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THE RED LANTERN

and other stories

________________________________________

Terry Morgan

 

 

Copyright © 2018 Terry Morgan

First published in the United Kingdom in 2018 by TJM Books.

Website: www.tjmbooks.com

The right of Terry Morgan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

The Red Lantern is a selection of six short stories about international crime, corruption, espionage and terrorism taken from five of the author’s full-length novels – An Old Soy Story, Whistleblower, Vendetta, An Honourable Fake and Bad Boys.

 

CONTENTS:

The Red Lantern

Mitchell

The Pink Coconut

The Peacock

Lazarus

The Printer

 

 

The Red Lantern is a back street Chinese restaurant in the Nigerian capital, Lagos where Frank Marshall has been living for too long when he is approached by businessman Oliver Thomas. Thomas has, himself, been tasked with solving the problem of a prominent member of the British House of Lords whose lifestyle as an adviser on African affairs has become a deep embarrassment to the British government. In return for help, Frank is to be offered his long-awaited chance to return to the UK.

Mitchell. Sierra Leonian truck driver Mitchell is so reliable and hard-working that according to Mr Suleiman, Mitchell’s boss at Mambolo Transport Enterprises, he is definitely management material. So, when Mitchell reports that charity goods and even United Nations supplies are finding their way into the warehouse of Rocki General Supplies on Sani Abacha Street, Mr Suleiman quickly concludes that Rocki’s owner, Mr Moses, is “a fraudster, a crook, a skimmer and a thief.” And Mr Suleiman is not one to turn a blind eye. "Mr Moses might pull knife on me,” he says, “But I pull carpet, I pull strings."

The Pink Coconut is an open-air nightclub in Lagos where businessman Oliver Thomas, already a reluctant participant in dubious MI6 operations, meets his Nigerian friend William Akinbiyi in an attempt to stop vast funds of money being diverted from essential medical supplies into the pockets of corrupt individuals. But with Thomas’s suspicions that his MI6 controller is planning to be one of the main beneficiaries what can they do?

The Peacock, a flashy night spot on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, has become a meeting place for all sorts of foreign criminals. It’s also where Ritchie Nolan, straight out of a London drama school and a raw recruit to international commercial crime investigation is sent to infiltrate a Russian-led gang engaged in counterfeiting, money-laundering and narcotics. Posing as Micky Parker from East London with a bag of fake perfume samples to tempt them, his first task job is to become accepted enough to be invited into their gang.

Lazarus. Two self-proclaimed Nigerian Pastors, Lazarus of the Good Tidings Christian Peoples Church and Ayo of Christ's Centre of Holy Visions are up to their necks in corruption, but their fragile relationship is crumbling. Under huge pressure to find two million dollars to pay off politicians and other accomplices, it is the sad, guilt-filled and genuinely God-fearing Lazarus who belatedly realises that Ayo is far better at crime and corruption than he is.

The Printer. Grzegorz Samoszewski (Greg) has retired and lives only to care for Dalia, his sick, wheelchair-bound wife and for the hobby he pursues in his garage – experimenting with high tech printing. But Greg’s quiet life changes abruptly when he receives an unexpected visitor from the local Moslem community seeking some specialist printing jobs. Having succumbed to threats and increasingly worried at what he’s become involved with, Greg desperately wants to move away but what can he do with Dalia to take care of? And Greg’s other problem is that he’s Jewish.

 

 

The Red Lantern (from “An Old Spy Story”)

 

As usual I blamed myself.

I was the one who told Donaldson about Frank Marshall.

Frank was my man in Nigeria. He was seriously caught up in quicksand before I even knew him but as soon as he also became Donaldson’s man the quicksand was to become, as Frank would have said, “like deep shit”.

In some respects, Frank was well suited to Donaldson’s style because Frank certainly didn’t run his business on a strong set of ethical principles even though he was supposed to be in pharmaceuticals.

Frank Marshall managed his run-down business in Lagos from an asbestos roofed building in Ikeja employing a small team of ladies in faded, green overalls who poured thick red cough mixture from big drums into small bottles, stuck labels on the bottles and put the bottles into boxes. Frank then sold the boxes. Frank also made money from deals he negotiated for international pharmaceutical companies though he’d always seriously undervalued his input.

Frank was a commission agent of the old school. Frank was the underpaid, dishevelled, sweaty, expatriate side of overpaid pin-striped, Eau de Cologne corporate life. He was there for those who sat in plush, oak-panelled boardrooms with Chinese carpets in Basle, Paris and London.

He was there for those who could then claim legitimately that he was solely responsible for the manner in which the orders they accepted were obtained. Bribery is subcontracted out even more often than murder.

In short, Frank ensured that many of the pharmaceuticals selected for importation by the Ministry of Health into Nigeria were not for the well-being of the nation’s poor and sick but for the well-being of the officials who ran the Health Ministry and the directors and shareholders of corporate Switzerland and America. But to stay on the right side of what little law was upheld, he was a mere manager of the business.

Frank was a fixer.

The company chairman, to whom he owed so little, was an ex-Minister who had once been in charge of the Nigerian Ministry of Health. It was the ex-Minister who did the travelling to London, Basle and New York, wearing his Saville Row suits, staying at the Nigerian Embassy and lunching with the manager of the New Nigeria Bank in Cannon Street.

Meanwhile, poor old Frank stayed entirely in Lagos with occasional trips to exotic spots like Kano, Port Harcourt and Ibadan. He had ventured as far as Ouagadougou once and had also been to Accra several times.

So, Frank’s international business career had not materialized in quite the way he had foreseen when he first arrived in Lagos with his bag of samples as an immature young export salesman. But, his appointed role as occasional escort or agent for people he thought represented Her Majesty’s Government had given him a sense of importance, however false and however short lived.

Frank’s English wife had taken one look at Lagos and left him many years before to return to Maidstone. So, Frank lived with a very dark woman who wore a very recognizable and ornate headscarf like a turban. She spoke a very rare, native dialect, a little French and even less English. But it didn’t seem to bother either of them as they communicated mostly through grunts and sign language. Sex is, after all, a fairly similar exercise wherever you go.

She had come from a place we once called Upper Volta and Frank had imported her into Nigeria in exchange for a few crates of cough mixture when he went on a visit to Ouagadougou.

Frank called her Olga as if she was a blonde Russian but this was far from the case. I suspect that Olga was actually the closest Frank could manipulate his tongue to say her real name, which stretched to many long syllables and included strange clicking noises unknown to anyone living outside Olga’s village.

But Olga acted as wife and maid and they lived an exotic tropical existence in a fortified concrete villa with a corrugated roof and surrounded by rolls of barbed wire, several grubby Alsatian dogs and an ageing Nigerian ex policeman with a pistol tucked in his belt.

Frank spent the mornings in his factory overseeing quality control and production schedules. He then lunched at the Red Lantern Chinese Restaurant, where he had developed a remarkable resistance to no end of gastric complaints, and then spent his evenings at a notorious den of sophistication in Ikeja where he concluded his business deals if he could stay awake long enough. The Pink Coconut was also known to me as one of these high society places where you met other fixers.

On that trip, my first sight of Frank was as he pushed his way through the crowds of jostling, sweating, humanity. As always, he was wearing his stained safari suit, sandals and grey socks.

He was shouting, cursing and waving a rolled newspaper. Frank’s arrival had been very timely because the hot and stressed Immigration Officer sat at his high desk in his unnecessarily thick uniform and rows of medals, had been questioning everyone’s right to enter Nigeria.

And until Frank arrived it looked as though there might be difficulties with my right to enter the country. My vaccination certificate for Yellow Fever was not in order and this was vital for compliance with the sophisticated bureaucracy of Nigerian Health and Immigration Policy. But Frank’s newspaper had done the trick, containing as it did several crumpled Naira notes tucked inside. He crept up behind and tapped the Immigration Officer on the shoulder.

“Here, General, whatever you bloody title is, catch up with the news. Have a looksy at the sports page. Lagos Loonies beat the Kano Crappers. It’s all there. It’ll make your eyes smart.”

I can see Frank now.

Frank spoke so fast that it didn’t matter what he said or to whom he said it or whether or not English was their first language. And I had never seen Frank in anything except the same, grubby, beige safari suit. He had long hair in an untidy Beatle’s style that was totally unsuited to the Nigerian climate. It stuck to his head and clung around his ears with sweat. He had a red, sun burned face and, on that occasion, a burning cigarette cleverly tucked between the same fingers that held the newspaper. His blue eyes were a nice feature though they had taken on a permanent sparkle from too many evenings drinking Nigerian wine in rooms filled with ganja smoke or other narcotics.

But Frank’s payment was duly pocketed, the newspaper dropped on the floor and my passport duly stamped. Frank grinned, grabbed my bags and shouted at me to follow with words like, “Don’t lose me, for Christ’s sake. Let’s get out of this fucking hell hole.” Despite his recent appointment of working for the Crown via Donaldson, Frank was not known for his sophisticated use of the Queen’s English.

Frank’s company car, too, was also less than sophisticated. It was a rusting Peugeot with sagging seats, the body parts held together by layers of dried, red mud.

I felt privileged because Frank regarded me as a friend, the third amongst a crowd of two others. One was Olga and the other was sat waiting in the car with the engine still running. Frank’s driver, Smart, was a young, athletic Nigerian who, if opportunities for fulfilment had been available, looked as if he should have tried professional boxing or athletics. Smart was not smart but he was very reliable. He would do anything Frank asked and would drive for hours without a break, even sitting in the car in the hot sun whilst Frank refreshed himself in the shade of banana trees at roadside beer houses.

“So! Ollie!” Frank shouted above the general melee. Frank knew me as Oliver Thomas although I had a few other pseudonyms I used when necessary. “Got a cable to say you’d be coming.”

Such were communications in those days. Phoning my London office from Lagos could take so long I’d end up with a sore middle finger from all the repeat dialling and then be so shocked by the sudden connection I’d forget why I’d called.

We clambered into the car and Smart drove off into the traffic. “Where are you staying, Ollie?”

“Airport Hotel.”

“Luxury. Must be on good expenses.”

The Airport Hotel had never struck me as luxurious but I let it pass. Fried eggs were the only breakfast at the Airport Hotel. Sometimes they were the only lunch and the only dinner. It was never boiled eggs and never poached eggs and they didn’t know how to cook scrambled egg or omelette. It was only ever fried eggs. I had queried it one morning. “Sorry sah. No water.”

It was the obvious explanation and I should have known, after all I’d cleaned my teeth in beer earlier.

“How are you doing, Ollie? Business good?”

“Can’t grumble. Dodging and diving, bit of this and a bit of that, you know.”

I often spoke like that to start. It depended on the person I was with. Frank with his East London accent, was a suitable person for this particular style and I’d needed to create the early impression that today I was not in the business of bothering about too much legitimacy. Frank needed to know that anything would interest me if there was a chance to make a quick and easy buck. And if this meant a bit of under the counter stuff to get around stuffy government regulations that just got in the way of healthy international trade, frankly I couldn’t have cared a fig.

“Pharmaceuticals?” Frank was prying into my motives for being there.

“Always.”

“To ship home or ship elsewhere?”

The number of pharmaceutical wholesalers in England who would have risked their reputation importing medicines that had passed through Frank’s factory was going to be limited. But, to me, it was proof that someone had used pharmaceuticals as a ploy to get his attention before I’d even left London.

Frank dropped me at the Airport Hotel, I thanked him for meeting me and told him I had another meeting early the following morning and suggested we continue our chat over lunch. With that, Frank’s mud-plastered Peugeot departed in a cloud of blue smoke with Smart at the wheel.

I had fried eggs, rice and beer for my dinner that night. But next morning after an uncomfortable night spent scratching in a bug infested bed that smelled of stale sweat I took a taxi to downtown Lagos for my meeting. My job, given to me by Donaldson, was fairly straightforward. I was to introduce a senior British diplomat to Frank Marshall by means I needed to invent and then carry on with my own business.

The distinguished diplomat was also, Donaldson had informed me, the spoilt English heir to half of the Scottish Highlands and held an Oxford degree in Ancient Greek. His specific training for his current role was, though, limited to having read “Teach Yourself International Trade.”

So far in his life, qualifications hadn’t mattered because his upbringing meant he was automatically destined for the House of Lords and had diplomatic immunity wherever he went or whatever he did. He had risen through family connections to a role as a sort of government advisor on African affairs although Africa was not regarded as a Foreign Office or a Defence Ministry priority. His only knowledge of Africa appeared to have been as a boy of six living with his parents for a year in Nairobi.

Not content with the thought of one day inheriting a Scottish Castle, the odd commission paid into a Swiss account had, it seemed, started to take on the innocent legitimacy of normal, day to day expenses to top up his income and he was becoming a liability for diplomatic progress on many fronts. He had started out as a spoiled child. Now, on the frail excuse that Her Majesty’s diplomats, unlike small businessmen, needed refreshing after seven-day stints visiting the Third World, he was being spoiled by attending too many cocktail parties, staying at too many hotels on Park Lane and eating at too many places like the Ritz at the expense of others. He was in fact thought to be becoming, or already was, a risk to national security.

Having been mistakenly employed by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence he was known to have acquired information that was strictly confidential and, also since the age of six, was well known for being unable to keep secrets.

So, at 9am, armed with this background, I found myself at a far more salubrious residence than the Airport Hotel with an aroma of smoked bacon and toast filling my nostrils. It was, nevertheless, surrounded by coconut palms and a high concrete wall with metal spikes along the top. But the garden, if that is what it was, was a sea of red mud because black thunderclouds had only just finished depositing an inch of rain in the space of half an hour.

When I arrived, a bare-chested boy was sweeping flood water full of floating debris, but his toils were in vain. A foot of water had breached the front steps and a gritty, red stream ran into the open plan reception area where someone else was sweeping it out of a rear door.

But I knew what to do. I took my shoes off, folded my trousers to my knees and put my briefcase on my head as a shelter from the water still dripping off the palm trees. Suitably attired, I waded towards the building and up to the long wooden reception desk. Above me was a high ceiling with a huge, creaking, wooden fan that slowly turned, hitting the top branches of a tamed coconut palm growing from a clay pot. The muddy, red water ran across the scratched marble floor between low wicker chairs placed against dull, unpolished wooden coffee tables showing round stains of tea and coffee spilt from cups.

It was steamy and hot but, despite the conditions, a waiter hovered with a tray and an off-white cloth draped across his arm ready to serve coffee to a few white guests sat in mud stained suits. A white woman in a light chiffon dress and a wide brimmed hat sat with her long legs crossed near the clay pot with a cigarette in a long holder held between her thumb and first finger. Her feet, fortunately, were on a dry part of the floor, proof that the floor itself was uneven.

The equally unsuitably dressed receptionist, sweating in his black suit and bow tie seemed to be expecting me. “Yessah. You are expected. The Lord is waiting for you sah.”

Since then I have always wanted my entry into heaven, if ever that happens, to be announced like that.

The Lord was not slow in appearing but I hope the real Lord, if we ever meet, avoids the image that this one created. He minced towards me with his hand outstretched like a peacock on a catwalk and I could not help wondering how someone who apparently spent so much time travelling in Africa and the Middle East could look so anaemic and pristine. He wore pure white slacks and shirt, shiny brown shoes with a matching belt and a white hat, slightly less frilly than that of the woman’s sitting by the potted plant. But his main adornment was a cravat, a long, wide, multi-coloured specimen made of the finest silk, which he swished like the tail of a pedigree filly in season.

“Ah, Mr Thomas? Good morning. I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance. Glad you could make it. Sorry about the weather here. Damned messy at times. But been here before, I expect, have you? If so you will be quite used to it. Damned perspiration. Seems destined to leak from every conceivable orifice, don’t you think?”

I tried hard to avoid lengthy eye contact but became very uncomfortable at the way my knee was being touched. We sat in the opposite corner to the white woman who kept flapping at flies with a handkerchief and we started with a general discussion about my business. I quickly, deliberately and sneakily dropped in a suggestion of some interest in military supplies to North Africa. That was not my only interest of course. I had always been an exporter of anything I could get an order for.

But with no prompting he said: “Yes. I have to say that my confidential discussions in Tripoli suggest that arms get in through Chad anyway. So, whatever we can do to ensure we supply direct will limit their clandestine operations. Keep some control. Don’t you agree?”

What, on earth, was this man talking about, I thought. We had only just met and yet he was taking no precautions. He could not possibly have known much about me or how a small export business based in south London might be useful to Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence policy. And, at the time, I was probably more of an expert on Libya than anyone in the British Government. I certainly knew all about Chad but there are things in business you only keep to yourself.

Then he said: “Cup of tea? I’m sure we can order some. “He waved at the waiter holding the grubby towel and ordered tea before moving rapidly on.

“So, Mr Thomas. May I call you Oliver? Tell me just a little about the other opportunities you’ve apparently been lining up, besides the military ones, which might benefit from my input and a little official backing and encouragement from Her Majesty’s Government. We so need to keep all our options open, but at all times we wear our desire to help British trade openly on our sleeves.”

I had briefly wondered what to say at this point but was well used to handling inquiries about my business, even when they were often at odds with the other unofficial jobs I performed for Donaldson & Co. What I found myself saying was a figment of my imagination but one founded in such confidence that if challenged to give more detail would not have required me to dig too deeply to appear utterly convincing. It was an acquired skill that had required long practice. I also knew that Frank would back me up.

“Well, yes,” I said. “I have some pharmaceutical interests here as well – a small, local operation – an agency, distributorship and some small-scale local manufacture. It is a joint project with Pennex Pharmaceuticals. Their headquarters are based in Kent. Do you know them?”

“Oh Kent, the Garden of England. How lovely,” he pronounced with great delight.

“Yes, well,” I said, moving my leg again. “We need a few high-level government contacts to help win contracts. Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia – that sort of area. Your name cropped up.”

“As it would, Oliver.”

With that he gave a toothy smile, I got my knee patted and the cravat swung wildly. But the response was obviously positive and I was encouraged to continue despite the hand now resting more firmly on my knee. But, such is the selfish determination of a professional exporter who recognises an opportunity when he sees it, I resisted the urge to remove it. “Well. I wonder,” I said, “would you care to meet the local manager of the plant tomorrow morning? Say ten o’clock? He’s a British chap – name of Frank Marshall.”

“Of course, I’d be delighted. Here?”

“Well, I thought you might like to meet him at the plant. It’s out near the airport at Ikeja.”

“What a splendid idea. Ah, here’s the tea.”

And that was all I did face to face with the Lord. Sometimes the jobs I did on the side for Donaldson were not time consuming. I left shortly afterwards to meet Frank for lunch and the second part of the job.

The incentive for Frank, you see, was a commission and other benefits and someone had to explain things in more detail. As Donaldson’s subcontractor who lived quite dangerously half way down the mountain, I was to subcontract the job further down to Frank who lived on the edge of the jungle. My job was to persuade Frank to subcontract it to someone else who was living right in the middle of the jungle. At the time, dear reader, such were the methods I had become familiar with. Those siting at the top of the mountain with its glorious view could so easily deny all knowledge of the sinister goings on at the bottom whereas those of us half way down looked both up and down.

I performed my job of persuasion on Frank over lunch at the Chinese Red Lantern but it was obvious Frank had already heard something before we met and I suspect it was the same man who would call at Frank’s factory from time to time with other requests. That man was from the British Embassy or so he claimed.

I learned all this at the Red Lantern by plying Frank with gin and tonic. The gin and tonics were poured in and Frank’s heart poured out. He got more and more drunk and then more and more emotional. “You’re a good mate, Ollie. You see . . . well, fuck . . .”

Frank had been almost in tears and the embarrassment had been such that I spent most of the time in the Red Lantern studying the food-stained red flock wallpaper, which is why I remember it.

Frank’s east London accent, that he had almost forgotten in favour of Lagos speak, improved all the time, as the gin proved amazingly effective. Quite why I had plied him with drink I don’t know, but I had an uncanny urge to find out how Donaldson worked on others and Frank proved to be an excellent case study.

Frank was more used to beer, the local concoctions, and other forms of exotic stimulation, the sort that was inhaled, rather than drunk. His Beatles hair cut was lying across his sweating forehead, his eyes were red, his tongue was loose and his soul was being hung out to dry. But fortunately, in this state, his speech was slower and much easier to follow.

“See, Ollie, this time the bastard came with an official, bleeding letter from the Embassy stating that all British subsidiaries operating in Nigeria should adopt a code of practice when dealing with the Nigerian Government. Code of bleeding practice! I ask you, mate, what a load of shit!

“Anyway, we are not a subsidiary anymore. Wholly owned Nigerian buying raw materials from the bastards back home. So much for their commercial savvy, eh? But it was as though the commercial attaché himself was as clean as a whistle and all the rest of us were on the take or bribing officials left right and centre just for the bloody hell of it.

“We all know what they get up to

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