“The Devil You Don’t” – A beta readers view

It could be said that of all the women one could meet, whether contrived or by sheer luck, what are the odds it would turn out to be the woman who was being paid a very large sum to kill you.

John Pennington is a man who may be lucky in business, but not so lucky in love. He has just broken up with Phillipa Sternhaven, the woman he thought was the one, but relatives and circumstances, and perhaps because she was a ‘princess’, may also have contributed to the end result.

So, what do you do when you are heartbroken?

That is a story that slowly unfolds, from the first meeting with his nemesis on Lake Geneva, all the way to a hotel room in Sorrento, where he learns the shattering truth.

What should have been a high turns out to be something else entirely, and from that point every thing goes to hell in a handbasket.

He suddenly realises his so-called friend Sebastian has not exactly told him the truth about a small job he asked him to do, the woman he is falling in love with is not quite who she says she is, and he is caught in the middle of a war between two men who consider people becoming collateral damage as part of their business.

The story paints the characters cleverly displaying all their flaws and weaknesses. The locations add to the story at times taking me back down memory lane, especially to Venice where in those back streets I confess it’s not all that hard to get lost.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining story with, for once, a satisfying end.

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

It all started in Venice – Episode 12

Let’s talk about Larry.

Over the main, and desert, I told her about Siena and the Palio, painting a vivid picture of horsemanship and rivalry over the course of several hundred years, making it sound so much better than it was.

It the heat, the tight confines of the square, and the large number of people crammed in, it could be quite oppressive.

It wasn’t until after coffee arrived I decided to take a different tack and surprise her.

“You know, back in the old days, when I was working a desk, I used to do research on criminals for task forces.  I longed to get out in the field, but back then you had to be a particular sort of bastard to get those jobs.  I just didn’t have that mean streak.”

“Any I might know of?”

“One that springs to mind, Larry Pomisor, head of the so-called Waterville gang, though as an organization, is went downhill quickly after Larry’s father died and he took over.”

I’d been watching her carefully, and, yes, no matter how hard people tried to mask their surprise, it never works.  I got the hit I was looking for.

“You’re saying he’s not a crime boss?”

“Exactly.  He’s little better than a complete moron.  Blames me for the death of his brother, failing to understand that he is ultimately responsible.  If he hadn’t dragged him into the business, he’d still be alive today.”

“Why would he blame you?”

“He thinks I was at the scene of his brother’s death but whoever told him got their dates mixed up.  But Larry is nothing if not pathological in his beliefs no matter how wrong they are.”

I could see she was processing how to deal with this turn of events.  Being handed to her on a plate, exactly what Larry wanted me to talk about, I could see she was mid-way between confused and surprised.  In other words, off guard.

She now had to come up with questions that were not obvious.

“Not exactly the sort of enemy you want, then.”

“No more than any of the others I’m sure are waiting in line.  I was there, yes, but not when his brother was killed, he was alive when I left.  It was a meeting his brother called, and we believe he was going to inform on Larry, and Larry had him killed, then pinning the blame on us, and me in particular.  His brother never wanted anything to do with Waterville, but Larry never gave him the option.”

“I can’t believe that he would do that, not to his brother.  No one would do that to family.”

“Like I said, everything I learned about Larry pointed to the fact he was a moron.  His father hated him, and his mother moved to be as far from him as possible.  She lives in Sorrento you know.  His father was a piece of work, and I first met him on a domestic call-out when their neighbors reported gunshots.  She had taken a beating, not the first, and not the last, and I had to say, I’d never seen anyone more relieved when the old man died.”

I wondered what Larry was making of this if he was listening in.  He had once told me, in passing, in one of many visits to the parent’s house to intervene, that he would kill his father if he didn’t stop.

But, Larry was all talk and no action and did nothing to stop it.  In the end, it was his wife Gabrielle, who finally ended the violence. 

When it happened she called me, the most familiar face, and told me what happened.  I then told her what to do, and it eventually kept her out of jail.  Over the years since our paths rarely crossed, but significantly I was on her Christmas card list.

She had, when she learned I was living in Venice incited Violetta and I over for tea, and we went a few times, but the last was a long time ago.

“He doesn’t blame you for that too foes he?”

“Probably, but Gabrielle can put him straight on that.  I should go and see her, it’s been a while.”

 “What do you mean?  Go see Larry’s mother?”

“Why not?  The chances of Larry being there are remote.  It’ll have to be after Cecilia goes back home.  You want to come, see a bit more of Italy?”

“What?”

The shock of the conversation direction had finally caught up with her.  I’d seen her glancing more than one at her phone, and equally wondering what Larry was making of it.

“Go see Larry’s mother.  We’re old friends.  I’m sure she’d give him a stern talking-to if she knew he wanted me dead, don’t you?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll have to see.”

“Of course.  Too short notice.”

I gave her one of my winning smiles, just as Cecilia loomed out of the darkness and came over, dropping heavily into the seat next to me, and complaining, “Well, that was a spectacular waste of time and effort.”

© Charles Heath 2022

An excerpt from “Mistaken Identity” – a work in progress

The odds of any one of us having a doppelganger are quite high. Whether or not you got to meet him or her, or be confronted by them was significantly lower. Except of course, unless you are a celebrity.

It was a phenomenon remarkable only for the fact, at times, certain high profile people, notorious or not, had doubles if only to put off enemies or the general public. Sometimes we see people in the street, people who look like someone we knew, and made the mistake of approaching them like a long lost friend, only to discover an embarrassed individual desperately trying to get away for what they perceive is a stalker or worse.

And then sometimes in is a picture that looms up on a TV screen, an almost exact likeness of you. At first you are fascinated, and then according to the circumstances, and narrative that is attached to that picture, either flattered or horrified.

For me one turned to the other when I saw an almost likeness of me flash up on the screen when I turned the TV on in my room. What looked to be my photo, with only minor differences, was in the corner of the screen, the news reader speaking in rapid Italian, so fast I could only translate every second or third word.

But the one word I did recognize was murder. The photo of the man up on the screen was the subject of an extensive manhunt. The crime, murder of woman in the very same hotel I was staying, and it was being played out live several floors above me. The gist of the story, the woman had been seen with, and staying with the man who was my double, and, less than an hour ago, the body had been discovered by a chambermaid.

The killer, the announcer said, was believed to be still in the hotel because the woman had died shortly before she had been discovered.

I watched, at first fascinated at that I was seeing. I guess I should have been horrified, but at that moment it didn’t register that I might be mistaken for that man.

Not until an another five minutes had passed, and I was watching the police in full riot gear, with a camera crew following behind, coming up a passage towards a room. Live action of the arrest of the suspected killer the breathless commentator said.

Then, suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. On the TV screen, plain to see, was the number of my room.
I looked through the peep hole and saw an army of police officers. It didn’t take much to realize what had happened. The hotel staff had identified me as the man in the photograph on the TV and called the police.

Horrified wasn’t what I was feeling right then.

It was fear.

My last memory was the door crashing open, the wood splintering, and men rushing into the room, screaming at me, waving guns, and when I put my hands up to defend myself, I heard a gunshot.

And in one very confused and probably near death experience, I thought I saw my mother, and thinking what was she doing in Rome?

I was the archetypal nobody.

I lived in a small flat, I drove a nondescript car, had an average job in a low profile travel agency, was single, and currently not involved in a relationship, no children, and according to my workmates, no life.

They were wrong. I was one of those people who preferred their own company, I had a cat, and travelled whenever I could. And I did have a ‘thing’ for Rosalie, one of the reasons why I stayed at the travel agency. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but one could always hope.

I was both pleased and excited to be going to the conference. It was my first, and the glimpse I had seen of it had whetted my appetite for more information about the nuances of my profession.

Some would say that a travel agent wasn’t much of a job, but to me, it was every bit as demanding as being an accountant or a lawyer. You were providing a customer with a service, and arguably more people needed a travel agent than a lawyer. At least that was what I told myself, as I watched more and more people start using the internet, and our relevance slowly dissipating.

This conference was about countering that trend.

The trip over had been uneventful. I was met at the airport and taken to the hotel where the conference was being held with a number of other delegates who had arrived on the same plane. I had mingled with a number of other delegates at the pre conference get together, including one whose name was Maryanne.

She was an unusual young woman, not the sort that I usually met, because she was the one who was usually surrounded by all the boys, the life of the party. In normal circumstances, I would not have introduced myself to her, but she had approached me. Why did I think that may have been significant? All of this ran through my mind, culminating in the last event on the highlight reel, the door bursting open, men rushing into my room, and then one of the policemen opened fire.

I replayed that last scene again, trying to see the face of my assailant, but it was just a sea of men in battle dress, bullet proof vests and helmets, accompanied by screaming and yelling, some of which I identified as “Get on the floor”.

Then came the shot.

Why ask me to get on the floor if all they were going to do was shoot me. I was putting my hands up at the time, in surrender, not reaching for a weapon.

Then I saw the face again, hovering in the background like a ghost. My mother. Only the hair was different, and her clothes, and then the image was going, perhaps a figment of my imagination brought on by pain killing drugs. I tried to imagine the scene again, but this time it played out, without the image of my mother.

I opened my eyes took stock of my surroundings. What I felt in that exact moment couldn’t be described. I should most likely be dead, the result of a gunshot wound. I guess I should be thankful the shooter hadn’t aimed at anything vital, but that was the only item on the plus side.

I was in a hospital room with a policeman by the door. He was reading a newspaper, and sitting uncomfortably on a small chair. He gave me a quick glance when he heard me move slightly, but didn’t acknowledge me with either a nod, or a greeting, just went back to the paper.

If I still had a police guard, then I was still considered a suspect. What was interesting was that I was not handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that only happened in TV shows. Or maybe they knew I couldn’t run because my injuries were too serious. Or the guard would shoot me long before my feet hit the floor. I knew the police well enough now to know they would shoot first and ask questions later.

On the physical side, I had a large bandage over the top left corner of my chest, extending over my shoulder. A little poking and prodding determined the bullet had hit somewhere between the top of my rib cage and my shoulder. Nothing vital there, but my arm might be somewhat useless for a while, depending on what the bullet hit on the way in, or through.

It didn’t feel like there were any broken or damaged bones.

That was the good news.

On the other side of the ledger, my mental state, there was only one word that could describe it. Terrified. I was looking at a murder charge and jail time, a lot of it. Murder usually had a long time in jail attached to it.

Whatever had happened, I didn’t do it. I know I didn’t do it, but I had to try and explain this to people who had already made up their minds. I searched my mind for evidence. It was there, but in the confused state brought on by the medication, all I could think about was jail, and the sort of company I was going to have.

I think death would have been preferable.

Half an hour later, maybe longer, I was drifting in an out of consciousness, a nurse, or what I thought was a nurse, came into the room. The guard stood, checked her ID card, and then stood by the door.

She came over and stood beside the bed. “How are you?” she asked, first in Italian, and when I pretended I didn’t understand, she asked the same question in accented English.

“Alive, I guess,” I said. “No one has come and told what my condition is yet. You are my first visitor. Can you tell me?”

“Of course. You are very lucky to be alive. You will be fine and make a full recovery. The doctors here are excellent at their work.”

“What happens now?”

“I check you, and then you have a another visitor. He is from the British Embassy I think. But he will have to wait until I have finished my examination.”

I realized then she was a doctor, not a nurse.

My second visitor was a man, dressed in a suit the sort of which I associated with the British Civil Service.  He was not very old which told me he was probably a recent graduate on his first posting, the junior officer who drew the short straw.

The guard checked his ID but again did not leave the room, sitting back down and going back to his newspaper.

My visitor introduced himself as Alex Jordan from the British Embassy in Rome and that he had been asked by the Ambassador to sort out what he labelled a tricky mess.

For starters, it was good to see that someone cared about what happened to me.  But, equally, I knew the mantra, get into trouble overseas, and there is not much we can do to help you.  So, after that lengthy introduction, I had to wonder why he was here.

I said, “They think I am an international criminal by the name of Jacob Westerbury, whose picture looks just like me, and apparently for them it is an open and shut case.”  I could still hear the fragments of the yelling as the police burst through the door, at the same time telling me to get on the floor with my hands over my head.

“It’s not.  They know they’ve got the wrong man, which is why I’m here.  There is the issue of what had been described as excessive force, and the fact you were shot had made it an all-round embarrassment for them.”

“Then why are you here?  Shouldn’t they be here apologizing?”

“That is why you have another visitor.  I only took precedence because I insisted I speak with you first.  I have come, basically to ask you for a favour.  This situation has afforded us with an opportunity.  We would like you to sign the official document which basically indemnifies them against any legal proceedings.”

Curious.  What sort of opportunity was he talking about?  Was this a matter than could get difficult and I could be charged by the Italian Government, even if I wasn’t guilty, or was it one of those hush hush type deals, you do this for us, we’ll help you out with that.  “What sort of opportunity?”

“We want to get our hands on Jacob Westerbury as much as they do.  They’ve made a mistake, and we’d like to use that to get custody of him if or when he is arrested in this country.  I’m sure you would also like this man brought into custody as soon as possible so you will stop being confused with him.  I can only imagine what it was like to be arrested in the manner you were.  And I would not blame you if you wanted to get some compensation for what they’ve done.  But.  There are bigger issues in play here, and you would be doing this for your country.”

I wondered what would happen if I didn’t agree to his proposal.  I had to ask, “What if I don’t?”

His expression didn’t change.  “I’m sure you are a sensible man Mr Pargeter, who is more than willing to help his country whenever he can.  They have agreed to take care of all your hospital expenses, and refund the cost of the Conference, and travel.  I’m sure I could also get them to pay for a few days at Capri, or Sorrento if you like, before you go home.  What do you say?”

There was only one thing I could say.  Wasn’t it treason if you went against your country’s wishes?

“I’m not an unreasonable man, Alex.  Go do your deal, and I’ll sign the papers.”

“Good man.”

After Alex left, the doctor came back to announce the arrival of a woman, by the way she had announced herself, the publicity officer from the Italian police. When she came into the room, she was not dressed in a uniform.

The doctor left after giving a brief report to the civilian at the door. I understood the gist of it, “The patient has recovered excellently and the wounds are healing as expected. There is no cause for concern.”

That was a relief.

While the doctor was speaking to the civilian, I speculated on who she might be. She was young, not more than thirty, conservatively dressed so an official of some kind, but not necessarily with the police. Did they have prosecutors? I was unfamiliar with the Italian legal system.

She had long wavy black hair and the sort of sultry looks of an Italian movie star, and her presence made me more curious than fearful though I couldn’t say why.

The woman then spoke to the guard, and he reluctantly got up and left the room, closing the door behind him.
She checked the door, and then came back towards me, standing at the end of the bed. Now alone, she said, “A few questions before we begin.” Her English was only slightly accented. “Your name is Jack Pargeter?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“You are in Rome to attend the Travel Agents Conference at the Hilton Hotel?”

“Yes.”

“You attended a preconference introduction on the evening of the 25th, after arriving from London at approximately 4:25 pm.”

“About that time, yes. I know it was about five when the bus came to collect me, and several others, to take us to the hotel.”

She smiled. It was then I noticed she was reading from a small notepad.

“It was ten past five to be precise. The driver had been held up in traffic. We have a number of witnesses who saw you on the plane, on the bus, at the hotel, and with the aid of closed circuit TV we have established you are not the criminal Jacob Westerbury.”

She put her note book back in her bag and then said, “My name is Vicenza Andretti and I am with the prosecutor’s office. I am here to formally apologize for the situation that can only be described as a case of mistaken identity. I assure you it is not the habit of our police officers to shoot people unless they have a very strong reason for doing so. I understand that in the confusion of the arrest one of our officers accidentally discharged his weapon. We are undergoing a very thorough investigation into the circumstances of this event.”

I was not sure why, but between the time I had spoken to the embassy official and now, something about letting them off so easily was bugging me. I could see why they had sent her. It would be difficult to be angry or annoyed with her.

But I was annoyed.

“Do you often send a whole squad of trigger happy riot police to arrest a single man?” It came out harsher than I intended.

“My men believed they were dealing with a dangerous criminal.”

“Do I look like a dangerous criminal?” And then I realized if it was mistaken identity, the answer would be yes.

She saw the look on my face, and said quietly, “I think you know the answer to that question, Mr. Pargeter.”

“Well, it was overkill.”

“As I said, we are very sorry for the circumstances you now find yourself in. You must understand that we honestly believed we were dealing with an armed and dangerous murderer, and we were acting within our mandate. My department will cover your medical expenses, and any other amounts for the inconvenience this has caused you. I believe you were attending a conference at your hotel. I am very sorry but given the medical circumstances you have, you will have to remain here for a few more days.”

“I guess, then, I should thank you for not killing me.”

Her expression told me that was not the best thing I could have said in the circumstances.

“I mean, I should thank you for the hospital and the care. But a question or two of my own. May I?”

She nodded.

“Did you catch this Jacob Westerbury character?”

“No. In the confusion created by your arrest he escaped. Once we realized we had made a mistake and reviewed the close circuit TV, we tracked him leaving by a rear exit.”

“Are you sure it was one of your men who shot me?”

I watched as her expression changed, to one of surprise.

“You don’t think it was one of my men?”

“Oddly enough no. But don’t ask me why.”

“It is very interesting that you should say that, because in our initial investigation, it appeared none of our officer’s weapons had been discharged. A forensic investigation into the bullet tells us it was one that is used in our weapons, but…”

I could see their dilemma.

“Have you any enemies that would want to shoot you Mr Pargeter?”

That was absurd because I had no enemies, at least none that I knew of, much less anyone who would want me dead.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Then it is strange, and will perhaps remain a mystery. I will let you know if anything more is revealed in our investigation.”

She took an envelope out of her briefcase and opened it, pulling out several sheets of paper.

I knew what it was. A verbal apology was one thing, but a signed waiver would cover them legally. They had sent a pretty girl to charm me. Perhaps using anyone else it would not have worked. There was potential for a huge litigation payout here, and someone more ruthless would jump at the chance of making a few million out of the Italian Government.

“We need a signature on this document,” she said.

“Absolving you of any wrong doing?”

“I have apologized. We will take whatever measures are required for your comfort after this event. We are accepting responsibility for our actions, and are being reasonable.”

They were. I took the pen from her and signed the documents.

“You couldn’t add dinner with you on that list of benefits?” No harm in asking.

“I am unfortunately unavailable.”

I smiled. “It wasn’t a request for a date, just dinner. You can tell me about Rome, as only a resident can. Please.”

She looked me up and down, searching for the ulterior motive. When she couldn’t find one, she said, “We shall see once the hospital discharges you in a few days.”

“Then I’ll pencil you in?”

She looked at me quizzically. “What is this pencil me in?”

“It’s an English colloquialism. It means maybe. As when you write something in pencil, it is easy to erase it.”

A momentary frown, then recognition and a smile. “I shall remember that. Thank-you for your time and co-operation Mr. Pargeter. Good morning.”

© Charles Heath 2015-2021

The cinema of my dreams – Was it just another surveillance job – Episode 20

I’m back home and this story has been sitting on a back burner for a few months, waiting for some more to be written.

The trouble is, there are also other stories to write, and I’m not very good at prioritising.

But, here we are, a few minutes opened up and it didn’t take long to get back into the groove.

A chessboard of players

 

I sighed.  Someone else who wasn’t who they seemed to be.

At a guess, it was a gun in my back.  We were far enough away from anyone else for them to recognise what was happening.

“No need for whatever weapon you have in my back.  I’m neither armed nor dangerous.”

“Why are you following me?”

Should I tell her the truth or tell her a lie.  The latter would be the most expedient, but I needed to talk to her, so I went with the former.

“You know O’Connell.”

“Were you the one who attacked me?”

“I told you I meant you no harm.  What happened to you wasn’t my fault.”

Whatever was in my back was no longer there, so I turned around to face her.  She had changed her look since O’Connell’s flat, not only the change in hair colour and length but also the makeup, making it difficult for anyone to recognise her from a distance.  I’d been lucky.

“What do you want with him?”

“More than likely the same as you.  He made the mistake of thinking you were interested in him, but I suspect your assignment was to get close, and the flat next door was as close as you could get.”

“What are you babbling about?  We were friends.”

“How often did he stay in that flat?  Everything in it still has the price tag on it.”

“You’re loopy.  I’m going now, and I suggest you don’t follow me again.”

“I know where you live remember.  All I want is some answers.”

“There are no answers.  He was a friend, that’s it.  I’m going now.”  She turned and started to walk away.

“If I know who you are, the chances are the others do too.”

She stopped.  Interesting response.  In her shoes, my first reaction, if I was an innocent person, would be to call for a policeman to have me taken away for assaulting her.

She turned and took two steps back towards me.  “What are you talking about now?”

“O’Connell’s flat was like Marks and Spenser this morning.  I came and found another woman claiming to live next door, named Josephine, unconscious on the floor, and I didn’t do it by the way.  She works for a man named Nobbin, McConnell’s direct superior, and whom I think, indirectly I do too, and I suspect she was neutralised by another man named Severin.

“Whatever O’Connell was up to, there are a lot of people who want a missing USB with what I suspect is very interesting, and probably damaging information.  You wouldn’t have it, by the way?”

“Who are you?”

“That’s what I’m not sure about.  Like I said, I think I work for the same man whom O’Connell worked for, but before that, I worked with the people who had him killed for whatever was on the USB.”  It sounded far more horrible out loud than it had a few seconds earlier in my head.  God only knew what she was thinking about it.  “Who do you work for, because a woman who can do the transformation you just did is either a call girl or an agent?”  Another thought just occurred to me, a reason perhaps why she had changed her appearance so radically.  “Your flat was searched too, wasn’t it?”

No need to answer yes or no.  The look on her face was enough.

 

We ordered coffee and sat down.  She was still very wary of me, but since I seemed to know, or presumed to know, what had happened, she was going to ask me some questions I wasn’t going to be able to answer.

And not because the answers were in the top-secret category, it was simply because I didn’t know.

“So,” I asked, “who do you work for?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“But you were either keeping O’Connell close company by insinuating yourself into his life, or you were maintaining some sort of surveillance.”

She was plating it close, and with a poker face.  She was better at it than I was.

“Where is he, by the way?”

“Dead.”

“Dead?”  

No mistaking that look of fear the flickered on her face, then disappear again into rocky granite.

“Dead.  Seems he came across some information, and it caused his death.  I was there shortly before he died, shot by a sniper, I think, and there was nothing I could do about it.  Any idea what that information was?”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about, but either way, if I did or I didn’t the answer would be the same, no.  He told me he was a reporter, working on a really big story, and that he would have to go away for a few days.  I knew that was his cover story.”

“Were you after that same information?”

“Probably, maybe, I don’t know.  Our information was mostly conjecture, a profile built up by our research department, based on his travels, and sightings at a location we know is running a network of agents.  The conclusion was that it was not one of ours, so I was assigned to find out exactly who they were.”

“O’Connell would not have told you.”

“Given the circumstances I find myself in, I’m beginning to think that.  If you worked with him, then he was on the same side as you, so are you good or bad?”

That was a rather interesting question to be asking me at this late stage, and especially after she had told me basically what I needed to know, bar who she worked for, but that, I was beginning to think, was MI6.

“A rather silly question to ask, don’t you think?  It stands to reason that if I was bad, then I would not have left you alive in O’Connell’s flat.”

“Not unless you wanted something from me and set this up as a trap.”

So that was the reason why she kept checking everyone she could see upstairs and monitoring the stairs to see who arrived and left.  We were in the right spot to keep tabs on everyone.  And I knew her gun wasn’t very far from her hand.

“Obviously you don’t have it, so my work is done here.  I suggest you don’t go back to that flat.”  I stood.  “Your location and probably who you are is compromised.  And two men and their attack dogs will be looking for you.  Good luck with that.”

“Aren’t you one of those two men attack dog, by your own admission?”

“I’m new and not cynical enough to shoot people out of hand.  You’re probably lucky in that regard.  And if someone like me can find you, then think what a seasoned professional would be able to do.  Have a nice life, what you have left of it.”

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 76

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.

The sheriff calls

It’s not often a patrol car stopped outside your residence without a reason for doing so.

I just happened to be looking out the windows when it pulled up, and I first thought it was the sheriff here to visit my mother.

It was hard to imagine my mother being the object of men’s attention, particularly one the top lawman in the county, and the other, a top criminal.

Both were charming in their own way, but it was the baggage both brought with them that bothered me.  I tried not to think of the ramifications if she married either one.  At worst, I could not see Alex as a brother, nor Charlene as a sister, not after what we had done at the last school summer camp

The pounding on the door interrupted that thought.  I heard my mother’s muffled voice from upstairs telling me to see who it was, and when I opened the door, it was one of the sheriff’s deputies, Anderson, big brother to a school friend, and the most unlikely to become a lawman.  I guess he turned his life around.

“Sam.”

“Joel.”

“The sheriff would like to see you.”

“He could have rung.”

“He likes the personal touch.”

It must be serious if he sent a deputy.  “When?”

“Now.”

“And if I can’t come now?”

He took a pair of handcuffs out of his belt.  “There’s the hard way and there’s the easy way.”

Serious enough then.  “Why?”

“I learned a long time ago to follow orders, not question them.  I don’t know, and I don’t care.  Did you do anything wrong?”

“No.”

I heard my mother coming down the stairs behind me.  “Who is it?”

“Deputy Joel.”

“What can we do for you?” She asked.

“The sheriff would like a word with your son, ma’am.”

“Why?”

Was that a look of exasperation on his face?

“He didn’t confide in me, ma’am, just asked me to escort him down to the station.”

“This’ll be to do with that Nadia,” she muttered.  “I told you she is trouble.”

I shrugged.  “Let’s go.”  Time to escape a lecture.

I had time to think why the sheriff would want to see me, and remembered that I’d spoken to Charlene, and it had to be that she had as I suggested, spoken to her father and it must have something to do with that.

Anyone outside the sheriff’s office seeing Deputy Joel and I arrive might have got the impression I’d just been arrested, except I was not in handcuffs.  There was no doubt Joel had wanted to use them, all the more reason to be co-operative.

We walked through the foyer towards the rear where the sheriff’s office was, and he sat me down on an uncomfortable bench.  At the other end was a girl in a party dress looking hungover.  The foyer was a hive of activity.

The sheriff put his head out the door.  “Sam, come in.”

It was the first time in his office, not the first time in the station.  My father had a few run-ins with the law, in the early years of the current sheriff’s tenure, as part of the alumni group of my mother, father, the sheriff, and Benderby.  It was the fact he was a friend of and worked with Benderby that he found himself under suspicion so often, and my memories of him were when my mother and I came to bail him out.

It was probably one of the reasons why I couldn’t understand why she let Benderby in the door.

The room was small and it felt crowded surrounded by files and papers.  His desk was a mess, with two half-drunk mugs of coffee sitting to one side.

He looked like a man under great stress.

He picked up the phone and pressed a number, then said, “Can you join us?”

A minute later Charlene came in and closed the door behind her.  She then sat in the chair next to mine, and rather close.

Was it a form of intimidation?

The sheriff leaned back in his chair and it creaked under his weight.  “Charlene tells me you think young Benderby is involved in what happened to the professor.  How did you come to this conclusion?  You should realize that making accusations such as this against a member of an influential family such as the Benderbys could afford you some unwanted attention, and not only from their lawyers.”

I had considered that but had expected the sheriff would be more proactive in his investigation.  It seemed he was taking a more cautious approach.

“You said you overheard Alex at work,”  Charlene added a nail in the coffin. 

“It seems unlikely that Alex would be that stupid, Sam, so it leads me to believe you either have some other means of identifying him as being involved, or it’s just a petty act of revenge, which, knowing you as I do, is unlikely.  Which is it?  The fact you know about this so-called room where mall cops were located, the location of a safe, and where the combination is, is very specific.”

Was this a version of good cop bad cop?  I hadn’t thought it through, thinking Charlene might want to take a win.  It didn’t take in the possibility the sheriff would be overly cautious in taking on a Benderby.

Except that I forgot it was an election year, and there were a few younger and more qualified candidates in the mix.  Age and experience were not going to cut this year.  He was going to need a win and taking down a Benderby would put him firmly in the public eye.

“You can’t tell me that Rico was responsible for the professor’s death.  He wasn’t killed on that boat, despite the way the body was left.  I was there, that crime scene was staged.”  Time to come out fighting.

“So you’re a crime scene expert now?”

“Keen observation, no indication of blood spatter from the look of the wounds, which to me looked like torture.  I did some research, and the professor apparently had a diary that belonged to the pirate that everyone believes hid the so-called treasure somewhere along this coastline.  Did you think to find out why the professor was here, certainly his last movements, and whether or not Alex Benderby contacted him?”

I’m sure they did, not that they would probably tell me.

Charlene glared at me.  Perhaps insulting her ability put an edge to her tone.  “A timeline of the victim’s last movements was done.”

A reproving look from her father, she should not be discussing case details with the public.

She glared back at him.  “Damn it, I will not be insulted.”

The sheriff gave me a rather curious look.  Perhaps I was not so off the mark, so I said, “He’s been here before, you know when those coins were pulled out if the cove.  He came down to identify them.  I think he had the diary then, which was why he came back.”

“How is it you know so much about this professor?”

“Unlike Boggs, I have an interest in historical detail, perhaps Boggs should not have asked for me to help him, but if I’m going to do something I like to be thorough.”

“Yes, it’s been noticed.  A session at the library, and surprisingly, a stash of documents scooped up from Ormiston.  I know you read his diaries.  Then you hit the newspaper office and looked at back issues of the paper.”

She or one of the deputies had been following me around.  I wondered briefly whether they’d been following Boggs around too.

“And we know you went to the mall with Nadia Cossatino.  So, your information was not gleaned from overhearing conversations, you’ve actually been in that room.”

Guilty as charged, but silence might be the better option here until their objective came clear.

“Knowing you as I do, Sam, I doubt it was your idea to go sneaking about that mall.  Your association, for want of a better word, with Nadia is going to lead you down a dark path, and I know your mother is worried about you.  The Cossatinos and Benderbys are sworn enemies, and you do not want to get caught in the crossfire.  She was obviously motivated by causing trouble for the Benderbys.”

Possible, but unlikely, yet what had she hoped to gain by taking me there?  And it was clear my mother was using the sheriff to get me to stay away from Nadia.

“I’m not interested in charging you with trespass, or lecturing you on the dangers of wandering around a place like that, but there may be something to the allegations.  We managed to get a stay on the demolition for that room, and it’s now an active crime scene.  How long have you known about this.”

© Charles Heath 2020-2022

Writing about writing a book – Day 8

I am painfully reminded that I need to have Social Media presence.

Marilyn told me that if I was on ‘Facebook’ I would have been able to follow her ‘adventures’.  If I was on Twitter I could acquire reading followers, and Instagram, to share photos of book covers and my travels.

I drag out the dusty laptop computer, the one that had an email account that goes back to the early days of the internet, and used a VT52 mainframe interface, or at least that was what I think it was called, and fire it up.  The operating system is out of date, error messages on top of error messages.  Thankfully the desktop works, but it too, is out of date, running Windows 97.

Even my mobile phone is more powerful and sophisticated than both my boat anchors.

Time to get into the ‘real’ world!

My writing is now on hold.  Shopping for a new computer, and updating operating system software, is a priority.

 

I am pleasantly surprised at just how inexpensive reasonable good laptop computers cost.  I looked at tablets from Apple, Samsung, and the Surface.  All very nice, but a computer, as big and cumbersome as it is, is still the cheapest option.

My afternoon is taken up with installing windows 10, setting up a Gmail email account, investigating, and signing up for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.  I also take out a cheap subscription to Microsoft Office.  I need Word for manuscripts, and Excel to budget, Powerpoint to dazzle.

I take to reading the information about ‘creating an author presence on the internet’ and see that perhaps I need to have a ‘blog’, whatever that is, and a website.

There’s free and there’s not so free.

Damn.  A day wasted in computer and social media land.  They even had something called the ‘cloud’.  I think I have been out of the computer world too long, having transferred into middle management just as the next phase of the computer technology started making an impact.

Tomorrow I tackle blogging.

 

I can’t sleep, not without writing something for the day.  My thoughts have been swirling around Bill and Jennifer, and it’s time to bring them together, and by, guess what, a calamity!

 

I start scribbling:

 

Hospitals were places I rarely visited.  Like others who shared my fear, it would take a rather compelling reason to get me there.  On this occasion, it had been a compelling reason.  If I hadn’t got to the hospital when I did, I would now be dead.

When I woke, it was to disorientation and confusion.  I didn’t remember much of anything that had happened after having lunch with Jennifer, and running into Aitchison.

When I finally came from the depths of unconsciousness and returned to whatever version of reality that was running at the time, I found myself in a position where any movement, including breathing, was painful.

It was dark, the shapes were blurry, and some moved.  As objects slowly came into focus, activity increased, and more people arrived.  My major concern at that time was the sensation of immobility, and of how difficult it was to breathe, or, more to the point, how painful.  Muffled voices spoke in a strange language.  After a short time, consciousness slipped away, as, mercifully, did the pain.

It was another week, though it seemed like a month before I realized where I was.  It had taken a while, but it was definitely a hospital.  One of the shadowy figures also became recognizable.

Jennifer.

She, too, had a number of bandages, and the black and blue look of a person who’d just survived a hit and run.

Then I remembered.

Aitchison.

Outside the restaurant.

When my eyes finally came into focus I looked at her and saw her smile.  Another realization, though it became clearer sometime later, was that my hand was in hers, and as she squeezed it gently, I felt it give me strength.

“Welcome back.”  She was quite close, close enough for her perfume to overpower the clinical disinfectant.

“Where did I go?”  My voice was barely above a whisper, my throat dry.

“We’re not sure.  You died once.  Now you only have eight lives left.”

It was odd that I’d heard it before, somewhere in the distant past, so I believed I had fewer lives to spare.  I looked at her.  “Aitchison?”

“He didn’t make it.”

“You?”

“I got caught in the crossfire.  So did you.  The police said Aitchison was the target.  We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I’d heard that before, too.  I think that was Richardson’s problem, and he’d suffered the same fate, but his end result was terminal.

The conversation had exhausted me, and the pain returned.  It was still difficult to breathe, and I dared not look where most of the tubes were going.  Tears ran down my cheeks as the pain became unbearable.  I heard her call a nurse, and not long after the pain receded.  So did my consciousness.

 

Enough, it’s time for sleep.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2020

An excerpt from “One Last Look”: Charlotte is no ordinary girl

This is currently available at Amazon herehttp://amzn.to/2CqUBcz

 

I’d read about out of body experiences, and like everyone else, thought it was nonsense.  Some people claimed to see themselves in the operating theatre, medical staff frantically trying to revive them, and being surrounded by white light.

I was definitely looking down, but it wasn’t me I was looking at.

It was two children, a boy and a girl, with their parents, in a park.

The boy was Alan.  He was about six or seven.  The girl was Louise, and she was five years old.  She had long red hair and looked the image of her mother.

I remember it now, it was Louise’s birthday and we went down to Bournemouth to visit our Grandmother, and it was the last time we were all together as a family.

We were flying homemade kites our father had made for us, and after we lay there looking up at the sky, making animals out of the clouds.  I saw an elephant, Louise saw a giraffe.

We were so happy then.

Before the tragedy.

 

When I looked again ten years had passed and we were living in hell.  Louise and I had become very adept at survival in a world we really didn’t understand, surrounded by people who wanted to crush our souls.

It was not a life a normal child had, our foster parents never quite the sort of people who were adequately equipped for two broken-hearted children.  They tried their best, but their best was not good enough.

Every day it was a battle, to avoid the Bannister’s and Archie in particular, every day he made advances towards Louise and every day she fended him off.

Until one day she couldn’t.

Now I was sitting in the hospital, holding Louise’s hand.  She was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t think she would wake from it.  The damage done to her was too severe.

The doctors were wrong.

She woke, briefly, to name her five assailants.  It was enough to have them arrested.  It was not enough to have them convicted.

Justice would have to be served by other means.

 

I was outside the Bannister’s home.

I’d made my way there without really thinking, after watching Louise die.  It was like being on autopilot, and I had no control over what I was doing.  I had murder in mind.  It was why I was holding an iron bar.

Skulking in the shadows.  It was not very different from the way the Bannister’s operated.

I waited till Archie came out.  I knew he eventually would.  The police had taken him to the station for questioning, and then let him go.  I didn’t understand why, nor did I care.

I followed him up the towpath, waiting till he stopped to light a cigarette, then came out of the shadows.

“Wotcha got there Alan?” he asked when he saw me.  He knew what it was, and what it was for.

It was the first time I’d seen the fear in his eyes.  He was alone.

“Justice.”

“For that slut of a sister of yours.  I had nuffing to do with it.”

“She said otherwise, Archie.”

“She never said nuffing, you just made it up.”  An attempt at bluster, but there was no confidence in his voice.

I held up the pipe.  It had blood on it.  Willy’s blood.  “She may or may not have Archie, but Willy didn’t make it up.  He sang like a bird.  That’s his blood, probably brains on the pipe too, Archie, and yours will be there soon enough.”

“He dunnit, not me.  Lyin’ bastard would say anything to save his own skin.”  Definitely scared now, he was looking to run away.

“No, Archie.  He didn’t.  I’m coming for you.  All of you Bannisters.  And everyone who touched my sister.”

 

It was the recurring nightmare I had for years afterwards.

I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the thoughts, the images of Louise, the phone call, the visit to the hospital and being there when she succumbed to her injuries.  Those were the very worst few hours of my life.

She had asked me to come to the railway station and walk home with her, and I was running late.  If I had left when I was supposed to, it would never have happened and for years afterwards, I blamed myself for her death.

If only I’d not been late…

When the police finally caught the rapists, I’d known all along who they’d be; antagonists from school, the ring leader, Archie Bannister, a spurned boyfriend, a boy whose parents, ubiquitously known to all as ‘the Bannister’s, dealt in violence and crime and who owned the neighbourhood.  The sins of the father had been very definitely passed onto the son.

At school, I used to be the whipping boy, Archie, a few grades ahead of me, made a point of belting me and a few of the other boys, to make sure the rest did as they were told.  He liked Louise, but she had no time for a bully like him, even when he promised he would ‘protect’ me.

I knew the gang members, the boys who tow-kowed to save getting beaten up, and after the police couldn’t get enough information to prosecute them because everyone was too afraid to speak out, I went after Willy.  There was always a weak link in a group, and he was it.

He worked in a factory, did long hours on a Wednesday and came home after dark alone.  It was a half mile walk, through a park.  The night I approached him, I smashed the lights and left it in darkness.  He nearly changed his mind and went the long way home.

He didn’t.

It took an hour and a half to get the names.  At first, when he saw me, he laughed.  He said I would be next, and that was four words more than he knew he should have said.

When I found him alone the next morning I showed him the iron bar and told him he was on the list.  I didn’t kill him then, he could wait his turn, and worry about what was going to happen to him.

When the police came to visit me shortly after that encounter, no doubt at the behest of the Bannister’s, the neighbourhood closed ranks and gave me an ironclad alibi.  The Bannister’s then came to visit me and threatened me.  I told them their days were numbered and showed them the door.

At the trial, he and his friends got off on a technicality.  The police had failed to do their job properly, but it was not the police, but a single policeman, corrupted by the Bannisters.

Archie could help but rub it in my face.  He was invincible.

Joe Collins took 12 bullets and six hours to bleed out.  He apologized, he pleaded, he cried, he begged.  I didn’t care.

Barry Mills, a strong lad with a mind to hurting people, Archie’s enforcer, almost got the better of me.  I had to hit him more times than I wanted to, and in the end, I had to be satisfied that he died a short but agonizing death.

I revisited Willy in the hospital.  He’d recovered enough to recognize me, and why I’d come.  Suffocation was too good for him.

David Williams, second in command of the gang, was as tough and nasty as the Bannisters.  His family were forging a partnership with the Bannister’s to make them even more powerful.  Outwardly David was a pleasant sort of chap, affable, polite, and well mannered.  A lot of people didn’t believe he could be like, or working with, the Bannisters.

He and I met in the pub.  We got along like old friends.  He said Willy had just named anyone he could think of, and that he was innocent of any charges.  We shook hands and parted as friends.

Three hours later he was sitting in a chair in the middle of a disused factory, blindfolded and scared.  I sat and watched him, listened to him, first threatening me, and then finally pleading with me.  He’d guessed who it was that had kidnapped him.

When it was dark, I took the blindfold off and shone a very bright light in his eyes.  I asked him if the violence he had visited upon my sister was worth it.  He told me he was just a spectator.

I’d read the coroner’s report.  They all had a turn.  He was a liar.

He took nineteen bullets to die.

Then came Archie.

The same factory only this time there were four seats.  Anna Bannister, brothel owner, Spike Bannister, head of the family, Emily Bannister, sister, and who had nothing to do with their criminal activities.  She just had the misfortune of sharing their name.

Archie’s father told me how he was going to destroy me, and everyone I knew.

A well-placed bullet between the eyes shut him up.

Archie’s mother cursed me.  I let her suffer for an hour before I put her out of her misery.

Archie remained stony-faced until I came to Emily.  The death of his parents meant he would become head of the family.  I guess their deaths meant as little to him as they did me.

He was a little more worried about his sister.

I told him it was confession time.

He told her it was little more than a forced confession and he had done nothing to deserve my retribution.

I shrugged and shot her, and we both watched her fall to the ground screaming in agony.  I told him if he wanted her to live, he had to genuinely confess to his crimes.  This time he did, it all poured out of him.

I went over to Emily.  He watched in horror as I untied her bindings and pulled her up off the floor, suffering only from a small wound in her arm.  Without saying a word she took the gun and walked over to stand behind him.

“Louise was my friend, Archie.  My friend.”

Then she shot him.  Six times.

To me, after saying what looked like a prayer, she said, “Killing them all will not bring her back, Alan, and I doubt she would approve of any of this.  May God have mercy on your soul.”

 

Now I was in jail.  I’d spent three hours detailing the deaths of the five boys, everything I’d done; a full confession.  Without my sister, my life was nothing.  I didn’t want to go back to the foster parents; I doubt they’d take back a murderer.

They were not allowed to.

For a month I lived in a small cell, in solitary, no visitors.  I believed I was in the queue to be executed, and I had mentally prepared myself for the end.

Then I was told I had a visitor, and I was expecting a priest.

Instead, it was a man called McTavish. Short, wiry, and with an accent that I could barely understand.

“You’ve been a bad boy, Alan.”

When I saw it was not the priest I told the jailers not to let him in, I didn’t want to speak to anyone.  They ignored me.  I’d expected he was a psychiatrist, come to see whether I should be shipped off to the asylum.

I was beginning to think I was going mad.

I ignored him.

“I am the difference between you living or dying Alan, it’s as simple as that.  You’d be a wise man to listen to what I have to offer.”

Death sounded good.  I told him to go away.

He didn’t.  Persistent bugger.

I was handcuffed to the table.  The prison officers thought I was dangerous.  Five, plus two, murders, I guess they had a right to think that.  McTavish sat opposite me, ignoring my request to leave.

“Why’d you do it?”

“You know why.”  Maybe if I spoke he’d go away.

“Your sister.  By all accounts, the scum that did for her deserved what they got.”

“It was murder just the same.  No difference between scum and proper people.”

“You like killing?”

“No-one does.”

“No, I dare say you’re right.  But you’re different, Alan.  As clean and merciless killing I’ve ever seen.  We can use a man like you.”

“We?”

“A group of individuals who clean up the scum.”

I looked up to see his expression, one of benevolence, totally out of character for a man like him.  It looked like I didn’t have a choice.

 

Trained, cleared, and ready to go.

I hadn’t realized there were so many people who were, for all intents and purposes, invisible.  People that came and went, in malls, in hotels, trains, buses, airports, everywhere, people no one gave a second glance.

People like me.

In a mall, I became a shopper.

In a hotel, I was just another guest heading to his room.

On a bus or a train, I was just another commuter.

At the airport, I became a pilot.  I didn’t need to know how to fly; everyone just accepted a pilot in a pilot suit was just what he looked like.

I had a passkey.

I had the correct documents to get me onto the plane.

That walk down the air bridge was the longest of my life.  Waiting for the call from the gate, waiting for one of the air bridge staff to challenge me, stepping onto the plane.

Two pilots and a steward.  A team.  On the plane early before the rest of the crew.  A group that was committing a crime, had committed a number of crimes and thought they’d got away with it.

Until the judge, the jury and their executioner arrived.

Me.

Quick, clean, merciless.  Done.

I was now an operational field agent.

 

I was older now, and I could see in the mirror I was starting to go grey at the sides.  It was far too early in my life for this, but I expect it had something to do with my employment.

I didn’t recognize the man who looked back at me.

It was certainly not Alan McKenzie, nor was there any part of that fifteen-year-old who had made the decision to exact revenge.

Given a choice; I would not have gone down this path.

Or so I kept telling myself each time a little more of my soul was sold to the devil.

I was Barry Gamble.

I was Lenny Buckman.

I was Jimmy Hosen.

I was anyone but the person I wanted to be.

That’s what I told Louise, standing in front of her grave, and trying to apologize for all the harm, all the people I’d killed for that one rash decision.  If she was still alive she would be horrified, and ashamed.

Head bowed, tears streamed down my face.

God had gone on holiday and wasn’t there to hand out any forgiveness.  Not that day.  Not any day.

 

New York, New Years Eve.

I was at the end of a long tour, dragged out of a holiday and back into the fray, chasing down another scumbag.  They were scumbags, and I’d become an automaton hunting them down and dispatching them to what McTavish called a better place.

This time I failed.

A few drinks to blot out the failure, a blonde woman who pushed my buttons, a room in a hotel, any hotel, it was like being on the merry-go-round, round and round and round…

Her name was Silvia or Sandra, or someone I’d met before, but couldn’t quite place her.  It could be an enemy agent for all I knew or all I cared right then.

I was done.

I’d had enough.

I gave her the gun.

I begged her to kill me.

She didn’t.

Instead, I simply cried, letting the pent up emotion loose after being suppressed for so long, and she stayed with me, holding me close, and saying I was safe, that she knew exactly how I felt.

How could she?  No one could know what I’d been through.

I remembered her name after she had gone.

Amanda.

I remembered she had an imperfection in her right eye.

Someone else had the same imperfection.

I couldn’t remember who that was.

Not then.

 

I had a dingy flat in Kensington, a place that I rarely stayed in if I could help it.  After five-star hotel rooms, it made me feel shabby.

The end of another mission, I was on my way home, the underground, a bus, and then a walk.

It was late.

People were spilling out of the pub after the last drinks.  Most in good spirits, others slightly more boisterous.

A loud-mouthed chap bumped into me, the sort who had one too many, and was ready to take on all comers.

He turned on me, “Watch where you’re going, you fool.”

Two of his friends dragged him away.  He shrugged them off, squared up.

I punched him hard, in the stomach, and he fell backwards onto the ground.  I looked at his two friends.  “Take him home before someone makes mincemeat out of him.”

They grabbed his arms, lifted him off the ground and took him away.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a woman, early thirties, quite attractive, but very, very drunk.  She staggered from the bar, bumped into me, and finished up sitting on the side of the road.

I looked around to see where her friends were.  The exodus from the pub was over and the few nearby were leaving to go home.

She was alone, drunk, and by the look of her, unable to move.

I sat beside her.  “Where are your friends?”

“Dunno.”

“You need help?”

She looked up, and sideways at me.  She didn’t look the sort who would get in this state.  Or maybe she was, I was a terrible judge of women.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Nobody.”  I was exactly how I felt.

“Well Mr Nobody, I’m drunk, and I don’t care.  Just leave me here to rot.”

She put her head back between her knees, and it looked to me she was trying to stop the spinning sensation in her head.

Been there before, and it’s not a good feeling.

“Where are your friends?” I asked again.

“Got none.”

“Perhaps I should take you home.”

“I have no home.”

“You don’t look like a homeless person.  If I’m not mistaken, those shoes are worth more than my weekly salary.”  I’d seen them advertised, in the airline magazine, don’t ask me why the ad caught my attention.

She lifted her head and looked at me again.  “You a smart fucking arse are you?”

“I have my moments.”

“Have them somewhere else.”

She rested her head against my shoulder.  We were the only two left in the street, and suddenly in darkness when the proprietor turned off the outside lights.

“Take me home,” she said suddenly.

“Where is your place?”

“Don’t have one.  Take me to your place.”

“You won’t like it.”

“I’m drunk.  What’s not to like until tomorrow.”

I helped her to her feet.  “You have a name?”

“Charlotte.”

 

The wedding was in a small church.  We had been away for a weekend in the country, somewhere in the Cotswolds, and found this idyllic spot.  Graves going back to the dawn of time, a beautiful garden tended by the vicar and his wife, an astonishing vista over hills and down dales.

On a spring afternoon with the sun, the flowers, and the peacefulness of the country.

I had two people at the wedding, the best man, Bradley, and my boss, Watkins.

Charlotte had her sisters Melissa and Isobel, and Isobel’s husband Giovanni, and their daughter Felicity.

And one more person who was as mysterious as she was attractive, a rather interesting combination as she was well over retirement age.  She arrived late and left early.

Aunt Agatha.

She looked me up and down with what I’d call a withering look.  “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” she said enigmatically.

“Likewise I’m sure,” I said.  It earned me an elbow in the ribs from Charlotte.  It was clear she feared this woman.

“Why did you come,” Charlotte asked.

“You know why.”

Agatha looked at me.  “I like you.  Take care of my granddaughter.  You do not want me for an enemy.”

OK, now she officially scared me.

She thrust a cheque into my hand, smiled, and left.

“Who is she,” I asked after we watched her depart.

“Certainly not my fairy godmother.”

Charlotte never mentioned her again.

 

Zurich in summer, not exactly my favourite place.

Instead of going to visit her sister Isobel, we stayed at a hotel in Beethovenstrasse and Isobel and Felicity came to us.  Her husband was not with her this time.

Felicity was three or four and looked very much like her mother.  She also looked very much like Charlotte, and I’d remarked on it once before and it received a sharp rebuke.

We’d been twice before, and rather than talk to her sister, Charlotte spent her time with Felicity, and they were, together, like old friends.  For so few visits they had a remarkable rapport.

I had not broached the subject of children with Charlotte, not after one such discussion where she had said she had no desire to be a mother.  It had not been a subject before and wasn’t once since.

Perhaps like all Aunts, she liked the idea of playing with a child for a while and then give it back.

Felicity was curious as to who I was, but never ventured too close.  I believed a child could sense the evil in adults and had seen through my facade of friendliness.  We were never close.

But…

This time, when observing the two together, something quite out of left field popped into my head.  It was not possible, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought she looked like my mother.

And Charlotte had seen me looking in their direction.  “You seem distracted,” she said.

“I was just remembering my mother.  Odd moment, haven’t done so for a very long time.”

“Why now?”  I think she had a look of concern on her face.

“Her birthday, I guess,” I said, the first excuse I could think of.

Another look and I was wrong.  She looked like Isobel or Charlotte, or if I wanted to believe it possible, Melissa too.

 

I was crying, tears streaming down my face.

I was in pain, searing pain from my lower back stretching down into my legs, and I was barely able to breathe.

It was like coming up for air.

It was like Snow White bringing Prince Charming back to life.  I could feel what I thought was a gentle kiss and tears dropping on my cheeks, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Charlotte slowly lifting her head, a hand gently stroking the hair off my forehead.

And in a very soft voice, she said, “Hi.”

I could not speak, but I think I smiled.  It was the girl with the imperfection in her right eye.  Everything fell into place, and I knew, in that instant that we were irrevocably meant to be together.

“Welcome back.”

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

onelastlookcoverfinal2

It all started in Venice – Episode

Cecilia changes the subject

Being an up-and-coming movie start was not all beer and skittles, as the saying goes.

Juliet gave her a look that I thought was her death stare, annoyed by her arrival at what might have been a critical point in the conversation.

Cecilia saw her and shook her head.  “Oops, I’m intruding.  Sorry.”  She stood

“You’re not,” I said, which earned me a harsh look too, “We’re just having coffee, but you might want something stronger.”

“No, I’d better go.”  She was looking directly at Juliet, putting the onus directly on her.

“Stay.  We’re just having coffee.”

Cecilia waved to a waitress and sat down again.  “Great, I wasn’t looking forward to going back to an empty room.”

For effect, she touched me on my arm, her seat being closer, and I could see what she was doing. 

We opted for more coffee, Cecilia ordered a bottle of champagne, and three glasses, an attempt to smooth the rocky waters.

Juliet was definitely annoyed.  Another death stare in Cecilia’s direction, then, “would I have seen anything you’ve starred in?”

“Me?  I’m not a star, not a big name, just bit parts in series like Midsommer Murders, and Silent Witness.  I get to play dead bodies and murder victims.  My last role was a little better, I got a half dozen lines.  But I’m just one of the hundreds of hopefuls out there.”

“Do you have a day job, then, if parts are so few and far apart?”

Interesting question, Juliet was thinking on her feet.

If she was trying to catch Cecilia out, but she was ahead of Juliet.  “I do.  I’d like to say that it’s being a high-class escort, but they make more money than I’d know what to do with, so I toil away as a supermarket checkout girl.  Gives me the most flexibility regarding time off, and I get to meet so many different people, who become part of my repertoire of characters.  What do you do?”

“Pathology.”

“A doctor.”

“A disgraced doctor that can’t practice medicine.  Perhaps that might be material enough for another of your characters.”

Cecilia had one glass of champagne the moment it came, and then refilled for a second.  She offered it to us, and I nodded, taking half a glass.  Juliet declined.

“Played a hospital patient, a bomb victim, swathed in bloody bandages, been a doctor in the background once, got to spill coffee over another doctor.”

“What is the best part you’ve had?”

 “A fallen nun.”

The best said about that the better, but not before my mind went to places it shouldn’t.  I changed the subject.  “What will you be doing after the festival is over?”

“Going home.  I have an audition for a part in a film about mercenaries, they want me to be a mercenary would you believe?”

Apparently Juliet didn’t think so.

“But I have a spare few days if you want to show me more of Italy.  I’d like to see a little of Tuscany, try some wine.”

Another touch and a smile.

“I thought you were going to Sorrento.”  Not unexpected from Juliet.

“It can wait.  I’ve been thinking of going home, and can take Cecilia to Tuscany, send her on her way, and go visit Larry’s mother at Sorrento “

“And if I take up your tour offer to come with you?”

Cecilia gave me a Juliet look.

“Then I’ll send you a text saying where and when I’ll meet you.”

Change bottle empty, Cecilia gave me one last look, one that would no doubt get a reaction from Juliet, and sauntered away.

Juliet watched her leave, and after she disappeared out of sight, said, “it seems to me she’s more than just a friend.”

“That’s just her, no doubt playing a role.  She asked me if you were a girlfriend, and I said, once maybe, but not now.  Seems she didn’t quite believe me.”

“I think we both know where that ship is headed.”

The rocks, perhaps.  “It’s too soon after Violetta to contemplate anything like that.  But, that doesn’t mean I can’t be friends for now, and see what the future brings.”

“Not much if what you say about this Larry character is true.”

“That said, you might also want to be careful.  Larry’s not averse to using or killing close contacts of only to send a message.  So, if feel unsafe, or he makes an overture, tell me and I’ll pass it on to my minders.”

“If he does, I’ll definitely let you know.”

“Good.  It’s getting later.  We should get back to the hotel.”

© Charles Heath 2022

The cinema of my dreams – Was it just another surveillance job – Episode 19

I’m back home and this story has been sitting on a back burner for a few months, waiting for some more to be written.

The trouble is, there are also other stories to write, and I’m not very good at prioritising.

But, here we are, a few minutes opened up and it didn’t take long to get back into the groove.

Nothing good ever comes of snooping

 

I jumped down from the first level of the fire escape, halfway down an alley which was empty.  Keeping close to the wall so I couldn’t be seen, I headed back towards the main street, and then to a café not far from the front of the building.

Would Fred call in the police?  Surely at the very least, he would have to call an ambulance, finding an unconscious woman on the floor of a trashed flat.  He would also have to report the break-in, so I waited.

And waited.

No ambulance came.  If she had been unconscious and he’d reported it, there would be an almost instant response.  Unconscious bodies were given high priority.

After an hour passed, and no sign of a police car, or any police on foot, I thought there might be a crime wave going on, and it was taking time for the police to get there.

The fact no ambulance had turned up told me she must have regained consciousness, obviating the need for medical help.

Two hours, still nothing.

Three hours, I was left with the assumption, Jan didn’t want Fred to call the police.  It would be interesting to know what those reasons were.

My plan was to wait until she came out and follow her.  Beyond that, I would be making it up as I went.  After three hours, I had to switch cafes because of the looks the girl who made the coffee was giving me.

Apparently, people didn’t spend three hours drinking four cups of coffee unless they were working on their computer or reading a book, or paper, none of which I had.

It forced a move to another café further away and with an indistinct view of the front door, so I had to be extra vigilant.

As dusk was falling, a man nearer the doorway accidentally dropped his cup, and, when I looked up to see what the commotion was about, I saw what looked like Jan leaving, and, lucky for me, heading my way on the opposite side of the street.

Time to go back into surveillance mode.

She had changed into different clothes, and something else, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was that made her look different.  It almost made me think I’d got it wrong, and it was someone else.

Then, when she walked past me, not 20 feet away, I knew it was her.

What was different, she had suddenly become a brunette with long hair than the original shoulder-length blonde hair.  A change in persona.  Not the sort of thing a normal person did.  Unless, of course, she had a night job, one which she didn’t want anyone to recognise her.

I followed from the other side of the street.

Around a corner, past an underground station entrance, which was a huge bonus because she wasn’t going anywhere by train, not that it would matter to me.  It would if she caught a taxi.

Once or twice she looked behind her, on the same side of the street.  She looked over the other side too, in a careless sort of manner, but I was well hidden in plain sight because she wouldn’t recognise me as her assailant.

Around the corner, down another street, then stopped at a bus stop.  Still not a problem because there was no bus in sight.  On the way, I’d bought a copy of the evening paper and strolled up to the stop and sat down.  She gave me a once over and then ignored me.

The bus came and we got on.  She went upstairs I stayed downstairs, easier to get off at the same stop without raising her suspicions.

It was heading into the city, via Putney.  I had time to read the news, nothing of which was interesting, and keep one eye out for her.  She got off the bus without glancing in my direction at Putney and walked to the railway station.

After she headed for the platform, I checked where she might be going, and the service ended at Waterloo station if she went that far.  I waited a few minutes, then went down to the platform just as a train arrived.

She got on about halfway along, and I remained at the end.  I resisted the urge to move closer to her carriage where I could maintain visual contact, but since there was only one in this surveillance team, I had to be careful she didn’t see me.

The train terminated at Waterloo, and everyone had to get off.  For a few minutes, I thought I’d lost her among the other passengers.  Then I just managed to catch a glimpse of her going through the platform exit gate out into the station.

By the time I had got there, she was gone.

When you lost sight of the target, don’t panic.  And don’t act like someone who just lost a target because that will bring attention to yourself.  Take a long careful look in every direction, then move in the last direction you saw the target heading.

I did everything in accordance with my training.

The problem with Waterloo station?  There are several exits, and an entrance to the underground in the direction she had been heading.

Anyone could lead me in the wrong direction.

I went upstairs to a café, and looked down on the station floor, taking advantage of the height.

Until I felt something prodding me in the back, and a voice behind me saying, “Who are you, and why are you following me?”

Jan.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 75

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.

Charlene after talking to Boggs

Charlene was standing in the elevator lobby, with the look of a person who was waiting.

Perhaps she was expecting Boggs to make a run for it, but that was hardly likely since there was a deputy outside the door to his room, a new addition after Charlene had been asked to leave.

“Have you got a few minutes?”  It was a question where the only answer was yes, or else.

I was not going to push the ‘or else’ button.

“Of course.”

She led the way to a room that looked to me like a consulting room for doctors, ushered me through then closed the door.  She sat behind the desk and left me to sit in an uncomfortable patient’s chair.

While she consulted her notebook, I took the time to think back to school days and the motley group that had been in my graduation year, of which Charlene was one.  She too had chosen to stay, despite the lack of post-graduation opportunities, and it was no surprise she ended up in the police, having once had the ambition of becoming an investigative journalist.  It was no surprise then she was now a detective in training.

She left the notebook open on a blank page and gave me her attention.  “So, what have you been doing with yourself since school?”

An odd question to ask, but in her mind, I suspect it was an opening gambit to set the interviewee’s mind at rest, a veritable calm before the storm. 

Odd also because she knew what happened as well as anyone, her father, the Sherriff, Being an occasional visitor at my mother’s house, an obligation he felt after my father passed.

Other than that, we had run into each other from time to time since leaving school but she had never shown any interest on any of those occasions. 

“Relevance?”

“Just curious.”

“I’m sure your father may have mentioned our family circumstances, so if you’re looking for information on Boggs, come out and say so, don’t try to feign interest in my welfare.”

Perhaps that was a little harsh, and certainly not how I wanted it to sound, but she had written an op-ed in the town newspaper reviling her contemporary’s lack of enthusiasm to get a job, and rather become the problem, not the solution to the counties economic woes.

She looked taken aback, not expecting such a response.  Her expression changed, more resolute.  “Boggs is looking at an array of charges.  What was he doing there?  You’re his friend, I’m sure he confides in you.”

“Hoe little you know what bring a friend means, but for the record, we were once, but like he said, my cavorting with Nadia put an end to that.”

“Before that, then.”

“You know as well as I do what the Boggs’s are about, father and son alike.”

“He was looking for fabled treasure.”

“Scaling a rock face?  I hardly think so.  He does rock climbing, caving, and a variety of things I have no interest in.  The Grove shoreline has some of the best rock climbing in the state.  The question you should be asking is how did such an experienced climber finish up half-dead on the beach.”

I wasn’t going to make it easy for her.

“What were you doing on the beach when you discovered him?”

“Cavorting with Nadia.”

It sounded salacious, and I wished on that moment it had been.  It provided the distraction I needed and made me consider her next gambit because I think I knew why we were in that room.

After a moment or two of silence, I added, “No chance of pinning a trespass charge on me then.”

She took a deep breath, a sigh from a person who knew she was not making any headway, or however she thought this conversation was going to go, it had been blown off course.

“Look, I’m not the enemy here.  I’m just trying to do my job and find out what happened.  We have no problem with Boggs’s conducting a treasure hunt, so long as he doesn’t break the law.  Old man Cossatino said Boggs was trespassing, which technically, he was.  Do you know why Boggs would think the treasure is located on The Grove?”

“It’s not.”

Time to diffuse this line of questioning.

“You know this or you’re just guessing?”

“There is no treasure, just the Cossatino’s promoting a myth.  Pirates may have sailed by, but I’m sure this wasn’t the place to leave their booty.  There’s plenty of once uninhabited islands in the Caribbean they could have used.”

“In other words, you really have no idea?”

“I’m a realist, and I’ve told Boggs he should be one too.”

“I hope that will include telling him that trespass is a crime, and if he keeps doing it, we will be forced to arrest and charge him.”

“I’ll tell him anything you want me to.”

“Just that.”

A thought popped into my head, one I probably should have thought of earlier, or perhaps it was because an opportunity presented itself.

The mall, and Alex.

“I have a tip for you, one that might help the case of the dead professor on Rico’s boat.  First of all, Rico didn’t do it.”

“He has form and he’s done something similar before.”

“Kill a professor?”

“Shakedown a mark with violence.  Only this time he went too far.”

I shook my head.  “He didn’t do it.  No, that more in Alex Benderby’s department.”

“Alex.  You must be kidding.  He just acts tough.”

I shrugged.  “Being naive about Alex will get you into trouble.  Alex is anything but harmless, and I can attest to that, school days and beyond. But, here’s some advice you might want to act on before the evidence is destroyed.  There’s a room in the mall on the second level where the mall cops hung out.  Back of the second one along there’s a safe.  At the back of the top desk drawers, there is a post-it note with the combination.  I think that’s where you will find a diary that the professor had before it was taken off him.”

“How do you know about this.”

“I overhead a conversation, remember I work for the Benderby’s and in Alex’s domain, the warehouse.”

“You know what they say about eavesdroppers…”

I shook my head again.  “Did the professor’s autopsy and the analysis of the boat show he was killed there?”

That question was met with a furrowed brow, but there was enough expression change to tell me he wasn’t killed on the boat. 

“You know I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”

“Don’t have to.  You’re going to need to work on your poker face.  I think that Alex lured the professor down here with the pirate’s diary perhaps offering a large sum of money as an incentive to share, and when he wouldn’t play nice, they encouraged him to change his mind.  I suspect they tried too hard, and the old professor had a heart attack.  Alex never was the patient type.”

“It makes a good story.” 

“Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.  I’ll have a go at trying to dissuade Boggs from anything illegal, but you know what the lure of fabulous riches can do.  Is the case of Boggs’s father still open?”

“If you mean, is it a cold case, yes, but there’s very little to go on.  The evening before he disappeared, he proclaimed he’d found the final resting place of the treasure trove, though he didn’t exactly say where.  At the time he was working for Cossatino, making treasure maps for the gullible.  Later, outside the hotel in the car park, he was confronted by one of those gullible people, who demanded his money back, a scuffle then fight broke out.  By the time the fight was broken up by a passing patrol, we believe that Boggs had sustained severe injuries, serious enough that it’s possible he died of them after blacking out or falling to his death.   They dredged the river from the hotel to the sea, but it may have been too late, and he’d been swept of to sea on the tide.  The other guy was charged, held in connection with Boggs’s disappearance, but ultimately released through lack of evidence or a body.  There may never be a resolution, nor Boggs ever being found, a sad state of affairs for the family.”

It was a sad tale, but one with some information I’d not heard before, and I didn’t think Boggs knew, or I’d he did, had failed to tell me.  The fight in the car park, and the fact it could have led to his death.  I guess that didn’t fit well with the treasure hunter myth that Boggs junior had built up about his father.

Being killed by a disgruntled punter was not exactly fit the Boggs ethos.

“Not exactly a fitting end, was it?”

“Defrauding people is not exactly going to make you friends, especially when the maps are fake, and they’re all different, purportedly made by the same pirate.  He knew what he was doing, and ultimately paid for it.”

Cold, but true.

“Then let’s hope Boggs doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.  I hope you consider investigating the mall room because I think you’re going to find something there, even if it doesn’t directly point the finger at Alex.”

“I’ll tell the sheriff, it’s ultimately his decision, not mine.”

“Good.  Now, if you have finished, I have a job to go to.”

© Charles Heath 2020-2022