It’s just a drill to see how our employees act under pressure.
I looked at her gloved hand holding the weapon. My eyes widened and I lowered the receiver.
I was under pressure too. It was my sister, after all. She was five years older than me, and I rarely disputed anything she said. There were three of us sisters. I was the youngest and the tallest. This one, the eldest, was the shortest, the most demanding and she had the biggest temper. I felt uneasy, but I went along. It was my sister, after all.
When she’d called me that morning, I said, sure I could help her with something. I didn’t know that it involved a real gun. But, she said, it wasn’t loaded and besides it would only take a few minutes.
I met her at the cleaners. She and her husband owned and operated a dozen. This one was the most remote and business was dead in the afternoons.
I saw her Lexus parked down the street. She got out and motioned me over, waving her arms and wearing her sleek leather jacket. Her diamond rings and earrings glinted in the sun. Blond hair bounced up and down with countless curls wound so tight I was afraid she would explode at any miscue.
We greeted each other.
What did she want me to do? I asked.
She motioned for me to follow her to the Lexus.
Could you reach in and grab the piece under the seat?
I reached under the passenger seat, felt around and emerged with a gun. She pulled on black leather gloves that matched her jacket.
Hand me the gun, she said.
I paused. It was heavy and felt hot in my hand.
Hand it to me, she said again. I did and she stuck it in her jacket pocket. It’s not loaded, she said. Oh, and you can’t say anything about this to John.
John was her husband and business partner. It seemed like an odd request. Okay, I said and followed her toward the outside back entrance to the store.
She had it all worked out, she said. There’s a new young guy working. Chad. The store’s in a bad neighborhood, been hit half a dozen times before. I want to make sure he can handle the pressure.
It was spring. Chad had propped the door open, letting in a cool breeze. She said she always told her employees to keep the doors closed so they wouldn’t get robbed. This would teach him a lesson.
Here’s the drill, she said. I’ll walk in with the gun and he’ll know what we want, but I’ll say this is a hold-up. Put all the money in a bag. Then we wait. We’ve instructed our employees to comply. Don’t be a hero, I tell them: it’s only money.
And probably not that much, I thought. Didn’t most people pay with credit cards and check cards these days? I asked.
No, she said. We keep cash on-hand for change, so there is more than enough to make this a good target.
I knew they were doing well. At least it appeared that way when she showed up in fancy cars and clothes and jewelry. The thing about money, though, is that it’s never enough. Whenever I’d gotten a raise at my bookkeeping job I always spent it right away. Expensive tastes breed bad spending habits. I knew that too.
She tossed me a ski mask and put one on herself. At the sight of the masks, anxiety clenched my gut. This was a little too real.
We walked in the back door. By this time of day the morning and noontime business had already come through. There shouldn’t be anyone to throw off the drill, she said. She pulled the gun out of her jacket pocket and my eyes widened.
It’s not loaded, I reminded myself.
Come on, she motioned with the gun. Her blond curls stuck out the bottom of the ski mask, looking like a weird furry collar above her black leather jacket. Once I went through the door, there was no turning back. We were doing the drill.
Lenny Kravitz’s American Woman was playing on the radio. We walked past clean clothes covered in plastic and I tried not to breathe in the perc (perchloroethylene) from the dry cleaning chemicals on the clean clothes. The music got louder as we neared the front register.
Chad was leaning against a blue counter. My sister pointed the gun at him. Confusion washed over his face. I wondered how he would handle the drill.
Put all the money in a bag, she motioned toward a stack of blue cloth bags reserved for their regular customers. I wondered if she’d done the drill before.
He didn’t say anything. What if he tried to be a hero?
He walked over to the bags and picked one up. He released the drawstring to widen the opening of the bag. Then he pushed a button on the register and the drawer shot open. He calmly slid out the bills and dropped them into the blue bag. There’s a safe in the back, he said.
I tensed, wondering if my tightly wound sister would shoot him for divulging that. If the thieves hadn’t already known, he would have just cost them more money. But people probably assumed there was always a safe.
Follow me, he said.
He still seemed calm, but I wondered if he was about to pee his pants. His hands trembled a little and he fidgeted carrying the cloth bag. On the bag it said: Fast, professional service. He followed the store’s motto well.
It’s over there, against the wall.
He must have been telling the truth or my sister would have reacted. We followed him around one of the metal conveyors with long racks of clothes waiting to be picked up.
When we walked around the rack, he punched a button and the rack started turning. Then he dashed to the back of the store, swung the door open and ran out with the bag.
F---, my sister said.
What do we do now? I said.
Go after him, she ordered through the tiny mouth hole in her black ski mask.
I ran out the door and looked to see which way he’d gone. I’ll go right, I whispered, feeling silly still wearing my mask. It was getting hot, but I couldn’t take it off. If he saw me now I’d get ID’d for sure. What was I thinking—this is crazy! It’s only a drill. Why wasn’t my sister proud of him for running? He probably planned to call the cops or the owners—her and her husband—and report what had happened and give the money back. Then I remembered: she told her employees not to be heroes. He broke the store rules and she would be mad about that.
I glanced back. She had run in the other direction. Then I saw Chad in the distance. My sister caught up to him near a small wooded area. Just beyond it there was another strip mall. I was sure he was running for help. He reached a stream and waded through the water. There was still some ice. It had just begun to thaw. The bits of ice slowed him down. She stepped into the water. I watched her point the gun at him and demand the bag. They struggled for the bag and Chad pulled off her mask.
They both paused. Then I heard a shot.
I thought the gun wasn’t loaded!
Chad fell backward into the water. My sister went to him and grabbed the bag, lifting it dripping out of the water. She turned around slowly and looked at me-- her eyes looked somehow different. She started running in my direction.
I cupped a hand around my mouth. Is he okay? I yelled.
But Chad hadn’t moved.
I’ll go call 9-1-1, I said. I darted in through the back door of the cleaners. The phone was in front by the register. I picked it up and dialed.
My sister came in holding the gun. Put down the phone, she said.
I heard the operator. Police or ambulance?
I didn’t know what to say.
Put it down, my sister repeated.
But we need to call an ambulance!
She glanced back in the direction of the door. That was unfortunate, she said, still holding the gun. He gave me no other choice.
This time, you’ve gone too far, I said, raising the receiver to my lips.
Put it down, she repeated, more angrily. Then a sly grin played at her lips. Whose prints do you think are on the gun?
Now, she said, you're not going to tell anyone, are you?