No Key -a short story by Harris Tobias
My name is Francis Scott but people have been calling me Noki since I was in the fourth grade. It was an old joke. Because there’s “no Key” at the end of my name like the guy who wrote the Star Spangled Banner, get it? Anyway, it’s been a cross I’ve had to bear since I was ten. I’m thirty six now, a recovering junkie and convicted felon. Convicted for breaking and entering. Maybe “no key” had more of an influence on my life than I realized.
All that’s behind me now. I have a regular job and a regular boring life. I have a girlfriend named Jenna and a buddy named James. Me and James rent an apartment together in the low rent part of town. I work at the community re-cycling center. My parole officer got me the job. It isn’t half bad. People sort out their trash, dump it into huge bins and we sell it to various re-processors. Depending upon supply and demand, sometimes there’s a market for aluminum or newsprint other times we can’t give the stuff away. Sometimes it has to go to the landfill because no one wants our glass or card board that week. Dumping the stuff in the landfill not only defeats the entire concept, it puts my boss, Dan Rogers, in such a rotten mood, he makes my life miserable.
When I was on junk, I would rob houses to get money. Quick in and quick out was my style. I had a way with locks and understood security systems enough to defeat most of them. I’d slip in, grab jewels or coins or silver when I could find them and slip out. Somehow taking that stuff made me feel like a classier thief than my fellow low lifes who went for the televisions and computers. I guess in another age I would have been a cat burglar. But like I said, all that was behind me now, in those days I was a different person. I had an expensive habit to support so break-ins were a regular part of my routine. I’d gotten away with so many I guess I got sloppy and tripped an alarm somewhere. Next thing I knew I was in the slammer for four years. It wasn’t any fun but I got cleaned up and swore off the whole lifestyle. I guess you could say I was rehabilitated.
So that’s my biography. I’m on the straight and narrow track these days or at least I’m trying to be. I’ve been working at the re-cycling center for almost a year now. I see jenna on weekends and meet James at The Dive, a bar in the neighborhood, a few evenings a week. James is an ex-con too. He did a heavier sentence than me. He did ten years for armed robbery. You bring a gun to a job and the law takes a very dim view of the matter. James never talked much about his crime or his time inside but I’d heard from the prison grapevine that he and a couple of buddies tried to knock over a jewelry store. Things got messed up and people got hurt. James still has anger management issues and spends all his money on drink but he’s my friend. What are you going to do?
My story begins a few weeks ago. I was at work. Dan, my supervisor, was in one of his moods. “God damned glass processors. Can’t give the stuff away. Hey Noki, get your finger out of your ass and sort out the paper bin. We’re bailing it in twenty minutes.”
Sorting out the paper bin meant getting inside the big container and picking through the tons of scrap paper and junk mail looking for any plastic or non-paper items that might have gotten dumped there inadvertently, a skuzzy job but necessary. A plastic bag or stay soda can could screw up the reprocessing machinery. Word gets out that our paper’s no good and we don’t get a good price. Paper’s something that always sells and we pride ourselves on good clean bales.
The paper bin is as big as a semi trailer with a hydraulic compacter built in to one end. Every week or so we squash all the paper into a big bale. The Bales are huge and weigh a ton. I was inside the container looking for plastic and glass, anything that wasn’t paper. I dumped out a few plastic trash bags and collected the plastic. I dumped out this bag and spot a bundle of twenty dollar bills. Whoa ho! There must have been fifty of those little green beauties in a neat bundle. I quickly snatch it up and stick it in an envelope and stick it in my pants pocket. Finders keepers and all that, right?
This wasn’t the first time I’d found treasure in the trash. I once found a roll of quarters in the scrap metal bin. But this was by far my biggest single find. A thousand dollars, now that was something. I looked to see if there was any more but there wasn’t. There was no way to determine where the money was from, there was so much paper around it was impossible to tell.
That night it was my treat at The Dive. I bought a couple of rounds for the house, peeling off twenty dollar bills like a big shot. I told James the story of my good luck so we added Canadian whiskey shots to our beers. We were both feeling no pain when Duke, The Dive’s bartender, calls me over and says, “Steve wants to see you in his office.” I didn’t know what it was all about but I made my way past the stacks of beer bottles, past the kitchen to Steve’s tiny office. Steve owns The Dive and I only know him to say hello.
“You want to see me?” I knocked on the door frame.
“Yeah, sit down a minute, will ya? There’s something I need to speak with you about.” So I sat down where he indicated. Steve took a bank bag out of a locked drawer and pulled out a couple of twenty dollar bills and laid them on the desk in front of me. “Where’d you get these?” he asked.
I shrugged and said, “How do you know those are mine? All money looks the same.”
“That’s true, but they all have different serial numbers. Yours are all the same.
I looked at the bills and see that Steve was right, the serial numbers are the same. Then I look in the envelope of bills I found in the paper bin and they all have the same numbers too. “Damn, you’re right.”
“You branching out into counterfeiting now?” Steve asked me holding a bill to the light. “Damn good job.”
I tell him I found the bills. I don’t say where.
“Well, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t spend them in my joint, okay? Cause if the Secret Service starts poking around, well I’d have to tell them where they came from. You understand what I’m saying?”
I understood perfectly. I reached into my wallet and found a couple of old twenties and bought back the phonies. Steve was happy. I was perplexed and annoyed. I went back to the table and told James what I’d just learned about my windfall. He asked to see a phony bill. He examined it closely in The Dive’s dim light.
“They’re excellent,” he said handing back my bill. “You know who made them?”
“Nah. I found them in the paper bin at work. But wait a sec, I stuffed the bills in this envelope. I think it came from the same bag.” The envelope had Edwards Printing in the upper left hand corner along with their address—165 Elmont Ave.
“You think the envelope came from the same bag as the money?”
“I think so. It’s hard to tell in a world filled with paper.”
“You think that’s them?” James asked.
“I don’t know. Makes sense. Printers and all.”
“ You know where Elmont Avenue is?”
“No. Why, you want to go there?” I wondered. “What the hell for? You going to ask them if they’re counterfeiters?”
“Just for a little look around. Where’s the harm in it? What’s the matter, scared?”
“I’m not scared,” I said, “I’m drunk and so are you.”
“I’m not that drunk. Wait, I’ll find out where it is,” James asked Duke if he knew where Elmont Ave. was. Duke didn’t so James asked him for a phone book and found Elmont Ave. on a map of the city. It was about a mile away in an industrial area. “C’mon, Noki, don’t be a wuss. Lets go check them out.”
When I hesitated, James started making chicken noises, so I gave in just to shut him up. I insisted we walk even though our cars were both in The Dive’s parking lot. I figured a walk in the chill air might sober us up. When James objected to walking I said, “What’s the matter, chicken?”
That’s all it took. “Okay, just let me get my jacket. It’s cold out there.” James went to his car and got his jacket. I was numb from all the drinking and felt fine. So we walked the mile or so to Elmont Avenue, pushing and joshing all the way like a couple of kids.
The next thing I know, we’re peeking in the windows of Edward’s Printing. We’re still drunk and giggly and probably making more noise than we should. The place appeared to be locked up tight so we went around back. The back door was locked too. There was a car parked near a dumpster. I looked inside the dumpster out of professional curiosity. There was a layer of plastic bags on the bottom and some miscellaneous paper junk. No bundles of twenties. I reached way in to grab a plastic bag when James lifted my legs off the ground and I went toppling head over heels into the dumpster. I heard James laughing his head off. The layer of garbage bags broke my fall. I was mad enough to kill James but a part of me realized it was pretty funny.
Anyway, I was in the dumpster when I heard the back door of the printing plant open and a voice boom out, “Hey, what the hell’s going on there?” I saw a flashlight beam zipping around. James yelled something wise back to the guy. I decided to stay where I was.
“Get away from there where I can get a look at you,” the guy said.
“Fuck you,” yelled James.
“I have a gun,” the guy shouted.
“Oh yeah, so do I,” said James. I thought he was bluffing but then I remembered him getting his jacket out of the truck. He could have slipped a gun in his pocket, I wouldn’t have put it past him. Stupid schmuck. There were more angry words and then shots. “Shit,” I said out loud. Three shots then silence.
When I finally looked out, there was James and this other guy lying on the ground. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said over and over. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The security guy or whatever he was was lying face down by the back door dead. Two bullets in his chest. His gun and flashlight still in his hands. James was hit once in the stomach and was hurt real bad. He sat in a puddle of blood all his macho bluster gone. I didn’t know what to do. I went over to James, he whispered weakly in my ear, “hospital…get me…” Right. That’s what I had to do. I had to get James and me out of there. I’m on parole, James already had two convictions for armed robbery. No one was going to believe we were innocent.
Shit, shit, I remembered we walked. No car. The guard’s car was sitting there. I went over to the dead guard and looked in his pant’s pocket for his car keys. They weren’t there. No key flashes through my mind like a bad joke. They’re probably inside. “Hang on a sec,” I call to James and I go inside Edwards Printing to look for the guy’s keys.
I found his jacket hanging on a hook by the back door. A black leather jacket, fleece lined, expensive. I pat down the pockets and bingo, car keys. I was sobered up by now and noticed how cold it was so I put the jacket on. I was just about to step back outside when a patrol car pulled in to the parking lot, lights flashing. Someone must have heard the shots and called 911. I quickly closed the door and locked it just as a second cop car pulled in. In no time they find the bodies and call an ambulance which arrived a few minutes later. I heard the cops try the door, flashlight beams lit the windows as the cops peered inside. I stayed hidden and crawled around looking for a hiding place before they got the owner out of bed and opened the place.
I was thinking this is so unfair. Damn James and his temper. I can’t get mixed up in this. Not when I was finally getting my stupid life back on track. Damn. Shit. Fuck. I was so pissed at myself I could hardly think. I had to hide. I couldn’t be found in there. Calm down, look around. No one knew I was there. Red and blue flashing lights were the only illumination. I was in an office of some kind. Desks, computers, filing cabinets, metal storage cabinets filled with office supplies. There was a closet filled with junk. No place to hide.
I crawled into the next room. Big, filled with machinery. Must be the printing plant. Presses, paper cutters, binding equipment, stacks of paper, more cabinets some locked some with ink and tools. The next room was the front room, where the public came to drop off jobs or pay bills. There was a counter, a desk for a receptionist and another closet. Another door in the front room led to a bathroom. Then I saw it. A hatch in the bathroom ceiling to access the attic. That was perfect. I stood on the toilet tank and pushed the hatch open. I leaped up and wiggled inside. When I put the ceiling panel back in place, I couldn’t see a thing. It was completely dark and quiet. I wrapped the guard’s jacket around me and fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes again it was morning. A dim light was filtering into the attic through the eaves and vents. There was no sound from downstairs. I looked around and saw that I had been sleeping on stacks of money. The money was packed in shrink wrapped bricks about six inches thick. There were dozens of them. I’d slept on a bed of money—a poor man’s wet dream. I figured they’d never miss a stack or two so I stuffed a couple of bricks inside my shirt and then a couple more just for good measure. My shirt bulged, I looked like a lumpy Santa. I only just fit down the opening in the ceiling. But I wriggled through and replaced the panel.
I must have slept later than I thought because the next sound I heard was voices unlocking the front door. It sounded like two people, a man and a woman. They were chattering away. I wondered if they knew about last night’s excitement. They didn’t seem to know anything about the shooting.
I peeked through a crack in the bathroom door and watched the man go into the back and switch on lights and machinery. The woman stayed in the front and turned on her computer. Then she grabbed a coffee pot and walked toward the bathroom to fill it with water. This is it, I thought, caught stealing again, but she filled the pot from a water cooler next to the bathroom door and turned away. Then she switched the paper sign to open and unlocked the door. Edwards Printing was open for business.
The woman went into the press room for something. While she was gone, I made a dash for the door. As soon as I opened the door a inch, a buzzer in the back announced a customer. The woman was right there. “Well good morning. Aren’t we the early bird? What can I do for you?”
I turned to face her. She was all bright and cheery. I looked like a bum who’d been sleeping in an attic all night. My jacket was open and my shirt all lumpy with bricks of money. Bits of insulation were stuck to my hair. I smiled back at her. She was waiting for me to say something. Inspiration struck and I said, “Do you do color printing?”
“We sure do, Frank,” she said. Major panic. Somehow she knew my name. I’d never seen this woman before in my life. Then I realized I was still wearing my work clothes and Frank Scott was stitched across the left pocket. What was worse, Community Re-cycling Center was written across the right. Great. Now she knew my name and where I worked. “Do you need a quote?” she asked.
“A quote?” I responded bewildered.
“You know, a price for a printing job, silly.”
“Oh a quote. No. No thanks. I was just wondering if you did color printing is all.”
“Well we do, Frank and I’ll be happy to quote a job for the recycling center anytime.” She gave me a dazzling smile. I turned to leave. Smart I said to myself. Real smart, Why didn’t I just give her my phone number. I opened the door to leave when she called, “Oh Frank,” I turned back and she handed me a business card, “Have a nice day.”
I zipped up the jacket and was putting the business card in my pocket when I felt the keys. I realized that the dead guy’s car was still parked behind the plant. It was cold and I was tired. I figured I was practically caught already anyway, what the hell? So I went around back and got in the dead guy’s car and drove back to The Dive.
The dead guy’s car was a Chevy maybe two or three years old. A lot newer than what I drove. The Dive was locked up tight and the parking lot held only my old Nissan and James’s battered pick up. I pulled up next to my car. Before I got out I looked in the glove compartment. The registration said the car belonged to a Voicek Raciewcz. I checked the trunk next and felt my knees buckle. In the trunk was a arsenal. Hand guns, shot guns, assault weapons and, to top it all off, a duffel bag filled with cash. I transferred it all to the Nissan. I figured I’d deal with it later. I really don’t remember what I was thinking. Maybe it was just old habits kicking in—presented with the opportunity to steal something valuable I couldn’t help myself. I drove home and made myself some breakfast. I needed to think about my situation.
I took the bricks out of my shirt and stacked them neatly on the kitchen table. Each brick held $25,000. I had eight bricks for a grand total of $200,000. They were all brand new and had the same serial numbers. I figured they were counterfeit. Still, it was more money than I’d ever seen—a fortune for a guy like me. The duffel bag held a variety of denominations. They were old bills and I figured they were legit. Maybe the dead guy was selling the counterfeit bills. Maybe he had his own racket on the side. maybe he was selling guns. That made the most sense.
I sorted out the money and added it up. There was $90,000 in the duffel bag. Someone was going to miss this much money. The receptionist was bound to remember me even though she couldn’t be sure I had anything to do with the heist itself, someone was going to be awfully pissed off. I expect they’d probably want to talk to me at the very least. All in all not a good situation.
The cops, on the other hand, didn’t know about me but James was my roommate and they were bound to come around asking questions. I didn’t know whether James was alive or dead and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t implicate me if he could help it. Unless he was offered a deal to avoid his third strike. We were buddies but life in prison is a lot to ask a man to suck up.
Then there was the matter of the guns in my car’s trunk. I’m sure there were people who would pay a lot of money for that amount of fire power. It wasn’t the kind of loot that appealed to me but still… I needed to think some more about it. Selling guns was way out of my experience. I’d get caught for sure. I checked my watch. I had to be at work in a couple of hours. I put the counterfeit bills in the duffel bag and stashed the ninety thou in a box in my closet. Not the best hiding place but the best I could do on short notice.
I took the duffel bag back out to my car and tossed it in the trunk. I caught a glimpse of the guns. I thought about just putting everything back in the dead guy’s car and leaving it somewhere. I was 90k richer than I was last night. The more I thought about it, the more that seemed like a good plan. I was just about to get out of my car and do it when a car pulled up to my apartment and a couple of well dressed cop looking guys knocked on my door. I decided not to participate in that conversation. I started my car and eased out of the parking lot and into traffic. Another narrow escape. How much longer could my luck last?
I drove north and found myself at Jenna’s apartment. It was a Saturday morning and I figured she’d be home. I rang her bell. She saw it was me and let me in.
“Hi Noki,” she said and kissed me. “This is a pleasant surprise. We’re on for tonight, right? Is there a problem?” We had a regular Saturday night date thing and this one was something special. I was going to meet her parents at dinner for the first time. “Don’t tell me you’re canceling,” she said her eyes already filling with tears. This meant a lot to her. It meant a lot to our relationship. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
“No honey. Everything’s fine. I just wanted to see you. You have breakfast yet?” She was wearing the big t-shirt she slept in so it was a safe bet she hadn’t.
“Isn’t that sweet? Hang on a sec and I’ll get dressed.” She kissed me and ran upstairs. Jenna’s a truly good person—kind, loving and uncomplicated. I don’t know what she sees in me. Another piece of amazing luck I probably don’t deserve. Jenna was my key to the straight life. A life I felt slipping away. If I had any sense I’d marry the woman and spend the rest of my days thanking my good fortune.
We sat in a booth and made goo-goo eyes at each other. Jenna’s goodness just shines through. Somehow she trusts me, god only knows why. I hardly trust myself. Jenna worked hard to get her parents to agree to even meet me. My past was the 800 pound elephant in the relationship. I was being given a second chance by Jenna and her family, I wanted to tell her about the trouble I was in but knew it would frighten her. So we just chatted about work and life and plans for the future. All the while I wrestled with my problem.
I dropped Jenna off at her apartment. She gave me a loving kiss and said, “See you tonight. Thanks for breakfast. Something troubling you Hon?”
“No, everything’s fine. A little nervous about tonight is all.”
“Don’t worry. Mom will love you and she’ll bring dad around.”
It was almost time for work. The re-cycling center was open on Saturdays from noon to five, a half day and a busy one. I was early and took my time driving across town. I wasn’t sure if I was being followed or not. I had no idea what I was going to do if I was?
I parked in my employee slot at the center and punched in. Dan Rogers was already there and judging from the look on his face was none too happy. It looked like I wasn’t going to escape my troubles at work.
“Good. Glad you’re here. There’s people here to see you. They’re in the office.” The office was an old construction trailer someone donated. There was just enough room inside for Dan’s desk and a couple of chairs.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“How the hell should I know,” he said. “Just get rid of them it’s freezing out here.” Jesus, I thought. What now? I looked over at the public parking lot. It was starting to fill with the first customers but was still largely empty. A big gray van parked by the gate caught my eye. It had Edwards Printing Company painted on the side. Oh God, I thought, here we go.
I stepped into the office, Two men were waiting there. One of them was middle aged and neatly dressed in a jacket and tie. The other was young and built like a steroid pumped weight lifter. He took up all the space in the cramped room. I decided to take the initiative, maybe throw them off balance. I sat behind the desk and said, “I understand you’re looking for me.”
“You’re Frank Scott?” the neatly dressed man said making an effort to be friendly and relaxed.
“At your service.”
“I understand you were at my business this morning.”
“I don’t understand,” I said with not quite the relaxed tone I was hoping for.
“I’m Vince Edwards. You were at my print shop this morning. You remember now.”
“Oh yeah, right, I wanted to know if you did color work. The girl said…”
Mr. Edwards nodded at his giant companion who stood up, leaned over the desk, and slapped me open handed right off my chair. When I picked myself off the floor I noticed the gorilla had a gun in his hand. It looked tiny in his giant mitt. “Let’s not play games. Mr. Scott. I know all about you. You and your buddy, James Cochran, robbed my place last night and killed my partner. Then you stole his car and some things of mine. I want those things back.”
“I admit I was there this morning. A coincidence. I was asking about printing. I was…”
Again the nod to the gorilla and the slap. This time with the gun. Cut my face and hurt like hell.
“Look, Frank, we’re not stupid. You’re wearing Voicek’s jacket or is that another coincidence? Now here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going out to your car. You’re going to open your trunk and give me back what’s mine. If it’s not there we’ll go to your apartment where you and Tombo can get better acquainted. Okay? Now get up and lets go to your car without alarming the re-cyclers.”
We all stood up. I turned my back on them for a second while I zipped up my jacket. In one smooth motion, I took Dan’s car keys off the little hook behind his desk where he always hung them and led them outside. Dan gave me a dirty look as I led the men across the yard.
Dan’s car was parked next to mine. His was a dirty Toyota not much different looking than my Nissan. I fumbled with the keys and managed to fit the right key in the trunk lock. Edwards and the gorilla stared into an empty and extremely clean trunk.
“So where is it?” Edwards asked.
“I told you I don’t have anything.”
I could see Edward’s face tighten. He would have liked to have Tombo shoot me or beat me right on the spot. “Take him to the van,” he said to Tombo through gritted teeth. We walked through the re-cycling yard. It was a hub bub of activity. All those good citizens with their carefully sorted bundles. I was feeling more and more desperate. All those people and no one to help me. Tombo had the pistol in his enormous paw but it was practically invisible. he walked directly behind me. I could feel the gun jab me every time I slowed down. Dan called to me across the yard, “Noki, where are you going?”
I wanted to answer but a poke in the spine kept my mouth shut. We were a few steps away from the Gray van when a police car pulled in to the lot. Tombo froze and Edwards whispered, “just keep walking and don’t try anything funny.”
Two cops got out and walked toward the gate just as we were leaving. I dropped to my knees in front of Tombo who tripped and went down right in front of the cops. “He’s got a gun,” I yelled. People started screaming. Bags of plastic and aluminum cans flying. The cops reached for their automatics. Tombo shot one but the other shot him where he lay. Edwards drew a pistol from somewhere but the second cop had the drop on him and shot him too. The cop came over and dragged me to my feet. He was angry, frightened and confused. He cuffed me and called for backup and an ambulance. I stayed in the police car waiting while they sorted things out. Dan came running over. He saw me in cuffs. I could see him thinking damn ex-cons.
Ambulances came and took away the wounded and the dead. There must have been a dozen patrol cars there before it was over. The two detectives who I saw at my apartment that morning brought me down to the station and questioned me about last night. They wanted to know if I had any knowledge of what James was doing at Edward’s Printing. The cops found Voicek’s car and James’s pick up truck in the parking lot of The Dive. We were seen leaving together, where did we go? And most of all, they wanted to know what did Edwards and Tombo want with me at the re-cycling center?
I explained that James and I walked around the block a couple of times and then I drove home and went to bed. I had no idea what happened after that. James never mentioned Edwards Printing to me. I never heard of Voicek Razzmatazz or whatever his name was. As for the incident at the recycling center, I told them that Tombo and Edwards were mistaken about my involvement but were going to take me somewhere and “beat the hell out of me. Thank god your officers came along in time.” I was deeply sorry for the officer getting shot. It was quite a performance. I don’t know if they believed a word of it but they had nothing to charge me with.
Before they let me go, I asked them about James. I found out that he was going to live. He’d have to face a charge of illegal possession of a firearm but the guy he shot, this Voicek Raza-something was a real bad hombre and the cops were happy he was off the street. He was an arms smuggler with terrorist ties. The DA was calling it self defense. I was free to go.
The cops dropped me off at the re-cycling center. Dan was still there. The place should have been closed a half an hour ago. I could see he was furious, probably at me. Probably for missing work on a busy Saturday. It turned out he was mad at me but he was furious at himself. He couldn’t find his car keys.
“You didn’t happen to see my car keys, did you? I never lose them. I always hang them in the office but this morning with all the commotion…”
“I didn’t see them, but I’ll help you look,” I offered.
“That’s good of you. Maybe you’re not such a hopeless fuck-up after all.” We shuffled around between the bins looking for Dan’s keys. I still had them in my pocket. I snuck them out and let them drop then kicked them under the glass bin. Better to let Dan find them.
“You know how busy it gets here on Saturdays,” Dan said. “I had to call Beverly in on her day off all because you can’t keep out of trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“What did those guys want with you anyway?”
“It was all a big misunderstanding. A case of mistaken identity.”
“People getting shot, makes the center look bad. I should fire your ass. Ah, here they are,” Dan picked up the lost keys.
“Why don’t you go home, Dan,” I said. “You’ve had a rough day. I’ll close up here.”
“Would you? Thanks, Noki. I got someplace to be. I owe you one.”
I watched Dan drive away. He wasn’t such a bad guy. A little anal maybe but a good man all the same. I felt like a man on a precipice, standing on a sharp divide. I could fall either way, backwards toward the dark side. I had money and guns, I could do anything I wanted. Move to Mexico and live the easy life. Sell the guns for even more money.
Or I could go the other way and enter Dan and Jenna’s world. The world of regular people. I could be one of them, build on what I had. I’d been extremely lucky so far to still have this choice. No telling how much longer that kind of luck would hold. I stood there watching Dan pull away. A light snow began falling. I checked my watch. I had to meet Jenna and her folks at Angelo’s in an hour. I knew what I had to do.
I fed the counterfeit bills into the paper shredder one thousand dollar bundle at a time. The machine ate them with nothing more than a change of pitch. With each buzz of the machine I felt a little lighter, a little happier until I was standing in a pile of shredded paper up to my knees and laughing out loud. Then I hauled the pistols and guns over to the metal recycling bin and broke them down as best I could and tossed their parts far and wide.
I had just enough time to get back to my place and clean up. I checked to see if the $90,000 was still where I’d left it. It was. I took a few dollars and stuffed it in my pocket. That money could be the start of a new life. Having it there gave me a feeling that maybe life wasn’t so hopeless. Wasn’t just an endless succession of Monday mornings at some dead end job. Maybe I’d start a business, or invest it. Maybe I’d give some to James when he recovered, give him hope too. Maybe I’d ask Jenna to marry me. It’s amazing how some ill gotten gains can change a man’s thinking.
I arrived at Angelo’s only ten minutes late. I could see relief brighten Jenna’s face. I kissed her and shook hands with her parents. Her father was ex-military, stiff and disapproving, especially of his daughter’s choice of men. The mother was more like Jenna, sweet and warm and willing to give a man a chance.
She said, “Jenna’s told us so much about you, Frank, We feel we already know you.”
The old man sat in stony silence until the waiter came over and asked how we were doing. The old man ordered a second scotch and I asked for the same. The drinks loosened the old man up and we got him talking about his Army days. After another round of drinks and some wine for the ladies, we were feeling more comfortable with each other. Finally the old man looked me in the eye and said, “You know Jenna’s our only child and we only want the best for her. We want her to be happy. Are you prepared to make her happy, Frank?”
“I am, sir.”
“And how do you plan to do that working at a minimum wage job?”
Here it was. The question I’d been dreading. I looked Jenna’s parents in the eye and lied through my teeth. “I plan to open my own business,” I said. “I’ve recently inherited some money plus what I’ve been saving, I have close to $90,000.” Everyone’s jaw dropped in unison. Jenna’s mother was the first to recover.
“How nice,” she said, “what kind of business were you thinking of?
“Oh, locks, keys, safes, alarms, that sort of thing. I have some expertise in that area as I suppose you know.”
“Why that’s wonderful,” Jenna’s father raised his glass in toast. “Jenna, why didn’t you tell us you were marrying a man of means? A toast, to success on your new venture.” We all clicked glasses. Jenna gave me a wink and a thumbs up. The mother leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. The old man patted me on the back. I felt exhausted like I’d run a marathon. Jenna’s mother asked me to tell them how I got my nickname. The waiter came over to take our orders.
“So, just what is your nickname again?” Jenna’s father asked.
“Noki,” Jenna and I said at the same time.
“No key?” said the father.
“No-Kee,” said the mother
“Four Gnocchis?” asked the waiter
“Sure,” we all said, “why not?”