The Dilemma

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Hyacinth had been hunched over her desk for two hours reviewing reports. She’d been in that position long enough to feel the office closing in. She would need a break soon. Glancing up, she observed, not for the first time, the bookshelves crammed with folders and papers covering decades of employment in the civil service. The place was fast becoming a mausoleum. She returned to the paperwork directly in front of her, and concluded the last of the morning’s files, a recommendation from the Banking Regulations Commission. Without looking up, she stretched her arm across her cluttered desk until her fingers touched the pink highlighter. She leaned back as she angled the highlighter over a paragraph on the report. Drawing a circle around the paragraph, she read aloud.

“We have therefore concluded that Ms. Charles’ frequent travel over the last six months appears suspicious and as such recommend the termination of her account at First Independence Bank. We also advise that the Financial Security Unit be notified so that they can take appropriate steps.”

Overzealous bureaucrats. She pressed her intercom. “Have Ms. Anderson come to my office, please.” She leaned back in her chair and waited.

Ms. Anderson hustled in quickly, pen and paper in hand.

Hyacinth leaned forward, looking over her glasses at the young lady in front of her, and passed the report. “I need you to send a memo to the General Manager of First Independence Bank and copy the Banking Regulations Commission.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ms. Anderson said.

Hyacinth continued. “We’ve investigated the activities of Ms. Charles over the past two years. She is not a threat to our national or financial security. We therefore do not recommend terminating her bank account unless there is actual evidence of criminal activity.”

Ms. Anderson smiled and nodded in full agreement. “I’ll get on it right away,” she replied and left.

They need to stop suppressing local businesses. She’s been nothing but above board and transparent. They’re never this stringent with multinationals.

Hyacinth grimaced. The tension between her shoulder blades had intensified. She stood and rotated her head while placing her hands on her hips. She knew the stress level was high but there was still much to be done.

She sighed and glanced at her mobile. There had been four missed calls from Jasmine.

What’s so urgent?

She dialed, sat down, and put the phone on speaker when Jasmine answered.

“Where’ve you been?” Jasmine’s usual sing-song voice teemed uncharacteristically with excitement. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Put on the news, quickly. They caught Joshua Kent.”

Hyacinth lunged for the remote and pressed. The screen of the television in the corner of the room burst into color, showing the Leader of the Opposition walking purposefully towards parliament. He bounced as he walked, oozing with the bravado of a champion boxer entering the ring. His jacket was unbuttoned and flowed in the wind as he puffed up his chest to adoring supporters waving him on. He was known to proclaim—“I’m no gentleman. The people want a warrior in charge!”—and his mannerisms emphasized that sentiment.

Hyacinth leaned back in her chair. Rumors had been circulating all morning and the news ticker now provided confirmation.

Leader of the Opposition, Joshua Kent, caught on tape supporting violence and extremist groups.

“Wow.” Hyacinth exclaimed, surprised with this news, despite being used to political turmoil. “I wonder what they’ll do now. The party Conference is next week.”

“That man is like a house rat.” Jasmine blurted. “Traps aplenty could be set but he always finds ways to scurry around them.”

“I know.” Hyacinth agreed. “I was sure he was finished after his association with the Flemington Cartel, but he emerged unscathed. How can you be linked to drug traffickers and survive?”

“And the rape trial.” Jasmine continued. “You remember how the political circus made the young lady flee the country in fear. She’s never been back. Now this latest debacle? Surely they have the numbers to remove him.”

Hyacinth cautioned. “We are just lowly civil servants. Let’s not speak on this anymore.”

“Hmm. You’re right. Things will only get crazier now. Watch yourself. I’ll come by your house after work.”

Exhaling deeply as she ended the call, Hyacinth thought about the problems brewing at home. The Leader of the Opposition was a firebrand hellbent on taking the country on a dangerous path. He exploited every possible issue to succeed in politics, and had created an unstable, polarizing environment that had been simmering for years. Hyacinth shared the views of many on the island that this was not who they were. If he became the next Prime Minister, it would not bode well for the country.

But she also had a personal concern. She worried about the impact on her team. A department investigating financial irregularities would not be welcome among the corrupt.

Hyacinth swiveled her chair around to look through the large glass window at the ocean across the road outside. She loved looking at the black sand beach and dark blue water, despite the bittersweet emotions it evoked. She often imagined her grandfather coming to shore. As a little girl she’d delighted at waving at him, deciphering from his gait whether he’d had a good haul. She still missed him, decades later. Throughout her career, whenever the political climate provoked the itch to cast her net in a foreign land, she focused on her memory of him. The ocean represented escape, but it also brought her closer to her rock.

Hyacinth often reflected on how this man saved his earnings to ensure she got the education both he and her father had been denied. When he witnessed the Independence movement unfold, he became enthralled with the possibilities, envisioning a limitless future for his granddaughter. She admired his unwavering love of country and his strong ethics, and she conducted herself to make him proud.

We need to do right by this land. I could’ve gone overseas too. But who will build up the country? We can’t leave it to those bad minded people. We must fix it.

Now she was facing retirement, and she wondered what would become of the land of her birth. She thought about the threats that were growing every day. Occurrences of money laundering linked to organized crime and terrorism were on the rise. Her small unit did not have the resources to contend with them all and she feared that the staff would soon be overwhelmed. No matter how many times she spoke to the politicians they did not seem to comprehend the looming tsunami.

What will be my legacy?

She examined the two frames on her wall. The first was a photograph of the participants at the 5th Regional Financial Regulations Meeting. She had received a commendation and award from the Secretary General then, but the picture was for her a reminder of the frailties of the job. Half of the persons in the photograph were no longer around: six being lost to political persecution, and three to retirement. She hoped to become the fourth from that group to retire gracefully. She looked at Mitchell in the picture, all smiles then. She paused and thought about his demise. It was only two short months later that his Minister of Finance demanded that he falsify records to hide the evidence of money laundering and the misappropriation of funds. For those who knew Mitchell personally, his end was nothing more than a broken heart following months of persecution by an unfair political apparatus. Hyacinth sympathized with him and his widow. Such a loss, my friend. We were never equipped to deal with the absurdities of this new world. I might join you anon, but until then, sleep well.

That man is like a house rat. Traps aplenty could be set but he always finds ways to scurry around them.

The soft knock on the door caused her to swivel back to her desk. “Come in,” she called.

Sylvester walked in timidly. He was such an unassuming young man, his appearance belying his steely determination and the relentless investigative manner he tackled every case. Dressed in a suit slightly too big for him, and hunched over, he pushed his glasses up the nose bridge closer to his puffy bloodshot eyes.

Hyacinth was instantly concerned, as she motioned for him to sit. “Mr. Harrigan, are you okay? Your eyes are red.”

“Yes, Misses. Sorry for the appearance. I’m all right.”

“What have I cautioned against taking work home? It will consume you.”

Sylvester stiffened up awkwardly with the reprimand, but he defended himself. “I know,” he stammered. “But this is a serious one.” He handed her his files.

She sensed him sitting upright as she read. He puffed out his chest ever so slightly as she leaned back and stared at him.

“Is this true?”

“Yes, Misses,” he confirmed. “Two days ago, I noticed a similar transaction in Lisbon. A connection will be made soon.”

“Jee-sus! As if we didn’t have enough going on. How’d he get mixed up in this? What a disaster.”

Sylvester nodded in agreement. “Now what?”

Hyacinth bit her lower lip and tapped her fingers on the table as she assessed the repercussions of what was contained in the document. However, she became distracted by a ruckus outside of her office. “What’s going on out there?”

Sylvester craned his neck around like a peacock, eager to see through the door.

“Is she in there? Eh? Answer me,” a shrill voice rang out. “Is he in there with her? You can’t stop me from going in. Get out of my way!” Aubergine pounced in, stomping and huffing. Half of her blouse was tucked into her skirt while the other half flapped around mirroring her movements. A mismatched jacket and hurriedly brushed hair completed the ensemble. Her face was a mask of rage.

“Hyacinth, what’s the meaning of this?” She poked her hand out with a file. “Who is Sylvester Harrigan? This one here?”

Hyacinth glanced towards the door and motioned a hovering Merrill away. She nodded and moved back slightly, but Hyacinth knew she would not leave the vicinity until she was certain her boss was safe.

Looking at Aubergine, Hyacinth raised one finger firmly to silence her. She had earned the respect of her peers over the decades and would not allow a recent political appointee to undermine that legacy. Why the decision-makers settled on this option was a mystery. Aubergine clearly held compromising secrets to have been selected for such a role.

“Sit down, Ms. Bridgewater! You will respect this office and my position. If not, you can leave right now.” The icy calm of her voice was piercing.

Aubergine fumed but remained quiet. Finally, she sat down.

Hyacinth leaned forward calmly with her elbows on the desk and her knuckles under her chin. After a moment of her deep penetrating stare, she spoke. “What do you want with my staff member?”

Aubergine handed the file over with an outstretched arm. “This morning my staff advised me that this gentleman here called them about Minister Bullen receiving funds from Mr. Zoltan. There was nothing in that! It’s a donation to a playground in his constituency. Why is he investigating that? I mean, is this what your team does? Digging into hardworking people’s lives? Are you spies for the opposition?”

Hyacinth stopped her immediately. “Aubergine, no one is looking at anything through a political lens. Only you. Mr. Harrigan is investigating illegal financial transfers to our sovereign banks. Purely by chance, his research uncovered a trail to Mr. Zoltan from a company on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list. If Minister Bullen received those funds for whatever reason, then there are implications related to money laundering and the financing of terrorism.”

Aubergine’s face froze as the rage shifted to fear. “You serious?”

“Mr. Harrigan just confirmed it to me before you bulldozed your way in here and we were discussing next steps. Your office was contacted as a courtesy.”

Aubergine stood up abruptly, causing the chair to fall back. “You have to bury that. How will it look? Young man, bury that file.”

Sylvester jumped back affronted, the expression on his face relaying the disgust.

“Bury it?” he snarled. “I can’t do that.”

“Boy, I’m the Advisor to the Minister of Industrial Development, and I’m telling you to bury that file. This is about national security.”

“With all due respect, you can’t tell me what to do. I work in the Financial Security Unit, and this is my boss right here.”

Hyacinth had heard enough. “Aubergine, are you seriously ordering a civil servant, tasked with investigating illicit financial flows, to suppress his findings?”

Aubergine spun back around to face Hyacinth. “It’s not illegal. You know what will happen if this gets out. The Government will lose the election and Joshua Kent will get in. We can’t let that happen!”

Hyacinth looked at Aubergine and saw a person desperate to hold onto her job. If Minister Bullen was removed, regardless of which administration was in power, she would be packing up right next to him. Over her years in the service, many had suggested that Hyacinth align herself to a political party. She certainly would have ascended faster if she had. But the fall would have been even more rapid. As far as she was concerned, it was not worth it. Looking at Aubergine only helped to reaffirm that longstanding view.

“I’ll get back to you. Until then, you are sworn to secrecy by civil service orders. Punishable by up to twenty-four months in jail,” she announced. She looked on as a meek and rattled Aubergine left the room.

Hyacinth tilted her head as she studied Sylvester. “Take a walk with me.”

They stood and walked out of the building without uttering a word as the remaining staff members tried not to gawk. They crossed the street towards the beach and strolled along the sidewalk. Inhaling the pungent smell of the saltwater, Hyacinth observed the sprinkling of the white caps of the waves across the blue of the Atlantic. She’d heard a tale once about those who lived close to the ocean being traditionally calmer individuals because the waves took away the negative emotions and left more positive sentiments in their wake. Who knew if that were true? She could attest to a clearer frame of mind whenever she walked close to the water.

This is what happens when politicians allow corruption to fester.

Finally, after a few paces, Sylvester spoke up. “I hate to admit it, but she’s right, Misses. If we release this information now, Minister Bullen’s gone immediately. Not a bad outcome, honestly, but Mr. Kent is far worse. He’s bad for everybody. I understand that the country will look bad internationally and be penalized for noncompliance, but if we allow Mr. Kent to become Prime Minister, he will destroy our financial system and the development path we are on. I’m sorry, but we can ill afford an era of political tribalism and intimidation.”

“I don’t like where this conversation is leaning,” Hyacinth cautioned.

He continued. “My advice is to hold off on providing this information until after the party convention and his retreat from politics. It’s only a delay of two weeks. I don’t support what Minister Bullen did, and his political future will go the way of the wind when this report gets out. But it has to get out at the right time.”

Walking with her hands behind her back, Hyacinth spent some time processing what he recommended. After a long awkward silence, she shook her head firmly, refusing to look at him. “We can’t delay. This is what happens when politicians allow corruption to fester. People wonder how voters could support extremists. This is how. If we allow this type of behavior to persist, or to expose them only when it suits us, then we are no less guilty.”

“I know it’s a supposition, but what if releasing it now keeps Mr. Kent in a leadership position and he becomes the next Prime Minister? What would we do then?”

They stared at each other, exhausted, as the fate of their country lay bare before them.

“Let’s go back,” Hyacinth instructed. “I will make a decision in the office.”

As they walked back, she looked at the fishing vessels in the distance and thought of her grandfather once more. What would make him proud? What would he think of the way the country had evolved? Would he have been disappointed? Had she been dutiful? There had been so many sacrifices by persons throughout the years, but it seemed like the political dysfunction had seeped its way into the very psyche of the people, crippling them. What would be their destiny?


Back in her office, she glanced up at the second frame on her wall. The Serenity Prayer. She exhaled and slowly whispered the words, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.” When she finished, she closed her eyes, deep in thought.

What will be my legacy?

She had been an incorruptible figure for more than thirty years, but she also saw how her country had stood on the precipice for so long, being manipulated by a political elite for its own selfish purpose. She opened her eyes and resumed her spot behind her desk, motioning for Sylvester to take a seat. He awaited her guidance. She knew he would do as she instructed and remain discreet, no matter what. He would be the scapegoat if they withheld the information, she assessed, but he would also be a casualty of a new political environment if they released it too soon. In her eyes, he represented the country, and she had to do what was best for him. She looked once more at the documents on her desk, torn between two thankless decisions.

Finally, she looked up and stared him directly in the face. The overriding thought in her mind was that she would retire in a few months and needed to ensure that her legacy was on the right side of history, for the memory of her grandfather, and the best for the next generation.

She wanted desperately to advise him to file it away for two weeks, but instantly tasted bile in her throat at the thought of succumbing to the primitive urges of political expediency. She would not be able to face herself, despite the fact that it had the potential of influencing a political decision in her interest. She had to trust that the people of her country would do the right thing, just like her grandfather had always believed they would.

“We will report it,” she declared, prepared to live with the consequences of her decision.

Carlisle Richardson

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