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.
Nobody answered until Sykes sucked in a deep breath and said, "Stick around and I'll tell you. I have a sister…"
"She's a criminal," interrupted Chief Inspector Dobbs.
Styles didn't object; he even nodded. "She's much younger than me and was my parents' favourite. When they died, they left all their wealth to her."
"Deplorable," said the vicar.
"All they left me was this hamlet," said Styles, lifting his arms to include the whole of The Stables. "And in those days it was in ruins and worth nothing."
"Why didn't you sell the land to house developers," asked Alf. "You could have made a fortune."
"Because most of the buildings are of historic interest and protected." A slack expression crossed Styles features. With his mouth slightly agape, he slid the top few cards from the pack of cards and started to build a house.
Alf could easily understand why the authorities had safeguarded the hamlet. Anyone entering The Stables would think they'd passed through a time warp, sending them back to Queen Victoria's days. "Well, it's worth a fortune now. You've made a bloody good job of renovating it. So what are the glum faces for?"
"May I?" said the lawyer, directing his question to Styles.
The old man answered with a small nod and started on the house of cards second floor.
"Mr Styles' sister has contested the will and says she wants a share in it."
"Can she?" Alf glanced around the table. From everyone's expression, it was clear she could.
"Yes, partly," said the lawyer. He paused as if drafting his thoughts. "There is a stipulation in the will that states she has a right to a fifty-one per cent ownership of this inn and can claim it any time she likes."
"Ye Olde Inn?" said Alf.
"Just the inn."
"Isn't that enough?"
"But that ain't fair," said Alf. "It's him and his hard work that's…"
The lawyer raised his hand, silencing Alf. "I agree with you. However, all is not lost. Mr Styles has the right to buy her share at today's market value. The courts have given him eight days to either complete the purchase or lose control."
In a flutter, the house of cards collapsed. Styles, Vicar Bitter, and Chief Inspector Dobbs stared at the ruins.
In an uncertain tone, Alf asked, "Does it matter if she takes control?"
"Of course it does," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "She'll turn this place into a brothel and gambling house. We can't have that."
"Heaven forbid," said Vicar Bitter, face as straight as a fence post.
"It's what she does in town," continued Chief Inspector Dobbs. "She owns and runs the Hotel California."
Alf had heard of it. "Isn't the Hotel California an old people's home for the wealthy?"
"It's a cover-up," snapped Chief Inspector Dobbs, tightening his grip around his mug of beer. "I tried to bust her once, but she's an evil mobster who covers her crimes well. Her bouncers protect her with their lives, and even you wouldn't want to mess with them. You can't imagine how much I hate them."
Alf noticed his heart rate speed up. The Hotel California intrigued him and he thought he might pay a visit.
"It'll be the death of The Stables as we know it," said Styles.
"Speaking as a man of God," said Vicar Bitter, "I find this appalling. After she turns this magnificent inn into a house of sin, who will allow their innocent young daughters to come to The Stables? The village's entire clientele will shift from God-fearing citizens to devil worshippers."
"Can't you just pay her off?" asked Alf, already knowing the answer.
The lawyer slid a piece of paper from his briefcase and flicked it with a finger. "Surveyors have valued Ye Olde inn at six-point-four million pounds."
"Yeah," agreed Sykes, "and I've got nothing like that much money. The bank won't lend me any either. It's futile. All is lost." From a corner of his eye, a tear rolled down his cheek and splattered on top of his collapsed house of cards.
Alf, on the other hand, sensed his mood brighten. This was just the adventure he was looking for: a corrupt woman who ran a mob of villains and who had defied the police and the courts. What more could he ask for? With the help of his enhanced third eye, he could make a fortune at their poker tables, and bouncers were always itching for a fight. "Can you introduce me to your sister?" he asked.
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?"
"He wants to go there to gamble," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "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 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 the 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, all well-laid plans went wrong. Far better to go with the flow and tackle each opportunity as it arose. He couldn't wait.
In this post: To save his life's-work, Styles needs a loan…
"Why should I want to help you lot?" said Alf.
"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. "No, not really," he admitted. Like the Hotel California, The Stables was also a classy joint, visited by the rich middle and upper classes. Both management and clientele were mostly from an excellent class of people, decent and honest. Here, all accepted him as a friend and 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 didn't know what they were worth, but they must be stinking rich.
"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.
To be continued…
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Quest for Lost Heroes by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Good story. A little complicated maybe with all the weird cultures, clans, names and places, but by the middle it had me hooked. In a minor way, this reminded me of Lord of the Rings. All the elements are here: wizards, the void, brave heroes, damsels in distress, battles, action, and the search for an object that will save the world. In this case, a pig farmer's daughter!
Unlike many quest stories whose hero is a reluctant girl, this legend is about a bunch of magnificent old men. They are has-been heroes who miss the glory of war and set off on a quest just for something to do.
All sounds rather amusing, but this is serious stuff. One rape scene near the end of the story seemed unnecessary and almost had me throwing the book away in disgust.
Seemingly, it's the fourth in a series, so I came in a bit late, which explains why I found it tough to get into. Still reads fine as a stand-alone though. I shan't go back to read the earlier titles, but if there had been a follow-up, I would have read that too.
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