Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Cremorne Falcon*


The romance had gone out of his life. Not, of course, the rumpy pumpy, at-it-like-rabbits style of romance. Oh, no. That he could always get, although hopefully without having to pay for it next time. Lifting his chins slightly, Lester smiled at his reflection in the thick glass window alongside the digital film projector. Chicks dig guys in the entertainment industry. Prime example: the woman who stacked zucchinis so provocatively at the Big Bear supermarket. He could tell she was gagging for it by the way she became slightly nervous when he pushed his shopping trolley purposefully down her aisle. But, frankly, women could wait, he had other priorities. Rubbing his tummy in a circular motion, he stifled a belch. Priorities like dessert. Plucking a choc-top from the small freezer at the rear of the projection room, he pivoted, took aim and kicked a Digital Cinema Package carrying case across the floor. Ouch. Limping forward, he checked his watch. It was time to plug the DCP’s hard drive containing tonight’s film into the server. That’s where the romance had gone, into a damn server.

When the cinema’s management recently mothballed his cherised movie projectors, he was told digital was the future. Really? Gone was the almost erotic rhythm of his work: spooling out the end of a 35mm film, lacing it onto sprockets, checking the magazines were firmly in place. Now he was a mouse clicker.

Through the projection room’s soundproof window, he could see dark shapes in the cinema seats, jostling with buckets of popcorn, syrupy carbonated drinks and mobile phones. Few seemed to be watching the movie. Philistines. Although to be fair on the original Philistines, they may have warred with the Israelites but they never had to sit through a Russell Crowe movie.

All that collective restlessness in the theatre was distracting. Once again, the audience needed to be taught a sharp, pungent lesson. Collecting sachets of Movicol laxative from his locker, Lester crept down the gloomy cinema’s carpeted steps, pausing to sprinkle powder into drink containers. Despite a stab of regret for the extra overnight work for the cinema’s toilet cleaners, he pressed on. Sprinkle, sprinkle.

At the rear of the theatre, he watched, waited. Within 20 minutes, the laxative had managed to clear out, if that’s the term, at least a dozen misbehaving patrons. Those remaining continued to crunch, slurp and text. Bugger.

Then he saw two silhouettes in the back row. The men – one bulky, the other petite –  appeared to be playing pass-the-parcel, shunting a paper-wrapped object backwards and forwards between themselves.

“Take it,” Lester heard the little man hiss. “It’s cursed.”

“Nonsense,” said his companion, settling back in his chair. “It’ll be over soon, I hope.”

The smaller man gripped the parcel. “What? The fear and loathing engendered by this Medieval figure of a bird?”

“No, this ghastly Crowe epic.”

On cue, the end titles appeared on the screen. For a man with a fuller figure, the larger of the two was nimble. Leaping to his feet and sending a shower of popcorn onto the couple in front, he headed for the door. The other man followed.

Lester, no stranger to Film Noir, recognised trouble when he saw it, and he liked what he saw. He had a lot in common with his idol Humphrey Bogart, screen detective, laydees man, brawler. Both were 5’ 8” and blessed with panther-like grace, although Lester grudgingly admitted Bogart was unlikely to have also worn Hush Puppies. He breathed deeply. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Lester Tebbutt, Private Investigator.

He trailed the nattily-dressed men until they reached the cinema toilets. In the corridor outside, a long line of pale-faced patrons stepped gingerly from one foot to the other.

“We need to get in," the little man whined.

Barely acknowledging obscenities from those in the queue, his companion took the smaller man’s elbow, steering him towards the main exit. “Too late, Mr Cairo. The rendezvous with the mystery buyer in the end cubicle is off. Perhaps another night. Come, join me at my apartment. I’ll fix us a drink.”

Lester kept pace as the pair trekked down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams – aka Military Road, Cremorne. In a side street, the two men entered an Art Deco apartment block. Moments later, Lester’s toe cap shot out, stopping the front door shutting. In the lobby, he heard the big man’s deep, fruity voice behind him. “Don’t be a stranger. Join us.”

Warily, Lester stepped into a sumptuously decorated, ground floor apartment.

“I’m Kasper Gutman,” said his host. “This is my business associate, Joel Cairo. And you are obviously the secretive buyer of The Maltese Falcon. I admire the way you’ve coped with the crowded loo issue.”

They stood in an awkward semi-circle, with Cairo stroking a bird of prey-shaped statuette encrusted with jewels from beak to claw. 

As Gutman poured a large whisky, Lester stared speechless at the glass. 

“Better and better,” said Gutman. “I distrust a man who says ‘when’. If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does. And now to business, do you have the agreed amount for this Maltese treasure created for the Knights Templar?”

The whisky burnt Lester’s throat. He was more of an Aperol Spritz kinda guy. He was about to say: “There appears to have been some sort of misunderstanding …” when he noticed Cairo was cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a switchblade. “Potentially,” Lester said instead. “First, could you remind me of the price?” In his wallet, he had $15 and an Opal card. It might be enough.

Drink in hand, Gutman suddenly lent into Lester’s face. “Five million Euros.”

What was the Euro exchange rate? Lester asked himself. He needed time to Google the answer. Stall, stall. He beckoned for Cairo to give him the bird. It felt lighter than he imagined. The facets of each jewel reflected light from the overhead chandelier. He recognised quality. “A masterpiece,” he said.

Gutman reached for the artefact. The big man’s sweaty finger tips touched it for only a second before it slipped, shattering on the floor. A dozen cracked paste jewels popped free from the plaster of Paris model.

“A fake!” the trio chorused.

“We’ve been swindled,” added Cairo.

Sighing, Gutman refreshed Lester’s glass. “It appears we won’t be taking your five million Euros tonight. Please, have a seat. I've a proposition. You strike me as a man of the world. Someone who can handle himself in dangerous situations. Come with us to Malta to track down the real falcon and the scoundrel who switched it for that fake. Adventure awaits.”

Tilting his head back, Lester finished his whisky. “Count me in," he rasped.

Gutman smiled approvingly. “Excellent. And now, if you don’t mind me asking, where did you buy those elegant shoes - Milan or Madrid?”

“Grace Brothers Chatswood,” replied Lester, glancing down. Perhaps Bogart did wear them after all.

# # #

* The copyright infringements are, yet again, too numerous to list ... nevertheless  ... Copyright 2018 GREG FLYNN


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Have Gun, Will Travel *


Her eyes would make your fillings melt. That’s if you’re the sort of shallow man who’s attracted to rather obvious sexuality. I went to the window, opened it and let the summer breeze in. It smelt of petrol fumes and street urine.

Running a finger around the inside of my collar, I said it was good to see her again. She cut me off with a “Don’t lie”. There it was – that regal poise. Nothing had rattled her either in Urozgan Province where she’d screwed me over, and not in a nice way. My very own Queen of Hearts. Now we were sitting in a pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake position in my stuffy Kings Cross office. She crossed her legs and the room temperature went up five degrees.

The Queen leant forward. “We were casting around for a shambolic, high functioning alcoholic with few scruples and less dollars. We immediately thought of you.”

“If I were you, I’d ask for a refund on that Diplomacy for Dummies course.”

A small shrug. “Interested, Paladin?”

“Since you put it so nicely, tell me more.”

“We’d like you to find someone.”

“You don’t need me for that.”

“And kill her.”

“Even in Sydney, murder’s against the law.”

“You’re in luck. She’s not here.”


The aircraft touched down with a perfect three-point landing. The Atlas Mountains were in the distance, Marrakesh airport terminal sat in the foreground.

In an open air car park, a knavish character in a black suit only slightly less dusty than his SUV watched me lift my bag onto the rear seat. I returned the stare. “Aren’t you meant to say ‘Welcome to Marrakesh, Mr Paladin.’?”

Sliding into the driver’s seat, he started the engine and hit the accelerator before my door closed. Twenty silent minutes later, the vehicle jolted to a standstill at the mouth of an alley leading from Jemaa el-Fnaa market to a cluster of trinket stalls. The departing wheels showered gravel over my shoes.

“You should’ve been on time,” said a nervous voice behind me.

“We took the pretty route,” I said, turning.

He was standing with the sun’s glare over his shoulder. I could only make out a smallish shape clad in a white linen djellaba. The sunlight made the cloth semi-transparent. Not the sort of outfit to go commando in. Beckoning me to follow, he led me between the stalls. “Oh dear, I shall be too late,” he said, looking at a large gold fob watch, his nose twitching.

At a door marked “Sortie”, he tapped twice. Indoors was cool and gloomy. A dark shape frisked me before taking over as guide. We reached an inner courtyard and, suddenly, the Queen of Hearts was back in my life. I’d swopped my Macleay Street office for a Marrakesh riad – and she was still holding court. The pale, rabbity little man from the alley stood off to one side offering us tea, no, coffee, no, rosé. Why not?

We didn’t clink glasses. Instead she raised her’s, smiled and said: “Off with her head.”

“Sounds messy.”

She assured me she wasn’t being literal. I didn’t believe her then nor during the briefing: go into the High Atlas, avoid antagonising the local Berbers, kill a Russian double agent and bring back proof-of-death. The agent had defected in Canberra, worked on the Queen’s team on nanotechnology – code for implanting tracking devices in unsuspecting humans – then two years later, she vanished. The Queen handed me GPS coordinates and a set of keys. “Try to look French and trustworthy,” she said to my back as the dark shape led me from the courtyard.

In Jemaa el-Fnaa, an ageing Toyota wagon with a Médecins Sans Frontières logo on the driver’s door stood waiting. By dusk, the boxes of medical supplies in the rear were bouncing in time with the potholes. Off to the left, a roadside fire threw shadows on a tent. At the tent flap, a turbaned figure in a flowing robe waved a mobile phone. It flashed three times. Stopping, I unloaded two boxes, staggered under their weight and called out: “I saw the code.”

The man’s mischievous feline grin came and went. “Actually, I was just trying to get a signal.” His accent placed him 18,000 kilometres away. “Name’s Chester. I’d give you a hand, mate, but my back’s buggered.”

The inside of the tent smelt of warm goat’s milk. I bent over to drop the boxes. Something hard pressed into my spine. I hoped it was a gun barrel. After yet another frisk, we sat with a small fire between us. “We leave at midnight,” Chester said.

“On camels?”

“Do I look like a tourist? No, we’re taking your vehicle.”


The bright moonlight made the mountain road less grim, almost magical. Under blankets on the back floor lay assorted weaponry and two Iridium satellite phones. It’d taken us several hours to assemble the kit hidden amongst the medical supplies.

Dawn did little to warm the air. I straightened a Médecins Sans Frontière-branded jacket. “Am I a plausible doctor?”

“At a stretch: an implausible nurse.”

I left him with a satellite phone, binoculars and a sniper rifle on a hilltop above a Berber village. Hammering down the road between clay and stone houses, the Toyota’s wheels threw up a long dust cloud.

The village’s small clinic looked cool and calm, as did the woman standing on its front steps. Mid-thirties, blonde, tall, Dr Alice Alistratov matched her photo. Two men in lab coats helped me carry medical supplies into the building, then left us alone with cups of coffee. I drank mine in two gulps.

Dr Alice sipped at hers. “My sources say you’ve come to kill me, Mr Paladin.”

“’Kill’ has such a finite ring to it.”

She hung a stethoscope around her neck. “If I’m a double agent, what am I doing openly running a healthcare centre?”

That was a question I‘d already thought of. In the background, I could hear the clinic opening. I followed her into a spartan waiting room, trying to look vaguely medical. The patients didn’t appear convinced. I gestured for Dr Alice to step into an examination booth. “You have one minute,” I told her. Dr Alice wouldn’t be hurried. She explained she’d defected to help humanity. Instead she’d found herself in the Queen’s private wonderland. Hadn’t I ever wanted to do good? she asked.


The sun was directly overhead as I drove up to Chester’s position. Ragged locks of bloodied blonde hair with strips of scalp were stuffed into my trouser pocket. In the village behind me, a siren went off. The Toyota’s dust cloud grew bigger.

Back in the riad’s courtyard, the Queen studied the trophy scalp before flipping it to the rabbity man. Run a DNA check, she ordered.

The rosé she handed me tasted metallic, like blood. It came with a question: had I said anything to Dr Alice before I killed her?

In fact, the last words I’d said as I helped bandage the doctor’s head were: “Find another rabbit hole to go down.”

I looked into the Queen’s dark eyes. “No, Ma’am.”

# # #

* The copyright infringements are too numerous to list ... nevertheless  ... Copyright 2018 GREG FLYNN




Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Curse of The Green Fairy

A Play in One Act (with apologies to Agatha Christie)


CAST
HERCULE POIROT – a famous Belgian detective
LORD RAGLAN – a bully
LADY RAGLAN – a snob
DICKIE TODD – a bounder
DUCHESS OF BASKERVILLE – a wealthy widow
JAMES THE BUTLER – a servant

ACT I
SCENE 1
The dining room of a grand castle in the Home Counties. The décor is early 1930s. LORD and LADY RAGLAN, DICKIE TODD and THE DUCHESS are seated at a dining table dressed in tuxedos (the men that is, not the table nor the women) while the ladies wear ravishing gowns. They have just finished their candle-lit dinner.

LORD R         (Reaches for a bottle on the table.)
                        Snifter of vintage absinthe, anyone?

LADY R          Not after last time, darling.

LORD R         You’re such a bore, dahhhhling. Right-o, let’s be responsible. I’ll ring for James to bring some coke.

(LORD R rings a bell. Enter immediately: JAMES THE BUTLER.)

LORD R         Lazy blighter. What took you so long?

BUTLER        Begging your pardon, me Lord, but some jumped-up little Froggy busybody by the name of Hercules Poy-rot is here to see you. He insists …

(Enter Poirot, brushing past the butler.)

POIROT         Premièrement, I am Belgian and, deuxièmement, it is pronounced      er-KYOOL pwa-ROH.

DICKIE           By Jove! You’re the famous detective!

POIROT         Précisément. And you are Dickie Todd, the Wimbledon tennis champion and ladies’ man.

DICKIE           I say, Poirot, that’s a rum accusation!

POIROT         Merely an observation. I noticed the washing instructions tag of the Duchess’s silk lingerie protruding above your belt. You and she obviously dressed in a hurry after your pre-dinner assignation.

DICKIE           (Glancing down.)
I thought this underwear was a tad tight in the family jewels department.

DUCHESS    Look here, you ghastly little Bulgarian!

POIROT         Belgian. And, as you British say: keep your knickers on. Or, in your case, Duchess, perhaps not. Your affair with Monsieur Todd is hardly a secret. Even your late husband knew of it when he hired me.

DUCHESS    Tommy rot! He’d never hire a fruity foreigner.

POIROT         He feared for his life, correctly as it turned out. He was stabbed, beaten, garrotted, poisoned and shot.

LORD R         Dash it, man. It could’ve been suicide.

POIROT         (Tap side of forehead with forefinger) My little grey cells say: “Non.”

(POIROT strolls to a large painting on the wall: a naked woman standing on a sunlit terrace is painted demurely from the rear.)

POIROT         Ah, Lady Raglan, I would recognise you 
                      anywhere.

LADY R          Flattery will …

POIROT         I was referring to the fact you were painted on the terrace of your pied-à-terre in Antibes where you regularly met the Duke of Baskerville for a bit of, how you say, humpty dumpty.

DICKIE           Speak English: it’s “rumpy pumpy”.

POIROT         And who better to correct me? A man who has not only slept, if that is the euphemism, with the Duchess but also with Lady Raglan …

BUTLER        (Clears throat.)
Ahem …

POIROT         And, bien sûr, with the butler. The butler who, as Lady Raglan discovered, was also a paramour of the Duke of Baskerville.

LORD R         (Glares at LADY RAGLAN.)
Both James and you were bonking Baskerville? I’d expect it of a manservant and now you can’t be trusted either!

POIROT         A family trait, non, Lord Raglan? It was you 
                      who convinced my client …

DICKIE           Who was your client, again? I’m getting a bit lost.

POIROT         The Duke of Baskerville – Lord Raglan’s business partner in a South African gold mine. Just last month, Lord Raglan convinced the Duke to sign an agreement that, if one of them died, the other would take full control of the mine.

LADY R          (Looks at her watch.)
                        Time’s up, Poy-rot. James, show him the door.

POIROT         (Holds up a finger.)
Une minute. First I must summarise, then name the culprit. (Pause) Who had a motive? Everyone. Lord Raglan was greedy, Lady Raglan was humiliated by her lover the Duke’s affair with her butler, and the Duchess wanted her husband out of the way so she could marry Dickie. Dickie simply wanted the Duchess’s money. Meanwhile, the butler knew that the Duke had left him a generous endowment in a will.

LORD R         If we all had a motive. Who was the murderer?

POIROT         All of you. It was on a night such as tonight. With one exception. There was a fifth guest: the Duke of Baskerville. You gathered. You ate. You argued. You drank absinthe – the pre-War variety made with hallucinogenic wormwood. A drink that, justement, has been banned for more than 15 years! Even the butler had a swig while carrying it up from the cellar. Driven momentarily mad by The Green Fairy as it was known, you killed the Duke as a group. You will all hang for the crime.

DUCHESS    Personally, I’m not a great fan of capital punishment. So, you can wipe that smug smile off your Balkan …

POIROT         Belgian.

DUCHESS    … face. If we’re all guilty, that means you are alone in this castle with cold blooded killers – and that’s not just because of the lack of decent heating.

POIROT         Planning is everything. The castle is surrounded by police. I only have to blow on a whistle to summon them.

(POIROT pats his pockets. He can’t find the whistle.)

BUTLER        (Clears throat. Holds up whistle.)
Ahem … I believe you dropped this when you brushed past me.

(The butler steps towards Poirot. The other characters menacingly push back their chairs.)

POIROT       Mon Dieu, I perceive a petit flaw in my 
                     planning.


                                      CURTAIN FALLS


                                                                                                            Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN



Thursday, September 14, 2017

Wired


There’s a bear in there and a wiretap as well. The cursor hovered over the replay button before Lenny Vance clicked. Nothing of interest. The sound of a man coming through an apartment door with a squeaky hinge, throwing a bag on a squeakier bed, flushing a toilet. A man alone.

Taking a green pen from a neat, multi-coloured row on a flip-up table attached to the inside of his van, Vance made an all-clear note on a clipboard’s sheaf of paper. Carefully folding the top leaf of paper over, he held it in place with an elastic band. There was something comforting about the analogue process, unlike the cool, impersonal digital recording equipment. His laptop’s screen threw a pale glow onto Vance’s face, the clipboard and Marvin the Rat who sat on the table edge, rubbing his front paws over his snout. There was a distinct possibility that somewhere in the Police Department Technical Surveillance Unit’s regulations, pet rats were banned from government vehicles. Vance hadn’t bothered to check. He also hadn’t sought permission to take a pee against a nearby tree. If the target in the bugged apartment could seek relief, so could his eavesdropper. He liked the 17th Century term for someone who stood under the rain-protecting eaves of a house, against the wall, away from the “drop” of water in order to listen to those inside. Better than his nickname at the station: Lenny the Lurker.

Breaking the tip off a KitKat wafer, he placed it under Marvin’s nose. The pair sat quietly munching, both watching the digital audio waveforms flickering up, down and across the screen as the target clattered in his kitchen before switching on a TV crime series. Noise activated software cut out the dead air when no one made a sound. When the software switched off, so did he.

One week earlier, he’d slipped Marvin back into his cage with an apple core, taken a canvas bag bearing a cable TV company’s logo, and broken into the target’s apartment. A few quality pieces of furniture competed for space with a bachelor’s flotsam – discarded gym gear, a trail bike with a puncture, three empty wine bottles. Vance needed an object that was least likely to be moved. In one corner, a slightly shabby teddy bear had been converted into a side light. Cutting the bear’s lower seam, Vance switched on a thumb nail sized microphone and inserted it into the stuffing. “Next time I’ll buy you dinner first.” He patted the bear’s head and closed the door softly.

Tonight, the audio waveforms only quivered in excitement when the higher pitch of a TV advertisement interrupted the program. Then knock, knock. Two sharp jumps on the laptop screen. The apartment door squeaked open.

“It’s late,” the target said.

“I’ve got a watch,” said the visitor.

Vance narrowed his eyes, moving closer to the screen as if it was a window. He thought he knew that voice. The door squeaked shut. Were they both in the room? Vance regretted not planting a camera.

Something broke. Too heavy for glass. Ceramic. The target groaned. “What did you do that for?” There was sound of sweeping, with shards of pottery being collected and spilled into a garbage bin.

“I’ll keep breaking things ‘til I find the money,” said the visitor.

“The shipment only arrived at the hospital this morning. We need 24 hours to see if they spot the drugs are counterfeit. Once they start dispensing them we’re clear. You’ll get your money.”

“No time to wait. You have two minutes. I’m booked on the 10am flight to Honkers.”

Vance’s head snapped up. That pretentious, ex-pat term for Hong Kong. The only person who ever used it without irony was his brother. He had recognised the voice. James.

The target’s own voice became strained. “Put that away.”

“One minute.”

“Let’s be reason…”

Vance had heard enough silencers to identify the metallic spitting sound. A thud. One body down. Then the sound of furniture being overturned. James was ransacking the apartment. Next the bear hit something very hard or vice versa. Vance hovered the cursor over the recording button. It would take him seconds to erase the file. A technical hitch, he’d explain. Blame it on the bear. He’d confront James as he came out of the apartment. Demand answers.

Rising on his hind legs, Marvin sniffed the air. That’s all I need, thought Vance. A rat with a conscience. The counterfeit drugs at the hospital were the catch. If I hit “delete” on the audio and I say I didn’t hear what the men said, then how would I know about the drugs?

The apartment door squeaked shut. No, he couldn’t face James now. He needed time to think. He was a senior constable in rank only. He’d never arrested anyone and he’d lost his police issue handcuffs soon after graduation. A car’s engine kicked in and the vehicle pulled away. Vance’s hand hit the release on the sliding side door. Too late, all he could see were tail lights.

Vance slid the door shut. Another problem. Which hospital? How many might die while he dithered. Marvin sniffed the air again. “Some plan,” said Vance aloud. Did rats understand irony? “So … I’m meant to throw them off the scent.” Reaching for the police two-way radio resting by the laptop, he called it in – all the details except his brother’s current address. The address he gave was a year out of date.


The sky was brightening as Vance parked outside the suburban bungalow. There were lights in the kitchen windows and a newspaper on the front lawn. Walking up the driveway, he rehearsed his demands. Say which hospital, say which drugs, say who else was involved and he’d give James six hours’ head start. That’s if the real police didn’t get here sooner. A pair of headlights like searchlights silhouetted him. He froze, breathed deeply and turned.

James was clambering out of a taxi, dragging a roll-on suitcase. “What’s wrong?” he called.

The taxi reversed, leaving them standing metres apart. Vance approached, hands clenching and unclenching. “Change of heart, you callous prick? Murder a man, peddle fake drugs, and now you’ve come back with a guilty conscience?”

“Are you mad? Murder? When?’

“Last night.”

“Jesus, man, I just got off an overnight flight from Honkers. I’ve been working there all week. Check it out. Are you playing copper at last?”

So, thought Vance, it wasn’t James’ voice. Let’s see. I’ve provided false and misleading information to my colleagues, I’ve attempted to pervert the course of justice, I’ve left patients at an unknown hospital in danger, I’ve allowed a murderer to escape, and I’ve destroyed my relationship with my brother.

“On the bright side,” said James, throwing his arm over Vance’s shoulders and guiding him to the front door. “You’re here in time for breakfast.”


# # #
Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pirates of the Eastern Suburbs

Nosing through the fog, the brigantine Royal Pickle barely left a wake. The Jolly Roger on her stern gave a desultory flap then hung limp. Standing beside the helmsman, Captain Greybeard lowered his spyglass, sighed and reached for a tankard of recently pillaged naval rum. It was as cold as Mrs Greybeard’s farewell kiss. When we finally reach Bermuda I’ll plunder a little something for her, he decided. Or maybe not. He recalled the last thing he picked up there was treated with mercury.

He pushed the spyglass back against his good eye. “Still nothing, Toby.”

The helmsman stopped buffing his nails. “Not unless you count fog, Cap’n.”

How long had their ship been sailing the Western Atlantic? Greybeard checked his log. Six days ago, they had slipped from heavy rain and churning swells into the silent calm of a pea-souper worthy of Limehouse in winter.

In theory, the ship should be almost within cannon range of Bermuda’s main town, St George’s. Instead, his map plotting showed their course formed a triangle. An omen? Surely not.

He felt a puff of wind on his scarred cheek. Perhaps it was time to stop shaving with a dagger blade.

“Land, ho!” The shout from the crow’s nest roused the card-playing crew. Seconds before the fo’c’sle was bare, now it was crowded with men jostling to see what lay ahead.

Fumbling for his flintlock pistol, Greybeard shouted: “Avast ye scurvy dogs!”

Toby whispered in the Captain’s ear: “Could you be a little more specific?”

A click signalled a cocked pistol.

“However,” Toby added quickly, “we get the gist.”

The unfurling mainsail picked up the freshening wind, propelling the Royal Pickle towards the dark land.

The wind brought rain. By nightfall, Greybeard could barely make out the cliffs on either side of the harbour entrance. He didn’t recall them being that high. Drenched, blinded in one eye by the rain and in the other by a decade-old sword slash, he gave the order to drop anchor. Heartened by the thought of a dawn attack, he went below to sleep.


Hours later, Greybeard sensed he was not alone. He was right. The Quartermaster’s face hovered inches from his own.

“We’re doomed!” wailed the Quartermaster.

Greybeard swung his legs out of bed, vowing on the next voyage to shanghai a crew with a more positive attitude.

The sky was a pale grey. Blinking in the morning light, Greybeard climbed to the poop deck.

Doomed, indeed. Instead of St George’s familiar harbour, Greybeard faced an alien landscape. Strangely shaped buildings, some seemingly made of glass, others the size of castles, packed the shoreline. Around the Royal Pickle, dozens of small sailing craft swung at anchor.

Turning to his slack-jawed crew, Greybeard drew his cutlass. “Not St George’s, I’ll grant you, but there’s booty to be had. Come, follow me into the mouth of Hell. Let the bravest of the brave step forward.”

As one, the crew took a step backwards.

Greybeard rolled his eye. “Toby will shame you with his lion-like courage. What sayeth our hero?”

Silence.

Within minutes, the still sleepy Toby had been dragged from his hammock and paraded before the crew. Greybeard clapped a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Thank you for volunteering. Adventure awaits.”


Sighing for a light breakfast, Toby pulled wearily on the tender’s oars. Greybeard sat astern, pipe lit.

The bow struck a narrow beach with a soft crunch and both men clambered out, hands resting on their sword hilts. The first line of houses edged the beach. A rain-slicked road ran off to the right. Toby grasped Greybeard’s sleeve. “I could’ve sworn I saw a carriage moving without horses.”

“Get a grip, lad.”

Toby clung tighter to the sleeve.

“Not of me.” Shaking himself free, Greybeard strode towards the nearest house where two men stood on a balcony, the younger stabbing a tablet with his index finger while the other spoke loudly and slowly: “Headline: ‘Heaven Can Wait, This Is Paradise Now!’ … no, no, too morbid … Headline: ‘Your Friends Will Look Like the Losers They Are.’ Body copy: Heavenly harbourfront home at an eye-watering price. As you sip your Aquavit cocktail, you’ll hear the jingling of nearby yacht riggings and the grinding of your jealous friends’ teeth. Gold standard …

“Ahoy!” Greybeard stood on the beach, hands on hips. “What call you this place?”

“Double Bay,” replied the older man.

“Bermuda?”

“Postcode 2028. Far more fashionable. Speaking of which, I love your fancy dress.”

Toby smoothed his tunic and adjusted his tricorne hat. “Oh, it’s just a little …”

Greybeard stiffened. “Dress? You picaroon!” Cutlass between his teeth, he heaved himself over a low garden wall and rushed the house.


It took Toby several minutes to find the garden gate and then the stairs to the balcony. Sword raised, he tiptoed forward.

Greybeard was stretched out on a lounging chair, a glass of coloured liquid to his lips. “Toby, you must try this. They call it a Mojito. The rum is Caribbean even if this strange land isn’t.”

The older man on the balcony flung an arm across Toby’s shoulders, swept him forward and pushed a mint leaf-topped drink into his shaking hand. “We’re Caveat & Emptor, real estate agents to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs gentry. I’m Caveat. Your Captain was just explaining there’re chests of gold aboard your ship. Think of us as family.”

“And,” interrupted Emptor, “you think this is 1717.”

Greybeard handed his empty glass to Emptor for a refill. “These lubbers claim it’s 2017 and that we entered something called the Bermuda Triangle’s time and spice wrap.”

“Space warp,” corrected Emptor.

“Nevertheless,” said Caveat, with the urgency of a man sensing the conversation drifting away from a sale, “you’ve got a lucky face, Captain. This house could be just the haven you and your … err … your life partner have dreamt of. I have a suggestion: a get-to-know-the-suburb stroll.”


With slimline suits buttoned and trailing clouds of Givenchy Gentleman, the agents strutted through Double Bay while the pirates, unkempt kit smelling of damp wool and stale rum, scampered behind.

The group paused in Knox Street to admire the passing activewear-clad posteriors. Greybeard rested his own buttocks on the bonnet of a parked Maserati. Leaning forward, Caveat flicked a silver Dunhill lighter over the Captain’s pipe bowl. “Well?”

Greybeard took a puff then smiled. “I do like a port where tattooed women have puffy lips larger than rolled blankets.”

Presto! A contract for the harbourfront mansion materialised in Caveat’s hand. A pen appeared in Emptor’s.

Greybeard tapped his pipe out on the Maserati’s fender. “I’m not buying, I’m selling. I can see a wonderful future for Toby and me in your business.”

The contract and pen evaporated. Adjusting his Paul Keating signature range silk tie, Caveat turned away. Greybeard caught his elbow. “Wait, partner! Here’s our radical new approach: we tell potential buyers a fake low anticipated sale price then when we’ve whipped up plenty of interest, we sell for the much higher real price.”

Caveat slapped his own forehead. “A brilliant concept. Who else would’ve thought of that? But is it legal?”

The pirate began refilling his pipe. “Hopefully not.”

# # #

Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Cool War

The two men stood staring at the bench. Thirty years had not been kind to the bench or to them. Rot had set in, the wooden slats slumped, the iron legs twisted. Faux Banksy graffiti on the high wall behind the bench was partly hidden by leafless saplings.

Nikolaev nudged Archer’s shoulder. “Instead, I buy you coffee.”

Shoulders back military-style, they followed a path through a grim Bernauer Straße park to an almost empty café on Strelitzer. Both ordered black coffee. Both ignored it when it arrived.

Archer kept picturing the Berlin Wall as he remembered it. Designed to create fear and despair, it had succeeded. Only scraps of the Wall remained, like memories of meetings with Nikolaev on that bench. Archer had heard the Russian now spent dull days in Moscow’s Sledstvennyi Komitet, the equivalent of America’s FBI, flipping through unsolved murder cases as cold as the office building. In the 1980s, Nikolaev and Archer had been stationed on either side of the Wall. A rising investigator with the Russian police, the Militsiya, Nikolaev had been posted to East Berlin to teach new techniques in tracking criminals. “Torturing bad guys’ families for information on fugitives was, as you say, old learning.”

“Old school,” Archer had replied. In his late 20s, ambitious, Archer had been on secondment from the London Metropolitan Police to the British military. Berlin had been his idea. In London he was just another member of the Gangs Squad, prowling sink estates, nicking teenage crims. To get ahead in the Met, he needed to be in Homicide Command. Twice he had been rejected. The British Military Police and multiple bodies in deadly, divided Berlin would boost his career, or so he hoped.

That was then. Now he crisscrossed Europe as a security adviser to wealthy clients: “Don’t travel with real jewellery. Pack the paste.” Best hotels, best restaurants and invoices that were always paid. Archer hated the life.

Hunching forward, he moved the coffee cup to the side. “Are you going to give me a clue what this is about?’

“Once we shared clues. Today too.”

Archer nodded. They had colluded on murder cases, a Cold War crime in itself. If discovered, Nikolaev would not have made it to the steps of a Moscow-bound aircraft to face trial. His colleagues would have shot him where he stood. Archer would have found himself demoted to tucking parking tickets under windscreen wipers along the Embankment.

Instead, with Nikolaev’s Militsiya badge and his ability to move back and forwards across the East-West border, they met in secret in Bernauer Straße and traded information. Killers who thought they could escape justice by slipping over, under or around the Wall would be collared and bundled back home to a court or firing squad. Then: two years of real successes. Now: what seemed to Archer like 30 years of a life filled with something that only resembled success.

Nikolaev’s left hand twitched. A magician’s trick to distract a watcher’s eye. His right hand slid forward and Archer felt a strip of paper being forced into his palm. He closed his fingers, slipping the paper into his trouser pocket.

Looking down at the cool coffee, Nikolaev wondered aloud about the café’s rules on smoking. Archer shook his head.

“The happy days are gone,” said Nikolaev.

Archer raised an eyebrow.

Nikolaev mirrored the gesture. “If not happy, what is the word, satisfying? On the paper are a name, an address and a date. Do you know our offices on Bauman Street near the Kremlin? No? I am sort of a murder historian there. I take an old file. I sit. I look. I search for new ways to track down the bad guys.”

“Admirable.”

“Boring. Well, usually boring.”

Archer was tempted to reach into his pocket. “Whose name is on the paper?”

Lifting the coffee cup, Nikolaev held it just high enough to cover his mouth from sight. “I’ll tell you a name that is not there: Sir James Montague.” The cup came down. “Interested?”

“I’m no longer a cop.”

“You are far too well dressed these days to be one. Rich clients, rich picklings.”

“Pickings.”

“Exactly.” Leaning across the table, Nikolaev ran his thumb and forefinger down the lapel of Archer’s Savile Row overcoat. “No one will even think you are a policeman.”  

“But you are. Do your superiors know you’re here, talking to me?”

Nikolaev’s shoulders rose and fell. Archer could not tell if it was a shrug or a prelude to a sigh.

“Potentially,” said Nikolaev. He spoke softly, quickly. A week ago he had been sorting Sledstvennyi Komitet files, each relating to Jack the Ripper-style murders in West and East Berlin in the winter of 1988. Six prostitutes, six days apart, in locations forming the Roman numeral “VI” on the city map. The two men already knew the details. “666, the Devil’s number,” Archer had said to Nikolaev as they sat on that bench after the sixth body had been found on the Western side of the Wall. “How theatrical,” the Russian had said, looking pleased with both the prospect of an unpredictable case and his use of the word. “For you to be involved, the suspect must be in the British Army.”

He was wrong. Archer’s person of interest was someone who thought himself untouchable. Someone with a pedigree: Sir James Montague, a grandee of the diplomatic corps based in the concrete box-like British embassy in Bonn. Over the years, whenever Archer thought about Montague, he pictured the man as still glossy, still aloof, still beyond reach.

Perhaps no longer. According to a December ‘88 note in fading typewriting in a file Nikolaev had unearthed, Montague had been suspected by East German investigators of being, in the words of the normally unflappable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: “Der Metzger von Berlin” (The Butcher of Berlin). The note stated flatly that the Englishman was possibly a serial killer but definitely a spy for the Russians.

Nikolaev looked pleased. “The file also contained a witness’ name.”

“The name on the paper?” asked Archer.

Nikolaev nodded. “She saw him commit the sixth murder.”

“Reliable?”

“She was 17. The daughter of the Madam who ran the brothel where the murder took place.”

“And you want me to track her down?”

“No, Mr Archer. I want you to take her to dinner. The date is on the paper. Come, we will walk and talk.’

The pair stepped out into the damp street. On the nearest corner, a car sat facing the café. Archer titled his head back, squinting, trying to make out the two shapes in the front seats.

This time Nikolaev’s shoulders did shrug. “Predictable. My colleagues have alerted the locals. No matter. This is a new beginning of a beautiful friendship.” He touched Archer’s arm to steer him away from the car.

“Are you armed?” Archer asked.

“No. Why would I need a gun?”

Archer knew it was not Nikolaev’s first lie. But he wanted Montague – alive or dead. Preferably the former so Archer could personally make him the latter.

# # #

Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN