Blair didn't come alone to pick up the artwork. He brought a couple of wise guys.
|Chapter 7. Employees Only|
I desperately tried to open the van's door to no avail. Richard Blair turned and told the men in the back to unlock the case.
"If you don't show him the money, we'll never see the artwork."
The men in the backseat exchanged glances and shrugged.
"Yeah. Okay. Sure. Here ya go, kid."
I turned around in the seat to get a better look at the large case.
One of the men pulled out a small key and unlocked the padlock. He opened the lid and tilted the case in my direction.
I observed stacks of one-hundred-dollar bills. I reached over the seat and tried to lift a stack from the case but the man pulled the case away.
"Un, un, un. No touching until we see the art."
I looked at Richard Blair and he nodded. "That's right. We need to see the art. Where is it?"
I realized I was in trouble. Maybe I was just a kid, but I was no idiot. They wanted me to think there was a million dollars in the case but all I'd seen was six stacks at the top. And were there actually bills in those top stacks? It was possible the case held only six hundred dollars.
There was no way I was going to take them to my storage locker. The men in the athletic suits looked like wise guys and I didn't want to be anywhere alone with them. I had to think of a lie and I needed to come up with it fast.
"It's hidden in the back of my father's store."
Richard Blair's face twisted in frustration. "Your father's store?"
"Yes, in a back storage room hidden behind some stuff."
A voice from behind, "What kind of store, kid?"
"A grocery store. My family owns a grocery store."
A different voice from behind, "I don't like this. Something's not right."
I assured them it would be okay. "Just let me out at the front entrance and then pull around back and I'll bring the art out the back door."
The wise guys in the back seat wanted to abort the whole thing but Richard Blair's life depended on obtaining the Sergio Ricci artwork.
"YOU IDIOTS! THE ARTWORK IS PRICELESS. HE'S GOT IT. YOU SAW THE PICTURE."
"What if he gets into the store and goes crying to his daddy?"
The other wise guy shrugged and replied, "I'll go in with him."
We pulled out of the parking lot and I directed Blair to Ferguson's Food. When we pulled into the grocery store, Blair had a puzzled expression.
"Sure. You didn't really think my name was August Denton the third, did you?" The two wise guys chuckled.
One of the wise guys told Blair to circle around so he could see the backdoor.
"Okay, kid, here's the deal. I'm going in first to do some 'grocery shopping' and you come in after me. You get the art and take it out the back."
"If you go running to your daddy or anyone else, it's not going to be pretty." He pulled a pistol from a shoulder holster and displayed it.
"Okay. It's going to take a few minutes because I've got to move a lot of boxes out of the way to get to the art."
"I suggest you work fast."
We watched wise guy #1 enter Ferguson's Food and a minute later wise guy #2 opened the passenger side door.
"Remember, no funny business and nobody gets hurt."
I had no real plan when I walked into the store. I was just relieved to be out of the musty van.
Mr. Ferguson saw me and said, "Nolan, what are you doing here? This is your day off."
The wise guy was pushing a shopping cart very slowly watching our exchange with interest.
"Is it okay if I read some of the magazines?"
Mr. Ferguson laughed. "If that's how you want to spend your afternoon off, go for it."
I stood at the magazine rack and picked up the latest issue of Monster Truck and started leafing through it. The wise guy pushed his cart past me and said, "What are you waiting on? Go get it."
I returned the magazine to the rack. "Okay. Okay."
I headed for the back room and the wise guy acted like he was going to follow me. I put my hand up and stopped him. I pointed to a sign that read, "Employees Only."
He stood in the aisle with his shopping cart as I disappeared into the back.
I stood in the back room and felt trapped. I wasn't sure what to do next. That's when my phone rang. It was Belinda Davis.
"Hello, Nolan. Did you try to sell a diamond at a jewelry store in the Cloverdale Mall?"
I wasn't sure how to respond and remained quiet.
"Nolan? Are you still there?"
"Yes! Look, you once said that if I was in trouble, I should contact you first."
"Well, I'm in trouble now. Big trouble! There're some guys after me and they've got a gun."
"Where are you?"
"In the backroom of Ferguson's Food."
"You haven't been associating with that street gang, have you?
"Street gang? No..."
"I'm a couple of blocks away. Stay put."
She hung up before I could tell her the seriousness of the situation. She seemed to think I was mixed up with some youth gang. I was about to call her back when I saw the wise guy looking into the backroom.
I ducked down behind some boxes and held my breath.
"Hey, kid. What's taking so long?"
I heard him walk by the large freezer and open the door to a storage pantry.
"Not smart, kid."
He opened the back door and motioned the men in the van to come in.
Richard Blair was in a panic. "We can't let him get away!"
Belinda Davis pulled into the parking lot of Ferguson's Food, looked around both corners of the store and figured the kids who were after me were long gone. She entered the store and was greeted by Mr. Ferguson.
"Hello there, Ms. Davis. How are you doing?"
"Good. Hey, is Nolan here?"
"You'll find him at the magazine rack."
She walked past the magazines and headed towards the "Employees Only" back room. She figured I had a lot of explaining to do.
She pushed the door open and entered. She was shocked when she saw me at the far end of the room being held at gunpoint by a man in an athletic suit and gold chain. Beside him was a gaunt old man in a dark suit.
Before she could mentally process the scene, she felt the barrel of a gun jab her in the back.
"Sorry lady, this is a private party."
"Who are you? What are you doing with Nolan?"
"Oh, is that his name?"
"BRING HER OVER HERE," shouted Blair.
I trembled as he hovered over me. "Young man, is the artwork in this room or not?" He gestured to the wise guy who put the gun up to Davis's temple. I began shaking my head vigorously.
"Then where is it?"
Blair leaned in closer to me and spoke softly. "No more games. Take us to the artwork now or we'll kill this lady first, and kill you second."
Now I was nodding my head uncontrollable. Belinda Davis stood calmly with the pistol pointed at her head as she sized up the men.
"Okay, everyone, shall we make our way to the van?" said Blair. They all stepped outside and wise guy #2 opened the back doors of the Econoline.
"Ladies first," said wise guy #1 as he pushed the barrel of the pistol into her side.
What happened next was like a thing of beauty. In one fluid motion, Belinda Davis reached around and clamped her hand over the gun and twisted it. At the same time, she planted her foot into the chest of the other armed man and he crashed violently into the van and collapsed. She knocked the first man out with a single blow to the temple.
She took me by my arm and snapped her attention towards Richard Blair.
"You want some of this?"
She guided me back into the store and slammed the door shut. We heard Blair pounding on the door.
"Come on, Nolan, let's get you out of here."
We ran through the store and out the front as a puzzled Mr. Ferguson took it all in. "Is there a problem?"
Richard Blair attempted to abandon the wise guys but they regained control of the situation and held him at gunpoint. Minutes later they were on the interstate headed back for the city.
Belinda Davis called in the assault and attempted kidnapping but the Cloverdale Police Department was notoriously slow in responding to calls, allowing the men to get away.
She pulled her car over into the parking lot of a convenience store and glared at me.
"Do you mind telling me what you've been up to?"
I looked away from her and out into the parking lot. "Nothing."
"Look at me, Nolan!"
I hesitated and then reluctantly fixed my eyes onto hers.
"Who were those men?"
"I don't know."
We sat silently in the convenience store parking lot. Her eyes were fixed on me and I looked out the window into space. I remembered the photograph in her office, the one attached to her filing cabinet. She was wearing a marshal arts uniform. I smiled.
"You beat the crap out of those guys."
She looked out the other window and had a sly grin. Yes, I did.
I knew I had a lot to answer for, but for this brief moment, I savored our victory.
End of chapter 7.