EPISODE SEVEN: THE GOLDFISH FILES
Despite the fact that it had clearly been designed with little thought given to considerations of luxury or even comfort, our third-class carriage for the journey to Constantinople was more than a little crowded. Competing for air in the stuffy atmosphere were a motley assortment of humanity, all manner of baggage, two bicycles, three chickens and a goat.
Hemmed into a seat by the window near the centre of the coach, there didn’t seem much prospect of getting any sleep as the train bumped and rocked its way through the pitch-black countryside. The narrow wooden benches were tortuous and unyielding and just across the aisle the large-bottomed woman who had got stuck in the carriage doorway displayed a relentless determination to keep up a continuous stream of chatter throughout the entire journey. Starting with a series of strident complaints about her treatment at the hands of the railway authorities (which seemed to me to be more than a little unfair to the porters and guards who had risked life and limb to extract her from her undignified predicament) she went on to pontificate loudly and at length on every topic under the sun to anyone whose eye she was able to catch. Even when, in the early hours of the morning, every single person in the carriage had been reduced to feigning sleep in an attempt to ignore her she still carried on, contenting herself with addressing a series of withering remarks on ‘the youth of today’ to the goat and the chickens.
By the time the first rays of dawn were beginning to slink into the carriage around the edges of the window blind I decided enough was enough. I glanced across at Michael who was seated opposite me. His eyes were closed and his head lolled against the window but the constant shifting of his long limbs in the cramped space suggested he wasn’t actually any nearer to real sleep than I was. I gave him a gentle nudge and he cautiously opened one eye.
“It must be time for breakfast,” I murmured in a low voice so as not to attract the notice of the large woman. “What do you say we try and hunt down the buffet car?”
“I was just getting off to sleep,” Michael complained.
“You’ve had eight hours to get off to sleep,” I retorted.
“Well, it’s a complicated business in these circumstances.” Michael threw a discreet glance at our talkative companion who was still opining about the benefits of corporal punishment to nobody in particular.
“You’re not coming then?”
“Please yourself. You’d better look after Gerald then while I’m gone.” I casually deposited the goldfish in his plastic bag into Michael’s lap.
Michael raised an eyebrow. “Gerald?”
“Yes, Gerald,” I replied defensively. “What’s wrong with Gerald?”
“You can’t keep him as a pet, you know,” said Michael sternly. “It’s entirely impractical.”
“I know. I’ve just given him a name, not set up a home for him.”
Michael sighed and tucked the plastic bag under his arm. “Fine, I’ll look after Gerald for you then.” He rested his head against the window once more and closed his eyes.
I got up and, squeezing my way past the pink rosy couple that occupied the bench alongside me, made my way with some relief towards the end of the carriage and the prospect of breakfast.
Having escaped the discomforts of third class I found myself passing through several long carriages divided into sleeping compartments in my quest to find a restaurant car. The door of each sleeping berth was firmly closed and this section of the train seemed eerily quiet. But it felt good to be free of the musty air of our crowded carriage and the gradually brightening dawn visible through the windows promised a beautiful day ahead.
I passed through another two carriages before I came across the first sign of life in the shape of a tall, slender man wearing a long dark mackintosh and a homburg hat. He was hovering in the corridor towards the end of the second carriage, apparently enjoying the views of the early morning countryside as it sped by. As the corridor was narrow I slowed down as I approached, expecting him to step aside to allow me to pass by. But to my surprise when I had closed to within a couple of feet he chose instead to lean forward and fix me with a dark glare beneath the brim of his hat. “Give me the goldfish,” he unexpectedly hissed.
Somewhat taken aback, I stopped and stared. “Excuse me?” I spluttered.
“Don’t play games with me,” he continued in a surly undertone. “Just give me the fish and nobody will get hurt.”
“I don’t have a goldfish,” I instinctively replied. As Gerald was currently nestling in the custody of Michael this was not strictly speaking a lie.
The man in the homburg hat did not appear inclined to accept my denial. “I won’t warn you again,” he threatened. His right hand, which he had tucked inside his mackintosh pocket, he suddenly thrust forward, causing his coat to billow out towards me.
“What on earth are you doing?” I asked, perplexed.
“Give me the goldfish or I will shoot,” the man urged. “I have a gun.” He jiggled his raincoat pocket as if to back up his claim.
I gazed at the bulging mackintosh pocket with some suspicion. “That’s not a gun,” I retorted. “That’s just your fingers. Or possibly a banana.”
My assailant looked distinctly put out by this assertion. “I tell you I have a gun,” he insisted, jiggling his pocket once again.
“If you have a gun then show it to me,” I rather reasonably proposed. “You can’t really expect to threaten somebody just by waggling your coat pocket at them.”
The man looked utterly horrified by my suggestion. “An agent of the secret police never reveals his weapon in public,” he pronounced, sounding as though he were quoting from a well-memorised rulebook.
I glanced back down the deserted corridor. “But there’s no-one around.”
“Someone could come out of their compartment at any moment,” he insisted.
“I very much doubt it,” I replied.
We might have continued in this fashion for some time but at just that moment the argument was settled somewhat by the door at the far end of the carriage opening. A tall figure came casually ambling up the corridor, thereby proving the man in the homburg hat the winner of our little dispute. I didn’t have long to brood over my defeat though as I immediately recognised the new arrival as none other than Michael. More importantly perhaps, he was casually dangling from his right hand the clear plastic bag containing Gerald.
Oblivious to the ongoing drama, Michael hailed me cheerily as he approached. “I’ve given up on the prospect of sleep and decided to join the breakfast hunt,” he called out. “Did you find the buffet car?”
I didn’t get chance to answer him as the secret police agent’s eyes had already fallen with a greedy gleam upon the goldfish swinging from Michael’s right hand. He thrust his raincoat pocket out a little further in Michael’s direction. “Give me that goldfish or I will shoot,” he demanded abruptly.
“Don’t worry, he won’t shoot,” I reassured a baffled Michael. “He doesn’t have a gun.”
“I’m telling you this is a gun!” barked the agent indignantly, growing quite red in the face.
“If you ask me it’s just a banana,” I airily asserted.
Michael peered curiously at the bulging mackintosh pocket. “Are you sure that’s not a gun?” he asked me uncertainly.
“If it was really a gun he’d take it out,” I insisted.
“I give you one last warning,” blustered the agent, whose brightly coloured face appeared ready to implode at any moment.
“Besides,” I added. “If he tries to shoot us like that he’ll just end up blowing a hole in his own overcoat.”
“That’s true. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t really recommend firing a gun in a narrow space like this anyway.” Michael gestured along the tight confines of the corridor. “A bullet might ricochet anywhere.”
“You’re really trying my patience now…”
“It might smash a window and we could all get sucked out,” I suggested helpfully. “No, wait a minute, that only happens on planes, doesn’t it?”
“Right, that’s it!”
Almost incandescent with rage, the agent abruptly lifted his raincoat pocket a little higher and took aim. I just had time to notice the outline of a gun barrel finally making itself clear through the folds of fabric before there was a bright flash and a loud report.
By some small miracle the firing of the gun coincided perfectly with a jolt in the motion of the train. At least I suppose it did. That’s really the only explanation I can find for the fact that, although the agent was firing at point blank range, his bullet somehow sailed harmlessly between Michael and I.
I’m unable to give you an exact report of the subsequent trajectory of the bullet due to the fact that I immediately ducked down to the ground, covering my head with my hands as a protective measure on hearing the bang. But I seem to recall hearing it then ping off the door handle of one of the sleeping compartments and ricochet back off the ceiling. All I can say for certain is that when I finally dared to raise my head once again I could see the agent bent over in a crumpled heap in the corner, clutching a bloody left arm. The phrase ‘poetic justice’ rather leapt to mind.
The crack of gunfire had finally brought the carriage to life and it was suddenly filled with the sound of voices and movement within the sleeping compartments. Choosing not to hang around to offer any explanations, Michael and I hastily picked ourselves up, darted past the hapless wounded agent and hurried through the door at the end of the carriage.
Within a couple of minutes we reached what felt like the relative safety of the restaurant car. Despite the early hour several tables were already occupied by passengers enjoying an early breakfast and the carriage bustled with waiters. Michael and I selected an empty table at the far end of the car and slunk inconspicuously into our seats. I chose to sit with my back to the window to allow me to keep an eye on the whole of the carriage. I found that being shot at in the corridor of a railway train was bringing out a hitherto unknown streak of paranoia in my character. Suddenly I was viewing everyone, from the boisterous family cheerfully wolfing down eggs and bacon to the elegant lady in the fur lined coat delicately sipping tea, as a potential assailant.
An efficient little waiter with sandy hair soon hurried over to take our order. Not trusting my stomach to keep anything too substantial down, I settled for a cup of strong coffee. Michael chose the same. It was a few moments before my hands had stopped shaking sufficiently to allow me to actually drink the stuff.
“Do you want to tell me just what that was all about?” Michael finally demanded once the initial shock had worn away.
I shrugged helplessly. “It seems that bloke in the hat was rather keen to get his hands on my goldfish,” I replied, realising even as I said it just how preposterous it sounded.
“But… why?” asked Michael, not unreasonably.
“Funnily enough, we never got round to that part of the conversation. Too busy debating the existence of his gun.”
“Well, perhaps the next time someone tells you they are in possession of a deadly weapon you might take their word for it,” chided Michael mildly. “That was a close shave. I hope he’s not too badly hurt.”
“Serves him right,” I retorted, disinclined to offer any sympathy.
“But who exactly was he?”
“He said he was an agent of the secret police. Whatever that means.”
Michael sighed uneasily and peered closely at Gerald, who was floating disinterestedly in his clear plastic bag on the table between us. “So why would an agent of the secret police be interested in a fishy fairground prize?” he mused. Finding no clue in the fish, he looked up at me. “What made you choose Gerald in the first place?”
“I didn’t,” I countered. “The stall-holder insisted on foisting him on me. I was after a cuddly panda.”
“And she didn’t say anything to you?” pressed Michael. “Anything to suggest he might be a bit out of the ordinary?”
I shrugged. “She didn’t say anything much at all really.”
But then I remembered the piece of paper that had been thrust into my hand at the same time as the goldfish. “But she did give me this,” I said, hurriedly digging it out of my pocket. “Instructions for the care of the goldfish.” I smoothed the scrap of paper out on the table between us and together we read it for the first time.
Please help – you are my only hope, it said. They are onto me. This goldfish contains a vital secret message that must not fall into the wrong hands. Please deliver him to Kemal of Kemal’s Carpets in the Grand Bazaar in Constantinople. He will know what to do.
Both Michael and I instinctively turned to look again at Gerald. “How can a goldfish contain a vital secret message?” asked Michael with a puzzled frown.
But Gerald merely continued to float gently in the water with his customary blank expression. Whatever secrets he held, he wasn’t about to give them up easily.
“The question is, what are we going to with him?” I finally said after a couple of minutes of bemused staring. “I assume our chap in the hat represents the wrong hands into which Gerald is not to fall.”
“How do we know that?” countered Michael. “Why should we trust the woman at the fairground any more than the agent on the train? We don’t have any idea who either of them are working for.”
“True but, to be fair, the woman at the fairground never tried to shoot me at point blank range with a concealed weapon,” I pointed out. “It’s not much of a recommendation I admit but I know who I’m inclined to side with right now.” Nevertheless, I had to concede that Michael had a point. It was rather difficult to pick a side when you couldn’t yet identify either of the two sides you were being asked to choose between.
“And then there’s our rendezvous with Colonel Pendlebury,” added Michael. “I have to say he’s likely to be difficult enough to locate in a city the size of Constantinople without our getting side-tracked with other affairs.”
“But I’m afraid it looks like we’re involved in this affair whether we like it or not. Our secret agent friend now knows that we have the goldfish and, despite the fact he’s just shot himself, or possibly even because of that very reason, I don’t think it’s likely he’ll give up the chase just like that.”
Michael nodded reluctantly. “So, what do you suppose?” he asked. “Once we get to Constantinople we have a look for this Kemal’s Carpets mentioned in the message?”
I looked thoughtfully at Gerald for another moment or two. “I guess it can’t hurt to check it out,” I replied.
Michael gave me a dubious look as he took another sip of coffee. “ I suppose not. At least, so long as nobody else chooses to take any further pot shots at us along the way.”
To be continued…
Thursdays just got better!