Paid in Full
“Old bills,” I said. “I insist on that, they must be old bills.”
“Of course,” he murmured, smiling at me in that secretive way he affected. His face always looked hooded to me, remaining me of those blackout shields on automobile headlights in the war. With that face, with that smile, with that insinuating honeyed voice, no word he said could possibly sound sincere or truthful. But surely no one can lie all the time.
Most of what I knew of him I doubted. His name for instance, which he’d murmured was Sylvan Kelso, and which sounded too unlikely to be either the truth or a falsehood. His claimed feelings of friendliness for me, which I understood at once was artificial; I’ve had such buddies before, among insurance salesmen and candidates for minor political office. And the nation for which he claimed to be operating: Bulgaria! That couldn’t possibly be true.
The only truth of which I was sure was that he wished to buy from me what I was perfectly willing to sell. Willing, that is, if all my conditions were satisfactorily met, which is why we were meeting for the third time here in this dim bar in Arlington, not far from Chain Bridge.
“And small denomination,” I said to him now, as we sat crouched toward one another in the rear booth. “Nothing bigger than a twenty.”
“Ahh,” he said, “that will make a bulky package.”
“Not very,” I said. “Two packages, anyway. Half before, half after.”
“Your distrust, Mr. Stilmont,” he assured me in oiled tones, “is quite unnecessary.
“I’ve got to protect myself,” I told him.
“Of course you must. Certainly.”
“I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re liable to pull.”
He spread doughy hands. “Not a thing, Mr. Stilmont,” he said, “I do assure you. After all, why should I do anything to offend you? This is merely our first transaction.”
“Our only transaction,” I said, somewhat bitterly. “You know as well as I do there’s only the one valuable file I have access to. Once the deal is done, I’m sold out.”
“Temporarily, Mr. Stilmont. But surely in the future, as you climb the ladder of success in government employment, additional occasions will arise when we can be of…profitable service to one another.”
I was about to tell him the answer to that one was also no, but at the last second refrained. If Kelso really did think I might be useful again in the future, so much the better; it would make him less likely to double-cross me or make trouble for me.
But whether he knew the truth about me or not, I surely knew the truth about myself. I had climbed the ladder of success in government employment as far as the Civil Service system could carry me. I hovered at the edge of the executive level now, and here I would hover until retirement. In order to attain the upper ranks in government service, it is necessary to have either one of two things: superlative ability or political influence. I had neither.
Why do you suppose I’d undertaken this transaction in the first place? Do you think I’m a traitor, a spy? Do you think I’m here by choice? Let me tell you something that the progression o your own life has perhaps not yet demonstrated to you. Expenditures increase. Year by year, decade by decade, house by house, job by job, expenditures gradually but unceasingly increase. So long as income also increases–so long, in fact, as one continues to advance in one’s occupation–all is well. But when income levels off, when one has ceased to advance in one’s occupation, then, my friends, all is Hell.
I won’t blame my wife, I won’t blame my children, and I won’t even blame myself. I am the victim, perhaps, of nothing more willful or malicious than a natural law, as though I’d been struck down by a slow lightning bolt.
Be that as it may, the end result of these inexorable economics was my presence here for the third time in a grimy neighborhood tavern with the stout man who called himself Sylvan Kelso, whose assurances rang with such a tinny click, that I was constantly on the verge of throwing over the whole thing, rushing home, and struggling along without the forty thousand dollars.
Well. I went over the points once more in my mind: Old bills. Small denominations. “Oh, yes,” I said. “One thing more. The most important of all.”
Kelso smiled like drawings of the moon. “Merely state it, Mr. Stilmont,” he murmured.
“No counterfeits,” I said. “I’ve heard of that stunt, don’t think I haven’t, people being paid off in counterfeit money smuggled into the country. I worked in the Treasury Department three years and believe me you can’t pass any phony money on me.” My having worked in the Treasury Department was true, but it hardly made me an expert on counterfeit bills; I’d been a file clerk, nothing more. So far as I know, I’ve never so much as seen a counterfeit bill in all my life.
But I was relying on Kelso’s not knowing these details, and apparently he did not, for he smiled more moonlike than ever and said, “Not a chance of it, my dear Stilmont, not the slightest chance. That was a German trick anyway, we wouldn’t do anything of that sort.”
“I just want you to know,” I said, “that I’m keeping my eyes open.”
“As you certainly should,” he declared, thumping his fat palm on the table. “A cautious man is a delight to do business with.”
“All right, then,” I said. “Now, what about payment?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” he said, lowering his voice, leaning toward me, “when you leave work, walk to the south-east corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street. Near the corner, on the 12th Street side, there will be parked a black taxicab with red lettering. The numeral seven will appear directly beneath the handle of the right front door. Tha taxi will be driven by a woman wearing an unusual hat.”
“All taxis in Washington,” I said, overstating it slightly, “are driven by women wearing unusual hats.”
“Then concentrate on the numeral seven,” he said. “You will enter this taxi, you will say ‘Dumbarton House, please,’ and the taxi will start off, with you in it.”
I said, “Dumbarton House? Where’s Dumbarton House?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You won’t be going there. On the floor in back you will find an attache case containing the first half-payment and the camera, plus a typewritten sheet of directions for the camera’s use. You will, taking care not to be seen by passersby, assure yourself of the genuineness of the money, and that it appears in the proper amount, and then you will read the camera instructions until you are certain you can operate the camera correctly. You will then hand the instruction sheet to the driver, and tell her where you wish to be driven.”
“That’s all for tomorrow,” he said. “The next day, Friday, you will photograph the proper documents as agreed. Once again, after you leave work for the day, you will find the same taxicab waiting in the same place as before. You will enter it, bringing both the camera and the attache case in which you received your first payment. Now empty, of course. You will be driven to a place where the film may be verified, and then you will take your second payment and go on with your life as though nothing at all had occurred.”
“I want more detail about that last part,” I said. “Where I turn over the camera and get my second payment.”
“Certainly,” he said. “As soon as we order another round of drinks. Barkeep! Two more vodka martinis.”
I slept badly, awaking time after time from terrible dreams in which monsters chased me while I ran through walls of molasses, and at the breakfast table had to listen to a recital of unpaid bills. I drove to work as usual, left my car in its usual slot at the parking garage on E Street, and arrived at work with trembling hands and a splitting headache. All the gins of a hangover, one might say, except that I hadn’t drunk enough the night before to justify such strong symptoms. No, it wasn’t alcohol, it was worry and fear and doubt and shame and shaky determination.
A man does what he can with what he has. All I had of any value was one fairly unimportant national secret. That it was important enough to someone to earn me forty thousand dollars was my very good fortune, and I told myself again and again I’d be a fool to pass this by. Just once, in my lifetime, just once.
An apparently chance encounter had led me into all this in the first place, and of course it was not by chance, but a recital of its appearance and subsequent reality seems unnecessary here. Kelso contacted me, that is sufficient, and found in me someone willing to listen.
That day stretched like a taut rubber band, along which I crawled toward four-thirty an eternity away. Three times my duties took me near the cabinet in which the documents were filed. Harry, the archive guard, told me an unfunny joke about a bellydancer and an eel. We had known one another’s faces for years.
Four-thirty, at long last. I walked to Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street, found the cab, boarded it, was driven aimlessly around Washington while I checked and counted the money–all here, all old bills, all so beautiful to the eye and the hand–and while I familiarized myself with the camera. This camera gave the appearance of a cigarette lighter. It had to be held directly above the flat document, on which a strong light was to shine. The camera should be ten to twelve inches above the document. And so on.
“I’m done,” I said at last to the woman cabdriver in her unusual hat; berries and leaves, on black straw. “Take me to Universal Parking Garage at E Street.”
“The instruction sheet,” she said.
“Oh. Sorry.” I handed it to her, and she drove me to my car.
By the time I got home, the attache case was safely stashed in the trunk. Late that night, after my wife had gone to sleep, I went out to the garage and transferred the cash to my coffee cans. For several years I have saved Maxwell House coffee cans, piling them up on a shelf above my workbench, using a few of them to store nails and washers and whatnot, vaguely convinced I’ll be using the others for something eventually. Well, now was that eventually. Into the coffee cans went the twenty thousand dollars, and back into the trunk went the empty attache case.
The actual photographing of the documents was simplicity itself. I took the documents away to my office–Harry told me a racial joke–switched my desk lamp on, and took the pictures in quick succession, five of them. The documents were merely pages of figures, tabulations, specifications, dry as dirt and no doubt meaningless to most people. Essentially meaningless to me as well, although necessary to me from time to time in connection with my administrative duties.
The tiny camera, full of treasonous film, seemed hot in my trouser pocket, branding my thigh. All afternoon I kept holding my watch to my ear, unable to believe it hadn’t stopped. Was it only, was it only, was it only…?
Was it at last four-thirty? Thank God.
The same cab was there again, but this time as I entered it, carrying the empty attache case, I discovered another passenger already occupying the far side of the rear seat. As I hesitated, he said, “Not to worry, Mr. Stilmont. I am merely to accompany you.”
He didn’t look dangerous. Quite the reverse, he was a pale and slender lad, the kind brought to mind by the word ‘effete.’ I slid in beside him and said, “Where’s the money?”
“On the seat beside our driver,” he said. “You can put that case on the floor there.”
I put the case on the floor, leaned forward, and saw an identical case on the front seat. I said, “I assume I can look at it now.”
“If I might have the camera,” he said.
“I’m glad to get rid of it.” I took it from my pocket and handed it to him. Then–we were in motion by now, darting through Washington traffic–I took the new case onto my lap, and determined that it contained twenty thousand dollars in genuine, old, small bills.
We stopped in front of an elderly boarding house on 8th Street NE. “Wait here,” said the young man, and left the cab, and went into the building.
In a way, I wanted to make conversation with the woman driver, merely to have the reassurance of the sound of voices, but in another way I felt as though I didn’t want to talk to anyone again.
I’d been over it and over it, rationalized it to the last detail. This information I was selling, this would help the opponents, the enemy, the other side–whoever and whatever they were–but only to a small extent, and surely to a degree easily counterbalanced by similar spy networks in their camp. What I had sold was not decisive. I would feel guilty about it the rest of my life, no doubt, but it would be a guilt of manageable size.
The woman, for her part, sat stolid and unmoving, gazing straight ahead through the windshield, her hands resting easily on the steering wheel.
After ten minutes or so, the young man appeared in the doorway, came trotting down the stairs, smiled at me, said to the woman, “Fine,” and went walking away.
The woman said, “Where to?”
“Universal Parking Garage,” I said.
That night I filled the rest of my coffee cans. On Saturday I purchased a new set of tires for my car, paying cash, and also bought a power saw. On Sunday, I took the family to a drive-in. Monday morning I phoned into the office that I was sick, and went shopping. I bought two suits, some other clothing, a decent fishing rod, a pair of sunglasses, and a case of good scotch. I deposited three hundred dollars in our checking account, went home, and explained to my wife I’d won a boxing pool in the office. This was to be my only splurge. From now on, my extra money would be inserted into my income ten, twenty, thirty dollars at a time. It would make the difference, all the difference, give us just that little extra to get us over the hump of our economic bind.
I was beginning to feel better than I had in years.
Tuesday evening they came and arrested me. State police, not Federal. They wouldn’t say a word to me, wouldn’t explain a thing, until they had me in an office surrounded by serious looking men in plain clothes. Then one of the–gray-haired, trim, a pipe smoker–said, “You seem to have come into bit of money all of a sudden, Mr. Stilmont.”
“Money?” I said.
He picked up some bills from the desk; old, small denominations. “You passed these bills Saturday,” he said, “at Ben Franklin Shopping Center. And these you deposited in your personal checking account just yesterday.”
“Counterfeit,” I said.
He said, “I beg your pardon?”
“They did it to me anyway,” I said. “That’s what I was afraid of all the time, counterfeit bills. But I thought, old bills, used bills, how could they be counterfeit? Did you get them, too? Just so you got them, too.”
I said, “Those bills. They’re counterfeit, right? Just as I thought they would. That’s how you got onto me.”
“These bills,” he said, holding them up so I could see them, “are perfectly valid. Excellent bills.”
I said, “But–”
“These bills,” he said, “were part of the two hundred thousand dollar haul in the armored car robbery in Baltimore last Wednesday. The numbers of those bills were known, Mr. Stilmont.” He leaned toward me. “Now,” he said, “let’s talk about the rest of the money, Mr. Stilmont.”
Copyright © 1965 by Donald Westlake