On the Cusp of Libra

All Rights Reserved ©

Summary

Palmer Pallister has all the negatives of a Libra - indecisive, placid, unambitious... He is working at a job he hates for people he despises. Inspiration for change finally comes to Palmer in his mid-30s from a young immigrant boy, workmates and a Syrian barber..

Genre:
Drama
Author:
Gdan
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

Chapter 1

Start writing here…

ON THE CUSP OF LIBRA

By G. R. Daniels

Copyright 2020 by Awareness Communications Inc.

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior, written consent of the publisher is an infringement of the copyright law of Canada.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, particularly of the principal organization, and of all other characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in Canada and abroad by Awareness Communications Inc.

ISBN Canada 978-1-9991816-9-7

Libra (September 23-October 22) the seventh of twelve zodiac signs - Libras are said to avoid confrontation. Faced with conflict or bullying, they may seek compromise even one with personal discomfort. They may appear lazy and insecure...

ON THE CUSP OF LIBRA

By G. R. Daniels

CHAPTER ONE

The summons came, as usual, in a curt email. See me!

The exclamation point was to be expected. Mr. Lester Brewster Kaide loved exclamation points almost as much as he loved yellow mustard, the kind that added colour and texture to the broad ties he insisted on wearing most of the time.

Palmer Pallister dreaded such messages, most of all since he would have to look at Mr. Kaide and his tie. Palmer could count on the sight being the same day after day, hour after excruciating hour.

Lester Kaide was overweight in the manner of men who cared nothing for others’ tolerance of unhygienic ugliness. The man would have stood several inches under six feet if he ever stood. For most of his time in his office, he sprawled. His broad butt would be planted in the huge, brown leather chair behind his large wood desk. His legs, the size of limbs from a hundred-year-old oak tree, extended out from the chair across about a yard of green carpet worn by the constant back and forth of the heels of his scuffed Oxfords. At the moment, he was pushed back against the sloping back of the chair, torso bulging in front like a quarter of a ton of cooked porridge wrapped in a sweat-stained cream shirt decorated by a mustard-dotted wide tie.

Kaide’s head rose from the mount of bulging suet. It was thinly topped with brown and gray hair that he often and annoyingly patted into place. Spittle sprayed from his mouth when he spoke, grunted or yawned, which was the reason why most of hiS visitors bumped their chairs back from the desk as much as possible or simply stood just inside the doorway of the room when summoned. No one with any sense entered this room without being commanded.

The boss’s face was lumpy and had a greenish sheen. Palmer used to be forgiving enough to assume the green tinge was merely a reflection of the bilious carpeting over the floor of Mr. Kaide’s office. Now, Palmer believed the green hue was the given colour of this man’s flesh. Kaide’s nose sported several lumps with a large, red-tinted end.

Thrown together as it was, Kaide’s face was even more disturbingly unpalatable than his body. Kaide was, simply, a disgusting-looking man who, just as simply, didn’t give a damn.

“Wait there.” Kaide’s voice reminded Palmer of the flushing of his neighbour’s toilet through the paper walls of his small apartment. Kaide was pointing with his stubby, fat finger at the place where Palmer had come to a halt about three feet inside the office. Palmer stood, like a soldier at ease, looking over Kaide’s head at the top shelf of the book rack. The shelf held nothing but dust and a small porcelain horse that Kaide had stolen from a stand at a country fair he attended years before.

Palmer hated, not just the boss at the Association of Independent Immigration Advisors, but this office and the air within that smelled like unwashed socks. He hated, even more, the way he waited like the porcelain, dusty horse on that shelf for this disaster of a man to determine the next hours of Palmer’s existence. There was another person Palmer hated, almost as much as his boss, and that person entered the office behind him.

“Move, will you,” the harridan whispered into his ear. He felt the bony elbow jab into his side, forcing him to take a step to the left so she could pass by him and take the lone chair on this side of that big desk.

Mavis Thorpe settled onto the padded seat of the wooden visitor’s chair. She was a tall woman constructed from skin-covered metal of some sort, all taut wires and sharp edges. Palmer imagined a mad sculptor working frenetically to craft this robotic woman. Physically, she was the opposite of the bulbous man who sat on the other side of the desk, all angles and corners in a form that weighed about the same as a handful of shaving lather.

Mavis had whiskers; they fascinated Palmer every time she stood illuminated by a backlight that showed the lengths of hair jutting from her cheeks and chin. The rest of her head hair was thin and gray even though she couldn’t have been more than 40 years old. Her eyes were those of a bird of prey, dark and beady under grey eyebrows that hadn’t been trimmed in years. Her skin was sallow except on her neck and upper chest where it was red, like a rash, and dotted with pimples something like the mustard bits on Kaide’s ties.

Together, Kaide and Thorpe had become, to Palmer, an act in a circus of revulsion. Perhaps to others, they would not be described so harshly, but Palmer had developed such an aversion to the pair, he accentuated and magnified every flaw in Kaide and Thorpe. He fought against a desire to gag as he forced his eyes down from the top shelf to the two people who controlled his time five days of every endless week.

“I am going to reduce your salary, Pallister.” It was Kaide’s voice, coming out of a mouth ringed with fat, liver-coloured lips. Pallister shifted his weight slightly toward the man and woman. He was surprised but not shocked. Over the past few weeks, McKay had been even more insufferable than his normal with most of his ire directed at Palmer Pallister.

“Why?” Palmer hated the sound of his own voice. This one word was uttered without power. It was barely above Mavis’s earlier whisper. It was the voice of compliance, not the just objection of one being wronged.

“Because I don’t like you, Pallister.” Palmer stood silent and still. He knew this was the beginning sentence of a typical outburst from this man. He was right as the toilet continued to flush.

“You think you are so smart, Pallister.” Kaide was into it now. Mavis, ever his audience and acolyte, beamed with one black molar grandstanding in a mouth full of yellow teeth. “I know you. When I was in school, there were people like you. They were bullies. All of them thought they were smarter than me. Okay. Maybe they were but I got where I am. So, I guess I wasn’t that dumb, was I?”

Kaide didn’t expect an answer. He paused only long enough to run his worm of a tongue over his own row of yellow teeth with his liver lips parted. Then he was off again.

“I hate you, Pallister. You think you can do whatever you want. This is my office, Pallister. Mine. I tell you what you can do and what you can’t. Isn’t that right, Mavis?”

The bony woman looked at Kaide with admiration and, then, at Palmer with disdain. She should have snakes coming out of that head of thin, washed-out hair, Palmer thought to himself.

“So, I think I’ll take 20 per cent off the top of your salary, Pallister. Because, I don’t like you and I don’t like what you do.” Kaide thumped one of his chubby fists on his desk, disrupting the pile of papers there. He had not imperilled, however, the wrapped sandwich that rested in a film of grease on the scarred desktop until his mid-morning snack time.

Palmer found enough courage for one rejoinder. “What don’t you like, sir?” Again, his voice was too quiet, too defensive.

“Everything. I don’t like what you write. I can’t understand half the words you use. Like I said, you think you’re so smart.”

“Yes,” said Mavis in her acidic tone. “I don’t understand them either.”

Palmer kept his thoughts to himself but knew the words he used in his writing of news releases and reports for the association were dumbed down and appropriate for even the most stupid of association members and the editors of the few trade journals that appealed to members. There was no audience for his writings beyond members and a handful of others so there was no one who wouldn’t understand the language he used, except for this couple who he had learned were truly ignorant.

“In fact, Pallister. I think I’ll cut you by 30 per cent.”

Kaide put his hands on the chairs of his oversized chair and levered his bulk out of the seat. Kaide moved all the way around his desk, quite a chore in itself. He came even farther until he stood less than five feet from Palmer.

Palmer moved back but his body contacted the door frame bringing him to a stop.

“You look like that all the time, Pallister. You don’t say anything. You just look at me. I know what you’re doing, Pallister.”

Pallister didn’t understand what Kaide was saying. How could Kaide know what Pallister was doing when Palmer didn’t know himself? What could Palmer say to this man? He knew only that he couldn’t withstand any pay cut, much less one of 20 or 30 per cent. He was paid so little now.

“He does that with me, too,” said Mavis from her seat by the desk. “He just looks at me. He’s weird.”

Palmer turned to the door. It was closed and he put his hand around the door handle.

“You can’t leave, Pallister. I have a lot to say to you.” Kaide lifted his hand. Palmer dropped his hand from the door handle. Kaide smiled triumphantly.

“You know I can cut your pay, Pallister.” Kaide was boasting that he could exert power over a man who was more intelligent than he was. Kaide snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”

Palmer shook his head but Kaide took it as a sign of defeat, at least resignation. Palmer was acknowledging the power Kaide had over his life.

“Great idea,” came the chorus from Kaide’s booster. Miss Thorpe’s head bobbed up and down and her eyes glinted.

“I won’t do it now, Pallister. I can do it tomorrow. Or next week. Maybe I’ll cut your pay by 50 per cent. I can do that. Why are you standing there just looking at me, Pallister? You have work to do, don’t you?”

Kaide stepped away, to Palmer’s relief. The boss turned toward his desk where Mavis sat watching him with her twisted version of a smile. Palmer noted Mavis was waiting for some recognition but Kaide, true to his narcissism, ignored the woman and looked instead only at his desk, the waiting sandwich and the chair into which he would soon lower his bulk.

Palmer opened the door and slipped out into the hallway, hating himself more than the pathetic creatures in that room and wondering, again, if Palmer Pallister might ever have reason to respect himself.

CHAPTER TWO

Palmer Pallister walked down the hallway of the Council of Independent Immigration Advisors in a mental fog. He passed, oblivious to the large plaque on the wall with its unimaginative round border on which was engraved the long name of the not-for-profit outfit for which Palmer toiled. In the centre of the garish medallion there was a crest that was nothing but symbol graffiti. Most called the association the ‘CIIA’, which sounded like a spy agency with a stutter. This was rather daring for the association’s several hundred members and its few sponsors.

Palmer arrived at the open area in which the desks of CIIA drones were placed. He looked over the work-pit. His two co-workers kept their eyes down, either engrossed in their tasks or not wanting to embarrass Palmer. They knew he had gone to Kaide’s office for a dressing-down. He felt an urgent need to visit the washroom in the hallway leading away from the pit. He passed by the four desks, including his own by a window overlooking the rear parking lot of the building and trudged into and through the far hallway toward the Men’s.

The human brain is a marvelous organ but it has its shortcomings. Memory is one of the brain’s problems. We can demand of the hippocampus a declarative memory and, under this heading, an episodic recall. But we cannot control the brain totally. It has an irritating habit of shoveling into our consciousness memories we want to forget. As Palmer stood before the urinals in the Men’s room, his brain whims dominated.

Back a year, just as the pandemic was ending, Palmer Pallister lost his job with a public relations firm. The company gave up because government handouts ended with the pandemic and it was only the handouts that were keeping Palmer’s employer alive.

Granted, Palmer’s job, the one he had performed for eight years right out of his four grinding years at Ryerson University, wasn’t all that much to lose. He wrote releases and reports - flotsam that was pumped out by Paramount Industrial Consortium Incorporated. At its height, Paramount could afford to be very picky, dealing only with clients who were big enough and stupid enough to pay $500 per hour for the scribblings of each of a dozen PICI workers like Palmer Pallister. It fell off the cliff as even the dumbest of clients were forced by COVID-19, to trim their indulgences.

Palmer didn’t earn $500 an hour, of course. He was meek, mild and content to have paying work of any kind. He would do more for less and was, therefore, an ideal worker at PICI. When PICI became a casualty, those at the top of PICI, desperate to retain every cent in their swollen bank accounts, ticked Palmer’s name off the employee list with barely a squint of concern or recognition. The single comment that accompanied to decision to ‘let him go’ came from a junior manager.

“Oh, yeah, him.”

And Palmer was gone from his tiny space beyond the plush executive suites and reception areas of the moribund PICI. The memory came, unbidden, to mind as he looked down at the porcelain and chrome contraption he was using.

He had been stunned at the loss of his job at PICI. He had never imagined he would be removed from the company. It wasn’t that he felt he contributed to the company so greatly he was entrenched, it was that Palmer didn’t think of things like unemployment or debt or want. He had what he had. To rely on that meaningless and immensely overworked phrase, Palmers’ life was what it was.

After he was terminated in a two-minute canned spiel by a HR drone, all Palmer could think of was what he had in his small rental apartment that he could have for supper. He couldn’t bring himself to think of the future. He entered his unit, missing, for just a second, the woman who had once shared this rental apartment with him. She had entered his life four years ago and had departed from it when she found herself unable to endure another lock-down with Palmer during the pandemic. They had never had much of a relationship. He couldn’t conjure up her face, just her presence. She had, however, prepared good suppers and, so, he remembered her, when he wanted a meal, but only for a second.

Palmer left the termination memory and the Men’s retracing his steps to the pit. He sat at his desk but couldn’t get back to work. He stared out his window on the parking lot and his hippocampus reminded him of how he came to be working at CIIA for Lester Brewster Kaide. It was another unwanted memory but filled the time as he recovered from his latest meeting with Kaide.

Palmer Pallister had been applying for a job. It was some months after his departure from PICI, months of trying to find another position while living on employment insurance. He was now into double digits for job interviews in the lower ranks of anything to do with public relations or marketing. He sat, still as a Sphinx, in the reception area of the Internet firm that had advertised for a ‘communications specialist’ but which really wanted a dogsbody at the lowest possible wage, such as they valued relations with the public.

Two empty seats away sat a large man in an ill-fitting suit and a broad tie. Since he was of no import to Palmer, he went uncategorized. The man turned his head toward Palmer. To Palmer’s surprise, the man spoke.

“What are you here for?” The voice was gravelly but not aggressive or rude. Palmer took no offence but didn’t welcome the query. He blinked and answered economically.’”

“Interview.”

“Ah. Me too. What’s the topic?”

“Topic?” Palmer was puzzled.

“Yeah. I’m to talk about immigration. That’s my line of work.”

Palmer’s mother had often used the phrase, “clear as mud.” It seemed apt to this conversation between Palmer and the large man.

“Oh.” Palmer began to understand. He had read a little about the hiring company. The two were talking about different kinds of interviews; Palmer’s was part of his application for work at this company. The fat man’s interview was almost certainly with one of the Internet journalists who worked as bloggers for this company. The stranger was a spokesperson.

“What are you in?” The man down the way wouldn’t leave it alone. This was becoming tiresome.

“Public relations.” Palmer snapped out his answer.

“That’s what I need,” said the man who Palmer now noticed was quite ugly.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. So, are you going to talk about Public Relations?”

“Yes.”

“Listen,” pleaded the ugly man. “My interview is for a blog. Some woman. You got any tips for me?”

Palmer thought for a moment. He could ignore the entreaty or he could answer the man and, thereby, end this pointless exchange.

“Do you have a story to tell. Something your, uh, company does or did?” The man nodded. “Okay, tell your story no matter what question the woman asks.

“What about this. There was this Syrian guy who wanted to get into ...”

Palmer heard his name called. “Mr. Pallister.” It was the receptionist lifting a hand to him. It was time for his interview.

“That sounds fine. Look, I have to go,” he told the ugly man who wanted free advice.

Palmer went to his interview with a small man in a black suit in a small office with a desk and two small chairs. Palmer sat in the unoccupied chair across the desk from the man in the black suit. The questioning made it clear the Internet company wanted a hire who could write all manner of exaggerations, lies and fables in language that would be impossible to fathom even by a person with a PhD in computing engineering. In other words, the company wanted an Internet-savvy dogsbody willing to work for somewhat less than $35,000 per year. Palmer did not turn down the opportunity; the company turned down him. He left the interview strangely relieved.

“Well, how did you do?” The gravel voice of the ugly man intruded on his relief as Palmer walked through the lobby of the Internet corporation.

“It wasn’t a fit.” Palmer continued to walk. The ugly man came to his side and waddled in step.

“Your advice was great.” Palmer glanced to his side to see the ugly man was smiling a smile that took away Palmer’s appetite for a late lunch.

“Let’s get a coffee.”

“Uh.’

“It might be worth your time.”

The comment was difficult to ignore. Palmer was ready to be led.

“Okay.”

The two made their way to a coffee shop and found a table on the patio. The corpulent man ordered the beverages and introduced himself as Lester Brewster Kaide, the President of the Council of Independent Immigration Advisors. He grinned with yellow teeth showing as he said, “We are called the CIIA (C, double-I, A).”

Palmer’s memory skipped the negotiating that took place between Mr. Kaide and the docile Palmer Pallister but it included the part about the agreement struck between the two.

“So,” Kaide said with a triumphant tone in his objectionable voice, “you show up Monday at 8 a.m. at our offices in the Connor Centre ready for business. You get forty-five thousand a year payable every two weeks. And, don’t forget, Palmer, you work for me.”

What Palmer’s memory didn’t do was to tell Palmer what he should have realized - what he was facing. His recall didn’t look closely enough at the peculiar caution - ‘you work for me.’ It should have. Maybe, Palmer thought, his memory was torturing him for ignoring his mind and relying only on his impulse.

Mike Trundell, the membership coordinator, was sitting at his desk in his usual pose, bent at the waist with his long nose less than six inches away from the screen of his laptop. His wide head and a forest of uncombed and unwashed hair blocked Palmer’s view of most of his screen.

Whether by coincidence or design and much more critical to Mike, the pose let the 30-year-old escape the scrutiny of his neighbor at the next maple-wood desk in the line of work stations in the work-pit. Since she couldn’t keep close tabs on Trundell, most of the insults and innuendos issued by Mavis Thorpe, the office manager and deputy head of the association, were directed largely at Palmer and Sharon Gottlieb, the coordinator of operations. All these titles meant little to the holders since Thorpe kept all decisions of any gravity to herself.

Palmer’s relationships with the other members of the staff of the association were complicated in that they were influenced by very personal opinions and feelings.

If Palmer had to decide whether he liked or disliked Mike, he would have to come down on the negative side. It wasn’t that the long-nosed Mike with his unkempt dark brown hair, the spindly brown whiskers on his pointed chin and his Mark’s Work Warehouse clothes gave his workspace the look of a homeless abode in an urban laneway. Palmer’s slight hostility toward Mike was that the young man had a nickname. Palmer envied people with nicknames and that envy grew to aversion if the person was habitually in Palmer’s ambit.

Look at it as Palmer did. Throughout his life, Palmer had been called Palmer or Pallister. He longed for a name like Mike or Joe or Dan or even Les for Lester. Not much could be done to make a nickname out of Palmer. One couldn’t call him Palm, could one? ‘Hey Palm.’ Nor could one make much out of the rest of Palmer. ‘Mer’ had never been a nickname and would never be one. No other part of his first name could be corkscrewed into a nickname except, perhaps, for the first three letters. Sure, he could be ‘Pal’. But that would be silly. Anyone could be nicknamed Pal as in ‘Hey, Pal.’

Of course, his last name could be plumbed to create a nickname. Pallister could become... uh.... Pal. There is no other possible nickname to be created out of Pallister. Lister isn’t a nickname. ‘Pally’ might be used but that brings us back to Square One; it is just a version of Pal. ‘Hey Pally.’ See the problem? It is no wonder that Palmer disliked Michael, known as Mike, who might also be nicknamed Trun or Dell. Mike had a surfeit of possible nicknames while Palmer had none. It was not fair.

There was a saving grace to this quandary. With Mike habitually burying his face in his computer screen, Palmer had few chances to speak to Mike or to betray his holding of Mike in disesteem.

Palmer, so far as he liked anyone, had high regard for Sharon Gottlieb. She was, to Palmer, quite attractive. Her hair was black and usually shone when the light from Palmer’s window made its way to the second desk in the row in the pit. She sat always erect in her chair despite the fact the seat pad under her shapely body was, Palmer knew, ancient and compressed to the depth of a sheet of cardboard and the back slats of the furniture dug into one’s spine.

Sharon knew more about immigration than anyone Palmer had ever met. Of course, he hadn’t met many who were expert in the process of immigration. He had few opportunities to interact with members of the association. They were far flung across Canada’s vast territory and had limited reasons to come into the association’s offices in its Etobicoke strip mall. Sharon was impressive when she discussed the subject or when Palmer asked for her input for his writing.

Sharon was friendly with him, more gracious than warm, but still friendly. She had never accused him of being boring, unenthusiastic, slow to volunteer or ignorant of the very purpose of the organization that employed him. She was always helpful and willing to share her knowledge. If Palmer ever were to ask anyone to have supper with him or to stroll by the river, that someone would be Sharon Gottlieb.

There was something that Sharon and Palmer did share. That was the enmity of Mavis Thorpe. Thorpe was the office manager, a factotum with control over staples, paper, elastic bands and the rest of the equipment expected in small business and which gave her minor control over the office.

But Thorpe was also the deputy chief of the council and this gave her considerable power. Obviously, power over three other staff members and about 2,000 square feet of rented office space was not, say, the power of a deputy prime minister of Canada or a vice president of the U.S., but it was enough power to affect the lives of Sharon Gottlieb and Palmer Pallister and not in a good way.

Thorpe was deputy chief of the office for one excellent reason. Although she was married and mothered two children, she had the time, the temerity and the lack of taste to sleep with Lester Kaide, the president of the CIIA. Among the duties of the association chief was attendance at a large number of conferences, conventions, seminars and festivities with relevance to CIIA’s membership of independent immigration advisers. Such events drew Kaide away to remote and sometimes exotic locations. On some of these occasions, Mavis Thorpe went along as his aide. Kaide was also married. With their spouses on sidelines, the chief and his deputy cheated liberally with each other.

Thorpe was not shy about exerting her power by castigating Palmer for every real and imagined mistake he made and by treating his successes, however substantial, with disdain. She tried each day to do the same with Sharon but Mavis failed to penetrate that woman’s armour because of Sharon’s skills and knowledge.

Thorpe’s driving force for her attacks on Palmer had nothing to do with his talents and wisdom or lack thereof. Her antagonism was due almost entirely to the fact Palmer made only $5,000 less than her. She had been in her position for 11 years while Palmer had resided at CIIA a small fraction of that time. It wasn’t fair and she would show Kaide and the rest of the staff that it was not fair. Palmer was not worth half of her value. Palmer was a farce, a failure, a fool, while she was the heart and soul of the association.

Thorpe returned to her desk after Palmer’s meeting with her and Kaide. Her beady eyes bore into Palmer as he sat at his maple desk. Palmer tried to avoid making eye contact with Mavis.

“Hi, Palmer.” Sharon’s voice was soft. Palmer liked her voice as much as he abhorred his own. “You don’t look so good, my friend.” Palmer didn’t know whether to take it as sympathy or disapproval.

“I’m fine.” His response was sharper than he intended. Sharon’s eyes narrowed. She was a good person but not one that took kindly to brusqueness.

“Well, pardon me, Mr. Pallister.” She turned her face away from his and resumed tapping on her keyboard.

“I’m sorry, Sharon. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Yes, you did.”

Palmer felt worse than he had in the washroom. It was not a great day. He thumped a key to wake up his CIIA-issued laptop and looked, morosely, at the news release he had been working on when he was summoned to the office of Mr. Kaide.

CHAPTER FOUR

The bus driver deposited Palmer, as usual, at the corner of the street that led to the rental apartment building where Palmer lived.

He had been 24, a little more than a decade ago, when he moved out of his parents’ home in an eastern section of Toronto called Scarborough. Only a year after that, his parents died, six months apart. Those deaths were among the many unfortunate events Palmer blamed on himself. If he had remained ‘at home’, his parents might have had another reason to stay alive. Instead, they had given up their fights against long-term diseases and had passed on, one from a stroke and the other from pneumonia. Perhaps, Palmer reflected, he could have talked them out of smoking... He had rented several places after leaving home. None were memorable.

It was after 6 p.m. on this autumn evening and Palmer was tired. He didn’t feel, however, like returning to his bleak and small apartment to spend the rest of the evening with boring newscasters on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) TV network or another rerun of some brain-dead American pap. He began to stroll without purpose.

The barber shop was open, even at this late hour. It was a small, three-chair establishment that Palmer visited once a month because it was local and inexpensive. Its prices were far below the $50 for an average cut at the swankier downtown shops. Palmer’s hair was brown and full; the best feature of his bland countenance. He ran his hand through his hair and looked in the window of the barber shop. The man inside, standing beside an empty chair, saw him peering in and smiled.

Palmer determined it was time. He entered the shop, not admitting he was attracted by the smile. He had been in the shop a dozen times, give or take, but avoided speaking more than a few polite words to the barber. The man looked to be in his late 20s and had a tanned look. Palmer hadn’t thought the two had any commonality to explore. He took a seat on the worn red leather of the big barber chair.

“Good evening, sir.”

Palmer nodded.

“How would you like it, today?”

“Short.” Palmer always gave the same response without knowing what ‘short’ meant in haircutting terms. The result was always the same, less hair than he had when he entered the shop. It took a month to grow back all the hair that fell onto the floor of this shop after he said ‘short.’ This was routine and Palmer was content with routine.

“You have good hair, sir.”

Palmer was surprised. The barber seldom spoke more than a few words to Palmer, recognizing his customer was not a big talker. Maybe the barber was voluble because it was late in the day, no other customers were waiting and he was killing time until he could close and go home.

“Thanks.”

“You must live near here. You come often.”

Palmer hesitated. Should he reply and give the barber personal information? Was there a nefarious reason the barber had for asking such a question? Was Palmer being silly for thinking his barber would steal his identity or send thieves to ransack and rob his dingy apartment? Was Palmer being racist since the barber’s tan wasn’t from the sun but from his genes.

Palmer had rules for controlling the few things in his life he could control. One rule was ‘don’t be a racist.’ There was no particular reason for the rule. Palmer had been told by his parents to be a good person but they had not described what a good person would be. Palmer was left to describe for himself a good person and being a racist definitely did not belong in the description he crafted.

“Yes. I live down the block.” Palmer was, again, surprised but this time at himself. He had taken a step toward knowing another person. It was a step he might regret. He took another.

Where do you live?”

The barber moved around Palmer to trim the back of his neck.

“Syria.”

“I’m sorry?” Palmer was mystified. Did the man commute?

“Oh, sorry, sir. I’m used to being asked where I am from. Customers, they hear my accent...” Snip. “I live in Scarborough. With my wife.”

“My parents lived in Scarborough,” said Palmer, in his third surprise of the evening. He had found a point in common with his barber. “They died.”

“I am sorry, sir.” The barber’s voice was sad so maybe he was sorry.

“Thank you.”

There was a moment of silence. Snip. Snip. “It is difficult,” said the barber. “Death of relatives.” His voice was low, calm and flat. “When I was in Syria, I saw this. Many times. My parents, too, are dead.”

“How?” Palmer found himself genuinely curious.

“Bombs.” The one word was said in pain.

“Oh.”

“But,” the barber went on after trimming a sideburn. “It is much better now. I come to Canada,” he took a second, “... six, seven years ago.”

“So, you immigrated?”

There was a chuckle. “Yes. From a camp in Jordan. Mr. Trudeau; he brought many of us. We immigrated.”

Palmer could not think of an apt rejoinder. He changed the topic.

“You’re open late.” A pointless observation.

Another chuckle but, this time, ironic. “Making up for the lockdowns.”

Palmer understood, as would anyone. Barbershops had been ordered to shut down services during much of the pandemic. COVID-19 had killed many hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and the businesses of millions. How many barbers suffered? How many were now Uber drivers or still idle? This man was trying to rebuild savings and his business. Palmer recalled the days when this shop had three barbers. Now there was one.

“It has been hard so I stay open late.”

There was a tone of finality in the voice. The barber had said enough. Palmer felt the emotion.

The barber finished cutting his hair and, as routine, offered to apply gel. As usual, Palmer shook his head and the encounter was over except for the paying. Palmer added a tip twice his usual token. A fourth surprise that sent Palmer into the growing dusk and the block walk home.

During the walk, Palmer recalled those days. It was before he went to work, at Kaide’s request, at CIIA, before he had anything to do with immigration himself. The Canadian Government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had brought to the country at least 25,000 Syrian refugees. They were chosen from camps and ruins of Syria’s towns and cities as war continued to kill and maim and make homeless more and more Syrians. They were settled in Canada. They became barbers and taxi drivers and doctors and nurses and entrepreneurs and, Palmer guessed, ordinary people living ordinary lives.

Palmer met very few refugees or other immigrants. That seemed curious since he worked now at an organization that represented independent immigration advisers. Many of these advisers were immigrants themselves; some were Syrian. Few of them came to the CIIA offices. Palmer had few opportunities to go to meetings of these CIIA members since Kaide and Mavis attended most of those.

No immigrants apart from members had reason to visit the CIIA offices. The advisers handled real people; CIIA handled public relations, membership dues and conferences or other meetings of members. Oh, yes, CIIA also enlisted members in a card program. With a CIIA card and its bar code, a member could get discounts on hotel rooms, air fare and meals at selected partners of CIIA. Members liked cards that carried discounts. This was the primary reason the advisers paid their fees to keep Kaide and his meagre staff of Thorpe, Trundell, Gottlieb and Palmer in their jobs in their shabby offices in their suburban strip mall.

Palmer’s only meeting with an immigrant all this month, in fact, had been in a barber shop down the block from his home.

His home. He unlocked the door with a brass key that shared a chain with the key to his five-year-old Subaru sedan parked in the narrow slot in the outside lot behind his building. The heavy door swung inward exposing the brown tiles of a short hallway. Palmer took two steps, opened another door and hung his light jacket on a hanger on the aluminum bar inside the coat and boot closet. He would switch soon to his coat as the weather cooled into the Celsius teens and then lower. He would change again to his heaviest coat to withstand a Canadian winter but that would wait for a while yet. Palmer was neither a skier or a skater and didn’t enjoy the frigidity of northern weather.

The hallway led to the postage-stamp-sized kitchen with its basic appliances and another brown tile floor. Four feet of vinyl-topped counter separated the kitchen from the living area with its little table, metal-framed chair, faux leather couch and the mid-sized television set on a black stand rescued from the building’s recycle room before the janitor could lay claim on it. Beyond the living room was a single bedroom with a sofa-bed that was never folded up. A small reading lamp rested on the maple bedside table. Palmer’s collection of two suits - one of which he was wearing - a sports jacket, five dress shirts, and two pairs of jeans (a luxury) filled the bedroom closet with two pairs of shoes on the floor.

Palmer’s underwear, socks, sheets, towels along with odds and ends jammed a linen closet outside the bathroom. The bathroom was also floored with uninspiring brown tiles on which rested a plastic bathtub and a shower stall large enough to accommodate a bull terrier. The stall had a mottled glass door trimmed in brass that would have been in style circa 1956.

Palmer thought it was near time to haul out his Hoover vacuum cleaner to clean the dust and crumbs from the so-called broadloom that covered all but the tiled portions of his floors. As he had done for weeks, he put the thought aside and opened the door of his refrigerator. There was a boxed pizza on the shelf with a turnip and a quart of milk. Palmer took out the pizza which had thawed to the point of being dangerous. It beat out a meal of boiled and mashed turnip and Palmer moved the unboxed pizza out of the refrigerator and into the table-top microwave. He found a soft drink in a shelf on the fridge door and popped the tab.

As he ate at his dining table with glances at the TV news playing in the living room, Palmer thought about the barber. He didn’t know the man’s name and wondered why he never asked or read the card stuck in the frame of the mirror over the washing sink behind the barber chair. The man had gone through a great deal but he had not given up. He had built a business. These Syrian immigrants, Palmer concluded, had built more than he had in his despicable job and his drab apartment. He wondered, as he chewed the tough dough of the pizza, if the barber rented an apartment or had purchased a home in Scarborough.

CHAPTER FIVE

Another day, another summons from Mr. Kaide. Palmer set his lunch bag on his desk and sighed. He hadn’t taken off his jacket yet and here was Kaide with his threats and insults. Palmer trudged down the hall.

“Good morning, Palmer.” The gravel voice was quieter, slightly more refined which merely took it to the level of bearable. “Hope you’re doing well.”

Palmer adopted the stare he used when he wasn’t certain of the intention of the speaker. He added a brisk nod.

“You have a lot to do today.” Kaide paused but for what it was not clear. “You know we have a board meeting on Monday.” It was now Thursday. “I need a presentation for that. All the stuff we have done in three months. PowerPoint too.”

Palmer kept staring while his mind processed the demand. In reality, the staff of CIIA had accomplished very little in three months. Sharon kept the card program running smoothly, delivering 10 to 25 per cent discounts to members wanting to travel.

Mike kept track of new and expired memberships and emailed a stream of emails to members who were delinquent in their dues. When Mike talked shop, which was seldom, he called the messages ‘Guilt-mail’ because they stressed how the tardy payer was jeopardizing the good works that so benefitted his or her peers in the immigration business. There was also a vague implication in the Guilt-mails that suggested the delinquent member’s name would be circulated to the membership as a whole if a cheque or, preferably a credit card payment, was not immediately forthcoming. Mike would add, on the few times he said anything, the caveat that he despised his job and deplored his Guilt-mails. He also said he would never follow through on the threat.

Mavis didn’t require a justification for her salary. She did keep track of staples and pencils since neither was ever used in the office, keeping the count the same. She hectored the rest of the staff. And Mavis slept with Mr. Kaide whenever there was an excuse to go out of town on business.

Palmer wrote, made graphics and handled relations with the news media that covered immigration or any publications of interest to immigration advisers. He also created and now managed the association website.

From the raw ingredients, Palmer was expected to design and execute a presentation that would impress the board of directors of CIIA. Better put, it would be a production that would convince the board that Lester Kaide was a leader of the immigration information community in Canada, worthy of another year of contracted duties heading the CIIA and representing Canada in the worldwide sphere of immigration advisors.

At the end of the upcoming board meeting, Kaide would be toasted by the directors who would renew his salary of $150,000 plus a bonus to be determined at year’s end. None of the salary or bonus would be passed to Palmer, of course, or to anyone else that propped up this repellent man.

“Do you understand about my presentation to the board?” Kaide raised his voice, waking Palmer from his trance.

“Yes sir. I understand.”

“As for what I said about a cut to your salary. Forget that, Pallister.” Kaide turned his face away from Palmer as he spoke. It was because Kaide knew he could not cut an employee’s salary without risking the employee charging wrongful dismissal, a claim to the authorities that would mar Kaide’s record as a careful administrator. The board might not care a whit about Palmer’s pay or his claims of mistreatment at work but it would care about any outside eyeing of the association and, by extension, any questionable activities of the board itself.

“Thank you,” said Palmer in not much more than a murmur.

“But do a good job on this presentation or I might change my mind.” Kaide licked his liver lips as he turned back to Palmer standing before his desk. “By the way. I haven’t seen my name and photo in the media in three weeks. That’s not good. I want that to change, Pallister.”

Palmer gathered himself. “What can we say? We’ll need a story to get into print.”

Kaide’s doughy face grew red; it looked like cherry pie. “I don’t know. Make it up. What the hell do we pay you for?”

“Is there anything interesting happening in immigration?” Palmer was risking an explosion but he was bereft of ideas to convince any media outlet to publish the name or picture of his boss. The trade media didn’t need much but Palmer could offer nothing.

“Jesus.” Kaide slapped the desktop with his meaty hand. “Okay. What about the Chinese?”

“The Chinese?”

“Yes. They immigrate. Lots of them. Ask around, Pallister. Just get my name in print. And get a new photo of me. I don’t like the one you’re using.”

Palmer mumbled his assent. He waited a breath before retreating from that big desk and its pile of mail and magazines about exotic travel. He closed the office door carefully and escaped down the hall.

The pit was quiet. All Palmer could hear was the tapping from Mike’s keyboard as Palmer scanned URLs on his computer searching for ideas that would get Kaide’s name into a publication, any publication. He raised his head as he sensed movement in front of his desk. He saw a boy looking down at him. It was the last person he could imagine coming to him at any time in any place, much less his office desk during working hours.

“You Mr. Kaide?” The boy spoke with an accent but Palmer couldn’t place it. His skin was darker than white but not dark enough to be called ‘black’. Perhaps he was Middle Eastern. Palmer shook his head.

“Can I help you?” Palmer was hoping the boy would answer no.

“You Mr. Kaide. President?”

“I’m sorry but Mr. Kaide is in another office. Can I be of service?”

“I must see Mr. Kaide. I have questions on immigration.”

“Maybe I can answer them,” Palmer said, thinking he could get rid of the boy quickly by answering a simple query.

“Am I illegal person?”

“What?” Palmer heard the question but had no idea what the boy meant.

“I want to see Mr. Kaide.”

Palmer’s eyes moved from the boy’s earnest face to the hallway, down which lay Kaide’s bailiwick. The boy followed Palmer’s eyes and, before Palmer could say a word, he moved off down the hall at a quick pace. Palmer let him go. Kaide could deal with the intrusion.

The silence returned, except for Mike’s constant tapping. Sharon had been somewhere else but returned now and sat at her desk. Mavis was at her desk assumedly counting staples.

Five minutes later the loud voice could be heard. Four heads in the pit turned and looked in wonder down the hall in the direction of President Kaide’s office.

“Get the hell out of here. I told you, I can’t do anything for you. Just leave. I can have you arrested.” The voice became a shout as Kaide grew more aggrieved and aggressive.

The first to rise was Sharon. Mavis saw Sharon moving into the hall and followed as fast as she could. Mike, oblivious, clattered away at his computer but Palmer followed the two women. They halted in a group at the door to Kaide’s room. The door was open. Mr. Kaide was out of his chair standing in front of his desk with his mouth open, black against his cherry-red face. The boy was several feet in front of Kaide. He was standing at attention, his hands at his side but curled into fists that pumped up and down against his hip and lower ribs.

“Stop it.” Sharon’s voice was sharp and distinct. “Stop it, now.”

The boy looked around at Sharon, Mavis and Palmer. Tears stained his cheeks. He was a good-looking boy when Palmer had seen him a few minutes before but his face was now twisted in fright.

Sharon went to the boy’s side and put her arm around his shoulders. “It’s alright,” she told him in a gentle voice but it was not alright. Kaide had stopped screaming as well but he maintained his rage.

“It’s not alright. Get that kid out of here,” Kaide’s hissed.

Sharon quickly turned the boy toward the door and began shepherding him out. The boy resisted. He reached up and tried to wrest Sharon’s arm away from his shoulders. She was strong but so was he. Palmer moved forward and grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling it away from Sharon. Palmer was stunned; it was the first time he could remember tussling with another person and especially not a child, for the boy could be no more than 12 years of age. Palmer and Sharon succeeded in getting the boy out of the office into the hallway. Palmer turned back to Kaide.

Kaide glared at Palmer. “Who the hell is he and how did he get in here,” demanded Kaide. Palmer looked at his boss and realized, to his amazement, that Kaide was shaken. Kaide’s eyes were wide with fear. His lips were wet with spit and there was a tic in a vein in his neck.

“I don’t know,” Palmer said as he took in the sight of his petrified boss. “I’ll find out.” He turned to escape.

“Just get him out,” Kaide told Palmer with a trembling voice. “I don’t want him here. Someone might see him.”

Palmer slammed the door behind him sealing off Kaide and his frantic utterances. As he made his way to the pit, Palmer replayed Kaide’s last sentence. He knew Kaide didn’t regard his own staff as people. ‘Someone might see him,’ could refer only to someone other than staff, someone with power like a member or, in the worst case, a board director.

CHAPTER SIX

Sharon and Palmer paired and guided the boy into the elevator and down a floor to the lobby of their office building. It wasn’t really a lobby, just a large foyer containing a directory behind a sheet of Plexiglas attached to one wall and hallways branching off to ground floor offices. Sharon acted as the shepherd with a hand putting gentle pressure on the boy’s back to turn him left or right. There was a doughnut shop at the end of the small mall.

“I can’t imagine what this young man did to set him off,” Sharon added. Turn left.

“Do you think it was him being alone in a room with a young...” Palmer suggested. He was immediately ashamed of what he thinking. He had no evidence Kaide was a pedophile. A bully, a liar, an opportunist, a sexist where women were concerned, certainly, but not a pedophile. As far as Palmer knew.

Turn left. They entered the coffee shop. Sharon glanced back at Palmer and frowned, cutting off Palmer’s supposition.

The boy remained compliant as Sharon prodded him, still gently, toward a booth at the rear of the shop. It was a short walk past the only other booth and a round table with three rickety chairs. The boy moved into the booth and Sharon followed him, shoving him over with her hip so he was bordered by her body and the wall. Palmer slipped into the bench on the other side of the booth and faced Sharon. She caught his eyes and canted her head toward the wall side of the booth. Palmer reluctantly slid across the worn leatherette until he faced the boy.

The child, and he was a child as Palmer confirmed with a close study, was likely in his early teens. He was tall for his age but not so tall that he was ungainly. He had a thin body under his well-used jeans, dark blue sweatshirt and light, gray jacket with an obscure brand across its breast. He was a handsome boy, his face composed of rounded features that would become sharper and more defined. He could become a very handsome man in time. His skin could be described as brown or tanned, just two shades darker than Palmer’s whiteness and one shade darker than Sharon’s olive skin. His face had the clearness and the shine of youth. His eyes, though, were narrowed with fatigue, Palmer saw they were dark brown but with golden speckles that caught the light. He had black hair, tousled and damp with perspiration from his emotional exertions. His eyebrows were thick and black. There was no hint of other hair on his face.

“How old are you?” Palmer leaned slightly toward the boy. The child sat slumped toward the table between them. He turned his eyes up to Palmer. He seemed to think for a moment, considering options.

“Eleven.”

“What’s your name?” Sharon asked the question in a soft voice, the one she might have used to a deer in the forest so as not to frighten it.

“Carlos.” The boy’s voice was so quiet Palmer leaned even further over the table to hear. The boy let Palmer come closer. He seemed to be over his fear.

“Carlos what?” Palmer’s voice was harsher than Sharon but the boy accepted his tone without demur.

“Carlos Ramos.” The boy smiled shyly. Or, Palmer wondered, slyly. “Carlos Fernando Albert Ezequiel Ramos. You know, like Sergio.”

“Sergio?”

The boy looked at Palmer with impatience in those brown eyes. “With Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos.”

Palmer gave up trying to understand the reference. He knew but only vaguely that Real Madrid was a soccer team in Spain but that had been the answer to a question on Jeopardy and was the limit of his knowledge on that subject.

“Oh,” said Sharon brightly. “Football.”

The boy also brightened. “Yes. Football.” He looked back at Palmer in triumph. How foolish, his look said.

“Soccer?” Now Carlos’ look was one of scorn.

“Well,” Palmer said defensively. “That’s what we call it.”

“We?” Sharon shot a glare across the table. She was trying to establish a companionship with Carlos, and Palmer was jeopardizing that attempt.

“So, Carlos. Why did you come to us?” She was smiling at him as they sat hip to hip.

He turned his head to her but his smooth forehead crinkled slightly. “You are the immigration people, are you not? I saw the name on a store glass.” It was a miracle, thought Palmer since the council’s name and address was posted in only a few storefronts that offered passport photos or special service for immigrants.

For 11 years old and with a set of Spanish names, Carlos spoke English extremely well, albeit with an accent.

“Are you an immigrant,” Sharon asked.

Carlos gave Sharon a look of suspicion. “Why do you ask me that? Do I seem like an immigrant?”

She was taken aback. “You said you wanted to speak to the immigration people. I thought...” Sharon stammered slightly. “Let me put it this way, Carlos. Why do you want to talk to the immigration people?”

“I want to know if I can stay.”

“Stay in Canada?” Palmer re-entered the conversation on firmer ground.

“Yes.” Carlos still regarded Palmer as something of a dolt.

“So, you were asking Mr. Kaide how you could remain in Canada. Were you asking for yourself or on behalf of your family?”

Carlos took another look at Palmer, who had retreated and now had his back planted firmly against the back of his bench seat.

“I have no family.” Carlos’ claim brought a gasp from Sharon.

Palmer surprised himself by holding up a hand to keep Sharon from speaking. “If you have no family, how did you come into Canada?”

“I come with a family but it was not mine. They were... they won’t get into trouble, will they?”

“No,” said Palmer. “We don’t know who they are and we won’t ask you about them. That is not what we do.”

Carlos was immensely relieved. You could sense it in his face as the tiny muscles around his eyes and mouth relaxed ever so little. It was difficult to judge emotions in such a young face. The young have not learned the tricks of conversation, the ways to manipulate micro expressions to hide or fake joy, happiness, sadness, distrust, disgust, fear, contempt or anger. Palmer had learned this from watching and often evading his own two brothers.

“I do not understand. What do you do?”

“We represent independent immigration advisers. These are people who help immigrants deal with the system. They help people who want to live here to get proper papers and to settle...”

“Oh, for god’s sake, Palmer.” Sharon had run through her reserves of patience, giving Palmer a chance to work with the boy. “Let me.”

The waitress came to the booth. “You have to order at the counter.” She turned and stomped away, back behind the counter and the large glass case full of pieces of dough and sugar.

Palmer slid out of the booth and went to do the server’s bidding.

Sharon put her hand on the boy’s hand which was on the table top supporting the child’s rapidly tiring body. “I know you’re tired, Carlos. Let me explain. We are a group of people who work with men and woman who help people like you. People who come into our country, Canada, from all over the world. Like you. You come from some other country.” She paused. “Don’t you?” Her question was mild, cautious.

“From El Salvador. You have heard of it?” Carlos kept his head bowed but his voice gave away his doubt. His country was small and poor. Many people had never heard of El Salvador. Many could not find it on a map. Many didn’t know what continent hosted El Salvador.

“Of course.” Sharon patted the boy’s hand. “I have been there.”

Carlos was amazed. “You have? You have been in my country?”

“Yes. Of course. I had a nice time there.”

It was a mistake, she thought. Carlos fell silent and she could feel the change in his mood.

“I did not have a good time there.” His voice was so low, she had to focus on his mouth to discern the words. With his head bowed, this was difficult.

“I’m so sorry.”

Carlos sighed. “My family is dead. My father, my mother, my sister. All dead.”

“Were they... uh... were they hurt in the war?”

Carlos lifted his head long enough to look at Sharon with raised eyebrows. “War? I don’t know...”

The Salvadoran Civil War ended in 1992 after being waged over the previous decade and more. that was more than three decades ago and many years before Carlos had been born. He likely had never heard of the war, much less any of his family being affected. Sharon felt acutely embarrassed.

“They were sick. Two years ago, my mother. Last year, my sister. My dad. They all... they are dead.” Carlos dropped his head again. Sharon patted his hand again but Carlos withdrew his hand and placed it in his lap.

Palmer, fortunately, returned then with three paper cups of coffee and an assortment of pastries. Sharon welcomed the break even though she peered at the croissants with repugnance. Carlos, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for Palmer to push the cardboard tray down the table; he reached past Sharon and took a croissant from the small pile. Palmer took a coffee cup from the tray and put it in front of him.

“Would you rather have milk or juice or...” Palmer began to ask.

“No. This is good,” muttered Carlos as he took a large bite from his croissant. Palmer and Sharon realized the boy was famished. They waited as he wolfed down the pastry and reached for another. Palmer took a croissant from the tray but looked to Sharon for approval. She nodded and Palmer took a small bite. There were two left on the tray.

The two adults waited until Carlos finished, leaving only a few crumbs on the tray. All of them had coffee left in their cups so they took sips before anyone spoke.

“You were hungry,” Sharon said to Carlos. He looked embarrassed.

“Yes. I have not eaten.” He thought for a moment. “I ate two days ago. I was behind a market. A big store. There was a big box. Where they put what they throw out. You know?”

“Yes,” said Palmer. “A dumpster. They throw expired produce there.”

Carlos looked at him. “Expired... what is expired?”

Sharon rescued Palmer. “The stores throw out vegetables and other things when the customers think the food is too old or rotten.”

“It was good,” said Carlos aggressively. “I think they were saving it in this dumpster box. But I took some. An apple,” He gave Sharon a guilty smile. “There was a package of chocolate things. Fluffy inside. Good. Sweet.”

Sharon was shocked. “So, you had Twinkies and fruit two days ago. My god, Carlos. That’s terrible,”

“Getting back to Mr. Kaide,” Palmer interrupted Sharon’s show of dismay. “What did you say that made him so angry, Carlos?”

The boy bridled. “I did not say anything to make him mad. I asked Mr. Kaide to help me be a... citizen. Is this right? Citizen? That is a word?” Palmer nodded.

“I said he was in charge of immigration so he should help me to be a legal person in Canada. Mr. Kaide. He was not friendly. He asked me how I came into this country.”

Carlos took another drink of his coffee and wrinkled his nose. “We have better coffee in El Salvador.” He chuckled. It seemed a strange sound to be coming from this boy who was so tired, so lost. “Maybe I should go home. For the good coffee.”

Palmer smiled. Sharon did not. They waited for Carlos to continue.

“I told him I came with a family. I met this family in Mexico. We walked into the United States. Around the end of a big fence. The fence ended. It was in desert. The people I was with thought it was funny and we laughed. That was the last time I laughed.” Carlos sank into despair. Palmer and Sharon waited.

“We came into Texas but we were caught by the Americans. The family had two children. Younger than me. I think three years and five years. The Americans took the children but not me. I don’t know why. The mother and father; they said I was their child. We stayed together in a big cage the Americans put many people from the south. It was about four days and I left without permission.”

“You escaped?” Sharon was startled.

“Yes. It was easy. I went out with people who had relatives who came to the place where we were kept. No one asked me anything. I asked a woman where she was going. She told me someone would drive immigrants to New York State. I didn’t know where that was but I asked if I could come. She said yes. It took three days. In a pickup truck. Is that right? A pickup truck?”

Palmer nodded. Sharon was too engrossed in the account to react. She continued to stare at Carlos.

“I told this to Mr. Kaide. He did not care. He told me to hurry up. Then I said the man in the truck took me to a city called Buffalo. I met another man who asked me if I had any money. I said I had one hundred dollars. My uncle gave this to me in Salvador; it was all he had. I hide the money in my underwear. I gave this to the man and he took me across the border. I was with five other persons. In a big truck. We hid.

“Mr. Kaide. He asked me the name of the man who brought me into Canada. I said the name was Collier. I saw this name on the side of the big truck.”

Sharon couldn’t abide the boy’s next pause. She prompted him. “What did Mr. Kaide say then?”

“He yelled. He yelled at me not to say this name. I didn’t understand. Who is this Collier? It was only the name on the truck. I did not meet Mr. Collier.”

“And he kept yelling.” Palmer was not asking, he was confirming.’

“He sounded like a crazy person. He frightened me. Why did he do that?”

Sharon looked at Palmer across the table. She shrugged. Palmer returned the gesture. Neither knew who or what Collier was.

“And we came into Mr. Kaide’s office.” Sharon smiled down at Carlos.

He returned her smile. The coffee hadn’t stained his brilliantly white teeth. They gleamed even in the dullness of the doughnut shop. For a moment, Carlos looked, if not happy, at ease for the moment.

“What will you do now?”

“I do not know, Mr. Palmer.”

Palmer grinned, pleased that the boy had picked up his name in conversation. “Just Palmer, Carlos. Just call me Palmer.”

Carlos looked sad without measure. He had been abandoned, several times, over the past month or more as he made a long and dangerous journey. An 11-year-old boy with no parents, no friends, no home, no country.

“Would you like a place to stay, Carlos. Some place that is safe and warm and where you can get food and a bed to sleep in?” Sharon waited for an answer. None came. She looked down as Palmer studied Carlos from the other side of the booth. The boy was asleep, his eyes closed and his head bowed over the table and the crumbs of his eaten croissants.

“I can call someone,” Sharon told Palmer. There were tears in her eyes. Palmer nodded and took a last gulp of his cold coffee.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Sharon Gottlieb called a friend at a refugee shelter in Toronto. The friend responded immediately by driving to Sharon’s strip mall office to collect Carlos. The 11-year-old woke after less than 10 minutes of sleep because of Sharon’s nudging. The waitress in the doughnut shop took to pacing behind her counter shooting laser looks at the trio taking up her precious booth. Sharon and Palmer led the exhausted boy to the parking lot where Sharon put him in the back seat of her small Honda. Carlos just fitted, lying across the seat. Sharon and Palmer took the front seats and waited.

Monica Lawson, an amiable, middle-aged, Black woman with large, black hair, piloted her car into the lot and to an empty slot beside Sharon’s 10-year-old vehicle.

“You have to get new wheels, girl,” Monica told Sharon as the two left their cars to hug. “God, it feels so good not to wear a mask.” Before Sharon spoke, Monica cast her eyes at Palmer as he stepped away from Sharon’s car and rounded it to join the women. “Who is this hunk?”

Sharon laughed. “Palmer? A hunk?”

The remarks were lost on Palmer who held out a hand to the social worker. She slapped his palm, then the back of his hand, causing Palmer to stare down wondering what she was doing. Monica grinned.

“Hey, Palmer. Are you new?”

He was confused. New? New at what?

Monica saw the confusion. “Sharon hasn’t mentioned you so I figured you were...” She stopped speaking, aware that her words might cause hurt in the man who had never been mentioned. She needn’t have bothered.

“The boy is asleep. I’ll get him.” Palmer turned and went back to Sharon’s car.

“He works with you?” Sharon nodded to confirm Monica’s supposition. Monica added, “That must be a boatload of fun. He’s so... so...”

Sharon chuckled. “So not a hunk.”

Palmer led Carlos to Monica’s Ford sedan. Monica gave the youngster a hug that enveloped Carlos and lasted for a full half-minute. Palmer fretted but Carlos was released smiling at the Black lady.

“We’ll take care of you, Carlos,” Monica said in a loud voice. “How would you like to go to school. I can get you into a class tomorrow. How would that be?”

Carlos gave her a shy nod and smiled again.

“Okay. But, first, we’ll get a room of your own and...” Monica sniffed at the jacket Carlos wore. “... And some clean clothes.” She took his arm and led Carlos to the passenger side of her auto. She deposited the child in the front seat, closed his door and returned to Sharon and Palmer.

“Okay, folks. I’ll take him back to the shelter and sort things out. He will be fine. Do you know if he has relatives in Canada, anyone we can bring in?” Palmer and Sharon looked at each other. They shook their heads in unison. Monica sighed in resignation.

“Don’t worry. I’ll start the process.”

“Do you think,” asked Sharon with emotion in her tone, “that he’ll be able to stay in Canada.”

“Oh, girl. You’re in the immigration game. You tell me.” Monica about faced and strode to the driver’s side of her car. In a moment and with a squeal of tires making a swift turn on asphalt, she was gone along with Carlos Fernando Albert Ezequiel Ramos, the boy who admired Sergio Ramos.

The coffee may have been weak and tepid to Carlos but it was pure acid in Palmer’s stomach. The result was a rumbling attack at his innards necessitating a quick detour to the men’s washroom on the way back to his desk at CIIA. Sharon was left to make her own way back by herself. As Palmer sat and reduced the rumbling to a murmur, he thought about what Carlos had told them about his encounter with Kaide. What, Palmer wondered, had thrown Kaide into his emotional upheaval?

Palmer seldom indulged in introspection or judgement of others. It wasn’t that he was uninterested, it was more that Palmer believed he couldn’t do much about human feelings or human failings - his own or in any others. It seemed somehow inappropriate to critique anyone if you had nothing to offer that would address shortcomings.

In this case, Palmer might make an exception. Kaide had harangued a child for nothing more than asking for help. What was wrong with the man that he would do such a thing? What was wrong with a man that would attack an employee for being smarter than him? What was wrong with Lester Kaide?

Palmer was impressed by his thoughts. They were daring, a change from his usual timid musings. He returned to his desk and fired up his computer. He searched Google for mentions of Collier. In 90 seconds, he found more than 200 million mentions. He brought this down by specifying trucking and down further by marrying Collier trucking with various versions of Kaide in a number of geographic options. At the end of his digital journey, he goggled at Google as it displayed a reason for Lester Kaide’s outrageous outburst at Carlos.

After the date, 10 years in the past, there was a brief article: ‘A transport truck driver and two passengers were killed today in a crash on Highway 401 that police say was the result of driver error. Phillip Kaide, 24, an employee of Collier Trucking Ltd., was on only his fifth run as a long-haul driver when his truck went out of control and rear-ended a sedan. A man and his wife in the automobile died immediately on impact, said Constable Amory Benn of the Ontario Provincial Police. He said the truck rode over the car, crushing the vehicle.’

That news item that turned up in the Google search was followed by another squib a week later. This item disclosed that Phillip Kaide had a mix of drugs and alcohol in his system when his truck rear-ended a passenger car killing its occupants and Kaide himself.

This led Palmer to an obituary of Phillip Kaide that disclosed that he was survived by his mother, a sister and his father, Lester Kaide.

Palmer was abashed at his findings. He had conjured up several scenarios that would have made Kaide erupt at Carlos’ story but all were too sensational. Instead, it seemed that Carlos had summoned up a painful memory in the death of Kaide’s son in an accident involving Collier Trucking. The man couldn’t abide being reminded of this terrible moment in his life (or maybe having the facts of the accident known more broadly) and, so, had struck out against a 11-year-old boy. It was, perhaps, an understandable reaction, but not one full of empathy.

Palmer shared his finding with Sharon who had been rocked by the Kaide - Carlos encounter. However, she had known about the death of the son of their boss.

“I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on the man,” said Palmer in a quiet voice. He was already feeling guilt for blaming Kaide even though he hadn’t voiced his opinion of the incident.

Sharon sent him a quick glance that gave him pause.

“What was that for?”

She turned her head away, regretting giving away her feeling.

“Come on, Sharon. What?”

“I just came by it second-hand, Palmer. I shouldn’t say anything.”

He pressed but the young woman hesitated. “I can’t, Palmer. It was in confidence.”

“From whom?”

She sat quietly, watching Palmer as he watched her. “Mavis. She was a bit tipsy at the time and pissed at him.” She pointed her chin in the direction of Kaide’s office.

“Tell me, Sharon. Or I’ll whine for the rest of the day.” It was not something Palmer would say in normal times since Sharon had complained several times that he was an inveterate whiner. It had stung. But today was not normal. She turned to look at Mavis’ desk. It was empty. Even Mike was away from the pit.

“What the hell,” she said, bending her head toward Palmer. She whispered.

It was about a year after Phillip’s death, she told Palmer. The young man had been buried in a cemetery near Orangeville, a burgeoning town not far from the Greater Toronto Area. Kaide himself had grown up in the environs with his farming parents.

The parents of the dead couple planted beds of flowers on the twinned graves of the man and wife. They were beautiful flowers, yellow and white, to celebrate the lives so violently lost. Kaide took Mavis on a graveyard visit. She was angry because she had been told they were going to visit a grave. She assumed, of course, he meant the resting place of his dead son near Barrie. Instead, of heading due north, Kaide drove westerly to the Orangeville area graveyard on this wet and dreary day. He had no intention of paying respects.

Kaide, with Mavis trailing in puzzlement, took a shovel from the trunk of his car and stomped to the grave of the couple his son had killed, raving, on arrival, about the flowers that were the only bright sight in the damp field of stones. She protested and asked to leave. Kaide dug up all the flowers so lovingly planted across the double grave. He threw them as far as he could away from the couple’s resting place and, afterward, crushed them into the mud with his big boots.

“God,” said Palmer in horror. “That’s awful.”

“Worse,” said Sharon continuing to relate what Mavis had told her. Every year, Kaide went to the graves to destroy repeated attempts by the grieving families of the couple to bring small comfort to this country cemetery.

“It makes you wonder why his son drank and took drugs, doesn’t it?” There was malice in Palmer’s voice, blame that made Sharon raise her brows. Palmer was never one to assign venality. He was simply the patient but unhelpful listener. But today was not a normal day and what he was hearing of was not normal behaviour.

CHAPTER EIGHT

It took Palmer all weekend to finish preparing documents for the board meeting on Monday. Board meetings were a stressful time at CIIA since it was on the nine directors of the board that Lester Kaide depended for his salary, bonus and his generous expense account. He also counted on the board’s deliberations for the monies to operate his small union. Those deliberations, quite simply, relied in turn on the exaggerations and false reassurances that Kaide and his minions piled in the board room before and during meetings. A meeting day came only once per quarter and, each time, the fog that encased the board outpaced that found over Newfoundland in an average year. In a word, the nonsense delivered in reports to the board was crafted to be stultifying.

The meeting was to begin at 11 a.m. Kaide came into the office at his usual time at 8 a.m. but his mood was anything but usual. Rather than entering the office trying to catch malingerers unawares and trying to buss Sharon on her hastily removed cheek, Kaide came in like a tank across a beachhead.

“Where are you, Pallister?” The voice penetrated the pit before Kaide reached the wide area of desks. Palmer signed. He had been in the office since 7 a.m., anticipating the charge of the heavy brigade. Palmer hadn’t been born at the time of the Normandy landing in the Second World War or for decades after but he was as ready as the Germans of June, 1944. He stood with an armful of paper.

Kaide swept through the pit and roared toward his office, now followed by Palmer and his load of fog generators. There was an agenda, a budget, a log with its list of things done, a plan for moving forward with its doable list, employee reviews, odds and sods and the news release that would be issued to enable the few interested media to record another session of the board. It was a masterful presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides.

Kaide went over each document and slide with his pudgy fingers, slamming a hand on his desk at words or phrases that Palmer would then explain to the man. Given Kaide’s schooling that ended in the 11th grade when farm work took him to the fields, it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t comprehend words like ‘comprehensive’ or phrases such as ‘moving forward with due diligence’. It was exhausting to Palmer, however, that he had to explain the same words and phrases he had made clear in preparing for the last board meeting and the one before that. Kaide’s retention of information was equal to his ability to look forward. His original resume for CIIA had been, to put it kindly, padded like a King-sized mattress.

Kaide finally clapped his hands together. Palmer rose from the visitor’s chair in front of the great leader’s desk with a slight groan as his body relaxed for the first time in hours.

“Getting old, Pallister?” Kaide’s tone was disdainful.

“Guess so.” Palmer closed his ears. Kaide’s voice was distant thunder, to be ignored until it was close enough to accompany lightning. He gathered the documents from the desk and made his way to the door and out, escaping before Kaide could demand more vapour to blind the arriving board members.

“Good morning Palmer.” It was Laura Johnston, the chair of the board. She was always first and the most welcomed by the staff, except Mavis Thorpe. Mavis hated Laura. Laura didn’t know this. There were many things she didn’t realize about CIIA, Kaide and its office manager, Mrs. Thorpe. Palmer thought Laura wouldn’t recognize Thorpe’s antipathy until she found a noose over her bed.

Mavis smirked at Laura as the chair paused in the side journey during her walk toward the board room. That room was one of the small number of features of the strip mall structure that housed the CIIA. It was not part of the CIIA office suite but was rented by the hour by any occupants of the mall. This rankled Kaide and Thorpe who resented any dent in the money they had to run their association and to take their trips. They would rather the board nine be jammed into the pit.

Palmer took his pile of paper to the boardroom, scurrying to get there before Laura and the rest of the board. He placed the appropriate documents on the long board table at each place. Nine piles for the board, one each for Kaide and Thorpe, one for Sharon and one for himself. Palmer and Sharon were staffers with information the board might want. They also were trusted to add to the fog. Mike was the single staffer not trusted; heaven knows what the strange man would say if asked to speak to his work.

The board typically listened only to one presenter. Kaide did all the talking through the interminable meeting. If Sharon and Palmer were needed to answer questions, they would be relayed through Kaide. He presented the agenda, the activities done, the work plan for the future, the odds and sods and, of course, the budget. He omitted the activities undone, details of the going-forward plan, problems, obstacles or anything else that was negative in fact or imaginable. He understood little of the details he spouted but his blather covered his lapses. The board asked questions, mostly for show. Laura was the one who asked several difficult questions but they were met with the most vague of answers. The meeting ended.

Kaide and eight members of the board retired to the best restaurant in the area for their communal lunch. The best restaurant was a chain eatery but it served calories slathered with grease and, so, it was adequate for the board repast. Laura Johnston remained behind.

Palmer took note, but only peripherally, of Laura’s attractiveness. She was a small woman but good looking for a woman in her mid-40s. Healthy with a slight tan remaining from summer days outside, sharp featured with intelligent eyes and dark hair without a trace of gray, she turned heads of those who admired such women. Palmer was ambivalent. Not in an asexual way but just uninterested in entanglements that seemed beyond his adequacies.

“How are things, Palmer?” The two were still in the board room, using the paid rental time to the full. Palmer was gathering the remaining documents scanned and discarded by board members. Laura was standing, bathed in the light from the slide projector. Palmer extinguished the light after removing his laptop’s USB cable from the rented machine. Laura didn’t seem any less beguiling in the dullness of the room.

“Good.” He collected one more page to put into his bulging folder. “I guess.”

She chuckled. “What does that mean, Palmer?”

Untypically, Palmer paused to consider a reply beyond ‘nothing’.

“I guess I’m tired, Laura.” The two had forged a marginal relationship over past meetings. Enough to use first names.

“Kaide?” The name was enough. Both knew the association head was a difficult man to endure.

Palmer nodded. “Yeah.” Laura’s head moved slightly back on her slender neck. She was surprised at the unusual response.

Palmer noted the reaction. Eschewing caution, he took advantage of the moment. “I’m afraid I’m getting to the end of my...” he fought the cliché but lost. “... my rope.”

Laura waited. It came in a torrent. Palmer told her of his encounter with Lester Kaide and Mavis Thorpe, the one in which Kaide threatened to reduce his pay. The one in which Kaide complained that Palmer was smarter than he was. The one that was the epitome of workplace bullying.

“My god.” Laura’s exclamation was joined by a sincere look of horror. There was sudden moisture in her hazel eyes. “That is terrible.”

Palmer’s face had darkened. Now, it paled to match the white paper in the folder gripped in his clenched fingers. “I...I’m sorry, Laura. I didn’t mean...”

“Yes, you did, Palmer. For once, you meant it. You’ve been keeping this to yourself, haven’t you? The way this man treats you. Does he do it to everyone?” She had suspected some of what Palmer exposed. It was not a revelation as much as it was proof.

“Not so much with Sharon. She wouldn’t stand for it. Not like me. And Mike. What’s the point with Mike? Everything rolls off his back. I wish it did mine.”

“What about Mavis. She was there. At that meeting?” Again, Laura grimaced.

Palmer nodded. “Yeah. She agreed with him. Said some things.” Palmer was surprised at himself, not so much now that he was actually expressing an opinion but that he felt freer by doing so.

“What are you going to do?” Laura studied Palmer.

“I should have said, what are we going to do.” There it was. Laura had offered help. He realized that was what he needed, what he wanted, what he had sought in his reveal. Palmer felt the wind at his back.

“He can’t get away with this. He can’t run the organization like that. We have to do something, Palmer.”

What they did, together, was to walk to the coffee shop at the end of the mall. With paper cups on the table in the booth, they talked. Laura asked questions and Palmer gave answers. The time went quickly until each of them left for other commitments. They left with heightened knowledge but without solutions.

Palmer went back to the office feeling bewildered. He had been lucid and even persuasive in speaking with Laura. She became convinced that Kaide was as Palmer had painted him, a horrid creature full of loathing both for himself and for others. He was a man who should never have been placed in charge of anything more than a pet mouse. As an administrator he was a complete failure who had misled the board for the years he had headed CIIA. Laura was not only convinced, she was repentant over her participation in a board so obtuse that Kaide and Mavis Thorpe had been able, time and again, to befuddle it.

Palmer’s confused mind was trying to deal with the fundamental change in its owner. Palmer had the courage or the foolhardiness to pour out his complaints and to describe his experiences with his employer. It was something Palmer couldn’t remember doing to or for anyone, much less the man who had control over his life. Palmer was physically shaking as he retook his place behind the maple desk in the pit.

“Where have you been?” Sharon was filing folders in a cabinet behind the row of desks.

“Has their lunch ended?” Palmer didn’t turn to speak to Sharon.

“Haven’t seen her or him.” Palmer knew by her tone that Sharon meant Mavis and Kaide. It was the tone she would use when she had dog poo on her shoe.

It was doubtful they would see the two leaders of the association over the rest of the day. Board luncheons were known for their longevity even without the board chair in attendance. In fact, the lunches were more memorable without Laura since a deal of the conversation was devoted to contemptuous comments about the board head. She was ‘arrogant, too smart for her own good, a dumb broad and a smart-ass.’ The comments as a whole were a contradictory, superficial and disrespectful melange of garbage talk from the six men and two other woman who made up the rest of the directors. Through the outpouring of insults, Kaide kept a satisfied smile on his face while Mavis Thorpe giggled with each jibe at Laura Johnston.

True to prediction, Palmer, Sharon and the key-clattering Mike did not see the board or their bosses for the rest of the day. Palmer, however, received a telephone call from the treasurer of the board. Randolph Unter called to ask Palmer to have coffee with him the next morning.

“I’ll be in your neighbourhood tomorrow at 10 if that’s convenient,” Unter said in his confident, smooth voice. “I’d like to get to know you a bit better and talk about where you see the association going, moving forward.”

Palmer agreed but disconnected even more confused than he had been after his session with Laura. Why would this man want to meet with him. Unter was a lawyer with his own large firm of lawyers, only some of whom specialized in immigration. Palmer had no previous contact with the man or CIIA’s treasury.

The only clear thought Palmer had after the call was how much he despised the use of the term ‘moving forward.’ Where else, he asked himself, would one move in time. You can’t move sideways or backward into the future, can you? ‘Moving forward’ belonged in the dustbin along with expressions like ‘You know’ or ‘To be honest’, as though there were reasonable alternatives to offer. Palmer had always had opinions about language because these were safe; hardly anyone else cared.

CHAPTER NINE

Randy Unter launched himself into the restaurant like a projectile in a dark gray suit, blue collared white shirt and red-striped tie. His shiny Oxfords hit the tile floor of the reception foyer with an audible clunk. He was a man who had to make ‘an entrance’. He owned a law firm with a luxurious set of offices in downtown Toronto (Bay Street of course) and made pots of dollars every year.

Palmer had a seat at a table but, watching the coming of the feudal lord, wondered if he should have chosen better. He reminded himself the two were meeting ‘for coffee’ and not even for a full meal. The small table with its three chairs was good enough. Besides, he had no idea why he was here. Perhaps Unter was appointed by the board to fire him or... Ah, well, he would find out the reason in due course.

Unter dealt with the waiter in a peremptory manner. “Two coffees. Cream, not milk. Got croissants?” The nonplussed waiter nodded.

“Yes, sir. Fresh from the oven.”

“I’ll bet. Two.” The man was shooed off with an imperious wave of hand.

“Well, Palmer.” Unter grinned as though he told a rip-roaring joke. “All rested after the board meeting?”

“Yes, Mr. Unter. I guess so.”

“Guessing is a fool’s game, Palmer. Is that your first name or your last name?”

The fluctuating topics disturbed Palmer. “The first. My surname is Pallister.”

“Like the premier of Manitoba. Is he still premier? Or the Pallister Highway. That’s... let me see... Calgary. Or is it Edmonton?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Unter.”

“Randy.” Unter grinned again. “Randolph to my clients. But Randy to my friends. And you’re Palmer. Shall I call you Pal.”

“Please no.” Palmer allowed himself a quick smile.

The coffee came in two china cups with more in a porcelain pot if needed. The cost on the menu had to be justified. The croissants came with two small jars of butter, at $5 per pastry.

Palmer wished they were meeting at the end-of-the-mall doughnut place. He would have been more at home, more comfortable, less anxious.

As the two men drank coffee and ate their croissants without butter, Unter quizzed Palmer. It seemed a random quiz, not even under categories as on Jeopardy. Unter bounced around between CIIA and the law in general, between the stupidity of the provincial government in giving too much to social service and the brilliance of Unter’s lawyering staff in their finding of tax loopholes. He did ask about Lester Kaide but only if Palmer ‘got along’ with his boss. Palmer tilted his head to that, leaving it to Unter to decipher the movement.

“You know,” Unter finally said, pouring the last of the coffee from the pot into his china cup. “Laura, our chairwoman, used to be with my firm.”

“Oh,” Palmer responded. He remembered some mention of the chair being a lawyer but recalled nothing of the details.

“Yeah. She headed our immigration unit.” Unter eyed Palmer more than he had at any other time in this strange session “It was small then. She was pretty good. For a woman.”

The dismissive comment bothered Palmer but he wore his typical face with its bland acceptance.

“We’re expanding now. Yeah, getting bigger now that the government is so gung-ho to bring more and more of them.”

“Them?”

“Yeah. You know. Hell, you must meet a lot of them. Just off the boat.”

“We don’t get many immigrants calling into the office,” said Palmer evenly.

“Lucky,” said Unter with another of the grins that made the coffee turn bitter in Palmer’s stomach.

“Anyway, you and Laura are buds.”

“No.” Palmer told Unter. “I can’t say we’re friends but I do think highly of her.”

“As we all do,” extolled Unter. “As we all do. A wonderful woman.” He smirked as he took a sip of his coffee and looked around the large dining room. He came back to Palmer, peering over the rim of his cup as he took another sip of the lukewarm liquid. He frowned and set the cup back in its saucer. “Not much of a speaker though.”

“Sorry?”

“Johnston. Not much of a spokesperson. You’re not thinking of using her, are you?”

“As a spokesperson. I hadn’t thought of that,” Palmer said. “Mr. Kaide does all the speaking.”

“With media?”

Palmer was surprised that Unter didn’t know this basic thing about CIIA. Then, a treasurer didn’t get too involved with public speaking, did they?

“With media and members and other associations. We’re listed as lobbyists too but he does all the talking with government...”

Unter threw up a hand. With an impatient look on his face, he took back the dialogue. “Just so you know. If there is any need for others to speak on behalf of members, I suggest you turn to us. To my firm. I’ll give you a name and number. He heads up our immigration practice. I think I mentioned it’s growing, didn’t I?”

“Yes. You did mention that.”

“It would be good not to forget that, Palmer. You may want someone to speak. You know, if Les can’t handle it.”

“Les?” Palmer frowned. “Oh, Mr. Kaide.”

“Yeah. Your boss. Lester Kaide. He likes to get his name in the media, doesn’t he?”

Before Palmer could form his answer, Randy Unter pushed back his chair and stood. The waiter had picked up his credit card some time before and had run it through his mobile reader so the bill was paid. Palmer thanked Unter for the drink and pastry but the lawyer was striding away. His departure was just as theatrical as his entrance but it was lost on the audience which, at this pre-lunch hour, was composed of the waiter, a hostess and Palmer who was rising as Randy charged out of the front door toward his fancy car.

CHAPTER NINE

A week later, activities at CIIA had returned to normal or what passed for normal in this little shop of furors. The peasants who toiled in the pit knew that their emperor was always on edge following a board meeting. It was no secret that Kaide always doubted the denseness of the fog he generated, with their help, for the board meeting. He feared some glimmer of truth would make its way through the cloud to lodge in the mind of one or more members of the exalted body. The truth would fester in that vulnerable mind until it erupted in a boil that had to be exorcised. The exorcism, of course, would entail expulsion of the devil and that devil was Kaide himself.

He had hung on for so many years, those in the pit expected no such thing as an exorcism of Lester Kaide. Mavis Thorpe prayed that the devil would remain and that he could continue to include her in his works.

Mavis read little but passed some time with a Bible, seeking not redemption but excuses for her transgressions. As in Corinthians, Satan had disguised himself quite well as an angel of light. Her own husband was not an objectionable man. He was, however, an unimaginative man, a poor companion and as blind as a deep ocean fish when it came to seeing what his wife was doing on all those work-related journeys with the devil. Palmer and Sharon had no spouses and certainly no yens to spend time with their boss outside of working hours. Mike was a cipher in all ways.

By seven days after the board’s quarterly meet, it seemed Kaide had escaped again any investigation of his misfeasance, malfeasance or any other kind of feasance. The board had no further questions or comments. It had gone silent for another three months. This subsidence of activity, however, didn’t bring a reduction of Kaide’s stress level. As usual, the people in the pit knew the blow-up was coming.

It happened just before noon on a Thursday. A cold rain had made driving to work even more of a chore. A leak in a window of Kaide’s office left a stain, overnight, on his carpet. His coffee maker malfunctioned. It was a wet and dismal morning and Kaide’s stress reached intolerable levels.

“You’re an idiot.” Surprisingly, the epithet was not directed at Palmer, his favorite target of late. It was not pointed at Mike. Sharon was not in his sights. Kaide was shouting at Mavis Thorpe.

“The board got a copy of that letter. I want to know why.”

Mavis stood in front of Kaide’s desk actually shivering. She was gulping at a rapid rate and tears ran down her cheeks to drip off her whiskered chin. Occasionally, she would try to speak.

“I didn’t see...” she started but his raging voice drowned her attempt.

The letter to which Kaide referred had been sent a month ago by a member of the CIIA. The member had questioned, mildly, what the association did for a individual member fee of almost a thousand dollars a year. Palmer had seen the letter and took it as an innocent request for information. Only a paranoid reader could take the letter as a complaint that the CIIA was overcharging for services (even though fees did fall far short of usefulness to the fee payers.) Even though none of the board spent a moment reading the letter, the inclusion of the question in the board packet was enough to take Kaide’s anxiety to a boil. Thorpe just happened to be in the way.

“You stupid woman,” he continued. “You should have burned that damned thing. What do you keep in your files anyway? From now on, you take out any piece of...” The voice rose and fell, swore and threatened, until no one but Thorpe bothered to listen to more of it. As soon as the clock reached 12, the three in the pit left for lunch and an hour of relief.

“Is it true, Mike?” As the trio walked down the sidewalk toward a nearby office building, Sharon asked the question of Mike. Palmer was leading the way as he had suggested they dine at the cafeteria in the basement of the large insurance company that inhabited the nearby building. It was cheap and the food was good, several steps up from the doughnut shop in the strip mall. As well, the other patrons were pleasant, unstressed men and women with no apparent Kaides among them. Palmer made it a point to eat there at least once a month. He turned slightly when he heard Sharon quiz Mike.

“Yep.”

Palmer had often wondered about Mike but had never tried to satisfy his curiosity. Mike didn’t invite contact. He was in his late 20s which was the age when persons tend to be social but Mike defied convention. Palmer had never said more than ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ or ‘how’s it going’ to his workmate. No, that’s wrong; he tried once to engage Mike in a conversation that might have lasted more than three seconds but Mike rejected the advance by turning his back, ducking his head and clattering even more loudly on his keyboard. Palmer had put it down to autism without knowing anything about the condition. Afterward, Palmer looked at Mike with the scant sympathy he accorded people with challenges or disabilities, whatever the current polite term was.

When the three were sitting at a table in the cafeteria with their trays of cheap but good food in front of them, Palmer plunged; “What were you two talking about?”

Sharon looked at him with amusement. “I was asking Mike if it’s true he’s leaving CIIA.”

Palmer was floored. “Leaving?” He stared at Sharon assuming she would interpret for the autistic Mike.

“Yeah, Palmer. I’m checking out of that place next week.” The answer came from Mike who didn’t exhibit the slightest sign of autism, whatever those signs might be.

“But. But why? What will you do?”

Sharon laughed aloud. Mike grinned at Palmer. “I have something else, Palmer.” It was Mike’s voice that was tinged with pity. “It took a long time but it has finally come through. I can’t say I’ll be sorry to go. I’m just sorry I offered to stay on for a couple of weeks. I feel sorry for the next poor slob...”

Sharon laughed again but Mike looked away in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You will still be stuck in that place with that maniac.”

Palmer was shocked. He had been picturing Mike as the man with a condition that imprisoned him in this dreary job at this dismal association until he qualified for his Old Age pension. Instead, Mike would leave and any normal, sane human being would do as soon as he or she could, while Palmer was the one destined to waste his time in bondage to this useless organization.

“Well, congratulations, Mike. I had no idea.”

“No,” said Sharon. “You didn’t have any idea.” There was disapproval in Sharon’s tone. “I suspect you think Mike was...” She paused and thought. “... slow. Right?”

“Aw, come on Sharon,” said Mike with an engaging grin. “It’s not Palmer’s fault. I wasn’t very friendly.” Mike turned to Palmer.

“I’m sorry but I didn’t want to get close to anyone at that place. It was just a means of making some money while I was biding my time. I didn’t want Mavis or Kaide to get the idea anyone was a friend of mine. I knew I’d be getting out as soon as something came through and, when I did, they’d take their revenge on my friends. They are like that.” Mike turned his attention to his meal.

“But, Sharon, you knew. Aren’t you worried now about... you know, revenge from Kaide and Mavis?”

Sharon looked down at her tray. She was hungry and tired of thinking about the wretches who were her employers. She relented though and looked up at Palmer.

“I’m not going to hang around much longer, Palmer. I’m killing time and making a few bucks until I go back to school next term. My scholarship ran out but I have another one kicking in. So, no, I’m not at all worried.”

Palmer kept at it for a last question. “But, you guys haven’t said where Mike is going. What’s the secret.”

It was Mike’s turn to laugh after a quick swallow of his food. “It’s no secret, Palmer. Hey, tell you what. Better than telling you, I’ll show you. After work. We’ll go together. Now, for Pete’s sake, let me eat before I go back to stomach Kaide’s little kingdom for one more week.”

CHAPTER TEN

Kaide and Mavis were absent when Palmer returned to the office with Sharon and Mike. Blessedly, the two stayed away. Mike went back to his self-made cell and to his work sifting the membership list. Who paid, who hadn’t paid, who joined, who quit. The difference was the non-payers who had been moved to the delinquent column were moved back to the paid-up column. Mike’s revenge.

It was five o’clock and, for once quitting time meant just that. The three filed out. Sharon went to her car, with a jaunty wave to the men. Palmer and Mike went to their own vehicles with Mike telling Palmer simply to follow him.

It wasn’t far. They parked next to each other in the lot at the rear of a building with a large logo affixed over the front entrance. The building was only two or three storeys high but it was spread over a huge area. Palmer was struck by the logo; it was a gray, black and red stylized basketball with a large number emblazoned on it. The logo was that of a team in the G league owned by Toronto’s NBA entrant. What would Mike have to do with this building?

“In, we go.” Mike was a different person. At CIIA, he was a painfully introverted geek but here, in a parking lot outside a sports facility, he became energetic and joyous. As soon as the two entered the building, Palmer could hear a drumming rather than a clicking sound. It was the sound of a ball bouncing on a wooden floor. The sound of a basketball being dribbled by a player.

“Are we meeting someone?”

“Mike broke into a large smile that turned his usually taciturn face into a pleasure to behold. Palmer couldn’t help but return the smile but that changed to a look of bewilderment as a young man in a basketball uniform ran toward Mike.

“Hey coach. How’s it hanging?

“Coach?” Palmer stepped back so he could take in the man at his side. He couldn’t recognize Mike as the man with whom he had worked for months. This was an assured fellow, erect and as hale as the basketball player who greeted him. This was a man delighted with himself and his surroundings. Palmer felt insignificant and alone.

Mike put his arm around Palmer’s shoulder. “This is a friend of mine, Momo.”

The black man held out a hand and Palmer realized how large this player was. He took the offered hand and saw his paw swallowed by the massive hand of Momo. Momo towered over him, looking down from at least six feet, 10 inches over the hallway floor. His voice was a deep as the player was tall. “How you doing, friend?”

Palmer could only nod. He and Mike followed as Momo led them further into the building. The huge player threw open one of a set of double doors and ushered them into a gymnasium. Mike was wearing a sports coat over jeans and a sweatshirt. Palmer had not taken notice of the shirt even as he sat across a table from Mike at lunch but now he saw the same logo on the shirt as outside the building. Inside the gym there were uniformed players everywhere in singlets bearing the ubiquitous logo. They were throwing, catching, dribbling and holding basketballs in a mass practice.

“What is this Mike? What are we doing here?”

“I’m going to work here, Palmer.” It was an announcement with force and triumph and it startled Palmer.

“Yeah...” Mike caught a basketball thrown to him by another skyscraper of a man in basketball garb. “I’m going to be a professional basketball coach. Starting in two weeks. And, I’ll tell you Palmer, I can’t wait.” The grin sparkled and Mike stripped off his sport coat and threw it on a tier of benches to the side of one of the two courts in the gym. He was already wearing trainers and ran, in them, across the floor to a group of young men shooting hoops.

“Hey coach.” The yells came from half a dozen throats of players.

Momo stayed with Palmer. “He’s a fine man,” the player said in an admiring tone. “He knows his stuff on the court, man.”

Palmer stared in awe as Mike sank two three-point long shots in a row to a round of applause from the players on the half court.

“He’s good in the community too. He brings kid here. You know, young kids who can’t afford their own gear. We shoot hoops with them, teach them things, you know. But Mike, he brings them in.”

“How long has he been coming here?” Palmer was still in thrall.

“Year, maybe more. Granger... head coach. He kind of adopted Mike. He was a ball boy. Then he showed his stuff; he real good.”

“What?” Palmer asked. “A good player?”

“Nah. Too short. Can’t dunk worth sh... you know. But coachin’. That boy is a hell of a coach. Someday, he’ll be head coach somewhere in the NBA. Bet on it, boy.”

Momo ran off to join a group starting a pickup game. Palmer moved to the tier of seats and waited for Mike. It was half an hour before Mike returned to the benches. He took his sport coat from the bench and held it over his arm.

“Sorry, Palmer. I got caught up with it. I guess I’ll get my fill of it after I go to work here but I love it so much.” He set his perspiring body down on a bench in the tier. The two talked quietly as the balls bounced and the players called out to each other as they practiced.

Mike confirmed what Momo told Palmer but modestly. He had spent years working with and helping boys and girls in low income areas on the outskirts of the city. He denied that he had rescued them and said that his young charges had reformed him. The children had pulled him out of a selfish existence and had inspired him to become their benefactor.

“I couldn’t turn them down when they asked for help. And it was their demands and their needs that showed me the way to be someone better. By helping them, I helped myself much more. Coach Granger saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself. He brought me here. I brought the kids here. Today, we are all better because of what we did together.”

Mike’s only regret, he told Palmer, was that he felt he was profiting more than the kids now with a coaching job in the NBA’s G league at a salary edging toward $75,000 a year and a path to a glowing future. He wanted to have all the girls and boys on that player’s bench with him.

Mike’s humble story could have been dismissed as self-serving or even trite but it sounded true to Palmer’s ears. The exuberant welcomes of the players made Mike’s and Momo’s words not only credible but indelible in Palmer’s mind. He was not only moved, he was shaken; compared with Mike, he was a man of no consequence. A man Palmer thought was deficient was far ahead in mind, heart and soul. He left the gym with Mike, heading home, but Palmer felt insignificant even before he said his goodbye and climbed into his car.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Palmer forced a smile when he passed Mike’s desk after entering the office the next day. He had begun coming to work an hour later than his accustomed 8 a.m. and now trailed Mike and Sharon. Mavis and her husband lived in the hinterlands and she used the difficulties of commuting to alibi her habitual late arrivals.

“Hey Palmer,” Mike said. It was more than he was accustomed to saying and Palmer was caught unaware. “Uh. Hello Mike. Thanks for the... uh... thing last night.” Mike issued a rare smile. In a whisper, he said, “Keep it down Palmer. I’m toxic now.”

Palmer knew what Mike meant. If Mavis or Kaide noticed any signs of friendship between Mike and Sharon or Palmer, they would take vengeance for Mike’s desertion of the CIIA ship. The remaining friend of the deserter would walk the figurative plank. Palmer knew well what Mike meant but, unaccountably, didn’t care.

In a louder voice, Palmer said, “You’ll make a hell of a coach, Mike.” He moved to his desk, grinning all the way.

“Way to go, Palmer,” said Sharon who watched the interplay with amusement.

“Careful, Sharon,” Palmer responded, his smile intact.

“I really don’t give a shit,” she replied, rocking Palmer. Her tone had turned from amused to bitter. “I’m gone, the end of the month. My scholarship came through.”

Palmer computed. That gave Sharon another 16 days in the pit, and as he figured, 16 days seemed like a sentence. It struck him then that he would serve that sentence and more. He lost the grin.

“Where are you going,” he asked in a dispirited way. He hadn’t realized how much he liked to have Sharon beside him. Her presence made the days tolerable and her absence would take away almost all of the sunshine he could find in this one-windowed room.

She laughed. “You really don’t know much about me, do you?”

Palmer was so visibly confounded, she went on. “I was at U of T,” she told him in a conversational tone. “On a scholarship but it ran out. I applied for another and just got it to go on to an honours degree but it doesn’t kick in until next term.” Again, Palmer consulted his virtual calendar. She would disappear as of the end of the month. “I’ll take some time off. I need it after this place, just to get clean.” She gave a small shudder.

“I was only here to pay my rent. I didn’t feel like going home.”

Palmer was less confused and much more curious. He had assumed Sharon was another dead-ender, trapped in this little place with its pair of petty despots. Just as he was. “Where is home?”

Again, she laughed almost giddily. Palmer longed for the cathartic change Sharon would experience soon.

“Kelowna, British Columbia. Oh, it’s not bad, not at all. My parents have a vineyard on a mountaintop. My brother is the chef at the winery’s restaurant and I love his food. But, let’s face it, living in a big city has its attractions and I like being independent.” She paused and giggled. “Even if I can’t afford much independence on what they pay us.”

The revelations hit Palmer hard. His assumptions were being dashed, what with Mike’s unveiling as a budding NBA coach yesterday and Sharon’s pursuit of a university degree today. His world was not anything like he thought he was. His world had shrunk from being a member of a doleful community to being the last soul in a cesspool. A day before, he could say he shared his fate. Now, he was alone without companions by his side, slinking slowly into the mire.

There was a moment of mind-meld between Sharon and Palmer. She blinked, aware of Palmer’s disappointment. It wasn’t sympathy she felt for this quiet, unambitious man ten years her senior. It was pique. Not quite anger.

“Do you know who Mary Pickford was?” Her expression was carefully neutral.

“The actress. She’s was a Canadian who was the biggest actor of her day. Don’t ask me when that was but I know she was pretty great.” Palmer wrinkled his brow. “Why?”

“There was a quote by her that I like very much, Palmer. ‘You may have a fresh start at any moment you choose, for this thing we called failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.’ It’s not too late, Palmer, for you to have a fresh start. Don’t stay down, my friend.” Sharon turned away to her glowing computer screen.

Palmer turned to his own screen but it was dark. He could see his reflection in its glass. He saw a face below dark, tousled hair. It was almost featureless in its impassivity. It was an embodiment of Pickford’s quote, the very definition of failure. Palmer was surely going nowhere.

His cellphone rang, the ringtone, its default unchanged. It was Laura Johnston.

“Hello, Palmer. How are things now?” The voice of the chairwoman of the CIIA board was almost cloying with sympathy.

“Things are okay, I guess,” said Palmer. “Some changes.”

“Oh. For the good I hope.”

“For some, Laura.” Palmer didn’t have to debate with himself this time before using the chairwoman’s first name. It seemed the natural thing to do. He recounted the news of Mike’s pending job as a basketball coach and Sharon’s renewed path to a university degree. Laura seemed thrilled with both items but returned to her sympathetic tone after digesting the news.

“How do you feel about all that, Palmer?”

“I think I’ll miss them,” he answered.

“Are you going to stay with CIIA?” Laura’s question startled Palmer. He hadn’t thought of leaving CIIA even after the two other staffers announced their intentions. In fact, he hadn’t considered leaving or staying. The path ahead was, as always, the easiest. Was it that Palmer was slothful, never wanting to expend the energy to plan ahead? Was it that this man, in his mid 30s, never imagined himself having value to any enterprise? Was he so trodden down that he had no ambition, no verve, no hope?

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” Palmer fibbed, knowing he had given it no thought at all.

After a hesitation, Laura said, “I have been thinking about our mutual friend. Or friends. And I’m using the term very lightly. There is no excuse for the way you were spoken to or the threat to cut your pay. That’s not only a terrible thing to say, it would be illegal. I don’t think the board could agree...” There was a pause. “But I’m never sure with that bunch.”

Palmer began and fidget in his chair. He grew nervous when there was any disparagement of those he considered his ‘betters.’ He didn’t know whether to agree or to say nothing and risk being thought of as unhelpful.

“Are you having problems?” He asked the question without knowing why he did so.

“Ah, you know.” Palmer didn’t know. “Chauvinism rears its ugly head,” she added. “At least in six ugly heads.” She chuckled at her own riposte. “I don’t know how Betsy and Anne can stand them.” Laura was referring to the two other female members of the board. To Palmer’s knowledge the two contributed nothing but chatter between themselves and frequent abstentions from board votes. “The men think they are so far above us...” There was a sudden chuckle.

“Anyway, Palmer. I don’t want to share my problems with you. The real question is what to do about Kaide and Thorpe.”

“Maybe I should quit.” Palmer muttered.

“No.” The reply was quick and blunt. “You shouldn’t be forced to do that if you don’t want to. They can’t get away with what they are doing. I think it’s time I acted like a real chairperson.” Laura Johnston sounded resolute. “I need your permission to tell your story at an emergency session of the board.”

“But, Kaide would be there too,” Palmer said. His thought was that Kaide would immediately react against Palmer either by firing him or following through on his threat to cut Palmer’s pay. Laura put a different spin on his protest. “I can’t shut him out because he’s an ex-officio member of the board but I won’t let him take over the meeting - like he usually does.”

She and Palmer spent more time discussing her idea but he had nothing to add except sounds of approval. Laura convinced herself of the efficacy of the plan for the emergency meeting and clicked off saying she would move quickly. Palmer clicked off dreading the outcome.

“I haven’t been in the press for four weeks, Pallister.” Lester Kaide stomped into the pit within seconds of Palmer breaking off the call from Laura Johnston. If Kaide knew Palmer was talking at all to the chairwoman without his approval, Palmer would be gone regardless of Kaide’s reliance on Palmer to get him into the papers. Palmer shoved his phone into his jacket pocket.

“What are you going to do about?” Kaide stopped in front of Palmer’s desk, looking down at his PR man.

“What do you want me to say?” It wasn’t a long time ago that Palmer would have answered monosyllabically and bowed his head in subservience. Then he would invent a reason for the media to publish a brief news release with a photo of the CIIA President. This day, Palmer was more - not much but more - argumentative. He was less a supplicant and Kaide was having none of it.

“What the hell, Pallister. I don’t know. Make up something. Just get me some publicity.”

“I can’t do that, sir. The media won’t run copy unless there is a story there. Is there anything happening that we can talk about?”

Kaide stared, open mouthed, at Palmer. “I can’t... you can’t... No. I don’t know what we can talk about.” Of course. He never did. If Kaide abhorred anything it was planning ahead and explaining immigration and its intricacies. To acknowledge that he knew details (which, to be honest, he did, through years of osmosis) was to labour and Kaide felt labour of any kind interfered with his essential purpose - self-pleasure.

“How about your trip?”

“What trip?” Kaide turned his head for a moment, running his agenda through his mind. What was Pallister talking about? “Ah, Cyprus.”

“Yes sir. Cyprus. The meeting with your counterparts to talk about ways to help refugees trapped in the camps in Turkey and Syria. Many are dying in attempts to get into Europe and some to Canada.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Kaide waved a beefy hand through the air as though Palmer was talking about the rising price of carrots. “Can you do something with that?”

“Probably. But I should have some basic information. Can you tell me about the meet. What are you going to discuss specifically? How long will you be in Cyprus. Anything will do but I need...”

“Okay. Jesus. I’ll write something and get it back to you in a couple of hours. Good enough for quotes with my name everywhere you can put it. I’m counting on you, Pallister. You know what happens if you don’t come through.”

Palmer kept a straight face but his stomach muscles were clenching and he tasted bile rising in the back of his throat. He knew Kaide would never deliver a word about his upcoming trip. He also doubted if Kaide would ever reach Cyprus. It dawned on Palmer moons ago, with a nudge from Sharon, that Kaide and, often Mavis, would forego meetings to which he had been invited and which he would be expected to attend because of his position with the non-profit. CIIA was a member of a number of international organizations. Reports were written by Palmer after each meeting and placed in a folder for the next board meeting. Few were accurate and many were total fabrications. Cyprus would be another of those.

Kaide had relatives in several countries in Europe and a favorite niece in South Africa. Whenever he was assigned to a meeting in a country near these, he would detour for personal visits. When the meetings were in economically poor or geographically disadvantaged places, Kaide could be counted on to take side trips to expensive resorts and more welcoming destinations, meetings be damned. After all, who would know? Few hosts would care whether Kaide was there or not since attendance was never mandatory and Kaide was seldom asked to perform at any meet. The only person at CIIA who would inform the board of Kaide’s derelictions would be Mavis Thorpe. She would hardly be a tattletale when she shared in the munificence so many times. No wonder Kaide didn’t recognize his next scheduled landing; he had no intention of going to a dull conflab in Cyprus when The Riviera, the fabled Isles of Greece and the tourist attractions of Turkey were so near.

It would be better for Palmer to pen a news release describing Kaide’s intentions to attend the refugee conference in Cyprus than to wait and report on Kaide’s attendance at the conference. The first release would, at least, talk about a real intent. A delayed release would have to invent Kaide’s appearance at the conference in Cyprus like a ghost at a wedding.

He adopted his public relations role and wrote the damned thing. He sent it by email to his media listees, ruminating nonchalantly as he did about the pending demise of email.

The messaging method was forcing the final demise of fax, that obnoxiously noisy and inefficient use of telephone technology and, like facsimile messaging, email would soon emulate the long-lost Dodo bird. It would finish giving way totally to texting and texting would meet its maker in another iteration. It was a fast-moving world and Palmer was becoming more and more a tail gunner in search of pursuers. He had a short-lived notion of becoming a pilot but rejected it as grandiose.

“I sent the release with a photo,” he told Kaide as the boss passed through the pit on his way to lunch. The PR hack was rewarded with a grunt that made Palmer think of a pig in a slops bucket. His mixing of mental metaphors was giving Palmer a headache.

Palmer’s laptop dinged. An email. He opened the application and went to his Inbox with trepidation. It was a message from Mavis Thorpe meant for the volunteers. In one of their few useful acts, Mavis and Kaide had formed a group from among the association’s membership. Those in the group volunteered their spare time and energies to work on behalf of the association. They were seldom used since the work of CIIA was limited and confined to the duties of paid staff. But the volunteers toiled for free so they were not entirely neglected by the parsimonious Mrs. Thorpe.

For months, the volunteers had been discussing with each other and with Mavis an argument that could be advanced to stop governments from trying to regulate the ‘independent advisers’ who made up CIIA membership. The indie members were terrified at the prospect of being force to obey regulations of any sort. A much larger group of immigration advisers were, in fact, self-regulated to the nth degree by another grander organization. Many of those were connected to law offices. In fact, Randy Unter’s law firm had several licensed immigration consultants under its imprimatur. CIIA members were the Wild West side of the sector.

The missive from Mavis Thorpe announced to volunteers that their hard work resulted in a ‘wonderful’ document ready for distribution to politicians hither and yon. It would educate recipients to the ‘wonderful services’ provided by the ‘dedicated’ members of CIIA to the many immigrants who saw Canada as their future home.

Palmer winced as he read the email attachment, the wonderful document prepared by the wonderful volunteers of the wonderful CIIA managed by the no-doubt wonderful Mavis Thorpe. It was tripe and would be quickly dumped into Trash by the civil servant charged with protecting a Minister of The Crown or Member of the Legislature before that exalted person could be contaminated by such a promotional pleading. The volunteers would be fed pap when Mavis received the civil servant-washed replies thanking CIIA for its input to the governmental process. The volunteers would believe they had worked miracles for the association and could retire once more into their role as Thorpe’s sleeper agents. How wonderful!

Aha. Palmer perused the document and noted one sentence.

‘Over the first six months of 2019, our members helped an estimated 2,300 immigrants by consulting with them about the process of immigrating to Canada.’ In preparing the final document, Thorpe had overlooked this one sentence and, therefore, had allowed into the paper a fatal flaw - the word ’consulting.’

Palmer had read basics about immigration when he took the job at CIIA. In his understanding, immigration consultants are licensed and regulated professionals. They operate legally in giving help to immigrants. Immigration advisers, on the other hand, can be viewed as outside the licensed and regulated realm. For advisers to claim they are ‘consultants’ risked the essence of CIIA - the existence of the council. To claim the advisers are ‘consulting’ in any form risked bloody reprisals from the professionals in the business; they would petition government to get rid of advisors altogether. It was, Palmer knew, a semantic error that would throw the board and Kaide into a monumental frenzy.

Palmer hovered his fingers over his keyboard, deciding whether to erase the offending word or to point it out to Thorpe. His fingers almost dipped to the keys but drew back as Palmer experienced an epiphany. This was not his job, to correct the flaws in Thorpe’s work. He knew she would not easily accept the suggested correction but would bicker and resist his submission until, finally, she would agree to the change just to make Palmer happy. Then, she would credit herself for catching the grievous error before it was circulated to the document’s influential audience. He left the word alone and deleted the message with its attachment from his email.

“Not my job,” said Palmer aloud with a jaunty leer. Sharon turned to examine him for a moment. He blanked his expression and returned to reading the rest of his mail. Sharon shrugged and turned back to her list of members wanting cards to access their wonderful discounts.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Monica Lawson called on a Friday. It was overcast outside and light sneaking through window in the pit was dull and gray, a reflection of the parking lot over which Palmer looked each day. Monica brightened the day.

“Palmer, is that you, my man?”

He pictured the woman clearly although he had met her only once. He saw a slightly overweight, Black woman with a large crown of dark hair that likely had never been straightened. She had a fascinating face with warm, friendly and intelligent features. Palmer wondered if she had children of her own and how lucky those children would be.

“It certainly is me, Monica. How’s the family?” He pried a bit.

“If you mean my family at home in the Caribbean, they are great. The whole clan. If you mean my family in my little flat in Scarborough, there ain’t one... not anybody but me. So, if you want to move in, you good-looking devil...” Monica let the invitation hang. She laughed. “Okay. I’ll leave the offer open. But if you mean my family at the shelter, that’s what I’m calling you about, Palmer, my man.”

“You mean Carlos?”

“You got it, bro. Carlos, the boy you dumped on us a couple of weeks ago. And thank goodness you did. He is the sweetest, smartest, most adorable boy in the whole, wide world. And you should be ashamed of yourself.”

“What?” Palmer was stunned. What had he done?

“You haven’t called or come to see him. And he is a boy who so much needs a father figure. You got to get yourself around here, Palmer. If you don’t come to us, I’ll come to you and it won’t be pretty.”

There was a second of silence. Then, the laugh. The raucous laugh of a fun-loving woman who cared for the world and didn’t mind who knew it. “Seriously, my man, when can you come around. I’m sure Carlos would like to see you. I know I would.” She surrounded the last sentence with pure sensuality.

Palmer was smiling so broadly, he made Sharon smile when she looked his way.

“I can come there, Monica. When?” Palmer was amazed at his response. It was spontaneous, a trait Palmer had never possessed before. He felt suddenly warm and free in the airless, sunless pit.

“Why not now? We will be having lunch in... an hour and a half. If you can get here by then, you can join us in a marvelous feast. You ever had a baloney sandwich,” asked Monica. “Great with KD and beans, my man.”

“I would be delighted to partake of a lard lunch,” Palmer told the social worker, delighted with his new repartee. What was happening, he asked himself as he wrote down the shelter’s address. He never would have attempted the mildest quip for fear of being thought a fool. He felt a rush. It was a novel feeling.

Palmer drove to the address he had entered into his cellphone. He expected to find it easily from the line of homeless people lined up on the pavement outside. Instead, after parking in an allotted slot, he had to search for the shelter amid a line of shops in a strip mall far above the class of the one hosting CIIA offices. The mall was across the city in Scarborough, the eastern-most, original borough of present-day Toronto, where Monica lived and worked.

Arrivals House actually sported a large sign that Palmer had overlooked simply because it was so striking in its bright yellow background with green lettering. It had no description of who might be housed inside but a framed notice in the large window of the shop related that the storefront catered to new immigrants, refugee claimants and others seeking help in locating to Canada. Palmer peered past the notice at the inside of the front room. It contained several desks, only one of which was occupied. There were several large stuffed animals that gave the place a warm and friendly look. One was a giraffe and another was a polar bear.

He opened the door, surprised that the door was not locked and guarded by armed guards. This was not what he anticipated from a location designated as a shelter, not that he ever had visited such a facility.

“Hi there.” The young woman at the desk nearest to the door welcome Palmer with friendly but searching blue eyes magnified by her spectacles. “What can I do for you?”

“Monica...” It was all Palmer had time to say before the woman held up a finger and used one on her other hand to jab at a cellphone lying on the desk. She spoke quietly. “She’s on her way with bells on,” said the charming receptionist.

Not only did Monica enter the office from a back doorway, she actually wore bells around her neck. They tinkled merrily. Palmer saw the bells were affixed to a wide ribbon, the kind hanging from the necks of Santa’s reindeer.

“You’re early,” said Palmer. Monica glanced down at her wristwatch. Her forehead creased.

“For Christmas, Monica,” Palmer chuckled. “It’s not until next month.”

She laughed and the bells tinkled. “Oh. I was showing Carlos how we celebrate the holiday. Of course, we also do Hanukkah, Ramadan, Diwali and the rest.”

“So, Carlos is here?”

Monica reached out and grasped Palmer’s hand. Like a mother, she tugged him out of the reception room, away from the grinning receptionist, and up a flight of stairs at the back of the building. The steps led to a wide landing and that to a long hall with a series of doors along one side and windows to the front of the mall along the other.

“We have the upstairs of several storefronts,” Monica told Palmer in a voice firm with pride. Behind each of the first five doors is a living room with a back hall leading to three bedrooms and two bathrooms. We have three families in units behind three of those doors and three individuals sharing each of the remaining two units. Carlos has his own bedroom and bathroom in the last unit. He shares the unit with two young woman who just love the boy. He calls them his two moms.

Monica’s laugh filled the landing and much of the long hallway. “I think the boy has everything he needs, given the circumstances. Except one thing that none of us can give him.”

“What’s that,” asked Palmer as he looked down the panelled and carpeted hallway. He was open-mouthed, marveling at the comfort of this so-called shelter. He thought of his own small, utilitarian apartment; he would trade what he had for a unit in this complex in an instant.

Monica’s expression was sad. “Carlos needs a real family, Palmer. He hasn’t had anyone else beside him for more than a year. Not just a family, Palmer, he needs a father.”

“I didn’t...” Palmer’s face was flushed.

“I know you didn’t, Palmer. You didn’t consider for one minute that this young man, this 11-year-old man, would need a father to guide him, to love him. But, he does.” Monica didn’t wait for Palmer but charged down the hallway like a drill sergeant.

“Carlos. Carlos. Get your butt out here, my man.” Monica’s call brought heads in open doors at two of the units. She reached the last of the six doors and opened the door to that unit with a last call for Carlos. Palmer hurried to catch the woman.

He went through the doorway. Monica was standing in front of him, her back turned to him. She was bent slightly over something or someone. Palmer moved farther into the room and saw Monica had her arms around Carlos. The boy squirmed out of her grasp and stepped back.

“Palmer.” His young, high voice was full of pleasure. He took a few steps and threw himself at Palmer, his arms wrapping around Palmer’s body. The boy was tall enough that the top of his head came even with Palmer’s shoulders. He surprised Palmer with his strength as he held Palmer’s arms to his side.

“He’s got you now,” laughed Monica.

Carlos dropped his arms and stepped back with a smile on his face. “You came.” There was relief as well as joy in his voice. This was a child who had been disappointed time and again.

The living room was large and furnished extraordinarily well. There were two couches in colourful fabrics with contrasting pillows added. Two chairs were drawn up to a wooden card table on which rested a chess board. There was a fireplace with a mantel that already displayed a line of Christmas cards even though the holiday was more than a month away. There was modern wallpaper and wide mouldings on the walls.

Palmer could see the opening to the rear hallway that led to bedrooms and bathrooms. He turned his head and saw a large armoire for outer wear and shoes. He stood on a bare wooden floor but there was a large carpet covering the areas under the furniture. All was clean, neat and inviting.

On one of the couches two young women sat watching the reunion taking place. They wore happy looks. Both of them were what Palmer would describe as pleasant in appearance. One had her blonde hair in a long ponytail. Palmer could make out the edge of a tattoo peeking out of the short sleeve of her green blouse. The other woman was dressed in a dressed in an abaya, and a hijab, the middle eastern headscarf. The abaya was in a tan colour, the scarf was multi-coloured with red and blues predominating.

“Let’s go and eat.” Monica said loudly. The two seated women rose as one. Carlos beamed and clasped Palmer’s hand, pulling him out of the unit in Monica’s wake. Palmer was taken through yet another door along the exterior hall and into a large room probably the size of an entire unit. It was a communal dining hall.

There were three long tables on one side of the hall. There were people at each table and Palmer assumed these were the families to which Monica had referred. He counted three adults and four young children at one table before giving up. Carlos was steering him to several tables drawn together in the middle of the room.

“We did this for you,” Carlos said to Palmer. “You sit here.” Carlos dragged Palmer to a chair at the head of the joined tables. As he sat, Palmer was joined by Monica on his left and the two moms on her left. Carlos took the seat across from Monica and to the immediate right of Palmer.

“I fibbed about the bologna. The lunch today is tuna wraps,” Monica said in a moderate tone. “We have salad and some roasted veggies left over from last night. It’s all good.”

“It is very tasty,” Carlos interrupted. “I like the food here. I hope you will like it, Palmer.”

Palmer hadn’t said anything. He was overwhelmed by the boy’s welcome but he was also uncomfortable. He realized he was ashamed. He had not thought of visiting Carlos in the two weeks since the boy burst into the CIIA office. He had not called the boy or Monica to inquire about Carlos. He had been content to abandon this Salvadoran refugee. Carlos didn’t deserve to be treated like this.

“How are you, Carlos,” he ventured to ask, forcing himself to look into the boy’s eyes.

“Good. I am good, Palmer. It is a nice place.”

“But it is still a shelter.” Monica whispered.

“I am going to school,” Carlos announced. “I am in Grade Six.

“They didn’t know what grade to put him in so they ran some aptitude tests. Carlos is very smart,” Monica said. “He hasn’t gone to school for months but the teachers think he’ll catch up fast. We are very proud of this young man.”

“You haven’t been in school for a long time?” Palmer looked down at the boy in surprise.

Carlos was also caught by the vacuous question. He bowed his head and his voice was low. “I went to school in El Salvador. Then, my parents died. I tried to stay in school but I had nowhere to live. I could not wash my clothes. I had two shirts but I could not wash them. The teacher. He say I could not stay in school so I left.”

The sadness was so deep it enveloped Palmer like a shroud. He couldn’t speak. He turned away, toward Monica. She stared at his face curiously. He was trying hard not to cry.

The two moms had gone to the serving counter and the food set out at the far side of the room. They loaded plates and brought them back to the tables on trays. One of the moms went back to load and bring a tray filled with beverages. There were bottles of Coke and Sprite along with fruit punch. The woman distributed, in generous amounts, the tuna and chicken wraps with plastic plates of salad and vegetables.

“Leave room for dessert,” the woman in the hijab said to Palmer with a smile. “It’s pretty good.”

Monica took a bite of one of her wraps and swallowed. “Carlos’ school is just down the street. It’s a public school with kids from all kinds of backgrounds. Not that many from central and South America but enough. Carlos has a couple of friends already.”

“My friends are cool,” Carlos bragged with his mouth half full of salad. “One is from Mexico. He can whistle. The other is a girl. She is from Syria.” His smile dissipated. “She is sad most of the time. She knows people in Syria who don’t have food. She talks to them by phone sometimes. Maybe they will die. The government in Syria is not good.”

Palmer was struck by the boy’s awareness of the ills of the world. The boy seemed to have been surrounded by nothing but loss and destruction. Perhaps, his new school...

“I am doing well.” Carlos took a long drink of his fruit punch. “I have lot of food. I like my school. I thought I would die. Maybe, I will not. Maybe I will play football for Canada.”

Palmer looked again at the boy at his side. “Do you need anything, Carlos?”

“I don’t look cool.”

Palmer choked on a piece of carrot. He coughed. At least he didn’t laugh. “Why don’t you think you look cool?” In fact, Palmer thought the boy looked very cool. His skin glowed with health despite where the boy had been and what he had endured. His eyes had a gleam and he was dressed as well as any of the teens Palmer had noticed on the streets and in stores, at least the ones he frequented.

“I need a haircut,” Carlos said as he ran his hand through his tousled mop of black hair. “My moms say they will take me to the ... what do you call them?”

“Barbershops,” said the woman with the ponytail. “But we don’t know what to ask for.” The blonde looked at her companion but this woman just shrugged.

Palmer said, “I know where we can go.”

“We?” The expression on Carlos’ face was phenomenal. It was such a mixture of accomplishment and hope it captured Palmer’s complete attention. The room, the noises, the lunch smells, all faded as he focused on the boy.

“Of course, ‘we’.” Palmer held up his hand and Carlos gave him the high five.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“This is...” Palmer stopped mid-sentence realizing that he didn’t know the name of his barber. He had been eager to take Carlos for his first North American haircut but his eagerness turned to chagrin. “This is my barber.”

Palmer and Carlos had entered the barber shop to find the man seated in one of the three big, leather covered barber’s chairs. He had been speaking. Palmer saw the barber’s mouth opening and closing when he looked through the window before entering. Palmer cast his eyes to the row of chairs for customers waiting their turns. There was no one in the chairs but, at the end of the row, there was a woman seated in a wheelchair. The sight startled Palmer.

“Oh. Hi,” he stammered.

The woman smiled gently. She was wearing an ayaba like one of Carlos’ moms in the shelter they had left about half an hour before, but her’s was black. She was not wearing a hijab and her black hair flowed in a glossy river over her shoulders. The woman had a beautiful face, olive skinned with delicate features. Her dark eyes sparkled to enhance the smile on her red lips.

The barber was holding out his hand to Carlos who had come into the shop to stand beside Palmer. “I am Jamal, which means ‘handsome’ in my first language. Which I am not but my parents had hope.” Carlos took the offered hand and shook it vigorously. “And this is my wife Farrah. This means happiness which she surely gives me every day.” Carlos turned to the woman in the wheelchair. He walked to her and held out his hand. She took it in both of her small hands.

“Our last name is Shamon,” she told the boy in her soft voice. “You are tall,” she told Carlos. She glanced up at Palmer. “It is very nice to meet you, sir. Jamal has talked of you.”

Palmer returned her smile. “I don’t know what he could say except that I have terrible hair,” said Palmer. She laughed and it was an appealing sound.

“He said you were interested in our homeland. It is a sad place today.” For a moment, there was dismay in her face but it dissipated quickly. The smile returned.

Palmer had regained his composure. “I’m Palmer Pallister and this is my new friend Carlos Ramos. He has a much longer name that I can recite if you want me to, Carlos.” Palmer looked at the boy and there was undeniable affection in his voice.

“Well,” said Jamal clapping his hands. “I can see who needs a haircut.” He held out his hand again to Carlos but this time to invite him to take a seat in the centre barber chair in the line of three. “The seat of honour, my young man.”

Carlos climbed into the seat but he was clearly nervous. He shifted his body in the chair several times. “What do I do? I have never been to a hair place before. My mother cut...” He stopped talking and sat still.

Jamal quickly assured Carlos. “Nothing. You have to do nothing. I do all the work.” He laughed loudly and took away the heartache so palpable in the boy’s expression.

Palmer moved to stand beside the big chair and the boy it made look smaller. “I think it should be shorter.” He moved around the boy looking at his hair from all sides. “Maybe not too short. It shouldn’t look cut or the kids at school...”

“Perhaps, Palmer, you should go for a coffee.” Jamal was grinning but it was forced. The artist in him was being frustrated.

“I’m just...” Palmer began.

“Perhaps you could have your coffee and bring one back for me.”

The request came from Farrah Shamon. Palmer swivelled around to the woman in her electric wheelchair. He turned back to Carlos and his eyes asked the boy what he should do.

“It is alright,” Carlos said. “I will be fine.” The boy looked up at Jamal who claimed the high ground in front of him. “You can do what you think is best, Mr. Shamon.”

The barber clicked his scissors. “Call me Jamal, please, young sir. And I will address you as Carlos. We will forget all our other names and be friends. Hey?”

Palmer, admonished and banished, crept out of the barber shop and headed toward the Tim Horton’s down the way. He felt good, ignoring the fact that he was due back at his workplace an hour ago. The pit could wait.

Palmer turned his cellphone off and enjoyed a cup of coffee at a table in the coffee shop. It was months now since the shop had been ordered shut except for orders made by customers and consumed outside. The pandemic was over in large part, thanks to vaccines, but distancing and masks had become common still across Canada. Palmer allowed himself to forget CIIA and its overlords as he bit into a doughnut and sipped at the beverage. He finished and bought another three coffees to take back to Carlos, Jamal and Farrah. Palmer whistled as he walked back along the city sidewalk.

He was flabbergasted when he pushed open the shop door with his body as he held the coffees in his hands. Jamal was seated in the first in the line of three barber chairs while Carlos still occupied the middle, big chair. Farrah’s wheelchair had been moved closer to the large chairs. The three were laughing and chattering as though they were enrolled in a sewing circle. Jamal was finished his work; that was obvious from the difference in Carlos. The boy’s hair was no longer a nest; it was still full but superbly trimmed and clean. He would no longer be the target of style-conscious bullies and jokers at his school; he would be the model to which the boy’s in his class would aspire.

“Wow. You look great,” Palmer said as he held out one coffee to Farrah. She took it and rewarded him with a shy smile. Jamal took his paper cup with a loud ‘Thank you’ and an offer to pay which Palmer waved off. “And a coffee for you, Carlos. Even after what you said about your last Canadian coffee.”

Carlos smirked at Palmer. “It was awful, Palmer,” he scolded. “But I forgive Mr. Horton. He couldn’t help it. He is not Salvadoran.” That brought laughter from both the Shamons and a mock frown from Palmer.

“He is a very intelligent boy, this Carlos,” Jamal told Palmer in an amused tone.

“He is a handsome, intelligent boy,” said Farrah more seriously. Her expression became wistful. “If he were our child, I would tell everyone about how smart he is.”

Carlos blurted out a question. “Do you have children?”

Jamal turned his face away to look at the far wall of his shop. Palmer noted the move. There was an awkward silence. Carlos was irrepressible, though. “Do you, Farrah.”

“No, Carlos.” Her voice was not much more than a whisper but it was not judgemental in any way. “We don’t have any children but I wish we had. At times, I am lonely, with Jamal here in his shop.”

“Farrah is a bookkeeper. She works for many companies. She is always busy.” Jamal turned back to the group and spoke proudly of his wife.

“Only three companies, Jamal, and I am not always busy. I have time...” She paused. “But, we should talk of what we have. We have such a nice house. I have to get back and do some more work on it.”

Jamal regarded his wife and the love was unmistakable. “We were able to find a small house. Well, it is a bungalow but it is big. It has two bedrooms and three bathrooms. We are so clean because we have to use all those bathrooms.”

Farrah laughed lightly. “In the camp, we had one bathroom.”

“We had a pail,” said Jamal with a grim chuckle. “And we went to the well for water. It was a longer lineup than Tim Horton’s.” Everyone laughed at that.

“I love this life,” Farrah added, “but I must go and make it even better.” She gave Carlos a look that shook Palmer. It was a look of admiration but tinged with sorrow. Was she sorry for the boy because of his uncertain present and future and for his past trials? Was she grieving for herself and the children she did not have?

Palmer stepped to her to help her maneuver her chair out of the shop. She giggled and waved him off. “I do this myself.” With a whir of sound and a nimble set of turns and bumps against the door, Farrah left the shop as Palmer stared in wonder.

“She has a car with hand controls,” Jamal said. “A group gave it to her. They were very kind. I use the subway. We will buy a vehicle one day and give back this car for others to use. She does everything by herself. I would not dare to help her.”

Carlos hopped out of the chair. “This is fun,” he said.

“We have to go,” said Palmer, pulling a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet.

“No,” said Jamal, shaking his head. “I cannot...”

“Please take it. I don’t want Carlos to get the idea he doesn’t have to pay his own way.

“But you are paying,” Carlos complained. “I have no money.”

“You can pay me back, some time.”

Jamal took the money with a nod and put it into a drawer of his cash register. I hope you will come again, Carlos.

“I will come.” It was a happy acceptance but Carlos gave Palmer a worried look. “I can come here again, can’t I Palmer.” He was, of a sudden, worried that he would not see his new friends again.

“Of course, you will come here again. Maybe not just for a haircut.” It was Palmer’s turn to look fretful. “Would that be okay, Jamal.”

Jamal’s answer was a nod; there was no need for words.

During the 20 minutes’ drive back to the shelter, Carlos was quiet, staring out the side window at the changes in the landscape from tall, glistening high rise buildings to rows of storefronts punctuated with four and five storey apartment buildings and occasional strings of new townhouses. There were building sites on every block.

Toronto was the fastest growing city in North America and already its fourth largest, including Mexico City. It had a forest of cranes and to Palmer it seemed there was a new condo structure in view each time he stepped out of his own downtown unit. He marveled at being told by Jamal that he and Farrah now had the credit to rent or even buy a detached house. These buildings were becoming as scarce as vacant seats on buses and as affordable as Ming vases.

“I wish I could live in a house,” said Carlos in a subdued voice. He turned to Palmer but looked down at the console between them. “I will never do that.”

Palmer choked. The boy seemed so quietly distraught that Palmer felt his distress keenly.

“Are you okay, Carlos?”

“Yeah.”

“So, you liked Jamal and Farrah.”

“Yeah.” Again, the quiet voice. “Farrah. She is so brave.”

“She is, Carlos. But so were you. Living in San Salvador by yourself. Coming to Canada with strangers.”

Carlos looked at Palmer. “You know the capital of my country.”

“San Salvador. Of course, I do, Carlos. Lots of people do.”

“It is very small. Very crowded. I did not think anyone knew the name of my country or my city.”

“Maybe,” said Palmer as he drew up to the front of the shelter, “you could think of Canada as your country. And Toronto as your home. Do you think you could do that, Carlos?”

The boy was beaming as Palmer watched him undo his seat belt and open the car door. “You think I could do that, Palmer? Would they let me do that?”

Palmer was mystified. “Who, Carlos. Who would let you.” He paused as the boy got out of the vehicle and turned to close the door behind him. “Who would stop you, Carlos?” The boy gave Palmer a thumbs up as he swung the door shut. Palmer watched Carlos enter the shelter’s storefront. His walk was jaunty.

Before he drove away from the shelter heading home, Palmer checked his cellphone. There were two unanswered calls from Mavis but none from Kaide. Palmer put his phone into his jacket pocket. Unaccountably, he felt exhilarated rather than guilty or anxious. For once, he didn’t care if he was being found lacking by others or by himself. For the first time in his life, he could feel a tempting taste of freedom. It wasn’t a shattering revelation. It wasn’t even a chill on the back of his neck. It was a twinge, that’s all. But he liked the feeling. If an 11-year-old boy could feel that way, anyone could.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

When Palmer went to work the next day, he expected to be greeted with recriminations from either Kaide or Thorpe or both, if not in person, then in emails or texts. He received nothing. Not personally. Not digitally. He took his usual seat and glanced at Sharon.

“Are they sick?” He tossed his head contemptuously at the empty desk chair where Mavis normally planted her bony bottom.

Sharon chortled. “Oh, aren’t you courageous, Palmer. No, they aren’t sick, just scared stiff.”

Palmer frowned.

“It seems that Mavis sent a letter, written by the volunteers, to politicians with a BCC to Laura Johnston, our esteemed President of the Board. There was a dirty word in it that someone should have noticed.”

Palmer didn’t remember a dirty word in the document he had read several days before. He kept his questioning frown.

Sharon glanced at Palmer suspiciously but explained; “The letter had the dreaded word, ‘consulting’, in it. And it went out to ministers in every provincial government and to the powers that be in Ottawa. Probably, none of them will notice but Laura sure as hell saw the word in there. She hit the roof yesterday. Came here and blasted Kaide.”

Palmer shocked Sharon. Instead of trying to hide under his desk or in a bathroom stall, her neighbour in the pit laughed.

Palmer, she admonished him. “You should have some sympathy for the poor man. Laura tore a strip a yard wide out of him.”

“He can afford it,” said Palmer with another laugh. “You would think someone would have caught it,” he added when he brought his merriment under control. “Was Mavis here, too.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sharon grimaced with the memory. “She stood at his office door like a stick. She was petrified.”

“A stick in a petrified forest. The perfect description,” Palmer giggled.

“Oh, Palmer. you’re evil.”

He had never been called that, or, for that matter and name with a soupcon of character. He had only been called colourless, drab, boring, dull ... He was pleased by Sharon’s condemnation.

Sharon continued. “Didn’t you read the letter, Palmer. Aren’t you supposed to check those things?”

“Not my job,” Palmer replied.

Perhaps he was too smug. As he turned on his laptop, Palmer was distracted by the ringtone of his phone. He had changed it the night before; it played a tune. Sharon looked over and shook her head. The call was a peremptory order to come to Kaide’s office.

“I have to get into the media this week,” Kaide told Palmer as soon as the man entered the boss’ office.

“As I’ve said, you need a story to get into print, sir.” Palmer’s response had an impatient accent.

Kaide didn’t notice the insubordination. He was too preoccupied. “What about my trip to... where was it? Cyprus. What about that?”

“I got that into three papers last week.” Now Palmer sounded bored. It was deserved. Palmer knew Kaide hadn’t bothered to read the article that had been placed by Palmer by news release into the trade papers at Kaide’s insistence. “We need something new. What have you got?”

Kaide actually gave the demand some thought. He didn’t come up with anything. There was a look of panic on his bloated face. “Johnston is on my case. I need something to put that stupid bitch in her place.”

“Don’t use that word.” Palmer was thunderstruck as soon as the words shot from his mouth. He felt the flush in his face and the gorge in his throat. He stared at Kaide, shocked by his own outburst.

Palmer was stricken even harder by his sudden realization that Kaide was cowed.

“Well, she is.” Kaide sputtered. “She came here yesterday. In front of everybody, she got after me because Mavis screwed up the letter. Those goddamned volunteers, they...” Kaide’s face took on a look of absolute horror. He realized he had been complaining to one of his own employees about a mistake made by his second-in-command, not to mention the group of members he had cajoled into toiling for the cause without compensation. The cause, of course, was the good of Lester Kaide. Instead of working on his behalf, the volunteers and even his bedmate, had placed his post in jeopardy.

“Johnston says she’s calling a special session of the board. To talk about me...” He seemed to be fighting to hold back tears. “We have to do something about her. What can I say to the board about that woman?”

Kaide’s voice was full of scorn and derision aimed at the board chair.

“I can’t think of a thing,” said Palmer. He didn’t bother hiding his satisfaction at Kaide’s situation.

Kaide spent long minutes trying to force Palmer to create gold out of sand but could not. Amazingly, Kaide eschewed his insults in favour of pleas but they were all wasted on the newly steadfast Palmer Pallister. The writer left Kaide’s office as he had entered, bereft of ideas and quite content with his condition.

The first thing he did when he arrived back at his desk was to ensure he had deleted the email from his trash basket, the one he had sent to Laura Johnston with the volunteer’s letter as an attachment.

The next thing Palmer did was to look over at the empty desk that had been abandoned by Mike who had moved on to better and much more active pursuits as an assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors G League team. Palmer wondered what poor man or woman would fill Mike’s desk chair and his job as membership coordinator of this miserable carnival of pettiness.

“Why do you stay here, Pallister?” Mavis was using her shrill voice, the one she employed when she believed she was the victim of unfairness or some imagined slight. She had come, unbidden, to Palmer’s desk at a time when Sharon was occupied elsewhere. The stick-thin woman with the stern face stood over Palmer’s desk as she addressed the man who suffered her presence with a placid appearance and one hand busily stoking his chin.

“Stop doing that.” Mavis jabbed a finger at Palmer’s face, disclosing to him her fingernails rimmed with what looked like the remnants of weeks-old nail polish. He saw their ragged quick, speaking of nervous chewing. “You’re bothering me.”

Palmer grinned and continued to rub his chin as though seeking a beard that had fallen off.

“You should have told me about that.”

“About what?”

“About the word in the letter.”

“What word?”

“You know...”

“No, I don’t know, Mavis. What word.”

She parted the thin lips of her mouth but snapped them shut in an instant.

“Why do you stay here,” she said after refusing to utter the offending word ‘consulting.’ “You know you’re not wanted.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Mavis. You might not want me. I have no idea why. But Sharon might not want me gone. I know Laura Johnston wouldn’t want me gone...”

Mavis’ lips didn’t open. They spread a little wider across her face and thinned to gray lines they were pulled so tightly into her cheeks. Her eyes narrowed and Palmer was fascinated to see the eyeballs bulge out against her lids. Her face didn’t flush, it paled to the colour of while porcelain as though it was full of milk and not blood. Palmer thought she might be having a stoke.

Her voice was a squeak. “What about Johnston? What do you mean? Have you been talking to that piece of...”

“Don’t, Mavis.” Palmer’s voice was so harsh, it stilled the woman instantly.

“You wouldn’t dare.” Mavis took a step back as she hissed.

Palmer grinned again. “Dare what, Mavis.”

“I don’t like you, Pallister. I didn’t like you when you came here. I know what you’re getting paid.’

Palmer’s forehead crinkled. “Huh?”

“He...” obviously, she meant Kaide and Palmer was taken aback by the violence in her voice. “He gave you almost as much as me. I’ve been here 10 years, Palllister. 10 years in this place. You know how many raises he gave me. Three. Three in 10 years.”

Her repetitiveness was getting tedious. Palmer yawned.

“God damn you, Pallister. You’re getting almost as much as me and I do all the work.”

“Oh. I hadn’t noticed,” Palmer responded in a nonchalant way. “What work is that, Mavis. Turning down the covers. Mint on the pillow. What is it you do for this place or should I say for Mr. Kaide?”

“You bastard. You should quit.” She spewed an acid cloud that, fortunately, dissipated over Palmer’s desktop before it could reach him. He shoved his wheeled chair farther back.

“Hadn’t you heard, Mavis. I have a contract. I’m here for another three months. Minimum. That’s how long it will take to fire me. And you know how much I’ll make in those three months? Almost as much as you.” Palmer turned back to his laptop leaving Mavis to stand, silently raging but afraid to incite more insolence from this serf who was reforming before her spitting eyes.

Ridicule reduces a bully, thought Palmer. But only if one can deal with the first response. Bullies are cowards with little staying power and cowards need company. They will collapse if their response is withstood and their support is absent. Palmer was learning the rules of social warfare.

Mavis tried once again. “Why are you here?” she ranted. “You can get another job.”

“And you can’t, poor thing.” Palmer felt remorse as soon as the jibe left his lips. No, he scolded himself. Don’t retreat as always. She might learn something from the fray and that wouldn’t be a bad thing, not for Palmer and not for her. His face was calm and passionless. He said not another word. He waited.

She gulped. There was a sob as she quickly turned around. She took a halting step. That became a firmer tread and that became a march. Mavis left Palmer’s desk.

She also left a question hanging in the still air. Why, indeed, did Palmer stay? He could get another job. This was true and Palmer saw it as he never had before. He could get another job. Within his abilities, which were real and not inconsiderable, he could get another or any job he wished. Opportunity, presentation and time would open doors to him. He didn’t have to take what he could get and hope for the best. Palmer could plan. Palmer could win. He had routed Mavis and, to a degree, Kaide and he had done so easily.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Laura Johnston called a special meeting of the board on a Monday. Kaide left, supposedly on a flight to Cyprus via other airports, on the weekend. He wouldn’t be able to attend the board meet and that was fine with Laura.

She spoke to the two women on the board, rallying their support for her complaints against Lester Kaide and, lately added, Mavis Thorpe. Of the six men on the board, Johnston was able to reach only three. Unter and two others were busy or ducking her calls for whatever reason. Of the three to whom Laura spoke, one was non-committal while two said they supported her at least in attending the meeting. Only one, Jason Chambers, was enthusiastic. A gay man, he heard of Kaide’s diatribes about his LGBT community. He was shocked by Laura’s recounting of Kaide’s incredible dressing down of Palmer Pallister.

“The man is a waste of space,” said Chambers in his phone call with Laura. “Did you hear the so-called joke he told at the inter-agency meeting a few weeks ago?”

“No. I tune out when Kaide gives one of his speeches. They are always the same bombast with things he thinks are funny but which make me gag.”

“This one was atrocious. He told about going through a security check. The fellow ahead of him was, to quote Kaide, ‘brown skinned’ and when the security guard asked him to stop for a search, the man’s hands automatically went up as though he were a bandit being stopped by the police. Kaide assumed that position and thought it was funny. A few laughed but most were just appalled.”

“I’m tired of that bigot,” Laura exclaimed.

The virtual meeting was to begin at 2 p.m. All but the Annual General Meeting of the association were to take place through a virtual platform. The pandemic had wrought many changes and brought a number of revelations. One such discovery was how much an organization could save in travel costs with virtual meetings. As well, such sessions cut the time executives and key employees had to spend away from their real jobs and the time they would have to wine, dine and play under the guise of attending conferences, conventions, seminars and other get-togethers.

In Laura’s case, a virtual meeting meant she wouldn’t have to sit next to men like Unter who enjoyed a frequent cigar, garlicky lunches, expensive colognes and hair gels that reeked like week-old chicken soup. Laura was a vegan and ever more intolerant of the smell of digested meat.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Laura began after waiting until 2:15 for Randy Unter and his several pals on the board to deign to appear on screen. Unter sat above his computer meaning his audience could admire the width and depth of his nostrils when they viewed his image.

She spent the next ten minutes reading aloud an affidavit prepared by Palmer who recited in the document, as closely as he could reconstruct, the verbal attack launched by Lester Kaide against his public relations man. She included Palmer’s mentions of Mavis Thorpe’s support of Kaide’s assault. She overrode, at several points, attempts by Unter and his friends to interrupt her recitation with questions and protests. As she closed that part of her agenda, Unter was quick to take advantage of her pause.

“Was there a tape recording?” His tone was demanding and demeaning. “How do we know Pallister didn’t make this up? I can’t believe Les would talk like that. And why would he do it in front of Thorpe?

“What purpose would Palmer Pallister have to invent a story like this,” Laura said in a strong voice the equal of Unter’s. “It certainly sounds like something Mr. Kaide would say. I think we all could agree we’ve heard language like this from him many times.”

“I wouldn’t agree,” said one of Unter’s mates on the board. “I’ve never heard that.”

There was a chuckle from Jason Chambers’ share of the screen. All eyes focused on his image. “You have to be kidding, Chuck. We hear it all the time. Kaide is a perfect example of phony victimization - when he’s not being a bully. He tried both in his meeting with Palmer.”

Laura regained control and forged ahead. She moved to Mavis Thorpe and her unforgiveable sin of sending a letter to high levels in all provincial governments. “I don’t have to tell you how serious that is.” Despite her comment, she continued to describe the dire outcomes if any recipient of the letter were to use it to bring a case against the CIIA membership. This drew more protests from the board but even Unter fretted openly about the gross mistake.

“So,” Unter said in a voice loud enough to cut through a buzz that had developed among the nine board members. “What in hell do you want us to do about it, Laura.” It was a question laden with sarcasm. “I don’t want to have to find another president, much less a... a... what is Thorpe anyway?”

“She is office manager. And I don’t see the difficulty in finding a president better than the one we have,” Laura responded with equal sarcasm. “But, if you’re not convinced yet, I move we open an investigation of Kaide and Thorpe.”

“What would we investigate?” That came from one of Unter’s board buddies.

Laura smiled like a fox smiling at a mouse. “Several things, thank you for asking.” She set to describing a number of occasions when Kaide and Thorpe attended out-of-town assemblies together. She already had telephoned contacts who had been at the same meetings and she had canvassed hotels with a list of clever questions designed to find if the two had overnighted in the same room. An investigation could inquire about the details of room service, maid services and observations of hotel personnel.

She listed results of her inquiries for the board and no one could deny the outcomes were telling. Kaide and Thorpe were using their work-related trips to be intimate. Either that or the two were inveterate chess players reluctant to break off games until well after midnight.

Finally, Laura took aim at Kaide’s use of international journeys to visit his own far-flung relatives or places of more attraction than the locales of conclaves of specific and major import to CIIA. “He goes where he wants on members’ money. If he can’t miss meetings entirely, he cuts short his time at sessions. He’s even an officer of some of the associations holding these meeting, for Pete’s sake, but he skips them. I’ve talked to dozens of people who say they can’t remember Kaide at critical meetings but they do remember him checking in late and leaving early.”

Laura’s finding of fault ended in one last impassioned plea for an investigation of the CIIA president and his chief underling.

“I move we vote,” Unter said without emphasis. “I vote no.”

“Those opposed,” called Laura with a resigned sigh.

Hands went across the boxes that made up the Zoom screen. Unter and his three allies opposed the motion. One of the women sat unmoving but the second woman raised her hand. Five hands - the motion was dead.

“I have another motion.” Unter wore a triumphant leer. “I vote that we ask for the resignation of our chair and, failing that, that we vote at our next meeting to remove our chairwoman for cause.”

“Because she’s a woman,” raged Jason as he sat straighter at his desk.

“Those in favour,” said Unter, usurping the chair’s role before Laura could react.

Five hands shot up and one of Unter’s friends hurrahed. Unter himself laughed.

“Well, Laura. You had your meeting. Will you resign now and save us the bother of dumping you at the next meeting?” Unter leaned forward, his nostrils even more cavernous.

“Laura didn’t answer. She stared at the screen in shock and distress until Jason quietly asked everyone to log out. All did, leaving Laura to close the session alone.

Jason called Laura within seconds to commiserate but she needed time to recover. The board’s decision seemed to defy all reason; Kaide had done all he could to sink the organization and to take the board to the depths of ignominy but he had won and Laura had lost. Was Jason right, she wondered as he tried to ameliorate her consternation. Was the vote a verdict on her gender? It could not have been a protest of the case against Kaide; that case was right and just. Whatever it had been, the vote hurt to Laura’s core.

She told that to Palmer after calling him at his apartment Monday evening. She was angry and not all of her anger was directed at Unter and what was now his board. She sounded strained as she told him, briefly, about the board’s special session and her defeat.

“I probably shouldn’t have listened to you in the first place. It became Kaide’s side or Palmer’s side.”

Palmer felt the blow. Had he caused Laura Johnston to lose her board seat and, worse, her self-respect?’ He hadn’t mean to create ‘sides’ between himself and Lester Kaide. He had meant to draw attention to the disgusting actions and words of the chief officer of the organization, no matter how insignificant the outfit was. Much of the result was Laura’s work, not his. He felt responsible for Laura’s pain but not the whole cause.

In the past, Palmer would accept the mess at the board without comment. He would have been unable to see himself as an instigator; the idea he would have a side in anything would be ridiculous. He just wasn’t that important. This time, however, he would take the blame. He would also take the credit. For the first time he could remember, he spoke out.

“I’m sorry that you’re upset, Laura, but I can’t be sorry for the rest. Aren’t you relieved to know what the majority of the group really thinks. You know now that Unter and his supporters are backing a man who is vicious, selfish, vacuous and thieving? That they condone blatant adultery at members’ expense. Why would you want to remain president of a board dominated by misogynists?”

Palmer heard a sob followed by silence. He was about to close down his own phone when she spoke.

“You are right, Palmer. I’m sorry for taking it out on you. I’m as much to blame as you. More so.”

“Not blame, Laura. You deserve credit for what you did. It was brave. Unter is just as bad as Kaide. He’s condoning behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in the 1930s; it certainly doesn’t belong in the 21s century.”

“Yeah. But it hurts, Palmer. I thought a couple of them were friends of mine.”

“But they are, Laura. You said Suzie and John didn’t put up their hands. And Jason has always been your friend. That’s three people who are your true friends.”

Palmer laughed.

“What’s so funny,” Laura didn’t know whether to take offence or to join in.

“I’m laughing at myself, Laura. I never thought I would be talking like this. Giving you advice like I know what I’m talking about. I’m a wimp, Laura. I don’t have ‘sides’. I don’t have anything to offer people like you.”

Laura laughed. “Oh, god, Palmer. You couldn’t be more wrong. Maybe you’ve changed. I haven’t known you long enough. But I think you are a very persuasive man. I think you are a moral man. I think you’re have lots to offer. My mom used to tell me, ‘listen for wisdom in the wind; it tells the trees when to bow so they do not break.’ I thought that was just poetry and not something I could use. But I can, can’t I. You’re giving me wisdom in the wind.

“Always listen to your mother, Laura. I wish mine was still around so I could.”

“Neither is my mom,” said Laura softly, “but I can remember. It makes me feel a whole lot better. I’m bowing but I won’t break, Palmer.”

The two talked for several minutes more and left in better moods. It would take Laura time to plot her future and her position in the CIIA board just as it would take Palmer more time to accept his new persona. It would happen in time, he thought. There would be a renaissance of fainthearted Palmer Pallister. What would rise in his place?

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

It was Sharon’s last day in her job as the Card Czar at CIIA. The morning had started out badly for Palmer and it kept getting worse. He had walked in to find Sharon at her desk and a pimply-faced, chubby man in his early 20s sitting at Palmer’s desk. As Palmer approached, the young man took a pastry of some sort out of a greasy paper bag he had set on Palmer’s desk. He lifted what seemed to be a Danish toward his thick-lipped mouth only to have a lump of yellow goo fall off the bun and onto the desktop. The young man saw the mess but made no attempt to wipe up the spreading gunk. Instead, he shovelled the rest of the pastry, with its cargo of more glop, into his gaping mouth. A tongue the colour of ripe eggplant emerged and licked at his thick lips. As if he hadn’t been disgusting enough, the young man put his arm down, having stuffed the entire Danish into that hole in his face, his elbow landing right into the yellow dropping.

“God, could you make it more sickening,” Palmer asked the fellow occupying and desecrating his desk.

“What?” The young man raised his balding head and regarded Palmer with insolent light-blue eyes.

“Why are you sitting at my desk dropping your crap?” Palmer was angry which, in itself, was novel. Sharon looked over from her desk.

“Hey Palmer. Meet Jamie. He’s my replacement.”

“You have to be kidding?” Palmer tore his eyes away from his desk and glared at Sharon. “Why is Jamie sitting at my desk?”

“He’s learning the job, Palmer. Be nice.”

“Sharon. Get this guy a chair. Sit him at your desk. And, clean up that godawful gunk. I’m getting coffee while you do that.” He stalked away as Sharon turned her glare toward Jamie.

The doughnut shop in the strip mall committed the worst sin of all that morning. It had run out of coffee in all its pots just when Palmer was desperate for a hot brew. He had to wait 10 minutes for a pot to be ready. His maple doughnut was stale and, besides, the brown coating reminded him of the pool of custard on Palmer’s desk. He tossed half the offending doughnut into the trash and downed the coffee in a gulp that burned his throat all the way to his stomach.

When he got back to the pit, not only was he greeted with yellow smears on his desk, Jamie had stolen Palmer’s chair to set at Sharon’s desk. The two had their heads close together over the screen of her laptop as she pointed to a list of card recipients. Palmer couldn’t make out their murmurings, not that he cared to hear what they were discussing.

“Get up.”

“What?”

“Up.”

Jamie lifted his rotund body from the chair. “But where...”

Palmer meant to point a finger out the door but stopped his hand. He was not going to be like Kaide. “We’ll find a seat for you, Jamie. Why don’t you get a coffee from the shop on the corner of the mall and we’ll get your post set up properly.”

Jamie awarded him with a suspicious eye but went out for his cuppa.

“That’s was kind of you, Palmer,” said Sharon. She rose and the two of them went in search of a spare chair. The chore took less than two minutes and they returned with a chair with casters to set beside Sharon’s desk. By the end of the day, Jamie would inherit Sharon’s better chair while she headed for the halls of higher learning.

Sharon and Jamie bent their heads again to her laptop as she tried to explain the intricacies of her work to the new employee. At their side, staring at his own computer’s screensaver, Palmer tried to block out the murmurings next door. He submerged himself in his mind’s playback of his conversation with Laura and whether he was wrong in leading her into her current morass.

A clapping of hands brought Palmer back to the increasingly disagreeable confines of the pit. Sharon was applauding.

“Very good, Jamie. By Jove, I think he’s got it?”

The marginal man sitting beside her desk looked utterly confused. Palmer thought he ‘got it’ not at all but it was the paraphrasing from My Fair Lady that had addled poor Jamie. “Who’s Jove?”

“Never mind, Jamie,” said Sharon patiently. “I think you understand how to work the card system. That’s all you have to know. You can pick up anything else as you go.”

“So,” Jamie replied, pushing his chair back a foot, “what do I do now.”

Sharon sighed and stood up. Turning to Palmer, she pulled her shoulders up to stand erect and said, “Coffee time, Palmer, old buddy.”

Jamie brightened. “Coffee?”

“Not you,” Sharon snapped. She had come to the end of her considerable patience. “Let’s go, Palmer.”

The two of them left the pit and its remaining reptile, the pimpled and at-sea Jamie Smithers.

“God, what a nerd,” commented Sharon as they trudged across the front of their strip mall to the unattractive doughnut shop.

“Nerds are bright. Anti-social but bright. Your friend Jamie has half of the wit down pat.” Palmer felt a tug of conscience as he belittled the young man but that passed quickly. The kid was perfect for the association.

“I heard about the board meeting,” said Sharon in a cautious voice.

“How?”

“Don’t spread it around but one of the board is a friend of mine. In a place like that,” she threw her hair over her shoulder in the direction of CIIA, “you need informers.”

Palmer was sure her informer was Jason Chambers. He had seen Sharon, months ago, deep in conversation with Chambers in this same doughnut shop. He didn’t know the gay board member well but he liked what little he did know.

Sharon pushed open the door of the shop and the two claimed the rear booth. They ordered coffees but passed on the pastries. Sharon sipped and looked across the scarred table at her companion.

“When are you going to get out of that horrid place?”

Palmer grinned. “When I came here, Kaide had me sign a contract. I was on probation...” he chortled with the memory “...for a year and if I wanted to get the hell out of there before the year was up, I agreed to give him three months’ notice. That three months began this morning when I placed a dated letter on his desk. It’s his welcome home note for when he returns from his mythical trip to Cyprus.”

Sharon gave Palmer a slight smirk. “Yeah, Cyprus. I wonder if he chose the Riviera or Greece.”

“I’m tracking him.”

“How?”

“Mavis uses a travel outfit in the city. I found out which agency and made friends with one of the agents. She thinks I’m the CIIA rep so she is giving me the latest news of Kaide’s bookings. At the moment, he’s booked at a resort on the island of Lesbos in the town of Petra in a very nice resort on the beach. It doesn’t sound like the conference he is supposed to be attending.”

Sharon laughed.

“And he is booked to go on to a tour of Turkey’s Turquoise Coast.”

“Tell him to go to Hadrian’s Gate in Antalya,” said Sharon in a delighted voice. “I was there a few years ago.”

Palmer nodded. “I won’t do it in person. I’ll get Mary Quayle to do it.”

“Isn’t she a reporter for one of the trade papers...” Sharon’s eyes were wide.

“Yep. She called, wanting a quote from our exalted leader. I told her he’s overseas at a very important conference. Her paper already carried the advance piece on the conference I sent to everyone. So, she’s even more interested in talking to Kaide.”

“But...” Sharon was about to be helpful.

“...he’s not going to be available...” Palmer finished her thought. “... at least not at the conference. Let her find that out,” Palmer’s grin was wide.

Sharon was raising her cup; she guffawed and her hand shook, spilling some of the brew onto the table.

“You’re as sloppy as Jamie,” retorted Palmer.

“Hey,” Sharon bubbled, “I’m out of here end-of-day. You’re stuck with him for three months. And with Kaide and Mavis.”

“Maybe,” Palmer shot back. His grin became more mischievous.

There was another surprise waiting for Palmer when he returned, with Sharon, to the pit. There was a woman filling the chair at what had been Mike’s empty desk. Filling was an understatement. The woman was so obese, her hips overflowed the padded seat and bulged out around the arms of the chair. She was shifting her weight in the chair as they entered, trying to find some comfort for her bottom half.

“You must be Jennifer,” said Sharon as she took her own chair nearby.

“Is there a bigger chair around?” The woman’s voice was deep and, at the moment, quite angry. “This thing is so small.”

Palmer said nothing as he took his own chair but thought the furniture, while cheap and old, was appropriately sized for its usual users.

“So, you’re taking Mike’s place,” Palmer finally observed after watching the woman fidget and bounce in her attempts to adjust her body to the chair.

“I’m a temp,” she grumbled. I won’t be here long, thank goodness. The furniture sucks and the room doesn’t have any ventilation.”

Palmer thought the woman couldn’t be a better match for the pit. He was sure Mavis would be appalled by the temp’s attitude and that brought satisfaction to Palmer. He would have something to watch as he suffered through his last months in the hellhole that was CIIA.

As he spent the rest of the day watching Sharon pack her few belongings and Jennifer fuss, fidget, mutter and curse, he thought about his future. Just the fact he was thinking ahead was something new for this 35-year-old man.

As the middle boy in a blue-collar family, he was bookended by the baby of the family and the first-born heir. He was born in October while his brothers were both born during the month of March so Palmer’s birthday was an afterthought to his siblings’ dual and grander celebration. He wore hand-me-downs and had to give up the best of these when his fast-growing younger brother demanded larger shoes, shirts or socks. He followed a middle road in public and high school. He didn’t get special attention either from teachers or classmates, particularly girls. Palmer was channeled into the side stream. All blandness. At home, at school, at work, Palmer had never been part of the main flow of life with all its excited swiftness and thrills of achievement.

Why was he remaining in this dismal place? Well, he though, he could watch the closing act of a morality play and, in fact, help raise the curtain to the final act. That might be amusing. He had three months left to endure at this job. Then, he could see what life on the other side was like. As Laura had said, Palmer could be on a side of his own. All of a sudden, there were images popping into Palmer’s mind - of Carlos, Jamal, Farrah, Monica... They had moved to a better side and if they could do it, so could he.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Palmer booked a table at a posh Indian restaurant, the first time he could remember reserving space for anything but a baseball game at the Rogers Centre. It could be the last time he would see Sharon. She was off in the morning, driving to Ottawa to find housing suitable for a student in the honours science program at the U of O. Housing was expensive in Canada’s capital city and Sharon had limited resources so she had to hunt carefully. She wanted to go into biomedical research, a far cry from what she had done at CIIA for too many months to count. Palmer had nothing but respect for the woman who was now in her mid-20s. Well, maybe he had slightly more than just respect but it was an emotion he had not allowed himself to feel until very recently.

“I can’t believe you’re not going to be there tomorrow,” Palmer told Sharon as they met in the reception area of the restaurant in the heart of the city.

“I can’t believe we’ve only known each other for...” she counted up the number of months on one hand and held up the digits. “It seems like much longer.”

“Geez. Was I that boring?” Palmer gave a faux frown.

“Not at all, my friend. It’s just that we got along so well.”

“Like brother and sister.” Palmer was fishing but Sharon ignored his bait. She gestured toward the waiter who was ready to show them to their table. They were seated at a table for two by a window and nowhere near a serving hallway or washroom or family group with screaming children.

“This is nice, Palmer.” He was surprised to see a tear form in Sharon’s eye as she looked across the table. A large candle in a silver saucer was lit by the waiter and Palmer saw the tear reflecting the flame of the candle. He smiled and it was gentle.

Their meal came and, as expected, it was sublime. They talked about the great diversity of food in Toronto and the excellence of the eating places until Palmer complained they sounded like agents of a tourist bureau. They talked about Ottawa and where she might live while attending the last year of her university program. Sharon talked of her plans to go on to a Master’s degree and, perhaps, the ultimate, a PhD. Palmer felt a trifle inferior with his BA but Sharon squelched that feeling by praising Palmer’s intelligence.

“Why would you think I’m smart, Sharon?” Palmer was genuinely curious after she said he was much too smart to be wasting his time at CIIA.

“You just are, Palmer.”

“If I’m so smart, why didn’t I see it coming - when the board not only turned down Laura’s motion for an investigation into Kaide’s nonsense but told her to get off the board.”

Sharon took a taste of her curry, gave the dish a look of approval and lifted her face to Palmer’s. “It was no surprise. You know why.”

Palmer was flummoxed. “What do you mean. I don’t know why Unter would do that to Laura.”

Incredulity was written across Sharon’s face. Palmer was toying with her. Ah, geez. He really didn’t know.

“CIIA is like many associations, Palmer.” Her voice was level and calm, like that of a tutor who had given the same lesson many times before. “The board or, at least, most of the board doesn’t want the association to advance the interests of its members. Look at the board; they are all making money out of immigrant consulting. And I mean real consulting, not low-end advising. The board members run law firms or dedicated consulting practices.”

“I get that,” said Palmer, concentrating closely on her explanation. “But what do you mean when you say the board doesn’t work for the good of the members?”

“The board works to keep these lower-end people reined in, doing scut work, to keep them from competing with the licensed consultants. The board has been quite happy to let Lester Kaide act the fool and, so, diminish the importance and seriousness of the membership. If the board had members’ interests at heart, Kaide is the last person on earth they would choose to represent members.”

“God. That’s Machiavellian, Sharon.”

“It may be, but it has worked well for decades. Before Kaide, there was another idiot who boasted about being the model leader. And before him, another. I had it all explained to me when I went to work at CIIA.”

“By whom?”

Sharon shook her head. “By the guy who had the job before Kaide. He came by one day for an old-home-week reunion with Kaide and Thorpe. I guess he had a strong stomach. Anyway, he dragged me off for a beer at a sleazy pub not far from the office and tried to hit on me. I told him off and, to make amends for talking trash to someone young enough to be his grandchild, he gave me a lesson in scamming members.”

Palmer took a bite of his meal but he didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t taste it despite its incredible spices. Sharon spoiled the meal with reality. He hadn’t interacted with members more than a few times. He couldn’t profess great caring for the several hundreds of people who paid dues to the association. He did, however, think of them as deserving of fair treatment. If Sharon was right, he had been abetting a group of thieves who stole, not only the dues paid but the ambition of people who trusted them.

After the farewell dinner, Sharon went to her condo to pack while Palmer walked through city streets to his apartment building. As he walked, he thought about his current situation and its lack of importance. His impact on humanity through his life had been miniscule. While Palmer had felt little pride in his job at CIIA, Sharon’s revelation had stripped away any shred of dignity in his having any kind of honest work.

Sharon and her mentor’s jaded beliefs about CIIA and similar organizations may be more a matter of epistemology, Palmer thought. But even if there were some truth to the charges against CIIA and its like, it was demoralizing. But, then, Palmer had taken the work simply because it had been offered. What did he expect?

But, if he was helping to control association members, preventing them from competing with the businesses of board members, what was the harm? Don’t be stupid, thought Palmer; he was in a disagreeable job led by despicable people playing nasty tricks on dependents.

Three months of sitting on his ass was far too much. Before he cut the final ties to his dead-end life, he would do some good. It probably wouldn’t account for more than a mouse’s sneeze on any moral seismic counter but it would make him feel valuable and that would be a novel sensation for Palmer Pallister.

In the morning, Palmer steeled himself before walking into the pit. He would be confined in this collection of desks with three objectionable people, Mavis, the new young man Jamie who had taken over Sharon’s desk, and Jennifer, the overweight, unpleasant temp in Mike’s old stand. He didn’t have time to study his pit-mates before he was thankfully distracted by the ringing of his phone.

“Hi, Palmer. It’s Mary Quayle.” Palmer smiled at his phone and pictured Mary Quayle in his mind. She was also an overweight woman but, unlike Jennifer in the pit, Mary was friendly, funny and intelligent. Palmer met her at several local conferences for immigrant workers and thought of her as a comfortable person.

“Hi Mary. Did you get a quote from Mr. Kaide?” Palmer made his question as innocent as he could.

“That’s why I’m calling. I can’t find the man.”

“He’s in Cyprus, at the meeting of...”

“Nah,” Mary interrupted. “I tried the hotel; he hasn’t checked in. I tried the organizers of the meeting. They have his name among the attendees but he hasn’t picked up his information package. The chair of the session hasn’t seen him. He was pretty ticked that Kaide hasn’t appeared. He was to be on a panel discussing aid for Somalian refugees.”

“Gee, Mary. I don’t know what to tell you. I haven’t talked to him since last week but I didn’t expect to.” Palmer hesitated. “Uh, just a sec, I have a text here. Oh, Kaide tried to reach me... from Lesbos.”

“That’s in Greece,” said Mary quizzically. “Why would Kaide be on a Greek island?”

Palmer answered, again as casually as possible. “I have no idea why he would be there.”

“I’ll check,” said Mary before switching topics. “Say. I hear Laura may be quitting your board. What’s the scoop on that, Palmer?”

“Who told you that?”

“Can’t disclose a source, Palmer,” Mary sighed. How many times did she have to use that line.

“Well, I haven’t talked with Laura for some time.” It was a blatant lie. Palmer smiled to himself.

“You don’t know much, do you?” Mary wasn’t annoyed, just yanking his chain.

“You have the big budget, Mary. Give me a shout, will you, when you find him on Lesbos.” He disconnected and his selfie smile broadened. Palmer’s plan was working.

It didn’t take long. Within the hour, through which Palmer tinkered with his laptop and typed out a news release that was pre-doomed, Mary was back on the phone.

“I called three resort hotels and found him in Petra,” she told Palmer. “He’s in a two-bedroom suite except, at the moment, he is down at the pool having lunch with an American guest of the feminine persuasion.”

“How did you find that out?” Palmer was impressed.

“Just told them I was his office manager checking his credit card billings. We don’t want him to be scammed, do we?” Now, it was Mary who was acting the innocent.

Palmer laughed. “So,” he quipped, “Mr. Kaide is playing hooky from his conference.”

“It’s expensive truancy,” Mary exclaimed. Now she was annoyed. “You might think it’s funny, Palmer, but your members won’t. Their dues are paying for this.”

“Ah, Mary. You’re not really interested in Kaide skipping school, are you?”

“Are you kidding?” Her surprise was genuine. “This isn’t the first time this guy has avoided a conference or convention to go some other place. I’ve heard the rumours. Usually, I’ve heard he visits his relatives instead of going where he should. But going to the pool in a resort hotel on a Greek island while at least some of his members are trying to help immigrants, this is news, Palmer, whether you think so or not.”

Palmer put down his phone after Mary went to further research her story. He was in a good mood that not even another stupid question from Jamie could dent. He grunted an answer of sorts and went off to the doughnut shop for a morning coffee. Mavis passed him on his way out and gave him a look meant to cow him. Instead, Palmer gave her all the notice he would have given pocket lint.

Mary Quayle worked for the only trade mag that published daily. The magazine, both print and online editions, went to the largest audience of professionals working in immigration, border security, international transportation of certain kinds and related areas of concern. It was a must-read for bureaucrats and elected officials in the field and others who need instant information on fast-moving cross-boundary activities. Her article ran with a page-wide headline: “CIIA head skips conference for Greek Isle resort.

The woman reporter had done a lot in a short time. As Palmer read the item, he was bowled over by the results of her long-distance fact-finding. Palmer thought she must have posed as several people to get information from various sources on Lesbos. At the same time, she had carried out masterful interviews with executives and attendees at the conference being held on Cyprus, the meeting that Kaide had been expected to attend on behalf of CIIA members.

According to Quayle’s findings, Kaide missed the entire conference, which ended as the paper was being printed. He had checked into the Lesbos resort on the first day of the conference and checked out two days before its end. He had continued his holiday with his Turkish tour and, from there, he had stopped off in Nice before he would head for home the day after the Quayle story appeared. Kaide would arrive back late tomorrow, thought Palmer. Perfect timing.

The man, wrote Quayle, passed his time in Lesbos with some local touring but, primarily, at the resort swimming pool and its nearby beach in close company with a woman from a town in Vermont. On her second day at the resort, the woman had given up her room and had moved her valises to Kaide’s suite. The charitable would say she was occupying the second bedroom of the suite. The catty would describe her sleeping arrangements in alternate terms.

The meals enjoyed by Kaide and his American companion were recorded in detail in the article. The resort boasted a Michelin star and served dinners, far above ubiquitous olives and oil Greek fare, made from the freshest and most exotic of sea creatures along with edible flowers.

Kaide’s touring was in limousines with guides all to himself and the tours themselves were punctuated with a massage session and stops at wine bars. Mary made the most of Kaide’s real-time credit card billings and the naivety of hotel receptionists, waiters, masseurs, chauffeurs and guides who were eager to use Kaide’s excesses to promote to North Americans the delights of their particular services and brands. To them, Kaide was a great example of properly pampered consumers. To readers, Kaide became an embezzling, philandering example of porcine indulgence.

Palmer took his copy of the paper to Mavis’ desk but she was already digesting the expose with a horrified look on her long face. She looked up as Palmer’s shadow fell over her paper. “Have you...” she stopped when she saw the copy of the paper in his hand.

“Yeah. Pretty bad.” Palmer’s face was blank.

“It’s terrible. What should we do?”

Palmer blinked. “What can we do?”

“I don’t know,” she screeched. “You’re the public relations person. You should know. I don’t know. It’s not my fault.”

Palmer realized her reaction. She had no inkling that it had been Palmer who had engineered the article. She had, no doubt, been complicit in Kaide’s latest bout of extravagance at the expense of the members he was supposed to serve. There was also no doubt that she was nursing not only terror of being outed but bitter resentment of Kaide. Or was it resentment that she had not replaced the American woman next to Kaide poolside on the Greek isle or in the back seat of a touring limousine?

“Who said it was your fault?” Palmer saw a chance to set a wedge. “It’s all on Kaide.”

“Everyone will blame me, too,” Mavis said, her screech dying to self-pitying sobbing. “I’ll get fired.”

Palmer’s voice became soothing. “No, you won’t, Mavis. I don’t think you’ll be fired. I don’t think the board will fire Kaide. He has done this before and Unter knew about it.”

“Unter,” she gulped. “He doesn’t care. He just cares about how he looks.”

“Yeah. You’re right about that. Unter doesn’t care, but Laura will understand it wasn’t you. It’s all Kaide...”

More sobbing. “Laura is... Laura won’t...” Mavis choked and lifted her tear-soaked face. “Laura is quitting. She can’t help me.”

‘Me.’ There it was, thought Palmer. The self-absorbed woman who enabled the repulsive narcissist and hated her obsequiousness. Was Palmer any better? He felt unclean and walked away from Mavis. He bumped into the corner of Jamie’s desk and took the hint to detour toward the hallway. In a few minutes, he was walking on the sidewalk away from the strip mall. He missed Sharon. He wanted to take a shower. He had a vision of taking a shower with Sharon. He laughed and felt the sun.

There was no point in returning to the office in its turmoil. Mavis would desert the place for the day, leaving Jamie and Jennifer floundering in their new jobs and their apathy. Mary Quayle was doing just fine in her detection of Kaide’s grossness. Laura would have to struggle with her own future since, after all, she was one of the board that Palmer now knew, had an ulterior motive. Palmer took out his phone.

“Carlos is doing great.” Monica Lawson exuded warmth and joy. “His marks are among the highest in the class. He’s eating well. He talks a blue streak. He’s playing chess...” She paused in her praise of Carlos. “Except,” she said in a quieter tone, “he wants a family.” There was a catch in Monica’s throat. “I know he misses his mom and dad.”

“They’re dead, Monica.”

“I know, Palmer. I’m just saying it would be best if...”

Palmer held his phone to his ear but there was nothing he could say.

“He went to see Jamal and Farrah.”

“What? He did? When? How?” Monica chuckled at Palmer’s list of questions.

“I took him to their house. It’s not far from the shelter,” Monica replied. “I dropped him off and picked him up later. He was so happy. He wants to go again.”

“Are you going to take him?”

“No.” She sounded sad. “It’s too busy here at the shelter. I just can’t get away and I don’t know if Jamal and Farrah can handle it. She’s... uh... the wheelchair...”

“I know she’s disabled,” Palmer acceded, “but she gets around well. They really took to Carlos, didn’t they?”

Monica was silent for several beats. “Don’t get any ideas, Palmer,” she cautioned. “He’s 11 and I don’t think adoption is on the table.”

It was Palmer’s turn for hesitation. “I don’t know,” he told Monica. “It’s a thought.”

“Just don’t get your hopes up, Palmer. And, more than that, don’t get Carlos’ hopes up. We’ll arrange a foster home once we get his immigration status ironed out.’

“They won’t send him back to El Salvador, will they?” The fear hit Palmer like a truck on the street where he walked.

“I don’t think so,” Monica said but her tone was not assuring. “Leave it to us.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Lester Kaide was in the best of moods as he walked through the endless corridors at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport toward the baggage carousels. He would take a limo to his house in Mississauga, the sister city of Toronto just to the west of the big city. His wife Babs would be waiting with a big dinner that would supplement the meal he had eaten an hour before landing. The food in first class was a hell of a lot better than back in economy, Kaide confirmed to himself with a hearty burp.

“Hey, Les. You back from those Greek Islands?” The shout came from the opposite side of the carousel where he was waiting for his bag to come through the hatch and onto the conveyor belt. Kaide peered over the machinery and found the shouter. It was a man he had met at several local seminars or conferences. He couldn’t remember his name. He waved and the man grinned and waved back. The shouter picked out his own bag and strode off.

Kaide’s bag came and he snagged it from the belt. He wondered how the shouter had known Kaide had been to Greece. His flight was a direct flight from Paris on Air Canada which followed his two-day stopover on the French Riviera and the train ride to Paris Charles de GaulleAirport.

He arrived home in the limo and entered his two-storey house with a yell to Babs. “Hey, honey, I’m home.” Silence. “Babs?”

It took minutes of dropping his bag, grabbing a beer from the fridge and scouting both upstairs and down before he discovered he was alone in the house. Babs could not be found, nor was his dinner waiting on the table in the dining room. There was nothing cooked, nothing ready. It was a strange homecoming and Kaide felt unnerved without knowing why.

The phone rang. Kaide reached into his pocket for his cell but realized it was the landline, the old-fashioned phone on the wall in the kitchen. He took the receiver off its hook and looked for the call-waiting screen. There was no screen. “Hello?”

“You bastard. I forgot my wallet. I want you out of there so I can pick it up without seeing your ugly face.”

The voice belonged to his wife but there was viciousness dripping from each word. Babs was usually bubbly. She thought of herself as ‘cute’ even though she had a rear the size of a truck trailer and shoulder’s out of the NFL. There was nothing cute about Babs’s manner.

“What’s the matter?” Kaide could only think he had forgotten, a week ago, to take out the garbage.

“You know, you son of a bitch. You told me you were going to Cyprus and, instead, you meet your girlfriend on a goddamned Greek island.”

“She wasn’t my girlfriend,” Kaide blurted out before he could stop himself. “I mean there wasn’t any girlfriend. I didn’t feel like going to Cyprus. Come on, Babs, I...”

She screamed in rage. She was gone. From the line. From the home. She must be at her mother’s house, thought Kaide. She would have gone there. There was nowhere else. Confusion ruled Kaide’s mind. How could Babs have learned of his behaviour in Europe?

He called Mavis at her home out of the Greater Toronto Area. She lived with her husband and two teen-age children in a small town about an hour of commuting time away from the CIIA office. In Bab’s case, Kaide’s infidelities were possible because of her scattered attentions and limited intellect. In the case of Ed Thorpe, it was his focus on local life in his small community and his disinterest in his wife’s work or place of business that prevented him from suspecting his wife’s intimacies with her boss. He answered the Thorpe family phone.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Ed. It’s Les Kaide. Is Mavis there.” There was a crashing noise followed with silence. Kaide took the phone from his ear and looked at it. The screen showed a green symbol of a phone. Ed was gone. Mavis appeared to be unavailable.

Kaide began to panic. His chest hurt. His mouth was dry. He took a step toward the living room of the house but staggered. He put his hand against the wall until he was sure he wouldn’t fall. He made it to the couch and sank down on yielding cushions. He put his large face into his thick fingers. He felt the oily sweat on his fingers.

Randy Unter called Kaide that evening to tell Kaide of the article by Mary Quayle. “There will be more, Les,” Unter told Kaide in an angry tone. “I’ll do what I can but it’s going to be hard.”

“What will be hard, Randy?” Kaide was in a fog.

“Keeping you in the job,” Les. What the hell do you think I mean. How could you be so stupid...”

Kaide found himself unable to answer for long seconds. “Come on, Randy. I’ve done a lot of things for you. Remember Mexico; you said that conference was...”

“Nobody knows about what we did there. We didn’t tell an effing reporter about it, did we? How did Quayle get onto this, Kaide. You must have opened your big mouth to someone.”

“It wasn’t me,” Kaide whined. “There was a guy. A guy at the airport. He knew I was in Greece. Maybe he called Quayle. I don’t know but I didn’t tell her or anyone else.”

“What about Pallister. He might have told her.”

Kaide thought about Unter’s suggestion. Yes. Palmer. The man didn’t like Kaide since he reamed him out. He thought he was so smart. Palmer... But, thought Kaide, pressured by his need for an excuse, an alibi, blaming Pallister wouldn’t help. Kaide picked the man over the objections of Mavis and Unter who preferred someone known and dumber.

“No. Pallister wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t like me but he’s scared of me. Scared of his own shadow. I have that guy in my pocket. Maybe Mavis.” She was a straw he could grasp. Unter might believe this. “Yeah. Maybe she was jealous.”

“Ah, Christ, Kaide. Why would she be jealous? You haven’t been...” Unter hadn’t known about Kaide and Thorpe until Laura brought up their long-running affair at the recent board meeting. So, it was true.

“No. No. She wouldn’t be jealous. I just said that. I didn’t mean...” he stammered on but Unter stopped listening. The truth was that Unter didn’t want to know any more. To know would only extend Unter’s own culpability. Unter’s mind raced ahead. Maybe the board could be spared firing the man in a way that might become public. If Kaide would fall on his carving knife and resign, the board could tut-tut its way out of the mess and Unter would remain above reproach. Unter left the call already plotting Kaide’s demise.

At CIIA, next morning, Palmer continued to field the calls that began coming to him from half a dozen trade journalists who were following Mary Quayle’s tale of underhanded dealings at the association. He chuckled at the emails, texts and voice messages from the men and women of the media. Give them something, anything, and they would be ecstatic.

Palmer told reporters that Mr. Kaide denied the allegations in the Quayle article saying he was unable to attend the conference in Cyprus for health reasons. Kaide didn’t arrive at CIIA to give quotes in person.

Palmer continued, through the day, to invent quotes from his boss giving a string of alibis and denials to the Quayle story.

Palmer’s dissembling prompted the writers to go after more and more of the sordid history of the head of CIIA. The organization was a small one so had almost no clout to protect it. It had no advertising to leverage, no power to wield against the commercial publications. Immigration journalists had free rein with coverage about Kaide and CIIA.

Laura Johnston appreciated the attention. Sensing that, Palmer handed out her cell number like a party favour. She took as many of the calls as she could, patiently answering the questions by deflecting to damaging tidbits about Kaide and those of the board who had recently voted against her when she called for an investigation of Kaide. She expanded the field of battle to include Mavis Thorpe, painting her, carefully, as a victim of the predatory wiles of Kaide.

Palmer brushed up on libel and slander laws before he dealt with the bulk of inquiries. He sent a synopsis to Laura and, although she did not reply, he saw his tips used considerably in her quotes in various publications over the next few days.

Ensuing coverage dragged the CIIA board into the mire; it was Johnston, with her demands for a probe of Kaide’s affairs, who emerged as the hero and Unter who would be seen as the one most carefree with members’ dues and deficient in his oversight. Of course, Kaide was the villain, the unfaithful spouse, embezzler, liar, manipulator and all-round definer of wickedness. Mavis came in last, as a sidebar, the one who was victimized because of her own weaknesses and, to the more cruel of the writers, her own amoral imbecility.

Palmer was merely a ‘source’, unnamed and insulated. It was not his first concern but it was a benefit to be anonymous.

Laura had no choice but to resign from the board of directors. She had heaped such a pile of reeking accusations on the executive and board, she could not stay.

Laura had the support of Jason Chambers and several others who resigned from the board after she told them of her decision. She had the enmity, in print and person, of Unter and his cabal. She treated his complaints like dishwater down the sink. She did hear from CIIA members, most congratulatory but some that stung.

Laura couldn’t help but blame Palmer for precipitating the paroxysms at her organization. She couldn’t bring herself to contact him. Palmer noticed her absence but only for a time. She bore as much blame as credit and, in the end, he figured she came out even.

Kaide stayed away from his office for days in the gloom and growing unhygienic surroundings of his home. Babs did not return and he counted her absence by the number of plates and glasses piled on the kitchen counters. Only when he ran out of wine, cutlery and pizzas in his freezer, did Kaide leave his house in Mississauga, not bothering to bathe or shave his last three days of whiskers. He had no time; his immediate mission was to carry out a plan concocted in his solitary days and nights on the shabby couch in his den.

Kaide was dressed in blue trousers that once matched a suit long since retired in whole. He wore a white dress shirt and a wide, garish tie. At least this tie wasn’t polka-dotted with mustard but it did have a stain of unknown origin on its hanging end. Over his shirt and ghastly tie, he wore a brown plaid jacket, the first jacket he found in a rummaging of his closet. Babs typically dressed the man since he had little clothes sense of his own. Without her, he had put together a costume that fitted his splenetic mood. It was the product of rage, exasperation and resentment tossed together into a muddle.

He parked his auto on the street and passed by the parking meter demanding $4 per hour. The effing machine could eff itself, he muttered. He entered the building and rammed his bulk into a crowded elevator. The lunch hour was ending and staffers were returning to the grind. They muttered at Kaide in the same way he had done to the parking meter but put up with his rude intrusion. One never knew when a stranger might be armed or just plain violent.

Kaide left the elevator on the floor housing Unter’s law firm. As he made his way to the impressive foyer with its reception desk and its glamourous receptionist, he went over his plan. It seemed foolproof; Unter would have to surrender to Kaide’s appeal for his backing. Unter would keep him in his post and his healthy salary plus bonus for keeping the membership in line.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Unter.” He lied to the receptionist but wasn’t she just a brainless bauble?

“I don’t see you on his list, Mr. Kaide,” she replied after glancing at her computer screen. “I’ll have to check with his secretary.”

“Call him directly, Shelby,” Kaide demanded, glad he could remember the name of the woman.

Shelby pondered for a moment but gave in to the disheveled, excited man. She knew what was going on at CIIA and wanted to stay as far from the situation as she could. She picked up the phone and made her call. She told Unter’s secretary who was waiting and she waited as the secretary took the news into Unter’s office.

“I don’t want to see him. He’s causing enough trouble...” The alternatives entered Unter’s mind. He could send Kaide back into the streets but to what avail? He could have him sit, polluting his foyer with his storm-cloud of a face depressing all who entered and Shelby besides. He could meet with the man and describe Kaide’s future in the most ferocious of terms. He signed and told his secretary to bring Kaide in.

Lester Kaide threw himself into Unter’s office, propelled by his certainty that his plan would succeed. He literally pushed the secretary out of his way. She protested but scurried out after breathing Kaide’s aroma. Kaide marched to Unter’s desk where the man was starting to rise.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Kaide?” There was no offered hand. Unter slid back into his chair and glared across his big, gleaming desktop.

Kaide came to a halt. He tried to return the glare but could manage only a look of a scared hare facing a hungry fox. He tried then to snarl but his voice sounded instead like a seagull’s screech.

“You have to support me, Randy.”

“Why would I?” Unter was surprised by Kaide’s effrontery. “You did this to yourself. You’re an asshole.”

“You have to keep me in my job. I built that place...”

Unter rose this time to his feet but stayed behind his desk. He kicked his chair out of his way and placed his palms on his desktop so he could lean farther toward Kaide. “You build nothing, you idiot. What do you think CIIA is? We built it, not you. You’re nothing.”

The rant ended when Unter wiped the spittle off his chin and pulled his chair under him again so he could sit. He thought he had headed off Kaide’s assault. He had not.

“If you don’t keep me, Unter, you’ll be sorry.”

“What in hell do you mean by that, Kaide?”

“You know what I mean. Your wife won’t like what I have to tell her, will she?”

The frightened look on Kaide’s face was pushed away by his effort to grin that showed a blackened molar at the rear of a mouth pulled tight in rictus.

Unter was nauseated. He turned away from Kaide until he was hit by the import of what Kaide said. His head swivelled back and his eyes locked onto Kaide’s. “What would you tell my wife, you son of a bitch?”

Kaide’s implication was blazingly clear. Kaide had been along when Unter made liaisons with women attending conventions or conferences. Unter had a reputation among his peers for drawing no lines when he was partying. What Kaide didn’t know was that Unter had a recent ‘Come to Jesus’ session with his wife Nora.

It began with Unter punishing his wife for some transgressions he couldn’t recall. He wasn’t a wife-beater; he was a demeaner, a man who used boasting as a weapon. He tried this approach with Nora to put her in her place by telling her about his trysts. To his surprise and shock, Nora recited confessions of her own. She had been as active as he had during their marriage. While he was gallivanting at far-flung meetings, she had been playing more than tennis with her coach and studying much more than interior decorating as she spent Unter’s money on redoing the entire house. In a monumental evening of mutual atonement, Mr. and Mrs. Unter had re-united. Randy Unter was bullet-proof when it came to accusations of adultery.

“You know. All your affairs. I can tell her a lot,” Kaide warned. “But, if you support me for another contract as president...”

Unter grabbed his cellphone and made two quick calls. He said twice, “Come in here.”

Two men came into Unter’s office. Each was dressed in a hand-made suit and each wore a tie worth many times as much as Kaide’s mismatched garb. Each was a partner of the firm and each of them played suicide squash almost daily with Randy.

“Get this piece of shit out of my office. Put him on the street where he belongs.”

Unter fixed his laser pupils one more time on Kaide’s wide and terror-stricken eyes. “You are out of CIIA. The board would have given you a year’s salary to get the hell out but, now, you get nothing. You’re lucky I don’t have you arrested.”

Unter waved at his men. Each took an arm and, not gently, led Kaide from Unter’s office. They steered him through the halls to the elevator and shoved Kaide in. They pulled him again through the lobby and left him standing on the street bumped by the bustling crowd of pedestrians. Kaide saw his car being ticketed by a parking control woman.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

It was a day later when the incident at Unter’s office was described in detail to Palmer by Jason Chambers. The now ex-board member took delight in the tale that he had been told by another board member who was an Unter ally. He took even greater pleasure in telling Palmer about Kaide’s severance. By contract, the board would have to award him with three months’ salary but this was a far cry from what he would have received if he had resigned instead of threatening Unter.

Chambers had called Palmer at CIIA. As soon as he disconnected from Chambers, Palmer turned instinctively to Sharon’s desk only to come face to face with Jamie. He was startled for a moment until he remembered Sharon had gone. He was now confined to the pit with Mavis, Jamie and the temp, Jennifer. He turned from Jamie and looked toward Thorpe’s desk. She was also speaking on her phone but Palmer couldn’t read the expression on her face.

Mavis Thorpe put her phone down and looked toward the hallway leading to Kaide’s office. Of course, it was no longer Kaide’s lair, it was only ‘the president’s’ office, whoever the president would be. Palmer guessed Mavis now knew what Kaide had done in Unter’s office the day before. She was, by default, the acting head of the association. He wondered if Mavis would see the temporary promotion as a long-awaited boon or as more work for which she would not be paid a fair wage. He wagered the latter.

Mavis stood up. Before she could move from behind her desk, Palmer went to her desk.

She looked up at Palmer. “Do you know what happened...”

He smiled with satisfaction. “How he tried to blackmail Unter yesterday?”

“My god. Who else knows?” Mavis was awestricken.

“I would think everyone who counts...” Palmer said before sitting on the edge of her desk.

“Mavis. I don’t think there is any point in me continuing to work here. I have a contract that ensures me of three months’ notice. I’ll take my three month’s severance and clear out so you can use my desk for...” Palmer gestured at Jamie, “... another one of those.”

Mavis thought about his offer. “Why should we pay you for three months if you’re not going to work?”

“Face facts, Mavis. I’m not going to do a hell of a lot of work anyway since you have to pay me. I don’t want to be here and you don’t want me here. Let’s just agree to part company and remain enemies.”

Her forehead wrinkled as she dropped her eyes to her desk. She raised her head and looked again down the hallway.

“Will you tell the media?”

Palmer faced her with the most innocent look he could manage. “Why would I?”

“You did, didn’t you? You got Kaide fired.”

Palmer’s chuckled. “I certainly hope so, Mavis.”

They negotiated for a quarter of an hour and came to an agreement. Palmer would leave the pit as soon as he cleared his belongings from his desk. That took less than three minutes. Mavis would give him a cheque within the week. Neither party would take any kind of legal action against the other. Palmer would not speak to media on behalf of CIIA or about Mavis Thorpe. Palmer was not surprised that he was left with freedom to say whatever he wanted to about Lester Kaide.

A phone conversation between Mavis and Laura Johnston solidified the arrangement - 12 hours before Laura’s term with the board of directors was due to end. Everyone expected Randy Unter would become the new Board Chair.

Palmer Pallister walked out of the CIIA offices a few minutes after his release by Mavis Thorpe. He drove his car to his rental apartment and parked. He couldn’t face his apartment so, for the next hour, he strolled. As he walked, he thought about the last months. He thought about the way he was reforming himself. Most of all, he thought about the people who had led him to change.

There was nothing that was spectacular in his reformation. He had been inspired by others, not by anything he had done or imagined he would do. He was moved by simple things done by ordinary people.

Jamal Shamon and his wife Farrah were refugees from war and want who had made a new and successful life in Canada. They had nothing when they came but now had two businesses and a house. They created a world of their own while Palmer created very little.

An 11-year-old boy named Carlos Ramos also came alone without parents and without resources, not money, not belongings, not a place to sleep or a place to learn. Now, he was being called intelligent and handsome and cheerful. He was a child and he had crossed a continent and a cultural divide. Palmer had no doubt the boy could make his way against all odds.

Monica Lawson devoted herself to a shelter for newcomers. She was a force that made so many good things happen.

Sharon had shared a great deal with him over past months but she hadn’t let CIIA or Mavis or Kaide rob her of self-respect. She had put up with what she had to in order to get what she needed to move on and forward.

A bully who took all he could while giving nothing had insulted Palmer, diminished him as a person and Palmer had done nothing for so long. Yes, Palmer had acted, finally, to fight back against Kaide and Thorpe but it took others to pave the way. Was that a bad thing?

Palmer’s meandering took him past Jamal Shamon’s barber shop. He wasn’t due for a trim so he walked past the shop window on his way home. He glanced in. He was astounded.

Inside the Shamon barber shop, Palmer saw Carlos. The boy was seated in the middle barber chair as he had weeks before on his first trip there. Carlos wasn’t getting a second haircut. He was laughing, his mouth open, his eyes filled with unbridled glee. Palmer had never seen the boy like this. He listened and heard the boy’s happy howls through the window. He imagined musical giggles of Farrah and the deep rumbles of mirth from her husband Jamal.

Palmer hesitated but couldn’t resist the curiosity that pulled him in.

“Palmer.” Carlos shouted as his friend entered the shop. The boy bounced out of his chair like an puppy and ran to Palmer. He threw his arms around the man’s body and hugged him as tightly as he could.

“Oomph,” Palmer grunted in the boy’s strong clutch. “You’re getting bigger and stronger, Carlos.”

The boy released Palmer and turned to Jamal who was seated in one of the two remaining barber chairs. Jamal had stopped laughing but still wore a huge smile. Farrah was sitting in her wheelchair in front of the row of customer’s chairs. She was also smiling as she watched the scene in front of her.

Carlos pointed at Jamal. “Jamal took us to see the judge.”

Palmer stared at Jamal in confusion. “The judge. Who is the judge, Jamal?”

“Judge DaSilva. At the University Avenue courthouse. He is a customer of mine. We went to see him this morning.”

“But why. Is Carlos in trouble?”

Farrah spoke out in a scolding voice. “Palmer. Of course, Carlos is not in trouble. He is the best boy in the world. Aren’t you, Carlos, my son.”

Carlos was seating himself back in the barber chair but he stopped and looked directly at Farrah. His face could have been a painting by Joan Miró; it had a surrealistic quality, caught between dreaming and the precision of reality. Palmer was entranced. He turned toward Farrah and saw the same magic in her beautiful face.

Jamal captured Palmer’s attention. “The judge listened to me and to Monica from the shelter. I said how much we have come to love this boy, this marvelous boy, Carlos. Farrah and I cannot have children of our own because...” he paused and cleared his throat, “... because of the war.” He waved his hand in the air.

“Monica told the judge that Carlos cannot stay in the shelter permanently. He needs a home. The judge asked if Carlos could go to a foster home and Monica said, yes.” Carlos looked at Jamal and frowned. “But,” said Jamal with a grin, “Monica went on to say the best thing would be...”

Farrah burst in. “The best thing would be to make us a family. Carlos could come to Jamal and to me and we could be a family.” She was crying with joy.

“The judge,” Carlos took over the explanation, “he said he could not approve an adoption like that. There would be a ... a...”

“Investigation,” said Jamal.

“Investigation,” repeated Carlos. “It would take time. But Monica said she had looked at the law. It said if I were 12 years old, I could tell where I want to live. If I had parents,” he paused but then continued, “I could decide to live with my dad or my mom. I would say which.”

Jamal’s deep voice was heard. “I said Carlos can say he wants to live with us. With me and Farrah. We would be so happy and Carlos would be happy.”

“And I,” said Carlos in a voice brimming with exuberance, “said I decide to live with Jamal and Farrah.”

“Except,” Farrah inserted, “Carlos said, ‘I decide I will live with my new mom and dad.’ I will remember this forever, even when Carlos is a man and maybe Mayor of Toronto.”

Giddiness overwhelmed the shop and made this utilitarian space into a palace.

“So,” Carlos summed up the story, “Judge DaSilva said he agreed and I can live with Jamal and Farrah as my dad and mom until they can adopt me. Then I will be Carlos Fernando Albert Ezequiel Ramos Shamon. Then, we come here and Monica went to the shelter. She will come tonight to our house,” Carlos beamed, “and we will have a party. You can come too, Palmer. You started all this for us.”

Palmer couldn’t speak but nodded his head. He felt something totally new. He felt a rush of love for this family, love overlaid with pride. Carlos was right, he had been an instrument in the creation of this family. It was a worthwhile act, this bringing together of three people of so different backgrounds and so similar experiences.

The new family and their now-forever friend spent a wonderful half hour in Jamal’s barber shop until customers began to fill the waiting row and the barber went back to his craft. Farrah and Carlos went out to her car; she had to prepare for the party. Palmer offered help but Farrah politely refused. He watched Carlos walking beside Farrah’s electric chair all the way to her car. The boy was walking erect and pleased, a son with his mother.

Palmer went home, showered and changed for the party in Scarborough that evening. He drove to Jamal’s barber shop and talked the man into skipping a long subway ride in favour of a ride in Palmer’s auto. The two chatted like old pals during the ride and arrived at the Shamon home in high spirits.

The two-bedroom bungalow on a quiet residential street showed lights in every room. The light was warm and perfect for a family as was the small, neat house. Palmer thought of how content Carlos could be in this house on this street. His school was as close to this house as it had been to the shelter where Monica Lawson worked.

Monica had walked to the party house from the shelter where she spent so much of her time. She was in the living room when Palmer and Jamal entered and Jamal boomed their arrival. “We’re here,” he said in his deep voice. “Let the fun begin.”

Carlos usurped the role of host at his own party. He was everywhere, chattering and singing and laughing. He was given a large, signed picture of Sergio Ramos, the star football, aka soccer, player and he was teary-eyed as Jamal hung the framed photo on the wall of the bedroom the boy had taken over before the party began.

“I will keep that here forever,” said Carlos. He went around his room pointing to places where he would hang other photos. Farrah motored around in her wheelchair and stopped in front of a long windowsill under the big window in the bedroom. It looked out on a small yard with green grass and a bordering flower bed.

“Here,” she announced, “is where my son will place all the trophies he will win. Here is his trophy for high marks in class and here, here, here and here, are his trophies for football and basketball and baseball and, the biggest, for hockey. You must learn to play hockey, Carlos.” A room with Farrah didn’t need lamps; she could light a city with her fire and melt the snows of winter with her warmth.

“Hockey?” Carlos frowned but not for long. He grinned. “Yes. I will play hockey and I will go to the Olympics for Canada.” Carlos turned to her. “Does it snow here?” Everyone laughed. Farrah clapped her hands.

As everyone filed out of the boy’s bedroom, Palmer noticed a small picture frame that had not been pointed out in the tour. The frame was on the small table beside the bed. Palmer moved to the table and took up the frame. There was a photo in it. It showed the signs of being folded at one time. It was of a man and woman standing against a wall that looked like raw plaster or adobe. They were smiling shyly.

“That was my parents,” said Carlos in a whisper behind Palmer. “Before...” He set the frame back on the table and turned. “I carried the picture in my pocket when I came from San Salvador. All the way.”

Palmer put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and they walked back to the living room.

As the party inside wound down, Monica and Palmer stepped into the backyard for a breath of fresh air and a respite from the happy noise. They looked up at the sky full of stars.

“What’s your sign, Palmer?” Monica asked the question with her eyes on the sky.

“Sign?” Palmer looked at the woman.

“Astrological. I’m a Leo,” she said.

“I don’t know.” Palmer had never delved into astrology, not because he didn’t believe in it, which he didn’t, but because he didn’t consider his birth date to be special. “I was born on September 30. What’s that?”

Monica turned her face to the man at her side. “Oh. You’re a Libra. That might explain a lot.”

“What the heck does that mean?”

She continued to look at Palmer and there was a sympathetic smile on her lips. “Look it up, Palmer, and ask yourself, what kind of Libra do you want to be?” It was getting chilly and they went back inside.

When Carlos exhausted himself and the party ended, Palmer said his farewells to Jamal and Farrah on the front porch of their house. It was a cool night and he didn’t want to keep the ecstatic couple outside without coats. The goodbye was quick but the affection was unmistakeable.

“You brought us a son we never thought we would have. You are a wonderful man, Palmer Pallister,” said Jamal. Farrah reached out and touched Palmer’s hand. He felt more complete than he ever had. Her touch seemed the last of one part of his life and the start of another. It would be a far better life; he just knew it would.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Mavis Thorpe was acclaimed acting president of CIIA at the next board meeting of the association. There was a bare quorum at the meeting - Randolph Unter and four other members. The rest, led by Jason Chambers, resigned to protest the forced resignation of Laura Johnston. None of it really mattered since the membership of the organization had been halved. Members with any sense had quit CIIA and were wondering why they had joined in the first place. Those dumb-as-oxen members who stayed would not pay enough to keep the place alive. The ascension of Mavis was a short-term appointment and she knew it.

She stewed in the brine of bitterness and betrayal until her hatred focused entirely on Lester Kaide. He was gone several months from the office she had assumed but she followed his trail. He sold his house in Mississauga and moved to a small abode in his hometown about an hour from the city. The abrupt sale and flight to rural climes showed Mavis that Kaide wasn’t as wealthy as she had thought. Like he did everything else to gratify his own desires, Kaide probably had spent his income - of which she was immensely jealous - on hedonistic pursuits.

What could she do in the time she had left at the helm of the fatally listing ship? Could she ensure the final demise of the man who had mistreated her so shabbily over the years. She thought nothing of how she had misused her own husband so intent was she on the punishment of Lester Kaide. She also thought nothing of Palmer Pallister since she hadn’t realized the extent of his undermining of her livelihood.

She took a drive, not to Kaide’s hometown, but to Orangeville. She visited the local newspaper in her temporary role as an association president planning to advertise for new members. She asked, after a visit to the advertising department, to speak with a reporter who might be interested in writing about her organization. That took her to Aaron Moore. Moore was a man in his early 30s who was bored to distraction with small town journalism. He was a perfect foil for the vengeful woman.

She spoke, for a time, about immigration advisers, leading him to believe he would receive nothing from her but another tedious story to expand her ad spend. She pivoted, however, to quite another topic, that of Lester Kaide and his hard, fast fall from a pedestal to the earth of rural Ontario.

Her recounting of Kaide’s exposure, his pathetic blackmail attempt and his resulting destruction painted Kaide as an arch villain. Mavis piled it on thickly and, by the time she left Orangeville, Aaron Moore was plotting coverage that could land him work at FOX News or the Toronto Sun.

Moore couldn’t get his editor to spend money on his scoop of the year. He called Mavis who sighed but agreed to purchase three surveillance cameras. At $100 each, the cameras could be mounted outdoors, left unattended for several days at a time and would record video to the Cloud from which both Thorpe and Moore could download results.

There was, of course, another problem as there always are with plots hatched quickly. It was now December and yellow flowers in abundance won’t grow in cold soil and zero-degree weather, even if they could be found at florists.

After scouring the Internet and with Mavis’ doubting approval - if he paid - Moore settled on poinsettias. The plants had superb red flowers and came in inexpensive, green pots that could be sunk a few inches into the dirt. Yes, they would die within days in the winter weather but it was an unseasonably warm December so they would likely live long enough.

Moore argued that the parents need not be informed. They had been through enough in past years, he said, and, anyway, might turn down the scheme. Mavis won the argument and the parents of the long-deceased couple were contacted. It was an anniversary of sorts and their thoughts were on their dead adult children crushed to death by Kaide’s drug-addled son in his 16-wheeler Collier company truck. They were eager to see the proposition put into action.

The excited but anxious reporter dipped into his own thin wallet to buy six poinsettias with their red blooms. He placed them on the double grave. Mavis paid a visit and complained in a later phone call that the plants were too meagre. Moore had conscripted a photographer at the paper and had to enlist his help in calming Thorpe. They assured her the plants would photograph well against the snowy background, even scattered here and there across neighbouring graves.

As could be expected, the first group of plants died in the cold over two nights. Moore blamed his own eagerness for embedding the pots into the graves a day before his first article appeared in his paper. The article ran on Page Three. It was a facing page but not Page One where Moore had wanted it placed. Because of his rush to publish, Moore had to replace the plants with his month’s lunch money. His live-in girlfriend refused to bail him out and he worried about the next step in his march toward a Jackman award.

Mavis, although it wasn’t her strong suit, was thinking ahead. Kaide had kept a company computer and his personal email address to which Mavis had access. She cut out and scanned the article and sent it, anonymously through an Orangeville library server, to Kaide’s email address at his house on the edge of his hometown about half an hour from Orangeville.

Kaide, unhinged by his downfall and his exile to the dilapidated house he now occupied, thought little about the source of the email with its newspaper item attachment. The item consumed the man.

’The parents of a married couple killed by a drunk and drugged driver a little more than a decade ago will try again to honour their adult children by planting yellow and white flowers on their double grave near Orangeville. Repeated previous plantings had been torn out by unknown vandals...

The article went on to tell of the lives and tragic deaths of the young man and woman when their car was destroyed by the truck driven by Kaide’s son. It detailed the way the graves were desecrated in subsequent years by someone who tore out yellow flowers planted over the adjoining burial plots. This year, the story read, red poinsettias were set into the ground to celebrate both the Christmas soon to come and to commemorate this greatly-missed couple. The story was illustrated by a file photo showing ruined flowers and clods of dirt strewn over neighbouring plots.

The story was, in journalistic parlance, a real tear-jerker. It drove Kaide, not to tears, but to blind, red-faced rage. He tore out flowers every year until, so he thought, he had taught a lasting lesson to the parents of the couple killed by his son’s truck. The flowers were back on those damned graves.

Do not blame my boy. It was not his fault. It was the doing of drug peddlers, of the brewers... It was not my boy and certainly not me. I did not teach him to drink and to use cocaine. I did not teach my son to be like me.

That afternoon in his roughest clothes, jeans plaid shirt, padded jacket, black gloves and black leather boots, Kaide drove out to teach another lesson. In his trunk, he had his weapons, a rake and shovel, He was off to fight for the honour of his long dead, miserable son.

Moore serviced the cameras and poured warm water into the pots of his ranks of poinsettias on the graves. He was back in his toasty office at the paper, idly watching the screen of his laptop. It would be dark in a few hours; he didn’t expect Kaide to make his raid in the dark and the cameras wouldn’t be useful then anyway. But, at least, the day was edging toward his supper time. His lunch-less stomach grumbled and he looked forward to his partner’s lasagna after his shift.

“God damn.” He leaned forward so urgently that his chair slipped back on its casters threatening to dump his rump onto the floor. He regained his balance and peered at his screen in disbelief. There was a man approaching the graves and he was carrying gardening implements. What were they? He had a shovel in his right hand and a rake in his left. But...

“Yes.” His hand came up, above the screen and down, slamming on the desk in front of his glowing laptop. “Got you.” The cameras worked, two of them, black and unnoticed in the trees near the graves where the red flowers bloomed and one looking like an ornament on top of an ornate tombstone only a few yards from the couple’s graves. That camera caught Kaide’s face in a frightening closeup.

Lester Kaide’s face looked like that of a demented person. His mouth with its thick lips slack showed a glimpse of ivory-coloured teeth. His eyes were wide but frenzied as he viewed the plants in their half-buried pots. He dropped his shovel and rake and began tearing at the plants and pots with his gloved hands.

There was no one else anywhere near the graves that were being ravaged. This wasn’t surprising in the rural cemetery that was seldom employed these days. Kaide wouldn’t have noticed anyone, in the state he was in.

Some of the pots resisted Kaide’s feverish efforts and, after ripping at the plants and flowers themselves, he picked up his shovel and began stabbing at the small shrubs and pots still left. He succeeded, in minutes, in wresting from the graves all of the commemorative plantings. He threw the plants and blooms as far as he could after pulling them from their green pots. He stamped with his booted feet on the plastic pots until they were shards pounded into the earth on the graves and their surroundings. What his son had done to the couple in the graves, Kaide did to the Christmas decorations. He crushed and mangled all. It was all recorded in the Cloud. The cameras did their jobs.

Moore called Mavis at her office in the strip mall and told her to go to the Cloud. He was in a hurry and couldn’t talk long. He had a story to write and had to tell his photographer to get video captures from the Cloud to publish in the next day’s newspaper. After all that, Moore would produce a post for his nascent blog and submit the entire video with his voice-over to YouTube. It was a cinch to go viral.

The parents of the dead couple received an email from Moore with a video attachment. They were asked to return emails with their quotes for his next article. The parents emailed their outraged comments back to Moore. When that was done, they phoned the local police department which passed the complaint on to the Ontario Provincial Police. Media attention to the arrest wouldn’t hurt the OPP image one little bit.

Mavis pulled down the video from the Cloud and spent an hour playing and replaying it. She couldn’t have wished for more.

The next morning, Kaide arose at 9 a.m. stinking of body odour and the smell of raw dirt. He had not bathed after his demolition of the gravesites the day before. He was alone and would remain that way. He didn’t care how he reeked or what he did. He had made sure no one would dare insult him and his son again. He fried his last three eggs and ate them with toast and weak coffee. Ripping out those flowers had felt good. No one else would know what he had done. That also soothed Kaide’s mind. There was a knock on the front door...

That morning, Palmer dressed in one of his two suits. He chose his best tie, a modest narrow one in shades of blue. He walked only six blocks to reach the tall building on a busy street in downtown Toronto. He took an elevator and a long hallway to reach a lobby with two-storey windows overlooking a spectacular view of the south end of the city and glistening Lake Ontario.

He was early for his first interview for a director’s position in a large public relations firm, a job for which he never would have applied before. As he camped out in the lobby of the public relations firm, he spent time watching the huge television screen behind the receptionist desk. He was dumbfounded by what he saw. The TV was tuned to YouTube and the picture on the screen was that of Lester Kaide. Palmer asked the receptionist to turn up the audio.

'... yanking out the flowers planted on the graves of a couple who died in a truck and car crash more than ten years ago. This is the latest of a half dozen incidents in which flowers on these graves were pulled out allegedly by this man. According to parents of the deceased couple, the accident that killed them was blamed by police on his son who caused the crash by driving drunk and on drugs. The vandalism was an attempt to wipe out memory of the crash. “That will never happen,” said one of the grandparents. Lester Kaide, 62, an unemployed, local man, has been charged with trespassing, public mischief, vandalism and destruction of property. He faces a hefty fine and up to two years in prison if convicted.' The voice signed off: ‘Aaron Moore, Orangeville, Ontario.’

The receptionist turned down the television audio. “You can go in, now,” the man behind the desk said to Palmer, his voice carrying across the swank lobby.

Palmer stood and smoothed his suit jacket. He took his eyes off the big screen and, as he did, the images of Lester Kaide and his rampage slipped from his mind, just like the downsides he had learned about his zodiac sign. Palmer didn’t need to be reminded of failures when he had a fresh start waiting.

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Sophia: Absolutely loved it. Just like the first one it's very good and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the after series.

Katha: I love the story! It was light and sweet and I love the characters. I am so happy with the ending. The hotel scene was just like in a romantic movie!

clinemax: Please finish writing the story

Vinz: Enjoying so far. Stepmother is a witch! She was probably angry that she no longer had a great hold on Alex after he married Eve, so she set her up. When do you update though.

Noeline: When are you updating, i teally can't wait...

neacsu: Loved it... Mostly the friendship and of course the love... Strange love... Good book📖😊🤗

Shyanne Frisbee: I loved this and I love your writing you make everything just pop and all the emotions are high I hope this one has a second one though so much more to explore ❤

Zeynep Esin: I liked the chapter

Katerina_2008: It was tooooo short (pouting)😥😥😥

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lauraw98: I loved this story I want more

Cj Tukana: Awesome story line right now...

Deign Pen: Very Interesting. I suggest you join NovelStar’s writing competition this April.

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