by Philip-Todd Franklin
October 15, 1972:
Earlier that morning before Ellen awoke, Buddy Baker had slipped out of their hotel bed and had gone down to the front desk to inquire about the little jewelry store. He’d learned that that the man who ran it always closed at five, but sometimes, if someone arrived before closing time, a great deal could be made.
It was with that information and the burning desire to surprise his wife that Buddy found himself running down the sidewalk late that afternoon, Ellen Baker at his side and struggling to keep up. Even though the couple were running as if they were being chased, Buddy was determined to make it to the jewelry store on time. He’d let time slip away from him yet again that day, lost in the allure of this quaint mountain town.
Not far away, three figures dressed in black clothing could barely be seen in the darkening shadows behind the store. “Now, you two remember the plan?” Peter asked, looking at Steve and Jake, who nodded in reply. “Good. Then in less than an hour, we’ll be one step closer to having it made,” he said, grinning.
After a few moments, Peter motioned at Steve, then pointed at a tree across the way. Without replying, Steve slowly walked over and took up his position, watching the street in front of the store.
Steve wasn’t completely sure of his older brother’s plan, but he also knew not to disobey. Peter is the oldest, now, and also the only family I’ve got, he thought. Can’t fail him, or I’m alone.
At quarter to five, Buddy ran to the front door of the Wilkerson Jewelry Store and quickly pushed open the front door, Ellen panting right behind him. Old man Wilkerson looked up from his desk behind the counter and regarded the young couple as they entered his small store. “May I help you young folks?” he asked, slowly walking up toward the counter.
“Yes, please. We’d like to see some of your fine jewelry,” Buddy said with a grin. “I’m surprising my wife, here, with something.”
“Oh, my. I’d completely forgotten,” she said, still surprised by Buddy’s impulsiveness. “It’s our anniversary today!”
“Yep,” said Buddy with a wink. “We got married five years ago today,” he explained to the owner.
“Then we can’t disappoint her, now can we, young man?” said Wilkerson. “Allow me to just lock the front door, and I think I know just the piece for her,” he said with a small grin and a twinkle in his eyes. He loved to see young couples in love; they reminded him of his sweet, departed wife, Mandy. Closing and locking the front door to his shop, he turned off the outside lights.
Buddy began looking into the many different display cases, one at a time, while Ellen quickly glanced from case to case, almost like a child in a candy store.
Outside, Steve had seen the couple as they ran into Wilkerson’s shop and, glancing at his watch, began trying to signal Peter.
“What’s gotten into Steve, Peter?” Jake asked, seeing his friend make strange-looking motions from across the street.
Peter didn’t reply at first, but took a quick glance at his watch and then made a few signals back to Steve. “Don’t you worry none, Jake. He’s just informin’ us that old man Wilkerson ain’t alone in his joint.”
“Oh!” was all Jake could say in response; he didn’t recall if they’d even discussed this occurrence.
In the store, Wilkerson walked over to one of the display cases and, taking a ring of keys from his pocket, began opening the back of the case as he softly nodded his head. “Yes, yes, yes, I do think I’ve just the thing in here for the young lady.”
Ellen and Buddy walked over to the display case just as Wilkerson pulled out a slender box and placed it on the case, smiling at them. Buddy reached out for the box and slowly opened it, his eyes growing wide as he looked at the necklace within. “Mr. Wilkerson, it’s beautiful,” he began, “but I don’t think we can honestly afford–”
Wilkerson stopped him mid-sentence with a wave of his hand and said with a smile, “Nonsense, my boy. I’ve a special sale going on for this little piece, here, and today only it’s seventy-five percent off.”
Ellen looked first at the necklace, and then at Wilkerson. The look in her eyes said it all; she was in love with it. “Wow,” was all she could say.
Buddy looked at the necklace and gently set the box down before lifting out the necklace and placing it on Ellen’s neck. As Buddy was working with the clasp, Wilkerson reached out, took the box, and began nodding. “It truly does suit her, young man,” he said, pocketing the box and softly locking the display case.
Buddy Baker quickly paid for the necklace, since the price was much less than the original asking price, and he and Ellen both thanked old man Wilkerson, who smiled and waved at them as they said their goodbyes, and he locked the front door to his shop.
Across the street, Steve noticed the pair leave the jewelry store, so he gave a little whistle and pointed to the building before stepping deeper into the already darkening shadows of his tree.
“This is it!” hissed Peter as he pulled his ski mask over his face and started toward the back door of the jewelry store, pulling a crowbar out from his black pants.
Calming his nerves, Jake took a step toward the back door, half-mumbling a regretful prayer as he also pulled on a ski mask. He dearly hoped that he wasn’t making the mistake of his life with his two friends.
With the lock-picking skills he’d practiced all that summer, Peter popped open the back door to the store and cautiously headed inside, the crowbar still tightly held in his left hand. A smile broke over his hidden face; after all his planning, he was finally doing it.
Not wishing to be thought a coward, Jake quickly entered the back of the store just in time to hear Wilkerson’s voice raised in anger.
“Who are you, and what are you doing in my store?” the old shop owner demanded, pointing an aged finger at the masked man who had just come running from his storeroom in the back. “Get out!”
Waving his crowbar menacingly, Peter replied, “I’m the only one giving the orders around here, old man. Now, give me the keys, or do I have to get rough with you?”
Jake quickly entered the front of the store and walked over to stand beside Peter, his knees shaking all the while. He wasn’t sure if it was from the adrenaline rush or fear, but he didn’t really care.
Sneering at the two masked men in his shop, Wilkerson made a quick move for the phone on the counter. But Peter had spotted the phone and moved a fraction of a second quicker than him. Just as Wilkerson reached it, Peter swung his crowbar into the old man’s side, knocking him to the ground and cracking a rib, and he shattered his right wrist as he made contact with the hard wooden floor.
“Wrong damn move, pops,” Peter said, the sound of bones cracking having brought a wider smile to his covered face. Kneeling, he grabbed the keys at Wilkerson’s side and tossed them to Jake. “Let’s clean this trash joint out and get out of here!”
Jake was still in shock after Peter had clobbered old Wilkerson. Fumbling with the keys as he tried to open the display cases, Jake thought to himself, Why are there so many blasted keys here?
None of them had noticed that, under the center display case was a wallet that had been dropped earlier by a rather happy customer just before he exited the store.
A few blocks down the street, Ellen Baker slipped her arm around Buddy and frowned as she noticed something missing. “Honey,” she softly whispered into his ear, “where’s your wallet?”
Buddy immediately stopped in place. “You sure it’s not there?” he asked, checking his back pocket with his own hand, but coming up with nothing. “Huh. Must’ve fallen out somewhere along the way. Come on, angel, let’s look for it.”
In the jewelry store, Jake had finally opened the display cases and was trying to clean them out as fast as possible, while Peter watched the front of the store and the street outside, keeping himself from being seen. Old man Wilkerson had been moaning loudly, trying to not move, though the pain shooting through his body was unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Trying to silence the noise, Peter quickly gagged Wilkerson with a piece of cloth before bringing the crowbar down on his head, knocking the old man out.
As they strolled back down the street, Buddy said, “I bet I know what’s happened, Ellen, honey. I bet I forgot it back at that nice old man’s jewelry store.” Ellen nodded in agreement as she lightly fingered the necklace that they had bought just minutes ago. With a renewed purpose, they headed back toward the jewelry store a bit more quickly.
Unknown to either of them, a pair of eyes had noticed their approach. Steve was uncertain what to do. Peter hadn’t come up with a plan to handle anyone beyond the police. Unsure of what to do next, Steve just continued watching the store.
Buddy was the first to notice the lights still on within the store, and as he approached he thought, I’ll just knock on the door and ask to look for my wallet. Ellen tried to cover a nervous shiver that as she had; it felt like they were being watched, but she couldn’t see anyone else looking at them on the quiet street.
Making his way to the front door, Buddy was just about to knock when he spotted the two masked men inside, and Wilkerson lying on the floor of his shop behind a display. Nonchalantly walking back to Ellen, he pulled her down a side street and whispered to her, “Give me your scarf, angel. There’s trouble inside Mr. Wilkerson’s store.”
“Couldn’t we just call the police?” Ellen asked, removing her yellow and blue scarf and handing it to her husband.
Shaking his head as he took the scarf, Buddy replied, “Not enough time. Mr. Wilkerson isn’t moving.” Hidden by the shadows, Buddy tied the scarf over his face to hide his identity. “Hurry, Ellen,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Find a phone and call the police while I try to help Mr. Wilkerson.” With that, he turned and headed toward the store. Ellen stood there in the side street for a moment before taking off in the other direction, trying to locate a pay phone or any shop that might have a telephone.
Racing against time, Peter and Jake were now cleaning out as many display cases as possible. Jake had already tossed away the keys and was just shattering the tops of the cases with his gloved fist after Peter had already eagerly smashed a case with his crowbar, now specked with the old man’s blood. Both boys were oblivious to the man crouching outside the store window, watching as they quickly filled two large trash bags with jewelry.
On their first trip into town, Buddy Baker had taken special notice of a pet store in the vicinity and had looked at the animals inside. He’d seen a few puppies and kittens, of course, as well as an assortment of birds, lizards, fish, rabbits, and hamsters. There were also a few adult dogs in the neighborhood. It wasn’t as good as a zoo or aquarium for picking up the abilities of animals, but he could still make good use of his powers if he used them creatively. He and Ellen had passed the pet store on the way back to the jewelry store, so he still had several minutes’ worth of absorbed animal powers left to use.
Closing his eyes for a second, Buddy chose the animal powers he’d need. Then, with the leaping ability of a rabbit, he jumped through the window, covering his face with his arms as he crashed, landing on his feet like a cat just past the first display case.
The two masked boys inside were startled for a moment, before Peter jumped up, swinging his crowbar menacingly at the man as he began walking toward him and snarled, “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you just bought a whole world full of pain!”
As for Jake, his nerves were already wracked from robbing the store and from watching Peter beating the old man. Seeing this stranger crashing into the store was just too much, and in total fright, he wet himself as he stood there unable to move.
Moving into a crouching position, Buddy prepared to pounce at the young man. “Kid, you have no idea what pain is,” he said, his voice muffled by the scarf over his mouth.
Ellen had run down the street as fast as she could while wearing flats and a skirt. Skidding to a halt in front of a convenient store, she hurried inside and stopped at the counter. “Please, you have to hurry!” she said quickly. “There’s trouble down the road!”
The man behind the counter just stood there, staring at the pretty lady like a deer caught in headlights, seemingly unable to hear or understand what she was saying. “Down the road at the jewelry store — a robbery!” Ellen added as she grabbed the phone and dialed the number zero. Reaching the operator, she quickly explained the events at the jewelry store and, without saying another word to the stunned man behind the counter, ran back out of the store.
Peter moved toward his foe, slowly passing the crowbar from hand to hand, sneering as he moved forward. All the while he kept reassuring himself that he was facing an unarmed man with a crowbar, so this should be easy.
Sniffing the air with a dog’s sense of smell, Buddy picked up the scent of urine and noted that one of the boys must have wet himself, but he also caught the copper scent of blood. He softly began to growl as Peter advanced on him.
Within seconds, Peter made a quick dash toward Buddy and swung his crowbar at his head.
Thanks to a bird’s quick reaction time, Buddy saw the weapon coming almost in slow motion and had plenty of time to leap up and over Peter’s head like a jackrabbit, just barely scraping his back along the ceiling. Kicking out, he knocked Peter hard in the back of his head before landing just in front of Jake and throwing out a left hook at the boy.
Jake tried to step back, only to slip on his own urine and fall onto the ground, inadvertently helping him absorb some of the impact from Buddy’s punch.
Peter quickly turned around, still seeing stars from the blow Buddy had landed on his head, and dropped his crowbar. Taking a step forward, he reached into the waistband of his pants and pulled out a small, cheap revolver, which he aimed at Buddy. “No one does that to me and lives!” he spat.
Buddy heard the sound of the Saturday night special’s hammer sliding into place. Turning to face Peter, he shot out his right foot and grazed Jake in the side of his head almost as an afterthought, laying him out flat. Why does it always have to be guns? he asked himself as he prepared to launch himself at the masked youth before him.
Hearing the sound of sirens in the distance, Buddy softly smiled behind the scarf as he looked the youth in the eyes. There was a visitor in town from the nearby Tennessee mountains, he could tell, who was now providing Buddy with more power than he’d ever need to take this kid down. Growling, he dived at the boy’s legs just as the gun went off.
But Peter had fired the gun just a moment after Buddy moved, missing him completely. “Stand still you #^@%!*& jackrabbit!” he yelled a moment before his feet flew out from under him, and he lost his grip on the gun.
Using the borrowed strength of the visiting bear that had wandered into town, combined with the speed of a rabbit, Buddy quickly picked up Peter, tossed him over his head, and spun him around. After a few moments, he grunted as he tossed Peter toward the far wall, watching him crash and land upon the hard floor. He smiled as he sniffed the air with his dog’s sense of smell and slowly walked over to old man Wilkerson.