The Ten Thousand ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I had a new Siamese kitten named Percy, the cutest little thing you ever saw. He wasn’t used to his new home yet, so, at eleven o’clock at night when I opened the kitchen door to get something off the back porch, he ran out between my legs like a shot, presumably to get back to where he came from. He ran across the yard, to the fence and turned right. As I shambled down the alley in my pajamas and robe after him, some dogs began to bark and lights came on in houses. I figured somebody would end up calling the police, but I didn’t care; all I cared about at that moment was not letting Percy out of my sight. Finally I caught up with him at the end of the alley, where he had stopped to think about which way he was going to go from there.
I grabbed Percy before he had a chance to start running again and held him to my chest in both hands, a tiny ball of warm, soft fur. I scolded him for being a bad boy and trying to get away from me, but he started purring so I couldn’t be mad at him for long.
Every house had a garage that opened onto the alley. The doors of one of these garages were open and I couldn’t keep from looking inside. A man was standing beside his car with a massive bundle in his arms. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him and his wife around in the neighborhood.
“Oh!” I said. “Everything all right there?”
He heaved the bundle to the ground as if he couldn’t hold it any longer and looked at me. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I was just loading my laundry into my car.”
I took a step closer.
“Well, good night!” he said, cheerily.
Still I stood there looking at him as he opened the trunk of his car and lifted the bundle and tried to put it inside. I could see how heavy it was from the way he was straining.
“Lots of laundry,” I said.
He laughed. “Well, you know how it is. Good night to you, now!”
“Laundries don’t usually stay open this late at night.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I’m going to drop it off in the morning on my way to work.”
The bundle was about six feet long and appeared to be stiffening. When he tried to stuff it into the trunk, the end of it caught on the lip of the trunk.
“That doesn’t look like any bundle of laundry I’ve ever seen,” I said.
I could tell he was losing patience with me. “Look,” he said. “It’s late. Why don’t you just take your cat and go on home?”
“I might feel inclined to call the police when I get there.”
I was playing with him, enjoying the unexpected feeling of power I had at that moment.
“No reason to do that,” he said.
“I think it might be interesting to tell them what I just saw.”
“You didn’t see anything.”
“I saw a man loading a suspicious-looking bundle into his car late at night. I think it’s my civic duty to alert the authorities and let them figure out what’s going on.”
“Nothing’s going on!”
“Is that a body you have in your trunk? A dead body?”
“What would make you think that?”
“It’s pretty hard to make a dead body look like anything else.”
“It’s my laundry. I already told you that.”
Percy, growing tired of the conversation, yawned and began to squirm.
“Well, my baby here wants to go home,” I said.
“Don’t go just yet,” he said.
“I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression and I want a chance to make it right.”
“Why would you care what impression I have?”
“What you saw here is perfectly innocent.”
“All right. So it’s perfectly innocent.”
He slammed the lid of the trunk. “Would you like to come inside and have a drink?” he asked.
“I don’t really drink that much. And, anyway, I have to get my cat home.”
He waved his arm dismissively without looking at me again.
“Well, good night, then,” I said as I walked away.
I had been home only long enough to give Percy a drink of water when there was a knock at the kitchen door. I went to the door and asked who was there.
“It’s Clifford Lakey,” a voice said. “Your neighbor. We just spoke in the alley?”
I opened the door a couple of inches and saw the side of his face.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I was wondering if we might have a talk.”
“It’s late,” I said. “I was just about to go to bed.”
“I know but it’s important.”
I let him in and to my surprise he sat at the kitchen table as if he owned it. He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and slumped his shoulders. He had dark circles around his eyes and a bad gash on his head. He exuded an odor like a wet dog.
“You hurt your head,” I said.
“It’s nothing. I can hardly feel it.”
“Well, what can I do for you on this Thursday night that’s almost Friday morning?”
“I did a stupid thing,” he said.
“We all do stupid things.”
“I did the stupidest thing you can do, but now it’s done I’m not sorry I did it. I’d do it again.”
He took his hand out of his pocket to wipe it across his brow and I saw it was shaking. “I’m so tired,” he said.
I sighed. I had been going to yawn, but I thought it might be too much. “Maybe we could postpone this conversation to a more suitable hour,” I said.
“You saw something tonight that I wish you hadn’t seen.”
“You and I both know it wasn’t laundry.”
I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of apple juice. I poured some into two glasses and set one in front of him. He gulped it down and I refilled his glass.
“I don’t care what it was,” I said. “I mind my own business.”
“Now that you’ve seen what I didn’t want you to see, I want to make to you a proposal.”
“Propose away,” I said.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you’ll promise not to tell anybody about what you saw.”
“It was the body of your wife, wasn’t it?”
“A thousand dollars,” he said. “How does that sound?”
“I’d have to have it in cash.”
“Of course,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“What’s there to think about?”
“I would be compromising my integrity if I kept still about what I saw.”
He leaned forward, elbows on table, and covered his eyes with his hands. I thought he was going to cry. “My head hurts terribly,” he said.
“Would you like some aspirin?”
“No. What I need is help disposing of it.”
“Disposing of your laundry?”
“Since you already know about this, you seem the logical person to help me.”
I sighed wearily. “I have to get to bed. It’s way past my bedtime.”
“Would you do it if there was more money involved?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’d rather not get involved with a person disposing of his laundry late at night.”
He looked around the room. “You live here alone?” he asked.
“What’s your profession?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Lot of money in that?”
“I’ll give you ten thousand,” he said.
I stood up from the table, walked to the middle of the room and whirled around like there was something wrong with me. “You’ll give me ten thousand dollars to help you dispose of your laundry?”
“And to keep quiet about it ever after.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d be taking an awful risk.”
“It’s my final offer.”
“I’d have to have it in cash.”
“I know. I don’t have the cash in the house but I could get it by the end of the day tomorrow.”
“By four o’clock?”
“All right,” he said.
“If I don’t have the money by four,” I said, “I’m afraid I’ll start having trouble with my itchy dialing finger.”
“You’ll have it by four, I promise.”
After I put Percy to bed and got myself dressed, I met Clifford in the alley. We both got into his car and he began driving.
He drove and drove and drove. He seemed to know where he was going, but I didn’t have a clue. Nothing looked familiar. It was too dark. I didn’t recognize anything.
We crossed into another state. I looked at my watch and saw it was almost two in the morning. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“I know a place,” he said.
We didn’t even bother with small talk, just sat in silence. I was sorry I had agreed to help him. The only thing that would make it worth all this bother and lost sleep was when I held the ten thousand dollars in my hand the next afternoon.
He turned off the highway onto an old country road that was so hilly and curvy I thought I was going to be sick. I asked him to stop and let me stand still by the side of the road for a couple of minutes, but he said we were almost to the place where we were going and soon everything would be all right.
Finally he turned the car onto a dirt road that went downhill.
“This doesn’t seem right,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I grew up near here. I know these back roads.”
“Let’s get this finished and go back home,” I said. “I don’t feel very well.”
The dirt road grew so rough and washed out that I was afraid we were going to get stuck. Finally he pulled up to a place where the road widened and turned off the engine. The dark and quiet were profound, the way death must be.
“We’re here,” he said. “It’s just up the hill and past those trees.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“It’s an old homestead. People used to live here but they all died out about fifty years ago.”
“Probably from loneliness,” I said.
I helped him get the bundle out of the trunk and together we struggled with it up the hill through the brush.
“I didn’t realize your wife was such a big woman,” I said.
He laughed as if I had made a joke.
We came to a place where there was an old falling-down house and barn, the shell of an ancient pickup truck, dead and rotting trees, thick undergrowth everywhere.
“This place gives me the creeps,” I said.
There was a concrete slab between the house and barn. Over it was a rusted metal plate.
“This is it,” he said.
We laid the bundle down and I helped him pull the heavy metal plate to the side a few feet.
“It’s an old well,” he said. “Not a drop of water but it goes down hundreds of feet.”
I thought we would just dispose of the bundle and leave, but he opened it partway and shone his flashlight on it. What I saw was not what I expected.
“It’s a man!” I said.
“You said it was your wife.”
“You said it was my wife.”
“Well, I just assumed. Who is he?”
He sighed and spit on the ground. “If you must know,” he said, “he’s a hustler I picked up on a street corner downtown. I don’t know his name.”
I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. “I’m sorry, but you don’t seem like the type to pick up nameless hustlers on street corners.”
“When I took him home with me, he tried to rob me. We struggled. He hit me in the head with a bottle. It was him or me. I killed him in self-defense.”
“Why don’t you go to the police and tell them what happened?”
“For obvious reasons.”
He re-covered the hustler’s face and we heaved the body down the well. That was the easy part. I listened for it to hit bottom but heard nothing.
“No better place to dispose of a body,” he said.
“You’ve done this before,” I said, certain of the fact.
“What’s past is past.”
“She left about six months ago. I didn’t kill her but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.”
“So you pick up hustlers from street corners downtown and kill them?”
“He was the first hustler I ever killed.”
I was feeling light-headed so I sat down on the edge of the concrete slab, hands on thighs, and leaned forward. When I sat up again, he was pointing a gun at me.
“You’re going down that well, too,” he said.
“You didn’t think I was just going to hand over ten thousand dollars to a clown like you, did you?”
I was insulted by the clown remark. “Why am I a clown anymore than you are?” I asked.
“The ten thousand would have satisfied you for a while, but it would have occurred to you eventually that you could get more. Blackmail is an ugly thing.”
“So is murder.”
“Nobody will ever miss you.”
“How do you know?”
I stood up, thinking about rushing him for the gun, but I was afraid it would go off and I would be on the receiving end. “This is not right,” I said. “You won’t gain anything by killing me.”
“I won’t? How do you figure?”
“Just forget the ten thousand. I don’t want it.”
“It’s not about the ten thousand,” he said.
“If you’re worried I’ll go to the police and tell them anything, I won’t. I promise.”
“Forgive me if I’m not able to believe you,” he said.
He pulled back the hammer on the gun before firing. I surprised him, and also myself, by bending over and retching on the ground. It seemed that everything I had eaten in the past twenty-four hours came up. Having my life threatened was too much for me.
“I’m not well,” I said, after I was finished vomiting. “I think I’m having a heart attack.
I groaned, grabbed my chest and slumped to the ground. I guess he wasn’t able to shoot a person in the midst of a major heart episode. He lowered the gun and bent over me with what seemed like real concern.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I didn’t mean…”
I rushed him then, caught him off-guard. I tackled his legs with all my might and brought him down. He fell hard on his back. When I saw he had dropped the gun, I went for it, but so did he.
He had the gun in his hand and was scrambling to stand up again when a metal rod came to my hand in the dark as if it had been placed there by Providence. I hit him in the head with the rod, not as hard as I would have liked, and he went down again. When he started to get up, I hit him again and then again. I kept hitting him in the head until it was a bloody pulp. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and I knew he was dead.
I was sick and trembling but I managed to drag Clifford’s body over to the well and push it in; replace the well cover the way it was. Then, not wanting anything more to do with the place, I ran down the hill to the car.
I didn’t know which direction to take to go back home, but I drove until I came to a gas station. I told the attendant where I wanted to go and he took out a map and wrote out some directions for me. I would have given him a big tip if I had had any money with me.
I didn’t get home until nine o’clock in the morning. I pulled Clifford’s car into his garage and turned off the engine. Wiped down the steering wheel and door handles with a rag to remove my fingerprints. Closed the garage doors as quietly as I could and slipped up the alley to my own house like a wraith. When I opened my back door, Percy was there to greet me.
A few days later the local newspaper ran a story about Clifford Lakey’s disappearance. Police were investigating but so far had no clues. His estranged wife was living in California and had not been ruled out as a suspect. The implication was that she had hired a professional killer to do away with her husband. That seemed as logical an explanation as any other. I somehow felt she would have a hard time proving she didn’t do it.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp