Chicago, Illinois

I sat on the floor of my tiny studio apartment staring at the piles of cash around me.

The boxes arrived a few days ago from Russia, sent by my Uncle Harry. Despite receiving a stern email from him warning me not to open the boxes, I didn’t waste any time tearing into them.

I was the weird one in my family. The only one who had chosen not to pursue a life of crime. I rarely spoke to anyone related to me and hadn’t seen my Uncle Harry since my father’s last parole hearing over ten years ago, when I was still a teenager. So when I received the boxes and a cryptic email from my uncle addressed to his favorite niece I was, of course, suspicious.
And judging from the stacks of cash taking up half my apartment floor, I had every right to be.

Five hundred thousand dollars.


My uncle had sent me five hundred thousand dollars through the freaking mail.

What was strange was, each box only weighed about six pounds. I totally would have thought thousands of hundred-dollar bills would have weighed more. Although, to be honest, that wasn’t the truly strange part. The truly strange part was that I had freaking FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS strewn about on a ten-dollar, slightly stained throw rug I had purchased from the Salvation Army last month.
Once again, I picked up my cell phone and tried to call my Uncle Harry. I had no idea what time it was in Russia, or even why he was there, and I didn’t care. I wanted an explanation. When he didn’t answer, I tried calling my other uncle, Uncle Frank. If anyone else was involved in this mess along with Uncle Harry, it would be my Uncle Frank. They were two petty criminal peas in a pod. Uncle Frank’s cell number was disconnected. Typical. Tossing the phone aside, I sighed as I surveyed the money.

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind this money was dirty, like really, really dirty. Anything anyone in my family touched was always filthy. They wouldn’t know how to make an honest dollar if it slapped them in the face.

What the hell was I going to do?

I glanced at the alarm clock and cried out. Damn, I was late for work. Work, another concept my family was completely unfamiliar with. I was the first in our family to attend community college. Now I was scraping money together for a real estate broker license.
Four thousand three hundred and sixty dollars, that’s how much I was in the hole right now. Between the pre-licensing courses, licensing exam, my basic real estate agent license and now the desk fees at the brokerage where I worked to become a licensed broker, I was in serious credit card debt. It had taken me three years of saving some of my server tips just to scrape enough together to cover costs while I took a huge pay hit launching my new career.

I lifted the edge of my Murphy bed and tucked it back into the wall cabinet so I could open the bathroom door, and turned the knob for my shower. The old pipes rattled and clanked. Rusty water spurted from the faucet. I turned the knob to cold so I wouldn’t be wasting hot water and money as I waited for the water to run clear. I turned on the coffeepot and reached for my toothbrush. One thing about being poor and living in a tiny studio apartment, everything I needed was literally within arm’s reach, especially when the kitchen and bathroom shared the same sink. Swishing the mint foam around my mouth as I brushed, I glanced over my shoulder at the money still lying on the floor.

Forty-one-hundred-dollar bills.

Forty out of five thousand one-hundred-dollar bills.

That’s all I would need.

Forty thin pieces of rectangular paper and most of my problems would be gone.

Disgusted at my thoughts, I spit in the sink and shrugged out of my T-shirt before stepping in the shower. My breath seized in my lungs as the icy water hit my chest. I had forgotten to turn the hot water knob. Sidestepping out of the freezing stream, I frantically turned the knob to add warm water, but it broke off in my hand. With a resigned sigh, I inhaled a deep breath and braced myself for the arctic chill as I flipped my long hair over my head and reached for the shampoo.

As I closed my eyes to avoid the suds, all I could see were the neat stacks of cash lying only a few feet away.

Wouldn’t I be doing a good thing by using just a tiny portion of the money for honest purposes? I wanted to have my own brokerage firm one day. A firm where female real estate agents could safely work without having to worry about getting their asses pinched or being told to fetch coffee. It may be the twenty-first century, but in many ways the real estate industry was still living in the 1950s.
In order to do that, I needed money, way more money than I was currently making. It would be at least ten years before I could afford to start my own business, unless — I peeked around the shower curtain at the money.

With a frustrated huff, I finished scrubbing the suds out of my hair and got out of the shower. Wrapping a slightly scratchy towel around my middle, I poured coffee into my favorite chipped mug and added sugar and powdered cream. No daily Starbucks on the way to work for me. I couldn’t afford such tiny luxuries.

I unplugged the coffee maker and plugged in the hair dryer. As I combed through the tangles in my hair with my fingers, I looked in the mirror and once again saw the cash.

It wasn’t like I would use it all, maybe just fifty thousand dollars’ worth. That would be enough to cover rent for a year, office furniture, equipment, and some splashy colorful marketing brochures. If I borrowed just a few thousand more, I could even get a professional website done instead of a basic do-it-yourself WordPress one. The appearance of wealth in this business was essential in getting the higher-end clients. Money attracted money. It was why I spent my rent money on nice dress suits and real-looking pearl necklaces. I would get nowhere in this business showing up in an ill-fitting thrift store outfit.

I leaned over the sink to apply mascara. My gaze traveled again to the cash. Okay, sixty thousand dollars and not a penny more. I would buy myself a decent wardrobe and maybe lease a nice Lincoln Town Car to shuttle my clients around Chicago to different properties for sale.

Sixty thousand dollars wasn’t that much, only six hundred bills out of five thousand. It probably wouldn’t even be missed. I would then donate the rest to charity or maybe play Santa Claus to the other hard-up residents in my building. I could leave little envelopes of cash for each of them to help cover rent and food. I couldn’t go to hell for using dirty money if I used most of it for good, right?
Going to the police was out of the question. I may have distanced myself from my criminal family, but I still shared their aversion to authority. Besides, with my juvenile record, there was no way they would take me at my word that the cash had just arrived on my doorstep and that I had nothing to do with it. And of course there was the bonus that it had arrived in boxes from Russia. Sure, nothing shady about that. My eyes rolled so hard I gave myself a headache.

I tiptoed between the piles of cash as I crossed the room to my bedroom/hall/linen/pantry closet. I selected a deep cranberry red A-line skirt with white flowers and matching white silk blouse that I had gotten a few weeks ago at the Anne Taylor Factory outlet and got dressed. I completed the outfit with a pair of black ballet flats and my favorite fake-but-real-looking pearl necklace.

I would rather wear four-inch platform heels to make up for my five foot six inch frame, but I had an open house today and would be on my feet for hours. It was smarter to wear the flats. It was a shame. My life was a little easier when I was taller than the men around me. Especially when one of those men was Larry, my boss. Middle-aged, balding and with a pooch of a belly, he somehow thought he was God’s gift to women.

I stared down at the cash at my feet. It was nice to dream, but there was no way I was going to touch one lousy bill of it for myself. That’s how it would start. Compromising my principles once would make it that much easier to compromise them again, then again. I had turned away from that life when I was a teenager. It had taken years to clean up my act and break free of my criminal family’s binds, and I wouldn’t turn back now. Even if abandoning those principles now made my dream of owning my own brokerage firm a reality, I would always know I had purchased it with tainted money. It wouldn’t be truly mine. It wouldn’t be something I had earned through hard work and determination.

With a sigh, I bent down to pick up several piles of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. I turned and surveyed my apartment. Where the hell could I hide all this money until I figured out what to do with it? I had precious few options in my studio apartment. There were no cabinets under the sink, and I’d already stuffed my closet full of clothes and ramen noodles. I surveyed the Murphy bed. It would have to do.

I pulled the bed back down to the floor, piled the cash on top and then quickly raised the bed frame back into its upright position. I snatched several wayward bills as they floated in the air and shoved them between the mattress and wall.
With one last sip of my now lukewarm coffee, I raced out the door. I would figure out what to do about the dirty money later after I got ahold of one of my uncles. For now the money, and I, were safe enough. Although we weren’t close, there was no way my Uncle Harry would have shipped the cash to me if he thought someone was actively looking for it, or if it would put my life in danger. Family was
still family.

So, it wasn’t like I had to worry about some big Russian thug breaking down my door for it.