BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
TILLIE WILSON had almost finished reading People magazine when her eyes drifted to the back pages and the lonely hearts column. A reader on a previous La Guardia to Montego Bay flight had circled one advertisement with crimson lipstick:
“Tall, dark and modestly handsome, retired gentleman of means seeks a forever relationship with an independent lady of refinement. Will we taste fine wine as we read Keats by candlelight? Say, ‘Yes’ and I will ask only this of you: ‘Will you become my Immortal Beloved?’”
Otille Pearl Wilson, the oldest of seven girls and a boy born in Spanish Town, smiled inwardly. “We’ll see,” she muttered.
Tillie tore the page out of the magazine, slipped it into her purse and replaced the magazine in the pocket of the seat back in front of her as their descent began. Once through Customs and Immigration, she collected her car from the parking lot and drove the hour and a half along the north coast road to her modest but secluded villa in the hills between Dunn’s River and Ocho Rios.
Shortly after she arrived home, Tillie’s only grandson, Marley, loped across the lawn to find his grandmother relaxing in a chair in the shade of a flame-of-the-forest tree, sipping a cold bottle of Ting through a straw.
“It’s the laptop I promised for your birthday, Auntie,” Marley said with a goofball grin as he pulled the rigid plastic case from the Hewlett-Packard cardboard box. “It’s more convenient than your old desktop. It’s the best they make, and I would only give my grandmother the best.” He planted a kiss on her cheek. “I know you already have wireless Internet, but I’ll pay for that from now on too.”
“Thank you, Boy,” she replied. “You are always so kind and thoughtful to your poor old Auntie.”
“I’ve already programmed the computer so you can access the Internet right away. All you need to do is provide it with a password.”
“It’s been a while since I retired from the bank,” she said, “so I’m a bit out of touch. But I’m sure with your help I’ll manage everything in time.”
“Be careful on the Internet, Auntie. There are all kinds of tricksters out there. If you have any doubts, let me know at once, okay? Some sites are a great place for picking up computer viruses, so I’ve installed the best anti-virus filter for your protection.”
As soon as Marley left, Tillie sat down at her new laptop and checked her bank accounts. With a few key strokes she moved money from the Caymans via Liechtenstein to Monaco, and on to Kuala Lumpur. More went through Belize to Singapore and Guernsey. She totalled the amounts in all her accounts around the world — US$502.6 million. Everything was as it was supposed to be. She patted her new laptop and sat back with a look of satisfaction crossing her face. “Twenty five years. You’ve come a long way from Spanish Town. It’s been a good run,” she told herself. “Now it’s time to redistribute the money to the deserving, and retire for good before I get caught.”
On graduating from school, Tillie had enrolled in secretarial college as her best bet to achieve a measure of solvency, a skill her spendthrift father had never managed to acquire. She married, and kept her job with the bank for over 20 years before her husband died. She was good with figures and, by then in her 40s, the bank offered her a transfer to their fledgling IT department, and an opportunity to work with computers.
Within a few months Tillie learned how to hack through the early, unsophisticated firewalls and gain entry to hundreds of dormant accounts, many containing sizeable sums. She knew that the contents of these accounts would eventually become the property of the bank. And the bank, in her opinion, had no more moral claim to the money than she had. If the bank could take this money, she rationalized, so could she. And if the bank said it wasn’t stealing, then logically she wasn’t stealing, either.
Larceny became her profession, not merely a lucrative sideline.
The Lonely Hearts page from the magazine clamoured for her attention. She pushed her chair away from her desk and reached for her purse. She smoothed out the creases on the page and read the advertisement through, twice. She doubted if any of the wording contained more than a hint of truth, but something about the message intrigued her. A quarter of a century of widowhood and living alone, she decided, was a long time. So why not initiate contact with this lonely, and possibly kindred, soul? Everyone does it. That’s what Facebook and Google are for, isn’t it?
The advertisement contained a P.O. Box number, but no name or email address. Obviously a cautious, even a cagey man, she told herself. She could be equally disingenuous.
Tillie took a sheet of writing paper from a pad in her desk drawer, filled her fountain pen and began to write:
Dear tall, dark and handsome,
I am sure you do yourself an injustice when you include the word “modestly.”
I am a mature lady of independent means, having recently retired from the financial services industry. During the past several years I have been fortunate to travel extensively and remain adventurous in all aspects of my life.
As for refinement, although I live simply I am a patron of the performing arts.
If you are intrigued by the possibilities of exploring a relationship with a lady of imagination, perhaps we should meet over dinner one evening soon: I suggest La Tour d’Argent in Paris, or, if you prefer more down-to-earth fare, McDonald’s at Times Square and Broadway. Who knows, after a tournedos truffé or a Big Mac and fries, I may turn out to be the ‘Immortal Beloved’ who has thus far eluded you.
Tillie included an email address, sealed the envelope and gave it to her maid to mail. Twelve days after her letter left the post office in Ocho Rios the message she had been expecting appeared in the In Box of her new laptop. The email came from a Robert McLean. She Googled him: “A 67-year-old retired British army officer. A year older than me,” she muttered. A few keystrokes later, the name of the owner of the computer and the email address used by “Robert McLean” appeared on her screen: Obi Ogunkoya of Lagos, Nigeria. Four key taps and his Interpol record appeared: A mercenary wanted for multiple executions, murders and rapes in Uganda and the Congo.
“The plot thickens,” Tillie muttered aloud. “Who are you really, Robert McLean?” She keyed in more complicated instructions. The screen flashed to life. Ogunkoya had two Swiss accounts containing a total of 2.92 billion Swiss Francs, frozen at the request of the French Government. Those accounts might be difficult, she thought, though not impossible to access. The accounts that Ogunkoya held in Liechtenstein and Monaco, however, were at the same banks as hers. In seconds, a transfer of a total of 161 million Euros flowed into her accounts, followed seconds later by transfers out to Nassau and Singapore. Simultaneously she closed her two European accounts and erased any record of their existence.
Tillie totalled the amounts in all of Ogunkoya’s accounts world-wide and whistled softly: US$8.14 billion, including the amounts frozen in Switzerland. That still left more than the equivalent of $5 billion in various currencies. Why on earth, she wondered, would a man like that advertize for lifelong companionship, Keats by candlelight with fine wine, in the Lonely Hearts column of a popular magazine?
No immediate answer surfaced so, after several more minutes of thought she went to her bedroom. From the small wall safe she took out one of four cell phones that she had bought in New York and loaded with a prepaid phone card. She punched in a number from memory and waited while the phone at the other end rang four times. She hung up, then keyed in a different number. It was picked up on the first ring.
A man’s voice on the other end grunted, “Nineteen dozen tulips.”
“Parma violets,” Tillie replied.
“What can I do for you, Hortense?”
“I need a little help in accessing information, which will lead to the repatriation of certain sums to their rightful owner,” she replied. “In this case, although I’m loath to admit it, it’s the French government being stonewalled by those bandits in Zurich.” Mentally, she crossed her fingers. Not strictly true, she thought, but close enough.
“I’m interested,” Natalie said, though the bored voice suggested otherwise.
Tillie gave him the two account numbers. “These accounts need to be unfrozen and the money returned to the French Treasury. You can do it, or you can give me the necessary information and I’ll do it,” she said.
“What’s in it for you?”
“This is for no personal gain, cross my heart, Natalie,” Tillie said. “The man needs a lesson in civics and community values. And you know how I hate it when those nasty little men in Zurich keep money that isn’t theirs, thereby depriving the French Government of an opportunity to squander it.”
“Do you have a name for this paragon of virtue?”
“Obi Ogunkoya,” she replied. “Nigerian mercenary, rapist and murderer. Or he could be a retired British army officer using the name Robert McLean. Or they could be one and the same person. Or neither, I suppose.”
“It’s never simple with you, is it Hortense? You’ll take care of the rest?”
“Uh, huh. Can you do it?”
“For you, Hortense, anything’s possible. I’ll email what you need.” The line went dead.
Within half an hour the information Tillie needed from Natalie hit her In Box. The email confirmed her suspicions — this would not be a routine transfer. From the tone of the message Tillie reckoned that Natalie was probably glad he was not jeopardizing his career as one of the world’s premier hackers for the sake of a foreign government. Tillie was confident, though, that Natalie, whoever he was, had taken all precautions to ensure that he assumed zero risk, and would have blocked and booby-trapped all electronic pathways back to him. So if she needed to contact him by computer for clarification she would download the mother of all viruses onto Marley’s present.
Tillie copied the algorithm down on a scratch pad and set to work. It was four in the morning in Zurich when she breached the first firewall.
Hacking into the accounts provided little difficulty. Getting the money out without raising the alarm required the touch of an eye surgeon. She followed to the letter the algorithm she had written down, her fingertips barely kissing the required keys. Within seconds the accounts both registered zero balance. She followed Natalie’s routing codes for the French Government Treasury Department’s general ledger account. Two quick key strokes and the accounts in Zurich vanished as if they had never been.
Now it was time to keep up the subterfuge with Robert McLean, whoever he was. Even if he really was only a lonely heart.
How sweet it was of you to return my enquiry so promptly by email. Can we meet? Please say we will soon. My plans are flexible so I can easily accommodate your schedule if you give me a few days’ notice.
Moments later Robert McLean’s reply entered Tillie’s In Box:
Leonora: As you suggested in your letter, La Tour d’Argent in Paris. Would 8:00 pm on Saturday work for you?
She noted the time of the email — five hours ahead of Caribbean time. She checked the routing of the email: Freetown, Sierra Leone, a country in the aftermath of a bloody civil war. This, she thought, gets nastier and nastier. And what role do you play in all this, Robert McLean?
Robert: Delighted. Time and date fit perfectly with my plans. Carry a single pink rose so that I may recognize you.
She moved the curser to “Send,” touched the mouse and smiled. “Robert McLean,” she whispered, “I’m about to fleece your friend Obi Ogunkoya squeaky clean, which means you too, if you’re the same person.”
As carefully as an explosives expert arming a sophisticated bomb, Tillie spent the next two days going over the program she had written specifically for Obi Ogunkoya, an evil man she had dedicated all her resources to destroying. One mistake and she knew the whole gunpowder plot would leave a trail fizzing right to her front door. She had no doubt that would mean the rest of her life spent behind bars — if Obi Ogunkoya and his henchmen did not get to her first.
Satisfied that she had taken every precaution possible, Tillie went to her bedroom and, from the wall safe, took two illegally obtained, but otherwise genuine, Jamaican passports and American Express credit cards in the names of Leonora Boyd-Harris and Merrin Watson. She slipped the automatic flight and hotel confirmations she had made two days earlier into the passports, and a single use cell phone into her purse. “Tillie Wilson,” she told her bedroom mirror, “you are cleared for take-off.”
In her Paris hotel room in the Place des Vosges she called the cell number Robert McLean had given her in the email he had sent shortly before her departure.
“Yes. Is that you, Leonora?” Tillie detected a slight Scottish accent, which threw her into confusion. Obi Ogunkoya, she had assumed, would speak like a West African. “Where are you?”
“I’m in Paris,” she responded. “I got into my hotel a few minutes ago.”
“I’m still in London, at the City airport. I should be there in a couple of hours. I’ll see you at eight clutching a pink rose.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Robert,” she said. “I’m wearing black.” She hung up before Robert had a chance to trace the call, dropped her phone onto the tiles of the bathroom floor and ground a stiletto heel into it. She deposited the remains into the garbage can, ripped up the Leonora Boyd-Harris passport, cut up the matching AmEx card into small pieces and flushed the scraps down the toilet. Leonora Boyd-Harris ceased to exist.
Shortly before eight Tillie slipped out of her taxi in front of the restaurant.
“I’m here with Monsieur McLean,” she told the maître d’. “I’m a few minutes early.”
“Oui, madame,” he said. “I have his reservation for eight o’clock. Please come this way.”
Tillie followed him to a table set for two and sat down, itching to see the face of the man with the pink rose when he saw her. She wondered what his reaction would be. And hers. Would she meet a Nigerian? Or a tall, dark and modestly handsome Scot? A murdering thug, or a gentleman, if possibly something of what used to be called a rogue? And if Robert McLean really was the person Google said he was, did she have what it took to destroy him the same way she intended to destroy Ogunkoya? She left that door unopened for the moment.
She saw him framed in the entrance clutching the rose: Tall, slim, his shoulders held back, the light reflecting off the silver in his black hair brushed straight back. His grey, clipped moustache shouted “career army officer.” His dinner jacket gave him a distinguished, confident air, a man accustomed to command. His eyes betrayed no surprise, never leaving her face as he followed the maître d’ to their table.
When Robert stopped, Tillie half rose from her seat and took the offered rose. “How sweet of you, Robert,” she said as her eyes met his.
“Leonora,” he said with a slight bow. “I’m delighted we meet at last,” he said in the Scottish lilt that she had heard over the phone.
She smiled and took her seat. Robert took the place set opposite her. She was pleased that he did not want a different table, one where he could sit next to her. Sitting across from her it would be harder for him to hide the truth from his eyes or disguise his body language. Whether it was a necessary precaution, she decided with a small, involuntary shiver that left goose bumps on her bare arms, only the events of the next couple of hours would reveal.
All evening Robert’s conversation remained guarded. Both fenced deftly without probing either too obviously or too deeply. She cautioned herself about the first rule of negotiating: everyone lies. Was he a skillful negotiator? How much of the story of Robert’s life could she believe? Or he of hers?
They pondered the dessert menu over the last of the wine. The waiter peered down his Roman nose at Tillie.
“Et pour madame?”
“Les pêches en croûte à l’ancienne,” she replied.
Robert raised his eyebrows. “I thought you were already the complete package,” he said. “But I was wrong. You speak French as well.”
She smiled. “Enough to read a menu,” she said. “To tell the truth, Robert, I was surprised to find peach cobbler on the menu. It must be a sop to American tourists.”
Sipping espressos at the end of the meal, Tillie leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I have one final question, Robert,” she said. He arched his eyebrows. “Is your name really Robert McLean?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I assumed it would be a nom de guerre, made up to entice a person such as me to have dinner with you.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said with a frown. He stiffened and she saw his eyes flash with momentary anger. “I take it that you would rather not proceed any further with . . .” He seemed to run out of words.
“If I have doubted you, Robert,” she said, “perhaps you will understand my position, and my caution. I am a widow. I am not without means, but I am not able to prevent someone from taking advantage of me physically, or absconding with my life’s savings once he has found a place in my heart and my confidence.”
Robert wriggled, looking uncomfortable as he sat upright in his chair. “I certainly understand what you’re saying,” he began slowly. “You have every right to be cautious. I commend you for it.” He leaned forward as if to add credence to his sincerity and smiled, but his eyes remained dull. He picked up his napkin, looked down, and wiped his lips.
Tillie took a breath to hide her nerves. “Robert?” she asked. “How well do you know Obi Ogunkoya?”
Robert’s head snapped up. Tillie held his eyes without wavering. He returned her gaze. “I’ve heard of him,” he continued, and looked away for a second. “A nasty piece of work by all accounts,” he said. “Do you know him?”
“No. I’d never heard of him until a couple of weeks ago when you emailed me from his computer in Freetown.”
Tillie watched Robert’s face turn red. He fiddled with his napkin on the table cloth.
“I’m sorry I misled you,” he said. “I did so for good reasons. I won’t go into them now.”
“I had no idea,” Tillie said with a note of sadness creeping into her voice, “whether I would meet Robert McLean tonight, or Obi Ogunkoya, or if they were one and the same person.”
McLean put his napkin down. “I think the answer to that is obvious,” he said.
“I represent certain legitimate armament manufacturers,” Robert said. “I was led to believe Ogunkoya was the Deputy Minister of Defence in the Sierra Leone Government. I worked with him, procuring arms, until I found out what you already know. We parted company several days ago. He wasn’t pleased.”
Half of Tillie believed him. Half of her didn’t. Her gut instinct told her this was no time for second guessing. She knew what she had to do, and the consequences be damned.
“Excuse me a second, Robert,” Tillie said, trying to sound nonchalant. “My phone’s vibrating. It has to be from my maid. I told her not to text me unless it was an emergency.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a cell phone, which she studied for a few moments. “Forgive me for being rude,” she said, “while I reply.” She looked up. Robert nodded. She keyed in a series of letters.
“Ready?” she asked.
“For what?” He looked puzzled.
“A small subterfuge. You’re about to witness Obi Ogunkoya’s fortune evaporate when I press one more key,” she said.
With her index finger poised over the key pad she studied Robert’s face. He did not blink. Did his brown eyes just turn cold? Was it fear that flashed across them? Or was he being defiant, determined to play out the game to the bitter end? He made no move to stop her. She could not read him — until his body squirmed. Then she knew. Tillie’s stomach churned as adrenaline shot through her. Her temples throbbed. This had to be done. She held her breath and touched the last letter on the key pad, then waited several seconds before she keyed in several more letters.
“Done,” she said. “Mr. Ogunkoya is now penniless.” She paused for a second. “A little old lady just took down a murderous thug.”
Along with Obi Ogunkoya Tillie had no doubt she had also just destroyed Robert McLean in some way. A pity about Robert, she thought. He really was quite charming, and even modestly handsome. And he wasn’t the prime target after all. Only collateral damage. It couldn’t be helped. She almost felt sorry for the man she had known for a little under two hours. And his intentions might even have been honourable.
A look of defeat clouded Robert’s eyes, as if the embers that had glowed in them all evening had finally died. He looked up. “I take it you’re not really Leonora Boyd-Harris,” he said.
Tillie ignored Robert’s last comment. She rose from the table and pulled her jacket round her shoulders. Still a gentleman, Robert stood.
“It’s been a fascinating evening, Robert,” Tillie said. “Thank you. One day you may find your ‘Immortal Beloved,’ but she obviously won’t be me. If you’re still mixed up with Obi Ogunkoya in some way, I can’t condone that. It’s irrelevant now in any case. His money’s gone. He’ll find it hard to pay off the authorities for long without it.”
She touched the “Send” key and placed the phone in her purse. “You have a text message coming through any second,” she said. “Good bye, Robert.” Tillie turned and walked towards the restaurant exit.
When she reached the maître d’s station she stopped and looked back. Robert had his cell phone out, staring at her text message:
AS THEY SAY IN THE ISLANDS, ‘WHEN T’IEF T’IEFT FROM T’IEF, GOD LAUGH.