The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 30

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 instalment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.

 

Was this going to be the very definition of dining with the devil?

Or was my curiosity going to be the death of me?

It was just one of a dozen questions I asked myself on that trip back to Nadia’s room.  One reason I was going there was not in the expectation of a romantic interlude.  No, this was something else.  I kept reminding myself that Nadia was, first and foremost, a Cossatino, and the Cossatino’s were not people you wanted to be friends with.

When we arrived, she asked for a few minutes so she could change, so I stayed out on the balcony.  It was a coolish night, a clear sky, and just a hint of salt in the air.  We were not far from the ocean, and it reminded me of another lifetime, one where I was young enough not to have to worry about all that grown-up stuff.

I heard the door open behind me.

“Thanks for waiting.”

I turned, not sure what I was expecting.  Certainly not a statuesque woman in training gear.  She looked to me ready to go for a training run.

I walked past her into the room, faintly smelling of some perfume, and sat in one of the two chairs in the room.  I watched her close the door, go over to the mini bar, get two bottles of beer out, and hand one to me.

It was an odd thought, being in a hotel room with Nadia, the last thing I’d ever be doing with her, let alone any other woman.  My choices had always been limited, or so I had thought.

“I had this thought,” she said, leaning against the desk on the opposite side of the room, “that we should try and beat Vince at his own game.”

An interesting thought, was Nadia thinking of joining in Boggs’s treasure hunt, take it over, or was this a ruse, and had she been working with Vince all this time, and using us to get to the prize by another route.  Or was it a rivalry with Vince that she wanted to win?  Wasn’t it Boggs’s call who joined the expedition?

“We as in you and me, or we as in Boggs and you, or…”

“You’re overthinking it Smidge.”

“A word of advice, Nadia, if you’re trying to appeal to my good side, you might consider dropping the nickname.  Only the people I hate use it, and I’m sure you don’t want me to add you to the list.”

Not necessarily warranted, and in my younger days I’d never dare to speak to her like that, but I felt I had the upper hand, at least for a short time.

“OK.  Note to self, call Smidge Sam.  Old habits are hard to break.”

In more ways than one, I thought. 

“Well, overthinking it or not, it’s not my call to make.  I’m assuming you want to join in on Boggs’s treasure hunt?”

“That was the idea.”

“You’re assuming that Boggs actually has the real map, or, in fact, there is such a thing.  You have to remember that his father created all those maps, and it wouldn’t be hard to make one look more authentic than another, just to get a better price.  Everything to do with the treasure seems to me like it’s one big hoax.”

“If that was the case, why do you think Vince is so wound up about it?  My point is, Vince is simply all muscle and no brains.  He always has been, so you have to assume that my grandfather has decided there’s something in the rumours.  Granted he may have been working in league with Boogs senior, but don’t you think that in order to create forgeries, there had to be some sort of map to work from.”

An interesting premise.

“If it led to treasure on an island in the Wast Indies, I’d be more likely to believe in it, but here, a million miles from any of the pirate trading routes, and having a deep abiding disbelieve in hidden treasure still not recovered in this day and age, what do you think?”

“Does Boggs’s know about your scepticism?”

“I’ve told him enough times, but he has this bee in his bonnet, and I’m his best friend, probably his only friend.  I humour him.  And I doubt seriously if he’ll ever go through with it, because he’s never finished anything in his life.  He gave me a copy of the map, but I suspect that was a copy of the one he gave Vince in the end.

“So, you think it’s not a worthwhile exercise?”

“What I think doesn’t matter.  But I’ve got a question for you.  Why have you come back here?”

“What if I told you it’s possible that the treasure is real.”

“I’d say you’ve been indulging in the drugs your family pedals.”

“What if I said I had proof?”

OK, where is this going?  Did that mean she had proof, or that the Cossatino’s had proof, and was she about to open a can of worms?

“I’m listening.”

“That man that you found dead on Rico’s boat.  His name was Jacob Stravinsky.  He was an authority on pirates and their lost treasure, and had over the years, uncovered evidence that pirates had come here supposedly fleeing from the authorities, and that at least two of them could have hidden some of their treasure somewhere along this coastline.  News of the discovery of several gold coins off the coast, not ten miles from here somehow caught Ales Benderby’s ear and he went to visit him.

“No one is sure what happened at that meeting, but I know Alex was there because that’s where I ran into him.  And, the fool that he is, got drunk and told me, no bragged about how he was going to find the treasure and prove his worth to his father.”

“Then how did this Stravinsky end up dead on Rico’s boat.”

“Because Alex got what he wanted and made sure no one else found out.”

 

© Charles Heath 2019

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

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“The Devil You Don’t”, she was the girl you would not take home to your mother!

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John Pennington’s life is in the doldrums. Looking for new opportunities, prevaricating about getting married, the only joy on the horizon was an upcoming visit to his grandmother in Sorrento, Italy.

Suddenly he is left at the check-in counter with a message on his phone telling him the marriage is off, and the relationship is over.

If only he hadn’t promised a friend he would do a favor for him in Rome.

At the first stop, Geneva, he has a chance encounter with Zoe, an intriguing woman who captures his imagination from the moment she boards the Savoire, and his life ventures into uncharted territory in more ways than one.

That ‘favor’ for his friend suddenly becomes a life-changing event, and when Zoe, the woman who he knows is too good to be true, reappears, danger and death follow.

Shot at, lied to, seduced, and drawn into a world where nothing is what it seems, John is dragged into an adrenaline-charged undertaking, where he may have been wiser to stay with the ‘devil you know’ rather than opt for the ‘devil you don’t’.

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“What Sets Us Apart”, a mystery with a twist

David is a man troubled by a past he is trying to forget.

Susan is rebelling against a life of privilege and an exasperated mother who holds a secret that will determine her daughter’s destiny.

They are two people brought together by chance. Or was it?

When Susan discovers her mother’s secret, she goes in search of the truth that has been hidden from her since the day she was born.

When David realizes her absence is more than the usual cooling off after another heated argument, he finds himself being slowly drawn back into his former world of deceit and lies.

Then, back with his former employers, David quickly discovers nothing is what it seems as he embarks on a dangerous mission to find Susan before he loses her forever.

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It all started in Venice – Episode 3

Making sure I recognized the target

It was mid-afternoon and a half hour before her plane touched down when I arrived at the airport by water taxi.  It was not a trip I made often, but that final run from the city across the open water was at times invigorating, sometimes quite pleasant.

Today the water had a chop, and the ride was less smooth than usual.  The driver also seemed to be in a hurry, just about leaving the dock before I’d got off the boat.  It was one of the more interesting ways of arriving at an airport.

It was a leisurely walk to the terminal building, and just as I passed the first of the arrival boards, I saw her plane had landed, about ten minutes early. 

I headed to the gate where as I arrived the first of the passengers were coming through the door.  She was not at the front of the plane, and it is a full flight, it might be a while before she appeared.

I checked to see if there was anyone who seemed out of place, expecting that Larry would not be that trusting to allow her any freedom, but there were no suspicious others, except if you counted me in that category, lurking within eyesight, but masked from the exiting passenger’s view.

It was several minutes before she appeared, casually dressed as a tourist might, in a bright coloured floral dress with a denim jacket, and travelling with a cabin bag she wheeled in front of her.

She looked different again than the photograph, not as gaunt in the face, as if she had recovered from a serious illness.  I could not see the expression on her face, but one thing was clear, she was not happy.

Then I saw why.

A man came up to her just as she left the lounge area, appearing suddenly which meant he had been hidden from me, and she looked surprised, then angry, angry enough that airport security started walking towards them.

The man, seeing the police approaching said something to her, then quickly walked away.  I took a photograph and looking at it realised it wouldn’t be difficult to remember him if I needed to.

Alfie would no doubt tell me who he was in due course.  In the meantime, Juliet had waited for the police and then spoke to them briefly before heading towards the water taxi terminal.

I was closer to that exit and got there before her, checking to see if the man who had accosted her was waiting outside, as he had left in that direction, and had passed quite close to me.  Most noticeable about him, the tattoo of a snake wrapped around his neck.

It gave him that fearsome look that he no doubt used in his profession.

I couldn’t see him, so I headed towards the terminal, this time with the intention of getting the public water bus otherwise known as a VaporettoShe followed more casually, taking in the sights as if it was her first time in Venice.

It also gave rise to the thought again of how she was going to ‘run into me’ in a city full of alleyways and hidden passageways, making it easy for even the most experienced traveller to get lost at least once during their visit.  The only possibility was in St marks square or the promenade along the Canal that led off the square from the Doges Palace.

Then I saw him, waiting by a water taxi, or perhaps a private motorboatShe saw him too and headed straight for the Vaporetto, boarding just before it departed, giving him no chance to catch her.  It was an amusing charade, and an act of defiance she would probably pay for later.

It provided an opportunity to follow him, and when he left, I asked the driver of my water taxi to follow him, coming up with a suitable excuse why I would want to do so, but not sure the driver believed me.  One thing was certain, with a captive passenger, he could charge a premium fare knowing I’d have to pay it.

Keeping a suitable distance between us, he followed the boat to Murano, the island of glass-blowing factories.  He waited until the driver of the boat left the dock and then took his place for me to disembark, and then I gave him a head start before following discreetly, or as discretely as I could in the circumstances.  There were not many visitors about, so I could hardly lose myself in the crowd.

We passed several glass showrooms on the way alongside the Canal until he reached a bridge and crossed it.  On the other side, I could see a basilica, yet another of the many churches in the city, each as old and ornate as the next, and one of the many I’d visited over time and many visits to the city.

But this was not one I’d been to before.

On the other side of the bridge, not far from the church, he stopped and turned around.  It was as if he knew he was being followed, and fortunately, just at that moment I was all but hidden behind the base of the bridge on the opposite side of the Canal.

A long hard stare at each of those he could see, including those crossing the bridge, then he shrugged and walked towards another man, similarly dressed, waiting outside the church. 

I managed to get a better photograph of him and one of his new companions too, just before they met and walked into the church.  I was not going to follow them in.  I was hoping Alfie would find out who they were, and where to find them, though I had a feeling I was going to meet them again, but not in similar circumstances.

Another question popped into my head as I walked back to the Vaporetto station.  Where was Larry right now?  On his way to Venice?  Or would he wait until Juliet made contact?  I knew which hotel she was staying in, a rather small but interesting one I’d stayed at the first time I came to Venice, do I could find her any time I wanted to.

© Charles Heath 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were so happy then.

Before the tragedy.

 

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

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

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

Until one day she couldn’t.

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

The doctors were wrong.

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

Justice would have to be served by other means.

 

I was outside the Bannister’s home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

NaNoWriMo – April 2022 – Day 18

First Dig Two Graves, the second Zoe thriller.

It’s time to delve into the past that Zoe tries so hard not to remember because the memories are painful.

It was a time before she became the emotionless killer she was now, and the people who had turned her into one.

Friends, lovers, teachers, mentors, but, in the end, all people who wanted her for one thing or another because they were selfish.

Alistair’s mother, Olga, was one, the woman who first had the job of training her, the first to recognize while gifted, she would be trouble.

She had been recommended to her by a man called Yuri, the first of many to take advantage of an innocent girl who didn’t know any better.

Once trained, she was placed with Alistair, and he too, wanted her for himself, until he found her replacement, a man who wrongly thought she was so emotionless she would be happy to share him with others.

It was a mistake he wouldn’t be making again.

It was Yuri she discovered who had been in contact with the kidnappers in Marsailles, and perhaps inadvertently inserting himself into her quest for those seeking to kill her. He would know who it was seeking her, and who the name Romanov referred to.

After ensuring John was safe, she contacted him.

There’s a conversation, and he agrees to meet her, reluctantly, as being seen with a fugitive might harm his reputation.

It’s going to be an interesting conversation and reunion.

Today’s writing, with Zoe traveling from Budapest to Zurich, 2,285 words, for a total of 49,911.

The A to Z Challenge – P is for – “Praying for a miracle”

The editor looked up from his seat at me, frowning.

“Who are you again?”

He was a busy man, he kept telling us all, and didn’t have time to remember everyone on staff, particularly the reporters whom, to him, seem to come and go as they please.

“Jenkins, sir.  New last week.”

“And you’re here because?”

“You said to come and see you about an assignment, sir.”

“An assignment?”

“Yes, sir.  An assignment, sir.”

He’d come past my desk and stopped, asking that same question, “Who are you again?” Before pretending to recognize the name and tell me to come to his office in an hour for an assignment.

“Jenkins, you say.  Not related to Elmer Jenkins by any chance.”

“He was my father, sit.”

“Damned fine reporter.  Assignment you say.”  He shuffled through the pile of folders on his desk, then plucked one seeming at random, and handed it to me.

“Odd goings-on at St Peter’s cathedral.  Go and see what it’s all about, will you?”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”

Perhaps the better story here was how come the church seemed to get the best real estate in every city, and the bigger the church, the better the spot.

St Peters was where I would have expected the city center to be, on a few acres of perfectly manicured gardens surrounding an exquisite cathedral built in the mid-1500s.

I was not a Catholic, so I had not ventured inside, not realizing that it had always been open during the day, church services or not.

There was also a parish office, a school of sorts, and a priory for visiting priests, as well as those who worked around the cathedral, so it was not unusual to see one or more priests wandering about.

But the most interesting thing about this cathedral was the fact it had an exact replica if the statue of St Mary Magdalene by the Italian sculptor Donatello, considered to be an earlier attempt before creating the real one now housed in the Museo dell ‘opera del Duomo in Florence.

It was not an advertised tourist attraction, but it could be seen by special appointment only with very restrictive visiting hours because of its rarity and delicate condition.

But the report I’d been given was that a cleaner, working in the room where it was housed had seen something very odd involving the statue.  It had what she had described as tears coming from the statue’s eyes.

Of course, the editorial staff had rung the church to ascertain whether the reports they have received were true, and were immediately and emphatically denied, thus putting it into the category of “thou protest too much”, indicating, meaning there had to be something going on.

A second report, which was interesting in itself, had said there was an increased flurry of activity in the church, with several notable arrivals, particularly of the bishop, and a Cardinal from the Vatican, who was by coincidence in the country.

To the inquisitive reporter, that was embers in the grate about to create a much bigger fire.

“You heard?”  Jaimie was another of the ‘going to be famous one-day’ group, I was also a member of.

I arrived breathlessly at the entrance to the cathedral grounds, to find several other reporters already there, conversing.

They were my former classmates at university, working as junior reporters for various media outlets.

“The editor tossed me a sparse file with very little to go on.”

“They’re not taking it seriously, are they?”  Joey, never the one to take his profession seriously, was here just to meet and greet.

The three of us were juniors.  There was not any of the ‘serious’ reporting staff there, perhaps waiting to see what we came up with.

“No.  I mean, a cleaning lady and a statue with tears.  My guess, sap leaking out of the wood, though waiting four or five hundred years to do so is a bit farfetched.”

“Then it’s true that it might be a replica of the real thing.”  Joey seemed surprised, and it was him, never studying up on background before turning up.

“I’ve seen the real one in Florence,” Jaimie said.

“You’ve been everywhere, done everything, and seen everything.  Why am I not surprised?”

Joey never liked her because of her family’s wealth and privilege which granted her access to much more than either Joey or I ever had.  Including traveling the world twice.

“Can’t help drawing the parents I got, but that’s beside the point.  You should have done some research.”

Joey held up his cell phone.  “All the research I need is right here.  Where and when I need it?”

“Why are you waiting here?” I asked.  I would have expected them to be chasing up the relevant parish office person, if not the bishop himself.

“The doors are closed, which is highly unusual for a church during the day, and the sigh refers everyone to the parish office, who are telling everyone, and reporters, in particular, there will be a statement soon.  We have a line of sight to the office and one of the staff will call us.  Why wait over there when this area is so much more peaceful “

“So, you’re just going to quit?” I asked.

“What else can we do?” Jaimie was not the adventurous sort.

Neither was I, but this story could be something more, and getting the scoop might improve my standing with the editor.

“Do a little investigating of our own.”

“We might miss the statement.”

“You know what it will say, you could probably write it yourself.  Nothing to see here, move along.  I’m going to see if there’s a back door.”

“Churches don’t have back doors, Colin.”  Joey would not be coming, his preferred modus operandi was to do as little as possible.

“Then I’ll soon find out.”  I looked at Jaimie.  “Coming?”

She shook her head.  She liked to play by the rules, but it is getting a good story, there were no rules.

“Then no doubt I’ll see you later.”

I walked slowly towards the main entrance, but my intention was to do a circuit of the cathedral and see how many entrances there were, and if I  could gain entrance by one of them, acting like a routine might so as not to arouse suspicion.

After a few minutes, I realized just how large the cathedral was, having only been inside once; to attend the wedding ceremony for one of my uncles and then it had seemed small when compared to Westminster Abbey.

In the end, I found an unexpected obstruction, a fence between the walkway from the church, most likely the cloisters, to where the clergy lived, and the gardens alongside the cathedral.

There was a gate. I walked across the grass, and by the time I reached it, it swung open, and Jaimie popped her head out. 

“Come on, before anyone sees you?”

“How did you get in there?”

“Simple.  Did you try the front door?”

“I assumed it would be locked.”

“It wasn’t.  Then I guessed you’d been right here, after watching you leave “

She closed the gate. “Quick, before someone comes.”

She walked quickly back to, and into the church through what might literally be the back door, but more likely how the priests came and went.

Once inside, she led the way through the back room where a variety of vestments were hanging, out into the church, across the front of the altar to the other side where there was an archway, and steps leading down to a lower level, presumably where the statue was located.

“And you know this is the way to the statue because…”  The moment I asked, I knew the answer.  It was a dumb question.

“My parents had a viewing and brought us, kids, along.  At the time I thought it was a funny-looking wood statue.”  She spoke quietly because the acoustics for sound at this end of the cathedral was amazing.

You could probably hear a pin drop on the other side.

Then, she added, “It’s down in the basement.  They build a special room with all the environmental procedures built-in.  Been here for a long time.”

I followed her down to the bottom of the stairs, considerably more steps than the usual floor to floor level in a modern building, and the moment we came through the arch, the temperature dropped ten or more degrees, and I shuddered.

I had a strange feeling of unease, that something bad had happened here.

The light was very poor, perhaps because of the environment, but across the room I could see a glass-fronted space with a statue in the middle on a base, with lights shining upwards, giving it a strange hue.  To one side there seemed to be someone kneeling, as if in prayer.

Jaimie started walking towards the statue, slowly, as if she had been mesmerized by it.

I followed, but headed towards the kneeling figure, stopping just short.

Jaimie had stopped in front of the statue, staring at it.

The next second the kneeling figure jumped up and grabbed Jaimie and dragged her away, telling me, “get away from here, back to the stairs, and don’t look at the statue under any circumstances.”

By the time we reached the archway, he had sufficiently shaken Jaimie back to life, although she sounded confused, and dazed.

“What just happened?”

“You looked at the statue.  How did you get down here, past the guards?”

“There are no guards upstairs,” I said.  “Though we did come around the back way.”

“You two get out of here now, and I’ll overlook this transgression.  Do not mention anything you’ve just seen or heard, or God will, quite literally, smite you down.”

“Through the statue?”  I thought it a bit far-fetched.

“The cleaner prayed for a miracle.  She got one.  That statue now has some sort of power.  Now, you never heard that, and you cannot use it in a story or it will create panic.  I can tell you are reporters.  Just stick to the official handout.”

“What about the cleaner, she’s already told a lot of people.”

“She’s dead.  Her story has already been refuted.  Go, now.  I’m relying on your common sense.”

Outside back in the sunshine, we stopped before going back to Joey, who was still standing by the gate.

“What just happened?” Jaimie asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean why are we standing here.  I don’t remember coming here.”

“We were in the church?”

“No.  Who are you, by the way.  I haven’t seen you before.”

I looked at the alternating blank, inquisitive face trying to see if she was playing a joke on me.

“Do you know your name?”

“Of course, I do.  Mary.  Mary Magdalene.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 29

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 instalment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.

 

“Where is he?” I asked, hardly disguising the annoyance in my tone.

“In the toilet.”

A minor relief, but what the hell was she doing in his room?

“You do know Vince is responsible for Boggs being attacked, and me too, by the way.  There was no mistaking that thug even if he was hiding behind a balaclava.

“You’re not telling me anything I didn’t know already.  And it might be my fault.  I told him, no, he all but beat it out of me, about the map and Boggs, and you, and Alex.”

“So, I can expect to see Alex in here sometime soon?”

“No.  The Benderby’s have their own private hospital.  No one will get to hear about it, except maybe when there is the retaliation.  This who map and treasure thing is about to get a whole lot more problematical.”

Boggs chose to return from the bathroom and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me.  “How did you manage to get past the head of Gestapo, Nurse Jamieson?”

“I had an angel show me the way.  How are you?”

“This is a hospital; how do you think I feel.”

The nurse was right, he looked worse than he was.  The bruising was going to be very colourful in the coming days, before everything settled down.

“Vince?”

“Like I could tell who it was.  Only Vince can sound like Vince even where he’s trying not to sound like Vince.”

“Did he get the map.”

“One of them, but not necessarily the right one, just a better one.”

Boggs got back onto the bed and lay back.  I got the impression he was putting on a brave face for Nadia.  But it didn’t explain why she was there.

“What are you doing here,” I asked, with just a shade less annoyance.

“I heard what Vince did and I cam to apologise.  You were next,.” She said to me, “But, seriously guys, you were the masters of your own destinies with this map thing.  You don’t even know if it’s real or just another of a host of hoaxes.  Old man Cossatino reckons that Boggs’s dad created a lot of different variations, in the hope of selling them as the real thing.  He was, after all, just a common con man, and not very good at it.”

The patriarch of the Cossatino’s the one she referred to as Old Man Cossatino, was Nadia’s grandfather, and although Nadia’s father was nominally in charge of the clan, everyone knew who the real leader was.  And Old Man Cossatino was someone you didn’t cross, and that went for the Benderby’s too.

Boggs’s dad had worked for the Cossatino’s at one time, and it would not surprise me if it was Cossatino’s idea to create all the bogus maps, just to make money.  I couldn’t see Boggs’s dad having the brains to mount a scheme such as Nadia described.

It surprised me that I had forgotten about that.  Way back, when my father was still picking a side, he had said there’d been a rumour going around that a new map for the treasure had been found, and that both the Cossatino’s and the Benderby’s were in a bidding war for it, along with some other unsavoury characters.

And the rumour died as fast as it had risen, and not long after Boggs’s dad disappeared, later to turn up dead.  One rumour, he had gone looking for the treasure, though no one proffered an answer as to how he might have come across the original map which he had, at one time, claimed, and another, Cossatino had him make it up, then killed him so he would never reveal the truth.

That original map had never seen the light of day, nor mentioned since.

It didn’t explain why Vince was on the warpath.

“What’s Vince up to?  I thought you guys had the original map?”

She looked surprised.  “First I’m hearing about it.”

I realised then she would have been as young as I was, and Boggs, which was about five or six.  Precognitive memories.  She might have been too young to remember.  I only remembered it because my father had continually bagged Boggs’s father as a fool who should have got a real job and support his family, rather than let others do it for him, a veiled reference about the times Boggs stayed over and ate with us.

But it was not lost on Boggs.

“There’s any number of maps, yes.  I found a lot of them in Dad’s stuff in the shed.  I suspect those were the ones created for the Cossatino’s to sell privately, and I also think he double-crossed them and kept one particular map, the one he called ‘the map’ for himself, which may have been the original.”

That I was guessing, was the map Boggs had now.  “And you’re telling me that’s the one you said you found, and…”

“I still have it.  Vince has one of the half dozen that all seem to be slightly different, different enough from the original to keep him happy for a while.”

“What was the point of sending him to me?”

“I needed more time to figure out which variation to give him.  I’m hoping now, if he thinks it’s the original, he’ll start looking for it.  Save us a lot of time and effort if he does the groundwork.  And I’m sorry about what happened to you.  If it’s any consolation, I knew he wouldn’t hurt you.”

It seemed to me, judging from the expression on Nadia’s face, that discussing the fact Vince didn’t have the right may prompt her to tell him.  She was a Cossatino first, after all, and had for years toed the family line.

Maybe she’d changed, but I wish Boggs was not so trusting.

“That’s nonsense Boggs,” Nadia said.  “My brother doesn’t go easy on anyone.”

“How did you get in here?”

No mistaking that voice of authority.  The head of the hospital Gestapo had arrived.  She glared at me.  “You’d better leave before I call both the hospital security staff and the police.”  Then she looked at Nadia, who was getting out of the seat.  “You should know better.”  Much kinder voice for Nadia, suggesting they were acquainted.

She probably helped old man Cossatino with his interrogations.

“Had you told me how Boggs was, I would not be here.”  I’m not sure why I decided to take a stand with her.

“Don’t be impertinent.  You can see how he is, now leave while I’m in a good mood.”

I’d hate to see her when she was in a bad mood.

“Tomorrow,” Boggs said.  “I’m sure they’ll let me have visitors by then.”

I waved and left.  Nadia stayed back for a moment, then joined me in the passage.

“What were you really doing here,” I asked her.  “It’s bot as if you had any reason to visit Boggs, other than to cause trouble.”

“I came to apologise.  My brother can be a moron sometimes.”

“Does he know you’re here?”

“No.  And I want to keep it that way.”

“It’s Vince we’re talking about, or has he gone soft.  From what I witness during our encounter, it seems he’s got worse.”

“Which is why I don’t want to see him.  You want to come back to the room and have a few drinks.  Maybe we could talk about old times, you know, trash Alex?”

“Sounds good to me.”

A nightcap with Nadia.  I would never have thought that possible, even in my wildest dreams.  Had she changed, or was she up to something?

Time would tell.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

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