A Tale of a Rough Diamond
Not all that glitters is diamond; sometimes it is only glass. But even its sharp edges will never hurt you like family.
Stephan is living a life every teenager would envy. Son of a wealthy businessman, he lives carefree and carelessly. However, nothing is as it seems, and his perfect life is doomed; it has been since before he was even born. Days thrill-seeking, nights lock-picking; it’s all just about to fall apart.
His older brother has uncovered a secret. For all their years together, Roger has envied Stephan’s life, his success, the attention he has from their father, but now Roger can wait no longer; this is the moment, the moment he can hurt Stephan the most, when he can turn Stephan’s choices against him, tear apart everything he cherishes, and steal away his future.
With secrecy and the resources of the Russian Mafia on his side, the older Mills brother effortlessly brings Stephan’s world down around him, a single tip-off to the police burying him under the ruins of his former life.
After a year behind bars, Stephan seems to have no hope, no future. Cut off even from the rest of his family, can he reclaim his life and freedom, or will he sink still lower? Will his years of petty crime damn him, or will they be enough to help him fight back?
And will he have to do it alone?
1. STEPHAN MILLS
The hall was immersed in darkness, with only the buzzing sound of the air-conditioning system and his heartbeat breaking the silence. He sneaked from a secondary road to the basement where, according to the information he could gather about the security system of the building, no surveillance cameras were installed.
He studied the blueprints in detail. Every single corner, from the basement to the parking hall, and from the emergency stairs to the floor corridor, was taken into account. However, he felt uncomfortably nervous, as he was rightly aware that surprises were not to be underestimated; flats in residential areas were well-watched by surveillance cameras. And for a reason, he thought, smiling.
He took a deep breath and covered his face whilst walking along the shadow zones of the cameras in the parking hall, towards the emergency stairs. He opened the door to the stairwell and started to climb.
His target was the fifth floor. If the information he’d got from J. was right, at Flat number 306 he should find an empty apartment. Empty of the owner, and soon empty of all the things he would be stealing from there. He felt the adrenaline rush streaming inside his body.
Third floor. He stopped and took another deep breath, allowing his heart to regain the pace.
Fourth floor. He was almost there. He felt his mouth dry.
Fifth floor. He remained still for a moment to regain his breath. Then he opened the door leading out to the corridor. It would remain in darkness for a few minutes, just enough time for him to get inside the apartment.
He walked to his target, silent as the shadows, unseen and unheard by the other inhabitants of the floor, and finally to Flat 306. His daily El Dorado.
He carefully examined the lock of the door and shook his head. The further technology advances, the easier it gets, he thought happily, singing in his mind.
He was a burglar and a fairly skilled one, too. Well, surely skilled, but lucky… not quite. His misfortune put him in jail on a regular basis.
There were times, in the past, when he had never thought this would become his life; and, if he had to be honest, he didn’t much enjoy it. He wanted to have an honest and steady job, to make a life. He wanted to be like all the people he robbed… Normal.
Once, when he was still a kid, he used to introduce himself to other people’s apartments just for the sake of it. Then, later, it became a necessity, the only way to survive for various reasons; all aliens from his real will. But, perhaps it was what he truly deserved, and he should have stopped thinking of himself as a victim? He shook his head.
Everything started the day he was born, the day that he, sometimes, regretted the most. For, from that day on, he had to learn that the person he yearned to call Mom was not willing to be his mother at all, but rather his brother’s Mom.
He was born into a fairly rich family as Stephan Mills. His father, Jonathan Mills, was in the timber business and co-owned, with his brothers, a well-known family firm that exported raw material all over the States.
Jonathan was aware of the difficult relationship between his wife and their son, so he tried as much as possible to compensate, with his attentions, the lack of motherly love his son should have received from her. However, that was not enough for Stephan; he yearned desperately for his mother’s love, the same love that was reserved exclusively for his brother.
Her behavior didn’t fit with those of the other mothers of the kids at school, and Stephan felt jealous of them all. His older brother, Roger, didn’t seem to have a lot of sympathy towards him, but mostly he thought it was just because of the difference in age. Roger was five years older than Stephan, so they didn’t have many opportunities to share the same interests.
They were, moreover, decidedly different in character as in aspect. Stephan was shorter but strong-built, dark-haired and brown-eyed. His skin was a healthy tanned brown, all year round. Roger, on the other hand, was extremely thin and delicate. His pale skin gave him a sort of melancholic, peaky look that raised, more than once, the concern of his parents.
Even though he was surrounded by the love of both his mom and dad, Roger always felt jealous of Stephan. He felt that his younger brother’s presence took away from him part of his father’s affection that, otherwise, would have been destined for him.
For this reason, Roger devoted his life to a single purpose: to destroy the image of Stephan in front of his father’s eyes, and so reclaim what was originally meant to be intended only for him. He didn’t know how he would achieve his goal, but he was sure that, sooner or later, he would find the way.
Years passed by and, even from elementary school, one could have probably forecasted the kind of characters the two brothers would have developed when they reached adulthood. Roger was an obedient and calm boy; he would get only the best grades at school so as to make his parents proud of him. Stephan, on the other hand, was more interested in looking for trouble rather than studying; being averse to any kind of rule or regulation, he often ended up in detention.
“Look at yourself, Stephan,” his father said as he picked him up from the umpteenth detention. “What can I do to make you understand that rules are made to be followed? That they are not made only for people like your brother? Why can’t you be more like him?”
“I’m sorry, Dad. But this time it was not my fault, honest,” Stephan replied, trying to explain the reason why he always seemed to end up in trouble. He knew already that, this time, he wouldn’t be able to escape the punishment waiting for him.
“Oh, so you are going to tell me that it wasn’t you who was caught damaging the rector’s car?” his father asked impatiently, although curious to see what kind of excuse his son would come up with this time.
“Yes, but you see… they put me in…” Stephan tried to explain, being sure that his fate was already decided.
“I see,” his father said. “They must have forced you, so you couldn’t escape. Then, as soon as the guard saw you, your friends untied you, so that you could get all the blame. Isn’t that so?”
“No, but…” Stephan didn’t quite know how to explain to his dad that, if he had refused, he would have been considered a loser.
“Then everything is clear, and you are grounded… for a month,” his father replied seriously.
“A month? Oh man!” said Stephan, upset.
He felt terribly annoyed about the punishment. However, he knew that, somehow, he deserved it.
It was like in that book he was reading; he didn’t get the meaning before, but now it was clear. What was the title? He tried to remember. At, that was it! Crime and Punishment, or something like that.
He realized how stupid he had been, to follow what his friends told him to do; he must have looked like an idiot. And, at that moment, whatever looked cool before, became suddenly foolish. They just played him at their whim; they knew he didn’t like to be compared to his brother, that he would have done anything so as not to be considered a loser.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, turning his head down. “You’re right, I should have thought of the consequences.”
“Apologizing is not actually fixing things up, you know,” said Roger smugly, overhearing the conversation. “You have to learn how to behave in a civilized society.”
“Oh, shut up, you!” Stephan replied. He already felt stupid enough, without him to rub it in.
“Stephan! You are not allowed to speak to your brother like that, especially when he is right. Apologize immediately to him,” his father said, raising the tone of his voice.
“I didn’t mean to be rude to you,” said Stephan. “I was just feeling upset.” He turned his face to his brother, who was sitting in the back seat of the car.
Roger smiled victoriously. “Apologies accepted. But you should learn to understand the difference between right and wrong, or soon you will find yourself in bigger trouble,” he replied.
That wouldn’t have been the first, nor the last, time that Stephan was caught doing something wrong. School was mostly too boring for his lively character, and he was sure that the teachers couldn’t understand him. So, the only way to escape the boredom was to hang around, during the recess and after school, with his friends, who shared the same problem; they wanted more than to sit on a chair for hours learning something about grammar, maths and uninteresting things like that.
The event, which started up the definitive rupture between him and his family, took place one summer’s night. Everyone was sleeping at home, when the telephone rang.
Jonathan Mills reached for the bedside table and finally got the phone.
“Hello…?” he answered, almost whispering, looking at his wife sleeping peacefully at his side.
“Mr. Jonathan Mills?” a voice asked.
“Yes, that’s me… Who’s there?” he asked, standing up from bed and walking out of the room.
“This is Officer O’Connell. We have arrested your son, Stephan Mills, as he broke into an apartment with the intention to rob it. He should have called you himself, but we can’t calm him down. I guess he is pretty scared. Anyway, he is in our custody and soon will be debriefed. You might want to come and take him home, but he will have to face trial.”
Jonathan simply stared into the phone. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“In my opinion,” continued the police officer, “since this is the first time he has done anything like this, he won’t be judged severely… probably he will be set a house arrest, or be given over to the social services, particularly if you can afford a good lawyer. I think that you need to have a serious talk with him.”
Jonathan thought that perhaps he was just dreaming. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t understand. You are saying that my son is a burglar and he might go to jail?” He tried to stay calm and to comprehend what was happening.
“I do mean exactly that, Sir,” said O’Connell, lowering the tone of his voice. “I’m sorry; this must be a shock for you.”
“No, well… Yes, I mean… Sure, I will come as soon as I can. Thank you, Officer,” Jonathan replied, hanging up the phone.
He couldn’t believe his ears; why did that boy have to behave like that? What had he done wrong in educating him? His only thoughts as he got dressed were to collect him from the police station.
He was almost at the door when Roger switched on the light. Jonathan looked at him in surprise, like a child who was caught stealing from the candy jar.
“Where are you going, Dad? You look like a thief,” Roger asked, smiling.
“Shh,” whispered Jonathan. “I need to get your brother from the police station. It seems he was caught burglaring a private apartment.”
“He did what?” replied Roger loudly.
“Silence!” hissed Jonathan. “Don’t wake up your mother. Come on, come with me,” and he pushed him out of the door.
“Hey, let me get dressed first,” protested Roger. “I can’t go in pajamas.”
“Okay, but hurry up,” said his father, wiping his forehead with his hand.
“So, what are you going to do?” Roger asked as they were driving to the police station.
“I don’t know,” replied his father. “I honestly have no idea what is going on in your brother’s head, sometimes. He is a sweet and kind boy, but when he comes up against something exciting, his brain stops working. Plus, he is so easily influenced by those friends of his. They are just abusing his ingenuity, to make him do whatever they want.”
“I understand it is none of my business,” said Roger. “But, in my opinion, you should be firm with him, Dad, and perhaps take some drastic decisions. As long as he knows you will unfailingly be there, to cover for his mistakes, he will never learn to be a responsible man, and he will always be at the mercy of people who will use him. Today it’s a robbery, tomorrow you won’t know what it might be.”
“Hmm, I don’t know,” said Jonathan. “Maybe you’re right. But, in my heart, I can’t help but take care of him.”
“But don’t you understand?” replied Roger. “It is just by taking too much care of him, as you say, that you are letting him down. How can he learn if you don’t give him a lesson to remember? What will happen when you won’t be there to help him? You won’t be around forever; you can’t watch over him perpetually. He has to learn how to walk on his own two legs.”
His father remained silent, thinking about what Roger had said, and he had to admit that maybe that was his mistake. He had covered up for Stephan’s mistakes too often, and never let him grow up to face his responsibilities. Roger was right; he knew it. Even if it was difficult, he decided that Stephan would have to take it like a man.
They eventually arrived at the police station. Inside, it was quiet, and the neon lights made the place look more like an old dungeon.
Jonathan walked up to the information desk.
“Good evening,” he said. “Officer O’Connell called me. You have arrested my son, Stephan Mills. May I see him?”
The police officer looked at him and smiled. “Sure, come with me,” he replied. “We finally managed to calm the boy down.” He led them through a corridor and to the room where Stephan was being kept.
As they walked in, Stephan stood up and ran to hug his father. “Dad, please,” he whispered, sobbing desperately. “I’m so scared.”
Jonathan had never seen his son in such a state before, and felt dreadfully sorry for him. However, when he glanced at Roger, he remembered that this time he had to be firmer, for Stephan’s sake.
Jonathan parted from him and slapped him. “You should truly feel ashamed,” he shouted angrily, “just as I am right now. What was the big idea of robbing an apartment? As if you don’t have everything you desire. We can afford to grant you whatever wish you might have. What’s your excuse now? You are eighteen years old, Stephan. You should be able to recognize right from wrong.”
Stephan remained silent. He was dumbfounded by his father’s response, but he knew he was right. He had no reason to act the way he did, apart from the boredom and the need to feel the adrenaline rush.
“Dad…” he said, confused.
“No, this time you are going to listen to me,” his father interrupted. “I don’t want you to say a word. You have gone way too far this time, Stephan, and you are going to pay for it right now.”
Jonathan looked at his son for a moment before continuing. “I am not going to pay to have you released tonight. You will wait in jail for the trial,” he said severely. “Neither am I going to pay for a lawyer to get you out of this mess. You put yourself into this, and you are going to get yourself out and pay the consequences of your stupidity. Maybe then you will learn a valuable lesson.”
Stephan stared at his father in disbelief. “Dad… you can’t leave me here,” he said. “Please, I can explain…”
“What are you going to explain?” replied his father. “I don’t want to hear another word from you. I only hope that you will finally learn to respect the law and act like a civilized adult. I’ll see you when you get out of jail. I expect you to use this time to reflect on your actions and to think about your behavior in the future.” With that, Jonathan turned away to walk out of the room.
“Dad, please, I’d like to exchange some words with my brother,” said Roger. “Can I have some time alone with him?” He looked at his father and then at the police officer.
“I’ll be in the car waiting for you,” Jonathan said to Roger as he exited the room, without looking back.
“Not more than five minutes,” the officer said, closing the door behind him.
When they were finally left alone, Stephan turned his gaze away from the door, and the inquisitorial eyes of Roger, and focused his attention on a hole in the wall.
“So, Stephan, my dear brother…” began Roger sarcastically.
Stephan continued to stare at that hole in the wall. He wished he were small enough to be able to crawl in there and disappear from the world, to be far from his brother, from his mistakes, and from the unbearable feeling of shame.
“Now it is time for you to pay for having intruded in my life,” Roger continued. Stephan looked at him, not quite getting the meaning of what he was saying.
“What do you mean?” he asked, surprised.
“I’ve finally got you exactly where I wanted you,” replied Roger. “Ever since you were born, you have been stealing the attention of Dad away from me. You have constantly been the special one to him, the one to be protected from everything. Instead, I was always the last in line. Now things are going to change. It wasn’t easy to convince Dad to leave you here, for he was determined to bring you home, and have a serious talk with you.”
Roger paused and looked at his brother coldly.
“He would have paid for the best lawyer money could buy,” he went on. “It was by luck that I caught him as he was going out of the house. I convinced him that the only way to help you would be to leave you here. Now that you are going to be far away for quite some time, I will have time to convince him to cast you away from our family. You have brought shame on all of us. You have ruined the good name of the entire family! How could you?”
Stephan looked at his brother in shock. He didn’t know what to say.
“Well, brother,” said Roger, “I guess my time is ticking away. I will have to leave you soon.”
“Roger,” replied Stephan, “please, what is going on? Why are you doing this to me?” He was in tears.
“Because I hate you,” spat Roger. “You don’t deserve to be part of our family.”
“This cannot happen,” said Stephan, confused. “It must be a dream, but…” He was not quite sure what to say.
“But what?” replied Roger. “You still don’t get it. Are you seriously that stupid? Look at yourself; do you actually think that, after this scandal, Dad will welcome you back into our family as if nothing has happened? I will make sure there is no place left for you there.”
Stephan knew that his brother was somehow right; he took for granted too many things in his life, and now he had probably lost everything he’d had – his family, his home. Everything was gone, because of his stupidity. He then wondered what would happen if the police found out it was not the first robbery in which he’d participated.
He began to panic. He had no idea what was going to happen to him from that day on. However, there was one thing he did know for sure, and that was that he was alone.
Stephan wondered how much time he would have to spend in jail, and what would happen to him there. Could he still hope for house arrest instead?
“Please Roger, don’t destroy my life,” he begged. “What do you want from me? What should I do?”
“I want you out of my life,” replied Roger angrily, “and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now I’ll return home. Good night and sweet dreams, brother.” He laughed as he walked out from the room, leaving Stephan alone.
Stephan sat on the bench, without any strength left in his body. He wanted to rewind all his life and rewrite it from the beginning, deleting all the moments he had disappointed his father, all the times he’d let himself be misguided by his so-called friends just to be “cool”. Thinking about it, at that moment the only word that came into his mind was “loser”. He wanted so badly to be back in his own home, in his bed, where he could finally feel safe.
A nicely done suspense, that keeps you guessing. For me, this book started a tad too slow and didn’t really catch me very quickly, but don’t be put off by that – it does become much more intriguing and engaging. As a teenager, Stephan has a good life, but he’s always pushing the boundaries. Finally, he ends up in prison, and his father refuses to bail him out this time, mainly because his brother convinces his father that Stephan needs to learn his lessons. Heartbreaking for both Stephan and his father.
The very long first chapter deals mostly with Stephan in jail and how he comes to terms with his life. There is a nice twist to the story that I did guess in part, but the author did a good job getting me to feel empathy for Stephan, and although he was on the wrong path and did deserve some of his punishment, you’ll want to seek revenge of your own on his brother.
Some of the wording is a bit stiff, but all in all, it was an enjoyable read. Reviewed by Cyrene