Writing about writing a book – a novel twist

I have decided to write about the process for me to write a book, working on the book at the same time.  The character writing the book is fictional and bears no relation to me, well, mostly not.

You will join me on the rollercoaster.

It will be appearing a bit at a time over the coming months, with the first instalment below.

Day One

I woke to a day where the sun was shining through the crack in the curtains.  It was not so much the brightness, but the fact it was moving, the gentle breeze moving the curtains and creating a strobing effect.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.

I was about to start the next Pulitzer Prize for literature.  Or something like that.

For so many years now my life had been weighed down by the monotony of a job I hated, a life that was going nowhere, and the pursuit of that no existent fortune that I believed was the answer to all my problems.

Those prayers to the great God Money were never heeded.

So, contrary to the well-meaning advice everyone gave me, I ignored them all, sold off the albatross around my neck, a house with a gigantic mortgage attached, and moved into a small but comfortable garret in a picturesque part of town.

It was called a ‘renovators’ delight.  What did it matter the wallpaper was peeling the paint fading and the carpet had seen better days.

It was mine.

Whether or not in the coming days, weeks, or months, I was a ‘renovator’ would be interesting.

My wife, Anne, had often said I wouldn’t know which end of the hammer to use.

Oh, and did I tell you, I moved on from her, or probably it was the other way around.  I’d let her down one too many times, she said, and found someone else more ‘reliable’.

Good for her, my brother had always said she deserved someone better, and it surprised me the marriage lasted as long as it did.  I still loved her, I always would.

I sprung out of bed and opened the curtains.  Spread out in front of me was a blue sky, bright sunshine casting its glow over the park and gardens opposite.

On my darkest days, I used to sit on a bench and watch the ducks swimming in the pond.  I wanted a carefree life like they had, and that was my dream.

Now I was living the dream.

Or would be till the money ran out.

I had enough for a year.

The second bedroom was the writing room.  The walls were lined with shelves, books by my favourite authors, books on writing, all dog-eared and well-read.

The typewriter was sitting on the desk waiting for the first words to be written.

I had a computer, but I was not going to use it for the second draft.

I had a supply of writing pads.  Like the great authors, I was going to write the first draft by hand, revise, and then type it.

I was going to be old school.

 

I sat down, picked up a pen, and scratched my head.

I began writing, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.

That was a far as I got.

Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.

Perhaps after coffee and toast …

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 10

It’s still a battle of wits, but our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because the enemy if it is the enemy, doesn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Nor does it help when his old mentor walks through the door.

 

I don’t like surprises.  This dislike had started with a surprise birthday party about 10 years ago and since then I’ve assiduously tried to avoid them.

Of course, there are also surprises you have no control over, and I liked them even less.

Bluff and bravado would only carry me so far.  These people whoever they were would not accept that I knew nothing about what had just happened.

Which I didn’t.

It was not the A interrogation team with a chest full of torture tools and dressed in hazmat suits, but when the harbinger of my fate walked into the room, it was something a lot scarier.

A man I knew well or thought I did until he walked in the door, I had the utmost respected for.

Colonel Bamfield.  My first Commanding Officer, the man who cut me some slack, and made me into a soldier.

Now, all I had was questions, but I was on the wrong side of the table.

The first, what the hell was going on here?

My first inclination was to stand and salute a superior officer, but he was not wearing the uniform, not the proper uniform I was used to seeing him in.  My second inclination was to ask him what he was doing in that room with me, but I didn’t.

Speak when spoken to, and don’t volunteer information.

He too tried the silent treatment, or maybe it was that he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

Then, still standing behind the table, looking down on me, he said, “That was some jump you made from a moving helicopter.”  Was there a touch of admiration in his tone?

“Life or death.  Anyone one else is that situation would do the same.”

“Less than you’d think.”

Establishing camaraderie.  Or trying to.  I waited for the next question.

It wasn’t a question but a statement, “We have a problem Alan, and it’s not just with you.”

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to write a war story – Episode 1

It’s the story that was inspired by the Castello di Briolio, which had small aspirations when first conceived, but now it’s reached a point where we need to fill in a few blanks at the start.

“You have got the guards set up on the back wall,” I asked Jackerby, the officer in charge of the rearguards.

“Can you see them?” he said in a tone that dripped sarcasm.

I didn’t like Jackerby, he seemed far too sure of himself and his men, and so far, we hadn’t had to rely on them.

But I expected that time was coming, and sooner than both of us wanted to believe.

“No.”

“Then no one else will either.  Trust me; no one will be coming over the back wall.”

That was a matter of opinion, and, in my assessment of the fortifications, and the security precautions, the only way the enemy could attack us, was from the sky.

And that was, given the current situation the enemy was in, practically impossible.  But, as my old commander used to say, ‘This is war, anything is possible, and when you least expect it.’

I’d survived four years of it, and didn’t want to be one of those who didn’t make it to the end.  For that reason, I trusted no one, particularly people who said ‘trust me’.

I glanced along the back wall again, just to make sure, but it didn’t make me feel any safer.

“I’ll be in the command post if you need me, and it has a clear view of anything coming.”

“Excellent,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt.

We were in an old castle, though not strictly speaking a real castle, built only a few hundred years ago.  It was an enemy stronghold up until a month ago when, acting on advice from the local resistance that the enemy strength had dropped as they had begun to retreat, a strike force came and liberated it.

And, given its strategic position between the front line and the sea, it became a gateway for anyone who wanted to escape the Germans and what was left of the Italians.

That also included departing boffins from the Reich, looking to bargain their way to a new home in England or the US.

To oversee that operation was a Colonel called Johansson, along with a dozen or so specialist soldiers, and the operation had been running smoothly.

Then came an attempted incursion, where a group of enemy soldiers who were fighting to the end, made a brave attempt to take the castle back.,  They failed, because of a twelfth-hour arrival of a Major called Jackerby, and a small motley crew of men.

When I read the report after the battle, it seemed odd.

As a result of his help, Jackerby was recruited by Johansson, in circumstances that seemed a little too coincidental for my liking.  Johansson was too easygoing for me, and although he had not made a mistake, yet, I felt sure one was going to happen on my watch.

I came later, sent by Command to ‘lend assistance where possible’ to the operation, assistance the good Colonel took no pains to tell command he didn’t need.  But they didn’t give him a choice.

Except…

On my way there, my driver and I had almost reached the castle when we were caught in a roadside bomb.  The driver was killed, and I’d been saved by a dog, one we had found on the side of the road, badly in need of water, and food.

I had brought him with me.  The thought of doing so, at the time, had been on the end of a single idea, a dog could not betray me, men and women could.  And the fact its name was Jack seemed to me to be rather poetic, if not somewhat ironic in the circumstances.

There was a communication in my pocket, one I’d received earlier in the afternoon, sent in a one-time code no one but I could decode.

A warning of a second attempt on the castle by the enemy, but for reasons unknown.

Tonight.

Jack and I were in the guard tower at the southwestern corner of the castle.  It overlooked the valley and gave a clear view of anyone or anything coming from that quadrant.  If I was going to retake the castle, that’s where I’d launch an attack from.

Of course, if it came by air, you’d expect to hear it.

I didn’t, but Jack did.  He suddenly stood and made a small moaning noise, as if he knew quiet communication was needed.  The stiffness in his body told me there was danger lurking.

Then I saw it, just as I came out of the guardhouse onto the gravel path, the moonlight shining of very large wings, and for a moment it didn’t make sense until I realized it was a glider.

Silent.  It passed, and behind I could see parachutes, then the sound of boots on the gravel walkways just down from the tower.  A precision flight and precision landing of a dozen stormtroopers.

And Jackerby’s guards were nowhere to be seen.

© Charles Heath 2018-2022

The cinema of my dreams – It all started in Venice – Episode 1

When you least expect it

I was minding my own business, as the saying goes.

Having made my mark on the world, I had retired from a world that I hardly recognized as what had once been.

Pandemics, political games, countries on the brink of disaster, and what could be called a world gone mad seemed to be the new normal, though it was hard to say what the old normal was.

So, I let all flow on past me, like water under the bridge, much the same that I was now standing on, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, the second to last whistle-stop on what had been a long respite from the real world.

I’d also been lamenting the death of the only woman I’d ever loved and for a long time the only thing that made sense.

She was with me always, in life and in death, reminding me that she would not want me to simply give up on life.  Sometimes those words fell on deaf ears, but today was a good day.

She had always loved Venice and we always came for the Carnival, but this was the first year I’d missed it.  It would not be the same without her.

After a while I moved on, over the bridge, heading back to the apartment, one of several in the major cities we traveled to often, Paris, London, Istanbul, and Vienna to name a few.

I stopped at a Cafe, one we often did when Violetta was alive, and the owner served me himself.  It was, coincidentally, where Violetta and I first met, a story in itself

Then it was back home.

There were certain instincts I had, acquired when I lived in another world, and one was telling me something was not right.

I looked up and down the street but everything seemed normal.  It was part of the city where cars were permitted, though I chose not to have one.

I shrugged.  Perhaps my instincts were wrong, after all, it had been a long time since I’d needed them.

As I approached the front door to the building, I could see a man come from the opposite side of the street, heading towards the same doorway.  He’d timed it to arrive at the same time.

Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but he did not look like a resident or a visitor.

“Mr. Wallace?”

As I went to put the key in the lock, he called out, his timing not quite getting him to the front door.  Perhaps that was because I’d quickened my pace.

I was going to ignore him, but something told me not to.  He seemed familiar.

I turned, just as he reached me.

“Mr. Wallace?”

“Who wants to Know?”

“Alfie Simkins.  Who I work for is irrelevant, but we need to have a short discussion.”

OK, the irrelevant reference told me everything I needed to know.  It was my past, coming back to haunt me.

“About what?”

“Nothing I would care to utter in the street.”

I gave him one of those long hard stares, the one known to unnerve even the hardest of opponents, but he didn’t flinch.

I knew his sort, and he was the last person I wanted to talk to.  But just to make sure he was who he was intimating he was…

“Who sent you?”

“Rodby.”

And there it was.  That blast from the past, a name I had hoped I’d never hear again.

I opened the door and he followed me in, then up the elevator to the third floor.  At the time I could not afford the top floor, but it was comfortable enough, even if the view was somewhat limited.

He’d barely made it through the door before I asked, “I need some proof…”

“That I’m not an assassin, he said you’d require it.  Two words, Alan McWhirter.”

There was a name I hadn’t heard in a long time, almost twenty years, my original name, lost after becoming so many different people.  There had been times when I hardly knew who I was myself.

Now it was only a matter of what Rodby wanted, usually the impossible.

“How is he?  He must be about a hundred years old by now.”  He was close to that when I first met him, oh so long ago.

“Still comes into the office every day, still sharp as a tack as they say.”

The man would never die or lose his marbles.

“So, what’s this about?”

“A recording a surveillance team made and which they thought held no significance.”

“But Rodby did.”

“One of the analysts, you might remember her, Wendy Tucker, thought it might be relevant so she raised a flag.”

I did remember her, and by now she would be as old as I was and probably the only surviving member of the old team.  But my memories of her were for other reasons.

“Yes, and I’m surprised she’s still there.”

“She heard your name, and another, but perhaps I should play the recording and then comment on it.”

He put his phone on the bench and played it.

A male voice accented, eastern European I thought, spoke first.  “I’m told you knew a man named Egan Watts.”

“There’s a name I never expected to hear again.”  A female voice and one I thought I recognized.

“Then you did know him?”

“Briefly, and not all that well.  He and I went to an industry function once after we met in rather unusual circumstances, but whatever it was, it didn’t last long.  He put work before anything else, so we parted.”

“Amicably?”

“Yes.  For a while after we crossed paths, had dinner, you know.”

It had been a time when I’d been in recovery and retraining and had time for such a relationship.  Nothing permanent, but just fun.  She hadn’t been looking for anything permanent either.

“So you would know him now?”

“God no.  It’s been a long time, and last I heard, he was married and traveling the world.”

“His wife died.  Now he’s in Venice.  We’d like you to pick up where you left off.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” she said.  “Chances are he’s moved on and forgotten all about me.”

“Be that as it may, this isn’t a request.  We ask you to do, or there will be consequences.”

Silence, perhaps a moment to reflect on exactly what those consequences might be, then, “What for?”

“That’s none of your concern.  All you are required to do is rekindle your relationship.  How you do it is your business, but you better go and pack for a long stay.”

Juliet Ambrose. 

I remembered the voice, and the distinctiveness of its soft Irish accent, almost mesmerizing.

She had been one of the doctors supervising my recovery and she seemed to be out of sorts, so I’d asked her out to dinner, and talk if she wanted to.  She didn’t, but one thing led to another…

That’s where Alfie stopped the recording.

“Good to know then,” I said, ” it’s time to leave Venice and move on.”  The expression on Alfie’s face told me that was not what was going to happen.  “Or…”

“The man in the conversation is Larry Pomisor, a key figure in the Waterville organization.”

That said, it all came back to me in a flood.  An assignment that specifically targeted Larry’s brother Andre, and how spectacularly it failed.  Andre had been killed, which was the mission objective, but so had his wife and children, which was not, and Larry had sworn to find his killer.

Apparently, he now had.

“Then if he regards me as the perpetrator, then you and Rodby both know Larry is going to honor a promise he made.  Surely this is all Rodby needs to put him behind bars.”  I knew Rodby could not have Larry ‘removed’ like he could once.

“It’s not that straightforward.  If we were to go in with what we know, it would burn our source, so for the time being Rodby wants you to play along, find out what he intends to do, and we’ll swoop in and round them all up.”

The man had enthusiasm, I’ll give him that, but no idea what might happen if it all went wrong; that there will be a lot of pain and suffering involved.  Larry was not a man to miss hitting the first time.

“All good intentions I’m sure, but both of you seem to forget I don’t work for him, or the government, anymore.”

“He never rescinded your file.  As far as anyone knows you’re still on the active list.  It’s just for a short time until we make all the connections.  Clearly, while the girl is courting you nothing is going to happen, and we’ll have eyes on all the major players.  All he’s asking is for you to play a role.”

It seemed to me my whole life had been one long screenplay.  And it was never that simple.

“If I say no?”

“Then I’m sure he’ll arrive on your doorstep and personally ask you to return the favor”

Yes, I’d expected that.  He may have agreed very reluctantly to my retirement, but it had always come with a caveat.

“Just this once then.”  There would be no getting around it.

“Of course.  I assume that we have permission to install eyes and ears here?”

An inconvenience, but necessary.  I nodded.  “But I am considering going to Paris, and then to New York.  She might ask to come with me.”

“Wouldn’t you simply stay put and make them come to you?  Besides, why would you take anyone actively assisting in a plan to kill you anywhere?”

Good point.  “Perhaps we’ll see what happens,  I have to get back home sometime.”

“Then give us the addresses and we’ll take care of the rest.  Oh, and the plane.  Just in case.”

I shook my head.  I guess I could say goodbye to privacy for the next few weeks.

© Charles Heath 2022

I’m trying to write a period piece

Televison is a great recorder of the past, and most channels, and especially cable tv have great libraries of films that go back more than a hundred years.

And, whilst it’s possible that modern day films and television series can try to recapture the past, the English as an exception being very good at it, often it is impossible to capture it correctly.

But, if you have a film shot in the moment, then you have a visual record of what life, and what was once part of our world before you in all it’s dated glory. The pity of it is that, then, we never appreciated it.

After all, in those particular times, who had the time to figuratively stop and smell the roses. Back then as life was going on, we were all tied up with just trying to get through each day.

Years later, often on reflection, we try to remember the old days, and, maybe, remember some of what it was like, but the chances are that change came far too rapidly, and often too radical, that it erases what we thought we knew existed before.

My grandmothers house is a case in point. In it’s place is a multi lane super highway, and there’s nothing left to remind us, or anyone of it, just some old sepia photographs.

I was reminded of how volatile history really is when watching an old documentary, in black and white, and how the city I grew up in used to look.

Then, even though it seemed large to me then, it was a smaller city, with suburbs that stretched about ten or so miles in every direction, and the outer suburbs were where people moved to get a larger block, and countrified atmosphere.

Now, those outer suburbs are no longer spacious properties, the acreage subdivided and the old owners now much richer for a decision made with profit not being the motivator, and the current suburban sprawl is now out to forty or fifty miles.

The reason for the distance is no longer the thought of open spaces and cleaner air, the reason for moving now is that land further out is cheaper, and can make buying that first house more affordable.

This is where I tip my hat to the writers of historical fiction. I myself am writing a story based in the 1970s, and its difficult to find what is and isn’t time specific.

If only I had a dollar for every time I went to write the character pulling out his or her mobile phone.

What I’ve found is the necessity to research, and this has amounted to finding old films, documentaries of the day, and a more fascinating source of information, the newspapers of the day.

The latter especially has provoked a lot of memories and a lot of stuff I thought I’d forgotten, some of it by choice, but others that were poignant.

Yes, and don’t get me started on the distractions.

If only I’d started this project earlier…

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

‘Sunday in New York’ – A beta reader’s view

I’m not a fan of romance novels but …

There was something about this one that resonated with me.

This is a novel about a world generally ruled by perception, and how people perceive what they see, what they are told, and what they want to believe.

I’ve been guilty of it myself as I’m sure we all have at one time or another.

For the main characters Harry and Alison there are other issues driving their relationship.

For Alison, it is a loss of self-worth through losing her job and from losing her mother and, in a sense, her sister.

For Harry, it is the fact he has a beautiful and desirable wife, and his belief she is the object of other men’s desires, and one in particular, his immediate superior.

Between observation, the less than honest motives of his friends, a lot of jumping to conclusions based on very little fact, and you have the basis of one very interesting story.

When it all comes to a head, Alison finds herself in a desperate situation, she realises only the truth will save their marriage.

But is it all the truth?

What would we do in similar circumstances?

Rarely does a book have me so enthralled that I could not put it down until I knew the result. They might be considered two people who should have known better, but as is often the case, they had to get past what they both thought was the truth.

And the moral of this story, if it could be said there is one, nothing is ever what it seems.

Available on Amazon here: amzn.to/2H7ALs8

An excerpt from “Betrayal” – a work in progress

It could have been anywhere in the world, she thought, but it wasn’t.  It was in a city where if anything were to go wrong…

She sighed and came away from the window and looked around the room.  It was quite large and expensively furnished.  It was one of several she had been visiting in the last three months.

Quite elegant too, as the hotel had its origins dating back to before the revolution in 1917.  At least, currently, there would not be a team of KGB agents somewhere in the basement monitoring everything that happened in the room.

There was no such thing as the KGB anymore, though there was an FSB, but such organisations were of no interest to her.

She was here to meet with Vladimir.

She smiled to herself when she thought of him, such an interesting man whose command of English was as good as her command of Russian, though she had not told him of that ability.

All he knew of her was that she was American, worked in the Embassy as a clerk, nothing important, whose life both at work and at home was boring.  Not that she had blurted that out the first tie she met, or even the second.

That first time, at a function in the Embassy, was a chance meeting, a catching of his eye as he looked around the room, looking, as he had told her later, for someone who might not be as boring as the function itself.

It was a celebration, honouring one of the Embassy officials on his service in Moscow, and the fact he was returning home after 10 years.  She had been there once, and still hadn’t met all the staff.

They had talked, Vladimir knew a great deal about England, having been stationed there for a year or two, and had politely asked questions about where she lived, her family, and of course what her role was, all questions she fended off with an air of disinterested interest.

It fascinated him, as she knew it would, a sort of mental sparring as one would do with swords if this was a fencing match.

They had said they might or might not meet again when the party was over, but she suspected there would be another opportunity.  She knew the signs of a man who was interested in her, and Vladimir was interested.

The second time came in the form of an invitation to an art gallery, and a viewing of the works of a prominent Russian artist, an invitation she politely declined.  After all, invitations issued to Embassy staff held all sorts of connotations, or so she was told by the Security officer when she told him.

Then, it went quiet for a month.  There was a party at the American embassy and along with several other staff members, she was invited.  She had not expected to meet Vladimir, but it was a pleasant surprise when she saw him, on the other side of the room, talking to several military men.

A pleasant afternoon ensued.

And it was no surprise that they kept running into each other at the various events on the diplomatic schedule.

By the fifth meeting, they were like old friends.  She had broached the subject of being involved in a plutonic relationship with him with the head of security at the embassy.  Normally for a member of her rank, it would not be allowed, but in this instance it was.

She did not work in any sensitive areas, and, as the security officer had said, she might just happen upon something that might be useful.  In that regard, she was to keep her eyes and ears open and file a report each time she met him.

After that discussion, she got the impression her superiors considered Vladimir more than just a casual visitor on the diplomatic circuit.  She also formed the impression that he might consider her an ‘asset’, a word that had been used at the meeting with security and the ambassador.

It was where the word ‘spy’ popped into her head and sent a tingle down her spine.  She was not a spy, but the thought of it, well, it would be fascinating to see what happened.

A Russian friend.  That’s what she would call him.

And over time, that relationship blossomed, until, after a visit to the ballet, late and snowing, he invited her to his apartment not far from the ballet venue.  It was like treading on thin ice, but after champagne and an introduction to caviar, she felt like a giddy schoolgirl.

Even so, she had made him promise that he remain on his best behaviour.  It could have been very easy to fall under the spell of a perfect evening, but he promised, showed her to a separate bedroom, and after a brief kiss, their first, she did not see him until the next morning.

So, it began.

It was an interesting report she filed after that encounter, one where she had expected to be reprimanded.

She wasn’t.

It wasn’t until six weeks had passed when he asked her if she would like to take a trip to the country.  It would involve staying in a hotel, that they would have separate rooms.  When she reported the invitation, no objection was raised, only a caution; keep her wits about her.

Perhaps, she had thought, they were looking forward to a more extensive report.  After all, her reports on the places, and the people, and the conversations she overheard, were no doubt entertaining reading for some.

But this visit was where the nature of the relationship changed, and it was one that she did not immediately report.  She had realised at some point before the weekend away, that she had feelings for him, and it was not that he was pushing her in that direction or manipulating her in any way.

It was just one of those moments where, after a grand dinner, a lot of champagne, and delightful company, things happen.  Standing at the door to her room, a lingering kiss, not intentional on her part, and it just happened.

And for not one moment did she believe she had been compromised, but for some reason she had not reported that subtle change in the relationship to the powers that be, and so far, no one had any inkling.

She took off her coat and placed it carefully of the back of one of the ornate chairs in the room.  She stopped for a moment to look at a framed photograph on the wall, one representing Red Square.

Then, after a minute or two, she went to the mini bar and took out the bottle of champagne that had been left there for them, a treat arranged by Vladimir for each encounter.

There were two champagne flutes set aside on the bar, next to a bowl of fruit.  She picked up the apple and thought how Eve must have felt in the garden of Eden, and the temptation.

Later perhaps, after…

She smiled at the thought and put the apple back.

A glance at her watch told her it was time for his arrival.  It was if anything, the one trait she didn’t like, and that was his punctuality.  A glance at the clock on the room wall was a minute slow.

The doorbell to the room rang, right on the appointed time.

She put the bottle down and walked over to the door.

A smile on her face, she opened the door.

It was not Vladimir.  It was her worst nightmare.

© Charles Heath 2020

Searching for locations: From X’ian to Zhengzhou dong by bullet train, China

Lunch and then off on another high-speed train

We walked another umpteen miles from the exhibition to a Chinese restaurant that is going to serve us Chinese food again with a beer and a rather potent pomegranate wine that has a real kick.  It was definitely value for money at 60 yuan per person.

But perhaps the biggest thrill, if it could be called that, was discovering downstairs, the man who discovered the original pieces of a terracotta soldier when digging a well.  He was signing books bought in the souvenir store, but not those that had been bought elsewhere.

Some of is even got photographed with him.  Fifteen minutes of fame moment?  Maybe.

After lunch, it was off to the station for another high-speed train ride, this time for about two and a half hours, from X’ian to Zhangzhou dong.

It’s the standard high-speed train ride and the usual seat switching because of weird allocation issues, so a little confusion reigns until the train departs at 5:59.

Once we were underway it didn’t take long before we hit the maximum speed

Twenty minutes before arrival, and knowing we only have three minutes to get off everyone is heading for the exit clogging up the passageway.  It wasn’t panic but with the three-minute limit, perhaps organized panic would be a better description.

As it turned out, with all the cases near the door, the moment to door opened one of our group got off, and the other just started putting cases on the platform, and in doing so we were all off in 42 seconds with time to spare.

And this was despite the fact there were about twenty passengers just about up against the door trying to get in.  I don’t think they expected to have cases flying off the train in their direction.

We find our way to the exit and our tour guide Dannie.  It was another long walk to the bus, somewhat shabbier from the previous day, no leg room, no pocket, no USB charging point like the day before.  Disappointing.

On the way from the station to the hotel, the tour guide usually gives us a short spiel on the next day’s activities, but instead, I think we got her life history and a song, delivered in high pitched and rapid Chinglish that was hard to understand.

Not at this hour of the night to an almost exhausted busload of people who’d had enough from the train.  Oh, did I forgot the singing, no, it was an interesting rendition of ‘you are my sunshine’.

The drive was interesting in that it mostly in the dark.  There was no street lighting and in comparison to X’ian which was very bright and cheerful, this was dark and gloomy.

Then close to the hotel our guide said that if we had any problems with the room, she would be in the lobby for half an hour.

That spoke volumes about the hotel they put us in.

The cinema of my dreams – Was it just another surveillance job – Episode 58

This story is now on the list to be finished so over the new few weeks, expect a new episode every few days.

The reason why new episodes have been sporadic, there are also other stories to write, and I’m not very good at prioritizing.

But, here we are, a few minutes opened up and it didn’t take long to get back into the groove.

Things are about to get complicated…


“You’re not a target.  Yet.”

“Severin?”

“A loose end who was a rather bad blunt instrument, like his friend Maury.  They learned of a plan to steal some military secrets, tried to stop it and in the end almost destroyed 12 months of painstaking undercover work.  O’Connell had it within his grasp, and therefore in safe hands when those two wrecked a perfectly good retrieval.  Four potential agents dead and then there’s you, persistent I will admit, and one other, Jennifer, I believe her name is.”

“But you don’t have O’Connell, do you?”

“My, you have been working hard.  My first mistake was to trust O’Connell.  My second was to underestimate you, Jackson.  I don’t intend to make a third.  You don’t trust me, do you?”

Was it possible I’d get some version of the truth?

“Apparently he didn’t for some reason.”

“You found him.  Jan said you were being all secretive.  There was something you found in that flat in Peaslake.”

“No.  He told me that in the alley.” 

I sensed he knew way more than I did, but I had a missing piece, and he was going to play nice to get it.   The thing is, I didn’t know what that was.  Not the whole truth from me.

“Yes.  Of course, he did.”

“Perhaps it was self-preservation, not that it did much since someone did shoot him.”

“Not with the intention of killing him.  It was all arranged.”

“You knew he would be at that alley?”

“One of three escape routes.  Neither of us anticipated you would be good enough to follow him.  Severin got lucky with you, probably why he made you the lead.”

Severin hadn’t said as much when he told the group before the exercise began, that I would take point.  I thought it was simply because in the prior five tests, I’d only failed one.  Everyone else had varying results.

“Have you seen the CCTV footage of the explosion?”

“Several times.  It must have been harrowing for you to relive that and see how close you came.”

“It did.  But it did afford a view that I missed while preoccupied.  McConnell and the wife of the scientist I believe stole the formulas.”

“Yes, Anna.   What do you make of her?”

“From a single glimpse?”

“A good agent doesn’t need much to form an opinion.  As you know, that opinion could be the difference between life and death.”

He was starting to sound like Severin.  He said we had to be able to judge a book by its cover and make the right decision based on it.  What did I think of Anna?

“Capable, determined.  She survived an explosion that might well have been directed at her.  Not your average scientist’s wife. “

“Did you check her out?”

“Not yet.  I had this thing with Severin.”

“What did he want?”

“I don’t know.  Jan killed him before he could tell me.”

“A guess?”

“He wanted to come in from the cold before he ended up like Maury.  He knew his days were numbered.  It also means that he knew something that someone didn’t want to be repeated.  You, perhaps?  I mean, you can help make the connection.  Your idea for Jan to get his confidence?”

“Hers.  She’s a good agent, so don’t worry about her.  Find O’Connell.  When you do, you will find Anna, and perhaps, a copy of that USB.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then the department has lost five million pounds.”

© Charles Heath 2020-2023