Once Upon a Time… – A short story

Everyone knows someone who has a child that will not go to sleep.

You can set the bedtime at whatever early hour you like, but by the time they actually fall asleep, there have been two or three hours of up and down, in and out of bed, and at least one episode of a scary master lurking under the bed, or, worse, outside the window.

After exhausting every method of achieving a result and failing, I thought I’d try reading.

The first book I picked up was, yes, you guessed it, about monsters. In fact, nearly every book for kids was about monsters, witches, ogres, dragons, and vampires.

I put them back and sighed. I would have to come up with a story of my own.

It started with, “Once upon a time…”

“But that,” May said, “only applies to fairy tales.”

“Well, this is going to be a fairy tale of sorts. Minus the fire breathing dragons, and nasty trolls under drawbridges.”

“It’s not going to be much of a story, then. In fairy tales, there’s always a knight who slays the dragon and rides off with the princess.”

This was going to be a tough ask. I thought of going back to the book pile, but, then, I could do this.

“So,” I began again, “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle with her father, the king, her mother, the queen, and her brother, the steadfast and trusty knight in shining armor.”

“Why is their armor always shining?”

I was going to tell her to save the questions until after the story, by which time I had hoped I’d bored her enough to choose sleep over criticism. I was wrong.

“Because a knight always has to have shiny armor, otherwise the king would be disappointed.”

“Does the knight spend all night shining his armor?”

“No. He has an apprentice who cleans the armor, and attends to anything else the knight needs.”

“And then he becomes a knight?”

“In good time. The apprentice is usually a boy of about 11 or 12 years old. First, he learns what it means to be a knight, then he has to do years of training until he comes of age.” I saw the question coming, and got in first, “When he is about 21 years old.”

She looked at me, and that meant I had to continue the story.

“The princess was very lucky and lived a very different life than her subjects, except she wished she had their freedom to play, and do ordinary things like cooking, or collecting food from the markets. Because she was a princess, she had to stay in the castle, and spend most of her time learning how to be a princess, and a queen, because when it was time, she would marry a prince who would become a king.”

“Doesn’t sound too lucky to me, being stuck as home. I like the idea of getting somebody to do everything for me though. She does have maids, doesn’t she?”

“Yes. And, you’re right, she has everything done for her, including getting dressed. A maid to clean, a maid to dress her, a maid to bring her snacks. And it was these maids she envied.”

Maybe I should not make the story too interesting, or she’ll never go to sleep.

“Well, one day, she decided to change places with one of her maids. They were almost identical and when they exchanged clothes, the other maids could not tell they had changed places. At the end of the day, when the maids went home, the princess headed to the house where the maid she had taken the place of.

It was very different from the castle, and the room she had in the castle. The mother was at him, cooking the food for the evening meal, and it was nothing like what she usually had. A sort of soup with scraps of meat in it. There was a loaf of bread on the table. The father came home after working all day in the fields, very tired. They ate and then went to bed. Her bed was straw and a piece of cloth that hardly covered her. At least, by the fire, it was warm. It didn’t do anything for the pangs of hunger because there had barely been enough for all of them.

The next morning she returned to the castle and changed places back again. When the maid she changed places with asked about her experience of how it was like in their life, the princess said she was surprised. She had never been told about how the people who served the king lived, and she had assumed that they were well looked after. Now she had experienced what it was like to be a subject, she was going to investigate it further.

After all, she told the maid, I have to have all the facts if I’m going to approach the king.

And she thought to herself, a lot more courage than she had.

But, instead of lessons today, she was going to demand to be taken on a tour outside the castle and to see the people.

“This sounds like it’s not going to have a happy ending.”

No, I thought. Maybe I’ll get the dragon that her brother failed to slay to eat her.

“It will. Patience. But that’s enough for tonight. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go to sleep and then, tomorrow night, the story continues.”

I tucked her in, turned down the night light so it was only a glow, just enough to see where I was going, and left.

If I was lucky she would go to sleep. The only problem was, I had to come up with more of the story.

Outside the door, her mother, Christine, was smiling. “Since when did you become an expert on Princesses?”

“When I married one.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

An alternate A to Z Challenge – T is for – “This is getting interesting…”


The story below was the one that was supposed to be published under T, but the month got away from me and I was not able to get most of what I wanted to do done.

After all, it was the A to Z as well as NaNoWriMo for April, and the notion I could write 26 short stories and complete a 50,000 word novel at the same time…

What was I thinking?

Anyway, I had the bones of the story written, I just needed time to finish it. So, here it is, as will for the next few days, stories for U, V, W, X, Y and Z.

The email I received said:

“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”

It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.

I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.

I was ready.

When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.

When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.

I could also take the time to brush up my schoolboy Italian.

When I got off the plane at Marco Polo airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would on or overlooking the Grand Canal.

At the airport I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.

We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.

That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.

It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take long route. I’d not been in Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.

And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal was stylish and elegant, and my room exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway or turnpike, a never-ending stream of traffic.

A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a reverie, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.

Perhaps more instructions.

“Tomorrow will be a free day in Venice. See attached suggested itinerary for ideas on what to do. Then, the following day you will be travelling from Venice to Florence by train departing Santa Maria Novella at 10:20 am.”

I looked at the list of suggested places to visit and a day would not be enough, but I could always come back. I’d always assumed this trip would give me some idea of what was on offer, and that if it was great, I could always come back.

A second reading of the instructions picked up something I’d almost missed. A dining party in the hotel where others like myself, with similar arrangements to mine might attend. It was underlined that it was not mandatory to attend, only if you wanted to.

The only provisor was that you do not talk about where you were going, only about yourselves, an opportunity to meet others and not dine alone. It was an interesting idea. All we had to do was give our name and the time of the booking.

I would think about it.

I arrived at the entrance to the restaurant at five minutes to eight, after a long deliberation on the merits of whether I wanted to see the other travellers.

At first, I thought what the point would be if you couldn’t talk about where you were going, but, after more thought, I wondered what it was that motivated those people who had also opted for a leap into the unknown.

These were not adventure holidays as such, just someone else planning the itinerary so you didn’t have to.

I gave the maitre’d my name and he escorted me to a table set for ten, of which four people were already seated. Were they expecting ten? Would anyone not turn up?

We exchanged greetings and I sat. Two men, two women, sitting together. My first thought, two couples, but I would not make any assumptions.

One of the women spoke first, “My name is Marina Delosa. I assume you are another intrepid traveller?”

“Ben Davis. I’m not so sure about the intrepid part, just lazy, I think, because I’m not very good at arranging my own travel.”

“I think you might say that applies to all of us,” she said.

The others introduced themselves as Angela and Harry Benson, and David Wilson.

“We were quite pleased they chose to start our tour in Italy. I have always wanted to visit Venice, so the travel Gods must be smiling on us,” Harry said.

“I must say I was surprised. I guess it’s one of the benefits of this type of travel, not knowing where you’re going to end up. I think my secret wish was to come here, too, or at least Italy. I think I have a relative or two that came from here.”

“That might be said for all of us,” Marina said. “One part Italian, one part Irish, and not quite sure what the other parts are.”

Another intrepid adventurer arrived at the table, another woman. She was older than the rest of us, but I would not think by more than ten years. She had the same look of trepidation I had felt before coming. And, at a guess, recently divorced, or separated.

“Anne Lebroski,” she said, leaving a seat between her and I. It was an interesting move. I had deliberately not tried to distance myself.

Only six of a possible ten arrived, and it turned out to be a very good evening. Whilst all of us had that battle within not to talk about where we were going, it seemed to force the issue of talking more about where we had been previously, and what we did with our lives.

And as quickly as it had begun it was over and everyone kept the conversation going until the elevator dropped us off, each to a different floor, as if we were deliberately being kept apart. Of course, it was simply my overactive imagination conjuring up different scenarios, perhaps in an effort to make a simple holiday seem more exciting

Suddenly, once back in my room, a great tiredness came over me and I barely made it into bed. Would we all run into each other the next morning over breakfast? It was a thought that kept me awake for all of a few minutes before slipping into an uneasy sleep.

When I woke up, I was confused and disorientated.

In those initial few seconds, and through the blurry eyes of just having woken, what I saw was unfamiliar.

I was definitely not in my room at home.

It took a few more seconds, in fact, almost a minute, before I realised that I was not at home. It was a hotel room, and quite unusual, light seeping through the thick curtains that covered what had to be a window.

Was in morning, afternoon, or evening? It had to be morning.

And, what was I doing in a hotel room?

When some of the fog had cleared away, I slipped out from under the sheet, and crossed over to the desk on the other side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and more light came in, splashing across the desk. On it was a piece of paper, a receipt, with the name Hilton Molino Stucky, Venice on it.

What was I doing in Venice?

I pulled the curtains further aside and looked out the window. It overlooked a body of water, and right then, a very large cruise liner was passing by. A very, very large cruise ship.

Then, behind me I heard a noise and turned.

There was someone else in the bed, a head appeared from under the sheet and looked over at me. A woman, messy blonde hair and a familiar face.

I didn’t remember coming to Venice or travelling with anyone. I was sorely tempted to say, “Who are you?” but stifled it. Instead, I asked, in what was a croaky voice, “What happened last night?”

The woman looked surprised. “You don’t remember?”

“To be honest, I’m having a hard time remembering where I am, let alone what I was doing?”

“Well, for starters, you were drinking copious quantities of champagne, which you well know you should not because of what it does to you.”

OK, that had a semblance of truth about it, not that I remember drinking champagne, but what it does to me. Exactly what was happening now. Last time, well, I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t good.

Still, I didn’t know who this woman was, but I had enough sense to play along. The taste in my mouth reminded me of drinking too much wine, which was what I used to do.

“This much is true. When…” There I stopped, realising how it might sound.

Another look, not of surprise, but disdain perhaps?

“You don’t remember my arriving last night. Nor, I’m willing to bet, inviting me here. You rang two days ago, said you just arrived in Venice, and knowing I was on assignment in Rome, called me, asking if I wanted to come and see you, stay a day or two.”

It was not something I would have done, but for the simple reason I didn’t know anyone in Rome to call. But, oddly, she looked familiar. “Marina?” I said, almost under my breath.

The smile returned. “You do remember.”

“Barely, along with dinner the other night, with some other people. Tourists?”

“Yes. Two days ago, you said you’d asked some travel agents to pick your destination, and it ended up in Venice, along with several others. We’re supposed to be going to Florence this morning, but I was hesitant waking you in case you weren’t feeling well.”

Well, that part was true. I wasn’t. And that reference to Florence, it seemed likely. There was another piece of paper on the desk, an itinerary which said I was travelling to Florence by train.
I looked at the clock beside the bed.

6:17 am.

I looked at the itinerary, and the train was at 11 am.

The itinerary had two names on it. Ben and Marina Davis. I knew I was Ben, but I didn’t remember anything about having a wife, or friend, named Marina. More of the fog had lifted in my brain, and every instinct was telling me to play along. I don’t know why that message popped into my head at that exact moment, but it did.

“We’ve got five hours before the train leaves. I suspect it might be a good idea to start getting ready. I’ll call down for coffee, and, bearing in mind I’ve lost all sense of orientation and not exactly sure of everything going around me, as you say I should not be drinking wine in copious quantities, I’ll toss you the phone so you can order whatever you want. Sorry, but for the moment, I’ve forgotten everything.”

Let her counter that, or also play along. Her expression told me she was thinking about what I said, but then shrugged. “You don’t remember asking me, do you?”

“I do remember something, and it involves you because you are very familiar to me, so don’t be too upset. I am glad you’re here, because I was simply dreading travelling in Italy by myself, and you are almost a native. There, I knew there was a perfectly good reason why you’re here.”

She didn’t look quite so sure. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” she said. “Coffee will be fine. I think I had too much to drink last night too.”

After she disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door, odd, I thought, for a woman who had slept in the same bed as I, I called down for coffee and croissants. By that time, I was feeling better, and the queasy stomach was subsiding.

Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.

Room service.

“Ben.”

I did remember the person outside the door, dressed as the room service waiter. “Alan.”

“They took the bait?”

“Obviously. Too much booze…”

“Slipped you a mickey. Be careful. These two don’t play by the rules. Luigi is downstairs pacing like a cat ready to pounce. Thin short guy in a cheap black suit, pink shirt and grey tie.” Alan shook his head. “No dress sense whatsoever.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“Nothing happened, don’t worry. Had eyes on you the whole time like we promised. Now, you’ve a train to catch. Just be careful.”

He brought the tray in and put it on the desk.

Marina chose that moment to open the door.

“Room service,” I said. “Coffee for two. There’s a croissant too if you want one.”

“Sir,” Alan muttered, and headed for the door, remembering at the last second to produce a form for me to sign.

Then he was gone.

Fog cleared, everything came back in a rush. She was still standing in the doorway, the only think between her and modest, a large white towel wrapped around her. Beautiful but deadly, Alan had said.

Let the games commence.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – Z is for “It’s a zero…”


When it came to holidays, I preferred to get as far away from everyone as possible.

I saw my parents, and sister who lived with them, every week on Sunday, for lunch and cross-examination of why I was not married with children yet.

Explaining I was only 27 was not a reason because, “your brother married at 21 and he’s got three children, a great job, his own house..”  and in and on it went.

And I saw my brother every other Saturday just to tell him that I was Ok.  He was considerate in one sense, it was just the matchmaking wife always inviting what she considered suitable women for me.

That fortnight off work was an oasis in a desert full of well-meaning people.

I’d tried dating several girls at work, but they never got past the family inquisition.  If I had been in their shoes I’d just say it was all too much too.  The lesson I learned there was to never take a girlfriend home.

But, for now, I was footloose and fancy-free.  The most recent girl I’d met had decided to return home, no it was nothing I’d done wrong, but I guess it was.  Perhaps asking to go with me to Hawaii was a bit too forward too soon.  Another lesson learned.

I think I’d probably get it right by the time I was fifty.

So here I was, a history buff, looking to further my knowledge of the events surrounding Pearl Harbour.  I’d read a great many history books on the subject, and now, it was a matter of going there, and getting a feel for the place.

More than once I had lamented the fact I could not go back in time and live through the event.  I had mentioned this once to a friend, and he asked if I was stark staring mad.

Of course, he was right.  Who would want to be in the middle of such a violent attack, especially when it came largely by surprise?

Since my work required mt to fly a lot I had sufficient frequent flyer points to upgrade to first class.  I was hoping after flying coach for so long, I’d notice the difference.

Certainly, the initial service after being shown my seat, and the champagne soon after as a welcome onboard, set the tone.

When the door closed, and everyone was on board, only half the seats in first class were taken.  A glance at those who were fellow travelers showed an interesting cross-section.   A husband and wife who definitely upgraded from coach like me, but were a little m less refined.  An executive and his personal assistant, who, judging by the way she looked after him, there was more to that relationship, a woman in her sixties, definitely born to money, and casting somewhat distasteful stares at the upgrade couple, and a woman about my age, who looked very unhappy.

I managed to fit in another glass of champagne before the plane reached the runway.

Then, with a roar of the engines, we were off.

Halfway through the 13-hour flight, I found it impossible to sleep, even with the luxury first-class provided me.  I just couldn’t sleep on planes.  Instead, I sat up, found a book of crosswords, one of three or four I always had with me and usually got to solve one or two puzzles.

It was quiet and still except for the noise of the air rushing past outside the plane.  In that almost soundless atmosphere, I thought I could detect any changes in engine speed or the gentle movement of a change of course.  The ride was quite smooth, except for some turbulence and the pilot took us up another 2,000 feet to escape it.  We’d been slowly coming back down over the last hour.  I’d been monitoring it on the flight path screen.  It might be a larger screen, but watching movies was, to me, boring, except in a cinema.

“Can’t sleep either?”

It was the soft voice of the girl from two seats across.  She had several revolutions of the plane, exercising I heard her explain to the cabin crew because she couldn’t sit down for long periods.

“Not on planes, no.  Trains, yes, ships yes.”

“Crossword fanatic?”

I saw her glance down towards the book.  “Not really.  This has been floating around for about 10 years, and I drag it out as a last resort.”

“I try reading.  It doesn’t help.  Where are you going, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oahu.  Doing the whole Pearl Harbor history experience.  And just laze around for a few days before going back to work.”

“New York?”

“Yonkers, upstate.  Are you from New York?”

“My family is.  I work in San Francisco, come over once a year, but this year I got sick of them early, so I just jumped on the first plane out that had a first-class berth.  It was this one.  I’ll let you get back to your crossword.”

I was going to say it wasn’t a problem, but she had gone back to her seat.  A moment later our cabin attendant, Lucy, came over to deliver a glass of champagne, then came over to me.  I hadn’t seen the second glass on the tray.  “Miranda thought you might like a glass too.”

I looked over to nod a thankyou, but she was looking out the window.  There wasn’t much to see as it was dark and most of the passengers had the shades down.

Then, just as Lucy turned to leave, the plane hit more turbulence.  A second, maybe two, later the seatbelt sign went on, just as the co-pilot came on the speaker system to advise all cabin crew to sit down and belt up.

A minute later what sounded like a large bang, one I would have said was an engine exploding, made everyone jump in their seats, to be quickly followed by a sudden jerk to the right that was almost instantly corrected, but that was not the worst of it, equally suddenly the plane started to descend.  Very quickly.

At the same moment, the masks dropped down from overhead, I grabbed it and fumbled putting it on, realizing that panic was setting in.  It took a minute, but then it didn’t seem like there was any air flowing through it.

Not that any of that mattered.  Starved of oxygen, I could feel myself losing consciousness.  A minute or so later, I think the plane had started to level off, and a look at the flight path showed we were down to 10,000 feet, in the middle of the ocean.  My last thought, how long we would survive if we ditched.

I felt a hand on my shoulder shaking me.

“Sir, sir, are you alright?”

I opened my eyes and blinked several times.  I had to be in the middle of a nightmare.

The first thing I noticed was the engine noise, it was very loud, the loudness that came from propeller engines.  The second, I was no longer on an Airbus A330.  This was more like a Boeing 314, a flying boat.  The third, the man shaking me awake was a steward in a white coat, with PanAm on it.

Where the hell was I.  No, when the hell was I.  What the hell had happened?

“Sir, there’s a message for you.”  He handed me a folded sheet of paper.  “The captain asked me to tell you we’ll be landing in an hour, and that you, we all, should be prepared.  It’s a mess.”

“What is?”

“Pearl Harbour.  It was attacked yesterday morning by the Japs.  Bastards came in and practically blew everything up.”

All of a sudden there was a roaring sound outside the plane, followed by what had to be the chatter of a machine gun, followed by the sound of bullets hitting the fuselage.  One minute the steward was standing next to me, the next he was a bloody heap on the floor.  Above my head was a line of bullet holes.  More machine gun chatter, then an explosion, followed by a cry behind me of, “got the zero.”

I got out of the seat and went to the steward, staring at me with lifeless eyes.  A quick check for a pulse told me he was dead.  When I looked behind me there were a dozen or so military men, army, and navy.  Two sailors came up and gently maneuvered the steward towards the rear of the aircraft.  He had been the only casualty.  Turning back towards my seat I caught a reflection of myself in the window, that of a Lieutenant in the Navy.  How, and why was I here, now?

I remembered the note the steward had given me, sat down, and unfolded it.

The receipt date was 3:00 pm on 8th December 1941.  It was addressed to me, that is, a man with my exact name.  Orders to report to an Admiral who would reassign me, the ship I was being sent to had been sunk, and likely not to see service again.

We’d been in the air at the time of the attack, and I guessed news would have been sent to the plane, just in case it was not safe to land.  Perhaps they hadn’t counted on try Japanese Zero fighters hanging around for just such a flight as ours.

Whatever the reason I was here, however it had happened, I would have to make the most of it.

Only then did I remember what I had once said, ‘if only I could go back’.

Once again I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice, this time of a woman, gently shaking me awake.

“We’re arriving in Honolulu in about 40 minutes.  You need to prepare for landing.”

At the same time, I heard a change in the engines as we began to descend.  I looked around.  More familiar surroundings, back on the A330, the quiet hum of jet engines, and the sight of familiar faces.

“Did something happen to the plane or was I imagining it?”

“Just a lightning strike.  We had to go down for a bit, but these planes are designed to handle just about anything.  You slept through it, the best thing to do in situations like that.”

OK.  It had to be a dream.  That’s all I could put it down to.  Except for one small detail.  My grandfather’s name was the same as mine, he was in the Navy during World War 2, and he had been sent out to Pearl Harbour and was en-route when it happened.  But there was only one slight difference.  He had been killed when the lone zero had struck, not the steward.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – Y is for “You’ve got it all wrong…”


How often do we make a judgment call simply on what we see?

I knew what I saw, and it looked exactly like a situation that, if you asked any ten others who witnessed it, they would agree with me.

And then there would always be one that wouldn’t.

The prosecution had made a very good case, the defense counsel had woven a brilliant tale from start to finish, and he delivered in an almost persuading tone, with the subliminal message, the defendant was not guilty.

I felt sorry for the prosecution because his delivery had been halting, filled with ums and ers and in the end, everyone, from the judge down, wanted it to end.

As for the jury, it was an odd assortment of characters, a lawyer, a builder, a plumber, a housewife, two sales staff, two clerks, a janitor, two retirees, and a motor mechanic.  I thought it would be the lawyer who would be the problem.

The trial had lasted 22 days, and over that time I noticed that groups would form, and discuss aspects of the case, each of the groups forming a different opinion.  Sometimes, the dynamics of the groups changed as more evidence and testimony was revealed.

But, I think on those first few days, opinions were made, and judgment was passed.

In my opinion, based on looking at the defendant, it could be said that she didn’t look like a murderer, nor did she seem capable of committing such a heinous act.   Having said that, as a throwaway first assumption, the lawyer nixed it in a second.  Knowing something of how these trials worked, he said there would have been a lot of careful grooming, dress down, but not to drab, look demure, not aggressive, and speak in a modulated tone, like everyday conversation.

In other words, he was basically telling us she was giving an academy award performance.

I certainly looked at her in a different light after that, but the fact remained, for some of us, that initial assessment said not guilty.

A few days before we had to deliberate, a very damning piece of video was tendered and we all watched as the defendant was shown talking to her alleged accomplice, the victim’s current girlfriend, and passing an enveloped which the defense claimed was the payoff for helping her dispose of her husband.

It seemed odd to me that someone had known she would be in that bar, perfectly placed under the CCTV camera, both women so easily recognizable.  Of course, the woman in question could not be found, and the inference was that she might also be one of the defendant’s victims.

Several people were called by the defense to assert a line of defense that the husband was a cruel man, who had treated his wife very badly indeed, to the extent her best friend remarked that she had turned up for work on several occasions with the results of what looked like a beating, and another, an ER nurse, had confirmed the defendant had visited the hospital on several occasions with lacerations consistent with what was considered spousal abuse.

Those photographs were quite confronting, but a question had to be asked, why had she not gone to the police with that evidence and let them deal with the husband.

The fact she hadn’t was one weakness in her defense.  The thing there was why the defense introduced such testimony because, to me, it confused the issue by pushing the jury into thinking she had killed him, but in mitigating circumstances.  Was she looking for a verdict of justifiable homicide?

From day two, after the lawyer had told us about how lawyers schooled their clients, I watched her carefully, when sitting beside her lawyer, or when on the stand.  There were interesting actions she made when certain events occurred, like brushing a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, like teasing it out with a slight shake of the head, in a subtle but obvious show of displeasure.  Like smoothing out the invisible wrinkles in her clothes, perfectly fitting and obviously made for her, but understated in a sense that she would stand out in a crown but not ostentatiously so.  It was almost a ritual when she came in at the start, and when she took the stand, preparing herself.

Perfectionist, maybe.  Or trying to convey a certain picture.  Certainly, in the early days before the trial began, the media had a field day with the case, whipped into an even bigger frenzy when the police finally arrested the wife for the murder of her husband.  Almost all of them said he had it coming, with page after page of revelations about a man who could not have done half the things he was accused of.

The trial by newspaper done, I suspect it was hard to find 12 unbiased men and women who could be trusted to make the right decision.  I knew 100 would be jurors had been called up.

Now, in the jury room for the third day, trying to reach a verdict, it was the lawyer trying to wrap it up.  He had a job to go back to.  So did everyone else, for that matter.

“So, in essence, we are all agreed, that she is not guilty.”

It had been an interesting change in his position on the morning of day three of our deliberation.  Before that, he wanted to hang her from the nearest yardarm.  Interestingly enough, that morning, after he had given us his reasons for changing his mind, it would have been unanimous, and over.

The thing is, I didn’t like the way he changed sides so easily or for the reasons he spoke of.

So, in that vote, I changed my decision to guilty, and watch a group of people who had been friendly suddenly become enemies.

But at that moment, that other ten didn’t interest me, it was the expression on the lawyer’s face.  He hadn’t expected the vote to go that way.  It was like he had been goading everyone into voting not guilty and weathering the storm because of his stance.  Had it been staged, had we been led down this path, and then all of a sudden, the verdict he wanted being reached?

I had to find out.

I watched the eleven raise their hands to vote not guilty.  I did not.  And immediately felt the looks of every one of those eleven on me.

“Why?” he asked.

By this time he had taken the lead, and the others had let him.  Now I suspect they would let him do the talking.

“You’ve got it all wrong.  The reasons are the same.  There are two sides to that tale you came up with this morning.  The problem I have is from being adamant she was guilty, and as you said, without a shadow of a doubt, now all of a sudden you’re having doubts.”

“So, you don’t think she’s guilty, you’re just voting that way because you suspect my motives?”

“What I think is irrelevant right now.  You need to convince me that you truly think she’s not guilty.  What is it you saw, or heard, or know that changed your mind.  It certainly had nothing to do with that so-called video in the bar being staged.  It has nothing to do with the fact they can’t find that woman so they can either verify or dispel the accusations being made she was an accomplice.   It had nothing to do with the fact you think she might have been goaded into it and was left with no other option.  In that case, it might well be a case of manslaughter rather than murder.  Is that what you’re trying to suggest?”

“I think given the evidence, or lack of concrete evidence against her, she is not guilty.”

“But given everything you have said, it seems to me you think she had some crime to answer for.”

“Hasn’t she suffered enough?”

“That might well be the case, but it doesn’t give you an excuse to murder., and there’s certainly no forensic evidence that she was defending herself against an attack at the time.  She should have taken her case to the police and have it investigated.  She chose not to, for reasons that were never fully explained.”

“And didn’t we hear that the husband had links to various police that might have made such an investigation a waste of time.  This was a woman trapped in a bad situation with no way out.”

It was a long way from where we, as jurors, were at the beginning of our deliberations.  The first vote at the end of the first day was four voted not guilty and eight voted guilty.  In the following days, a lot of arguments changed the decisions of those seven to vote not guilty, when they believed, in their own minds the defendant was guilty.

In my mind, the first instinct was usually correct.  Over time that decision was only changed because of expediency, not necessarily for the right reasons.  My first instinct was that she was, in fact, not guilty for all the reasons the lawyer cited.

“Look,” he said.  “We’ve been here for three days.  It’s an open and shut case.  Let’s vote.”

We did with the same result.  Eleven for not guilty and one against.

A hung jury.  I wasn’t going to be moved on my position, and so it went back to the court.  It was declared a mistrial and the defendant was returned to custody and a new trial was to be scheduled.

I was reading the paper’s version of events, and speculation on the result.  Several of the jurors had featured in the discussion, but none were willing to talk about the result or who was responsible for the hung jury, only that one juror had not agreed with the majority.  In some states, it was argued, it only required a majority, but in this and other states, quite rightly, it needed a unanimous decision to confer the death sentence.

Justice, it seemed to the writer of the piece, had prevailed.

They also believed that the plight of women trapped in marriages to violent men was a matter that should be looked at and that such women should be treated better in the eyes of the law.  It was not a position that I disagreed with.  What I disagreed with was the notion of jury tampering.

It was, apparently, the fifth time that a case such as this had a similar track record, that the deliberations of the jury had swung from an initial guilty verdict to not guilty at the hands of a single juror.  In each of the five cases, the circumstances were similar, the wife had endured violence by her husband, and then, in odd circumstances, the husband had finished up dead.

Someone had discerned a pattern, and this had been a test case.  In each of the other four cases, a not guilty verdict had been handed down by a jury that had also started with a majority guilty verdict, only to be worn down by a single juror with an agenda.  To get the defendant a not guilty verdict.

My job was to find out which juror it was that was there to change minds.  Then it was a case of finding links between him and four other jurors who were equally instrumental in obtaining a not guilty verdict.  In each of the five cases, there was irrefutable evidence that the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the charge, and the expectation was the legal system would prosecute them.

And then, in each of the cases, a weak prosecutor was selected, and a particular juror was selected by that prosecutor.  From there, the trail led back to a particular assistant District Attorney who had overseen each of the five cases.  The fact was, justice was not served, and four out of the five defendants had escaped justice.

Until now.

© Charles heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – X is for “X marks the sport…”


I hated playing games.

I hated it when I was younger, namely because my brothers always cheated, and that had been carried through to adulthood.

Now, I just avoided them.

It left me wondering how I managed to paint myself into a corner, and agree to do the one thing I assiduously avoided.

You could chalk it up to being persuaded by a pretty girl.  Yes, I am the typical male, a sucker for a pretty face and a little flattery.

It would not have happened if I’d just gone home, instead of being asked to go and ‘just have one drink’ on the way home from work.  I used to, once upon a time, before I got sick.  But, perhaps it was a combination of cabin fever, and the monastic existence I’d adopted since that saw the one visit a chink of light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Whatever the reason, had I not gone, I would not have met Nancy.  I’d seen her before, off and on, at work, and had noted, probably with a degree of disdain that where she was, was the most noise.  You know, the one who talks loudest in the elevator, or the one who was the center of attention at a dining table.

And yet, underneath that, if or when anyone got close enough, there was something else.  Something that fascinated me.  But, having become reclusive had made me more reticent, and even though I was sitting at the same table, almost within arm’s length, I was too shy to strike up a conversation.

Until it was time to go home.  I had moved out of the way so she could get out, and as she passed me she said, “You’ve been very quiet, Brian isn’t it?”

“Yes.  And I know it’s rather lame but I don’t have as extensive knowledge of sports, which I guess I should.  Ask me about old movies, and I’m your guy.  Anyway, I pride myself on being a good listener.”

“Old movies eh.  I’ll keep that in mind.”  A smile, she went to leave, and then turned.  “Look.  I have this thing I have to go to, and I don’t want to go by myself.  It’s not a date or anything like that, I just need someone to come with me.  You might even find the people interesting.”

“I’m sure there’s someone else here more qualified than I am.”  It was lame and I was floundering.  It was not every day a girl asks you to go out with her.  Even if it was, to a certain degree, and unflattering invitation.

“They all seem to have something else to do.  Look, here’s my phone number,” she handed me a piece of paper with her cell number scrawled on it, “Call me if you change your mind.  It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”

I should not have picked up the phone.  I definitely should not have called her number.  And I knew I was going to live to regret telling her I would go to her ‘thing’.

Before I walked out the door I looked at myself in the mirror.  It seemed to be telling me, ‘you are a fool, Brian’, and I agreed.  This had disaster written all over it.  I hadn’t been out for a long time, and if anything, those few hours last evening were a sign I was not ready to face the world.  Not after being so long away from it.

A lot had changed in the fifteen months I’d been in a coma.  It was a miracle, the doctors said, that I came out of it with very little damage.  I’d lost a chunk of memories, particularly surrounding the accident, and perhaps, I’d been told, that was a good thing.  Cameron, the guy I worked with had summed up the change in a few short words, ‘you’ve gone from being the biggest dead shit in the world to something that resembles a human being’.  I didn’t remember that person, though others did.

Maybe she remembered who I was, and, if she did, that didn’t explain why she asked me.  The person Cameron described was not a person I would want to be with, so I guess the answer to my rhetorical question would soon be revealed.

Nancy was bright, talkative, and, at times, over the top.  She was the loudest in the room and the center of attention.  I wondered if the old Brian had been like that because if he was, I wouldn’t like him.  It begged the question, why did I agree to go with her?

Curiosity?  Maybe.  That I might find some people who knew the old Brian?  I certainly hoped not.

I had barely got out of the car to go and knock on her door when she came out, a small gym bag on her shoulder, dressed casually.  I had to admit, in the morning sun and surrounded by an idyllic setting, she looked almost like an angel.  She jumped in the car and all but slammed the door shut.

“You’re early.”

I looked at my watch, then the clock on the car’s dash.  Both said the same, Eight a.m. exactly.  “You did say eight a.m. and not p.m.”  I couldn’t remember what she said, not right then.

“I mean most guys who come to collect me are always late.”

“Then I guess, by inference, I not like most guys.”

She smiled, one of those impish smiles I’d come to recognize from anther woman I’d dated somewhere in a distinct past, and who was trouble.  I did, for some strange remember the night we spent in jail, though I couldn’t remember why, except the impish smile.

“I suspect you’re not.  Cam said you were different.”

“Cam did, did he?”  The mentioning of his name raised a red flag in the back of my mind.  Cameron was not above playing complex pranks and I was beginning to see indications that this might be one.  I would have to be careful.

“Not in a bad way, I mean.  He had nothing but good things to say about you, though I had the feeling there was something he wasn’t saying.  You’re not an ax murderer or anything like that?”

“Shouldn’t you have done some more research before asking me along?”  I had also heard from another source, actually, a chap named, rather aptly, Jones, who was also at the party.  He had left earlier but was still in the carpark, apparently his car parked next to mine, smoking a cigarette.  A suspicious man might say he was waiting for me.

He had some ‘sage’ advice.  “You want to be careful when you’re with Nancy.  She’s not what she seems.”

I asked him to elucidate, but, cigarette finished, he stubbed it out rather violently under his blood, and left.  He looked angry, sounded angry, and it was an angry warning.  Perhaps he was a current or, more likely, ex-boyfriend.  That ‘advice’ only added to the intrigue value.

Someone else, when he asked them about Nancy, had told him she was ‘brilliant’ with computers.  Was that in programming, or hacking, or simply data entry?  He only knew she had helped the web site programmers when the company had built its intranet.  Computers and I never got on, and I was the only one who got a weekly visit from the IT help desk, just in case.

“I did.  Do you remember anything from those fifteen months?”

“Like what?”

“They say that when you’re in a coma you can still hear people, you know, that sort of stuff.”

I thought about it for a minute.  I wasn’t one of those lucky ones, though I did have one of those out of body experiences, where I suspect I’d nearly died.  Just not my time, I’d thought, later.

“I’d like to meet the people who have that ubiquitous title of ‘they’.  They have a lot of opinions, most of which are about the unknown.”

“So would I, to be honest.  All you ever get to do is read about them.  So, are you ready?”

“For what?”

“A weekend away.  It will be fun if you want it to be.”

“Otherwise?”

“It’ll be fun.  You have my promise.”

“And where is this ‘fun’ going to be?”

“Rhode Island.  A friend of my parents, son is having a party and a few side events.  There’s about 40 of us, so there’s no shortage of interesting if sometimes eclectic people.  I’ll put the address in the GPS.”

Rhode Island, the other home of the New York rich, as well as others, and I hoped it was the others we were going to see.  The host was the son of possible millionaires, so that was an interesting description for me to mull on.  Would he be an ex?  It seemed to me that Rhode Islanders would be less likely to mingle with the paupers, and if they did it would be for their own amusement.

There was a memory on the back of his mind, that popped up, albeit briefly when she mentioned the destination.  The fact it didn’t want to come to the surface told me it was a bad memory.  One from ‘old’ Brians days.

Nancy’s beauty, manner, and the fact she was clever might just win over the son of a millionaire, an heir to a fortune, whereas it would intimidate a lesser man.  As for me, I was a means to an end, so it didn’t matter what I thought, other than it was better than staying home.

It was the house with all the cars parked out front.  Multi stories, with towers that no doubt overlooked the ocean, and extensive gardens that seemed to be shared, that blocked the sightlines from the street front to that invisible ocean.  I was will to be, once on the other side, the never-ending sound of the sea might be heard.

In winter, this would be bleak.  In summer, well, what was the saying, anyone who is anyone would be here.  Well, the sons and daughter thereof, perhaps.

I had expected the moment I parked the car she would be out, and gone, like a proverbial schoolgirl dying to get back to school after the holidays.  She was not.  She stood there, at the front of the car, and looked at the scene before us.  To me, it was just a building, with trees, shrubs, and grass around it.  To others, it was a portal into another world, one that would never be available to that 95% of the rest of the world.  It was a phrase that popped into my mind, again, randomly, that said, the top 5% of any country held as much if not more of the wealth belongs to the other 95%.

I came up beside her and looked in the same direction, at one of the towers.

“Having a Rapunzel moment?”  I hoped she had some memory of fairytales or it would seem an odd comment.

“I used to have long hair once.  But, the last time I was here, I can’t remember.  My mother’s hair was always long, some sort of hangover from hippy days, you know, the 1970s.  She was here once.  The stories she used to tell me about the houses, and the people she used to know.  I’m ready.  Are you?”

It was like a walk through the park, getting to the front door.  There was a driveway, but there must have been a rule, no cars on the property.  Or perhaps the front gate was locked and the owner had thrown away the key.

Or, more than likely, the butler, standing at the front door, welcoming guests, had it in his pocket.  He was a tall, severe-looking man, with a military bearing.  I somehow knew he was more than just the average butler.

Nancy gave him our names, and in return, he gave us a sheet of paper.  The rules and the room number where we would be staying the night.  I had thought that we would be given separate rooms, but that wasn’t the case, and it didn’t seem to worry Nancy that I would be staying with her.  The only other words he said were, “The rotunda, 11 a.m.”

The room overlooked the ocean, today more or less a millpond, and a number of yachts were out making the most of the weather.  There was a pier at the end of the property, and, yes, a reasonably large boat attached to it.   There was also a view of a croquet lawn, the rotunda beside the rose garden.  On the other side was a large pond, and seats where, no doubt on days when people like us were impinging on their solitude, they sat and contemplated how to make more money.

I didn’t realize I was that cynical.

The room had two beds, and it’s own bathroom.  She had thrown her bag on one, checked out the bathroom, then dashed past saying, “I’ll see you at the rotunda.”

I followed her down about a half-hour later, descending the stairs at a more leisurely pace, looking at the paintings on the wall as I did.  Forbears, and landscapes that were from around here.  The one with the lighthouse was of particular interest.  It brought another memory to the surface.  I’d been there before, sometime in the distant past, and it was significant.

The Butler was standing at the bottom of the stairs, having stopped there when he saw me descending.

“It’s nice to see you again, Master Brian.”

“Not Master Brian, anymore, Jeffery.  Sadly, I had to grow up.”

“We all do, sooner or later.  Pity we can’t say the same for Chester.”

“Where is he?”

“You need to ask.  I hope you’re up for a little X marks the spot.”

I groaned.  Chester and his treasure hunts.

My last memory of that he had hidden a fluffy bunny stuffed with money.  It was the weekend I had the crash the result I was told of too much booze, too much alcohol, too much of everything.  I was just glad the girl I had brought up with me had left with another chap, a decision, I told her when she visited me in hospital, was probably the wisest thing she would ever do.

I just shook my head.

“Even if you don’t think so Brian, we have missed you.”

Another look around, I sighed, then went outside.  My doctor had been right.  Coming back had stirred up the mush in my brain, those thoughts, feelings, and memories of who I was, and what I was.  And who I would never be again.

Nancy was waiting by the rotunda, talking to a more youthful version of myself, Chester.  It was an awful name, one that our mother must have come up with in one of her drug-fuelled dreams, and he had taken a ribbing at school, and a willing participant in many a fight.

Chester looked surprised to see me, no, that wasn’t surprise, but shock.

“I thought you said you would never come back.”

Nancy looked from him, then to me, then back again.

“I’m not here, Chester.  It’s just Nancy and Brian, here for the treasure hunt.  And this time there better be more than a hundred dollars in that stuffed animal.”

Chester looked confused for a moment, then smiled he brand of childish smile, that of a child that would probably never grow up, the result of what I did to him, and would spend the rest of my life trying to earn forgiveness for.

“OK.”

“What was that about?” she asked.

“Long story.  Remind me to tell you one day, if you stick around that long.”

In the background, I could hear Jeffery calling the treasure hunt participants together.

Like it had ten years ago when I came home…

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – W is for “What are the odds…”


I’m not a betting man.

I’d been to the horse races a few times, but every time I backed a horse to win, it would come last, and if I backed it to place, it would come fourth.

Then, every time I bought a lottery ticket, my numbers never seemed to come out, as if they were heavier than the others.

You get the picture, gambling, and I didn’t get along.

That being said, Vernon, a friend from school days, and then, having made the graduate program for the same company, remained friends into adult life. He was a betting man, he bet me he would be married first, he picked horses that came first, and always walked out of a casino with more than he walked in with.

And he was right, he got married first, had children first, settled into a manager’s role, and was content.

I was not so eager to follow in his footsteps; I often said that I hadn’t found the right girl yet, but the truth was, I wasn’t exactly putting myself out there. A couple of bad experiences had put me off the whole idea.

He had a side bet with another of our friends that I would not get married before I was forty. He had mentioned it to me some time ago, and I’d agreed with him; it was a safe bet.

The thing was, Evie had learned about that bet, and it was, in her mind, a situation tailor-made for her, being Vernon’s very popular wife, and not one to pass up a romantic challenge. Not after Vernon had suddenly decided to make a bet with her, to find me a girlfriend. With a time limit, of course, of six weeks. Just to make it interesting.

Of course, I had no clue this challenge existed, not until much later.

What I did knew was that she had a vast array of both married and single girlfriends and acquaintances, and was known to throw memorable parties on a Friday night. She had issued me with a standing invitation a long time ago, one that kept promising to honor, but I never seemed to get there.

I knew some of her friends were singles, and that she had a reputation of being something of a matchmaker. Vernon told me that those Friday night affairs were where some of his other friends had found romance and that it wouldn’t surprise him if I was not a target.

I agreed with him, but coincidentally, right after he said this, I got a call from Evie who all but ordered me to attend this Friday’s festivities. I was going to decline, but she added it was Chloe’s fifth birthday, and as her Godfather, I was obligated to attend.

It had been an honor when Vernon first asked me, it still is, but it seemed to me it was going to be used for some other reason, so I was going to have to be on my guard.

Over the years I had met most of Evie’s girlfriends and they were fun, yes, I’d heard about the exploits on weekends in Vegas, but it was not for me. I was the quiet, shy type, and they, in a nutshell, were not.
I’d met most of Evie’s family. She was one of five girls, the one in the middle. The two older sisters were professionals, one a doctor, the other, Geraldine, a lawyer. The two younger sisters were more hands-on, the second youngest, Zoe, was a home caterer, and the youngest, Yasmine, with no head for, or desire to own, a business, was more carefree. Like Evie, she was family orientated and still lived with her parents. The most level headed, and the one they all turned to for advice, was Melanie, the eldest.

She was the first person I saw after I arrived. I thought I would get there early because I never wanted to make an entrance.

“I haven’t seen you around for a while,” Melanie said, already a champagne flute filled, in her hand. Something else I knew, she liked to drink wine. She was also married, but I remembered her husband was away a lot.

“Part of the low profile I try to keep. How is Leonard, still the king of frequent flyer points?” His travels had finally earned him a special card reserved for very few.

“He’s in Paris, probably with his mistress.” She shrugged. “Husbands are like accessories these days. You can keep them or throw them out. I’m sure Genevieve will get tired of his soon and send him back.”

A unique attitude, for one who was supposed to give advice.

“You’re still not married, I see, Good choice. Marriage these days seems to be only good for a year or two, then sue the other for everything they’ve got. Sorry, I lost a case today, so I’m feeling a little cynical. Come back when I’ve had a dozen champagnes.”

She suddenly spotted on of Vernon’s neighbors and headed in his direction.

Zoe was walking past with a tray of canapes in her hand and stopped. “Ian? It is you. It’s so long since I’ve seen you.”

“Geraldine’s wedding. You catered that. A splendid feast I might add.”

Geraldine’s wedding had been a year ago, and after everyone had gone home, I found Zoe out the back in tears. She didn’t tell me then what had happened, but we talked for hours. Out of all the Wolverhampton’s, she was the most sensible, and the one I liked the most. But, like all those like her, she was spoken for.

“It was. How have you been?”

“Working, eating, sleeping, repeat.”

“It’s a bit like that, isn’t it? It gets to the point where all the days seem to run into each other, and in the end, you don’t know what day it is. That’s why I have a smartphone. It’s certainly smarter than I am.”

Something I had learned in that discussion was the fact she suffered from low self-esteem, perhaps from being a younger sister, perhaps because her parents had higher hopes for her than just being a caterer. Given her grades at school and later university, she could have been anything.

I was going to disagree with her and sing her praises, but one of her serving staff came up, told her there was a problem.

She sighed, handed the tray to the new girl, and a wan smile, disappeared towards the back of the house.

I thought then that I should leave because I doubted I would be missed.
Whenever I had to go to a party, particularly like one of these, where no one was sitting, and everyone was mingling, I usually set myself a task, picking a focal point and then following it all night. This night it turned out to be Zoe. I was curious about how she managed, running staff, organizing food and drinks, organizing the waitstaff, and managing crises.

In between times, Evie was introducing me to various people, married and unmarried, without appearing to do her ‘magical’ thing. Vernon made sure I remained in the mainstream, and not ‘hiding’ as he called it, and the conversation centered on football and baseball when I with the men, and about vacations and children when I was with the married women and their husbands, and gossip when I was with the single and divorced women.

And all the while I kept an eye on Zoe, zipping in and out of the back rooms, in earnest discussion with what I assumed were prospective new clients, and occasionally on the phone. Not once did she take a spell, and relax for a few minutes.

It was, I had to admit by the end of the night, a pleasant way to spend a few hours, made all the more pleasant by not having to worry about Evie trying to ‘match; me to any of her single friends, though she made sure I knew who they were. Of course, as always, there was not one or another that fitted what was my subconscious selection test. There was one whom I agreed to call and have coffee, but that was an open-ended arrangement, done to please Evie more than anything else.

After the last guest left, I wandered out the back. Vernon had asked me to stay, sample a new after-dinner wine he had discovered.

I’d been there for about half an hour when, instead of Vernon, Zoe came out with two glasses in hand.

“Vernon has stood you up, I’m afraid. He’s getting to be an old married man who had to be in bed before midnight. You’ll just have to settle for my company.”

“So long as you are going to tell me how I should be married, have two and a half children, and be living in a grand house in the suburbs, your company will be fine.”

She handed me a glass and sat next to me on the swing seat. It was a clear, cool night, and I’d been spending the time searching the stars for constellations. Sorry, I was never very good at astronomy.

“You don’t want that?”

“I don’t know what I want. Wouldn’t that all fall into place when you found the perfect partner?”

“Is there such a thing as a perfect partner? We start out thinking that, think we’ve found it, then the bastard goes off and had an affair.”

There was a lot of anger in those last few words of her statement. It explained the few heated exchanges I’d seen her have in what she thought were private moments. I wasn’t prying, I just happened to be nearby at the time.

“Then perhaps my expectations have been set too high. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Everyone told me what he was like.” She shrugged. “Another box ticked for life’s experiences.”

We drank wine and sat in silence. Unlike some others that evening, where it was kind of awkward, I didn’t feel that with Zoe. In fact, I was not sure what it felt like. Companionable?

“Look, I don’t have the best sort of shoulder to cry on, but if you need someone to listen, it’s one thing I’m good at.”

There were tears forming in her eyes and I’d only just noticed them in the moonlight.

“I could do with a hug. Are you any good at those?”

“I could try, and you could let me know. Always looking to add strings to that proverbial bow.”

She smiled. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing in particular. Why?”

“I need someone to just take me away from all this, if only for an hour or two. Vernon said you have a cabin by the lake, and I’ve never been fishing. Is it too forward for me to ask, I mean, sorry, sometimes I just speak before I think.”

“One thing at a time. Hug first, then fishing. Maybe.”
Upstairs, Evie rested her head on Vernon’s shoulder as they both looked out over the back garden, and, more specifically at Ian and Zoe on the swing chair.

“What are the odds, Eve. I told you he had a thing for her,” Vernon said.

“I would have said ten to one against. It’s so unlike her. I mean, he’s just so boring.”

“Is he now? That’s just the impression he gives everyone else. So much for your matchmaking.”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – V is for “Very clear about this…”


Kane was in a very difficult position.

It was not for the first time, but this time was significant because he had basically agreed in principle to vote for both sides.

And, when he realized what had happened, he had, depending on how you looked at it, been tricked.

Not good for someone who was well respected by both sides, and whose vote would count towards picking up those who were undecided.

That was just pointed out to him by Amy, his personnel assistant, the moment he arrived back in the office.

He leaned back in his chair and stared at a point just past her head, a copy of a painting by one of the old masters, still an object of beauty.

“So, when did Cheney change sides?” He asked, dragging his attention back to the problem in hand.

He suddenly realized what had happened, and it was a well thought out scheme.  Cheney had always been on board with the Board’s recommendation until he accepted Kane’s invitation to come to a meeting that would attempt to explain why the board’s recommendation was wrong.

He should have been skeptical of Cheney’s sudden change of mind, and then of the discussions he had attended with Cheney’s allies, with the objective of changing their minds too.  In fact, he had left with the impression he had persuaded them, saying, in essence, they should all vote against.

Seeing Cheney that morning with the leader of the group agreeing to vote for the motion, should have set off alarm bells.  The phone call from Williams, the head of the group voting for the board’s recommendation, saying he was pleased that Kane had finally seen ‘the light’ as he called it, had been interesting, to say the least, especially when he mentioned in passing, how very much the board appreciated Kane’s confidence in them.

He had done no such thing.

Instead, Cheney had put him on the spot, and his words were now being taken out of context.

“This morning.  I just got word from Ellie, who told me he had a breakfast meeting with Jacobs and Meadows. She said he came back looking very pleased with himself.”

Jacobs was the chairman of the board and Meadows was the CEO who was pushing the new plan, which would break up, and sell-off, or disband, the underperforming divisions of the company.  By having Meadows in attendance, Jacobs could basically offer Cheney anything he wanted.

And top of his list was my division.

“Yes, and I think we can guess why.  He wants this division.  Of course, if they gave it to him, it would not be the magic bullet he thinks it will be.  Nor would it line the shareholders, and therefore the board members pockets as it has in the past.”

“Is this situation the proverbial double-edged sword?”

“It depends.  I doubt you could quit out of dissatisfaction with a crappy board decision.  I doubt anyone could in the current financial climate.  But you won’t have to worry.  It might mean going back to the pool for a while if you don’t want to work with Cheney.”

“No problem there.  Ellie had already told me my days are numbered.”

Understandable.  Ellie and Amy had put themselves forward for the role of Jake’s personal assistant, and Ellie had tried very hard to convince him Amy was not suitable for a variety of reasons, none of which he found valid, and appointed her.  Ellie was not one who forgot or forgave easily.

Although he didn’t like denigrating anyone, he had said more than once to Amy, both Ellie and Cheney suited each other.  Neither cared who or what they destroyed to get what they wanted.

“Then it looks like you and I are heading for the scrap heap.”

“Sounds like an excuse for a long lunch.”  She smiled.  For a woman who was about to lose a dream job, she was in remarkably good spirits.

“Ask me again in an hour.  I have a few things to do.”

“Call in some favors, maybe?”

People didn’t rise in a company over several decades without making friends, making enemies, and stumbling over information which may or may not be used depending on circumstances at the time.  He had a few interesting tidbits in his arsenal, but whether he would use them or not wasn’t uppermost in his mind.

“We’ll have to see.”

Jake watched her leave, and, not for the first time, he wondered what life with her might be like.  He had never married, but had, for a number of years had a more or less relationship with the Chairman’s daughter, before she broke it off.  He suspected the Chairman had instigated it given the number of times she had tried to contact him since parting.

That door had closed. As for Amy, she had a husband who was a member of the armed services and had been killed in Afghanistan.  She had weathered that event and finally come out the other side of some very dark days, some of which he had witnessed personally, and tried to help where he could.  But was she up to dipping her foot into the dating thing.  He wasn’t prepared to ask.  Not yet.

He sighed and picked up the phone.  It was time to call Jacobs.  It was the day I knew he would be in his office, not at the factory site where we all were housed, but in the top floor of a prestigious building in the city, twenty miles away  You could call it an ivory tower, but the board did oversee the functioning of seven different and diversified companies.

Some time ago they had called for ideas on how to integrate a lot of the similar processes of those diversified companies, but in the end, they had paid a ‘crony’ a million dollars for an unworkable plan, and it had not gone any further.  Now, the conglomerate was bleeding cash, someone had come up with a new, knee jerk, plan.

Jacobs was surprised to hear from him.

“I was told,” he said, “everyone is now on board.”

“They probably are.  It’s just that it is no longer a problem for me.  You’ll have my resignation on your desk by close of business.”

That statement was met with silence.  Stunned, or was it smug satisfaction.  He had always viewed Kane as a thorn in his side.

“Is that really necessary?”

“I think you know why, and whatever the plan was, it has backfired.  I don’t need the job, nor do I need the aggravation of scheming and plotting.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, but let’s be very clear about this, you leave, there’s no coming back. If I were you, I would consider my position very carefully.”

Interesting reaction.  The only conclusion from his reaction was that the thorn was now removed.

I expected just such a reaction.

Now, for the next job.  Kane went down to the factory floor and called in all the production managers.  Like himself, he knew most of them didn’t really have to stay, some could retire, some could go into business by themselves, most could walk into another job, even a better job, the next day.

Kane left that meeting a half-hour later, telling them the decision to stay and work under Cheney, a man none of them liked, was their decision but he was moving on.

He called Amy, asked if she had sent his resignation letter, which she had, and to pick the restaurant for lunch, the more expensive the better, and that he would pick her up outside the front of the office block.

For Kane, it was the 107th day of what he called the rest of his life.  He was woken by the sun streaming in through the window of his hotel room.  He had reached Singapore and had been told that Raffles Hotel was the place to stay.

He agreed.  Old but new, the place just reeked of nostalgia.

The figure beside him stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled.

“Good morning, Amy.”

“It is a good morning, isn’t it Kane?”

Over lunch that fateful day 107 days ago, he took the chance of asking her if she would be interested in dating him.  Nothing heavy, no strings, he would understand if she thought it inappropriate.

She didn’t think it was inappropriate, just wanted to know why it had taken him so long.

The had got married in Rome, 42 days ago, in a quaint little church, and after a week, moved to Venice for the honeymoon.  They hadn’t set a limit on how long it should be.  There was no reason to go back.

Of course, just when it’s least expected, the phone would ring.  His cell phone.  It was the first time in months.

“Hello?”

He was surprised it was Jacobs.  He’d followed the fortunes of the company he had abruptly left, as it tried to implement the plan that Cheney and his ‘friends of the board’ had voted for.  One problem after another; in three months the stock value of the parent company had lost 90% of its value.  As Kane had expected, every one of his management team resigned the day after, knowing full well, once Cheney was installed as manager, the transition would fail.

Now, faced with hostile shareholders, a corporate watchdog investigation, someone had to turn around the company’s fortunes or it would slide into liquidation before the week was out.

“It seems that we have serious problems implementing the restructure.  We have made some mistakes, but I think if I could tell the receivers that we have a plan and you would be heading up a new management team, we could save the company and all of the employees.”

The 2,500 left.  They should have left well alone, and the whole 8,000 that had been there the day Kane left would still be employed.

The Board and upper management would do well out of the company going under.  The staff, well, they always lost.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Now, if you don’t mind, I have business to attend to.  Goodbye.”

I turned the phone off and put it back on the bedside table.

“Who was that?”

“Someone from another lifetime.  Now, where were we?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – V is for “Very clear about this…”


Kane was in a very difficult position.

It was not for the first time, but this time was significant because he had basically agreed in principle to vote for both sides.

And, when he realized what had happened, he had, depending on how you looked at it, been tricked.

Not good for someone who was well respected by both sides, and whose vote would count towards picking up those who were undecided.

That was just pointed out to him by Amy, his personnel assistant, the moment he arrived back in the office.

He leaned back in his chair and stared at a point just past her head, a copy of a painting by one of the old masters, still an object of beauty.

“So, when did Cheney change sides?” He asked, dragging his attention back to the problem in hand.

He suddenly realized what had happened, and it was a well thought out scheme.  Cheney had always been on board with the Board’s recommendation until he accepted Kane’s invitation to come to a meeting that would attempt to explain why the board’s recommendation was wrong.

He should have been skeptical of Cheney’s sudden change of mind, and then of the discussions he had attended with Cheney’s allies, with the objective of changing their minds too.  In fact, he had left with the impression he had persuaded them, saying, in essence, they should all vote against.

Seeing Cheney that morning with the leader of the group agreeing to vote for the motion, should have set off alarm bells.  The phone call from Williams, the head of the group voting for the board’s recommendation, saying he was pleased that Kane had finally seen ‘the light’ as he called it, had been interesting, to say the least, especially when he mentioned in passing, how very much the board appreciated Kane’s confidence in them.

He had done no such thing.

Instead, Cheney had put him on the spot, and his words were now being taken out of context.

“This morning.  I just got word from Ellie, who told me he had a breakfast meeting with Jacobs and Meadows. She said he came back looking very pleased with himself.”

Jacobs was the chairman of the board and Meadows was the CEO who was pushing the new plan, which would break up, and sell-off, or disband, the underperforming divisions of the company.  By having Meadows in attendance, Jacobs could basically offer Cheney anything he wanted.

And top of his list was my division.

“Yes, and I think we can guess why.  He wants this division.  Of course, if they gave it to him, it would not be the magic bullet he thinks it will be.  Nor would it line the shareholders, and therefore the board members pockets as it has in the past.”

“Is this situation the proverbial double-edged sword?”

“It depends.  I doubt you could quit out of dissatisfaction with a crappy board decision.  I doubt anyone could in the current financial climate.  But you won’t have to worry.  It might mean going back to the pool for a while if you don’t want to work with Cheney.”

“No problem there.  Ellie had already told me my days are numbered.”

Understandable.  Ellie and Amy had put themselves forward for the role of Jake’s personal assistant, and Ellie had tried very hard to convince him Amy was not suitable for a variety of reasons, none of which he found valid, and appointed her.  Ellie was not one who forgot or forgave easily.

Although he didn’t like denigrating anyone, he had said more than once to Amy, both Ellie and Cheney suited each other.  Neither cared who or what they destroyed to get what they wanted.

“Then it looks like you and I are heading for the scrap heap.”

“Sounds like an excuse for a long lunch.”  She smiled.  For a woman who was about to lose a dream job, she was in remarkably good spirits.

“Ask me again in an hour.  I have a few things to do.”

“Call in some favors, maybe?”

People didn’t rise in a company over several decades without making friends, making enemies, and stumbling over information which may or may not be used depending on circumstances at the time.  He had a few interesting tidbits in his arsenal, but whether he would use them or not wasn’t uppermost in his mind.

“We’ll have to see.”

Jake watched her leave, and, not for the first time, he wondered what life with her might be like.  He had never married, but had, for a number of years had a more or less relationship with the Chairman’s daughter, before she broke it off.  He suspected the Chairman had instigated it given the number of times she had tried to contact him since parting.

That door had closed. As for Amy, she had a husband who was a member of the armed services and had been killed in Afghanistan.  She had weathered that event and finally come out the other side of some very dark days, some of which he had witnessed personally, and tried to help where he could.  But was she up to dipping her foot into the dating thing.  He wasn’t prepared to ask.  Not yet.

He sighed and picked up the phone.  It was time to call Jacobs.  It was the day I knew he would be in his office, not at the factory site where we all were housed, but in the top floor of a prestigious building in the city, twenty miles away  You could call it an ivory tower, but the board did oversee the functioning of seven different and diversified companies.

Some time ago they had called for ideas on how to integrate a lot of the similar processes of those diversified companies, but in the end, they had paid a ‘crony’ a million dollars for an unworkable plan, and it had not gone any further.  Now, the conglomerate was bleeding cash, someone had come up with a new, knee jerk, plan.

Jacobs was surprised to hear from him.

“I was told,” he said, “everyone is now on board.”

“They probably are.  It’s just that it is no longer a problem for me.  You’ll have my resignation on your desk by close of business.”

That statement was met with silence.  Stunned, or was it smug satisfaction.  He had always viewed Kane as a thorn in his side.

“Is that really necessary?”

“I think you know why, and whatever the plan was, it has backfired.  I don’t need the job, nor do I need the aggravation of scheming and plotting.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, but let’s be very clear about this, you leave, there’s no coming back. If I were you, I would consider my position very carefully.”

Interesting reaction.  The only conclusion from his reaction was that the thorn was now removed.

I expected just such a reaction.

Now, for the next job.  Kane went down to the factory floor and called in all the production managers.  Like himself, he knew most of them didn’t really have to stay, some could retire, some could go into business by themselves, most could walk into another job, even a better job, the next day.

Kane left that meeting a half-hour later, telling them the decision to stay and work under Cheney, a man none of them liked, was their decision but he was moving on.

He called Amy, asked if she had sent his resignation letter, which she had, and to pick the restaurant for lunch, the more expensive the better, and that he would pick her up outside the front of the office block.

For Kane, it was the 107th day of what he called the rest of his life.  He was woken by the sun streaming in through the window of his hotel room.  He had reached Singapore and had been told that Raffles Hotel was the place to stay.

He agreed.  Old but new, the place just reeked of nostalgia.

The figure beside him stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled.

“Good morning, Amy.”

“It is a good morning, isn’t it Kane?”

Over lunch that fateful day 107 days ago, he took the chance of asking her if she would be interested in dating him.  Nothing heavy, no strings, he would understand if she thought it inappropriate.

She didn’t think it was inappropriate, just wanted to know why it had taken him so long.

The had got married in Rome, 42 days ago, in a quaint little church, and after a week, moved to Venice for the honeymoon.  They hadn’t set a limit on how long it should be.  There was no reason to go back.

Of course, just when it’s least expected, the phone would ring.  His cell phone.  It was the first time in months.

“Hello?”

He was surprised it was Jacobs.  He’d followed the fortunes of the company he had abruptly left, as it tried to implement the plan that Cheney and his ‘friends of the board’ had voted for.  One problem after another; in three months the stock value of the parent company had lost 90% of its value.  As Kane had expected, every one of his management team resigned the day after, knowing full well, once Cheney was installed as manager, the transition would fail.

Now, faced with hostile shareholders, a corporate watchdog investigation, someone had to turn around the company’s fortunes or it would slide into liquidation before the week was out.

“It seems that we have serious problems implementing the restructure.  We have made some mistakes, but I think if I could tell the receivers that we have a plan and you would be heading up a new management team, we could save the company and all of the employees.”

The 2,500 left.  They should have left well alone, and the whole 8,000 that had been there the day Kane left would still be employed.

The Board and upper management would do well out of the company going under.  The staff, well, they always lost.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Now, if you don’t mind, I have business to attend to.  Goodbye.”

I turned the phone off and put it back on the bedside table.

“Who was that?”

“Someone from another lifetime.  Now, where were we?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – U is for “Uncanny good luck shines upon me…”


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 neighborhood had.  In fact, it was rumored 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 gon 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 rumors 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 rumors remained just that, rumors.

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 brothers 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 that cars could enter one side of the property, stop under a huge canopy, and emerge on to 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 favorite, 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 was 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 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 of 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 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 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 armor.  You’ve come to rescue me, no?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – T is for “There is a moment…”


Kyle had been surprised to get an email from Janine, the wife of his brother Daniel. When Daniel had arrived on his doorstep, he wasn’t exactly a mess, but he had been struggling to understand why his wife of over twenty years would betray him as she had.

To Kyle, though, it wasn’t exactly a revelation. He had known the moment he saw her, just before the wedding, what type of woman she was. Definitely not monogamous. After all, he had seen her off and on during the six months he had been working in Washington, not only with Michael, but with several other men of varying degrees of importance, and not once as just good friends.

And, after he left, to get away from a toxic environment, and an equally toxic relationship with a woman he accidentally discovered was lying to him about not being married, he had learned that Janine had been having not one affair but several and that one, in particular, had exploded, forcing her to disappear back home or have her affair with Michael exposed to the world. It appeared Michael’s career had been more important than her reputation.

The fact she married Daniel as a face-saving exercise had not sat well with him and his last meeting with her was a very bitter row, and neither had spoken to the other since. Now that email came out of left field, leaving him wondering why she would send him an email, and how, in fact, she knew what his email was. Clearly, she still had particular ‘friends’.

He had left that email sitting unread in the inbox for two days, each morning the mouse pointer hovering over in, with the intention of reading it, and then, at the last second, passing over it.

There was nothing she could say to him that would justify what she’d done, and, he had told Daniel that in his opinion, he was better off without her.

On the morning of the third day, his curiosity got the better of him

There was no attempt at justifying what she’d done. Just advice that she would be arriving in London in two days’ time, and to ask if Daniel would see her so they could talk about their situation.

Terse, bordering on brusque, Kyle was equally amused and disappointed.

He sent an email back, terse, if not equally brusque, telling her not to bother, that Daniel had already assumed she would try and patch things up, and he was not interested.

She simply replied she had to come to London and gave him the flight number and the estimated time of arrival.
Kyle made two decisions, both of which he was going to regret. The first, he didn’t tell Daniel that Janine was coming over, and the second, he would go to the airport and tell her in person she was wasting her time.

Thus, standing outside in the arrivals area, he waited. The plane was late, nothing unusual there, and calculated he had time for a coffee and a scan of the paper before she appeared. When she did, about an hour after the plane touched down, the thought he might not recognize her was instantly dispelled. Last time he had seen her, she had been drop-dead gorgeous, and time had done nothing to dent that beauty. She had only one small case, so she had traveled light, also unexpected.

There was no smile, just a frown, as though the delay in arrival was just another annoyance among many. He could see her quickly scan those who were waiting for other arrivals, and picked him out almost instantly. He watched her approach, then stop in front of him. There was not going to be hugs or any sort of greeting.

“Janine.”

“It’s been a long time, Kyle. I must say I wasn’t expecting you to come to the airport.”

“I wasn’t, but I didn’t think a phone call would suffice. You’re wasting your time.”

“Is that Daniel speaking, or you. If I recall, you never did like me very much.”

“I thought I made my position very clear.  It seems I wasn’t wrong.”

“Twenty years, Kyle.”

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, whether it’s twenty days, twenty months or twenty years. Aside from that, you say you’ve done it once, but in living that lie, what else have you lied about because as far as I can tell, nothing you say can be believed.”

“It was once, and it was a mistake.”

“And there you have it. I don’t believe you, and neither does Daniel. And before you tell me I’ve poisoned him against you, don’t. You did that all yourself.”

“Is that it?”

“Yes. I’m done. Don’t bother us again.”
Kyle was not sure what Janine had expected of him or what she hoped to accomplish. Why hadn’t she simply contacted Daniel direct? If she could get Kyle’s email address, surely she could get Daniel’s phone number, unless Daniel had replaced his existing phone with a burner. Now that he thought about it, Daniel’s call to tell him he was coming to see him was from ‘No caller ID’, clearly an indication he had no intention of talking to her.

Now that she was here in London, perhaps it was time to tell Daniel. The last thing he wanted was for Daniel to think his brother was also not telling him the truth, especially if she did have a way of contacting him.

He pulled out his phone and called.

“Where are you?” When Daniel answered, it didn’t sound like he was at home.

“I went for a walk, and now I’m sitting in a small park. It’s the weirdest thing.”

“No so much. The houses around you don’t have front or back yards, so they just share one. Look, I’ve been keeping something from you, and I shouldn’t have. Janine emailed me a week ago and said she was coming over. I told her not to, but she came anyway, and I’ve just seen her at the airport. I told her you were not interested in talking to her. I hope I haven’t spoken out of turn.”

Silence. Perhaps he should have told Daniel when he got the email.

“Why would she bother?”

Not the reaction he expected. “Perhaps she thought you could patch things up. The way you spoke when you got here, I didn’t think you would be interested, at least, not for a while.”

“I don’t know what to think, to be honest. I miss her, I hate her, I hate what she did, perhaps it was my fault.”

“No, don’t go down that path. You did nothing wrong, and you didn’t deserve what happened. She made the mistake, not you. She still insisted it only happened once, and it was a mistake.”

“She seemed very happy at the time, even when she saw him off, so I’m not quite sure how she could suddenly be so contrite. No, you were right Kyle. I don’t want to see her, at least not for a while longer.”

“OK. At least you finally got out of the dungeon and getting some fresh air, or as fresh it can be. That’s a good first step. I’ll be home in an hour or so, and we can go out to lunch.”

It was a good sign, Kyle thought as he put away the phone. Perhaps they could talk further, see if he could find out what the real problem was with Daniel. There was something else weighing on his mind, something that was going to be hard to get him to talk about.
Three days later, and three emails to Kyle later, Daniel decided he would go to meet Janine, but on neutral territory, The Orangery at Kensington Palace, for afternoon tea.

It was a custom that Daniel knew would be lost on her, but he appreciated the nuances. In fact, in the time he’d been staying with Kyle, they’d been to Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges, and Harrods to sample their version. The best do far: Fortnum and Mason.

Kyle had offered to go with him to act as a buffer, but Daniel told him he could handle it. Since telling him of her arrival, Daniel had time to consider his position. And to promise himself he wouldn’t get angry.

He got there early, and had a pot of tea sitting on the table. He was having a blend that the Queen allegedly had, and it was quite good.

He saw her arrive at the doorway, scan the interior, find him, and then walk over. He didn’t get up. The gentleman had taken a holiday.

She sat, then said, “Hello Daniel.”

Before answering, he poured her a cup of tea, then said, “It’s the Queen’s special brew.” No hello back, just a neutral look in her direction. That everlasting beauty of hers radiated in the room, and more than one man had given her a subtle look as she crossed the room. It reminded him of how being envious, like that, had played a part in what he felt towards her. It should not matter, but it did.

She sipped it and made a face. Whether it was awful or too hot, he wasn’t going to ask.

“You didn’t have to come over here to see me. A phone call would have surfaced,” he sais, after another sip of his tea.

“I don’t have your new number.”

“You didn’t have Kyle’s email address, but that didn’t stop you. I suspect you have it, just not sure what my reaction would be if you rang it. You see, when you start lying, where does it stop?”

“I have never lied to you, Daniel. Not once in twenty years.”

“Perhaps then it’s not in the lies, but what you haven’t told me.” If she was going to entertain a battle of words or wills, this time he would fire back. Acquiescing because of the fear of offending or losing her was no longer a fear but a reality. He couldn’t make it worse.

“Then perhaps I should tell you what I haven’t said. I first met Michael in Washington. He dazzled me, far more than at University. I knew he was married, and still, I did what I did. Back then I didn’t care. Not until we became front-page news. Push came to shove, and I lost my job and my reputation. I came home, tail firmly between my legs, realized that if I wanted any sort of future it would have to be with someone like you. We didn’t meet by accident Daniel. We met because I wanted to see if what I had thought of you before I left, was still true. With Michael around, it was always hard for me to, well, be with someone else, or think about anyone else. But you always remained in the back of my mind, and, when I found out you were not going out with anyone, well, not seriously, I thought, what if…”

“… your second choice would still blindly accept you because he would think it was too good to be true?” I tried not to put any rancor into it and failed. Her change in expression told me she’d noticed it.

“No Daniel, you were never my second choice. You had always been my first choice, but I was too stupid. or too ambitious, to see what was right there in front of me. It took a huge humiliation to do that.”

Daniel was not sure if this was a confession, or a carefully stage-managed speech complete with the contrite inflections in her voice. If it was true, it might have been a revelation, but with his trust so broken, he was not sure what to think.

“Why fuck him then, in our house, in our bed?”

Blunt, perhaps, but he was not interested in being polite. He didn’t do anything wrong.

“Because I was a fool. We’ve been drifting apart the last few months, and I know there’s been stuff on your mind, but once, we used to talk about it. I had no idea what was happening at your work, and that’s on me, I guess I got too wrapped up in my own self-importance to notice. You can’t tell me that we were not falling apart.”

Be that as it may, it hardly seemed to Daniel to be an excuse for what she did. “You could have said something.” It was a lame reply. It was descending into he said she said, and not addressing the real problems.

“You could have talked to me. I don’t believe you were blind to what was happening.”

She was right, I hadn’t missed what was happening. But there was that small matter of pointing out what she had become, something I had been loath to do. Perhaps it was the time to say my piece and damn the consequences.

“Be that as it may, you said it yourself, you were too wrapped up in your own self-importance. You changed, and I didn’t like you’d become. You wanted the money, the mansion, the lifestyle, the New York penthouse weekender, and you’re welcome to it. That’s not who or what I am.” There, it’s done. Ten years too late.

Silence. No answer perhaps, or was it a case of the defense lawyer about to launch into a killer closing argument. He recognized the signs, the moment he’d taken one step too many.

“Yes, you’re right. And if that was the case, I’d not bothered to come over here, and try to convince you otherwise. You’ve heard of the expression, keeping up with the Jones’? Me, it was trying to keep up, and/or going one better. Ursula.” she shook her head. “I only realized what was happening when I told you about the penthouse. Your expression was the epitome of disapproval. Something else I’m guilty of Daniel, and something I’m not very proud of.”

There was just the right amount of contrition, and in a sorrowful tone. She had been the top student in her drama class at school and played some very convincing roles in the school’s productions. And, he’d noticed over the years, some of the roles she had played, with him, but mostly in front of others. At times Daniel felt like this was a performance.

She took a deep breath. Time, he thought for the closing argument, the one that would sway the jury. He’s seen her do it countless times before.

“So, I’ve said my piece, and I will say, I had anticipated your reaction. I’ve said I’m sorry, and I mean it. I’ve said it was a mistake, and it was. Like you, I’ve decided that I can’t stay in what used to be our home, for exactly the same reasons as yours. It will always remind me of the most shameful behavior. I told Ken to sell it, and everything in it. I told him to sell the cars, in fact, to liquidate all our assets. I’m not going home. I came here to be with you. I wasn’t lying when I told you, you were my first choice, and over time, my only choice to be with until the day I die. That will never change no matter what you decided today, tomorrow, or next week. I loved you then, I love you now, and I will always love you. I want you to think about this: there’s a moment when it all comes together when you instinctive know that you’ve found the right person. That wasn’t Michael, it was you, Daniel. I knew the moment I first saw you, and then, that first day after I returned, that there was no one else. I’ve made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve hurt you but I would like the opportunity to make it up to you.”

She took a sheet of paper out of her handbag and slid it across the table. Daniel unfolded it. A for sale notice on a property in Tuscany, a town that seemed vaguely familiar to him, Arezzo. Or near there.

“It’s a disaster. But I thought you and I could live there, fix it up, and get to know each other, properly this time, without any of those people I know you dislike. Just us, and a quiet leisurely life. I’m going there tomorrow. I hope you will come and join me.”

She stood. Closing argument completed; standing ovation from the gallery. Not.

“Thank you for listening to me. It’s more, I know than you think I deserve.”

Then she was gone. No one but Daniel watched her leave. It was not the in the manner of a woman who had thought she’d won.

Daniel spent the next four hours wandering around Kensington Gardens. He tried to tell himself that it was water off a duck’s back, but it wasn’t. It was that phrase, there’s a moment when it all comes together when you instinctive know that you’ve found the right person. He knew the first time he’s seen her, at school, a long, long time ago. She was right. He felt it again sitting in front of her. He wanted to be mad at her, he wanted to be angry for what she had done, but in the end, it didn’t really matter.

He would never be able to explain it, to himself, to his brother, to any of those at home that he could live quite easily without seeing any of them ever again. They belonged together.

And the thought of a few weeks, or months, or even years, in Tuscany held a great deal of appeal.

But, best not to go straight away. Perhaps give it a week. He’d look for a travel agent on the way back to Kyle’s place.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021