On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Hardwick almost didn’t see the email at all. If he hadn’t recently embraced the philosophy of Inbox Zero, he wouldn’t even have noticed the little boldfaced numeral 1 beside his Spam folder in the sidebar.
He leaned back in the elaborate ergonomic chair he used at the computer desk in his home office. With nothing much else to do at the moment, he clicked on the folder to display its contents, and saw the solitary message. It was marked URGENT in the subject line, followed by Your assistance required urgently.
“Double urgency,” he muttered to himself. “Must be important.”
Like almost anyone online, Hardwick had seen dozens of the formulaic so-called Nigerian 419 beneficiary fraud messages. He’d never quite worked out why the standard of English was so bad, serving as an immediate clue to their illegitimate nature, but a friend had once told him that whilst probably unintentional, it was a useful evolutionary measure: if you were stupid enough to think the language was OK, you were probably stupid enough to be tricked out of your money.
He opened the message, and was rewarded with exactly what he was expecting: Dear Sir, very important matter, crown prince dead in plane crash, fifty-three million dollars, fee to release funds, fifty percent commission, send full name and private phone number. Absolutely standard.
“You really picked the wrong mark today, Barrister James Bonganti,” Hardwick said, tapping the Command and R keys together to create a reply.
He expressed his condolences regarding the prince’s death, saying that he vaguely recalled reading about it — which he didn’t — and eagerly agreed to help liberate the tantalising fortune. Duly adding his phone number and some other personal details, he sent the message, then he yawned. It had been a slow morning. More coffee would help.
Three hours later, the email app pinged on his phone. He’d previously marked the scam message as not being junk, so that future responses would trigger a notification. Sure enough, it was the same sender. Hardwick smiled.
Over the course of the next several weeks, he exchanged a number of emails with whomever was actually sending the messages. In one of them, the signature misspelled the fake surname, but Hardwick pretended not to notice. He kept track of how many emails he’d received, and it was in the fourteenth that he was finally asked to transfer a small processing fee of one hundred dollars. He did so immediately, and he could almost visualise the satisfaction on his anonymous counterpart’s face, thinking they’d reeled in another fool.
The next reply came less than an hour later, thanking him, and saying that there might, however, be further fees to pay if they wanted to secure the entire amount within a reasonable amount of time. Hardwick’s reply was quite masterful, he thought, expressing a degree of disappointment and frustration, but couched in culturally-enforced politeness, and of course the wilful self-deception that con victims must necessarily supply.
After he wrote it, he stood up from his chair and wandered through his vast home, looking out at the gardens, and appreciating the excellent weather. He nodded and smiled at his various household staff, and on a whim, he requested an early lunch in the conservatory, which was duly served. Perhaps later he would go for a swim.
His phone pinged again a couple of hours later, and the message was comically upbeat. It was quite well-written, actually, and Hardwick had to inwardly acknowledge his admiration of it. The narrative was presented as an unexpected piece of good fortune in ongoing negotiations with the national bank, and Bonganti had apparently obtained assurance that the fortune would be transferred to an account of his choosing if only they could secure an administration fee — which was openly admitted to be a bribe — of a mere six thousand dollars.
And, to Hardwick’s great satisfaction, the critical phrase was embedded in the text; Bonganti said I promise to send full amount to you.
“In for a penny,” Hardwick said cheerfully, drawing a respectful but questioning look from one of his gardeners, then he switched to a banking app and made the transfer before even responding to the email.
At this point in the process, it was likely that the scammer would either disappear without another communique, or would make one last attempt to secure a smaller amount, working on the principle that psychological denial would prevent the victim from accepting that they should cut their losses. Either was fine.
Two days passed, and Hardwick woke on the third morning with a deep-seated certainty that Barrister James Bonganti, who had of course never really existed, had decided against trying his luck one last time. Hardwick opened his email app again, still in bed, and typed a short message.
I’d like to claim the promised funds now.
He sent it, and he considered going back to sleep for a while, but he was already quite awake so he rang down for someone to begin preparing breakfast. He thought he might peruse his stock portfolio after he’d eaten, and consider making some new acquisitions.
It was over half an hour later when he finally stepped out of his wonderful rainfall shower, and found that he’d missed several notifications. One was a furious email from an African-sounding gentleman whose name he didn’t recognise, and was laden with a mishmash of curses in at least two languages. Another notification was sent by the bank he used for large international transactions, acknowledging deposit of fifty-three million US dollars and inviting Hardwick to speak with their investment advisors if he wished. A third notification was from his email app, too, and came from the same account that the fictional Bonganti had used. It contained only the capitalised words FUCK YOU, without any surrounding context or punctuation.
Hardwick smiled, peripherally aware that his breakfast had arrived. He sat down at the table which had appeared there during his shower, and watched the member of his kitchen staff set out his meal. The young woman finished quickly and then departed.
He picked up a strawberry and placed it into his mouth, relishing the sweet flavour, ripened to perfection.
His grandmother had taught him to appreciate all of the experiences in life, large and small, and to waste no time on bitterness or regret. She had repeated the entreaty as he held her hand while she lay on her deathbed decades ago, and he had never forgotten her last words.
May a promise to you never be broken.
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