Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pass the Chianti & Imodium, per favore

Don’t get your daughter in a rage, Mrs Worthington. She’s already moist eyed, although it’s hard to tell if that’s from the beauty of Florence or the tear gas. Lift your Dr Scholl's, Mrs W, we must reach the bus before the next polizia baton charge. Look! She’s waving frantically from the bus wind … dear, dear.  Perhaps next time not with a red bandana. That rubber bullet is going to leave a nasty bruise.

All aboard Chow Bella Gourmet Tours. Not all, you say. Davvero? Mr Condomine is apparently still queuing for the Uffizi loos. A show of hands: who’s in favour of circling back to rescue him? A wise choice. You’d miss San Gimignano by candle light, and he’d miss the opportunity to show his resourcefulness.

Speaking of loos, we’ve almost cleaned up the bus’ after Madame Arcati’s distressing incident post her seafood linguini lunch. If someone in the back row could wedge the door shut with an umbrella tip, we should be safe-ish until at least Siena.

Yes, yes. I realise the protesters are rocking the bus. It’s a local custom when farewelling friends. No, I’m not certain why they’re rioting. The Italians are such an emotional people. Now, everyone give them a wave while Marco reverses quickly.

I felt the bump too.

Heavens, it’s Mr Condomine. Edge forward, Marco, you’ve pinned his satchel under the rear wheel. Agreed. He really shouldn’t have worn it so jauntily over his shoulder. I’m afraid he went native at the San Lorenzo markets. Purtroppo, a bag stitched from old goat hide doesn’t make you Marcello Mastroianni.

So. Volunteers to get him on board? Noone? Then let me suggest Mr and Mrs Chase, our honeymooners … if you’re not exhausted. I realise the Pensione Dantesque has somewhat thin walls, but last night it was almost as if you were sharing my narrow bed. Fortunately enough for the other passengers, I’ve made an iPhone recording which … and there they go to help Mr Condomine. Grazie.

Mrs W, I know you won’t mind if he sits on your picnic rug.  Blood is so difficult to get out of leatherette seats.

Patience, everyone. The Chases are making wonderful progress despite the demonstrators’ eggs. They should have Mr Condomine inside shortly. Push him higher up the steps, Mr & Mrs C, I’ll get a purchase under his arms. Buon lavoro!  

Everyone comfortable? Andiamo, Marco. Tuscany awaits our discern 
ing palates.

Naughty girl, Miss Stillington. You know what I said about eating gelato from street vendors. Combine temperatures that melt the bitumen with heavy cream and vanilla bean paste and the result is a rum tum tum. Fortunately, I can let you have Imodium at cost price plus the industry standard mark-up – and a bonus €10 map of San Gimignano’s public lavatories. There’s no need to thank me, just don’t look back. The slightest hesitation could put your fellow travellers off this evening’s Pasta-thon.

Could there be anything more Italian than this long table beneath coloured light bulbs with the flicker of candle light, the scent of mosquito coils and Chianti from – let’s see that label – Albania? I’ll do a taste test. My, my. It’s certainly not an approachable wine but it should distract from the ravioli. And there’s plenty of that left. Some nit-pickers amongst you have complained there appear to be things moving within those pasta pockets. A rap with the back of a spoon usually fixes that. This is the Continent, after all. We can’t bring our sniffy bourgeois prejudices on holiday.

Please, Doctor Bradman, I wasn’t referring specifically to you and your … your niece. How generous to bring her – a lass barely out of her teens – on such a grownup tour. Although the more judgmental aboard the bus have called you a fussbudget, I personally find the sight of a medical chap lathering up with hand sanitiser before touching the bread basket quite reassuring. In fact, if you don’t mind, could you take a peek at this rash on my inner thigh? If the others wouldn’t mind looking away for a moment I’ll unzip and – there, you can see it more clearly under the street light. You don’t think it has anything to do with the bite mark left by Madame Arcati? I thought not.

Mamma mia, I didn’t realise it was so late. The pensione’s manager locks up at 8 p.m. If we hurry, most of us should get through the front door in time.

Tomorrow we’ll be in Siena. Ssssh, the Piazza del Campo will be our little secret. You’ll be the only tourists there – possibly because our piazza visit kicks off at 6am. No need to set your alarms tonight, I’ll nip around before dawn tapping on doors. If you don’t answer promptly, I’ll pop my head into your room. See you then.

# # #
Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Shadow Knows

A cigarette lay untouched in the Mutual Broadcasting System’s studio ashtray, leaving a round strand of sagging ash and a few shards of tobacco.

Orson Welles was tempted to take a final puff. Too late. Cue music: Opus 31 of Le Rouet d'Omphale. Then came canned cackling before a sneering voice asked the radio audience: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Another cackle. “The Shadow knows.”

In fact he didn’t. He didn’t even know what came next in the script. Arriving as usual with a few minutes to spare, 23-year-old Welles had put down his cigarette, picked up the sheets of paper for the first time and nodded at the producer whose facial twitch was worsening.

Standing at a microphone in the centre of the studio, the other actors formed a tight semi-circle, shoulders almost touching, all in character except Welles. His Lamont Cranston role could wait. He was staring past Shrevvy, Cliff, Dr Sayre and Slade Farrow to take in Margo Lane. Her smouldering bedroom eyes could burn down a city block, Welles decided.

The play began. As Cranston, a wealthy man about town, Welles affected a fruity accent contrasting with the tough guy tone of Cranston's crime-fighting alter ego The Shadow. Welles’ performance was delicatessen-grade ham.
Margo, The Shadow’s socialite sidekick, dipped in and out of the storyline. The other characters also grasped a few moments of airtime before The Shadow returned to the microphone.

Thirty minutes later, somewhere in-between being reassured The Shadow knew and the final advertisement for Blue Coal (“Save and be safe with Blue Coal”), the hero solved the mystery of who’d been planting bombs around New York.

Out of her Margo Lane character, Margot Stevenson shook her head at Welles. “Late, always late, Orson. It’s hard to tell if you’re a naughty boy or a spoiled brat.”

 “The former sounds more fun. Speaking of which, how …?”

 Margot turned away, a “Goodnight” hanging in the air between them.

Manhattan was fixing itself an evening cocktail. Welles didn’t need a drink. He was hungry – again.

Jonah’s counter was crowded. Sliding into a booth by the window, Welles looked out at two bums arguing in the middle of the narrow street.

The quality of the air in the diner improved abruptly, the aroma of shift workers and fried fat replaced by something more fragrant. Glancing up, he hoped it was Margot. It wasn’t.

The woman was standing so close to the booth that her perfume invaded his senses, throwing him off guard. She had blonde hair in a sleek pageboy cut, pressed down by a small navy blue hat.

Leaning forward, she hissed: “The Shadow knows.”

 A tap on the window. Turning, Orson saw it was one of the tramps. He swung back. The woman was gone. Then so was the tramp. What remained was a white envelope on the edge of the booth table. He tore the flap open. Inside, a stiff white card had been pasted with letters cut from a newspaper: “Find me or Margo dies.”

Welles was on the pavement in seconds, swivelling his head. The blue hat was bouncing through the crowds, making for the subway entrance.

Down the stairs he trotted and into a carriage, its doors shutting behind him. A glance back at the platform. Blue hat was standing there, smiling at him. In the carriage, two men in dark coats, too warm for the weather, pushed past Welles. Opening the storm door at the end the carriage, they made the risky steps into next section.

Tilting his head, Welles could see the men talking to a woman. Even with her back to him, she appeared agitated. The train began slowing into the next station.

A minute later, Welles was tailing the trio into the street. A Cadillac town car drew up, doors bounced open and a black hood was swung over the woman’s head. Her face turned in time for Welles to recognise Margot. Hero or not, he sprinted down the sidewalk, slapping his palms on the boot as the car took off.

"Need help, bud?” The patrol car was kerb-crawling, matching Welles’ sagging pace. Passenger side window down, the two policemen didn’t look like helpful men.

 Welles’s summary of events earned him an invitation to the back seat. Siren on, the car barrelled through the traffic. Welles spotted the Cadillac sliding into an alley. Siren off, the patrol car came to a halt behind the parked Cadillac.

Bent almost double, Welles followed the two police officers up a darkened staircase. The lead officer used the butt of his revolver to bang on a door. “Police!”

The door edged open. A police boot kicked it hard. Welles tumbled through after the officers.

Standing in a tight semi-circle, the cast of The Shadow was waiting.

Margot Stevenson held out a script. “Next week’s storyline, Orson. You’ll note I’m kidnapped. We decided if you wouldn’t rehearse, we’d force you to.”

"All actors?” Welles asked. He didn’t wait for the answer, holding up his hands he said: “Guilty as charged. I surrender.”

# # #

Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Nine Lives

He was getting too old for this. The drainpipe was held upright by rusting clamps. He tested their strength. Barely a movement. A false promise like so many in the past months. As soon as he shifted his weight, two bolts began to pull away from the white wall, at first slowly then … then he found himself toppling. His gloved hand grasped the branches of a conifer. The tip of his rubber soled boot touched something firm. It held long enough for him to reach for the window ledge. Swinging his leg up, he got a purchase. One push sent him away from the conifer and onto the ledge. He was ten metres above the darkened garden. To the north, the few remaining lights across Cap d'Antibes were bright pinpricks. It was past the locals’ bedtime but partying expatriates would be having un dernier pour la route. The only sign of life at Château de la Croë was the yellow glow of a guard’s lamp moving towards a side door.

Deep breaths. Ronnie couldn’t afford an asthmatic wheeze in the bedroom. The tall windows were partly ajar. How convenient that the Duke and Duchess enjoyed fresh air.

On a wide double bed, the Windsors lay well apart. He in pyjamas buttoned to the throat. She in something shiny that caught the moonlight.

Letting his eyes adjust, Ronnie could see the bathroom door was wide open – a gold-plated, swan-shaped bathtub sat smugly in view. The target painting was on the far side of the bedroom.
Perhaps his reflexes were shot, but he could still move like a cat. Ronnie, Le Chat. Albeit un chat that’d seen one bowl of milk too many. Shoulders back, pull that stomach in. This is the last one, Ronnie, he promised himself again.

The painting was a kitsch oil, barely 30 centimetres across. A small boy stood swinging a bucket at low waves splashing at his feet, his back to the artist. The child could not turn back the tide, and neither could the Windsors.

May 1938. Not a wonderful month for the pair. The British Embassy had ordered them out of Paris before a state visit by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And here he was, standing a few metres from their crumpled bedsheets, turning the dial of the wall safe behind the painting.

As the safe door swung out, there was a very faint squeak.

“Did you hear that?” The Duchess’ voice came out of the gloom, sending Ronnie, bent double, towards a long drop curtain.

The Duke rolled sideways, pulling a pillow over his head. “Not again, darling. I can feel a headac ...”

“A mouse.”

Now she had the Duke’s full attention. “I’ll call for help.”

Barely hidden by the curtain, his back pressing against the wall, Ronnie mouthed a prayer.

“There,” said the Duchess. “At the window.”

A black cat sat full frame on the sill. Sleek, impassive. The moon behind it.

The Duke was on his feet. “Shoo, shoo,” he ordered. The cat rose, padded along the window ledge, ignored Ronnie behind the curtain, and disappeared.

Just centimetres from Ronnie, the Duke slammed the windows together, turning the key in the lock before heading back to bed.

“My hero.” Her voice had Katherine Hepburn’s throatiness. “Let me reward you.”

Ronnie closed his eyes. This is definitely the last time.

The act was over in minutes. Small Dukes, small mercies, thought Ronnie.

The Duke’s snores came in bursts. Her breathing was simply heavier.

Ronnie counted to 100 then pushed away the curtain. Please God, let the Duke’s pyjama bottoms be on. They were.

Reaching deep inside the safe, he found three slender jewellery cases. He pushed them aside and took out a document box. Its lid popped open at a touch. Ronnie’s hand moved inside his jacket. The stiff envelope was still there, zippered in place. Sliding the envelope under papers in the box, he closed the lid carefully and then pushed the box towards the rear of the safe.

On the window ledge, he judged the distance to the nearest conifer, braced himself and leapt.

As dawn picked out Antibes’ town walls, Ronnie walked to a café pressed against the side of a boulangerie. At a street table, a man in a hat lit a cigarette before offering one to Ronnie. They sat, watching the sky brighten.

“The Germans are coming,” said the man in the hat. "It's time to leave." He took a wad of francs from a leather satchel on his lap.

Ronnie counted the money. “Les Boches are a year or two away … and planting a fake letter from Hitler on the Duke won’t stop them.”

“No, but it will destroy his reputation. He’ll never take the throne again.”

Petty people. It was time to leave them to it. Ronnie wished the man in the hat bonne journée and didn’t look back.

                                                                          # # #

Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pink Flamingo Boulevard

To my left, the uniform said: “Flamingos make me smile.”

To my right, the double-breasted suit leant over the edge of the darkened, drained swimming pool and said: “He doesn’t see the funny side of it.”

In an Andrews Sisters-like synchronised movement, we rose from our crouching positions, turned as one towards the steel ladder dropping into the pool, and climbed down.

Three men, two flashlights and one corpse – plus a pair of flamingo statuettes with their beaks impaled in the pool owner’s chest.

Pulling the shiny peak of his LAPD cap lower, the uniform accepted the cigarette I offered, cupping his shaky hand over my match flame, his face half-shadowed.

The suit, working a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth, shone a bright light on the dead man’s open eyes. Looks surprised was the verdict.

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

Standing over Jacques “Jacky Two Fingers” Offenbach, I tried to give the impression of someone who knew what had happened.

“Any ideas?” asked the uniform.

My torch beam danced over the body. “We can rule out suicide,” I said.

The uniform stayed by the body while I led the suit back to the porticoed house where Mrs Offenbach greeted us in the time-honoured Los Angeles tradition of slamming the door in our faces. At a side window, I held out my wallet with the buzzer pinned to the flap. “Open Sesame.”

An Ali Baba fan, she allowed a crack of light to appear around the edge of the door. The suit’s shoecap opened it wider.

“A warrant?” she asked.

I reminded her that Mr O was a flashy well-dressed pin cushion lying in their pool and, at three o’clock in the morning, she could either talk to us inside or down at the station.

She didn’t offer us a drink and I didn’t offer her a cigarette. She already had one between scarlet lips with another smouldering in a silver ashtray. A scotch and soda stood to attention on a chair-side table. It looked good and so did she.

I asked about Offenbach’s enemies. Handing me the city phone directory, she said she didn’t have all night. “This’ll give you a head start,” she said.

Reaching over, the suit took the book from me and dropped it into a large fish tank. The splash wet the fluffy white carpet. The three of us kept up the silence for almost a minute before Mrs O tapped the ash off her cigarette and rehearsed her resigned look. Or it could’ve been a lopsided sneer. At that hour I gave her the benefit of the doubt and, in return, she delivered a list of names at a canter. It ended with … “oh, and there’s Leslie.”

She explained Leslie Crawford was a landscaper who had a personality clash with her husband. “Who knew Jacques had one to clash with?” she added.

The highball glass was suddenly upended between glossy lips. The scotch and soda vanished. I offered to fix her another one. “You’re taking your loss very hard,” I said.

“Your sarcasm is as dull as your tie. Tartan ties are for high school teachers. I’ll find you one of Jacques. Come into the bedroom.”

My hand touched the knot. My collar was getting tight. Shaking my head, I asked about Leslie Crawford’s whereabouts.

Another cigarette was lit. “You’re the detective. You find him. In the meantime, you can call off that cop I saw out back.”

The suit took a break from admiring the floating phone book to tell her there were only three of us. “And the uniform is guarding the body.”

“Really?” In a few strides she reached the kitchen door and jerked it open. A young police officer lay on the porch. Stripped to his underwear, gagged and trussed, he looked unhappy.

As I cut him free, I called back to the woman. “Why did the landscaper and your husband fall out?”

She said Leslie Crawford wanted to introduce a touch of flamboyance with figurines of waterbirds around a shallow pond. Offenbach demanded fountains of water arcing from the breasts of a marble Venus de Milo. Crawford said his idea played off the Offenbachs’ address. Offenbach countered that Venus signalled gold standard classy.


“Leslie said flamingos made him smile.”

I beat the suit to the front door by one pace before we went out into the night.
# # #

Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Get the Ripper

Standing directly behind the Duke of Clarence, I smelt the dead whore’s scent on his collar. The surgical knife in his hand came up, then poised. Together we watched droplets of blood run down the blade before they plopped one-by-one onto the cobblestones.

In Mitre Square’s flickering gas light, the mutilated body at his feet was framed by long, wet slicks.
Bending down, the Duke hacked at Catherine Eddowes’ left kidney, severing it from the surrounding flesh. In an Aztec gesture, he held it towards the gas lamp.

My lips came close to his ear. “Sweet Catherine will be the death of you.”

Trying to spin around, he lost his footing on the blood beneath his boots. Sprawled on his back, the knife still in his hand, he shouted: “Who in God’s name are you?”

“Not in His name, Your Grace.”

The Duke’s moustache, a vain man’s affectation with waxed tips, twitched. Sculling on the Thames had given him a lean, muscular build – all the better to pin a fallen woman to soiled sheets. Rolling, he pushed himself off the ground. The knife trembled within inches of my face.

The back of my gloved hand brushed the knife aside.  “Earlier tonight, I gave you a chance to run.” I dangled a nickel-plated police whistle. “When you heard the blasts, you should have abandoned both the pale throat of Liz Stride and Whitechapel. Instead, you choose to stay.”

“A Peeler?” He was fighting to stop the trembling. Defenceless trollops were more his game.

“No, Saucy Jacky. The whistle was a warning. The Vigilance Committees and the Yard are coming to get you. Liz and Catherine take your toll to four. There will not be a fifth.” Lifting off my homburg, I tapped the gutter crown with the edge of my hand. “I have a message from my client. Put away your toys and return to your cold Norfolk castle and even colder wife or come with me.”

“Never.” His shoulders went back. “Do you know ...?”

“Being Queen Victoria’s grandson must thrill the Cleveland Street pimps and their boys.” Mention of The Duke’s other hobby triggered another twitch. “I am here, Your Grace, because you are giving crime a bad name. Opium sales, prostitution, cock fighting, even pickpocketing – all down. Like an evil spigot, our savagery has turned off East London’s flow of wickedness. By year’s end, your zeal together with the vigilantes and the Rozzers will make this place safer than Vatican City. Tonight it all ends.” Whistle against my lips, I blew three long blasts.

A spectre, he slipped away through Church Passage. I stood my ground. Boots thumped on cobbles. Two of Colonel Sir James Fraser’s finest came into the square, helmets skew-whiff, lanterns swinging.

Suitably theatrical, I called out: “That way! Jack the Ripper has struck again!”

Chief Inspector Donald Swanson proved a harder man to command. Feet planted wide apart, he straddled the corpse. “And just why should I not suspect you?” His Scottish brogue was soft, menacing.

“A consulting detective’s role is to assist the authorities, not to create mischief.”

“Mischief?” He bent closer to Catherine. “This woman has been gutted and her face almost cut away. The work of a brute.” His attention was back on me. “I have seen your kind a hundred times before. Lifetaker’s eyes. Who is paying your fee?”

“Someone who believes society should have choices. Ideally, of course, men should make choices which appeal to my client. However, this killer limits such opportunities.”

Although eager to feel my collar, Swanson could not argue with one fact: the Ripper’s clothes would be as bloodstained as a Smithfield butcher’s apron. I was, at least for one night, unblemished.

Six weeks later, in unprepossessing Spitalfields room, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, scooped the last of Mary Jane Kelly’s organs into a bucket beside her bed.

“Tsk, tsk,” I said from the doorway.

He barely looked up from the carcass. “If I disappear, the Royal Family will hunt down my killer.”

“Possibly. But I have found a doppelgänger to replace you. A former rower just like you. Obviously, his social habits are not as adventurous as your’s, but he is highly motivated. Greed is such a delightful virtue.”

More twitches of the aristocratic moustache.

I gestured for the Duke to step closer. “The sooner we leave, the sooner you will meet my client.” Reaching across, I plunged my hand deep into his chest and ripped out his heart. “The Devil, as you will discover, has a wonderful sense of irony.”

Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Have Pen, Will Time Travel

The room smelt of two parts Sherris sack and one part despair. Tipping a fresh candle over a guttering stump in its pewter holder, Shakespeare touched the wicks together. The new flame threw light across his table. He returned to nervously whittling yet another quill tip.

Looking at me on the far side of the room, he waved the white feather. “It is a tragedy,” he said.

It was my turn to sigh. “Your play or the fact I’m stuck here watching you denude the geese of England?”

“Why cannot Richard III cry out on Bosworth Field: ‘Sod the horse, get me the hell out of here!’?”

“Bill, I haven’t got time to workshop this. Richard must cowboy-the-hell-up and battle Henry Tudor’s lads. Just write: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’”

Shakespeare’s Italian lace collar bobbed in time with his nodding head. Hefting a goblet of sack, he drained it in a gulp. “I am too tired to argue but I shall despair. There is no creature loves me.”

“Park that thought. We might be able to whisk it into this histrionic soufflé.”

An alarm beeped in my jacket pocket. Midnight. I had to leave 1592. “I’ll be back in a week. Please put a purse of gold on the chimneypiece.”

The EzyTimehopper (pat. pending) was parked where I’d left it with alley rats sniffing at its black casing. Inside, I went straight to a gleaming loo. Call me a fussbudget, but the 16th Century’s approach to sanitation was somewhat cavalier. Time Traveller’s tip: avoid shaking hands before the 20th Century. 

Within an hour I was standing in a dreary room with all the charm of a morgue, straightening a quilt on Wilde’s bed. The November cold seeped through the window cracks, bringing with it the sounds of the Parisienne streets below. Wilde’s skin had a waxworks sheen. He looked ill and wary. He knew why I was there.

“Oscar, there’s the delicate matter of my fees.”

“Well deserved fees. As soon as I am well, I will see they are paid in full. I cannot afford to die.”
I heard myself say: “Hmmm.”

With difficulty, he turned his head towards the shabby wall. “I am not Wilde about the wallpaper.”

Patting him on the shoulder, I said: “Here’s a thought: drop that line. Instead, when the next person comes into this room, say: ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.’”

“I will. Please put the remark on my bill.”

Farewell to Oscar and 1900.

Thankfully, there was only one more client appointment on this shift. Travelling backwards and forwards through time pimping up the works of writers who’d otherwise be struggling may sound glamorous, but you try rushing home to remove Elizabethan lice from your nether regions.

After the gloom of Paris, the Cuban sun was blinding. I could smell cats. He had a thing about them. Mostly strays, I soon saw them dotted along Finca Vigia’s balcony, soaking up the heat.

Being greeted at the front door by Hemingway in an unbuttoned shirt was like confronting a wall of hair. “Ever considered depilatories?” I asked as he led me into a casually decorated room.

If he heard me, he ignored the question. Instead he fixed us Montgomery Martinis. I was on my second before I spoke again: “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilised.”

“Now you are quoting me to me.” He seemed pleased.

“Technically, I think you’ll find I penned that.”

“It’s been – what? – twenty years. Tomorrow is what counts. I am checking into a hotel in Havana to start a book. It will be the best I can write ever for all of my life.”

“Have you got a working title?”

“The Young Boy and The Sea.”

I helped myself to another martini. “Let me stop you right there, Papa. I’ve got an idea.”

Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Ripped Bodice

Lifting Mr Bumbletoes’ hand, Elizabeth Keane placed it firmly back in his own lap. “That pothole was outside Bimbleton 18 miles ago,” she said. “I no longer need comforting, thank you.”

On cue, the carriage wheel hit another pothole. Like a summer dragonfly, Mr Bumbletoes’ hand rose and hovered above Elizabeth’s embroidered Indian muslin day dress, the one he had stitched himself. Beneath the muslin lay her linen petticoats and …

Swat! His hand was flipped sideways.

“Oh, I do apologise,” said Elizabeth straightening her glove, “I thought I saw an insect.”

Slumping against the leather upholstery, Mr Bumbletoes admired her neck as she craned through the carriage window to catch first sight of Levingham Hall.

In the early morning light, she could make out ripples on the edge of a wide pond in the grounds of the stately home. And there he was. As he emerged from the cold water, droplets ran down his muscular chest. His smooth, powerful thighs rippled as he straightened and looked directly towards her.

“I would mount him in a trice,” said Elizabeth. The stallion flicked his mane then dipped his head.

“Ah,” said Mr Bumbletoes, touching a scented silk kerchief beneath his nostrils. “I have never taken to bare back riding. And I would never trust a horse that chooses to swim unbidden.” He paused. “As the new governess you will, of course, be expected to maintain the highest standards of personal hygiene. When did you last bathe?”

“October,” she replied.

“Very wise,” he said. “Cleanliness is one thing. Obsessiveness is quite another.”

Their carriage passed between stone plinths topped by marble sculptures of the Duke of Levingham and his wife.

“Is he a widower?” asked Elizabeth.

“Not yet.”

Her eyes widened, revealing even more of her powder blue irises. Mr Bumbletoes’ temperature soared. Ignoring his frantic dabbing of sweat on his forehead, she asked: “Is the Duchess being held against her will in a high tower while her husband behaves like a rutting rogue?”

“Actually, she is in Catford visiting her sickly old nanny.”

Wheels crunched over fine gravel. Crows cawed. Elizabeth peered. The sullen grey walls of Levingham Hall were made even bleaker by a sprawling, leafless Virginia Creeper which held the stonework in a death hug. Without the vine, the walls may well have fallen onto the carriageway.

Before a liveried footman could reach for the door, Elizabeth pushed it open and stepped down. Leaning forward as one, the footman, the carriage driver and Mr Bumbletoes attempted to glimpse her stockinged ankles. A collective sigh followed her to the Hall.

In the doorway, with arms folded and pointy chin out, stood a woman of indeterminate age dressed in the welcoming black of a Mother Superior.

“Mrs Dartmoor”, Mr Bumbletoes whispered to Elizabeth as he scurried alongside her, his solid figure accentuated by a high-collared white waistcoat. “She is a right bitc …” The woman moved forward. “How absolutely wonderful to see you again, Mrs Dartmoor,” he enthused, reaching for her hand. “I never tire of seeing you in the same dress.”

She let his hand hang in the cool air while she ran two icy eyes down Elizabeth. “Since you are travelling with your family’s and the Duchess’ dressmaker, I would have expected something more …” The sight of Elizabeth’s black leather high heeled shoes dried up the remaining words. After a moment, she sniffed. “While those abominations may be fashionable in the bordellos of Whitechapel, I run this Hall and they are forbidden here.”

Elizabeth appeared puzzled. “Mr Bumbletoes assures me this style is all the rage in Mayfair. He spent an inordinate amount of time fitting them.”

Mr Bumbletoes pulled at his collar to make way for the trickles of sweat that coursed down his neck.

“Now, who is this?” A deep voice from the darkened hallway combined arrogance with – even from that distance – a hint of halitosis.

Elizabeth held her breath. What would the Duke be like? At first glance not traditionally handsome, she decided. The Duke was of average height, build, dress sense and with the pasty demeanour she associated with funeral directors. Still, needs must. She strode forward to meet him. “I am Keane …”

“I will wager you are, my dear.”

“Elizabeth Keane … Governess to the gentry.”

“Splendid,” said the Duke. Looping his arm around her shoulders, he steered her down the hallway. “Let us get you out of those wet things.”

“I am bone dry and quite capable to undressing myself,” Elizabeth said, shaking herself free.

In the background, a flushed Mr Bumbletoes was unsteadily using the hem of a brocaded curtain to wipe his brow.

The Duke let a smile crawl up the left hand side of his face. “Old Bumbletoes seems to have lost his touch. Your bodice appears uncomfortably tight for a girl who is obviously still blossoming. Allow me to loosen it a trifle.”

The right hand side of the Duke’s face turned scarlet. Elizabeth’s glove had left a palm print that ran from ear to receding chin.

Adjusting her ripped bodice, she stalked to the door. “Do not dither, Mr Bumbletoes. I am tired. Let us return to Bimbleton. I wish to be in bed by nightfall.”

There was a long sigh before, in an elegant faint, Mr Bumbletoes flopped onto a Persian rug.

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Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brittle Shell: Handle with Care

There are two things you don’t want to hear first thing in the morning: the sentence “I’ve missed my period” and an alarm clock. In my case, it was both. They came 15 minutes apart.

Slapping the clock radio off the table, I rolled over and I saw the other side of the bed was as empty as a lawyer’s promise.

Then came the slam of a door. She’d walked out of my life, again.

In the bathroom, her perfume swirled in front of the misted mirror. The two words written in lipstick on the glass were blunt. Well, the first one was. The second word was “you”.

From the window, I could see her striding down Macleay Street towards the harbour, the summer breeze tugging at her skirt.

In the apartment’s small kitchen, I burnt two pieces of toast, made weak coffee from what was left of the beans, and hoped she’d ring. My client beat her to it.

Showered, dressed and wary, I walked up Macleay Street to the grittier end of Kings Cross and took up a position toe-to-toe with a bouncer.

“We’re shut,” he said. His palm came up and pressed against my chest.

“Do I look like someone who visits strip clubs at 8 a.m?"

“Yes,” he replied, leaving his hand where it was.

The voice of authority came down two flights of reddish carpeted stairs: “Stop socialising, Smith, and get your P.I arse up here.”

“I’m being summoned,” I said. The bouncer dropped his hand but stood still, forcing me to walk around him to reach the stairs. Half way up, I paused, made one phone call and pulled medical gloves from my jacket pocket. Snapping them on, I edged my way past another no-necked party in black shirt and trousers, and went into my client’s office. Neville Forewood’s thumbs were tucked in his belt, his lips pulled back over his teeth and his stripper dead at his feet.

“Minnie the Minx,” he said. “Recognise her?”

“Not with clothes on.” Dropping on one knee, I put two fingertips behind her right ear. There was an exit wound behind her left. She was as cold as a banker’s handshake. “Where’re the cops?”

Forewood’s lips moved – just: “Before I called them, I needed you to grace us with your hardboiled similes and snippy manner.”


“I want you to find out who killed Minnie.”


“I’ll kill him. This is bad for business.”

“You sentimental old thing. Give me a hand.” While Forewood rolled Minnie on her side, I tugged out a newspaper caught under her hip. The masthead read Tygodnik Polski .

Lowering her gently, Forewood and I recreated the original position. Her stiffening finger appeared to be pointing to something. There it was – a cigarette butt. The brand name, barely visible, spelt out M-o-c-n-e. Ten seconds later, under a nearby coffee table, I found a half empty bottle of Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.

Straightening up, I held out the butt and the bottle. “First time I’ve seen a corpse point to leads.”

On cue, a door on the far side of the office opened and a solar flare in high heels lit up the room. I could feel my socks getting warm. Forewood introduced her as Layla, one of Minnie’s colleagues.

Looking down at the body, Layla let out a small “Eeek!” as if a mouse had run over her shoe. Forewood looped a comforting arm over her shoulders. A very comforting arm. “Layla, this is Mr Smith. He’s a private eye.” A pause. She didn’t appear impressed. He continued: “Layla and Minnie were very close. In fact, they even shared a boyfriend.”

Layla tilted her head. “Minnie certainly knew how to work that Pole.”

“Well,” I said. ”Dancing was her profession.”

“No, Pole with a capital ‘P’.”

“Now that’s a spooky coincidence,” I said. “I’ve just found a Polish newspaper, cigarette and vodka bottle.”

Her head tilted to the other side. “I believe they’re what you detectives call ‘leads’.”

Forewood pushed his thumbs back behind his belt. “So, who’re you liking for the murder, Sherlock?”

“Someone with motive, opportunity and a rather literal sense of planting evidence. Someone such as Layla.”

Unfortunately I didn’t know her skills as a stripper but as an exponent of the quick draw she was sensational. It was difficult to tell at a distance of three metres, but I guessed it was a Ruger .380 pistol pointing at my forehead.

Forewood nudged my ribs. “Do something.”

“Forget it,” I said, slowly raising my hands in the air. “I’ve got too much to live for.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the big man in black guarding the office’s main door also lift his hands high. Neither of us wanted to take a bullet for Forewood.

Backing away, Layla chose the far door. A good call. As she left, the police I’d phoned earlier came up the carpeted staircase fast, bursting into room with only a hint of Keystone Cops. Forewood pointed a finger at the escape door. He was using his comforting arm.

I turned to leave.

“Where’re you heading?” Forewood asked.

“Sort it out yourself. I’m going to buy a baby’s rattle.”

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Copyright © 2012 GREG FLYNN