Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pink Flamingo Boulevard

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

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

“Any ideas?” asked the uniform.

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

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

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

“A warrant?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Leslie said flamingos made him smile.”

I beat the suit to the front door by one pace before we went out into the night.
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Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Get the Ripper

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

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

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

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

“Not in His name, Your Grace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tsk, tsk,” I said from the doorway.

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

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

More twitches of the aristocratic moustache.

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

Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Have Pen, Will Time Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to Oscar and 1900.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you got a working title?”

“The Young Boy and The Sea.”

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

Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Ripped Bodice

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

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

Swat! His hand was flipped sideways.

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

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

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

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

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

“October,” she replied.

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

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

“Is he a widower?” asked Elizabeth.

“Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will wager you are, my dear.”

“Elizabeth Keane … Governess to the gentry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN