The A to Z Challenge – M is for “Many have come, few have stayed”


It was true to say that very few people knew our department existed. In fact, I was not sure quite who it was I worked for, but when I’d been first tasked with the assignment, a transfer precipitated by a transgression that might have ended my career, I was certain I had been sent to purgatory.

At least, that’s what the sign on the door said.

The office, if it could be called that, was in the basement, around so many twists and turns in the passages that it was easy to believe you had entered another dimension. It wasn’t located in the building you walked through the front door of, but somewhere else nearby. Through the walls, you could hear the sounds of cars, but whether it was a nearby road above the ceiling, or they were parking, it was not easy to say.

On another side, the sounds of trains passing through tunnels were barely discernible, and sometimes only noticeable by a slight vibration of the coffee mug on the desktop, of which there were four, the maximum number of occupants in the small area, but I have never seen who two of the other four were.

Such was the nature of our job. We operated in secret, hidden from the world, and the others. I was never quite sure why.

The interview, when I thought was going to be fired, was given by an old man in a pinstripe suit, long past the age of retirement. In fact, had I not known better, I would have said he was dead, and all that was missing was the cobwebs. He had no sense of humor and got straight to the point.

“You are being transferred to PIB effective immediately.”

He didn’t say what PIB stood for, and the no-nonsense tone told me this was not the time to ask.

“Many have come, but few have stayed. It’s not a job to be taken lightly, and a word of advice, the work you are about to undertake is not to be discussed with anyone but the person you have been assigned to work with.”

He then handed me an envelope, sealed, and that was the end of the interview.

I did not get to speak a word. I had this speech memorized, ready to explain why I had failed so badly, and what I was prepared to do to make up for it, but I was not given the opportunity. Perhaps I should just be grateful I was given another chance.

I waited until I was out of the building, and a block away in a small cafe, and the cheerful waitress had brought my coffee and cake. It was, in a small way, a celebration I still had a job, working for the organization I had set my sights on way back when I was in school.

Making sure no one was sitting too close; I opened the envelope and took out the neatly folded sheet of paper.

It was blank.

Was this some sort of joke?

There was a loud noise outside in the street, a car backfiring, and it caused a few anxious moments, particularly for me in case it was trouble, but it wasn’t. When normality returned I went back to the sheet of paper, picking it up off the top of the coffee cup where it had fallen, and something caught my eye.

Writing. Specifically, numbers, but what I thought I’d seen had disappeared, or hadn’t been there at all.

A shake of the head, perplexed, to say the least, I took a sip of the coffee. As the cup passed under the sheet, a pattern was discernible, displaying then disappearing. Bringing the cup back under the sheet, numbers suddenly appeared. It was a telephone number. It was also very cloak and daggers.

Was it a test? Because at that moment when I saw the blank sheet of paper, the meaning was very clear. It was a puzzle, and if I didn’t work it out, then I didn’t get the job. I’d simply been told to turn up at an anonymous building to see a man whom I doubted would answer to the name I’d been given to ask for again after I left.

I entered the number then pressed ‘call’.

Seven rings before a woman’s voice answered, “Yes?”

No names, no identification.

“Mr McCall gave me an envelope with this number in it.”

“You worked it out?” She sounded surprised.

“By accident, yes.”

“Well, four out of five candidates don’t. Consider this to be your lucky morning, the day is not over yet. Where are you?”

I told her.

“Then you’re not far from Central Park. Go to the souvenir store and wait.”

“How will I know you?”

“You won’t, I’ll recognize you.”

Then the phone went dead, and I was left looking at it as if I had the ability to see, via the phone, who that person was. I shrugged. How many others had failed even the most basic test, to figure out what was on the sheet of paper, and, was it an indication of the work I would be doing?

I spent the better part of an hour watching the squirrels at play. They scuttled around on the ground chasing each other or their imaginary friends or leaping from branch to branch in the shrubs and trees. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and I wondered what that would be like.

Unfortunately, I had to pay the rent, bills, and eat, all of which required having a paying job. I had been looking at having to return home a dismal failure and fulfil the destiny my father had predicted for me.

“David Jackson, I presume?”

I looked sideways to see a woman about my own age, dressed so that she would look anonymous in a crowd. It was anyone’s guess how long she had been there, but that, I guess was the point. She had been observing me, and no doubt assessing my suitability.

Could I blend in? Perhaps not if I was that easily identifiable.

“I am.”

“What if anything has been explained to you about the job?”

“Nothing. I was asked to meet a nameless man in an anonymous office and was handed an envelope which led to my call to you.”

After I said it out loud it sounded crazy.

“If you don’t mind me asking but how did you work out how to read the letter?”

Moment of truth, was there a right or wrong answer? Most if not all the people who received it would not work it out.

“Quite by accident.”

She smiled. “The truth is a rare commodity in our business. But then, you’re one of a very select group of people who made it to this level.”

“Just out of curiosity, what happens to those who done work out how to read the number?”

“They don’t get to stand where you are. Welcome aboard.”

© Charles Heath 2021

In a word: Rabbit

Have you ever heard of someone rabbiting on, you know, endlessly rattling on about nothing?

That’s just one use of the word rabbit.

The most obvious is the animal, a rabbit.  You know, that burrowing, plant-eating, long-eared, short-tailed animal that goes by the name of Bugs Bunny, maybe.

Nearly every child has a stuffed, cuddly one.

Of course, it’s of some significance at the moment because its Easter, and that there are countless chocolate versions of the so-called Easter bunny.

Then there is that 6-foot high invisible rabbit called Harvey, or not necessarily a rabbit, but a pookah.

We use the expression rabbit ears to describe those old interior television antennas.

There’s rabbit stew, rabbit pie, and white rabbit beer.

But my favourite is when the magician pulls the proverbial rabbit out of a hat.  It’s an expression we also use for someone who pulls off an impossible task.

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

An excerpt from “Sunday in New York”

Now available on Amazon at:  https://amzn.to/2H7ALs8

 

Williams’ Restaurant, East 65th Street, New York, Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

 

We met the Blaine’s at Williams’, a rather upmarket restaurant that the Blaine’s frequently visited, and had recommended.

Of course, during the taxi ride there, Alison reminded me that with my new job, we would be able to go to many more places like Williams’.  It was, at worst, more emotional blackmail, because as far as Alison was concerned, we were well on our way to posh restaurants, the Trump Tower Apartments, and the trappings of the ‘executive set’.

It would be a miracle if I didn’t strangle Elaine before the night was over.  It was she who had filled Alison’s head with all this stuff and nonsense.

Aside from the half frown half-smile, Alison was looking stunning.  It was months since she had last dressed up, and she was especially wearing the dress I’d bought her for our 5th anniversary that cost a month’s salary.  On her, it was worth it, and I would have paid more if I had to.  She had adored it, and me, for a week or so after.

For tonight, I think I was close to getting back on that pedestal.

She had the looks and figure to draw attention, the sort movie stars got on the red carpet, and when we walked into the restaurant, I swear there were at least five seconds silence, and many more gasps.

Even I had a sudden loss of breath earlier in the evening when she came out of the dressing room.  Once more I was reminded of how lucky I was that she had agreed to marry me.  Amid all those self-doubts, I couldn’t believe she had loved me when there were so many others ‘out there’ who were more appealing.

Elaine was out of her seat and came over just as the Head Waiter hovered into sight.  She personally escorted Alison to the table, allowing me to follow like the Queen’s consort, while she and Alison basked in the admiring glances of the other patrons.

More than once I heard the muted question, “Who is she?”

Jimmy stood, we shook hands, and then we sat together.  It was not the usual boy, girl, boy, girl seating arrangement.  Jimmy and I on one side and Elaine and Alison on the other.

The battle lines were drawn.

Jimmy was looking fashionable, with the permanent blade one beard, unkempt hair, and designer dinner suit that looked like he’d slept in it.  Alison insisted I wear a tuxedo, and I looked like the proverbial penguin or just a thinner version of Alfred Hitchcock.

The bow tie had been slightly crooked, but just before we stepped out she had straightened it.  And took the moment to look deeply into my soul.  It was one of those moments when words were not necessary.

Then it was gone.

I relived it briefly as I sat and she looked at me.  A penetrating look that told me to ‘behave’.

When we were settled, Elaine said, in that breathless, enthusiastic manner of hers when she was excited, “So, Harry, you are finally moving up.”  It was not a question, but a statement.

I was not sure what she meant by ‘finally’ but I accepted it with good grace.  Sometimes Elaine was prone to using figures of speech I didn’t understand.  I guessed she was talking about the new job.  “It was supposed to be a secret.”

She smiled widely.  “There are no secrets between Al and I, are there Al?”

I looked at ‘Al’ and saw a brief look of consternation.

I was not sure Alison liked the idea of being called Al.  I tried it once and was admonished.  But it was interesting her ‘best friend forever’ was allowed that distinction when I was not.  It was, perhaps, another indicator of how far I’d slipped in her estimation.

Perhaps, I thought, it was a necessary evil.  As I understood it, the Blaine’s were our mentors at the Trump Tower, because they didn’t just let ‘anyone’ in.  I didn’t ask if the Blaine’s thought we were just ‘anyone’ before I got the job offer.

And then there was that look between Alison and Elaine, quickly stolen before Alison realized I was looking at both of them.  I was out of my depth, in a place I didn’t belong, with people I didn’t understand.  And yet, apparently, Alison did.  I must have missed the memo.

“No,” Alison said softly, stealing a glance in my direction, “No secrets between friends.”

No secrets.  Her look conveyed something else entirely.

The waiter brought champagne, Krug, and poured glasses for each of us.  It was not the cheap stuff, and I was glad I brought a couple of thousand dollars with me.  We were going to need it.

Then, a toast.

To a new job and a new life.

“When did you decide?”  Elaine was effusive at the best of times, but with the champagne, it was worse.

Alison had a strange expression on her face.  It was obvious she had told Elaine it was a done deal, even before I’d made up my mind.  Perhaps she’d assumed I might be ‘refreshingly honest’ in front of Elaine, but it could also mean she didn’t really care what I might say or do.

Instead of consternation, she looked happy, and I realized it would be churlish, even silly if I made a scene.  I knew what I wanted to say.  I also knew that it would serve little purpose provoking Elaine, or upsetting Alison.  This was not the time or the place.  Alison had been looking forward to coming here, and I was not going to spoil it.

Instead, I said, smiling, “When I woke up this morning and found Alison missing.  If she had been there, I would not have noticed the water stain on the roof above our bed, and decide there and then how much I hated the place.” I used my reassuring smile, the one I used with the customers when all hell was breaking loose, and the forest fire was out of control.  “It’s the little things.  They all add up until one day …”  I shrugged.  “I guess that one day was today.”

I saw an incredulous look pass between Elaine and Alison, a non-verbal question; perhaps, is he for real?  Or; I told you he’d come around.

I had no idea the two were so close.

“How quaint,” Elaine said, which just about summed up her feelings towards me.  I think, at that moment, I lost some brownie points.  It was all I could come up with at short notice.

“Yes,” I added, with a little more emphasis than I wanted.  “Alison was off to get some study in with one of her friends.”

“Weren’t the two of you off to the Hamptons, a weekend with some friends?” Jimmy piped up, and immediately got the ‘shut up you fool’ look, that cut that line of conversation dead.  Someone forgot to feed Jimmy his lines.

It was followed by the condescending smile from Elaine, and “I need to powder my nose.  Care to join me, Al?”

A frown, then a forced smile for her new best friend.  “Yes.”

I watched them leave the table and head in the direction of the restroom, looking like they were in earnest conversation.  I thought ‘Al’ looked annoyed, but I could be wrong.

I had to say Jimmy looked more surprised than I did.

There was that odd moment of silence between us, Jimmy still smarting from his death stare, and for me, the Alison and Elaine show.  I was quite literally gob-smacked.

I drained my champagne glass gathering some courage and turned to him.  “By the way, we were going to have a weekend away, but this legal tutorial thing came up.  You know Alison is doing her law degree.”

He looked startled when he realized I had spoken.  He was looking intently at a woman several tables over from us, one who’d obviously forgotten some basic garments when getting dressed.  Or perhaps it was deliberate.  She’d definitely had some enhancements done.

He dragged his eyes back to me.  “Yes.  Elaine said something or other about it.  But I thought she said the tutor was out of town and it had been postponed until next week.  Perhaps I got it wrong.  I usually do.”

“Perhaps I’ve got it wrong.”  I shrugged, as the dark thoughts started swirling in my head again.  “This week or next, what does it matter?”

Of course, it mattered to me, and I digested what he said with a sinking heart.  It showed there was another problem between Alison and me; it was possible she was now telling me lies.  If what he said was true and I had no reason to doubt him, where was she going tomorrow morning, and had she really been with a friend studying today?

We poured some more champagne, had a drink, then he asked, “This promotion thing, what’s it worth?”

“Trouble, I suspect.  Definitely more money, but less time at home.”

“Oh,” raised eyebrows.  Obviously, the women had not talked about the job in front of him, or, at least, not all the details.  “You sure you want to do that?”

At last the voice of reason.  “Me?  No.”

“Yet you accepted the job.”

I sucked in a breath or two while I considered whether I could trust him.  Even if I couldn’t, I could see my ship was sinking, so it wouldn’t matter what I told him, or what Elaine might find out from him.  “Jimmy, between you and me I haven’t as yet decided one way or another.  To be honest, I won’t know until I go up to Barclay’s office and he asks me the question.”

“Barclay?”

“My boss.”

“Elaine’s doing a job for a Barclay that recently moved in the tower a block down from us.  I thought I recognized the name.”

“How did Elaine get the job?”

“Oh, Alison put him onto her.”

“When?”

“A couple of months ago.  Why?”

I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face, while my insides were churning up like the wake of a supertanker.  I felt sick, faint, and wanting to die all at the same moment.  “Perhaps she said something about it, but it didn’t connect at the time.  Too busy with work I expect.  I think I seriously need to get away for a while.”

I could hardly breathe, my throat was constricted and I knew I had to keep it together.  I could see Elaine and Alison coming back, so I had to calm down.  I sucked in some deep breaths, and put my ‘manage a complete and utter disaster’ look on my face.

And I had to change the subject, quickly, so I said, “Jimmy, Elaine told Alison, who told me, you were something of a guru of the cause and effects of the global economic meltdown.  Now, I have a couple of friends who have been expounding this theory …”

Like flicking a switch, I launched into the well-worn practice of ‘running a distraction’, like at work when we needed to keep the customer from discovering the truth.  It was one of the things I was good at, taking over a conversation and pushing it in a different direction.  It was salvaging a good result from an utter disaster, and if ever there was a time that it was required, it was right here, right now.

When Alison sat down and looked at me, she knew something had happened between Jimmy and I.  I might have looked pale or red-faced, or angry or disappointed, it didn’t matter.  If that didn’t seal the deal for her, the fact I took over the dining engagement did.  She knew well enough the only time I did that was when everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket.  She’d seen me in action before and had been suitably astonished.

But I got into gear, kept the champagne flowing and steered the conversation, as much as one could from a seasoned professional like Elaine, and, I think, in Jimmy’s eyes, he saw the battle lines and knew who took the crown on points.  Neither Elaine nor Jimmy suspected anything, and if the truth be told, I had improved my stocks with Elaine.  She was at times both surprised and interested, even willing to take a back seat.

Alison, on the other hand, tried poking around the edges, and, once when Elaine and Jimmy had got up to have a cigarette outside, questioned me directly.  I chose to ignore her, and pretend nothing had happened, instead of telling her how much I was enjoying the evening.

She had her ‘secrets’.  I had mine.

At the end of the evening, when I got up to go to the bathroom, I was physically sick from the pent up tension and the implications of what Jimmy had told me.  It took a while for me to pull myself together; so long, in fact, Jimmy came looking for me.  I told him I’d drunk too much champagne, and he seemed satisfied with that excuse.  When I returned, both Alison and Elaine noticed how pale I was but neither made any comment.

It was a sad way to end what was supposed to be a delightful evening, which to a large degree it was for the other three.  But I had achieved what I set out to do, and that was to play them at their own game, watching the deception, once I knew there was a deception, as warily as a cat watches its prey.

I had also discovered Jimmy’s real calling; a professor of economics at the same University Alison was doing her law degree.  It was no surprise in the end, on a night where surprises abounded, that the world could really be that small.

We parted in the early hours of the morning, a taxi whisking us back to the Lower East Side, another taking the Blaine’s back to the Upper West Side.  But, in our case, as Alison reminded me, it would not be for much longer.  She showed concern for my health, asked me what was wrong.  It took all the courage I could muster to tell her it was most likely something I ate and the champagne, and that I would be fine in the morning.

She could see quite plainly it was anything other than what I told her, but she didn’t pursue it.  Perhaps she just didn’t care what I was playing at.

And yet, after everything that had happened, once inside our ‘palace’, the events of the evening were discarded, like her clothing, and she again reminded me of what we had together in the early years before the problems had set in.

It left me confused and lost.

I couldn’t sleep because my mind had now gone down that irreversible path that told me I was losing her, that she had found someone else, and that our marriage was in its last death throes.

And now I knew it had something to do with Barclay.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

Sunday In New York

 

“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 (April) – Day 15

Well, we knew something was going to happen when Jack walked in the front door of his modest residence.

It’s been trashed.

We have the clues, we know what they are looking for – that item his mother fortuitously dropped off at the travel agency.

No one knows what it is yet, but it is going to be an important part of the puzzle moving forward.

And now Rosalie has it, it means that she is in danger.

Of course, this is the time to contrast his relationship with Maryanne, and that with Rosalie. Back, before he left, he realised he had a thing for her (though is ‘thing’ the right word to use?) and had said he would meet with her when he got back.

So, a meeting is set. Without Maryanne tagging along.

In the meantime, there is that disaster called his residence to deal with, and, of course, he calls the police to report the break in.

We know where that’s going, don’t we?

Today’s effort amounts to 2,028 words, for a total, so far, of 36,779.

More tomorrow.

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

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

See below for an excerpt from the book…

Coming soon!

PIWalthJones1

An excerpt from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, of course, when it came to Harry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Charles Heath 2019

An excerpt from “The Devil You Don’t”

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

 

By the time I returned to the Savoie, the rain had finally stopped, and there was a streak of blue sky to offer some hope the day would improve.

The ship was not crowded, the possibility of bad weather perhaps holding back potential passengers.  Of those I saw, a number of them would be aboard for the lunch by Phillippe Chevrier.  I thought about it, but the Concierge had told me about several restaurants in Yvoire and had given me a hand-drawn map of the village.  I think he came from the area because he spoke with the pride and knowledge of a resident.

I was looking down from the upper deck observing the last of the boarding passengers when I saw a woman, notable for her red coat and matching shoes, making a last-minute dash to get on board just before the gangway was removed.  In fact, her ungainly manner of boarding had also captured a few of the other passenger’s attention.  Now they would have something else to talk about, other than the possibility of further rain.

I saw her smile at the deckhand, but he did not smile back.  He was not impressed with her bravado, perhaps because of possible injury.  He looked at her ticket then nodded dismissively, and went back to his duties in getting the ship underway.  I was going to check the departure time, but I, like the other passengers, had my attention diverted to the woman in red.

From what I could see there was something about her.  It struck me when the light caught her as she turned to look down the deck, giving me a perfect profile.  I was going to say she looked foreign, but here, as in almost anywhere in Europe, that described just about everyone.  Perhaps I was just comparing her to Phillipa, so definitively British, whereas this woman was very definitely not.

She was perhaps in her 30’s, slim or perhaps the word I’d use was lissom, and had the look and manner of a model.  I say that because Phillipa had dragged me to most of the showings, whether in Milan, Rome, New York, London, or Paris.  The clothes were familiar, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling I’d seen her before.

Or perhaps, to me, all models looked the same.

She looked up in my direction, and before I could divert my eyes, she locked on.  I could feel her gaze boring into me, and then it was gone as if she had been looking straight through me.  I remained out on deck as the ship got underway, watching her disappear inside the cabin.  My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to keep an eye out for her.

I could feel the coolness of the air as the ship picked up speed, not that it was going to be very fast.  With stops, the trip would take nearly two hours to get to my destination.  It would turn back almost immediately, but I was going to stay until the evening when it returned at about half eight.  It would give me enough time to sample the local fare, and take a tour of the medieval village.

Few other passengers ventured out on the deck, most staying inside or going to lunch.  After a short time, I came back down to the main deck and headed forward.  I wanted to clear my head by concentrating on the movement of the vessel through the water, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and let the peacefulness of the surroundings envelope me.

It didn’t work.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started thinking about why things hadn’t worked, and what part I played in it.  And the usual question that came to mind when something didn’t work out.  What was wrong with me?

I usually blamed it on my upbringing.

I had one of those so-called privileged lives, a nanny till I was old enough to go to boarding school, then sent to the best schools in the land.  There I learned everything I needed to be the son of a Duke, or, as my father called it in one of his lighter moments, nobility in waiting.

Had this been five or six hundred years ago, I would need to have sword and jousting skills, or if it had been a few hundred years later a keen military mind.  If nothing else I could ride a horse, and go on hunts, or did until they became not the thing to do.

I learned six languages, and everything I needed to become a diplomat in the far-flung British Empire, except the Empire had become the Commonwealth, and then, when no-one was looking, Britain’s influence in the world finally disappeared.  I was a man without a cause, without a vocation, and no place to go.

Computers were the new vogue and I had an aptitude for programming.  I guess that went hand in hand with mathematics, which although I hated the subject, I excelled in.  Both I and another noble outcast used to toss ideas around in school, but when it came to the end of our education, he chose to enter the public service, and I took a few of those ideas we had mulled over and turned them into a company.

About a year ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  There were so many zeroes on the end of it I just said yes, put the money into a very grateful bank, and was still trying to come to terms with it.

Sadly, I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  My parents had asked me to come back home and help manage the estate, and I did for a few weeks.  It was as long as it took for my parents to drive me insane.

Back in the city, I spent a few months looking for a mundane job, but there were very few that suited the qualifications I had, and the rest, I think I intimidated the interviewer simply because of who I was.  In that time I’d also featured on the cover of the Economist, and through my well-meaning accountant, started involving myself with various charities, earning the title ‘philanthropist’.

And despite all of this exposure, even making one of those ubiquitous ‘eligible bachelor’ lists, I still could not find ‘the one’, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  Phillipa seemed to fit the bill, but in time she proved to be a troubled soul with ‘Daddy’ issues.  I knew that in building a relationship compromise was necessary, but with her, in the end, everything was a compromise and what had happened was always going to be the end result.

It was perhaps a by-product of the whole nobility thing.  There was a certain expectation I had to fulfill, to my peers, contemporaries, parents and family, and those who either liked or hated what it represented.  The problem was, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  Not like my friend from schooldays, and now obscure acquaintance, Sebastian.  He had been elevated to his Dukedom early when his father died when he was in his twenties.  He had managed to fade from the limelight and was rarely mentioned either in the papers or the gossip columns.  He was one of the lucky ones.

I had managed to keep a similarly low profile until I met Phillipa.  From that moment, my obscurity disappeared.  It was, I could see now, part of a plan put in place by Phillipa’s father, a man who hogged the limelight with his daughter, to raise the profile of the family name and through it their businesses.  He was nothing if not the consummate self-advertisement.

Perhaps I was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the attachment to the establishment, that link with a class of people he would not normally get in the front door.  There was nothing refined about him or his family, and more than once I’d noticed my contemporaries cringe at the mention of his name, or any reference of my association with him.

Yet could I truthfully say I really wanted to go back to the obscurity I had before Phillipa?  For all her faults, there were times when she had been fun to be with, particularly when I first met her when she had a certain air of unpredictability.  That had slowly disappeared as she became part of her father’s plan for the future.  She just failed to see how much he was using her.

Or perhaps, over time, I had become cynical.

I thought about calling her.  It was one of those moments of weakness when I felt alone, more alone than usual.

I diverted my attention back to my surroundings and the shoreline.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the red coat, making a move.  The red coat was like a beacon, a sort of fire engine red.  It was not the sort of coat most of the women I knew would wear, but on her, it looked terrific.  In fact, her sublime beauty was the one other attribute that was distinctly noticeable, along with the fact her hair was short, rather than long, and jet black.

I had to wrench my attention away from her.

A few minutes later several other passengers came out of the cabin for a walk around the deck, perhaps to get some exercise, perhaps checking up on me, or perhaps I was being paranoid.  I waited till they passed on their way forward, and I turned and headed aft.

I watched the wake sluicing out from under the stern for a few minutes, before retracing my steps to the front of the ship and there I stood against the railing, watching the bow carve its way through the water.  It was almost mesmerizing.  There, I emptied my mind of thoughts about Phillipa, and thoughts about the woman in the red coat.

Until a female voice behind me said, “Having a bad day?”

I started, caught by surprise, and slowly turned.  The woman in the red coat had somehow got very close me without my realizing it.  How did she do that?  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer immediately.

“I do hope you are not contemplating jumping.  I hear the water is very cold.”

Closer up, I could see what I’d missed when I saw her on the main deck.  There was a slight hint of Chinese, or Oriental, in her particularly around the eyes, and of her hair which was jet black.  An ancestor twice or more removed had left their mark, not in a dominant way, but more subtle, and easily missed except from a very short distance away, like now.

Other than that, she was quite possibly Eastern European, perhaps Russian, though that covered a lot of territory.  The incongruity of it was that she spoke with an American accent, and fluent enough for me to believe English was her first language.

Usually, I could ‘read’ people, but she was a clean slate.  Her expression was one of amusement, but with cold eyes.  My first thought, then, was to be careful.

“No.  Not yet.”  I coughed to clear my throat because I could hardly speak.  And blushed, because that was what I did when confronted by a woman, beautiful or otherwise.

The amusement gave way to a hint of a smile that brightened her demeanor as a little warmth reached her eyes.  “So that’s a maybe.  Should I change into my lifesaving gear, just in case?”

It conjured up a rather interesting image in my mind until I reluctantly dismissed it.

“Perhaps I should move away from the edge,” I said, moving sideways until I was back on the main deck, a few feet further away.  Her eyes had followed me, and when I stopped she turned to face me again.  She did not move closer.

I realized then she had removed her beret and it was in her left side coat pocket.  “Thanks for your concern …?”

“Zoe.”

“Thanks for your concern, Zoe.  By the way, my name is John.”

She smiled again, perhaps in an attempt to put me at ease.  “I saw you earlier, you looked so sad, I thought …”

“I might throw myself overboard?”

“An idiotic notion I admit, but it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Then she tilted her head to one side then the other, looking intently at me.  “You seem to be familiar.  Do I know you?”

I tried to think of where I may have seen her before, but all I could remember was what I’d thought earlier when I first saw her; she was a model and had been at one of the showings.  If she was, it would be more likely she would remember Phillipa, not me.  Phillipa always had to sit in the front row.

“Probably not.”  I also didn’t mention the fact she may have seen my picture in the society pages of several tabloid newspapers because she didn’t look the sort of woman who needed a daily dose of the comings and goings, and, more often than not, scandal associated with so-called celebrities.

She gave me a look, one that told me she had just realized who I was.  “Yes, I remember now.  You made the front cover of the Economist.  You sold your company for a small fortune.”

Of course.  She was not the first who had recognized me from that cover.  It had raised my profile considerably, but not the Sternhaven’s.  That article had not mentioned Phillipa or her family.  I suspect Grandmother had something to do with that, and it was, now I thought about it, another nail in the coffin that was my relationship with Phillipa.

“I wouldn’t say it was a fortune, small or otherwise, just fortunate.”  Each time, I found myself playing down the wealth aspect of the business deal.

“Perhaps then, as the journalist wrote, you were lucky.  It is not, I think, a good time for internet-based companies.”

The latter statement was an interesting fact, one she read in the Financial Times which had made that exact comment recently.

“But I am boring you.”  She smiled again.  “I should be minding my own business and leaving you to your thoughts.  I am sorry.”

She turned to leave and took a few steps towards the main cabin.

“You’re not boring me,” I said, thinking I was letting my paranoia get the better of me.  It had been Sebastian on learning of my good fortune, who had warned me against ‘a certain element here and abroad’ whose sole aim would be to separate me from my money.  He was not very subtle when he described their methods.

But I knew he was right.  I should have let her walk away.

She stopped and turned around.  “You seem nothing like the man I read about in the Economist.”

A sudden and awful thought popped into my head.  Those words were part of a very familiar opening gambit.  “Are you a reporter?”

I was not sure if she looked surprised, or amused.  “Do I look like one?”

I silently cursed myself for speaking before thinking, and then immediately ignored my own admonishment.  “People rarely look like what they are.”

I saw the subtle shake of the head and expected her to take her leave.  Instead she astonished me.

“I fear we have got off on the wrong foot.  To be honest, I’m not usually this forward, but you seemed like you needed cheering up when probably the opposite is true.  Aside from the fact this excursion was probably a bad idea.  And,” she added with a little shrug, “perhaps I talk too much.”

I was not sure what I thought of her after that extraordinary admission. It was not something I would do, but it was an interesting way to approach someone and have them ignoring their natural instinct.  I would let Sebastian whisper in my ear for a little longer and see where this was going.

“Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing.  I was supposed to be traveling with my prospective bride.  I think you can imagine how that turned out.”

“She’s not here?”

“No.”

“She’s in the cabin?”  Her eyes strayed in that direction for a moment then came back to me.  She seemed surprised I might be traveling with someone.

“No.  She is back in England, and the wedding is off.  So is the relationship.  She dumped me by text.”

OK, why was I sharing this humiliating piece of information with her?  I still couldn’t be sure she was not a reporter.

She motioned to an empty seat, back from the edge.  No walking the plank today.  She moved towards it and sat down.  She showed no signs of being cold, nor interested in the breeze upsetting her hair.  Phillipa would be having a tantrum about now, being kept outside, and freaking out over what the breeze might be doing to her appearance.

I wondered, if only for a few seconds if she used this approach with anyone else.  I guess I was a little different, a seemingly rich businessman alone on a ferry on Lake Geneva, contemplating the way his life had gone so completely off track.

She watched as I sat at the other end of the bench, leaving about a yard between us.  After I leaned back and made myself as comfortable as I could, she said, “I have also experienced something similar, though not by text message.  It is difficult, the first few days.”

“I saw it coming.”

“I did not.”  She frowned, a sort of lifeless expression taking over, perhaps brought on by the memory of what had happened to her.  “But it is done, and I moved on.  Was she the love of your life?”

OK, that was unexpected.

When I didn’t answer, she said, “I am sorry.  Sometimes I ask personal questions without realizing what I’m doing.  It is none of my business.”  She shivered.  “Perhaps we should go back inside.”

She stood, and held out her hand.  Should I take it and be drawn into her web?  I thought of Sebastian.  What would he do in this situation?

I took her hand in mine and let her pull me gently to my feet.  “Wise choice,” she said, looking up at the sky.

It just started to rain.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newdevilcvr6

NaNoWriMo (April) – Day 14

There’s nothing like having a travel agent on hand when you need to make some urgent bookings because your travel arrangements have gone up in smoke.

Anyone else would have had the devil’s own job sorting out their travel arrangements.

And, yes, Maryanne is coming along for the ride. Is she feeling obligated to look after him, or is there some other reason. As yet, it’s not clear.

But it’s a day of planes, trains and automobiles, attempts to locate his mother so he can find out more about what’s going on, and then get home where it may, or may not be, safe.

So much for having a holiday.

So much for going to his first conference. There’s going to be some explaining to the head agent.

Today’s effort amounts to 2,237 words, for a total, so far, of 34,751.

It seems that this novel, going on the amount of writing so far, is going to be bigger than 50,000 words, at the half way mark, or near enough, I’m at 35,000 words, give or take, which indicates a story of 70,000 words.

We will have to wait and see what happens. I have more planning to do.

More tomorrow.

In a word: Fourth

When you realize you are the fourth child, you are really hoping that the split is two boys and three girls.  Woe betide you if you are a boy and you have three sisters.  It could also be as interesting, notice I didn’t say intolerable) if you are a girl with three brothers.

Hang on, I know someone who was in that exact same situation.  Fortunately, being a girl and the youngest, she could do no wrong in the eyes of her father.

But I digress (as usual)

The meaning of fourth is self-evident, just count to four and it’s the fourth number, perhaps better explained by the fact it is one after the third in a series

Then we use it with other words like,

Fourth-gear, usually reserved for the highway where one expects to geta clear run.  Of course, with more and more cars on the road, sometimes it’s difficult to get out of second.

The fourth estate, no, not what a rich person owns, along with a lot more one guesses, but another name for the press.

One fourth, your share of an estate, if of course, you have three other siblings.  And, in murder mysteries, usually those fourths seem to die mysteriously, and your fourth becomes a third, a half, and then you go to jail.

in fourth place, where it seems all the horse I back run

And,

This is not to be confused with the word forth, which sounds the same but means something entirely different, like

I’m sure we’ve all been told to go forth and be something or other, which means to go forward or come out of hiding

It is also a Scottish river, one notably called the Firth of Forth, and if it sounds odd, so do a lot things in Scotland

You could also place back and forth, much the same as you would in a hospital waiting for the birth of your first child.