WHEN THE FIRST CHECK came in, Josh Redmont, who was then 27, 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 a1099 tax form. Every company is required to file for every person to whom they’d paid taxable income the preceding year. So he waited for it. He got the 1099 from the temp agency, and from two other very short-lived employers, but nothing form 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 that 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 mystery 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, who 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 fulltime mom until Jeremy entered nursery school at 4, 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.
© Donald Westlake 2003