A story inspired by Castello di Brolio – Episode 34

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

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

And, so, it continues…

 

We gathered up what food there was to take with us.  There were no weapons left behind.  Leonardo had assumed correctly we would have used them if they’d been left there.

Carlo had changed slowly into an automaton, and I guess if I could read his mind, I’d know exactly what he was thinking.  Enrico had attached himself to Carlo, and I knew Carlo would look after him.

When I said that the burials would have to wait, Carlo agreed.

We had a short discussion on what we would be doing next, and in the first instance, we would be going back to the other soldiers and the church.  There, with both of our knowledge of the castle, its entrances, secret or otherwise, and the internal passageways which I knew Wallace and the others there were not too familiar with, we would formulate a plan to go in and pick them off one by one.

It seemed a good plan when we first talked about it, but on the way back to the church, and I had time to consider how it would work, it seemed we would only get an advantage once, and we would have to kill or capture as many as we could in the first raid.

Then it was going to be difficult.

Unless Carlo knew of more places we could enter the castle without being seen or heard.

I only knew of three.

And the first post we had to hit, and silence, the radio room.



My war had not been as start or as terrifying as most of those whom I’d known or worked with.  My part was more selective, finding and eliminating spies, informers, and enemy cells on home territory.  

Sometimes that would extend into enemy territory, particularly France where, as one who could speak French fluently, I found myself working with the resistance, using intelligence gathered by a network of spies we had, not only in France but in all parts of enemy territory.  That also meant, sometimes, accompanying weapons and other supplies into enemy territory.

It hadn’t included anything like what I’d just seen back at the underground cavern.

I’d been told, often, about the enemy executing whole villages, and large groups as retaliation for resistance operations that killed German soldiers, and particularly officers, but I’d not seen it first-hand.

Now I had.

I’d been told, along with the others who had been at the training camp way back at the start of the war, that we would inevitably see atrocities.  Those instructors, men who had survived the first war, were speaking from experience.  We were told it would make us angry.  It had.  I had this immediate thought of doing as much damage as I could to the perpetrators of that massacre.

But we had also been told that we had to harness that anger, and use it to drive our actions, bot in a reckless manner, but with a measured calm and with planning.  Blind rage, which had been predicted, would only get us killed.

I had left the cavern at the blind rage stage, but the walk to the church wore some of that off, and I began to piece together the seeds of a plan to get our revenge.  We were only a small group, but even so, we could work more efficiently than those at the castle. 

Leonardo was not going to tell Wallace that he hadn’t captured or killed me in his ambush, but it might make Wallace think that my ability to retaliate would be weakened.  Leonardo would know that Carlo and I were still alive.  He would not know about Blinky and his men.

It would be interesting to see if Wallace would commit any of his men to hunt us down, send Leonardo back out to finish the job, or just wait until Meyer turned up.  His contact in Gaole would know about the castle’s change of allegiance, but he would not know that Martina was not going to be there to greet them when they arrived in the village.

That was several days away.  We would have to be there, but it was going to be dangerous unless we found a way to neutralize the castle.  So far, in my head, we’d neutralized the radio and got as far as the dungeons before meeting enemy resistance.

The same had happened in the next six scenarios, after playing out the last we had arrived back at the church.



Chiara was resting as comfortably as the Sergeant could make her.

He had made a more thorough assessment of her injuries, and aside for the severe beating, she had sustained a few cracked ribs and several broken fingers.  The broken fingers were a surprise.  The sergeant had reset them as best he could.

Other than that, she would recover physically.  Mentally, he said, would be something else.  She was lucky, he said, her torturer was an amateur, and Italian.  Had it been the German Gestapo, she would be dead.

She was lucid and I told her we would make Leonardo pay for what he’d done.  I thought it best not to tell her about what had happened back at the cavern.  She had enough on her conscience without adding the senseless deaths of the villagers.

Then we had a meeting, where I asked Carlo to draw a plan of the castle and the places where we could breach their defenses and give us an element of surprise.

He had one that I hadn’t known about, one that might give us a fighting chance.

© Charles Heath 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

So, here’s what could happen…

You wake up to a perfect summer’s day.  There’s not a cloud in the sky, the water is a virtual millpond, and the motor takes you slowly along.

You’re not far offshore, and there’s a gentle tide going out, so you turn off the engine consider putting down the anchor, but there doesn’t;t seem any need, break out the deck chairs, and you’ve decided to take an afternoon snooze.

Now read on…

20200217_131648

When you wake up the shoreline is no longer in sight.

The water is a little more choppy, but nothing to be concerned about.

Towards shore the sky is clear and the sun is just about gone.

You look in the other direction, out to sea, and…

It’s black and forbidding, bolts of lightning on display like a fireworks show, the sort of display best seen from shore, not at sea.

The first gentle nudge of a breeze rocks the boat slightly.

A few minutes later, a rush of air hits you like a ton of bricks, almost touching the boat over to the point of no return.

You try to start the motor, but, given the situation, fate is always on the other side.

It won’t start.

You race to put up a sail, but it has to be tightly reefed in, and as it goes up it flaps violently in the ever-increasing wind gusts.

The weather changed in ten minutes. eleven if you were to not split hairs.

What happens next?

An excerpt from “Echoes from the Past”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2CYKxu4

 

With my attention elsewhere, I walked into a man who was hurrying in the opposite direction.  He was a big man with a scar running down the left side of his face from eye socket to mouth, and who was also wearing a black shirt with a red tie.

That was all I remembered as my heart almost stopped.

He apologized as he stepped to one side, the same way I stepped, as I also muttered an apology.

I kept my eyes down.  He was not the sort of man I wanted to recognize later in a lineup.  I stepped to the other side and so did he.  It was one of those situations.  Finally getting out of sync, he kept going in his direction, and I towards the bus, which was now pulling away from the curb.

Getting my breath back, I just stood riveted to the spot watching it join the traffic.  I looked back over my shoulder, but the man I’d run into had gone.  I shrugged and looked at my watch.  It would be a few minutes before the next bus arrived.

Wait, or walk?  I could also go by subway, but it was a long walk to the station.  What the hell, I needed the exercise.

At the first intersection, the ‘Walk’ sign had just flashed to ‘Don’t Walk’.  I thought I’d save a few minutes by not waiting for the next green light.  As I stepped onto the road, I heard the screeching of tires.

A yellow car stopped inches from me.

It was a high powered sports car, perhaps a Lamborghini.  I knew what they looked like because Marcus Bartleby owned one, as did every other junior executive in the city with a rich father.

Everyone stopped to look at me, then the car.  It was that sort of car.  I could see the driver through the windscreen shaking his fist, and I could see he was yelling too, but I couldn’t hear him.  I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he drove on.  The moment had passed and everyone went back to their business.

My heart rate hadn’t come down from the last encounter.   Now it was approaching cardiac arrest, so I took a few minutes and several sets of lights to regain composure.

At the next intersection, I waited for the green light, and then a few seconds more, just to be sure.  I was no longer in a hurry.

At the next, I heard what sounded like a gunshot.  A few people looked around, worried expressions on their faces, but when it happened again, I saw it was an old car backfiring.  I also saw another yellow car, much the same as the one before, stopped on the side of the road.  I thought nothing of it, other than it was the second yellow car I’d seen.

At the next intersection, I realized I was subconsciously heading towards Harry’s new bar.   It was somewhere on 6th Avenue, so I continued walking in what I thought was the right direction.

I don’t know why I looked behind me at the next intersection, but I did.  There was another yellow car on the side of the road, not far from me.  It, too, looked the same as the original Lamborghini, and I was starting to think it was not a coincidence.

Moments after crossing the road, I heard the roar of a sports car engine and saw the yellow car accelerate past me.  As it passed by, I saw there were two people in it, and the blurry image of the passenger; a large man with a red tie.

Now my imagination was playing tricks.

It could not be the same man.  He was going in a different direction.

In the few minutes I’d been standing on the pavement, it had started to snow; early for this time of year, and marking the start of what could be a long cold winter.  I shuddered, and it was not necessarily because of the temperature.

I looked up and saw a neon light advertising a bar, coincidentally the one Harry had ‘found’ and, looking once in the direction of the departing yellow car, I decided to go in.  I would have a few drinks and then leave by the back door if it had one.

Just in case.

 

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

newechocover5rs

“The Things We Do For Love” – Coming soon

Is love the metaphorical equivalent to ‘walking the plank’; a dive into uncharted waters?

For Henry the only romance he was interested in was a life at sea, and when away from it, he strived to find sanctuary from his family and perhaps life itself.  It takes him to a small village by the sea, s place he never expected to find another just like him, Michelle, whom he soon discovers is as mysterious as she is beautiful.

Henry had long since given up the notion of finding romance, and Michelle couldn’t get involved for reasons she could never explain, but in the end both acknowledge that something happened the moment they first met.  

Plans were made, plans were revised, and hopes were shattered.

A chance encounter causes Michelle’s past to catch up with her, and whatever hope she had of having a normal life with Henry, or anyone else, is gone.  To keep him alive she has to destroy her blossoming relationship, an act that breaks her heart and shatters his.

But can love conquer all?

It takes a few words of encouragement from an unlikely source to send Henry and his friend Radly on an odyssey into the darkest corners of the red light district in a race against time to find and rescue the woman he finally realizes is the love of his life.

The cover, at the moment, looks like this:

lovecoverfinal1

An excerpt from “One Last Look”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were so happy then.

Before the tragedy.

 

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

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

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

Until one day she couldn’t.

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

The doctors were wrong.

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

Justice would have to be served by other means.

 

I was outside the Bannister’s home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Justice.”

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

“She said otherwise, Archie.”

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

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

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

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

 

It was the recurring nightmare I had for years afterwards.

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

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

If only I’d not been late…

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

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

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

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

He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took nineteen bullets to die.

Then came Archie.

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

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

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

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

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

He was a little more worried about his sister.

I told him it was confession time.

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

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

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

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

Then she shot him.  Six times.

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

 

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

They were not allowed to.

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

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

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

“You’ve been a bad boy, Alan.”

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

I was beginning to think I was going mad.

I ignored him.

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

Death sounded good.  I told him to go away.

He didn’t.  Persistent bugger.

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

“Why’d you do it?”

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

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

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

“You like killing?”

“No-one does.”

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

“We?”

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

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

 

Trained, cleared, and ready to go.

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

People like me.

In a mall, I became a shopper.

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

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

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

I had a passkey.

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

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

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

Until the judge, the jury and their executioner arrived.

Me.

Quick, clean, merciless.  Done.

I was now an operational field agent.

 

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

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

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

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

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

I was Barry Gamble.

I was Lenny Buckman.

I was Jimmy Hosen.

I was anyone but the person I wanted to be.

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

Head bowed, tears streamed down my face.

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

 

New York, New Years Eve.

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

This time I failed.

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

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

I was done.

I’d had enough.

I gave her the gun.

I begged her to kill me.

She didn’t.

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

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

I remembered her name after she had gone.

Amanda.

I remembered she had an imperfection in her right eye.

Someone else had the same imperfection.

I couldn’t remember who that was.

Not then.

 

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

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

It was late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dunno.”

“You need help?”

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

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Nobody.”  I was exactly how I felt.

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

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

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

“Where are your friends?” I asked again.

“Got none.”

“Perhaps I should take you home.”

“I have no home.”

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

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

“I have my moments.”

“Have them somewhere else.”

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

“Take me home,” she said suddenly.

“Where is your place?”

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

“You won’t like it.”

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

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

“Charlotte.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Agatha.

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

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

“Why did you come,” Charlotte asked.

“You know why.”

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

OK, now she officially scared me.

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

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

“Certainly not my fairy godmother.”

Charlotte never mentioned her again.

 

Zurich in summer, not exactly my favourite place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I was crying, tears streaming down my face.

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

It was like coming up for air.

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

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

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

“Welcome back.”

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

onelastlookcoverfinal2

The 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 “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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