THE FAVOR – Someone does you a favor. Are you required to return the favor? What if they want you to do something difficult? Impossible? Unthinkable? At some point, you may wish you’d never accepted their favor. 4,708 words.
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One day I stopped by Ed’s Pawn Shop. The card I got in the mail said I’d won ten sets of guitar strings. Any brand, any size. I couldn’t remember entering a contest, but I decided to pick up my prize anyway. The only catch was that I had to claim it by a certain date. And, of course, I had waited until the last day.
Everybody knows that when stores give away prizes, they’re hoping that once you come in, you’ll buy a lot of stuff. But I wasn’t gonna buy anything. I was gonna walk out of there with fifty to a hundred dollars’ worth of free guitar strings—and nothing else.
Pawn shops always have a lot of guitars for sale because a guitar is one of the first things people pawn when they get desperate for cash. Of course, they’ll only get 40-50% of the guitar’s value, and they’ll probably never come back to get it out of hock.
When I walked in, a red electric guitar caught my eye. It was a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. Candy-apple red. Price: $18,999. Whoa. I’d never pay that much for a guitar, but I still had to give it a play. I took it down from the wall, hooked it up to an amp, and began to jam.
An employee walked over and said. “Sounds great, huh?”
“Yeah, sure. I love it.”
“I can knock off two hundred if you take it home today.”
I stopped playing. “Not today.” Not ever, I thought. I unplugged it. “Thanks for the offer, though.” I hung it back on the wall.
He smiled. “Offer’s good till close of business.” He walked away.
I looked around at a few other guitars, and as I studied each one, I tried to imagine what kind of person might have owned it. A guy who played a lot of gigs in bars, where it got saturated with smoke, sweat, and whiskey? Or maybe some kid who never even learned to play. It might have sat in the corner for years, untouched.
I walked over to the wall of guitar strings to pick out my ten sets of freebies. A store employee passed me carrying a guitar case. He went to the nineteen-thousand dollar Fender I’d been playing earlier, took it off the wall, and put it in the case. Good thing I wasn’t planning to buy it because apparently someone else had already beaten me to it.
“The boss would like to speak to you. Now.”
I turned around. It was the guy who’d offered me the two-hundred dollar discount on the Fender. From the tone of his voice, it sounded like I was in trouble. What had I done? I looked up and saw a security camera. Then I realized they were everywhere. Did somebody think they’d seen me slipping a set of strings into my pocket or that I’d damaged one of their guitars?
I followed him to a large office in the back. There were two people sitting at desks: a large, middle-aged man with slicked-back hair and an attractive woman. She glanced at me and said, “You got company, Ed.”
He was shuffling through some paperwork. “I’m fully aware of that, Charlotte.” He looked up and said, “Robert Burton Robinson. Hmm. I understand you’re a mystery writer.”
I thought, how does he already know my name? “Yeah. Mysteries novels, suspense, short stories.”
“I’m Ed Douggle. Have a seat.”
It sounded more like an order than an offer.
I sat down in the chair in front of his desk. The salesman was standing directly behind me where I couldn’t see him—which was making me nervous.
“I’d like to borrow your car keys for just a minute, if you’d don’t mind.”
“My car keys? I don’t understand.”
“Please, Mr. Robinson.” He smiled. “Humor me. It’s a good thing.”
That was when I should have gotten up and walked out. But I didn’t. I took out my keys and put them on his desk.
“Thank you,” he said, as the employee picked them up and walked out.
“Wait. Where’s he going with my keys?”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Robinson. You’re gonna love this. I promise you.”
I doubted that.
“I’ve got some nice things out there on the floor, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, great guitars.”
“What about my guns? You don’t like guns?”
“Well, I, uh, don’t have anything against them particularly, but—”
“Today is your lucky day, Mr. Robinson.” He held up a receipt.
“It is?” I had no idea where he was headed.
“You just bought yourself one beautiful vintage guitar.”
“Uh … no, I didn’t. I didn’t buy anything. I just came in for my free strings.”
“The guitar comes with a new set.” He pushed the receipt across the desk to me.
I took the prize card out of my pocket. “No. I’m talking about this. I got it in the mail. It says I won ten sets of guitar strings.”
“Oh, you’ll get those too. Don’t worry.”
I picked up the receipt and examined it. It was for the nineteen-thousand dollar Fender. “No, no, no. I’m not buying this guitar.”
“Read it carefully.”
“I did. It says Paid in Full—cash. But I didn’t pay for it, and I can’t pay for it.”
“Look, Mr. Robinson, receipts don’t lie. It says you paid in full, so the transaction’s done. Nothing I can do about it. The guitar’s yours. Johnny’s putting it in your car as we speak.”
“No, this is all wrong.”
“As I said, it’s your lucky day. I’m feeling generous, and I’m a big fan of your writing, so this is just a little favor I wanted to do for you.”
What difference did it make that he was a fan of my writing? You don’t go around just giving people nineteen-thousand dollar guitars. I glanced at the woman sitting at the other desk. She seemed unfazed. Was this something Ed did on a regular basis?
Obviously, there was a catch. And for that kind of money, it was gonna be a big one. “What do you want from me?”
He grinned. “Just a small return of my very generous favor to you.”
I cringed. What could he possibly want me to do? The first thing that came to my mind was a hit job. A contract—that he’d already paid me for. He was gonna give me a gun and tell me to go whack somebody.
Have I mentioned that sometimes my imagination runs wild?
“In your car, along with your new guitar, you’ll find a package. I want you to deliver that package for me tomorrow night.”
“And that’s it?”
The expression on his face turned dead serious, as he leaned forward and said, “Do not open the package under any circumstances. And do not let it out of your sight. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“And handle it carefully. Your instructions will be delivered to your home by messenger tomorrow morning, so be sure you’re there to receive it.”
“Yes, I’ll be there.”
“I’ll have a couple of my men watching at all times—just to make sure everything goes as planned.”
The salesman who had left with my keys walked in and dropped them on the desk.
Ed stood up. “Looks like you’re good to go. Thank you, Mr. Robinson. I’m so glad you came in today.”
That made one of us. I stood up.
He came around the desk and shook my hand. “It’s fitting that you’ll be the one … to do the deed.”
I thought, how in the world did I get myself into this?
* * * * * * * * * *
When I walked up to my car, I saw the guitar case lying across the back seat. And there was a black box in the floorboard.
I had just been paid nineteen-thousand dollars to deliver a package. Why would he pay that kind of money for package delivery? I knew there was only one reason. This was a hit. That box had a bomb in it. Or maybe a gun with the serial numbers filed off. I was a patsy.
But there was an obvious solution to the problem. I drove out of the parking lot and headed for the police station. A white Lexus pulled out behind me. There were two men in the car. I recognized the driver as one of Ed’s men.
It could have been a coincidence that they left the pawn shop at the same time, traveling in the same direction, so I took the next right turn. The Lexus turned too. I went three blocks and took another right. So did the Lexus. At the next corner, I took another right. They followed me. I was now headed in the opposite direction of my first turn, yet they were still behind me.
I was trapped. I had no way of knowing what was in the package. What if it was a bomb that could be triggered remotely? If I drove to the police station, the guys in the Lexus could blow me up before I got out of my car.
I decided to go home. Once they left, I would go to the police. I parked in my driveway and carried the guitar and the package inside the house. Then I waited for the Lexus to leave. Two hours later, it was still there. Four hours. Still there. Didn’t these guys ever need a bathroom break? They must have been taking turns walking to the convenience store, down the street.
I thought about calling 9-1-1 or sending an email. But how could I be sure that Ed’s people weren’t listening in on my phone calls and hacking my email?
I was supposed to receive my instructions the next morning. I thought, maybe I’m being paranoid. Maybe this is a completely innocent thing—like Ed wanting to give someone a gift anonymously. But if that’s the case, why didn’t he just mail it?
I didn’t sleep much that night.
* * * * * * * * * *
When I got up the next morning, the Lexus was still parked across the street. I’m sure they didn’t get much rest, sleeping in the car. Even so, they probably slept better than I did.
Around ten o’clock, a messenger arrived at my door. I was expecting a letter giving me instructions on when and where to deliver the package. Instead, it was a box. I signed for it, and the messenger was on his way—oblivious to the fact that he might have just participated in a murder plot.
I carried the box to the kitchen counter and opened it. There was a box inside—probably sixteen inches long by six inches square—smaller than the black box I already had. It was well taped. Also, there was a package of red wrapping paper, two black bows, and a roll of Scotch tape.
At the bottom of the box was an unsealed envelope containing a formal invitation. It was fancy, with gold lettering and an official-looking seal. It said: You are cordially invited to attend a birthday celebration in honor of Alex Adelini. Invitee: Robert Burton Robinson. Relationship: Alex is a fan of the author.
Great, I thought. Another fan. And Ed wants me to kill him.
At the bottom of the invitation in smaller print, was a warning: You will not be admitted without this official invitation. No exceptions.
I knew the invitation was fake, but somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to make it look real.
I was directed to wrap the enclosed box and the black box separately, attach a bow on top of each one, and take the gifts to the party that night at 7:45, and to be sure that the smaller box was opened first.
I was also instructed to wear a suit to the party.
I wrapped the two boxes and placed a bow on top of each one. Then I prepared two index cards—one to go on the smaller box that said, “Open this box first or you will spoil the surprise.” The card for the big box said, “Open the other box first or you will spoil the surprise.”
I didn’t know why it mattered. But I had the feeling that Mr. Adelini would understand—right before he took his last breath.
I prayed I was wrong about that.
* * * * * * * * * *
The instructions called for me to arrive at Alex Adelini’s house between 7:30 and 7:45, but I absolutely had to get there before eight. I was surprised to see that the Lexus wasn’t following me, and I wondered if it was a good time to make a break for the police station. Then I noticed a black Escalade behind me.
As I approached the house, I saw dozens of cars parked on either side of the street, and I worried that I’d underestimated how long it would take for me to get into the house. What if I didn’t make the eight 0’clock cutoff?
I had to park a quarter-mile away. Now I was really concerned about the time. I got out with the two packages and began jogging to the house. I looked back once and saw the black Escalade pulling in behind my car.
Two men were standing in the driveway directing foot traffic. They were huge—like NFL linemen. They were instructing guests to follow the sidewalk around to the back of the house.
Another lineman was manning the entrance. He said, “Invitation, please.”
I set the packages down on the sidewalk and took the invitation out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him. I wondered what he would do if he suspected it was fake.
He asked for my ID. I pulled out my driver’s license, and I gave it to him. He eyed it carefully and then gave it back and said, “Once you enter, you will not be allowed to leave until 10:00 p.m.”
“I understand.” I understood, but I didn’t like it. Because if either of my packages had a bomb in it, I’d probably still be in the house when it went off. Not that I wanted anyone to die, of course. I just wanted to get out of there.
I walked into a huge game room with a high ceiling. There were at least four pool tables, and a long row of arcade games lined one of the walls. At the far end of the room, there was a long table stacked high with gifts. I thought, wow, this guy’s got a lot of good friends.
“I’ll take those for you.”
I looked to my left and saw a woman standing behind a table, smiling.
I set the packages on the table, and she began using a portable scanner to inspect my packages. What if she detected a bomb? I imagined being thrown in the back seat of a car by one of Alex’s linemen, driven to some dark, deserted road, and then pushed out and shot in the back of the head—execution style. Or maybe they’d use the piano-wire method.
The woman said, “Please enjoy some hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Alex will begin opening the presents in just a few minutes.”
“Okay, thanks.” I stepped away from the table, took out my phone, and checked the time. It was 7:53. Too close for comfort.
I glanced back at the table. A man picked up my packages and was carrying them away. The scanner didn’t find a bomb, I thought, so everything should be fine. But then I realized that he might be about to slip out an exit, away from all the people to protect them from the blast. If that was the case, I would be apprehended soon. Even so, I couldn’t make a run for it. I was stuck in that room until ten.
I worked my way past groups of people standing around talking and drinking, all the while keeping my eye on the man carrying my packages. I think I held my breath the entire time until I saw him place them on the table with the other presents.
I was relieved, of course, but it made me wonder why I was there. Why had Ed gone to all that trouble and expense just to have me deliver two harmless packages to this man?
Maybe I had completely misjudged Ed Douggle. Maybe he was a good guy who liked to do things for random people. He wanted me to have that guitar, but he figured I wouldn’t accept it as a free gift, so he came up with this wacky, secretive assignment as a way to do something nice for me and for Mr. Adelini. Two birds, one stone. What a guy.
Anyway, my job was done. Mission accomplished. Of course, I couldn’t leave until ten o’clock, but nobody was gonna die.
I was curious, though. I wanted to get a good look at whatever was in the boxes I brought, so I worked my way up to the front of the gift table. A few minutes later, at precisely eight o’clock, a man walked up behind the table. He said, “I want to thank you all for coming. It means so much to me.”
So this is Alex Adelini, I thought. He looked to be about the same age as Ed.
A teenage girl walked up and stood beside him. He turned to her and said, “Happy Sweet Sixteen, my dear Alexandra. I love you, and apparently, so do all these people.” He kissed her on the check.
You’re kidding me, I thought. I’d never considered that Alex could be a girl.
The man, who was apparently her father, walked over to the side and joined the crowd.
She grinned and waved to everyone, and stepped up to the gift table and opened a present. It was a beautiful diamond necklace. She held it up for the crowd, and they oohed and ahhed.
Then she spotted my packages. They were the only ones wrapped in solid red paper with black bows. I guess Ed wanted them to stand out.
She went over to them and studied the index cards and followed the instructions, opening the smaller box first. There was a note inside. She took it out, read it silently, and began laughing. Then she took a pair of goggles out of the box and put them on.
Were they for swimming? Snorkeling? Alex seemed to know.
The next thing out of the box was a hammer. She held it up and grinned.
The rest of the crowd seemed as confused as I was.
Alex set the hammer down and quickly unwrapped my second box, then picked up the hammer and raised it above her head with both hands.
People began to whisper.
Her dad said, “Honey, what are you doing?”
With a fierce look on her face, she hammered the box over and over again until she had busted a hole in the top of it. She set the hammer aside and took off the goggles and dropped them on the floor. Then she reached into the box … and pulled out a revolver.
Several people gasped at the sight of a pistol in the hand of a sixteen-year old.
Her father said, “Honey, be careful with that thing,” as he hurried toward her.
I wondered if I was the intended victim. I was standing right in front of her. Maybe she was about to shoot me. She pulled back the trigger with her thumb and spun the chamber with her other hand. It was definitely not her first time to hold a gun.
Four men in black suits came out of nowhere, rushed up to her, and took the gun away. They weren’t the big men I’d seen outside. These looked like Feds. I wondered if they were the ones who’d followed me there in the black Escalade.
One of them held up his badge, and said, “FBI. Don’t worry, people. We’ve got this under control. Everybody remain calm.”
But it didn’t make any sense. Why was the FBI there?
It took the agents several hours to question everyone. When my guy was done with me, he told me I couldn’t drive my car home. They needed to inspect it. Said he’d give me a ride, and that I’d get my car back in a day or two.
By the time I got to bed it was four o’clock in the morning.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, around eleven o’clock, I was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee when the doorbell rang. I’d only been up for thirty minutes and was still in my robe.
It was the FBI agent who’d questioned me the night before and given me a ride home.
“Are you here to tell me that the FBI is done with my car?”
“No, I’m afraid not, Mr. Robinson. I promised to update you on the case. That’s why I’m here.”
“Come in.” I took him into my office and we sat down.
“Ed Douggle is dead.”
“Not sure, and I can’t give you any details, except to say that he died in his bed—apparently while sleeping.”
“What about his wife?”
“It was just him. He was divorced.”
“Well, okay, but what about that woman in his office—Charlotte—the one I told you about? If she wasn’t his wife, then I’ll bet she was the girlfriend.”
“Yeah, we know that he had a girlfriend named Charlotte Harregon, but that may not be her real name. I’m gonna need you to come down to the office and work with our sketch artist.”
“I’ll give you time to get dressed.”
“Gee, thanks. But first, I’ve got a few more questions.”
“Okay. But make it quick.”
“What about Ed’s men?”
He hesitated. “They’re in the wind. But we’re tracking them down.”
“What I still don’t get is why the FBI got involved in this. I mean, what do you care if a guy is giving stuff away. He wasn’t hurting anybody.”
“Oh, Mr. Robinson, you’re awfully naive for a novelist. Ed Douggle was a gangster.”
“Yeah. The pawn shop was a front for his hitman-for-hire business. He would accept a contract to kill somebody, and then strong-arm some poor sap into delivering a package with a bomb or poison cookies. Then, once the package was delivered, his guys would detonate the bomb or let the poison do its job. Then they’d take out the delivery man.”
“Take out the delivery man? As in…?”
“So I was lucky that you guys were there last night.”
“You were very lucky.”
“Except that…there was no bomb, right? Was there any poison?”
“Then why did Ed Douggle send me to the party with those packages? What was the purpose?”
He stood up. “I’ve already told you as much as I can.”
I said, “Look, man, I just got out of bed, and I haven’t had anything to eat.”
He said, “No problem. Just throw on some clothes, and we’ll pick up a hamburger on the way to the office.”
“And then I’ll get my car back?”
“Sorry. Not today.”
“Okay, fine.” I stood up.
He was eyeing my new candy-apple red Fender guitar that I’d hung on the wall next to my bass.
“It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Wait—I don’t have to surrender it, do I? I mean, Ed’s dead, and everybody else is gone, so—”
He held up his hand for me to quit talking.
Something clicked or ticked—so softly that it was almost imperceptible.
The agent grabbed me and yanked me out of the room and launched us into the living room. I hit the floor first and he landed on top of me. Then, BOOM!
I wasn’t sure I could move. I couldn’t hear anything, and I was afraid my ear drums had burst. I could smell burnt skin and hair. The agent felt like dead weight on top of me. I wondered if he was alive.
He finally said, “Are you okay?”
I said, “I’m alive.”
“Yeah, me too.” He rolled off of me, and that’s when I realized that I had a couple of cracked ribs.
I looked toward my office. The walls were gone. And the guitars, the computer, the desk? Nothing but toothpicks.
* * * * * * * * * *
With what I learned from the FBI, plus a lot of gossip, I think I understand why I was sent to a girl’s sweet sixteen party with a hammer and a gun. A few years ago, Alex’s mother had dated Ed Douggle for a while. They lived together—and he and Alex became close. Back then, his pawn shop was a legitimate business. And his favorite hobbies were gun collecting and target practice.
Ed’s love for guns rubbed off on the young girl, and he promised to help her start her own collection. But then her mom met a new guy—a rich guy—and dumped Ed, got married, and quit her job. The new stepdad decided that Ed Douggle was a bad influence on Alex, so he laid down the law: no further communication with Ed—ever. It broke Alex’s heart, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Eventually Ed found himself a new girlfriend: Charlotte Harregon—who had mob connections. She taught Ed how to make serious money with a hitman-for-hire business.
But Ed was always talking about his sweet Alexandra and how he missed her so much, and it made Charlotte jealous, even though Alex was just a teenager. So, when he brought up the idea of buying Alex an expensive gift for her birthday, Charlotte went ballistic, and told him that if he bought any expensive gifts they’d better be for her.
Even so, Ed was determined to give Alex a birthday gift—no matter what Charlotte said. After all, it was a big one—her sweet sixteen—so he sent me that prize card in the mail. I was the only person who got one.
The reason he chose me was because he’d given Alex a copy of my book Dream Tunnel when they were together, and she loved it. He figured the guards would have to let me in the door even if they weren’t sure about the authenticity of my invitation.
I guess if there had been a problem with the invitation, Ed had expected me to say something like, You have to let me in. I’m Alex’s favorite author. Then the guard would go ask Alex about it, and she would be thrilled that I was there and tell him to let me in.
How crazy was that plan?
He set me up to deliver those two packages, and he did it right under Charlotte’s nose. She obviously didn’t know who the target was or that I would not be killing anybody.
But that didn’t matter. Somebody was gonna kill me afterwards anyway—even though I hadn’t murdered anyone. They blew up my office. I never understood why.
It took months for my house to be repaired and for me to get my office back. Of course, I’ll never get my old guitars back. Sure, I’ll replace them, but those guitars held some good memories.
As far as the nineteen-thousand dollar Fender—I’m having a hard time getting past the bad memories associated with that thing.
You know…I thought that telling you this story might flush it out of my brain. Get it out of my dreams. But I’m not too sure it’s gonna work.
A message popped up on my computer today. Not an email—a popup. I don’t know where it came from, but I’m pretty sure I know who it came from: Charlotte Harregon—or whatever her real name is.
I had just enough time to read it before it disappeared.
You survived my guitar bomb. Good for you, Mr. Robinson. You’ve earned the right to live a little longer. But if I find out that you’re spreading stories about me, I’ll be back. And you’ll never see me coming.
So, now I’m thinking…maybe I shouldn’t have shared this story with you. Promise me that you’ll keep it a secret.
Copyright © 2016 Robert Burton Robinson