Mondays were usually a slow day to start the week, a brief few hours after the storm the was every Friday. Some chose to come in late, others gathered on arrival to have a team debriefing.
Our department chose to have a debriefing, and it was my job to analyze all the data and turn it into a graphical representation that basically said the business was heading in the right direction – up.
But, this Monday morning, the circumstances were slightly different.
The head of the company had personally sent both an email and a memo to every employee, an event that had never happened before.
In fact, for most of us, it was an eye-opening discovery, one where had the company not become engulfed in a scandal of international proportions, his identity might have remained a secret.
Not that it mattered to the 15,000 odd people who worked for the company, because the bottom line was that it would not affect us, or our employment. Well, that was the message the email and the memo was primarily about.
Was it too little too late?
The problem was that the morning’s paper’s headlines screamed scandal in large letters and then went on to describe how the company was basically a front for laundering money associated with various criminal activities. It stopped short of accusing the company’s upper management of being criminals, but it was clear, reading between the lines, they had to know something was wrong.
I walked into the meeting room where all of the Department’s staff were seated, talking among themselves, that dying down the moment I closed the door behind me. On the desk in front of each was one of the three morning papers, all with basically the same story.
I didn’t bring a paper in with me, nor a copy of the email, or the memo. I was hoping the meeting was not going to be about the scandal.
I was wrong.
It was one of those companies where everyone knew everyone. I knew everyone in the room, and regarded most as friends as well as workmates. The company promoted from within and on merit, and with this, I had the respect of everyone who worked under me.
I could see by the mood, and looks of expectation, that trust was going to be tested.
“I suspect that everyone has seen the news, and hopefully read both missives from management regarding the situation the company finds itself.”
That was met with a murmur of agreement.
“It was also, for some, a surprise.”
For others, it was not. Our department was basically in place to ensure that all transactions were conducted properly and that clients’ accounts were managed within the guidelines set by the company, and the various government institutions responsible for financial affairs.
Several of the senior officers had come to me with what they regarded as anomalies, and I have given them the authority to investigate. It was also within my remit to advise the relevant government authority. Most of the anomalies had simply been oversights by the account manager, except for one, which as far as I was aware, had been cleared.
“Can we safely assume that Wally Anderson’s somewhat abrupt was not as described?”
Wally Anderson’s abrupt departure had been described to me in a one-line email, ‘taking some personal time to work through some family issues’. In the week leading up to his departure he had become increasingly agitated, and one call one of the others had taken in his absence was from a reporter.
It was one of his accounts that remained doubtful, until shortly after he left when an external investigator was brought in.
But I had a difficult line to walk, trying to placate both sides of the spectrum and management, and as a leader. Respect could be won or lost in a matter of words.
“That might or might not be the case, but the odds are, given what we’re reading, that there may be room for doubt. However, despite what we may conclude, or deduce, it is better for all of us to keep an open mind. I suspect, at some point, again based on what I read, we might be approached by the police or representatives of a number of regulatory organizations for information.”
It was as far as I got.
The side door swung open, and my superior, the Chief Accountant, strode in, along with the mystery man who was, the papers said, the Owner, followed by the harried personal assistant.
The Chief Accountant stood front and center to the group. I thought it wise to stand off to one side, the opposite, in fact, the Owner, now standing just inside the door, next to his PA who was quietly talking into her cell phone.
“I’ll take over from here, Max.”
He switched his attention back to the group and took a few seconds to run his eye over all over them, almost as if he was looking for someone or something.
“I have spent the last 48 hours in rather tedious discussions with the regulators who insist that they received information about the Ridley investigation. Unfortunately, without consulting the company, he took part of the results of the investigation to them. Was anyone here aware of his actions?”
Another eye cast over the group, and, in the end, a glance at me.
I felt responsible to answer for the group.
“Investigations are conducted by individuals, and as far as I was concerned, the Ridley investigation was his. As equally that after he departed, that investigation was completed and cleared. Are you intimating that it wasn’t?”
I knew as much about it as the others.
“It was, until someone else reopened it, and reported it. We believe it was someone in this room.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “I have oversight of all the officers in this room, and the ability to monitor everything they do and everything they look at. You know the security protocols in place in the software itself.”
“An investigation into the software has been implemented, and it shows that certain log files were altered so that the user log wouldn’t show who looked at the records. Someone with database experience.”
“We’re basically auditors not database managers.”
“Well, someone apparently is. Everyone is on notice. We will find out who it was, and believe me when I say we will leave no stone unturned in the process.”
An almost imperceptible not from the Owner, the harried PA was still on the cell phone, the Chief Accountant gave the group another steely look, then glared at me, said, “My office, one hour,” then left pulling the other two along in his wake.
I cast an eye over the group, picking out those whom I suspected were capable of performing such a search and destroy operation. Three.
“My door is open for anyone who might have any information, with the promise of anonymity.”
I left them with that and also left.
What should have been a quiet morning’s discussion just became a witch hunt where someone would be burnt at the stake. Whether they were guilty or not.
I don’t remember 40th birthday parties being all that interesting.
It was going to be a momentous year as each of our friends celebrated theirs. We were of a group that had formed strong friendships at school, and they had lasted over the next 25 years, even when some had ventured further afield, and others had stayed at home.
I was one of those who had remained in place, as had my wife, and several of the neighbors. I never had dreams of venturing any further than the next state, and except for a couple of years on transfer for the company I worked for, I had lived all my life in the city I was born.
The same could not be said for Janine, my wife, who once had a vision for herself, a career in law in either New York or Washington, and had ventured there after graduating law school, stayed a year, and then returned in circumstances that she had never talked about. She had accepted my proposal, we had married, and that was that.
Twenty-five years on, there had always been that gap, that part of the story I’d never asked about and one I felt she would never talk about, and it was a small chink in what I wanted to believe was an almost perfect marriage.
But there was one small caveat she had requested, and that she had no desire to have children, or to be a mother, something she said she would be terrible at. It didn’t bother me, one way or another, though as each of the others had children, there was a small part of me that was, for a while, envious.
Michael Urston was one of my close friends, lived across town, was also a lawyer, and a man of ambition. He’s taken his law degree to Washington and converted it into a path to public office, and had attained the lofty position of Mayor for a number of years of our fair city, and then paradoxically didn’t run for re-election for reasons I never thought stood up. But it had been his decision, part of the plan to retire at forty, and he’d achieved it. Ursula, his wife, was prickly at the best of times and had always considered herself above all of us. I guess being a prom queen had that effect on some people. She liked to be the center of attention, and for some reason, she and Janine always managed to rub up against their respective wrong sides.
Something else I knew; he had a thing for Janine, as had several others in our group, and I could see, sometimes the looks that passed between them, and I was not sure how I felt about it. There was never any indication of either talking it further, but there was a bond between them that sometimes I envied, especially lately when it seemed, to me, that we were drifting apart.
But tonight, it was going to be Janine’s fortieth birthday party, and there was going to be a dozen friends coming. At the last minute, Janine had changed the venue to a restaurant rather than at our home, and that I suspected was because we lived in a magnificent house that all the others envied, and I was sure it was out of deference to them. Buying the house had been her idea, and down through the years, as we moved into larger residences, she had been trying to shed the memories of where she had come from.
Neither of us had been from wealthy families, and I had no wealthy family connections. I was from generations of motor mechanics, which was my first occupation in the family business, and Janine’s family were farmers, something she had no intention of becoming, hence the desire to become a lawyer. And I didn’t think either of us had airs and graces despite what we owned or how we fitted into the local society.
Fred DeVilliers and Susan, his girlfriend of many years, they didn’t believe they needed a piece of paper to sanctify their relationship, were best friends also, though I knew Janine and Susan were not quite as friendly as it appeared. That I noticed some years ago when both were having a heated discussion, one they thought no one was around to hear. Their bone of contention had something to do with Michael, and I didn’t get to discover what it was.
As for the others, they joined in the conversation, ate the food, drank the wine, and then went home again. Like me, they were not interested in politics, religion, or miscreant children’s stories. Our get together was children free, and often about reminiscences of older and more carefree times.
Oh, and just to stir the pot a little, this day, I had tendered my resignation as CEO of the company. It was a matter of principle, the board having decided to downsize, and shift a proportion of manufacturing offshore, a decision I knew I would have to implement if I stayed there. When I vehemently disagreed, I was given the option to leave on mutually agreeable terms. It was not something I could spring on Janine, but, equally, it was not something I was going to be able to hide from her. Not for very long anyway.
She was running late at her office, and I agreed to meet her at the restaurant a half-hour before the other guests were due to arrive. It was nothing unusual for one or other of us to be running late.
As it happened, I left the office, and the building, an hour after tendering my resignation. The company didn’t want me hanging around and granted me the two weeks I’d normally have to work off before leaving, for security reasons. I quit, therefore I had to leave, in case I had some desire to sabotage the company in some way. I wouldn’t but it was standard practice, and it didn’t go unnoticed that I was escorted by security to my office to clear the desk, and then to my car. They also gave me the car as a parting gesture.
After leaving the office I went home.
I took what amounted to over twenty year’s service in a cardboard box to my home office and dropped it in the corner. Not much to show for it, other than a decent salary, annual bonuses when we made a profit, and quite a few shares, not that they were worth much now because of the board’s hesitation to embrace new technologies.
About two hours later I heard a car pull up out the front on the driveway, and two doors close. A look out the window that overlooked the driveway showed it was Janine and Michael, who as the approached the door were in animated conversation.
I thought about letting them know I was home, but then a voice inside my head said how many men have come home during the day to surprise his wife and found her in bed with another man, or, in these rather liberated days, in bed with another woman?
And that think between them, would it be now I would discover what it was?
It made me feel rather horrible to think I could suspect her of cheating, but it momentarily took away the sting of the resignation.
The door opened and they came inside. I could just see them from where I was standing, a spot that they would not see me, not unless they were looking. And my heart missed a beat, they were embraced very passionately, leave me with no other conclusion than this was a middle of the day tryst.
“Come,” she said, taking him by the hand. “I only have a couple of hours before I have to get back for a deposition.”
With that, they went up the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom, our room.
I sat down before I fell down, then having regained some composure, went over to the bar and poured myself a drink.
Two losses in one day. A job, and a wife. I guess it wasn’t exactly a revelation. I knew something was amiss, and I conveniently ignored all the signs. I thought about going up and walking in on them, but that, to me, seemed like a childish act. After a few more drinks, I decided to wait, see if they both left, and then decide what to do.
The front door closing, and the car departing, woke me out of a reverie. I got up and looked out, expecting to see an empty foyer, but instead saw Janine, in a dressing gown, still holding the front door handle, as if transfixed. A beautiful memory of what had just happened, or a tinge of regret, and another secret to be kept in a head, I knew now, held so many others.
I decided to make myself known, now rather than later.
“Do you come home often during the day,” I said, standing in the doorway where she could see me.
She jumped, perhaps in fright, or in guilt, it didn’t really matter.
She turned. “Daniel. What are you doing here?”
“I resigned this morning. A difference in opinion on how the company should proceed. I was escorted out, and decided to come home. I should have gone to a bar.”
She knew that I knew, so it would be interesting to see what she had to say. I could see her forming the words in her head, much the same as she did in a court of law.
“It was the first time, Daniel, an impulse. I’m not going to make an excuse. It’s on me. I wanted to find out what it would be like.”
And that made me feel so much better.
“Well, it’s a hell of a fortieth birthday gift, Jan, and one I guess I couldn’t give you. I trust you didn’t grant that wish to any of the other men who may desire you?” OK, that wasn’t exactly what I meant to say, but the words didn’t exactly match what I was thinking.
“You mean do I sleep with every man I have a desire to?” A rather harsh tone, bordering on angry. She was angry with me.
“You tell me what I’m supposed to think.”
“I had sex with one other man, no one else, since the day we were married. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. If you hadn’t been here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Washington,” I said, almost to myself, a light bulb lighting up in my head.
The memory of a distant conversation, on a holiday, when we visited Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
“What about Washington?” A change in her expression, slight, but I could see it. She remembered it too.
“Remember that time, at one of those monuments, probably Jefferson’s, when you said something rather odd, and when I asked, you brushed it off as nothing important. You were looking out over the water and said it was one of your fondest memories after, and then stopped yourself. Michael had just married when he moved to Washington, and you were there too, for a year. I suspect now you and he had an affair, and it ended badly as affairs do and the woman has to leave. There’s always been that bond between you. Not the first time Jan. The affair never ended.”
“It did, Daniel. Like I said, this was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
I stepped out of the office and walked down the passage and come out into the foyer. Two stories high, it had been a debate whether to have a fountain in the space adjacent to the stairs or a statue. The statue won, I lost.
Close up, I looked at the woman I’d loved from the moment I first saw her, and of the surprise when she agreed to marry me. I had no idea then I was her second choice.
“I’d say I’m on a roll. Lost my job, then lost my wife. Bad luck comes in threes, so I’m going to lose something else.” I looked around. “This house? I don’t think I could stay here, not now. It would just be a reminder of everything bad that’s happened to me today.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. I told you it was a mistake. I made my choice twenty odd years ago and it hasn’t changed.”
She took a step towards me, and I took one back. The thought of being close to her now, after what she had just done, didn’t feel right.
“Look, before you do something silly, let’s sit down and talk about it.”
“No. There’s nothing really to talk about. I’m sure you can come up with a very convincing argument that will justify everything you’ve done, and why I’m being a fool, but the truth is, there are no words that can justify what you just did. Yes, I could forgive you, and believe me, I want to, but there’d always be some resentment and the fact I could never trust you again, even if you promise not to. What’s done is done. Have a great birthday, and party, and make up some excuse for me not being there, but I’m going away for a while. You have got everything you ever wanted Jan. Be grateful for that.”
With that, I turned and headed for the door that led to the garage. I wasn’t going to leave by the front door. I expected her to say something, but she didn’t. I expected a reaction, but there was none. What choice did I have?
In the car, I found myself heading for the airport. I couldn’t go to my parents, they were dead. My sister lived on the other side of the country, and all I would get from her if I told her what happened would be an I told you so, so it was down to my brother, who had moved to the UK to get away from everyone. I called him, and when he answered, I simply said, “I’m coming to see you for a while.”
And he replied, “It was Washington, wasn’t it?”
He’d know who she was, and who Michael was when he saw them together all those years ago. And tried to warn me before I married her.
I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.
But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.
It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.
I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.
When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.
And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.
“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.
He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.
“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”
I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”
“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.
“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”
That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.
And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.
“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.
“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”
“No. You know I can’t.”
“But you know?” I asked.
“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”
Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.
“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”
Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.
And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.
That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.
She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.
At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.
I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.
Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.
All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.
It was an intriguing moment in time.
Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.
Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”
Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”
It started with a phone call, then a visit by two police officers. It was about my parents, but the news could not be imparted over the phone, only in person. That statement alone told me it was very bad news, so I assumed the worst.
The two police officers, standing at the front door, grim expressions on their faces, completed the picture. The news, my parents were dead, killed in a freak car accident.
At first, it didn’t sink in. They were on their way back from another of their extensive holidays, one of many since my father had retired. I’d seen them probably six months out of the last five years, and the only reason they were returning this time was that my mother needed an operation.
They hadn’t told me why, not that they ever told me very much any time since the day I’d been born, but that was who they were. I thought them eccentric, being older when I’d come along, and others thought them, well, eccentric.
And being an only child, they packed me off to boarding school, then university, and then found me a job in London, and set me up so that I would only see them weekends if they were home.
I had once wondered if they ever cared about me, keeping me at arm’s length, but my mother some time ago had taken me aside and explained why. It was my father’s family tradition. The only part I’d missed was a nanny.
It most likely explained why I didn’t feel their passing as much as I should.
A week later, after a strange funeral where a great many people I’d never met before, and oddly who knew about me, I found myself sitting in the sunroom, a glass of scotch in one hand, and an envelope with my name on it, in the other.
The solicitor, a man I’d never met before, had given it to me at the funeral. We had, as far as I knew an elderly fellow, one of my father’s old school friends, as the family solicitor, but he hadn’t shown at the funeral and wasn’t at home when I called in on my way home.
It was all very odd.
I refilled the glass and took another look at the envelope. It was not new, in fact, it had the yellow tinge of age, with discoloration where the flap was. The writing was almost a scrawl, but identifiable as my father’s handwriting, perhaps an early version as it was now definitely an illegible scrawl.
I’d compared it with the note he’d left me before they had embarked on their last adventure, everything I had to do while caretaking their house. The last paragraph was the most interesting, instructing me to be present when the cleaning lady came, he’d all but accused her of stealing the candlesticks.
To be honest, I hadn’t realized there were candlesticks to steal, but there they were, on the mantlepiece over the fire in the dining room. The whole house was almost like being in an adventure park, stairs going up to an array of rooms, mostly no longer used, and staircase to the attic, and then another going down to the cellar. The attic was locked and had been for as long as I could remember, and the cellar was dank and draughty.
Much like the whole house, but not surprising, it was over 200 years old.
And perhaps it was now mine. The solicitor, a man by the name of Sir Percival Algernon Bridgewater, had intimated that it might be the last will and testament and had asked me to tell him if it was. I was surprised that Sir Percival didn’t have the document in question.
And equally. so that the man I knew as his solicitor, Lawerence Wellingham, didn’t have a copy of my father’s last will and testament either.
I finished the drink, picked up the envelope, and opened it.
It contained two sheets of paper, the will, and a letter. A very short letter.
“If you are reading this I have died before my time. You will need to find Albert Stritching, and ask him to help you find the murderer.”
Even the tenor of that letter didn’t faze me as it should have, because at this point nothing would surprise me. In fact, as I unfolded the document that proclaimed it was the will, I was ready for it to say that whole of his estate and belongings were to be left to some charity, and I would get an annual stipend of a thousand pounds.
In fact, it didn’t. The whole of his estate was left to my mother should she outlive him, or in the event of her prior decease, to me.
I had to put all of those surprises on hold to answer a knock on the door.
I stood too e side, let him pass, closed the door, and followed him into the front room, the one my mother called the ‘drawing room’ though I never knew why.
He sat in one of the large, comfortable lounge chairs. I sat in the other.
I showed him the will. I kept the other back, not knowing what to make of it.
“No surprise there,” Wellingham said.
“Did you have any idea what my father used to do, beyond being, as he put it, a freelance diplomat?”
I thought it a rather odd description but it was better than one he once proffered, ‘I do odd jobs for the government’.
“I didn’t ask. Knowledge can be dangerous, particularly when associated with your father. Most of us preferred not to know, but one thing I can tell you. If anyone tries to tell you what happened to your parents was not an accident, ignore them. Go live your life, and keep those memories you have of them in the past, and don’t look back. They were good people, Ken, remember them as such.”
We reminisced for the next hour, making a dent in the scotch, one of my father’s favorite, and he left.
Alone again, the thoughts went back to the second note from my father. That’s when the house phone rang.
Before I could answer it, a voice said, “My name is Stritching. Your father might have mentioned me? We need to talk.”
When you have secrets, sometimes it’s very hard to hide them from others.
It was something Henry had to do since the day he could speak. The fact that his parents had been murdered because of their profession, something his grandfather told him was akin to ‘working for the government’. The fact that he was from a very wealthy and influential family. The fact he was heir to a fortune. The fact he was anything other than just another boy, who grew up to be just another man.
His whole life, to this point, had been ‘managed’ so that no one, other than a selected few chosen by his grandfather, knew who he was, or what he represented. And more to the point, he had been told to just live his life like any other of his age.
Yes, he went to a private school, but it wasn’t an exclusive one, yes he went to university, but he had got into Oxford on his own merit, and, yes, he was smart, smart enough to create his own business, and make a handsome income from it. And no, he never drew upon the stipend he had been granted by his parents will, so it just gathered dust in the bank.
Henry was an only child, and to a certain extent, introverted. It was a shyness that his grandfather knew existed in his son, Henry’s father. It could be an asset or it could be a liability. With Henry’s father, it had been an asset, a means by which many had misunderstood him. It might even serve him well for the next phase of his life.
Today, Henry was meeting his grandfather at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, and an unusual meeting place because in the past it had always been at his grandfather’s club. At his grandfather’s request, he had undertaken a three-year program, one that his father had, and his father before him, and a pre-requisite for a profession that would be explained to him.
And it was all because Henry said he was bored. The business he’d built could run without him, his attempts at relationships with various girls and women hadn’t quite achieved what he was looking for, even though he had no idea what he was looking for, and, quite frankly, he told his grandfather, he needed something more exciting.
It was, he’d been told, the way of the MacCallisters. Ever since the British tried to put down the Scots.
Henry was listening to a rather animated man preaching the word of the Lord, but he was not sure what Lord that was. Anything he quoted from the bible resembled nothing he had read and remembered. Perhaps the man was on drugs.
Two or three people stopped, listened for a minute or two, shook their heads, some even laughed, and moved on.
“It’s the last bastion of freedom of speech, though I can say this man is not about to gather an army of insurrectionists any time soon. Let’s walk.”
His grandfather was getting old, and walking was getting more and more difficult. More scotch was needed, he had told Henry, to ward of the evils of arthritis. And, he added, ‘I should have had a less devil may care attitude when he was younger.’
It was a slow amble to the serpentine, which, being a bright sunny day, if not a little chilly, was alive with people.
He waited until his grandfather spoke. One lesson he had learned, speak when you’re spoken to, and if you’ve got nothing to say, best to remain silent.
“I have found a job you might like to have a go at. Nothing difficult, mind you, but a perhaps, at times, hard work. I think you’d be good at it.”
“Is that meant to be a hint, and I have to guess?”
“I think you’re smart enough to know what it might be yourself, young Henry.”
I think I did too. Everything I’d been doing over the last three years led me to believe I’d been training to walk in my father’s footsteps. It was with the Army, and I had imagined my father had been a soldier, though I’d never seen him in a uniform. But my Grandfather had said he worked for the government, so I wondered if that might be some sort of policeman, or some sort of internal agent, like MI6. It had not been boring, and the exercises had been ‘interesting’, but no one had said what the end result of this training might be; in fact no one had said who they were.
“Something hush, hush as the saying goes.”
We had gone about fifty yards and reached a cross path. As we did, a youngish woman dressed in leather appeared and walked towards us.
“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Henry. Her name is Marion, though I suggest you don’t call her that.”
She smiled. “Call me Mary. There’s only one person in the whole world that would dare call me that, and he’s standing here. Your grandfather has spoken a lot about you.”
Henry’s first impression; she had been to the training school he had. He could see it in her manner, and in the way she scanned the area, even though it didn’t look like she was. He’d been doing it himself, and he had seen her earlier. What made her stand out, she didn’t have a bag like all the other women.
“I hope it was good, not bad.”
“You have no bad traits?”
“Everyone had bad traits. You’ll just have to get to know me if you want to know what they are.”
“Well,” my grandfather said, “enough chit chat. Mary has a task, and she needs a little help. I thought you might want to join her.”
“She’ll explain it on the way. When it’s done, come and see me.” With that, a hug from Mary, and a handshake from his grandson, he turned and walked back the way they had come earlier.
“So,” Henry asked, “What’s the job?”
“I have to pick up a computer.”
“That doesn’t sound like something you would need help with.” In fact, if he was right in his assessment of her, he was the last person she needed, if at all. She looked to him as if she could handle anything.
“It’s one of those just in case situations.”
They walked a circuitous route back to Park Lane and crossed both roads, up Deanery Street, left where Tilney Street veered off, and then a short distance to Deanery Mews. Henry noted this was an area with a lot of expensive real estate, and scattered Embassies. If he was not mistaken, the Dorchester Hotel wasn’t far away.
Walking down the mews seemed to Henry to be walking into a trap. When he looked back towards Deanery Street he thought he saw two men position themselves, not quick enough to prevent him from getting a glimpse of them.
“You do realize that getting back out of here could be a problem.”
“It’s why I asked for help. Just in case.”
No visible sign of fear, or of what the consequences might be if this went south. Perhaps his grandfather had considered this a test. But what sort of test?
They reached the end, and, just around the corner, a van was parked with what Henry assumed was the driver, standing by the open driver’s door, smoking a cigarette.
Mary stopped about ten feet away from him. “Have you got the package?”
He reached inside the car and lifted up a computer case. There didn’t necessarily have to be a computer in it. I looked up and around. It was a good place for a meeting. No witnesses. But there were CCTV cameras. I wondered if they were working.
The man tossed the bag back in the car. “Have you got the money?”
She held up her phone. “Just need the bank account details.”
“OK. Just step over here and let’s get this done.”
She moved closer, and in a flash, he had grabbed her, holding her by the neck with a gun to her head. The two men Henry thought he’d seen at the top of the mews were now within sight, and both had guns trained on him. A trap, indeed.
“What do you want?” Henry asked.
“Tell your boss the price just doubled. Two million. You’ve got five minutes.”
I shook my head, not to clear the cobwebs, but to calm down and think rationally.
Talk first. “Surely there’s a better way to do this. You don’t need to hold a gun to her head.”
I held my hands out just to show I wasn’t a threat.
“No, probably not.” He released his grip and lowered the gun.
Everyone knows someone who has a child that will not go to sleep.
You can set the bedtime at whatever early hour you like, but by the time they actually fall asleep, there have been two or three hours of up and down, in and out of bed, and at least one episode of a scary master lurking under the bed, or, worse, outside the window.
After exhausting every method of achieving a result and failing, I thought I’d try reading.
The first book I picked up was, yes, you guessed it, about monsters. In fact, nearly every book for kids was about monsters, witches, ogres, dragons, and vampires.
I put them back and sighed. I would have to come up with a story of my own.
It started with, “Once upon a time…”
“But that,” May said, “only applies to fairy tales.”
“Well, this is going to be a fairy tale of sorts. Minus the fire breathing dragons, and nasty trolls under drawbridges.”
“It’s not going to be much of a story, then. In fairy tales, there’s always a knight who slays the dragon and rides off with the princess.”
This was going to be a tough ask. I thought of going back to the book pile, but, then, I could do this.
“So,” I began again, “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle with her father, the king, her mother, the queen, and her brother, the steadfast and trusty knight in shining armor.”
“Why is their armor always shining?”
I was going to tell her to save the questions until after the story, by which time I had hoped I’d bored her enough to choose sleep over criticism. I was wrong.
“Because a knight always has to have shiny armor, otherwise the king would be disappointed.”
“Does the knight spend all night shining his armor?”
“No. He has an apprentice who cleans the armor, and attends to anything else the knight needs.”
“And then he becomes a knight?”
“In good time. The apprentice is usually a boy of about 11 or 12 years old. First, he learns what it means to be a knight, then he has to do years of training until he comes of age.” I saw the question coming, and got in first, “When he is about 21 years old.”
She looked at me, and that meant I had to continue the story.
“The princess was very lucky and lived a very different life than her subjects, except she wished she had their freedom to play, and do ordinary things like cooking, or collecting food from the markets. Because she was a princess, she had to stay in the castle, and spend most of her time learning how to be a princess, and a queen, because when it was time, she would marry a prince who would become a king.”
“Doesn’t sound too lucky to me, being stuck as home. I like the idea of getting somebody to do everything for me though. She does have maids, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. And, you’re right, she has everything done for her, including getting dressed. A maid to clean, a maid to dress her, a maid to bring her snacks. And it was these maids she envied.”
Maybe I should not make the story too interesting, or she’ll never go to sleep.
“Well, one day, she decided to change places with one of her maids. They were almost identical and when they exchanged clothes, the other maids could not tell they had changed places. At the end of the day, when the maids went home, the princess headed to the house where the maid she had taken the place of.
It was very different from the castle, and the room she had in the castle. The mother was at him, cooking the food for the evening meal, and it was nothing like what she usually had. A sort of soup with scraps of meat in it. There was a loaf of bread on the table. The father came home after working all day in the fields, very tired. They ate and then went to bed. Her bed was straw and a piece of cloth that hardly covered her. At least, by the fire, it was warm. It didn’t do anything for the pangs of hunger because there had barely been enough for all of them.
The next morning she returned to the castle and changed places back again. When the maid she changed places with asked about her experience of how it was like in their life, the princess said she was surprised. She had never been told about how the people who served the king lived, and she had assumed that they were well looked after. Now she had experienced what it was like to be a subject, she was going to investigate it further.
After all, she told the maid, I have to have all the facts if I’m going to approach the king.
And she thought to herself, a lot more courage than she had.
But, instead of lessons today, she was going to demand to be taken on a tour outside the castle and to see the people.
“This sounds like it’s not going to have a happy ending.”
No, I thought. Maybe I’ll get the dragon that her brother failed to slay to eat her.
“It will. Patience. But that’s enough for tonight. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go to sleep and then, tomorrow night, the story continues.”
I tucked her in, turned down the night light so it was only a glow, just enough to see where I was going, and left.
If I was lucky she would go to sleep. The only problem was, I had to come up with more of the story.
Outside the door, her mother, Christine, was smiling. “Since when did you become an expert on Princesses?”
The story below was the one that was supposed to be published under T, but the month got away from me and I was not able to get most of what I wanted to do done.
After all, it was the A to Z as well as NaNoWriMo for April, and the notion I could write 26 short stories and complete a 50,000 word novel at the same time…
What was I thinking?
Anyway, I had the bones of the story written, I just needed time to finish it. So, here it is, as will for the next few days, stories for U, V, W, X, Y and Z.
The email I received said:
“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”
It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.
I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.
I was ready.
When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.
When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.
I could also take the time to brush up my schoolboy Italian.
When I got off the plane at Marco Polo airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would on or overlooking the Grand Canal.
At the airport I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.
We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.
That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.
It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take long route. I’d not been in Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.
And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal was stylish and elegant, and my room exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway or turnpike, a never-ending stream of traffic.
A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a reverie, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.
Perhaps more instructions.
“Tomorrow will be a free day in Venice. See attached suggested itinerary for ideas on what to do. Then, the following day you will be travelling from Venice to Florence by train departing Santa Maria Novella at 10:20 am.”
I looked at the list of suggested places to visit and a day would not be enough, but I could always come back. I’d always assumed this trip would give me some idea of what was on offer, and that if it was great, I could always come back.
A second reading of the instructions picked up something I’d almost missed. A dining party in the hotel where others like myself, with similar arrangements to mine might attend. It was underlined that it was not mandatory to attend, only if you wanted to.
The only provisor was that you do not talk about where you were going, only about yourselves, an opportunity to meet others and not dine alone. It was an interesting idea. All we had to do was give our name and the time of the booking.
I would think about it.
I arrived at the entrance to the restaurant at five minutes to eight, after a long deliberation on the merits of whether I wanted to see the other travellers.
At first, I thought what the point would be if you couldn’t talk about where you were going, but, after more thought, I wondered what it was that motivated those people who had also opted for a leap into the unknown.
These were not adventure holidays as such, just someone else planning the itinerary so you didn’t have to.
I gave the maitre’d my name and he escorted me to a table set for ten, of which four people were already seated. Were they expecting ten? Would anyone not turn up?
We exchanged greetings and I sat. Two men, two women, sitting together. My first thought, two couples, but I would not make any assumptions.
One of the women spoke first, “My name is Marina Delosa. I assume you are another intrepid traveller?”
“Ben Davis. I’m not so sure about the intrepid part, just lazy, I think, because I’m not very good at arranging my own travel.”
“I think you might say that applies to all of us,” she said.
The others introduced themselves as Angela and Harry Benson, and David Wilson.
“We were quite pleased they chose to start our tour in Italy. I have always wanted to visit Venice, so the travel Gods must be smiling on us,” Harry said.
“I must say I was surprised. I guess it’s one of the benefits of this type of travel, not knowing where you’re going to end up. I think my secret wish was to come here, too, or at least Italy. I think I have a relative or two that came from here.”
“That might be said for all of us,” Marina said. “One part Italian, one part Irish, and not quite sure what the other parts are.”
Another intrepid adventurer arrived at the table, another woman. She was older than the rest of us, but I would not think by more than ten years. She had the same look of trepidation I had felt before coming. And, at a guess, recently divorced, or separated.
“Anne Lebroski,” she said, leaving a seat between her and I. It was an interesting move. I had deliberately not tried to distance myself.
Only six of a possible ten arrived, and it turned out to be a very good evening. Whilst all of us had that battle within not to talk about where we were going, it seemed to force the issue of talking more about where we had been previously, and what we did with our lives.
And as quickly as it had begun it was over and everyone kept the conversation going until the elevator dropped us off, each to a different floor, as if we were deliberately being kept apart. Of course, it was simply my overactive imagination conjuring up different scenarios, perhaps in an effort to make a simple holiday seem more exciting
Suddenly, once back in my room, a great tiredness came over me and I barely made it into bed. Would we all run into each other the next morning over breakfast? It was a thought that kept me awake for all of a few minutes before slipping into an uneasy sleep.
When I woke up, I was confused and disorientated.
In those initial few seconds, and through the blurry eyes of just having woken, what I saw was unfamiliar.
I was definitely not in my room at home.
It took a few more seconds, in fact, almost a minute, before I realised that I was not at home. It was a hotel room, and quite unusual, light seeping through the thick curtains that covered what had to be a window.
Was in morning, afternoon, or evening? It had to be morning.
And, what was I doing in a hotel room?
When some of the fog had cleared away, I slipped out from under the sheet, and crossed over to the desk on the other side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and more light came in, splashing across the desk. On it was a piece of paper, a receipt, with the name Hilton Molino Stucky, Venice on it.
What was I doing in Venice?
I pulled the curtains further aside and looked out the window. It overlooked a body of water, and right then, a very large cruise liner was passing by. A very, very large cruise ship.
Then, behind me I heard a noise and turned.
There was someone else in the bed, a head appeared from under the sheet and looked over at me. A woman, messy blonde hair and a familiar face.
I didn’t remember coming to Venice or travelling with anyone. I was sorely tempted to say, “Who are you?” but stifled it. Instead, I asked, in what was a croaky voice, “What happened last night?”
The woman looked surprised. “You don’t remember?”
“To be honest, I’m having a hard time remembering where I am, let alone what I was doing?”
“Well, for starters, you were drinking copious quantities of champagne, which you well know you should not because of what it does to you.”
OK, that had a semblance of truth about it, not that I remember drinking champagne, but what it does to me. Exactly what was happening now. Last time, well, I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t good.
Still, I didn’t know who this woman was, but I had enough sense to play along. The taste in my mouth reminded me of drinking too much wine, which was what I used to do.
“This much is true. When…” There I stopped, realising how it might sound.
Another look, not of surprise, but disdain perhaps?
“You don’t remember my arriving last night. Nor, I’m willing to bet, inviting me here. You rang two days ago, said you just arrived in Venice, and knowing I was on assignment in Rome, called me, asking if I wanted to come and see you, stay a day or two.”
It was not something I would have done, but for the simple reason I didn’t know anyone in Rome to call. But, oddly, she looked familiar. “Marina?” I said, almost under my breath.
The smile returned. “You do remember.”
“Barely, along with dinner the other night, with some other people. Tourists?”
“Yes. Two days ago, you said you’d asked some travel agents to pick your destination, and it ended up in Venice, along with several others. We’re supposed to be going to Florence this morning, but I was hesitant waking you in case you weren’t feeling well.”
Well, that part was true. I wasn’t. And that reference to Florence, it seemed likely. There was another piece of paper on the desk, an itinerary which said I was travelling to Florence by train. I looked at the clock beside the bed.
I looked at the itinerary, and the train was at 11 am.
The itinerary had two names on it. Ben and Marina Davis. I knew I was Ben, but I didn’t remember anything about having a wife, or friend, named Marina. More of the fog had lifted in my brain, and every instinct was telling me to play along. I don’t know why that message popped into my head at that exact moment, but it did.
“We’ve got five hours before the train leaves. I suspect it might be a good idea to start getting ready. I’ll call down for coffee, and, bearing in mind I’ve lost all sense of orientation and not exactly sure of everything going around me, as you say I should not be drinking wine in copious quantities, I’ll toss you the phone so you can order whatever you want. Sorry, but for the moment, I’ve forgotten everything.”
Let her counter that, or also play along. Her expression told me she was thinking about what I said, but then shrugged. “You don’t remember asking me, do you?”
“I do remember something, and it involves you because you are very familiar to me, so don’t be too upset. I am glad you’re here, because I was simply dreading travelling in Italy by myself, and you are almost a native. There, I knew there was a perfectly good reason why you’re here.”
She didn’t look quite so sure. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” she said. “Coffee will be fine. I think I had too much to drink last night too.”
After she disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door, odd, I thought, for a woman who had slept in the same bed as I, I called down for coffee and croissants. By that time, I was feeling better, and the queasy stomach was subsiding.
Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.
I did remember the person outside the door, dressed as the room service waiter. “Alan.”
“They took the bait?”
“Obviously. Too much booze…”
“Slipped you a mickey. Be careful. These two don’t play by the rules. Luigi is downstairs pacing like a cat ready to pounce. Thin short guy in a cheap black suit, pink shirt and grey tie.” Alan shook his head. “No dress sense whatsoever.”
“I don’t remember much.”
“Nothing happened, don’t worry. Had eyes on you the whole time like we promised. Now, you’ve a train to catch. Just be careful.”
He brought the tray in and put it on the desk.
Marina chose that moment to open the door.
“Room service,” I said. “Coffee for two. There’s a croissant too if you want one.”
“Sir,” Alan muttered, and headed for the door, remembering at the last second to produce a form for me to sign.
Then he was gone.
Fog cleared, everything came back in a rush. She was still standing in the doorway, the only think between her and modest, a large white towel wrapped around her. Beautiful but deadly, Alan had said.
When it came to holidays, I preferred to get as far away from everyone as possible.
I saw my parents, and sister who lived with them, every week on Sunday, for lunch and cross-examination of why I was not married with children yet.
Explaining I was only 27 was not a reason because, “your brother married at 21 and he’s got three children, a great job, his own house..” and in and on it went.
And I saw my brother every other Saturday just to tell him that I was Ok. He was considerate in one sense, it was just the matchmaking wife always inviting what she considered suitable women for me.
That fortnight off work was an oasis in a desert full of well-meaning people.
I’d tried dating several girls at work, but they never got past the family inquisition. If I had been in their shoes I’d just say it was all too much too. The lesson I learned there was to never take a girlfriend home.
But, for now, I was footloose and fancy-free. The most recent girl I’d met had decided to return home, no it was nothing I’d done wrong, but I guess it was. Perhaps asking to go with me to Hawaii was a bit too forward too soon. Another lesson learned.
I think I’d probably get it right by the time I was fifty.
So here I was, a history buff, looking to further my knowledge of the events surrounding Pearl Harbour. I’d read a great many history books on the subject, and now, it was a matter of going there, and getting a feel for the place.
More than once I had lamented the fact I could not go back in time and live through the event. I had mentioned this once to a friend, and he asked if I was stark staring mad.
Of course, he was right. Who would want to be in the middle of such a violent attack, especially when it came largely by surprise?
Since my work required mt to fly a lot I had sufficient frequent flyer points to upgrade to first class. I was hoping after flying coach for so long, I’d notice the difference.
Certainly, the initial service after being shown my seat, and the champagne soon after as a welcome onboard, set the tone.
When the door closed, and everyone was on board, only half the seats in first class were taken. A glance at those who were fellow travelers showed an interesting cross-section. A husband and wife who definitely upgraded from coach like me, but were a little m less refined. An executive and his personal assistant, who, judging by the way she looked after him, there was more to that relationship, a woman in her sixties, definitely born to money, and casting somewhat distasteful stares at the upgrade couple, and a woman about my age, who looked very unhappy.
I managed to fit in another glass of champagne before the plane reached the runway.
Then, with a roar of the engines, we were off.
Halfway through the 13-hour flight, I found it impossible to sleep, even with the luxury first-class provided me. I just couldn’t sleep on planes. Instead, I sat up, found a book of crosswords, one of three or four I always had with me and usually got to solve one or two puzzles.
It was quiet and still except for the noise of the air rushing past outside the plane. In that almost soundless atmosphere, I thought I could detect any changes in engine speed or the gentle movement of a change of course. The ride was quite smooth, except for some turbulence and the pilot took us up another 2,000 feet to escape it. We’d been slowly coming back down over the last hour. I’d been monitoring it on the flight path screen. It might be a larger screen, but watching movies was, to me, boring, except in a cinema.
“Can’t sleep either?”
It was the soft voice of the girl from two seats across. She had several revolutions of the plane, exercising I heard her explain to the cabin crew because she couldn’t sit down for long periods.
“Not on planes, no. Trains, yes, ships yes.”
I saw her glance down towards the book. “Not really. This has been floating around for about 10 years, and I drag it out as a last resort.”
“I try reading. It doesn’t help. Where are you going, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oahu. Doing the whole Pearl Harbor history experience. And just laze around for a few days before going back to work.”
“Yonkers, upstate. Are you from New York?”
“My family is. I work in San Francisco, come over once a year, but this year I got sick of them early, so I just jumped on the first plane out that had a first-class berth. It was this one. I’ll let you get back to your crossword.”
I was going to say it wasn’t a problem, but she had gone back to her seat. A moment later our cabin attendant, Lucy, came over to deliver a glass of champagne, then came over to me. I hadn’t seen the second glass on the tray. “Miranda thought you might like a glass too.”
I looked over to nod a thankyou, but she was looking out the window. There wasn’t much to see as it was dark and most of the passengers had the shades down.
Then, just as Lucy turned to leave, the plane hit more turbulence. A second, maybe two, later the seatbelt sign went on, just as the co-pilot came on the speaker system to advise all cabin crew to sit down and belt up.
A minute later what sounded like a large bang, one I would have said was an engine exploding, made everyone jump in their seats, to be quickly followed by a sudden jerk to the right that was almost instantly corrected, but that was not the worst of it, equally suddenly the plane started to descend. Very quickly.
At the same moment, the masks dropped down from overhead, I grabbed it and fumbled putting it on, realizing that panic was setting in. It took a minute, but then it didn’t seem like there was any air flowing through it.
Not that any of that mattered. Starved of oxygen, I could feel myself losing consciousness. A minute or so later, I think the plane had started to level off, and a look at the flight path showed we were down to 10,000 feet, in the middle of the ocean. My last thought, how long we would survive if we ditched.
I felt a hand on my shoulder shaking me.
“Sir, sir, are you alright?”
I opened my eyes and blinked several times. I had to be in the middle of a nightmare.
The first thing I noticed was the engine noise, it was very loud, the loudness that came from propeller engines. The second, I was no longer on an Airbus A330. This was more like a Boeing 314, a flying boat. The third, the man shaking me awake was a steward in a white coat, with PanAm on it.
Where the hell was I. No, when the hell was I. What the hell had happened?
“Sir, there’s a message for you.” He handed me a folded sheet of paper. “The captain asked me to tell you we’ll be landing in an hour, and that you, we all, should be prepared. It’s a mess.”
“Pearl Harbour. It was attacked yesterday morning by the Japs. Bastards came in and practically blew everything up.”
All of a sudden there was a roaring sound outside the plane, followed by what had to be the chatter of a machine gun, followed by the sound of bullets hitting the fuselage. One minute the steward was standing next to me, the next he was a bloody heap on the floor. Above my head was a line of bullet holes. More machine gun chatter, then an explosion, followed by a cry behind me of, “got the zero.”
I got out of the seat and went to the steward, staring at me with lifeless eyes. A quick check for a pulse told me he was dead. When I looked behind me there were a dozen or so military men, army, and navy. Two sailors came up and gently maneuvered the steward towards the rear of the aircraft. He had been the only casualty. Turning back towards my seat I caught a reflection of myself in the window, that of a Lieutenant in the Navy. How, and why was I here, now?
I remembered the note the steward had given me, sat down, and unfolded it.
The receipt date was 3:00 pm on 8th December 1941. It was addressed to me, that is, a man with my exact name. Orders to report to an Admiral who would reassign me, the ship I was being sent to had been sunk, and likely not to see service again.
We’d been in the air at the time of the attack, and I guessed news would have been sent to the plane, just in case it was not safe to land. Perhaps they hadn’t counted on try Japanese Zero fighters hanging around for just such a flight as ours.
Whatever the reason I was here, however it had happened, I would have to make the most of it.
Only then did I remember what I had once said, ‘if only I could go back’.
Once again I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice, this time of a woman, gently shaking me awake.
“We’re arriving in Honolulu in about 40 minutes. You need to prepare for landing.”
At the same time, I heard a change in the engines as we began to descend. I looked around. More familiar surroundings, back on the A330, the quiet hum of jet engines, and the sight of familiar faces.
“Did something happen to the plane or was I imagining it?”
“Just a lightning strike. We had to go down for a bit, but these planes are designed to handle just about anything. You slept through it, the best thing to do in situations like that.”
OK. It had to be a dream. That’s all I could put it down to. Except for one small detail. My grandfather’s name was the same as mine, he was in the Navy during World War 2, and he had been sent out to Pearl Harbour and was en-route when it happened. But there was only one slight difference. He had been killed when the lone zero had struck, not the steward.
How often do we make a judgment call simply on what we see?
I knew what I saw, and it looked exactly like a situation that, if you asked any ten others who witnessed it, they would agree with me.
And then there would always be one that wouldn’t.
The prosecution had made a very good case, the defense counsel had woven a brilliant tale from start to finish, and he delivered in an almost persuading tone, with the subliminal message, the defendant was not guilty.
I felt sorry for the prosecution because his delivery had been halting, filled with ums and ers and in the end, everyone, from the judge down, wanted it to end.
As for the jury, it was an odd assortment of characters, a lawyer, a builder, a plumber, a housewife, two sales staff, two clerks, a janitor, two retirees, and a motor mechanic. I thought it would be the lawyer who would be the problem.
The trial had lasted 22 days, and over that time I noticed that groups would form, and discuss aspects of the case, each of the groups forming a different opinion. Sometimes, the dynamics of the groups changed as more evidence and testimony was revealed.
But, I think on those first few days, opinions were made, and judgment was passed.
In my opinion, based on looking at the defendant, it could be said that she didn’t look like a murderer, nor did she seem capable of committing such a heinous act. Having said that, as a throwaway first assumption, the lawyer nixed it in a second. Knowing something of how these trials worked, he said there would have been a lot of careful grooming, dress down, but not to drab, look demure, not aggressive, and speak in a modulated tone, like everyday conversation.
In other words, he was basically telling us she was giving an academy award performance.
I certainly looked at her in a different light after that, but the fact remained, for some of us, that initial assessment said not guilty.
A few days before we had to deliberate, a very damning piece of video was tendered and we all watched as the defendant was shown talking to her alleged accomplice, the victim’s current girlfriend, and passing an enveloped which the defense claimed was the payoff for helping her dispose of her husband.
It seemed odd to me that someone had known she would be in that bar, perfectly placed under the CCTV camera, both women so easily recognizable. Of course, the woman in question could not be found, and the inference was that she might also be one of the defendant’s victims.
Several people were called by the defense to assert a line of defense that the husband was a cruel man, who had treated his wife very badly indeed, to the extent her best friend remarked that she had turned up for work on several occasions with the results of what looked like a beating, and another, an ER nurse, had confirmed the defendant had visited the hospital on several occasions with lacerations consistent with what was considered spousal abuse.
Those photographs were quite confronting, but a question had to be asked, why had she not gone to the police with that evidence and let them deal with the husband.
The fact she hadn’t was one weakness in her defense. The thing there was why the defense introduced such testimony because, to me, it confused the issue by pushing the jury into thinking she had killed him, but in mitigating circumstances. Was she looking for a verdict of justifiable homicide?
From day two, after the lawyer had told us about how lawyers schooled their clients, I watched her carefully, when sitting beside her lawyer, or when on the stand. There were interesting actions she made when certain events occurred, like brushing a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, like teasing it out with a slight shake of the head, in a subtle but obvious show of displeasure. Like smoothing out the invisible wrinkles in her clothes, perfectly fitting and obviously made for her, but understated in a sense that she would stand out in a crown but not ostentatiously so. It was almost a ritual when she came in at the start, and when she took the stand, preparing herself.
Perfectionist, maybe. Or trying to convey a certain picture. Certainly, in the early days before the trial began, the media had a field day with the case, whipped into an even bigger frenzy when the police finally arrested the wife for the murder of her husband. Almost all of them said he had it coming, with page after page of revelations about a man who could not have done half the things he was accused of.
The trial by newspaper done, I suspect it was hard to find 12 unbiased men and women who could be trusted to make the right decision. I knew 100 would be jurors had been called up.
Now, in the jury room for the third day, trying to reach a verdict, it was the lawyer trying to wrap it up. He had a job to go back to. So did everyone else, for that matter.
“So, in essence, we are all agreed, that she is not guilty.”
It had been an interesting change in his position on the morning of day three of our deliberation. Before that, he wanted to hang her from the nearest yardarm. Interestingly enough, that morning, after he had given us his reasons for changing his mind, it would have been unanimous, and over.
The thing is, I didn’t like the way he changed sides so easily or for the reasons he spoke of.
So, in that vote, I changed my decision to guilty, and watch a group of people who had been friendly suddenly become enemies.
But at that moment, that other ten didn’t interest me, it was the expression on the lawyer’s face. He hadn’t expected the vote to go that way. It was like he had been goading everyone into voting not guilty and weathering the storm because of his stance. Had it been staged, had we been led down this path, and then all of a sudden, the verdict he wanted being reached?
I had to find out.
I watched the eleven raise their hands to vote not guilty. I did not. And immediately felt the looks of every one of those eleven on me.
“Why?” he asked.
By this time he had taken the lead, and the others had let him. Now I suspect they would let him do the talking.
“You’ve got it all wrong. The reasons are the same. There are two sides to that tale you came up with this morning. The problem I have is from being adamant she was guilty, and as you said, without a shadow of a doubt, now all of a sudden you’re having doubts.”
“So, you don’t think she’s guilty, you’re just voting that way because you suspect my motives?”
“What I think is irrelevant right now. You need to convince me that you truly think she’s not guilty. What is it you saw, or heard, or know that changed your mind. It certainly had nothing to do with that so-called video in the bar being staged. It has nothing to do with the fact they can’t find that woman so they can either verify or dispel the accusations being made she was an accomplice. It had nothing to do with the fact you think she might have been goaded into it and was left with no other option. In that case, it might well be a case of manslaughter rather than murder. Is that what you’re trying to suggest?”
“I think given the evidence, or lack of concrete evidence against her, she is not guilty.”
“But given everything you have said, it seems to me you think she had some crime to answer for.”
“Hasn’t she suffered enough?”
“That might well be the case, but it doesn’t give you an excuse to murder., and there’s certainly no forensic evidence that she was defending herself against an attack at the time. She should have taken her case to the police and have it investigated. She chose not to, for reasons that were never fully explained.”
“And didn’t we hear that the husband had links to various police that might have made such an investigation a waste of time. This was a woman trapped in a bad situation with no way out.”
It was a long way from where we, as jurors, were at the beginning of our deliberations. The first vote at the end of the first day was four voted not guilty and eight voted guilty. In the following days, a lot of arguments changed the decisions of those seven to vote not guilty, when they believed, in their own minds the defendant was guilty.
In my mind, the first instinct was usually correct. Over time that decision was only changed because of expediency, not necessarily for the right reasons. My first instinct was that she was, in fact, not guilty for all the reasons the lawyer cited.
“Look,” he said. “We’ve been here for three days. It’s an open and shut case. Let’s vote.”
We did with the same result. Eleven for not guilty and one against.
A hung jury. I wasn’t going to be moved on my position, and so it went back to the court. It was declared a mistrial and the defendant was returned to custody and a new trial was to be scheduled.
I was reading the paper’s version of events, and speculation on the result. Several of the jurors had featured in the discussion, but none were willing to talk about the result or who was responsible for the hung jury, only that one juror had not agreed with the majority. In some states, it was argued, it only required a majority, but in this and other states, quite rightly, it needed a unanimous decision to confer the death sentence.
Justice, it seemed to the writer of the piece, had prevailed.
They also believed that the plight of women trapped in marriages to violent men was a matter that should be looked at and that such women should be treated better in the eyes of the law. It was not a position that I disagreed with. What I disagreed with was the notion of jury tampering.
It was, apparently, the fifth time that a case such as this had a similar track record, that the deliberations of the jury had swung from an initial guilty verdict to not guilty at the hands of a single juror. In each of the five cases, the circumstances were similar, the wife had endured violence by her husband, and then, in odd circumstances, the husband had finished up dead.
Someone had discerned a pattern, and this had been a test case. In each of the other four cases, a not guilty verdict had been handed down by a jury that had also started with a majority guilty verdict, only to be worn down by a single juror with an agenda. To get the defendant a not guilty verdict.
My job was to find out which juror it was that was there to change minds. Then it was a case of finding links between him and four other jurors who were equally instrumental in obtaining a not guilty verdict. In each of the five cases, there was irrefutable evidence that the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the charge, and the expectation was the legal system would prosecute them.
And then, in each of the cases, a weak prosecutor was selected, and a particular juror was selected by that prosecutor. From there, the trail led back to a particular assistant District Attorney who had overseen each of the five cases. The fact was, justice was not served, and four out of the five defendants had escaped justice.
I hated it when I was younger, namely because my brothers always cheated, and that had been carried through to adulthood.
Now, I just avoided them.
It left me wondering how I managed to paint myself into a corner, and agree to do the one thing I assiduously avoided.
You could chalk it up to being persuaded by a pretty girl. Yes, I am the typical male, a sucker for a pretty face and a little flattery.
It would not have happened if I’d just gone home, instead of being asked to go and ‘just have one drink’ on the way home from work. I used to, once upon a time, before I got sick. But, perhaps it was a combination of cabin fever, and the monastic existence I’d adopted since that saw the one visit a chink of light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Whatever the reason, had I not gone, I would not have met Nancy. I’d seen her before, off and on, at work, and had noted, probably with a degree of disdain that where she was, was the most noise. You know, the one who talks loudest in the elevator, or the one who was the center of attention at a dining table.
And yet, underneath that, if or when anyone got close enough, there was something else. Something that fascinated me. But, having become reclusive had made me more reticent, and even though I was sitting at the same table, almost within arm’s length, I was too shy to strike up a conversation.
Until it was time to go home. I had moved out of the way so she could get out, and as she passed me she said, “You’ve been very quiet, Brian isn’t it?”
“Yes. And I know it’s rather lame but I don’t have as extensive knowledge of sports, which I guess I should. Ask me about old movies, and I’m your guy. Anyway, I pride myself on being a good listener.”
“Old movies eh. I’ll keep that in mind.” A smile, she went to leave, and then turned. “Look. I have this thing I have to go to, and I don’t want to go by myself. It’s not a date or anything like that, I just need someone to come with me. You might even find the people interesting.”
“I’m sure there’s someone else here more qualified than I am.” It was lame and I was floundering. It was not every day a girl asks you to go out with her. Even if it was, to a certain degree, and unflattering invitation.
“They all seem to have something else to do. Look, here’s my phone number,” she handed me a piece of paper with her cell number scrawled on it, “Call me if you change your mind. It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”
I should not have picked up the phone. I definitely should not have called her number. And I knew I was going to live to regret telling her I would go to her ‘thing’.
Before I walked out the door I looked at myself in the mirror. It seemed to be telling me, ‘you are a fool, Brian’, and I agreed. This had disaster written all over it. I hadn’t been out for a long time, and if anything, those few hours last evening were a sign I was not ready to face the world. Not after being so long away from it.
A lot had changed in the fifteen months I’d been in a coma. It was a miracle, the doctors said, that I came out of it with very little damage. I’d lost a chunk of memories, particularly surrounding the accident, and perhaps, I’d been told, that was a good thing. Cameron, the guy I worked with had summed up the change in a few short words, ‘you’ve gone from being the biggest dead shit in the world to something that resembles a human being’. I didn’t remember that person, though others did.
Maybe she remembered who I was, and, if she did, that didn’t explain why she asked me. The person Cameron described was not a person I would want to be with, so I guess the answer to my rhetorical question would soon be revealed.
Nancy was bright, talkative, and, at times, over the top. She was the loudest in the room and the center of attention. I wondered if the old Brian had been like that because if he was, I wouldn’t like him. It begged the question, why did I agree to go with her?
Curiosity? Maybe. That I might find some people who knew the old Brian? I certainly hoped not.
I had barely got out of the car to go and knock on her door when she came out, a small gym bag on her shoulder, dressed casually. I had to admit, in the morning sun and surrounded by an idyllic setting, she looked almost like an angel. She jumped in the car and all but slammed the door shut.
I looked at my watch, then the clock on the car’s dash. Both said the same, Eight a.m. exactly. “You did say eight a.m. and not p.m.” I couldn’t remember what she said, not right then.
“I mean most guys who come to collect me are always late.”
“Then I guess, by inference, I not like most guys.”
She smiled, one of those impish smiles I’d come to recognize from anther woman I’d dated somewhere in a distinct past, and who was trouble. I did, for some strange remember the night we spent in jail, though I couldn’t remember why, except the impish smile.
“I suspect you’re not. Cam said you were different.”
“Cam did, did he?” The mentioning of his name raised a red flag in the back of my mind. Cameron was not above playing complex pranks and I was beginning to see indications that this might be one. I would have to be careful.
“Not in a bad way, I mean. He had nothing but good things to say about you, though I had the feeling there was something he wasn’t saying. You’re not an ax murderer or anything like that?”
“Shouldn’t you have done some more research before asking me along?” I had also heard from another source, actually, a chap named, rather aptly, Jones, who was also at the party. He had left earlier but was still in the carpark, apparently his car parked next to mine, smoking a cigarette. A suspicious man might say he was waiting for me.
He had some ‘sage’ advice. “You want to be careful when you’re with Nancy. She’s not what she seems.”
I asked him to elucidate, but, cigarette finished, he stubbed it out rather violently under his blood, and left. He looked angry, sounded angry, and it was an angry warning. Perhaps he was a current or, more likely, ex-boyfriend. That ‘advice’ only added to the intrigue value.
Someone else, when he asked them about Nancy, had told him she was ‘brilliant’ with computers. Was that in programming, or hacking, or simply data entry? He only knew she had helped the web site programmers when the company had built its intranet. Computers and I never got on, and I was the only one who got a weekly visit from the IT help desk, just in case.
“I did. Do you remember anything from those fifteen months?”
“They say that when you’re in a coma you can still hear people, you know, that sort of stuff.”
I thought about it for a minute. I wasn’t one of those lucky ones, though I did have one of those out of body experiences, where I suspect I’d nearly died. Just not my time, I’d thought, later.
“I’d like to meet the people who have that ubiquitous title of ‘they’. They have a lot of opinions, most of which are about the unknown.”
“So would I, to be honest. All you ever get to do is read about them. So, are you ready?”
“A weekend away. It will be fun if you want it to be.”
“It’ll be fun. You have my promise.”
“And where is this ‘fun’ going to be?”
“Rhode Island. A friend of my parents, son is having a party and a few side events. There’s about 40 of us, so there’s no shortage of interesting if sometimes eclectic people. I’ll put the address in the GPS.”
Rhode Island, the other home of the New York rich, as well as others, and I hoped it was the others we were going to see. The host was the son of possible millionaires, so that was an interesting description for me to mull on. Would he be an ex? It seemed to me that Rhode Islanders would be less likely to mingle with the paupers, and if they did it would be for their own amusement.
There was a memory on the back of his mind, that popped up, albeit briefly when she mentioned the destination. The fact it didn’t want to come to the surface told me it was a bad memory. One from ‘old’ Brians days.
Nancy’s beauty, manner, and the fact she was clever might just win over the son of a millionaire, an heir to a fortune, whereas it would intimidate a lesser man. As for me, I was a means to an end, so it didn’t matter what I thought, other than it was better than staying home.
It was the house with all the cars parked out front. Multi stories, with towers that no doubt overlooked the ocean, and extensive gardens that seemed to be shared, that blocked the sightlines from the street front to that invisible ocean. I was will to be, once on the other side, the never-ending sound of the sea might be heard.
In winter, this would be bleak. In summer, well, what was the saying, anyone who is anyone would be here. Well, the sons and daughter thereof, perhaps.
I had expected the moment I parked the car she would be out, and gone, like a proverbial schoolgirl dying to get back to school after the holidays. She was not. She stood there, at the front of the car, and looked at the scene before us. To me, it was just a building, with trees, shrubs, and grass around it. To others, it was a portal into another world, one that would never be available to that 95% of the rest of the world. It was a phrase that popped into my mind, again, randomly, that said, the top 5% of any country held as much if not more of the wealth belongs to the other 95%.
I came up beside her and looked in the same direction, at one of the towers.
“Having a Rapunzel moment?” I hoped she had some memory of fairytales or it would seem an odd comment.
“I used to have long hair once. But, the last time I was here, I can’t remember. My mother’s hair was always long, some sort of hangover from hippy days, you know, the 1970s. She was here once. The stories she used to tell me about the houses, and the people she used to know. I’m ready. Are you?”
It was like a walk through the park, getting to the front door. There was a driveway, but there must have been a rule, no cars on the property. Or perhaps the front gate was locked and the owner had thrown away the key.
Or, more than likely, the butler, standing at the front door, welcoming guests, had it in his pocket. He was a tall, severe-looking man, with a military bearing. I somehow knew he was more than just the average butler.
Nancy gave him our names, and in return, he gave us a sheet of paper. The rules and the room number where we would be staying the night. I had thought that we would be given separate rooms, but that wasn’t the case, and it didn’t seem to worry Nancy that I would be staying with her. The only other words he said were, “The rotunda, 11 a.m.”
The room overlooked the ocean, today more or less a millpond, and a number of yachts were out making the most of the weather. There was a pier at the end of the property, and, yes, a reasonably large boat attached to it. There was also a view of a croquet lawn, the rotunda beside the rose garden. On the other side was a large pond, and seats where, no doubt on days when people like us were impinging on their solitude, they sat and contemplated how to make more money.
I didn’t realize I was that cynical.
The room had two beds, and it’s own bathroom. She had thrown her bag on one, checked out the bathroom, then dashed past saying, “I’ll see you at the rotunda.”
I followed her down about a half-hour later, descending the stairs at a more leisurely pace, looking at the paintings on the wall as I did. Forbears, and landscapes that were from around here. The one with the lighthouse was of particular interest. It brought another memory to the surface. I’d been there before, sometime in the distant past, and it was significant.
The Butler was standing at the bottom of the stairs, having stopped there when he saw me descending.
“It’s nice to see you again, Master Brian.”
“Not Master Brian, anymore, Jeffery. Sadly, I had to grow up.”
“We all do, sooner or later. Pity we can’t say the same for Chester.”
“Where is he?”
“You need to ask. I hope you’re up for a little X marks the spot.”
I groaned. Chester and his treasure hunts.
My last memory of that he had hidden a fluffy bunny stuffed with money. It was the weekend I had the crash the result I was told of too much booze, too much alcohol, too much of everything. I was just glad the girl I had brought up with me had left with another chap, a decision, I told her when she visited me in hospital, was probably the wisest thing she would ever do.
I just shook my head.
“Even if you don’t think so Brian, we have missed you.”
Another look around, I sighed, then went outside. My doctor had been right. Coming back had stirred up the mush in my brain, those thoughts, feelings, and memories of who I was, and what I was. And who I would never be again.
Nancy was waiting by the rotunda, talking to a more youthful version of myself, Chester. It was an awful name, one that our mother must have come up with in one of her drug-fuelled dreams, and he had taken a ribbing at school, and a willing participant in many a fight.
Chester looked surprised to see me, no, that wasn’t surprise, but shock.
“I thought you said you would never come back.”
Nancy looked from him, then to me, then back again.
“I’m not here, Chester. It’s just Nancy and Brian, here for the treasure hunt. And this time there better be more than a hundred dollars in that stuffed animal.”
Chester looked confused for a moment, then smiled he brand of childish smile, that of a child that would probably never grow up, the result of what I did to him, and would spend the rest of my life trying to earn forgiveness for.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Long story. Remind me to tell you one day, if you stick around that long.”
In the background, I could hear Jeffery calling the treasure hunt participants together.