((This is a response to Dave's 'Can You?' challenge. His prompt is in italics.))
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The girl behind the counter was giving me what I assumed to be her professional smile; bright as a light bulb and just as empty. I ordered my usual café mocha with a shot of white chocolate and searched for a table in the crowded coffee shop. I sat at one next to the big bay windows so that the sun coming through the glass could warm my chilled bones. I’ve turned into a people watcher in my old age and I’ve found that a window seat gives you the chance to watch those without as well as within and that appeals to the writer in me. I had just settled in when my coffee arrived. I pulled out my notebook, took a sip, and began my observation. My jotted notes, some real and some made up, were an attempt to come up with a character for my next short story.
As I watched the people passing through for their morning cups of joe; one man caught my attention and all thoughts of writing flew out of my head. Years of anti-terrorism training from my time in the military kicked in and a feeling of wrongness was coming off this cat in waves. It was a combination of seemingly unimportant details that put it all together for me. It was cold outside, and this man was wearing what looked like a military issue rain coat to go with the dress uniform. No military member would wear it unbuttoned like that, old habits die hard. It hung loose and the belt was askew. He paced nervously in line, as though inpatient to get his coffee and go. His hand kept straying to the inside of his coat as if to check that something was secure in there. His eyes darted back and forth taking a mental count of how many people were present and he took special note of me, identifying me as a potential threat…military training for sure.
“Sir? Can I help you sir?” the girl behind the counter said.
“Yeah, you can shut the fuck up and empty the register!” the man screamed as he pulled a sawed off, pump action, .12 gauge shotgun from under his trench coat. He fired a single shot into the air. Plaster from the ceiling tiles rained down around him. He’s certainly not the brightest crayon in the box is he. He leveled the gun at me.
“One wrong move mister and you’ll be sipping coffee in hell,” he said.
"In fact, you look like a hero-type." He jacked a new shell into the gun. "I hate heroes. Goodbye, old man."
Staring into the yawning barrels of the gun, I closed my eyes, and prepared to die...
...and opened them again as a wave of applause swept through the building. I looked around and saw that everyone- everyone- was clapping. And looking at me.
My assailant lowered the shotgun. He grinned, showing perfectly white teeth. "Congratulations. You did splendidly."
"You lived up to all our expectations. And hopefully your own." He turned his attention to the rest of the coffeehouse. "Excellent work, everyone. Sarah, good job with the ceiling plaster. Very realistic."
"You're all actors?"
The former robber snapped off a bow. "Improv players, at your service. How were we?"
"I...I had no idea you were..."
"Of course not. The therapy only works if you're completely immersed."
"What are you talking about? What therapy?"
He assumed a supercilious air. "Did you, or did you not, sign up for an experimental cure some two months ago, at the behest of your therapist? A radical treatment designed to cure what you described as-" He pulled a folded slip of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and peered at it. "-a morbid and paralyzing fear of firearms. That WAS you, wasn't it?"
"I signed up for a waiting list. I had no idea..."
"That your wait was over? Indeed. Today is YOUR day, and I personally think we made a great deal of progress toward curing you of your phobia." He winked. "Flooding. Works every time."
"You people are insane," I said, struggling to my feet. "This is crazy."
"Maybe. But we get results."
"I thought I was going to die!"
"And now you aren't. Doesn't that feel good?"
I hesitated. He had a point, however deranged it sounded. Now that the adrenaline was ebbing away, I felt...renewed somehow. Revitalized. I thought I might even be able to forgive these people for scaring me half to death, if-
"And with your new-found love of life," my assailant said. "You should have no trouble paying our fees."
I froze. "Fees?"
He smiled. "Acting may be its own reward, but those bills don't pay themselves. Let's see, there's ten actors, that's three hundred; two hundred for props and set-up; another hundred-fifty for renting the coffeehouse. But who can put a price on peace of mind, am I right?"
"You expect ME to pay for..."
"Look at it like this." The not-a-robber clasped his hands in front of him. "You look like an honest man. Tell you what: If you truly believe that nothing we've done here today has helped cure you of your phobia, even in the slightest, I'll wave all my fees. Just like that. But then, I know better, and so do you."
He leaned forward. His smile widened. All those perfect white teeth. "Tell me, now. Honestly. Don't you feel better?"
It was a punch to remember.
I caught him on the point of the chin, right in the sweet spot where consciousness just turns off, like someone flipped a switch.
"He's right, you know," I said, as he crumpled to the ground. "I'm feeling better already."
And in the shocked hush of nine underpaid actors trying to decide what to do, I sat back down at my table.
And pulled out my checkbook.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.