The Stranger – A Short Story
I have been digging through the files on my old hard drive and discovered some little gems. This is a story I wrote back in college as part of a short story writing class. Peer-reviewed work from school cannot be any worse than the raw stuff I publish here daily, right?
This is the story of a stranger who keeps his cool in a Chaotic situation, and the witness that he influences.
This is the second time in my life I have been held hostage.
Normally, I occupy a small cubicle on the top floor of a building owned by DFI Financial Corporation. I sit in front of a computer and scan financial transactions for suspicious activity. My job is boring and uneventful; I have never come across anything in my five years here that warranted investigation.
Today, though, I found something. A large amount of money transferred from one of our clients’ accounts to an account in the Caiman Islands. No sooner did I catch it, than the doors to our floor flew open and a group of men bearing guns burst inside.
Some people managed to get out, but I couldn’t make it. They intimidated me. They came to me and shoved me in a corner and I submitted, just like I always submit; I can’t seem to put up a fight for anything.
I’ve lost my job three times already, and I never put up a protest. Whenever people try to take advantage of me, I let them; I just can’t find the courage to fight back. I couldn’t even find the guts to stop my wife from walking out on me this morning.
We’ve been sitting here for over 5 hours, grouped together in an open corner of the floor, away from the cluster of cubicles that occupy the west side; dusk has already covered the windows. The police are gathered outside; we all watch ourselves on cable news. Down on the street, a couple dozen police cars are flashing their lights and the SWAT team is spread out in groups. Every once and a while, the police helicopter passes by, shining its spotlight in, blinding us.
The men seem less concerned with us than with what they are looking for. One guy searches on the computers looking for God knows what, while another stands guard over us with a machine gun; he seems to be a little jumpy. The rest of our half-dozen or so captors occupy themselves with TVs and telephones, probably negotiating with the police.
I don’t know why I act this way, why I can never fight for myself. Am I such a coward?
As I said, this is the second time I have been held hostage. The first was when I was a boy, in the small town where I lived. I went to the bank with my mother; she was trying to cash her paycheck. She usually tended the house, but our family was broke, so she had gotten a job at the local supermarket, working a cash register. The money from her job, combined with what my father made as a freelance mechanic, allowed us to squeeze by from week to week.
My mom was excited that week; she had worked a day of overtime and planned to use the extra money to take my brother and me out for a nice dinner, a rare and special occasion. That made me excited too; it doesn’t take much to please a young boy.
The problem was that it seemed everybody in the town had just got paid. Couple that with the fact that our little town only had two banks, and you can see how the line could stretch almost to the door. We had been waiting in line for over 20 minutes when the men came in.
I fell over when they burst through the doors. Three of them, in old hoodies, one of them had a red baseball cap on; he seemed to be their leader, definitely more charismatic and controlling than the others. They were young, dirty and unshaven. One of them was shorter than the others by half a foot or so; he seemed more nervous, too.
The leader walked up to the center of the counter, a young blond girl was working there. He pulled out a black handgun and started screaming at her to get all the money out. She fainted right on the spot.
By now, people had already begun to run screaming out of the building, but my mother and I were in the farthest corner from the door; we had no chance of escape. She tried to pick me up, but I wouldn’t come off the floor, I was horrified. I had been raised around people who always preached kindness to others; it was a shock to see people so opposed to the doctrine.
One of the guys pulled out his gun and blocked off the door, sealing the rest of us inside. I could see my mother was scared; that amplified my own fear. In all, there were 23 innocent men, women and children trapped in that building with me. Some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t, but that didn’t matter, they were all my townsfolk… except one of them.
There was one man there that really stood out. Obviously a city slicker, wearing a long, tan trench coat, like one of those private detectives you see on TV. He had an attractive face, short, dark hair standing atop a high forehead. He was cleanly shaven and even in the chaos, kept a crisp smirk on his lips. He was tall, but by no means overbearing; he stood erect and confident. I didn’t understand how he could stay calm; I was awed by him.
The robbers circled us like vultures, brandishing their guns like claws. They lunged at me and to their amusement, I screamed. I cried and curled up on the floor; they teased me, telling me to grow up. It wasn’t just me; everyone was hysterical, except the city man. My first thought was that he must have been through this before. I had heard a lot of horror stories about how dangerous the city is; maybe he got mugged before. How else could he have been so calm and still, looking around the room carefully, looking at the robbers patiently?
The leader ordered the shorter guy to watch us while the other two jumped over the counter and started pulling the money out and stuffing it into some grocery store plastic bags they had in their pockets. I hoped they would be gone soon, I thought that something bad was going to happen. Once the clerk girl came to, they dragged her off to the safe in the corner; it wasn’t any use, she didn’t know the combination. It was about that time when we heard the sirens coming. Damn loud, too.
To my surprise, my mother got to her feet and started heading for the door; I was too scared to move. She motioned to me to follow, but I stayed there on the floor. The man in the trench coat watched from over in the corner, as the lackey on guard screamed at her:
“Where you going lady?” he said with a smirk. “Ain’t nobody goin anywhere yet!”
The gun was shaking in his hand. My mother glanced at him, a stern look on her face,
“Don’t you hear those sirens coming? It’s over for you. I have better things to do than to sit here and watch you boys throw a fit.”
My mother had always been a very stubborn woman. At that moment I thought I could get up and follow her; the man told her to stop again, but she kept on walking, so he shot her.
I screamed; it does something to you, seeing your mother get shot like that, I think I started hyperventilating. Even though she was only hit in the arm, it’s still a very traumatic experience, especially for a boy. I was too frightened to go to her aid.
Everyone was going crazy, the mob started concerning themselves with only themselves. The robber moved himself between my mother and the door and pointed the gun out at the rest of us. The other two hung over the counter, looking at him, wondering what the hell was going on. The city man slowly walked over to her and carried her back to his corner. Unlike the rest of us, he moved graceful and calm.
The police were outside, screaming in on a megaphone. Throw your guns down, put your hands up and various other generic police expressions. There were a bunch of cars outside; cops from the next town over must have come as well. The shaky robber seemed to be getting even more nervous; he made me nervous. He turned to his leader and vented his panic. The leader told him not to worry; the police wouldn’t come in because they had hostages. Were we no more than poker cards to those men?
Meanwhile, the stranger in the trench coat was tearing up my mother’s shirt, trying to get to her wound. He took out a white handkerchief, wadded it and pressed it to my mother’s wound; there was blood all over now and she was looking pretty faint. I was worried for her, yet I was amazed at his skill, so I eased closer to him, so I could see better what he was doing.
He told me to hold still and ripped a long piece off my t-shirt, which he used to tie down the wadded handkerchief. He asked if anybody had a ballpoint pen; I gave him the one I had in my pocket; it was one of the clicking types. He put it on top of the wadded cloth that was now dark red with blood, and tied the shirt piece around it. Then he slid the pen out from underneath the knot. I asked him why he did it and he told me that it was so the bandage wouldn’t be too tight; if it was tied too tight, it could cut off the circulation to her arm. My mom thanked him in whisper; I thanked him in silence.
The shaky robber walked up behind him and ordered him to get up. The stranger turned around as he rose, the pen still in his right hand. He stared straight at the robber and the robber in turn put his gun to the stranger’s face. The robber’s right hand shook nervously, as it flexed on the grip of the pistol. The other two came back from around the counter and traded glances a few times between the cops and us on the floor.
“You’re quite a guy.” the shaky robber said, “You got a name?”
The city man’s eyes scanned the robber; he was still smiling. “My name’s Jim.”
“Well, Jim,” The robber said, “You got some mighty fine hands. What do you do for a living Jim? Are you a doctor or something?”
Jim stared at the robber. His breathing slowed and his eyes focused. Tension moved down his arm, flooding his right hand and causing his grip to tighten on the pen. He clicked the point out, the move causing his veins to bulge.
“Actually…” he said calmly. His smile dropped and his face became rigid. His eyes locked on the robber and his breathing paused.
“I’m an assassin.”
Jim’s left hand slapped the gun to the side, a round hitting the wall. His right hand thrust the pen into the right of the robber’s neck. He grabbed a hold of the gun and dropped the robber to the ground. Jim aimed across the room and shot the leader in the chest. The other robber dove behind the counter. Bullets from Jim’s gun hit the wall moments after the man had moved.
Jim ducked behind the counter. The robber popped back up, sending some shots back in our direction. A few of them came close to my mother and me. Jim shimmied along the counter until he came to one of the small swinging gates used by the tellers to get inside. He paused for a moment, checking the door. When the robber came out and shot at us again, Jim bounded through the slender gate. He pivoted and with the gun in both hands, he firing twice. The room went silent.
After a few moments the police burst in the door, their guns raised. Jim stood up and set his gun on the counter; my heart pounded and I gripped my mother’s arm tight. The shaky robber still had the pen in his throat and was gurgling pretty bad; a paramedic started working on him right away. The cops went over to the other two, but didn’t give them more than a quick glance, wasn’t much guessing about their fate. To my surprise, they handcuffed Jim and dragged him outside.
That was the first and last time I ever saw him. I think I read in the newspaper sometime that he had been found not guilty on manslaughter charges. When I was a little bit older, I went looking for him once. I wanted to know why he did it, why he risked his life for us. I don’t know if he really was an assassin, but from what I saw that day, he very well could have been. People on the news called him a murderer, but they hadn’t been in that bank, they didn’t know. He was brave and selfless; he acted when the rest of us were too scared to. Something about him has stayed with me these past 20 years.
The helicopter is coming around again, that damn spotlight making it impossible to see anything. The men are arguing with each other, it seems their searching has borne no fruit. They are worried how they are going to get out of the situation they are in. Whoever hired them isn’t going to help them out when he finds out they came up short.
Why am I just sitting here, while the lives of these people are threatened? What would Jim do if he were here?
I’ve tried my best to live up to their examples, Jim and my mother; they both were supernaturally brave. I have always done my best to help people; I give to charity, and take care of my neighbors. Why not now, when action is most crucial?
This is the second time I submitted to my fear. The second time I sat still instead of making a stand. Nevermore, this is the day I do something.
One of the men approaches me as I stand. Where does this courage come from?