For a terrible moment Ebert thought his friend, always so imperturbable and plucky, was going to break down and cry. Wavering between embarrassment and anger, he barely managed to keep his composure. An image of misery sat opposite him, the like he had only seen in a mental institution before. For an instant Baldwin appeared to be sliding into regions where demons reign and the afflicted howl. But he checked himself with superhuman effort.
“Let me hear all about it,” Ebert urged, visibly annoyed by now.
“Be prepared, what I tell you is the gospel truth. About a week after Anita’s funeral I went to the bank in order to rearrange my affairs. I had spent little of what you had procured for me through sales of my assets. It was a considerable fortune, as you well know.”
“Some must have been eaten up by the acquisition of the estate,” Ebert interrupted.
“Only on paper really, since we merely made a down payment of ten percent, and contracted to pay the balance at a later date.”
“We, you said?”
“Yes. I mean Anita and myself, we were engaged by then.”
“Hm, I find that puzzling, knowing your tenet to avoid interest payments.”
“Quite true, but Anita insisted.”
To conceal his frown of disapproval, Ebert asked quickly:
“How did it go at the bank?”
“Not good at all, there was nothing left to arrange.”
Taken aback, Ebert repeated:
“Nothing left to arrange? But there must have been a small fortune in deposits and bonds.”
“Should have been, my friend, should have been. But it all had disappeared.”
Ebert jumped up.
“That is beyond the pale of my comprehension.”
“Mine too. The account was practically cleaned out, and the safety deposit boxes were completely bare.”
“But were you not the only one with signing authority, as much as keys and passwords to satisfy safety requirements?”
“Not really; Anita had full power of attorney concerning all matters, including keys. She was privy to passwords, moreover, personally known at the banks.”
“You are talking plural numbers.”
“Indeed, I do. Money and securities were deposited in three major banks.”
Anticipating his friend’s next observation, Baldwin announced:
“Yes, the same had happened at the other places.”
As Ebert expressed silent disapproval about putting one’s whole fortune at the mercy of someone else, wife or otherwise, he suddenly realised why these pictures on the walls fascinated him. Anita, Baldwin’s wife, looked familiar. He was all but certain that he had met her previously, or at least knew a close blood relative of hers. But his attention was diverted again by his friend’s startling announcement:
“I tell you, Franz, someone cleaned me out.”
Raising both hands to forestall his friend’s anticipated reaction, he said:
“Before you jump to conclusions, be advised that everything happened four days after Anita’s burial, I am sure of that. It was impossible, besides being fraudulent. I put up quite a row at the bank, till the manager along with his entire retinue showed up. Trying to calm me down proved hopeless, I pounded the counter and stomped the floor until the president appeared.”
“What did he have to say?”
“Not much for a while. He started talking in sort of a patois, which I only half understood, prior to asking me plus four or five of his employees, to accompany him to his office.”
Interrupting himself, Baldwin cast the strangest look imaginable at Ebert. Amazement mirrored itself in a sea of disgust and unfeigned abhorrence.
“What I learned there curdled my blood and raised my hackle. Hold on to your seat, Franz, here it is: All of them maintained that Anita made the withdrawals, moreover, it was she who they admitted to the vaults, they insisted.”
“So help me, someone must have impersonated your wife,” Ebert interjected.
“That is what I said, but the president rejected such frivolous notions, as he called it. He explained indignantly that the signature was authentic. The teller, although recognising Mrs Baldwin, nevertheless called the manager to obtain his approval. After hearty greetings, he knew her of course, Mr Cote, the manager, cosigned the transaction.
“When I asked, in a rebuking manner I fear, whether he did not consider such singularly large withdrawals odd, he viewed me with utmost surprise.
‘Why, Mr Baldwin, your wife did most, if not all bank transactions. I had neither cause nor the right to interfere,’ he advised.
‘But my wife was buried four days prior to these withdrawals,’ I screamed at them.”
“What was their reaction?”
“They shrugged their shoulders and smirked, assured that I was either drunk or hallucinating.”
Excerpt from Without Tears and other Tales