Eddie sat behind the wheel of his father’s Blazer parked across the street from Trout Auto Parts. He smoked a Marlboro Light. Next to him, Patrick was smoking a Kool. It was nearing midnight. The cigarette did nothing to calm Eddie down. This was like drag racing while sitting still. Eddie could almost taste the adrenaline. He felt like he was inside an episode of Miami Vice, casing the place.
Eddie was trying to look cool in front of Patrick. He didn’t want to ask too many questions, seem too nervous or needy. He’d been puffing up macho for Patrick and Cliff. He wanted to prove he was one of the boys. He reminded them he’d been in trouble before. He’d been arrested. Whatever they were up for, he was down with it. Sitting there beside Patrick, watching Trout Auto, Eddie was thinking, I’m in. I’m cool. I’m one of them.
Eddie could see the clerk inside the store helping two customers. In the parking lot, a man was working on his car. The hood was up and he was bent over the engine. He finished and slammed down the hood. The clerk opened the door, let the last two customers out, and locked the door. They got inside a yellow station wagon and drove off.
“Let’s go,” Patrick said.
Eddie started the car and pulled across the street into the parking lot. He felt electric. Supercharged. Inside the excitement was a twinge of guilt and the knot of fear that came with knowing he was doing something wrong.
Inside the store, Billy Wayne Coker was getting ready to count the cash and turn off the lights. Saturday was supposed to be his day off, but there was never really a day off. For most of his life, Coker, now thirty-five, had worked two jobs. And he was still poor. Before he landed the job with Trout for $4.95 an hour, he and his wife and their two kids had been living out of their car, and Wayne was bumming money behind University Mall to feed his family.
Wayne and Sandra Faye Coker were married on January 14, 1979, one month after they met. He was twenty-four. She was thirty. A year later their son, Christopher, was born, a hyperactive child with an IQ of 80. Their daughter, Michelle, was born the next year, around the time Sandra began to have panic attacks. She became afraid to drive the car. She stopped wanting to leave the house. Wayne, when he wasn’t working, did the grocery shopping, took the clothes to the laundromat, and ferried the kids to school and doctor’s appointments.
They lived in a narrow, two-bedroom rental trailer about a mile from the W Street store. In a few weeks, as the Cokers approached their twelfth wedding anniversary, Wayne would be eligible for one week of paid vacation. He needed the break and the money.
Buddy Turner, one of the managers, called Coker around 2:30 P.M. that Saturday to ask if Wayne could close up for Wells at the W Street store. Wells had called in sick, and Eddie Coffee could work part of the shift if Wayne could take over after closing the store at Ninth and Jordan.
Coker always needed the money, so he was happy to fill in for Dan. Wells was the one who trained him when he started working at Trout Auto just about a year ago. Coker’s kids called him Uncle Dan.
Coker didn’t bother to shave that day. His face, below his thick brown mustache, was stubble. He pulled on the green, short-sleeve shirt with the Trout Auto logo above his heart, a pair of white crew socks, gray slacks, and gray cowboy boots. Around his wrist he strapped a watch with a black plastic band.
Sandra and Wayne kissed before he left for work. At the door to the trailer, Coker paused and looked at his wife.
“Bye,” he said. “I’ll see you in a little while.”
That night at work, Wayne smoked a cigarette and drank a can of Coke.
He didn’t see the black Blazer pull into the parking lot with the three teenagers inside.
Eddie parked the Blazer a few spaces from the take-out window of the corrugated metal building. Patrick slid out of the passenger seat. He had Eddie’s ski mask in one pocket, the gun in another.
As he walked toward the take-out window, Patrick felt pulled toward the window and held back by what he was about to do. Again, doubt competed with determination inside his head. You’re a jackass . . . But I need this money . . . You’re not going to get away with this . . . I can do it . . . This is really stupid . . . I’ll shoot him in the butt, he’ll fall down, I’ll get through the window.
At the window, just as he had the night before, Patrick asked the clerk for a car part. As he was asking for the part, the phone rang. When Coker reached for the receiver, Patrick reached for his gun. His back to Patrick, Coker looked over his shoulder. Patrick stuck the gun back into his shirt.
“I’ll be right with you,” Coker said, and turned his back to the window.
As Wayne turned away, Patrick thought, This is it. Do it! Do it now!
Patrick pulled the gun from his shirt and shot Coker once in the back. He heard him scream. The gunshot was so loud it left a ringing in Patrick’s ears.
Inside the Blazer, the sound of the gunshot startled Cliff. He had been sitting in the backseat thinking this was just going to be a repeat of last night. Patrick would hustle up to the window, put on a little act of talking to the clerk, and hurry on back. I wonder what his excuse is going to be this time, Cliff thought, just before the gunshot shattered his delusions.
Cliff looked at Eddie with disbelief.
“He did it,” he said. “The motherfucker actually did it.”
Then Cliff turned his head to see Patrick standing by the window, waving his arms and shouting. He felt his heartbeat accelerate inside his chest and his hands begin to tremble. He was suddenly hot. His face was sweating. Like someone going into shock, his brain disengaged and his body took over. He grabbed the bolt cutters, the blue book bag, and his ski mask and climbed out the back door of the Blazer.
Cliff ran to the take-out window. Patrick was halfway through the window when he reached out his arm and shot Coker a second time, in the chest. Cliff started to follow Patrick through the window, holding the bolt cutters and book bag in his left hand, pulling himself through the chute with his right. He was halfway in before he realized he had forgotten to put his ski mask on. Cliff slipped back out the window, pulled his ski mask on. One of his gloves fell to the ground. He didn’t bother to pick it up.
Back inside the window, Cliff felt his vision narrow as if he were crawling though a tunnel. Inside the store, he glanced at Coker on the floor and Patrick leaning over him. Then he focused on his job—cutting the locks. He knelt beside the padlocks on the safe beneath the counter. The bolt cutters he had carried through the window with one hand suddenly felt heavy in his hands. His arms were rubbery. He squeezed the jaws of the bolt cutters on the shackle of the lock, but nothing happened. He squeezed harder, but he couldn’t cut the locks. He felt drained of strength.
“I can’t cut the locks off, Pat!” he shouted.
“Give ’em to me!” Patrick yelled back and handed the gun to Cliff.
Cliff knelt beside Coker, but he kept his eyes on Patrick. Patrick snipped the locks on the safe and climbed clumsily onto the counter, stumbling in his hurry. He reached up with the bolt cutters to snip the two padlocks on the green strongbox where the cash and checks from the other stores were stuffed.
Cliff couldn’t feel the gun in his bare right hand pointed at Coker. He couldn’t look at Coker, but he couldn’t block out his voice. Coker, shot in the back and the chest, never stopped talking. He was pleading for his life, not for himself but for his wife and children.
“Please, don’t shoot me again,” he begged. “I won’t tell the police . . . Please don’t kill me. I’ve got a wife and kids. My daughter is nine. My son is ten . . . Don’t kill me. Please, don’t kill me.”
The sound of Coker’s voice competed with the thought inside Cliff’s head that they had screwed up, that it was a disaster.
“Pat, he’s not dead,” Cliff said.
Patrick jumped down from the counter and grabbed the gun back from Cliff.
Cliff jammed the money, checks, and envelopes into the book bag. In a hurry to get out of there, to get away as fast as he could from this nightmare of stupidity, Cliff was headed to the back of the store when he heard Coker say to Patrick, “Please don’t kill me. I’ve got a wife. I got two kids.”
“Shut the fuck up about your fucking wife and kids!” shouted Patrick.
In Patrick’s mind, this had gone wrong from the very beginning. The big money Archer said was here, wasn’t. Cliff was useless, couldn’t even cut the damn locks. The guy had seen Cliff’s face. Cliff had said his name. There was no getting out of this. Right here, right now, he could go to jail for life. This was armed robbery, this was attempted murder, this was . . .
Patrick held the gun to the left temple of Coker’s head and pulled the trigger. He pulled it again.