Note: The characters David Fields and Dora first appeared in the short story The Copperfield of Tax Accountants. Also, March 25th is Dante Day or Dantedì in Italy, so this story and its prompt were timely!
Forty-five minutes after David left her apartment, Dora was dead, and his life’s trajectory changed forever. Or maybe it was changed the minute he answered her text. The one that subtly invited him to her place after a disastrous moment the night before had been caught on video. It could’ve even been traced to the minute he spotted her at Denton’s on First. Possibly the instant he decided to take that first drink at the dinner party. Whichever the catalyst, his life’s path suddenly took a sharp left turn. A turn that became forked, perilous, and dark.
“The only way out is through, buddy,” one of his friends texted.
“Thoughts and prayers, mate,” read another.
“If I can help in any way, let me know,” said a third.
“What a terrible tragedy,” offered a stranger outside the bodega David stopped at because he couldn’t bear to walk any further after he’d received the breaking news alert on my phone.
“Raging inferno engulfs Cobble Hill apartment building,” the notification read at the top of his screen. It wasn’t the words that got him, but the picture attached. Dora’s hideous neon pink polka-dotted bedsheet flapping out the burned-out window of the third-story unit is what gutted him. She had tried to escape by making a rope.
“Where were you at approximately 6 pm yesterday evening?” the detective questioned David.
“Walking,” he murmured, staring into oblivion. He was in shock that they’d suspected him of any wrongdoing. But why wouldn’t they? Everyone had seen the video the night before. He looked like a maniac, a sociopath bent on destroying all that was good in his life.
“Where exactly were you walking?” the detective pressed.
“To Bergen St. Station. I was going to catch the 6:20 train. I did catch the 6:20 train. Check my MTA pass. Hell, check my cellphone location. Bet you probably already have. Why am I here?”
“Because the fire marshal says the fire was started. You had left the area not 30 minutes before the first fire reports started coming into the station.”
“Yes, that’s true. I had just left,” David hung his head.
“Did Dora have any candles burning? Anything that would start a fire?”
“No. She is…was…sensitive to perfumes and odors. She’d never have anything like that in her apartment. The source must have been someone else’s unit.”
A few days later, while standing in a downpour waiting for a car to take him to Dora’s funeral, David learned the actual cause. The neighbor above her had split with her boyfriend days before. It was not amicable. While she was out, the jilted lover broke in, attempting to torch her beloved handbag collection. He didn’t realize that leather is naturally flame resistant. It takes an insane amount of heat to ignite it. Using an entire bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, he quickly realized he was out of his depth and fled the scene. He will spend the rest of his life in prison for taking the lives of sixteen people, including children.
David watched with paralyzing grief as Dora’s coffin was lowered into the ground. As each of her immediate family members threw fistfuls of dirt into the six-foot cavern that would be her final resting place, he envisioned himself being buried under the weight of his sorrow. Beyond that, he understood that her death wasn’t just his loss but a loss to humanity. A woman bursting with musical talent and life would no longer be able to share her many gifts with the world. At the same time, a monster rotted in a prison cell paid for by the taxpayers of New York. It didn’t seem fair.
“This is hell,” David’s best friend Laird stated plainly over a pint of Guinness, Dora’s favorite drink.
It was more like purgatory, for David continued down a path Dante would have sympathized with. First came the three beasts: losing control and the ability to make sound judgments, fraud, and violence. Then came the journey through hell itself.
Throwing himself into his work as a form of denial in the grief process led to David paying less attention to the finer details of his clients’ more creative accounting practices. His former acumen for making the rules and laws work for his customers became more personal. Instead of fixing the errors he did catch, he diverted them into his own offshore bank accounts.
Initially, his newfound financial freedom from his influx of cash lessened his feelings of emptiness. David rediscovered pleasure without the pressure of paying off student loans and hefty credit card bills. He even took a long-deserved vacation in Bali, where his more hedonistic side was born. Taking pity on passersby on bustling sidewalks and crammed train cars, David often offered to pay for a coffee or sandwich in a café line. He once had to hustle just to make ends meet too. He felt sympathy for those who stood on street corners and slept on park benches, succumbing to their personal demons instead of seeking out help for their afflictions and addictions. On more than one occasion, David slipped a Benjamin in the empty cup of a homeless vet in hopes of spreading a little happiness back into the world.
The horror came when his client caught on to his clever scheme. “I own your soul now, you slick son-of-a-bitch,” the powerful man said. “How do you prefer to die?”
David sighed. “I’m already dead. I died the same day she did. Do your worst.”
“It seems the worst has already been done to you. How do we solve this? You’ve been skimming off my accounts for months without anyone in my organization detecting it. If you are so talented, perhaps you can do more?”
“How much more?” David cried, for his arms were held behind his back by a man twice his size and a literal gun to his head.
For four years, David made lousy decision after worse decision as he continued to fraud the government and launder money for his client. His drinking became uncontrollable, which led to a violent streak that had him lashing out at anyone who dared to look at him the wrong way.
“Watch where you’re going, pal,” a bar reveler exclaimed one night at a packed nightclub. David had been there to meet with his client about ending their lucrative relationship. He was tense and angry at the world. And those were fighting words.
“You’re facing second-degree assault, disorderly conduct, and a host of other charges,” his lawyer friend Melanie relayed as she prepped him for his bail hearing.
“I am so ashamed of myself,” David sobbed. “Things have gotten so out of control, I can’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror.”
“Listen, I know things have been rough since Dora. You’ve been living through hell. But that’s the thing. You are still living. It’s time to come out of the other side of things. You can do that by putting a powerful man behind bars for a long time.”
“What do you mean?” David asked, hopeful for the first time in a long time.
“Let’s get you outta here. Then we can talk more freely.”
Ten days later, while waiting in a safe house to speak with his FBI handler, David came across a copy of The Divine Comedy. Flipping to the first page, he read, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” He laughed aloud, closing the book. He’d lived in the nine circles of hell for five years and didn’t need to read about someone else’s experience.
“It has a happy ending, though,” came a soft voice.
David looked up into the brightest gray eyes he had seen since Dora’s.
“I’m Trice, your handler. Let’s get you wired up and prepped for the sting operation.”
“Trice, as in Beatrice? That’s a little on the nose, isn’t it?”
“I’m Italian. My family is from Tuscany. So, it’s a thing!” she smiled. “Listen, I know this is scary, but when you get on the other side, you’ll find a whole new life ahead of you.”
“So, I’ll no longer live and work and socialize in the same places I have since Dora’s death? It’s like an exile.”
“Such is the penance of a person who chooses to live outside the guardrails of the law. But your crimes are minor compared to that of your client. An exile is an easy punishment when you work towards the greater good.”
“Do you think there is such thing as a soul?” David asked, seemingly out of the blue.
“Personally? Yes. It was what I was raised to believe in my Catholic faith. Maybe once you get out of this mess, you can spend some time discovering the answer for yourself.”
“Do you think it’s possible to find that happily ever after?”
“I think I should take my copy of Divine Comedy out of this safe house,” Beatrice laughed.
“I’ve been in this fog for so long. I’m just lost and don’t know where to go from here,” David lamented.
“Start with doing the right thing. Get back on the path you were on before everything went haywire. Everything else should fall into place. Discover something you do that brings you joy. Happiness is bound to follow.”
“You are very wise for an FBI agent.”
“I moonlight as a life coach,” Beatrice laughed again.
Once the proper arrests and sentencings had been doled out, David was freed from his obligations to the federal government. He was provided a new identity, a new occupation, and a new lease on life.
Sitting on a dock by the bay, he sipped his virgin margarita and popped open his laptop. After several clicks, passwords, and randomly generated authenticators, he turned his screen to his companion. “$3.25 million today.”
“I love that numbers bring you so much joy.”
“And I love that you encouraged me to find that joy, Beatrice.”