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The air conditioner rattles in the window frame, wheezing in exhaustion as it battles against the sweltering heat and its advanced age. It’s not winning, puffing out nothing more than tepid air and what Grant is sure are flakes of rust, or possibly asbestos from the state of the room. The avocado wallpaper is bubbling in some places, while peeling off the ceiling in others. He can tell the carpet used to be shag, but has been compacted under the tread of countless feet. The comforter looks safe enough, but as of late, he’s learned to not trust things based on sight.

Sweat beads beneath his shirt, a rivulet sliding between his shoulder blades.

Grant pulls the cotton away from his chest to fan himself and paces between the bed and the window, only stopping to draw back the gauzy curtain. A bird perched on the wrought-iron railing, a line of closed doors, an empty balcony. He sighs. No sign yet.

Just beyond the window in the corner is a chair—close enough for Grant to see what’s going on and yet not be seen from the other side. The upholstery has gone thin, and Grant worries about what it would look like under a black light, and yet he sits. He wipes his clammy hands on his jeans—a result of the heat? Possibly. But he believes it’s more likely caused by stress.

This isn’t the type of locale—or situation—in which Grant typically finds himself.

Before last week, this motel was a place he drove past on his way to work at his advertising firm, where he’s a dedicated employee, staying after hours, assisting his colleagues when he can. The seedy stop hadn’t fit with his life, in which—as much as he could—he colored inside the lines.

Except for the one time his proverbial crayon diverged out of the bounds. The time he now finds himself paying for, and needing a place out of sight to rectify.

A few months ago, Grant stood on the precipice of a promotion, one which came with a 20 percent increase in salary, one for which he had worked his ass. But, his slacking sycophant of a rival had the benefit of friends in high places, and as the decision-making process went on, Grant saw no choice but to intervene to make sure the person who most deserved the promotion received it. He’s been paying for his efforts ever since.

He draws a piece of paper from his pocket, and unfolds it in his lap. When he saw it in his mailbox, he felt as though he was about to step off the edge of a skyscraper: the dread in knowing what was coming, but not exactly how it would feel.

Grant had hoped that they were going to stop—the letters in the eggshell envelopes marked with no return address or postage, only her name—but the author made it clear he or she had no such plans. They had too much to hold over him, too much havoc to wreak, and too much to gain—$10,000 a year to be exact.

To put an end to it all, he considered going to the police, but that was a catch-22.

Turning over the letters could find the person responsible, but also at the cost to himself. While what he did wasn’t criminal per se, having it written into the public record defeated the purpose of trying to silence the person.

His eyes scan the typewriter print for the time listed, and checks his watch. Three minutes past. This letter, like the others, is succinct, sharing just enough information to strike fear into each of Grant’s cells, but not enough to offer a hint at who he was dealing with. That has stopped him from forming theories, though.

There’s less than a handful of people who knew about the dirty laundry aired on the pages in his mailbox. Anonymous emails sent and complaints filed detailing an array of malfeasances from borderline plagiarized project ideas to uncouth and harassing conversations with teammates and underlingsーnuggets of truth blown into boulders verging towards myth.

Rhonda in HR and his boss, Adelaide, are aware, but their knowledge ends just before the full line of truth. The only person who knew everything was his best friend, Isaac, to whom Grant spilled what had happened in a moment of alcohol-intensified guilt—how he had embellished and twisted the truth to take down his rival and elevate himself, a rise he had earned.

But none of them have a motive for blackmail over Grant.

Rhonda and Adelaide could just fire him, and Grant had enough information on Isaac that opening his mouth was agreeing to mutually assured self- destruction.

The most obvious suspect would be the subject of the emails, his coworker and rival—well, former rival—Justin.

Although it makes sense Justin would want to exact his revenge, it’s like trying to fit an oval into a circular hole—close, but not quite the right fit. Somehow, Justin’s life had improved after the demotion (that would’ve been a firing if not for his well-placed friendships). He had landed an even better job at another firm, and based on his social media, is enjoying life, posting envy-inducing vacation pictures of his “remote office” in Hawaii—all with the hashtag #nofilter. Why would he want to risk it by challenging what he knows is not completely without merit?

As he turned the idea over, wearing down the fabric of his mind with the constant thought, Grant saw only one option—his new rival, Matty.

He first had discounted the possibility. Matty is no slouch in the office and doesn’t lack motivation, but the two of them get along, earning rave reviews on each project they attack together.

But, Grant can’t help but see more than friendliness in Matty’s actions as of late—his smiles forced, and his congratulations of “you deserve this” more sarcastic than not. Of anyone, he would have the access to find out. He could’ve parsed together bits and pieces of information from office chatter, or when, Grant stupidly told him to use his laptop to set up a presentation.

One whisper, one opening of a file and Matty would know, and no matter what Grant chooses, Matty wins.

Of course, if Grant is capable of betrayal, each person in his life can too, leaving the suspect pool as wide open as the ocean, and Matty just a drop in it.

He scrubs a hand over his face, and shifts to remove his pocket knife from his jacket, anxiously flicking the blade out and back in.

In a matter of minutes, he’s going to learn the truth. It was the deal he made with his extortionist—meet or get nothing. He prefers not to give the person anything, only to make this end, but if he has to empty his pockets, he wants to know exactly whose pockets it’s going into.

Footsteps thump outside on the balcony, and before Grant can catch a glimpse of more than a brown leather coat, a knock comes at the door. His heart sprints in his chest, and slowly he stands from the chair, his hand gripping the hilt of the blade in case the covert meeting turns. In the peep hole is a blurry figure, clearing when he squints. The suspect pool becomes a drop of rain.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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