We Were Swans

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Christian

I'd lain there in the hospital bed, wired up to monitors and drips. Resentful and resented. I wasn’t supposed to be there. This wasn’t a cry for help from someone who’d wanted to be rescued. I’d gone way beyond that point. Rescue was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t want to be there and the nursing staff didn’t want me there. Hospital beds were in short supply and for sick people, not sicko’s. I was largely ignored, no friendly chit chat or cheerful enquiries. Maximum medicine, barely concealed disdain. That attitude softened slightly when word got around that I was that Tom Hood, Ellen’s father. That didn’t make me feel any better though. It just meant that I’d been in the papers again, for another wrong reason. They kept me in for 3 days while I was flushed out and interviewed, analysed. The analysis was lip service. What had led me to attempt suicide? Am I still suicidal? Had I had time to reflect? Desperate to get out of the place, out from under the microscope, I said enough to get me released. I’d come home from hospital, to no home. John had packed my stuff up and I could get it from the garden shed any time I liked. Just don’t knock on the door. I couldn’t blame him. I left it. There was nothing I wanted or needed. What I needed, was a quiet corner and a drink. I walked into a small hotel and went to the bar. I’d figure out where to doss down later. I ordered, sat myself down, sipped from the first one of the day and bowed to the inevitable. Taking my phone from my pocket, I thumbed through the daily must do apps. There was a whole bunch of unchecked emails. The usual bilge. Foreign women desperate for my body. Ugandans with financial offers too good to miss. Not much in way of ‘Get Well Soon’. Embarrassed friends, such as I had left, were keeping their distance. Joni Mitchell sprang to mind, ’They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed.’ I didn’t give a shit. I was the one looking at life from just the one side, mine. I snapped the phone shut and picked up my beer.

“Do you mind if I join you. Mr. Hood?” I glanced idly upwards, not caring who the interloper was or what they wanted. That changed when I recognised him, Peter Christian, The Father. Average height, darkish hair greying at the temple framing an unremarkable face. His expression was solemn. I knew he was about my age and a banker. Aside from the fact that he’d spawned two murderers, he could have been any man in the street. His clothes looked expensive and probably were. His wristwatch most certainly was. He was carrying a briefcase. That was all I took in.

I focussed back down onto my beer. “What the fuck,” I said thickly, darkly, “could you possibly want with me?”

“You won’t know unless you allow me to sit.”

‘What the hell.’ I thought. ‘Why not?’ I’d seen him a few times before. Once on TV and a few times in the flesh, during the trial. Not feeling much towards any other human being, his presence here meant little to me. That was all over, done and dusted. I didn’t have much left in the way of emotion either way so nodded once.

Removing his overcoat and laying it over the back of a chair, Christian put the briefcase on the floor, and sat down.

“We could never have pets, you know.” He paused. “We tried once, when they were very young. A puppy. It never reached maturity.”

I stayed silent. To be honest, I had no response anyway. Whatever I said would have been meaningless and probably make me appear stupid so I kept my mouth shut and let him continue.

’’That shook me up a little. I didn’t quite know how to react, what to do with them. It’s been that way ever since. I’ve lost count of the number of Nannies they had. Each stronger than the last and each unable to bear being near them. We were running out of schools to send them to. They do not mix with others and, well, they’re out, you know.”

I nodded. “Must be nice.” I said.

“I wouldn’t know.” He said. “As far as I’m aware, they are with my wife. She and I are separated pending divorce. Allow me to get straight to the point.”

His voice and accent were straight out of the 1950’s BBC announcer’s handbook. I was doing the whole nodding dog thing. I didn’t much care what his point was nor did I care about his problems. I just wanted him out of my face and to get back to my solitary drinking.

“5 years ago, after what happened, yours wasn’t the only life that changed…… I’m not suggesting that my recent experiences have been in any way on a par with yours but I need to give you some background.”

Nodding dog, again.

“I was, in a sense, an absent father, busy in the City, concentrating on my work and if I’m totally honest, aloof from the process of bringing them up. I’m not a terribly intimate man, never have been and I suppose I could have been considered more of an observer than part of the process. But some things I couldn’t help but notice.”

“The puppy being one of them?” It seemed to me that a dead animal stinking up the house should be something you might notice, no matter how distracted you were.

“Indeed… Yes... After that, I took to watching them, the way they interacted, their expressions, things I had perhaps been inconsiderate of or overlooking before. Watching them grow up or rather, evolve into what they became… even, in a sense, becoming fearful of them or what they seemed capable of, none of that prepared me for what they did.”

“To Ellen.” A statement. Not a question.

He lost some composure at those words. Her name. He paused briefly, then continued.

“There’s something in them Mr. Hood. I’m no psychologist or behaviourist but they had the ability to unnerve me, to give me an indefinable sense that these weren’t ordinary children. They have a fierce intelligence and appear to have no moral boundaries, or at least while they knew what they were, blithely ignored them. It’s as if they knew that no matter what they did, I couldn’t simply take them out and shoot them.”

That last sentence piqued Tom’s interest. Christian wasn’t apologising for them or offering excuses. There was bitterness in his words. Also, he’d said ‘I’ not we.

“And your wife?”

Christian’s shrug was almost Gallic. “I suppose ours was a sort of marriage of convenience, of conformity. We were from the same social sphere and it seemed like the thing to do. I’m not saying I’m blameless, Mr. Hood, but ours wasn’t a union made in heaven. She’s a human rights specialist you know. Uncovers, understands and exploits weaknesses mostly in systems but most profitably in people. She even managed to successfully challenge their being held in separate institutions. Unnecessary cruelty, mental hardship, an infringement of some human right or another. Not a care for the rights they deprived your daughter from enjoying… for what they did. If I have any excuse for what has happened, it might be that she understood me a little too well. Try as I might, I can’t help but feel that my weaknesses were exposed and my strengths manipulated. Had I paid more attention, perhaps I’d have seen things a little clearer and none of this would have happened.”

Tom had some inkling of what was said. During the trial, he’d seen Mrs. Christian in lawyer mode as part of the defence team. Every harrowing detail of Ellen’s ordeal had been listed, discussed and he made sure he left the courtroom for this, viewed. All of the ‘what happened’, none of the ’why’s?’ Every legal avenue that could be employed or exploited was brought into play. All of it designed and used for the benefit of their defence and welfare. It had been billed as a ‘happy, slappy’ incident, a craze that had originated around 2004 in the UK, where random but organised attacks on unsuspecting victims were filmed and shared, that had escalated. So that made it ok then. No it fucking didn’t. That presupposes that these attacks are acceptable and a valid defence if it all goes horribly wrong. It also assumes that this was the original intent rather than the prelude to a more premeditated, pitiless and sinister agenda. A classic case of the legal system being manipulated until the defence compromises and distorts the truth to the point where the simple difference between right and wrong is lost.

“You know about their condition?”

‘Who didn’t?’ Monozygotic twins. Like the rest of the planet, I’d had to look it up. I’d never even noticed that identical twins were always 2 boys or two girls, not that I’d ever had contact with any but it just hadn’t occurred to me to even think about it. Before the trial though, I’d had to. Identical or to give them a scientific definition, monozygotic twins are either XY chromosome, two males or XX, two females, never a boy, girl combination, this is because they form from a single zygote, the zygote being the cell that results when an egg and sperm combine. Identical twins are the result of a single zygote splitting in two instead of remaining a single entity and becoming what will always, always be a pair of girls or boys, unless… for some unknown reason, an XY zygote which would normally split and develop into identical twin boys, during the splitting process one twin loses a Y chromosome and develops as a female. It’s a genetic mutation. The female may usually, but not always, suffer from Turner Syndrome, this leads to shorter than normal stature and a lack of ovarian development. The female can’t reproduce, which in this particular instance, worked for me. Since records began, depending on whose numbers you believed, there had been less than ten cases where identical twins, sharing exactly the same DNA, had been born as brother and sister. I looked, researched, pored over pages and pages of scientific studies but nowhere, not in one single instance had this mutation resulted in psychotic kids. There were issues, for sure, but they were physical, not mental. But that wasn’t how Mrs. Christian had played it.

He took my silence as acknowledgement.

“It was cynical and shameless the way she used that, offering them up as victims somehow suffering their way through life. Unfortunates misunderstood by society and alienated because they are unique. She stage managed everything. Dressing them, coaching them, ensuring that the one thing no one saw, was a fair trial... blocking anything that might have led to the whole truth. Their guilt was, of course, never in doubt. What she did though, ensured that there would be no adequate punishment. Just, it seems, a few years of education and understanding. Madness. Utter madness.” Christian sat, his head shaking slowly from side to side.

I’d seen them in the dock. Scrubbed, polished, immaculately presented. Alert and attentive, showing contrition and even managing tears when required. I hadn’t believed any of it, neither had the tabloids. Investigative reporters had trawled through The Twins back story. The puppy was news to me but staff that had passed through the Christian household had stories to tell, none of them adding gloss to The Twins CV. But the law can only deal with what’s in front of it and how the case is presented. The verdict was justice, of a sort, the 20-year sentence seemed to reflect that. Subsequent events, The Twins rehabilitation and insertion back into society after only 5 years... Mrs. Christian had foreseen that. She knew the system alright. It worked for The Twins but in the process, had failed Ellen.

“Do you know she billed me for defending the children?” Christian paused, his voice lowered, as if in shame. “I paid it and moved out. I haven’t been back and have no intention of doing so. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back into that asylum. She is a woman who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing and the children, well… living with them was unnerving, to say the least. I honestly think she saw it as one of her greatest triumphs. The twins were not shown to be evil, a threat, as they should have been. She knew their history probably better than I did. They came out of it punished, yes, but not culpable. It wasn’t their fault. They were young. It was a prank that went wrong. Unbelievable. Do you know neither of them smoked?”

Tom didn’t. The cigarettes and lighter found on the twins were portrayed as their own. They’d used them to torture Ellen. “No. Is that important?”

“Think about it, Mr. Hood. They don’t smoke. There was only one purpose in taking cigarettes with them... to inflict harm. Knowing just that tiny detail would have changed people’s perception of events. There was so much more that she was able to neutralize or have removed from evidence.” Christian let that sink in.

“Your wife knew about the cigarettes?”

“Of course. Yet she couldn’t see beyond the need to show them in a false light, even if it meant hiding what we both knew to be a basic truth. Their actions were inhuman, they are inhuman, yet she found a way to deflect opinion away from that simple fact. I can say with some certainty that they planned it, they did it and it’s my belief they don’t for a single moment regret it. To them, the gratification was what it was all about, and they are older now, wiser, less naïve and if anything, more calculating than ever. They’re not going to change, I don’t believe they would if they could. Today, the risk of them doing something similar, well, that risk doesn’t simply remain, it’s heightened.’ He left the sentence hanging. ’I’m just going to get myself a drink. Would you like one?”

Head nod again. Beggars can’t be choosers. In anticipation, I drained my pint while waiting for the fresh one. My guess is that this interlude was orchestrated to elicit some thoughtful response from me. I didn’t have one. When he returned with the drinks, I raised mine in acknowledgement and waited him out.

“Some days ago, Mr. Hood, I received a visit.”

I looked across at him, his tone had gone from the matter of fact to one tinged with sadness, perhaps even a hint of fear.

“My doorbell rang. I don’t often get visitors, I’ve led a fairly solitary lifestyle of late and don’t advertise my whereabouts, in fact I can’t recall having heard the doorbell before. Any meetings I have tend to be by appointment and off piste, so to speak… It was them, the children. With hindsight, I’m grateful that I didn’t invite them in.”

He had my attention now, I’d not had a first-hand account of them since the trial and was curious to know what, if anything, had changed.

“There were niceties at first. You might even have imagined that it would have been some kind of tearful reunion but something told me this wasn’t so. As I said, Mr. Hood, I’ve grown wary of them.”

“And?”

“It seems I was justified. I’m really not very good at pretence and my reluctance to engage with them at any level was, it seems, quite apparent. Once the smiles dropped, any notion that this was a social visit was soon dispelled. They’d come for money. Their inheritance, they called it. They didn’t even give me the benefit or courtesy of making it a request. Once the preamble was over and they’d seen my reaction to them simply being there, it swiftly developed into demanding money with menaces, to paraphrase legal jargon… I have a week, it seems, to put things right, as it was said to me.” He paused, taking a drink. This seemed to settle him and he continued.

“That isn’t going to happen, Mr. Hood. I gave them some assurances and what little cash I had in the house simply to get rid of them but the kind of money they want from me… well, I simply can’t empower them that way. They are young adults now. Bigger, stronger, much cleverer, even artful, perhaps craftier might best describe them. No, they’ll get nothing from me.”

He let that thought hang in the air before changing tack.

“More often than you might imagine, financial investors require the use of professional security services. Prior to winding up my firm, I’d had occasion to invest in unstable or even unsavoury regimes or individuals. It’s quite normal. But risk assessment and monitoring isn’t something within the purview of financial institutions, which is when you call upon such organisations. As a general rule, these are ex-servicemen. SBS and Royal Marines to deal with piracy and the like, SAS for exotic locations and personal protection. I have two of the latter with me now. One drives me, the other follows. Not cheap but comforting, to say the least. They are outside now, one at each entrance, apparently. I leave the technicalities to them. They’ve been with me since that visit.”

My surprise was evident. I glanced at the one door in my eyeline but couldn’t see anyone. “You feel that The Twins are that much of a threat?”

“I don’t just feel it, Mr. Hood. I know it. Deep in my bones I know it.” He sat quietly for a moment before continuing. “You’ve lost your job?”

I resented what seemed to me to be an intrusion. “I think, Mr. Christian, you already know the answer to that.”

“Yes. Yes, I do.” He paused while he took a quiet drink from his glass. Red wine, I noted. “You are owed more than an apology, Mr. Hood. Nothing I could say or do will ever express my horror, revulsion or deep sadness regarding what happened.” Christian paused briefly. “But I had to do something and once I’d thought deeply about what that should be, it seemed to me that there really was only one thing I could do, given my abilities in specific areas.”

Another pause, while he drank from his glass. “Over the years, I have, in one way or another, made a great deal of money. Since the incident, I ceased trading… at least professionally, closed my offices and have been slowly liquidating my assets. My car is leased. I no longer own my own home. I rent.”

“Comfortably, I suppose.” I said, a trace of sarcasm evident in my tone.

“Quite.” He replied, unmoved. Making money was his business. He was, I’d heard, very good at it. The conversation had moved from the personal to the professional and his confidence had returned.

“Currently. I have in excess of 14 million pounds at my disposal. Most of it cash on deposit.”

“So?” I queried.

His next words were, to say the least, something of a surprise. It was a good job I wasn’t drinking from my beer at the time, we’d have both been wearing it.

“Half of that is yours. Yours to do whatever you want with. Available immediately.”

While maths isn’t my strong point, it took a fraction of a second for the figure to hit home.

“7 million quid?” I had to work hard to get the words out.

“Plus some change.” He replied, evenly.

“I don’t want it.” I have no idea why I said that. Perhaps my instant reaction was that it was blood money. Either way, I said it, despite the rush of adrenalin those figures had created.

“I thought you might say that.” Christian replied softly. “But you don’t have a great deal of choice I’m afraid.” He continued. “After what the children did, I knew that I had to do something to make amends. I couldn’t change the past, but I could help to change the future. Everything I’ve done from then to now was with that in mind. When I closed down my firm I opened another, more private affair, with you as a partner. Over the course of the last 5 years, we’ve done very well.” He paused. “I know what happened recently, Mr. Hood, your hospital visit. I was hoping for a nice round figure but now would seem to be the most opportune time to step in, as it were. I’m exceptionally good at what I do Mr. Hood. I know about money, how to make it and how to make it grow but most importantly, how to do it legally. This money is clean, it’s yours, it’s exactly half of all I have in the world and it’s the least I can do. Additionally, in the event of my demise… accidental or otherwise, whatever remains of my estate is bequeathed to a foundation I’ve been busy setting up. One thing is absolutely certain, my children will never inherit a single penny. You’ll find a copy of my will in here.”

He picked up the briefcase and set it down by my feet.

“Everything you need to know is inside. As I said, Mr. Hood, it’s up to you what you do with it. You can give it away or carry on doing what you’re doing and try drinking it. Good luck with that.”

Christian stood and picked up his overcoat.

“You’ll find a mobile phone in there.” Christian nodded at the briefcase. “There’s only the one number on it, the security firm. It will be answered day or night and they don’t observe holidays. As you now know, my divorce is imminent. At some point in the future, all of my financial details must be declared to my wife or her representatives, unfortunately, that will include our brief partnership and your share in it. I hadn’t anticipated the children’s visit or their aggressive demands. Had I done so, perhaps I’d have been less candid when setting the business up. This money may cause you some problems, Mr. Hood, problems I hadn’t foreseen. When my wife becomes aware of what I’ve done, it would be wise to assume the children will know shortly after. They may well feel a certain sense of entitlement, of having been cheated. If they get that into their heads, there is a degree of risk in simply being you. With that in mind, I’ve taken the liberty of giving my security contacts your details, or at least, those I have. The mobile is a direct link to them. Clearly, given recent events, they already know something about you and have indicated a willingness to help. Should you feel the need, I urge you to call them.” Christian walked towards the exit. “I doubt that I’ll see you again, Mr. Hood. I’m booked to fly out this afternoon.”

“Where to?” Tom asked, with too much on his mind to think of anything else to say.

“Somewhere peaceful, quiet, restful. Somewhere as far away from this country as I can get. We’re both entering a new beginning, Mr. Hood. I’d try to make the best of it if I were you.”

As he was leaving Tom called out, “What if I decide to go after the Twins?”

Christian turned at the door and looked Tom square in the eye. “The world won’t miss them, Mr. Hood.” He paused, as if for effect and then continuing slowly out said softly, “Neither will I.” The door closed behind him, ending the meeting.

God knows how long I sat there, the briefcase a mute reminder of a surreal half an hour. Remembering what was supposed to be in it, the keys to 7 million quid, I hooked it over with my foot and nestled it beneath my chair. That wasn’t enough, I needed to see inside and so leaned down and pulled it onto my lap. Snapping open the locks, I opened it. On top of a bunch of paperwork I saw the mobile. Picking it up, I checked the contacts list. Just the one number. Christian’s spooks. It was fully charged. Putting that to one side, further rummaging revealed papers, statements and the like, I started to study. It probably only took 10 minutes but at first glance, they bore out everything Christian had said. It was there, a shade over 7 million pounds sterling. In a variety of accounts, all bearing my name. In the lid of the briefcase, in tailor made pockets, were a variety of credit cards, again bearing my name. I matched them to accounts in the paperwork and saw my credit limit. I swallowed. Not thinking too hard about the morality of accepting this largesse I stood, unsteadily, it must be said, went to the front desk and checked myself in. Going up to my room, the first and only thing I did, was to hit the minibar.

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