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.
A young maid set off past the reception desk, and Alf followed, taking more notice now of his surroundings. The air reeked of old people and their half rotting bodies, blended with the stink of stale cigar smoke and furniture wax. He saw dark panelled walls, a massive grandfather clock, rough oak floorboards, giant vases full of pampas grass and pots full of cheese plants.
"My bags were delayed at the airport," he said to the maid. "Probably because of the elephant rifle. I wish to spend a few days roaming in England's magnificent nature, enjoy the company of the fair sex," he winked at her, "and play a few good rounds of poker. Not necessarily in that order."
Obviously used to eccentrics, the maid offered no comment and skipped up a short flight of deeply carpeted stairs. When they reached number three, she opened the door and curtsied. "Here we are, Sir. If there's anything you need, just ring down to reception."
"Thank you, young lady," he said and stroked her fatherly on the chin. "I would like a bottle of your best red wine and a large plate full of crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. I'm thirsty and hungry after my long journey, so make the sandwiches thick."
The maid curtsied again and returned with the bottle almost immediately. "Dinner is served from eight in the dining room," she said, "and the tearoom is open until four. Breakfast from six in the morning in the tearoom. I'll be right back with the sandwiches."
"Thank you," he said charmingly, gave her a thumbs up, tugged down his jacket sleeves, and closed the door behind her. So far, so good.
He dropped into a fine leather armchair and surveyed the airy room with a pleased expression. It reminded him of period plays he'd seen on television, almost Victorian in its grandeur. At long last I've found my right place in life, he thought and poured himself wine. Unused to alcohol, it warmed his insides and his toes began to tap a silent beat. In a while, he would take a slow, luxurious bath, and later have some fun.
There came a light tap on the door. "Enter," he called.
The maid placed a tray with his sandwiches on a low table by his side. "Will there be anything else, Sir?"
"Yes. Come and share a glass of wine with me!"
A look of horror spread across the maid's face. "Oh, no, Sir, I couldn't possibly. Madam Styles would give me the sack immediately."
"Bit of a dragon, is she?"
With a hurried curtsy, the maid spun and fled from the room. Alf stretched his long legs, lifted them onto a Moroccan pouf, threw one leg over the other, and leant back in the snug chair. He hoped there were some fine women staying at The Hotel California who didn't dread Madam Styles, so he could impress them with his charm. Women were the spice of life, no matter if you were poor or rich.
He sat comfortably in his dreams a while longer, then drew a deep bath of steaming hot water. With the wine glass balanced on the tub's side, he soaked until his skin wrinkled. Then he jumped up and stroked the stubble on his chin. By now, it had grown long enough to hide his scars and was the perfect macho length to set him off as a virile hombre.
Once again dressed in his fine suit, he drained the last drops of wine into his glass and swaggered around his apartment. Placed at the back of the hotel, he could see a fair-sized garden from his window with plenty of trees and benches for the elderly to sit among the flowerbeds. Further away, he made out a small car park. The cars were few, but expensive.
His stomach rumbled. The wine had not only gone to his head but also made him starving. Luckily, the restaurant was now open. He hoped there was a bloody beefsteak on the menu.
With his broad shoulders back, brawny chest out, and bearded chin high, he strolled down to the dining room and glanced in. Most of the dinners were old cronies, but there was also a sprinkling of beautiful women, correctly garbed, and distinguished-looking gentlemen.
Their laughter sounded pleasantly above the subdued strains of an orchestra. Many of them glanced up to regard Alf. Their eyes rested on him for that well-bred moment that marks acceptance. "One of themselves," said Alf to himself.
Well, why not? Once again he glanced at his reflection in the hall mirror. There might be handsomer men present in this hotel, but was there anyone who wore his clothes better? Hardly. Swinging his arms and taking wide steps to draw attention, he strutted into the room.
A meticulously dressed waitress in black and white received him and showed him to a side table. As they passed an elaborately large round table with only one woman seated there, Alf paused. She was an old hag with a hawk nose, who sat with her back to the wall and had a full view of the room. Two stout men, one on each side, stood at a respectful distance from her; bodyguards?
She reminded him of a scarecrow, but she wore flashy gold and diamond jewellery, and her perfume smelled heavenly. Alf winked playfully at her, and caught a glimmer of interest in her eyes.
Alf's own table waited for him on the other side of the room. Like the old hag's, it was round, but much smaller and with only two chairs. The white tablecloth was clean and the cutlery neat and shiny. A vase with roses adorned the table's centre. Before the waitress left him, he whispered in her ear, "Who is the charming lady at the head table?"
"That is Madam Styles," she whispered back.
"Can you introduce me to her?"
"Oh, no, Sir. It is she who invites guests to dine with her."
"Thank you. No need to bring the menu. I'll have two large beefsteaks, almost raw. And water on the rocks." He'd drunk enough alcohol. Ahead loomed business and he needed his wits about him.
The waitress hurried off and Alf turned his attention to the two tough guys standing at Madam Styles sides. They carried bulging muscles and poorly disguised guns under their jackets. He'd have to be on his guard.
But it was the Styles women who interested him. She must be about fifty, he thought, ten years younger than her brother at The Stables. She was short and skinny, with pointy jutting joints. Her face was small, her features irregular and saggy, dominated by the hawk nose and flat chin. Her colouring was pale, and grey strands streaked her dark hair.
She wore a black evening gown and a string of pearls, carried a fan, and a loose wrap with some bright lining and fur on the hem. She'd just thrown it, as if carelessly, over her bony shoulders, and tightly curled hair crowned her head like a fuzzy bathing cap.
But there was a proud line in her scrawny neck. She oozed society, culture, wealth, and aloofness. Alf hadn't forgotten she planned to take control of Ye Olde Inn in two days and saw now that he ought to do something to prevent it. If he could mix business with pleasure, save the inn from the clutches of her cadaverous fingers and make a fortune while doing it, what could be more satisfying?
In this post: Alf introduces himself to Madam Styles and she breaks his heart…
Alf gave no heed to the house rules and swaggered across the room toward her table. "Lord Ponsenby," he said elegantly, and bowed.
The waitress rushed to Alf's side and curtsied to Madam Styles. "I'm sorry, Madam, I told him not to come."
"Go about your business!" snapped Madam Styles. "I'll talk to you later. My men will take care of this."
One of the bodyguards detached from the wall and stepped briskly between Alf and the table. He was a head shorter than Alf but broad as a bus and wore his hair in a pigtail.
"Escort him back to his own table!" said Madam Styles.
Alf resisted the impulse to frown. She'd said those few words not so much as a direct command, but more as a challenge. She wanted to see how he would react to a physical threat, and the prospect of a tussle thrilled her.
The bodyguard grabbed Alf's elbow. His grip was firm, intended to hurt, but Alf didn't budge. "I don't wish to cause a scene, my good lady," he said. "I simply wish to give my compliments to the most exquisite and refined woman I have ever set eyes on."
She blushed and fanned her face.
"If you send me away you'll break my heart."
"Get moving," said the guard, obviously itching for a fight. When Alf still resisted, the guard balled his fist and slammed it into Alf's stomach.
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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