“Hey, Johnie,” Karma said as her boss walked through the door. She tried to act innocent.
“Get out of my way,” Johnie replied. “I’ve got to pee.” Hunched over, he walked like a penguin toward the back of the salon.
“Well, good morning to you, too.” She preoccupied herself with her clipper attachments and pretended to pout.
Johnie sighed and turned around. “Karma, don’t go all Sylvia Plath on me.” He tapped his foot involuntarily. “We can be besties in a minute. But right now I’ve got a venti Hazelnut Latte springing holes in my bladder.”
He turned and hurried to the restroom. “Good grief, who put all this crap in front of the door.” He started throwing brooms and mops and boxes of toilet paper.
“Yikes,” Karma said. She ran over to help. “Sorry, Johnie. We were cleaning out the storage closet last night. I came in early to put it all up. I just hadn’t got there yet.”
“It’s fine.” Johnie was breathing heavy. “Just move this stuff. I’m dying here.”
Karma shoved the last box out of the way then stepped back and waited.
Johnie threw open the bathroom door, flipped on the light, and screamed at the man staring back at him. “Oh, mercy.”
He grabbed his heart and crossed his legs. “Mercy, mercy, mercy.” He cursed, walked into the bathroom, and slammed the door.
Karma doubled over in laughter. His reaction was everything she’d hoped for. Soon, she heard him flush and turn on the sink. When he opened the door, she was there waiting.
“Karma,” he began, trying to remain calm. He was still drying his hands when he walked into the hall. “Why is there a six-foot cardboard cutout of Elvis freaking Presley in our bathroom?”
“Who?” Karma was still laughing.
“The King? By the throne?” Johnie yelled. “He practically said, ‘Boo, man.’ I think I’m having a coronary.” He dabbed at his forehead and tossed the wasted paper towel into the trash. “How I kept from peeing all over myself, Lord only knows. Do you realize I had to hold it through ten red lights and a school zone? Jesus, take the wheel.”
Karma tried to catch her breath. It was too much. “I swear, Johnie. You scream like a girl.”
“Yeah? Well, you dress like a boy. So, there.”
She laughed harder then tried to regain her composure. “Wait. Don’t you want to pull Elvis out of there? Corporate sent it. We’re supposed to put it in the lobby this month. Remember? The King of Spring promotion?”
“That promotion is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. I’m not putting that thing in the lobby.” Johnie walked back to his bag and started preparing his station. “Why did they have to use fat Elvis, anyway? I like Blue Hawaii Elvis.”
“You’re just gonna leave it in the bathroom?”
“Sure I am.” He checked his watch. “Winnie’s working today.”
The two of them shared a conspiratorial smile as Johnie started a pot of coffee.
An hour later, the waiting area filled with customers, including Winnie’s 10:00 AM appointment. At 10:13 AM, Winnie walked through the door.
“Glad you could make it,” Johnie said, half smiling, half sneering.
“Mmm hmm,” was all Winnie offered. “Where’s Karma?” she asked, noticing the young man waiting by the register.
“Out back grabbing a cigarette.”
Winnie shook her head. “Shareece, honey,” Winnie called to her first appointment, “you ready, baby girl?” Shareece, who actually looked closer to thirty, nodded and stood. “Same color?” Winnie asked her.
Shareece nodded again. Her hair was a vivid red, but her roots were ashy gray.
“Okay, then. Just sit over there, and let me check this boy out.” As she took the boy’s card and slid it through the machine, she peered out the storefront window. “Johnie, that white van is back again.” Her tone was more accusation than observation.
“What white van?” Johnie responded, focused on his current customer.
“You know what white van. The creepy white van that keeps backing into the empty space next door. They’re up to something. I know it.” She tried the boy’s card again.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Johnie said and flipped on his clippers.
“Mmm hmm. You gonna think ‘nothin’ when some hoodlum jumps me one night after work. I ain’t having none of that.”
Johnie feigned concentration on the job in front of him. He knew the guys in the white van and what they were up to, because they were giving Johnie a fifty percent discount. His niece’s Fourth of July party was literally going to be “the bomb.” And it was all thanks to the guys in the creepy white van who apparently housed a small arsenal of black market fireworks next door. They had no interest in Winnie, though. Johnie didn’t blame them.
“Oh,” she said. “And the card machine don’t work. Line must be down again.”
Johnie hung his head. “Heaven help me. How many times do they have to fix that thing?”
Winnie nodded. “Mmm hmmm.” Then, to the boy at the register she said, “Honey, you got cash?”
“Cash? No. But I could do Apple Pay?”
Winnie’s face contorted. “Apple what?”
“It’s okay,” Johnie said from his station. “He can pay next time he comes in.”
“Cool. Thanks,” the boy said and walked out.
From his periphery, Johnie saw light coming through the back door. Karma had returned. “Hey, Winnie,” he said. “I can get your color started if you need to take a break, go to the bathroom, whatever.”
“Bathroom? I just got here. I don’t need no bathroom.”
Johnie shot Karma a look. Oh well, it said. He finished with his customer, poured another cup of coffee, and called the phone company.
Hody Gilliam sat his Quarter Pounder on the seat next to him and wiped grease on his blue company coveralls. He checked the emergency work order again and made a mental list of the tools he would need. The phone job wasn’t his first choice, but it wasn’t bad. He touched the holstered weapon at his side and remembered the cop he would always be deep down inside. Technically, it was against policy for telecom professionals to wear a weapon on the job. Yet, while his time at the Academy had been short, he had learned one important truth. It was a scary world out there. As he pulled to a red light, he observed a homeless guy begging on the corner. He pressed the lock button on the van door and took another bite of his cheeseburger.
The salon was exactly where the GPS said it would be, which gave Hody five extra minutes to finish his biggie fry and drink. Once on location, he parked his truck and followed the company’s safety procedure by placing orange cones in the front and rear of the vehicle. Check. Then he followed his own safety procedure by examining the magazine in his Sig Sauer P220. Check. To himself, he said, “Let’s roll.”
As he approached the entrance, he adjusted his utility belt, liking the sound his tools made as they clinked against his waist. He opened the door and jumped when a shrill, electric ding-dong announced his arrival. Three stylists looked up from their work and mumbled a welcome in loose unison. The oldest of them, a pudgy, middle-aged guy with an earring, walked over to him.
“Oh, thank goodness,” the man said. “Listen. What do I have to do to get this phone line fixed?”
Hody assured him the situation was under control. Thirty minutes later, the line was still dead, and Hody’s biggie drink was adding pressure to a situation that was now considerably less under control. He looked around but found no sign of earring dude. Desperate, he approached a nice older lady who seemed to be attaching a tinfoil television antenna to some poor woman’s head.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Do you have a public restroom?”
“No,” the woman said. “But you can use the staff one. It’s back there at the end of the hall.”
Hody walked through the salon, disgusted by all the hair. It was like someone blew up Cousin It. He adjusted his belt again as he passed a rather attractive young woman with short hair and combat boots. Trying to suck in his gut, he wondered if she carried. He bet she did.
In the hallway, he noted the lack of light and the unsecured exterior access. Later, he would warn that manager guy of the risks he was taking. He turned the knob to the bathroom door and reached for the light. When his finger flipped the switch, Elvis said, ‘Boo, man.’
Hody did not scream like a girl, but he shot like Barney Fife. Fumbling for his weapon, the telecom technician quickly emptied an entire magazine in the direction of the cardboard cutout, missing his target by a wide margin even at close range. The rapport of gunshots reverberated off the bathroom walls. Hody’s ears rang, and his hands shook. He kept pulling the trigger, though the gun was now empty.
Winnie was the first one to scream. One by one, the men and women in the salon all joined in. They ran senselessly into one another, dove for cover in wide open spaces, and shouted incoherent directions at no one in particular. Even Shareece broke her silence, sounding much more like a baby now.
Only when Hody emerged from the bathroom, stupefied and confused, did a plan of action occur to anyone.
“Karma,” Johnie yelled to his employee. She currently stood frozen just two steps from the gunman. “Stop him.”
For a moment, Karma did nothing. Contrary to Hody’s belief, she did not carry, nor had she ever fired a handgun. In her panic, she did the only thing she could think to do. She raised a Conair hair dryer in a two-hand grip and shouted, “Freeze!”
When the gunman turned toward the sound of Karma’s command, Johnie seized the opportunity and lunged forward. On impact, the two men fell to the ground, wrestling in an embarrassing display of futility. After a few moments, both of them lay on the floor, covered in hair and out of breath. Johnie grabbed the gun, which rested between them. The danger, it seemed, was over.
Hody began to sob. “I shot Elvis.”
“Elvis is already dead,” Johnie replied. But that only made Hody cry harder. Johnie looked up at Karma, who still held the hair dryer. “What were you going to do? Cool shot him to death?”
Outside, the wail of sirens grew louder as the white van next door slammed its doors and peeled away from the scene. Soon, an army of black and white patrol cars screeched into the parking lot.
Winnie sat up from her position in the corner and looked at Johnie. “I told you something was up with that van.”
The police set a perimeter around the building. In an abundance of caution, they arrested both Johnie and Hody, at least until they could take statements and check the gun for prints. Both men were handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car to await processing. Johnie would have protested, but he’d never seen the back of a patrol car and was a little curious. A few of the officers recognized Hody as the kid who flunked out of the Academy after only two weeks. His instant notoriety bolstered his spirits. He went willingly.
Since the police permitted no one to leave, Karma and Winnie did the only thing they could do. They cut hair. One by one, each customer received their turn in the chair, on the house. Even Shareece calmed down enough to resume her spot and wait out the final few minutes of her color process.
At one point, long after the acrid stench of gunpowder had cleared, Karma asked, “Do you smell smoke?”
“I was just thinking that,” Winnie replied.
“I smell it too,” Shareece said, though Winnie had no idea how she could smell anything other than the fumes from her red hair dye.
“Hey, Frank,” yelled one of the detectives from the back of the salon. “Check this out.”
The other detective, presumably Frank, followed the voice of his partner to the bathroom where several bullet holes emitted small plumes of smoke.
Frank leaned out and shouted to Karma. “What’s on the other side of this wall?”
“Nothing,” Kama answered. “Just an empty lease space.”
“Mmm Hmm,” Winnie said.
“What’s that mean?” Frank asked.
As if in answer to his question, the first explosion shook the walls of the salon.
Johnie and Hody heard the boom from the back of the squad car.
“What was that?” Hody asked.
“That,” Johnie said, “is my niece’s Fourth of July party going up in smoke.”
Johnie didn’t answer. Instead, he covered his head as three more explosions shook the cruiser. Debris rained down on the windshield and rear window.
Inside the salon, Frank the Detective lay alive but unconscious from the percussion of the first explosion. Sprinklers soaked everyone inside but did not stop fire from spreading along the wall adjacent to the empty lease space. Even as firetrucks arrived, officers worked to evacuate everyone. Paramedics wrestled with Shareece, who tried and failed to convince them that the red dye running down her face was not a massive head wound.
Karma and Winnie, separated during the evacuation, searched outside for one another among the chaos.
“Winnie!” Karma shouted.
“Here,” Winnie yelled as she waved her hands over her head. The two ran to one another and embraced. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Karma replied and coughed. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Winnie. “But I’d bet my puny paycheck it has something to do with that white van. Hey, what is that?” Winnie pointed over Karma’s shoulder.
Karma turned to see a fireman carrying a long white piece of cardboard under his arm. One side was singed black, but most of it was fairly recognizable, at least if you knew what you were looking at.
“Well, Winnie. It looks like Elvis has left the building.”
Meanwhile, Johnie and Hody watched as bottle rockets and roman candles filled the sky with bright colors and shimmering sparkles of light. Hody was wrestling with the prospect of finding a third job and living with his mother one more year. Johnie wondered in amazement at how a simple office prank could go so horribly wrong. He hoped Karma and Winnie were okay. But now he had bigger problems. He had to pee again.