An excerpt from “Betrayal” – a work in progress

It could have been anywhere in the world, she thought, but it wasn’t.  It was in a city where if anything were to go wrong…

She sighed and came away from the window and looked around the room.  It was quite large and expensively furnished.  It was one of several she had been visiting in the last three months.

Quite elegant too, as the hotel had its origins dating back to before the revolution in 1917.  At least, currently, there would not be a team of KGB agents somewhere in the basement monitoring everything that happened in the room.

There was no such thing as the KGB anymore, though there was an FSB, but such organisations were of no interest to her.

She was here to meet with Vladimir.

She smiled to herself when she thought of him, such an interesting man whose command of English was as good as her command of Russian, though she had not told him of that ability.

All her knew of her was that she was American, worked in the Embassy as a clerk, nothing important, who life both at work and at home was boring.  Not that she had blurted that out the first tie she met, or even the second.

That first time, at a function in the Embassy, was a chance meeting, a catching of his eye as he looked around the room, looking, as he had told her later, for someone who might not be as boring as the function itself.

It was a celebration, honouring one of the Embassy officials on his service in Moscow, and the fact he was returning home after 10 years.  She had been there one, and still hadn’t met all the staff.

They had talked, Vladimir knew a great deal about England, having been stationed there for a year or two, and had politely asked questions about where she lived, her family, and of course what her role was, all questions she fended off with an air of disinterested interest.

It fascinated him, as she knew it would, a sort of mental sparring as one would do with swords, if this was a fencing match.

They had said they might or might not meet again when the party was over, but she suspected there would be another opportunity.  She knew the signs of a man who was interested in her, and Vladimir was interested.

The second time came in the form of an invitation to an art gallery, and a viewing of the works of a prominent Russian artist, an invitation she politely declined.  After all, invitations issued to Embassy staff held all sorts of connotations, or so she was told by the Security officer when she told him.

Then, it went quiet for a month.  There was a party at the American embassy and along with several other staff members, she was invited.  She had not expected to meet Vladimir, but it was a pleasant surprise when she saw him, on the other side of the room, talking to several military men.

A pleasant afternoon ensued.

And it was no surprise that they kept running into each other at the various events on the diplomatic schedule.

By the fifth meeting, they were like old friends.  She had broached the subject of being involved in a plutonic relationship with him with the head of security at the embassy.  Normally for a member of her rank it would not be allowed, but in this instance it was.

She did not work in any sensitive areas, and, as the security officer had said, she might just happen upon something that might be useful.  In that regard, she was to keep her eyes and ears open, and file a report each time she met him.

After that discussion she got the impression her superiors considered Vladimir more than just a casual visitor on the diplomatic circuit.  She also formed the impression the he might consider her an ‘asset’, a word that had been used at the meeting with security and the ambassador.

It was where the word ‘spy’ popped into her head and sent a tingle down her spine.  She was not a spy, but the thought of it, well, it would be fascinating to see what happened.

A Russian friend.  That’s what she would call him.

And over time, that relationship blossomed, until, after a visit to the ballet, late and snowing, he invited her to his apartment not far from the ballet venue.  It was like treading on thin ice, but after champagne and an introduction to caviar, she felt like a giddy schoolgirl.

Even so, she had made him promise that he remain on his best behaviour.  It could have been very easy to fall under the spell of a perfect evening, but he promised, showed her to a separate bedroom, and after a brief kiss, their first, she did not see him until the next morning.

So, it began.

It was an interesting report she filed after that encounter, one where she had expected to be reprimanded.

She wasn’t.

It wasn’t until six weeks had passed when he asked her if she would like to take a trip to the country.  It would involve staying in a hotel, that they would have separate rooms.  When she reported the invitation, no objection was raised, only a caution; keep her wits about her.

Perhaps, she had thought, they were looking forward to a more extensive report.  After all, her reports on the places, and the people, and the conversations she overheard, were no doubt entertaining reading for some.

But this visit was where the nature of the relationship changed, and it was one that she did not immediately report.  She had realised at some point before the weekend away, that she had feelings for him, and it was not that he was pushing her in that direction or manipulating her in any way.

It was just one of those moments where, after a grand dinner, a lot of champagne, and delightful company, things happen.  Standing at the door to her room, a lingering kiss, not intentional on her part, and it just happened.

And for not one moment did she believe she had been compromised, but for some reason she had not reported that subtle change in the relationship to the powers that be, and so far, no one had any inkling.

She took off her coat and placed it carefully of the back of one of the ornate chairs in the room.  She stopped for a moment to look at a framed photograph on the wall, one representing Red Square.

Then, after a minute or two, she went to the mini bar and took out the bottle of champagne that had been left there for them, a treat arranged by Vladimir for each encounter.

There were two champagne flutes set aside on the bar, next to a bowl of fruit.  She picked up the apple and thought how Eve must have felt in the garden of Eden, and the temptation.

Later perhaps, after…

She smiled at the thought and put the apple back.

A glance at her watch told her it was time for his arrival.  It was if anything, the one trait she didn’t like, and that was his punctuality.  A glance at the clock on the room wall was a minute slow.

The doorbell to the room rang, right on the appointed time.

She put the bottle down and walked over to the door.

A smile on her face, she opened the door.

It was not Vladimir.  It was her worst nightmare.

© Charles Heath 2020

Searching for locations: The Longjing Pearl Factory, Beijing, China

The Longjing Pearl Factory is located at:
No.2 Zuoan Gate Inner Street, ChongWen District, Beijing 100061 China.

This Pearl Center specializes in both freshwater and seawater pearls, with a reputation backed by the government of China, with a big selection and of the highest quality.  There were all kinds of jewelry made of pearls in different colors, shapes, and sizes.

They also had, as an interesting sideline, famous Chinese traditional cosmetics such as pearl cream and pearl powder, reputed to make your skin smoother, tendered and most importantly, younger.

We were advised of all of this well before we arrived at the factory, and of course, one suspected the glowing review, with emphasis on the fact it was a government operation and therefore trustworthy, suggested we should buy, meant the tour guide would receive a commission on each sale.

This is nothing new, it’s the same the world over, so it’s up to the visitor to buy or not to buy.

As soon as you get in the door you are taken to the group’s guide for the tour (and afterward, available for help on making purchases). who gives you a rundown on the different types and colors of pearls.  This briefly is,

Pearls come in two main categories: freshwater cultured pearls and saltwater cultured pearls. Various types of pearls are the result of the environment in which they live, and different cultivation techniques used by the pearl farmers. 

Freshwater cultured pearls are grown in lakes and rivers, whereas saltwater cultured pearls are grown in bodies of saltwater such as bays.  The most commonly used pearls are Freshwater pearls. 

Freshwater Pearls come in various pastel shades of white, pink, peach, lavender, plum, purple, and tangerine.  
South Sea cultured pearls come in shades of lustrous white, often with silver or rose overtones. 

Black pearls are known as Tahitian pearls and come most often in shades of black and gray. While a Tahitian pearl has a black body color, it will vary in its overtones, which most often will be green or pink.

Then there’s a demonstration, where one of the tour group is selected to pick an oyster out of the tank, and then there’s the guessing game as to how many pearls are in the shell, with the winner getting a pearl.

Guesses ranged from 1 to 23 and the answer was 26.  Nearest wins, and one for the person who picked the oyster out of the tank.  After this demonstration, we move on to the ways we can tell the difference between real and fake pearls.

It seems strange that they would, but we were guaranteed by both the tour guide and the lady delivering the lecture that the pearls we were about to buy were real, so how could we suspect there was anything dodgy about them?  Besides, now we could tell real from fake!

We then move onto the showroom floor where there are casements of pearl products, in the form of necklaces, earrings, and any number of variations and uses.  And, just to let you know, the prices are very, very expensive, even if they say they have a special.

Perhaps the best products, and those that found favor with many of the women on the tour, was the pearl cremes and powders.  These were not expensive, and, as we discovered later, actually worked as described.

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

 

In a word: Light

Yes, I see the lighthouse, what’s it doing all the way out there?  The thing is, these places are sometimes so remote, I start thinking I should rent one for 6 months and then, without any distractions, I’ll get the blasted book finished.

Until there’s a shipwreck, of course!

Light is of course light, duh.  Turn on the switch and let there be light.

Hang on, didn’t someone else say that, millennia ago?  Someone famous?  It’s on the tip of my tongue.

No! It’s not cyanide…

So, whilst we need it to see everything, it has another meaning…

My, that’s a light load your carrying today, which means not very heavy.

Or, that’s a light-coloured jumper, which means pale.

Oh, and did you light the fire?

And, after you light the fire, do you light out to a safe haven in light traffic because really it was arson, and you got a light sentence the last time enabling you to do it again.

If you are trying to rob someone, then it was a kilo light.

And after a long hard struggle, did you light upon the correct answer?

This is not to be confused with another similar word, lite.

It seems this is only used for describing low-calorie drinks and food, such as lite beer, which seems to me to be a lazy way of not using light

Still, there’s not much other use of the word except as a suffix -lite, but then you’d have to mention -lyte as well.

The message here – just use the damn word light and be done with it.

 

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 early 2021.  It even has a cover.

PIWalthJones1

Searching for locations: We’ve just arrived in Beijing International Airport, China

Instead of making a grand entrance, arriving in style and being greeted by important dignitaries, we are slinking in via an airplane, late at night.

It’s hardly the entrance I’d envisaged. At 9:56 the plane touches down on the runway.  Outside the plane, it is dark and gloomy and from what I could see, it had been raining.  That could, of course, simply be condensation.

Once on the ground, everyone was frantically gathering together everything from seat pockets and sending pillows and blankets to the floor.  A few were turning their mobile phones back on, and checking for a signal, and, perhaps, looking for messages sent to them during the last 12 hours. Or perhaps they were just suffering from mobile phone deprivation.

It took 10 minutes for the plane to arrive at the gate.

That’s when everyone moves into overdrive, unbuckling belts, some before the seatbelt sign goes off, and are first out of their seats and into the overhead lockers.  Most are not taking care that their luggage may have moved, but fortunately, no bags fall out onto someone’s head.

The flight had been relatively turbulent free.

When as many people and bags have squeezed into that impossibly small aisle space, we wait for the door to open, and then the privileged few business and first-class passengers to depart before we can begin to leave.

As we are somewhere near the middle of the plane, our wait will not be as long as it usually is.  This time we avoided being at the back of the plane.  Perhaps that privilege awaits us on the return trip.

Once off the plane, it is a matter of following the signs, some of which are not as clear as they could be.  It’s why it took another 30 odd minutes to get through immigration, but that was not necessarily without a few hiccups along the way. We got sidetracked at the fingerprint machines, which seemed to have a problem if your fingers were not straight, not in the center of the glass, and then if it was generally cranky, which ours were, continue to tell you to try again, and again, and again, and again…That took 10 to 15 minutes before we joined an incredibly long queue of other arrivals,

A glance at the time, and suddenly it’s nearly an hour from the moment we left the plane.

And…

That’s when we got to the immigration officer, and it became apparent we were going to have to do the fingerprints yet again.  Fortunately this time, it didn’t take as long.  Once that done, we collected our bags, cleared customs by putting our bags through a huge x-ray machine, and it was off to find our tour guide.

We found several tour guides with their trip-a-deal flags waiting for us to come out of the arrivals hall.  It wasn’t a difficult process in the end.  We were in the blue group.  Other people we had met on the plane were in the red group or the yellow group.  The tour guide found, or as it turned out she found us, it was simply a matter of waiting for the rest of the group, of which there were eventually 28.Gathered together we were told we would be taking the bags to one place and then ourselves to the bus in another.  A glance in the direction of the bus park, there were a lot of busses.

Here’s a thought, imagine being told your bus is the white one with blue writing on the side.

Yes, yours is, and 25 others because all of the tourist coaches are the same.  An early reminder, so that you do not get lost, or, God forbid, get on the wrong bus, for the three days in Beijing, is to get the last five numbers of the bus registration plate and commit them to memory.  It’s important.  Failing that, the guide’s name is in the front passenger window.

Also, don’t be alarmed if your baggage goes in one direction, and you go in another. In a rather peculiar set up the bags are taken to the hotel by what the guide called the baggage porter.  It is an opportunity to see how baggage handlers treat your luggage; much better than the airlines it appears.

That said, if you’re staying at the Beijing Friendship Hotel, be prepared for a long drive from the airport.  It took us nearly an hour, and bear in mind that it was very late on a Sunday night. Climbing out of the bus after what seemed a convoluted drive through a park with buildings, we arrive at the building that will be our hotel for the next three days.  From the outside, it looks quite good, and once inside the foyer, that first impression is good.  Lots of space, marble, and glass.  If you are not already exhausted by the time you arrive, the next task is to get your room key, find your bags, get to your room, and try to get to be ready the next morning at a reasonable hour.

Sorry, that boat has sailed. We were lucky, we were told, that our plane arrived on time, and we still arrived at the hotel at 12:52.  Imagine if the incoming plane is late.

This was taken the following morning.  It didn’t look half as bland late at night.

This is the back entrance to Building No 4 but is quite representative of the whole foyer, made completely of marble and glass.  It all looked very impressive under the artificial lights, but not so much in the cold hard light of early morning.

This the foyer of the floor our room was on.  Marble with interesting carpet designs.  Those first impressions of it being a plush hotel were slowly dissipating as we got nearer and nearer to the room.  From the elevator, it was a long, long walk.

So…

Did I tell you about the bathroom in our room? The shower and the toilet both share the same space with no divide and the shower curtain doesn’t reach to the floor.  Water pressure is phenomenal.  Having a shower floods the whole shower plus toilet area so when you go to the toilet you’re basically underwater. Don’t leave your book or magazine on the floor or it will end up a watery mess. And the water pressure is so hard that it could cut you in half.  Only a small turn of the tap is required to get that tingling sensation going. It’s after 1:30 before we finally get to sleep.

As for the bed, well, that’s a whole other story.

Searching for locations: The Jade Factory, Beijing, China

The first stop is at a Jade Museum to learn the history of jade. In Chinese, jade is pronounced as “Yu” and it has a history in China of at least four thousand years.  On the way there, we are given a story about one of the guide’s relatives who had a jade bracelet, and how it has saved her from countless catastrophes.It is, quite literally ‘the’ good luck charm.  Chinese gamblers are known to have small pieces of jade in their hands when visiting the casinos, for good luck.  I’m not sure anything could provide a gambler with any sort of luck given how the odds are always slanted towards the house.

At any rate, this is neither the time of the place to debunk a ‘well-known fact’.

 On arrival, our guide hands us over to a local guide, a real staff member, and she begins with a discussion on jade while we watch a single worker working on an intricate piece, what looks to be a globe within a globe, sorry, there are two workers, and the second is working on a dragon.

At the end of the passage that passes by the workers, and before you enter the main showroom, you are dazzled by the ship and is nothing short of magnificent.

Then it’s into a small room just off the main showroom where we are taken through the colors, and the carving process in the various stages, without really being told how the magic happens.

Then it’s out into the main showroom where the sales are made, and before dispersing to look at the jade collection, she briefly tells us how to tell real and fake jade, and she does the usual trick of getting one of the tour group to model a piece.

Looks good, let’s move on.  To bigger and better examples.

What interested me, other than the small zodiac signs and other smallish pieces on the ‘promotion’ table, was the jade bangle our tour guide told us about on the bus.  If anyone needs one, it is my other half, with all the medical issues and her sometimes clumsiness, two particular maladies this object is supposed to prevent.
Jade to the Chinese is Diamonds to westerners, and the jade bangle is often handed down to the females of the family from generation to generation, often as an engagement present, to be worn on the left hand, the one closest to the heart.

There are literally thousands of them, but, they have to be specially fitted to your wrist because if it’s too large, you might lose it if it slips off and I didn’t think it could be too small.  
Nor is it cheap, and needing a larger size, it is reasonably expensive.  But it is jadeite, the more expensive of the types of jade, and it can only appreciate in value, not that we are interested in the monetary value, it’s more the good luck aspect.

We could use some of that.

But, just to touch on something that can be the bugbear of traveling overseas, is the subject of happy houses, a better name for toilets, and has become a recurrent theme on this tour.  It’s better than blurting out the word toilet and it seems there can be some not so happy houses given that the toilets in China are usually squat rather than sit, even for women.
And apparently, everyone has an unhappy house story, particularly the women, and generally in having to squat over a pit.  Why is this a discussion point, it seems the jade factory had what we have come to call happy, happy houses which have more proper toilets, and a stop here before going on the great wall was recommended, as the ‘happy house’ at the wall is deemed to be not such a happy house.

Not even this dragon was within my price range.  Thank heaven they had smaller more affordable models.  The object of having a dragon, large or small, is that it should be placed inside the main door to the house so that money can come in.

It also seems that stuffing the dragon’s mouth with money is also good luck.  We passed on doing that.

After spending a small fortune, there was a bonus, free Chinese tea.  Apparently, we will be coming back, after the Great Wall visit, to have lunch upstairs.

           

In a word: Hail

Yes, you know what it is, and it can be very unpleasant when it hits – hail.

Hailstones as big as golf balls, hailstones that make small or large dents in your car, smash windows, wreck trees, and, sometimes, give the appearance that snow has just fallen.

And hail with snow equals sleet, and it’s not very pleasant to be caught in it.

Of course, there’s a different sort of hail, one that you might also not want to be subject to, that from someone across the street trying to get your attention.

Or a hail that you do want someone or something to stop; a taxi, or cab

Or a ship across the water… though I’m not sure why you, personally would want to hail a ship

Perhaps you could be praised in some way, like, he hailed from London – no, not yelled so loudly he could be heard in New York

And no, we do not go around saying, Hail Minister, or Hail Friend!  Not unless we’ve used a time machine and gone back to ancient Roman days

This is not to be confused with the word hale

Yes, it can be something you eat, and I hear it’s very good for you

Or that man is hale and hearty, which means in good health – and I have to say I’m envious because I’m anything but hale

 

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 early 2021.  It even has a cover.

PIWalthJones1

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