Sunday, July 5, 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 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?”

“Jaundice?”

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.

# # #

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.

# # #
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.

“Waterbirds?”

“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