This story is by Nina Hundley and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
For a split second, the money wasn’t worth it.
Then it was.
I broke off our 4-year relationship and sat outside smoking a cigarette.
“You’re making a mistake.” Kate only spoke to me once, while she and a friend moved her things out of the studio we’d shared. I swallowed a lump in my throat every second she was there.
You’re right. Probably the biggest mistake of my life, but I remained silent.
Once she left, I felt my resolve harden. I wasn’t technically doing anything wrong. I just needed to protect her.
My life was intertwined with another now. He was my business partner who’d made me filthy rich.
“I help people, Richard. I’m an entrepreneur and I make good money helping others get jobs.” Louis sat back in his chair, thoughtful about the question I’d once asked him about his career. His black eyes stared right through me, unblinking. “Get them where they need to be, know what I’m saying?”
Louis was smart, charming, and well sought after for his knowledge of real estate. He always had several guys with him, always had a different car. He was classy, evasive, and I was drawn to his fascinating air of mystery.
Our partnership had been vague from the beginning, with Louis requesting my financial expertise for managing his various accounts. As CFO for a state bank, I had moved quickly into my position before meeting Louis, who catapulted my own funds into a dream I thought would take years to achieve.
It wasn’t long before I started to notice him everywhere. At Camino’s for breakfast with a co-worker, he waved at me from a booth. Blowing the horn driving past my barber shop. He even frequented the same bar.
Louis continued to have me followed from time to time in our first year as partners, which I knew was his way of protecting his assets. As alarming as it was, I was grateful I had ended things with Kate months prior.
It took awhile to realize my business partnership was involved in criminal activity. I discovered fraudulent transactions from tracking his card one day.
At first, it ate away at me. What did he see in me to even approach me in the beginning? How was I such an obvious choice for treachery? In my defense, I wasn’t a thief. I just loved money, wanted to make it big in the world. My past had guaranteed I’d be a nobody, but now I was making the big bucks. Proving everybody wrong.
Ignorance is bliss, right? I knew no details, made a lot of money from him, and kept both of our operations covert. I was invaluable to him.
One spring evening that first year, Louis wanted to meet in an undisclosed location for a favor. He sounded desperate. “Wait for my call at 4 and tell no one.”
The call led me to a restaurant in town, where another man I’d never met was waiting.
“Where’s Louis?” My chest tightened with anxiety.
The man, dressed in head to toe black with a dark, untamed beard never faced me. “Five thirty, corner of 6th and Vine, black jacket, black t-shirt.” He turned and started walking.
I wanted to follow him but quickly decided against it. Instead, I went home, cancelled dinner plans with my coworker Mike, and found directions for 6th and Vine.
Dread sank into my gut an hour later as I approached a man in a black jacket. Wordlessly, he led me around the corner from our meeting place, to an alley where a white van was parked. Two men stepped out and walked towards me. I stood there silently, fear engulfing my senses as they walked right past me. I knew none of these men.
Black Jacket turned around. “Take the keys, drive to this address. We’ve been trailed,” he handed me a slip of paper, sliding his sunglasses down. “Leave the van. Do not stop, do not open any door. Leave immediately once it’s dropped.”
I’d love to say that I stood defiantly in the face of what I would later know as evil and balked at the plan. I’d love to think I had no idea of what I was doing, that I was completely naïve to the situation. Longings of sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee and calling Kate for dinner plans suddenly filled my heart.
But I was a scapegoat. I was in deep. Dropping off cargo of laundered money? Was it drugs? Trafficked victims? I got in and drove with beads of perspiration sliding down my neck. Things were bouncing around in the back but there was a paneled window where I could see nothing.
Then, it happened.
I drove to the address on the paper. As I parked the van behind a deserted house in the middle of the woods, I noticed movement inside. I anxiously slid from my seat, shut the door, and began to walk briskly. Something told me to keep going, not to turn around. But I felt drawn. I couldn’t resist the temptation of knowing.
Peering over my shoulder, a boy of about 7 or 8 was staring at me from the back window of the van, hand on the glass, dark eyes haunting.
I broke into a full sprint as far away as I could.
One month later, I’d devised a plan. Louis had been MIA and I’d had no more interactions with his team. I’d lost weight and sleep, the boy’s eyes haunting me. I truly convinced myself that I hadn’t be an accomplice if I really didn’t know what was happening. Right?
I had to get out.
I believed my insatiable desire for greed would never change and I wasn’t sure I wanted it to, but we were playing with fire. When I first uncovered I was an unwitting ally, a twinge of reluctance gnawed at me. I was afraid of being found out; constantly double checking every move I made.
I’d had moments where I felt shame and disgust when I saw news articles about traffickers being caught for inexplicable acts like kidnapping or forced labor. But I’d stuffed that remorse right down as I counted the numbers in my bank account. Because what I was doing had no shame. I was the guy in the background, the one who had nothing to do with such heinous acts.
Now, I could only think of the boy.
Had I truly had a hand in this? Where was he now? What would happen to him? The remembrance of his eyes screamed for me to right this wrong.
I was a weak man though, and I couldn’t change it. Fear overwhelmed me. I didn’t have any courage to fix it for him. So I’d worked on my own plan, transferring my finances to a Dominican bank, because the money was still mine and I had indeed worked hard for it.
My heart felt black. I was lost, cold, and felt inhumane every night I went home to my lonely studio.
Two weeks later, I moved on my plan to counsel Louis. “You need a new location, a new bank, new agencies. When you get too comfortable in places like this, you’ll make holes. You don’t want any gaps, Louis. For your business, I’d suggest moving around every 2 years.” Dear Lord, please let this idea work.
Things went smoothly as I quit my role, but I remained hypervigilant of what could meet me around the corner for days.
I’d be watched for the rest of my life if I stayed here.
As I sold my studio and my car, I planned my route to Denmark, where I hoped to land. I might get free of Louis and Co., but my recompense would never come for the boy who haunted me. I’d never be free of him and I knew it to the core of my soul. Would I ever find redemption?
Two days before my flight, Kate’s sister Bailey stood at my door. Her hair hung in her face, eyes red-rimmed, and a crying newborn in her arms. She’d always lived near Kate who took her in when she ran out of money for her fix that week. I’d only met her a few times, and she looked strung out like she had every other time I’d seen her. She sniffled and held the baby out.
“Kate died in a car accident 3 days ago. She loved you but it crushed her when you ended it.”
Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine.
I suddenly felt a mixture of emotions. Horror for what my life had become, loss of love, enough passivity to fill a canyon, and inexplicable grief for what could’ve been. For Kate. For the dark eyed boy in the van.
She continued to hold the baby towards me and I began to feel something new. A string of tears ran down Bailey’s emaciated cheek. “Take her. She’s yours.”