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Windfall

by Marco Etheridge

 

The hotel room overflows with posh amenities, chocolates on the pillows, origami hand towels, and in the bottom right dresser drawer, three hundred and seventy thousand dollars in cash.

Chris is on his knees in front of the open drawer. The carpeting is thick and soft. He doesn’t remember kneeling down, the long flight, checking into the hotel, or his wife rushing to claim the bathroom. It’s all been driven from his head.

Wife in the bathroom. That clicks in his brain. Is she still in the shower? It’s hard to hear anything over the blood drumming in his ears, but yeah, he hears running water from behind the closed bathroom door. Ten minutes, maybe less, before she makes her grand entrance swaddled in fluffy hotel towels.

The cash is easy to count. Crisp new bills bundled in hundreds, a bank band around each bundle. Ten thousand to a bundle, thirty-seven bundles nested into plastic grocery bags.
His right hand reaches for one of the bundles without his brain willing it so. It’s heavier than he expects. The cash is both slick and rough under his fingertips, that strange texture of newly printed bills.
He rifles the bundle with the edge of his thumb. Nothing but hundreds all the way through. Drops the first bundle and grabs another. The same again, no singles used as filler.

Then his body is moving, and the movement unlocks his brain. He’s standing up, a grocery bag of cash clutched in each hand. One bare foot pushes the dresser drawer closed. He pads across the room to a tall armoire.

The room safe is where he expects it to be, the steel door standing ajar and waiting to be programmed. He enters the first combination that comes into his head, the room number reversed: zero-six-zero-one.

He stacks the cash flat in even rows. It’s a tight fit. The last four bundles end up vertical at the front. He has to hold them in place with one hand as he closes the steel door.

He stuffs the empty plastic bags behind the safe and listens. The shower isn’t running anymore.

The minibar is below the armoire. He yanks the door open, fishes out two vodkas and a bottle of orange juice. The miniature bottles crack as he opens them. He tosses the empties, pours orange juice into the glass, and falls into an easy chair. He gulps a third of the drink on the first pull.

This was supposed to be a romantic getaway, or at least an attempt to patch up a shaky marriage. Twenty-two years they’ve been married and the whole shebang is teetering like a house of cards. Two kids in college, two affairs, one each. Hers came first, a surprise. His was probably a retaliation, tit-for-tat, but he won’t admit that to their marriage counselor.

It was his idea. Fly out to the coast, get a nice hotel, splurge a little. Take in the sights, see if there was anything left to salvage. Mess up the big hotel bed if nothing else.

And now this. They had money, but only in the abstract. Equity in their house, equity in his business, a few investments, a bit of savings. But tuition for the two boys had sucked away every loose dollar. A hotel safe stuffed with cash lay way outside his normal financial reality.

He hears the blow dryer whining inside the bathroom. The sound snaps him back into the here and now. Relax, the money is locked up. That’s what a responsible person does. They find a pile of money, dope money or whatever, they put it in the safe.
And when someone comes looking for their pile of cash? Maybe the cops knock on the door.
It’s right here, gentlemen, safe and sound, every last dollar. Just found it a few minutes ago. Would have reported it, but I was in shock. Didn’t know what to do.

He tosses off the rest of the screwdriver, goes over the story in his head.

There is no story. First, don’t tell anyone. Especially not Janet. She’ll make a big deal out of it. Who knows, maybe she decides to go for the divorce. Three-seventy large hires a good divorce lawyer.

He looks at the empty glass, then at the minibar. Shakes his head.

It’s Friday evening. The return flight is late Monday. Sit on the money until then. If no one shows up to claim it, slip over to FedEx and ship it back to Chicago. It’s a risk, but not as stupid as packing the cash in the checked luggage.

What if it’s not the cops who come knocking? It could be dope money or some gangbanger deal. Guys in Armani suits who shoot first and ask questions later.

It’s always risk versus reward, right? That’s the basis of any financial deal. So, for now, sit tight, stay cool, see what happens.

The bathroom door opens, and Janet’s towel-draped head appears out of a steamy cloud.

“You gotta try this shower, Chris. It’s amazing. Hey, mix me one of those, would you Cowboy?”

And then she disappears. Chris pushes himself up and heads for the minibar. Who cares about the extra room charges?

$ $ $

In the same city, miles from the posh hotel, a man named Andy is desperate to smash something. Monitors, cables, keyboards, he wants to sweep everything off the workstations and stomp it all under his Converse all-stars. Topple the servers that are daisy-chained to secret locations around the world, kick them to smithereens.

Andy draws in a sharp breath, exhales long and slow. He shakes his head and tries again. Based on what his friend Popov has just told him, smashing things is the one thing he cannot do. Every piece of gear in their shitty rental space is suddenly too expensive to replace. As a last resort, he grabs a crumpled fast-food bag and hurls it across the shabby office. It bounces off a server tower and falls to the grungy carpet.

It’s not enough to quell his anger, not by a long shot. He looks for something else to throw, realizes he can’t afford to, then doubles over in frustration. Inside his head, the voice of reason screams over the roar of his tantrum.

Dude, get a grip and get it now.

He grabs two fistfuls of wild hair, tugging hard enough to lift his scalp. Andy pushes out another breath, inhales, then starts counting prime numbers out loud. When he reaches ninety-seven, he straightens himself and turns to Popov.

The Russian’s face is expressionless. Andy’s tantrums are routine. They remind Popov of a mouse in a shoebox.

Yes, so he brings Andy the bad news. Bad news is normal. Tragedy is the fabric of life. What else can one expect? Wait only a little time and things will get worse. All good Russian peoples know this. So Popov waits, knowing he will have to repeat the whole story.
“Okay, sorry Popo, the good news is the Runt is not dead, right?”

“Right. Runt is in hospital. Fucked up but not dead.”

“The bad news is that the cash is gone, or missing, or whatever. The Runt didn’t get the money.”

“The Runt got the money. Like I say before, first part goes according to plan. Runt goes to hotel this morning, meets the client, gets the money. The client leaves first, tells Runt to stay behind. He sends me text. Everything is okay.”

“Then the stupid fuck leaves the room without the money. Why, Popo?”

“I think maybe the Runt is hungry. No time for breakfast. You know Runt, always he is thinking about food. Anyway, he takes keycard, walks across the street. On the way back to hotel, taxi runs over Runt. I know he goes to Mickey-D’s because when I hear the ambulances, I go to look what is wrong. There is egg muffin all over the street. And also Runt.”

“That’s when the cops show up.”

“Yes, the ambulance, cops, lots of peoples. They load the Runt in ambulance, big mess on the street. Ambulance takes Runt to the hospital, so I go to the hospital. I am long time trying to see the Runt, but they don’t let me in.”

“And the money?”

“Hotel check-out time comes and goes. Money is still in the room, I think. Maybe.”

“Okay, someone’s got the money. Not the cops, because why would they know anything about the hotel? No, the maid found it, or the hotel manager, or else it’s still in the room. But how do we find out?”

“Is easy, Andy. You hack their check-in. I go snoop around the hotel. That much money leaves a big trail. But meanwhile, you must tell the client everything is good. Keep him happy.”

Andy holds up a hand. He needs time to sort out the questions. What if they don’t get the money back? What then? Can they still do the job? The Runt is out of commission, so the team is down to two. He tries to think it out to the end, but he needs more input.

“Popo, if we don’t get the money, can we still do the job?”

The big man rubs at the dark stubble on his jaw. Andy knows better than to rush him.

“Andy, this work was always pro bono, yes? We wear the white hats for this one, drop bugs into the second-largest military in whole world. But that money is the safety net, the getaway car.”
“You really think they can track us? We’re the best hackers I know.”

“No, they are the best hackers you know. But they are also arrogant. This makes them vulnerable. They think no one can attack the mighty bear. Such bullshit. But they hate anyone who makes them look bad. I know them like I know my own mother. They will track us to the end. They will never give up. We hack them even a little bit, they hunt us forever.”

“So, we need the money.”

“Yes, Andy, we need the money.”

$ $ $

Once Chris starts looking for bad guys, they’re everywhere. In front of the hotel, two guys wearing suits and shades are climbing out of a dark sedan. Across the street, a blinged-up dude in a shiny tracksuit sits behind the wheel of a Mercedes. Chris knows it’s just a matter of time before someone throws a sack over his head and shoves him into the backseat of a car.

They know about the cash.

Lack of sleep is making his paranoia worse. And Janet. And shopping. The big problem with a weekend getaway with his wife is that he’s with his wife.

Janet can’t sleep in a strange bed, which means he can’t sleep in a strange bed. Even after they manage to trash the hotel bed pretty nicely for an old married couple. Then she wants to cuddle and talk about what to do tomorrow. When she finally shuts up, she flops around like a fish. So, yeah, Chris is a little on edge.

Now they’re shopping and shopping makes any bad thing worse. He could cope with a few little boutiques tucked away in a quaint neighborhood. Better if there was an old-school bar or two that catered to stranded husbands. But what’s the point of shopping in the same stores they have in Chicago?

Janet’s pissed off after trying on yet another outfit that does not make her look twenty-one, which she hasn’t been in forever. She announces that the shopping tour is over. They have to head back to the hotel for her spa treatment. Chris resists the urge to start high-fiving the other poor bastards marooned outside the dressing rooms.

Back at the hotel, Chris is trying to understand why anyone would sign up for a salt scrub, much less pay for it. But Janet is all excited, explaining the finer points of the spa deal. She’s throwing clothes everywhere and he goes for a quick grope, but she slips away and into one of those huge hotel bathrobes.

Then she’s out the door and Chris is alone. Four hours she’s going to be down there and the spa charges about the same as his lawyer. Chris can feel the pile of money in the safe shrinking. He double-checks the safe and closes the doors of the armoire. No minibar for him, not today. He’s got the afternoon to himself, and the hotel bar is calling his name.

It’s well after lunch and a long time until dinner. Chris plans to plow through the single malts in alphabetical order, see how far he gets before the bad guys kidnap his ass.

The bar is tarted up in dark wood panels and soft pools of light. Someone’s idea of a posh London pub. The place is half empty, which suits Chris just fine. He eyes the bar, decides against it, and slips into an unoccupied booth.

The server is young enough and has nice curves. He orders an Ardbeg Ten. Not the most subtle whisky to open with, but subtle is not what he’s after. She throws him a smile. He enjoys watching her backside sway as she heads to the bar.

Time slips by and so do the letters of the Scotch alphabet. Chris has sipped his way to the Dalmore while the world has taken on a rosy glow. Joyce, his new favorite woman in the entire world, is taking good care of him. He’s planning on leaving her an enormous tip.

A quiet bar, a cute server, and no one bothering him. And not one of his fellow patrons looks like the kidnapping type. There are a few well-heeled tourists like himself, a smattering of business guys milking their expense accounts, and Joyce making everyone happy. Life is good.

Chris is pleased with himself. He’s got a safe full of cash up in his room, Janet is out of his hair, and this fourth whisky is going down just fine. He is so content with the world and everything in it that he doesn’t notice the two scruffy guys until they’re leaning over his quiet booth.

$ $ $

Andy is hunched over his workstation, fingers dancing over the keyboard. He’s been boring into the hotel network for the last two hours, trying to gain access to the guest registry. Their security is shit and he’s close, he’s so close he can smell it.

He hears the door open behind him and spins around on his chair. Popov is standing there holding two coffee cups and looking pleased with himself. He kicks the door closed and smiles, a rare thing for the dour Russian.

“Christopher Koval.”

“What?”

“The guy in room one-oh-six. He is Christopher Koval. Good Ukrainian name, by the way. Wife is named Janet, from Chicago. Many Ukrainians in Chicago.”

“Wait, what? The guy is Ukrainian? The client is Ukrainian. This is all getting way too weird.”

“Relax, Andy. Don’t get paranoid on me. Is just coincidence.”

“Yeah, okay, maybe. But how did you get his name?”

Popov shrugs and walks over to the workstation.

“Easy. Here, I bring you coffee. Four shots, just how you like it.”

“Umm… thanks. So?”

Popov sits on the edge of the workstation and pops the plastic top off his cup.

“Is easy, Andy. I wait in the alley until the dishwasher comes out to empty the trash. Shitty job, you know? Hard work. Not much money. Mexican guy. I make his day a lot better, so he helps me out. He introduces me to the maid, so her day gets better too.”

Andy looks at the coding on his monitor and shakes his head.

“You’re a genius, Popo.”

“Yes, I know. Now you find him.”

Andy gulps down coffee and turns back to the keyboard.

“What else do we know about this Koval?”

“The maid says he is maybe fifty, white guy, from Chicago. That is all I know.”
Andy does not need more. Before he finishes his coffee, there is a picture hovering on his monitor.

“Christopher Koval aged fifty-two. His wife is Janet, forty-eight. Got his own business selling hydraulic equipment. Looks like the Kovals have two sons, both college age. He’s probably in hock up to his eyeballs for tuition.”

“Okay, good, so now we make plan.”

“I’m listening.”

Popov sets his coffee on the table and begins ticking items off on his fingers. It’s just what Andy expects him to do. He’s seen the Russian do it a hundred times. What Andy does on a computer, Popov does in his head.

“First, we find out if he has the money.”

“How?”

“We go talk to him. A man with a big pile of cash, he is very nervous. Unless he is like secret police cool, we will know. Then we make him a good offer. Ten percent finder’s fee. That is fair for him.”

“You think it will work?”

Popo shrugs with his face.
“Mister Koval sells hydraulic parts, yes? So, he is a businessman. Probably not too stupid. This much money, he knows it is a problem for him. What if the police find out, or the taxman? We offer him a way out. Ten percent is not too bad.”

“Okay, say he goes for it. That leaves us three hundred thirty thousand. Can we still do it?”

“Maybe three-ten. We must pay the Runt’s hospital bill. But yes, it is enough. We don’t have a choice. Our Ukrainian client, he is a good guy, trying to do something right. Trying to fight for his country some way, you know? But he is also a guy who can throw down a big pile of cash. We don’t do what he hired us to do, he can hire some tough guys to make sure we do.”

“Yeah, I get all that. We need the money to do the job. If we don’t do the job, the client sends his goons after us. If we pull this off, the Russians send their goons after us. Fuck, Popo, how did we get into this?”
Popo laughs before he answers.

“Is fun, right? But it will work. Forty grand for the software, maybe twenty more for server time, leaves us about two-fifty to disappear with.”

Andy shakes his head. He’s laughing despite himself because how can you not laugh at Popo’s dark-ass sense of humor?

“Yeah, smart guy, but what if Koval doesn’t want to play ball with us?”

Popov spreads his hands and points a thick finger at Andy.

“Then, my friend, you explain to him how you will fuck up his whole world. Come, I take you back to the hotel.”

$ $ $

Chris Koval is confused, but it’s not a bad confusion. Two guys have joined his party and he doesn’t remember inviting them, but hey, they remind him of his two sons. He’s four drinks in, the world is perfect, and he could use some company.

One guy is big and hairy, like a bear. The other one is little, sort of mousey looking. These scruffy guys seem to know his name, which is weird, but what the hell. They just appeared out of thin air, the two of them leaning over his quiet booth in this perfect bar.

It was mouse-guy who spilled the beans.

“Excuse me, but are you Christopher Koval?”

Chris laughed at that, then remembered he was supposed to be worried, then laughed some more. The world had a golden glow, and nothing was scary, certainly not two twenty-somethings.

Now they’re sharing his booth and the delectable Joyce is bringing them beers. The beers hit the table, Joyce wiggles away, and it’s cheers all around. Then mouse-man is talking, being all formal when he should be drinking.

“Mister Koval…”

Chris gets a hand in the air without spilling anything. Mouse-man goes quiet.
“It’s Chris, okay? I mean, we’re on vacation here. Casual, friendly, know what I’m saying?”

Mouse smiles, so that’s good. The bear guy is deep into his beer like it’s his honey pot. Honey pot reminds Chris of Joyce, and maybe another scotch. Can’t think of single malt that starts with E or F, but G is a damn fine letter. Glen this and glen that. Lots of lovely whisky lurking in the glens.

Mouse-man interrupts his reverie.

“I said, I’m Andy and this is Popov. But everyone calls him Popo.”

Right, don’t be rude to these kids. You’re the one who invited them to sit.

“Pleased to meet you guys. So, what shall we drink to?”

It’s the bear-man who answers, the one named Popov.

“I think we drink to big pile of dollars. What do you think, Andy?”

“Right Popo, here’s to a big pile of dollars.”

Glasses clinking and they’re holding them out. Chris’ hand goes up automatically, clink, clink. He drinks and the peat and fire sting his throat in the best possible way, and he knows that these guys know what he’s got stashed up in the room.

They’re smiling at Chris over their beers, and he can’t help smiling back. He should be afraid, but these two aren’t any scarier than his own sons. Right, so they know about the money. But be honest with yourself. It’s a huge relief. Sick of worrying about that damn money. Pain in the ass.

Chris feels soberer as if an edge is cutting through his glow. It’s a different sort of party now. He spreads out his hands and smiles at them.

“So, what are we talking about here fellas?”

Popov this time, sounding like the heavy in a spy film, but looking like a big, sad kid.

“I think you know, Chris. Talking about three hundred seventy grand you find in your hotel room.”

Chris fiddles with his empty tumbler, decides to hold off on another one.

“Whoa, that’s a lot of money. You sure you got the right guy?”

“We are sure. What it is you say? Sure as shooting.”

Then all three of them are laughing because hey, what else is there to do? Then Andy starts laying down the deal.

“You gotta understand, this isn’t really our money. Like, not to keep or anything. We got paid to do a job and we gotta do it. Sure, we made mistakes. That’s how the money ended up in your room. But it’s not dope money, Chris. Nothing like that. That money is going toward a good cause.”

“Right, a good cause. Misplaced charity money. Go on, pull the other one.”

“Popo?”

“Right. Chris, this money is from Ukrainian guy. Very rich. He pays us to hack the Russians. Mess up defense department computers. Big job.”

“Wait, you guys can do that, just the two of you?”

It’s Andy who answers.

“Three of us, Chris. Our other guy is in the hospital. Which is why the money got left in your room. Long story. How it happened doesn’t matter. What matters is that we get the money back and go do our job. Which, I assure you, we can do.”

“Okay, just for argument’s sake you understand, what if I say no? What then?”
Both of them nodding their heads now, not smiling.

“You don’t want to say no, Chris. Maybe Andy looks harmless to you, but not so. Your bank accounts, your business, everything, he will be inside of it in maybe ten minutes, tops. Poof! Everything is gone, just like that.”

Andy raises a hand, smiling again.

“Popo’s exaggerating. It would probably take half an hour. But that’s not what we want and that’s not what you want. We’re willing to make you a fair offer, Chris. Ten percent finder’s fee, free and clear. We never mention your name again, not to anyone, not even the IRS.”

Ten percent comes out to thirty-seven grand. Chris knows he should be angry, or feel cheated, but the only thing registering in his brain is relief. He’s drunk and tired and these two clowns are letting him off the hook. A huge, pointy hook.

It’s like coming back to a world that makes some sort of sense. A world where he’s not looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. Forty grand punches a hole in the tuition debt. Maybe that takes some of the pressure off. Maybe eases things enough that he and Janet can have a go at liking each other again.

He remembers cramming the cash into the safe, the last four bundles stacked vertically at the front. Four stacks of cash, a nice round number. Then he says it out loud.

“Four bundles. Forty grand and it’s a deal.”

The two eye each other. He sees the quick nod.

“Deal, right Popo?”

“Yes, is fair deal.”

Chris nods along with them. He pulls the keycard from his shirt pocket, feeling lighter by the second.

“It’s in the room safe. The combo is the same as the room number, only backward. Zero-six-zero-one.”

He’s proud of himself. Pretty good after four shots. He pushes the keycard across the table.

“You want us to go up without you?”

Chris nods, squints around the dark cave of the bar.

“Yeah, you guys go. I’m good here. Just leave my share in the safe and come back down. We’ll have another round to seal the deal.”

Popov nudges Andy with his elbow. Before he can slide from the booth, Chris asks the question that’s been nagging him.

“Hey Popo, you’re Russian, right? If you don’t mind my asking.”

The big man nods.

“Yes, I am Russian. Born in Moscow.”

“You know, my great-grandfather came from Ukraine. Ended up as a meat cutter in Chicago. No offense meant, but if you’re Russian, why do you want to help the Ukrainians?”

Popov reaches for his beer, drains off the last of it.

“You already answer the question. I am Russian. That is best reason I can think of for helping Ukrainians.”

Andy slides out of the booth and Popov follows him. Chris watches as they disappear into the lobby. He wonders if he will ever see them again.

He is glad for a quiet moment, a little time to ponder. Will there be any money left in the safe? He’ll get the answer when he staggers back to the room. Yes or no, it’s done.

But his mind is lighter and there are better things to contemplate. Will Janet’s skin taste salty after her scrub? It will be fun to find out. A long pause thinking about that.

Then his head skips back to Andy and Popo, probably up in his room by now. Can anything they do help those poor bastards in Ukraine? He hopes they can. The Ukrainians need all the help they can get. And hope, too, something he needs as well. Maybe the hope that for once he is doing the right thing.

Chris Koval fingers his empty glass. He looks past the dark bar to the brightness of the lobby. He waits for Andy and Popov to come back, hoping they reappear and slide into the booth.

That’s the right way to end this. Raise a glass together to close the deal, a proper toast to send them on their way.

Then he sees two figures crossing the lobby, one big, one small. The big man is holding a pair of plastic shopping bags. For the span of a heartbeat, they are silhouettes on the threshold of the barroom. Then they step inside.

Chris smiles and relaxes back into the leather booth. He raises a hand and catches Joyce’s eye. One more round. The drinks are on him.

 

Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in over one hundred reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. “The Wrong Name” is Marco’s latest collection of short fiction. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch.

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