Charlie spark villain.., p.11
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.11

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  A mêlée erupted with bottles and plates of food flying through the air as the lackeys, fired with Dutch courage, pummelled the villains who guffawed loudly as they flicked them away like shop-floor dummies.

  While those lower on the social scale were enjoying themselves in this fashion, just two floors above them, their social superiors were amusing themselves with other diversions, their vicious tongues waggling and their foxing eyes scheming as many a reputation was trampled in the dirt. Unlike the combatants in the cellars below who could see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, the glitterati were stabbing their rivals in the back as they smiled to them across the room.

  One of the persona non grata was Simon Cadwaller skulking two floors below, witnessing events in the cellars and cowering aghast behind a wine barrel.

  Chapter 31

  Antoinette Casts A Slur

  Meanwhile, at the blackjack table, in the interlude, Spark took Sir Harry aside.

  "Are you seriously going to take them on ?” he whispered. “Can’t we just take the winnings and...”

  "Walk away ? Or do a runner – that’s more your style, isn’t it ?" said Sir Harry offendedly as he lit a cigar. "Listen. Here we are and here we stay. We’re guests. And thanks to your handiwork, they're putting us to the test. There’s nothing worse to them than an outsider mouthing off and not playing by the rules. So, we're having to jump through the hoops. I've seen it all before."

  "And what happens if you lose ?" murmured Spark, looking confused.

  "The night is yet a pup, old boy and many’s the time in Brixton or Parkhurst when I dreamed of making so much money. But if we don’t play along, chances are we could end up with nothing. Yet – if I lose, we still have what we came for....don't we ?"

  Spark agreed they had to stay the course and was against cutting and running. But the quarter million had fired the demon greed in him. Their unwritten code forbade surrendering so much Bank of England promissory for the sake of playing games with Lord Whatsisface. With difficulty, he masked his annoyance. However, on glancing across the table, he recalled something earlier that had caught his attention.

  During Lord Loathbery's speech, while Spark had stolen glimpses of Antoinette’s jewels, for a split second, their eyes had met. This had aroused her vanity as she’d assumed he was attracted to her when in fact, he was admiring her jewels. And while it was his second nature to go on the prowl, the quickest way to pocket the gems was to get to know her. Yet, there was no denying she was a challenge. He imagined what she looked like beneath the layers of pomade. There was also Cadwaller who would obliterate any rival. Yet, husband and wife had had a tiff. Whether their relations were terminal or not, was anyone’s guess. But if the time arrived when Mrs Cad gave her spouse the imprint of a size nine boot, Spark would be ready and waiting.

  Meanwhile, the contest was about to start. A croupier gave Sir Harry a pile of red and onyx chips. Each of the red chips were two hundred thousand pounds ; an onyx chip was a million. As he clicked them about in his hand, he thought of his years in the government’s country clubs, for the cost of netting a fiftieth or a hundredth of one of these pieces of wood he was holding – it was as if a joke had been played on him which was surreal and tragic. He would have his revenge by making them pay until they were stripped bare.

  The first contest was poker. A new pack of cards was opened. Antoinette grabbed the deck without asking and dealt the hand in a non-nonsense fashion. The spectators around the table were hushed, especially the duchesses and heiresses who tittered like schoolgirls whenever Sir Harry winked at them or waved in their direction.

  Carefully, he inspected his cards with only the suits on the top corner exposed. He’d been dealt rubbish of little value but was pushed into betting half a million and called for two new cards. Antoinette dealt herself one card which made him suspect she had something worth playing. Then she added another red chip to the pot and stared fixedly.

  Standing to her right, Charlie Spark coughed violently as if he'd swallowed a gherkin sideways to signal that Antoinette held three of a kind or a straight. At that point, Sir Harry scanned his cards, calmly put them down then rummaged in his pocket for his pipe and matches. All the while, she waited for him to declare his hand by drumming her fingers on the table.

  "Calms me down at the wicket, y'see," he mumbled as he stuffed his pipe full of black cherry tobacco. After blasting a match into life, he replaced the box in his pocket with complete unconcern then gathered up his cards, glanced at them for a third time and throwing a red chip into the pot, said "Alright – I’ll call." Then he turned his cards face up : he had three kings, an ace and a seven of hearts.

  "That's unbelievable," shrieked Antoinette, her eyes staring wildly at Sir Harry's cards spread out in front of him.

  "Is something the matter, my dear ?" asked her father, more as an appeal to the crowd of on-lookers than to his daughter.

  "Well, it's just that….I've got two kings – how can it possibly be ?" and so saying she laid her cards face-up on the green baize table, one by one and directly facing Sir Harry's cards.

  To the crowd of spectators, it was later agreed that the old gamester was slightly discomfited, even replacing his smouldering pipe in his pocket.

  "Extraordinary," he gasped. "It was a new pack, wasn't it ? How odd."

  "Of course…how odd," agreed the guests around them. They’d all seen the pack opened in front of them yet somehow this quirk of fortune had up-ended the game. They talked it over amongst themselves in the same way that football supporters sometimes argue that referees need seeing-eye dogs.

  Both Helmut Schwager and Jean Pierre Bulot were certain there was a simple explanation for these ‘interesting’ cards. Whatever the reason, if they were to dine that evening (and ten courses would easily take them until midnight), Bulot said that the game “must move very fast like ze tayjayvay…”

  "We'll just have to play again, I'm afraid," said Sir Harry, removing the pipe which was burning a hole in his pocket. The chips were returned either way and another unopened pack of cards was thrown on the table. Antoinette studied the seal to see that it wasn't broken.

  "May I spare your pretty little hands by dealing this time ?" he asked, while stoking the embers in his pipe. "Used to pass the evenings like this in Darjeeling in the old days," he said while playing the part of a boring windbag.

  The new packet of cards was ripped open and he shuffled the deck fifteen different ways. "Gurkhas could never get the hang of the game . Had to play it with all the fat old maharajas instead. Well, there we are."

  His adversary said nothing when the cards were dealt but even Spark could see how racked with suspicion she was.

  Antoinette pondered the muddle she was now holding and asked for four new cards. Sir Harry obliged and took two for himself then threw a red chip into the centre of the table.

  Her brow tensed in concentration. Suddenly, it was calmly composed. She stared briefly at Sir Harry then threw two chips across to the centre.

  "I'll chance a second chip, I dare say," he said and threw one more into the pot. "Let's see what you've got," he said, then spread all his cards out on the table.

  At first, her mouth was open but speechless as her face turned red and was convulsed in anger. She snatched up his cards from the table, threw them back in his face and said : "You’ve been cheating. I knew it, I knew it."

  At the same moment, the baronet's reply was lost to the wind as the French doors flew open, as if a gale had blown in, causing all of the candles to go out.

  Piers Loathbery, his girlfriend Amanda and their entourage burst into the gaming room like a hoard of locusts, ready to decimate everything in sight.

  Chapter 32

  Outfoxed

  Those lackeys who were still able to stand, ran panic-stricken, backwards and forwards, carrying bags and coats, serving champagne and popping open magnums and jeroboams as if it were the cannon accompaniment to the 1812 Overture. At the gamin
g table, the guests were startled by the whirlwind of activity which distracted their attention from Sir Harry's reply.

  Out of the shadows, stepped Lord Loathbery demanding an end to the disturbance but no-one took any notice.

  In the background, Antoinette was only part of the cacophony and uproar in the room : Piers and his father were in a slanging match ; the string ensemble changed from Handel to jazz ; the lackeys from the cellars tumbled onto the scene and were draining the dregs from the bottles ; others were collapsing and stumbling everywhere with trays of glasses and bottles smashing across the floor ; one of Piers' artist friends was giving some sort of gymnastic performance ; the duchesses were agog with the spectacle and squealing in fright ; some of the French croupiers were threatening to storm out ; Jean Pierre Bulot was shaking his fist at them in a gabbling French monologue ; outside the dogs were yapping at the commotion inside the house and all of the chauffeurs and servants were peering in through the windows, surveying the goings-on, like visitors to Bedlam.

  While all of this went on, Sir Harry and Charlie Spark waited for the storm to subside by calmly staring into space as if nothing had happened.

  Across from them, Cadwaller had just returned from the cellars. He was looking for Lord Loathbery when suddenly, he was grabbed by his wife who began yelling in his ear about the new pack of cards and its five kings.

  Every so often, the Cad nodded agreement with what she said while staring at the culprits with a demented half smile. Spark retained his usual apathy and was plotting his campaign against the Loathbery battlements. He thought nothing of Antoinette’s position or her father’s reputation – all he wanted was her sapphires and he was determined to have them, no matter what Sir Harry thought about it.

  As for that gentleman himself, he’d relit his pipe, relaxed back in his chair, whiffed a cloud of smoke and began shuffling the cards once more.

  After a quarter of an hour, the lackeys had kicked out the wilder elements of Piers's group to restore order, after which the gaming tables resumed business. The broken glass was swept up, the windows opened to clear the air, new trays of champagne served and the ensemble returned to Handel.

  In a trice, Lord Loathbery steamed back to the poker table with renewed vigour. He positioned himself at his daughter's side, scrutinised Spark standing nearby, prodded the haemorrhoid on the end of his nose, then picked up a poker chip and carefully inspected it.

  "Before we continue, I'm sure my daughter was mistaken by her last ill-considered remark. Weren't you, my dear ?"

  The noble peer glared hell fire at her.

  "But father, I could have sworn..." she whimpered.

  "Of course, you were mistaken. Now let the game resume as before. I'm very interested in seeing the outcome," declared Loathbery.

  "But you don't know about the..." began Cadwaller and before he could describe what he’d seen downstairs, Lord Loathbery silenced him with a “Sshh,” and a scowl. For the moment, the Cad bit his tongue, grit his teeth and looked up beseechingly at the chandelier tinkling in the breeze.

  Sir Harry and Antoinette decided to play the hand for a third and final time before moving on to one of the other tables. A new deck of cards was sliced open, shuffled mechanically by Antoinette and dealt.

  This time, Harry knew he was in the full glare of the Loathbery spotlights : he couldn't afford to take any chances when all eyes were fixed on his every movement. So, he let the cards take their own course and didn’t draw on those which were up his sleeve, in his lapel, in his side pocket and in ten other places – at least for the time being.

  After pondering the situation in a cloud of pipe smoke, he chanced the exchange of two cards to play two pairs of eights and tens and ended with nothing of value.

  Sensing her chance, Antoinette sprang like a lioness, threw down three jacks and clapped her hands with glee as she collected two million pounds of chips from the pot. Spark sighed like a set of bellows.

  Next, they decided to move to the dice table. Near the front windows, the evening air was still : Sir Harry's face was red and glistening with perspiration as he smoothed the ends of his trim white moustache. Charging into the fray, he clicked the dice in his hand, this way and that and shot them with the force of a howitzer against the board. Antoinette was astounded at his luck in throwing two sixes.

  "You're throwing them too hard, that's against the rules, you simply cannot do that .." she protested but didn’t accuse him of cheating. At her side, her father kept his counsel.

  Before long, Sir Harry's position deepened as he frittered away all but his last five hundred thousand pounds after several calamitous turns of the dice. Next to him, the engine grease on Spark's face began to shine with sweat as he gnawed at his blackened fingernails.

  For the next hour, the contest dragged on, through a round of backgammon, a rubber of whist and finally at the roulette wheel. By that time, Antoinette was beginning to flag despite amassing eight million pounds in a welter of appeals and protests to all and sundry.

  Sir Harry's fortunes had fared no better since the dice table and had only risen to subside later on, so that he faced the end with his last two million pounds resting on two chips.

  To him, her ‘good luck’ was nothing of the sort – she got what she wanted and won all the time by screaming it out of everyone. (At Monte Carlo, the croupiers literally dived for cover when she walked through the door ; it wasn’t that she was a skilful player ; she whined non-stop hour after hour.) However, this had no effect on Sir Harry as he found it easy to drift off into daydreams of the cricket pitch. But even the worst-behaved players must surface for air some time and Antoinette was no exception.

  "Oh dair, oh dair. Such appalling luck I've had this evening," was her lament. "I've never experienced such confounding distractions from the very start – first, there were too many new cards in unopened packs with chips going missing and then being found and the dice at war against me. Well, roulette is my forte."

  Sir Harry nodded away, pipe in hand, occasionally adding "You don't say," for good measure but hardly knowing what the conversation was about.

  "I must have a glass of champagne or I'll simply melt, Daddy..." wailed Antoinette as the brocade trailed off to seek refreshment, followed by Spark's eyes which in turn were observed by the smouldering Cadwaller.

  In the gallery surrounding the table, almost all of the guests including Jean Pierre Bulot decided they needed a drink if they weren't to collapse under the torrent of appeals and abuse. All of them trouped off to worry the lackeys who were pretending they could open champagne bottles without popping their eyes out or showering the walls and ceiling with the stuff. Lord Loathbery had been button-holed by Helmut Schwager. Simon Cadwaller looked out to the front lawn at the orange and rust-brown mini.

  At the interval for tea, with three wickets off seven overs, the baronet decided he had no choice but to liven up the contest. With Spark standing in front of him, he felt around in his coat pocket. While the croupier was getting out some aspirin to calm his nerves, Sir Harry slipped a small ivory ball in a slot on the wheel and extracted the wooden roulette ball which he hid underneath some felt at the edge of the table. No-one noticed this. Sipping his champagne, he turned about and calmly looked around the room as if nothing had happened.

  In an undertone, Charles mused on the situation : "She's a handful, no mistake and she don't half go on, does she ?"

  Sir Harry stared wide-eyed at him and said in exasperation: " 'Go on’ ? Listen old boy, she ‘goes on’ enough to make the wallpaper curl."

  By this time, everyone was thoroughly hazed by the cheap champagne which the lackeys had substituted for the real stuff earlier in the evening. Noticing that everyone was flagging and close to starvation, Lord Loathbery deserted Schwager in mid-sentence and roused the croupier to get on with the last and final game.

  Antoinette was persuaded to return to the roulette wheel, close enough to scream in the croupier's ear, in case he missed
something. She'd decided to play a system and was ready to note the sequence of numbers in a small notepad. Her father stood on the opposite side of the table, near Sir Harry and Spark who suspected that the exits were covered.

  "Mesdames et messieurs, fete vos jeux," droned the croupier from Paris in a pained accent. With a swift twirl of the wheel and a quick sideways tip, the ball was set rolling.

  “Faites le jeu, faites le jeu, messieurs,” intoned the croupier over and over, straightening his cuffs and twisting his cufflinks as if they were bolts on his wrist then confronted by a scowl from the brocade, he quickly added “...et mesdames. Faites le jeu, messieurs et mesdames.”

  Many in the crowd fiddled nervously until the last possible moment when Sir Harry threw a million pound onyx chip on red at odds of two to one with his last remaining chip plonked precariously on a transversale or three numbered bet. At this, Antoinette seemed to panic for an instant which was her usual style but recovering her composure, placed a million pounds on Manque (the numbers ranging between one and eighteen) together with a second million on black and another million on a douzaine (a line of twelve numbers).

  Everyone (except Sir Harry and Charlie Spark) agreed this was the winning combination and did likewise.

  Antoinette only needed two million more to win the match and had decided that all possible sequences were covered : there was absolutely no chance of Sir Harry being able to go any further.

  "Ne rien va plus," commanded the croupier as the ball swished around the edge of the wheel. Suddenly, the wheel itself came to an abrupt halt. This caused the ball to cease its dizzy twirling orbit and to go bumping over several numbers until it tumbled into the final slot which appeared to be black (although most of the guests were so addled, they couldn’t say what it was). But just when the croupier opened his mouth, ready to call the winning number, the ball somehow ran up the edge of the wheel, bumped and then tumbled into the adjacent slot where it finally decided to rest.

 
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