If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#3: Gamblers who Cheat ® James Field.
"I've known your true identity since the moment I set eyes on you. You are not a Lord, but a pauper named Alf, a security guard on the Cloud Estate, and England's champion bare-knuckle fighter. I lost a fortune on one of your fights."
Alf jerked his head back as if she'd punched him on the nose. Madam Styles proved more cunning and dangerous than he'd given her credit for. He dropped his posh accent. "Blimey, who did you bet on?"
"A friend of mine named Pest said he had a certain winner called Crusher."
Crusher! Alf remembered that battle all right. He'd almost lost, not only the fight but his life too. If his best mate, Bert, hadn't set his two Alsatians to drag Crusher off him, Crusher would have ripped his head off.
Crusher now worked with him on the Cloud Estate, and they'd become friends and allies. Nobody knew that little secret, except his partner, Bert, and the Cloud brothers. His bosses, the Cloud brothers, had been strict about never letting Crusher leave the estate. "Did you know Crusher is a robot?" She did or she didn't, would believe him or not, either way, he needed to know.
"Yes. That's why he was a certain winner."
"But that's cheating."
She shrugged. "Gamblers who cheat seldom lose."
"You did that time..."
"Why are you here?" Her voice turned sharp, all trace of drunkenness and merriment vanished. "My brother sent you, didn't he?"
Alf placed a hand against his breastbone. "No, I swear he didn't. He told me about you and your plans for taking control of Ye Olde Inn, but I came here to play poker and win some money. Nothing else."
"Hmm." She drew back slightly and stared at Alf for an over-long moment.
"Yes, you're in your element here, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I'm a crook at heart. A straight life is boring."
"And now you want to marry me and share my wealth?"
Alf wasn't sure how he should answer. She had sussed his plan but didn't seem upset. He held his tongue, but tilted his head from side to side, weighing his choices.
"I like you," she said and slid her hands over his muscular arms. "Why waste your life in that boring, underpaid job you now have? Marry me and you can share in all I have."
Alf still had a problem to answer. He bit his lip. "Well—"
"Of course, you don't have to marry me, but then you'll be leaving here in a coffin. You know too much of my affairs."
Her threat brought Alf to his senses and he knew then what he should do. The tension dropped from him. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and then placed a hand on his heart. "My love. Is it true? Do you honestly want us to wed, even now you know who I really am?"
Madam Styles moved closer. Her eyes shone, glossed over, and softened. "Oh yes, Alf. You and I will make a great team. Tomorrow at noon I take control of Ye Olde Inn at The Stables, and I'll need a good man to manage it. Someone I can trust. That man could be you."
"Right you are, my little darling. I'm your man."
But the hotel was no longer an aspiring place. He'd stomached enough of upper-class lifestyle and wouldn't enjoy it in the long run. The idea of wealth without fighting for it, and loosing his freedom in exchange for a nagging wife, filled him with dread: especially if he had to live with a woman like the marriage sick widow. Heaven forbid he ended as deceased husband number five. Dear oh dear.
He drifted to the window, peered out at the moon and stars, and then turned to face Madam Styles. She was checking her dress and fussing with her hair in a long mirror. Alf opened his mouth and made a loud show of yawning. "Excuse me," he mumbled, rubbing his face and eyes. "Let's get some kip, both of us. We've got a big day tomorrow."
"Are we agreed, then? You and I, partners?"
"Partners and lovers. To death do us part."
Madam Styles drew a few deep breaths, savouring the moment, and then smoothed the front of Alf's jacket. "Goodnight. Sleep well." She closed her eyes and puckered her thin lips.
Alf tweaked her cheek, gave her a final peck, and escaped to his own suite.
He waited until the early hours, and then he opened the window quietly and hopped out. His room was on the second floor, three metres up. Nimble as a cat, he landed safely on the soft grass. A quick check with his adapted third eye told him nobody was about.
A fresh morning chill had replaced the evening's balmy warmth, and Alf shivered. He found Madam Styles suite and stopped outside her window. Having made sure it was off the latch earlier and had no alarm, he now slid it open. Once in her rooms, he eased on a pair of thin white gloves and made for the vault.
He'd watched Madam Styles open it the night before, and although she'd kept the lock hidden from him, he'd easily seen the vault's combination and alarm code with his improved third eye. He'd also seen a pile of gold bars stacked inside.
He stuffed his wad of banknotes back into his jacket's breast pocket, where it belonged. The gold bars were heavy and awkward, but he only needed four of them. Leaving everything tidy, he returned to the window, climbed out, and closed it behind him.
"Goodbye, my love. Hope you don't miss your Lord too much." He laughed silently and would have waved his bowler-hat if it hadn't been for the gold in his hands. He found his way back to the deserted barn in the woods where he'd spent the night before his adventure. There he changed into his old clothes and folded the suit into a bundle. It might come in handy again one day.
Then he snuggled down into the straw and gave a contented sigh. In the morning, he'd stroll to The Stables and have an early chat with Styles and his lawyer. And with these thoughts, he drifted into a peaceful sleep.
In this post: Ye Olde Inn is ready for the opposition…
Five hours later, just as the sun cleared the rooftops and spread its warmth, Alf sat in Styles office at The Stables and waited for the fireworks to fly. He'd dressed in his comfortable white T-shirt and blue jeans, both clean. Apart from Styles and him, the lawyer, Vicar Bitter, and Chief Inspector Dobbs were present. All of them to serve as witnesses.
At ten-o'clock, Madam Styles and her two bodyguards arrived. She also had her own lawyer with her, a man with a hook nose and deep-set crater grey eyes. Her mood was top; she even gave her older brother a quick kiss on the chin.
Then she saw Chief Inspector Dobbs and after a moment of studying him, a glimmer of recognition crossed her face. "Inspector Dobbs. How pleasant to see you again. No hard feelings, I hope. It's good to have the law here to monitor procedures."
"Chief Inspector Dobbs," he said, and gave her one of his piercing stares until she turned away.
"And a priest," she said. "My word, you are covering yourselves."
"I'm a vicar, and my name is Bitter."
"Pleased to meet you. I don't expect we'll see much of each other when I take control of this place. You might say it's going over the opposition."
Vicar Bitter crossed himself and gazed up into heaven.
"Ah, there you are," she said when she sighted Alf and blew him a kiss. "I fancied you'd be here, ready to launch your new life right from the start."
"I'm gambling on it," said Alf.
To be continued…
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A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
To save the jobs of those in the Japanese government who helped him escape, Masaji Ishikawa wrote: “…obviously I wasn’t going to start talking to the press.” Instead, he wrote this mammoth best-selling book? Sorry, but I don’t believe this man’s autobiography can be true. If it is, then he is likely responsible for the sacking of those government officials who helped his return to Japan, and worse, expose his family to torture or execution in North Korea.
It may well be that he moved to North Korea in 1960, aged thirteen, where he lived until his escape in 1996. However, I rather believe his memoir is an over dramatised collection of exaggerated incidents he picked up from others. In which case, good for him.
I hope this is the case; otherwise, he puts himself in a poor light. From his book, he already comes across as egoistic, beating up anyone who upsets him and often leaving his family to starve while he runs off to find work to feed himself.
North Korea is undoubtedly not an agreeable place to live, but propaganda and false news flourish. The story in this book is captivating and mind-bogglingly tragic, hence four stars. I just don’t accept Mr Ishikawa’s life was as awful, or maybe I don’t want to believe, as he relates.
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