Chapter 1

Five minutes before the man with the gun entered the store, two little girls cut in front of me in line.

It wasn’t really their fault. I was waiting in line, yeah, but this being a convenience store, the tabloid magazines were stored on a rack beneath the counter, and I was turned toward them, reading the ridiculous headlines about even more ridiculous celebrities. Above me, the speakers in the ceiling poured out some song by Bruce Springsteen.

It was summer and the temperature was stifling and for the past week after work I’d been stopping in for a slushie. The movie theater where I worked was having a promotion with this chain of stores: bring in your ticket stub for a free sixteen ounce soda or slushie. The theater floors always littered with stubs, I figured what the hey and stocked up on ticket stubs.

So I was standing there, a Cherry Coke slushie in one hand and reading a recent headline about Tom Cruise, when the man who’d been in line before me finished his purchase and turned away. The two girls stepped up and threw candy bars down on the counter.

The cashier — a woman named Dorothy, who never seemed to have a night off because I always saw her in here — gave me a look, as if asking, You mind?

I shrugged, took a sip of my slushie, and reached into my pocket for a ticket stub.

Among some change and a pack of gum, my fingers touched something solid that at first didn’t make sense. Pulling it out, I realized it was a ring I’d found tonight while cleaning house seven, one of the biggest houses. It was silver and looked expensive and I’d meant to turn it in to one of the managers but then we’d gotten busy and I’d forgotten. And now here it was resting in the palm of my hand.

It had a neutral look to it, like it could belong to either a man or a woman, and I don’t know why, but right then I needed to try it on. Just to see if it would fit, I told myself, and so I slipped it onto my finger. Not that I knew much about jewelry at seventeen, but it fit perfectly.

Before I had a chance to slide it back off the two girls shouted, “Thank you!” and suddenly turned away. The one closest bumped into me, causing me to drop my slushie. It hit the floor and spilled reddish-brown slush across the linoleum.

The girl who’d bumped me stood completely still, her mouth open and her eyes wide. The other girl had to cover her mouth as she giggled.

“I’m so sorry,” the one girl said.

Outside, a car beeped, and the other girl said, “Come on, Mom’s waiting,” and then the girls were hurrying away, an electronic buzzer going ding-dong when they exited.

Dorothy was already coming out from behind the counter, a roll of paper towels in her hand.

“This is why I don’t have any kids,” she said with a sigh.

She looked to be forty, fifty years old. She had long gray hair. Because of the silver ring now on my finger, I happened to notice she wore nothing on any of her long fingers.

Tearing off a long piece of paper towel, she said, “Go get yourself another. I’ll take care of this mess.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind cleaning this up. I’m used to it.”

She was already lowering herself down to the floor, holding on to the counter for support. “Used to it. What does that mean?”

“I work over at the movie theater as an usher. I’m always cleaning up people’s messes.”

“Is that how you get all those ticket stubs? I just thought you liked watching movies.”

I smiled. “To be honest, I don’t really have much time to see movies.”

She placed the long sheet of paper towel over the bulk of the mess, tore another sheet.

“Go get yourself another,” she said. “I’ll be fine here.”

Deciding it best not to argue, I turned and headed toward the back of the store where they had the soda and slushie machines. I reached for one of the sixteen ounce cups but then stopped.

The ring on my finger was glowing.

“What — ” I started to say.

And that was when the electronic buzzer went ding-dong and the man with the gun entered the store.

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