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Unbreakable

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It’s a terrible thing to have to tell a person that someone they trust isn’t worthy of it. I’ve told wives that their husbands are adulterers, and parents that their sons are criminals. Now I stood in Aynsford to tell Charles Roland that one of his friends was a thief and a murderer.

Charles stared at me in shock. “But Avon was so upset over Sylvia’s death. He kept telling me that the police should be doing a more thorough investigation. That’s why I asked you to look into it.”

I shrugged. “Maybe he was covering his tracks. Maybe he was fond of her and felt some remorse. She was his secretary for years, after all.”

“If he was fond of her, why would he kill her?”

I laid my my case down on a table, snapped it open, and took out a sheaf of files. “I have to take these in to an accountant for confirmation, but they look to me as if Avon is running a Ponzi scheme out of his investment firm.”

As Charles examined the files, I went on, “I found out today that Sylvia used to borrow the key to her mother’s storage unit. She told her mother she needed it to store her own papers. I borrowed the key from her mother. You can barely get into the unit, it’s so full of boxes of documents she’d copied. She must have realized that Avon was defrauding his investors, and was gathering evidence to turn him in. And I think he found out.”

Charles habitually cultivated a blank expression, to hide his feelings or, more often, his plotting. But now the lines deepened around his eyes and mouth, until he looked every one of his sixty-six years. “I thought I knew him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wanted to tell you myself, before I went to anyone else. It’s too late tonight, but tomorrow morning I’ll take these files to Radnor’s accountant.”

“And then to the police,” Charles said bleakly.

“I might be wrong,” I offered.

Charles gave me a wintery smile. “You won’t be wrong.” He straightened up and replaced the files in my case, then dusted off his hands. “Stay and have dinner with me. We haven’t played chess in a long time.”

“I’d like that.”

I followed him into the dining room. The setting sun turned the white walls red-gold, and burnished the dark wood of the chairs and tables.

When I’d first visited Aynsford with Jenny, I’d been put off by its antique furniture and expensive paintings. It seemed a building as cold and forbidding as its owner, a place where someone like me didn’t belong. But now, years after Jenny had left me, her father’s house had become a home to me in a way that my own apartment could never be. The same furniture, the same paintings, the same clear link between the objects and the man. But now both Aynsford and Charles seemed warm and welcoming. I fiercely regretted bringing him news of pain and betrayal.

We were both distracted all the way through our first game of chess, until it wound its desultory way to a stalemate.

Charles, who had spoken little during the game, said abruptly, “I’m not sorry I asked you to investigate. I’m only sorry the truth is what it is.”

“I know,” I said. “Play again? This time I’ll pay better attention.”

We both reached out for the board at the same time, and a black knight fell off the table. I caught it in mid-air and replaced it on the board. It was only when I picked up a king with the same hand that I realized that I was using my prosthetic hand. It was the first time that I could recall doing any action with it that wasn’t pre-planned. Just as the doctors had told me, I was developing new reflexes.

Charles didn’t comment, but he looked more pleased than he had since I’d walked in his door.

We were in the endgame, with most of the pieces off the board and the kings moving toward the centre, when I heard glass shattering in the direction of the French windows. Charles started to get up, but I waved him back. I quietly opened the door, and found myself face to face with Avon, a burly man I recognized as one of his firm’s security guards, and, in the guard’s hand, a gun.

“Don’t move.” The guard spoke in the level tones of a professional. The way he held the gun was professional, too. “If you cooperate, we won’t hurt you. If you try to fight or run, I’ll put a bullet through your head. No one will hear anything out here in the country.”

It was true, too. Charles loved how peaceful it was out here.

I glanced at Charles, who had gotten up to follow me. The mask dropped down over his face, and even his eyes held no expression when he turned to his old friend.

“I had hoped Sid was mistaken about you,” Charles said.

Avon opened his mouth as if to reply, then closed it again. He turned away from Charles, opened my case, leafed through the files, and closed the case again. “Where are the rest of the files?”

I indicated the case. “That’s all of them.”

Avon gave me a contemptuous look. “I know Sylvia spent months copying our documents. Where’s the rest of them?”

“That’s all I found,” I repeated. “They were under the floorboards in her bedroom.”

“Roland, where are the files?” Avon asked, his voice and expression hardening.

“There’s no more files,” I insisted.

“I watched them through the window with binoculars,” the guard said helpfully. “They opened the case and talked about it.”

“So they both know,” said Avon thoughtfully. He jerked his head at the guard, who stepped behind me, out of sight.

I wondered if Avon thought he could get away with everything, even threatening me and Charles, so long as the documents were destroyed. I wondered if that was true. And I wondered if Avon had always been crooked, or if something had happened to corrupt him. All that was easier to wonder than what these men might do to me or to Charles.

“Don’t move, either of you. If you try to fight, I’ll shoot,” Avon said, then, looking past my shoulder, “Michaels, go get some rope. And a knife from the kitchen.”

He too stepped behind me, I assumed to take the gun from Michaels. I looked up at Charles, who gave me the tiniest shake of his head. He didn’t think it was a good time to risk an attack, so I didn’t. Avon reappeared with the gun. Like Michaels, he clearly knew how to use it, and kept it aimed steadily at my head.

Michaels returned with rope and a knife, and shoved me into a chair.

“You don’t need to tie him,” protested Charles. “He won’t fight with a gun to his head, will you, Sid?”

I shook my head. Michaels and Avon ignored both of us.

“It’s an heirloom chair,” said Charles wildly, as Michaels tied my knees to the chair legs. “It’s fragile. Don’t tie him to it. Just… er… tie his wrists together instead.”

Michaels had already started to tie my wrists to the chair arms, but as Charles spoke, he stopped and poked suspiciously at my artificial hand. “So if he pulls on it, it comes off?”

“It’s not that easy to take it off,” I said. “I can’t just drop it like a lizard sheds its tail. It’s mostly metal – it’s heavy.”

Avon raised his eyebrows at Charles. “Good try, Roland. Take it off him, Michaels.”

I flinched. “I told you, it’s hard to get it on and off.”

Michaels pushed up my shirt sleeve, revealing the flesh-colored rubber sleeve that rolled over what was left of my arm, and pried it downward, twisting impatiently until the hand came free. It hurt, but the physical pain was the least of it. It was a violation, just as having these men inside Aynsford was a violation. He dropped it on a table, where it landed with a grotesque thud. When I glanced away, I saw Avon’s contemptuous stare. I couldn’t look at Charles.

Michaels tied both my arms at the elbows, and my right arm at the wrist. It was a position I was all too familiar with.

“Where are the files?” asked Avon.

I looked down at the polished brown wood of the floor and braced myself for the first blow.

But instead of striking me, Michaels spoke. “This might be difficult, sir. Halley lost his hand because someone tried to make him talk. Hit him with a poker, smashed the bones. He never said a word. It was all over the papers. They say he’s unbreakable – and look at him now. See how calm he is? It might be better…” He trailed off.

Avon examined me, his gun-hand unwavering. “He wasn’t calm when you took off that hand of his. But it doesn’t matter whether Sid talks or not. I’ve never understood why, but Roland is fond of him. He used to talk about Sid’s brilliant riding, and now he talks about Sid’s brilliant investigating. You’re not hurting Sid to make Sid talk – you’re hurting Sid to make Roland talk.”

Gratifying as it was to hear how proud Charles was of me, the circumstances left a lot to be desired.

“Sid told me they were in Sylvia’s bedroom,” Charles insisted, a touch of desperation in his voice. “He said he took them all.”

“Go ahead,” said Avon. “Hurt him.”

Michaels knelt down, grabbed my wrist in one hand, and poised the knife. I had just enough time to wonder if the pain was really as excruciating as it was supposed to be when he jabbed the knife under my fingernail. A jolt of pain shot all the way up my arm and into my jaw. If I hadn’t already had my teeth clenched, I would have screamed.

Before I had time to try to somehow prepare myself or recover, he did it again.

And again. I had broken bones many times on the racetrack, but that pain is dulled by shock and adrenaline. There was nothing to dull this. My entire body broke out in a cold sweat.

Again. I felt as if I was about to faint or be sick. Faint, I hoped.

“Stop it!” Charles shouted. “I’ll tell you where they are. Just stop it!”

Michaels stopped. My eyes had closed of their own accord, but I forced them open, and also forced myself to take slow, deep breaths. The pain quickly eased, which I supposed was part of what made that particular torture so effective.

Avon turned to Charles, triumphant. “Where are they?”

“In a friend’s attic,” Charles said, speaking slowly and precisely. “The boxes are marked ‘black knight.’”

I threw myself over backward. My head slammed into the floor, but the fragile wooden chair shattered beneath me. I threw off the loose coils of rope wound around my arms.

Still in an awkward kneeling position, Michaels was slow to react. I jammed my thumb into a pressure point in his wrist. He dropped the knife with a yelp of pain. I threw him against the floor and rolled with him, hoping Avon would be reluctant to fire if he might shoot his own man. There were no gunshots.

Keeping a tight control on Michaels, I looked up. Avon was on his knees, head lowered, blood staining his gray hair. The gun was still loosely held in his hand, but he dropped it when Charles struck him again with my heavy metal hand.

 

The police spent a long time getting our stories before they finally went away and left us alone. Charles wanted to call a doctor, but I’d had enough of doctors in the last year. He ended up bandaging my hand himself, doing a neat, professional job of it.

I wasn’t ready to attempt the stairs to my room, so I sat in the sitting room with Charles and drank the scalding tea he’d made.

Charles said slowly, “If you had told me that one of my friends was a murderer, and asked me which one I thought it was, I would never have thought of Avon. It’s enough to make you wonder if you can ever really know anyone.”

I nodded, too tired to speak.

“Except you,” he said, with a sudden glint of humor. “I knew exactly what you were trying to tell me. And I knew you’d understand what I was telling you.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d know what I meant,” I admitted. “I was crossing my fingers. So to speak.”

Charles glanced at the prosthetic hand, which he’d retrieved and cleaned off. “Do you want it back on?”

“I can manage without it, even like this.” I raised my mug, held clumsily but securely in my bandaged fingers.

“I’m sorry I let them go that far,” Charles said seriously. “I did think of giving them a false address to delay them, but if I’d done that immediately Avon would have never believed it.”

“No, he wouldn’t have. It’s fine, Charles. There’s no need to apologize. I’m only sorry you had to watch. It must have been harder for you than for me.”

“No – well…” He didn’t mask his expression as he so often did, and I saw the hints of feelings I could only guess at - guilt, compassion… pride? “It did make it easier knowing that you understood – that you wouldn’t have wanted me to talk.”

“Of course not.”

“It also helped me to know that had our positions been reversed, you wouldn’t have broken either. And I wouldn’t have wanted you to. Not even if…” He paused delicately. “If it had gone much farther.”

I had avoided visualizing that image, of Charles in the chair. Of Charles in pain, his elegant fingers mutilated. He was mentally tough, but how much could that body take?

I had never known my father. Charles had never had a son. But fate, not generally known for kindness, had brought us together. I had to make him proud.

I looked straight into his eyes, willing my face to become a mask. “I couldn’t have told them. Not even for you.”

Charles smiled.