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

Writing about writing a book – Day 27

Well, it’s been a monumental process to get to the point where I think I can start writing Chapter One.

This, of course, might not be the first chapter, it might finish up somewhere else.

If there was a plan, then this would be chapter one.  In fact, right now, I’m going to sit down and do a plan with as much as I know about where the book is heading.

One, about Bill and his introduction to the reader

Two, a phone call to interrupt the dream

Three, having to go into work – there’s a disaster going on, and he’s the only one who can fix it.

Well, not necessarily others, but this is the nineteen seventies/eighties, and women were still not looked upon or considered as being able to hold the same position as Bill – we’ve certainly come a long way in forty years.

And that, of course, is anther stream in the book, proving that woman, and one in particular is clever and given the recognition she deserves.

I’ve also got to remember that there is no internet, and there are no mobile phones and a lot of other stuff that is now regarded as commonplace and taken for granted.

We had telephone boxes, telephones on desks that connected to a switchboard, dumb terminals connected to mainframes, modems that were bulky and very very slow, and comms ran very differently to those today, and networking was a variety of technologies that mostly don’t exist anymore, like ethernet and token ring, and software like 3Com and Novell.

I know I’m going to forget sometimes because it’s going to be hard not to have the MC pull out his cellphone and call on the spot.

Anyway, here’s the first attempt…

 

A cool breeze blew briskly across meadows of tall grass, giving the impression of the ocean in a storm.  High above, clouds scudded across the sky, occasionally allowing the sun to shine through to bathe the ground in the sunshine, intensifying the richness of the greens and browns.

It was spring.  Trees were displaying new growth, and flowers were starting to show the promise of summery delight.  An occasional light shower of rain added to the delightful aromas, particularly where the grass had recently been mowed.

I was there, too, with my grandmother, the woman who had, for the most part, brought me up at her country residence.  But, as I got older, the dream changed and sometimes there were storm clouds on the horizon, or I was caught in the rain, alone and frightened, or lost in the woods in the dark.

There were other visions like these from my childhood, now a million years away somewhere in a distant past that was hard to remember or say where and when they belonged.  It was a pity some were now based on images stolen from the start of a movie seen on TV late at night as I was trying to get to sleep.  Or that the psychiatrist had said there was some trauma from my early childhood, trying to work its way out.

Like every other morning, these images came to me as I was hovering somewhere between conscious and unconscious, just before the alarm went off.  Then it did, filling the room with a shrill noise that would have woken the dead.

I cursed, and then dragged myself over to the other side of the bed where I’d put the alarm clock, and hit it, killing the shrill sound.  I’d put it there so I would have to wake up to turn it off.  And, worse, I’d forgotten to turn it off the night before because it was, technically, the first day of my holiday.

Not that I really wanted one because since Ellen left, my life consisted of work, work, and more work.  It kept my mind off being alone, and in an empty apartment except for the books, a bed, a table, and two chairs, a desk, and a well-worn lounge chair.  I’d been there for years and still hadn’t bought any new furniture or anything else for that matter.

And the last holiday I’d gone on had been organized by Ellen fifteen years ago in Italy after our two daughters had finished school and graduated almost top of their class.  We’d been happier then, but happiness was fleeting for me, and soon after the rot had set in, and it was the beginning of the end.

I remembered it only too clearly, coming home, opening a letter addressed to her, and finding proof of what I think I’d known all along.  She was having an affair, had been for quite some time.

It should not have been a surprise given what I had put her through over the years, since my discharge from the Army, and the nightmares active service had fueled, but it was and sent me spiraling to a new low.

But that was five years ago.  I came out of the fog a year after that.  Ellen was gone, the girls came to see me from time to time, and all I had left were memories.

I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.  I was on holiday.  No work, no pressure, nothing.  I could go back to my grandmother’s house and visit.  I had been promising myself I’d do that soon, even if it was now a country hotel.  From the advertising it had not changed one bit, the house and grounds intact.

Or I could throw a dart at a map and get on the next plane there, though knowing my ability with a dart, it would be in the middle of the ocean.

I could do almost anything I wanted.

 

It’s not much, just a taste.  But it’s enough for now.  I’ve made a start.  Now, all I have to do is come up with the next 100,000 words or so.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2020

The story behind the story: A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers

To write a private detective serial has always been one of the items at the top of my to-do list, though trying to write novels and a serial, as well as a blog, and maintain a social media presence, well, you get the idea.

But I made it happen, from a bunch of episodes I wrote a long, long time ago, used these to start it, and then continue on, then as now, never having much of an idea where it was going to end up, or how long it would take to tell the story.

That, I think is the joy of ad hoc writing, even you, as the author, have as much idea of where it’s going as the reader does.

It’s basically been in the mill since 1990, and although I finished it last year, it looks like the beginning to end will have taken exactly 30 years.  Had you asked me 30 years ago if I’d ever get it finished, the answer would be maybe?

 

My private detective, Harry Walthenson

I’d like to say he’s from that great literary mold of Sam Spade, or Mickey Spillane, or Phillip Marlow, but he’s not.

But, I’ve watched Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade with much interest, and modeled Harry and his office on it.  Similarly, I’ve watched Robert Micham play Phillip Marlow with great panache, if not detachment, and added a bit of him to the mix.

Other characters come into play, and all of them, no matter what period they’re from, always seem larger than life.  I’m not above stealing a little of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet, to breathe life into beguiling women and dangerous men alike.

 

Then there’s the title, like

The Case of the Unintentional Mummy – this has so many meanings in so many contexts, though I image back in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s, this would be excellent fodder for Abbott and Costello

The Case of the Three-Legged Dog – Yes, I suspect there may be a few real-life dogs with three legs, but this plot would involve something more sinister.  And if made out of plaster, yes, they’re always something else inside.

But for mine, to begin with, it was “The Case of the …”, because I had no idea what the case was going to be about, well, I did, but not specifically.

Then I liked the idea of calling it “The Case of the Brother’s Revenge” because I began to have a notion there was a brother no one knew about, but that’s stuff for other stories, not mine, so then went the way of the others.

 

Now it’s called ‘A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers’, finished the first three drafts, and at the editor for the last.

I have high hopes of publishing it in May 2020.  It even has a cover.

 

PIWalthJones1

Delving into the inspirational photo bin

Does a rainy, cold, miserable sort of day usually reflect your mood?

This was taken on the morning of the following day we arrived in the Gold Coast hinterland when we were staying at a cottage in the countryside.

Good thing we had a GPS to get us there.

Going away for a weekend, in winter, can be challenging.  Not always, but for some years now, we have been going away when it is winter elsewhere in the world, and thought nothing of minus temperatures, simply because our summers are very, very hot.

With the pandemic travel anywhere is all but closed down.  This was at a time when we could only travel up to 200 km from home, in a low-level set of restrictions.  It’s since changed to the whole of the state because the other state borders are closed.

But winter here is not as bad as winter on the other side of the world.  Wet, raining, it was still about 16 degrees celsius, so it turned out to be a weekend where we could just sit on the patio and watch the rain go by, a rather interesting phenomenon watching it and the low clouds pass by going up the valley.

I was trying to read a book, but it was one of those that required no distractions.  I’d also tried doing some crosswords, but that too required concentration.

And being in the middle of nowhere with nothing but hills, bush, fields, farm animals, macadamia nut plantations, and a river, there was plenty going on around us.

I still have to bring a fishing line the next time, and tackle fishing in the river.  Maybe I’ll catch a trout. 

 

“Sunday in New York”, it’s a bumpy road to love

“Sunday in New York” is ultimately a story about trust, and what happens when a marriage is stretched to its limits.

When Harry Steele attends a lunch with his manager, Barclay, to discuss a promotion that any junior executive would accept in a heartbeat, it is the fact his wife, Alison, who previously professed her reservations about Barclay, also agreed to attend, that casts a small element of doubt in his mind.

From that moment, his life, in the company, in deciding what to do, his marriage, his very life, spirals out of control.

There is no one big factor that can prove Harry’s worst fears, that his marriage is over, just a number of small, interconnecting events, when piled on top of each other, points to a cataclysmic end to everything he had believed in.

Trust is lost firstly in his best friend and mentor, Andy, who only hints of impending disaster, Sasha, a woman whom he saved, and who appears to have motives of her own, and then in his wife, Alison, as he discovered piece by piece damning evidence she is about to leave him for another man.

Can we trust what we see with our eyes or trust what we hear?

Haven’t we all jumped to conclusions at least once in our lives?

Can Alison, a woman whose self-belief and confidence is about to be put to the ultimate test, find a way of proving their relationship is as strong as it has ever been?

As they say in the classics, read on!

Purchase:

http://tinyurl.com/Amazon-SundayInNewYork

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

 

Searching for locations: Rome, Italy

We visited Rome in August

It was hot.

It was verrrry hot.

We flew into Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport after a rather bumpy flight from London.  Unlike most other airports the plane parked at a satellite terminal and after we disembarked we had to catch a train to the main terminal.

The most notable memory of this airport was my daughter’s discovery of a salami shop.

We had booked a transfer to take us to the hotel the Roma Corso Trieste Mercure in Via Gradisca from the airport.  It was a white air-conditioned van and so far we had avoided the heat.

One of the rooms had a faulty air conditioning an absolute must as the rooms were very hot without it and necessitated a room change which was done quickly and efficiently.

The hotel was in the suburbs and without a car we were dependent on public transport.  According to the reception staff, there was a bus stop nearby, and a longer walk to the tram or light railway.  The bus seemed to be the best option as it would take us to the central terminal near the railway station, where all tour buses also operated from, and particularly the open-top buses that went to all the major tourist attractions.

That first day basically was given over to travelling, arriving by plane and settling into the hotel, thus we didn’t get to feel the force of the heat.  That came the next day.

After a walk around the hotel precinct to get our bearings and see what shops and restaurants were available, on returning to the hotel we were faced with the limited choices of room service or to go out for dinner.

My daughter and l go for a long walk up Via Nomentana to find several shops and a restaurant.  We went into the restaurant and sat down.   We waited for 10 minutes and got no service nor did anyone come and ask us if we wanted to order food so instead we left somewhat disappointed and go next door to what seems to be the Italian version of a delicatessen and order sandwiches and beer.   I bought a half dozen cans of Moretti beer two of which I drank on the way home.

It was still very hot even at eight at night and the sandwiches are delicious.  It just might be by that time we were starving and anything would have tasted great.

The next morning we are up and ready to chance the weather and some history.  Breakfast at the hotel is limited but very good.

We were going to use public transport and I’d studied up on the Internet.

Travelling on the bus required pre-purchase of tickets which could be bought in certain shops and locally when exploring the area near the hotel, l found a tobacconist.

Next, we needed to understand how to use the tickets. There was no one on the bus who could help so when l tried to scan the tickets and it failed, l gave up.  We had the same issue each day and in the end, the tickets never got used.

The trip to central Rome by bus took about 15 minutes.  In the morning it was reasonably cool and showed us a little of suburban Rome.  We also saw the trams but we would not be able to use them because our hotel not on a direct route.

That first full day we decided to go and see the Vatican.

Not understanding buses and which one we needed to get to the Vatican, we took a taxi.

Wow.  It was the metaphorical equivalent of driving over the edge of a cliff with a daredevil.  It was quite literally terrifying.

Or maybe we just didn’t know that this was probably the way people drove in Rome.

Shaken but delivered in one piece we found ourselves in the square opposite St Peters Basilica.

The square is impressive, with the statues atop a circular colonnaded walkway.  The church is incredible and took a few hours to take in and to top off the day, we did a tour of the Vatican museum which took the rest of the afternoon.

Then it was back to the delicatessen for more sandwiches and beer, and an interesting discussion with several elderly Italian ladies, of which I did not understand one word.

The second full day we decided to use one of the open-top bus tours and eventually decided on the hop on hop off tour simply because the bus was at the central transport terminal for trains and buses and it was getting hotter.

Our first stop was the Colosseum.  There were other monuments nearby, such as the Arch of Constantine, but as the heat factor increased we joined the queue to go into the Colosseum and gladly welcomed the shade once we got inside.

The queue was long and the wait equally so, but it was worth the wait.  It would be more interesting if they could restore part of it to its former glory so we could get a sense of the place as it once was.  But alas that may never happen, but even so, it is still magnificent as a ruin.

Outside in the heat, it was off to the ruins which were a longish walk from the Colosseum, taking Via Sacra, not far from the Arch of Constantine.  This day in the walkway there were a number of illegal vendors, selling knockoff goods such as handbags and watches, and who, at the first sight of the police, packed up their wares in a blanket and ran.

Included in these ruins were The Roman Forum, or just a few columns remaining, the Palatine Hill, Imperial Fori, including the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, and more specifically the Forum of Trajan.  It was, unfortunately very hot and dusty in the ruins the day we visited.

We walked all the way to the Foro Romano and the Septimus Severo Arch at the other end of the ruins, past the Temple of Caesar.

I found it very difficult to picture what it was like when the buildings were intact, so I bought a guide to the ruins which showed the buildings as ruins and an overlay of how they would have looked.  The buildings, then, would be as amazing as the Colosseum, and it would have been interesting to have lived back then, though perhaps not as a Christian.

I lost count of the number of bottles of water we bought, but the word ‘frizzante’ was ringing in my ears by the end of the day.  Fortunately, the water did not cost a lot to buy.

At the end of the day, we caught the hop on hop off bus at the Colosseum and decided not to get off and see any more monuments but observe them from the bus.  The only one I remember seeing was Circo Massimo.  Perhaps if we’d know it was going to be twice as hot on the bus, yes, there was no air-conditioning; we may have chosen another form of transport to get back to the hotel.

The third and last day in Rome we decided to go to the Trevi Fountain, see the pantheon and walk up the Spanish Steps.  We spent most of the morning in the cool of a café watching the tourists at the fountain.  By the time we reached the top of the Spanish Steps, we were finished.

An excerpt from “The Devil You Don’t”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2Xyh1ow

 

By the time I returned to the Savoie, the rain had finally stopped, and there was a streak of blue sky to offer some hope the day would improve.

The ship was not crowded, the possibility of bad weather perhaps holding back potential passengers.  Of those I saw, a number of them would be aboard for the lunch by Phillippe Chevrier.  I thought about it, but the Concierge had told me about several restaurants in Yvoire and had given me a hand-drawn map of the village.  I think he came from the area because he spoke with the pride and knowledge of a resident.

I was looking down from the upper deck observing the last of the boarding passengers when I saw a woman, notable for her red coat and matching shoes, making a last-minute dash to get on board just before the gangway was removed.  In fact, her ungainly manner of boarding had also captured a few of the other passenger’s attention.  Now they would have something else to talk about, other than the possibility of further rain.

I saw her smile at the deckhand, but he did not smile back.  He was not impressed with her bravado, perhaps because of possible injury.  He looked at her ticket then nodded dismissively, and went back to his duties in getting the ship underway.  I was going to check the departure time, but I, like the other passengers, had my attention diverted to the woman in red.

From what I could see there was something about her.  It struck me when the light caught her as she turned to look down the deck, giving me a perfect profile.  I was going to say she looked foreign, but here, as in almost anywhere in Europe, that described just about everyone.  Perhaps I was just comparing her to Phillipa, so definitively British, whereas this woman was very definitely not.

She was perhaps in her 30’s, slim or perhaps the word I’d use was lissom, and had the look and manner of a model.  I say that because Phillipa had dragged me to most of the showings, whether in Milan, Rome, New York, London, or Paris.  The clothes were familiar, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling I’d seen her before.

Or perhaps, to me, all models looked the same.

She looked up in my direction, and before I could divert my eyes, she locked on.  I could feel her gaze boring into me, and then it was gone as if she had been looking straight through me.  I remained out on deck as the ship got underway, watching her disappear inside the cabin.  My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to keep an eye out for her.

I could feel the coolness of the air as the ship picked up speed, not that it was going to be very fast.  With stops, the trip would take nearly two hours to get to my destination.  It would turn back almost immediately, but I was going to stay until the evening when it returned at about half eight.  It would give me enough time to sample the local fare, and take a tour of the medieval village.

Few other passengers ventured out on the deck, most staying inside or going to lunch.  After a short time, I came back down to the main deck and headed forward.  I wanted to clear my head by concentrating on the movement of the vessel through the water, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and let the peacefulness of the surroundings envelope me.

It didn’t work.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started thinking about why things hadn’t worked, and what part I played in it.  And the usual question that came to mind when something didn’t work out.  What was wrong with me?

I usually blamed it on my upbringing.

I had one of those so-called privileged lives, a nanny till I was old enough to go to boarding school, then sent to the best schools in the land.  There I learned everything I needed to be the son of a Duke, or, as my father called it in one of his lighter moments, nobility in waiting.

Had this been five or six hundred years ago, I would need to have sword and jousting skills, or if it had been a few hundred years later a keen military mind.  If nothing else I could ride a horse, and go on hunts, or did until they became not the thing to do.

I learned six languages, and everything I needed to become a diplomat in the far-flung British Empire, except the Empire had become the Commonwealth, and then, when no-one was looking, Britain’s influence in the world finally disappeared.  I was a man without a cause, without a vocation, and no place to go.

Computers were the new vogue and I had an aptitude for programming.  I guess that went hand in hand with mathematics, which although I hated the subject, I excelled in.  Both I and another noble outcast used to toss ideas around in school, but when it came to the end of our education, he chose to enter the public service, and I took a few of those ideas we had mulled over and turned them into a company.

About a year ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  There were so many zeroes on the end of it I just said yes, put the money into a very grateful bank, and was still trying to come to terms with it.

Sadly, I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  My parents had asked me to come back home and help manage the estate, and I did for a few weeks.  It was as long as it took for my parents to drive me insane.

Back in the city, I spent a few months looking for a mundane job, but there were very few that suited the qualifications I had, and the rest, I think I intimidated the interviewer simply because of who I was.  In that time I’d also featured on the cover of the Economist, and through my well-meaning accountant, started involving myself with various charities, earning the title ‘philanthropist’.

And despite all of this exposure, even making one of those ubiquitous ‘eligible bachelor’ lists, I still could not find ‘the one’, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  Phillipa seemed to fit the bill, but in time she proved to be a troubled soul with ‘Daddy’ issues.  I knew that in building a relationship compromise was necessary, but with her, in the end, everything was a compromise and what had happened was always going to be the end result.

It was perhaps a by-product of the whole nobility thing.  There was a certain expectation I had to fulfill, to my peers, contemporaries, parents and family, and those who either liked or hated what it represented.  The problem was, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  Not like my friend from schooldays, and now obscure acquaintance, Sebastian.  He had been elevated to his Dukedom early when his father died when he was in his twenties.  He had managed to fade from the limelight and was rarely mentioned either in the papers or the gossip columns.  He was one of the lucky ones.

I had managed to keep a similarly low profile until I met Phillipa.  From that moment, my obscurity disappeared.  It was, I could see now, part of a plan put in place by Phillipa’s father, a man who hogged the limelight with his daughter, to raise the profile of the family name and through it their businesses.  He was nothing if not the consummate self-advertisement.

Perhaps I was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the attachment to the establishment, that link with a class of people he would not normally get in the front door.  There was nothing refined about him or his family, and more than once I’d noticed my contemporaries cringe at the mention of his name, or any reference of my association with him.

Yet could I truthfully say I really wanted to go back to the obscurity I had before Phillipa?  For all her faults, there were times when she had been fun to be with, particularly when I first met her when she had a certain air of unpredictability.  That had slowly disappeared as she became part of her father’s plan for the future.  She just failed to see how much he was using her.

Or perhaps, over time, I had become cynical.

I thought about calling her.  It was one of those moments of weakness when I felt alone, more alone than usual.

I diverted my attention back to my surroundings and the shoreline.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the red coat, making a move.  The red coat was like a beacon, a sort of fire engine red.  It was not the sort of coat most of the women I knew would wear, but on her, it looked terrific.  In fact, her sublime beauty was the one other attribute that was distinctly noticeable, along with the fact her hair was short, rather than long, and jet black.

I had to wrench my attention away from her.

A few minutes later several other passengers came out of the cabin for a walk around the deck, perhaps to get some exercise, perhaps checking up on me, or perhaps I was being paranoid.  I waited till they passed on their way forward, and I turned and headed aft.

I watched the wake sluicing out from under the stern for a few minutes, before retracing my steps to the front of the ship and there I stood against the railing, watching the bow carve its way through the water.  It was almost mesmerizing.  There, I emptied my mind of thoughts about Phillipa, and thoughts about the woman in the red coat.

Until a female voice behind me said, “Having a bad day?”

I started, caught by surprise, and slowly turned.  The woman in the red coat had somehow got very close me without my realizing it.  How did she do that?  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer immediately.

“I do hope you are not contemplating jumping.  I hear the water is very cold.”

Closer up, I could see what I’d missed when I saw her on the main deck.  There was a slight hint of Chinese, or Oriental, in her particularly around the eyes, and of her hair which was jet black.  An ancestor twice or more removed had left their mark, not in a dominant way, but more subtle, and easily missed except from a very short distance away, like now.

Other than that, she was quite possibly Eastern European, perhaps Russian, though that covered a lot of territory.  The incongruity of it was that she spoke with an American accent, and fluent enough for me to believe English was her first language.

Usually, I could ‘read’ people, but she was a clean slate.  Her expression was one of amusement, but with cold eyes.  My first thought, then, was to be careful.

“No.  Not yet.”  I coughed to clear my throat because I could hardly speak.  And blushed, because that was what I did when confronted by a woman, beautiful or otherwise.

The amusement gave way to a hint of a smile that brightened her demeanor as a little warmth reached her eyes.  “So that’s a maybe.  Should I change into my lifesaving gear, just in case?”

It conjured up a rather interesting image in my mind until I reluctantly dismissed it.

“Perhaps I should move away from the edge,” I said, moving sideways until I was back on the main deck, a few feet further away.  Her eyes had followed me, and when I stopped she turned to face me again.  She did not move closer.

I realized then she had removed her beret and it was in her left side coat pocket.  “Thanks for your concern …?”

“Zoe.”

“Thanks for your concern, Zoe.  By the way, my name is John.”

She smiled again, perhaps in an attempt to put me at ease.  “I saw you earlier, you looked so sad, I thought …”

“I might throw myself overboard?”

“An idiotic notion I admit, but it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Then she tilted her head to one side then the other, looking intently at me.  “You seem to be familiar.  Do I know you?”

I tried to think of where I may have seen her before, but all I could remember was what I’d thought earlier when I first saw her; she was a model and had been at one of the showings.  If she was, it would be more likely she would remember Phillipa, not me.  Phillipa always had to sit in the front row.

“Probably not.”  I also didn’t mention the fact she may have seen my picture in the society pages of several tabloid newspapers because she didn’t look the sort of woman who needed a daily dose of the comings and goings, and, more often than not, scandal associated with so-called celebrities.

She gave me a look, one that told me she had just realized who I was.  “Yes, I remember now.  You made the front cover of the Economist.  You sold your company for a small fortune.”

Of course.  She was not the first who had recognized me from that cover.  It had raised my profile considerably, but not the Sternhaven’s.  That article had not mentioned Phillipa or her family.  I suspect Grandmother had something to do with that, and it was, now I thought about it, another nail in the coffin that was my relationship with Phillipa.

“I wouldn’t say it was a fortune, small or otherwise, just fortunate.”  Each time, I found myself playing down the wealth aspect of the business deal.

“Perhaps then, as the journalist wrote, you were lucky.  It is not, I think, a good time for internet-based companies.”

The latter statement was an interesting fact, one she read in the Financial Times which had made that exact comment recently.

“But I am boring you.”  She smiled again.  “I should be minding my own business and leaving you to your thoughts.  I am sorry.”

She turned to leave and took a few steps towards the main cabin.

“You’re not boring me,” I said, thinking I was letting my paranoia get the better of me.  It had been Sebastian on learning of my good fortune, who had warned me against ‘a certain element here and abroad’ whose sole aim would be to separate me from my money.  He was not very subtle when he described their methods.

But I knew he was right.  I should have let her walk away.

She stopped and turned around.  “You seem nothing like the man I read about in the Economist.”

A sudden and awful thought popped into my head.  Those words were part of a very familiar opening gambit.  “Are you a reporter?”

I was not sure if she looked surprised, or amused.  “Do I look like one?”

I silently cursed myself for speaking before thinking, and then immediately ignored my own admonishment.  “People rarely look like what they are.”

I saw the subtle shake of the head and expected her to take her leave.  Instead she astonished me.

“I fear we have got off on the wrong foot.  To be honest, I’m not usually this forward, but you seemed like you needed cheering up when probably the opposite is true.  Aside from the fact this excursion was probably a bad idea.  And,” she added with a little shrug, “perhaps I talk too much.”

I was not sure what I thought of her after that extraordinary admission. It was not something I would do, but it was an interesting way to approach someone and have them ignoring their natural instinct.  I would let Sebastian whisper in my ear for a little longer and see where this was going.

“Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing.  I was supposed to be traveling with my prospective bride.  I think you can imagine how that turned out.”

“She’s not here?”

“No.”

“She’s in the cabin?”  Her eyes strayed in that direction for a moment then came back to me.  She seemed surprised I might be traveling with someone.

“No.  She is back in England, and the wedding is off.  So is the relationship.  She dumped me by text.”

OK, why was I sharing this humiliating piece of information with her?  I still couldn’t be sure she was not a reporter.

She motioned to an empty seat, back from the edge.  No walking the plank today.  She moved towards it and sat down.  She showed no signs of being cold, nor interested in the breeze upsetting her hair.  Phillipa would be having a tantrum about now, being kept outside, and freaking out over what the breeze might be doing to her appearance.

I wondered, if only for a few seconds if she used this approach with anyone else.  I guess I was a little different, a seemingly rich businessman alone on a ferry on Lake Geneva, contemplating the way his life had gone so completely off track.

She watched as I sat at the other end of the bench, leaving about a yard between us.  After I leaned back and made myself as comfortable as I could, she said, “I have also experienced something similar, though not by text message.  It is difficult, the first few days.”

“I saw it coming.”

“I did not.”  She frowned, a sort of lifeless expression taking over, perhaps brought on by the memory of what had happened to her.  “But it is done, and I moved on.  Was she the love of your life?”

OK, that was unexpected.

When I didn’t answer, she said, “I am sorry.  Sometimes I ask personal questions without realizing what I’m doing.  It is none of my business.”  She shivered.  “Perhaps we should go back inside.”

She stood, and held out her hand.  Should I take it and be drawn into her web?  I thought of Sebastian.  What would he do in this situation?

I took her hand in mine and let her pull me gently to my feet.  “Wise choice,” she said, looking up at the sky.

It just started to rain.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newdevilcvr6

Writing progress – July

I usually get this out just after the end of the month, but last month felt like it’d been going for three.  Time was passing exceptionally slowly, except for when I sit in front of the computer with a blank page.

Then it goes very quickly for some reason.

However…

I’m still working on four separate episodic stories,

A treasure hunt

A rescue mission, as it turned out to be,

A war story, which is now about helping a defecting German rocket scientist

and,

A brand new agent who discovers he was not necessarily what he thought he was

It shows how stories evolve over time, especially if you are not a planner, and you just ‘go for it’.  Episodic stories are like that, and that’s why I like doing them.

As for the rescue mission, which was subtitled ‘what happens after an action-packed start’, the writing has finished, with a total of 47 episodes.

The latest published, Episode 46, is here:  https://bit.ly/3fn0NWr

As for the treasure hunt, it proceeds apace and has a total of 52 episodes written and at the moment the latest Episode 45, is published here:  https://bit.ly/33JmU7w

The surveillance story, that is to say, what started out as a surveillance exercise, had evolved into so much more and has 45 episodes written, and the latest published, Episode 35 is here:  https://bit.ly/2Dg2QyA

I’ve sat down and written some more episodes for the war story, and there are now 37 written, and the last published, episode 35 is here:  https://bit.ly/3gcBI1E

Moving on from the A to Z challenge which saw 26 short stories written, most exhausting work, you can imagine I needed a break from the written word.   I’ve got past that, and moved on to the next novel which will soon be published, “The Things We Do For Love”, which I’m hoping will be ready by September.

That’s a bit like a politician’s promise, but I’m working as fast as I can given all the other constraints.  It’s not the sort of pressure I ever want to work under, but I think in the end it will do some good.  Next time I have a deadline…

And, now the action-packed story has ended, I want to replace it with another, and this will most likely be one I’ve been toying with over the last three months, called Motive, means, and opportunity.

It’s about an innocent man being condemned by circumstantial evidence.  Or is he?

 

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 2018-2020