If you read yesterday’s post about making my books available on other platforms as well as Kindle and then clicked through to my publications page you may have wondered why Honest Hearts was not included. Honest Hearts was my first novel. Before uploading it to Draft2Digital I read it through and decided that there is much room for improvement. So until those improvements are made I shall not be ‘going wide’ with it. That may take a little while as I also want to finish The Poor Law Inspector.
Meanwhile, here is a short extract. It is a bit of back story that explains how the female protagonist came under the evil influence of a dodgy character of Italian descent. I present it here exactly as I wrote it back in 2011 and I’m offering it as my entry to Stevie Turner’s March short story contest. I shall call it “Byrne Terrace”.
The new buildings that sprang up to accommodate the massive influx of humanity flocking to the new conurbations of North America during the second half of the nineteenth century were often of poor quality construction. Many were made of timber. So it should be no surprise that there were so many devastating fires during that period.
The wealthy – professional people, landlords and factory owners – could afford to take out insurance against such an eventuality. The poor could not. So when a building was consumed by fire the owners of the affected buildings could easily build anew, usually using better quality materials. The tenants however lost their few belongings and, being uninsured, were frequently left with little more than the clothes they were wearing. These, though, were the fortunate ones for many others lost their lives.
But life for everyone was precarious in these years. Professionals, factory owners and landlords would, like as not, be in hock to a bank or money lender. In the event of a fire or other disaster it would be the bank or money lender who would benefit. It was the bank or money lender therefore that acquired the new building paid for by the insurance money.
Some of the wealthy adopted habits not entirely conducive to retaining, let alone expanding their wealth. On the shore of Coney Island for example frequent horse races were run and many people who ought to have known better lost fortunes betting on the outcome of these races. Others became slaves to the god alcohol. Combining the two was a recipe for disaster.
It certainly was in the case of Joseph Byrne. Since arriving in North America Joe had worked hard, saved diligently and invested his savings in land on which he built, with his own hard labour and that of fellow Irishmen, houses that were of a generally higher standard than most of those that he watched being crudely assembled alongside. Once his houses were completed he was able, because of their superior quality, to lease them to some of the more discerning of tenants. In this way he was able to ensure that his wife Mary and the daughter they eventually produced enjoyed relatively comfortable lives.
Of all the houses that Joseph built the most solid and attractive was the one that he and his small family inhabited. Its rooms were larger than any in his tenanted houses. It was furnished with cabinets and chaises of a quality that would normally be found only in the homes of much wealthier individuals.
All of this was achieved in fewer than two decades of hard work and Mary was naturally proud of her husband’s achievements and as grateful for the beautiful and talented daughter he had given her as for the many examples of craftsmanship and artistry with which he had filled their home. Now that Joe’s thick wavy hair was turning grey and his jowls coming to resemble those of an overfed turkey she had begun to hope that he would slow down. It would be nice, she thought, to be able to spend more time together; to have him beside her, as well as their daughter, when they took a stroll along the boardwalk; to accompany him to the races and maybe have a small flutter on a horse.
Had Mary been aware that Joe was already attending the races on a regular basis and having much more than a “small flutter” on every occasion she would have had cause for concern. To be fair, Joe’s judgement of horseflesh, like his judgement of quality in building and in interior furnishings, had been impeccable at the start. Indeed, not a few of the fine things in Joe and Mary’s home had been purchased with the proceeds from a well placed bet.
As time went on, though, Joe began to make some reckless wagers. Even the best of tipsters will sometimes fail to produce an accurate forecast of the outcome of a race. Perhaps the rider is out of sorts on the day. Perhaps a sudden fall of rain makes the sand softer than anticipated thereby favouring a different horse. And it is never beyond the bounds of possibility that behind the scene someone is determined to ensure a particular outcome and has the power to guarantee that such outcome ensues. No amount of expertise in the attributes of horse or rider can counter such things.
The sensible punter puts such losses behind him and determines either never to bet again or, at the very least, to keep his bets within affordable limits. The man who is confident of his ability on the other hand will conclude that the best way to cover his losses is to place a bigger bet on the next prospect. It is at this point that the sensible person will begin to question the judgement of the other. The over-confident person never questions his own judgement. And if he is partial to a drop of the best Irish whiskey that money can buy his judgement can quickly become impaired to a dangerous degree.
It didn’t take Joe very long to get himself into a position where he needed to mortgage his tenanted houses in order to pay off his gambling debts. And it was not very long after that when he realised that he still was not winning – or at any rate not with the frequency necessary to meet payments on the mortgage. It was at this stage that his better judgement departed entirely. He determined that, as the houses were insured, if they were to be consumed by fire the mortgage would be paid off and he would be off the hook. Never mind that what he was planning was a crime. Never mind that it would leave him with no source of income. The bank would be off his back.
Still, it was a high risk strategy, only to be followed in extremis. One last bet on a certainty would also get him out of trouble. Only if that failed would he adopt the strategy that he had come to refer to as the final solution.
The wager on which he decided to stake everything – including his home and everything in it – was indeed an absolute certainty. Of course, as has been stated above, there is no such thing. The weather changes; riders have off days. So too do horses. Nevertheless, it was neither of these things that was to be the end of Joe Byrne and his small property empire.
Joe would never know it but the man with whom he placed at stake his only remaining asset was also the man who knew the outcome of the race; knew it because, as the owner of the horse and, in all but name, its rider, he had decreed that it would be so. Leonardo Carlucio had watched as Joe Byrne had worked to build his successful business. Consumed with envy Leonardo had nevertheless bided his time. He had watched as Joe’s gambling addiction had taken hold. He had encouraged Joe to cover his losses with ever larger stakes; had accompanied Joe as the latter sought solace in drink.
Joe was pleased to have found such a sympathetic ear into which to pour forth his concerns for his future and that of his wife and daughter. After all, he could hardly discuss the plight into which his business had fallen with them. That would have meant admitting to his weakness and would have destroyed their happiness. Of course, if his plans went awry their happiness would be destroyed in any case. But that would not happen. His new Italian friend had assured him that the bet he was about to make was as safe as any he had ever made. And Joe trusted Leonardo; would trust him with his life.
Leonardo certainly did know the bet was safe. But not in the way that Joe thought. Joe had no way of knowing that the person with whom he was placing the bet was actually in the employ of Leonardo and that Leonardo would be the beneficiary were the horse, by some freak of fate, not to win the race. Nor could Joe have known that there was no freak of fate involved; that, in fact, it was all pre-arranged so as to deliver Joe’s home, and with it his wife and daughter, into Leonardo’s hands.
As he watched the horse, on which he had staked everything, stumble and fall Joe Byrne wept. His life was surely over. His dearest friend Leonardo was beside him and tried to console him but it was impossible. He extricated himself from Leonardo’s embrace and, feet dragging, left the boardwalk. Entering the centre house in the block of five that he had built with such care barely a decade ago, he retrieved the tin of kerosene that he had stashed under the stairs earlier in the day.
He was certain that the houses would be empty at this time but, to be absolutely sure, he went to the front door of every apartment and checked that it was unoccupied. His judgement may have departed but he retained enough humanity to not wish to be responsible for the death of any of his tenants. All he wanted to do was to ensure that Mary and Maeve were not going to be held responsible for the mortgages on these properties. Rather, he aimed to ensure that they received a lump sum from the residue of the insurance payout after the mortgage had been repaid. This, he fervently hoped, would be sufficient to save them from destitution.
After he had placed a kerosene soaked rag under each basement floor he set a slow fuse to burn in the centre property. Then he walked away from the block. Crossing the boardwalk he strode across the sand so recently disturbed by the hooves of race horses. The seaward side of the track was already being eradicated by the incoming tide. Ignoring the waves washing over his feet and soaking the heavy corduroy of his trousers he continued walking. He did not hesitate as the icy water reached his paunch. He uttered a brief gasp as a wave several inches higher than its predecessor splashed his jaw and he tasted salt. But he didn’t stop. He had never learned to swim. If he had it would have made little difference. The weight of his wet clothes dragged him under and there was no longer any visible evidence of his existence. No neat pile of clothes on the beach. Nor had anyone seen him walk to his death. Everyone within sight was distracted by the fire raging in the row of dwellings that Mary liked to think of as Byrne terrace. It would be a long time before Mary came to appreciate the irony in the sound of those two words.