“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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Memories of the conversations with my cat – 56

As some may be aware, but many not, Chester, my faithful writing assistant, mice catcher, and general pain in the neck, passed away some months ago.

Recently I was running a series based on his adventures, under the title of Past Conversations with my cat.

For those who have not had the chance to read about all of his exploits I will run the series again from Episode 1

These are the memories of our time together…

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This is Chester.  It’s going to be an interesting morning.

When I finally make it out to the writing room, I find him sitting on my desk, next to the keyboard, with a rather benign expression.

Remembering that cats can’t have expressive expressions, it worried me that he’s working overtime to make me think he has one.

I can feel his eyes boring into me, following me around the room, watching and waiting.

Waiting for what I wonder.

I also remember that cats are hunters and killers.  If he was a lion or a tiger I’d be in a great deal of trouble now.  He’d pounce, and that would be the end.

Is this we hat he’d be doing if I let him outside?

Is he sending me a warning?

I finish what I’m doing on the other side of the room and come over to the seat.

Are you done giving me the death stare? I ask him.

A slight shake of the head, and if I wanted to write anything into it, that would be a no.

A few seconds pass, then he jumps down to the floor and walks off.

Job done, I suspect he’s thinking.

Back to his least favourite dinner tonight, I’m thinking.

In a word: Freeze

Yes, if the temperature was 20 degrees below zero and the forecast for the net week was the same, then that would be the big freeze.

In a more understandable way of putting it, to freeze something is to preserve it at a temperature below zero.

Some things don’t freeze, like petrol.

And you want to hope that you put antifreeze in your radiator otherwise you are going to have big problems with your car in winter.

It also means to stand still.

You can also isolate someone by freezing them out.

And freeze in fear, unable to move, like a deer in headlights.

But the worst example of a freeze is when your computer stops, and you forgot to save that 200-page novel, thereby being lost forever.

No.  That would never happen, you had autosave on, didn’t you?

Didn’t you??????????

Freeze is not to be confused with a frieze which is a broad horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, especially on a wall near the ceiling.

Or frees, which in some countries type of football described multiple free kicks, in one sense, and, in another, what you do when you let them go, e.g. he frees the dog.

If only we could make travel plans!

Round about now, in our part of the southern hemisphere, spring is nearly two months gone and leading into December, we start having hot days.

Today, is is going to be about 30 degrees Celsius.

This is the calm before the storm, because round about now, we not only have to contend with the heat, we also have the humidity, sometimes reaching 100 percent.

Those days, every move you make causes endless perspiration.

So, best not to go outside if you can avoid it.

Some years ago we installed air conditioning and it’s been great for summer.  Then, the climate change became a factor in everything, and saw huge increases in the cost of water, and in particular, electricity.

Our bills for summer frequently topped a 1,000 dollars for the three months, and getting worse every year.

So, a year or so ago we invested in solar panels.  What a difference.  The air conditioning costs very little and our bills are now about 300 dollars for the three months.

More money then for holidays.

And finding a more temperate climate to bask in.

The idea of minus 19 degrees may faze some people, but not us.  If you can imagine endless days at 35 degrees Celsius with 100 percent humidity, you would understand why we prefer to be anywhere but home.

But our favourite destinations of New York and Toronto are no go zones because out government has decided none of us will be travelling until a vaccine is available, or COVID has gone.

It looks like I’ll just have to surf the internet and indulge in a little armchair travelling.  Maybe I can create a bucket list of places to go when we finally can leave.

“One Last Look”, nothing is what it seems

A single event can have enormous consequences.

A single event driven by fate, after Ben told his wife Charlotte he would be late home one night, he left early, and by chance discovers his wife having dinner in their favourite restaurant with another man.

A single event where it could be said Ben was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Who was this man? Why was she having dinner with him?

A simple truth to explain the single event was all Ben required. Instead, Charlotte told him a lie.

A single event that forces Ben to question everything he thought he knew about his wife, and the people who are around her.

After a near-death experience and forced retirement into a world he is unfamiliar with, Ben finds himself once again drawn back into that life of lies, violence, and intrigue.

From London to a small village in Tuscany, little by little Ben discovers who the woman he married is, and the real reason why fate had brought them together.

It is available on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/2CqUBcz

NaNoWriMo – Day 28

In a mad rush to get the story finished, but that now won’t happen in the time frame.

I’m in the middle of the quest to recover the artifacts, and Marigold has so much more to learn about the realm and herself.

And I’ve notice a little of what’s happening in our world here is creeping into the story, and it seems to me that we never seem to learn from our mistakes.

Our leaders, that is. Given a chance to make a real change after a one in a hundred year event, they’re ignoring the possibilities, and trying to consolidate or improve their power over the people.

But I digress…

Some of my disappointment is spilling over, and I’ll to be careful to keep it out.

In my stories, there’s always a happy ending.

For the bean counters, todays word count is 3,226 words, not much less than yeaterday, for a running total of 72,839.

I suspect this story is not going to come out under 120,000, until the first edit of course.

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

“The Price of Fame”, A Short Story

I looked at the invitation, a feeling of dread coming over me.  It was not entirely unexpected but like a great many things that had suddenly come into my life, it caused equal measures of fear and excitement.

The gold edging and the perfect script displaying my name in the exact centre of the envelope made it almost unique.  Very few people ever received such an invitation.

I held it in my hand for a longer than necessary, then put it down on the desk carefully, as if it would explode if I dropped it.

My first instinct, driven by fear, was not to accept.

But, fear or not, there was no question of me not attending.  Circumstances had painted me into a corner; I’d agreed to go a long time ago when I thought there was no chance it would come to pass.

Way back then, I had been compared to the aspiring painter in an attic having to die before I made any sort of impression.  In those days people thought it amusing.  I thought it was amusing.  Kirsty, in particular, had thought it was as impossible as I had.

Now it was not amusing.  Not even remotely.

 

My life was once quiet, peaceful, sedate, even boring.  That didn’t mean I lacked imagination, it was just not out on display for everyone to see.  Inspired by reading endless books, I had the capacity to transport myself into another world, divorced from reality, where my boring existence became whatever I wanted it to be.

It was also instrumental in bringing Kirsty into my life.  In reality, I thought she’d never take a second look at me, let alone a first.  So I pretended to be someone else.  Original, witty, charming, underneath more scared than I’d ever known.

And yet she knew, she’d always known and didn’t care.

As we spent more time together, she discovered I liked to write, not finish anything, just start, write a hundred pages, then lose interest.  Like everything I did.  Start, and never finish.

Why not?  It would never be published.  It would never succeed.

So she bribed me.  If I didn’t finish my first book and send it away, I couldn’t marry her.  It didn’t matter if it was rejected, all I had to do was finish a book, and send it.

The thought of marrying her had not entered my mind, because I hadn’t thought she would.  Incentive enough, I picked out one of the unfinished manuscripts and humoured her.  She read bits of it, not saying a word.  Sometimes she’d put a note or two on the manuscript, her equivalent to sweet nothings, and with it I gained inner confidence in my own ability, not only to write but in many other aspects of my life.

When it was finished, it was Kirsty who sent it off.  She read it, packaged it, addressed it, and sent it before I had a chance to change her mind.  Once gone, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  It was done. That was, as far as I was concerned, the end of it.

 

It was not possible that one letter could change a person’s life so dramatically.  I came home to the all-knowing smile, and mischievous whimsicality that had always suggested trouble.

Trouble indeed!

My book was accepted.  With a cheque called an advance.  For more money than I knew what to do with.

This was followed not long after by publication.  And a dramatic change to my life, one I didn’t want.  To become a public person, to face an enormous number of people, people I didn’t know.

I went back to being scared.

 

Kirsty smiled at me and told me how wonderful I looked in my monkey suit.  Why couldn’t I go in jeans and a dress shirt?  All the best actors in Hollywood did it.

“This is not Hollywood.  You’re not an actor.”  It was a simple, practical, answer.

The hell I wasn’t.  I could act sick, dying, fake a heart attack, anything.  “What am I going to say?”

“You could talk about books.”  Quiet, efficient, oozing the confidence I didn’t feel.

She didn’t fuss.  She took it in her stride.  She dressed in her usual simple elegance, in a manner that made me love to be seen with her.  I couldn’t tie my tie, so she did it for me.  She straightened my jacket because I couldn’t do that either.  Nerves.  Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.  Or was that a reference to wives, or mistresses, or something else?

The palms of my hands were sweating.  Meatball hands, I thought, the sort of palms that betrayed the pretenders.  Me, I was the pretender.  My neck felt too large for the shirt.  Beads of sweat formed on my brow.  Where was a sponge when you needed one?

“I can’t do this.”

“You can.”

We hadn’t even left the hotel yet.

“How long before the execution.”

She looked at me with her whimsical smile.  “Long enough for me to give you a hard time.”

 

I lost count of the number of times I had to go to the bathroom, for one thing, or another.  Nerves I said.  Perhaps a dozen Valium or something similar.  Did I have any?  Had she hidden them?  Why did she keep smiling?

In the car, I looked at my watch at least a dozen times.  I couldn’t breathe.  It was too hot, too cold.  She held my hand, and it served best to stop the trembling that had set in.  Why did I agree to this?  Why?

We were greeted by the Events Manager, who was polite and genuinely interested.  He took us inside where he introduced the interviewer, another woman who oozed confidence and charm, who went over the format and generally tried to set me at ease.

I didn’t let Kirsty’s hand go.  Not yet.  She was my lifeline, the umbilical cord.  When it was severed, I knew I was going to die.

Bathroom?  Where was the bathroom?  Hell, five minutes to go, and I felt like passing out.  No, Kirsty couldn’t come in.  Comb my hair.  Straighten my tie, no it was straight.  Maybe I could hide in here?  I looked around.  No, maybe not.

Time.

The cue man was standing beside me, hand gently on my back.  He knew the score.  He knew I would turn and run the first chance I got.  Kirsty was on the other side, smiling.  Did she know too?

Then the announcement, my cue to walk on.

The gentle shove, the bright lights, the deafening applause, the seemingly endless walk to the chair, dear God, would I make it without tripping over?

How many times had I made this trip?  I stood, facing the audience, waved, then sat.  It was the fifteenth.  You’d think I’d learned by now.

There was nothing to it.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

 

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