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Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Ties That Bind – Part VI

Chapter 6 – To another Shore

In which the always fascinating Juldeh Holland travels to a distant land and crosses paths with the irrepressible Jesus Shuttlesworth

And now, all in my own countree,
I stood on the firm land !
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.

`O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!'
The Hermit crossed his brow.
`Say quick,' quoth he, `I bid thee say--
What manner of man art thou?'

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale ;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns :
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land ;
I have strange power of speech ;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach.

-Excerpt from Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Juldeh was deep in thought, pondering the existential reality that was his life, and he was feeling a twinge of fear. He knew that most people never really knew the meaning of fear. The thought of change could induce a cold, clammy fear in even the most hardened of people, but this fear was foreign to him. Juldeh had always prided himself on having mastered his fears. He'd had no choice. His father had always being strict and had impressed upon Juldeh the importance of stoicism in the face of adversity and the futility of fear as an emotion. His father had been somewhat distant and strict, and it had being his mother who he'd been really close to. Nevertheless, the lessons he'd learned from his father had stayed with him throughout his short life so far. They'd kept him alive. They'd kept him on an even keel. They'd kept him from getting caught in the undertow of despair and loneliness. But, it was getting harder and harder to maintain any amount of stoicism or calm, especially in the face of all the recent chaos in his life. The second law of thermodynamics had to be obeyed. Disorder ruled the day in his world. He was in uncharted waters, and was sailing blindly into the storm.

Juldeh looked around at the luxurious interior of the Air France Boeing 747 plane. It was idling on the tarmac waiting for the go ahead before it could take off. He had flown numerous times in his younger days, and had never felt anxious before, but he was feeling anxious now. Before his brothers had been born, his parents had taken him on most of their business trips. They'd travelled to most West African countries and a few countries in Europe and Asia. He barely remembered most of these trips, but he vividly remembered the last two they'd taken to Tokyo and Amsterdam. Those had felt less like business trips and more like vacations. He had been given free rein in the hotel while his parents were away. Those were some of the happiest memories that he had. He had been truly carefree, and so had his parents. They had not been consumed by work, and had had more time for him and each other.

The plane started to taxi down the runway and Juldeh gripped the arm rest tightly. Eventually, he gathered the courage to look outside his window. The view of the rolling hills, brilliantly blue water below and soft wisps of white clouds was breathtaking and calmed him down, but only a little. Eventually, his thoughts drifted back to his parents. He'd had so little time for introspection the past few years of his life. He'd been focused only on survival.

Eventually, the smooth motions of the plane as it soared majestically through the sky, and his daydreams about the new life he was flying to, lulled him into a deep sleep. He woke up to see the Flight Attendant standing over him. His mind involuntarily flashed back to the last time that had happened, and he reflexively jerked backwards.

"I'm really sorry about that, sir," she apologized profusely. "I'm a bit new at this."

"No need to apologize, I'm sure it was an accident," Juldeh replied good humouredly. "Just promise me you won't do that again."

She blushed prettily, and Juldeh took a closer look at her. She was beautiful in an understated sort of way. Her hair was blond, and done up in a quite severe looking bun. Despite the old fashioned hairstyle, she barely looked older than he did. She had a sharp, equine nose and high cheekbones, but her most striking features were her eyes. They were a deep, piercing blue, and they seemed to stare right through Juldeh and into his very soul. He was staring mesmerized when she extended her hand and said "I'm Natasha. It's nice to meet you."

He shook her hand and replied, "the pleasure is all mine. My name is Juldeh."

"Juldeh? That's an interesting name," she replied.

"I was born with it, and it's served me well so far." She laughed at that and he continued. "You know, I've always wondered. What is it like being a flight attendant?" he asked.

"Some days are better than others, like today."

"Something interesting happened?" Juldeh asked with a smile.

She said nothing, but she blushed a deep, fierce red, and Juldeh's smile got broader.

"I have to get back to work, but after I'm done serving lunch to the passengers, you should come to the crew quarters. It's just past the bathroom on your right. We could talk more there."

"Maybe I will, Juldeh said finally after a period of deep thought."

He leaned back expansively in his chair as she returned to her tasks. Flying first class was certainly the only way to fly. He didn't know how Stella could afford the ticket, and in all honesty, he didn't care. All that mattered was that she'd kept her promise. The two weeks they'd spent in Abidjan felt like ages ago, but he had to admit that he'd had a good time with her. Despite her coldly brilliant and focused exterior, he'd come to realize that she was actually a funny and charming person.

They'd stayed up late at night, playing chess games, and he hadn't been surprised when she'd beaten him more often than he'd beaten her. She'd told him about her plans for her future. After reuniting with her mother, she planned to travel the world extensively. She never spoke of Wednesday during the two weeks, and she'd shaken her head and smiled her enigmatic smile when Juldeh told her of his plans to find his brothers and then when possible travel to London to meet Nella.

The flight lasted 16 hours in total, but it felt like minutes. After the flight attendants had finished serving the passengers, Juldeh had made his way to the crew quarters. Natasha had introduced him to the other flight attendants and he'd spent the rest of the flight with them. They had a plethora of interesting anecdotes and tales of far-off countries; places he'd only ever read about; places he wasn't sure he would ever see; places where wonders and magic came alive. He'd said very little about himself, and that had only seemed to intrigue them even more. He wasn't trying to be mysterious, but a combination of his difficulty in articulating his story, and his certainty that they wouldn't believe him made him reticent. Despite this, he'd still enjoyed their company. He'd hoped the flight would last forever, and he'd felt a pang of loss when the pilot had announced over the intercom that they were making their final approach. After the plane landed, he'd slowly walked out into the cold April air with his bag slung around his shoulder and Natasha's phone number and email address in his pocket. She'd asked him to give her a call at any time. He doubted he'd ever see her again, but it never hurt to have friends in high places.

The air was balmy and moist as he stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac. He glanced at the watch that Stella had given him. She'd said it was her gift for her role in disrupting his world. He didn't want to take it. He felt too beholden to her as it were, but she'd insisted to the point of embarrassment and he'd been forced to acquiesce.

It took him far too long to get through customs and immigration. It took all the willpower he had to keep his cool, but eventually, he got his brand new, faker than a two dollar bill British passport returned to him and he made his way carefully and without haste to the pickup section. As he approached the gaggle of people and cars milling about, he saw a short, wiry, stocky man holding a sign with his name on it. He was standing beside a black Crown Victoria, the kind only law enforcement ever used and as Juldeh approached, a flash of recognition fluttered through his big, brown eyes. Juldeh confidently strode up to him, stuck out his hand and said, "Jesus Shuttlesworth, I presume?"

The Ties That Bind – Part V

Chapter 5 – Friends and Enemies or Keep Your Friends Close

In which our indomitable young heroes discover how deep Wednesday's rabbit hole goes, and must deal with betrayal as they attempt to bring Wednesday down.

    Juldeh woke up to see the grim visage of Stella looming over him. He let out an involuntary scream, and she clamped her hand around his mouth. He wrestled himself away from her.

    "Jesus Christ, don't ever scare me like that again."

    "Glad to see you're finally awake. I don't have much time for tarrying. What is your decision?"

    "Not so fast," he said forcefully we're going to have to sort out a few details first."

    "You're not really in a position to be bargaining, you know that?"

    "Just hear me out. First, you do realize what a risk I'm taking here, don't you? Before I agree to whatever you have planned I need assurances that you'll help me relocate. I don't really care where, just as long as it's not here. And I'll need you to help me track down my brothers."

    "Trust me. Everything is taken care of. I'm the girl with the plan and you just have to follow my lead."

    "That's not all," Juldeh continued. "There's someone else I'll need you to help me find. She should be easy enough for a person like you to track down. She's the only daughter of the ambassador to London. I made a promise to her, and I intend to keep it.

    "Three things: first, what do you mean a person like me? Second, I'm not a miracle worker, and third, why does there always have to be a girl involved. Forget about her. The only people you owe anything to are your brothers and yourself."

But Juldeh was adamant, "I gave her my word, and I always keep my word."

"If she really cared about you, don't you think she'd have tried to contact you already? Or maybe get you out of this hell you've been in the past few years. She's probably shagging some bloke as we speak."

Juldeh knew she was trying to wind him up, so he remained silent, but she continued.

"You can't let a blind idea of love rob you of rational thought. Ever heard of the legend of the Viking Prince? It's a cautionary tale of the dangers of passion and obsession.

In Scandinavia, early in the tenth century lived Prince John, the greatest warrior of his era. His adventures were epic as were the legends that grew around his exploits. On a frozen battlefield, Prince John, sole survivor of a bloody war, its purpose lost to time, met a valkyrie, a messenger from the Norse gods, sent to escort the souls of fallen heroes to their reward in the halls of Valhalla.

Impossibly, they fell in love, and swore their hearts to each other. But Odin, King of the Norse gods, discovered their illicit affair, and enraged, banished John from Valhalla. The Viking Prince pleaded with Odin for mercy, begging to be allowed to remain with his love. Odin agreed, saying that if John died a heroic death, he and his love would again be united for all eternity.

But Odin was a crafty god-and cruel, and before exiling John gifted him with invulnerability to harm from fire, metal, wood and water. The Viking Prince soon realized that he would never die a hero's death, because no weapon on earth could slay him. He trekked boldly across a troubled world in search of adventure and an honourable death, growing ever more distant from humanity.

Eventually, weary of the endless fight for justice, and despairing in his loneliness, he sailed North, beyond the boundaries of the known world, and passed from the knowledge of man."

Juldeh was unimpressed. "Great story, but I've made up my mind."

"Is any of this getting to you? She asked incredulously.

"No, it really isn't, but thanks for trying."

Finally she acquiesced. "I'll do it, but in return, you have to follow my every instruction. I've got all my equipment upstairs. Follow me. I'll tell you the plan when we get there."

Over the next hour, she meticulously detailed to Juldeh the proposed sequence of events. The plan was certifiably insane, and Juldeh bluntly told her so. She smiled her enigmatic smile and replied "the only way to outfox a fox is to be foxier than he. Trust me, everything will be fine. We leave for my father's office at 11:00 pm. It should be dark enough at that time. Till then, you should probably rest, and I'll be here meditating. Please do not disturb me."

Juldeh took that as his cue to leave. He closed the door softly behind him, but not before taking one last look at her. She was in the stereotypical Buddhist pose on the floor, with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed. "You're still here, why?" she asked with her eyes still closed.

Juldeh hurried downstairs. He was tense, and there was no way he could sleep or do anything except watch the minutes drag by until it was showtime. All he could do was lie on his bed and think about all the ways this could go horribly wrong, how it could all come crashing down around him. She would probably be fine. She seemed like the person who could get herself out of any situation, but knowing his luck, he'd spend an eternity doing hard labour in the worst prison Accra had to offer. Eventually, weary from his thoughts he fell asleep and when he woke up, Stella was standing at the foot of his bed, again.

"You really have to stop doing that," he said.

    She had two sets of clothes. One was a dark tracksuit and the other was a business suit.

    "It's almost time. You remember the plan, don't you?"

    "Yes, I do," he replied testily.

    "Good," she said. "Here you go, wear the tracksuit over the business suit. It'll make you look larger than you are. It'll be harder for you to get identified that way."

    She was talking in the clipped, harsh tones of a drill sergeant, and Juldeh wondered what else about herself she wasn't telling him.

    She left him to his task and he went about it methodically. First he donned the dark tracksuit, then the business suit, and finally the black, rubber soled running shoes. He went upstairs and saw her dressed in a sheer black, body hugging dress. She had a tote bag that contained her dark army fatigue pants, a black shirt and rubber boots. She threw it at him and he expertly caught it.

    "Keep your eyes in your head, lover boy. I'll change once we get to my father's office. If we get spotted before then, we'll just be a couple out on the town." She looked at her watch. Okay, from now on, we're on the clock. Stay sharp."

    After shutting off all the lights, she threw the car keys at Juldeh.

    "Here, you drive. It'll be less suspicious that way."

    The first part of the plan involved getting past the security guard without arousing his suspicion. As they drove up to the outer gates, Stella rolled down her window and smiled sweetly at the security guard.

    "Kofi, I'm taking Juldeh for a night out on the town. Don't expect us back any time soon, if you know what I mean." She winked at him as she said that.

    Kofi smiled broadly, showing his rotted, yellowing teeth. "Yes, Madam. I'll tell Boss when he comes home." Lucky boy, he thought. I would give up my eye teeth to have a night with the boss's daughter.

    "Dirty old man," she said disgustedly when they were out of earshot. "I see how he's been looking at me. I oughta cut his nuts off."

    "You really are your father's daughter aren't you?" Juldeh replied. She shot him a look of cold fury which chilled Juldeh's heart and nerves. He tried to concentrate on his driving, but there was a quiet terror simmering in his heart. The streets seemed so foreign, so desolate, and so empty at this time of the night. Everywhere he looked, there were shadowy figures lurking. He felt like he was driving blind, but instinct told him he was on the right track.

    "OK, we're almost there," Stella said with a quiet edge in her voice. "Park a few streets away from the office. We'll walk the rest of the way."

    As Juldeh parked in an abandoned lot a few kilometres from the office, he noticed out of the corner of his eye, a police officer on foot, making his rounds. He signalled to Stella, but she had already seen him. The police officer was about a foot from them when he felt her wrap her hands around his head and pull him into a deep kiss. He saw what she was trying to do, and so he surrendered himself to her kiss.

    The officer shined a flashlight into the car, and they pretended to be startled. He saw what they were up to and ruefully shook his head. He'd been a kid himself, and he knew the allure of forbidden love. They're probably sneaking behind their parents' backs. Poor kids. He shut off his flashlight and walked away.

    When they were sure he'd left, they disengaged from their embrace.

    "Sorry about that," she said.

    "Don't be," he replied.

    "OK we're back on track. Now take off your clothes."

    He arched an eyebrow at her. "You know what I mean," she said playfully.

    "Of course." He took off his outer layer of clothes.

    "Now be a gentleman, and look the other way,"

    Juldeh looked away, and started counting to a 100. Before he reached 50, she had already completed her transformation.

    "Wow, that was fast," he said incredulously.

    "I took a few theatre classes. Trick of the trade. The game's afoot now my friend."

    They got out of the car, and slowly and methodically made their way to the high rise building that Wednesday's office was located in. They took up a reconnaissance point across from the high rise building and carefully watched. Juldeh had told her that there weren't normally any security, but she'd wanted to make sure. They waited for an hour in the cramped alley until she was sure there weren't any guards, and then they purposefully made their way to the bilding.

    She intentionally tripped the alarm while Juldeh covered her, and then they faded back into the shadows. After five minutes, the same officer they'd run into previously pulled up in his police car. He got out and looked around. After about 15 minutes, he spoke something into his communicator, and drove away.

    Stella felt elated. Her plan had worked. They'd intentionally tripped the alarm in the hope that the officers and the alarm companies would assume it was another false alarm from animals or pranksters and shut off the alarm, and just like she'd hoped, the officer had then sent word to the alarm company to shut off the alarm. It was highly irregular, but it happened more often in security services than most paying customers would care to know.

    She walked up to the security keypad at the entrance and took out a tiny device from her tote bag. It looked like a large cell phone, but it had a cord dangling from the end, which she connected to the keypad. She furiously typed on the number pad, until the red light blinked twice, turned green, and the door silently opened.

    "Where do you get all these wonderful toys?" Juldeh whispered. They walked into an expansive lobby with giant rainbow colored koi fish swimming in a pond. Juldeh walked over and stared plaintively at the Koi. Stella turned around and hissed at him, and he regretfully walked towards her.

    Juldeh led the way to the 14th floor. It was quite a long walk up the stairs, but they couldn't risk using the elevator. Wednesday's office was located on the south side of the floor, and they quietly walked up to the door. Stella took out a set of lock picking tools from her tote bag, and she fiddled with the lock until it popped open.

    "Ladies first," she said as Juldeh walked through the door towards Wednesday's personal office. Finding the files was easy enough for Juldeh. He knew exactly where they were, he'd just not being foolhardy enough to ever try to read them. He did now though and what he saw betrayed Wednesday for the monster he truly was. According to the meticulous records, Wednesday had been working as a building contractor for the city of Accra, building schools, hospitals and roads. Of course, he wasn't remotely qualified for the task, but his forged papers said otherwise. The buildings were being built with not only substandard materials and workers, but with absolutely no regard for safety codes. He'd used cheap materials, and pocketed the extra money after accounting for a few bribes to get inspectors to look the other way. If what Juldeh was reading was correct, three schools and two hospitals were going to be opening within a few months. These buildings couldn't withstand a violent sneeze, and they would certainly come crumbling down on whoever was unlucky enough to be inside them.

    Wednesday was also planning on creating false geological readings that showed the presence of oil off the Ghanaian coast. After setting himself up as a middle man between the government and Western businessmen, he planned to set up a dummy corporation which had all the oil leases in Accra. When his shareholders saw the geological readings, the price of the shares would skyrocket and when the shares were at a sufficiently high value, he would cash out his shares. By the time the terrible truth came out, he'd be long gone, leaving Juldeh to take the fall. It was an ingenious ruse, bold in its simplicity and daring in its brazenness.

    He showed the documents to Stella and she gave an involuntary whoop of joy.

    "We have him now. All we have to do is photocopy these documents, mail them to the proper authorities, and he'll spend the rest of his natural life in jail."

    Juldeh had just finished photocopying all the documents detailing Wednesday's sordid plans when he heard the office door open and saw Wednesday stroll in with a Magnum .38 revolver in hand. Their best laid plans were about to be completely shredded. He must have had a personal connection to the alarm system, and this made sense giving his extremely paranoid nature.

    Juldeh crawled on his hands towards Stella's position and through a combination of gestures and hushed words, he managed to impress upon her the seriousness of their situation. Her eyes filled with fear, but soon that was replaced with steely determination. She reached into her tote bag and took out a .45 caliber handgun. Every time Juldeh thought she couldn't surprise hin anymore, she went and did something like that.

    "Plan B is in effect, my friend," she said with a small smile on her face. "We either both stay here, and get picked off, or we make our escape."

    Juldeh nodded, put the documents in the tote bag and the two of them crawled slowly towards the exit. They were maybe three steps away from freedom when they heard the click of Wednesday's revolver.

    "You two can stop crawling around like the dogs you are, and face me like the rats you want to be," he said menacingly. "And I think I'll take your gun m'dear."

    They stood up slowly and to Juldeh's great surprise, Stella walked confidently up to her father with her gun at her side.

    "This isn't what it looks like, daddy," she said. "I'm still on your side."

Juldeh was dumbfounded. He'd been double crossed, again.

    "Don't do this Stella," he said desperately. "We had a deal."

    "Shut up, boy," she said harshly to Juldeh. To her father, she said "daddy, this was all to prove to you that I'm the only one you can trust. I'm the one who should be your apprentice. Look how easily he betrayed you, and have I ever given you any reason to doubt me."

    Wednesday laughed his deep booming laugh.

    "You've always been full of many surprises, but I wasn't born yesterday, girlie. You're going to have to do better than that. Much better."

    Juldeh felt like he was trapped in a cosmic tug of war. Whatever happened, this wasn't going to end well for him. He was the only one in this Mexican standoff who wasn't armed, and he was starting to feel very vulnerable.

    "Do you want me to prove my loyalty daddy? I never turned you in after all you did to me growing up, didn't I? Wasn't that enough? You want me to do more. Well, how's this for you?"

    "Oh Crap," Juldeh said. He should never have trusted Stella, or anyone in this crazy family. He was about to die and in the most ignominious of fashions.

    "Sorry, Juldeh, blood is thicker than water."

    Stella walked to Wednesday and stood by his side. She raised her gun and pointed it at Juldeh casually. He instinctively took a step back and raised his hands in surrender. Juldeh tried to bargain his way out of it, but she was having none of it. She took out a silencer from her tote bag, screwed it on the barrel, and unlocked the safety mechanism. Wednesday also had his gun trained on Juldeh and this prevented him from being able to make a move. It had all come to this. He was staring death in the face. He said a small prayer and apologized to his brothers and Nella. He had failed to fulfill his promise. He would never see them again, but he resolved that if he had to die, he would die with his dignity intact.

    "Just make it quick, you back stabbing piece of..."

The gun barely made a sound when it went off but Juldeh looked down at the red spot slowly spreading on his chest. It didn't hurt as much as he thought it would. He slumped to the ground. It was so cold, and then there was nothing.

    Wednesday laughed again, a deeply menacing laugh that chilled Stella's blood.

    "I misunderestimated you, my little star. That was one hell of a con you just pulled. I didn't even see that coming, but like I always tell you even a pawn can checkmate a king."

    Wednesday took a last look at Juldeh's broken body, turned his back to Stella and began to walk towards his office. She walked softly behind him.

    "Remember what you used to tell me about the two man con daddy?"

    "Yeah, that it's better than any one man con ever could be."

    "No, not that, the other thing."

    "I'm not sure, why don't you refresh my memory?"

    "You told me that the best two man con is one in which the second person doesn't even know they're a part of it."

    "Of course. Poor kid never saw it coming. I had a soft spot for him, but like you said, blood is thicker than water."

    "Do you know what you are in this con, daddy?" she asked sweetly

    "The puppetmaster" he replied arrogantly.

    "No, you bastard, you're the mark."

    Wednesday turned sharply, but it was too late. The butt of the gun caught him in the base of his skull, and he crumpled into a heap on the floor.

"That's for ruining my childhood, you sadistic monster, and where you'll be going, you better hope you don't drop the soap."

She hit him a few more times, to make sure he stayed down, took out a pair of handcuffs, chained him to his desk and then she rushed worriedly to the front of the office where Juldeh was sitting up with a pained expression on his face. She smiled her enigmatic smile at him and said.

"The old rubber bullet and fake blood trick. Works like a charm every time."

"I don't know how we pulled this off, but that was some plan, although a heads up would have been nice. Oh, and remind me never to get on your bad side."

He gingerly got up and looked her squarely in the face. They were in this together now till the bitter end. After all the crimes he'd just committed, he had no choice but to continue with the rest of it.

"So what do we do now, partner-in-crime?"

"We execute the rest of my plan, our plan."

And so they did. After making sure Wednesday was still alive, they tied him up more securely, removed all traces of evidence they'd been there, and calmly, and without haste walked out of the office building and disappeared into the night.

They spent the night in a dingy motel under false names, and when morning came, Juldeh used the payphone in the lobby to report a break in at the office building, while Stella mailed the damning documents to the police, and every newspaper and TV station in Ghana.

Two weeks later, they smuggled themselves into Ivory Coast using Stella's forged documents and booked a flight for Paris. In the newspaper they were reading, they saw a picture of Wednesday looking worn and haggard in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackles. According to the article, his trial was due to begin in a month, and the general consensus among legal experts was that this was going to be one of the most sensational trials in Ghanaian history, not because the outcome was in doubt, but due to the egregiousness of the crimes. The authorities were still searching for the anonymous whistleblower that had exposed the crimes, and there was even talk of giving this person or persons unknown a key to the city in absentia. According to the editorial, "they were a shining example to the rest of the country that corruption and avarice can be defeated by the actions of only a few."

Stella smiled and looked up at Juldeh. The past two weeks had being such a whirlwind for both of them, and they were only now beginning to climb down from the adrenaline high. They'd also grown very close during this time, but they were about to part ways. She was going to France to reunite with her mother. She had begged him to join her, but he politely refused. He knew what his destiny was, and it wasn't with her. He'd come to admire her tenacity, her resourcefulness, and most of all, her fierce loyalty. But he'd made a promise to his brothers and to Nella, and he would fulfill his promise, even if it took him the rest of his life.

The boarding call for the Air France flight to Paris sounded over the PA system, and she got up reluctantly.

"That's my cue. I'm really going to miss you, you know that?"

"I know," he said softly. "I'll miss you too."

She embraced him and kissed him softly on the lips, a chaste kiss with a hint of a deeper meaning. She'd promised herself she wouldn't cry, but the tears had a life of their own as they cascaded down her cheeks. She hugged him tightly again, and then slowly walked toward the plane, towards her destiny and out of his life forever.

Juldeh walked back to the airport hotel with his hands in his pockets. In one hand was the name and address of Stella's family friend in London, Ontario who had promised to be his guardian. In the other pocket were the addresses of his brothers and Nella Owusu. It had taken him two years, and more twists and turns than a mountain road, but he was closer than ever to fulfilling his destiny. The sun was shining brilliantly as he walked through the beautiful streets of Abidjan. His flight left tomorrow, and now that he was this close, he felt a bit of apprehension. He had seen the true face of evil. He had faced it and never once given into despair. No matter what happened to him, he knew he had God on his side. He knew that destiny – would be his friend.

The Ties That Bind – Part VI

Chapter 4 – Wild Cards

In which our gallant young protagonist adjusts to life with Mr. Wednesday, gets introduced to the one and only Stella, realizes that first impressions aren't everything and discovers the explosive truth about the man called Wednesday.

The days crawled by, like sand through an hourglass, as Juldeh grew accustomed to life with Mr. Wednesday. Despite Wednesday's obvious wealth, he did not live an extravagant life. His house in Medina was modest, but compared to Juldeh's previous accommodations, it seemed to be a mansion. It was an old-fashioned two storey red brick house with shuttered windows and a drooping roof. However, the fact that it was enclosed in an eight foot high electrified fence with a permanent guard at the front gate gave some inkling as to the owner's importance, or paranoia, Juldeh wasn't sure which. There was also the maid who came in twice a week to clean and prepare meals. She only came once a week now, and even then, only to clean because Juldeh had been insistent on taking over her cooking duties. He was happy to do it. It was the least he could do to repay Mr. Wednesday's generosity. The fact that he liked to cook and it reminded him of the simpler times in the kitchen with his mother, well, that was simply a bonus. There were three rooms. Wednesday and his girl of the week used the master bedroom upstairs and Juldeh had quickly snapped up the basement room despite its smaller size compared to the others. He craved the peace and quiet. It gave him time to think and Wednesday's paramours tended to be on the loud side.

Wednesday had arranged for Juldeh to attend a private school called the Prince of Peace Academy. The school billed itself as one of the first self-directed learning centres in Accra. The only thing that meant to Juldeh was that he didn't have to go to school every day. He could work at his own pace and was able to get a lot more accomplished without the tedium of sitting in classes. Even then, he still liked being at school every now and then. He felt at home, like he belonged. It was a strange feeling, and one he was still trying to get used to. His teachers were very impressed with him, but then again, he'd always found adults easy to impress. They'd tried to recruit him into the school chess team, but chess was not as important to him anymore. Wednesday had gotten him interested in classical music, and he'd been painstakingly trying to teach himself how to play the piano. He'd improved by leaps and bounds since he started, but he wasn't quite there and so all his free time was spent on the grand piano that Wednesday had installed in the basement.

Juldeh was concentrating intently on the piece he was playing when he heard Wednesday coming down the stairs. Juldeh wondered which woman he'd be with this time. Wednesday had an almost magical ability to charm people, especially women. He was not especially good looking, and was notoriously stingy, but that did not seem to matter. They especially were intrigued by his glass eye. He remembered the last time they'd gone out to lunch with a few of Wednesday's colleagues. Wednesday had shamelessly flirted with the waitresses, despite them being half his age. To Juldeh's great surprise, the two waitresses had reciprocated and wrote their numbers on the restaurant bill as they'd handed it to him. He didn't quite understand it, and had been too mortified to think hard about what actually transpired. Despite this, he still liked Wednesday. Wednesday had treated him like an equal from the minute they'd met. He had also been nice enough to give Juldeh a job as his personal assistant. He only had to go into the office twice a week, but it at least gave him something to do. Circumstances had forced him to grow up much faster than his peers, and he just didn't feel comfortable among people his own age. He was trying to work on that, but he still needed some time.

"Hello, m'boy," Wednesday said. That was another affectation of his-the need to call everyone son, or m'boy or chap, despite all appearances to the contrary. "That was some meal you cooked up last night. Almost too good to eat, almost." He laughed heartily at that and his glass eye shimmered and twinkled like it had a life of its own. Juldeh didn't really like small talk, but Wednesday was enamored with it, and so Juldeh had to remain patient as Wednesday took his merry time getting to the meat of the matter, which he finally did, but not before regaling Juldeh with a pointless tale of his time in Taiwan. He might have said something about a "pretty little hotel girl", but Juldeh was not paying any attention.

"You're not going to be able to help me in the office tomorrow, son. Stella, my little girl is going to be spending her holidays with me. Her mother finally loosened the apron strings, you see? I'm going to need you to pick her up from the airport. I'd have asked Kofi to do it, but she specifically asked for you."

This was a surprise to Juldeh because other than the first time they'd met, Wednesday never talked about his family. It was almost like they didn't exist, and he was curious as to how she even knew who he was, much less enough to ask for him to act as her chauffeur. These were the times he realized how little he truly knew about Wednesday. Like what he did for his job, and how he managed to have so much money without really seeming to work hard for it at all. These questions percolated in Juldeh's mind, but he'd never voiced them, for fear of offending his benefactor.

"It's no problem – It'll give me a chance to practice my driving skills, sir."

"Good man, I'll see you two when I get back from my business trip next week. Take good care of my little girl." And just like that, he was gone.


 

The next day...

    Traffic was bloody murder. He'd been cursed at, had seen more middle fingers than he could shake a stick at, and he'd almost been killed, and this wasn't even taking into account the quality (or lack thereof) of the roads which hadn't made the trip any better. He finally arrived at the airport in one piece, and he said a silent prayer of thanks. Wednesday had told him to wait at the arrival section, and she'd be there to meet him, so that's what he did. The sun was beating down on him, and eventually, the heat, coupled with the emptiness in his stomach and the monotony of waiting lulled him to sleep.

    He was woken from his slumber by a knock on the passenger window. He looked up at the interloper and frowned. She certainly couldn't be Wednesday's daughter. She was dark, but nowhere near as dark as Wednesday. Her skin was caramel coloured, and she looked to be at least in her late teens. She had soft curls, and they framed an angelic face. Her eyes were a dull yellow, and looked almost catlike. The effect was rounded off by her soft, full lips and pert nose.

    "Go away, he grumbled, I'm waiting for someone." The stranger laughed at that, a soft, mocking laugh and this just aggravated Juldeh even more.

    "You idiot – you're waiting for me, unless you're not the Juldeh I've heard so much about. I'm sure my father would be happy to know that you made his only daughter walk all the way from the airport. My bags are right here, you can put them in the trunk," she said imperiously.

    "You can do that yourself, I'm no one's servant," Juldeh replied testily.

    "Oh, you're a feisty one, I like that. Now unless you want to stay here till the end of eternity, you'll get out of the car and put my bags in the trunk."

    Juldeh looked her squarely in the face. She wasn't joking. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this. He reluctantly got out of the car and put all six of her quite heavy suitcases into the trunk. It required some creative arrangements, but he finally managed. His Tetris skills had come in handy after all. By the time he got back into the driver's seat, she'd made herself comfortable in the back seat. Now he really felt like a chauffeur. He wondered how long she was going to be staying, but no matter how long it was, as far as he was concerned, it would be too long.

    They drove in silence. Neither one was willing to show weakness by being the first to speak. All the way home, they sized each other up. Juldeh glanced surreptitiously at her in the rear-view mirror, while she stared at him quite blatantly with a crooked smile playing on her lips. He felt like a deer being sized up by a mountain cat and was quite intimidated. She surprised him by speaking: "Do I scare you, chess boy?" she asked teasingly.

    "Not at all," he replied flippantly.

    "Oh really, then why are your hands shaking?" She laughed again, a deep throaty laugh that Juldeh found appealing despite himself.

    "You're so serious," she continued. "I love it. I don't think we've been introduced. My name is Stella. What do you say, we start from scratch? I don't think I made a good first impression. I'd like to remedy that.

    Her new found amiability unbalanced Juldeh even more. He didn't quite know if she was being serious, or was just playing another one of her games.

    "Well, it seems like you know more about me than I do about you. Story of my life, really, and are you sure you don't have another name?"

    "Like what?"

    "Oh – I'm not sure, Saturday, perhaps?" She laughed again at that and smiled broadly showing dazzling white teeth.

    "I didn't know you fancied yourself a comedian? Does this mean my father still goes by his ridiculous moniker? Saturday does have a nice ring to it, but you can just call me Stella, and I promise I won't call you chess boy anymore."

    "I think we can both agree to that," Juldeh replied. Despite himself, he was enjoying the verbal sparring. Juldeh pulled into the security gate, typed in the security code and drove into the compound. He was exhausted, and after showing Stella her room and helping her get settled, he retired to the basement. He tried to muddle his way through playing Beethoven's fifth symphony, failed miserably, gave up and went to bed, where he slept the kind of deep, dreamless sleep that can only come when one's mind is at peace.

    The brilliant morning sun streaming through his window and the sound of sizzling pots woke him up the next day. It wasn't like Wednesday to cook. He scampered upstairs, where he found Stella cooking up a storm. He'd almost forgotten about her, but after one look, he knew that he would never make that mistake. She was radiant, and the sun shining behind her gave her an almost angelic appearance. She was dressed in dark trousers, a pink camisole and a beige cashmere sweater vest.

    "Good Morning, Juldeh. I hope you don't mind my making breakfast," she said cheerily. "It'll be ready shortly. There's some tea on the pot if you want some."

    Juldeh helped himself and sat down at the intricately designed dining room.

    "No, I don't mind. It is your home after all," Juldeh replied. He sipped his tea pensively as he silently watched her go about her business.

    "I heard you playing yesterday. You're a boy of quite a few surprises, aren't you?"

    "Well, if the surprise is how bad it was, then yes I am full of surprises."

She laughed a full throated laugh and smiled a brilliant smile in his direction. She looked good when she smiled. She looked assured and self-possessed, and refined to the point of elegance.

    "Don't sell yourself short."

Juldeh was starting to warm up to Stella, despite the fact that she was 2 years older than him, she made him feel like a contemporary not to mention, how entertaining she was as a conversationalist. She was deft with words in a way that reminded him of Nella. He shook the thought out of his heard as he saw her approach.

    "Breakfast is served, French Toast with Honey Pecan sauce, and Bacon and Egg stuffed Pitas. Dig in."

    Juldeh didn't need to be told twice and he went at it with gusto. She watched him in awe as he shovelled down mouthfuls.

    "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or repulsed," she said teasingly.

Juldeh grinned apologetically and replied, "I'm sorry, it's just that this is one of the best breakfasts I've ever had."

    "Then I'm flattered," she replied with a twinkle in her eye. "I have some business to attend to, but after I return, you and I need to have a little chat."

    Juldeh's pulse quickened at that, but he quickly calmed himself and nodded his assent. She excused herself and Juldeh gazed at her retreating figure as she got into the car and drove through the fortified gates. What she had to do, he wasn't sure, but he was still curious. He banished the thoughts of her, and began contemplating what the day held for him. It was a beautiful day for a run, so that's what he did. When he returned an hour later, Stella's car was parked in the garage, but she was nowhere to be seen. He spent the rest of the day practising the piano, and diligently doing his lessons. He managed to finish almost an entire week of work before he heard the door open.

    He arrived upstairs to see Stella pacing restlessly. She was muttering to herself, but Juldeh could barely hear what she was saying: something about "events being far gone, truth being the only option." She looked up with a start when she saw him standing there. She rushed toward him and put her hand on his shoulder.

    "Juldeh, I haven't been completely honest to you about why I'm here. I thought I had more time, but my father's plans are at an advanced stage, and he must be stopped. Events are unfolding beyond my control. We have to leave."

    Juldeh stared aghast at her. The heat must have fried her brain. Things were going great as far as he could tell. For the first time in his life, he was settled. There was no way he was leaving. He tried to reason with her, but she was having none of it.

    "You don't understand, we'll be in grave danger if we don't leave. Right now!"

    "We're not going anywhere, until you give me some answers," Juldeh folded his hands and stared resolutely at her.

    A gamut of emotions flitted across her face before she finally resigned herself to the fact that he was serious. "OK, I'll tell you everything," and so she did. She led him to the couch and motioned for him to sit down, which he did. She took a deep breath, and launched into her story.

    "My father, the man you call Wednesday, is not what he seems. In fact, he is nothing but a conman, a swindler, a crook. He's been that way since I've known him, and I suspect he'll always be that way. My parents met in Taiwan. He went by the name James Van Jones at the time. My mother was a poor hotel worker, and he was a supposedly a rich businessman. He swept her off her feet, lavished her with expensive gifts, and convinced her to leave Taiwan with him. She refused to do so, until she realized she was pregnant with me, after which she was ostracized by her parents.

    But the dream that he'd sold her was nothing but a mirage, a smoke screen for his latest scam. He was rich, yes, but he was no legitimate businessman. He used my mom as a contact for his shady deals selling defective merchandise in the Chinatowns in New York. He threatened to harm me if my mother ever left him, and so out of fear for my life and hers, she remained in that awful situation. And as I got older, he began using me as cover for his scams. It was a terrible life. We constantly had to move around the US as his shady busines dealings went to ground.

    Unbeknownst to my father however, my mother had been siphoning off some of his ill-gotten gains into a private account, and after I turned 16, she planned to escape with me, but my father got wind of her plan. She escaped, barely, but she was forced to leave me behind. We've been clandestinely keeping in contact, but her fear of my father is greater than her love for me.

    After my father left for Accra, I saw it as my chance to leave him forever. Everything was in place, until he casually told me about the boy he'd adopted – you. I learned of his plans to make you his apprentice. Like he used to tell me when I was your age 'The two man con works a lot better than the one man con ever could.' The only time my father and I ever bonded was when we did cons together. He taught me everything he knew and tried to initiate into the family business. I rejected that path, and now he's looking for someone else. His paranoia however won't allow him to get an equal partner. I'm trying to spare you such a fate.

He did know your mother and I know he's carried a torch for her ever since he met her. She was probably the only woman he ever loved. Her rejection of him and subsequent marriage of your father was perhaps the driving force in his ultimate rejection of honest living. What he probably never told you is that the reason they parted ways all those years ago was because he refused to give up his life of petty crime. He simply moved on to more sophisticated swindles. I knew then, that I could never live with myself if I allowed someone to suffer the way I did growing up. I wasn't even sure I could follow through with my plan, but after I met you, and seeing what a great person you are, I decided that it was my duty to do whatever I could to help.

    Juldeh looked sceptical. "That's crazy. Do you actually expect me to believe you?"

    "Of course, after everything I've told you, I would expect you to ask for some proof. Lucky for both of us, my father is an unbelievable narcissist. So much so that he actually named himself after the King of the Norse Gods, and he's also an obsessive diarist. He's kept a journal since before I was born in which he meticulously details all his crimes and aspirations. I learned of its existence a year ago and I've been using the entries to anonymously inform the authorities about his crimes. That's why he had to leave the US. But like the sociopath he is, he can't, or won't stop. He just moves and continues the whole sordid process in a new location."

    She took out a small digital camera, and showed Juldeh the pictures she'd taken of Wednesday's Journal. They looked fairly legitimate, and he could recognize Wednesday's neat cursive script, but after the events past two years, he just couldn't bring himself to trust anyone, no matter how earnest they seemed.

    Juldeh felt like he'd been hit by a sledgehammer. He felt like a passive observer in his own life; like he had no agency to actually affect his destiny; like a supporting character in the lives of others; like a pawn in a cosmic chess match.

    "Give me one good reason why I should trust you. Everyone I thought I could trust has turned out to have an ulterior motive. Why should I trust you? Maybe the devil I know is better than the angel I don't. Maybe I'd rather stay with Wednesday. After all, he's been kind to me, and well, maybe I'm using him as much as he's using me."

    It was then that Stella played her trump card, the one card in her deck that could actually give her a chance to gain his unqualified trust. She went upstairs to her room and returned with a thick envelope, covered in bubble wrap.

    "Here, take this. If you don't trust me after you see what's inside, then you're not the person I thought you were."

    Juldeh carefully removed the bubble wrap and tore open the envelope. Inside was a stack of letters, paintings, drawings and pictures. The letters were addressed to him, and they were from his twin brothers. In the letters, they innocently wrote about their lives, and in the pictures, Juldeh could see that the years had been much kinder to them than they had to him. Tears welled in his eyes as he flipped through picture after picture of them frolicking in snow covered fields, sitting on a yacht with their adopted parents and playing soccer and basketball. The final picture was the most heart wrenching. It was a picture of the twins playing a piano/violin duet. They looked so serious, yet their eyes were filled with such passion.

    "How did you get these?" Juldeh asked after an interminable pause.

    "Believe me, it wasn't easy. It required a degree of subterfuge, a con if you will. It also cost me a lot of my own time and money, but I did it for completely altruistic reasons. That was the last con I'll ever be a part of, and I did it for you. That's why you should trust me. I'll give you tonight to think this all over, but tomorrow you either say yes, and we execute my plan to take down my father once and for all, or you say no, and I take you down with him. Believe me, when you see what he has planned for you and the city of Accra, you'll wish you'd never met him, and you'll be glad to have me around. I'm the only one standing between you and the yawning abyss of utter hopelessness that could be your life. Good night."

    She turned smartly around and walked up to her room, leaving Juldeh alone with his tumultuous thoughts. He wasn't sure what the right thing to do was, but if what he'd seen in the diary was true, Wednesday was a truly sinister character who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. How could he have been so blind? He'd been so obsessed with the future and fulfilling his promises to his brothers and Nella that he'd almost forgotten about the present. Wednesday had promised him that he'd help him look for his brothers, and he'd suppressed the angel on his shoulder who'd been voicing his misgivings. He would never make that mistake again. He knew that sleep would not come easy tonight. He didn't trust Stella, but she could be useful to him. He had to come up with a plan for the aftermath of whatever insanity happened tomorrow. He wasn't sure of the right course of action, but no matter what happened, he would still fulfill his destiny. Of that much, he was sure.