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INTERLUDE AT DUANE'S

Lemme tell you, Jack," Loretta said as they chugged along West Fifty-eighth, "these changes gots me in a baaaad mood. Real bad. My feets killin me, too. Nobody better hassle me afore I'm home and on the outside of a big ol glass of Jimmy."

Jack nodded, paying just enough attention to be polite. He was more interested in the passersby and was thinking how a day without your carry was like a day without clothes.

He felt naked. He'd had to leave his trusty Glock and backup home today because of his annual trip to the Empire State Building. He'd designated April 19th King Kong Day. Every year he made a pilgrimage to the observation deck to leave a little wreath in memory of the Big Guy. The major drawback to the outing was the metal detector everyone had to pass through before heading upstairs. That meant no heat.

Jack didn't think he was being paranoid. Okay, maybe a little, but he'd pissed off his share of people in this city and didn't care to run into them naked.

After the wreath-laying ceremony, he decided to walk back to his place on the West Side and ran into Loretta along the way.

They went back a dozen or so years to when both waited tables at a long-extinct trattoria on West Fourth. She'd been fresh up from Mississippi then, and he only a few years out of Jersey. Agewise, Loretta had a good decade on Jack, maybe more- might even be knocking on the door to fifty. Had a good hundred pounds on him as well. She'd dyed her Chia Pet hair orange and sheathed herself in some shapeless, green-and-yellow thing that made her look like a brown manatee in a muumuu.

She stopped and stared at a black cocktail dress in a boutique window.

"Ain't that pretty. 'Course I'll have to wait till I'm cremated afore I fits into it."

They continued to Sixth Avenue. As they stopped on the corner and waited for the walking green, two Asian women came up to her.

The taller one said, "You know where Saks Fifth Avenue is?"

Loretta scowled. "On Fifth Avenue, fool." Then she took a breath and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "That way."

Jack looked at her. "You weren't kidding about the bad mood."

"You ever know me to kid, Jack?" She glanced around. "Sweet Jesus, I need me some comfort food. Like some chocolate-peanut-butter-swirl ice cream." She pointed to the Duane Reade on the opposite corner. "There."

"That's a drugstore."

"Honey, you know better'n that. Duane's got everything. Shoot, if mine had a butcher section I wouldn't have to shop nowheres else. Come on."

Before he could opt out, she grabbed his arm and started hauling him across the street.

"I specially like their makeup. Some places just carry Cover Girl, y'know, which is fine if you a Wonder bread blonde. Don't know if you noticed, but white ain't zackly a big color in these parts. Everybody's darker. Cept you, a course. I know you don't like attention, Jack, but if you had a smidge of coffee in your cream you'd be really invisible."

Jack expended a lot of effort on being invisible. He'd inherited a good start with his average height, average build, average brown hair and nondescript face. Today he'd accessorized with a Mets cap, flannel shirt, worn Levi's and battered work boots. Just another guy, maybe a construction worker, ambling along the streets of Zoo York.

Jack slowed as they approached the door.

"I think I'll take a rain check, Lo."

She tightened her grip on his arm. "Hell you will. I need some company. I'll even buy you a Dew. Caffeine still your drug of choice?"

"Yeah. Until it's time for a beer." He eased his arm free. "Okay, I'll spring for five minutes, but after that, I'm gone. Got things to do." "Five minutes ain't nuthin, but okay." "You go ahead. I'll be right with you."

He slowed in her wake so he could check out the entrance. He spotted a camera just inside the door, trained on the comers and goers.

He tugged down the brim of his hat and lowered his head. He was catching up to Loretta when he heard a loud, heavily accented voice.

"Mira! Mira! Mira! Look at the fine ass on you!"

Jack hoped that wasn't meant for him. He raised his head far enough to see a grinning, mustachioed Latino leaning on the building wall outside the doorway. A maroon gym bag sat at his feet. He had glossy, slicked-back hair and prison tats on the backs of his hands.

Loretta stopped and stared at him. "You better not be talkin a me!"

His grin widened. "But senorita, in my country it is a privilege for a woman to be praised by someone like me." "And just where is this country of yours?" "Ecuador."

"Well, you in New York now, honey, and I'm a bitch from the Bronx. Talk to me like that again and I'm gonna Bruce Lee yo ass."

"But I know you would like to sit on my face." "Why? Yo nose bigger'n yo dick?"

This cracked up a couple of teenage girls leaving the store. Mr. Ecuador's face darkened. He didn't seem to appreciate the joke.

Head down, Jack crowded close behind Loretta as she entered the store.

She said, "Told you I was in a bad mood."

"That you did, that you did. Five minutes, Loretta, okay?"

"I hear you."

He glanced over his shoulder and saw Mr. Ecuador pick up his gym bag and follow them inside.

Jack paused as Loretta veered off toward one of the cosmetic aisles. He watched to see if Ecuador was going to hassle her, but he kept on going, heading toward the rear.

Duane Reade drugstores are a staple of New York life. The city has hundreds of them. Only the hoity-toitiest Upper East Siders hadn't been in one dozens if not hundreds of times. Their most consistent feature was their lack of consistency. No two were the same size or laid out alike. Okay, they all kept the cosmetics near the front, but after that it became anyone's guess where something might be hiding. Jack could see the method to that madness: The more time people had to spend looking for what they'd come for, the greater their chances of picking up things they hadn't.

This one seemed fairly empty and Jack assigned himself the task of finding the ice cream to speed their departure. He set off through the aisles and quickly became disoriented. The overall space was L-shaped, but instead of running in parallel paths to the rear, the aisles zigged and zagged. Whoever laid out this place was either a devotee of chaos theory or a crop-circle designer.

He was wandering among the six-foot-high shelves and passing the hemorrhoid treatments when he heard a harsh voice behind him.

"Keep movin, yo. Alla way to the back."

Jack looked and saw a big, steroidal black guy in a red tank top. The overhead fluorescents gleamed off his shaven scalp. He had a fat scar running through his left eyebrow, glassy eyes and held a snub-nose.38-caliber revolver-the classic Saturday night special.

Jack kept his cool and held his ground. "What's up?"

The guy raised the gun, holding it sideways like in the movies, the way no one who knew squat about pistols would hold it.

"Ay yo, get yo ass in gear fore I bust one in yo face."

Jack waited a couple more seconds to see if the guy would move closer and put the pistol within reach. But he didn't. Too experienced maybe.

Not good. The big question was whether this was personal or not. When he saw the gaggle of frightened-looking people-the white-coated ones obviously pharmacists-kneeling before the pharmacy counter with their hands behind their necks, he figured it wasn't.

A reliefsort of.

He spotted Mr. Ecuador standing over them with a gleaming nickel-plated.357 revolver. Robbery.

Okay, just keep your head down to stay off the cameras and off these bozos' radar, and you'll walk away with the rest of them. The black guy pushed him from behind. "Assume the position, asshole."

Jack spotted two cameras trained on the pharmacy area. He knelt at the left end of the line, intertwined his fingers behind his neck and kept his eyes on the floor.

He glanced up when he heard a commotion to his left. A scrawny little Sammy Davis-size Rasta man with his hair packed into a red-yellow-and-green-striped knit cap showed up packing a sawed-off pump-action twelve and driving another half a dozen people before him. A frightened-looking Loretta was among them.

And then a fourth-Christ, how many were there? This one had dirty, sloppy, light brown dreads, piercings up the wazoo, and was humping the whole hip-hop catalog: wide baggy jeans, huge New York Giants jersey, peak-askew cap.

He pointed another special as he propelled a dark-skinned, middle-aged-Indian? Pakistani?-by the neck.

Both the newcomers had glazed eyes, too. All stoned. Maybe it would make them mellow.

What a crew. Probably met in Rikers. Or maybe the Tombs.

"Got Mr. Manager," the white guy singsonged.

Ecuador looked at him. "You lock the front door?"

Whitey jangled a crowded key chain and tossed it on the counter.

"Yep. All locked in safe and sound."

" Bueno. Get back up there and watch in case we miss somebody. Don't wan nobody getting out."

"Yeah, in a minute. Somethin I gotta do first."

He shoved the manager forward, then slipped behind the counter and disappeared into the pharmacy shelves.

"Wilkins! I tol you, get up front!"

Wilkins reappeared, carrying three large plastic stock bottles. He plopped them down on the counter. Jack spotted Percocet and Oxy-Contin on the labels.

"These babies are mine. Don't nobody touch em."

Ecuador spoke through his teeth. "Up front!"

"I'm gone," Wilkins said, and headed away.

Scarbrow grabbed the manager by the jacket and shook him.

"The combination, mofo-give it up."

Jack noticed the guy's name tag: J. Patel. His dark skin went a couple of shades lighter. The poor guy looked ready to faint. "I do not know it!"

Rasta man raised his shotgun and pressed the muzzle against Patel's quaking throat.

"You tell de mon what he want to know. You tell him now! "

Jack saw a wet stain spreading from Patel's crotch.

"The manager's ou-out. I d-don't know the combination."

Ecuador stepped forward. "Then you not much use to us, eh?"

Patel sagged to his knees and held up his hands. "Please! I have a wife, children!"

"You wan see them again, you tell me. I know you got armored-car pickup every Tuesday. I been watchin. Today is Tuesday, so give."

"But I do not-!"

Ecuador slammed his pistol barrel against the side of Patel's head, knocking him down.

"You wan die to save you boss's money? You wan see what happen when you get shot inna head? Here. I show you." He turned and looked at his prisoners. "Where that big bitch with the big mouth?" He smiled as he spotted Loretta. "There you are."

Shit.

Ecuador grabbed her by the front of her dress and pulled, making her knee-walk out from the rest. When she'd moved half a dozen feet he released her.

"Turn roun, bitch."

Without getting off her knees, she swiveled to face her fellow captives. Her lower lip quivered with terror. She made eye contact with Jack, silently pleading for him to do something, anything, please!

Couldn't let this happen.

His mind raced through scenarios, moves he might make to save her, but none of them worked.

As Ecuador raised the.357 and pointed it at the back of Loretta's head, Jack remembered the security cameras.

He raised his voice. "You really want to do that on TV?"

Ecuador swung the pistol toward Jack.

"What the fuck?"

Without looking around, Jack pointed toward the pharmacy security cameras. "You're on 'Candid Camera.'" "The fuck you care?"

Jack put on a sheepish grin. "Nothing. Just thought I'd share. Done some boosting in my day and caught a jolt in Riker's for not noticing one of them things. Now I notice-believe me, I notice."

Ecuador looked up at the cameras and said, "Fuck."

He turned to Rasta man and pointed. Rasta smiled, revealing a row of gold-framed teeth, and raised his shotgun.

Jack started moving with the first booming report, when all eyes were on the exploding camera. With the second boom he reached cover and streaked down an aisle.

Behind him he heard Ecuador shout, "Ay! Where the fuck he go? Wilkins! Somebody comin you way!"

The white guy's voice called back, "I'm ready, dog!"

Jack had hoped to surprise Wilkins and grab his pistol, but that wasn't going to happen now. Christ! On any other day he'd have a couple dozen 9mm hollowpoints loaded and ready.

He'd have to improvise.

As he zigged and zagged along the aisles, he sent out a silent thank-you to the maniac who'd laid out these shelves. If they'd run straight, front to back, he wouldn't last a minute. He felt like a mouse hunting for cheese, but this weird, mazelike configuration gave him a chance.

He hurried along, looking for something, anything, to use against them. Didn't even have his knife, dammit.

Batteries notebooks markers pens gum greeting cards

No help.

He saw a comb with a pointed handle and grabbed it. Without stopping, he ripped it open and stuck it in his back pocket.

He heard Ecuador yelling about how he was going this way and Jamal should go that way, and Demont should stay with the people.

Band-Aids.ice cream.curling iron-could he use that? Nah. Hair colorhumidifiersCheetosbeef jerky- Come on!

He turned a corner and came to a summer-cookout section. Chairs-no help. Umbrella-no help. Heavy-duty spatula- grabbed it and hefted it. Nice weight, stainless-steel blade, serrated on one edge. Might be able to do a little damage with this. Spotted a grouping of butane matches. Grabbed one. Never hurt to have fire.

Fire.he looked up and saw the sprinkler system. Every store in New York had to have one. A fire would set off the sprinklers, sending an alert to the NYFD.

Do it.

He grabbed a can of lighter fluid and began spraying the shelves. When he'd emptied half of it and the fluid was puddling on the floor, he reached for the butane match-

A shot. A whizzz! past his head. A quick glance down the aisle to where Scarbrow-who had to be the "Jamal" Ecuador had called to-stood ten yards away, leveling his.38 for another go.

"Ay yo, I found him! Over here!"

Jack ducked and ran around a corner as the second bullet sailed past, way wide. Typical of this sort of oxygen waster, he couldn't shoot. Junk guns like his were good for close-up damage and little else.

With footsteps behind him, Jack paused at the shelf's endcap and took a quick peek at the neighboring aisle. No one in sight. He dashed across to the next aisle and found himself facing a wall. Ten feet down to his right-a door.


EMPLOYEES ONLY


He pulled it open and stuck his head inside. Empty except for a table and some sandwich wrappers. And no goddamn exit.

Feet pounded his way from behind to the left. He slammed the door hard and ran right. He stopped at the first endcap and dared a peek.

Jamal rounded the bend and slid to a halt before the door, a big grin on his face. "Gotcha now, asshole."

In a crouch, gun ready, he yanked open the door. After a few heartbeats he stepped into the room.

Here was Jack's chance. He squeezed his wrist through the leather thong in the barbecue spatula's handle, then raised it to vertical in a two-handed samurai grip, serrated edge forward.

Then he moved, gliding in behind Jamal and swinging at his head. Maybe the guy heard something, maybe he saw a shadow, maybe he had a sixth sense. Whatever the reason, he ducked to the side and the chop landed wide. Jamal howled as the edge bit into his meaty shoulder. Jack raised the spatula for a backhand strike, but the big guy proved more agile than he looked. He rolled and raised his pistol.

Jack swung the spatula at it, made contact, but the blade bounced off without knocking the gun free.

Time to go.

He was in motion before Jamal could aim. The first shot splintered the door frame a couple of inches to the left of his head as he dived for the opening. He hit the floor and rolled as the second went high.

Four shots. That left two-unless Jamal had brought extras. Somehow he couldn't imagine a guy like Jamal thinking that far ahead.

On his way toward the rear, switching aisles at every opportunity, he heard Ecuador shouting from the far side of the store. "Jamal! You get him? You get him?"

"No. Fucker almost got me! I catch him I'm gonna skin him alive."

"Ain't got time for that! The truck be here soon! We gotta get inna the safe! Wilkins! Get back here and start lookin!" "Who's gonna watch the front?" "Fuck the front! We're locked in, ain't we?"

"Yeah, but-"

"Find him!"

"A'ight. Guess I'll have to show you guys how it's done."

Jack now had a pretty good idea where Ecuador and Jamal were-too near the barbecue section to risk going back. So he moved ahead. Toward Wilkins. He sensed that if this chain had a weak link, Wilkins was it.

Along the way he scanned the shelves. He still had the spatula, the comb and the butane match but needed something flammable.

Antibiotic ointments.laxatives.marshmallows.

Shit.

He zigged and zagged until he found the hair-care aisle. Possibilities here. Needed a spray can. What the-?

Every goddamn bottle was pump action. He needed fluoro-carbons. Where were the fluorocarbons when you needed them?

He ran down to the deodorant section. Everything here was either a roll-on or a smear-on. Whatever happened to Right Guard?

He spotted a green can on a bottom shelf, half hidden behind a Mitchum's floor display. Brut. He grabbed it and scanned the label.

DANGER: Contents under pressureflammable

Yes!

Then he heard Wilkins ambling along the neighboring aisle, calling in a high, singsong tone.

"Hello, Mr. Silly Man. Where aaaare youuu? Jimmy's got a present for you." He giggled. "No, wait. Jimmy's got six-count em-six presents for you. Come and get em."

High as the space station.

Jack decided to take him up on his offer.

He removed the Brut cap as he edged to the end of the aisle and flattened against the shelf section separating him from Wilkins. He raised the can and held the tip of the match next to it. As soon as Wilkins's face came into view, Jack reached forward, pressing the nozzle and triggering the match. A ten-inch jet of flame engulfed Wilkins's eyes and nose.

He howled and dropped the gun, lurched away, kicking and screaming. His dreads had caught fire.

Jack followed him. He used the spatula to knock off the can's nozzle. Deodorant sprayed a couple of feet into the air. He shoved the can down the back of Wilkins's oversize jeans and struck the match. His seat exploded in flame. Jack grabbed the pistol and trotted into an aisle. Screams followed him toward the back.

One down, three to go.

He checked the pistol as he moved. An old.38 revolver with most of its bluing rubbed off. He opened the cylinder. Six hardball rounds. A piece of crap, but at least it was his piece of crap.

The odds had just become a little better.

A couple of pairs of feet started pounding toward the front. As he'd hoped, the screams were drawing a crowd.

He heard cries of "Oh, shit" and "Oh, fuck!" and "What he do to you, bro?"

Wilkins wailed in a glass-breaking pitch. "Pepe! Help me, man! I'm dyin!"

Pepe.now Ecuador had a name. "Si," Pepe said. "You are." Wilkins screamed, "No!"

A booming gunshot-had to come from the.357. "Fuck!" Jamal cried. "I don't believe you did that!" A voice called from the back. "What goin on dere, mon? What hoppening?"

"S'okay, Demont!" Pepe called back. "Jus stay where you are!" Then, in a lower voice to Jamal: "Wilkins jus slow us down. Now find that fuck fore he find a phone!"

Jack looked back and saw a plume of white smoke rising toward the ceiling. He waited for the alarm, the sprinklers.

Nothing.

What did he have to do-set a bonfire?

He slowed as he came upon the employee lounge again. Nah. That wasn't going to work twice. He kept going. He was passing the ice-cream freezer when something boomed to his right and a glass door shattered to his left. Ice-cream sandwiches and cones flew, gallons rolled.

Jack spotted Demont three aisles away, saw him pumping another shell into the chamber. He ducked back as the top of the nearest shelf exploded in a cloud of shredded tampons.

"Back here! I have him!"

Jack hung at the opposite endcap until he heard Demont's feet crunch on broken glass in the aisle he'd just left. He eased down the neighboring lane, listening, stopping at the feminine-hygiene area as he waited for Demont to come even.

As he raised his pistol and held it two inches from the flimsy metal of the shelving unit's rear wall, he noticed a "personal" douche-bag box sitting at eye level. Was there a community model?

When he heard Demont arrive opposite him, he fired two shots. He wanted to fire four but the crappy pistol jammed. On the far side Demont grunted. His shotgun went off, punching a hole in the dropped ceiling.

Jack tossed the pistol. Demont would be down but not out. He needed something else. Douche bags had hoses, didn't they? He opened the box. Yep-red and ribbed. He pulled it out.

Footsteps pounded his way from the far side of the store as he peeked around and spotted Demont clutching his right shoulder. He'd dropped the shotgun but was making for it again.

Jack ran up and kicked it away, then looped the douche hose twice around Demont's scrawny neck and dragged him back to the ruined ice-cream door. He strung the hose over the top of the metal frame and pulled Demont off his feet. As the little man kicked and gagged, Jack slammed the door, trapping the hose. He tied two quick knots to make sure it didn't slip, then dived through the empty frame for the shotgun. He pumped out the spent shell, chambered a new one and pulled the trigger just as Jamal and Pepe rounded the corner.

Pepe caught a few pellets, but Jamal, leading the charge, took the brunt of the blast. His shirtfront dissolved as the double-ought did a pulled-pork thing on his overdeveloped pecs. Pepe was gone by the time Jack chambered another shell. Looked back: De-mont's face had gone pruney, his kicks feeble. Ahead: Jamal lay spread-eagle, staring at the ceiling with unblinking eyes.

Now what? Go after Pepe or start that fire?

Fire. Start a big one. Get those red trucks rolling.

But which way to the barbecue section? He was disoriented. He remembered it being somewhere near the middle.

Three aisles later he found it-and Pepe, too, who was looking back over his shoulder as he passed it. Jack raised the shotgun and fired, but Pepe went down just before the double-ought arrived. Not on purpose. He'd slipped in the spilled lighter fluid. The shot went over his head and hit the barbecue supplies. Bags of briquettes and tins of lighter fluid exploded. Punctured cans of Raid whirly-gigged in all directions, fogging the air with bug killer.

Pepe slipped and slid as he tried to regain his feet-would have been funny if he hadn't been holding a.357. Jack pumped again, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

Clink.

The hammer fell on an empty chamber.

Pepe was on his knees. He smiled as he raised his pistol. Jack ducked back and dived for the floor as one bullet after another slammed through the shelving of the cough and cold products, smashing bottles, drenching him with Robitussin and NyQuil and who knew what else.

He counted six shots. He didn't know if Pepe had a speed loader and didn't want to find out. He yanked the butane match from his back pocket and lit her up. He jammed a Sucrets pack into the trigger guard, locking the flame on, then tossed it over the shelf. He heard no whoomp! like gasoline going up, but he did hear Pepe cry out in alarm. The cry turned to screams of pain and terror as the spewing Raid cans caught.

Jack crept back and peeked around the corner.

Pepe was aflame. He had his arms over his eyes, covering them against the flying, flaming pinwheels of Raid as he rolled in the burning puddle, making matters worse. Black smoke roiled toward the ceiling.

And then it happened. Clanging bells and a deluge of cold water.

Yes.

Jack saw the.357 on the floor. He sprinted by, kicking it ahead of him as he raced through the downpour to the pharmacy section. After dancing through an obstacle course of ice pops and gallons of ice cream, he found Loretta and the others cowering behind the counter. He picked up the key ring and tossed it to Patel.

"Out! Get everybody out!"

As the stampede began, he heard Loretta yelling.

"Hey, y'all! This man just saved our lives. You wanna pay him back, you say you never seen him. He don't exist. You say these gangstas got inna fight and killed each other. Y'hear me? Y'hear?"

She blew Jack a kiss and joined the exodus. Jack was about to follow when a shot smashed a bottle of mouthwash near his head. He ducked back as a second shot narrowly missed. He dived behind the pharmacy counter and peeked over the top.

A scorched, steaming, sodden Pepe shuffled Jack's way through the rain with a small semiauto clutched in his outstretched hand. Jack hadn't counted on him having a backup. Hell, he hadn't counted on him doing anything but burning. The sprinkler system had saved him.

Pepe said nothing as he approached. Didn't have to. He had murder in his eyes. And he had Jack cornered.

He fired again. The bullet hit the counter six inches to Jack's right, showering him with splinters as he ducked.

Trapped. Had to find a way to run out Pepe's magazine. How? A lot of those baby semis held ten shots.

He peeked up again. Pepe's slow progress had brought him within six feet. Jack was about to duck again when he saw a blur of bright green and yellow flash into view.

Loretta, moving faster than Jack ever would have thought possible, charged with a gallon container of ice cream held high over her head in a two-handed grip. Pepe might have heard her without the hiss and splatter of the sprinklers. But he remained oblivious until she streaked up behind him and smashed the container against the back of his head.

Jack saw his eyes bulge with shock and pain as he pitched toward the floor. Probably felt like he'd been hit with a cinder block. As he landed face-first, Loretta stayed on him-really on him. She jumped, landing knees first on the middle of his back.

The air rushed out of him with an agonized groan as his ribs shattered like glass.

But Loretta wasn't finished. Shouting, she started slamming the rock-hard container against his head and neck, matching the rhythm of her words to the blows.

"NOW you ain't NEVER gonna point no GUN to my HEAD ever AGAIN!"

Jack moved up beside her and touched her arm. "I think he's got the message."

Loretta looked up at him, then back down at Pepe. His face was flattened against the floor, his head canted at an unnatural angle. He wasn't breathing.

She nodded. "I do believe you right."

Jack pulled her to her feet and pushed her toward the front.

"Go!"

But Loretta wasn't finished. She turned and kicked Pepe in the ribs.

"Told you I was a bitch!" "Loretta-come on!"

As they hustled toward the front, she said, "We even, Jack?" "Even Steven."

"Did I happen to mention my bad mood?" "Yes, you did, Loretta. But sometimes a bad mood can be a good thing."


F. Paul Wilson | Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night | Ted Bell