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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Saturday story - 'The man who had a date with the past'

Cold revolver - Wikipedia commons
 
THE MAN WHO HAD A DATE WITH THE PAST
 
 
Nik Morton
 

His thick-veined wrinkled hands raised the gilt-framed photograph from the old sideboard’s bottom drawer. ‘Well, another year nearly over, Detta,’ Cosmo Pontiferi whispered to his wife, Bendetta. ‘Tomorrow’s the big day.’

Lifting pale brown eyes from her crochet-work, she smiled softly. ‘Yes, our thirtieth…’

Cosmo scrutinised the picture of the fourteen-year-old dark-haired boy. ‘Do you think he will come?’ He didn’t wait for her answer. ‘It’s been so long…’

Absently, he fingered the folded letter in his shirt’s breast-pocket. Their son, Emilio, who had left home shortly after the photo was taken, had just written, saying he was returning for their anniversary. ‘I keep a promise, Papa,’ he had written simply.

Carefully placing the picture on the sideboard, he tried controlling his trembling hands.

Thank God Detta didn’t listen to gossip, he thought, eyeing her hunched in her creaking rocking-chair.

Recently, the rumours had had more substance. Thinking about it, he felt his weak heart flutter. Nothing too definite yet, but it seemed that since the Syndicate retired him they had learned that he hadn’t been as devoted to their ‘business’ as he would have had them believe.

It was true, he’d always managed to hold back quite a substantial sum of all his transactions for the Syndicate – unbeknown to them.

The fear of discovery and reprisals had always hovered in the back of his mind. He had thought the risk worth it when younger – and the excitement had thrilled him.

The Syndicate had a very good retirement pay organised for the faithful. He had genuinely wanted to level with them – but couldn’t.

He had been grateful when they retired him and had hoped his past would retire with him.

Thankfully, he had kept Detta in ignorance. No matter what he’d done, provided they believed she wasn’t implicated she would be looked after as his widow…

Before this week, he would have quietly resigned himself to his ‘just deserts’ at the hands of their executioner. But since receiving Emilio’s letter, he found he didn’t want to die – at least, not until his son kept his promise.
 
The phone blared, derailing his train of thought. ‘I’ll get it,’ he whispered gently.
 
‘Hi, Marco, old buddy – long time no see?’ he greeted his old friend. Then his blood drained from his grizzled face. He almost froze solid as he held the receiver closer to his ear.
 
Marco hissed in an urgent voice, ‘It’s about those rumours, Cosmo… We’ve been good friends a long time – I wanted to warn you… My contacts reckon there’s a known Syndicate killer in town and it’s said you’re the Mark…’
 
Cold fear seeped into his aged frame. So it had come to this after all. He self-consciously eyed Detta, but she didn’t appear interested in his phone conversation.

Clammy hand gripping the phone tighter, he said, guardedly, ‘No, I can’t believe that, Marco. Why me?’
 
‘The rumours, friend…’
 
‘Not true.’ He forced an unconcerned chuckle. ‘Anyway, thanks for calling, Marco. I shan’t forget…’  Hanging up, he shuffled across to the apartment window. Dusk was already slithering across the city.
 
The vigil now begins, he thought. ‘It’s getting late,’ he observed absently. ‘I’ll follow you to bed in a short while, Detta.’
 
Wordlessly, she rose from her chair. On her way to the bedroom, she patted his weathered cheek. ‘Don’t stop up reading too late, now…’
 
And then he was alone, more alone than he had ever been in his life. Bristled chin determinedly set, he unlocked his desk drawer and removed an old .38 Colt. Slipping it into his tight waistband, he shoved the nearest armchair round to face the door.
 
He switched off the lights and sat waiting in the dark for his appointed executioner.

Dimly he recalled the other times he’d stayed up all night like this, on heists, etc… but then he’d been younger. He could hardly keep his eyes open and felt sure he dosed for odd minutes, only to be brought up with a jerk as the apartment block made its eerie night sounds.
 
His old heirloom fob watch said he’d been waiting two hours. He smiled. Detta hadn’t bothered calling for him to come to bed. Probably fallen straight to sleep, he thought, imagining her lying serenely in the next room.
 
Then he remembered he hadn’t locked the door after putting the cat out. Tiredly, he heaved his stooped body from the chair.
 
Harshly shattering the stillness, next-door’s tomcat screeched in sudden pain, as though it had been kicked down the stairs. Cosmo’s pulse raced maddeningly. The killer!

Standing as if transfixed with one hand on the gun and the other steadying himself against the armchair, he watched speechless as the brass door-handle slowly turned.

The door swung open on soundless hinges. His finger trembled on the trigger.

Tall, immaculately dressed, with lean tanned features shaded by a fedora hat, the stranger stood half-highlighted by the landing’s dull bulb. The grim stubborn mouth twisted into a kind of ironic grin as the hidden eyes scoured the blackened room. Large nimble fingers flashed to his breast-pocket.

Old and out of practice as he was, Cosmo moved with surprising speed. He raised his revolver and fired instinctively.

The man wheezed incredulously and doubled up. He stumbled backwards onto the landing and tumbled downstairs, arms and legs flailing. The clattering noise seemed sufficient to awaken the dead.

Tremulously, Cosmo flicked on the light and stepped to the doorway. The body crumpled to a halt at the next half-landing as Detta’s voice shrieked, ‘Cosmo! What’s going on out there?’

The pungent cordite choked his nostrils. He felt sick inside now. He could never hide this deed from her. Slowly, he descended the stairs, gun at the ready, just in case the corpse wasn’t quite a corpse.

His heart wavered as he laboured down to the unnaturally twisted figure. He was too old for this sort of thing, he thought, and smiled grimly to himself. But still a match for their much younger executioners, by the saints!
 
It seemed a century had passed since he’d done this, he mused, and turned the body over.

His head spun giddily. He stared unbelievingly into the vacant eyes of his son, Emilio, whose limp hand held a box of his father’s favourite Corona cigars.

* * *

Previously published in Parade, September 1972, under an old penname Platen Syder.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

Again, another short story where every word of the allocated thousand must count. Yes, I’d reduce the frequency of ‘had’ now, and I should have shown the cat, since it was mentioned being put out. This was the only short story of mine where the editor/sub-editor decided to change the title; mine, 'The Reckoning' was not considered appropriate.
 
While I think I managed the characterisation in the limited word count reasonably well, and built up the suspense, I suspect that the ending is probably obvious. In 2011, I reworked this theme in a different setting and created a double twist ending for a longer story, to wrong-foot expectations.

If you enjoyed this tale, then you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.



Friday, 30 January 2015

FFB - Mission


Published in 1981, Mission by Patrick Tilley has been unavailable for quite some time; a reprint was issued in 2012. I first reviewed the book when it came out and I found it as difficult to classify as Russell H. Greenan’s It Happened in Boston?

This is a shortened version of my original review. Judging by several reviews on Amazon, it’s a beloved book by many; others found that while they remembered it with affection they were disappointed on re-acquaintance. At the very least, it’s a thought-provoking book.

The tale begins with Jesus Christ (The Man) arriving DOA at Manhattan General Hospital on the 1948th anniversary of the Resurrection: he subsequently awakens to confront the narrator, Leo.

Was God an astronaut? Mission could so easily fall into this dread von Daniken-cloned slot; yet Tilley’s handling of the central characters, especially The Man’s, adds depth and freshness and redeems the book. Apparently, Tilley spent twelve years researching to produce this riveting, consistent, learned, often humorous, iconoclastic novel. All the sham and ceremony, the hypocrisy and timed-serving attitudes are torn away from the world’s religions, while still respecting their essence. As The Man says, ‘Religion is not what it’s about. That’s something you people dreamed up.’ Man-constructs, not divine.

Leo is a cynical wisecracking questioning lapsed Jew, and attorney. The Man has chosen him to pass on the True Message – how is left till the quite devastating end.

The book is shot through with sardonic wit, calling upon diverse things and people: the Turin Shroud, parallel universes, George Lucas, the Silmarillion, Martin Scorsese, Carlos Castaneda, Michael Moorcock, Doris Lessing, social conscience, drug and sex commercialism, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Zoharistic Kabbala, the Hasidim, pre-dynastic Egyptian gods, the Talmud, Hinduism, Nicolas Poussin, the Albigenses, Hugo Gernsback, Spielberg, Walter Tevis, Sufism, Gnosticism, and karma!

It’s a book of the eighties, with realistic characterisation, a convoluted gripping and believable story using the symbols and questioning stance of the time. Throughout, Biblical quotations slot neatly into The Man’s story. And it’s about selfless love. Through the ages there has been a battle between good and evil, involving ancient celestial bodies, the Ainfolk, trapped within humans. There are nine universes, seven non-temporal, non-dimensional in the World Above, beyond the Time Gate. The World Below consists of the physical cosmos which we inhabit whilst the Netherworld is a mirror-universe of anti-matter, created as a prison. At the time of the creation of the World Below a rebellion erupted and the rebels broke out into our physical universe, and thus the struggle has gone on through the human millennia.
 
The conclusion may be that people seem to need a spiritual goal, a storm-anchor in agitated times. Good against evil does seem naively black-and-white. Not necessarily ‘good’ as we’ve been educated to understand it, but the ‘good’ that is instinctive, a gut-feeling that makes sense, devoid of passion or self. Life has always been – and still is – considered cheaper than property, land or nationhood. The plea that rises from Mission could so easily be a clarion call to begin the spiritual fight. As The Man says, ‘All of us are involved, whether we like it or not.’

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Holocaust (1)


As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, I thought it was high time I read a particular book that has been in my library for almost thirty years: The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert (1986). 

There are a number of reasons why I haven’t tackled it until now: I know the subject from many other books; it’s a daunting read by page-count, let alone the subject matter; I have so many unread books on the shelves anyway.

Now, however, the time seems poignantly appropriate, as we detect a rise in nationalism, extremism, hate and disconcerting political vacuum within present-day Europe.

So, over the next week or so I may refer to this book as I work through it.

Among other books I’ve read relating to the Holocaust are:

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982). Winner of the Booker Prize. A best-selling narrative non-fiction work, Keneally gets into the skin of characters both good and evil. And of course Spielberg’s heart-wrenching film Schindler’s List was the result.

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas (1981). Short-listed for the Booker Prize. At the time I was studying psychology and as this novel was ostensibly about Sigmund Freud and his patients, it seemed logical to read it. Thomas is foremost a poet, and this is evident from his language. The tale begins with Freud’s female patients’ erotic fantasies but then descends into the Holocaust which is harrowing and leaves the reader numb.

I Will Survive by Sala Pawlowicz (1962). I read this in 1965 and it lingers with me still. An excellent review is on Amazon UK by Russell Fisher, and this is an excerpt from that review: The final page of 'I Will Survive' illustrates the dignity and humanity of this remarkable woman: 'I cannot find it in me to spend my life condemning the Germans. I do not forgive them for their treatment of me and my family, but I have found too much in the world to love. There is no room in my heart for hate. Rosie is our hope for the future. We try to make her feel wanted, as we ourselves finally came to feel we were wanted. We try to make her understand the sacredness and dignity that is human life. If she is instructed well, then the world will indeed be happy with us.'

Ashes to the Vistula by Bill Copeland (2007). When I wrote a review of this in 2008, I began: ‘Over the years I’ve read a number of Holocaust books, fiction and non-fiction, yet no matter how much you read about this period, thankfully you can never become inured to the horror. Perhaps I thought that there was nothing new to be said about this important yet horrendous subject; but I’d be wrong. Because despite the evident inhumanity displayed by several individuals, what shines through is the powerful humanity, the will to survive, the will to serve fellow men and women, no matter what the risk.’ Bill was a poet, too and this was his first published novel; it won multiple awards. It is a story about two boys that are taken to Auschwitz and forced to overcome great trials together despite the hardships that they already face. Bill died in 2010.

 

 

 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

‘Women spies are useless’

Who said the Cold War was dead?

Latest spy scandal comes from the US, where a Russian spy cell was suspected of plotting a ‘Wall Street meltdown’. Igor Sporyshev, one of three alleged plotters, has been arrested; the other two fled the country; Russia claims there is no evidence against the trio. The FBI previously snared ten Russian spies in 2010, one of whom became quite notorious: Anna Chapman. She was arrested, along with nine others, on 27 June 2010, on suspicion of working for the Illegals Program, a spy ring under the Russian Federation's external intelligence agency, the SVR.

Anna Chapman - Wikipedia commons
 
Apparently, Anna Kushchyenko moved to London about 2003 and worked at a few companies, including Barclays. She met Alex Chapman at a party in London Docklands and they married shortly after in Moscow. She gained dual Russian–British citizenship (subsequently revoked) and a British passport.

After being formally charged, Chapman and the other nine detainees were part of a spy swap deal between the United States and Russia, the biggest of its kind since 1986. They returned to Russia via a chartered jet that landed at Vienna, where the swap occurred on the morning of 8 July 2010.

Since then Anna Chapman has received a mixed reception from Russians and the certain sections of the international circuit, in part due to her blatant self-publicity and raunchy photo-shoots. She has a twitter account, and is a TV personality in Russia.

According to today’s news reports, a conversion was taped by the FBI: Igor Sporyshev stated that it was misguided to value female secret agents. Apparently, he said, ‘I have lots of ideas about such girls but these ideas are not actionable because they don’t allow you to get close enough… you either have to have sex with them or use other levers to influence them to execute your requests.’

It has been bandied about that women make bad spies. According to one book,

All the great masters of espionage have distrusted women spies and feared them. Hitler’s spymaster Reinhard Heydrich opposed them on principle. Richard Sorge, the greatest spy of modern times, said, ‘Women are absolutely unfitted for espionage work. Intimate relations… arouse jealousy… and react to the detriment of the cause.’ … In other words, the secret service professionals know that women cannot keep their espionage assignments separate from their emotions and erotic instincts. – The Real World of Spies, Charles Wighton (1965).

The above chauvinist and provocative comments don’t do justice to the many female agents, some of whom gave their lives in WWII and afterwards – many of them unknown and unsung because of their work.

And of course one such person is Tana Standish, psychic spy of the 1970s and 1980s. Her first mission for the British Secret Intelligence Service occurred in 1965. (see my blog here).

The Prague Papers relates her second mission in Czechoslovakia in 1975, published by Crooked Cat books. It is followed on 17 February by The Tehran Text, her assignment in Iran in 1978. Both are e-books only.
 
 
THE PRAGUE PAPERS

 Available from Amazon UK here
and from Amazon COM here
 
1978. Iran is in ferment and the British Intelligence Service wants Tana Standish’s assessment. It appears that CIA agents are painting too rosy a picture, perhaps because they’re colluding with the state torturers… Allegiances and loyalties are strained as Tana’s mission becomes deadly and personal. Old friends are snatched, tortured and killed by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. She has to use all her skills as a secret agent and psychic to stay one step ahead of the oppressors and traitors.

As the country stumbles towards the Islamic Revolution, the Shah’s grip on power weakens. There’s real concern for the MI6 listening post near the Afghan border. Only Tana Standish is available to investigate; yet it’s possible she could be walking into a trap, as the deadly female Spetsnaz fighter Aksakov has been sent to abduct Tana. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, the sympathetic Yakunin, the psychic spy tracking Tana, is being sidelined by a killer psychic, capable of weakening Tana at the critical moment in combat with Aksakov. Can Yakunin save Tana without being discovered?

In the troubled streets of Iran’s ancient cities and amidst the frozen wastes on the Afghan border, Tana makes new friends and new enemies...
 
 
Reviews of The Prague Papers

... Well plotted and executed this is a story that held me enthralled and intrigued from the first page to the last...and then I read the epilogue, and I realised just how eye-opening this novel is. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m so relieved that there is more to come. - Amazon review, 21 Jan, 2015
 
Morton's heroine Tana is made of stern stuff... - Michael Parker, author of The Devil’s Trinity and The Third Secret

Interestingly, Morton sells it as a true story passed to him by an agent and published as fiction, a literary ploy often used by master thriller writer Jack Higgins. Let’s just say that it works better than Higgins. - Danny Collins, author of The Bloodiest Battles

gave me that feeling of “being there myself”, rubbing shoulders with his characters, and for quite a while after finishing it, I found myself thinking about them and all they had been through. - William Daysh, author of Over by Christmas

As well as creating memorable characters, Morton captures the essence of Prague and the Czech soul, educates us into the world of Eastern Bloc politics, and tells an intricate tale of espionage... - Maureen Moss, Travel journalist.

THE TEHRAN TEXT

Available from Amazon COM here
 
And available from Amazon UK here


 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Writing – markets - Three into one will go

Triptych Tales requires crime and mystery submissions, as well as sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

As the editors say in their website, ‘A traditional triptych is a work of art spread over three panels. It usually tells a story, or at least illustrates one. When we were discussing the kind of magazine we wanted to produce, we found we kept speaking of things in groups of three. Hence Triptych Tales.’
 
My artwork, not theirs, so don't blame them!

Go to their website and you’ll see the Home-page features the beginnings of three separate short stories. Read on and continue with any.

http://triptychtales.net/

They publish three kinds of stories: science fiction, fantasy, and non-genre. ‘We are looking for stories that take place in our world, our world with a twist, or our world as it could be in the very near future. There will always be three stories on our site which you can read for free and without strings attached - no cookies, no log in, no charge.

‘It's difficult to categorize the kinds of stories we're publishing but it's quite easy to say what we don't want--not that we have anything against that type of story, but we feel they're well represented elsewhere. Even then, if a writer can cast new light on our world or how we perceive it in a zombie story or a cosy mystery, we encourage them to send it to us. The worst that can happen is a “Thanks but no thanks” response. And with these three paragraphs, we hope it's enough about us to get you reading Triptych Tales.’

Yes, I like that concept of ‘three’.

Payment

$100 US per original story, regardless of length, for first world print and electronic rights.

$50 US for reprints, but only if the story has not appeared on the web.

They intend to publish a twelve-story anthology at the end of each year, therefore they keep these rights until the anthology is published. After that, all rights revert back to you with the proviso that, should you publish the story elsewhere, you credit Triptych Tales, which is fair enough.

Submission

Professionally presented stories with proper spelling, grammar and formatting.
 
They accept stories in .odt, .rtf and .doc or .docx.

E-mail messages containing links to file sharing sites will be deleted unread.

Also required:  a brief biography (50 or so words) and a list of previous publications.

No simultaneous or multiple submissions.

Send your story as an attachment to submissions@triptychtales.net with your story title in the subject line of the email.

You should hear back from them within two months.

Writing - Publisher opens its doors wider

Readers

Wings of the Overlord (Book One of the Chronicles of Floreskand) was published by Knox Robinson in 2014.It is a fantasy quest novel.  Its sequel To Be King is a work in progress. The book is co-authored by me and Gordon Faulkner under the penname Morton Faulkner. At present in hardback, it will eventually appear in paperback and e-book formats. (Currently six 5-star reviews on Amazon UK - here).

My books are published by three publishers.

Fantasy - Knox Robinson
Westerns - Robert Hale
Crime/thrillers - Crooked Cat

As long as they'll have me, I'm very happy to stick with all three publishers for these genres.

Writers

Writers still seeking a publisher might be interested to note a recent announcement from Knox Robinson, which can be found on their website also (along with Wings of the Overlord et al, of course): http://www.knoxrobinsonpublishing.com/

January 12, 2015 (London & New York) – Established in 2010 as an international, specialist publisher of historical fiction, historical romance and fantasy, Knox Robinson Publishing has now opened its doors to publishing literature of all genres.

According to Managing Director, Dana Celeste Robinson, this move is a plausible change in direction for the publishing house. “In truth, when I started the house, I wanted only to publish works based in past eras, these were the works with which I was most familiar and the works I preferred to publish,” she says. “But critical reviews of our novels have proven that we have long since outgrown the designation ‘specialist publisher’. It is a logical step forward for the house to welcome all fiction.”

Indeed, much has changed in the four years since the establishment of Knox Robinson. Many of the novels that bear the imprimatur of Knox Robinson Publishing have received critical acclaim and praise for the literary nature of the writing.

“We have found that our authors are writing of a standard that would be classified as literary fiction. It no longer makes sense for us to limit the house to publishing only works of three genres. In fact, with the upcoming launch of our new children’s imprint Under The Maple Tree Books and our new young adult speculative fiction imprint Mithras Books, we now have room on our list for works of other genres,” Robinson says.

Knox Robinson has accepted submissions directly from authors since its inception and the house will continue to do so.

“We have already begun to go back through our archives to find and contact talented authors we originally turned away because their work did not fit within the scope of our publishing program at the time,” Robinson says. “This change has been in effect for several months, but we never formally announced. We began late last year to publish all genres of literature and we look forward to receiving submissions from talented new writers of everything from thrillers to mysteries to horror to contemporary romance and everything in between. This is an exciting time for us.”
Interested authors are encouraged to visit the website at www.knoxrobinsonpublishing.com for submission instructions.

About Knox Robinson Publishing. Established in London in 2010, Knox Robinson Publishing is an independent, international publisher of fiction. It is the home of the upcoming juvenile and children’s book imprint Under The Maple Tree Books and the young adult speculative fiction imprint Mithras Books.

Knox Robinson and its imprints’ titles are distributed by Marston Book Services in the United Kingdom and Midpoint Trade Books in the United States of America.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Writing – and readership

Most authors write to be read. The financial consideration is important, naturally, but it is rarely the main impetus. We write because we cannot not write.

So the transformation over the last decade or so has to be welcomed, whereby readers can post reviews on the Internet – whether that’s in a blog or on Amazon and the other online book sites. Considered feedback is always welcome. We’re trying to entertain – following in a long line of storytellers stretching back to that distant age in caves when the social media was verbal and illustrations were paintings on rock.

The other helpful feedback tool for the author has been around for twenty-five years – the PLR. Last year’s (July 2013-June 2014) Public Lending Rights statements have just been issued, and they make interesting reading.

Of all 20 of my books registered with PLR, only 5 titles show readers. This is because the rest are not supplied to or obtained by British libraries. The five titles reflect the hardback and the large print editions - two of each, separately registered.

Yet those 5 have clocked up almost 8,000 readers among them. That’s good to know: because that’s a minimum readership figure, based on a sample of libraries, not all of them, in UK.

These titles are all westerns (because Robert Hale has a high representation of books in public libraries):

Death at Bethesda Falls (2007) – 1,300+

Last Chance Saloon (2008) – 1,500+

The $300 Man (2009) – 1,600+

Blind Justice at Wedlock (2011) – 1,600+

Old Guns (2012) – 1,700+

My latest western The Magnificent Mendozas (2014) was published and registered after the cut-off date of June 2014, so won’t appear on a statement until January 2016.

This proves that there is a readership for westerns out there, no matter what the naysayers might pontificate.
 
The British Library has taken on the administration of PLR. They collect loans data from a changing sample of UK public library authorities. This year’s payments are based on loans data collected from 44 library authorities across the UK during the year July 2013 – June 2014.
 
The maximum earnings for any author amount to £6,600; 190 registered authors were paid this for 2013/2014. Interestingly, there were 22,053 authors who received PLR payment and 16,996 who were paid nil or their loans were below the minimum threshold (i.e. loans didn’t amount to £1 or more).
 
Compared to last year’s figures, there are about 300 less recipients of PLR this year; and about 1,200 more authors who fell into the nil bracket. It is not clear whether or not that’s due to a fall in library readership or the choice of libraries in the sample or some other factor, such as more authors are going independent so aren’t represented in local libraries.

So, the moral for authors is, register your book with PLR.
 

 
 If you hanker after writing a western - or any genre fiction novel, come to that - you might like to have a look at Write a Western in 30 Days, which reviewers have said is useful for all genre writers, not only those who write westerns!
 
Amazon UK paperback here
Amazon UK e-book here
Amazon COM paperback here
Amazon COM e-book here
 
 
 
 
 

 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Saturday Story - 'The Merger'


THE MERGER
 
Nik Morton

 

James Grenfell turned an incredulous face to his secretary as he lowered his wiry frame into the swivel chair. ‘You mean Bert Haynes got the job, Ann?’

She nodded, tentatively placing the day’s mail before him. ‘Yes, sir. It was announced while you were attending the Trade Fair.’

A coldness seemed to seep into every fibre of his body. He’d thought he was the obvious choice for their Swiss branch’s new manager.

As the hard facts of Haynes’ good fortune sank home he found himself berating Ann repeatedly, grudging every second working for the firm that had treacherously spurned him.

Instead of detailing Ann to take his dictation down to the typing pool, he carried the material himself. He had to get away from the stifling confines of his office.

After eleven years – not good enough! It burned him up inside. Loyalty seemed to mean nothing nowadays. Barging into the typing pool, he halted in his tracks. ‘Do you reckon this merger’ll affect us, Deidre?’

‘The job’ll be the same.’

Tensely gripping his letters, he turned on his heels and hurried back down the corridor.

So they’re planning a merger. And he’d never been informed. They didn’t trust him any more!

As he stormed blindly into his office, an idea slowly materialised and moulded itself. Trusted or not, he still had access to the latest and most up-to-date trade secrets. He smiled sanguinely.

At the moment Ann dashed out for her tea-break, he telephoned Sebastian Lecroix in Paris.

‘Surprised to hear from me, eh?’ He chuckled archly. ‘Yes, I know this is quite irregular, calling our biggest rival’s head of personnel.’ He cleared his throat nervously. ‘I have a proposition…’

***

‘What’s this?’ Cornish queried, his stout arms akimbo. He looked every inch a managing director, with his mottled cheeks, glistening blue eyes and contented paunch. ‘Working late again, James?’

Casting startled grey eyes upward, James stammered, ‘Yes… just… checking the system.’

Before him lay a mountain of duplicated files and photocopied material amassed during his overtime. He broke out into a cold sweat, fearing Cornish would notice them.

‘Every night this week you’ve been working late, James. Don’t overdo it, now.’ Cornish beamed unctuously. ‘You’re too valuable to us, to go collapsing with over-work, eh?’ He chuckled and slipped out of the door.

James’ trembling fingers gathered the various dockets together. God, he’d never make a crook! Still, he now had a comprehensive breakdown of the whole business, inside and out.

***

‘Good morning, sir!’

He returned Ann’s greeting cheerfully enough and dumped his heavy suitcase beside her desk. ‘I’ll be going to Paris this evening, Ann. The Lacelles contract,’ he lied, patting the case.

‘It’s ready?’

‘Finally, yes.’ He wavered a moment. ‘Oh, I’ve reserved a berth on the ferry.’

For the remainder of the morning he couldn’t concentrate on any work. ‘Why bother?’ he mused. He’d soon be handing over his valuable secrets. Should net a few thousand – and a good job. A position of trust. That’s all he wanted.

‘I’m off to dinner now, Mr Grenfell,’ Ann informed him over the intercom.

‘Right-ho, Ann.’ Time to act! Calmly bringing the suitcase into his office, he smiled to himself. Everything running smoothly.

Heaving the case on to his desk he opened it and emptied the load of books. Swiftly unlocking the safe, he dumped the duplicate files and accounts inside the case and returned it to Ann’s office.

‘This calls for a drink.’ He sighed with heartfelt relief.

His heart was beating apprehensively as he walked through the building. Carrying the suitcase, he felt conspicuous. And yet nobody seemed to pay him undue attention. He was actually getting away with it!

Nearly out in the clear, he realised excitedly, his pace quickening as he caught sight of the double doors and the waiting taxi outside.

‘James!’

Heart pounding expectantly, he faltered on the threshold. Should he hurry on, pretend he hadn’t heard? Too late! He winced as Cornish grabbed his free arm.

‘Your secretary tells me you’re off to Paris.’
 
Pivoting round to face him, James replied equably, ‘Yes, a contract from Lacelles.’

Then, a tincture of bravado crept into his manner. Forcing a lean smile, he joked, ‘I’ll have to speak to Ann, I think. Can’t have her discussing my business, you know.’
 
Cornish’s laugh rumbled from his barrel of a chest. ‘Not her fault, James.’ He jovially placed aa heavy fat hand on James’ shoulder. ‘I told her I had to see you urgently.’

His mouth dropped open. ‘Urgent?’ Forebodings filled him. Glancing at his watch, he mumbled, ‘I’ll be late.’
 
‘A moment, James.’
 
Cold fear struck him to the core.
 
‘Since you’re away tonight, I thought I’d tell you.’ His chubby cheeks glistened as a massive smile creased his face. ‘We’re planning a merger with our rivals and their personnel chap, Lecroix, has insisted you lead the new amalgamated team.’
 
James was stunned. Head swimming, he queried in a subdued tone, ‘When did you speak to Lecroix?’
 
Cornish dimpled his shining brow in thought. ‘About two weeks ago. He’s due over here this evening to negotiate the merger’s final draft.’ He grinned. ‘He’ll be sorry you’re not here, James.’

‘So will I,’ James said feelingly, and added flatly, ‘Well, must go.’
 
Certainly, Lecroix had wanted him. Insisted, even. But that was before he’d phoned with his clever proposition.
 
Dusk was settling across the Channel when he strolled to the ferry’s guardrails and ditched the incriminating suitcase over the side.  As it swiftly sank in the phosphorescent wake an emptiness pervaded him. Getting rid of the material was pointless.
 
Already, Lecroix would be telling Cornish about his proposed betrayal.

***


Previously published in Parade, February 1972, under my penname Platen Syder.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

 
Naturally, looking back over this now, some 42 years later, I would like to think it could be improved. A certain magazine style was considered necessary to tell a tale in 1,000 words, so genre fiction short-hand prevailed in the writing. Still, I feel it holds up as a story.

If you enjoyed this moral tale, then you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.
 
 

FFB - Nanjing 1937


Nanjing 1937 by Ye Zhaoyan was published in 1996; this edition 2003; translated from Chinese by Michael Berry.

Ding Wenyu, almost forty, is married and a womaniser; he’s a college professor proficient in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Romanian; his ‘legendary’ language abilities come in useful from time to time. When in his late teens he was banished to France as a result of a misguided pursuit of a young woman. In Paris he crossed paths with Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Indeed, the book is deliberately scattered with name-dropping, notably the hierarchy of China at the time (there’s a helpful glossary of historical figures). Wenyu does not appear to be a likeable fellow, though he is amusing and his conceit in disavowing the mores of his times evokes sympathy.

Whether a fault of the translator, the editor (if any) or the author, the text is peppered with far too many clich├ęs: ‘hold a candle’, ‘between a rock and a hard place’, ‘a piece of cake’, ‘the short end of the stick’ to list a few. As the book contains irony as well as humour, perhaps this is intentional. Besides humour, there are a few scenes of farce, too.

Wenyu’s life is changed when he beholds the younger sister of the girl he’d pursued twenty years earlier: At her wedding to a popular fighter pilot, Yuyuan captures Wenyu’s heart. He is smitten with ‘a kind of adoration of the utmost purity’. Unlike his encounters with married women and prostitutes, he does not lust after her. [Yuyuan is also an exotic garden in the Old City of Shanghai.]

‘In this world there are many mistakes committed due to a lack of love, but love has the power to purify. It can make someone forget themselves and all their inhibitions. Before he met Yuyuan, Ding was a pathetic orphan, lost in a desert without an oasis in sight… Orphans to love are stranded at an eternal impasse; to pursue a woman without love will never quell the loneliness in one’s heart. Love is humankind’s starting point and its final resting place.’

So, he becomes obsessed with Yuyuan. He writes love letters (not lewd or salacious, just full of praise) to her every day. Perhaps nowadays he would be arrested for stalking. ‘True love is based on giving and not taking. Only a love based on giving is true love.’ In the final event, he follows that dictum, giving of himself.

In parallel – deliberately – the author juxtaposes Wenyu’s pursuit of his love against the threat of Japanese invasion – both seeming leisurely in pace, though that same pace quickens towards the end. There are some interesting snippets about the military situation, for example: ‘According to intelligence reports at the time, the Japanese military’s primary future target was not China but Russia. Moreover, if the Japanese navy wanted to conquer the Pacific, a direct conflict with America would be inevitable….’

This is, just, a love story; the blurb calls it ‘epic’ but it isn’t. Its emotional punch is weakened by the omniscient point of view, so as a result the ending was disappointing.

Some critics have mentioned ‘explicit’ scenes and ‘raunchy sex scenes’; these are minor, and most of the sex (there isn’t much) is handled without graphic detail. There is one curious item regarding women without pubic hair being called ‘white tigers’; the legend has it that white tigers can harm men, so apparently many superstitious Chinese men will not bed a ‘white tiger’. Another minor though dubious incident involves an acquaintance of Wenyu indulging in necrophilia.

The book is enlightening about the culture and attitudes of the time in China. What comes across most forcefully is the universality of the human condition, irrespective of culture. In 1937 Nanjing there was a cult of personality; the rich and notable craved to be seen at events; divorce was considered a scandal but accepted; and young girls attempted to marry older rich men.

Hanging over the leisurely and sometimes farcical courting by Wenyu is the oppressive knowledge that Japanese forces would prevail and Nanjing would fall. The Chinese saying is perfectly apt: ‘If good fortune awaits there is no reason to hide – if disaster awaits there will be no place to hide.’