The A to Z Challenge – 2023 — U is for Unintended Consequences

My brother always lamented that we did not deserve what happened to our family as a result of a bad decision our great, great grandfather made.

To me, it was just another example of one businessman being smarter than another.  The fact he lost the family fortune was terrible, but he had no one else to blame but himself.  That old saying you have to speculate to accumulate may well have worked, if he had speculated correctly.  He didn’t.

I had no idea why so many of us failed to accept the reality with each new generation, carrying the loss like a badge of honour, and choosing to be bitter, especially towards the family of the so-called villain, Angus McTavish.  From everything I’d read about him, he was ruthless, friendless, the sort of man who would swindle his own mother.  Why would he draw the line at his business partner?

At any rate, it was one of the reasons why I left home and the country, to get away from all of it.

Five years of bliss passed, and it was only the death of my father that brought me back home.  He had carried the grudge from his father, like his father before him, and it had passed to the son, my older brother Ken.  I was sorry to see him go, but not surprised that bitterness had eaten away at his soul, killing him before his time.

It was going to do the same to Ken.  It had destroyed his marriage to what I thought was the most patient woman in the world.  It turned his children against him, tired of him going off looking for evidence of the swindle.  Our father had never found any, there was no reason why he should.

And it was a surprise that he came to the airport to pick me up.  I hadn’t sent a message, only that I was returning for the funeral, and after a 20-hour flight, Ken was the last person I wanted to see.

When I saw him in the area where relatives and others waited for the incoming passengers after going through immigration, I groaned.  He saw me, waved and then waited until I reached the terminal proper.

“You didn’t tell me when you were arriving, which is disappointing.  After five years, Ethan?”

“You know why.  I hope you’ve finally got past it.  With Dad gone, you no longer have to appease him anymore.”

“But that’s just it, he died before he got the good news.  I’ve got the evidence.”

He was almost like a dog with a new toy, and it was disappointing.  I should have realised he was never going to let it go.  “What good is it after all these years?  It isn’t going to get the money back.  What he did was ruin both our families, Ken.  They, at least, managed to get over it.”

“You’re wrong.  They didn’t.  He invested the wealth in bonds and locked them away in a secure location, and pretended he’s lost it all in the stock market crash.  He was a wily, cunning bastard, and those McTavish’s know exactly where it is, and have been living off it for years.”

Last I’d heard, most of the family were all struggling to live, much the same as everyone in the post-pandemic world.  In fact, I’d met up with Adrienne McTavish in Boston only a few weeks ago, quite by accident, and we had talked about the feud, the bitterness and hate on both sides and the utter waste of time and energy being expended.

She had also mentioned the rumour that Old Man McTavish had supposedly invested the funds in bonds, none of which had been found, and her investigation had shown, money came in, and money went out, and when traced to the bank, showed it had gone to an investment company, that subsequently filed bankruptcy soon after the wall street disaster.  The money had simply disappeared.  The idea it was bonds was someone’s fanciful extrapolation of the facts.

“Not the McTavish’s I know, Ken.”

“They’re cunning liars, Ethan.  As I said, I have the evidence, and I’ll show you when we get home.”

I made a mental note to move up my return flight to the day after the funeral.  If this was the state of affairs, I didn’t want to stay a minute longer than I had to.

I made a mistake in agreeing to stay with Ken.  His apartment was a disaster area, much worse than it had been before.

A quick look on the kitchen bench showed every one of his bills was overdue, and he was close to eviction.  The obsession had so overtaken him he had lost sight of reality.

“Sure you in financial trouble?”

He’d seen me looking at the unopened envelopes on the bench and was gathering them up.

“It’s temporary.  The company closed down, and couldn’t recover after the pandemic.  I’ve got an interview next week, but it might not come to that.”

I didn’t ask.  He always spoke in riddles.  “Do you need some money to ride you over?”  He might be a pain, but he was family.

“Might not need it.  I have a plan to make things right.”

He made coffee, I wandered down to the other room where the obsession had come to life.  The wall of shame as he called it had got much bigger, and the files were stacked on the desk, rather neatly instead of the normal mess.

He came in as I was looking at the montage of documents and Post-it notes that covered almost the entire wall, all closing in on one spot in the middle where a piece of paper had

Meeting, Empire State Building, August 7th, 1929

“That meeting was where McTavish executed the con that swindled our great grandfather with promises of untold riches.  It could have Bern true the way the stock market was at the time, but I suspect McTavish knew it couldn’t last, and had lined up a dozen prospective suckers.  Ore great grandfather was the first, trying to see if it worked on him, then use it as bait for the others.”

“There’s more people involved?”

That was news to me.  We had always thought McTavish had only taken advantage of his business partner.

“There’s depth to this man we haven’t even scratched the surface.  Dad got the idea when another name popped up on the documents that were signed.  Yes, we now have copies of the investment documents he signed, and several more people who were involved.  It led to discovering another 22 families who had been destroyed.  They like us thought it was just bad luck when the stock market crashed on the 28th of October 1929, but no.  He swindled them too.”

“But that doesn’t mean he put all of the money into bonds, or that those bonds didn’t lose all of their value in the crash unless they’re government bonds.”

Ken rifled through the files and found the one he was looking for.  It appeared empty but when he opened it there were two sheets of paper in it.

He handed them to me.  US Treasury bonds, one dated 1929 and the other 1960.  Neither had a name on them.

“What am I looking at other than a photocopy of two treasury bonds.”

“Proof McTavish invested all of the swindled money in bonds, then one of his relatives converted them into new bonds which means they all knew where the money went “

Two random copies of conveniently dated bonds were not proof in my mind’, nor a court of law either which would be the only place he could get any sort of redress.  If the statute of limitations didn’t make it impossible anyway.

“Hardly what I would call proof.  Where did they come from?”

“A spy in the McTavish’s camp.”  He said like it was the answer to all the world’s problems.  “That’s what I’ve been working on for years, and finally it’s paid off.”


“Need to know Ethan and you don’t.  I can’t trust you.”

No surprises there.  I could understand why he wouldn’t tell me, I’d never been sympathetic to the cause, but spies.  How far was he willing to go?

“All you do need to know is that tomorrow it’s all going to be sorted.”


“Again, need to know.  You’ll just have to wait and see.”

To say that I was worried about his frame of mind was an understatement. 

After being borderline manic depressive, this sudden onset of euphoria was concerning.  I was hoping something hadn’t snapped.

At dinner with other members of the family, all equally invested on the search for retribution, the only subject up for discussion was my absence and everything that had happened while I was away.

Aside from people aging five years, life for them was the same.

Life for me was different, but no I had not found a wife, had children, had no one special, and had no ambitions other than to just live as comfortably as I could.  I didn’t tell them I was now a journalist in a rural city, that was facing redundancy as the internet was more popular than print.

That was something I would have to face when I returned.

It was an interesting, if uneventful evening.

The next morning, I woke up early and went to look at the wall.  I was looking for clues about what he was going to do today that was going to make a difference. 

There was, on a side wall the McTavish family tree from the old man down, and I traced Adrienne’s lineage back.

I looked at the dates filled in from birth to death.  The bloodline had been secured in 1928 when the last of his children were born, that being the direct descendent, her father.

Something I hadn’t realised was the date old man McTavish had died, and that was three days after the stock market crash, 31st October.  I thought it had been years after that.

Beside the dates was a newspaper article, about the death and apparently, he had been hit by a car after stumbling on the sidewalk and killed instantly.

My mind then jumped to a conclusion, had he told anyone about reinvesting the swindled funds before he was accidentally killed.  If he transferred the funds to bonds.  And if he did, who would he have told, if anyone.  In his place, given what had just happened at the time you’d be reluctant to tell anyone about what amounted to treasure.

No.  Now I was getting wrapped up in Ken’s conspiracy.  If there was a spy, perhaps they were simply feeding his fantasy.

Then my eye caught another item, tucked way down the bottom, at the end of a red piece of string coming from the meeting date of when Ken assumed the swindle took place.

A closer look at the card showed the words, “Do you wish you could go back and change the past?”  That was all it said, with a phone number.

I could feel rather than hear Ken come into the room.

I turned.  “This is some montage.  How long has it taken?”

“It’s not all mine.  Dad had most of this already, but he hadn’t connected all the dots.”

“And you have?”

“Enough to know precisely when the damage was done.”

I had only a few moments to decide whether to bring up what I’d read on the card.  If I was not mistaken, it was suggesting time travel was possible, and if my brother thought it was, then I had a lot more to worry about.

“I followed the red line, Ken.  That doesn’t mean what I think it does?”

“I don’t believe it either, Ethan, but a friend I’d mine said he tried it, and he was given the opportunity to change one mistake, and now his life is so much better.”

Of course, that could have happened for any number of reasons, most of all, the human mind can be tricked into believing something happened, even if it didn’t, or that it was simply the power of positive thought.

“Perhaps they simply suggested very powerfully that he change his ways.”

“Or something else.  I’m going there at 10:00.  I need a fellow sceptic, just so I know it’s not possible, because if it is …”

“You can change the course of history.  You know that.  If it was possible, which we both know it’s not, it’s possible you might erase us from existence.  One innocuous and seemingly innocent interaction could have catastrophic unintended consequences.”

“Which is moot since it is impossible.  Up for the challenge?”

If only to put the myth to bed and stop the people running this hoax from convincing him otherwise.

I nodded.

Ken had already made the call and had the address to go to.  It was, when we arrived, a rather dilapidated warehouse on an industrial estate that was no longer in use.

At least that was my first impression.  The building looked like it was about to fall down.  Outside, a dozen cars were parked sporadically in an overgrown car park, giving an impression they had been dumped there.

It was a very elaborate illusion.  When we got closer to the front entrance the doors looked rustic but solid and when we were close, slid silently open.

Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into another world.  A woman in a white lab coat appeared from the side.

“Mr O’Reilly?”

We both were, but it was Ken she was referring to.


“Everything is ready.  You have the documents we discussed to sign and then everything is ready to go.”

“You aren’t seriously suggesting that you can send people back in time,” I said.

“That’s precisely what we are doing.  You are?”

“The sceptical brother.”

“Well, sceptical brother, let me assure you this has been tested and used successfully.  However, we can only send one person back.  You will be required to wait in the anteroom for the duration.”

OK, she certainly sounded serious, and as though she believed that time travel was possible, so I had to wonder just what happened.  I had been hoping to see the process.

Perhaps I should just play along.  “You are aware of the consequences of meddling in the past.  One subtle change can have drastic consequences.”

“We are very careful in selecting candidates.  And yes, we are very mindful of consequences which is why we can abort the process at any point.  Now, if you don’t mind…”

Another woman in a lab coat came out to usher me to the anteroom room, much the same as a frequent flyer lounge with comfortable chairs, a buffet and both TV, playing Quantum Leap episodes, not without irony, and dated newspapers.

Ken was taken away and I only got a glimpse of the room he was taken, a curious deep blue light within.

“How long will this take,” I asked her.

“As long as it takes.  Make yourself comfortable.”

When I woke, I was on unfamiliar surroundings, and only vaguely aware of what had happened.

It involved Ken, that much was clear, but not why, where or when.

I remembered being in a departure lounge.

A minute later I felt a hand on my shoulder gently shaking me. 

“Wake up sleepy head.  It’s time to go.”

It wasn’t Ken shaking me, but a woman.  I blinked a few times trying to bring objects into focus and then recognised the face.

Adrienne McTavish.

“Adrienne.  What are you doing here?”

She smiled.  “You forgot, didn’t you?”

I had no idea if I had forgotten anything, except why I was here and why she was with me.

“I have a bad habit of doing that, don’t I?”  It was one of my faults, absent-mindedness.  I remembered that much.

“You do.  We’re going to stay at your grandfather’s so you can convalesce.  The boys have been looking forward to exploring the mausoleum as you call it.  Come,” she held out her hand and I took it.

Standing nearby was a girl, almost as tall as her mother and the spitting image of her, just along from me with two boys, twins.  On her finger was a wedding ring which I assumed was the one I gave her.

What the hell had Ken done?

“Oh, and happy anniversary Ethan.  Thank you for this.”  She must have noticed my puzzled expression.  “Are you alright?  The doctors did say they didn’t expect any further loss of memory or hallucinations, but the great news is they got all of the tumours.  You’re going to be fine.”

© Charles Heath  2023

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