By Ben Reese
Everyone has a price, that’s what they say. So now, in a dark forest knee-deep in a grave I’m digging for the second time, I’m not ashamed I had mine. It’s how low my price really was that’s bothering me.
A million? Two million? This never would’ve happened. I’d have done my part, wished him well, and had a great story to tell. Five or six million even, that’s what would’ve happened. Ten million? If I’m honest, and considering where I’m standing right now I have nothing to lose by being honest, I think 10 or 12 million is where I might have started to consider it.
So you can see how I barely thought twice when Two-Hat Steve showed me the lottery ticket he said was worth $472 million.
* * *
It was Wednesday night around 8:30 and we were in my office off Pike Street. I’m an attorney, yes, but the good kind. I didn’t take the corporate make-a-lot-of-money route, is what I mean. I work with Seattle’s homeless. I show up in court when they need representation, most often for public intoxication. I work pro bono and what little money I make comes from the state.
Two-Hat Steve flopped into the chair beside my desk, wafting the sour scent of ancient sweat, booze, urine, and vomit my way.
It was later than I usually stayed at the office. I’d been catching up on paperwork when he knocked on my door and I invited him in thinking it’d be something minor I could push until morning with a few words.
Then he handed me the ticket.
It was from last week’s drawing, crumpled, unsigned, and smudged slightly with dirt and spots of what I thought might be chocolate, but otherwise it looked like every other lottery ticket I’d ever seen. I handed it back to him.
“You win some money, Steve?”
Of course, I didn’t believe him when he told me how much.
“Look it up, boss,” he said, nodding to the battered laptop I lugged around court with me.
He wouldn’t give the ticket back but held it so I could read the numbers — which, when I found the lottery site online, confirmed the slip of paper pinched between Steve’s grimy fingers was worth nearly half a billion dollars.
And, like I said, in that instant I knew. That ticket had to be mine.
Steve wouldn’t say where he’d gotten it, only that he’d found it, which I’d already figured. When homeless alcoholics have money they spend it on booze, a sure thing, not lottery tickets.
I played my role, offering to connect him with an accountant and tax expert, plus draw up any papers or open any accounts he’d need right away. And I offered to hold the ticket for him.
I could keep it safe overnight, then we’d meet in the morning when the banks opened and get a safe deposit box, I said.
“You know, boss,” he said. “I don’t trust nobody but me, so I’m gonna keep it.”
“Steve, you could lose it,” I warned him. “It’s dangerous out there. Anything could happen.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout me, boss,” he said. “I’ll play it close to the vest, you know? Keep it under my hat, like they say.” And with a wink, he tapped the filthy knit hat he wore stretched over the crown of an equally stained Mariners baseball cap.
And that was it. I gave him my card tucked in the cellophane of a pack of cigarettes from the carton I buy for just that purpose, plus five dollars for food, and he walked out with a promise to be back at the same time next night.
* * *
I was out of the office and following seconds later.
Two-Hat Steve walked north on 12th across Capitol Hill, pausing to light a cigarette outside a bodega with its entrance crisscrossed in police tape. He continued on to Volunteer Park where he met two friends and led them to a nearby liquor store. They huddled on the sidewalk to pool change before Steve walked inside and emerged minutes later with three 40s of malt liquor.
So much for my five dollars.
It was plenty dark by now, so I followed closer. In a few blocks, the three homeless men reached a highway overpass where they hopped a chain-link fence, ducked beneath some overhanging ivy, and disappeared.
I eased over the fence and, careful not to silhouette myself against the opening, pulled the ivy aside just enough to peer into the blackness beyond. A car rumbled overhead and then, as the sound faded, I heard the clink of glass on glass from the darkness to my left and glancing that way, saw the hovering orange fireflies of lit cigarette tips.
I let the ivy swing back into place and went home for the night.
* * *
The next day I left the courthouse at noon and skipped lunch to return to the overpass. I knew some homeless could be territorial, but I wasn’t worried about Two-Hat Steve or his friends being here now. Even as down as they were, they had things to do during the day too. That next bottle wasn’t going to panhandle itself, after all.
Pulling back the curtain of ivy in the daytime cast dusty light across a rock-strewn dirt floor that rose gradually on either side until it reached a concrete ceiling the same color as the dirt below it. The backside of the cavern was closed in by another high chain-link fence so choked with ivy that no light could pass through. Scattered about I could see the detritus of lives lived on the margins of society: the rusty frame of a bicycle poking from a balled and melted web of nylon that was once a tent, the remains of campfires, trash from countless fast-food meals, moldering clothes heaped here and there around an island of old tires, all awash in a sea of cigarette butts and empty bottles.
And there, along the wall to my left, tucked behind a pillar near the tattered remains of a sleeping bag, my eyes caught the bright yellow sheen of a pack of American Spirits. They’re a cut above the average homeless guy’s smokes but they’re the brand I buy to give away because they supposedly lack the additives in other brands.
Hey, I know smoking’s a lousy habit to support, but it’s how I connect with my clients. And I try to keep my clients from dying any sooner than necessary.
Stepping into the shade beneath the overpass, I could make out my card peeking from beneath the crumpled pack near the pillar. So I knew where Steve slept last night.
As my vision adjusted to the dim light, I also saw the gang of crusty punk kids gathered across the grotto. I didn’t recognize them, but I knew their type from my work on the street. They were young, teens to mid-20s, dressed in patched black denim faded grey, alike enough in deviance to appear uniform, most likely runaways addicted to harder drugs than the homeless I served. One of the kids had a pitbull on a rope and they were all eyeing me with suspicion and barely concealed hostility. I wasn’t welcome here.
It was clear I couldn’t search now. I’d wait and talk to Two-Hat Steve tonight.
* * *
He arrived just after nine, smelling of liquor and wearing the same stained sweatpants and jacket he’d had on the night before. The hats that gave him his nickname were snugged over his fringe of matted hair.
“You haven’t told anyone about the ticket, have you, Steve?” I asked. “Like Pete or that Travis guy you go around with?”
“Uh-uh, just you and me, boss,” he said on a wave of 90-proof breath. “Nobody even knows I been comin’ to see you. I told you, I don’t trust nobody but me. And I can keep secrets.”
I’d laid a fan of paperwork on my desk earlier; forms for bank accounts, tax documents, a retainer for my own services to be paid once Steve received his prize, and a few others. They were all going in the shredder once I had the ticket. The names and contact information for the accountant and tax expert were genuine though. I’d need them myself soon enough.
But that was window-dressing for now. What concerned me most was the ticket. Last night after returning from the overpass, I’d done some research and then lain awake in bed for hours after learning Steve could negate my whole plan simply by signing the back of the ticket. I’d gone over it in my head a million times since and couldn’t think of a way to ask with any subtlety, so I just came out with it while he was clicking the pen I’d handed him to initial the documents.
“Steve, have you signed the ticket yet?”
“Nope. Thought I’d bring it tomorrow night. Then you and me could have our own, like, signature ceremony or something,” he slurred. “I’ll even buy you a drink or two. If you can float me a few more bucks ‘til I get my big payday, that is.”
“Then you don’t have it tonight?”
“Nah, it’s not on me. But it’s safe, boss, I promise.”
He smiled, revealing stubs of mossy grey teeth.
“You could even say it’s with me in spirit.”
Then that wink again.
And there my mind flashed yellow — the sunny yellow of a daisy’s center, the joyful yellow of a smiley face, the shiny, plastic yellow of a pack of American Spirit cigarettes — and I was shot through with certainty. I knew where the ticket was stashed.
Even as I comprehended this, my hands were picking up the laptop from my desk and raising it over my head. Still marveling at having figured out Two-Hat Steve’s hiding spot, I brought the laptop down on his head as hard as I could. Thinking how I’d time my visit to the overpass for about ten tomorrow — late enough for the boozers to be up and about but too early for the crusty punks to move in — I brought the laptop up and slammed it down again.
Two-Hat Steve’s two hats came off and fell to the floor as one, glued together by who knows how many years’ sweat and grime. I heard the laptop’s innards crack and rattle as I hit him again, and I laughed to see the bald spot Steve’s hats had hidden for so long.
Steve was out of his chair now, one knee on the floor and forearms against my desk as he tried to rise. I moved to get a better angle and closed my eyes, imagining the giant check the lottery commission would give me, and the $472,000,000 that would be written on it. I might just keep that check. I’d get it framed, and hang it over the mantel of my primary mansion, I thought.
And all the while, my arms continued raising the laptop and smashing it down as hard as they could.
* * *
I’m not sure how much time passed, but when I next knew where I was my back hurt and pieces of my laptop were strewn across the floor. I was leaning against my desk with Two-Hat Steve on the floor beneath me. I didn’t look at him as I breathed deep and assessed the situation. I was trying to stay calm, but the elation I’d felt moments before was dissolving into panic.
It was after 10 o’clock. There was no way I could go under the overpass tonight, and there was no way I could get my giant check if I was in jail for murder. Before I did anything, I had to get rid of Steve’s body.
* * *
I drove my Jetta mindlessly, following the headlights east on I-90 and over Snoqualmie Pass with Steve, wrapped in the carpet from my office hallway, in the trunk. The snow shovel I used to clear the sidewalk outside my office was propped in the passenger seat beside me.
It was nearing 2 a.m. when I parked in a slight widening of an unmarked forest road deep in the Cascades. I’d used my phone’s GPS to find the most remote route I could until I’d pulled off the last paved road nearly half an hour ago and lost the signal.
I sat for a moment and listened to the engine tick. It was the only sound I could hear in the dark of the forest. Grabbing the snow shovel, I used the light on my phone to pick my way through trees dripping with moss and ferns that soon soaked my clothes.
At least the ground will be soft, I thought, but, oh, how wrong I was.
It wasn’t long before the thin aluminum of the snow shovel, the only tool I’d had at the office, was bent in half from my using it to cut through the thick network of roots. In another 15 minutes, it detached from the handle and I was forced to hold the shield-shaped piece of metal that remained by its edges and scrape my way through the moist black soil. By the time I had a hole big enough to accept Two-Hat Steve, I could see a faint light filtering through the tops of the trees.
Exhausted, I blundered back to my car. I pulled Steve from the trunk, stuffed his hats in the kangaroo-pocket of my hoodie, and left the carpet behind. It took everything I had left to drag him through the forest and roll him into the hole. I threw his trademark hats, still nested together, over his ruined face and tried not to think about the line I’d crossed.
I covered Steve and was tamping down the dirt when I felt a surge of anger, though at whom I wasn’t sure. Granted I’d meant to steal the ticket but I’d never intended to kill him. I’m not even sure how it happened. All I’d wanted was some payout, some reward, for dedicating my life to people like Two-Hat Steve, and I’d thought this was it. I’d wanted what I’d thought I deserved — but I realized now that was nothing, not considering what I’d done. And now that I’d done it, there was no going back.
I found I was crying and jumping on the grave, pounding the earth down with both feet, and stopped myself. Wiping my muddy face on a muddier sleeve, I lifted three of the bigger rocks I’d excavated onto the grave and covered those with dead logs, partly for camouflage, partly to keep out scavengers, and then trudged back to the car.
I reached the city just in time for morning rush hour and fought my way back to my apartment, where I stripped out of my mud-covered clothes and dragged myself into a hot shower. Later, wrapped in a towel and hair a mess, steaming cup of black coffee nearby, I sat on the edge of my bed and, pleading the flu, called off all my court appointments for the day.
* * *
From my apartment I drove to the hardware store for bleach and other cleaning supplies. I spent the next two hours going over every surface of my office, cleaning up jagged pieces of broken laptop, spattered blood, and chunkier bits I tried not to consider as I squeezed out the sponge, erasing any trace Two-Hat Steve was ever there.
Now that he was gone, I wasn’t worried about someone reporting him missing. The homeless move on without telling anyone all the time, so him being gone certainly didn’t mean he was dead. If I didn’t give them any reason to be suspicious, the police would never have a reason to look for him.
When I was done cleaning, I put on the clothes I’d bought at the Goodwill after my visit to the hardware store. The pants were three sizes too big and I cinched them tight around the waist with an elastic belt. I slipped into an equally oversized sweatshirt, slid some flimsy plastic sunglasses onto my face, put a generic mesh-backed baseball cap on my head, flipped up my hood, and pulled the strap of a backpack over my shoulder. I’m sure I didn’t look authentically homeless, but I didn’t look like an attorney, good or bad, anymore either.
* * *
I’m in luck and there’s no one under the overpass when I duck through the ivy. I pull a flashlight from the backpack and begin picking my way through the minefield of litter toward the pillar where I saw the cigarette pack.
The beam of light trembles as I move it through the half-light. If I was correct, and I knew I was, I was steps from a fortune few people in the entire world could equal. A buy-myself-an-island fortune. The kind of fortune I could use to live lavishly for the rest of my life, off just the interest I’d get from investing it, no less, and still have enough to donate to causes that would exponentially multiply any the good I’d ever done in a lifetime working for the homeless community.
And, let’s not forget, it was a fortune I’d killed for.
Can you blame me for being a little shaky?
There’s the American Spirit pack, tucked next to the sleeping bag with its stuffing spilling out. I hesitate and look around to make sure I’m still alone before picking it up. My card falls out and lands at my feet as I do.
I turn the pack over and rip it open — but there’s nothing else inside.
* * *
I’ve pulled out the sleeping bag and ripped it to shreds, throwing stuffing everywhere, and I’m in the midst of plucking sticky T-shirts from a moldy duffel bag I found when I hear a noise. Turning, I see the crusty punk kids with the pitbull from the previous day. They’re standing in the entryway looking right at me, but this time I’m anything but scared.
“Get out!” I yell, dropping the duffel bag and taking a step toward them.
They stand their ground for a moment, trying to decide if I’m as crazy as I look.
I ball my fists and feel the cords in my neck stand out as I shriek it again. I begin jumping and kicking trash.
“GET OUT! GET OUT!”
That convinced them. Glancing at one another, they turned and went back the way they’d come, the ivy curtain swinging down to block the light and cast the valley under the overpass back into shadow.
Panting as I watched them go, my brain brought back the wink Steve tipped me right after saying the ticket was with him “in spirit.” And as I desperately pawed through the litter around the encampment, that thought connected me to his wink the night he first showed me the ticket, after he said he’d keep it safe, that he’d “keep it under my hat, like they say.”
I didn’t find the ticket.
But here’s my thinking now: Two-Hat Steve did have the ticket with him at my office last night, despite what he told me. Maybe he forgot he had it, which was entirely possible, wet-brain that he was, but he had it. He’d probably, in fact, kept it under his hat, or rather sealed between his two hats, just as he’d said at our first meeting.
And I’d not only had those hats in my possession for several hours today, I’d also buried them in a remote grave with their owner.
* * *
Which brings us back to this dark forest, knee-deep in a grave I’m digging for the second time. I think you know whose it is by now.
Thing is, I was certain the ticket was in the cigarette pack, certain enough to kill a man. And now I’m here, digging him up again, because I’m sure it’s in his hat.
At least I have a better shovel this time.
But as I dig, all I can think about is how many other places a man whose home is the whole city could find to hide something like a lottery ticket worth $472 million. Like inside an obscure book on a shelf in the public library. Or sealed in a plastic food wrapper and taped inside his favorite Dumpster. Or maybe somewhere under that overpass I didn’t think to look.
My shovel’s struck something solid, so I’ll find out soon.
Have I hit the jackpot? Or just the bottom?
Ben Reese is an ex-reporter, an ex-editor for a famous dotcom, and currently doing time in advertising. He lives in Seattle with his wife, sons, small dog, and a voracious tortoise named Claire. This story's prequel, "The Ticket," can be read on Shotgun Honey (http://shotgunhoney.net/fiction/the-ticket-by-ben-reese.html) and the third installment of Ben's lottery stories, "La Loteria," at Red Fez (https://www.redfez.net/fiction/622). Another story, "Anti-Theft Measures," will be published soon on Out of the Gutter.
Copyright © 2015 Ben Reese. 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!