The William S Club, p.1Riley Banks
THE WILLIAM S CLUB
By Riley Banks
Published by: Aussieicon Books
Copyright Aussieicon Books 2012
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31 December 1941
Icy wind lashed the grey surface of the Thames River, whipping the water into stiff, white meringue peaks.
Rain fell, alternating between persistent wintry drizzle and the torrential deluge of freezing sleet.
At least the turbid conditions had one advantage; they extinguished the smouldering flames from the latest round of falling bombs and washed away the acrid pall of smoke that hung on the city like a funeral shroud.
People shambled along the pavement, fractured and crazed by falling shrapnel, their voices cocooned by the driving rain.
The lucky few had woollen coats or scarves, pulled tight around gaunt, hungry bodies. Too many had been caught unawares, losing everything in a paroxysm of fire, left with scarce clothing and inadequate shelter to survive a harsh London winter.
Sirens pierced the grey sky. The demonic horde of German bombers had returned, sending the crowds scurrying into the bomb shelters that had sprung up like mushroom – many becoming permanent homes rather than temporary refuges.
Headlines claimed a million homes destroyed by the Blitz.
As if such a mediocre word came close to describing the ultimate destruction and slaughter rendered by the Germans.
Death and ruination marred the once fine metropolis, leaving behind a scar of misery and heartache.
But Hitler had forgotten one thing.
This was London.
They had survived great fires and black plagues. They would survive Hitler’s onslaught too.
They had hope.
Hope they would live out the night, that the Allies would prevail and that - one day - they would rebuild the shattered remains of their lives.
The winter solstice spread black fingers across the sky, the air chill with the promise of snow and the threat of renewed fury.
A man walked alone.
He wore no jacket; carried no umbrella. He was horribly underdressed for the appalling conditions.
He tugged the wide collar of a lurid patterned shirt up around his ears, already painful and florid with the onset of frostbite. Clenching his hands into tight fists, he rammed them as deep as he could into the shallow pockets of a faded pair of denim jeans, hoping the close proximity to skin could get the blood circulating again.
Soot and ash mingled with the rain, leaving a dirty trail of mud that irritated his blue eyes and turned to grit in his mouth.
Unlike his fellow Londoners, he had no hope in the future. No faith that tomorrow would be a better day.
His fatalistic pondering gave him a ballsy edge; then again, if there was nothing to live for, why bother protecting himself?
What was there to safeguard? His reputation lay in tatters. The Fates had laid waste to his dreams and aspirations with their shears of destiny, cutting short his lifeline.
If he died, who would miss him?
His parents thought him dead and in many ways, he was – at least the son they had created out of unrealistic dreams.
All he had left were the clothes on his back and a few crumpled notes in his pocket.
It was all that stood between him and complete destitution.
Bah, so much for hard work? Where is the fruit of your labour now?
A grubby, filth encrusted child ran towards him, shouting out to be heard above the rain and the angry drone of Hitler’s planes.
‘Sir, you must get to a shelter. The Germans are coming.’
The man brushed by the boy, ignoring his sage advice.
Rather than follow the boy into the belly of the London Tube, he trudged on, aimless against the tide of bodies that pressed all around him, like rats fighting their way out of a sinking ship.
Strange but he envied these people.
As cruel and heartless as it sounded, they had a future to look forward to.
Wars came and went, and this too would end in time, just as the sun would go on rising no matter how many German bombers tried to tear the sky in half.
The dark closed in around him, blanketing him, pressing in around him like a cloak.
The streets, just moments ago teeming with a sea of unwashed, wretched humanity, were now a barren wasteland – the monotony broken up by the sparse appearance of a businessman trying to eke out a few more pence from a bankrupt society.
Why had he come back here? What did he think it would solve?
A discarded newspaper caught a gust of wind and harried around his head like a swarm of buzzing bees.
He snatched the paper away, scrunching it up like his own screwed up life, his hand hovering over a rubbish bin overturned on the sidewalk.
Morbid curiosity, like lemon juice in a paper cut, made him glance at the headlines.
Or was he always preordained to see and act?
Printing ink snaked along the soggy paper, threatening to disintegrate in his hand like his reputation already had.
The Fates were handing him a second chance.
He had never considered what a war did to property prices.
In reality, he had never really thought about real estate at all.
Why would he? It wasn’t exactly his area of expertise.
You screwed up your first calling. Can you make this a new calling?
An idea began to take root in his brain, refusing to budge no matter how improbable, or unethical, he knew it to be.
His hand clasped tighter around the small bundle of notes that stood between him and bankruptcy.
He was on the precipice of disaster.
On one side, a future filled with overwhelming despondency and failure.
On the other, a blank stone on which to transcribe a future not yet written.
Did he have the courage to tread the unknown path?
The drone of airplanes approached like wasps at a picnic, looking for a victim to sting.
A metal grate clanked shut, shaking him back to the here and now.
‘You best be off to the shelter, sir. The Germans are coming.’
The salesman wore an elegant black bowler hat that was as out of place on the war-torn streets as William’s shirt.
A matching black bow tie stood out against the dull grey of a once crisp white shirt and the brown fox fur of a woman’s coat skimmed the edges of a patched tuxedo.
Where had this man been when he lost everything?
William’s bright eyes deepened to indigo as they danced over the photographs in the window. ‘Are you still open for business?’
Bingo. That’s the one.
An internal battle raged inside the real estate agent, as fierce and intense as any the Allies had engaged in.
Was money more important than safety? How much did this homeless wraith have anyway? How long before the German planes circled the sky like vultures, looking for a scrap of rotting flesh to feast on?
When was the last time he’d actually sold anything?
Powerful memories of a life once shared with a beautiful wife - before she’d been cut to ribbons by white-hot shrapnel.
If he died trying to reclaim a tiny remnant of that life, at least he’d be reunited with her.
‘Make it fast,’ the real estate agent said.
‘I want to buy that property,’ William said,
He pulled the crumpled notes out of his pocket, paying cash for the house of his dreams.
The room was soporific; a compact radiator emitted hot air into the cramped room like a jet airplane pumping carbon emissions.
Charlotte was neither a morning person nor a winter lover.
She was a sun worshipper – a lover of all things summer.
So how did she end up in London, where grey skies far outnumbered blue?
At least it was her day off. She could sleep all day if she so wished.
How about a whole month? Better yet, why not stay sleeping until the end of winter?
An electronic buzz became a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes strafing for a feed, her sleep-deprived mind playing tricks on her.
Half past five in the morning – on a Saturday.
She swatted the off button, but the sound persisted.
Not the alarm. Her phone.
Only one person would call her at this time on her day off.
She unwrapped herself from a cocoon of fluffy blankets, reaching for the phone.
Her editor didn’t call because he needed her. He called simply because he could. He was a megalomaniac; drunk on his god-like powers to dictate terms to his staff.
‘Charlotte Burke.’ She managed to inflect cheer into her voice, despite the ungodly hour.
‘Burke, my office. Twenty minutes.’
No hello. No apology for breaking the sanctity of her New Year’s Eve. He didn’t even bother waiting around to see if she agreed, hanging up as soon as he issued his order.
She cast a longing glance at her bed, wondering what had happened to her fantasy of sleeping out the winter.
A leftover curry sat half eaten on the bedside table, the smell clinging to the walls and furnishings like peanut butter.
She picked up a fork, scooping the remains into her mouth.
Nothing appetizing about cold curry, but it was the only breakfast she was going to get.
Grabbing a towel, she gritted her teeth, bracing herself for the Scandinavian igloo-cold of the communal bathroom - the landlord too cheap to pay for heating in the common areas.
At the very least, she could thank Highgrove she no longer had to suffer the hypothermic misery of a London cold shower. His early morning wake up calls meant she was usually the first in the bathroom rather than the last.
She cast the robe aside, praying her luck held out.
Nine minutes later, she emerged from her bedsit washed and warm - until the winter frost stole away the last pink glow of shower warmth, replacing it with the flushed purple of snap frozen skin.
Charlotte wrapped a bright red scarf around her neck, securing the ends under a matching hat. Her hands disappeared into the sleeves of an electric blue trench coat.
It was the cold mornings that made her long for her homeland the most; that made her dream of a scorching summer sun so hot it could bake her skin a rich shade of bronze and turn her hair into liquid platinum.
There was just one problem.
Australia was a tomb, a place she had buried her past and discarded her ghosts.
A place she would never see again.
She quickened her pace, moving with practiced agility down the narrow, protracted escalator into the bowels of the London Underground.
Fresh baked bread permeated the air, airborne advertising drawing unsuspecting locals to the French-inspired bakery.
Unfortunately her arrival coincided with that of a long, snaking train, leaving no time for baked delights.
Charlotte sprinted across the platform, leaping into the snake’s yawning mouth, the doors hissing closed behind her, the ubiquitous warning to ‘Mind the gap’.
The sun was hours away from making a sleepy appearance, but the carriage was already full of an odd assortment of people; late night revellers returning home from drunken Friday night binges; others returning from working the graveyard shift.
The rest, like her, were just starting their day.
If they were lucky, they’d get the night off to celebrate the New Year.
Some closed their eyes, squeezing precious sleep into a workweek that would last long into the weekend.
Charlotte slipped in earphones, letting the dulcet tones of Cold Chisel waken her body.
With only four minutes until her deadline, she arrived at Victoria Station.
Highgrove’s twenty minutes never meant thirty, or even twenty two. You could be a minute early, but never, ever a minute late.
He was an impatient man. A disagreeable man.
But Charlotte was an investigative journalist, and Highgrove was the best in the business. Not to mention a career maker.
A recommendation from him could pave the way for Pulitzers and journalistic superstardom.
On the flip side, piss him off and the closest you’d get to real journalism was writing obituaries.
Charlotte knew she could write. Highgrove hired her the minute he saw her edgy portfolio – a mix of corporate exposés, political transgressions, celebrity anecdotes and humanitarian pieces.
Unfortunately, he spent the next six months making her wish he hadn’t.
Late at night, when her natural paranoia kicked in, Charlotte imagined the stories investigative journalists could write about her.
If Highgrove knew who she really was…
Well it wouldn’t be her by-line on the front page of The Daily Telegraph.
It would be her picture.
Thomas Highgrove marched a new track into the worn office carpet.
He had a mobile phone pressed to his wrinkled ear and a cigarette dangling precariously from his creased lower lip.
While the rest of the corporate world bowed to the non-smoking lobbyists, he had bucked the system, convincing the powers that be that he’d get more work done in his office rather than hurtling up and down the thirty story building to the smoking bay below.
He stopped pacing long enough to pick up a stained coffee mug, putting it to his lips before remembering the cigarette already there.
Ash fell into the lukewarm remains.
He slammed down the cup. ‘Shit.’
Ten minutes he’d spent on hold, waiting, subjected to the infuriating elevator music that made him want to reach through the phone and strangle someone.
Finally, a real live person.
‘Sorry for the delay. Mr Harvey is unable to come to the phone right now.’
Can’t come to the bloody phone? He got me out of bed an hour ago. I know he’s not fucking sleeping.
Highgrove didn’t say the things that bit into his tongue like vipers.
Instead he put on his most honeyed voice. ‘Is there anyone else I can speak to?’
A pause as she spoke to someone close by.
‘Damon Harvey will speak to you.’
‘And who is he?’
‘Damon is in charge of press arrangements.’
‘I don’t care which Harvey I speak to. Just get one.’
‘Ah, Mr Highgrove. How may I help you?’
‘About this… request.’ Highgrove knew as well as the man on the other end it was nothing of the sort. ‘I want to send someone else.’
‘My grandfather was very clear. He wants Charlotte Burke.’
‘I beg your pardon but this is an internal staffing matter. I should be able to send who I think is suitable and frankly, I don’t think that’s Burke.’
‘My grandfather disagrees. He thinks she is very suitable. He wouldn’t have requested her presence otherwise. Need I remind you that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for your newspaper?’
In other words, toe the line or miss out.
Inhaling cigarette smoke deep into his lungs, he offered an alternative. ‘Jonah Walsh has written a number of articles on your company. He knows your history.’
Harvey breathed out, air hissing between his teeth like
‘Then the plane leaves in two hours. If Ms Burke is not on board, the Telegraph misses out. Now I’m very busy -’
‘Of course. Sorry to have wasted your time.’
Rich people. Jerk offs more like it. They think they own this world. They say jump and we’re supposed to ask ‘how high?’
He picked up his coffee cup, taking a small sip. Remembered the ash. Swore furiously.
‘Marvellous fucking morning I’m fucking having.’
He flung the cold coffee into the potted palm tree, storming out to his secretary’s desk to refill his cup. The phone was lit up like a Christmas tree.
Charlotte entered the office.
‘You’re early. Wait here.’
He slammed the door closed but not before he heard her call him a bastard under her breath.
For some reason, it made him smile.
‘Pass me another paper.’
Damon did as he was told, removing the apex of a pyramid of world newspapers.
He was not surprised there was no please or thank you. His grandfather was a man of very few words.
‘Who was that?’
‘Thomas Highgrove, Assistant Editor at The Daily Telegraph.’
‘Burke is still coming, isn’t she?’
‘He wanted to send somebody else. Someone with more experience with the company I might add.’
‘No changes. I must have the journalists I requested.’
The old man’s lascivious gaze troubled Damon. Who were these people and what was his grandfather’s interest in them?
Damon wanted to ask but they weren’t exactly close.
Until last night, he had not spoken to his grandfather in three years.
It came as no surprise to anyone who knew the Harvey family.
There were two factions inside the family. The William S Club and everyone else.
The William S Club had started as a derogative term used for the tight inner circle that made up the leadership of Harvey Incorporated.
The William S Club by Riley Banks / Mystery & Detective / Romance & Love / History & Fiction / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes