The window was small, and the sky beyond it was grey with the weight of rain readying itself to fall. John sat at his desk, this morning no different from any other morning. He worked as an accountant. He liked his job, and as such was very good at it. Over a period of several years, he had earned a name for himself. People far and wide sought his services, and the high caliber of his work was no secret.
The walls were white, with not a glimpse of personality in sight to taint them. The office could have belonged to anyone, or no one, and it would have looked no different.
“Mr Galliger,” called John’s assistant. She was a pretty woman, with a kind voice, that rang out as though it were mid song. John knew that her words would precede his first client of the day. “Send them in, Kate,” he said back to her, and then he settled comfortably into his chair, awaiting the client’s arrival.
John had dealt with many different people, all from different walks of life, but every now and then there still came someone who was unlike anyone he had ever seen before.
“Rose Bingham,” the woman introduced herself as she walked in, hips wide, and hair tainted with greys. Rose was probably in her late sixties to early seventies. She was the age of an average grandparent, but she looked anything but doting. Her eyes were dull, and the wrinkles that showed on her face were those from too many years of scowling. Her voice came out harshly, and she seemed to look at everything around her with disdain.
Rose did not say a word as she began unpacking her handbag, a bag which did not seem to match her at all, and which looked out of place on her arm. She explained herself briefly, and with an abrasive tone.
“I’ve won the lottery,” she said, and her mismatched appearance made sense, “Only do what you’ve got to, and don’t waste my money.” And with that she was off. No exchanging of pleasantries, no pleases, and no thank you’s. Rose left behind all the paperwork she had to, and then she extricated herself from the chair she had sat in, with some difficulty, and off she went.
John shook his head when Rose was out of the room. She was not the first lottery winner he had worked for, though she was perhaps the worst of them all. She was mean, clearly. She was not somebody who deserved to win the lottery. She would use all of her newfound funds for nothing but personal gain, she would help no one, and she would only enjoy financial success as a method for control.
Rose was everything John despised in a person, and it was thoughts of her nastiness that raced through his head as he set to work crunching numbers. Money would never suit the woman. She would never look quite right in an expensive pantsuit, and she would never seem to match her designer glasses. John wished there was something he could do, more than ever before he was driven by an urge for action. He would not be content to sit and let Rose use her money so wastefully, not when there were so many good things and people in the world to need it so much more.
John had always been an exceptionally honest man, and had always prided himself on that fact. He had never so much as stolen a lollipop, or lied to miss a day of working, everything he had ever said or done had been a thing of truth. A part of him, and a large one at that, did not want to break this spell. He did not want to let go of the honesty he had been so attached to his whole life, but sometimes, life calls for broken rules. Some situations call for risks to be taken, and for people to change their ways in order to achieve what it is important to. This was a life defining choice, John was sure of it, and it was one he was fearful of making, but he knew it to be right. Hard though it was, dangerous though it was, it was anything but wrong. The right things are rarely easy.
John did not just work for the rich. He did not want to be an accountant only for those with ridiculous amounts of money, though there were many who thought he should be just that. He wanted his clientele to be wide, and he wanted to meet many different people, all with different lives, and different stories to tell. He liked to hear their stories, and to learn about who they were, and often he remembered them far after they had likely forgotten about him.
There was one client that it seemed John was unlikely to ever forget. A young family, he had spoken to the mother of two. The children had been lovely, well behaved, clean, and obviously loved deeply. They had played quietly together in the corner of the office, and they had used far more manners than it seemed Rose had in her repertoire. The mother’s name had been Sarah, and John had developed a soft spot for her. She was poor, very poor, and she had sought him out in the hopes that he could give her some help, that he could at least advise her on how best to keep a roof over the heads of her children, and food in their mouths. She had looked tired, and hungry herself, though malnourishment did not seem to phase the children. It was John’s guess that they had never gone hungry, though their mother had to starve to feed them.
Sarah had shook, and she had wept. John had wished dearly that he had some way of helping her, something he could do, but there was nothing. Successful though he was, he was not a rich man, and did not have more than a few dollars to spare to slip into Sarah’s hand. She had wept when he had given it her, as little as it was, and the children had heard her cries. They had not ignored it as children so often can be expected to do, but had gathered at her side, holding her as tightly as their little arms would allow, able to reach no higher than her hips. Sarah thanked John, though he did not feel that he deserved it, and she left.
John thought about Sarah frequently, often wondering where she was, and what she was doing. He knew she was no better off now than she had been on that first visit, because she came back whenever the law dictated that she had to, once a year, never any better off than she had been the year before. John never charged her for his services, with the full knowledge that she could not afford to pay him. Many thought he was daft for it, but he could not help but imagine those little children, now growing up into bigger children, hungry for enough food to accommodate such growth. He could only hope that the money he might have charged her would feed them for another night.
Sarah was kind, and giving though she had nothing to give. Had it been she who had won the lottery, she would have used her winnings for charity donations, and she would have helped whoever she could. John knew this to be true. He knew Sarah was far more deserving than Rose. She had been through much worse, needed the money for a greater purpose, and was good enough to be a person who should have it.
Rose’s money was not John’s to give. In order to give it, he would have to steal it first. He would be breaking the law. He would be a criminal, and thief, but he had to do it. Sarah needed it, and so did those two children.
John didn’t take large amounts all from the same place. He was good with numbers, and he knew how to make their changes seem less dramatic. He doubted that Rose would notice a few missing figures, he doubted that she would be wise enough to check. He skimmed the money off bit by bit, and he did so very well, so very carefully, that it seemed nothing had been taken at all. It was not a lot, at least not comparatively to the amount that remained, but he knew that to Sarah it would be the world. It would be a second chance at a life she should have had, and a first chance for her children who so deserved one. It was the right thing, however wrong it felt.
Months passed, and there were no repercussions for what John had done to Rose’s money, as he had predicted she seemed not have noticed. Eventually, Sarah came in as she did each year, and John’s pocket itched with the money he had been longing to give her. When first he spoke, she seemed unable to process his words, but soon her eyes filled with tears, and her arms were latched around his neck, sobs escaping her lips. He was glad for what he had done. She thanked him more times than he could count, and then she thanked him some more. Gratitude poured out of her, and yet she still could not seem to offer enough. When she finally left her face glowed, and
fresh tears still clung to her eyelashes. John waved as she and the children walked away, knowing that tonight they could be sure of a meal.
More months passed. Sarah called in from time to time, though she kept her visits infrequent enough that they did not seem suspicious. Each time John saw her, he again felt that he done what he ought to have. Each time he saw her, more colour had returned to her cheeks, more life to her eyes, and more meat to her bones. Rose did not call, and she did not come, in fact it seemed she had disappeared completely from the face of the earth. The year came to a close, and a new one began, and when twelve months had passed since her last visit, John did not expect to ever see or hear from Rose again.
The weather was dismal on the morning he again recognised her face, thinner than it had been when he’d last seen it. Her eyes seemed almost sunken, and her hair had grown wispy and begun to fall out. It seemed that riches did not agree with the cruel old woman.
She insisted on shutting the door, and John obliged, though he expected nothing good to come out of this meeting. When she spoke, here voice was hushed, and frantic.
“I know you stole from me, you took my money, don’t think I don’t know it, but that money was never mine in the first place, you’re an accessory to crime!” John was shocked, he had not been expecting this of all things, and hardly knew how to react. He was given nearly no time at all in which to decide, because with that Rose was again out the door. She didn’t seem to want to stay in any one place for long, and this seemed to explain her deteriorating appearance. She was afraid. John did not know what crimes she had committed but the prospects seemed black. She was expecting to be caught soon, and wanted to delay such an event for as long as she could.
John was faced with a moral dilemma. He knew Rose to be a criminal, and felt that she had likely done something very terrible. He didn’t think that theft was all she was guilty of. He knew that she was on the run. Every instinct within him screamed for him to contact the police, and to tell them, but he was afraid of doing so. When Rose was caught, he would be at risk, and worse still, so might Sarah. Sarah did not know what money she had, but John did. It was stolen, and it could tangle her up into a terrible web of trouble. He could go to jail, he had stolen money, but worse still, he had stolen money that was already stolen in the first place. He didn’t know how the system worked, did two crimes of theft balance each other out? He doubted it. He was in danger, and calling the police would only make that danger worse.
John thought he should keep quiet. Say nothing, and let life run it’s course, but that stood against everything he believed in. He still believed in honesty, when it was best, and it was best in this situation. He had to be honest, however much trouble he might get himself into in doing so. He made his decision, and he followed through with it before he had the time to change his mind. His hands shook as they dialled the number for the police, and he told them about Rose.
It took the police two days to capture Rose, and they contacted John to tell him when they did. She was angry, livid, in fact, as might be expected in such a situation. She did not seem to have told them about John’s own theft, whether because she did not want to help them at all, or because she knew John’s own actions were minimal when compared to her own, John didn’t know. Perhaps it was that she still had some good inside of her, and knew John’s motives to be pure, but that was unlikely. Either way, John was grateful to suffer no consequences, and even more grateful for Sarah to be safe.
Rose was a murderer, as he had been shocked to learn. She had stolen the money from her victim. He had done the right in contacting the police. And however much it was dangerous, and probably stupid, he could still not bring himself to regret what he had done for Sarah. There are moments in life, few and far between, in which the choice between right and wrong is not a clear one. It is a hazy line, each side of which lays a choice. Though he would never do such a thing again, John was proud of what he had done, and he was happy with the side of the line he had stood to.
by Shannon Burns from Australia