Last week in my local bookshop, I found the following text printed on a lime-green card which had been inserted into the pages of one of the short story collections of the celebrated Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges:
£100,000 reward, email firstname.lastname@example.org for further instructions
I panicked without knowing why. I had an urge to tear it up, to destroy it. I wanted to take it to the sales assistant and complain. It was something hot and dangerous. I wanted to be exonerated from any suspicion that I had done wrong, but what wrong could I possibly have done? I couldn’t rewind the clock now. Something about this discovery seemed important, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
I tried to think logically. Had it been left by accident? But an accident didn’t seem plausible since this would require the concatenation of a series of unlikely consequences: 1) thumbing through the book whilst holding the card, 2) resting the card between two of the pages, 3) relinquishing the hold on the card, 4) forgetting about the card, 5) closing the book on the card, 6) returning the book to the shelf; and, above all, 7) failing to realise between the time of leaving the bookshop and the moment when I discovered the card that it had been left in the book for all that time. When people look through books on bookshelves they generally don’t have anything in their hands, it being hard enough to look through books unencumbered. Something simpler struck me: could the card have been left by someone working at the printers? Was it a marketing stunt? A way for a second-rate writer to get a reluctant audience? I’d heard of instances such as these – I’m actually a literary agent. But if this were true, why not just put down a website? Then I thought: ok it’s just a joke, it’s a staff gag, and they’re secretly watching just to see how I react. Then I half-feared a candid camera assault, someone appearing out of the blue to catch me out, for what purpose I couldn’t really divine.
But no one was paying attention, neither the other three people in the shop, nor the guy behind the till who was looking at once sheepish and supercilious as these young sales assistants tend to do.
No, it hadn’t been left there by accident; I was certain of that.
I reread the text fearing that doing so would draw me in to something unsavoury. ‘£100,000 reward, ‘email email@example.com for further instructions.’ I had not yet processed the ominous ‘Selbstmord’, the German word for suicide. I thought of those group suicides in Japan in what they called Suicide Forest. I wondered whether it was an offbeat party invitation or part of a recondite game. But it was only at this point that I actually stopped to process exactly what the card was saying, and its claim was clear: for the person who was willing to carry out a designated task, there would be a reward of £100,000. I’d be told what to do. ‘For further instructions’. It felt like I’d been chosen already.
I checked the adjacent books on the shelf, the stock categorised according to author location. The other Borges story collection was cardless and I checked it umpteen times. I looked through thirty other books on those shelves. Nothing. Then the other sections in the shop, another thirty or so books. I pretended I was perusing each one. I looked through children’s books and even those hazardous design books people put on their coffee tables. I couldn’t go round the whole shop and check every book. Why had he chosen Borges anyway? How was it that the first book I happened to pick up was the only one with this card in it? What were the chances of that?
Yet I thought: if I take this card and email this person, what’s the worst that can happen? I wasn’t committing myself to anything. I could see myself typing something out in the safety of my workroom. I knew how to make email addresses untraceable. I thought: I am willing to undergo an adventure even if it means my death, however out of character that is. I could receive a first-hand the answer to this mystery. The thing seemed to direct me.
I bought the book and sent the email that evening.
I received this response almost immediately after:
‘I cannot give my name for obvious reasons. You will receive a link with my address on it at 18:45 on Wednesday the 9th of March. Come immediately after. I will not be expecting you. I will have no memory of what I am writing here as I am using memory-suppressants. By my front door is a mat. Underneath that mat is a loaded handgun. Ring the bell until I come to the door. When I answer, fire one shot to my head to kill me. Walk past my body into the house and into the room directly in front of you. You will see a drinks cabinet to the left. Underneath is a cupboard, inside a blue rucksack, inside that, your money: £100,000.’
I was struck by the image of a man who looked a bit like me; something in the diffidence of his eyes, a sort of callowness, even before I had a chance to consider if this whole thing was a ruse. It was akin to a hallucination. I imagined one of those raised ground-floor flats with the panorama of bay windows, a fire perhaps, the fitted bookshelves, a place that bore a resemblance to my flat. Of course I couldn’t kill someone, shoot someone in the head, and of course I dismissed it instantly. It was a brutal thing. I would be found out and put on trial for murder. I was against the ending of a life as the expression of some sort of primeval urge to survive. But I wanted to email him back and tell him that I couldn’t do it at the very least.
I was also far too scared.
The intervening days went by with me flitting in and out of thoughts of the card. I thought about what makes a man want to take his own life? I am a depressed person. I have had my moments. I am bitter, resentful and hurting inside. I’ve never experienced the all-embracing company of an attractive woman. The absence of the sexual act eats away at me. But I wouldn’t do anything. In the early hours of the morning these thoughts provide no more than a solace. I know I’ll be alone but I have this deluded hope of deliverance, and I will carry this hope until I’m old and dying. Besides I am not nearly depressed enough; it would do a disservice to the real suicides, those who really suffer.
I could not empathise with this person. He was different.
Then it was Wednesday the 9th, and I can’t say how the time passed so quickly. I eyed it on my bedside table. No I’m not going to go and shoot someone in the head I said to myself, and I resolved to treat the day as a normal one. But again I started to think about the £100,000. I’ve only had this sort of money in a bank account and it’s not the same thing. It would feel nice. It would look nice. If I followed the instructions, I could just take it. I began to think of how to pay £100,000 into a bank. I could keep some at home and dip into it as and when I needed. I could even keep some on my desk just to have it in view.
I told myself just to wait. The time will pass, beyond which moment it will not be possible for me to kill another man. I will be safe.
I walked back from the office along the Grand Union Canal. It was 18:25. I was shivering, and there was hardly a light in the sky for me to see by. The air had that moist and bracing feel as if it might snow. I arrived home at 18:45; the address would be live now, I could look. But I didn’t. I put the chain lock on the door without thinking. I would not be going back out after all.
But then this reprehensible thought entered my head. I could go for a walk and I could take my phone too. I could do that if I wanted. I could walk, and if I wanted, I could also check the address for curiosity’s sake. If it happened that I felt like going near the house of this man, nothing, no single thing could make me take one step on his property, let alone ring the bell. I was in total control. I was deciding my movements in the same way as I put one foot in front of the other when I walked.
I reached up for my grey anorak and looked at my watch. It was 18:50 already. The time for action had passed. I hadn’t even so much as made any effort to find the address and I was going to change my mind again. This is not going to happen, I thought, and I felt more a profound distress than any expected relief. I put the anorak back on the peg.
As I went to the kitchen table to pick up the phone just as an afterthought, my doorbell rang. Without thinking, I opened. There stood a man, dark hair, of medium height, unremarkable appearance, fairly well dressed. He said: ‘well have you really got this money?’ He said these words with incredulity, with bemusement, as if he at once thought I could have the money but felt it was just too unbelievable that I did. As I uttered the words: ‘what money, what do you mean?’, I saw that he was holding something in his right hand.
I didn’t actually see the gun, I can’t say if I even heard the noise.
My final memory was of this force knocking me an unfathomable distance backward, into a flight in which I am still moving now.