Chapter 5

Alex and the Shade of Present Times



          Alex stood in the lobby of the Hernandez International building and saw the date.  January, two thousand one.

          “This year.”

          She looked round at her companion.  The long black robe was the same.  The hood still hid the head and, more importantly, the face.  Even the sleeves hung lower than the hands.  There was no identifying mark to be seen.

          “I am your second companion on this night of discovery.  I am the Shade of Present Times.  The past is behind us, the future is .. as yet unknown.”

          “Well,” Alex said with a degree of bitterness, “I see I’m still here so I didn’t get a life while I was on vacation.  I’m thirty five, going into thirty six.  Still single.  I am still single, am I?”

          The Shade nodded once.

          “Never could find a boyfriend to last,” Alex muttered.  “I couldn’t do it, neither can she.  We do have some things in common after all.”

          “More than you realize,” the Shade remarked.

          “Oh, come on!” Alex protested.  “I have a heart and a soul.  I care about people, not just about myself.  I’m not some .. empty shell filled with the corporate vision and core values.  She has more money an’ possessions than I could ever dream of wanting in my life.”

          “You don’t sound happy about that, Alex,” the Shade commented, her hooded head tilting slightly.

          “I said it before, I’ll say it again now – money isn’t everything.  Money can’t buy everything.  It can’t buy love or loyalty.  It can’t buy friendship.  I just don’t understand what drives her.”

          “The same passions which drive you,” the Shade replied.  “The focus is different, that’s all.”

          Alex regarded her and said nothing.

          “You had the same upbringing, Alex.  Your life and her life was the same until the age of twenty two.  Your passions didn’t spring into being after you joined the Legacy.  Neither did hers when she joined this corporation.  They were already there.  They simply have a separate focus.”

          Alex couldn’t argue with that.  She looked around, hoping to divert the subject.  “Where is everyone?” she inquired.  “I know it’s January and people tend to get depressed in January but – ”

          “There’s been a death,” the Shade announced.

          Alex swallowed and turned as the doors slid open.  Somber faced employees came in, all of them dressed in formal black.

          “It was a good service,” Alex remarked quietly.  “Paul would have liked it.”

          Jim nodded.  “I’m gonna miss him.  He wasn’t around much these past few years but .. I am gonna miss him.”  He looked round at her.  “This has always had a .. a family atmosphere, Alex.  No matter how much we grew, it still felt like small.  Intimate.  Paul did that.  His influence.  Now he’s gone …   You heard yet what’s planned?”

          They moved into the elevator.  Alex and the Shade went with them.

          “All I know is that the ownership passes to Jenny,” Alex responded.  “If she has any sense, she’ll keep out of the way and let Harris continue on as Chief Operating Officer.  She knows she doesn’t have the experience to run this place.  Harris does.”

          Jim nodded slowly.

          “Have you heard anything?” Alex inquired.

          “Only rumor,” he shrugged.

          “Sometimes rumors have a grain of truth in them.”

          Jim hesitated.  “Like you say, whole thing goes to Jenny .. and she’ll sell.  She does have no experience, so why keep it?”

          “Because it was her father’s business.  It’s her inheritance,” Alex replied.

          “I’m just passing on what I’ve heard, Alex,” Jim protested.  “If there’s a grain of truth in that .. it won’t be the staff who get to worry.  It’ll be people like you an’ me.  Directors.  VPs.  Whoever buys us will, most likely, merge us into some bigger corporation an’ that will already have a board to oversee things.  By summer, we could both be out of a job.”

          Alex frowned.  “Jim .. keep your ear to the ground, okay?  I’ll do some research of my own.  We may be able to put a package together for a management buyout.”

          “Okay,” he agreed.  “Good idea.”

          “Make it a true family business.  Everyone here puts in cash an’ owns a piece of the pie.”

          He nodded again.  “Yeah.  That could work.”

          The elevator door opened and Jim got out.  Alex traveled on alone.

          “That is a good idea,” Alex said quietly.  “Maybe her heart’s softening after all.  Is there a reason for that?”

          “I said you were single.  I never said you were alone.”

          Alex’s eyes widened.  “I met someone on vacation?”

          The Shade nodded.

          “And we’ve been together ever since?”

          The Shade hesitated.  “I wouldn’t say it was constant.  He travels a lot.  So do you.  But, when you are both here, you are together.”

          “And .. I’m happy.”

          “As happy as you can be, yes.”

          The scene shifted.  It was late evening and Alex was home.  It wasn’t the penthouse apartment but it wasn’t the house Alex had visited before with the Phantom.  This was a bigger house and more sumptuously furnished than the previous one.  Everything, from the rugs on the polished wood floor to the lights to the ornaments and decoration, discreetly said ‘money’.  This was the home of a seriously wealthy person.

          Alex had the TV switched on, tuned to a cable channel.  Not for entertainment; this was some business channel, like a visual tickertape machine.  She had the phone hooked on one shoulder and was halfway thru a manicure.

          “I miss you too,” she said, dipping the brush into the bottle.  She laughed.  “No, I am not spinning you a line.”

          Alex crept closer to study her own expression.  “Will you look at that?  There is real joy in her eyes.  A warmth I haven’t seen for a very long time.”

          “I spoke with Harris today,” Alex said.  “Put my idea to him just to test the water.  It appears the rumors going round aren’t rumors at all.  Jenny seems set on unloading the company.  Harris said he’d talk with her – right now, she is Chairman of the Board – an’ see if he can get a stay of execution.  He thinks my idea is worth looking into.”

          She paused to listen.  “Well, he is the financial wizard.  If anyone can put a loan program together to finance a buyout, it’s Harris McDermott.”  Alex carefully applied polish to one nail.  “Jenny?  Me?  Sure, we were friends once but that was a long time ago.  To be honest, I don’t know of anything we have in common right now …  Okay, apart from the business.  What I mean is .. she wouldn’t listen to any pleas from me.  My influence with Jenny is zero.”

          Alex sighed and shook her head as she straightened.  “Jenny and I were so close in college,” she remarked to her robed companion.  “We shared just about everything.  It’s such a pity she feels like that now.”

          “Jenny stole Mark,” the Shade pointed out.  “She felt used.  Angry.  Her heart was broken, Alex.”

          “I know.  I guess I understand.  I still think it’s a pity she won’t even pick up the phone and try to call her.  Jenny an’ Mark divorced.  She’s happy with a guy of her own.  Time has passed.  Where’s the harm?”

          “Well, yeah, I guess it’s always possible Harris could fail.  What’s more likely is that Jenny won’t be prepared to wait.”  Alex smiled as she carefully screwed on the lid of the bottle.  “That’s right – in which case, we go to Plan B.”

          Alex looked sharply at the Shade.  “What does that mean?”

          The Shade shrugged slightly.  “I don’t know, Alex.  This is your life, not mine.”

          “Soon as I know anything at all, I’ll call you,” she said and sat up as she listened.  “No, I don’t mind.  Honestly.  It’s for a good cause.  I get what I want from it, so do you, everyone’s happy an’ nothing really changes, does it?”  She laughed brightly.  “I know – I have a devious mind.  It never used to be like that.  It just got a little warped one day an’ never sprang back to its proper shape.  And that’s why you love me so much.  Okay, honey, yeah, I’ll call soon as I know for sure.  Take care of yourself.  Of course I love you.  Bye … ”

          She hung up and concentrated on the TV, her face a mask of veiled plots and schemes.  Alex despaired.  She had believed this other Alex had become more human but it seemed the light at the end of the tunnel was merely the headlight of an oncoming train.

          “So … ” she asked in a dully resigned voice, “what happens now?”

          The scene shifted.  The staff dining room was packed.  Tables and chairs had been pushed to the walls so everyone could fit in.  Harris McDermott stood at the front flanked by his directors and VPs.  At the appointed time, he cleared his throat.

          “Can I have your attention, please!”

          It was spring now, early April.  The employees at Hernandez International had been waiting for some kind of official announcement and now it was about to be made.  The muttering of conversation dwindled abruptly into a stark silence.

          “Thank you.”  Harris paused, letting his gaze travel over the faces before him.  “Since Paul Hernandez died just after Christmas last year, it’s been difficult for us all.  We have carried on as usual and we have done a damn fine job, despite being surrounded by rumors.  Most of you know that those rumors were, in fact, true.  Jenny Hernandez, who inherited the corporation on her father’s death, did indeed plan to sell.  Many of us also know that, following an idea from Ms Moreau, we intended to attempt a management buyout.  We hoped she would sell to us rather than an outside interest.  Well .. things have moved on since then.  I have been told that Jenny no longer intends to sell.”

          “No need for Plan B,” Alex commented to the Shade as startled gasps and soft cheers broke out in the dining room.

          “Yes, I know, reason to celebrate,” Harris nodded, bringing them back and recapturing their attention.  “It is reliable information I’m giving you, not more rumor.  The reason Jenny is no longer selling the corporation is because she has recently remarried.  Now, Jenny was originally going to dispose of this major asset because she has neither the experience nor inclination to run things.  However, her new husband does.  He will be joining us as Chairman of the Board and I will be reporting to him as Chief Operating Officer .. at least until the end of this year.  By then, I hope he will be ready to take full control as I am retiring because, after so many years, people, I have earned a break.”

          Applause broke out and Harris smiled.

          “So .. it’s still business as usual.  I’ve been told that our new owner will be visiting next week to attend his first board meeting and tour the building.  Jenny will not be accompanying him – apparently, this place has too many memories for her.  Thank you for coming.  That’s it.”

          People began to file out.  Alex turned to the Shade.  “This seems like good news.  Why do I have this feeling that it isn’t?”

          The Shade of Present Times shrugged indolently.  “You know to trust your instincts, Alex.”

          “But I’m just an observer.  I can’t change any of this.  I can’t influence the way it turns out.  Why should I be disturbed?  It doesn’t affect me or my life in any way.”

          “Because you care about other people and, while she is you and you don’t particularly like her life, you care about what happens to her.  You care passionately about her decisions, her choices.  If she makes an error, you feel pain at her embarrassment.  If she is about to make an error, you feel anxiety because you can’t prevent it happening.  You take it personally because, but for one decision – to attend a lecture – this would have been your life.”

          Alex stared.  “Is that true?  Would this had been how my life really turned out if I hadn’t gone to Derek’s talk?”

          “I’m not making any of this happen, Alex.  I confess, I altered your original choice to push you into an alternate existence but, after that, all the choices have been yours.  I am only an interested observer.”

          “And this is a gift.”

          “You have sometimes wondered what it would be like if you hadn’t joined Derek Rayne, never risked your life, your soul, in some ages long war.  Knowing the answer .. isn’t that a gift?”

          “I guess so.  It just seems a little weird to me.  It’s a gift which gives and takes.  In fact, it takes more than it gives.  I feel exhausted.  How many days have I been asleep?”

          “Right now ..?  Hardly any time at all.  You will still get to celebrate Christmas with your friends.”

          The scene moved on.  The door closed and everyone in the boardroom silently heaved a sigh of relief.

          “I think that went well,” Harris said.  “No surprises – nasty or nice.  I think there will be a very slight change of direction in the future but nothing to keep any of us awake at night.”

          He nodded to dismiss them and the board rose to return to their everyday tasks.  Alex and the Shade followed Alex back to her office where she sat down and eased off her shoes.

          “I’m still getting a bad feeling,” Alex muttered.  She walked around the office, her hands held out, trying to pin down the elusive reason for her unease.  “Something’s wrong somewhere.”

          The phone rang and Alex picked it up.  “Alex Moreau …  Hi!”  She smiled and leaned back, casually crossing one leg over the other.  “So .. how’s your day?”  She laughed softly and nodded.  “Oh, I miss you too.  Really.  I’m going to the ballet tonight.  What?  Oh, around eleven, I think.  I should be home about eleven thirty but I’m straight to sleep because I have an important breakfast meeting tomorrow.”  She nodded again.  “Uh huh.  Business as usual.  Nothing can interrupt the flow of dollars.  Next week?  I can’t.  I’m flying to Beijing.  Ten days.  Okay.  Yeah.  Call me tomorrow.  Bye … ”

          Alex had turned to stare at the phone.  “The bad feeling .. just got worse.  Who is she seeing?”

          The scene fragmented and came together in a new pattern.  It was late May.  Champagne corks popped.

          “Congratulations, Alex.  You really deserve this.  I mean it.  You have worked so hard,” Jim saluted.  “Y’know, I can see you running this whole corporation before you’re done.  The new boss obviously recognizes talent when he sees it.”

          “Thank you, Jim,” Alex said graciously.  “And, if your prophecy comes true, you will always have a place here.”

          “Here’s to our newest Executive Vice President,” Harris toasted, raising his glass.  “Alex Moreau.”

          They all drank.  Alex basked in the attention.

          “I think I will be able to retire at Christmas knowing that, even if the boss isn’t totally up to speed, the company’s in good hands,” Harris went on.  “Alex, some of your ideas .. no, most of your ideas, have been inspired.”

          “Is that because she’s used her gift?” Alex asked the Shade.

          The Shade shook her head.  “It’s because she has a good eye for business, nothing more.”

          “What about her gift?” Alex demanded.  “Does she use it?  Even in an unstructured way?”

          “No.  It could still be there.  Something like that doesn’t completely die.  But it’s dormant.  Withered thru non-use.”

          Alex sighed, frowning.  “That is such a waste of potential.”

          “If you will excuse the pun, she could never see it as having worth.  You’re different, Alex.  Your life in the Legacy developed your sight, showed you how to apply it, stretch it, exercise it.  She has never had that support mechanism.”

          “And that means she doesn’t know something’s wrong.”

          “She has gut instinct, the same as you, but, whereas yours is tuned to detect risk and danger, hers is tuned to opportunity.”

          “The almighty dollar.”

          “Business would not be business without it.  Alex, her dedication is not to a cause, it is to this corporation.  Fourteen years of her life have been given to it.  Don’t judge her for being dedicated.”

          Alex nodded.  “So .. she’s entirely blameless in whatever bad thing is going on here.”

          The Shade paused for a moment.  “I never said that.”

          “Great.  That means she’s a part of it.”  Alex paced around the boardroom, oblivious to the celebration all about her.  “I’m not judging her, I just really don’t like what I’ve become.  Shade .. I honestly have seen enough.  Can we please end this?”

          “We are only at the halfway point of your journey.”

          “I promise I will never again ask if I did the right thing.”

          “That is a promise you cannot keep.”

          Alex knew that was true.  “Okay, I promise I will never again seriously ask if I did the right thing.”

          The scene changed and Alex sighed in frustration.  She knew that the Shade and whatever came after the Shade wouldn’t release her until she’d seen everything.  But this change of scenery surprised her.

          It was a restaurant and Alex was having lunch with Jenny.

          “I have to be honest with you, Jenny,” Alex was saying.  “When I heard you an’ Mark were getting married, I was deeply hurt.”

          “You thought I’d done it deliberately.”

          “Yes, I did.”

          Jenny laughed quietly.  “I guess it would appear that way.  I swear it isn’t true, Alex.  Yes, I did help  .. comfort him after you two split up but I wasn’t the only one.  When he proposed .. I was as surprised as hell.  I think he was still on the rebound, y’know?  And, to be honest with you in turn, I could’ve said no.  But .. I wanted the life you turned down.  I wanted the mansion an’ the limousines an’ the money.  I’m mercenary, I admit it.  We stuck it out as long as we could for the sake of the kids, but, well, in the end, it was kinder to go our own ways.”

          Alex nodded.  “But, now, a new husband.”

          “He’s wonderful.  So attentive.  Perfect, really.  He’s happy to take on Daddy’s business which means it stays in the family.  And that keeps him busy during the day and out from under my feet, and, in the evenings, we go to the theater, dinner parties, the opera.  The life I love.”

          “How did you meet?” Alex wondered.

          “By total chance.  I was in mourning after Daddy died an’ .. well, what kinda head for business do I have?  None.  Everyone knows it.  I was thinking I would have to sell.  Harris suggested the buyout and I so wanted to agree but then .. I met him.  I was at the museum.  We started talking .. and that led to dinner and that led to wedding rings.  It was obscenely fast, even I know that, but he was, God’s honest truth, the answer to my prayers.”

          “And mine,” Alex agreed.  “Everyone at the corporation.”

          “He thinks very highly of you,” Jenny confided.  “He admires your grasp on affairs.  When Harris retires at the end of the year, I think you’ll find you’re in line for another big promotion.”

          “We’ll have to wait an’ see,” Alex demurred.  “There are others there who have been in office a lot longer.”

          “Yes, but they’re all getting on in years.  Their attitude is a little .. dated.  You, however, are young, and you have the right vision of the future.  That’s what he values the most, Alex.  People who see things the same way he does, not people who are yes men.”

          Alex smiled slightly.  “Isn’t that the same thing?”

          “Not really,” Jenny replied.  “He tests people by throwing out ideas he knows are impossible or just plain wrong.  If they say yes .. it won’t be long before they’re shown to the door.  He doesn’t object to a reasoned argument if anyone feels strongly about something.”

          “I’ll remember that,” Alex chuckled.

          The waiter brought the check.  “I’ll get it,” Jenny insisted.

          “Well .. if you’re sure.”

          “I am, Alex.”  She smiled.  “This has been just so great, meeting like this.  I hope we don’t stay so distant in the future.”

          “I hope so too,” Alex replied.

          “So do I,” the other Alex said to the Shade.  “This could be the road to reconciliation.”

          The Shade said nothing.

          Alex glanced at the hooded figure.  “Is your silence a good thing?”

          “What does your instinct tell you?”

          “About your silence?”

          “About anything.”

          Alex folded her arms defiantly.  “Well, it could be the road to reconciliation.”

          “It could,” the Shade agreed.  “You were always an optimist.”

          The scene moved on.  Harris McDermott put down the phone.

          “Well, there you have it,” he commented.  “The boss says no more modern.  From now on, we stick to antiques and historical.  Authenticated historical.”

          “No more modern means we lose half our customer base,” Jim indicated.

          “Yeah.  I did point that out to him,” Harris agreed.

          “On the other hand,” Alex said, leaning forward slightly, “authenticated historical means a more selective customer base prepared to pay over the top.”

          “We’ll need to expand our sources,” Harris remarked.

          “I’ll get straight on it, sir,” she nodded, scribbling a note.

          “What about our sales people?” Jim asked.

          “Retrain them,” Alex said.  “If they can memorize the names, locations and prices of modern artists and sculptors, they can get to grips with historical artists and sculptors.”

          He nodded.  “And a price list?”

          “Rule of thumb – the older it is, the more it costs.  A hundred years old, a hundred dollars.  Two hundred years old, three hundred dollars.  A thousand years old, ten, maybe fifteen thousand.  You have to consider how much history is involved,” Alex replied.  “Harris, we’re going to need suppliers in Egypt, Italy, Greece.  Iran and Iraq for the Ottoman Empire, Persia.  The Indian sub-continent.  Japan and China.  South America for the Inca and Central American for the Aztec, Maya, and Toltec.  Native Americans in the US and Canada.  Scandinavia for the Vikings.  The United Kingdom – think Stonehenge.  All those countries have a rich history and pre-history,” Alex shrugged.  “And, where there’s history, there’s artifacts.”

          “And,” Jim ventured, “where there’s artifacts, there’s currency.”

          Alex smiled.  “Exactly right.”

          “She’s still in thrall to the almighty dollar,” Alex commented sadly to the Shade.

          “It doesn’t please you that she is still interested in history?”

          “Her motive isn’t to acquire knowledge and understanding of the past.  It’s to .. to plunder and pillage the physical, cultural tapestry of the world and sell it to the highest bidder.  It’s hardly more than organized commercial theft.”

          Alex halted sharply and turned on her heel, her eyes fierce.  “Jenny’s new husband …  What’s his name?”

          The scene shifted again.  A summer reception at Jenny’s home.  Alex felt her eyes widen.

          “Ah, Alex.  So good of you to join us.”

          “Mr Arkadi.  A pleasure, as always.”

          “I trust the, er, new direction at HI isn’t causing anyone any problems?”

          “No, sir.  It’s a challenge but one we are all rising to meet.”

          “Doesn’t she realize – ?” Alex began, her voice choked.

          “How could she, Alex?  She never joined the Legacy,” the Shade pointed out.

          “But .. it’s Victor Arkadi!” Alex pointed out.  “He’s dead!”

          “In your life, he is dead.  In her life, he isn’t.”

          “So .. something I did in the Legacy eventually led to his death.  Because I didn’t join .. no one ever stopped him.  He’s still … ”  Alex fell silent.  “And he’s using Jenny’s business as a legitimate front.  This is terrible.  Alex – that Alex – has to realize!  She has to see!  Isn’t there any way to tell her how dangerous he is?”

          The Shade slowly shook her head.

          “You changed my original decision to set this alternate life in motion.  That means you’re not completely powerless.  Can’t you do something?  Anything?  Tweak her psychic sight or just .. give her a sensation of danger?”

          The Shade shook her head again.

          “You could – you just won’t.  You have to teach me this lesson, don’t you?”

          “It isn’t a lesson, Alex.  It’s a gift.  A very special gift.”

          “But it’s horrible!  I hate it!”

          “It isn’t entirely real – ” the Shade defended.

          “Yes, it is.  It’s real to her and she’s me.”

          “Alex!” Jenny exclaimed.  “I’m glad you came.  I wasn’t sure you would.  You look fabulous.”

          “She does, doesn’t she?” Victor agreed, slipping an arm around Jenny’s waist.  “If we ever advertise, I think we should use Alex as our model.  The face of HI.”

          “That’s a fantastic idea,” Jenny agreed.

          “I’m very flattered but I’m not paid to be a model.  I’m paid for my business brain.”

          Jenny laughed.  “Let me show you around.”

          “I can’t believe I’m working for that man!” Alex muttered, furious with herself.  “Well,” she huffed, “it can’t get any worse than this.”

          The scene moved on again.  It was later, Alex was home and she had shed the finery she’d worn to the reception.  Alex and the Shade stood in the corner and watched as Alex went to get the door.

          “What’s he doing here?” Alex demanded, tensing.

          “Alex, darling.”

          She fell into Victor Arkadi’s arms.  “I thought you’d never get here.”

          “Took me longer than I wanted.  She is such a clinging vine.”  He kissed her.  “Plan B’s working very well .. despite the fact that I had to marry that woman and keep you only as my mistress.”

          Alex smiled.  “I get what I want, you get what you want, everyone’s happy an’ nothing really changes.  I still have you.”

          Alex closed her eyes and turned away.  “Did I really say it couldn’t get any worse?”

          “Yes,” the Shade replied, “and you were wrong.”

          The scene moved again, falling apart and reassembling in a new pattern.  Alex could hardly bear to watch.  For a special gift, this left a whole lot to be desired.  Her life was a series of second bests and disasters, and the worse thing was that the other Alex couldn’t see it as being wrong.  And all because she hadn’t gone to Derek’s talk.  It was such a small thing.  How could something as unimportant as an hour’s lecture by a man she’d only heard about by reputation make such a profound difference to the way her entire life had developed?

          But, then, it hit her.  This was a gift .. because she had gone to Derek’s talk.  She’d chosen the right thing and it had changed her life.  The Legacy was open to so few people, its members carefully screened and invited to become part of the elite.  The risks were high, the dangers immense, but the rewards more than balanced them.  Alex marveled that she could ever, even jokingly, have wondered if she’d chosen the right life.

          The heat of summer was ebbing.  The leaves on the trees were starting to gather their fiery fall splendor.  Alex, of course, with her tuned business brain, didn’t notice the beauty of nature.  She was firmly fixed on a report, facing in, not out.  It wouldn’t have made any difference to her equilibrium if she had taken a moment to gaze outside.

          Alex and the Shade watched in silence, the Shade because she rarely volunteered anything, Alex because she had developed a layer of aloofness, a distance to cushion her from the pain which had been growing in her heart.  She was resolved to see this thru, even though she was convinced it couldn’t have a happy ending and in spite of knowing the Shade wouldn’t let her go until the end was done, because she felt the end was just as important as the beginning.  But she knew too it would take guts.  Watching herself deteriorate, implode, become so twisted with jealousy and envy that she’d do anything to hit back at the woman who’d caused it – even though she hadn’t wanted Mark for herself  - it would have turned Alex’s stomach if she allowed herself to get too close to it.  From here on in, she’d decided to take her example from the Shade and be only an interested observer.

          The phone rang.  Alex sighed abruptly and scooped it up.

          “What?”  She listened for a long moment, her eyes at last turning to the view thru the window.  She still didn’t see it.  “It’s imperative we get those artifacts.  Mr Arkadi is extremely insistent.”

          “Well, he hasn’t changed,” Alex remarked in a flat, cynical tone.

          “Money is no object, you know that.  We are prepared to pay whatever it takes.”  She listened some more, her eyes narrowing.  “I don’t care if they have religious significance!  We have buyers lined up here with cash in their hands.  Don’t those people realize how their lives could improve with the money we’d be giving them?”

          “Alex, I know you can’t hear me, but money isn’t everything,” Alex said rather forcefully.

          “Stupid, backward peasants, the lot of them,” Alex fumed.  She sighed abruptly.  “Do whatever you have to but get me those artifacts!”

          She slammed the phone down and swore viciously under her breath.

          “I have really changed,” Alex commented.  “I didn’t think I knew language like that.”

          “You’ve learned a lot on your travels,” the Shade remarked.  “It’s actually been a successful life, Alex.  You’ve achieved every one of your goals.  You’ve traveled the world, contributed to the company’s success.  You wanted to use your mind, and you have.  She may be feeling pressure but she enjoys what she does.”

          Alex nodded.  “I guess you’re right.  Does she know, even deep down, how rotten Arkadi is?  That .. everything she’s worked for is being put on the line because he will stop at nothing to pay homage to his god – the omnipotent dollar – and its handmaiden – absolute power.”

          “She is in love with him.”

          “Love blinds,” Alex pointed out.

          “Not her.  She knows.  Plan B was her idea, not his.”

          Alex laughed without humor.  “He must have been overjoyed to find someone like her.  No scruples, no ethics, and precious few morals.”  She shrugged.  “I think I’m actually a little impressed that I could devise a plan like that.”

          “It has never been in doubt that you can think, Alex.”

          “She’s just authorized theft, hasn’t she?”

          The Shade nodded.

          “I’m on the wrong side of the law.  It can only be a matter of time now before it catches up with me.  When it does .. Arkadi will run because he always does and I will take the fall for him.”

          The scene shifted again.  It was nearly Christmas and Harris McDermott was clearing out his office prior to leaving it for the last time.

          “Alex, I can’t say I understand the direction we’ve taken.  In the past, we were never that concerned with making substantial profit from sales.  Our capital for acquisitions came from sound investments.  The profit was invested.  That doesn’t seem to happen now.  We have warehouses full of .. things, a hell of a lot of money sitting in the banks, yet nothing much seems to be moving out, y’know?  Still,” he shrugged, “it’s none of my business now.  After the holiday, this is all gonna be yours.  You’ve inherited a good company, loyal employees, a long tradition.  I know it’s in good hands.  I won’t have any regrets or misgivings when I go.”

          “Thank you, Harris.  You’ve taught me a lot over the years.  I just .. want to do a good job.”

          “I know you will,” he winked.

          “I thought he was smart,” Alex commented to the Shade.

          “He is – his cleverness is in finances but not necessarily business.  For some years now, Alex has been directing the business side for him.”

          They followed Alex back to her office on the floor below.  It was a corner office, large, plush, yet curiously stark and empty.  Others might have had prints on the wall, a few foliage plants.  Not Alex Moreau.  She had a few ancient artifacts on display.  Stone.  Terracotta.  Wood.  All hard and ungiving.  Like her.  The large desk was polished and, apart from a blotter, phone, and gold pen, empty as well.  On a side desk, there was a computer screen and keyboard.  In one corner of the office, a TV set was switched on, the sound muted.  A business channel.

          “Do you feel sorry for her?” the Shade inquired.

          “Not any more,” Alex replied.  “I know she’s me .. but she isn’t me.  She has done things, terrible things, which I would never even consider .. and she hasn’t hesitated.”

          “So have you.  You have the same inner strength.”

          “The focus is different, that’s all,” Alex nodded, remembering.  “I’m good .. she’s bad.”

          The phone buzzed.  Alex picked it up.  “Yes, Helen?”

          “There’s some people here to see you.  They don’t have an appointment.”

          She glanced at her watch.  “My next meeting’s in fifteen minutes.  I’ll give them that long.”

          “Yes, Ms Moreau.”

          “Who is it?” Alex asked the Shade.  “Interpol?”

          The door opened and two people came in, a man and a woman.  Alex’s eyes widened and then she blinked.

          “Welcome to Hernandez International.  I’m Alex Moreau,” Alex said as she faced them.  “How can I help you?”

          “Nick Boyle.  This is my colleague Rachel Corrigan.  We’re with the Luna Foundation.  We’re here about some stolen artifacts.”




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