Someone Was Going To Die
By Bernie Suttle
I saw it just like in The Killers, the movie I’d seen last Saturday night where two hit men from the city come to a benign, little town to assassinate a former associate for ratting on the mob. They terrorized a café and its motley customers. Now it was really happening, right here in Monrovia in 1947.
We’d never seen it but we knew that Matt Vacarro kept a loaded, sawed-off shotgun under the counter where he stood at his liquor store. This belief was why a robbery hadn’t happened here…yet. But when I saw a tall, thin, tough-looking character saunter in I thought, “This is it.”
Matt’s Liquor Store was at the south end of town. Matt didn’t cater to the carriage trade. Those who entered his door daily purchased the small amounts of his stock they needed – no credit. He cashed lots of checks with a required purchase, every Friday – payday.
Matt, the irritated Italian to most of us, had worked doggedly earning his way up to owning the liquor store and two retail rentals including the building where I worked after school that provided a living for him and his family. He held onto what he had leaving no money on the table.
It was Friday, early evening on a winter-dark day, when I got in line at Matt’s as usual standing with an interesting mixture of the local humanity to buy a pack of cigarettes but primarily to cash my paycheck.
Ruling his domain, Matt stood in his position at mid-counter by the register backed by the shelves of bonded bottles facing the clientele on the other side of the service barrier. He was a little shorter than average with an impassive face but smoldering, all-seeing eyes. His remaining hair was haloed on his ball-like head. Only a regular, prolonged blink of his eyes weakened the picture of majestic control of his fiefdom.
I stood behind “Jingles,” a high school dropout who did casual labor while awaiting his big break in show business. Jingles had nicotine, sallow complexion topped by a greasy, blonde pompadour. He jittered impatiently in line, smoking, chewing gum and noisily jingling change in the pocket of his cords.
Arthur Snearly, minor manager at the local water heater company, stood quietly in his business attire reading a Field and Stream magazine picked from and soon to be returned to the store’s rack. Arthur would buy the usual pint of crème de menthe for his wife, Myra, and a half pint of IW Harper for himself that he’d consume before reaching home.
Stanley, in his late thirty’s, stood at the back of the line wearing his Hollywood cowboy outfit. He had three comic books and four Almond Joys in hand. Smiling and stuttering, he told no one in particular he was, “Going to the show to see Gene Autry and lots of pretty girls.” Matt didn’t let on that he recognized me as his tenant’s employee and one of his daughter’s classmates. He saw me only as a very minor customer to be served and dispatched as quickly as possible.
After my turn, I stepped away to fold my money and open my new pack of smokes. That’s when I saw him and realized what was going to happen. Thin, taller than most he was wearing washed jeans, a T-shirt and a leather bomber jacket. He climbed out of a grey, older, two-door Olds sedan pulled up on the wrong side of the street right in line with the front door. He left the motor running.
He looked up and then down the street. Moving toward the shop’s open door, he repeated this scrutiny before entering. As he moved up to be served he slid his right hand onto his jacket zipper and started pulling it down. Seeing him enter, Matt eased back four inches from the counter to better access his weapon. The tall man stopped at the counter right in front of Matt, looked left then right and slipped his right hand into his jacket and whispered, “Half pint Early Times”.
As Matt put the small bottle into a paper bag the stranger grabbed hold of something inside his jacket with his right hand. My stomach tightened. I’d never been at a crime. No one else seemed aware of the impending horror I saw coming.
Matt pushed the package toward the perp saying, “That’ll be a buck fifty-six.”
The stranger reacted with a quick breath.
Would it be a revolver or an automatic? The answer came suddenly. His hand flew out of his jacket and smacked on the counter, with his change purse.