K. Francis Ryan

Echoes Through the Mist - Chapter One

     “Should we kill ’im now?” A tall, thin man with a pale complexion and cold eyes thought a moment before he smiled.

     “This, Mr. Lynch, my large and blood-thirsty friend, this is the Republic of Ireland. So one of your men went to a pub, got drunk and decided to flap his gob and endanger my plans and me, what of it?”

     The large man became uneasy with his employer’s tone.

     “Should we kill him? Certainly not.” The Pale Man continued as his smile evaporated. “You’re the one I should kill for allowing this to happen.”

     The man’s tone was casual as though he was discussing the weather, but the air in the room became electric with malice. He looked down at the pulped and bloody body of a small, older man tied to a chair and smiled again.

     “This is the twenty-first century. We aren’t barbarians. No, my little friend, no one is going to put a bullet behind your ear and leave you by the side of the road tonight. Go home to your family and let’s have no more of this.”

     The old man struggled against the rope that bound him to the chair. Gratitude glistened in his eyes.

The Pale Man pointed to the door and said to Lynch. “Have your men throw him out, but I don’t think they should stand too close.”

     Two men emerged from the shadows in the room, untied the prisoner and led him away. A clock in the deep recesses of the cold, nearly empty manor house sounded the hour. The large man and his employer faced each other and, again, the Pale Man smiled his twisted smile, closed his eyes and drew a long breath.

     When he opened his eyes, a protracted terror-laden scream sliced through the night and then was gone. Heavy boots echoed down the hall. The study door was thrown open.

     “Mr. Lynch, sor, sweet Jeasas, but isn’t Donny Pearce altogether dead.”

     Big Tom Lynch nodded slowly toward his employer. “We’ll leave what’s left on the side of the road.” He looked at the Pale Man and wondered whether what he saw was a look of self-satisfaction or perhaps, madness. What he knew for sure was that he was looking at the face of evil.

***

     Julian Blessing couldn’t help but grin, a thing one does not often do in New York City. An older gentleman, short and rumpled in a brown tweed suit had crashed onto the park bench next to Julian in a cascade of papers and books.

     Julian helped his companion pick up his books and scribbled notes and deposit them in the man’s battle-scarred valise. In a huff, he told Julian, “Tell constables and magistrates alike, Professor Reginald Bragonier, recently arrived here to your fair New York City from Dublin, Ireland, was witched unto death by his esteemed wife, Bridget Bragonier! Bloody hell!”

     The man’s voice was raspy, precise and British. “I will tell you something friend,” the professor said. “One day my bleached bones will be found alongside some footpath. Yes, all because I was rushing along trying to make one impossible rendezvous or another with my wife. She is the very devil when it comes to punctuality. I tell you, should I not survive this trip, I want you to be my witness.”

     “Witched unto death? That’s very good,” Julian said with a chuckle as he regained his place on the bench. “Not my words, old boy, but that doesn’t keep them from being true. It was from a play produced in 1620 – or was it 1621? No matter, it was a long time ago. I am so sorry. Here we have been chatting like good companions and I’ve not introduced myself. I can only blame it on my having been among the Irish for so long. I tell you I endure a veritable shower of savages daily. It is my cross in life.”

     Julian smiled and said, “Professor Reginald Bragonier of Dublin, Ireland, yes, you said. I am Julian Blessing. I take it you are meeting your wife here and that she is some sort of witch – in the figurative sense of course. I had one of those once – in a terrifyingly real sense, I assure you.” The professor answered thoughtfully, “Indeed, however, there is nothing figurative about the lovely Bridget – would that it was so simple. “Perhaps not a witch in the technical sense,” he continued, “but she does have the Sight, what in Gaelic is called An Da Shealladh. Don’t try to pronounce it. It will only drive you mad and in the end, you’ll have probably got it wrong. No three Irishmen agree on the correct pronunciation of anything in their language. They do that just to irritate the rest of us.

     “Anyway, the Sight is quite frightening really, but I've learned to live with it over time. She is replete with bushel baskets of other surprises too, each one more disconcerting than the last. Can't say all of it didn't scare the hell out of me when we first met. “The woman simply knows things – things she has no way of knowing. That, and she appears where she has no business being. Let us hope she does not know I arrived a smidgen late, what?”

     “Surely, you’re joking,” Julian said. “She’s clairvoyant. You honestly believe that?”

     “Believe it? I live by it. She glimpses pieces of the future.” The professor turned serious and continued. “She perceives things the rest of us cannot see and there is much we cannot see. “My friend, one does not live among the Irish without developing a robust respect for what we today write off as magic or superstition. I tell you, there was a time when those were considered science.” In a distracted undertone, the professor added, “In Ireland they still are, but that’s another story.

     “Oh, yes, I see your sly smile,” the professor said. “Well, let us hope my bride does not…” A tall, slim woman shimmered into view behind the professor.

     “Reginald,” she said, “Are you imparting your silly notions to this good man? Oh, I nearly forgot – you were late again, darling. Twenty minutes late in case you want to add that to your memoirs.”

     The woman’s voice was cultured and unhurried with a poetic Irish inflection and immaculate diction. Julian had the immediate impression that this woman would deal with life on her terms and life had better sit tight and wait its turn if it knew what was good for it.

     Although she had been speaking to the professor, her eyes never left Julian’s face and the slight smile never left her lips.

     The professor jumped to his feet and with evident delight embraced this graceful woman. Although her smile seemed to Julian to be mischievous and her blue-gray eyes kind, her glance was penetrating.

     She regarded Julian critically and openly, so he returned the favor. He saw her as a woman attractive, but not beautiful. This woman he thought of as having a spirit that was at once fascinating, radiant, and ultimately compassionate. To Julian, she was the exemplar of a vanished age. She was the personification of warmth without pretense and grace without effort.

     The woman’s face was a roadmap of fine lines and wrinkles giving evidence of a lifetime of full measures of pain and joy, sorrow and laughter. Lustrous silver hair fringed her face and framed perfectly her prominent nose and sensuous lips.

     She was of a certain age. That age, in her, bespoke compassion and a pragmatic tough-mindedness. This was not a person whom one underestimated with impunity. Julian knew it and he knew the professor’s wife knew it too. “Darling, Bridget, allow me to introduce my very good friend – even though we met only minutes ago, ah... Mr., hmmm, I knew it a moment ago...”

     At forty-two with the graying hair to prove it, Julian was privileged, educated and over the years had assembled a considerable personal portfolio. He was a modern-day alchemist – a high-powered stockbroker with a knack for turning money into a lot more money.

     Clients wanted him as their broker because he was Julian Blessing. He was somebody in the investment world. Unfortunately, he had only a murky idea of who Julian Blessing really was.

     There were things he did know. The economy had imploded. His workplace was toxic and likely to land him in jail. His ex-wife wanted to see him dead and he had been keeping a secret for a very long time.

     He was a man searching for new possibilities in a world that seemed to be closing off his options by the minute. Julian stood, hesitated a moment to clear his thoughts and then introduced himself.

     “I am Julian Blessing, and the professor has been good enough to tell me some remarkable things regarding Irish fables and folklore.” Julian smiled and took Mrs. Bragonier’s hand. At the touch, he experienced a mild and swift disorientation.

     A moderate electrical impulse left his hand tingling. For a long moment, Mrs. Bragonier looked into Julian’s face with open curiosity. Her hand felt warm and soft and Julian noticed his own trembled slightly in hers. Her eyes narrowed and slowly she smiled broadly, knowingly and released Julian’s hand.

     “Has he now?” she said and an eyebrow shot up. With a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, she continued addressing Julian. “He is a dear, sweet man and no woman could ask for a better partner in life.” She reached out and touched the professor’s hand and he beamed with pleasure, "But he suffers from a monumental ignorance as regards the Irish.”

     She leaned close to Julian and with a New Yorker’s instincts he drew away. In a stage whisper, she said, “The poor professor sadly suffers from the curse of his profession.”

     Her smile activated the fine network of lines at the corners of her eyes. For his part, Professor Reginald Bragonier revealed in her mischief and basked in the warm glow of her affection and attention.

     “You see, my husband is a professor of history at one of our universities. His presence is an oddity to be sure. An Englishman teaching history to the Irish – you need not look far for the irony there. He has dedicated his life to fabricated facts. He will beguile you with his knowledge of history and other outright lies. The man is a humbug you see.

     “Darling,” she smiled and said to her husband, “You were interested in finding a copy of the Irish Times. There is a bookshop just over there,” she said indicating a spot at the far end of the park. “They will have your newspaper.”

     “Was I? Well, yes I suppose I was, but I don’t remember. Bookshop you say. Right then, off I go then. I’ll be back in a wink.” The professor gave a jovial wave over his shoulder as he walked away, battle-weary valise in hand.

     “That will be the longest wink in history,” she said with an easy laugh. “I will give him a few moments but soon it would be best if I tag along with him or he will get into no end of trouble. Professors and books are a bad combination to be sure.”

     Mrs. Bragonier sat down on the bench and inclined her head indicating Julian should join her. “The professor believes you are clairvoyant.” Julian smiled.

     “And I take it, you do not put much stock in such things. That does not surprise me too much. Still, on this occasion my husband’s remarks do surprise me,” his companion said.

     “That is not the sort of thing he would confide to just anyone. In most regards, Reginald is cautious with people, although he does not appear so. You may number yourself among the very special,” the woman paused, smiled more broadly and continued, “In many more ways than you know.” She passed Julian a thoughtful look and they sat for a moment in silence.

     "To be sure,” Bridget Bragonier said at last. “It is a lovely park you have here Mr. Blessing, but what do you suppose brought you here today and not another day?”

     “It is an island in a sea of madness, I suppose. Today is just slightly madder than most. It helps to get out of my office and breathe what passes for fresh air in Manhattan. Nothing more than that, Mrs. Bragonier,” Julian said and turned with a smile to face his companion.

     “Is that what you think?” Her smile was eloquent. “If you will indulge an eccentric old woman – albeit, I should point out, a charming one – let me tell you what I know.” Julian nodded and waited to see what kind of scam this woman was running.

     Bridget Bragonier said, “You see, Mr. Blessing, you are unique. You are a man struggling with a number of mysteries. What I know, and you do not, is that you are here so that I may help you release the truth you have locked away, to say the words you have kept hidden and in so doing, to help you find your footing in the life that awaits you.”

     The remark caught Julian off guard and he dropped his smile. He was a man with prepared responses for everything. He had no snappy comeback now.

     “Something you cannot explain has happened in your life,” the woman continued. “That is, without including mental illness as part of your reasoning.” Her mood and manner were light, as though she was discussing a lunch menu instead of dissecting a man’s soul.

     The woman with the silver hair and the deep eyes drew closer to Julian. His thoughts were suspended when Mrs. Bragonier lightly touched his sleeve. He looked at her and any denial he was about to make died in his throat.

     It was impossible, he knew, but somehow her eyes had changed. There was a luminescent quality coming not from the mischievous, playful eyes of the professor’s wife, but from eyes ancient in depth and rich in meaning.

     She reached out and placed her left hand slowly, gently over his heart. He felt unable to stop her. Although every instinct screamed at him to run, he was unable to draw back from her.

     At the touch, Julian felt another low voltage jolt, stronger this time, that left him breathing rapidly and riveted to his spot on the bench. She was inside his defenses and there was nothing he could do about it. She knew his secret, a secret there was no way she or anyone could know. The woman’s hand never left his shirt front, the smile never left her lips and her eyes held his relentlessly.

     “The secret you keep regards the echoes you hear, which you have been hearing for some time,” the woman said.

     “You can, of course, make out the words, but are afraid to acknowledge them, let alone try to understand or accept them. Is this not true?”

     Julian’s silence answered for him.

     “You realize the words you are trying so desperately to reject are a key to your future. Therein lies the difficulty. You long to find a life worth living, a life far different from the one you have known. You hold the key to that life in your hand but are afraid to use it. And that is with good reason.

     “You have an important task ahead of you. It is, in fact, the most critical endeavor of your life and the lives of many others. For this reason, I am here to help you focus on what is important and disregard that which is not.

     “There is a place you need to be and that place is not here,” she said. What you do not yet see clearly is that you must find your place quickly because you have tasks to see to and a life’s work to discover.”

     She removed her hand. The connection was broken. Julian sagged visibly, feeling as though she had been supporting him, keeping him from toppling over.

     “What are the words, Mr. Blessing? Tell me what echoes you hear.”

     “You seem so well informed, why do you need me?” His voice was brittle.

     “For now at least the need, sir, is not mine, but yours.” Her smile disappeared and her expression turned serious and intense. “Say the words, Mr. Blessing. Not for me, but for yourself. Please, you need to do this. Oblige me quickly before your telephone rings and you are called away.”

     Julian looked at the ground. For months, he had heard the words whispered over and over. His mind cascaded over the previous months and a sea of emotion welled up inside him. Anger, frustration, bitterness, confusion and an aching sadness were all in attendance.

     He looked up, then closed his eyes and said in a strangled whisper, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” He opened his eyes and found sympathy and sadness etched on Bridget Bragonier’s face.

     She smiled her encouragement and said, “I will leave you so you may take your call in private.” She took a pen and small notepad from her purse. “Before you are called back to your office, let me give you the telephone number for our hotel. It is very near where the professor is lecturing. We will be in New York only for the week, but do call when you need my help.

     “The answers you seek, the direction you need to follow, will be made plain to you shortly. This much I understand. I do not know your answers, but you will know them soon. There are signposts ahead. Look for them.

     “Do not become distracted by the life you are currently leading, Mr. Blessing. The price of that distraction is far higher than you know.”

     The iPhone in Julian’s pocket went off. As he reached for it in confusion, Bridget Bragonier smile indulgently turned and walked away.

     “Julian, this is Olivia. You have to get back here right away,” said the familiar voice of his assistant. “No one is supposed to know. I heard about it by accident. There is something very wrong and you’re not going to be happy about it.”

     “What did you say?” His mind was racing in entirely too many directions. “Yes, sorry Olivia. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

     Julian pocketed his phone and looked up. Bridget Bragonier stopped fifty feet away. She turned to look at Julian and her face became serious and her eyes piercing.

     Her lips did not move, but her voice touched his mind. Julian felt every thought of hers, every nuance. He was frightened, but the words began to calm him in a way he could not explain.

     “Hush and calm your thoughts. Feel my words and believe me when I tell you, you have much to do and not a great deal of time left in which to do it.”

     She continued, “Remember, you will not be able to ignore the life that awaits you for much longer. Soon you will have to acknowledge the meaning of the echoes you hear. Allowing them to resonate within you will be the first step toward embracing your new life, the life you deserve and which has always been yours. Believe me, Mr. Blessing, it will be a life worth living, a life worthy of you.

     “I have troubled you enough. For the present, I will say only go and be well, Julian Blessing. We will talk again.”

     The lady with the searching gray eyes smiled slightly, turned, and walked off toward the bookstore.

***

The Hostile Takeover - Chapter One

 

     “I’m in love, Trevor,” Jeffery Harrison said to his older brother as the two walked the aisles of the immense Harrison Department Store. The brothers were unreasonably good-looking, the main difference between them was Jeffery knew it and his older brother, Trevor, did not.

     It was before opening time and Jeffery warmly greeted each employee he saw. Trevor had a polite smile plastered on his face and nodded to those he recognized.

     “Did you hear me, Trevor? I’m in love. Have been for a bit now.”

     Jeffery was the sort of person it was easy to envy. With a burning need to be social and natural ability to be gregarious, he was never alone and was always the center of attention. Jeffery maintained his wiry six-foot-tall frame even though he ate and drank everything to excess. He was fair-complected with blond hair and had sapphire blue eyes that mesmerized women and caused men to wonder if he wore contacts.

     Trevor turned and looked at his brother, squinted and shook his head.

     Taller by two inches and, at forty-five, ten years older, Trevor worked diligently to maintain his athletic build. His deep-set eyes, offset by his dark hair and complexion, were a disconcerting gunmetal gray that seemed to look at and into people.

     Unlike Jeffery, Trevor was not blessed with the common touch. His brother was social in the extreme and could, and did, talk to anyone about anything. Trevor preferred his own company to that of others. He easily maintained business relationships and rigorously avoided personal ones.

     “Jeffery,” Trevor said, his voice rich and resonant. “A bit is two weeks for you, but let’s put that aside. It is September and you have been in love four times this year. I don’t count Elizabeth. She was on to you too soon and gone within a few days of you proclaiming your love for her in the women’s activewear department. We won’t count last year. That was one for the record books. And the lucky woman this time?” Trevor enquired.

     “She’s blond with red highlights and a body like mortal sin. I tell you, Trevor, the woman has lips to die for and a figure that makes mannequins jealous. She and I are soulmates, I tell you. With her by my side, I could conquer worlds,” Jeffery declared.

     “I thought you and Elizabeth were going to conquer worlds together,” Trevor countered.

     “She didn’t understand me,” Jeffery complained.

     “That seems to be a common refrain throughout your relationships. At least from your point of view. To me, you seem easy to understand. You’re a simpleton. Does this angel of yours have a name?” Trevor asked.

     “She is the incredibly scrumptious Samantha Ford. You probably know her. She works upstairs somewhere,” Trevor stopped as they passed through the fine jewelry department. He waited for Jeffery to realize he was no longer beside him. Trevor approached his brother, took him by the arm and escorted Jeffery to the men’s fragrance section where they could be alone.

     “You do realize Samantha Ford doesn’t just work upstairs somewhere? She is our corporate counsel working on a critical project. She is the best there is and it cost Harrison’s a fortune to get her to come work for us.” Trevor’s whisper was a menacing rasp.

     “I can tell you she is worth each and every penny.” Jeffery seemed more delighted than ever and never saw the thundercloud that crossed his brother’s face.

     “Let me make this abundantly clear, Jeffery. Ms. Ford’s role here is vital to the company’s survival. If you do anything to jeopardize that, I will remove you as manager of the menswear department and you will be sorting mail in the basement for the rest of your life. And your salary will reflect your new-found position.

     “Stay clear of Samantha Ford. I don’t want her distracted for even a moment. Dragging her into yet another of your sordid love affairs is not something we either need or can afford. Do you understand me, Jeffery?” Trevor growled.

     Jeffery nodded and, following the advice out-of-sight-out-of-mind, scampered off to menswear to wait for Trevor’s rage to subside.

     Trevor stormed into his eighth-floor office and was greeted by his assistant Cynthia Maddox. Cynthia was a modest and perpetually calm woman of sixty years. She wore her hair in a permanent bun and her cornflower blue eyes could extract even the darkest secrets from people.

     She’d been with Harrison’s Department Store for decades, first working for the senior Mr. Harrison and now for Trevor. She was able to read her boss with ease and predict his reactions to nearly everything. There was nothing she did not know about the operations of the chain or, good and bad, about the Harrison brothers.

     “Did you know? And do not say ‘know what?’ because I’m not buying it. I’ve just been talking with Jeffery.”

     “I suppose, Mr. Trevor, you are referring to your brother attempting to romance Samantha Ford?” Cynthia asked with a smile and cocked her head to the side awaiting an answer.

     “So, you did know. You didn’t think to let me in on it? Of all people, you know how important this is, how important she is. How could you let this happen!” Trevor bellowed and planted himself in his chair behind an enormous desk.   The desk had sat where it did since before the first world war.

     “As for letting this happen, I did no such thing. Ms. Ford is nearly as solitary an oyster as you are. Everyone knows of her, but no one knows her and, again, like you, she likes it that way. I admit I was blindsided when I discovered Mr. Jeffery was seeing her though. I was even more surprised she was seeing him.

     “Do keep in mind, however, Ms. Ford is not a Ming vase, to be kept in a display case. She is a grown woman and can take care of herself. It is my opinion she is amusing herself with Mr. Jeffery, but will let him down gently at the proper time,” Cynthia concluded knowing she had appeased her boss.

     “How long has this been going on?” Trevor fumed. He stood and began to pace the room.

     “In reality or in Mr. Jeffery’s mind?” Cynthia asked.

     “Reality, please. Don’t tell me what takes place in Jeffery’s alleged mind. It is something I can’t afford to think about too much.

     “But it is key to the story,” Cynthia said. “In any case, in the real world, Mr. Jeffery was recovering from his last love affair the first day Ms. Ford arrived, so it took him until her second day before he was on to her. She was smart enough to pour cold water on him straight away and I thought it ended there.

     “In Mr. Jeffery’s mind, however, they have been soulmates through the centuries and in many incarnations,” Cynthia related and Trevor rolled his eyes.

     “What does that even mean?” he asked with a palms-up gesture and a pained expression.

     “Over the space of two months, they have been out a few times.” Cynthia looked pleased with herself.

     Trevor took up the thread again. “We cannot afford to allow anything or anyone to distract Ms. Ford. With a little luck and her skill, we might weather this takeover bid. Hell, we wouldn’t have even known there was a takeover in the works if she hadn’t come to us.

     “If we had a store in Siberia, Jeffery would be running the mukluk department before the day was out if it would keep him away from her.” Trevor stood and with his hands behind his back overlooked the city from his office window. “Please, keep an eye on this, Cynthia,” he said over his shoulder and then after a sigh, “And Cynthia, I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

     She stepped up next to him, smiled and bumped him with her shoulder. He gently bumped her back and smiled.  He had a nice smile.

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