There was a place on 14th called Joe’s Shoe Repair. It had a small storefront, with a two storey ranch style house erupting out behind it, as if a tumor had metastasized in the shop’s rear wall, resulting in the development of some entirely new construction. Or perhaps it was the other way around, perhaps the home’s front porch had metamorphosed into a square, simple store. Either way, it was an oddity on a stretch of road dotted with strips malls, fast food joints and flat-roofed, anonymous buildings inhabited by lawyers and plastic surgeons and convenience stores.
Frank had noticed its incongruity driving by a few times before, but it was only when he moved into the neighborhood and began making regular trips to a nearby convenience store, for smokes and lotto tickets, that its angularity struck him as truly peculiar. Stranger still was the fact that the store was never open. There were a number of shoes and boots set out against window, displaying Joe’s handiwork no doubt, and he could clearly see a counter with a ancient-looking till and various tools of the trade set out on it.
None of their positions ever seemed to change—something Frank made a point of looking for after the first few times he went by. The lights were always off in the store, with an ever present closed sign hanging on the door. He never saw lights in the house behind either, though the shutters were always closed, so it was difficult to say for sure.
“That’s a front if I’ve ever seen one,” Frank would say to all his friends, though what it might be fronting he could not say. It just didn’t seem possible that the owner could let a piece of real estate like that sit idle and useless. There had to be a reason. “Joe ain’t fixing no damn shoes, let me tell you.”
His friends would nod and shrug at these pronouncements. What did it matter what went on in the place, odd as it was? But Frank could not let it go. The constantly closed store, the shuttered windows, the absence of any human activity on a busy stretch of a humming city, all worked at his mind until his fascination was absolute. He found reasons to pass down the street, would take walks by it even in the bitter depths of winter, just to see if there was any change. For over a year, there was none.
That all changed one long summer evening, the sun still setting after ten, and the air languorous. Frank walked by on his way to get a pack of cigarettes and saw the door to the house, off to the side of the storefront, standing open. He stopped to stare at it, almost unable to believe what he was seeing. Before he had a chance to think any further, he walked past the store, up the steps of the narrow porch, and into the house.
He stopped in the entryway, realizing the foolishness of what he was doing. But he had already gone too far, he told himself, and pressed on. The house was still shrouded in darkness, except for the slightest glimmer he could see at the end of the hallway that led from the door. It smelled stale and heavily of dust, as if the windows had not been opened in some time. As he passed, what he guessed was, the living room, shrouded in darkness, he could almost make out a couch and chairs. In his mind’s eye, they were from another era, like the furniture he remembered in his grandparents’ house.
At the end of the hallway there was a closed door, light leaking up from the floor from whatever lay on the other side. Frank paused outside it, his hand hovering near the handle, even as he told himself to turn back and go. Taking a breath, he reached out to take hold of it. He had come too far not to see this through.
He stepped into the next room, which proved to be the kitchen. There was a small circular table at the back, near a door that led to the rear entrance, around which sat two men. They looked up at him expectantly. Frank held up his hand, ready to apologize, already backing out the door.
“Good, you’re here,” a woman said.
Frank jumped. He hadn’t noticed her standing in the corner, looking over the stove. “Excuse me,” he said apologetically, still backing away.
“Get in here. We’ve wasted enough time waiting for you already.” This from the older of the two men at the table. His hair was sparse atop his head and close-cropped, while his jaw was covered in five days worth of greying beard. The other man was much younger, wide-eyed and clean shaven.
“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I just wandered in because I saw the door was open and wanted to make sure everything was alright.”
The man snorted and rolled his eyes, while the woman by the stove laughed. “Please Frank,” she said. “We don’t believe that for a second. And we don’t have time to waste. So let’s get down to brass tacks, why don’t we.”
Frank nodded calmly, though his heart was pounding. How had she known his name? He sat opposite the man who had spoken and the woman joined them a moment later, carrying cups for all of them in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other. Frank held up his hand to decline the coffee, but the woman paid him no mind and poured him a cup.
He sighed. “Look,” he started to say, but the old man shot him a glare.
“Go ahead Joe,” the woman said. “Now that we’re all here.” She looked over at Frank.
Joe nodded. “Now listen up, I’m not going to repeat myself. We’re not getting ourselves into another jackpot because we’re careless. Ruthie, you’ve got the wheel. You know what to do, we’ve got no worries there.” Here he looked across the table from Frank to the other man, as if to say that the problem, if there was one, lay with them.
“You two handle the customers and the tellers. Line them up against the wall. Make sure nobody tries to be the hero. Clear?”
“You got the wrong guy,” Frank said, holding up his hands. “I been in some shit before, but whatever you’re up to, I’m not signing up for it.”
“Then why the hell are you here?” Joe said, leaning across the table, a challenge in his voice.
Frank was about to explain again, when he caught the eye of the other man, who shook his head in warning. He closed his mouth and looked at Joe, waiting for him to continue.
“Good. Don’t get yellow on us now,” Joe said with a sneer. “Now let’s go over everything step by step.”
He went through everything in detail. The entrance. The number of tellers. The number of guards. What they were to do, every step of the way. When he was done, he clapped his hands on the table authoritatively and announced, “I’ve gotta take a piss.” He left the room and Ruthie got up and collected everyone’s coffee cups, frowning at Frank’s untouched one.
When she was over by the sink, running water, Frank leaned across the table and said in a low voice, “You know what the hell is going on here?”
The man shrugged. “You heard him.”
“Oh, I get that,” Frank said. “We’re going to rob a bank. What I want to know is why the hell I’m being involved in this? Because I’m not who they think I am. I mean, I’ve not always been on the right side of the law, but I’ve never done anything like that. And I don’t intend to start now.”
The man looked at him with faintest of smiles. “You walked into the house didn’t you?”
“Because the door was open. Because I thought something might be going on.”
The man shrugged again. “Something is. You’re here now. No getting out.”
Frank laughed. “Oh, I’m leaving, make no mistake. I’m not getting stuck in this mess. Did you hear him? He didn’t even mention the cameras, or the buzzer for the police. We’re walking into a disaster. I’ll be leaving in just a second.”
The man shook his head. He spoke with a weary voice, sounding older than his years. “I think you’ll find that’s impossible. And forget about the cameras and all that other shit. That’s not what you should be worried about.”
“What do you mean?” Frank demanded. “What should I be worried about?”
The man smiled again, though there was no pleasure in it. His eyes were hollow, as if it had been weeks since he slept. “I walked in through that door, just like you. Sat at this table, just like you. Had the same damn conversation, near enough. And I’m still here. Every night we go and do the job, Ruthie, Joe and I. And whoever else walks through that door. Something always goes wrong. Sometimes someone dies. Maybe this time it’ll be you. Or maybe it will finally be me. I hope so. I hope so.”
Frank sat back in his chair. He wanted to argue with the man, but something in his expression told him it would be pointless. Any suggestion he could come up with for how to escape he, or the others with him, had already tried.
“How long have you been in here?”
The man held out his hands. “Who can say. It’s all been one long night and day.”
Joe came back from the other room, slipping on his coat. “You boys ready? Ruthie? Let’s get on the road.”
He walked out the backdoor and the man and Ruthie got up and followed behind. Frank looked around the room, as though trying to find a means to flee. There was none. He noted the old stove, the refrigerator that looked as though it had been put in when the house had been built, and everything else that seemed as though it had been kept in place for decades. It all told the same story. He got up and followed the others out the door.
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