Dear friends, 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.
Alf sensed his mood brighten. This was just the adventure he was looking for: to confront a corrupt woman who ran a mob of villains and who had defied the police and the courts. She employed bouncers, and they were always looking for a fight. What more could he ask for? Best of all, with the help of his enhanced third eye, he could make a fortune at their poker tables. Trying to conceal his excitement he asked, "Can you introduce me to your sister?"
Styles almost laughed. "It's a classy joint, not for ruffians like you. She has friends in high places, very high places, which is why she's gotten away with her corruption."
Vicar Bitter flapped his hand, silencing Styles and directing his attention to Alf. "What do you propose to do?"
"I can tell you that," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "He wants to go there to gamble, and I forbid it."
"Wait just a second," said the vicar. "Wouldn't it be handy with a man on the inside? A secret agent?"
"I can't allow it," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "It goes against all my principles."
"Yes, but maybe Alf can persuade her not to carry out her threat."
They all stared at him.
"How?" said Styles.
"I'm not sure, but Alf is a resourceful man. He has gumption, isn't that what his friend Bert is always telling us? Surely, among the four of us, we can formulate a cunning plan?"
"Stop right there," said the lawyer, carefully stuffing his papers back into his briefcase. "I agree with the Inspector…"
"Chief Inspector," interrupted Dobbs.
"Quite so. I agree with Chief Inspector Dobbs and do not wish to be party to this conversation. If you intend for this man, Alf, to engage in criminality, please wait until I have left the building before you continue with your scheming."
"Fair enough," said Styles. "That will leave three of us to vote on whether Alf should act as a spy or not."
Alf could tell which way an eventual vote would go: Styles would vote yes, Chief Inspector Dobbs would vote no, and the vicar, despite his incitement, would refuse to commit himself. In either case, Alf wasn't interested. They could plan themselves blue in their faces for all he cared. In his experience, plans always went wrong. Far better to go with the flow and tackle each opportunity as it arose. That was his intention, and he couldn't wait to start.
"Why should I want to help you lot?" he asked.
"Would you like to see this wonderful place turned into a desolate den of corruption?" asked Vicar Bitter.
"Yes," said Alf, a little too quickly, then tilted his head from side to side, weighing choices. "No, not really," he admitted. Like the Hotel California, The Stables was also a classy joint, visited by the rich middle and upper classes. Unlike his own common-as-muck background, both management and clientele were mostly from an excellent breed of people, decent and honest. Here, all accepted him as a friend and an equal, a pleasure he'd never encountered in his previous criminal life.
Apart from that, the young Cloud Masters had banned him from staging his bare-knuckle fights on their estate. He was England's champion, so he had to have somewhere to pitch battle, and Styles had allowed him to use one of his barns. Vicar Bitter and Chief Inspector Dobbs didn't approve, but they both turned blind eyes. In secret, he suspected the vicar had even won a few bob on the side.
"Have you asked the young Cloud Masters for a loan?" asked Alf. He had no way of knowing, but suspected they were the wealthiest people in Britain.
"Yes," said Styles, "but they aren't interested."
The news didn't surprise Alf. The Cloud brothers lived in a secluded world on their estate. As long as nobody interfered with them, they didn't much mind what happened on the outside. No, legal means wouldn't solve Styles' problem. Alf wriggled his fingers and flexed the muscles in his broad shoulders. The time had come to apply his gumption. The Hotel California called to him, and he didn't have the will to resist. "I'm taking a few days off work," he said.
"I forbid you to go to the Hotel California," said Chief Inspector Dobbs.
"Really," protested Vicar Bitter, cheeks sucked in. "England is a free country. How can you prevent him?"
"I can't," admitted Chief Inspector Dobbs. "It's just that…" He scratched at his neck as if a bunch of words had stuck in his throat. "It's just that I wouldn't like to see him get in trouble."
Alf raised his eyebrows at him in disbelief. "You care about me?"
"I care about upholding the law."
A burst of dismissive laughter bubbled from Alf. "I need a holiday. That’s all." He swung to leave and then stopped. "I haven't let anyone else know, not even my bosses. Can one of you get a message to them and tell them I'll be away for a few days?"
The Cloud brothers wouldn't need him at present. They were home on one of their rare visits. With all their out-of-this-world equipment to guard the estate, intrusion was impossible. And anyway, his good old mate Bert would cover for him. If the young masters didn't approve of him taking a few days off, then he'd quit.
"Don't look at me," said Vicar Bitter. "The last time I went over there, an evil-looking woman brandishing a mace chased me off."
"It's not easy for any of us to visit them," said Styles. "Can't you phone them?"
Alf didn't have his smartphone with him. And anyway, he couldn't be bothered. If he were told to stay on at work, he'd go barmy. All he wanted was to clear off without a fuss. "When you see Bert, tell him I'll be back in two or three days." And with that, he strolled out of the inn with nothing but the white T-shirt on his back, a threadbare pair of blue denims, a pair of worn army boots, and a look of elation in his eyes.
In this post: Alf sets off on a quest…
Moments later, he paused on Ye Olde Inn's doorstep and drew a deep breath of fresh air. Now that he'd taken the plunge to start his roaming, he felt much easier at heart and whistled along with the birds. It was a beautiful spring day, with summer right around the corner. What more could a poor soul wish? No responsibilities for a while, life was for living in the now.
He carried no food. There was no need to fret about such minor details; he'd find something along the way. He had no need of money either, or his smartphone, or a knapsack filled with useless junk. Leaving with nothing but the fluff in his pockets gave him a vast feeling of freedom—just like in his younger days.
Yet, he couldn't fool himself. He wasn't as free as he liked to think. His friends' world was under assault from an evil foe and on the verge of collapse. From this instant, he was on a quest: to find entrance into the darkest depths of the Hotel California in search of a golden nugget. On his journey, he'd do battle with fierce bouncers and vanquish Styles' wicked witch of a sister.
He chuckled to himself and eased the fantasy from his mind. Later, he'd recline under the stars, let the world and time drift along without him, and dream his dreams.
To be continued…
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Like to know more about Alf, Bert and the rest of the gang? You can read their chaotic history in What on Earth.
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Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A curious book this, about an Englishman searching for his lost infant son in France just after WW2. Laski wrote this book just after the war too, and it shows its age, stuffed with adverbs, adjectives, and telling rather than showing.
It's a heartbreaking story, well worth a read for its stunning portrayal of war-torn France, but the hero, because of his weak morals, is a tough person to cheer for. Also, the plot is obvious and falls flat on its face at the end.
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James at Goodreads