An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”; In love, Henry was all at sea!

In the distance he could hear the dinner bell ringing and roused himself.  Feeling the dampness of the pillow, and fearing the ravages of pent up emotion, he considered not going down but thought it best not to upset Mrs. Mac, especially after he said he would be dining.

In the event, he wished he had reneged, especially when he discovered he was not the only guest staying at the hotel.

Whilst he’d been reminiscing, another guest, a young lady, had arrived.  He’d heard her and Mrs. Mac coming up the stairs, and then shown to a room on the same floor, perhaps at the other end of the passage.

Henry caught his first glimpse of her when she appeared at the door to the dining room, waiting for Mrs. Mac to show her to a table.

She was about mid-twenties, slim, long brown hair, and the grace and elegance of a woman associated with countless fashion magazines.  She was, he thought, stunningly beautiful with not a hair out of place, and make-up flawlessly applied.  Her clothes were black, simple, elegant, and expensive, the sort an heiress or wife of a millionaire might condescend to wear to a lesser occasion than dinner.

Then there was her expression; cold, forbidding, almost frightening in its intensity.  And her eyes, piercingly blue and yet laced with pain.  Dracula’s daughter was his immediate description of her.

All in all, he considered, the only thing they had in common was, like him, she seemed totally out of place.

Mrs. Mac came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  She was, she informed him earlier, chef, waitress, hotelier, barmaid, and cleaner all rolled into one.  Coming up to the new arrival she said, “Ah, Miss Andrews, I’m glad you decided to have dinner.  Would you like to sit with Mr. Henshaw, or would you like to have a table of your own?”

Henry could feel her icy stare as she sized up his appeal as a dining companion, making the hair on the back on his neck stand up.  He purposely didn’t look back.  In his estimation, his appeal rating was minus six.  Out of a thousand!

“If Mr. Henshaw doesn’t mind….”  She looked at him, leaving the query in mid-air.

He didn’t mind and said so.  Perhaps he’d underestimated his rating.

“Good.”  Mrs. Mac promptly ushered her over.  Henry stood, made sure she was seated properly and sat.

“Thank you.  You are most kind.”  The way she said it suggested snobbish overtones.

“I try to be when I can.”  It was supposed to nullify her sarcastic tone but made him sound a little silly, and when she gave him another of her icy glares, he regretted it.

Mrs. Mac quickly intervened, asking, “Would you care for the soup?”

They did, and, after writing the order on her pad, she gave them each a look, imperceptibly shook her head, and returned to the kitchen.

Before Michelle spoke to him again, she had another quick look at him, trying to fathom who and what he might be.  There was something about him.

His eyes, they mirrored the same sadness she felt, and, yes, there was something else, that it looked like he had been crying?  There was a tinge of redness.

Perhaps, she thought, he was here for the same reason she was.

No.  That wasn’t possible.

Then she said, without thinking, “Do you have any particular reason for coming here?”  Seconds later she realized she’s spoken it out loud, had hadn’t meant to actually ask, it just came out.

It took him by surprise, obviously not the first question he was expecting her to ask of him.

“No, other than it is as far from civilization, and home, as I could get.”

At least we agree on that, she thought.

It was obvious he was running away from something as well.

Given the isolation of the village and lack of geographic hospitality, it was, from her point of view, ideal.  All she had to do was avoid him, and that wouldn’t be difficult.

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

A few seconds passed, and she thought she could feel his eyes on her and wasn’t going to look up.

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

Slight abrupt in manner, perhaps as a result of her question, and the manner in which she asked it.

She looked up.  “Rest.  And have some time to myself.”

She hoped he would notice the emphasis she had placed on the word ‘herself’ and take due note.  No doubt, she thought,  she had completely different ideas of what constituted a holiday than he, not that she had actually said she was here for a holiday.

Mrs. Mac arrived at a fortuitous moment to save them from further conversation.

 

Over the entree, she wondered if she had made a mistake coming to the hotel.  Of course, there had been no possible way she could know than anyone else might have booked the same hotel, but realized it was foolish to think she might end up in it by herself.

Was that what she was expecting?

Not a mistake then, but an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could be overcome by being sensible.

Yet, there he was, and it made her curious, not that he was a man, by himself, in the middle of nowhere, hiding like she was, but for very different reasons.

On discreet observance whilst they ate, she gained the impression his air of light-heartedness was forced and he had no sense of humor.

This feeling was engendered by his looks, unruly dark hair, and permanent frown.  And then there was his abysmal taste in clothes on a tall, lanky frame.  They were quality but totally unsuited to the wearer.

Rebellion was written all over him.

The only other thought crossing her mind, and rather incongruously, was he could do with a decent feed.  In that respect, she knew now from the mountain of food in front of her, he had come to the right place.

“Mr. Henshaw?”

He looked up.  “Henshaw is too formal.  Henry sounds much better,” he said, with a slight hint of gruffness.

“Then my name is Michelle.”

Mrs. Mac came in to take their order for the only main course, gather up the entree dishes, then return to the kitchen.

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

Neither looked at the other, rather at the walls, out the window, towards the kitchen, anywhere.  It was, she thought, almost unbearably awkward.

 

Mrs. Mac returned with a large tray with dishes on it, setting it down on the table next to theirs.

“Not as good as the usual cook,” she said, serving up the dinner expertly, “but it comes a good second, even if I do say so myself.  Care for some wine?”

Henry looked at Michelle.  “What do you think?”

“I’m used to my dining companions making the decision.”

You would, he thought.  He couldn’t help but notice the cutting edge of her tone.  Then, to Mrs. Mac, he named a particular White Burgundy he liked and she bustled off.

“I hope you like it,” he said, acknowledging her previous comment with a smile that had nothing to do with humor.

“Yes, so do I.”

Both made a start on the main course, a concoction of chicken and vegetables that were delicious, Henry thought, when compared to the bland food he received at home and sometimes aboard my ship.

It was five minutes before Mrs. Mac returned with the bottle and two glasses.  After opening it and pouring the drinks, she left them alone again.

Henry resumed the conversation.  “How did you arrive?  I came by train.”

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

And he thought, a few seconds later, that was a silly question, otherwise she would not be alone, and certainly not sitting at this table. With him.

“After a fashion.”

He could see that she was formulating a retort in her mind, then changed it, instead, smiling for the first time, and it served to lighten the atmosphere.

And in doing so, it showed him she had another more pleasant side despite the fact she was trying not to look happy.

“My father reckons I’m just another of ‘those’ women drivers,” she added.

“Whatever for?”

“The first and only time he came with me I had an accident.  I ran up the back of another car.  Of course, it didn’t matter to him the other driver was driving like a startled rabbit.”

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

“Mostly people up the wall.”  His attempt at humor failed.  “Actually,” he added quickly, “I’ve got a very old Morris that manages to get me where I’m going.”

The apple pie and cream for dessert came and went and the rapport between them improved as the wine disappeared and the coffee came.  Both had found, after getting to know each other better, their first impressions were not necessarily correct.

“Enjoy the food?” Mrs. Mac asked, suddenly reappearing.

“Beautifully cooked and delicious to eat,” Michelle said, and Henry endorsed her remarks.

“Ah, it does my heart good to hear such genuine compliments,” she said, smiling.  She collected the last of the dishes and disappeared yet again.

“What do you do for a living,” Michelle asked in an off-hand manner.

He had a feeling she was not particularly interested and it was just making conversation.

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

“A purser.  I work on a ship doing the paperwork, that sort of thing.”

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”

“Was?”

“Until I had an accident, a rather bad one.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

As the evening had worn on, he began to think there might be something wrong, seriously wrong with her because she didn’t look too well.  Even the carefully applied makeup, from close up, didn’t hide the very pale, and tired look, or the sunken, dark ringed eyes.

“I try not to think about it, but it doesn’t necessarily work.  I’ve come here for peace and quiet, away from doctors and parents.”

“Then you will not have to worry about me annoying you.  I’m one of those fall-asleep-reading-a-book types.”

Perhaps it would be like ships passing in the night and then smiled to himself about the analogy.

Dinner now over, they separated.

Henry went back to the lounge to read a few pages of his book before going to bed, and Michelle went up to her room to retire for the night.

But try as he might, he was unable to read, his mind dwelling on the unusual, yet the compellingly mysterious person he would be sharing the hotel with.

Overlaying that original blurred image of her standing in the doorway was another of her haunting expressions that had, he finally conceded, taken his breath away, and a look that had sent more than one tingle down his spine.

She may not have thought much of him, but she had certainly made an impression on him.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

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Travelling is always a good source of material to add to the writing store

Writers collect anecdotes, desciptions of their fellow travellers, more the idiosyncrasies than an actual physical desciption, and of the experience, though it is all the better if it turns out to be really, really bad than good.

This equally applies to experiences in hotels, with hire cars, tourist spots and especially fellow travellers. 

Start with the airline.  This can make or break the start of a holiday and could be the difference between a great start or a horrid one. 

We can usually accept the sardine arrangements, the lack of leg room, being within ear shot of a screaming baby, or put up with the constant kicking in the back of the seat by the wretched uncontrollable child sitting behind you. 

It’s having the person in front fully reclining their seat in your face that gets your goat.  For a hour and a half or eight hours, it is still the biggest bone of contention when flying.

We are taking one airline down to Melbourne the one that makes a big deal out of the full service it provides, and another airline back, formerly a low cost airline but now trying to match its so-called full service rival. 

The flight down is smooth, and the food reasonably good.  The landing, even thouth the pilot was battling sharp cross winds, was very heavy and left us in no doubt we had reached terra firma again.  I’ve been on worse.

Hire cars are a rich field to pick over and l’ve read some interesting experiences involving even the best.  So far l’ve not had a problem.  I pre booked as far in advance as possible to get a small fuel efficient vehicle. 

Sometimes we are upgraded and while they think they are doing you a favour it is not necessarily the case, especially when you finish up with a large car that barely fits small provincial French roads one lane wide.  It does happen.

There is also the waiting time at the car rental desk, particularly when it’s the rental company you picked, while other company desks are empty.  You also quickly discover that most of the people in the queue didn’t think of pre booking a car, which to my mind is expecting trouble with it being the peak holiday period. 

We had to wait in a long queue after taking a chance it would be less crowded at the pick up point than the desk in the airport terminal.  It was no surprise to discover that a lot of other travellers had the same thought.

Hotels can also be one of the major let downs of a holiday.  If you are going to use a travel agent to pick a hotel fir you, make sure you check as much as you can because no matter how it is described, seeing it in reality is always completely different than the pictures in a brochure and sometimes on the Internet.  It requires research and a good look at TripAdvisor.  Or word of mouth by someone you know and trust who has stayed there.

Take, for instance, staying in a five star hotel the usual stomping ground of the rich and famous, it is always interesting to see how the less privileged fare.  Where hotel staff are supposed to treat each guess equally it is not always the case.  Certainly if you’re flashing money around, the staff will be happy to take it though you may not necessarily get what you’re expecting.

We are lucky to be in the highest loyalty level and this accords us a number of privileges; this time working in our favour but it is not always the case.  Privilege can sometimes count for nothing.  It often depends on the humour of the front desk clerk and woe betide you if you get the receptionist from hell.  Been there, done that, more than once.

Then there is the room.  There is such a wide variety of rooms available even if the hotel site or brochure had representative pictures the odds are you can still get a room that is nothing like you’re expecting, or were promised. 

Believe me there are rooms with a view, overlooking pigeon coops or air-conditioning vents.

A bone of contention often can be the location of the hotel and sometimes parking facilities not the least of which is the cost

Valet parking; forget it.

We are reasonably near transport if we could walk, the km to the nearest bus or tram stop is a long long way when you can’t walk and  that’s  when the hotel starts to feel like a prison.  Taxis may be cheap but when you have to use them three or four times a day it all adds up.

Be wary when a hotel says it is close to public transport.  While that may be true in London, anywhere else especially in Europe you could find yourself in the middle of nowhere.  Its when you discover your travel agent didn’t exactly lie but it is why that weekly rate was so cheap.  In the end, the sum of the taxi fares and the accommodation turns out to be dearer that if you stayed at the Savoy.

So airline, hire car and hotel aside those front line experiences are fodder for the travel blogger, these people who are also known as road warriors. 

I wondered why until we started travellng and discovered the incredible highs and lows, of flying, yes there are good and bad airlines and the bad are not confined to the low cost, of rental cars and of hotels.  There is a very large gulf between five stars and three and sometimes three can be very generous.  And of course l now have a list of hotels l would never stay in again, the names of which might surprise you.

Unfortunately my travel exploits are as boring as the day is long.

Our airport experiences  are all withot incident, although from time to time the sight of police or soldiers patrolling eithguns can be disconcerting.

We have also experienced the odd problem in London at heathrow firstly trying to get hep from the designated help staff and then to find the check in desk of an airline apparently no one available knew existed.

That was momentairily exciting after phone calls were not answered and internet contact was not possible.  Not until a little footwork found the agents desk and the misunderstanding was sorted out.

By the way, the airline itself was a pleasure to fly on, the staff pleasant and most f all we arrived just before the airport closed.

On the way home only a flight stands between us and getting home.  After days sometimes weeks it is that moment we all look foward to sleeping on our own beds making our own food and getting to the gym to work off those extra kilos put on by delicious hotel food or local fare where calorie counting is not part of the dining experience.

Of cousre getting to the airport from he hotel can be an experience in itself whether by taxi perhaps the taxi driver from hell who knows only two speeds fast and stop and is also unfortunately colour blind.  Or whether you have arranged for a transfer only to discover its not coming because the company went out of business or you changed hotels and someone forgot to tell them.  Or the travel agent made a mistake or forgot to confirm the booking.  Oh yes, it happens.

We have a hire car and will be returning it t the same place.  Lets hope the signage at the airport makes it easy to find the rental place.  In London we had a hell of a time trying to find it; good thing we were hours earlier than we should be. 

And just because the sign says rental returns for the lane you’re in it doesn’t necessarily follow it’s the right lane.  Then as you miss the exit, and get stuck on the one way road system, all of a sudden you have left the airport and you’re heading back to the city.  If you’re running late …

But if everything goes to plan you get to the airport with time to spare.

We manage to arrive early at the airport.  Rather that wait three hours for our flight we decide to try and get on an earlier departure.  This will depend on our ticket type and whether there are seats available, preferably together.

We line up in the service queue, which by its very description means you have a lengthy wait as service is mostly between difficult to impossible depending on the request.  We wait twenty minutes.  There’s a long queue behind us.  Our request is taken care of quickly and efficiently making it almost seamless, certainly painless.  I’m sure our request was one of the very few easy ones the staff will get.

Today it seems it is our lucky day.  The transfer to an earlier flight is free and there are two seats available together.  All we have to do is alert the pick up driver at our destination we are going to be an hour earlier.  Done.

Checking in bags is usually the bane of the travellers existence.  No matter which airport in whatever country you are departing from the only difference is the length of the queue; from increadibly long with a half hour wait to the head of the line to up to an hour.  Our queue is 15 to 20 minutes. 

One assumes this is why intending passengers are asked to go to the airport two hours ahead of their fight.  There are tomes of the day where the queus are horrendus, and that not only applies to Heathrow.

And if you are late, just panic.

And if your bags are overweight be prepared to have your credit card hammered.  Especially if you’re flying Air France from Venice to Paris.  Domestically in Australia its not so bad.

Now its time to relax.   There is an hour before we have to be at the gate so just enough time to get coffee and a donut.

And be horrified at what shops charge for simple items like sandwiches.  I think $10 is very expensive.  But if you’re hungry and forgot to eat before getting ro the airport then be prepared to pay more than you usually would for the same fare.

It’s also time to observe our fellow passengers,and there is always one who has a last minute dash for a plane that is just about to leave, passengers with panic stricken looks.  We all know what happens if you miss the flight even as you’re downing that last cocktail in the airline lounge while thinking, yes they’ll hold the flight for me!

Apparently not because airlines want to keep their ‘on time’ record.

Even so there’s  still three more calls for the missing passengers and then nothing.  If they missed the plane there their problems are just beginning.  It’s the same feeling you have when your name is called out before the flight starts loading.  Only once have we been called up and given an upgrade, and once in the US to be told we could take another flight because our flight was overbooked.  Business class was greatly appreciated and was worth the extra hour we had to wait.

The next bottle neck is the scanners and sometimes the queue here is very long and moving slowly because the scanners are set to pick up belts and shoes so people are scattered everywhere getting redressed and putting shoes on.  Today being a weekday the queue is not so bad.

Loading is painless and reasonably organized except when the passengers in high numbered rows try to board by the front door instead of the rear door and clash mid way in the plane.  After they untangle themselves and get to their seats we’re ready to go.

This flight still has the manual safety demonstration which most people ignored but is slightly better than the video demonstration.  Lets hope we don’t  go down over water.  I’ve  charted my payh to the emergency exit and l have wuit a few people before me.  I guess there’s more than one way to be last off the plane.

Sometimes you get to pick who you get to sit next to, especially if you are traveling with your partner which this time l am, but in a three seat arrangement you gave no control over who takes that third seat.  We are lucky this time because it will not become a tight squeeze  but unfortunately our fwllow traveller has a cold and in a confined soace for several hours it could turn out to be a problem.

The flight is smooth, the snacks edible, but there is no liquor service like the full service rival but that might be a good thing.  No air rage on this flight.

Time flies, pardon the pun, and we have arrived.  Even though it took forever for the baggage to be delivered we still got home early.  Until the next time we fly.

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

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 34

A brief moment of respite

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

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

This ship.

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

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

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

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

“I doubt the streets would be as safe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Engineering are reporting a glitch, sir.”

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

“Serious?”

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Charles Heath 2021

“Because it’s not me” – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journalist.

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

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

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

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

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

Five minutes after I first saw him.

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

“James Wilson?”

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

“Do you mind if I come in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© Charles Heath 2021

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

 

An excerpt from “Strangers We’ve Become” – Coming Soon

I wandered back to my villa.

It was in darkness.  I was sure I had left several lights on, especially over the door so I could see to unlock it.

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

I went to the first hiding spot for the gun, and it wasn’t there.  I went to the backup and it wasn’t there either.  Someone had found my carefully hidden stash of weapons and removed them.

Who?

There were four hiding spots and all were empty.  Someone had removed the weapons.  That could only mean one possibility.

I had a visitor, not necessarily here for a social call.

But, of course, being the well-trained agent I’d once been and not one to be caught unawares, I crossed over to my neighbor and relieved him of a weapon that, if found, would require a lot of explaining.

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

There were three entrances to the villa, the front door, the back door, and a rather strange escape hatch.  One of the more interesting attractions of the villa I’d rented was its heritage.  It was built in the late 1700s, by a man who was, by all accounts, a thief.  It had a hidden underground room which had been in the past a vault but was now a wine cellar, and it had an escape hatch by which the man could come and go undetected, particularly if there was a mob outside the door baying for his blood.

It now gave me the means to enter the villa without my visitors being alerted, unless, of course, they were near the vicinity of the doorway inside the villa, but that possibility was unlikely.  It was not where anyone could anticipate or expect a doorway to be.

The secret entrance was at the rear of the villa behind a large copse, two camouflaged wooden doors built into the ground.  I move aside some of the branches that covered them and lifted one side.  After I’d discovered the doors and rusty hinges, I’d oiled and cleaned them, and cleared the passageway of cobwebs and fallen rocks.  It had a mildew smell, but nothing would get rid of that.  I’d left torches at either end so I could see.

I closed the door after me, and went quietly down the steps, enveloped in darkness till I switched on the torch.  I traversed the short passage which turned ninety degrees about halfway to the door at the other end.  I carried the key to this door on the keyring, found it and opened the door.  It too had been oiled and swung open soundlessly.

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

I was on the lower level under the kitchen, now the wine cellar, the ‘door’ doubling as a set of shelves which had very little on them, less to fall and alert anyone in the villa.

Silence, an eerie silence.

I took the steps up to the kitchen, stopping when my head was level with the floor, checking to see if anyone was waiting.  There wasn’t.  It seemed to me to be an unlikely spot for an ambush.

I’d already considered the possibility of someone coming after me, especially because it had been Bespalov I’d killed, and I was sure he had friends, all equally as mad as he was.  Equally, I’d also considered it nigh on impossible for anyone to find out it was me who killed him because the only people who knew that were Prendergast, Alisha, a few others in the Department, and Susan.

That raised the question of who told them where I was.

If I was the man I used to be, my first suspect would be Susan.  The departure this morning, and now this was too coincidental.  But I was not that man.

Or was I?

I reached the start of the passageway that led from the kitchen to the front door and peered into the semi-darkness.  My eyes had got used to the dark, and it was no longer an inky void.  Fragments of light leaked in around the door from outside and through the edge of the window curtains where they didn’t fit properly.  A bone of contention upstairs in the morning, when first light shone and invariably woke me up hours before I wanted to.

Still nothing.

I took a moment to consider how I would approach the visitor’s job.  I would get a plan of the villa in my head, all entrances, where a target could be led to or attacked where there would be no escape.

Coming in the front door.  If I was not expecting anything, I’d just open the door and walk-in.  One shot would be all that was required.

Contract complete.

I sidled quietly up the passage staying close to the wall, edging closer to the front door.  There was an alcove where the shooter could be waiting.  It was an ideal spot to wait.

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

I felt it before I heard it.  The bullet with my name on it.

And how the shooter missed, from point-blank range, and hit me in the arm, I had no idea.  I fired off two shots before a second shot from the shooter went wide and hit the door with a loud thwack.

I saw a red dot wavering as it honed in on me and I fell to the floor, stretching out, looking up where the origin of the light was coming and pulled the trigger three times, evenly spaced, and a second later I heard the sound of a body falling down the stairs and stopping at the bottom, not very far from me.

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

The assassin by the door was dead, a lucky shot on my part.  The second was still breathing.

I checked the body for any weapons and found a second gun and two knives.  Armed to the teeth!

I pulled off the balaclava; a man, early thirties, definitely Italian.  I was expecting a Russian.

I slapped his face, waking him up.  Blood was leaking from several slashes on his face when his head had hit the stairs on the way down.  The awkward angle of his arms and legs told me there were broken bones, probably a lot worse internally.  He was not long for this earth.

“Who employed you?”

He looked at me with dead eyes, a pursed mouth, perhaps a smile.  “Not today my friend.  You have made a very bad enemy.”  He coughed and blood poured out of his mouth.  “There will be more …”

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

I would have to leave.  Two unexplainable bodies, I’d have a hard time explaining my way out of this mess.  I dragged the two bodies into the lounge, clearing the passageway just in case someone had heard anything.

Just in case anyone was outside at the time, I sat in the dark, at the foot of the stairs, and tried to breathe normally.  I was trying not to connect dots that led back to Susan, but the coincidence was worrying me.

 

A half-hour passed and I hadn’t moved.  Deep in thought, I’d forgotten about being shot, unaware that blood was running down my arm and dripping onto the floor.

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

Two thoughts, it was either the police, alerted by the neighbors, or it was the second wave, though why would they be knocking on the door?

I stood, and immediately felt a stabbing pain in my arm.  I took out a handkerchief and turned it into a makeshift tourniquet, then wrapped a kitchen towel around the wound.

If it was the police, this was going to be a difficult situation.  Holding the gun behind my back, I opened the door a fraction and looked out.

No police, just Maria.  I hoped she was not part of the next ‘wave’.

“You left your phone behind on the table.  I thought you might be looking for it.”  She held it out in front of her.

When I didn’t open the door any further, she looked at me quizzically, and then asked, “Is anything wrong?”

I was going to thank her for returning the phone, but I heard her breathe in sharply, and add, breathlessly, “You’re bleeding.”

I looked at my arm and realized it was visible through the door, and not only that, the towel was soaked in blood.

“You need to go away now.”

Should I tell her the truth?  It was probably too late, and if she was any sort of law-abiding citizen she would go straight to the police.

She showed no signs of leaving, just an unnerving curiosity.  “What happened?”

I ran through several explanations, but none seemed plausible.  I went with the truth.  “My past caught up with me.”

“You need someone to fix that before you pass out from blood loss.  It doesn’t look good.”

“I can fix it.  You need to leave.  It is not safe to be here with me.”

The pain in my arm was not getting any better, and the blood was starting to run down my arm again as the tourniquet loosened.  She was right, I needed it fixed sooner rather than later.

I opened the door and let her in.  It was a mistake, a huge mistake, and I would have to deal with the consequences.  Once inside, she turned on the light and saw the pool of blood just inside the door and the trail leading to the lounge.  She followed the trail and turned into the lounge, turned on the light, and no doubt saw the two dead men.

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

She gave me a good hard look, perhaps trying to see if I was dangerous.  Killing people wasn’t something you looked the other way about.  She would have to go to the police.

“What happened here?”

“I came home from the cafe and two men were waiting for me.  I used to work for the Government, but no longer.  I suspect these men were here to repay a debt.  I was lucky.”

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

She found another towel and wrapped it around the wound, retightening the tourniquet to stem the bleeding.

“Do you have medical supplies?”

I nodded.  “Upstairs.”  I had a medical kit, and on the road, I usually made my own running repairs.  Another old habit I hadn’t quite shaken off yet.

She went upstairs, rummaged, and then came back.  I wondered briefly what she would think of the unmade bed though I was not sure why it might interest her.

She helped me remove my shirt, and then cleaned the wound.  Fortunately, she didn’t have to remove a bullet.  It was a clean wound but it would require stitches.

When she’d finished she said, “Your friend said one day this might happen.”

No prizes for guessing who that friend was, and it didn’t please me that she had involved Maria.

“Alisha?”

“She didn’t tell me her name, but I think she cares a lot about you.  She said trouble has a way of finding you, gave me a phone and said to call her if something like this happened.”

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not.  Will you call her?”

“Yes.  I can’t stay here now.  You should go now.  Hopefully, by the time I leave in the morning, no one will ever know what happened here, especially you.”

She smiled.  “As you say, I was never here.”

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

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

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

Have they climbed mountains,

Have they escaped from what is almost the inescapable,

Have they been shot, tortured, or worse,

Have they been dumped, or divorced,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I myself today?

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to be a fireman.”

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

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

“Just saying.”

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

She sighs.  “Your loss.”

Moving on.

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

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

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

Skeletons in the closet, and doppelgangers

A story called “Mistaken Identity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a great idea for a story.

That story is called ‘Mistaken Identity’.

Read an extract tomorrow.

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

Here’s the thing…

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

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

But these dreams are nothing to laugh about.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Busy day?”

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

“Is it possible I could get it today?”

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

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say”

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure it was them?”

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

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

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

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

“Already on it.”

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

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

“Good.  Sooner rather later OK.”

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

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

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

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

“He’s just a kid, Alex.”

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2020