Joe Wray pushed the heavy bronze door open, swapping the Park Avenue heat out on 51st St for the cool air of the church. He mopped at the sweat on his brow and stepped over to the old woman at the desk. He refused change from the $100 bill he passed over. The woman took the money and handed over the two long-stemmed matchsticks he’d asked for, and Joe walked through to the imposing nave. He hadn’t been religious in his forty-seven years but thought that was the term. He’d only been here once before—Christmas eight years ago when the four of them had stopped in spontaneously, or so he’d thought at the time, as they headed back to Grand Central Station.
That had been the night that made him come to St Bart’s today.
As he walked down the aisle, his footsteps slapping against the stone, he saw two young men praying. At least they were what he considered young these days—they were probably somewhere in their mid-twenties. Neither raised their heads as he passed.
Joe walked slowly forward to the small, open-doored vestry left of the altar. He entered the room and sat stiffly. The display in front of him was old and rusted—a five-level table, ten candles in small glass jars spaced across each level. Around three quarters were lit, the smell of burning wax wafting on the air.
The sign above the display read, “Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One Who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”
Underneath a small typed note read; “$1 per candle, please pay at reception.”
Joe sat for a moment re-reading the words, wondering what right he had to be doing this.
He thought of the $100 he had handed over for $2 worth of soul brightening—and that he had underpaid. He tossed the church matches into the tray below the display and took the small green book of matches from his trouser pocket. He lit one of the ten or so matches left in it and held it to a candle on the third from bottom row.
“For Bobby.” He whispered. Pretty boy Bobby. Three years his junior, a cocky grin and the mile-a-minute mouth.
When the small candle had started to burn, he blew out the match and took another one from the packet, igniting it from the burning flame, and holding it against the wick on the candle next to it.
“For Ellie.” He breathed softly. Beautiful, funny Ellie, with the most infectious laugh ever.
As the two candles began to burn in earnest the memories flooded through him. Memories of the good and the bad times they’d had together—of how much he and Judith had loved them.
He tried to focus on Judith, instead of the bad times and the trouble Bobby had brought them towards the end. He thought of Judith. Of Jacob. Of Thomas. And, although not a religious man, prayed for their safety.
But mostly he thought about Bobby and Ellie. And their murder.
It had been a cold December morning when the call came through to the small Maywood, New Jersey one room office they’d been in for almost two months, the tiny printing area below them presently silent. Joe had answered, still enjoying the autonomy of being able to announce to any caller that they had reached “Wrays’ Print and Design Studio: Providers of Corporate Communications”—an exaggerated description for their offering, but it was what they aspired to. He had talked the caller through their services and agreed to send a range of pdf samples on. It was only when he’d put the phone down and Bobby asked him what the caller had been looking for that Joe realised he hadn’t thought to ask.
“I’ll write you a script.” Bobby had laughed as they shared takeaway pizza at his desk half an hour later, “like I used to for my more retarded new starters back at AT&T.” Joe had tossed a pizza crust at him, but when the caller rang back the following day he’d told him to hold while he transferred him to ‘Wray and Wray’s Head of Sales’, passing the phone to Bobby who mouthed ‘Sales President’ before taking the phone from him and going into his full-on sales mode. By the time he put the phone down with a final, “Look forward to seeing you then, Mr. Leonard.” they had an invite to lunch two days later.
“So, who are they? What do they do?” Joe asked, putting a mug of coffee down in front of his brother.
“They’re called Marshalls. They’re a joke.” Bobby said nonchalantly.
“A…joke?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, they’re a Joke Company.” Bobby expanded, “Seriously.”
“Shit.” Joe said.
Bobby laughed, “No. Seriously, they’re a Joke Company. You know? Itching powder, whoopee cushions, fake noses, masks, outfits, all that shit.”
“An honest-to-God Joke Company?” Joe asked, “Do they even exist anymore? Like the old place out by the summer house?”
“Yeah, Ray’s Jokes and Smokes.”
Joe smiled, remembering the vacations they’d taken with their parents; long days of him and Bobby making up adventures and occasionally getting into trouble. “I’m pretty sure we were the only ones who bought the jokes,“ he said, “– it was the smokes that kept that place going…”
Bobby shook his head, “Not according to this guy.” He brought his PC back to life and typed briefly, “You know how much the joke industry is worth?”
Joe shrugged, and took a wild guess, “$50 million nationwide?”
Bobby looked up from the screen, “According to this Retail and Trade report, the sales value of gift, novelty and souvenir stores in the US is $15 billion, estimated to rise to 17 by 2008.”
“Billion?” Joe asked incredulously.
“Billion.” Bobby repeated, “See Joe, some people unlike you like to have fun.”
Joe ignored the jibe, “And these guys are worth how much?”
“Marshalls are apparently the fifth biggest players on the East Coast according to the guy on the phone. I have no idea how much that equates to…yet, but it doesn’t sound like chicken feed.”
“No shit.” Joe whispered.
Bobby smiled, “A lot of shit, all of it plastic — like one of those curled up specials we used to put on Dad’s chair.”
They taxied from Penn Station to the restaurant. Bobby matched the fare with his tip. Joe said nothing, hoping he was getting his ‘game face’ on and not just being ‘flamboyant Bobby’.
Joe was in the dark blue Calvin Klein suit he’d last worn for their recent bank loan interviews. Bobby was in a charcoal Dolce & Gabbana number which Joe suspected he’d bought for the occasion. The taxi dropped them outside the small Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. They arrived ten minutes early and Bobby nodded to the small bar a block down.
Once inside the bar, Bobby ordered two Grey Goose vodkas, handing one to Joe, ignoring his protest.
“Act like we’ve already got this.” Bobby said, and seeing his brother’s look, smiled, “Don’t worry. Just one for courage… You look as if you need it.”
Joe couldn’t argue. They downed the drinks in one; Joe shuddered slightly as it went down, Bobby did not. Slamming the empty glass on the table and waving a hand in apology at the barman who looked over at the sudden noise, he stood, and said with a smile, “OK, let’s doooo this.”
The elderly man working front-of-house guided them through to a table at the back of the restaurant where three men sat laughing. When they saw Joe and Bobby the three stood and offered handshakes.
“Don’t worry—no hand buzzers. We take funny seriously. I’m Peter Leonard. This is Jerry, and Terry,” the stocky, shiny pated man said, gesturing them to sit. “Another round of Martinis Larry, and the same for our friends here.”
“Terrence.” The young black man said to Joe as they shook hands. “But Peter thinks Terry is funnier.”
Peter Leonard slapped him on the back, “Don’t you go whining back to HR, Terry, I’m one step away from the pink slip, and you know they’ll call racism.”
The three men from Marshalls laughed at whatever this in-joke meant, and Joe guessed the pre-lunch Vodkas were not going to be noticed.
Peter Leonard, who it turned out was the man who had called them and was clearly the boss, was not technically bald: he had ginger red hair, long at the back and sides. It could, Joe thought as he finished his Martini, be a clown hair gag.
The meal that followed was off-menu. Leonard told them to trust him and they’d enjoy the meal. They did both. Clams followed by homemade pepperonis, carpaccio, and large platters of seafood and steaks. Throughout it, they talked: family, the World Series, and some banter about the recent Heavyweight title fight at the Garden where Leonard had won money and his work colleagues had lost. Peter and Bobby were responsible for about ninety percent of the talk. It wasn’t until the biscotti and coffees arrived that the talk finally turned to business.
“We liked what we saw on your website.” Leonard said, lighting up a cigar, apparently not a problem despite New York laws eating laws as Joe understood them. “You guys do good work.”
“We’ve had no complaints,” Bobby smiled, his face slightly flushed from the Barolo, “A lot of satisfied customers.”
Leonard smiled back, “You’ve got three customers, all paying next to nothing. You’ve probably got a king-sized loan, and you’re working out of a little room in the backwoods of New Jersey…”
Bobby coughed slightly. “Well…”
“Relax,” Leonard continued, “I’m teasing. You’re new in business. We’d be pretty stupid if we didn’t do some checking, wouldn’t we?”
Bobby wagged a finger at him, his confident smile reappearing, “You got us. We’re new. But we’re good—Joe here was the most respected printer at Ottermans’ Publishing…”
Leonard cut him off, “Relax I said. Don’t try to sell yourself to us so much,” He gestured to the empty plates, “It’s like good food—let it speak for itself.”
The waiter brought over glasses of Amaretto. “Compliments of the house.”
As he moved off Peter Leonard continued, “We want a business who can give us attention. To ensure we are a… preferred customer.”
Bobby nodded, “I can guarantee that our custome—”
Leonard raised his hand a millimetre, “When I say, ‘preferred customer’, I mean… favored, if you will. And of course,” he turned his hands over, palms up, “We would provide appropriate recompense to a supplier we worked so closely with…”
Bobby glanced at Joe and then to the other men at the table, “Are we talking exclusivity?”
Leonard looked to Terry / Terrence, who had barely spoken during the meal but now spoke, “No. Not exclusivity. As long as there was no…conflict of interest.”
“We’d sign NDAs,” Bobby said quickly.
“We’d take that as given.” Leonard said, “We’d expect you to drop everything… should the need arise.”
Bobby swallowed and looked at Joe, momentarily stuck for words.
Joe, who had drunk less than Bobby throughout the meal, wiped at his mouth with his napkin. “We appreciate the offer Mr. Leonard, and of course, would very much like to work with you…” As the men around the table nodded, he continued, “…however. The fact is we are, as you say, new in business. Part of the reason we decided to leave our previous roles was because we wanted some independence. The idea of working exclusively for you…” he saw Leonard about to speak, and corrected himself, “almost exclusively for you, would run the risk that we end up working for a company the way we always have…”
Leonard considered this, puffing on his cigar. “I understand. I’ll say two things and then you can decide. Firstly, I guarantee that working with us will not be like working for your previous employers. And you would be working with us, not for us. How you come and go? How you work? As long as you can provide us the service we need, we don’t care. Now, we’re likely to have a lot of work—which is good for you. We won’t have unreasonable expectations, but you will be busy. Maybe you won’t have time to take on other work…or maybe you will. How you manage that is up to you. We just expect discretion, integrity…” he smiled, “…and everything we want. Fair?”
The men around him laughed at the bon mot and Bobby cut in, “That sounds more than fair Mr. Leonard.”
Joe glanced at his brother, and then looked back to Leonard, “And the second thing?”
Peter Leonard nodded and handed an envelope towards Joe, “The second thing is our offer. I suggest you gentlemen review it, and we will get back to you tomorrow.”
With that Leonard, followed immediately by the two men at his side, stood from the table and dropped his napkin on his crumb spattered plate.
“Gentlemen, it was a pleasure to meet you…”
“Please,” Bobby said, holding out his hand to shake. “Let me take care of the check.
Leonard shook the proffered hand and gave a crooked little smile, “There’s no check to take care of.” He shook Joe’s hand. A firm, dry shake, placing his other hand over Joe’s. The two other men from Marshalls didn’t shake hands but both smiled, and the three of them left the restaurant. From presenting the envelope to exiting the door took them less than three minutes.
As the two candles burned down, both now a quarter gone, Joe Wray wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t spoken up on that day.
Would they have been offered the deal?
Would they have ended up working with Marshalls for a shade under eight years?
But mostly he wondered if he hadn’t spoken up that day would his brother and sister-in-law have been alive to celebrate Labor Day this weekend with them?
Joe and Bobby left the restaurant with the envelope unopened. Snow had started to sprinkle during the two hours they’d been inside. Neither of them had spoken since their lunch guests had departed. Finally, Bobby broke the silence: “What time’s the train?”
“Every half hour.” Joe replied.
Bobby blew cold air out through pursed lips. “So we’ve got time before we need to head to the station.”
Joe shrugged, “It would appear so.”
“You want to open this now?” Bobby asked.
“And I’m sure you want to find a coffee shop to do it?” Joe asked innocently.
Bobby was already heading back to the pre-restaurant bar.
Joe looked at the two large glasses of whisky on the table in front of him. Bobby shrugged, “We’re either celebrating or commiserating. Either way we’re halfway in the bag already…”
Joe resisted the urge to protest that he had barely opened any bag yet, instead clinking Bobby’s proffered glass. “Who’s going to open it?”
“You should.” Bobby said, “You’re better with numbers.”
“You’re expecting that many zeroes?” Joe laughed, but his hand was shaking as he took the envelope, and it wasn’t from the cold. Or the drink.
“It’s won’t be anything special,” Bobby said. “This is theatrics—the old ‘take what’s in the mystery box’ routine…” He paused. “Joe? What does it say?”
Joe continued reading for a moment before he handed it over silently.
Bobby took the letter and looked at it nonchalantly for a full half second before he muttered, “Jesus Christ.”
They didn’t get the train home.
Two drinks later they ordered a taxi, or the bar ordered a taxi, or…a taxi arrived somehow. The driver gave them a suspicious look when they told him where they wanted to go, but when Bobby fanned out the money from his wallet (Joe guessed lunch money to avoid possible embarrassment of having their anorexic business card refused), he shrugged acceptance.
As they left Manhattan Bobby phoned Ellie. She asked him exactly how much he’d had to drink as he burst into giggles, but she was giggling too when Joe took the phone from his brother to speak to her. Joe, who had surreptitiously poured his final tumbler of whiskey into the pot plant behind him in the bar, assured Ellie that things were okay, and she should meet them at his and Judith’s and they would see them within the hour. She made him promise he’d get her husband home safely and blew a kiss down the line. He hung up and dialled Judy to warn her of Ellie’s imminent arrival and their ETA, assuming they didn’t need to stop for Bobby to throw up (the driver gave him a dirty look in his rear-view mirror). Judith asked him how it had gone, but he told her she’d have to wait, and that they’d see them soon. She reminded him that she loved him slightly less when he kept things from her, and he laughed, telling her he loved her no matter what. He clicked off as she started to blow a raspberry down the line.
Joe had always been the careful one. So, on the taxi drive back to New Jersey, he asked the question he hadn’t wanted to ask because it might bring the whole thing tumbling down.
“Bobby. What exactly is it that Marshalls want us to do for them?”
“You heard them, bro—business cards, flyers, brochures.”
Joe sighed, “You’ve never called me ‘bro’ in your life Bobby. You’ve also never been stupid. You’ve been ‘sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always certain’…But you’ve never been stupid, so don’t start now.”
“Remind me never to put you down as a reference.” Bobby said, “What’s your point ‘oh brother of mine’?”
“Business cards, flyers, brochures…catalogues, point of sale, letter heads, all of that. It still doesn’t add up to…” he took the paper from Bobby’s hands, “this.”
“It’s just to get started.” Bobby said, “To get us on board. Tie us in.”
“Bobby—you’ve got the MBA not me, but don’t companies normally start low and reward suppliers once they’ve proved themselves, not before they’ve done anything?” He paused, “Remember what Dad used to say?”
“You don’t get paid to believe in the power of your dreams?”
“Not that one,” Joe said, smiling despite himself.
“He really was a minefield of misery, wasn’t he?”
“I was thinking when he used to say, ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Bobby grinned, “You know something? I don’t think he made that one up…when he wasn’t being pessimistic or critical, he was stealing trite lines…Look, can we just live in the moment tonight? Let’s assume they’ve recognised your good workmanship and, I say with no false modesty, my pretty brilliant selling techniques. That’s what they’re ponying up for. Can we have tonight?”
Joe sat silently looking out the window, as the snow fell harder. Finally, he sighed, “Did you really just say ‘pony up’?”
They’d started the second bottle of champagne before Judith raised the question. Bobby had insisted on stopping at a liquor store to pick up two bottles of Dom Perignon. They made it up the pathway without slipping, and into the house to find Ellie with a Gin and Tonic and Judith–Joe guessed–a plain tonic, both apparently calming their own nerves.
By the second bottle, Bobby had slipped back to his pre-taxi level of intoxication, and Joe was catching up. Ellie had never needed much to drink to sparkle in all the time Joe and Judith had known her, but with the champagne and G&Ts, she was almost spinning. So it was Judith, patting her swollen belly and refusing yet another offer from Bobby of ‘just a taste’, who asked the question.
“Is this above board?”
Joe put his hand as far around Judith’s waist as he could manage with four months to go. “Marshalls are real enough. This isn’t some sort of wise guy set up.”
She shook her head bemusedly, “You think you know what a wise guy looks like?”
“Not like a drunken Irish Pirate.” Bobby slurred, and Joe burst out laughing at how well his brother had summed up Peter Leonard.
Joe woke late the next morning, with a mouth like a hamster’s cage. Judith had cooked him breakfast, but he did little more than push it around the plate.
“Mr. Gekko not hungry after his Wall Street success?” she asked.
Joe shook his head as gently as he could, “Breakfast is for wimps…”
She laughed and brought her cup of coffee to the kitchen table, “So how big a deal is this?”
Joe shrugged. “In the horrible cold light of day, it’s not that big a deal.”
“It seemed a lot last night….”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Joe said, “It’s great for us. But Otterman wouldn’t throw a worker’s holiday for it…”
“Ottermans wouldn’t give a worker’s holiday if they knew the world was going to end. And they had an annual turnover of how much?”
“$65 million last year,” Joe conceded of his old company.
“And your projected turnover for this month before this was?”
He calculated, “The Manheim’s’ Bar Mitzvah decorations…. the Lambert corner store catalogue, possibly as much as $250. But that’s post-tax.”
She sighed, “I really married big time, didn’t I?”
He smiled, “If you believe Bobby, we’ll be rolling in four leafed clover…”
“Not if he keeps buying suits like he was wearing last night.” Judith said, her eyebrow raised.
“You noticed that?”
She nodded, “Even rumpled and whisky reeking it was a nice suit.”
“You know Bobby…”
“Oh honey, I do indeed.”
“Well, it certainly puts us on more solid ground,” Joe said, steering away from the well-trodden path of Bobby’s flamboyance, “assuming we can produce to the quality they’re expecting.”
Judith kissed him on the forehead, “I may have concerns about ‘Big Balls’ Bobby…”
“May have?” Joe asked
“…But,” she continued, “I’ve never doubted you. You did the right thing getting away from Ottermans hun, and you know you’ve got my full support. All I’m saying is be careful.”
“Careful is my middle name.” he smiled.
“Yes”, she agreed, “but Bobby was christened Robert ‘Bullshit’ Wray.”
The documents were signed without amendments. They’d met at the Marshalls office—a Brownstone building just off Canal Street. Peter Leonard had met and ushered them into an expensive looking room on the first floor. He told them to sit tight as he went to get ‘Scott the Lawyer’.
Alone, Bobby looked around the room, “Ease your mind any?”
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
Bobby smiled, “I’ve seen you the last few days, bro’.”
“Again, with the ‘bro’.” Joe sighed, “It’s called being careful, Bobby. You could try it one day.”
An hour later they’d signed. Leonard cracked a joke about invisible ink—not, Joe guessed, for the first time. Signed, sealed and delivered, they stepped cautiously down the gritted steps outside.
Bobby checked his watch, “Two hours before we meet the ladies. Time for a quick celebratory drink? A ‘careful’, ‘sensible’ drink? I promise I won’t put laxative powder in yours.”
It was ten to eight that evening, snow coming down hard on Park Lane when Judith, hanging on to Joe’s arm after almost losing her balance three blocks back, stopped them outside the middle doorway of St. Bart’s Church.
“Let’s go in.” she said, “I’ve walked past here a hundred times, and never been inside.”
“The bar’s next door, Judy.” Bobby laughed behind them, three cocktails in and his own arm around Ellie, resting on her behind rather than for support.
Ellie swatted at him playfully, “We’re not all alcoholics, hun.”
Judith didn’t move, “I’m serious. Let’s go in.”
Joe looked at her, “Really?”
“Since when did you get so Godly, Jude?” Bobby asked.
She turned, “Screw you, Bobby Wray. How’s that for Godly? I just think it would be…nice.”
She dragged Joe’s arm and he acquiesced, laughing. Ellie bounced behind them, Bobby trailed behind a little begrudgingly, glaring at Ellie as she waved the Christmas hat a group of drunken businessmen had given her in the last bar. They’d begged her to model it for them as she bought drinks; she’d taken the hat and playfully given them the finger as she returned to their table, giving Bobby a lingering kiss.
Inside, the church was silent save for the faint sound of the organ gently playing carol music—not fully formed; apparently last-minute practice before the Christmas onslaught.
Judith shook her hood off, snow falling around her. Joe said nothing as he watched her, as struck as he was every time he looked at his wife, even after all the years they’d been together. She was no longer the seventeen-year-old he’d plucked up the courage to ask out in his first year at college—the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, it was true. Now? She was more beautiful—everything they’d done, all the time they’d had together, showed in her and added to her allure. Looking at her, his heart almost hurt, his attention so all-encompassing he barely heard Bobby and Ellie giggling somewhere behind them.
Judith stared up at the enormous bright blue circle of stained glass above the old organ, and as he stared at her, at the light playing about her face, she whispered, “It’s beautiful.”
“That’s what the Nazi in Raiders said just before his face melted off,” Bobby giggled, appearing from nowhere and making them both jump. “Come on, next door is waiting…and they have drinks.”
“You go on.” Joe said, “We’ll be there in a bit.”
“Holy shit,” Bobby laughed. Ellie slapped him, telling him to remember where he was, and he muttered, “Jesus, I’m surrounded by religious freaks.”
“We’ll see you next door,” Ellie said, dragging Bobby firmly by the arm, “You want me to get you guys drinks?”
“Sure, “Joe said, not turning, “A beer for me, soda and lime for m’lady.”
When they’d gone, their giggles somehow growing louder the further away they got, Joe touched Judith’s shoulder. “You okay, honey?”
She placed her hand on his, “It’s so peaceful. This place—it’s…” She searched for the words, failed, and repeated, “…so very peaceful.”
Joe moved away from her, walking down the aisle to get a closer look at the window. He glanced over to his left, peripherally noticing movement and saw a small room with candles burning dimly; the flickering dancing shadows on the stone wall behind them.
“Judy.” He said, his voice carrying easily in the silence. She broke her gaze from the window and went to him, looking into the small vestibule.
“Should we light one?” he asked.
She looked at him, saw he wasn’t mocking her, “Are we allowed to?”
“Why not?” Joe asked. “There’s enough already lit, and no-one to stop us.”
“Isn’t it…blasphemous? We’re not exactly the most religious couple on the block…”
“Do you need to be religious to make a Christmas wish?” he asked.
She laughed, “I don’t think it’s referred to as a ‘wish’ honey.”
He chuckled and took out the packet of matches he’d snagged from the last bar they’d been in. He lit a match, letting the flame catch and burn for a second before touching it to one of the unlit candles’ wick until he felt the heat touching his fingers, waved it out and dropped it in the tray beneath.
“So, if we don’t wish… What?” he asked.
“Maybe offer thanks for what we’ve got?” she suggested, “Say a prayer that this,” she gestured to the bump, “and everything else…” He nodded, not needing her to finish the sentence.
She looked at him, and brushed a hair out of his eyes, “I will make one wish, though. Not to…” she jerked her head up, “…him. To you.”. She took his hands, looked into his eyes, and he had a brief flashback to their last time in church.
“You made vows back then,” she said, as though reading his mind, and recited, “I can promise that I’ll willingly be your protector, your advisor, your councillor, your friend, your family, your everything. I promise you.”
“You…remember all that?” he asked.
She shrugged, “I may have found it online afterwards…’original vow’ my ass…”
“Busted.” He smiled.
“But I remembered the important stuff anyway…” she said, “Do you still mean it? Will you always be those things?”
He didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. He squeezed her hands a little more and looked into her beautiful blue eyes and choked back emotion. “I’ll always be those things. And I promise I will always make sure you and ‘thingy’ there are safe.”
When he said it, he thought it would be true.
The work from Marshalls was steady and if not challenging in design or execution, challenging in volume. Marshalls was an unusual business model: providing promotional collateral as well as the materials themselves to their sellers. Work came in and they churned it out. It was Joe who produced the actual work, as Judith occasionally pointed out when he came home late again. On those occasions Joe explained that, while Bobby’s design skills didn’t stretch beyond sketching vague ideas on lunch napkins, he was the one looking into online and offline opportunities that Marshalls had not previously explored. When Judith asked why Marshalls didn’t have a Marketing Department to do all that, Joe didn’t have a ready answer.
Jacob Wray arrived into the world on February 19th. Joe and Bobby had been in the office when the call came from Ellie. Joe had panicked; Judith was only seven months gone, and despite all the reading he’d done his mind went blank as to whether a baby could even survive at that age.
Bobby became an iceman—reassuring him all the way to Maywood hospital where Ellie had driven Judith, not waiting for the medics when her waters had broken as they shopped for nursery designs. By the time the brothers arrived, Judith was already in surgery and about to undergo an emergency C-section because the placenta was separating. As the doctor on duty told Joe, somewhat ominously he thought later, “Babies don’t have a lot of blood they can afford to lose.”
The following hour and a half were the longest of Joe’s life as he sat in the hospital waiting room; Bobby talking nonstop, and Ellie bringing a constant supply of shitty coffee, both of them doing their best to keep his mind from where it kept going:
Had he failed in his promise so soon?
When the impossibly young doctor finally came back and told the three of them mother and baby were doing fine, and he could see them, amongst the hugging and crying and laughing as Bobby and Ella squeezed him, any doubt evaporated, the steeliness his father had always said he had springing into its place: They’re both okay. Now man up and keep your goddamn promises.
“Where’s our baby?” he asked, putting the question somewhere between his wife and the doctor when he saw Judith lying pale, sweaty, and alone.
“Mr. Wray,” the doctor said, “Your son has been born prematurely. When that happens we…”
“Where’s our baby?” he repeated, his words iron-hard.
Judith smiled; tired and without her usual twinkle. “They’ve had to take him to the NICU Joe, because he was so small…”
“NICU?” Joe asked.
“The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Mr Wray,” the doctor said, “it’s perfectly normal when a baby is born so early…”
“Normal?” Joe said, “How can…”
“Love of my life?” Judith said, and he turned to her, “Listen to the doctor…and yes, that’s a nice way of me saying shut up.”
Joe turned numbly to the doctor.
“Mr. Wray, we ran an Apgar test…”
“Apgar,” the doctor said, without waiting for the question, “Stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration. It’s an assessment of how a baby is doing at birth. The score can be anywhere from 1 to 10. A score of 7 or above is considered normal. Your son scored a 7 and weighed 3 pounds and 8 ounces. That doesn’t sound a lot, but believe me, it’s a perfectly reasonable weight under the circumstances.”
“You hear that, honey?” Judith asked from her bed, taking his hand, “he’s going to be okay.”
“He’s going to be okay?” Joe asked dully.
“He’s going to be okay.” Judith confirmed, laughing.
Joe Wray started to cry.
Over an hour later, two orderlies wheeled Judith’s bed to the NICU, Joe holding her hand as they trundled down the corridor. The visit was brief—little more than reassurance for them. Another couple of hours, once the catheter was out, they told them, and they’d have her in a wheelchair and they could hold him for as long as they wanted. Joe said he’d stay, and Judith barked a laugh. “You’ll not. What you’ll do is go home and get my stuff. I’m going to be here a while and I look like crap…”
“You’ve never looked more beau…”
“Uh-huh, save it honey. I know what I look like. Go get my baby bag. It’s in the walk-in. Good job I’m obsessively organised, huh?”
He kissed her: not hard or long, but with passion, “I’ll bring flowers…” he said, starting to leave.
“Joe?” she said.
He looked back at her, “Something else you need, hun?”
“Could you pick up a candle…”, she paused, a slight blush rising in her pale cheek, “Will you…”
He nodded, “I will.”
He gave Bobby (stiffly-hugging) and Ellie (happy-sobbing) a quick update and then went out, After an update and hugs (Stiff from Bobby, happy-sobbing from Ellie), Joe left the hospital, picking up a pack of utility candles from the Korean 24-hour store closest to their home. In the house, he searched through the grab bowl on the end of the kitchen table, rummaging through knick-knacks until he found the green packet of matches. He found a small metal cake tin, lit the candle and held it at an angle, dripping hot wax onto the tin before blowing out the candle and standing it in the molten mess, holding it in place until it hardened. Then he lit it again; the thin hollow flame dancing before settling into a steady glow.
Joe Wray sat back, his field of vision winnowing in on the flame until the small candle burned out.
Jacob spent a month in the NICU, and Joe was there for much of it. He worried how Marshalls would perceive it, right until the bouquet of flowers had arrived for Judith with a simple note that said, ‘From your friends at Marshalls’. He had been relieved and touched, and any lingering doubts Judith held had been snuffed out like a…candle.
If he had been a man more given to poetry, Joe may have drawn an analogy between Jacob’s development in the NICU and his brother’s growth. Handed a challenge he could not shirk, Bobby appeared to have more than stood up to bat. When Joe returned to work the office looked professional: tidied, squared off and freshly painted. But it was under the surface that Bobby appeared to have spent most of his time—swelling with pride as he showed Joe the detailed minutes and memos he’d made from his meetings with Marshalls.
“Jesus, Bobby,” Joe laughed, “have you been camped out in their offices the whole time? It’s almost as if…I don’t know…they like you.”
Bobby grinned, “What can I say, bro? I’ve got the charm to disarm…”
Joe, leafing through upcoming projects murmured on auto-pilot, “Don’t call me bro.”
He looked at Bobby, “We’d better start making some of this stuff, huh?”
Marshall’s Fiscal Year ended March 31st. The invite for the end-of-year celebration dinner at Marshalls’ offices on May 17th arrived an exact month before. Looking at the guilt edged invite Bobby whistled, “Ellie and Judith invited too. And they know their names.”
Joe nodded, equally impressed—Judith had always been ‘Julie’ or ‘Gillian’ to his boss at Ottermans. For Marshalls to know their suppliers’ wives’ names was impressive.
Bobby smiled, “We could have done a better job on the invite though…”
The evening of the dinner, Bobby arranged a limousine to pick them up. Judith was giving final instructions to her mother, who was in turn shooing her and Joe into the arriving car, reminding them she’d brought up three children of her own without killing any of them. Ellie commented once the door had safely closed that she had seemed to have dropped Bobby on his head a few times. Judith laughed…slightly nervously.
“How much did you spend on this thing?” Joe asked, as their champagne glasses clinked in a toast—Joe was not sure whether it was for the business, or the normality of an evening out.
Bobby pulled a face to the women, “My big brother. Mr. Careful. Even when he’s celebrating…”
Joe joined the laughter and, Judith’s hand on his arm, promised them all he’d enjoy the evening.
Marshalls put on a good show—not overly ostentatious or crowded—Joe counted maybe 90 people in total—30 or 40 staff, most with partners. At their table there was just themselves and two other couples not directly employed by the company—one middle-aged guy from the Delivery Services company with his wife, and an independent lawyer and his husband.
As the meal reached its conclusion, Peter Leonard introduced Marshalls’ CEO. A thin, elderly man with a dapper bow-tie took to the make-shift stage to genuine applause and proceeded to give a short speech expressing appreciation for everyone in the room. As he concluded he said, “My father told me the joke business is no laughing matter…” a light smattering of laughter and Ellie whispered, “How many times do you think that one’s been rolled out?”
The old man went on, “…you’re all too kind. We made profit again this year: up 3% on last year. But times are tough—we’re the fifth biggest supplier on the East Coast. We’re some way behind the big three, but you know what? That’s fine. We avoid limelight we might not want…”
A smattering of laughter, and a few claps. Joe looked at Bobby enquiringly, and Bobby gave a nod, as if to say, ‘I’ll tell you later’.
“…So, thank you all. I’m going to sit back down now—and I swear if Peter’s put another whoopee cushion on my seat he’s fired…”
He sat down, and the room applauded warmly.
Peter Leonard stood up again, “I haven’t actually put a cushion on that chair for five years now…but whatever excuse you need…Lionel,” the old man laughed and slapped at him playfully, “…Enjoy the rest of the evening. The band will be starting once dessert is cleared.”
“Lionel Leonard?” Joe said to Bobby as the room stood to applaud Peter, his father, and each other, “that’s some moniker. And he’s Peter’s father? So, Peter’s second in command? Did you know any of that?”
Bobby shrugged, “Sure. I thought you did. I guess it came up when I was here for meetings. I’ve met the old man a few times…That limelight business? The owner of Baskeys got caught up in some hooker ring thing. Didn’t make particularly big news with the general public, but I guess it’s a bit of an in-joke in this business. Maybe it’s best not to be number one, huh?”
The beefy man in the suspenders to the left of Bobby had been listening, “Yeah, the guy was a bit of a clown, if you’ll excuse the expression—it all tends to get very punny. You guys must be the Wray brothers? The new blood?”
Joe acknowledged they were.
“Thought so,” the man said, “I’ve seen your names on a few documents. I’m David Hudson –the Independent Legal for Baldwins. For when they don’t want their names on things…”
Judith, sitting next to him took the offered brandy from the passing waiter, “So what exactly do you do for the company, Mr. Hudson?”
The lawyer’s chins wobbled, “This and that. Is that suitably vague and mysterious? I wish it was. Add a little excitement, huh darling?” he asked his partner, who nodded distractedly, returning to whatever he was doing on his phone.
“It pays for the summer home.” the man sighed.
“You have a summer home?” Ellie asked looking up from her Tiramisu, suddenly interested in David Hudson.
“Flirt an invitation with him,” Bobby whispered to her, “And I’ll be seriously impress…ouch!” as she dug him in the ribs.
“We sure do.” Hudson said, “We’ve had a place in Montauk for a few years now—gets us out of the city once in a while, you know?”.
By midnight Joe and Judith, used to being on ‘take sleep when you can get it’ time in recent months, were flagging badly. Bobby and Ellie on the other hand were apparently just getting into the swing of things and hadn’t been off the dance floor for twenty minutes.
Eventually they managed to drag Bobby and Ellie away by one o’clock and all four of them were asleep in the back of the limousine before they’d got out of Manhattan.
By the end of their first full year working with Marshalls (Bobby persisted on correcting Joe when he occasionally made the mistake of saying they worked for them), they’d settled into a comfortable if unremarkable routine—both at work and at home.
They spent Christmas together at Bobby and Ellie’s, and the New Year at Joe and Judith’s. The same routine as they had for each of the five years since Bobby and Ellie had been together, as Judith pointed out over post-lunch liqueurs, snuggling with Jacob and Joe on their sofa; Bobby massaging Ellie’s feet as she struggled to stay awake on the sofa opposite.
Five years since Bobby introduced them to Ellie; the stunning dark-haired girl four years—and six inches—his junior. They had met sitting in a bar, both of them having ditched blind dates. Bobby had called it fate, and while Joe didn’t know about that, he did know Ellie was the best thing to ever happen to his brother—calming his excesses, but with an untameable enthusiasm for everything they did. Bobby had fallen in love with her immediately. It had taken himself and Judith less than a month to do the same despite Judith’s initial misgivings; “She’s too beautiful to be that nice. There’s got to be something wrong with her.”
“You’re beautiful and nice,” Joe had reasoned.
Judith had laughed. “You’ve got to say that. Hell hun, you’ve had to say it for fifteen years…”
And their love seemed to be reciprocated: at their wedding three years ago, Ellie made Judith her maid of honour and Joe was Bobby’s best man. The honeymoon fortnight Bobby and Ellie spent in Jamaica was the longest the four had spent apart since.
Jesters announced bankruptcy in February. Joe read the news in the NY Times and passed it over to Bobby as they worked on the Easter push campaign.
Bobby read aloud, “…tough times…online purchases…traditional celebrating dying…blah, blah, blah.” He jabbed the paper, “Maybe you’re just a shitty businessman?”
Joe was more pessimistic; “Jesters have been around forever. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the industry…”
Bobby disagreed, “They diversified too much with no strategy—not like us. Porter’s five forces, bro. Business studies 101.”
“I understood two bits of that,” Joe said, “one was you still calling me bro. The other was you’re saying, ‘us’ now.”
Bobby threw the paper at him, the pages fluttering to the ground, “Your fault. Bro. You’ve got me doing it. But seriously, how much are we earning from the other accounts? If we lost them all, we’d not even notice.”
Joe nodded, “That’s my point—what happens if we lose Marshalls?”
Bobby pshawwed, “We’re not going to lose them.”
“And if they do a Jesters?” Joe asked.
Bobby rolled his eyes, “Jesus. Look, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll drop it into the conversation with Pete tonight—see what he thinks, Ok?”
“Tonight?” Joe asked, “I thought we weren’t seeing them until the monthly catch up?”
“I, ah, forgot to mention that,” Bobby said, “Pete’s got tickets for the fight at the Garden and asked me if I wanted one. I didn’t think to ask you…you know with Jacob and all…”
“Hey—don’t feel guilty.” Joe said, “You know me and boxing. Go enjoy it with Pete.”
Bobby smiled, “What was that emphasis?”
“Pete. “Bobby mimicked, “Is baby jealous…?”
“I think I prefer ‘Bro’ to ‘Baby’…enjoy yourself.” Joe checked his watch, “…you’d better move, traffic will be a bitch…”
“Yeah, I guess.” Bobby said, getting up, “Give Judy and Jacob a hug from me.”
“Will do.” Joe said, adding, “…don’t forget to mention Jesters over your beers.”
After Jesters went under, Brewsters, The Gag Shack, Pranks Incorporated and dozens more followed, but Marshalls carried on and, at the following year’s dinner, their table was a little closer to the podium. At home afterwards, Judith mentioned that most of the greetings from Marshalls staff were directed to Bobby, which Joe acknowledged with no bitterness. But that was later, after the limo ride back home. In the limo it had been David Hudson they’d talked about; his passing six months ago honoured in Lionel Leonard’s traditional speech.
“Can you believe it?” Judith asked in the back of the limo, “That poor man and his husband.”
Joe looked at Bobby, “Did you know about it?”
Bobby knocked back his drink, “Yeah, Pete told me when it happened. Heart attack they think, when he and his husband were driving up to his retreat. Both of them dead—his husband was pretty much Jayne Mansfielded. I thought I’d mentioned it to you?”
“Jayne Mansfielded?” Ellie asked.
“The actress. They said she was decapitated in a car crash…she wasn’t. It’s an urban legend.” Joe said quietly, and then turned to Bobby, “No. You didn’t. I’d have remembered that.”
Ellie sighed sadly, “It’s a tragedy…” She took a sip of champagne, “…I wonder what happened to the house.”
As the other three gasped she blushed hard, covering her mouth.
Judith snickered first. Joe tried to cover his own laugh with a bad fake cough. Bobby just stared at his wife before he too succumbed.
The next day, nursing hangovers, they put it down to shock, but wouldn’t look each other in the eye for fear of a relapse.
It was March 28th the following year that everything changed.
Marshalls were sponsoring part of the annual Mermaid Parade that June at Coney Island and Bobby and Pete had been meeting frequently to discuss plans. That was the official line, anyway. Bobby always turned up late and bleary eyed the mornings after. Joe hadn’t commented—he’d been taking personal time at home, fussing over Judith and helping out with Jacob until she would chase him out the house, insisting she was seven months pregnant not an invalid. But Joe remembered the last time she’d been seven months pregnant all too well.
The night of the 28th he’d been in the office, searching through his Mac for some design files when he remembered emailing them through to Bobby earlier that week. He pushed his chair over to Bobby’s PC and logged on with his brother’s username and password. No secrets between brothers.
He had really believed that until he started searching Bobby’s inbox.
There were a lot of emails from Peter Leonard: That didn’t surprise him. What did surprise him was how many were prefaced with Premises.
Premises: possible spots
Premises: real estate stuff
Premises: permits and other
He thought about opening one, his finger twitching on the mouse. Bobby would never know…but he would. It was just then he realised he could have searched his sent folder for the files. Too tired, clearly. He logged off both machines, and headed home.
The next day a dishevelled looking Bobby arrived, sunglasses on despite the clouds outside. He collapsed into his chair.
“Late night?” Joe asked.
Bobby threw two Advil into his mouth, swallowing dry.
“You look as if you need some hair of the dog.” Joe said, pulling on his jacket, “Let’s take an early lunch.”
Bobby followed miserably.
“So. Premises?” Joe asked, and Bobby choked on his Bloody Mary.
“Premises?” Bobby asked back, unconvincingly.
“I saw the emails,” Joe said, sipping his lime and soda, “I didn’t read any. I’d prefer you tell me.”
“Shit.” Bobby said.
“Shit indeed.” Joe agreed.
“I wanted to have the full details before…”
“And now you can’t. So spill.” Joe said.
And over two more Bloody Marys Bobby outlined the ‘premises’ thing.
The bottom line he said, was that Marshalls wanted to extend and wanted them involved. ‘Really Involved”, Bobby winked. Marshalls were happy with their work but concerned they were limited by premises and hardware. Joe pointed out the Lexmark had cost them $15,000 they were still paying it off. Bobby nodded: that was his point and reminded Joe about Thanksgiving and having to farm work out to ‘real’ printers. Marshalls wanted to help them. They didn’t want them to join the company. Pete said they needed more machinery and space. Pete said they needed new premises.
“We’re supposed to be in this equally, Bobby.” Joe said, “A joint venture. A partnership.” Joe said, “This. This doesn’t sound careful. Not careful at all.”
Bobby’s face dropped, looking like he was a ten-year-old boy once more being told ‘he couldn’t’.
“It’s just so Bobby.” Judith said, “So very Bobby.”
Joe didn’t have to ask her what she meant: Bobby: Confident, convinced and self-assured. Or, over-confident, swaggering and cocksure. Take your pick
“If you say no?” Judith asked, “Do you lose the contract?”
Joe shrugged, “Bobby says ‘maybe’, he doesn’t know…”
Judith snorted, “Finally, something Bobby doesn’t know.”
“I’m going to speak to Peter Leonard myself.” Joe said, “I’ll have Bobby come too, but I need to hear this with my own ears.” He looked at her, “You should be there too.”
Judith shook her head, “No. I don’t want to be the little wife.”
“I didn’t mean it like that…”
“And I didn’t take it like that. But it’s your business. Yours and your shit-head of a brother—sorry; that’s just for tonight, you know I love him. It would look amateurish if you brought the whole family…”
“There’s an idea,” Joe smiled, “Maybe Jacob could throw up on him.”
She kissed him on the cheek, “Listen and decide. If you think ‘no’, then we’re out. If you think ‘yes’ then…we can talk about it.”
“You sure?” Joe asked.
She nodded, patting her stomach, “But do it soon, honey.”
They met at Per Se at Peter Leonard’s invite. He was not alone; sitting with his father at the bar. After pleasantries, the old man suggested they move to their table, “I took the liberty of ordering the Salon tasting menu,” he said, “At my age I’m afraid the Chef’s tasting menu is too much.”
Joe had no idea what this meant, so simply nodded his agreement.
The meal was exquisite; but as the talk went on—all business this time, Joe found himself overwhelmed by everything—the food, the wines, the promises, and a subtle undercurrent of something not being said.
As the remenants of dessert were removed, Lionel Leonard dropped his napkin onto his plate. “You’ve heard everything we have to say Mr. Wray. May we know your thoughts?”
Joe thought a moment, “I know my brother. I know when he’s excited and when he believes in something. I know he’s ambitious—certainly more than me, and he’s probably smarter….”
Bobby smiled self depreciatingly, “’That’s my bro.”
Joe looked at him, unsmiling, “He knows me too; how I hate him calling me ‘bro’ for example.” Bobby’s smile dropped. “But I know him better. I have to. Because I’m the careful one. In everything.”
“You’ve been thinking a lot during this meal.” Leonard Sr. said, “And I think you’re…smarter than you say.”
Joe nodded, accepting the compliment.
“Do you have a question about our proposal?” the old man asked.
Joe nodded. “I do. My very simple question to you gentlemen is, what do you want us to do for you?”
Bobby laughed, too loud, “Joe, they’ve spent the last two hours telling us…”
Leonard Sr. barely lifted his finger and Bobby silenced instantly. Leonard turned to his son, “It’s time for this old man’s bed. Have the car come around. You may wish to take these gentlemen somewhere more… private… to talk further.” He stood from his chair and nodded to Bobby, “Good to see you again.” He turned to Joe, “And nice to meet you for the first time. Not the last, I hope.”
“Gentlemen,” Peter Leonard said “Perhaps we could retire to my office. I have a particularly good single malt and some decent cigars.”
“Do you know how much profit Marshalls made last year?” Peter Leonard asked them when they’d sat.
“The annual report said in the amount of $8 million.” Joe said.
Leonard nodded, and worked at lighting his cigar, “It was indeed. A good amount, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
The Wray brothers acknowledged it was.
“It’s enough to look healthy. But we would struggle to pay for the life we have become accustomed to with just that, to do…” he shrugged, “…all the other things we do… or want to do.”
Joe nodded, “And for that you need… Alternative sources of revenue?”
“Quite so.” Leonard said.
Bobby sat as silent as he had been since they’d left the restaurant.
Joe considered, “And you need us, or someone like us, to help you with this alternative source.”
Leonard gestured for him to carry on.
“Something you need high quality printers for, and a safe place to work. You need a secluded…”
Peter Leonard interrupted, “To be clear. We wouldn’t set up such an operation. We wouldn’t lend money to set up such an operation. That would be…” he looked for the word, “…noticeable. And we…”
“Don’t want to be noticed.” Joe finished. “Better it be an unrelated company. Someone with little or no ties to your, dare I say it, ‘frivolous’ company in more ‘serious’ eyes?”
A clock ticked somewhere in the background.
Peter Leonard blew out chocolate smelling smoke, “My father was right. You are smart.”
Joe did not acknowledge the compliment this time. “I’m guessing money? Is that it? ‘Funny money’? Is that the biggest joke Marshalls produces?”
Bobby coughed and gave a tiny shake of his head.
Joe glanced at him, “Bobby, we’re a little too far into this conversation to start playing coy.” He turned back to Leonard, “Is that what we’re talking about?”
Peter Leonard gave a small laugh, “Funny money. I like that. But no—it’s not money, but it’s something close enough as damn it.”
Joe Wray realised that his next words would probably put them across some invisible line, but in his heart knowing his suspicions, if not any action, had already crossed it, and some time ago. He nodded, “Good. Money is a bastard.”
Bobby’s jaw dropped as he stared at his older brother, but Leonard nodded, “It is indeed,” he said, “The Treasury estimates $70 million counterfeit bills in circulation: that’s one naughty in every 10,000 real. It’s too easy to get caught, too easy to trace back to the source, and is a pain in the ass to make. It’s also very…domestic. We’re talking about something easier, less risky and more international.” He cupped his mouth, “And it’s a lot more profitable.”
Joe smiled thinly. “I assume you have lawyers who will make that kind of business invisible?”
“One lawyer,” Leonard said, “He’s new, after David’s untimely passing, but he’s thorough.”
“If I may, two more questions?” Joe asked
“Of course,” Leonard said, adding, “Depending on the questions, of course.”
“How many people in the company are aware of this?”
“It’s certainly not discussed at department meetings.” Leonard said smiling thinly, “In this country, seven people, all in the family. Overseas? There are more involved, but none who know who they’re dealing with. It all gets very complicated to be honest. It’s enough to say this isn’t new.”
“I’m sure.” Joe said. “So…why us?”
Peter Leonard steepled his fingers. “My father intends to step down next year. Before he does, he wants a domestic presence. Maybe it’s late onset patriotism. Without wanting to spook you, we’ve been watching you for some time.” Joe thought back to the first party invite—Judy and Ellie’s names…
“If there were an offer. Which of course, there isn’t,” Leonard said, “You would be the first producers it was ever extended to.” He stubbed out the cigar, “which there isn’t.”
Cigar extinguished, Leonard drained his drink, “And now gentlemen, the hour groweth late. A driver is outside. Discuss between yourselves; sleep on it. We need a decision sooner rather than later, and, at the risk of sounding redundant, everything said here must remain here. Regrettably that includes your better halves.”
Inside the car Bobby opened the liquor compartment, “I’m assuming you don’t…” he started, before Joe reached past, poured a whisky and sat back.
Bobby held his glass up in a toast, “You surprised me tonight, bro. I thought you’d walk when you realised…” he stopped, “when did you realise?”
Joe looked at him coldly, “The basics when I saw the emails… the detail around the fourth course. When exactly did you realise?”
“Pete’s been hinting a month or two,” Bobby said, “but he’s a cagey sonofabitch, even for a friend. I swear I didn’t know the full detail until tonight.” He laughed softly, “and I called you careful. You were like Don Corleone back there…”
Joe stared at him, “You don’t get it, do you Bobby?”
“I was being careful in there. I doubt we’d be sitting here if I wasn’t. He’s not your friend, and we’re not partners with them. There’s no decision to be made. Don’t you get that?” He rubbed his eyes. “What the fuck have you done, Bobby?”
The house was quiet, Judith asleep and Jacob’s gentle snuffling emanating from the monitor left on in the dining room. Joe reached into the kitchen cupboard for a tumbler for a drink he didn’t want but hoped would make him sleep. Looking inside he saw the candles, still only the one he’d burned on Jacob’s birthday missing. He took a candle, and the matches next to them, and forgot about the tumbler.
An hour later, as the flame burned out and died, Joe told himself he’d made the right decision in impossible circumstances to protect his family.
Thomas Wray was born 8 lbs 7 oz., one day overdue in New Jersey Medical Center on May 2nd. Joe was there for the birth as Bobby and Ellie waited outside with Jacob, as happy to snuggle into his Auntie as he’d always been. The photograph of them all huddled around Judith’s bed was, Joe thought, the last happy time they’d shared.
The brothers didn’t ask who’d done the scouting and sourcing of the building they visited; merely signed the papers placed in front of them. The required monies came and went from their business account off the back of selling their existing premises to an unknown buyer. In less than two months the business was fully functional: everything arranged through an independent ‘business consultant’. Joe gave up asking for invoices: it was against his careful nature, but he felt like Canute and eventually gave in, waiting to see if they would sink or swim.
In late August that year, Joe and Bobby spent three weeks in Peru to walk the Inca Trail, a childhood dream hitherto unknown to an unimpressed Judith. Ellie had said she’d stay with Judith and the boys, and they’d be fine together. Her eagerness for them to go made Joe wonder aloud to Bobby if he had talked to her about their business as they flew in Business Class.
“I love her so much.” Bobby said, “She’s smart. Guys see her: and they think just because she’s beautiful she must be a bimbo…”
“Ellie? A bimbo…?” Joe asked, amused at the thought.
“Yeah dumb shits, right? But because she is so smart…sometimes I think she’s going to see through me. All my bullshit and she’ll be gone…”
“That’s bullshit”, Joe sighed. “She loves you so much.”
Bobby pointed at his heart, “Here, I know, but here?” He pointed to his head, “Crazy shit in here, bro. I think too much. That she’s too good for me.”
“Well, that’s true.” Joe smiled, and Bobby smiled back sadly.
“I want to keep her happy. To give her the best I can to…”
“It’s not money that’ll keep her, Bobby. And she’s not going anywhere. For some crazy, unknown reason she loves you. Even though I agree, she is too smart.”
Bobby smiled sadly, “I think she knew something was up before I did…with Marshalls, I mean.” He considered a moment, “You need to talk to Judith about it too.”
“Judith doesn’t need to know.” Joe said, his smile disappearing instantly.
“You don’t trust her?” Bobby asked.
Joe looked at him hard, “I haven’t hit you since I was fourteen, Bobby, but say that shit again and…”
Bobby held his hands up, “I’m sorry, man.”
“It’s not about trust.” Joe said, “It’s about protecting her. Them.” He flicked open his newspaper, knowing as he did that he’d tell Judith everything.
Later, as he was nodding off, Bobby spoke, “It was when I tried to jump the bridge on that bet from the Nixon brothers wasn’t it?”
“You’d have killed yourself if I hadn’t stopped you. Idiot.” Joe mumbled.
“Always there for me.” Bobby said, no sarcasm in his voice.
But Joe was asleep.
They spent two days on the trail—enough to snap some photographs. The rest of the time they spent at an installation in no way connected to Marshalls studying techniques the small group of local workers showed them during the long days. At night they talked—Joe’s remaining frostiness toward Bobby had thawed by the second day. They talked childhood, family, the future, and without ever saying it they talked around what it meant not just to be brothers, but best friends.
By the time they left they could repeat the processes flawlessly.
As he opened the front door, Judith threw her arms around his neck and they kissed long and hard. Dropping his bags to the floor, Joe took her in his arms and said gently, “Honey, we need to talk…”
She’d been shocked, and she asked a lot of questions; pressing him on a number of things he told her—some areas he was still not sure of himself, and then she sat in silence for a long time.
“You did all this without telling me.” She said, finally.
“Not even the slightest hint.”
“I trust you more than anything in this world.” He said.
She nodded as though this was a given. “Do we need the money that badly to be doing something illegal? And it is illegal isn’t it?”
“Yes”, he said, “The ‘no-body gets hurt because of it’ kind of illegal, I think. The ‘screw the government’ sort. But it’s not for some noble cause, but it is out of…desperation.”
“’What desperation, Joe?” She asked.
He sighed, “Bobby. By the time I found out about this he’d….” he drifted into silence.
“Of course it was Bobby.” She sighed. “It’s always Bobby.”
“I didn’t have a choice. I had to…”
“Protect him?” she interrupted, “You can’t always protect someone like Bobby.”
“It’s not someone like Bobby,” Joe said. “It is Bobby.”
She wiped her wet eyes. “You promised you’d protect me. Us. If…if I go along with this, and if things look dangerous, promise me you’ll never forget that.”
He swallowed. “I promise you on my life.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “Let’s go to bed.”
They produced the first finished set two weeks later. Joe rejected the first three batches because of imperfections Bobby could not see with his naked eye or a magnifying glass. He started to say so, stopping when he saw the look on Joe’s face.
The following year they weren’t invited to the Gala Dinner.
They were sitting at Joe and Judith’s dining room table flicking through holiday brochures, Thomas asleep, Jacob starting to flake in front of cartoons on TV, when the doorbell rang.
The man wearing a chauffer’s uniform handed over the large box saying only “Sir. For you.” When they opened the box, they found a hamper marked Fortnum & Mason. The label read, ‘Sorry you couldn’t be with us tonight.”
“Does it say who it’s from?” Ellie asked, and as they stared at her, burst out laughing, “Jesus! Does no one have a sense of humour around here?”
They spent twenty minutes unpacking the hamper; Oscietra Caviar, Hams, Foie Gras, Smoked Salmon, Terrines, Cheeses, Olives and Truffles: all before they reached the wines and spirits.
“I suppose,” Judith said wistfully, “this means the pasta I spent a whole half an hour preparing is going to go uneaten…”
Their laughter stirred Jacob from his cartoons enough to investigate.
In a ‘50s movie, calendar pages would drop from the wall, the adjacent scenery outside montaging through seasons, repeated again and again. And for Joe that was how the next four years felt. He worked on creative marketing projects for various small companies received via unknown references. But mostly he refined and produced ‘the product’.
Bobby’s time in New York decreased, but his time on video conferencing and later overseas travel grew exponentially. None of it could be connected to Marshalls. Between travel trips, he and Ellie bought a place; a downtown penthouse condo with a private veranda which Judith spent most of their first visit herding Jacob back from all the while saying how beautiful it was. Ellie whispered to her they may only be there a while… until they needed something more ‘family suitable’.
It had been December 28th when the phone call came: three days after they’d Christmas lunched in Bobby and Ellie’s condo, and one day after Joe had dropped them at Newark as they embarked on Ellie’s dream tour of Europe. Judith was bathing Jacob and Thomas upstairs, the boys engaged in a splashing fight that brought back childhood memories for Joe as he picked up.
“Mr. Wray.” The voice said, “You need to be in Poughkeepsie tomorrow afternoon. Three o’clock. Use the following Sat-Nav details. Do you have a pen?”
Joe didn’t play dumb. There was no point. He used one of Jacob’s crayons to write the co-ordinates the man on the phone gave him and, as the phone clicked, he swallowed hard, thinking up his excuses for the following day.
The drive took an hour and a half. The bar’s name was lit on a shamrock hanging outside. Joe took a small Guinness and walked through to the back. He sat down silently, placing the glass in front of him.
“Joe,” Peter Leonard said, drinking a whisky much cheaper than the one in his office so long ago.
“Mr. Leonard,” Joe said. “Peter.”
Peter Leonard expelled air. “I’ve had to leave my family for this. As I’m sure you have. I want to get back to them as soon as I can.”
Joe nodded, “Is there a problem with the…publicity?”
Leonard smiled humourlessly, “Nice. No. The publicity is exemplary.”
“That’s good.” Joe said.
“The problem,” Leonard said, “is more of a ‘Personnel’ issue.”
“Personnel…?” Joe asked.
“Your brother” Leonard said, “has been helping himself to the…publicity, setting up his own ‘window displays’.” He paused and took a drink, “Part of the reason we’re meeting is to see how much you knew of this.”
Joe shook his head firmly, “I swear to you, I have absolutely no idea…”
Leonard nodded, “I can see that by your face. I didn’t think you did. You’re different to your brother. You’re a family man… a man of honour, I think?”
“I’d like to think so, yes.” Joe said.
“I think so too. Your brother? Not so much. No, don’t bother to defend him. It would be insulting to both of us. I’ll make this simple Mr. Wray. A question and two observations.”
“The question. ‘Will your brother listen to you?’”
Joe didn’t ask about what. “I think so, yes.”
“Don’t think,” Peter Leonard said, draining his whisky, “My observation: Bobbys in this world are a dime a dozen. In a family situation like this, we expect you to fix this.”
Leonard stood and pulled his coat on. A large man emerged from the shadows behind them and walked ahead, probably to start a car, Joe thought.
“Mr. Leonard?” Joe said.
Leonard looked down at him, “Hmm?”
“You said two observations.”
Leonard nodded, “I already made the other one. You’re a family man. Speak to your brother as soon as he returns from Europe, Mr. Wray.”
The entire meeting had lasted less than five minutes.
Driving home, Joe stopped three times to be sick. He told Judith he’d had bad shrimp at lunch with the Connelly’s discussing their New Year display.
Bobby and Ellie arrived back late on the second Sunday in January. Their flight was on time and Ellie shrieked with joy when she saw the ‘Auntie Ellie’ sign Jacob was begrudgingly holding. Thomas had one tied around his neck reading ‘Uncle Boddy’. Judith had scrawled the middle letters backwards, promising Joe it would be funny, and he had tried to smile. Bobby, Ellie and Judith talked non-stop in the car all the way back, Jacob chuntered along with them. Joe drove silently.
Unpacking the luggage while Ellie and Judith took the boys upstairs Joe said, “We need to talk, Bobby. Tonight.”
Bobby looked at him, “You got the January blues? You seem kind of pissed.”
“Tonight,” Joe repeated. “Make an excuse why we need to go out for an hour.”
“Uh, sure. I’ll say…um…”
“Come on Bobby,” Joe hissed. “– do you need me to write you a script?”
“Fine.” Bobby said, “I got a message from Campbells while we were away, and we need to go through it before tomorrow. Happy?”
“I’m very far from ‘happy’,” Joe said, lifting two of the larger cases towards the door.
“Oh Jesus,” Bobby said, his face suddenly ghost-white.
“Jesus indeed,” Joe said.
“How did they find out? I was careful. I swear.”
Joe had said nothing until they’d sat down. He had laid out the bare details of the meeting.
“Careful enough not to tell me what you were doing,” Joe agreed. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
“I…” Bobby shrugged and rubbed his face, “It started as a mistake—I miscounted on a delivery. Emiliano called me—I think he thought it was a test of some sort. When he found it wasn’t he…well, he suggested, we could do some off-the-book business. Nothing much, I swear…but, you know…”
“No.” Joe interrupted, “I don’t know. I don’t know Emiliano,” he held up a halting hand, “I don’t want to know Emiliano, or how many Emilianos there have been before or since. But it stops now, Understand?”
Bobby nodded. “It’s over. No more…” He paused, “Should I apologise to Pete? Ring him tomorrow?”
“You shouldn’t do anything except what you’re supposed to do.” Joe said, “Don’t ring. Don’t message. Him or anyone else. You act like it never happened, and we never talk about this again. Right?”
“I’ve got it. Clean from here on out. I swear.” Bobby’s nod turned to a sad shake, “How the fuck did they find out…”
Joe clasped Bobby’s hand, spilling beer from his mug, “They found out. And they’ll find out again. So don’t.” He looked at his watch, “Come on. Let’s get back. Go clean yourself up first.”
Bobby said nothing, just stood and walked to the restroom. When he came back he’d washed his face and the shaking was less noticeable.
They started to walk back, Joe stopping Bobby walking out into the street as a black Sedan sped past.
“You with me, Bobby?” he asked.
Bobby stared back at him, his eyes slightly glassy, “I’m fine man. I’ve got you looking out for me like always…”
“What have you taken, Bobby?” Joe asked.
Bobby gave a jittery laugh, “Just a Xanax…”
“Jesus,” sighed Joe, “When I think it can’t get worse.” He steered Bobby across the road, “We get back, you say you’re jet lagged, and you go to bed. I’ll see you at the shop tomorrow… Lay off the pills Bobby.”
“I will, bro,” Bobby said, but he was already talking to Joe’s back.
Three weeks later, after his first trip into the City since his holiday, Bobby dropped his briefcase on the empty chair opposite Joe’s desk.
“How did it go?” Joe asked.
Bobby shrugged, “All good. How’s your day gone?”
“It’s gone,” Joe conceded, “Whisky’s over there.” He gestured with his pen behind Bobby, “Pour me one as well.”
“Wow, big brother drinking on a school night. Wild times in Jersey.” Bobby smiled, “Are we celebrating?”
Joe said nothing, taking the glass Bobby passed him.
“I met with Pete lunchtime.”
“I know. That’s why you were going in there.” Joe said
“Yeah. He seemed okay, you know?”
“Yeah. He seemed okay. With me I mean.” Bobby said, “Same old Pete.”
“That’s good.” Joe said.
“The thing is. Well, he didn’t seem pissed off about the whole…you know, misunderstanding.”
“Good.” Joe said again.
“Do you think maybe you…” Bobby made a see-sawing motion with his head, “…over-reacted in what you thought?”
“No.” Joe said. “I don’t. I didn’t.”
“Sure, sure.” Bobby said, “I was just wondering. But hey, good news, huh? Things back to normal.”
“Things back to normal.” Joe agreed, finishing his drink, “Let’s go. Judith’s got dinner on, Ellie’s been helping her with the kitchen decoration today. Make sure you say it looks good.”
Joe and Judith took a couple’s vacation that May. They drove up to Maine for a week. Bobby and Ellie stayed while they were away, looking after the boys. Ellie laid out an itinerary for the boys as detailed as the one she’d made for Europe. Even Bobby seemed excited.
Joe and Judith returned to homemade banners welcoming them home, and only two plasters on Jacob’s knees. They let Ellie put the boys to bed. “One last time,” she said a little sadly when she returned downstairs.
They left in Bobby’s new Porsche.
Joe and Bobby spent two nights in the City late July attending a trade fair, attending with minimal stand space, and manning it for the shortest time they could: a small company fighting for business in trying times.
They stayed at the Marlton Hotel, and on the first evening, searched for somewhere to eat.
“Jesus, will you look at that?” Bobby said.
“Want to see if we can get a table?” Joe asked.
Bobby shrugged. “Why not?”
The restaurant squeezed them in, but without the special treatment they’d had eight years ago.
“Guess we’re ordering off the menu this time, huh?” Bobby said, holding his glass in a toast. “Here’s to eight years of them. And a lifetime of us.”
The food was not as good as those years ago, but the meal was better. They talked about childhood back in Vermont, before university, before work, before much of anything. It was a nice evening.
Bobby insisted on paying, and Joe pretended he didn’t see the gold AmEx Black card in the back of his wallet.
It was a month to the day, he got the call about Bobby and Ellie’s murder.
Joe Wray sighed as the candles fizzled out, less than a minute apart.
He left the vestibule and walked up the aisle.
He stopped at a table at the rear where flyers lay, each headed “PLEASE PRAY FOR” with six lines beneath.
Much too late for that, he thought.
Walking out to the reception the old woman glanced up.
“Is the chapel open?” he asked, and she pointed left.
Inside, Joe stood before the small font at the front for a moment before walking back, counting the rows. When he reached the twelfth, he sat down.
Somewhere outside a bell rang.
He remembered Judith’s words that Christmas night so long ago—it was still silent here, but he felt no peace.
He leaned forward, his arms almost touching the cushion lying on the floor. Moving it aside he rummaged until he touched the package. He pulled at it: once, twice, and then a third time as it ripped away from the tape holding it. He slid the package into his jacket pocket.
Leaving the old church, the heat hitting him like a furnace, Joe switched his phone back on.
There was one message. From Judith. She and the boys had arrived at her mother’s. The three-hour drive had been okay, the pre-Labor weekend traffic not too bad. She finished the message telling him she was sorry she couldn’t be there with him and for him to get up there as soon as he could. There were blurting noises as the boys tried to blow kisses, and then the message clicked off.
Joe had barely clicked off the message when his phone started ringing. The Ramones—”Blitzkrieg Bop”. It was one of only three individual ring tones on his cell: ‘It Had to Be You’ for calls from Judith, ‘Tom Waits growling out ‘Heigh Ho!’ for Ellie, who had thought it hilarious to download when they’d been out drinking one night, and…The Ramones.
Always his and Bobby’s favourite band.
When, after a moment, he answered, the voice on the other end was loud enough for him to move the phone an inch from his ear.
“Yo. Where you at ‘bro?”
Joe swallowed hard. “I’m just walking into Central Central.”
“What you still doing in the city, man?” Bobby asked, and Joe could hear him shouting to someone in the background, Ellie he presumed, “He’s still in the City…”
“I had to pick something up.” Joe said, his voice a monotone and his hand feeling the package in his pocket. “I’ll make the 14:45 train; don’t worry.”
“You been picking me up a birthday present?” Bobby hooted, “We said you didn’t need to.”
“No,” Joe said, wondering how long the package had sat in the church. He guessed not long after the order last week. Sitting there since: fully functioning and clean– but not so clean there would be any smell of oil on it. He sighed and spoke into the phone, “I know…but…I had to get this. No choice.”
“Sounds intriguing, bro.” Bobby laughed, and there was a muffled voice somewhere near him. “Oh yeah, that’s true…Ellie says I can’t call you ‘bro’ anymore. She’s got an idea for a new name…” And then there was more laughter down the line.
“I’ll let it go.” Joe said, trying to stop his voice hitching, “Just this last time.”
“Hey, got to get this BBQ sorted.” Bobby said, “Sorry Judy can’t make it… She got to her Mom’s place safe?”
“She did.” Joe said, thinking of David Hudson and his husband, and how treacherous he’d discovered driving could be, “They’re safe. They’re all safe.”
“Well,” Bobby laughed, “– you’ll have to give her the news yourself, but if there’s a liquor store open there you might want to pick up a bottle of something bubbly….” A pause, and then muffled, his hand over the phone: “I didn’t say anything!”
Joe closed his eyes and lowered his hand again to the packet that fitted it so terribly, horribly neatly. “I’ll be there soon, Bobby.”
He headed for the station, crossing the road carefully.
He was careful by nature.
Careful. Protective. And a man who kept his promises.
For Jacob. For Thomas. And more than anyone, for Judith.
He had promised he would do anything to protect them. And although only on the rarest of occasions a religious man, as he boarded the train Joe Wray thought in doing so he was going to burn as surely as his five candles.