I saw the car slow down and turn into the deserted parking lot. The beams from the headlights cut through the night and traveled the length of the building to where I sat. I was alone. “God, please…no,” I prayed aloud as I began to shake. The emergency alarm was wailing so loud I couldn’t even hear my own prayer. I reached for the scissors beside me and stood to my feet. They were my only protection.
I shook Jose’s hand for the first time three weeks before that night in March 2001. He was a nice enough guy- hard working, quiet, and knew a thing or two about movies – but I still had an unsettled feeling about him. I had recently been promoted to Store Manager at a Hollywood Video location in Arlington, Texas and had the rare opportunity to hire each employee that worked for me. Each employee but Jose, that is. He was hired by my District Manager who sent him my way a week or two after I started the job.
It took a couple of weeks for Jose to gain my trust. Once he did, I gave him a pass-code for closing the store at night. It was a unique code that allowed him to set the security alarm as he left around midnight each night. He was hired on as a Shift Leader so it was a responsibility expected of him.
A ringing phone at 1am is never a good thing. It usually had something to do with an issue at work, so I begrudgingly picked it up one Wednesday morning. “Hello?”
“May I speak to Robert Johnson, please?”
Okay, not work. This was looking worse. “This is he.”
“Sir, this is [so and so] from the alarm company. It appears the alarm has been triggered and there is movement inside. How long will it take you to get to the store?”
Ugh. That had happened to me once before when I was an Assistant Manager at another location. The mysterious movement inside which triggered the alarm was only a deflated balloon. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night for that. “Ten minutes,” I told her with a sigh. She let me know the police would be awaiting my arrival. I hung up the phone and made my way to South Cooper Street. I had to open the store in just a handful of hours, so I was not happy at all. “No more balloons,” I vowed as I pulled into the parking lot.
The woman on the phone was right: there were two cop cars awaiting my arrival. “You the manager?” one asked.
I nodded as I watched the other scan the storefront with his flashlight. The alarm was blaring but the door was locked from the inside. It was then that I noticed the distinct sound of the alarm. “Someone entered their code incorrectly,” I croaked in a sudden bout of nervousness.
“Then let’s open it up.”
I turned the lock and moved to my left as both men crossed the metal detector with guns raised. They didn’t really need to do that, did they? My hand was shaking as I entered my personal security code to deaden the annoying alarm. It was finally silent. All the balloons were in place. I was terrified.
One officer canvased the left portion of the store as the other took care of the right. When we got to the locked bathroom, he motioned for me to open it. “Not protocol,” I thought to myself, a thought I would never dare say out loud. He stood behind me with his gun drawn. “I didn’t sign up for this,” I screamed inside as I slowly turned the handle. He pushed the door open himself. Nothing.
We searched the whole store until one last section remained: my office. “He’s got to be in there,” I pointed as both men raised their guns once again. One officer took my key and directed me to retreat further into the store. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I spoke to no one in particular as I watched the door open a crack, then a foot, then all the way. Was I really hiding behind a shelf? I saw both men freeze and drop their weapons to their sides.
“You might want to come in here,” one called over his shoulder. Not one to ignore a direct order from a cop, I did as he said. When I passed the threshold, I saw it plain as day.
I made it home around 2:15am and fell right into bed. Thank God for dumb criminals and videotapes, right? My mind traveled back to a few minutes in the past and the image we had all seen on the security video: Jose had entered the store, punched in his code to SET the alarm (which caused it to go berserk since it had already been set), freaked out, and made for the office. The last image on the tape was of Jose pushing STOP on the recording. Funny enough, he didn’t even think to remove the tape. He did, however, remember the big bag of money from the previous day’s haul. It was gone, and so was Jose.
“Okay, it’s a little funny,” I told myself as I closed my eyes and tried to drift off to sleep. Five minutes later, my phone split the silence once again.
“May I speak to Robert Johnson, please?”
Oh no. Not again. “This is he.”
“Sir, this is [so and so] with the alarm company. We detected movement again in the store. After the movement was detected, the alarm was also triggered.”
“Okay.” I was confused. “So there was movement first? Then the alarm?”
I climbed out of bed, no time to change my clothes, and made for the door. “That’s impossible. I was just there with the police. We searched the whole building! No one was there!” I wracked my brain for an explanation, anything at all. There had to be one. If there was movement first and then the alarm, it meant he was in the store while we were inside too. “It doesn’t make sense!”
“Well,” she stated matter-of-factly, “that’s what the system says. There is already a police officer on the way, Mr. Johnson. You’d better leave soon.”
The glass doors were unlocked when I arrived. The police officer had already canvassed the place and was filling out a report when I jumped out of my car. “Nothing?”
“Nope,” he answered.
“Can you come inside with me?” I asked. “I want to check something.” He followed along in my wake as I made straight for the office in the far back corner. Sure enough, the safe was open yet again. This time, the cash drawers were scattered across the floor. They were all empty. “I turned the video recorder back on before we left last time,” I added. You know, just in case he forgot. The officer stood beside me as we both watched Jose appear out of nowhere, run to the office, empty the cash drawers he had previously forgotten about, and run through the front door.
“Employee of yours?” the cop asked as he crossed his arms over his chest.
I hit the record button once again. “Ex-employee.”
Can you believe Jose broke in a third time that night? Well, he did. On his third trip, he walked off with as many movies as he could carry. I called my District Manager first thing that morning to fill him in on the news.
“Why did you hire this guy?” he asked me.
“Uh…you’re the one who hired him. Remember?” He did. And then he blamed it on the manager from down the street. “So anyway, we probably need to get the locks changed, don’t you think?”
“You think he’ll try to come back?” Really, how did this guy become a District Manager?
“Well, he did come back three times in one night. It seems like he’s either crazy or desperate.” He agreed and we hung up. I waited for the locksmith to show up. He never did.
Early Saturday morning, around 3am or so, I got the all-too-familiar call once again. Funny thing? I expected it. Jose hadn’t worked for me very long but he did know that Fridays were big money days. And there certainly was a motherload of cash waiting for him in the safe that night. He made sure to get every last dollar, from the deposit bag filled with the day’s haul, to all the cash drawers filled with $75 in bills. It took him less than three minutes to get in and out.
“We should get the locks changed today,” my District Manager sighed in frustration later that morning. “He’ll probably try to come back, don’t you think?”
Yeah. Yeah, I did. “And can we change the safe code too, just to be doubly sure?”
“Good thinking. Will do.”
I guess that’s the only thing that would convince Jose to show up for a fifth time, and with a large metal padlock to do the job his expired key wouldn’t do. Once he found that the lock had been changed, he crossed to the other side of the building and threw the heavy padlock through a pane of glass roughly 10×6 feet in diameter. He shattered the rest of the window and crawled through, his salvation just on the other side of the office door. When he learned the safe’s code had been changed, he made a hasty retreat through the emergency exit door right beside the broken window.
I saw the police car and the shattered glass when I pulled into the parking lot. I wanted to cry. This time there were dual alarms piercing the night: the motion alarm and the more annoying emergency exit door alarm. I wanted to add my own voice to theirs, to scream into the darkness, “Why me?” I shut my car’s engine off, walked inside with my shoulders slumped, and turned the motion alarm off. There was nothing I could do about the emergency exit door alarm.
“Looks like he got you good this time,” the police officer said as he got in his car and drove off. They knew the drill. They weren’t going to find Jose in the store and they weren’t going to waste any more time than was needed hanging around outside.
And that’s when it hit me. There was a gaping 10×6 hole in my store. The emergency exit door was opened and couldn’t be shut. My store was unprotected and I was the manager. “No, no, no. . .” I kept repeating to myself. A man desperate enough to break into a store five times in the span of five nights was desperate enough to come back. He was desperate enough to set a trap for me. He was probably watching me through the bushes dividing Cooper Street and the parking lot, just waiting for the cops to leave. If he was desperate enough to shatter a window, what else was he capable of? I picked up the phone to call my District Manager. Voicemail. I called him again. Voicemail. I continued my chant of no’s and looked at the shattered window. Jose, how could you be so cruel?
And then I saw it. It was the only car on the deserted street and I watched as it turned slowly into the Tom Thumb parking lot. It then disappeared behind the closed Taco Bell, around the dumpsters, and pointed its tires toward the Hollywood Video parking lot. I was trapped, with nowhere to run. It was the end. I signed on for $25,000 a year and just then realized I wasn’t getting paid according to my value. If it was my last night on earth, who was going to find me first? A customer who stops by early in the morning?
“God, please…no,” I whispered as my heart began to beat in time with the still-wailing alarm, the same alarm that would drown my screams for help. It was no surreal dream when I saw the car pull into the space next to mine in slow motion, its headlights pointed straight at me- me, the manager tasked with going down with the ship. Me, alone in the night, the only one standing between a desperate man and a few thousand dollars in a locked safe. Did he have a gun? I grabbed the only thing I could find – a pair of scissors – and stood to my feet as both of the front car doors began to open. There were two of them.
Marcus Cicero once said, “Robbing life of friendship is like robbing the world of the sun.” I knew the feeling- all I wanted right then was a friend or two, a couple of companions to stand with me against the impending death or injury headed my way. My light was fading as I stood there and the darkness began to swallow me whole. All for a bag of money.
But then, just as soon as the night began to drown my hope of surviving the confrontation, two rays of sun pierced my fear. I set the scissors down on the counter top and laughed. Stepping out of the car were two of my employees, two of the faithful young men I had hired myself. “What are you doing here? It’s late!” I yelled as I ran to the door and unlocked it for them.
“We went to get pancakes after work, saw the lights on here when we drove back by. What happened?” they both yelled over the alarm as I led them to the shattered window and the padlock surrounded by shards of glass.
I was alive again and it felt so good. The night outside wasn’t so dark, was it, the alarm not as loud as I thought. The scissors? Well, I’d laugh about those once my pulse slowed down a bit.
“Jose happened,” was all I could think to say. We laughed. And they sat all night with me through the darkness until the alarm’s battery wore down and morning broke.