An excerpt from “Sunday in New York”

Now available on Amazon at:  https://amzn.to/2H7ALs8

 

Williams’ Restaurant, East 65th Street, New York, Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

 

We met the Blaine’s at Williams’, a rather upmarket restaurant that the Blaine’s frequently visited, and had recommended.

Of course, during the taxi ride there, Alison reminded me that with my new job, we would be able to go to many more places like Williams’.  It was, at worst, more emotional blackmail, because as far as Alison was concerned, we were well on our way to posh restaurants, the Trump Tower Apartments, and the trappings of the ‘executive set’.

It would be a miracle if I didn’t strangle Elaine before the night was over.  It was she who had filled Alison’s head with all this stuff and nonsense.

Aside from the half frown half-smile, Alison was looking stunning.  It was months since she had last dressed up, and she was especially wearing the dress I’d bought her for our 5th anniversary that cost a month’s salary.  On her, it was worth it, and I would have paid more if I had to.  She had adored it, and me, for a week or so after.

For tonight, I think I was close to getting back on that pedestal.

She had the looks and figure to draw attention, the sort movie stars got on the red carpet, and when we walked into the restaurant, I swear there were at least five seconds silence, and many more gasps.

Even I had a sudden loss of breath earlier in the evening when she came out of the dressing room.  Once more I was reminded of how lucky I was that she had agreed to marry me.  Amid all those self-doubts, I couldn’t believe she had loved me when there were so many others ‘out there’ who were more appealing.

Elaine was out of her seat and came over just as the Head Waiter hovered into sight.  She personally escorted Alison to the table, allowing me to follow like the Queen’s consort, while she and Alison basked in the admiring glances of the other patrons.

More than once I heard the muted question, “Who is she?”

Jimmy stood, we shook hands, and then we sat together.  It was not the usual boy, girl, boy, girl seating arrangement.  Jimmy and I on one side and Elaine and Alison on the other.

The battle lines were drawn.

Jimmy was looking fashionable, with the permanent blade one beard, unkempt hair, and designer dinner suit that looked like he’d slept in it.  Alison insisted I wear a tuxedo, and I looked like the proverbial penguin or just a thinner version of Alfred Hitchcock.

The bow tie had been slightly crooked, but just before we stepped out she had straightened it.  And took the moment to look deeply into my soul.  It was one of those moments when words were not necessary.

Then it was gone.

I relived it briefly as I sat and she looked at me.  A penetrating look that told me to ‘behave’.

When we were settled, Elaine said, in that breathless, enthusiastic manner of hers when she was excited, “So, Harry, you are finally moving up.”  It was not a question, but a statement.

I was not sure what she meant by ‘finally’ but I accepted it with good grace.  Sometimes Elaine was prone to using figures of speech I didn’t understand.  I guessed she was talking about the new job.  “It was supposed to be a secret.”

She smiled widely.  “There are no secrets between Al and I, are there Al?”

I looked at ‘Al’ and saw a brief look of consternation.

I was not sure Alison liked the idea of being called Al.  I tried it once and was admonished.  But it was interesting her ‘best friend forever’ was allowed that distinction when I was not.  It was, perhaps, another indicator of how far I’d slipped in her estimation.

Perhaps, I thought, it was a necessary evil.  As I understood it, the Blaine’s were our mentors at the Trump Tower, because they didn’t just let ‘anyone’ in.  I didn’t ask if the Blaine’s thought we were just ‘anyone’ before I got the job offer.

And then there was that look between Alison and Elaine, quickly stolen before Alison realized I was looking at both of them.  I was out of my depth, in a place I didn’t belong, with people I didn’t understand.  And yet, apparently, Alison did.  I must have missed the memo.

“No,” Alison said softly, stealing a glance in my direction, “No secrets between friends.”

No secrets.  Her look conveyed something else entirely.

The waiter brought champagne, Krug, and poured glasses for each of us.  It was not the cheap stuff, and I was glad I brought a couple of thousand dollars with me.  We were going to need it.

Then, a toast.

To a new job and a new life.

“When did you decide?”  Elaine was effusive at the best of times, but with the champagne, it was worse.

Alison had a strange expression on her face.  It was obvious she had told Elaine it was a done deal, even before I’d made up my mind.  Perhaps she’d assumed I might be ‘refreshingly honest’ in front of Elaine, but it could also mean she didn’t really care what I might say or do.

Instead of consternation, she looked happy, and I realized it would be churlish, even silly if I made a scene.  I knew what I wanted to say.  I also knew that it would serve little purpose provoking Elaine, or upsetting Alison.  This was not the time or the place.  Alison had been looking forward to coming here, and I was not going to spoil it.

Instead, I said, smiling, “When I woke up this morning and found Alison missing.  If she had been there, I would not have noticed the water stain on the roof above our bed, and decide there and then how much I hated the place.” I used my reassuring smile, the one I used with the customers when all hell was breaking loose, and the forest fire was out of control.  “It’s the little things.  They all add up until one day …”  I shrugged.  “I guess that one day was today.”

I saw an incredulous look pass between Elaine and Alison, a non-verbal question; perhaps, is he for real?  Or; I told you he’d come around.

I had no idea the two were so close.

“How quaint,” Elaine said, which just about summed up her feelings towards me.  I think, at that moment, I lost some brownie points.  It was all I could come up with at short notice.

“Yes,” I added, with a little more emphasis than I wanted.  “Alison was off to get some study in with one of her friends.”

“Weren’t the two of you off to the Hamptons, a weekend with some friends?” Jimmy piped up, and immediately got the ‘shut up you fool’ look, that cut that line of conversation dead.  Someone forgot to feed Jimmy his lines.

It was followed by the condescending smile from Elaine, and “I need to powder my nose.  Care to join me, Al?”

A frown, then a forced smile for her new best friend.  “Yes.”

I watched them leave the table and head in the direction of the restroom, looking like they were in earnest conversation.  I thought ‘Al’ looked annoyed, but I could be wrong.

I had to say Jimmy looked more surprised than I did.

There was that odd moment of silence between us, Jimmy still smarting from his death stare, and for me, the Alison and Elaine show.  I was quite literally gob-smacked.

I drained my champagne glass gathering some courage and turned to him.  “By the way, we were going to have a weekend away, but this legal tutorial thing came up.  You know Alison is doing her law degree.”

He looked startled when he realized I had spoken.  He was looking intently at a woman several tables over from us, one who’d obviously forgotten some basic garments when getting dressed.  Or perhaps it was deliberate.  She’d definitely had some enhancements done.

He dragged his eyes back to me.  “Yes.  Elaine said something or other about it.  But I thought she said the tutor was out of town and it had been postponed until next week.  Perhaps I got it wrong.  I usually do.”

“Perhaps I’ve got it wrong.”  I shrugged, as the dark thoughts started swirling in my head again.  “This week or next, what does it matter?”

Of course, it mattered to me, and I digested what he said with a sinking heart.  It showed there was another problem between Alison and me; it was possible she was now telling me lies.  If what he said was true and I had no reason to doubt him, where was she going tomorrow morning, and had she really been with a friend studying today?

We poured some more champagne, had a drink, then he asked, “This promotion thing, what’s it worth?”

“Trouble, I suspect.  Definitely more money, but less time at home.”

“Oh,” raised eyebrows.  Obviously, the women had not talked about the job in front of him, or, at least, not all the details.  “You sure you want to do that?”

At last the voice of reason.  “Me?  No.”

“Yet you accepted the job.”

I sucked in a breath or two while I considered whether I could trust him.  Even if I couldn’t, I could see my ship was sinking, so it wouldn’t matter what I told him, or what Elaine might find out from him.  “Jimmy, between you and me I haven’t as yet decided one way or another.  To be honest, I won’t know until I go up to Barclay’s office and he asks me the question.”

“Barclay?”

“My boss.”

“Elaine’s doing a job for a Barclay that recently moved in the tower a block down from us.  I thought I recognized the name.”

“How did Elaine get the job?”

“Oh, Alison put him onto her.”

“When?”

“A couple of months ago.  Why?”

I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face, while my insides were churning up like the wake of a supertanker.  I felt sick, faint, and wanting to die all at the same moment.  “Perhaps she said something about it, but it didn’t connect at the time.  Too busy with work I expect.  I think I seriously need to get away for a while.”

I could hardly breathe, my throat was constricted and I knew I had to keep it together.  I could see Elaine and Alison coming back, so I had to calm down.  I sucked in some deep breaths, and put my ‘manage a complete and utter disaster’ look on my face.

And I had to change the subject, quickly, so I said, “Jimmy, Elaine told Alison, who told me, you were something of a guru of the cause and effects of the global economic meltdown.  Now, I have a couple of friends who have been expounding this theory …”

Like flicking a switch, I launched into the well-worn practice of ‘running a distraction’, like at work when we needed to keep the customer from discovering the truth.  It was one of the things I was good at, taking over a conversation and pushing it in a different direction.  It was salvaging a good result from an utter disaster, and if ever there was a time that it was required, it was right here, right now.

When Alison sat down and looked at me, she knew something had happened between Jimmy and I.  I might have looked pale or red-faced, or angry or disappointed, it didn’t matter.  If that didn’t seal the deal for her, the fact I took over the dining engagement did.  She knew well enough the only time I did that was when everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket.  She’d seen me in action before and had been suitably astonished.

But I got into gear, kept the champagne flowing and steered the conversation, as much as one could from a seasoned professional like Elaine, and, I think, in Jimmy’s eyes, he saw the battle lines and knew who took the crown on points.  Neither Elaine nor Jimmy suspected anything, and if the truth be told, I had improved my stocks with Elaine.  She was at times both surprised and interested, even willing to take a back seat.

Alison, on the other hand, tried poking around the edges, and, once when Elaine and Jimmy had got up to have a cigarette outside, questioned me directly.  I chose to ignore her, and pretend nothing had happened, instead of telling her how much I was enjoying the evening.

She had her ‘secrets’.  I had mine.

At the end of the evening, when I got up to go to the bathroom, I was physically sick from the pent up tension and the implications of what Jimmy had told me.  It took a while for me to pull myself together; so long, in fact, Jimmy came looking for me.  I told him I’d drunk too much champagne, and he seemed satisfied with that excuse.  When I returned, both Alison and Elaine noticed how pale I was but neither made any comment.

It was a sad way to end what was supposed to be a delightful evening, which to a large degree it was for the other three.  But I had achieved what I set out to do, and that was to play them at their own game, watching the deception, once I knew there was a deception, as warily as a cat watches its prey.

I had also discovered Jimmy’s real calling; a professor of economics at the same University Alison was doing her law degree.  It was no surprise in the end, on a night where surprises abounded, that the world could really be that small.

We parted in the early hours of the morning, a taxi whisking us back to the Lower East Side, another taking the Blaine’s back to the Upper West Side.  But, in our case, as Alison reminded me, it would not be for much longer.  She showed concern for my health, asked me what was wrong.  It took all the courage I could muster to tell her it was most likely something I ate and the champagne, and that I would be fine in the morning.

She could see quite plainly it was anything other than what I told her, but she didn’t pursue it.  Perhaps she just didn’t care what I was playing at.

And yet, after everything that had happened, once inside our ‘palace’, the events of the evening were discarded, like her clothing, and she again reminded me of what we had together in the early years before the problems had set in.

It left me confused and lost.

I couldn’t sleep because my mind had now gone down that irreversible path that told me I was losing her, that she had found someone else, and that our marriage was in its last death throes.

And now I knew it had something to do with Barclay.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

Sunday In New York

 

Past conversations with my cat – 78

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This is Chester.  He doesn’t like stormy weather, particularly at night.

We’ve been having a lot of hot days with no relief in temperatures.  From mid-morning, the air conditioning had been running until midnight.

But, Chester’s usual hiding place has been in the non-aircoditioned part of the house, so he’s had to come down to join me.

There’s been no rain for weeks and although some days are cloudy all it does is worsen the humidity which at times even the airconditioning can’t relieve.

But when the storms come, after a long dry period, they are intense, and when the lightning strikes the thunder is particularly loud, and the cat jumps.

Never let a scaredy-cat sit on your lap in a storm.  I did.  Once.  Never again.

I put him on the chair next to me and covered him up.  It helps.

An hour later the storm has passed, and he goes back to lying on the floor.

Oops, was that another crack of lightning?

Inspiration, maybe

A picture paints … well, as many words as you like.  For instance:

lookingdownfromcoronetpeak

And the story:

 

It was once said that a desperate man has everything to lose.

The man I was chasing was desperate, but I, on the other hand, was more desperate to catch him.

He’d left a trail of dead people from one end of the island to the other.

The team had put in a lot of effort to locate him, and now his capture was imminent.  We were following the car he was in, from a discrete distance, and, at the appropriate time, we would catch up, pull him over, and make the arrest.

There was nowhere for him to go.

The road led to a dead-end, and the only way off the mountain was back down the road were now on.  Which was why I was somewhat surprised when we discovered where he was.

Where was he going?

 

“Damn,” I heard Alan mutter.  He was driving, being careful not to get too close, but not far enough away to lose sight of him.

“What?”

“I think he’s made us.”

“How?”

“Dumb bad luck, I’m guessing.  Or he expected we’d follow him up the mountain.  He’s just sped up.”

“How far away?”

“A half-mile.  We should see him higher up when we turn the next corner.”

It took an eternity to get there, and when we did, Alan was right, only he was further on than we thought.”

“Step on it.  Let’s catch him up before he gets to the top.”

Easy to say, not so easy to do.  The road was treacherous, and in places just gravel, and there were no guard rails to stop a three thousand footfall down the mountainside.

Good thing then I had the foresight to have three agents on the hill for just such a scenario.

 

Ten minutes later, we were in sight of the car, still moving quickly, but we were going slightly faster.  We’d catch up just short of the summit car park.

Or so we thought.

Coming quickly around another corner we almost slammed into the car we’d been chasing.

“What the hell…” Aland muttered.

I was out of the car, and over to see if he was in it, but I knew that it was only a slender possibility.  The car was empty, and no indication where he went.

Certainly not up the road.  It was relatively straightforward for the next mile, at which we would have reached the summit.  Up the mountainside from here, or down.

I looked up.  Nothing.

Alan yelled out, “He’s not going down, not that I can see, but if he did, there’s hardly a foothold and that’s a long fall.”

Then where did he go?

Then a man looking very much like our quarry came out from behind a rock embedded just a short distance up the hill.

“Sorry,” he said quite calmly.  “Had to go if you know what I mean.”

 

I’d lost him.

It was as simple as that.

I had been led a merry chase up the hill, and all the time he was getting away in a different direction.

I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book, letting my desperation blind me to the disguise that anyone else would see through in an instant.

It was a lonely sight, looking down that road, knowing that I had to go all that way down again, only this time, without having to throw caution to the wind.

“Maybe next time,” Alan said.

“We’ll get him.  It’s just a matter of time.”

 

© Charles Heath 2019

Find this and other stories in “Inspiration, maybe”  available soon.

InspirationMaybe1v1

 

 

In a word: Angle

We all know this to be an intersection of two lines like a crossroad is at a 90-degree angle

But…

It’s an angle bracket that keeps the shelf up, hopefully with books on it.

Did you know that it was something someone did in order to get something?

She began to angle for an invitation to a party that she would not normally be invited to, or he has angled his answers to the prospective employer in a bid to be more likely to be selected for the position.

It can also refer to a position, or judgement, so that someone might say, try and see it from my angle, or another angle.

Or that it refers to fishing, and the fisherman or woman is known as an angler.

It can be a position from which something is viewed, or in crime parlance, the CSI people will work out the angle of the bullet’s entry do they can locate the position of the shooter.

Angle can refer to people of Germanic origin, such as an Anglo Saxon

And, here’s something even I didn’t know, in Astrology, it is each of the four cardinal points of a chart, from which the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth houses extend anticlockwise respectively.

“The Devil You Don’t”, be careful what you wish for

Now only $0.99 for a short time at https://amzn.to/2Xyh1ow

John Pennington’s life is in the doldrums. Looking for new opportunities, prevaricating about getting married, the only joy on the horizon was an upcoming visit to his grandmother in Sorrento, Italy.

Suddenly he is left at the check-in counter with a message on his phone telling him the marriage is off, and the relationship is over.

If only he hadn’t promised a friend he would do a favor for him in Rome.

At the first stop, Geneva, he has a chance encounter with Zoe, an intriguing woman who captures his imagination from the moment she boards the Savoire, and his life ventures into uncharted territory in more ways than one.

That ‘favor’ for his friend suddenly becomes a life-changing event, and when Zoe, the woman who he knows is too good to be true, reappears, danger and death follow.

Shot at, lied to, seduced, and drawn into a world where nothing is what it seems, John is dragged into an adrenaline-charged undertaking, where he may have been wiser to stay with the ‘devil you know’ rather than opt for the ‘devil you don’t’.

newdevilcvr6

What we would all like to have…

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A colourful garden, and the time to look after it.

To be honest, I had expected, when I finally retired, that I would have all the time in the world to build and tend a garden.

Flowers here and there, a few fruit trees, like an orange, a Mandarin, a lemon and lime, perhaps a mango, all that fruit that costs a fortune in the supermarket.

Then, in a corner a small herb garden with the basics, you know, rosemary, thyme, sage, a chili bush, dill, and parsley.

Then, some tomatoes, pumpkins, runner beans, peas, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, maybe lettuce of two.

A good idea.

But, just don’t have the time.

Good thing we have public gardens we can go visit, and think to ourselves if only I had more time, and enthusiasm, my garden could look like that.

An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”

In the distance he could hear the dinner bell ringing and roused himself.  Feeling the dampness of the pillow, and fearing the ravages of pent up emotion, he considered not going down but thought it best not to upset Mrs. Mac, especially after he said he would be dining.

In the event, he wished he had reneged, especially when he discovered he was not the only guest staying at the hotel.

Whilst he’d been reminiscing, another guest, a young lady, had arrived.  He’d heard her and Mrs. Mac coming up the stairs, and then shown to a room on the same floor, perhaps at the other end of the passage.

Henry caught his first glimpse of her when she appeared at the door to the dining room, waiting for Mrs. Mac to show her to a table.

She was about mid-twenties, slim, long brown hair, and the grace and elegance of a woman associated with countless fashion magazines.  She was, he thought, stunningly beautiful with not a hair out of place, and make-up flawlessly applied.  Her clothes were black, simple, elegant, and expensive, the sort an heiress or wife of a millionaire might condescend to wear to a lesser occasion than dinner.

Then there was her expression; cold, forbidding, almost frightening in its intensity.  And her eyes, piercingly blue and yet laced with pain.  Dracula’s daughter was his immediate description of her.

All in all, he considered, the only thing they had in common was, like him, she seemed totally out of place.

Mrs. Mac came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  She was, she informed him earlier, chef, waitress, hotelier, barmaid, and cleaner all rolled into one.  Coming up to the new arrival she said, “Ah, Miss Andrews, I’m glad you decided to have dinner.  Would you like to sit with Mr. Henshaw, or would you like to have a table of your own?”

Henry could feel her icy stare as she sized up his appeal as a dining companion, making the hair on the back on his neck stand up.  He purposely didn’t look back.  In his estimation, his appeal rating was minus six.  Out of a thousand!

“If Mr. Henshaw doesn’t mind….”  She looked at him, leaving the query in mid-air.

He didn’t mind and said so.  Perhaps he’d underestimated his rating.

“Good.”  Mrs. Mac promptly ushered her over.  Henry stood, made sure she was seated properly and sat.

“Thank you.  You are most kind.”  The way she said it suggested snobbish overtones.

“I try to be when I can.”  It was supposed to nullify her sarcastic tone but made him sound a little silly, and when she gave him another of her icy glares, he regretted it.

Mrs. Mac quickly intervened, asking, “Would you care for the soup?”

They did, and, after writing the order on her pad, she gave them each a look, imperceptibly shook her head, and returned to the kitchen.

Before Michelle spoke to him again, she had another quick look at him, trying to fathom who and what he might be.  There was something about him.

His eyes, they mirrored the same sadness she felt, and, yes, there was something else, that it looked like he had been crying?  There was a tinge of redness.

Perhaps, she thought, he was here for the same reason she was.

No.  That wasn’t possible.

Then she said, without thinking, “Do you have any particular reason for coming here?”  Seconds later she realized she’s spoken it out loud, had hadn’t meant to actually ask, it just came out.

It took him by surprise, obviously not the first question he was expecting her to ask of him.

“No, other than it is as far from civilization, and home, as I could get.”

At least we agree on that, she thought.

It was obvious he was running away from something as well.

Given the isolation of the village and lack of geographic hospitality, it was, from her point of view, ideal.  All she had to do was avoid him, and that wouldn’t be difficult.

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

A few seconds passed, and she thought she could feel his eyes on her and wasn’t going to look up.

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

Slight abrupt in manner, perhaps as a result of her question, and the manner in which she asked it.

She looked up.  “Rest.  And have some time to myself.”

She hoped he would notice the emphasis she had placed on the word ‘herself’ and take due note.  No doubt, she thought,  she had completely different ideas of what constituted a holiday than he, not that she had actually said she was here for a holiday.

Mrs. Mac arrived at a fortuitous moment to save them from further conversation.

 

Over the entree, she wondered if she had made a mistake coming to the hotel.  Of course, there had been no possible way she could know than anyone else might have booked the same hotel, but realized it was foolish to think she might end up in it by herself.

Was that what she was expecting?

Not a mistake then, but an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could be overcome by being sensible.

Yet, there he was, and it made her curious, not that he was a man, by himself, in the middle of nowhere, hiding like she was, but for very different reasons.

On discreet observance whilst they ate, she gained the impression his air of light-heartedness was forced and he had no sense of humor.

This feeling was engendered by his looks, unruly dark hair, and permanent frown.  And then there was his abysmal taste in clothes on a tall, lanky frame.  They were quality but totally unsuited to the wearer.

Rebellion was written all over him.

The only other thought crossing her mind, and rather incongruously, was he could do with a decent feed.  In that respect, she knew now from the mountain of food in front of her, he had come to the right place.

“Mr. Henshaw?”

He looked up.  “Henshaw is too formal.  Henry sounds much better,” he said, with a slight hint of gruffness.

“Then my name is Michelle.”

Mrs. Mac came in to take their order for the only main course, gather up the entree dishes, then return to the kitchen.

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

Neither looked at the other, rather at the walls, out the window, towards the kitchen, anywhere.  It was, she thought, almost unbearably awkward.

 

Mrs. Mac returned with a large tray with dishes on it, setting it down on the table next to theirs.

“Not as good as the usual cook,” she said, serving up the dinner expertly, “but it comes a good second, even if I do say so myself.  Care for some wine?”

Henry looked at Michelle.  “What do you think?”

“I’m used to my dining companions making the decision.”

You would, he thought.  He couldn’t help but notice the cutting edge of her tone.  Then, to Mrs. Mac, he named a particular White Burgundy he liked and she bustled off.

“I hope you like it,” he said, acknowledging her previous comment with a smile that had nothing to do with humor.

“Yes, so do I.”

Both made a start on the main course, a concoction of chicken and vegetables that were delicious, Henry thought, when compared to the bland food he received at home and sometimes aboard my ship.

It was five minutes before Mrs. Mac returned with the bottle and two glasses.  After opening it and pouring the drinks, she left them alone again.

Henry resumed the conversation.  “How did you arrive?  I came by train.”

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

And he thought, a few seconds later, that was a silly question, otherwise she would not be alone, and certainly not sitting at this table. With him.

“After a fashion.”

He could see that she was formulating a retort in her mind, then changed it, instead, smiling for the first time, and it served to lighten the atmosphere.

And in doing so, it showed him she had another more pleasant side despite the fact she was trying not to look happy.

“My father reckons I’m just another of ‘those’ women drivers,” she added.

“Whatever for?”

“The first and only time he came with me I had an accident.  I ran up the back of another car.  Of course, it didn’t matter to him the other driver was driving like a startled rabbit.”

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

“Mostly people up the wall.”  His attempt at humor failed.  “Actually,” he added quickly, “I’ve got a very old Morris that manages to get me where I’m going.”

The apple pie and cream for dessert came and went and the rapport between them improved as the wine disappeared and the coffee came.  Both had found, after getting to know each other better, their first impressions were not necessarily correct.

“Enjoy the food?” Mrs. Mac asked, suddenly reappearing.

“Beautifully cooked and delicious to eat,” Michelle said, and Henry endorsed her remarks.

“Ah, it does my heart good to hear such genuine compliments,” she said, smiling.  She collected the last of the dishes and disappeared yet again.

“What do you do for a living,” Michelle asked in an off-hand manner.

He had a feeling she was not particularly interested and it was just making conversation.

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

“A purser.  I work on a ship doing the paperwork, that sort of thing.”

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”

“Was?”

“Until I had an accident, a rather bad one.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

As the evening had worn on, he began to think there might be something wrong, seriously wrong with her because she didn’t look too well.  Even the carefully applied makeup, from close up, didn’t hide the very pale, and tired look, or the sunken, dark ringed eyes.

“I try not to think about it, but it doesn’t necessarily work.  I’ve come here for peace and quiet, away from doctors and parents.”

“Then you will not have to worry about me annoying you.  I’m one of those fall-asleep-reading-a-book types.”

Perhaps it would be like ships passing in the night and then smiled to himself about the analogy.

Dinner now over, they separated.

Henry went back to the lounge to read a few pages of his book before going to bed, and Michelle went up to her room to retire for the night.

But try as he might, he was unable to read, his mind dwelling on the unusual, yet the compellingly mysterious person he would be sharing the hotel with.

Overlaying that original blurred image of her standing in the doorway was another of her haunting expressions that had, he finally conceded, taken his breath away, and a look that had sent more than one tingle down his spine.

She may not have thought much of him, but she had certainly made an impression on him.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

lovecoverfinal1

Searching for locations: Shanghai, China, by night.

When we arrive at the embarkation site we find at least 100 buses all lined up and parked, and literally thousands of Chinese and other Asians streaming through the turnstiles to get on another boat leaving earlier than ours.

Buses were just literally arriving one after the other stopping near where we were standing with a dozen or so other groups waiting patiently, and with people were everywhere it could only be described as organized chaos.

Someone obviously knew where everyone was supposed to go, and when it was our turn, we joined the queue.  There were a lot of people in front of us, and a lot more behind, so I had to wonder just how big the boat was.

We soon found out.

And it was amusing to watch people running, yes, they were actually running, to get to the third level, or found available seating.  Being around the first to board, we had no trouble finding a seat on the second level.

I was not quite sure what the name of the boat was, but it had 3 decks and VIP rooms and it was huge, with marble staircases, the sort you could make a grand entrance on.  The last such ornate marble staircase we had seen was in a hotel in Hong Kong, and that was some staircase.

But who has marble staircases in a boat?

We’re going out across the water as far as the Bund and then turn around and come back about 30 to 40 minutes.   By the time everyone was on board, there was no room left on the third level, no seats on the second level nor standing room at the end of the second level where the stairs up to the third level were.

No one wanted to pay the extra to go into the VIP lounge.

We were sitting by very large windows where it was warm enough watching the steady procession of the colored lights of other vessels, and outside the buildings.

It was quite spectacular, as were some of the other boats going out on the harbor.

All the buildings of the Bund were lit up

And along that part of the Bund was a number of old English style buildings made from sandstone, and very impressive to say the least.

On the other side of the harbour were the more modern buildings, including the communications tower, a rather impressive structure.

I had to go to the rear of the vessel to get a photo, a very difficult proposition given here was no space on the railing, not even on the stairs going up or down.  It was just luck I managed to get some photos between passengers heads.

And, another view of that communications tower:

There was no doubt this was one of the most colourful night-time boat tours I’ve ever been on.  Certainly, when we saw the same buildings the following day, they were not half as spectacular in daylight.

I never did get up to the third level to see what the view was like.

An excerpt from “Strangers We’ve Become” – Coming Soon

I wandered back to my villa.

It was in darkness.  I was sure I had left several lights on, especially over the door so I could see to unlock it.

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

I went to the first hiding spot for the gun, and it wasn’t there.  I went to the backup and it wasn’t there either.  Someone had found my carefully hidden stash of weapons and removed them.

Who?

There were four hiding spots and all were empty.  Someone had removed the weapons.  That could only mean one possibility.

I had a visitor, not necessarily here for a social call.

But, of course, being the well-trained agent I’d once been and not one to be caught unawares, I crossed over to my neighbor and relieved him of a weapon that, if found, would require a lot of explaining.

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

There were three entrances to the villa, the front door, the back door, and a rather strange escape hatch.  One of the more interesting attractions of the villa I’d rented was its heritage.  It was built in the late 1700s, by a man who was, by all accounts, a thief.  It had a hidden underground room which had been in the past a vault but was now a wine cellar, and it had an escape hatch by which the man could come and go undetected, particularly if there was a mob outside the door baying for his blood.

It now gave me the means to enter the villa without my visitors being alerted, unless, of course, they were near the vicinity of the doorway inside the villa, but that possibility was unlikely.  It was not where anyone could anticipate or expect a doorway to be.

The secret entrance was at the rear of the villa behind a large copse, two camouflaged wooden doors built into the ground.  I move aside some of the branches that covered them and lifted one side.  After I’d discovered the doors and rusty hinges, I’d oiled and cleaned them, and cleared the passageway of cobwebs and fallen rocks.  It had a mildew smell, but nothing would get rid of that.  I’d left torches at either end so I could see.

I closed the door after me, and went quietly down the steps, enveloped in darkness till I switched on the torch.  I traversed the short passage which turned ninety degrees about halfway to the door at the other end.  I carried the key to this door on the keyring, found it and opened the door.  It too had been oiled and swung open soundlessly.

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

I was on the lower level under the kitchen, now the wine cellar, the ‘door’ doubling as a set of shelves which had very little on them, less to fall and alert anyone in the villa.

Silence, an eerie silence.

I took the steps up to the kitchen, stopping when my head was level with the floor, checking to see if anyone was waiting.  There wasn’t.  It seemed to me to be an unlikely spot for an ambush.

I’d already considered the possibility of someone coming after me, especially because it had been Bespalov I’d killed, and I was sure he had friends, all equally as mad as he was.  Equally, I’d also considered it nigh on impossible for anyone to find out it was me who killed him because the only people who knew that were Prendergast, Alisha, a few others in the Department, and Susan.

That raised the question of who told them where I was.

If I was the man I used to be, my first suspect would be Susan.  The departure this morning, and now this was too coincidental.  But I was not that man.

Or was I?

I reached the start of the passageway that led from the kitchen to the front door and peered into the semi-darkness.  My eyes had got used to the dark, and it was no longer an inky void.  Fragments of light leaked in around the door from outside and through the edge of the window curtains where they didn’t fit properly.  A bone of contention upstairs in the morning, when first light shone and invariably woke me up hours before I wanted to.

Still nothing.

I took a moment to consider how I would approach the visitor’s job.  I would get a plan of the villa in my head, all entrances, where a target could be led to or attacked where there would be no escape.

Coming in the front door.  If I was not expecting anything, I’d just open the door and walk-in.  One shot would be all that was required.

Contract complete.

I sidled quietly up the passage staying close to the wall, edging closer to the front door.  There was an alcove where the shooter could be waiting.  It was an ideal spot to wait.

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

I felt it before I heard it.  The bullet with my name on it.

And how the shooter missed, from point-blank range, and hit me in the arm, I had no idea.  I fired off two shots before a second shot from the shooter went wide and hit the door with a loud thwack.

I saw a red dot wavering as it honed in on me and I fell to the floor, stretching out, looking up where the origin of the light was coming and pulled the trigger three times, evenly spaced, and a second later I heard the sound of a body falling down the stairs and stopping at the bottom, not very far from me.

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

The assassin by the door was dead, a lucky shot on my part.  The second was still breathing.

I checked the body for any weapons and found a second gun and two knives.  Armed to the teeth!

I pulled off the balaclava; a man, early thirties, definitely Italian.  I was expecting a Russian.

I slapped his face, waking him up.  Blood was leaking from several slashes on his face when his head had hit the stairs on the way down.  The awkward angle of his arms and legs told me there were broken bones, probably a lot worse internally.  He was not long for this earth.

“Who employed you?”

He looked at me with dead eyes, a pursed mouth, perhaps a smile.  “Not today my friend.  You have made a very bad enemy.”  He coughed and blood poured out of his mouth.  “There will be more …”

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

I would have to leave.  Two unexplainable bodies, I’d have a hard time explaining my way out of this mess.  I dragged the two bodies into the lounge, clearing the passageway just in case someone had heard anything.

Just in case anyone was outside at the time, I sat in the dark, at the foot of the stairs, and tried to breathe normally.  I was trying not to connect dots that led back to Susan, but the coincidence was worrying me.

 

A half-hour passed and I hadn’t moved.  Deep in thought, I’d forgotten about being shot, unaware that blood was running down my arm and dripping onto the floor.

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

Two thoughts, it was either the police, alerted by the neighbors, or it was the second wave, though why would they be knocking on the door?

I stood, and immediately felt a stabbing pain in my arm.  I took out a handkerchief and turned it into a makeshift tourniquet, then wrapped a kitchen towel around the wound.

If it was the police, this was going to be a difficult situation.  Holding the gun behind my back, I opened the door a fraction and looked out.

No police, just Maria.  I hoped she was not part of the next ‘wave’.

“You left your phone behind on the table.  I thought you might be looking for it.”  She held it out in front of her.

When I didn’t open the door any further, she looked at me quizzically, and then asked, “Is anything wrong?”

I was going to thank her for returning the phone, but I heard her breathe in sharply, and add, breathlessly, “You’re bleeding.”

I looked at my arm and realized it was visible through the door, and not only that, the towel was soaked in blood.

“You need to go away now.”

Should I tell her the truth?  It was probably too late, and if she was any sort of law-abiding citizen she would go straight to the police.

She showed no signs of leaving, just an unnerving curiosity.  “What happened?”

I ran through several explanations, but none seemed plausible.  I went with the truth.  “My past caught up with me.”

“You need someone to fix that before you pass out from blood loss.  It doesn’t look good.”

“I can fix it.  You need to leave.  It is not safe to be here with me.”

The pain in my arm was not getting any better, and the blood was starting to run down my arm again as the tourniquet loosened.  She was right, I needed it fixed sooner rather than later.

I opened the door and let her in.  It was a mistake, a huge mistake, and I would have to deal with the consequences.  Once inside, she turned on the light and saw the pool of blood just inside the door and the trail leading to the lounge.  She followed the trail and turned into the lounge, turned on the light, and no doubt saw the two dead men.

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

She gave me a good hard look, perhaps trying to see if I was dangerous.  Killing people wasn’t something you looked the other way about.  She would have to go to the police.

“What happened here?”

“I came home from the cafe and two men were waiting for me.  I used to work for the Government, but no longer.  I suspect these men were here to repay a debt.  I was lucky.”

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

She found another towel and wrapped it around the wound, retightening the tourniquet to stem the bleeding.

“Do you have medical supplies?”

I nodded.  “Upstairs.”  I had a medical kit, and on the road, I usually made my own running repairs.  Another old habit I hadn’t quite shaken off yet.

She went upstairs, rummaged, and then came back.  I wondered briefly what she would think of the unmade bed though I was not sure why it might interest her.

She helped me remove my shirt, and then cleaned the wound.  Fortunately, she didn’t have to remove a bullet.  It was a clean wound but it would require stitches.

When she’d finished she said, “Your friend said one day this might happen.”

No prizes for guessing who that friend was, and it didn’t please me that she had involved Maria.

“Alisha?”

“She didn’t tell me her name, but I think she cares a lot about you.  She said trouble has a way of finding you, gave me a phone and said to call her if something like this happened.”

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not.  Will you call her?”

“Yes.  I can’t stay here now.  You should go now.  Hopefully, by the time I leave in the morning, no one will ever know what happened here, especially you.”

She smiled.  “As you say, I was never here.”

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020