4. THE TWO STRANGERS
On his way to Hansen's Gym, in Ellentown, Joey decided to make a quick detour and stopped at the 7-11, down by the railroad tracks at the north end of Monotoning. There, he pumped ten dollars worh of high test gasoline into the tank of his ravenous Corvette.
Peggy Latshaw, who was working that afternoon, gave Joey a worried look as he sauntered up to the counter. Without a word, she accepted his money, rang up his purchase, and deposited his crumpled bill in the register.
She leaned so far over the counter that their noses almost touched. In a quick, breathless whisper, she said, "Listen. Would you mind doing me an awfully big favor?"
"I don't know. It all depends. What do you have in mind?"
"Could you stay with me until the cops get here? These two guys came into the store about five minutes before you did. They're strangers; I've never seen them before. I asked them what they wanted and they didn't say a word. They just started walking around the store like they owned the place. I'm afraid to be alone with them. I think they're trying to rob me. I'm not sure, but I think one of them's carrying a knife. I called the cops just as you pulled up to the pumps. They should be here any second. Could you do that for me, please?"
"Yeah, sure. Why not? I think I can handle that."
"Oh, thank you. Thank you, very much."
Joey ambled over to the silver ashtray, at the corner of the counter. Looking into the large, oval mirror mounted high on the wall above the bank of frosted cooler doors, he caught a quick glimpse of the two strangers. One was tall and lean and swarthy looking. His companion was short and round, with greasy, black hair and a wide, pock-marked face.
They reached the end of the next-to-last aisle, made a quick left, and then another quick left, and started down the last aisle in the store. The tall, swarthy-looking guy lifted a bright, red-and-white package of picnic napkins from the shelf. He pretended to examine the package closely for a moment or two, then grinned and set the package back on the shelf.
"The cops are here," Peggy announced, purposely loud.
The two strangers cae loping swiftly down the aisle toward Joey. As they drew near, Joey noticed a lump in the right pocket of the tall stranger's tattered jeans. Joey thought that lump looked big and solid enough to be pocket knife. Or a switchblade.
Quick as a cat, Joey snaked out his right hand and grabbed the tall stranger by his bony elbow. "Did you and buddy take anything while you were back there?" Joey asked him.
The tall stranger looked at Joey like he was loco. He yanked free his arm from Joey's grasp and hurried to catch up with his companion.
They reached the glass doors just as Raleigh Splitter entered the story. Raleigh gave them each a casual, curious glance and let them pass.
Raleigh lumbered up to the counter, the palm of his beefy, right hand curver comfortably around the walnut handle of his service revolver. "So, what seems to be the problem here?" he demanded brusquely.
"Those two." Peggy pointed a fat finger out the window.
"Did they take anything?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"They didn't take anything that I could see," Joey volunteered.
"Hmmm..." Raleight set his thick lips in a thoughtful, judicious pout, while he considered all the available evidence for a moment. "They looked harmless enough. I'm pretty sure I know where they're from." He frowned, sighed, and shook his head. "Well, I guess I'd better go and check it out," he said. He sounded resigned.
Twenty minutes later, Raleigh came walking back into the store. "So, did you catch up with them?" Peggy asked him.
Raleigh nodded. "It was just as I suspected. Those two are part of that crew from Philly that's putting in the new shrubbery, down at the old folk's home. Theire foreman told me he hadn't even known they were gone, until he saw them come walking back. I made them empty all their pockets. There was nothing stolen that I could see."
"Was the one guy carrying a knife?" Joey asked.
"Nope, no knife."
"You shouldn't have to worry about them, any more, after tonight," Raleigh said to her. "The foreman told me, that at quitting time, they were all heading back to Philly."
"Thank heaven for that," Peggy replied. "We certainly don't need their kind around here. There are enough weirdos in town."