Ghosts & Shadows Pt. 04byDanielQSteele1©
INTRO: Hugh Davidson is a 50-ish banker with the powerful and influential Hunt Bank in Jacksonville. After discovering his wife, Mary's, six-month-long affair with a Chicago education executive, he walks out on a 36-year marriage and tries to drown his sorrows, permanently. Mary transfers her home and work to Chicago, moving in with her lover and pushing Hugh into a rapid and total parting of the ways. Despite his inability to find someone to replace Mary in his life, life goes on for Hugh and his bank, struggling to stay afloat in the face of the economic tidal wave hitting the U.S. in 2008. Hugh learns from their grown children that she has left her lover and left Chicago for San Francisco. Despite her refusal to see him, he catches a glimpse of her at a adoptive daughter's wedding in New York. AUTHOR'S NOTE: My continued thanks to curiouss for correcting mistakes. Any that may have slid through are my responsibility.
I had thought it would be harder, seeing her in the flesh.
She'd been a memory for two years, and a painful memory at that, but somehow....somehow, I felt better. I realized that hearing about her, imagining what she had become, visualizing what she looked like after two years, was not the same thing.
She could have been dead for the past two years and everyone could have been lying to protect my feelings. Crazy, I know, but things like that crept into my thoughts sometimes late at night. I could have used a private detective to get pictures of her, but I couldn't make myself. She had cut herself out of my life. It was stupid. I had forced myself back into her life for just a moment, only long enough to convince myself deep in the part that doesn't accept logic, that she was still alive.
Well, now I knew, and maybe I still loved her. Maybe I could never breathe the same air again but we were in the same world.
It was enough!
Life went on. It was August and, as usual, hotter and muggier than hell. Gail as was her habit invited some of the officials highest up the totem pole and closest to her on an all-expenses paid junket during the most miserable part of the month. In the past she and a couple of dozen staff and spouses including myself, and once upon a time Mary, had vacationed in the South of France, in Alaska, in Hawaii and on Bora Bora.
This year she'd booked rooms for her group on the Bonne Chance, a French-owned cruise ship that came through very rarely, the previous time being four years ago. Because she was a friend of the ship's owner, the Bonne Chance sailed on a special two-week tour of the Caribbean, instead of the regular week-long excursion.
She'd invited me, but for some reason I didn't feel like it. I went down to Saint Augustine, rented a condo on the beach and spent a week by myself. I didn't turn on the TV or read the paper. I walked the beach from early morning until late at night. I pondered deep thoughts and enjoyed the feel of beach sand between my toes.
At night I hit the bars at St. Augustine Beach and one night drank Brandy with a hooker named Renée and the DEA agent who'd left his wife and career to be with her, even though she was dying of AIDs.
One day I was out walking the beach and had made it about three miles from my condo. It was hot and I was sweaty and thirsty. I walked over to one of the carts they allow at access points and was about to pay $2 for a snow cone when I realized I'd left my wallet.
"Here, let me," said a young dark haired guy in shorts and some loud Hawaiian shirt. He passed the kid behind the cart two dollars.
"That's okay, my treat, don't sweat it."
"Thanks, walked out without my wallet. Are you here on vacation? Family here?"
"Nobody's out on a Thursday unless they're on vacation, right?"
"Not in the middle of the day. You're not a Yankee because you don't look like a lobster. From around here?"
"Jacksonville, Kevin - you?"
"Hugh Davidson. Same, small world. Wife and kids back in the condo?"
A funny look crossed his face, "No wife, one boy. He's not mine, but he is."
The kid, a smallish dark haired boy whom I thought actually looked like Kevin ran up and gave me a suspicious look, and stayed to the other side of Kevin.
"Can I get a cone, Kevin? I met this girl, Caroline, she's over there but she doesn't have any cash. Could you get her one too?"
He smiled at the boy.
"Just a snow cone, Rob? You're not going to ask me for cab fare to take her to the movies later, are you?"
"Kevin, get real. She's 14. She's not going to go out with a 13-year-old. Besides, she's got a boyfriend back in Charlotte."
I found myself saying, "It's been known to happen."
Rob gave me another quick look. I didn't need to be a mind reader to detect the almost flinch when I surprised him by speaking. Whoever he was, he'd had bad experiences with grown men.
"I wish, but..."
Kevin brought two snow cones and gave them to the boy.
"Have fun. Be back at our condo no later than 6 p.m. tonight and keep that phone where I can reach you at all times. Understand? About the girl...she's cute but she's an older woman. So...be careful."
The boy made a face and ran off with the cute, freckle-faced blonde who had altogether too many curves for a 14-year-old.
"Not yours? Seems pretty much father and son to me."
"The kid grows on you. He's not mine by blood, but...I'm in the Guardian Ad Litem program and I got assigned him. I wound up getting him out of a pretty nasty situation with a stepfather and the court assigned me as his guardian. He's a good kid, although he's still got some problems."
"Seems like the kid lucked out."
"We both did. I was wandering...down pretty far when I grabbed onto the Guardian Ad Litem deal. It probably saved my life."
We walked and talked for a half hour and before we split he said, "Rob's pretty good on his own. Meet me at Murph's, down near Crescent Beach, for a couple of beers tonight. Our condo is a block over. You free tonight or have a hot date?"
"Tons, but you can't do hot sex 24/7."
He just shook his head and said, "What world do you live in?" but smiled as he walked away.
We were on our third Icehouse drafts when he said, "Pardon me for being nosy, but I notice you're wearing a wedding ring and your wife is nowhere to be seen."
"No mystery. I'm divorced, two years ago now. I never got around to taking it off but don't plan on remarrying so it shouldn't be a problem."
"Can't get over her, can you?"
"Probably not but I'm still young. I might yet do it."
"If you figure it out, tell me how."
"Yeah, but she was dead first and then I had to divorce her."
"You know I have to know the story."
"Not much of a story. Just sad as hell."
"We got into a fight and she stormed out, vanished. No one had seen her, knew where she was or what had happened. I didn't see her for three years. When I did, she was a different woman. She'd....lost her memory. Got into bad, bad trouble and some hero rescued her. Not me! Now she has a kid and a man she loves and wants to marry, and she doesn't even know who I am.
I looked at her when a cop brought her and her hero into my kitchen and asked me to sign papers to allow her to divorce me and marry her new man. I wanted to refuse and tell her new man to go to hell. She was my wife! However, the cop told me I'd be taking her away from the man who loved her and saved her life, and asking her to live with a stranger. What kind of love was that? You know, he was right, I'd lost her the moment she walked out the door. The fact that I loved her didn't change anything.
She -- the woman I'd loved -- was dead and gone."
He drained his beer.
"So I have my job and my Guardian Ad Litem duties and a 13-year-old teenager to try to keep in line. It's a fairly full life as long as I don't think of what I lost."
I clinked my chilled mug against his.
"Here's to never looking back."
In case you think it was nothing but pain and sadness, there were the good stories. For example, the night a man, who sat drinking with one of the most beautiful redheads I'd ever seen, bought me a Brandy. When I couldn't help looking at the long, knife-shaped scars on either side of his mouth, he told me the story of how he'd acquired the beautiful redhead and what he called "The Scars of Love."
His girlfriend, or wife, I never figured out which, stroked the scars with supple fingers and smiled lovingly at him, telling me, "I have to watch this scoundrel like a hawk, Mr. Davidson. Those scars are like catnip to women. He tells me he keeps them as a reminder of how we met, but I know he just likes flirting with strange women."
They were in their early 30s at the most, and I had a flash of jealousy almost too strong to stand as I thought of all the years they had to look forward to, while I could only look back.
Exactly one week after I'd checked into my St. Augustine condo, I walked back into the corporate headquarters of the Hunt Bank and expected that Gail and her group would still be gone. Everyone was, except Gail. I had checked in with her secretary about something but she indicated that Gail was in her office. It was early, only 8:30 a.m., but Gail had always been early to work. It was a habit her grandfather had drilled into her.
I could have walked in, but this was strange. I knocked but, after a moment, she said, "Go away."
I opened the door without words and, when she glared up at me from behind her gleaming polished black marble desk, I said, "Who do you want me to kill?"
"I'm not good company right now, Hugh."
I sat down across from her and, after a long silence, I said, "I thought you'd be gone another week."
She rubbed her lower lip and bit it. It was a habit she'd had since she was a little girl. Other women would have cried.
"I ran into something that disagreed with me."
"Why didn't you just make it go away?"
"The son of a bitch wouldn't go away."
"THE son of a bitch?"
I didn't' say anything. Percy and his new boyfriend and Bobby and Chauvonne had been on the cruise. If Cameron had tried anything, they'd have pitched him over the side.
"What did Cameron do?"
Her mouth puckered up as if she were sucking a lemon.
"Robert? Your Robert?"
"Of all the ships sailing the Seven Seas, he has to show up on the Bonne Chance. What are the odds?"
"You had to run into him sooner or later, Gail."
"Not on the Bonne Chance. That damned loser shouldn't have been able to afford a cabin in the crew's quarters. He shouldn't have been able to afford a regular cruise on a goddamned teacher's salary, much less the Big Cruise."
"Maybe he saved up his quarters?"
"Hugh, I booked the most expensive cabins on the ship, $2,000 a night, and he was sleeping above me, in the owner's suite. It rents for $5,000 a night."
"On a teacher's salary?"
She closed her eyes as if she was trying not to scream.
"He got rich, Hugh, some stupid video game idea, and he was sleeping over my head - with a fucking bimbo whose tits were bigger than her head. She was the friend of some Hollywood piece of shit who got him into the room, and he smiled at me -- SMILED at me - while that bitch was rubbing herself all over him, deliberately."
I tapped the desk with my fingers to seize her attention.
"Gail, you're got more money than God, you have guys left and right, and you've been divorced for five years. Why does it bother you so much? He's history."
She shook her head, then swiveled in her chair to look up at the portrait, of her grandfather, that was the centerpiece of the room.
She was quiet for a long time and I was ready to leave, figuring we'd exhausted the conversation.
"I know you think I was a total bitch to him, Hugh. I know you and everyone else thought so, too. Would it surprise you to know he had a woman?"
Like learning that he could jump 10 feet straight up, but I didn't say it. Robert Sandler had been as loving, and as straight, a husband as I could imagine. I couldn't see him cheating on a woman he'd loved as much as Gail.
"I don't expect you to believe it but Cameron and I weren't lovers, then, although he was hot after me. It's just that - Robert was spending too much time at school - he should have been through by 3:35. Even with grades and other stuff, he should have been leaving by 4 or 4:30 p.m.
We....were drifting and he was spending a lot of time away from me.
Then Cameron asked me why he didn't get home until 6:30 or 7 p.m. a lot of nights. I knew Cameron was trying to get into my pants, but I got to thinking and I asked Robert. He said he was working on school stuff, sometimes with other teachers."
"Then Cameron said he was cheating on me, so I had Robert bugged up one side and down the other and I heard him with her. He was with another teacher -- Cynara, Cynara Keyes. No, they weren't doing anything but talking. I didn't hear them kiss, but they talked - God, did they talk! When I nagged him enough, he admitted that they spent more and more afternoons after school just sitting and talking in his classroom or hers, or going out for coffee. They were talking, just talking, but she was in love with him. She told me that to my face. At least she was honest."
She swung around to face me and this time there were tears.
"He actually said, he actually said to me, that it was easier to talk to her than to me, that he had more in common with her than with me. He was more COMFORTABLE with her than with me."
She glared at me. At that moment I was just another no-good male.
"Don't you tell me that I was the bad guy. Maybe I fucked Cameron first, but Robert was involved with that bitch and he could lie all day long that he wasn't in love with her, but I knew better. I knew better from the moment he said her name. He deserved everything he got, from me, from Cameron, from Cameron's friends. He deserved every bit of pain that Cameron put on him."
I had never heard that version of the story before. She had obviously never felt the need to enlighten me, even after Mary first left, when we had talked after she rescued me. It did put a vastly different light on it but, whatever the cause, just as with Mary and I, they were history.
"Want me to kill him?"
She stared at me for a moment, then couldn't help grinning.
"At your command."
After a moment she shook her head.
"We are a miserable pair, aren't we, Hugh? Everybody else is able to move on. Why can't we?"
If it was a test, I'd have scored zero, because I didn't know the answer.
THE SADDEST STORY
It was 2:30 p.m., Thursday, September 17th. I will never forget the day, the hour or the minute that the phone rang. I was in my office so I picked it up and my secretary said, "Hugh...."
Her voice broke and I knew something very bad had happened. She clicked me through and a man's voice came on. It took me a few moments to realize who it was.
"Simon, what is it? What is it?"
It's one of those times that make you believe in telepathy, or premonition. Before I could make out one word clearly, I knew who it was.
"Nicole. What's wrong, Simon? What's wrong with Nicole?"
"It's - she...Hugh, come up here! Please!"
"What is wrong? What happened?"
"We're at NY - NY Presby...byterian. Nicole, she's hurt...hurt real bad. I.." then his voice broke.
A moment later another man's voice came on.
"Yes, who is this? What's happened to Nicole?"
"This is Dr. David Sloane. We're here at New York-Presbyterian University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell. Your daughter has suffered severe injuries in a traffic accident."
"Really severe. She has fractures and there was substantial damage to the left side of her face, but -"
"We know she's also sustained some degree of brain damage from the accident - we just don't know how bad. You should really get up here as soon as you can."
He didn't have to add anything else.
"Let me talk to Simon again."
"Just hold it together, Simon. I'm on my way - whatever she needs, money is no object. Let them know that. Tell them, money is no object!"
I was walking quickly toward Gail's office when first Percy and then Bobby intercepted me.
"How bad, Hugh?"
"Bad as bad can be - I've got to get up there."
Bobby peeled off.
"Tell Gail and I'll have her jet fueling on our runway and ready to go by the time you get there."
Percy was with me when Gail stepped out of her office.
"Something's happened to Nicole?"
"She was hurt -- bad -- in an accident. There's...", just for a moment I couldn't get the words out because, somehow, saying it made it more real, but I rallied, "...brain damage, they don't know how bad. The doctor just said to get up there as soon....as soon as..."
"Where is she?"
"New York Presbyterian.."
"Percy, use my corvette. Don't stop for any lights and, if any cops chase you, keep going. I'll call the Sheriff personally and clear the way. I want Hugh in the air in 15 minutes. Hugh, get to New York. I'll get on the phone and see what I can do."
Before I could turn she had her arms around me.
"Let them know, money is no object! Get her the best and don't take any shit from anyone. I've got your back. The Hunt Bank has your back."
Before we reached the airstrip my cell buzzed and I heard Gail say, "Bret Wallinsky is one of the best brain men in the world. He's based In London but he just happens to be lecturing at Harvard. I just got off the phone with him. He owes me a favor. He'll be at Presbyterian about the same time you get there. If there's anybody in the world who can bring Nicole back, it's him."
I tried to make my mouth form words.
"Don't say it, Hugh. You give loyalty to the people who give it to you. You heard my grandfather say that. He lived it! I'm going to!"
I sat in a passenger chair with only the pilot, co-pilot and one stewardess aboard. She made me drink a stiff Scotch and then eat some cold wild salmon filet and Castelmagno cheese crumbled on crackers. I wasn't that hungry, but I knew I'd need the protein because I didn't know when I'd eat again.
I tried to organize my thoughts, but they kept revolving in my head. Of all the things I could have been thinking of, memories of Nicole as a little girl, of her getting married, the million and one things that could have run through my mind; I thought of an old television show.
It was an old Don Johnson show that ran in the late '90s called "Nash Bridges." He played a smart-ass character, who was really the same character he'd played in Miami Vice, only older and divorced, with a grown daughter. He was Sonny Crockett, grown older and semi-tamed.
What stuck in my mind was an episode in which his daughter and another girl had been injured in an accident, but the hospital got their identities confused. A spokesman came out to tell him that his daughter had died.
I thought at the time that, for a cheesy formula television show, this one episode drove a needle through the heart of every parent watching. Johnson's despair at the thought of a life after his daughter was gone was real.
I kept remembering his anguished cry, "What am I going to do? What am I going to do without her?"
I didn't say it, but the same cry kept echoing through my mind.
Then I was at the hospital, where Gail already had a private security guard standing at the entrance, waiting to take me directly to the critical care unit where Nicole was fighting for her life. Simon didn't see me until I was on top of him and when I grabbed him he held me tight and shook like a leaf.
"He's....my mother...she's watching him at her place."