“Strangers We’ve Become”, a sequel to “What Sets Us Apart”

Stranger’s We’ve Become, a sequel to What Sets Us Apart.

The blurb:

Is she or isn’t she, that is the question!

Susan has returned to David, but he is having difficulty dealing with the changes. Her time in captivity has changed her markedly, so much so that David decides to give her some time and space to re-adjust back into normal life.

But doubts about whether he chose the real Susan remain.

In the meantime, David has to deal with Susan’s new security chief, the discovery of her rebuilding a palace in Russia, evidence of an affair, and several attempts on his life. And, once again, David is drawn into another of Predergast’s games, one that could ultimately prove fatal.

From being reunited with the enigmatic Alisha, a strange visit to Susan’s country estate, to Russia and back, to a rescue mission in Nigeria, David soon discovers those whom he thought he could trust each has their own agenda, one that apparently doesn’t include him.

The Cover:

strangerscover9

Coming soon

 

“Do you believe in g..g..ghosts…?”, a short story

Inside the old building, it was very quiet and almost cold.

Strange, perhaps, because outside the temperature was bordering on the record hottest day ever, nearly 45 degrees centigrade.

The people who’d built this building nearly a hundred years before must have known how to keep that heat at bay, using sandstone.

Back then, the sandstone would have looked very impressive, but now after many years of being closed off and left abandoned, the outside was stained by modern-day pollutants giving it a black streaky look, and inside layers of dust, easily stirred up as we walked slowly into the main foyer.

It was huge, the roof, ornate, with four huge chandelier lights hanging down, and wood paneling, giving way to a long counter with brass serving cages highlighting its former use; a bank.

In its day it would have conveyed the power and wealth so that its customers could trust the money to. Of course, that was before the global economy, online banking, and a raft of the new and different institutions all vying for that same money.

Then it was a simple choice of a few, now it was a few thousand.

“How many years had this been closed up?” I asked.

“Close to twenty, maybe twenty-five. It was supposed to be pulled down, but someone got it on the heritage list, and that put an end to it. “

Phil was the history nut. He’s spent a month looking into the building, finding construction plans, and correspondence dating back to before and during the construction.

Building methods, he said, that didn’t exist today and were far in advance of anything of its type for the period. It was the reason we were standing in the foyer now.

We were budding civil engineers, and the university had managed to organize a visit, at our own risk. The owner of the building had made sure we’d signed a health and safety waiver before granting access.

And the caretaker only took us as far as the front door. He gave us his cell number to call when we were finished. When we asked him why he didn’t want to come in with us, he didn’t say but it was clear to me he was afraid of something.

But neither of us believed in ghosts.

“You can see aspects of cathedrals in the design,” Phil said. ” You could quite easily turn this space into a church.”

“Or a very large wine cellar.” I brought a thermometer with me, and inside where we were standing it was the ideal temperature to store wine.

Behind the teller cages were four large iron doors to the vaults. They were huge, and once contained a large amount of cash, gold, and whatever else was deemed valuable.

They were all empty now, the shelves and floor had scattered pieces of bank stationery, and in a corner, several cardboard boxes, covered in even more dust.

Behind the vaults were offices, half-height with glass dividers, the desks and chairs still in place, and some with wooden filing cabinets drawers half-open.

Others had benches, and one, set in the corner, very large, and looked like the manager’s office. Unlike the other office which had linoleum tiles, this one had carpet. In a corner was a large mirror backed cabinet, with several half-empty bottles on it.

“Adds a whole new meaning to aged whiskey, don’t you think.” Phil looked at it but didn’t pick it up.

“I wonder why they left it,” I muttered. The place had the feel of having been left in a hurry, not taking everything with them.

I shivered, but it was not from the cold.

We went back to the foyer and the elevator lobby. They were fine examples of the sort of caged elevators that belonged in that time, and which there were very few working examples these days.

The elevators would have a driver, he would pull back an inner and outer door when the car arrived on a floor, and close both again when everyone was aboard.

Both cars were on the ground floor, with the shutter doors closed, and when I tried to open one, I found it had been welded shut. The other car was not sitting level with the floor and the reason for that, the cable that raised and lowered it was broken.

Restoring them would be a huge job and would not be in their original condition due to occupational health and safety issues.

The staircase wound around the elevator cage, going up to the mezzanine floor or down to the basement.

“Up or down?” He asked.

“Where do you want to go first?”

“Down. There’s supposed to be a large vault, probably where the safety deposit boxes are.”

And the restrooms I thought. Not that I was thinking of going.

As we descended the stairs it was like going down into a mine shaft, getting darker, and the rising odor of damp, and mustiness. I suspect it would have been the same back when it was first built being so close to the shoreline of the bay, not more than half a mile away.

The land this building and a number of others in a similar style, was built on was originally a swamp, and it was thought that the seawater still found its way this far inshore. But the foundations were incredibly strong and extensive which was why there’d been no shifting or cracking anywhere in the ten-story structure.

At the bottom, there was a huge arch, with built-in brass caging with two huge gates, both open. It was like the entrance to a mythical Aladdin’s cave.

There was also an indefinable aura coming from the depths of that room. That, and a movement of cold air. Curiously, the air down there was not musty but had a tinge of saltiness to it.

Was there a natural air freshener effect coming from somewhere within that vault.

“Are we going in?”

I checked my torch beam, still very bright. I pointed it into the blackness and after a minute checking, I said, “We’re here, so why not.”

We had to walk down a dozen steps then pass under through the open gates into the room. There was a second set of gates, the same as the first, about thirty feet from the first, and, in between, a number of cubicles where customers collected their boxes.

Beyond the second set of gates was a large circular reinforced safe door high enough for us to walk through.

This cavernous space stretched back quite a distance, and along the walls, rows, and rows of safety deposit boxes, some half hanging out of their housing, and a lot more stacked haphazardly on the floor.

I checked a few but they were all empty.

I shivered again. It felt like there was a presence in the room. I turned to ask Phil, but he wasn’t there. I hadn’t heard him walk away, and there were only two sets of footprints on the floor, his and mine, and both ended where I was standing.

It was as if he had disappeared into thin air.

I called out his name, and it echoed off the walls in the confined space. No answer from him.

I went further into the room, thinking he might have ventured towards the end while my back was turned, but he hadn’t. Nor had he left because there were only footprints coming in, not going out.

I turned to retrace my steps and stopped suddenly. An old man, in clothes that didn’t belong to this era, was standing where Phil had last been.

He was looking at me, but not inclined to talk.

“Hello. I didn’t see you come down.”

Seconds later the figure dissolved in front of me and there was no one but me standing in the room.

“Joe.”

Phil, from behind me. I turned and there he was large as life.

“Where were you?”

“I’ve been here all the time. Who were you just talking to?”

“There was an old man, standing just over there,” I said pointing to somewhere between Phil and the entrance.

“I didn’t see anyone. Are you sure you’re not having me on?”

“No. He’s right behind you.” The old man had reappeared.

Phil shook his head, believing I was trying to fool him.

That changed when the man touched his shoulder, and Phil shrieked.

And almost ran out of the room. It took a few minutes for him to catch his breath and steady the palpitating heart.

“Are you real?” I asked, not quite sure what to say.

“To me, I am. To anyone else, let’s just say you are the first not got faint, or run away.”

“Are you a ghost?” Phil wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying.

“Apparently I am and will be until you find out who killed me “

Ok, so what was it called, stuck in the afterlife or limbo until closure?

“When?”

“25 years ago, just before the bank closed. It’s the reason why it’s empty now.”

“And you’re saying we find the killer and you get to leave?”

“Exactly. Now shoo. Go and find him.”

We looked at each other in surprise, or more like shock, then back to the man. Only he was no longer there.

“What the…” Phil sail. “It’s time to go.”

“What about the man and finding his killer?”

“What man? We saw nothing. We’re done here.”

I shrugged. Phil turned to leave, but only managed to take three steps before the gates at the entrance closed with a loud clang.

When he crossed the room to stand in front, he tried pulling them open.

“Locked,” he said. Flat, and without panic, he added, “I guess it looks like we have a murder to solve.”

© Charles Heath 2019-2020

The story behind the story – Echoes from the Past

The novel ‘Echoes from the past’ started out as a short story I wrote about 30 years ago, titled ‘The birthday’.

My idea was to take a normal person out of their comfort zone and led on a short but very frightening journey to a place where a surprise birthday party had been arranged.

Thus the very large man with a scar and a red tie was created.

So was the friend with the limousine who worked as a pilot.

So were the two women, Wendy and Angelina, who were Flight Attendants that the pilot friend asked to join the conspiracy.

I was going to rework the short story, then about ten pages long, into something a little more.

And like all re-writes, especially those I have anything to do with, it turned into a novel.

There was motivation.  I had told some colleagues at the place where I worked at the time that I liked writing, and they wanted a sample.  I was going to give them the re-worked short story.  Instead, I gave them ‘Echoes from the past’

Originally it was not set anywhere in particular.

But when considering a location, I had, at the time, recently been to New York in December, and visited Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a lot of New York itself.  We were there for New Years, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

One evening we were out late, and finished up in Brooklyn Heights, near the waterfront, and there was rain and snow, it was cold and wet, and there were apartment buildings shimmering in the street light, and I thought, this is the place where my main character will live.

It had a very spooky atmosphere, the sort where ghosts would not be unexpected.  I felt more than one shiver go up and down my spine in the few minutes I was there.

I had taken notes, as I always do, of everywhere we went so I had a ready supply of locations I could use, changing the names in some cases.

Fifth Avenue near the Rockefeller center is amazing at first light, and late at night with the Seasonal decorations and lights.

The original main character was a shy and man of few friends, hence not expecting the surprise party.  I enhanced that shyness into purposely lonely because of an issue from his past that leaves him always looking over his shoulder and ready to move on at the slightest hint of trouble.  No friends, no relationships, just a very low profile.

Then I thought, what if he breaks the cardinal rule, and begins a relationship?

But it is also as much an exploration of a damaged soul, as it is the search for a normal life, without having any idea what normal was, and how the understanding of one person can sometimes make all the difference in what we may think or feel.

And, of course, I wanted a happy ending.

Except for the bad guys.

 

Get it here:  https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4

newechocover5rs

 

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

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

See below for an excerpt from the book…

Coming soon!

PIWalthJones1

An excerpt from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, of course, when it came to Harry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Charles Heath 2019

“I was minding my own business when…”, a short story

What do you say, when everything that could be had been said, and then some.

What did marriage counselors know, other than they are right, and you are wrong?

I don’t think either of us, with the same belief, could be wrong.  The marriage was over, and there was no use prolonging the agony.

Except we had to try to at least put some of the pieces back together, if only for the sake of walking away with a sense of closure and peace.

But, peace was the last thing in the atmosphere inside the car, and it had been like that since leaving Vancouver.

There had been a momentary truce in Kamloops where we had to stay, in separate rooms, and polite conversation over breakfast, until I put my foot in my mouth.

Again.

I’m not sure if I knew what to say to her anymore.  To her, everything I said was laced with an agenda or a subliminal plot.  I got it, I’d lied to her once too often, and once she proved one right, and, from there, it didn’t take long for the whole charade to unravel.

I’d been advised against marrying her, that I would not be able to do my job and have some sort of life with Eloise, but I wanted it.

And, fifteen months down the track, my employers had been proved right.
Eloise was driving.  Her parents lived in Banff, and we had made the trip in all of the four seasons, and now winter, she was more used to the icy conditions than I.

It gave me a chance to look at her from my side of the mid-sized SUV.  We were going to take her car, a rather small sedan, but it had broken down, so I hired a Ford Flex.

If you’re going to take on the elements, I wanted a car that could handle the conditions.

In that, I think I’d managed to surprise her, and not in a bad way.

For the first time in a long time.

Then, of course, she had to look sideways, and that ruined it.  The frown followed by the pursed lips.  Something caustic was about to come my way.

Except a very loud bang took us both by surprise, and skewing the car sideways, catching the edge of the ice on the road, and we started spinning.

As good as she was, there would be no containing this calamity.

I looked behind to see what the hell had hit us.

An F350 or RAM 2500, definitely larger than us, definitely deliberate, and definitely with intent to hurt us.

Or me.

My work had finally come home.

There was a scream just on the edge of her terror as the car had spun sideways and the car behind us slammed into it us again, arresting the spin and pushing us towards the edge of the road.

I could see what the pursuer’s intent was.  Down the side, a roll if possible, then pick off the survivors as they scrambled from the wreckage.

Or not have to worry, the roll may do the job for them.
We hit the edge as the other car braked, and we continued on, that stifled scream from Eloise now erupting.

She could see what was going to happen, just as our car tipped.

Six seconds.

Seat belt or not, totally unprepared for what was about to happen, she was not going to walk away from this.

Unless I did something about it.

Seatbelt unhitched I dragged her to me and protected her as best I could.  She didn’t resist, but the look in her eyes, terror laced with something else, no time to think about it now, told me she would do whatever I wanted.

Over on the roof, upside down, I prayed it stayed there, and slide,  The ice, snow, and slush was going to help.

Seconds passed, taking what seemed forever, till we reached the bottom of the hill and hit a rock, arresting the movement with a loud bang and a crunch of bending metal.

Stopped.

Engine still running.

No movement from her.  Yet.

And relief.  No bones were broken, or none that I noticed.

Under me, she stirred.

Just as a bullet smashed the rear passenger window, and the shattered glass splattered the interior.  A moment later, the side window, above my head did the same.
I lifted myself, whispering in her ear, “Slide towards the front window.”  It was buried in the snow and dirt kicked up in the final run to the bottom.  The shooter would not be able to see it, or her.

Above me, I reached up to feel under the seat and found the package.

A gun.  Always be prepared.

Ten seconds since the last shot.  From up top, the shooter would not be able to see us, or any movement.  He was going to have to come down and finish the job.

And hope we were would not be able to fight back.

That was the purpose of running us off the road.

Pity then that he had not been given my file.  If he had he would have driven off and tried again later.

That he was halfway down the hill when I saw him told me this operation had been cobbled together quickly, with no time to find a professional.

And now I knew why Barnes had told me to be careful.

A lone wolf looking to make a name for himself.

And failing.
Ten minutes, the police arrived.

Long enough to bury the body and the weapons under a lot of snow, in a ravine that no one would discover until the thaw.

The car that rammed us had gone.  Soon as he saw his partner go down, he left.  A wise man, he had stayed at the top of the hill, having more sense than his friend.

Live to fight another day,

The policeman asked the questions, and Eloise answered.  Not one mention of being rammed, run off the road, being shot at, or that there was anyone else involved.

As cool as a cucumber.

It took her a minute after I shot our attacker to ask the questions I’d expected a week ago when she finally discovered my other life, prefaced by, “No more lies, just tell me the truth.  What the hell is it you do for a living?”

“Make the world safe for people like you, and in my case right now, for you in particular.  Sorry, I was sworn to secrecy.”

“Even from your wife?”

“Especially from you.  You now know why.”

“Bit late for that now, do you think?”

“Just a little.”

And then I saw the look, the one I had fallen in love with 15 months ago.  The one that made my heart miss a few beats.

“You do realize you are the biggest idiot on the planet, don’t you?”

“Does this mean I can stay?”

She punched me on the arm.,  OK, no broken bones, but there was going to be bruising, major bruising.

“If you promise to tell me only the truth from now on.”

What harm could it do?  She knew enough.

“Good.  We should probably do something with that man out there.  I’m assuming the police do not take too kindly to you working in their jurisdiction.”

Too many thrillers, too much TV, or an educated guess, she was right.  This would be impossible to explain, and Barnes was already angry at me.

I held out my hand and she took it as I helped her out of the wreckage.  Out in the fresh, cold air, she took in a huge breath and let out a slow sigh.

“Is it always this exciting?”

“This is the Sunday in the park stroll.  Wait till you have a hand held rocket boring down on you.”

 

© Charles Heath 2019-2020

The story behind the story: A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers

To write a private detective serial has always been one of the items at the top of my to-do list, though trying to write novels and a serial, as well as a blog, and maintain a social media presence, well, you get the idea.

But I made it happen, from a bunch of episodes I wrote a long, long time ago, used these to start it, and then continue on, then as now, never having much of an idea where it was going to end up, or how long it would take to tell the story.

That, I think is the joy of ad hoc writing, even you, as the author, have as much idea of where it’s going as the reader does.

It’s basically been in the mill since 1990, and although I finished it last year, it looks like the beginning to end will have taken exactly 30 years.  Had you asked me 30 years ago if I’d ever get it finished, the answer would be maybe?

My private detective, Harry Walthenson

I’d like to say he’s from that great literary mold of Sam Spade, or Mickey Spillane, or Phillip Marlow, but he’s not.

But, I’ve watched Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade with much interest, and modeled Harry and his office on it.  Similarly, I’ve watched Robert Micham play Phillip Marlow with great panache, if not detachment, and added a bit of him to the mix.

Other characters come into play, and all of them, no matter what period they’re from, always seem larger than life.  I’m not above stealing a little of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet, to breathe life into beguiling women and dangerous men alike.

Then there’s the title, like

The Case of the Unintentional Mummy – this has so many meanings in so many contexts, though I image back in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s, this would be excellent fodder for Abbott and Costello

The Case of the Three-Legged Dog – Yes, I suspect there may be a few real-life dogs with three legs, but this plot would involve something more sinister.  And if made out of plaster, yes, they’re always something else inside.

But for mine, to begin with, it was “The Case of the …”, because I had no idea what the case was going to be about, well, I did, but not specifically.

Then I liked the idea of calling it “The Case of the Brother’s Revenge” because I began to have a notion there was a brother no one knew about, but that’s stuff for other stories, not mine, so then went the way of the others.

Now it’s called ‘A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers’, finished the first three drafts, and at the editor for the last.

I have high hopes of publishing it in early 2021.  It even has a cover.

PIWalthJones1

Inspiration, maybe

50 photographs, 50 stories, of which there is one of the 50 below.

They all start with –

A picture paints … well, as many words as you like.  For instance:

lookingdownfromcoronetpeak

And the story:

It was once said that a desperate man has everything to lose.

The man I was chasing was desperate, but I, on the other hand, was more desperate to catch him.

He’d left a trail of dead people from one end of the island to the other.

The team had put in a lot of effort to locate him, and now his capture was imminent.  We were following the car he was in, from a discrete distance, and, at the appropriate time, we would catch up, pull him over, and make the arrest.

There was nowhere for him to go.

The road led to a dead-end, and the only way off the mountain was back down the road were now on.  Which was why I was somewhat surprised when we discovered where he was.

Where was he going?

“Damn,” I heard Alan mutter.  He was driving, being careful not to get too close, but not far enough away to lose sight of him.

“What?”

“I think he’s made us.”

“How?”

“Dumb bad luck, I’m guessing.  Or he expected we’d follow him up the mountain.  He’s just sped up.”

“How far away?”

“A half-mile.  We should see him higher up when we turn the next corner.”

It took an eternity to get there, and when we did, Alan was right, only he was further on than we thought.”

“Step on it.  Let’s catch him up before he gets to the top.”

Easy to say, not so easy to do.  The road was treacherous, and in places just gravel, and there were no guard rails to stop a three thousand footfall down the mountainside.

Good thing then I had the foresight to have three agents on the hill for just such a scenario.

Ten minutes later, we were in sight of the car, still moving quickly, but we were going slightly faster.  We’d catch up just short of the summit car park.

Or so we thought.

Coming quickly around another corner we almost slammed into the car we’d been chasing.

“What the hell…” Aland muttered.

I was out of the car, and over to see if he was in it, but I knew that it was only a slender possibility.  The car was empty, and no indication where he went.

Certainly not up the road.  It was relatively straightforward for the next mile, at which we would have reached the summit.  Up the mountainside from here, or down.

I looked up.  Nothing.

Alan yelled out, “He’s not going down, not that I can see, but if he did, there’s hardly a foothold and that’s a long fall.”

Then where did he go?

Then a man looking very much like our quarry came out from behind a rock embedded just a short distance up the hill.

“Sorry,” he said quite calmly.  “Had to go if you know what I mean.”

I’d lost him.

It was as simple as that.

I had been led a merry chase up the hill, and all the time he was getting away in a different direction.

I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book, letting my desperation blind me to the disguise that anyone else would see through in an instant.

It was a lonely sight, looking down that road, knowing that I had to go all that way down again, only this time, without having to throw caution to the wind.

“Maybe next time,” Alan said.

“We’ll get him.  It’s just a matter of time.”

© Charles Heath 2019

Find this and other stories in “Inspiration, maybe”  available soon.

InspirationMaybe1v1

An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  That wasn’t possible.

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

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

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

At least we agree on that, she thought.

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

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

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

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

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Was that what she was expecting?

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

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

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

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

Rebellion was written all over him.

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

“Mr. Henshaw?”

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

“Then my name is Michelle.”

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

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, so do I.”

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

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

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

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

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

“After a fashion.”

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

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

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

“Whatever for?”

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

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

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

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”

“Was?”

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

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

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

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

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

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

Dinner now over, they separated.

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

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

lovecoverfinal1

A matter of life and … what’s worse than death? – Episode 39

For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.

Whilst I have always had a fascination with what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.

And, so, it continues…

Leonardo was a fool, not that any of those who followed him would say that to his face, but all of them knew it and accepted that he made the best leader.

The reason for that, they all knew if anything went wrong, then the leader would be the first to be held accountable.

They all also knew that what Leonardo had done to Martina and Chiara, and the cold-blooded murder of the villagers, justifying it by saying they were collaborators, was also wrong, and had refused to take part in it.

Leonardo just thought they didn’t have the stomach to do what was necessary, failing to realize he was committing a crime, war or not.

Alberto, arguably the next man to take over the resistance group if anything happened to Leonardo, was nominally second in command and was there because he had the respect of the men, far more than their current leader.

He was the one who suspected there was something wrong at the castle, that the British soldiers there were not quite doing what they said they were there for.  He had seen, even directed, Germans seeking sanctuary in England in exchange for information, come, but not go.  Not like they did in the beginning.

And that man called Atherton, the one who arrived just before the paratroopers, he was British, and they had captured him.  The talk was that he was a German collaborator, but Alberto wasn’t convinced.

But, not having the full allegiance of all the resistance fighters, he could not say anything or try to organize the men to be more careful in their approach to those at the castle.  Leonardo still held sway with them. 

For now.

.

The Italians had their own section of the cells in the dungeons where they stayed, Leonardo, deeming it not safe in the village.  Alberto agreed because he had made several forays down there, only to discover that Leonardo would be shot on sight if he showed his face there again.  Some resistance they made, he thought, where they didn’t have the confidence of their own people.

Leonardo was up supping with the devil, as Alberto had been known to say, put of Leonardo’s earshot, and several of the men were resting.  The others, more loyal to Leonardo were in the cellar cell drinking their way through the wine stock and were most likely drunk and passed out.

Alberto didn’t care for the vintage, a subject that he was well versed in because before the war he had worked for the family of winemakers.  The wines stored, he had recognized when they’d first discovered them, as being of inferior quality, and had been left there rather than throwing it away.  Leonardo would not have known the difference.

“Something is not right.”  A voice from the corner, belonging to a man named Bolini, broke his reverie.  The truth was, he was tired and wished it were all done with.

“What makes you say that?” He asked.

“Killing the villagers.  What did they do wrong, other than just trying to survive?  It’s what we’re all trying to do.  It’s not our war.”

“You know what it’s like, stuck in the middle.  It’s a bit like the in-laws.  You don’t want them, but you’re stuck with them.”

“In-laws.  Don’t get me started.”  The other, a man named Christo, weighed in.  

“You do realize we may be held accountable for what happened back at the village,” Bolini had obviously been thinking about the repercussions.

“We brought the only witnesses here, and they sure as hell aren’t going to last long.  Not after what Leonardo did to them.”

“That’s possible, but we all know what happened.”

“But there are others outside who also know what happened, and if we want to keep out of trouble, we are going to have to take care of them,” Bolini said.

Alberto hadn’t quite got through considering the ramifications of what Fernando just did, and the fact they’d helped him.  Bolini was right, even if they hadn’t been as reckless, they were still going to be tarred with the same brush.

And Atherton was still out there.

The trouble with trying to clean up a mess is that eventually there’s a bigger mess to deal with.  Maybe it was time to get rid of Fernando.

The man called Wallace, the one who seemed to be in charge, came around the corner and stopped when he saw Alberto.

“Where’s your leader?”

Alberto pointed his head in the direction of the wine cellar.

Wallace shook his head, knowing what that meant.  “Tell him he’s got another pickup.  Two hours in the village.  A family, with two children.  Tell him to sober up, and if he doesn’t in time, you have my permission to shoot him.”

Surely the man wasn’t serious.

“Well, what are you sitting around for?  Get moving.”

Wallace cast a disapproving glance over the three, shook his head again, and left.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

“The Devil You Don’t”, be careful what you wish for

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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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