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R. J. Hobbs
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riverside.jpg
Art by John Stanton 2009

The Great Flood of Riverside

 

R. J. Hobbs

 

 

 

On the corner of Riverside and Hamelin in Portland, Oregon, there is a small pharmacy where I work. Most of Portland is suburban housing, with rows and rows of little houses on every street, stretching out like that for a hundred blocks or so. I don’t live or work in that part of Portland. I work in Riverside, and Riverside is a shithole.

 

Riverside has potholes that get so large, they reveal the cobblestones underneath. Riverside is the sort of place where normal people will only go if they fall asleep on the bus. Yeah, there are some restaurants and loft studios for those creative types who aren’t successful enough to live on the other side of the river, but there are also abandoned factories and spray-painted train cars, broken florescent lights and miles of barbed wire. There are gangs, street drugs, homeless men, brick-faced bomb shelters and bullet casings in the gutter. My pharmacy is right in the middle of it.

 

It’s not really mine. I just run it, most days. It’s a ValuDrug convenience superstore, part of a huge chain of low-end drugstores stretching from here to Seattle. It’s the kind of place you go if you can’t afford to get service from someplace else. The baby formula is right next to the malt liquor. People duck inside from the rain to buy pills of acetaminophen.

 

When I got the job, it was with the understanding that Portland was a safe sort of city, the kind of city where even the worst neighborhood was so much safer than my home city of Philadelphia. I really should have known better. There is no such thing as a safe city anywhere on this earth. There are only places with fewer rats.

 

I’ll tell you, I hate the rats here. Back in the day, people brought hundreds of breeding pairs of giant water rats into the city with the intent of breeding them as part of a fur-trapping scam. These giant water rats grew up to twenty pounds and they bred like rabbits. Now they live in the river and under people’s garages, in the sewers, and anywhere the water from the rain will pool long enough to build a nest. They say New York has rats the size of handbags. Portland has rats the size of backpacks. They scurry and squeak down the alleyways late into the night, fighting with the dogs and leaving the mutilated bodies of the stray cats on the sidewalk with the guts torn out and the eyes still open. I step over the bodies on the way to work.

 

I found the job after I got out of school. The pharmacy was a run-down antique left over from Portland’s early days, when it used to be a corner store five-and-dime with apartment housing over it. When I got to it, it was a friendless run-down crap hole with barbed wire over the rooftops and metal bars over the windows. It took a year for me to get used to seeing those bars, and the familiar wink of the neon lights outside. It took almost two years to get used to the constant rain, because every single day it came down like a fine mist on the inside of your glasses you could never wipe off.

 

But it only took two days before my first robbery. It came at four-thirty in the afternoon, right before closing time. I was an assistant pharmacist then, just out of school, and my job was to fill out the customer’s insurance information while the head pharmacist filled the prescriptions in the back. I was just done with the insurance information for the day and about to move on to a backlog of prescriptions that hadn’t been picked up. I heard the bell ring in the front of the store and I looked up just in time to see a young man slip on a ski mask.

 

I froze in my spot. I remember thinking what a funny thing to wear in a pharmacy before the robber took out his gun. I still couldn’t move, like a deer stuck in the headlights, my hands still on the keyboard where I had been entering some data. He walked right up to me and put the gun in my face.

 

“Where’s your boss?” he said.

 

I didn’t know what to do, but after a moment he made the choice easy. The criminal fired one bullet and it grazed my right ear. I dropped to the ground, and when I went down, I didn’t get up again.

 

The head pharmacist was Abraham Feinburg, an old Jew who had run his own shop in North Portland until he went out of business a few years before. I watched as the man in the mask and the black sweatshirt grabbed Abe by the collar. Abe hesitated for a few seconds before telling the young man where we kept all the narcotics. Abe was shaking as the young man pushed the entire shelf into his backpack, and, a moment later, put the gun up to Abe’s head.

 

Abe’s body hit the ground and his blood soaked into the ancient cracks between the floorboards. In five minutes the robber had cleaned out every upper and downer we had and was gone. The police investigation lasted two days. It was inconclusive.

 

I’m the head pharmacist now. I’m the only pharmacist now. A year ago, I tried hiring a girl to be my technician, but she left after a month and took a druggist job up on North Brunswick. I’m alone behind this counter, and most days the only other person in the store is the girl behind the cash register who practices her flute in the off-hours.

 

Two days after the police let us back in the building, I went out and bought a Smith and Wesson Model 500 from a man in a black raincoat for six hundred dollars. I saw the gun at a gun show. Oregon requires paperwork for guns purchased at gun shows, so I bought it from him under the table in the parking lot of the McDonalds across the street. He said the previous owner had only shot it once, that it was a great deal on a large-bore gun, and that when I fired it, I would know why it was better than the .44 Magnum. It was a sleek gun with a soft brushed chrome finish and an ergonomic rubber grip. At fifty-caliber, it could stop a charging bull at two hundred yards. I paid with thirty twenty dollar bills and I put the gun in my satchel.

 

 I kept the gun in an old shoebox next to the pharmacy computer. It stayed there, except for when I took it home with me every weekend to clean it with cotton swabs and a few dabs of gun oil.

 

Three months after I bought the gun, I heard gunfire on the walk home. I bought a leather holster off the internet to keep under my right shoulder, and a speedloader clip so I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of bullets. I wore it under my lab coat on the walk home, some days.

 

Six months later, I was used to the sounds of screaming under my loft apartment, and finding the bodies of the cats on the street with their faces scraped by the claws of the rats.

 

Eight months later, I could sleep through that gunfire and the cold rain coming down through the cracks. I kept the gun on the nightstand.

 

A year later, I was standing behind the counter in my dirty white lab coat and waiting for the minutes to pass before five when I saw the quick flash of a man in a ski mask run past the observation mirrors. I didn’t freeze this time. Instead, my hand slowly drifted from the keyboard to my small shoe box.

 

The first man stepped up to the checkout and put a gun up to the cashier’s face. Two more crept towards me as they slipped on their masks. The lights went out as the robbers cut the security cable.

 

My hand slipped under the box and I wrapped my fingers around the cool rubber grip. One of the robbers stepped out from behind the frozen foods and put a gun against my forehead and said:

 

“Surprise. You’re about to make my day.”

 

I squeezed the trigger and the bullet shot through the counter, blasting apart a rack of allergy medicine before it blew a chunk the size of two fists through his body.

 

I pulled the gun out of the box and ducked back between the shelves of medicine.

 

The second criminal burst out from one of aisles and fired three shots at me. The observation mirror shattered.

 

The girl behind the cash register screamed. I listened to the sound of the man’s breathing as the robber jumped over the counter and cocked his pistol. The emergency lights flickered as I moved back through the walls of prescription drugs and waited for him to come get me. He didn’t see me as I peeked out behind a rack of Sudafed.

When he got close, I put my revolver up against his temple and whispered:

 

“Drop it. If you say a word I will kill you.”

 

The man’s gun clattered to the floor. He whispered a few obscenities as I slowly walked him out from behind the counter. I could hear his compatriot behind the register as the emergency lights finally kicked in.

 

The man had his gun pointed at the girl behind the register. As we got close, I whispered for my hostage to shut up and slowly walk towards the counter. I backed off a few feet behind the shelves of women’s cosmetics, so neither of them could see me.

 

“What the fuck is happening back there?” the man at the counter yelled. “What was that gunfire?”

 

“It’s the pharmacist, he’s right behind me,” my hostage replied.

 

That’s not what I told him to do. I pulled the trigger and shot my hostage in the head. His brain exploded and his body squeaked against the floor.

 

“God damn it, show yourself!” The last robber leapt over the counter and grabbed the crying cashier girl by the hair. “Drop your weapon and come out!”

 

I stepped out from behind the women’s cosmetics and I raised my gun. He pointed his pistol at me, but I was better than that. Even with the girl in front of him and the counter blocking half his body, I pulled the trigger first.

 

The bullet grazed him, ripping a gash through his mask and the side of his face. The handgun skidded across the floor as he collapsed. He writhed on the ground, screaming as his eyes filled up with blood, and the cashier girl quickly grabbed his gun off the ground and pointed it at him.

 

“Make sure he stays there,” I said.

 

I dumped out all the shells in my pistol. I walked back to my pharmacy and picked up the speedloader strip. I went back to where the man was bleeding on the floor, and I fired four shots into his chest. Each round went right through his heart.

 

Four minutes later, I heard the sirens getting closer. When the first officers arrived at the scene, I told them that I had defended the store with a gun I had stolen from one of the robbers. The police didn’t buy that story for a second, and by midnight I was in lockdown. It was the best night’s sleep I’d had in years.

 

I was told I’d do time for illegal possession of a firearm and carrying a firearm without a permit, and the district attorney came down and threatened to prosecute me for murder. According to Oregon law, I should have handed over all the drugs in the store and waited for the police. I was breaking the law by carrying that weapon and shooting those men, and I didn’t have the right to stop the men who were robbing me.

 

I lost my job because it was against company policy to try to stop robberies in process. I was in the papers for a bit. On the internet the flag-wavers went nutso, but eventually that faded like all old news. In the respectable papers I was presented as the man who had murdered three black men and wouldn’t do a minute of time for it. I didn’t even know they were black until I opened the paper. The tabloids called it the Great Flood on Riverside. I guess if you drown enough rats, even the water turns black.

 

At the inquest, the judge wanted to press murder charges, but the girl behind the counter testified that I had shot the criminals only to save her life. Since the robbers cut the electricity, there was no security camera footage to say otherwise. It was just she and I and a jury of twelve, and even if they didn’t believe I grabbed that gun and shot those men just to save a girl I’d never talked to, there was nobody who could say otherwise.

 

In the end, the powers that be decided I wasn’t worth the backlash. The cops dropped me off in front of my apartment in the rain.

 

When I got out of the squad car I said, “It’s really good to know you guys are looking out for all the rats out here.”

 

The squad car drove away without comment. 

 

 

R.J. Hobbs is a crime writer in Portland, Oregon. His works have appeared in The New York Times, Thuglit.com, and Pseudopod. Contact him at cobblertownsendx@netscape.net

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