Inspiration, maybe

50 photographs, 50 stories, of which there is one of the 50 below.

They all start with –

A picture paints … well, as many words as you like.  For instance:

lookingdownfromcoronetpeak

And the story:

It was once said that a desperate man has everything to lose.

The man I was chasing was desperate, but I, on the other hand, was more desperate to catch him.

He’d left a trail of dead people from one end of the island to the other.

The team had put in a lot of effort to locate him, and now his capture was imminent.  We were following the car he was in, from a discrete distance, and, at the appropriate time, we would catch up, pull him over, and make the arrest.

There was nowhere for him to go.

The road led to a dead-end, and the only way off the mountain was back down the road were now on.  Which was why I was somewhat surprised when we discovered where he was.

Where was he going?

“Damn,” I heard Alan mutter.  He was driving, being careful not to get too close, but not far enough away to lose sight of him.

“What?”

“I think he’s made us.”

“How?”

“Dumb bad luck, I’m guessing.  Or he expected we’d follow him up the mountain.  He’s just sped up.”

“How far away?”

“A half-mile.  We should see him higher up when we turn the next corner.”

It took an eternity to get there, and when we did, Alan was right, only he was further on than we thought.”

“Step on it.  Let’s catch him up before he gets to the top.”

Easy to say, not so easy to do.  The road was treacherous, and in places just gravel, and there were no guard rails to stop a three thousand footfall down the mountainside.

Good thing then I had the foresight to have three agents on the hill for just such a scenario.

Ten minutes later, we were in sight of the car, still moving quickly, but we were going slightly faster.  We’d catch up just short of the summit car park.

Or so we thought.

Coming quickly around another corner we almost slammed into the car we’d been chasing.

“What the hell…” Aland muttered.

I was out of the car, and over to see if he was in it, but I knew that it was only a slender possibility.  The car was empty, and no indication where he went.

Certainly not up the road.  It was relatively straightforward for the next mile, at which we would have reached the summit.  Up the mountainside from here, or down.

I looked up.  Nothing.

Alan yelled out, “He’s not going down, not that I can see, but if he did, there’s hardly a foothold and that’s a long fall.”

Then where did he go?

Then a man looking very much like our quarry came out from behind a rock embedded just a short distance up the hill.

“Sorry,” he said quite calmly.  “Had to go if you know what I mean.”

I’d lost him.

It was as simple as that.

I had been led a merry chase up the hill, and all the time he was getting away in a different direction.

I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book, letting my desperation blind me to the disguise that anyone else would see through in an instant.

It was a lonely sight, looking down that road, knowing that I had to go all that way down again, only this time, without having to throw caution to the wind.

“Maybe next time,” Alan said.

“We’ll get him.  It’s just a matter of time.”

© Charles Heath 2019

Find this and other stories in “Inspiration, maybe”  available soon.

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NaNoWriMo – Day 29

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve.

Just not everything I intended to achieve.

But, that’s the nature of writing.

Of course, had I set my sights on a book that needed only 50,000+ words I would have completed the novel by now, and that is the case for the last three years.

This year I set out to push myself and finish a novel that I have been hunting and pecking over for two or three years. It needed something like a NaNoWriMo to screw up the courage to make an attempt to finish it.

At the outset I failed to realise the story was not going to fit in the constraints of 50,000 words. To be honest I had no idea how long it would be, but all I had to do was to let the story tell itself.

It did.

And I discovered the characters didn’t want to fit into a small box, they wanted to grow, they wanted to change, each following a path they never expected to follow.

And I’ve been with them, and they still have a ways to go.

Tomorrow will not be the end of their story.

For the bean counters, todays word count is a little less than the last few days, some 2,641 words, for a running total of 75,530 words.

This is going to be some story when it’s finished!

An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”

In the distance he could hear the dinner bell ringing and roused himself.  Feeling the dampness of the pillow, and fearing the ravages of pent up emotion, he considered not going down but thought it best not to upset Mrs. Mac, especially after he said he would be dining.

In the event, he wished he had reneged, especially when he discovered he was not the only guest staying at the hotel.

Whilst he’d been reminiscing, another guest, a young lady, had arrived.  He’d heard her and Mrs. Mac coming up the stairs, and then shown to a room on the same floor, perhaps at the other end of the passage.

Henry caught his first glimpse of her when she appeared at the door to the dining room, waiting for Mrs. Mac to show her to a table.

She was about mid-twenties, slim, long brown hair, and the grace and elegance of a woman associated with countless fashion magazines.  She was, he thought, stunningly beautiful with not a hair out of place, and make-up flawlessly applied.  Her clothes were black, simple, elegant, and expensive, the sort an heiress or wife of a millionaire might condescend to wear to a lesser occasion than dinner.

Then there was her expression; cold, forbidding, almost frightening in its intensity.  And her eyes, piercingly blue and yet laced with pain.  Dracula’s daughter was his immediate description of her.

All in all, he considered, the only thing they had in common was, like him, she seemed totally out of place.

Mrs. Mac came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  She was, she informed him earlier, chef, waitress, hotelier, barmaid, and cleaner all rolled into one.  Coming up to the new arrival she said, “Ah, Miss Andrews, I’m glad you decided to have dinner.  Would you like to sit with Mr. Henshaw, or would you like to have a table of your own?”

Henry could feel her icy stare as she sized up his appeal as a dining companion, making the hair on the back on his neck stand up.  He purposely didn’t look back.  In his estimation, his appeal rating was minus six.  Out of a thousand!

“If Mr. Henshaw doesn’t mind….”  She looked at him, leaving the query in mid-air.

He didn’t mind and said so.  Perhaps he’d underestimated his rating.

“Good.”  Mrs. Mac promptly ushered her over.  Henry stood, made sure she was seated properly and sat.

“Thank you.  You are most kind.”  The way she said it suggested snobbish overtones.

“I try to be when I can.”  It was supposed to nullify her sarcastic tone but made him sound a little silly, and when she gave him another of her icy glares, he regretted it.

Mrs. Mac quickly intervened, asking, “Would you care for the soup?”

They did, and, after writing the order on her pad, she gave them each a look, imperceptibly shook her head, and returned to the kitchen.

Before Michelle spoke to him again, she had another quick look at him, trying to fathom who and what he might be.  There was something about him.

His eyes, they mirrored the same sadness she felt, and, yes, there was something else, that it looked like he had been crying?  There was a tinge of redness.

Perhaps, she thought, he was here for the same reason she was.

No.  That wasn’t possible.

Then she said, without thinking, “Do you have any particular reason for coming here?”  Seconds later she realized she’s spoken it out loud, had hadn’t meant to actually ask, it just came out.

It took him by surprise, obviously not the first question he was expecting her to ask of him.

“No, other than it is as far from civilization, and home, as I could get.”

At least we agree on that, she thought.

It was obvious he was running away from something as well.

Given the isolation of the village and lack of geographic hospitality, it was, from her point of view, ideal.  All she had to do was avoid him, and that wouldn’t be difficult.

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

A few seconds passed, and she thought she could feel his eyes on her and wasn’t going to look up.

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

Slight abrupt in manner, perhaps as a result of her question, and the manner in which she asked it.

She looked up.  “Rest.  And have some time to myself.”

She hoped he would notice the emphasis she had placed on the word ‘herself’ and take due note.  No doubt, she thought,  she had completely different ideas of what constituted a holiday than he, not that she had actually said she was here for a holiday.

Mrs. Mac arrived at a fortuitous moment to save them from further conversation.

 

Over the entree, she wondered if she had made a mistake coming to the hotel.  Of course, there had been no possible way she could know than anyone else might have booked the same hotel, but realized it was foolish to think she might end up in it by herself.

Was that what she was expecting?

Not a mistake then, but an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could be overcome by being sensible.

Yet, there he was, and it made her curious, not that he was a man, by himself, in the middle of nowhere, hiding like she was, but for very different reasons.

On discreet observance whilst they ate, she gained the impression his air of light-heartedness was forced and he had no sense of humor.

This feeling was engendered by his looks, unruly dark hair, and permanent frown.  And then there was his abysmal taste in clothes on a tall, lanky frame.  They were quality but totally unsuited to the wearer.

Rebellion was written all over him.

The only other thought crossing her mind, and rather incongruously, was he could do with a decent feed.  In that respect, she knew now from the mountain of food in front of her, he had come to the right place.

“Mr. Henshaw?”

He looked up.  “Henshaw is too formal.  Henry sounds much better,” he said, with a slight hint of gruffness.

“Then my name is Michelle.”

Mrs. Mac came in to take their order for the only main course, gather up the entree dishes, then return to the kitchen.

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

Neither looked at the other, rather at the walls, out the window, towards the kitchen, anywhere.  It was, she thought, almost unbearably awkward.

 

Mrs. Mac returned with a large tray with dishes on it, setting it down on the table next to theirs.

“Not as good as the usual cook,” she said, serving up the dinner expertly, “but it comes a good second, even if I do say so myself.  Care for some wine?”

Henry looked at Michelle.  “What do you think?”

“I’m used to my dining companions making the decision.”

You would, he thought.  He couldn’t help but notice the cutting edge of her tone.  Then, to Mrs. Mac, he named a particular White Burgundy he liked and she bustled off.

“I hope you like it,” he said, acknowledging her previous comment with a smile that had nothing to do with humor.

“Yes, so do I.”

Both made a start on the main course, a concoction of chicken and vegetables that were delicious, Henry thought, when compared to the bland food he received at home and sometimes aboard my ship.

It was five minutes before Mrs. Mac returned with the bottle and two glasses.  After opening it and pouring the drinks, she left them alone again.

Henry resumed the conversation.  “How did you arrive?  I came by train.”

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

And he thought, a few seconds later, that was a silly question, otherwise she would not be alone, and certainly not sitting at this table. With him.

“After a fashion.”

He could see that she was formulating a retort in her mind, then changed it, instead, smiling for the first time, and it served to lighten the atmosphere.

And in doing so, it showed him she had another more pleasant side despite the fact she was trying not to look happy.

“My father reckons I’m just another of ‘those’ women drivers,” she added.

“Whatever for?”

“The first and only time he came with me I had an accident.  I ran up the back of another car.  Of course, it didn’t matter to him the other driver was driving like a startled rabbit.”

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

“Mostly people up the wall.”  His attempt at humor failed.  “Actually,” he added quickly, “I’ve got a very old Morris that manages to get me where I’m going.”

The apple pie and cream for dessert came and went and the rapport between them improved as the wine disappeared and the coffee came.  Both had found, after getting to know each other better, their first impressions were not necessarily correct.

“Enjoy the food?” Mrs. Mac asked, suddenly reappearing.

“Beautifully cooked and delicious to eat,” Michelle said, and Henry endorsed her remarks.

“Ah, it does my heart good to hear such genuine compliments,” she said, smiling.  She collected the last of the dishes and disappeared yet again.

“What do you do for a living,” Michelle asked in an off-hand manner.

He had a feeling she was not particularly interested and it was just making conversation.

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

“A purser.  I work on a ship doing the paperwork, that sort of thing.”

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”

“Was?”

“Until I had an accident, a rather bad one.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

As the evening had worn on, he began to think there might be something wrong, seriously wrong with her because she didn’t look too well.  Even the carefully applied makeup, from close up, didn’t hide the very pale, and tired look, or the sunken, dark ringed eyes.

“I try not to think about it, but it doesn’t necessarily work.  I’ve come here for peace and quiet, away from doctors and parents.”

“Then you will not have to worry about me annoying you.  I’m one of those fall-asleep-reading-a-book types.”

Perhaps it would be like ships passing in the night and then smiled to himself about the analogy.

Dinner now over, they separated.

Henry went back to the lounge to read a few pages of his book before going to bed, and Michelle went up to her room to retire for the night.

But try as he might, he was unable to read, his mind dwelling on the unusual, yet the compellingly mysterious person he would be sharing the hotel with.

Overlaying that original blurred image of her standing in the doorway was another of her haunting expressions that had, he finally conceded, taken his breath away, and a look that had sent more than one tingle down his spine.

She may not have thought much of him, but she had certainly made an impression on him.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In a word: Freeze

Yes, if the temperature was 20 degrees below zero and the forecast for the net week was the same, then that would be the big freeze.

In a more understandable way of putting it, to freeze something is to preserve it at a temperature below zero.

Some things don’t freeze, like petrol.

And you want to hope that you put antifreeze in your radiator otherwise you are going to have big problems with your car in winter.

It also means to stand still.

You can also isolate someone by freezing them out.

And freeze in fear, unable to move, like a deer in headlights.

But the worst example of a freeze is when your computer stops, and you forgot to save that 200-page novel, thereby being lost forever.

No.  That would never happen, you had autosave on, didn’t you?

Didn’t you??????????

Freeze is not to be confused with a frieze which is a broad horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, especially on a wall near the ceiling.

Or frees, which in some countries type of football described multiple free kicks, in one sense, and, in another, what you do when you let them go, e.g. he frees the dog.

“One Last Look”, nothing is what it seems

A single event can have enormous consequences.

A single event driven by fate, after Ben told his wife Charlotte he would be late home one night, he left early, and by chance discovers his wife having dinner in their favourite restaurant with another man.

A single event where it could be said Ben was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Who was this man? Why was she having dinner with him?

A simple truth to explain the single event was all Ben required. Instead, Charlotte told him a lie.

A single event that forces Ben to question everything he thought he knew about his wife, and the people who are around her.

After a near-death experience and forced retirement into a world he is unfamiliar with, Ben finds himself once again drawn back into that life of lies, violence, and intrigue.

From London to a small village in Tuscany, little by little Ben discovers who the woman he married is, and the real reason why fate had brought them together.

It is available on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/2CqUBcz

NaNoWriMo – Day 28

In a mad rush to get the story finished, but that now won’t happen in the time frame.

I’m in the middle of the quest to recover the artifacts, and Marigold has so much more to learn about the realm and herself.

And I’ve notice a little of what’s happening in our world here is creeping into the story, and it seems to me that we never seem to learn from our mistakes.

Our leaders, that is. Given a chance to make a real change after a one in a hundred year event, they’re ignoring the possibilities, and trying to consolidate or improve their power over the people.

But I digress…

Some of my disappointment is spilling over, and I’ll to be careful to keep it out.

In my stories, there’s always a happy ending.

For the bean counters, todays word count is 3,226 words, not much less than yeaterday, for a running total of 72,839.

I suspect this story is not going to come out under 120,000, until the first edit of course.

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

“The Price of Fame”, A Short Story

I looked at the invitation, a feeling of dread coming over me.  It was not entirely unexpected but like a great many things that had suddenly come into my life, it caused equal measures of fear and excitement.

The gold edging and the perfect script displaying my name in the exact centre of the envelope made it almost unique.  Very few people ever received such an invitation.

I held it in my hand for a longer than necessary, then put it down on the desk carefully, as if it would explode if I dropped it.

My first instinct, driven by fear, was not to accept.

But, fear or not, there was no question of me not attending.  Circumstances had painted me into a corner; I’d agreed to go a long time ago when I thought there was no chance it would come to pass.

Way back then, I had been compared to the aspiring painter in an attic having to die before I made any sort of impression.  In those days people thought it amusing.  I thought it was amusing.  Kirsty, in particular, had thought it was as impossible as I had.

Now it was not amusing.  Not even remotely.

 

My life was once quiet, peaceful, sedate, even boring.  That didn’t mean I lacked imagination, it was just not out on display for everyone to see.  Inspired by reading endless books, I had the capacity to transport myself into another world, divorced from reality, where my boring existence became whatever I wanted it to be.

It was also instrumental in bringing Kirsty into my life.  In reality, I thought she’d never take a second look at me, let alone a first.  So I pretended to be someone else.  Original, witty, charming, underneath more scared than I’d ever known.

And yet she knew, she’d always known and didn’t care.

As we spent more time together, she discovered I liked to write, not finish anything, just start, write a hundred pages, then lose interest.  Like everything I did.  Start, and never finish.

Why not?  It would never be published.  It would never succeed.

So she bribed me.  If I didn’t finish my first book and send it away, I couldn’t marry her.  It didn’t matter if it was rejected, all I had to do was finish a book, and send it.

The thought of marrying her had not entered my mind, because I hadn’t thought she would.  Incentive enough, I picked out one of the unfinished manuscripts and humoured her.  She read bits of it, not saying a word.  Sometimes she’d put a note or two on the manuscript, her equivalent to sweet nothings, and with it I gained inner confidence in my own ability, not only to write but in many other aspects of my life.

When it was finished, it was Kirsty who sent it off.  She read it, packaged it, addressed it, and sent it before I had a chance to change her mind.  Once gone, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  It was done. That was, as far as I was concerned, the end of it.

 

It was not possible that one letter could change a person’s life so dramatically.  I came home to the all-knowing smile, and mischievous whimsicality that had always suggested trouble.

Trouble indeed!

My book was accepted.  With a cheque called an advance.  For more money than I knew what to do with.

This was followed not long after by publication.  And a dramatic change to my life, one I didn’t want.  To become a public person, to face an enormous number of people, people I didn’t know.

I went back to being scared.

 

Kirsty smiled at me and told me how wonderful I looked in my monkey suit.  Why couldn’t I go in jeans and a dress shirt?  All the best actors in Hollywood did it.

“This is not Hollywood.  You’re not an actor.”  It was a simple, practical, answer.

The hell I wasn’t.  I could act sick, dying, fake a heart attack, anything.  “What am I going to say?”

“You could talk about books.”  Quiet, efficient, oozing the confidence I didn’t feel.

She didn’t fuss.  She took it in her stride.  She dressed in her usual simple elegance, in a manner that made me love to be seen with her.  I couldn’t tie my tie, so she did it for me.  She straightened my jacket because I couldn’t do that either.  Nerves.  Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.  Or was that a reference to wives, or mistresses, or something else?

The palms of my hands were sweating.  Meatball hands, I thought, the sort of palms that betrayed the pretenders.  Me, I was the pretender.  My neck felt too large for the shirt.  Beads of sweat formed on my brow.  Where was a sponge when you needed one?

“I can’t do this.”

“You can.”

We hadn’t even left the hotel yet.

“How long before the execution.”

She looked at me with her whimsical smile.  “Long enough for me to give you a hard time.”

 

I lost count of the number of times I had to go to the bathroom, for one thing, or another.  Nerves I said.  Perhaps a dozen Valium or something similar.  Did I have any?  Had she hidden them?  Why did she keep smiling?

In the car, I looked at my watch at least a dozen times.  I couldn’t breathe.  It was too hot, too cold.  She held my hand, and it served best to stop the trembling that had set in.  Why did I agree to this?  Why?

We were greeted by the Events Manager, who was polite and genuinely interested.  He took us inside where he introduced the interviewer, another woman who oozed confidence and charm, who went over the format and generally tried to set me at ease.

I didn’t let Kirsty’s hand go.  Not yet.  She was my lifeline, the umbilical cord.  When it was severed, I knew I was going to die.

Bathroom?  Where was the bathroom?  Hell, five minutes to go, and I felt like passing out.  No, Kirsty couldn’t come in.  Comb my hair.  Straighten my tie, no it was straight.  Maybe I could hide in here?  I looked around.  No, maybe not.

Time.

The cue man was standing beside me, hand gently on my back.  He knew the score.  He knew I would turn and run the first chance I got.  Kirsty was on the other side, smiling.  Did she know too?

Then the announcement, my cue to walk on.

The gentle shove, the bright lights, the deafening applause, the seemingly endless walk to the chair, dear God, would I make it without tripping over?

How many times had I made this trip?  I stood, facing the audience, waved, then sat.  It was the fifteenth.  You’d think I’d learned by now.

There was nothing to it.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019