By Walter Giersbach
Waiting for the action always takes longer than you’d expect. Waiting for water to boil, for bad news to pass, for a lover’s tears to end. MacKenzie was waiting for six o’clock and show time.
His expectations were calibrated low while watching the cleavage of this waitress as she leaned over to pick up the change she’d dropped. His Dad once told him, “Low expectations mean you got no disappointment.” Mac had retorted, “But when you win — oh, boy!”
“Don’t be a smartass!” Dad slapped him. Hard. It was Hamlet all over again. And then it started like a guilty thing, upon a dreadful summons. Act One, Scene One. Paternal wisdom reinforced Mac’s patience.
“Keep the change,” MacKenzie told the waitress. “The tip’s under the water glass.”
She eyed the twenty bucks soaking in the condensation. “Thank you. I mean, for just a burger and coffee.”
That’s Cincinnati, he thought. A kind word to a rube here will get you invited home to meet the parents. This kid’s breasts reminded him of the Teton Mountains. The badge on one Teton read Kimberley. He figured her to be in her early twenties. She was the ingénue, the one who’d vomit an avalanche of trust.
“What’s there to do around here?” he asked. “My Dad just died. Funeral this morning, else I wouldn’t have left Boston to come here.” That wasn’t exactly a lie. Dad had been figuratively dead for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her eyes were blue as the trim on the hash house coffee cup.
He shook his head. “Thanks. It was cancer. We were close, but I’ve been so busy I never had time to come back to visit.” He wondered if a small choking sound was called for — but, no. Dad also taught him you’re overplaying your hand when you act smart alecky.
“You said Boston?”
“Actually, Harvard, in Cambridge. Say, you have time after work to have a cup of coffee with me? Well, it doesn’t have to be coffee. I guess there are places you could get a steak and a drink and maybe dance.”
“I have to work another hour, and I’m not dressed…”
“Okay, a casual place. Some place to talk.” The blue eyes got as wide as coffee saucers.
End of Act One, and Shakespeare couldn’t have spieled it better, he thought. MacKenzie left, knowing Kimberley would find a way to knock off early, shimmy out of her uniform and be ready by six. The six o’clock part was important. The pigeon would be getting out of an airport limo. Rush hour would snarl the streets with the yahoos all running home to dinner. Meantime, he walked a rectangle of blocks.
Old-timers said there was a time when a pea and three walnut shells could get a grifter from Buffalo to Los Angeles. Only the props and lines had changed. Mac was an actor, but he impressed on his partner that these performances were more critical than Brad Pitt strutting across the screen. The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. MacKenzie recited the lines soundlessly.
When — and if — a con goes wrong there’s be more than tomatoes thrown at the actor. Serious jail time awaited a bad show. Mac’s audiences were excited by hatred, envy, disdain, curiosity — even worship — at the audacity he showed conning investment bankers, money managers and children of inherited wealth.
Mac was a kid sitting in front of a Dumont TV screen when bank robber Willie Sutton was collared in the 1950s. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton smirked, “Because that’s where the money is.” Audiences roared with laughter, and Mac thought, What a marvelous truth.
* * *
“Harvard?” Those were Kimberley’s first words as she burst out of the restaurant.
“I’m a teacher there. Cultural anthropology.” He used her elbow to guide her down Race Street. “Kimberley,” his steps paused, “would you mind terribly if I stop to make a quick phone call to my secretary?”
“The Netherland Plaza’s right here. They have phones.”
He watched cars trolling for space to load and unload passengers. Busy. A couple even jostled them on the hotel’s steps.
“Whoa, Kim. Hold on.” He waited for her to turn before he picked up a briefcase. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Johnny Four Fingers melt into the crowd. “Someone left their bag. Mister,” he called, touching the shoulder of a man in gray gabardine paying his limo driver, “this your briefcase?”
The mark getting out of the limo was called the Banker back in Wisconsin, handling cash for a clique of professionals — orthodontists and surgeons — who felt only little people pay taxes. Today, the Banker was in Cinci to pick up a boodle going to the Cayman Islands.
“Huh, not mine. I just got here.”
Kimberley said, “We better turn it in. Lost and found. There must be one in the hotel.”
“Good idea. Got a second?” Mac asked the suit, and laughed. “May be a reward.”
The man followed Mac and Kimberley up the steps.
“Hold on,” Mac said. “Let’s find a chair and sit down. There may be identification.”
“I don’t see any name on the bag,” the suit said.
“Not on the bag. Inside.” The caper was working like a Broadway performance.
In a corner away from the front desk Mac balanced the case on his knees. Kimberley’s eyes locked on the ceiling mural and Art Deco wall sconces, her mouth a perfect O. Kimberley had nice legs for a yokel, he mused as the locks clicked open.
“Ye Gods,” she said, exhaling at the stacks of money wrapped in cellophane. “That looks like something in the movies.”
“A helluva lot of hundred dollar bills,” the suit offered, riffling through the stacks. “And there’s nothing else. No business cards or papers. Just money.”
“Friends,” MacKenzie said softly, “this has got to be illegal. Nobody just carries — what? — a hundred thousand dollars in a bag unless it’s illegal.”
“Maybe a million.” Kimberley’s finger touched one of the stacks. Mac’s heart fibrillated, wondering if she’d open a stack and discover the bills inside were Xerox copies. Be scanter with your maiden presence, he thought.
“I hope it’s not Mafia money,” the suit said. “But if it was from some dirty drug pusher I’d take it in a minute.”
“My name’s Dr. MacKenzie,” Mac said, offering his hand.
“Joshua Ortman, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Precision tools is my business. Medical doctor?”
“Professor, Harvard. And this is Kimberley. We just met. But listen, if this is illegal then we have as much claim to it as anyone. If we turn it in, it’ll just disappear. No one’s going to come out to claim drug money.”
“Not in Cincinnati,” Kimberley offered.
They sat in silence. Mac counted fifteen seconds of heavy thinking, not wanting to cue the babe.
“We could split it up,” Kimberley offered, white teeth biting her lower lip. “Three ways.”
“Two ways,” Ortman said. “Dr. MacKenzie and I found the bag. You’re just his friend.”
“Be fair,” Mac broke in. “We’re all together. But regardless, we can’t just…just take the money and spend it. Someone’s going to hear about it and come after us. The IRS or the drug people or Christ knows who. And they’ll kill us. Not the IRS — they’ll just confiscate the money and penalize you for not giving them a cut — but drug people have no sense of forgiveness.”
“So?” Ortman slid back on the sofa, an arm’s reach from the briefcase as Mac closed it. “What’s the alternative?” He licked his mouth the way a dog anticipates a pork chop. “I’m leaving tomorrow, soon’s I close a deal.”
“We need a lawyer,” Mac offered. “A disinterested third party who can hold it until no claimant comes forward. You work in Milwaukee. I’m hundreds of miles away in Cambridge. Kimberley’s the only local.”
Kimberley’s hand rose, as if she were back in school volunteering an answer. “I wouldn’t spend my share, but I know a lawyer. Mr. Newman helped do my divorce papers.”
Divorced, Mac wondered. Why would a guy walk away from this piece of ass, even if she wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree? No one ever lost money underestimating the way yahoos think. That was a philosophical truth he’d learned on his own, no thanks to Dad. “Get me a phone number and we’ll call him.”
“I’m not so sure,” Ortman burst out. “I’m not giving a bag full of cash to a lawyer — or this babe — and then fly back to Milwaukee.
“Here’s Mr. Newman’s card.” Kimberley pushed the pasteboard into Mac’s hand. Ortman peered at it as if he were calculating a blackjack hand.
Mac stood up. “We’ll call. Ortman, I’ll let you hold the briefcase — in good faith.” The pair followed him to a bank of phones where Mac put on his reading glasses to dial a number—not the one on the card.
“Bright secretary,” he said to the pair hovering next to him. “She’s getting one of the lawyers.” Johnny Four Fingers’ voice came on the line asking what he could do.
“Kimberley — what’s your last name, Kim?” he asked. “Kimberley Kostyrka gave me your number. I’ll get right to the point. We found a briefcase. There’s no identification, it’s chock full of hundred dollar bills, and two of us — not Kimberley — will be leaving Cincinnati shortly.” He paused so Kimberley and Ortman could properly digest the message. “If there’s no claimant in, say, thirty days then we want to split it among us.”
“Give me the phone,” Ortman said, elbowing Mac aside. “Now here’s the deal. I’m against giving up the briefcase, but there’s no alternative. If some drug-crazed monkey comes gunning for his money, I don’t want to be his target. Get me?”
Johnny spoke loudly enough for Mac and Kimberley to hear him say, “You need to establish your bona fides to each other. Securitize the briefcase. For thirty days. That can be done.”
“What can be done?” Ortman shouted. “Don’t give me lawyer talk!”
“Simply this, each of you put up an equal share — a token of faith so you can return home — that will be put in escrow and returned when no one claims the bag.”
“Briefcase,” Mac corrected.
“But there’s a hundred thousand,” Ortman said.
“Then thirty-three thousand three hundred and thirty-three dollars from each of you should be sufficient… Or however much you decide.”
“Wait a minute. The babe isn’t getting thirty-three percent. She just happened to be with MacKenzie here. I’m not for cutting her in for more than ten percent and you can take that to the bank.”
Kimberley scrunched up her forehead. “You want ten thousand dollars! Twice the money I have to my name.”
Mac peered over his reading glasses. “Can you deposit more to raise your cut? Anything’s better than nothing.”
“I’m leaving the office,” Johnny said. “I can meet you and handle the affair. Where are you now?”
The three sat back to the sofa, waiting, eyeing the briefcase on the coffee table. “I’m so nervous I have to pee,” Kimberley said. “Don’t go anywhere without me.”
* * *
Johnny entered the lobby twenty minutes later, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and club tie. Mac didn’t know Johnny’s real last name, just his moniker. Didn’t matter. When a caper went down, only actions counted. As for his own name, Mac could pick any of half a dozen identities from his bag in a locker at the bus depot. He hadn’t used the name his father had given him in so long that he wouldn’t respond if someone on the street shouted, “Hey, Walter, remember me?”
The Four Fingers moniker was hung on Johnny because a professional pickpocket never uses his thumb when lifting a wallet, and Johnny was the smoothest fingersmith in Chicago. MacKenzie had simply offered him a lower risk/higher reward opportunity.
“Mr. Newman, my partner, asked me to meet you,” Johnny offered, shaking hands all around. “Mr. Newman was called away.” He shrugged. “A client’s daughter was apprehended in a shoplifting case. My card.”
Johnny was still the smoothest, having Newman’s business cards made up with his name and number in 20 minutes. Jonathan Whelan was the alias he’d picked.
“So you understand the problem?” Mac asked.
“From what I was told. You set the amount to go into escrow. I’m just the fiduciary, but short of counting the money here you might agree to any acceptable amount and deposit the security. This is an account application at Bank of America. I just need your name, Social, address, signature.”
“I can’t get you cash at this hour!” Mac said, startled. “Will you take two thousand and a check on my bank account in Cambridge?”
“I can get twenty thousand in half an hour,” Ortman said. Mac noted the man’s pride. “A check for the balance of thirteen thousand.”
“I’ll give you my ATM card,” Kimberley said. “And password. There’s almost five thousand in savings. It’s all the money I have.” Mac recognized desperation. Too bad this trusting babe would be busted in an hour, but he needed this local talent. Business people never trust each other, even if they wear Armani and play golf. His father always quoted Jesus saying, “The poor will always be with us.” That motivated Mac to take off for places like Cinci, then steal from the rich and increase the quota of poor folk.
In five minutes the three had completed the application. Twenty minutes for Ortman to return from his room with several bulging hotel envelopes.
“Now, if you’ll all come with me,” Johnny said, ‘I know where there’s a bank branch still open. It shouldn’t take long, but I do need to stop by my office to get you a receipt for the briefcase.”
End of Act Two and the curtain drops, Mac said silently. He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech. Make mad the guilty, confound the ignorant and appall the free, to borrow liberally from Hamlet.
* * *
Johnny beeped the locks on a Mercedes parked around the corner on Fifth Street. Mac was dismayed that Johnny offered Kimberley the front seat. Would’ve been nice feeling those hips against his and he might’ve put his arm around her shoulder. Other times, other places, he might have had a thing going with Kim.
“I don’t like leaving the briefcase in the trunk,” Ortman whined.
“Excuse me,” Johnny said. “Didn’t you all see me put the case in the locked trunk?” Johnny was smooth, even when the play went impromptu. The case had to be in the trunk so the switch could be made.
“Just hurry the hell up,” Ortman said. “I have a dinner appointment and I’m late.”
“Step away from the fucking car!” The shout came out of the dark, behind their backs.
A Spanish-looking man stood on the sidewalk holding a silver automatic pistol. The man had sideburns like a pair of Wellington boots, but the gun shining like a gem attracted all of Mac’s attention.
“CPD! Police! Back away from the car! You,” he pointed to Mac, “empty your pockets. Throw your stuff in the back seat. You too.” Johnny slowly withdrew a pocket notebook. Ortman looked distraught and put his hands to his suit jacket.
“Officer,” Mac said, “what’s the meaning…?”
The man swung the gun, clipping MacKenzie in the forehead before he could duck. There’d be blood, MacKenzie thought. He was starting to hate this greaser as he, Johnny and the mark were pushed up against the car, their hands on the roof. Methodically, the Latino patted them down, tossing wallets into the car.
“The meaning?” the man finally said, fingering Johnny’s car keys. “I’m robbing you, that’s the meaning. The girl goes with me till I get across town. Follow me and she gets dead.”
“You’re no cop,” Mac shouted. “Just a bad actor.” As he said actor the gun went off. Mac felt the bullet slam into his shoulder. “Where’s a cop when you need…?” he said, falling to the sidewalk. Somewhere, he heard the Merc speeding down Race Street to the Interstate.
“What the hell just happened?” Ortman squawked.
“He took your 20 thousand, that’s what happened.” Johnny began pounding the car’s roof with his fists. “And MacKenzie’s two large and the babe’s ATM card.” He kneeled to grab Mac’s shoulders, shaking him so the pair on the sidewalk resembled inept wrestlers. “Goddamn you for your hotshot acting! Upstaged by a mugger!”
“No, by an amateur.” Mac tried to push Johnny away, wincing from an arm that wouldn’t respond. “When the chick went to take a pee I think she called a friend.” His words came out in a gasp. “It’s murder most foul, a terrible world where you can’t trust people.”
Walter Giersbach bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries.
Copyright © 2015 Walter Giersbach. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!