Alex blinked in sudden sunshine. “Wow, this is a vivid dream. I know this place.”
“It is no dream.”
She jumped, startled, and swung round only to step back in alarm. “Who are you? What do you mean – this is no dream?”
“Confess. You have asked yourself the question – what would my life be like if I had not chosen the path I have? Have I, in fact, made the right choice? Now is where you will find out,” intoned the figure in the long, hooded robe. “I am the Phantom of Past Decisions. I am your guide and companion in your history.”
Alex smiled. “The Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“Is it Christmas?”
“Well, not here,” she admitted. “It was where I went to sleep. But .. this isn’t a dream?”
“In a way, it is. In another way, it is real. Whatever it is,” the Phantom replied, “it is a gift. Accept it with grace and with caution.”
Alex heard voices and she looked round. “That’s me … ”
“Aw, Alex, c’mon!”
“But, Mark, you know I want to go to this lecture,” Alex pleaded. She turned to face him. “Dr Derek Rayne has a really great reputation.”
The older Alex nodded. “I remember this conversation, like it was yesterday.”
“Yeah, yeah, some boring ol’ history guy,” Mark dismissed. “Alex, people like him are a dime a dozen. You miss this talk, another one just as good will come along in a few weeks. My football is important to me an’ I won’t have that long at the top of my game. It’s just as important to have my girl there, cheering me on. C’mon, Alex. What’d’you say?”
Alex hesitated … And the Phantom of Past Decisions nudged her onto an alternate path.
“Okay. I’ll be there.”
“I didn’t say that,” Alex remarked to the hooded robe. “I decided to go to the lecture.”
“Now you will learn what happened when you made the other choice.”
“You promise?” Mark wheedled.
“Yeah, I promise,” Alex grinned.
“Great!” He leaned closer, kissing her quickly on the cheek. “I’ll be watching for you.”
“No, you won’t,” she laughed. “You’ll be concentrating on the game. But I’ll be watching you.”
He picked up his sports duffel and jogged away. Alex sighed briefly and shook her head.
“I’m regretting it already,” Alex said to the Phantom. “Look at the expression on my face. That lecture .. changed my whole life.”
The younger Alex sat at a picnic bench and opened a book. She’d decided not to go to Dr Rayne’s lecture and she’d promised to go to the game instead. She felt disappointed but a promise was a promise, so she shrugged the disappointment away and returned to her studies. Finals were looming and she had to do well.
“That’s Jenny,” Alex recalled. “Jenny Hernandez. Kinda my best friend … I wonder what happened to her.”
Jenny. How’s it going?”
Jenny sat down opposite her. “Okay, I guess. Look at you – Little Miss Bookworm.”
“I have to study. I need to get my degree.”
Jenny shrugged. “I don’t. My future’s pretty much mapped out. A degree would be nice but it isn’t essential. What are you gonna do after college, Alex? Have you decided yet?”
“Not really. Maybe stay on, do my Masters, then try for a research fellowship somewhere.”
“No, you won’t!” Jenny declared, laughing. “You are gonna marry Mark, settle down to a life as a pro-footballer’s wife, enjoy all the money he’s gonna make, an’ have a mansion full of kids.”
Alex blinked. “What ..?” she queried, amused.
“You know he’s crazy about you! And I hear the scouts are interested in him.”
Alex shook her head. “I don’t want to do that. Yeah, sure, the money would be nice. Big house. Kids .. yeah, one day, but not yet. I want to live a little first. Travel. See something of the world. I won’t be able to do any of that if I .. settle down. I got time, Jenny.”
The Phantom glanced at Alex. She was looking a little upset.
“Time has a funny habit of disappearing,” Jenny commented.
“That is so true,” Alex breathed.
“Yeah, but I’m twenty two years old and I refuse to give up my life to become a trophy. I have plans. I have my own ambitions.” She shifted uncomfortably. “And, if Mark truly loves me, he’ll give me space to do my own thing. He’ll understand.”
“He never did,” Alex whispered. “Not really.”
“What about you?” she asked Jenny, moving the focus away and onto her friend.
“I’m going into business. My father’s promised me a job in his corporation.”
“He’s into .. imports, isn’t he?” Alex queried.
“Yeah, from the Far East. Japan. China. Art. Antiques. Some modern stuff too but quality. Nothing tacky. Serious money.” Jenny angled her head. “Want me to see if there’s an opening for you as well?”
“The Far East does sound wonderful,” Alex agreed. “But I don’t see how I’d fit in a business like that.”
“Me neither,” the older Alex confirmed.
“Well,” Jenny suggested, “you could do a part time MBA and then research on new sources. You’d get to travel. You’d certainly get to live.”
Alex nodded slowly. “Yeah .. you’re right. Okay, ask him. He could say no but it never hurts to ask, does it?”
“Does she ask?” Alex inquired of the Phantom.
“We’ll find out .. together.”
The scene shifted to the end of the football game. Mark was in a great mood as he emerged from the locker room to find Alex waiting.
“He looks so young, so enthusiastic,” Alex sighed. “He’ll never make it into the majors.”
“That was before. Now .. it may be different for him as well,” the Phantom said.
“Did you see me, Alex? That throw ..?”
“Now, tell me the truth. Wasn’t that better than some dry talk on history?”
“I guess so.”
His shoulders dropped. “Jeez, Alex. Anyone would think you cared more for this Rayne guy than you do for me. For us.”
“I’m sorry, Mark.” She looped her arm thru his. “Jenny’s going to ask her father about job opportunities for me.”
“What?” Mark turned on her and she stepped back. “Alex, there’s no need. I don’t want you to work.”
“But .. you know I want to travel – ”
“You will. Around the United States, to the games I play in. At least, at first you will. Once the kids come along …” He shrugged. “I want you at my side an’ to be the mother of my kids, Alex. I’ll give you a perfect life. You can have anything you want. Cars. No, limos. Furs. Jewelry. We’ll be rich, the perfect family.”
“He’s serious,” Alex murmured in disbelief. “I can see my brain starting to shrivel.”
“But, Mark – ”
“No, Alex! No buts! I know exactly how I see my life turning out.”
“And what about my life?” she demanded. “What do I do in your great scheme?”
“Nothing!” he replied, sounding as if this was the greatest gift he could ever give her.
She blinked. “That isn’t good enough, Mark. I have a mind, I want to use it. I don’t want to .. sit around an’ do nothing.”
“You wouldn’t,” Mark said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “You’d look beautiful.”
Alex shrugged his arm away and walked off in disgust.
“Goodbye, Mark,” she called back.
Alex looked at his face. “He doesn’t understand. He never will, not now.” She sniffed back tears. “Do I ever see him again?”
The Phantom’s shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “This is new to me. This is your life unfolding, Alex, if you had not chosen the path you did.”
“Right now .. it sucks,” Alex muttered. “What’s next?”
“Grandma Rose … ” Alex smiled yet felt tears burn her eyes again. “I miss you so much.”
Rose glanced round as the door opened. “Alex, you’re home early,” she remarked. “How was the lecture?”
“I went to the football game instead.”
“I sound really irritated,” Alex commented, watching herself. “I go watch Mark play football, like he wanted, screw over my whole life in the process, and still split with him.”
“I thought you’d been looking forward to that talk for weeks, ever since you found out that guy was coming,” Rose frowned.
“Yeah, but Mark said I could always go another time. And I can.”
“Now I sound defensive,” Alex muttered.
“You could watch him play football another time too,” Rose pointed out.
“Grandma Rose .. you always said I should honor my promises. I promised Mark,” Alex said with a slight shrug then she stretched, her eyes closing. “I’m going to run a bath an’ then get an early night.”
“You call this early?” Rose queried.
“I’ve studied enough for one day so I am not hitting the books again tonight.”
Rose frowned again. “Are you all right, Alex?”
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, a little disappointed, and feeling a little pressure. Soak in the tub an’ a good night’s sleep is what I need most.”
“An’ how’s Mark?”
Alex smiled neutrally. “He’s fine too. G’night, Grandma Rose.”
“You lied to her,” the Phantom commented.
“Not really. He is fine, or he will be. He’s just .. not a part of my life anymore. But Mark and I drifted apart anyway. I went to … Only, now, I’m not going to San Francisco, am I? I missed Derek’s talk. It was during that I decided to join him.” She turned. “Do I have to watch myself soaking in the tub? Can’t we move on a little?”
“As you wish,” the Phantom solemnly intoned, bowing its hooded head.
“Well, Miss Moreau, I must say you’re everything my daughter said you were. I’m sure I can find a position for you in the organization which plays to your many admirable strengths.”
“Thank you, Mr Hernandez.”
“And the part time MBA shouldn’t be a problem. You’re okay with the travel? It wouldn’t be a lot, not at the beginning. When we do send you overseas, it’d be with one of our senior negotiators.”
“No, I’m fine with the idea.”
“No family ties keeping you home?”
“I have a grandmother and a sister – but no one else. I’m looking forward to seeing something of the world.”
He nodded. “Well, let’s see how you do with your degree and that will determine your entry point into the corporation.” He laughed. “Don’t worry, it won’t be the mailroom.”
Alex stood and held out her hand. “I won’t disappoint your faith in me, sir.”
Alex and the Phantom stood in the corner of the office, watching this. Alex shook her head.
“The worst part is that I know I’m settling somehow for second best. I look keen but I can see it in my eyes. I’m meant for something else, something better. This isn’t really what I want to do. It’s just an escape.” She looked over her shoulder. “Do I stay here?”
“Would you want to?”
“I wouldn’t, no, but .. I’m not that person, am I?”
“Yes, you are.”
“I mean, she’s living a different life to the one I know.”
The Phantom was silent and Alex felt a shiver of unease. What if the life she knew at the Legacy was the dream, and this was all real ..?
The scene shifted again, moving on in time.
“You know what to do?”
“Yes, Jim. I know what to do.”
“Jim Marshall, senior negotiator,” the Phantom introduced.
“Don’t talk to anyone unless they ask you a direct question. Even then, glance at me first .. as if you need my permission. You don’t, but it’s the custom. Don’t smile an’ show your teeth. If you laugh at a joke – take your cue from me – put your hand over your mouth. They have this thing about showing teeth. It’s very rude. Impolite. And don’t forget to bow.”
“Jim, I know what I have to do. I’ve read up on Japanese customs,” Alex said, refraining from sighing out loud. “I’m just here as your assistant, making contacts, learning the ropes. I’ll stay in the background.”
“Okay.” Jim settled back. “You hear about Jenny?”
“No ..? What about her? I’ve been so busy just lately, preparing for this trip, I’ve lost touch. I know she was in the Marketing Department. She’s gotten a promotion?”
Alex’s mouth dropped open. “It’s been only a year. Another job? Surely not. This is her family’s business. She’s destined for the top.”
“Not anymore. She’s engaged. Getting married. Around Christmas, I think.”
“Married?” Alex queried. “She kept that quiet.”
“The old man’s thrilled for her. He sees this as better than working for him.”
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
Jim shrugged. “Some footballer. Plays in the majors. Mark .. somebody. She knew him at college. They go way back.”
Alex tried hard to feel happy for her friend. She tried not to let it hurt, but it did. Most of all, she felt betrayed. She didn’t know if Jenny had planned this from the start or if she’d just taken advantage of the situation. Whatever, it still felt like a slap to the face.
“Here we go,” Jim said. “Coming in to land.”
She tightened her seat belt with a vicious jerk.
“You okay, Alex?”
“I’m fine,” she replied.
The Phantom glanced at her companion. Alex felt it too. Being used. Taken advantage of. This was a different life, one she didn’t know at all, but it still stung. As she watched herself, she saw something inside snap and go hard.
“I hear the trip was a great success! Congratulations, Alex! The Japanese were most impressed with you. This could mean a big bonus.”
“Thank you, sir. I had a really great time. It’s a fabulous country.” Alex considered. “I don’t know if I could do the trip alone,” she went on. “Not because I can’t do it, I can. It’s more their national culture which gets in the way. Women, especially young women, don’t have that much of a voice in decision making.”
Paul Hernandez nodded slowly. “You’re a smart lady, Alex. I wouldn’t send you to Japan alone, not because I don’t trust you to do the job, I do, but for exactly the reasons you’ve said. Give it a couple of years, eighteen months. Then .. the assistant on the trip will be the guy. You’ll tell him what to say. He’ll be your spokesman.”
Alex smiled. “I like that idea.”
“Well .. congratulations again.”
“Sir ..?” He turned back, eyes quizzical. “Please pass on my best to Jenny.”
“I’ll do that,” he said.
Alex and the Phantom listened to this exchange and watched the expressions on the faces. On the surface, Alex seemed to have accepted the news in the best way. They followed her into the office she shared with a co-worker. It was presently empty. They watched as Alex put her briefcase on the desk then paused to stare blindly out the window.
“What a world class bitch … And I thought she was my best friend.” Alex sat down and eased back in the chair. “Only reason the Japanese were so impressed with me was because I was too stunned to say anything.”
“You haven’t taken it well,” the Phantom remarked.
“No,” Alex agreed.
“Are you jealous?”
“No.” That sounded a little bald so Alex tried to explain. “Mark had ideas I didn’t agree with. It isn’t so much that he’s getting married,” she said, “it’s the fact he’s marrying Jenny. If either of them had married a total stranger, I’d be happy for them both. But this .. it’s like Jenny set me up for a fall. She tested the water, got my reactions, then moved in as soon as I was outta the way. I’m not jealous because I don’t want to marry him. I’m angry that I was used.”
“You haven’t been. She has.”
“It’s still me,” Alex said. “I still know how she’s feeling right now.” She went a little closer. “She can’t see me, can she?”
“No. We are merely observers.”
Alex bent and looked into her own eyes. “I don’t like what I’m seeing. Something’s gotten broken inside.”
“Her heart perhaps.”
“Maybe. But, whatever it is, it’s caused a scar and it’s hardened over. She’s got a barrier behind her eyes.”
She watched herself draw in a deep breath, blink, twitch, then set her shoulders.
“In the past,” Alex said out loud. “I wish them well. I have a job to do .. and I will do it to the very best of my abilities.”
The Phantom came closer as well.
“What about her sight?” Alex whispered. “Her gift?”
“What about it?”
“Does she still use it? In San Francisco, it was encouraged. Derek helped me learn how to develop it, direct it, use it. Here ..? Would she ever get the chance? Does she?” Alex glanced round and up. “She seems to be all business and no outside interests.”
“Some things haven’t changed,” the Phantom commented.
“You’re confusing dedication to a cause with tunnel vision. She’s wearing blinkers and deliberately blinding herself to an entirely different dimension of experience.”
“It is what she wants, Alex.”
The scene shifted again.
“Congratulations, Alex! This has to be some kinda record. Head of Research .. at what, twenty seven?”
“Hard work, Jim. It has its rewards.”
“Well, you have put in the hours, that I will agree. You deserve it. Next thing .. it’s gonna be an executive position an’ a move upstairs.”
“If I earn it,” Alex agreed steadily.
He laughed. “You don’t have a life outside, Alex. You’re all work, no play.” Jim angled his head. “You never think about .. dating even for fun?”
“I have time, Jim. For now, I want to modernize my department, improve working methods. Train people. When it’s working as I want, maybe I’ll find some spare time for a life.”
He nodded. “Sure, Alex, whatever you say.”
“He doesn’t believe her?” the Phantom queried.
“He does .. he just knows that it’ll never happen,” Alex replied. “She’s driven by powerful urges to succeed. She has to make her mark on the world. She’ll do everything she said she would .. and they’ll reward her with another promotion, and the circle starts again. It’s self-perpetuating. An upward spiral in monetary reward and material possessions and a downward spiral in spiritual growth.”
“You don’t agree with that.”
“Money isn’t everything,” Alex replied. “What about .. getting to the end of the day and feeling good in yourself because you’ve helped others? That the work you’ve done has answered questions which have been asked for decades, centuries? That, because you took a chance, a soul has been freed to .. go on.” She looked back at herself. “She gets to the end of the day and makes lists of physical achievement, lists of what still needs to be done. She fills in her expenses. Makes phone calls. Goes to sleep because she’s exhausted an’, the next day, it starts all over again.”
The party ended and they followed Alex out to her Mercedes. They followed her home, and went into the new house and looked around.
“She’s done well,” the Phantom remarked. “Monetary rewards can be used to provide a comfortable life.”
Alex’s eyes were wide and impressed.
“Look at this art collection! My God … ”
The younger Alex emerged from her bedroom in sweats, her hair piled up on top of her head and captured in a brightly printed scarf. She held a phone in her hand and pressed out a number as she came downstairs.
“Hi, Grandma Rose! How are you today?” she asked, reaching the lounge. “That’s good. If it happens again, you call the doctor. You know I will cover your medical bills, no matter how much they are. You’re important to me, I have to take care of you.”
She sat at one end of the long sofa and drew up her bare feet. “Me? Oh, I’m fine. Tired. Yeah, another long day. I got a promotion. Head of Research … ” She laughed. “No, it isn’t boring! I’ve found a way to combine corporate activities with history so everyone’s happy. I’m trying to persuade my boss to venture into African artifacts. He’s already thinking of the Indian sub-continent. I’m on a trip there week after next to assess the export market.”
Alex shook her head. “Maybe this life isn’t so bad after all. She still thinks of family. And she’s close, nearby. San Francisco was always so far away when something bad happened.”
The Phantom remained silent but, inside the hood, she frowned.
“I misjudged myself,” Alex said. “I haven’t changed that much at all. I have the same interests. And now I have the money to indulge them.”
The Phantom glanced at her as Alex wondered if she’d made the right choice or the wrong one in joining the Legacy.
“This disturbs you.”
“Of course!” Alex replied. “I’ve always been so sure that .. I’m doing the right thing, that I made the right decision. And now I have doubt. The right decision isn’t always the best. I didn’t exactly sit down and think it thru, I just .. went with my gut. At the time, in those circumstances, it felt right. What did I gain? A chance to study areas which have always fascinated me, and with a great teacher. A chance to develop my gift. To .. work with people who share a common goal. But what did I lose? What did I give up? My family. My roots. All my friends. I mean .. look at this place?” she invited. “It’s beautiful and it’s mine. What do I have now? A room in someone else’s house. An automobile which isn’t new. She’s got a Mercedes. When I really think about it .. all I own is my car and the clothes in my closet.”
“You said money isn’t everything. What about feeling good? Spiritual growth?”
Alex looked round at the hooded figure. “To own an art collection like this, you have to possess a soul. Art is essentially spiritual appreciation. A painting or a piece of sculpture talks to more than the eyes. It works on every level. Unless you can experience it like that, you wouldn’t acquire it. And this collection .. is superb. It’s exactly what I’d have, if I had the money to buy it.”
“Would you exchange places with her?” the Phantom inquired.
“Is that possible?” Alex wondered.
“Not physically. This is still the past. We have not yet arrived at the present day nor seen the future. However .. having seen how your life might have developed, you could make choices to effect change.”
Alex frowned. “Such as?”
“Leave the Legacy. Stop being one part of a whole and start being a separate unit. You will have experienced one life and seen another. You could utilize the best from both.”
“Leave the Legacy ..?” Alex took a step away. “I don’t know if I could.”
The Phantom gestured at the young woman on the sofa. “She never knew what the Legacy was. Does she appear to regret it?”
“No,” Alex replied. “She appears happy. Her life is everything I could’ve dreamed it would be.”
“It is not yet over,” the Phantom commented.
“It doesn’t get much better than this.”
The scene shifted, melting and becoming something new, something fresh. A hotel room. Alex stood on the balcony, the phone in her hand.
“How many is that? Fantastic! Seven new suppliers. And you are absolutely sure about those people? Nothing stolen or fabricated … ” She nodded. “Okay. Prepare the fax and send it home.” She hung up and closed her eyes to the sun. “That is going to mean a mega-bonus this year. I can finally start to think about getting that penthouse.”
“A penthouse?” Alex queried.
The younger woman smiled to herself. “Everyone should have a dream, right? I figure I can stop thinking about it and start doing something .. in around another ten years.”
The phone rang and she scooped it up. “Alex Moreau.” Her face fell. “Jim, you know I’m on vacation.”
“This is a vacation?” Alex remarked. “She’s still working.”
“One week in the entire year .. and this is my first vacation in three years. Can’t it wait?”
Slowly, she sat down and swallowed. “Is it bad ..? Okay. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“What is it? What’s happened?” Alex demanded.
“Paul Hernandez. He’s been taken ill.”
She watched herself throw things into a suitcase while she called for a cab. “I thought it might have been my grandmother.”
The Phantom said nothing.
The scene changed again to the offices of Hernandez International. The atmosphere was hushed, solemn.
“It isn’t looking good,” Jim murmured. “The doctors say he’ll make a recovery but it won’t be complete.”
Alex nodded. “We’ll all have to work together. Will Jenny step in to run things?”
“I don’t see it happening,” Jim replied. “She’s got two kids and three houses. All she knows how to do is enjoy herself. If she came in, even to help out, you can kiss this business goodbye.”
“Then it’s down to us,” she responded. “I’m glad you called me. Thanks.”
“I’m sorry I had to do it, Alex. Last year, I had to call you when you were in New Delhi. I’m grateful you managed to get back this time.”
“Last year, I was in the middle of a very delicate negotiation. What could I have done if I’d come home?”
Jim fidgeted slightly. “She was your grandmother, Alex.”
Alex gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “I didn’t come back?”
“I know and I miss her terribly,” the younger Alex said in a brisk voice. “But the fact is that she wouldn’t have recognized me. I was better used staying where I was and concluding the deal.”
“She would’ve known!” Alex choked. “She would’ve known! You would’ve known if you’d only tried a little. You let her die alone … ”
“I paid for a really nice funeral for her,” the other Alex remarked. “Then I had to take personal time, clearing out the house, selling it. Starting the lawsuit against Tanya. She is so greedy, Jim. She only wanted half of everything in my grandmother’s estate. What did she ever do to earn it? Nothing. I’m glad the judge saw it my way.”
“You’re a hard woman, Alex,” Jim commented.
“No, I don’t think I am. I’ve got a head for business, that’s all.”
“An’ no life.”
“That isn’t true, Jim. I have my art collection – ”
“Which you didn’t buy. You paid for it, but someone else got all the pieces. They were never art to you, just an investment. Y’know, this started when Jenny married Mark. You lost something, Alex. A tiny piece of humanity maybe. You never got it back when they divorced. You have no life, no friends, you’re all artificial.”
“I have friends,” she said stiffly.
“You don’t deserve them,” Alex muttered.
“You have colleagues,” Jim corrected. “You’re one of the first thru the door and one of the last to leave. And, y’know what?”
“What?” Alex demanded, her nostrils flaring.
“You’re exactly who we need to hold this place together.”
She nodded. “If they ask me .. sure, I’ll consider it. Short term. I like being Head of Research and Development, Jim. I enjoy my work. I don’t want more than what I already do.”
“Yes, Alex, whatever you say.”
The Phantom glanced at Alex. Tears were rolling down her face and she was shaking her head.
“How could she be such a bitch ..? How could she let this happen to her? I was wrong. I didn’t misjudge her at all. She has no soul … ”
“She does,” the Phantom replied. “But it is small and withered thru lack of nourishment. Lack of companionship, of love. Even of caring. She feels unworthy, despite all her accomplishments, Alex. She feels lonely, despite being surrounded by people who admire her. She has to fight and struggle every day to prove to herself that she is successful. She doesn’t like herself so how can others like her? Her only means of measurement is how well she performs at work. And her job may pay very well and give her everything material in life but she can’t hold it when she feels the need for physical comfort, can’t talk to it, can’t have it stay over at night.”
“Are you telling me I should pity her?” Alex asked.
“She is you, without the Legacy.”
“Then I made the right choice,” Alex declared. “I don’t want to see anymore. Take me back, Phantom. I want to go home to my own life.”
“I can’t do that, Alex, not yet. This is still the past. You have two more spirits yet to accompany you. You cannot decide, based on the evidence you’ve seen so far, if your decision was right or wrong.”
Alex looked at herself. Thirty years old and as hard as nails. Not an ounce of compassion to be found in that sculptured face. The eyes were like dark mirrors. The suit she wore was severe, sharply tailored. The jewelry was expensive but tasteful.
“I can tell you exactly how she’ll grow an’ develop. From a shrewd, greedy woman, she’ll become sharp, bitter an’ wasted. Her soul will shrivel and die. And she’ll have an eternity to sit alone an’ dwell on all the things she could have done an’ didn’t, and all the things she did do but shouldn’t have done. What kind of gift is this to give me?” she demanded, distressed. “I don’t want to see anymore! Take me home!”
The Phantom shook its cowled head. “There is always hope. Always a chance of redemption, no matter how slim it may seem.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Alex, this is a gift. See the remainder of your life, then decide if it was worthwhile. Then, the next time you find yourself asking the question .. you will have your answer.”
Alex let out a shuddering breath. “All right. We’ll play it your way. I don’t seem to have much choice, do I?”
There was a soft cheer and a muted round of applause. Paul Hernandez walked unaided into the boardroom. He looked weak, his limbs a little wasted, but his eyes sparkled with achievement.
“Hello again,” he said, his words slightly slurred. “It’s been over six months but I’m back. Now, the doctors tell me I’ve been incredibly lucky and, if I want to stay lucky, I have to cut back an’ take it real easy. So I’m not coming back fulltime. I can’t do that. I intend to make myself Chairman of the Board of Directors and I’m going to appoint a Chief Operating Officer to handle the day to day business affairs of the company.”
Alex gave a snort of disgust from where she watched this. “I wonder who that’ll be,” she remarked caustically.
Paul sat down in the empty chair at the head of the long polished table. “I realize that my stroke came at a bad time. Believe me, there isn’t ever a good time to have a stroke.”
There was a ripple of polite laughter.
“But .. the company went on without me and I was very encouraged by that. Very encouraged. Not only did it continue, it prospered. Expanded. Sound investments were made. New markets were opened. I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Miss Alex Moreau for stepping so ably into the breach. Nine years ago, I interviewed her and she said she wouldn’t disappoint my faith in her. And, by God, she spoke the truth. I have many loyal and dedicated employees here. Alex stands at the very apex of them. Alex, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have done a simply outstanding job during your time with us and especially during the last seven months.”
“Thank you, sir,” Alex murmured.
“Now, the appointment of Chief Operating Officer,” Paul continued. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. I have many worthy candidates from whom to choose. And I have decided to appoint Harris McDermott to the position. Harris has been with me since .. almost the start. As Executive Vice President of Sales and Finance, he has an excellent grounding in what this company needs.”
Alex gave a small, mirthless laugh. “Now that’s what I call a slap to the face. Look at her. She looks as if someone’s pushed a lemon into her mouth.”
“Alex,” Paul went on, “as a reward for your performance, I’m making you Director of Research and Development with a seat on the board. Non-executive but .. it’s only a matter of time. I’m sure Harris will welcome your ideas and your insight.”
“Count on it,” Harris agreed.
“Congratulations, Harris,” Alex said with a smile.
“And to you, Alex,” he responded. “Thank you, Paul. My first executive decision as Chief Operating Officer is to order our new Director of Research and Development to take a much needed vacation. Two weeks, Alex. Don’t want to see you around here till the two weeks are up.”
“But – ”
“No buts, Alex. I’m the boss, remember?” He chuckled but there was a glint in his eye. “Go relax somewhere. Get a life!”
Alex glanced round at the Phantom. “Does she?”
“There is always a chance of redemption. Always hope,” the Phantom replied. “We must see what happens next.”