An excerpt from “Echoes from the Past”

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

newechocover5rs

More or less… – A short story

It was meant to be time to reacquaint as brothers.

Louis and I had not seen each other for decades, and when he returned, about a week before, I got the impression there was more than just ‘missing his brother’ going on.

But that was Louis. He was never one to say what or how he felt about anything, preferring to be the strong silent type, and it had not fared well for him transitioning from teenager to adult.

As for me, when our parents split up, Louis went with our father, and I stayed with our mother, and, given the amount of acrimony there was attached to the split, it was no surprise to anyone that Louis and I had effectively become estranged.

In fact, when I had tried to find them, about two years after the split and our mother had died suddenly, all I found were loose ends. They had effectively vanished.

With that part of my life effectively over, I had married, had children and watched 30 years disappear before Louis suddenly popped up. He simply knocked on the front door one afternoon, Helen answered it, and within minutes they were the best of friends. I’d had that rapport, once, many years before, but life and circumstances had all but ruined that.

Or perhaps that was just me, worn down by that same life and circumstances we were all supposed to take on the chin.

His arrival was a welcome distraction, and when, after a week, he suggested that he and I go on a hike, the sort our father used to take us on when we were a family, I agreed. Helen was happy to be rid of me, and I guess a week without our arguing would suit everyone.

It was probably fortuitous timing. Helen and I had finally got to the point where divorce lawyers were about to be called in. The children had all moved on and had children and problems of their own, and we, as parents just didn’t gel anymore.

Besides, I said, just before I joined Louis in the truck, ready to embark for the wilderness, it would be time to clear my head.

And by day two, my head was clear, and Louis, taking the lead, led us along the ridgeline, a trek he said, that would take us about seven hours. We’d stopped the previous night in a base camp and then headed out the next morning. We were the only two, it being early in the season with snow still on the ground.

Above was the clear cloudless blue sky and in front of us, trees and mountains. There was snow on the ground but it was not solid and showed no signs of human footsteps, only animals. The air was fresh, and it was good to be away from the city and its pressures.

Approaching noon, I’d asked him if we were about halfway. I knew he was holding back, being the fitter of us.

“More or less.”

“More or less what, more closer or less close than we should be.”

I watched him do a 360-degree turn, scoping out our position. It was a maneuver I was familiar with from my time with the National Guard. I’d used my backcountry experience that I’d learned from my father, as a skill I thought they might be able to, and eventually did, use. I got the feeling Louis was looking for something.

“You get the impression we’re not alone?” I asked. I had that nagging feeling something was not right, not from about two miles back in the forest. It was like my sixth sense being switched on.

“Doesn’t seem so, though there have been a few animals lurking behind us, probably surprised anyone’s about this time of the year. It’s been a while, so I’m just getting a feel for the trail. This is, for now, our mountain.”

There was a time, from a time when we were kids, that I could tell when he was lying. He was better at covering it, but it was still there.

Where we’d stopped was a small clearing, a staging point that would be used by other trekkers, still overgrown because of lack of trekkers. Ahead there were the signs of a trail, and after six months, it would become clear again. In places, as we had made our way from the base camp, sections of the distinctive trail had all but disappeared, but Louis seemed to know where he was going, and it was not long before we had picked up the trail again. This spot was a lookout, giving a spectacular view of the valley below, and a fast running river through it.

I walked to the edge and looked up and down the valley, and at the trail that ran along the cliff for a short distance. I looked down, not the wisest of things to do, but it was long enough to catch sight of several charred pieces of wood. On top of the snow. The thing is, someone had been along this trail before us, and recently, something I thought wise to keep to myself.

Back at the log, I sat for a moment and drank some water, while Louis stood patiently, but impatiently, for me to join him.

“You look like you’ve got somewhere to be.” Probably not the wisest thing to say but it was out before I could stop it.

A flicker of annoyance crossed his face, then it was gone. “If we stop too long, joints will freeze up, especially when it gets colder.”

“Sorry.” I put the container back in the pack and joined him. “Let’s go. The cold and I don’t get along very well, and it’s been a long time since the last time I ventured into the great unknown.”

“Helen said you gave up trekking when you married her.”

“She wasn’t a trekker, Robbie. We all have to give up something, sooner or later.”

Another hour, feeling rather weary, we’d come to another small clearing and a place where I could sit down.

“You always were the weak link, Robbie. Admittedly you were younger, but you never seemed to grasp the concept of exercise and fitness.”

I looked up at him and could see my father, the exact stance, the exact words, the exact same sneer in his voice. It all came rushing back as if it was yesterday, the reasons why I chose to go with our mother, that another day with his bullying would be one too many. And he was a bully. And, in an instant, I could see the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Out of shape after languishing in an office, perhaps,” I said, “but I was never the disappointment our father always considered me.”

“You didn’t join the army, follow in his footsteps, as he wanted us to do. I did. Proudly served, too.”

I could see it. Like father, like son. No surprise Robbie had followed in his father’s footsteps. And it was a clue as to what Robbie had been doing since I saw him last.

“So, tell me about it.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I probably wouldn’t. Let’s push on.”

I’d also thought, along the way, he might ask questions, delve further into the problems that Helen and I were having, but I knew she had told him all he needed to know. I’d been held up at the office, and had rung to ask her to take him to dinner, get to know him, she might get to learn something of my life before I met her, details of which I hadn’t told her other than that my mother was dead, my father had left and taken Robbie with him. My past, I’d told her from the outset, was not something I would talk about.

I didn’t ask what they talked about, but I could see a change in both of them. Perhaps she had succumbed to Robbie’s charm, back in school all the girls did, but they all soon learned he was not a nice person, not once you got to know him. I didn’t warn her, and perhaps that was regrettable on my part, but it reflected the state in which our relationship had reached.

I’d also tried, once or twice, to find out if our father was still alive, but he deflected it, changing the subject. That meant he was still alive, somewhere, perhaps annoyed at Robbie for coming to see me. If I was a betting man, I’d bet our father would have denied permission for
Robbie to do so, even if he was a grown man and capable of making his own decisions.

Odd, but not surprising. Even now I could remember my father had secrets, and those secrets had fed into the breakup of our parents.

“So, you’ve been dodging it for days now, but you still haven’t told me if dad is alive or dead. He’d be about seventy-odd now.”

He stopped and turned to face me. “Would it matter if he was alive? I doubt you’d want to see him after what mother must have said about him.”

Interesting that he would think so. “She never had a bad word for him, and wouldn’t hear of one spoken, by me or anyone. And I have wondered what became of him, and you. At least now I know you spent time in the Army. If I was to guess what happened, that would be high on my list.”

“No surprise then you became an office wanker.”

Blunt, but, to him, it was a fact. I’d used that expression when telling Helen one time after a very bad day.

“We can’t all be heroes, Robbie.”

I put my hand up. Alarm bells were going off in my head. “You can come out now,” I yelled.

Robbie looked puzzled.

“I know you’re there. You’ve been behind us for about a half-mile now.”

A few seconds passed before the cracking of a twig, and then a person in a camouflage kit came towards us.

He’d aged, hair and beard grey in places but almost white now, but the face was familiar.

“What brings you to this part of the woods, Dad. Or is it just an unlucky coincidence?”

—–

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

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

Jump Now – A short story

It was 2 am, the ideal time to assemble a team that would be clandestinely boarding a vessel.

Dark and moonless, it was fortuitous rather than planned, and, dressed in black from head to toe, it was hard to see the others in the inky darkness.  At least something was on our side.

Up until this point, we’d had nothing but bad luck, though I was more of the opinion we had a traitor in our midst because some of the events could not have any other explanation.

It had caused me to be far more selective in who I gave details of the mission to.

Each of the four team members had arrived and let themselves into the shed.  It was not far from the ocean, and a small pier where there was a landing craft waiting.  From there, it would be a half-hour trip out to the ship in question, where, if we got close enough, we would either have to go over the side and swim, or pull alongside, but either way we’d have to go up a rope.

A lot depended on the crew member we had recruited getting a rope overboard, and given the luck we had so far, if there was a flaw in the plan, that was it.

Aside from the four people sitting in front of me, there were only three others privy to what was about to happen.  Now, with recent events, it was hard to imagine that one of them could betray us. That’s why I hadn’t completely told them what they were about to do, just that they needed to be prepared to get wet.

“I’m sure, now we’re here, you can tell us what’s going on.”  Robert was the most trusted of my team and my best friend.

“And why all the hush-hush,”  Linda added.  She had been amused at the secrecy and my explanation.

I was never very good at spinning a story.  She knew that but had not questioned why.

“It’s been touch and go for the last week.  It’s why we’ve all been on standby, with this last-minute call out.  We’ve been waiting for a particular ship to leave port, and now it has.  So, without further ado, let’s get to it.  A boat ride, just enough time to gather the courage to the sticking point, and then with any luck we won’t have to go into the water and swim, but a short shimmy up a rope.  I hope you’ve all been working out.”

The boat ride was in silence.  I’d worked with this group before and they were not big on talking.  Aside from the fact that noise traveled over water, and since we had a specially silenced motor on the boat, there was not going to be any unnecessary conversation.

We could see the ship once we reached the headland, and aside from it’s running lights, there were lights where I presumed the bridge was, and several in the crew quarters.  Closer again, I got the impression it was not moving, or if it was, it was very slow.  It was hard to tell in the darkness.  That same darkness aided our approach.

When we were within several hundred yards I could see that the ship was not moving, and, in fact, had the anchor out.

That was not expected.  Were they waiting for us?  Had they discovered the cream member who was working with us?  We’d know soon enough if there was no rope in the designated point, not far forward of the stern, a spot where we could maneuver the boat under the hull curvature.

The driver piloted the boat slowly to the designated point and the rope was there.  He would stay with the boat and wait.  The four of us would go up and collect what we came for.

I watched the three go up the rope before me, waiting for the last to stop at the top and then go over the side onto the deck.  It took nearly a minute before I got the signal it was clear to follow.

It had been too easy.

I went up the rope slowly, slower than the others, something else other than the object of the exercise on my mind.  Not three days before I had a conversation with my boss, telling him that I’d been doing the job too long and that it was time to retire.  Approaching forty wasn’t exactly retirement age, but in this job, lasting that long was almost a miracle.  The places I’d been, the sights I’d seen, and the people I’d met.  And how many lives I’d used up.

It was a dangerous thing, thinking about anything other than the job when you’re on the job.

I reached the top and pulled myself over the railing and onto the deck.  A little off balance it took a moment to stand.  By then it was too late.

Two of the three other members of the team were sitting by the superstructure, heads on their heads, two members of the crew were watching them, guns at the ready, and Linda had one pointing at me.

“I can’t imagine how MacIntyre thought he was going to convince Petra to defect.  Or how this charade of a rescue attempt was ever going to work.”

I put my hands up.  Not entirely unexpected.  “It was not the mission objective.”

“What…”

I was surprised that she had made her move so early.  If it was my operation, I would wait until we were well into the superstructure, heading to the cabin where Petra would be waiting, and then make the move.

Three seconds, three shots, two guards taken out, and Linda incapacitated.  She would not be moving or fighting back any time soon.  The Petra came out of the shadows, and I collected Linda’s gun and stood near her, just in case Petra missed the target.

Petra cut the two other’s bindings, and said, “get to the side and jump now.”

Linda looked up at me.  “What now?”

I shrugged.  “Time for us to leave.”  I gave Petra a nod, and she went over to the side, took one look back at Linda, shook her head, then jumped.

“You’re just going to leave me here?”

“If it were up to me, I’d shoot you, but MacIntire is getting a little soft in his old age.  But yes, I’m leaving you here.  Now, I really must go.”

I took a last look at Linda, who realized that if she moved it would only worsen her injury, and jumped, not exactly my preferred way of leaving the ship.

The boat came up alongside me and two hands dragged me on board, at the same time we could hear the sound of the anchor chain being pulled up, and the propellers creating a wash as the ship started moving.

Job done, and not one that pleased me.  “Let’s go home,” I told the driver, “it’s past my bedtime.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The first case of PI Walthenson – “A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers”

This case has everything, red herrings, jealous brothers, femme fatales, and at the heart of it all, greed.

See below for an excerpt from the book…

Coming soon!

PIWalthJones1

An excerpt from the book:

When Harry took the time to consider his position, a rather uncomfortable position at that, he concluded that he was somehow involved in another case that meant very little to him.

Not that it wasn’t important in some way he was yet to determine, it was just that his curiosity had got the better of him, and it had led to this: sitting in a chair, securely bound, waiting for someone one of his captors had called Doug.

It was not the name that worried him so much, it was the evil laugh that had come after the name was spoken.

Doug what? Doug the ‘destroyer’, Doug the ‘dangerous’, Doug the ‘deadly’; there was any number of sinister connotations, and perhaps that was the point of the laugh, to make it more frightening than it was.

But there was no doubt about one thing in his mind right then: he’d made a mistake. A very big. and costly, mistake. Just how big the cost, no doubt he would soon find out.

His mother, and his grandmother, the wisest person he had ever known, had once told him never to eavesdrop.

At the time he couldn’t help himself and instead of minding his own business, listening to a one-sided conversation which ended with a time and a place. The very nature of the person receiving the call was, at the very least, sinister, and, because of the cryptic conversation, there appeared to be, or at least to Harry, criminal activity involved.

For several days he had wrestled with the thought of whether he should go. Stay on the fringe, keep out of sight, observe and report to the police if it was a crime. Instead, he had willingly gone down the rabbit hole.

Now, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, several heat lamps hanging over his head, he was perspiring, and if perspiration could be used as a measure of fear, then Harry’s fear was at the highest level.

Another runnel of sweat rolled into his left eye, and, having his hands tied, literally, it made it impossible to clear it. The burning sensation momentarily took his mind off his predicament. He cursed and then shook his head trying to prevent a re-occurrence. It was to no avail.

Let the stinging sensation be a reminder of what was right and what was wrong.

It was obvious that it was the right place and the right time, but in considering his current perilous situation, it definitely was the wrong place to be, at the worst possible time.

It was meant to be his escape, an escape from the generations of lawyers, what were to Harry, dry, dusty men who had been in business since George Washington said to the first Walthenson to step foot on American soil, ‘Why don’t you become a lawyer?” when asked what he could do for the great man.

Or so it was handed down as lore, though Harry didn’t think Washington meant it literally, the Walthenson’s, then as now, were not shy of taking advice.

Except, of course, when it came to Harry.

He was, Harry’s father was prone to saying, the exception to every rule. Harry guessed his father was referring to the fact his son wanted to be a Private Detective rather than a dry, dusty lawyer. Just the clothes were enough to turn Harry off the profession.

So, with a little of the money Harry inherited from one of his aunts, he leased an office in Gramercy Park and had it renovated to look like the Sam Spade detective agency, you know the one, Spade and Archer, and The Maltese Falcon.

There’s a movie and a book by Dashiell Hammett if you’re interested.

So, there it was, painted on the opaque glass inset of the front door, ‘Harold Walthenson, Private Detective’.

There was enough money to hire an assistant, and it took a week before the right person came along, or, more to the point, didn’t just see his business plan as something sinister. Ellen, a tall cool woman in a long black dress, or so the words of a song in his head told him, fitted in perfectly.

She’d seen the movie, but she said with a grin, Harry was no Humphrey Bogart.

Of course not, he said, he didn’t smoke.

Three months on the job, and it had been a few calls, no ‘real’ cases, nothing but missing animals, and other miscellaneous items. What he really wanted was a missing person. Or perhaps a beguiling, sophisticated woman who was as deadly as she was charming, looking for an errant husband, perhaps one that she had already ‘dispatched’.

Or for a tall, dark and handsome foreigner who spoke in riddles and in heavily accented English, a spy, or perhaps an assassin, in town to take out the mayor. The man was such an imbecile Harry had considered doing it himself.

Now, in a back room of a disused warehouse, that wishful thinking might be just about to come to a very abrupt end, with none of the romanticized trappings of the business befalling him. No beguiling women, no sinister criminals, no stupid policemen.

Just a nasty little man whose only concern was how quickly or how slowly Harry’s end was going to be.

© Charles Heath 2019

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

More or less… – A short story

It was meant to be time to reacquaint as brothers.

Louis and I had not seen each other for decades, and when he returned, about a week before, I got the impression there was more than just ‘missing his brother’ going on.

But that was Louis. He was never one to say what or how he felt about anything, preferring to be the strong silent type, and it had not fared well for him transitioning from teenager to adult.

As for me, when our parents split up, Louis went with our father, and I stayed with our mother, and, given the amount of acrimony there was attached to the split, it was no surprise to anyone that Louis and I had effectively become estranged.

In fact, when I had tried to find them, about two years after the split and our mother had died suddenly, all I found were loose ends. They had effectively vanished.

With that part of my life effectively over, I had married, had children and watched 30 years disappear before Louis suddenly popped up. He simply knocked on the front door one afternoon, Helen answered it, and within minutes they were the best of friends. I’d had that rapport, once, many years before, but life and circumstances had all but ruined that.

Or perhaps that was just me, worn down by that same life and circumstances we were all supposed to take on the chin.

His arrival was a welcome distraction, and when, after a week, he suggested that he and I go on a hike, the sort our father used to take us on when we were a family, I agreed. Helen was happy to be rid of me, and I guess a week without our arguing would suit everyone.

It was probably fortuitous timing. Helen and I had finally got to the point where divorce lawyers were about to be called in. The children had all moved on and had children and problems of their own, and we, as parents just didn’t gel anymore.

Besides, I said, just before I joined Louis in the truck, ready to embark for the wilderness, it would be time to clear my head.

And by day two, my head was clear, and Louis, taking the lead, led us along the ridgeline, a trek he said, that would take us about seven hours. We’d stopped the previous night in a base camp and then headed out the next morning. We were the only two, it being early in the season with snow still on the ground.

Above was the clear cloudless blue sky and in front of us, trees and mountains. There was snow on the ground but it was not solid and showed no signs of human footsteps, only animals. The air was fresh, and it was good to be away from the city and its pressures.

Approaching noon, I’d asked him if we were about halfway. I knew he was holding back, being the fitter of us.

“More or less.”

“More or less what, more closer or less close than we should be.”

I watched him do a 360-degree turn, scoping out our position. It was a maneuver I was familiar with from my time with the National Guard. I’d used my backcountry experience that I’d learned from my father, as a skill I thought they might be able to, and eventually did, use. I got the feeling Louis was looking for something.

“You get the impression we’re not alone?” I asked. I had that nagging feeling something was not right, not from about two miles back in the forest. It was like my sixth sense being switched on.

“Doesn’t seem so, though there have been a few animals lurking behind us, probably surprised anyone’s about this time of the year. It’s been a while, so I’m just getting a feel for the trail. This is, for now, our mountain.”

There was a time, from a time when we were kids, that I could tell when he was lying. He was better at covering it, but it was still there.

Where we’d stopped was a small clearing, a staging point that would be used by other trekkers, still overgrown because of lack of trekkers. Ahead there were the signs of a trail, and after six months, it would become clear again. In places, as we had made our way from the base camp, sections of the distinctive trail had all but disappeared, but Louis seemed to know where he was going, and it was not long before we had picked up the trail again. This spot was a lookout, giving a spectacular view of the valley below, and a fast running river through it.

I walked to the edge and looked up and down the valley, and at the trail that ran along the cliff for a short distance. I looked down, not the wisest of things to do, but it was long enough to catch sight of several charred pieces of wood. On top of the snow. The thing is, someone had been along this trail before us, and recently, something I thought wise to keep to myself.

Back at the log, I sat for a moment and drank some water, while Louis stood patiently, but impatiently, for me to join him.

“You look like you’ve got somewhere to be.” Probably not the wisest thing to say but it was out before I could stop it.

A flicker of annoyance crossed his face, then it was gone. “If we stop too long, joints will freeze up, especially when it gets colder.”

“Sorry.” I put the container back in the pack and joined him. “Let’s go. The cold and I don’t get along very well, and it’s been a long time since the last time I ventured into the great unknown.”

“Helen said you gave up trekking when you married her.”

“She wasn’t a trekker, Robbie. We all have to give up something, sooner or later.”

Another hour, feeling rather weary, we’d come to another small clearing and a place where I could sit down.

“You always were the weak link, Robbie. Admittedly you were younger, but you never seemed to grasp the concept of exercise and fitness.”

I looked up at him and could see my father, the exact stance, the exact words, the exact same sneer in his voice. It all came rushing back as if it was yesterday, the reasons why I chose to go with our mother, that another day with his bullying would be one too many. And he was a bully. And, in an instant, I could see the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Out of shape after languishing in an office, perhaps,” I said, “but I was never the disappointment our father always considered me.”

“You didn’t join the army, follow in his footsteps, as he wanted us to do. I did. Proudly served, too.”

I could see it. Like father, like son. No surprise Robbie had followed in his father’s footsteps. And it was a clue as to what Robbie had been doing since I saw him last.

“So, tell me about it.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I probably wouldn’t. Let’s push on.”

I’d also thought, along the way, he might ask questions, delve further into the problems that Helen and I were having, but I knew she had told him all he needed to know. I’d been held up at the office, and had rung to ask her to take him to dinner, get to know him, she might get to learn something of my life before I met her, details of which I hadn’t told her other than that my mother was dead, my father had left and taken Robbie with him. My past, I’d told her from the outset, was not something I would talk about.

I didn’t ask what they talked about, but I could see a change in both of them. Perhaps she had succumbed to Robbie’s charm, back in school all the girls did, but they all soon learned he was not a nice person, not once you got to know him. I didn’t warn her, and perhaps that was regrettable on my part, but it reflected the state in which our relationship had reached.

I’d also tried, once or twice, to find out if our father was still alive, but he deflected it, changing the subject. That meant he was still alive, somewhere, perhaps annoyed at Robbie for coming to see me. If I was a betting man, I’d bet our father would have denied permission for
Robbie to do so, even if he was a grown man and capable of making his own decisions.

Odd, but not surprising. Even now I could remember my father had secrets, and those secrets had fed into the breakup of our parents.

“So, you’ve been dodging it for days now, but you still haven’t told me if dad is alive or dead. He’d be about seventy-odd now.”

He stopped and turned to face me. “Would it matter if he was alive? I doubt you’d want to see him after what mother must have said about him.”

Interesting that he would think so. “She never had a bad word for him, and wouldn’t hear of one spoken, by me or anyone. And I have wondered what became of him, and you. At least now I know you spent time in the Army. If I was to guess what happened, that would be high on my list.”

“No surprise then you became an office wanker.”

Blunt, but, to him, it was a fact. I’d used that expression when telling Helen one time after a very bad day.

“We can’t all be heroes, Robbie.”

I put my hand up. Alarm bells were going off in my head. “You can come out now,” I yelled.

Robbie looked puzzled.

“I know you’re there. You’ve been behind us for about a half-mile now.”

A few seconds passed before the cracking of a twig, and then a person in a camouflage kit came towards us.

He’d aged, hair and beard grey in places but almost white now, but the face was familiar.

“What brings you to this part of the woods, Dad. Or is it just an unlucky coincidence?”

—–

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

“The Things We Do For Love” – Coming soon

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:

lovecoverfinal1

Jump Now – A short story

It was 2 am, the ideal time to assemble a team that would be clandestinely boarding a vessel.

Dark and moonless, it was fortuitous rather than planned, and, dressed in black from head to toe, it was hard to see the others in the inky darkness.  At least something was on our side.

Up until this point, we’d had nothing but bad luck, though I was more of the opinion we had a traitor in our midst because some of the events could not have any other explanation.

It had caused me to be far more selective in who I gave details of the mission to.

Each of the four team members had arrived and let themselves into the shed.  It was not far from the ocean, and a small pier where there was a landing craft waiting.  From there, it would be a half-hour trip out to the ship in question, where, if we got close enough, we would either have to go over the side and swim, or pull alongside, but either way we’d have to go up a rope.

A lot depended on the crew member we had recruited getting a rope overboard, and given the luck we had so far, if there was a flaw in the plan, that was it.

Aside from the four people sitting in front of me, there were only three others privy to what was about to happen.  Now, with recent events, it was hard to imagine that one of them could betray us. That’s why I hadn’t completely told them what they were about to do, just that they needed to be prepared to get wet.

“I’m sure, now we’re here, you can tell us what’s going on.”  Robert was the most trusted of my team and my best friend.

“And why all the hush-hush,”  Linda added.  She had been amused at the secrecy and my explanation.

I was never very good at spinning a story.  She knew that but had not questioned why.

“It’s been touch and go for the last week.  It’s why we’ve all been on standby, with this last-minute call out.  We’ve been waiting for a particular ship to leave port, and now it has.  So, without further ado, let’s get to it.  A boat ride, just enough time to gather the courage to the sticking point, and then with any luck we won’t have to go into the water and swim, but a short shimmy up a rope.  I hope you’ve all been working out.”

The boat ride was in silence.  I’d worked with this group before and they were not big on talking.  Aside from the fact that noise traveled over water, and since we had a specially silenced motor on the boat, there was not going to be any unnecessary conversation.

We could see the ship once we reached the headland, and aside from it’s running lights, there were lights where I presumed the bridge was, and several in the crew quarters.  Closer again, I got the impression it was not moving, or if it was, it was very slow.  It was hard to tell in the darkness.  That same darkness aided our approach.

When we were within several hundred yards I could see that the ship was not moving, and, in fact, had the anchor out.

That was not expected.  Were they waiting for us?  Had they discovered the cream member who was working with us?  We’d know soon enough if there was no rope in the designated point, not far forward of the stern, a spot where we could maneuver the boat under the hull curvature.

The driver piloted the boat slowly to the designated point and the rope was there.  He would stay with the boat and wait.  The four of us would go up and collect what we came for.

I watched the three go up the rope before me, waiting for the last to stop at the top and then go over the side onto the deck.  It took nearly a minute before I got the signal it was clear to follow.

It had been too easy.

I went up the rope slowly, slower than the others, something else other than the object of the exercise on my mind.  Not three days before I had a conversation with my boss, telling him that I’d been doing the job too long and that it was time to retire.  Approaching forty wasn’t exactly retirement age, but in this job, lasting that long was almost a miracle.  The places I’d been, the sights I’d seen, and the people I’d met.  And how many lives I’d used up.

It was a dangerous thing, thinking about anything other than the job when you’re on the job.

I reached the top and pulled myself over the railing and onto the deck.  A little off balance it took a moment to stand.  By then it was too late.

Two of the three other members of the team were sitting by the superstructure, heads on their heads, two members of the crew were watching them, guns at the ready, and Linda had one pointing at me.

“I can’t imagine how MacIntyre thought he was going to convince Petra to defect.  Or how this charade of a rescue attempt was ever going to work.”

I put my hands up.  Not entirely unexpected.  “It was not the mission objective.”

“What…”

I was surprised that she had made her move so early.  If it was my operation, I would wait until we were well into the superstructure, heading to the cabin where Petra would be waiting, and then make the move.

Three seconds, three shots, two guards taken out, and Linda incapacitated.  She would not be moving or fighting back any time soon.  The Petra came out of the shadows, and I collected Linda’s gun and stood near her, just in case Petra missed the target.

Petra cut the two other’s bindings, and said, “get to the side and jump now.”

Linda looked up at me.  “What now?”

I shrugged.  “Time for us to leave.”  I gave Petra a nod, and she went over to the side, took one look back at Linda, shook her head, then jumped.

“You’re just going to leave me here?”

“If it were up to me, I’d shoot you, but MacIntire is getting a little soft in his old age.  But yes, I’m leaving you here.  Now, I really must go.”

I took a last look at Linda, who realized that if she moved it would only worsen her injury, and jumped, not exactly my preferred way of leaving the ship.

The boat came up alongside me and two hands dragged me on board, at the same time we could hear the sound of the anchor chain being pulled up, and the propellers creating a wash as the ship started moving.

Job done, and not one that pleased me.  “Let’s go home,” I told the driver, “it’s past my bedtime.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

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