The De­signee

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - T.C. Boyle

The Bore­dom What he couldn’t have imag­ined, even in his bleak­est as­sess­ments of the fu­ture, was the bore­dom. He’d sat there in the hos­pi­tal while Jan lay dy­ing, hold­ing her hand af­ter each of the in­creas­ingly des­per­ate pro­ce­dures that had left her bald and ema­ci­ated and look­ing like no one he’d ever known, think­ing only of the bagel with cream cheese he’d have for din­ner and the iden­ti­cal one he’d have for break­fast in the morn­ing. If he al­lowed him­self to think beyond that, it was only of the empty space in the bed be­side him and of the prac­ti­cal con­cerns that kept ev­ery­thing else at bay: the es­tate, the fu­neral, the ceme­tery, the first shovel of dirt ring­ing on the lid of the cof­fin, clo­sure. There was his daugh­ter, but she had no more ex­pe­ri­ence of this kind of free fall than he, and she had her own life and her own prob­lems all the way across the coun­try in New York, which was where she re­treated af­ter the fu­neral. A grief coun­selor came to the house and mur­mured in his direction for an hour or two, peo­ple sent him cards, books, and news­pa­per clip­pings in a great rolling wave that broke over him and as quickly re­ceded, but no­body ad­dressed the bore­dom. He got up at first light, as he al­ways had. The house was silent. He dressed, ate, washed up. Then he sat down with a book or the news­pa­per, but his pow­ers of con­cen­tra­tion weren’t what they once were, and he wound up star­ing at the walls. The walls just stood there. No dog barked, there was no sound of cars from the street—even the leaky faucet in the down­stairs bath­room seemed to have fixed it­self. He could have taken up golf, he sup­posed, but he hated golf. He could have played cards or gone down to the se­nior cen­ter, but he hated cards and he hated se­niors, es­pe­cially the old ladies, who came at you in a gab­bling flock and couldn’t be­gin to re­place Jan any­way, not if there were ten thou­sand of them. The only time he was truly happy was when he was asleep, and even that was de­nied him half the time. The walls just stood there. No dog barked. The water didn’t even drip.

The Let­ter The let­ter came out of nowhere, a thin sheet of pa­per in a stan­dard en­ve­lope that bore a for­eign stamp (Eng­land: Queen El­iz­a­beth in brown­ish

The Bank of Eng­land by James Mitchell, © 2011, im­age li­censed un­der a Cre­ative Com­mons At­tri­bu­tion–share­alike 2.0 Generic Li­cense.

sil­hou­ette). It was buried in the usual avalanche of fly­ers, free of­fers, and coupons, and he very nearly tossed it in the re­cy­cling bin along with all the rest, but it was his luck that at the last minute it slipped free and drifted in a grace­ful flut­ter­ing arc to the pave­ment at his feet. He bent for it, notic­ing that it was ad­dressed to him, us­ing his full name— Ma­son Ken­neth Alimonti—and that the re­turn ad­dress was of a bank in London. Cu­ri­ous, he wedged the sheaf of ads un­der one arm and pried open the en­ve­lope right there in the drive­way while the sun beat at the back of his neck and peo­ple drifted by like ghosts out on the street. Dear Mr. Alimonti, the let­ter be­gan, kindly ac­cept my sin­cere apolo­gies for con­tact­ing you out of the blue like this, but some­thing very ur­gent and im­por­tant has come to our no­tice and we seek your con­sent for the mu­tual in­ter­est of all. His first thought was that this had some­thing to do with the es­tate, with Jan’s death, more pa­per­work, more has­sle, as if they couldn’t leave well enough alone, and he glanced up a moment, dis­tracted. Sud­denly—and this was odd, maybe even a por­tent of some sort—the morn­ing seemed to buzz to life, each sound com­ing to him sep­a­rately and yet blend­ing in a whole, from the chit­ter­ing of a squir­rel in the branches over­head to a snatch of a child’s laugh­ter and the squall of a ra­dio dopp­ler­ing through the open win­dow of a pass­ing car. And more: ev­ery blade of grass, ev­ery leaf shone as if the color green had been cre­ated anew. The let­ter was in his hand still, the junk mail still tucked un­der one arm. When Jan was alive, he’d bring the mail in to her where she’d be sit­ting at the kitchen table with her cof­fee and a book of cross­words, and now he was stand­ing there mo­tion­less in his own drive­way, hear­ing things, see­ing things—and smelling things too, the grass, jas­mine, a whiff of gaso­line from the mower that sud­denly started up next door. I am Gra­ham Shov­elin, the let­ter went on, Op­er­a­tions & IT di­rec­tor, York­shire Bank PLC, and per­sonal funds man­ager to the late Mr. Jing J. Kim, an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. He died re­cently, along with his wife and only son, while hol­i­day­ing in Kuala Lumpur, and was flown back to Eng­land for burial. In our last au­dit­ing, we dis­cov­ered a dor­mant ac­count of his with £ 38,886,000 in his name. This is a story, he was think­ing, a made-up story, and what did it have to do with him? Still, and though he didn’t have his glasses with him so that the let­ters seemed to bloat and fade on the page be­fore him, he read on as if he couldn’t help him­self: Dur­ing our in­ves­ti­ga­tions, we dis­cov­ered that he nom­i­nated his son as his next of kin. All ef­forts to trace his other re­la­tions have proved im­pos­si­ble. The ac­count has been dor­mant for some time since his death. There­fore, we de­cided to con­tact you as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, to seek your con­sent to en­able us to nom­i­nate you as the next of kin to the de­ceased and trans­fer the funds to you as the des­ig­nated heir to the de­ceased.

There was more—a pro­posed split of the pro­ceeds, 60% for him, 38% for the bank, 2% to be set aside for ex­penses both par­ties might in­cur (if any) dur­ing the trans­ac­tion. At the bot­tom of the page was a phone num­ber and a re­quest to con­tact the bank if the above-men­tioned trans­ac­tion should be of in­ter­est, with a fi­nal ad­mo­ni­tion: Please also con­tact me if you ob­ject to this pro­posal. Ob­ject? Who could ob­ject? He did a quick cal­cu­la­tion in his head, still good with num­bers though he’d been re­tired from the col­lege for fif­teen years now: 60% of 38,886,000 was 23 mil­lion and some­thing. Pounds, that is. And what was the con­ver­sion rate, one-point-two or -three to the dol­lar? It was a lot of money. Which he didn’t need, or not des­per­ately any­way, not the way most peo­ple needed it. While it was a sad fact that the bulk of what he’d set aside for re­tire­ment had been swal­lowed up in treat­ments for Jan the in­sur­ers had la­beled “ex­per­i­men­tal” and thus non-re­im­bursable, he still had enough left, what with so­cial se­cu­rity and his 401(k), to live at least mod­estly for as long as he lasted. This of­fer, this let­ter that had him stand­ing stock-still in his own drive­way as if he’d lost his bear­ings like half the other old men in the world, was too good to be true, he knew that. Or he felt it any­way. But still. Thirty mil­lion dol­lars, give or take. Cer­tainly there were places he’d like to visit—ice­land, for one, the Galá­pa­gos, for an­other— and it would be nice to leave his daugh­ter and his grand­son some­thing more than a mort­gaged house, fu­neral ex­penses, and a stack of bills. There were stranger things in this world—peo­ple won the lot­tery, got grants, prizes, es­tates went un­claimed all over the place, and it wasn’t as if he was des­per­ate. A voice warned him against it, but what did he have to lose? The cost of a phone call?

The Phone Call The phone picked up on the third ring, and the first thing he heard was mu­sic, a soft trickle of mu­sic that was nei­ther clas­si­cal nor pop, but some­thing in be­tween, and for a moment he thought he was be­ing put on hold be­fore the mu­sic cut off abruptly and a deep crisp voice—so deep it sur­prised him—swelled in­side the re­ceiver. “York­shire Bank, PLC, Gra­ham Shov­elin speak­ing. How may I help you?” He’d re­hearsed a lit­tle speech in his head, along the lines of estab­lish­ing his au­thor­ity as the per­son so­licited rather than so­lic­it­ing, but it de­serted him now. “Um, I,” he stut­tered, “I, uh, re­ceived your let­ter?” There was the faintest tick of hes­i­ta­tion, and then the voice came back at him, so deep he couldn’t help think­ing of Paul Robe­son singing “Ol’ Man River” on one of the old ’78s his grandmother used to play for him when he was a boy. “Oh, yes, of course—de­lighted to hear from you.

We have your num­ber here on the com­puter screen, and it matches our records . . . still, one can never be too care­ful. Would you be so kind as to iden­tify your­self, please?” “Ma­son Alimonti?” “Ma­son Ken­neth Alimonti?” “Yes.” “Ah, well, won­der­ful. We’ll need ver­i­fi­ca­tion of your iden­tity be­fore we can pro­ceed, of course, but for the moment, since we’re just be­gin­ning to get ac­quainted, I am sat­is­fied. Now, what do you think of our pro­posal?” He was in the liv­ing room, sit­ting in the arm­chair un­der the read­ing lamp, us­ing the old land­line phone his daugh­ter told him he ought to give up since the cell was all any­body needed these days, and she re­ally didn’t know any­one, not a sin­gle soul, who still paid for a land­line. But for some­thing like this—an over­seas call—he some­how felt bet­ter re­ly­ing on the in­stru­ment he’d been us­ing for thirty years and more. “I don’t know,” he said. “It sounds too good to be true—” The man on the other end of the line let out a boom­ing laugh, a laugh that scraped bot­tom and then sailed all the way up into the high reg­is­ter, a good-na­tured laugh, de­lighted, a laugh of as­sur­ance and joy that pro­claimed all was right with the world. “Well, of course, it is,” the man boomed, and here came the laugh again. “But some­times we just have to ac­cept the fact that luck has come our way—and be grate­ful, Mr. Alimonti, kick up our heels and em­brace what life brings us, don’t you think?” For a moment, he was con­fused. He felt as if he’d gone out of his body, ev­ery­thing be­fore him—the loveseat, the house­plants, the blank TV screen—shift­ing on him so that it all seemed to be float­ing in air. The phone was in his hand. He was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. Some­body—the man on the other end of the line—wanted some­thing from him. “Mr. Alimonti—you there?” “Yes,” he heard him­self say. There was some­thing odd about the man’s ac­cent—it was Bri­tish, proper Bri­tish, Mas­ter­piece Theatre Bri­tish, but the syn­tax was off some­how. Or the rhythm, maybe it was the rhythm. “Why me?” he asked sud­denly. An­other laugh, not quite so deep or pleased with it­self as the last. “Be­cause you’ve lived an unim­peach­able life, be­cause you pay your debts and you’re as solid an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen as any­one could ever hope to find. Oh, rest as­sured we’ve vet­ted you thor­oughly—as we have each of the nine other fi­nal can­di­dates.” Nine other can­di­dates? The re­ceiver went heavy in his hand—molded plastic, but it might as well have been cast of iron.

“Am I hear­ing sur­prise on your end of the line, Mr. Alimonti? Of course, you un­der­stand, we must pro­tect our­selves, in the event that our first choice doesn’t wish to ac­cept our of­fer for any rea­son—and I can’t re­ally imag­ine that hap­pen­ing, can you?—but as you are the first on our list, the sin­gle most qual­i­fied in­di­vid­ual we’ve ex­am­ined to date, we have to say— I have to say—that we are de­lighted you’ve con­tacted us ahead of any of the oth­ers.” He felt a wave of re­lief sweep over him. The phone was just a phone again. He said, “What next?” “Next?” the voice echoed. “Well, ob­vi­ously we have to make cer­tain that you’re the man for us—and that we’re the men for you too. Do you have any ques­tion about the fig­ures I pre­sented in my let­ter to you? You agree that a sixty/thirty-eight per­cent split is equable? You’re con­tent with that?” He said noth­ing. He was back in him­self, back in the moment, but he didn’t know what to say—did the man want him to ne­go­ti­ate, to quib­ble over the way the money would be split? “Again, let me an­tic­i­pate you, Mr. Alimonti. You are won­der­ing, no doubt, what’s in it for us?” The laugh again, but trun­cated now, all busi­ness. “Self-in­ter­est, pure and sim­ple. If this ac­count has not been claimed within a five-year pe­riod, the whole of it goes to the gov­ern­ment and we re­ceive noth­ing, though we’ve been the guardians of the late Mr. Kim’s for­tune for a quar­ter cen­tury now. We need you, Mr. Alimonti, and that is the bot­tom line. We need an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen in good stand­ing, with an un­blem­ished record and ab­so­lute pro­bity, to be the de­signee for your fel­low Amer­i­can, Mr. Kim.” A pause. “Oth­er­wise, none of us re­ceives a shilling.” “What do I have to do?” “Oh, noth­ing re­ally, not for the moment. We’ll need bank­ing in­for­ma­tion, of course, in or­der to trans­fer the funds, and our so­lic­i­tors will have to draw up a con­tract so as to be sure there are no mis­un­der­stand­ings, but all that can come in time—the only ques­tion now is, are you with us? Can we count on you? Can I hang up this phone and check the other nine names off my list?” His heart was pound­ing in his chest, the way it did when he overex­erted him­self. His mouth was dry. The world seemed to be tip­ping un­der his feet, slid­ing away from him. Thirty mil­lion dol­lars. “Can I have some time to think it over?” “Sadly, we have but two weeks be­fore the gov­ern­ment ac­count­ing of­fice swoops in to con­fis­cate this ac­count—and you know how they are, the gov­ern­ment, no dif­fer­ent, I sup­pose than in your coun­try, eh?

A belly that’s never full. Of course you can think it over, but for your sake—and mine—think quickly, Mr. Alimonti, think quickly.”

A Night to Think It Over The rest of the day, he re­ally couldn’t do much more than sit—first in the arm­chair and then out on the deck in one of the twin re­clin­ers there—his mind work­ing at dou­ble speed. He couldn’t stop think­ing about Eng­land, a coun­try he’d vis­ited only once, when he was in his twen­ties, along with Jan, in the year be­tween grad school and the start of his first job, his daugh­ter not yet even a speck on the hori­zon. They’d gone to Scot­land too, to Ed­in­burgh and where was it? Glas­gow. He re­mem­bered he took to call­ing Jan “Lassie,” just for the fun of it, and how one day, leav­ing a fish and chips shop, she’d got ahead of him on the street and he cried out, “Wait up, Lassie,” and ev­ery woman’s head turned. That was Eng­land. Or Scot­land, any­way. Same difference. And they had banks there, of course they did, London the bank­ing capital of Europe, though he couldn’t re­mem­ber ac­tu­ally hav­ing gone into one. He closed his eyes. Saw some sort of proud an­tique build­ing, old, very old, with pil­lars and mar­ble floors, brass fix­tures, an elab­o­rate worked-iron grate be­tween cus­tomers and tell­ers, but here again, he re­al­ized, he was bring­ing up an im­age from one BBC drama or an­other, and what was that one called where they showed the lives not only of the lords and ladies, but the ser­vants too? That had been Jan’s fa­vorite. She’d watch the episodes over and over, and some­times, at break­fast, she’d ad­dress him as “My Lord” and put on a fake ac­cent. For the fun of it. Yes, sure. And where was the fun in life now? At some point, when the shad­ows be­gan to thicken in the trees, he went into the house and clicked on the Tv—sports, a blur of ac­tion, a ball sail­ing high against a sky crip­pled with the on­set of night—but he couldn’t con­cen­trate on it, and re­ally, what did it mat­ter who won? Some­body had won be­fore and some­body had lost and it would hap­pen again. And again. Un­less there was a tie—were there ties in base­ball? He couldn’t re­mem­ber. He thought so. In fact, he dis­tinctly re­mem­bered a tie once, but maybe that was only an ex­hi­bi­tion game... or an all-star game, wasn’t that it? It was past eight by the time he re­mem­bered he ought to eat some­thing, and he went to the re­frig­er­a­tor, ex­tracted the stained pot there, and la­dled out half a bowl of the veg­etable-beef stew he’d made last week—or maybe it was the week be­fore. No mat­ter: he’d been rig­or­ous about keep­ing it re­frig­er­ated, and in any case the mi­crowave would kill any­thing, bac­te­rial or oth­er­wise, that might have tried to gain a foothold in the depths of the pot. The im­por­tant thing was not to waste

any­thing in a world of waste. He poured him­self a glass of milk, scraped two sus­pi­cious spots from a slice of sour­dough bread and put it in the toaster, then sat down to eat. The walls just stood there. But the si­lence gave way to a sound from the other room, where the TV was, a long drawn-out cheer and the voice of an an­nouncer un­leash­ing his en­thu­si­asm on the drama of the moment, and that was some­thing at least. What was the time difference be­tween here and Eng­land? Eight hours? Nine? What­ever it was, it was too early there to call yet. He was think­ing he might like to en­dow a fel­low­ship in Jan’s name at the col­lege—maybe in the art de­part­ment; she’d al­ways liked art—and if he gave enough they’d in­stall a plaque, maybe even name a build­ing af­ter her. Or a wing. A wing at least. Maybe that was more prac­ti­cal, re­ally. He saw her face then, not as it was in those last months, but her real face, her true face, fleshed out and beau­ti­ful even into her sev­en­ties, and he pushed him­self up from the table, scraped his bowl over the trash can, and set it on the rack in the dish­washer, de­cided now, his mind clear, re­ally clear, for the first time all day. In the morn­ing, af­ter break­fast (no rush—he wouldn’t want to come across as over-ea­ger), he would set­tle him­self in the arm­chair, pick up the phone, and make the call.

The Sec­ond Phone Call Of all days, this was the one he wound up over­sleep­ing, so that it was past eight by the time he sat down with his morn­ing cof­fee and punched in the bank’s num­ber with a fore­fin­ger that didn’t seem to want to steady it­self, as if this wasn’t his fin­ger at all but some stranger’s that had been grafted on in the mid­dle of the night. This time, there was no mu­sic and the phone picked up on the first ring. He was all set to tell Mr. Shov­elin— Gra­ham, can I call you Gra­ham?— that he’d found his man, that they’d grow rich to­gether, though, of course, as a bank em­ployee, he didn’t imag­ine that Mr. Shov­elin would ac­tu­ally get any of the money, but a bonus maybe, there had to be that pos­si­bil­ity, didn’t there? Imag­ine his sur­prise then, when it wasn’t Shov­elin, with his rich boom­ing basso, who an­swered the phone, but a woman. “York­shire Bank, PLC, Chevette Afunu-jones speak­ing,” she said in a thin weary voice. “How may I help you?” Again, he drew a blank. This whole busi­ness made him ner­vous. The phone made him ner­vous. London made him ner­vous. “I was,” he be­gan, “I mean, I wanted to—is Mr. Shov­elin there?” A pause, the sound of a keyboard softly click­ing. “Oh, Mr. Alimonti, for­give me,” she said, her voice warm­ing till you could have spread it

on toast. “Mr. Shov­elin, whom I am sorry to say is away from his desk at the moment, in­structed me to an­tic­i­pate your call. And let me say, from all the good things he’s had to say about you, it is a real plea­sure to hear your voice.” He didn’t quite know how to re­spond to this so he sim­ply mur­mured, “Thank you,” and left it at that. There was an­other pause, as if she were wait­ing for him to go on. “When do you ex­pect him back?” he asked. “Be­cause—well, it’s ur­gent, you know? I have some news for him?” “Well, I can only hope it’s the good news all of us on Mr. Shov­elin’s staff have been wait­ing to hear,” she said, her voice deep­en­ing, open­ing out to him in in­vi­ta­tion. “Rest as­sured that Mr. Shov­elin has given me full de­tails and, in my ca­pac­ity as his ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary, the au­thor­ity to act on his be­half, though he’s—well, he’s in­dis­posed to­day, poor man, and you can’t be­gin to imag­ine what he’s had to go through.” Here she dropped her voice to a whis­per: “Cancer.” This hit him like a blow out of nowhere. Jan’s face was right there, hov­er­ing over him. “I’m sorry,” he mur­mured. “Believe me, the man is a lion, and he will fight this thing the way he has fought all his life—and when he re­turns from his treat­ment this af­ter­noon, I know he will be lifted up by your good news, buoyed, that is . . . ” Her voice had grown tear­ful. “I can’t tell you how much he re­spects you,” she whis­pered. What he heard, though he wasn’t re­ally lis­ten­ing on an in­tu­itive level, was an odd sim­i­lar­ity to the ac­cent or em­pha­sis or what­ever it was he’d de­tected in Shov­elin’s speech, and he won­dered if some­how the two were re­lated, not that it mat­tered, re­ally, so long as they stayed the course and checked those other nine names off the list. He said, “Please tell him from me that I hope he’s feel­ing bet­ter and, well, that I’ve de­cided to take him up on his of­fer—” She clapped her hands to­gether, one quick cel­e­bra­tory clap that re­ver­ber­ated through the phone like the cym­bal that strikes up the band, be­fore her voice was in his ear again: “Oh, I can’t tell you how much this will mean to him, how much it means to us all here at the York­shire Bank PLC... Mr. Alimonti, you are a sav­ior, you re­ally are.” He was try­ing to picture her, this Bri­tish woman all the way across the coun­try and the sea too, a young woman by the sound of her voice, youngish any­way, and he saw her in busi­ness dress, with stock­ings and heels and legs as finely shaped as an ath­lete’s. She was a run­ner, not sim­ply a jog­ger, but a run­ner, and he saw her pump­ing her arms and dash­ing through what, Hyde Park?, in the dewy morn­ings be­fore com­ing to work with her high heels tucked in her purse. He felt warm. He felt good. He felt as if things were chang­ing for the bet­ter.

“Now, Mr. Alimonti,” she said, her voice low, al­most a purr, “what we need you to do is this, just to get the ball rolling—of­fi­cially, you un­der­stand?” “Yes?” “We will need your bank­ing in­for­ma­tion so that we can be­gin trans­fer­ring the funds—or at least cut­ting you a pre­lim­i­nary check—be­fore the Royal Fidu­ciary Bureau for Un­claimed Ac­counts moves on this.” “But, but,” he stam­mered, “what about the con­tract we were sup­posed to—?” “Oh, don’t you worry, darling—may I call you darling? Be­cause you are, you re­ally are darling—” He gave a kind of shrug of as­sent, but noth­ing came out of his mouth. “Don’t you worry,” she re­peated. “Mr. Shov­elin will take care of that.”

The First Dis­burse­ment Once the bank­ing de­tails were in place (within three work­ing days, and he had to hand it to Shov­elin for pulling strings and ex­pe­dit­ing things), he re­ceived his first dis­burse­ment check from the dor­mant ac­count. It was in the amount of $20,000, and it came spe­cial de­liv­ery with a note from Shov­elin, who called it “earnest money” and asked him to hold off for two weeks be­fore de­posit­ing it in the new ac­count, “be­cause of red tape on this end, which is re­gret­table, but a sim­ple fact of do­ing busi­ness in a bank­ing arena as com­plex as this.” The check was drawn on the York­shire Bank PLC, it bore the sig­na­ture of Gra­ham Shov­elin, Op­er­a­tions Di­rec­tor, and it was printed on the sort of fine, high-grade pa­per you as­so­ci­ated with stock cer­tifi­cates. When it came, when the door­bell rang and the mail­man handed him the en­ve­lope, Ma­son ac­cepted it with trem­bling hands, and for the long­est time he just sat there in his arm­chair, ad­mir­ing it. He was sit­ting down, yes, but in­side he was do­ing cart­wheels. This was the real deal. He was rich. The first thing he was go­ing to do—and the idea came to him right then and there—was help out his daugh­ter. An­gel­ica, di­vorced two years now, with a son in high school and barely scrap­ing by, was the pas­try chef at a tony restau­rant in Rye, New York; her dream was to open her own place on her own terms, with her own cui­sine, and now he was go­ing to be able to make it hap­pen for her. Maybe she’d even name it af­ter him. Ma­son’s. That had a cer­tain ring to it, didn’t it? That evening, just as he was ladling out his nightly bowl of stew, the phone rang. It was Shov­elin, sound­ing none the worse for wear. “Ma­son?” he boomed. “May I call you Ma­son, that is, con­sid­er­ing that we are now busi­ness part­ners?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He found that he was smil­ing. Alone there in his de­serted house where the si­lence reigned supreme, he was smil­ing. “Good, good, and please call me Gra­ham.... Now, the rea­son I’m call­ing is I want to know if you’ve re­ceived the dis­burse­ment?” “I have, yes, and thank you very much for that, but how are you? Your health, I mean? Be­cause I know how hard it can be—i went through the same thing with Jan, with my wife—?” The voice on the other end seemed to de­flate. “My health?” “I’m sorry, I re­ally don’t want to stick my nose in, but your sec­re­tary told me you were, well, un­der­go­ing treat­ment?” “Oh, that, yes. Very un­for­tu­nate. And I do wish she hadn’t con­fided in you—but I as­sure you it won’t af­fect our busi­ness re­la­tion­ship, not a whit, so don’t you worry.” There was a long pause. “Kid­ney,” Shov­elin said, his voice a mur­mur now. “Me­tastatic. They’re giv­ing me six months—” “Six months?” “Un­less—well, un­less I can qual­ify for an ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment the in­surance won’t even be­gin to cover, which my physi­cian tells me is al­most a mir­a­cle, with some­thing like a ninety per­cent re­mis­sion rate . . . but re­ally, for­give me, Ma­son—i didn’t call you all the way from Eng­land to talk about my health prob­lems. I’m a banker—and we have a trans­ac­tion to dis­cuss.” He didn’t re­spond, but he was think­ing of Jan, of course he was, be­cause how can any­body—in­sur­ers, doc­tors, hos­pi­tals—put a price on the life of a hu­man be­ing? “What I need you to do, Ma­son—ma­son, are you there?” “Yes, I’m here.” “Good. I need you to de­posit twenty thou­sand dol­lars Amer­i­can in the ac­count we’ve opened up at your bank, so as to cover the funds I’ve trans­ferred to you un­til they clear. You see, I will need access to those funds in or­der to grease cer­tain palms in the Royal Fidu­ciary Bureau— you have this ex­pres­sion, do you not? Greas­ing palms?” “I don’t—i mean, I’ll have to make a with­drawal from my re­tire­ment, which might take a few days—” “A few days?” Shov­elin threw back at him in a tone of dis­be­lief. “Don’t you ap­pre­ci­ate that time is of the essence here? Ev­ery­one in this world, sadly enough, is not as up­right as you and I. I’m talking about graft, Ma­son, graft at the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy. We must grease the palms—or the wheels, isn’t that how you say it?—to make cer­tain that there are no hitches with the full dis­burse­ment of the funds.”

There was a si­lence. He could hear the un­cer­tain wash of the con­nec­tion, as of the sea prob­ing the shore. Eng­land was a long way off. “Okay,” he heard him­self say into the void. But it wasn’t a void: Shov­elin was there still. “There are too few men of honor in this world,” he said rue­fully. “Do you know what they say of me in the bank­ing in­dus­try? ‘Shov­elin’s word is his honor and his honor is his word.’” He let out a sigh. “I only wish it were true for the un­scrupu­lous bu­reau­crats we’re deal­ing with here. The palm greasers.” He let out a chuckle, deep and rolling and self-amused. “Or, to be more pre­cise, the greasees.”

A Prob­lem with the Check Two weeks later, he was on the phone again, and if he was up­set, he couldn’t help him­self. “Yes, yes,” Shov­elin said dis­mis­sively. “I un­der­stand your con­cern, but let me as­sure you, Ma­son, we are on top of this mat­ter.” “But the peo­ple at my bank? The Bank of Amer­ica? They say there’s a prob­lem with the check—” “A small mat­ter. All I can say is that it’s a good thing we used this as a test case, be­cause think of the mess we’d be in if we’d de­posited the whole sum of $30,558,780, which, by the way, is what our ac­coun­tants have de­ter­mined your share to be, ex­clu­sive of fees. If any.” He was see­ing the scene at the bank all over again, the cold look of the teller, who seemed to think he was some sort of flim­flam man—or worse, se­nile, use­less, old. They’d sat him down at the desk of the bank man­ager, a full-fig­ured young woman with plump but­ter­fly lips and a pair of black eyes that bored right into you, and she’d ex­plained that the check had been drawn on in­suf­fi­cient funds and was, in ef­fect, worth­less. Em­bar­rassed—worse, hu­mil­i­ated—he’d shuf­fled out into the sun­light blink­ing as if he’d been locked up in a cave all this time. “But what am I sup­posed to do?” “Just what you—and I, and Miss Afunu-jones— have been do­ing: ex­ert­ing a lit­tle con­trol, a lit­tle pa­tience, Ma­son. The fact is, I am go­ing to have to ask you to make an­other de­posit. There is one man at the R.F.B. stand­ing in our way, a scoundrel, re­ally—and I’ll name him, why not? Richard Hyde-jef­fers. One of those men born with the gold spoon in his mouth but who is al­ways greedy for more, as if that were the only sub­ject they tu­tored him in at Ox­ford: greed.” “He wants a bribe?” “Ex­actly.” “How much?’

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