Advertising Director Melanie Sims pocketed her pen, tucked the papers into the briefcase on Tom Zeller’s coffee table, and said, “It’s a good proposal, Tommy. I think we’re ready.”
“Tomorrow at eight, right?”
“Yep. At their downtown office.”
Tom looked up as his wife Alice inched down the stairs, limping on her left foot. “Is she asleep?” he asked her.
“For now. With Snoopy under one arm and her bear under the other. Hey, Mel.”
“Hi, Alice.” Melanie frowned. “Are you okay?”
“Getting better. Tore some ligaments in my ankle.”
“Tommy and I were just finishing up.”
“I know — I could hear you two from upstairs.” Alice eased down onto the couch.
“Sorry about the weekend work,” Melanie said.
Alice shook her head. “No worries. If you guys get this contract, it’ll be worth it.”
“Wait a second,” Melanie said. “Alice, don’t you work on Saturdays?”
“Yeah, it seems people need to buy medicine on weekends, too. My off day is Monday.”
“But … if both you and Tommy are gone tomorrow — who’ll keep Annie?”
“I’ll take her to work with me. No problem.”
“But — she’s five years old. The pharmacy lets you do that?”
Alice and Tom looked at each other and grinned.
“You tell her,” he said to his wife.
Alice carefully propped her foot on the coffee table, looked at Melanie, and said, “Two weeks ago last Thursday, at eight forty-five in the morning …”
Alice Zeller parked her minivan and hurried with her daughter Annie through the blowing rain to the entrance of West Ridge Mall. After two minutes of hiking through the as-yet-deserted corridors, they approached the storefront of Braumann’s Discount Drugs.
The medium-sized branch pharmacy had fallen on hard times. Nothing unusual: Many of the businesses in the mall had already closed. The sad truth was, this was becoming a low-income, high-crime area of town. Owner Drew Braumann was planning to close the location but hadn’t yet done so, and, for now at least, Alice was still employed.
She’d seen their faces. What if they decided not to leave witnesses?
And she liked the job. She got to use her PharmD degree, her customers were great, the stress level was low, and the hours weren’t bad. The store manager even let Alice bring Annie in to work with her when necessary. Like today. Annie had padded into their bedroom at 6:00 with a runny nose and a low-grade fever — nothing serious and probably not even contagious, but fever was fever and her kindergarten was strict about that. So here they were.
Alice and Annie stood alone in the hallway facing the drugstore, which was pretty much alone as well; it was located in a three-store cluster at the end of one of four corridors that branched out from a central hub like spokes of a wheel, and the two businesses on either side of it were already closed and sealed. In no particular hurry, Alice reached into her pocket and pulled out the remote that controlled the 12-foot-wide security door currently blocking the entrance to the store. She held it out to Annie, who happily pressed the button. Together they watched the heavy steel-linked shield rumble upward.
“Why didn’t we come in through the door from the parking lot?” Annie asked.
“Back door’s broken,” Alice said. “It’s really thick, and made out of metal because burglars like drugstores, but it’s jammed somehow and won’t open or close. Until it gets fixed, this front entrance — via the mall — is the only way in or out.”
By now the barrier had fully withdrawn into the ceiling, and they walked in. The store manager was out of town, so Alice booted up the computer to get ready for customers while Annie burrowed into her own little corner behind the counter with her bag of books and snacks and Legos. Alice heard a sudden gust of rain against the roof, and the deep grumble of thunder. Here, though, she and Annie were snug and dry. Both settled in for what Alice expected to be a pleasant and uneventful Thursday morning.
She was wrong.
At a few minutes past nine, two men in heavy coats entered the drugstore — one tall and one short. The tall man wandered toward the locked, glass-enclosed pharmacy area in the back while Shorty stopped at Alice’s counter near the front of the store. When she looked up from her computer screen it was too late: Shorty’s gun was out and aimed at her face. Without a word he pulled her from behind the counter, led her to a closet several feet away, opened the door, and shoved her inside. As she fell, the ankle that had given her trouble for years hit a wooden box and twisted beneath her. She landed on it and felt a searing bolt of pain.
The next minutes were agony — not only from her injury but from terrified thoughts of her daughter. Had they seen Annie, tucked into her secret alcove beneath the counter? Had she cried out in alarm? After the closet door closed, Alice heard nothing but the noise of the rainstorm overhead and the sound of breaking glass as the intruders forced open the pharmacy. Undoubtedly they were now going through the shelves and cabinets there.
Despite the pulsing pain — the ankle felt broken — Alice pulled herself up onto her good knee and tried the doorknob. Locked. She felt like screaming. Why would anybody put a lock on a closet door? But the question now was, What should she do? Call out? Bang on the door? Stay quiet and wait? Her cellphone was still in her purse beside the computer.
Then she heard a tapping on the door. And a loud whisper. “Mommy? Are you okay?”
Alice had to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out. A gift from heaven — her child was all right. But the closet door was in plain view from everywhere in the store. If the men in the back finished up or happened to look this way —
“Annie?” she said. “Can you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“Open the door, honey. Quick.”
A soft rattle. Then: “It’s locked.”
“Turn the little button in the middle of the knob. That’ll unlock it.”
After a click and another jiggle the door eased open. Wide-eyed, Annie rushed into her mother’s arms. Alice closed the door again and squeezed her tight in the darkness. For an instant, Alice wondered if they should just stay here in the closet until the robbers left. Then she remembered that she’d seen their faces. What if they decided not to leave witnesses?
She couldn’t risk that. Better to get out of here quick, while the men were occupied.
Wiping her eyes, Alice said, “I can’t walk right now, baby, but I can crawl. We’ll both crawl, so they can’t see us. All right?” She could feel Annie’s head nod. Thank God she wasn’t crying or screaming, Alice thought. It occurred to her that the daughter was probably holding up better than the mother.
“Okay,” Alice said. “Let’s go.” Steeling herself against the pain, she opened the door and scurried out of the closet on the palms of her hands and one knee — the other leg she dragged behind her. Annie, clutching the tail of her mother’s blouse, crawled alongside. Alice turned, eased the closet door shut behind them, and shot a look toward the back of the store. She was too low to see the men at the moment, so she assumed they couldn’t see her either. Taking a long breath, she headed for the front, and freedom, with Annie keeping pace.
Alice had no idea how long it took them to cover the 20 feet to the entrance, but suddenly she felt the rough carpet of the mall corridor under her hands and kept crawling. There were still no other people on this end of the mall. Not a single soul. And Alice was afraid to call out. There was always the chance that the two men would hear her above the deep, steady drone of the rain on the roof. Somewhere nearby, thunder crashed.
Alice paused for several seconds. The pain was worse. They were barely 10 feet past the store entrance, but she felt nauseated and dizzy. She found herself gasping with every movement. “I gotta stop, Annie. We gotta stop.” Frantically she looked around. Braumann’s Drugs formed the very end of the corridor, its storefront almost perpendicular to those of the two closed stores on either side; there were no corners behind which to hide. The only safe spot she could see was a big square column in the middle of the hallway several feet ahead. “Come on,” she said, and crawled for it on hands and knee, still dragging her left ankle.
It turned out there was plenty of room there for them both to hide, sitting side-by-side with their backs against the column, out of sight of the drugstore. Annie’s face was pale, and Alice was wheezing and sweating like a workhorse.
“Mommy?” Annie said.
“What’ll we do now? They’ll see us here when they leave.”
She was right. In the one glance Alice had taken around the corner of the column, she’d seen the tall man moving about, still in the back of the store. At any moment he and his short partner could finish up and leave, and their only way out was the front, and their only way out of the mall was straight past this column. They would see Alice and Annie for sure when they went by. But Alice didn’t know what else to do. She couldn’t go any farther or she’d pass out, and where would that leave them? She supposed she could have Annie run to find help, but that would put her child out in the open all the way down the rest of the corridor. She couldn’t help thinking about that big pistol in the hand of the man who’d pushed her.
“What’ll we do?” Annie asked again.
Alice’s mind was spinning. She was out of options. Nobody else was here, she had no phone, she had no weapon, she couldn’t run, and she was afraid to send Annie — who could run — for help.
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Let me think.”
Then Annie’s eyes widened. “I know,” she said.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Annie reached into her mother’s pocket, took out the remote control, and pressed the button. Alice heard, behind them and 20 feet away, the security door rattling its way down from its slot in the ceiling. Stunned, she looked at her daughter. This time Annie was the one peeking around the corner, watching the massive door lower itself toward the floor. Would the intruders hear it? The pounding of the rain on the mall roof was loud, but not as loud as the uncoiling of the metal barrier.
Sure enough, Alice heard one of the robbers shout, and looked around the other side of the column to see them sprinting toward the front of the store. But they were too late. The grilled door locked itself in place well before the men crashed into it, pounding and cursing and shaking the thick steel links.
It held fast. They were locked in.
Shorty ran to the closet, looked inside, and ran back again. The tall man bellowed, “Where are you, lady? Raise this damn thing!” Both fired several shots, which clanged off the barrier. But the shots accomplished one good thing: they alerted the rest of the mall.
Isolated until now, the corridor started drawing a crowd. As soon as Alice saw the first arrival — a security guard — she shouted to him to wait, look out, the men in the drugstore have guns. The guard, nodding and waving to her, withdrew to safety and was already on his phone. Moments later the real cops showed up.
There was no standoff, no resistance. The robbers were trapped. Within 10 minutes they were disarmed, the door was raised — Annie did the honors — and both were taken into custody.
And our quick-thinking daughter got her name in the paper,” Alice said, smiling.
“Her mom did too,” Tom said.
Melanie sat there with her mouth hanging open, staring at them.
“The craziest thing is,” Alice said, “it turned out our two robbers had hit four other businesses in the previous week, and stolen almost 50 thousand bucks in cash and merchandise. Drew Braumann, the store’s owner, gave Annie a reward, and the mayor’s talking about presenting her with a medal.”
“He should,” Melanie said, in a hushed voice. “I can’t believe I missed this.”
“They’re pretty famous, my girls,” Tom said. “One of the reporters called them—”
“The A Team,” a small voice said.
Everyone turned to see Annie standing there in her PJs at the foot of the stairs, rubbing her eyes with her knuckles.
Alice limped over and scooped her up. “What are you doing awake, peanut?”
“Y’all are talking too loud,” Annie said.
Melanie was gaping at her. “What did you say, just now? About a team?”
Mother and daughter both grinned. “The A Team,” Tom said. “Alice and Annie.”
Melanie laughed aloud and shook her head in wonder. “And maybe A for Awesome.”
“Could be,” Tom said. Deadpan, he looked at Annie and added, “Miss Mel and I were thinking we might need you to help us negotiate our deal tomorrow morning.”
Melanie nodded. “Or let you do the whole presentation.”
Alice said, “Sorry, you two. She has to go with me in case I need advice.”
Solemnly, Annie studied her mother’s face, then looked hard at both her dad and his boss, then turned to her mom again.
“Grown-ups,” she said, “are weird.”
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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