NaNoWriMo (April) – Day 8

The story proceeds. That underlying suspicion of Maryanne’s motives rears it’s head again, but for different reasons.

Of course, Jack, the main character has a name, if not a little trite but it suits him, has always been suspicious because he’s not the type to be approached by beautiful women, and yet, so far has managed to allay those fears but being the perfect companion.

But, what’s a self confessed gate crasher got up her sleeve.

Out of the hospital and on their road trip, they’re heading for an island and a hotel that overlooks the Mediterranean, what might be synonymous with the perfect location for romance.

But all of that is shattered when he sees her with another man, at the rear of the ferry, and the animation in her manner tells him the man is not just someone who ran into her.

Jack knows who it is, and what he does, so that makes the meeting even more mysterious.

And perhaps dangerous.

Yes, we are exploring the theme of ‘everyone has secrets’.

Today’s effort amounts to 2,444 words, for a total, so far, of 20,594.

More tomorrow.

NaNoWriMo (April) – Day 7

What’s the best way to recover from being shot by the police? Go on an all expenses paid holiday.

Within reason, of course.

Of course, he was on a holiday, not quite all expenses paid, but for the duration of the conference. Getting shot and having a prolonged stay in hospital put paid to that, but there is an upside.

The police, in exchange for silence and an indemnity are happy to send our intrepid conference goer on a tour of Italy. There are benefits either side, the police don’t get a lawsuit, and he gets to spend a few days touring.

Of course, Maryanne decided to tag along. She had been filling in for him at the conference, unbeknownst to him, and line up a couple of free venues. In exchange for favourable reviews.

But what is the real reason Maryanne is along for the ride, or she might put it, ‘carry the bags’?

That saying ‘if it’s too good to be true, is probably is’ sticks in the back of his mind, but he doesn’t discourage her coming with him.

Is he lucky, or is he cursed?

Today’s effort amounts to 3,123 words, for a total, so far, of 18,150.

More tomorrow.

NaNoWriMo (April) – Day 6

It’s round about now, coming to the end of the first week when the well runs dry.

It’s an interesting analogy. For the pantsers, the ideas run really well, and then the magnitude of the job kicks in, and the words dry up, and that terrible piece of paper staring at you, begging to be written on, becomes a nemesis.

Yes, I’ve been there.

But…

I’ve learned over the years that writing a 50,000 word novel needs a degree of planning, and once the day’s allocation has been written, get some ideas down for the next, or for the next few.

Any ideas, whether they fit or not, that flesh out the story in outline form. I do this at the end of the writing session most times, but, sometimes when I’m in the middle of a piece, an idea will pop into my head.

It’s a good distraction.

Unless, like me, you suddenly find yourself writing that piece because the story is pouring out like water from a tap.

Today is another good day, and I’m lost in the relationship between two of our characters, and they are sparring. He suspects she is not what she seems, and she is trying to allay his fears, each trying not to be too conspicuous about it.

I’m also getting to travel myself, even if it is in an armchair, and it’s great that I can go almost anywhere in the world, but I’m settling for some islands off Italy. One day I might actually be able to visit them in person.

Today’s effort amounts to 1,411 words, for a total, so far, of 15,027.

More tomorrow.

The A to Z Challenge – E is for “Every cloud has a silver lining”

There wasn’t a year went by when I was reminded of a saying that a childhood friend, Jack Mulligan, had one told me, when one door closes another one opens.

I forget why he said that, but I suspect it had something to do with a chip on my shoulder over not being the same as other children in the street.

We were definitely not equal with them, and it had shown. And school could be hell when kids see prey and attack mercilessly.

When I left the school, and the family moved away from Odyssey Falls, I never saw Jack again, though I followed his progress, as well as several others, for a few years, up until I read about a car accident, and not only his death, but that of my first love, Cecilia Zampa.

After that, I forgot about Odyssey Falls, and a life that had not been particularly good.

It took another friend, one I’d made during a stint in the National Guard, to bring back a single memory, and one thing led to another as it inevitably does, until I found myself waking up in the Sad Sack Motel on the city limits of Odyssey Falls, one very cold, snowy morning.

It would not have happened if it had not been snowing so hard, and the road that passed through the city had not been covered in snow.

Not that I knew, the moment I woke up, that I was in Odyssey Falls, we had not passed the sign telling all that they were about to enter the most scenic city in the state, and it could have been anywhere.

“What the hell happened to us?” The croaky voice that was the result of 40 cigarettes a day, sounded startled, and belonged to my travelling companion, Melissa, last name not sure.

“We hit a bank of snow, and the cops said to hole up in the motel until the road was cleared, hopefully this morning sometime.”

“Is there a reason we’re in this bed together?

A good question. Until two days ago I’d never met Melissa before, she had been seeking a lift when I’d stopped at a gas station to fill up, and it beat making the drive by myself.

“Your idea. I said I’d sleep on the floor.”

“Did we…?”

“No. I started on the floor and you took pity on me.”

I saw her glance under the blanket, just to make sure, but she still had most of her clothes on. She rolled over. “What time is it?”

“Still dark. A few hours before it gets light. I’m going out to get some coffee, you want any?”

“God, no. Maybe later.”

I thought I’d got out of the bed without waking her, but obviously the opposite was the case. It had been a strange night, and she had talked in her sleep, and it didn’t take much to realise she had not been treated well by the men in her life. I didn’t sleep much, too many bad dreams myself, and I was heading to the truck stop a few hundred yards up the road.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said just before opening the door. There was no reply, so I guess she had gone back to sleep.

..

It was dark and cold, the hour or two before the sun made an appearance. In that dark, it was quiet, the traffic on the road stopped waiting for the snow ploughs to clear the way.

The truck stop stood out like a beacon in the night, like a light drawing an insect towards it on a hot summers night. A find memory popped into my head and was gone again by the time I reached the door.

It was bright inside, and busy, a lot of stalled drivers taking the forced down time to get breakfast. I wandered up to the counter and sat on one of the well-worn stools.

Back in my day, this place was all,shiny and new, and the place to go and meet up with others before getting into mischief. The city had been in its heyday then, when it was a stopover for those going east to west or vice versa, and there were a dozen cafes and even more motels.

This appeared to be the last, showing its age, and perhaps if the snow had not cut the road, would be empty. When the new turnpike had been built, 20 miles south, the effect on the city had been catastrophic, even more than when the timber mill closed after all the trees had been cut down.

The two events had reduced the population from a peak of 200,000, down to the 8,109 today, turning it into a veritable ghost town. Its halcyon days adorned the walls in photographs, now faded and wrinkled.

As soon as I sat down, one of the two women behind the counter noticed and came over, a half full pit if percolated coffee in one hand and a cup on a saucer in the other.

She looked tired, not in the way that indicated the last hour of a 12-hour shift, but tired of life.

She put the cup in front of me, and said, “coffee?”

I nodded, and she poured.

“Milk, sugar?”

“No.”

It was then I noticed the signature white tuft of hair that all the Zampa women had. This one had to be Cecilia’s younger sister, Marilyn.

I saw her giving me the once over, as if I had one of those familiar faces.

“Martin?” If she was Marilyn, she would have to recognise me, even though I was older and half the weight. She knew of my unrequited love for her sister and had, like many others, derided me for it

“Marilyn?”

“Ain’t seen you in a lifetime.”

“A mistake I assure you. Wasn’t expecting a prom queen to be a waitress in a dump like this.”

“OK, so I deserved that. I was a different person back then and believe me God has been punishing me ever since. The burgers are quite good here, believe it or not.”

“For breakfast?”

“You’d be surprised.”

I probably would, so I ordered it on her recommendation, and she went off to the kitchen. I was expecting her to yell it out across the room, but she didn’t.

Whilst mulling over the coffee, I tried assembling the history we shared, but it was only bits and pieces. The best I could remember was her sister being sympathetic towards me, but Marilyn, being the one who hung out with the football team, and the quarterback prom king, had made my life miserable.

She was far more beautiful than her sister but had that mean streak that every girl who knew she would be the most desired girl in school had towards people like me.

Fated too to marry the quarterback who had been drafted into a team that was a steppingstone towards fame and fortune, she had foolishly allowed herself to get pregnant, and then dumped when the lad left town. From what I remembered reading afterwards, it was the only child she had, and had never married since.

The quarterback, he wrecked his knee and tumbled out of favour and the big time, only to return to town and end up working in his father’s factory, at a sight less that he would have got in the big league.

She came back and dumped the burger in front of me and refilled the coffee cup. It was black and very strong, and I could feel it waking me up, and to an extent sober me up. I was lucky the cops had not realised I’d been drinking, and that was the cause of the accident, and equally lucky that no one else had been involved.

It was the sum of my life, going on benders and losing whole weeks at a time. It might have been the catalyst for finding myself back in the one place I said I’d never return. But the mind does play tricks, and it had decided the only place I was going to find salvation was this place.

And if that was the case, I don’t think I was going to find salvation.

..

When daylight broke and turned the darkness into a sea of whiteness, I’d finished. She’d been right, the hamburgers were good.

I paid the check and climbed back into my anorak. It had started snowing again, and it would be cold. Then, outside the door, it took a moment to remember which way the motel was.

Behind me I heard the swish of the automatic doors open and close, then Marilyn, “where are you staying?”

“Briefly at the Sad Sack, until the road clears.”

“Not staying?”

“There’s nothing to see or stay for. My parents live in Florida, my brother and sister somewhere in Europe and Asia respectively. There’s nothing here.”

“In a once thriving city, you’re not right, once everything closed down, and the new turnpike opened, people started drifting away, and now the only people we see are those that have lost their way. As for our generation, everyone has gone, except those who have nowhere to go.”

“I thought you had that dream of going to Hollywood.”

If I remembered correctly, she had been the star of several stage productions, and was quite good. Everyone had been impressed with her singing and dancing, and the drama teacher
was going to talk to a friend in the business.

“Me and a thousand others. Being good in a backwater doesn’t guarantee you anything but heartache, and disappointment. Then my mother got cancer and I had to come back to look after her, and work in the motel. I had my chance, and it didn’t work out.”

“For what it’s worth, everything I tried turned to crap. From what I’ve read, all of us had the same bad luck. You still own the motel?”

“My mother died, then dad, which was no surprise. Now my brother runs it, let’s me stay there, and the mean bastard makes me pay rent. You should come visit before you leave. Unless you’re married or something.”

“Once, but she found someone else, more successful. But my heart wasn’t in it, there was no one after Cecilia.”

“She liked you, you know, but she had aspirations that were never realistic.”

“What about you?”

“That’s a story that requires copious quantities of alcohol to relate. And time. If you change your mind, come and see me, it’d be nice to see a familiar face.”

“Walk you home?” It seemed almost a novel idea.

“Why not?”

..

When I got back to the room, it looked like a bomb had gone off in it.

Melissa was not in the room, and when I checked she was not in the bathroom either, that was a bigger mess. She had used all the towels and left them lying in a sopping heap in the corner. The sink had strands of black hair.

I came back out of the bathroom and was hit by the heady aroma of perfume. Had she spilled it on the floor, there was a stain beside the bed. On the bedside table was a scribbled note.

‘A salesman staying next door said he was leaving, and I hitched a ride with him. Thanks for the ride and room.’

Although I’d not expected any recompense, leaving a few dollars might have been an acceptable gesture, but she had not. I shrugged. I was considering leaving myself right after having a shower, but there didn’t seem to be the same desire to leave in a hurry.

Perhaps seeing Marylin and being reminded of Cecelia might have done that.

I took a last look at the room from the doorway, then pulled the door shut. At the very least I needed new towels.

Three doors up I ran into Marylin now changed into a cleaner’s uniform, and dragging a large cleaning car with, yes, new towels.

“No rest for the wicked then?”

“The cleaning lady rostered on today didn’t turn up for work. I don’t blame her. Sleep will have to wait. You are leaving now?”

“No. My travelling companion of a few days has up and left after using all the towels.”

She pulled two off the top of the pile and handed them to me. “Does this mean you’re staying?”

“For a day or two maybe. I have to go and see the old house where we lived, and you did intimate you had a story to tell, and I’m a sucker for stories.”

“Then when I get off shift I’ll call you. Every cloud eh?”

I had no idea what that meant, nor cared. For the moment I had something else to care about, other than the fact I was dying. My mind went briefly back to the doctor’s surgery a week before. The doctor delivered the news deadpan, and I took it in numbly. It had only hit home that morning just before I’d got out of bed.

The reason for coming home, the only home I’d ever known. Maybe now I could come to terms with it. Marylin smiled at me when I looked back, just before I went into the room. Perhaps that was another reason my subconscious had brought me here, to see Cecilia’s sister, to be reminded of what I’d once felt. Perhaps I’d felt that for her sister too.

Only time would tell, and although I had little of it left, it was time to take a few chances. Then I realised what she had said, that ‘every cloud had a silver lining’.

I looked up, just as the snow started again. I think I finally realised what fate was telling me, and for the first time since being told the bad news, I didn’t feel angry or sad, that everything would be the way it was meant to be.


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – D is for “Do you know where you are?”

D is for “Do you know where we are?”

Bus tours were hectic at the best of times, so many stops in so short a time. It was ideal if you wanted a taste of each country, then come back later to explore those you liked the most, but you have to be willing to make sacrifices.

Then, on tour, it does not bode well if you embark on the tour with your relationship teetering on the edge of disaster. If relations were tense before, then by the second or third day, it was going to be like a volcano erupting if anything went wrong.

It was my idea we go away for a short, sharp tour, what was to be the first together for nearly 20 years together. The children had grown up and we had sacrificed travel until they had left the nest. Eloise was transitioning from being a full-time mother to back in the workforce, and I was scaling back so we could spend more time together.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the memo that told everyone, but me, that our relationship was foundering. It was not as if I didn’t ask the right questions, it was just I interpreted the answers incorrectly. It thought the measured reluctance to go was her reluctance to be away from her grandchildren.

It was not.

There were other factors in play, those little annoyances that caused discussions to become arguments, and then glowering resentment. That summed up the mornings where we had to be up and ready early to have breakfast, pack and be ready to embark the bus at an early hour, following late nights.

Eloise was not at her best under those conditions. Day two had been a trial, day three a battle, and day four, well, that’s where everything went wrong. The alarm didn’t go off, we got up late, and by the time we came down, the bus had gone.

Yes, we literally missed the bus.

I went to bed on day three with a premonition. It was something she said in response to a comment I made, one that didn’t register at the time, but came back to haunt me in the dead of night.

She said, in not so many words, if I had not dragged her on this wild goose chase…and stopped there, perhaps realising she was about to say something she shouldn’t. I thought it was to spare my feelings.

It was not.

In the last few months, after getting a promotion at her workplace, a company run by my best friend who had always said she could come and work for him when she was ready to go back to work, that it was too soon to go away.

Even when she said it, I missed the implication.

There had been late nights and trips away, the added responsibility, she had said. She said she wanted to make the right impression. Tony, my friend, had said that she was perfect for the job, and said she was in good hands to learn the trade. I thought, given the new independence and responsibility she would recover from the slight depression from no longer being needed.

At three in the morning, staring at the ceiling, I finally got it. The change in her had been remarkable. She was happy again with a job she liked and a place to be.

So was Tony, whom I had noticed over the same journey, after being dumped by his wife, had been in a similar sort of funk.

It didn’t take rocket science to see what was happening.

Down in the breakfast room, we were having coffee. There was a smug expression on her face, one that told me that she had no intention of continuing this farce, and after getting no sleep, I was both tired and where I should be annoyed, I was a little numb.

“Should I Call the tour director, ask him if we should try to re-join the tour, or should we just let it slide?”

She gave me a look of disdain, or what I thought was disdain. I was perhaps feeling a little judgemental.

“If the bus had not been leaving so early, we might have made it. Perhaps it was not a good idea to pick one that requires us to be up at the crack of dawn.”

Any other time, I might have got annoyed, but now I knew, or thought I knew what was driving her attitude, I just sighed inwardly and put on my happy face. “Then what do you suggest we do?”

“We’re somewhere in Germany, and we don’t speak the language. It might be a little difficult…”

“You forget I travel to Europe a lot. I might not be fluent, but I have got a smattering of a few of the languages.” Particularly Italian, but that was down to spending time with Gabriella, one of the subsidiary managers I had to deal with.

“I’m surprised then you wanted to come here for a holiday.”

“It was for your benefit, and mine to a lesser extent, simply because travelling to these countries doesn’t mean I got to tour them. You know how it is, meetings from dawn to dusk and not much time for anything else. Besides, I was happy to wait until you could come with me before I did any sightseeing.”

Her phone was sitting on the table, and suddenly rang. She almost managed to snatch it up before I saw the caller ID. Tony. She disconnected the call without answering. It was not the first time it had rung.

My turn to give her a look of disdain. “You should have answered it.”

“It was nothing.”

I had my phone with me and looked up Tony’s number then dialled it.

“George, this is a surprise. How’s the trip going?” He said, knowing who it was calling him.

“I’m sure Eloise has kept you fully informed, but from my perspective, not so great.”

I could feel Eloise staring at me.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but she…”

“Tony, don’t insult my intelligence. I know. And I’m not angry or annoyed or anything really. I blame myself for being so stupid. I thought I’d call you, since she didn’t answer, to tell you she’ll be coming home. I’ll take her to Berlin and get her a flight back as soon as practicable. We can talk, if you like, when I get back, but that might not be for a while.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“It probably is, Tony, but like I said, I’m neither angry or annoyed. I’ll let you get back to work, and Eloise will no doubt call you soon.”

I disconnected the call and put the phone on the table.

“You’ve got it all wrong, George.” It was a measured response, and one I expected.

“The last three or so months tell me a different story, Eloise. You’re happy, and it had nothing to do with me. All I seem to do is make you angry, and I can see why now. I have to accept responsibility for the mistakes I’ve made. None of this is your fault.”

“Tony is a good friend, George, but it’s not what you think. I might have thought once of twice about having a relationship with him, he certainly thinks we are heading in that direction, but I haven’t done anything, nor would I.”

“He makes you happy, Eloise. I don’t and believe me that’s all I want for you. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in my own little world to notice how much we’ve drifted apart. AS I said, that’s more my fault, not yours. And I don’t blame you for wanting more than I can give you.”

“Don’t you love me anymore?”

“You always were, are, and will be the only one Eloise. That will never change. It doesn’t matter what I think or feel, you have to decide what is best for you, and I want nothing other than what’s best for you. If that means being with someone else, then so be it. I will not stand in your way, or make things difficult for you.”

“And if that’s not what I want?”

“What do you want?”

“To hear you tell me that you love me, like you used to tell me.”

“I thought you knew that.”

“You stopped saying it. And, yes, you have been in your own little world, and I expect that was because I spent too much time looking after the children, and being too tired to make time for you, so I too should accept some responsibility for the mess we are in.”

Not what I was expecting to hear.

“Like I said, you don’t have to make excuses, the fault is mine.”

“No, it’s not that simple. You know, it seems stupid that we had to travel umpteen thousand miles to the middle of nowhere, just to finally have a meaningful conversation. Do you actually know where we are, because I don’t. And what’s strange to me is that I don’t really care. I’m going to say this once, George, so listen carefully. I do not love Tony, nor am I having an affair with him. What he thinks is going on is his problem, not mine. I have a husband, and I care as much about him as he cares about me now that he has finally told me. I do not want to continue this bus tour, but I do want to see Europe, so firstly, we have the room until eleven this morning which gives us three hours to reacquaint ourselves with each other. Then you’re going to hire a car, and we are going to find our own way, perhaps get a little lost along the way, and the best thing about that is that we will get lost together.”

She stood, held out her hand, and said, “Now, come with me, and we shall speak of this no more.”

How could I possibly refuse such an offer?


© Charles Heath 2021

I’ve always wanted to go on a Treasure Hunt – Part 52

Here’s the thing…

Every time I close my eyes, I see something different.

I’d like to think the cinema of my dreams is playing a double feature but it’s a bit like a comedy cartoon night on Fox.

But these dreams are nothing to laugh about.

Once again there’s a new installment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.


“So, how do you know your way around this place?”

We walked slowly and carefully because there was a lot of rubbish in the alleyway, mostly from cracks in the walls where the concrete lining had broken away. At times there were mounds of rubble, and we had to carefully walk over these.

The ground was dusty and signs of footprints from past visitors, but it had been a long time, they had almost disappeared. There was also a dank, musty aroma, just short of being nauseating.

“The result of a misspent youth. Not many people know there’s a passageway around the whole perimeter of the mall, with only four entry points from outside, and two inside. This was how we escaped when we came along for some shoplifting.”

“Did you ever think of going straight?”

“Wasn’t much chance of that. There were expectations, and when I did try to give it up, I got ostracised, and ended up having to commit bigger follies to regain acceptance.”

We reached the end of the passage, where it turned right. At a guess, I would say we were in one of the corners of the mall, near the front entrance.

She turned left and then stopped. I could see the bottom of the steps leading up.

A stopped next to her and we shone both torches up the stairs. The light only went as far as a landing.

“What’s up there,” I asked.

“Offices. A holding cell. It’s where the security team used to be. It was separate from everything else. The security guys used to shake down the teenage girls up there, and not in a nice way.”

“You?”

“Once, but I told Vince and he sorted the bastard out. Didn’t happen again.”

A small sidebar to life in a mall.

She started up the steps. “If anything is going to be anywhere, this will be the place. The front of the mall was the safest part, built properly on solid foundations. As work continued, heading sideways and back, corners were cut. It’s not the only shoddy building there is in this area.”

The Benderby’s construction company had built most of the buildings in the county, always coming in at the lowest price. The only place not cracking or falling to pieces was the town hall.

At the top of the stairs, there was another wide passage with rooms branching off it.

It was a little less dusty and musty up here, but the rooms were quite messy, with papers scattered everywhere. It looked like someone had been looking for something. The first room didn’t look like it had been used since everyone left, nor the second.

The third was a different story. It was reasonably clean, a large desk in the middle of the room, and several boxes on the side with rolled-up papers, probably blueprints or plans.

I went in. Nadia kept going up the passage to check the other rooms.

I pulled out one of the rolls and laid it on the table.

It was a map, one that stretched a hundred miles in each direction and giving a very clear view of all the river systems, lakes, mountains, and coastline. Our town was almost in the middle of the chart.

I pulled out another and it was almost the same.

I looked at the writing at the bottom. One was dated 1972, the other dated 1956.

I kept rummaging through the rolls until I found one that was dated 1935. Our town wasn’t a town back then, nor did Patterson’s Reach exist.

And carefully examining the inlets, bays, and coves, given the parameters of what remembered from Boggs’s map, it could be any one of a dozen locations. I didn’t take that much notice when I’d been looking at Boggs’ collection.

“Hey, Smidge,” Nadia yelled out.

I wished she wouldn’t call me that.

I went out of the room and down the passage, past about four other offices, until the second to last. She was standing outside an office with a shut door. I tried it, and it was locked.

“A locked door in an abandoned Mall. What are the odds?”

“That there’s something in there that someone wants to keep secret. This has to be Alex’s lair. What was in that other room?”

“Maps.”

“Any use?”

“Perhaps. Boggs probably had the same, but I never took much notice of his. Trouble is, I was having difficulty believing there is a treasure buried out there somewhere.”

“A lot of people seem to be looking for this non-existent treasure, so there must be something in it.”

“Any of your keys fit?”

She tried the first, no, the second, the same one she had used to get in, and it worked. A skeleton key perhaps, that oped every lock in the place.

The door swung open and we shone the torch lights inside.

“What the hell happened in here?” she muttered.


© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – C is for “Call me!”

You know what it’s like on Monday morning, especially if it’s very cold and the double glazing is failing miserably to keep the cold out.

It was warm under three blankets thick sheets and a doona, and I didn’t want to get up.

It doesn’t help if in the last few months, the dream job you once had had turned into a drudge, and there was any number of reasons to stay home rather than go into the office. Once, that was trying to find an excuse to stay home because you’d rather go to work.

That was a long time ago or felt like it.

My cell phone vibrated, an incoming message, or more likely a reminder. I reached out into the icy wasteland that was the distance from under the covers to my phone on the bedside table. It was very cold out there, and for a moment I regretted that impulse to check.

It was a reminder; I had a meeting at HR with the manager. I had thought I might be eligible for redundancy since the company was in the throes of a cost cutting exercise. Once I might have been apprehensive, but now, given my recent change in department and responsibility, I was kind of hoping now that it was.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Time to get up sleepy head. You have a meeting to go to, not one to be late.”

It felt strange to wake up with someone else in the bed. My luck in that department hadn’t been all that hood lately, but something changed, and at the usual Friday night after work drinks at the pub I ran into one of the PA’s I’d seen around, one who was curious to meet me as much as I was to meet her.

One thing had led to another and when I asked her if she wanted to drop in on the way home, she did.

“I’d prefer not to. I can think of better things to do.”

“So, could I but that’s not the point. Five more minutes, then I’m pushing you out.”

She snuggled into my back, and I could feel the warmth of her body, and having the exact opposite effect than she intended. But she was right. It was important, and I had to go. But, in the meantime it was four more minutes and counting.

When you get a call from the head of HR it usually means one of two things, a promotion, or those two dreaded words, ‘you’re fired’, though not usually said with the same dramatic effect.

This year had already been calamitous enough getting sidelined from Mergers and Acquisitions because I’d been usurped. That was the word I was going with, but it was to a certain extent, my fault. I took my eye off the ball, and allowed someone else to make their case.

Of course, it helped that the person was connected to all the right people in the company, and, with the change in Chairman, it was also a matter of removing some of the people who were appointed by the previous incumbent.

I and four of my equivalent managers had been usurped and moved to places where they would have less impact. I had finished up in sales and marketing, and to be quite honest, it was such a step down, I had already decided to leave when the opportunity presented itself.

My assistant manager, who had already put in his resignation, was working out his final two weeks. I told him to take leave until the contract expired, but he was more dedicated than that. He had got in before me and was sitting at his desk a cup of coffee in his hand and another on the desk.

“How many days?”

“Six and counting. What about you? You should be out canvassing. There’s at least three other places I know would be waiting to hear from you.”

“It’s still in the consideration phase.”

“You’re likely to get the chop anyway, with this thing you have with Sharky.”

Sharkey was the HR manager.

You know something I don’t?” I picked up the coffee, removed the lid and took in the aroma.
“They’re downsizing. Broadham had decided to go on a cost cutting exercise, and instead of the suggested efficiencies we put up last year, they’re going with people. I don’t think he quite gets it.”

“You mean my replacement doesn’t know anything about efficiency. He makes a good yes man though, telling Broadham exactly what he wants to hear.”

Broadham, the new Chairman, never did understand that people appointed to important positions needed to have the relevant qualifications and experience. My replacement had neither. That was when the employees loyal to the previous Chairman had started leaving.

We had called it death, whilst Broadham had called it natural attrition. He didn’t quite understand that so far, over 300 years of experience had left, and as much again was in the process of leaving.

“Are you going to tell Sharky you’re leaving?”

“I’ll wait and see what he has to say. I think he knows the ship is sinking.”

There wasn’t much I didn’t know about the current state of the company, and with the departures, I knew it was only a matter of time. Sharky was a good man, but he couldn’t stem the tide.

He also knew the vagaries of profits and share prices, and we had been watching the share price, and the market itself. It was teetering, and in the last few months, parcels of shares were being unloaded, not a lot at one time, but a steady trickle.

That told me that Broadham and his cronies were cashing in while the going was good, and quite possibly were about to steer the ship onto the rocks. The question was who was buying, and that, after some hard research I found to be certain board members. Why, I suspected, was to increase their holdings and leverage, but I don’t think they quite realised that there would be nothing left but worthless stock certificates.

It was evidence, when I finally left, that I would pass on to the relevant authorities.

In the meantime, I had a meeting to go to.

“Best of luck,” my assistant muttered as I passed his desk.

“If I don’t return, I’ll will have been escorted from the building. If that happens, Call me.”

It had happened before. When people were sacked, they were escorted to their office, allowed to pack their belongings, and were then escorted to the front door. It would be an ignominious end to an illustrious career, or so I’d been told by the girl who was no doubt still asleep in my bed.

She had heard the whispers.

The walk to the lift, the traversing of the four floors to the executive level, and then to the outer office where Sharky’s PA sat took all of three minutes. I had hoped it would be longer.

“He’s waiting for you,” she said, “go on in.”

I knocked on the door, then went in, closing it behind me. “Now, sir, what on earth could you want to see me about?


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – B is for “Because it’s not me”

If the was one fault I had, it was prevarication.

For a long time, I had always been afraid of making a mistake, after I had done exactly that.  They said our mistakes didn’t define us, but that one had.  I had lost the trust of everyone, from my parents to friends.

It was only a small lie, or so I told myself, but it had far reaching ramifications, and almost cost someone their life.  But whilst I believed it was not all that bad, and the police had agreed that anyone who had been put in the same position would have done the same, there were those who didn’t agree.

It was a moment in time I often relived in my mind, over and over, and eventually led to several outcomes.

The first, I left home, the town where up till then I’d lived all of my life, walking away from family and those who used to be friends, knowing that what they said and what they felt were two entirely different things.  For all concerned, it was better that I left, cutting all ties, and make a fresh start, away from those whom I knew would never forget, even though they forgave me.

The second, and most dire, I changed my name, and my history, even how I looked.  Today, I was a very different person to that of thirty years ago.

The third, I moved to another country, and vowed never to return, always looking constantly over my shoulder, expecting someone from the past to find me.  I instinctively knew that I would never escape, that one day a stark reminder would come back and destroy everything.

I picked the one occupation that would keep me both occupied and invisible.

Journalist.

I had started at the bottom, literally writing death notices, and worked my way up to what is ubiquitously known as ‘foreign correspondent’, going to places where no one else would go, those hotbeds of unrest, and war zones, reporting from both sides.

Perhaps it could say I had a death wish, a statement my editor had once said when he came to see me in hospital back in London after I’d been caught up in a rocket attack and repatriated.  He had come to offer me a job back home, to tell me my tour was over.

I declined the opportunity, and he left, shaking his head.

But that was not the only visitor that came to the hospital that day.  The other visitor was an elderly man, immaculately dressed in a pin stripe suit and bowler hat.  It screamed public servant, and the moment I saw him wandering up the passage, a chill ran down my spine.

Although he looked like he was looking for someone else, I knew he would eventually finish up in my doorway.

Five minutes after I first saw him.

When he appeared at the door, I thought about ignoring him, but realised that wasn’t going to change anything.  Besides that, I guess I wanted to know why he would want to see me.

“James Wilson?”

“Would it make any difference if I said no?”  Well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t spar with him, just a little.  “Who are you.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

I got the impression he would do it anyway, irrespective of what I said.  I said no, and as I suspected he came in anyway, closing the door behind him, then took a minute or two to make himself comfortable in the visitor’s chair, what was an impossible task.

Then, settled, he said, “I understand you have just been repatriated from Syria.”

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It wasn’t common knowledge where I’d come from, so this person knew something about me, which was immediate cause for concern.

“The bane of a reporter trying to cover a dangerous situation,” he said, with just the right amount of levity in his tone.  “I get it, by the way.  I once had that devil may care attitude you need to get the story.  I was chasing a Pulitzer, believe it or not, and used a few of those nine lives in the process.  Which one are you up to?”

I was going to say that awards didn’t matter but among those whom made up the press pack in those God forsaken places, there was an unwritten desire to be rewarded other than by pay.  For me, though, it was not a defining factor.

“Lost count.  But why would that interest you, or whoever it is you represent?  By the way, just who do you represent?”

Second attempt at finding out who this man was.  If he was dodging and weaving, it would suggest a clandestine organisation.

“People who would like to use your unique talent in getting into trouble spots around the world.  We’re not asking you to come work for us exclusively, rather piggyback on the job that you already do so well.”

An unnamed man from an unnamed organisation.  What he was offering wasn’t unheard of, and I had been warned, more than once, that jobs like he was suggesting were more often than not offered to people like me.  With that came one line of advice, turn around and run like hell.

But, with nothing to amuse me in hospital, I was curious.  “Doing what exactly?”

The fact his expression changed indicated my response had taken him by surprise.  Perhaps he was used to being told where to go.  Not yet.  I had this fanciful notion in the back of my mind that what he might offer might get me closer to the story.

“Keeping your eyes and ears open.  We’ll tell you what to look for, all you’ll be doing is looking for evidence.  There will be no need to go looking for trouble, if there’s evidence we ask you to report it, if not, no harm done.”

Not so hard.  If that was all it was.  The trouble was, if something sounds simple, which that did, but inevitably, it was going to be anything but.  I’d heard stories, and the consequences.

“You’re presuming that my editor will send me back.  He just offered me a job at home.”

“I think both of us know you’re not interested in domesticity.  If he isn’t willing to adhere to your wishes, I’m sure we could find someone else who would be willing to take you on.  You have had several offers recently, have you not?”

So, without a doubt, he knew a lot about me, especially if he asked around.  I had had several offers, but I was happy where I was.  I liked the no questions about your past that my current employer had promised.

Yes, looking at the determination on this man’s face, I had no doubt they or he could do what he said.  No one comes to a meeting like this without holding all the cards.  Also, not that I wanted it to be so, It told me that my agreement was not necessarily going to be optional.

But I was happy to dither and find out.  “Since I’m not sure when the hospital is going to discharge me, and the fact I’m not exactly very mobile at the moment, can I consider the proposal.  Right now, as you can imagine, getting back to work is not exactly a priority.”

“Of course.”  He took a card out of his coat pocket and put it on the bedside table.  “By all means.  Call me on that number when you’ve decided.”

He stood.  “It will be a great opportunity.  Thank you for your time.”

Of course, the two impressions I was left with were, one, he had me mixed up with someone else, and two, that I would never see him again.

It was an impossible task, for me at least, because I did not have a poker face, and could rarely carry a lie.  I would be the last person they’d want for the job.

And thinking that, I rolled over, put it out of my mind, and went back to sleep.


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – A is for “Anyone can have a bad day”

It had been one of those days, you know, the sort where you hoped, when you woke up again, it would be a distant memory if not gone altogether. Everything had gone wrong, the handover from my shift to the next, longer than usual, I got home late to find the building’s security system malfunctioning, and after everything that could go wrong had, I was late getting to bed, which meant I was going to be tired and cranky even before my shift started.

But what topped it all off was that the alarm didn’t go off. It was not as if I hadn’t set it, I remembered doing it. There was something else in play.

I rolled over and instantly noticed how dark it was. It was never this dark. It was why I chose an apartment as high up as I could, there would always be light coming from the advertising sign on the roof of the building over the road at night, or direct sunlight not blotted out by surrounding buildings.

I also left the curtains open, deliberately. I liked the notion of being able to see out, sometimes looking at the stars, other times watching the rain, but mostly to see that I was not in a dark place.

Not like now.

I got out of bed and went over to the window. Yes, there were lights, but they were all the way down on the street level. Everywhere else, nothing. It had to be a power blackout. Our first in a long time. I should have noticed the air conditioning was not on, and it was almost silent inside the room.

The apartment had windows that opened, not very far, but enough to allow some airflow, and the room feeling stuffy, I opened one in the bedroom. Instantly, sounds drifted up from street level, and looking down I could see the flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks, as well as the sounds of sirens.

The cold air was refreshing.

It took a few minutes before I realized the elevators would not be working, and I remembered the only pitfall of having a high-up apartment, it was a long way down by the stairs, and even longer going back up.

In the distance, I could see other buildings, about ten blocks away, with their lights on. It had to be a localized blackout, or perhaps a brownout. We had been having problems across the city with power supply caused by an unexplained explosion at several power stations on the grid.

Some were saying it was a terrorist attack, others were saying the antiquated infrastructure had finally given out.

My attention was diverted from the activity below by the vibration of my cell phone on the bedside table. I looked over at the clock and saw it was 3:10 in the morning, not a time I usually got a phone call.

I crossed the room and looked at the screen, just as the vibrating stopped. Louis Bernard. Who was Louis Bernard? It was not a name I was familiar with, so I ignored it. It wasn’t the first wrong number to call me, though I was beginning to think I had been given a recycled phone number when I bought the phone. Perhaps the fact it was a burner may have had something to do with it.

About the go back to the window, the phone started ringing again. The same caller, Louis Bernard.

Curiosity got the better of me.

“Yes?” I wasn’t going to answer with my name.

“Get out of that room now.”

“Who….” It was as far as I got before the phone went dead.

The phone displayed the logo as it powered off, a sign the battery was depleted. I noticed then though I’d plugged the phone in to recharge, I’d forgotten to turn the power on.

Damn.

Get out of that room now? Who could possibly know firstly who I was, and where I was living, to the point they could know I was in any sort of danger?

It took another minute of internal debate before I threw on some clothes and headed for the door.

Just in case.

As I went to open the door, someone started pounding on it, and my heart almost stopped.

“Who is it?” I yelled out. First thought; don’t open it.

“Floor warden, you need to evacuate. There’s a small fire on one of the floors below.”

“OK. Give me a minute or so and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t take too long. Take the rear stairs on the left.”

A few seconds later I heard him pounding on the door next to mine. I waited until he’d moved on, and went out into the passage.

It was almost dark, the security lighting just above floor level giving off a strange and eerie orange glow. I thought there was a hint of smoke in the air, but that might have been the power of suggestion taking over my mind.

There were two sets of stairs down, both at the rear, one on the left and one on the right, designed to aid quick evacuation in the event of a calamity like a fire. He had told me to take the left. I deliberately ignored that and went to the right side, passing several other tenants who were going towards where they’d been told. I didn’t recognize them, but, then, I didn’t try to find out who my fellow tenants were.

A quick look back up the passage, noting everyone heading to the left side stairs, I ducked into the right stairwell and stopped for a moment. Was that smoke I could smell. From above I could hear a door slam shut, and voices. Above me, people had entered the stairwell and were coming down.

I started heading down myself.

I was on the 39th floor, and it was going to be a long way down. In a recent fire drill, the building had been evacuated from the top floor down, and it proceeded in an orderly manner. The idea was that starting at the top, there would not be a logjam if the lower floors were spilling into the stairwell and creating a bottleneck. Were those above stragglers?

I descended ten floors and still hadn’t run into anyone, but the smell of smoke was stronger. I stopped for a moment and listened for those who had been above me. Nothing. Not a sound. Surely there had to be someone above me, coming down.

A door slammed, but I couldn’t tell if it was above or below.

Once again, I descended, one floor, two, three, five, all the way down to ten. The smoke was thicker here, and I could see a cloud on the other side of the door leading out of the stairwell into the passage. The door was slightly ajar, odd, I thought, for what was supposed to be a fire door. I could see smoke being sucked into the fire escape through the door opening.

Then I saw several firemen running past, axes in hand. Was the fire on the tenth floor?

Another door slammed shut, and then above me, I could hear voices. Or were they below? I couldn’t tell. My eyes were starting to tear up from the smoke, and it was getting thicker.

I headed down.

I reached the ground floor and tried to open the door leading out of the fire escape. It wouldn’t open. A dozen other people came down the stairs and stopped when they saw me.

One asked, “Can we get out here?”

I tried the door again with the same result. “No. It seems to be jammed.”

Several of the people rushed past me, going down further, yelling out, “there should be a fire door leading out into the underground garage.”

Then, after another door slamming shut, silence. Another person said, “they must have found a way out,” and started running down the stairs, the others following. For some odd reason I couldn’t explain, I didn’t follow, a mental note popping up in my head telling me that there was only an exit into the carport from the other stairs, on this side, the exit led out onto an alley at the back of the building.

If the door would open. It should push outwards, and there should also be a bar on it, so when pushed, it allowed the door to open.

The smoke was worse now, and I could barely see, or breathe, overcome with a coughing fit. I banged on the door, yelling out that I was stuck in the stairwell, but there was no reply, nor could I hear movement on the other side of the door.

Just as I started to lose consciousness, I thought I could hear a banging sound on the door, then a minute later what seemed like wood splintering. A few seconds after that I saw a large black object hovering over me, then nothing.

It was the culmination of a bad night, a bad day, and another bad night. Was it karma trying to tell me something?

When I woke, I was in a hospital, a room to myself which seemed strange since my insurance didn’t really cover such luxuries. I looked around the room and stopped when I reached the window and the person who was standing in front of it, looking out.

“Who are you?” I asked, and realized the moment the words came out, they made me sound angry.

“No one of particular importance. I came to see if you were alright. You were very lucky by the way. Had you not stayed by that door you would have died like all the rest.”

Good to know, but not so good for the others. Did he know that fire door was jammed? I told him what happened.

“Someone suspected that might be the case which is why you were told to take the other stairs. Why did you not do as you were told?”

“Why did the others also ignore the advice.” It was not a question I would deign to answer.

They didn’t know any better, but you did, and it begs the question, why did you take those stairs.”

Persistent, and beginning to bother me. He sounded like someone else I once knew in another lifetime, one who never asked a question unless he knew the answer.

The man still hadn’t turned around to show me his face, and it was not likely I’d be getting out of the bed very soon.

“You tell me?”

He turned slightly and I could see his reflection in the window. I thought, for a moment, that was a familiar face. But I couldn’t remember it from where.

“The simple truth, you suspected the fire was lit to flush you out of the building and you thought taking those stairs would keep you away from trouble. We both know you’ve been hiding here.”

Then he did turn. Hiding, yes. A spot of trouble a year or so before had made leaving Florida a necessity, and I’d only just begun to believe I was finally safe.

I was not.

They had found me.

And it only took a few seconds, to pull the silenced gun out of his coat pocket, point it directly at me, and pull the trigger.

Two stabbing pains in the chest, and for a moment it was as if nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.

The last thing I saw and heard, several rounds from at least two guns, voices yelling out on the passage, and people running.

As I lay dying, my last thought was, it had been a good run, but no one can run forever.


© Charles Heath 2021

NaNoWriMo (April) – Day 1

It’s a story I’ve been thinking about – the notion that you could be mistaken for someone else.

And not just anyone, someone who is on the run and wanted by the police.

Of course, finding that first sentence that is going to drag the reader down the rabbit hole of the story to come takes longer than it does to write the first chapter.

But, after a few hours deliberation, the project is now under way.

So, the MC is a travel agent, one that prefers to go on his own tours so that he can truthfully tell his clients what places, hotels, and travel services are really like.

I’ve noticed that when travel writers do reviews, the seem to get different rooms and experiences than us poor travellers, no more noticeable than when we stayed in San Gimignano. The hotel sounded wonderful, and the description from the room overlooking the town square fantastic. Pity then we were shoved in a small room out the back, overlooking pigeon coops, and a shower than continually broke down.

It’s probably this disappointment that provided some inspiration for the book.

But rather than being a travelogue, I’ve added some mystery, and suspense to make it more readable.

Today’s effort amounts to 1,700 words, for a total, so far, of 1,700.

More tomorrow.