Masquerade In Red – Chapter One… again.

Okay, I know I’ve already posted the first chapter, but these things always change. I thought I’d give it another go.

 

PRIVATE PLANE

As interesting and scenic as the Cornish coastline was, the Gothic pile known as Polgarron that  appeared to rise up out of the sea looked dark and forbidding. It was on a par to every old haunted house flick I’d ever seen. Crashing of the breakers, wild and tempestuous in the daytime, can ultimately assume a threatening aspect at night. Whoever chose this almost feral setting certainly did it for affect.

Judging by the countless hours Gregor had spent on this, he wrote little of the mysterious Professor. Other than he went by the rather doubtful moniker of Piers Maskelyne. Surprisingly, Maskelyne, unlike most Professors,  was  far from archetypal. While it might have been from an old clipping, there was a rather grainy photocopy from a newspaper of Maskelyne. He appeared  to be in his mid thirties. The suit he wore happened to be a fraction outmoded, with wide lapels, long to the waist, serving to accentuate his slender build. After all, the style went out in the eighties. The guy must be in his sixties by now.

Or not. According to Gregor, the Professor was born in 1976, which made him 38. Then the photo was more recent. I can’t help avoid a smile of derision. What kind of guy wore such an outmoded suit? Maskelyne was clean shaven. His features are handsome, debonair. A cynical smile played around full bodied lips. His  hair was long and spilling to his collar in carefully coiffured waves. One word sprang to mind and was ‘Dandy’. He certainly epitomised a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel or Sydney Carton. It’s as if his expression were challenging, daring me. To a duel perhaps? I steered my gaze away with a semblance of relief. 

My attention was swiftly diverted to what sounded like an aircraft’s engine whirring overhead. I poured myself a coffee, which was now practically stewed, that Harland brought some half hour ago, I stared  up at the sky. The plane was one of those light aircraft. Possibly a Cessna. The Captain told me once that he held a pilot’s licence and owned a private plane somewhere in Angmering. I had dared to enquire how a guy with the use of only eye can drive a car, pilot a plane, and ride an old Harley he bought from the States. 

“Instinct, Aidan. Purely instinct”, he’d related.

I smiled, shook my head and marvelled at this both amazing and fascinating man. The Captain displaying his prowess again.

Wishing that I too could fly a light aircraft, I checked out the recordings Johnny Miller had  forwarded to Gregor, as his handler.

Miller began by describing his room at Polgarron. How violent the sea was  at night and that it was difficult to sleep at first. 

“The first thing I noticed in my search,” Miller  related, “is there are bugs all over the place. Both kinds. Fuckin’ creepy crawlies, especially spiders.You can hear ‘em rustling in the wainscotting at night.”

“Wainscotting?” Gregor remarked with an element of derision.

‘”The panelling.”

“I know what wainscoting is. Tell me about the other bugs. Listening devices.”

“If it weren’t for our communicators, I’d never be able to call in.”

Miller’s voice was barely above a whisper. “There’s a sort of intercom over the bed. That’s the one they use to summon us.”

“Summon you? Who are they, Johnny?” 

His momentary pause was filled with static. Miller continued in a conspiratorial tone. “The doctors. At least I think they’re doctors, They wear white coats.”

“Where do they summon you too?” 

“After… after…” He swallowed so noisily, It caused the tape to crackle. “You know I told you about the machine?”

“The one they use to…” I heard Gregor pause and clear his throat innumerable times before continuing.

“To condition us. I’m told to report to the caves.”

“Caves! What caves?” Gregor exploded. “What caves, Johnny?”

 “Catacombs then. They’re sort of carved out of the rock and lead from under the house. That’s where they bring the.. the victims. There’s other stuff too. Look, Greg, I’ve gotta go.”

“Have you seen the Professor?” Gregor asked quickly.

“He’s the one who presides over the… the gathering. At least, I think that’s who it is, but  he’s always masked. The kind of eye mask they wear to masquerade balls. I’ll tell you something. There’s another agent.”

“What other agent? As far as I know there is no one.”

“Well there is, and it’s a woman.”

“A woman?” Gregor exclaimed, but his words fell on deaf ears, because Johnny Miller had rung off.

Profoundly lost in the unfolding conversation of catacombs and the enigmatic masked Maskelyne, I realised the Cessna was continuing that incessant whirring above. Returning to the window, I watched as it circled overhead. It was as if it were fixed in that position, making me wonder, still dazed by Miller’s revelation of the goings on at Polgarron, if the plane were about to crash. It certainly appeared to be in difficulties. The Captain hadn’t had a heart attack had he? After all, he was in his mid sixties.

He imagined himself to be half that age, but perhaps its time he faced the fact.

The sound of an explosion, followed by sporadic bursts of gunfire, erupted from somewhere outside the corridor. I was still staring at the Cessna, concerned over the Captain’s predicament, when I was  conscious of the glint of sunlight bouncing off the metal casing of a high powered rifle.  A rifle that was strategically levelled on my window from the Cessna ‘s passenger side.

 

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Masquerade In Red – Chapter One

The print is barely cold on my latest book, Progeny Of A Killer, but I’ve already started on the next in the Aidan McRaney series. Below is the first chapter or the next book, which I’ve given the working title Masquerade In Red.

As ever, your feedback is appreciated.

When a man of Gregor Johnson’s ample proportions decided to skydive from a hotel balcony at 2:30 in the morning, clad only in his undershorts, I had more than a passing cause to wonder why.
Gregor, who weighed more than twenty stone, was laid to rest in the quiet environs of a Greenwich cemetery. There were few mourners that steamy hot June afternoon, while I stifled in my dark suit and black tie; the normal funereal attire one is compelled to wear on these occasions and certainly out of respect for a man I had known barely a year. Except that Gregor was a larger than life character, and not merely because of his weight. This had led to the inevitable speculation that, disgruntled and miserable over his constant weight issues, he had plummeted to his death for that reason.

However, knowing Gregor as well as I did, if his weight concerned him he was certainly a fine actor at concealing it. Lately, life for Gregor had begun to look up when I introduced him to my sister’s friend Maura, herself a lady with weight problems.

A voluminous woman wrapped in black, Maura held a sodden handkerchief pressed to her face. She and I stood a little way off from the other mourners. I slipped my arm around Maura’s waist in a comforting gesture, for which she whispered a scarcely inaudible gratitude.

I guessed that neither one of us dared to disturb the solemnity of such a sombre occasion, but today, the day Gregor was laid to rest, just happened to be my birthday. I hoped that maybe they would have bypassed it, not from any selfishness on my part. It’s the fact that my sister Bridget is big on birthdays. I was already envisioning the cake and the banners, and my family’s expectant shining faces waiting on my opening my presents as if I were twelve instead of thirty two. In reality, I entertained precious little enthusiasm. Only the vicar, intoning the funeral eulogy, “Man that is born of a woman. is cutteth down like a flower. In the midst of life we are in death,” appeared to dominate everything else.

The vast, mahogany coffin was lowered into the waiting earth, which further incurred a wracking sob from Maura, prompting me to enquire if she would like to leave. Shaking her head and raising tear filled eyes to mine, her face crimson with grief, she informed me that she can’t leave until the service is over.

“Why did he do it, Aidan? Was it to get away from me?”

I was astonished that her thoughts should travel along those lines.

“God no! He loved you.” I placated her, having no idea what else to say.

Getting away from Maura was the last thing on Gregor’s mind. It was my belief, and I know it was also the Captain’s, that Gregor Johnson had no intention of either booking into a hotel or throwing himself from the balcony.

Gregor was both archivist and book-keeper for the Monroe Security Agency. With his partner, Johnny Miller – inexplicably absent from the gathering – the two men were working on a particular case. This case saw Gregor rifling through innumerable tomes in his office, while invariably exclaiming, ‘Eureka!’ He was so immersed in nailing someone he called ‘the Professor’, he was hardly likely to plunge to his death. Unless…

“I don’t think he meant to do it, do you?” Bryan Slazenger interrupted my uneasy train of thought. I couldn’t fail to agree although refrained from replying, out of deference to Maura.

Bryan, a fresh faced young man with something of the proverbial country boy about him, sported an unusually ashen expression. Although his eyes, like mine, were unreadable behind our shades.
He is the only one known to me. It is rare to meet other operatives. Thus I merely assumed that the group of dark suited men and women that stood aloof from the actual funeral party, as if in an endeavour to avert any trouble, had to be other agents.

It was a peaceful setting with the multitudinous arrangement of overhanging yews, which shadowed the graves, lending their own particular brand of sadness. They hung like a funeral pall over us.
“Who is that?” Bryan mouthed, gesturing at Maura.
When I told him that she was Gregor’s girlfriend, Bryan muttered, “Gregor had a girlfriend?” in surprise.

I was aware of course that I should take her home. She doesn’t belong here. As if interpreting my thoughts, Maura requested that I do just that. The service over the grave had ended. The vicar, his head bowed momentarily, thanked the mourners. Mrs Johnson, Gregor’s mother was being led away, half collapsing into her other son’s broad chest. Maura thanked me once again for bringing her. I was uncertain of what to say, because all I could recollect, like some unbridled spectre to haunt me, is the memory of my wife’s death. I was glad of the shades so that no one could be aware of the tears that stood in my eyes. Because I was not actually weeping for Gregor, but for her.
I was about to lead Maura away, when she fumbled in her coat for another handkerchief. Unable to locate one, I lent her mine. “Thank you,” she muttered without looking my way. Her attention was otherwise directed to the brown heap of dirt covering the coffin of probably the only man she’s ever had in her life. Maura was a pretty Irish girl, whose best feature was undoubtedly her glorious pennant of red-gold hair. When a firm hand slapped my back, I was conscious of Bryan Slazenger’s ashen features transforming to chalk. Maura regarded the man who expressed my name with a similar firm authority in both surprise and not a little unease.

Captain Nicholas Monroe, the new boss of the Agency wanted a word. I stiffened, because I was about to escort Gregor’s distraught girlfriend to my car. When I mentioned that fact, Monroe suggested that maybe Bryan could escort her.

“I want to stay with Aidan,” Maura protested, regarding Bryan as if he were some kind of axe murderer. When her eyes, swollen from crying, rose to the man who had spoken I feel the sensation of her stiffen against me. I’m used to his appearance now and, after my uncertainties at the outset, have begun to entertain a profound regard for the American. His Southern drawl was a cajoling one, “Bryan is one of the good guys, honey. He’ll take you to Aidan’s car. I just need a word that’s all. I promise I won’t keep him long.”

We call him the Captain, because that’s what he is, although he preferred us to call him simply Nick. “Sounds a mite friendlier don’t you think?“ He epitomised the rawboned frame of a man thirty years his junior. His hair was longish, and swept to the collar of an unaccustomedly dark pinstripe suit. I’m invariably used to seeing him in faded Levis.

Nick Monroe had known his fair share of action on the various tours of duty in Vietnam in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He was awarded both distinguished and Special Service medals, plus a couple of Purple Hearts. One of which was for the loss of his left eye, over which he wore a black leather patch.

Bryan Slazenger was practically standing to attention when Monroe appeared. It’s obvious the guy made him nervous, whereas I entertained precious few qualms. After all, the Captain and I have got blissfully hammered together, bemoaning the deaths of the women we’ve loved and lost. Two marriages and an equal amount of divorces later, Monroe professed to still being in love with his deceased first wife.

Maura continued to look back at me when Bryan led her away, while I can only promise not to be long. Monroe brushed a nicotined-stained finger over his rugged Zapata moustache, which we referred to as ‘a dead rat’ beneath his nose. Out of earshot of course.

“Do I make that guy nervous?” he asked, almost innocently. I regarded him blankly. “Slazenger. Is he any good?” He directed his attention to the young man’s retreating back. ”Only a nervous agent is about as useful as a chocolate prick in a roomful of whores.” Some of the Captain’s colloquialisms can be a little colourful.

“Sure. I’ve worked with him a couple of times and he was fine. Handles himself pretty good,” I told him. We moved away from the other mourners. Monroe paused before an overhanging yew to pat his jacket for cigarettes. He cursed when he failed to locate any. “Well, pretty good ain’t good enough. You gotta smoke?” The steady brown eye in the seasoned leathery skin appeared petulant.
“Not here. Not in a cemetery. Anyway, you said you wanted a word. Maura’s in a wee bit of a state. I promised I wouldn’t be long.”

Monroe’s expression was a thoughtful one as we observe the procession of exiting mourners.
“His girlfriend huh? The guy finds a nice girl, then takes a dive from a hotel balcony. If they record that as a verdict of accidental death I’ll be fuckin’ vamoozled. Yeah, to what I want to discuss. Not here though. Much too public. It’s just that I want you to take over where poor Gregor left off. Johnny Miller ain’t reported in for three days. When an operative don’t report in, I start thinking the worst. So, you in, Aidan? ‘Cos I believe you’re the right man for the job. You’re fit, you’re young and you don’t seem to scare easy. Not like Mr Slazenger. That guy needs more training.”

That steady-eyed gaze refuted me to argue. Of course I have my children to think of. Right now I guess my son and two year old daughter are waiting on my return home for my birthday celebrations. Except when I’m with this man, I’ve come to realise, that not only does he appear not to take no for an answer, but that his exemplary military knowledge refused to rub off.
“Sure,” I half-whispered and listened to an unaccustomed huskiness. “Maybe I owe it to Gregor,”
The weathered features broke into a smile, one that was a fraction hampered by the three inch long scar, that stretched from below the patch and paralleled his nose.

“Good, I knew you wouldn’t refuse.” His slapped my back again. Although the gesture is a friendly one, it can be quite painful.

“Oh I almost forgot. There’s a bottle of Jack back at the office.”

I stared at him in surprise. “Jack Daniels?” The Tennessee whisky, although his favourite brand, I found a fraction strong for my taste. ‘What’s that for?”

“Your birthday, ‘course.”

“How did…?”

“I’m fuckin’ psychic, boy,” he laughed. ”You guys all have files haven’t you? Yours told me your birthday was 21st June. Sorry it had to be the day poor Gregor was buried.”