“Look there, Mr Jordan, what do you see?”
Mr Jordan shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t see anything exceptional about the man. He was young, physically fit, relatively successful in that he had risen to the position of reserve quarterback for the L.A. Rams. A little driven perhaps, and a little careless in his attitude towards others, especially women.
Mr Jordan was used to having his thoughts heard as though he had voiced them. It didn’t bother him anymore.
There was a quiet chuckle.
Okay, it didn’t bother him as much.
“Do you see that he is a good man, Mr Jordan? He is kind and generous, he is courageous, and his spirit is true, like the finest of arrows. In his heart he wants to choose what is right. He would resist temptation because he sees the big picture and is prepared to make sacrifices in the short term to achieve his long term goals.
“It’s what makes him a great sportsman. It’s also what makes him a great man.”
“But the way he treats others. He’s never had a steady girlfriend, yet he always has someone on his arm. He puts them on and casts them off; he changes them more frequently than he does his shirts. Surely that’s not the behaviour of a great man?”
“Ah, but look there.”
“Yes. He covers it so well he may not even be aware of it himself.”
The two watched as Joe Pendleton climbed onto his bicycle and headed off on his regular thirty mile ride in the punishing California summer heat. Determination and focus were written in bold across the youngster’s face as he set a pace that would have him hurting for most of the ride.
“You should get going, Mr Jordan, your charges will be waiting.”
The elderly man nodded before standing to take his leave.
“I wonder if you would take Asha with you? He’s been asking for an opportunity for some time.”
“Asha?” It was an odd request, but a request from… well, from him, wasn’t really a request at all. Despite that, misgivings ran through Mr Jordan’s mind, but you didn’t ask if he was sure. He was always sure. “Of course, sir.”
Another deep throated chuckle followed Mr Jordan as he headed off to find his latest charge.
The truck was months overdue for a service. The brake lines were damaged and chose that moment to break loose, spraying brake fluid across the road. The driver leaned on his horn as he ran out of control through the red light. It seemed the crossing traffic would react in time. Cars screeched to a halt as tyres locked up. There were a few minor dings, but nothing compared to the carnage that might have been.
Asha let out a sigh of relief; he hated to see people suffer. Then a streaking figure whizzed round the corner. There was no way the cyclist would avoid the truck, no way he would survive the collision. Asha shut his eyes tight and reached out his will.
Joe looked around him in dazed wonder. One minute he’d been riding his bike, focused, vision tunnelling, fighting that pain barrier. The next he’d been standing here in what might have been an airfield. Except there were no buildings around and no other aircraft in the air, but right next to him was a sleek airliner with elegantly swept back delta wings. The ground beneath his feet felt strange; firm but soft. He wished he could see it, but everything was covered by a thick mist.
And why on earth was he holding a soprano saxophone in his hand?
“Ah Mr Pendleton, there you are. Time to board, come on.” Asha took Joe by the arm and lead him towards the steps leading up to the plane.
“Time to board what? What is this place? Where am I, and where is that thing going? Yeah, and what’s with the sax?”
“Er, oh. Er, well it’s time to board the craft. This craft. You’re at the way-station and that thing, that thing you are going to board now, because it’s time to leave, is going to take you to your final destination, where you will need you saxophone, because everyone has a musical instrument up there. Now if you’ll just come with me.”
“Hey wait a minute.” Joe pulled his arm out of Asha’s grasp. “None of that made sense. Besides I can’t go anywhere. I’m playing in the Super Bowl in two week.”
Just then an elderly man wearing a double breasted suit, and with greying hair slicked back, stepped out of the mist.
“Is everything alright here, Asha?” He said in a voice very much like James Mason’s.
“Ah, Mr Jordan, I’m so glad you’re here. Mr Pendleton’s refusing to board.”
“Yeah, it’s good you’re here,” said Joe. “I don’t know how I got here or what this is all about, but there has to be some mistake. I’m playing in the Super Bowl in just two weeks. I can’t go anywhere.”
Jordan turned his stern gaze back on Asha.
“He was in a traffic accident sir. His bicycle was run over by a truck.”
“There you have it, Mr Pendleton. No mistake. You have to board; you’re holding everyone else up.”
“But I wasn’t in an accident. I remember riding round a corner. I remember… Yeah I remember the truck. I was going to swerve out of its way when. Suddenly I was here.”
Asha fell under Jordan’s stern gaze once more.
“Well, it looked like it was going to be so painful, so I pulled him out just before….”
“Asha, no! I know you’re new to this, but even you should know, an event cannot be said to have occurred until it has actually taken place. You can’t pre-empt these things.” He turned to the figure standing at the foot of the steps and raised his voice. “I need information on a Joseph Pendleton. Born…” He looked at Joe enquiringly.
“Oh, May seventeenth, nineteen fifty-three.”
“Santa Barbara, California.”
“Yes, Mr Jordan. Here we are, Joseph Pendleton, due to be with us December second, two thousand twenty-five.”
“This is intolerable. Asha, you must see to it that he is returned to his body immediately. This instant. We will talk of this later.”
“What do you mean cremated?” Mr Jordan rarely raised his voice, but then again, things rarely went wrong under his watch. Asha withered miserably beneath the tirade.
“Well, it’s as I said. We went back as fast as we could, but when we arrived, the minister was passing the urn to Mrs Pendleton and offering his condolences. We couldn’t have made it there quicker.”
“Yeah, how come? I mean doesn’t it usually take a few days to sort these kinds of things out?”
“Mr Pendleton, time passes differently here. I’m afraid it’s already been a week in the world you know.”
“Well, what are we doing here then? If we wait another few minutes the Super Bowl will be over.”
“It’s not going to make any difference now Mr Pendleton, we cannot put you back into your old body.”
Joe looked like he’d been punched in the gut. He couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe for almost a minute.
“Then what? What’s going to become of me?”
“We’re going to have to find you an alternative body is all.”
“Well, make it an athlete then, ‘cos I’ve spent this much of my life preparing. I need to be in that stadium when they play next week.”
There was the sound of an old fashioned telephone ringing and Mr Jordan reached into his breast pocket, pulling out an old candle stick style phone from somewhere. He lifted the earpiece to his ear.
“Hello? Yes sir. Yes it’s… What? Are you sure? No of course you’re sure, but really? Very well sir. Yes sir.” He hung the phone up and put it away, leaving not the slightest bulge in his immaculate suit. “It seems there’s a way to give you that. It will take some adjustment on your part, but there is a way if you’re willing.”
“Bring it on. Whatever it takes.”
They stood at the back of the church, a respectable crowd, dressed in substantial finery, listening to a dull and long winded eulogy. At the front of the church were two coffins, one substantially larger than the other.
“Come along, no-one can see us here.” Mr Jordan led the way down the aisle, Joe following with Asha bringing up the rear. “This is Leo and Julia Farnsworth. Mr Farnsworth was a very successful businessman, hence the opulent funeral and extensive turnout. However, he wasn’t particularly well liked, and I suspect the majority of the congregation are here to satisfy themselves that the lid is nailed down and the coffin well and truly buried.”
“And you want me to take over his life? Wouldn’t that cause as much stir as me miraculously returning from the ashes? Just sitting up here in the middle of all these people? And, good gravy man, just look at him! He must weigh two hundred and eighty pounds at least, not to mention he’s what, fifty or something? You can’t expect me to get that into shape in a week.”
“I think he was three hundred and twenty pounds when he died. His is the first corpse ever to have liposuction, just to make him look more presentable for his funeral.” Mr Jordan’s usually placid features were lined with a mixture of distaste and pity. “No Joe, we wouldn’t expect you to take on this life. It would hardly be a fair exchange.”
“Then what?” Joe looked into the other coffin at a lined face, still showing in death the waspish expression it had carried through much of its life. “You can’t possibly mean…”
“Not in the slightest.”
Joe let out a sigh of relief, but somewhere there had been a hint of something. Disappointment? No, surely not.
“What are we doing here then Mr Jordan?”
Time sped up. People whizzed around them like extras in a Buster Keaton movie. The coffins were shouldered, with some difficulty and loss of dignity in the case of Mr Farnsworth’s, and carried out. Leading the procession and standing prominent at the burial, an attractive young woman stood dry eyed.
Afterwards, a line of limousines departed the scene. Mr Jordan, Asha and Joe rode in the lead vehicle, unnoticed by the two other occupants.
“The girl is Karen Farnsworth, only daughter to Leo and Julia,” Mr Jordan continued, apparently oblivious to Joe’s question. “The man is Tony Abbott, until recently Mr Farnsworth’s personal secretary.
“Last week he caught sight of Mr Farnsworth’s new will, in which he cuts off his wife completely and leaves everything to his daughter. In the event of Mr Farnsworth dying before Karen reaches her majority in two months’ time, Mr Abbott would be named guardian for the interim period, or sole heir should she die beforehand.
“Five days ago, Mr and Mrs Farnsworth died from food poisoning after their evening meal. The chef is under suspicion, but it was Mr Abbott who added the strychnine to the soup. Karen was supposed to have been with them, but she cancelled at the last moment. She didn’t like to spend much time with her parents, but then who would when they were always fighting.
“In a few minutes she will drink a glass of champagne, also laced with strychnine, and the blame will shift to the butler. Tony Abbot will inherit Leo Farnsworth’s empire and, ruthless businessman as the old man was, Tony will outmatch the man in callous disregard for anyone but himself.”
“So what? You expect me to take over Karen’s life? And how’s that going to get me into the Super Bowl? In the few days or however long that I’ve been unnecessarily dead, did they change the rules and let little girls like her play as quarterback?”
Mr Jordan let out a sigh. “No, Mr Pendleton they haven’t changed the rules. I can’t say I understand this either, but I have it from the highest authority that this is for the best. For everyone, yourself included.
“I can’t make you do this, after all life is about free will, and we inadvertently took yours from you. However, if you will accept my assurance, if you agree to this, no matter how unlikely it may seem at present, the outcome will be worthwhile.
“You have a few minutes between our arrival and the raising of the first toast to decide. Once she drinks the champagne and collapses, you’ll have just seconds to act.”
“Hang on, weren’t you going to put me back in my body days afterwards?”
“Yes, but corpses have been known to reanimate days later. It wouldn’t have been that unusual. Here, once they know she’s dead, once they find the poison, there’s no way anyone will believe she could come back to life.”
“And what happens to the strychnine?”
“Leave that to me.”
“So if you can get rid of it for me, why not for her?”
“Things don’t work that way Mr Pendleton. If she survives this attack, would you expect us to be around for the next, and the next? Besides, we’re not here to prevent death but rather facilitate moving to the next stage. What we are doing here is a special dispensation for you, given our…” and with this he glowered over at the ever recalcitrant Asha, “error.
“We’re here. Stand ready and make your mind up.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Make your mind up, Mr Pendleton.”
Of when he was eight years old and on the way out trick or treating.
“Heavens above, boy, what do you think you’re wearing?”
Joe turned about rapidly, his heart beating like a rabbit’s. His father was a big man and not one you wanted to upset.
“Just because your sister thinks it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. You wanna be a man, you gotta act like one son.”
But it had been his idea, and he had thought it was a good one. Julie had grown out of her first cheerleader’s uniform and had just bought a new one. The cast-off was about Joe’s size and it had been him that suggested wearing it and going out with her in hers. He’d liked the softness of the jersey top, the way the short skirt tickled his thighs. He’d loved the way he looked and the way it made him feel all warm and soft inside.
He didn’t dare say any of this to his father.
“Go on, get upstairs and change into your football gear. Trust me, you’ll get just as much candy.”
He’d done as he’d been told. His sister’s eyes had been all puffy from crying when he came back downstairs. Joe suspected their father had directed a few choice words her way, but she’d smiled and said it was nothing.
Joe’s dad had been right. They made a pretty good haul that night, the cute little quarterback and the tall leggy cheerleader, but somehow he’d felt cheated.
The limos pulled up outside a large hotel, part of Leo Farnsworth’s portfolio, had they known, and followed Karen and Tony into the dancing hall. There were, if anything, more people here than at the funeral. All come to eat the free food and drink the free wine, and make sure the tyrant tycoon was really cooling in his grave.
Tony Abbott grabbed two flutes of champagne off a passing tray. White powder fell from a sachet secreted in his palm, and he swirled the drink around to mix it in. Joe only noticed because he knew to watch for it. The doctored drink was passed to Karen. She stared at it blankly, as though she’d forgotten what it was for.
“We have to do something,” Joe turned on his two companions.
“Do what Joe?” Mr Jordan’s expression was implacable as ever. “We have no influence over this realm, no jurisdiction.”
“He sure as hell did.” Joe waved a hand at Asha, his choice of words causing both men to flinch.
“He acted outside his remit. We aren’t permitted to interfere.”
Tony Abbott had found a fork somewhere and was ringing it against the stem of his glass. An expectant hush fell over the room.
Of when he was fifteen, standing on the sidelines and staring longingly at the cheerleaders going through their routine. Building themselves into a pyramid and launching themselves, spiralling and tumbling into the air, landing gracefully, all smiles and excitement at the perfection of the outcome.
Joe’s dad had ambled up behind him, following his gaze.
“Never mind, son. Do well in the try-outs today, and I know you will, and you can have any one of them you want. Hell you can have them all for all I know. Just focus on the game for now. Focus. Remember the six P’s.”
“Prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. Yeah, dad, I know.”
“His voice had broken some weeks earlier and since then he’d put on height and body mass at an astounding rate. He’d gone through a few weeks clumsiness adapting to his new shape and size, but now it was all working for him. He was in peak physical shape and was the best football player on the school team by a long way. He was going to shine today. He was going to make quarterback easily. He was going to reach his goal, realise his dream
So why did he still feel like he was missing out?
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here to pay tribute to a remarkable man and his equally remarkable wife, all too suddenly and cruelly taken from us and under such horrifying circumstances. Leo was a business tycoon and empire builder beyond the scope or imagining of any man here. Something he achieve only with the love and support of his delightful wife, Julia. They did not deserve to die in the manner they did. They leave behind them a vacuum that will not be easily filled, though — if anyone exists who can do this — it is almost certainly their daughter Karen.
“Karen, we grieve with you, and join you in a tribute to your parents. Ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses and join us in toasting Leo and Julia Farnsworth. From this day on, we shall all notice their absence in our lives.”
Of the weeks and years that had followed his successful try outs. Of the girls who had suddenly taken an interest in him. The most beautiful girls in school. There had been the vain and the vacant, girls who were unable to keep his attention for any longer than they were capable of keeping their own on any subject other than themselves. They fell swiftly by the wayside. There were others though. As clever as they were beautiful. Witty, funny, a delight to be with, but even they lasted no more than a few weeks before some screaming frustration boiled to the surface and he would end the relationship. Badly, with a spectacular fight and some drunken excess on his part.
He didn’t want to fight, didn’t want to hurt them, though often – perhaps always – he did. It was just that… there was something missing; something not there. Not in the girls themselves. Not in whoever was holding onto his arm at any given moment. Something missing in him, in what he wanted, in who he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be with the girls he dated, but rather…
Glasses were raised, toasts muttered, none of them achieving quite the level of false sincerity as Abbott’s. Joe turned to see Karen raise her glass woodenly to her lips. It wasn’t much of a sip, but it was enough. She made a face as if the wine tasted wrong, then her eyes went wide and she looked across at Abbott. Joe moved closer to the young girl.
Tony approached her, sympathetic smile in place and arms wide for a hug. She tried to move out of his way, but fear and the first effects of the drug left her unsteady and she stumbled. Abbott caught her and drew her close.
“It won’t be long now,” he whispered. “You can’t fight it. The end is inevitable, just relax and let it run its course.”
“Money, of course. I suffered twenty years under that sadist and I’m due my reward. I caught a glimpse of the will last week when he wrote your mother out of it. You get everything, unless you die before your eighteenth birthday, then it all passes to me.
“It’s nothing personal; just business. The irony is that it took your father to teach me that. You know, look after number one, everyone else is superfluous. I’d say sorry, only really I’m not.”
She began to convulse, pulling out of his grasp and falling to her hands and knees.
“What the…” Tony looked around the room, a feigned mask of horror on his face. “Someone call a doctor, she’s having a fit or something.”
Karen’s convulsions were getting wilder. She looked up, pain and fear in her eyes, then the pupils rolled up into her eye sockets and she collapsed.
“Mr Pandleton,” Mr Jordan called across the room. “You must decide now.”
Joe looked across at his two strange companions, at Karen’s vulnerable form, shuddering its final breath, at Tony Abbott, dismay portrayed in every part of his face except his eyes. Not so much to be with them, but to be> them. Joe made up his mind just as the hotel doctor came running into the room.
Karen looked around the misty clearing, the sleek craft with swept back wings and the stairs leading up to the hatchway, a crew member standing, clipboard in hand, ready to welcome the newest batch of passengers. In her hands she held an oboe. She’d always loved its sound, but never had the time to work on it.
“Miss Farnsworth?” She looked up into kind eyes. “My name is Mr Jordan. You understand that you’re dead don’t you?”
She nodded, bit her lip. “My parents?
Mr Jordan’s expression turned sympathetic. “We each make our choice in this world Miss Farnsworth. Your parents chose to serve their own personal desires and impulses without caring how they affected the people around them. I’m afraid there’s no place for such people where we’re going.”
“She let out a sigh; part sadness, part relief. “What about this?” She held up the instrument in her hand. “I never had time to learn how to play.”
“Now you do. As much of eternity as you wish. Shall we board?” Mr Jordan indicated the stairs with an open hand.
“I hate to think of Tony Abbott having control of my father’s empire. Daddy was bad enough, but he’s…”
Mr Jordan smiled sympathetically. “I don’t usually do this sort of thing; after all, the world has no more hold on you, but this is a special circumstance in more ways than one, so one more exception to the general rule won’t go amiss.
“You must understand, this was your time. Nothing could have been done to prevent your life ending at this precise moment. There was another soul though, who had a long life taken from him by a… by an error. He would have done a lot of good with his time on earth, so we gave him back a life. Your life.”
“You did say he, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I don’t understand why, but I’m assured this is for the best.”
Mr Jordan waved his hand over a small bank of fog and it swirled, forming a window in the world.
Joe woke with a feeling of stiff pain in his limbs and a metallic taste in his mouth. A large man, breath smelling faintly of champagne, was leaning over him, peering at his eyes through half-moon glasses. Behind him Tony Abbott tried to look past anxious to know what had happened.
“She’s alive. She’s ok.”
“What! I mean what?” Tony pushed, trying to get closer.
Joe felt horribly groggy. There was a lot of hair in the way and he moved his free hand to wipe his face clear, only to find it held a slender glass, still partly filled with champagne. He shook his head and the fog cleared a little. He settled back on his haunches, confused by the strange feel of his clothes. He felt odd, different. There was a wiry strength to his limbs, but nothing like he’d had before. A finer control too, a sense of precision he’d never known before. What was he wearing? What were those? Oh.
Time for a pronoun change.
Tony was almost through the crowd.
“Stop him, he killed my parents, and he just tried to kill me.” Her – definitely her – voice was soft and gentle, but held no kindness for the man bearing down on her. The man she indicated with a delicate, quivering finger.
“What? What are talking about? Karen, it’s me, Uncle Tony. I’ve known you since you were a baby. Why would I do a thing like this?” He appealed to the crowd. Good old Tony, dependable Tony.
“For money I think you said, or don’t you remember what you told me just now.”
“This is crazy. What money?”
“The money you would stand to inherit if I happen to die before my eighteenth birthday, according to my father’s most recent will, which you managed to glimpse last week.
“I didn’t want to believe it was you, Uncle Tony,” time for a bit of play acting to seal the deal, “but it could never have been Mum and Dad’s chef. When you gave me this glass of champagne, I only pretended to drink from it, pretended to be poisoned. The look in your eyes just now is all the evidence I need of your guilt.”
“I don’t believe this.” He lunged forward, trying to knock the glass out of her hand, but with her improved and improving coordination she was able to avoid him easily enough.
“Will somebody please hold onto him. Don’t let him get this glass and don’t let him wash his hands. I want the police to check him for strychnine.” There were gasps of dismay from around the room, but she managed to put enough command into her voice to alert a couple of hotel security guards, who each took hold of one of Abbott’s arm.
“You’ll never prove this, you know.”
“We’ll see, won’t we.”
The wake was ruined, but Joe… no, Karen now, suspected that old Leo Farnsworth would have appreciated revenge more than a good send off. She spent the afternoon at the police station where she made her statement and had the police doctor check her blood for anything that shouldn’t be there.
Small amounts of strychnine were found in her system, enough to make her ill without killing her. She was given something vile to drink which left her feeling drowsy. She was taken to a small room with a small bed in it and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.
She woke in a large bed. Silk sheets, silk nightie. Curled herself up into a tight ball, luxuriating in the different movement, the feel of her new body. How had she never realised that this was what she had always been missing, always wanted. Soft breasts squeezed gently between slender arms, firm thighs squeezing together with nothing between them.
The anger was gone. The aggression that had always driven him, always taken him down paths towards dreams that were never his own, had dissipated leaving her with a sense of peace, of euphoria, of belonging.
This day was too good to waste. She pulled the sheets back and slid two slender legs over the edge of the bed where fluffy slippers were waiting for her feet.
First order of business, empty that bladder before it decides to take matters into its own hands. The door to the en suite was open and she ran to it. Skirts up, knickers down, sit down just in time. Wow that was a different feeling. Plumbing not quite the same then.
Second order of business, the shower. Power shower in fact. Jets of hot water powerful enough to set her whole skin tingling. It took only seconds to soak her through, and seconds more to realised that she hadn’t meant to wet her hair. Joe had worn his hair long for a few brief months when he’d been younger, until the constant disapproving looks of his father had sent him scurrying to the barbers. He knew how long it took to dry long hair, and as Karen she now had a lot more of it.
Never mind, there was no shortage of towels around here. She dried herself off and, on the third attempt, managed to tie her hair up in a sort of turban. The dressing gown was soft and plush and luxuriant, and she engulfed her small frame in its folds. Just as there was a knock on the door.
A maid stepped in carrying a tray. She smelt coffee and turned to take the cup from the girl, who was obviously more used to passing the whole tray to her in bed. Karen looked around.
“Put it down on the coffee table over there would you please?” She pointed to the table nestled between two armchairs and a sofa. Who had a bedroom big enough for a double bed and a three piece suite?
“As you like, miss.”
“It’s… er…?” Hopelessly pathetic ploy but sometimes it works.
“Sarah, miss.” The maid was looked nervous. She wasn’t far enough up the pecking order to be noticed by her employees.
“Would you sit with me for a while, Sarah? I zoned out yesterday afternoon. I wonder if you could fill me in on some of the bits I missed.”
Sarah eyed the chairs warily, as though they might bite. “Er, I’m not supposed to, miss. Sit, that is.”
“Even when I ask you to?”
She was beginning to panic Karen noticed. The nearest Joe had come to servants were the odd – both senses of the word – girls who had been so swooningly enamoured of him that they offered to do just about anything he asked, and quite a lot that he didn’t. Such girls had enjoyed the shortest of relationships with him.
“It’s all right, Sarah. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to alarm you. Go about your business if you prefer.”
“Thank-you miss.” Relief and gratitude. She bobbed a curtsy and all but ran from the room.
Karen returned to her coffee. Just the right amount of foam and the shape of a leaf depicted in cocoa powder. Whoever made this deserved a raise she decided, but how was she going to find out what she had missed yesterday?
There was a beeping from her bedside table. She investigated and found a pager underneath a magazine. She picked up the bedside telephone and dialled the messaging service.
“I had a page?”
“Yes. She gave her name as Libby. Telephone number is…”
She recited a list of digits and I hung up and punched them into the phone.
“Hey, Libby.” Thank goodness for the wonders of modern technology.
“Hey, Karen, what happened to you? I thought you were going to call me after you got away from the funeral. I paged you tons of times.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. Things got really crazy yesterday. I’ll explain later.”
“You sure you’re up to it? I mean you’ve got time off school because of what happened to your parents. We’ve been told not to push you into coming into practise.”
“No, I’ll be there. I suspect I’ll be in serious need of someone to talk to before this days over. I think even the servants have been told to leave me alone here.”
“That sucks, but it’s such a relief you’re coming in. I mean we’d get by and all that, but this is our last practice before Sunday. Remember we’re meeting at six instead of seven, and we’re doing it out in the open.”
“Okay, see you there.” Sunday. What was she letting herself in for? And just what would she be cheering on Super Bowl Sunday?
She called the paging service and checked her earlier messages. Eighteen from Libby which made her either a BFF or a stalker. Four more were from various other girl’s names, presumably also cheerleaders.
She’d talk to them later. Breakfast awaited and it was getting soggy.
The hair drier was overly expensive. Multi killerwatted (sic) turbo vortex or some such nonsense. It still took half an hour for Karen to dry her hair, then another fifteen minutes to brush it into submission. Next stop was a walk in closet that left her drooling. Whatever else you might want to say about Karen Farnsworth, she had excellent taste in clothes, and knew exactly what would look good on her. The new Karen resolved to spend some time in here trying to understand what it was that made this lot work so well. For now she chose a light summer dress, appropriate to the scorching summer weather, put her hair into a ponytail, the only style she felt confident in managing by herself, and finished off with a pair of bobby socks and flat shoes.
She skipped downstairs. It felt natural, regardless of the fact that Joe Pendleton would never have been seen dead doing so. Actually, was that in fact the case now? Surely as Karen Farnsworth she was Joe Pendleton dead… Too metaphysical, and the morning was gorgeous. Time to explore the house and grounds.
She danced through the front door, pirouetting across the driveway and onto the lawn where she found a gardener trimming back rose bushes. She sauntered over to him, cupped one of the delicate velvet flowers and breathed in its heady fragrance. A flower had never smelt so wonderful.
“These are lovely. What are they?”
“Er… roses, miss.”
“I know that much, silly. I was wondering which sort.”
The gardener looked around nervously, until Karen once more took pity.
“You’ve been told not to talk to me either, haven’t you?”
He nodded, unable to trust his vocal chords.”
“It’s alright. Would you just cut me one of these roses and I’ll be on my way.”
She held the stem of the flower she had so recently sniffed and the gardener obliged with his secateurs. She rewarded him with a smile and a thank-you before wandering off, clueless as to where she was going, or even where there was to go.
To the north the grounds sloped away to a small lake. She headed that way, walking and spinning carelessly down to the edge of the water, all the while keeping the rose under her nose, breathing in its perfume. She found a bench and settled onto it, watching the occasional breeze chase ripples across the surface of the lake.
The morning possessed a dream-like quality. At times compressing long moments into brief seconds, at others, stretching them out endlessly. Karen found her feelings twisting and gyrating inside her, mixing regret for the loss of Joe and all his plans with an exultation in the freedom she now felt. To be herself, to be the self she had buried and denied for so many long years. The Super Bowl was a disappointment, especially after the long hours of training and preparation, but here was a new chance, a new opportunity, with wider possibilities than existed on a sports field. She felt a wave of sadness for those who had died to put her where she was right now, not so much for Mr and Mrs Farnsworth who apparently were not much missed by anyone, but for Karen certainly. All her hopes and dreams had died over a glassful of champagne, over a selfish man’s scheming desires. It seemed such a waste.
The sun was well above the horizon when she heard a crunch in the gravel behind her. Liquid cold trickled into her veins as she realised that she would be expected to behave in a certain way, know the names of certain people. A discrete cough followed. This guy wasn’t going to go away. Maybe if she pretended to be in a snit it wouldn’t seem so unusual that she didn’t use his name.
“Did you tell the servants not to talk to me?” Just the right amount of tetchiness.
“Er, it’s a long standing rule, Miss Farnsworth. Your father instituted it.”
“It’s a stupid rule. I wish it revoked.”
“Karen sighed. “You know the saying, misery loves company? It seems that grief does too, but in a different way. I’ve felt so alone today…” The turbulent mix of emotions continued to churn inside of her. It was an easy enough thing to find the right one and ride it to the surface. Tears flowed and she sobbed out her grief over things lost. Just for long enough to clear her mind, and to thoroughly disconcert the man at her shoulder, vacillating awkwardly between a desire to comfort and a need to maintain decorum.
“I’m sorry, Miss Farnsworth, I’m not very good at this sort of thing.”
She sniffed, looking around for the bag she hadn’t thought to bring with her and its promise of a tissue. A handkerchief was proffered and she accepted it gratefully.
“Not the sort of thing you’re usually asked to do I suppose.”
“I should say not.”
She blew her nose and made a show of pulling herself together. It was a wonder how easily she fell into this role. Having been a man for so many years she expected that some of Joe’s habits would pass across, but it was like being released from a cramped prison and discovering how natural it felt to stand straight. She shook her head and managed a smile.
“I believe you had a reason for coming to find me.”
“Yes. Er… there’s a young man at the door insisting he won’t leave until he’s had an opportunity to speak with you. I thought I might enquire as to whether you would be prepared to see him, but since you are upset I shall insist that he leaves and comes back at a more appropriate time.”
“No, it’s alright, I’ll see him. It’ll be a distraction if nothing else.”
She stood and followed her butler up to the house, hoping for some indication of his name.
“Mr Bentley, Miss Farnsworth.” A second butler greeted them at the door. “I’ve asked Mr Logan to wait in the library.”
“Very good, Mr Everett. Miss?” Two names learned. Progress at last. Bentley gestured towards a door. She took the hint and preceded him into a large room lined, somewhat unsurprisingly, with bookshelves, filled from floor to ceiling with a vast variety of books, both old and new. The room was permeated with that musty smell common to libraries the world over.
A young man in his early twenties turned from his perusal of the shelves as she entered, Bentley close behind. He smiled and she felt the breath go out of her. This was unexpected.
Bentley stepped past her. “Mr Logan, may I present Miss Karen Farnsworth, daughter to the late Leo Farnsworth.”
“My condolences on your loss, Miss Farnsworth. I’m sorry to disturb you at such a time. Were the situation any less urgent, I wouldn’t have dreamed of imposing upon your time of grief.”
Karen found her voice, shaky at first but swiftly strengthening. “Thank-you, Mr Logan. Please tell me what’s on your mind. You have my full attention.” This last was a barefaced lie. She made her way unsteadily to a chair by the window and settled into it. “I hope you don’t mind, it’s just that…” Good grief those eyes. Joe had never looked twice at another man, never been in the least bit interested. Now though, things were different and Karen felt herself melting into that gaze. This was the way things were meant to be wasn’t it? God let it be true.
“…village of Pagglesham polluting the air and most likely causing widespread illness. Even death.”
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
Mr Logan’s kindly face darkened. “I thought I had your full attention, Miss Farnsworth. You know, I was quite prepared to be ignored by your father, after all he did have the reputation for it, but to find his daughter just as distant and dismissive…
“Miss Farnsworth, we are talking about lives here. The lives of ordinary human beings who wake up every morning ready to give a day’s honest work. They deserve better than this, and if you refuse to take me seriously, then I shall be forced to take up a law suit against you. I have a considerable amount of evidence regarding some of your father’s other ventures and, when it all comes out as evidence in court, I shall bring your whole empire crashing down around your ears.
“I had hoped for better grace from one so lovely as yourself, but it seems the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Good day to you, miss. I shall see you in court where we shall see what happens when the gloves come off.”
He stormed out the library and, a few moments later, the sound of the great oak front door slamming closed carried through to them.
A few seconds of stunned silence, then:
“That could have gone better.”
“Tell me Bentley, did I appear dismissive?”
“You were a little distant, miss.”
“I didn’t mean to be. It’s just that… I suppose I’m still a little tired.”
If he suspected anything else, he had the grace not to let it show.
“Bentley? Who has control of my father’s estates at present?”
“Er, that would be a question best put to your father’s attorney miss. Would you like me to call him for you?”
“Yes please. I think I have need of his advice.”
Bentley backed out of the room leaving Karen to her own thoughts. Everything was so confused, and getting more so. She wondered about her feelings and the way she had reacted to the stunning Mr Logan. Was this a frequent thing she would have to learn to control? She thought about his quicksilver temper. Perhaps, given her father’s reputation, she’d give him the benefit of the doubt this time. But did this really concern her? I mean pretty much all her experience of life had been on the football field and while, with the coaches Joe had worked with, you could learn some pretty good morality there, none of it in any way prepared her for the rigours of running a business.
“Mr Sebert, miss.” Bentley was back, cordless handset in hand. She took it and raised it uncertainly to her ear.
“Hello? Mr Sebert?”
“Miss Farnsworth, how are you holding up? This is such a dreadful business.”
“Yes it is, Mr Sebert, I’m fine, thank-you for asking. I do need to speak with you regarding my father’s will and matters relating to his business.”
“Yes, indeed. I’ve been trying to contact you on just those matters, but your staff have been very protective of you this morning. I had planned on driving out to the house this afternoon, after I’d dealt with a few other pressing matters, but since you’re on the line now, we need to arrange for a reading of the will as soon as possible, especially given yesterday’s… er… events. I was hoping that this afternoon would be convenient.”
“What time did you have in mind?”
“I was thinking about three o’clock?”
“I have another engagement at six, so as long as you are unlikely to detain me beyond five-thirty.”
“You think it may take longer than that?”
“Ordinarily it wouldn’t, but with yesterday’s events….”
“You mean the attempt on my life and my accusation of Mr Abbott? That, and the fact that Mr Abbott is named in my father’s will?”
“They do come into it, Miss Farnsworth, yes. I’m afraid it would be unprofessional of me to discuss such matters until the official public reading of the will but…”
“But what, Mr Sebert?”
“Well, let us speak hypothetically for a moment Miss er… Miss Farnsworth. Should an individual be named guardian or beneficiary in a will, and should it come to light that he or she be accused of a capital crime, especially against the testator or another beneficiary of said will, there may be grounds to have probate withheld. This would be more likely should it become evident that said individual may have seen sight of the will prior to the crimes in question.”
“Which would mean…” Honestly, only a lawyer could mangle the English language like that.
“It would mean that any assets mentioned as bequests in the will would be frozen until the outcome of the trial. In the case of your father’s business empire, this would be very bad since the businesses in question would be unable to function for a period of months, affecting sales, profits, resulting ultimately in bankruptcy and loss of a considerable number of jobs.”
“Might there be a solution? To such a hypothetical situation I mean?”
“There is a precedent in such circumstances Miss Farnsworth. Should an alternative candidate for guardianship be proposed, who is deemed suitable by the executor of the will, then it would be possible to apply for a period of pro tem guardianship in which said candidate would be given temporary responsibilities of guardianship pending the outcome of the trial.
“The candidate would have to be someone with no direct personal ties to any individuals named in the will, someone with no personal interests in the assets named and someone with impeccable character. There is a considerable amount of work involved in such circumstances, but usually the longest process is the necessary discussion involved in finding an appropriate alternative.”
The beginnings of an idea shimmered on the edge of existence.
“Mr Sebert, who is the executor of my father’s will?”
“Er, I’m sorry miss, er, but it would be inappropriate for me to divulge such information before the official reading of the will.”
“Er, I can say, I think, er, that an executor is usually chosen for loyalty and impartiality. There are professional executors, but in your father’s case it was impossible to find one that was truly impartial.”
So not a business acquaintance either. If there were any other close family members, they would most likely have been named in the will, so that left…
“Mr Sebert, is it at all common practice to name a trusted servant as executor?”
The nervous coughing fit at the other end of the line seemed to confirm my guess. The idea was taking shape.
“One last question, sir. This pro tem guardian. Would he, or she, need to have any business experience?”
“It would be an asset of course, but no, not necessarily. What would be most important would be level-headedness, strong will, impartiality and integrity.”
“I think I may have someone in mind, Mr Sebert. Would it be possible to arrange for the reading of the will to be done later this evening, say around nine o’clock?”
“Er, I think that should be alright. Will your choice of pro tem guardian present at the reading ?”
“I hope so, Mr Sebert. I’ll see you later.”
Karen pressed the end call button and stared sightlessly at the wall. Crazy idea, absolutely crazy, but it could work. It was her best shot and worth a try. She dialled the operator.
“Hello? Yes, I’d like a number please. Max Corckle. Burbank. Thank-you.”
Practise had not gone well. They’d been patient with her, of course, going through each routine step by step, but it seemed the more she tried the more she messed up. Then they’d been kind to her, telling her not to mind, that this was to be expected given what she’d been through. Libby said she’d arrange to have the field again on Saturday evening and they’d sort something out. From the exchange of glances, it was altogether undecided as to whether Karen might have a part in ‘something’.
Still, it hadn’t been a complete bust. The cheerleader’s outfit was just as he remembered. Different colours, but the same softness she remembered, the same tantalising tickle on the thighs. Eight year old Joe repaid for his missed evening out.
Her father’s chauffeur had driven her to the practice and was waiting patiently behind the sports section of an open newspaper as she walked, a little dejectedly, back to the car. The trip home passed in merciful silence, the chauffeur still living by her father’s rules of non-fraternisation.
They arrived back at the house shortly before eight and Karen ran upstairs to change. She picked out a smart, business-like dress in midnight blue. Subdued, respectful, self-assured. Everett was waiting as she descended the stairs.
“Mr Corkle has arrived, miss. I’ve shown him into the music room.”
“Thank-you, Everett. Perhaps you would arrange some drinks for us. Mr Corckle will have a generous scotch on the rocks. I’ll have… whatever I usually have.”
“Er, an iced tea, miss?”
“Yes, that’ll be fine. And would you ask Bentley to join us please?”
She smoothed down her dress, took a breath and opened the door to what she hoped would be the music room.
And there he was large as life. The man who’d been at the centre of Joe’s life for the last four years. Coach, confident, friend; in the presence of Max Corckle, the old Joe Pendleton rose once more to the surface.
“Max, it’s so good to see you.” He stepped forward, forgetting for a moment who he had become.
“I’m sorry, miss, do I know you?”
The moment was gone. For a brief instant everything had seemed as it had been before this strange twist of fate, then it had evaporated as suddenly as it had come. Her circumstances crowded in on her again, bearing down oppressively. The magnitude of what she was facing threatened to overwhelmed her, but she held firm, allowed the turbulent, crashing wave of emotions to subside. She took a deep breath, held it for some seconds. Control regained.
“I’m sorry, Mr Corckle, of course you won’t. My name is Karen Farnsworth and I have an unusual proposition for you.”
“On the telephone you mentioned something about a sponsorship. I’m not sure I understand.”
“My father is… was… the late Leo Farnsworth of Farnsworth Enterprises. I stand to inherit his estate in a few weeks when I turn eighteen, but in the interim there are a few complications. I was hoping you might be able to help me uncomplicate things.”
“And the sponsorship?”
“The sponsorship will come in time, Mr Corckle. You see, I enjoy sports, and I’ve been a fan of the Rams for a while now, so when I have funds available, I will be sending some your way. The problem is that first I have to inherit, and that’s where I’d like you to help”
“I hope you’re not suggesting anything illegal, Miss Farnsworth.”
“Not at all, Mr Corckle, in fact just the opposite. You see, I suspect that my father’s will is going to name the man currently accused of his murder as my guardian, and I need someone who is honest and trustworthy to stand in for him. Just for a couple of months until I come of age.”
“And what makes you think you can trust me, Miss Farnsworth? You don’t know me any more than I know you. You might as well grab someone off the streets and ask them.”
Karen was at a loss. How could she begin to explain that? Then she startled as a figure appeared from the shadows behind Corckle. He seemed to fade into existence, a placid expression on his face as ever. Mr Jordan. She turned entreating eyes his way, fully aware that no-one else could see or hear him.
“Tell him who you are,” Mr Jordan said. “Who you used to be.”
But this was who she really was. Who she’d really always been if only she hadn’t been pushed into being someone else. Everett chose that moment to come in with the drinks, serving the guest first as was proper. He announced that Mr Bentley would join them as soon as he was able and withdrew. Once he’d left, Karen turned towards her old mentor. Joe’s old mentor.
“Max, what would you say if I told you I used to be Joe Pendleton?”
A brief pause followed by a nervous laugh.
“Miss Farnsworth, I don’t know what this is about, but I’m a busy man right now. I don’t have time for fun and games.”
“Please, Mr Corckle, I know it sounds crazy, but imagine there was this trainee angel who though he saw someone about to be run over by a truck, thought he could spare them some pain by pulling them out of their body early, but didn’t count on the someone being a trained athlete, being able to dodge the truck. Imagine if by the time the mistake was discovered the athlete’s body had already been cremated so they had to find an alternative…”
“Miss Farnsworth, please,” Max was really nervous now. “I’m sorry, but do you know how crazy you sound right now? I can’t be part of this.” He made to leave.
She looked over at Jordan again. He shrugged.
Inspiration! “Wait Max, wait. What about all those little secrets we shared? You know like the thing you told me about your older sister and the Coca Cola salesman? Or what about the scar you’ve got on the bottom of your tongue?”
“What the… Hey, how do you know that? I never told anyone about that except Joe…”
Mr Jordan moved slowly towards the instruments. There was no alto sax, but there was a clarinet. He waved at it. “Try a little music. Stay in the lower register, the fingering will be the same.”
Karen picked up the instrument and squeaked out an approximation to something musical, something Joe had practised often and without much success.
“Will you put that damned thing down. How many times have I told you, music is like sport, you can’t control it with your mind. You have to let your body take over, let it learn the moves and then step back and let it…”
Karen held the instrument in front of her and looked hopefully into Max’s eyes. “You believe me now?”
“You’re serious aren’t you? You really want me to believe you’re Joe Pendleton? That after some angels cocked things up they brought you back as a girl?”
“Believe it or not, Max, I’m happier this way. Or at least I will be when I get used to it, when I sort out the mess I’m in. Which is where you come in. You’re the most trustworthy guy I ever knew. You taught me more than anyone, even my dad, about what it means to be honest. I’d trust you with my life, I’d sure as eggs trust you with a few billion dollars.”
“A few b… Are you serious?”
“Completely. Look the only deception has to be over who I am. If you keep calling me Joe, they’ll likely end up locking us both away. Other than that, I need you to act as my guardian for a few weeks until my, that is Karen’s, eighteenth birthday. You’ll be nominally in charge of all my father’s assets for that period of time which is why I need someone I can trust. Max, I never knew a more trustworthy person than you. Will you do this for me?”
“But the Super Bowl?”
“The Super Bowl is on Sunday. All you need to do before then is witness the reading of my father’s will, witness a few necessary adjustments and sign your name to a few documents, all of which can be done when my attorney gets here in about twenty minutes. After that I’ll have someone drive you home and the next time I’ll need you will be Monday when the board of Farnsworth Enterprises meets to discuss the future.
“I need to be able to control that meeting, which means I need someone representing me who’ll be prepared to do whatever I decide is right.
“Max, I’m terrified by this, but the empire Leo Farnsworth built made him a lot of money by treading on a lot of little people. I want to turn that round, but if the business assets get frozen or someone else is given the guardianship and makes a few changes that cut me off from my, Karen’s, inheritance, then there won’t be any way I can do that. All I need is your name and a little bit of your time over the next two months. Then Farnsworth Enterprises becomes a force for good in the world. And the Rams get as much sponsorship as they need. Come on, what do you say?”
He took his time to think it through; he wouldn’t have been Max Corckle if he hadn’t. Eventually, slowly, almost reluctantly, he nodded. Just as Bentley entered.
“Mr Bentley,” Karen said, finding her smile again, “I’d like you to meet Max Corckle, trainer for the LA Rams. I’d like to suggest him as pro tem guardian should the person named in Daddy’s will be unsuitable. I’m guessing here, but I suspect you’re named as executor.”
The reading of the will was short and held no surprises. Bentley was named as executor, Julia as first beneficiary, and Karen as second. In the latter case, Tony Abbott was named as guardian until Karen’s eighteenth, unless she died beforehand in which case, yada yada.
Tony was still under arrest pending his arraignment the following day, so couldn’t attend in person, however he sent his own legal representation. He inevitably tried to protest when Karen asked to have Abbott recused as guardian, but the precedent was stated and references given to support the decision. He protested even more vociferously when she proposed Max as pro tem, but Bentley wasn’t prepared to listen to him. He’d spent some time talking to Max in the library and had made up his own mind as to the man’s suitability before everyone arrived for the readying.
Papers were signed, agreements made. Karen then asked Max if he would agree to having Mr Abbott suspended, on full pay of course, from his normal duties at Farnsworth Enterprises pending the outcome of his trial. Max readily agreed as Uncle Tony’s legal representation underwent further colour change – red to blue this time. In little more than an hour it seemed, they’d managed to seriously hog-tie the one man with ambition and resources enough to cause problems.
One irate lawyer stormed off, presumably to report back to his boss. While Mr Sebert finalised a few things in Karen’s father’s old study, she walked Max to the door. Her father’s limousine was waiting, driver standing by the door.
Max smiled. “I’m going to miss you, my friend.”
“You would have anyway. At least this way we’ll have reason to spend some time in each other’s company over the next few months. Then after that, who knows? I think Farnsworth Enterprises may need an executive box for future Ram’s games.”
“It won’t be the same. I mean you’re a young woman now. You don’t treat young women the way you treat star quarterbacks.”
I smiled and kissed him on the cheek.
“There, you see?” He touched his cheek. “Joe Pendleton would never have done that.”
“You wouldn’t have appreciated that sort of attention from Joe Pendleton. Now tell me you didn’t like it.”
He shook his head. “You’re right. What older man doesn’t like it when a pretty, young woman shows him so much… flatters him so? I just find it strange to look at you and think of… Well, you know.”
“I do, Max. I’ll send a car for you on Monday morning. Don’t celebrate too hard.”
The limousine drove off and Karen went back inside to the study.
“You do realise that you’re grasping a tiger by the tail here don’t you?”
“I don’t have much choice. I don’t intend to let my father’s murderer get away with anything more than he already has.”
He let out a deep, long suffering sigh. “Very well Miss Farnsworth. If there’s nothing else, I shall go home to my wife.” The smile was a touch condescending, but forgivable given the man’s age.
“There is one more thing, but it can wait for tomorrow morning if you wish. Should Mr Abbott be released on bail tomorrow, I want someone waiting to hand him a restraining order the moment he leaves the courthouse.”
Mr Sebert chuckled. “I can see something of your father in you, Miss Farnsworth. I shall see to it first thing tomorrow.”
It wasn’t intended as an insult, so Karen overlooked it. It seemed the instant the door was closed, Everett was standing by her side with a cup of hot cocoa. She smiled her thanks and carried it up to her room.
Friday passed pretty much as anticipated. Tony Abbot was released on a bail of a hundred thousand dollars. The TV news reported his public statement to the press, in which he maintained composure right up to the point where a bailiff eased through the crowd and handed him a brown envelope.
What’s this?” He asked, rather unadvisedly, as it turned out.
The bailiff may have been acting on instructions, or perhaps simply possessed of an over-active sense of the theatrical. He turned to the cameras and the microphones. “It’s a restraining order, Mr Abbott. Miss Karen Farnsworth was afraid you might make bail, and she filed for an order requiring you to maintain a distance from her of greater than one mile and refrain from attempting to contact her in any way.”
“She can’t do that. I am named as guardian in her father’s will. We have to work together.”
“Actually sir, and I’m surprised you’re not aware of this, following the reading of the will last night, Miss Farnsworth requested you be recused from that duty until the criminal charges that have been brought against you are resolved.”
Abbot’s face turned an uncommon shade of stormy. “She did what?”
“It seems that she is concerned for her own safety following the incident at her father’s wake yesterday, and specifically what she claims you said to her when you thought she was dying.”
“That, sir, is slanderous.”
“I’m only reporting what I’ve been told sir.” With that he tipped his hat and disappeared back into the crowd, leaving Abbott’s seething face in front of the cameras. It seemed that his representative from the previous evening had either not been permitted to visit, or had decided that he didn’t want to be shot as a messenger bearing bad news. Either way, Tony obviously hadn’t heard anything about the previous night’s proceedings yet, which made his performance in front of the cameras all the more telling.
A short while later the phone calls started. Bentley brought a jug of iced tea to the rear porch where Karen was enjoying the warm summer morning and yet another cool cotton sun dress.
“Mr Abbott phoned, miss. It seems he’s upset about your suspending him, and about the injunction. I took the liberty of reminding him that the court order instructed him not to try to make contact and that he was fortunate that I and not you had picked up the telephone.”
“How did he take that?”
“I regret that I cannot convey the full extent of his displeasure in the presence of a lady.” There was just a hint of satisfaction in his voice.
Karen allowed herself the luxury of a smile. “Anything else?”
“There have been a number of telephone calls from the press requesting interviews.”
“It might be as well to arrange a press conference on the lawn this afternoon.”
“As you wish, miss.”
“I’d like additional security as well for the next few days. On the gates, around the perimeter and in the garden. I’d also like two bodyguards with me until further notice.”
It would give me some added peace of mind now that Tony was out and about. It would also make a very public and obvious message.
The press conference was much of a muchness.
“Was Tony Abbott really named as guardian in your father’s will?”
“Yes, but while he is being investigated for a capital crime, it seems prudent to have him recused.”
“You seem to have increased security at your home miss Farnsworth.”
“Yes, someone attempted to murder me the day before yesterday. I’d rather not take any chances.”
“Is it significant that you only increased your security after Mr Abbott was released?”
“Mr Abbott has a restraining order filed against him. I doubt he could get close enough to threaten me, however you can’t be too careful.”
“Who is acting as your representative in Mr Abbot’s stead?”
“I have appointed a good friend in whom I place my complete trust. He is extremely busy until the end of the weekend, so I hope you won’t mind my keeping his identity to myself until Monday and the annual board meeting for Farnsworth Enterprises.”
“Will Mr Abbott be present at the board meeting on Monday?”
“Mr Abbott has been suspended from all his duties at Farnsworth Enterprises pending the outcome of his trial. His presence is therefore not required at the board meeting. Furthermore, since I will be present, he won’t be able to attend without breaching the conditions of his restraining order.”
“Do you believe that Mr Abbott is responsible for the death of your parents and your attempted murder?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to speak on matters which may be part of a future court case. My decision to suspend Mr Abbott was merely a prudent business decision. The court order is for my own peace of mind.”
The questions went on in a similar vein for a while, then petered out when the news hounds realised there was no fox at the end of this trail. After they left, Karen went for a run, restricting herself to the house and grounds where she was in constant view of the guards spaced around the premises. Of her two personal body guards, one chose to run with her, while the other took the time to review the security arrangements for the house.
There were a number of phone calls from Libby and co, all of whom were squeakily excited about being caught up all the intrigue, if only by association. Karen managed to steer the conversation away from herself and her troubles and ended up spending some hours bonding with her fellow (surely there had to be a female equivalent to that word by now?) cheerleaders.
After dinner, she took a leisurely bath before retiring early to bed.
Saturday followed a similar pattern to Friday, only with most of the phone calls coming from TV networks asking for live interviews. She declined them all, saying there would be more to talk about after Monday’s board meeting.
After breakfast, she discovered the stable and persuaded her two bodyguards to come out on a short ride with her. Joe had never sat on a horse in his life, yet somehow sitting in the saddle seemed natural. As though her body remembered it even if her mind had no experience. Now what did that remind her of…
She spent the afternoon swimming laps in the pool. Breast stroke seemed most comfortable now that she had breasts, but she managed some lengths of freestyle towards the end and emerged panting and pleasantly tired.
The limo ride down to cheerleading practise was a lot more crowded with her two muscular companions in the car, but no more talkative given their desire to avoid distractions. Karen had to lead her friends away with a ‘look but don’t touch’ warning. They went through their warm up routines and again Karen felt awkward and graceless.
“Music is like sport, you can’t control it with your mind.” Max’s words surfaced from the depths of her thoughts, along with the morning ride. Karen had learnt these moves, which meant her body knew how to do them without her new and inexperienced mind trying to take over. “Step back and let it…”
Karen withdrew her conscious control just as she went into a complex combination of jumps, spins and twirls. It was like magic. It worked she twisted out to a perfect landing and a delighted whooping from her companions.
“Karen, that was fantastic.”
“Hey, you nailed it.”
“Wow, you’re back.”
“Perfect, Karen, yay!”
After that, the rest of the practise went perfectly. Karen found that right point where her mind was overseeing just enough to make sure she was in the right place at the right time, and the rest was down to body memory. By the end of the hour and a half session, they had completed the entire routine, finishing off with Karen being projected up to the top of a pyramid of six, three times. As they warmed down, Libby was chatting away excitedly.
“Hey, girls, we are ready for tomorrow now. Karen, whatever you were doing this afternoon, just keep doing it. Do you want to ride with the rest of us tomorrow,” she glanced meaningfully at the limo and her husky bodyguard, “or will you make your own way?”
What the hell were they going to be doing on Super Bowl Sunday? This made no sense, there would be no other sports fixtures on anywhere, and even if there were there would be no spectators. She resigned to missing it, or recording it and watching it afterwards. It wasn’t the same, but if this was that important…
“I’ll ride with the rest of you if you don’t mind.”
“That’s what I was hoping you’d say. Okay, down here at six sharp, if you can get up that early.”
On the way home she told her bodyguards she would be travelling with the rest of the squad in a minibus, and that they would have to follow in their own car, or in the limo if they had no other way of getting around. They elected to bring their own car.
Cheerleader’s uniform into the laundry for washing and pressing by first thing. Early night, early morning and a ride down to the school where the rest of the gang were waiting. There was an added level of excitement and the girls were bouncing around like children on Christmas Eve.
“Can you actually believe this is happening. This is going to be so cool.”
Karen joined in with the smiling, but not the bouncing, blaming her subdued mood on the past few days.
“Hey don’t sweat it girl,” the ever-enthusiastic Libby said. “As long as you nail it like you did yesterday, we’ll be fantastic.”
For such an early start, Karen had been expecting a long journey. As it was, the distance was quite short with only the near gridlocked traffic stretching the time out until all of a sudden they turned off into…
“The Rose Bowl?”
“Yeah, where did you think we were going? Remember the State Cheerleading Championships? Remember we won the prize?”
“To cheer at the Super Bowl. Oh wow.” Karen imagined Mr Jordan’s impassive features cracking into a broad grin about now. It was what Joe had insisted on, being in this particular stadium on this particular day as part of the action. This time she joined the general squealing and jiggling. It wasn’t football, but maybe it was something better.
They were early enough to go through their main routine a couple of times. Karen threw herself wholeheartedly into the action, abandoning herself to the movements. After they’d gone through their show-piece moves twice without a hitch, they stopped to rest and get into the mood of the day.
Joe had always loved days like this. This was a chance for him to show off his prowess, to have the crowds crying out his name. It was a place to meet the new arm candy as he had once called the pretty girls who threw themselves at him on such occasions. He had lived for days like these, sharing the triumphs with his fellow team mates and his coach. Nothing of that prepared Karen for the way she felt now though. She wasn’t just with beautiful girls, she was one.
The gentle touches, the hugs weren’t exclusive to one girl, weren’t conditional on him being someone he wasn’t, they were freely given and received, accepted as part of long-standing friendships that would go beyond the differences of opinion that would end a relationship between a guy and a girl. The shared excitement heightened the joy, the combined team effort of what they were doing was so much more than he’d ever felt in a game of football.
As quarterback, Joe had been the star of the game. Sure, he couldn’t have made it without the other guys, but regardless of that, it was him who got the fame. With what she was here to do with this amazing group of girls, no one of them would be singled out as better than the others. They all had their special parts to play and they would succeed or fail as a team, each of them shining as much as the next. As Joe he had never realised how much better, how much more special, it was to share the limelight, to be a fully integral part of a whole.
Through the morning the girls were called to run through various routines to keep the growing crowd amused. It felt amazing to be part of the action, part of a team that was entertaining a crowd this big. To say the atmosphere was electric went nowhere near describing the feel of the place. The constant roar, the buzz and fizz of the crowd, it was beyond anything Karen had experienced, either as Joe or herself.
Eventually the game started, and they cheered for the Rams, joining the crowd in enraptured cries of delight as they went ahead in the first quarter and holding it to half time. Their display went on just before the main half time event. Out in the centre of the field, nerves and excitement blotting out the mass of people in front of them.
“Okay girls? Ready to be perfect?” Libby’s voice was encouraging. “You can do this, you know you can.” Karen closed her eyes and settled into the place a the back of her mind, exerting just enough control to nod in response. The music started and Karen settled into the beat, nothing false about the grin on her face.
The full routine lasted about three minutes, and they hit every move perfectly. As Karen flipped up to her position at the top of the pyramid on the last note of the music, the crowd went wild. She managed a graceful dismount, and joined the rest of her friends to take their bows before ceding the field to the marching band.
Nothing could spoil the day after that, even when the Steelers lived up to their name, or at least its homonym, by staging an astonishing comeback in the fourth quarter to steal the game.
In the end there was some inevitable disappointment over the final result, but not enough to ruin the amazing feeling of that perfect routine, and the response of the crowd. They left ahead of the crowd, bodyguards in tow, and stopped halfway home at pizza place.
They found a table in the window and placed the kind of order only healthy teenage appetites and wealthy parents could afford, and set about discussing their performance. Joe had often seen huddles of girls giggling and gabbling, and often wondered what it would be like to be caught up in it. The reality was magical, each girl feeding off the enthusiasm of the others and, being so energised, diving in with her own comments. It was self-sustaining, self-affirming and wonderful.
The food arrived and Karen thought about offering a slice or two to her two bodyguards. She looked out through the window, just as the truck mounted kerb and came charging through the car park towards her.
Karen screamed. He feet were rooted to the spot, her legs stiff and unbending. Her friends were screaming too, some diving, some frozen just as she was.
Somehow, from somewhere deep inside her, she managed to drive down the terror that was holding her in place. Libby was standing next to her, as paralysed as she had been moments earlier. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her bodyguards’ blue sedan charging across the car park on an intercept course with the truck.
“Asha, don’t you dare,” she shouted as she grabbed Libby and tried to haul her out of the way. She didn’t have enough strength though, or enough mass, she could barely shift the other girl.
Then everything happened at once. The blue sedan smashed into the front wheel of the truck, diverting it just enough that it hit the wall as well as smashing the large window, showering them with dagger blades of glass. Then at the last moment, immense arms wrapped around her slender waist and that of her friend, lifting them bodily from the ground and hurling them across the restaurant.
Libby and Karen landed hard, the enormous bulk of one of Karen’s bodyguards landing on outstretched arms, protecting them from the flying glass without landing on them and crushing them.
The glass settled in an instant, the screams died to whispers and it was over. The last scrabbling movement was bodyguard number two knifing the air bag that had kept him alive, and clambering up onto the hood of the truck. The truck driver was blearily scrambling across the cab to escape when he saw the gun and gave up.
Police sirens were sounding in the distance as Karen helped Libby out from under their human shield and eased him into a more comfortable position. Multiple shards were sticking out of his back, but he was breathing and conscious. One or two of the girls from Karen’s group were nursing minor lacerations on their arms and legs, but there were no other injuries.
Karen stayed with her saviour until the ambulance arrived, holding his hand and sobbing out her thanks. She stopped a few well-meaning, but obviously not medically-trained, people from pulling the glass out of him, and only left his side when the paramedics took over. The police had questions, which she answered in a daze.
“Yes, he is my bodyguard.”
“No, the truck just mounted the kerb and charged straight for the window.”
“No, I don’t know if it was deliberate, but there was another attempt on my life earlier this week.”
“Yes, that Karen Farnsworth.”
The whole aftermath thing happened around Karen and her friends. She was numb and everything moved around her in slow motion. It felt good having someone to hug and to cry with, helped the shock of everything to subside. Two of the girls were taken off to hospital to have slightly deeper than first thought cuts stitched up. The police continued with their round of questions and two more bodyguards turned up in a fresh vehicle to take over from the heroes of the hour.
Eventually there was nothing more to do except leave the recovery guys to tow away the damaged vehicles and the restaurant owner to arrange clean up and repairs. Back at the school, the rest of the squad ran tearfully into the waiting arms of their parents, leaving Karen feeling alone and lost. A hand settled on her shoulder and she looked up at her chauffeur. He still didn’t say anything, but neither did he draw away when she threw her arms around him and sobbed out her heart.
“Thank-you,” she said when the flood had eased to a gentle flow.
“Anytime. Would you like to go home now?”
Home? Yes, it was. Another body memory thing, but despite Joe’s never having set foot in Farnsworth Manor, as Karen she felt comfortable there.
One of the new bodyguards climbed into the limousine with her, the other following in their car.
“Did you know him?” Karen asked.
“I’m sorry, miss?” The guard would probably have preferred to keep things silent and professional, but he knew the way people were after such events. This was professionalism too.
“The man who saved me and my friend. Did you know him?”
“Yes miss. He’s my boss.”
“Your boss was my bodyguard?”
“We’re a small firm, miss, and he likes to keep his hand in. He may change his mind after this though.” His smile was cautious, not wanting to seem callous, but knowing the sort of thing that might help.
Karen couldn’t help smiling back. “Will you tell him something from me?”
“He knows, miss. We get all sorts in this line of work, but he spoke of you to the rest of us. You’re the sort that would be grateful.”
Karen dug a tissue out of her bag, but it was a futile gesture, as it was washed away in the ensuing flood.
The following morning Karen was up early, wearing a beige skirt suit and white silk blouse over sheer stockings and low heels. She’d asked Sarah to help her with her hair when she’d come in with the breakfast, and was happy with the result. Being a woman was all about the presentation. If you looked ready for business, that’s how you were treated.
Bentley found her in the morning room sipping on a cup of hot tea and waiting for the limousine to turn up with Max.
“The police telephoned, miss. It seems they were able to persuade the truck driver to talk and from the information he submitted, connections were made back to Mr Abbott. The police are looking to have him arrested even as we speak.”
“Thank-you, Bentley. I shall be glad when this is over.”
“I shouldn’t worry, miss, he won’t be offered bail this time.”
She smiled and he left her to her silence until the crunch of tyres on the driveway indicated the arrival of the limousine. She grabbed her handbag and a briefcase full of reports she hadn’t had the inclination to read after yesterday’s events, and headed out the front door, bodyguards in tow.
The chauffeur wasn’t holding the door, which should have been her first clue. She pulled open the door to see Max sitting inside, an odd expression on his face. A second clue, had she been in the right frame of mind.
She slid in beside him and an arm reached across to slam the door shut before the bodyguards could follow. Spinning tyres sent up a spray of gravel as the long vehicle sped down the drive. Karen’s stared out the rear window at her bodyguards, running for their car. She turned back to find a pistol aimed at her, and a smug looking Tony Abbott sitting behind it.
“My dear, sweet Karen. You have caused me such a lot of inconvenience these past few days. It’s time for you to make amends.”
She was calm, amazingly so. She glanced over Abbott’s shoulder at the driver.
“Oh, I’m afraid your driver met with a slight accident this morning. Slight headache, a few bruised ribs, the sort of thing you get from falling down the stairs. He’ll be alright. This is my driver, so don’t expect any help there.”
“And what is it you expect, Uncle Tony?”
“I expect what’s coming to me, sweetie, and the two of you are going to make that happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Half a mile down the road, they turned up a rough track and transferred into a different limousine – different make, different model, different colour. Abbott kept both his pistol and his smug little grin directed at Karen the whole time. Max sat beside her, stunned and silent. Eventually they arrived in a built up part of the city and pulled into a parking spot in front of a large glass fronted building.
“Right, Mr Corckle, you’re up.” Abbott’s attention shifted to the older man and Karen slid her hand into her bag, looking for something, anything she might use. “You are going to go into this bank and withdraw two hundred million dollars for me.”
“You’re crazy. Just how do you think I’m going to persuade them to give me that kind of money?”
“By giving them your full name and proving your identity with the documents you were asked to bring to the board meeting today. You see, you are officially in charge of Farnsworth Enterprises in guardianship for Karen here until she reaches her majority. Terry here will go with you to make sure you don’t do anything stupid, and depending on how well you conduct yourself in there, you and Miss Farnsworth here may live to see tomorrow.”
“And what bank in the world is going to hand over two hundred million dollars in cash.”
“Well for one thing you’re not going to ask for cash. Bearer bonds are so much less bulky and so much easier to hide from the authorities. For the rest, any bank that wants to continue doing business with Farnsworth Enterprises will do as the corporate head asks. This particular branch has the necessary means to fulfil your request, and it shouldn’t take more than half an hour for them to verify your credentials and prepare the bonds.”
“It’s alright, Max, do as he says.” Karen didn’t know how much damage that much money would do to her father’s company, but right now it was important that Max not be harmed over this. He was looking bullish, which usually preceded him being stubbornly uncooperative, which in turn could only end badly. When she had asked him to help, she hadn’t counted on him being held at gunpoint. She held his hand for a moment and gave him an encouraging smile.
Terry, or whatever his name really was, climbed out of the driver’s seat and held the door open for Max. For a moment Tony’s attention was taken watching them enter the bank. Karen thought about trying to lift the car phone off its cradle and dial in nine one one, but the movements would have been too obvious. Instead she continued to rummage in her bag until she found… What was that?
Larger than a handful, rectangular, metallic. She glanced down at it. Why was she carrying one of those around with her? This was still old Karen’s bag with old Karen’s stuff in it. She hadn’t taken the time yet to go through it. Ok, take what you can get; evidence if not escape. One last surreptitious glance confirmed that the small cassette was at or near the beginning. She pressed the red button and the rollers started to turn.
“So why the change of tactics from murderer to bank robber?”
Tony settled back into the car and glared across at his captive. “Your parent’s got what they deserved.”
“And if I’d been there for dinner that evening? Would I have got what I deserved too?”
“No, you were just unlucky enough to be an obstacle, and a pretty tricky one at that. Who’d have thought you’d suspect me and not drink that champagne? Who’d have thought you’d have had the brains to have me recused and suspended? Who’d have thought you’d be able to dodge a truck?
“No, if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t be a fugitive now, so good for you, I don’t get to inherit your father’s empire. This at least will repay me for the past twenty years.”
“Ten million a year? I think that’s more than even my father took from the company.”
“You’d be surprised, but no, I’m giving myself a bonus for having to flee the country. I like living in LA, and South America is only going to be bearable with a little.”
“You know, you’re a real piece of work. You’re the one breaking the law, and yet you try to make out that all this is my father’s fault, and mine.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to work for him. Do you know there wasn’t one day in all the time I worked for him that he didn’t belittle me, poke fun at me. There wasn’t one day when he acknowledged my achievements. I sweat blood and tears for that man and he gave me nothing in return. Nothing.”
“He gave you a salary. And if that wasn’t enough for you, you could always have quit.”
“Yeah and just where does the personal assistant to one of the wealthiest and most successful men in California go? Do you think he’d have given me a reference? He was vindictive enough that he would have made it impossible for me to find a job anywhere.”
“So why did it come as such a surprise that he didn’t leave you anything in his will?”
“It wasn’t a surprise, it was an opportunity. He gave me a window of time, during which I could inherit everything. All I needed was to arrange for your parents and you to die without suspicion falling on me and all that could have been mine. Well, you screwed that up for me, so here I am taking the second option. I’m not greedy, I…”
“Two hundred million dollars not greedy? You selfish, arrogant…”
“Compared to your father’s empire this is nothing, or nearly so. You’ll have a bad quarter, and who knows I may be able to buy a bunch of stock while you’re struggling to get out of the gutter. No, this isn’t everything, but it’ll do for me.
“Now I think I’d really like you to shut up. This conversation is getting boring.”
“Pricking your conscience am I?”
“I said shut up, and no, I’m just sick of listening to your hypocritical self-righteousness. You know just what sort of person your father was.”
Karen could have goaded him some more, but there was no point. She had what amounted to a confession, assuming the Dictaphone had picked everything up. She settled into silence. At least she’d managed to wipe the smug grin off Tony’s face.
They didn’t have to wait much longer. Max came out of the bank pretty much on schedule, a new briefcase in his hands and a grim expression on his face. He was too honest a man to be able to justify the lesser of two evils. By cooperating, he was giving Karen her best chance of survival, but that wouldn’t salve his conscience over having abused his authority as he would see it, even though he had little choice in the matter. Tony followed close behind and led him back to the car, opening the door and helping him back in.
“Two hundred million in bearer bonds.” Max handed the briefcase across to Tony with a glare that would have melted any of the players he coached. Tony was immune though, having discarded any sense of honour long ago.
He popped the catches on the briefcase and flipped through a sheaf of thick, elaborately printed pages. His smile was back as he half turned towards the front of the car.
“Take us to the airport, and take it easy, we don’t want to attract any attention.”
The police were out in force, seemingly driving every which way. Karen wondered if they were looking for her and Max? Had they found her father’s limo yet, or were they still looking for it? It didn’t help them in any case. Terry drove out of the city to the north-east, where he eventually pulled into a small airport. Tony indicated for everyone to get out and stand by the car while Terry headed off towards the tower. He returned a few minutes later, pointing into the air beyond the runway. They all turned to see a small jet on final approach, landing lights blazing despite the bright sunny weather.
“So what, are you planning on taking us with you?” She asked.
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary. If you stand out here in the open where we can keep an eye on you while we get on board, then that should be good enough. Just remember that I have this,” he held up his automatic, “and don’t try anything stupid.”
The plane taxied onto the apron a hundred yards or more away and Tony and Terry started towards it, Tony backing away in order to keep an eye on us.
“Oh yes, the keys to the limousine are up in the tower, you’re welcome to it with my compliments. You may need it to get the airport official to hospital; he may have concussion.”
With that, he turned and the two of them started trotting towards their freedom. There was no way we could catch up with them now, even if Tony hadn’t been holding a gun.
The airport was more than a little rustic with rocks and old bits of aircraft lying around on the ground. Max picked up a fist and a half sized rock and hefted it before passing it to Karen.
“Joe could do it.” He nodded towards the retreating men.
“I don’t have his strength.”
“You don’t need it. It’s technique more than anything.”
Body memory, which Karen didn’t have, but maybe some of this was in the mind. Maybe enough. She kicked off her heels and took a short run.
The rock sailed through the air, spinning like a football. The arc was perfect, coming down on the back of Tony’s unsuspecting head. He fell to the ground, dropping the gun and the briefcase as he did so. Terry stopped dead in shock, looking around trying to work out what had just happened. His partner in crime lay still, out cold, and after a moment’s thought, he made a grab for the briefcase, just as a second rock landed next to him. Sirens sounded in the distance and he lost his nerve, turning empty handed to run the last twenty yards to the aircraft.
By the time the first police car turned into the airport, the small jet was climbing away into the distance and Max was standing over Tony’s still unconscious form, holding both the briefcase and the automatic. Karen had laddered her stockings playing barefoot quarterback, and was replacing them with an emergency packet she’d noticed earlier in her bag.
Tony regained consciousness a few minutes later and was handed over, along with his firearm, to the policemen who had come in response to a phone call from the tower, the airport official having had a slightly harder head than Terry had anticipated. An ambulance arrived a minute later and took care of the injured then, following a report back over the radio, the police handcuffed Tony and put him on the back of their patrol car.
“We’ve been instructed to take this man downtown,” one of the patrol men said. “If you don’t need any further assistance, we’ll be going.”
Karen retrieved her Dictaphone and played back enough of the conversation to indicate its nature, then handed it to the patrol man.
“Would you see that this gets into the hands of the detective in charge of the investigation please? Oh and since you are heading downtown, I wonder if you’d mind providing an escort. That is,” she turned to Max, “if you don’t mind driving. I’m afraid I’ve misplaced my chauffeur for the moment.”
She let Max keep hold of the briefcase with the bonds, confident that it was the safest place for them, and climbed into the back of the limo. While Max drove, speeding along behind the wailing patrol car, she made use of the car phone to call home through the operator. One of these days she would have to learn her own home number.
The relief in Bentley’s voice was a balm to her frazzled nerves. Servant he may be, but human and caring even so. It was always good to know when someone cared for you. She told him to arrange for an ambulance to go round to the chauffeur’s house to check on him, then to inform the bodyguard firm where they were and where they were heading. Lastly she told him where her father’s limousine had been hidden and asked him to arrange its retrieval.
“Are you sure you’re up to the board meeting now miss. Under the circumstances I’m sure they’d reschedule.”
“My father wouldn’t let a little thing like this stop him, Bentley. I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”
“Very good, miss.”
Karen sat back and relaxed as the California countryside sped past. She wished she’d been able to prepare for the meeting ahead, but what she needed more than anything was a level head and a little courage. She opened her briefcase and skimmed through a few of the reports in there. At least she wouldn’t be totally clueless.
“Miss Farnsworth, I’m Helen Richmond from the Times, I have this petition from the citizens of Pagglesham, do you plan to do anything about it?”
“Miss Farnsworth, is it true that the three newly proposed XL grade factories will displace eleven communities?”
“Miss Farnsworth, what about acrylonitrile?”
Karen had been studiously trying to ignore the barbed questions as Max blazed a trail for her through the phalanx of reporters, but this last one, she recognised the voice. She turned to see Bertram Logan standing in front of the usual pack of wolves. He stood apart, being the only one there with neither notepad nor camera.
“Acrylonitrile, the toxic substance released by the plastic soda bottles your company’s marketing, despite the consumer protection league’s lawsuit to force you to delay distribution until the effects on the human body can be ascertained…”
Karen waited until he ran out of breath, then dived in. “Would you like to come in with us?
“Not you of course,” she said to the press crowd. “It is a private meeting after all, but you might want to hang around as there will most likely be a press release afterwards.”
She hooked an arm around Logan’s elbow and dragged him after her, into the boardroom.
“Hi, how is everyone this morning? I’m sorry we’re a little late but we were held up by a former employee of this company. I’d like to introduce Mr Bertram Logan from England. He is here by my invitation as an interested party in at least one of the projects you and my father came up with. You will also have heard of Mr Max Corckle who has been named as my pro tem guardian…”
“I move that Mr Corckle be recused. Do you realise that he withdrew two hundred million dollars in bearer bonds form the company’s bank not one hour ago? That he has the temerity to come into this board room after such a…”
“Mr Corckle and I were kidnapped by Mr Tony Abbott earlier this morning. Mr Corckle made the withdrawal under duress — but with my approval — since we were trying to save our lives at the time. The money is all here.”
Max put the briefcase on the table and opened it to show the bonds were still there.
“Mr Abbott is under arrest again, and I doubt he will be released a second time. Whoever posted bail for him on Friday, I would like a word with you once this meeting is concluded. Now may we begin?”
“Miss Farnsworth,” Logan spoke up, “isn’t it true that an accident in your west coast nuclear plant could stimulate seismic activity in the San Andreas Fault, which could destroy most of southern California.?”
“Miss Farnsworth,” one of the board held up a sheet of paper. “We have a very full agenda today. I don’t think we have time for questions from outsiders.”
“Excuse me, Mr Logan, was it?” A bald man with a healthy moustache piped up, ”I would like to make something perfectly clear and that’s that the XO Grade nuclear facility has a fool proof built-in safety system that guarantees no danger of any kind.”
“That’s rubbish,” Logan interjected, “your response is…”
“No danger?” Karen spoke up, taking control of the meeting. “If there’s no danger, how come we’re in the middle of a lawsuit?”
“We’re not. It’s a protest, not a lawsuit.”
“That’s not the point. The point is we’re doing something wrong. I mean everybody’s suing us. Look, we’ve got a lawsuit here from a refinery, we’ve got a nuclear lawsuit, we’ve got a guy here, we’ve even got a guy called porpoise who’s suing us?”
“Miss Farnsworth, that’s an ecological suit brought against our canning factory for destroying porpoises.
“As everybody here knows, we can tuna, and in netting the tuna we are forced to kill a number of porpoises. And since they are mammals of alleged high intelligence, there’s been an outcry.
“Miss Farnsworth, we have a corporate responsibility which extends to thousands of shareholders of moderate means, people who in many cases are less well off than the ecological groups that are fighting us.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know your name,” Max took over while Karen recovered from her mistake, “if we were a football team, would you say we had a winning season so far?”
“Er on balance, I’d say we’ve had an extremely good year, yes.”
“Alright, ok, we’ve got a winning season. Now what do you do when you’re ahead in the game? I’ll tell you what you do, you don’t make mistakes, that’s what you do, you don’t make mistakes, you don’t gamble unnecessarily. You’ve got to protect your lead, you don’t go passing from deep in your own end zone, and you protect your players, you make sure that nobody gets hurt, you got to use these guys in the next game. And this is not just one game, we won this game didn’t we? We got to stay in shape for the rest of the games, that’s the responsible thing to do.”
Karen had regained her composure. She stood to her feet and nodded her thanks to Max.
“It’s as Mr Corckle says. People like tuna and they’ll eat it no matter what we do, so what if we had a good guy tuna company that was on the side of the porpoises? A lot of people would buy it if only to stop their kids getting upset with them.”
“Miss Farnsworth, I don’t think you’re taking into account how much this would cost.”
“But we’re not concerned about how much it costs, but rather how much profit we make. And if it costs too much, we can just make it part of the plan. Charge a penny more and advertise it with the slogan, ‘Would you pay a penny more to save a fish who thinks?’
“We can handle all our law suits that way. Let our competitors build their power plants in all the wrong places. Let the newspapers hound them until the stockholders don’t like it. Let us, using Mr Corckle’s analogy, be the team that makes the rules. Let us be the team that plays fair, let us be the popular players.
“We’ll just have to forget about all these nuclear power plants and manufacturing plants until we find out that they’re safe. And as for that refinery in Pagglesham, we’re just going to have to relocate it. It may cost us thirty-five million dollars, but we have that to spare,” she waved a hand at the briefcase full of bearer bonds, “and in the long run we’ll come out ahead. And, what was that stuff we’re making the bottles form? Acrylonitrile wasn’t it? Well, we need to stop manufacturing it until we have addressed the concerns of the people who wouldn’t be complaining unless they thought there genuinely was something wrong.
“Gentlemen, I would rather play the game right and lose than bend and break the rules to get to the top.”
“It’s not the way your father ran the company Miss Farnsworth.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say that my father is no longer here to run the company. I am and this is the way things are going to be done from now on. If any of you have problems with joining sides with the good guys, I’ll be quite happy to accept your resignations by the end of the day.
“Now, I suggest that since the game plan has changed somewhat, most of you will need some time to readdress your various areas of responsibility. I’d like to propose a new meeting for one week’s time at which point you will all be able to tell me what you have done to get rid of all this,” she threw a pile of lawsuits into the middle of the table, “and to outline your plans for a fresh approach to the business at hand.”
The room cleared, except for the bald-headed nuclear plant manager. Max and Logan stood back for a moment.
“Would I be correct in assuming you were the person who bailed out Mr Abbott?”
“I was and I’d do it again. He had better business sense than you or your idiot football coach.”
“Mr Abbott killed my parents – no, I have proof now. He also tried to kill me, twice. The second time after he was released on bail. Then today he held Mr Corckle and myself at gunpoint and stole two hundred million dollars from this company. His plan was to leave the country with those bonds, which would have lost you your bail money as well, and buy up as much Farnsworth stock as he could when our share prices went down.
“I have to agree he was a far more ruthless and efficient businessman than Mr Corckle, or myself, but for the sake of ordinary men and women everywhere, to whom I would argue we have far greater responsibilities than even our shareholders, I wouldn’t want him in charge of anything.
“Now you have to decide whether you can work with us, by which I mean Mr Corckle and myself, because if you’re not with us…”
He stood and left without saying another word. She would expect at least one resignation by the end of the day then.
Logan stepped forward. Corckle raised an eyebrow and Karen shook her head at him, indicating with her chin that he should wait outside.
“It seems I owe you an apology, Miss Farnsworth.”
“Only if you address me as Bert or Bertie. I was wondering if I could start making things up to you by inviting you to lunch. I’m told there’s an excellent bistro near here that serves a truly memorable tuna salad.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, but shall we save that battle for another day?”
“Why not? Let me throw a few scraps to our faithful news hounds. I’ll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes.”
Karen stepped out of the room into a barrage of flash bulbs and shouted questions. She stood poised and silent in front of them, waiting for silence and savouring the recent memory of those intense blue eyes, and the future they promised.
“So Mr Jordan, how do you think that worked out?”
“Well I suppose it did work out for the best, but I don’t understand. I thought we weren’t supposed to get involved.”
“Well it’s not exactly a rule, but for the most part yes, it is best to leave them to make their own choices and reap the consequences. I know it’s hard to stand back and do nothing when selfish choices bring about such a harmful effect on others, but overall the lesson of living with the welfare of others in mind is better learned in such an environment.”
“So why did you allow all this? I mean you must have known what Asha would do.”
“Because some things are just too good to resist. Besides, for all the good Joe Pendleton would have done, and all the good she will do as Karen Farnsworth, it’s nice to give a little reward ahead of time.”