This story is by Imogen Mann and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rustling gently with the warm breeze, the small pot plant soaked up the sunlight streaming through the open window. It was old, hanging onto life, and its owner was exhausted.
But as she bent over the desk in her office, Cora Griffin was intent on analysing the compact pellet that her hawk had regurgitated that morning. She had been studying it for several minutes through a magnifying glass, slowly moving the lens up and down, side to side and rolling the pellet over.
Finally, she sat upright in her chair, blinked her tired eyes, and picked up a small pair of tweezers. “Hmm, let’s see what secrets you hold,” she murmured.
The door opened and a tall, lean man with a shock of black hair entered the room. He moved briskly towards the desk.
“It’s been months John, and now we get this.” Cora said, stabbing the tweezers at a nearby newspaper.
“Could be worse, at least it’s not the front page.”
“Not funny. Months of trial by media and – all charges dropped, the coroner records a verdict of death by misadventure and yet they continually imply that QuanDat, therefore I, was somehow responsible for Tim’s death. Unbelievable!”
John opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get any words out Cora resumed, “And you know what this means? I’ll tell you what it means, it means that they don’t believe us, believe me.”
John shrugged, “What can I say? It’s over now and the damage is done.”
“Is it John? That detective, what’s her name – DCI Hislop. I told her she had a leak right at the beginning. She did nothing about it. Someone’s been drip feeding the press all these months.”
“Drop it Cora. Let it go. Please.”
“That woman, for whatever reason, is bent on pinning Tim’s death on me. I wanna know why.” Cora scowled and looked up into John’s face, “And yes, the damage is done.”
“So don’t make it any worse.” He said quietly.
She snorted, then bent back over the pellet and poked it open. “So what are you doing here anyway?”
“The better question is, what are you doing?” John asked.
“I am unraveling a mystery, quite literally.” Cora smiled. “Decoding Maggie’s adventure.”
John nodded, looked down at the pellet, then back at Cora. “Like any good cryptographer would. Where’d you find her?”
“Close.” Cora chuckled. “I didn’t. She flew home last night and cast this morning. I’m trying to decipher where she’s been.”
John checked his watch and glanced back at the office door, “Well, they all want to know where you are. They’re waiting Cora.”
Cora didn’t respond. She just kept teasing apart the mass of bone, feather and fur in front of her. John hovered a moment then sighed and dragged over a chair. “Have you made your decision yet?” he asked cautiously.
Cora looked up and stifled a yawn, “Frankly, I don’t think I should have to.”
“I don’t think you have a choice.” John replied.
“Yes, I do. This is my company. I will not have it destroyed by media supposition and an overzealous detective barking up the wrong tree. If I quit now they win.”
“Nobody’s asking you to quit, Cora. Your Board just wants you to step aside. Let someone else take the helm, at least for a while, until things normalise.”
“If giving up control is not quitting then I don’t know what is. You know me better than that. I don’t quit!” Cora shot back.
John rose abruptly, taking Cora by surprise, and leaned across the desk so that his face was close to hers. “Listen to me, Cora. As your brother-in-law, as a lawyer, I’m telling you that you’re on dangerous ground here.”
Cora looked up and snorted, “I know what I’m doing.” Their eyes locked in a silent battle until Cora broke off and resumed her dissection.
John watched on while she carefully pulled the pellet apart and placed its various elements neatly into separate piles around the edge of the dish. “I hope you do,” he said softly and slumped heavily back into his chair.
Cora paused and stared at him questioningly. John’s mouth opened but, thinking better, he just sighed and picked up the newspaper. An uncomfortable silence descended, the only sound being the pot plant’s leaves rustling with the breeze.
A tiny object in the mass before her caught Cora’s eye and her demeanour noticeably brightened. She picked it up carefully with her tweezers and examined it closely under the magnifying glass. She was just about to speak when there was a gentle rap at the door and her assistant popped his head into the room. She looked up and squinted, “Yes?”
“They want to know how long you’ll be?” Michael asked.
“I’ll be down shortly. Make sure they’ve got enough water. And er, give them some biscuits Michael. Thanks.”
The young man gave her the thumbs up and slipped away. John lowered the newspaper, glanced behind at the door and jerked his chin, “Clock’s ticking. Any ideas yet ‘detective’ Griffin?”
“Yes, actually,” she said and swung the magnifying glass over to John and held up the object.
“This is the remnant of a head feather.” Cora winced. “Duck. Specifically, Saxony Indian Runner. Male.”
“Yes, ouch!” Cora hunched over and giggled.
“She’s going to be furious Cora.”
“I know. What can I say? It’s nature. A hunting hawk and a sitting duck — it’s only going one way! She’ll see that…eventually.”
John’s mouth tightened, then he exhaled. “Yes, but I don’t think you do.”
Cora abruptly stopped giggling and drew in a deep breath. “I’ll go see her tomorrow. Take a peace offering.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
Cora put down the tweezers and leaned back into her chair, confusion etched on her face.
“What I mean is – Maggie ate a duck. You have the proof in your hand. You don’t actually know that she killed it. She probably did, she is a hawk. But what if it was already dead? You’ve mentioned before how Harris Hawks will happily take carrion, an easy meal.”
“Yes. So, what’s-”
“The point? QuanDat is being killed by Tim’s death. It doesn’t actually matter what or who caused his death. All that matters is the fact that it happened and that anything and everything that you do now is played against that backdrop. And that affects the company, it affects you and your family and it will continue to do so unless-”
“It will pass, John.”
“Yes, it will. But what will be left? Do you actually have the luxury of allowing it to just ‘pass’?”
“It’s a cause worth fighting for. I will fight.”
“And you might just win. But what if you don’t? Let someone else weather the storm. There are other concerns right now.”
“I know, but it’s my company John. Seven years of my life, and if I quit now-”
“If you quit now you have a chance to save it — and your marriage.” John snapped.
Cora stared at him, wordlessly, her eyes wide.
“I’m serious, Cora. You spend more time here and with that bird than you do with your family. This is neither right nor healthy.”
“So this is why you’re here. Rob sent you.”
“Okay, yes he did. But only because he’s worried and has barely seen you since he came back off deployment. Your children have barely seen you all summer too, and don’t try telling me teenagers don’t want their mother around!”
Cora dropped her eyes and stared unseeing at the remains of the pellet. John was right and his words hit hard, smothering her. “It’s the only way?” she eventually whispered.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. Save both. Don’t chance saving just one. With you away from the day to day, confidence in QuanDat will be restored and those who’ve threatened to terminate contracts will stay. It’s wrong, I know, and it shouldn’t be like this…”
“It feels like I’m being convicted of a crime I didn’t commit.”
John gave a crooked smile. “In a way you are. But, it’ll be worth it long term and if nothing else you’ll always hold the moral high ground!”
Cora lifted her gaze to meet his, and her mouth creased into a weak smile. But it was all too brief and her features hardened once more as she looked inward, analysing each scenario in turn. “So, tell me where will I find someone qualified to do this, to ‘weather the storm’ as you say?”
John swivelled in his chair, “I know where you can find somebody.”
Cora’s gaze followed his and, after it had settled on the door, she said, “Well then, I had better go give them the good news.” She lithely lifted her petite frame from her chair and rounded the desk where she momentarily rested a hand upon John’s shoulder. Then, without another word, she strode out of the room.