Friday, December 28, 2012

Sneak preview: The Remittance Man

The Remittance Man

By J M Cornwell

Chapter One

Twenty years should have made a difference. It hadn’t. Jack Cain had not changed and neither had his habits. I expected towering stacks of newspapers and magazines and books and Jack weaving a path through a darkened room to the door, not that I could see him until he opened the door, but I was not disappointed.
Head tilted to one side as if awaiting an answer to a question, Jack looked the same, exactly the same. I guess that had a lot to do with his mother being the CEO of a cosmetic company, although I thought he only got a check once a month and not product, so his lack of aging could be due to good genes.
I felt swept back through the years to the first time I saw Jack Cain when Dad took me to see him at his apartment in Colon. Then as now, he wore an Egyptian cotton shirt the color of half lit shadows, khaki pants, and slip-on canvas shoes the same color as the shirt. His buzz cut was faintly threaded with grey and he wore the same black horn-rimmed glasses. I’d half expected contacts over his squinty eyes, but he clung to familiarity like a life preserver, especially now his mother was dead and his younger brother controlled the family fortune.
What I had been able to glean from gossip among the scattered friends that were once so close they lived and partied as a single-celled organism was that Jack’s brother had cut him off, no more monthly remittance checks and no more exile. That was what brought Jack back to the States, lack of funds, so he mined his friends for money using their secrets for trade. Who knew a bunch of middle class noncoms and civilian contractors could get into that much trouble with their families in tow. I certainly didn’t and wouldn’t have found out any of the sordid details had my father not decided to bring me in to deal with Jack, hoping I could twist him around my little finger the way I had always twisted men into knots. Since Jack likely still saw me as a nine-year-old child instead of a woman grown, I’d have an edge. I hoped Dad was right, but more than that I wanted to get rid of Jack as quickly as possible and spare the scene that Mom would cause if she found out Jack was back.
Mom had never trusted Jack and she didn’t like him. That much was obvious in her stiff posture and the way she shrank in on herself when he got too close, too close being within thirty feet of her. She acted the same way with spiders, mice, and other vermin. She sometimes acted that way with Dad, but that was their problem and not mine. Dealing with Jack was my problem.
“How do you do, Mr. Cain?” I asked after he opened the door and said hello. “I’m here on behalf . . . . “
“I know why you’re here, Maria. Did you bring the money?”
“May I come in?”
He stood back. “No sense discussing business in the hall.”
Jack hadn’t been in town long. The piles were only halfway up my shins and I’m a tall girl, five foot ten inches barefoot. Since I was wearing heels, add another three inches. Jack was still taller, but only by a couple of inches. His white skin reminded me of an albino cockroach I once saw crawl across his dining room table from beneath a stack of books the day Dad took me with him to Jack’s apartment. That hadn’t changed either, nor had the prickly feeling at the base of my neck or the gooseflesh racing along my arms and down my spine. The hum of fans and multiple air conditioners gave the room an arctic chill that added to my own internal chill in spite of wearing a thick vicuna coat, cashmere sweater, and the usual complement of lingerie. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack that it was autumn outside and the weather a bit on the cool, crisp side.
The apartment was sparsely furnished with whatever the lease had provided and was accented with a few of Jack’s extensive collection of Japanese screens and a select few Miros, Picassos, and his favorite framed da Vinci sketches. I wondered briefly how he had managed to get the carved mahogany screens with their fragile silk panels and mother of pearl inlays onto the planes.
Sensing my curiosity, he answered without hesitation. “My screens. I never leave home without them,” he said. “I pack them in coffins when I travel.”
As if Jack wasn’t creepy enough, that admission would have pegged the creep-o-meter in three seconds flat.
“The paintings are carefully crated and the rest,” he swept out his arm to include the paper bundles and stacks of books, “I leave behind. They provide company and information, but aren’t good traveling companions. For that I would need to travel by C-5 and I am not suited for such discomfort.”
No doubt. “That’s why you’re here, Mr. Cain, to alleviate further discomfort.”
“Just so.” He pushed his glasses up his aquiline nose and ran the hand across his bristly scalp.
The glasses had carved furrows on either side of his head above his ears with a look that spoke of years of etching. Though Jack was a bulky man, he wasn’t fat, except above his ears and at the nape of his neck where small hillocks of fat heaped above the slender column of his neck. He was a man of contrasts, from his black hair and eyebrows, a five o’clock shadow at nine in the morning, and the pallor of his skin. He wasn’t muscular, but there was evidence of steel beneath skin only visible when his languid movement turned sharp and decisive.
There is power in silence and I was determined to make Jack speak first. I crossed my legs, folded my hands in my lap, and looked wide-eyed at him. He spoke first.
“You’ve changed a great deal, Maria. It suits you.”
I nodded and smiled. “You’ve not changed at all.” You got a good bargain for your soul.
“Tranquility is the key. Tranquility and a quiet life.”
“And you’d like to continue your tranquil and quiet life.”
“Just so.”
Dad didn’t tell me what Cain had on him, but it must be big to warrant the substantial payment I carried in my bag. I wondered how many securities Dad had sold to raise that kind of money, but didn’t dare ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” He rose and took a couple of steps towards the kitchen. “You’d prefer coffee or cappuccino? I have a machine.”
I wanted vodka. The sharp, hard, quick bite would steel me for what I must do.
“Tea would be lovely.” I might not want to know Dad’s secrets and yet concluding our business prematurely would be a mistake. I had to impress on Cain that this would be the only funds he would receive and nothing, not even revealing some dread dark secret, would prevail in the future. Cain had to disappear and not return. He could feed in other waters. The sooner the better. There were no other options, not as far as I was concerned. Cain had to go one way or another.
“Just so,” he replied.
Had I not been watching him as he moved to the kitchen, I would not have heard him. That, too, I remembered, the way he had of appearing and disappearing so swiftly and quietly. There was something ominous and deadly about the way he moved, as though his appearance was a deception cultivated to lull victims into discounting his physical prowess and power, both of which I was keenly aware of. I still remember the strength of his hands and the way he nearly jerked my arms out of the sockets when he rescued me from the eels converging on me where I’d fallen into the water during a group fishing trip. My feet had been lacerated by the coral I fell onto, but the accident would have been much worse had Cain not stepped in and intervened. I owed him my life and I was grateful, but such debts weigh nothing when a daughter’s love for her father is on the balance.
“So pensive,” Cain said. “Just like when you were a child.” He set a lacquered carved tray on the table laden with petit fours and everything for tea. The tea set was an ornate silver affair that had a patina of oft polished age about it and Maria doubted it was less than two hundred years old from the style of the workmanship. “There now. A proper tea.”
“For this hour of the morning?”
“For any hour.” He set the table for tea, declining Maria’s help. He was obviously preferred playing the grand host and he did it well. It made me uncomfortable, so I excused myself and followed Cain’s directions to the bathroom, which was no less grand than the rest of the apartment.
It wasn’t the expensive fabric on the walls and at the windows or even the plush carpeting on the floor that made me want to take off my shoes and walk barefoot, but a sense of style and wealth that was understated and more noticeable because of its subtlety. If I didn’t know he arrived in town two weeks ago, I’d think he’d been here for years, except for small stacks of printed material. That’s a dead giveaway.
I finished as quickly as possible, placing the thick plush hand towel back on the rack as neatly as possible. I suppressed the urge to wipe down the sink and went back to the dining room.
“You look much more refreshed, Maria.” He indicated her seat and offered the burgeoning tray of petit fours, which were delicate spring confections decorated with tiny flowers and leaves. “Cake or biscuit?” He offered a small plate of macaroons.
I took one of the macaroons and accepted a cup of tea. After refusing sugar, milk, and lemon, I sipped the piping hot tea and nearly swooned. Ginger, jasmine, and the complex oolong tea lingered like a balm on my tongue. “This is good,” I said and nearly bit my tongue. I wasn’t here for a tea party. This was business and we’d better get to it.
“Mr. Cain,” I began.
“I’d prefer we wait until after tea. Pleasure first. Business after.” He sipped his tea and closed his eyes in delight before settling comfortably against the back of the chair.
I fretted at the delay but saw no other way to handle things. He was calling the tune so I’d follow along as long as my patience lasted. I took another sip and nearly choked.
Cain smiled. “Mustn’t rush,” he chided. “Enjoy the fragrance and the taste. It’s better when enjoyed slowly to get the full effect.”
I gritted my teeth and smiled. “It is lovely and the cookies are very good, but I really must get back to the office. I only came here . . .”
“Such haste. You were much calmer as a child.”
“Was I? I remember it differently.”
“You were such a precocious thing, all eyes and ears, but respectful. You were special, too special to be Stephen and Helen’s child. I often wondered how they missed the changeling in their midst, especially with Stephanie lurking always about. Now there was a nasty piece of work.”
I shrugged. There was nothing to say. I was my father’s daughter and my sister Stephanie was all Mom’s. Stephanie even looked like Mom in certain lights and people often mistook her for their mother. The acorn didn’t fall far from that tree. I suppose I should’ve defended my sister, but there was no need. Stephanie could defend herself. I certainly wouldn’t.
“You and she were as different as night and day.”
“Blondes always stand out.”
“Not at all. You were the one everyone noticed.”
“Only because I was climbing trees or getting into trouble.”
“I would not have saved Stephanie from the eels. The eels would have needed saving.”
A chuckle slipped my control and Cain, completely out of character, winked at me. His dark brown eyes danced behind the thick lenses of his glasses, almost twinkling with humor, and I laughed.
“Now that is a pleasant sound. You should laugh more often.”
Maybe it was our shared dislike of my sister or knowing that at least on that point we were in agreement, but the taut muscles in my shoulders and jaw relaxed and I began to enjoy the tea and the company so much, I chose a petit four when Cain offered. I had to admit he was being quite hospitable and even likable in spite of the business at hand.
As a child, I found him fascinating. He was so different from my parents and their friends, still and composed no matter the surroundings. There was something odd about him to be sure, but nothing frightening and I never felt wary in his presence. My mother hated him and the way he ate chicken of all things. Cain chewed off the ends of chicken legs and sucked out the marrow. I’d tried it once. The marrow tasted rich and buttery and I liked it, but that habit stopped before it got started. My mother forbade me to do it ever again. She had looked at me with disgust and shuddered, the same way she had looked at Cain.
“As a child, you were a bud and now you have flowered into a stunning woman. I knew you would.”
A heated blush flared across my cheeks and my ears were hot. “Thank you.” I inclined my head in thanks and didn’t dare say another word for fear of appearing silly or, worse yet, stupid. I actually liked Cain, not for saving me or for his gracious hospitality, but because I sensed his compliments weren’t empty. He was just who he appeared to be and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“The tea and cakes were lovely,” I said, glancing pointedly at my wrist watch. “I do have a busy afternoon.” I looked up and he closed his eyes and nodded, a look of resigned sadness on his broad face. Putting down the tea cup, I took out the envelope and laid it on the table between us. Cain continued sipping his tea, avoiding looking at the envelope. “I’d appreciate it if you’d count it.”
“No need of such vulgarity between friends.”
“Mr. Cain, please understand. There will be no further payments.”
“And no need for you to return?”
“I . . .”
“No need for words.”
After opening the envelope, Cain thumbed through the bills with practiced ease. There was no doubt he knew exactly how much was there, not because it was the amount he specified, but because he had counted it that rapidly with a minimum of movement and fuss. He was businesslike when the situation called for it. His movements were fast and economic, as much to preserve his delicacy and satisfy my request.
He looked up at me and his look asked if I was satisfied now as he slipped the envelope beneath the tray.
“Would you like another cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.” I wanted to stay. I wanted to go and put all this behind me and yet there was something else here and it wasn’t only the views we shared of my sister Stephanie. She was a sneak and reveled in manipulating people, especially our parents when she wanted something and one of them denied her. A few carefully chosen words and our parents would end up fighting each other while Stephanie walked away with whatever she wanted.
Telling Mother and Dad what was going on always ended up with my lip bloody or Mother’s handprint scalded on my cheek, or both, and more punishment would follow. Dad seldom stepped between us; he knew better. Mother’s wrath would fall on him next and he had to sleep with her. I didn’t. I could take my wounded pride, anger, and betrayal to my room where I’d end up spending a few weeks or a few months, depending on how angry Mother was at the time. Stephanie stayed to watch the show and gloat over yet another triumph until I got smart and kept my mouth shut. If they couldn’t see what Stephanie was doing, I wasn’t about to tell either one of them. It always ended in tears: mine.
Yes, Cain was right and I felt sorry for him. I wanted to reach out and touch his hand or clasp his shoulder, offer to come again, but I knew I wouldn’t come back. In a different situation, I’d welcome his friendship and could appreciate it more now that I was an adult. That would not happen. Not now. Not ever. Not as long as blackmail stood between us. It was just business.
“Mr. Cain, our business is concluded. There will be no further payments or gifts. I hope you understand.”
Cain put up his hand. “I shall not return nor shall I be here long. I have appointments elsewhere.”
I am glad he stopped me. Leaving on such a note would have been difficult after all his generosity. I almost laughed. His generosity was paid for by his friends and now by my father.
Teeth clenched against the angry words about to spill out, I stopped. He was right. There was no need of words. Our situations and the unfortunate circumstances that brought us together now made anything more impossible.
How did we get here?
Right. The monthly remittance checks from his family, now that his brother was in charged, had stopped and Cain had resorted to the only option left to him, to depend on his friends and their secrets to keep him in the style he’d grown accustomed to.
“Thank you for your hospitality.” I stood, put on my coat, and walked to the door. I heard Cain rise behind me. As I reached for the door knob, his hand was there and I soon stood out in the hall facing him.
“If you find yourself at loose ends, please stop again. I shall be leaving at the end of the month. It seemed a shame not to see more of the city while I am here.”
“I can’t promise . . .”
“No. Of course not. A young woman like you would have many demands on her time, many social engagements. I shall not expect you, merely look forward to the possibility.” He extended his hand and I hesitated for a brief second only before taking his meaty paw. It was neither damp nor unpleasant. His handshake was firm and his fingers and palm strong. I noticed his nails were manicured and buffed.
Resisting the urge to kiss his cheek or hug him, I nodded and left. When I pushed the door open at the end of the hall, I glanced back. The door was closed and I had forgotten to ask him what secret he knew about my father. Maybe that was a good thing. I’d love Dad no matter what he had done, but it would be easier if I didn’t know all his secrets, just as he would never know all of mine. A little mystery is necessary in any relationship, especially a relationship between parent and child.
A raw wind slapped at me and rain spattered my cheeks as I ran for the car before the storm broke in earnest. I’m still not sure if the moisture on my face was all rain. It must have been. Tears would’ve been hot.
There was no reason to cry for Cain or about him. He chose his path and I had chosen mine. We wouldn’t see each other again and that was for the best. A friendship between us was not possible, I reminded myself. Best to put him and the whole business behind me, but the best laid plans . . . and all that jazz.

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