script writing.
“We don’t have a safe here. We keep just enough on hand to start the day.”
That pissed off the tall man and he took his arm holding the gun and smashed several items off a display counter; DVD players, portable boom boxes and the like.
In the back room, still unseen by any of the robber’s, Sal’s other clerk had hit a button that activated a silent alarm that went directly to the police station.
As the last of the people put their money on the counter, Sal’s daughter added it to the rest of the money in the bag. Motioning to his two partners he said, “One of you grab the cash and let’s get outta here!”
As one man followed the simple instructions, the other man stayed close to the front door when all three heard police sirens.
The man by the door looked through the door’s window.
“Whadda we do, Slim? Two cop cars just pulled up and I see three more comin’!” The one talking was becoming nervous as he hadn’t expected this much trouble. Neither did Slim.
“Shaddaup and let me think.” Slim backed up to one of the windows and peered out and could see five cop cars, and almost a dozen cops. Wiping the sweat that magically appeared on his forehead, his eyes took in everyone in the store. Then his eyes fastened on Sal’s daughter.
“Think yer smart, don’t ya little girl, hittin’ the switch for help. Bitch! I got a good mind to blow your head off to the other side of the room!”
“She didn’t call for them. I did.” The other clerk stepped out from the back room and started walking toward Sal’s daughter.
Slim pulled the trigger three times, sending the clerk flying backward against a wall of display items, leaving a spray of blood that partially covered Sal’s daughters face.
“One thing I hate is a smart ass.”
“Oh, shit, oh man. What did you go and do that for, Slim? We’ll be in big trouble for sure, man!”
“I got us a plan, that’s why. We use all these people as hostages. The cops’ll have to let us go. They’ll know we mean business since I killed that one. If they don’t let us go, then fuck it, we kill’em all.” Slim felt powerful again. Back in control.
His two partners looked at him like he was crazy.
“Slim, I ain’t too sure about all this. Robbing this joint is one thing, killing that dude is another thing. Murder pays a heavy fine, man. I didn’t sign on to kill anybody.”
“Yeah,” said the other one still by the front door. “I ain’t goin’ to prison for no murder, no way!”
Turning his gun, pointing it back and forth at both men, he said, “Do as I tell you, or I drop you right here, right now. You guys don’t get it, do you? We just robbed this place. I busted the old man’s skull open and wasted that punk, and now we got us hostages. You two are in this as deep as I am whether you like it or not. If we don’t get outta this, we all fall. Get it? It’s not me. It’s not you. It’s us, as in we. There ain’t no goin’ back. And since smart ass is dead, the cops’ll know we ain’t bluffin’. Nope, there ain’t no goin’ back.”
From outside came a voice over a loudspeaker.
“Inside the store. This is Sergeant Delusso. There is no escape. All exits are sealed off. Any hostages you have inside, release them, then throw out your weapons and come outside, single file, with your hands behind your head. I repeat, there is no escape. Release the hostages, and throw out your weapons and….”
Slim broke out one of the window panes of the front door.
“Now you lissen up! These people ain’t goin’ nowhere! I smoked one person in here, and if you don’t let us walk, I’ll start wastin’ a few more. You hear me! I’ll blow these mothers away like nobody’s business!”
“I repeat. Let the hostages go. No harm will come to you if you release everyone inside the store. Throw out your weapons, and come out single file with your hands behind your head.”
What a dumb cop, Slim thought.
“No way, blue boy! You got five minutes to get outta here or we start killing people. You better do something fast, cause I’m lookin’ at two people I’m itchin’ to do right now!”
The two people were the couple Sal had sold the stereo system to moments before Slim and the others burst into the store. They huddled against each other; the woman, now awake, frightened and shivering, her eyes streaming with tears, and her husband, lips twitching, trying to look brave and failing badly. Still, he put himself in front of his wife as a shield.
The nurse looked up, and her eyes mentally saw her two children through the counter, praying nothing would happen to them as she continued to work on Sal. The other man stood quietly, thinking.
Sal’s daughter fought off the urge to pee.
Inside the store, everyone was tense. Slim and his two partners, Eddie and Velo, were more nervous than everyone else combined, as well they should be. But what could they do? Slim refused to give in and they were too scared to do anything to get him any angrier than he already was.
What Slim thought would be an easy heist, turned out to possibly end up in a full scale war. Slim was ready to do battle if that was what the cops wanted. He had been down twice; once in Rahway, and then in Chino. He knew this time, he would never get out of prison. Slim would rather take his chances on a bullet than the rest of his life wasting away behind bars.
The police waited outside. Each officer had their weapons trained on the plate glass windows on both sides of the front door, but didn’t dare fire as they could see several people standing around and wasn’t yet certain who the civilians were in danger, or if there were more than one suspect with a weapon.
But when the front door did open, and Slim threw the dead body of the clerk half on and off the curb, the police knew they were dealing with a psycho.
It was a standstill at the moment, but tension was mounting on both sides.
Sal was finally starting to come back around and the nurse kept applying pressure and cold compresses to the deep gash across his cheekbone. Her two children stayed huddled behind the counter, and she was worried for their safety; afraid of what these people might do to them. Hell, she was worried for everyone here. She looked up from the floor and just speaking to them openly, not just Slim.
“Why don’t you just let us leave! We haven’t done anything to you. Please, he needs medical attention, and you have my children frightened to death.”
“Lady, just shut it. Looks to me you’re doin’ a better job playin’ doctor better than a real one. I let all of you go when the cops let us go.”
Then the stranger spoke up.
“Have it your way then. But if even one of those kids get killed, there won’t be a place you can hide that you won’t eventually be found. And when you’re caught, well, I have heard some nasty stories about guys who have done time for killing little kids. What I have heard isn’t pretty.”
Slim was about to say something when he remembered his stint in Chino. Some guy was doing time for multiple murders and one of them was a ten-year old girl. The guy was found dead less than three hours after he was processed in. His throat was slit and his hands and dick were sliced off. As tough as he is, remembering that made Slim shiver inside himself.
“Okay, the kids can go.” Slim turned to the broken window pane and yelled, “Hey, lissen up! “I’m sendin’ two kids out. Don’t try nuthin’ funny, or I blow somebody away in here right outta their shoes. Ya hear me!”
The voice from the bull horn responded. “Understood. Send the children out.” Looking around, he barked out one order. “Men, hold your fire. I repeat, hold your fire.”
The nurse hustled her two children to the front door, as they prepared their departure.
“Mommy! We are scared!” said the oldest of the two.
“I know, baby. Don’t worry, okay? I’ll be right behind you before you know it.” She put her arms around both girls, giving them a tight hug, kissing each on the forehead and cheek. Tears we were running down three sets of eyes. “Now, off you go!”
Outside, the police were covering the entire area, training their weapons on any access point that might allow a clean shot, but that single question remained; how many suspects were involved. The Sergeant who handled the bull horn distinctly remembered the words, ‘let us walk’ and ‘we start killing people’.
Which two, possibly three are inside the store?
The front door opened and both girls ran out into the street, where policemen, waiting, quickly picked them up and hurried them behind other police cars to a waiting ambulance.
In the store, the stranger said, “Now, you really should let Sal go as well. He isn’t any good to you in the condition he’s in. He would only slow you down. And if he dies, it is still murder one.”
“Mister, if you don’t shut your pie hole, you’ll be the next one on the hit parade.”
“Hey, Slim,” said Velo, “he’s got somethin’ there. Cops might give us a break.”
“Look smart ass; I’m running this show. Not you, not Eddie, or,” looking at the stranger, “or you. Everyone leaves when I say they can leave. Besides, he don’t look like he’s gonna die anytime soon. So just shut up about leavin’ here.”
Velo was about forty, with a porcupine face. What youth he once had, he wasted it away on something that sucked the very life from his eyes. He kept staring back and forth from the outside to everyone in the room.
Eddie, he was the lightweight of the three, and the most scared. He spent most of his time in a corner by one of the bigger windows, sneaking looks at the cops outside.
The one who had purchased a set of speaker wires suddenly bolted for the door thinking he had a chance to escape. As long as Slim was being distracted by the other guy, he was confident his chances were good. He got as far as the doorknob.
Velo grabbed him from behind his shirt collar.
“Hold it, asshole! Try that shit again and you’re a dead man!”
The man began shivering with fear. Warm water ran down his one pant leg. As Velo spun him around, Slim walked up behind Velo; already seeing what the other man tried to do and squeezed off one round, catching the man in the face. He flew back against the wall next to the door, blood splattering all over it.
Everyone in the store jumped. The wife of the couple who had wanted the stereo, along with Sal’s daughter, screamed. The nurse put her hands over her face in both fear and shame. The stranger just stared in grief.
“Oh, man! You didn’t have to kill’em! He wasn’t goin’ nowhere. I stopped him. I stopped him from taking….”
“Put a zipper on it, Velo. Stay by the front door.”
Velo barely moved.
“Now, Velo! Move it! Don’t make me tell you again.”
Slim followed Velo and passed him as he went over to another window, broke it open and yelled to the police.
“Hey, outside! I just wasted another body for tryin’ to escape. I want a car waitin’ for us out front in five minutes and all you cops outta here. If you don’t, I start killin’ people every five minutes.”
Slim waited a good twenty minutes before he felt certain the street was clear of any cops or snipers. A car was parked out front with the engine running. His threat worked.
“See there, all it took was another killin’ and they lissen. Now I want all of you to lissen real careful like. I’m takin’ two of you with us, and the rest of you can go, but no one leaves this store until after we’re in the car and gone.
“You and you,” he said pointing to Sal’s daughter and the nurse, “you two are goin’ with us. When I feel we are home free, I’ll dump you two off somewhere.
“And don’t try to argue with me because right now, I’d just as soon shoot you if you give me any lip.”
The stranger figured out a way to take care of Eddie and Velo, but what about Slim? Slim was nothing more than pure meanness and trouble. If he made a wrong move, Slim would put a hole in him larger in life. That bothered him. Times like this always did.
In his mind, the stranger went over the scenario. He really didn’t have much time to make a plan, but way back when he was young boy, he always had the perfect plan to foil the bad guys and save the day. That’s what being an only child can do for one’s imagination; but this wasn’t a game.
He had to do this just right or more innocent people will die. The stranger knew once they got away, somewhere along the way, Slim would kill the women.
Slim told Eddie to grab the nurse. Slim then told Velo to grab Sal’s daughter and stand by the front door. Just as Eddie was reaching out to grab the nurse by the arm, the stranger took two huge steps and reached out for his wrist, twisted back, and threw him against the counter and came down with a hard left hook, knocking him out. And just as quickly, with an overhand right, it found the cheekbone of Velo’s face, knocking him out.
The stranger felt adrenalin run through his body and he felt that strength that always seemed to take forever to kick in. That happens when you are on assignment and everything about you is on loan. His instructor said it was readjustment.
Slim stood still for a moment, watching what was happening, as if everything was in slow motion, and couldn’t yet grasp what was going on.
Eddie was starting to come back around again, when the stranger kicked his leg sideways where his foot caught Eddie’s mouth making sure this time he stayed unconscious.
Snapping out of his confusion, Slim squeezed the trigger, catching the stranger between the shoulder blades, sending him rolling to the floor. When he landed, his hand touched the butt of Velo’s gun and clutched it tightly.
“Smart ass, punk!” Slim screamed as he stood over the stranger’s body, his arm extended and was about to pull the trigger again when he heard movement behind him.
He turned to look and saw Sal, his daughter, the nurse, and the couple run out the front door. Just as the nurse was the last to exit, Slim fired off one shot, but only catching the doorframe. He squeezed off another round but the chamber was empty. He reached in his pocket and pulled out six more bullets to reload.
Slim turned around, and decided he would put all six bullets into the stranger’s face. This was all his damn fault.
When he looked down, he was staring at Velo’s gun glaring up at him.
“You won’t do it, mister. You don’t have the look to kill someone in cold blood. On the other hand, I do.” Slim smiled his gritty smile and squeezed the trigger.
Two shots went off.
Blood pouring out of him, the stranger whispered, “Cold blood is one thing, but defending a life is another altogether matter. Besides, like all things; this is temporary.” The stranger lay still on the floor, just as did Slim.
The police, who never really left but had concealed themselves from view, closed in on the store. Other policemen took the hostages to a waiting ambulance to check for injuries.
Two of the officers who approached the entrance, peered inside, and saw several bodies on the floor. They also saw two bodies starting to stand up. The officers, with another six behind them, counted off five seconds and then stormed inside, making arrests.
Eddie and Velo were in a daze. When the police came rushing in, neither man hesitated; both put their hands behind their head and they got down on both knees. In doing so, they saw Slim stretched out on the floor, with dead eyes wide open.
One officer walked over to Slim, and saw a hole in his forehead. His face was frozen at the moment of impact, and police couldn’t understand why he died with a smile on his face.
The other man couldn’t as yet be identified. They searched his body and found no wallet, no money, and no car keys; not anything that could give them a name. He had a hole in his chest and one in his back.
“Whoever this guy was, he paid a heavy price to save everyone else.”
“Gary,” said an officer standing next to him, “I just wonder why he took a chance like this. He could have gotten everyone else killed.”
“Who knows, Peters? Takes all kinds, right? Pretty decent joe if you ask me. I doubt if any of the others would have been willing to take the gamble. I’ll give the guy credit, he had balls.”
Traffic was moving in the area again, and the police had finished getting statements from the victim’s in Sal’s store.
Sal had been attended to by paramedics, and feeling better, went back inside the store with his daughter to check the damage done and put their lives back in order.
The inside had already been dusted for prints, pictures taken of the crime scene and the position of the dead bodies as well. Sal knew it would be some time before he would reopen for business,
The young couple didn’t want the stereo. In fact, the woman never wanted to go back to Sal’s or any other store that had stereo equipment again.
Her husband, who never did anything to try and help was considered somewhat of a coward by one of the officers taking his statement. “Who would have guessed it. There goes a guy over two-fifty and six-three, and it’s the little guy who played hero. You would think the big guy would have done something.”
No one knew the stranger’s name who died that day. If you asked them today, they wouldn’t be able to remember what he looked like. They just knew he was a hero. Just as the nurse said, “It all happened so fast. I don’t even remember seeing his face. All I know as that my children still have a mother because of him.”
Whoever he was, police investigators believed they would know who he was after the ME did an autopsy, and ran a check on his fingerprints and get dental records.
The strangest part to the end of all this is when the ambulance attendants first loaded the body, they drove crosstown to the county morgue, parked the ambulance, got out and went to the back to remove the body, and when they opened the doors to remove the John Doe, as it were, to wheel him into the morgue, then let the coroner take over from there. Their job would be finished.
When they swung the back doors open, both men looked at each other with a puzzled expression on their faces.
The body was gone.
It was March 21, 1981, almost two years since the last adventure, when the stranger, now in another city, walked inside a bank, and within a few minutes, four armed men stormed in.
Uh-oh, he thought. This isn’t good. A bank robbery in Nebraska? Nothing ever happens in Nebraska.
Lightning struck outside.
“Okay, okay, I didn’t mean it.”
“Listen up. Do what you’re told and nobody has to get hurt.”
The stranger closed his eyes and softly said, “Here I go again. Given these assignments and being an angel’s apprentice isn’t as easy as it looks. Now I have to come up with a whole new plan.
“When they told me I would be using other forms to complete assignments, they forgot to mention how many times these bodies I’m in have to die.
“Geez, I can’t wait until I get my wings and let someone else have this job.”
… and the stranger was a hero.