Memories of the conversations with my cat – 43

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, he’s just reminded me that it is International Cat Day.

I ask, are you really an international cat, because you live here, and haven’t travelled anywhere.

A studious glance at me, then at a map of the word, he then tells me I haven’t taken him anywhere, but he’s been with me in spirit.

Yes, and while I’m away, well, you know how it goes…

Again apparently that was my fault, I didn’t leave strict instructions on what he could or could not do.

I thought we’d set those boundaries a long time ago.

I’m old, is the quick retort,  Memory is failing.  I’m lucky if I can remember what I was doing yesterday.  You’ll have to remind me.

Every morning.

And even then I might still have trouble remembering.

Anyway, don’t you humans have a saying, respect your elders?

OK.  Now we’re back on the age thing.  And, by the way, I don’t think my granddaughter gave you permission to sleep on her pillow.

Seems it’s my turn to eave in a huff!

International cat day?????

 

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

 

Searching for locations: A typical diner, New York

We decided to have lunch in a traditional Diner.

On an early morning walk, I discovered the Brooklyn Diner, a small restaurant tucked away in a street not far from Columbus Circle, perhaps a piece of history from the American past.

After all, if you’re going to take in the sights, sounds, and food of a country what better way to do it than visiting what was once a tradition.

This one was called the Brooklyn Diner.  It had a combination of booths and counter sit down, though the latter was not a very big space, so we opted for a booth.

The object of going to a Diner is the fact they serve traditional American food, which when you get past the hot dogs and hamburgers and fries, takes the form of turkey and chicken pot pies among a variety of other choices.

Still looking for a perfectly cooked turkey, something I’ve never been able to do myself, I opted for the Teadition Turkey Lunch, which the menu invitingly said was cooked especially at the diner and was succulent.  I couldn’t wait.

We also ordered a hamburger, yes, yet another, and a chicken pot pie, on the basis the last one I had in Toronto was absolutely delicious (and cooked the same way since the mid-1930s)

While waiting we got to look at a slice of history belonging to another great American tradition, Baseball, a painting on the wall of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets field, long since gone from their home.

The Turnkey lunch looked like this

which didn’t seem to be much, and had this odd pasta slice on the plate, but the turkey was amazing and lived up to the menu description.

The Chicken Pot Pie looked like this

And looked a lot larger in reality than the photo shows.

But, sadly while it was not bad, it was a little dry, and could possibly do with using the more succulent thigh part of the chicken.

All of this was washed down by Long Island Ice Teas and Brooklyn Lager.

AS for the Diner experience, it’s definitely a 10 out of 10 for me.

The story behind the story – Echoes from the Past

The novel ‘Echoes from the past’ started out as a short story I wrote about 30 years ago, titled ‘The birthday’.

My idea was to take a normal person out of their comfort zone and led on a short but very frightening journey to a place where a surprise birthday party had been arranged.

Thus the very large man with a scar and a red tie was created.

So was the friend with the limousine who worked as a pilot.

So were the two women, Wendy and Angelina, who were Flight Attendants that the pilot friend asked to join the conspiracy.

I was going to rework the short story, then about ten pages long, into something a little more.

And like all re-writes, especially those I have anything to do with, it turned into a novel.

There was motivation.  I had told some colleagues at the place where I worked at the time that I liked writing, and they wanted a sample.  I was going to give them the re-worked short story.  Instead, I gave them ‘Echoes from the past’

Originally it was not set anywhere in particular.

But when considering a location, I had, at the time, recently been to New York in December, and visited Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a lot of New York itself.  We were there for New Years, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

One evening we were out late, and finished up in Brooklyn Heights, near the waterfront, and there was rain and snow, it was cold and wet, and there were apartment buildings shimmering in the street light, and I thought, this is the place where my main character will live.

It had a very spooky atmosphere, the sort where ghosts would not be unexpected.  I felt more than one shiver go up and down my spine in the few minutes I was there.

I had taken notes, as I always do, of everywhere we went so I had a ready supply of locations I could use, changing the names in some cases.

Fifth Avenue near the Rockefeller center is amazing at first light, and late at night with the Seasonal decorations and lights.

The original main character was a shy and man of few friends, hence not expecting the surprise party.  I enhanced that shyness into purposely lonely because of an issue from his past that leaves him always looking over his shoulder and ready to move on at the slightest hint of trouble.  No friends, no relationships, just a very low profile.

Then I thought, what if he breaks the cardinal rule, and begins a relationship?

But it is also as much an exploration of a damaged soul, as it is the search for a normal life, without having any idea what normal was, and how the understanding of one person can sometimes make all the difference in what we may think or feel.

And, of course, I wanted a happy ending.

Except for the bad guys.

Get it here:  https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4

newechocover5rs

The cinema of my dreams – It’s a treasure hunt – Episode 19

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 instalment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.

And the perils of writing on the fly often leads to back revisions to aid moving forward, and this is one of those occasions.  A few revisions were required.

 

Short of jumping over the side, there was no way we were getting away.  And judging from the expression on Rico’s face, now very plain to see halfway along the pier, he was not happy to see us.

Boggs stepped off the deck and joined me on the pier, just as Rico made it to where we were standing, just as it started in a gentle up and down motion with the water, churned up by a passing speed boat, but it was fear rather than the pier’s motions making me feel sick.

The sound of another boat caused me to glance in the opposite direction, out towards the sandbar, where I could see another large boat coming in our direction very quickly, and by the shape of it, quite possibly a police launch or the coast guard. 

Rico had seen it too.  “What have you done?”

“I called the police,” I said, trying to act braver than I felt.  Even with the police on their way, Rico could still do something we’d all regret.

“Why?”

Movement by the fishing store caught my eye, and I saw it was two of the men who’d left the boat with Rico earlier, retreating.  They’d seen the situation and were retreating.  A police car with its siren blaring and lights flashing just stopped at the entrance to the pier and two officers were getting out, guns in hand.

Those men would getaway.  Rico had seen them too and looked relieved.  Odd for a man about to find himself in a lot of trouble.

Boggs blurted out, “There’s a dead body in the cabin.”

Rico shook his head.  “That’s not possible.  I’ve been gone for an hour and it isn’t possible he put himself there.”

He looked around to see the officers coming from the land side of the pier.  There was no escape for him, or for us, but this could still end up a sticky situation for us if Rico decided to shoot his way out.  Boggs said he owned a gun, and if it was not on him, it might be in the boat.

Rico climbed on board and then moved to the hatch.  He lifted the hatch cover and folded it back to show an opening into the cabin.  It hadn’t been locked; it just looked like it was.  Just as the officers made it to the boat, he stepped in, then down into the cabin.

A minute later, when he came up  Rico looked visibly shaken like he’d seen a ghost.

The police launch had arrived just off the stern, kicking up the water and causing the boat and pier to rock violently, two men at either end ready to secure their boat to ours.  The land-based officers also arrived, somewhat out of breath, to join Boggs and I on the pier.

I recognised the officer who appeared to be in charge, a man called Johnson, the police chief’s deputy.  He was known to shoot first and ask questions later.  What worried me the most, he had his gun drawn and ready to shoot.

He looked at me, Rico, Boggs, then back to me.  “What’s this all about?”

“There’s a body in the cabin,” Boggs said before I could say a word, still sounding very frightened, but whether it was the body in the cabin, Rico’s fury at his meddling or the fact the police were involved was hard to say.

He switched his glare to Rico.  “That true?”

Rico nodded.  “I don’t know where it came from, but it wasn’t there an hour ago.”  A last look back at the cabin, he stepped off the boat onto the pier.

The seaman aboard the police launch slipped a rope over the bollard at the rear of our boat and then jumped on board to secure it.  Another seaman did the same at the bow.  Two more jumped on board, one covering Rico and the other going into the cabin.

When he came back up on deck he was talking into his cell phone.

I think Rico had a lot of explaining to do.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

In a word: bark

Yes, this is exactly what a dog does, sometimes annoyingly all night, that sharp explosive cry of a dog or, believe it or not, a seal

Much better if the dog is a guard dog, because then you need it to bark when there is intruders

Then there’s another form of bark, that which grows on a tree, and makes excelled burning material, if not a little smoky, for a BBQ.

Ot that the bark of some trees can be used as material for carving, and of others, like the paperbark, to make was seems like paper to write on.

Then there are expressions that start to make you think, concerning this word, such as:

He was a boss that liked to bark orders.  I had one like that, almost looked like a dog too.  Never could ask someone kindly.

He was barking up the wrong tree.  Never seen a dog do this, but many people gave so the literal meaning is to waste your time looking in the wrong place

Then there’s bark or barque, the name of a certain type of boat or masted ship with three or more masts, dating back to sailing days

And then, just top it all off, someone goes and says your barking mad.  Probably just after you were barking up the wrong tree, looking for the barking dog on a barque.

In a word: Top

Spinning like a …  yes, had a few of those dizzy spells, especially after too much to drink.  It’s where you say, ‘stop the world, I want to get off’.

And, ages ago, I think it was a musical production.

But…

Top, well there’s sides, a bottom, and a top.  Have you been to the top of the world, I think I’ve been to the bottom, and it’s not the poles I’m talking about.

But then the top of something is the highest point, such as a mountain.  For some odd reason, I’ve never had the inclination to climb to the top of a mountain, but I’m guessing the view from the top of Mt Everest would be interesting.

Are you at the top of your game?

We say this when a player, or athlete, is winning or playing at their best.  I just keep hoping this year will be when the Maple Leafs will be playing at the top of their game.

Especially when I personally attend at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

If you read thrillers then you’ll know the assassin is always about to top someone, that is to say, kill them.

Will you top up my drink?  It’s where someone asks you how many glasses of wine you’ve had, and the correct answer is one, it just never got empty!

Can you put the top back on the bottle?

I’m headed straight to the top of the company.  The roof maybe, certainly not as CEO.

Top gear, aside from being a motoring show on TV, it could also be third, fourth, of fifth gear, depending on the type of gearbox.

And, of course, there are about another hundred ways it could be used.

Confusing?  to say the least.

Have you another?  Let me know…

Searching for locations: The Erqi Memorial Tower, Zhengzhou, China

A convoluted explanation on the reasons for this memorial came down to it being about the deaths of those involved in the 1923 Erqi strike, though we’re not really sure what the strike was about.

So, after a little research, this is what I found:

The current Erqi Tower was built in 1971 and was, historically, the tallest building in the city. It is a memorial to the Erqi strike and in memory of Lin Xiangqian and other railway workers who went on strike for their rights, which happened on February 7, 1923.

It has 14 floors and is 63 meters high. One of the features of this building is the view from the top, accessed by a spiral staircase, or an elevator, when it’s working (it was not at the time of our visit).

There seems to be an affinity with the number 27 with this building, in that

  • It’s the 27th memorial to be built
  • to commemorate the 27th workers’ strike
  • located in the 27th plaza of Zhengzhou City.

We drive to the middle of the city where we once again find traveling in kamikaze traffic more entertaining than the tourist points

When we get to the drop-off spot, it’s a 10-minute walk to the center square where the tower is located on one side. Getting there we had to pass a choke point of blaring music and people hawking goods, each echoing off the opposite wall to the point where it was deafening. Too much of it would be torture.

But, back to the tower…

It has 14 levels, but no one seemed interested in climbing the 14 or 16 levels to get to the top. The elevator was broken, and after the great wall episode, most of us are heartily sick of stairs.

The center square was quite large but paved in places with white tiles that oddly reflected the heat rather than absorb it. In the sun it was very warm.

Around the outside of two-thirds of the square, and crossing the roads, was an elevated walkway, which if you go from the first shops and around to the other end, you finish up, on the ground level, at Starbucks.

This is the Chinese version and once you get past the language barrier, the mixology range of cold fruity drinks are to die for, especially after all that walking. Mine was a predominantly peach flavor, with some jelly and apricot at the bottom. I was expecting sliced peaches but I prefer and liked the apricot half.

A drink and fruit together was a surprise.

Then it was the walk back to the meeting point and then into the hotel to use the happy house before rejoining the kamikaze traffic.

We are taken then to the train station for the 2:29 to our next destination, Suzhou, the Venice of the East.

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 20

Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in.

Lallo gave me a minute or two to read what amounted to two lines, that my co-operation was expected, and to be given.  It wasn’t exactly addressed to me personally, but a blanket authorization to interview anyone involved in that operation.

I handed the letter back, but not before I noticed it had been unfolded and refolded several times as if it had been used before.  Had Lallo already interrogated Treen, the only other survivor?

Lallo’s first question: “Do you know who was responsible for organising that operation?”

It was rather an odd question, asking a Sergeant who was assigned at the last minute.

“Look, at the time I was assigned to non-combat duties, not as an on-call commando.  I was a late replacement for the member of the team who had to withdraw due to an accident. I was simply ordered to join the team at the airfield.  Given the results, I’m hoping whoever it was that organized and authorized that operation got the bollicking they deserved.”

I had been annoyed at the time, but I’d got over it.  In keeping with a lot of the operations I’d been involved with; very few had a successful outcome, but usually with fewer casualties.

He gave me a sidelong glance, close to an admonishment.  “Just stick to the facts when answering questions.  The other survivor was Lieutenant Treen, correct?”

Not a happy man was the Lieutenant.  Not happy that the operation was changed at the last minute or the fact the odds had been stacked against us, and not happy I’d been flown in as a replacement what he regarded as his personal group.

“Yes.”

“Are you aware he requested an investigation into that operation?”

It came as no surprise.  On the flight over, he had expressed more than one concern about the lack of intelligence and what the real situation was like on the ground.

“No.”

“Were you aware that a week ago Lieutenant Treen was found dead in his quarters, from an apparent suicide?”

Treen if anything was a soldier’s soldier, and the last man to contemplate suicide for any reason.  Surviving, just, that botched operation would not be a catalyst for such an event for such a man.

“No.”

“Odd then, don’t you think, you are nearly sent to your death the day after?”

If that was the case, and one the face of it, it seemed so, that wasn’t the only oddity about this whole affair.  I remembered the date of the General’s letter, the one telling me to be co-operative. It was the day before Treen’s suicide.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence?

It was quite clear someone didn’t want the General or whoever Lallo was working for, to question the last two survivors.

The question now was: what did we know, or what they thought we knew that was so important, that silencing us was necessary.

And would ‘they’ try again?

© Charles Heath 2019-2022

“Quickly, quickly…” – a short story


It was odd having a voice in your head, well, not really in your head as such, but in your ear, and sounding like it was in your head.

You could truthfully say you were hearing voices.

It was the next step after going through some very intensive training, having someone else as your eyes and ears when breaching a secure compound, and avoiding the enemy.

I’d signed on for this extra training thinking one day it would land me in the thick of the action. Some of the others thought I was mad, but someone had to do it, and the fact it was quite dangerous added just that extra bit to it.

But as they say, what you learn in training, and practise in a non-hostile environment, is nothing like being in that same situation in reality.

Now on was on my first assignment, part of an elite team, packed and taken to what was to everyone else, an unspecified location, but to us, it was the point of incursion.

The mission?

To rescue a government official (that was how he was described to us) who had been illegally detained in a foreign prison.

Our job?

To break him out and get out without the knowledge of the prison staff, or anyone representing that government. Yes, what we were doing was highly illegal, and yes, if we were caught it was more likely than not we would be executed as spies.

We were under cover in an abandoned farmhouse about three miles from the prison. We had been brought in under cover of darkness, and had only a few hours to set up, and then wait it out until the following night.

It was now or never, the weather people predicting that there would be sufficient cloud cover to make us invisible. Two of us were going in, and two remaining strategically placed outside to monitor the inside of the prison through a system of infrared scanners. We also had a floor plan of the building in which the prisoner was being held, and intelligence supplied, supposedly, by one of the prison guards who had been paid a lot of money for information on guard movements.

To me, it was a gigantic leap of faith to trust him, but I kept those thoughts to myself.

We had been over the plan a dozen times, and I’d gone through the passageways, rooms, and doors so many times I’d memorised where they were and would be able to traverse the building as if I had worked there for a lifetime. Having people outside, talking me through it was just an added benefit, along with alerts on how near the guards were to our position.

I was sure the other person going with me, a more seasoned professional who had a number of successful missions under his belt, was going through the same motions I was. After all, it was he who had devised and conducted the training.

There was a free period of several hours before departure, time to listen to some music, empty the head of unwanted thoughts, and get into the right mindset. It was no place to get tangled up in what-ifs, if anything went wrong, it was a simple matter of adapting.

Our training had reinforced the necessity to instantly gauge a situation and make changes on the fly. There would literally be no time to think.

I listened to the nuances of Chopin’s piano concertos, pretending to play the piano myself, having translated every note onto a piano key, and observing it in my mind’s eye.

My opposite number played games of chess in his head. We all had a different method of relaxing.

Until it was 22:00 hours, and time to go.

“Go left, no, hang on, go right.” The voice on my ear sounded confused and it was possible to get lefts and rights mixed up, if you were not careful.

It didn’t faze me, I knew from my study of the plans that once inside the perimeter fence, I had to go right, and head towards a concrete building the roof of which was barely above the ground.

It was once used as a helipad, and underneath, before the site became a prison, the space was used to make munitions. And it was an exceptionally large space that practically ran under the whole of the prison, built above ground.

All that had happened was the lower levels were sealed, covered over and the new structures built on top. Our access was going to be from under the ground.

Quite literally, they would not see, or hear, us coming.

The meteorological people had got it right, there was cloud cover, the moon hidden from view, and the whole perimeter was in inky darkness. Dressed in black from head to foot, the hope was we would be invisible.

There were two of us heading to the same spot, stairs that led down to a door that was once one of the entrances to the underground bunker. We were going separate ways in case one of the other was intercepted in an unforeseen event.

But, that part of the plan worked seamlessly, and we both arrived at the same place nearly at the same time.

Without the planning, we might easily have missed it because I didn’t think it would be discernable even in daylight.

I followed the Sergeant downstairs, keeping a watchful eye behind us. I stooped at the point where I could see down, and across the area we had just traversed.

Nothing else was stirring.

As expected, the door was seamless and without an apparent handle. It may have had one once, but not anymore, so anyone who did stumble across it, couldn’t get in.

Except us. We had special explosives that were designed to break the lock, and once set, would not make a lot of noise. Sixty seconds later we were inside, and the door closed so no one would know we’d broken in.

I was carrying a beacon so that the voice in my head could follow my progress. The sergeant had one too, and he led.

“Straight ahead, 200 yards, then another door. It shouldn’t be locked, but it might be closed.”

In other words, we had no way of knowing. Our informant had said no one had been down in the dungeons, as he called them, since the munition factory closed, and had been sealed up soon after the prison building had been handed over for use.

We were using night goggles, and there was a lot of rubbish strewn over the floor area so we had to carefully pick our way through which took time we really didn’t have. It looked as though our informant was right, no one had been down there for a long time. We were leaving boot prints in the dust.

We reached the door ten minutes later than estimated. Losing time would have a flow-on effect, and this operation was on a very tight time constraint.

“Once you are through the door, there’s a passage. Turn left and go about 50 paces. There should be another passage to your right.”

“Anyone down here?”

“No, but there is a half dozen prison officers above you. Standard patrol, from guardhouse to guardhouse. Unless they can hear you through five feet of solid concrete, you’re safe.”

My instincts told me five feet of concrete were not enough, but I’ll let it ride for the moment.

The door was slightly ajar and it took the two of us to pull it open so that we could get past. Behind it was the passage, going left and right. Trusting my invisible guide was not getting mixed up again, I motioned right, and we headed down the passage.

Despite the fact we should be alone, both of us were careful not to make any noise, and trod carefully.

At 50 or so paces, the passage came into sight. The sergeant went ahead. I stayed back and kept an eye in both directions. The passage before us was the one that would take us under the cell of the captive we were sent to retrieve.

There would be no blasting our way in. The floor to the cell had a grate, and when removed, a person could drop down into the ‘dungeon’. Currently, the grate was immovable, but we had the tools to fix that.

The sergeant would verify the grate was where it was supposed to be, then come back to get me.

Five minutes passed, then ten. It was not that far away.

I was about to go search when the voice in my head returned, but with panic. “We’ve been compromised. Get the hell out of there, now. Quickly…”

Then I heard what sounded like gunshots, then nothing.

A minute later there was a new voice. “I don’t know who you are, but I’d strongly advise you give yourself up to the guards. Failure to do so within one hour, I’ll execute the two men I now have in custody.”

Ahead of me there was a sudden explosion, followed by a cloud of dust and fine debris.

Hand grenade, or mine, it didn’t matter. The sergeant wouldn’t be coming back.

I sighed.

Plan B it was.

© Charles Heath 2021