So a new year dawned yet again. This time it carried the number 2003 and as Gran would say, “it’s not a palindrome year”. On my last case I very nearly died, having got myself severely shot up by a mad gunman bearing the name of Wilson. You could say I was carrying almost as much lead as meat. Unfortunately some of the damage is semi-permanent. The quack said with sufficient exercise everything should be back to normal in few years. I have a limp that will most likely remain, a good scar on my face, several on my chest and part of a finger missing on the left hand. Apart from that everything seemed to heal okay. It was that silly cow Jane Overland who got me into the mess in the first place.
Now talking about silly cows, the year started with no snow and weather coming in at around the zero degrees Celsius mark when Jane Overland came to see me. She breezed into Gran’s house like a perfumed cyclone. It is not that I don’t like her, it is just she goes out of her way to embarrass me. She had come to gloat and boast about her part in our last case, that’s the one that left me almost crippled and nearly dead, though I have to admit, somewhat richer.
After almost half an hour of pointless banter she said, ‘I heard on the grapevine there’s a white slave outfit working out of Toronto.’
‘Good,’ I replied. ‘I’ll join them, either that or the French Foreign Legion. No, no, no, and if you don’t understand that, no, no, no again. Now do you understand what I am getting at?’
‘I’m sorry, darling boy. I’ll tell you what. You take me for an exciting night to one of those expensive hotels and we’ll forget about the job. How does that sound?’
‘Christ! no. I’d rather invade Iraq by myself.’ And I surely meant it.
She put her arms around me, deliberately trying to embarrass me, and it worked. ‘Well, you sensual hunk, no hotel, no job, then I would think you don’t want the earth-shattering news?’
‘No, no, no. Just which part of no don’t you understand? I’ve quit work. I’m a layabout, a slob. Please leave me to wallow in my own sorrows. Look, I can’t even walk properly. I’ve probably got this limp for the rest of my life and that’s because of your last job. No, bloody no, no, no.’
Unfortunately Jane Overland is one of those people who hear what they wish to hear. She looks like an expensively underdressed cylinder and constantly shows everything in order to confuse people, and particularly me.
‘Alright,’ she said and let me go. ‘You are such an exciting young man. Perhaps we can work together in another way.’
‘I’d rather not, thanks.’
‘Well, I promise to wear clothes of your choice if … if you will allow me to write your five startling adventures for you. I’d like to do it in the first person as if you wrote it yourself. Will you, darling boy? Will you?’ She hugged me again.
Jane’s a journalist, or she was. She worked for a local newspaper, that’s how she managed to dig up so much stuff.
‘I don’t do any detective work. I’ve quit,’ I implored.
She gently let go and in a slinky way moved back to the chair. She loves teasing me.
‘I tell you what, darling.’ She sat down gracefully. ‘If you promise to investigate the slaves for me I’ll tell you the earth-shattering news – that or the adventures, your choice, you sweet hunk.’
‘Oh, then I suppose you don’t want to know where Tan Chu-Ling is.’
‘I think it’s a fair swap, darling. What do you think?’
Tan Chu was the marvellous Chinese girl I met on my last foray into death’s domain.
‘Do you know where she is?’
Without speaking she gently swung her shoulders and batted her eyelashes at me then said, ‘I don’t know exactly where she is, darling boy. But I could tell you how to find her.’
‘Alright, alright. So I’ll look into this bloody case of yours.’
She smiled. ‘Thank you, dear boy; I knew I could rely on you.’
‘So, where’s Tan Chu?’
‘Oh! she’s on her way here. I would guess the plane’s landing at Pearson Airport just about now.’
Man! I hate that woman. Too much Jane could make any man a misogynist. But I didn’t have time. I had a plane to meet and a promise to break. As quickly as possible I grabbed my coat and headed for the door. She scuttled alongside giggling with delight.
‘Oh, darling William, where do you think you are going to now?’
‘I’ve … to …’
‘Of course, you foolish, impetuous boy. You don’t know where, when or even on what.’
I stopped and faced her. ‘You really do annoy me, Jane. How can you be so … so sweet and aggravating at the same time? Do you practice sucking lemons on your day off?’
She leaned forward and kissed me a sloppy kiss on the lips. ‘I’m old enough to be your … Let’s say your older, adoring sister.’
‘Mother,’ I said. ‘Maybe even grandmother.’
She smiled coyly in an artificial way. ‘Silly boy. Let me take you to Pearson Airport. You know I spent a lot of money looking for that girl of yours. I do expect to be rewarded.’
‘I’m sorry, Jane. Thanks. Oh yeah, what sort of reward?’
‘Come, dearest William. I’ll take you to Toronto in my car, we can discus details later.’
‘I’ll drive. We’ll go in my car, darling,’ I said, trying to be sarcastic. ‘And I’ll do all the driving, right?’
She smiled a sad smile as though we were about to part for life. My Rolls had arrived just before Christmas, my new Rolls that is. I lost the previous one – well I didn’t, Newf did. The twit drove it over a cliff. Newf is … well, sort of my partner. I prefer to think of him as my adopted brother.
‘Come along,’ Jane said, grabbing my arm. ‘Let’s climb one mountain at a time, dear boy.’
I still felt tired and weak from all the hospitalisation. My mentality had also changed because of that terrible fight with Wilson. Now I understand what a hero is: it is not bravery and courage. Some people run when threatened – that is the smart thing to do – and some people freeze, but the so-called hero fights to the end, not having enough brains to run. Do you know why? Well, it is a form of insanity. When threatened, sensibility and reason evaporate. The hero is insane and can only see his prospective goal. Unconscious to the reality he finishes the job, even if it kills him. There is no conscious effort. Only when it is all over can the hero sit and realize the consequences. They are as mad as hatters – loonies. That’s me alright: a raving, bullet-catching nutcase.
Since the last pounding I received, my brain has changed. Now I think about death and danger. There is no way I will ever face a loaded gun again. It is, after all, madness to even contemplate it. I guess that is another reason I am afraid of Jane. One way or another she will lead me into trouble. Now I have Tan Chu-Ling coming home; the very thought of her makes my breath come in short gulps. A sweat broke out on my forehead as I thought about her. Maybe she won’t want a crippled, scared coward. I have never felt so
useless in my life. A terrible feeling of inadequacy crept over me. Maybe I shouldn’t go at all.
‘I can’t go,’ I said in a tremulous voice.
Jane could see I looked ill. ‘Poor boy,’ she said softly. ‘Come, you’ll get over it. It’s only nerves.’ She grabbed my hand and began leading me towards the front door of Gran’s house.
‘I need a coat.’
‘You get ready I’ll inform your grandmother as to where we’re going.’ She really is a good friend.
Alone at last I felt the tears come to my eyes. A torturous pain gripped my heart and made me tremble as I dressed for the cold. How could I face Tan Chu? She would be so shocked – I am not the man she once knew on that deadly island. While my head still circled in the clouds Jane came hustling back. In moments she had me outside and into her car.
‘I’ll drive,’ she said coldly. ‘I would like to outlive this trip.’
I needed Newf. That lanky goof had the extraordinary ability to boost my confidence, just as Jane could sap it.
The kilometres clicked by as I sat near paralysed in that woman’s car, speeding towards a reunion I had longed for but now dreaded. I could think of no excuse, no cover story. What would I say to Tan? How could I ask her to live with me? I began to wish that Wilson had killed me and then I wouldn’t have to go through all this. The pain in my heart felt so strong I was having difficulty keeping my stomach contents in place.
Pearson Airport is about 70 kilometres from Dundas, that’s about a forty-minute drive. By the time we arrived on Airport Drive I was feeling a little better, but still hadn’t thought of any good cover stories I could use.
‘When’s the plane land?’ I gasped.
Jane glanced at her watch. ‘Oh, we’re early, dear boy. It’s a Quantas flight via Singapore. The ETA is in one hour and forty minutes. That will give you time to take me for a decent meal. We can eat in the airport. God you look miserable, darling. Buck up – we’re not going to a funeral; we’re meeting Tan Chu-Ling. Now buck up and stop looking like your mother weaned you on lemons.’
‘Jane, I can’t go through with this, I just can’t.’
‘Alright, I’ll have her sent back to China if that’s what you want. I’m sure she’ll understand that you don’t want her any more.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘Then stop acting like an adolescent virgin in a whorehouse. Pull yourself together and think of poor Tan Chu. You stood up to Wilson for her, now just be there, just be normal. This woman has flown
halfway around the world to please you. Don’t destroy her hopes and dreams by being a wet noodle.’
She parked in the stack up “Park-and-Fly” and we walked to arrivals and checked the data screen. The flight was on time, which did little for my butterflies. In her usual bright and inimitable way, Jane grabbed me and started leading the way to a restaurant. I sure as hell did not feel like eating anything. I suddenly wished I had got a terminal bout of flu or something, anything that would incapacitate me. An ambulance ride out of the airport or something would do just fine. Anything that would make them say, “Ah! there goes poor Bill Reyner.”
I watched Jane eat, as I couldn’t stomach anything. For Methuselah’s grandmother I guess she was sort of attractive in her own way. And that South African-like accent made her … well, let’s say different.
‘So how old are you, Jane?’ I said without thinking.
She licked her lips like some dog that had just spotted a bone. ‘If I’d wanted you to know, darling boy,’ she said with twinkling eyes, ‘I would have worn a sign. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to ask a lady her age?’
‘Sure. So how old are you?’
‘In 1975 I was only half as old as I am now. Would you like a drink, darling?’
Somehow or other my brain had died; she had told me how old she was but I could not figure it out. Carefully examining her features I estimated her age at, say … well over forty or maybe over fifty. All that make-up and paint smeared on her kisser was great camouflage. She’s so thin; I would bet at age twenty people thought she was a child. I kept checking my watch. Man! time flew by. Jane led the way and we walked to the arrivals area. My heart pounded so hard I am sure it reduced my lifespan by several years.
The plane landed on time. I began to feel violently sick as people started emerging from the disembarkation area. Then the doors opened and a flood of people scrambled through. Most were Asian and almost all wore flimsy, tropical clothing. Didn’t anyone tell them this was Canada where we have real weather? I can tell you that I almost tossed my cookies when I spotted Tan Chu. My heart must have stopped – or it felt like it. Jane jumped with excitement and yelled, waving her arms about like a mad thing.
Oh God! Tan Chu looked squarely into my eyes. My soul evaporated and my knees began to buckle. I swear someone else had used all the air in that
building, leaving none left to breathe. There sure wasn’t enough for me to share.
‘Tan Chu!’ I gasped with my last breath of atmosphere.
Like a magnificent dream she glided towards me. Then I noticed. Oh my God! The shock – the absolute … whatever! She was the most pregnant woman I have ever seen. If I had not had Jane to lean on I swear I would have collapsed in a heap on the spot.
‘You are disappointed?’ she said, just standing there with a little case in each hand.
‘Disappointed?’ I gasped. ‘No.’
‘I am fat with child.’
‘Fat? No. I, er … well. Hi.’
‘For Christ’s sake, kiss her,’ Jane growled.
I staggered forward, forgetting about my own infirmities and disfiguration. As soon as I placed my arms around her all I wanted to do was weep. The tears came without prompting. She felt soft, warm and at home. ‘I’m sorry,’ I gasped, almost unable to speak for blubbering.
After a few moments I was able to pull myself together and pick up her bags. Then we all fought our way to the crowded exit and so to the car. Poor Tan Chu, she was not dressed for this rugged Canadian climate. Her thin clothing gave her no protection from the bitter cold of a January day. Fortunately, the car still had some heat and when the engine started there would be plenty of warmth to go round. I could see by her expression she had not expected weather like this.
‘So how are you?’ I asked like an idiot.
She did not answer until we were both comfortably sat in the back. Jane drove and said nothing.
Tan Chu stroked her swollen abdomen and said, ‘You did not expect this.’
‘No, yes … well. I … Like when?’
‘The baby I carry is yours. Do you still want me?’
‘Well … Yes, yes. I didn’t know where you where until this morning. Jane told me.’
‘I did not want her to tell you. I thought you would not want to see me.’
‘That’s crazy. I was afraid you wouldn’t want me. I mean look at me. I’m a cripple and scared.’
She smiled, leaned forward and kissed me gently. ‘I did not know if you were alive until I got a letter from Miss Overland. She tell me how you miss me and how you spend ver’ long time in hospital. You are brave and strong. I cry, for I know you would not want me.’
I pulled her close to me and hugged her. ‘I do, I really do. Honest.’
‘Miss Overland say she spend much time and money to find me. She say she give me job and look after me if you don’t want me.’
‘But I do.’
‘You make good father, but no more shooting, no more you chase the bad man.’
I couldn’t help it – tears crept into my eyes. ‘I promise. I wanted to marry you before and I still do. Will you marry me?’
She snuggled close and relaxed in my grip. ‘Yes.’
I could see Jane smile through the rear-view mirror. ‘Tan Chu, if a person was half their age in 1975, how old would they be now?’
Without even thinking about it she said, ‘Fifty-eight.’
‘How could you figure it out that quickly?’
‘Easy, my dear William. Just think about it. 1975 was twenty-nine years ago. Twice twenty-nine is fifty-eight.’
‘Oh! Yeah.’ Man I could not believe it. Jane Overland, 58 years old. That’s almost as old as Gran. Wow! she looks marvellous for her age.
‘How is your grandmother?’ Tan asked.
‘Oh, Gran? Oh, gee. She’s okay, I guess.’
‘I see her get shot on the island.’
‘Oh! yeah. Well she’s okay now. That was in August, almost six months ago.’ I felt like a stupid school kid with nothing of consequence to say. All I could do was answer her questions. Somehow my brain seemed fogged and inoperative. I couldn’t help but think she was rather large for only six months’ pregnant. Was that normal? How could I ask such a question?
‘When, like … er, so when’s the baby due?’
She smiled. ‘May.’
‘May. Oh! okay.’ Under the circumstances the mental arithmetic was just too much for my befuddled brain to deal with.
‘You are displeased?’
‘No. Oh no, not really. Honest.’
It just wasn’t like the time we knew each other last summer. I felt stupid and awkward; something seemed to be underlying every word, every thought. Almost as if this wasn’t the woman I knew up on Severn’s Island.
At long and thankful last the car pulled into our driveway at my Gran’s house in Dundas. It would have been much nicer if Tan Chu had arrived in spring. Now all the deciduous trees were naked and the gardens looked like snow-sprinkled jungles. Even the house had a dowdy look. The car stopped and Gran opened the front door of the house. I felt sick again. Walking without my walking stick made life far more
difficult, but somehow I just didn’t want to look like a cripple and especially in Tan Chu’s eyes.
‘Come along, children,’ encouraged Gran as she ushered us all into the warm house.
Newf and Mary were in the living room. Man what a fuss. Talk about a reunion. Tan Chu brightened up when she saw Newf. They hugged for a brief moment. Mary seemed quiet but Gran quickly made everyone feel at home. Tea and biscuits appeared from nowhere and a homecoming party began. Jane sat quiet and somewhat sullen. I could see the deep glee in her eyes, but for once she didn’t flash all and sundry. I fell onto a chair, glad to get the weight off my feet at last.
Gran’s a funny old girl. In moments she had everything organised. A room had already been prepared for Tan Chu, like I was the only one in the world who did not know she was on her way to Canada. After Jane had gone home and Newf left to drive Mary home, Tan Chu went to her room and Gran cornered me.
‘We must have words,’ she said, leading me to the sofa.
‘What’s the problem, Gran?’
‘We met Miss Tan during a life-threatening adventure. Life is intense under those circumstances. Now we are at ease perhaps things do not look so colourful.’
‘What are you getting at, Gran?’
‘Jane spent a lot of money and time finding Miss Tan. We were all sworn to secrecy. Now you have seen her and you see she is carrying a child, William. What do you intend to do about it?’
‘Do about it? Like what do you mean?’
‘The child is your responsibility. I for one wish to know what your decision will be.’
‘For heaven’s sake, William. Have you been eating parrot food?’
‘Parrot food?’ She stared at me, oh boy! Those eyes cut through like lasers. In moments I would be reduced to a skeleton. ‘What do you want me to say, Gran?’
She took a deep breath. ‘You have three options, young man. You can send her back to China, or you can finance and sponsor her, or you can marry her. I see no difficulty. But the decision is entirely yours. If you send her back to China, then the case is closed. If you sponsor her she becomes your responsibility and the child will be born here in Canada. This would be a fair and amicable settlement. Finally, if you should decide to marry her ....’ she stopped and a tear trickled from her tired eyes. ‘If you marry her, then the child will become ours, William.’
‘Your son, my great-grandson. Do you want to spend the rest of your life with this woman or was she just one of your passing whims?’
I don’t know why Gran picks on me like that. ‘Why do I have to make a decision right now?’
For a moment she pouted; you could almost see the cogs turning. After a short and pregnant silence she said, ‘William, it is not for me to conduct your life for you. I do think it is time you stood up to your own responsibilities, though. You are no longer a child. In fact, you’re soon to be a father. All I require from you is honesty. Pause a moment to ponder the future. Make a meaningful decision, but please make a decision.’
‘I don’t see that one is required at this moment, Gran. I’ve got a lot to think about.’
‘I have helped pay for this young woman to come to Canada. I thought that I, for one, would like to see my great-grandson. Do you feel any responsibility at all?’
‘Well of course I do.’
‘So what are you going to do about it?’
‘I would have found her myself. But you know I’ve only been out of hospital a short time. I’m crippled, Gran. I would have searched for her. You know I would. What do you mean grandson?’
‘Never mind. And stop feeling sorry for yourself and carry out your duty like a gentleman.’
‘I will, Gran. If she’ll have me, I’ll marry her.’
Gran smiled. You could see her deflate as the fears fled. ‘Excellent, my boy. Then we shall proceed with the wedding plans. I do not want you in that young lady’s room until you’re legally married. Do I make myself clearly understood?’
Gees! she’s a bossy old broad. ‘Yes, Gran.’
Funny thing, as I walked to my own room I felt much better, more at peace with the world and myself. My exploits on Severn’s Island felt more like a dream, or a nightmare. Somehow none of it seemed real. Tan Chu brought all the fog back into focus. I guess because I never saw the end of that case it somehow still lives in my heart. I still see Wilson in my dreams, standing there firing at me. I can feel those bullets ripping through my body and I can’t get to him. Just thinking about it brings me out in a cold sweat, as if I live that nightmare over and over again.
Now I have a new and terrifying road to travel. The thought of being a father shortens my breath quicker than a loaded gun. At least Reyner Investigations Ltd has been dissolved. Gran gave up her tea garden and Newf’s never had a real job in his life. I do not need
work and can live comfortably on the interest from my investments. Even Cromlet Castle pays for itself, but that’s Gran’s, anyway. As I lay on my bed thinking about the future I came up with a new plan: I have my nice new Rolls and I’ll buy a new Cloudier; she was my aeroplane. Then maybe I’ll find a nice house by the lake shore and settle down to be a dad and a rich bum. Perfect.