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

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 – S is for “Since when did you care?”


Don’t get me wrong, I loved my brothers and sister, but I can now only take them in small doses.

You know how it is growing up, always fighting for your own space, having to live with their idiosyncrasies, getting blamed for stuff you never did.

I never got to have a room of my own, always sharing with the other middle brother, James, whereas the eldest brother had his own room, and by necessity, our youngest sister.

They too got the first-class education where James and I were shuffled off to trade school, which James always said was a hop, step and jump from prison.

Coincidentally, James and I were the first to leave home as soon as it was possible. WE had to earn a living and pay rent, whereas the other two were being nurtured through school, and life.

It was the school of hard knocks for us.

Over the years we all drifted in and out of each other’s lives. We also drifted, at one time or another all over the world, and later, all over the country.

Because of this, only seminal events brought us back together, and even then, those moments were few and fleeting, and not looked upon with fondness. We were not the typical family.

When the time came for each to marry, at varying times of our lives, each would be there at the event. Keeping up with each other was a task for social media, and there we learned of children, divorces, affairs, and disasters.

But there was one defining event that finally shook up our collective trees of life; the death of our parents. Whilst none of the children were particularly close, it seemed to fall upon Janine, the daughter, to look after them.

And, when they were killed unexpectedly in a car crash, it was she who delivered the bad news, and issue the invitation to return home for the funerals.

It was sad, yes, but not as much as it should be for a child. For me, I had spent years hating them for perceived wrongs perpetrated, not getting the same treatment as eldest and youngest siblings, not getting the financial support when requested, and not getting a visit, even if it was only once a year.

So, when I read about their deaths, it saddened me, but I hadn’t seen them for a half dozen years, and had almost forgotten they existed. Yes, I should have made more of an effort to go see them, introduce them to their grandchildren, but I didn’t.

It was a completely different situation with Sally’s parents. There were a close-knit family who, whilst also had the monetary and space constraints as we had, and with more members of the family to contend with, they seemed to make it work without fear or favouritism.

She had only recently met each of my siblings in person, simply because of the fact we were getting older, and reasons for coming together more urgent, well, for the others, anyway. And that Sally had put her foot down and demanded we make an effort to see them.

“So, you are going to the funeral, all of us this time I hope.” I had just shown her the missive sent by my sister, Janine, proclaiming the sad news, not being surprised yet again at the coldness that ran between the members of my family.

She had been disappointed at my indifference, even when I explained the circumstances, and how that coldness had begun and festered throughout our lives. For one who had never been in that situation, it was hard to explain, or understand. Not when comparing it to her own situation.

“If you want.” I was going to make the excuse that my work would not allow the time off, but that would only be because of me, not them. I had used it before, and Sally had realised eventually what I was doing. It wouldn’t work this time.

“We should. They were, after all, your parents, and like it or not, they did give you your start in life. I’ve no doubt they did the best they could.”

Sally always saw the best in people, though with my parents, they did leave her somewhat perplexed at times. The same went for Jeremy, the eldest brother, and his indifference. He was our father reincarnated, and his wife, Lucy, was very much like our mother, perpetually suffering from disdain.

“You had to be there,” was all I would say in my defence.

It was a statement I used often to explain away their indifference. I wanted to believe they had done the best they could, but they could have done better. I hesitate to use the word selfish, but they had been, putting their needs before us.

Even in death, I could still feel the resentment.

“Do you want me to make the arrangements?” She always did, and if she had not, perhaps she might never meet my parents, or my brothers and sister.

“That might be best. You know what I’m like.”

I didn’t hear her reply, but I knew what it would be. A frown and muttering under her breath. She knew what I was like, and still married me, much to the disdain of my eldest brother, Jeremy, who had said to her, a day before the wedding, she still had time to change her mind.

He hadn’t endeared himself that day, or any of the days since.

For Alison and Ben, the two children that were never going to be anything like my siblings, it was an adventure. We rarely travelled far from home for holidays. Preferring to spend it with Sally’s parents at their summer house, big enough to fit everyone, what I would have called a boarding house. It was near a lake and was the closest thing to a summer camp as I would get.

Going over in the plane, Sally had banished me to an aisle seat one row behind them. I suspect that was to give me some mental preparation time, but more likely to consider the lecture she’d given me at the airport about me being more proactive in being nice to my family.

It was time to stop playing the forgotten child routine, and to start behaving like I had a family and simply accept them despite their idiosyncrasies. She was right, of course, as she always was, and todays, of all days, it made me wonder what is was she saw in me.

Off the plane, the first surprise was waiting in arrivals. Sally. Holding a sign much like a chauffeur would. Apparently, she had arranged transport. The second surprise was Sally and Janine together, like they were old friends. I was guessing Sally and Janine had had long conversations over the funeral arrangements.

She also liked Janine, even though she lived in a different world. Janine had never married, had a job that paid squillions of dollars, and lived in a mansion, one my children described as a castle, it had so many rooms.

Then, after the hugs, and the smiles, she saw me, the wet blanket.

“Tom.”

“Janine.”

“You can give me a hug you know.”

I could feel Sally’s eyes burning a hole in me. Hug it was. It was a first, and oddly, rather than consider it was waste of time, it gave me a strange set of emotions.

Then the moment passed.

“You look well.”

“That you can thank Sally for. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be a basket case now.”

“Who’s to say you not, still.” Sally gave me the critical eye, and it was a warning shot across the bows. Behave or else.

We followed Janine out of the terminal building to a parking lot where limousines were parked. She had got us a stretched limousine. Wherever we were going, it was going to be in style.

Sally told me at some point that when she had suggested we stay in a hotel, Janine would not hear of it. She said she lived in what was tantamount to a mausoleum, and there was plenty of room for us. And the rest of the family.

It seemed that she had been very successful in inventing something that everyone needed, and, when she described it, it made sense. Holding the patent and licensing people to manufacture it had made her very wealthy indeed.

Somehow, I’d missed that aspect of her life, though my impression of her, with her education and cleverness, she earned squillions. I was practically right.

What was also explained to me, because I had remarked on how well Sally and Janine got along, and that couldn’t have developed in the last few days while arranging thw funeral visit, it transpired the two had met once of twice when Sally was over this side of the country for seminars, and the two regularly emailed each other.

No sense, Sally said, for her to shun my sister as I had.

Once it might had annoyed me that she would do something like that, but it made sense that Sally would want to know Janine, at the very least, better despite how I painted her. She may have tried with the other two, but I knew Jeremy would strike out the first time she spoke to him, and James was hard enough for anyone to find, let alone his family. I’d tried, and he had disappeared. Not even Janine knew, at that moment in time, where he was.

Jeremy, unfortunately, we would see later.

It was also apparent that once we reached the mausoleum, that I was supposed to go and have a chat with Janine, family stuff she said, and Sally was happy to move into, and unpack, then get the cook to make the children a meal.

We went into a room that Janine called her office.

It was a large wood panelled room with a lot of shelving and a huge number of books. My only remark, that she could not have read them all. It was a little churlish and elicited a grimace.

Janine was not going to put up with my nonsense and was well aware of my attitude from discussions with Sally. It led to her first statement, soon after we sat in very comfortable leather chairs, in front of a window that looked out over a rose garden.

I was counting staff by then, a housekeeper, a cook, a young woman who was there as a waitress, a maid who showed Sally and the children to their rooms upstairs, and outside two gardeners. It was no surprise then the limousine was hers, and the man who drove it, ger chauffeur.

She lived a very different lifestyle than I did.

“I can see that look on your face where you are judging me, and you shouldn’t. You might think you were badly done by, but I’ll let you into a secret, you got the better deal. Not that I’ll defend Jeremy, but in my case, I had a hell of a lot of expectation dumped on my shoulders. You got to swan off and live your life without a care in the world, and I can see you have made all the right decisions, and got everything I could only have hoped for. I have no husband, nor boyfriend, and any I did didn’t last long because my focus was on work and success, instead of happiness. So, yes I have a big house and a lot of money, and people running around doing my bidding, but I have no one to share it with, and no one to pass it onto.”

“Yet.” It was a noble speech, and I’m sure she felt the loneliness of it all. I was going to say she had a choice, just as I had, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.

Certainly, I didn’t feel the same way about her as I had before I came of this odyssey, and that in itself may for some be something of a revelation. That hug she had given me at the airport, and the feelings it conveys almost confused me, and most likely would have frightened me if I had not had Sally.

For some reason, now, it was going to be impossible to have the same feelings, or feelings of resentment, I once had.

“There are things you need to know, Tom. The first is that I am not long for this earth. I have about a year, two at the most, the news of which I received about an hour after the police called to tell my our parents had been killed in a car crash.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

It was bad news for anyone to learn, but on top of the news of our parents, I couldn’t imagine what that was like.

“The second is that our mother had been diagnosed with the same condition, about two years ago, and didn’t tell anyone. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from the possibility it would happen to me, but we both know she was selfish and inconsiderate at the best of times. Believe me when I tell you we had some incredible rows over the years. And no, I was not a daddy’s girl so I got no support or help in dealing with her truculence.”

I could just imagine our mother giving Janine hell. And in that same thought, how sad it was to have saddled Janine with all of that responsibility. I knew Jeremy hadn’t been any sort of help in regard to both parents, and James was not to be found. I really had no excuse, and I had to admit that some of my father’s selfishness had rubbed off on me too.

“You should have told me, or told Sally to tell me.”

“You would not have been in a receptive frame of mind, not then. But now, I can see you’ve turned a corner, just being here. You could have declined to come, I know now of the hurt our mother and father in particular had inflicted on both you and James, because in their declining years, they eventually turned on both Jeremy and I. Jeremy didn’t cope very well, and did what you did, just went away, leaving me to deal with it. I’m not blaming you, not do I blame you for leaving, I truly understand why. It’s just a pity we didn’t have conversation years ago, because now we’re going to miss on so much in the little time we do have.”

The pity of it was there was nothing I could do now to get that back. But going forward, I was not sure what I could do to make it up to her. And I said as much, and it sounded a lot better in my head than out loud.

“Well, there is something you can do. It’s a funny story, though I believe you will not get a laugh out of it. The third thing is that I am the executor of their wills. Against my advice, and probably something our mother was not fully cognisant of, was a desire for my father to take her on one last road trip. The doctors had decreed due to her worsening condition she would have to go into managed care. He took her to Las Vegas, of all places. The thing is the day they left, mother decided to play this jackpot poker machine, and won the jackpot. I didn’t discover this until the Casino rang me, though how they got my phone number is still a mystery, to tell they hadn’t cashed the check. They were on the road out of Vegas when a truck hit them head on. It wasn’t really an accident, according to the police. They said the truck driver said our father had driven straight at him. I have no reason to disbelieve him.

“He deliberately wanted them both to die?”

“Yes. He had said more than once that he didn’t want to live without her, so I think it was his plan to spend a few days together while she was still cognizant, and then end it. I have no doubt she knew what he was planning to do, and had agreed it was the best way to end the pain and suffering.”

It certainly sounded something he would do. They never regarded the feelings of anyone else in any of the decisions they made. I was going to make a comment, but it seemed moot. They were dead now, and they had gone out on their own terms.

“The truck driver?” I had to spare a thought for him, because they would not have.

“Relatively unharmed, just shaken. And the shock that someone would do that. I met him and apologised, but it seemed not enough recompense for the suffering they caused him. Anyway, I asked the police if they had found a check in the remnants of the car, but given the state of it, it was not surprising they didn’t so I asked the casino to cancel it and write a new one.”

She reached out and picked up a folder on the table between he chairs, and took out a slip of paper and handed it to me.

A check made out to our parents.

For eighty-seven million dollars, and change.

I looked at her, quite literally astonished. “This is ridiculous.”

“What it is, is a sign from the heavens that will give me an opportunity I might not have been granted otherwise. I want you to come home, and spend the last months of my life here with me, and make up for the time we have lost. I know both you and Sally have jobs back home, but that check, your share of it, will make the decision a little easier to make.”

“Does Sally know about this?”

“Only that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, and that she was waiting until you came here before talking to you about what to do. She said it would be better coming from me, not her, because of how things are in the family. I’ll be honest with you, Tom, I was prepared to come to you to plead my case before our parents did what they did because there’s no one else I would want to spend what precious little time I have left.”

I knew now why I’d felt such intense feelings earlier at the airport. It had been a sixth sense, that something was terribly wrong. And she was right, what time she had should be spent with family, those values I had come to terms with being with Sally. It was the right thing to do, but it was not wholly my decision. There were ramifications of uprooting our lives back home, including the sacrifices Sally would have to make.

“Have you told Jeremy?”

“God, no. He’d be a total ass about it, saying I was trying to steal the limelight and making it all about me. We can tell him when it’s too late for him to make any comment at all.”

“And James?”

“We’ll find him. I have resources available that you can only imagine exist.”

I believed her.

“Then I guess I should go and find Sally and see what she has to say about it. And I guess I should apologise for being such an ass all these years.”

“No need. In a way I envy you, always have.”

“You have no reason to. I never made anything of myself, not like you have.”

“You’re wrong if you think that. You have an amazing partner, two beautiful children, and you have provided for them, and look after them in a manner in which I can only dream about. It’s not about money, or possessions, or anything like what you see I have, because when it comes down to it, all that matters is the people around you. That, unfortunately, was the legacy our parents gave us and it was wrong.”

She stood, “Let us not dwell on the past, but brace ourselves for the impending crash landing of the one and only Jeremy. I have some very good champagne chilling at the bar, and we’re going to need fortification, if not Dutch courage before the monster arrives.”

© Charles Heath 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 – S is for “Since when did you care?”


Don’t get me wrong, I loved my brothers and sister, but I can now only take them in small doses.

You know how it is growing up, always fighting for your own space, having to live with their idiosyncrasies, getting blamed for stuff you never did.

I never got to have a room of my own, always sharing with the other middle brother, James, whereas the eldest brother had his own room, and by necessity, our youngest sister.

They too got the first-class education where James and I were shuffled off to trade school, which James always said was a hop, step and jump from prison.

Coincidentally, James and I were the first to leave home as soon as it was possible. WE had to earn a living and pay rent, whereas the other two were being nurtured through school, and life.

It was the school of hard knocks for us.

Over the years we all drifted in and out of each other’s lives. We also drifted, at one time or another all over the world, and later, all over the country.

Because of this, only seminal events brought us back together, and even then, those moments were few and fleeting, and not looked upon with fondness. We were not the typical family.

When the time came for each to marry, at varying times of our lives, each would be there at the event. Keeping up with each other was a task for social media, and there we learned of children, divorces, affairs, and disasters.

But there was one defining event that finally shook up our collective trees of life; the death of our parents. Whilst none of the children were particularly close, it seemed to fall upon Janine, the daughter, to look after them.

And, when they were killed unexpectedly in a car crash, it was she who delivered the bad news, and issue the invitation to return home for the funerals.

It was sad, yes, but not as much as it should be for a child. For me, I had spent years hating them for perceived wrongs perpetrated, not getting the same treatment as eldest and youngest siblings, not getting the financial support when requested, and not getting a visit, even if it was only once a year.

So, when I read about their deaths, it saddened me, but I hadn’t seen them for a half dozen years, and had almost forgotten they existed. Yes, I should have made more of an effort to go see them, introduce them to their grandchildren, but I didn’t.

It was a completely different situation with Sally’s parents. There were a close-knit family who, whilst also had the monetary and space constraints as we had, and with more members of the family to contend with, they seemed to make it work without fear or favouritism.

She had only recently met each of my siblings in person, simply because of the fact we were getting older, and reasons for coming together more urgent, well, for the others, anyway. And that Sally had put her foot down and demanded we make an effort to see them.

“So, you are going to the funeral, all of us this time I hope.” I had just shown her the missive sent by my sister, Janine, proclaiming the sad news, not being surprised yet again at the coldness that ran between the members of my family.

She had been disappointed at my indifference, even when I explained the circumstances, and how that coldness had begun and festered throughout our lives. For one who had never been in that situation, it was hard to explain, or understand. Not when comparing it to her own situation.

“If you want.” I was going to make the excuse that my work would not allow the time off, but that would only be because of me, not them. I had used it before, and Sally had realised eventually what I was doing. It wouldn’t work this time.

“We should. They were, after all, your parents, and like it or not, they did give you your start in life. I’ve no doubt they did the best they could.”

Sally always saw the best in people, though with my parents, they did leave her somewhat perplexed at times. The same went for Jeremy, the eldest brother, and his indifference. He was our father reincarnated, and his wife, Lucy, was very much like our mother, perpetually suffering from disdain.

“You had to be there,” was all I would say in my defence.

It was a statement I used often to explain away their indifference. I wanted to believe they had done the best they could, but they could have done better. I hesitate to use the word selfish, but they had been, putting their needs before us.

Even in death, I could still feel the resentment.

“Do you want me to make the arrangements?” She always did, and if she had not, perhaps she might never meet my parents, or my brothers and sister.

“That might be best. You know what I’m like.”

I didn’t hear her reply, but I knew what it would be. A frown and muttering under her breath. She knew what I was like, and still married me, much to the disdain of my eldest brother, Jeremy, who had said to her, a day before the wedding, she still had time to change her mind.

He hadn’t endeared himself that day, or any of the days since.

For Alison and Ben, the two children that were never going to be anything like my siblings, it was an adventure. We rarely travelled far from home for holidays. Preferring to spend it with Sally’s parents at their summer house, big enough to fit everyone, what I would have called a boarding house. It was near a lake and was the closest thing to a summer camp as I would get.

Going over in the plane, Sally had banished me to an aisle seat one row behind them. I suspect that was to give me some mental preparation time, but more likely to consider the lecture she’d given me at the airport about me being more proactive in being nice to my family.

It was time to stop playing the forgotten child routine, and to start behaving like I had a family and simply accept them despite their idiosyncrasies. She was right, of course, as she always was, and todays, of all days, it made me wonder what is was she saw in me.

Off the plane, the first surprise was waiting in arrivals. Sally. Holding a sign much like a chauffeur would. Apparently, she had arranged transport. The second surprise was Sally and Janine together, like they were old friends. I was guessing Sally and Janine had had long conversations over the funeral arrangements.

She also liked Janine, even though she lived in a different world. Janine had never married, had a job that paid squillions of dollars, and lived in a mansion, one my children described as a castle, it had so many rooms.

Then, after the hugs, and the smiles, she saw me, the wet blanket.

“Tom.”

“Janine.”

“You can give me a hug you know.”

I could feel Sally’s eyes burning a hole in me. Hug it was. It was a first, and oddly, rather than consider it was waste of time, it gave me a strange set of emotions.

Then the moment passed.

“You look well.”

“That you can thank Sally for. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be a basket case now.”

“Who’s to say you not, still.” Sally gave me the critical eye, and it was a warning shot across the bows. Behave or else.

We followed Janine out of the terminal building to a parking lot where limousines were parked. She had got us a stretched limousine. Wherever we were going, it was going to be in style.

Sally told me at some point that when she had suggested we stay in a hotel, Janine would not hear of it. She said she lived in what was tantamount to a mausoleum, and there was plenty of room for us. And the rest of the family.

It seemed that she had been very successful in inventing something that everyone needed, and, when she described it, it made sense. Holding the patent and licensing people to manufacture it had made her very wealthy indeed.

Somehow, I’d missed that aspect of her life, though my impression of her, with her education and cleverness, she earned squillions. I was practically right.

What was also explained to me, because I had remarked on how well Sally and Janine got along, and that couldn’t have developed in the last few days while arranging thw funeral visit, it transpired the two had met once of twice when Sally was over this side of the country for seminars, and the two regularly emailed each other.

No sense, Sally said, for her to shun my sister as I had.

Once it might had annoyed me that she would do something like that, but it made sense that Sally would want to know Janine, at the very least, better despite how I painted her. She may have tried with the other two, but I knew Jeremy would strike out the first time she spoke to him, and James was hard enough for anyone to find, let alone his family. I’d tried, and he had disappeared. Not even Janine knew, at that moment in time, where he was.

Jeremy, unfortunately, we would see later.

It was also apparent that once we reached the mausoleum, that I was supposed to go and have a chat with Janine, family stuff she said, and Sally was happy to move into, and unpack, then get the cook to make the children a meal.

We went into a room that Janine called her office.

It was a large wood panelled room with a lot of shelving and a huge number of books. My only remark, that she could not have read them all. It was a little churlish and elicited a grimace.

Janine was not going to put up with my nonsense and was well aware of my attitude from discussions with Sally. It led to her first statement, soon after we sat in very comfortable leather chairs, in front of a window that looked out over a rose garden.

I was counting staff by then, a housekeeper, a cook, a young woman who was there as a waitress, a maid who showed Sally and the children to their rooms upstairs, and outside two gardeners. It was no surprise then the limousine was hers, and the man who drove it, ger chauffeur.

She lived a very different lifestyle than I did.

“I can see that look on your face where you are judging me, and you shouldn’t. You might think you were badly done by, but I’ll let you into a secret, you got the better deal. Not that I’ll defend Jeremy, but in my case, I had a hell of a lot of expectation dumped on my shoulders. You got to swan off and live your life without a care in the world, and I can see you have made all the right decisions, and got everything I could only have hoped for. I have no husband, nor boyfriend, and any I did didn’t last long because my focus was on work and success, instead of happiness. So, yes I have a big house and a lot of money, and people running around doing my bidding, but I have no one to share it with, and no one to pass it onto.”

“Yet.” It was a noble speech, and I’m sure she felt the loneliness of it all. I was going to say she had a choice, just as I had, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.

Certainly, I didn’t feel the same way about her as I had before I came of this odyssey, and that in itself may for some be something of a revelation. That hug she had given me at the airport, and the feelings it conveys almost confused me, and most likely would have frightened me if I had not had Sally.

For some reason, now, it was going to be impossible to have the same feelings, or feelings of resentment, I once had.

“There are things you need to know, Tom. The first is that I am not long for this earth. I have about a year, two at the most, the news of which I received about an hour after the police called to tell my our parents had been killed in a car crash.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

It was bad news for anyone to learn, but on top of the news of our parents, I couldn’t imagine what that was like.

“The second is that our mother had been diagnosed with the same condition, about two years ago, and didn’t tell anyone. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from the possibility it would happen to me, but we both know she was selfish and inconsiderate at the best of times. Believe me when I tell you we had some incredible rows over the years. And no, I was not a daddy’s girl so I got no support or help in dealing with her truculence.”

I could just imagine our mother giving Janine hell. And in that same thought, how sad it was to have saddled Janine with all of that responsibility. I knew Jeremy hadn’t been any sort of help in regard to both parents, and James was not to be found. I really had no excuse, and I had to admit that some of my father’s selfishness had rubbed off on me too.

“You should have told me, or told Sally to tell me.”

“You would not have been in a receptive frame of mind, not then. But now, I can see you’ve turned a corner, just being here. You could have declined to come, I know now of the hurt our mother and father in particular had inflicted on both you and James, because in their declining years, they eventually turned on both Jeremy and I. Jeremy didn’t cope very well, and did what you did, just went away, leaving me to deal with it. I’m not blaming you, not do I blame you for leaving, I truly understand why. It’s just a pity we didn’t have conversation years ago, because now we’re going to miss on so much in the little time we do have.”

The pity of it was there was nothing I could do now to get that back. But going forward, I was not sure what I could do to make it up to her. And I said as much, and it sounded a lot better in my head than out loud.

“Well, there is something you can do. It’s a funny story, though I believe you will not get a laugh out of it. The third thing is that I am the executor of their wills. Against my advice, and probably something our mother was not fully cognisant of, was a desire for my father to take her on one last road trip. The doctors had decreed due to her worsening condition she would have to go into managed care. He took her to Las Vegas, of all places. The thing is the day they left, mother decided to play this jackpot poker machine, and won the jackpot. I didn’t discover this until the Casino rang me, though how they got my phone number is still a mystery, to tell they hadn’t cashed the check. They were on the road out of Vegas when a truck hit them head on. It wasn’t really an accident, according to the police. They said the truck driver said our father had driven straight at him. I have no reason to disbelieve him.

“He deliberately wanted them both to die?”

“Yes. He had said more than once that he didn’t want to live without her, so I think it was his plan to spend a few days together while she was still cognizant, and then end it. I have no doubt she knew what he was planning to do, and had agreed it was the best way to end the pain and suffering.”

It certainly sounded something he would do. They never regarded the feelings of anyone else in any of the decisions they made. I was going to make a comment, but it seemed moot. They were dead now, and they had gone out on their own terms.

“The truck driver?” I had to spare a thought for him, because they would not have.

“Relatively unharmed, just shaken. And the shock that someone would do that. I met him and apologised, but it seemed not enough recompense for the suffering they caused him. Anyway, I asked the police if they had found a check in the remnants of the car, but given the state of it, it was not surprising they didn’t so I asked the casino to cancel it and write a new one.”

She reached out and picked up a folder on the table between he chairs, and took out a slip of paper and handed it to me.

A check made out to our parents.

For eighty-seven million dollars, and change.

I looked at her, quite literally astonished. “This is ridiculous.”

“What it is, is a sign from the heavens that will give me an opportunity I might not have been granted otherwise. I want you to come home, and spend the last months of my life here with me, and make up for the time we have lost. I know both you and Sally have jobs back home, but that check, your share of it, will make the decision a little easier to make.”

“Does Sally know about this?”

“Only that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, and that she was waiting until you came here before talking to you about what to do. She said it would be better coming from me, not her, because of how things are in the family. I’ll be honest with you, Tom, I was prepared to come to you to plead my case before our parents did what they did because there’s no one else I would want to spend what precious little time I have left.”

I knew now why I’d felt such intense feelings earlier at the airport. It had been a sixth sense, that something was terribly wrong. And she was right, what time she had should be spent with family, those values I had come to terms with being with Sally. It was the right thing to do, but it was not wholly my decision. There were ramifications of uprooting our lives back home, including the sacrifices Sally would have to make.

“Have you told Jeremy?”

“God, no. He’d be a total ass about it, saying I was trying to steal the limelight and making it all about me. We can tell him when it’s too late for him to make any comment at all.”

“And James?”

“We’ll find him. I have resources available that you can only imagine exist.”

I believed her.

“Then I guess I should go and find Sally and see what she has to say about it. And I guess I should apologise for being such an ass all these years.”

“No need. In a way I envy you, always have.”

“You have no reason to. I never made anything of myself, not like you have.”

“You’re wrong if you think that. You have an amazing partner, two beautiful children, and you have provided for them, and look after them in a manner in which I can only dream about. It’s not about money, or possessions, or anything like what you see I have, because when it comes down to it, all that matters is the people around you. That, unfortunately, was the legacy our parents gave us and it was wrong.”

She stood, “Let us not dwell on the past, but brace ourselves for the impending crash landing of the one and only Jeremy. I have some very good champagne chilling at the bar, and we’re going to need fortification, if not Dutch courage before the monster arrives.”

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – R is for “Return to sender”


We all make mistakes, errors of judgment, stupidly or otherwise.

I’ve made a few, just like in the words of a song that rattled around in my head for a long time after.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but there was one that, in the end, I didn’t.

But I guess it took a while to get to that point.

Sometimes it’s hard to work out why, sometimes because it’s simply time, others, well when you look back you realise that it should have happened for so many reasons, but at the time you couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

We were in a bad place.

I’d been spending too much time travelling in a job that I had begun to hate, and I could see our relationship slipping away.  It was not that neither of us cared for the other, or even stopped loving each other, it was simply the stresses of everyday life.

And it was not as if Chloe didn’t have a high pressure job, the one she had always wanted, and the one, we agreed, nothing would get in the way if she was given the opportunity.

I was happy with that, and for her.  She was as entitled to have her dream job, as I was.  I thought, I think we both thought, and believed, that would be the foundation of a good relationship.

And it was, to begin with.

There’s a point where there is a catalyst, that action, or statement, or person, or moment in time that comes along like a wrecking ball, and sets a series of events in motion, and no one really knows where it’s going to land or it’s effect.

That event?

I came home early and saw an old friend of mine, Roger, leaving our house.  OK, not so much a big deal, except for the send-off.  Still, even then it might not be such a big deal, because I knew Chloe was a very affectionate, touchy feely sort of person.

It used to faze me, way back in the beginning, but she had said, and proved, that I was the love of her life, and that others, well, she made them feel special.

I thought no more about it, of course, and I didn’t even mention it, though at the time, when I did walk in the door, she seemed distracted.

And I would not have thought about it again until Roger’s wife, Melissa, called one morning, though why she would call me was a mystery, to say that she was planning to surprise Roger in Las Vegas.

OK, I was suitably surprised, thinking that she was suggesting that Chloe and I should both go and make a weekend of it.  We had done it before, because Melissa was a travel agent, and sometimes got airline and hotel deals that made it affordable.

I remember saying that as far as I was aware Chloe was in Pasadena doe the week on a conference.

No, she said, Chloe was co-incidentally in Las Vegas and Roger had accidentally run into her.

Should alarm bells be going off, I wondered, when that sliver of memory of him leaving popped back into my mind?  No, it was just me, running around like a headless chook, failing to read her diary correctly.

I simply said, fine, and told her to make the arrangements.

It was going to be a surprise, because I hadn’t seen Chloe for two or three weeks, time seemed to pass too quickly these days, and it would be good for the both of us to spend some time together, away from home and the stresses of our respective jobs.

I met Melissa at the airport.  Unlike Chloe, she was travelling light with only a carry on bag.  I was used to moving fast and light with a bag that fitted in the overhead locker.

Sher had secured business class which was a treat because in this day and age of economics, that perk had disappeared a while back and was only available to the senior staff.

Onto the fourth glass of champagne, she dropped her bombshell, whether deliberate or otherwise I was never sure.

“It was very nice of Chloe to find Roger a job in her company.”

Did she, I thought.  It was the first time I’d heard about it, and my expression must have given me away.

“You didn’t know.”

“Chloe never mentioned it, no.  But it is like her.”  She had also employed members of her family that, in my opinion, wouldn’t get a job anywhere else.

“Odd, don’t you think?  It’s been about a year now.  His company went broke, and all the employees were tossed out onto the street with nothing.”

A year was a long time to forget to tell someone.  “Has it.  Perhaps it just slipped her mind.  She doesn’t tell me everything that goes on, nor do I want to know unless she thinks it’s important.”

Except employing my best friend was important, and it surprised me that he hadn’t told me himself.  He was never backward in bragging about his achievements.  Odd, yes, that he hadn’t told me he’d lost his other job.

Melissa had found out the hotel they were staying in, how I had no idea and didn’t ask, and it was simply a matter of telling the front desk clerk their spouses had arrived, and without question he handed over the keys.

They were staying on different floors which to me made sense.  I wasn’t expecting they would be staying together, but I had an awful feeling Melissa had.

On the floor I went to the room and knocked on the door.

A minute later the door opened.  Chloe, still in her nightgown, and an expression which lasted a fraction of a second before it registered surprise.

“Tom!”

Any other time, I might have thought she was expecting someone else.

Then my phone buzzed, an incoming message and I looked at it.

From Melissa.  “Lobby, now.”

I looked up, thought how beautiful she still looked, and said, “Hold that thought.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Then I closed the door and headed for the elevators.

Once inside and going down, my brain finally registered what it had just seen.  A woman prime for sex with that lustful look she used to have when we were first married.  Yes, she had been expecting someone, only not me.

Yet, in that moment of realization I wasn’t mad at her or angry.  She was exactly where she was because of me, and my lack of consideration.  I had several opportunities to toss in the job that was clearly causing us issues, and I didn’t.  It was inevitable we were going to end up here.

When I stepped out of the elevator, I looked for Melissa, but she was not immediately noticeable.  Then, a further scan showed she was outside, and not in a good state.  When I reached her, it was evident she had been crying, and she was angry.

“Is it what I think you’re going to say?”

She nodded.  “When he opened the door, his first words were, “Chloe you sly fox, back for seconds?  And then nearly had a heart attack when he saw me.

“I’m sorry.  But did you have an idea this might happen?”

She nodded.

It explained everything, the hints, the sadness, the trip.  Obviously, she had known about it for some time.

I gave her a hug, and she melted into my arms, and we stayed that way until I saw Roger coming out of the elevator, looking around.

“Roger’s coming,” I said.

“I don’t want to see him, much less talk to him.”

“Then I’ll head him off.  Do you want to go home?”

Again she nodded.  “Then get a taxi to the airport and I’ll be along in a short time.  I’ll text you when I’m leaving.”

A quick look in Roger’s direction, she headed to the taxi rank, and just as Roger came out the door, her taxi departed, leaving him standing there.

He saw me coming towards him, and to give him credit, he didn’t run.  IT would be difficult for him to know exactly how I might react.

“Tom.”

“My best friend, Roger.  I might have been able to cope if it was some random guy, but not you.”

“Look…”

If he was going to try and justify himself, or make excuses, I didn’t want to hear it.  “Now is not the time.  I’m going to take Melissa home, and I suggest you take the time to figure out how you are going to deal with her, because I’m not the problem.”

He was going to reply, but possibly thought twice about it.  Instead, he shrugged.  “Later then.”

I watched him go back inside.  What I should have done, then, was go back to see Chloe.  The thing is, I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want the conversation to descend into blame, or worse.  Better I just head for the airport, and come to grips with what I was going to do next.

As expected, about five minutes after the taxi had left for the airport, Chloe called.

“I’ve been expecting you,” she said.  Her tone was not confident, but a little bit hesitant.

“Sorry.  Roger came looking for Melissa, and seeing him, well, that just threw me.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you?”

“About?”

“Going to Pasadena.  I came here to end it, because it made me realize what was missing between us, and I wanted it back.”

“And if Melissa hadn’t played out her worst fears that would have worked.  The world, it seems, works in mysterious ways.

If I thought about it, I might have had suspicions, but I was not the sort of person to let them get the better of me.  And had it not been for Melissa, my ignorance would have been bliss.

“What is it telling us, then, Tom?”

“That we need to take a step back.  I know that I’m to blame as much as anything else, and although you might find it hard to believe, I don’t hate you, nor am I angry with you.  For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.  I saw the signs and I didn’t do anything about it.  WE’ll talk when you come home.”

I disconnected the call.  My voice had broken, and I hadn’t realised just how much it had affected me, suddenly overcome with a great sadness.

I didn’t go home.

On the plane back, I realised that where I lived was just a house.  It wasn’t mine, Chloe’s success had contributed most towards it, and everything else.  If I was to be objective, there really wasn’t anything of me there.

It was easy to walk away.

When Chloe came home and found me missing, she called, three times before I answered.  I had thought long and hard about what we had together, and whether or not we could get over what had happened.  Perhaps, if she hadn’t lied about where she was, perhaps if it had not been Roger, my best friend, who, by the way, was no longer my best friend, I might have considered we had a chance.

But the trust was broken, and I’d always be wondering.  She was successful, she had everything she ever wanted, and she was a grown woman who had to take responsibility for her actions.

She would always be the love of my life; it’s just I couldn’t live with her.  We spoke about divorce, but it never seemed to happen.  I think she always had the notion that we would eventually get back together.

We parted friends, but never seemed to travel in the same circles.  On our twentieth wedding anniversary, she sent me a letter, perhaps thinking it was the only way she could speak to me, I had long since traded my old phone in for a new one, in another country.

I toyed with the idea of reading it, but in the end scrawled on it black capital letters, “Not known at this address, return to sender”.  It was time to move on.

The A to Z Challenge – Q is for “Quickly, quickly…”


It was odd having a voice in your head, well, not really in your head as such, but in your ear, and sounding like it was in your head.

You could truthfully say you were hearing voices.

It was the next step after going through some very intensive training, having someone else as your eyes and ears when breaching a secure compound, and avoiding the enemy.

I’d signed on for this extra training thinking one day it would land me in the thick of the action. Some of the others thought I was mad, but someone had to do it, and the fact it was quite dangerous added just that extra bit to it.

But as they say, what you learn in training, and practise in a non-hostile environment, is nothing like being in that same situation in reality.

Now on was on my first assignment, part of an elite team, packed and taken to what was to everyone else, an unspecified location, but to us, it was the point of incursion.

The mission?

To rescue a government official (that was how he was described to us) who had been illegally detained in a foreign prison.

Our job?

To break him out and get out without the knowledge of the prison staff, or anyone representing that government. Yes, what we were doing was highly illegal, and yes, if we were caught it was more likely than not we would be executed as spies.

We were under cover in an abandoned farmhouse about three miles from the prison. We had been brought in under cover of darkness, and had only a few hours to set up, and then wait it out until the following night.

It was now or never, the weather people predicting that there would be sufficient cloud cover to make us invisible. Two of us were going in, and two remaining strategically placed outside to monitor the inside of the prison through a system of infrared scanners. We also had a floor plan of the building in which the prisoner was being held, and intelligence supplied, supposedly, by one of the prison guards who had been paid a lot of money for information on guard movements.

To me, it was a gigantic leap of faith to trust him, but I kept those thoughts to myself.

We had been over the plan a dozen times, and I’d gone through the passageways, rooms, and doors so many times I’d memorised where they were and would be able to traverse the building as if I had worked there for a lifetime. Having people outside, talking me through it was just an added benefit, along with alerts on how near the guards were to our position.

I was sure the other person going with me, a more seasoned professional who had a number of successful missions under his belt, was going through the same motions I was. After all, it was he who had devised and conducted the training.

There was a free period of several hours before departure, time to listen to some music, empty the head of unwanted thoughts, and to get into the right mindset. It was no place to get tangled up in what ifs, if anything went wrong, it was a simple matter of adapting.

Our training had reinforced the necessity to instantly gauge a situation and make changes on the fly. There would literally be no time to think.

I listened to the nuances of Chopin’s piano concertos, pretending to play the piano myself, having translated every note onto a piano key and observing it in my mind’s eye.

My opposite number played games of chess in his head. We all had a different method of relaxing.

Until it was 22:00 hours, and time to go.

“Go left, no, hang on, go right.” The voice on my ear sounded confused and it was possible to get lefts and rights mixed up, if you were not careful.

It didn’t faze me, I knew from my study of the plans that once inside the perimeter fence, I had to go right, and head towards a concrete building the roof of which was barely above the ground.

It was once used as a helipad, and underneath, before the site became a prison, the space was used to make munitions. And it was an exceptionally large space that practically ran under the whole of the prison, built above ground.

All that had happened was the lower levels were sealed, covered over and the new structures build on top. Our access was going to be from under the ground.

Quite literally, they would not see, or hear, us coming.

The meteorological people had got it right, there was cloud cover, the moon hidden from view, and the whole perimeter was in inky darkness. Dressed in black from head to foot, the hope was we would be invisible.

There were two of us heading to the same spot, stairs that led down to a door that was once one of the entrances to the underground bunker. We were going separate ways in case one of the other was intercepted in an unforeseen event.

But, that part of the plan worked seamlessly, and we both arrived at the same place nearly at the same time.

Without the planning we might easily have missed it because I didn’t think it would be discernable even in daylight.

I followed the Sergeant downstairs, keeping a watchful eye behind us. I stooped at the point where I could see down, and across the area we had just traversed.

Nothing else was stirring.

As expected, the door was seamless and without an apparent handle. It may have had one once, but not anymore, so anyone who did stumble across it, couldn’t get in.

Except us. We had special explosives that were designed to break the lock, and once set, would not make a lot of noise. Sixty seconds later we were inside, and the door closed so no one would know we’d broken in.

I was carrying a beacon so that the voice in my head could follow my progress. The sergeant had one too, and he led.

“Straight ahead, 200 yards, then another door. It shouldn’t be locked, but it might be closed.”

In other words, we had no way of knowing. Our informant had said no one had been down in the dungeons, as he called them, since the munition factory closed, and had been sealed up soon after the prison building had been handed over for use.

We were using night goggles, and there was a lot of rubbish strewn over the floor area so we had to carefully pick our way through which took time we really didn’t have. It looked as though our informant was right, no one had been down there for a long time. We were leaving boot prints in the dust.

We reached the door ten minutes later than estimated. Losing time would have a flow on effect, and this operation was on a very tight time constraint.

“Once you are through the door, there’s a passage. Turn left and go about 50 paces. There should be another passage to your right.”

“Anyone down here?”

“No, but there is a half dozen prison officers above you. Standard patrol, from guardhouse to guardhouse. Unless they can hear you through five feet of solid concrete, you’re safe.”

My instincts told me five feet of concrete were not enough, but I’ll let it ride for the moment.

The door was slightly ajar and it took the two of us to pull it open so that we could get past. Behind it was the passage, going left and right. Trusting my invisible guide was not getting mixed up again, I motioned right, and we headed down the passage.

Despite the fact we should be alone, both of us were careful not to make any noise, and trod carefully.

At 50 or so paces, the passage came into sight. The sergeant went ahead. I stayed back and kept an eye in both directions. The passage before us was the one that would take us under the cell of the captive we were sent to retrieve.

There would be no blasting our way in. The floor to the cell had a grate, and when removed, a person could drop down into the ‘dungeon’. Currently the grate was immovable, but we had the tools to fix that.

The sergeant would verify the grate was where it was supposed to be, then come back to get me.

Five minutes passed, then ten. It was not that far away.

I was about to go search when the voice in my head returned, but with panic. “We’ve been compromised. Get the hell out of there, now. Quickly…”

Then I heard what sounded like gunshots, then nothing.

A minute later there was a new voice. “I don’t know who you are, but I’d strongly advise you give yourself up to the guards. Failure to do so within one hour, I’ll execute the two men I now have in custody.”

Ahead of me there was a sudden explosion, followed by a cloud of dust and fine debris.

Hand grenade, or mine, it didn’t matter. The sergeant wouldn’t be coming back.

I sighed.

Plan B it was.

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – O is for “Oh my God!”


I was one of six people who answered a house-sitting ad.  What stood out was the money, as was intended.

When I arrived at the interview, held in an accountant’s office downtown, there was no suggestion that it was a trick, or there were ulterior motives.

Just $5,000 for a week’s work.  Move in, act like a security guard and check all entrances and exits, and all rooms that had windows to the outside every four or so hours, particularly at night.

The reason?

The owner had to maintain residence in the house for the week, as he was going away, under a clause in the sale contract.  The reason for hiring civilians, that it was too expensive to get live in people from a security company.

The owner freely admitted he was a cheapskate.

But fir someone like me, the $5,000 was a lot of money and would help pay beck everyone I owed money to.

I earnestly pleaded my case, submitted myself to a background check and then waited to hear back.

When I didn’t hear anything by the due date I figured some other lucky person had pleaded a better case, then, exactly a week later I got the call.

The next day a courier delivered the keys to the house, and the address.  My week started at exactly 9am the next morning.

The cab dropped Mr off at the front gate of the house, only it wasn’t a house so much as a mansion, and one that had seen better days.

It was at the end of the street, behind two large gates, and a high brick fence.  I could see the driveway on the other side, and just make out the house behind the unkempt shrubbery.

I had a bunch of keys, and it took a few attempts to find the one that fitted the lock and chain preventing the gates from opening.

I just unlocked it when another car pulled up in the same place my can had, and a young woman got out.  She rescued her sports bag from the trunk and paid the cabbie.

“Who are you,” she said.

“The caretaker for the next week.  I might ask the same question.”

“The ex-wife with nowhere to go.”

No one mentioned an ex-wife that was part of the deal.

“I wasn’t told anyone else would be here, so it would be best you left.”

I slipped the lock back in place and stood my ground.  She could be anyone.

She pulled out her phone and rang a number.

A heard the voice on the other end say hello.

“You can tell you dead head caretaker that I’m staying for a few days.”

Then I watched her expression turn very dark, and then the words, “I have nowhere else to go, and it will only be a few days.”  Then silence and an accompanying ground, ending with, “You don’t want me to come after you because you know how that will end”.

She listened, then handed the phone to me.

“Hello.”

“I’m the owner requesting the service.  You are not responsible for her, but if she becomes a problem, lock her in the basement.”

Then he hung up. It was not the best of answers to the problem.

“Are you going to open the gate?”

I shook my head and then pretended to fumble through the keys looking for the eight one.  “You know this place,” I asked without turning around.

“No.  The bastard didn’t tell me about a lot of the stuff he owns.”  Her tone bristled with resentment.

I ‘found’ the key and opened the lock and started pulling the chain through the fence.  I could feel her eyes burning into my back.

When I swung open the gate, she barged past, and kept walking.  I stepped though, and immediately felt the change in the temperature.  It was cold, even though the sun was out and I could feel an un-natural chill go through me.

By the time I closed and relocked the gate she had gone as far as, and round a slight bend in the driveway.  I thought about hurrying to catch up, but I didn’t think it mattered, she didn’t have a key.  Or perhaps I hoped she didn’t have one.

I headed towards the house at a leisurely pace.  I didn’t have to be there in the next instant, and I wanted to do a little survey of the grounds.  If I was checking windows, then I needed to know what the access might be like through any of them.

As I got closer to the house, the overgrowth was worse, but that might have been because no one could see it from the roadside, or through the iron gate.

Accessibility via the gardens would-be problematic for anyone who attempted it because there was no easy access.  It was one less immediate problem to deal with.

The driveway widened out into a large gravel covered square outside the front of the house.  It had an archway under which cars could stop and let out passengers under cover, ideal for ball goers, which meant the house had been build somewhere during the last century.

There were aspects that would warrant me taking a look on the internet about its history.

She was waiting outside the door, showing some exertion, and the mad dash had been for nothing.

“I take it you have a key?”

I decided to ignore that.  I hoped she would disappear to another part of the house and leave me alone.  I had too much to do without having to worry about where she was, or what she was doing.  It seemed, base on the short time I spoke to him, that the owner had a mistake marrying her, if they were in fact married.  Ex could mean almost anything these days.

Again, I made a show of trying to find the right key, though in the end it was hit and miss, and it took the fourth of fifth attempt to find it.

The door was solid oak, but it swung open easily and silently.  I had expected it to make a squeaking sound, one associated with rusty hinges.  This time she was a little more circumspect when she passed by me.  I followed and closed and locked the door behind me.

Inside was nothing like I expected.  Whilst the outside looked like the building hadn’t been tended to for years, inside had been recently renovated, and had that new house smell of new carpets and painted walls.

There was a high vaulted roof, and a mezzanine that was accessed by a beautifully restored wooden staircase and ran around the whole upper floor so that anyone could stand anywhere n ear the balustrading and look down into the living space, and, towards the back, the kitchen and entertaining area.

The walls had strategically place paintings, real paintings, that looked old, but I doubted were originals, because if they were similar to those I’d seen in a lot of English country estates they would be priceless, but not left in an empty building.

I had also kept her in the corner of my eye, watching her look around almost in awe.

“What do you think these paintings are worth?”

Was she going to suddenly take an inventory?

“Not a lot.  You don’t leave masterpieces in an abandoned house.  I suspect nothing in here would be worth much, and really only for decorative purposes so the owner can have a better chance of selling the place.  Empty cavernous buildings do not sell well.”

“What are you again?”

“No one of any particular note.  I’ve been asked to look after the place for the next week until it is handed over to the new owners.  Aside from that I know nothing about the place, nor do I want to.  According to the note I got with the key, there are bedrooms off that mezzanine you can see up there.”  I pointed to the balustrading.  The kitchen has food, enough for the few days I’ll be here, but I’m sure there’s enough to share.”

“Good.  You won’t see me again if I can help it.”

I watched her walk to the staircase and go upstairs.  The mud map told me there were bedrooms up of the mezzanine, and also across from this area.  There was another large room adjacent to this, a games area or room big enough to hold a ball, a part of the original house, and which led out onto the side lawns.  I’d check later to see what the access was like, because eI suspected there would be a few doors that led out from the hall to the garden.

When she disappeared along the upstairs passageway, I headed towards the next room.  IT was large, larger than that next door, and had another grand staircase leasing down to the dance floor.  I guess the people used to stay in rooms upstairs, get dressed, then make a grand entrance down those stairs.

I hadn’t expected this house to be anything like the old country estates, and it was a little like icing of the cake.  I would have to explore, and transport myself back to the old days, and imagine what it was like.

She was true to her word, and I didn’t see her the next morning.  I was staying a world away from her.  I was in the refurbished old section and she was staying in the newly renovated and modernised part of the house.

I did discover, on the first day of getting my bearings and checking all of the entrances and windows ready for my rounds, that above the bedrooms on the second floor of the old section, there was a third floor with a number of smaller rooms which I assumed were where the servants lived.

I stayed in one of those rooms.  The other main bedrooms, with ornate fireplaces and large shuttered windows smelled a little too musty for me, and I wasn’t about to present someone with an open window.  The views form the balconies was remarkable too or would have been in the garden had been kept in its original state.

In the distance I could see what might have once been a summerhouse and promised myself a look at it later.  A long day had come to a tiring end, and I was only destined for a few hours sleep before embarking on my first midnight run.   I was going to do one at eight, after eating, another at midnight, and another at six in the morning.  I’d make adjustments to the schedule after running the first full night’s program.

I brought my special alarm with me, the one that didn’t make a sound but was very effective in waking me.  It was fortuitous, because I had not been expected someone else to come along for the ride, and didn’t want them to know where and when I would be doing the rounds.

It had taken longer than I expected to get to sleep, the sounds of the house keeping me awake.  Usually a sound sleeper, perhaps it was the first night in different, and unusual surroundings.

I shuddered as I got out of bed, a cold air surrounding me, a feeling like that when I walked through the gate.  I had the sensation that someone was in the room with me, but in the harsh light after putting the bedside light on, it was clearly my imagination playing tricks.

I dressed quickly, and headed out.

The inside of the house was very dark, and the light from my torch stabbed a beam of light through what might have been an inky void.  The circle of light on the walls was never still, and I realised that my hand had acquired a touch of the shakes.

Creaking sounds as I walked across the flooring had not been discernible the previous night, and it was odd they only happened at night.  A thought that the house may be haunted when through my mind, but I didn’t believe in ghosts, or anything like that.

The creaking sounds followed me as I started my inspection.  I headed downstairs, and once I reached the back end of what I was going to call the ball room.  Before I went to bed the previous evening, I drew up a rough map of the places I would be going, ticking them off as I went.

The first inspection was of the doors that led out onto the lawns.  The floor to ceiling windows were not curtained, and outside the undergrowth was partially illuminated by moonlight.  The day had been warm, that period in autumn leading into winter where the days were clear but getting colder.  Outside I could see a clear starry night.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the flash of a torch light in the gardens.  I stopped, and looked more carefully, but there was nothing.  I waited for about ten minutes, but there was still no movement.

I was going to have to park my imagination before starting rounds or I’d never get the job done.

I went out of the room and into the living area.  There seemed to be lights all arounds me, those small pilot lights that told you appliances were on standby.

I was heading towards the stairs when suddenly there was a blood curdling scream, followed by what sounded like a gun shot, a sharp loud bang that, on top of the scream, made me jump.

The woman.

I raced as fast as I could up the stairs.  The sounds had come from there, but when I reached the top of the stairs, I realised I had no idea in which direction it came from.  Pointing the torch in both directions, there was nothing to see.

I could see a passage which might lead to the bedrooms on this level, and headed towards it, moving slowly, keeping as quiet as I could, listening form anything, or if someone else was lurking.

I heard a door slam, the echo coming down the passage.  I flashed the light up the passage, but it didn’t seem to penetrate the darkness.  I moved quickly towards the end, half expecting to see someone.

Then I tripped over, and as I tried to get to my feet, realised it was a body.  I flashed the torch on it, and it was the woman.

Dead, a gunshot wound in the chest, and blood everywhere.

I scrambled to my feet, and ran towards the end of the passage, and stopped at what appeared to be a dead end.  With nowhere to go, I turned.

I wasn’t alone, just hearing before seeing the presence of another person, but it was too late to react.  I felt an object hitting me on the back of the head, and after that, nothing.

I could feel a hand shaking me, and a voice coming out of the fog.  I opened my eyes, and found myself in completely different surroundings.

A large ornate bedroom, and a four-poster bed, like I had been transported back to another age.  Then I remembered I had been in a large house that had been renovated, and this was probably one of the other bedrooms on the floor where the woman had been staying.

Then I remembered the body, being hit, and sat up.

A voice beside me was saying, “You’re having that nightmare again, aren’t you?”

It was a familiar voice.

I turned to see the woman who I had just moments before had seen dead, the body on the floor of the passage.

“You’re dead,” I said, in a strangely detached tone.

“I know.  I’m supposed to be.  You helped me set it up so I could escape that lunatic ex-husband of mine.”

I must have looked puzzled.

“Don’t worry.  The doctor says your memory will return, one day.  But, for now, all you need to do is rest.  All you need to know is that we’re safe, thanks to you.”

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – P is for “Possibilities”


How many choices could one person have?

Usually, from a very early age, you have some idea of what you intend to do with your life.

Those early choices of fireman, policeman, doctor, fighter pilot, slowly disappear from the list as the education requirements become clearer, and their degree of impossibility.

Then you have to factor in academic achievement or failure, hone situation, what blows life has dealt you, and your financial ability to fund any it all of your hopes and dreams, especially for that all-important university education, and even then, it has to be the right one.

Then there are the family aspirations where parents really want you to follow in their footsteps, as a doctor or a lawyer or in the military.

And if you get past all that, and everything has fallen into place, and you’re ready to head out on that highway of life, you should be fully imbibed with the knowledge and the drive to make everything happen.

Now I was lying in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling wondering at what point it all went wrong.

Right on the starting line where everything I had worked for was about to come to fruition, it had all come to an abrupt halt.

My memory got as far as driving home from a work party where we had been celebrating the company’s most recent success, and my progression to the next level of management, when a car failed to stop at a stop sign and T-boned me.

The car was a write-off. I was still not sure what happened to me, but I had heard someone say, in that murky twilight of pain medication, that if I was a horse, they would have to shoot me. It was the only thing I remembered between the car hitting mine and waking up in the hospital bed.

But that was not all the story, and I had plenty of time mull over everything that had happened in that last week. There was a certain symmetry to it all, as if one event led to the next, and then the next, and it was the last straw, on the last day, that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

And here’s the thing.

I would not have been in that accident had I not taken the car. I wasn’t going to, I had intended to take the train to a friends place and stay there for a few days, what the boss had told me would be a well earned rest.

Even then, I might have not taken the car, except for a cryptic text message I received from my sister, about needing to be ‘rescued’ from a bad date.

Nothing unusual for her, she was currently on a dating site binge, and after half a dozen bad experiences, I thought she had given up.

That was the thought that ran through my head as I watched her curled up in the chair next to the bed, half asleep.

Her first words, on arrival, and when she was allowed to see me, was to apologise, believing it had been her fault. She knew I hated driving in the city, so coming to get her, as I always did, had been preying on her mind, and I could see the tangible effects of it in the worried expression, and unkempt manner which was so totally unlike her.

“It was simply an accident, and could have happened to anyone,” I told her.

“You were going to Jeremy’s, I should have sorted my own problem out for once. IT’s not as if I couldn’t just call up an Uber, and now look what’s happened. I’m so sorry.”

She wouldn’t accept that it was not her fault, nor would she leave until she knew I would be OK. I didn’t understand what she meant by that because in the three discussions I had with the head doctor, I was going to make a full recovery.

He had used the work lucky more than once, and seemingly the sequence of events, and other factors like the car safety features, the angle the car had struck, and where, the fact the other driver had to dodge a pedestrian, all of it played a part.

Had they not, quite simply I would be dead.

My sister and her dating was only one aspect of how my life was being driven.

Another memory returned, from that week, that of another text message, from a girl I used to know back at University.

Erica.

She was what some might have called a free soul. She didn’t conform to what I would have called normal. Her clothes sense was somewhat odd, she always looked as though her hair needed combing, and she never had any money.

And, for a while, she lived with me, in a small, cramped room ideal for single University students on a budge, but not for two. Yet, for some strange reason, she never seemed to get in the way, or mind the closeness of our existence.

In that short period, she became my first real love, but she had said that while we were together, it was fine, but she was not seeking anything permanent. Nor, she said, did she believe in monogamy. Until she left, studies completed, I wanted to believe she would stay, but a last lingering kiss goodbye and she was gone.

Now, the message said, she wondered if I was still free, and like to meet. Of course, ten years of water had passed under that bridge, so I was not sure where it would go. I hadn’t replied, and the message was still sitting on my phone.

That invitation, however, had been n my mind moments before the crash, and I had to wonder, thinking of her, contributed to it.

Then, on top of all that, there was my parents. Married for 40 years, and the epitome of the perfect marriage.

Or so I thought.

That morning, before I went to work, I had called in to see them after my mother had called the day before saying she wanted to talk to me about something.

Before I knocked on the door, I could hear yelling from behind the door, and it seemed the perfect marriage had hit a rocky stretch.

Or simply that my father had chosen to have an affair, and had been caught out by the simplest of means, my mother answered his phone when he was out of the room thinking it was important work matters, only to discover it was his ‘floozie’.

No guessing then why my mother had called me. After hearing all I wanted to, and not wanting to face an angry couple I just headed on to work.

My mother had yet to come to the hospital to see me. My father had been, but he made no mention of her, or anything else, except to tell me if there was anything I wanted, all I had to do was ask. Then he left, and hadn’t come back.

Then, last but not least, were the rumours.

The owner of the company I worked for was getting older and didn’t have an heir. One thing or another had managed to foil his succession plans, and in the end, he did not have a son or a daughter to pass the reins to.

With the latest success, the company was about to have a bigger profile which meant more work, and plans to open branches in other cities. It was too much for one man, now in his 70s, and looking to wind down.

A rumour had started about a week before the accident that he was looking to sell, and there were at least half a dozen suitors. There was supposed to be an announcement, but it hadn’t happened while I was at work, but, considering how long I’d been in hospital, and the two weeks in an induced coma, anything could have happened.

Louisa stretched, and changed positions.

“You look better,” she said.

“Relative to what, or when?”

“Half an hour ago.”

I shook my head. Sometimes Louisa was prone to saying the oddest stuff. “What’s the deal between our parents. Dad was here for all of five minutes. Where’s our mother?”

“She left.”

OK. Blunt, but plausible. “Why?”

“Dad was being an ass.”

“Does she know I was in an accident?”

“I told her.”

“So, you’re seeing her?”

“She calls. I don’t know where she is. I think she might have gone to stay with one of our aunt’s.”

I sighed. Louise had an awfully bad memory, and I was sure one day she was going to forget who I was.

There were four sisters, mother the youngest. She had a love hate relationship with the middle two, so the best bet would be the eldest sister, Jane. Jane was also the crankiest because she hated children, never got married, and was set in her ways.

Then, there was something else lurking in the back of my mind. Another item I’d overheard when I suspect I was not meant to be listening.

I might not have a job to go back to if the company had been sold, I might not have a home to go back to if my parents had split up, and I might not be able to do anything for a long, long time. Recovery might be complete, but it wasn’t going to happen overnight.

I had a sister who blamed herself for my accident, and an old girlfriend who wanted to see me, though I suspect not like this, broken and useless. What else could there be.

Oh, yes. Another snipped from the shouting match behind the door. And an explanation why my father had all but abandoned me. My mother had also had an affair, and his son, well he was not his son.

No surprise then I had a father who didn’t want to know me.

What else could go wrong?

There was movement outside the room, and raised voices, one of which was saying that whoever was out there couldn’t go into the room. It didn’t have any effect as seconds later, a man and a police officer came in. The officer stood by the door.

Louisa looked surprised, but didn’t move.

The man, obviously a detective, came over. “Your name Oliver Watkins?”

It was, and hopefully still is. “Yes.”

“I need you to answer some questions.”

“About the accident?”

He looked puzzled for a moment, then realised what I was referring to. “No. Not the accident. About the embezzlement of 50 million dollars from the company you work for. It seems you didn’t cover your tracks very well.” He turned around to look at Louisa, “You need to leave now, miss.”

“I’ll stay.”

He nodded to the officer, “You leave now, or he will remove you.”

She looked at me, a different expression, “You didn’t tell me you were a crook, Olly.”

“Because I’m not.”

The officer escorted her from the room and shut the door.

The detective sat in the recently vacated chair. “Now, Mr Watkins. It seems there is such a thing as karma.”

© Charles Heath 2021