The man behind the large oak desk was speaking. "Bob, I think you know why I've asked you to come here today."
The small person on my right was gripping my arm tightly.
"Yes, your Eminence, I believe that I do. That we do."
"Before I give you my decision, I want to make a few things very clear."
"Yes, your Eminence."
She was gripping my arm even tighter now. I was in danger of losing circulation. I patted her hand in what I hoped was a reassuring gesture.
Through the window behind the cardinal, I could see the grounds of St. Michael's Cathedral. They looked beautiful in the summer sunshine. Looking at this beautiful vista made me think about how this whole thing started.
It was on a beautiful July day about 2 years ago. I washed and waxed the new car and puttered around the house until it was time to go to Liam's place. He'd invited a bunch of us for a barbecue. Liam's my business partner and a lifelong friend. He prides himself on his culinary skills, so this promised to be a fine evening. We were to arrive between 5:00 and 6:00. I planned to be one of the first arrivals.
I left home about 4:30. Parking is at a premium in Liam's neighbourhood, so I wanted to allow myself plenty of time to look for a spot. I'd only been around the block 3 times before a woman in a minivan pulled out of a parking place right in front of Liam's house.
As I parked the car, I thought about how lucky I was. Besides owning my own business, a nice house and a beautiful new car, I'd found a terrific parking spot. I was going to spend a great evening partying with good friends. I was hard to imagine how things could be better.
I went around to the back garden and was met by Liam and his wife Joan. Liam immediately put a beer in my hand. I was surprised that I wasn't the first to arrive. Liam's hospitality was legendary, so several couples and a few other single guys were ahead of me. A bunch of us hung around the barbecue laughing and kibitzing as Liam cooked.
I was on my third beer when the party was suddenly interrupted. The back door of the house next door slammed loudly, and Liam's neighbour came running into the yard.
He asked loudly, "Does anybody here own a silver Porsche?"
I identified myself as the owner of just such a vehicle.
"Well you'd better come out front. Some asshole has really screwed up your car."
I ran to the front of the house. The guy was right. Some prick had completely smashed the entire back window. There were particles of glass everywhere, especially inside the car. I suddenly felt very tired and defeated. What kind of son of a bitch would do such a thing?
I wasn't thinking very well, so it's good that Joan had a level head on her shoulders. She realized that the first thing to do was to call the cops. In order to collect on the insurance, I'd need a police report. She called them, and I spoke to the duty sergeant. While I was giving him as much information as I had, a bunch of guys went around to the neighbours' to ask if anyone had seen what happened. No one had. How the hell could somebody smash a car window on a residential street in broad daylight and not be seen? I had no idea how it was possible, but it seemed that was exactly what had happened.
That was the end of the party for me. I drove my car home and locked it in the garage. Then I proceeded to have a few stiff drinks. Then a few more. But after a while, I realized that getting
drunk wasn't going to help the situation. So I decided I'd better do something constructive.
Obviously, my car would be in the shop for at least a couple of days. I'd need a rental car. My company had a contract with one of the car rental companies. I thought it was Avis or Hertz, but I couldn't remember which. I knew I had a card somewhere that would give me a special rate. After looking everywhere else, I opened my wallet. There was the card. It wasn't Avis or Hertz. The company was Tilden.
I called the 1-800 number on the card, and a young woman answered. "Thank you for calling Tilden. My name is Amanda. How may I help you?"
"Well, Amanda. You can be a big help. Some lowlife smashed the back window on my new Porsche and I need a rental car."
"Oh my God! A new Porsche? You must be really upset."
"Yeah, you could say that. Anyway, I have a Tilden Privilege Card. Would you like the number?"
I gave her the number. She entered it in the computer, and we waited while my file came up.
"I'm sorry, sir. I have no idea why this thing is so slow tonight. Oh, there it is. Your name is Robert Danielson, right?"
"OK. I see that your preference is for a compact car."
"Actually, I'd like a midsize, if possible."
"Yes sir. When and where would you like to pick up the car?"
"Tomorrow morning in downtown Toronto."
"We have quite a few locations in Toronto. There's one on Markham Road, another on the Queensway..."
"Those are way the hell out in the burbs. Don't you have anything downtown?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I don't know Toronto. I've never been there. I'm actually in New Brunswick."
Shit. It was one of those call centres. "Well, just read me the locations."
I settled for the one at Yonge and Bloor. I could easily walk there from my house. We finalized the booking and then chatted a bit.
"Amanda, where in New Brunswick are you?"
"I'm in Florenceville. You've probably never heard of it."
"Actually I have. A good friend of mine is from there. I thought that it was just the company town for McCain Foods. French fries, pizzas and stuff like that."
"It used to be, but we have a lot more stuff now. Flo-ville's doing pretty good. have you ever been here, sir?"
"No. The only place I've been in New Brunswick is Moncton. I loved it. And call me Bob."
"OK, Bob." I could hear the smile in her voice."
"Amanda, you've been really great -- very friendly and helpful. I'm going to write a letter to Tilden. What's your last name?"
"Penner. Amanda Penner. That's really nice of you."
"And if you're ever in Toronto, give me a call. My address and phone number are in my file."
"Are you serious?"
"Of course I am."
"OK. Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Nope. Fire away."
"Your file says that you're with IT Associates. I'm really interested in computer stuff. I'm in my last year of school. Does your company have any internships for students?"
Uh oh. There was no university close to Florenceville. This was a high school kid. I hoped she didn't think I was trying to hit on her.
"Yeah, we've had some interns in the past. Hold on just a minute. I'll get you the name of the person who's in charge of that stuff."
I got the name. Amanda wrote it down and thanked me.
"You're very welcome, Amanda. Have a pleasant night."
"Unfortunately, I'm working all night, but it's usually not too busy on this shift. Were you really serious about my giving you a call?"
"Sure. Call me if you're ever in town."
"OK. I will. Goodnight."
The next morning, I called my insurance company. I took the car to their assessor and then to the auto-glass shop. Then I picked up my rental car and went to the office.
My Porsche was ready in 2 days. It looked as good as new, thank God.
Over the next couple of months, I put the episode out of my mind as much as possible.
On a Sunday in October, I was sitting in front of the TV with a beer. The Bills were playing the Colts. NFL football. I'm a proud Canadian, but I've never been able to get into the CFL game. Like a lot of people in Toronto, I'm a Buffalo Bills fan. On this Sunday, I remember that the Bills had scored first. 7 to nothing. The Bills kicked off after the touchdown. The Colts fumbled. The Bills recovered. Then the phone rang.
"Hello. It's Amanda."
I drew a blank. I had no idea who this might be, and I was really into the game. I was just about to do the "sorry, wrong number" thing and hang up when she said, "Amanda Penner. Tilden?"
"Oh, Amanda. Sure. I remember. What's up?"
"First of all, thanks so much for writing the letter to Tilden. I didn't believe you'd do it. I was totally shocked when the supervisor read it out loud to the whole shift one night."
"You're very welcome. It was the least I could do."
"Well, thanks again. But I'm afraid I'm going to bug you about something, if you don't mind."
"No, go ahead." I actually did mind, but what the hell.
"You said to call you if I was coming to Toronto. Well, I'm coming week after next. I applied to the University of Toronto for next term. They want me to come in for an interview. I might get a scholarship. Isn't that great?"
"Yeah, great," I said. On the TV, the Bills had just lost yardage on their first down play.
"So I'll be in Toronto for a few days. I wonder if we could get together for a coffee or something?"
Amanda had this habit that many young women have. Nearly every sentence seemed to end on an upward inflection, like a question.
"Sure, why not? Where are you staying?" The Bills rushed again and didn't go anywhere. Shit.
"Well, that's just it. I don't know. Is there a reasonably priced hotel near the university?"
"In a word, no. The only hotels that are really close are the Intercontinental, the Park Plaza and the Four Seasons. A room in any of them will probably cost you somewhere around two-hundred bucks a night. Shit!"
"Nothing. It's just something I saw on TV." The goddam Bills quarterback had just thrown an interception.
"Oh. Are Toronto hotels really that expensive?"
"Yeah. I'm afraid so." I was a bit distracted. The fucking Colts had run the interception back to the Bills' thirty yard line.
"Oh. I don't have much money. I've been saving what I've made at Tilden, but that has to last me all of next year. Well, maybe I can find something I can afford."
The Colts were now at the Bills' five yard line. First and goal. I wanted to concentrate on the game. I wanted to end this conversation, but I didn't want to just cut her off. Without thinking about it a whole lot I said, "Tell you what, I've got a big house, and it's near the university. You're welcome to stay here when you're in town. You can have your own washroom and be pretty independent. How about it?"
"I couldn't. It's too much. You don't even know me."
"Think about it and let me know. It's not a big deal for me."
"OK. I really appreciate the offer."
"Keep in touch and let me know what's happening."
The Bills managed to hold the Colts to a field goal. It was coming up on half-time. My beer was gone, so I went to the kitchen for a refresher. The situation on the TV in the kitchen was even worse than on the one upstairs. Now the fucking Bills had fumbled the kickoff return. The half ended with Indianapolis ahead ten to seven. Shit. I muted the sound on the TV. Half-time shows are usually boring -- just some guys telling you about stuff you've already seen.
Suddenly it hit me. I was a prize idiot. For some stupid reason, I'd just invited a kid I'd never met to stay in my house. I had no idea who the hell she was or what she was like. All that I knew was that she was a female high school kid. I might even go to jail for this. No, I remembered that the age of consent in this province was fourteen. She had to be over fourteen, didn't she? Anyway, I certainly wasn't thinking about fucking her. I'd never seen her. Oh well, probably nothing would come of this.
The Bills lost the game. In the second half, they played like pigs. I turned off the TV at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The score was thirty-seven to seven.
A couple of days later, I was puttering around getting some supper together when the phone rang. I don't usually answer the phone around supper time. Too often, there's a telephone solicitor on the other end. I hate those buggers. So, as is my habit, I checked the caller ID readout. The number had a "506" area code. I had no idea where that was. I decided to answer.
"Bob? It's Amanda."
"You were right about those Toronto hotels. I can't believe how expensive they are. If you're serious about offering to let me stay with you, it would be really great for me. I'll be in Toronto for five days. Is that too long?"
Fuck. "No, that'll be just fine." Like hell.
"OK. I'm coming in on Saturday. The flight's lots cheaper if I'm there over the weekend."
Fuck it. In for a penny...
"Give me your flight number. I'll meet you at the airport."
"Oh wow! Really?"
"Yeah, really. What's the flight number?"
I wrote down the flight information. I could hear the excitement in Amanda's voice. I just felt tired.
"Amanda, how will I know you?"
"I'm blonde, and I'll be wearing a dark blue suit."
"Do you always wear a suit when you fly?"
"No. I'm bringing the suit for my interview, and I figure it'll be better to wear it than to pack it. Does that make any sense to you?"
"Perfect sense," I lied. "I'll be the dopey looking guy trying to find the blonde girl in the blue suit."
Amanda giggled. "I can't wait. I'll see you next Saturday."
"Yeah. Next Saturday. Good-bye."
Now I'd really gotten myself into some major shit. I didn't feel hungry anymore, but I felt a major thirst coming on.
I couldn't do dick at the office the next day. Too hung over. After that came Thursday. Meetings all day. Then, inevitably, Friday. More meetings. Suddenly it was Saturday morning. Unfortunately it looked like a glorious day. I had hoped against hope that there might be a storm or something. Amanda's flight might be delayed or canceled. Well, maybe there was bad weather in Atlantic Canada. No such luck. Environment Canada's website showed everything clear and calm over New Brunswick. Shit.
Amanda's plane was landing at 12:50. I figured that with the lighter Saturday traffic heading toward the burbs I could make it to Pearson International Airport in about 30 minutes. Giving myself another 10 minutes to park and so forth, I planned to leave a little after noon.
At the appointed hour, I went to my garage. Maybe the car wouldn't start. No such luck. The big flat six roared to life right away. Bummer. Well, maybe the traffic would be heavier than expected. Nope. I actually made it to Pearson in just over twenty minutes, and I immediately found a parking place right next to the garage elevator.
Since I was a bit early, I went to the little cafe on the arrivals level of Terminal 2 and got a cup of coffee. I sat down near the TV screen showing the status of the arriving flights. The flight from Fredericton, New Brunswick was right on time. My luck was running out. Finally, the screen said that the plane had arrived. I finished my coffee and went to stand in front of the door with the appropriate number.
I stood there for what seemed like a hell of a long time. People came out of the door with their luggage. Many of them were greeted by friends or relatives. The torrent slowed to a trickle. For some minutes, there was no one coming through the door. Perhaps Amanda had missed her flight. Too bad. I turned to go to the information desk to ask if indeed a Ms. Amanda Penner had been on the passenger manifest. Just then, someone touched my shoulder. I turned.
There stood Amanda. It had to be she, this little round person wearing a navy blue suit and white blouse. Well, she wasn't really "round." Slightly chubby, perhaps. Sort of baby fat. She was more short than petite with short blonde hair, blue eyes and wire-rimmed glasses. From what I could tell, she seemed to be built small on top and bigger on the bottom. She was smiling shyly. She looked about 13.
"Yeah, I'm Bob. And you must be Amanda." I offered her my hand, and she took it.
"I'm sorry. You must have been waiting a long time. It took so long for my bag to come out that I was sure they'd lost it. It did show up, though. Thank God."
I was pleased to note that the bag in question was of a modest size. If it had been larger, we'd have had a hell of a time fitting it into the Porsche. Luggage capacity is not a Porsche strong point.
We headed for the garage. Amanda chattered away about her flight. She'd had to take a bus to Fredericton the night before and had stayed at the Y. The Y was OK. They were really nice to her. The flight had been fine until the problem with the bag. Etc., etc.
We reached the car. Amanda's reaction was immediate.
"Oh my God! It's beautiful! What model is it? My little brother will never forgive me if I don't ask."
Her little brother. Shit. I hadn't thought about it, but of course this kid had a family. Apparently, they knew that she was staying with this guy in Toronto. A guy that she'd never met who drove a Porsche. Her folks must be nuts or at least insanely trusting of the kindness of strangers.
"It's a 911 Carrera 4S."
"Thanks. That doesn't mean anything to me, but Bruce will know all about it. He's nuts about cars."
"How old is he?"
"He's 17. I guess all boys his age are car-crazy. I'm not, but this is a very beautiful car. It must have cost a fortune."
I put her bag in the vestigial back seat. "It wasn't cheap, but to me it's worth it. I love to drive."
I helped Amanda into the car, got in myself, started the engine and proceeded to drive out of the garage. We headed south on the 427 highway. Amanda's reaction to the view was amusing.
"Oh my God! I knew that Toronto was big, but I've never seen so many huge buildings. And it seems to go on forever."
I grinned. "Just wait till we get downtown. Then you'll see some really big buildings."
When we were driving past the city core on the Gardiner Expressway, Amanda was almost speechless. She stared wide-eyed at the huge towers, office buildings to the north and condos on the lakefront to the south. I pointed out a few landmarks. Amanda gravely took it all in.
"But you live in a house, right? Not in one of these big buildings."
I smiled. "Yeah, I live in a house. I'm not an apartment kind of guy."
"Good. I don't think I'd feel comfortable being that high up in the air."
"Amanda, you were just in a plane that was tens of thousands of feet above the ground."
"Yeah, but that's different somehow. Isn't it?" She looked at me gravely. I tried not to laugh.
"Yeah, I guess it is. This is our exit. We'll be home in no time at all."
Home? Why the hell didn't I say "my place" or something like that? Oh well. No tears over spilled milk.
"I'm sorry. You must think I'm a terrible bumpkin. I guess I am. The only big city I've ever been to is Halifax."
Once again, I tried not to laugh. The last time I checked, Halifax had a population of less than 350,000. The city of Toronto alone has a population of about 2.5 million, and there are about that many again in what's known as the "GTA," the Greater Toronto Area. I lived in an area of some 4 to 5 million people. It was difficult for me to think of Halifax as a "big city," but it certainly must seem so to someone from small-town New Brunswick.
My house is in the part of town called the Annex. I have no idea why it's called that. A historian friend once told me, but I immediately forgot. Anyway, the Annex is downtown, so we soon arrived at my place. I pulled into the garage. We got out of the car. Being the gentleman that I am, I carried Amanda's bag into the house.
"Bob, this house is huge! Do you live here all alone?"
"Yeah, I'm afraid so."
"Why do you have such a big house?"
"I thought once that I was going to get married. It didn't work out that way. Now, I'm just used to the place. Anyway, it's great for parties and for business entertaining. Come with me. I'll take you to your room."
Amanda's room was on the second floor, next to the library. It had its own en suite washroom, a walk-in closet, queen-sized bed, a TV, a VCR, a DVD player and a satellite terminal. Your basic comforts of home.