Rose, by virtue of working at the Shopaminit was first to arrive. She also put the “closed” sign up in the window right before one o’clock and shooed off customers who wanted to come in to buy snacks.
“Just gas,” she told anyone who tried the door. “We’re doing an inspection. We’ll open in about an hour.”
Dre and his grandmother arrived next and were ushered in with the briefcase.
Skip was last, and he came with a friend. An intense-looking man with too-dark hair and almost too-much aftershave helped him out of the Cadillac Escalade and into a wheel chair.
Skip didn’t much look like the man he’d been the previous night. His clothes were clean, and he wasn’t covered in blood, he looked weaker and less formidable in the sweatshirt and track pants.
He looked old.
After he was ushered into the store and the door was locked behind him, Skip got right down to business. He thanked them for their help. They’d probably saved his life by calling the ambulance and very likely kept him out of deeper trouble by keeping his things out of sight.
He didn’t pretend that they hadn’t looked inside the briefcase.
“It’s not my money,” he said. “Honestly, under different circumstances, I’d have been pleased for you to keep it. The money, to me, represents a lapse in judgement and a near loss of what I hold dear. I appreciate you keeping it for me. I want to return it to its owner.”
Megan handed the briefcase to Skip, who opened the case and took out a single slip of paper from a pocket in the lining of the case. He closed the lid and handed the case to his associate.
“You have my phone, as well,” he asked.
Dre gave him the cell phone, which he put in his pocket. Then Rose handed over the gun.
“I was tempted to use that,” she said. “Almost did.”
That raised an eyebrow. Skip asked, “Is there a problem?”
Rose shook her head. “No problem at all.”
“I made some promises,” Skip said. “I’ll need your names and phone numbers. I will have someone give you a call about the college.”
“What if I don’t want to go to college?” Dre said.
“Then you don’t have to, but you don’t get the money instead.” Skip looked at Megan. “This will be no other strings attached. I’ll make sure he gets books, tuition, room and board –all of that, but anything beyond that is on someone else. Does that seem fair?”
Skip turned toward Rose.
“What can I get for you? Maybe something for your baby? Do you want to go to school?”
Rose thought about it and then said, “Can I get a little more time on that favor?”
Skip looked at his watch.
“I’m leaving the state in just a couple of hours,” he said. “If you want something from me, you kind of need to tell me before I go. Because once I’m home, there’s not going to be anything I can do.”
So, he gave her the number for his phone, the phone he planned to get rid of the second he returned home.
“You maybe have a day,” he said.
Rose took the number and said, “OK.”
“Why are you giving all that money back?” Dre asked, abruptly. “Who turns down a million and a half dollars?”
Skip smiled and said, “It’s a matter of principle. I was asked to do something that was against my core beliefs. I’m a believer in free enterprise, self-determination and liberty. I was asked to do something that went against that very much, that would have undermined my beliefs and changed the future.”
“You crazy?” Dre asked. “You saying you from the future?”
The man laughed and said, “No, but I was given a look at it. The people on this list are all good people. Some of them are going to run for election in the next few years. They represent the best your state has to offer –good, solid god-fearing people, decent people who don’t think government can solve every problem, who want their neighbors to keep what they earn and just want to raise their children the way they say they want to and not what some liberal do-gooder says is the right way.”
Skip said, “All of that is probably out of your pay grade. The important thing is I decided not to do what was best for some deranged special interest and instead listened to my heart.”
“Well,” Megan said. “Good luck with that.”
Benjamin Gardner had a temporary access ramp and a nurse standing by when Skip arrived for their meeting at his home. As soon as he was in the door, he asked Skip if he needed anything, if he wanted something to drink. He asked about how he was feeling.
For a liberal scumsucker, he was very hospitable, pleasant. Skip thought he’d have made a good Republican if he had half a brain.
Skip had Al hand over the briefcase as soon as they were alone in Benjamin’s pot-drenched office.
“I’m afraid I can’t accept this,” he said and before Benjamin could resist, Skip said, “Obviously, it’s going to take a while for me to recover my health, but to be fair, I can’t say that I entirely support your plan. Something about it rubs me the wrong way and I do hope that you will reconsider.”
Benjamin sagged behind his desk and pouted.
“Is it not enough money,” he asked.
Skip told him, “Throwing money at things isn’t always the solution to a difficult problem. I appreciate your passion, commend you on it, but your method is misguided. I think you have to let the free market of ideas run its course.” He shrugged. “So, I appreciate the offer to do business and for the trouble you went in locating me –also, thank-you for the flowers. They were very thoughtful, but I am returning your fee and my travel costs.
“This is not for me.”
For a second, Benjamin tried to argue, but Skip put up his hand and Al glowered at him, slightly. Skip was a sick man, but he wasn’t prepared to suffer any foolishness.
“Well, alright,” the millionaire hippie doo-dah said. “Have a safe trip home and get well soon.”
“Thank-you,” Skip said and Al led him out.
As Al and Skip drove down the hill to meet the ambulance to take Skip to the hospital in Cleveland, Al said, “It’s a shame you had such a bad trip. Giving up a mill and a half couldn’t have been easy.”
Skip laughed and said, “Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I gave the money back but kept the list. While you were getting our coffees at the hotel this morning, I called a foundation friend of mine and explained the list and what it was.”
“They were very excited about it,” he said. “They offered twice that much, sight unseen. We’re going to talk about it when I get to Cleveland.”