by Pascal Roussel
The next morning, Tuesday, September 28, 2010, Anne was finishing her breakfast when her phone rang. Hans was working and Nicolas was at school. An unknown number appeared on the telephone, and she picked it up.
“May I speak to Mrs. Anne Standfort, please?”
“Anne Standfort speaking.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Standfort. I am the general director of the bank Goldstein & Sons. I would like to meet you, Madam. When would that be possible for you?”
The tone was peremptory, and Anne was immediately displeased. “May I ask for what purpose?”
“It is a sensitive question, and I would like to talk to you face to face.”
“I see, but I have a very busy schedule. And as I don’t have an account in your bank, I therefore fail to see any purpose of our meeting.”
“You are mistaken, Madam. You are one of our customers.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A close friend has asked me to open a numbered account in your name, which I personally did. Usually, for this type of account, the identity of the holder is known only to a few employees of the bank. In the present case, I am the only one to know your identity, but this does not mean that you should not legalize the necessary documents.”
“Sir, the opening of an account without my permission and without my even being informed about it seems to be more than suspect. Or, and this is more likely, it is a mistake. Somebody must have the same name, I guess?”
“I should say that it is a very unusual kind of transaction, but I am the director of this bank and personally verified that the proceedings are valid, especially since we are dealing with a sum of four hundred million francs.”
There was silence. Anne swallowed. The man continued, “I did say four hundred million francs, and I tell you that there is no mistake and the name is really yours. At what time will you be here?”
“I shall be there in thirty minutes.”
“That’s perfect!” The voice had a sarcastic tone, if Anne was not mistaken, as if the man had said something like, “You have become reasonable at last!”
After the call ended, Anne stood up like a robot and went to look at herself in the mirror in the entrance. She saw herself, pale and disheveled. During the few minutes of this bewildering conversation she had not stopped passing her hand through her hair. Despite her denial, the anxiety had not left her since she had received the letter. And now there was the pressure of this unknown banker plus this unbelievable amount of money. Who was behind all this? Who could believe her to be so corruptible that pressing instructions like this could be given to her?
She drank a big glass of water and, suddenly feeling impatient to elucidate this mystery, prepared herself to go. Hans had to be informed, however. With his usual composure, he would fi nd a rational explanation. But with the anxiety that kept creeping in on her, she already had a foreboding that there was nothing rational in this adventure and, above all, the amount of money which had landed in her bank account. She understood at this moment that this latter detail had to remain nebulous, at least for the moment. As expected, her husband confirmed that the bank was a serious one and specialized in the management of the largest fortunes. He was also personally convinced that this was a mistake that was about to be corrected. Maybe it had already been identified. He offered to go with her, which she refused.
Less than thirty minutes later she entered the bank’s offices. An employee invited her to wait for a few moments. She sat in an armchair surrounded by green plants, and she was admiring their luxuriance when her eye was drawn to the huge television screen on the wall facing her. Nonstop news reports were being broadcast from a financial news channel. Anne started, flushed, and unbuttoned her coat. A journalist was explaining that the price of gold had just dropped 2 percent and no plausible explanation had been found.
At that moment, David Goldstein appeared. He greeted Anne very politely and invited her to follow him to his office. She sat in front of him and tried to master her feeling of uneasiness. As if he wanted to give a more theatrical character to the meeting, David Goldstein looked at her for a few moments before he started to speak with a paternalistic tone, his elbows on the desk and his forefingers touching each other.
He took a deep breath and began. “Dear Mrs. Standfort, as I told you, this situation is very unusual indeed. You may be aware that— and this is very different from what you see in movies—a numbered account is not anonymous but is known only to a few persons because an absolute confidentiality has to be guaranteed. In the case which we are discussing, as I said earlier, I am the only one who knows your identity. I understand your feeling, however, when a number is followed by many zeros, and all of this happens to be on a bank account in your name. You do have a few questions, don’t you?”
He had a very unpleasant throat laugh and continued on a tone that did not call for reply.
“The documents are ready; you have only to sign.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I maintain that it must be a mistake. No one owes me such a large amount of money.”
“Owe may not be the right choice of words, indeed. However this account is completely real and I guarantee that it is absolutely confidential. I just need your signature and a copy of your ID card.”
Anne was sweating. He added, “Mrs. Standfort, the person who wired this money belongs to a family that has been a client of my bank for generations. This person is honoring me with the favor of his friendship, and I am not allowed to give his name. However, he informed me that he had explained everything to you by mail.”
Again that letter! Since the beginning, Anne had felt that there was a troubling connection between the letter, the announced present, and this money which was being offered. But offered for what reason and in exchange for what, precisely? The mere writer of a book is never paid that much!
“I did receive a letter. It was not signed, and I thought it was a hoax.”
“My dear Madam, you will soon learn that when these people talk about money, they are never joking. I shall thus inform him that everything is all right, and I have no doubt that he will very soon contact you.”
He presented the documents to Anne, with a pen, and she signed. He gave her some information regarding the management of the account, which she did not remember, and then he stood up. With an icy smile on his face, he motioned toward the doorway with his hand. The meeting was over; it had lasted less than ten minutes.
What Anne was not aware of, for obvious reasons, was that the banker felt an intense satisfaction. Beneath his attitude of a Roman emperor, David Goldstein was a man devoured by ambition. For such a long time, with a never-ending patience, he had been waiting for the opportunity to come closer to the “crowned heads,” and he had the feeling that through this affair, which had been entrusted to him in the highest secrecy, he had just made giant steps upward in this hierarchy that he craved to belong to one day.
Anne found herself in the street, feeling completely disoriented. Without thinking, she looked at her watch; it was nine thirty. Again her mobile phone rang. “Good morning, Anne. Well, did you like my present?” The voice was firm but hoarse, the voice of a long-time smoker.
“Who are you?”
“I am going to answer your questions, Anne, but when you are together with me, around three o’clock. If you leave immediately, you will be able to catch the 12:45 p.m. flight from Geneva to Venice. A return ticket is waiting for you at the airport, and someone will be there to pick you up when you arrive.”
“Am I to be ordered about by you?”
“Take the letter with you, the letter that I sent you. It would be hazardous to leave any trace of it.”
He had completely ignored her reaction, and she lost her temper. “You do not understand! I do not intend to obey you!”
“It is you who do not understand. It is too late to go back on this.”