Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Ties That Bind – Part VI

Chapter 4 – Wild Cards

In which our gallant young protagonist adjusts to life with Mr. Wednesday, gets introduced to the one and only Stella, realizes that first impressions aren't everything and discovers the explosive truth about the man called Wednesday.

The days crawled by, like sand through an hourglass, as Juldeh grew accustomed to life with Mr. Wednesday. Despite Wednesday's obvious wealth, he did not live an extravagant life. His house in Medina was modest, but compared to Juldeh's previous accommodations, it seemed to be a mansion. It was an old-fashioned two storey red brick house with shuttered windows and a drooping roof. However, the fact that it was enclosed in an eight foot high electrified fence with a permanent guard at the front gate gave some inkling as to the owner's importance, or paranoia, Juldeh wasn't sure which. There was also the maid who came in twice a week to clean and prepare meals. She only came once a week now, and even then, only to clean because Juldeh had been insistent on taking over her cooking duties. He was happy to do it. It was the least he could do to repay Mr. Wednesday's generosity. The fact that he liked to cook and it reminded him of the simpler times in the kitchen with his mother, well, that was simply a bonus. There were three rooms. Wednesday and his girl of the week used the master bedroom upstairs and Juldeh had quickly snapped up the basement room despite its smaller size compared to the others. He craved the peace and quiet. It gave him time to think and Wednesday's paramours tended to be on the loud side.

Wednesday had arranged for Juldeh to attend a private school called the Prince of Peace Academy. The school billed itself as one of the first self-directed learning centres in Accra. The only thing that meant to Juldeh was that he didn't have to go to school every day. He could work at his own pace and was able to get a lot more accomplished without the tedium of sitting in classes. Even then, he still liked being at school every now and then. He felt at home, like he belonged. It was a strange feeling, and one he was still trying to get used to. His teachers were very impressed with him, but then again, he'd always found adults easy to impress. They'd tried to recruit him into the school chess team, but chess was not as important to him anymore. Wednesday had gotten him interested in classical music, and he'd been painstakingly trying to teach himself how to play the piano. He'd improved by leaps and bounds since he started, but he wasn't quite there and so all his free time was spent on the grand piano that Wednesday had installed in the basement.

Juldeh was concentrating intently on the piece he was playing when he heard Wednesday coming down the stairs. Juldeh wondered which woman he'd be with this time. Wednesday had an almost magical ability to charm people, especially women. He was not especially good looking, and was notoriously stingy, but that did not seem to matter. They especially were intrigued by his glass eye. He remembered the last time they'd gone out to lunch with a few of Wednesday's colleagues. Wednesday had shamelessly flirted with the waitresses, despite them being half his age. To Juldeh's great surprise, the two waitresses had reciprocated and wrote their numbers on the restaurant bill as they'd handed it to him. He didn't quite understand it, and had been too mortified to think hard about what actually transpired. Despite this, he still liked Wednesday. Wednesday had treated him like an equal from the minute they'd met. He had also been nice enough to give Juldeh a job as his personal assistant. He only had to go into the office twice a week, but it at least gave him something to do. Circumstances had forced him to grow up much faster than his peers, and he just didn't feel comfortable among people his own age. He was trying to work on that, but he still needed some time.

"Hello, m'boy," Wednesday said. That was another affectation of his-the need to call everyone son, or m'boy or chap, despite all appearances to the contrary. "That was some meal you cooked up last night. Almost too good to eat, almost." He laughed heartily at that and his glass eye shimmered and twinkled like it had a life of its own. Juldeh didn't really like small talk, but Wednesday was enamored with it, and so Juldeh had to remain patient as Wednesday took his merry time getting to the meat of the matter, which he finally did, but not before regaling Juldeh with a pointless tale of his time in Taiwan. He might have said something about a "pretty little hotel girl", but Juldeh was not paying any attention.

"You're not going to be able to help me in the office tomorrow, son. Stella, my little girl is going to be spending her holidays with me. Her mother finally loosened the apron strings, you see? I'm going to need you to pick her up from the airport. I'd have asked Kofi to do it, but she specifically asked for you."

This was a surprise to Juldeh because other than the first time they'd met, Wednesday never talked about his family. It was almost like they didn't exist, and he was curious as to how she even knew who he was, much less enough to ask for him to act as her chauffeur. These were the times he realized how little he truly knew about Wednesday. Like what he did for his job, and how he managed to have so much money without really seeming to work hard for it at all. These questions percolated in Juldeh's mind, but he'd never voiced them, for fear of offending his benefactor.

"It's no problem – It'll give me a chance to practice my driving skills, sir."

"Good man, I'll see you two when I get back from my business trip next week. Take good care of my little girl." And just like that, he was gone.


The next day...

    Traffic was bloody murder. He'd been cursed at, had seen more middle fingers than he could shake a stick at, and he'd almost been killed, and this wasn't even taking into account the quality (or lack thereof) of the roads which hadn't made the trip any better. He finally arrived at the airport in one piece, and he said a silent prayer of thanks. Wednesday had told him to wait at the arrival section, and she'd be there to meet him, so that's what he did. The sun was beating down on him, and eventually, the heat, coupled with the emptiness in his stomach and the monotony of waiting lulled him to sleep.

    He was woken from his slumber by a knock on the passenger window. He looked up at the interloper and frowned. She certainly couldn't be Wednesday's daughter. She was dark, but nowhere near as dark as Wednesday. Her skin was caramel coloured, and she looked to be at least in her late teens. She had soft curls, and they framed an angelic face. Her eyes were a dull yellow, and looked almost catlike. The effect was rounded off by her soft, full lips and pert nose.

    "Go away, he grumbled, I'm waiting for someone." The stranger laughed at that, a soft, mocking laugh and this just aggravated Juldeh even more.

    "You idiot – you're waiting for me, unless you're not the Juldeh I've heard so much about. I'm sure my father would be happy to know that you made his only daughter walk all the way from the airport. My bags are right here, you can put them in the trunk," she said imperiously.

    "You can do that yourself, I'm no one's servant," Juldeh replied testily.

    "Oh, you're a feisty one, I like that. Now unless you want to stay here till the end of eternity, you'll get out of the car and put my bags in the trunk."

    Juldeh looked her squarely in the face. She wasn't joking. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this. He reluctantly got out of the car and put all six of her quite heavy suitcases into the trunk. It required some creative arrangements, but he finally managed. His Tetris skills had come in handy after all. By the time he got back into the driver's seat, she'd made herself comfortable in the back seat. Now he really felt like a chauffeur. He wondered how long she was going to be staying, but no matter how long it was, as far as he was concerned, it would be too long.

    They drove in silence. Neither one was willing to show weakness by being the first to speak. All the way home, they sized each other up. Juldeh glanced surreptitiously at her in the rear-view mirror, while she stared at him quite blatantly with a crooked smile playing on her lips. He felt like a deer being sized up by a mountain cat and was quite intimidated. She surprised him by speaking: "Do I scare you, chess boy?" she asked teasingly.

    "Not at all," he replied flippantly.

    "Oh really, then why are your hands shaking?" She laughed again, a deep throaty laugh that Juldeh found appealing despite himself.

    "You're so serious," she continued. "I love it. I don't think we've been introduced. My name is Stella. What do you say, we start from scratch? I don't think I made a good first impression. I'd like to remedy that.

    Her new found amiability unbalanced Juldeh even more. He didn't quite know if she was being serious, or was just playing another one of her games.

    "Well, it seems like you know more about me than I do about you. Story of my life, really, and are you sure you don't have another name?"

    "Like what?"

    "Oh – I'm not sure, Saturday, perhaps?" She laughed again at that and smiled broadly showing dazzling white teeth.

    "I didn't know you fancied yourself a comedian? Does this mean my father still goes by his ridiculous moniker? Saturday does have a nice ring to it, but you can just call me Stella, and I promise I won't call you chess boy anymore."

    "I think we can both agree to that," Juldeh replied. Despite himself, he was enjoying the verbal sparring. Juldeh pulled into the security gate, typed in the security code and drove into the compound. He was exhausted, and after showing Stella her room and helping her get settled, he retired to the basement. He tried to muddle his way through playing Beethoven's fifth symphony, failed miserably, gave up and went to bed, where he slept the kind of deep, dreamless sleep that can only come when one's mind is at peace.

    The brilliant morning sun streaming through his window and the sound of sizzling pots woke him up the next day. It wasn't like Wednesday to cook. He scampered upstairs, where he found Stella cooking up a storm. He'd almost forgotten about her, but after one look, he knew that he would never make that mistake. She was radiant, and the sun shining behind her gave her an almost angelic appearance. She was dressed in dark trousers, a pink camisole and a beige cashmere sweater vest.

    "Good Morning, Juldeh. I hope you don't mind my making breakfast," she said cheerily. "It'll be ready shortly. There's some tea on the pot if you want some."

    Juldeh helped himself and sat down at the intricately designed dining room.

    "No, I don't mind. It is your home after all," Juldeh replied. He sipped his tea pensively as he silently watched her go about her business.

    "I heard you playing yesterday. You're a boy of quite a few surprises, aren't you?"

    "Well, if the surprise is how bad it was, then yes I am full of surprises."

She laughed a full throated laugh and smiled a brilliant smile in his direction. She looked good when she smiled. She looked assured and self-possessed, and refined to the point of elegance.

    "Don't sell yourself short."

Juldeh was starting to warm up to Stella, despite the fact that she was 2 years older than him, she made him feel like a contemporary not to mention, how entertaining she was as a conversationalist. She was deft with words in a way that reminded him of Nella. He shook the thought out of his heard as he saw her approach.

    "Breakfast is served, French Toast with Honey Pecan sauce, and Bacon and Egg stuffed Pitas. Dig in."

    Juldeh didn't need to be told twice and he went at it with gusto. She watched him in awe as he shovelled down mouthfuls.

    "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or repulsed," she said teasingly.

Juldeh grinned apologetically and replied, "I'm sorry, it's just that this is one of the best breakfasts I've ever had."

    "Then I'm flattered," she replied with a twinkle in her eye. "I have some business to attend to, but after I return, you and I need to have a little chat."

    Juldeh's pulse quickened at that, but he quickly calmed himself and nodded his assent. She excused herself and Juldeh gazed at her retreating figure as she got into the car and drove through the fortified gates. What she had to do, he wasn't sure, but he was still curious. He banished the thoughts of her, and began contemplating what the day held for him. It was a beautiful day for a run, so that's what he did. When he returned an hour later, Stella's car was parked in the garage, but she was nowhere to be seen. He spent the rest of the day practising the piano, and diligently doing his lessons. He managed to finish almost an entire week of work before he heard the door open.

    He arrived upstairs to see Stella pacing restlessly. She was muttering to herself, but Juldeh could barely hear what she was saying: something about "events being far gone, truth being the only option." She looked up with a start when she saw him standing there. She rushed toward him and put her hand on his shoulder.

    "Juldeh, I haven't been completely honest to you about why I'm here. I thought I had more time, but my father's plans are at an advanced stage, and he must be stopped. Events are unfolding beyond my control. We have to leave."

    Juldeh stared aghast at her. The heat must have fried her brain. Things were going great as far as he could tell. For the first time in his life, he was settled. There was no way he was leaving. He tried to reason with her, but she was having none of it.

    "You don't understand, we'll be in grave danger if we don't leave. Right now!"

    "We're not going anywhere, until you give me some answers," Juldeh folded his hands and stared resolutely at her.

    A gamut of emotions flitted across her face before she finally resigned herself to the fact that he was serious. "OK, I'll tell you everything," and so she did. She led him to the couch and motioned for him to sit down, which he did. She took a deep breath, and launched into her story.

    "My father, the man you call Wednesday, is not what he seems. In fact, he is nothing but a conman, a swindler, a crook. He's been that way since I've known him, and I suspect he'll always be that way. My parents met in Taiwan. He went by the name James Van Jones at the time. My mother was a poor hotel worker, and he was a supposedly a rich businessman. He swept her off her feet, lavished her with expensive gifts, and convinced her to leave Taiwan with him. She refused to do so, until she realized she was pregnant with me, after which she was ostracized by her parents.

    But the dream that he'd sold her was nothing but a mirage, a smoke screen for his latest scam. He was rich, yes, but he was no legitimate businessman. He used my mom as a contact for his shady deals selling defective merchandise in the Chinatowns in New York. He threatened to harm me if my mother ever left him, and so out of fear for my life and hers, she remained in that awful situation. And as I got older, he began using me as cover for his scams. It was a terrible life. We constantly had to move around the US as his shady busines dealings went to ground.

    Unbeknownst to my father however, my mother had been siphoning off some of his ill-gotten gains into a private account, and after I turned 16, she planned to escape with me, but my father got wind of her plan. She escaped, barely, but she was forced to leave me behind. We've been clandestinely keeping in contact, but her fear of my father is greater than her love for me.

    After my father left for Accra, I saw it as my chance to leave him forever. Everything was in place, until he casually told me about the boy he'd adopted – you. I learned of his plans to make you his apprentice. Like he used to tell me when I was your age 'The two man con works a lot better than the one man con ever could.' The only time my father and I ever bonded was when we did cons together. He taught me everything he knew and tried to initiate into the family business. I rejected that path, and now he's looking for someone else. His paranoia however won't allow him to get an equal partner. I'm trying to spare you such a fate.

He did know your mother and I know he's carried a torch for her ever since he met her. She was probably the only woman he ever loved. Her rejection of him and subsequent marriage of your father was perhaps the driving force in his ultimate rejection of honest living. What he probably never told you is that the reason they parted ways all those years ago was because he refused to give up his life of petty crime. He simply moved on to more sophisticated swindles. I knew then, that I could never live with myself if I allowed someone to suffer the way I did growing up. I wasn't even sure I could follow through with my plan, but after I met you, and seeing what a great person you are, I decided that it was my duty to do whatever I could to help.

    Juldeh looked sceptical. "That's crazy. Do you actually expect me to believe you?"

    "Of course, after everything I've told you, I would expect you to ask for some proof. Lucky for both of us, my father is an unbelievable narcissist. So much so that he actually named himself after the King of the Norse Gods, and he's also an obsessive diarist. He's kept a journal since before I was born in which he meticulously details all his crimes and aspirations. I learned of its existence a year ago and I've been using the entries to anonymously inform the authorities about his crimes. That's why he had to leave the US. But like the sociopath he is, he can't, or won't stop. He just moves and continues the whole sordid process in a new location."

    She took out a small digital camera, and showed Juldeh the pictures she'd taken of Wednesday's Journal. They looked fairly legitimate, and he could recognize Wednesday's neat cursive script, but after the events past two years, he just couldn't bring himself to trust anyone, no matter how earnest they seemed.

    Juldeh felt like he'd been hit by a sledgehammer. He felt like a passive observer in his own life; like he had no agency to actually affect his destiny; like a supporting character in the lives of others; like a pawn in a cosmic chess match.

    "Give me one good reason why I should trust you. Everyone I thought I could trust has turned out to have an ulterior motive. Why should I trust you? Maybe the devil I know is better than the angel I don't. Maybe I'd rather stay with Wednesday. After all, he's been kind to me, and well, maybe I'm using him as much as he's using me."

    It was then that Stella played her trump card, the one card in her deck that could actually give her a chance to gain his unqualified trust. She went upstairs to her room and returned with a thick envelope, covered in bubble wrap.

    "Here, take this. If you don't trust me after you see what's inside, then you're not the person I thought you were."

    Juldeh carefully removed the bubble wrap and tore open the envelope. Inside was a stack of letters, paintings, drawings and pictures. The letters were addressed to him, and they were from his twin brothers. In the letters, they innocently wrote about their lives, and in the pictures, Juldeh could see that the years had been much kinder to them than they had to him. Tears welled in his eyes as he flipped through picture after picture of them frolicking in snow covered fields, sitting on a yacht with their adopted parents and playing soccer and basketball. The final picture was the most heart wrenching. It was a picture of the twins playing a piano/violin duet. They looked so serious, yet their eyes were filled with such passion.

    "How did you get these?" Juldeh asked after an interminable pause.

    "Believe me, it wasn't easy. It required a degree of subterfuge, a con if you will. It also cost me a lot of my own time and money, but I did it for completely altruistic reasons. That was the last con I'll ever be a part of, and I did it for you. That's why you should trust me. I'll give you tonight to think this all over, but tomorrow you either say yes, and we execute my plan to take down my father once and for all, or you say no, and I take you down with him. Believe me, when you see what he has planned for you and the city of Accra, you'll wish you'd never met him, and you'll be glad to have me around. I'm the only one standing between you and the yawning abyss of utter hopelessness that could be your life. Good night."

    She turned smartly around and walked up to her room, leaving Juldeh alone with his tumultuous thoughts. He wasn't sure what the right thing to do was, but if what he'd seen in the diary was true, Wednesday was a truly sinister character who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. How could he have been so blind? He'd been so obsessed with the future and fulfilling his promises to his brothers and Nella that he'd almost forgotten about the present. Wednesday had promised him that he'd help him look for his brothers, and he'd suppressed the angel on his shoulder who'd been voicing his misgivings. He would never make that mistake again. He knew that sleep would not come easy tonight. He didn't trust Stella, but she could be useful to him. He had to come up with a plan for the aftermath of whatever insanity happened tomorrow. He wasn't sure of the right course of action, but no matter what happened, he would still fulfill his destiny. Of that much, he was sure.

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