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

Writers need to have many alter egos, don’t they?

I have often wondered just how much or how little of the author’s personality and experiences end up in a fictional character.

Have they climbed mountains,

Have they escaped from what is almost the inescapable,

Have they been shot, tortured, or worse,

Have they been dumped, or divorced,

Have they travelled to dangerous places, or got locked up in a foreign jail?

We research, read, and I guess experience some or all of the above on the way to getting the book written, but it’s perhaps an interesting fundamental question.

Who am I today?  Or, more to the point, who do I want to be today?

Or it can be a question, out of left field, in an interview; “Who are you?”

My initial reaction was to say, “I’m a writer.”  But that wasn’t the answer the interviewer is looking for.

Perhaps if she had asked, “Who are you when you’re writing your latest story?” it would make more sense.

Am I myself today?

Am I some fictional character an amalgam of a lot of other people?

Have I got someone definite in mind when I start writing the story?

The short answer might be, “I usually want to be someone other than what I am now.  It’s fiction.  I can be anyone or anything I want, provided, of course, I know the limitations of the character.”

“So,” she says, “what if you want to be a fireman?”

“I don’t want to be a fireman.”

“But if the story goes in the direction where you need a fireman…”

“What is this thing you have with firemen?”  I’m shaking my head.  How did we get off track?

“Just saying.”

“Then I’d have to research the role, but I’m not considering adding a fireman anytime soon.”

She sighs.  “Your loss.”

Moving on.

And there is that other very interesting question; “Who would you like to be if you could be someone else?”

A writer in that period between the wars, perhaps like an F Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, in Paris, or if it is a fictional character, Jay Gatsby.

He’s just the sort of person who is an enigma wrapped up in a mystery.

Skeletons in the closet, and doppelgangers

A story called “Mistaken Identity”

How many of us have skeletons in the closet that we know nothing about? The skeletons we know about generally stay there, but those we do not, well, they have a habit of coming out of left field when we least expect it.

In this case, when you see your photo on a TV screen with the accompanying text that says you are wanted by every law enforcement agency in Europe, you’re in a state of shock, only to be compounded by those same police, armed and menacing, kicking the door down.

I’d been thinking about this premise for a while after I discovered my mother had a boyfriend before she married my father, a boyfriend who was, by all accounts, the man who was the love of her life.

Then, in terms of coming up with an idea for a story, what if she had a child by him that we didn’t know about, which might mean I had a half brother or sister I knew nothing about. It’s not an uncommon occurrence from what I’ve been researching.

There are many ways of putting a spin on this story.

Then, in the back of my mind, I remembered a story an acquaintance at work was once telling us over morning tea, that a friend of a friend had a mother who had a twin sister and that each of the sisters had a son by the same father, without each knowing of the father’s actions, both growing up without the other having any knowledge of their half brother, only to meet by accident on the other side of the world.

It was an encounter that in the scheme of things might never have happened, and each would have remained oblivious of the other.

For one sister, the relationship was over before she discovered she was pregnant, and therefore had not told the man he was a father. It was no surprise the relationship foundered when she discovered he was also having a relationship with her sister, a discovery that caused her to cut all ties with both of them and never speak to either from that day.

It’s a story with more twists and turns than a country lane!

And a great idea for a story.

That story is called ‘Mistaken Identity’.

Read an extract tomorrow.

The cinema of my dreams – It’s a treasure hunt – Episode 42

Here’s the thing…

Every time I close my eyes, I see something different.

I’d like to think the cinema of my dreams is playing a double feature but it’s a bit like a comedy cartoon night on Fox.

But these dreams are nothing to laugh about.

Once again there’s a new installment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.

 

Life for me returned to something like normal when I was back in the warehouse, surrounded by endless shelves filled with all manner of items.

It was the central repository for all the spare parts that were needed for the factory’s machinery in one section, a large variety of stationery, and office, items in another, and groceries for the cafeteria in another.

My in-tray was filled with requisition form received from the previous day, that hadn’t been processed by Roger, the morning shift clerk who inhabited my desk when I wasn’t there. 

As usual, he had managed to idle away most of his shift by doing absolutely nothing, which I guess was acceptable because Roger was one of Alex’s cronies, as were many others scattered about the factory.

One of the managers from another department knocked on the open door, perhaps to wake me before he walked in, something he had told me once before he was used to doing, and after a few seconds came in.

“The afternoon shift doesn’t sleep on the job,” I said.  He was one of the good managers, so he knew I was not admonishing him.

He saw the pile of requisitions, a good indication of why his order for stores had not been processed.  

“Busy day?”

“It will be.”  I shuffled through the pile and pulled out his requisition.  Only one item.

“Is it possible I could get it today?”

“Better still.  Take a seat, I’ll get it myself.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say”

He sat in one of the plastic chairs designed to keep people moving and picked up an old National Geographic.  I was fascinated to find there were issues going back as far as the 1920s.  I wondered if Benderby knew they were collectors’ items and worth a lot of money.

I headed towards the door.  “Make yourself comfortable, I won’t be long.”



The only other time I had seen a building as big as the warehouse was indoor basketball courts.  It was a hundred yards across, and half a mile long, and sometimes it was easier to hitch a ride with the forklift driver to get the other end quickly.

The fork life driver had gone missing, so it was a walk.  The shelf I was looking for was somewhere near the middle.

Something else about the building, it had remarkably interesting acoustics, and sometimes I could hear conversations between the supervisor and the forklift driver when they were some distance away, and out of sight.

About 100 yards from the shelf, I heard voices.  They were indistinguishable, but as I got closer, broken sentences became more understandable.  I used one of the cross paths so see if I could locate the source of the voices and found them in the third aisle.

Alex and the man I’d seen earlier at the mall.

They had pulled two seats and a carton of the shelves and were sitting, feet on the carton, smoking cigarettes, right underneath a ‘No Smoking’ sign.

Typical.  Not much further along was the ‘Inflammable Goods’ sign, but something like that for Alex would be an invitation to press his luck.

“You sure it was them?”

“Course. I’d recognize that kid you call Smidge anywhere.  And his crazy offside, Bloggs or something.  What do you think they’re doing out there?”

“Must be something to do with the treasure.  That kid’s holding back on us.  We’ve been searching the coastline for those two rivers.  Nothing but drains now.  I got Dad to lean on one of the councilors to get us some old maps of the coastline, and one had five rivers.  Talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

“Perhaps we’re trying too hard.  One of those old maps showed the Navy Yard, and the cove they’d dredged.  One of the maps she showed me has evidence there was a once a river running into that cove, and according to the old biddy in the library, that area was once owned by a chap called Orminson.  She also thought his descendants didn’t move too far away from here after they sold the property to the Navy.  I’ve got a copy of the map, so we can check if it lines up with some of the other maps we have, and, of course, the treasure map.”

“We should find these descendants.  Perhaps they have more information.”

“Already on it.”

“What we also need, but probably won’t be able to get, is the architectural plans of the Naval site, before, during, and after the works.”

“I’ll get Brains onto it.  He’ll have some way of getting the documents.”

“Good.  Sooner rather later OK.”

“I reckon that Boggs must have some knowledge of this.  You want me and the boys to go and rough Boggs up a bit more, see what he knows about this?”

“No.  Not a good idea, as much as I would like it to happen, just to wipe the smug look off his face, but the last time the old man came down on me for being, as he calls it, un-subtle, whatever that means.  It’s not as if he hasn’t beaten the crap of people for information before.  The same goes for Smidge.  Just watch and report.  That’s all.  For the moment.”

“You got anything else you want me to do?”

“Yes.  Get some of the boys to follow them.  And try not to get seen.  Boggs might be a fool, but Smidge isn’t.  He’s a lot smarter than I gave him credit for.”

“He’s just a kid, Alex.”

“Well, you keep thinking that, and when he outsmarts you, you know what will happen.”  

Alex stood.  “And clean up this mess before you go.”

 

© Charles Heath 2020

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

In a word: Key

So, as we all know, a key is used to lock or unlock a door, gate, or something else.  It’s either made of shiny metal, brass, or rusty iron, it can be small, or very, very big, as is the key to a dungeon.

We can have one key or we can have many or even a master key that unlocks everything, very handy if you have a house full of locked rooms.

People always seem to want to steal them, especially in crime shows.

There is also an item called a key card.  Not the metal thing, but a plastic thing, that opens doors.  Odd that it’s called keyless entry!

Then there’s what is known as the key to something, i.e. you might have the key to his or her heart, metaphorically speaking.

And in that metaphorical sense, it opens up pandora’s box with a plethora of different meanings.

He had the key to the puzzle.

I wish sometimes I had the key to be able to write better, that that one particular key eludes me.

There are keys on a keyboard, the ones you use on computers and calculators.  They were originally on typewriters.  You can also find keys on a piano, or an accordion, and some other musical instruments.

A key can also be a master index field, or unique identifier, in a database, particularly those kept on computers.

And,

there’s a host of other uses for the word key, such as

roughening a surface

describing the shooting area on a basketball court

a group, or one, of small coral islets

matching words to pictures

or, you’re just too keyed up to sleep.

 

 

 

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 34

A brief moment of respite

The simulation of nighttime on board the ship was as realistic as I remembered it when back on earth.

I was on my usual rounds after midnight, with the 2IC of security, Nancy Woolmer, who had been a NY detective until a better offer came along.

This ship.

Like me, she had little to keep her back home, her husband who had also been a detective, had been killed on the job, and that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Not blessed, or as she put it, cursed, with children, her parents had passed on, and any family left were not enough to keep her home.  This ship, she had said, would be her savior.

But she had the look of a person running away, and that, one day, would come back to bite her.  In the meantime, if we ever needed a detective, she was it.

“They’ve really got this night thing going, haven’t they.  You could almost imagine you’re in a leafy suburb out for a walk at night.”

“I doubt the streets would be as safe.”

The world we had left behind was in crisis, where there were deep divides between those in work and those who were not, and those with wealth and those without, and a bigger fight between countries over the space program.  It had started out with good intentions, but people being people, it didn’t stay that way.  

We had an international crew, but there was always the lingering doubt of what some people’s intentions were.  Out in space where everyone depended on everyone else, a small problem could become a big one very quickly.

“No, perhaps not.  But it’s good to hear the breeze rustling in the trees.”

Though the simulation lacked real trees, the projection on the passage walls of what either side of a street. With pavements, trees and houses, and for the night, the eerie glow of street lamps, was close enough.

The once around the perimeter passage on each deck took about two hours at a leisurely pace, considering there were ten decks.

I could have passed the job onto one of the watch officers, but it was about the only time I got to see the crew, those that were basically out of sight, keeping the ship running.  

I had set the lofty goal of meeting every one of the over 2,000 crew members within the first year, but a few months in, that was looking unlikely.

There was a sudden vibration emanating from the deck, followed by the sort of movement I would have associated with the ship coming off speed, like the jerk in a car when taking the foot off the accelerator.  The dampeners were designed to handle that and make increases and decreases in speed unnoticeable, but there was still an indication it had happened.

Ten seconds later my communicator vibrated.  I didn’t like the ring tone built-in, but it was more likely because most calls were bad news.

“What happened,” I asked, knowing it would be the duty officer of the watch

“Engineering are reporting a glitch, sir.”

There’s a word I hadn’t heard for a long time.  My father used to refer to anything that went wrong around the house as a glitch.

“Serious?”

“Don’t know, but you’re within a stone’s throw, so I thought you might want to pay them a visit.”

He was right, I was on that deck, and not far from the central control room.  The bridge must be tracking me, even though I’d asked them not to.  Standing orders dictated all officers and important personnel whereabouts were known at all times, I’d been told.

“I will.”

To Nancy, “You might want to continue on without me, and I’ll try to catch up later.”

She smiled.  “Tell them they should have bought the premium quality rubber bands.”

Previous conversations had highlighted a certain cynicism towards the fixtures and fittings, some of which were quite shoddy, which was disappointing but there was no doubt corners were cut in order to get the ship into service.

We all just hoped that cost-cutting didn’t extend to the main items, and if there were, it had been picked up in the trials.

As I stepped into the control room, a brightly lit room with banks of control panels and engineers sitting at them, there were a number of people huddled around one in particular, including the chief engineer.

The conversation was quite lively, and one voice stood out above the others, “… and had the builders rep actually listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

It was the same voice I’d heard in the captain’s day room my first day aboard, pontificating, as the captain put it, over a list of problems he was having with the shipbuilders representative.

“We’re in this situation,” the Chief Engineer said, “because everything we have here is new, and some of it untried.  If you’re going to push boundaries, then sometimes there’s a problem.  Rather than complain, find a resolution.”

The group broke up, and the Chief saw me coming over.  He met me halfway.

“Half this new breed they’ve sent me and more teaches rather than hands-on, always on about the code or some such.  Good, maybe, for diagnostics, but not for problem-solving.  I suspect it’s tainted coolant, seems the original batch wasn’t cleaned out after the first run, and it’s overwhelmed the filters.  It’s down to the bowels I’m afraid, and we’ll be up and running before those nincompoops work out the real problem.”

“Good.  Just let the bridge know when you’re done.”

One last look at the nincompoops, and I headed back out to resume rounds.

© Charles Heath 2021

“Because it’s not me” – a short story

If the was one fault I had, it was prevarication.

For a long time, I had always been afraid of making a mistake, after I had done exactly that.  They said our mistakes didn’t define us, but that one had.  I had lost the trust of everyone, from my parents to friends.

It was only a small lie, or so I told myself, but it had far-reaching ramifications, and almost cost someone their life.  But whilst I believed it was not all that bad, and the police had agreed that anyone who had been put in the same position would have done the same, there were those who didn’t agree.

It was a moment in time I often relived in my mind, over and over, and eventually led to several outcomes.

The first, I left home, the town where up till then I’d lived all of my life, walking away from family and those who used to be friends, knowing that what they said and what they felt were two entirely different things.  For all concerned, it was better that I left, cutting all ties, and make a fresh start, away from those whom I knew would never forget, even though they forgave me.

The second, and most dire, I changed my name, and my history, even how I looked.  Today, I was a very different person to that of thirty years ago.

The third, I moved to another country and vowed never to return, always looking constantly over my shoulder, expecting someone from the past to find me.  I instinctively knew that I would never escape, that one day a stark reminder would come back and destroy everything.

I picked the one occupation that would keep me both occupied and invisible.

Journalist.

I had started at the bottom, literally writing death notices, and worked my way up to what is ubiquitously known as ‘foreign correspondent’, going to places where no one else would go, those hotbeds of unrest, and war zones, reporting from both sides.

Perhaps it could say I had a death wish, a statement my editor had once said when he came to see me in hospital back in London after I’d been caught up in a rocket attack and repatriated.  He had come to offer me a job back home, to tell me my tour was over.

I declined the opportunity, and he left, shaking his head.

But that was not the only visitor that came to the hospital that day.  The other visitor was an elderly man, immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat.  It screamed public servant, and the moment I saw him wandering up the passage, a chill ran down my spine.

Although he looked like he was looking for someone else, I knew he would eventually finish up in my doorway.

Five minutes after I first saw him.

When he appeared at the door, I thought about ignoring him, but realized that wasn’t going to change anything.  Besides that, I guess I wanted to know why he would want to see me.

“James Wilson?”

“Would it make any difference if I said no?”  Well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t spar with him, just a little.  “Who are you.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

I got the impression he would do it anyway, irrespective of what I said.  I said no, and as I suspected he came in anyway, closing the door behind him, then took a minute or two to make himself comfortable in the visitor’s chair, which was an impossible task.

Then, settled, he said, “I understand you have just been repatriated from Syria.”

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It wasn’t common knowledge where I’d come from, so this person knew something about me, which was immediate cause for concern.

“The bane of a reporter trying to cover a dangerous situation,” he said, with just the right amount of levity in his tone.  “I get it, by the way.  I once had that devil may care attitude you need to get the story.  I was chasing a Pulitzer, believe it or not, and used a few of those nine lives in the process.  Which one are you up to?”

I was going to say that awards didn’t matter but among those who made up the press pack in those God-forsaken places, there was an unwritten desire to be rewarded other than by pay.  For me, though, it was not a defining factor.

“Lost count.  But why would that interest you, or whoever it is you represent?  By the way, just who do you represent?”

Second attempt at finding out who this man was.  If he was dodging and weaving, it would suggest a clandestine organization.

“People who would like to use your unique talent in getting into trouble spots around the world.  We’re not asking you to come work for us exclusively, rather piggyback on the job that you already do so well.”

An unnamed man from an unnamed organization.  What he was offering wasn’t unheard of, and I had been warned, more than once, that jobs, like he was suggesting, were more often than not offered to people like me.  With that came one line of advice, turn around and run like hell.

But, with nothing to amuse me in hospital, I was curious.  “Doing what exactly?”

The fact his expression changed indicated my response had taken him by surprise.  Perhaps he was used to being told where to go.  Not yet.  I had this fanciful notion in the back of my mind that what he might offer might get me closer to the story.

“Keeping your eyes and ears open.  We’ll tell you what to look for, all you’ll be doing is looking for evidence.  There will be no need to go looking for trouble, if there’s evidence we ask you to report it, if not, no harm done.”

Not so hard.  If that was all it was.  The trouble was, if something sounds simple, which that did, but inevitably, it was going to be anything but.  I’d heard stories and the consequences.

“You’re presuming that my editor will send me back.  He just offered me a job at home.”

“I think both of us know you’re not interested in domesticity.  If he isn’t willing to adhere to your wishes, I’m sure we could find someone else who would be willing to take you on.  You have had several offers recently, have you not?”

So, without a doubt, he knew a lot about me, especially if he asked around.  I had had several offers, but I was happy where I was.  I liked the no questions about your past that my current employer had promised.

Yes, looking at the determination on this man’s face, I had no doubt they or he could do what he said.  No one comes to a meeting like this without holding all the cards.  Also, not that I wanted it to be so, It told me that my agreement was not necessarily going to be optional.

But I was happy to dither and find out.  “Since I’m not sure when the hospital is going to discharge me, and the fact I’m not exactly very mobile at the moment, can I consider the proposal.  Right now, as you can imagine, getting back to work is not exactly a priority.”

“Of course.”  He took a card out of his coat pocket and put it on the bedside table.  “By all means.  Call me on that number when you’ve decided.”

He stood.  “It will be a great opportunity.  Thank you for your time.”

Of course, the two impressions I was left with were, one, he had me mixed up with someone else, and two, that I would never see him again.

It was an impossible task, for me at least, because I did not have a poker face, and could barely carry a lie.  I would be the last person they’d want for the job.

And thinking that, I rolled over, put it out of my mind, and went back to sleep.


© Charles Heath 2021

Memories of the Conversations with my cat – 32

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…

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This is Chester.  I’ve just told him we will be going away for a few days.

What, again?  You do nothing but go away these days!  That look of disdain is meant to move me, but, sorry, it doesn’t.

It is retirement, you know, I say.  I’ve waited for 65 years so that I can do what I want.

Poor you!  Any idea how old you think I am?

15, mate, and lucky to have lived that long, despite the fact you’ve tried to escape.

That’s a matter of opinion, but not cat years, fool, human years.

I’d never quite worked that out.  We had a dog once, and I know that for every dog year it’s seven human years, so it was, in human terms, rather old.

But cats?

I’ll look it up on the internet.

Interesting.  The first two years are worth 24 human years and 4 years for each successive year.  That makes you, wow, 76.

A smug expression takes over.  Old, he says, you don’t know what it is to be old.

Except at your age, you’re too old to be travelling.

He wanders off, the tail indicating his annoyance.  I don’t think it was what he wanted to hear.

 

Searching for locations: New York from a different perspective

It is an amazing coincidence that both times we have flown into New York, it is the day after the worst snow storms.

The first time, we were delayed out of Los Angeles and waited for hours before the plane left.  We had a free lunch and our first introduction to American hamburgers and chips.  Wow!

I had thought we had left enough time with connections to make it in time for New Year’s Eve, like four to five hours before.  As it turned out, we arrived in New York at 10:30, and thanks to continual updating with our limousine service, he was there to take us to the hotel.

The landing was rough, the plane swaying all over the place and many of the passengers were sick.  Blankets were in short supply!

We made it to the hotel, despite snow, traffic, and the inevitable problems associated with NYE in New York, with enough time to throw our baggage in the room, put on our anti cold clothes, and get out onto the streets.

We could not go to Times Square but finished up at Central Park with thousands of others, in time to see the ball drop on a big screen, exchange new year’s greetings, and see the fireworks.

Then, as luck would have it, we were able to get an authentic New York hotdog, just before the police moved the vendor on, and our night was complete.

The second time we were the last plane out of Los Angeles to New York.  After waiting and waiting, we boarded, and then started circling the airport waiting for takeoff permission.  We stopped once to refuel, and then the pilot decided we were leaving.

This time we took our eldest granddaughter, who was 9 at the time, and she thought it was an adventure.  It was.

When we landed, we were directed to an older part of the airport, a disused terminal.  We were not the only plane to land, at about one in the morning, but one of about four.  The terminal building filled very quickly, and we were all waiting for baggage.  The baggage belts broke so there were a lot of porters bring the baggage in by hand.

One part of the terminal was just a sea of bags.  To find ours our granddaughter, who, while waiting, sat on top of the cabin baggage playing her DSI until the announcement our bags were available, walked across the top of the bags till she found them.  Thankfully no one was really looking in her direction.

Once again we kept our limousine service updated, and, once we knew what terminal we were at, he came to pick us up.  This time we arrived some days before NYE, so there was not so much of a rush.  We got to the hotel about 3:30 in the morning, checked in, and then went over the road to an all-night diner where we ordered hamburgers and chips.

And a Dr. Pepper.