The Quality of Mercy
An Alternate Ending to “The Return of Preston Giles”
--by Anne (11.8.12)
Thanks to Erin for the suggestion.
What would have happened if Preston had survived being shot by Millie Stafford? It seems unlikely that Sutton Place Publishing would survive so many crimes being committed by so many of its top executives, so the most likely outcome is that he would have gone back to prison because, as Ross McKay reminded him, his parole was contingent on his continued employment.
But there's no story in that, is there?
“I was thinking, that when my time comes,
I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice.
Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.”
-- Agatha Christie,
Murder at the Vicarage
“Good evening, Mr. Giles.”
Preston nodded tensely. “Mrs. Stafford.”
“You sent my husband a note requesting a breakfast meeting tomorrow morning.” Her voice, though calm and controlled, was cold as ice, and just as hard. “I had the good sense to intercept it.”
“I have some business to discuss with him,” Preston said.
“Yes, the note said it involved some papers once owned by Martin Bergman implicating my husband in a financial swindle.” She pulled a gun out of her purse, and pointed it at him. “I want those papers, Mr. Giles.”
“I don't have them. Not here with me.”
“Yes, that's what Martin tried to tell me. Can you believe it? They were in his pocket!” Millie said venomously.
“I see. So you took them out of his pocket after you killed him.”
“Well, he didn't leave me much choice. He'd been bleeding me dry. After all, it was my money that Kendall had been paying Martin the last couple of years. I'd gotten a little sick of it! My big mistake was believing Martin when he said there was only one copy.” Millie Stafford’s hand shook as her finger tightened on the trigger. “The papers, Mr. Giles?”
Preston took a deep breath - there were no copies of Martin Bergman’s papers, there never had been. His life now depended on how convincingly he could play his bluff. “They're in a safe place where no one will ever find them,” he said. “Except me, of course.”
Millie considered his words. “No one, Mr. Giles? Interesting. You know, I'm going to risk believing you.” She fired the gun once ... twice ...
“Preston! Preston ...”
Someone was calling his name. Jessica - it was Jessica’s voice, and it was Jessica’s hands holding his, a tiny island of comfort in a raging sea of pain. He struggled against the darkness to regain consciousness, driven by an imperative to tell her about Millie Stafford’s taped confession and a desire to see her face one last time.
Finally he managed to open his eyes to meet hers. "We got her, Jess," he whispered, then, with an effort, added hoarsely, "The tape ..." before the darkness claimed him once again.
It was still Jessica’s hand holding his when, against all his expectations, he awoke.
He slowly opened his eyes. “Jess,” he said weakly. “What are you doing here?”
Jessica smiled. “I thought it might help to wake up to a friendly face.”
“More than I deserve.” He brought a hand up to his head and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Where am I?”
“New York Presbyterian,” Jessica said. “It was close by.”
“Millie Stafford ...?”
“Good.” He paused, then said, “We were wrong about Kendall Stafford.”
“I know. After you left I called the Met. It turns out that neither of the Staffords picked up their opera tickets from the box office that night, so Millie didn’t have any more of an alibi than Kendall did.” She sighed. “I tried to call you to tell you this, but you had already left for the office.”
Preston was surprised by the sadness that colored her words. “Jess ... you aren’t blaming yourself, I hope.”
Jessica looked away. “If I had been quicker, either to reach you by telephone or get to you at Sutton Place ...”
“Jessica.” Preston did his best to sound firm despite his weak voice. “All that would have accomplished is both of us getting killed.”
The arrival of the doctor interrupted them before she could respond.
“Well, Mr. Giles, you’re a very lucky man,” he said, consulting Preston’s chart to check his latest set of vital signs. “Not many people who’ve been shot in the chest from point-blank range live to talk about it.”
“I know you don’t feel that way now,” the doctor went on, “but an inch or so in either direction, and those bullets would have killed you.”
“Doctor,” Jessica said, “what is his prognosis?”
“Overall, very good, I’d say,” the doctor replied as he fiddled with the settings on Preston’s intravenous drips. “Two weeks’ stay in the hospital, another two weeks in rehab, and then he should be able to go back to work, provided it isn’t anything too strenuous.” A page over the hospital’s intercom cut the visit short. “I’ll check back with you later.”
Preston did not seem particularly pleased with the news. He coughed a couple of times and said, “It’s too bad there won’t be a job to go back to. It was always a long shot, but here’s no way Sutton Place will survive now, not with everything that’s happened.”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Jessica said quietly. “After all you’ve done, all you’ve suffered ... and now they’ll be sending you back to jail.”
“I’ll be all right,” he said, giving her hand a feeble squeeze. “Those unread books in the prison library are still there, waiting for me.”
It was raining outside when Jessica left the hospital, and she quickly ducked back under the portico to avoid getting drenched. As she stood there watching the rain, she reflected on an earlier conversation ...
“Will you be all right?”
“Oh, I'll either find a job with someone else, or ... there's a lot of books I never got around to reading in the prison library.”
“I wish you the best. If there is anything I can do ...”
“No, no, please - thanks anyway.”
The memory faded along with the downpour, and Jessica looked up in surprise to see that the sun was coming out. She was equally surprised by her own thoughts - there was no denying that she still had conflicted feelings about Preston’s release from prison, but her offer of help had been sincere. And there was something that she could do, if she could only convince Ted Hartley to go along ...
“Jessica!” Ted crossed the room and greeted his favorite author as he usually did, with an affectionate peck on the cheek. “It’s so good to see you. Please - make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Jessica said, “and thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I know your schedule is busy enough as it is.”
“I always have time for J.B. Fletcher. Now,” he said as they sat down across his desk from each other, “you said you wanted to see me regarding a matter of some urgency. What’s going on?”
“Ted,” she said, “I have a very big favor to ask of you.”
“Anything,” Ted said. “What is it?”
“You remember Preston Giles, formerly of Coventry House?”
“The infamous Preston Giles, you mean? Of course I do. I heard Ross McKay pulled strings to get him released from prison on parole.”
“He did,” Jessica said. “He was hoping Preston could restore the publishing firm to its former glory.”
Ted snorted. “Fat chance of that. It was common knowledge that Ross and his cronies were systematically looting the place. Sutton Place was doomed, with Giles or without him.” He leaned back in his chair and added, “It’s the employees who will pay the heaviest price, of course. But I very much doubt McKay ever took into consideration what would happen to them.”
She nodded. “The reason I’m here is that I’m concerned about what will happen to one particular employee,” she said. “You may not be aware of this, but according to the terms of Preston’s parole, his freedom is contingent upon his continued employment.”
A heavy silence descended as Ted began to grasp exactly what Jessica was asking him for.
“I don’t suppose I could take back the ‘anything’ I promised earlier?” he said at last.
Jessica smiled. “You can, if you must.”
Ted sat forward and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Do you realize what you’re asking of me? You want me to hire a convicted murderer!”
“I know I’m placing you in an awkward position,” Jessica said, “but I wouldn’t even make the request if I didn’t have absolute faith in Preston’s repentance.”
Ted sighed. “You know I’ve never been able to deny you anything, Jess,” he said. “Not after everything you’ve done for this publishing house, not to mention me personally. But ‘awkward’ doesn’t even begin to describe this!”
Jessica said nothing; there was nothing more she really could say. In the end this was Ted’s decision to make.
As for Ted, he soon wilted at the sight of the heartfelt plea in Jessica’s eyes. “All right,” he said at last. “He’ll have to start at the lower levels, of course, until he proves himself.”
“How soon before he’s out and about?”
“About a month; at least that’s what the doctor thought,” said Jessica.
Ted nodded. “Well, when he does get out, he’ll have a job waiting.”
Jessica tapped on the door to Preston’s hospital room and peeked in. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Better,” he said, sitting up a little straighter in bed. “How about you?”
“Fine, just fine,” Jessica said as she stepped all the way into the room. “I’m sorry, I can’t stay long - I have a flight to catch at La Guardia.”
“It was good of you to come,” he said. “You’re going home to Maine?”
She shook her head. “No - I’m on my way to San Francisco, for a quick book tour.”
Preston chuckled. “This publisher of yours sounds like something of a slave driver.”
“Ted Hartley?” Jessica exclaimed. “Far from it. He treats me very well. Besides, we’re close friends, so I’m happy to do these favors for him.”
Close friends. For a moment Preston let his mind wander to what might have been. He and Jessica could have been so much more than close friends, if only circumstances had been otherwise, if only his choices had been different ...
“Speaking of Ted Hartley,” Jessica said, breaking the uncomfortable silence and bringing Preston back to the present, “I had a conversation with him about you, and your conditional parole ... anyway, the long and the short of it is that he’s agreed to give you a job. Hartley House is holding a position open for you, as soon as you’re well enough to sit at a desk again.”
Preston looked at her in amazement. “You did this ... for me?”
She nodded. “It will be a relatively entry-level position - I hope that’s all right.”
“It’s better than ‘all right,’ Jess,” he said, tears of gratitude welling up in his eyes. “Thank you. You’ve given me hope, and that’s something I haven’t had for many years.”
Deja vu all over again, Preston thought wryly as he carried a cardboard box of books into his new office. It was hardly surprising, he supposed, considering that this was the second time he had unpacked in a month.
There were some notable differences, of course. His office, for instance - it was tiny and sparse with an uninspiring view of the building next door, a far cry from the huge, luxurious office with the commanding vistas of New York that had been his, however briefly, at Sutton Place. Even so, he’d never felt comfortable in that office - deep down, he’d always known he didn’t deserve it. This space, a standard assistant-to-the-editor’s office, represented a true new beginning, the bottom rung of a ladder he’d been granted a second chance to climb.
Then there were his coworkers. Ted Hartley had introduced him around to the people he would be working alongside, and although he’d sensed wariness in some of them - people read the papers, after all - they had all been unfailingly polite and seemed sincere in their welcomes. No one seemed frightened by his presence, nor did anyone throw his past in his face, as Ross McKay and Martin Bergman had done. It was obvious that when it came to managing employees, Ross couldn’t hold a candle to Ted Hartley.
As Preston was arranging the last of the books on his shelves he heard a tap on his open door, and looking over his shoulder he saw the publisher himself standing in the doorway. Ted Hartley was an energetic man with wavy brown hair greying at the temples and earnest eyes behind the lenses of his glasses. In many ways he reminded Preston of a younger, less flawed version of the person he once had been.
“Mr. Hartley,” he said, dusting off his hands. “Please, come in. What can I do for you?”
“I wanted to see how you were settling in,” Ted replied. “Also, I have your first batch of manuscripts to review. There’s three here from the slush pile,” he continued, handing Preston a short stack of loosely-bound manuscripts, “two submitted by free-lance agents and one that was sent to us by a first-time author. They’re usually dreadful to read, I’m afraid, but I believe in giving every manuscript a fair shot.”
“So do I,” Preston said as he set the fledgling books on his desk. “You never know when you’ll find a gem -” he picked up his copy of The Corpse Danced at Midnight - “like this one.”
“Yes,” Ted said. “Have you got a few minutes, Preston? I’d like you to take a little walk with me.”
Preston felt a familiar sinking feeling, like he always did when his past was about to come back to haunt him. “Of course,” he said, and followed Hartley out of the office.
They went to Central Park, just a block or so from Hartley House’s offices, and sat on a bench overlooking a duck pond. It took a minute for Preston to catch his breath; even relatively short walks were still a challenge for him.
“Jessica has always been circumspect about the events surrounding the publication of The Corpse Danced at Midnight,” Ted began without preamble. “Out of respect for our friendship, I’ve never pushed her for the details. I agreed to hire you on because I have faith in Jessica, and Jessica apparently has faith in you. But I like to know who I’m dealing with.”
“What do you want from me?” Preston asked.
“The whole story,” said Hartley. “I know the gist of it, and of course it was all rehashed in the press, with varying degrees of accuracy, as part of the backstory to Martin Bergman’s murder. But now I need to hear what happened from you, and more importantly, how Jessica figures into it.”
“It’s a long story.”
Ted shrugged. “I’ve got time.”
Preston sighed. “Very well,” he said. “It all began when my publicist brought me an unsolicited manuscript ...”
“So it was Jessica who figured out that you were guilty,” Hartley said once Preston had brought his tale to a close. “Her involvement was never mentioned in the papers.”
“No, she was able to keep a low profile both before and afterwards. Ironically, she was also the one who proved my innocence after Martin was murdered.”
“It must have taken a tremendous leap of faith for her to look beyond your past.”
“Jessica has always been fair-minded. It’s one of the reasons why I ...” Preston paused, catching himself before he blurted out the word ‘love.’ He had been careful to steer around the subplot of his and Jessica’s brief relationship in his narrative; it wouldn’t do to reveal his feelings now.
“Why you ... what?” Ted prodded.
“Why I’m sitting here talking to you now,” Preston finished. Close one, he thought with an internal sigh of relief.
“I appreciate your candor,” Hartley told him. “You’ve owned up to what you’ve done, and you’ve earned the advocacy of a woman whose opinion I value very much.” He paused, then added, as a warning: “Don’t let her down.”
“I’d sooner die,” Preston said, and meant it.
Those first three manuscripts from the slush pile were, as Hartley predicted, awful. Still, Preston worked diligently on them, and those that followed, sending them back to their authors with comments and suggestions that he hoped they would find helpful.
About three weeks into his new job he came upon an unsolicited manuscript that actually showed some promise, and sent it upstairs to the editors for another look. They agreed with his assessment, a contract was tendered, and soon a new book was headed to the printers that Ted Hartley was confident would do very well in sales.
The “probationary” was dropped from Preston’s Assistant-to-the-Editor title, and the wariness began to fade from the expressions of his coworkers.
After six months and a dozen such finds, Hartley was pleased enough with Preston’s performance that he promoted him from an assistant to an actual editor, albeit a low-level one, complete with a modest pay raise and a slightly larger office with a better view. He was now editing the work of more established authors, and meeting with them in person. His confidence rose, but it wasn’t until a few of his co-workers invited him out for an after work drink that he knew he’d finally been accepted, and left the title of “double murderer” behind.
In autumn, about a year after his release from prison, Ted Hartley summoned Preston to his office. When he arrived, he found the publisher engaged in choosing a dust jacket design for a book about to be released. Hartley had a reputation for being playful in his decision-making methods when it came to cover art. True to form, on this occasion he had tacked the four finalist designs to a cork board and was tossing darts backwards over his shoulder at them.
“The one with the most darts stuck in it wins,” he explained in response to Preston’s confused expression. “It’s not particularly scientific, but when all four designs are so damn good, how else is a man to choose? Anyway,” he continued, gesturing Preston into the inner sanctum, “come on in. Have a seat.”
Feeling vaguely apprehensive, Preston complied. This was the first time he’d been asked to meet with Hartley up in his office instead of Hartley coming down to see him, and he had no idea what to expect. Had an author complained about him? Was he about to be demoted? Dismissed? Sent back to prison?
“Don’t look so worried,” Hartley said once he had retrieved his darts and sat down. “I’m not sending you back to prison.”
The man truly was a mind reader. “Sorry, Mr. Hartley.”
“And I think it’s time we dropped the ‘Mr. Hartley,’” Ted continued. “The rest of my senior editors call me ‘Ted,’ so why not you?”
Preston was left speechless, unsure he had heard correctly. “Did you say ... senior editor?”
“That’s right. A member of the senior editing staff is leaving us to take up the vice presidency of a start-up publishing firm in Los Angeles. I’d like you to take his place.”
“I ... I hardly know what to say.”
“How about ‘yes’? It’s more responsibility, of course, but I’ve been very pleased with your performance these past several months, so I know you’re up for it. Clearly you’ve never lost your touch for bringing out the best in novels.”
“Thank you, Mr. ... uh, Ted,” Preston stammered. “When would you like me to start?”
“As soon as you complete whatever project you’re working on now, and get your things moved into your new office.”
“I’ve almost finished working with Fred Kensington on his new travel book,” Preston said. “We have one more meeting scheduled for tomorrow.”
“Good, because I already have your first assignment ready to go.” He took a thick manilla envelope out of a desk drawer, slid a manuscript out of it, and handed it to Preston. “JB Fletcher’s next book, The Measure of a Murder. She just sent me the first draft.”
“Jessica’s book?” Preston was taken aback. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. You published her first book, so you’re already familiar with her style of writing. I could give it to another editor, but it would take time for them to build a rapport - something the two of you already seem to have.”
Preston was still doubtful. Although they had parted on good terms, he had neither seen nor heard from Jessica since her last visit to the hospital. He had the distinct impression that she preferred to keep her distance, and he could certainly understand why. How would she feel about working with him?
Still, he wasn’t about to disappoint Ted Harley. With an effort he pushed aside his doubts and accepted the manuscript with a smile. “I will try my very best,” he said. “I, ah, supposed I should contact Jessica in Cabot Cove to set up an initial meeting.”
“Cabot Cove?” Ted laughed. “Why would you need to do that? She lives right here in New York now.”
“Well, part time, anyway,” Hartley amended. “She accepted a teaching position at Manhattan University. You didn’t know that?”
“No, I didn’t. What is she teaching? Writing?”
“I see,” said Preston slowly. “Well, then - I’ll let you know where things stand once we’ve spoken.”
“No need,” Hartley said as he returned his attention to his makeshift dart board. “I had to call her anyway let her know Jason was leaving to take that VP job on the west coast. I made an appointment for her to meet her new editor at nine o’clock next Wednesday.”
So soon! “Did you tell her the new editor is me?” Preston asked.
“Nope.” A dart landed in the lower left dust jacket on the cork board. “I figured I’d let it be a surprise.”
I’m not the sort of surprise she likes, Preston thought, but kept the sentiment to himself.
The next Wednesday morning Jessica arrived at Hartley House bright and early, looking forward to her meeting with her new editor. Although she was sorry she would no longer be working with Jason Parker, she was undeniably happy that he was moving on to bigger and better things. Adding to her anticipation was Ted’s enthusiasm: he seemed particularly pleased with his choice for Jason’s successor, even if he had been unusually cagey about who it was.
As she rode the elevator upwards, she tried to puzzle out who Ted had assigned to her. By now Jessica knew most of the senior editing staff at Hartley House, but she couldn’t say that there was any one particular person that fit Ted’s enigmatic description. “Familiar with your writing style,” he’d told her. “Years of experience in the publishing industry.” Perhaps most cryptic were his parting words: “Probably the last person you would expect.”
Ah, well, she decided as the doors opened and she stepped out on to her floor. Ted could have his little mystery; she’d find out who it was soon enough anyway.
The receptionist brought her to the conference room, where it became instantly clear that Ted had been correct on all three counts, and especially the last one.
Probably the last person you would expect, she thought wryly as Preston Giles rose to greet her.
“Jess,” he said, taking her hand in both of his. “How wonderful to see you again.”
“You’re looking well,” she said, and meant it: his color was much better than the last time she’d seen him, and his handshake was firm. More importantly, some of the years he had aged while incarcerated had fallen away, making him look less tired and old than he had a year before.
“Yes, well, this work agrees with me,” Preston said modestly. “Let’s go to my office, where we can talk.”
Preston offered Jessica a chair as he shut the door of his office behind them.
“Well!” she said, looking around her. “You certainly seem to have found your place here.”
“Mr. Hartley has been very generous.”
“You wouldn’t be a senior editor by now if you hadn’t earned the title with hard work,” Jessica said, “Ted’s generosity not withstanding.”
“I suppose. Look, I’m sorry for the surprise, Jess. If it had been up to me, I would have called you myself to set up this meeting, but Ted was insistent that it happen this way.”
“I see,” Jessica said slowly, thinking that she would have some choice words for Ted the next time she saw him.
“Anyway, his main reason for choosing me to take over editing your work was my past familiarity with your writing style. I don’t think it occurred to him that you might not be comfortable working with me.” He paused, and when Jessica didn’t immediately reply, added, “Are you?”
“Honestly? I don’t know.” This was the truth. The deep ambivalence she’d felt when Preston was first released was back, as unresolved now as it had been then.
The awkward silence lengthened.
“I would certainly understand if you wanted nothing more to do with me,” Preston said gently, “but if that’s true, Jess, why help me get me a job at your own publishing house?”
Jessica shrugged and gave him a wry smile. “Hartley House is a big company,” she said. “I thought it unlikely that you and I would run into each other much, if at all.”
“It’s fortunate for me that we did,” Preston said. “When we met, after I was released from prison, I tried and tried to find the right words to tell you that I’m sorry, and to beg your forgiveness. I just couldn’t seem to manage it - and then I nearly missed my chance.”
Jessica stood up and went to the window, staring down at the street below. “What is there for me to forgive?” she asked. “Surely there are others who have more to forgive than I do.”
“There’s no one left to make amends to,” Preston said, “except you.”
“Dexter Baxendale must have had some surviving family.”
“He didn’t,” Preston sighed. “The authorities couldn’t locate any next of kin for him. The fact that he’d changed his name probably didn’t help matters. Anyway, when no one stepped forward to claim his remains, they buried him in a potter’s field outside of Hartford.”
“What about Louise McCallum?”
“I did find her,” he said, “in a nursing home up in White Plains - Alzheimer’s disease. She probably had the early stages back when ... back then. It would explain her erratic behavior. Anyway, her memory was gone - she didn’t even remember Caleb, let alone being married to him, and she certainly didn’t remember me.”
Jessica continued to look out the window, still avoiding his gaze. “There is nothing for me to forgive,” she said again.
“No, Jess. That’s not true.” He joined her at the window and placed his hands on her shoulders, looking not at the view but at her reflection in the glass. “You were very clear with me that our relationship was moving forward too quickly. Nevertheless I continued to court you even after I had blood on my hands, and I lied to you in the vain hope you wouldn’t discover the truth. I should have backed off and given you the space you were asking for. If I had, maybe you wouldn’t have gotten hurt as much as you did.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Jessica said, glancing back at him. “The attraction was mutual, after all. I left myself open to being hurt. Still, it’s true what they say - the hardest wound to heal is a broken heart.”
She took a deep breath and turned around to face him. “I can’t go back to the way things were before, Preston,” she said. “I just can’t. But ... I think that maybe I could go forward.”
“Do you think so?” he asked hopefully.
She nodded. “Yes. And I do forgive you - on one condition.”
“That you forgive yourself as well.”
“That will take some time,” he said, “but someday, I think, I could manage it, thanks to a very good friend.”
Jessica allowed him to draw her into an embrace, and he held her close for a long moment, feeling as though a tremendous weight had been finally lifted off his shoulders.
“Well,” he said when he finally released her, “shall we get to work?”