The Colour of Sunday Afternoons

by

Robert Gollagher

Copyright © Robert D. Gollagher 1998

www.robertgollagher.com

Draft Y

It was a perfect suburban morning. The rising sun painted the big city of Metropolis gold in the glow of dawn. On Berwick Street, Jane Hamilton’s small house was silent and peaceful. It was a charming timber home, with a tulip patch in full bloom out front, and a white picket fence.

But the silence was shattered by the scream of an electronic alarm clock. Jane came suddenly awake. She wiped sweat off her face and stared restlessly at the ceiling – she had just had another nightmare. It was something about her house being on fire, but she couldn’t remember the details. She had been having a lot of nightmares, lately.

Jane staggered out of bed.

After a hot shower, she inspected her pale face in the mirror. Her blue eyes were bloodshot. She had worked until two in the morning the night before. Sunday night. Jane groaned. How she hated Mondays! She brushed her auburn hair and put on a little make-up. Soon, Jane looked the part of the perfect young businesswoman, in a smart beige suit and a white blouse.

She had her breakfast on the coffee table, scooping up print-outs of the computer program she had been working on the night before, as she ate, and stuffing them into her briefcase.

A few minutes later she was in the company car, pulling out of the driveway and turning onto Berwick Street, in search of a clean run to the freeway. Another day had begun in the modern life of Jane Hamilton.

 

Hewitt University was a busy place on Monday mornings. Jane drove quickly into the main parking lot, swung into an empty bay, and a moment later was marching toward the old Administration Building. Her business suit was out of place in the sea of jeans and T-shirts around her; hundreds of students were making their way between classes, joking with friends and enjoying the warm spring morning. Reaching the imposing stone building, Jane pushed open the heavy wooden doors and strode quickly down a maze of corridors until she reached the Registrar’s Office.

She knocked sharply on the door, and entered.

Neils Eriksson was not exactly her favourite customer.

Eriksson sat behind his impressive desk and waved vaguely at the chair in front of him. “Ms Hamilton. Please.”

Jane sat down. Eriksson glanced quickly at his watch, as if expecting storm troopers. Jane decided she had better get straight to the point. “Mr Eriksson. You’re having trouble with your Datafile system?”

Eriksson had a face like granite – grey, hard and not something you wanted thrown at you first thing in the morning. “Look. This university has over twenty thousand students. Do you know how many requests we get for academic records in a week? In a month? In a year? When we have computer trouble, the whole thing grinds to a halt. It’s a problem we simply can’t afford; your company is supposed to have fixed it.”

Jane replied calmly. “Mr Eriksson, we have spoken about this before. There is a simple solution.”

“You’re going to tell me to buy new computers? Funding is tight, Ms Hamilton. The high-flying departments get the money: Nuclear Medicine, not the Registrar’s Office. That is, unless you can get me a bigger pie.”

Jane sighed. “Your biggest problem is the software. The company that wrote it left a lot of bugs in the program. When the system hits one of those bugs, it crashes.”

That company, Ms Hamilton, is out of business, which is why we hired Infosolve in the first place. Last Friday was the second time this month the system’s gone down.” Eriksson rose from his chair. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet! Come with me, if you will.”

A little surprised, Jane got up and followed Eriksson. A short walk further down the twisting corridors brought them to a small office. The door was open, and it was marked: Isabella Giovanni. Chief Clerk.

A young woman was sitting in the untidy room, frowning at a small computer screen. The office was jam packed with books, papers, and stacks of computer magazines which towered perilously in every corner.

Eriksson walked in. “Isabella. Can I interrupt you? This is Jane Hamilton, from Infosolve. I’d like you to talk to her about our Datafile problems.”

The young woman ran her fingers through her dark hair and fixed Eriksson with a steely glare. “We’ve met,” she said gruffly.

Jane smiled, but not so much that Eriksson would notice. “Yes. Hi. We ... met last month. Isabella’s the one who suggested upgrading the server in the print shop. Have you been happy with the results, Mr Eriksson?”

“Well, it does seem to be an improvement.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Jane, trying not to sound triumphant. “So, Isabella, do you expect the Datafile system to crash again?”

Expect it?” Isabella threw her hands up. “I know it! This thing will be down again within the month. It’s like clockwork.”

With the self-confidence that comes from long experience dealing with difficult clients, Jane decided to take control. “Mr Eriksson, I don’t think we need to talk further about this. It’s obvious your software’s inadequate. What if I could put in a new program which would handle your existing requirements without crashing – would that be a worthwhile investment?”

Eriksson looked bewildered. “Yes, it would, but I don’t see how we could afford ...”

Jane cut him off, much to the amusement of Isabella. “As a matter of fact one of our best programmers, Steven Swift, just finished a package for Eden University, last year. It’s been running without a hitch for six months. We could have it in place for you in, say, six weeks. You’d get another two or three years of use from your existing computers, at a fraction of the cost of buying new hardware.”

Eriksson glanced at his Chief Clerk, whose face seemed to be twitching with mirth. “Well, I do have a limited capital improvement fund. I’m sure it would cover the cost of new software, but wouldn’t it be cheaper to patch up the program we already have?”

“Mr Eriksson, if I could, I would, but the fact is that old Datafile program is an industry dinosaur. It’s going to be quicker and cheaper to put in a new program, and I have one of the best programmers in the country to do it for you. What do you say?” Jane knew she had won.

Eriksson scratched his chin. Isabella’s eyebrows rose in amazement as her boss finally spoke. “Well, Isabella,” he said dryly, “I think we should go ahead with Ms Hamilton’s suggestion. Thank you, Ms Hamilton. We’ll hold a meeting next Monday morning to discuss the procedure. First thing.”

Isabella shrugged. “Okay. Right. Nine o’clock sharp. I’ll round up the troops and make sure everyone’s there.”

Her boss turned and left, leaving Isabella and Jane alone in the tiny office. The normally vivacious Italian was a little lost for words. Finally, she laughed. “You know, Jane, around here, we call him Erik the Viking. I can’t believe you got him to bury the hatchet. Maybe you’d better tell me about this new program.”

Jane sat down, with a smile. “You bet,” she said.

 

 

Jane focussed on the hands of her expensive wristwatch. She had left Hewitt University an hour ago. Now she was about to walk through the glass doors which led the way to Infosolve Software Solutions, the company she had worked at these last three years. It was only ten o’clock – not bad going, cross-town through peak hour traffic.

She pushed the doors open and strode into reception. Grace Le Mesurier, radiant as always, smiled broadly from behind the counter. Jane mused that Grace was wasted here; she could make a fortune in modelling. In her twenties, she was elegant, African, and self-assured. She had the tall good looks of a Nigerian.

“Hi, Grace,” said Jane, with a little wave.

“Hi, Jane. You look happy. What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” said Jane. “Only I finally got Eriksson at Hewitt to upgrade his software. His Chief Clerk nearly kissed me!”

Kissed you?!”

“Calm down,” said Jane, with a frown. “Her name’s Isabella.”

“Oh. You know, all work and no play makes Jane a dull girl. When are you going to find a nice man?”

Jane held up her hand like an angry traffic cop bringing an errant driver to a screeching halt. “Grace! I’m perfectly happy single. And if I have to sit through one more fishing story with one more pot-bellied lawyer, I’ll go mad! But when someone interesting shows up, I promise, I’ll listen to your advice.”

“Well, that’ll be a first. Anyway, Boss Man’s been pressuring Steve again. Speedy spent the night under the desk, in a sleeping bag.”

“Again?” Jane shook her head. “I know Speedy loves his work, but this is ridiculous. So what if he’s the fastest programmer in the west? He still needs to sleep. Michael should know better than to turn the screws on him.”

“Michael?” Grace steepled her hands and rested her chin, leaning lazily forward on her stool. She was quite an imposing figure behind the high reception counter. “Jane, Michael’s been tightening the screws so long he’s forgotten how to do anything else. The man’s not seeing straight.”

Jane nodded. “I know, Grace. Magnificent Michael. Well, Head Office will want him, sooner or later. He won’t be here forever.”

“Speaking of The Great One, he wants to see you in his office, ASAP.”

Jane winced, theatrically, and walked off down the corridor toward the programming room. When she arrived at the large chamber, she cast an eye over its neglected pot plants and familiar desks. The space was sliced into individual work areas by felt-covered dividers, and the whole scene was bathed in the false sunlight of fluorescent tubes. Her five colleagues were busy at their terminals.

Closest were three youngsters: Nira Kerford, Albert Price, and Janette Hofert. They were talented kids, Jane thought, but they had a lot to learn about dealing with customers. The old man of the group, Gary, occupied a desk in the corner; he and Jane had become friends. But Jane’s closest friend at work was the fast-programming genius, Steven Swift – better known as Speedy. Jane strolled over to his cubicle and slapped her hand down on his shoulder. He was typing in computer code at an incredible rate.

“Hey, Speed,” said Jane, jovially. “How goes the battle?”

Steven Swift looked around from his terminal and, with some difficulty, focussed on Jane’s face. There were bags under his eyes. At thirty, Steve still had a childlike quality about him, with his mop of black hair and his charming smile. Today, he looked uncharacteristically exhausted. A sleeping bag poked out from under his desk. “Jane,” he said simply. “It goes. It goes.”

“Did you pull another all-nighter?”

“Boss Man wants the Finch account finalised by five. Nothing a little coffee won’t fix. You know me. I’ve always worked best under pressure.”

Jane frowned. “It wouldn’t hurt to get a good night’s sleep, you know.”

Steve rested his chin on his hand. “I will, Janey, I will. If you say so.”

“When you’ve had some rest, I’ve got something juicy for you. Eriksson at Hewitt University has finally bitten the bullet. You can put the Eden system in for him next week. He’s ready to buy.”

Steve perked up. “Great! Nice little program, that, and very healthy for our incentive payments, too. Thanks, Janey. No problem. I’ll get over there.”

“Thanks, Speedy,” said Jane. “Have you seen the Boss Man around? Grace says he wants to rake me over the coals again.”

Steve yawned. “El Magnificente? In the boiler room – where else?”

Jane made her way to the State Manager’s office. Pausing at the door, she watched her unpopular boss through the glass: a portly man in an aging pinstriped suit. She took a moment to summon up the courage to go in.

They didn’t call it the boiler room for nothing. Michael Pavlovich was pacing behind his desk, shouting complaints into the telephone. Red faced and furious, he suddenly slammed down the phone in disgust.

Now or never, Jane thought, as she pushed open the door and walked in.

“Michael,” she said simply.

“Jane. Yes, what is it?”

“We’ve just closed a deal with Hewitt University. They’ll take the Eden program. Steve’s going to put it in next week.”

This stopped Pavlovich dead in his tracks. He looked at Jane for a moment, then flashed his little half-smile – a meagre gesture, to be sure, but it was the closest he ever got to looking happy. “But we’ve been trying to move them for months. Well done, Jane!”

“Thanks.”

Secretly, Jane felt sorry for the old tyrant. He was almost pathetic. Michael was forty-eight going on sixty-eight, a hard-driving workaholic from a poor Ukrainian family. He had risen through the corporate ranks by the sheer force of his iron will and an apparently superhuman capacity for work, but he saw little of his wife and children. Pavlovich wasn’t the only senior manager at Infosolve to have had cardiac bypass surgery, and although it had gone well, he was looking old. Even a superhuman has limits, Jane thought.

“Jane, I’ve just been on the horn to Head Office. They’re breathing down our necks again. I told them to back off. The Hewitt account will be just the good news they’re looking for.”

Jane nodded.

Michael took a seat and went on.

“Sit down, Jane. I wanted to see you. Head Office got my report on your progress. Everyone agrees you’re doing a great job. In fact, we’d like to start training you for a management position. This is strictly under wraps, you understand, but at the end of the year, I’ll be moving into the National Sales Manager position. Christina will be the new State Manager; we’d like you to take her position, as Deputy State Manager, Sales.”

Jane was surprised. She had been expecting bad news. After all, one never got good news from a visit to the boiler room. This was a shock. “Er ... thank you, Michael, and ... congratulations on the National Sales Manager position.”

For once, Michael was gracious. “No, Jane. You deserve the congratulations. We consider you the top problem solver in the company. You’ve got the people skills. Your sales results are first class.”

He stood up and shook Jane’s hand. “Well, Jane, the end of the year is a long way off, but it’s time to start your preparation. We’ll send you to a management course. You’d better see Christina about it this afternoon. Now, I’ve got to get back to these figures.”

Jane got up and left, closing the door of Michael’s office behind her.

She scarcely had five seconds to reflect that all her career dreams were coming true, when Christina Forward, the Deputy State Manager, strode out of her adjacent office and – in typical style – began to speak at breakneck speed without the slightest preamble.

“Jane. I see you’ve spoken to Michael. Congratulations. We’ve all thought you deserved promotion for a long time. It’s good to see it happening.”

Jane took a moment to collect her thoughts. Everything was happening so fast, she could barely believe it. She looked at her hero, Christina, whom she saw as the perfect career woman. Dark skinned, poised and stylish, Christina had a sharp business sense matched with an unshakeable desire to win. She was an impressive figure in her designer business suits; not even the big players in New York could intimidate her. With the exception of being single at thirty-eight, Jane thought Christina had an almost ideal life, moving in social circles where most up-and-comers wouldn’t even get a toe in the back door. Now, Jane was about to be promoted into Christina’s position. “Thanks, Christina. Thanks. And ... congratulations. I think we’ll all be pleased to have you as our manager, at last.”

“Yeah, I know Michael’s been a little difficult. He’s not the same since the triple bypass last year, Jane. He went through a lot.”

“Maybe the move to Head Office will do him good,” said Jane.

“Maybe. But there’s something else we need to touch base about.”

“Oh?”

“We’ve got a big customer with a big problem. It’s another program we inherited, only this time there’s far too much invested to replace it with a new package. I’d like you to troubleshoot it for us. Head Office have given it top priority, so we have to get it right, no matter what. I want you to handle it.”

Jane was intrigued. “Who is it for?”

“The Chief Pharmacist at City Hospital. You know her?”

“No.”

“Name’s Margaret Hoffman. She’s a tough cookie. The hospital’s drug inventory system is the problem. We can’t afford to lose the account, Jane. We have to fix it.” Christina looked serious.

“I’ll get right onto it.”

“Good. Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Christina walked off down the corridor toward the conference room, leaving Jane to digest the good news.

Jane made her way back to the programming room slowly. Promotion was soon going to be hers. She was pleased, but she was tired. She slumped down at her desk and wished, bitterly, that she hadn’t had the nightmare last night.

There was a cramp in her stomach that wouldn’t go away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter  2

 

Joe Mathews loved mornings, even Monday mornings. At this particular moment, he was whistling happily to the smooth sounds of Miles Davis. He savoured the rich aroma of Costa Rican coffee which percolated through his modern apartment, all the way from the large kitchen to the gleaming, steamy bathroom. Joe had finished his three-mile morning run, showered, and was now getting dressed for work.

He buttoned up a blue shirt, tightened the knot on a pale blue tie, and pulled on the jacket of his favourite black suit. He made a half-hearted effort to comb his short, sandy brown hair, and then went to the kitchen.

As he attacked a large bowl of cereal, Joe pondered the unsavoury fact it had been nearly a week since he’d managed to practise his jazz. A sleek, black electronic piano sat neglected in the living room. Joe pushed aside the rest of his puffed wheat and drank his coffee.

It was time to go.

At 6:55 am, he was safely cocooned in his company car, driving swiftly to his first sales call for the day. As a pharmaceutical representative, Joe was finding it easy to get appointments to see the doctors; he had a new drug to launch, Zemtril, and they were all eager to hear about it. Houses along the freeway seemed to whiz by the car window, a motivational sales tape played loudly on the stereo, and Joe put his foot down to get to Dr Jennifer Tyson’s surgery on time. It was a long drive across the city.

 

 

 

Dr Tyson, Joe thought, was one of the more colourful characters on his sales rounds. Feeling nervous, he walked into her consulting room and looked briefly at her tall figure. She was a knockout, twenty-something brunette, with the unorthodox habit of dressing in short skirts and skintight tops. Not the average physician, she was more like Cindy Crawford with a stethoscope.

“Good morning,” said Joe.

“Joe! It’s good to see you.” Jennifer Tyson didn’t merely shake Joe’s hand, as she breathed this sultry greeting; she squeezed his shoulder and smiled, with a twinkle in her eye that Joe had long since come to recognise ... and dread. Joe thought of what was now the standing joke at the office, that Dr Tyson wanted ‘more than just information about Zemtril’ from her local Biopharm rep.

“It’s good to see you, too, Dr Tyson,” said Joe, in a shaky voice, as he sat down on the chair normally reserved for her patients.

Joe knew the management at Biopharm frowned on any personal involvement with customers. Jennifer Tyson, however, had no such reservations, and Joe secretly felt it was only a matter of time before his professional resolve would weaken, and – despite the inevitable jokes which he would never live down – he would become yet another notch on the Good Doctor’s twenty-four-inch belt.

Jennifer brought her chair around and put it next to his. Seated comfortably, she reached out and slapped him on the knee. “Now, Joe! How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Jennifer. None of that ‘Dr Tyson’ stuff here. So, how are you?” She leaned forward, her ample cleavage bulging obviously from the top of her blouse.

Joe leaned back and inched his chair a little further from hers. “Ahem ...” he cleared his throat. “I’m fine. How are you ... Jennifer?”

“I’m ... fine,” she said with a sigh.

Maybe, Joe thought, he should just give in. After all, there were worse things than succumbing to the attentions of a medical supermodel.

Before he could ponder the matter further, Jennifer spoke. “I thought you could bring me some more patient information handouts for Zemtril. Everyone wants them, you know.” Jennifer raised an eyebrow and looked deep into Joe’s surprised hazel eyes. For a moment, he began to feel hypnotised.

Joe swallowed. “But you already have six dozen, Jennifer.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t want to run out.” Jennifer leaned even further forward in her chair, until it looked as if her tortured blouse was about to pop a button.

Joe began to feel faint. Reaching into his case, he pulled out two dozen Zemtril information sheets, handed them over, and decided he had better get going while the going was good. “There you go. I guess that’s all I can do for you today.” He looked questions at Jennifer.

“Well ...” Jennifer paused for a moment, seemed to come to some kind of secret decision, then exhaled and slumped back in her chair. “Yes, that’s all, then. Until next time.” She patted him on the knee once more and jumped up from her chair, as if she had work to do.

“Right, then. See you.” Joe collected his case, squeezed past the buxom doctor on his way out the door, and tried not to look like he was rushing for the safety of his car.

Jennifer Tyson followed him out with her eyes, longingly. As he disappeared from view, she shook her head gently, sat back down at her consulting room desk, and toyed, thoughtfully, with a stethoscope.

 

 

Joe walked into the rear entrance of the small office block which housed the regional sales office of Biopharm Pharmaceuticals. He glanced briefly at the elevator before deciding to take the stairs; he had gotten a pager message from his boss and wanted to make it to her office without delay. Half a flight up, he met Stan and Harry, the old guard of the tiny local field-force. Friends and drinking buddies, they never exerted themselves unnecessarily in the line of duty. Dressed in their bland, ten-years-out-of-date suits, with thinning grey hair and club ties, they might have been brothers.

Joe tried to get past them without a conversation.

Stan saw Joe first. “Joseph, Joseph. And how are you today?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Excellent,” said Stan. “Just fine. We’re going to check out the Cafe Fiesta. Thought we’d hold a nice product launch there for our south-west doctors.”

“Thought we’d better check out the bar,” Harry added.

“Have one for me,” said Joe, as he raced up the stairs and out of sight.

Reaching the second floor, Joe swung the door open and walked into reception. He waved at the young receptionist and strode down the hallway, past the offices of the State Manager and the Assistant Manager, finally arriving at the untidy room in which the sales reps worked.

The reps room was kept deliberately dull, so no one would feel encouraged to spend time off the road. Several tiny desks sat around the perimeter, creaking under piles of memos and product literature. Boxes of product-name pens, pads, tissues, calculators and executive toys were stacked irregularly around the room, gifts for busy doctors willing to spare a few minutes of their time. No one was in, except Claudia Greerson, a young woman in a severe tweed suit. Joe dumped his briefcase on his desk and left, before she could bother him.

Halfway down the hallway, he met a young woman coming the other way. She had an impressive figure and a dazzling smile. Michelle Riley was Joe’s main competition as up-and-coming overachiever in the company. She was balancing a tower of several trade books and a small slide projector.

Michelle stepped aside, allowing Joe to pass. Then she stopped and winked at him. “Joe. I hear you danced the tango with Dr Tyson this morning. I’ll bet she loved every minute of it. Lucky her!”

Joe groaned. “Oh, gimme a break! It’s got nothing to do with me. She chats up all the reps.”

“Come now, Joe,” said Michelle, grinning seductively. “I have it on good authority from Helen, at Roche, that Dr Tyson has been talking about you. Can’t get you out of her mind, apparently. Face it, she’s smitten.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Joe.

“Okay. I’ll change the subject. Vikram’s in a foul mood today,” she said, juggling a stray book that threatened to fall to the floor.

“Oh?”

“You bet. He’s been going over the sales figures, grumbling about getting rid of Harry and Stan. He’s got his door shut. Probably typing out a few more e-mails asking for promotion to Headquarters. He’ll be gone in six months, off to New York. Kerryn will be looking for a replacement, you know. Might be you.”

“No way,” said Joe. “You’re ahead of me. Just look at your market share. You might even win the trip to Hawaii this year, the way it’s going.”

“Thanks, Joe. You’re sweet. But you’re in the running, too. Who knows who’ll get promoted? It’s fifty-fifty. Anyway, I’ve gotta put this stuff away.”

With that, Michelle continued on her way to the reps room. Joe couldn’t help watching her. She was a beautiful woman, he thought, with her short, dark hair and milky complexion; the blue business suit she wore suited her well. She certainly made work interesting.

Joe made a mental note not to bother Vikram that day – he could do without one of the Assistant Manager’s regular temper tantrums. Joe had to admit, however, that if Vikram was mad at Stan and Harry, the ‘Dipsomaniac Duo,’ they deserved it. The sooner they retired, the better for the company. Sometimes, Joe was glad to be just one of the troops, and not to have the pressing responsibilities of a manager; the stress might drive him nuts. But he quickly chastised himself for thinking that way. It was no way to get ahead.

Joe came upon the open door of the State Manager’s office, and knocked. It was usually pleasant, chatting with Kerryn Sandercott, even if she was known in the industry as the Iron Lady. Joe liked her. She was tough, but fair.

“Come in, Joe,” said Kerryn. “How are you?”

Kerryn’s eyelids were puffy. She looked a little gaunt. Joe guessed she had probably been up half the night, worrying about sales targets, memos and rumours from the top. There was always something happening.

“I’m fine, thanks, Kerryn. How are you?”

Kerryn ran her fingers through her cropped blonde hair. “Tired. I’ve been up half the night working on plans for the Zemtril conference. The hotel booked the wrong conference room! We’re twenty seats short. Can you imagine asking twenty of our top doctors to stand up for six hours? But I’ve spoken to the manager and he faxed me a new seating plan. Here, take a look.”

Kerryn handed over the fax.

Joe noticed her hand was trembling slightly. It was an odd mannerism of hers. Too much coffee, he thought, coffee and overwork. Joe was sure that he would never make the same mistake; he would never flirt with burnout.

“Hmmm,” Joe hummed. “Well, if they really can fit the seats in, then I guess it looks okay. Might be a bit tight, but what else can we do?”

“I know what!” said Kerryn. “I’ll send Claudia over there, this afternoon. If anyone can see through a ruse, it’s Claude. She’ll put that hotel manager on the straight and narrow.”

Joe laughed. “So, I hear Vikram’s in a bad mood.”

“Yes, sit down, Joe. That’s what I want to speak with you about. You see, I’m not sure how much longer Vikram’s going to be with us. He wants to get into the Product Development Bureau in New York. Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, sometime in the next six to twelve months, he really does make it there.”

“Oh,” said Joe, a little lamely.

“Yes, and if he does go, we’re going to need a new Assistant Manager around here. Headquarters have put forward Michelle’s name, and yours, as the two possibilities. But it’s all very tentative. Vikram might not even go.”

“Right, right.” Joe was beginning to feel inexplicably nervous.

“If the vacancy does come up, I’d much rather see you in the job, but Michelle’s considered the front runner by Headquarters. After all, she’s probably going to take out the national prize for best market share, and that’s hard to beat. On the other hand, you might be able to impress them, if you could pull off a little coup for me. No guarantees, but it just might help.”

 Joe hesitated for a split second. Somehow, he felt pressured by the sudden possibility of getting promoted. “Uh ... no problem. What do you need?”

If Kerryn heard the uncertain tone in Joe’s voice, she ignored it with consummate skill. “It’s this Zemtril conference coming up. We need a respected chairperson, or we’re not going to get the attendance we want. We need someone who’s really going to impress the doctors. I was thinking of ... Martin Jefferson.”

Joe leaned back in his chair. “Jefferson? Head of Cardiology at City Hospital? He’s a tough nut to get an appointment with, Kerryn, far less to get to chair a conference, but I suppose we do have a couple of openings we could try with him. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Great, Joe. If anyone can do it, you can. Even Headquarters couldn’t ignore a gem like that. So, good luck. Remember now, it’s all very tentative. Nothing may come of it, but, on the other hand, it all might come together. Okay?” Kerryn seemed to have finished with the matter and was beginning to look impatiently at her paperwork. It was clearly time for Joe to leave.

“Okay,” said Joe. “Nothing definite. I understand.”

“Great.” Kerryn nodded. She scribbled on a notepad.

Joe took the hint, got up, and walked slowly back to the reps room.

This was a big day, Joe thought. Three years at Biopharm had finally paid off with an opportunity for promotion. Working on the Jefferson case, however, wasn’t going to be easy. And even if he were successful in getting the respected doctor to chair Biopharm’s Zemtril conference, it would still be months before he might know whether it was he, or Michelle, who was to be promoted. He had better start working pretty hard to get the edge. He would have to cancel the next couple of practice sessions for the band – the boys at the jazz club would not be happy. Reaching his desk, he sat down heavily, grabbed the telephone and punched in the number for City Hospital.

“Dr Jefferson’s secretary, please.” Joe rubbed the back of his neck. He listened to the music on hold. Despite all the good news, he suddenly found himself feeling strangely tired.

It was going to be a long day.


Chapter  3

 

Jane stood waiting for the elevator at the ground floor of E Block, City Hospital. She knew that, in sales, time was money, so she was pleased the Chief Pharmacist had agreed to see her at once. It was only a few hours since Christina had first mentioned Margaret Hoffman’s name, but Jane was already quietly confident she could fix the drug inventory program and thereby secure a major customer.

In the distance, marching down the polished white-floored passageway, effortlessly passing nurses and visitors, a tall figure in a black suit approached the elevator lobby. Jane saw him coming. His head was down, studying a diary feverishly as he walked, and he carried a large black briefcase. Finally, the man arrived at the elevator just as the doors were opening. Jane noticed his hair was ruffled and untidy, as he stepped into the elevator behind her. She pressed the button for the tenth floor.

Joe Mathews was lost in study of his diary. He hardly noticed there was anyone else in the elevator. He couldn’t believe Martin Jefferson, the esteemed Head of Department, Cardiology, had cancelled a previous engagement to see Joe – a mere drug rep – at such short notice. To make the appointment, Joe had to juggle his own schedule. He flipped through his diary one more time, making sure he had gotten it all right. Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice speaking to him.

“Going up?” Jane asked. She found it amusing that this absent-minded man had walked into an elevator and forgotten to press a floor button. He was handsome, in a distracted kind of way, she thought, with his hazel eyes and pale complexion. There was a friendly look about him.

Joe looked up from his diary. He was surprised to see a very attractive woman standing right next to him. Her hand hovered over the elevator control panel; the button for the tenth floor was illuminated. The woman wore a beige business suit and carried a laptop computer. Had Joe not been so desperately busy, he might have struck up a conversation with her. As it was, he settled for a simple reply.

“Oh – tenth, please. Thanks.”

Joe buried his attention back in his diary. If only he could get Jefferson on side, he might have a shot at that promotion Kerryn was talking about. It would be a great challenge, to win Jefferson over, but he would manage it somehow. True, Michelle would probably be promoted rather than him, but never think negative, Joe told himself – that’s the sales rep’s credo.

As the elevator began its upward journey, Jane’s thoughts returned to Margaret Hoffman. Chief Pharmacists were notoriously difficult to deal with. This wasn’t surprising, considering the pressure they were always under from hospital bureaucrats to cut costs, while doctors simultaneously demanded more of the best, most expensive drugs. It was a no-win situation and a thankless job. What you certainly did not want to deal with was a Chief Pharmacist whose computer system was fouled up and who was, therefore, having a very bad day. Even so, Jane managed to retain her optimism as the elevator slowed.

The elevator speaker sounded the little ping that hospital elevators make to announce the doors are about to open. Joe closed his diary. Jane tucked her laptop neatly under her arm. The doors slid open and the two busy young people set off in opposite directions, toward their respective appointments.

Had they turned back to watch the elevator, at that precise moment, they would have seen something most inexplicable.

The doors, rather than closing, as was their normal wont, remained open. Where there should have been nothing but thin air, in the vacant elevator, there was a faint cloud of green smoke. In a few seconds, a green blob, about four feet high, vaporous at first, then jelly-like, began to materialise. At last, the figure of a chubby, middle-aged, balding and very short man became clear. He had a jolly, untroubled face and wore a kitsch, green leprechaun suit, complete in every detail down to his polished leather boots. It was the sort of bogus leprechaun found in shopping malls: the kind of character small children love to have their photo taken with but who, secretly, is wondering if he gets paid enough per hour to be Santa, or, in this case, Shamus. This particular leprechaun, however, had anyone been able to see him, would have appeared to be taking his work very seriously. He dusted himself off, admired his boots for a moment, straightened his tunic, and then muttered contentedly.

“Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Smiling a satisfied smile, the little man walked out of the elevator and wandered merrily down the corridor, poking his nose into various offices as he went. No one seemed to notice him. In fact, it was as if he were completely invisible; not a single glance was cast in his direction.

After a minute or two of this, satisfied that no one could see him, the strange and jolly leprechaun passed by the desk of a junior accounts clerk, a young man scratching his head in consternation at an uncooperative spreadsheet. The leprechaun, apparently finished his business, at least for now, began to dissolve into a cloud of green smoke. The smoke, unlike the little man himself, was quite visible. The clerk looked puzzled, as a wisp of green mist floated in front of his computer screen. He coughed, frowned, and returned to his calculations, wondering if someone in the next office was smoking one of those ‘other’ kind of cigarettes his mother had always warned him about.

 

 

Jane sat quietly in front of Margaret Hoffman’s desk. The Chief Pharmacist’s large, spartan office was, at that moment, as silent as a church. At one end of the room was a huge bank of accordion-like shelves, set on rollers, filled with literature describing thousands upon thousands of drugs. On Hoffman’s desk itself was a computer, and on the computer’s screen was a flashing message in large blue letters:

 

SYSTEM MALFUNCTION.

PLEASE CONTACT SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR.

 

Margaret Hoffman’s sour face looked almost ghostly, bathed in the pulsing blue light of the error message. Hoffman turned her gaze slowly to Jane, and stared, with little patience, at Jane’s infuriatingly calm expression.

Jane spoke, to break the silence. “Hmmm. A total system crash. Second-rate programming, I’m afraid. We’ve had a lot of trouble with that company. It’s no wonder they went bust. The thing that really makes me angry, though, is the lack of respect they had for major organisations – like your hospital.”

“Tell me about it, Ms Hamilton,” Hoffman growled. “I’ve got a Formulary Committee meeting at the end of the month. If I don’t have reliable figures, there’ll be hell to pay. It’s hard enough, trying to please everyone, without the damned abacus spilling its beads!”

“Exactly,” said Jane. “Look, we both know this old system’s got big problems. We both know it’s not practical to replace it, right now. But what I can do for you is get it working again, fast. It won’t be perfect, but it will work. Was it the Chief Pharmacist at Ritterman Hospital who recommended us?”

“Yes. John said you did a fine job fixing their bag of chips. Same damned company did theirs as ours. Same mess. And you people put it right. That’s what I need you to do for us, Ms Hamilton.” There was desperation in Hoffman’s eyes.

Jane stood up. “And that’s exactly what I will do, Dr Hoffman. If I can speak with your Purchasing Officer, I’ll reboot the system and download the files I need. We’ll fix this thing. Leave it to us.”

Hoffman sighed, and stood up. She nodded decisively. “Right you are, Ms Hamilton, but for God’s sake do it quickly.” With that, she collapsed into her chair and looked, helplessly, at the error message.

Jane left, feeling confident that she could solve Hoffman’s problems and keep the account. Christina would be pleased, she thought.

 

 

Sitting in the tenth-floor waiting room of City Hospital’s Cardiology Department, Joe rubbed his hands on his trousers. He hated it when he broke into a sweat just before seeing an important customer; the last thing he wanted to do was greet Dr Jefferson with a wet, slimy handshake. He told himself he wasn’t really nervous, just alert, but the truth was there was a painful tightness in his chest. It nagged at him.

Joe knew Jefferson was a critically important figure. A favourable word from the prominent cardiologist, said even in passing, regarding Biopharm’s new product, Zemtril, would be widely heeded by the medical community. Jefferson was a respected physician and everyone knew he would not be swayed by irresponsible claims. He would only support a good product. It would mean a lot if Joe could get Jefferson to agree to chair Biopharm’s upcoming conference, at which Zemtril would be discussed. Joe simply needed Jefferson.

Suddenly, the man in question arrived.

“Mr Mathews?” The old doctor had a serious, stuffy demeanour and a dry voice. Pens of all colours bulged from the pocket of his immaculately pressed white laboratory coat, and his short grey hair was cropped in military fashion.

Joe – startled – quickly stood up. “Dr Jefferson! Nice to meet you. I’m Joe Mathews, from Biopharm. Thanks for seeing me at such short notice.”

“That’s all right,” Jefferson grunted. “Come this way.”

He led Joe left and right down a mind-boggling maze of gleaming white tunnels, so typical of a hospital environment. Eventually, they reached an office marked with his name. Once inside, Jefferson motioned for Joe to take a seat. Getting to a seat was not easy, since most of the small floor was covered with stacks of books, miscellaneous laboratory equipment, and scientific papers. Joe squeezed into a chair.

Jefferson went directly to his desk. He began manipulating the mouse attached to his desktop computer. After a few point-and-clicks, a voicemail message announced his lecture the next day had been moved from nine-thirty to ten o’clock. Satisfied, he turned his swivel chair to face Joe.

“Sorry about that. I’m giving a lecture tomorrow. My secretary organises everything. Sometimes I think it would all grind to a halt without her.”

Joe chuckled. “I know what you mean. I think the secretaries really run everything. They just get us to sign the letters.”

Jefferson smirked a little, but said nothing.

Joe continued. “It must be very time consuming, to run a big group like the Cardiac Society, on top of all your clinical and research work. I guess a good secretary would be worth her weight in gold.”

“Yes.”

“Actually, I spoke to your secretary on the phone, this morning. She mentioned you’re planning your annual Cardiac Society meeting. Things are a bit hectic, apparently.”

“Yes, they are. Our Society meeting wasn’t supposed to be held so soon, but it got pushed forward a month. A number of our members are going to the Amsterdam Symposium, you see, so they wanted it moved.”

 “You’ve had to bring your annual meeting forward a whole month? That must be a logistical nightmare.”

“It is,” said Jefferson. “We can’t even get the venue we wanted. I’m not sure we’ve time to get an alternative. We may have to cancel altogether.”

“Maybe we can help you, there,” said Joe. “Biopharm has a whole department dedicated just to organising conferences, and we do have some sway with the big hotels. I’m sure we could find a good venue for you, despite the short notice.”

“Really?” Jefferson looked suspicious, but he couldn’t help being relieved at the prospect of not having to cancel his annual Cardiac Society meeting.

“If you like,” said Joe, “I could ask our Conference Department to look into organising your meeting for you.”

Jefferson’s eyes narrowed. “Well, I’m not so sure. To be honest, Mr Mathews, we had a bad experience, three years ago, with another company. It was more like Disneyland than a Society meeting. There were sales reps buzzing around all over the place like flies, handing out pens, quizzing us during tea breaks about which drugs we prefer to prescribe. I told myself then, ‘Never again.’ ”

“I know what you mean. That is what the average pharmaceutical company does, but we’re not the average company. Nobody wants reps running around, ramming company literature down people’s throats, arguing with doctors about which drugs to prescribe. Biopharm’s policy is just to be there, to answer any questions doctors might have about our products, and, other than that, to stay out of your way!”

Jefferson raised his eyebrows. “Mr Mathews, no offence, but that’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard a drug rep say in years.”

Joe laughed. “Did you hear about the Endocrinology meeting, last year? That was one we did. I think the doctors thought it went pretty well.”

“Yes, I spoke to Tim Ferrington from Endocrinology, last week. He was very happy with your work. Under the circumstances, I think we’ll give it a try, Mr Mathews. Why don’t you speak to my secretary? If your Conference Department can do it within our new deadline, then let’s go ahead.”

“Right,” said Joe. “No problem. I’m sure we can do it. I’ll call your secretary, first thing tomorrow, and go over the details with her.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh, there is one other thing,” said Joe. “Biopharm’s holding a Saturday conference, discussing our new product, Zemtril. We were wondering if you might be willing to be chairperson. It might be quite a good day.”

“Well, I don’t see why not. You’ll need to clear it with my secretary. As long as my schedule is open, that would be fine.”

Joe couldn’t believe how easy this was. He had just gotten what he wanted: Jefferson would chair Biopharm’s Zemtril conference.

Jefferson yawned. “Well, Mr Mathews, I have rounds to attend, I’m afraid, and I’ll never live it down with the students if I’m late again.”

“Thanks for your time, Dr Jefferson.”

“No, thank you, Mr Mathews. And, by the way, I haven’t heard too much about that new drug of yours, Zemtril. I wonder if you could call my private rooms and ask Alice to make you an appointment to see me about it.”

Joe couldn’t believe his ears. Martin Jefferson was going to let a drug rep see him at his private rooms and talk product? He tried not to look elated.

“Sure,” said Joe. “I’ll do that right away.”

 

 

Five minutes later, Joe was smiling pleasantly at the young girl behind the counter of the City Hospital Cafe; he paid for a cup of black espresso and took it lovingly to a table near the back of the bustling restaurant. The dull pain in his chest still wouldn’t stop, which annoyed him. Perhaps five minutes of rest might do him some good, he thought. He had a little time to spare. He sat down, cradled his coffee cup in his hands, and sniffed appreciatively – it was better than any Havana cigar.

Joe looked through the windows at the garden fountain and the hospital grounds. Surrounding him, in the cafe, sat nurses, doctors, patients and visitors, quietly chatting.

He took a long, grateful sip of his coffee and began to relax.

“Ahem!” came a loud voice, clearing its throat. “Excuse me.”

Joe looked up, saw no one, and decided the voice was not directed at him. He thought it was a little odd that there seemed to be a fine mist of green smoke around his table, but strange things happened in hospitals. Maybe they were testing a new air conditioning system.

“Excuse me, but I believe your life is on fire!”

At this, Joe furrowed his brow. He wondered if someone had escaped from the psychiatric ward on the next floor. Finally, he glanced down and saw a very short, balding, chubby man in a cheap leprechaun suit. The little fellow was standing next to Joe’s table, smiling up at him sweetly.

Joe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “What ... what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Excuse me, but I think your life is on fire.’ ”

Joe decided this was either an escaped lunatic or some bizarre promotional gimmick, and either way he wasn’t interested. He had no time for talking to anybody wearing leprechaun suits. “That’s what I thought you said. Do I know you? Is there any reason for you to come up to me and say that? No. Now, if you don’t mind ...”

The leprechaun smiled benevolently and tipped his head to one side, ignoring Joe’s glare. “Well, you may not actually know me, but I’m a friend.”

“But no!” Joe insisted. “No, I don’t know you. No, there is no reason for me to talk to you, and, yes, this is my coffee break!”

“That’s okay,” said the little man. “Never mind. I’ll grow on you. You’ll get to like me, eventually.” He waited earnestly for a reply.

Joe laughed, as if he suddenly understood. “This is a joke, right? Singing telegram? It’s Karen at the office that put you up to this. I get it ...”

Deeply offended, the leprechaun snarled, “Ungrateful mortal! You don’t like the suit? Do you realise how much trouble ...”

Joe wasn’t listening. He looked across to the young surgeon sitting at the next table with two of her colleagues. “Hey, Dr Preston. Look at this guy! Karen’s up to her old tricks again. Last year, it was the Gorillagram, but this one really takes the cake.”

Dr Preston looked over. “What guy, Joe?”

“The leprechaun! I didn’t even know they had leprechauns.”

All three doctors laughed, this time. Dr Preston shook her head. “What are you talking about, Joe? I don’t see anyone.”

“That guy!” Joe exclaimed, pointing. “The little guy, right here.”

But the doctors were no longer listening to him; they had turned, chuckling, back to their own conversation, and ignored Joe completely.

At this point, the leprechaun decided it was time to get Joe’s complete attention, so he levitated himself above Joe’s table. Floating in mid air, he smiled wickedly at the hapless Joe. “Joe,” he chimed. “They caaaaan’t see me!”

Joe turned very grey. An icy chill ran up his spine. He wanted to scream, or run away, or something, but all he could manage was to emit a tiny, pathetic moan. There was a man floating above his table. It was impossible.

The leprechaun rotated upside down, until he was feet up and head down, then smiled a happy wrong-way-up smile.

Joe recoiled against his chair in horror. “Whoa! What the ...”

To add to the effect, the leprechaun waved his legs about, crossing his arms like a Russian dancer, and let out a few shouts. Then he spun slowly around and lowered himself gracefully to the floor. “Bet you’ve never seen an upside-down Cossack dance before. It’s a little trick I picked up in space. Great bunch of guys, those cosmonauts!”

Joe sat frozen in his chair, paralysed with fear.

Unconcerned, the leprechaun produced a tiny green pouch. He extracted a pinch of sparkling tinsel and scattered it in front of Joe’s face. Joe’s eyes widened for a moment, as a hundred miniature stars twinkled radiantly in front of him, then he became very tired.

Joe blinked a couple of times, and yawned. He found himself feeling utterly calm. “Cosmonauts,” he repeated. “Mmmm.”

Joe yawned again, closed his eyes, and dozed rapidly off to sleep. Obviously, he thought as he lost consciousness, everything that was happening was just a dream. But what a pretty dream!

Joe’s limp body slumped; his head tilted onto his left shoulder.

The leprechaun, well pleased, walked around until he was standing next to Joe’s right ear. He whispered into it. “Now, I want you to listen carefully and remember what I am about to say. When you wake up, you’ll remember it all without any fuss. It will seem the most natural thing in the world. Okay?”

“Okey dokey,” Joe muttered, his eyes still closed.

“I am your guardian angel. My name is Shamus Maguinty, and I’m a leprechaun. Oh, and by the way, you like my suit. Remember that. You like my suit. Now, I’m here to tell you that your life is on fire, and to help you put out the fire and get back on track. What am I here for, Joe?”

Joe murmured, “To help me put out the fire and get back on track.”

“Good. Now, I’m only allowed to appear for a few minutes, otherwise the Guy Upstairs gets hopping mad. Believe me, you don’t want to see that. Okay, so you are going to do something about your life being on fire. You’re going to start getting your life right. You’re going to work on this thing until you sort it all out. Got all that?”

Joe scratched his cheek. “I’ll ... get it right,” he repeated.

Then his head rolled forward and he began snoring.

Shamus Maguinty studied his gold pocket watch with a look of growing concern. Popping it back into his vest pocket, he disappeared, without further ado, into a cloud of green smoke, leaving Joe in a deep, sound sleep.

Joe hadn’t slept so well for a long time. It was delicious. He was dreaming, and loving the dream. It was something about a leprechaun, something about an angel, come to help him. Then, Joe felt someone bumping his shoulder. He wished it would go away.

He heard a voice. It was the voice of a young woman, a familiar voice. “Joe. Joe. Come on, Joe. Wake up!”

Suddenly, Joe came to. He opened his eyes.

Dr Preston was smiling at him. “Joe. I thought you were going to fall off your chair! Working too hard?”

Joe was completely lost for words. He looked around him. What was he doing falling asleep, in the middle of the day, in a hospital cafe?

He thanked Dr Preston with a mute smile.

The young doctor turned to rejoin her colleagues at the next table.

Joe rubbed his eyes and looked at his wristwatch. It was five-thirty. He had an appointment to make. Why was he wasting his time, dreaming about leprechauns? he thought. What nonsense!

Joe jumped up and rushed out of the cafe.

 

 

It was late afternoon, an hour after Jane had finished seeing Margaret Hoffman, when she finally made it back to her company car in the hospital parking lot. Jane got into the car, opened her laptop, and typed a few essential notes. When she was finished, she started the engine and reversed out of the parking bay. As she began her long drive across the city, Jane grimaced at the painful knot in her stomach that wouldn’t go away. Irritable bowel syndrome, her doctor had called it. She could still hear his words.

‘We can give you tranquillisers, if you like, but it really comes down to stress. Your body’s telling you it needs to slow down; you’re going to have to do something about it.’

As Jane motored down the freeway, she glanced anxiously at her watch. Damn! Running late, again, she thought. Still, even at that moment, she wondered if she should pay more attention to her own needs, not just to those of her company and her customers. She might be on the fast track to promotion, but her body had other ideas; it was cracking under the stress.

Suddenly there was a voice. A man’s voice. Loud.

“Indeed it is, ma’am. Indeed it is!”

The effect on Jane of this unexpected intrusion was electric. Visions of cut-throat stowaways and carjackings flashed through her mind, her hands gripped the steering wheel as tightly as a vice, and she jumped, as much as anyone can while strapped into a car racing down a four-lane freeway, then turned, her heart pounding wildly, to stare at the passenger seat beside her.

There was a man, sitting there. A short, balding man, with an inexplicably sweet smile on his face, dressed, even more incomprehensibly, in a leprechaun suit. She stared at him, in horror, for two seconds, before wrenching her head forward to avoid hitting a passenger bus; her white-knuckled grip on the wheel had sent her swerving into the fast lane. At that very moment, torn between the simultaneous terror of discovering a strange man in her car and nearly being pushed off the road by a speeding omnibus, she could find only one thing to say.

“Oh, shit!”

She fired a second glance at the intruder. He seemed very placid and happy. Although he wasn’t exactly what you would call a terrifying figure, Jane still felt compelled to break into a scream, but she was so scared that it came out more like a cross between a moan and a squeak. “Auggg ... auggg ... auggghh!”

The little man seemed pained by this reaction. He reached into his pocket, whipped out a small green pouch, and extracted something from inside it. He then held his hand up, ominously, toward Jane.

Jane’s eyes widened as she looked frantically between the road in front of her and the diminutive maniac sitting beside her. “Wait! Put away the gun. You can have the car ... it’s a company car ... you can have it ... oh, shit!” Jane closed her eyes in ultimate terror as the madman began to flick his fingers at her.

Strange, she thought. That wasn’t a gun.

The most peculiar golden tinsel, tiny snowflakes of the stuff, was falling gently all around her in the car. It seemed to hang in the air and sparkle, a thousand tiny stars, each one twinkling with a colour different to the next. It was entrancing.

“Rainbow Stars,” said the leprechaun, with a cheerful smile. “They never fail. You’ll feel better now.”

The sickening realisation hit Jane that not only was she being carjacked, but the guy was a complete lunatic. Rainbow Stars? This was obviously the end. Her life flashed before her eyes; she tried to keep the car careening down the freeway without crashing. Then, suddenly, she felt possessed by a strange and overwhelming calm. It was the oddest thing. If she were ever hypnotised, she guessed, this is what it would feel like.

“Now, Jane. Just keep driving. That’s right. Middle of the road. No swerving. Good!” The leprechaun was apparently relieved that all the screaming had stopped.

Jane’s heart settled back to its normal eighty beats a minute. The car glided smoothly, no longer a menace to passing traffic. In fact, Jane couldn’t remember when driving had been more enjoyable. And, yes, there was a lunatic sitting next to her, but she no longer cared. Come to think of it, he reminded her of the elves at Sudbury Mall last Christmas. Jane giggled like a drunk, but she drove like a teetotaller.

“Good, good, good. Now, Jane. My name is Shamus. Shamus Maguinty. We’ve never met before, but I’m your guardian angel, and I’m here to let you know something.”

“You’re my guardian angel?” said Jane, dreamily. “Okay. Look at that nice blue car that’s passing us. Isn’t that a pretty one?”

“Lovely. Now, listen carefully, because I’m not allowed to appear very often and not for very long. That’s the way being an angel works. Anyway, I have two mortals to look after, and you are one of them, and I’m here to tell you that your life is on fire.” The leprechaun scratched his cheek.

“My ... life is on fire?”

“Yes, your life is on fire. Now, I am going to help you put out the inferno and get back on track, before you burn out completely.” Shamus took in the landscape with an appreciative stare, his keen little blue eyes fixed, in turn, on the houses, the trees, the other cars, the sailboats on the adjacent large lake, and the cumulus clouds drifting serenely above it all. He made an expansive, sweeping gesture with his arm. “We don’t normally like to interfere in all this, but you and my other mortal are emergency cases. So, I’m here to help you out.”

“That’s nice,” said Jane. She was driving just on the speed limit; the other cars were passing her easily.

“Right. Now, when you snap out of it, you are going to remember that I’m your guardian angel, Shamus Maguinty. Okay?”

“Guardian angel, uh huh.” It all seemed perfectly plausible to Jane, in her entranced state. Rainbow Stars are powerful things.

“Good. And you’re going to believe that I am real.”

“Okay. What a nice day it is today, don’t you think?”

“And lastly, you’re going to realise that your life is on fire and do something about it. Okay? You got all that?”

Jane looked over at the chubby leprechaun. “My life is on fire. Got it. Where can I get some of those Rainbow Stars?”

Shamus pulled his watch out; it dangled on its little chain for a moment before he caught it. “Gotta go!” he said. “Damn! I’m on overtime. I mean, darn! If the boss finds out, there’ll be hell to pay, and you have no idea how literally I mean that!” The little fellow looked benevolently at Jane. “I’ll see you later. Remember what I said.”

With that, he faded into green vapour and disappeared.

Jane coughed. Gradually, her head cleared. Things seemed to return to normal. She looked around, suspiciously, but there was no sign of the strange intruder, other than a little residual green smoke. She fanned her hand a few times to disperse the emerald mist.

I’ve got a guardian angel? she thought.

But angel or no angel, she had to make her next appointment by six. Putting the whole thing out of her mind, Jane sank her foot onto the gas pedal. The company car accelerated down the freeway, mocking the speed limit sign which flashed by. Jane began to overtake cars again. Her pulse quickened, her breathing became a little more forced, and she focussed intently on the road.

The faster she drove, the less time there seemed to be to get there.


Chapter  4

 

The long Monday had finally come to an end for Joe Mathews, but he wasn’t resting; squash is not a relaxing game. Joe ran hard across court. Stretching to reach the ball, he whipped his racquet around and made a good passing shot.

His opponent, Paul Jamieson, backed up quickly but still had to watch in dismay as the ball bounced irretrievably behind him.

Paul didn’t miss many shots, even for a beginner. He had quick reactions and a strong, athletic build. His dark-skinned good looks had helped his success as a television actor. “You got me there,” said Paul, walking back to his side of the court. “Good shot.”

“Thanks,” said Joe. “Lucky shot, more like it.”

From the deserted gallery above, their mutual friend, Susan Stryver, called out. “Not lucky. Good shot. That’s seven-three.”

Joe looked up and smiled at her, grateful for the compliment. He knew he was arguably a better rep than Sue, who sold artificial heart valves for a surgical implant company, but there was no doubt at all that she was the better squash player, a fact she gleefully took every opportunity to remind him of.

“Good to see you taking a risk on your shots,” Paul quipped.

“I suppose,” Joe grumbled, bouncing the ball as he prepared to serve, “you’re going to try talking me into going skydiving. I’ve told you before – the answer’s no! I’d like to stay in one piece, if you don’t mind.”

Paul shrugged. “It’s very safe. You’d love it.”

“Why would I want,” said Joe, serving the ball high toward the back corner of Paul’s court-side, “to let someone pack my parachute who can’t even return my devilish loop serves?”

As if on cue, the ball dropped like a magnet, straight into the corner, and died without a bounce. It was impossible to return.

Paul rolled his eyes. “I skydive better than I play squash.”

“Will you two stop bickering?” Sue demanded, half-seriously. “I’m waiting to play the winner, here. Less talk and more play.”

The two men swapped sides of the court. Joe served the ball high, but this time Paul intercepted it before it reached the floor. A rally followed, with both players running frantically across the court to make shots, then scrambling repeatedly back to the centre ‘T’ to control the vital middle ground. Finally, Paul mishit the ball, sending it spinning harmlessly up into the wall, high above the red foul-line. The game had ended at nine points to three, an easy win for Joe. He walked over and patted his friend on the shoulder. “Thanks for the game, man.”

“No problem.” Paul pulled open the court door, somewhat dejectedly, and began the walk upstairs to the gallery.

A moment later, Sue appeared in the small doorway and stepped onto the court. “Okay, smarty,” she said to Joe. “Let’s see what you’re made of. I see you’ve been picking on helpless beginners again. Now you’re in trouble!”

Sue’s blonde hair was tied in a no-nonsense ponytail. She wore the confident expression of someone who knew she was good. Sue had played squash since she was twelve, and eighteen years of practice made for a tough opponent, whichever way you looked at it.

Joe decided to try psychological warfare. “When are you going to teach Alan to play? A bright young cardiology registrar should be able to swing a squash racquet. Or do you keep him too ... tired for sports?”

“Very funny,” Sue replied, as she a hit a few warm-up shots. “You can talk, Casanova. When was the last time you had a date? Hmmm? I don’t recall you telling us any spicy stories, lately. Things a tad dull, are they? All work and no play makes ...”

“Joe a dull boy. I know, I know.”

“That’s what I keep telling him,” said Paul, merrily, from the seats above. “He looks straight past all the attractive women. Too busy looking in that diary of his. From what I’ve heard, he even ignores the advances of Dr Tyson – a pretty foxy lady, so they say.”

“Oooooh!” said Sue. “Who is Dr Tyson? You never told me about her, Joe. I’m impressed. Well, well, well.”

Joe refused to dignify these comments with a reply. He tried to concentrate on the ball, as he and Sue lobbed warm-up shots to each other. Sue had begun to put topspin on the ball; it was bouncing back to Joe at more and more alarming speeds.

“By the way,” said Sue, “are you still getting those chest pains?” She stopped and looked over at Joe, letting the ball fly past her.

“Who, me? Chest pains? Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I thought so. I’ll get Alan to make an appointment for you. Look, Joe, you need a stress test, half an hour on the treadmill with all the wires hooked up. People drop dead on squash courts, you know. I’ve never met anyone so stubborn.” Sue shook her head. She knew it wasn’t that bad, now, but if Joe kept up the breakneck pace of his life, in another ten years it might be. Her boyfriend, Alan, had often told her stories of busy executives cut down in their middle age by heart attacks or strokes. Working in a cardiology department, he saw it all.

“All right, all right. I’ll get it checked, okay? But I’m not about to drop dead, just yet. In fact, I feel so confident tonight, you can serve first. Do your worst.”

“Well, if you insist.” With the practised art of a champion, Sue tossed the ball and hit it, spinning it across the court to begin the first rally. After a couple of shots to draw Joe up to the front of the court, she smashed the ball hard, sending it speeding past him. “One-love. What was that about confidence?”

Joe let out a heavy sigh. “Bet you can’t do that twice,” he said, not very convincingly. Susan Stryver was going to win, yet again.

 

 

Jane Hamilton was not a big coffee drinker. In fact, she preferred tea. Sitting in Harold’s Cafe, a quiet suburban restaurant not far from her home, she looked across the table at her closest friends, Lilly and Bill. They often met here, at the end of a working day. This particular Monday night, after wrestling with the dour Chief Pharmacist at City Hospital, and – of course – after the absurd experience of a madman, claiming to be her guardian angel, materialising in her car, Jane needed to unwind more than ever. The waiter brought a big pot of tea to the table. Jane poured it for her friends.

Lilly Hibbard wore a perpetually impish expression. She was a warm, caring person, a young schoolteacher. “Thanks, Jane.”

Bill Keating was an advertising executive. Jane often thought him uncharacteristically dull and conservative for someone in his creative field. Married, with two young children, one of whom was named after Jane, he was a friend from her college days. Bill was looking hangdog, with droopy eyelids; he rested his head wearily on one hand. “Thanks, Jane,” he murmured.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Bill!” Lilly exclaimed. “Perk up! You look about as happy as a beached whale. Come on. It’s not that bad.” She threw her hands up in exasperation. Lilly Hibbard was never one for understatement.

Jane winced. She wished Lilly could be a little more subtle. She knew, however, that was like wishing the Rock of Gibraltar could be a little less heavy.

“It’s Leslie,” said Bill, morosely. “She says I’m spending too much time at work. Little Janie will be starting school soon, and Stevie’s in that lovable four-year-old stage. I’m missing it all! I think Leslie’s right.”

Lilly rested a hand on Bill’s arm. “Now, it’s not that bad. You just need to organise a little more spare time, is all.”

“Well, I will have a little more time, once the Johnson account is completed. It’s only another two weeks.” He smiled a sickly smile.

“Attaboy!” Lilly declared, as if she were praising a Cocker Spaniel for fetching the Daily News. “Now, Janey. What’s new in your neck of the woods? You can tell your Aunt Lilly all – especially the juicy bits.”

Aunt Lilly? You’re the same age I am!”

“Well, Jane, you know what I mean. Spill the beans.”

“Not much to tell,” said Jane, “unless you’re interested in computers and customers. I did close a couple of important deals today. Oh! I nearly forgot. Christina told me I’m going to be promoted. To Deputy State Manager, no less.”

“Really?” said Lilly.

“Uh huh.”

“Hey, that’s great,” said Bill, cheered up a little by the news.

“And ... what about the juicy bits?” Lilly was more interested in pulling Jane’s leg about her boring love life than in talking about work.

Jane shrugged. “That’s about as juicy as it gets. Actually, I’m pretty happy about this promotion. It’s just ... I’m feeling a little tired, lately, and this irritable bowel thing just won’t go away. You know, that thing my doctor was telling me about, the stress thing.”

“Hmmm.” Lilly deflated. This wasn’t exactly her idea of juicy gossip. “Didn’t the tablets help?”

“Not really. I tried the spasmolytics. They were supposed to stop the gut cramps. But they didn’t work. The doctor said I could think about taking stronger ones, if I wanted to. Benzodiazepines, I think he called them.”

“Tranquillisers!” Lilly yelped. “My girl, you are not taking tranquillisers, no matter what. I’ll let all your tires down first. I’ll dig up all the flowers I put in your garden. I’ll make you stay home and not go to work! No friend of mine is going on tranquillisers.”

“You don’t want to start popping pills,” Bill added. “It’s not worth it, Jane. One or two of my colleagues have gone down that road. One of them ended up quitting work. Bad news. Better to slow down. Take a holiday. You’ve got to take care of yourself.”

“I know,” said Jane. “I won’t let my doctor prescribe them for me, anyway, but this gut thing ... it feels like there’s a knot in my stomach all day long. I guess it’s stress, but I don’t understand why. My job’s going well. I’m making great progress! I’m being promoted. I don’t get it.”

“I do,” said Lilly. “There’s more to life than work! That’s the whole point.”

Lilly was cut short by the sound of Jane’s mobile phone ringing.

Jane fished in her handbag for the phone, and answered the call. After whispering seriously for a few seconds, she looked apologetically at her friends. “Sorry guys. That was Christina. She needs me to fax her some papers from home. I’ve gotta go.”

Jane left before Lilly and Bill could complain.

“That’s one mixed-up girl,” said Lilly.

“Uh huh,” said Bill. “Sure is.”

 

 

 

It was 1:00 am when Joe finally got to bed. It had been a long day, but he was pleased about getting Dr Jefferson to chair the Zemtril conference. So pleased, in fact, he was almost able to forget the whipping Sue had given him on the squash court. Lying in the darkness, Joe looked across his bed to the red digits of his clock radio. He reached over and checked the alarm was switched on, then reflected on the day.

The boys in the jazz band wouldn’t be happy if he got the promotion that Kerryn said he might have a shot at. It was hard enough to find time to play as it was. After a promotion it might be impossible.

Joe thought back to the long conversations he’d had with his father, before the old man passed on. He remembered the time his father had told him of his love for painting, in the years prior to his rise as a successful banker. Joe had even seen a few of his dad’s paintings, dusty in the attic of the family home. They were landscapes, many of them lush in the colours of sunsets and sunrises. That he had neglected his talent and given up something so special was a matter of great sorrow; this had been a surprising admission from a father who normally kept his feelings to himself. Joe supposed, in the end, that the old man simply felt it was important for his son to know. The digits on the clock changed. Another minute went by. It was 1:06 am.

Joe propped his arms behind his head and thought about the strange leprechaun he had seen for the first time that very day. For some reason, it all seemed perfectly normal. He had a guardian angel, named Shamus, who wore a cheap leprechaun suit. So what? Meeting the little guy hadn’t made any difference to Joe’s life, except perhaps for that odd warning about his life being on fire. And what was that supposed to mean? Joe knew he was a little overworked, and he did get the occasional chest pain, but things weren’t that bad. He put the matter out of his mind, and fell asleep.

 

 

Across town, in her charming home, Jane was relaxing in bed, listening to the wind which rustled the leaves of the tiny tree by her bedroom window. Lilly had planted the tree for her. It was a Ficus, a hardy breed which stood some chance of surviving the neglect with which Jane usually treated her unfortunate plants. She closed her book, Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, and reached out to switch off the lamp.

It was one o’clock. Moonlight washed softly through the window, coming and going with the passing clouds. Maybe she should get a cat, Jane thought; cats were much more faithful than boyfriends, and far less trouble. A powerful beam of moonlight flooded the room, as if to say how true that was.

It was odd, Jane thought, as she fluffed up her pillow, that she had met her guardian angel that day. Why a leprechaun? She wasn’t Irish. Come to think of it, the little guy didn’t even have an Irish accent. He was as bogus as any leprechaun could possibly be: clearly, a pretender. And yet, for reasons she couldn’t fathom, she felt powerless but to accept the whole thing as real. And what did he mean by saying her life was on fire? It was all pretty ambiguous. Jane rolled over in bed. There was that darned cramp in her stomach again: irritable bowel. Why did it have to hit her at one o’clock in the morning? She was resting, after all. She found it all very annoying.

Sleep took away the pain.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter  5

 

It was a Sunday afternoon. Jane sat in her living room, bent over her coffee table, which was hidden under multiple print-outs of the City Hospital computer program. Jane hardly noticed the red hues of sunset which flooded the room through the open front window, nor her ghostly white curtains swaying gently in the breeze. She rubbed her eyes, wearily.

Margaret Hoffman had been complaining for three weeks. The drug inventory program was ‘too difficult to use.’ It wasn’t enough that Jane had got the program running again, that she had killed the bugs which infested it and thereby prevented further system crashes. The disgruntled Chief Pharmacist had now presented Jane with a list, several pages long, of how the program was to be made more ‘user-friendly.’ And so it was that Jane had lost another Sunday to work.

Jane turned her attention to her laptop computer. Its screen displayed the source code for the user interface module. Jane wondered if she should recode the module completely. That, she thought sadly, would be a very big job.

After a few more minutes of restless typing, Jane decided she was too tired to continue. She switched off the computer. With a grunt, she got up and shuffled dejectedly to her kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door proved a disappointment; the empty shelves reminded her she hadn’t had time to shop. Jane felt a twinge of guilt as she turned to the freezer compartment and extracted a solitary TV dinner. After microwaving the meal, she returned to the living room. Finally, back on the sofa, Jane put her feet on the print-outs and balanced the hot meal on her stomach. She chewed despondently on the tiny slices of rubbery meat which were supposed to resemble Steak Diane.

Jane switched on the big-screen television. She had soon forgotten about work, lost in the sights and sounds of cable news. Last month’s jumbo jet crash was being investigated. Heads were rolling at the airline. In a different story, llamas were becoming popular as investment animals. A financial expert solemnly explained that a lot of capital was required to get into llamas. Jane munched bravely on her steak.

She changed to the sports channel. Tiny two-person sailboats, sleek and white, were racing around a turbulent harbour. Jane looked fondly at the Laser-class boats. As a girl, she had been a keen sailor. The Laser was her favourite: fast, racy, and exciting. Jane smiled, forgetting where she was, and certainly not attempting to eat the bland peas on her little plastic tray. Then she snapped out of it, switched back to the news channel, and dimmed the volume to a whisper.

Her mind drifted onto what the leprechaun had said about her life being on fire – it was such a strange thing to say. It reminded her of the advice her dad used to give her about sailing. Making dumb mistakes on the racecourse, he used to say, like getting too far downwind, or approaching the buoy on a port tack when you could have made it on starboard (and had the right of way), was just poor thinking. Poor thinking was like fire: easy to start but hard to stop. Or it was like digging a hole: the deeper you got into it, the harder it was to get out of. Think first, he used to say, think carefully, then decide which way you’re going to take the boat. Jane missed racing. She missed her father, too.

The muted chime of Jane’s mobile phone interrupted her chain of thought. She grabbed the phone. “Hello. Jane Hamilton.”

“Jane. It’s Christina. Sounds like we’ve got a bad line.”

“Hi, Christina. Yeah, but I can still make you out. What’s up?”

“Jane, I had a call from Margaret Hoffman, at home.”

“On a Sunday?!”

“Afraid so. She wants to know when you’re going to have those revisions finished on the drug inventory program. I know it’s a pain, Jane, but do you think you could have something finished by tomorrow? She’s such a big client.”

Jane sighed. “Yes ... I’m working on it now. I’ve been stewing on it all day. I think I can upgrade the data entry system and have a trial version in place for her tomorrow. At least something.”

“That’s great, Jane. Okay. Oh! Looks like my memo on the quarterly objectives must have stirred them up at Head Office. There’s a fax coming though now, from the GM. Better go. Thanks, Jane. See you tomorrow.” Christina was in a hurry to hang up.

“Right. See you then.” Jane put the phone down. She wasn’t really happy about this kind of thing happening on weekends, but what could she do? Pushing the now-cold TV dinner to one side, she sat up and switched on her laptop once more.

It was going to be a long night.

 

 

The light had long since disappeared from Jane’s window. It was midnight. Jane was still sitting on her sofa, staring into the laptop as if it held all the answers to life. She was making real progress. A few more hours and she would have the program working well enough to show Hoffman.

The telephone rang again. This time it was her home phone, a cordless unit which sat neglected next to a lamp by the sofa.

Jane extended its aerial and said hello.

It was Lilly. “Jane! Where are you? Where were you? We missed you.”

“What?” Jane was puzzled.

 Lilly was mad. “The video night! We were all supposed to be getting together at Bill’s place tonight, don’t you remember? Little Janie even stayed up to see you. You never showed. What’s wrong with you, Jane?”

“Oh, I completely forgot. Lilly, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. How could I just forget?

There was a pause at the other end of the line. Finally, Lilly spoke. She sounded concerned. “Janey, what are we going to do with you? This is the third time you’ve done this, this year. When are you going to slow down?”

“Slow down?” said Jane.

“Yes, slow down. I’ll bet you’re working right now, aren’t you? I’ll bet you’re typing away at that computer of yours on some important project. Am I right or am I right?”

“Well ...”

“Aha!” Lilly exclaimed. “I knew it! Now, if you didn’t come because you had a hot date with a Paul Newman look-alike, or a younger Sidney Portier, we’d forgive you. That would be style. That would be class. Janey, sitting at home work-a-work-a-working all weekend is not style. It’s not class. Don’t you know it’s Sunday?”

“Yes, but ...”

Lilly was determined. “No buts! But nothing! Now, if you don’t meet us for coffee this Wednesday night, I will personally come over and pluck the chips out of that laptop of yours, one by one, and feed them to my goldfish. Do we have a deal?”

“Deal,” Jane said. “Okay, okay. Deal. I’ll be there. In fact, why don’t you come over to my place and I’ll make you and Bill dinner?”

“Okay. Maybe there’s hope for you, after all. Well, say goodnight to your silicon boyfriend for me. Don’t forget he turns into a pumpkin at midnight! Bye.”

“Bye.” Jane knew Lilly was right. She was working too hard. But this program simply had to be finished by the morning. Jane would have to pull an all-nighter.

Time goes very quickly when you’re programming. In fact, before Jane knew it, it was three-thirty in the morning. Monday morning. In a few short hours she would have to be at the office. At least she had finished the job.

Jane switched off the computer, then the television, which had been inanely murmuring the news all night, and headed for the bathroom. A few splashes of cold water on her face helped a little, but she still felt like a wreck. She traipsed down the passage to her bedroom, took one look at her bed, without bothering to change, and fell, face down, onto it.

Sixty seconds later, she was asleep.

 

 

Joe looked around the empty reps room. It was Sunday morning. Sensible people were still in bed. And where was he? At the office. In a suit. There was so much to organise for the Cardiac Society meeting; three weeks of hard work had gotten the ball rolling, but now the deadline approached. Seated at his tiny desk, Joe looked over the meeting timetable and the instructions from Dr Jefferson. They were pretty daunting.

Joe switched on his computer and downloaded his e-mail. Sure enough, there were several messages from Biopharm’s Conference Department. Could Joe send an updated list of Cardiac Society members, in plain text format? Could Joe visit the hotel and inspect the audiovisual facilities before Tuesday? The requests went on.

Joe screwed his face into a scowl. He typed rapidly, punching in replies to each of the messages. This, he thought with little conviction, is going to be a great day for sales. He gripped his chest as a sudden stab of pain spiked behind his breast bone. That’s odd, he thought. Affirmations are supposed to help, not hurt. He decided to get some coffee.

As he wandered over to the tiny office kitchen, Joe thought about the leprechaun’s warning, that his life was on fire and that he had to do something about it. Stupid leprechaun! Joe already had a busy job to do – he had a living to make. He didn’t need facile advice from loopy angels. He switched on the kettle and collected ingredients to make a very poor cup of instant. As the water boiled, he decided to try some more affirmations.

“Every day,” Joe muttered, “in every way, it’s getting better and better.”

His chest burned again.

Sighing heavily, Joe poured his coffee, added three spoons of sugar in a vain attempt to perk himself up, and headed back to his desk. This was going to be another entire Sunday lost to work, no matter how many affirmations he said. He tried humming a jazz tune, instead: Summertime.

That reminded him. The band. He would have to call them and cancel practice for today. Joe had to admit that right at that moment he would much rather have been with the boys, playing a little Hoagy Carmichael or Wayne Shorter, than sitting in this grey office putting the good oil on his prospects for promotion. He put the thought aside as he reached his desk and sat down again. He had worked long and hard to get where he was and he wasn’t about to give it all up now.

The desk phone rang, startling him. Who could be calling him at the office, nine o’clock on a Sunday morning? He picked up the receiver.

“Joe,” came Paul’s voice. “It’s me.”

“Paul. What are you doing this weekend? Are you going to tell me her name? It’s not another actress, is it?”

“Joe, I am an actor, myself. It’s a fine profession. So please don’t say, ‘It’s not another actress, is it?’ Show a little respect.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Joe. “So, do I know her?”

“Her name’s Cynthia. You remember, I told you I was doing a little Shakespeare for fun, with the local drama group?”

“Oh, yes,” Joe quipped. “Much Ado About Nothing, wasn’t it? Or was it, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy?”

“That’s Woody Allen, Joe, not the bard. If you must know, it’s The Merchant of Venice. And as for the pound of flesh ... don’t even ask.”

“Sorry, Paul. I’m just jealous. I’m sitting here in the office and you’re having a wonderful time with a beautiful actress. Hey, maybe you might even get to like her.”

“Please! Don’t mention the C-word! Committed relationships are for sedate types such as yourself. We adventurers don’t speak of such things.”

“Sometimes,” said Joe, “I think your perfect woman would be a plastic doll. What’s wrong with a little commitment? I mean, you could start by trying a whole month with one girl. How does that sound?”

“My, we are in a bad mood! Look, we’re going on a picnic. We thought you might like to come along. Sue’s coming, with that boyfriend of hers. What his name?”

“Alan.”

“Yeah, right. Come on, you know it’ll be fun. How many times do I have to tell you ...”

“I know,” Joe groaned. “All work and ...”

“ ... no play ...” Paul continued.

“ ... makes Joe a dull boy.” Joe finished. “What about all play and no work. What does that make Paul?”

“Popular,” said Paul. “And available.”

Joe laughed. “All right, all right. But I can’t. I have to finish this work by tomorrow. I’ll see you Wednesday, at squash. Okay?”

“Okay, man, but I’m telling you, you have to ease up a little on the work. Sue will have a field day, when she hears you’re working today. You’re going to get an earful on Wednesday, you know that?”

“I know. See you.”

“See you,” Paul replied.

Joe put down the phone. He was jealous. Paul seemed to have a new girlfriend every few weeks, each one more glamorous than the last. For a split second, Joe wondered if he should succumb to Dr Jennifer Tyson, after all.

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, he thought.

 

 

 

Joe tried not to yawn. It was five-thirty, that same afternoon, and he was talking to a very boring hotel manager. Joe wished, fervently, that he didn’t have to check the hotel on a Sunday. It was bad enough, having spent all day at the office, without being stuck in a conference room, putting up with the private lecture he was now getting.

“And this,” said the young hotel manager, a slick-looking man in the loudest tie Joe had seen for two decades, “is our System 2000! The finest AV equipment available. Quadraphonic sound, digital video, and just look at the size of this radio mike!” He held up a tiny button, the size of a split pea.

“Impressive,” said Joe, completely bored.

“The LCD projection device casts a cinematic image onto the big-screen you can see here. We’ve had medical conferences before. The doctors loved it!” The kid looked pleased with himself.

“Uh, yeah. It looks great. Thanks. I’ll be in touch tomorrow with the final numbers.” Joe shook the manager’s hand and made a beeline for the elevator.

Ten minutes later, after paying a hefty fee in the underground parking lot, Joe was on the road, driving home. It was sunset. The ruby sunburst made the horizon into art; the tired city seemed almost beautiful.

By the time Joe made it home, it was dark.

 

 

At midnight, an empty pizza carton on the dining room table beside him, Joe was putting the finishing touches on the handouts for the Cardiac Society meeting. At last, he switched off his computer and surveyed the wasteland of crumpled paper that littered the table and most of the floor. Not a bad day’s work, he thought grimly, for a Sunday.

He decided to play a little jazz before he hit the sack. He went to the refrigerator and got out a beer, popped the can and took a swig, sauntered into the living room, and finally sat down at the piano and switched it on. After balancing his beer on a nearby chair, Joe began to play some Hoagy Carmichael. Skylark was the tune. Joe was far too tired to sing, but as he began to relax, his hands painted a beautiful tune across the keyboard and into the air around him: waves of comforting sound, of chords and colour, rhythm and melody. Joe played for quite a long time, because tomorrow was Monday morning, something he was trying very hard not to think about.

Half an hour later, as he finished the last few bars of Denny Zeitlin’s beautiful lullaby, Quiet Now, he decided it was time to retire. Joe switched the piano off and wandered into the bedroom, leaving the beer can where it rested, half-full.

Soon his clothes were nothing but an untidy pile next to his bed. He pulled on a pair of Donald Duck boxer shorts, a present from an old girlfriend, and lay down as if he were drugged, suddenly unconscious.

The sound of Joe’s snoring echoed through the apartment.

He was dead to the world.

 

 

 

Chapter  6

 

Jane was in her kitchen when she heard the doorbell. She closed the oven and went to the front door. It was Wednesday night – she was expecting Bill and Lilly over for dinner. Sure enough, when Jane opened the door, she saw her two best friends smiling at her.

“Sorry we’re late,” said Lilly. “Bill, here, was late picking me up.”

“Actually,” said Bill, “what Ms Punctual isn’t telling you is that she kept me waiting for fifteen minutes while she changed her dress. Anyway, Leslie sends her apologies. She’s got a Rotary meeting. The kids are with Katherine.”

Jane ushered her friends inside. “Never mind. Come on in, you guys. I’m just finishing in the kitchen. Take a seat in the dining room, at the table.”

Jane reappeared shortly. “Can I get you guys something to drink?”

“I’d like some wine,” said Lilly.

“Mineral water,” said Bill.

Lilly prodded Bill in the arm. “My, we are getting old, aren’t we? I let you out of my sight for a while; the next thing I know you’re married, with two kids, and drinking mineral water. Soon you’ll be playing golf.”

“Very funny,” said Bill. “And I suppose you’d prefer it if I were an alcoholic? What about that ex-boyfriend of yours: Mickey? Now, he could qualify ...”

Jane was horrified. “Guys, guys! Truce! What’s gotten into you? I’ll get the mineral water.”

“Maybe you’re right about Mickey,” Lilly whispered to Bill, once Jane had left the room. “He was a no-hoper. That’s why I ditched him. But he was great in bed. What can I say?”

Bill nodded solemnly. The two were friends again. They chatted for a few minutes before Jane returned with a huge platter of roast beef, gravy, potatoes and vegetables.

“Dig in!” said Jane, as she sat down.

Lilly grabbed the carving knife and began to serve up. “This looks great, Jane. Just like my mum used to make. Now, are you going to give me the lecture on why I need to meet a nice Jewish boy? Or do I get to enjoy this bliss without the tirade? That was the only problem with eating at home.”

Jane laughed. “It’s usually me that gets lectured on boys, and it’s usually you that gives the lecture!”

Bill helped himself to some asparagus and buttered carrots. “Jane, you’ve outdone yourself. Would you marry me? Oops, forgot. I’m already married. Maybe next time.”

“Sure,” said Jane. “Any time. We’ll elope to Paris. Remember the good old college days? We said we’d all go to Europe together, see the sights, find exotic foreign lovers. Let’s do it.”

“Whatever happened to those plans?” said Bill, dreamily.

“Money happened,” said Lilly. “We discovered it runs out. Worse still, you always have to make more of the stuff. It’s endless. Someone should invent indelible money. You know, you spend it, but it never runs out. Then we’d go to Europe.” She savoured a bite of the delicious roast beef, and closed her eyes. “But no European cafe has your roast beef, Jane. Heaven!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Bill agreed. “Mmmm ... hmmm!”

Jane blushed. “Why, thank yuh,” she said, in her best imitation Southern-belle accent. “Yawl are such sweet talkers, welcome any time. Such flattery, my dear friends, will take you anywhere yawl wanna go!

Well, I declare!” Lilly said, and then broke down laughing.

The three friends sat there for a long time, feasting on the fine food. It was almost two hours later when Jane finally brought out the coffee. Bill, Lilly and Jane got up from the table and adjourned to the living room, drooping themselves languidly over sofa chairs and balancing coffee cups on their bulging stomachs.

“Man, what a nice evening,” said Bill.

Lilly nodded. “Absolutely.”

Jane smiled. It had been a long time, she thought, since she’d had Bill and Lilly over for dinner. She must do it again, sometime soon.

It was about then that the doorbell rang.

“Who could that be, at this hour?” said Jane.

Puzzled, she got up and went to the front door. The doorbell sounded a second time. Whoever it was, was certainly impatient.

“Who is it?” she asked, without opening the door.

“Fire service, ma’am,” came a man’s voice. “Here to put out the fire. We had an emergency call at the station.”

Jane peeped through her spyhole. A short, fat man, in a familiar leprechaun suit, was standing there, smiling sweetly. Jane thought it was probably bad form to turn one’s guardian angel away at the door, and so, reluctantly, she let him in, although she was a little lost for words.

Shamus Maguinty, guardian angel, handed Jane his little green leprechaun cap, which she duly hung on the coat rack.

Since no one had said anything for a good thirty seconds, Shamus decided to break the silence. “Jane! Sorry to interrupt your dinner, but I had a message from the Guy Upstairs. Apparently, there’s an urgent fire and we have to put it out, tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“Tonight.”

Jane frowned. “I’ve got visitors, you know!”

“Be that as it may, Jane, the Guy Upstairs said ...”

“What do you mean,” said Jane, cutting him off, “the ‘guy upstairs?’ What are you talking about? There is no upstairs.”

“No, no, no,” said Shamus, pointing to the heavens above with a circling finger. “I mean, Upstairs. Upstairs upstairs, get it?”

“Oh,” said Jane. “What fire?”

“The fire in your life, of course! Your life is on fire.” Shamus shook his hand at her, reproachfully. “Don’t you remember?”

“Uh ... well ... I mean ...”

Angry, Shamus pushed past Jane and walked briskly down the corridor toward the living room. Jane, suddenly horrified, grabbed him by the shoulders and ran around in front of him, blocking his way. Then she took a step back, realising she was touching an angel. Actually, he felt like a perfectly ordinary man in a kitsch leprechaun suit, but technically speaking he was an angel.

“You can’t go in there!” Jane gasped. “I’ve got friends over.”

Shamus silenced her, patiently, by holding up a pudgy hand.

Jane had to admit the little fellow was kind of cute: handsome, in a lovable-father-figure kind of way, even if he did need a new tailor. But she was getting desperate. “Do you really have to embarrass me in front of my friends? Couldn’t this wait?”

“Jane,” said Shamus. “Listen carefully. I am invisible to everyone except you. So don’t go talking to me, or else they’ll think you’re crazy. Also, no one can hear me, except you. Now, I’ll be giving you some critical advice about what happens. This is a critical moment in your life. Got all that?” He looked at Jane, expectantly.

“Er, okay ... I guess,” said Jane.

“I can’t stay long, so make the most of it!” Shamus pulled out his pocket watch, seemed to do a few quick mental calculations, then put it away again. “Right,” he said, stepping around Jane and striding into the living room. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Jane, resigned to her fate, walked into the living room behind her supposedly invisible guardian angel.

Bill and Lilly were still loafing in their sofa chairs.

Bill looked directly at Jane. “Secret admirer?” he asked. There was no indication that he could see Shamus.

“Oh, nothing like that. Just a friend, um, dropping off a book he borrowed. Boring, really.” Jane sat down on a vacant sofa chair.

Shamus was wandering around the living room, examining the antique furniture. He stopped by Bill’s chair. Apparently, he was seen only by Jane.

“Well, another happy night comes to an end,” said Bill, sadly. “I’m not looking forward to work tomorrow. But that’s just life, isn’t it? Life is hard and then you die. It makes you fat, too.”

“Come on, Bill!” said Lilly. “You’re not that overweight. Just a bit cuddly, is all. I like a cuddly man! Cuddly is sexy.”

“Quite right,” said Shamus. “I like that girl. But who’s the pessimist? I’ll have to have a word with his guardian angel.” No one but Jane could hear Shamus, and she only wished he would shut up; it was confusing her. Shamus walked over to Lilly. “Now, Jane, pay attention! It’s about to happen.”

Shamus indicated Lilly was about to speak.

“Jane, I’m worried about you. It’s ... nothing new, I know, but I’m worried.”

Shamus held his arms out sideways, as if to say, ‘I told you so.’

Jane ignored him.

“Really?” said Jane, in reply to Lilly’s concern.

“Yeah. Really. I want you tell me more about what the doctor said. What’s the story with this gut thing? It’s stress, right? Bill and I ... we still think you need to slow down.”

Jane knew Lilly would have this out with her, sooner or later. Apparently, the time had come. “Well, it’s this pain I keep getting in my stomach. It’s like my gut is cramping up. It’s there most of the day. Not too bad, just uncomfortable, but it’s a nuisance, especially on a busy day.”

“Uh huh.”

“So, the doctor gave me a few options.”

“Well?” said Bill.

“He told me it basically comes down to lifestyle. The hours I work, the demands of my job, how much I demand of myself. Then he talked about good diet and exercise, and he wanted to know what I did for relaxation. I told him I watched the news, to keep up with current affairs. He didn’t seem very impressed by that.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Lilly.

“So, he gave you tablets to stop the cramps?” Bill asked.

“Yeah ... but they didn’t work.” Jane sighed.

“You can’t expect a tablet to fix a life,” said Shamus, profoundly.

Jane wished Shamus would keep quiet.

“Jane,” said Lilly, “you can’t expect a tablet to fix a life.”

Jane looked shocked. She wondered how the words had coincided.

Shamus beamed at her. “Pretty neat trick, huh?”

Jane replied to Lilly. “Right. I guess you’re right, Lilly. It’s just ... everything is going so well at work. The promotion and everything. Now’s the last time I want to slow down.”

“Yeah,” said Bill, “and you still have to make ends meet. We understand. But do you really have to push yourself until you drop? Isn’t there a happy medium?”

Jane went on. “Well, I guess so. The doctor said I had to exercise daily, take time to rest every day, improve my diet, and think about changing my approach to work. Easy for him to say. Where on earth could I find the time?”

“Hmmm,” said Bill.

Lilly frowned. “Well, I’m busy, too, Jane. Schoolteaching can be a tough job. But I still make sure I take at least half an hour, most days, to do some exercise, and I still do my gardening ... and yours. That’s why your tulips are still alive! Look, Janey. You’re just way out of balance, way out of balance.”

Jane sighed. “That’s exactly what the doctor said. But it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. It’s hard enough for a woman to get ahead in this world as it is, but you should see the atmosphere at our monthly meetings. The air is thick with knives. Heads roll. Believe me, I’d like to take a more balanced approach to my life. I just don’t have the option.”

“Actually, I know what you mean,” said Bill, depressed.

Lilly was disgusted. “Bill! Whose side are you on?!”

“Good question,” said Shamus.

“Look, Jane,” Lilly continued. “I’m sure your doctor said there’s really no choice. I’m sure he said to slow down because your body’s showing danger signs and soon it’ll start falling apart. Did he say that? He did, didn’t he?”

“Well ...” said Jane.

“Come clean, Jane. He told you that you have to slow down, right now, if you want to stay healthy. And you don’t want to admit it because you’ve just been offered the promotion of your dreams. Am I right or am I right?”

“Well ... yes. He did say that.”

Lilly looked victorious. “I thought so.”

“So did I,” said Bill, half-heartedly.

The room fell silent for a moment.

Shamus looked very pleased. “Good, good. Good, Jane! Well, I must go!” He pulled out his pocket watch, polished it vigorously in a large green handkerchief, and began to disappear, leaving the usual cloud of green smoke behind him. “Don’t forget, Jane. This is a critical moment in your life. Make sure you do something about it.”

With that, he was completely gone.

Bill sniffed the air. “Jane, did you leave the oven on? I think I smell smoke. Do you see that, Lilly?” He pointed at the rapidly fading green vapour.

“Smoke?” said Lilly. “How can you talk about smoke at a time like this? Jane, we want to know. Are you going to slow down?”

“You guys are the greatest, you know that.” Jane looked at Bill and Lilly for a moment. “I don’t know, guys. I’ll try. I’ll try. Okay?”

“Okay,” her two friends said in unison.

The smoke had all but disappeared.

 

 

Joe was doing it again: beating Paul Jamieson at squash. It was their regular Wednesday night game. Paul shook his head in frustration as the latest ball flew mercilessly past. The shot was perfectly placed, very fast.

“You’re winning again, Joe,” said Paul. “Couldn’t you lose, just once?”

Joe shrugged. “Sorry. Hey – do you still want me to come skydiving? Return this serve, and I’ll go!”

Paul knew what that meant: one of those miserable loop serves. He stood in the corner, waiting for it. Sure enough, Joe lobbed the ball high, so high that after rebounding from the front wall it curved down toward the opposite back corner like a falling stone. An experienced player might have defeated the serve, but to a beginner like Paul it was fatal. He swung wildly, trying to hit the ball before it dropped into the dead zone of the corner. Connecting with the rim of his racket, the ball ricocheted uselessly to the side of the court. Paul had lost another game.

Sue called out from the gallery. “No fair! Taking advantage of a beginner!”

Joe held his hands out, palms up, feigning innocence.

Paul laughed. “It’s okay, Joe. I wouldn’t have any mercy on you, either. Now, if you’d care for a little game of pool ...”

Joe slapped Paul on the back, cheerfully. “No thanks.”

The two men left the court. Soon they were upstairs at the drinks counter with Sue, where a huge, glass-fronted refrigerator displayed a bewildering array of sports drinks of every imaginable colour. Sue bought three, and handed one each to Joe and Paul. Then she led the way to a plastic table and chairs, part of a makeshift dining area at one end of the complex. Players were scattered around the tables, discussing their games, lamenting losses and celebrating wins. Squash players, Sue thought, were a particularly competitive bunch. The three of them sat down and opened their brightly coloured drinks.

“Ah,” said Sue. “Glucose, salt, minerals, water, and real artificial lime flavour. Just what I needed. About two pints should do it!”

Joe took a swig, then suddenly turned pale.

He put the bottle down and placed both his hands flat on the table. There was something odd about the way he looked, like someone stunned, or someone in pain, waiting for the pain to pass.

“Joe,” said Paul, “are you all right?”

In reply, Joe shook his head, very slightly, then raised his right hand quickly to his left arm; he gripped his arm tightly for about twenty seconds.

“What is it, Joe? What’s wrong?” Paul was alarmed.

Sue realised what the problem was. “You’re having chest pains again, aren’t you? Okay. Just stay calm. Try to breath normally.”

All of a sudden, Joe relaxed. He let out a lungful of air. “Wow,” he said softly. “That wasn’t good. It was like a vice on my chest, like a huge weight, crushing my arm. It was ... really terrible. I’ve never had one that bad before.”

No one said anything for a moment.

Joe just sat there, panting slightly, glad it was over.

Paul looked shocked.

Sue, as usual, was practical. “Right! You’re coming with me to the hospital. Alan’s on duty. I’m going to get him to take a look at you tonight.”

Joe waved his hand. “No, no. It’s already ten o’clock. I have to go to work tomorrow. If we go to the hospital, we’ll be hours. It can wait.”

“Joe,” said Paul, “I take risks when I’m skydiving, but I never take stupid risks. You need to see a doctor. Don’t be stupid about it. Let’s go. Sue can drive us.”

“All right. Okay,” said Joe, grumbling. “I guess you guys are right.”

“That’s more like it,” said Sue. “You’re only thirty-one, Joe. This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. Let’s talk to Alan. He’ll get to the bottom of it.”

The three friends walked slowly to the exit.

Paul made Joe sit down in one of the lobby chairs, while he and Sue went to collect the car. “Back in five,” said Paul, on his way out.

Joe relaxed for a moment.

Then he wondered if his eyesight were failing as well as his heart; there seemed to be green smoke in the lobby. Suddenly, there was someone sitting beside him, in the next seat. It was the leprechaun.

Oh, no! Joe thought. Not him again!

“Hello, Joe. It’s me, Shamus Maguinty, your guardian angel. Remember?”

Joe definitely wasn’t up to this; he was on his way to hospital, and now he was being visited by an angel. It seemed morbid. “Uh, right. Hi. Do we have to do this right now? It’s not really a good time.”

Shamus went on as if Joe had not spoken. “Silly question. I used Rainbow Stars on you. Of course you remember me. But maybe I shouldn’t have used the stars. I do love doing that Cossack dance. The look on your face! You should have seen it. Rainbow Stars take all the fun out of it. Mortals get so mellow ...”

“Excuse me,” said Joe. “Why, if you don’t mind me asking, are you here?”

“Why am I here? Why am I here?! Sometimes you mortals are so obtuse! When I asked for the animal kingdom, I thought I was going to look after the whales ... but instead they give me two humans. Bah! The whales would have been so much easier. I’m here, you idiot, because you nearly DROPPED DEAD on the squash court just now! If I have to go Upstairs and report to the Big Guy that you snuffed it on a squash court ... ARE YOU LISTENING?!!”

 Joe had no idea what to say to an angry angel. He said nothing.

Shamus clasped his aging face in his tiny hands and shook his head, slowly. Then he looked up, pulled out his pocket watch, and rubbed it clean. “Now, look,” he said sternly, “I’ve got sixty seconds. Your time is running out. You mortals are supposed to LEARN to do things by yourselves. Is it really that hard? I’m here to give you a hint, since your life is going up in smoke. Here, maybe you need some more Stars.”

The irascible angel reached into his pocket and produced some more Rainbow Stars. They twinkled like floating candy, bright fluttering confetti. Joe was once more hypnotised by their charm. Shamus snapped his fingers a couple of times. Joe didn’t even blink. “Good! Now, you will listen very carefully, understand and remember. Okay?”

“Yeppir,” said Joe, gaily. “Anything you say.”

“Look, dummy. You’re going to DROP DEAD with a heart attack, five years from now – while you’re driving, as a matter of fact. You will have been promoted, working more hours than ever, and you will have quit the band. But you are going to wrap your car around a tree. Now, there’s something I need you to do. Just one little thing, okay?”

“One thing,” Joe repeated. “What?”

“DON’T DO IT, YOU IDIOT! Don’t let it happen. Listen to your friends. Go see this doctor tonight, and hear what he says.” Shamus looked agitated. He was fading into smoke. “Look, human ... I mean, Joe, I’ve gotta go. The boss is gonna kill me. It’s all a nightmare. Just try to pay attention to your life, will you do that for me?”

Joe blacked out. When he woke up, the angel had disappeared.

Dead in five years? Joe thought. Could that be true?

Before he could think any further about the grim news, Paul rushed in through the self-opening glass doors. “Okay, Big Boy! Let’s go get that ticker of yours checked out.”

“Sure,” said Joe. He followed Paul out to Sue’s car. She was waiting, impatiently, to drive them to hospital. The two men got into the car.

As Joe buckled up his seat belt, he wondered if angels could be wrong. Could Joe prevent his own death? Did he have that kind of power, that kind of ability to choose? And even if he did, where should he start, to stop it from happening to him?

Sue looked across at him, inquisitively.

“You look as if you just saw a ghost,” she said.

“I did,” said Joe. “Mine.”

Maybe, Sue thought, as she pulled the car out from the curb and began the drive to City Hospital, just maybe, Joe was beginning to see the light.

 


Chapter  7

 

Michael Pavlovich thumped his palm down hard on the conference room table. The monthly progress meeting was not going well, a fact evidenced by the glum faces of the employees huddled around the table, each trying to attract less attention than the next. Michael exploded with rage. “Goddamn it, Nira! That’s just not good enough!”

The target of his fury, twenty-three-year-old Nira Kerford, sank deeper into her chair and wished she could disappear. She chewed a mint rapidly to calm her nerves.

The snack bowl was beginning to look dangerously empty.

Jane reached over and took another mint.

Nira was cornered. “Mr Pavlovich, you see, it’s the program that’s no good. We ... er ...” She stuttered the words out miserably, lapsing into silence under the intense heat of Michael’s manic glare.

The portly State Manager shook his head and paced around the room. He was the only one standing. Business as usual, thought Jane. Michael’s jugular veins stood out like cords on his thick neck; they shook with every beat of his heart. His face was red and sweaty. Finally, he turned to Nira.

“Miss Kerford, I know you’re only a junior member of this company, but results are results. I’ve got Head Office breathing down my neck. BREATHING DOWN MY NECK. And you make a mistake like this? My job, Miss Kerford, is not secure. Neither is yours.” Michael sighed, as if he were talking to a moron.

Nira squirmed in her seat but said nothing. She felt like her whole world was turning upside down. At least the tirade was over for another month. She could now blend gratefully into the furniture for the rest of the meeting.

Gary, sitting next to her, smiled a fatherly smile of support.

Nira smiled back, weakly.

Michael turned his attention to Albert. “Mr Price. Could you go over the progress on the Nova 19 project?” Michael sat down.

Albert stood up, walked to the front of the room, and switched on an LCD projector. Pressing a few keys on his laptop, he brought up the first slide. It was a title page, impressively rendered in high-resolution graphics:

 

‘NOVA 19 PROGRESS REPORT. ALBERT PRICE’

 

Albert cleared his throat, adjusted his thick glasses, and tugged nervously at the bottom of his checked shirt. Then he began. “Well, Mr Pavlovich ... guys, I leave it to Jane and Christina to see the clients, so they could tell you about their end. I deal mostly with the machine code. I’ve been working on the translation module, German to English and English to German. You can see the concept, here ...”

Albert put up the next slide, a complex flow chart showing how a computer would go about translating one language to another. “I’ve been coding in C, the last two months, using an object library from our Singapore branch, who first developed the project.”

He went on talking, clicking through slide after slide, until he came to one entitled, ‘Current Progress.’

Christina’s eyes narrowed. Michael sat up straight in his chair. The slide showed three itemised goals on the left, and three corresponding check boxes on the right. Each of the three check boxes contained a single large, conspicuousred cross.

“Unfortunately,” said Albert, “we haven’t achieved our goals for this quarter. It’s a big task. Singapore has lost the original programming team, after two of their top people were, um, poached by a rival firm. The parsing algorithm is flawed and the program’s riddled with bugs. We’ve been trying to effect a total system rewrite, but so far we haven’t perfected it.”

Michael’s jugular veins began to throb again. His face turned a deeper shade of red, almost purple. He looked like he was about to boil over.

Before Michael could erupt, Christina broke in. Clearly, the Deputy State Manager was not amused. “Albert! I thought we spoke about this last meeting. We can’t afford for this project to flop!”

Albert removed his glasses and wiped them on his handkerchief. “It’s the time factor, Ms Forward. We can do it, but we need either more time or more personnel.” He paused. “I know we can do it.”

Jane was sitting so quietly she felt almost invisible. Inwardly, she was appalled. She knew Albert could do it, too, if only Michael and Christina would give him the resources he needed. But Jane remained silent. She had learned from harsh experience that disagreement was futile. It was never given more than lip service and it usually landed you in hot water.

Christina had heard enough. “Why don’t you sit down, Albert? I’ll talk to you about this failure, after the meeting.”

Albert, a man resigned to his impending execution, switched off the projector and trod back to his chair. He knew perfectly well that Christina was not going to allocate more resources to the project, not in the current era of cost-cutting and downsizing. Head Office, he thought morosely, had the idea that the way to get more productivity out of people was to squeeze them harder. It was the Lemon Theory – the harder you squeezed, the more juice you were supposed to get. Albert felt more like a lemming than a lemon. He resumed his seat. Janette Hofert, a young tech-writer who could never be serious, least of all at times of stress, pinched his leg under the table. Uncharacteristically, Albert smiled at her warmly. At least she was awake, he thought, which was more than he could say for the company management.

Christina decided it was time to move on. She addressed the group. “Gary, Steve and Janette have been working on upgrading our networking facilities. Can one of you update us, please?”

Gary relaxed in his chair, uninterested. It was safer to keep quiet. Janette was still trying to suppress a giggle, amused that Albert – the computer nerd – was softening toward her, at least enough to smile at one of her pranks.

Steve thought he had better speak up. He didn’t bother standing. “Yeah, we’ve put in a totally new system. The hardware’s been upgraded to meet our new 26B standard, as published by New York. We should be able to interface to any other Infosolve branch without any problems at all. Data transfer times are down, too.”

“At least someone’s doing their job!” Michael spat, unable to control his frustration any longer.

“Okay,” said Christina, curtly. “Thankfully that system won’t give us any more problems. Any other general business?”

The air was heavy with suspense. Gary, Nira, Albert, Steve, Janette and Jane were all so bored they could barely take any more. The only thing which relieved the boredom slightly was the stress. At last, it looked like the meeting was over; they could all get some real work done. Nira would need an hour or two to recover. Albert would probably fret for a while about company policy and consider leaving for greener pastures. Gary was looking forward to a cup of coffee. Janette thought she’d phone the guy she met last week. Steve would chew the fat with Jane, and they both would try to laugh about it all.

Christina brought the ordeal to an end. “All right, people. That’s it for now. Let’s break for lunch.”

As if suddenly electrified, everyone sprang up from their chairs and raced out of the room, as quickly as they could without making it look like a fire drill. Even Jane was quick off the mark. She headed directly for reception, planning to make her way outside the building and stretch her legs. Only Michael and Christina remained in the conference room, shaking their heads and talking pointedly about their problems with Head Office.

Steve followed Jane though the reception foyer, toward escape and fresh air. He had to rush to keep up with her. Grace, vigilant as always behind her reception counter, couldn’t help making a little quip as the two raced by. “World War Three?” she inquired.

“Not quite,” said Steve. “Just a minor a civil war.”

“Non-nuclear,” Jane added.

Before Grace could reply, Jane and Steve had pushed open the glass doors and were making their way down the stairs to freedom.

Steve tapped Jane on the shoulder. “Hey! Slow down!”

“I hate those meetings,” said Jane, slowing to a gentle walk. “They’re so pointless! What does Michael think he’s going to achieve? Even Christina ... I mean, she used to be my hero. Now she’s just like Michael, all over again. I think he’s a bad influence on her.”

They reached the ground floor, strolled out to the small garden at the rear of the building, and sat down on a bench seat.

“I know what you mean,” said Steve. He put a friendly arm around Jane, squeezed her shoulder briefly, then returned to his normal slouch. Jane mirrored Steve’s pose, both of them staring at their shoes. They sat there for a while, in silence.

Eventually, Jane spoke. “Thanks, Speedy. I love you, too. At least the two of us are sane. Do you think sanity could spread? Could it take over the whole company?”

“Are you kidding? No way. But I could see you running a meeting, Janey. I know you just sit there and say nothing, but if you had a little authority, you’d do things differently. Wasn’t Christina talking about a promotion?”

Jane thought for a moment. “I’ll tell you this much, Speedy. If I ever sweep into power, things will be different. Look at Nira and Albert! Those are bright kids. If only we used them right, instead of abusing them. If only we gave them opportunities, instead of squeezing them into what-we-want-when-we-want-it-how-we-want-it!”

“I know,” said Steve, slowly. “I know what you mean.”

Jane sighed. She knew it was just a pipe dream.

 

 

It was six-thirty, that same afternoon, when Jane looked up from her terminal, rubbed her eyes, and decided that enough was enough. She switched the screen off, gathered together a few papers, and stood up. The programming room was quiet. For once, everyone had gone home on time; everyone, that is, except Gary. Jane had been so absorbed in her work, she hadn’t noticed him sitting quietly at his desk, hands steepled under his chin. He seemed to be deep in thought. Jane wandered the length of the room, over to his desk.

Gary looked up, slowly.

“Programming trouble?” said Jane. “You know, there’s no algorithm that can’t be coded. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gary grunted. “It’s not work, Jane. Trouble at home.”

Jane pulled up a chair and sat down. “But I thought ...”

“ ... I lived alone?”

“Yes.”

“I do.”

“So? What? You look tired, Gary. Can I help?” Jane had never seen Gary like this: grey, pale, and worried. He was always so solid and dependable.

Gary took a deep breath. He looked at Jane for a moment. “Not unless you want to talk to my father for me. He won’t speak to me. My mother ... don’t even ask. She’s probably still crying.”

“But what is it, Gary?”

“Ah ... I’m adopted, Jane. Never told anyone, but I’ve been tracking down my birth parents these last three years. I found them.”

Jane didn’t know what to say. “And your folks?”

“Well, they never told me I was adopted. I found out by chance, three years ago. Found some papers, put two and two together. I never told them I knew. Then, last week, I found my birth mother. My natural father’s ... dead, probably. Anyway, I told my parents I’m going to meet her. They’re devastated, of course.” Gary looked piteous.

“They don’t want you to meet?”

“They say they feel betrayed, Jane. They want me to be loyal to them. My birth mother, it turns out, was ... well, a prostitute. They want me to leave it all in the past. And don’t even ask how I feel because I don’t know. It’s all a bit much for an aging forty-year-old. This stuff’s for kids.” Gary slumped a little lower in his chair.

 “My God! Why haven’t you told me about this before? Are you okay?”

Gary smiled ironically. “I’ve kept things secret for so long ... I don’t think I know how to talk about them, any more. I just need some time alone. Thanks.”

Typical Gary, Jane thought. He was always calm in a crisis. She wished she could do something to help. “Okay, but just remember if you want to talk, you’ve got my number. Don’t forget now, will you?”

“I won’t, Janey.”

“Okay. You gonna be okay, here by yourself?”

“Sure,” said Gary. “Go home.”

Jane frowned at him, for a long moment, then left him alone with his thoughts. It had been a very long day for both of them.

A few minutes later, as she locked the glass doors at reception, Jane couldn’t help wondering if Christina knew what Gary was going through, and, if so, whether or not she cared one iota. Jane recalled that Christina had refused Gary’s recent urgent request for leave – hardly compassionate of her, if she knew. As Jane made her way downstairs she asked herself, for the second time that day, if she really did want to be like Christina after all.


 

Joe tried not to yawn. It was hard. His eyes began to water as he desperately suppressed the urge. Gloomily, he surveyed the unhappy panorama of another monthly sales meeting at Biopharm.

Stan and Harry were seated side by side, exchanging an occasional sarcastic whisper. The other seats were occupied by Kerryn, Claudia, Michelle, and Karen O’Neil – a highly respected Senior Sales Representative. Not only was Karen a mother of three grown-up children, but she was also one of the most solid performers in the national sales force. It was curious to Joe that his boss, Kerryn, never bothered to sit at the head of the meeting room table. Somehow it made her seem more like one of the troops.

Vikram Krishnan, the dour and ill-liked Assistant Manager, was giving a lecture on this month’s sales figures, stabbing his pointer at hundreds of tiny, illegible numbers on the overhead-projection screen. The fan in the projector hummed quietly; it was a soothing noise and one which had a sedative effect on Joe. If he wasn’t careful, he’d fall asleep altogether.

“As you can see,” Vikram went on, dressed immaculately in a suit that cost about three times what Joe could dream of spending, “Stan’s territory has performed well, especially for Zemtril ...”

“Well done!” Harry chimed.

Claudia found it impossible to contain herself. “Stan’s targets have been set low by nine percent.It’s no wonder his figures look good! My targets have been raised by five percent. How can you expect me to perform, when ...”

Kerryn cut her short. “We can talk about that later, Claudia.”

“Never mind the targets,” said Michelle, gaily. “Just put my figures up. That’ll make these old dinosaurs look bad!” She looked wickedly at Stan and Harry. Kerryn seemed to appreciate her youthful enthusiasm. Harry and Stan, well used to these kind of jibes, simply ignored her.

Karen, effervescently dressed, as always, her gold bracelets jingling as she moved, decided it was time someone said something mature and sensible, even if this was a sales meeting. “The targets are a problem, Kerryn. You know I’m not a troublemaker, but Claude ... er, Claudia does have a point. Headquarters must set fair targets, or we all feel cheated.”

This time it was Vikram who spoke. “Karen! Claudia! This is a sales meeting, not a tea party. We’ve got a lot of figures to get through. If Kerryn says we’ll talk about it later, we’ll talk about it later.” The fire in Vikram’s dark eyes dared anyone to say another word. “Now, as I was saying, we can see the trend for growth is currently 150%, year-to-date, which is an excellent launch curve ...”

As Vikram rambled on, Karen shook her head and decided it wasn’t worth it – she knew when to back down. Claudia fumed quietly. Joe was still finding it hard not to nod off. Stan and Harry put on an admirably polished facade of intent listening. Michelle, who had been making cheerfully encouraging comments throughout the meeting, tapped Joe’s foot under the table with her own. Joe smiled wanly but it seemed to him that Vikram’s voice had become a distant drone, like the sound a little airplane makes far away in the sky. He began to fall asleep.

 “And so,” came Vikram’s angry voice, suddenly loud and clear, “what’s your opinion on this, Joe?”

Gripped by panic, Joe woke up; he tried to invent a meaningful reply. “Well, I think it looks ... good, Vikram. Very promising. We’re going from, um ... strength to strength.” Quickly, and rather expertly, Joe escaped the spotlight with a well-aimed question. “What do you think, Kerryn?”

“I agree. There’s definite progress, here. Vikram, perhaps you’d like to show us the New York figures for comparison?” Kerryn got up and put another transparency on the projector for Vikram.

“Sure. Well, New York was the first to launch our entire global operation. As you can see, we’ve outperformed their growth by ...”

As Vikram continued, Joe breathed a sigh of relief.

Michelle, from the other side of the table, winked mischievously.

Joe had to smile.

The meeting rolled predictably to its conclusion, half an hour later. As the tired group shuffled out of the meeting room, Joe went to the water cooler in the corner. He downed a paper-cupful of the refreshing liquid in one gulp.

Joe thought the room was deserted by now, but when he turned around Michelle was standing next to him.

“Awake, Joe?” she said.

“Just. How about you? Managed to stay alive?”

Michelle patted him on the arm. “Better than you did, anyway. I thought you were going to start snoring! Lucky for you, no one else seemed to notice.”

“Hmmm.” Joe had some more water.

“You know, Joe, your trouble is you work too hard. You’ve got to learn to slow down a little. Maybe that way, you’d stay awake! Why don’t ... why don’t I take you out for dinner? You need the rest.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

Michelle touched Joe’s arm again; this time she let her hand stay there. “I know I am. So, are you busy? I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages.”

Joe looked down at her hand on his forearm, and from there to Michelle’s impressive figure. Suddenly, he realised what was going on was more than just a friendly dinner invitation. “You’re not talking about food, are you?”

“Come on, Joe. You must have noticed! Don’t tell me you’ve been so engrossed in that diary of yours that you’ve never realised ... I was interested.” Michelle flashed him one of her dazzling smiles. “Let’s get something to eat. You know we’d enjoy ourselves. Let’s live a little.”

The Nineties Woman, Joe thought. Great, except for the minor detail that if he got involved with a colleague, Kerryn would kick his butt, and Michelle’s, straight out of the sales force. “Oh, Michelle, you know I can’t. You’re terrific, but this isn’t a good idea. Let’s just forget about it, okay?”

 Michelle seemed unimpressed. “Well, if you insist. But no one has to know, you know. You can always change your mind, can’t you, Joe?” She turned, confidently, and walked out of the room without another word.

Joe stood alone for a moment. He finally broke into a laugh. Shaking his head, he switched off the meeting room lights and closed the door behind him. It was ridiculous that Michelle said he, Joe Mathews, could be too engrossed in a diary to notice a beautiful woman. That, he was convinced, was nonsense.


Chapter  8

 

“More coffee?” Joe asked the question like a nurse at the bedside of a favourite patient. Paul, sitting comfortably at Joe’s dining room table, held his hand over his cup, but Sue – despite the big evening meal the three had just enjoyed – was far from satisfied.

“You betcha!” she said.

Joe filled her cup.

“Thanks, Joe. You’re quite a cook, you know. Why some nice girl hasn’t caught you yet, I’ll never know. Do you chase them away?”

Joe sat down. He surveyed the remnants of a gourmet meal: empty plates, a few leftovers, three napkins dropped lightly on the tablecloth. “Yeah, Sue. That’s right. I chase them away.”

Paul shook his head. “Chase them away? He doesn’t even look at them. The last time I tried to set him up with an actress ...”

“Actress?!” said Joe. “She was an exotic dancer. And when I say exotic ...”

“Cut it out, you two,” said Sue. “Paul does have a point, though. It’s no good denying it.”

Joe threw his hands in the air. “What point could he possibly have? Okay, tell me. Will somebody please tell me what I did wrong? I’m listening.”

"She wasn't that exotic," said Paul. "I mean, the thing with the python: okay, a little unusual, maybe, but I've seen worse. Did I ever tell you about the trapeze artist who ..."

Sue shot Paul a stern glance. "I'm trying to be serious, Paul! I think we need to introduce Joe to a nice girl. Someone you'd take to meet your mother. You know, like ..."

"Gidget," said Paul. "Or Barbie."

"Right," Joe added. "I could be Ken. Sounds great."

"Men!" Sue gulped down her coffee in one swig, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and looked at Joe. "There’s someone I want you to meet, Joe. In fact, I dare you!"

Even Paul raised his eyebrows at this.

Joe looked a little wary. "You ... want me to meet someone?"

"Yes,” said Sue. “I do.”

"Just divorced, right?"

"No."

“Just done five to ten for armed robbery?"

"No."

"Embezzlement? Fraud? Unpaid parking tickets?"

"No."

"Attractive?"

Sue relaxed a little. "Well, yes. Only I've never met her."

Joe slapped his forehead with a melodramatic palm. "Oh – you've never met her. Of course! You want to introduce me to a close personal friend, whom you've never met. Should be a match made in heaven. I can see it now."

Paul shrugged. "Don't knock it. A date’s a date."

At once, Sue and Joe turned to Paul, and frowned.

Sue went on. "Now look, Joe. I know you don't like to talk about it, but when my husband had the accident, you really helped me. It was about two years after I’d lost him, and I still hadn't shown any interest in meeting anyone new, until you encouraged me to get on with my life. Right?"

Joe smiled. "Yeah, I know."

"You even got me to go to the Cardiology party. I met Alan. And things have gone well. You know, there’s really something there."

"Told you so," said Joe, “even if you are cradle-snatching, picking up a young doctor barely out of the nest!"

Sue laughed. "Oh, be serious will you!"

"Yes, Joe," Paul mocked. "Be serious."

Joe shrugged. “All right, all right. Go on."

"Well," said Sue, "it's been on my mind. I'd like to do something to help you in the same ... department. You know."

"Cardiology? I've seen Dr Fritz. She's kind of sexy, for a sixty-year-old, but those horn-rimmed spectacles turn me off."

"Not Cardiology! Romance. I want to help you in the romance department, you idiot. There’s someone I want you to meet."

Paul looked expectantly at Joe. "Well, how about it, Joe? Are you a man or a mouse? No, don’t answer that question."

Joe groaned. "Okay, Sue. Tell me about this woman you’ve never met but you think would be perfect for me. I can't believe I'm saying this, but go ahead and tell me."

"I have this friend, Gary."

"Sue!" Paul hissed. "That’s a man’s name!"

Sue rolled her eyes. "Oh, shut up!"

"Sorry."

"As I was saying, I have this friend, Gary. He's just confronted his parents about being adopted, and things are pretty rough for him. Anyway, he was telling me about this woman at the office – he works for a software company – who’s been really supportive. Now, I can tell you, Gary’s a great guy, and he said this is a really impressive woman. She's single, available, and working too hard. Perfect for you."

"So?"

"So, I know Gary. If he says this is an impressive woman, this is an impressive woman. Attractive, too, so he tells me. To cut a long story short, I told him you’d like to meet her! By the way, her name’s Jane. Jane Hamilton."

"You said what?!"

"He’s going to tell her all about you. I told him to say you're a fabulous guy, handsome and available. Neat, huh?" Sue looked very happy with herself.

"Neat? Is that all you've got to say for yourself? Neat?! You can't go around setting up people behind their backs. It's not ..."

At this point, Paul interrupted. "Alan told her, you know."

Joe looked at Sue, without a word.

Sue nodded. "I know all about it, Joe. Alan told me you'd mentioned me to him on one of your sales calls, told him I was going to the Cardiology Department party, suggested that he meet me. I know all about it."

"But you never said you knew. I mean, I deny everything!"

"I just want to repay the favour. And ... thanks. Never figured you the matchmaker type. Of course, you might have found me a man who wasn't going bald." Sue winked.

Joe gave in. "You win. Okay, I'll meet her, this Jane, if she wants to. But if I have a horrible night I'm holding you personally responsible!"

"Of course," said Sue. "Gary will let me know if she wants to meet you. I told him to play down that facial tic of yours, the hunchback, the tobacco chewing, and all. I'm sure she won't be put off. She'll probably agree to a date out of sheer pity."

"Thanks a million,” said Joe. “I can't wait."

"Good!” said Sue. “Now that's agreed, let's have some more dessert."

Joe got up, painfully, and headed for the kitchen.

 

 

Lilly and Bill had been seated a full twenty minutes in Harold's Cafe, when Jane finally rushed in. Her friends seemed annoyed by her late entrance, but Jane knew that, indeed, she was always late – so she couldn’t blame them for being annoyed. She took a seat, and tried to ignore Bill and Lilly’s disapproving stares. "Sorry I'm late, guys. So, uh, what's new?"

Bill handed Jane a small photograph. "See this? Stevie helped Leslie bake, on Sunday. This is the proud chef with his creation: chocolate cake!"

Jane studied the snapshot. "Cute."

"Well, he did need a little help. We had to explain that half a cup of black pepper probably wasn't a good idea."

Lilly raised her eyebrows. "I don't know. Might stop you from taking that extra slice. From what I've heard, you haven't stuck to the diet. Leslie said that ..."

" ... that I was caught at the refrigerator, scoffing cake. And what if I was? My own child helped bake it. Why not have an extra slice?" Bill seemed offended.

Jane handed the picture back. "Well, I think it's a lovely cake. Stevie will probably grow up to be a chef. Either that or a construction worker. Is that chocolate icing in his hair? He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, is he?"

A young waiter arrived at the table. He was tall and handsome. Probably a student at the local college, Jane thought.

"What can I get you folks?" said the waiter.

"Well," said Lilly, with an exaggerated smile. "What I’d really like is a nice, big, steaming hot cappuccino. Could you do that for me?"

The waiter shrugged and scribbled down the order.

Jane shot Lilly an accusing glance. "Just a pot of Earl Grey tea, please; and Bill, here, will have a mineral water."

The waiter put away his pencil and left the table.

"Lilly!" Jane snapped. "Can’t you order coffee without having to describe it as a nice, big, steaming hot ...? I thought you were going to bat your eyelids!"

"A girl can have a little fun," Lilly replied, untroubled.

"Hmmm."

Bill bumped Lilly's knee with his own, under the table. "Um, Jane. Lilly has something to discuss with you."

"Oh?"

"Why, yes!" Lilly exclaimed. "I nearly forgot. Now, is that mobile phone of yours switched off, Jane? We don't want any interruptions."

"I didn't bring it."

Lilly opened her eyes wide. "You mean you didn't bring your phone? You, Ms Workaholic 1999? I'm impressed."

Jane shrugged. "The battery was flat."

Lilly puffed out a huge sigh and shook her head. "Whatever. Now, listen. There’s this friend of mine, and she’s been trying to chat up this great guy."

"Uh huh."

"So, she hasn't had any success. I mean, she's virtually thrown herself at this guy, and he hasn't done anything about it. Not that he doesn't like her. It's just he doesn't want to get involved with someone at work."

"Hmmm."

"Well, my friend, Michelle, says this guy’s really something. He’s one of the sales reps in her company. Pharmaceuticals. A bit distracted, maybe, a little too wrapped up in his work, but an interesting guy. She even says he's handsome, on a good day; and knowing how fussy Michelle is, that’s gotta say something. Anyway, she gave up on him. We had coffee. She told me all about it."

"All about him," said Bill, encouragingly.

“Right,” said Lilly.

Jane frowned. "Would someone please tell me what’s going on?"

"I'd be delighted,” said Lilly. “What we have here, if you stop to think about it, is an inside tip on a great guy. Why don't we set you up to meet him? The name's Joe. Joe Mathews. Apparently he’s got too much integrity – are you listening? – too much integrity to fool around at the office. Good, huh?"

"Sure, Lilly. Sure, Bill. Yeah, right. This Joe's a great guy. I believe you. But no way am I going to meet some guy on some crazy blind date. Forget it!"

"There's nothing wrong with blind dates,” said Bill. “I met Leslie on a blind date. We've been happily married for eight years. If I can do it, so can you. What’s the matter, Jane? Chicken?”

This left Jane speechless. She was cornered.

Lilly tried to close the deal. "So, how about it, Janey? What do you say? Just say the word and your Aunty Lilly will organise everything."

Jane laughed. "Look, guys, this is sweet of you, but I'm not looking to meet anyone, just now. Thanks, but ... it’s not for me. And anyway, I've always thought fate would bring on Mr Right, not a blind date. Thanks, but no, thanks."

Before Lilly could protest, the waiter had returned to the table.

"Now," he said, his long fringe of blonde hair hanging over his boyish face. "It was you, ma'am, who ordered the big, steaming hot cappuccino, wasn't it?" The waiter stared right into Lilly’s surprised hazel eyes.

Lilly did a double take before she could answer, embarrassed. "Uh, yes.”

The waiter grinned.

Lilly turned bright red.

When the waiter left, it was Bill who spoke. "Never thought I'd see a man get the better of you, Lilly. I’ll treasure that moment, always."

Lilly punched him in the arm.

Jane drank tea, and tried not to think about men.

 

 

 

Chapter  9

 

The words on Jane's computer screen began to swirl and blur. Jane was tired. Maybe she should go home, she thought. She was just about to get up from her programming desk when Gary's hand came down warmly on her shoulder.

Jane flinched, before she realised who it was.

 Gary was cheerful. "Hey, J."

"You really shouldn't sneak up on people, you know!”

Gary laughed. “Keeps you on your toes. How’s it going?”

 Jane rubbed her neck. “I’m tired. Just can’t concentrate. Suddenly, C looks like Greek to me. Know what I mean? "

"It is seven-thirty. Even your brain’s bound slow down after ten hours. But, my dear Jane, we have to stop meeting like this. Just you and me, late in the office, and everyone gone home two hours ago. People will talk." He smirked.

Jane patted him on the arm. "You're a sweetie, Gary. But how are things going with your mum and dad?"

Gary pulled over a swivel chair from the next desk and dropped into it. "Oh, Mum’s calmed down. Actually, she's been quite good about it. Dad keeps muttering under his breath, but he'll come around. They just weren't expecting it."

"And what about ..."

"My birth mother? I still haven't met her. Soon. But let's change the subject. It's just you and me, alone again, Jane. Want to get drunk?”

“Maybe not. I’m too tired for drinking.”

"Okay." Gary raised a pointed finger. "But I've been doing a little research."

"Research?"

"Statistics. How long since you've been on a decent date, Jane? And I don't mean drinks at a company conference with some pot-bellied accountant, either."

"You mean Johnson, of Johnson, Klein and Klein? But I like whisky-breath!"

"My point, precisely. Now, Jane, fortune has smiled upon you. Uncle Gary has found you a decent date. No pot belly, no whisky-breath, and as a special bonus, able to string more than three words together to form an intelligent sentence."

"No,” Jane groaned. “Not you, too! Lilly’s already on my case. Why does everyone think they have to be my matchmaker? I'm perfectly happy single."

"You mean if you met a great guy, you’d just ignore him?"

Jane sighed. "If he was really great, no. I wouldn't ignore him. Okay?"

“Atta girl!” Gary exclaimed. “Now, I've been speaking to my friend, Sue. She knows this guy. She says he's just the kind of man an intelligent career woman would find at least worth the price of one cup of coffee."

Jane grimaced. "Go on."

"So I told her you'd meet him, this Friday night. Why waste time?"

Before Jane could protest, which she was planning to do mightily, Gary held up his hand. "Look, it's just for coffee at your favourite haunt, Harold's Cafe. No big deal. You meet there after work. You don't even have to dress up. And Harold will be behind the counter, keeping an eye on things. What could be simpler?"

Jane slapped her forehead. "Have all my friends gone mad? Look, I told Lilly – she tried to set me up with some sales rep – I don't believe in blind dates! Interesting people always come by chance, by ... a quirk of fate, not by set-ups."

Gary looked surprised. "Did you say, sales rep?"

"Yeah. Some jerk that Lilly's friend, Michelle, was trying to chat up. I mean, honestly, you'd have to be pretty desperate to go on a blind date with some complete stranger just because ..."

"What company?" asked Gary, in a quiet voice.

"What do you mean, 'What company?' How should I know?! I don't even recall the guy's name. Jack ... John ... something. Joe: that’s it. Don't remember the surname. I'm trying to forget the whole thing. Lilly must be out of her mind ..." Jane stopped talking. She had noticed a strange expression on Gary’s face. She didn’t like it.

"But the guy Sue’s talking about is a sales rep, a sales rep named Joe. You know, Jane, I hate to say this, but I think your friend, Lilly, and I are trying to set you up with the same guy. Joe Mathews. You might have seen him – he's a jazz musician. He plays at the Blues Cafe, sometimes. You go there, don’t you?"

"Come to think of it, I do,” said Jane. “Don't tell me he's the short guy that plays the drums, because if he's the short guy that plays the drums, I'd rather call up Johnson and suggest he, Klein, Klein and I do lunch."

"Nope. He's the piano player. And I don't even know Lilly – this is pure coincidence. I submit, Your Honour, that the defendant has no excuse to deny fate. She has to at least meet the guy for one cup of coffee, with nothing to lose and no effort required. I rest my case." Gary folded his arms.

Jane reached over, grabbed him by the throat, and pretended to strangle him. "Auggghh! If you ever do this to me again, I'll kill you! How could you tell someone I'd meet him, without asking me first?" She let him go. "But, all right, just this once, I'll do it. But you buy me lunch every day for a month, if this guy does anything even remotely weird. Deal?"

"Deal. Free lunch for a month if he’s weird. And you agree to show up at Harold's Cafe after work on Friday. Perfect! Don't worry, Jane – I never make a bet I can't win. Well, now that's settled, how about buying me some dinner?"

"You can pay for yourself!” said Jane.

She was already nervous about Friday.

 

 

It was 6:35 when Joe finally arrived at Harold's Cafe. The Friday afternoon traffic had been heavy. He was nervous enough about it being a blind date; running late made it even worse. When he saw the attractive, auburn-haired woman sitting at a table near the counter, he realised it must be Jane. Although he wondered how he ever let Sue talk him into this, he took a deep breath and walked over to her table.

As Joe approached, the manager – a balding, skinny, middle-aged man in a white apron bearing the words ‘Harold's Coffee From Heaven’ over a picture of a gigantic coffee cup – pointed at him. The woman looked around. Joe had been spotted. There was no turning back, now.

Jane was pleasantly surprised. The man approaching her table looked perfectly normal. Handsome even, in his dark suit, the jacket tossed over his arm. Well, here he is, she thought. Better make the most of it. She stood up and held out her hand. "Hello. You must be Joe. I'm Jane Hamilton ... and, yes, my friends did put me up to this!"

Joe shook her hand. "You too, huh? It's a bit odd, isn't it?"

"Just a teeny bit, yes." Silently, Jane cursed herself for being so nervous.

Joe sat down. Jane resumed her seat. The manager brought over a coffee and a tea without saying a word, then left them alone. Joe got the distinct impression that the little man was staring at them from his vantage point behind the cappuccino machine.

"Oh," said Jane. "That's Harold. He promised Lilly – my friend who put me up to this – that he’d keep an eye on me. So watch out. Harold’s got a black belt in ju-jitsu."

Joe looked at the frail figure standing behind the coffee machine. "Really?"

"Well, no. Actually he doesn't know ju-jitsu. But he once fended off a savage Doberman from the trashcans, with nothing but a rolling pin."

"So, if I don't behave, he'll thump me?"

"Well, to be honest, no.” Jane smiled, demurely. “It wasn't really a Doberman, it was a Dachshund, and he didn't have a rolling pin at the time, so he just turned the hose on it. Worked wonderfully. Harold’s a bit of a softie."

“Dachshund?” Joe inquired.

“Sausage dog. They nip at your ankles.”

"Uh huh,” said Joe. “Well, I guess I'm safe, then. That is, unless you're dangerous. I've seen Fatal Attraction, you know!"

Jane decided maybe this guy wasn’t too bad. "You've already made a bad impression. You’re fifteen minutes late!"

"Sorry.” Joe shrugged. “The traffic was terrible. I had an appointment on the east side at 5:45, and ... well, you know what it's like. Work is work, right?"

"Sure is,” said Jane. “Actually, work’s been pretty hectic for me, too, lately."

Joe took a swig of his coffee. "Ah, where would we be without caffeine?"

Jane looked a little uneasy. "Well, I do like chocolate ... now and then."

The table fell silent.

Joe sighed. “Work seems to take over my whole life, sometimes."

"Tell me about it. I’ve got some paperwork to do, later tonight. There's this program I'm doing for City Hospital that has to be finished."

"City Hospital?" said Joe.

"Uh huh."

"But I'm in that hospital all the time! Who do you do business with?"

"Oh, I’m doing a program for Margaret Hoffman, the Chief Pharmacist. She's one of my largest accounts this quarter.”

"Helga Hoffman?!” said Joe. “The Dragon Woman?"

Jane grimaced. "Don’t remind me."

Joe laughed.

Jane looked sideways. "Wait a minute. Haven't I met you somewhere? I think I saw you at the hospital, in a elevator. Yes, that’s right. I did!"

Joe thought for a moment. "Really? I don't remember you."

Waiting for a reply, Joe noticed Jane had stopped moving.

Completely.

This, he thought, was very odd. "Hey, Jane. Jane?"

There was no response at all.

Jane wasn't blinking, and if she was breathing, she was doing it awfully quietly. Joe had heard of bad dates but this was ridiculous. Things had been going perfectly well five seconds ago. Even odder, he thought – the whole room was suddenly very quiet. There was only one other occupied table, an elderly couple in the far corner. Joe was gripped by panic as he noticed that the old folks, too, were completely motionless. He snapped his fingers in front of Jane's face. She sat, immobile, looking quite peaceful. She certainly is attractive, Joe thought, and immediately chastised himself for thinking like that at a time like this. He turned his attention to the manager. Harold was about as lifelike as a department store manikin.

Something was definitely up.

At last, Joe decided he’d better stand, but before he could move there was a hand on his knee. He let out a feeble scream. "Woah!"

"No need to get up, Joseph!"

It was a familiar voice. Joe looked down and saw Shamus Maguinty take his pudgy hand off Joe's knee and wave it, sweetly, in greeting.

"It’s just little ol’ me.”

"Shamus! What the ... what the hell’s going on? What have you done to these people?”

"I'm here, Joe, to save you from making a very big mistake.”

"Sure. Right. But what have you done to them?!" Joe indicated Jane sitting at his table, Harold behind the counter, and the old couple in the corner, all of whom looked as lifeless as wax models.

"To them?" Shamus looked confused. "Not a thing. What I've done, Joe, I did to you. Just sped you up. You see, as far as everyone else is concerned, this is just a single millisecond. For you, it's two minutes. I needed to have a word with you, in private, before you disgraced yourself."

"Would you PLEASE stop messing with physics?” said Joe. “It's driving me nuts! But, okay, what's the disgrace?"

Shamus pointed at Jane. "You have seen this woman before. You saw her in an elevator, at City Hospital. And if you don't make that point right now, it's going to wreck the timeline. Nothing will happen as it should. So, I'm here to make you remember. That's the trouble with men—mortal men, at least—they never remember significant moments. Women are much better."

"But I don’t remember!"

"Uh-uh." Shamus held up his hand. "Hold it right there. One moment, please." Ferreting around in his pocket, he produced his pouch of Rainbow Stars, took a little of the sparkling powder out, and sprinkled it over Joe, who recoiled in horror.

"Oh no! Not that again!"

"Joe?"

"Yes?"

"You remember seeing Jane in an elevator at City Hospital, and you remember thinking what an attractive woman she was, only you had an appointment to rush away to so you didn't make conversation. Okay?"

"Okay. Yep. I remember." Joe was beginning to hum. He was smiling stupidly. Maybe, he thought, these Rainbow Stars weren’t so bad.

Shamus looked worried, as a moronic smile spread across Joe’s features. "Hmmm. Maybe I used too many Stars. When I count to three, you will snap out of it, okay? One, two ... three!"

Joe was still smiling dumbly.

"I said: THREE!"

Shaking his head, Joe began to come to, puzzled by the sudden appearance of a cloud of green smoke over the small table at which he and Jane Hamilton were seated. Joe waved away the cloud with one hand. Soon, Joe became aware that Jane was staring at him ... and she was blinking.

The cafe was back to normal.

Inexplicably, Jane checked under the table, looked disappointed, and sat up again. "Joe, you don't happen to see green smoke, do you?"

"Lost something?" Joe ventured.

"No, no. Nothing at all. My mistake. Green smoke ... ha ha. I think I'm just a little tired, that's all. So, what were you saying?" Jane was sure she had seen green smoke, and she knew by now that there was no smoke without fire, or to be more specific, no green smoke without Shamus. She wasn't, however, about to admit to a complete stranger that she believed in guardian angels.

Joe thought it was best to change the subject. "Yes, ah, as I was saying. What was I saying? Oh, yes! Come to think of it, I do remember you. In fact, how could I forget such an attractive woman? I mean, if you don't mind me saying so." He felt a little embarrassed.

Jane smiled. "Well, isn't that a coincidence!"

Joe tried his best to be charming. "How could I have guessed we would end up sitting here ..."

" ... set up by our friends," said Jane, cheerfully.

"Exactly!"

Jane slouched in her chair. "Come to think of it, I'm bushed. Everything has happened at once, lately. By the end of the week, I'm ready to collapse."

“Me, too. And the worst thing is, I’ve got to finish some paperwork tonight, as well. But I'd rather stay and talk with you. Anyway, I'm glad we met, Jane."

"Lilly put me up to it, Joe, but I'm glad she did. I thought you'd be another banker. They’re my usual types. Rich and round ... the two Rs."

"Really?"

Jane shrugged. "Don't ask me why."

“Okay. If you say so.”

Jane laughed. "Do you drink whisky?"

"Beer," said Joe. "And coffee: wonderful, wonderful coffee. But whisky? No, ma'am. Not a drop."

"In that case, you're the perfect man. But I'm not available. I'm already spoken for. Would you like to meet him?"

"Meet him?” Joe thought this was a little weird.

Jane fished in her bag and produced a tiny mobile phone. "This is Nokie. Lilly says he's the love of my life. He goes with me everywhere, and, when I hold him close, he whispers in my ear. It's the perfect relationship. No hassle. He’s devoted to me.”

"I'm not that close to my phone, personally," said Joe.

"Work,” said Jane. “Work and mobile phones: I love it. At least, that’s what I try to tell myself. Did I mention sailing?"

Joe was worried – the woman was rambling. "No."

"I used to sail. Lasers. Fast boats. Small. Sleek. My dad used to say I could go to the Olympics. Now, I haven't sailed in how many years? Ten? Am I getting that old? Hmmm. Better not think about it. And you?" Jane sank further into her chair.

"Me?"

"Do you sail? Paint? Make pottery?"

"You really are tired, aren't you?" said Joe.

Jane inclined her head, to say yes.

"I play music,” said Joe. “Jazz was the thing. I’ve played piano since I was a kid. Sometimes I play in the local clubs. Maybe you're right. It might be a love affair – I spend more time with my piano than with women."

Jane looked at him. "Would you like another cappuccino?"

"Ah, coffee!" said Joe, enthusiastically. “May I suggest, ma'am, short black espresso? If we're going to drink caffeine, let's do it right."

"Espresso? On a first date? That’s too much caffeine for me." Jane turned in her chair, to face the counter, and called out. "Harold! Could we have one espresso and one peppermint tea, please? Thanks."

A ringing mobile phone shattered the peace. Jane looked quickly at her phone, but this time it was Joe's. Joe got the tiny thing out of his pocket, flipped it open, and mumbled into the microphone.

After a minute or so, he stuffed it away into his coat. "Guess what? My boss just faxed me the attendance list for my Cardiac Society meeting. She wants me to confirm it by ten, tonight. I'm sorry, Jane."

Harold was just bringing the hot drinks to the table. Jane smiled, to thank him. Harold winked. Jane said, "That's okay, Joe. Shall we meet again sometime?"

"I’d like to," said Joe. "Really. Can I give you a call?"

"Sure."

"Well, I'd better run." Joe stood up and paused for a moment. "Bye."

Once Joe was gone, Harold sat down at Jane's table and began drinking the abandoned espresso. "At least the guy’s got good taste in coffee," he said philosophically. “This Joe Mathews might be all right.”

Jane patted Harold on the shoulder. "Don’t you start on me, Harold! But you know something? Maybe I won't kill Lilly, after all."

Harold grinned.

"Anyway, Harold, I’ve gotta go, or I'll never get to sleep tonight. Thanks for looking out for me. And thanks for the tea."

“All part of the friendly service. No problem.”

“See you,” said Jane.

“Sure.”

Harold watched as Jane got up and raced out the front door. Now there was a woman, he thought, who didn't know how to slow down. He drank the espresso in one short gulp.

 

 

It was about ten, that same night, when Sue finally called. Joe turned away from the screen of his laptop computer and picked up his home telephone. Around him, on the dining room table, were assorted candy wrappers; a bowl of still-to-be-devoured sweets sat proudly in the centre of it all.

"Hello. Joe Mathews."

"Joe! It's Sue."

"I wondered how long it would take you to call."

"Hey, I waited a whole two hours. Now, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon ... let's hear everything. How was the date? Did you like her?"

"Well, actually, we both had to rush off early. I got a call from Kerryn. Jane had paperwork to do, so we left it at that."

"You what?"

"We ... er ... had to go early ... and ..."

"Auggghh!" It was strange to hear screaming on the phone. "Joe! I set you up on a great date with a terrific woman, and what do you do? You work!"

"Okay, okay."

"Okay? Not okay! Do you know how much trouble ...? Oh, never mind. You’re a hopeless case."

 Joe couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. "Slow down, Sue. I liked her. We're going to meet again."

"You are?"

"Sure. She seems nice."

"Nice?" said Sue, suspiciously. "Boring nice or wow nice?"

"Wow, I guess ... definitely not boring, no."

"Oh! Well, that's all right then. But you are hopeless, Joe. Honestly! Leaving a first date early, to work. Promise me you won't do it again. Next time you see her, you will have a decent date. Okay?"

Joe popped a piece of candy into his mouth. In a muffled voice, he replied cheerily, "No problem."

"I'd better let you get back to your work."

"Thanks, Sue."

"Bye, Joe.”

 Joe hung up the phone and returned to his work.

He'd have to get busy if he was going to finish before midnight, he thought. Maybe he should have another cup of coffee. Just one more cup.

 

 

Lilly had been impatient. There was already a message waiting for Jane, when she arrived home from her blind date. She hit the button on the machine. Lilly's recorded voice played back: ‘Hi Jane. It’s Lilly. How was the suit? Call me!’

Jane picked up the phone and dialled Lilly. "Hi. It's Jane."

"Jane! How did it go? Huh?"

"Fine,” said Jane.

"Fine?"

"Fine. Fun, even."

"Aha! Fun?"

"No, not that much fun."

"Oh."

"Okay, Lilly. I admit it. I like him. Satisfied?"

"I knew it! Now, thank your Aunty Lilly."

Jane sighed. "Yes, okay. I admit it. You did good. Thanks."

"So, you had coffee and then dinner, right?"

"No dinner."

"No dinner?"

"No. I had to rush off and finish the paperwork I'm supposed to be doing right now. And Joe got called out by his boss."

The phone line seemed to have gone dead. Finally, Lilly spoke. "Not cool, Jane. Definitely not cool. What am I going to do with you? There is more to life than ..."

" ... than work. I know. Look, Lilly, I have to go. There's a pile of paper a foot high I need to deal with. I'll call you tomorrow. Okay?"

Grudgingly, Lilly agreed. "Well, okay. But you have sweet dreams, now, you hear? And don't work all night!"

"I won't,” said Jane. “See you soon, and ... thanks."

"That's okay, Janey. Bye."

Jane walked into the living room, dropped her handbag on the coffee table, and switched on the television. The muted cable news flashed blue and white light around the room. Jane collapsed onto the sofa. Just five minutes’ rest, she thought. It was going to be a long night of homework.

The news reflected in her tired eyes, a blue flame.

 

 

It was about one in the morning when Jane's mobile phone rang. The television still flickered. Piles of paper covered her coffee table. Jane had spent the last three hours typing. Who could that be at this hour? she thought.

"Hello. Jane Hamilton."

"Jane. It's Christina. I'm sorry to call you so late."

One o’clock? Jane thought. Even Christina wasn't usually this bad. Something had to be up. Something big. “What's going on, Christina?"

"It's Michael."

"Don't tell me he wants us to push through the Freeman account this weekend? He can't be serious!"

"No, Jane. That's not it. Something’s happened."

Christina sounded so unlike herself that Jane couldn’t imagine what she might be talking about. "I don't think I follow you."

"Michael went into City Hospital tonight. He ... had another attack ... another heart attack. It was just a few hours ago."

"Oh, Christina! I’m sorry. Not another one. What about his wife? Is she at the hospital? Do you want me to call her?"

"No, Jane. You don't understand." Christina paused. "Michael is ... dead." Even Christina, tough as she was, choked on the words. "He's gone. It all happened so fast."

Jane couldn't believe this was real. "Oh, my God."

"Jane, I have to go now. I can’t talk. Try and get some sleep. Don't worry about those papers. Leave them for next week. I have to go ..." Christina's voice was breaking.

"Okay," Jane said, like a woman in a dream. She felt ill, and cold. How could Michael be dead? It was impossible.

The line clicked.

Jane put down the phone.

For a long time, Jane just sat there, stunned, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Someone she knew was dead, just like that. It didn't seem real. But it was real. Jane's head hurt.

She was so tired, so confused, it was a mercy that sleep came to her in a few minutes. She slept, fretfully, right there on the sofa.

She didn't cry.

 

 

The world seemed very far away to Jane's sleeping mind, as she lay on her sofa. The television still burned. As the hours passed, a dream began to form in her slumbering thoughts. Jane dreamed she was standing in a large white room. Someone was in there with her – it was a woman, with a voice as hard as steel, dressed in a business suit, pacing back and forth, muttering.

In her dream, Jane considered the impressive figure, the impeccable suit, the diamond bracelet, the commanding walk. It had to be Christina. Yes, she thought, it must be Christina, but her back was turned to Jane, and her face was out of sight. The figure was spitting criticism, all the while pacing, never standing still. "Worked himself into the ground! Burned himself out! And just when we needed him most. Typical."

Jane dreamed she spoke back. "You mean Michael? But Michael’s dead. What do you mean? What are you talking about?"

The businesswoman, angry and uninterested, continued as if she had not heard Jane speak. "The new accounts have to be reported. Head Office is going to flip! And he goes and loses it. Well, that makes sense. He always was a loser, after all. Never made it to New York. Stuck out here in the boondocks."

"Hey!" Jane shouted in her dream. "What are you talking about? Michael is dead. Don't you know that? He's dead!"

The woman turned to face Jane. She yelled, furiously. "Of course I know he's dead! What did you expect? He worked himself into the ground. SO WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? You people never learn."

Jane tried desperately to wake up.

Her heart pounded wildly. Sweat trickled down her face as her sleeping body tried to wake itself from the dream. Jane lingered painfully on the uneasy knife-edge between sleep and life. It wasn't what the figure had said that frightened her; it was the face, the angry, steely face.

Suddenly, Jane splashed out of sleep.

She was awake all at once, relieved to see the familiar room around her. She breathed heavily, still shocked by the nightmare. It wasn't Christina that she had seen in the dream. It was herself. The angry, steely face that had made Jane’s blood run cold was the face of Jane Hamilton, her own face.

Jane sat there, shivering, for a long time.

Where was her guardian angel when she needed him?

 

 

 

Chapter  10

 

When Monday morning finally came, Jane was still looking grey from the shock of Michael's death. The programming room at Infosolve was strangely quiet. Jane walked over to Steve's desk. "Hey, Speedy."

Steve looked up. "Hey, Jane. You know, I almost feel guilty – all the things I said about Michael. It's hard to believe he's dead. He seemed indestructible, always pushing harder. I thought maybe he'd break us, but I never thought he'd break himself."

“I know,” said Jane.

"What really gets me is his wife and kids: one minute they have a dad, and the next minute he's gone."

Jane agreed, in silence.

"Is that what's going to happen to us, Jane? Is that the road we're on? I've been thinking about all the nights I've spent sleeping under my desk in that old sleeping bag."

Jane shrugged. "You know you shouldn't do that, Steve. It might be trendy, but what's it doing to your life?"

"I know you're right.” Steve sat quietly for a moment. “But what about you? It's you they’re going to promote, Jane, not me. And it's you, just as much as me, who works herself to the edge. Isn’t it?"

Jane looked down at the floor and then back up at Steve. "I've been thinking about that all weekend. I had this dream: it was me, only it wasn't me – this angry woman. It really shook me up. And there's something else. I've met this chubby little guy who says he's my ..."

"Yes?"

"My ..." Jane thought twice about discussing her guardian angel, imitation leprechaun suit and all. She realised it would sound crazy. "My ... second cousin. Never knew I had one."

Steve pulled a face at her. "Your second cousin?"

"Uh huh."

"Oh. Great ... I guess. Are you feeling okay, Jane?"

"I'm just a little upset, that's all."

Jane left Steve and went to see Gary, who was standing at the far end of the programming room talking to Janette. Both were uncharacteristically morose. As Jane approached, she overheard their quiet conversation.

"It’ll be okay, Janette," said Gary. "Everything will work out fine."

Janette was distraught. "I ... just can't believe it."

Jane interrupted them. "Hi. You guys okay?"

Gary smiled weakly. "I’m fine. Janette's just heard the news."

Janette looked grim. "Something like this had to happen, sooner or later. It's just I've been lucky: no one I’ve known has ever died, except my grandparents. It’s going to take a little getting used to. But, anyway, I’d better get back to work. The world doesn’t stop, right? See you at the meeting." Janette walked off and left Gary alone with Jane.

"Meeting?" Jane asked.

"Yeah,” said Gary. “Christina’s called a special meeting at ten. So we'd better look lively. She's been on the phone to New York all weekend."

“Okay,” said Jane. “I’ll be there. But first, I'm going to go check on Albert. Have you seen him?"

"Yeah. He was talking with Grace and Nira, out at reception."

"Thanks." Jane walked to the entrance corridor. When she reached reception, she found Grace talking to Albert and Nira, who were standing quietly like two sad children being consoled by a favourite Aunt.

Grace waved at Jane. "Hello, Ms Deputy State Manager!"

"We all think it's great," Albert added.

"Yes ... great," Nira said meekly.

Jane frowned. "What are you all talking about?"

Grace looked seriously at Jane. "Jane, I know everything that goes on in this firm, and in most of our competitors, too. What do you think I do out here all day? Type? No point being coy. You know what I'm talking about. Someone’s being promoted."

"Grace! Please – someone just died! How can you talk like that?" Jane looked genuinely upset with her.

"Look, Jane. I’ve just been explaining, to the young folks here, how this company works. Crying in our cornflakes about Michael? It’s right to be upset, but you have to keep moving around here, or you’ll get run over by the wheels of progress. Do you suppose the company’s going to declare a day of mourning for Michael? Do you think anything is going to stop? You must be joking! Everything goes on, Jane, right now."

Jane had never seen Grace like this before. "But, Grace, really ..."

Grace held up her hand. "Really, nothing! You may think I'm being hard. I'm just being realistic. There are no tears being shed for Michael in New York. There'll be a few memos, tastefully written, and that, Jane, is that. Christina’s already been promoted into Michael's position."

Nira spoke up. "I ... didn't like Michael. He treated everyone badly. But I can’t believe he’s gone. It’s horrible."

Albert continued for her. "Nobody liked him. But Grace has a point. We’d better not get caught napping. Things are going to move quickly around here."

Nira, uncharacteristically, spoke up some more. "I've been listening to Grace. I think she’s right. I'm sick of being pushed around. I ... we ... think you could do a better job than Michael did. We're glad about your promotion, Jane."

Jane looked at each of them in turn, speechless.

Grace spoke. "In thirty minutes, in Christina's meeting, you, Jane, will be promoted into her old position, now that she’s got Michael's spot. Wait and see."

"New York has decided that Christina won't actually be based here,” said Albert. “She’s going off-site. You'll be our new leader here. Things could change, Jane – we're all counting on you. If they don't change, this company is going to start losing people, and I don't mean the way they lost Michael."

Jane didn't know quite what to say. "Well, I ... I'll do my best."

Nira held out a floppy hand for Jane to shake. "We know you will, Jane. Congratulations. We’re all pleased for you."

Albert patted Jane on the back.

Grace just sat behind her reception counter like a wise sage. She had seen it all before. To her, it was just another story in the big corporate book. Times changed – that was just the way it was, the way it always would be.

 

 

A few minutes later, Jane was on her way to the meeting, striding down the corridor which led to the conference room, when, without warning, Christina's voice came suddenly, a sharp bark from behind.

"Jane!"

Jane looked around. Christina had been following her.

"Jane, could you step into my office for a moment?"

"Sure."

Soon, Jane was seated in front of Christina's desk, admiring the huge sales chart which took pride of place on the far wall.

"What can I do for you?" Jane asked.

"Slow down, slow down." Christina looked as if she were sizing Jane up. "Jane, I know you're upset about Michael. We all are."

"How’s his wife? How are the kids?" said Jane.

Christina paused. "Not well. Marie had to be sedated at the hospital, on Friday. I didn't want to tell you. The kids are staying with friends. Marie's still in hospital – the psychiatrists don't want her unsupervised. It's all pretty grim."

"Oh, my God.” Jane was horrified.

"I've spoken to Tom, in New York. Michael's company life insurance will be coming through. They'll all be well provided for. Not that it matters much, right now, but at least they won't have to worry about money. I'll go see Marie, tomorrow. But there’s something else I need to talk to you about."

Jane shifted uneasily in her chair. "Oh?"

"I'm sure Grace has told you. She never could keep a secret. You're being promoted right away, Jane. That is, if you think you’re ready. I'd like you to take my old position: Deputy State Manager. I'll be moving to Regional Headquarters. That makes you the manager on-site. You’ll be in charge here, if you want the position."

"But ... it’s so soon."

"Don't worry. We'll send you to a private management school of your choice, when things settle down. In the meantime, I can help you. We'll be in touch with each other."

"Well, I do want the promotion. It's just, under the circumstances ..."

"You mean Michael's death?" Christina’s eyes narrowed.

"Well, yes. I don't feel good about it."

Christina waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "You're a good person, Jane. I respect you. New York respects you. You’re popular with the staff. I know you feel awkward about the circumstances, but this would have happened anyway. Michael was due for promotion. We've had it all planned for some time. You are, plainly and simply, the best person for the job. So, are you up to it?"

Jane thought for a moment. She spoke slowly, remembering her conversation with Steve after the last monthly meeting, remembering her promise to do things differently if she ever swept into power. "I’m up to it. That’s a yes. But I'd like to make a few changes. Will I have the power to change our methods a little, providing we get results? I don't want to manage if my position is just symbolic."

Christina was a little surprised by Jane's candour, but then, she thought, she'd always known Jane had guts. "Jane, if you get results, that's all that matters to me. You'll have my support. Just remember: Head Office can overrule me any time they like. It's no picnic up here. But I think you’ll do well. So, do you want it?"

Jane stood up. "Thank you. I accept."

Christina walked around her desk to Jane's side. As they both paused by the door, she shook Jane's hand. "Well then, let's go tell the troops.”

Jane corrected her boss. "You mean, tell the team."

Christina raised an eyebrow – obviously Jane was an idealist. She wondered how long Jane would last in the slippery arena of corporate management, with all of its politics and back-stabbing. Maybe, she thought, Jane might just make it.

 

 

Minutes later, Christina surveyed the quiet occupants of the conference room. Albert sat at the far end of the long table, next to Jane. Gary was on Jane's other side. Janette looked pale, Steve, impassive, and Nira seemed on the verge of tears.

Rising from her chair, Christina called the meeting to order. "Good morning, everyone. Well, we've had some sad news. There isn't anything I can say to do Michael’s memory justice, so I’m not going to make some shallow speech. Better we all reflect on what’s happened in our own time."

Steve grunted, obviously unimpressed. "We all know there isn't anything we can say. It's shaken us up pretty badly. But we've heard different rumours from Head Office. What's really going on? What’s going to happen next?"

Christina paused. "I’m glad you asked, Steve. It may seem harsh, but we need to get organised, ASAP. We're juggling several big accounts, right now, and we can't afford to get behind. So, I want to announce the new changes."

There was a knock on the door.

Grace poked her head in and waved a manila folder at Christina, who motioned for her to come in. Grace handed the file to Christina. On her way out, she winked at Jane.

"Good," said Christina. "I was waiting for these papers. Well, I may as well give them straight to you, Jane."

Christina slid the folder across the table. "As of today, Jane is the new Deputy State Manager, my old position. She’ll be our manager, on-site. I'll be moving to Regional Headquarters, so if you have any queries or problems, the person to see is Jane. I'd just like to say that her promotion is long overdue. It’s been planned for some time. The sad thing which has happened has just brought it forward a couple of months. So, Jane, congratulations."

Murmurs of good wishes came from everyone at the table.

Steve spoke louder than the rest. "It's about time!"

Christina interrupted the congratulations. "Well, that’s the main point of business I wanted to raise. There are one or two other things, but they can wait. We may as well get back to work. Anything you'd like to say, Jane, before we close?"

Jane stood up, feeling self-conscious. "Just thanks, guys, for your support, and I'll do my best not to let you down. We have a good team, here, and a good future. So, that’s all I’ve got to say. Let's go have some coffee!"

Pleased, and still murmuring with excitement among themselves, the group got up and filed out of the conference room.

Gary shook Jane's hand as he left.

Christina was the last to leave. At the door, she spoke seriously. "I have to run, Jane. We'll meet tomorrow and start organising everything. And don't worry about your accounts. I'll be asking Steve to handle the overload and we have a replacement programmer coming in next week. Meanwhile, take a look through that folder. It goes over all the details of your new position. I think you'll be pleased with the salary package and incentives. We can discuss it tomorrow."

With that, Christina swept out of the room.

Jane stood alone, feeling numb. It had happened at last. She was a manager. But she looked at the chair at the head of the conference table, the one that Michael used to take, and thought of his wife and kids. Poor Marie. Shamus would tell me, she thought, not to forget what happened.

 

 

Joe sat down on the sofa chair nearest his piano. Maybe he would play, maybe not. It had been a hard Monday at work, and it was getting late – he didn't know if he had the energy. As he pondered this, in his softly lit living room, the telephone rang. Lazily, he reached for the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Joe. It's Jane Hamilton."

Joe perked up – he was always impressed when a woman called him. It was usually a good sign. "Jane! How are you? Did you have a good weekend?"

"Well, I don't want to burden you with my troubles, Joe, but ... no. There was a death in the company. Our manager had a heart attack. He died, late on Friday. It was pretty horrible."

"Good grief. I’m sorry.”

"Yes. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it's been a pretty bad weekend. There was one piece of good news, though."

"Oh?"

"I got promoted! Things are changing at the office. They want me to be the new manager. But I don't feel very good about it, with Michael's death and all."

"Yeah, I can understand that,” said Joe, “but they wouldn't be promoting you, if you didn’t deserve it. You must be the best person for the job.”

"So they say. It's a great opportunity. I just don't know how I'm going to cope. Things are already pretty hectic, and with this promotion on top of it all ..."

"Hmmm."

"So, anyway ..." Jane paused.

A sad thought flashed into Joe's mind. "I understand. You’re trying to tell me you’ll be too busy to socialise. Don’t feel bad about it. I know you’re busy."

"Oh no," said Jane. "That's not what I meant. My friends would kill me if I didn't ... you see ... um ... no. I was just calling to say hi. So ... hi!" Jane wondered why she was making such a fool of herself. She hardly knew this guy.

Joe was convinced he was sounding dumb. Better play it cool, he thought, and not show too much enthusiasm. "Yes ... our friends would kill us if we didn't at least keep in touch, after all the effort they went to, arranging for us to meet. Right?"

"Right," said Jane, relieved that an excuse had been found.

"Great," said Joe, relieved that he didn't sound too eager.

"That's settled, then," said Jane, businesslike.

"Right.”

 Jane had run out of useful things to say.

"So," said Joe. "You're pretty hectic at work?"

"That's the understatement of the century. I just can't seem to get five minutes to myself. The accounts are all urgent, everything has to be done, like, yesterday."

"I know what you mean, Jane. Lately, I've been getting pretty annoyed with Vikram, our Assistant Manager. He loves to turn the screws on us, to squeeze us a little bit more ... it's all take.”

"Tell me about it. I hate to speak ill of the dead. What happened was awful. Michael, my boss, wasn't a happy man. It's sad to think he died stressed and unhappy. But he used to work us into the ground. Confrontation was the only way he knew. It used to drive me nuts."

"Sometimes,” said Joe, “I'd like to be my own boss: run my own business, bypass all of this madness. Only I want to play more music with the band. Being an employee gives me a chance to do that. At least, it's supposed to. Lately, it hasn't worked out that way." Joe thought it was odd, to feel so comfortable sharing these thoughts with a woman he'd only just met. "I'm pretty competitive, I guess, and I push myself pretty hard. It's a little crazy."

"Don't we all?" Jane laughed quietly.

"It started in school,” said Joe. “Try to get top grades. Then college. Then the company. Push, push, push. I don't know."

"Yeah," said Jane, changing the phone into her other hand.

"I mean, Jane, I want to be good at what I do, but, lately, someone has made me think, I mean something has made me think about it all, lately." Joe had almost mentioned Shamus. That was a close call, he thought.

"Strange you should say that, Joe. Lately, things have made me think about all that, too. Well, anyway, enough about work, right?"

"Hey," said Joe. "Would you like do something, when things get a little less crazy at your work? Maybe meet for another coffee, have dinner or something?"

"Sure," said Jane. "I'll give you a call back."

"Great. I mean, that would be nice."

"I'd better go," said Jane. "Tomorrow's going to be a big one. My boss, Christina, is going to fill me in on the new management position, and what I have to do to get everything started."

"Good luck."

"Thanks, Joe. See you."

"See you." Joe put the phone down, leaned back in his sofa chair, linked his hands behind his head, and thought about his good fortune.

Jane Hamilton had called him. Things were looking up!

For a moment, Joe wondered if Shamus might have had anything to do with it. No, he concluded. That would be just too weird. Guardian angels must have better things to do than concern themselves with romance.

He laughed at the thought.

 

 

 

Chapter  11

 

Jane felt guilty as she drove down the quiet suburban street. This wasn't like her, she thought: things banking up at the office, a new promotion, and here she was, taking Saturday afternoon off. She pulled up at the kerb of Bill's large home, unfastened her seat belt, and got out of the car.

Jane opened the garden gate and began the familiar stroll to the side door. There were kids’ toys scattered on the grass. As she passed the large kitchen window she saw Leslie inside, and waved.

Jane pulled open the side door and walked down the short hallway. Stevie, who was only four, suddenly appeared at the end of the corridor, racing off on some secret adventure with the studious indifference to the rest of the world that only a four-year-old can muster. He disappeared in the direction of the living room.

Jane turned the other way and came upon the kitchen.

Leslie downed her cooking tools when she saw her old friend. "Jane! I'm so glad you could make it.” She gave Jane a hug. “We haven't seen you for so long."

"All's fair in business and war," said Jane. "Lilly threatened to let down my tires if I didn't come along, and, well ... I miss you guys, anyway."

Leslie smiled. "I know. Since I left teaching, I've had a little more time in the evenings, at least when Bill can mind the kids. But I know it's tough to get time out, sometimes. Never mind! You're here now. Cookie?" Leslie held out a tray of freshly baked oatmeal biscuits, still hot from the oven.

"Mmmm!" Jane took one, greedily, and munched.

Her namesake, Little Jane, the six-year-old, came into the kitchen trailing a stuffed toy: a large rabbit, unceremoniously dragged by one ear. "Mummy, Rabbit wants to help cook!" Jane, junior smiled coyly at Big Jane, and then waited for her mother to reply.

Leslie looked down at her daughter. "Now, Sweetie, you know Rabbit's too young to help in the kitchen. Why don't you and Rabbit go play in the living room? Wouldn't that be fun?"

Little Jane pondered this for a moment, nodded, and began to walk off toward the living room. Changing her mind at the last moment, she ran up to Big Jane and tapped her on the leg. "Jane?"

"Yes, Sweetie?"

"Could you hold Rabbit for me? I'm go ... going to see daddy."

The child held out the toy. Jane took it, seriously, as if she were accepting a rare archaeological artefact. Rabbit, she knew, was important.

"Thank you!" Little Jane ran out of the kitchen.

Jane looked at Leslie. "Looks like Rabbit’s going to help cook, after all. What would you like him to do? Season the hollandaise sauce or whip up a quick soufflé?"

Leslie laughed. "I had in mind a big lasagne."

"Really? Sounds wonderful. Anything I can do to help?"

"No, thanks. Could you ask Bill to come help me serve this monster?" Opening the oven, Leslie indicated a huge tray of lasagne. To Jane, it looked big enough to feed an army.

"Sure.”

Jane took the same route that Little Jane had taken, straight to the busy living room. She could hear raucous children’s laughter and the sound of Bill's voice. As she entered the room, Bill was sitting cross-legged in a pile of toys. Stevie and Little Jane were giggling at his impression of Mickey Mouse. He had on a pair of plastic mouse ears, several sizes too small for a grown-up; they sat precariously on his balding head.

"Hi, Bill," said Jane.

"Why, hello there, Janey!" Bill replied in his best Mickey Mouse voice. "And how are you today? Have you been a good girl?"

The kids giggled.

"You know I'm always the perfect angel," Jane deadpanned.

"Oh, really?" said Bill. "What about the time, back in college, you met that French painter and ... oh, sorry kids ... Mickey has to go now! He’s not allowed to tell that story."

Jane was frowning sternly.

In his normal voice, Bill continued. "Care to try them on?"

"No thanks. I like my own ears just fine." Jane sat down on the floor, next to the kids, and gave Rabbit back to Little Jane, who took the toy gratefully. Stevie was engrossed in squeezing foam building blocks. "By the way, Leslie needs some help with the lasagne.”

"Hmmm. I'd better get out there, then."

Bill disappeared, setting off toward his happy task of serving up the food. Jane stayed and played with the children. Suddenly the familiar sound of Lilly's voice rang out. Her footsteps came down the corridor.

"Big Jane! Little Jane! Stevie! It's your Aunt Lilly!" Lilly was in fine form and full of her usual joie de vivre. The kids rushed over to her. She gave them each a chocolate, which was, by now, a ritual. Then she wandered over to Jane. "Here's your candy, Jane. Don't think I forgot you, now!"

Jane got up off the floor and took the chocolate. "Delicious, as usual," she said, chomping heartily on the German marzipan. "I see Aunt Lilly doesn't have cheap taste in confectionery."

"Are you kidding? Me, the original chocoholic?! Now, stand back; I see building blocks, there! Okay, kids, Aunty Lilly’s ready to play. Stevie, that's right, you squeeze the blocks. You're only four. Now, Jane, junior, what has Mr Rabbit been doing today?"

The children crowded around Lilly. Jane sighed. She couldn't compete with Lilly when it came to kids, so she contended herself with a more adult activity: sitting on the sofa, relaxing, and thinking what a nice afternoon it was going to be. She closed her eyes and imagined – she could almost taste the lasagne now.

 

 

It was a hard Saturday afternoon on the squash court. Joe grunted as he lunged to return another killer smash by Sue, but he was beaten hopelessly by the speed of the low, fast ball.

Paul, in the viewing gallery, yelled out the score. "Seven-one!"

Joe looked up. "You don't have to take quite so much pleasure in it, Paul. I'm sure the neighbours don't want to know."

Sue couldn’t resist the chance to pull Joe’s leg. "I didn't hear the score. Was that six-one? Hey, Paul! What was that score?"

Paul took his cue, gleefully. "Seven-one, Sue. The score is seven-one, in your favour. That puts you ... six points ahead of Joe."

Joe shook his head and prepared to receive the next serve. It was a high, looping ball to the corner. Joe tried to return it on the full but missed his shot. The ball shot off his racquet and hit the roof.

"Eight-one!" Paul chirped. He was really enjoying himself.

Joe and Sue swapped sides of the court, ready for the next serve. It came. Joe returned it well, and a short rally ensued. But Joe was getting drawn closer and closer to the front of the court, and when Sue finally decided the time was ripe to hit a superb smash, all he could do was watch as the ball passed him by.

"Good shot," Joe grunted, disappointed with himself.

The game was over. He had lost.

Sue patted him on the back. "Better luck next time. I have been playing this game for eighteen years, you know!"

Joe nodded sadly.

Paul's voice rang out from above. "Okay! I'm coming down. Tell the loser another challenger’s on the way to give him a second chance." His voice trailed off as he disappeared from sight, making his way to the stairs.

A moment later, Sue opened the court door in response to Paul’s three sharp knocks. "Take it easy on him, Paul. He's suffering from bruised male ego."

Paul replied seriously. "Sure. I understand."

This was too much for Joe. "Right! That does it. You’ve gone one step too far, Mr Jamieson. You may be king of the mountain and number one in a parachute, but this is the squash court. Now you're mine!" Joe frowned crazily.

"Yeah, right," said Paul. "You can serve. I'm feeling lucky."

"Not for long," Joe quipped. He served, sending the hapless Paul scurrying forward to return the short ball.

It was obviously going to be a grudge match.

 

 

Sitting at Bill and Leslie's huge dining table, Jane poured some more red wine for the cook. Leslie held up her hand. “Half a glass is plenty. Thanks, Jane.”

Jane poured a second glass, for herself. “That was a great lasagne.”

Bill was gathering a sleepy Stevie up from his chair. "Why don't you ladies just sit here and relax? I'll take the kids through for their afternoon nap."

Stevie and Little Jane were tired, so they didn’t protest as their dad led them out of the dining room.

"I'm tired, dad," Little Jane said.

"Come on, then. Let's go!" said Bill.

Once Bill and the kids had left the room, Lilly, Jane and Leslie were left to contemplate their full stomachs and to trade stories.

"Leslie, that was the best meal,” said Lilly. “I didn't know we professional-teacher-types could cook. I only knew we could garden."

"I couldn't cook, before," said Leslie. "But when I decided to stop for a few years and raise the kids, I got interested in it. Wait until you try one of my Thai soups! It’s great fun. But I do miss teaching. I never realised how much economics meant to me. I'm just itching to get chalk on my fingers, draw that ol' supply and demand curve again."

"Admit it," said Lilly. "It's a power thing."

Leslie laughed, but said nothing.

Jane replied on her behalf, "You can talk, Lilly! I've heard stories about your English lessons. How many lines did you give little Bobby Peterson? Five hundred? I think you're the teacher from hell!"

Lilly was unfazed. "And what about you in those corporate boardrooms? I'll bet you make 'em quiver in their boots. And now that you're promoted, you even get to take your own revenge on your old managers. Give them a taste of their own medicine."

Jane looked philosophical. "Well, not really. They've all moved onto bigger and better things. Except Michael, of course, who didn't get the chance. No, I’ve just got the same team of people who were terrorised right alongside me. Somehow, terrorising them some more doesn't seem like fun. We've been through too much together. I'm planning to try something different."

Leslie interrupted. "The gentle method? Look out! Obviously you've never been in a class full of fifteen-year-olds, trying to teach monetary policy. Give 'em an inch and you're a dead woman! You've gotta show a little steel. Believe me. I've been there."

"Oh, come off it, Leslie," Lilly objected.

"I'm not planning on being a wimp," said Jane. "It's a matter of showing respect and consideration for people, and not just as some stupid management fad, something that means nothing except on paper. I mean a change in the atmosphere, to one of a team instead of one of an army. I'm not the general. I'm the leader – the coach, if you like. What's the point in getting results in a way that burns everyone out? That's crazy in the long term."

"Maybe you have a point," said Leslie.

Lilly jumped up. "Okay. I'm making coffee. You both having?"

Jane and Leslie nodded.

"Terrific! Now, why don’t we talk about something more interesting. How about ... romance?" Lilly walked into the kitchen.

"Romance?" said Leslie. "What haven't you been telling us, Jane? As far as I knew, the only romance in your life was your computer. You know, the thing you stay up all night working on."

Jane drummed her fingers on the table. "I don't know what you’re talking about. That Lilly! She’s always making up stories. There is no romance.”

 

 

Things were going well for Joe. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and walked to the other side of the squash court. This time he was winning.

"What's the score, please, Sue?" said Joe.

"Score? Oh, I haven't been watching."

"I believe it's seven-one," Joe yelled. “That’s SEVEN-ONE!"

"Okay, okay,” said Paul. “We all know you’re beating me. Just serve!"

Joe swung his racket and lobbed the ball into Paul's service court. A rally began. Paul staggered after a drop shot. He arrived one bounce too late. Looking haggard, Paul took a long drink from his squeeze bottle, wiped his brow, and trudged back to receive the next serve. No doubt it would be the coup de grace, he thought grimly.

"Match point," Sue said quietly from the gallery above.

Joe was merciless. He launched a blistering overhead serve, which Paul had no chance of returning. The game was over.

Joe laughed. "Sorry buddy! I just had to get you, after the roasting you gave me. That'll teach you to make fun of poor ol' Joe!"

"Once more taking advantage of an innocent beginner, eh, Joe?” said Sue. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Shameful. But I suppose it is the only way you can experience the thrill of victory."

Paul towelled sweat off his face. "Well, Joe, you had to deliver the final blow, sooner or later. Just as well. I was suffering pretty bad. Finishing me off was the only humane thing to do."

"Come on, then," said Joe. "Let's go get a drink. A gallon of electrolytes should get us back from out-and-out dehydration to just plain thirsty, eh?"

"Yeah."

The two men left the court and slouched up the stairs to meet Sue. When they arrived she already had sports drinks waiting for them, two large pint-bottles. The three of them stood as a group.

"My shout, today," said Sue. "Can't have you brave boys dropping dead on the squash court, can we? Drink up! It's a good thing Alan diagnosed your chest pain as a stomach cramp, Joe, or I wouldn't even be letting you play at all. Here, have a drink."

Joe took the bottle of blue water and unscrewed the cap.

Paul took a swig at his own – fluorescent green – drink, and then turned to Joe. "Say, Joe, whatever happened to that woman you had the date with? You know, Julie ... Janet ... Whatshername?"

Sue was not impressed. “It's Jane, Paul. I would have thought a man with a little black book the size of yours could at least manage to get the name right."

"I haven't forgotten her name," said Joe, matter-of-factly.

"Oooooooh!" Paul cooed. "Well, now."

"Really, Joe?” said Sue. “So what has been going on with Jane Hamilton?"

Joe drank greedily from his bottle. He wondered what flavour blue was. "Nothing’s going on. I've only just met her! You guys are a pack of vultures."

"Sounds serious to me," said Paul.

Sue hustled them along to a table.

They all sat down; Paul and Joe flopped into their plastic chairs like exhausted marathon runners.

"So, you really liked her?" Sue asked.

"Yeah,” Joe admitted. “If you must know, I really liked her. And, I forgive you for setting me up. She's kind of got me interested, I suppose."

Paul couldn’t resist the opportunity to stir Joe up. "Wow. Joe hasn’t shown this much interest in a woman since the time Rita Starworthy took him behind the marquee at the phone company picnic. It must be serious."

Joe glared at Paul. "You can talk. What about you and that actress, Jasmine? If I remember correctly, you had her convinced you were a director."

"Boys!” said Sue. “We’re not talking about some bit of fluff here. This is my matchmaking. I put research into this. And it sounds like it wasn't for nothing!"

"Can we change the subject now?" said Joe.

Paul looked concerned. "Just as I thought, Sue. He's smitten!"

"Next time, I'll beat you nine-nothing, Jamieson," Joe muttered. He drank the rest of his blue drink in silence.

 

 

Lilly, back from Leslie’s immaculate kitchen, placed a full coffee cup delicately on the table in front of her host, then walked around and gave a second one to Jane. Then she resumed her seat, a slight grin forming on her expressive face. "So, Jane. Let’s play conversation. Your choice of topic can be either: a) toothpaste; b) the migration patterns of the African elephant; or c) men. Which one would you like?"

Lilly and Leslie each looked expectantly at Jane.

Jane sipped her coffee. "Toothpaste."

"Okay," said Lilly. "Suppose you go to the supermarket and come across this great new brand of toothpaste. You know: half the price, whitens as it polishes, tastes like mint chocolate but without the calories. Would you tell us?"

"No," said Jane. "I'd buy it all for myself."

"Perhaps we should try elephants," Leslie suggested. "I don't think she's going to tell us anything about men."

"Probably true," said Lilly, "under ordinary circumstances. But I am Jane's gardener – at no charge. That grass is getting long, isn't it? And if someone doesn't tend to those tulips, the whole lot could die out. What a pity."

"Blackmail!" Jane exclaimed.

"Oh, goodie. Now we'll get some action," said Leslie.

Lilly leaned across the table and goaded Jane. "Yes, blackmail. Now, if you want to see those tulips alive again, tell your Aunty Lilly."

"There's nothing to tell."

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Tell, tell, tell."

"No, Lilly,” said Leslie. “Wait. This isn't right."

"It isn't?" said Lilly.

"It isn't?" Jane repeated, surprised.

"No. If Jane wants to tell us about it, she will. And, in the meantime, we shouldn't use blackmail or guilt to goad her into talking. I mean, if she doesn't trust us, her oldest friends, that is okay. If after all these years she doesn't ..."

Jane raised her hands. "Okay! You win."

"Oh, good!" said Leslie.

"So, what happened?” said Lilly. “Did you like him, this Joe character? Did he have a double chin? What was he like? Tall?"

"No double chin. He was kind of cute."

"Cute? Hmmm." Leslie hummed appreciatively.

"Yeah, he was cute." Jane laughed. "Actually, he seemed a little more evolved than the usual Neanderthal."

"You get Neanderthal?" Lilly asked seriously. "You're lucky. I usually get Cro-Magnon. You know, with the forehead ..."

"And apart from him being cute,” said Leslie, “what did you think?"

"Well, he was okay. Works a little hard. Smart enough. Piano player ..."

"So,” said Lilly, “did he invite you up to his place for a little Rachmaninov? You know, a quick tinkle on the ivories?"

"No! We had coffee at Harold's. Joe seemed nice. A bit funny, maybe, but there's something about him."

"We can guess," said Leslie, trying to look innocent.

"Can you be serious for one moment?" Lilly hissed. "We are trying to extract gossip here. You're throwing us off the scent! So ..."

"So?" said Jane.

"So, Leslie and I, here, would like to know if you're gonna see him again. I mean, did I do good or did I do good?"

Jane sighed. "Yes, I guess so. I'll probably see him again."

Lilly turned to Leslie. "You see. I told you this guy was better than the accountant. I know these things."

"Accountant? What accountant?" Jane demanded.

Leslie went bright red. "I don't know what she's talking about! Must be the caffeine. It causes delusions, you know."

"Right,” said Lilly. “Silly me. Accountant? Who said anything about an accountant? Never heard of him."

Jane laughed. "You guys! Sometimes I wonder what you’d do with yourselves, without my personal life to manage. Ever thought of taking up golf?"

"I tried it once," said Leslie. "Very dull. Gossip’s much better.”

“You better believe it,” said Lilly.

Leslie got up from the table and sauntered through to the kitchen to get dessert. She came back bearing a huge strawberry cheesecake.

“Who needs men, anyway,” said Lilly, “when we’ve got baked cheesecake?”

“Not me,” said Jane.

“Right,” said Leslie. “And that’s why you went on a blind date?”

Jane decided not to provide her friends with any more gossip. She sank her teeth into a slice of cheesecake. “Well, you’ll never know, will you?”

Leslie looked very disappointed.

 

 

 

 

Chapter  12

 

Jane was staying up late doing homework again. She was sitting on her antique floral sofa, hunched over the coffee table, typing doggedly at her laptop computer. She ignored the giant television and the muted cable news it displayed. From the old grandfather clock in the corner there came the soft chime of midnight, but Jane hardly noticed. She yawned.

After the long working day and several hours of programming at home, finally Jane couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. Her tired body slumped back into the sofa. In a moment, she was asleep.

As Jane lost consciousness, time seemed to slip away. The waking world was gone. In its place was a dreamland, all of white. She was standing in whiteness, in a place with no walls, no sky, just the endless, easy brilliance of winter, without the cold: white above and white below.

And then, almost comforting in all the whiteness, there appeared a familiar cloud of green smoke. A chubby hand emerged from the cloud and began sweeping the smoke aside. Shamus Maguinty, bogus leprechaun and genuine guardian angel, stepped out of the haze. He looked well pleased with himself.

Shamus spoke. "Ah, at last!"

"Where ... where am I?" said Jane, suspiciously.

Shamus had little patience for silly questions. “You're dreaming, of course. Don't you remember falling asleep? Well, this is your dream. Got it?"

"I guess so. I’m dreaming? Okay. If you say."

"Right!" Shamus brushed some dust off his emerald green trousers, patted his ample belly, and adjusted his little green hat. "How do I look?"

"Ah, fine," said Jane. She thought it was probably bad form to criticise one's guardian angel on his looks, even if he did need to lose a few extra pounds and even if he had no dress sense at all. "You look great."

"Great. Because we're expecting visitors, any minute."

Shamus pulled out his gold watch, tapped it briefly in frustration, as if it were not working, and then tucked it back into his waistcoat pocket. "I keep forgetting there's no time, here. At least that means I don't have to hurry. Usually, I only have a few seconds, but here I can hang around as long as have to. It’s just a dream, you see, so time really doesn’t matter."

"Shamus?" said Jane.

"Uh huh."

"What is this place?" Jane looked around. It was hard to measure distance. The foreground and the background were so white it was like being in a snowstorm, but everything was peaceful.

"Oh, yeah. This is your imagination." Shamus gestured with a careless hand. "Look around. It's quite interesting, actually."

"My imagination?"

"Sure. Think of something. Anything at all."

"Okay," said Jane.

Suddenly, a rhinoceros appeared. It was wearing pink boots and had a long, pink ribbon tied around its horn. It trotted past, daintily – grunting as it went – and then disappeared in the distance, fading into the whiteness.

Jane jumped behind Shamus. "Did you see that? It's not safe in here!"

"Hey, you're messing up my jacket! What did you expect? If you think rhinoceros, you're going to get rhinoceros. That's how it works."

"Oh." Jane paused. "I'm not sure I want to think about anything, right now. Seems a little risky. Can’t we just talk for a while?"

"Sorry! No can do. Do you know how much power it takes just to light this place up? We gotta get right down to business."

"Business?"

"Hmmm. You're here to meet a couple of folks. I think you'll find them interesting. But first, let me show you something." Shamus motioned for Jane to turn and look behind her. "You see that?"

Startled, Jane recognised her own house, life-size, with its white picket fence, the grass that needed mowing, even the tulips. It rose like an island of colour out of a sea of white nothingness. "But ... that's my house!"

"That's right.” Shamus sniffed the air. “Now, do you smell something?"

 Jane looked a little worried. "Smoke. I smell smoke. Is something burning? What the ..." Suddenly, Jane realised her house was on fire. She could see little flames licking at the roof. "Hey! My house is on fire. My HOUSE is on fire! I have to wake up ... I have to ..."

Shamus raised his index finger and shook it at her, gravely. "You don't need to wake up, Jane. This is just a dream. Your real house isn't on fire."

"It isn't?"

"Of course not!"

Jane breathed a sigh of relief. "So, I can relax now, right?"

"No," said Shamus.

"I can’t?"

"Nope." Shamus indicated the living room window of Jane's house. "Can you see who’s in that window, there?"

Jane squinted. In the living room, a woman was looking out, scratching at the window desperately, trying to open it, trying to get out. "But that's me!"

"Uh huh." Shamus looked bored. He took out a white paper bag from his trouser pocket, fished inside it for some candy, and munched happily. He offered the bag to Jane. "Chocolate?"

"Chocolate?!How can you think about chocolate at a time like this? Can't you see her in the window? She's terrified! Come on, we have to help her!"

Jane tried to run toward the house, but seemed to bump into an invisible wall of rubber; she bounced backwards and landed unceremoniously on the hard white ground. "Ouch!” she yelped.

Shamus shook his head. He sighed heavily. "First of all, Jane, it’s never the wrong time for chocolate. Second of all, it's not that easy to get at the problem, here. You can't just rush at it head on. You just don’t understand what's going on."

"You can say that again!" Jane got up, dusted herself off, and noted with frustration that the fire was getting worse in her house. The figure in the window seemed to have given up. She was just standing there, looking at them, while the house burned around her. Jane decided to yell. "Hang on, in there! We'll get you out!"

"Jane," said Shamus, calling quietly for her attention.

"What?"

"It's not your house that's on fire."

"It's not?"

"No, Jane. It's your life that's on fire. Your life is burning down and you're trapped inside it. The house you see over there is just a ...” Shamus waved his hand, “ ... a metaphor. This is a dream, remember? But your real life isn't a dream, and I’m telling you it's burning just as surely as that house is. And if you don't put out the fire pretty darned quick, Jane, you're going down with the ship. So, tell me: do you know what the fire is?"

"Fire. Flames. Smoke. Sure." Jane shrugged.

"No. Let me show you the fire."

Suddenly, there was a terrifying sound: a howling wind. It was like standing in the middle of a twister. Jane's hair blew wildly around her face. There was a storm of paper. A4 sheets, business letters, memos and print-outs were flying and spinning all around them, thousands and thousands of sheets of paper, like so many leaves.

Jane was terrified.

"WHAT'S GOING ON?" she yelled at Shamus, above the din.

"DUCK!"

"WHAT?!"

"DUCK!”

At that very moment, a laptop computer came flying through the air and hit Jane in the arm, with a sickening thud; then it dropped to the floor, like a spent cannon ball. Jane grabbed her arm and yelled out in pain.

"HEY! THAT REALLY HURT!"

Shamus looked frightened. “LOOK OUT, JANE!”

This time, Jane wasn't taking any chances. She hit the floor like a professional soldier in an artillery barrage. A huge business desk sailed violently through the air, where Jane had been standing only an instant before. From somewhere above, three or four computer terminals dropped like stones, their screens cracking as they smashed into the ground.

By now, even Shamus had taken cover.

"SHAMUS! THIS IS DANGEROUS IN HERE. TURN IT OFF! STOP IT! STOP ..." Jane's voice rang out loudly against the sudden silence.

The wind had stopped.

After a few moments, Jane got up, apprehensively.

Shamus was busy surveying the disaster area around them. There was paper everywhere, smashed computer terminals, desks, clocks, pens, typewriters; it was like a battlefield after the gunsmoke had cleared.

Shamus turned and looked seriously at Jane.

"That, Jane, was the fire. Do you understand?"

"I get the picture," Jane said soberly.

"Good!" Shamus snapped his fingers and it all disappeared.

There was nothing but whiteness again, nothing but whiteness until at once the sound of a crackling fire returned; then there was the creaking groan of wooden roof beams breaking. Jane's house had appeared once more. The fire was worse than ever. In the front window, the figure of an identical Jane stood mute, doing nothing, not even trying to get out. It was a pathetic sight.

"But why is my house still burning?" said Jane, horrified.

"Not your house, Jane. Your life."

"Okay, okay. My life. Why?" Jane was frustrated. She was a mess. Her hair was astray, clothing out of place, and she had a sore arm which she was rubbing angrily. Meanwhile, her alter ego was trapped in a burning house.

"Your life is still on fire because of the voice you're listening to," said Shamus, cryptically. He waited for a reply.

"But I'm listening to YOU!"

"Cute,” said Shamus, unimpressed. “I mean the voice you're letting run your life. The one that makes you sit up half the night working."

"What are you talking about?!”

"Her!" Shamus pointed dramatically at the burning house. There was a second figure now, another woman, but this one was outside. She wore a smart tan business suit, diamond jewellery, expensive Italian shoes, and she held a burning torch in each hand. She looked very much like Jane.

"What the hell?!" said Jane, shocked.

"Good choice of words," said Shamus.

As they watched, the new figure threw one of the blazing torches into the flower patch. Then she lobbed the second torch onto the roof. The figure dusted off her hands and stood back to admire the inferno. She seemed unaware of the mute woman, so much her double, standing in the living room window. Then she started to walk over toward Shamus and Jane.

"I've seen ... her before,” said Jane, in horror. It was the woman Jane had seen in her nightmare, the night Michael died, a woman with a face as cold as steel: her face, Jane's face. Suddenly Jane felt very ill. Her legs buckled under her. She fell.

Everything faded to black.

 

 

As Jane came slowly around again, Shamus's face came into focus. She had never noticed it before, but clipped to his hat was a little badge which read, ‘United Association of Angels, Inc.’

Shamus looked concerned. "Jane, what are you doing?! You're already asleep and now you faint in your dream? This is pretty advanced stuff!"

Jane sat up on the white ground, then stood. "Can I wake up now? I think I've had enough of dreaming for one night."

"Nonsense! Now, Jane, I’d like you to meet someone. Jane Hamilton, meet ... Jane Hamilton." Shamus indicated the sinister figure who had torched the house. She looked exactly like Jane, but very sharply dressed, impressive, imposing, and icy cold. She stood right in front of Jane, silent. "But to avoid confusion, we'll call her Lucy."

"Lucy?" Jane asked, confused.

"It's kind of appropriate. She doesn't have horns or anything, and as for the forked tail, that went out years ago, but you've probably heard of Lucifer? Well, this is Lucy."

The figure pushed Shamus aside. "That's enough of that!” she snarled. “Here, leprechaun. Play with this!" Lucy tossed him a gold coin.

As Shamus caught it, he froze like a statue.

"Hey!” said Jane. “What have you done to him? Leave him alone! Wait a minute—he’s an angel. How can you do that to an angel?" She tapped Shamus on the arm. He was as solid as stone and as cold as a snowman.

"Oh, he's all right. Just froze him for a while. He'll thaw." Lucy began pacing, like a genie let out of a bottle after a very long time. She smiled a steely smile. "So, I see you've been promoted. At last. Took you long enough."

"Well, yes. I've been promoted. As if it's any of your business!” said Jane.

"My business?!” Lucy growled. “Of course it's my business. It's my job to look after you! If it hadn't been for my advice, you'd probably still be some good-for-nothing nobody, a clerk third-class, locked away in a basement somewhere, typing up memos. Look at yourself. You're somebody!"

Lucy paused from her tirade for a moment and examined her diamond bracelet. Then she turned to Jane again. "But you really have to learn to dress. Find yourself a good jeweller. A girl just isn't complete without diamonds, you know. No wonder your love life is such a mess!"

Jane found it bizarre talking to someone who looked exactly like her, with her own face, but who was so completely different to the Jane Hamilton she knew herself as. Nevertheless, she wasn’t about to take insults. "My love life is none of your goddamn business! I never asked for your advice. And what about my house?" Jane looked around, but the house had disappeared. There was just Lucy, pacing around formidably, and Shamus, frozen and helpless. “Who do you think you are, anyway?”

"Who do I think I am?" Lucy broke into an angry laugh. Then she yelled at Jane, at point-blank range. "WHO DO I THINK I AM?!"

Jane took a step backwards.

Lucy shook her head and raised her arms. "That’s right. I'm you, Jane! Don't you get it? I'm part of you. The real you. I'm the woman you always wanted to be: a success." She put an arm around Jane, leading her over to the frozen figure of Shamus. "This guy's just a pretender. He's a mere angel. Muddling, incompetent, not even allowed to appear for more than a few seconds. But I’m with you all the time. I'm the answer to your prayers. I'm the cream in your coffee."

Jane pushed her away. "Look, I don't know what is going on here. I don’t know who the hell you are. I just want to wake up."

Lucy imitated her, in a baby voice. "I just want to wake up,” she whined. “Oh, please! You're a big girl now, Jane, and you’re finally getting somewhere. Don’t stuff it up. Head Office is watching you. You have to deliver. You have to get results, so don't get soft on me now. Just a few more years, Jane, and you'll be at the top. I'll help you."

"What about Michael?" Jane asked doubtfully. "He was trying to reach the top. And now he's dead. Is that what you want for me?"

"Jane, Jane. Of course I don't want that! I only want the best for you. I just don't want you to let yourself down, okay? You've worked all these years. Now’s the time to make it pay, and make it pay, big time. All I'm saying is, don't get soft. That’s all." Lucy shook her head, held out her palms and looked as innocent as a sleeping child.

"I don't want to see you any more," said Jane, not sure what to think but at the end of her patience. "Get out of my dream!"

Lucy looked scared. She was starting to fade into the whiteness. "Jane?! What are you doing? Don't do this to me ..."

Then Lucy was gone. Her last words echoed.

Jane was relieved to see that Shamus, who had been frozen all this time, was moving again. The little fellow had his cap off and was rubbing his bald head. Replacing his headgear, he spoke. "Damn! Fell for the old freezing coin trick! We leprechauns like our gold coins. I should have known better."

"Are you all right?" said Jane.

"Hmmm? Oh, I'm fine. No harm done. But there's still a little matter we have to attend to." He indicated Jane's burning house, which had rematerialised. "What do you plan to do about that?"

Jane despaired to see the crackling inferno again. She was hoping the burning house stuff was over. It wasn’t her favourite part of the dream. "But, what can I do?"

Shamus scratched his chin. "Well, nothing, really. Not here. It's what you do in the real world, after you wake up, which matters. But I suppose there's still something more you can learn from all this. See that lake, over there?"

"What lake?"

"That one, behind the house. See it, through the smoke?"

"Oh ... yes." Jane began to walk around the house, and as she did so, it disappeared. Her attention was now focussed on a vast natural lake, like the one she used to sail on as a child. There were people in boats, houses on the far shore, and birds drifting lazily overhead. A sleek fibreglass racing dinghy was approaching, piloted by a woman who looked familiar. "Oh no. Don't tell me it's me again!"

"I'm afraid so," said Shamus, as the boat pulled up by the wooden jetty which had softly materialised in front of them.

The young woman in the boat waved and called out. "Come on! Hop in!" She looked identical to Jane, but was wearing jeans, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and tennis shoes.

Jane looked at Shamus, shrugged, then climbed into the little boat and sat opposite her double.

Shamus got aboard. He spoke to the young woman sailor. "Hello. I hope you're not going to freeze me."

The sailor said nothing. She just eased the boat away from the jetty.

"Our captain, here, Jane, is Jane Hamilton. But we'd better call her ..."

The sailor interrupted. "How about, Jill? Nice to meet you, Jane.”

"Nice to meet you, too,” said Jane. “But who are you?"

"She's you, Jane," Shamus explained patiently.

"But ... the other woman ... Lucy. She said she was me."

"That's right." Shamus was hardly interested at all. "Do you see that pelican, there? Beautiful bird. Just look at the way she lands."

"But they can't both be me!"

"Well," said Jill, "it's a little confusing, I know. Anyway, I'm glad about your promotion. You've been working on that goal for years. Now you'll be able to make the changes in the company you've always wanted. Just do me a favour, will you?"

Jane gripped the side of the boat as they bounced across a couple of waves. The wind was picking up. “Ah, what favour?”

"Don't forget your conversation with Steve. You know, when you were sitting outside the office, after that boring monthly meeting? You said you’d do things differently if you were in charge. Oh, excuse me ..."

Another boat was approaching them, the wind blowing into the left side of its sails. It was on a collision course with their own little dinghy.

Jill yelled cheerfully. "STARBOARD!"

The other boat turned away and let them pass.

“We have the right of way,” said Jill. “The wind’s blowing into the right side of our sail, the starboard side. That gives us priority."

"I know," said Jane. "I'm a sailor, too. Are you racing? Are we in a race?"

"Oh, just for fun. Nothing serious. Mind your head now. JIBING!" Pushing on the tiller, Jill turned the rudder until the boat turned downwind.

The heavy metal boom, which held the bottom of the sail, swung across to the other side of the boat. Jane had to duck to avoid the swinging beam. It came naturally. Once a sailor, always a sailor, Jane thought.

Shamus was nodding off to sleep.

Jill smiled at the dozing leprechaun and chuckled. "He's had a hard day, you know. I'm not surprised he needs a rest."

Jane frowned. "So, you're saying it's good that I've been promoted? That's what the other me ... what Lucy said. But somehow, she gave me the creeps. What am I supposed to think?"

"Hmmm. Well, it's good you've been promoted. Oh – sorry – could you sit a little further forward? We need to lift the transom for better speed downwind. Thanks. It's great that you've become a manager. Just don't forget to make a few changes. You know how to manage better, so do it."

"Oh,” said Jane, feeling a little dumb.

"And don't worry, I'll be there to help you along the way. Just be careful who you listen to. Okay?"

"Okay."

"That's good, Jane. Everything will be just fine if you just remember that. I'm sorry, but I have to go now." The sailor smiled, and suddenly it was all gone: the lake, the boat, Jane's double, everything.

There was only the endless whiteness again.

Jane and Shamus were still sitting down, as if they were in the boat, but all that was beneath them was the hard white ground. Jane stood up.

Shamus, yawning and stretching, followed suit. "Love those pelicans. Nice touch, Jane. I have to admire your imagination."

"What do you mean, my imagination? You're the one who brought me here. I've got no idea what's going on. Honestly!"

Shamus was disgusted. "I don’t believe it! Do you still need to ask what’s going on, after all of that? Well, since you insist, here it is ..."

Shamus snapped his fingers angrily and disappeared in a puff of green mist. A new scene evolved. Jane realised she was standing in her living room, and there was smoke. Not just green smoke, but grey smoke – fire smoke. The house was on fire! she thought. And she was trapped inside.

Jane looked out of her living room window and banged on it, wildly. She tried to get it open, scratching at the glass. The room was filled with heavy smog – it was acrid and asphyxiating. A person could choke to death in here! she thought. She covered her mouth. The dream was a nightmare again. In fact she wanted to wake up, right at that moment, more than anything in the world. What on earth was Shamus trying to do to her? Jane fought, confused, for breath, and tried to wake from the dream.

It was working.

She was starting to wake; the scene was fading.

But as it faded she could still make out the figure of a woman, outside the window, who looked exactly like herself, but dressed in a tan business suit, throwing a burning torch into her front garden and cruelly watching Jane, trapped inside the house. And then, at last, the dream was over.

Jane woke. She sat up, hurriedly, and looked around her. She was on her sofa, her real sofa. And it was three in the morning. Her groggy mind registered this meant she’d been asleep for three hours. The hushed television was still running. The hard drive in her laptop still buzzed, softly. Best of all, there was no smoke.

Jane took a deep breath. She gave silent thanks that the nightmare was over. And then she noticed something small on the keyboard of her laptop. It was a tiny, green business card. She picked it up and read aloud:

 

 

'Shamus Maguinty.

 Leprechaun and Personal Guardian Angel.

 United Association of Angels, Inc.'

 

There was a picture of a four-leaf clover on the card. She turned it over. On the back, written in a scribbly hand, in blue ink, were two words:

 

‘Don't Forget.’

 

 

 

Chapter  13

 

A full hour had passed since Joe had fallen asleep. With him, on his bed, were several large, crumpled budget sheets for the upcoming Zemtril conference. He had been working very late again. But now, his work forgotten in the peaceful mercy of sleep, Joe was tossing and turning, beginning to dream.

In his dream, he found himself in a place of pure white. There was no sky, no near and no far, just whiteness. He was standing up. As he looked around him, there seemed to be nothing there at all, until shortly a wisp of green smoke tickled at his nose. Turning around, Joe saw the figure of Shamus Maguinty.

Shamus yawned painfully. "Do you humans always have to dream in the middle of the night? Arggghh. Typical. Well, I hope you’re ready!"

"Ready?” said Joe. “I don't even know where I am. And what are you doing in my dreams? Come to think of it, what am I doing asleep? That budget for the Zemtril conference has to be finished by ..."

"It can wait," said Shamus, firmly. He placed a short, chubby arm around the small of Joe's back, and led Joe off to the right. "We have someone to meet. This way. Right this way, please, Mr Mortal Human."

Joe could hear music. It was jazz: not a trio, just piano. Whoever it was, was good, thought Joe – very good. The tune was an old standard, My Foolish Heart. Shamus was leading Joe right toward it. As the song grew louder, Joe began to make out a large black shape; the white fog gradually cleared in front of it.

"That's right, Joe. Just over here. A few more steps." Shamus sounded pleased with himself. Joe had no idea what he was up to.

Then, the black shape resolved sharply into a grand piano. A man was sitting at the keyboard, playing the tune and smoking a thin cigar. Dressed in black, in a turtleneck top, he cut a stylish figure; his cropped, sandy hair was slicked back. The tune he was playing, so effortlessly, floated through the air like a fresh summer breeze.

“Right this way!” said Shamus.

Joe followed Shamus to the piano, then took a sudden step back when he recognised the face of the pianist. It was his own face – Joe Mathews’ face. "What the hell?" said Joe, shocked even if it was only a dream.

"Joe Mathews, meet Joe Mathews." Shamus held up his tiny arms, grandiosely, to introduce the mysterious double.

"Ah, pleased to meet you," said Joe, meekly.

The man at the piano turned slightly, while playing, and replied, "Pleased to meet you, too, Joe." He puffed out a cloud of cigar smoke and embellished the tune some more. His hands seemed to dart about the piano keys like magic, or like someone who had been studying the piano for a very long time.

"Wish I could play that good," said Joe, almost not realising he had said it. Shamus started to walk away. Joe saw him leaving. "Hey! Where are you going?"

"Oh, you don’t need me for this," said Shamus.

"But ..." said Joe.

It was too late. Shamus had walked away into the white fog.

Joe was puzzled; even if he knew it was all just a dream, he wanted to understand what it meant. What was going on? He turned to the piano player. "Look, I don't want to disturb you or anything, but ..."

The figure shrugged and began the intro to Fly Me to The Moon. His fingers flashed across the keys so fast, Joe could hardly see them move. It was a cadenza. Then the tune settled into a regular beat and the melody began. "You're not disturbing me. Go ahead."

"Where am I?" asked Joe.

"Oh, you're dreaming. Fell asleep, remember? You know, sometimes you hear music while you're dozing off? Well, I'm the guy who plays it for you. To be more precise ... I am you. They call me Jimmy, by the way. A little corny, I know, but the guys in the band like it."

"Jimmy?"

"That's me. Don't you love this tune?"

"Yeah,” said Joe. “I do.”

Jimmy could play and talk at the same time, as if playing the piano were no more difficult to him than peeling potatoes.

"So, tell me, Joe. What brings you here? Want to talk? I'm sure the angel, Shamus, wouldn't have let you come without a good reason." Jimmy stopped playing and turned, still sitting on the piano stool, to face Joe. He took a long, grateful pull on his cigar, and then, as if remembering to be polite, asked, "Smoke?"

"No, thanks. I gave it up last year."

"Really? Pity. But, you're probably right; it's a disgusting habit. So, I hear you're going to get promoted."

"Me? Well, maybe. There's talk – nothing definite." Joe took a look under the hood of the grand, and whistled. "Nice piano. What make is that? Don't think I've ever seen one like it."

"Oh, it's a ... I don't think you would have heard of it. If you think this one is good, you should see the one at the club."

"The club?"

"Oh, sure. Club Vivax. I'll take you there, if you like. Anyway, you are going to be promoted, you know. It's common knowledge, down here." Jimmy made a sweeping motion with his hand, indicating the white surroundings.

"Where exactly are we?" said Joe.

"Well, it's a little hard to explain. Let's just say you're among friends. Good friends. Your best friend, in fact. But let’s not talk about me." Jimmy got up and padded his way around to the far side of the piano. He closed the lid, then leaned on it as he smoked. A small ashtray materialised, out of nowhere, on the polished lid of the piano. Jimmy tapped a little excess ash from his cigar into the tray.

Joe leaned on the other side of the huge grand piano, admiring its glossy black finish. "So, you're saying I'm definitely going to get promoted?"

"Hit the nail on the head, Joey. Yeah. It's about time, too. You're long overdue. But, there's something else we need to talk about: the band."

"Yeah. I don't get much time for them, these days." Joe looked a little depressed. He propped his head on one arm and sighed.

"Look, man. You love jazz, right?"

"Right," said Joe.

"And your career’s important too, no? I mean, this promotion is everything you've been working for. At least, trust me, when they offer it to you, it will be."

"Sure," said Joe.

"Well, I'm here to tell you that you’ve only got one life. You'll never forgive yourself if you don't keep the band going, and you'll never forgive yourself if you don't keep your career moving. Right?"

"But what's the solution?” said Joe. “It's hard to do both."

In an instant, without the slightest warning, Jimmy flew into a violent storm of rage, almost choking on his words. He hissed the words like a king cobra spitting venom. "Hard to do both? You think it’s too hard to do both?! Who do you think you are, man? I'm your best friend, Joey, and now you tell me it's too hard ..." Catching himself losing control, he quickly calmed down again. "Look, Joe. The only time we can't do things is when we say we can't. So, repeat after me: there is no such word as can't."

"Er, okay. There’s no such word ..."

" ...as ..."

" ...can't. No such word as can't," Joe completed.

"Right!" Jimmy blew the word out like a long note on a tenor saxophone. "You got it. Okay, your trio usually do late gigs, say: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, ten to two. Gives you time to get home, hit the sack for a few hours, and be up bright and bushy tailed for Biopharm. You nine-to-five it ..."

"Nine to five?” said Joe. “When was the last time I finished at five?"

"Yeah, well, you nine-to-seven it, maybe eight some nights. And it's cool. Get things set up just right and you can do both."

"Sounds a little tight," Joe ventured.

Jimmy turned bright red. "Too difficult for you? Mummy's little boy’s still clinging to the apron strings, is he? Can't hack the pace? Who do you think is going to make your life happen? Do you think you can just wimp out?"

Joe took a few steps back. "But wait a minute – I tried all that, last year, and ended up sick. I even had to take a couple of weeks off. If it didn't work then, why should it work now? And if you're right about that promotion, my work demands are going to get even bigger. How could I fit all that in and still play with the band?"

Jimmy said nothing for a moment. He stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray, raised his hands as if surrendering, and said, "Okay, kid. I can see you just don't get it, what separates winners from losers. But I know you'll be a winner, one day. So, for now, don't sweat it."

Before Joe could reply, Jimmy smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Hey, I said I'd take you to the club, right? So let's go." Jimmy indicated the way.

Joe followed him as he walked off into the white void.

Out of the whiteness, a jazz club appeared. It was a large, pink building, with an arched doorway over which there was a neon sign flashing the words: 'Club Vivax. Live All Nite' and – in multiple shades of neon – the stylised shape of a mosquito. Joe looked at the chalkboard by the door. It read:

 

 'Joe Mathews Trio, 10:00 till Late.’

 

Joe, and his double, might have been standing on a real street: there was asphalt underfoot, a steel trashcan by the corner, and a streetlamp bounced halogen light off their faces. A bouncer stood by the door and, recognising Jimmy, allowed them to pass.

"Great place," said Jimmy. "You'll love it."

Joe followed Jimmy down the entrance corridor, squeezing his way past a multitude of party-goers: folks out for a good time, all dressed to thrill and balancing drinks. Joe himself was dressed in the slacks, business shirt and tie that he wore when he had fallen asleep, before the dream. He didn’t look too much out of place.

Suddenly, Joe noticed a beautiful, dark-haired woman in a green sequin dress, as she edged her way past him to the rest room.

Jimmy noticed his attention. "That's the manager's wife,” he said, close to Joe’s ear. “Be careful, buddy. He don't like any competition."

Joe said nothing.

They reached the main room and could see the stage; Jimmy stopped to let Joe get his bearings. It was a large place for a jazz club, not some tiny basement but a full-sized nightclub. There was an empty dance floor at one side, but most of the place was taken up by round tables, each seating groups of four around glowing green table lamps. There was cigarette smoke, thick in the air, and Joe could hear ice clinking in drinks. The place seemed surreal, almost as quiet as a church. There was no music. The band must have been taking a break between sets, Joe thought. On stage was the biggest grand piano Joe had ever seen, an immaculate double bass resting on its stand, and a set of drums on which a technician was working feverishly, adjusting the calfskins.

Joe felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned around to see a huge, handsome, overbearing man in an Italian suit, smiling at him broadly. His hair was short and his skin was a very dark brown. He could have been a movie star, Joe thought – the kind you see starring in action films.

The man spoke in a surprisingly light voice, an almost musical whisper. "Well, well, well. I see you've brought him at last, Jimmy. You must be Joe Mathews. Welcome to Club Vivax. We've been ... waiting for you. By the way, folks ’round here call me Orson. I own this little place." The huge man held out his hand. Expecting a vice-like grip, Joe was surprised by the almost absurdly gentle, clammy handshake.

Orson indicated the technician at the drum kit. "Freddie's just fixing the skins. I'll get the rest of the band for you. You wanna drink?"

"Yeah," said Joe. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” The imposing man walked over to the bar and summoned a waiter, who rapidly started collecting drinks.

Joe had never dreamed in such vivid colour before. Where was that attractive woman in the green sequin dress? he thought. Now that was something worth dreaming about. He was finally enjoying this dream, after all.

Jimmy ran a hand through his hair. He whispered to Joe. "Orson knows how to run a club. He's the best. But it's not his real name, right? Whatever you do, don't ask ..."

Jimmy fell silent as the waiter, dressed formally, in black tie, arrived with a tray of flute glasses filled with bubbling champagne. It looked like normal champagne to Joe, except it was the colour of emerald.

"Green champagne, sir," the waiter said. "Speciality of the house."

Joe shrugged, took one, and drank it. He figured he was dreaming, anyway, so where was the harm? He reached for a second glass.

 Jimmy looked a little surprised by this, but said nothing. He took a glass for himself. The waiter departed.

Orson, back from the bar after chatting ostentatiously with several patrons, spread his huge arms wide and placed one slab-like hand on Joe's shoulder, the other hand on Jimmy's shoulder, and murmured, "Now, you boys enjoy yourselves. And take it easy on the champagne. You're on in five minutes."

Jimmy and Joe were left standing by themselves, watching the action in the busy but strangely silent club. "There's your bass player," said Jimmy.

Joe looked up. To his surprise, the stunning woman he had seen earlier, in the green dress, was getting onto the stage. She had long, cascading, chocolate brown hair and pale skin. She picked up the double bass from its stand and caressed it like a lover. A few bass notes drifted across the room.

Jimmy continued. "Don't forget what I said, now. Victoria sure is something, but you don't wanna see Orson get mean. Stay away from her, okay?"

"Sure," said Joe.

He was soon startled by another tap on his shoulder. It was a stocky, bald man, with skin was so pale it was almost grey.

Joe had no idea who this man was, but Jimmy spoke up. "Frank! How you doin’, old buddy? Ready to get this show on the road?"

"Always, J. So, this must be Mathews?"

The bald man looked directly at Joe, his face dull and boring except for his intense eyes: they were an electric shade of green.

"Yeah. He be the man.” Jimmy turned to Joe. "Sorry, Joey. Didn't introduce you. This is Frank, the drummer. I mean, THE drummer. What this man doesn't know about drums, you don’t need to know. Frank's a super-pro."

The man smiled. "Aw, c'mon Jimmy."

The room hushed as Orson's subdued voice echoed from huge speakers which hung from the walls like boulders on a cliff face. Orson, on the stage, in the spotlight, was an even more impressive figure than he was face to face.

"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Orson. Welcome. Tonight, we have something very special. All the way from The Other Side, we have a sleeping man: Mr Joe Mathews!"

This brought gasps from the audience, followed by applause.

Jimmy pushed Joe in the back.

Not knowing what else to do, Joe made his way, with the drummer, to the stage. Soon, Joe was seated at the piano and ready to play.

Orson smiled at his lovely wife, Victoria, who stood about the same height as the tall double bass she held; she seemed to ignore her husband as he left the stage. Instead, she smiled cryptically at Joe. Joe thought this was a little odd.

Joe supposed he had better play. He counted in the band, “Two, three, four!” and launched into playing from the sheet music on the piano. It was a song he knew well, Gershwin's It A'int Necessarily So. Victoria, on double bass, in her stunning dress, and Frank, the drummer, followed without surprise, as if it had all been rehearsed before.

 Jimmy stood near the stage, nodding in time to the beat. The audience seemed entranced. Joe played superbly for several minutes, even if it was only a dream. Jimmy was right: Frank was a pro. The drums were out of this world. And as for Victoria, she played the bass like she'd invented the thing.

When the song came to an end, there was wild applause from the crowd ... but, to Joe’s eyes, the audience seemed to be getting a little hard to see. White fog was drifting up over their faces from the floor. As Joe stood up to take a bow, he noticed Victoria coming over to congratulate him. In fact, she walked straight up and kissed him on the cheek. Joe's heart beat a little faster. This was his kind of dream! he thought.

"Well played, stranger," said Victoria, in a voice that was more breath than words. She stood very close. Then she suddenly stepped away.

Joe was enjoying the lingering scent of her perfume, until he noticed Orson – muscles rippling under the Italian suit – scowling angrily and making his way quickly to the stage. This made Joe's heart beat even more frantically. He wasn’t sure he liked this dream any more. He sat down at the piano again and decided he'd better play another number, but when he looked at the music, it wasn't music but sales figures. He turned the page, and there was the budget for the Zemtril conference.

Joe was really getting confused now.

Beyond the stage, the room was fading rapidly to white.

Joe saw that Orson, having reached the stage, was arguing violently with Victoria. Just as the huge man turned away from his wife and began stomping menacingly over to the piano, Joe heard Jimmy's voice—it was strained and urgent.

"Time to go, buddy!” Jimmy jumped onto the stage, rushed in front of Joe, and tried to protect him from Orson, deftly deflecting the big man's rage.

It was time to run for it.

Joe grabbed his sheet music, got up from the piano, and ran into the audience, or at least into what used to be the audience; there was nothing around him now but a white fog. He glanced at the music book in his hand. It was open to a page which looked exactly like a corporate memo informing him of promotion. None of this made the least bit of sense to Joe.

Before he could figure it out, even the music book disappeared, and Joe was left standing in total nothingness.

It was silent.

There was nothing but white, and no sign of Orson or Jimmy.

Joe was alone. He took a moment to catch his breath.

A familiar voice rang out from behind. "Had fun?"

Joe looked around, gingerly. A chubby leprechaun was the only vision he saw. "Shamus! What happened? What was all that about?"

"Oh, nothing. Just someone I thought you should meet.”

"Jimmy?"

"He called himself Jimmy?! He gets craftier every time.” An expression of concern flashed across Shamus’s face. "You didn't sign anything, did you?"

"No. Should I have?"

Shamus exhaled, evidently much relieved, and said nothing.

Joe wanted very much to wake up. "Now what?"

"Good question, Joe. Good question. I think you'd better meet someone else. Come with me, now. This way!"

Shamus wandered off into the mist. Joe followed him, dutifully.

"Like the countryside?" Shamus asked casually, and sure enough, at once they seemed to be walking down a quiet country lane.

A whole rustic scene had suddenly materialised: rolling fields, blue sky, farmhouses in the distance. Cows grazed the meadows. Birds drifted overhead.

“Nice,” said Joe.

They came upon a pleasant cottage, with a green picket fence. A man was working in the garden. He looked exactly like Joe, but was wearing a red checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and brown corduroy trousers. The man carried a large watering can. He whistled happily to himself as he watered a patch of daisies. Nearby, a very contented ginger cat was snoring peacefully in the sunshine. As Shamus and Joe approached, the man looked up.

Joe groaned. "Don't tell me," he said to the gardener, without waiting for Shamus to make introductions. “You're me, right?"

The man smiled. "If you want me to be. But call me Jack. It'll save confusion. I hear you've met Jimmy."

"Yeah."

Ignoring Joe, Shamus went through the garden gate, up the path, and opened the front door of the cottage. Over his shoulder, he called out, "I'm just having an Irish coffee." Then he went inside and closed the door behind him.

Joe interrogated his look-alike across the picket fence. "Do you normally let him walk into your house like that?”

"Oh, he's harmless. He’s only trying to help, you know. It's a tough job being an angel – at least, so he tells me." Jack picked up a trowel and kneeled down, then started turning over the dirt. "I think I’ll plant some geraniums here," he said, as if it were a matter of great import.

"But wait a minute. I don't garden! If you're me, how come you're gardening? I play piano, and Jimmy played piano; that I could understand. But this doesn't make sense! I’m not a country man."

Jack tilled the soil. "You don't slow down much, do you, Joe? All these things you want to do, but you don't slow down and let anything happen."

Joe protested. "Slow down?! How can you make things happen by slowing down? Things happen fast or not at all, especially in business. I have to move fast just to keep my head above water. And I'm always trying to do two things at once: you know, music and career. It's not easy."

 "Okay," said Jack, with a shrug. "There’s no need to get defensive. I know it's not easy. But you really should take the time to play your music." Jack examined an earthworm, then carefully placed it to one side where it wouldn't get hurt. He took up his trowel again.

"You mean ... you understand how hard it is?" Joe asked, confused. This was new to Joe's experience of life. He was from The School of Perfectionism and No Excuses. This kind of gentle talk was a surprise to him.

"Of course, of course. Look, Joe, you don't really need my help. Play your music, that's all. But make the time for it. You can't do everything at once. And I hear you're going to be promoted?"

Joe threw his hands up. "Everyone seems to know that’s for certain, except me. This is ridiculous! Okay, so what if I am going to be promoted? What’s your point?"

Jack sprinkled seed in the dirt, deliberately avoiding looking at Joe. A few seconds passed. The cat still slept peacefully. Jack buried the seeds. "You don't want to accept it, do you?"

Joe fumed. "What?! How can you say that? I've put my whole professional life into learning what I've learned – now, at last, I can grab the big opportunities. I can make it to the top. I can do it. I know I can."

Jack stood up and brushed the dirt off his hands. "Joe, until you start being honest with yourself, you'll get nowhere. Not to the top. Not anywhere." Then his expression softened. "Never mind, Joe. Just promise me one thing."

"What?" Joe felt like he was under a microscope, being dissected.

"Don't forget this little talk, okay? Here, take this."

Jack held out his hand. Resting on his palm was a gold tiepin, in the shape of a saxophone. Embossed on it were the letters ‘MSJ.’

Joe took it and turned it over in his hand.

"MSJ?" he asked, as he stuffed the pin into his pocket.

Jack ignored him and looked at the sky, as if he were worried it might rain before sunset. A minute passed. Shamus was coming out of the house, walking down the garden path. Joe figured it would be time to go, any second now. Jack still hadn’t answered.

"Oh," Jack said at last. "Nothing. It's just the name of a private music school. You know, a little office in the suburbs, two or three teachers, twenty or thirty students coming in for lessons after school: nothing major. The Mathews School of Jazz.”

“Huh?” Joe had never heard of it.

“Yeah. It’s just a little memento. Anyway, I have to go. See you later, Shamus." Jack smiled patiently at Joe. "Goodbye, Joe."

Before Joe could say a word, Jack had gone.

The entire scene had shimmered and faded away.

Joe was surrounded by white nothingness again.

Shamus, standing by Joe’s side, looked very impatient. "Okay, that does it – I am absolutely knocking off work, right now. Go wake up, human! I need some sleep." Shamus stomped off into the distance and disappeared.

Joe was left alone.

He looked around at the enveloping whiteness. There was nothing to be seen anywhere, for miles. Joe felt dizzy – so dizzy, in fact, that he had to lie down, had to close his eyes. A moment later, he cried out in pain. “Ouch!”

Something very sharp was sticking into Joe's arm.

He opened his eyes and sat up. Startled, he realised he was back in his bedroom, awake, with the budget papers scattered around him on his bed.

Joe switched on the bedside lamp. It was 5:00 am! He'd be wrecked tomorrow, he thought angrily. Then he felt the sore spot on his arm and looked for the cause of the trouble. A sharp, golden tiepin was lying on the bedspread, where his arm had been. He picked it up and turned it over in his fingers; it was a tiny saxophone. It seemed familiar, but he couldn't recall where he had gotten it, and at five in the morning he scarcely cared. With a yawn, Joe put the pin on the bedside table, swept all the budget papers roughly onto the floor, and flopped back onto his pillow. He was totally exhausted.

Sleep came quickly. It was a tremendous, dreamless relief.

 

 

 

 

Chapter  14

 

Jane stood outside the door of Margaret Hoffman's tenth-floor office. It was never easy seeing City Hospital’s Chief Pharmacist, but today at least, Jane thought, it should be relatively painless. After all, the new drug inventory program was running seamlessly. It was a chance for Jane to make Infosolve look good in the lucrative hospital market. Jane knocked sharply on the door.

Hoffman’s voice rang out. "Come!"

Jane opened the door. "Good morning, Dr Hoffman.”

The Chief Pharmacist swivelled the computer screen on her desk to face Jane. "Ms Hamilton, do you know what this is?"

Jane sat down and peered at the screen. "Looks like your monthly purchasing budget, to me.”

Hoffman paused, her pinched features expressionless. "Damn right it is! And running perfectly. The Formulary Committee were very impressed when I showed them the five percent saving this new system gives us. Let me show you something else, Ms Hamilton." Hoffman rose and made her way to the huge rolling shelves at the far end of the office. Sliding the first set of shelves to one side, she selected a folder in the second set, removed a bundled report, and finally slapped it down on the desk in front of Jane as she resumed her seat. "There's the Committee's report. Take a look for yourself."

Jane flipped through the report for a few moments. "I'm glad we could help, Dr Hoffman. That’s what we’re here for. Any time."

Hoffman agreed gravely. "I still don't like these overpowered calculators. We did perfectly well without them in the old days. But I have to hand it to you, Hamilton. You've done a good job."

Jane was pleased. "If you have any other problems, just give me a call.”

"You know," Hoffman said slowly, "when I first met you, I thought you were another of these ladder-climbing young pups, more interested in her own career than in her customers. Well, I was wrong. Rest assured, we'll be keeping our account with Infosolve indefinitely." Hoffman got up and escorted Jane to the door. "It's Jane, isn't it?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Thank you, Jane."

Hoffman seemed almost to smile as she shook Jane’s hand, then she turned and paced back to her desk.

Jane left the office and made her way back to the elevators. She couldn't help laughing quietly to herself. The Dragon Woman of City Hospital, she thought, had actually smiled.

 

 

Back at Infosolve, Jane tried to sneak by reception. Grace, never content to let Jane pass without at least some needling, bowed with a flourish. "Greetings, Jane. I'm glad our leader is back among us! What news from the provinces?"

Jane laughed. "Oh, cut it out, Grace! Can't you be serious for a second?”

"Serious? You want serious?" Grace looked left and right, then leaned across her counter. "So, Jane, tell me about the M ... A ... N!"

Jane rolled her eyes. "For heaven's sake, Grace. How did you find out? On second thoughts, don't tell me. It was one perfectly innocent little date, Grace, that’s all."

"Just one little date?" said Grace. "Not going to see him again, eh? What's the problem? Facial hair, or was it the IQ? Compared to all those bald executives you've been dating, I'd say he must have had more hair and more brains. Sounds good to me."

“Hey,” said Jane. “Stop knocking bald men. My father was bald, and he was a handsome guy. You’re too superficial.”

“Whatever you say. So? What happened?”

Jane wondered if she should bother replying at all. "Okay, Grace. I may as well tell you. It's pointless trying to keep a secret. I asked him out again."

"You ... asked ... him?" Grace put on her best blank expression.

"Yes, I asked him. What's wrong with that?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. Dinner?"

"No. I've invited him sailing. I’ve borrowed a Laser from the City Yacht Club. I haven't been sailing in years. I thought it would be fun to try it again."

"Are you sure it's safe?” said Grace. “I mean, you hardly know the man. Out there, on the water, in a small boat, anything could happen."

"This isn't a Hitchcock film, Grace!"

"Whatever you say."

"Anyway," said Jane, "if he gives me any trouble, I'll just capsize the boat."

Grace considered this for a moment. "You probably would, wouldn’t you?"

"It's a jungle out there.” Jane shrugged, and walked away.

When Jane reached the programming room, she waved hello to her colleagues, went over to her customary desk – which was now empty, since she had been given her own office as a manager – and dumped her handbag.

Steve shouted mischievously, "Hey, that's not your desk! You've got an office now." This brought a chorus of mocking from the others.

"Thanks for reminding me, Steve,” said Jane. “It takes a little getting used to, this boss stuff. So, for your insolence: give me a hundred push-ups!"

Gary, standing at the photocopier, volunteered. "Oh, pick me, Jane. I just love push-ups! Give me two hundred. And, by the way, I need to speak to you about a raise."

Jane chuckled. This was going to take a little getting used to, she thought. Since Christina had left for Regional Headquarters, Jane was the boss. It was a big opportunity and she didn't want to blow it. She decided to spend a few minutes with the young crowd: Albert, Janette and Nira. Soon, she was in their corner of the programming room, laughing and chatting with them comfortably.

 

 

Joe was off territory, back at Biopharm’s small office. As he rushed past reception, he wondered why Kerryn wanted to see him so urgently again. It had been a typically busy morning. When his pager had beeped with a message summoning him to the office, he couldn't imagine what it might be all about.

Joe approached Kerryn's open door.

He cleared his throat loudly. "Ahem."

Kerryn looked up from her desk. "Oh, Joe! Come in. We need to talk."

Joe took a seat.

Kerryn was suddenly humourless. "I've just been speaking to Dr Martin Jefferson. And there are a few things we have to put right, I’m afraid."

"Oh? Is something wrong? It’s nothing serious, I hope."

"Very serious, Joe." Kerryn broke into a smile. "Dr Jefferson is very seriously pleased with your work on the Cardiac Society meeting. He says that he, and the Society, can finally rest easy, now the meeting is all set to go."

Joe was pleased. "Oh! That’s great."

"It's more than that, Joe. I've been very aware of the excellent work you've been doing, this last year. The Cardiac Society meeting is just the icing on the cake. And, I’m here to tell you, that possible promotion I was telling you about has come through. Headquarters agree – it's time you were promoted. You've earned a lot of attention, Joe, and all of it good. Congratulations."

A dull pain thumped in Joe’s chest. He felt stressed. "Oh, ah, thanks."

"No need to thank me, Joe. You’ve earned it. Vikram’s moving to New York, next month. We'd like you to fill his position. You'll be the Assistant Manager here, and I can assure you, we see that role as being a stepping stone to the eventual position of State Manager, when I myself move on."

"Vikram's promotion has come through, then?" said Joe.

"Yes. New York has snapped him up for their Product Development Bureau. He’s wanted to move on from sales management for some time. But that has nothing to do with your promotion. We’d already decided your time had come. So, what do you say? Ready to take up the challenge?"

Kerryn asked as if the question were rhetorical. She'd gotten to know Joe fairly well and he'd always been keen on promotion – he was ambitious and had the talent to match. In fact, she was so sure of his answer that she wasn't even looking at Joe. She sifted through the paperwork involved in his promotion.

Joe shifted uneasily in his seat. "Well, Kerryn, there are a couple of things I'd like to know, first, before I give you my answer."

Kerryn looked up, surprised. "Yes, Joe? What?"

"The Assistant Manager position involves a lot more interstate travel, doesn't it? About four months a year away?"

"Yes, that's about right. You'll be to and fro from Headquarters, of course, and all the biggest and best conferences will be yours. It's an exciting position."

"Vikram's often here on weekends,” said Joe, “and until very late at night, several nights a week. I guess that would be expected of me, too."

Kerryn was beginning to look worried. "Well, it's not formally expected, no. But it is a more overloaded position than your current position of Senior Sales Representative. Even being an SSR takes pretty long hours, as you know. The AM position would need more hours again. I know you'd want to give it your best shot. So, yes, in effect, that is what’s involved. Is that a problem, Joe?"

Joe paused for what seemed a very long time. He looked down at his tie and rubbed the gold saxophone tiepin. A feeling of dread rose within him. He couldn't believe he was going to say it, but he'd made up his mind; he had to say the very thing he'd been trying not to admit to himself for months. Joe Mathews, who had always looked toward promotion and the fastest possible career track to the top, was about to change his life. The familiar pain gripped his chest. It felt like he was about to step off a precipice and tumble into the unknown. Finally, he spoke. "Kerryn, um ..."

“Yes, Joe?”

"I really appreciate the promotion. It's an honour. Thank you very much. But I have to turn it down for ..." Joe let out a heavy sigh, “personal reasons."

Kerryn rocked back in her chair. "Personal reasons? What's happened? If there's trouble in the family, we can give you some more time to think about it. You’ve wanted this promotion for years. Why turn it down now?"

"It's not that, Kerryn. My folks are fine." Joe suddenly felt at ease. He thought of Shamus, and of the strange dream. Was it all imagined? It didn’t really matter, he concluded. All that mattered was that he was making the right decision. “It’s just not for me, that’s all; I’ve decided I want to keep playing jazz. That means gigs a couple of nights a week. I can do that as a rep, but I'd never be able to give the AM position the time it demands. And you know I wouldn't take on something I couldn't give a hundred percent to. I guess I've discovered my career path is more like Karen's than Vikram's—I just want to be a good career rep. I don't want to end up in New York. I’m happy right here."

Kerryn rubbed her chin, deep in thought. "Joe, let me tell you a story."

"A story?" said Joe, suspiciously.

"Sure.”

“Okay.”

“My first husband was an artist, Joe. I was, too. We painted."

"Oh." Joe wondered what this had to do with his promotion.

"Well," said Kerryn, with a forlorn smile, "I was almost good enough – no, really – I was good enough to exhibit. But I gave it up for my management career. That was a long time ago. Of course, the marriage ended, too." Kerryn looked honestly at Joe. "This doesn't go outside of this room, Joe, but I regret giving up my painting. You know, I spent the best part of a lifetime developing that interest, and I’ve spent the last decade totally neglecting it. My artistic skills have gone. I try to pick up a brush now but it's not the same. A door has closed for me. Anyway, I really don't have the time these days."

Joe didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry."

Kerryn waved a dismissive hand. "I made my decisions, Joe, and I'm not entirely a bundle of regrets. My second marriage is going well, and I have a challenging position at Biopharm with a good future. It's just that a part of me got lost along the way." She sat more upright and said with determination, "And I can respect your decision to give your music the time it needs. I have to say I'm surprised, but at the same time, I respect it."

Joe had never seen this side of Kerryn before. "Thanks."

"And I can see you as an excellent career rep, like Karen. She does a fine job for the company. Yes, she's mostly a nine-to-fiver, but her sales figures are among the very best, as are yours, Joe. You can rest assured there’s a place for you here in the same capacity. We certainly don’t want to lose one of our best reps! So, here's what we'll do. As of today, you'll handle all our top clients. I'll groom Michelle for promotion into Vikram's position, and in the meantime we'll get a temp AM from Headquarters. And I think a significant raise is in order. You're overdue for recognition. Plus, I think we can give you most of the evenings you need for your music – if you’ll agree to one condition."

"Oh?"

Kerryn smiled broadly. "That you invite Carlos and I to one of your concerts! We've been dying to hear you play, but you’ve never invited us."

"It's a deal," said Joe, overcome with a sudden feeling of peace. He had done it – declined the promotion. And the sky hadn’t fallen down.

“Great,” said Kerryn.

The pain in Joe’s chest had gone.

 

 

When Sunday finally arrived, Joe Mathews and Jane Hamilton did something very uncharacteristic: they took the day off and went sailing. Joe looked nervous, gripping the slippery fibreglass hull of the small racing boat as if it might sink at any moment. Jane, in contrast, was completely at ease guiding the craft across Lake Metropolis. The city skyline made a pretty backdrop. Joe and Jane sat side by side, the wind blowing over their backs into the sail. It was a warm day on the lake; brilliant sunlight played on the chalky sail and glinted like fireworks on the water. They had been sailing for an hour, when at last Jane noticed Joe was getting tired.

"Need a break?" Jane asked cheerfully.

"Maybe. I'm not used to this." Joe wasn't a natural sailor. The park by the jetty looked very inviting. It was only a hundred yards away.

"Okay. Let's take her in to shore, then. COMING ABOUT!" Jane yelled the warning just before she tacked the boat across the wind, changing direction toward the shore.

Joe ducked the metal boom and sail which swung over his head. He and Jane moved to the other side of the boat to balance it properly.

"I'm having a great time," he said quietly. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to sail, myself," said Jane. In a few short moments, the jetty was beside them. Jane let the sail go slack and the boat slowed. “Catch that rope if you can."

Joe leaned out and grabbed the thick grappling rope which ran the length of the jetty. He pulled the boat toward it, bumping the hull softly against the old tires that were lashed to the wooden platform, and tied the boat safe.

"Okay, we’re moored!” said Joe. “How about some coffee?"

"Great idea."

Jane grabbed her small canvas carry bag, which contained a vacuum flask of hot coffee, and carefully stepped off the boat onto the jetty – never an easy feat in an unstable dinghy. Then she helped Joe out. Together they wandered down the jetty toward the grassy parkland by the water's edge.

Joe indicated an old willow tree by a park bench, not twenty feet from the lake. "Over there looks nice.”

"Yeah."

A few families were picnicking nearby, but it was an unusually quiet day at the inner-city lakeside park. An elderly couple walked past with a Labrador. It was getting late; the quiet Sunday afternoon was sliding slowly into evening. Jane followed Joe to the waterside park bench by the big willow tree. Sitting down, she fished the vacuum flask out of her bag and poured them each some coffee in little camping mugs. It was still steaming hot.

Jane sipped slowly, but Joe gulped his coffee down like an addict gone cold turkey. "Mmmm! That hits the spot! Please ma'am, may I ..."

" ... have some more? Sure. I don't drink much of the stuff, myself. It’s all yours." Jane poured him another cup.

This time, Joe drank slowly. "You know what? I got offered a promotion this week, to Assistant Manager. My boss was pretty excited about it."

"That's great, Joe. Hey, now we've both been promoted!" Jane looked genuinely pleased. Her expression changed. "Sorry. Did I say something wrong?"

"No, no. It's just I turned it down. I knew if I took it, I'd never get the chance to play my music. Better to stay a humble rep, do a good job, and cut down my hours a little. You know, stop trying to be the world's greatest workaholic and just do a good job, then go home happy. That way I can play with the boys in the band."

Jane spoke slowly. "Hmmm. It takes guts to stand by your dreams. I'm impressed. Good for you!" She hugged him briefly, a shy one-armed hug.

Joe smiled at her, a little embarrassed. "Thanks. By the way, my boss, Kerryn, wants to come hear the band. Would you like to come along too, sometime?"

"Love to. But, tell me, what made you so decisive about not taking the job? How did you make up your mind?"

"It's all a little odd,” said Joe. “I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, but I had this dream, this amazing dream, one night. It just hit me."

Jane looked worried. "A dream?"

"Well, yeah. Now, don't laugh, but I met myself in this dream, only it wasn't really me. There were these two guys who said they were me; one was a gardener, and the other was a piano player. Oh, I'm not making any sense." Joe gave up.

"But I had a dream like that! I met two Janes; one was a sailor – a happy woman – and the other was a businesswoman who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who kept trying to tell me what to do. And I was in this burning house. I don't remember the rest. It was a nightmare, more than a dream, a recurring nightmare. I think I’ve had it more than once, but I don’t really remember."

Joe looked at her, as if she were from Mars. "But this is impossible! My dream was just the same. I met two Joes. One was working in his cottage garden. He told me a few things. Don't remember what, exactly. Seemed like good advice. And there was this other guy, all in black, a jazz musician. He yelled at me, tried to get me to do things his way. But there wasn't a burning house in my dream. I do remember something about a woman in a green sequin dress, though."

"Sequin dress?" said Jane. "It was one of those dreams, was it? I hope it wasn't anyone I know."

Joe blushed. "No, no. Of course not!"

Jane grinned. "That's okay, then.”

Embarrassed, Joe laughed.

“You don't believe in ghosts, do you?” said Jane. “Angels? It’s a dumb question, I know, but ... um, what about leprechauns? Do you believe in them?"

Joe tensed up. "Leprechauns?" He looked around quickly and sniffed the air. There was no green smoke, much to his relief. Pausing for a moment, he wondered what this lovely woman – whom he liked very much – would think, if he admitted to being visited by a guardian angel in a bogus leprechaun suit. "No, no. Of course not!"

Jane decided to agree. She wasn’t going to make a fool of herself. After all, she liked this guy. "Of course. Of course not. Just checking. Grown-ups don't believe in ghosts and angels and people floating through walls, pots of gold at the end of the rainbow." She forced a laugh. "No, no. Not me."

"Right," said Joe. "Me neither." Behind his back, he had his fingers tightly crossed. Little did he know, Jane Hamilton was doing the very same thing.

"You know, Joe," she said. "I'm so glad we met. I haven't done things like go sailing in a long time. I never have the time to slow down. This is great."

"I know what you mean,” said Joe. “Just look at that sky! It’s like a painting. Everything’s red. I never take the time to stop and look at things like that. I never seem to have the time."

Jane looked out across the lake. "It’s beautiful."

"The colour of Sunday afternoons,” said Joe.

Jane took a moment to appreciate the magnificent sunset.

“Do you think we should do this again, sometime?” said Joe.

Jane smiled. "You've got a deal, Mr Mathews. Meet you here, Sunday after next, same time, for sailing and coffee by the lake?"

"Sure," said Joe. "But we’d better not sit around talking all day. We’ve gotta put the boat away. Buy you some dinner, afterwards, if you like?"

"Okay. But only if I can go in my jeans and tennis shoes. I don’t feel like dressing up. Could we go somewhere casual?”

“You’re on,” said Joe. “No problem.”

They got up and walked slowly back to the boat.

 

 

At last, the time came for Jane's first monthly meeting as a manager. The whole team was there: Steve, Gary, Janette, Albert, and Nira. Jane stood up and addressed the group gathered around the long conference room table. "Good morning, everyone. Let's make a start. We don’t want to waste the whole morning in this stuffy room. Steve, any problems with the networking system?"

Steve spoke from his chair. "The network's running fine, Jane. No problems. My biggest hassle, at the moment, is with the new travel agency software. It's not going well. I'm waiting on some object code from Hong Kong."

"Really?" said Jane. "I thought the disks and manuals were coming in from Hong Kong last month. Did something go wrong?"

"No. I'm sorry, Jane, but I made a mistake ordering – we got the wrong ones. It's taken a while to track down the right files again. It's my fault."

Jane nodded. "Hmmm. The nomenclature for our object files is pretty ambiguous. I've ordered the wrong ones myself, a couple of times. I'll tell you what, Steve, I’ll send a memo to Head Office and see if we can't upgrade the naming system. In the meantime, let's all be doubly careful. We all make mistakes, I know, but let's try to avoid the simple ones."

"Sorry, Jane," Steve repeated.

"That's okay. Like I said, I've made the same mistake myself. Anyway, you might be pleased to hear something, Steve. I got a message from the CEO recently, that your Dymadex program is being considered for an industry award. Sounds like a little recognition, at last!"

There were friendly congratulations from around the table.

"Well," said Albert, dryly, "with the amount of time he spends sleeping under his desk, I'm not surprised his programs are so good."

Jane laughed. "That's something I wanted to talk about. Look, guys, there's going to be a change around here. I know it's trendy in the industry to pull all-nighters, and heaven knows I've done it as much as anyone else, but it has to stop. From now on, that kind of thing should be the rare exception, not the rule. You guys are the best programmers in the state. I want you to still be with Infosolve five years from now, not flown off to some other company. That means no burnout. No more sleeping bags!"

"And," said Janette, with a wicked smile, "henceforth everyone will do aerobics classes at 6:00 am before starting work."

"How about chanting a mantra during lunch?” Gary added. “That should be good for our psychic energy."

Jane laughed. "Okay, okay. Forgive the speech. I get a little carried away. But what I'm saying is: I'm not Michael. I’m here to work with you guys, to get things done smoothly, not to get you to work for me. But just remember, if I catch any sleeping bags under desks, I will bring in 6:00 am aerobics classes!"

"You see how power corrupts?" said Steve, with a wink.

“Ultimately,” said Garry, loud enough for Jane to hear.

"Okay," said Jane, "let's move on. I think we're all familiar with everyone’s projects from the taskforce meeting last Friday. That leaves us with Nira’s project. Nira, could you give us an update?"

Nira summoned the courage to speak. "Well, my code’s coming along really well. I fixed the problems that Michael ..." she looked at her shoes for a moment, remembering the dead man, " ... that Michael wanted changed. It's running quite well, but ... um, there is a problem." Nira waited for a response.

Jane thought for a moment. "It's running, at last? That's great."

Albert broke in. "Nira fixed a subroutine that I'd been working on for a whole week, in less than an hour. She got it running in no time.”

Nira shrugged. "I just changed the variable structure. Anyway, the problem with the project that Michael assigned me to work on is, well, it's redundant."

Jane's eyes widened. "Redundant?"

"Yes. You see, Michael wouldn't listen to me. I tried to tell him the whole job could be simplified by using a different method for communication between the main server and the terminals. The program he had me spend six months writing could have been avoided altogether, just by using a different comms protocol, one which we already wrote last year. In fact, I wrote it. That's why I know it could have done the job for us all along. But I couldn’t get Michael to listen."

"Did anybody else know about this?" Jane asked.

"Well," said Albert, embarrassed, "Nira had mentioned it to us. But she's the only one who really understands that particular program. It's her field of expertise. Michael just wouldn't listen to her."

Gary spoke up. "No one wanted to be on the receiving end of Michael's anger, Jane. Who wanted to tell him he was wasting tens of thousands of dollars on a redundant job? We were all too worried about loosing our jobs."

"None of this," Janette chipped in, with uncharacteristic gravity, "was ever going to come out in one of our old meetings. How could it?"

Jane was shocked. "I'm sorry. I didn’t know. This is exactly the kind of thing that has to change. Nira, thank you for raising this. Let's go over the project tomorrow. I'll buy you some lunch. And I'll be recommending that you be considered for an advanced programming scholarship. I can see you’re just the sort of programmer we need to troubleshoot our top programs. Well done."

Nira was too embarrassed to say anything much, but she looked pleased. "Thanks," she said simply. “Thanks a lot, Jane.”

Steve spoke. "I knew you wouldn't let us down, Jane. We're all glad to have you in the driver's seat, at last. Now we can get some real work done."

Murmurs of agreement came from everyone.

Jane turned a faint shade of red. "Thanks, guys. Well, it's been a quick meeting, this morning. Does anyone have any more general business?"

No one said anything, so Jane wrapped up the meeting without further ado. "Okay. Thanks for your attention, everyone. Now, let's get out of this stuffy room and have some coffee on the balcony."

The group rose and migrated noisily out of the conference room to the adjacent balcony, which overlooked the panorama of suburban streets below. Everyone jostled for coffee, tea and cakes set out on a small table.

Steve cornered Jane by the chocolate cake. "I see you didn’t forget that little talk we had, before you were promoted, when you said you would do things differently if you made it to the top. Jane, I think you're going to make a darned good boss!" Steve walked away before Jane could reply.

Jane stood for a moment, allowing the compliment to sink in.

Janette brought her out of her musing, thrusting a piece of lemon cream cake under Jane's nose. "Here you go, Jane!"

"Oh, Janette. Thanks." Jane took the cake. She looked at the little group of people, all happily chatting. They were all more awake than she had ever seen them after a monthly meeting.

Jane decided she was finally doing something right in her life.

Things really were changing, after all.


Chapter  15

 

It was a stormy Thursday night. The dark city streets of Metropolis were wet with rain, making the small basement jazz club seem warm and inviting by comparison. The chalkboard outside the door read:

 

‘Tonight at Blues Cafe –

Duplicity Three. 8:30 till late.’

 

Inside, a few patrons stood at the small bar; another fifty or so were seated at tables around the crowded room. Four musicians took their places on the stage. Joe was one of them. He sat down at the grand piano, opened the lid which covered the keys, and blew on his hands to warm them up.

Duplicity Three had a guest singer with them that evening, an out-of-towner by the name of Nancy O’Brien. She was a tall, beautiful woman with dark hair and milky skin; she looked stunning in a revealing green sequin dress. Anyone who looked closely at the piano player would have seen him cast the occasional puzzled glance in her direction.

The drummer brushed the drums. The bass player picked up his huge double bass and plucked a couple of notes. Joe sat up tall on the piano stool.

Finally, Nancy walked up to the microphone. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Blues Cafe. This is Duplicity Three, and I'm Nancy O'Brien. On piano, Mr Joe Mathews. On bass, Mr Louis Harris. And on drums, Mr Steve Shorter." Nancy looked at the band and snapped her fingers in a beat a few times. The group took their cue. They launched into the old standard, A'int Misbehaving.

Nancy’s sultry voice floated through the room, almost magically. She turned a perfectly innocent Louis Armstrong number into a sexy refrain. In the background, content to be out of the spotlight, Joe played piano.

He was good. The band was good.

Nancy was a dream.

At a table near the front, sat an infrequent visitor: Kerryn Sandercott. Kerryn had come to hear Joe play, just as she had promised when he had turned down her offer of promotion. She smiled at her new husband, Carlos, who sat close to her, and thought about her old love of painting. She listened to Joe’s piano. He certainly had a talent for music, she thought.

She was very glad she had come.

 

 

Jane paced absent-mindedly around her office at Infosolve. The rest of the staff had gone home hours ago. Outside her large, third-storey office windows, rain was coming down heavily. A stormy wind blew in the darkness, smashing raindrops crazily against the glass. Jane shouldn't have been there so late on a Thursday night, but everything was still new to her: her promotion, her new office, and the changing atmosphere at work for which she was responsible. She just needed time to take it all in. And so here she was for an hour or so, on a stormy Thursday night, thinking.

On her desk there was a framed picture of her sailing, which Joe had given her as a gift, a few papers, neatly stacked, and the laptop computer, closed. In a corner of the room were two large potted ferns. Jane thought they needed water, so she filled a cup from the water cooler and trickled some into the soil. "There you go, fellas," she said aloud, and mused silently that this was about as close to being a gardener as she would ever get.

Turning back to the windows, she took in the rainswept scene of the suburbs around her. Streetlights and signs lit the night into a spiderweb of colour, twinkling city stars. She began to lose herself in thought. A lot had happened in those last two months.

A lot of good things.

"Yes, they have," said a loud male voice.

Jane jumped two feet into the air, came down, terrified, and spun around expecting to see some office-stalker maniac. In an instant, the thought flashed through her mind that she was foolish to be alone in an empty office block at night. And then she saw him, of course: Shamus – short, chubby and harmless.

Jane was going to launch into a tirade about how angels shouldn’t sneak up on people, but she noticed that he was completely ignoring her.

Shamus walked around her office.

Apparently, he was filled with curiously. The little man opened the filing cabinet, peered into it, and closed it again. He ran his fingers over the smooth desk. He even sat down in Jane's swivel chair and pretended to be a king. He waved his hand, regally, to an imaginary crowd of subjects.

Jane stood in silence, bemused by the whole spectacle.

At last, Shamus spoke to her. "So, you finally made it to the top, eh, Jane? You're the boss now. How does it feel?"

Jane distrusted the question. "Well ... it feels ... good. But I suppose you're going to give me the lecture, about how work is killing me and that I shouldn't have taken the promotion, about what a big mistake I’ve made. Right?"

Shamus took off his cap and scratched his head. "You know, I think I'm allergic to polyester. I really do. Anyway, what were we talking about? The speech. No. No speeches to give today, Jane. No speeches at all."

Jane walked over to the desk and sat on it. Shamus was still in her chair. "Really? You think this promotion is okay?"

Shamus smiled. "Jane, Jane, Jane. Don't you know yet? It's not what I think that matters. It's what you think, what you want. Are you happy in this position? Is this what you want to do, right now, with your life?"

Jane thought for a moment. "Well, I am happy, yes. I work with a great bunch of people. I do something I'm good at, something I enjoy. This is what I want to do, right now. I don't want to do it my whole life, but this is what I want, now." She hesitated. "Is that right, Mr Angel? Is that okay, do you think?"

"It's Maguinty, Jane. Maguinty. Mr Angell is the boss, and it's Angell with two Ls. You don't want to upset him."

"You know what I mean! Was this a good decision, or not?"

"Hmmm,” Shamus hummed. “You remember the burning house, Jane? Remember what started the fire? If you promise me you won’t forget that, then I’ll tell you a secret."

"Er, okay," said Jane.

"Come closer, now."

Jane leaned across the desk.

Shamus whispered, "I'm not supposed to tell you mortals things like this, but ... things are going to work out just fine. For a mortal, you show a lot of promise. I think you did good, kid. Yeah, you did good."

"Thanks," said Jane, lamely.

With that, Shamus hopped up from his chair and walked toward the door. He turned before leaving. "Oh, there is one more thing. How are things going with that other mortal? What's his name? Jim ... Jack ... Joe ... Joe Mathews. Hmmm?"

Jane looked a little surprised. "Joe? What about him? Well, things are going okay, I suppose. We’ve only just met. I hardly know him."

Shamus raised his eyebrows. "You want a little advice?"

"Not really."

"You should call him tomorrow. You'd better confirm that sailing date for Sunday. I'd hate to see it get forgotten in all this ..." Shamus gestured, indicating the office, "work."

"Shamus, what is this? Are you a guardian angel or Cupid? I'm perfectly capable of handling my own ...”

Shamus cut her off. "Fine! Just a suggestion. I’ve gotta run, anyway. Guess I won't be seeing you for a little while, then. Amazing, Jane, but it looks like you've put the fire out, at last."

"I have?"

Standing in the doorway of her office, Shamus began to fade into green smoke. "Sure. Just remember, now – don't play with matches!"

"No matches," said Jane.

The last ghostly image of Shamus faded away.

Jane went to the window and looked out over the city.

 

 

At the Blues Cafe, the first set for the night was finished. After the applause died down, Joe got up from the grand piano and walked off the stage. The rest of the band went straight over to the bar, but Joe joined Kerryn and Carlos at their table.

"Hope you liked it," said Joe.

"Liked it?” said Kerryn. “You never told me you were so good. I knew you could play ... but really I had no idea! You could turn pro, if you wanted to."

“It’s just a hobby,” said Joe, uncomfortable with the compliment.

Carlos concurred, in his singsong Mexican accent. "Jes, jou are pretty good, Joe. But how about jou do a few Latin numbers next time, uh?”

"Sure. Why not? We can play a little Tom Jobim, if you like."

"You know, Joe," said Kerryn. "I can see now why you wanted the time to do this. You're quite a musician."

Joe was embarrassed. "Can I buy you another drink? Carlos?"

"We already got a few too many," Carlos replied.

Kerryn went on. "By the way, I spoke to the National Sales Manager. He sends his congratulations on the Cardiac Society meeting and the Zemtril conference. Dr Jefferson even wrote him a letter! Your name’s buzzing at Headquarters, Joe. I told them you wanted to stay in sales and not go into management. That’s fine. We’ll groom Michelle for promotion, instead. She's ambitious. She’s got a lot to learn yet, but one day she'll make a good manager. Oh, and one more thing, Joe ..."

"Yeah?"

"Your raise came through. I thought I'd bring you the good news. Here you go, just rip it open. Don’t be shy!” Kerryn handed Joe a yellow envelope.

Joe opened the letter.

He glanced briefly at the fattest payslip he’d ever received. Then he noticed a handwritten note from the National Sales Manager. Joe unfolded the note and read it silently:

 

 Dear Joe,

 

Congratulations on a job well done with the Cardiac Society meeting and the Zemtril conference. It isn't often we receive a personal letter from a major specialist like Dr Jefferson, praising the professionalism of one of our representatives. It's a pity you won't be available for promotion but please accept our congratulations on a job well done. We hope you will remain with Biopharm for the long term. I'll see you at the national conference.

 

Regards, JJ.

 

Kerryn noticed the surprised look on Joe’s face. "Actually, Joe, maybe you could buy us another round of drinks. With that raise, you can afford it!"

"Okay," said Carlos, with a shrug. "But if I draw one wing bigger than the other on the jet plans tomorrow, it’s not my fault.”

"How about some champagne, then?" Joe asked.

"Sounds good,” said Carlos.

Kerryn hugged her husband. "Me, too."

Joe waved to catch the attention of a waiter. He had to look twice before he could believe his eyes; the waiter who responded was a huge man who looked exactly like the manager of the jazz club in Joe’s dream. On the pocket of the waiter’s bulging blue T-shirt was the black silhouette of a grand piano and the words Hot Jazz at the Blues Cafe. Joe spoke nervously. "Three champagnes please, Orson."

The big man looked at him. "Hey, how did you know my name?"

Joe couldn’t help feeling uneasy with the huge waiter towering over him. "Oh, just a lucky guess. Have you ... worked here long?"

"No. This is my first night, man. And you know what? I’ll tell you something. One day I'm going to own a club just like this one." He looked determined.

"I believe it.”

The waiter left to fill the order.

"Well," said Joe, before Kerryn could ask any awkward questions, "I'd better get back to the stage. The band’s waiting."

“Okay, Joe,” said Kerryn. “See you after the second set.”

“Play something Latin,” said Carlos. “Jou promise, now!”

“Sure. But first, our new singer wants to do her favourite tune.” Joe got up and walked to the stage.

As he sat down at the piano, Joe reflected that things were going well, at last. Life wasn’t half bad.

Nancy stood by her microphone. The drummer and the bass player waited for Joe to count them in, and waited for him to play the first chord, which would start My Funny Valentine.

Joe snapped his fingers. “Two ... three ... four!”

He played a C minor sixth. Nancy began to sing, seductively.

Her voice was as smooth as satin.

 

 

The next day, Friday afternoon, Joe was sitting at his desk in the reps room, doing some very boring paperwork. Everyone else was out on the road, except Michelle, who was doing her expense reports, and Kerryn, who was walking briskly down the corridor to speak to the two studious employees.

Kerryn entered the room. "Michelle, can I see you in about ten minutes? We need to talk about the management course you'll be taking next month."

Michelle looked up from her desk. "Sure, Kerryn."

Kerryn turned to Joe. "Joe, I've had an e-mail from head office. The College of Physicians heard about what a big success the Cardiac Society meeting was; they're looking for sponsorship for their monthly chapter meetings. It's a big opportunity for Zemtril. I'd like you to handle it. Could you see Dr Zimmerman this afternoon?"

"No problem. I'll be there at three," said Joe.

"Great." Karen turned and made her way back to her office.

"I need a break from this paperwork," Joe said to Michelle. “Don’t you?”

“You bet.”

"So, anyway, congratulations. You’re going to be a manager, now."

"Thanks, Joe. I never thought I'd get the chance, with you around! Now that you've decided to stay in the field-force, it gives me a bite at the Big Apple. I was always second. Are you sure you don't have any regrets?"

"Not me,” said Joe. “I'm happy with the way it's gone. What about you? Are you sure the office is your style?"

"Yeah, I think so. I've always been ambitious. It’s a natural step. But enough about work. What's this I hear about a new woman in your life?"

Joe winced. "There's really nothing going on. We're just friends."

"Friends, eh?" Michelle looked unconvinced.

"Okay, think what you will. We're just friends.” Joe looked at his watch. “Anyway, I'd better get moving. Gotta make City Hospital by three. Good luck with your meeting. Don’t worry – Kerryn’s okay."

Joe jumped up from his desk and began to leave.

"Good luck to you, too," Michelle called after him.

 

 

A few minutes later, Joe was cruising down the freeway to City Hospital. Dr Zimmerman was the President of the College of Physicians – a very important figure. Joe looked forward to meeting him. Sales strategies ran through his mind. He was lost in thought, one part of him driving the car almost unconsciously, the other, thinking. Suddenly, there was a lyrical voice in the car, singing in a fake Scottish accent. The voice was terribly off-key:

 

"You take the high road

  and I'll take the low road,

  and I'll be at Club Vivax afore ye!"

 

Annoyed, Joe looked around.

Sure enough, Shamus Maguinty was sitting in the back seat. He disappeared and instantaneously rematerialised in the front seat, beside Joe. "How are you, laddie?" he inquired, still retaining the fake Scottish accent.

"I'm fine," said Joe, gruffly, "so long as you promise not to sing."

Shamus frowned. "Ungrateful mortal! Typical. I'm here for a purpose."

Joe cringed as he drove. "Oh, no. What now?"

Shamus opened the window and stuck his head out in the slipstream. His cap blew off and floated away down the highway; he seemed unconcerned about its loss. In fact he was having such a good time, he let out a whoop of delight. "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

"Are you all right?" Joe asked.

Shamus came back in and closed the window. "Never better."

It wasn’t easy to drive and talk to an angel at the same time. Joe gripped the wheel. “Why are you here again? I thought I'd got everything right, at last."

"Well,” said Shamus, “much as I hate to admit it, you have done well – for a mortal, at least. You turned down the promotion. You cut down your hours a little, instead of burning out with the rest of the workaholics. And you're playing your music. I’d say, all in all, that’s pretty good."

"Pretty good? Is that all you can say?" said Joe.

"Well, there is something else. That Jane Hamilton you've been seeing. I’m here to talk about her. It’s about time we had a little chat about that.”

"Not you, too, Shamus. I've just had Michelle needling me."

"Jane’s going to call you, you know," said Shamus.

"She is?"

"Sure. She'll want to confirm your sailing date for Sunday."

Joe was exasperated. "How do you know?!"

"Never mind. Just make sure you go. And ... one more thing."

"Yes?"

"You say you two are just friends? That nothing’s going on?"

Joe looked triumphant. "Yes. That's right."

"Well, kid – something should be going on."

"Huh?”

Shamus refused to answer. He pulled out his pocket watch, squinted at it briefly, then returned it to his waistcoat. "Good. That's decided, then. Well, so long, Joe. I have to go, now."

With that, Shamus faded into green smoke and disappeared.

Joe watched the road rushing past his cruising car. He changed lanes and overtook a slower vehicle. That was just what he needed, he thought, a matchmaking angel.

Still, he was looking forward to Sunday.

 

 

The sleek fibreglass dinghy was tied up by the main jetty at the end of a happy day of sailing on Lake Metropolis. As the sparse Sunday afternoon crowd went about their picnics – tying up their boats, playing their ball games, walking their dogs – Joe Mathews and Jane Hamilton sat on a picnic blanket under an old willow tree by the lake. They were drinking hot coffee.

"Wonderful," said Joe, gulping down the sweet brew.

"Not very healthy, though," Jane remonstrated.

"It sure warms up a cold sailor. You know, I think I'm just about getting my sea legs. Last time, I got seasick. This time, I'm just cold and wet through."

Jane laughed. "You make it sound like torture!"

"No, I liked it. But imagine how you'd feel, you who’ve never played squash, if I threw you into a fast game! But I really had fun, anyway."

"Want to know something even more fun? My friend, Alex, is going to put the boat away for us today." Jane indicated a tall, middle-aged man near the boat. "He’s the guy who owns it." Jane waved. The man waved back and then went about putting the boat away, bringing down its sail.

"Luxury!" said Joe.

"So, I guess everything’s going well for both of us,” said Jane. “I've been promoted. You're playing jazz again. And here we are, sailing! A little different from a couple of workaholics we used to know two months ago, don't you think?"

Joe agreed. "Well, yeah. I suppose so."

A big sailboat passed close to shore. Jane watched it race away.

"You know, Jane, I have this Irish friend. A little short guy. He’s a bit of a character. I was telling him about you. Anyway, he gave me some advice."

"Oh?" Jane looked a little worried. "What advice?"

"Well, he told me I should ... ah ... it's a little embarrassing."

"Embarrassing?" said Jane.

"Yeah. Actually, forget I brought it up. Sorry.”

"Okay,” said Jane. “If you say so. It’s funny, though. I have a short Irish friend, too. And he gave me some advice about you.

“Oh?” said Joe. “What kind of advice?”

To Joe’s great surprise, Jane leaned across and kissed him. Then – straight away – she smiled and stood up. “I forget exactly what he said. But it did seem like good advice at the time.”

Joe was speechless. To cover his surprise, he busied himself tidying up their impromptu picnic, picking up the coffee cups and the vacuum flask and stuffing them back inside Jane’s canvas bag.

Jane helped him fold up the picnic blanket.

"Care to take a stroll?" Joe asked, when they had finished.

"I thought you'd never ask.” Jane put an arm, casually, around Joe; he slung the canvas bag over his shoulder, and the two of them began a leisurely walk along the lakeside path. Around them, the darkening sky had taken on the magenta glow of sunset.

After a hundred yards or so, Jane spoke again. "Would you be interested in dinner, this Wednesday? I'm not working late, and I know a great Indian restaurant.”

"I'd like that," said Joe.

They walked on, past trees and moored boats, watching the sun sink over the lake. Neither of them had felt so relaxed in a long time. And neither Jane nor Joe noticed the short, chubby figure, in a cheap leprechaun suit, who followed them quietly, ten yards behind.

The little fellow seemed well pleased.