Sitting down beside the safe, I rocked it from side to side to feel its contents shift. Indeed, there were bundles of something moving in there, lots of bundles, perhaps enough to retire in the tender years of my early twenties.

With every ounce of strength I possessed, I pushed that steel beast through Mike’s bedroom to the first set of stairs. I knew full and well that this was where the really messy part would begin. But that was okay. I had already damaged a great many things on the way in, and I was far from finished.

With a smash like that of bursting concrete, it made impact with the beige tile flooring beneath. As I knocked plants and pricey-looking lamp stands from my path, there was an ear-piercing grind of metal against marble. Twisting, pulling, and yanking, I maneuvered the safe off the patio and rolled it down a set of concrete steps from the pool. I popped the trunk. The hydraulic lift I had brought nearly gave way before the steel beast had a chance to test the strength of Jack’s shocks.

The rear of the car lowered towards the pavement a significant and concerning number of inches. But the safe did fit perfectly, with even a little room to spare. I closed the trunk.

Wiping the sweat from my brow and brushing a colored bird from the door of the car, I smiled, bit my bottom lip, and took a seat behind the wheel. “You’re not out of this yet,” I whispered to myself. “Surely it can’t be that easy?”

As for the safe-stealing part of my plan, as hard to believe as it may be, it was that easy. But Dr. Mike Murdock is not without his tricks, just as the devil is not without his wiles.

Going to the pay phones in the back of a cowboy bar outside Dallas, I made my call.

“Have you got it?” the voice asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got it. But with all that weight in the back, I don’t know if the rear end of the car will survive.”

“Who gives a damn about the car? This phone call is months in the making. Congratulations. Just get your ass back to Houston and your next stop can be Tahiti.”

Walking past pool tables, lingering cigarette smoke, and rednecks, I chugged down the last of a beer. Indeed, I was ready to drive home. Two hundred cop-filled miles, and it was now nearly sunrise.

===Slowly, I stepped forward, knelt down, and put a single hand on the door to the safe. Taking in a deep breath, I opened it. Mike Murdock, if you are out there, this is the part of my story where you get to smile, you son of a bitch.!==

With sparks flying from the now-dragging rear end, I pulled into the garage of my shadiest friend at the time, Jack Moates. He ran a chop shop, sold a little cocaine here and there, and did some small-time pimping. If you could overlook all of that, he was a really likeable guy.

Standing beside a dusty blond girl with tracks on her arms, I opened the trunk. In unison, Jack and I shook our heads and smiled.

“Well,” he said, “why don’t we cut the suspense and find out what’s inside?”

“Now, the deal is 10 percent,” I said, making sure there would be no disagreement about our arrangement.

“Plus two thousand for the Cadillac.” He raised his eyebrows with a serious look.

“Fine.” I sighed. “Just get it open.”

“Not a problem. Hey Miguel!” he shouted across the garage. “I need you to come crack this box! My guy with the safe-picking kit took the day off.” He crossed his arms and chuckled. “So this will have to do.”

The small, grease-covered man grabbed a gas-powered concrete jackhammer. With the roar of a motor, sparks and shards of metal were cast in every direction. I covered my eyes with a pair of dirty shop goggles. In minutes, the lock gave way.

Slowly, I stepped forward, knelt down, and put a single hand on the door to the safe. Taking in a deep breath, I opened it. Leaning in close, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped.

Mike Murdock, if you are out there, this is the part of my story where you get to smile, you son of a bitch.

Have you ever had a moment so devastating that you remember it every day just like it happened yesterday, a moment so horrible and nightmarish that it twists your gut every time you think about it? For me, this was that moment.

I could feel angry tears swelling in my eyes as I reached my shaky hands inside. With unstable fingers, I pulled out two stacks of plain, white, run-of-the-mill copy paper that had been cut and bundled like bank notes. There were hundreds of fake bundles.

“Wow! Now that’s a real ass-kicking!” Jack exclaimed. “What kind of sick bastard actually takes the time to cut and wrap enough notebook paper to make it feel like a safe full of money? My god, that’s twisted.”

“God didn’t do this, Jack.” My voice trembled. “Mike Murdock did.” I screamed with blood-boiling anger. “Son of a bitch!”

I dug my fingers deep into the cast-iron box like a frantic animal. Viciously clawing toward the bottom, I sent slivers of paper airborne in an explosion of rage. I clutched stacks of rubber band-bound paper in each hand.

“I swear to you, Jack,” I seethed, “I absolutely swear to you, as God is my witness, I will not—”

“Wait, wait. What’s that?” He pointed to the bottom.

Reaching in, I pulled out a folded piece of ministry letterhead with three two-dollar bills clipped to it. I opened it and read the text beneath the logo. My jaws were clenched so hard it made my head hurt.

“What does it say, man?” Jack asked as I slowly crumpled the note into a tight ball with my fist.

“He always wins.” I shivered with anger. “The son of a bitch always wins. It was a red herring. It was all one great big red herring. I just got beat by Christian television’s favorite jackass. I’ll never get a second chance. Never. I will never get a second chance at that closet.”

My head fell into my hands.

“He knew somebody would take that safe one day, and I fell for it,” I said. “I could have come back here with pockets full of gold coins. I could have come back here with two arms full of stamps. I could have come back here with three pillowcases full of diamond rings. But instead I went for the very thing he wanted me to take, the very thing he knew that Jason, or one of Jason’s ragtag, dope-fiend, white-trash friends would one day steal.”

I looked up into his eyes.

“Today, I just became that white-trash loser. So not only am I broke, but I’m sure within hours I’ll be high on the suspect list for whatever police agency starts working Mike’s insurance claim. I just stole an empty safe to help that asshole buy his own television network. I’m screwed.”

“Well, you’re not broke.” Jack gave a sideways smirk. “You’ve got six bucks.”

 “Is there anything about this moment that makes you think I’m in the mood for jokes!” I snapped.

“You still haven’t told me what the note says.”

“This note?” I paused to hold up the crumpled piece of paper. “It’s a personal message from Mr. ‘I Don’t Ever Lose.’ It’s two sentences. It says: ‘You are an answer to a prayer. Thank you for your time, your efforts, and your generous contribution to this ministry. Mike Murdock.’ ”

I tossed it back into the destroyed safe. “Does it really say that?” he asked.

“Read it yourself. Listen, is my car still here?”

“Of course it is. It’s right where you left it. More than that—don’t worry about the Cadillac or the shocks.”

“Oh, you can trust me, Jack,” I barked. “I wasn’t spending a bit of my time worried about the shocks on your Cadillac. I am about to be man-hunted, Jack. Do you think Mike Murdock is going to claim that safe was empty? Do think he’s going to just let this go? God knows how much money he’s about to claim he lost.

“I know this guy,” I went on. “He planned for that safe to get stolen even before I started planning to steal it. He plays to win. And in this hand of cards, I got nothing. In fact, I’ve got less than nothing. Nothing looks like a lot compared to what I’ve got. I don’t think you understand the gravity of this for me, Jack. I can’t just go home and pretend none of this ever happened. I can’t go home for a long, long time—maybe ever.”

“Look, I know everything is twisted and sideways.” He spoke slowly and then took in a deep breath. “Maybe it’s twisted beyond repair. But I do know one thing. A strong shot of coke might do you some good. After a traumatic experience like this here, I know I’m going to have one. And, Trey, you can stay a few days to ride this thing out if you need to. Hell, I could use a little honest help here and there.”

When it comes to cocaine and a needle, if your body isn’t ready, it can be intense. My blood mixed with the yellow-stained liquid just before the plunger went in. A thousand pounds of hate lifted temporarily from my shoulders just as I felt the numbing rush begin. I imagined the devil and Mike Murdock sitting together on a park bench, laughing. It was a big shot, maybe a little too big. My eyes fluttered closed. I didn’t care anymore.

I spent about two weeks helping Jack make crack cocaine for the Mexicans and collecting rent from whores after all their Johns had finished with them. In light of recent events, the television was usually tuned to Christian stations. One morning, I woke up with two prostitutes asking me if Jack could front them another hit. The TV was on. Mike Murdock was on it.

“I’ve been robbed!” he said. “Someone stole God’s money! That money was for the ministry! That money was for the children! I need your help to replace this!”

He was speaking to the whole world, plus me. He was using those same lying, manipulative eyes I had come to hate. Of all the things he said, he didn’t say the one thing I wanted to hear most. He didn’t give the amount that had been stolen.

It was in that moment that I knew something had to give. I’d had enough depression. I’d had enough paranoia and suffering. If I was going to end up in handcuffs, it wasn’t going to be while decaying one day at a time in the stench of Jack’s hellhole. I may have been well on the road to becoming a junkie, but I didn’t have to be the junkie selling dope to prostitutes on Jack’s couch.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to the whores as I dropped some crack into the palms of their dirty little hands.

Walking over to the cupboard, I opened a bottle of Parmesan cheese. I pulled out 2 ounces of coke that were stashed there. It’s not that I didn’t like Jack. But at that moment, I felt I had to make an important decision, a decision between 2 ounces of cocaine and my friendship with him.

The cocaine won. That was 13 years ago.

Getting in my car, I wasn’t really sure what to do next. In fact, there was only one thing I was sure of: Houston wasn’t safe. Hell, Texas wasn’t safe. It was time for me to go away. It was time for me to begin running.