There's no use being young without being beautiful, and no use being beautiful without being young.
- La Rochefoucauld, French Classical Writer (1613-1680)
Chapter 4: Every Man Has His Price
Looking through the peep hole in the door she said, “Can’t see much, all I can do is look straight down the hallway and it’s clear straight ahead. Do we act casual and walk or do we make a mad dash for the street?” Susan asked.
She was calm and thinking clearly and Johnny liked that. “I wanna get there as soon as humanly possible, but we’re up on the second floor,” he said. “Did you hear the way the footsteps resonate when even when you’re just walking up here? We’d sound like a fucking herd of elephants if we made a mad dash for it. Nah, we gotta be as cool as can be and walk out of here like it’s just a stroll through the park.”
The complex had 38 apartments in a two-story u-shape drawn around a courtyard and pool. The car port in back provided the residents just enough parking for their own use, but it was left for visitors to find themselves a spot out in front of the street. The dead man’s apartment was just about as far from the front entrance as you could be, up on the second floor in the far back corner.
“Put your shirts up over your noses.”
“How are we going to stroll as cool as can be with our shirts up over our noses?” Susan asked.
Johnny laughed just a bit and said, “Dude, I’m not a criminal, I don’t even know what I’m doing here. All I know is that if someone’s looking out their window or peeking through the blinds and they see shirts up over noses, yeah, might be enough to have them calling the police, but at if we leave this place with our faces covered, they’ve got no description.”
He looked to Darren for confirmation and Darren just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You guys can do whatever you want.” Beyond the answer and the simple shrug, there was another thought Darren kept to himself, I’m getting out of here and I will not stop for anyone in my way.
“If we had baseball caps that we could pull down, that would be perfect, but I haven’t seen a cap anywhere. Alright man, let’s just walk, but Darren, if there’s someone walking towards us and they’re going to get close enough to make a good description, you just bum rush him, run straight at ’em and sucker punch ’em, knock them out cold and hope you’ve smacked any memory of what we look like right out of their heads!”
“I was already thinking that very thought.”
Heading forward from the back corner to the front, they passed the door to 216 . . . then the door to 214 . . . then 212 . . . and finally 202 before they’d made it to the front corner. Their pace had been a fast walk, but still not too fast to not be casual. On the way down, Johnny had a strange sensation of being detached from himself, observing himself walking all cool and casual and amazed he was able to pull it off while his hands dripped sweat and his heart pounded in his chest like a jackhammer.
They made it to the front corner, down the stairs and to the front doors. They hadn’t even thought about those doors when then first came through, arriving for “the party”, but now on leaving, Johnny felt some serious gratitude to the building superintendent who kept those hinges oiled. The doors swung open without so much as a noise.
Holding the doors open and surveying the scene, they looked anxiously at the street, but they saw nothing but parked cars and a quiet street. As they headed out, they hadn’t even thought to discuss it, but with Johnny in the lead and headed to his car, it looked like he’d be doing the driving as they followed him.
His was a grey 2004 Mitsubishi Eclipse and he’d always congratulated himself for getting a car that looked a heck of a lot sexier than many cars twice what he paid for it, but for the first time since he’d owned it, he cursed the fact that it was a coupe and not a four-door. He wanted to get the fuck out of here, but he calmly and coolly opened the passenger-side door, put front seat down, slid it forward, and then like a true gentleman with hand sweeping, showed the way as Susan climbed in the back. Normally, he’d let the woman sit up front, but with Darren’s size, that wasn’t really an option.
He had never been so thankful for the quiet of a peaceful neighborhood at 11 o’clock at night, because they only passed a couple cars on the way. They rolled through a green light, then they kept rolling through another another green and it was on passing that intersection that he could finally see it. “Oh thank heaven for 7/11!” Johnny said out loud as they approached the store a block and a half up on their side, nor far past the intersection.
The third light was red and they stopped and waited, no music, nothing spoken and then it turned green and Johnny touched the gas gently, like there was an egg between his foot and the pedal, just like he’d been taught in his driving class by Mr. Katz. He accelerated slow and unconcerned just like any law abiding citizen would at 11 o’clock on a quiet night’s drive in the neighborhood.
As they pulled into the parking space, it almost seemed impossible to believe that this 7/11 which looked exactly like every other 7/11 you’ve ever seen in your life, could be the source of a mind-boggling, life-changing fortune.
“No need for all three of us to go in there,” Johnny said.
“Alright, man. You better not fuck this up.” Darren said with finger pointing straight at him as Johnny got out of the car.
“Good luck,” Susan said. As he closed the door she wished she could have given him a little kiss on the cheek just to emphasize it.
He jogged up to the front door with hands in jacket pockets, making to look like someone who was just in a bit of a hurry to grab a pack of smokes. Once through the front doors, it only took him a couple seconds of observing the guy handing back change to a customer to know that nothing as exciting as “we just sold the $137 million ticket” had dropped like a bomb on this store just yet. Was it possible that the winning store could have been posted at the lottery website for almost twenty-four hours without lottery officials or media types contacting them and the news spreading like wildfire between the owners and all the employees? What if the lottery officials automatically grabbed surveillance tapes as standard operating procedure whenever a jackpot this big was given out?
Either they were in luck and Johnny still had a shot at making this guy a silent partner in the enterprise or he was about to implicate himself with the winning ticket of a dead man to a total stranger.
Johnny gave the guy on which everything hinged a look over. Mexican dude, mid-twenties, a little buff, head shaved, not bald but at about the shortest length possible . . . he could only see a couple arm tats but it was the single-color, no shading, kind of crudely drawn style that told him those weren’t the kind of tats you paid for in a tattoo parlor, those were jailhouse tats. In a strange way, this was comforting. The gang affiliations usually went across the chest or the back, so he was only guessing, but he figured Carlos for a Southsider, it was an Orange County gang, but they were a gang that ruled down in the jail level. They weren’t anywhere near the level of the hardcore gangs you’d find ruling the prison yards like the Mexican Mafia or the Sureños. In other words, Carlos probably wasn’t someone who was so stone cold that they’d be in over their heads just trying to deal with him, but he was a guy who probably had more street smarts than the other three of them combined.
The change handed out, the customer headed out the door, luck seemed to be with him again as they were the only two left in the store.
“Listen, uh . . . Carlos?” He said, looking at the name tag.
“What’s up?” Carlos said without a hint of any interest.
“Carlos, listen to me very closely because this is one moment in your life where you have a decision to make that will affect you for the rest of your days, do you understand?”
A short pause as Carlos scrutinized this guy. “What is this, a robbery? I’m no hero. You can take every dime we have. I could care less.” And then very softly but unmistakably he added, “You better have a gun though.”
The last line was spoken with a hint of taunting to it. The way Carlos was looking at him impassively, Johnny couldn’t tell whether Carlos was really that unconcerned at the prospect of having a gun drawn on him or if he just didn’t take Johnny seriously to begin with.
Johnny was trying hard to nail the intense stare and dead serious tone without crossing the line and coming off like a straight-up lunatic escaped from the asylum. “Listen to me very closely. This is not a fucking robbery. You sold the winning megamillions ticket here today, Carlos and you deserve a share of that pie.”
Carlos stared at him perplexed for a couple seconds (was he almost disappointed Johnny hadn’t pulled that gun?) and then he just laughed, dismissively. “Get out of here, man!” He said it not in a “leave the store” kind of way but more in a “quit wasting my time” sort of way.
“I am dead serious and I will show you the winning ticket and the numbers at the website. I will pay you enough money that you will never have to work another day in your life but you have to do one thing for me.”
Carlos leaned forward and stretched out his arms, bracing himself on the counter. He rolled his eyes and then, waiting for the punchline he said, “Yeah, what’s that?”
“You have to give me the tape of last night’s surveillance video.”
This was not the punchline to a joke. For the first time, Carlos had a hint of a suspicion that something real might be happening here, but his natural response was to say simply, “Get the fuck out.”
“Listen, I will show you the ticket and you can check the numbers at the website. I need that surveillance tape and I’m willing to make you a rich man for it.”
“You can’t be serious, man.”
“We’re talking about my job . . . “
The bell rang as a young couple came through the doors. Carlos just kept talking as if there was no worrying in being overheard, “how do I explain away a missing surveillance tape?”
Johnny cringed at the mention of the tape but the couple seemed too engrossed in their own conversation to have overheard it. He waited a couple beats until the couple was at the back of the store at the wines and the beers. “Do you know what $137 million is divided by four?” he said slightly under his breath but with marked intensity.
“I don’t believe you.” Carlos whispered, mocking the conspiratorial tone.
Johnny looked away like he was losing his patience with this guy, but he knew Carlos was their one and only shot. At this point, Carlos already knew enough to implicate him in the murder of a lottery ticket winner and Carlos and his surveillance tape held all the cards.
Johnny tried to gather his cool as he backed away from the counter to let the young couple step up and place a six pack of wine coolers on the counter. Even with all the thoughts spinning in his head, Johnny couldn’t help but sidetrack briefly and think about the guy buying the wine coolers, “Either you’re a real candy ass for having a girl friend who makes you drink that shit, or then again . . . maybe that’s some chick you just met and you’re the man with the plan.”
It was silent while the couple left and then Johnny said, “Why don’t we just cut the shit and let me prove I’ve got the winning ticket with me. Don’t go anywhere,” he said, heading back out to the car.
“Don’t worry, Holmes. I’m not going anywhere,” Carlos said.
Darren had slid his seat back all the way, never thinking to ask whether he was leaving Susan behind him enough room for herself, so Susan just wrenched her legs out and scrambled over to the back seat on the driver’s side.
Approaching his car, Johnny saw Susan’s shift over in the back seat and headed to his driver side to open the door just a bit, lean in and tell Susan to pull out the ticket and pull up the winning numbers on her phone. “We’ve got to show this guy the numbers.”
On the way back into the store, ticket in left hand, iPhone on right, once again he couldn’t help but check it and double check and triple check those numbers and no matter how many times they seemed perfectly aligned, there was still this crazy feeling of how this can’t be happening, it’s too good to be true.
Johnny came back in the store. “Can I help you?” Carlos said, messing with him, like he’d never seen Johnny in his life.
“Listen man, the ticket I have belonged to someone else. The information I just told you, the fact that you know that I need that tape . . . you could completely fry my ass with it. Do you get what I’m saying?”
For the first time, Johnny had really put it in terms that made it seem real to Carlos.
“Shit. You’re for reals, aren’t you?”
“This is your one chance, Carlos. This is your one chance to be set for life, you’ll never have to show up to this stinking job again . . . “
“Hey man, I don’t mind coming here . . . “
“Fine man, when you have that thirty-something million dollars in the bank, you can keep showing up here like you’ve got nothing better to do, but I bet you anything, when you have that kind of money at your fingertips, you’re going to think of at least a couple hundred other things you’d rather be doing than showing up here.”
“Alright man, show me the numbers.”
He held up the ticket and the numbers on the phone. Carlos leaned forward. “That’s close enough,” Johnny said. He watched Carlos’ eyes move back and forth between the ticket and phone six times. Reeling just a bit, like he was in a dream, Carlos checked and checked again trying to overcome the disbelief that he could actually be in on something like this. He was going to be the 1% and the other 99% could kiss his ass!
“That’s like some fake bullshit webpage you just made, let me scan the thing.”
“No way man, I’m not sure how it works, but I don’t want any record of the ticket being scanned right now. Look at the web address at the top. It the real deal, calottery.com.”
Carlos looked, maintaining his composure but he had to keep himself in check for a moment before replying, “Alright man, after I destroy the tape, how do I know you guys don’t just bail out of here and cash the ticket somewhere else.”
“Because you’ll know the winning ticket was bought here, and that we didn’t buy it. You’ve got enough with that alone to set the cops to digging up the truth.”
“Yeah, and what if it was some little old lady you mugged and you hit her so fast she didn’t even know what hit her and now you’ve got the ticket, the tape of her buying the ticket is deleted and she’s got no way of proving that it was ever her’s? What good’s it going to do for me going to the cops then? I’d have nothing to prove anything and I’d just look like some angry guy who sold the winning ticket and was pissed that he’s still flat broke.”
For the first time, Johnny realized, he probably was the guy who sold the winning ticket. “What time do you get off?”
“Midnight, about half-an-hour.”
“How about this, you go grab that tape right now, do whatever you have to do so that if any cops or lottery people want to see last night’s tape, it just looks like an honest employee fuck-up and then you hold the real tape. That’s all the juice you need here, you just hold on to that tape, your shift will be done in half-hour and then I’ll take you to meet a friend. I think you’ll recognize this person and when you meet him, you’ll realize we aren’t bullshitting about how serious we are or how valuable that tape of yours’ really is. At that point, I think you’ll be willing to trade your tape for a share.”
Carlos looked at him skeptically and Johnny could read what he was thinking.
“Come on Carlos, we’re not going to take you back some place and whack you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d do anything to get my hands on that tape but come on, an employee who disappeared the very night after he sold the $137 million ticket? You don’t think that would make the local news and raise some major red flags with the cops? You really think we’re that greedy, just so we can have the prize split three ways instead of four, that we’d be willing to bring that much heat on us when we come forward with the ticket?”
Carlos smiled just a bit and said, “Alright man, let me go grab last night’s tape. I’ll be right back. Watch the store for me.”