Neil Mackenzie's second outing...
The Big Sister
In the sequel to The Big Keep, Neil Mackenzie’s last term in teaching is not the end to his career he was expecting. Rocky and Gere rope him into their new pet project, Calverley Investigations and Security Consultants, and then he meets Rachel Wallis, one of the hottest movie stars on the planet. In an action packed, wise-cracking few months, Neil and the boys uncover the secrets of both Rachel’s past and the hierarchy at Neil’s school with predictably explosive consequences.
Here's the Prologue...
Being mugged anywhere in the world is mostly down to bad luck. If you’re not an idiot that is: and Rachel wasn’t an idiot. In her business she was accustomed to being on her guard when she was out and about, so the horror of the moment when she first realised what was happening to her was magnified by a huge dose of self-recrimination.
‘Senora, you like Venetian chiesi?’
It was late evening and she had gone out for a stroll on a whim. Wandering into a small piazza with an old church bordering the far end, Rachel paused and gazed in appreciation at the sight. The Renaissance architecture had been beautifully illuminated by lights on the ground trained upwards, showing off the detail of the inscriptions and carvings that decorated its facade. Rachel, forgetting her current introspection, walked towards the ancient building and gazed at it for a few seconds, lost in appreciation, until those words made her start in surprise.
Rachel had only landed at Marco Polo that afternoon, a motor launch whisking her the last few miles to La Regina’s private jetty. She had stood next to the helmsman throughout the ride, watching the skyline of the city present itself as the boat cut across the water. A few minutes into the ride she became aware of the warm, salty air filling her lungs and the soothing sensation as it blew against her face. It felt good to be back.
Venice, in all its redolent, romantic splendour, can only really be truly appreciated if approached from the sea: the buildings rising out of the water as if from another age and a different world. It should have been bestowed with ‘the eternal city’ soubriquet rather than Rome - not for its longevity but for the emotions that it contrives to induce on first viewing. Beside it Rome has all the charm of a hangover.
Only the day before, Rachel had been in LA, waiting for Jack to return from filming: she had missed him and was eagerly awaiting their long overdue holiday together. It was then, thanks to a call from a television station to her PA, that she discovered that Jack had been screwing his co star. After a few hours of frantic checking up, tears and finally anger, she made the snap decision to get away: away from everything to do with the movie business and her life in the States.
Her next movie was four weeks away in England so she had time to clear her head and think about the future and, theoretically at least, the world was her oyster. But where to go when you can go anywhere you please – home perhaps or a remote tropical paradise? No, not this time: it had taken her less than a minute to decide on Venice and to go alone - properly alone, without even her PA for company. The city had been the backdrop to her first break in the industry. It was also her earliest experience of Europe and up to now nowhere on the continent had come close to matching it. Even when she had brought her mother and two younger sisters back the following year as part of a European tour, Venice had still stood out as her favourite place to wake up in. If either of her parents were still alive maybe she would have headed back to Vancouver to seek solace, but that avenue of escape was closed forever.
Rachel figured it like this: a week in Venice and then over to England to prepare for the movie. In Britain people tended to leave you alone when you were out and about and she would rent a place that guaranteed her privacy and comfort and the space to get her emotional life back on track out of the glare of the media circus in LA.
Three weeks or so would also give her some time to begin to fulfil a promise - a promise only made in a half-serious exchange with her mother several years ago, but one which Rachel had been looking forward to keeping from the moment she had agreed to do the British film. Granted, she felt ill-prepared to tackle the undertaking but was also confident there were people she could find who could help her with it once she got herself organised – one of the perks of fame was that there were always people around who were anxious to lend her a hand.
It took only a few hours in the hotel, however, for Rachel to realise she had made a mistake. La Regina was perfect and her suite on the top floor had a fantastic view of the Grand Canal but it still felt like a prison. Back in LA she had felt desperate and miserable and now she felt exactly the same except she was in a foreign country and thousands of miles from anyone she might even tentatively describe as a friend. She had made a grand romantic gesture by running away and, as is often the way with grand romantic gestures, she had ended up feeling lonely and foolish.
She had dinner in the apartment, telling herself that she needed to recover after the long journey and hoping that some great Italian cooking and a bottle of wine would lift her spirits. It didn’t work - all it did was make her feel pathetic in front of Luigi, the middle-aged waiter who had been assigned to oversee her dining requirements. He carried out his duties with an unobtrusive charm and she made a gallant effort to appear happy to be there and made admiring comments about Venice to him, but it was hard work.
The table was set just inside the open French windows that led onto a small balcony. She sat and watched the city as she ate: the busy vaporetti ploughing up and down the canal filled with tourists or Venetians going home from work: it made her wish she could go down and join them. Slowly night fell, the lights gradually blinked on and Luigi lit the candles on her table for her. She wondered how the hell she hadn’t seen this coming and guessed her judgement had been clouded by her previous experience of the city. Amongst all the emotion about Jack, Rachel had forgotten a self-evident aspect of her fame – it was impossible for her to be a private person in a place like this. The irony of it all - half the population of Venice would have most likely jumped at the chance to be her buddy if she’d requested volunteers but here she was feeling lonelier than Robinson Crusoe. What a bag of dicks! She toyed with the idea of asking Luigi to get her another bottle of wine and getting drunk but that didn’t seem like a sensible option and she dismissed it with a wry smile to herself.
So what to do - leave and head for England early? The answer to the question was almost certainly ‘yes’ but that felt like defeat whichever way she looked at it. Rachel took a sip of her wine and looked down at the busy canal again and let her mind wander until unbidden questions floated into her mind. What was the worst that could happen if she went out? No, really, was it such an unthinkable thought? Venice was used to celebrity anyway and the tourists had to be pretty cosmopolitan to even come to the city. Maybe she had been moving in a rarefied atmosphere of precious self-obsessed egos for so long she couldn’t behave normally anymore? All she wanted to do, after all, was go for a walk, take in some of the atmosphere and perhaps start to feel normal again. It wasn’t much to ask for Chris’sake and the last time she checked Italy was a free country. The worst that could ensue would probably only be a few awkward autograph hunters or well-wishers and she could deal with that with good grace.
Rachel looked at her watch. It was past ten o’clock already – dammit she would go out and screw the consequences. The hotel would organise a launch to drop her off somewhere not too far away and she could wander back. Then she would take in some of the atmosphere she had come seven or eight thousand miles to appreciate. She drained the last of her wine from her glass and stood up and walked over to a phone.
Twenty minutes later she was standing on the steps of a landing stage near Ca’Rezzonico, a leather bag slung over her shoulder, dressed in a loose fitting trouser suit and an open-necked blouse and sandals. Her only attempt at disguise was a pair of phoney horn-rimmed glasses. She stood and watched the hotel launch chug away back up the canal and then turned and started walking.
It was a still, warm evening and the crowds of the day were mostly gone - back to hotel rooms or cruise ships or sitting in restaurants recovering from the day’s activities. Only a few couples, families or groups of students seemed to be about as she began to stroll back in the general direction of the hotel across the bulge of San Marco that nestles within the U shaped turn of the Canal Grande. Rachel felt properly relaxed for the first time in weeks, the realisation giving her a strange, light feeling in her soul. Was it the wine or the city she wondered or both? Out of the blue she yearned to be anonymous again, just another tourist visiting the most beautiful city in the world.
At the sound of the man’s voice behind her, however, all these reflections and the appreciation of Venetian architecture were instantly forgotten. She swung around, involuntarily gripping her shoulder bag to her side and looking to see who it was. He certainly looked Italian – he was dark skinned and dressed in a hip length leather jacket and jeans. There was a smile on his smooth angular face but the look was as unconvincing as Donald Trump’s comb-over and a tight knot clenched itself in her stomach.
‘Er, y-yes,’ she stammered. ‘I’m sorry, you startled me. It’s beautiful.’
He took a step closer and grinned, showing her an unhealthy looking set of teeth as his smile developed into a leer. He was in his thirties she estimated, about average height and medium build but with wide, strong looking shoulders.
‘Ah, you are American. Please, don’t be alarmed Senora, my friend and I just want your bag. Give it to me and we will not hurt you.’ To emphasise his point he lifted one hand out of the pocket of his jacket and showed her a small but frightening looking knife before lowering it back out of sight.
‘Pardon me?’ Rachel took a tiny step back and looked around for a way of escape, catching sight of another man as she did so. This one was in the process of appearing from the shadows of an alley at the side of the church cutting off her most obvious escape route. She half turned to face the guy with the knife again, a surge of panic flooding her senses at the realisation she was trapped. With the knife back in his pocket he was holding out a hand for her bag. His expression was almost apologetic.
The guy from the alley was more direct. When he arrived in front of her he simply glanced at his associate and, without pausing at all, reached out for her bag and tried to rip it from her grasp. Rachel stepped back and let out a surprised scream, registering as she did so that a small group of people were just entering the square from the direction she had come from herself. She prayed they would help in some way, even if it was just by making a noise to spook the muggers, but it was a desperate, momentary thought as she braced herself against her attacker.
She kicked out, pulling the bag into her chest as the first man moved to join in the struggle. They were, inevitably, stronger than her despite the fear and fury that were coursing through her veins and after a couple of seconds the second man ripped the bag from her grasp. She stumbled and fell on her backside.
As Rachel went down her glasses fell off and she felt a wave of helplessness flood over her. Why the fuck hadn’t she stayed at the hotel! The guy with the bag turned to go but was only half into his first stride when, from out of nowhere, another man came barrelling into him, his fist jerking the Italian’s head back so that he tottered like a drunk on a bouncy castle until he collapsed in a heap on the flagstones of the square.
Almost at the same time as the first man hit the ground, Rachel watched with detached, helpless horror as the guy who had first asked her for her bag stepped away from her and whipped the knife out of his jacket, holding it out to show it to her would-be rescuer. She looked to see what his reaction would be and wondered, just for a moment, if the last few days had been a hallucination and she was actually shooting a scene in an action adventure movie.
To Rachel’s surprise the new arrival grinned. Then he stuck out his hands, palms upwards, in a gesture of compromise.
‘Just so you know,’ he said in a resigned English accent. ‘I’ve had a fucking long day, my feet are aching like buggery and now you start flashing a knife in my face. Well, Senori, my advice is to leave now and we give the fight a miss because you’re going to have your arse kicked.’
Right then, Rachel felt like interjecting and pointing out forcibly to the Englishman that his opponent had a knife and that this wasn’t a movie. She was a bit of an expert on that sort of thing after all. As an actor she understood that the good guy’s flash moves that render the bad guy either dead or unconscious take a lot of rehearsal and even then a body double occasionally gets hurt. This was for real and the Brit, whoever he was, was in awful danger – and for what – a bag she could replace a hundred times over. Before she could say anything, however, the Italian made his move.
A flicker of doubt had flashed across his face when the Brit was speaking but he must have ignored this inner voice and lunged at him. Somehow, in an instance, the latter had first one hand and then the other on the Italian’s wrist. In the next moment he had turned so he was holding the Italian’s arm out in front of the both of them. There was a dull painful thud as the knife owner’s face was introduced to the Englishman’s elbow and the knife clattered onto the ground. To finish off, Rachel’s new hero swivelled round, grabbed her attacker by the jacket lapels and put his knee straight into the poor man’s testicles, so that he collapsed with a girlish squeal, clutching his groin for dear life. The Brit retrieved the knife from the ground and stood up slowly, rubbing his elbow as his companions, two women and three teenage girls ran up to join them.
Rachel found her glasses, got up unsteadily and retrieved her bag from next to the man with the undamaged genitals. Her legs felt weak and her hands were shaking.
‘Neil, are you alright?’ said one of the women. She was small and petite and reminded Rachel of Courtney Cox back when she could take her looks for granted.
‘Yeah, I’ll be fine once I’ve got my breath back - but what about you?’
He had turned to look at Rachel who was standing clutching her bag. Rachel smiled weakly.
‘I’ve been better but it would have been worse if it wasn’t for you. Thank you so much.’
He grinned again. ‘No problem, I’m glad we were around to help. I’m Neil and this is Tina and Maggie. The three giggling teenagers are Lisa, Amy and Jo but you’re probably better off ignoring them. We’re on a school Art trip to Venice.’
They, were teachers, on a school vacation? If Neil was anything to go by, British teachers were a lot tougher than the ones that had taught her back in Vancouver.
‘Are you sure you’re all right dear?’ It was elder of the two adult women. She sounded like a member of the English upper classes and had a kindly face.
A tear began to run down Rachel’s cheek and Maggie went over to her and put an arm around her shoulders.
‘Where are you staying?’ she said gently. ‘One of us should see you home safely.’
‘No, no I’ll be fine,’ protested Rachel.
Maggie looked at Tina for confirmation and Tina nodded in agreement.
‘Yes, we insist, er, Rachel isn’t it?’
Rachel glanced at Tina quickly and at her companions. And then it struck her – the three teenagers and Tina had seen through her disguise although from the blank looks on Neil’s and Maggie’s faces, they were still oblivious to her identity. She nodded.
‘Yes, not one of my greatest disguises,’ she said touching her glasses and shrugging her shoulders. ‘I came here for a bit of peace and quiet believe it or not.’
They were interrupted by the disarmed Italian struggling to his feet and staggering off out of the piazza. Neil watched him but made no attempt to stop him. The other one was stirring slowly.
‘Shouldn’t we call the police or something?’ Tina said, looking at Neil.
‘Can’t see the point,’ he said. ‘As long as that’s all right with you of course.’
Rachel nodded again. ‘Yes, sure; I think they’ve had their punishment for tonight and I’d prefer if there wasn’t a fuss if you see what I mean.’
Tina seemed relieved that her evening was not going to be sidetracked any further.
‘Yes that’s fine. And don’t worry, we won’t go calling the newspapers,’ she said with a smile. ‘You can trust Neil, Maggie and I, and if these three breathe a word before we go home I will make their lives a misery for the rest of their time at school. I think we ought to leave now before Neil’s victim gets the feeling back in his face and asks for a rematch. Neil, you should look after Rachel and see her back to her hotel. Maggie and I will get these three back to their beds.’
‘Okay, I’ll see you in the morning unless you’re going to wait up for me,’ said Neil.
Tina gave him a sharp look that Rachel didn’t think was very convincing. The three girls were clearly amused and a faint smile had flitted across Maggie’s face. She wondered if there was something going on between them.
Neil grinned. ‘All right, maybe not,’ he said before turning to her and asking where they were headed.
It seemed he was still unaware of her identity – either he was a good actor or maybe he spent so much time doing karate or whatever that he had no time to watch movies?
‘La Regina; I think I know the way. Are you sure you don’t mind?’
‘Of course not - anyway we’ve had a pretty easy day today so I could do with a walk.’