Three Nuns, a Russian Drug Dealer and a Clown …

Zoë Sharp

I know this sounds like the start of a joke, and in some ways it is. A few years ago I was at a convention – it may even have been ITW – and members of the audience were asked to come up with an opening line for the panel members to pick at random out of a hat and run with.

I wrote:

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

The unlucky panelist who picked that one out?

Lee Child.

Did he run with it?

Of course – in his own inimitable style.

Has he entirely forgiven me?

Hmm, not sure about that one 🙂

So, when I was asked to contribute a piece about beginnings for a bulletin for the upcoming CWA Debut Dagger competition, held every year for unpublished authors by the British Crime Writers’ Association, this line sprang to mind.

And as an aside I asked competition entrants to complete the line in their own style. Here are some of the most entertaining, all of which will receive a copy of one of my e-books. And if anyone else would like to give it a whirl, I’ll give away another copy to the best effort!

Gary Ian David

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

Charlie fumbled desperately in the huge pockets of his unique suit. Out came streamers, sweeties, a disorientated live pigeon that flew to the roof and knocked itself out on a steel girder. A million silk hankies, a rubber sausage and a plastic hammer. A box of confetti exploded as he threw it away and a tramp caught an exploding cigar in mid flight. Children raced after the strange group of misfits, giggling, fighting over the clowns discarded novelties and falling over one another in their haste. A group of workmen did a fair interpretation of Benny Hill’s theme music as the group raced around, everyone chasing someone or something… all that was missing was The Keystone Cops. Wait for it… here they come. Nuns holding their skirts up, showing off their woollen stockings charged ahead of the drug dealer when he fell over and a bag of cocaine burst on the tiled floor. Yoshi Agnetha Yamashita pulled Aiko Frida Shoda back by her hair and screamed when her auburn wig came away in her hand. Michiko Benny Minamoto knocked his mate Atsushi Bjorn Takahashi over as they both struggled to head the nuns. Several uniformed police officers struggled at the back of the pack. The uniformed head of department stepped out in front of the charge and held his hand up. ‘Halt,’ he commanded. He was trampled underfoot. At last Charlie found his phone and held it to his ear. He stopped dead and the crowd ran over him. As they rushed toward a pair of glass doors, they slowly swung open… too slowly. The nuns crashed into them and as they fought one another a dwarf lifted up Sister Mary’s skirts and ran between her legs. He dived on top of the counter and grabbed the Walking, Talking, Weepy, Sleepy, Happy Chappy doll… the last one in the store… in fact the last one in the world. Camera crews filmed him holding the toy above his head and wealthy Harrods customers offered him obscene amounts of cash to part with it. He ignored their pleas and walked out with his head higher than anyone else’s in the store. On Christmas Day his son would be the envy of the world.

KJ Rabane

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

“Right so you say you’ve got the wine and the Russian rug runner-how are you getting on finding the Japanese arbour? The clown answers “they say Harrods is a store where you can find anything but I’m having trouble with the Japanese Abba. And this phone is hopeless I can hardly hear what you want. You should have written it down. What time did you say your mother was coming? By the way I’m wearing the clown outfit so I’ll be ready for the kids when I get home.”

Heath Gunn

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

“Waterloo, how does it feel you won the war”, shrieked the ringtone, the clown, with his mop of thick orange hair, glanced over his shoulder, held up his empty hand and all nine of them stopped dead in their tracks next to some French extra mature cheddar cheese.

“Billy, Hi”, gasped Thomas, the clown, “yes we are aware the fancy dress party started over an hour ago, and as soon as we beat our way to the tube we’ll be there”, “I know but unfortunately people who jump from railway bridges have little consideration for the timing of your birthday party”. He rolled his eyes at his pursuing entourage just as Lydia, the Russian drug dealer, tapped impatiently on the face of her bright yellow wrist watch.

“Billy the quicker I get off the phone, the faster we can all run to the tube station. Yes I’ll pick up some beers on the way, and vodka”. With that Thomas slid his thumb over the smooth screen of his phone and with a nod of his head the unlikely looking group lurched on through the well lit food isle.

Jean Harrington

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

Three nuns and not one a virgin. Why should they be? Zoe loved sticking pins in stereotypes and that sexually innocent women were the world’s most virtuous was one of her favorites. Take these three: a widow, a divorcee and a lesbian. They could probably write erotica if they so chose, but instead here they were in the Amazon fighting sin and snakes without a luxury or a lover among them. As she paddled downstream, they sat without speaking, waiting for their destiny to unfold, waiting perhaps to be pierced by a dart gun as they had been pierced by the Lord. But surely not by anything else.

Sandra Powley

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings…’

“Crap timing Ruth,” gasped the panting clown, clutching the phone to her ear. “The flashmob’s gone pear-shaped here and store security are getting heavy. Wait up…” She ducked down an aisle. Three nuns and a Russian drug-dealer ran past, pursued by a bellowing Japanese Abba tribute band – struggling to gain any speed in their platform heels – followed by two hefty, wheezing security guards giving chase. As the strains of karaoke Water-roo faded, she pulled off her red nose, took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the voice in her ear. “What do you mean Hitler’s been shot? I’ve got News at Ten filming him outside St Pauls in an hour.” She pushed back her curly scarlet wig and scratched her scalp. “I know it’s short notice Ruth, but if Adam’s in hospital, I need a stand-in, so just get down to the protest camp for the news crew…Hang on.”

Spotting a mountain of pannetone, she scooted over the lino like a commando and took cover. “Yes – and you also said that your rabbi is liberal…Hitler-Schmittler, Ruth – global economic crisis trumps religion,” she hissed, replacing a dislodged package in the display. “I’ll call you from casualty, once I’ve seen Adam and found out who shot him – and while you’re sourcing your Third Reich outfit, have a look for your commitment.” She put her phone in her pocket and ripped off her clown suit, scanning the food hall for a place to remove her make up.

Five minutes later, a middle-aged woman slipped out of the ladies room, wearing jeans and tassled loafers with a smart jumper and a Liberty scarf. Her face was bare and a navy beret masked her wig-flattened blonde hair. She took a pair of Prada-framed glasses from her expensive leather handbag, pausing for a moment to browse a row of preserves before she hurried off, empty handed.

Marian Crowe moved purposefully, navigating the crowded streets to the Royal Free Hospital, unaware that her journey was pointless. Adam had been dead for forty-seven minutes and his body had already been relocated by The Service.

Michael Higgins

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings.

“Yes, Mr. President?” said Jo-E, a smile on his face, well he always had a smile on his face, as he slammed open the leather-padded walnut door leading to the East Dulwich Deli. “No, no, I can talk, Mr. President.”

With a flicker of regret, Jo-E kicked one of the tables to the floor with a shoe the size of a London double-decker bus. This really would be a great place to eat, he thought, if it wasn’t for that damn Dancing Queen and her killer poodles.

Janelle Colquhoun

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

They abruptly halt. The three nuns knock heavily into the Russian. Anger shows on the eldest nun’s monobrowed face. The three members of the Japanese band look at each other with raised eyebrows and shrug.

“Keep going,” the Russian drug dealer yells, lapsing out of his Russian accent.

The cellphone persists with it’s Wiggle’s “Hot Potato” ringtone.

“For fuck’s sake answer the frigging thing!” the youngest nun screams, tearing off her wimple and stamping her foot, “This is fucked anyway! Like, hello, what sort of a daft film script is this anyway?!”

The clown, with his hands shaking and his painted smile drooping at the corners, reaches to press the button to answer the call.

There is an enormous explosion. The last frame the cameraman captures through his viewfinder is the clown’s red nose spinning off into the Harrods’ lobster display.

“And that,” Detective Malevolent said, pressing the remote control button, “Is what we know so far about the explosion at 6:03am in the Harrods’ food hall this morning. Any questions?”

All these are tremendous in their own way, and I wish everyone who took part the very best of luck when their entries to the Debut Dagger go in.

This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning lacking in courage and strength of mind; faint-hearted, mean-spirited, cowardly.

I shall be travelling much of today, but will get to comments when I can.



13 thoughts on “Three Nuns, a Russian Drug Dealer and a Clown …

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I scrupulously avoid all panels that require this kind of improvisation. Maybe it's that I DID more than my time in improv, but I'd really rather just play Russian Roulette up there.

    Fantastic responses to a really evil opening sentence.

  2. Judy Wirzberger

    M. Z. How wonderful the minds of writers! Unfortunately, I understand from someone who was there that the rosary beads hanging from the three nuns broke, the clown fell while skating on them breaking his seltzer bottle and ruining the Russian dope dealer's fur coat. The Japanese band members were unaffected as they had stopped for Sushi. The phone flew from the clown's hands and was captured mid air by Chief Inspector Clouseau cleverly disguised as the Queen's corgi Linnett.

  3. Sarah W

    Brilliant riffs! Slightly daunting, though. Sandra Powley and Janelle Colquhoun are my kind of people.

    I'm working on my synopsis for debut dagger, which is daunting all by itself. But I've never considered myself pusillanimous and I've got a month.

    How's this?

    The clown yanked out his phone, puffed out two words, listened for a second, and planted his heels, causing a resounding pile-up near the last case of gourmet cheeses. The phone skidded under a display of savory biscuits, followed by a glittering platform shoe, a shower of rosary beads, and twenty seconds of heartfelt Russian invective.

    The nuns struggled free first. Two of them began hauling the others upright while the third gave them all a glare of righteous wrath.

    "Matterly," he said in baritone, "CID. This is our party now–Oi, you! Hands where I can see them!"

    "Polnyi pizdets!" growled the Russian, tossing him an ID.

    "MI5! What in blue blazes—"

    "Louder," said the Russian through his teeth. "Children in Ukraine did not hear."

    "What are you—?"

    "Same as you." The Russian pointed to the clown, who was retrieving his phone under the watchful eye of the rosary-less nun. "Following him."

    "All right, Coco—what's your story?"

    The clown tucked his phone away and offered his own ID. "CIA."

    Matterly tore off his habit and threw it on the floor. "Oh, that's all we need."

    "Should have known from the costume," said the Russian, his accent shifting from Odessa to Oxford.

    "Watch it, buddy. I'm here because you guys dropped the ball."

    "And there it is on the end of your nose."

    The American held up a finger and the not-Russian countered with two.

    "Language, ladies," said Matterly, before rounding on ABBA. "And who are you lot, then?"

    Anna-Frid, Benny, and Agnetha exchanged glances as Björn stepped forward and bowed. "We are returning home from a performance at Japanese Embassy. Nashiko is very fond of Hob Nobs."

    Agnetha, balancing on one platform, smiled and nodded.

    "So why did you run?" asked the Russian.

    Björn lifted his shoulders. "Everyone else was."

    Matterly inhaled, causing his nuns to step back, but the not-Russian moved closer to Agnetha-Nashiko. "I'm fond of Hobnobs, too," he said. "Do you prefer the milk chocolate or the dark?"

    Her smiling face froze. "Wakaranai desu," she said.

    "Oh, I think you do. Coco?"

    "My name isn't—"

    "Relevant in the least. Make yourself useful and get Miss Nashiko's shoe, will you?" He nodded at the nuns, who took charge of the snarling ABBA impersonators. "And be very careful with it—if it self-destructs, all of our superiors will have our various guts for garters . . . supposing there would be enough left to do the job."

  4. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Yeah, I prefer to improvise, too, but the moderator asked for suggestions so I went for it 🙂

    Nice, Judy! Was that the Corgi that used to bite everyone?

    Thanks, Alaina – they are excellent efforts, aren't they?

    Hi Sarah – OK, you win!

    Hi Pari
    They are all a lot of fun, aren't they? I can't wait to see what they come up with for their Debut Dagger entries!

  5. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    ‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

    Sorry I missed this. Worked at it a bit, though, because I’d actually seen those nuns from St. Barbara’s crawling through the small door in the Tom Gate oaks. They were trying to catch up with some band that had ruined the communion service. The Russian guy, I don’t know. He was back in St. Barbara’s tower holding a bunch of cameras. . . . don’t know what he was doing there or how any of them got on over to Harrods.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Sorry to be so slow getting back to you. Had the lurgy this weekend. Must be allergic to London!

    Think I understand all the words you've written, but not necessarily in that order – could just be my head is still full of cotton wool 🙂

  7. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Same here. I probably wrote it during a temporal lobe seizure. I do that now and then.

    Hope you feel better. Take it easy.

    xxxxx R

Comments are closed.