Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Actor

Never trust an actor’s agent. Drake still put too much faith in his. A simple request: find me a part that gets me out from behind this sowing machine. Podge, his agent, blamed Drake’s title: Costume Designer. No more than a glorified dressmaker. An uppity backstage seamster with greasepaint ambitions.

“You’re typecast,” Podge had said. “Sadly, not as an actor.”

Drake had stood in the wings too often to be overawed by those chosen for the spotlight. He had the talent, now he needed that acting trope: A Big Break.

One sigh and one phone call later, Podge had found this opportunity: the stage lights hanging on a high batten snapped on, focusing on each actor, the hard golden glare revealing their every flaw.

Off to one side of Drake, he could see other men sitting on high stools, perhaps four of them – he didn’t have time to count. The director’s voice came out of the gloom of the stalls. “Throw those scripts away.”

Bundles of paper fluttered to the floor. Drake held his script tightly. It gave him a sense of security.

“I said throw the bloody thing away.” Pause. “If you want the role.”

Drake did. The script slid onto the stage.

More barked instructions. Starting from the left, the actors delivered their lines. As each finished, a spotlight switched off, leaving darkness where they’d sat. Did a vaudevillian crook come from the wings, hauling them away? Drake knew he was about to find out.

A switch was flicked, a light died and the actor nearest to Drake disappeared.

It was his turn.

Drake had never liked Samuel Beckett and, as the dead Irish playwright’s words tumbled towards the stage apron, it became obvious Beckett didn’t like him either.

Rehearsing in his flat that morning, the accent Drake adopted held the sing song charm of Kerry. Alone in the spotlight, the brogue spluttered and died. No repertory audience would be waiting for Drake. His agent would get 12% of sod all.

“We’ll call you,” came the voice. “If you’ve made the cut.”

A callback? Unlikely. His spotlight was switched off and Drake exited Stage Right.

As he weaved between ladders and scenery, he sensed someone was close behind: low breathing, the smell of mint. Turning, he saw two stagehands hefting furniture, moving away. Not them.

In the laneway alongside the theatre, a voice near his shoulder said: “I thought you were quite good.”

The man was neat, too neat. A brocade waistcoat, careful hair and a peppermint pastille being worked behind moist lips. “No, really,” the stranger added.

Drake repeated the “really” as a query. He could picture the man at a bathroom mirror, swiftly working his hair with two silver-backed brushes.

A business card with a font size so discrete that Drake needed to squint stated that Gerry Hopkins ran a talent agency with an office in Foubert’s Place. Trying to hand back the card, Drake said he already had an agent.

“Obviously not one that knows anything about the right casting,” said Hopkins, waving away the card.

At least, thought Drake, we agree on one thing. A tug on his sleeve made him stop walking away.

“Think about it, John.” The name was given an edge, a decibel or two higher than the rest. Five foot five of impeccable grooming drifted back to the stage door.

Dropping Drake’s name was a signal: this wasn’t the end of it.

The Tube carriage was filling with office workers leaving early to join the evening rush of others also attempting to beat that same stampede: the corporate walking dead with lifeless eyes but healthy bank accounts. Drake forced himself to accept he was envious.

The Tube map he was staring at came back into focus.

“John.” He said his name aloud, mimicking Hopkins’ tone. Two men to his right pretended not to react, but he could see them edging into the crush of other passengers, pressing against less manic strangers.

Hopkins couldn’t have been sitting in the theatre’s dark stalls. The way he’d immediately followed Drake through the back stage clutter and out into the laneway meant he’d been literally behind the scenes. Why had he tucked himself discreetly out of view? Had he been studying what passed for talent under the spotlights or had he been waiting just for Drake? Every actor has a dose of paranoia. Always ready to distrust a rival’s smile, to believe compliments mask critiques, to see competition from everyone – whether the director’s boyfriend or the night cleaner at the stage door.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he drew out Hopkins’ card. The fading scent of something posh floated up. Drake had one cologne bottle with a single splash remaining. He was saving it for the right date. Hope is the last thing that dies in man, he recited to himself, smiling at nearby passengers. More shuffling away, then a collective relief as the doors opened with a hiss and a squeak and Drake stepped out.

He needed a drink. Instead, he forced himself to search out an Americano. The coffee was as bitter as the barista serving it.

Taking out his mobile phone, Drake toyed with it before tucking it away. No, he’d surprise Podge. Don’t telegraph your punches, Podge was fond of saying. Catch people off guard. Tonight would be Podge’s turn.

The iridescent blue lights of emergency vehicles always transform the familiar. One moment, an unprepossessing strip of Gloucester Road terraced houses calmly awaited nightfall. The next, blue lights flashed and compact police cars in DayGlo colours parked at angles near the kerb. An ambulance jutted into traffic, slowing down curious drivers. Barrier tape strung between plastic bollards warned: “Police Line Do Not Cross”. The Plod – three plainclothes detectives, Drake guessed – ignored the tape’s command, instead lifting the plastic strip to stoop under it.

From the far side of the road, he watched, waiting to see which door the two men and the woman entered. Perhaps it wouldn’t be Podge’s.

At a trot, three abreast, they went up the front steps of Podge’s house, pausing long enough to allow the female detective to enter first. Chivalry or acknowledging who was boss?

The door stayed open, the hard light of the naked bulb dangling from the hallway ceiling revealing silhouettes of darkened faces talking. Everyone was talking.

Pushed back curtains allowed the audience in the street a chance to guess aloud what the players inside were staring at, their heads bowed towards the out-of-sight floor. The consensus: a body. Podge’s body.

Centre stage amongst the players, the female detective looked up as a man in a hooded white crime scene suit came into view. He handed her a plastic bag. As she held it towards the ceiling light, something metallic in the bag gleamed. 

Podge had been difficult and mercenary – hardly unique traits in show business.  But he was loyal, up to a point. Drake felt obliged to find his killer.

Drake smelt mint, then heard low breathing. Asthmatic or threatening, he couldn’t tell. The neat little man who’d ambushed him outside the theatre was at Drake’s elbow, whispering: “Appears you need a new agent, John.”
# # #

Copyright  2016 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, February 14, 2016

One Mumbai Night

Shoes by Jimmy Choo, attitude by Ms Cranky. Macnee could see her mouth moving but he wasn’t listening. The street lights of Bandra reflected in her eyes and on the rain-slicked pavement stretching along Carter Road. She was shouting at him again. Get the hell out of my life was the essence of it. He waited for her to finish then tilted his head towards a doorway guarded by a damp maitre d’ in a Parsi cap. No, she shouted, she didn’t want anything to eat, she wanted him to leave. Raising an eyebrow, he said he had a job to do.

Macnee glanced up. With more than 1,400 police CCTV cameras in Mumbai, a street struggle between a young woman and a grim-faced man would attract attention. Taking her elbow, he led her into the restaurant.

She took the seat with the best view. Banging a black leather handbag on the table, she asked, ‘I suppose I’m paying?’

Macnee didn’t look up from his menu. ‘You’re the one with the money, Ms Chavan. I’m just …’

‘For God’s sake stop calling me “Ms Chavan”. Call me Anika or nothing at all.’

‘Certainly, Ms Chavan.’

Flicking her fingers at the waiter, Anika called for a berry pulao with an aloo cutlet and an ashtray. ‘I’m hungry now.’

‘Then you won’t need a cigarette … plus, you can’t smoke here.’ He went back to the menu and chose the vada pav before lifting his eyes. He could see her studying him – a man desperately in need of a stylist and a few hours more sleep.

‘I imagine you disapprove of me smoking.’

‘I’m not hired to be your nanny.’

‘A nanny would be less interfering than a bodyguard.’

‘And better paid.’ Macnee ordered a half bottle of Semillon for the kutiya. For him, black tea.

‘Trying to get me drunk?’

‘If it makes you more agreeable. Eat up.’

In silence they pushed food around their plates, avoiding each other’s eyes.

The night skies cleared over the sea, the nearby bars began filling with the not-so-idle rich and now the rain was dampening spirits in Andheri East. It was time to go.

Still silent, they walked past open-fronted bars where small groups of fashionable young men glanced at Anika before noticing the tall man one step behind her. The drinkers turned back to their imported beers.

It was 2am. Or so his alarm clock claimed. It felt like he’d slept only a few minutes. He was still dressed. When she’d complained his clothes looked slept in, she was right. There was that sound again. Rolling off the bed, he pulled open the hotel room door and stood blinking in the bright hallway.

Anika was slumped against the wall outside her room. Crouching over her, a man in a black balaclava swung his head around in time to catch a punch above the right eye. It wasn’t enough. The man’s foot twitched, lashed out and caught Macnee behind the knee, sending him down on top of his client. With an apology and a push, Macnee shoved himself clear and came up into a crouch. The attacker fumbled in his jacket, drew out a long curved knife and made criss-cross slashes in the air.

Smiling, Macnee said ‘Get well soon’ in Hindi. ‘Jaldī se ṭhīk ho jāo.’

Confused, the man swung wildly. The knife missed Macnee once, twice, then a third slash ripped his sleeve. It was his good shirt. Cursing, Macnee hit the attacker across the bridge of the nose. A second, final blow sent the man crashing to the skirting board. There was a satisfying crack of skull on wood.

The diamonds were cold to the touch but then so was Anika. Lifting the necklace away from her throat, Macnee pressed his fingertips against her skin. He counted the soft pulse beats. Drugged.

Crouching over the body, Macnee reached under the woman’s arms, pulled her into a sitting position and began dragging her towards the elevator. Her heels gouged parallel trails across the silk carpet.

Rows of grand cars lined the hotel’s underground parking lot. In a fireman’s lift, he carried her past the polished chrome and out a side door into the street. A dirty white van stood where he’d left it. Edging open the rear doors, he rolled her onto a blanket on the back floor.

Her eyes were partly open, her voice groggy. ‘Hello, handsome. Why aren’t you in Mumbai?’

‘Unfortunately, I am.’

‘A good night kiss?’

‘Not on the first date,’ said Macnee. Rohypnol in her hotel room booze was his guess. He’d take her to the suburban safe house then call her father. What was the time in London?

In the driver’s cabin, he ran his fingers under the dashboard searching for the key. Too late. He saw the raised knuckles in the street before he heard the rap on the side window. The policeman’s cap was flecked with rain drops. The face beneath it was wet, shining and unsmiling.

‘… license’ was all Macnee heard as he slid down the window. He handed over a local driver’s license giving his name as ‘Jeffrey Smart’ with a Juhu address.

The beat policeman passed it back to a second constable.

‘What are you doing?’ came the demand.

‘Taking out the trash,’ said Macnee. Neither constable appeared convinced.

The first was about to speak again when the yee-yaw of a police siren sawed through the night. Two-way radios clipped to the policemen’s belts began to crackle. As the constables turned away, Macnee’s license was flipped unceremoniously through the window. Holding their holsters to their hips, they jogged up the street.

For a few seconds Macnee watched their retreating backs then sucked in a lungful of humid air. For the second time that night he wished he hadn’t given up smoking. At least tobacco had given his life some constancy – as a social prop, a post-coital substitute for conversation and, more than once, a small reward for escaping alive.

He found the van’s key and fired up the engine. A final check of the driver’s side wing mirror. It disintegrated in a shower of glass as the thrown knife tore the mirror from its mountings. The attacker was standing a few metres away, legs braced apart. He was bleeding heavily. The bastard’s indestructible, Macnee thought. Slamming the van into gear, he jabbed the accelerator. The tyres slipped, then gripped on the slick roadway, and finally slipped again – throwing up neon-reflected showers from the street puddles. The man was now running, shouting. Macnee heard a thud at the rear of the van. He’s jumped on the back.

The tyres found traction and the van shot forward. Macnee pulled the steering wheel left then hard right. The van fishtailed. There was a scream and a crash of plate glass. Jamming on the brakes, Macnee looked across the road. The attacker’s legs were projecting from a shattered shop window.

The rear vision mirror revealed Anika still asleep. Shrugging his shoulders to loosen them, Macnee pointed the van towards the East. It was going to be a long night.

# # #

Copyright  2016 GREG FLYNN

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Play In One Act

Dramatis Personae 
David – a performer
Angie – David’s wife
Jim – a photographer


Curtain up. A reception room in the wing of an Edwardian mansion. The room is as cluttered as a bedsit. Angie is seated in a leather chair reading New Musical Express. David, dressed in a floral-patterned dress and high boots, enters Stage Right, navigates his way past an ironing board and assorted distressed furniture to reach a tall mirror.

DAVID (addresses his reflection): I’m thinking of going commando.

ANGIE (still looking at the NME): Keep your knickers on, David. It’s only a newspaper photo shoot.

DAVID: I meant I’m thinking of something in a camouflage pattern. What would the effect be?

ANGIE: Plausibly lesbian.

DAVID: And currently?

ANGIE (looks up briefly): My grandmother’s chaise lounge.

DAVID: So, I should butch it up? Head-to-toe black, perhaps.

ANGIE: If you want to resemble a Greek widow scaling fish.

DAVID: You’d prefer me in trousers. Say it, Angie. You want something more traditionally masculine.

ANGIE: Now that you ment …

DAVID (cuts her off): How bourgeois. You know I’m non-binary.

ANGIE: That’s not the description they use about you down at The Dog & Trumpet.

DAVID: Barflies. They don’t recognise gender fluidity.


DAVID: Are you …?

ANGIE: It’s the first fluid thing that came to mind. It flows then (pause) hardens.

DAVID (turns sideways): I can see myself as (adopting Cockney accent) well ‘ard.

ANGIE: If only I saw that more often.

She rises, crosses to David, takes his shoulders and spins him back to face the mirror.

ANGIE: Perhaps it’s the length. Too long.

DAVID (picks up the hem and raises it over his thighs): Micro-mini? Very London high fashion. Very Anoushka and Veruschka.

ANGIE: Let’s try for very Queen Mother. A sensible hemline, just below the knees with stockings held up by tight elastic.

DAVID: A little too Sainsbury’s shopper for me. The Daily Mirror is coming. I need to sparkle.

ANGIE: For a national red-top?

DAVID: Sssshhh. He could be here any second.

ANGIE: Nonsense.

Off stage sound effect: Knock, knock.


The set revolves to reveal a garden. David faces the audience. He practices several poses. Angie and the photographer enter Stage Left.

ANGIE: David Bowie, this is Jim James from the Daily Mirror.

Hands shake, heads nod.

JIM (gestures): Let’s use the house as a backdrop.

DAVID: Will it distract from me?

JIM: Nothing will distract from that dress. It makes you look …

DAVID: Sexually agnostic?

JIM: I was about to say like a …

ANGIE: Coffee, anyone?

Heads shake. The shoot proceeds. The photographer crouches, aims. David poses.

DAVID: Look at me and tell me what you see.

JIM: My grandmother’s chaise lounge.

DAVID: (A sigh) Jim, you strike me as a man of the world.

JIM (pats the long lens of his camera): This gives me instant access to people with outlandish talent.

DAVID: Really?

JIM: Yesterday I photographed a woman who makes dolls out of wooden clothes pegs.

DAVID: Fame of sorts, I suppose.

JIM (pulls a pen and notebook from his coat pocket): Fame, indeed. Which reminds me, Dave. Just for the pic caption. What is it that you do?

Curtain down. Theatre lighting drops.

ANGIE (disembodied voice offstage): Will it be curtains for David?

JIM (disembodied voice): One day.

DAVID (disembodied voice): Never.

Story Copyright © 2016 GREG FLYNN
Image Copyright © 1971 Daily Mirror

[Please note: the above script is pure fiction.] 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Welcome to Chudleigh Manor

Hiding in the shadows won’t help, they can see in the dark. No stragglers, please. Now, before we start the tour, let me officially welcome to your new home, Chudleigh Manor. Indeed, Madam, pronounced “Cuddly”. And they said the late Duke was a humourless curmudgeon with the social warmth of a slammed door. Obviously not.

We do miss him. Who could forget the sound of His Grace’s cane swishing through the air, then the thwack of firm discipline? Happy days.

 I’ll always remember the startled look on his face as the coffin lid was plopped into place. Risus sardonicus, perhaps, although I prefer to think he was simply surprised to be taken before his time. We’ll never know why that trapdoor was left open. Apparently it was a 20 foot drop before His Grace landed on Mrs Allthorpe from H.M Revenue & Customs. In a just world she’d have broken his fall. Instead it appeared for a moment as if we’d have to bury them in the same coffin … they were so – how shall I put it? – “intertwined”. All that was left of her handbag revealed a packed lunch of Patum Peperium sandwiches and a Letter of Demand from the tax office. In life, His Grace loathed both. Like his ancestors, he was a good hater. Unlike them, he couldn’t hide from the rapacious Tax Man, or in this case, Woman.

You can’t imagine, Sir, how the staff reacted to the news you’d bought this property. “Incredulous” is not the word. Of course, some of the junior maids knew of you and your wife. You a singer, she an actress. We’re doubly blessed. Or, given your two divine children, quadruply. The old aristocracy replaced by the new. It’ll be a short, sharp learning curve, no doubt.

 I’m glad you asked. I’ve been here for 45 years, the last 30 as His Grace’s valet. What a blow it was when he decided to sell the manor to appease some Government Jobsworth’s threats over unpaid monies. It was His Grace’s clever idea to rebrand the property from its original name, Grimm Hall which had become so associated with The Curse. You haven’t heard? A silly, local myth that the owner of this property always dies violently. “Chudleigh Manor” is so much more approachable, don’t you think, Sir? You could weave it into the other scribbles on your sleeve tattoo. How very on-trend and I’m certain that style of tattoo won’t be dated in, say, five years.

Madam, I can assure you that your son was here a moment ago. Just keep moving through the hall and don’t look back. Oh, the little scamp, crouched behind the tapestry. Indeed, he’s a little pale. He looks like he’s seen a ghost. You did, Master James? In that case don’t dawdle, it could be the last your parents see of you. Hear of you is another thing. Quite often the screams echo around the grounds for minutes afterwards. And now your mewling is scaring your sister.

Come everyone, let’s meet the staff. Ideally they’d have been lined up outside to allow you to “run the gauntlet”, as His Grace would’ve put it, but Northamptonshire’s driving rain spoilt that fun. Oh, dear, just two. Where are the others, Donald? Really? It seems a little early to start drinking, but it does steady the nerves.

 Nevertheless, let me introduce Donald who’s been gamekeeper here for decades. A handy soul with an Over-and-Under shotgun or sharp hunting knife, although we do keep him clear of the liquor cabinet. And this is Cook, or to be formal, Missus Velveteen, who’s been with us on weekday parole since January. What Cook can do with a pheasant that’s been hung for two weeks is quite startling, and you can barely taste the lead shot residue. We were hoping that Cook would finally be available seven days a week but it appears those additional assault charges are going to stick.

Keep up, Master James, you’ve fallen behind again. Something pulled at your  jacket? Technically that could be “someone”, but how does one describe a non-corporeal being? Let’s look at who it might’ve been. The portraits filling these walls are very revealing. Possibly it’s the Duke who fought on both sides in the English Civil War or going back even further, the ancestor who sided with the rival Yorkists and Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses. In terms of mischievousness, it’s hard to go past His Grace’s forebear who in the 16th Century built a priest hole to hide Catholic priests from Elizabeth I’s men then turned the Papists in for the reward money. Such a lark.

No, the front door is definitely shut. That icy draught sighs through the manor all-year-round, a bonus at the height of Summer – which in this district is from August 9th to the 11th.

I was wrong, the door is open. No, Sir, I won’t be offended if you join your family, although I’d hurry if I was you. Madam appears to be having trouble getting the car key in the ignition.

All gone. That was quick. Another success, Your Grace. That’s the fourth buyer we’ve seen off this year. Cuddleigh Manor is yours again. Yes, it’s a shame I can’t pour you a cognac to celebrate but the last time we tried, the liquor soaked the carpet. Still, there must be some advantages to being a ghost.

# # #
Copyright © 2015 GREG FLYNN

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Adventure of the Scarlet Woman

Given Mrs Hudson’s breakfasts would send any man into the world with a tap of his brim in thanks and the bounce of Spring Heeled Jack, it was unusual for me to be sitting by an inn’s window at a quarter-past eight, savouring two pork chops and a small glass of porter.

Outside in the morning light, urchins scuttled around the market barrows set up on each side of the street. Slipping on fallen cabbage leaves, snatching stray apples and tormenting geese held in crates, the children also tugged at the frayed coat of a tall, gaunt tramp as he stood momentarily startled.

With one chop reduced to the bone, I still had time to move to the second before Sherlock Holmes arrived. Why he chose such a scruffy drinking hole in Limehouse Causeway was a mystery, as was so much about the man. The cracked leather suitcase he had asked me to fetch from his rooms lay at my feet.

A shadow fell across my plate. The tramp stood on the pavement blocking out the sun, his eyes on the grilled meat. Then he was gone.

Two mouthfuls later I smelt him before I saw him. His clothes gave off the scent of damp stairwells and dry gin. Annoyed, the landlord left his post behind the bar. I waved a hand. “Another glass, please.”

Glancing up at Holmes, I shook my head. “If nothing else, you smell the part.”

“I am blessed, Watson, that London’s criminal elements do not have your seasoned eye.” He dropped into the chair opposite. “What gave me away?”

“You did not strike the children who pestered you. A clipped ear would the very least a man-of-the-road would have handed out.”

“Dispense with medicine, doctor, if you will excuse the pun. I will make a consulting detective of you yet.”

Throwing back his porter, he ordered another. “My friend will pay.”

The pipe he lit had a split in the bowl, the tobacco as pungent as his coat. Before he spoke, the refilled glass went the way of the first. He had not slept for twenty four hours, he said. Somewhere down these rat-scuttled streets a killer lurked and Holmes was on the hunt. In the space of three weeks, the killer had sent a half dozen opium den customers to their pauper’s graves earlier than Nature, God and the usual seller of poppy tears would have expected. As a man who knew the pleasures of a seven per cent solution of cocaine, Holmes was not prissy about the dissolute habits of others. So, although the police had little or no interest in the deaths of six wretched men, Holmes saw the greater evil. Success in Limehouse meant the killer’s shadow would fall across more and more of London.

For a week, Holmes had left Baker Street at midnight. In disguise, he had made his way to Limehouse; there he kept watch as patrons slouched towards the dens of Ah Tack and his nearby rival Ah Sing. From the limited information grudgingly provided by Inspector Lestrade, the first two deaths occurred at Tack’s opium den, the subsequent four at Sing’s. Lestrade had dismissed the deaths as a squabble between Chinese gangs. “Let them get on with it,” the Inspector had advised Holmes.

Were it that simple. Holmes had been hooked. There had been something about the woman in the scarlet cheongsam who acted as the guardian of Sing’s door. The sight of her in the figure-hugging dress silhouetted against the hallway’s candlelight reminded him of another beauty, Irene Adler. Too much so.

On the third night, Holmes left the shadows. It was not Miss Adler. For a moment, Holmes had felt a dull ache.

The young Chinese woman had barely glanced at him when he brushed passed her into the den. Stopping in the hallway, he had turned quickly. She had been staring at him, perhaps for seconds. Bobbing his head, he had ventured further into the house before paying for a pea-sized ball of opium paste and going about the complex ritual that led to the first puff. At dawn, he had found himself on a hard, narrow bed in an empty house.

On subsequent nights he had made time to speak to the woman in red. She was Jiao, Sing’s daughter, under orders to watch for strangers. He had pointed out that he was one. “You do not have the eyes of a killer,” Jiao had replied.

“Not a premeditated one,” he had said.

On Holmes’ final visit – last night - there had been two strangers. Declining the opium paste and instead choosing to smoke a low grade tea mixed with a hint of the drug, Holmes had taken a corner bed to study them.

Their bearing had been upright, their bony faces marked with peeling skin while their shoulders held a slight shake. After paying for their paste from a hand-tooled leather purse and choosing their beds, the men had sniggered about the den needing more rags for the bedding. As the taller of the two slipped onto his bed, he revealed a junk and anchor tattoo on his forearm.

By morning, Holmes was not alone. An addict lay dead on a neighbouring bed with Jiao bent over the body.

Pulling a sheet across the man’s face, Jiao had sneered at Holmes. “You?”

“Would I spend the night with my victim? Foolish even by a vagrant’s standards.” Stepping forward, he had lifted up the sheet and sniffed the dead man’s lips. “The scent of garlic. Either his last supper or arsenic. I would hazard the latter. During the night, did you notice anything …” he had stopped himself saying the word “strange” – “strange” in an opium den? – instead he chose “different?”.

“Those two gweilo made jokes about yellow skin, but they too had it.”

Now, sitting across the barroom table, Holmes leant forward: “In the candlelight, it was the one detail which escaped me. Your opinion?”


With a grim smile, Holmes took the suitcase from under the table and headed towards the privy. Minutes later, he came rushing back into the bar, his tramp’s clothes discarded and with his Ulster’s cape billowing. "Come, Watson, come!" he cried.

“I know,” I said, pushing away the breakfast plate. “The game is afoot and we are storming a den of vice.”

“True,” said Holmes, his hand held high to stop a hansom cab. “But not where you think. I was wrong.”

We raced through the crowded streets heading for, if I had heard Holmes correctly, Pall Mall. My mind reeled. Holmes had admitted he was wrong.

“I have been a fool, Watson,” he said. “I should not have succumbed to opium last night, no matter how small the dose. I realised this morning that I misheard the strangers. They did not say the den needed more rags for the beds. They said the beds needed to be more like The Rag.”

“The Rag?” I repeated the nickname of the Army and Navy Club.

“Hopefully you have kept up your membership.”

I had. Although I am not a clubbable man, my attachment to the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot was an experience I found difficult to forget. Perhaps that is why I paid my club dues: to occasionally be with others who had suffered too.

“Doctor Watson,” said the doorman. “How good to see you again.”

Although it was my club, Holmes took the lead. First he entered the morning room with its mirrors and arched windows. Glancing around, he shook his head at me, turned and bounded up the wide stone staircase that led to the library. There he was met by the glares of several elderly members who, irritated by his sudden appearance, snapped their newspapers open.

“Not here either, Watson.”

On the third storey, Holmes headed into the billiard and card rooms. Only one billiard table was being used. Two men stood chalking their cue tips while their companion bent low over the green baize. His arm came back.

Holmes smiled. “Right angle to the cue stick.”

The cue tip sent the ball skittering away from its target.

“Rotten luck,” said Holmes.

“Who the hell are you?” shouted the man. “Obviously not a club member in that gamekeeper’s garb.”

Discarding their chalk, the other men took one pace towards Holmes.

He stood his ground. “You have been busy since leaving HMS Tamar.” Immediately, he had their attention. “In just three weeks you have taken seven lives. All for what? To dominate the opium trade in London? You could easily have struck a lucrative deal with both Ah Tack and Ah Sing. As you’ve seen, your crude attempts to trigger a gang war have failed. Now the gallows awaits.”

Ever since Holmes’ invitation to Limehouse, I had been expecting confrontation. In my coat pocket, my fingers rested on the grip of my service revolver. “So these are the men you saw last night?”

“The two lowly chalkers, not the billiards champion. You will notice that all three have military bearing, their peeling skin courtesy of a Far Eastern sun, the shaking shoulders and yellow skin resulting from bouts of malaria and jaundice …” He paused. “I would suspect the disease was contracted in Anhui Province upriver from Shanghai. That would have warranted a posting back to Hong Kong and a short convalescence aboard HMS Tamar in Victoria Harbour before returning to London. And where else than The Rag would three officers newly returned from the China Station rest up? The Devil finds work for idle hands, eh, Watson? These gentlemen were certainly not going to waste the expertise they had picked up in the Orient. Last night I noticed they paid for their opium with money from a wallet etched with Hindi script. The Second Opium War may have been finished over 30 years ago but shipping Indian opium into China is still lucrative, particularly if you stow it in a British naval ship. Free transportation, Watson. It conveniently reduces costs. Add to that the rather obvious junk and anchor tattoo on the man over there. Unimaginative at the time but helpful today.”

The billiard player moved closer to his companions. “And we are?”

“Your ranks? I would put you as a First Lieutenant, too insecure to be a Commander. These two – possibly Sub-Lieutenants. Your names? Those I will leave to Inspector Lestrade to whom I sent a runner before we left the East End.”

“The police do not care about seven dead addicts,” said the billiard player, raising his cue.

“However they do care about a commotion at The Rag.”

“What comm …” He did not finish the question. Holmes was upon him, clasping a billiard ball. The crack of ball on skull could be heard across the floor.

I levelled my revolver at the other two men, shaking my head as a warning. They lowered their cues.

Holmes pushed himself away from the player’s limp body. “A fine morning’s work, Watson. If only a guest could pay for a drink in this club, I would offer you champagne.”

Within the hour, we walked out into the sunshine.

Holmes tapped my elbow. Across Pall Mall, a hansom cab had drawn up, its passenger gazing towards us. A black jacket coat almost covered her scarlet cheongsam.

Holmes gave a slight bow of his head. Jiao returned the gesture then tapped twice to signal the driver to move off.

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the other woman.

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With apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle.

Copyright © 2015 GREG FLYNN

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.

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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.”

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Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN