EPISODE SEVEN: THE GOLDFISH FILES
We opted to stay in the restaurant car until we reached Constantinople. There was little in our cramped, stuffy third class compartment to tempt us back there and you never knew who were you likely to meet in the narrow corridors along the way. So, to the obvious irritation of our waiter, we settled down to endless refills of coffee until we reached our destination.
About three quarters of an hour later the train finally pulled into Sirkeci Station in Constantinople. Having tucked Gerald safely back into the top of my backpack, Michael and I took a deep breath and joined the flood of passengers streaming off the train and along the platform. The crowds were both a comfort and a worry. Given the reticence of the secret agent to reveal his weapon in a deserted train corridor, it seemed highly unlikely he would dare to draw his gun in such a busy public space. Yet I couldn’t help seeing a potential threat in every unexpected jostle and bump. As we crossed the concourse my nerves seemed stretched to breaking point.
“Look, I’m just going to pop to the loo,” I murmured to Michael, spotting a sign. He looked back at me with a mixture of concern and exasperation. “Sorry… all that coffee,” I added sheepishly.
A moments quiet repose in an isolated cubicle and a quick splash of water on the face served to quell my jitters and I rejoined Michael with a renewed sense of purpose. “Right then,” I said briskly. “How do we find the Grand Bazaar?”
Michael pointed to an exit sign. “Probably best to catch a taxi,” he suggested.
With a determined step I plunged back into the crowds towards the way out. We were no more than halfway across the concourse though when the press of people around us suddenly parted like the Red Sea. A thick-set uniformed policeman sporting an elaborate cap and a ruddy complexion loomed up before us and held up his hand in an official manner. “Just a moment please,” he barked at us in a voice that seemed a touch too strident considering we were no more than a couple of feet away. We came to an abrupt halt.
The policeman turned to one side. “These two you say?” he said to an unseen figure.
“Yes officer,” replied a silky female voice. “Those are the two individuals responsible for stealing my property.”
From behind the policeman emerged a slender, elegant lady in a fur lined coat. For a moment or two I stared at her with a puzzled frown whilst I tried to recall where I had seen her before. Then I remembered catching sight of her sipping tea in the restaurant car of the overnight express train. What was more I seemed to recall a glimpse of her lingering by the hand dryers while I had splashed my face in the wash basin at the station toilets. My momentarily soothed nerves suddenly seemed stretched rather thin again.
The picture was finally completed when a slim figure in a dark mackintosh and a homburg hat shuffled forward from the crowd and stood alongside her. Of course, I should have guessed that our secret agent friend wouldn’t be operating alone. And from the way he gazed obediently across at his female colleague it was obvious who called the shots in their partnership. The elegant woman barely acknowledged her associate, though that may have been down to a certain embarrassment at the shredded fabric of his right coat pocket and the blood-stained bandage tied crudely around his left arm.
It was the policeman though who addressed us officiously. “There have been serious allegations made against you two by this lady.” I didn’t like the way his lip curled distastefully as he referred to us as ‘you two’. “Have you or have you not just arrived by the overnight express?”
“We have,” confessed Michael.
“This lady is claiming that you stole something from her during the journey,” the policeman announced ominously. He turned to the lady in question. “What was it that you said had been taken, madam?”
“A goldfish,” replied the elegant lady smoothly.
To his credit, the policeman had the good grace to look suitably baffled. “A goldfish?” he repeated uncertainly.
“It seems like such a small thing I know,” the lady conceded in honeyed tones. “But it was bought as a present for my nephew. So, while it should appear to be rather worthless, this goldfish is actually very important to me.” She laid a particular emphasis on this last point, darting a steely glance at Michael and I.
“Er, I…” The policeman was clearly still rather unsure what to make of it.
“Perhaps if I were to show you my credentials,” asserted the lady with a confident smile. “I am Irenka Nikolaevna Semyonova. I travel regularly to Constantinople on business matters.” She handed the policeman a thick navy blue passport marked with an elaborate crest.
The policeman inspected the passport carefully, deftly extracting the large banknote that had been slipped between the pages and surreptitiously transferring it to his pocket. His uncertainty vanished instantly. “Alright then, hand it over,” he snapped at Michael and I as he returned the passport to its owner.
I silently cursed my short-sightedness in not thinking to offer a bribe of my own first. “But we don’t have any goldfish,” I responded, summoning up as best an air of outraged innocence as I could muster.
“I’m sorry but we have no idea what the lady is talking about,” added Michael, preferring a pose of vaguely exasperated bewilderment.
“I think, officer, if you were to take a look inside the young lady’s bag then you will find the item I am speaking of,” advised Irenka Semyonova with a confident smile. The secret agent by her side smirked triumphantly at us.
“Give me the bag,” instructed the policeman sharply, holding out his hand to me.
“Now, just a minute…” Michael took an indignant step forward.
“Forget it Michael,” I reluctantly advised, laying a restraining hand across his arm. “It’s not worth it.” There didn’t seem much point arguing now that Irenka Semyonova and her pal in the hat had officialdom on their side. I sighed and held out my bag to the policeman.
Michael watched in silent frustration as the policeman opened up my bag and began to eagerly dig amongst the contents. A minute later he looked up at the triumphant Irenka with a confused expression. “There is no goldfish in here,” he asserted in a puzzled voice.
Irenka’s smile froze. Michael turned sharply to me with a confused look.
“I told you I didn’t have any goldfish,” I repeated serenely.
Irenka glared frustratedly at the policeman for a moment. “You can’t have searched properly,” she finally snapped. “I saw her put it there myself.” She clicked her fingers at the secret agent by her side. “Karl, check the bag.”
Karl looked at Irenka with an unhappy gaze but nonetheless did as he was told. He meekly retrieved my bag from the policeman and, wincing with pain from his wounded arm, made a thorough inventory of the contents. Then he slowly and deliberately checked every stitch and seam for any hidden pockets that might miraculously be found to contain goldfish. Whilst he worked I surreptitiously offered a reassuring nod in response to Michael’s enquiring gaze.
After five minutes Karl was forced to turn to Irenka with a regretful frown. “The officer is right, there is no goldfish here.”
“Then search their persons,” Irenka Semyonova snapped authoritatively. “They have that fish with them somewhere.”
The policeman initially demurred but Irenka, impatience stamped across her features, simply held out another large banknote. Wearing a pained frown at the not-so-subtle nature of this further inducement, the policeman nonetheless pocketed the note and indicated to Michael and I to raise our arms.
I thought it incumbent upon me to offer up a few loud protests about police brutality but reluctantly submitted nonetheless to being patted down. Michael, having slowly realised that no amount of searching was going to turn up the goldfish, surrendered to the body search with what seemed to me to be rather a willing grace.
The attentions of the policeman having turned up nothing untoward, he turned to Irenka with a bemused shrug.
“But they must have that fish,” she hissed back at him, her face as black as thunder.
“I’m sorry but there is nothing more I can do,” retorted the policeman a little huffily. It was evident that he was beginning to see all this searching for a non-existent goldfish as somewhat demeaning to his professional standing. “Without evidence of a crime, I cannot make an arrest.”
There was a moments pause whilst Irenka continued to glower resentfully at both Michael and I before Karl the secret agent coughed discreetly. “Forgive me Miss Semyonova,” he piped up nervously. “But the young lady visited the bathroom when she left the train. Perhaps…”
Irenka shook her head firmly. “She couldn’t have disposed of the fish. I watched her closely the whole time.”
“The whole time?” queried Karl tentatively.
“Obviously I checked the cubicle when she had finished,” snapped back Irenka irritably. “What kind of an amateur do you take me for?”
Karl lowered his head, muttering obsequious apologies.
“No, they must have stashed it somewhere else,” mused Irenka. She tossed her head thoughtfully. “I watched them every second in the restaurant car…” she recalled. “You jumped down onto the platform as soon as the train pulled in… I overtook them once they passed into the main hall…” She paused and stared suspiciously at Karl. “You did keep your eyes on them the whole time they were on the platform, didn’t you?”
Karl at first nodded eagerly but then, as he began to cast his mind back, a red flush slowly rose through his pallid cheeks. “The platform was very crowded…” he began awkwardly.
Irenka Semyonova instantly rounded on him, her eyes flashing with anger. “I told you to watch them every step of the way!”
“You also told me not to get too close,” protested Karl weakly.
“Idiot! They must have noticed you and dropped the fish somewhere near the platform,” Irenka cursed. “You incompetent fool!” For a second I actually thought she was going to strike him across the face but at the last moment she drew her hand away. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she barked. “Go and find it, before someone else makes off with it.”
With an odd kind of apologetic bow, Karl hurried away across the concourse towards the platform. Irenka Semyonova hovered for a moment, fixing Michael and I with a vicious glare. Then she turned and glided away in pursuit of the homburg hat that was to be seen bobbing frantically off into the distance.
The policeman watched them go with a baffled gaze before he turned back to Michael and I. “Yes, well, you two had better keep your noses clean,” he admonished us with a threatening wag of his finger. Then, absent-mindedly smoothing down the pocket in which he had tucked away Irenka’s bribes, he drifted away across the station.
“Do you want to tell me what exactly is going on?” demanded Michael as soon as the policeman was out of earshot. “What on earth have you done with the goldfish?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Gerald is quite safe,” I breezily replied. “Do you know, I think I’m really starting to get the hang of this secret agent lark.”
There was a brief pause outside the ladies toilets whilst Michael’s curiosity battled with his discretion but eventually he was persuaded to accompany me back inside. To the relief of both of us the bathroom was virtually empty. The only occupant was a young woman in a gravity defying blouse who was touching up a thick layer of red lipstick over a wash basin. She regarded us in the mirror with an aloof but faintly amused eye as Michael and I approached the cubicle I had only recently vacated.
“But I thought that woman said she checked your cubicle,” said Michael as I pushed aside the door and we peered into the narrow space.
“Obviously she didn’t check it quite as well as she thought,” I replied with a look of vague triumph.
I stepped forward and carefully lifted the lid off the cistern of the toilet. Curiously, Michael leaned over and peered down. Inside, nestled alongside the ballcock, Gerald was bobbing casually inside his clear plastic bag.
“Nice work Everingham,” pronounced Michael in an admiring tone.
I gently lifted Gerald out and held him up for a careful inspection. He stared back at us with his familiar blank expression, apparently none the worse for wear. With a sense of relief, I dried off the outside of the plastic bag with a paper towel before tucking it back inside my backpack.
“But how did you know we were going to get stopped before we’d even got out of the station?” asked Michael as we exited the ladies.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t,” I confessed, keeping a wary eye out for any further sign of Irenka and Karl. To my relief, our way to the exit appeared completely clear. “I guess it was just my paranoia getting the better of me.”
Michael grinned conspiratorially as we headed out towards the sunshine. “Well, what is it they say? Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
To be continued…