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 sat comfortably in his dreams a while longer, then drew a deep bath of steaming hot water. With a glass of wine 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 a flat chin. Her colouring was pale, and tightly curled hair, dark and flecked with grey, crowned her head like a fuzzy bathing cap.
She wore a black evening gown and a loose wrap with some bright lining and fur on the hem. Around her scrawny neck hung a string of pearls, and she carried a fan. She'd just thrown the wrap, as if carelessly, over her coat-hanger shoulders.
But there was a proud line in her thin 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. A grim person like her didn't belong at the cheery Stables. 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?
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 take care of you later. My men will deal with 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.
If Alf hadn't tensed his stomach muscles, he would have doubled in pain. As it happened, the punch only tickled him. "Excuse me a moment," he said to Madam Styles with a slight dip of his head.
The bodyguard had yanked his fist back, ready to smash it into Alf's face. With the speed, agility, and strength that came with hours of physical training each day, Alf gave the bodyguard a powerful straight-fingered jab into the tender hollow of his armpit. The bodyguard's eyes popped open, his jaw slackened, and he stopped breathing. Like a felled tree, he toppled sideways, slowly at first and then crashed to the floor.
The other bodyguard lurched forward, gun in his hand. But Madam Styles waved him away and glared at Alf with a look of hunger in her eyes.
"He'll be paralysed down one side of his body for about a half-hour," said Alf. "Then he'll be fine again." He gazed around the dining room. The oldies gaped at the ruckus, but none of them appeared worried. It obviously wasn't the first time they'd witnessed a commotion.
Standing to attention and facing Madam Styles, Alf clicked his heels and mounted an expression of hurt on his face. "Since madam is so insistent on my leaving, I have no choice but to return to my own desolate table. Please accept my apologies for this rude intrusion into your privacy, and please don't be hard on the waitress, she has done nothing wrong."
With that, he whirled about.
In this post: Alf threatens to settle his bill and leave…
Alf turned back.
"Miss Styles," she lisped, accentuating the Miss, and sent him a faded smile. "Be my guest."
Alf sat and the waitress served his steaks. He gulped his food while holding the conversation going with this foul woman. It was clear she wanted to chat. She spoke of her four husbands, all dead for many years, and of her loneliness. As the meal continued, their natter became more relaxed.
"It is delightful to find such a charming dinner partner," said Alf, and gazed warmly at her.
"Oh, you flatter me, my lord," she answered bashfully and lowered her eyes.
Between all of her wrinkles, Alf could he could see that she blushed. But then she uncoiled her back, and a businesslike look of interest replaced the shyness. "Why would a distinguished Lord like yourself wish to stay at a hotel like this? You realise that most of our guests are pensioners who live here until they pass away?"
"I came because I hear rumours that you stage an excellent game of poker at your hotel. High stakes, I understand."
Madam Styles raised her eyebrows. "And whom have you heard these rumours from?"
"Ah, I shouldn't like to involve any of my friends. Secrecy is the safest policy."
"I would imagine," said Madam Styles, lowering her head and studying Bert's face, "that if there were such a gambling enterprise, only an established member could recommend a new member for consideration. Do you know any such person?"
"No. As I said, I've been out of the country and only have rumours to go on. Of course, those rumours could all be poppycock. In which case I'll settle my bill and leave without delay."
To be continued…
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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
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