I wrote this for one of those short story contests where they give you the subject matter and you have to turn it around quickly. For this contest, the story had to center on someone who just came into $20,000 unexpectedly, and you had to have at least one mention of a black notebook, and it had to be less than 2,000 words. I decided against entering it because A) the rules for entering were preternaturally confusing; and B) I doubt I’d win, anyway. Just a gut feeling, based on the literary secret sauce that usually wins these things, and my predilection for writing non-literary stories about sketchy people doing sketchy things. I couldn’t think of a clever title (obviously).
Three hundred miles down the road Zeke started scouting hotels. The sun was beginning its long summertime fade, painting the sky a bloody shade of orange, foreshadowing the darkness. Zeke figured he’d covered enough distance to pull off and relax, collect himself, slow down the heart rate, count his winnings.
He eyed the backpack on the passenger seat, stuffed full of money. How much, Zeke didn’t know. He hadn’t even bothered counting it yet. That’s an amateur move. No, first you grab the money, then you haul, and you don’t stop hauling until they can’t smell your fear anymore.
Up at the next exit Zeke spotted a sign for the Rainbow Motel. He liked the sound of that: the Rainbow Motel. Probably one of those little family-run joints that don’t ask a lot of questions. Zeke hit the exit ramp and saw the hotel about a mile down the road. A convenience store was on the way, so Zeke rolled in for a quick stop. He bought a six-pack of Bud, a couple of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and a sack of Fritos.
The motel parking lot was nearly empty. Zeke took a spot near the entrance. He grabbed the backpack and strolled inside. A tall skinny guy was working the front desk. He looked to be in his mid-30s, with thick eyeglasses that tilted sideways and a neck that never seemed to end. His hair was rusty brown and parted well down the side of his head.
Another guy, beefy and bearded, sat in a chair by the entrance, his face buried in a hunting magazine.
“Need one room, one night,” Zeke told the desk clerk.
“Yes, sir,” the clerk said. He punched a few keys on a computer and asked Zeke how he wanted to pay.
“You take cash?” Zeke said.
“You bet,” the clerk replied. He punched a few more keys on the computer.
“Most of the hospitality industry has moved away from cash,” the clerk said, not looking up, “but the way we figure it, people without other means of payment should have access to lodging, too. It’s only fair, right?”
Zeke nodded and pulled sixty bucks out of his wallet. The charge was fifty-three dollars and forty-one cents.
“Hotels are like any other big business nowadays,” the clerk continued. “They like credit cards because it gives them more power, more control. Once they get your name in the system they can track you down anywhere. Cash customers are different. There’s no proof you ever made the transaction, or even existed at all. Nobody can find you. The big hotel chains don’t like that, but we don’t mind a bit. There’s always room at this Inn!”
The clerk smiled. Zeke nodded his head again and tapped his fingers on the counter, hoping to hurry things along.
Finally, the clerk handed Zeke a small envelope.
“The key’s in there,” he said. “You’ll be in room 222, the triple deuce. It’s down at the end of the hall, nice and quiet. Just walk up the stairs and take a left. You have a blessed evening.”
“Right backatcha, brother,” Zeke said, then moseyed along.
The room was about what you’d expect. One queen bed, a nightstand with a phone, two lamps, a desk and chair, one dresser, a 25-inch flat-screen TV, a heavy curtain over the window. It had that motel smell, only more so. Zeke closed the door and locked the bolt and chain. He checked the door to an adjoining room and made sure it was locked, too. He opened a Bud and took a sip. He tossed the backpack on the bed.
It was a lucky break, getting that backpack. A real lucky break. Zeke had been at work, hanging around one of the storage rooms after the early shift. He did that sometimes, on the sly. It’s not like he had anywhere else to go except his car and the campground, where he lived in a tent. The storage room was cool and quiet, a good place to hang out. That’s where he heard the voices coming from the adjacent office.
They were talking about money, those voices. Money in a backpack. Money that needed hiding. Zeke’s ears perked up. He’d heard stories about this business, how it had a little side operation that wasn’t strictly legal. Cash coming in, cash going out. Zeke was paid in cash himself, like most of the other warehouse grunts. Under the table and off the books.
He hung around a while longer and waited for the sound of closing doors and shuffling feet. After 20 minutes or so he heard the office door close. Zeke slipped out of the storage room and kept his eyes and ears open. He heard a couple faint voices up at the front of the place, but that was it. He crept toward the office and eased his way inside, cool as you please.
People are stupid with money. They leave backpacks of it lying around in unlocked offices, stuffed in cabinets. Zeke saw the backpack in the cabinet and grabbed it, then slipped out of the office. He made for the rear exit, stealth like, quick and quiet as a whisper. He hopped in his car and hauled, not even bothering to swing by the campground and grab his gear.
Three hundred miles later here he was, at the Rainbow Motel.
Zeke grabbed the travel backpack off the bed and unzipped it. He saw stacks and stacks and stacks of cash in there. Twenty-dollar bills – Jacksons, they called them. He opened one of the stacks up. It had fifty Jacksons in it. Fifty times twenty – one thousand American dollars per stack. Twenty stacks in all. Twenty times one thousand – twenty thousand dollars.
Zeke tamped down the urge to whoop and holler. He guzzled a Bud to calm himself, then guzzled another. He pumped his fist in the air. Twenty thousand bucks. More cash than Zeke had ever seen his whole life probably. He thought about hitting a local bar, celebrating, maybe finding a woman in a frisky mood. But no, better to sit tight. No need to get into any funny business right now. Plenty of time for that later, somewhere far, far away.
He went to grab the TV remote off the dresser and noticed a black notebook lying just behind the TV. The notebook was small, maybe four by six inches. One of those journal-looking things with the elastic band so you can keep it closed up nice and tight. Some customer must have left it behind.
Zeke flipped the notebook open to see if there was anything juicy inside, the secret thoughts of a lonely traveler. Most of the pages were blank. But toward the back he finally noticed some writing in blue ink.
The handwriting was sloppy, but you could read it:
Be on your guard against all covetousness.
That’s all it said. A whole page devoted to that one thought. Zeke wasn’t sure what it meant. “Covetousness?” Never heard of it. He flipped to another page:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
Zeke recognized this one. It was from the Bible, wasn’t it? He chuckled and glanced at the money on the bed.
“That what you are?” he asked it. “The root of evil?”
He flipped through more pages. The next one with writing on it said this:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Another Bible passage, another money reference. Money in the notebook; money on the bed. One of those weird coincidences.
Zeke looked at the cash. Did he love it? Was money something you loved? Maybe not, but people damn sure needed it, didn’t they? Try sliding through this world with no money. See how well that works. Zeke was only human. Why shouldn’t he grab some money when the grabbing was good? All that cash stuffed inside of a backpack, probably came from something illegal anyway. Why should Zeke feel guilty about swiping it? Was he supposed to live the rest of his life in a tent?
Maybe he’d put some money aside, donate it to charity. A couple hundred or so.
He flipped through the notebook to another page with writing on it:
I am the eye in the sky.
That one sounded familiar, but Zeke couldn’t put his finger on it. A song maybe? Something his Mom used to listen to?
The last page had more writing:
Enjoy the triple deuce, nice and quiet!
Another weird turn. The triple deuce. Nice and quiet! That’s what the desk clerk had said.
Zeke got an uneasy feeling, a strange vibe. He tossed the black notebook on the floor and slid the backpack his way. He cracked open another beer and guzzled it straight down.
The phone on the nightstand clanged like a gunshot. Zeke’s body jerked. He stared at the phone, wondered who’d be calling him, wondered if he should answer it, wondered if he should just grab his stuff and haul. Then he decided ignoring the call might bring some kind of suspicion. Maybe it was somebody from the motel staff. Zeke picked the phone up and said hello.
“This is the front desk, sir,” the voice said.
“Yeah?” Zeke said.
“We’re just making a courtesy call to make sure your room is in good order.”
“Yeah yeah, it’s fine.”
There was a pause, then the clerk said, “And all that money. Is it doing okay?”
Zeke tightened his grip on the phone and felt his head swirl. He kept quiet. He eyed the backpack.
“Be content with what you have,” the clerk said.
Zeke gulped in air. “Look, I don’t know what the hell…”
“I am the eye in the sky.”
Zeke’s brain conjured up a memory. The eye in the sky. A movie he’d seen many years ago about casinos. The eye in the sky. Little cameras positioned all over, keeping watch on the gamblers and dealers. Zeke set the phone down and scanned the room for eyes in the sky.
He didn’t see the door to the adjoining room fly open until it was too late. The beefy man with the beard came barreling through, a thick iron pipe in his hand, raised high and coming down fast. Zeke didn’t react in time, the story of his life. He grabbed for the cash, grabbed and grabbed, but never reaching it.