EPISODE SEVEN: THE GOLDFISH FILES
My sense of triumph at smuggling Gerald the goldfish out of Sirkeci Station was not to last long. Having picked up a battered yellow cab outside, we soon found ourselves entering the Beyazit Gate of Constantinople’s Grand Bazaar. Within five minutes of entering this warren of covered streets it became apparent that outwitting Ms Semyonova and her sidekick Karl would prove to be a walk in the park in comparison with the task of locating Kemal’s Carpets.
The Bazaar was virtually a city within a city, encompassing beneath its patterned roof wide boulevards and narrow alleys, spacious shops and cramped stalls, all piled high with every kind of merchandise you could possibly imagine. Our search soon became a sustained assault on the senses; dazzling displays, sharp scents and piercing cries assailing us from all sides. And all enquiries we made about the whereabouts of Kemal’s Carpets were met with a bemused shake of the head, usually followed up with an insistence that, whatever it was we wanted, the respondent’s father/cousin/brother-in-law could doubtlessly provide it for us quicker and cheaper anyway.
In that enclosed labyrinth it was difficult to keep track of time but it felt like we had been fruitlessly searching for the best part of the morning before we finally stumbled upon what we were looking for. It was situated at the end of an apparent cul-de-sac – a narrow shop front thickly hung with rugs of all sizes, shapes and colours. The sign above the store was so faded as to be almost illegible but beneath a swirl of Arabic characters I could just about make out two English words; Kemal’s Carpets.
Compared to the noise and the bustle of the rest of the market this deserted alley seemed ominously quiet. Michael and I exchanged a wary glance.
“Hello?” called out Michael, peering into the cramped store. “Anybody about?”
In response there was only silence.
“Perhaps he’s gone for lunch,” I suggested uncertainly.
“Perhaps,” replied Michael.
He cautiously pushed aside a section of hanging carpet and disappeared into the shop. Not without a certain sense of trepidation, I followed.
The interior was even smaller and more crowded than I had envisioned. There was a battered old stove and a cracked basin in one corner but the remainder of the space was filled to the brim with rolls of carpet stacked in teetering piles. There was, however, no sign of any Kemal.
“Maybe if we asked someone in the shop next door?” I eventually suggested. There was something oddly disconcerting about this deserted corner of the Bazaar and I didn’t fancy the idea of just hanging around, waiting for someone to turn up.
Michael took one final glance around before responding with a resigned nod. Pushing aside more hanging rugs, he began to make his way back out of the shop.
I was just turning to follow him when my foot caught on something soft down below. I glanced down and was struck by the sight of what appeared to be a large red felt shoe hovering just a couple of inches off the ground. It took a moment before I realised that the shoe was wrapped around a foot that was protruding from a roll of carpet.
“Michael!” I cried out urgently and he darted over. We hurriedly began pulling aside the stack of carpets, struggling to create some room in the crowded shop. Eventually we managed to elbow aside enough merchandise to enable us to unravel the roll of carpet from which the foot in question had appeared. It transpired that it belonged to a plump man of middle age with greying hair and a bushy black beard. His eyes were closed and his lips were slightly parted.
As we tried between us to pull this prone stranger a little further out to allow him some air I became aware that the carpet in which he had been wrapped was damp and sticky. It was only then that I noticed the small, almost perfectly round bullet hole in the middle of his chest from which was oozing a pool of thick, dark blood. “Jesus Christ!” I automatically exclaimed.
Michael leaned over and anxiously felt for a pulse.
“Is he…?” I whispered fearfully.
As if to answer the question the man’s eyes flew open and he drew in a long, rasping breath. The pupils rolled around in their sockets for a few seconds, searching for some kind of fixed point in the haze all around him. Eventually they rested with a pale, milky glare upon my face. “Do you have it?” he wheezed anxiously. “The fish – do you have it?”
To tell the truth, I had almost forgotten about Gerald in the shock of finding the wounded man but he gazed at me with such a fevered expression that I hastened to reassure him. “I’ve got it, it’s fine,” I replied soothingly.
Michael began a vain attempt to stem the flow of blood with his handkerchief. I glanced around helplessly for a few seconds, desperate to find something practical to do. “Look, I’d better go and get help,” I finally said.
Before I could get up off my knees the man’s hand flew up and grasped my arm with a tenacity which, given his condition, seemed quite impossible. He made a painful effort to shake his head. “You must take the fish to Marla,” he urged. “Before they can stop you.”
Having little success with stemming the blood flow, Michael instead took off his jacket and slid it under the wounded man’s head to try and make him more comfortable. “Shhh,” he murmured. “Don’t worry yourself. We need to get you some medical attention.”
But the man only clung onto my arm all the more tightly. “Please,” he begged through agonised gasps. “Take the fish to Marla. She’ll be expecting you.”
“Who’s Marla?” I asked helplessly. It was plain the man had no intention of releasing his grip until he was satisfied about the fate of the goldfish.
The man’s breaths were becoming longer and more drawn out, his whole body shaking as each one rattled painfully forth. “With Lermontov,” he eventually gasped. “You’ll find her with Lermontov.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question but before I could utter anything else he drew in one final helpless wheeze, his milky eyes rolled back in their sockets and his head fell to one side. Suddenly everything seemed extraordinarily still and quiet.
Michael felt again for a pulse but it was clear from the man’s blank staring eyes that there was nothing more that could be done for him. We both stared at one another in stunned silence for a few seconds. Then Michael slowly reached over and gently prised the dead man’s fingers free from the tenacious grip they still maintained on my wrist. Feeling my legs suddenly slightly wobbly, I sunk back against a stack of carpets and shut my eyes for a moment.
After a minute or two of grave silence Michael slowly stood up and walked over to the cracked wash basin in the corner of the room. “If only we’d found this place a bit sooner,” he muttered sadly to himself as he slowly and methodically began to wash his blood-stained hands.
I took a deep breath and haltingly rose to my feet. “What do we do now?” I asked doubtfully.
Michael glanced uncertainly at the dead man on the floor. “I suppose we ought to notify somebody,” he hesitantly said. His voice took on a questioning tone. “The police?” he added dubiously.
I thought back to our encounter with the policeman at Sirkeci Station. “Do you really suppose we can trust them?” I asked.
“The other option, I guess, would be to look for the woman he mentioned – Marla,” Michael suggested.
“And how do we do that?” I demanded, a note of frustration creeping into my voice. “We don’t know who she is, where she lives or what she does. He didn’t even give us a surname. We can hardly go round the whole of Constantinople asking if anybody knows anyone called Marla.”
“He said she was with Lermontov,” Michael replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Oh brilliant,” I muttered, an irrational wave of anger swelling up inside me. “So that’s two people we know absolutely nothing about we’re supposed to search for.” I suddenly felt uncomfortably aware of the dead man’s eyes that seemed to be staring up at me in a beseeching manner. How on earth had we managed to get ourselves so thoroughly mixed up in such an impossible affair?
Michael opened his mouth as though he had a suggestion to make and then shook his head with a rueful sigh. He grasped a towel that was hanging from a peg by the sink and began to thoughtfully dry his hands.
“Hey, what’s that?” I exclaimed.
On the wall on which the towel hung a poster was pinned up. It showed an image of a beautiful slender ballerina isolated onstage in a spotlight but until Michael had pulled the towel away the writing beneath had been obscured. Now though I could read in large bold type the words, ‘The Ballet Lermontov Presents Swan Lake’.
Michael turned round and peered more closely at the poster. He read out the smaller print underneath. “Performing for one week only at the Kadirga Theatre,” he announced with an excited gleam. “Featuring Prima Ballerina Marla Shupova.”
“Do you suppose…?” I tentatively began.
Michael turned and looked down at the figure lying on the carpet. He bent down and, gently removing his jacket from beneath the man’s head, delicately lowered the lids on the blank, staring eyes. “It’s got to be worth investigating,” he said decisively as he straightened up again.
I pulled a dark red rug down from the top of a nearby stack and softly laid it across the prone body. I gave Michael a determined nod and with a renewed sense of purpose we made our way out of the tiny, cramped carpet store. Perhaps we might yet find an explanation for the unlikely allure of Gerald the goldfish after all.
Catching another taxi outside the Bazaar, our driver dropped us off in the midst of a maze of narrow lanes in the south of the city. The Kadirga Theatre turned out to be a tall, narrow building nestling amongst a row of shops and cafes. The front was adorned with a grandiose sign and richly decorated double doors but on closer inspection the paint was chipped and the brass handles scuffed and worn. More importantly, the doors were firmly closed and a sign indicated they would not be opening until 6pm that evening.
Not to be deterred Michael led us on a recce down a damp, narrow alley that ran alongside the theatre where we came upon a low, dark entrance marked ‘Stage Door’. The door opened onto a short, bare hallway with a steep staircase disappearing upwards on either side. Directly ahead was a small office protected by a pane of frosted glass. We peered in through the window marked ‘Enquiries’. Within sat a vast rubbery ball of a man squeezed into a ridiculously small chair, his eyes fixed upon a television set beaming out a gaudy Turkish game show.
Michael coughed politely.
“Yes?” responded the doorkeeper, not taking his eyes off the television set.
“We’d like to see Miss Marla Shupova,” announced Michael with as much authority as he could muster.
The doorkeeper sniffed dismissively. “Not to be disturbed. Come back after tonights performance.”
Michael glanced over at me. Well practised by now, I dug out two gold coins and dropped them noisily onto the counter behind the window. The doorkeeper looked down on them with a greedy gleam. Hesitating, he drew in a slow intake of breath. “Miss Shupova doesn’t like unexpected visitors,” he advised us uncertainly. “Quite temperamental these dancers, you know.”
I added another coin to the pile. “She’ll want to see us, I assure you,” I told him.
With a resigned shrug the doorkeeper reached out a flabby arm and scooped up the money. “Take the staircase to the right. Her dressing room is on the second floor, third door along,” he said before settling back down before the television.
With a hurried thanks we set off up the stairway indicated. The way was narrow and ill lit but eventually we came across a scuffed wooden door upon which had been tacked a piece of paper bearing a hastily drawn star and the words, ‘Marla Shupova – Prima Ballerina’.
I raised my hand to knock on the door before I realised that it was slightly ajar. What was more there were a quite extraordinary number of sounds just about audible from within, a succession of bangs and crashes interspersed with a series of sighs and groans. Exchanging a bemused glance with Michael, I chose to abandon the knock and instead silently pushed aside the open door.
The dressing room was a much larger affair than I had imagined. That was probably just as well though or it would never have managed to contain the vast amount of furniture it did along with the three men who were currently in the process of turning it upside down. Chairs and tables were upturned, upholstery slashed and clothes, make-up and newspapers and magazines were strewn from one end of the room to the other. Although the three men engaged in this trail of destruction were all identically dressed in long dark mackintoshes and homburg hats I recognised the central figure, currently rifling through a chest of drawers, straight away. Even without seeing his face, the torn mackintosh pocket and bandaged arm were a dead giveaway.
In fact it was Karl who seemed to sense our presence before we had even made a sound. He suddenly paused midway through the act of tipping a drawer full of lacy underwear onto the floor and turned around. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as a dawning look of recognition slowly spread across his face.
Karl broke the silence with a startled cry. His two colleagues instantly turned around. Upon spotting Michael and I they each slid their right hands ominously into their mackintosh pockets.
I wasn’t about to stand and quibble over the likelihood of their being armed this time round. Letting out a startled cry of my own I reached out for the nearest thing to hand, which just happened to be a rather fine blue porcelain vase, and hurled it in the general direction of all three secret agents. Unfortunately, my aim was slightly off and the vase failed to connect with any of the three targets. However, they were at least compelled to duck in an effort to avoid the shower of china fragments that rained down as it smashed against the wall behind them.
In the split-second this gave us, Michael was able to grasp a rack of ballet costumes that had been pushed to one side and shove it with all the force he could muster at our foes. I had just the briefest glimpse of homburgs and mackintoshes being engulfed by a wave of pink taffeta before I realised now was the time to leg it.
I ran blindly down the dimly lit corridor, Michael close behind me, and hurtled down the stairs. However, when we reached the bottom what greeted us was not the bare entrance hall from which we had begun our ascent but a narrow intersection of several corridors scarcely lit by a single flickering light-bulb. In the panic of our departure from the dressing room it seemed I had somehow taken a wrong turning.
I stopped and hesitated, unsure of which way to turn. The thud of heavy footsteps bearing down from above didn’t allow long for consideration. Taking the lead, Michael issued a decisive cry of “This way!” and plunged down another narrow corridor. I sprinted after him.
The corridor we had selected proceeded to get narrower and darker as we ran. I could hear voices behind us as the three agents no doubt conducted a hasty debate as to which way we had gone. There was nothing to do but plough forward. Just as I was beginning to despair that Michael had led us down a dead end, I spied what appeared to be a brilliant glow of sunshine up ahead. The great outdoors and freedom seemed to be within our grasp. We flung ourselves forwards with a renewed burst of energy and broke free into the dazzling light.
We weren’t however greeted by fresh air and the warm rays of the sun but a dazzling spotlight. There were no plain slabs of pavement beneath our feet, only wooden boards. We both came to a stuttering halt and I blinked several times in the bright light. Far from escaping through an alternative exit into the street outside it transpired we had actually run through the dimly lit wings directly onto the empty stage of the Kadirga Theatre.
I immediately threw an exasperated glare at Michael. “I might have known I could trust an actor to find his way onto centre stage,” I muttered.
Michael looked around, somewhat nonplussed. “Oh,” was all he could say in response.
We turned together intending to hurry back off stage the way we had come but were immediately halted by a figure in a dark mackintosh and a homburg hat emerging from the gloom. In unison we turned again, hoping to dash off stage through the wings opposite but we got no further than a couple of strides before an identically dressed figure appeared to block our exit in that direction also.
Michael and I edged backwards, glancing around helplessly for a chink in the painted backdrop that cut off our exit via the rear of the stage.
“I’m afraid this time there really is nowhere left to run,” came a familiar voice from the auditorium in front of us.
I turned to face the front of stage, holding up my hand to shield my eyes from the fierce spotlight. Out of the dimly lit seats emerged the tall, slender figure of Karl as he strode purposefully down the centre aisle towards the stage. He was wearing a mocking smile on his face and his right hand was slipped inside his mackintosh pocket. Thanks to the hole he had made in it last time out I now had a perfect view of the muzzle of a gun as he pointed it up towards us.
Michael took a step forward. “Now just a minute…” he began.
Karl interrupted him with a sly shake of head. “No chance of a lucky ricochet in here,” he announced with a knowing smile. “Don’t worry, I will make sure it is quick and painless.”
“Oh come on, there’s no need for that,” I protested, glancing frantically from side to side where Karl’s colleagues were waiting with their raincoat pockets billowing in our direction.
Karl tutted and shook his head. “Oh, I’m afraid there is. I couldn’t possibly let a couple of amateurs like you get away with your… interference. It’s a question of my professional reputation.”
I wanted to ask what shooting himself in the arm in a train corridor had done for his professional reputation but now didn’t seem to be the time. Michael and I began automatically to edge backwards across the stage, though we had nowhere to go.
With a triumphant smile Karl carefully lifted his mackintosh pocket until the barrel of the gun was pointing directly at us. “Game over,” he announced exultantly. As he steadied his aim I reached out and my hand found Michael’s. I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the bang.
But, just a split second before Karl squeezed the trigger, the ground beneath our feet suddenly gave way. I distinctly remember hearing the gunshot ring out around the theatre but as it sailed over our heads and burst through the painted backdrop to our rear Michael and I were already plunging down into the darkness below.
To be continued…