Sister in Pink Rhinestones


The courtyard of the old coaching inn was full of flowers.

Tubs, hanging baskets and window boxes with lobelia, petunias, begonias and fuchsias filled every available corner. There were even pots of yellow pansies on the tables.

Nigel was more used to take-away tea from fast food outlets, not the sort served by a waiter and poured from a china teapot. But his worrisome older sister had insisted he have at least one civilised experience before the surge of teenage hormones removed him to another plane of existence where only football, computer games and hanging about on street corners became his main priorities. Annabel had never really understood boys his age, let alone her own brother. She was far too old - almost 25 - and had some fixed idea that all males entering puberty became a danger to society and themselves. It was no good arguing with her. She was not only much older, but had endless qualifications in this, and degrees in that, etcetera.

Nigel never really understood what Annabel did. It was like living in the same house as a mysterious lodger who came and went at all times, dressed in anything from jeans and T-shirts to skimpy frocks that bordered on embarrassing. She was too busy to spend much time in her bedroom filled with pink teddy bears and a large wardrobe of fancy clothes - one dress in particular was decorated with so many pink rhinestones it must have been able to signal aircraft.

Whatever Annabel was doing, she was bringing in a large enough wage to keep their demanding parents happy. As Nigel wasn’t yet earning anything hw was relegated to the garret bedroom with his second hand laptop, small reflecting telescope and view over the neighbourhood gardens. He wouldn’t have changed it for a palace with marble floors, gold statues and walls painted by Banksy. All the same, he often wondered how his sister managed to make so much money without being tempted to buy a place of her own.

"One pot of Earl Grey for two," a friendly East European accent announced, breaking Nigel’s thoughts, "and one slice of cheese cake and cream meringue."

Annabel thanked the waiter in Polish. He replied with a knowing smile and returned to the kitchen through the door at the far end of the courtyard. She was apparently a regular customer here.

Nigel had no idea that his sister spoke any other language, let alone Polish. It showed in his expression.

"What’s the matter with you, sprog?"

Nigel silently reached for his cream cake. On principle, he never replied when she called him ‘sprog’.

Annabel noticed his sullen protest. "Sorry. Keep forgetting you’re grown up."

"I’m almost 12. Old enough to be told why I had to pack a suitcase?"

"You’ll be staying here for a couple of nights."

"What? How will I get my e-mails?"

"If you hadn't worn out the battery in your laptop you could have brought that with you - and I'm not letting you use my smartphone after what happened last time."

"Then let me have your old iPad. I know you always carry it around with you but only use it to buy stupid stuff on eBay."

"Why? Do you need to know how many more times you’ve been ‘unfriended’ on Facebook?"

Nigel prickled with annoyance at her allusion to his lacklustre social life. He was a loner - so what!

"So I prefer to spend my time sky watching. I suppose I should have packed my reflector as well."

"Missing a couple of evenings won’t hurt. It’s not as if you’ve ever discovered a comet or new asteroid with that piece of junk."

"Mum and dad said nothing about me staying here for a couple of nights."

"They decided to go to Paris for the weekend on the spur of the moment and don’t want you left alone in the house. I can’t be there all the time, and there’s no way they would inflict you on a babysitter, so we’ve arranged for Mariana to look in on you every now and then. Plenty to do here, but just learn the house rules - and be nice to her or she'll only speak Romanian."

"Do what? You mean be in bed by ten. These rooms do have TVs, don’t they?"

"Cable and satellite."

Annabel took the iPad from her shoulder bag and handed it to Nigel in the hope it would placate him. Then, better still, she waved a silver credit card tantalisingly under his nose. "Nothing under £100. Don't lose it!"

Nigel stopped complaining as she jotted its pin number on the back of a receipt and placed under his saucer. The idea of being free of adults for a couple of nights with his own plastic piggybank was beginning to have its appeal. Best of all, he had been allocated the topmost room with a view over the town centre.

After unpacking, watching a film on the lounge TV, having supper served from a tray, and then pretending to be asleep in bed when Mariana checked, he was free to watch the police rounding up rowdy nightclub goers. It was far more entertaining than a video game. All of life, albeit on the seamier side, was out there. Who needed sex education or drink and drug classes when the mismanagement of both by people the same age as his sister were being played out below. Nigel even thought that he glimpsed Mariana down there well after midnight. Despite that, he had no doubt she would rap his door, bright-eyed and alert, at seven in the morning to make sure he was awake and ready for the early breakfast regardless of what she had got up to the night before. As she was his sister’s friend he was unlikely to find out what it was.

The two nights Annabel had arranged for him to stay at the hotel turned into three, and then four...

Nigel was in his element. Free from school and the company of friends always causing pointless trouble, he roamed the shopping mall using the credit card he had been entrusted with to purchase odd items. His knapsack was soon filled with stationery that would never be written on, modelling kits he would never manage to assemble, and DVDs he would never watch. That was one of the perks of being trustworthy.

Then he was really tempted.

The binoculars in the window of the camera shop were elegant, satin grey and very, very powerful - so powerful they came with a tripod. They were also expensive. Had Mariana been with him she would have raised one of her arched eyebrows disapprovingly and he would have passed by. But she had to serve the late lunch to the hotel guests and wasn't there.

Nigel timidly entered the shop. Commonsense told him to check what they would cost online first. But he desperately wanted them right away and pointed nervously to the binoculars taking pride of place in the window.

Nigel expected the older man, peering down at him over half-moon spectacles as he clutched Annabel’s credit card, to ask where he had obtained the magic piece of plastic.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he told him, "You are aware you can obtain those binoculars for £40 less on Amazon?"

The teenager’s jaw dropped. He had already spent £50 of his allocated £100, so he knew he should run away before learning how much they really cost.

"Though you would have to pay £60 for the case, extra warranty, tripod and, quite probably, insured postage," the man added.

"Postage? At that price it should be free."

"Amazon works in mysterious ways. This shop doesn’t. We include the case, tripod and two years warranty for £350. Want to see the binoculars?"

Nigel tried to resist, but was too tempted by the prospect of being allowed to handle them. "Oh yes."

The tall man took a box from a shelf in a back room and opened it on the counter. He could tell by the young customer’s barrage of enthusiastic questions that he understood optical instruments well enough to be trusted with them.

"I’m happy to sell you them, but cannot protect you from the owner of that credit card clutched in your sweaty little hand."

"She might kill me, but these are worth dying for."

Nigel steadied his elbows on the counter to peer through the binoculars and adjust their focal range. On the other side of the precinct a pigeon was perched on a high guttering: he was able to see into its nostril.

"Wow... these are better than my reflector."

"If you’re stargazing you will need to use the tripod."

"You said it’s included in the price?"

"Oh yes, but I'm confident you will ensure everything comes back in mint condition if it is necessary to return them to save your life."

Nigel promised to take care of the binoculars and handed over Annabel’s credit card.

That evening, as soon as the hotel bar closed and the guests had retired to their rooms, Nigel took out his expensive purchase and screwed them onto the tripod. Unlike the cheap stationery and model kits, this was something he intended to get full use of before his sister read her credit card statement.

He quietly opened the window for a clear view down into the precinct and town beyond, guiltily wondering how his parents were getting on in Paris. As they were bound to be enjoying themselves he didn’t feel too bad. The binoculars probably cost less than they were spending on one cordon bleu meal there anyway.

The centre of town was unusually quiet, as though waiting for something to happen. A police car was patrolling the pedestrian areas, yet the only thing to arrest appeared to be a stray cat.

Determined to test the binoculars to their limit, Nigel aimed them at some activity on the seedier side of town, almost two miles away. He carefully focused on where odd ‘pop’, ‘pop’, ‘pop’ sounds were coming from - and then momentarily recoiled when he realised what they were.

A gun battle was taking place.

This was a little scary, but Nigel was too fascinated to stop watching - until he saw her!

He almost toppled from his stool.

There was his sister in her pink rhinestone dress crouching - apparently cornered - behind some backstreet restaurant refuse bins. Annabel was returning fire at a first-floor window in rapid bursts with an automatic pistol. She had nowhere to run to without breaking cover and, by the way she checked the clip of bullets when she reloaded, it was the last of her ammunition.

At first Nigel was too petrified to look away, and then realised that his sister was running out of time. She needed immediate assistance. But why hadn’t she phoned for help? Then he focused on her shattered, pink smartphone lying nearby.

He had to make the call for her, but couldn’t remember where he had put his mobile. Nigel was always mislaying the thing because it was so old he knew no one would bother to steal it. Now, the only time it really mattered, the phone was probably downstairs in the dining room or at the bottom of his knapsack crammed full of junk.

No time to search! This would have to be done the old-fashioned way. He snatched up the receiver of the bedside phone, praying it wasn’t only for room service, and gabbled a request for an emergency outside line. There was an instant dialling tone. Given that side of town, he knew no one else was likely to be phoning the police about the gun battle. Annabel's life depended on him persuading the police he wasn't some delinquent kid causing trouble.

Nigel punched in 999 and felt giddy with relief when a voice immediately responded, "Emergency. Which service do you require?"

He didn’t know how he managed to sound sensible or remember what message he garbled about his sister, wearing her tight-fitting pink, rhinestone dress, trapped in a back alley in the middle of a gun battle. He was just relieved to be taken seriously.

By the time Nigel returned to the binoculars he was too tearful with apprehension to focus properly. Annabel, whatever he thought of her as just another annoying adult, was his only sister after all. The young teenager was amazed at how much he would have missed her if she was killed. Not only that, he would have felt guilty for the rest of his life in allowing the coolest human being he had ever known to be shot to pieces.

Help seemed to take forever to arrive and Annabel, having rationed the number of shots she fired at her unseen assailants, was now out of ammunition. The plastic bins she was hiding behind looked like massive colanders and Nigel was sure at least one bullet had found its mark by the blood spatters on her dress.

Anxiety was making it difficult for him to control his bladder but, as assistance arrived, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, he couldn’t tear away to relieve himself. Vehicles were closing in from every direction and uniformed officers in body armour leaping out of a police van to batter down the building’s front door while an armed response team trained their fire on the first floor window.

Then everything went ominously quiet until several men were roughly bundled outside. Most remarkable of all was the reaction of the officer-in-charge to Nigel's sister. Annabel had been no damsel in distress - that had been obvious from the way she handled a weapon - she was one of them! His big sister was an undercover police officer carrying out an assignment as dangerous as they were liable to get. The gang that had been arrested must have been up to something serious enough for her to send their parents to Paris for a few days and see her younger brother safely installed at the top of the town’s most respectable hotel. Their father had a weak heart, and Nigel was too nosy for its own good. At least on this occasion it had been just as well.

He never did find out why Annabel had ended up in the middle of a gun battle that night. Because he was allowed to keep the binoculars, Nigel never asked. And when she found out that her younger brother had made that crucial phone call, she took him back to the shop to purchase an expensive digital camera, then to the electronic store opposite for a smartphone and new laptop.

And Annabel never called him ‘sprog’ again. Nigel promised not to mention the incident to their parents and, if they asked, say her flesh wounds were sustained in a minor car accident. They apparently believed their daughter’s police duties to be purely administrative.

From then on Nigel regarded his big sister with a degree of awe, rather like a Rambo in pink rhinestones. That image of Annabel, gun in hand, blasting away at the bad guys, would never leave him for the rest of his life.