Mark was being set up—that much was obvious—but he couldn’t imagine why.

“He showed me the safe in the office,” Mark was telling his wife, referring to his new boss and place of employment, “and he told me what’s in it, from memory. Mostly client papers, which is to be expected: wills, powers of attorney, an original judgment or two... but also a couple of personal items—not Mr. Gilbert’s, I mean, also clients’—including a copy of Stag Party number one, with Margaret Manning on the cover. December 1953. I looked it up: A copy in mint condition might fetch five grand—which means it’d be grand larceny in this state.”

“Not that you’re planning to break into the safe and steal the magazine, though,” Lisa said. “Right?”

“That’s the thing: I wouldn’t have to break into the safe. Mr. Gilbert offered to give me the combination.”

“On your first day?”

“It’s like he hired me specifically to get me to steal from him—from his clients, that is, though from his safe. He’s not even being subtle about it. But I told him that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have the combination just yet.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He said he could certainly appreciate my uncertainty. But he also seemed disappointed. Like I was slowing down his plan.”

“But what is his plan?” Lisa asked, knowing that she was asking for them both. “Let’s say you agree to take the combination to the safe, and then you work late one night, and after everyone else has gone home, you open the safe and take the magazine—which we’ll assume is the only thing of value that you could sell in there—and you bring it home, after locking the safe up again. So now you’ve stolen something, fulfilling your destiny,” Lisa kidded. “What happens next?”

“Well,” Mark thought aloud, “we have to assume that I’m not important. I mean, Mr. Gilbert didn’t pick me specifically for this caper. I applied for a job practicing law. What’s important to Mr. Gilbert is that someone other than him steals what’s in the safe. He would then fire me, of course, and even call the cops. But he’d be in the clear.”

“Sort of. As long as he’s not in cahoots with you, he couldn’t be charged with a crime,” Lisa figured, “but he could still be liable to his client, no? For entrusting a brand new employee with the combination to the office safe?”

“Negligent hiring,” Mark said. “Maybe. Sure.”

“But maybe the client wouldn’t be interested in laying blame on Mr. Gilbert. Maybe the client would just want to get his property back. If Mr. Gilbert tells the cops that you stole it, the cops come looking for you, they get a warrant to search our apartment, they find the magazine... they turn it over to the client. The client thinks twice about giving it back to Mr. Gilbert for safekeeping. What’s been accomplished in that case?”

“Mr. Gilbert’s gotten the property out of his safe, and my career as a lawyer, if not my life, is ruined. But if this isn’t about me, then all Mr. Gilbert has accomplished is getting an old magazine out of his office safe.”

“If you really are just a pawn, then maybe Mr. Gilbert would be kind enough not to press charges, and he could probably convince the client to do the same. But in any event, that scenario doesn’t make much sense.”

“So what if I don’t have the property when the cops come looking for it?” Mark wondered. “What if I’ve already sold it? I could be forced to turn over the proceeds of the sale... but then all that Mr. Gilbert has done is effectively forced his client to sell the magazine. Why would Mr. Gilbert need or even want to do that? It can’t be taking up much room in the safe.”

“Well,” Lisa said, “for you to sell it, someone would have to buy it. What if the goal isn’t to get rid of it, but to get it. I mean, what if Mr. Gilbert were the one to buy it from you—himself or through an agent? You’d probably try to sell it online, right? In one of maybe two different places at most. So he could just watch the auctions and bid on it. It wouldn’t be a sure thing, but it would give him a shot. And then the money would go to the client, just as if the client had sold the item to Mr. Gilbert directly.”

“Interesting,” Mark remarked, “but, as you said, it wouldn’t be a sure thing. Mr. Gilbert could lose the auction. If Mr. Gilbert’s goal is to own the item himself, then there would have to be a better way to accomplish that. He could simply hire someone to break in—a professional, I mean... a professional crook, I mean—to steal the magazine, which Mr. Gilbert would then pay the thief for. The thief wouldn’t even have to take the magazine out of the office. He could take it from the safe and just move it to Mr. Gilbert’s briefcase!”

“Yeah. We might be going down the wrong track here. Maybe it’s not the magazine that’s important. What else did you say Mr. Gilbert said was in the safe?”

“Documents. Nothing that I could sell.”

“Okay, so maybe it isn’t about being able to sell something. Maybe it’s about just... removing something. What would happen if you removed one or all of the documents——”

“No,” Mark said. “That makes less sense. Why would I? I have no reason to mess with anyone else’s will or trust instrument or divorce decree. I—or anyone in my position— would break into the safe at the office of my new job only for personal gain, which means I have to expect to find in the safe something that I can use or convert to cash. That’s why Mr. Gilbert mentioned the valuable magazine. To give me a reason to break in.”

“Right: to break in,” Lisa agreed. “But not necessarily to take anything once you’re in.”

“What? What good would it do Mr. Gilbert—or anyone—to have a safe broken into... or, really, just opened, but the contents left unmolested?” Mark asked. “Picture this: Tomorrow morning, when Mr. Gilbert gets in, I tell him that, yes, I would like to have the combination to the office safe. He gives it to me. Then tomorrow evening, when Mr. Gilbert—and everyone else—leaves, I open the safe. I don’t use a crowbar, and I don’t use dynamite. I just turn the dial to the right numbers, which Mr. Gilbert, the owner of the safe gave me, and I open the door, and I find myself looking at some legal papers.”

“And a copy of Stag Party number one.”

“Well, of course. And you know I’m going to flip through that. Unless it’s in a protective sleeve or something, in which case I’m just going to look at the cover, even though I’ve already seen that. Pictures of it, anyway. But the cover itself is just a photo, after all. So I might not even bother. Even just to hold a piece a history in my own hands....

“But when I’m finished with the magazine, I’m still just standing in front of an open safe containing legal papers. Why?”

“Maybe that’s not all that’s in there,” Lisa offered. “Maybe you’ll have to open the safe for real to know what happens next.”

“I don’t like that idea,” Mark confessed. “I’d rather be prepared.”

“Maybe you just can’t be, though.”

“Maybe I can’t know exactly what’s in there,” Mark allowed, “true, but I still think I can tease out why Mr. Gilbert wants me to open the safe, thinking that I’m going to find something I can steal and readily fence for five thousand dollars... or would just like to sneak a peek at. Because, really, I’d have to be a complete fool to think that I could get away with stealing and fencing the magazine... even if I think that it’s what Mr. Gilbert wants me to do. I don’t know him well enough to trust that he won’t press charges, even if he does fire me. And, again, he would have to fire me, if I steal from his client, from his safe.”

“So where does that leave you?”

“Standing in front of an open safe, after everyone else has gone home for the night.”

“How big is the safe?”


“How large? Is it a wall safe? Is it on a shelf? Or is it the kind that’s so big it has to sit on the floor?”

“It’s actually under the staircase that leads from the first floor of the suite to the second. It’s bigger than a bread box,” Mark joked.

“Is there bread in it?” Lisa asked seriously.


“Dough. Lettuce. Money,” Lisa said. “Is there cash in the safe?”

“I don’t know,” Mark confessed. “Mr. Gilbert didn’t mention cash. But I suppose it’s likely that there is.”

“Would Mr. Gilbert expect that you’d suppose as much?”

“I... I really can’t say. Maybe?”

“Well, regardless, even if you opened the safe to get a look at the late Margaret Manning’s goodies as they were in 1953—and does Mr. Gilbert know what you can see on the Internet today?—if you found cash there, you might be tempted to take the cash, which you wouldn’t have to try to fence. You could just... well, spend it. Or, knowing you, put it in a long-term CD.”

“Hey, wait!” Mark said. “You might be on to something.”

“Well, yeah,” Lisa said. “Who wouldn’t be tempted to take cash?”

“Not that,” Mark explained. “The other part. The part about putting it in a bank.”

“Mr. Gilbert wants you to put his money in a bank?”

“Not his money. A client’s money.”

“And the client can’t do it because...?”

“Because it’s dirty money. It needs to be laundered. The client can’t deposit a large amount of cash in a bank without raising suspicion, for whatever reason. Maybe the client doesn’t even have a bank account, because he’s trying to keep a very low profile. But he wants his money to be safe, at least until the heat is off. Mr. Gilbert can’t open a bank account with his client’s money, because he’d have to report it. There are rules about things like that. His client doesn’t want him to do that, though. The client would rather the money just sit in the safe for the time being. Mr. Gilbert would rather it didn’t.

“So imagine that I take the money. Mr. Gilbert accuses me of stealing it. The client presses charges....” Mark trailed off here.

“What?” Lisa asked.

“It doesn’t work. If I had to make restitution of the money, it might get laundered, but the client would have to make himself—and his ownership of the cash— known, defeating the purpose, which he doesn’t want to do. This is another dead end.”

“Okay, so let’s go in the opposite direction. What if there’s nothing at all in the safe?”

“Nothing in the safe, you say? Then why have a safe?”

“Well,” Lisa said, “there wasn’t always nothing in the safe. The things Mr. Gilbert mentioned: they were once in the safe, and, in fact, as far as everyone but Mr. Gilbert knows, they still are. That’s why he made a point of cataloguing the contents for you.”

“So, not just to entice me to open the safe, but also to convince me that the safe is absolutely not empty.”

“Right. But it is empty. Now, why is it empty?”

“Because Mr. Gilbert removed the contents.”

“And why did he do that?”

“To destroy them,” Mark thought. “Or... one of them. But to distract attention from the one he specifically wanted destroyed, he removed and destroyed all of them. So it would appear that whomever had done it wasn’t interested in any one item in particular. Okay... but then why can’t he just open the safe himself one day, or night, and discover the theft? Or are we still imagining that he wants to blame the situation on me? I open the safe, then report to him that the safe is empty... but I wouldn’t necessarily do that, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if I were to believe that there are certain things in the safe, because Mr. Gilbert told me as much, and I have no reason to doubt him (we’re pretending), and I open the safe and find nothing in it... my first thought might be to call Mr. Gilbert back to the office immediately, but my second thought might be to say nothing at all, to anyone. If I fear that I might be blamed for the disappearance of the contents of the safe, whether Mr. Gilbert really believed them to be there or not, even though I didn’t take them, I might just pretend that I never opened the safe and have no idea whether there’s anything actually in there.”

“But Mr. Gilbert could ask you to open the safe.”

“Sure, but not after hours. He’d have to ask me to open the safe when I’m not the only one in the office, when I’d have to be completely crazy to try to steal the contents. So if I were to open the safe during the workday, I’d be in the clear, and there would be no reason for Mr. Gilbert not to have opened the safe himself.”

“Right,” Lisa allowed. “There’s still another option, though.”

“There’s something in the safe that Mr. Gilbert didn’t mention, but isn’t anything I would want to steal.”

“Something he wants you to see, but not take. But why does he want you to see it? Why wouldn’t he just tell you that it’s in there?”

“Because he wants me to think that he doesn’t know it’s in there. He wants me to discover it, as it were.”

“And tell him about it? But again, then why wouldn’t he just open the safe himself sometime and pretend to make the discovery?”

“Then maybe he doesn’t want me to tell him about it. He wants me to know that it’s in there, but to think that he doesn’t know about it... or at least play along with his pretense of not knowing about it.”

“Putting aside for a moment what such a thing might be, or why Mr. Gilbert would want... what you just said, how long could such a pretense last, really? Sooner or later, he would have to go into the safe himself, no? Maybe not this year. Maybe not even next year. But one day someone will need something in the safe——”

“But not if none of those things he mentioned is really in there. Maybe this other, unmentioned item is the only thing in there. So it’s not odd that Mr. Gilbert never opens the safe. No one ever needs anything in it.”

“Yet there is something that Mr. Gilbert keeps in it, and it’s something he needs, or at least wants, you to know about. Someone, anyway. But that someone happens to be you.”


“The fresh-faced young law school graduate he just hired as his associate.”


“Has it occurred to you that this might be just a test?”

“Of course. But it’s not a very good test, since I managed to avoid it entirely by declining to know the combination.”

“Maybe that was part of the test. Or maybe that was the whole test. Maybe if you had been eager to know the combination, you might have come across as... I don’t know. Something not good.”

“Or I might have come across as someone willing to accept responsibility.”

“Sure. But since you didn’t, maybe he now thinks you’re timid. Or that you don’t trust yourself.”

“Maybe. But I really just don’t trust him. And I don’t think it was a test, anyway. I don’t think it is a test. I think he genuinely wants me to open that safe.”

“Wasn’t there a movie like this?”

“A movie about a husband and wife sitting at their kitchen table, after the husband’s first day at a new job, discussing the contents of an office safe that might or might not have anything in it? I don’t think so, honey. You might be thinking of a science experiment.”

“The one with the cat.”

“Right. The cat that’s both dead and not dead at the same time, somehow.”

“Do you think there’s a cat in Mr. Gilbert’s safe?”

“A cat and a flask with radioactive material.”

“Is that what kills the cat? The radioactive material?”

“Actually, no,” Mark said. “There’s also poison.”

“And the point of the whole scenario is that if you try to see whether the cat is alive or dead, you might change the outcome?”

“No, that’s a different thing. I don’t think either one applies to Mr. Gilbert’s safe, though.”

“And now you really want to know what’s inside,” Lisa surmised. “Don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Mark owned, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t you?”

“The Set-Up” appeared in Popcorn Fiction.