"These are the Tokinawa orders for your review, Mr Tracy," the secretary said as she put a pile of paperwork on the desk. "The CEO wanted to talk to you, so I've pencilled him in for a teleconference tomorrow."
Jeff Tracy checked his clock. He hadn't planned to work late tonight, but he'd learned in business that it was important to get things done promptly. The nanny, whatever her name was, would just have to get the boys their dinner again. "I'll call him this evening. Arrange it for 2030 hours, I'll wait in the office for him."
He chose to ignore the woman's frown even as she said, "Very good sir."
She gathered completed papers from the out tray. As she was about to leave, she said, "So, does Virgil need a lot of dental work?"
"Virgil doesn't need any dental work," Jeff said. He had almost forgotten she was still there.
"But he's been on the phone saying the car you arranged hadn't turned up at school. I sent one of the pool cars."
Jeff stared at her, and guessed what had happened. He swore under his breath. He'd expected them to try something like this eventually, but he was surprised that it had been Virgil and not Gordon to play the trick. What better way to push boundaries than seeing where you could get a car to take you?
"Is there something wrong?" the secretary asked.
"Nothing," Jeff said testily to the gullible woman. "I'll deal with it."
This was an example of why you had to do things yourself if you wanted them to be done properly.
He thumped the buttons of the phone angrily as he considered the work he should be doing at the moment. The newly arrived papers were piled on top of other files. His email was full, and another two had arrived from contractors already. This was not the time for the boys to be pulling pranks like this.
The phone rang out. The nanny didn't answer. Scott had a mobile that he took to school, but it had been a present from his Grandma, and Jeff had disapproved so never took down the number.
He toyed with the idea of calling his mother, but he'd told her many times that he didn't need anyone's help. He glanced at the desk clock. It was ten, so he was due a break, although he didn't remember the last time he had taken a coffee break during the day. He ran through his plans in his head, postponing the most crucial things for an hour.
"Take messages for me," Jeff barked at the woman who'd let herself be sucked into his son's games. "I'm going to sort out those boys once and for all."
Boarding school, he thought.
He managed to keep a simmering lid on his fury as he drove. He kept his speed just on the limit, but by the time he reached home he had to peel his hands from the steering wheel because he had gripped it so hard.
The porch light was on, but there was no sign of the pool car in the driveway.
He strode up to the house and flung the door open with as much force as he could. It rattled on its hinges.
"VIRGIL!" he yelled. He expected the house to be empty, so he was surprised when the boy appeared at the top of the stairs.
Virgil's face was frozen in an expression of terror and he stepped back to the wall.
Jeff momentarily wondered what he had become that he could provoke such fear in his children. Was this the kind of father he wanted to be? Then the fury reasserted itself. They didn't realise what he was doing with the business. It had the potential to be one of the biggest suppliers and developers of aeronautical technology, but it needed his hand at the helm.
"Father?" Virgil said in a small voice.
"Damn it, Virgil, what the hell is going on? What did you think you were doing, phoning the office like that?"
"I... I..." the boy stuttered.
"It is not acceptable to misuse people's time and money just so you can play a bit of hooky from school. I thought I brought you up better than that."
"It was a ridiculous, selfish trick to play, and proves what a juvenile..."
Jeff was interrupted.
"I made him do it."
Scott had come to stand beside his little brother. He looked ghastly, pale and squinting in the light. He clung to the bedroom's door-frame, but nevertheless stood as straight as he could. John was hovering behind him and shifting from foot to foot.
"What the hell...?" Jeff said.
"I said I made him do it."
"I meant, what's wrong?" Jeff realised his voice sounded strangled.
"Headache," Scott said. "Leave Virgil alone. It was my idea."
Virgil found his voice and protested. He moved away from the wall and stood in front of Scott again. "No it wasn't. Me and John did it, but it was me mostly. Scott needed to come home."
"Why didn't you tell a teacher? If you weren't well..."
Scott answered, stronger this time. "We don't need anyone's help."
Hearing his own oft-repeated words said back to him, Jeff felt like a piece of his world had shifted out from under his feet. How many times had he said that to his mother, to the teacher at the school who had pinned him down about Gordon's behaviour and, worse of all, to his own children?
Scott didn't say anything else, but turned back into his room. Virgil and John scurried after him.
Jeff felt queasy in his stomach. He stood, looking at the empty stairs. He heard Scott saying it again inside his head. 'We don't need anyone's help. We don't need anyone's help.'
He glanced down to the table beside the telephone, where a note with 'Jeff' written on it caught his eye. To gain himself more time, he picked it up, and found a pile of letters from the school. The first was regarding Gordon, and asked that Mr Tracy get in touch to discuss the boy's recent behaviour following a number of incidents. There was a place to sign on the bottom of the sheet, which had been completed with a scrawl that might have been Jeff's own, except he had never seen the letter.
Although, he knew that was a lie. He had seen the notes this morning. He had seen it, and ignored it because he had a hundred things to do at the office. He checked the handwriting. It looked like Scott's.
He tiptoed up the stairs after the boys, and glanced into the bedroom. Scott had dropped back onto his bed and pulled his pillow over his head. John sat cross-legged with a fact book on his knees. Virgil was on the windowsill and he looked at his father with a mix of fury and fear. Again, Jeff wondered what had he had become, because he knew that he deserved that look.
"I'm phoning the doctor," Jeff said.
The lady doctor knocked politely on the door. House-calls were one of the privileges of wealth that Jeff was not afraid to use. She came with a bag and a professional attitude that he approved of. She asked to be shown the patient and Jeff led her upstairs. She looked like she was going to ask Virgil and John to leave the room, then something made her reconsider. Perhaps, Jeff guessed, it was the absolute silence that both boys maintained.
Her examination was swift and efficient. She asked various questions that Scott answered quietly. He'd felt unwell this morning, he hadn't slept well the night before, yes, he felt sick, and there had been something unusual in his vision earlier. No, he'd never had anything like this before.
She chatted a bit, before asking his permission to use an injection of painkiller. Scott looked like he would accept anything that might help with the pain.
When she was done, she said, "Do you mind if I talk to your Dad?"
Scott's eyes were already closed in relief. "Sure," he said.
She led Jeff onto the stairwell and closed the door behind them. "Has he had migraines before?"
Jeff shook his head.
"Well, that was a real cracker, but hopefully the meds will start kicking in and he can sleep it off." She began packing her equipment away. "We don't know why they affect some people and not others. There seems to be a genetic component, but there is a still a murky unknown. Traditional triggers are cheese, chocolate and red wine, but to be honest, it's rare to meet someone where it is that simple. Stress seems to be a major factor. Is he under any stress, Mr Tracy?"
Jeff didn't answer, because he was thinking about the pile of letters downstairs. She continued, "Well, you'll know that better than me. If he's not better by dinner, call me and we'll get him admitted for observation. Otherwise let him rest tomorrow and bring him into the clinic in a couple of days. I'll see myself out." With a brisk handshake she said goodbye and hurried to her car.
Jeff stood, thinking.
What kind of stress could the boy possibly be under? Scott should be playing with friends and tearing about on his bike. But the more Jeff considered, the more he realised it had been a long time since he had seen Scott do either of those things.
Eventually he went back to the bedroom and cracked the door. Scott was asleep wrapped under his blankets, while the other two boys hadn't moved. Jeff gestured, and reluctantly they came out of the room. John clutched his book and wouldn't meet Jeff's eye.
"Where is the nanny?"
Virgil looked at John before answering. "She left."
"I don't think she liked it here."
Jeff reckoned that there was more to it than that, but didn't push.
"Who got you ready for school?"
"Scott did. Scott always does. He has to wake us all up and get breakfast and things, but he wasn't feeling well this morning."
Jeff nodded slowly.
Hesitantly, Virgil asked the thing that was bothering him the most. "Is he alright Dad? He didn't want to get the doctor, and I wanted to phone you when we got home, but he said we didn't need anyone's help."
Those words again, Jeff thought. He got down on his knees to look Virgil in the eye. This little one, whom ten minutes ago he had chewed out for taking care of his brother, was desperate for his approval again. Jeff gathered the boy into his arms and hugged him tight. "He's fine," Jeff said quietly. "The doctor said it was a migraine. He's fine. You did good Virgil."
The boy relaxed, and only then did Jeff realise how tense he had been.
Jeff looked at John. For the first time he met his gaze.
"You both did real good."
John nodded, but didn't speak.
Jeff swallowed, and realised he felt tears in his eyes. "Thank you," he said in a whisper.
Virgil held him tightly. John brushed his father's shoulder in a way that meant as much as the tightest embrace.
"Thank you both," Jeff said again.
Jeff chased both boys down to the kitchen while he checked on his eldest son. The room was in darkness and the only sound was of gentle, regular breathing. As Jeff's eyes became used to the illumination, he could make out the pale face under the mop of dark hair. Scott looked relaxed at last. Jeff wondered when his son had ever looked so young. The deep lines around his eyes had faded.
Jeff waited for some minutes, and then moved closer and touched the boy's shoulder. "Thank you," he whispered again. Scott didn't stir, so didn't see his father wipe the tears from his eyes.
Virgil and John were helping themselves to sandwiches. They stopped when they saw their father.
"I have a couple of calls to make, then I'll join you boys. Would you make me one of those... peanut butter and tomato ketchup sandwiches too?"
Virgil's face broke into a grin.
In the hallway, Jeff took out his mobile. He called the office first and told his secretary to cancel his appointments for a couple of days. He asked her to rearrange the teleconference with the CEO of Tokinawa for the day after tomorrow.
"Very good Mr Tracy. Enjoy your day off. Tell the boys I was asking for them." She sounded pleased.
Jeff paused before he made the next call.
He had to be realistic; he couldn't stay away from work forever, although at this moment it was all he wanted. The business still needed him. But it was time to recognise the facts. He had thought he could care for the boys by himself if he had enough money. It was obvious now how wrong he had been in that assumption. He had turned into a monster that terrified his children and it had stressed his son so much that he had become ill.
They couldn't do this on their own.
"Hello mother," he said when she answered the phone. "It's Jeff. Look... I think I need some help."