“Because it’s not me” – a short story

If the was one fault I had, it was prevarication.

For a long time, I had always been afraid of making a mistake, after I had done exactly that.  They said our mistakes didn’t define us, but that one had.  I had lost the trust of everyone, from my parents to friends.

It was only a small lie, or so I told myself, but it had far-reaching ramifications, and almost cost someone their life.  But whilst I believed it was not all that bad, and the police had agreed that anyone who had been put in the same position would have done the same, there were those who didn’t agree.

It was a moment in time I often relived in my mind, over and over, and eventually led to several outcomes.

The first, I left home, the town where up till then I’d lived all of my life, walking away from family and those who used to be friends, knowing that what they said and what they felt were two entirely different things.  For all concerned, it was better that I left, cutting all ties, and make a fresh start, away from those whom I knew would never forget, even though they forgave me.

The second, and most dire, I changed my name, and my history, even how I looked.  Today, I was a very different person to that of thirty years ago.

The third, I moved to another country and vowed never to return, always looking constantly over my shoulder, expecting someone from the past to find me.  I instinctively knew that I would never escape, that one day a stark reminder would come back and destroy everything.

I picked the one occupation that would keep me both occupied and invisible.

Journalist.

I had started at the bottom, literally writing death notices, and worked my way up to what is ubiquitously known as ‘foreign correspondent’, going to places where no one else would go, those hotbeds of unrest, and war zones, reporting from both sides.

Perhaps it could say I had a death wish, a statement my editor had once said when he came to see me in hospital back in London after I’d been caught up in a rocket attack and repatriated.  He had come to offer me a job back home, to tell me my tour was over.

I declined the opportunity, and he left, shaking his head.

But that was not the only visitor that came to the hospital that day.  The other visitor was an elderly man, immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat.  It screamed public servant, and the moment I saw him wandering up the passage, a chill ran down my spine.

Although he looked like he was looking for someone else, I knew he would eventually finish up in my doorway.

Five minutes after I first saw him.

When he appeared at the door, I thought about ignoring him, but realized that wasn’t going to change anything.  Besides that, I guess I wanted to know why he would want to see me.

“James Wilson?”

“Would it make any difference if I said no?”  Well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t spar with him, just a little.  “Who are you.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

I got the impression he would do it anyway, irrespective of what I said.  I said no, and as I suspected he came in anyway, closing the door behind him, then took a minute or two to make himself comfortable in the visitor’s chair, which was an impossible task.

Then, settled, he said, “I understand you have just been repatriated from Syria.”

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It wasn’t common knowledge where I’d come from, so this person knew something about me, which was immediate cause for concern.

“The bane of a reporter trying to cover a dangerous situation,” he said, with just the right amount of levity in his tone.  “I get it, by the way.  I once had that devil may care attitude you need to get the story.  I was chasing a Pulitzer, believe it or not, and used a few of those nine lives in the process.  Which one are you up to?”

I was going to say that awards didn’t matter but among those who made up the press pack in those God-forsaken places, there was an unwritten desire to be rewarded other than by pay.  For me, though, it was not a defining factor.

“Lost count.  But why would that interest you, or whoever it is you represent?  By the way, just who do you represent?”

Second attempt at finding out who this man was.  If he was dodging and weaving, it would suggest a clandestine organization.

“People who would like to use your unique talent in getting into trouble spots around the world.  We’re not asking you to come work for us exclusively, rather piggyback on the job that you already do so well.”

An unnamed man from an unnamed organization.  What he was offering wasn’t unheard of, and I had been warned, more than once, that jobs, like he was suggesting, were more often than not offered to people like me.  With that came one line of advice, turn around and run like hell.

But, with nothing to amuse me in hospital, I was curious.  “Doing what exactly?”

The fact his expression changed indicated my response had taken him by surprise.  Perhaps he was used to being told where to go.  Not yet.  I had this fanciful notion in the back of my mind that what he might offer might get me closer to the story.

“Keeping your eyes and ears open.  We’ll tell you what to look for, all you’ll be doing is looking for evidence.  There will be no need to go looking for trouble, if there’s evidence we ask you to report it, if not, no harm done.”

Not so hard.  If that was all it was.  The trouble was, if something sounds simple, which that did, but inevitably, it was going to be anything but.  I’d heard stories and the consequences.

“You’re presuming that my editor will send me back.  He just offered me a job at home.”

“I think both of us know you’re not interested in domesticity.  If he isn’t willing to adhere to your wishes, I’m sure we could find someone else who would be willing to take you on.  You have had several offers recently, have you not?”

So, without a doubt, he knew a lot about me, especially if he asked around.  I had had several offers, but I was happy where I was.  I liked the no questions about your past that my current employer had promised.

Yes, looking at the determination on this man’s face, I had no doubt they or he could do what he said.  No one comes to a meeting like this without holding all the cards.  Also, not that I wanted it to be so, It told me that my agreement was not necessarily going to be optional.

But I was happy to dither and find out.  “Since I’m not sure when the hospital is going to discharge me, and the fact I’m not exactly very mobile at the moment, can I consider the proposal.  Right now, as you can imagine, getting back to work is not exactly a priority.”

“Of course.”  He took a card out of his coat pocket and put it on the bedside table.  “By all means.  Call me on that number when you’ve decided.”

He stood.  “It will be a great opportunity.  Thank you for your time.”

Of course, the two impressions I was left with were, one, he had me mixed up with someone else, and two, that I would never see him again.

It was an impossible task, for me at least, because I did not have a poker face, and could barely carry a lie.  I would be the last person they’d want for the job.

And thinking that, I rolled over, put it out of my mind, and went back to sleep.


© Charles Heath 2021

“Anyone can have a bad day” – a short story

It had been one of those days, you know, the sort where you hoped, when you woke up again, it would be a distant memory if not gone altogether. Everything had gone wrong, the handover from my shift to the next, longer than usual, I got home late to find the building’s security system malfunctioning, and after everything that could go wrong had, I was late getting to bed, which meant I was going to be tired and cranky even before my shift started.

But what topped it all off was that the alarm didn’t go off. It was not as if I hadn’t set it, I remembered doing it. There was something else in play.

I rolled over and instantly noticed how dark it was. It was never this dark. It was why I chose an apartment as high up as I could, there would always be light coming from the advertising sign on the roof of the building over the road at night, or direct sunlight not blotted out by surrounding buildings.

I also left the curtains open, deliberately. I liked the notion of being able to see out, sometimes looking at the stars, other times watching the rain, but mostly to see that I was not in a dark place.

Not like now.

I got out of bed and went over to the window. Yes, there were lights, but they were all the way down on the street level. Everywhere else, nothing. It had to be a power blackout. Our first in a long time. I should have noticed the air conditioning was not on, and it was almost silent inside the room.

The apartment had windows that opened, not very far, but enough to allow some airflow, and the room feeling stuffy, I opened one in the bedroom. Instantly, sounds drifted up from street level, and looking down I could see the flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks, as well as the sounds of sirens.

The cold air was refreshing.

It took a few minutes before I realized the elevators would not be working, and I remembered the only pitfall of having a high-up apartment, it was a long way down by the stairs, and even longer going back up.

In the distance, I could see other buildings, about ten blocks away, with their lights on. It had to be a localized blackout, or perhaps a brownout. We had been having problems across the city with power supply caused by an unexplained explosion at several power stations on the grid.

Some were saying it was a terrorist attack, others were saying the antiquated infrastructure had finally given out.

My attention was diverted from the activity below by the vibration of my cell phone on the bedside table. I looked over at the clock and saw it was 3:10 in the morning, not a time I usually got a phone call.

I crossed the room and looked at the screen, just as the vibrating stopped. Louis Bernard. Who was Louis Bernard? It was not a name I was familiar with, so I ignored it. It wasn’t the first wrong number to call me, though I was beginning to think I had been given a recycled phone number when I bought the phone. Perhaps the fact it was a burner may have had something to do with it.

About the go back to the window, the phone started ringing again. The same caller, Louis Bernard.

Curiosity got the better of me.

“Yes?” I wasn’t going to answer with my name.

“Get out of that room now.”

“Who….” It was as far as I got before the phone went dead.

The phone displayed the logo as it powered off, a sign the battery was depleted. I noticed then though I’d plugged the phone in to recharge, I’d forgotten to turn the power on.

Damn.

Get out of that room now? Who could possibly know firstly who I was, and where I was living, to the point they could know I was in any sort of danger?

It took another minute of internal debate before I threw on some clothes and headed for the door.

Just in case.

As I went to open the door, someone started pounding on it, and my heart almost stopped.

“Who is it?” I yelled out. First thought; don’t open it.

“Floor warden, you need to evacuate. There’s a small fire on one of the floors below.”

“OK. Give me a minute or so and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t take too long. Take the rear stairs on the left.”

A few seconds later I heard him pounding on the door next to mine. I waited until he’d moved on, and went out into the passage.

It was almost dark, the security lighting just above floor level giving off a strange and eerie orange glow. I thought there was a hint of smoke in the air, but that might have been the power of suggestion taking over my mind.

There were two sets of stairs down, both at the rear, one on the left and one on the right, designed to aid quick evacuation in the event of a calamity like a fire. He had told me to take the left. I deliberately ignored that and went to the right side, passing several other tenants who were going towards where they’d been told. I didn’t recognize them, but, then, I didn’t try to find out who my fellow tenants were.

A quick look back up the passage, noting everyone heading to the left side stairs, I ducked into the right stairwell and stopped for a moment. Was that smoke I could smell. From above I could hear a door slam shut, and voices. Above me, people had entered the stairwell and were coming down.

I started heading down myself.

I was on the 39th floor, and it was going to be a long way down. In a recent fire drill, the building had been evacuated from the top floor down, and it proceeded in an orderly manner. The idea was that starting at the top, there would not be a logjam if the lower floors were spilling into the stairwell and creating a bottleneck. Were those above stragglers?

I descended ten floors and still hadn’t run into anyone, but the smell of smoke was stronger. I stopped for a moment and listened for those who had been above me. Nothing. Not a sound. Surely there had to be someone above me, coming down.

A door slammed, but I couldn’t tell if it was above or below.

Once again, I descended, one floor, two, three, five, all the way down to ten. The smoke was thicker here, and I could see a cloud on the other side of the door leading out of the stairwell into the passage. The door was slightly ajar, odd, I thought, for what was supposed to be a fire door. I could see smoke being sucked into the fire escape through the door opening.

Then I saw several firemen running past, axes in hand. Was the fire on the tenth floor?

Another door slammed shut, and then above me, I could hear voices. Or were they below? I couldn’t tell. My eyes were starting to tear up from the smoke, and it was getting thicker.

I headed down.

I reached the ground floor and tried to open the door leading out of the fire escape. It wouldn’t open. A dozen other people came down the stairs and stopped when they saw me.

One asked, “Can we get out here?”

I tried the door again with the same result. “No. It seems to be jammed.”

Several of the people rushed past me, going down further, yelling out, “there should be a fire door leading out into the underground garage.”

Then, after another door slamming shut, silence. Another person said, “they must have found a way out,” and started running down the stairs, the others following. For some odd reason I couldn’t explain, I didn’t follow, a mental note popping up in my head telling me that there was only an exit into the carport from the other stairs, on this side, the exit led out onto an alley at the back of the building.

If the door would open. It should push outwards, and there should also be a bar on it, so when pushed, it allowed the door to open.

The smoke was worse now, and I could barely see, or breathe, overcome with a coughing fit. I banged on the door, yelling out that I was stuck in the stairwell, but there was no reply, nor could I hear movement on the other side of the door.

Just as I started to lose consciousness, I thought I could hear a banging sound on the door, then a minute later what seemed like wood splintering. A few seconds after that I saw a large black object hovering over me, then nothing.

It was the culmination of a bad night, a bad day, and another bad night. Was it karma trying to tell me something?

When I woke, I was in a hospital, a room to myself which seemed strange since my insurance didn’t really cover such luxuries. I looked around the room and stopped when I reached the window and the person who was standing in front of it, looking out.

“Who are you?” I asked, and realized the moment the words came out, they made me sound angry.

“No one of particular importance. I came to see if you were alright. You were very lucky by the way. Had you not stayed by that door you would have died like all the rest.”

Good to know, but not so good for the others. Did he know that the fire door was jammed? I told him what happened.

“Someone suspected that might be the case which is why you were told to take the other stairs. Why did you not do as you were told?”

“Why did the others also ignore the advice.” It was not a question I would deign to answer.

They didn’t know any better, but you did, and it begs the question, why did you take those stairs.”

Persistent, and beginning to bother me. He sounded like someone else I once knew in another lifetime, one who never asked a question unless he knew the answer.

The man still hadn’t turned around to show me his face, and it was not likely I’d be getting out of bed very soon.

“You tell me?”

He turned slightly and I could see his reflection in the window. I thought, for a moment, that was a familiar face. But I couldn’t remember it from where.

“The simple truth, you suspected the fire was lit to flush you out of the building and you thought taking those stairs would keep you away from trouble. We both know you’ve been hiding here.”

Then he did turn. Hiding, yes. A spot of trouble a year or so before had made leaving Florida a necessity, and I’d only just begun to believe I was finally safe.

I was not.

They had found me.

And it only took a few seconds, to pull the silenced gun out of his coat pocket, point it directly at me, and pull the trigger.

Two stabbing pains in the chest, and for a moment it was as if nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.

The last thing I saw and heard, several rounds from at least two guns, voices yelling out on the passage, and people running.

As I lay dying, my last thought was, it had been a good run, but no one can run forever.


© Charles Heath 2021

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020

An excerpt from “The Devil You Don’t”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2Xyh1ow

 

By the time I returned to the Savoie, the rain had finally stopped, and there was a streak of blue sky to offer some hope the day would improve.

The ship was not crowded, the possibility of bad weather perhaps holding back potential passengers.  Of those I saw, a number of them would be aboard for the lunch by Phillippe Chevrier.  I thought about it, but the Concierge had told me about several restaurants in Yvoire and had given me a hand-drawn map of the village.  I think he came from the area because he spoke with the pride and knowledge of a resident.

I was looking down from the upper deck observing the last of the boarding passengers when I saw a woman, notable for her red coat and matching shoes, making a last-minute dash to get on board just before the gangway was removed.  In fact, her ungainly manner of boarding had also captured a few of the other passenger’s attention.  Now they would have something else to talk about, other than the possibility of further rain.

I saw her smile at the deckhand, but he did not smile back.  He was not impressed with her bravado, perhaps because of possible injury.  He looked at her ticket then nodded dismissively, and went back to his duties in getting the ship underway.  I was going to check the departure time, but I, like the other passengers, had my attention diverted to the woman in red.

From what I could see there was something about her.  It struck me when the light caught her as she turned to look down the deck, giving me a perfect profile.  I was going to say she looked foreign, but here, as in almost anywhere in Europe, that described just about everyone.  Perhaps I was just comparing her to Phillipa, so definitively British, whereas this woman was very definitely not.

She was perhaps in her 30’s, slim or perhaps the word I’d use was lissom, and had the look and manner of a model.  I say that because Phillipa had dragged me to most of the showings, whether in Milan, Rome, New York, London, or Paris.  The clothes were familiar, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling I’d seen her before.

Or perhaps, to me, all models looked the same.

She looked up in my direction, and before I could divert my eyes, she locked on.  I could feel her gaze boring into me, and then it was gone as if she had been looking straight through me.  I remained out on deck as the ship got underway, watching her disappear inside the cabin.  My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to keep an eye out for her.

I could feel the coolness of the air as the ship picked up speed, not that it was going to be very fast.  With stops, the trip would take nearly two hours to get to my destination.  It would turn back almost immediately, but I was going to stay until the evening when it returned at about half eight.  It would give me enough time to sample the local fare, and take a tour of the medieval village.

Few other passengers ventured out on the deck, most staying inside or going to lunch.  After a short time, I came back down to the main deck and headed forward.  I wanted to clear my head by concentrating on the movement of the vessel through the water, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and let the peacefulness of the surroundings envelope me.

It didn’t work.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started thinking about why things hadn’t worked, and what part I played in it.  And the usual question that came to mind when something didn’t work out.  What was wrong with me?

I usually blamed it on my upbringing.

I had one of those so-called privileged lives, a nanny till I was old enough to go to boarding school, then sent to the best schools in the land.  There I learned everything I needed to be the son of a Duke, or, as my father called it in one of his lighter moments, nobility in waiting.

Had this been five or six hundred years ago, I would need to have sword and jousting skills, or if it had been a few hundred years later a keen military mind.  If nothing else I could ride a horse, and go on hunts, or did until they became not the thing to do.

I learned six languages, and everything I needed to become a diplomat in the far-flung British Empire, except the Empire had become the Commonwealth, and then, when no-one was looking, Britain’s influence in the world finally disappeared.  I was a man without a cause, without a vocation, and no place to go.

Computers were the new vogue and I had an aptitude for programming.  I guess that went hand in hand with mathematics, which although I hated the subject, I excelled in.  Both I and another noble outcast used to toss ideas around in school, but when it came to the end of our education, he chose to enter the public service, and I took a few of those ideas we had mulled over and turned them into a company.

About a year ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  There were so many zeroes on the end of it I just said yes, put the money into a very grateful bank, and was still trying to come to terms with it.

Sadly, I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  My parents had asked me to come back home and help manage the estate, and I did for a few weeks.  It was as long as it took for my parents to drive me insane.

Back in the city, I spent a few months looking for a mundane job, but there were very few that suited the qualifications I had, and the rest, I think I intimidated the interviewer simply because of who I was.  In that time I’d also featured on the cover of the Economist, and through my well-meaning accountant, started involving myself with various charities, earning the title ‘philanthropist’.

And despite all of this exposure, even making one of those ubiquitous ‘eligible bachelor’ lists, I still could not find ‘the one’, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  Phillipa seemed to fit the bill, but in time she proved to be a troubled soul with ‘Daddy’ issues.  I knew that in building a relationship compromise was necessary, but with her, in the end, everything was a compromise and what had happened was always going to be the end result.

It was perhaps a by-product of the whole nobility thing.  There was a certain expectation I had to fulfill, to my peers, contemporaries, parents and family, and those who either liked or hated what it represented.  The problem was, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  Not like my friend from schooldays, and now obscure acquaintance, Sebastian.  He had been elevated to his Dukedom early when his father died when he was in his twenties.  He had managed to fade from the limelight and was rarely mentioned either in the papers or the gossip columns.  He was one of the lucky ones.

I had managed to keep a similarly low profile until I met Phillipa.  From that moment, my obscurity disappeared.  It was, I could see now, part of a plan put in place by Phillipa’s father, a man who hogged the limelight with his daughter, to raise the profile of the family name and through it their businesses.  He was nothing if not the consummate self-advertisement.

Perhaps I was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the attachment to the establishment, that link with a class of people he would not normally get in the front door.  There was nothing refined about him or his family, and more than once I’d noticed my contemporaries cringe at the mention of his name, or any reference of my association with him.

Yet could I truthfully say I really wanted to go back to the obscurity I had before Phillipa?  For all her faults, there were times when she had been fun to be with, particularly when I first met her when she had a certain air of unpredictability.  That had slowly disappeared as she became part of her father’s plan for the future.  She just failed to see how much he was using her.

Or perhaps, over time, I had become cynical.

I thought about calling her.  It was one of those moments of weakness when I felt alone, more alone than usual.

I diverted my attention back to my surroundings and the shoreline.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the red coat, making a move.  The red coat was like a beacon, a sort of fire engine red.  It was not the sort of coat most of the women I knew would wear, but on her, it looked terrific.  In fact, her sublime beauty was the one other attribute that was distinctly noticeable, along with the fact her hair was short, rather than long, and jet black.

I had to wrench my attention away from her.

A few minutes later several other passengers came out of the cabin for a walk around the deck, perhaps to get some exercise, perhaps checking up on me, or perhaps I was being paranoid.  I waited till they passed on their way forward, and I turned and headed aft.

I watched the wake sluicing out from under the stern for a few minutes, before retracing my steps to the front of the ship and there I stood against the railing, watching the bow carve its way through the water.  It was almost mesmerizing.  There, I emptied my mind of thoughts about Phillipa, and thoughts about the woman in the red coat.

Until a female voice behind me said, “Having a bad day?”

I started, caught by surprise, and slowly turned.  The woman in the red coat had somehow got very close me without my realizing it.  How did she do that?  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer immediately.

“I do hope you are not contemplating jumping.  I hear the water is very cold.”

Closer up, I could see what I’d missed when I saw her on the main deck.  There was a slight hint of Chinese, or Oriental, in her particularly around the eyes, and of her hair which was jet black.  An ancestor twice or more removed had left their mark, not in a dominant way, but more subtle, and easily missed except from a very short distance away, like now.

Other than that, she was quite possibly Eastern European, perhaps Russian, though that covered a lot of territory.  The incongruity of it was that she spoke with an American accent, and fluent enough for me to believe English was her first language.

Usually, I could ‘read’ people, but she was a clean slate.  Her expression was one of amusement, but with cold eyes.  My first thought, then, was to be careful.

“No.  Not yet.”  I coughed to clear my throat because I could hardly speak.  And blushed, because that was what I did when confronted by a woman, beautiful or otherwise.

The amusement gave way to a hint of a smile that brightened her demeanor as a little warmth reached her eyes.  “So that’s a maybe.  Should I change into my lifesaving gear, just in case?”

It conjured up a rather interesting image in my mind until I reluctantly dismissed it.

“Perhaps I should move away from the edge,” I said, moving sideways until I was back on the main deck, a few feet further away.  Her eyes had followed me, and when I stopped she turned to face me again.  She did not move closer.

I realized then she had removed her beret and it was in her left side coat pocket.  “Thanks for your concern …?”

“Zoe.”

“Thanks for your concern, Zoe.  By the way, my name is John.”

She smiled again, perhaps in an attempt to put me at ease.  “I saw you earlier, you looked so sad, I thought …”

“I might throw myself overboard?”

“An idiotic notion I admit, but it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Then she tilted her head to one side then the other, looking intently at me.  “You seem to be familiar.  Do I know you?”

I tried to think of where I may have seen her before, but all I could remember was what I’d thought earlier when I first saw her; she was a model and had been at one of the showings.  If she was, it would be more likely she would remember Phillipa, not me.  Phillipa always had to sit in the front row.

“Probably not.”  I also didn’t mention the fact she may have seen my picture in the society pages of several tabloid newspapers because she didn’t look the sort of woman who needed a daily dose of the comings and goings, and, more often than not, scandal associated with so-called celebrities.

She gave me a look, one that told me she had just realized who I was.  “Yes, I remember now.  You made the front cover of the Economist.  You sold your company for a small fortune.”

Of course.  She was not the first who had recognized me from that cover.  It had raised my profile considerably, but not the Sternhaven’s.  That article had not mentioned Phillipa or her family.  I suspect Grandmother had something to do with that, and it was, now I thought about it, another nail in the coffin that was my relationship with Phillipa.

“I wouldn’t say it was a fortune, small or otherwise, just fortunate.”  Each time, I found myself playing down the wealth aspect of the business deal.

“Perhaps then, as the journalist wrote, you were lucky.  It is not, I think, a good time for internet-based companies.”

The latter statement was an interesting fact, one she read in the Financial Times which had made that exact comment recently.

“But I am boring you.”  She smiled again.  “I should be minding my own business and leaving you to your thoughts.  I am sorry.”

She turned to leave and took a few steps towards the main cabin.

“You’re not boring me,” I said, thinking I was letting my paranoia get the better of me.  It had been Sebastian on learning of my good fortune, who had warned me against ‘a certain element here and abroad’ whose sole aim would be to separate me from my money.  He was not very subtle when he described their methods.

But I knew he was right.  I should have let her walk away.

She stopped and turned around.  “You seem nothing like the man I read about in the Economist.”

A sudden and awful thought popped into my head.  Those words were part of a very familiar opening gambit.  “Are you a reporter?”

I was not sure if she looked surprised, or amused.  “Do I look like one?”

I silently cursed myself for speaking before thinking, and then immediately ignored my own admonishment.  “People rarely look like what they are.”

I saw the subtle shake of the head and expected her to take her leave.  Instead she astonished me.

“I fear we have got off on the wrong foot.  To be honest, I’m not usually this forward, but you seemed like you needed cheering up when probably the opposite is true.  Aside from the fact this excursion was probably a bad idea.  And,” she added with a little shrug, “perhaps I talk too much.”

I was not sure what I thought of her after that extraordinary admission. It was not something I would do, but it was an interesting way to approach someone and have them ignoring their natural instinct.  I would let Sebastian whisper in my ear for a little longer and see where this was going.

“Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing.  I was supposed to be traveling with my prospective bride.  I think you can imagine how that turned out.”

“She’s not here?”

“No.”

“She’s in the cabin?”  Her eyes strayed in that direction for a moment then came back to me.  She seemed surprised I might be traveling with someone.

“No.  She is back in England, and the wedding is off.  So is the relationship.  She dumped me by text.”

OK, why was I sharing this humiliating piece of information with her?  I still couldn’t be sure she was not a reporter.

She motioned to an empty seat, back from the edge.  No walking the plank today.  She moved towards it and sat down.  She showed no signs of being cold, nor interested in the breeze upsetting her hair.  Phillipa would be having a tantrum about now, being kept outside, and freaking out over what the breeze might be doing to her appearance.

I wondered, if only for a few seconds if she used this approach with anyone else.  I guess I was a little different, a seemingly rich businessman alone on a ferry on Lake Geneva, contemplating the way his life had gone so completely off track.

She watched as I sat at the other end of the bench, leaving about a yard between us.  After I leaned back and made myself as comfortable as I could, she said, “I have also experienced something similar, though not by text message.  It is difficult, the first few days.”

“I saw it coming.”

“I did not.”  She frowned, a sort of lifeless expression taking over, perhaps brought on by the memory of what had happened to her.  “But it is done, and I moved on.  Was she the love of your life?”

OK, that was unexpected.

When I didn’t answer, she said, “I am sorry.  Sometimes I ask personal questions without realizing what I’m doing.  It is none of my business.”  She shivered.  “Perhaps we should go back inside.”

She stood, and held out her hand.  Should I take it and be drawn into her web?  I thought of Sebastian.  What would he do in this situation?

I took her hand in mine and let her pull me gently to my feet.  “Wise choice,” she said, looking up at the sky.

It just started to rain.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newdevilcvr6

An excerpt from “Amnesia”, a work in progress

I remembered a bang.
I remembered the car slewing sideways.
I remember another bang, and then it was lights out.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw the sky.
Or I could be under water.
Everything was blurred.
I tried to focus but I couldn’t. My eyes were full of water.
What happened?
Why was I lying down?
Where was I?
I cast my mind back, trying to remember.
It was a blank.
What, when, who, why and where, questions I should easily be able to answer. Questions any normal person could answer.
I tried to move. Bad, bad mistake.
I did not realise the scream I heard was my own. Just before my body shut down.

“My God! What happened?”
I could hear, not see. I was moving, lying down, looking up.
I was blind. Everything was black.
“Car accident, hit a tree, sent the passenger flying through the windscreen. Pity to poor bastard didn’t get the message that seat belts save lives.”
Was I that poor bastard?
“Report?” A new voice, male, authoritative.
“Multiple lacerations, broken collar bone, broken arm in three places, both legs broken below the knees, one badly. We are not sure of internal injuries, but ruptured spleen, cracked ribs and pierced right lung are fairly evident, x-rays will confirm that and anything else.”
“What isn’t broken?”
“His neck.”
“Then I would have to say we are looking at the luckiest man on the planet.”
I heard shuffling of pages.
“OR1 ready?”
“Yes. On standby since we were first advised.”
“Good. Let’s see if we can weave some magic.”

Magic.
It was the first word that popped into my head when I surfaced from the bottom of the lake. That first breath, after holding it for so long, was sublime, and, in reality, agonising.

Magic, because it seemed like I’d spent a long time under water.
Or somewhere.
I tried to speak, but couldn’t. The words were just in my head.
Was it night or was it day?
Was it hot, or was it cold?
Where was I?
Around me it felt cool.
It was very quiet. No noise except for the hissing of air through an air-conditioning vent. Or perhaps that was the sound of pure silence. And with it the revelation that silence was not silent. It was noisy.
I didn’t try to move.
Instinctively, somehow I knew not to.
A previous bad experience?
I heard what sounded like a door opening, and very quiet footsteps slowly come into the room. They stopped. I could hear breathing, slightly laboured, a sound I’d heard before.
My grandfather.
He had smoked all his life, until he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But for years before that he had emphysema. The person in the room was on their way, down the same path. I could smell the smoke.
I wanted to tell whoever it was the hazards of smoking.
I couldn’t.
I heard a metallic clanging sound from the end of the bed. A moment later the clicking of a pen, then writing.
“You are in a hospital.” A female voice suddenly said. “You’ve been in a very bad accident. You cannot talk, or move, all you can do, for the moment, is listen to me. I am a nurse. You have been here for 45 days, and just come out of a medically induced coma. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
She had a very soothing voice.
I felt her fingers stroke the back of my hand.
“Everything is fine.”
Define fine, I thought. I wanted to ask her what ‘fine’ meant.
“Just count backwards from 10.”
Why?
I didn’t reach seven.

Over the next ten days, that voice became my lifeline to sanity. Every morning I longed to hear it, if only for the few moments she was in the room, those few waking moments when I believed she, and someone else who never spoke, were doing tests. I knew it had to be someone else because I could smell the essence of lavender. My grandmother had worn a similar scent.
It rose above the disinfectant.
I also believed she was another doctor, not the one who had been there the day I arrived. Not the one who had used some ‘magic’ and kept me alive.
It was then, in those moments before she put me under again, that I thought, what if I was paralysed? It would explain a lot. A chill went through me.

The next morning she was back.
“My name is Winifred. We don’t know what your name is, not yet. In a few days, you will be better, and you will be able to ask us questions. You were in an accident, and you were very badly injured, but I can assure you there will be no lasting damage.”
More tests, and then, when I expected the lights to go out, they didn’t. Not for a few minutes more. Perhaps this was how I would be integrated back into the world. A little bit at a time.
The next morning, she came later than usual, and I’d been awake for a few minutes. “You have bandages over your eyes and face. You had bad lacerations to your face, and glass in your eyes. We will know more when the bandages come off in a few days. Your face will take longer to heal. It was necessary to do some plastic surgery.”
Lacerations, glass in my eyes, car accident, plastic surgery. By logical deduction, I knew I was the poor bastard thrown through the windscreen. It was a fleeting memory from the day I was admitted.
How could that happen?
That was the first of many startling revelations. The second was the fact I could not remember the crash. Equally shocking, in that same moment was the fact I could not remember before the crash either, and only vague memories after.
But the most shattering of all these revelations was the one where I realised I could not remember my name.
I tried to calm down, sensing a rising panic.
I was just disoriented, I told myself. After 45 days in an induced coma, it had messed with my mind, and it was only a temporary lapse. Yes, that’s what it was, a temporary lapse. I would remember tomorrow. Or the next day.
Sleep was a blessed relief.

The next day I didn’t wake feeling nauseous. Perhaps they’d lowered the pain medication. I’d heard that morphine could have that effect. Then, how could I know that, but not who I am?
I knew now Winifred the nurse was preparing me for something very bad. She was upbeat, and soothing, giving me a new piece of information each morning. This morning, “You do not need to be afraid. Everything is going to be fine. The doctor tells me you are going to recover with very little scarring. You will need some physiotherapy to recover from your physical injuries, but that’s in the future. We need to let you mend a little bit more before then.”
So, I was not going to be able to leap out of bed, and walk out of the hospital any time soon. I don’t suppose I’d ever leapt out of bed, except as a young boy. I suspect I’d sustained a few broken bones. I guess learning to walk again was the least of my problems.
But, there was something else. I picked it up in the timbre of her voice, a hesitation, or reluctance. It sent another chill through me.
This time I was left awake for an hour before she returned.
This time sleep was restless.
There were scenes playing in my mind, nothing I recognised, and nothing lasting longer than a glimpse. Me. Others, people I didn’t know. Or perhaps I knew them and couldn’t remember them.
Until they disappeared, slowly like the glowing dot in the centre of the computer screen, before finally fading to black.

The morning the bandages were to come off she came in bright and early and woken me. I had another restless night, the images becoming clearer, but nothing recognisable.
“This morning the doctor will be removing the bandages over your eyes. Don’t expect an immediate effect. Your sight may come back quickly or it may come back slowly, but we believe it will come back.”
I wanted to believe I was not expecting anything, but I was. It was probably human nature. I did not want to be blind as well as paralysed. I had to have at least one reason to live.
I dozed again until I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I could smell the lavender, the other doctor was back. And I knew the hand on my shoulder was Winifred’s. She told me not to be frightened.
I was amazed to realise in that moment, I wasn’t.
I heard the scissors cutting the bandages.
I felt the bandage being removed, and the pressure coming off my eyes. I could feel the pads covering both eyes.
Then a moment where nothing happened.
Then the pads being gently lift and removed.
Nothing.
I blinked my eyes, once, twice. Nothing.
“Just hold on a moment,” Winifred said. A few seconds later I could feel a cool towel wiping my face, and then gently wiping my eyes. Perhaps there was ointment, or something else in them.
Then a flash. Well, not a flash, but like when a light is turned on and off. A moment later, it was brighter, not the inky blackness of before, but a shade of grey.
She wiped my eyes again.
I blinked a few more times, and then the light returned, and it was like looking through water, at distorted and blurry objects in the distance.
I blinked again, and she wiped my eyes again.
Blurry objects took shape. A face looking down on me, an elderly lady with a kindly face, surely Winifred, who was smiling. And on the opposite side of the bed, the doctor, a Chinese woman of indescribable beauty.
I nodded.
“You can see?”
I nodded again.
“Clearly?”
I nodded.
“Very good. We will just draw the curtains now. We don’t want to overdo it. Tomorrow we will be taking off the bandages on your face. Then, it will be the next milestone. Talking.”
I couldn’t wait.

When morning came, I found myself afraid. Winifred had mentioned scarring, there were bandages on my face. I knew, but wasn’t quite sure how I knew, I wasn’t the handsomest of men before the accident, so this might be an improvement.
I was not sure why I didn’t think it would be the case.
They came at mid morning, the nurse, Winifred, and the doctor, the exquisite Chinese. Perhaps she was the distraction, taking my mind of the reality of what I was about to see.
Another doctor came into the room, before the bandages were removed, and he was introduced as the plastic surgeon that had ‘repaired’ the ravages of the accident. It had been no easy job, but, with a degree of egotism, he did say he was one of the best in the world.
I found it hard to believe, if he was, that he would be at a small country hospital.
“Now just remember, what you might see now is not how you will look in a few months time.”
Warning enough.
The Chinese doctor started removing the bandages. She did it slowly, and made sure it did not hurt. My skin was very tender, and I suspect still bruised, either from the accident or the surgery, I didn’t know.
Then it was done.
The plastic surgeon gave his work a thorough examination and seemed pleased with his work. “Coming along nicely,” he said to the other doctor. He issued some instructions on how to manage the skin, nodded to me, and I thanked him before he left.
I noticed Winifred had a mirror in her hand, and was somewhat reticent in using it. “As I said,” she said noticing me looking at the mirror, “what you see now will not be the final result. The doctor said it was going to heal with very little scarring. You have been very fortunate he was available. Are you ready?”
I nodded.
She showed me.
I tried not to be reviled at the red and purple mess that used to be my face. At a guess I would have to say he had to put it all back together again, but, not knowing what I looked like before, I had no benchmark. All I had was a snippet of memory that told me I was not the tall, dark, and handsome type.
And I still could not talk. There was a reason, he had worked on that area too. Just breathing hurt. I think I would save up anything I had to say for another day. I could not even smile. Or frown. Or grimace.
“We’ll leave you for a while. Everyone needs a little time to get used to the change. I suspect you are not sure if there has been an improvement on last year’s model. Well, time will tell.”
A new face?
I could not remember the old one.
My memory still hadn’t returned.

The first case of PI Walthenson – “A Case of Working With the Jones Brothers”

This case has everything, red herrings, jealous brothers, femme fatales, and at the heart of it all, greed.

See below for an excerpt from the book…

Coming soon!

PIWalthJones1

An excerpt from the book:

When Harry took the time to consider his position, a rather uncomfortable position at that, he concluded that he was somehow involved in another case that meant very little to him.

Not that it wasn’t important in some way he was yet to determine, it was just that his curiosity had got the better of him, and it had led to this: sitting in a chair, securely bound, waiting for someone one of his captors had called Doug.

It was not the name that worried him so much, it was the evil laugh that had come after the name was spoken.

Doug what? Doug the ‘destroyer’, Doug the ‘dangerous’, Doug the ‘deadly’; there was any number of sinister connotations, and perhaps that was the point of the laugh, to make it more frightening than it was.

But there was no doubt about one thing in his mind right then: he’d made a mistake. A very big. and costly, mistake. Just how big the cost, no doubt he would soon find out.

His mother, and his grandmother, the wisest person he had ever known, had once told him never to eavesdrop.

At the time he couldn’t help himself and instead of minding his own business, listening to a one-sided conversation which ended with a time and a place. The very nature of the person receiving the call was, at the very least, sinister, and, because of the cryptic conversation, there appeared to be, or at least to Harry, criminal activity involved.

For several days he had wrestled with the thought of whether he should go. Stay on the fringe, keep out of sight, observe and report to the police if it was a crime. Instead, he had willingly gone down the rabbit hole.

Now, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, several heat lamps hanging over his head, he was perspiring, and if perspiration could be used as a measure of fear, then Harry’s fear was at the highest level.

Another runnel of sweat rolled into his left eye, and, having his hands tied, literally, it made it impossible to clear it. The burning sensation momentarily took his mind off his predicament. He cursed and then shook his head trying to prevent a re-occurrence. It was to no avail.

Let the stinging sensation be a reminder of what was right and what was wrong.

It was obvious that it was the right place and the right time, but in considering his current perilous situation, it definitely was the wrong place to be, at the worst possible time.

It was meant to be his escape, an escape from the generations of lawyers, what were to Harry, dry, dusty men who had been in business since George Washington said to the first Walthenson to step foot on American soil, ‘Why don’t you become a lawyer?” when asked what he could do for the great man.

Or so it was handed down as lore, though Harry didn’t think Washington meant it literally, the Walthenson’s, then as now, were not shy of taking advice.

Except, of course, when it came to Harry.

He was, Harry’s father was prone to saying, the exception to every rule. Harry guessed his father was referring to the fact his son wanted to be a Private Detective rather than a dry, dusty lawyer. Just the clothes were enough to turn Harry off the profession.

So, with a little of the money Harry inherited from one of his aunts, he leased an office in Gramercy Park and had it renovated to look like the Sam Spade detective agency, you know the one, Spade and Archer, and The Maltese Falcon.

There’s a movie and a book by Dashiell Hammett if you’re interested.

So, there it was, painted on the opaque glass inset of the front door, ‘Harold Walthenson, Private Detective’.

There was enough money to hire an assistant, and it took a week before the right person came along, or, more to the point, didn’t just see his business plan as something sinister. Ellen, a tall cool woman in a long black dress, or so the words of a song in his head told him, fitted in perfectly.

She’d seen the movie, but she said with a grin, Harry was no Humphrey Bogart.

Of course not, he said, he didn’t smoke.

Three months on the job, and it had been a few calls, no ‘real’ cases, nothing but missing animals, and other miscellaneous items. What he really wanted was a missing person. Or perhaps a beguiling, sophisticated woman who was as deadly as she was charming, looking for an errant husband, perhaps one that she had already ‘dispatched’.

Or for a tall, dark and handsome foreigner who spoke in riddles and in heavily accented English, a spy, or perhaps an assassin, in town to take out the mayor. The man was such an imbecile Harry had considered doing it himself.

Now, in a back room of a disused warehouse, that wishful thinking might be just about to come to a very abrupt end, with none of the romanticized trappings of the business befalling him. No beguiling women, no sinister criminals, no stupid policemen.

Just a nasty little man whose only concern was how quickly or how slowly Harry’s end was going to be.

© Charles Heath 2019

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

I wandered back to my villa.

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

I looked up and saw the globe was broken.

Instant alert.

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

Who?

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

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

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

Suitably armed, it was time to return the surprise.

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

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

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

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

I stepped in the darkness and closed the door.

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

Silence, an eerie silence.

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

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

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

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

Or was I?

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

Still nothing.

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

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

Contract complete.

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

Crunch.

I stepped on some nutshells.

Not my nutshells.

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

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

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

Two assassins.

I’d not expected that.

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

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

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

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

“Who employed you?”

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

Friends of Bespalov, no doubt.

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

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

 

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

Until I heard a knock on my front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go away now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I expected her to scream.  She didn’t.

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

“What happened here?”

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

“Not so much, looking at your arm.”

She came closer and inspected it.

“Sit down.”

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

“Do you have medical supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alisha?”

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

“That was wrong of her to do that.”

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

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

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

 

© Charles Heath 2018-2020