Jake began to dial the number slowly, as he had done almost every evening at six o'clock since the day his father had passed awàó. For the next fifteen minutes he settled back to listen to what his mother had been up to that day.
She led such a sober, orderly life that she rarely had anything of interest to tell him. Least of all on a Saturday. She had coffee every morning with her oldest friend, Molly Schultz, and on some days that would last until lunchtime. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she played bridge with the Zaccaris who lived across the street. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she visited her sister Nancy, which at least gave her something to grumble about when he rang on those evenings.
On Saturdays, she rested from her rigorous week. Her only strenuous activity being to purchase the bulky Sunday edition of the Times just after lunch – a strange New York tradition, which at least gave her the chance to inform her son which stories he should check up on the following day.
For Jake, every evening the conversation would consist of a few appropriate questions, depending on the day. Monday, Wednesday, Friday: How did the bridge go? How much did you win/lose? Tuesday, Thursday: How is Aunt Nancy? Really? That bad? Saturday: Anything interesting in the Times that I should look out for tomorrow?
Observant readers will be aware that there are seven days in any given week, and will want to know what Jake’s mother did on a Sunday. On Sunday, she always joined his family for lunch, so there was no need for him to call her that evening.
Jake dialled the last digit of his mother’s number and waited for her to pick up the phone. He had already prepared himself to be told what he should look out for in tomorrow’s New York Times. Itusually took two or three rings before she answered the phone, the amount of time required for her to walk from her chair by the window to the phone on the other side of the room. When the phonerang four, five, six, seven times, Jake began to wonder if she might be out. But that wasn't possible. She was never out after six o’clock, winter or summer. She kept to a routine that was so regular it would have brought a smile to the lips of a Marine drill sergeant.
Finally, he heard a click. He was just about to say, “Hi, Mom, it’s Jake,” when he heard a voice that was certainly not his mother’s, and was already in mid-conversation. Thinking he had a crossed line, he was about to put the phone down when the voice said, “There’ll be $100,000 in it for you. All you have to do is turn up and collect it. It’s in an envelope for you at Billy’s.”
“So where’s Billy’s?” asked a new voice.
“On the corner of Oak Street and Randall. They’ll be expecting you around seven.”
Jake tried not to breathe in or out as he wrote down “Oak and Randall” on the pad by the phone.
“How will they know the envelope is for me?” asked the second voice.
“You just ask for a copy of the New York Times and hand over a $100 bill. He’ll give you a quarter change, as if you’d handed him a dollar. That way, if there’s anyone else in the shop, they won’t be suspicious. Don’t open the envelope until you’re in a safe place – there are a lot of people in New York who’d like to get their hands on $100,000. And whatever you do, don’t ever contact me again.
If you do, it won’t be a pay-off you’ll get next time.”
The line went dead.
Jake hung up, having completely forgotten that he was meant to be ringing his mother.
He sat down and considered what to do next – if anything. His wife Ellen had taken the kids to a movie, as she did most Saturday evenings, and they weren’t expected back until around nine. His dinner was in the microwave, with a note to tell him how many minutes it would take to cook. He always added one minute.
Jake found himself flicking through the telephone directory. He turned over the pages until he reached B: Bi..., Bil..., Billy’s. And there it was, at 1127 Oak Street. He closed the directory and walked through to his den, where he searched the bookshelf behind his desk for a street atlas of New York. He found it wedged in between The Memoirs of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and How to Lose Twenty Pounds When You’re Over Forty.
He turned to the index in the back and quickly found the entry for Oak Street. He checked the grid reference and placed his finger on the correct square. He calculated that, were he to go, it would take him about half an hour to get over to the West Side. He checked his watch. It was 6.14. What was he thinking of? He had no intention of going anywhere. To start with, he didn’t have $100.
Jake took out his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket, and counted slowly: $37. He walked through to the kitchen to check Ellen’s petty-cash box. It was locked, and he couldn’t remember where she hid the key. He took a screwdriver from the drawer beside the stove and forced the box open: another $22. He paced around the kitchen, trying to think. Next he went to the bedroom and checked the pockets of all his jackets and trousers. Another $1.75 in loose change. He left the bedroom and moved on to his daughter’s room. Hesther’s Snoopy moneybox was on her dressing table. He picked it up and walked over to the bed. He turned the box upside down and shook all the coins out onto the quilt: another $ 6.75.
He sat on the end of the bed, desperately trying to concentrate, then recalled the $50 bill he always kept folded in his driving licence for emergencies. He added up all his gatherings: they came to $117.50.
Jake checked his watch. It was 6.23. He would just go and have a look. No more, he told himself.
He took his old overcoat from the hall cupboard and slipped out of the apartment, checking as he left that all three locks on the front door were securely bolted. He pressed the elevator button, but there was no sound. Out of order again, Jake thought, and began to jog down the stairs. Across the street was a bar he often dropped into when Ellen took the children to the movies.
The barman smiled as he walked in. “The usual, Jake?” he asked, somewhat surprised to see him wearing a heavy overcoat when he only had to cross the road from his apartment.
“No thanks,” said Jake, trying to sound casual. “I just wondered if you had a $100 bill.”
“Not sure if I do,” the barman replied. He rummaged around in a stack of notes, then turned to Jake and said, “You’re in luck. Just the one.”
Jake handed over the fifty, a twenty, two tens and ten ones, and received a $100 bill in exchange. Folding the note carefully in four, he slipped it into his wallet, which he returned to the inside pocket of his jacket. He then left the bar and walked out onto the street.
He ambled slowly west for two blocks until he came to a bus stop. Perhaps he would be too late, and the problem would take care of itself, he thought. A bus drew into the kerb. Jake climbed the steps, paid his fàrå and took a seat near the back, still uncertain what he planned to do once he reached the West Side.
Hewas so deep in thought that he missed his stop and had to walk almost half a mile back to Oak Street. He checked the numbers. It would be another three or four blocks before Oak Street crossed with Randall.
As he got nearer, he found his pace slowing with every step. But suddenly, there it was on the next corner, halfway up a lamppost: a white-and-green sign that read “Randall Street”.
He quickly checked all four comers of the street, then looked at his watch again. It was 6.49.
As he stared across from the opposite side of the street, one or two people went in and out of Billy’s. The light started flashing “Walk”, and he found himself being carried across with the other pedestrians. .
He checked his watch yet again: 6.51. He paused at the doorway of Billy’s. Behind the counter was a man stacking some newspapers. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans, and must have been around forty, a shade under six foot, with shoulders that could only have been built by spending several hours a week in the gym.
A customer brushed past Jake and asked for a packet of Marlboros. While the man behind the counter was handing him his change, Jake stepped inside and pretended to take an interest in the magazine rack.
As the customer turned to leave, Jake slipped his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket, took out his wallet and touched the edge of the $100 bill. Once the Marlboro man had left the shop, Jake put his wallet back into his pocket, leaving the bill in the palm of his hand.
The man behind the counter stood waiting impassively as Jake slowly unfolded the bill.
“The Times,”Jake heard himself saying, as he placed the $100 bill on the counter.
The man in the black T-shirt glanced at the money and checked his watch. He seemed to hesitate for a moment before reaching under the counter. Jake tensed at the movement, until he saw a long, thick, white envelope emerge. The man proceeded to slip it into the heavy folds of the newspaper’s business section, then handed the paper over to Jake, his face remaining impassive. He took the $100 bill, rang up seventy-five cents on the cash register, and gave Jake a quarter change. Jake turned and walked quickly out of the shop, nearly knocking over a small man who looked as nervous as Jake felt.
Jake began to run down Oak Street, frequently glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him. Checking again, he spotted a Yellow Cab heading towards him, and quickly hailed it.
“The East Side,” he said, jumping in.
As the driver eased back into the traffic, Jake slid the envelope out from the bulky newspaper and transferred it to an inside pocket. He could hear his heart thumping. For the next fifteen minutes he spent most of the time looking anxiously out of the cab’s rear window.
When he spotted a subway entrance coming up on the right, he told the driver to pull into the kerb. He handed over $10 and, not waiting for his change, jumped out of the taxi and dashed down the subway steps, emerging a few moments later on the other side of the road. He then hailed another taxi going in the opposite direction. This time he gave the driver his home address. He congratulated himself on his little subterfuge, which he’d seen carried out by Gene Hackman in the Movie of the Week.
Nervously, Jake touched his inside pocket to be sure the envelope was still in place. Confident that no one was following him, he no longer bothered to look out of the cab’s rear window. He was tempted to check inside the envelope, but there would be time enough for that once he was back in the safety of his apartment. He checked his watch: 7.21. Ellen and the children wouldn’t be home for at least another half-hour.
“You can drop me about fifty yards on the left,” Jake told the driver, happy to be back on familiar territory. He cast one final glance through the back window as the taxi drew into the kerb outside his block. There was no other traffic close by. He paid the driver with the dimes and quarters he had shaken out of his daughter’s Snoopy moneybox, then jumped out and walked as casually as he could into the building.
Once he was inside, he rushed across the hall and thumped the elevator button with the palm of his hand. It still wasn’t working. He cursed, and started to run up the seven flights of stairs to his apartment, going slower and slower with each floor, until he finally came to a halt. Breathless, he unbolted the three locks, almost fell inside, and slammed the door quickly behind him. He rested against the wall while he got his breath back.
He was pulling the envelope out of his inside pocket when the phone rang. His first thought was that they had traced him somehow and wanted their money back. He stared at the phone for a moment, then nervously picked up the receiver.
“Hello, Jake, is that you?”
Then he remembered. “Yes, Mom.”
“You didn’t call at six,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I did, but...” He decided against telling her why he didn’t try a second time.
“I’ve been calling you for the past hour. Have you been out or something?”
“Only to the bar across the road. I sometimes go there for a drink when Ellen takes the kids to the movies.”
He placed the envelope next to the phone, desperate to be rid of her, but aware that he would have to go through the usual Saturday routine.
“Anything interesting in the Times, Mom?” he heard himself saying, rather too quickly.
“Not much,” she replied. “Hillary looks certain to win the Democratic nomination for Senate, but I’m still going to vote for Giuliani.”
“Always have done, always will,” said Jake, mouthing his mother’s oft-repeated comment on the Mayor. He picked up the envelope and squeezed it, to see what $100,000 felt like.
“Anything else, Mom?” he said, trying to move her on.
“There’s a piece in the style section about widows at seventy rediscovering their sex drive. As soon as their husbands are safely in their graves it seems they’re popping HRT and getting back into the old routine. One of them’s quoted as saying, “I’m not so much trying to make up for lost time, as to catch up with him.”
As he listened, Jake began to ease open a corner of the envelope.
“I’d try it myself,” his mother was saying, “but I can’t afford the facelift that seems to be an essential part of the deal.”
“Mom, I think I can hear Ellen and the kids at the door, so I’d better say goodbye. Look forward to seeing you at lunch tomorrow.”
“But I haven’t told you about a fascinating piece in the business section.”
“I’m still listening,” said Jake distractedly, slowly beginning to ease the envelope open.
“It’s a story about a new scam that’s being carried out in Manhattan. I don’t know what they’ll think of next.”
The envelope was half-open.
“It seems that a gang has found a way of tapping into your phone while you’re dialling another number...”
Another inch and Jake would be able to tip the contents of the envelope out onto the table.
“So when you dial, you think you’ve got a crossed line.”
Jake took his finger out of the envelope and began to listen more carefully.
“Then they set you up by making you believe you’re overhearing a real conversation.”
Sweat began to appear on Jake’s forehead, as he stared down at the almost-opened envelope.
“They make you think that if you travel to the other side of the city and hand over a $100 bill, you’ll get an envelope containing $100,000 in exchange for it.”
Jake felt sick as he thought of how readily he had parted with his $100, and how easily he had fallen for it.
“They’re using tobacconists and newsagents to carry out the scam,” continued his mother.
“So what’s in the envelope?”
“Now that’s where they’re really clever,” said his mother. “They put in a small booklet that gives advice on how you can make $100,000. And it’s not even illegal, because the price on the cover is $100. You’ve got to hand it to them.”
I already have, Mom, Jake wanted to say, but he just slammed the phone down and stared at the envelope.
The front doorbell began to ring. Ellen and the kids must be back from the movie, and she’d probably forgotten her key again.
The bell rang a second time.
“OK, I’m coming, I’m coming!” shouted Jake. He seized the envelope, determined not to leave any trace of its embarrassing existence. As the bell rang a third time he ran into the kitchen, opened the incinerator and threw the envelope down the chute.
The bell continued to ring. This time the caller must have left a finger on the button.
Jake ran to the door. He pulled it open to find three massive men standing in the hallway. The one wearing a black T-shirt leapt in and put a knife to his throat, while the other two each grabbed an arm. The door slammed shut behind them.
“Where is it?” T-shirt shouted, holding the knife against Jake’s throat.