“Al-EX? Hon-EY?” His mother called, startling Alex from a deep sleep.
“Yeah, Ma. I’m up,” he yelled from his bed.
“Oh, good. OK, honey. I’m leaving now.”
“See you later.”
Alex, still half asleep, sat up and took in the basement’s new vibe. With the mountain of unpacked boxes gone, it was about 95 percent less depressing. It had a clean, no-frills, no-nonsense look: cinderblock walls, concrete floor with a couple throw rugs, and a desk, computer, bed, dresser, nightstand, and lamp. What more could he need? Obviously nothing, since all the rest of his junk sat piled in the other half of the basement, waiting for its trip to either the storage unit or the garbage dump.
For the first time in a long while, Alex started his day with real optimism. His honest self-analysis from the day before had really stuck. Everything he needed—peace and quiet, no work or family distractions, enough money to pay the bills while he wrote about a strong character named Joe Riggs—it was all at his fingertips. His new life began today!
Then he remembered Howard, and his initial optimism turned to a mix of anxiety and doubt. It must have been a bad dream. He’d been pretty drunk; it just had to have been a vivid, alcohol-induced dream. “A half-million-dollar deal,” he chuckled to himself. “Yeah, keep on dreamin.” Alex walked over to his fire safe and opened it. There, on the top, sat the back-up DVD he’d made after the encounter with Howard. It wasn’t a dream. Howard was real.
Alex’s anxious feeling turned again to anger as he made his way upstairs to use the bathroom. Standing full stream in front of the toilet, the mental image of a stranger rummaging through all his files played like a scene from a movie. Some scumbag with nothing better to do, hacking his system and reading his most private thoughts, his life’s work! He shook himself dry more vigorously than usual, zipped up, and headed for the kitchen. Three questions hounded him: Who was it, why was he doing this, and, most importantly, was his offer for real? The final question knocked his anger down quite a few notches. If the offer was real, he wouldn’t care who Howard was; he’d know what he wanted, and the half mil would make it pretty damn easy to forgive his hacker tactics.
Alex grabbed a few hard boiled eggs and some cold bacon from the fridge. (His mother always made extra bacon; she knew he wouldn’t cook it for himself.) He threw a couple pieces of bread in the toaster, and, as he watched the filaments begin to glow red, he remembered the creepy computer voice saying: “I am going to make a few deposits. They will prove that I’m not joking.”
“Check your bank account,” he recalled aloud. “That’s right; I’m supposed to check my bank account.”
Alex began tapping his fingers impatiently as he waited for the toaster to surrender the rest of his breakfast. His mind raced back and forth between “You’re nuts if you think it’s anything more than a cruel joke,” and, “But what if it is true, Alex…What if?”
As soon as he let himself consider the possibility, his imagination soared: A 125-page book of nonfiction; anyone could write that! A guaranteed $500,000! Hell, he could pay off his debt, buy a reasonable home with cash, put the rest in the bank, and start working on his Joe Riggs story. With one book under his belt, it would be easier to get publishers to look at his novel. Maybe even Howard would be willing to…SWOOSH; the toast popped up, halting the daydream.
Breakfast disappeared in no time, shoveled into his mouth on automatic pilot as Alex pondered the possibilities. He stared out the kitchen window with dreaming eyes. He knew that he was supposed to call Ken, but all he could think about was logging into his bank account and seeing a $10,000 or $15,000 deposit sitting there. Today could be the day. It could be the beginning of the rest of his life as a paid author…Or, of course, it could be nothing. He could log in, see nothing, and hate himself for ever believing anything else was possible. Hell, he might log in and see that “Howard” had stolen every last penny of his savings.
After some thought, Alex decided to call Ken first. If Howard was for real, he wanted to give him plenty of time to make a deposit and prove that he wasn’t joking.
“Dude, seriously? You don’t remember Erin sitting on your lap?” Ken asked.
“No. I don’t remember that at all. When did she do that?”
“Dude, she was totally ready to go…totally.”
“When?” Alex asked again.
“I mean, if you would have said the word, you would have been knee deep in her…”
“WHEN?” Alex shouted. “When was she sitting on my lap?”
“I don’t know, man; somewhere near the beginning of the band’s third set. Dude, she looked hot. I can’t believe you blew her off. What the hell is the matter with you?”
“I don’t remember any of it, but I’m glad I blew her off.”
“Why?” Ken replied, truly bewildered.
“Because she’s a spiteful bitch, that’s why. She probably thinks I’m still rich. I don’t even want to imagine the snotty, disgusted look on her face if I’d brought her home to ‘Mom’s basement.’ She mocked me for living here in my early twenties! Can you imagine now? Sorry, man; she would have enjoyed that humiliation just a little too much. It wouldn’t have been worth it; not even close.”
“You’re crazy,” Ken replied. “Who cares what she thinks? Besides, have you ever heard of a hotel? The way she was acting, you could have taken her out to the car!”
“Ken, trust me, dude: It would not have been worth it. Oh, man; thank God that didn’t go down…Thank you, God.”
Alex had dated Erin when he was in his early twenties. Without a doubt, she was beautiful and very sexy, but she was also certifiably insane. She lied, she played head games, and she needed constant attention. And if she didn’t get what she wanted—look out. The relationship was a disaster, and within a month, her emotional outbursts and overall ugliness as a human being destroyed anything “attractive” about her. Alex ran as fast as he could. Vicious rumors, prank calls, and borderline stalking followed for months, until she latched on to her next victim.
“If I were you, I would have banged her,” Ken said.
“Yeah, and if you were me, you’d be regretting the hell out of it right now.”
Ken filled Alex in on a couple more fuzzy parts from their night out. Apparently, he had done some dancing when the band played AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with a girl named Melissa. He remembered talking to Melissa but not dancing with her. As he thought about it, he figured that was probably why Erin came over and sat on his lap in the first place, to chase Melissa away. She probably cornered Melissa in the bathroom and said she was his wife or something. God, he hated that woman.
There was also a forgotten incident involving chicken wings: Alex thought somebody snagged some out of his basket when he went to the bathroom…Ken assured him nobody ate his wings. And there was also some arguing at last call. Oddly enough, Alex remembered some of that.
“That’s about it,” Ken said. “Nothing too major to report.”
“Alright, man; thanks for the update. And thanks for driving me and my car home. Who followed you?”
“Scott,” Ken replied.
“Big Scott?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, he followed me to your place and then drove me back to pick up my car.”
“Alright, well tell him I said thanks too.”
“What are you doing this weekend?” Ken asked.
“Hopefully writing, but if something exciting comes up, shoot me a message through Facebook.”
“OK, will do. Later tater.”
Alex hung up the kitchen phone, walked into the living room, and sat down on the couch. During the half hour or so he’d been on the phone with Ken, he hadn’t thought about Howard or his bank account at all. Talking with his friends always had that effect. He could have a hundred “grown-up things” that needed taking care of, but if he was hanging out with his buddies, all that serious stuff seemed to disappear.
Unfortunately, fun time always ended. By the time Alex returned to whatever he was avoiding, it always appeared larger and even more intimidating, as though it had grown inpatient waiting for his attention. Well, fun time was now over, and Alex, still sitting on the couch, was nervous as hell.
“Screw it,” he said as he jumped off the couch. “It’s either real or it’s not.” He checked the clock as he headed for the basement: just past noon. He decided this was a good time to log into his account because if there was nothing there, it might be that it was just too early. He could still hold out some hope that, later on, the deposit would show up. He noticed the drastic change in his attitude, from total skepticism to hope, and it irritated him. It made him feel vulnerable. He worried that he was setting himself up for a giant disappointment. “It’s either real or it’s not,” he repeated, as he headed down the stairs.
Alex sat at his desk, pressed the power button on his computer, and waited impatiently for it to boot up. Two minutes later, his desktop screen appeared and he opened Internet Explorer. The anticipation was driving him nuts, but, just as he began to type in his bank’s website address, a horrible thought went through his mind. What if THIS was the scam right here? What if Howard was sitting in the background with some kind of keystroke-recording, hacker software? What if his new buddy was just waiting for Alex to type in his username and password so, later in the day, he could access his account and empty Alex’s last $15,000? The thought froze his fingers in mid stroke.
He pulled his hands away from the keyboard, shook his head with a smile, and said, “Oh, man; that would be sooo damn clever.”
Alex, like everyone else, regularly received ridiculous e-mails stating he’d “inherited $10 million dollars,” or that an “exiled Nigerian millionaire” wanted to pay him millions to help him transfer some money, with the only requirement being that he had to provide some banking details. He wondered how anyone could be stupid enough to fall for the scam. But this, this was clever. “Son of a bitch,” he said under his breath. “Now what?”
Alex again felt himself slipping into serious skepticism. He still desperately wanted to check his balance, but feelings of renewed suspicion toward the mysterious Howard resurfaced. Seriously, what were the odds that Howard was for real? “Of course it’s a scam,” he thought to himself. “Don’t be a dumbass!” But the assurances of his inner dialogue did nothing to ease his curiosity. He had to know. “Now what, Alex?”
“Phone! Phone banking, bank phone service…bank by phone!” he said, trying to remember the wording on a pamphlet he’d unpacked and “filed” last night. He ran over to the other side of the basement and began looking for the folder the bank teller had given him when he’d opened his account. After going through a couple boxes of paperwork and magazines, all destined for the storage garage, and after almost stopping to admire Miss January 1999, he found the folder. “Bingo!” Phone number, account number, and passcode; everything he needed.
Alex went upstairs and picked up the kitchen phone. Finally, the moment of truth. He dialed the 1-800 number, waited for the menu, chose the correct option, and entered his passcode. “For account balance and recent transactions, please press or say ‘one.’” Alex pressed one. “For account balance, press or say ‘one,’ for recent transactions, press or say ‘two.’” Alex pressed one again. “Your current account balance is five hundred twenty three thousand nine hundred and forty six dollars and eighteen cents. To repeat your account balance, press or say ‘one.’ For more options, press or say ‘two’…”
“Holy shit, Holy Shit, HOLY SHIT!” Alex began pacing the kitchen, phone at his waist, continuing to repeat the only two words his mind could produce. “HOLY SHIT!!!!” He screamed.
He put the phone back up to his ear in time to hear, “I’m sorry; I did not understand your response. To repeat your account balance, please press or say ‘one.’ For more options…”
“ONE!” Alex yelled into the phone.
“Your current account balance is five hundred, twenty three thousand, nine hundred and forty six dollars and eighteen cents. To repeat your account balance, please press or say…”
Alex had the machine repeat his balance one more time as he scribbled it down on a scrap piece of paper. He hung up the phone and just stared at the figure: $523,946.18. He’d never had that much actual cash in his life…nothing even close. Howard did exactly what he said he’d do: He made a deposit that proved he wasn’t joking.
Alex ran downstairs. He had to see the money in his account to believe it. He typed in his bank’s website address and entered his user name and password. There it was, staring him in the face: $523,946.18. He also saw about a dozen deposits. There were a couple for $100,000, and the rest were smaller—mostly $50,000, a few $25,000 and smaller. Alex had no idea Howard would prove he could pay every penny. If anything, he expected a $10,000 or maybe $15,000 deposit. He sat staring at the screen. “This is totally real…”
He began daydreaming again; only this time he did it like a person holding a winning lottery ticket. This was the biggest opportunity of his life. Worst-case scenario, he was looking at a six-month writing project. He couldn’t imagine any scenario where it would take him longer than that to write 125 pages of nonfiction. He’d never written nonfiction, but how hard could it be? Do some research and write a report. “Bada boom, bada bing. Gimmie my money, Howard!”
Alex imagined himself driving to the bar in his Camaro without feeling like a fraud. Since moving back into the basement, the absurdity of driving around in a souped-up, $30,000, classic car was pretty hard to ignore. The scenario of an attractive woman seeing the car, imagining his level of financial success, then being taken home to the basement for a hard dose of reality taunted him. But now, he could not only keep his car, he could actually park it in his own garage again!
With that thought, his mind jumped to what kind of house he would buy. He opened an investment-property website he’d used during his real-estate heyday and started looking. Prices had continued their death spiral, and he was flat-out amazed at what he could get for less than $150,000: Three Bedroom, two bath, full basement, and two-car garage on an acre in Grafton, Ohio, for $145,900; Two bedroom, one bath, walk-out basement, and one-car garage on two acres in Litchfield. Short sale price: $99,000! Page after page of perfectly reasonable homes, all of which he could buy cash, were there for the taking. Anything would be an improvement over where he was now. Although Mom’s basement provided everything he needed to function as a writer, his own place would restore his dignity.
Paying off his current $50,000 debt and never borrowing another penny excited him almost as much as becoming a successful author. He could never measure the amount of stress that debt had added to his life, and after gaining some insight into how the corrupt banking system worked, the stress had only gotten worse. In fact, if he had to choose between being debt free in his mother’s basement or going into debt to move out, he’d pick the basement without hesitation. But now, thanks to Howard, he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
Alex put his feet up on the desk and mentally settled in to his new life. He felt calm, a sense of purpose, like everything had happened for a reason. He saw himself writing the story of Joe Riggs after he completed Howard’s book. It was going well; he really had something here…
“Thump, thump, thump” thundered from the side door at the top of the basement stairs, nearly jarring Alex out of his shoes. Before he got his feet off the desk, he heard another three loud thumps followed by a voice that sounded like it said, “UPS.” Alex climbed the stairs and greeted the man dressed in brown.
“Alex Watson?” he asked.
“That’s me,” Alex replied.
“Got a delivery for you; need a signature right here.”
Alex signed and then took the package: a box about a foot squared. It had no return address and nothing on the outside to hint at its contents. It was heavy for its size, twenty pounds, maybe more. He had no idea what it contained, but he had a pretty good idea who sent it. He took the box into the kitchen, set it on the counter, and looked at it for a while, enjoying the excitement of not knowing what was inside. It was Christmas in July.
Finally, Alex took a knife from the drawer and cut the packing tape. After another brief pause, he opened the box and looked inside. He found a pair of wireless headphones, a laptop, seven books, a bunch of spiral notebooks, and a typed note. The note simply said:
“Turn this laptop on after you check your bank account.”
And with that, Alex’s nerves returned…big time. He realized he’d jumped way too far ahead in the story that was now playing out before him. In his daydream, all the work was already done. In reality, he hadn’t done a damn thing, and he had no idea where to begin. What did Howard expect from him? Was there any chance he’d reject Alex’s manuscript? Was he pissed about how Alex had disrespected him the day before? These questions splattered and stuck to Alex like thick mud. They made his arms and legs feel heavy; they made him sweaty and uncomfortable.
In less than twenty-four hours, Alex had gone from not caring at all about Howard’s opinion of him to trying to calculate exactly what he should say when they spoke, which quickly turned into obsessing about all the things he shouldn’t say. At the same time, he felt tremendous pressure to hurry up and do as the note instructed. It all led to a spontaneous conversation with the refrigerator:
“Howard, I’m really sorry about yesterday. I had no idea you were serious. Please accept my...”
“No, don’t do that!” he corrected himself. “It’s too predictable, and it’s too weak.”
“WOW, Howard, I guess you really weren’t joking. Talk about keeping your word.”
“No! That’s too buddy buddy. You don’t know this guy!”
“OK, Howard, you definitely have my attention.”
“Not bad, not bad. You know what, screw it. Use that. It’s good enough. It’s real; it’s honest. Just let him do the talking. Just shut up and listen.”
Alex wondered how much time he had before Howard might decide he wasn’t doing what was expected of him. He probably knew that Alex had checked his account balance, but he couldn’t know whether or not he’d received the package and read the note…or could he?
“Ten minutes,” Alex said to himself. “That’s all I need is ten minutes. I gotta calm down; gotta calm down a little bit and then get this done.”
Ten minutes later, Alex carried everything into the basement, took the laptop out of the box, and opened it. It began to glow red immediately.