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

Searching for locations: Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, X’ian, China

Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum

A little history, and anecdotal advice first:

In 1974 a 26-year-old farmer, Yang Jide, was drilling a well and found fragments of the terracotta soldiers and bronze weapons.

What was discovered later was one of the biggest attended burial pits of China’s first feudal Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.  In the following years remains had been found in 3 pits, yielding at least 8,000 soldiers and horses, and over 100 chariots.  The soldiers were infantry, cavalry, and others.

Emperor Qin was born in 259 BC and died in 210 BC.  He began building a mausoleum for himself at the foot of Mount Li when he was 13.  Construction took 38 years, from 247 BC to 208 BC.  It was divided into 3 stages and involved 720,000 conscripts.

The pits of pottery figures are 1.5 km east of Emperor Qin’s mausoleum.  Pit 1 has about 6,000 terracotta armored warriors and horses and 40 wooden chariots.  Pit 2 is estimated to have over 900 terracotta warriors and 350 terracotta horses with about 90 wooden chariots.  Pit 3 had so far yielded only 66 pottery figures and one chariot drawn by four horses.

Official records say it was discovered later that it was likely Xiang Yu, a rebel, intentionally damaged the Mausoleum and the soldiers in the pits, by setting fire to the wooden roof rafters, and these fell on and broke the warriors into pieces.

However, we were told that after the terracotta warriors were completed, the Emperor ordered the builders to be killed so that they would not tell anyone about the warriors, and then of those that remained alive deliberately smashed all of the artifacts.

The thing is, all of the terracotta figures that have been found are in pieces, and they need computers to piece them back together again.

The visit:
The first impression is the size of the car park and the number of buses parked in the lot, and a hell of a lot more outside up the road an off on side streets.  Obviously, it costs money to park in the parking lot.

The other first impressions; the numbers waiting to get in were not as many as yesterday outside the forbidden city, in fact, a lot less.

Be warned there’s a long walk from the entrance gate where your bags are scanned and a body scan as well, before admittance.  This walk is through a landscaped area which it is expect might sometime in the future reveal more soldiers, or other artifacts.

At the end of the walk that takes about ten minutes, you can get a one-way ride to the second checkpoint, but we opted not to as no one else in our group did.

That walk is the warm-up exercise to an organized viewing of the exhibits after going through a second ticket checkpoint.  On the other side, we had to hand our tickets back to the tour guide which was disappointing not to end up with a memento of actually having been there.

So, on the other side in the courtyard, the guide told us the most important parts of the exhibition, that we should spend most of the time looking at pit 1, and then spent a little time in 2 which is only there in the first stages of excavation.  Then move onto the museum if only to see the replica chariots.

We do.

The chariots were small but interesting

The horses were better and intricately detailed

These are soldiers, perhaps complete examples of those types found in the end pit.

This is one of the archers.  You can tell by the way he wears his hair.

Pit 2

The excavation of this pit has only just begun, so it is possible to see where they have carefully removed the top cover, and you can see the broken parts of the warriors lying in a heap.

Some parts of the warriors are more discernible closer up

These parts are carefully extracted and taken to the ‘hospital’ where they are digitised and the computer will match each part with the warrior it belongs to.

Pit 1

This has quite a number of standing soldiers that have been glued back together, but not necessarily complete and I notice a number if the statues were incomplete. And if they cannot find the missing pieces, then they are not added to or filled in.

The scale of the pit is enormous, and they have hardly scratched the surface in the restoration process.

What is there is a number of horses as well.

That’s at the front of the pit, a long line of statues, and what is clear is the location of the well where the first fragments were found by a farmer.

There are about eight lines of soldiers, and some lining the sides.

Midway down there is a large area currently under excavation

At the back is the hospital where the soldiers are reassembled.  There’s nearly a hundred in the various stages of rebuilding.  These days the soldiers are rebuilt using computer imaging.

The hospital area is where they are put back together

And these are some of the statues in various stages of reconstruction

Another two views of the size and scale of the reconstruction project

The coffee shop is also a sales centre, but there are too many people waiting for coffee and too few places to sit down.

An excerpt from “If Only” – a work in progress

Investigation of crimes don’t always go according to plan, nor does the perpetrator get either found or punished.

That was particularly true in my case.  The murderer was very careful in not leaving any evidence behind, to the extent that the police could not rules out whether it was a male or a  female.

At one stage the police thought I had murdered my own wife though how I could be on a train at the time of the murder was beyond me.  I had witnesses and a cast-iron alibi.

The officer in charge was Detective Inspector Gabrielle Walters.  She came to me on the day after the murder seeking answers to the usual questions when was the last time you saw your wife, did you argue, the neighbors reckon there were heated discussions the day before.

Routine was the word she used.

Her Sargeant was a surly piece of work whose intention was to get answers or, more likely, a confession by any or all means possible.  I could sense the raging violence within him.  Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

Over the course of the next few weeks, once I’d been cleared of committing the crime, Gabrielle made a point of keeping me informed of the progress.

After three months the updates were more sporadic, and when, for lack of progress, it became a cold case, communication ceased.

But it was not the last I saw of Gabrielle.

The shock of finding Vanessa was more devastating than the fact she was now gone, and those images lived on in the same nightmare that came to visit me every night when I closed my eyes.

For months I was barely functioning, to the extent I had all but lost my job, and quite a few friends, particularly those who were more attached to Vanessa rather than me.

They didn’t understand how it could affect me so much, and since it had not happened to them, my tart replies of ‘you wouldn’t understand’ were met with equally short retorts.  Some questioned my sanity, even, for a time, so did I.

No one, it seemed, could understand what it was like, no one except Gabrielle.

She was by her own admission, damaged goods, having been the victim of a similar incident, a boyfriend who turned out to be a very bad boy.  Her story varied only in she had been made to witness his execution.  Her nightmare, in reliving that moment in time, was how she was still alive and, to this day, had no idea why she’d been spared.

It was a story she told me one night, some months after the investigation had been scaled down.  I was still looking for the bottom of a bottle and an emotional mess.  Perhaps it struck a resonance with her; she’d been there and managed to come out the other side.

What happened become our secret, a once-only night together that meant a great deal to me, and by mutual agreement, it was not spoken of again.  It was as if she knew exactly what was required to set me on the path to recovery.

And it had.

Since then we saw each about once a month in a cafe.   I had been surprised to hear from her again shortly after that eventful night when she called to set it up, ostensibly for her to provide me with any updates on the case, but perhaps we had, after that unspoken night, formed a closer bond than either of us wanted to admit.

We generally talked for hours over wine, then dinner and coffee.  It took a while for me to realize that all she had was her work, personal relationships were nigh on impossible in a job that left little or no spare time for anything else.

She’d always said that if I had any questions or problems about the case, or if there was anything that might come to me that might be relevant, even after all this time, all I had to do was call her.

I wondered if this text message was in that category.  I was certain it would interest the police and I had no doubt they could trace the message’s origin, but there was that tiny degree of doubt, whether or not I could trust her to tell me what the message meant.

I reached for the phone then put it back down again.  I’d think about it and decide tomorrow.

© Charles Heath 2018-2021

“Trouble in Store” – Short stories my way:  Editing becomes re-writing (5)

I have reworked the first part of the story with a few new elements about the characters and changed a few of the details of how the characters finish up in the shop before the policewoman makes her entrance.

This is part of the new first section is the one that involves the Jack, the girl, and the shopkeeper

 

Jack exchanged a look with the shopkeeper, who in return gave him a slight shrug as if to say he had no idea what this was about.

He could see the girl was not strung out on drugs; if she was it would be a good bet both would be shot or dead by now.  She was just the unfortunate partner of a boy who was on drugs and had found herself in a dangerous position.

Beth, his wife, had told him she didn’t like nor trust the shopkeeper and that her friend in the same apartment block had told her he had been seen selling drugs to youths who hung around just before he closed.  She had warned him it would not be safe, but he had ignored her.

It was a bit late to tell her she was right.

He took a half step towards the door, judging the distance and time it would take to open the door and get out.

Too far, and he would be too slow, his reward for running; a bullet in the back.

Perhaps another half step when she wasn’t looking.

 

The shopkeeper changed his expression to one more placatory, and said quietly to the girl, “Look, this is not this chap’s problem.”  He nodded in the direction of the customer.  “I’m sure he’d rather not be here, and you would glad of one less distraction.”

He could see she was wavering.  She was not holding the gun so steadily, and the longer this dragged on, the more nervous and unpredictable she would become.

And in the longer game, the customer would sing his praises no matter what happened if he could get him out of the shop alive and well.

This could still be a win-win situation.

 

The girl looked at Jack.  The shopkeeper was right.  If he wasn’t here this could be over. 

But there was another problem.  It didn’t look like Simmo was in any shape to getaway.  In fact, this was looking more like a suicide mission.

She waved the gun in his direction.  ‘Get out now, before I change my mind.’

As the gun turned to the shopkeeper, Jack wasn’t going to wait to be asked twice and started sidling towards the door.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2020

An excerpt from “Echoes from the Past”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4

With my attention elsewhere, I walked into a man who was hurrying in the opposite direction.  He was a big man with a scar running down the left side of his face from eye socket to mouth, and who was also wearing a black shirt with a red tie.

That was all I remembered as my heart almost stopped.

He apologized as he stepped to one side, the same way I stepped, as I also muttered an apology.

I kept my eyes down.  He was not the sort of man I wanted to recognize later in a lineup.  I stepped to the other side and so did he.  It was one of those situations.  Finally getting out of sync, he kept going in his direction, and I towards the bus, which was now pulling away from the curb.

Getting my breath back, I just stood riveted to the spot watching it join the traffic.  I looked back over my shoulder, but the man I’d run into had gone.  I shrugged and looked at my watch.  It would be a few minutes before the next bus arrived.

Wait, or walk?  I could also go by subway, but it was a long walk to the station.  What the hell, I needed the exercise.

At the first intersection, the ‘Walk’ sign had just flashed to ‘Don’t Walk’.  I thought I’d save a few minutes by not waiting for the next green light.  As I stepped onto the road, I heard the screeching of tires.

A yellow car stopped inches from me.

It was a high powered sports car, perhaps a Lamborghini.  I knew what they looked like because Marcus Bartleby owned one, as did every other junior executive in the city with a rich father.

Everyone stopped to look at me, then the car.  It was that sort of car.  I could see the driver through the windscreen shaking his fist, and I could see he was yelling too, but I couldn’t hear him.  I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he drove on.  The moment had passed and everyone went back to their business.

My heart rate hadn’t come down from the last encounter.   Now it was approaching cardiac arrest, so I took a few minutes and several sets of lights to regain composure.

At the next intersection, I waited for the green light, and then a few seconds more, just to be sure.  I was no longer in a hurry.

At the next, I heard what sounded like a gunshot.  A few people looked around, worried expressions on their faces, but when it happened again, I saw it was an old car backfiring.  I also saw another yellow car, much the same as the one before, stopped on the side of the road.  I thought nothing of it, other than it was the second yellow car I’d seen.

At the next intersection, I realized I was subconsciously heading towards Harry’s new bar.   It was somewhere on 6th Avenue, so I continued walking in what I thought was the right direction.

I don’t know why I looked behind me at the next intersection, but I did.  There was another yellow car on the side of the road, not far from me.  It, too, looked the same as the original Lamborghini, and I was starting to think it was not a coincidence.

Moments after crossing the road, I heard the roar of a sports car engine and saw the yellow car accelerate past me.  As it passed by, I saw there were two people in it, and the blurry image of the passenger; a large man with a red tie.

Now my imagination was playing tricks.

It could not be the same man.  He was going in a different direction.

In the few minutes I’d been standing on the pavement, it had started to snow; early for this time of year, and marking the start of what could be a long cold winter.  I shuddered, and it was not necessarily because of the temperature.

I looked up and saw a neon light advertising a bar, coincidentally the one Harry had ‘found’ and, looking once in the direction of the departing yellow car, I decided to go in.  I would have a few drinks and then leave by the back door if it had one.

Just in case.

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newechocover5rs

Memories of the conversations with my cat – 6

As some may be aware, but many not, Chester, my faithful writing assistant, mice catcher, and general pain in the neck, passed away some months ago.

Recently I was running a series based on his adventures, under the title of Past Conversations with my cat.

For those who have not had the chance to read about all of his exploits I will run the series again from Episode 1

These are the memories of our time together…

20160907_135509

This is Chester.  He is giving me the ‘Come back when you’ve rewritten the start’ look.

Yet another ‘disagreement’ over such a small matter!

Here’s the thing.

Like many authors with cats, I like to use Chester as my audience of one, my sounding board.  It is better to be reading to him, rather than reading out loud by yourself.

Reading what you have written often points out tongue tangling or ‘drippy’ dialog, and  unfortunate mix ups in words.  Proof reading sometimes misses these.

Hitherto, Chester has been patient, lying on the floor, or sitting on the couch.

I guess a few pats doesn’t go astray in the process.

But, this morning, reading him the new start to ‘First Dig Two Graves’ the sequel to ‘The Devil You Don’t’, he just gave me one of his angry ‘meow’s’ and left.

Obviously he didn’t like it.

Of course, after I re-read it again, I could see the problem, so the days writing is not over yet.

In a word: Prior

Of course, prior means gone before, as in past history, or perhaps only a few moments ago; it happened prior to my arrival on the scene.

But it can also mean, quite confusingly, to something in the future, when trying to get out of a meeting by saying I’ve got a prior appointment.

If you are an aficionado of American police dramas then you will be well acquainted with the prior, meaning a previous criminal conviction.

 

And for something quite different, a prior is a priest of sorts, who to me were named as such in the middle ages.  A prior is below an Abbot and is head of a house of friars.  By the way, the most notable friar I know is Friar Tuck

A prior could also be a magistrate in the medieval republic of Florence.

 

It is not to be doubly confused with Pryer or Prier

Someone who pries into another’s business, the most notable prier, the woman across the road from Samantha, in Bewitched.

 

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

Searching for locations: Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, X’ian, China

Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum

A little history, and anecdotal advice first:

In 1974 a 26-year-old farmer, Yang Jide, was drilling a well and found fragments of the terracotta soldiers and bronze weapons.

What was discovered later was one of the biggest attended burial pits of China’s first feudal Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.  In the following years remains had been found in 3 pits, yielding at least 8,000 soldiers and horses, and over 100 chariots.  The soldiers were infantry, cavalry, and others.

Emperor Qin was born in 259 BC and died in 210 BC.  He began building a mausoleum for himself at the foot of Mount Li when he was 13.  Construction took 38 years, from 247 BC to 208 BC.  It was divided into 3 stages and involved 720,000 conscripts.

The pits of pottery figures are 1.5 km east of Emperor Qin’s mausoleum.  Pit 1 has about 6,000 terracotta armored warriors and horses and 40 wooden chariots.  Pit 2 is estimated to have over 900 terracotta warriors and 350 terracotta horses with about 90 wooden chariots.  Pit 3 had so far yielded only 66 pottery figures and one chariot drawn by four horses.

Official records say it was discovered later that it was likely Xiang Yu, a rebel, intentionally damaged the Mausoleum and the soldiers in the pits, by setting fire to the wooden roof rafters, and these fell on and broke the warriors into pieces.

However, we were told that after the terracotta warriors were completed, the Emperor ordered the builders to be killed so that they would not tell anyone about the warriors, and then of those that remained alive deliberately smashed all of the artifacts.

The thing is, all of the terracotta figures that have been found are in pieces, and they need computers to piece them back together again.

The visit:
The first impression is the size of the car park and the number of buses parked in the lot, and a hell of a lot more outside up the road an off on side streets.  Obviously, it costs money to park in the parking lot.

The other first impressions; the numbers waiting to get in were not as many as yesterday outside the forbidden city, in fact, a lot less.

Be warned there’s a long walk from the entrance gate where your bags are scanned and a body scan as well, before admittance.  This walk is through a landscaped area which it is expect might sometime in the future reveal more soldiers, or other artifacts.

At the end of the walk that takes about ten minutes, you can get a one-way ride to the second checkpoint, but we opted not to as no one else in our group did.

That walk is the warm-up exercise to an organized viewing of the exhibits after going through a second ticket checkpoint.  On the other side, we had to hand our tickets back to the tour guide which was disappointing not to end up with a memento of actually having been there.

So, on the other side in the courtyard, the guide told us the most important parts of the exhibition, that we should spend most of the time looking at pit 1, and then spent a little time in 2 which is only there in the first stages of excavation.  Then move onto the museum if only to see the replica chariots.

We do.

The chariots were small but interesting

The horses were better and intricately detailed

These are soldiers, perhaps complete examples of those types found in the end pit.

This is one of the archers.  You can tell by the way he wears his hair.

Pit 2

The excavation of this pit has only just begun, so it is possible to see where they have carefully removed the top cover, and you can see the broken parts of the warriors lying in a heap.

Some parts of the warriors are more discernible closer up

These parts are carefully extracted and taken to the ‘hospital’ where they are digitised and the computer will match each part with the warrior it belongs to.

Pit 1

This has quite a number of standing soldiers that have been glued back together, but not necessarily complete and I notice a number if the statues were incomplete. And if they cannot find the missing pieces, then they are not added to or filled in.

The scale of the pit is enormous, and they have hardly scratched the surface in the restoration process.

What is there is a number of horses as well.

That’s at the front of the pit, a long line of statues, and what is clear is the location of the well where the first fragments were found by a farmer.

There are about eight lines of soldiers, and some lining the sides.

Midway down there is a large area currently under excavation

At the back is the hospital where the soldiers are reassembled.  There’s nearly a hundred in the various stages of rebuilding.  These days the soldiers are rebuilt using computer imaging.

The hospital area is where they are put back together

And these are some of the statues in various stages of reconstruction

Another two views of the size and scale of the reconstruction project

The coffee shop is also a sales centre, but there are too many people waiting for coffee and too few places to sit down.

An excerpt from “If Only” – a work in progress

Investigation of crimes don’t always go according to plan, nor does the perpetrator get either found or punished.

That was particularly true in my case.  The murderer was very careful in not leaving any evidence behind, to the extent that the police could not rules out whether it was a male or a  female.

At one stage the police thought I had murdered my own wife though how I could be on a train at the time of the murder was beyond me.  I had witnesses and a cast-iron alibi.

The officer in charge was Detective Inspector Gabrielle Walters.  She came to me on the day after the murder seeking answers to the usual questions when was the last time you saw your wife, did you argue, the neighbors reckon there were heated discussions the day before.

Routine was the word she used.

Her Sargeant was a surly piece of work whose intention was to get answers or, more likely, a confession by any or all means possible.  I could sense the raging violence within him.  Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

Over the course of the next few weeks, once I’d been cleared of committing the crime, Gabrielle made a point of keeping me informed of the progress.

After three months the updates were more sporadic, and when, for lack of progress, it became a cold case, communication ceased.

But it was not the last I saw of Gabrielle.

The shock of finding Vanessa was more devastating than the fact she was now gone, and those images lived on in the same nightmare that came to visit me every night when I closed my eyes.

For months I was barely functioning, to the extent I had all but lost my job, and quite a few friends, particularly those who were more attached to Vanessa rather than me.

They didn’t understand how it could affect me so much, and since it had not happened to them, my tart replies of ‘you wouldn’t understand’ were met with equally short retorts.  Some questioned my sanity, even, for a time, so did I.

No one, it seemed, could understand what it was like, no one except Gabrielle.

She was by her own admission, damaged goods, having been the victim of a similar incident, a boyfriend who turned out to be a very bad boy.  Her story varied only in she had been made to witness his execution.  Her nightmare, in reliving that moment in time, was how she was still alive and, to this day, had no idea why she’d been spared.

It was a story she told me one night, some months after the investigation had been scaled down.  I was still looking for the bottom of a bottle and an emotional mess.  Perhaps it struck a resonance with her; she’d been there and managed to come out the other side.

What happened become our secret, a once-only night together that meant a great deal to me, and by mutual agreement, it was not spoken of again.  It was as if she knew exactly what was required to set me on the path to recovery.

And it had.

Since then we saw each about once a month in a cafe.   I had been surprised to hear from her again shortly after that eventful night when she called to set it up, ostensibly for her to provide me with any updates on the case, but perhaps we had, after that unspoken night, formed a closer bond than either of us wanted to admit.

We generally talked for hours over wine, then dinner and coffee.  It took a while for me to realize that all she had was her work, personal relationships were nigh on impossible in a job that left little or no spare time for anything else.

She’d always said that if I had any questions or problems about the case, or if there was anything that might come to me that might be relevant, even after all this time, all I had to do was call her.

I wondered if this text message was in that category.  I was certain it would interest the police and I had no doubt they could trace the message’s origin, but there was that tiny degree of doubt, whether or not I could trust her to tell me what the message meant.

I reached for the phone then put it back down again.  I’d think about it and decide tomorrow.

© Charles Heath 2018-2021