Tom Anderson would point to the events of this day as the time his master plan began to unravel. Like many of his flawed schemes this one, too, seemed like a good idea at the time. Tom wasn’t quite twenty-seven years old but felt as if he’d already made enough bad decisions to last a lifetime. He was glad his folks were on their second honeymoon in Italy; he didn’t want his father to ever here about the mess he’d made of things.
It all started to fall apart when the glass door of The Coffee Shoppe flew open and a young man in a black hoodie came in.
Tom was sitting pretty close to the front doors. He always did; it was his table. It had an outlet nearby for his laptop. Normally, he didn’t pay attention to people coming through the door, but he couldn’t help but notice this guy. The hoodie caught his eye. It was the end of April in central Florida, already hot enough to make you wonder if we’d be skipping spring this year and jumping right into summer.
Everyone else in the café wore short sleeves, including him. Most wore sandals and flip-flops too. He glanced over his shoulder at the kid, now standing in line. An elderly man was at the counter in front of him, placing his order. The kid’s head swiveled on his shoulders, his eyes scanning the room. Taking in the customers first, then the exit, then the cashier. Back to the exit, then another look at the customers. On this second pass, he looked right at Tom for a moment.
Tom knew then something bad was about to happen.
It wasn’t the hoodie so much, but the look on the kid’s face. Dead serious, with fierce eyes. He wore baggie jean shorts, the bottoms hung down way past his knees, blue boxers sticking out. That’s when Tom saw it. Poking out of his waistband. Something black.
A gun handle.
The Coffee Shoppe was set up so that most of the customers couldn’t easily see the counter area, because it was blocked by the coffee station. Tom’s angle by the front door allowed him to see both sides of the store.
The young man stepped up to the counter. Tom looked at the teenage girl in uniform behind the cash register. Her eyes showed she felt something was wrong, but she gave the programmed spiel. Big smile. “Welcome to The Coffee Shoppe. We’re glad you’re here. Can I take your order today?”
He pulled out the gun and shoved it in her face. He didn’t yell, but Tom was close enough to hear what he said. “Give me your money. All of it, or you’re dead.”
“Don’t ask me what. You heard me.”
“I’m not allowed to open the drawer unless someone buys something.”
“Are you kidding me? Open that drawer now or I start shooting.”
Tears filled the girl’s eyes. “Okay, I will,” she said quietly.
“Quick.” The kid kept the gun pointed in her face but turned around. So far, none of the other customers seemed to know what was going on. Tom pretended to stay busy on his laptop. When the kid faced the girl again, Tom looked at him then at the girl. She looked terrified.
“That’s right,” the kid said. “Put it all in that bag.” The two employees at the other end of the counter saw what was happening. Their faces in shock.
One of them, a blond-haired guy named Tim, took a few steps toward the girl. “Don’t hurt her, man. She’s doing what you want.”
The kid pointed the gun at him. “Shut up and stay there or you die.”
Tim held his hands up. “I’m not going anywhere. Staying right here.”
The kid in the hoodie stuck the gun back in the cashier’s face. “Hurry up.”
“I’m almost done.”
This exchange was a little louder. Some of the customers nearby started paying attention. This thing could get out of hand in a hurry. Tom had studied martial arts all the way through middle school and high school. He hadn’t done a thing with it since then. He was totally out-of-shape and squishy around the middle. But a handful of moves played in slow motion through his head. He could stop this kid, take away his gun.
He knew he could. But he had to act now.
Lord help me, he prayed, wondering if God was even listening to him these days. Slipping out of his loafers, he snuck up directly behind the robber. In a deep voice, he said, “Yo,” behind the boy’s left ear.
“Huh?” The thief turned toward the sound.
Tom quickly shifted to his right side and struck him in the neck, just below the ear. The boy yelled in pain. Tom kicked the back of his left knee, then spun around, sweeping both legs out from under him. The boy flew backward, slamming his head against the tile floor. The gun fired as it fell out of his hand. It was pointing away from the crowd but people screamed. Tom bent to one knee and punched the kid, full-force at his chest. He winced in pain, a panicked look came over his face. Tom jumped over the boy and kicked the gun across the floor.
He looked back at the boy, who somehow managed to jump to his feet. Before Tom could deliver another blow, the kid ran out the door, limping down the sidewalk. He still moved faster than Tom had run in years.
“Somebody call 911,” Tim yelled.
“I just did,” the manager yelled back, stepping out from the back office. “I called as soon as I heard the shot. The police are on their way.”
“Is he gone?” a customer yelled. “Is it safe?”
The manager ran past Tom out the front door, looked down the sidewalk. He stuck his head back inside. “The guy’s gone,” he said. “Somebody tell me what just happened.”
As relief swept over the crowd someone started clapping. Soon everyone joined in. Tom walked back to his table to put on his shoes. They all pointed at him, telling the manager what he just did.
He was the hero, their savior.
People came up, shook his hand, patted him on the back, saying they’d never been so scared in all their lives. The older gentleman, the one who’d been at the counter just ahead of the robber, told the manager it was like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. “Never saw anything like it.”
“Anyone get a video on their phones?” Tim asked.
Thankfully, no one had. The manager walked up and shook Tom’s hand. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“That’s okay,” Tom said, realizing what came next. “I’m late for something. I’ve got to go.” He closed his laptop lid, unplugged the cord and put both in his brief bag.
“But the police are on their way,” the manager said. “I’m sure they’ll want to talk with you.”
“You’re a hero,” one of the customers said, a college-age kid. “I just called the local news. They’re on their way.”
“Thanks everyone,” he said, not looking anyone in the eye. “Sorry. Gotta go.” He hurried toward the door. Just as he opened it, he looked back. The college kid was lifting his cell phone in Tom’s direction. He was taking a video! Tom covered his face with his right hand as he ran down the sidewalk. When he got in his car, he put it in reverse and stayed in reverse until he was two stores away, so no one could take down his license plate.
When he’d passed two traffic lights down the road, a police car with its siren blaring, headed in the opposite direction toward the café. As he sat at the red light, a second police car came flying through the intersection right behind the first.
That was so close, he thought. Too close. He was shaking all over, probably just the adrenaline. Calm down, he told himself. Breathe slowly. You’re okay.
He flicked his turn signal on, deciding then to head south toward the nearest Books-A-Million, one town over from Lake Mary where he lived. He’d get there an hour earlier than his normal routine today, but what choice did he have?
Tom spent most of his time each day between two coffee shops and a bookstore. Of the three places, he liked The Coffee Shoppe the best. But now he’d have to find another place that offered free WiFi to spend the first block of each day. No way he could show his face back there. Not for a few weeks anyway, maybe a month.
He couldn’t afford to be anybody’s hero. He was just grateful the whole incident had happened so fast, no one caught it on camera. The last thing he needed was his face showing up on YouTube. And there was no way he’d have stuck around to be interviewed by the local news. For one thing, the kid in the hoodie might see it and seek him out, looking for some payback.
But the thing that worried him most was that his wife Jean might see it.
Then she’d know.
Tom wasn’t where he was supposed to be right now, where she’d assume he would be and should be this time of day. If the news people interviewed the café staff, somebody would mention Tom was a regular (although he’d never told anyone his name). They’d say he came there several hours a day, almost every morning, for several months now.
If Jean heard that, she’d soon find out the whole thing. She’d start asking him direct questions, and he couldn’t lie then. The only reason he was pulling this off so far was that he’d been playing on her assumptions. His own version of don’t ask, don’t tell.
If Jean found out, soon his whole family would find out, including his dad, Jim Anderson.
There was no way he could let that happen.