|Money for Nothing
By Donald E. Westlake
Published by Mysterious Press
May 2003; 0-892-96787-0; 304 pages
WHEN THE FIRST CHECK came in, Josh Redmont, who was then twenty-seven, had no idea what it was for. The issuer name printed on the check was United States Agent, with an address of K Street NE, Washington, DC 04040, and the account was with Inter-Merchant Bank, also of Washington. The amount of the check was one thousand dollars.
Why? Josh had done two years in the army after college, but this didn't seem to have anything to do with the army. He was listed with a temp agency on Pine Street in downtown Manhattan that year, and so he asked Fred Stern, the guy he dealt with there, if the check had anything to do with them, and Fred assured him it did not. "We don't give you money just for fun," he said, which was certainly true.
But somebody did. Like most temps, Josh was financially shaky in those days, so he deposited the check into his checking account, partly just to see if it would clear, and it did. So he had an extra thousand dollars. Found money.
A month later, it happened again. Another check, another thousand dollars, same payer, same bank, same lack of covering letter or any other kind of explanation.
This time, Josh studied the check a little more intently, and saw there was a phone number under United States Agent's address, with the 202 area code for Washington, DC. So he called it. The phone rang and rang; no answer.
The next day, he called the number again, with the same results. The day after that, he deposited the check in his checking account, and it cleared. And a month later another one arrived.
Who was giving him all this money? A thousand dollars a month, regular as clockwork, the checks dated the first of each month, arriving in his mailbox between the third and the fifth. No explanation, never an answer at that telephone number. He thought about writing them a letter, but then he realized the address on the checks was incomplete. Where on K Street? Without a house number, he couldn't hope to send them a letter.
The checks had first appeared in August. In January, it occurred to him that the puzzle would soon have to be resolved because the United States Agent, whoever they were, would have to send him a 1099 tax form. So he waited for it. He got the 1099 from the temp agency, and from two other very short-term employers, but nothing from United States Agent. Would he get in trouble if he didn't declare the five thousand dollars? But how could he declare it without the 1099? And what would he declare it as? And was he rich enough to volunteer to pay extra tax if he didn't absolutely have to? He was not.
A year and a half later he moved, to a better apartment on the West Side, having graduated from the temp life to an actual job as an advertising salesman for a group of neighborhood newspapers in Manhattan and the Bronx. He was sorry the monthly thousand dollars would end. But he had no way to send them a forwarding address, did he? So that was that. Except that, the third of the following month, the check came in just the same, addressed to him at his new apartment. How had they done that? How had they known he'd moved? It was more than a little creepy.
If he hadn't been spending the money all along, he might have tried sending it back at that point, except he couldn't. He couldn't send the money back any more than he could write United States Agent a letter, not without more of an address than K Street NE. He considered writing RETURN TO SENDER on the envelope, but the envelope, too, bore that same incomplete address printed on its upper left corner. In the end, though he felt somewhat spooked, he deposited the check.
In the third year of the mysterious checks, he went to work as an account rep at Sewell-McConnell Advertising on the Cloudbank toilet paper account, and the following year he married Eve, whom he'd been dating off and on for three years and living with for four months. He didn't mention the checks to her--which followed him to their new apartment--neither before nor after the wedding, and he realized this must mean that, at some level, he felt guilty about taking the money. He hadn't done anything for it, he didn't deserve it, the checks merely kept coming in. And in not telling her, he doubled his guilt, because now he also felt guilty that he was keeping this secret. But he kept it anyway.
Which Eve made easier, it must be said, by having ceded to him exclusive control of their checking account, even though she'd lived and worked successfully on her own in New York City for five years before they'd gotten together.
Josh didn't need the thousand dollars a month by then, and had come to realize it wasn't very much money at all. Twelve thousand dollars a year; a nice supplement to his income, no more. And, of course, tax free.
The next year, when he and Eve had young Jeremy and she quit her clerical job with a cable network, planning to be a full-time mom until Jeremy entered nursery school at four, the annual twelve thousand became a bit more meaningful again, but by that time it was simply a part of his life, the check that came in every month, year after year, as natural as breathing. He had stopped telling himself he didn't deserve it, because if it came in so steadily, every single month, with no complaints, no demands made against him, maybe he did deserve it.
It was July fifteenth, a hot sunny Friday afternoon, and Josh was seated at the ferry terminal in Bay Shore, waiting for the ferry to take him over to Fire Island, where he and Eve had rented a small house for the month. She and Jeremy were out there full time, Josh spending long weekends. Jeremy was two, and on August first the checks would have been coming in for a full seven years, crossing with Josh into the new millennium. Josh was secure enough in his job at the ad agency now to be able to take off Friday afternoons and Monday mornings, which meant he never had to ride the extremely crowded ferries packed with those whose weekends were shorter; the Daddy Boat on Friday evening, the Goodbye Daddy Boat on Sunday evening, or the so-called Death Boat at six-thirty Monday morning.
There were only thirty or forty people in the shade of the roofed dock, seated on the long benches waiting for the ferry, none of them anyone Josh knew. Then a man came over and sat down beside him and smiled and said, "Hello."
"Hi," Josh said, and looked away. Most people didn't speak to strangers out here, and Josh agreed with them. The man kept smiling at Josh. He was about forty, olive-skinned, fleshy-faced but muscular, with thick curly black hair. He was in chinos and a polo shirt and sneakers, like everybody else. "I am from United States Agent," he said. Josh looked at him. Sudden dread clenched his stomach. His mouth was dry. He tried to speak, but couldn't.
The man leaned closer. "You are now active," he said.Copyright © 2003 Donald E. Westlake
Reprinted with permission.
Once a month they came in the mail. As regular as clockwork. Addressed to Josh Redmont. Issued by something called "United States Agent." Each check for the exact same amount: $1000. At first, Josh tried to find out if some mistake had been made. After a while, he simply accepted that for unknowable reasons some obscure, untraceable branch of the U.S. government was paying him $1000 a month.
A poor temp when the checks first appeared seven years ago, Josh has now become successful in his field, with a wife and child, a nice Upper West Side apartment, a summer rental on Fire Island-so the checks don't mean that much anymore. That is, until a smiling stranger approaches Josh with words that chill him to the spine: "I'm from United States Agent. You are now active."
Josh has been paid for a job that he now must do.a job that will turn out to be a growing horror for him, for his family, and possibly for all of us.(back to top)
Donald E. Westlake was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. After serving in the U.S. Air Force he began his writing career with The Mercenaries in 1960. He has written dozens of novels over the past thirty-five years, under his own name and a rainbow of pseudonyms (including Richard Stark), and has more than a million copies of his Mysterious Press books in print, as well as more than a million copies of his many titles in print around the world. Westlake has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, has been a recipient of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, and was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of The Grifters. He lives with his wife, the writer Abby Adams, in rural New York State.