DeathIn the store he was giving last-minute instructions to Kroll, the man who would be his manager during their vacation in Phoenix."I think the Californias," Ellerbee was saying. "Some of them beat several of even the more immodest French. Let's do a promotion of a few of the better Californias. What do you think?""They're a very competitive group of wines," Kroll said. "I think I'm in basic agreement."Just then three men walked into the shop."Say," one called from the doorway, "you got something like a Closed sign I could hang in the door here?" Ellerbee stared at him. "Well you don't have to look at me as if I was nuts," the man said. "Lots of merchants keep them around. In case they get a sudden toothache or something they can whip out to the dentist. All right, if you ain't you ain't.""I want," the second man said, coming up to the counter where Ellerbee stood with his manager, "to see your register receipts."
"What is this?" Kroll demanded.
"No, don't," Ellerbee said to Kroll. "Don't resist." He glanced toward the third man to see if he was the one holding the gun, but the man appeared merely to be browsing the bins of Scotch in the back. Evidently he hadn't even heard the first man, and clearly he could not have heard the second. Conceivably he could have been a customer. "Where's your gun?" Ellerbee asked the man at the counter.
"Oh gee," the man said, "I almost forgot. You got so many things to think about during a stickup --- the traffic flow, the timing, who stands where --- you sometimes forget the basics. Here," he said, "here's my gun, in your kisser," and he took an immense handgun from his pocket and pointed it at Ellerbee's face.
Out of the corner of his eye Ellerbee saw Kroll's hands fly up. It was so blatant a gesture Ellerbee thought his manager might be trying to attract the customer's attention. If that was his idea it had worked, for the third man had turned away from the bins and was watching the activity at the counter. "Look," Ellerbee said, "I don't want anybody hurt."
"What's he say?" said the man at the door who was also holding a pistol now.
"He don't want nobody hurt," the man at the counter said.
"Sure," said the man at the door, "it's costing him a fortune paying all them salaries to the widows. He's a good businessman all right."
"A better one than you," the man at the counter said to his confederate sharply. "He knows how to keep his mouth shut..."
"The register receipts," the man at the counter coaxed. Ellerbee's cash register kept a running total on what had been taken in. "Just punch Total Tab," the man instructed Kroll. "Let's see what we got." Kroll looked at Ellerbee and Ellerbee nodded. The man reached forward and tore off the tape. He whistled. "Nice little place you got here," he said.
"What'd we get? What'd we get?" the man at the door shouted.
Ellerbee cleared his throat. "Do you want to lock the door?" he asked. "So no one else comes in?" He glanced toward the third man.
"What, and have you kick the alarm while we're fucking around trying to figure which key opens the place?" said the man at the door. "You're cute, you're a cutie. What'd we get? Let's see." He joined the man at the counter. "Holy smoke! Jackpot City! We're into four figures here." In his excitement he did a foolish thing. He set his revolver down on top of the appetizer table. It lay on the tins of caviar and smoked oysters, the imported cheeses and roasted peanuts. The third man was no more than four feet from the gun, and though Ellerbee saw that the man had caught the robber's mistake and that by taking one step toward the table he could have picked up the pistol and perhaps foiled the robbery, he made no move. Perhaps he's one of them, Ellerbee thought, or maybe he just doesn't want to get involved. Ellerbee couldn't remember ever having seen him. (By now, of course, he recognized all his repeat customers.) He still didn't know if he were a confederate or just an innocent bystander, but Ellerbee had had enough of violence and hoped that if he were a customer he wouldn't try anything dumb. He felt no animus toward the man at all. Kroll's face, however, was all scorn and loathing.
"Let's get to work," the man said who had first read the tape, and then to Kroll and Ellerbee, "Back up there. Go stand by the aperitifs."
The third man fell silently into step beside Ellerbee.
"Listen," Ellerbee explained as gently as he could, "you won't find that much cash in the drawer. A lot of our business is Master Charge. We take personal checks."
"Don't worry," the man said who had set his gun down (and who had taken it up again). "We know about the checks. We got a guy we can sell them to for --- what is it, Ron, seventeen cents on the dollar?"
"Fourteen, and why don't you shut your mouth, will you? You want to jeopardize these people? What do you make it?"
Ellerbee went along with his sentiments. He wished the bigmouth would just take the money and not say anything more.
"Oh, jeopardize," the man said. "How jeopardized can you get? These people are way past jeopardized. About six hundred in cash, a fraction in checks. The rest is all credit card paper.'
"Take it," Ron said.
"You won't be able to do anything with the charge slips." Kroll said.
"Oh yeah?" Ron's cohort said. "This is modem times, fellow. We got a way we launder Master Charge, BankAmericard, all of it."
Ron shook his head and Ellerbee glanced angrily at his manager.
The whole thing couldn't have taken four minutes. Ron's partner took a fifth of Chivas and a bottle of Lafitte '47. He's a doctor, Ellerbee thought.