Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pirates of the Eastern Suburbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A click signalled a cocked pistol.

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

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

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


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

“We’re doomed!” wailed the Quartermaster.

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

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

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

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

As one, the crew took a step backwards.

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

Silence.

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


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

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

“Get a grip, lad.”

Toby clung tighter to the sleeve.

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

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

“Double Bay,” replied the older man.

“Bermuda?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Space warp,” corrected Emptor.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Cool War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Once we shared clues. Today too.”

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

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

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

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

“The happy days are gone,” said Nikolaev.

Archer raised an eyebrow.

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

“Admirable.”

“Boring. Well, usually boring.”

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

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

“I’m no longer a cop.”

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

“Pickings.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The name on the paper?” asked Archer.

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

“Reliable?”

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

“And you want me to track her down?”

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

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

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

“Are you armed?” Archer asked.

“No. Why would I need a gun?”

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

# # #

Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN