Years ago Joe discovered the trick to coming up trumps: be the puppeteer, not the puppet. No one saw the man pulling the strings but he saw everything. So there Joe crouched, lurking in the shadows of Victoria Embankment, waiting for his puppets to arrive. For one puppet had in their possession what he wanted: the Malberry Pocket Watch… once Joe acquired it his job was over and this increasingly convoluted play was over.
“What we looking at anyway? A boat?” asked Dalton, pointing at the large ship bobbing away on the choppy Thames.
“Very well observed Sire.” Joe replied.
Joe blackmailed Dalton into helping him carry out his plot. Dalton was a puppet too but in this particular play he was relegated to the jester
“What type of boat?”
“I don’t know. But do you want to know its name?”
“I guess,” Dalton said shrugging.
“The High Society. The crème de la crème of London society have been invited.”
“Where’s my invite?”
“You are disgraced. But don’t worry, you are still part of my plan.”
“What is the plan?”
“I told you… to be a distraction.”
As he said this, Joe’s first puppet arrived – the haughty Ernest Malberry. He clutched the invitation like a prize.
“Stay out of sight,” Joe said to Dalton then quickly pulled himself out of the shadows and walked over to the walkway to greet his first guest. Joe was dressed in a dapper long red jacket and waistcoat.
“Hello Sire, I presume you are here for the High Society cruise?”
“I am indeed. I say, who is holding the event? I wouldn’t normally come to a party sent by an anonymous host but the invitation was embossed … and glossy. So I knew it was the real deal.”
“Please make your way inside Sire.”
Ernest nodded and marched in without having had his question answered. Joe had correctly assumed that Ernest was the sort of man who disliked asking questions because it suggested he didn’t know all of the answers in the world. So the best tactic was to remain quiet and let him answer his own question instead.
Next came Charlie, who scarpered along the pier like a deer in the headlights.
“I say old bean,” he started hurriedly. “Did I just see the old man going into that ship?”
“Your Father has just gone yes, Sire”
“But didn’t I make it clear to you? Perhaps I didn’t… I didn’t want him knowing I got someone else to find his watch. He already thinks I’m, um… oh, what’s the word? Idiot. No not idiot… actually yes maybe idiot.
“I have not told him anything about our arrangement Sire.”
“Oh good. If he knew I’d paid someone with his own money to do my dirty work… actually though, talking of money, we didn’t discuss payment terms…”
“My payment is freedom.”
“Freedom, old bean?”
“Yes freedom. Freedom to walk this earth once again no longer a peasant. My five years of penance is over. This selfless good deed for you is the final thing I must do before I can go back to my old life. But no longer as a swindler – as a man of honour.”
“Right… nice ship by the way. Where’s the bar?”
“Straight ahead Sire.”
Charlie walked in whistling.
The next two guests arrived together. It was the actress Melody, along with the simple old man Albert. To avoid them recognising him, Joe quickly added a fake moustache and curly blonde wig just as they crossed the pier.
“This all looks very grand!” Melody said to Joe, not seeming to recognise him from the auction a week ago. “What’s it all about? Why have we been invited? ”
“It’s a party hosted by a friend of yours Madam … Charlie Malberry.”
“Charlie! Actually this does look like his sort of thing. But why did he invite Albert? They don’t know each other… you don’t know him do you Albert?”
“I am very hungry.” Albert said blankly.
“We have various canapés Sire and a silver service dinner in an hour. We are setting sail in five minutes. Cocktails upon arrival.”
“Do you have any cheese and chutney sandwiches?” Albert asked.
“I’m sure we can arrange that.”
Melody and Albert walked on board. Joe’s final two guests were yet to arrive but this was how Joe had planned it. From now on timing was everything… Joe took out his phone and called the newspaper. Upon putting the phone down he felt a surge of excitement radiate through his bones… he was the puppeteer again and he had forgotten how much he missed it. When he saw Denny and Bainbridge turn the corner he calmed himself and waited for them to cross the pier…
“Do I know you?” Denny asked Joe, seeming to half recognise him but unsure exactly where from. Joe observed that Denny had a cut on his lip and a black eye – he looked a shadow of his suave self.
“I don’t believe so Sire. Are you here for the party?”
“Me too,” Bainbridge said stiffly. “Who is hosting this party?”
“Mr Ernest Malberry, Sire.”
“I told you this was a trap!” Bainbridge spat at Denny. “The idiot thinks I have the real watch.”
“Have the other guests arrived?” Denny asked Joe quickly.
“Yes Sire, you are the last two guests to arrive. The ship will set sail in two minutes.”
“Who else is here?”Bainbridge asked.
“Well Sire, we have Mr Ernest Malberry, Master Charlie Malberry, a Miss Melody Kates and Albert… actually I don’t have his surname.”
“Big party…” Bainbridge said.
“Albert… Is he that doddering grey haired feller?” Denny asked.
“He is an older gentleman, yes Sire,” Joe replied.
“That’s who has it. The watch. Albert… ”
Joe had yet to decide who he thought had the watch. He wanted everyone on the ship who had been in contact with it first. Then he would find out…
“Well there will be a few more guests coming to your party!” Bainbridge said. “But they don’t have invites.”
Bainbridge gave a wolf whistle and a black car pulled up. Four huge men in black suits climbed out.
“You didn’t tell me they were coming…” Denny said fearfully, stroking his cut lip.
“No I didn’t,” Bainbridge grinned. “This party is going to be over before it begins…”
As Bainbridge finished speaking a second vehicle arrived on the other side of the street… a white van with satellites on the roof. Joe raised his hand into the air and Dalton leapt out of the shadows. Seconds later a Cameraman and Man-from-the-TV jumped out of the white van. The four men in black faltered.
“Dalton! Is that you?” the Man-from-the-TV shouted at Dalton.
Everyone looked at Dalton.
“Who’s this?” Bainbridge barked.
“Is he that lad from that Youtube video?” Denny said.
“I believe so Sire,” Joe replied.
“Have you got anything to say for yourself?” the Man-from-the-TV asked Dalton, moving down the pier. “Can you explain your actions towards that poor homeless man last week?”
“The people have a right to know!” someone, somewhere shouted.
“What is this…” Bainbridge said looking concerned. “I don’t need any attention right now…”
Bainbridge motioned a slitting-of-the-throat gesture to his men standing in front of the black car. They quickly climbed back into the car and the vehicle silently drove away.
“I’ll sort this myself,” Bainbridge said. “Go go go!” He nudged Denny into the boat – which was starting to be rocked by the increasingly choppy river. Joe could tell Bainbridge had a weapon in his pocket and Denny was not pleased about it. “You!” Bainbridge barked at Joe. “Keep this boat where it is. We’ll be back out before long.”
Bainbridge and Denny walked on board quickly. Joe looked back at Dalton who was giving a filmed interview with the Man-from-the-TV and Cameraman. Joe quickly unravelled the rope from the pier and just as he was about to toss it into the water he paused… and allowed himself a rare moment of self congratulation. ‘Well done Joe”, he told himself and chuckled quietly at his own brilliance as the omnipotent puppeteer.
But unfortunately for Joe, this rare moment of pride was the key moment when one of his puppets wandered away without him noticing…
“No cheese and chutney sandwiches… no sandwiches at all,” Albert muttered as he toddled past the shouting Man-from-the-TV, Cameraman and Dalton. He reached the white van with the satellites and noticed there was a bag of crisps in there. He sat down in the back of the van and started munching on them. From where Albert now sat he could see everything – though he understood nothing of what he was seeing.
Albert saw Joe throw the rope into the water then walk quickly into the boat. A minute later he saw a light go on in the captain’s deck and then he saw Joe again… then the ship began to move away from the pier. There was a rumble in the sky and Albert saw the clouds darken all around. When the rumbling quietened slightly Albert heard one of the three men nearby exclaim:
“Where on earth are they going?” It was the Man-from-the-TV. He was looking out at the ship. “Doesn’t anyone watch my weather reports?”
“Do you want me to answer that?” the Cameraman said dryly.
“Why, what did the weather report say?” Dalton asked.
“There’s a storm coming,” the Man-from-the-TV said. “All boats have been told to stay off the river tonight.”
There was a second loud rumble from the sky and then the strike of lightening. The boat – “The High Society” – was lit up. Everyone but Albert gasped. The boat started shaking in the river. It seemed to have been caught in a rip tide.
“That boat is gonna get ripped to pieces!” Dalton shouted excitedly.
“Film this!” the Man-from-the TV said. “Get me in the foreground!”
The three men rushed towards the pier. But unlike them, Albert was bored with all of this drama and decided he would need to get moving if he was to get his sandwich and avoid the rain. As he climbed out of the van, the Malberry watch slipped out of his pocket. Albert watched it hit his shoe, bounce across the road and over the curving kerb, rolling down the pier… within seconds it had reached the pier’s end, passing through the legs of the Man-from-the TV. Albert saw it fly up then sail down and finally silently drop into the Thames. Then it was gone.
“I don’t know where that came from” Albert chuckled to himself. He then immediately hailed a taxi just as the rain started to pour down.
Written by Gareth Brown | @GarethBrown26