Exercising the craft—April 18, 2016

By Ekta R. Garg—

Prompt: She looked around quickly to see if anything had been taken.

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*****

She saw the door slightly ajar as she walked toward the apartment and stopped moving. Her breath started coming in shallow spurts. Could it be? Had Max finally caught up to her?

Maybe he’s finally brought me the money he owes.

As she jogged to the apartment, she chuckled. Now that was a change, Max owing her money. When they’d met all those years ago, he’d been the one to bail her out. The one with all the cash.

She’d never forgotten how much he’d helped her. Or how she’d calculated what kind of price she could extract when her own time came. She’d waited, expressing her unending gratitude to Max and letting him know she would never have survived without him. He’d handled her tenderly, with more gentleness than he had the other girls. But ultimately he’d used her too, just like he’d used them.

She went through the door and looked around quickly to see if anything had been taken. More than that, she wanted to know if anything had been left. Had Max finally made good on all those promises?

It was easy to make promises when one didn’t have the resources to fulfill them. Despite everything else and the state of the world, humans continued to believe in one another. They continued to take a person at his or her word.

Nothing looked out of place. She scanned the small rectangle that represented her living room and then went to the adjoining kitchen. Nope. Not even a cup in the sink to say he’d come and enjoyed a glass of cold water. She rummaged through the drawers, but her instinct said she wouldn’t find anything there either.

The bathroom came just down the hall, and even though Max would never leave anything in there—bundles of cash in Ziploc bags dropped into toilet tanks worked best in the movies—she checked anyway.

Max had taught her to be careful. She’d taken the lesson to heart.

That left her bedroom, at the very end of the hall. She remembered that morning pushing the door all the way open, but now it stood half ajar. A grin grew on her face. Yes, Max had come.

She hurried down the hall and into the room. On the bed sat a valise, old, leather, beaten up. The grin turned into a laugh of delight. She hadn’t seen the valise in ages! And it could only mean one thing…if Max had stuck to the old signals.

She pressed the buttons on the front and the locks flipped upward with a satisfying click. The lid didn’t lift right away, and she had to pry the valise open. After hugging it to her chest and tugging on both sides, it popped open. Bundles of money flew to the floor and landed with soft plump thumps on the builder-grade carpet. A single sheet of paper fluttered at a slower pace, as if it didn’t have to hurry now that she’d gotten the small briefcase open.

She grabbed the money from the floor—five bundles in all; one in hundreds, two in fifties, and the last two in twenties—and dropped it back into the valise. Then she leaned down again for the note, turned, and plopped onto the bed.

“Dear Darla,” it began. She blinked a few times. It had been so long since she’d gone by that name that she almost forgot that that’s how Max knew her. She’d never given him her real name, of course. Another lesson he’d taught her and one that had served her in good stead.

“Dear Darla. I know I’m a little late. Okay, a lot late. I said I’d have the cash to you a while ago, but I had to deal with some unpleasant restrictions on my time and travel.”

Why can’t you just say the cops got too close again? she wondered. A sigh, as familiar as Max, escaped her lips.

“Anyway, so here it is. Now we’re square. I don’t owe you.”

Now we’re square, she repeated in her mind, although she was sure he hadn’t meant it as sarcastically as she thought it. She’d always hated that phrase. Lucas used to say it to her, after. He always thought protecting her from the others gave him an all-access pass.

Max had never touched her, not like Lucas, but it occurred to her that he wasn’t all that much different from Lucas. They’d both used her for their own gain, their own pleasure. What about her? Why did it always have to be about what she owed others? What did she owe herself?

“Be in touch about another job soon. Max.”

She looked at the dresser where her latest equipment sat, along with dozens of blank credit cards. Max had taught her well, but he’d never counted on her on striking out on her own. On being smart enough to figure out how to skip ahead of the system and him.

We’re done with jobs, Max. From here on out I work for no one but myself.

She ripped up the note and took it to the bathroom. After dropping it into the toilet and pressing the flush handle, she waited until the water stopped swirling and then sat and peed. Then she flushed again. There. That would guarantee the whole thing was gone.

She went back into the bathroom and plugged in the small credit card printer. After a few beeps, taps, and swipes, she scooped the blank cards into the valise and put the newly-imprinted ones into her wallet. She took a few minutes to pack her few belongings—she’d already told the property manager she would be out by the end of the month—and then left the apartment.

No looking back. No regrets. No second thoughts. The woman Max knew as Darla had entered the apartment. It was Rachel Erskine who dropped the keys in the office box and drove away, heading toward the interstate to start a new life in a new town.

This time no one would own her, and she wouldn’t owe them. This time she would take care of herself. Alone.