Nov. 29, 2009

Josh Becker


            Fanning the cards in his hand, Abe found that he had a jack, two fives and two tens.  He wanted to smile, but of course he didn’t.  Abe Solvadino could keep a blank poker face with the best of them.
            Abe was an unexceptional looking man – neither handsome nor ugly and utterly indistinguishable in a crowd.  He was forty, with dark hair and eyes, a wide nose and thin lips.  He was half Jewish and half Italian.  In his youth the other kids had called him a “Jew-Woppy” and laughed like hell, but that never really bothered him.  One of his grandmothers made delicious chicken soup and the other made incredible spaghetti sauce.  I had the best of both worlds, he thought, so the hell with them.
            Dealing the other five players their cards, the dealer then dealt himself his own hand face up – a two, a three, a queen, a jack, then another three.
             “Two of a kind,” intoned the dealer flatly.
            All of the players had already put in their $5 antes, so now the betting began.  The first player bet $20, then the second player raised to $40.  The first player added a $20 chip and saw the bet.  The next two players also saw the bet, each putting in $40 worth of chips.
            With an expression of feigned indifference, Abe raised the bet to $100.  The first player exclaimed, “Shit!” and folded.  The other three players eyed Abe suspiciously, then saw the bet.
            Each of the other players discarded either two or three cards, getting new ones from the dealer.  Abe discarded one card, the jack, and got one card back.  Now all of the other players eyed him even more suspiciously.  Only one card?  Abe eyed them back.  Yep, only one.  He placed his hand over the card to block the view, then slowly peeled up the corner and glanced down.
            It was a ten.  He had a full-house.  A geyser of warmth erupted in his chest.  A good hand.  It had been a long damn time since he’d had a legitimately good hand.  And this wasn’t just a good hand, it was a great hand.  Although he was now doing cartwheels of joy inside, outwardly he was as expressionless as the Sphinx.  Still, no matter what his face said, his heart was now thumping rapidly.  Blood rushed through his veins, flowing out to the ends of his extremities and into his brain, causing all of the colors around him to intensify, as though he’d just guzzled a big glass of whiskey.  Feeling his cheeks flush, Abe thought, I sure hope my face hasn’t gone all red and given me away, although with my luck it probably has.
            Abe’s luck had been terrible for months.  In just the last two weeks he’d dropped over five grand.  And that was five grand of borrowed money that he truly couldn’t afford to lose under any circumstances, yet he’d lost it all the same.  
            His mortgage payment was overdue, he hadn’t made either car payment, his snotty 13-year-old son needed braces, and his wife, who had arthritis in her hands and feet, kept dropping unsubtle hints about needing a vacation from the cold weather during the Christmas break.  If Kelly knew he’d lost five grand in the preceding 14 days she’d kill him.  Not euphemistically, either, but literally.  She’d crack his skull open with the driver of his far-too-expensive golf clubs, an issue she would seemingly never let go.  He thought, sure, they cost a thousand bucks, but they’re worth it.
            Admittedly, things didn’t look all that good for Abe at the moment, but at least he still had 300 hundred bucks worth of chips on the table, and some money in his pocket, too.
            And a full-house.
            OK, thought Abe, how do I force the bet up without scaring anyone away?  What’s the exact amount to achieve this goal?  A hundred bucks?  Two hundred bucks?  Belying his blank expression, his mind raced.  A hundred or two hundred?  Oh, what the hell, no risk, no gain.
            “Two hundred dollars,” said Abe, casually sliding most of his remaining chips forward into the pot.
            The three other remaining players consisted of: a portly guy chewing an unlit cigar; a thin, wrinkled, sly-looking woman of 70; and a 30ish, sandy-haired, collegiate-looking fellow.  The bet was to them . . .
            Joe College folded.
            Old Lady saw the bet.  Good for you, bitch.
            Chubby Cigar Chewer removed the stogy from his mouth, rolled it between his fingers and said, “I’ll see your two hundred and raise you two hundred.”  He pushed $400 worth of chips into the pot, leaned back, returned his cigar to his mouth and looked at Abe.  So?
            Old Lady folded with a disgusted,  “Shoot!”
            Abe’s hand came out of his pocket with a sadly unimpressive roll of bills.  He peeled off four one hundred dollar bills, set them gently on the table and said, “Chips please.”  The dealer took the money and gave him his chips.  Abe slid two one-hundred dollar chips into the pot.
            “I’ll see your bet,” said Abe, “and raise you $200.”  Indifferently, Abe flicked the rest of his chips into the pot.
            OK, Fatty, your move.  Looking straight at Abe, Fatty removed the cigar from his mouth smirking skeptically.  “I think you’re bluffing.”
            Abe shrugged.  “It’ll cost you $200 more to find out.”
            “OK,” said Fatty.  He placed two pudgy fingers on two $100 chips and slid them forward.  
            Abe glanced at the pot and quickly did the math.  There was over two grand there!  Not bad.  It wouldn’t come close to clearing him out, but it would be a fine start.
            The dealer looked from the portly cigar-chewer to Abe, then said, “Betting is closed.”  Leaving his pair of threes, the dealer turned the queen, the jack, and the two over face down, then dealt himself three new cards face down.
            The moment of truth had arrived.
            The portly guy put his cigar in his mouth and laid down his hand.  He said, “Straight, ten high.”  Grinning, he looked at Abe expectantly, his eyebrows raised.
            Abe’s poker face was still firmly in place as he showed his hand.  “Full-house.  Ten high.”
            The dealer said, “Full-house beats a straight.”
            An audible gasp went up from the other players.  Fatty blurted, “Son of a bitch!  You weren’t bluffing.”
            “No,” said Abe, “I wasn’t.”
            Abe turned his attention to the dealer.  Sitting on the green felt were the dealer’s cards: two threes, and three cards face down.”
            Expressionless, the dealer said, “Full-house, ten high.”  He then flipped over his first 
card – it was a three. “Three threes.”  Abe and the fat guy glanced at each other.  The dealer flipped over the next card – a five.  He then flipped over the last card and . . . it was a three.  Everyone gasped in astonishment.  “Four threes beats a full-house,” said the dealer.  “The house wins.”  Pulling in all of the chips, the dealer expertly formed them into stacks of like denominations, then slid the stacks into their proper slots.
            Abe slumped down in his seat appearing to visibly shrink, like his spine had been removed.  His face muscles went slack, giving him a brain-dead, zombie-like appearance. 
            Four threes?  What were the chances of that?  Exceedingly slim, that’s what.  Oh, sure, it did happen occasionally, though, like say right now.  Abe glanced up at Fatty who was looking directly back at him with a half-smile and a shrug of his shoulders that said, “Hey, we both got screwed.”
            Abe nodded, returning a sickly half-smile. 
            So, he’d lost again.  He couldn’t stop losing.  Apparently, his luck was gone for good and it didn’t look like it was ever coming back.  I could stop gambling, he thought, then chuckled sadly.  Yeah, right.
            Not only was he a loser, he was a loser with a serious gambling addiction who had  managed to blow five grand in the past fourteen days.  Of borrowed money, let’s not forget.  Abe was truly, irretrievably, and cosmically screwed.  
            Downing the dregs of his “free” 7 & 7, Abe stood, stepped aside and gave up his seat – the one he’d been sitting on for hours.  His seat.  Ha!  You pay for the privilege to sit there, and the second you can’t pay, the privilege is revoked.  A somewhat attractive middle-aged brunette pushed past him and sat right down.
            He turned and walked away.  Shell-shocked and directionless, Abe wandered through the circuitous maze of slot machines.  As bells rang, lights flashed, alarms honked, and coins clinked noisily into metal trays, bile rose up in Abe’s throat and he suddenly felt like he was going to vomit or pass out, or both.  As the overly bright cavernous room around him began to spin, he reached out and grabbed a hold of a slot machine with both hands, then hung on for dear life.  In a sickening blur the whole room swirled around him like a high-velocity merry-go-round.  Perspiration broke out on his forehead.  Just hang on, he thought, it’ll pass.  It always has before and it will again . . .
Several deep breaths later, still keeping a firm grip on the slot machine, Abe somehow managed to weather the spins.  Luckily for him he was now only severely nauseous, which, admittedly, was not much of an improvement, but an improvement nevertheless.  Things were definitely looking up.
            For one brief second, while clutching the slot machine, Abe glanced down at its red-knobbed handle and thought, I wonder if  I have enough change to play this machine?
            Shaking his head hard, he whispered,  “For god’s sake, stop it!”

            Abe wearily handed the parking receipt to the valet.  His shoulders sagging, he stood there with an expression of complete resignation on his face, a tiny figure dwarfed by the opulent, elephantine casino.  He was nothing more than a little man on an endless losing streak, condemned to do nothing but fail.
            The valet pulled up in Abe’s ten-year-old dented burgundy Chrysler Concorde and screeched to a stop.  Gotta get those breaks fixed, he thought.  The door opened with a loud crack, caused by the smashed front quarter panel.  Abe winced, thinking, Christ, what a piece of crap.
            The valet handed him the receipt and said, “That’s ten dollars, sir.”
            Abe went into his pocket, pulled out his money and found that he only had seven dollars and forty-six cents left.  “Oh, shit,” he whispered to himself.  He handed the valet the seven forty-six, then said, “Hang on.”  Abe crawled into his car, opened the glove box, dug around and found two more quarters.  He got out and gave the quarters to the valet.
            “That’s all I’ve got,” said Abe.  “Eight bucks.”
            The valet looked from the money in his hand up to Abe.  “No, that’s seven ninety-six.”
             “OK, seven ninety-six.  Gimme a break, will ya?”
            Nodding, the valet turned and hollered, “Security!”
            Up stepped a tall heavyset black man wearing a navy blue windbreaker with “Security” emblazoned across the chest.  “What’s the problem?” he asked in a bored tone.
            The valet held out his hand displaying the money.  “He’s short.  It’s ten dollars and he only has seven ninety-six.”
            The security man turned to Abe and asked, “So?”
            Abe shrugged.  “So, I just lost over a grand in this casino, and that’s all I’ve got left.”
            “Uh-huh?” said the security man, apparently waiting for the punchline.
            Abe raised his hands.  “So that’s it.  I’m two bucks short.  Impound my car, put me in jail, shoot me in the head.  I don’t care.  I give up.”  He lowered his head awaiting a bullet to his brain, which, at this point, would be a welcome relief.
            The security man studied Abe for a second, then reached out and put a big hand on Abe’s shoulder.  “You lost over a thousand bucks tonight?”
            Oh dear god, this couldn’t possibly be an understanding soul, could it?  “Yeah, I did.  And I’ve lost over five grand in the last two weeks.  A lot of it in this casino, too.”
            “Maybe you should try slowing down on your gambling,” he offered as friendly advice.
            Abe conjured up a weak smile.  “Maybe.”
            The security man turned to the valet.  “Let him go.”
            “But what about the missing two dollars and four cents?  I’m not covering it.”
            The security man sighed.  “There’s a jar full of change in the office, I’ll dig some out.”
            The valet turned to Abe, now speaking with an officious tone, “You can go, but don’t do it again.”
            Abe hastily got in his car and said, “I won’t, I swear.  Thanks a lot.”  He split, pronto.
            See!  His luck wasn’t completely gone, they’d just cut him a break.  Yeah, for two dollars and four cents.  Otherwise, he’d only blown about eleven hundred dollars tonight, and probably fifty-two hundred in the last two weeks.  “But I got to skip out on two dollars and four cents,” he said.  “That’s my kind of luck, folks – bullshit.”
            He drove along the service drive next to the freeway talking to himself. “Let’s face it, I’m just a big fat loser.  I always was a loser, and I always will be.  Even when I thought I was up I was really down.  I’ve never gotten ahead of the eight ball.  All I’ve ever done is lose and lose, and then lose some more.  And lately I’ve lost even more than that.”
            Opening the glove box, he took out a pack of Marlboros dating back to about a year ago when he’d quit smoking.  Inside the pack were two cigarettes.  Using the cigarette lighter in the car – ’99 model cars still had cigarette lighters in them – he lit up, took a big drag and winced,  “Ooooh, man!  That’s stale!”  
            And now he had to go home and face his wife and kid, both of whom were always highly judgmental of both him and his behavior.  “For good reason, too,” he said.  “I’ve been nothing but a failure to both of them.  A failure as a husband, a failure as a father, and pretty much just a failure as a human being.  But I got off for two dollars and four cents so my luck’s changing.”
            The burgundy Concorde merged into the freeway traffic.  Staying in the right lane, Abe drove slowly out of downtown, heading back out to the suburbs where his bleak reality awaited him.  Puffing on the stale cigarette and staring at the road, Abe did his very best to not think at all.

            Arriving home to his anonymous three-bedroom house with nothing to distinguish it from a hundred houses surrounding it, Abe pulled up the driveway.  A well-trimmed lawn, a bicycle on its side, a skateboard on the grass, and a second car in the garage.  Everything you could possibly want; all the stuff that people in most other countries in the world only dreamed of.  So what’s my main malfunction?
            Kelly stepped into Abe’s path in the doorway of the kitchen.  She had formerly been a cute perky blonde, but now she was a middle-aged woman fighting a losing battle with gravity.  Every part of her had sagged: her cheeks, her arms, her breasts, and her belly.  She appeared to be melting downward.  In twenty more years she’d be nothing more than a fleshy gelatinous blob on the floor.
            Kelly asked in a monotone, “How much did you lose tonight?”
            Gritting his teeth, Abe walked right past her into the kitchen.  “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
            Kelly tilted her head back and sniffed.  “You’ve been smoking?  I thought you quit.”
            “I did.  I just started again on the drive home.”
            She shook her head sadly, “Then you must’ve lost a lot.  Great!  Good work, sport.  You know what?”
            “No, what?”
            Kelly pointed in his face.  “I’m so sick of you I don’t know what to do about it anymore.  You’re killing me.  And you’re killing Kevin, too.”
            Abe looked past Kelly to see his son Kevin sitting on the stairs, peering at him through posts with an expression of pure disgust.  
            The best Abe could muster up for both them was, “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, that’s terrific,” replied Kelly sarcastically.  “You’re sorry.  Well, that fixes everything.  Tell the electric company you’re sorry, or the gas company, or the bank holding our mortgage.  I’ve got nothing left to say.  Nothing I say means anything anyway.  I’m going upstairs.  Your dinner’s on top of the stove.”  She turned and walked away toward the stairs.
            Kevin stood, declared, “I hate you!” and stomped up the steps.  He then slammed his bedroom door for punctuation.
            Once Kelly and Kevin were out of sight, Abe whispered to himself, “Hey, that went better than I thought it would.”
            Chicken stir-fry and a baked potato.  He hadn’t realized it until this very second, but he was actually hungry.  He put the food in the microwave, set it for two minutes, then sat down at the kitchen table.
            Time to really face up to reality.  Not only was the five grand he’d lost borrowed, it was borrowed from the bank where he worked as assistant manager.  So, that’s not really borrowing, thought Abe, it’s embezzling, and that happens to be a felony. 
            But that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Once Abe saw his boss’s arithmetic error, and the fact that he’d made the same mistake twice, the entire embezzlement scheme came to him in a flash.  If he took the money and it was found out, and of course eventually it would be, it would lead straight back to his boss, Mr. Kielczyowski, which was a damn shame because he was a nice, decent guy.  Oh well.
            Sometimes you had to go with the impulse when the need arose.  And the need had most certainly arisen, so he’d gone with it.  Sure, it might cause problems to others later, but it solved his problems right now.
            Yet Abe still wasn’t owning up to the whole crime.  He couldn’t quite get his mind around it.  He hadn’t just embezzled the five grand he’d lost gambling, he’d actually embezzled a hundred grand . . . sort of.  The remaining $95,000 presently sat in his safety deposit box in the bank, so technically, since he hadn’t removed the money from the bank yet, he hadn’t really stolen it.  Or rather, embezzled it.  When does embezzlement become theft anyway?  When the money leaves the premises, or when the act occurs?  Who the hell do you think you’re kidding?  When the act occurs.
            So here was the real issue – if he returned the remaining money to the vault, now five grand short, he’d be flat broke having already blown every cent in his and Kelly’s joint account.  Or, on the other hand, he could simply keep it all.  Obviously there would be an inquiry, that would ostensibly lead back to his boss, Mr. K, who would certainly deny it.  Then where would it go?  Probably right back to him.  Probably my ass.  It’ll absolutely lead back to me.  On the other hand, he could just take all of the money and leave the country.  But was that really an option?  I do have a wife and kid, thought Abe.  Can I just abandon them?  
            Entering the Oakland Savings Bank, Abe, now attired in a freshly pressed suit and tie and holding an old, scuffed, leather briefcase, waved a cheery good morning to the three tellers, a multi-ethnic selection of dumpy, unattractive 35- to 40-year-old women.
            Abe walked past the cubicle of Ken, the other assistant manager, who was seated at his desk and busy on the telephone.  Abe quietly said, “Good morning.”  Ken mouthed, “Morning,” and waved.
            Mr. K’s glass door was closed, which was odd, and he was in what appeared to be a serious discussion on his cell phone, not the business phone on his desk.  Mr. K was standing, staring down at the floor, frowning and listening.  Personal problems, thought Abe. You and me both, pal.  Mr. K pushed the hang up button, then stood motionless lost in thought.  Finally, he glanced up, saw Abe, smiled wearily and gave him a one-fingered salute.  Abe smiled back and returned a full, five-fingered salute.
            Seated at his desk, Abe fired up the computer and got to work, acting like today was just another day.  However, for the next three and a half hours he thought of nothing else but the 95 grand in the safety deposit box a mere five yards away.  And as hard as he tried he couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the safety deposit room door every 60 seconds or so.  He’d glance up, realize his mistake, then hastily look back down.
            Here was Abe’s clever plan: right before lunch when everyone would hopefully be distracted, he’d enter the safety deposit room holding a large business checkbook – the briefcase was a much better choice, but a clear give away – quickly put the money in the checkbook, then go directly to the vault and put it back where it belonged.  This was exactly how he’d taken the money in the first place, except in reverse.  Well, it worked before and with any luck it would work again.  In and out, thought Abe, no fuss, no muss.  
            It was still three hours until lunch and the time just wouldn’t go.  He’d think that fifteen minutes had elapsed, look at his watch and see that it was only five minutes.  The anxiety was killing him.
            A blessed hour and a half was killed convincing an eager-beaver 28-year-old blond kid who was starting a skateboard and mountain bike store to open a business bank account.  Abe sold him on the top-end deluxe business account, which Abe should have felt good about, and would have were he not dying inside.  The skateboard kid left the bank with temporary checks in his hand, ready to conquer the world.
            Cynically, or possibly even vengefully, Abe thought, poor schmuck, he’ll probably be out of business in a year.  90% of all new businesses fail.  Still, he had to admit that selling skateboards and mountain bikes did seem like a reasonably sound business idea in this day and age.  Kids loved that shit.  Kevin certainly did.
            With yet another hour to kill, Abe got on the internet and surfed Travelocity.  He checked out the prices of flights to Bolivia and Paraguay, countries he knew had no extradition treaties with the U.S., but were also such poverty-ridden third-world countries that his U.S. dollars would undoubtedly go a lot further, which was important since he’d have to live on this money for the rest of his life.  Luckily, he and Kelly and Kevin still had their passports from when they’d vacationed in Acapulco two years ago, right after he’d hit big on the dog races.  Man, I couldn’t miss that day.  Everything I bet was gold.  They’d stayed in a first-class hotel, sunbathed on the beach all day, then went out for expensive dinners every night.  It had  been idyllic; possibly the highlight of his entire marriage.  And that’s how it could be again.  If I take the money, that is.
But could he actually live in Bolivia or Paraguay?  Yes, the money would certainly go further, but they were still third-world shitholes.  And what about Kelly and Kevin?  Would they go along with this cockamamie scheme?  Abe shook his head dejectedly and thought, this’ll never work.  I just have to return the money, hope they pin the five grand on Mr. K – the poor son of a bitch – then pray it sticks.
            Glancing down at his watch for the hundredth time, he saw that it was 12:16.  Ready or not, it was time to go.  His heart began to race.
            Looking up, Abe surveyed the bank.  To his chagrin he found that it was utterly devoid of customers, so being clandestine would be nearly impossible.  But that didn’t really matter anymore because the time was now.  The tellers all seemed like they were caught up in their own tasks, and Ken was still on the phone.  
Go, baby, go.
            With the checkbook in his right hand and the keys in his left, Abe stood and exited his cubicle – purposefully, but not too fast.   Turning the corner around the cubicle’s partition, he  headed directly for the safety deposit room. Regular speed, no hurry. 
            Every one of his footsteps on the tile floor cracked like a gunshot, then echoed around the room. 
            At the safety deposit room door he realized that he needed to transfer the keys to his right hand and the checkbook to his left.  In the process of switching hands he managed to drop his key ring onto the floor.  The ten keys hit the tile with a deafening crash.  Abe winced.
            Simultaneously, the three tellers and Ken all turned and looked at him.  Abe didn’t look back.  So much for being clandestine.  He casually picked up the keys, threw a quick glance back and saw that everyone had returned to their own business.  With a sigh, Abe put the key in the lock, opened the door, went in and gently shut the door behind him.
            Setting the open checkbook on the counter in front of the boxes, Abe slid a stubby key into the safety deposit box’s lock, opened it, removed the drawer and set it beside the checkbook.  He opened the top of the box and there were the paper-banded packets of hundred dollar bills –
eighteen of them, each containing 50 bills, plus one half packet from which he’d already taken (and blown) five grand.  Abe hastily transferred the packets into the checkbook, lining them up in two columns, two layers thick.  He closed the box, returned it to its slot, locked the door, removed his keys and put them in his pants pocket.  Closing the checkbook over the money, he picked it up with both hands making sure to keep it perfectly level so that the money didn’t slide out the sides. 
            Abe stepped up to the door.  He now had to balance the checkbook in one hand while turning the doorknob with the other.  He whispered, “OK, here we go.”  
            Turning the doorknob he stepped out of the safety deposit room with the checkbook sitting on his left hand like a pizza.  He turned, looked up and found that he was face to face with Mr. K.
            “How’s it going Abe?” Mr. K inquired.
            “Fine,” replied Abe flatly, firmly taking hold of the checkbook with both hands – the packets of bills clearly visible through both sides – which he then slowly lowered down to waist level.
            Nodding absently, Mr. K said, “That’s good.”
            Mr. K stood directly between Abe and the vault room door, and he didn’t seem like he was going anywhere, either.  He just stood there frowning, looking troubled.
            “Are you happy hear at Oakland Savings?” 
            Oh, Christ!  What the hell was this about?  The checkbook was starting to feel like a lead weight.  Keeping it perfectly level was making his arms hurt and his hands shake.
            “Very happy,” said Abe.
            “We’re very happy with you, too.  You do fine work.”
            “Thank you, sir.”
            “You’re the senior assistant manager, Abe, so say I retired or got sick, you’d have to take  my place.  You ever thought about that?”
            Abe sighed.  “Quite frankly, no.”
            “Maybe you should – not that I’m going anywhere, mind you – but it could happen.  Anything’s possible?”
            “Sure, I see what you’re saying.”
            Mr. K pointed at Abe’s chest.  “You’ve got to be prepared for all eventualities.”
            “Right.  Of course.”  What the hell is wrong with this guy?  The stress of his personal problems must be killing him.
            Mr. K asked, “You going to lunch now?”
            “In a minute.  I still have some things to do.”
            “Do it later.  Go to lunch.  Take a break.”
            “Let me just set this stuff down.”  
            Abe calmly walked past Mr. K, turned the corner around the partition, then went into his cubicle disappearing from view.
            Mr. K just stood there staring down at the floor, directly outside the vault room.  Speaking aloud to no one, he said, “I think I’ll skip lunch today.”  He turned absently, slowly walking back to his office.
            Abe set the checkbook on his desk and sat down.  Well, at least I got this far.  But could he possibly chance going into the vault room?  With Mr. K now sitting at his desk watching everything from his glass enclosed office?  No way.  Fate had intervened and was now forcing him to steal – and that was the word, steal – $95,000.  No, $100,000.  He’d already stolen $5,000.
            Oh well.  Paraguay here I come.
            He put his briefcase on his lap, opened it, lining up the edge of the open briefcase with the edge of the desk, directly below the fat checkbook.  Tipping the checkbook toward himself, all of the money slid out – some of it going in the briefcase, most of it missing the briefcase entirely and falling to the floor.   
            Abe closed his eyes.  This can’t be happening.
            Abe lowered the briefcase to the floor, waited a second, then quickly backed his chair out, bent down, picked up the money and put it in the briefcase.  Closing the briefcase, Abe sat up straight, slowly spinning around in his chair.
            There were customers at both open teller’s windows, as well as cars lined up at the drive- up window – all the tellers were occupied.   Abe looked left and saw that Ken’s cubicle was empty, meaning he’d gone to lunch.  Abe looked right and saw Mr. K seated in his office, blankly staring straight ahead, so there was absolutely no way of getting to the vault room without him seeing.  Since Mr. K had just seen him come out of the safety deposit room, there was now no possibility of returning the money to the vault.  Like it or not, the money was his and now he had to get the hell out of there, ASAP.
            Abe stood holding the briefcase and exited his cubicle.  At a calm pace he crossed the bank’s lobby.  Waving his hand, he said, “Goin’ to lunch.”
            None of the tellers paid the slightest bit of attention, nor did any of them respond.  When he got to the door he threw one last glance over his shoulder and saw that no one was looking.  He opened the door and left the bank.
            As he stepped outside he took a deep breath of fresh air.  That was close.  But I made it.  As he walked across the parking lot a car pulled in directly in front of him and parked.   It was Ken’s car and he was obviously just returning from lunch.  Ken got out of the car and walked straight toward Abe.
            Son of a bitch! thought Abe in disbelief.  I can’t get out of here.
            Abe maintained his pace, waved and said, “Ken,” fully intending to walk on by.
            Ken raised his hand like he was going to wave and let Abe pass, but instead said, “Hang on.”
            Abe stopped.  This is a bloody nightmare.
            Ken looked around making sure they weren’t overheard.  “Has Mr. K been acting strange to you lately?”
            “Um . . . sort of.”
            “That’s what I thought.  What do you think it is?” 
            “I think it’s personal problems.  Something with his wife or kids.”  Now the briefcase weighed a hundred pounds.
            “Y’think?  That never occurred to me.”
            “What did you think it is?”
            “Something to do with the bank.  Maybe something to do with me, like he doesn’t like the way I do my job.  He’s much friendlier to you than to me.”
            It was true, too.  “Look.  I saw him on his cell phone in his office, not the business line, and he looked upset.  Like he was getting a load of shit from his wife or something.  Maybe his wife wants a divorce.”
            “Really?  I saw you two talking earlier.  Did he mention it?”
            “Then what were you talking about?
            “Nothing.  Bullshit.”  He really didn’t want to go into it.  “Hey, I gotta go to lunch, I’m starving and I haven’t got much time.”
            “Right,” said Ken, “we’ll talk later.”
            “Yeah, right, after lunch, OK?”
            “Sure.”  Ken continued past heading into the bank.
            Abe got into his car, shut the door, immediately putting the briefcase behind the passenger seat on the floor.  He started the car, put it in gear, drove out of the bank parking lot and up the street.  Stopping at the traffic light Abe finally let go.
            “Holy shit, I did it! I fuckin’-A did it!”

            Abe’s burgundy Concorde pulled up in front of his house, coming to a stop at the curb across the street.  He avoided the driveway because Kelly might be home and see him, since she occasionally came home for lunch from the manicure shop where she worked.  If it wasn’t for her paltry income they wouldn’t be able to eat.  Well, they’d eat all the tacos they could hold once they got down in Paraguay, or Bolivia, or wherever.
            Abe got out of the car holding the briefcase.  He calmly crossed the street and walked up the driveway of his house.  The garage door was closed so he couldn’t tell if Kelly was home or not.  He glanced at the front windows and didn’t see her.  Going past the front of the garage, he followed the narrow sidewalk that ran along the side of the house, then went into the garage through its back door.
            There was Kelly’s car; she was home.  No problem, I’ll just have to be extra quiet.
            Crossing to the workbench, Abe set the briefcase down and opened it.  He then opened a red toolbox and removed the tray.  Grabbing handfuls of money packets, he quickly put them in the toolbox, replaced the tray, closed the toolbox, clasped it shut and slid it behind two other toolboxes.
            As Abe walked steadfastly down the driveway holding his briefcase, he glanced back at the house and there was Kelly in the living room window.  As he crossed the street he looked back again and saw Kelly crossing the living room toward the front door.  Son of a bitch!
            He got in the car, shut the door, looked back again and saw Kelly come out the front door.  He started the engine, slammed it in gear, punched it and got the hell out of there.
Kelly looked confused standing in the middle of the street watching Abe’s car drive away.  However, in just a short moment, her perplexity transformed into pure disappointment.  It didn’t matter what kind of shit Abe was pulling now, it couldn’t possibly be good.  With defeat etched permanently into the lines on her face, Kelly turned and walked wearily back inside the house.
            Abe turned the corner out of his subdivision going a bit too fast.  His tires skid on the gravel, then burned rubber with a screech as the car straightened out.  “Goddamnit!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.  “How many ways can this thing screw up?”  He paused for a second, then grinned widely.  “Except I pulled it off.  And so far so good.  What Kelly thinks about what she just saw doesn’t matter at all.”
            Since it was Friday, Abe was reasonably sure that nobody would figure this whole thing out until at least the end of the day Monday.  The remainder of Abe’s plan was to go back to work and act like everything was normal.  Then he would have the whole weekend to set the rest of his plan in motion, which was either he and Kelly and Kevin left the country, or just him.  In any event, leaving the country was now his only choice.  If Kelly and Kevin agreed to go with him, which seemed highly doubtful, they’d all pack their bags and split.  If they didn’t agree to go, then the hell with them.  One way or another, he was getting out of the country.  I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to prison, that’s for damn sure! 
            Coming through the back entrance, Abe drove into the bank’s rear parking lot, then circled the building toward the front parking lot.  As he came around the corner, to his heart-stopping horror he saw the worst sight he could possibly see – three black, unmarked police cars parked in front of the bank, each with lights in their back windows flashing red and blue.  Standing outside the bank were three men in dark suits with pistols on their belts and wires running into their ears.  This isn’t possible, thought Abe incredulously.  How could it all come down so fast? They’ve been on to me from the beginning, from when I first took the money.   Really am the unluckiest son of bitch in the whole goddamn universe!
            One of the men in black saw Abe’s car and immediately approached.  Abe took a deep breath, girding himself for impending doom.  The man stepped up to Abe’s window, bent down, looked at Abe, then gently tapped his finger on the glass.
            Lowering the window, Abe asked innocently, “What’s going on?”
            The man flashed a badge in a wallet.  “Treasury Agent Harrington.  Who are you?”
            “Abe Salvadino.  I’m the assistant manager here.”
            “Right,” said Agent Harrington, “we’ve been expecting you.  Please come inside.”  He pushed a button on his lapel and whispered, “Salvadino coming in.”
            Stiffly, Abe got out of his car.  They’re expecting me?  Salvadino coming in?  Holy, shit!  I am so screwed!  I’m going to federal prison for the rest of my life. 
Agent Harrington escorted Abe into the bank.  Inside were three more treasury agents, all attired in the same black garb.  One of the agents was interviewing the three tellers and Ken, the other two were in Mr. K’s office speaking to him.
            Abe was taken into Ken’s cubicle.  The agent brought in a second chair, then pointed at Ken’s chair.  “Please sit down, Mr. Salvadino.”
Abe sat down.  Agent Harrington sat down facing Abe, then slid his chair forward until they were knee to knee.
            Looking Abe straight in the eye, Agent Harrington asked, “You know what’s going on here?”
            Abe shook his head.  “No.”
            “Money is missing from the bank.  A lot of it.”
            “Yes,” said Agent Harrington.  “Really.  Know anything about it?”
            Abe shrugged.  “Not ‘til right now.”
            “Uh-huh.”  Agent Harrington leaned forward until his face was eight inches from Abe’s. He stared right into Abe’s eyes.  Abe stared right back.  The poker face.
            “We’ve been talking to Mr. Kielczyowski.”
            “Yeah?” said Abe.  “What did he have to say?”
            “Quite a lot, actually.”
            Agent Harrington frowned, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.  “Your boss is in a lot of trouble.”
            Abe couldn’t believe his ears.
            “Excuse me?”
            “Your boss,” repeated Harrington.  “He’s in big trouble.”
            “Why?  What’d he do?”
            “He embezzled over a million dollars, that’s what he did.  Didn’t you notice anything out of the ordinary going on?”
            Abe thought for a moment, then said, “No.”
            “Well . . .”
            Agent Harrington suddenly looked interested.  “What?”
            “Mr. K – that’s what we call him – has made a lot of mathematical errors lately.  Way more than usual.  You see, it’s my job to catch them.”
            “Errors that could potentially hide the theft of a lot of money?”
            “Possibly.  All his mistakes were always adding extra zeroes onto numbers.  Now I know we never do a hundred thousand dollars worth of transactions in a day – we generally do more like ten to fifteen thousand – so if it has that sixth figure, I know it’s wrong and correct it.”
            “And you’ve still got the documents showing the uncorrected mistakes?”
            “Of course.”
            “Could you show them to me?”
            Abe and Agent Harrington stood and left Ken’s cubicle.

            A few minutes later, as Abe was escorted over to stand beside the tellers and Ken, he thought, Mr. K, you sneaky son of a bitch.  While I was stealing pennies, you were stealing a fortune.  Greedy bastard.  See what you get.
            The agent interviewing the group of employees turned to Abe.  “So, personally, what did you think of your boss, whose name I can’t pronounce?”
            What did I think of my boss?  Jesus, they’re already referring to the poor slob in the past tense.  Abe said, “Mr. Kielczywoski?  He’s a very nice guy, and a good boss.  I like him a lot.”
            The agent wrote it all down and said, “For such a nice guy he sure stole a lot of money.” 
            Handcuffed, his head bent in disgrace, Mr. K was brought out of his office by two agents. He was then paraded in shame past all of the other employees of the bank.  In silence, Abe, Ken and the three tellers watched their boss go by.  Mr. Kielczyowski didn’t look up as he was taken out of the bank.
            Ken turned to Abe and said, “I guess you’re the manager now.”

            Abe entered his house and hollered, “Kelly?”
            “I’m in the family room,” she hollered back.
            Abe strode into the family room to find Kelly folding laundry in front of the TV.  She looked at Abe oddly.
            “I saw you this afternoon walking down the driveway holding a briefcase.  What was that about?”
            Beaming, Abe stepped up to her, yanked the towel she was folding out of her hands, tossed it in the pile of unfolded clothes, then took his wife in his arms and hugged her tightly.  Kelly looked completely confused.
            “What’s going on?”
            Abe said, “Honey, how would you like to go to the Bahamas?  We could just lie on the beach, drink Mai Tais, and get a tan.”
            Kelly pulled back and looked Abe in the eye.  “You won?”
            Abe nodded and grinned.  “Finally.”