The gift that keeps on giving sometimes gives you a little more than you bargained for.
Pongo Smith’s adrenaline could have burst a fire hose. The cash wouldn’t stop gushing. He had to keep pulling bills from the slot to make room for the ATM to feed new ones. Then his sluggish brain kicked in. This is too good to be true. He felt a blast of fear as cold as the snow-packed slopes that surrounded the Indian casino. He knew the eye in the sky was watching so he took a deep breath and tried to appear relaxed, hoping whatever video feed he was on wasn’t being monitored. But he couldn’t resist looking around to make sure he wasn’t being watched by anyone else. He didn’t see anyone looking his way. No widened eyes, no suddenly averted gazes.
Pongo tightened the drawcord hem of his Billabong Snowboard jacket to seal it around his narrow waist, then zipped it halfway up and jammed the mess of hundred-dollar bills inside against his stomach. Two of the Benjamins escaped, fluttering to the floor. Pongo snapped them up with the speed of a frog’s tongue.
Was he on some sort of hidden camera reality show? Was he an unwitting sucker in a money laundering scam, headed for a mugging as soon as he hit the casino parking lot? Or was this simply a demented ATM?
He’d only had two hundred-eighty-seven bucks to his name when he’d tried the first withdrawal. And he’d only requested a hundred. But the damned thing had seemed to spit out a C-note for every dollar he’d requested. That comes to … uh … It took him a while to slog through the zeros. Ten grand!
Pongo was ecstatic. He reinserted his ATM card and punched in his PIN to try another withdrawal. He should only have a hundred-eighty-seven bucks in his account if the ATM had recorded the previous transaction as he’d entered it. Or negative ten grand if it had recorded how much it had actually spat out. But his account still read two-eighty-seven. The ten grand had not registered at all. Pongo’s adrenaline began to spike anew.
He requested two hundred dollars this time. His finger trembled when he hit the submit button. He had a powerful urge to look around again but he was afraid of attracting the attention of Casino security, so he bit down on his tongue to force calm.
Even before this runaway ATM, he’d been nervous at the Inn of the Mountain Gods because he’d checked in with a Mastercard that had a better-than-even chance of being confiscated. Any day now, his account was destined to be tossed into the slavering maw of a collection agency.
And collectors made Pongo sick to his stomach. His old man–forced by a low IQ and a piss-poor education to take whatever shitty job he could find–had been a collector. Every night, over dinner, he would regale the family with tales of his day’s work and inevitably reduce them all to tears. Pongo’s father had eventually escaped collections by hanging himself with a phone cord. Pongo often wondered if his own life was headed down the same path. He, too, had neither finished high school nor been expected to.
The ATM’s rhythmic money count shook him from his reverie. The slot door clacked open and bills quickly stacked. Pongo had to move fast to keep them from jamming the narrow mouth of the machine. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. In all of his twenty-four years, he’d never won so much as a free ringtone, yet here he was, stuffing another two hundred hundreds inside his jacket. Before ejecting his card he checked his balance again. Still two eighty-seven.
What the hell, he’d go for the max. He reinserted the lame-duck Mastercard and requested the maximum withdrawal of six hundred dollars. Despite having nowhere near six hundred dollars in his account, the withdrawal was approved and the machine started counting. The process seemed to take for blessed ever and Pongo hoped it would never end. He steeled himself to collect the bills and did his best to block the cash slot from view as he raked the six hundred Cs into his belly-stash. Ninety grand coughed up by one ATM in less than ten minutes! What are the odds?
Pongo silently thanked God for His bounty. Or gods, as the case may be, seeing as how he was in Mescalero Apache territory. These Indians had to be Trump-rich to build this ginormous ski resort. And now, somehow, Pongo was sharing the wealth, as if he’d been inducted into the tribe. He felt like doing an Apache victory dance.
Pongo sensed eyes on his back. He turned to see two good-looking babes laughing at him, like the girls used to in high school. He’d always hated that but at least in high school they’d had reason; he’d been a doofus. These girls didn’t even know him. It finally occurred to him that the cash in his jacket was making him look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Burning with embarrassment, he slunk off to his room to disgorge the booty. Now that he was rich he’d make sure no girl ever ridiculed him again.
He got out of the elevator on the third floor and scanned the corridor. It looked disturbingly long and narrow, as if he were peering down the floral-wallpapered throat of a boa constrictor. Pongo held his breath and speed-walked to his room. On the way, he passed a housekeeping cart and swiped a half-dozen pillowcases.
His hands shook as he ran his keycard through the lock. The light blinked red. He wiped his brow with his forearm and it came away wet. He tried the key again and again it flashed red. He looked around for a place to stash the money in case he had to call Security to get into his room.
Unless Security already knew. Maybe they’d disabled his lock to trap him in the hall. He looked up and down the corridor to form an escape plan. In either direction, there was nothing but a long string of locked doors. He was boxed in. No escape. Fear gripped him, the tension making his muscles ache like a bad flu.
He excitement just fed his rising panic as he swiped the lock again and again like a maniac. Red. Red. Red. Red. He wiped his brow again and his forearm came away drenched. The sweat splattered his jacket and dripped across his hand into the key slot. He wondered if the sweat of his brow would change his luck as he lowered the card for what felt like the hundredth swipe. Red.
Pongo tried to think, but his brain was blinking red as well. He stared at the door. Three fifty-five. Series. By twos. His room was a series. Three five five wasn’t. Shit! He moved to three five seven and tried his key card. Green! Tonight’s lucky color! He felt like someone had pricked his tension balloon with a pin.
He opened the door and entered his room. He’d gotten away with it! He felt like throwing open the windows and taking a huge breath of fresh air only the windows didn’t open so he settled for a lungful of A/C.
Pongo hung out the Do Not Disturb sign before closing the door and securing the night latch. The belly of his jacket bulged like he was nine months’ pregnant.
He uncinched his waist cord and let the cash flow out of him onto the bed, as if he were giving birth to it. He had to push piles of money toward the head of the bed to make room for it all. The result was like a high pile of autumn leaves except prettier. The last thing of beauty he’d seen on that bed had been the Rasta chick with the round ass from Milwaukee who he’d picked up on the slopes after acing the semis to qualify for yesterday’s finals. He was surprised to find himself thinking about her at a moment like this. She was just a trophy lay, after all. But she’d been full of surprises.
Still, no matter how great the sex had been it was no way as orgasmic as a haystack of money. Pongo was back in the present, having a mental climax. In a seizure of joy, he dove on top of the green pile. He almost puked from the sour, sickly smell of the cash. Pongo jumped off the bed, brushing hundreds off his body like they were leeches. He envisioned these bills being passed through thousands of filthy hands: meat packers, fish gutters, morgue attendants, sump pumpers, peep show janitors, open-sored junkies, yuck. He flashed on his Sunday school teacher condemning “filthy lucre” when he was a kid. He finally understood what it meant.
He went into the bathroom and tried to scrub the smell off his face.
When he returned, he considered the pile of money. It was physically repulsive but so what? Is that any reason not to love it?
Grabbing a pillowcase, he started stuffing it with cash. He glanced at his scarred, worn Sector Nine snowboard leaning against the wall. So 2007. He could finally replace the old jalopy with that four-hundred-dollar K2 he’d been drooling over for six months.
After the third pillowcase, Pongo went into the bathroom and stared into the Apache basket-weave-framed mirror. The last time he’d looked he’d seen crystal-blue eyes that had lost their luster. He’d thought the blond ponytail looked juvenile and the whole effect was generally depressing and unattractive.
But that was before the miracle. Now he looked aglow with the aura of wealth. His eyes were on fire, blue fire, like the bottom of a gas flame. He thought his ponytail made him look like a younger Ben Franklin, except with a stoner grin and a smaller nose. He smiled at the thought of his image on a hundred-dollar bill.
It didn’t surprise him that he looked better now than he had before. The last time he’d checked a mirror, namely about an hour earlier, he’d been homeless, having run out on his landlord owing fifteen-hundred bucks’ back rent. He’d been loveless, having finally proposed to his girlfriend of two years only to be ridiculed for even dreaming she’d ever marry a dumb loser like him. Then she’d moved in that night with a chef she’d been fucking, as if running a Spam Sushi food truck made him such a hot shit genius.
Pongo had been unemployed with no immediate prospects for work and no skills beyond snowboarding and passable surfing. He’d tried pro snowboarding but just wasn’t born with the requisite aerial chops. And the academic world–snowboard instructing–was small and competitive. It took years to claw your way to the top for that brass ring of eighteen bucks an hour. With only two hundred eighty-seven dollars in the bank, he’d been moments away from the gutter.
But now he had enough money to cure all of his woes. He could pay off the landlord, quit looking for work and buy a new girlfriend. As far as Pongo was concerned, his troubles were over.
Especially if he did just one more run.
He threw on his jacket and headed downstairs. He felt like he was on top of things for the first time in his life, or maybe second if you count that time he landed his first triple flip. Sadly, his only triple flip. If he’d landed one yesterday he might have taken the bronze instead of the bruise. But fuck it! He could buy a triple flip now. His future was hanging a Uey.
By the end of the night he’d emptied three ATMs and had somewhere in the neighborhood–using a good GPS–of a million dollars in hundred dollar bills, now piled high on the king-size bed despite the eight pillowcases he’d already stuffed. How the hell was he going to get this cash out of here?
He whipped out his iPhone to Google the weight of a million dollars. If he hadn’t been in a hurry, he would have figured it out on paper, just for the fun of it. He was proud of the fact that he’d never once failed algebra, not even a quiz. And he’d gone all the way from Algebra I through II. He leaned on this achievement to prop up his ego whenever someone questioned his IQ, which was annoyingly frequent. He couldn’t understand why. When dope dealers accidentally tried to rip him off because they couldn’t do the multiplication, it was his knack for math that set them straight. But his so-called friends still called him Dumbo instead of Pongo. Maybe now that he had some cash, he could buy the respect he deserved.
His research revealed that a million in hundreds only weighs twenty-two pounds, so he was good on weight, but volume was another matter. If the bills are crisp and new and machine-packed, they’d still take up four cubic feet. Pongo figured he’d have to add at least one more cubic foot to make up for crinkled bills and sloppy packing since he had the feeling he didn’t have time to stack it all neatly before someone figured out it was missing. He doubted he could stuff that much in the trunk of his car, even if it were empty.
This was a problem because he wanted to get the hell off the Reservation. It was crawling with greedy drunks who’d gladly kill for that pile of money, be they Apaches, professional gamblers, tourists or tribal cops. Pongo imagined a tomahawk splitting his skull and peeling his scalp.
No. He couldn’t afford any downer thoughts right now. He threw his hands over his ears and started humming Achy Breaky Heart–his favorite song when he was fifteen. Drown out the negativity, just like that Rasta chick taught him. She definitely had something going on. Maybe he should call her again.
He forced himself to think about his soon-to-be new K2 Happy Hour snowboard and new Subaru WRX and a rented chopper to take him and his friends to the ends of the earth. He’d pop the cherries of virgin mountains, lay tracks where man has never laid before. Maybe bring the Rasta chick along for the ride.
The sound echoed through the room like a shotgun blast. His eyes swung to the door, which was shaped like the entrance to a wigwam, and his stomach suddenly felt like it was being sucked into his intestines. He’d flown off hundred-foot dead-drop cliffs with nothing more than a fat stick between him and death but he’d never felt fear like this. He imagined the corridor lined with tribal cops in flak jackets, automatic weapons drawn. Did they know he was in the room? Or were they just searching for him in the most likely places?
Pongo started shaking like a fly hitting a web. He quietly tipped an overstuffed club chair, pulled his precious Swiss Army Snowboard knife from his pocket, and sliced through the thin fabric beneath the chair. Pulling out a few large wads of stuffing, he replaced them with a pillowcase full of cash. If the cops or security or whoever the hell they were took the rest, he might still get away with the one or two hundred grand in the chair. That would be enough for him to move on.
Another knock and then a voice said, “Hello?”
It was a surprising voice, not the Apache hotel dick ex-commando cigar-riven voice he’d expected. It was a woman’s voice, and it was sultry.
He set the chair back upright and hid the excess stuffing under the mattress. Then he threw the blanket over the pile on the bed.
She knocked again. “I know you’re in there.”
“What do you want?” he asked in a quavering voice, as if he’d just heard her for the first time.
“You, baby. It’s your lucky day.”
He squinted through the spyhole and his heart popped a rivet. It was the redhead MILF he’d tried to pick up in the bar last night. She’d claimed she was too tired to party, which he’d taken as a reaction to his miserable showing in the finals. But she’d scribbled his room number on a napkin anyway, just in case she changed her mind, she’d said. And here she was, decked out in a black cocktail dress that showed off some world-class cleavage, though he assumed it was engineered by some serious underwire, considering how she had to be fifteen, twenty years older than he. Not that he had a problem with that. Older chicks were kinky. They liked to do stuff younger chicks found gross, the kind of stuff Pongo had only seen in pornos but couldn’t get out of his mind. Maybe that ATM was just the beginning. Maybe this was his lucky day.
He felt a stiffy coming on and reached toward the door but then paranoia stepped in. What if the cops were using this chick to lure him out of his room so they could get the drop on him? Could they arrest him? Had he done anything illegal? This gave him pause. After all, he wasn’t stealing anything, the machine was broken. It was like finding money in the street. Wasn’t it finders keepers?
“This isn’t a good time,” he said in a voice that he hoped would sound hostile but just came out loud
“I thought you wanted to party? You’re not going to make me beg for it, are you?” Jesus! She was offering it up on a platter.
The thought struck him that she was coming on pretty strong. Could she be a hooker? She was certainly hot enough. What if she was trolling for work? Did he care? He was rolling in disposable income. His newfound luck was making him horny and now the solution to that problem had landed on his doorstep.
He considered the risk. At her age, she wasn’t going to pack much of a punch. And she couldn’t weigh more than one-ten. He was an athlete with a good forty pounds on this cougar. He could take her with one hand tied behind his back if he had to. Why not have some fun and send her home happy? He checked the bed to double-check that the money was covered, then he tossed his backpack on top of it to make the other bed their logical destination.
Pongo broke into a lascivious grin and opened the door to wave her in. The woman sashayed into the room like a sex goddess and kicked the door closed behind her with her high heel.
“That’s better,” she said and put her hands on his chest. Her touch was electric. He reached around to grab her ass and she shoved him hard, sending him sprawling backwards onto the floor.
“Shut up!” she said.
He liked the way she said it, like she was playing dominatrix. The image of her wearing a strap-on flashed through his mind. He’d never tried that before and wasn’t sure he wanted to. But this chick made him feel like he was about to go places he’d never been.
Then she yanked the bedding off the cash, sending his backpack flying, and wolf-whistled at the sight of the pile.
Reality finally kicked him in the ass: this babe had no interest in him; she was after the money. How the hell had she found out?
“I’m calling security,” he said.
“Bullshit.” She grabbed a handful of cash and tossed it in the air, just to watch it fall.
“Don’t touch that!” He picked up the phone. “I’m counting to three.”
“Do I look like a six-year-old? I saw you take the money. I want my half.”
“No way. I don’t even know you.”
“So I don’t just up and give money to strangers.”
“Fine.” She pulled a stiletto from her purse and snapped it open. “I’ll take it all.”
Pongo was hypnotized by the blade gleamed under the overhead light. It was long and sharp and a lot more lethal than his snowboard knife. His knife featured built-in tools to adjust his bindings, not to draw blood. The thought of sticking it into a person repelled him. Yet she looked like she wouldn’t give it a second thought. She oozed danger like no woman he’d ever met. He was scared shitless, but that just stoked his hormones, like carving the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. This chick was sizzling, even if she was trying to rip him off.
“You’re not going to shiv me with that blade so what’s the point?”
“The point is, you’re not worth a nickel to me so why would I let you stand between me and all that money when I can just kill you? It’s simple logic.”
“That is faulty logic, dude. Totally faulty. There’s plenty here for both of us. We just have to figure out a fair split, that’s all.”
“The one who walks out alive gets it all. That sounds like a fair split to me.”
“Man, you really need to chill. That kind of thinking can get you killed on a mountain like this. And what’s with the stiletto, by the way. That is so West Side Story.” He couldn’t resist the reference; he’d been a Jet in his middle school production with a stiletto that sprang a plastic comb instead of a blade.
Hers was no toy. She extended the blade just inches from him his eyes, sprinkling light from the faux crystal ceiling lamp onto his face. She slowly circumnavigated his head, tracing a circle in the air with the tip of the knife.
“Stilettos are weapons for rhinestone cowgirls, is that what you mean?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“You sexist pig. You want to see what it feels like to be sliced open by a wussy blade? Is that how you’re gonna guard your precious cash? By trying to demean my womanhood?”
It was beginning to dawn on Pongo that this chick may not be a reasonable person. Hookers were not notorious for their emotional stability. Maybe logic wasn’t his best bet.
“I was just trying to be friendly, okay?” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend your precious little stiletto. Didn’t even know it had feelings. Bottom line: you’re not going to use it on me and we both know it.”
When she didn’t respond Pongo started to sweat. “Right?” he asked.
She coughed out a laugh and he pounced for the knife, imagining the pain of it slicing his fingers off. But he caught her by surprise and she jumped back, dropping the knife on the floor. He swept it up victoriously.
“Who’s got the knife now, bitch?” he said.
“You do,” she said, pulling a gun from her purse. The feeling that she was a dangerous woman returned in rolling waves of nausea. This was the first gun barrel he’d ever looked down, and the experience was not cool.
“You are dealing some extremely serious blows to your hotness,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it. A girl hates to use her service revolver on an admirer.”
The words echoed around in the winding canyons of his brain. Service revolver? “You’re a cop?” he asked incredulously.
“I’d tell you but I’d have to kill you. Yes, I’m a cop. Whoops.”
“Cops don’t just go around killing people.”
“For a million dollars?” She lowered her voice to a sexy purr. “I can be a very dirty cop.”
He didn’t appreciate the joke. “You need my help,” he said.
“You don’t seem to understand. You know I’m a cop. I can’t take that money and let you live. It’s that simple.”
“It’s, like, way far from simple. How are you going to get all that cash out of here? You can’t exactly stuff it in your little hooker purse.”
“Getting the money out of here is a solution, not a problem.,” she said. “I’m in hock to some very ugly people. At least I was until you came along.”
She thumbed off the safety on her revolver and clicked back the hammer.
Sweat poured off him now, despite the frigid air conditioning.
“Take the money,” he said. “Leave me a couple grand walking money and I’m out of here like we never met. I swear to God. You’ll be home free: no clean up, no noise, no worry about getting caught, no electric chair.”
“They haven’t used the chair in decades,” she said.
“Whatever. You’re taking a big chance shooting me. It’s totally unnecessary.”
“I don’t see it as being all that risky. See, I work security here when I’m off-duty. I was at my post when I saw you palm a hundred dollar chip off the blackjack table. So I tailed you to your room. I checked with the front desk to ID you–they’ll verify that–then I knocked on your door. You invited me in, then turned on me with that girly stiletto in your hand. I had to shoot in self-defense. It was me or you.”
He looked down at the stiletto and wondered if it was smarter to toss it aside or hold onto it. He decided to wipe it with his shirt to clean off his prints.
“Don’t bother,” she said. “I’ll just put them back after you’re dead.”
“You still have to get the money out of here. That’ll be a lot easier with two of us.”
“I work undercover. I can become whatever I want to in pursuit of my job and right now I suspect drug dealing in our offsite laundry. Poof, I’m the delivery guy. I’ll just waltz out of here with that money in a canvas laundry bin.”
“How are you going to do that if someone reports gunfire? They’ll be here in seconds.”
She pulled a suppressor from her purse.
“You anticipate my every need, don’t you? You might have been a pretty good fuck.”
His hopes rallied. “You could still find out,” he said.
She laughed so hard, she couldn’t screw the suppressor on straight. “Is your dick as big as your ego? Because your brain isn’t even close.”
Fury blew through him like a gas explosion. “Fuck you! I passed Algebra!”
His words flew out by reflex, as did the knife. Her gun fired, launching the suppressor across the room. Pongo watched it bounce off the floor and lodge in the ceiling. It took him a moment to realize she’d been skewered by the stiletto, whose handle now protruded from her glorious cleavage. She dropped the gun. Her face was frozen in shock and he saw the gleam drain from her eyes as she collapsed onto the bed. Her blood started seeping onto the money making it look as horrid as it smelled.
He heard running footsteps in the hall, someone shouting about shots fired. He was trapped. Pongo stared at the gruesome corpse on the pile of filthy lucre. He’d just killed a cop. He did the math: at worst he’d spend the rest of his life in a maximum security penitentiary being serially raped. If he was lucky, they’d put him to death instead. Somehow, the best thing that ever happened to him had morphed into a total catastrophe.
His eye fell on the gun. As if in a trance he reached for it. It would be so easy to just put it in his mouth and carve his last trail.
“Security! Open up!” This time the voice met his expectations. Doom was pounding on his door.
Pongo looked out the window and saw the white snow on the rooftop below. So pure. So innocent. He lifted the gun and and closed his eyes, thinking luck don’t fail me now. Then he fired.
When Security came through the door they saw a shattered window and, beyond it, a lone figure on an old Sector Nine taking big air off the roof, doing a triple flip into the parking lot. And, damn, if he didn’t stick a perfect landing.
Craig Faustus Buck is a writer of many faces having been a journalist, a nonfiction book author, a television writer-producer, and a feature film screenwriter. He has published several short stories and is currently shopping his first novel, Go Down Hard, which was First Runner Up for the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville. TV credits include the original miniseries V: The Final Battle and the infamous episode where The Incredible Hulk drops acid. His indie feature film Smuggling for Gandhi goes into pre-production in November.