When you are studying to become a teacher, they tell you it’s not important that your students like you, but that you teach them something. I found that to be true only when you care more about teaching than feeling good about yourself. Being liked by the people you spend twenty hours with every week is kind of important. Whether that’s a good thing or not.
So I became one of the cool teachers. Maybe I could have taught them more, but you know what, I don’t think it’s that important that everyone has the best possible recollection of what battle happened when. If people enjoy learning about it, that’s great. Maybe the one or two who are really into it go on to study it and really bring the field forward. It would help the world more than if I taught twenty of them knowledge that had little benefit beyond a TV quiz show.
As I was sitting at my desk, looking out at snowflakes slowly falling outside the window, a clank ripped my gaze away from the window and to the object that was just firmly placed on my desk. A cup. Ah right, the yearly ‘Let’s impress the teacher with cool gifts instead of studying for our exams’ ritual. I loved it.
“What’s that?” I said. “You’re the history teacher, you tell me,” came the snippish reply from Lara. Lara was the kind of student that made teachers uncomfortable. Looking at the way she was dressed tempted me to check the window outside to see if it was still snowing. Lara wasn’t dressed for snow. Heck, Lara wasn’t dressed for anything beyond an indoor breeze. Luckily, this was the last year before she graduated, and I wouldn’t have to put up with this anymore.
I sighed and picked up the cup. Looked old. “eBay?” I asked. Lara nodded. “Got it from overseas.” It was the usual ritual. Students bought some fake stuff on eBay, I acted impressed. They were happy, I was happy, guy selling fake pieces of the Berlin Wall was happy as well. No harm done.
“This is way beyond my expertise. I’ll have to ask my friend at the British Museum about it.” Anything was way beyond my expertise. They could give me an original draft of the Declaration of Independence and I would have to ask which country it was from.
I actually did have a friend at the British Museum. Not that I bothered him with whatever my students found on eBay. He was the real deal. An actual historian. I was just the guy that couldn’t get into any other program and decided the last thing I want to do is actual academia.
I shot a quick smile at Lara – nothing too long to be misunderstood – said my thanks and pretended to busy myself with paperwork. Not that there was any more paperwork to be done. But going back to staring out the window wouldn’t have been quite as effective at dismissing her.
It was two weeks later, after the break, when Lara came back asking me what I found out about the cup. The cup? The cup sits in the box with the other junk guys give me on an annual basis, waiting to go back on eBay. “I’m still waiting to hear from my friend at the British Museum.” I said out loud.
Lara nodded. I figured she would scoot off, but she didn’t. “It’s only because the seller sent me a rather odd message. It sounded like he sent me the wrong cup. Must have been some kind of heirloom. He even offered to come by, pick it up himself, and give me a replacement. Plus a finder’s fee of $50.” Oh, that would come in handy. Maybe I should find out who that sender was. “Where did you say the sender was from again?” I asked her. “I checked again,” she replied, “It was shipped from Syria”.
What Syrian accidentally sells an heirloom on eBay and then offers to fly over to pick it up? The whole thing sounded like drug deal gone wrong to me. Or maybe gone right. Would be a nice way to claim plausible deniability. I should definitely give that cup a closer look. I knew a guy who might offer a pretty penny for that.
Lara seemed nervous. “He was very insistent. It was a bit scary. But I also felt a bit sorry for him.” I didn’t like where this was going. “He really seemed to have been hard hit by this.” I didn’t like where this was going at all. “What did you say to him?” I asked her. “Well, I explained it was a Christmas gift for my history teacher and that I couldn’t return the cup to him,” Lara said. Phew, lucky me. “But I gave him your e-mail so he can contact you directly,” she continued.
Great. My e-mail was literally my first name, followed by my last name, at my employer. Amazing. Not only a drug deal gone wrong, but my employer on the hook as well. “You did the right thing, thanks for giving me a heads-up,” I say to Lara. No point in worrying her.
I make my way home and ponder how to best handle it. The easiest may just be to return the cup. Maybe negotiate for a bit of a better rate. Whoever was willing to pay $50 might be willing to pay $500. Shouldn’t ask for too much. Otherwise, they might consider it cheaper to deal with this in other ways. Plus, it’s an amount where I can still claim to be ignorant. It looked like a pretty cup after all.
My mood lightens up a bit. As long as I don’t look, as long as I don’t check, I can just go through with it. Make some extra cash on the side, and get some car repair money out of this. Maybe not a bad development after all. I thought my less legit days were already behind me, but if there’s so little risk involved? Why not. Besides, I was already in it, whether I liked it or not.
Once home, I shove a plastic box of curry and dried out rice in the microwave. I figure the curry gone stale and the rice gone dry will help each other overcome any culinary shortcomings their state would otherwise provide. The resulting mash keeps me company, keeps me from starving, but isn’t exactly something to look forward to. It reminds me of my job.
There are 25 unread e-mails. 24 of them are newsletters I’m too lazy to click ‘unsubscribe’ on. The 25th one is missing an unsubscribe link. In fact, no links at all. No pictures either. It starts off with a salutation.
“Dear Mr. Renton,”
That would be me.
“As I learned from one of your students, you’ve recently come into possession of an old heirloom that used to belong to my family.”
That would be the cup.
“It may come as a surprise to you that I hold this cup quite dear and deeply regret having lost possession of it as a consequence of a family misunderstanding.”
That would be an interesting story I’d like to hear.
“I’m writing to inform you that I’m currently en route to your dwelling in order to discuss a return of said item. I can ensure you that you’ll be compensated well for any inconvenience this may have caused you.”
That would be nice.
“Kindest Regards, Neethu Mar Dhaaniel”
That didn’t sound like a drug dealer. And he didn’t write like one. In summary, Syrian Tupac wrote me an e-mail, telling me that he, and probably his entourage, is on the way to pick up some goods at my house. So far, so good. Now how to best handle this. Because I most certainly don’t want to have these guys in my house. It didn’t say when they were planning to show up either.
On a whim, I check the IP address of the e-mail. Damascus. The Syrian capital. I’m a bit surprised. I figured it might be a ruse. That there was some kind of contact person who would drop by to pick it up. Maybe there was? This was just the guy coordinating stuff. I assume things weren’t going so well over in Syria, and they had turned to some other options of income. Surely they had contacts in the US. I find myself imagining how I’d go about setting up a meth lab somewhere in a civil war zone, wondering if it’s actually safer or riskier than running it out of upstate New York.
I’m still daydreaming about my cooking career when the door bell rings.
Fuck. I wasn’t prepared for things to move this quickly. For a moment, I try to calm myself down, trying to tell myself that it’s an Amazon delivery. But Amazon doesn’t deliver at 11:23pm.
I take a deep breath. It’s all good. I change my approach to my internal pep talk. This is actually a good thing. This can be over and done with in a few minutes. No one the wiser. Now I just need to keep my cool.
My heart is hammering in my chest as I make my way to the door. Some kind of hyper awareness makes me simultaneously aware of the shadows being cast by the different lamps in the hallway. Creating patterns on the floor.
My feet try to not make a sound as I make my way to the front door. It’s as if they want to keep the option open to pretend that I’m not at home. It’s ridiculous. The lights are on. The curtains aren’t drawn shut. Anyone outside would have seen me sitting in the living room.
The beating of my heart seems to approach a physically painful level. My breathing speeds up. The house is otherwise silent. Another ding-dong of the door ball makes me jump. I’m clearly not made for a career in crime. Some guy is at my door and I’m nearly shitting my pants. I wish I had somehow returned the cup to Lara.
I find myself standing in front of the house door, lifting my hand to the handle. I can see my hand shaking. I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life. Slowly, my hand pushes down. Opening the door. A part of me expects it to get kicked open, to be shoved aside. Nothing of the kind happens. The door swings fully open.
Outside stands a young, bored looking guy. Maybe in his mid 20s. Doesn’t look killer. Doesn’t look drug dealer. “I was asked to pick up a package,” he says. Accented English. I nod, not saying a word. Holding up a finger, in what my subconsciousness thinks to be an international gesture for ‘Wait here for a minute.’ I shuffle to the living room. Take the cup. He said package, and I don’t want to give any reason to be alarmed. I take an empty Amazon delivery box. I put the cup inside. I close it. Tape it shut. I walk back to the door. The guy is still standing there. I awkwardly hand over the box, still not saying a word. I feel the cup inside the package shifting as I tilt the box. I shake my head in disbelief at myself. I should have wrapped it in empty newspapers to keep it from shifting.
The guy takes the box. It dawns on me that I probably should have asked for money first. I never was the best negotiator. However, without further prompt. He pulls out an envelope. Hands it over to me. “Thank you,” he says and leaves. I close the door. Lock it. Putting my back against it, as if it were any kind of barrier if the courier would change his mind. I thought I saw a gun on him. Thought I saw a part of it, rest covered by his jacket. Or was that my imagination? I didn’t fully trust my memory.
I’m still shaking when I look at the envelope. It feels heavy. The thought occurs to me that they filled it with $1 notes. That there would be 50 of them. I start laughing at myself. My shaking hands rip open the envelope. It was glued shut. Okay, there are 50 notes in there. But not a single Washington.
I was just handed $5,000 for a Christmas gift my student bought me on eBay. You’d think that would take a moment to sink in. It doesn’t. I run to the kitchen, rip open the fridge, pull out a half-empty carton of Shiraz. Not too classy, but my nerves needed calming. As I look around for a clean glass to pour it in, I spot the cup on the counter. I was still high on cash, reaching out for it, when my mind suddenly came to a standstill.
Wait. Why is that cup still on the table. And if that cup is on the table… what did I just sell to the guy with the gun for $5,000?
I was still standing there, staring at the cup when the phone in my pocket started to buzz. More as a reflex than a conscious decision, I took it out, staring at the display. The number that started with +963. Great.
Maybe the guy was just calling to say thanks. I could pick up and play for time. Or he was calling me as a warning and I could use it to clear things up. Explain how there’s a lot of cups in the house. Somehow, I didn’t think he would buy it. Surely these guys were professionals though – if I just handed over the cup, they wouldn’t shoot me over it. Maybe take back some, heck, all of the cash. But not shoot, right?
Before I could make a decision, the phone stopped ringing.
Panic set in. I could run, just leave the country. Lay low somewhere. These guys wouldn’t find me right. It’s a bad drug deal with some small time Syrians, not the cartel that’s taking out the competition. Leaving my life over $5,000 seemed a bit much, but what were my options?
I needed a drink. Need to calm myself down a bit. I poured myself the Shiraz. Downed it in one go. Eyes closed, savoring the slight tang of cheap wine. It wasn’t helping. Not much at least. “Fuck!” I threw the glass against the wall, not caring anymore. I had a feeling there would be a much bigger mess to clean up at the end of this night.
The shattering sound that followed wasn’t glass. It was clay. I looked back at the wall. There clearly were clay fragments scattered on the floor in front of it. I looked back to the kitchen counter. A glass still stood there, no cup though. I looked back at the shards. Oh Christ.
I was still staring at the shards, when gun guy stepped into the room. I don’t know how long I had been standing there when he came in. I didn’t notice him come in. I didn’t notice him walking through the hallway. I did notice the gun though. This time I was certain. It was easier to recognize, with it pointed at my face, all up close.
The gun was shiny. Really shiny. I couldn’t believe how shiny it was. And to think that was the last thing that went through my head. Well, second to last thing.
“No. It’s not.” Gun guy was standing in the room, talking on the phone. “I’m sure… Yes, positive. I shot him through head. He isn’t moving.” Gun guy was waited for a few moments, then added. “Must have been wrong cup.” Gun guy nodded, then stepped over the dead teacher’s remains. Sirens were going off in the distance. Ceramic remains of the cup crunched under his step as he made his way to the open window through which he had entered earlier. Taking one last look at the mess in the house, he climbed out and ran off to his car.