Click, Flash and it was Done

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The day was unexceptional except for closing a huge deal with a famous investor.
He could have stolen my invention; I didn’t have the capital to pursue him in the courts. I was acting on faith (I know, stupid, right?). J. P. Moneybags was true to his word and decided to stump up the monstrous capital needed to bring my invention to production.

He gets 95% of the profits, and I get 5%. But that’s not as bad as it sounds because the patent is in my name.

5% of a lot of money is, well, a lot of money.

My needs are small, but my curiosity is insatiable, and that’s where it all started — my insatiable curiosity.
We needed a photo to mark the occasion. I could have shot it on my phone camera, but I wanted a chance to handle the fantastic camera my benefactor had lying on his office desk.
“May I?” I said, and he smiled.
“Do you think you can handle it?” said Moneybags.
I knew enough about digital cameras to know that there are way too many dials. I come from a time where we put film in cameras and, it has to be said, you needed to know a bit about shutter speeds and iris settings, but it wasn’t that hard.
“When was the last time you used it?” I asked.
“Earlier today. My secretary is having a birthday.”
“Did the shot come out well?”
“Yes, it did. Perfect, in fact.”
“Good, then the current settings will work fine. I can always tweak it a bit when you send me the photo.”
I grabbed the camera, found the command for a timed shot, scrambled across the room, held up my invention while standing next to J. P. Moneybags and his lawyer.
Click, flash, and it was done.
I handed Moneybags my card with my email address underlined, “When you get a moment, send it here,” I pointed to the spot on my card and Moneybags ignored me.
I wondered if I would get the photo, but it was in my inbox as soon as I woke up the next morning.
No matter what I tried, the file would not open. I regretted my decision not to take a backup shot on my phone.

At the end of a hectic day, I rang a friend, Michael, who knows a lot about computer files, “Can I send it over and see what you can do with it. I wouldn’t bother you but it’s an important photo,” I said brushing a piece of confetti out of my hair from the celebrations at work.
“No, worries; send it over.”
I parked the car outside Michael’s house on his leafy street — well lit and looking like a set from a 50s sitcom.
Michael opened the door when he saw me pull up. I hoped he didn’t offer me a drink because I didn’t think I’d make it home if he did.
“Mary is off at some book group or other, so we have the place to ourselves.”
Michael ushered me in with his usual flourish.

I’m out on my feet, and he’s just getting started. I’m buggered if I know where he gets his energy from.
“The kids?” I said.
“Asleep,” said Michael and I wished I was, asleep that is and not with his kids — they drive me crazy. One of them tried to push a crayon up my nose when I fell asleep at their Christmas barbecue. He learned a few new words that day.
“I’ve been working on the file, come and have a look,” said Micheal leading the way to his basement — his inner sanctum.
“It’s a photo file alright, and it’s a good thing you mentioned it otherwise I would have been at it all night. There’s a jpeg in there, but it’s protected by a folder I’ve never seen before. Cracked it, but. I rule.”
He does rule; it’s true. I’d follow him if he decided to be a king.
“Where were you when you took this. I thought you said you were in the financial district?”
“We were,” I said.
“As you know, (I didn’t) there’s all kinds of stuff embedded into a photo assuming that it is a modern camera, and it comes up as data if you know where to look. GPS data tells you where you were when the shot was taken (I did know that), but this is precise data — military-grade information. The kind of shit that drone pilots use to put out a cigarette and the bloke who is smoking it, on the other side of the world.”
“Holy shit,” was all I could think of to say.
“Where you say you were and where the photo says you were is about twenty kilometres apart. A swish new apartment block. Second floor up, south-east corner, in the middle of the room.”
“Does it say what colour my underpants were,” I said.
Michael checked the data, which made me nervous and said, “No.”
“Can you write that address down for me?”
Michael wrote it on an envelope which had the Pentagon as a return address.
“Really?” I said as I waved the envelope at him.
Michael laughed. “Just a friend I knew from my college days, remember that exchange student thing I went on?” (I did)
“He does that because he knows I will get a kick out of getting a letter from the Pentagon. And it might impress my friends.”
“It did,” I said.

We chatted about family and friends and work because I didn’t want him to think that I only called when I wanted something. I’m not sure that I fooled him, but I did find out that his youngest (remember the crayon incident?) is good with numbers and likes to climb trees but has no idea how to climb down. That revelation made me like this kid a little more than I had.

My eyes were in danger of closing, and I still had to drive home, so I made my leave and headed for my car.
“You have a good life, Micheal; you know that, don’t you?” I said, and Micheal agreed that his life was amazing.
As I drove off, I heard my phone ding and saw the photo file appear.
Tomorrow would be time enough to look at it and maybe check out that phantom address — for that’s what I was confident it was, a phantom, a rare mistake from a system that does not make mistakes.

I slept late, rang the office while I was having a pee, “What’s that noise?” said my secretary. “Just washing some veggies before making juice,” I said. “You had better not be talking to me while urinating,” said my secretary. “As if I would,” I said. I juggled my phone with one hand and zipped up my fly with the other. “That sounded like a zipper,” said my secretary, sounding ever more hysterical. “No, just grating some lemon zest,” I said while wondering why I was tap dancing around my secretary — like she never makes calls on the toilet.

She assured me that the office would be fine without me for a day, and I felt a little letdown.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, before flushing.

The apartment building was indeed ‘swish’ as Michael and Google had predicted.
I pushed the button for what I assumed was the right apartment, and nothing happened. So, I did what I had seen on TV, I pushed all the buttons, and finally, the security door buzzed and clicked open. Thank goodness for midday pizza delivery.

I skipped the chrome and glass elevator and headed for the stairs. The foyer was clean and bright, and an original oil painting was fading in the sunlight on the wall. I touched the frame as I walked by, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a good luck thing. I’m sure I’ve seen Bruce Willis do it in a movie.
The white marble stairs gave a satisfying click under my heals. The dark timber polished handrails felt pleasant to the touch, and I ran my hand over them as I climbed.
A large 2B sign was on the door at the top of the stairs, and I watched the ornate 1930s style peephole to see if anyone looked out after I buzzed.

The thick timber door swung open, and there stood another me.
He wasn’t dressed the way I would dress, but if he climbed into my clothes, he would pass as me. He didn’t look at all surprised to be looking at his double, while I was lost for words.
“Can I help you,” my other said, and he sounded like me.
“This is going to sound a bit strange, but how long have you lived here?” My ‘other’ seemed confused by the question.
“Forever, I guess. Not sure exactly. Is it important?”
“Not really, I was just wondering,” I said.
“Come in, let’s be comfortable while you wonder.”
The apartment was spectacular. Like something that Buzby Berkley would have designed. It took my breath away. A building on the other side of the street obstructed the view just enough to be annoying, but even so, the outlook was pleasant.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked, and I expected him to be annoyed by my questions.
“No. There are two other fellows who I share with.”
“For how long?”
“Oh, forever,” he said in a dreamy tone.
“Where are they now?”
“Oh, Peter is in his room, but Jason went out a while ago. He’s very successful,” said my ‘other’.
“Drink?”
“Yes, please,” I said. “Scotch, if you have it.”

“I do like a man who isn’t frightened to drink during the day.”
Drink was the least frightening thing in my world at that moment.
“Oh, Peter, this is …”
“Sebastian,” I said and there before me was an exact copy of the lawyer from Moneybags office. He put out his hand, and I shook it.
“Your other friend, Jason. Is he older, grey hair sounds like a walrus when he talks.”
“Why, yes he does.”
“How long have you blokes know each other?” I asked.
“Forever,” they said in unison.
“Can you remember last Friday?” I said.
They looked at each other and said, “Not really. Is it important?”
“No, nothing to worry about,” I said.
Neither of the men had shown any irritation at my barrage of questions, and I’ll bet that if I’d kept it up, their memories would have extended back to about the middle of yesterday.

“So, did you check out the address I gave you,” said Michael.
“I did,” I said as I dodged one of Michaels small progeny. “Is there any chance of continuing this conversation somewhere less dangerous. Your boys seem to head for my balls at every opportunity.”
“Yeah. They think it’s funny,” said Michael.
We escaped to the relative safety of Micheal dungeon office. The room looked exactly the way you would expect a mad professor’s office to look. The ceiling was so low that I could only stand upright between the ceiling joists. Michael is an inch or two shorter than me, so he skimmed under the threatening beams without too much damage. I sought the safety of an old office chair.
“You might want to sit down,” I said. “You aren’t going to believe what I found, and when I get to what I think is going on, you might want to call the men in white coats.”
Michael sat down without speaking.
I explained my encounter with the duplicates from my photo and their general lack of awareness.
“Could be a dozen reasons for all that,” said Michael none too convincingly.
“Really. Dozens?” I said.
“Well, maybe not dozens,” said Michael.
“I’d settle for one reason,” I said.
Michael was silent.
“You said there was even crazier stuff,” said Micheal.
“You remember the movie, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?”
“Yes. Awesome movie.”
“Well, I think it’s something like that. I think someone is planning to replace important people and do it slowly and quietly so as to not give the game away. Think about it. A lawyer and investor and an inventor. All high profile people with access to other high profile people.”
“So what happens to the people who have been replaced?”
“I haven’t worked that bit out yet, and I’m not sure I want to know,” I said.
“If I could just get a look at that camera I’d know a lot more,” I said.
“Good luck with that. Imagine the security your investor has. You’ve got no chance.”
“I don’t know what to do. Maybe I’ll go home and wait for them to come for me. At least then I’ll know what happens next.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re freaking me out,” said Michael.
Just then Michael’s youngest burst into the room with a crayon on each hand. I jumped up so violently the inevitable impact between my head and the ceiling joist caused me to lose consciousness.
When I woke up, a small boy was hovering over me with a blue crayon.
“You went boom,” he said. It was a difficult observation to argue with.
When my brain cleared, I went home, and they didn’t come for me, and it never occurred to me that I wasn’t important enough for them to worry about.

A newspaper article, about a month later, talked about the disappearance and sudden reappearance of a famous financier and his lawyer while on a hunting trip.
Apparently, the two men were lucky that they were found after going missing in rugged bushland. Some arsehole dumped a dog in the bush and it found the men and led them to safety.  The woman who wrote the article said that the men would take some time to recover from their ordeal and that they seemed confused and disoriented — which was only to be expected. She didn’t mention what happened to the dog. The writer also said that there had been a string of high profile disappearances and reappearances over the past two years, but police sources said that it was only a coincidence. The chief of police, who went missing on a hunting trip with friends, said that the experience had done him no harm and that there was nothing to be worried about. The article was accompanied by a series of photographs taken before the hunting trips began, but no shots showing the survivors after their ordeal.

I made a mental note to refuse any invitations to go hunting now, or at any time in the future.

Dumplings

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Helen prepared lunch — dumplings, one of her specialities. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. No work and the usual sounds of neighbours mowing lawns or talking to invited friends was thankfully absent. Only the sound of a gentle breeze moving through the trees penetrated Helen’s kitchen.
The sound of footsteps, large and heavy, made her turn towards the glass door that led to the back yard.
His silhouette was motionless.
Helen should have been startled. The person behind the silhouette was familiar and warm, or so it seemed to her.
“Can I have some of those?” said the man.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Helen.

The aromas of the outdoors rushed past the man and into the kitchen, momentarily brushing away the smell of her dumplings.
Helen returned with a Japanese bowl, part of a set — perfect for dumplings. The bowl held three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he preferred them when eating Asian food.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m really hungry. I’ve walked a long way.”
The man was dressed in long pants and a shirt — both clean but unironed, giving him a mildly unkempt look. His sneakers were dusty, and his hair was tousled from the breeze — he didn’t bother to brush it.
“These are very good. I remember these. You are a very good cook,” said the man.
“Where have you been?” asked Helen, as she sat at the small kitchen table with her dumplings getting cold.
“Traveling. Coming home.”
“What happened to you?”
The man did not answer, he was finishing the last of his food. “Is there any more?”
Helen took his bowl and put three more dumplings in it. She was saving them to take to work the next day.
“Where were you travelling from?” asked Helen.
“A long way away,” said the man with a mouth full of food. “I started in Queensland, and I travelled along the coast until I reached Melbourne.”
“Have you been travelling all this time? All these years?”
“Yes.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
The man didn’t answer. He was strangely calm, and hungry.
“Can I have water?”
Helen filled a glass and put it in front of him. His smell filled her nostrils.
“I’m very tired. Can I lie down on the couch? You do still have the couch?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
The man lay down and fell asleep. He was still asleep several hours later when Helen went to bed.
When Helen’s alarm went off, she went out to the kitchen and put the coffee on. For a moment she thought she may have dreamt the previous day’s appearance. She pocked her head around the corner of the door and peeked into the darkened loungeroom. The couch was empty. Maybe she had dreamt it.
Helen prepared for her working day and as she walked through the kitchen on her way out she saw the two dumpling bowls lying in the sink.

“He looks so much like your late husband — my heart skipped a beat when I saw him,” said Helen’s neighbour.
Glenis and her husband, Bill had lived next door to Helen and Charles for several years. They moved into their houses only two weekends apart. Not exactly fast friends, but friends all the same. Someone to have coffee with on a day off from work.
Helen had a full-time job and still does. Back then it was a way of ‘getting ahead’ — saving for ‘things’, holidays, cars, furniture, maybe a baby — maybe. Now her job was part of her survival, financial and emotional.
Glenis didn’t work, not in the traditional sense. Her life revolved around her husband and his career, the house and the children. It wasn’t enough, but she never said it out loud — out loud would make it real.
Glenis was often at a loose end, and this was one of those days.
The sudden appearance of Charles’ doppelganger was too much for Glenis; she needed answers.
“He’s Charles brother,” said Helen.
“Why haven’t we seen him before? We’ve lived next to each other for years, and I’ve never seen him before.”
Helen could feel the insistence in Glenis’s words, and it would only be a matter of time before she said something that Glenis would latch on to. Better to be rude and end this — at least for now. Helen knew that putting her neighbour off would only give her a moment’s rest; she’d be back.
“He’s been working on the oil rigs. I really do have a terrible headache Glenis. Could you excuse me, I need to lie down.”
For a moment, Glenis considered the possibility of hanging around while Helen slept. A chance to look around and see what she could see, but she quickly abandoned the idea.
“Of course dear. You rest. You must be tired.” I wonder what you and the brother get up to when no one can see.
Glenis took her unspoken innuendo and went home.

Helen was dreamy and distracted at work, but no one noticed. Her workplace was dull and predictable with people on autopilot — not rude, just not fully there. Helen bought her lunch from the cafe on the corner and thought about the dumplings she planned to eat. She told none of her workmates about her encounter.
At the end of her working day, her ride home was uneventful. The train carriage was full of the usual assortment of daily commuters. A high school boy offered her his seat, which she gladly accepted. The boy quickly went back to talking to his friends, and her encounter with him was virtually wordless — all hand gestures and eye contact.

When Helen arrived home, she cautiously entered her home, happy to have avoided her neighbour who seemed to be perpetually at her front gate.
There was no one in her house. What was she expecting?
The neighbour’s cat walked in when she opened the back door and curled around her legs.
“Am I your first port of call Puss, or have you been working the neighbourhood all day?”
The cat purred, which could have meant anything.
Helen gave the cat some scraps, and it curled around her legs again before eating and gracefully walking out into the backyard on her way to visit her next benefactor.
Tuesday went a lot like Monday and Wednesday was threatening to do the same, but when she got home, Helen made a cup of tea and watched the sun go down from the comfort of her kitchen table.
When the man appeared she didn’t jump, didn’t show any signs of surprise or alarm — she was back in that dream again. She wondered if she had fallen asleep at the table — she was tired enough, but she seemed to be awake, either that or this was a very vivid dream.
“Do you have any more of those dumplings. I love your dumplings,” he said while standing in the doorway wearing the same clothes he had a few days before. His hair still needed brushing, but the beard she remembered from all those years ago was gone. That’s what it was, the beard.
“When did you shave off the beard?” she heard herself say.
“Not long after I came back — a few days after, I guess. I saw myself reflected in a shop window and I thought, ‘that’s not me anymore’, so I shaved it off.”
“How?” asked Helen.
“A friend loaned me his razor.”
“Did he help you get back home?”
“Not directly, but I stayed with him for a while. He taught me how to fish. It turns out that I’m pretty good at it. He gave me somewhere to stay for a while, but then he disappeared, so I hit the road.”
Helen got a packet mix from her pantry and began to make the shells for dumplings. The whole process took a little while, and the two people inhabiting the tidy kitchen remained silent until the steaming dumplings were ready to eat.
The man hunched over his bowl with the steam curling around his face.
Helen made more than she usually did in anticipation of her lunch and the request that she knew would come.
“May I have some more please?”

The man slept on Helen’s couch, and he was still there in the morning.
Helen anticipated his presence and wrapped herself in a floral dressing gown hiding her naked, freshly rested body.
She pulled the gown tighter as she walked into the lounge room. Despite his recent disappearance, she was sure he would still be there this time.
He sat up when she entered, stretched and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you want a shower before breakfast?” Helen asked.
“No, you can have it. I’ll shower when you go to work,” he said.
“Eggs or cereal?”
“Do you still have that cereal that pops when you put milk on it?”
“Yes, but I don’t know why. Force of habit I guess. I never eat it.”
“Can I have some?”
“It might be past its ‘use by’ date. I’ll check.”
Helen made toast and put a tiny amount of Vegemite on hers. She nibbled at the edges of her toast as the man gobbled down his cereal. “Can I have some more?”
Helen showered and dressed. She paused at the front door and said, “Will you be here when I get home? I have a student coming around at 7pm. I should be home before then.” The man smiled at her but did not answer.

Helen’s working day seemed to take forever, even more so than usual. The numbers swirled on the page — no one noticed her distress.

Widows learn how to hide their pain.

The man was still there when she arrived home, and she barely had time to grab a snack before her student came with her mother in tow.

The mother of the maths student eyed the man before expressing her concern about her daughter’s grades.
“I pay you a lot of money to tutor Annabel, and her grades don’t seem to be improving,” said the slightly overdressed lady. Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Why do I have to do maths? I’m going to marry some rich bloke who owns his own panel beating business, and I’ll never need to work. Numbers suck.”
When someone starts to embezzle money from your husband’s panel beating business, it would be handy if you had enough knowledge to see it happening before you both went broke, and you have to go out to work, thought Helen, but all the mother saw was a smile.
“Annabel needs to apply herself and do the assignments I set for her, then her grades will improve,” said Helen as pleasantly as possible.
The tutoring work was necessary because her job was not enough to keep body and soul together since her husband disappeared while working as a marine biologist on assignment in Queensland.
It had been a struggle, but she had managed to hang on to the house. The insurance company would not pay out on Charles’ life policy in the absence of a body. Seven years was a long time to wait for some financial relief. His employer had tried to be helpful and had paid her all his accrued holiday pay and long service leave, but it only helped delay her penury.

When the reluctant student was gone, Helen made two cups of tea and joined the man who bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead husband, and they sat in silence until the man said, “Are all your students like her?”
“No. Some genuinely want to learn, but I can’t afford to turn anyone away.”
“Can you take some time off work? I’d like to show you where I’ve been.”
“I have some holidays due to me, but I don’t have a car anymore. I can’t just up and leave.”
“Why not?”
“Because I have a house to pay for and responsibilities.”
“I understand,” said the man and they sat in silence until it was time to sleep.

“My bed is very big and much more comfortable than the couch. You are welcome to share it,” said Helen who was avoiding eye contact.
“I’d like that,” said the man.
He waited long enough for her to prepare for bed and when he came into the bedroom, he noted that it was as tiny as the rest of the house. He walked around the bed and turned away before disrobing. Helen peeked over her shoulder and admired his tall, firm body — straight back and round buttocks. She looked away as he turned.
The man who looked like her dead husband slipped silently into bed curled up and faced away from her.
Helen could feel his warmth, and she longed to reach out and touch him but felt that such a move would be too bold.
Where had he been? Why was he here? Why did he seem so unconcerned?
For that matter, why was she not afraid. Her heart told her that he had not just run away. He had died. They never found his body, but he had died. There were witnesses to him falling off the research vessel. The witnesses were drunk, but they knew what they had seen. In the confusion, it took too long to turn the boat around.
This was the official version that came from the inquest. They called it an open finding, which meant that there was not enough evidence to show what had happened. The indistinct nature of the finding gave the insurance company a reason not to pay out on his personal life insurance. They wouldn’t pay out on the company policy either. Taking the company to court would most likely bring a result and force them to pay up, but Helen had neither the money or the energy to fight them. Something they were probably counting on. His employer only had to wait until the seven years was up and they would collect — with interest — cheaper and easier.

When Helen awoke, she was alone in her bed.
The man who smelled a lot like her husband was in the kitchen eating cereal that popped when you put milk on it.
“Can you buy some of this today? It’s nearly all gone,” he said without looking up.
“Probably,” said Helen.
“You talk in your sleep,” said the man.
“Have I always done that,” asked Helen.
“I don’t remember,” said the man who likes the same cereal as her dead husband.

Helen drifted through her workday with the only highlight being a magpie in the park during lunch. It came up very close the way that birds do when they have chicks to feed — reckless parenthood. It warbled every time she gave it part of her sandwich.

Helen put her shopping bag down before unlocking the front door. The cereal box was bulky and threatening to burst through the thin plastic carry bag.

A Coin and an Incantation

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Not every writing desk has a hidden compartment.

Not every grandfather has a colourful past.

Not every grandfather starts out as a beige, boring bloke who has nothing interesting to say and turns into a charismatic public speaker driving a classic Bentley.

Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the Bentley or any of my grandfather’s possessions, with the exception of his writing desk.

I come from a long line of dull, steady males. The family business, so to speak, is numbers. More specifically, we have a skill for managing money — other people’s’, and in recent times, our own. Despite there being nine children in my grandfather’s family, his wealth was such that all his children inherited a vast fortune, and because of the aforementioned propensity for money management, our family is extremely well off — except for Uncle Billy, but that is a whole other story.

The writing desk arrived on the back of an ancient Chevy truck — early 1950s was my guess.

“Must be a bugger trying to get parts for that,” I said pointing at the relic of a previous century.

“Not really, I’ve been collecting ‘em for forty years. Used to be everywhere once. I keep two working and cannibalise the others for parts. People love ‘em. Just seeing them driving around gets me heaps of work — more than I can handle.”

He had a point, but the big rear wheels meant that it was quite a drop from the tray — a steep ramp and an ageing furniture removalist made for an unsettling spectacle.

Jim — he didn’t like being called James, even though his name was in metre high letters on the side of the truck — survived the ride down the ramp with the trolley and my newly acquired writing desk.

“I’ll bet you paid a pretty penny for this beauty?” said Jim, who was in danger of becoming chatty.

“Inherited it. Do you think it’s worth a bit?” I said.

“I don’t see pieces like this much anymore. Mostly, hard to move chipboard crap. This is old and well made. Weighs a ton, but that’s okay. I need to move something interesting now and then, or I start to wonder why I’m still doing this at my age.”

“I noticed that your truck says, and sons,” I didn’t get to finish my thought.

“Boys aren’t interested in the business. Moving shit around is beneath them, I guess.”

I didn’t push it because he sounded sad and I understood family disappointment.

“Can you put it in the front room, the one on the left?” I asked.

“Anywhere you like mate. It’s all the same to me,” he said with the hint of a friendly smile.

From the window of my house, I watched him pack up his truck and drive away.

My Californian bungalow was built in the 1930s in a quiet working-class suburb of Melbourne — my parents’ house, back in the day. They did the predictable thing and sold up and moved to Queensland where they promptly died. They lived long enough to get a decent tan before a tourist bus, laden with people from far away, compressed their car to the size of a pizza box.

A boring life lived for just one goal — to retire. A distracted bus driver took away their dream of unlimited shopping for ugly clothes and endless games of golf and poker.

My siblings and I were bequeathed an equal share of a considerable estate, and I took some of it and bought back our family home. The planets aligned and the property was for sale. “You were lucky to get this house — I had several buyers lined up — all original features.” I waited for his lips to stop moving before asking for the keys. His blue suit did not have a single spec of dust on it — I know this because I was inspecting it while he was giving me real estate speak, at a mile a minute.

“Luck had nothing to do with it,” I said when there was a nanosecond break in his speech.

“Pardon?”

“Luck had nothing to do with it. I paid 15% over the asking price, and I slipped your colleague $10,000 to make sure that the vendors didn’t get greedy.”

The man in the dust free blue suit didn’t speak again, and I could tell that his colleague had neglected to mention the little sweetener I had provided.

I remember my father saying that the writing desk had been in the family for a long time and that my grandfather had made some alterations to it.

It had been several months since the settling of my parent’s estate, so the arrival of the writing desk came as a surprise. It was my understanding that all their possessions were to be sold at auction. There wasn’t any paperwork — no explanation, just the desk. I was glad I was home when it came — finding it on my front doorstep would not have put a smile on my face.

I let it sit for several days until my curiosity got the better of me.

There was not a lot going on at the office, so I took a few days off to organise my newly acquired house. The inside of the house was still much the same as I remembered it as a kid. Naturally, some things were different, but all the features that made it unique were still there. The beautiful doors, the wood panelling and the polished floors. The pencil marks on the inside of the linen press doors had been lacquered over, which was a shame. I remember my mum lining me up every year on my birthday and carefully checking to see that my feet were flat on the floor.

Miraculously, the ornate brass key was still in the lock of the writing desk. It had a cardboard ticket attached to it by a thin yellowing string. There was something written on it in pencil, but it was indecipherable.

I turned the key, and the lock clicked into place easily. The timber shutter rolled back smoothly revealing the many pigeon holes and the embossed writing surface. The green leather inlay had been well used and was showing signs of wear. As far as I could see, there wasn’t anything in any of the compartments, but I was determined to search thoroughly — you never know what you may find. I’ve purchased some old pieces of furniture over the years, and some have produced the occasional gem. Old receipts taped to the bottom of drawers (did the new owners plan to return the piece for a refund?)

It was a warm afternoon. An intense light came through the windows of what was once my parents’ bedroom. To this day I’m not sure why, but I was sleeping in my old room just down the hall. The writing desk had my parent’s bedroom all to itself.

I pulled the heavy desk away from the wall, prised the thin timber planks from the back and peered inside. I saw what I expected to see — the superb workmanship of a master cabinetmaker. His maker’s mark was burned into the side of the cabinet where no-one would ever see it until the unit came apart from age and neglect. I sat and looked at his name burned gently into the rich cedar boards and tried to imagine what he was thinking before he completed his work by nailing on the wide planks at the back of the unit.

The wear on the drawer runners revealed which drawers had been the most popular.

The layout was beautiful and straightforward until I came to a feature that did not make sense. For a moment, I forgot that I was looking at the reverse side of a set of drawers because I was staring at a small drawer face which could only open in my direction — a hidden drawer! Exactly what I had hoped to find.

Usually, hidden drawers are activated by a lever mechanism. They reflected the security consciousness of their owner and the skill of their creator.

On this occasion, the owner did not want anyone to stumble upon its existence — this truly was a secret drawer.

You know that my breathing changed as I reached for the finger sized hole that served as a handle. Skillfully crafted, this drawer moved with the same ease as its more used cousins. I pulled it all the way out and held it in my hand. The drawer was not much larger than a packet of cigarettes and contained a silk wrapped mystery. An adventurous and inventive moth had nibbled at the edge of the exquisite fabric, but it was still intact. I delicately unfolded the cloth. The tender care that someone had taken reminded me of Furoshiki, the ancient art of Japanese gift wrapping.

Once revealed, the contents proved to be Chinese not Japanese, which was equally intriguing. A single gold coin, about the size of a fifty cent piece wrapped in an ancient material, probably velum. The words written on the vellum were Chinese in origin and my Chinese language skills were, and still are, deplorable.

“A gold coin and a bit of cloth with Chinese characters drawn in ink.”

“Let me have a look,” said the only Chinese friend I had at that time. Linda was born in Australia, but her parents insisted that she learn their native tongue.

“I have never seen some of these symbols before, but I’m pretty sure that that one says danger and this one here means crayfish,” said Linda.

It didn’t say crayfish, but I didn’t hold it against her. Her Chinese language professor spent two days researching the script, and when he got back to Linda he handed her the piece of material as if it was infected with smallpox, and he was a Canadian Indian.

“Take my advice and burn this,” he said with his grim eyes wide open. “I don’t know where you got it and I don’t want to know. Just get rid of it. Nothing good can come of this.”

Linda said that he would not talk to her after that and a short while later he resigned and moved to the United States where he became a huge success as a television evangelist.

“The dude was an atheist, for fuck sake,” said Linda one Friday night over several gin and tonics.

“I didn’t think Chinese people drank gin and tonic,” I said, just to make conversation.

“Fuck you and your little dog, white boy,” was her reply.

“No need to pick on the dog, lady,” was my retort.

It went on like that for about another hour and then I had to go. I jumped on a number twelve tram because I was in no fit state to drive.

I’m a circumspect kind of bloke, but the time had come.

When I arrived home, I had sobered up a bit, which was just as well. I fed my small dog which Linda had threatened to penetrate and took the translation that the recently installed televangelist had provided and sat in the comfortable chair by the gas fire.

I’d been foolishly carrying the gold coin around with me since I found it. I retrieved it from my pocket and held it in my left hand.

I was sick of being average.

I wanted what my grandfather had.

I held on tightly to the elaborately carved coin and carefully recited the words.

Nothing happened.

I tried facing in different directions — nothing happened.

I tried speaking slowly, shouting until my voice hurt, whispering — nothing happened.

My small dog sat patiently as I ran through these routines — he’s cool, he doesn’t judge.

I went to bed that night and slept soundly; my little dog curled up next to me. I should have been upset or angry, but I wasn’t. I felt light and free. As unencumbered as I have ever felt — no fear, no anxiety.

When I woke, I showered and ate breakfast, fed the dog and took him for a walk. At the end of our morning journey, I found an average sized man in an expensive suit standing on my verandah.

“Good morning. Are you Michael Find?” said the expensive suit.

“Yes, I am. Can I help you?” My small dog sniffed him and decided that he was not a threat. I trust my dog’s instincts when it comes to all things human.

“We received your manuscript, and they flew me down from Sydney just to talk to you about it. I can’t remember the last time they did that. The taxi dropped me off and left me here, and I’ve been waiting for you for nearly an hour.” He didn’t sound annoyed — he sounded desperate. “They told me if I didn’t come back with your signature on a contract they would make me read young adult manuscripts from the slush pile for the next twelve months.”

“You are going to have to slow down, man. I have no idea what this is all about,” I said. Amazingly, I still wasn’t angry, annoyed or anxious — I’d been like this since I woke up — it was an awesome way to be. “Come inside, and I’ll make us some coffee.”

I opened the big old redwood front door and led him into my kitchen. The coffee didn’t take long to brew, and we sat around the green Laminex kitchen table that I found sitting on my neighbour’s lawn a few weeks ago. I gave the desperate suit owner my second favourite coffee mug. I had to glue the handle back onto it after the move. I could have thrown it out, but some things should be repaired and cherished. This was the first time it had held coffee since its resurrection, and I admit to wondering if the glue was dry.

While staring at the patterns on the surface of my coffee, I remembered sending my manuscript to a bunch of publishers — about eighteen months ago.

“Who did you say you worked for?” I asked.

“Harper Collins,” he said, and I was sure that was one of them. “You haven’t signed with anyone else, have you? My boss will kill me if you have.”

“No, it’s still up for grabs.”

Whenever I come back from walking the dog, I always check the answering machine attached to my land line — yes, I still have one of those. The only time I receive phone calls is when I go to the toilet or walk the dog — which is one of many things that I am destined never to understand.

In all the excitement, I hadn’t checked, and something told me it would be a good idea if I did that now.

The red light was blinking and by the time the man from Harper Collins had finished his coffee I’d written down fourteen numbers — all from publishers wanting me to call them back urgently — I didn’t. Harper Collins had lost sleep to catch an early flight and sit on my verandah. He would do. The contract had more zeros than I had seen in a while and I knew that when I re-signed in twelve month’s time, I could name my price. That was how it would go — I knew what this was.

The symbol that Linda thought stood for crayfish was, in fact, an ancient symbol for turning one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘A complete turn around’ in modern parlance.

That was what happened to my grandfather — he turned from being an annoying arsehole into a mega successful real estate mogul — and it all happened overnight, so to speak.

He divorced his wife and married his curvaceous secretary, bought an expensive German car and holidayed in Europe — oh, and bought an antique writing desk.

Emily.

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This story is now part of ‘Slightly Spooky Stories’.

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This story is now part of TRUST: What it Feels Like To Be a Medium.

I was lucky to get this job.

Not because these kinds of jobs are hard to get but because this is exactly the kind of job that suits my mood.

It’s not that I don’t like people, there are one or two that I wouldn’t set fire to if I had the tools.

It’s just that people get me down.

They seem to be comfortable in this world; I’m not.

They rush around and they seem to know stuff; stuff I don’t know.

I’m not dumb, on the contrary, I have a good education bought and paid for by loving parents.

Much and all as I’d like to, I can’t blame them for my predicament; not that I’m looking for anyone to blame; just saying.

I was married, and she stuck it out way past the point where any ordinary person would have thrown in the towel; she isn’t any ordinary person, she’s amazing. I love her with all my heart and I will someday win her back. I just have to get back to being the person I used to be; I vaguely remember him, and I know I will know him when I meet him again.

The interview process for this job went a bit like this.

“Can you work any night of the week, and on short notice?”

“Yes, I can but a bit of notice would be nice.”

“What size are you?”

“I’m somewhere between a large and an extra-large, heading for largish, as long as this latest diet works.”

“You’re hired. When can you start?”

“Tomorrow?”

“How about tonight?

“I guess if I move a few things around I could start tonight.”

The few things that I needed to move around were mostly stuff that was on the dashboard of my car and my underwear needed adjusting; that shouldn’t take long.

Turns out that this five-star hotel belongs to a chain of five-star hotels and they have an HR department and very strict rules for the employment of new staff. A six-month trial is absolutely adhered to as is a police check and a rigorous background check including past employers and all education qualifications; none of which seemed to apply in my case.

It turns out that the front desk uniform was quite expensive and they had to supply it. I was the right size for the uniform recently vacated by a bloke named Eric who had been caught with his arm stuck in one of the vending machines.

Apparently it took a small fortune in small change before the machine would release him.

When he was told that he was dismissed he asked if he could keep the Mars Bar; they said that considering how hard he worked to get it, they would make an exception and let him keep it; which was kind and understanding on their part.

It also explained why my uniform smelled vaguely of milk chocolate and caramel.

It’s the first job I ever got simply because I was the right size.

Not that I’ve had a lot of jobs, and certainly not recently.

Six weeks working in a lottery shop just near the Casino came to an abrupt end when the psycho owner had one too many snipes at me. I’d tell you what I said when I left, but there are ladies present.

This was followed by a stint in another lottery business in one of those interesting old suburbs just a few kilometres out of Melbourne. All, ‘hipster food’ and ‘dodgy second-hand shops’ mixed with homeless people and indigenous families, and that was just on our corner.

I lost that job when I needed to be in hospital for a few days.

It was just before Christmas and my Christmas present was being told that I should not bother coming back; and could we please have our uniform back.

That job lasted nearly a year and I quite enjoyed it, even though it played on my nerves being around so many people, and all in blazing daylight as well.

The owner was a prick and I made the mistake of getting comfortable. My mistake.

Things got a wee bit worse after that even though I didn’t think that was possible at the time; isn’t it great to know that when you have gone as low as you think it is possible to go there is still another level of hell that you didn’t know about.

That bloke Dante knew a thing or two.

I’d been working here for a few weeks, just getting a handle on how things worked when I first met Joe.

His name was Mr. Hoskins, but he insisted that I call him Joe.

It was 4 o’clock in the morning and that seemed like a good time for first names.

He knew what mine was because of my name badge.

When I collected my uniform they told me they would have a name badge for me very quickly which is what happened, but for a few days I was Eric, that was the name that was pinned on the jacket when I first put it on.

I could imagine an ‘Eric’ getting his arm caught in a vending machine; possible even a Nigel or a Nick as well, but definitely an Eric.

My locker had all sorts of stuff left over from previous employees.

My favourite was a name badge with ‘Habib’ written on it.

I wondered if Habib had left to work in his uncle’s Seven Eleven store.

I seriously considered wearing that badge for a few days, but I thought that I might like this job, so better to stick with the ‘Eric’.

I love hotels, especially good hotels.

I love carpet.

I especially love carpet in good hotels; and old-time cinemas.

We didn’t have carpet when we were kids and I remember going to the cinema and sitting on the carpet and digging my fingers into the deep pile. I think that my dad thought I was a bit strange, but I could kick a football further than anyone my age so he probably preferred to dwell on that.

Joe and his young wife had checked in earlier in the day.

I didn’t know it when we first met but it was very close to an important anniversary for them and they had come into the city to spend a few days in ‘the big smoke’.

Joe was a friendly bloke and he didn’t treat me like an inferior which was likely to happen in a big hotel.

I didn’t care how people treated me; I knew then as I know now, who I am. I might be down and dusty, but I know who I am.

Joe just wanted to talk.

His young wife was asleep, which he said was unusual, so he did not want to disturb her.

“She needs her sleep. It’s been a tough year.”

A part of me wanted to ask why it had been a tough year, but a little voice told me to just listen.

“Our daughter, Emily, died almost exactly a year ago. I’ve read that losing a child often destroys a marriage. In our case it has brought us closer together.”

Joe wasn’t worried by the silence, and I certainly didn’t know how to fill it.

He just stood there, leaning on the front desk, staring into space.

He was an average looking bloke, about my height, clean-shaven, short hair and a little scar above one eye.

It was the kind of scar that probably had a good story to go with it.

I’ve got a couple of them, but you have to look hard to find them and at least one of them is in a place that only a mother or a lover is likely to notice.

Joe had good shoulders for an average sized bloke and I guessed that he had probably been a swimmer in his youth, maybe even a rower but it was hard to tell from his accent if he went to a private school and a dressing gown and slippers doesn’t tell you much about a person’s background.

After what seemed like forever Joe said, “It’s hardest on Mary. Mothers feel these things very deeply.”

Joe was putting his hurt second.

I didn’t want to even imagine what that hurt must feel like.

I’m not sure I would survive, but I guess no one knows until it’s their turn.

Another silence; and this time I felt the need to fill it.

“It must be tough Joe, I feel for you.”

It was a funny thing to say, one man to another, but I had to say something.

Joe managed a smile and said, “Yes, it’s very hard. I try to get on with things, and there is always work. Work helps, but Mary has the other kids to look after and I guess she is constantly reminded. Mothers never stop being mothers. My mum still thinks I’m twelve.”

“A couple of days away will help though, don’t you think? Who is looking after the little ones while you’re away?”

“My parents. They love having the kids come and stay. So we know they are in good hands.”

“Are you going to see the sights while you are in Melbourne?”

I was intentionally changing the subject, the way people around this bloke had done ever since his daughter had died. Modern man does not cope well with death and you can multiply that by a hundred when it comes to a dead child. It’s almost as if we feel like we might attract Death’s attention if we talk about it for too long. It gives me the shits, but I’m just as bad as the rest of them.

“We will, but mostly we are here to see Ian Holmyard.”

“Is he a friend?”

“No, he’s a Medium. A friend of ours recommended him. He’s said to be very good. Mary needs to know that Emily is okay. Neither of us have much time for all that religious mumbo jumbo but we do believe in God. Mary needs to know that Emily is safe and happy, you know, ‘over there’.”

“Do you believe in an ‘over there’?”

I bit my lip as soon as I said it.

Of course he believes in an ‘over there’, or at least his wife does. They need to believe….. you idiot…. keep your fucking mouth shut!

Joe didn’t notice my discomfort.

“I’m not sure. I guess I want to believe that Emily didn’t just disappear. I want to believe for Mary’s sake. I don’t mind if this bloke convinces me, but I’m going to need to be convinced. I’m going to need to be alert and remember what’s said because I’ve got the feeling that Mary is going to be in tears, and it’s hard to hear through tears. I know, I’ve tried.”

I’ll bet he has.

“Probably best if you record the meeting then.”

“That’s what Mr Holmyard said. Apparently you tend to forget what comes through. I don’t think I’m going to forget, but I’ll record it for Mary and if it goes well, she can play it back whenever she wants to.”

“Where do you have to go to see this Mr Holmyard?”

“He’s coming here, tomorrow night. He’s coming after he has had dinner with his family.”

“Producing a spirit is probably easier on a full stomach.”

I don’t know why I said that but Joe laughed and agreed.

It was nearly half past five and Joe decided that it was time to get a bit of sleep before Mary woke up. He thanked me for listening and all I wanted to do was burst into tears. I get like that over nothing and this certainly wasn’t nothing.

I told Joe I would keep an eye out for Mr Holmyard because I was on duty at ten, which was when he was expected.

Joe walked back toward the elevator and his gait was one of a man twice his age. I still had a couple of hours of my shift left and most of that time was taken up with hoping that Ian Holmyard was the real deal.

.

~oOo~

.

When the phone rang my wife took the call.

She likes answering phones and no matter how many times I tell her not to answer the phone around dinner time, she ignores me and ends up in endless conversations with people who have strange accents and want me to change my phone/water/electricity/gas/mobile phone/gym membership/ plan. And occasionally, like every day, donate to saving beached whales that don’t have enough warm clothes and have contracted some incurable disease; despite the fact that we have been funneling billions of dollars into research over the past forty years. Where does all that money go? Why haven’t we solved all the problems? We jumped on Aids/HIV by throwing obscene amounts of money at the problem so why am I worried about losing my memory/identity and becoming a vegetable. How about we let the whales have second-hand jumpers and do something about the distinct possibility that I may resemble a carrot in the not too distant future. And while we are at it, how about we do something about depression instead of throwing money at glitzy little ad’ agencies who spent their time make ads and brochures about how to get help. “Call this number if you feel like shit”.

I could hear the conversation and it didn’t sound like someone trying to sell us a book of ticket for restaurants that we will never eat at, it sounded like someone needed help.

“Oaky, so that’s 10 pm on Wednesday, Grand Hotel room 527. Ian will be there then.”

I will?

“Don’t look at me like that. This one is important. A young couple who lost their daughter about a year ago. She contracted a chest infection and died in hospital after having a severe Asthma attack. They did everything they could but they couldn’t bring her back.”

“I’ll be there.”

“I made the appointment later in the night so you could get a hot meal into you after work. They were okay with the time. They are in town for a couple of days.”

She looked right at me, the way that she sometimes does. “They came to town especially to see you.” I could sense the gravity in her voice, and also the pride.

She loves what I do even though she doesn’t understand how I do it.

Hell, I don’t understand how I do it.

My life was rolling along, as lives tend to do, and I knew I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be.

Nothing fancy, just happy every now and then.

Something was missing and I could not put my finger on it.

My wife Loraine is a ‘giver’, I’m not.

She thinks and worries about other people; I’ve got enough to worry about.

So, by all rights it should be her with this ability, not me.

When my unhappiness got to be a bit of a problem I tried all the usual things.

I got myself twisted into strange shapes in Yoga classes.

My male friends thought it was hilarious when they found out.

They subscribe to the Aussie theory that more beer solves everything.

I tried that too.

It didn’t work, and it was eating into our budget.

I tried ‘shrinks’ and antidepressants, and let me tell you those things are murder.

I’ve never felt that bad, and when my eyesight started to give out I threw them out and went ‘cold turkey’, which was huge mistake.

I rang the poisons hot line and said that I thought I was going to die. “You aren’t mate, but you are going to wish you were dead before this is over.”

Thanks a lot!

It took ten days to get that shit out of my system.

I didn’t die; but I definitely wished I had, and when it was all over I didn’t feel any better.

Just as a bit of fun, I had a few ‘readings’ done.

They turned out to be surprisingly accurate and no one got hurt.

One lady, who read from playing-cards, told me lots of stuff that would happen and mostly she has been spot on.

I was leaving as she threw in, “Oh, and by the way, you will become a psychic medium.”

I think I said something like, “That should be fun,” and promptly forgot all about it.

That was about ten years ago.

A friend told me about a medium who lived close by so I thought I would check out the experience.

He brought through my mum and an uncle and an old girlfriend and an old high school teacher.

By the time it was over I was dizzy.

It was an amazing experience and there was no doubt that I was in touch with my relatives.

Fast forward a few years and I see an ad for a mediumship development class.

I went along and to cut a long story short, over a period of a year I found that I could make connections between spirit and people in the ‘here and now’.

I like having this ability but I’m very careful who I read for.

Honestly, most people want to know when they are going to get a boyfriend or if their lotto numbers are going to come up.

This is different; there is a child involved.

For some reason I have developed a reputation for making connection between parents and children who have died.

It can be very stressful, and I usually need a bit of time to recover from these sessions, but it seems important, so I usually don’t say no.

My wife knows that I take these readings very seriously.

.

~oOo~

.

I saw him arrive and at that hour there was a pretty good chance that I had the right man.

He was average height, carrying a few extra pounds and had a walk that suggested a man who knew his place in the world.

He was wearing a wedding ring and a well made suit, probably off the rack but nice none-the-less.

He was also wearing an expensive watch. Not one of those huge mens watches that scream, ‘I’ve got big balls and a bank account to match’, but more of a sophisticated understatement.

I decided that I liked him but I still hoped that he was the ‘real deal’.

“Hi, Stephen. I’m here to see the Hoskins, Mary and Joe.”

I liked the way he put the wife’s name first, he knew why he was here.

“They are expecting you Mr Holmyard. Room 527. Just take that elevator and turn to your right when you get to the fifth floor.”

“Thank you Stephen. Have a good night.”

“These are good people Mr Holmyard.”

He looked at me and smiled gently. “I know they are Stephen, I’ll look out for them.”

He didn’t have long to wait for the elevator and I watched the doors slide closed and watched the numbers above the doors light up until it reached 5.

It was nearly midnight before he came back down.

He looked very tired, which I guess was fair enough. He looked across at me before he left through the front doors, and gave me a small smile.

I knew what it meant.

I wasn’t expecting to see Joe Hoskins again that night. I figured with everything they had been through that he would sleep till morning. But, at 4 o’clock on the dot, the elevator doors opened and Joe Hoskins shuffled across the thick carpet and leaned on the front desk.

“Would you like to come around here and sit down Mr Hoskins, you look like you are out on your feet?”

“It’s Joe, and as long as I wouldn’t be getting you into trouble, I would love to sit down.”

If management had seen him I would have lost my job and I was hoping that no one went though the CCTV footage for that night.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“He was amazing. He said that Emily had been following him around all day and that he usually would not allow spirits to intrude on his ordinary life but that he had made an exception for Emily. It was a bit like ‘take your daughter to work day’ and she kept herself busy and didn’t get in the way.

She said that she was looking forward to letting us know that she was okay and that she was having fun and some older relatives had been looking after her but that she was a big girl and mostly didn’t need looking after but it was fun to have people to talk to and other kids to play with.”

“How did Mary cope?”

“I don’t think I have ever seen a woman cry that much, but she was happy. Ian told us things about Emily that only we knew. It was her all right. I’m hoping that Mary can find a way to move on now. Not forget; that’s never going to happen, but move forward.”

“I’m really pleased for you Mr Hoskins. I really wanted this bloke to be the real deal.”

“He is, and it’s Joe.”

“Sorry Joe. I’m wrapped. Could not be happier.”

“Ian said that a lot of people can do what he does but they don’t know it until someone points it out; until someone shows them how.”

Joe asked if I would meet them for coffee when they checked out in the morning. It was a bit of a wait after my shift ended but there was only an empty apartment waiting for me, so I said I would.

I waited in the hotel coffee shop and I could see the young couple at the main desk, checking out. They gathered up their bags and came in my direction.

A young girl was trailing along behind them, the way that young ones do when they are bored with grown up complications. She kept herself busy playing with the hotel cat. The cat was usually a bit stand-offish, but on this occasion the two of them seemed to hit it off.

Joe and Mary were looking forward to getting back home to the comfort of an ordinary life.

I was sure that Joe had said that all his kids were with their grandparents, but I miss stuff these days so I didn’t say anything.

The doorman came in and told Joe that his car had been brought around, and Joe offered to pay for the coffee.

I wasn’t having any of that and he smiled and said thank you.

As the group moved away the little girl stopped and ran back to where I was sitting.

“Thanks for looking after my dad,” she said. “He worries a lot. You made him feel better.”

“My pleasure little one. Which one of the Hoskins tribe are you?”

“I’m Emily, and I’m very pleased to have met you Stephen.”

Without thinking I called out as she ran back towards her fast disappearing parents, “Have a safe trip Emily, it was good to meet you.”

For a moment Joe Hoskins stopped walking, even though he was across the room and right at the front doors he looked like he had heard what I said.

He looked at me but turned to walk away.

Emily waved at me, and the penny dropped.

I’m not that quick these days and it had been a long shift.

As tired as I was, I was now wide awake, and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up.