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Chi-Town Blues: An Anthology

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5/ "Double Jeopardy"

by D. J. Herda

A cockroach poked its head anxiously out from beneath a bureau across the room.  Several times it peeked out, paused, sniffed the air like a golden retriever getting a fix, then scurried back to safety.

"Yes, Mrs. Martinowicz," I said.  "I mean, no."  The insect was proving to be welcomed diversion to the endless harangue falling from the woman's ancient lips.  For hours, she droned on, pausing only long enough to ask a brief question, never long enough to hear an answer.  She'd enjoyed a happy childhood in Poland, selling flowers to the peasantry in her grandmother's shop.  She moved to America, met and married her husband, lost him only a year ago.  A yellow tear formed in the corner of one eye, beading up to enormous proportions, then scaling its way slowly down a complexion so parched and crinkled, you could have read the Preamble in it.

"You know, excuse me, Mr. Joseph, sir, such a beautiful, such an elegant name as that ... excuse me for saying the trouble with this America people is all this, this ... fooling around that so many people ... and the women ... do.  It's a sin, excuse me, how these old hags who could scare the Frankenstein how they smear all this makeup stuff all over their faces and they put on these short dresses, these skirts, and it's a sin how they chase after some men, now, isn't it?  But, you know, Mr. Joseph, sir, I feel sorry for them, because they're all empty people inside ... with this sexy business and all.  And I can't stand empty people.  I can't stand people who don't use the brains the good God gave them.  Excuse me for saying it, Mr. Joseph, sir, darling, but I just can't stand no empty people.

"Mrs. Martinowicz ..."  I pulled my legs under me and boosted myself from the chair.  "I'll take it."

Mrs. Martinowicz patted the ball of yellow hair tacked to the back of her head.  "Then you don't want it, no?"

"No.  I mean, yes, I want it.  I'll take the apartment."

"Oh, my God, can you believe it?  Such an elegant young gentleman like yourself, to want such an old apartment like this.  That is a gift from the God.  Believe me, sir, a gift from the God."

"I have to go now, Mrs. Martinowicz.  I'm on my lunch hour from the bank.  I don't have many things to move in here in the way of furniture and all.  Mostly clothes.  A few boxes.  I could do it in a day, easy.  Maybe this Saturday, if that works out with you."

I watched very carefully the way Mrs. Martinowicz signed her name, "Mrs. Josephine Martinowicz," on the receipt, which she folded twice and handed to me.  I'd had some training in handwriting analysis and found it fascinating, analyzing people's natures and then comparing that to what their handwriting revealed.  It was more than a pastime with me.  It was a vice.

"Then, Mr. Joseph, sir, I see you Saturday, around noon, no?"

My mind raced as I hiked the stairs leading to the outside walk.  What a God-awful hole.

 Who would have imagined?  Me, a rising, button-down-collar man at the First.  But, then again, it wouldn't be intolerable.  Within a coupe of days, if all went well, I'd be settled in.  Within a couple of weeks, I'd be rich.

*          *          *

The last two people filed out of the department.  I opened my bottom desk drawer and pulled out a stack of mimeographed sheets.  Slowly, I ran my finger up and down the list, stopping finally at Account Number 74775.

"Martinowicz," I whispered.

Quickly my fingers followed the line of print after her name.  Address?  Four east Maple, 60606, 659-1111.  Credit Rating?  AAA.  Loans in Force?  None.  Amount on Account?  $373,244.

"Lunch, Joe?"

The voice startled me.  "What?"

"I say, aren't you going to lunch?"  Fred Cox learned over my shoulder.  I wanted to close the sheaf of papers before me ... or set them print-side down on my desk.  But neither one would do.  That would surely make him suspicious.  No, I'd just have to sit tight and hope for the best.

"Oh.  No, no."  I pointed to a wrapped sandwich sitting next to my phone.  "I thought I'd just eat in today.  You know, catch up on a little work.  I want to use the 5660 to run some figures I've been working on."  I hoped he wouldn't notice the sweat forming on my brow.

"Bernice?"  Fred turned to the computer.  "If she can't do it, nobody can.  Of course, you have to treat her right, you understand.  Just like any other woman.  You can kick her around a little and push her to the limit, get her all fired up as hell.  Then, just when you think the love affair is over, you give her a pat on her processor, and she'll purr like a kitten."  Fred winked.

"Oh ... yes, sir."  I forced an awkward little laugh.  "Very good, sir.  I'll have to remember that."

"Well, I'm taking off, now.  Be back in an hour, just in case anybody calls."

I followed the hollow sound of his hard-soled down the corridor and across the hall.Pause.  More sounds, and then the slam of the elevator door as the fiberglass-and-steel cage whisked its occupant to the 14th-floor cafeteria.  My pulse suddenly dropped 20 points and I took my first breath in 30 seconds.  Sweat rolled down my temples.

Stupid, Joe.  Very stupid.  If I'm going to do this thing, I have to do it right.  No chance for slip-ups.  Absolutely none.  Or I won't do it at all.  I'm not going to spend the next 30 years of my life in Joliet.  No way!

I continued scanning the list, copying all the information I needed, running the rest through the shredder in Fred's office.  Then I punched some figures into the computer and corrected the master tape for Account Number 74775.  After that, I went across the hall to Internal Security.  As I expected, the department was vacant except for Marge.

"Hey.  Hi, Megs."

"Joe.  How you doin'? "

I shrugged.  "Oh, you know.  Busy, busy.  Like they say, no rest for the wick ... I mean the weary."

Some other time, I might have been tempted to stand around while.  You know, sling a little trash.  Megs had the smoothest curves and the sweetest smile I'd ever seen.  And when she walked, her firm, well-rounded rump swayed poetically--the kind of sway that tells a man she's a woman of great knowledge ... all carnal.  And anxious to put it to use.

"Say, I've got to check out a signature on the scanner.  Okay?"

She threw her shoulders back and motioned with her arms.  "Let me know if you need any help."

I had to struggle suddenly to remember why I was there.  In fact, for a brief moment, I was tempted to feel her out on it--just kidding around.  Tell her I'd make her a partner, ask her along for the ride.  Something in the way she smiled told me she wasn't exactly above it all.  And she'd be good company along the way.

But it was too risky.  I knew that.  There was too much at stake.  Too much riding on everything going smoothly.  I needed a foolproof plan, 100 percent.  And that meant no one else could know what I was up to.  After all, there were a million Margaret Millers down in Mexico.  Plenty to last me for the rest of my days.  And with the money I'd soon have, I'd be able to sample each and every one of them.

I turned the scanner on, punched in Account Number 74775, and waited as the machine whirred into action.  On a screen the size of a portable TV, up popped the name, "Josephine Martinowicz."  Below it was her signature.  Quickly, carefully, I revised the name and traced the revised signature on a new scanner card.  Now it read, "J. Martinowicz."

I replaced the existing card with the new one and copied the signature onto a dozen blank withdrawal slips, just as the elevator bell rang and the security department personnel began funneling back from lunch.  I quickly turned the machine off, threw Megs one last provocative wink, and headed out the door.  It was all too simple.  It was perfect.

*          *          *

I sank into an old, tattered and torn chaise lounge that had been making people feel uncomfortable since the war--the Civil War--and switched on a lamp by my side.  It was quarter to six, the last rays of the sun slipping behind the brownstones lining the street across from my apartment. 

I grabbed my attaché case and opened it across my lap.  From one of the upper pockets I pulled the stack of withdrawal slips I had brought home with me from the bank.  In the open space marked, "Amount Withdrawn," I carefully printed the figure, "$19,000."  It was not an arbitrary amount.  I knew from experience that all withdrawals for $20,000 or more required a Federal report before they could be honored.  Federal reports meant, of course, more paperwork, more signatures, and witnesses--none of which I was particularly anxious to invoke.

In the space marked "Address," just above the signature line,  I printed "13 Avenue del Tores, Acapulco, Mexico."  I checked the box marked "Bank Draft," slipped the paper into a a pre-addressed and stamped envelope, and sealed it.  Within a week, I would be 19 thousand dollars richer.  Within 12 weeks ... well, it was easy enough to calculate.  I probably could have gotten it all, but then, again, I've never been what one would call  "greedy."

When I had first gone to work at the bank as a computer programmer, I was clearing $180 a week.  Which, you understand, is not horrible.  But, with eight other full- and two part-time programmers on the payroll, advances were sure to be slow ... if they came at all.  And I am too ambitious to stagnate.

The idea of running a grift on Mrs. Martinowicz came after I'd told her where I worked.  Why, that's where I bank, she told me.  On a hunch, I followed up on it.  Now, that alone wasn't enough to stir me to action.  But when I found out the old lady was a widow, with no family in the world that she knew of, I would have been a fool to let it ride.  After all, at 75 or 80, her days were numbered.  And who better to benefit from her fortune--her cat?

I put on my coat and hat and went outside to the mailbox.  I felt like kissing the envelope goodbye before dropping it through the slot but instead slipped it into the hole like any normal personal mailing a check to the telephone company or Sears.

In the morning, the bank would receive the withdrawal slip and run it through the computer.  The giant machine would shoot a shower of sparks this way and that before determining that there were more than enough funds to cover the withdrawal.

Next, the slip would be routed to Internal Security, where someone--maybe even Megs--would run the paper through the scanner, where it would be compared with the signature on file.  The two "J. Martinowicz" lines would be identical--I had made certain of that.

Finally, the slip would pass to Auditing, where a bank draft for $19,000 would be issued to the account holder and mailed to the villa I had rented in Mexico.  Once there, I'd have no trouble at all using the funds to open an account under the name of Joseph--or "J."--Martinowicz.  I'd over-ridden the computer's master tapes to skip two months of statements for Account Number 74775.  The previous month's statements had just gone out in the mail.  By drawing $19,000 a week for 12 weeks, I'd have an account tipping $228,000 by the time Mrs. Martinowicz finally saw what was going on.  And Mexico, I was careful to find out in advance, had no extradition treaties with the U.S. for any crimes short of murder.

So, I walked down the street, turning north on Rush, where I let my eye feast on the girlie-shows and the strip bars and the blues clubs and the buildings darkened on the outside and blazing on the inside, where only God knew what went on, and only stopped once to chat briefly with Fat Max, who worked for one of the nude dance clubs as a "grabber."

"Hey, man.  Doncha be walkin' on by like dat.  Don' you know what beautiful dings is wigglin' an' a-wrigglin' just inside dees doe?  Come on, my main man.  Gib yoself a treat.  No cover, no 'mishon.  Jes you an' duh li'l ladies, doin' what cum natchel, dig?"

I smiled and slipped him a buck, I don't know why, then wandered on down toward State Street and a small hamburger joint I'd visited once or twice before.  It wasn't exactly what I had a taste for.  But with less than 12 bucks and a one-way ticket to Acapulco in my billfold, it would have to do.

*          *          *

My stomach was rumbling.  Probably the beef.  But I didn't care.  I had less than two hours to finish stuffing my suitcase with everything in the world that I owned and rush out to O'Hare to catch my flight.  Then, just four hours later, I'd be home free.  It was too good to be true.

Suddenly, as I stuffed my last shirt into the satchel and struggled to close the clamps, I heard a knock at the door.

I froze.

Who could that be?

My heart raced, my palms itched, my temples pounded--pounded so hard I didn't just feel them, I heard them ... actually heard them, for God's sake.  I looked around.  It wouldn't do to have anything lying about that might give me away.  But everything looked normal, everything looked natural.  I quickly shoved my cased under the bed and paused.

Silence.

I let out a deep breath.  Had I been mistaken?  I must have been.  I checked my watch.  Nearly 10:30.  No one would come calling at 10:30 at night.  Not on a Wednesday.  Not on a work night.

I listened some more.  The only sounds in an otherwise still sanctum were the steady klickety-klack of the roaches as their little feet skittered across the Formica table in the kitchen.

I was just in the process of bending down to pull my satchel out from under the bed when I heard it again.  Louder, this time, more insistent.  I shot up, my eyes bulging.  This time, there was no mistaking it.

Fuck!  I spat.  I had slipped up.  I knew it.  I had missed some tiny, nearly inconceivable detail and would now have to pay for my carelessness.

But that was impossible.  I'd followed my plan down to the letter--even so far as giving my boss at the bank a note from my doctor, ordering me to Arizona for three months of asthmatic R&R.  He was a friend, a guy I went to school with, not really a doctor but a pharmacist--close enough.  I slipped him a fifty and told him I desperately needed a break for a few weeks.  That was all it had taken.  Not only had my boss bought it hook, line, and sinker, but he actually expressed his deepest sympathies and concerns.  He even put me on medical sick leave from the bank, meaning I could continue drawing my paycheck, which I conveniently instructed Accounting to send to a drop-box in Tucson, where it would be forwarded to me in Mexico.

"You lucky son-of-a-gun," Fred announced when I'd told him of my misfortunes.  "While we're here, suffering through the snow and freezing weather, you'll be basking in the sunshine by the pool and flirting with all those pretty girls!"  I smiled to myself.  Little did he know.

The knock sounded again, louder than the last.  It was Mrs. Martinowicz come to say goodbye.  That was it.  To wish me luck ... maybe even refund me half my rent.  That would be fine with me.  I could use a little extra traveling cash.  It never hurt, you know.

I let out another deep breath, straightened my tie, and walked across the kitchen to the door.  I lifted the latch, but Mrs. Martinowicz was nowhere to be found.

"Mr. Singleton?  Joseph Singleton?" the taller of the two men asked.  He wore a suit like a Maxwell Street bum and smelled like an cheap undertaker.  His eyes were cold, glossy, black.  His lips were dry and white.  I couldn't tell whether or not he had any color at all in his face.

"Yes," I said.

"Mr. Singleton, we have a warrant for your arrest."

I froze.  Could I have heard right?  Was he a cop?  I glanced at the second man, a uniform, and realized what was happening.

I furrowed my brow.  "What?  There must be ... some mistake."

The man shook his head.  "No mistake."

"On what ... grounds?"  I really didn't want to know, but I figured it would look bad if I didn't at least feign surprise.

He squinted down at a piece of paper he'd been holding.  "Mr. Singleton, you are under arrest on suspicion of grand larceny, grand theft, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, attempt to commit mail fraud, and attempt to leave the scene of a crime.  Will you turn around, please."

"What?" I said again.  This time the furrowed brow was real.  "You're kidding."

I mean, attempted fraud, I could see.  But I hadn't done all that other stuff.  Not yet, anyway.  And how on earth could they have known what I was planning on doing?  I hadn't exactly taken out an ad in the Chicago Tribune, for God's sake.  It was insane.

The man shook his head, again.  "'Fraid not.  Mr. Singleton, you have the right to remain silent.  Should you not choose to remain silent, anything and everything you say may be held against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney.  Should you not be able to afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you ..."

I never did hear the rest.  I was too stunned.  He could have read me the Mexican National Anthem, for all I knew.  For all I cared.  Somewhere along the line I had miscalculated.  It was the perfect crime--with one flaw.  But what?

I gathered up my wallet and grabbed my watch, then slung my coat across my back.  The officer turned me around, and I felt the sudden numbing coldness of the steel rings clamp closed across my wrists.  The next thing I knew, my feet were shuffling out the door.

"This is some mistake," I said.  "Some big mistake."

"I don't think so," he said.  "We've got you nailed to the wall."

He led me up the stairwell and out into the night, where we paused at the curb for his partner to walk around and unlock the door.

"Tell me," I said.  I knew I shouldn't have.  I knew it was stupid, against all advice any attorney might have given me.  I knew it was wrong to say anything, but I had to find out.  I had to know!

"What?"

"How?"

He paused.  "How what, sir?"

"How did you find out?"

"Oh, that.  Mrs. Martinowicz tipped us off."

"Mrs. Martinowicz?  How did she know?"

"Well," he said.  "It seems Mrs. Martinowicz has two names on her bank account--her own and a fictitious co-signer, Brenda Smith.  When the bank received a withdrawal slip signed by only one name, the computer spit it out as improperly endorsed.  That sent it to the bank's Internal Security department, and they notified us.  It took us awhile, but we finally traced it back to you.  Mrs. Martinowicz got a little suspicious when she noticed all those travel brochures from the Mexican Tourist Council in your mail box.  After all, who's interested in Mexico when he's getting ready for a trip to Arizona?  It wasn't hard to tie you to the villa in Acapulco."

"Two signatures!"  I sighed.  "Unbelievable."  I lowered my head and slipped into the back seat of the black-and-white.

"Yeah," the officer replied.  "It's a little trick she picked up while working in Europe--as a bank examiner ..."
 

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