"And that, ladies and gentlemen, completes our presentation on the New Prospect development," beamed the smartly-dressed young man in front of the projector screen. "Perhaps we could raise the blinds now, and take another look at the scale model on the table."
There was a flurry of movement as the assistants who had been sitting at the back of the Ellison Estates boardroom hurried to raise the blinds, revealing the grey snowy day outside. The meeting attendees who were gathered round the long table blinked a little at the cold light flooding in, and shuffled their presentation papers together, murmuring quietly amongst themselves. The smartly-dressed young man picked up a short cane and, leaning over the table, used it to point at the scale model that sat in the centre.
"Now here, Mr Ellison," he said, indicating the central area of the model where the highest buildings stood, ringed with structures which decreased in size as the rings radiated outwards, "you can see in particular how the commercial real estate element of the development will blend almost seamlessly into the residential, just as I was explaining earlier. That was, of course, the major part of our brief from Ellison Estates. This vision includes these very handsome glass structures - very desirable office space – and, barely a block away, high-end apartments for the professionals who will be working in those very blocks. Think of the benefits! No commute, much reduced traffic and congestion, much more productive employees in the long run. And I have to say, we at Conrad Associates believe this will be one of the most prestigious developments in Cascade this decade. A high specification, and a brilliant location. We truly believe this will be a very lucrative investment for Ellison Estates." He moved along the table a little, and now pointed his cane at a number of large-format photographs, which were arranged in a neat row.
"Now," he continued, "compare and contrast that with what currently lies in the Ellison Estates portfolio. This area of Cascade, as you all know, is currently a mish-mash of opportunistic development that's taken place over many decades. There's real mix in quality of construction, a low-calibre retail and commercial real estate offering, and that, plus the existing residential buildings, aren't modern enough to garner maximum rental opportunities for their owner. Which of course is, ultimately, Ellison Estates," he added, with an ingratiating inclination of his head towards the man who sat at the far end of the table. "Your recent property acquisitions in the area now complete the picture, and this is absolutely the right time to be launching this major redevelopment. We at Conrad Associates believe the vision I've presented today entirely meets your specifications. A golden opportunity indeed…."
His voice trailed off, a little uncertain now. There was something about the figure who sat at the head of the long table, remote from the rest of the attendees and also remote in demeanour, that made the smartly-dressed young man nervous, despite his skill in corporate flattery. He cleared his throat.
The man wasn't looking at the model development; the smartly-dressed young man wasn't even sure that he'd been looking that hard at the presentation on the screen. Right now, the man's face was turned to the big window which showed a grey and frigid Cascade, the sky full of snow clouds that were dropping untidy lumps of sloppy snow. Rather than covering up the urban bleakness with some Christmas-card special effects, the snow seemed to merely dissolve into yellow-brown slush on immediate contact with the ground. The large loose flakes were whirling hypnotically outside the window, and every few seconds a clump would get thrown against the glass by the sharp wind outside, where it would cling desperately for a few moments and then slide away. The man was just watching the snow.
A square, stocky-looking man who had been leaning back in his chair near the head of the table tapped a finger on his copy of the presentation papers, and turned towards the silent figure.
"So, Jim, what you think?"
The silent man suddenly turned his head away from the window, as if just remembering that there were other people in the room. The stocky man kept talking.
"Seems to me, this is just the right time to be giving the go-ahead. The market's in a perfect position. We get the right demographics coming into that area, it's gonna be a real boost for that part of Cascade. And there'll be lots of knock-on benefits to our other investments outside that immediate area, too."
He turned to the smartly-dressed young man and gave him a tight smile.
"Mr Harris, do you think you could just take us through the model of the development again, area by area?"
But before the smartly-dressed young man – Mr Harris - could start again with his spiel, the silent man at the head of the table stood, pushing back his chair.
"Murray," he said to the stocky man, "I think we've seen enough today. I'll think about this overnight." Harris and Murray exchanged a glance.
"Ah, but Jim," smiled Murray, with just a hint of exasperation showing, "we still need to approve the prospectus. I was really hoping that we could agree the main points on the development today, now we've seen the full plan, and then Mr Harris and Conrad Associates can work everything up in detail. Strike while the iron is hot, you know? Plus, we have the Christmas break is coming up.
Jim Ellison did not reply to him direct, but instead turned to the rest of the attendees with a polite smile.
"Thanks for coming, everyone. We'll reconvene sometime tomorrow. Sasha will get the diaries together." And with that, he turned from the table and walked to the window, where he stood, his hands behind his back, staring out into the grey blankness. Everyone else looked at each other in consternation – had the guy forgotten tomorrow was Christmas Eve?
Murray Fraser watched the others leave the room, and when the last participant had closed the door quietly behind them, he walked over to the window and looked up at Ellison. Murray wasn't a small man - what he lacked in stature he made up for in sheer bulk - but Jim Ellison look like a tower beside him; ramrod straight, with a soldier's stance, every line of him speaking of his power and strength.
"Come on, Jim," said Murray, tapping him on the arm. "What's this all about? I thought we were ready to confirm the New Prospect deal? You know we have City Hall all lined up and on side, and we don’t want to unduly ruffle feathers there. We've worked very hard to get the politicians on board." Jim still didn't turn his head from the view outside.
"You know it's a perfect strategy," went on Murray. "Your dad had this in mind all the years we were building this portfolio up, piece by piece. The City needs a new business district – has done for a long time. New Cascade is the perfect opportunity – right location, right size, and very few problems likely in getting the existing tenants out..." Jim gave Murray a sharp look.
"I've been told there are signs and placards out already," he snapped, "and there's a citizens' protest committee sending petitions to City Hall, and lobbying the media." Murray shrugged.
"That's just the little people, Jim. Don’t worry about them. They’ll get fair compensation for eviction, far more than many landlords will give them. Ellison Estates has always done right by its tenants, remember? Your dad knew that played well in the Press. But the tenants aren't making the decision – it’s us, with the full support of City Hall. They’ve got the few remaining buildings we don't have in the portfolio already lined up for purchase orders, so the development as a whole can go ahead. All our stars are aligned, Jim. Let's not unpick this now, eh?" Jim sighed.
"I hear you, Murray, and I know how hard you've worked on this. And I also know it was one of Dad's ambitions…." Murray broke in quickly.
"Sure was! Think how happy he'd be, knowing that it's still going ahead, even though he's no longer with us!" But with the sudden cold look on Jim's face – even colder than the man's normal stony expression – Murray realised he'd overplayed his hand.
"I want to think about it overnight," continued Jim steadily. "It's a big step. It's the first significant development I've headed up since I came into the company. I want to be sure it's the right move, for Cascade as well as us. New Prospect will change the face of that part of the city entirely. It's right we be careful about making the decision." Murray put his head on one side.
"Ah, 'right for Cascade'. Sure that's it, Jim?" he asked. "Sure there's not some sentimental reason for this?"
Jim walked over to the boardroom table, and then stood motionless, staring at the scale model of tall office buildings and dwarfish residential blocks, surrounded by thin lines of little fake trees. Here and there were ornate plazas, complete with tiny fountains, and tiny people on their way to work in the glass behemoths or to spend their replica money at tiny replica high-end stores. Murray saw Jim's eyes flicking over each element in turn, and he wondered whether his boss was looking for a trace of the old Prospect in the reimagined towers of steel and glass. But when Jim turned away from the table, his face was quite emotionless.
"I used to live there, Murray," said Jim. "That's all. It's just a place I used to live."
Jim Ellison's apartment on Harbourside was a world away from 852 Prospect, in terms of value, neighbourhood and square footage, but ironically still had a lot of things in common. It was still an open and airy space with large windows, here looking down over the marina. It had clean lines of pale wood and bare walls, and was furnished in neutral colours. But the most striking similarity was that the sleeping area was open plan on a mezzanine level; if it weren't for the fact the whole thing was about three times the size of the Loft, one might say that the resemblance was uncanny. If Jim had bought the apartment because it reminded him of his former abode, it was certainly not something he acknowledged to himself or anyone else. And after all, it wasn’t as if anyone from his old life ever visited him there to notice it.
It was late; he had gone on to a number of meetings after the presentation, and then had attended a Mayoral function at City Hall, and so had returned to the apartment well after 10pm. The meeting about the New Prospect development had unsettled his mind, despite what he had said to Murray Fraser, and so he decided to have an early night. But he settled badly; though he was determined not to think about New Prospect or Old Prospect, his brain paid no heed to that intention. He eventually dropped off only after a good while tossing and turning. He had no idea for how long he had been sleeping, but when he later opened his eyes, he immediately knew there was somebody else in the apartment.
Cop senses, he thought to himself. Another voice, not heard for a long time but well-remembered, murmured in his mind: "sentinel senses". But it was the ex-cop that silently pulled the automatic revolver from the side table, and swung his long legs out of the bed, eyes searching the darkened corners of the apartment downstairs.
Whoever it was, they weren't bothering to hide. The lights of the marina cast a vague glow into the apartment, and he could see a tall figure silhouetted against the big window. Jim placed his feet squarely and raised the gun, about to call out a challenge, but then a sudden intuition caught him in the gut, a strange mix of remembrance and loss; it was like a physical blow. The man at the window turned, and Jim saw for sure who it was. He lowered the gun and walked slowly down the stairs, his eyes never leaving his visitor.
"Hey, slick" said Jack Pendergrast.
There was no doubt, it was clearly Jack. It was the Jack he had last seen deeply involved in the Brackley case; it was the same Jack whose voice he had heard for the last time on that fatal taped message which had given Jim the clue as to why his old partner had ended up in a pauper's grave with the tag of 'crooked cop'. Tall and rangy, with the familiar sharp, intelligent features, Jack was looking at him intently as if sizing him up. Jim found himself oddly unperturbed by the fact a dead man was apparently alive and well, and standing on his pale oak flooring.
"You've done well for yourself, slick," said Jack, waving a hand around the apartment. You enjoying life not being a cop?"
"What are you doing here, Jack?" asked Jim. "Haunting me? You're dead, pal. I saw you come out your first grave, and going into your second. That time you had full PD honours." Jack smiled crookedly.
"And I know I have you to thank for my rehabilitation," he replied. "It's nice to know you went that extra mile for me, after I was dead."
"I did what I needed to do," said Jim testily, "and why am I even having this conversation with you? You're just some figment of my imagination, a dream. I made my peace with myself about you and Emily a long time ago." Jack raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal.
"Slick, I'm not here to relive my past. I'm here to talk about yours, and your future. Seems like somebody needs to take you in hand. You walked away from the Army, away from the PD; you've walked away from anyone who ever cared about you. And you treated those people pretty damn shittily, too. Right now, I think you're on the fork in the road. You need to choose the right direction."
Jim gave an exasperated sigh. He went over to the couch and sat down heavily, placing his revolver on the coffee table in front of him.
"So a ghost is going to give me life lessons, right?" He leaned back against the cushions. "Okay, Jack, go ahead. I got all night. I guess at some point I'll wake up."
Jack walked to an easy chair and sat down, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
"Setting aside you playing around with your partner's girl, I thought in general our partnership was pretty good. I knew you'd make a damn good cop, and you went on to be a fine one. You had a reputation in Major Crime department for great work, long after I was gone. You'd found your home, Jim, so why did you leave?"
"If you know that much about me," replied Jim, acidly, "then you'll know that my life got derailed. I couldn't go on being a cop because of…. something. Because of what somebody else did. As it happened, it was a time when my dad decided he could bury the hatchet and give me an opening into Ellison Industries. He figured I could be trusted with the real estate portfolio. So far I've done pretty good, and I don't miss being a cop. End of story."
"Still feel like that, when it comes to knocking down 852 Prospect and all the surrounding blocks? Replacing it all with skyscrapers, and apartments going for seven-figure sums?" asked Jack. "Happy with that? What do you think will happen to all your old neighbours? All your friends?"
"That was in the past, Jack," said Jim, his look stony. "Life has to move on." Jack nodded to himself.
"You see, slick, I don't really think you're getting things in perspective. Oh, it's great, all the money and the power that you want, here right now. But I don't think it really suits you."
"Thanks for your concern," said Jim dryly. But Jack kept talking.
"You see, I tried to look after you when we were partners. Maybe I didn't do it too well then. Or at least, maybe I didn't manage to point you in the right direction quite how I should have. I think I'd rest easier if I finished the job." Jim gave an exasperated snort.
"You can't change me, Jack. You can't change people. Nobody has that kind of power, least of all a dead man." Jack tilted his head from side to side in a kind of acquiescence.
"Sure, I can't change you. You're the one who has to make the changes. But I think I can give you choices; point you in the right direction. Like I said, Jim, I think you're at one of those forks in the road right now. You could go in one of two directions. But if you take the wrong one this time, then that's it, you're set on that path forever. That's not where I want you to be. I think this is the last chance now for you to make things right. I want to help you in that."
"Oh, really? And how you're gonna do that?" Jim put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Time for this dream to finish.
When he lifted his hands, he saw he was no longer sitting on the couch in his Harbourside apartment. He was perched on a fallen log in a large suburban garden. There was snow all around, and the houses up and down the street were displaying Christmas illuminations. The building right in front of him was tall, with a portico over the doorway. Lights were glowing in the lower windows.
He rose slowly, perplexed. Here he was, in real snow and dressed for winter, standing in the garden of his dad's house. But this was the garden of years ago. He could clearly see that the cars parked in the street outside were old-style Buicks and Chryslers, even though they were partly covered by snow. The log he was sitting on came from that cherry tree that had fallen in an autumn gale, the winter he was 10 years old.
Jack Pendergrast was at his elbow.
"Let's go and look at the house," he said, nudging Jim.
Jim wasn't sure he wanted to do that, but he felt his feet moving across the snow just the same. They gained the pathway and walked up the steps under the portico, and pushed the heavy front door open. It swung wide easily. Inside, the hall was gleaming with golden tinsel and baubles. From the sitting room, just off the hallway, came the sound of voices - his father's baritone and the squeak of young boys. He frowned and walked up to the doorway to look in.
It was his father, all right; looking a good 30 years younger. The two kids – well, the two kids were Stevie and himself. He could remember that red sweater he was wearing, and little Stevie's pyjamas in the Noah's Ark print. They were playing some kind of board game – yes, it was Monopoly, always his father's favourite game. The boys seemed quiet and dutiful, listening to their father, and what Jim heard was Bill Ellison giving his sons an early lesson in cutthroat management.
"You see, Stevie, you made a real mistake in giving up that square. Now, Jim could get an advantage on you. That's the last thing you want. Do unto others, remember? Don't give Jimmy an inch. And Jimmy, you gotta rack up your rents. You get the other two in that area, you'll ruin Stevie. See, boys, that's the whole point. Which of you is gonna be the first to take the other out? No point waiting around. Someone will take the competition away from you!"
Jim nodded along to every sentence. He had heard that lecture what seemed like a million times in his childhood, on any occasion from sports to getting the right seat in church, via the kind of kids' past-times that they were playing now. And he watched those two little boys, with their eyes wide, and their slightly worried expressions, concentrating so hard on what their dad was saying to them, knowing there was a real chance he was going to test them on it later. Each knowing that beating their brother at this game, and all the others, was the surest way to get Pop's approval.
He felt like saying, 'Stevie, Jimmy, don't listen to him!' But the words wouldn't come, and as he bit his lip in concern, the scene in front of him seemed to shimmer then dissolve in a golden haze of firelight and Christmas baubles. And he was back, standing in his Harbourside apartment, staring out at the marina lights.
He looked around in bemusement, and saw Jack lounging against the kitchen counter, watching him carefully.
"Good trip down memory lane?" asked Jack innocently. Jim frowned at him.
"I told you some of that crap about my childhood years ago. What's your point? So what, my old man wasn't the best at empathy and compassion? There's no point me crying about it now." Jack shook his head.
"The past shapes you."
"Sure it does," said Jim. "But that doesn't mean you have repeat the past, either."
"So how's that working out for you?" asked Jack, with a pointed look.
Jim turned his back to look out of the window again, determined to ignore his old, dead, partner. But instead of the rainy, slushy night scene outside he found he was facing the battered red door of the Loft. This time, the shock was so great he took a step backwards and stumbled into Jack, who had been standing behind him.
"Well, go on," said Jack, giving him a push.
A discreet Christmas wreath of willow twigs had been tacked to the door. The door itself was locked but, almost without thinking, Jim reached up to feel along the lintel, and there, as expected, was Sandburg's spare key. He put it in the lock, and the door opened. Inside, the lights were low, and there was the smell of something warm and savoury cooking.
He gazed around. Here were the wood floors, the windows, the mezzanine bedroom, the pillars and stove that he remembered so well. He also saw the flashes of textile colour that Blair's arrival as room-mate had introduced about the place. But the Loft was also decorated for Christmas. A large branch of a pine tree, draped with some coloured ribbons, was standing in a container near the window, and here and there were some low key knots of holly and other greenery. A line of Christmas cards paraded across one of the bookcases.
And there was Blair, sprawled on the couch next to him – no, next to another Jim, a younger Jim. And what was so wonderful, and what was so terrible, was that they were both laughing, quite beside themselves with hilarity.
"And so the pastor said," spluttered Blair, hardly able to get the words out, "and so the pastor said, 'I don't mind that, but you'll need to come back tomorrow.'"
With that, the Other Jim, who was already doubled over in mirth, let out a bellow and threw his head back. Blair's own delighted laughter seemed to be as much to do with Jim's reaction as the story itself. Other Jim righted himself, and wiped his eyes.
"Seriously, Sandburg? I really can't believe that happened!"
"My word of honour, man," grinned Blair. "Hey, when you get to meet my mom, you can ask her you yourself. Wasn't long before we got out of that town, though. We were constantly an embarrassment to ourselves and other residents!
They both rested back against the couch, still chuckling, relaxed and at ease with each other. Jim – the real Jim - looked on with fascination, tinged with something like grief. Which Christmas was this? It must have been the first they shared at the Loft. He had not even met Naomi yet. Happy, uncomplicated. This was life at the Loft at its best. And Blair; it was so good to see that old Blair with the long, tangled curls and the glint of gold earrings. It was so good to hear his voice, cracking with laughter rather than cracking with emotion and sadness.
Jack put a hand on his arm.
"I guess this is a good bit of past?" Jim frowned at him.
"There's no need for you to ask leading questions," he snapped. Then he hesitated, looking quickly back at the two men on the couch. Jack chuckled.
"They can't hear us. We aren't here, are we? This is just what you remember."
Jim turned back to Blair and the Other Jim, taking in as much as he could of that joyful moment in time, one that he thought he'd long forgotten. But now he was in it again, he knew he missed that life deeply. He gazed at the other Jim, registered the clearness of his eyes, the lack of worry lines on his forehead. There were a lot more laughter lines though.
"But you must have stupid Christmas stories from your childhood, too?" continued Blair. "The relatives you loved to hate? How about your… oh hey, do you have siblings? Did you ever tell me that?"
No, not until much later, thought Jim.
"Chief, let me assure you," replied Other Jim, with fake solemnity, "there was nothing remotely amusing about my childhood Christmasses. Oh, I wasn't locked in a closet and fed gruel or anything. There just wasn't any fun. You know what they say about family…?"
"… that it’s good that you can get to choose your friends? With you on that, man! Hey, I'm thirsty. You want some tea? A beer?"
And with that, Blair stood up, and Jim was suddenly face-to-face with the man - felt his breath, felt his warmth.
Blair, he breathed, it's me.
But Blair was no longer there, and Jim was just facing his own dim reflection in the Harbourside window; behind the glass, the marina lights twinkled wetly. Jim's deep sense of loss suddenly morphed into rage.
"What the hell was that?" Jim turned on his heel to face Jack, who was still leaning insouciantly against the counter. "Why the hell was that necessary? That was long ago!" Jack shrugged.
"Not that long ago. And anyway, worthwhile having a bit of good past to balance out the bad past, don't you think?"
"I've had enough of your manipulation!" shouted Jim, obscurely conscious that he was shouting at a ghost in a dream. "All that is over, it's finished! If you’d done your research, you’d know that the other guy in that sentimental little tableau of yours was the same jerk who in the end let me down, who went against his word!" Jack shrugged and frowned at Jim.
"That so? Even though that same 'jerk' changed his whole life around, gave up all his ambitions, trying to make it right?"
"That doesn't…" spluttered Jim, "…that doesn't excuse what happened in the first place!"
"It was a mistake, slick, just a mistake, albeit a big one. Deep down, you know that. Deep down you know you’ve made a big mistake, too. No one needs to be punished their whole life for it. Not him, not you, either."
"Okay, Jack," snapped Jim. "I'll accept you're entitled to an opinion, and you just gave it. Thanks for the advice, but I can draw my own conclusions. And I conclude the past is over. It's done. Like 852 Prospect, I don't live there anymore!" Jack raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"Interesting. Where did that little thought come from, I wonder?" But before Jim could reply, Jack straightened up and rubbed his hands together.
"Right, we're done with looking at the past. I think we need to bring things up-to-date. Come with me…"
UPDATE! This story has now been completed and you can find the full version at: Fairytale of Cascade COMPLETE STORY