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 loitered outside his ivy-covered gatehouse one morning, scratched the stubble on his chin, and stared off into the distance with half closed eyes.
It was spring again, and birds sang in the treetops, but somehow there was no sparkle in their songs, especially when the constant drone of traffic from the nearby road dominated all other sounds. What he craved was adventure. His way of life as security guard at the Cloud Mansion was in a rut deep enough to smother him.
There was no thrill in his heart these days. He'd won his last three bare-knuckle fights with dreary ease. There had been no trespassers on the Cloud estate to deal with, and apart from his sparing fights with Bert and the company of his dumb robot, Crusher, he was almost always alone.
He missed his wild youth, when he'd been free and frank, a different woman in his arms each week and stopping men in dark alleys to steal their wallets. The only responsibility he'd toted was to himself. There were no bills, no house to keep, and it had always been easy to pick fights with stroppy guys in the pubs.
Now he lived in a comfortable tenancy, ate as much delicious food as he wanted, and had a steady income. Dull, dull, dull.
With a profound sigh, he closed the door behind him and sauntered off across the estate. He soon joined an overgrown lane that wormed its way through a dense and ancient forest. Reaching its end at a lofty stone perimeter wall, he passed through a high-security gate.
He now found himself in The Stables. In the old days, the village had been part of the Cloud Estate, a hamlet where servants and farmers lived. These days, it was a thriving privately owned riding stables for the rich.
Alf hovered at the gate and rolled his neck and shoulders. From a distance, the small village looked drowsy. But if nothing was going on, he'd soon find some mischief to liven things up.
The village clustered around a large green, formed in the shape of a triangle. In the centre flourished a great oak tree, its canopy almost as broad as the green. A stone-built church, the vicarage, and a graveyard dominated one side of the green. A blacksmith, a general store, and Mr Sykes's stately townhouse ranged along a second side of the triangle. And Ye Olde inn with its stables filled the third section.
Three dirt track roads spun off from the green at each corner. One led out to the entrance and mini zoo at the busy main road. A second led to a residential neighbourhood. The third dropped to a ford and narrow footbridge that crossed a gentle river and then opened to rich meadows. This is where the horses grazed and the farm buildings stood.
Alf made straight for Ye Olde Inn, the community's thriving centre. He usually steered away from alcohol but hoped a beer would lift his mood. As he drew close, he noticed something strange. The Stable's rules prohibited motorised vehicles in the village, but today, apart from three tethered horses, a Mercedes and a moped had parked in the forecourt.
Alf quickened his step. Whatever the special occasion, he didn't want to miss out.
He loved the Inn with its low-beamed ceiling, open fire, and small diamond-shaped lead-lined windows. The scent of ancient cigars and wood polish hung in the air, and the heavy curtains, deep carpets, and thick stone walls muffled sound as though they cocooned him in cotton wool. Today, however, it didn't agree with his mood and only added to his irritation.
"Hi there, Alf," said the barman, polishing glasses. "The usual Coke." He was a pot-bellied little fellow with a bulbous nose, unkempt dark hair, and marble eyes.
"Give me a pint of your best bitter," said Alf. "And have one yourself."
The barman plucked a mug from a shelf above his head and pulled the beer. "What are you celebrating?"
"I'm taking a few days off, a sort of holiday. Any objections?"
"Might have." The barman's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Wan't to settle it outside?"
Alf swallowed half his beer in one gulp, showed the barman his finger, and shifted his attention to a stranger seated at the end of the bar. He was almost as tall as Alf, wore a black leather jacket, matching trousers, and a bright red silk scarf tied neatly around his neck. If the gear hadn't been so shiny and new, Alf might have mistaken him for a Hell's Angel.
Alf couldn't be sure, but he suspected the man was staring at him from behind his mirrored Ray Bands, "What're you looking at?" he said, staring right back. A twinge of hope made him lick his lips. If he played his cards right, perhaps he could provoke this man outside for a fight.
In this post: Why were a lawyer, the police, and a vicar harassing Alf's friend, Sykes?
The man slid slowly from his stool, faced Alf, and spread his legs in a wide stance. A grin played across his square jawline as his head raised and lowered, assessing his opponent before the battle.
"Come outside," said Alf, dead set on a good punch-up, "and I'll bust those fat lips of yours."
"I'm awfully sorry," whined the man and whipped his sunglasses off. "No offence. I just thought you looked so butch." He rested his left hand on his hip, pursed his lips, and smiled sweetly. "I'm here for the wedding tomorrow and it's terribly exciting. Will I see you there?"
Alf's skin tightened. "No."
"Can I buy you another drink?"
"No." The tension drained from Alf and his shoulders dropped: no chance of a fight her either. He snatched up his beer, turned his back on the man, and gazed into the lounge.
Only one table was occupied. Four elderly men sat around it: Styles, the owner of The Stables; Vicar Bitter, who resided in the chapel's vicarage; Chief Inspector Dobbs, a semi-retired police officer who lived in a cottage; and a stylishly dressed man he'd never seen before, a smarmy lawyer maybe. They looked every bit as miserable as him.
Sykes waved at him, beckoning him to join them. The Stable's ageing owner was a money pincher, but also a cheerful and kind old soul who got along well with most people. Despite Alf's low social status, he'd shown him nothing but friendship and had a knack of brightening Alf's mood whenever he felt down.
It pained Alf to see him looking so glum. The normal spark of merriment was absent from his eyes, and his body sagged worse than usual. He wondered if the other three had anything to do with his grief. Perhaps a close relative had died. Why else would a vicar, the police, and a lawyer be sitting with him?
If any of them were causing him trouble, he'd take them outside and rough them up. All three if necessary.
To be continued…
The real world:
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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.
View all my reviews
James at Goodreads