EPISODE SEVEN: THE GOLDFISH FILES
I lay still where I had landed, somewhat bruised and thoroughly winded, whilst my eyes adjusted from the brilliant spotlight of centre stage to the murky gloom that now surrounded me. After a moment I cautiously turned my head and was thus able to confirm that Michael and I were sprawled awkwardly upon some sort of threadbare mattress which had just about cushioned our fall. I seemed to have twisted as I fell, perhaps conscious of a vague desire not to land on my backpack and flatten Gerald. As it was, my left hip and thigh had taken the weight of my fall and were now throbbing painfully. Beside me Michael rubbed the small of his back and groaned gently. Above us, I could just make out the outline of the trapdoor through which we had fallen, now swung neatly back into place.
“I apologise for the bumpy landing,” came a light musical voice from the gloom. “But it seemed imperative to get you off the stage in a bit of a hurry.”
I heaved myself up onto my elbows and a graceful, slender young woman emerged from the darkness in front of us.
“Marla Shupova?” said Michael, likewise dragging himself up from his prone position.
The young woman gave a curt nod. She glanced sharply upwards at the sound of footsteps approaching across the wooden boards above. “I think perhaps it is better if we continue this elsewhere,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper.
Michael and I gingerly eased our way off the mattress and Marla led us through the gloom underneath the stage. At one point she seemed to unexpectedly vanish before our very eyes but after a moment of aimless flailing I discovered a thick black curtain through which she had passed. We followed and emerged into a bare, sparsely lit underground passage.
After we had travelled some way down this cold corridor Marla finally deemed it safe to converse once again. “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but I suppose you must have been sent by Kemal.”
“In a sense…” I looked uncomfortably at Michael.
“I’m afraid Kemal is dead,” Michael said quietly. “He’d been shot in the chest. There was nothing we could do. I’m sorry.”
Marla lowered her eyes to the floor but continued walking. We followed in silence, unable to think of anything appropriate to say. Eventually she stopped outside a narrow grey door. She turned back and looked at us, her features once more arranged into a look of steely determination. “Do you have anything for me?” she asked. “I’ve been expecting a…” there was a brief hesitation, “a message.”
I slipped my backpack off my shoulders and held it protectively in front of me. “We’ve got, er, something you may be interested in,” I replied, suddenly oddly reticent about naming my unlikely gift.
Marla’s eyes lit up with the same kind of excited gleam I had previously seen in Karl’s. “The goldfish?” she said in a hushed voice. “You have the goldfish?”
“Oh, thank-goodness,” Marla breathed. She proceeded to extract a heavy iron key from the folds of her skirt and unlocked the grey door. “Please, this way,” she said, disappearing into the room beyond. “I have everything ready in here.”
Michael and I followed her, not without a certain sense of trepidation. But the room appeared to be nothing more than an over-sized caretaker’s cupboard. There were a couple of grey metal lockers pushed up against a wall and one or two brooms and brushes laid about. But the only real item of note was a large workbench draped in a pristine white dustsheet. Marla walked round to the other side of the workbench and then held out her hand.
“If I can have the fish now,” she said plainly.
I looked at her suspiciously and clutched my bag a little tighter. “I think first it’s only fair that you tell us just what’s so special about this goldfish in the first place,” I suggested.
Marla pursed her lips. “I can’t divulge that,” she replied. “It’s safer for you if you don’t know.”
“That’s not very sporting,” protested Michael.
“And not very relevant,” I added. “We’ve already been shot at – twice, harassed by the police and menaced by sinister men in mackintoshes. It’s a little late to be worrying about our safety.”
Marla sighed. “Perhaps you are owed some kind of an explanation,” she conceded. She began to pace lightly back and forth behind the workbench. “The reason for all this drama is essentially one man. One brilliant man. Dr Julius Renshaw.”
She looked up, clearly expecting some kind of reaction but was met with only blank looks from Michael and I. Shaking her head, she continued.
“Dr Renshaw is a dazzling, original scientist, a man of true genius. A man capable of moving mountains and re-ordering the universe. From his University days Dr Renshaw has been working on a formula. A formula which, once perfected, has the potential to advance human knowledge immeasurably.”
She paused for a moment, allowing the messianic gleam to fade slightly. “Unfortunately, as a young man Dr Renshaw was concerned only with the acquisition of knowledge and did not consider its potential consequences. When he needed money and equipment to continue his studies he was prepared to accept help wherever it was offered. That was when they became involved.” She virtually spat out the pronoun. “They provided funding, the space for him to work and all the material he could possibly need. But as his work developed Dr Renshaw began to see that they had a very different future planned for the formula than he did. In the wrong hands it could become a deadly weapon of control.” She looked up at us to ensure that the full force of her words was felt. “So he escaped, disappeared into the hills to continue his work in secret.”
“But if it’s so dangerous why not just abandon the formula?” asked Michael.
“Because, if it’s used in the right way, the formula could be a remarkable thing,” replied Marla with renewed zeal. “It could point the way towards new ways of harnessing nature, creating new forms of energy, curing deadly diseases.”
I remained somewhat sceptical that one single formula could do quite everything she was claiming but there was no doubting Marla’s conviction.
She smiled. “I’m sure we seem a rather unlikely network to you. A fairground worker, a carpet seller, a dancer. But Dr Renshaw has entrusted us with ensuring that his work is passed on to the right people and kept safe from those who would use it for their own nefarious ends.” She glanced expectantly again at my bag. “We’ve been expecting a message from him for some time.”
“A message in the form of a goldfish?” I said uncertainly.
“Exactly,” proclaimed Marla. “Doesn’t that just go to show what an original and daring mind Dr Renshaw has? Who else would think to conceal a formula within a goldfish?”
“Who else indeed,” replied Michael politely.
Marla gestured at the workbench. “I have all the equipment here necessary to extract and decode the message.” She held out her hand expectantly. “So, if I may have the goldfish.”
I carefully opened up my backpack and took out the plastic bag containing Gerald. Marla drew in a sharp intake of breath as I held him up in front of me. He gazed back at me with his oddly endearing blank expression.
“I’m sorry but I don’t think I can do this,” I suddenly remarked.
“What?” exclaimed Marla.
“It’s just, well, I have grown rather fond of him over the course of our journey,” I reluctantly confessed, doing my best to avoid Michael’s amused expression. “I don’t think I could bare to see you slice him apart to extract some microchip or whatever.”
There was a bemused pause and then Marla suddenly burst out laughing. “Slice him apart? What an absurd idea. Whatever made you think I was planning to do that?”
“Well, how else do you get a message out of a goldfish?” I retorted.
With one swift and graceful tug Marla pulled the dust sheet off the workbench. Sitting atop it was a wide, flat fish-tank in which had been planted a number of coloured hoops. Marla leant down and picked up a small, black notebook from beneath the workbench. “It’s very simple,” she announced patiently. “I release the goldfish into the tank. He will swim through the coloured hoops in a prearranged pattern which can be decoded using this book.”
“A trained goldfish?” said Michael incredulously.
“That’s it,” replied Marla confidently.
“You can’t train a goldfish,” I spluttered, feeling just a touch miffed that my microchip idea had met with such derision. Compared to this it seemed a model of practicality. “Don’t they have a memory span of about two seconds?”
“Actually that’s a complete fallacy,” replied Marla sharply. “They’re really very intelligent creatures.”
I looked at the fish-tank with its array of coloured hoops and then I looked again at Gerald, bobbing benignly in his clear plastic bag. “Well, this I’d like to see,” I announced sceptically.
“As would I,” came a smooth voice from the doorway.
We all spun round simultaneously to find Irenka Semyonova, resplendent in her fur-lined coat, standing in the doorway, a sly smile playing on her lips. Just over her shoulder I could see Karl, hovering respectfully.
Marla reached out her hand to the underside of the workbench but, quick as a flash, Irenka slickly whipped out a small, pearl-handled pistol from beneath her coat and pointed it at us. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said calmly.
Marla froze, hesitated for a second, then reluctantly took a step back from the bench.
“That’s better,” smiled Irenka. She gave a sharp flick of her head. “Karl, the codebook.”
Karl obediently stepped up to the bench and deftly removed the black notebook from Marla’s grip. I could see the anguish etched upon Marla’s face but, with her eyes fixed firmly on Irenka’s pistol, it was clear there was nothing she could do.
“You’ve played a good game, all of you,” announced Irenka, gracefully including Michael and I in her commendation with a slight swing of her pistol. “But there was only ever going to be one winner.” She pointed the gun directly at me. “And now, young lady, if you would care to release the goldfish into the tank I shall be glad to claim my prize.”
I looked helplessly at Marla and then Michael, searching anxiously for some way out. But there appeared to be no route of escape this time. Judging from the practised way in which Irenka handled her pistol I didn’t fancy my chances of making it a hat-trick of flukey gunshot escapes. I looked desperately at Gerald, hoping for some inspiration, but he seemed unmoved by my plight.
“Come now,” coaxed Irenka. “My patience is not inexhaustible.”
Feeling sick to the pit of my stomach I stepped forward and slowly untied the top of the plastic bag. Karl took a pencil from his breast pocket and stood poised to note down the code.
Irenka responded with an impatient flick of her pistol. I looked unhappily at Marla and she offered me a reluctant nod. With a deep breath I reached out and tipped the contents of the bag, water, fish and all, into the tank on the workbench.
Everyone leaned forward in anticipation. For a few seconds Gerald hovered disinterestedly in the centre of the tank. Then he began to move.
He swam swiftly and smoothly, without any hesitation, tracing a path through the coloured hoops. Irenka excitedly called them out as he passed through. “Green, red, blue, green, red, red, pink, yellow, blue, pink, yellow.”
Having swam through the yellow hoop for a second time Gerald moved back to the centre of the tank and bobbed there. All eyes instantly turned to Karl who began to flick through the small black codebook.
“Well?” snapped Irenka impatiently. “What is it? What does he say?”
Karl flicked between his scribbled sequence of colours and the pages of the notebook several times, his brow gradually growing more and more furrowed. Eventually he looked up at Irenka.
“Yes?” she urged. “Tell me.”
Karl swallowed hard. “The message reads,” he began hesitantly. “Formula still eludes me. Send more teabags and clean underpants.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Irenka stared, granite-faced, at Karl. Karl gazed back meekly at her. Marla stared for a moment at the motionless Gerald as if expecting further orders. Then she burst out laughing.
“It seems there’s to be no winner this time round,” she said to Irenka with a relieved smile. “Your operation has been a bit premature.”
Irenka continued to glare ferociously for a few moments before her features gradually softened into their more customary cool gaze. She smiled back at Marla. “This is merely a temporary delay to our plans,” she insisted. “That formula will be ours.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” retorted Marla.
Irenka merely smiled. She nodded to each of us in turn. “Until next time my friends,” she announced in her honeyed tone. Then she slipped her pistol back beneath her coat and turned and swept majestically off down the corridor. Karl threw Michael and I one final sour look and then trailed off unhappily behind her, leaving the rest of us to stare in bemusement at one suddenly redundant goldfish.
Half an hour later Michael and I were seated outside a café a few doors along from the Kadirga Theatre. In a vain attempt to recompense us for all the distress and discomfort incurred in delivering her ultimately prosaic message, Marla had offered us complimentary tickets to that evenings performance of the Ballet Lermontov.
“So, I suppose that’s that,” I said with a sigh as we sipped at our coffee. “It does seem a bit of an anti-climax after all that trouble.”
“Don’t worry, I think this saga might still have some way to run,” asserted Michael.
“Just so long as nobody thinks to involve us in the next round,” I replied. “I think I’m done with the espionage game.”
“I think we can safely say it’s Marla and Irenka’s saga from now on,” suggested Michael. “We were merely temporary trespassers in their story.”
“Very poetically put Redgrave.”
“Just so long as Marla takes good care of Gerald,” I said. “I think he deserves a comfortable home and a quiet life after all that.”
Ignoring Michael’s amused grin, I turned to a casual perusal of the café menu which lay on the table. I was just in the midst of pondering the advisability of a snack before dinner when my thoughts were interrupted by the cry of a familiar voice from just down the street.
“Great Scott! Found you at last!”
I looked up to find a tall, ungainly figure in a safari suit and flying helmet hurrying towards us. “There you are!” He stopped just in front of us and peered uncertainly from beneath his flying goggles. “Aren’t you? I mean, that is you, isn’t it?”
“Colonel Pendlebury!” exclaimed Michael.
Colonel Pendlebury snapped smartly to attention. “At your service, er…” He stopped to consult the notepad dangling around his neck. “Er, Natasha and Michael! Gracious, am I glad to have finally found you.”
“Well, it’s good to finally see you again,” I replied with a smile.
“But whatever are you doing lolling around here?” Colonel Pendlebury snapped. “This is no time for idle dawdling. We’ll be late for our meeting.” He absent-mindedly checked just a few of the dozens of post-it notes that adorned his suit while he spoke.
“Meeting? What meeting?” echoed Michael.
“Yes, meeting,” repeated Colonel Pendlebury. “We’re due in a few minutes. Don’t worry, it’s not far from here.” He turned, about to leave.
“Hang on just a second,” I said as Michael and I rose to our feet, rather confused. “We don’t know anything about this. Just who is it that we’re supposed to be meeting?”
Colonel Pendlebury regarded me with an expression of pure exasperation. “Why, CJ Sturridge of course,” he uttered impatiently and hurried away down the street.
The travels will continue in Episode Eight – ‘The Treasure of the Blue Ridge Mountain’. Coming Soon…