An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”; In love, Henry was all at sea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  That wasn’t possible.

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

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

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

At least we agree on that, she thought.

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

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

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

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

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Was that what she was expecting?

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

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

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

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

Rebellion was written all over him.

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

“Mr. Henshaw?”

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

“Then my name is Michelle.”

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

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, so do I.”

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

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

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

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

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

“After a fashion.”

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

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

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

“Whatever for?”

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

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

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

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”

“Was?”

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

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

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

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

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

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

Dinner now over, they separated.

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

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

lovecoverfinal1

Do you ever think about…

And probably it is a matter of being better off not thinking

But…

I’m sitting here and writing a piece for a novel about one of my characters, and all of a sudden I stop, right in the middle of where he’s about to get violently murdered if he lets his guard down.

Why have I stopped right there?

A strange thought goes through my mind.

Did he remember to have breakfast, did he make the bed and tidy up after he got up?  Did he have to arrange to have his clothes cleaned, or were they cleaned for him?

Does he have a maid and a butler and a cook to do all those things?

The problem is, we don’t know what happened before he finished up in that precarious position.

We may know that he was taught to fight by a zen master, a swordsman, though I’m not sure if there is a requirement for fencing, to drive defensively, to kill people in more ways than you’ve had hot dinners.

We may know that he was in a similar fight the day before, and his energy has been depleted and may be running on painkilling drugs.  Of course, if that’s the case, and knowing the side effect of some of those drugs, he may be impaired, and slower in reaction time, which might mean premature death.

But we don’t know if he ate anything, whether he slept well, or not at all (though sometimes it rates a mention more often than not as an afterthought or an excuse), whether he has any distracting thoughts, like what the hell am I doing here?

Everyday things which all of us, and I’m sure even the most successful of spies, have to deal with.

Just a thought.

Back to the fight, yes he wins, got a couple of slashes and there’s a copious amount of blood on his shirt.

Let’s not worry about who’s going to clean up the mess, or do the washing.

A few running repairs with needle and thread, including the requisite grimaces in pain, someone else will clean the shirt, and yes, there’s always a cupboard full of clean clothes to change into.

Moving on…

“Uncanny good luck shines upon me…” – a short story


I never did take advice very seriously.  Especially when they were issued by old man Taggard, a man of some mystery that we all, adults and children alike wanted to know about.

Everyone in the street knew him as he had lived in the almost derelict mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac forever, way longer than anyone else in the neighbourhood had.  In fact, it was rumoured he had owned all the land around and sold it off bit by bit over time, the reason why there were so many houses of varying age in the estate.

Ours was one of the older houses, a few doors up from it.  We were close enough to observe Taggard’s habit, like sitting on the porch on an old swing chair in the afternoons, to the late-night wanderings in the street.  Some said he was accompanied by the ghost of his long-dead wife, which led to stories being told of the house he lived in being haunted.

As children, we had been brought up on a diet of TV shows such as ‘The Munsters’ and ‘The Addams Family’, and had invented our own make-believe show called ‘The Taggard Mansion’, the house with ghosts, and the neighborhood center for strange goings-on.

And as children were wont to do, we had to ‘investigate’.

There was a ‘gang’ even though we didn’t refer to it as such, about seven of us who lived in nearby houses, and all of whom had very active imaginations.  We also met in the cubby house out the back of our house to plan forays to find out whether the rumours were true.  The thing is we never got very far as he seemed to know when we were sneaking in and scared us off, so for years, the rumours remained just that, rumours.

But as grown-ups, and by that I mean, middle teens, our plans became bolder and more sophisticated, based on a whole new breed of TV shows, where the seemingly impossible was no longer that.  And Andy Boswell, my older brother’s best friend, his father was a private detective, or so he told us, and he had managed to ‘secure’ some of his father’s tools of the trade; a camera on the end of a wire that could connect to a cell phone, a listening device that could hear through walls, and in-ear communicators.  We could now, if we were close enough, see under doors, and hear if anyone was in.  We could all keep in touch, though I couldn’t see how this would help.

But a plan was formulated.  All seven of us had a role to play.  My brother Ron and Delilah, his girlfriend, were taking point, whatever that meant, Andy and I were going to take point, while Jack, Jill, and Kim were going to run distraction.  The theory was, they’d make enough noise to keep the old man occupied chasing them.  No one had been inside the house, ever.  Andy and I were going to be the first.

Andy had drawn up a plan and it was up on the wall.  He had charted the house, and had a very accurate picture of the house’s footprint, where doors and windows were, likely entrance points, including a hatchway down into what he assumed was a basement, though he preferred to call it the dungeon, and a layout of the grounds.  Apparently under the undergrowth were paths and gardens, even a large fountain that once graced the grounds of the three-story mansion made of sandstone, and built sometime during the middle of the 1800s.

Andy had done some research, mostly from old newspapers, and also discovered that the old man had once been married, they had a half dozen children, three of whom had died, the others scattered around the world.  It explained why no one ever visited the place.

The distraction team would be going in through the front gate, easy enough because it had come off its hinges and just needed a shove to open.  The old man usually emerged from the house via the driveway, or what was once a drive where cars could enter one side of the property, stop under a huge canopy, and emerge onto the road further along.  But it’s overgrown stare, the width of the pathway was now about six feet.  The fact it was once an amazing feature was the roadside lights, now all but disappearing behind the undergrowth.

Andy had found a photograph in the paper of it, and it had looked magnificent, as had the gardens, the overhanging canopy, and all the lights.  To think such magnificence was now lost.  And having seen it for what it once was, it was not hard to imagine any number of scenarios, my favourite, rescuing a damsel in distress from the tower.  Yes, it even had a tower, two, in fact, at each end of the house.  My brother always said I had an overactive imagination.

Andy and I would be going in by the less-used car exit, and heading for the left side of the building where Andy said were several floor-to-ceiling windows that looked to him like French doors.  Of course, none of us knew what French doors were, and my brother cut Andy short when he tried to explain.

Failing that, there was a door at the rear that seemed to be open, and we’d try that next.  We would get into position, advise the distraction team, and the operation would be a go.  The only debate was about what time of the day were we going to do it.  My brother preferred late in the afternoon.  Andy said it was better at dawn, or soon after if we were looking for maximum confusion about the target.

Dawn, confusion, tactics, target, Andy was in his element.  He was going to be a spy when he grew up.  My brother said he would never grow up, but then, my brother said I was a dreamer and would never amount to anything.  We ignored his advice, well, we pretty much ignored everything he said.

We were going in at dawn.

At 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, we gathered at the cubby house ready for action.  We all took a communicator and put it in our ears, and then had fun saying stupid stuff, and hearing it through the earpieces.  It was weird but added an exciting element to the adventure.  I know my heart was beating faster in anticipation.  Andy was pretending to be cool and failing.  I suspected my brother and Delilah had other plans when we left them alone in the cubby house.  The distraction team was ready to go.

Shortly after the sun came up, it was cool and the air still.  It was going to be a hot day, and in that first hour, everything was almost perfect.  It seemed a waste to do anything but let the early morning serenity settle over us.  Not today.  Andy and I went to our position, slowly feeling our way through the bushes, taking bearings from the light poles, and every now and then seeing the guttering and what looked to be a concrete path.  Beyond that was once a garden, and I tried, more than once, to imagine what it was like.

In my ear I could hear the others in the distraction team setting up at the start of the driveway, ready to go.  We reached our position, about twenty feet from the so-called French windows, the view into the house blocked by curtains, but beyond that, what we could see was darkness inside the house.  Taking in the whole side of the house, there were no lights on behind any of the windows.  If we didn’t know better, we could have assumed the house was empty.

I heard Andy say, “Ready.  Start making noise.”

A minute later we could both hear the distraction team in the distance and through the communicators.  It took two minutes before we heard the old man, yelling, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  Their job done, getting him out of the house, all they had to do was retreat.

Time for Andy and I to go.

Working on the basis that no one else was at the house, and the fact we had no evidence there was, we were not overly worried about making a stealthy approach.  I could hear in my earpiece, the gasping of those in the distraction team, having just made it outside the gate, and to tell us the old man had stopped them at the gate.  I doubt he had been running, but his yelling was just as effective.

That had stopped, and a sort of silence fell over the area.

We were now at the French doors, and Andy produced another tool that he’d forgotten to tell us about, a lock pick.  The fact it didn’t take long to unlock the door told me he was either very talented, or the lock was old and presented no problems.  Either way, he opened the door and ushered me in.

I brushed the curtains aside for him to follow, then moved in as he followed, closing the door behind him.

I’d taken five steps before I heard a woman’s voice say.  “Uncanny good luck shines upon me.  My knights in shining armour.  You’ve come to rescue me, no?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2023

‘Sunday in New York’ – A beta reader’s view

I’m not a fan of romance novels but …

There was something about this one that resonated with me.

This is a novel about a world generally ruled by perception, and how people perceive what they see, what they are told, and what they want to believe.

I’ve been guilty of it myself as I’m sure we all have at one time or another.

For the main characters Harry and Alison there are other issues driving their relationship.

For Alison, it is a loss of self-worth through losing her job and from losing her mother and, in a sense, her sister.

For Harry, it is the fact he has a beautiful and desirable wife, and his belief she is the object of other men’s desires, and one in particular, his immediate superior.

Between observation, the less than honest motives of his friends, a lot of jumping to conclusions based on very little fact, and you have the basis of one very interesting story.

When it all comes to a head, Alison finds herself in a desperate situation, she realises only the truth will save their marriage.

But is it all the truth?

What would we do in similar circumstances?

Rarely does a book have me so enthralled that I could not put it down until I knew the result. They might be considered two people who should have known better, but as is often the case, they had to get past what they both thought was the truth.

And the moral of this story, if it could be said there is one, nothing is ever what it seems.

Available on Amazon here: amzn.to/2H7ALs8

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 16

Space command, one of our captains is missing

Before I called, I had one question for the second officer; where were we heading. The answer was not surprising, Uranus.

The next question was why the alien pirate had told us. The first answer that came to mind, we would never get there in time, that is, he had a much faster ship than us.

Us humans were going to have to get a lot more savvy in a hurry.

I had a special channel to call in space command if anything went wrong. As the Admiral had said, he didn’t want our mistakes to be front page news.

This was not a mistake, but it was news that might start riots. A lot of people had been against going out into the universe to explore.

My first attempt to raise him failed. It was when I realised it would be around 3am where he was, and hardly at his console waiting for me to call him.

But, 10 minutes later, he was calling me.

‘I take it this is about Vanderhoven and Myers.”

Again, it took a moment to remember that the ground crew could monitor everyone on the ship, a precaution because we were heading where no human had been before.

“We were boarded by an alien who transported onto and off the ship the same was transport inanimate objects. He purported to be chasing after the pirates who stole the plutonium fuel rods bound for Venus, and was asking for our help in chasing down the purportrators. It was a ruse to keep us occupied while his men were looking for Myers.”

“They stole plutonium?”

Again, not my first question. “I think the first revelation might be the more significant, that there are other life forms out there.”

“And hostile?”

“I don’t think they plan to attack earth sir, because according to this alien, they have had people on our planet since before the second world war.”

“And you believe him?”

“Do we know of any rogue earth based people who could secretly put together a ship vastly superior to this one, which is supposedly the best we’ve ever had?”

His silence told me there wasn’t, not the he’d probably tell me if there was, but his expression spoke volumes. He also looked deep in thought.

Then, “in the absence of the captain, you’re it. I’ll confirm it within the next few hours. Do you know where they’ve gone?”

“I believe so. One of Uranus’s moons, Coronis.”

“That’s nothing but ice.”

“Maybe. Well know more when we get there.”

OK. I want a more detailed report of the incident in two hours. Something you should be aware of, your ship is capable of a SSPD factor of 10, not 4. We were not going to tell anyone until after the shakedown. I’ll talk to the Engineer, and he’ll get back to you when it can be implemented. Keep me informed.”

The screen went dead.

As number one I was responsible for making the Captain look good. As captain, I was now responsible for a priceless ship and all 2,223 souls aboard.

Too much, too soon.

But before I had time to consider it, the scene officer was back.

“Sir, we have a problem.”

© Charles Heath 2021

Christmas shopping

I hate Christmas

I hate shopping

Could there be a worse time to do the one thing that drives you bonkers?

Perhaps there is, but never a time when so many people are wandering aimlessly around looking for stuff that no one really needs.

And in the process, trash the shelves, and leave the store in such a mess that anyone who thinks shopping in the afternoon is a good idea, is left with little more than a dumpster dive.

Christmas shoppers are a very distinctive breed. First identified but the stultified manner in which they shuffle along the mall walkways, stopping to look vacantly at the wares in the windows, unable to figure out whether the sizes would fit their victims, sorry, giftees.

Or whether the sheer unadulterated inappropriateness would work, because we all know many of the gifts we receive are unwanted and even if they had a degree of acceptability, it was the wrong size, the wrong colour, for a different age group, or needs batteries.

It’s called grandparents revenge.

As for parents gifting their children as a surprise, well it’s a well-known fact they don’t have a clue about the younger generation and what they want.

We made a conscious decision years ago to only buy what the children wanted, no surprises, unfortunately, but never getting it wrong makes it worthwhile.

Of course, what the children want is something else and it took us a while to realise they were using us to buy stuff their parents had strictly banned. Yes, interesting lesson learned.

It only proved how desperately out of touch each generation is with the one below, and worse for those two generations adrift.

Two items of special note, are the number of parents who go shopping with their children, and the level of blackmail used to get their best behaviour, that overused phrase, ‘misbehave and you’re getting nothing for Christmas’ flogged mercilessly to death.

The other is the number of unwilling spouses who would prefer to mind six rotten little kids than brave the dumpster shelves, or worse, the endless racks of clothes that would be more suited to cleaning the house rather than being worn.

I say this out of experience, because in my day girls’ clothing did not have large chinks of material missing or whole swaths of exposed skin

I’ll be leaving the Christmas shopping to someone else from now on.

It continued in London – Episode 25

A small job, really?

Nothing Rodby did, didn’t have an ulterior motive, and as cynical as that sounded, I had to wonder what it was.

Rodby just didn’t understand I didn’t want to go back to that life of always looking over the shoulder.  Disappearing and reinventing myself with Violetta changed my life.

Now she was no longer there, it was like that cloak of invisibility had gone.  Rodby hadn’t said as much but I knew he was going to formally ask me to return to work, citing the reason I’d be better off doing something rather than dwelling on the past.

It was hard to dispute that fact.  I needed something to do.  Just existing even in a place like Venice was not living.  And finding someone else, well, I was not sure what Violetta might think, but I knew she would not want to see me like this.

I was not sure how going to the opera as a plus one was going to make a difference, and I was trying not to play down Martha’s invitation. She didn’t share her passions with just anybody, nor would she be a cohort in one of Rodby’s recruiting schemes.

He was not so circumspect

So, I dusted off the tuxedo one more time, even though I didn’t really feel in the mood for anything. Time had not made me a size too large or smaller, despite the good life I’d had over the last few years.  Italian cooking was hardly the manna dieters went to as a first choice, but then, I was not under so much pressure to stay fit.

This was in part due to the fact I didn’t forsake the fitness regime I had adopted for many years; I just didn’t go at it so hard, and it had served me well.  The suit still fitted.

The text from Rodby arrived about ten minutes before the car was due to pick me up outside the front door.  I was hoping I would not have to get a cab, expecting I would have to get myself to the Royal Opera house

When I reached the curb, the car was waiting, the chauffeur waiting to open the door for me.  My first impression, he was more a bodyguard than a chauffeur; I could just see the earpiece connecting him to an invisible army.

As the door opened, I could see there was another person in the car, and, at first sight, I thought it might be Martha, Rodby, who detested opera, somehow getting out of going, but it was not. 

It was another woman, very elegantly dressed about my age or perhaps a few years younger though she had managed to keep what must have been, in her younger days, devastating beauty.

A princess perhaps of a foreign country, she had that classical European look.  Martha knew a lot of different people, rich, poor, aristocratic, and others like me.

I climbed in and the chauffeur closed the door.

“Welcome, said the spider to the fly.”  She said it with just a hint of a smile, discernible in the light striking her just right from a streetlamp overhead.

“Rodby didn’t tell me there was another guest, so please forgive my momentary surprise.  My name is Evan Wallace, but no doubt you already knew that.”

“I did.  It was going to be my next question.  Rodby would be very annoyed if I picked up just any man off the street. I am Countess Heidi von Burkhardt, though I do not want you to use that title tonight.  I am, today, just Heidi.”

“Then just Heidi it will be.”

The car eased its way out into the traffic quietly and smoothly.  It was so quiet I could just hear the symphony playing in the background, one I’d heard before but could put a name to.  Just yet. It would come to me.

“Rodby failed to mention you would be coming to the opera.”

“He would.  Martha’s idea, she seems to have this soft spot for you, or at least that was the impression I got when she mentioned you might be coming, and I suspect she might also be dabbling in a little matchmaking.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.  She had tried finding someone for me after Violetta died, but I told her it would be too soon.  Perhaps she had assumed enough time had passed.

“There isn’t a Count?”

“There was, but he passed some months ago.  It would not have mattered though; we had an unusual and mutually agreeable arrangement.  I spent his money, and he did, well, whatever it is Counts do.  He didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, but I suspect it killed him in the end.”

“Did you love him?”  An odd question that had popped into my mind and was out before I could stop it.

“My.  Martha did warn me you could be direct; she called it refreshingly honest.”

“Sorry, sometimes the words come out before I consider whether they’re appropriate or not.  Just ignore that question “

“No.  It’s one I asked myself after his passing, and truth be told, I did. I had such romantic notions when I was young, that I was going to find a prince and marry him.  I didn’t find the prince, but I live in a castle, with turrets and towers and dungeons.  Just no dragons, except for the housekeeper.”

She shuddered. 

Cold or memories?

“You live there?”

“I did, I haven’t been back since Gustav died, but I will have to, some inheritance matters have come up, and I’ve been summoned to Bacharach to meet with the Rechtsanwalte.  Perhaps I’ll go after the opera, literally joy followed by pain.”

The car stopped and we arrived outside the Royal Opera house.  For a few seconds, the smile had disappeared, and it was replaced with a frown, no doubt brought on by the thought of facing the German legal system.

Then, as the door opened, she changed.

No one told me she was a celebrity and there would be limelight, flashing cameras, and a host of journalists.

© Charles Heath 2022

NaNoWriMo – 2022 – Day 1

People change.

It’s a fact of life that over time people change.  Yes, they do keep some of their original characteristics, but a lot of people sometimes wake up, forty years later, and wonder who it is that they are in bed with.

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but the person I married has changed.

We all do.

External influences like workplaces, friends, enemies, attitudes, and even children, all have an influence on who we become.  I personally have no idea where the 18-year-old version of me has gone, not that I remember much of him.

So it goes for our hero, David.  He has an inkling of who Susan is or was, but so much has changed for her.  Her mother is dead, she had been held captive by a madman, drugged and tortured, it would have to affect anyone.

But, then, there are different nuances, so un Susan-like.  Little changes he knows she might not partake in, and it is these that start him wondering, what if…

Firstly, she cuts short a planned reunion away in Italy, time for them to reconnect.  Yes, she is now head of the family business, yes, she is hanging out with new men in her life, and no, it seems he does not fit into her corporate persona.

Then there is the first assassination attempt.

On him.

Words written today, 1,953, for a total of 1,953

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

© Charles Heath 2018-2022

strangerscover9

Where does time go?

When has time gone?  I mean, just yesterday it felt like the start of a new year, and all those projects I had lined up are still on paper, somewhere.

Has anyone else over 65 got the feeling time is speeding up rather than slowing down?  It sounds weird doesn’t it, that as you slow down as old age approaches, time goes faster, and those things you wanted to get done seem further and further away.

When you’re young it always seems like you will have all the time in the world, and that seems to play out over the first forty or fifty years, putting this off, putting that off, while all the little details of life take more and more of your time.

And there’s that one huge thing that hangs over your head, the fact that you might never get to that time when you said you would have time for it.  People are dying younger again, of stress, bad habits and overexercising.

I’ll never be guilty of the last once.  It’ll probably be bad habits, something we are all guilty of.

That’s also a reason why I don’t have New Year’s resolution, and I try not to make plans for anything too far ahead.

It’s also the reason why we decided to travel and do all those things people say they’re going to do when they retire, only to discover they can’t for one reason or another, or they just simply died.

Stopping work after being so wrapped up in it, can kill you, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that you can quite literally die of boredom.

It’s why I write.  Keeps the mind active, gives me something to do, and believe me when I’m writing I’m never bored, and is a perfect fit between bouts of being a grandfather, a taxi service, and doing everything else that needs a not-so-handy handyman.

Time flying is the same reason why my granddaughters have grown so much because it seems like it was only yesterday they were babies, and now the eldest is 16.  When did she get so grown up?

Oh, well, back to childminding duties.  It’s the school holidays and tomorrow we’re off the travel down ‘the coast’ what most ubiquitously call the Gold Coast, or otherwise known as Surfer’s Paradise.  It’s glitzy, has a dark side, and always looks shiny until the sun goes down.  We go there during the day.  Tomorrow will be the first time in over a year.

If we can get the kids off their computers and smartphones.