He held the mud-covered kitten to his chest and paced the water's edge, trying not to cry.
"Get 'em, Ian!"
"No. You get them." Ian stood on the grassy hillside several feet up from the pond. "It's your fault they're in there. I wouldn't have tripped if you hadn't been chasing me." He shrugged his gangly shoulders and held up the empty shoebox.
"I can't swim. Get 'em, Ian, please!"
Two tiny kittens struggled to stay afloat in the center of the fishpond. They clawed at the floating washcloth James had put in the box, their high-pitched squeals like children screaming in the distance.
"I'm not drowning in that scummy water over some feral cats." Ian just stood there, watching. "Get them if you want to, but I'm not. They're probably rabid." He held the shoebox away from him like it was diseased then flung it into the pond.
James paced. He'd been so excited to see his wild, teenage half-brother, but he hated Ian right then. He never should have shown off the lynx kittens he'd found in the marsh behind Miller's farm. He looked back up at the barn. Mr. Miller was away at work all day. It would take too long to go back to his house for help.
He clutched the kitten he'd plucked from the slimy bank and held it against his mounting terror as he stepped into the murky water. His feet sank into the soft, muddy bottom. Cold water rushed through his socks and around his ankles then seeped into his sneakers and weighted him.
"You'd better learn to swim fast because you'll never reach them from there." Ian's rosy, full face was suddenly angular and hard with shadows as clouds hid the morning sun.
James shivered and waded deeper, the water to his knees, then his waist; but he still couldn't reach them. One of the kittens disappeared below the surface, and he lunged for it--and was suddenly kicking water searching for ground. Sharp pain pierced his shoulder from the kitten's needle claws as it scrambled onto his shoulder. He screamed, but it was garbled by mouthfuls of thick, grimy water.
He couldn't get air, and his lungs felt as if they were bursting. He kicked and grabbed at the surface above him. He saw Ian standing at the edge of the pond, watching him with the exact same blank expression he'd worn watching the kittens drown.
Ian blurred and faded as James sank. Excruciating pain burned in his chest and his vision tunneled, then something burst behind his eyes and everything went white. Then his view was from above his body, maybe six feet up, and James looked down on himself sinking in the pond, watched Ian come in after him. He watched, but didn't feel, his limp body being dragged to the shore. And although he saw Ian kneel beside him, he did not feel his half-brother pounding on his chest.
"Come on, you little shit." Ian yelled as he practically pounced on James. "You die on me, and I'm screwed. Come on! Get up!" He put both his palms on James's ribcage and pounced again.
Blinding pain shot through James's chest and up his throat as the water was forced from his lungs. He was back in his body on the ground, gritty water burning his throat and nostrils as it poured from his nose and mouth.
When he finally stopped choking and sat up, everything was quiet. The kittens were gone. The pond was still.
"You tell, and you'll regret it." Ian stared down at him with a sinister grin plastered on his face. "I'll make it all your fault. It'll be easy. I'll almost tell the truth, and Father will believe me, since I'm his only real son."
Damn you, Ian.
Fast forward twenty years, and now James was the only one left. He stared at the pine casket perched at the edge of the hole in the ground and pictured Ian lying in there with that smirk fixed on his face. The priest was saying something, but he didn't hear and didn't care. He wanted to be someplace else, anyplace else.
Damp, dead air. Then a hint of an icy breeze stung his cheeks. Brown leaves danced across the clipped lawns of the High Halden Church graveyard as he watched them lower Ian into the ground. Mama Cass droning out the classic lyrics to '"California Dreamin,'" with its ubiquitous 6-5-6 progression was in his head, and mirrored the scene before him. James would be safe and warm if he was in L.A., producing for The Zone, finishing the remix for Caravan, surfing, arguing with Julia instead of freezing in this graveyard trying to figure out why he'd come at all.
The casket settled in the hole, and he wanted to feel something, but didn't. Memories of his half-brother were mostly of Ian taunting him--stupid shit, like putting razor cuts in his guitar strings so they snapped when he played or threatening to slam the piano cover closed while he was practicing. The first day James came to Castlewood, eight years after the kitten incident back in the States, Ian walked into the music room blasted on something, came within inches and whispered, "Do you ever dream about dead cats?"
James had tried to avoid him, but Ian sought him out at first. After a while, he'd stopped reacting, and a while after that Ian stopped pulling shit.
The priest handed him a shovel filled with dirt. He poured it onto the casket. The noise was surprisingly loud, and hollow. James wondered if Ian was really in there. Perhaps his brother had stolen away, faked his death to escape his ill-fated legacy, given up all those millions for his freedom. And now a young Paul McCartney was in his head singing "Eleanor Rigby." Ian was one of the lonely people, spent his life searching for where he belonged.
James handed the shovel back to the priest and stepped back, kept his eyes downcast, deliberately avoiding his father. Again the question of why he'd come struck him, but he didn't hear an answer.
The priest crossed himself and wiped his hands as he walked from the grave. James listened to McCartney's melodic voice unveil the story of the lost. That was Ian. The man had no center. Maybe he'd felt that and couldn't live with it.
James stood with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, held it closed against a gust of biting wind, feeling the music resonate in his body and shroud him against the cold.
Everyone started milling about, coming up to him and shaking his hand with the canonical sympathies. What was he supposed to say to these people? Was he sorry Ian was dead? Wouldn't affect much either way, really. It wasn't unexpected. There wasn't a person here who could deny his half-brother was on self-destruct, except maybe his father, who'd spent a lifetime denying it. Or just couldn't be bothered. Ian was screwed from the start.
Gray domed the sky and felt suffocating. James wanted out of there. But how? He felt everyone watching, checking him out.
He hated that.
The limo that had brought him was just across the lawn, not fifty yards away. The driver who'd picked him up at Heathrow stood next to it, smoking a cigarette. He could walk over there, get in and go.
He didn't. Instead, he pulled up an intro he'd been working on for the Zone's lead track and composed it in his head while he shook hands and nodded. Open with all power chords, hard and fast, like a freight train coming: G5, C5, F5, A5. Then back off, G5 sustain, 1-2-3-4, and pick it up, and faster, and faster, and hold the rhythm with the change to Em at the seventeenth measure...
"James Michael Whren." The priest extended his hand. Tall, thin, gray hair, trim beard, simple black suit with a thin white collar. His smile was warm but affected. "How many years has it been? My word, look at you." He clasped James's hand in both of his and shook firmly. "Welcome home, son."
This is not my home, and I am not your son.
"Hello, Father." James reclaimed his hand and hid it in the pocket of his overcoat. He couldn't remember the priest's name to save his life.
"James, you may remember Father Tenant?" Edward Charles Whren XVII came up behind his son, and it chilled James straight through. "It has been quite some time, Albert."
"Of course, Edward." Then the priest turned back to James. "Father Albert Tenant. It has been a long time, hasn't it?" He stuck his hand out again, and James shook it again. "I know your father is glad you found your path here today. I'm sure Ian would have felt the same."
I'm not here for my father, and Ian wouldn't have cared less.
Again he wondered why he was there.
The priest and his father exchanged glances. Then the priest looked at James.
"How long will you be staying, son?"
"I'm leaving in the morning."
Again the priest looked at his father.
"So, you'll be staying at Castlewood this evening, then?"
James caught his breath and held it a moment.
"Actually, I was going to see some people in London before I go back. My flight's very early, and, well "
"I'd like you to come to Castlewood this evening, James." Edward's tone masked the command as a request.
"Well, my flight's at, like, five-forty-five in the morning and "
"Stefan will get you to the airport in ample time for your flight." Edward kept his eyes fixed on his son.
"Yeah. Okay, I guess." What else could he say? His father had just buried his only other child.
The priest nodded approvingly. James felt like flipping him off but managed to refrain.
"Good." Edward gave a quick smile. "I'll see you back at the house, then." His stoic mask was back in place as he turned to Father Tenant. "Albert. Join me."
"It was a pleasure to see you again, James. I'm sorry for the circumstances, and your loss."
The priest stuck his hand out a third time, and James shook it, a third time. Then Father Tenant and Edward crossed the misted lawn to the cobbled road and the waiting limousines.
"Master James," Curtis Weston, one of his brother's strung-out cronies mocked. "It's been a while, man. Too bad about Ian, huh. How you doing?"
"Okay, Curtis. How you doing, man?"
Curtis looked like crap--emaciated, with vacant eyes peering through long greasy hair.
"I'm getting by. You still in L.A. doing the music scene?"
"Yeah. What about you? You still with The Ravens?"
"Na. I don't play much anymore. Hang out mostly. You know..."
No, he didn't. And he didn't ever want to know a life without music. Take away music, and he'd have no life at all. Probably end up like Curtis. What a waste. Curtis used to be a damn good guitarist.
"I've got to go, man. Take care." James turned away, walked slowly towards the limos, watching his father talk to the priest. Edward glanced at him across the lawn then turned away with a sweep of his cloak and got into the first vehicle lining the old road. James watched it drive away, pulled his coat tighter around him and followed his father's path.
Agreeing to go out to Castlewood was a bad idea. Stupid. He didn't have a clue what to say to his father after so much time. They'd never got on. Edward didn't give a damn, and after a while James hadn't either. And he still didn't. He should have said he had a red-eye, or he was staying with friends in London.
He reached the limousines frustrated and freezing.
"Yes, sir." Maybe twenty, clad in an ill-fitting black suit--a beanpole, with clear blue eyes and white-blond spiked hair peeking from under his black cap. He opened the back passenger door. "I'm sorry for your loss, sir."
"Thank you." James got in. Apparently, Stefan knew where to take him because the kid didn't ask.
The door shut, and he felt entombed. It got harder and harder to breathe. As they traveled through the rolling hills of Kent, the ancient walnuts and aged oaks were black sentries against the gray sky. He tried to focus on his music, but it was impossible to hear anything beyond the war inside his head. Between the cascade of faded memories of living there, aching for home and Julia, he cursed himself all the way to the estate for agreeing to come.
He caught a glimpse of the stone turrets of Castlewood through the endless row of Italian spruce, and his skin started to crawl. Then the gravel drive popped and crunched under the tires, and his heart pounded so hard it reverberated in his throat. He'd walked away the day he turned eighteen, leaving behind his father, Ian and the five years he'd been forced to live with them. That was twelve years ago. And he'd never have come back had Ian's overdose not given him an easy excuse to put a few days between him and Julia.
The limo finally stopped. Stefan opened his door. Dread was so pervasive James was paralyzed. Nothing good could come from this meeting.
Stefan stood shivering in the cold, wet air and waited. James sat in the limo until he couldn't take the absurdity another minute.
"What are you waiting for?"
"You to get out, sir."
"Well, what if I don't?"
"Well, then, I have to wait here, sir, until you do."
"Any chance you'd take me back to Heathrow?"
"None, sir. My instructions were to bring you here."
He'd figured as much. Edward usually got what he wanted. There was no point in arguing.
He got out of the car and even managed, "Thank you, Stefan. That will be all for now," as he crossed the gravel drive to the house. Jesus, he couldn't wait to get back to L.A. where the people were normal. He heard Stefan slam the door to the limousine and stomp away as he entered through the heavy oak doors and into the massive marble foyer.
"Your father would like to see you in the study at six p.m. sharp," Howard said the moment he set foot inside. He said nothing else, not even, "Good to see you after all these years." Nothing. He just turned away with that Ivy League stick up his ass.
"Nice seeing you, too, Harvard." James called after him as he disappeared down a hallway.
Howard had been Edward's personal secretary since their Harvard days together. For the five years James lived on the estate, Howard was if not attentive at least more available than his father ever was. Perhaps James owed him for that alone. It was just, well, why did Howard have to be such a prig?
Turn around. Walk away.
There was no point in staying. He and his father had nothing to say to each other. Edward couldn't stop him from leaving. It was past five, though. Dark. Cold. Wet. And he was 230 acres away from the nearest neighbors. The only way out was to call a taxi. He pulled his cell from the pocket of his slacks, flipped it open to log onto the net for taxi listings nearby but had no signal. James snapped the phone shut and pocketed it, then took a deep breath to thawart his rising panic.
No phone in the foyer... or the adjoining parlor... or in the library. Still searching, he went up to his old room, but the phone that had been on his desk wasn't there anymore. It was cold in that cavernous room, even though a fire blazed in the fireplace. His duffle bag was on the bed. Several plush violet bath towels lay next to it. He was expected to stay.
No phone. No taxi. No way out until morning. A chill ran through him, and he shivered. Then he grabbed the towels, took a hot shower, shaved and dressed. Worn jeans and a sweatshirt. Screw formality. He pulled his iPad from the duffle bag and sat on the bed with it, turned it on and input the chord progressions he'd created earlier. It was close to six-thirty by the time he finally got to Edward's study.
His father sat at the mahogany desk, focused on his laptop. He had his glasses on, but took them off and stood as James came in, though he did not extend his hand. He looked exactly the same, hadn't lost one hair from the mass of thick peppered gray, still cropped short on the sides, but swept across his forehead. Remarkably, he had retained his tall, imposing stature, and even more remarkably, he was still trim and looked fit. Though he was almost eighty, he could easily be mistaken for his early sixties. He hadn't changed one iota in twelve years. Perhaps he'd sold his soul to the devil.
Edward walked over to the bar, pulled a dark-brown bottle from the fifty or more terraced along the smoked mirrored wall.
"Would you care for a whiskey, James?" The puppeteer was still orchestrating the scene.
"No." Back off. Keep it light. "Thank you." He stood a few feet from the desk, caught in one of the many circles created by recessed halogen lights. About the last thing he needed to add to his chemical mix was alcohol. One drink would put him under the table.
James shifted from one hip to the other, edgy to the extreme, his chemistry crashing from all the speed he'd been taking to maintain the crazy hours. Julia was right. He'd been using too much for too long. He was going to have to knock it off even if it meant working less.
His father opened the beveled glass cabinet, selected a crystal tumbler and poured himself a drink. Neither of them spoke, and the silence became the rhino in the room. James stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered over to the walnut bookshelves that lined the walls and randomly scanned titles. Pillars of the Earth. The Principles of Mechanics. The Prince.
Okay. Breathe. Relax. Loosen your shoulders. Say something. Say anything.
"I'm really sorry about Ian," was the best he could come up with.
"It is your loss, too, James. It would serve you to recognize that."
Here we go. "Yes, sir. It is my loss, too. I'm sorry that Ian is dead. It's really a tragic waste."
"Yes, it is." Edward spoke as if to himself. He scrutinized James as he leaned against the bar and took a sip of his whiskey. "A tragic death--a tragic waste of a life. Wouldn't you agree?"
"As you know, Ian and I weren't that close, sir. I'm not in any position to judge how he lived his life."
Edward took another drink. "It's unfortunate you and your brother were never able to cultivate a relationship. Perhaps, by your example, Ian could have developed some focus, some self-discipline."
"I doubt I could have provided any influence that would have saved Ian, sir."
"Of course not." A sardonic laugh. "Ian's issue was not a lack of discipline, but a lack of self."
"What did you want to talk with me about, Father?"
Edward swirled the whiskey in his glass and took a drink. "It is time to discuss your upcoming role in our family's future."
A prickling rush swept through him, like the kind that follows just barely missing the Mac truck.
"Let's not go down that road again. I told you I wasn't interested twelve years ago. I'm still not."
"It has never been a matter of choice, James."
"Maybe not for Ian, but it is for me. I'm just lucky, I guess, that I wasn't your first, or legitimate." Watch out. He was letting the man get to him.
Edward's eyes narrowed. "Your arrogance is only surpassed by your ignorance." He took a gulp of his drink, shook his head, then moved from the bar and began circling James. It was unnerving. "Your brother was a lazy, spoiled, contentious, undisciplined brat. I had no expectations of him managing the family estate, since he could not manage his own behavior." He stopped a few feet in front of James, close enough for him to smell his father's sour breath.
Every part of James tensed. It took considerable effort to relax his balled fists. He flexed his fingers discretely. They were the same height; James was close to fifty years younger, and in good shape. But he still felt afraid.
"Why am I here, Father? What do you want?"
"An easy transition." Edward took another sip of whiskey. "Though that seems unlikely." He drained his glass in one final gulp. "James, did you honestly expect to just walk away and sever all ties to your family? If you did, I'm afraid you were sadly mistaken."
He had to be kidding."What ties? We have no ties. You had your constituents, your agenda, other commitments--"
"I had two sons," Edward almost shouted. "Now I have one." He went back to the bar and poured himself another drink. After taking a long, slow draw, he continued. "Am I to expect the same childish, petty contempt from you as from your brother?"
"What do you want me to say? What are you looking to hear from me, Edward?" Then it suddenly struck him what his father wanted. James had to laugh. "I can't give you what you want, Edward. I won't. I'm the last person to grant you absolution."
"Absolution?" Edward laughed, shook his head with a twisted grin. "You are young, and naive, so you are forgiven." He raised his glass to James in a mock toast then brought it to his lips and drained it, went back to the bar and poured a third.
"I don't need your forgiveness." I need to get out of here.
Edward stood at the bar studying him and, then finished his drink and placed the glass down gently. James had never seen his father drink so much. It worried him. He never got on with drunks. This could turn into a very bad scene.
"Please, sit down, James." Edward indicated the steel-and-leather chairs in front of his desk as he went behind it and stood waiting.
James looked at the door, then back at his father.
"Please." The tone was casual, somehow making the command sound like a request, and again Edward motioned to the Van Der Rohe chairs. He did not sit until James did.
He pressed a few keys on his laptop and closed it, arranged some papers then folded his huge hands casually in his lap and looked at his son.
"With Ian's passing, you are the sole heir to the family estate. The estate is valued at more than two billion in assets. Most of it is tied up in real estate holdings, though a good percentage is incorporated into a variety of business ventures, some of which--"
"I can't believe you're insisting on this conversation." James stood and his chair slid back silently over the polished oak floors. He backed away from the desk, moved behind the chair and gripped its steel bar with both hands. "I told you I'm not interested. I don't want any of your money. If this is all you wanted to talk to me about, then we're done, Father."
"This isn't about money, James."
"Well, excuse me for being vulgar, sir, but whatever it's about I'm not interested in any part of your estate. This is absurd. You can't honestly expect me to walk away from everything I've established, worked for my entire life."
"I have not suggested you abandon anything. I am expecting you to absorb these additional obligations and invest the time necessary to become effective at managing them. You have lived the kind of life known only to the privileged few. Do not minimize the role your heritage has played in your accomplishments."
You pompous, self-aggrandizing prick.
"I have devoted my life to music. I worked my ass off, round the clock, well before you came along. Somehow, according to you, I owe all my success to this family. Well, that's bullshit, Edward."
"It's not my intention to minimize your achievements. Your dedication is beyond reproach. But your commitment to this family will be equally fulfilling when you invest in it some of the energy you've given so exclusively to your own endoavers, and redirect it into managing the Trust."
"I have no commitment to you or this family. And you sure as hell have no right to sit there and tell me I'm being self-centered following the path of prodical musican you not only paved but shoved down my throat." He was almost shouting. His heart raced. It was hard to catch his breath. "I don't want to be part of your world, Edward, and I won't let you pull me away from the one thing I love."
"It is narcissism, at best, that the only thing you know of love is adoration of your own talent."
"That's not what I meant. You're taking what I said out of context."
"Am I?" Edward rose suddenly and spread his hands on his desk. "You have served yourself and no one else all of your adult life. You are almost thirty years old and have no wife, no children to inherit our name." He shook his head and took a few measured steps from his desk then stopped and looked at James. "Serving the family trust will require you to step outside of yourself and your infinitesimally small world. Like it or not, you are a part of this family and inexorably linked to its past, and destined to influence its future and the thousands of lives we affect. The only question is how you will play the hand you have been dealt." He circled to the front of his desk as he spoke and stopped two feet away from his son. His gaze never wavered, and it felt to James as if Edward's eyes were boring a hole right through his head.
He's too close. Run! Escape while you still can.
"There is no such thing as destiny, Father. I choose. And I will not let you manipulate me into taking a position for which I have no passion or interest. It's my life. Everything is transitory, Edward, even this family. I am not the answer to your desire for immortality. I can't save you. This conversation is over. I'm leaving."
"Sit down, James."
"Fuck you, Edward," came out of his mouth, and he felt strangely vindicated until his father backhanded him.
His right eye exploded, and he buried his face in his hands, pressing hard to counter the throbbing. The entire right side of his face felt on fire. He stumbled back out of his father's reach, wiped the tears from his eyes on his shirtsleeve and held his cheek.
James couldn't believe it. As far as he knew, until that moment Edward had never raised a hand to either son. He was always so contained, controlled. James stared at his father, trying to gauge his state of mind. Edward didn't look at him. He went over to the bar and poured himself another whiskey, and in one swift gulp drained the glass.
It was clear to Edward that James was on something. His son was out of control. He would have expected this behavior from Ian but not from James, not anymore, not ever again after that go-round in his teens. James had been far too productive over the years to be ravaged by drugs.
Yet, his behavior was fundamentally disturbing. Tracking James's progress overall did not provide an intimate view, and it was quite possible he could have succumbed to a drug problem again, especially considering the tendency towards drug abuse in his industry.
Edward had just buried his firstborn. He was not prepared to lose his only remaining son. James held his cheek, staring at him as if he were Satan. There were tears in his eyes, and Edward remembered the grief stricken boy on the day he'd arrived at Castlewood directly after his mother and stepfather were killed. He had been unable to talk to his son then. It was unfortunate they'd never moved off that mark.
"Please, sit down, James."
James stood his ground. He had his mother's striking beauty, his mass of fine chestnut hair worn wild, just as she had. His deep green eyes were fixed on Edward's.
"I'm leaving, Edward. I'm going to find someone to take me to the airport. I'm sorry for you. You've lost one son by playing God, and you are about to lose the other."
Edward scowled at him. It took considerable restraint not to slap him again.
"I'm humbled by God. What humbles you, James?"
"Watch out, Father." He shot an insolent grin. "You're not in control." James turned away, and Edward watched him shut the door and did nothing to stop his son.
Death entered the study through the closed walnut doors and sat in Edward's chair, mocking him. Images of Ian came to the fore, stoned out of his mind, slumped in that chair, spinning it round and round. He'd sung television jingles, trying to shut out what he considered his father's diatribe on responsible behavior. The chair twirled faster, and the face became a grinning mask, and Edward started to feel faint as it flashed by.
Then the chair stopped, but now it was James who sat there, Death behind him holding the chair still.
The room became stifling. He had to get out.
He kept his pace measured, and somehow made it outside to the rose garden without faltering. He drew in the misted air with great gasps, sat down on the marble bench near the Rodin and watched the condensation as it collected and dripped from the Madonna's carved breasts. The chill of age ran through him, and he shuddered in an effort to shake it off, but the cold did not pass. It clung to his bones, and Death sat down with a groan beside him and refused to leave. To his horror, he was crying, the urgency of the present shadowing the past; frustration and fear consumed him.
James was going to leave, and he could not stop him. It was quite likely this would be the last time he would see his son. He recalled his last encounter with Ian, four months earlier when he'd entered the Chelsea flat and found his son lying on the white Foust couch. It was marked with bloodstains from careless injections and burn holes from fallen ash. The stench revealed Ian had been there quite some time.
It had never occurred to him when he threw his son out that rainy afternoon last spring it would be the last time he would see him alive.
If he let James fly back to the States and the lifestyle he had adopted there, it could lead to the boy's undoing. By all acceptable measures, his son was very successful, but Edward had to question if he were truly thriving, since he found it necessary to use drugs. If James continued to indulge in this illicit behavior, his reputation could become damaged and interfere with his ability to manage the Trust. If Edward let his son continue to abuse his body and mind, quite likely he would soon be attending James's funeral.
He stood, and the creaks and pops of his bones seemed amplified in the quiet garden. He walked slowly back inside. Death did not accompany him. It stayed out in the damp night, filling the air with plumes of steamy laughter, and gave him a sly wink just before he entered the portrait-lined hall.
This time, he wasn't going to turn a blind eye to family and do nothing. He was going to use everything in his power to stop his remaining son from destroying himself, and the family name.
He went back to the study, sat down in front of the laptop and pulled up Home Secretary Douglas Perkins's profile. Five hundred thousand in donations to his Reform Referendum should be more than enough to call in one small favor.