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

Now only $0.99 at https://amzn.to/2Xyh1ow

John Pennington’s life is in the doldrums. Looking for new opportunities, prevaricating about getting married, the only joy on the horizon was an upcoming visit to his grandmother in Sorrento, Italy.

Suddenly he is left at the check-in counter with a message on his phone telling him the marriage is off, and the relationship is over.

If only he hadn’t promised a friend he would do a favor for him in Rome.

At the first stop, Geneva, he has a chance encounter with Zoe, an intriguing woman who captures his imagination from the moment she boards the Savoire, and his life ventures into uncharted territory in more ways than one.

That ‘favor’ for his friend suddenly becomes a life-changing event, and when Zoe, the woman who he knows is too good to be true, reappears, danger and death follow.

Shot at, lied to, seduced, and drawn into a world where nothing is what it seems, John is dragged into an adrenaline-charged undertaking, where he may have been wiser to stay with the ‘devil you know’ rather than opt for the ‘devil you don’t’.

newdevilcvr6

A private detective story lends itself to be written in episodes

** A new episode has just been published**

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

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

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

It’s basically been in the mill since 1990, and was finally completed as Walthenson’s first case, ‘A Case of Working with the Jones Brothers’.

He has now embarked on his second adventure, as yet untitled, but the latest episode can be found here:

https://www.walthensonpi.com/

The first is here, for those who wish to start with the first episode of his first case:

https://bit.ly/35I1Ddn

My private detective, Harry Walthenson

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

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

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

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

An excerpt from “Echoes from the Past”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4

 

With my attention elsewhere, I walked into a man who was hurrying in the opposite direction.  He was a big man with a scar running down the left side of his face from eye socket to mouth, and who was also wearing a black shirt with a red tie.

That was all I remembered as my heart almost stopped.

He apologized as he stepped to one side, the same way I stepped, as I also muttered an apology.

I kept my eyes down.  He was not the sort of man I wanted to recognize later in a lineup.  I stepped to the other side and so did he.  It was one of those situations.  Finally getting out of sync, he kept going in his direction, and I towards the bus, which was now pulling away from the curb.

Getting my breath back, I just stood riveted to the spot watching it join the traffic.  I looked back over my shoulder, but the man I’d run into had gone.  I shrugged and looked at my watch.  It would be a few minutes before the next bus arrived.

Wait, or walk?  I could also go by subway, but it was a long walk to the station.  What the hell, I needed the exercise.

At the first intersection, the ‘Walk’ sign had just flashed to ‘Don’t Walk’.  I thought I’d save a few minutes by not waiting for the next green light.  As I stepped onto the road, I heard the screeching of tires.

A yellow car stopped inches from me.

It was a high powered sports car, perhaps a Lamborghini.  I knew what they looked like because Marcus Bartleby owned one, as did every other junior executive in the city with a rich father.

Everyone stopped to look at me, then the car.  It was that sort of car.  I could see the driver through the windscreen shaking his fist, and I could see he was yelling too, but I couldn’t hear him.  I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he drove on.  The moment had passed and everyone went back to their business.

My heart rate hadn’t come down from the last encounter.   Now it was approaching cardiac arrest, so I took a few minutes and several sets of lights to regain composure.

At the next intersection, I waited for the green light, and then a few seconds more, just to be sure.  I was no longer in a hurry.

At the next, I heard what sounded like a gunshot.  A few people looked around, worried expressions on their faces, but when it happened again, I saw it was an old car backfiring.  I also saw another yellow car, much the same as the one before, stopped on the side of the road.  I thought nothing of it, other than it was the second yellow car I’d seen.

At the next intersection, I realized I was subconsciously heading towards Harry’s new bar.   It was somewhere on 6th Avenue, so I continued walking in what I thought was the right direction.

I don’t know why I looked behind me at the next intersection, but I did.  There was another yellow car on the side of the road, not far from me.  It, too, looked the same as the original Lamborghini, and I was starting to think it was not a coincidence.

Moments after crossing the road, I heard the roar of a sports car engine and saw the yellow car accelerate past me.  As it passed by, I saw there were two people in it, and the blurry image of the passenger; a large man with a red tie.

Now my imagination was playing tricks.

It could not be the same man.  He was going in a different direction.

In the few minutes I’d been standing on the pavement, it had started to snow; early for this time of year, and marking the start of what could be a long cold winter.  I shuddered, and it was not necessarily because of the temperature.

I looked up and saw a neon light advertising a bar, coincidentally the one Harry had ‘found’ and, looking once in the direction of the departing yellow car, I decided to go in.  I would have a few drinks and then leave by the back door if it had one.

Just in case.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newechocover5rs

In a word: Straight

Yes, that man is straight as an arrow.

Well, in my experience based on the fact many years ago I used to play Cowboys and Indians, and I was always an Indian, I used to make a bow, and arrows, from the limbs of a tree in our back yard, those arrows were never straight.

How they got them so back in the middle ages without a lathe is anybody’s guess.

We all know what straight means, level, even, true, not deviating.  It could be a board, a road, the edge of a piece of paper.

But, of course, there are other meanings like,

He was straight, meaning heterosexual, a question not 50 odd years ago anyone would ask you, and 100 years ago, you wouldn’t dare admit anything but.

In poker, a card game, it is a sequence of five cards, and the sort of straight I’d like to get is ace high.  Chances of that happening, zero per cent.

It can mean being honest, that is, you should be straight with her, though I’m not sure telling your wide you’re having an affair would be conducive to continuing good health.

It could mean immediately, as in, I’ve got a headache and going straight to bed, probably after hearing news of that affair that was best left unspoken.

Perhaps that would be the time to have a whiskey straight, that is without mixers or ice.  I’ve tried, but still, at the very least I need ice.

This is not to be confused with the word strait, which is a narrow waterway between to areas of land.

But, here’s where it gets murky because a company can be in dire straits after being in desperate straits, and a person can be strait-laced, and just to be certain, most lunatics finish up in a straitjacket.

 

Brainstorming, or is it barnstorming?

Perhaps it should be brainstorming in a barn!

It’s a weird word that describes a process where a bunch of people get together and throw ideas around, though others may have different permutations on what brainstorming is.

Reading through the current blogs sent to my reader, the word ‘brainstorming’ got my attention.

I use it, well, I try to use it.

I’m still working on the YA novel, you know the sort, a far off land where there’s kingdoms, kings, queens, princes and princesses, witches, no dragons and the jury’s still out on a unicorn.

I have three grandchildren, all girls, who wanted me to write a story for them.  Not that thriller stuff, or murder, but what sort of life they’d like to have in they could live in a different world.

Fortunately, both still have an imagination, a prime requisite for them to transition through their childhood to young adult, smoothing out the bumps.  They are avid readers, so I have an untapped source of ideas.

Or so you would think.

This is how it started:  A few years ago I told the eldest, who’s 18 this year, to stop acting like a princess.  She didn’t get the inference because it was an ‘adult’ concept when dealing with children.

What she did say was how she was going to be a princess when she grew up.  I said there were not enough real-life princes to go around, a point she took on board with all the aplomb of as she was then 12-year-old, so it graduated to becoming a princess in a story.

Somehow she ended up with the name Marigold.

She decided Marigold was going to be a haughty, self-indulgent, spoilt brat.  That condescending tone, those flicks of the hair, those sharp put-downs, a princess indeed.   It was as if she had acting lessons from the Disney ‘bad princess’ school of acting.

But …

As all haughty and condescending people do, the princess is taught an invaluable lesson in humility when her Kingdom is invaded, her brother, next in line to the throne, murdered, the king thrown in the dungeons, and her mother put to the sword and left for dead.  She flees the castle and her betrothed prince who is leading the invasion of their Kingdom, and who is now regarded as both unworthy and dangerous, goes after her.

The first few ‘brainstorming’ sessions saw the addition of two sisters (her two real life cousins, one back then who was ten and other six), a healer (another name for a witch as witches are outlawed in her Kingdom), magic spells, and a quest to save her family and the land.

It’s been done before, but this is without the Knight in shining armour, and where a young girl who has never had to fend for herself has to come to grips with a completely alien environment, and the fact none of her companions believe she is going to be of any help whatsoever.

Several sessions later we came up with the quest.

What has surprised me, for a generation of children brought up with video games, endless violence, and the endless pressures on youth these days versus what I had in my day, they have this amazing ability to take a step back and see themselves in such a different light.

I’ve always had an overactive imagination borne from a time where we didn’t have any of the facilities children have these days.  We had to make our own adventures, not live them out on TV and in video games.

I dragged them into my world, and now, together, we have a bond that will never be shaken.  I am the storyteller, they are Marigold, Ophelia and Nerida, princesses.

They are as different as chalk and cheese.  Ophelia wants her own story, the princess who battles against the magic within her.  Nerida has a quite simple aim in life, having been taught swordplay by her brother, she wants to slay a dragon.

The first story is now nearly finished, and at the rate I’m going I’ll be lucky to see it published by her 18th Birthday.

Still, how good would it be to be handed a book that was specially commissioned by, and written for her?

An excerpt from “Betrayal” – a work in progress

It could have been anywhere in the world, she thought, but it wasn’t.  It was in a city where if anything were to go wrong…

She sighed and came away from the window and looked around the room.  It was quite large and expensively furnished.  It was one of several she had been visiting in the last three months.

Quite elegant too, as the hotel had its origins dating back to before the revolution in 1917.  At least, currently, there would not be a team of KGB agents somewhere in the basement monitoring everything that happened in the room.

There was no such thing as the KGB anymore, though there was an FSB, but such organisations were of no interest to her.

She was here to meet with Vladimir.

She smiled to herself when she thought of him, such an interesting man whose command of English was as good as her command of Russian, though she had not told him of that ability.

All her knew of her was that she was American, worked in the Embassy as a clerk, nothing important, who life both at work and at home was boring.  Not that she had blurted that out the first tie she met, or even the second.

That first time, at a function in the Embassy, was a chance meeting, a catching of his eye as he looked around the room, looking, as he had told her later, for someone who might not be as boring as the function itself.

It was a celebration, honouring one of the Embassy officials on his service in Moscow, and the fact he was returning home after 10 years.  She had been there one, and still hadn’t met all the staff.

They had talked, Vladimir knew a great deal about England, having been stationed there for a year or two, and had politely asked questions about where she lived, her family, and of course what her role was, all questions she fended off with an air of disinterested interest.

It fascinated him, as she knew it would, a sort of mental sparring as one would do with swords, if this was a fencing match.

They had said they might or might not meet again when the party was over, but she suspected there would be another opportunity.  She knew the signs of a man who was interested in her, and Vladimir was interested.

The second time came in the form of an invitation to an art gallery, and a viewing of the works of a prominent Russian artist, an invitation she politely declined.  After all, invitations issued to Embassy staff held all sorts of connotations, or so she was told by the Security officer when she told him.

Then, it went quiet for a month.  There was a party at the American embassy and along with several other staff members, she was invited.  She had not expected to meet Vladimir, but it was a pleasant surprise when she saw him, on the other side of the room, talking to several military men.

A pleasant afternoon ensued.

And it was no surprise that they kept running into each other at the various events on the diplomatic schedule.

By the fifth meeting, they were like old friends.  She had broached the subject of being involved in a plutonic relationship with him with the head of security at the embassy.  Normally for a member of her rank it would not be allowed, but in this instance it was.

She did not work in any sensitive areas, and, as the security officer had said, she might just happen upon something that might be useful.  In that regard, she was to keep her eyes and ears open, and file a report each time she met him.

After that discussion she got the impression her superiors considered Vladimir more than just a casual visitor on the diplomatic circuit.  She also formed the impression the he might consider her an ‘asset’, a word that had been used at the meeting with security and the ambassador.

It was where the word ‘spy’ popped into her head and sent a tingle down her spine.  She was not a spy, but the thought of it, well, it would be fascinating to see what happened.

A Russian friend.  That’s what she would call him.

And over time, that relationship blossomed, until, after a visit to the ballet, late and snowing, he invited her to his apartment not far from the ballet venue.  It was like treading on thin ice, but after champagne and an introduction to caviar, she felt like a giddy schoolgirl.

Even so, she had made him promise that he remain on his best behaviour.  It could have been very easy to fall under the spell of a perfect evening, but he promised, showed her to a separate bedroom, and after a brief kiss, their first, she did not see him until the next morning.

So, it began.

It was an interesting report she filed after that encounter, one where she had expected to be reprimanded.

She wasn’t.

It wasn’t until six weeks had passed when he asked her if she would like to take a trip to the country.  It would involve staying in a hotel, that they would have separate rooms.  When she reported the invitation, no objection was raised, only a caution; keep her wits about her.

Perhaps, she had thought, they were looking forward to a more extensive report.  After all, her reports on the places, and the people, and the conversations she overheard, were no doubt entertaining reading for some.

But this visit was where the nature of the relationship changed, and it was one that she did not immediately report.  She had realised at some point before the weekend away, that she had feelings for him, and it was not that he was pushing her in that direction or manipulating her in any way.

It was just one of those moments where, after a grand dinner, a lot of champagne, and delightful company, things happen.  Standing at the door to her room, a lingering kiss, not intentional on her part, and it just happened.

And for not one moment did she believe she had been compromised, but for some reason she had not reported that subtle change in the relationship to the powers that be, and so far, no one had any inkling.

She took off her coat and placed it carefully of the back of one of the ornate chairs in the room.  She stopped for a moment to look at a framed photograph on the wall, one representing Red Square.

Then, after a minute or two, she went to the mini bar and took out the bottle of champagne that had been left there for them, a treat arranged by Vladimir for each encounter.

There were two champagne flutes set aside on the bar, next to a bowl of fruit.  She picked up the apple and thought how Eve must have felt in the garden of Eden, and the temptation.

Later perhaps, after…

She smiled at the thought and put the apple back.

A glance at her watch told her it was time for his arrival.  It was if anything, the one trait she didn’t like, and that was his punctuality.  A glance at the clock on the room wall was a minute slow.

The doorbell to the room rang, right on the appointed time.

She put the bottle down and walked over to the door.

A smile on her face, she opened the door.

It was not Vladimir.  It was her worst nightmare.

© Charles Heath 2020

“Second Thoughts”, a short story

Get me to the church on time.

It was a tune out of My Fair Lady, and it was in my head the moment I woke up that morning.  And this day was, to quote some immortal’s line, was supposed to be the happiest day of my life.

But, somehow, it didn’t feel like that and lying under the warm covers of my bed, perhaps for the last time at my parent’s home, the last place I thought I’d find myself, I began to consider how it was I had ended up in this situation.

It was not a question of who the bride was, we had been friends from an early age and used to joke about getting married, but at the age of six or seven, that was a concept rather than something we might act on in the future.

Except that was how it panned out, and, not for the reasons one might think would lead to such an eventuality.

Yes, we were close friends till the early teens, then my family went in one direction, New York, and her family went in another, San Francisco, and in each place both families built successful businesses.

Josephine, the intended bride, and I met off and on over the next fifteen years, some of that mutually when we were at university together, and, I might add, living together.  Even then, there had been no suggestion of permanency because we each had to go home to eventually work in the family business.

In those few years, it had been easy because there had been no expectations by either of us.  We simply came together, stayed together, and parted at the end both happy to have enjoyed the experience.

Then, several events changed the course of our lives.

My father died unexpectedly at a crucial point in the company’s expansion, and without his direction, it began to flounder.  Then, Josephine arrived in New York to open a branch of her family’s business, and just happened to arrive on the day of my father’s funeral.

I thought it a coincidence and was grateful for her support at a time when I needed it.

A month after that, one of the lead investors in the new expansion plan pulled out, as was his right because the loan had been contingent on my father overseeing the project.  It was the end of a very bad week, and instead of being the last to leave the office, I left early, called up an old friend, Rollo, who had followed us to New York, and we went to his favourite bar.

He suggested a night on the town was called for and I agreed with him.  I think by that time I’d had enough of the problems for a few days.  But with Rollo, I learned no invitation was without its twists and turns, so when he said his sister was bringing a friend, I had to act happy even if I didn’t feel like it.  Her friends could be a little strange.

Another coincidence, the friend was Josephine.  Hearing from her once maybe, but twice in the same week, I didn’t think so, so I let it pass.  Yet despite my reservations, in the end, I had to admit I was glad to see her because the last thing I wanted to do was entertain a quirky woman I didn’t know.

Long story short, Josephine’s family business came aboard as the replacement investor, but not without some rather stringent requirements, and though no one on either side would admit it, it was suggested that perhaps Josephine and I would make an excellent match.  After all, we were childhood friends, had lived together without the problems that sometimes came with it, and we would be working very closely together.

I proposed, she accepted, and everyone was happy.

Well, not everyone.

 

I was down in the dining room getting breakfast, before the wedding, when Rollo arrived.  It went without saying Rollo was going to be the best man.

Curiously, he was neither surprised nor shocked to learn of my proposal, but it was a surprise to learn, in a roundabout way, he wasn’t exactly happy for me.  It was not anything I could put my finger on, but more of a feeling I had.  And, to be honest, before I had proposed to her, I was sure that Rollo had feelings for her, and at times I thought how much more sense it would make if they were together.

I’d even asked him once or twice if he liked her, and he just said they were friends.

The other side of that equation was his sister, Adrienne, who was, I thought, charming, funny, and sometimes a little offbeat, which is why I was drawn to her.  Over time, I think I may have developed feelings for her, but by the time those feelings were rising to the surface, I was advised that a woman of Josephine’s standing was more my type.

My mother could be very annoying at times, and whilst she might be looking after her son’s best interests, she was also looking after the company’s interests as best she could.  I suspect Josephine’s parents were the same, hoping their daughter would marry advantageously.

Rollo, being on the outside, had summed it up perfectly, ‘if this had been the eighteenth century there’s no doubt you two would be the perfect match’.

“You look as happy as I feel,” I said when I saw him.

“It’s going to be a big day, church wedding, in Latin of all languages, then the society event of the year.  What’s not to be happy about?”

Put like that, I shrugged.  “A registry office, burger and chips at the local diner, then a few days in the Catskills would have sufficed.”

“And on what planet do you think you are right now?”

I didn’t answer.  I simply poured another cup of black coffee and sat down.  It was a large room, with seats for a dozen, and I was the only one up.  I had expected a room full of family members, of which at least twenty were upstairs right now recovering from last night’s festivities.

Rollo poured some tea into a cup and sat opposite.  “OK.  What’s wrong?  Wedding day jitters?”

Could he read my mind?

“It just doesn’t seem right.  I mean, it seems we have been on this track forever, but you know, there’s something missing.”

“Love?”

Exactly.  It was another of those thoughts I had just before I got out of bed.  I liked her, maybe I loved her once, when I didn’t really know what love was, but now?  I don’t know what it was I felt about her.  I had been expecting those mythical thunderbolts to strike, but as the days, weeks, and months wore on, it just didn’t happen.

It was almost if we were going through the motions.

“It feels like it’s going to be a marriage of convenience.”  There, I said it.

And I expected Rollo to start having a fit.  Instead, he concentrated on putting three spoonful’s of sugar into his tea and stirring.  And stirring.  And stirring.

“Say something,” I said.  “Anything.  Tell me I’m being stupid, tell me to get out of my funk and screw my courage to the sticking place, or whatever it is you say in times like this.”

“It’s not like you to drop a bomb like this at a time like this…”

I felt he had more to say, the good part where he’d call me an ass, and then tell me to get my shit together.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

“But…”

“But I rather get the impression this wedding might not be going ahead.”

“It has to.  God knows how many people have put themselves out to be here.  It was, my mother said, a logistical nightmare.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.”

“You’re supposed to be arguing for the wedding, not against it.”

“I would if I knew your heart was in it.  But it isn’t, is it?  I think you’ve spent so much time trying to please everyone else, that you have forgotten about yourself.  I know you’re not happy.  I also happen to know that Jo isn’t either.”

“You’ve spoken to her?”

“Just before I got here.  Call her.  You two need to talk.  In the meantime, you’re going to have to repay a huge debt after I somehow manage to sort this mess out.  My car’s outside.  Leave now, and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to return.”

“Where will I go?”

He smiled.  “I’m sure you’ll know by the time you get in the car.”

It was reckless and would cause a lot of pain and anguish for my mother, but I considered how much more pain it would cause to Josephine if I didn’t call it off.

I made the call on the way upstairs to finish dressing.

“I’m assuming you’ve spoken to Rollo?”  She didn’t wait for me to speak.

“You feel the same way?”

“It started out with the best of intentions, but I can’t help thinking if we were right for each other we would have married after university.  We are best friends, Alan, and I don’t think it’s ever going to progress from there.  I know you feel that too, it’s just the pressure from our families has managed to mask our true feelings.”

“Do you have any idea what sort of storm is about to erupt?”

“Everyone will get over it.  There’s too much at stake on both sides for there to be any real or lasting consequences.  I guess Rollo is going to have his work cut out for him.  I’ll see you one the other side.”

She didn’t say what other side, but I suspect it meant when the dust had settled.

I literally ran downstairs, mainly because I heard movement and didn’t want to run into anyone, and out the door towards Rollo’s car.

Once again I had to admire the fact he had exquisite taste in cars, and the one he’d brought was no exception, a Lamborghini, yellow, fast, and he knew I wanted to drive it.

What I didn’t expect. His sister, Phoebe, sitting in the passenger seat.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

An excerpt from “If Only” – a work in progress

Investigation of crimes don’t always go according to plan, nor does the perpetrator get either found or punished.

That was particularly true in my case.  The murderer was very careful in not leaving any evidence behind, to the extent that the police could not rules out whether it was a male or a  female.

At one stage the police thought I had murdered my own wife though how I could be on a train at the time of the murder was beyond me.  I had witnesses and a cast-iron alibi.

The officer in charge was Detective Inspector Gabrielle Walters.  She came to me on the day after the murder seeking answers to the usual questions when was the last time you saw your wife, did you argue, the neighbors reckon there were heated discussions the day before.

Routine was the word she used.

Her Sargeant was a surly piece of work whose intention was to get answers or, more likely, a confession by any or all means possible.  I could sense the raging violence within him.  Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

Over the course of the next few weeks, once I’d been cleared of committing the crime, Gabrielle made a point of keeping me informed of the progress.

After three months the updates were more sporadic, and when, for lack of progress, it became a cold case, communication ceased.

But it was not the last I saw of Gabrielle.

The shock of finding Vanessa was more devastating than the fact she was now gone, and those images lived on in the same nightmare that came to visit me every night when I closed my eyes.

For months I was barely functioning, to the extent I had all but lost my job, and quite a few friends, particularly those who were more attached to Vanessa rather than me.

They didn’t understand how it could affect me so much, and since it had not happened to them, my tart replies of ‘you wouldn’t understand’ were met with equally short retorts.  Some questioned my sanity, even, for a time, so did I.

No one, it seemed, could understand what it was like, no one except Gabrielle.

She was by her own admission, damaged goods, having been the victim of a similar incident, a boyfriend who turned out to be a very bad boy.  Her story varied only in she had been made to witness his execution.  Her nightmare, in reliving that moment in time, was how she was still alive and, to this day, had no idea why she’d been spared.

It was a story she told me one night, some months after the investigation had been scaled down.  I was still looking for the bottom of a bottle and an emotional mess.  Perhaps it struck a resonance with her; she’d been there and managed to come out the other side.

What happened become our secret, a once-only night together that meant a great deal to me, and by mutual agreement, it was not spoken of again.  It was as if she knew exactly what was required to set me on the path to recovery.

And it had.

Since then we saw each about once a month in a cafe.   I had been surprised to hear from her again shortly after that eventful night when she called to set it up, ostensibly for her to provide me with any updates on the case, but perhaps we had, after that unspoken night, formed a closer bond than either of us wanted to admit.

We generally talked for hours over wine, then dinner and coffee.  It took a while for me to realize that all she had was her work, personal relationships were nigh on impossible in a job that left little or no spare time for anything else.

She’d always said that if I had any questions or problems about the case, or if there was anything that might come to me that might be relevant, even after all this time, all I had to do was call her.

I wondered if this text message was in that category.  I was certain it would interest the police and I had no doubt they could trace the message’s origin, but there was that tiny degree of doubt, whether or not I could trust her to tell me what the message meant.

I reached for the phone then put it back down again.  I’d think about it and decide tomorrow.

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

“The End of the Road”, a short story

From the days of wandering the remote country towns of New South Wales in Australia.

 

The End of the Road

 

The man who had said that we would never make the distance was right.

It had been my idea to go ‘troppo’, forsake everything, hop on a motorbike and go around Australia.  I was, at that stage fed up with everything and, catching Harry in one of his low spots, he decided there and then he would join me.

For the first few days, we believed we were stark staring mad and talked about calling it quits, but perseverance made all the difference.  After two months we were glad we had the resolve to keep going, and in that time we had managed to see more of the Australian countryside than we’d seen all our lives.

That was until this particular morning when we arrived in Berrigum, what could have been called a one-horse town.  It consisted of one hotel, one general store (that sold everything from toothpicks to petrol) and an agricultural machinery depot.  It also had a station and some wheat silos, and this appeared to be the only reason for a town in this particular spot in the middle of nowhere.

And it was the railway station that interested Harry, who was, by this time, getting a little homesick and fed up with his motorbike.

After coughing and spluttering for the last week it had finally died, and the five-mile walk to Berrigum had not helped either his temper, or his disposition, and had only served to firm his resolve to return home.

It was hot but not unbearably so, unlike a hot summer’s day in the city, and even worse still in public transport.  For miles around as we tramped those five miles all we could see was acres and acres of wheat, but no sign of life.  It was the same when we reached the town.  It appeared all the people were either hiding or had left.  Harry suspected the latter given the state of the road, and the buildings, more or less the epitome of a ghost town.

Standing at the end of what could have been called the main street with only our own dust for company, one look took in the whole town.  In a car, one wouldn’t have given it a second look, if one had time to give it a first.  I didn’t remember seeing neither any speed restriction signs nor signpost advertising a town ahead.

And since no amount of argument could sway him from his resolve, the first objective was to get a train timetable, if such a thing existed, and make arrangements for Harry’s return.

The station was as deserted as the town itself, and a quick glance in the stationmaster’s office showed no sign of life.

Leaving the bikes on the platform outside the office, we headed for the hotel for both a drink and make enquiries about rail services.  Being a hot day and the morning’s tramp somewhat hot and dusty, we were looking forward to a cold glass (or two) of beer.

The hotel looked as though it was a hundred years old though there was no doubting a few relentless summers would reduce it to the same state.  It was as bad inside as out, though the temperature was several degrees lower, and we could sit down in what appeared to be the main bar.  We were the only occupants and still to find any sign of life.  Overhead, two fans were struggling to move the hot air around.

More than once Harry reckoned it was a ghost town and I was beginning to believe him when, after five minutes, no one arrived.

After ten, we stood, ready to leave, only to stop halfway out of our chairs when a voice behind us said, “Surely you’re not going back out there without refreshment?”

“I was beginning to think the town was deserted,” I said.

“It is during the day, but when the sun goes down…”

I didn’t ask.  We followed him to the bar where he had stationed himself behind the counter.  “The name is Jack.”  He stretched out his hand towards us.  “We don’t bother with last names here.”

“Bill,” I said, shaking it, and nodding to Harry, “Harry.”

Harry nodded and shook his hand too.

“The first one’s on the house.”  He poured three glasses and put ours in front of us.  “Cheers.”

In all cases, it went down without touching the sides (as they say) and he poured a second, at the same time asking, “What brings you to our little corner of the earth?”

“Just passing through,” I said, “Or at least for me.”

“And you?”  Jack looked at Harry.

“I can’t hack the pace.  I can truthfully say I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip so far, except for a few mishaps, but for me, it’s time to get back to the big smoke.  My ‘do your own thing’ has run out of momentum.  Do you know if there is a train that goes anywhere important?”

The publican looked at him almost pityingly.  “Important, eh?”  He rubbed his chin feigning thought.  “You make it sound like you are in purgatory.”

“Aren’t we?”

I suppose one could hardly blame Harry for his attitude.  After all, at the beginning, he had numerous accidents, caught a virus that stayed with him (and a couple of torrential downpours had done little to help it), and now his motorbike had finally died.  No wonder his humour was at an all-time low.

For a moment I thought the publican was going to tell Harry what he thought of him, but then he smiled and the tension passed.  “Perhaps to a city fellow like you it might be,” he said.  “The mail train which has a passenger carriage comes through once a week, and, my good man, you’re in luck.  Today’s the day.”

“Good.  How do I get a ticket?”

“You’d have to see the Station Master.”

“And where might he be at the moment?  We were at the station a while back and there was no sign of life.”

“Nor will there be until the train comes.  Meanwhile, there’s time enough for lunch.  I’m sure you will stay?”  He looked questioningly at us.

I looked at Harry, who nodded.

“Why not.”

 

Over lunch, we talked.

I remember not so long ago when I had to attend a large number of lunches where the talk was of business, or, if anything, mostly about subjects that I had no interest in.  It was always some posh restaurant, time seemed important, the atmosphere never really relaxed, and to get into a relaxed state it took a large amount of alcohol to deaden the despair and distaste of that one had to fete in order to secure their business.

How different it was here.

We talked about the country, and, after seeing as much of it, and worked on it as we had to fund our odyssey, we could talk about it authoritatively.  And, most of all, it was interesting.

The atmosphere too was entirely different than it had been in the city.  Out here the people were always friendly, people always willing to stop and talk, particularly farmers; share a drink or some food.

There was none of this carefree purposefulness in the city, and more than once I’d thought of the fact one could travel in the same train with the same people for year after year and still not know any of them.  It was the same at work.  Even after five years I still hadn’t known three-quarters of the office staff, and most of them probably didn’t want to know me.  Harry was virtually the only real friend I’d had at work.

But here, in ‘the middle of nowhere’ as Harry had called it, I felt as though I’d known the publican all of my life instead of the few short hours.

 

Some hours later and after much argument, where Jack and I tried to talk Harry into staying (Jack said he knew someone who could fix anything including Harry’s bike), Harry remained unconvinced and resolute.  Jack, to round off the occasion (we were the first real guests from outside he had had in a week) provided another on-the-house ale and then saw us to the station.  “After all”, he had said, “I’ve nothing else to do at the moment.”

By that time the station was showing a little more life than it had before.  A station assistant, moving several parcels with a hand trolley, slowly ambled towards the end of the platform.

And whether it could be called a platform was a debatable point.  It was a gravel and grass affair that looked more like part of cutting through a hill than a station.

At the station, Jack portentously announced he was also the stationmaster and would be only too happy to take care of Harry’s requirements.  It would be, he added, “the first passenger ticket sold for several months.”  Certainly, the ticket he handed Harry bore witness to that.  It had yellowed with age.

One would have thought with the imminent arrival of the train there would be more people, but no.  The only event had been the station assistant’s stroll to the end of the platform and back.  Now both he and Jack had disappeared into the office and we were left alone on the platform.  Very little in the whole town stirred, nor had it the whole time we’d been there.

“Well,” I said to break the silence.  “I’m sorry to see you going through with it.  I thought I might have been able to talk you out of it…”  I shrugged, leaving the sentence unfinished.

“I’m sorry to be going too, but a body can take only so much bad luck, and God knows that’s all I’ve had.”

“Yes.”  I couldn’t think of much else to say.  “But it’s been good to have your company these last few months.”

“And you.  When do you think you’ll get back?”

“When I get sick of it I suppose.”

“Look us up then when you get back.”

“I will.”

Thankfully the appearance of the train in the distance broke off the conversation.  I had begun to think of what it was going to be like out on the road with no one to talk to but myself.  The thought was a little depressing and I tried not to let it show.

We said little else until the train pulled in, three flat cars, seven enclosed wagons, a passenger carriage and the guard’s van.  The train stopped with only part of the passenger carriage and the guard’s van at the station.

The guard took aboard the parcels the station assistant had left for him earlier, and then put those that were for Berrigum on the trolley.

I shook Harry’s hand and said I’d see him around.  Then he, the motorbike, and the guard were aboard and the train was off, disappearing slowly into the afternoon haze.

The station assistant then repeated his amble to the end of the platform to collect the hand trolley.

“Staying or moving on.”  Jack had come up behind me and gave me a bit of a start.

“Staying I guess, until tomorrow or maybe later.”

“I had heard one of the farm hands is leaving tomorrow heading back to Sydney.  There could be a vacancy.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

“I could put in a word for you.”

“Thanks.”

Jack just grinned and we headed for the hotel.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019