Beth’s father stood in the entrance looking at the floor.
He lifted his head and looked surprised for a second before his expression became harder. He twisted his wedding ring around his finger as he spoke. “Is my daughter home? I have something I need to say.”
“No. I’m sorry. She’s gone to work.”
“Oh. I didn’t think she would be working today.” He tuned to walk away then turned back. “So what are you doing here?”
“Beth insisted I stay to save on hotel bills.”
“And that’s the only reason is it?” He didn’t sound convinced. “I’m not stupid, son. You don’t cross the
Chris closed the door and followed him. “Look, Mr. Burnett, I don’t know what you think is going on here, but I swear, I was just—”
“It’s Colonel Burnett. I’ve served my country my whole career and risked my life to ensure her security. I’ve damn well earned my title, so I’d appreciate it if you’d show some respect and do me the courtesy of using it.”
“Well, in that case, Colonel, you can address me as Dr. Austins. I studied full time for seven years and had to pay for it myself by working evenings and weekends in a shit-house restaurant. My parents weren’t wealthy. You earned your title, and I’ve earned mine.”
“And what exactly are you a doctor of?”
“I hold a Ph.D. in Economics and Management Studies from the LSE on top of my first class Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from
“What the hell is the LSE?”
“Well, that all sounds very impressive. But it still doesn’t give you the right to disrupt my son’s funeral.”
“Now, hang on just a sec. I didn’t disrupt anything. All I did was stand next to Beth and support her when she broke down. You didn’t see Beth standing at the graveside in tears, did you? Blaming herself for his death?”
“You, a complete and utter stranger, showed up at my house, with my daughter, and started an argument.”
“Forgive me, Colonel, because all I remember doing was defending Beth when you called her an ungrateful wretch.”
“She is an ungrateful wretch. Fancy talking to me that way, questioning the way we treated Lance. He fought terrorists to keep our country safe!” The Colonel’s arms were as expressive as his words.
“It’s my understanding that there weren’t all that many terrorists in
“You’re one of those liberal, anti-war assholes, aren’t you? Don’t you remember nine-eleven?”
“Yes, I do. And I remember seven-seven too.”
“Remember what now?”
“You mean that thing on the subway in
Chris nodded. “I was there. I got off the train at King’s Cross just before the third bomb ripped through it.”
“Weren’t those boys home-grown? They were from somewhere in the north of
“They were. But the guys who hit the twin towers weren’t from
“It wasn’t an invasion. It was liberation. We freed the Iraqi people from a murderous tyrant.”
“The invasion had nothing to do with nine-eleven. And if it wasn’t for the invasion, there probably wouldn’t even have been a seven-seven. It was all about US oil interests. Plain and simple. George Dubbya was finishing the job his Daddy started.” Chris’s heart was racing and adrenaline pumped around his body. He felt hot and knew his face had reddened—it always did when he was angry.
The Colonel stood straight and tall, his hands behind his back. Chris could see the same suspicion in his eyes that had been there during their encounter the day before. His eyes narrowed. “I see. I see.” His voice was so cold and quiet that it chilled Chris’s blood. “So it’s you who’s been putting these crazy ideas into Lizzie’s head. I should have known from the look of you when I first saw you.”
“Actually, Beth and I met in an anti-war chat room two years ago. She’s always been against the invasion.”
“Nonsense. My daughter isn’t a traitor.” The Colonel turned on his heel and walked towards the window. He stared out into the street. “She’s a good girl, my Lizzie. Not a traitor.”
“You’re right, she’s not a traitor. She just doesn’t listen to all the propaganda that comes out of
The Colonel rounded on Chris. “Are you questioning my relationship with my daughter, young man?”
“Not at all. I don’t think I could because I’m not sure you even have one.”
“How dare you! What would you know about my relationship with Lizzie?”
“Only what she’s told me—which I’ll admit is a bit one-sided. But I’ll tell you what I do know. I know that for years she tried her hardest to catch your eye, to get your approval. But you only ever had eyes for your perfect son. She was top of her class, she learnt to play the piano and the flute, her achievements were every bit as impressive as her brother’s. But you never saw them. You looked past her to Lance.”
“Do you have any idea how that made her feel—to do so well and still be second best?”
“She was never second best. She’s my Lizzie. My baby girl. I adore her. This is all rubbish.” He jabbed his finger towards Chris. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Are you sure? Look, Colonel, I have not doubt that you love Beth—what sort of man doesn’t love his daughter. But did you ever show her?”
The Colonel said nothing
“When was the last time you held her? Or kissed her forehead? When was the last time you said ‘I love you, Beth’? Colonel, do you have any idea how Beth felt when you nominated Lance for
“She was proud. We all were.”
“It never occurred to you that she might wonder why you didn’t nominate her? Because that’s what she did.”
“I’d have thought it was obvious.”
“It was obvious to Beth. It was because you didn’t think she was good enough.”
The Colonel stared at Chris. “That’s not true. She would have done at least as well as Lance did. Maybe even better. I’m sure of it.”
“Then why didn’t you nominate her?”
The Colonel raised his voice. “Because she’s my special little girl. I couldn’t let her join the Military—Lord knows what might have happened to her. I’m her father. I have to protect her.”
“But have you ever told her that?”
The Colonel turned back to the window.
“I didn’t think so,” said Chris.
There was a long pause. The Colonel ran his fingers though his short grey hair. Chris waited.
“Are you screwing her?” the Colonel said in a calm, quiet voice.
The Colonel turned back towards him, his fists tightly clenched. He spoke through gritted teeth. “It’s a simple enough question, son. Are you screwing my daughter?” He exhaled. “I know how it works. A man doesn’t fly halfway around the world to see a girl unless he thinks he’s going to get a little pussy.”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Colonel.”
“What did I just tell you? She’s my daughter, it’s my job to protect her. Of course it’s my business when some asshole tries to take advantage of her.”
Chris shook his head. “You’ve got it wrong. You don’t need to protect her from me. I would never take advantage of her. Never hurt her.”
“Really? So what happens when your vacation is over and you go back to
It was Chris’s turn to raise his voice. “I’m not taking advantage of her.” He calmed. “If anything, she’s taking advantage of me.”
“So you are screwing her. I’m going to make this real simple for you, boy. Get the hell out of River’s Crossing or so help me God, I’ll dig out my service revolver and shoot you dead.”
“I’ll leave if and when Beth asks me to. And if you have to kill me, then maybe Beth will be better off when you’re locked up.”
Colonel Burnett took a step towards Chris. “Don’t play with me, son. I’ve killed for my country, I wouldn’t think twice about killing for my family. She’s all I have left. I won’t let you take her from me.” He marched out of the house and slammed the door behind him.