Needing some extra minutes to place the options on a mental notepad, Johnny took longer than normal in making the burger. Had he been given the opportunity, he might have written everything down on actual paper, list it all on one giant T-Account just like he used to, the positives on one side, the negatives on the other, see which side won out. It had been a long time since he’d looked at problems that way, though—years ago, back before the state punched his ticket and sent him for a long ride on the penitentiary bus.
Using the spatula to scrape away the gristle, sliding it off into the grease trap along with all the other residuals from today’s cooking, he then tapped it twice and listened to the ting-ting! of metal on metal as another thought touched the corner of his mind. He’d been here before, the same decision but a different time; and now, much older and slightly wiser, he knew he couldn’t make the same mistake again.
He grabbed the top bun off the grill and used it like a hot pad to hold the meat against the spatula as he carried it all to the plate, laid it down with the rest of the trimmings. Turning around then, he lifted a basket from the vat, shook the oil off, and dumped the fries on the plate along with everything else.
He placed the finished product down on the counter in front of tonight’s customer. Somewhere in his twenties—just a boy, really—the young man bit down into the burger and moaned like a lover trapped in a wave of ecstasy. “Man, Johnny, where you learn to cook like this?” His mouth full of food, the words came out muffled. He smiled, a glob of mayonnaise in the corner of his lips.
Johnny shrugged. “A man can learn a lot of things, as long as he has the time, the ambition.”
“Well”—the young man swallowed and licked away at the glob of mayonnaise—“this is the best burger I’ve ever had, bar none.”
It was a lie of course, a wishful nugget of talk intended to steer the conversation in the right direction. Over the years, Johnny had heard many versions of it. For some men, it worked; for guys like Johnny, however, it didn’t stand a rat’s chance in a snake den.
Johnny said, “I’m gonna pass on your offer, Mike.”
The young man stopped midway into another bite. He placed the burger on the plate, wiped his hands on the legs of his jeans.
“Because I don’t want to do another run in lock-up,” Johnny said, “that’s why. I’m too old to play that game again.”
Mike held his hands out, palms up. “Didn’t you hear me? We got the hard stuff covered. All you’ll be doing is driving the car.”
Johnny shook his head. “Take it from me—and you know I’ve been there—the thing about rolling banks is that nothing ever goes as well as you plan. You’re father would’ve told you the same thing.”
“Okay, yeah, I looked at that one, too. The reason you did time is because my old man failed to lock down all the angles, and he paid the hardest price for it, God rest his soul.” The young man tapped a finger on the counter. “I guarantee you, we haven’t made that mistake.”
Everyone makes mistakes, Johnny thought. “I appreciate it, Mike, but…” He shook his head again. “I’m happy right where I am.”
Mike looked around. “A short-order cook in a grease pit. You serious?”
“It may not look like much, but some day I’m going to own this place.”
Mike looked away. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows like he couldn’t believe what he just heard. After a moment, he said. “Yeah, okay, but you’ll do us a solid, right? You won’t tell anybody what we have planned.”
Johnny smiled. “I believe you’ll be caught, Mike. The odds are against you. Even if you aren’t though, don’t you worry none. I won’t tell a soul.”
Mike stood to walk away. Johnny grabbed his hand.
“I may do you a solid, but that doesn’t mean the burger’s free. That’ll be six-fifty.”
Mike grinned. “Yeah, sure, Johnny.” He reached into his pockets. “Here’s a ten. Maybe you can sock a little away for your dreams.”
Mike came through the door first, followed by two other guys. Their faces looked flushed. Mike tossed a duffle bag on the table and laughed. “There it is, boys, the sum total of a day’s work.”
The second guy said, “You see the look on that chick’s face when she realized what was going down?” He tossed his gun on the table next to the duffle bag. “I swear, if that’d been the grocery store, there’d have been a voice on the speakers: ‘Mop up on aisle four.’”
They all laughed, none of them seeing Johnny as he stepped out of the darker hallway. He raised his Beretta and shot the third guy first. The young man hit the wall, his eyes wide, a confused look on his face. Johnny stepped up to the second one who only had time to blink, like he wasn’t sure who the old man was. Johnny splattered his brains with the second shot. Two men down, he turned on Mike.
Mike’s hands shot up. “Hey, whoa, Johnny, what gives?”
“You know,” Johnny said, “I’m just as surprised as you. When you told me your plans, I would have bet money you guys would’ve never made it out of that bank. Somehow you did.”
Mike shook his head. “Why?”
“Like I told you, the thing about rolling banks, or anything for that matter, is that it never goes as planned.” Johnny looked at the bag, thinking about his dreams. He smiled then and raised the gun one more time. “Especially when you tell too many people.”