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A single event can have enormous consequences.
A single event driven by fate, after Ben told his wife Charlotte he would be late home one night, he left early, and by chance discovers his wife having dinner in their favourite restaurant with another man.
A single event where it could be said Ben was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Who was this man? Why was she having dinner with him?
A simple truth to explain the single event was all Ben required. Instead, Charlotte told him a lie.
A single event that forces Ben to question everything he thought he knew about his wife, and the people who are around her.
After a near-death experience and forced retirement into a world he is unfamiliar with, Ben finds himself once again drawn back into that life of lies, violence, and intrigue.
From London to a small village in Tuscany, little by little Ben discovers who the woman he married is, and the real reason why fate had brought them together.
“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!
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.
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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 …?”
“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?”
“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
Available on Amazon Kindle here: https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4
With my attention elsewhere, I walked into a man who was hurrying in the opposite direction. He was a big man with a scar running down the left side of his face from eye socket to mouth, and who was also wearing a black shirt with a red tie.
That was all I remembered as my heart almost stopped.
He apologized as he stepped to one side, the same way I stepped, as I also muttered an apology.
I kept my eyes down. He was not the sort of man I wanted to recognize later in a lineup. I stepped to the other side and so did he. It was one of those situations. Finally getting out of sync, he kept going in his direction, and I towards the bus, which was now pulling away from the curb.
Getting my breath back, I just stood riveted to the spot watching it join the traffic. I looked back over my shoulder, but the man I’d run into had gone. I shrugged and looked at my watch. It would be a few minutes before the next bus arrived.
Wait, or walk? I could also go by subway, but it was a long walk to the station. What the hell, I needed the exercise.
At the first intersection, the ‘Walk’ sign had just flashed to ‘Don’t Walk’. I thought I’d save a few minutes by not waiting for the next green light. As I stepped onto the road, I heard the screeching of tires.
A yellow car stopped inches from me.
It was a high powered sports car, perhaps a Lamborghini. I knew what they looked like because Marcus Bartleby owned one, as did every other junior executive in the city with a rich father.
Everyone stopped to look at me, then the car. It was that sort of car. I could see the driver through the windscreen shaking his fist, and I could see he was yelling too, but I couldn’t hear him. I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he drove on. The moment had passed and everyone went back to their business.
My heart rate hadn’t come down from the last encounter. Now it was approaching cardiac arrest, so I took a few minutes and several sets of lights to regain composure.
At the next intersection, I waited for the green light, and then a few seconds more, just to be sure. I was no longer in a hurry.
At the next, I heard what sounded like a gunshot. A few people looked around, worried expressions on their faces, but when it happened again, I saw it was an old car backfiring. I also saw another yellow car, much the same as the one before, stopped on the side of the road. I thought nothing of it, other than it was the second yellow car I’d seen.
At the next intersection, I realized I was subconsciously heading towards Harry’s new bar. It was somewhere on 6th Avenue, so I continued walking in what I thought was the right direction.
I don’t know why I looked behind me at the next intersection, but I did. There was another yellow car on the side of the road, not far from me. It, too, looked the same as the original Lamborghini, and I was starting to think it was not a coincidence.
Moments after crossing the road, I heard the roar of a sports car engine and saw the yellow car accelerate past me. As it passed by, I saw there were two people in it, and the blurry image of the passenger; a large man with a red tie.
Now my imagination was playing tricks.
It could not be the same man. He was going in a different direction.
In the few minutes I’d been standing on the pavement, it had started to snow; early for this time of year, and marking the start of what could be a long cold winter. I shuddered, and it was not necessarily because of the temperature.
I looked up and saw a neon light advertising a bar, coincidentally the one Harry had ‘found’ and, looking once in the direction of the departing yellow car, I decided to go in. I would have a few drinks and then leave by the back door if it had one.
Just in case.
© Charles Heath 2015-2020
Is love the metaphorical equivalent to ‘walking the plank’; a dive into uncharted waters?
For Henry the only romance he was interested in was a life at sea, and when away from it, he strived to find sanctuary from his family and perhaps life itself. It takes him to a small village by the sea, s place he never expected to find another just like him, Michelle, whom he soon discovers is as mysterious as she is beautiful.
Henry had long since given up the notion of finding romance, and Michelle couldn’t get involved for reasons she could never explain, but in the end both acknowledge that something happened the moment they first met.
Plans were made, plans were revised, and hopes were shattered.
A chance encounter causes Michelle’s past to catch up with her, and whatever hope she had of having a normal life with Henry, or anyone else, is gone. To keep him alive she has to destroy her blossoming relationship, an act that breaks her heart and shatters his.
But can love conquer all?
It takes a few words of encouragement from an unlikely source to send Henry and his friend Radly on an odyssey into the darkest corners of the red light district in a race against time to find and rescue the woman he finally realizes is the love of his life.
The cover, at the moment, looks like this:
On special, now only $0.99 for the next few weeks.
What happens when your past finally catches up with you?
Christmas is just around the corner, a time to be with family. For Will Mason, an orphan since he was fourteen, it is a time for reflection on what his life could have been, and what it could be.
Until a chance encounter brings back to life the reasons for his twenty years of self-imposed exile from a life only normal people could have. From that moment Will’s life slowly starts to unravel and it’s obvious to him it’s time to move on.
This time, however, there is more at stake.
Will has broken his number one rule, don’t get involved.
With his nemesis, Eddie Jamieson, suddenly within reach, and a blossoming relationship with an office colleague, Maria, about to change everything, Will has to make a choice. Quietly leave, or finally, make a stand.
But as Will soon discovers, when other people are involved there is going to be terrible consequences no matter what choice he makes.
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I’d read about out of body experiences, and like everyone else, thought it was nonsense. Some people claimed to see themselves in the operating theatre, medical staff frantically trying to revive them, and being surrounded by white light.
I was definitely looking down, but it wasn’t me I was looking at.
It was two children, a boy and a girl, with their parents, in a park.
The boy was Alan. He was about six or seven. The girl was Louise, and she was five years old. She had long red hair and looked the image of her mother.
I remember it now, it was Louise’s birthday and we went down to Bournemouth to visit our Grandmother, and it was the last time we were all together as a family.
We were flying homemade kites our father had made for us, and after we lay there looking up at the sky, making animals out of the clouds. I saw an elephant, Louise saw a giraffe.
We were so happy then.
Before the tragedy.
When I looked again ten years had passed and we were living in hell. Louise and I had become very adept at survival in a world we really didn’t understand, surrounded by people who wanted to crush our souls.
It was not a life a normal child had, our foster parents never quite the sort of people who were adequately equipped for two broken-hearted children. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough.
Every day it was a battle, to avoid the Bannister’s and Archie in particular, every day he made advances towards Louise and every day she fended him off.
Until one day she couldn’t.
Now I was sitting in the hospital, holding Louise’s hand. She was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t think she would wake from it. The damage done to her was too severe.
The doctors were wrong.
She woke, briefly, to name her five assailants. It was enough to have them arrested. It was not enough to have them convicted.
Justice would have to be served by other means.
I was outside the Bannister’s home.
I’d made my way there without really thinking, after watching Louise die. It was like being on autopilot, and I had no control over what I was doing. I had murder in mind. It was why I was holding an iron bar.
Skulking in the shadows. It was not very different from the way the Bannister’s operated.
I waited till Archie came out. I knew he eventually would. The police had taken him to the station for questioning, and then let him go. I didn’t understand why, nor did I care.
I followed him up the towpath, waiting till he stopped to light a cigarette, then came out of the shadows.
“Wotcha got there Alan?” he asked when he saw me. He knew what it was, and what it was for.
It was the first time I’d seen the fear in his eyes. He was alone.
“For that slut of a sister of yours. I had nuffing to do with it.”
“She said otherwise, Archie.”
“She never said nuffing, you just made it up.” An attempt at bluster, but there was no confidence in his voice.
I held up the pipe. It had blood on it. Willy’s blood. “She may or may not have Archie, but Willy didn’t make it up. He sang like a bird. That’s his blood, probably brains on the pipe too, Archie, and yours will be there soon enough.”
“He dunnit, not me. Lyin’ bastard would say anything to save his own skin.” Definitely scared now, he was looking to run away.
“No, Archie. He didn’t. I’m coming for you. All of you Bannisters. And everyone who touched my sister.”
It was the recurring nightmare I had for years afterwards.
I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the thoughts, the images of Louise, the phone call, the visit to the hospital and being there when she succumbed to her injuries. Those were the very worst few hours of my life.
She had asked me to come to the railway station and walk home with her, and I was running late. If I had left when I was supposed to, it would never have happened and for years afterwards, I blamed myself for her death.
If only I’d not been late…
When the police finally caught the rapists, I’d known all along who they’d be; antagonists from school, the ring leader, Archie Bannister, a spurned boyfriend, a boy whose parents, ubiquitously known to all as ‘the Bannister’s, dealt in violence and crime and who owned the neighbourhood. The sins of the father had been very definitely passed onto the son.
At school, I used to be the whipping boy, Archie, a few grades ahead of me, made a point of belting me and a few of the other boys, to make sure the rest did as they were told. He liked Louise, but she had no time for a bully like him, even when he promised he would ‘protect’ me.
I knew the gang members, the boys who tow-kowed to save getting beaten up, and after the police couldn’t get enough information to prosecute them because everyone was too afraid to speak out, I went after Willy. There was always a weak link in a group, and he was it.
He worked in a factory, did long hours on a Wednesday and came home after dark alone. It was a half mile walk, through a park. The night I approached him, I smashed the lights and left it in darkness. He nearly changed his mind and went the long way home.
It took an hour and a half to get the names. At first, when he saw me, he laughed. He said I would be next, and that was four words more than he knew he should have said.
When I found him alone the next morning I showed him the iron bar and told him he was on the list. I didn’t kill him then, he could wait his turn, and worry about what was going to happen to him.
When the police came to visit me shortly after that encounter, no doubt at the behest of the Bannister’s, the neighbourhood closed ranks and gave me an ironclad alibi. The Bannister’s then came to visit me and threatened me. I told them their days were numbered and showed them the door.
At the trial, he and his friends got off on a technicality. The police had failed to do their job properly, but it was not the police, but a single policeman, corrupted by the Bannisters.
Archie could help but rub it in my face. He was invincible.
Joe Collins took 12 bullets and six hours to bleed out. He apologized, he pleaded, he cried, he begged. I didn’t care.
Barry Mills, a strong lad with a mind to hurting people, Archie’s enforcer, almost got the better of me. I had to hit him more times than I wanted to, and in the end, I had to be satisfied that he died a short but agonizing death.
I revisited Willy in the hospital. He’d recovered enough to recognize me, and why I’d come. Suffocation was too good for him.
David Williams, second in command of the gang, was as tough and nasty as the Bannisters. His family were forging a partnership with the Bannister’s to make them even more powerful. Outwardly David was a pleasant sort of chap, affable, polite, and well mannered. A lot of people didn’t believe he could be like, or working with, the Bannisters.
He and I met in the pub. We got along like old friends. He said Willy had just named anyone he could think of, and that he was innocent of any charges. We shook hands and parted as friends.
Three hours later he was sitting in a chair in the middle of a disused factory, blindfolded and scared. I sat and watched him, listened to him, first threatening me, and then finally pleading with me. He’d guessed who it was that had kidnapped him.
When it was dark, I took the blindfold off and shone a very bright light in his eyes. I asked him if the violence he had visited upon my sister was worth it. He told me he was just a spectator.
I’d read the coroner’s report. They all had a turn. He was a liar.
He took nineteen bullets to die.
Then came Archie.
The same factory only this time there were four seats. Anna Bannister, brothel owner, Spike Bannister, head of the family, Emily Bannister, sister, and who had nothing to do with their criminal activities. She just had the misfortune of sharing their name.
Archie’s father told me how he was going to destroy me, and everyone I knew.
A well-placed bullet between the eyes shut him up.
Archie’s mother cursed me. I let her suffer for an hour before I put her out of her misery.
Archie remained stony-faced until I came to Emily. The death of his parents meant he would become head of the family. I guess their deaths meant as little to him as they did me.
He was a little more worried about his sister.
I told him it was confession time.
He told her it was little more than a forced confession and he had done nothing to deserve my retribution.
I shrugged and shot her, and we both watched her fall to the ground screaming in agony. I told him if he wanted her to live, he had to genuinely confess to his crimes. This time he did, it all poured out of him.
I went over to Emily. He watched in horror as I untied her bindings and pulled her up off the floor, suffering only from a small wound in her arm. Without saying a word she took the gun and walked over to stand behind him.
“Louise was my friend, Archie. My friend.”
Then she shot him. Six times.
To me, after saying what looked like a prayer, she said, “Killing them all will not bring her back, Alan, and I doubt she would approve of any of this. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Now I was in jail. I’d spent three hours detailing the deaths of the five boys, everything I’d done; a full confession. Without my sister, my life was nothing. I didn’t want to go back to the foster parents; I doubt they’d take back a murderer.
They were not allowed to.
For a month I lived in a small cell, in solitary, no visitors. I believed I was in the queue to be executed, and I had mentally prepared myself for the end.
Then I was told I had a visitor, and I was expecting a priest.
Instead, it was a man called McTavish. Short, wiry, and with an accent that I could barely understand.
“You’ve been a bad boy, Alan.”
When I saw it was not the priest I told the jailers not to let him in, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. They ignored me. I’d expected he was a psychiatrist, come to see whether I should be shipped off to the asylum.
I was beginning to think I was going mad.
I ignored him.
“I am the difference between you living or dying Alan, it’s as simple as that. You’d be a wise man to listen to what I have to offer.”
Death sounded good. I told him to go away.
He didn’t. Persistent bugger.
I was handcuffed to the table. The prison officers thought I was dangerous. Five, plus two, murders, I guess they had a right to think that. McTavish sat opposite me, ignoring my request to leave.
“Why’d you do it?”
“You know why.” Maybe if I spoke he’d go away.
“Your sister. By all accounts, the scum that did for her deserved what they got.”
“It was murder just the same. No difference between scum and proper people.”
“You like killing?”
“No, I dare say you’re right. But you’re different, Alan. As clean and merciless killing I’ve ever seen. We can use a man like you.”
“A group of individuals who clean up the scum.”
I looked up to see his expression, one of benevolence, totally out of character for a man like him. It looked like I didn’t have a choice.
Trained, cleared, and ready to go.
I hadn’t realized there were so many people who were, for all intents and purposes, invisible. People that came and went, in malls, in hotels, trains, buses, airports, everywhere, people no one gave a second glance.
People like me.
In a mall, I became a shopper.
In a hotel, I was just another guest heading to his room.
On a bus or a train, I was just another commuter.
At the airport, I became a pilot. I didn’t need to know how to fly; everyone just accepted a pilot in a pilot suit was just what he looked like.
I had a passkey.
I had the correct documents to get me onto the plane.
That walk down the air bridge was the longest of my life. Waiting for the call from the gate, waiting for one of the air bridge staff to challenge me, stepping onto the plane.
Two pilots and a steward. A team. On the plane early before the rest of the crew. A group that was committing a crime, had committed a number of crimes and thought they’d got away with it.
Until the judge, the jury and their executioner arrived.
Quick, clean, merciless. Done.
I was now an operational field agent.
I was older now, and I could see in the mirror I was starting to go grey at the sides. It was far too early in my life for this, but I expect it had something to do with my employment.
I didn’t recognize the man who looked back at me.
It was certainly not Alan McKenzie, nor was there any part of that fifteen-year-old who had made the decision to exact revenge.
Given a choice; I would not have gone down this path.
Or so I kept telling myself each time a little more of my soul was sold to the devil.
I was Barry Gamble.
I was Lenny Buckman.
I was Jimmy Hosen.
I was anyone but the person I wanted to be.
That’s what I told Louise, standing in front of her grave, and trying to apologize for all the harm, all the people I’d killed for that one rash decision. If she was still alive she would be horrified, and ashamed.
Head bowed, tears streamed down my face.
God had gone on holiday and wasn’t there to hand out any forgiveness. Not that day. Not any day.
New York, New Years Eve.
I was at the end of a long tour, dragged out of a holiday and back into the fray, chasing down another scumbag. They were scumbags, and I’d become an automaton hunting them down and dispatching them to what McTavish called a better place.
This time I failed.
A few drinks to blot out the failure, a blonde woman who pushed my buttons, a room in a hotel, any hotel, it was like being on the merry-go-round, round and round and round…
Her name was Silvia or Sandra, or someone I’d met before, but couldn’t quite place her. It could be an enemy agent for all I knew or all I cared right then.
I was done.
I’d had enough.
I gave her the gun.
I begged her to kill me.
Instead, I simply cried, letting the pent up emotion loose after being suppressed for so long, and she stayed with me, holding me close, and saying I was safe, that she knew exactly how I felt.
How could she? No one could know what I’d been through.
I remembered her name after she had gone.
I remembered she had an imperfection in her right eye.
Someone else had the same imperfection.
I couldn’t remember who that was.
I had a dingy flat in Kensington, a place that I rarely stayed in if I could help it. After five-star hotel rooms, it made me feel shabby.
The end of another mission, I was on my way home, the underground, a bus, and then a walk.
It was late.
People were spilling out of the pub after the last drinks. Most in good spirits, others slightly more boisterous.
A loud-mouthed chap bumped into me, the sort who had one too many, and was ready to take on all comers.
He turned on me, “Watch where you’re going, you fool.”
Two of his friends dragged him away. He shrugged them off, squared up.
I punched him hard, in the stomach, and he fell backwards onto the ground. I looked at his two friends. “Take him home before someone makes mincemeat out of him.”
They grabbed his arms, lifted him off the ground and took him away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a woman, early thirties, quite attractive, but very, very drunk. She staggered from the bar, bumped into me, and finished up sitting on the side of the road.
I looked around to see where her friends were. The exodus from the pub was over and the few nearby were leaving to go home.
She was alone, drunk, and by the look of her, unable to move.
I sat beside her. “Where are your friends?”
“You need help?”
She looked up, and sideways at me. She didn’t look the sort who would get in this state. Or maybe she was, I was a terrible judge of women.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Nobody.” I was exactly how I felt.
“Well Mr Nobody, I’m drunk, and I don’t care. Just leave me here to rot.”
She put her head back between her knees, and it looked to me she was trying to stop the spinning sensation in her head.
Been there before, and it’s not a good feeling.
“Where are your friends?” I asked again.
“Perhaps I should take you home.”
“I have no home.”
“You don’t look like a homeless person. If I’m not mistaken, those shoes are worth more than my weekly salary.” I’d seen them advertised, in the airline magazine, don’t ask me why the ad caught my attention.
She lifted her head and looked at me again. “You a smart fucking arse are you?”
“I have my moments.”
“Have them somewhere else.”
She rested her head against my shoulder. We were the only two left in the street, and suddenly in darkness when the proprietor turned off the outside lights.
“Take me home,” she said suddenly.
“Where is your place?”
“Don’t have one. Take me to your place.”
“You won’t like it.”
“I’m drunk. What’s not to like until tomorrow.”
I helped her to her feet. “You have a name?”
The wedding was in a small church. We had been away for a weekend in the country, somewhere in the Cotswolds, and found this idyllic spot. Graves going back to the dawn of time, a beautiful garden tended by the vicar and his wife, an astonishing vista over hills and down dales.
On a spring afternoon with the sun, the flowers, and the peacefulness of the country.
I had two people at the wedding, the best man, Bradley, and my boss, Watkins.
Charlotte had her sisters Melissa and Isobel, and Isobel’s husband Giovanni, and their daughter Felicity.
And one more person who was as mysterious as she was attractive, a rather interesting combination as she was well over retirement age. She arrived late and left early.
She looked me up and down with what I’d call a withering look. “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” she said enigmatically.
“Likewise I’m sure,” I said. It earned me an elbow in the ribs from Charlotte. It was clear she feared this woman.
“Why did you come,” Charlotte asked.
“You know why.”
Agatha looked at me. “I like you. Take care of my granddaughter. You do not want me for an enemy.”
OK, now she officially scared me.
She thrust a cheque into my hand, smiled, and left.
“Who is she,” I asked after we watched her depart.
“Certainly not my fairy godmother.”
Charlotte never mentioned her again.
Zurich in summer, not exactly my favourite place.
Instead of going to visit her sister Isobel, we stayed at a hotel in Beethovenstrasse and Isobel and Felicity came to us. Her husband was not with her this time.
Felicity was three or four and looked very much like her mother. She also looked very much like Charlotte, and I’d remarked on it once before and it received a sharp rebuke.
We’d been twice before, and rather than talk to her sister, Charlotte spent her time with Felicity, and they were, together, like old friends. For so few visits they had a remarkable rapport.
I had not broached the subject of children with Charlotte, not after one such discussion where she had said she had no desire to be a mother. It had not been a subject before and wasn’t once since.
Perhaps like all Aunts, she liked the idea of playing with a child for a while and then give it back.
Felicity was curious as to who I was, but never ventured too close. I believed a child could sense the evil in adults and had seen through my facade of friendliness. We were never close.
This time, when observing the two together, something quite out of left field popped into my head. It was not possible, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought she looked like my mother.
And Charlotte had seen me looking in their direction. “You seem distracted,” she said.
“I was just remembering my mother. Odd moment, haven’t done so for a very long time.”
“Why now?” I think she had a look of concern on her face.
“Her birthday, I guess,” I said, the first excuse I could think of.
Another look and I was wrong. She looked like Isobel or Charlotte, or if I wanted to believe it possible, Melissa too.
I was crying, tears streaming down my face.
I was in pain, searing pain from my lower back stretching down into my legs, and I was barely able to breathe.
It was like coming up for air.
It was like Snow White bringing Prince Charming back to life. I could feel what I thought was a gentle kiss and tears dropping on my cheeks, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Charlotte slowly lifting her head, a hand gently stroking the hair off my forehead.
And in a very soft voice, she said, “Hi.”
I could not speak, but I think I smiled. It was the girl with the imperfection in her right eye. Everything fell into place, and I knew, in that instant that we were irrevocably meant to be together.
© Charles Heath 2016-2019
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.”
“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.”
“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