Trigger warning: The story contains sensitive material that some readers might find disturbing and/or triggering.
“Now who is this?” Zoe said squinting at the laptop screen.
It jolted me out of my engrossment in yet another horrific local news story. Something about someone who destroyed the lives they were supposed to protect. Just what is wrong with human beings sometimes?
“Who’s what?” I asked, happy to be brought into the world of Zoe and her little tizzies.
“This person I don’t know sent me an email wanting me to go to his office for some inheritance business!”
She was now lifting her tired laptop up to her face as if that would help her recognise the sender.
I got up from my couch and walked over to her armchair.
“So the Nigerian Prince finally found you, huh?”
“Seriously, Ethan! This looks legit! The guy knows my name!”
I kneeled beside her to look at the email.
Dear Ms Zoe Keys,
My name is Richard Maynard and I am a notary working with a solicitor representing a client who wishes to remain anonymous.
I would like to invite you to a meeting in my office to discuss the procedures for transferring the sum of 2.1 million pounds to your account.
I am aware that this may seem like a scam, but I urge you to take this seriously. I will explain everything when we meet.
Feel free to bring along any solicitor, trusted friend or family member if that makes you feel safer.
Please use the phone number below to arrange a meeting. I would be delighted to make your acquaintance and proceed with the payment.
I would appreciate it if you could confirm receipt of this email. Otherwise, I would have to find an alternative way to send you a letter.
I was puzzled. It did indeed seem personalised and authentic.
I looked up at her and her eyes were wide with excitement.
“Can you imagine?” she gasped, clasping her hands together in disbelief.
I couldn’t. So, I handed her the phone and she called the number in the footer of the email.
I didn’t expect anyone to answer, but they did. I bit my lip, waiting for them to hang up, but they didn’t. In fact, there was a sigh of relief at the other end of the line and an appointment was arranged for the next morning.
That night we went to bed delirious with dreams of wealth and laughter at the most probable outcome of us going in with excitement and coming out with disappointment when they realised they’d been looking for another Zoe Keys, or the police raiding the shady underground office and saving us from entanglement in a money laundering scheme. Or perhaps there was a catch. Perhaps they wanted to give her the money in return for an illegal deal.
Forever the optimist, Zoe fell asleep with a smile on her face, high on the mere possibility of life taking a turn for the better.
In thirteen years of marriage, Zoe never failed to amaze me with how she only saw the good in life. A few years earlier, our new dishwasher broke, but she only remarked that it had made the glasses grey and dull anyway. We weren’t able to conceive, but she saw it as “the universe” telling us that our purpose in life was to feed strangers and bring them joy with our desserts. The pandemic hit and we lost the cafe we had worked so hard to build from the ground up, but she shrugged and said she was sick of having her hair smell of grease all the time and that it was time to find normal hours.
Her attitude was certainly admirable, but it was exhausting at times. Other times, it only bred resentment in me. Those had been my dreams too. I wanted a dishwasher that lasted a few years, a child I could love and mess up like all other parents, a cafe to run my way, with my favourite music and family recipes.
But it wasn’t like Zoe was stupid or deluded. She knew life was unfair sometimes. She only chose to come out a winner. It was as if she wanted to stick her tongue out at life’s cannonballs and pretend she didn’t care. Or perhaps she did it for me.
That night, I wasn’t able to sleep. What if she really did become rich? What if wealth changed her? I couldn’t live a day without her. Her hand running through my beard every night as she read me some of her favourite book passages, her flat jokes that made me laugh anyway, her kisses that still managed to melt me each time.
The next day, I woke up to the aromas of toothpaste and freshly ground coffee. Coffee by Zoe was guaranteed to give me a headache any day. Not being a coffee drinker herself, she always made it too strong. In all those years, though I succeeded in diverting her away from the coffee machine back at the cafe, I could never bring myself to tell her that she should not make me coffee. I just drank it and smiled.
By the time I drank it, she had called her secretarial office and my sales job partner to tell them we had an urgent matter to tend to in the morning. At ten-thirty on the dot, we were seated in two huge chocolate-brown leather chairs. The office looked grand and Mr Maynard looked trustworthy and professional in his tailored suit and greying temples.
The rest of his staff, however, seemed odd. They whispered to each other in hushed tones while stealing furtive looks at us. Mostly at the oblivious Zoe.
The whole meeting took less than an hour. My intent had been to go in just to hear what they wanted from us, but once we got in and were sucked by legal talk and routine procedures, Zoe ended up signing the papers with a hand trembling with potential and disbelief. I tried to ask the notary who this generous benefactor was.
“That is the sole condition of this transaction, Mr Keys,” he said busying himself with inspecting Zoe’s ID and bank card.
Zoe looked at me and shrugged with a big smile. It was as if she wanted to do this thing and leave before they could change their mind.
“But aren’t you curious about who this person is?” I whispered as we walked out of the office, still pelted with the staff’s weird looks and tight-lipped smiles.
“Of course I am!” she chirped as we waited for the lift to ding, “but I also respect whoever this person is and their wish to remain anonymous! Some people just like doing nice things for others! I’m guessing it’s a former cafe regular. You know, someone who wants us to get back on our feet!”
“Zoe, please! Don’t be…” obtuse was what I wanted to say, but I tried to keep the exasperation out of my tone.
“Are you really going to spoil the best surprise I’ve ever had, Ethan?” she chided as we stepped into the brightly-lit lift.
I wanted to say YES!, but she gave me one of her reassuring smiles and squeezed the back of my neck, and I resigned into a nod.
All the way to Waterloo tube station, she recounted the things we could do with the money.
“We can start a new, better cafe! Finally go to Iceland! Oh my God, we can now get that boat you’ve always wanted!” she clapped her hands, almost jumping off the ground as the wind flapped her coat around her legs.
That stung. My whole life with her, I lived for her. I wanted to spoil her. I got her all the small things she mentioned in passing, and dreamed about giving her the big things she fantasised about just to see her big brown eyes flood with tears of joy and have her wrap her arms around my neck.
“Alright! That’s me!” she announced when her train came. She gave me a peck on the lips and disappeared into the swarm of late commuters.
I went back to the escalator to go to my Bakerloo train and I thought about the first time I met Zoe. It was at the pub by my brother’s student apartment where she was sitting at the bar alone, casually chatting with the bartender. I later learned that she had been stood up by a date.
“See?” she said on her second glass of wine, “If the idiot hadn’t stood me up, you would’ve come in, had a few beers and left without us meeting! I’m a fan of letting life do its thing sometimes.”
She was right. If my brother hadn’t been held up at university, I wouldn’t have gone into the pub either.
Zoe wasn’t really my type. I liked blonde girls with curves and, preferably, blue eyes. This girl at the bar was short and petite. Her big brown eyes were buried under a thick fringe that I wondered how she was able to see me. But she had a way of weaving her words like braids of honey that you couldn’t tear yourself away. She had the most infectious smile and a personality that slowly fizzed all over you until you were sucked into a big bubble of warmth and contentment.
A text from her lit up my phone as soon as I got on the tube:
WHY ARE WE EVEN GOING TO WORK? WE’RE RICH!
Zoe was right. We went to work because that was what we always did, but we didn’t have to anymore. At least she didn’t.
It didn’t usually take long for her enthusiasm to electrify me and turn my doubt into excited certainty, but it didn’t work that time.
I tried to understand where it was coming from. Was it the stories we’d all heard about “the lottery curse” where moderately happy people suddenly buried in wealth lost everything? Or was it the fear of me suddenly switching the role of the protector, the knight in shining armour for the rich woman’s lackey? It was all of those things, but there was another beastly fear, gnawing on my mind. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had to find out to put it to rest.
Or did I?
Did I have to ask my brother to find out who gave the money to Zoe?
Instead of going to work, I went to Dan, who was now the head of a department in the city council.
“Well, I work for the housing department, Ethan!” he chuckled.
“Well, I know that!” I said, not really in the mood for my brother’s jokes, “But you must know someone in the tax department or something!”
“Alright, alright, my mate David’s wife is a detective. I’ll see if she can help.” Then he paused, “Does Zoe also want to know?”
“No, but I need to know what we’re getting ourselves into!”
“Not sure I agree, but you seem sure. I’ll ask David.”
That night, Zoe insisted on treating me to my favourite Argentinian restaurant to celebrate.
“Zoe, that place is expensive!” I tried to put off the celebration at least until I figured out where the money came from or until it actually showed up in her bank account.
“Didn’t you hear what the notary man said?” she scanned her closet for a dress fit for the occasion.
“Yes, the money is yours, but…”
“Please tell me you’re not still obsessing about where the money came from!” she turned around to face me with her favourite emerald velvet dress in hand.
I looked at her, unable to say anything. Anything I said would’ve either spoiled her mood or told a lie.
The next day I woke up with a head heavier than a brick. The Fernet-Branca was still taunting my system when my phone glowed with a message from Dan:
David’s wife Olivia is ready to meet you today.
I stared at the phone until it went dark. I pressed the button again to bring it back to life. Who the hell were David and Olivia?
Then it dawned on me, Dan’s friend from the city council and his wife who worked in the police department.
Are you sure you want to meet her? Another text.
Absolutely! I wrote back.
You fool! Meet her at 9 at this address.
It was already 8:15, so I jumped out of bed, almost losing my balance, took a quick shower and got into a taxi. Apparently we could afford taxis now.
A constable showed me to Olivia’s office. It was a small dark office, and behind the desk, sat a burly woman in her late forties.
We shook hands and she introduced herself as detective Bailey.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she cleared her throat and, not quite meeting my eye, said, “Mr Keys, you’re here to know more about the source of your wife’s new fortune, correct?”
“Would it be enough if I told you that it’s legitimate money?”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said, Mr Keys! The money is hers to keep. There’s nothing shady or criminal about it! Enjoy it.” She gave me a fierce look.
“But do you know who gave it to her? And…why?”
“I do. But I would strongly advise you not to ask me to tell you!”
“That bad?” I felt my throat tighten and my head swirl.
“It doesn’t have to be. You can just accept the gift and move on.”
“I don’t know that I can…”
She took a deep breath and reclined in her chair.
“Very well. What I’m about to show you is… horrific.”
My heart started beating very fast. What could it be? Did she have a criminal father? Was that why I never met him? Did somebody bully her as a child and want to make up for it?
Detective Bailey turned her screen towards me and I craned my neck to see better. It was a video recorded in a dimly lit room. It looked like a doctor’s office. A paediatrician–there were plush toys and a child on a gurney. The child had… long brown hair and large eyes, but you couldn’t see the colour. In fact you could only see the whites of her eyes. She was mumbling unintelligible words while a man undressed, filming himself and whispering her name…
I pushed away the screen and almost stumbled on the chair I was sitting on as I struggled to stand up. Last night’s steak and corn raged in my stomach as the images raged in my mind. I put my hand to my mouth but I couldn’t stop the torrent of bile and acid. She figured out what was happening and swiftly kicked the waste bin from under her desk and I lifted it up to my face just in time.
She offered me some tissues, shaking her head, clearly happy for me to go.
I don’t remember thanking her or even saying goodbye. I just ran out.
I walked aimlessly for hours cursing the man in the video, the money, myself. It was a windy morning with no hint of sunshine. Just icy daggers cutting my skin.
When I couldn’t walk any longer, I found myself at a park in front of a red bench. There was a plaque that read: In loving memory of Linda, my beloved wife and life companion.
I collapsed on it and the tears came down.
Suddenly, it hit me that that was the article I was reading when Zoe received the notary’s email. And to think I almost read it to her before she asked me to check the email. “The Doctor of Broken Kids” it was titled. The disgraced doctor-turned-pharmaceutics-mogul had raped and abused six girls from his patients. Repeatedly in some cases, while filming himself. He wasn’t found out until after he died. His wife was looking through his safe when she came across the videos he’d made while he practised medicine before he started his profitable pharmaceutical business.
Mortified, his wife and children decided to divide all of his wealth among the girls he’d abused. They wanted to stay anonymous to spare the patients’ everyday lives and dignity, but I, being the stupid man I was had to go using my connections to find out.
When I got home late in the evening, Zoe rushed to ask where I had been and why I never answered her phone calls and texts.
I stood there in the hallway, her arms around my neck, the part of my day I usually looked forward to most.
When we first got together, I used to watch her sleep whenever I wasn’t able to. She looked so little and so vulnerable while she breathed softly, and it made me want to protect her from anything that might harm, bother or disappoint her, including myself. But how could I protect her from this?
How could I protect myself from the images that I couldn’t unsee?
I slowly wrapped my arms around her and sobbed.
“What is it?” she tried to tear herself away from my tight hold, but I wouldn’t let go.
“A lot has happened!” I croaked.
“Tell me, Ethan!” she was shaking now.
“I’ve never kept anything from you,” I said as I moved my hands to hold her face.
“I know! Please tell me what’s wrong,” she said, her eyes wide with fear.
“This will be the first and last time. Just know that I’m fine and did not cheat on you. Can you accept that?”
“I think I can,” she nodded as she buried her head in my chest, “Some things are better left unsaid.”