“ I’m Melinda’s brother. My friends call me Dan.”
As Phillip grasped the young mans outstretched hand, he noticed the family resemblance. The same soft brown eyes and dark hair. A friendly, open smile.
“ Regardless of Loryanne’s remarks Mr. Preston, the people here tonight are all victims; in much the same way you were a victim. I would like you to regard our little gathering here as a support group for victims.”
Phillip realized the irony in Dan’s remark and suppressed the urge to smile at the idea of a support group for felons.
“ I really don’t want to hear any more horror stories of who did what to whom Dan. That was not my reason for coming here tonight.”
A look of perplexity clouded Dan’s features.
“ May I ask Mr. Preston, exactly what were your reasons for accepting my sisters’ invitation to join us tonight?”
Phillip looked out around the room to the others, oblivious to the conversation going on between the two men. They milled about, sipping their wine, and partaking in lively party chat, only Loryanne looked on; a bemused smirk on her face. Phillip felt an icy chill run up his spine.
“ Mr. Preston?”
Phillip turned to the young man.
“ Ok, before we continue Dan, please stop calling me Mr. Preston. Call me Phillip. As for the reason I accepted your sisters invitation, well, I didn’t see that I really had any choice! I’m sure Melinda has all the best intentions. She seems a very nice woman. But quite frankly Dan, I was convinced that by this time I would have been arrested and charged. Make no mistake, I enjoy my freedom as much as the next guy but I was perfectly willing to accept the consequences of my actions; and still am. I make no excuses, and ask for no special consideration. I would be a liar to say that I have no regrets. But I am more than willing to live with those regrets. Unlike that Loryanne woman in there!”
Dan grabbed Phillips shoulder and looked deep into his eyes.
“ I understand perfectly Phillip, and, it’s alright. I’ll also make sure that you don’t hear anymore horror stories tonight. But please, just meet the people here. I’m sure you will see that they are all perfectly normal people who have felt the very same things you are feeling right now. Draw on their experience and resolve. You deserve a normal life Phillip; in spite of all the terrible stuff that has happened. Try to remember that. And try to also remember that we are all here to make that happen. Here, no one will judge you. We have no secrets. This is simply a circle of friends. Someone you can call at 2 in the morning when remorse sets in. Someone who will listen, and know. And, it will happen Phillip. Trust me; trust us all. We understand.”
He saw the sincerity and compassion in the young mans eyes and words. Looking past Dan, he saw Melinda. Her face showing an air of apprehension on what would follow and he suddenly felt sorry for her. The realization of all that she had done to make him welcome. Her tremendous efforts in making this a very special evening. A sudden wave of guilt washed over him as his thoughts of a plan to kill Melinda and her son came to the forefront of his mind. And he thought of Rose and Carly. He suddenly felt more ashamed than he had ever felt in his life, and his cheeks went crimson at the disgust that welled up inside him. Had he been just a tad weaker, he would have broken down in great heaving sobs. But Loryanne was watching; that demonic smirk fixed on her face; the evil scar enhancing her sinister regard. And so, he agreed to stay.
And no one was happier at his acceptance to stay than Brad Stryker. He wheeled Phillip about the room like a long lost brother; introducing him to all those present. Melinda smiled and brought out fresh pastries and she gleefully poured exotic wines of the world. Dan was chatting with a pretty young woman who was showing far more interest in his conversation then a young woman should. The talk was light and lovely and the guests were engaging, IF, you avoided Loryanne! And Phillip did.
Loryanne stood off in a corner, drinking her wine and eating with wild abandon; not really paying much attention to any conversation that might come her way. She was cold and inconsiderate and the conversation seemed to move away from her. And, she seemed to delight in that. Aloof and uncaring, she remained stoic right up until she announced her thanks for the food and wine, but she must be gone.
Upon reaching the front door, she pulled hard on the handle and turning, gave one last smile to Phillip.
“ Welcome to our little country club Phillip!”
And with that, Loryanne Banks was gone. The room seemed lighter without her presence. As the wine flowed, the conversation became more relaxed and Brad and Phillip agreed that Loryanne was a total bitch! They laughed their way through the evening as the guests babbled on to Phillip and greeted him warmly.
Brad’s cell phone rang.
“ Excuse me old buddy, but I really have to take this.”
Brad excused himself as he made his way out the back door. Flipping the cell open, he recognized the number.
“ Hello Brad, Bill Jacobs here. How’s our new guy doing?”
Brad looked into the trees and watched a squirrel run across the telephone line.
“ I think we can use him Bill.”
“ I’ll need more assurance than that Brad. My people are anxious to get this plan of ours underway. We need someone who is strong and willing to follow orders!”
Brad let the words sink in. Follow orders?
“ Bill, I understand you’re anxious. But let’s not forget; this is his first time meeting the group. He is still very angry and mistrustful. And besides, his meeting with Loryanne didn’t appear to be all that helpful.”
Bill Jacobs swallowed hard at the mention of Loryanne.
“ Are you telling me that you let that bitch talk to him? Why didn’t you stop her? I knew it was a mistake bringing her into this group! She is nothing but a loose cannon! It might just be time for her to quietly disappear from the group.”
Brad had no liking for the way this conversation was going.
“ Bill, I don’t know what you’re inferring, but I don’t want any part of it! That wasn’t our deal!”
Bill leaned slowly back in his chair.
“ Deal? You want out of our deal Brad? It would be a shame to have your lovely wife and kids visit you in a penitentiary on weekends for the next twenty fives years; wouldn’t it Brad? How long do you think she would wait for you? And all those lovely victims in the precious group, how many do you think would survive a life sentence? Do you want to be the one that sends them all away for life Brad? Don’t you dare talk to me about deals! It’s because of me and all my connections that you still have a home to go home to. Now this can go either one of two ways. You can shut the hell up and listen, and do as I say; or you can walk away from my deal. In which case, well, we have been through that! You better tell me right goddamned now Brad; what will it be?”
Brad’s mind was reeling with the vicious words and possible scenario that Bill Jacobs had just put forth. His mind raced to find a response; any response that would ease Bill Jacobs rage.
“ No Bill, I’m not looking to get out of my deal with you or anyone! It’s just, well, I would prefer not to be involved with anything that would upset the group and ruin your chances of finding the perfect candidate for whatever the job you have in mind. The sudden disappearance of Loryanne would invite too many unanswered questions. I don’t want to jeopardize the trust I have built up within the group. That’s all! And as I said, Phillip simply isn’t ready yet. Just give me some time. Please?”
Bill Jacobs slowly closed the file laid out before him.
“ Very well Brad. I will do nothing for now. I am a patient man, and I will be patient a while longer. But know this; my patience has its limits. If my time runs out, then so does yours and all the rest in the group! Remember that! Get back to me as soon as you can!”
The line went dead. Brad slowly closed the cell phone and took a deep breath of damp evening air. He had to compose himself before returning to the party; returning to Phillip; returning to the deal.