We are in a secret corridor beneath the Lucky Saddle Craft Company at the quiet end of Geylang Road. ‘We’ being myself and Mrs Dora Clogg (still clutching her handbag) both of the Spanish intelligence service and of the Explorer Bank of Marina Bay, Singapore.
If the British Empire was great swathes of continent and booming city-states then the Spanish was piles of dust with no electricity. Therefore, Mrs Clogg always carries a pocket torch. Its beam illuminated a thick carpet and expensively papered walls decorated with framed horse racing memorabilia.
“Not exactly dank and urine-soaked, is it Mrs Clogg?”
“Indeed not, Mr Worth.”
The corridor ended at double doors, teak with ornate gilded handles and hinges. A slither of light showed around the edges and where the doors met. Dora cupped her hands around an ear and leant against them.
“Voices!” She whispered in alarm.
“This could be a trap, Mrs Clogg.”
A tender moment developed between us. Spaniads aren’t all bad eggs. General Franco is a particular hero of mine, having saved Spain from the Stalinists, given the likes of Hemingway and Gellhorn a black eye and made sure the church, rather than fallen women, cared for unfortunate babies.
Dora Clogg surprised me by offering an embrace. In the darkness, I held her close, feeling her short and curved form trembling in fear.
“Oh Mr Worth, what have we let ourselves in for?”
“My father, a more impressive chap than myself,” I confided in her, “travelled the length of Spain on his motorbike when he was not much more than a boy, to visit an uncle in Gibraltar. We have the photographs in an album. Black and white, postage-stamp-sized almost. Torremolinos when a village, Malaga when a single track along a deserted coastline. What has the world come to?”
“Mr Worth, the door is opening.”
“That’s a very Iberian way of putting it, Mrs Clogg. Flattered though I am, perhaps this is not the right time or place? Beneath his stern Low Countries facade, I’m sure Mr Clogg is a passionate man. There is my pregnant wife to consider, I’m afraid I must…”
“No, no, Mr Worth, I mean the door is opening. Take your ‘and off my bottom and be prepared.”
For a moment we were blinded by light from the room being revealed to us. Then an unmistakable voice called.
“Oh, Mrs Clogg! And Mr Worth! Lovely to see you.” It was auctioneer and valuer, Mr Jeremy Tan, the campest man in the Malay peninsular if not the whole of Southeast Asia.
As he ushered us inside another figure emerged into focus, the outsized, slovenly, sallow-skinned, slimy haired bulk of the Brussels establishment libertine, Sir Julian Minsk.
He was sat at the far end of a large gaming table, that near filled the room, made of tropical hardwood, that was covered in jungle green baize and surrounded by ornate chairs. The surface was marked with silver gaming positions between decorative leaping horses. At its centre were four card places framed around representations of chestnut, Camarillo white, grey and black mares.
I nodded to Sir Julian in acknowledgement. He nodded back at the pair of us.
“Should the European Community Special Envoy for Trade really be playing Texas Hold ’em, Sir Julian?” Mrs Clogg asked as I pulled out a chair for her.
Mr Tan spoke.
“Texas Hold ’em Mrs Clogg? I doubt it. The table seems to be for a holding game with a dead hand and a chance cut of trumps. Perhaps to replicate the horse races at Kanji? Gentlemen wager upon the laying of face cards from a second pack, put in the middle of the table as if the runners?”
“More suited to the gambling dens of Snakehead Triads from Macao and Hong Kong than to an undoubtedly entirely innocent establishment here in Mr Lee’s crime-free utopia. Not that I know of such things.”
He tapped his nose.
“I promised Mother I would never indulge. The auction room provides enough excitement for me, ordinarily.”
“Newmarket,” explained Sir Julian, “a favoured pursuit in the private rooms of the Mayfair casinos half a world away in London. Backgammon and the roulette wheel are so new-money these days they’re almost upper-middle class. One cringes.”
“Known as Hesket Newmarket in the Debatable Lands of my ancestors, Sir Julian,” I said, “as ever the working classes of the northern countryside have an affinity with the landed gentry in their London town houses. As you know, the Queen Mother has racing pigeons and corresponds with fanciers wearing caps in sheds on the Tyne.”
“I suppose you’re behind this, Worth? With that damned department of yours back in Whitehall. The secret codes bringing us here were all over the carpets in your front room,” Sir Julian surmised.
“Mr Nicolaas Clogg was kind enough to inform me,” he continued. “Apparently he was a house guest at your Dumfries Street residence, briefly. As a true European he felt obliged to pass the message on.”
I took pleasure in informing Minsk that he couldn’t be more wrong. My presence at the table was because Mrs Clogg had dragged me there, I being completely unaware of the secret codes stitched into the rugs in my rented house.
“Isn’t it exciting!” said Mr Tan again, bouncing up and down on his seat, patting the baize with his piano players fingertips.
Sir Julian held up his hand to quieten the overexcited Tan. Noise came from the corridor. Mr Tan stood, prepared to greet the next arrival but then hesitated. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead. A trickle of black dye appeared from his hairline and ran down his left temple. He began to shake.
It was a strange noise, as if a beast lumbering up the corridor with, perhaps, outsized hind legs being guided by spindlier ones to the fore, or even an angry giant on all fours. The door opened to reveal the svelte outline of Miss Kim Jo Long, an assassin of the North Korean Secret Service. Dressed in blood-red, she was alongside the impressive hulk of her bodyguard, a brute known as Mr Hong Gildong.
She took a place at the table, at the end opposite to Sir Julian. Hong Gildong stood behind her and folded his arms.
Whatever the game was to be, we were all dressed properly, still in our best rags from the previous night’s British High Commissioner’s annual bash at Eden hall that we had all attended.
“Miss Kim,” exclaimed Mr Tan, regaining his composure by dabbing a silk handkerchief about his cheeks, “all Singapore knows you have an IQ of 200 but what on earth were you doing face down on Mr Worth’s carpet? Think of the scandal!” He giggled.
“My colleague Mr Dong attended, albeit uninvited, one of Mrs Worth’s excellent house parties,” Kim replied in clipped Cheltenham Ladies College English.
“He couldn’t help but notice the clues. Incidentally, his IQ is 220. As an auctioneer and valuer perhaps you make the mistake of judging all things by appearances?”
She turned to me. “Which reminds me of an outstanding debt in diamonds, Mr Worth. As a result of an unfulfilled introduction to a certain Mr Stein before sunrise, I want them back. What is it to be? Give back the diamonds or death?”
She clicked her fingers. Mr Hong Gildong adjusted his watch, unwrapped a razor-sharp wire from around the dial, stretched it and twisted it around his fist.
At that point, the doors flew open without warning, startling us all. Two little feet accompanied by shins and knees protruded under a body hidden by a huge box being carried on two outstretched tiny arms.
“Morning everyone, 07:19:23 already,” announced a high-pitched Chinese voice tempered with a hint of exhaustion. It was Mrs Belinda Wong of the Wong Address Forwarding Company.
She placed the box on the baize between Mrs Clogg and Miss Kim Jo Long and addressed us all in her loudest and most businesswoman like voice.
“We shall we secure the room, Mr Hong?”
Mr Hong allowed his watch to retract and then put on his most extremely serious face.
All eyes turned to Mrs Wong.
She addressed her giant box.
“This package was deposited with Wong Address six months ago with instructions it was to be brought here at this time, on this day, and that this letter should be passed to Mr Jeremy Tan.”
“Oh, so exciting!” Jeremy gushed, “how on earth did anybody know I’d be here?”
Mrs Wong flourished a plain envelope. As she passed it to Mr Tan she said, “You will see. My customer is a genius, Mr Jeremy, nothing should surprise!”
He ripped the letter open and devoured its contents which were printed on several pages of cream-coloured embossed writing paper scented in lavender. As he turned the pages, his eyes widened.
“Oh, we’re going to have an auction! The auction of the millennia, no less. And I’m in charge. Is there a laptop computer, Mrs Wong? We’re to switch one on after the first round has been completed.”
Mrs Wong wrestled with her package and pulled out a laptop to pass to Mr Tan.
“Very well, make yourselves comfortable ladies and gentlemen. Take your places. Are we all ready?”
Sir Julian Minsk nodded, I tapped the table, Mrs Clogg Smiled. Mrs Wong looked inscrutable, Miss Kim wrote a note, folded it in two and threw it across the table to me.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’, Miss Jo Long,” giggled Mr Tan, “Let us begin!”
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file