Chapter 42 - The Heist

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Great American Superstore was opening for business as usual on Friday morning. At 8:00 a.m., the aisles were pulsing with the slow, quiet rhythm of elevator music piped through the ambient sound system. As the day progressed and the store entered its peak activity window in the afternoon and evening, the pace of the music would increase. The theory was that the increased tempo brainwashed shoppers into buying more and circulating quickly through the store. Over a syrupy instrumental rendition of “American Pie,” a perky female voice announced the daily specials in each food section.

By eight thirty, a few customers had trickled in while staff workers stocked shelves in preparation for the rush later in the day. The security guards, Riggs and Perez, manned their posts; Riggs outside by the carts, Perez inside by the checkout aisle next to the charcoal on sale. Both men fidgeted nervously with the cigarettes in their pocket, waiting for their on-the-hour smoke break that would come at nine o’clock sharp.

In the manager’s station, Lowry was checking his computer, reviewing sales from the previous day. In the checkout area, Silvia and two other clerks activated the registers, loading the machines with cash and fresh receipt spools. Tiffany and Marco unloaded supplies of medicine that came overnight with the weekly prescription drug delivery.

Not a single Great America employee noticed the boy in the Spiderman T-shirt and an Anaheim Angels baseball cap waltzing past the guards through the main entrance. The boy carried a stuffed, oversized backpack, which he put in his shopping cart.

Five minutes later, an elderly woman with a white bouffant hairdo and black wraparound sunglasses ambled in past the same guards, clutching a bulging purse with both hands.

It was time to spring into action.

Johnny hurried to the refrigerated meat section, charging through the employee door to the circuit room. A minute later, the Muzak died, lights went dark across the shopping floor, the air-conditioning stopped, the glass automatic entry doors froze shut, and, though no one noticed, the power was cut to the security cameras located in mirrored balls wired to the ceiling.

“Everybody on the ground!”

Stella’s voice rose above the din of confused staff and shoppers in the checkout area. Silvia, who was bagging bottles of wine and a box of crackers, sank to her knees, along with the other cashiers and customers in the aisles. Stella pulled the .357 Magnum revolver out of her overstuffed purse and turned to Lowry in the manager’s station.

“Cough up the cash, Mr. Manager!” Stella shouted, leaning over Lowry in his cube and aiming the revolver at his eye. “I know you have a safe under there!”

“OK! OK!” Lowry said frantically, bending down in his cubicle. With trembling hands, he reached for the stainless steel box. Stella saw the alarm button on the wall and wondered whether Lowry’s nervous hands might gain some gumption. “Lady, I’ve heard your voice before.” His fingers twisted the combination dial on the safe. “I know that voice.” The safe door opened, and Lowry’s jaw dropped in a dry-mouthed gasp at the shock of realization. “You’re that crazy woman who was in here before, aren’t you? You’re Stella Valentine!”

Lowry’s right hand made a sudden jerk in the direction of the alarm button and Stella put the end of the revolver right next to his eye. “Don’t even think about it, Lowry!” The store manager’s hands froze and he lost his balance, rocking on his haunches and falling to the floor.

Stella scooped the money from the safe into her handbag. She backed out of the cube, dragging Lowry to the checkout area with her gun planted against the base of his spine.

Meanwhile, Johnny ran out from the circuit room, carrying Harry Gibraltar’s shotgun in one hand. The Angels cap and the Spiderman T-shirt were gone; instead, he wore a black shirt and a black ski mask pulled over his head. He ran to the pharmacy section, ordering Tiffany and Marco to the checkout aisles with the other staff and customers who were crouched in between cash registers and racks of magazines and chewing gum. Next, Johnny methodically cleared all prescription drugs from the shelves and storage cases until they filled up four shopping carts.

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