The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to write a war story – Episode 22

For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.

Whilst I have always had a fascination in what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.

And, so, it continues…

 

When we arrived back at the underground site Martina was waiting, and it was clear she was extremely annoyed.  Word, somehow, had filtered back of what just happened.

“Are you totally mad?” she snarled.  “You know what’s going to happen now?”

I had a good idea but chose not to speak.

“They got what they deserved,” Carlo said.  “They found the missing man that you left on the side of the road, by the way, and it was lucky we were there when they found him.  Whether they believed it was an accident or not, they were heading to Chiara’s, and we had to do something about that.”

“And you didn’t think that might have consequences?”

I think all of us had considered what would happen as a result of what could only be described as an ambush.  And, while I thought, as no doubt the others had also, it might lead to retribution killings, it might not.  Wallace could not afford to be seen acting like the Germans, who certainly would have lined up a dozen villagers and shot them and might not do anything.

But, when he realised I was involved, and that the so-called remnants of the resistance could and were willing to cause him trouble, he would have to do something about it.  Especially with a high-value defector coming his way.

“Wallace certainly can’t do anything about it, other than come and ask questions.  He can’t afford to be seen acting as anything but a British officer.”

“But he could get Leonardo and his men to do it for him.”

“Surely he wouldn’t kill the same people he’s lived with all his life.”

“Leonardo’s allegiance’s go to anyone who hands him a free meal ticket.  Until the so-called British arrived at the castle, it was fine to be the resistance because he was being paid handsomely for his help.  When the Germans left the castle, he considered his job was over, and we all went our different ways, hoping the war was over for us.  Of course, that was only wishful thinking.  Even when the British turned up at the castle, with the express intention of capturing and repatriating to England any Germans who wanted to defect, his advice was to let them do what they want.”

“What changed?”

“The man in charge, Wallace you call him, sent out a message for those who had been in the resistance to come up to the castle to talk.  Leonardo thought it might be an opportunity to get back on the payroll.  Carlo and I and several others didn’t go.  There they were told they would be paid for each defector they collected and brought to the castle.”

“Didn’t he think that might be a little suspicious since it was just as easy for Wallace to send his own people to collect them, and not have to pay anything?”

“Now that we know they are Germans masquerading as British, it makes sense.  But Leonardo is little more than a fool and greedy.  He doesn’t care who pays so long as they pay.  I suspect he has no idea who he’s working for, or what happens to the people he collects.  Anyone who opted out of the new arrangement seems to have disappeared.”

“Many?”

“Three that we know of.  They’re probably locked in the dungeons with the others you saw there.”

“How come he hasn’t come after you?”

“Too much trouble, and possibly because it’s a fight he can’t necessarily win.”

“He might not have a choice now.  Wallace is going to have to do something about us, simply because he can’t let the defectors fall into our hands, and especially now that we know that’s why he’s here.”

“Then if it’s a fight he’s looking for, then we’ll have to give him one.”

“On that, I just had a thought on how we might be able to even up the odds a little, but I have to give it a bit more thought.”  

An idea came to me, one that might just work because I was counting on the fact Wallace would have to do something and depending on… “In the meantime, we have to do something about the rest of the villagers, just in case I’m wrong about Wallace.  How many people are left in the village?”

“About twenty.  All the rest scattered when the Germans came the first time, and half of those that remained were killed for one reason or another.  The previous commander of the castle frequently lost it when any of us refused to co-operate.”

“Then send Carlo out to round them up and put them somewhere safe.”

“There are no safe places anymore,” Carlo said, “None that they don’t know about.”

“What about here?”

“It’s the only place we have left that no one knows about.”

“Well, you don’t have much of a choice.”

Martina was not happy.  Her isolated resistance effort was steadily becoming a large-scale attack, not the sort of operation she had intended.  But I don’t think it would have stayed that way for very long, given Carlo’s actions.

She turned to Carlo.  “Go and round them up and bring them here.”

“And if they refuse?”

“Then we’ve done all we can for them.  But tell them that it’s a distinct possibility they will die if they stay where they are.  Take Chiara, and hurry.  I doubt it will be very long before the castle finds out what happened to their men.”

Carlo and Chiara grabbed a weapon each and left.  When they returned, it would be to formulate a plan to take down Wallace and the others at the castle, hopefully before the defector arrived.

That plan that was evolving in my mind didn’t exactly involve the villagers, but the three or four remaining members I was now working.  Leonardo might not know of all of them, or even if he did, one of them would be Wallace’s first calling point.  It just depended on who he sent.

And if I was a betting man, and if he knew that one of his men was ‘seeing’ Chiara, then that’s where they would go.

The only question to be asked at this point, would we be too late to take advantage of an opportunity to reduce the odds?

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to write a war story – Episode 22

For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.

Whilst I have always had a fascination in what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.

And, so, it continues…

 

When we arrived back at the underground site Martina was waiting, and it was clear she was extremely annoyed.  Word, somehow, had filtered back of what just happened.

“Are you totally mad?” she snarled.  “You know what’s going to happen now?”

I had a good idea but chose not to speak.

“They got what they deserved,” Carlo said.  “They found the missing man that you left on the side of the road, by the way, and it was lucky we were there when they found him.  Whether they believed it was an accident or not, they were heading to Chiara’s, and we had to do something about that.”

“And you didn’t think that might have consequences?”

I think all of us had considered what would happen as a result of what could only be described as an ambush.  And, while I thought, as no doubt the others had also, it might lead to retribution killings, it might not.  Wallace could not afford to be seen acting like the Germans, who certainly would have lined up a dozen villagers and shot them and might not do anything.

But, when he realised I was involved, and that the so-called remnants of the resistance could and were willing to cause him trouble, he would have to do something about it.  Especially with a high-value defector coming his way.

“Wallace certainly can’t do anything about it, other than come and ask questions.  He can’t afford to be seen acting as anything but a British officer.”

“But he could get Leonardo and his men to do it for him.”

“Surely he wouldn’t kill the same people he’s lived with all his life.”

“Leonardo’s allegiance’s go to anyone who hands him a free meal ticket.  Until the so-called British arrived at the castle, it was fine to be the resistance because he was being paid handsomely for his help.  When the Germans left the castle, he considered his job was over, and we all went our different ways, hoping the war was over for us.  Of course, that was only wishful thinking.  Even when the British turned up at the castle, with the express intention of capturing and repatriating to England any Germans who wanted to defect, his advice was to let them do what they want.”

“What changed?”

“The man in charge, Wallace you call him, sent out a message for those who had been in the resistance to come up to the castle to talk.  Leonardo thought it might be an opportunity to get back on the payroll.  Carlo and I and several others didn’t go.  There they were told they would be paid for each defector they collected and brought to the castle.”

“Didn’t he think that might be a little suspicious since it was just as easy for Wallace to send his own people to collect them, and not have to pay anything?”

“Now that we know they are Germans masquerading as British, it makes sense.  But Leonardo is little more than a fool and greedy.  He doesn’t care who pays so long as they pay.  I suspect he has no idea who he’s working for, or what happens to the people he collects.  Anyone who opted out of the new arrangement seems to have disappeared.”

“Many?”

“Three that we know of.  They’re probably locked in the dungeons with the others you saw there.”

“How come he hasn’t come after you?”

“Too much trouble, and possibly because it’s a fight he can’t necessarily win.”

“He might not have a choice now.  Wallace is going to have to do something about us, simply because he can’t let the defectors fall into our hands, and especially now that we know that’s why he’s here.”

“Then if it’s a fight he’s looking for, then we’ll have to give him one.”

“On that, I just had a thought on how we might be able to even up the odds a little, but I have to give it a bit more thought.”  

An idea came to me, one that might just work because I was counting on the fact Wallace would have to do something and depending on… “In the meantime, we have to do something about the rest of the villagers, just in case I’m wrong about Wallace.  How many people are left in the village?”

“About twenty.  All the rest scattered when the Germans came the first time, and half of those that remained were killed for one reason or another.  The previous commander of the castle frequently lost it when any of us refused to co-operate.”

“Then send Carlo out to round them up and put them somewhere safe.”

“There are no safe places anymore,” Carlo said, “None that they don’t know about.”

“What about here?”

“It’s the only place we have left that no one knows about.”

“Well, you don’t have much of a choice.”

Martina was not happy.  Her isolated resistance effort was steadily becoming a large-scale attack, not the sort of operation she had intended.  But I don’t think it would have stayed that way for very long, given Carlo’s actions.

She turned to Carlo.  “Go and round them up and bring them here.”

“And if they refuse?”

“Then we’ve done all we can for them.  But tell them that it’s a distinct possibility they will die if they stay where they are.  Take Chiara, and hurry.  I doubt it will be very long before the castle finds out what happened to their men.”

Carlo and Chiara grabbed a weapon each and left.  When they returned, it would be to formulate a plan to take down Wallace and the others at the castle, hopefully before the defector arrived.

That plan that was evolving in my mind didn’t exactly involve the villagers, but the three or four remaining members I was now working.  Leonardo might not know of all of them, or even if he did, one of them would be Wallace’s first calling point.  It just depended on who he sent.

And if I was a betting man, and if he knew that one of his men was ‘seeing’ Chiara, then that’s where they would go.

The only question to be asked at this point, would we be too late to take advantage of an opportunity to reduce the odds?

© Charles Heath 2019

NaNoWriMo – April 2022 – Day 29

First Dig Two Graves, the second Zoe thriller.

In a day of going over old ground and making it new again, I have revisited Zoe’s residence in Paris at the time John called, and found it empty, except for some kid who was all ‘get lost or suffer the consequences.’

Who is he?  We flesh that story out, and how it relates to Zoe and those early days in the story.

Similarly, I’m not happy still with how Worthington discovers Zoe, and this is going to need some more work, and definitely a rewrite.

In fact, I might have to revisit his whole appearance in the story and make it a little less bombastic and a little more subdued seething anger.

The whole Marseilles episode is good, it’s just the end and this discovery of who is behind Zoe’s abduction that needs a little work.  This is where we sow the enigmatic sees of Romanov and his purpose for wanting Zoe if it is not revenge like it is assumed.

Similarly, that whole thing with the Russian Minister and Anton needs a lot more work because there appears to be a connection between him and Romanov, but there’s not.  This is just Olga leaning on her connections to get a result.

Then Zoe takes off to find Romanov, or is it those seeking revenge, it’s not quite clear, and leaves John to contemplate his future.  Perhaps a piece here between them that sets the tone for the relationship over the coming months would be good, and the trigger that sets John off on a quest to find her.

His excuses at the moment are wishy-washy at best.

Phew!!!  Never knew self-criticism could be so harsh!

Today’s writing, with Zoe languishing in a dungeon waiting for a white knight, 0 words, for a total of 8,871.

The A to Z Challenge – Q is for “Quirky relatives”

One of the recurring memories I have of my childhood was the annual pilgrimage to Grand Marais, Minnesota, located on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

It was the place where my father grew up, along with three brothers and a sister, and where his parents had been born, lived, and eventually died.

The other memory, that his parents never came to visit us, we always had to go to them.  That, and the fact my mother hated them, that animosity borne out of an event at their wedding that no one ever spoke about.

Not until a long, long time later, after my father had passed away.

We stopped going when I turned eighteen, though I don’t think that was the reason.  Mt grandparents hadn’t died or gone anywhere, it was just the week before our pilgrimage was to begin, my father announced there would be no more visits.

You could see the relief on our mother’s face, much less ours because they were, to put it mildly, quirky.  Steven, the youngest brother put it more succinctly, weird and creepy.

Perhaps it had been the house, a large sprawling two-story mansion that had been added to over the years, and reputed to have thirteen bedrooms.  Thirteen.

They had a butler, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and several housemaids.  Odd, because I got the impression my grandfather didn’t work, and yet they were, reputedly, very wealthy.  Equally odd, then, that wealth didn’t extend to my father.

Which, in the final analysis, was probably the reason why we stopped going.  He had been cut out of the will.

Of course, none of this would have reached my consciousness if I had not received an email from one of the sones of my fathers, brother, and uncle who had never visited us, I’d seen probably three times in my life, and who had lived with his parents in the mansion.

I’d not seen, or heard of any children of any of the other brothers, or sisters, so this was a first, and aroused my curiosity.  I had thought that our part of the family had been exorcised from all their collective memories.

Apparently not.

And, that curiosity would soon go into overdrive because with the email came an invitation to come and stay, and meet the other members of the family. 

I had a sister, Molly, and called her once I got the email, and she said she had one too.

Was she going?  Hell yes.  It, for her, was going to be the unearthing of all the secrets.

What secrets, I asked, knowing full well there had been a few, but she had simply said I’d have to wait and see.

The drive brought back a lot of memories, and unconsciously I found myself listening to the same songs we did when Dad droves us.

Molly had come to my place, and we drove there together.  In itself, it was a good reason for us to reunite after so long being apart.  It was even more profound considering we did not live all that far apart, it was just life and family that got in the way.

She, like myself, found herself reliving the annual pilgrimages, her memories being hazier than mine, but that was because she was a lot younger.

She had been the one to leave home first, finding our restrictive parents unbearable.  My departure took longer because my mother had implored me to stay, and not leave her with ‘that unbearable man’.

That final few miles from the outskirts of town, past the waterline, then inland was hushed with anticipation.  I last remembered the house, although forbidding, as impeccably maintained, with gardens, I was sure, that featured in ‘Architectural Digest’.

This vision as we approached was so different than the last, in the last vestiges of the evening, a dark forbidding place still, only a lot more sinister.  The gardens had been abandoned long ago, and everything was overgrown.

The fountain out front, the centerpiece of the gardens, was buried and gone.

The house had also fallen into disrepair, and I was surprised the local authorities hadn’t condemned it.

I parked the car in the driveway, and we sat there, staring at it.

“That motel back down the road is looking good,” Molly said.

The invitation also included staying in one of the thirteen rooms.

“Depends on how many ghosts there are.”

“The motel or here?”

I shrugged.  “I guess we’d better get to the front door before it’s dark, just in case.”

Closer to the stairs leading up to a veranda, I could see the different shades of timber when rotten planks had been replaced.  We made it to the front door, Molly hanging on to me just in case.

I pulled a ring dangling from a chain and heard a gong go off inside the house.  A minute passed, two, then the door creaked open, and an old man in a dinner suit was standing there.  “Mr. Garry, and Miss Molly, I presume.

He stood to one side before we answered, and we went in.

The inside was utterly different from the outside, having been renovated recently, much brighter than I remembered from the endless wood paneling.  The old man ushered us into a large lounge room, on one side a huge log fire was burning, and around the walls, where there wasn’t a bookshelf full of books were family paintings.

“It’s like a mausoleum,” Molly said.

I recognized a lot of those faces in the paintings, including one of our father and mother together, probably not long after they were married.  The men of that family all looked the same, except when it came to me, I looked more like my mother.

“Much better than it used to be.”

“I don’t remember much.”

To one side there was a large staircase that you could go up one side and down the other, and as children, we used to run up and down, and generally be annoying.  Sliding down the banister was strictly forbidden, until after everyone went to bed.

I was half expecting to see the old man come from the depths of the house, but instead, a man that I could easily mistake as my father came through from the rear, where, I remembered, there was a room before the kitchens.

“Garry, I presume.  And Molly.  My God, it’s been too long.”

A shake of the hand for me, and a hug for Molly. 

“David, or Jerry?”

“David.  You remember.  We used to run amok in this place.”  He grinned.

He was the wild one, and all I did was follow.  There were about seven of us, in the end, before we stopped coming.

“The others will be here tomorrow, and they’re dying to meet you.  My dad was the last man standing, and he left the place to me, not that it was much by that time.  I’ve spent years doing it up, but there’s a long way to go before it returns to its former glory.  By the way, there are no ghosts in the bedrooms, and they are modernized with their own bathroom.  I saw you out in the car before, looking horrified.  Just a word to the wise, that motel does have ghosts.  The jury is out on whether grandfather still roams the hallways, but I guess that’s something you’ll find out tonight.  He was a horrid man by all accounts.  Sorry, my wife says I babble when I’m nervous.”

“He does.”  A woman, a few years older than Molly came out from the back.”

“Angelina?”

“You remember me.”  She smiled.

I remembered her, had for a long time because back then, she was the first girl I thought I was madly in love with.  The fact she was a cousin didn’t seem to matter.  She just ignored me anyway.

And her beauty had not diminished over the years.  “How could anyone forget you?”

“Yes, I had that effect on boys, didn’t I?  It’s good to see you again.”

We both scored a hug, and yes, being close to her again did increase my heart rate just a little.

“Come,” David said, “sit and we’ll have a drink.  Have you eaten?”

“Not for a while.”

“Then we were about to have a bite, I’m sure there’s plenty for everyone.  Sit, and we’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“No wife, husband?”

“Yes on both accounts, but we would never bring them here.  This family is difficult enough for us let alone outsiders.  The rest of the group, well, you’ll see, are just plain quirky relatives.  If you ever saw the Addams Family, TV series or movies, well, they’d fit right in here.  But you’ll see.  More on that soon.”

He and Angelina disappeared outback and silence fell over the room.

“Why do I get the feeling we might be murdered in our beds tonight?”

It was beginning to look like that was a possibility.

When David returned with the old man, Angelina, and what looked to be a maid with food and drinks, we sat down again, turning our fears of being murdered into a severe frightening of ghosts.

The old man was enough to think ghosts were alive in the house.  It couldn’t possibly be the butler from the last time I saw him because he would have to be about 120 years old.

When all of us were settled, David began.

“There is another reason why I asked both of you here, along with all the others, by the way, there are around ten of us.  Your father never told you the truth, or perhaps anything, of the situation when he stopped coming to visit his parents, did he?”

“He just said it was a difference of opinion, that his father would never see reason, didn’t like my mother or her family and gave up trying to be civil.”

“It was worse than that, he told him that if he didn’t give up your mother, he would cut him off from the family fortune, which eventually he did.  It’s probably why you found life a little tougher for a few years.”

That was one way of putting it, we were taken out of our private schools and had just about all our leisure activities curtailed, and the worst, no more holidays.  Mother even had to get a job, which disappointed her family, but they were not as rich as my father’s family was, so couldn’t help us financially.

“It was difficult.”

“Well, the good news is, your grandmother, our grandmother, was not as quirky or pedantic as her husband and never forgot the service your father did for her when he could.  In that regard, she has left a bequest to both you and your sister, Molly.  It’s been a long, hard battle to get it through the system, but it’s finally sorted.”

“I liked grandmother more than grandfather,” Molly said.

“Most of us did.  He was a rebel himself, going against his family, a very interesting bunch themselves.  Our quirkiness probably came from them, the last of the relatively unknown banking and railroad tycoons more famous in the 19th century than today where we are relatively forgotten.  It is of course a blessing in disguise.  But you ask, what is that quirkiness worth?”

“Not much I would imagine, after all this time.  Our father taught us the value of money, so it’ll be nice to have some extra.”

“Some extra.”  He smiled.  “It’s about 125 million dollars, each.  Enough I would say that you can now afford some quirks of your own.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – H is for – “How is this possible…”


It started with a simple memo.

After several years of bad management, the company had decided to make a clean sweep and change upper management. Of course, that sort of change was driven by the volatility of the company’s share price and dividends, and shareholders’ discontent. Productivity was down because of low employee morale driven by what was labelled a ‘toxic work environment’. This led to production problems, quality control issues, and falling sales.

Something had to be done.

The new broom, as it was come to be known as, had made several far sweeping changes, one of which, to counter the discontent of its employees, was to institute the anonymous complaint. Any employee could make a complaint without fear of reprisals. In the past, those that had were vilified, demoted, or sacked. Now, the new broom had decided that employee input would improve the workplace, improve productivity, and provide the way back to the halcyon days.

Or so we thought.

Two phones, each on a bedside table, both chimed to indicate an incoming message.

I’d been staring at the roof, contemplating the start of a new week in a place where I had decided was not where I wanted to be. Beside me, still asleep, was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but she was not sure about making a commitment. She’d been down that road before, and it failed miserably and was taking it slow.

I told her slow was my middle name.

I leaned over and picked up the phone, more out of curiosity than anything else, but fascinated that both phones could go off at the same time.

“In the light of a host of complaints about the catering division, it has been decided that the staff cafeteria will cease operations at the end of the month. It has for a number of years been the subject of employee dissatisfaction and the result of an extensive investigation to the feasibility of keeping it going, given the economic climate and fiscal position of the company the only viable decision is to cease operations. Staff currently working in the catering department will be transferred to other positions within the company.”

How could this be possible? I had seen the feasibility study relating to the cafeteria, and it was ‘feasible’ to keep it going. They were right though, there had been a host of complaints, but that was because the catering manager had no idea how to run a large-scale cafeteria that churned out upwards of 5,000 meals a day. Even Olga, who was right here with me now, had said that it was the most poorly managed operation she had ever worked in.

I tossed the phone back on the bedside table and got back under the covers. Too early and too cold to get out of bed.

It woke Olga.

“Trouble in paradise?”

Paradise was her euphemism for work. She had become increasingly desponded as I about working there. In her case, as q waitress in the cafeteria, it was a job she could take or leave. For me, loitering on the fringes of middle management, not so much. Not if I wanted to keep the flash apartment and upscale car.

“They have dumped the cafeteria.”

I had expected her to leap up in indignation. It barely registered on the Richter scale. “And what did you expect?” She raised her head off the pillow. “They were never going to implement your suggestions, it would make Commissar Bland look like a fool, like the fool above him.”

Her analogy transposing our fearless leaders with those back in the old Soviet Union were always an insight to what she had experienced back home before she emigrated with her parents. Commissar Bland was a dictator, and not a man to cross. She cared little about him, and treated him, like the others did, as a joke.

“So much for the new broom,” I muttered.

“You are so naive Petr, but like home, change means no change, just different faces and words that all mean the same thing.”

Petr was her pet name for me, named after an old mentor of hers.

“Aren’t you the one losing your job. Doesn’t it bother you?”

“I will become best factory worker. We are very adaptable. You should try not to lose any sleep.”

She lay down again and snuggled closer.

I left her at the fourth floor where my office was located, and she would continue up to the next, the location of the cafeteria.

If I remember correctly, the current CEO when the factory manager, had always wanted to reclaim the cafeteria space for a new modernised production line, but the old guard had seen the benefit of keeping it despite the cost, as a means of keeping its workforce. Even twenty years ago, it would not have made a discussion topic, even in jest.

But times change.

Herman, another of the middle management fringe dwellers, and had also seen the need to have something to ‘bribe’ the workforce. We’d only been talking about it with others on our level the other day when all manner of rumours were drifting through our building.

He was loitering in the passage, obviously waiting for me.

“You’ve seen the message?”

I nodded.

“Hell of a way to kill an institution?”

I walked into my cubicle and dumped my bag on the floor. As a first act, the new broom removed all the offices, and put everyone into an open plan, where it was easier to communicate with others and removed the barriers walls and doors presented. The jury was still out on whether it worked, I could still never get to see the people I needed to.

He followed me in and sat in a chair in the corner. I sat on the desk, it was not a large cubicle.

“It was a drain on profits. The world has moved on from pandering to workforces. It seems dividends are more important. I’m sure this will not be the only change.”

“Like managers losing their cars and credit cards, except for the upper echelon. I don’t think you’ll see them close the executive dining room.”

Yes, it was only a matter of time before that morsel would raise its head under the banner of hypocrisy.

“Probably not. But remember, we used to build cars once, and it was good advertising to hand them out to all and sundry. Now, trying to do the right thing costs too much.”

My phone on the desk rang and startled me. It was still quiet, the bulk of the cubicle population hadn’t arrived yet. My guess they were gathering in coffee shops discussing the news.

I picked up receiver mid ring, then said, “Yes?” I refused to follow the official answering sequence advised by the new broom.

Hesitation, then, “O’Hara from Administration. Can you come and see me, nine a.m.?”

Why? There was no way anyone could know I sent that memo, and I wasn’t on management’s radar, it had been O’Hara himself who told me to keep up the good work, the coded message that said I was not on the latest promotion list.

“I’ll see you then.” I was not going to say ‘yes, sir’ like other management hopefuls. O’Hara was not someone who could be buttered up, a fact only I seemed to be aware of.

“Who was that?”

“O’Hara.”

“Then your days are numbered. He never calls except to say you have a promotion or you’re fired. You aren’t on the promotion list.”

“How can you be sure?”

No one was supposed to know who was on that list for sure, it was a closely guarded secret. Herman said he knew someone who knew someone who knew Herman’s PA, and had been told who was on the list. So far, in the last two lists, he had been right about us two.

Perhaps he was right. I was going to get fired.

“Have I ever been wrong?”

Technically, no. But I never got any other names of those who were on the list. Maybe it was better to wait, and be disappointed then.

“Well, we’ll soon find out.”

It took twenty minutes to walk from the old administration building to the new, built recently on the outskirts of the company site, on what was once the carpark. The carpark had been relocated under the new administration building, and it gave management the perfect excuse to charge us to park our cars.

A Lot of employees had switched from car to the train, less than the weekly cost of the carpark. Another new broom initiative; getting people out of cars and onto public transport, their contribution to easing global warming.

None of us, other than those in the new administration building had passes, so we had to sign in as visitors on the ground floor, even though we spent a lot of time travelling back and forth, and visiting other members of our departments who had been moved from the old building.

No, not a new broom initiative, just the result of an obtuse security chief.

Getting the pass made me five minutes late, and O’Hara didn’t like tardy people.

A glare followed me from the door of his office to the seat in front of his desk where he motioned me to sit. The offices were better here and were offices not cubicles. Everyone else wanted to be transferred to the new office. I didn’t. Too far away from Olga.

“I called you over to discuss the ten-point plan to save the cafeteria.”

“What ten-point plan?” Perhaps they did know who wrote the memo.

“I had every written complaint checked to see whose writing it was. Next time, write it on the computer and print it out.”

I shrugged. “I did it for a laugh. Nothing’s going to change in this place.”

“You sound like you don’t like working here?”

“I do. Most days. Today, though, is one reason to leave. That cafeteria has been here since the day the factory started. The employers, once, were involved in getting employees housing, even had their own estate, and assisted them to buy cars. It was a novel thought in an age where employers, well, some employers, considered their employees assets.”

“We still do.”

I shook my head. I guess if you wanted to be in management you had to believe and repeat the new mantra. I’d heard about the management team building conferences.

“So, we’re going back to our original values?”

“This is neither the time, nor do we have the fiscal viability. But it seems some of the board members consider your proposals need fleshing out into a plan with costings so they can make a more balanced judgement.”

“Unfortunately, you just uttered the two words that make that idea redundant, fiscal viability. There is no possible way in this current world we live in that a cafeteria would ever be viable, unless we charged five-star restaurant prices for the meals.”

“Humour me and do it anyway.”

“Not my department.”

“Fixed. You now are temporarily assigned to ‘rebuilding and restructuring’. You can add three others to your team. You have a week.”

“And if I say no.”

“It’s that or your resignation. You have been given an opportunity, take it.”

I shrugged. I’d heard about the new broom’s method of culling. Give them jobs that they can’t possibly find a solution to. Devious, but devastatingly effective. One last hurrah before being tossed on the executive scrap heap.

When I came out of his office, Herman was waiting in the outer office.

“You too,” I said.

“Nine of us. Sounds like there’s a new project in the wind.”

I didn’t burst his bubble. Ten more budding executives were getting the push. I sighed.

At least now Olga and I could go visit her family on the shores of the Black Sea. There was no excuse not to.

And, yes, it really did start with a memo.

© Charles Heath 2021

It all started in Venice – Episode 3

Making sure I recognized the target

It was mid-afternoon and a half hour before her plane touched down when I arrived at the airport by water taxi.  It was not a trip I made often, but that final run from the city across the open water was at times invigorating, sometimes quite pleasant.

Today the water had a chop, and the ride was less smooth than usual.  The driver also seemed to be in a hurry, just about leaving the dock before I’d got off the boat.  It was one of the more interesting ways of arriving at an airport.

It was a leisurely walk to the terminal building, and just as I passed the first of the arrival boards, I saw her plane had landed, about ten minutes early. 

I headed to the gate where as I arrived the first of the passengers were coming through the door.  She was not at the front of the plane, and it is a full flight, it might be a while before she appeared.

I checked to see if there was anyone who seemed out of place, expecting that Larry would not be that trusting to allow her any freedom, but there were no suspicious others, except if you counted me in that category, lurking within eyesight, but masked from the exiting passenger’s view.

It was several minutes before she appeared, casually dressed as a tourist might, in a bright coloured floral dress with a denim jacket, and travelling with a cabin bag she wheeled in front of her.

She looked different again than the photograph, not as gaunt in the face, as if she had recovered from a serious illness.  I could not see the expression on her face, but one thing was clear, she was not happy.

Then I saw why.

A man came up to her just as she left the lounge area, appearing suddenly which meant he had been hidden from me, and she looked surprised, then angry, angry enough that airport security started walking towards them.

The man, seeing the police approaching said something to her, then quickly walked away.  I took a photograph and looking at it realised it wouldn’t be difficult to remember him if I needed to.

Alfie would no doubt tell me who he was in due course.  In the meantime, Juliet had waited for the police and then spoke to them briefly before heading towards the water taxi terminal.

I was closer to that exit and got there before her, checking to see if the man who had accosted her was waiting outside, as he had left in that direction, and had passed quite close to me.  Most noticeable about him, the tattoo of a snake wrapped around his neck.

It gave him that fearsome look that he no doubt used in his profession.

I couldn’t see him, so I headed towards the terminal, this time with the intention of getting the public water bus otherwise known as a VaporettoShe followed more casually, taking in the sights as if it was her first time in Venice.

It also gave rise to the thought again of how she was going to ‘run into me’ in a city full of alleyways and hidden passageways, making it easy for even the most experienced traveller to get lost at least once during their visit.  The only possibility was in St marks square or the promenade along the Canal that led off the square from the Doges Palace.

Then I saw him, waiting by a water taxi, or perhaps a private motorboatShe saw him too and headed straight for the Vaporetto, boarding just before it departed, giving him no chance to catch her.  It was an amusing charade, and an act of defiance she would probably pay for later.

It provided an opportunity to follow him, and when he left, I asked the driver of my water taxi to follow him, coming up with a suitable excuse why I would want to do so, but not sure the driver believed me.  One thing was certain, with a captive passenger, he could charge a premium fare knowing I’d have to pay it.

Keeping a suitable distance between us, he followed the boat to Murano, the island of glass-blowing factories.  He waited until the driver of the boat left the dock and then took his place for me to disembark, and then I gave him a head start before following discreetly, or as discretely as I could in the circumstances.  There were not many visitors about, so I could hardly lose myself in the crowd.

We passed several glass showrooms on the way alongside the Canal until he reached a bridge and crossed it.  On the other side, I could see a basilica, yet another of the many churches in the city, each as old and ornate as the next, and one of the many I’d visited over time and many visits to the city.

But this was not one I’d been to before.

On the other side of the bridge, not far from the church, he stopped and turned around.  It was as if he knew he was being followed, and fortunately, just at that moment I was all but hidden behind the base of the bridge on the opposite side of the Canal.

A long hard stare at each of those he could see, including those crossing the bridge, then he shrugged and walked towards another man, similarly dressed, waiting outside the church. 

I managed to get a better photograph of him and one of his new companions too, just before they met and walked into the church.  I was not going to follow them in.  I was hoping Alfie would find out who they were, and where to find them, though I had a feeling I was going to meet them again, but not in similar circumstances.

Another question popped into my head as I walked back to the Vaporetto station.  Where was Larry right now?  On his way to Venice?  Or would he wait until Juliet made contact?  I knew which hotel she was staying in, a rather small but interesting one I’d stayed at the first time I came to Venice, do I could find her any time I wanted to.

© Charles Heath 2022

An excerpt from “One Last Look”: Charlotte is no ordinary girl

This is currently available at Amazon herehttp://amzn.to/2CqUBcz

 

I’d read about out of body experiences, and like everyone else, thought it was nonsense.  Some people claimed to see themselves in the operating theatre, medical staff frantically trying to revive them, and being surrounded by white light.

I was definitely looking down, but it wasn’t me I was looking at.

It was two children, a boy and a girl, with their parents, in a park.

The boy was Alan.  He was about six or seven.  The girl was Louise, and she was five years old.  She had long red hair and looked the image of her mother.

I remember it now, it was Louise’s birthday and we went down to Bournemouth to visit our Grandmother, and it was the last time we were all together as a family.

We were flying homemade kites our father had made for us, and after we lay there looking up at the sky, making animals out of the clouds.  I saw an elephant, Louise saw a giraffe.

We were so happy then.

Before the tragedy.

 

When I looked again ten years had passed and we were living in hell.  Louise and I had become very adept at survival in a world we really didn’t understand, surrounded by people who wanted to crush our souls.

It was not a life a normal child had, our foster parents never quite the sort of people who were adequately equipped for two broken-hearted children.  They tried their best, but their best was not good enough.

Every day it was a battle, to avoid the Bannister’s and Archie in particular, every day he made advances towards Louise and every day she fended him off.

Until one day she couldn’t.

Now I was sitting in the hospital, holding Louise’s hand.  She was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t think she would wake from it.  The damage done to her was too severe.

The doctors were wrong.

She woke, briefly, to name her five assailants.  It was enough to have them arrested.  It was not enough to have them convicted.

Justice would have to be served by other means.

 

I was outside the Bannister’s home.

I’d made my way there without really thinking, after watching Louise die.  It was like being on autopilot, and I had no control over what I was doing.  I had murder in mind.  It was why I was holding an iron bar.

Skulking in the shadows.  It was not very different from the way the Bannister’s operated.

I waited till Archie came out.  I knew he eventually would.  The police had taken him to the station for questioning, and then let him go.  I didn’t understand why, nor did I care.

I followed him up the towpath, waiting till he stopped to light a cigarette, then came out of the shadows.

“Wotcha got there Alan?” he asked when he saw me.  He knew what it was, and what it was for.

It was the first time I’d seen the fear in his eyes.  He was alone.

“Justice.”

“For that slut of a sister of yours.  I had nuffing to do with it.”

“She said otherwise, Archie.”

“She never said nuffing, you just made it up.”  An attempt at bluster, but there was no confidence in his voice.

I held up the pipe.  It had blood on it.  Willy’s blood.  “She may or may not have Archie, but Willy didn’t make it up.  He sang like a bird.  That’s his blood, probably brains on the pipe too, Archie, and yours will be there soon enough.”

“He dunnit, not me.  Lyin’ bastard would say anything to save his own skin.”  Definitely scared now, he was looking to run away.

“No, Archie.  He didn’t.  I’m coming for you.  All of you Bannisters.  And everyone who touched my sister.”

 

It was the recurring nightmare I had for years afterwards.

I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the thoughts, the images of Louise, the phone call, the visit to the hospital and being there when she succumbed to her injuries.  Those were the very worst few hours of my life.

She had asked me to come to the railway station and walk home with her, and I was running late.  If I had left when I was supposed to, it would never have happened and for years afterwards, I blamed myself for her death.

If only I’d not been late…

When the police finally caught the rapists, I’d known all along who they’d be; antagonists from school, the ring leader, Archie Bannister, a spurned boyfriend, a boy whose parents, ubiquitously known to all as ‘the Bannister’s, dealt in violence and crime and who owned the neighbourhood.  The sins of the father had been very definitely passed onto the son.

At school, I used to be the whipping boy, Archie, a few grades ahead of me, made a point of belting me and a few of the other boys, to make sure the rest did as they were told.  He liked Louise, but she had no time for a bully like him, even when he promised he would ‘protect’ me.

I knew the gang members, the boys who tow-kowed to save getting beaten up, and after the police couldn’t get enough information to prosecute them because everyone was too afraid to speak out, I went after Willy.  There was always a weak link in a group, and he was it.

He worked in a factory, did long hours on a Wednesday and came home after dark alone.  It was a half mile walk, through a park.  The night I approached him, I smashed the lights and left it in darkness.  He nearly changed his mind and went the long way home.

He didn’t.

It took an hour and a half to get the names.  At first, when he saw me, he laughed.  He said I would be next, and that was four words more than he knew he should have said.

When I found him alone the next morning I showed him the iron bar and told him he was on the list.  I didn’t kill him then, he could wait his turn, and worry about what was going to happen to him.

When the police came to visit me shortly after that encounter, no doubt at the behest of the Bannister’s, the neighbourhood closed ranks and gave me an ironclad alibi.  The Bannister’s then came to visit me and threatened me.  I told them their days were numbered and showed them the door.

At the trial, he and his friends got off on a technicality.  The police had failed to do their job properly, but it was not the police, but a single policeman, corrupted by the Bannisters.

Archie could help but rub it in my face.  He was invincible.

Joe Collins took 12 bullets and six hours to bleed out.  He apologized, he pleaded, he cried, he begged.  I didn’t care.

Barry Mills, a strong lad with a mind to hurting people, Archie’s enforcer, almost got the better of me.  I had to hit him more times than I wanted to, and in the end, I had to be satisfied that he died a short but agonizing death.

I revisited Willy in the hospital.  He’d recovered enough to recognize me, and why I’d come.  Suffocation was too good for him.

David Williams, second in command of the gang, was as tough and nasty as the Bannisters.  His family were forging a partnership with the Bannister’s to make them even more powerful.  Outwardly David was a pleasant sort of chap, affable, polite, and well mannered.  A lot of people didn’t believe he could be like, or working with, the Bannisters.

He and I met in the pub.  We got along like old friends.  He said Willy had just named anyone he could think of, and that he was innocent of any charges.  We shook hands and parted as friends.

Three hours later he was sitting in a chair in the middle of a disused factory, blindfolded and scared.  I sat and watched him, listened to him, first threatening me, and then finally pleading with me.  He’d guessed who it was that had kidnapped him.

When it was dark, I took the blindfold off and shone a very bright light in his eyes.  I asked him if the violence he had visited upon my sister was worth it.  He told me he was just a spectator.

I’d read the coroner’s report.  They all had a turn.  He was a liar.

He took nineteen bullets to die.

Then came Archie.

The same factory only this time there were four seats.  Anna Bannister, brothel owner, Spike Bannister, head of the family, Emily Bannister, sister, and who had nothing to do with their criminal activities.  She just had the misfortune of sharing their name.

Archie’s father told me how he was going to destroy me, and everyone I knew.

A well-placed bullet between the eyes shut him up.

Archie’s mother cursed me.  I let her suffer for an hour before I put her out of her misery.

Archie remained stony-faced until I came to Emily.  The death of his parents meant he would become head of the family.  I guess their deaths meant as little to him as they did me.

He was a little more worried about his sister.

I told him it was confession time.

He told her it was little more than a forced confession and he had done nothing to deserve my retribution.

I shrugged and shot her, and we both watched her fall to the ground screaming in agony.  I told him if he wanted her to live, he had to genuinely confess to his crimes.  This time he did, it all poured out of him.

I went over to Emily.  He watched in horror as I untied her bindings and pulled her up off the floor, suffering only from a small wound in her arm.  Without saying a word she took the gun and walked over to stand behind him.

“Louise was my friend, Archie.  My friend.”

Then she shot him.  Six times.

To me, after saying what looked like a prayer, she said, “Killing them all will not bring her back, Alan, and I doubt she would approve of any of this.  May God have mercy on your soul.”

 

Now I was in jail.  I’d spent three hours detailing the deaths of the five boys, everything I’d done; a full confession.  Without my sister, my life was nothing.  I didn’t want to go back to the foster parents; I doubt they’d take back a murderer.

They were not allowed to.

For a month I lived in a small cell, in solitary, no visitors.  I believed I was in the queue to be executed, and I had mentally prepared myself for the end.

Then I was told I had a visitor, and I was expecting a priest.

Instead, it was a man called McTavish. Short, wiry, and with an accent that I could barely understand.

“You’ve been a bad boy, Alan.”

When I saw it was not the priest I told the jailers not to let him in, I didn’t want to speak to anyone.  They ignored me.  I’d expected he was a psychiatrist, come to see whether I should be shipped off to the asylum.

I was beginning to think I was going mad.

I ignored him.

“I am the difference between you living or dying Alan, it’s as simple as that.  You’d be a wise man to listen to what I have to offer.”

Death sounded good.  I told him to go away.

He didn’t.  Persistent bugger.

I was handcuffed to the table.  The prison officers thought I was dangerous.  Five, plus two, murders, I guess they had a right to think that.  McTavish sat opposite me, ignoring my request to leave.

“Why’d you do it?”

“You know why.”  Maybe if I spoke he’d go away.

“Your sister.  By all accounts, the scum that did for her deserved what they got.”

“It was murder just the same.  No difference between scum and proper people.”

“You like killing?”

“No-one does.”

“No, I dare say you’re right.  But you’re different, Alan.  As clean and merciless killing I’ve ever seen.  We can use a man like you.”

“We?”

“A group of individuals who clean up the scum.”

I looked up to see his expression, one of benevolence, totally out of character for a man like him.  It looked like I didn’t have a choice.

 

Trained, cleared, and ready to go.

I hadn’t realized there were so many people who were, for all intents and purposes, invisible.  People that came and went, in malls, in hotels, trains, buses, airports, everywhere, people no one gave a second glance.

People like me.

In a mall, I became a shopper.

In a hotel, I was just another guest heading to his room.

On a bus or a train, I was just another commuter.

At the airport, I became a pilot.  I didn’t need to know how to fly; everyone just accepted a pilot in a pilot suit was just what he looked like.

I had a passkey.

I had the correct documents to get me onto the plane.

That walk down the air bridge was the longest of my life.  Waiting for the call from the gate, waiting for one of the air bridge staff to challenge me, stepping onto the plane.

Two pilots and a steward.  A team.  On the plane early before the rest of the crew.  A group that was committing a crime, had committed a number of crimes and thought they’d got away with it.

Until the judge, the jury and their executioner arrived.

Me.

Quick, clean, merciless.  Done.

I was now an operational field agent.

 

I was older now, and I could see in the mirror I was starting to go grey at the sides.  It was far too early in my life for this, but I expect it had something to do with my employment.

I didn’t recognize the man who looked back at me.

It was certainly not Alan McKenzie, nor was there any part of that fifteen-year-old who had made the decision to exact revenge.

Given a choice; I would not have gone down this path.

Or so I kept telling myself each time a little more of my soul was sold to the devil.

I was Barry Gamble.

I was Lenny Buckman.

I was Jimmy Hosen.

I was anyone but the person I wanted to be.

That’s what I told Louise, standing in front of her grave, and trying to apologize for all the harm, all the people I’d killed for that one rash decision.  If she was still alive she would be horrified, and ashamed.

Head bowed, tears streamed down my face.

God had gone on holiday and wasn’t there to hand out any forgiveness.  Not that day.  Not any day.

 

New York, New Years Eve.

I was at the end of a long tour, dragged out of a holiday and back into the fray, chasing down another scumbag.  They were scumbags, and I’d become an automaton hunting them down and dispatching them to what McTavish called a better place.

This time I failed.

A few drinks to blot out the failure, a blonde woman who pushed my buttons, a room in a hotel, any hotel, it was like being on the merry-go-round, round and round and round…

Her name was Silvia or Sandra, or someone I’d met before, but couldn’t quite place her.  It could be an enemy agent for all I knew or all I cared right then.

I was done.

I’d had enough.

I gave her the gun.

I begged her to kill me.

She didn’t.

Instead, I simply cried, letting the pent up emotion loose after being suppressed for so long, and she stayed with me, holding me close, and saying I was safe, that she knew exactly how I felt.

How could she?  No one could know what I’d been through.

I remembered her name after she had gone.

Amanda.

I remembered she had an imperfection in her right eye.

Someone else had the same imperfection.

I couldn’t remember who that was.

Not then.

 

I had a dingy flat in Kensington, a place that I rarely stayed in if I could help it.  After five-star hotel rooms, it made me feel shabby.

The end of another mission, I was on my way home, the underground, a bus, and then a walk.

It was late.

People were spilling out of the pub after the last drinks.  Most in good spirits, others slightly more boisterous.

A loud-mouthed chap bumped into me, the sort who had one too many, and was ready to take on all comers.

He turned on me, “Watch where you’re going, you fool.”

Two of his friends dragged him away.  He shrugged them off, squared up.

I punched him hard, in the stomach, and he fell backwards onto the ground.  I looked at his two friends.  “Take him home before someone makes mincemeat out of him.”

They grabbed his arms, lifted him off the ground and took him away.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a woman, early thirties, quite attractive, but very, very drunk.  She staggered from the bar, bumped into me, and finished up sitting on the side of the road.

I looked around to see where her friends were.  The exodus from the pub was over and the few nearby were leaving to go home.

She was alone, drunk, and by the look of her, unable to move.

I sat beside her.  “Where are your friends?”

“Dunno.”

“You need help?”

She looked up, and sideways at me.  She didn’t look the sort who would get in this state.  Or maybe she was, I was a terrible judge of women.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Nobody.”  I was exactly how I felt.

“Well Mr Nobody, I’m drunk, and I don’t care.  Just leave me here to rot.”

She put her head back between her knees, and it looked to me she was trying to stop the spinning sensation in her head.

Been there before, and it’s not a good feeling.

“Where are your friends?” I asked again.

“Got none.”

“Perhaps I should take you home.”

“I have no home.”

“You don’t look like a homeless person.  If I’m not mistaken, those shoes are worth more than my weekly salary.”  I’d seen them advertised, in the airline magazine, don’t ask me why the ad caught my attention.

She lifted her head and looked at me again.  “You a smart fucking arse are you?”

“I have my moments.”

“Have them somewhere else.”

She rested her head against my shoulder.  We were the only two left in the street, and suddenly in darkness when the proprietor turned off the outside lights.

“Take me home,” she said suddenly.

“Where is your place?”

“Don’t have one.  Take me to your place.”

“You won’t like it.”

“I’m drunk.  What’s not to like until tomorrow.”

I helped her to her feet.  “You have a name?”

“Charlotte.”

 

The wedding was in a small church.  We had been away for a weekend in the country, somewhere in the Cotswolds, and found this idyllic spot.  Graves going back to the dawn of time, a beautiful garden tended by the vicar and his wife, an astonishing vista over hills and down dales.

On a spring afternoon with the sun, the flowers, and the peacefulness of the country.

I had two people at the wedding, the best man, Bradley, and my boss, Watkins.

Charlotte had her sisters Melissa and Isobel, and Isobel’s husband Giovanni, and their daughter Felicity.

And one more person who was as mysterious as she was attractive, a rather interesting combination as she was well over retirement age.  She arrived late and left early.

Aunt Agatha.

She looked me up and down with what I’d call a withering look.  “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” she said enigmatically.

“Likewise I’m sure,” I said.  It earned me an elbow in the ribs from Charlotte.  It was clear she feared this woman.

“Why did you come,” Charlotte asked.

“You know why.”

Agatha looked at me.  “I like you.  Take care of my granddaughter.  You do not want me for an enemy.”

OK, now she officially scared me.

She thrust a cheque into my hand, smiled, and left.

“Who is she,” I asked after we watched her depart.

“Certainly not my fairy godmother.”

Charlotte never mentioned her again.

 

Zurich in summer, not exactly my favourite place.

Instead of going to visit her sister Isobel, we stayed at a hotel in Beethovenstrasse and Isobel and Felicity came to us.  Her husband was not with her this time.

Felicity was three or four and looked very much like her mother.  She also looked very much like Charlotte, and I’d remarked on it once before and it received a sharp rebuke.

We’d been twice before, and rather than talk to her sister, Charlotte spent her time with Felicity, and they were, together, like old friends.  For so few visits they had a remarkable rapport.

I had not broached the subject of children with Charlotte, not after one such discussion where she had said she had no desire to be a mother.  It had not been a subject before and wasn’t once since.

Perhaps like all Aunts, she liked the idea of playing with a child for a while and then give it back.

Felicity was curious as to who I was, but never ventured too close.  I believed a child could sense the evil in adults and had seen through my facade of friendliness.  We were never close.

But…

This time, when observing the two together, something quite out of left field popped into my head.  It was not possible, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought she looked like my mother.

And Charlotte had seen me looking in their direction.  “You seem distracted,” she said.

“I was just remembering my mother.  Odd moment, haven’t done so for a very long time.”

“Why now?”  I think she had a look of concern on her face.

“Her birthday, I guess,” I said, the first excuse I could think of.

Another look and I was wrong.  She looked like Isobel or Charlotte, or if I wanted to believe it possible, Melissa too.

 

I was crying, tears streaming down my face.

I was in pain, searing pain from my lower back stretching down into my legs, and I was barely able to breathe.

It was like coming up for air.

It was like Snow White bringing Prince Charming back to life.  I could feel what I thought was a gentle kiss and tears dropping on my cheeks, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Charlotte slowly lifting her head, a hand gently stroking the hair off my forehead.

And in a very soft voice, she said, “Hi.”

I could not speak, but I think I smiled.  It was the girl with the imperfection in her right eye.  Everything fell into place, and I knew, in that instant that we were irrevocably meant to be together.

“Welcome back.”

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

onelastlookcoverfinal2

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to write a war story – Episode 21

For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.

Whilst I have always had a fascination in what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.

And, so, it continues…

 

Chiara knew the moment she told Martina that one of the Germans was dead, she would be in trouble.  Not only from the resistance but from the British or whoever they were, up at the castle.

The man’s name was Eric Carmichael, and he was a nice man, more of a boy really, having not suffered the full effects of a front line.  He wanted to, but the Gods, as he called them, were against it.

Now he was dead.

He had come to the farm, told she was not there and had left again.  The pity of it, on any other occasion, nothing would have happened.  Nobody went out at night, so no one knew of their association.

Of course, if he did tell her anything, which he hadn’t so far, she would pass it on to Martina.  And, perhaps the only annoying thing about him was that he kept asking about the resistance as if it was still operational.  It was one of the reasons who Martina kept her at arm’s length, so she had nothing useful to tell them if they took her in for questioning.

Now it was a matter of seeing if he had told anyone about this affair, and if he did, she would not be safe at the farm.  It was why she was in hiding, waiting, and watching to see if anyone came.

Along with Carlo, and the new man, Atherton.

Not far from where the soldier’s body lay in the ditch, one that no one had yet found.

Until now.

A car was coming along the road quite fast, heading towards her farm.  Atherton recognised it as one of the staff cars from the castle, and as it slowed to turn the corner, Atherton could see it contained three men, the driver, and the two men who had followed him down the stream.

Suddenly the car skidded to a stop.  All three got out and went over to the ditch.  The driver had seen the bicycle.

 

It was an interesting conversation.

“The fool looks like he run off the side of the road and into a tree, fell off and hit his dead on the rocks.”

It was the man who had set me free.  I’d recognise him anywhere.

“Or maybe some ‘innocent bystander’ shoved a wrench in the wheel and he went over the handlebars.”

The big man turned to him.  “You have a story that implicates every member of the enemy population, don’t you?  Where’s the wrench?”

“They could have tossed it away or thrown it into the bushes.”

“The kid’s an idiot.  He was out for some fun and had his mind everywhere but on the job.  If she’s that tempting, maybe I’ll go and have a look in myself.”

The driver took a closer look, then suddenly bolted for the bushes and threw up.  I’d expected more seasoned soldiers in the group of paratroopers, but maybe they were late recruits with only half the training, and barely out of school.  He didn’t look all that old.  Neither had the lad in the ditch.

The tall guy yelled out, “when you finish puking, get over here and help us get him into the car.  Then we’ll meander down to this farm.”

 

Carlo knew a quicker way across the country to their farm.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what he was intending to do.

Three fewer Germans, three fewer problems.

I followed, trying to keep up.

“You got weapons hidden away?”

“Several rifles and a handgun.”

“It’ll do.  When we get there, you say out of sight.  Me and the new laddie here will take care of them.”

A look in my direction told me I’d just been recruited into the killing force.  Exactly what I’d been hoping to avoid.  I guess it was time to make a stand.

A few minutes later we were in the large shed out the rear of the farmhouse, retrieved the rifles, of which one was a sniper rifle, a rather interesting trophy, and not the sort of gun any soldier would leave lying around.

I was tempted to ask where she got but decided against it.  I had an awful feeling the previous owner had met a gruesome if not a sticky end.  Chiara was not just a pretty face.

“You know what to do with this thing?” Carlo said, holding it out in my direction.

“Vaguely, but I think I can manage.”

With it was a carton of shells, rather long and ugly and very deadly, even at long range.  But this time, we were not that far from the target area so wind and external conditions would not be a factor.

Also, I was hoping the sight had been calibrated.

After getting a feel for the weapon I took up a position on top of some hay bales and could see through a large enough crack when I put the barrel, and stretching out, found a comfortable position, and aimed for the back door.

It was like putting out my hand and touching it.  This was going to kick like a mule on the recoil, but I would only have time to worry about reloading for the next target.  Then I realised the driver might be a problem, especially when the shooting started, so I swivelled around to the back end of the house where a vehicle might come, and, saw the blue, altered the sight, and then saw the car approaching slowly.

I was hoping it would remain in sight, so if anything happened, I would be able to pick him off.  It would be all that much harder if he managed to try driving away.

I tracked the car to the point where it stopped, just pat the corner, with only the back half displayed in my sight.

Damn.

In the distance, we heard two car doors slam shut.

The driver was staying put.

Double damn.

A minute later we could hear pounding on the front door, then nothing.  My guess, they kicked in the front door.  There was no one at home, Chiara’s parents were away because they had no crops in the ground.  Their problem was water, and the river was running low this year.  Aside from the fact they were not going to feed the enemy soldiers who would simply take everything and give them nothing in return.

I heard rather than saw Carlo stiffen and resight the back door.  His shots would be far more difficult than mine.

The tall man came out the back door, stood on the ground not far from the door, his head filling my scope.

“Now,” Carlo said softly.

A pull of the trigger and the man’s head exploded, at just the same time as the other man came out.  A reload and another shot.  I missed the head, winged him, and Carlo finished him off.  Once shot at an impossible range.

Another reload, and swivel towards the car, now reversing, and making it very hard to see his face or body to get a clear shot.  Back, around and driving off, in a panic.  He’d heard the two shots.

“The fuel,” Carlo said, “shoot the fuel.”

I lined up where I thought the fuel tank was and squeezed the trigger.

Almost instantaneously the car exploded in a ball of fire.  Just under my line of sight, Carlo was running.  If the driver escaped…

I put the scope on Carli and then to the side.  I saw him raise his gun and fire twice.  The drive must have miraculously thrown clear of the car, only to find himself in Carlo’s sights.

Chiara had appeared behind me.  “We have to go,” she said.

I picked up the gun and took it with me.  It could come in handy later on.

Carlo was already heading back to the shortcut through the woods and we met him on the path about twenty yards along.

“That’s going to stir up a hornet’s nest,” he said.

More than that, I thought.  Now Johannsson knew he had a real problem.  There would be a price to pay for this exercise, and the villagers were the ones who would be paying it.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 29

Here’s the thing…

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

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

But these dreams are nothing to laugh about.

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

 

“Where is he?” I asked, hardly disguising the annoyance in my tone.

“In the toilet.”

A minor relief, but what the hell was she doing in his room?

“You do know Vince is responsible for Boggs being attacked, and me too, by the way.  There was no mistaking that thug even if he was hiding behind a balaclava.

“You’re not telling me anything I didn’t know already.  And it might be my fault.  I told him, no, he all but beat it out of me, about the map and Boggs, and you, and Alex.”

“So, I can expect to see Alex in here sometime soon?”

“No.  The Benderby’s have their own private hospital.  No one will get to hear about it, except maybe when there is the retaliation.  This who map and treasure thing is about to get a whole lot more problematical.”

Boggs chose to return from the bathroom and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me.  “How did you manage to get past the head of Gestapo, Nurse Jamieson?”

“I had an angel show me the way.  How are you?”

“This is a hospital; how do you think I feel.”

The nurse was right, he looked worse than he was.  The bruising was going to be very colourful in the coming days, before everything settled down.

“Vince?”

“Like I could tell who it was.  Only Vince can sound like Vince even where he’s trying not to sound like Vince.”

“Did he get the map.”

“One of them, but not necessarily the right one, just a better one.”

Boggs got back onto the bed and lay back.  I got the impression he was putting on a brave face for Nadia.  But it didn’t explain why she was there.

“What are you doing here,” I asked, with just a shade less annoyance.

“I heard what Vince did and I cam to apologise.  You were next,.” She said to me, “But, seriously guys, you were the masters of your own destinies with this map thing.  You don’t even know if it’s real or just another of a host of hoaxes.  Old man Cossatino reckons that Boggs’s dad created a lot of different variations, in the hope of selling them as the real thing.  He was, after all, just a common con man, and not very good at it.”

The patriarch of the Cossatino’s the one she referred to as Old Man Cossatino, was Nadia’s grandfather, and although Nadia’s father was nominally in charge of the clan, everyone knew who the real leader was.  And Old Man Cossatino was someone you didn’t cross, and that went for the Benderby’s too.

Boggs’s dad had worked for the Cossatino’s at one time, and it would not surprise me if it was Cossatino’s idea to create all the bogus maps, just to make money.  I couldn’t see Boggs’s dad having the brains to mount a scheme such as Nadia described.

It surprised me that I had forgotten about that.  Way back, when my father was still picking a side, he had said there’d been a rumour going around that a new map for the treasure had been found, and that both the Cossatino’s and the Benderby’s were in a bidding war for it, along with some other unsavoury characters.

And the rumour died as fast as it had risen, and not long after Boggs’s dad disappeared, later to turn up dead.  One rumour, he had gone looking for the treasure, though no one proffered an answer as to how he might have come across the original map which he had, at one time, claimed, and another, Cossatino had him make it up, then killed him so he would never reveal the truth.

That original map had never seen the light of day, nor mentioned since.

It didn’t explain why Vince was on the warpath.

“What’s Vince up to?  I thought you guys had the original map?”

She looked surprised.  “First I’m hearing about it.”

I realised then she would have been as young as I was, and Boggs, which was about five or six.  Precognitive memories.  She might have been too young to remember.  I only remembered it because my father had continually bagged Boggs’s father as a fool who should have got a real job and support his family, rather than let others do it for him, a veiled reference about the times Boggs stayed over and ate with us.

But it was not lost on Boggs.

“There’s any number of maps, yes.  I found a lot of them in Dad’s stuff in the shed.  I suspect those were the ones created for the Cossatino’s to sell privately, and I also think he double-crossed them and kept one particular map, the one he called ‘the map’ for himself, which may have been the original.”

That I was guessing, was the map Boggs had now.  “And you’re telling me that’s the one you said you found, and…”

“I still have it.  Vince has one of the half dozen that all seem to be slightly different, different enough from the original to keep him happy for a while.”

“What was the point of sending him to me?”

“I needed more time to figure out which variation to give him.  I’m hoping now, if he thinks it’s the original, he’ll start looking for it.  Save us a lot of time and effort if he does the groundwork.  And I’m sorry about what happened to you.  If it’s any consolation, I knew he wouldn’t hurt you.”

It seemed to me, judging from the expression on Nadia’s face, that discussing the fact Vince didn’t have the right may prompt her to tell him.  She was a Cossatino first, after all, and had for years toed the family line.

Maybe she’d changed, but I wish Boggs was not so trusting.

“That’s nonsense Boggs,” Nadia said.  “My brother doesn’t go easy on anyone.”

“How did you get in here?”

No mistaking that voice of authority.  The head of the hospital Gestapo had arrived.  She glared at me.  “You’d better leave before I call both the hospital security staff and the police.”  Then she looked at Nadia, who was getting out of the seat.  “You should know better.”  Much kinder voice for Nadia, suggesting they were acquainted.

She probably helped old man Cossatino with his interrogations.

“Had you told me how Boggs was, I would not be here.”  I’m not sure why I decided to take a stand with her.

“Don’t be impertinent.  You can see how he is, now leave while I’m in a good mood.”

I’d hate to see her when she was in a bad mood.

“Tomorrow,” Boggs said.  “I’m sure they’ll let me have visitors by then.”

I waved and left.  Nadia stayed back for a moment, then joined me in the passage.

“What were you really doing here,” I asked her.  “It’s bot as if you had any reason to visit Boggs, other than to cause trouble.”

“I came to apologise.  My brother can be a moron sometimes.”

“Does he know you’re here?”

“No.  And I want to keep it that way.”

“It’s Vince we’re talking about, or has he gone soft.  From what I witness during our encounter, it seems he’s got worse.”

“Which is why I don’t want to see him.  You want to come back to the room and have a few drinks.  Maybe we could talk about old times, you know, trash Alex?”

“Sounds good to me.”

A nightcap with Nadia.  I would never have thought that possible, even in my wildest dreams.  Had she changed, or was she up to something?

Time would tell.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The A to Z Challenge – F is for “For heaven’s sake…”

It was a combination of circumstances, not all related, but coming at me out of left field, circumstances that would prevent me from going home when I said I would.

I had every intention of getting there and as testament to that, I had got to the airport with baggage two hours before departure time, and had reached the departure gate with 20 minutes to spare, ready to board the plane.

I’d even got a business class ticket so I could travel in style.

What precipitated the set of circumstances? A simple phone call. I should have turned it off five minutes before boarding, but I didn’t but because I’d forgotten to, simply because I’d been distracted.

The call was from Penelope, my hard working and self-sacrificing personal assistant. I had offered to take her with me so we could work on a business plan that had to be presented the day after I was scheduled to return, but she had declined, which when I thought about it, if she hadn’t it might have created problems for both of us.

With a huge restructure going on, I was running behind in getting it completed, and had promised to finish it while at home.

The call: to tell me I had left a folder with vital research back on my desk, and she coming to the airport to deliver it, and she was, in fact, was in the terminal building when the boarding call came.

When I met her at the gate, only a few passengers had to be loaded. Being business class had afforded me a few extra minutes. File delivered, I left her looking exasperated and headed down the boarding ramp.

I was last aboard, and seconds after being seated, the door was closed.

I quickly typed and sent a message to tell everyone I was on the plane, eliciting two responses. My mother was glad that I was finally coming, the other from my elder brother, saying he would believe it when he saw me.

It was not without reason; I’d been in this situation before; on the plane ready to go.

Last time the plane didn’t leave the gate, a small problem that caused a big delay, so much so, I couldn’t get home.

Not this time. There was a slight lurch as the push tractor started pushing the plane back from the gate. A minute or so later the pilot fired up the engines, a sure sign of a definite departure. Nothing could stop us now.

It was a reassuring vibration that ran through the plane before the engines settled into a steady whine, a sign of an older plane that had flown many miles in the past and would into the future.

We stopped while the push tractor was disengaged and then the engines picked up speed and we lurched forward, heading towards the runway for take-off. In some airports this could take a long time, and tonight it seemed to take forever.

I looked out the window and saw a backdrop of lights against the darkness, but no indication where we were. It didn’t look like the end of the runway because I could not see any other planes waiting to take off.

Then the engines revved louder and for a pronged period. We didn’t move, but remained where we were, until the engines returned to what might be called idling speed

It was followed by an announcement from the pilot, “This is the captain speaking. We have encountered an anomaly with one of the engines, so to be on the safe side, we are returning to the gate and will have the engineers have a look at it. I do not anticipate this should take longer than 30 minutes.”

A collective groan went through the airplane. Those savvy with these problems would know that the odds were we would not be leaving tonight. The airport curfew would see to that.

But a miracle could still occur.

The plane then started back to the terminal. Another message from the pilot told us we would not be going back to the gate, but to a holding area. Time to have a glass of champagne the steward was offering before going back to the terminal for what, an interminable wait.

It seemed the gods did not want me to go back home.

When we got back to the parking spot, three buses and four delays later, I headed for one of the several bars to get a drink, and perhaps something decent to eat.

Then I saw Penelope, sitting by herself, a glass of champagne sitting half drunk in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” I said as I slid onto the stool beside her.

She started, as if she had been somewhere else, and turned to see who it was. The faraway look turned into a smile when she recognised me. “Getting drunk.”

“I thought you were going home.” A nod in the direction of the bartender, followed by pointing to her glass and indicating I wanted two, got instant service.

“I saw an ex heading to a plane with his latest squeeze. Made me feel depressed. I heard your plane was returning so I decided to wait. Better to get drunk with someone you know than drink by yourself, or someone you don’t. I’ve had three offers already.”

I wasn’t surprised. She was very attractive, the sort of woman who was the most popular at any of the work functions but was equally surprising was that she was not with any of those potential suitors. In fact, as far as I knew, she was not in a relationship.

“No one at home to amuse you?” It was not the sort of question I should be asking, because it was really none of my business.

It elicited a sideways glance, as if I stepped over an invisible line.

“Sorry, none of my business.”

She finished off the glass in front of her, just as the new round arrived in front of her. I gave the bartender my credit card and asked him to start a tab. I’d just heard that the plane was going to be another two hours before we’d be leaving.

“I live with two other girls, but they are more interested in finding stray men and getting wasted, not necessarily in that order, and that’s not what I want to do.”

“Get wasted or find stray men?”

I was not sure how anyone had the time and inclination to do that, but a few weeks back I spent two evenings with a friend of mine whose marriage had fallen apart. The people there seemed either desperate or looking for a one-night stand. It had amused me to discover most of them were married, and not divorced, and that the girls knew what to expect.

“Both apparently.”

“How do you expect to find the man of your dreams if you don’t go looking.”

“I am, this place seems as good as any, but the man of my dreams doesn’t exist.”

The bemused expression and the tone of her voice told me she had had more than the one drink before I got there. Even then, judging from several previous parties for work we had attended, she had a much greater capacity for alcohol than I had.

She finished off the glass just brought, and seconds later her eyes seemed glassy. Perhaps it was time for me to put her in a cab and send her home.

“Another,” she said, “and then you can be responsible for me.”

I had no idea what that meant, and I think, judging by the facial expressions, she didn’t really care.

“Perhaps…”

She didn’t let me finish. “Perhaps you should buy me another drink and lighten up.” And the look that came with it told me not to argue the point.

I got the bartender’s attention, and he responded by bringing two fresh glasses and a bottle. I told him to leave it. It gave me a minute or so to contemplate what she meant by ‘lighten up’. I was so used to seeing her work ethic and diligence, this was a different side to her.

I took a sip and could feel her looking at me. A glance took in the near permanent bemused expression.

“Are you going to be alright getting home?” It was probably not the question I should have asked, but in the back of my mind there was a recent briefing given to all of management on the subject of sexual harassment and intra office romances.

“I’m fine. It’s not as if I do this a lot, but the last week has been difficult. Not only for me, but for you too. But you have to admit you put yourself under a lot of pressure.”

She was starting to sound like my conscience. It was something I’d been thinking about on the way to the airport, but decided it was part of the job, and I knew when I accepted the position what it would involve. My predecessor, much older than I was, had fallen on his sword, the pressure destroying his marriage and almost his life.

“So I said, lamely, It goes with the job, unfortunately.”

She shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. They might think it does, but they don’t care. They sit in their ivory tower and watch their minions crash and burn. There’s always someone else waiting in the wings to take your place, believe me.”

It was an interesting perspective, but where did it come from? I knew she had been at the corporation for a number of years, and I had been lucky enough to draw the long straw when having her assigned to me as my PA when I took the position. One of the other executives had lamented my good fortune, but he had also said she was one of the few who were there to guide those management considered were management prospects.

I just thought I was lucky.

“I might end up in that ivory tower one day.”

“Why?”

She turned to look directly at me. It made me uncomfortable now, as it had on other occasions, and I had begun to think it might have something to do with unspoken feelings. I liked her, but I doubted that was reciprocated. And, after the lecture on office romances, I promptly put those feelings in the bottom drawer and locked it.

“Doesn’t everyone aspire to be the best, and climb to the top of the corporate ladder?”

“For that you have to be devious and ruthless, and from what I’ve seen, you’re neither. You’ve heard the expression ‘good guys come last’. It’s true.”

I was guessing from the people she had worked for, she had firsthand experience. My predecessor was a ‘good guy’ and some said he was eaten alive by the office predators. I knew who they were, and avoided them. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t, but when would she have told me? Not tonight, no one could have predicted the plane would break down.

“You’re telling me this now, why?”

“You’re smarter than all of those above you put together. You don’t need them, but they need you. But, you won’t get any concessions, not until you get near the top. By then you will have had to sell your soul to the devil.”

Good to know, on one hand I was about to see my soul to the devil, and on the other that I was smart, just not smart enough to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I noticed she hadn’t touched the latest glass of champagne. Nor was she the languid barfly she’d pretended to be earlier.

“You’re advice, if I’m listening correctly, is that I should be looking for another job.”

“Actually, you shouldn’t be listening to me at all. Too many drinks and I pontificate. Some people become happy, I become,” she shrugged, “unhappy. Take no notice.” She swung around to the front and picked up the glass.

“OK.” I turned around to look at the departures board to see my flight had been cancelled, and I should go to the check in counter. “My plane is completely broken, so it looks like I’m staying home.”

“Or you could take me to dinner.” She looked sideways again, the bemused expression back.

“Wouldn’t that be inappropriate?”

“Only if you were in upper management, married, and asking me to have an affair. Last I looked you’re not in upper management, not married, so there’s no hint of an affair. For heaven’s sake, it’s only dinner.”

She was right on all counts, and it was only dinner.

“Why not?” I said, more to myself than to her.

“Good. And you’d better get me on the plane too. We need to get that report done, and it’ll be an excuse to stay at a hotel. I know you wouldn’t want to stay in your old room at your parents’ house.”

She was right about that too, I had long outgrown them, and staying at home would only lead to arguments. “How could you possibly know that?”

She smiled. “You talk in your sleep.”

© Charles Heath 2021