Charlie spark villain.., p.12
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.12

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  The croupier stood stock rigid and waited a few seconds in case the ball changed its mind again then announced : "Vignt trois. Impair et Passe. Rouge."

  While saying this, he rocked his head from side to side (in the way that television presenters waggle their heads on-screen) and as though something ticklish had slipped down his collar.

  The crowd was collectively stunned like the proverbial mullet : Antoinette was, for the moment anyway, speechless and stared at the ball, trying to decide if she really had seen it do a highland fling or not.

  Sir Harry (who had sat down at the table as his legs were aching) gave a charmed smile in the direction of the ladies. With a look of absolute wonder, he watched as his final chips were rescued from the abyss and with the impassioned spirit of a fast bowler, he sensed the wicket was finally turning in his favour.

  Evidently, no-one had believed what they’d seen or imagined it didn’t happen or perhaps thought they were too drunk to have actually seen it. Antoinette's face betrayed her anxiety as she doodled stickmen hanging from scaffolds in her notepad : the only possible explanation she could come up with, was that she was now so drunk, she must have been hallucinating, the thought of which caused her to break out in a nervous sweat. And deciding to go the whole hog, she drained off her tenth glass of champagne like a guardsman on a roll and roared for another. Spark noticed she was swaying in her chair.

  The game wore on, the overhead lamp beating down on them like an oppressive, relentless sun. Most of the guests at the other tables had stopped playing and crowded about the roulette wheel. It was plain to see how eager they were to witness the reputation of the invidious one, shrivel away at the hands of an amateur. Human nature enjoys seeing the wealthy and powerful brought low by adversity and although they were Lord Loathbery's guests, they were only too delighted to see his daughter brought down a peg or three.

  Both Sir Harry and Antoinette were fired on by the risk of losing : one of them was in pursuit while the other fought a rearguard action ; one would do anything to stop the other winning.

  Around and around the wheel was spun over and over, countless times and before long, the bookie had somehow turned the tables on his plump adversary who was close to tears and seeing double.

  "It's impawsible," she moaned, rubbing her tired red eyes and smearing rouge and mascara together without realising it. "Oh father, I've had enough of this abominable game, I've had enough…I simply can't go on any more..." and hardly had the words escaped her than she fell face down in a plate of caviar and began snoring.

  From out of the crowd, Piers Loathbery pushed his way through with Amanda Teece behind him. He was ready for anything which could guarantee a half hour's amusement at whatever the price.

  "Go and have a rest," he said dismissively looking around at the guests at the table for support. "Simon. Do your duty and take her orf somewhere, the further the better, ye damned rascal, haw haw haw..."

  At this, Lord Loathbery's eyes turned up to the ceiling in desperation then fixed themselves in a glare at the new-comer.

  "I'll rescue the game for her, just see if I don't," he said giving the roulette wheel a twist and knocking on the table to attract the croupier's attention.

  For some moments, Lord Loathbery was so decimated by the affront, he could only grind his dentures back and forth with his eyes clamped shut and his fists clenched tightly by his side. Then he gradually recovered.

  "Ladies and gentlemen," he stammered in half-concealed rage, "I'm sure that our esteemed friend Sir Harry, will appreciate our distress at having to adjourn the contest until my daughter is feeling better."

  Loathbery turned almost beseechingly to his guest as though trying to get on the last bus home which was full up and Sir Harry was the conductor. But before the baronet could open his mouth, he was interrupted by Piers.

  "I say, father, that's extremely bad form. Not done....not done at all. The family honour is at stake here – isn’t that right ?" Piers appealed to the guests who were all secretly bemused with the exchange between father and son. Lord Loathbery could only stare in amazement at the insolence of the suggestion.

  "I will take the place of my dear lamented sister, Mr, uh (what's his name ?).." whispered Piers to Amanda Teece.

  "I haven't a clue..," she whispered back.

  "Well, on behalf of my sister, I shall continue the game until its conclusion – and regrettably your demise, ha ha," declared Piers to the ensemble.

  "Bravo, brav..." Jean Pierre Bulot was stopped in mid-stream as he caught sight of Lord Loathbery biting his handkerchief and ripping it.

  Without further discussion, the croupier again spun the wheel, set the ball rolling and called for bets to be placed. Sir Harry casually relit his pipe and coolly placed one million pounds on red with another million on Impair.

  "That's very interesting," observed Piers. "Hmm.. I'll soon right matters. I always use sequences, y'see, they never fail me," and he placed seven blue half million pound chips on various random numbers.

  Eighty pairs of eyeballs spun around and around and around together as the ball slowed to its descent. Some of the faces were searching, hoping, imploring – pathetically pleading for a win. Some, like Lord Loathbery, averted their gaze elsewhere (he was staring at the crossed sabres mounted on the wall).

  All at once, the ball had come to a rest, the wheel had barely stopped and with a waggle of his head the croupier cried : "Zero," which happened to be one of the numbers selected by Piers Loathbery. But almost as quickly, the croupier was saying : "Non. Quoi ? C'est impossible. Non, non, non..." as the roulette wheel began spinning again on its own with the ball jumping from one slot to the next and onward, further along the wheel. Then, amazingly, all at once, both the wheel and the ball decided to stop playing around and halted together simultaneously.

  The croupier, along with everyone else around the table, moved not a muscle for at least five seconds until he announced : "Numero cinq. Impair et Manque. Rouge..."

  A gasp of horror went up from the crowd and a moment of dazed incredulity was cut short by the discovery that Lord Loathbery had keeled over in a faint.

  From one look at him, Sir Harry could read Charlie Spark’s mind (which was trying to work out how the wheel and the ball had come to life by themselves.) Without saying anything, the humourless glance in response said : “Never mind.”

  "Well. That's the damnedest game of roulette I've ever played. So – I suppose that's it then. I believe our friend here has won the contest," announced the old Harrovian, Etonian, Carthusian, Wyckhamist and a few other top-drawer public schools from which he'd been hurriedly sent down.

  Straightaway, Charlie Spark gathered up the twelve million pounds of chips and with a look on his face which said that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, turned to his mentor and declared, "A right cracker, Sir Harry."

  But as soon as Lord Loathbery was sufficiently revived, he quickly reminded them of the original arrangement.

  "Although I was willing to limit your losses, I did not agree to pay you ten million pounds, if you won. One million was the sum mentioned."

  Piers Loathbery was almost speechless with resentment. "Father, I am epslutely appalled, appalled beyond measure, appalled at your miserliness. How can you do this ? The chap has won and is entitled to the pot."

  "Capital. Then you can pay for his winnings from your losses. They are your losses, after all, aren't they ?" demanded his father who felt shamed before all his guests but would suffer it if he could avoid paying more than what was originally agreed.

  "Alright, you old tightwad, I will. Here's three million and...."

  But he was cut short.

  "Ladies and gentlemen," ventured Sir Harry, "I’m most happy to accept the sum agreed with his Lordship. You know I once played a four hour rubber of whist with the Prime Minister of Botswana which was rather unfortunately postponed by a stampeding herd of antelopes careering over the front lawns of Government House – we had to call a
halt on that occasion too as it quite upset the drinks trolley at the time, haw haw. And you know, I will always remember.."

  "Good Lord. What's this ?" blurted out Cadwaller who had elbowed his way through the crowd of spectators and was examining the roulette wheel. "This isn't the roulette ball we were using – this one's ivory or enamel ." And with a sideways glance at Sir Harry and Charlie Spark, the Cad said : "Where on earth did this come from ? Marcel, what is the meaning of this ?"

  The croupier said he was mystified and hadn't noticed a wooden ball before the game but that a white ball was perfectly acceptable according to the rules.

  Cadwaller and the peer furiously disagreed with the croupier who was sacked on the spot, even though the casino had already closed. And as all previous bets were declared forfeited by the bank, a sudden panic erupted with all of the guests piling in to get their money back with Cadwaller beset from all sides, arguing and haggling about wagers said to have been made in good faith but which had either never been placed or were exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

  In the midst of the fracas, Sir Harry was humbled before Lord Loathbery as he relinquished his entire bankroll of ten and a half million pounds, amassed in three hours of ranting and fuming.

  Very suddenly, it dawned on him that he in turn, had been out-cheated and out-swindled. His reputation was now at stake, aside from the large pot of money he'd forfeited and he swore to recover it, one way or the other.

  Chapter 33

  The State Room

  Almost ten years earlier, Sir Harry had shared a cell in Norwich Prison with a retired butler who had once worked for the Loathberys. And during the long days of confinement, the butler had told him some entertaining stories about the Manor House.

  In exchange for some tobacco (which is coveted in prisons as a currency and a palliative), the butler sketched a plan of the Manor House for Sir Harry showing the location of the State Room and its vault.

  The very same plan had been traced in the dust by Sir Harry outside Lashem earlier that day. And while the guests were occupied that evening in the west wing, it gave Bob King a perfect opportunity to reconnoitre the east wing.

  The Scotsman had a clear memory of Sir Harry’s diagram and wanted to have first shot, on his own, at prising open the vault – if he could find it. The only information he had, was that it was located somewhere inside the State Room.

  If he did find it and get it open and if there was ready loot to be had, he decided that he’d cram his pockets, trousers, underwear and socks full of whatever was going and run away as quickly as his weightlifter’s legs could carry him. The others would have to look to themselves when his betrayal was discovered. Such were the fortunes of war – and villainy.

  As he crept about the corridors and stairwells of the east wing, all was silent. Having risen from the cellars like a ghoul from the depths, he tip-toed past some of the guests who were casualties of the casino and snoring loudly on the floor or in the corridors and stairways or so drunk they had simply become unconscious while trying to find their rooms.

  Several times he lost his way, going up stairs and down again or finding new ways back to where he’d started. During his tour, he was cursing the butler's map until at last, he found the door to the State Room Gallery marked with a brass plaque.

  He pressed his ear to the panelling and listened for any movement in the room for ten minutes. Nothing stirred within. Gently, he moved the handle to find that the door was locked. With some probing of his skeleton key, the latch gave up the argument and on clicking the lock back, he chortled to himself : "Theer's nae bin one to stawp me yet."

  In a trice, he’d closed the door behind him and was inside.

  The beam from his pencil-light shone around the furniture and walls to search out a table-lamp. As he fumbled about in the dark, he bumped into things and stubbed his toe but eventually, he found a light switch. Instantly, the room was illuminated and his eyes were dazzled but only for a second and long enough for him to jump out of his skin – he wasn't alone – on a chaise longue at the far end of the room, a man and a woman were fast asleep in each other's arms.

  Turning the light off, he shone his torch on them. They were both so unconscious and completely plastered that even if they’d been awake, they couldn’t have understood who he was or what he was doing there. He let out a sigh of relief, took a quick 'shoofty' around the room and tried to imagine where the vault was hidden. From the size of the room and its contents, it could only have been inside a wall.

  In the semi-darkness, his ratty eyes could make out almost everything around him. The light from the corridor around the doorframe was enough to dispense with using his torch. As a precaution, he decided to see if the couple really were awake and suffered agonies when his leg went to sleep as he crouched beside a desk for twenty minutes.

  When they didn't move, he padded backwards and forwards, examining the walls. When nothing was revealed, he looked at the Georgian fireplace. He noticed the grate : nothing had been burned there for years. It was an impressive construction with a marble coat of arms overhanging the mantelpiece and wide enough to roast a side of beef. After running his fingers over its cracks and crevices, he soon found a small lever beneath the unicorn’s horn on the coat of arms and pushed it downwards.

  This caused the entire fireplace, mantelpiece and hearth to draw itself and the Scotsman standing on it, to one side, exposing the iron face of the Loathbery vault. It was a Harlington Stephenson (Sheffield circa 1937) but strengthened with present-day timers and alarms. This one needed more than a tin-opener to get inside it. He'd blown open safes around the world but had never come across this one before and couldn't resist shining his torch along the cast iron nameplate which challenged him in the semi-darkness.

  From the three different clocks around the handle, he knew that the mechanism was on automatic time release : it could only be opened on a certain day and hour. There was no chance of breaking into it then and there and he knew he would have to wait.

  He traced the light around the edges of the vault door to assess the thickness of its walls and how many sticks of gelignite he'd need – no need to blow themselves up, along with the entire east wing, was there ? It wouldn’t be an easy job – he'd need to be careful with this one…

  After thinking it all through and deciding how best to tackle the beast, he pressed the switch on the unicorn again and the fireplace swung back to its original position.

  As soon as he’d done that, the latch on the door began to rattle. Someone was trying to get in. They had different keys and were finding the right one. He didn't know where to hide but dived under a banker’s desk in front of the French windows and their full length curtains. The desk was so broad that he could almost have hidden in one of its drawers.

  While he was squatting beneath the middle of the desk, he noticed next to him at the base of the curtains, a pair of large, muddied, lace-up boots, peeping out half uncovered. Whether someone occupied them, it was impossible to say. Perhaps Lord Loathbery kept his old workboots behind his desk. But if someone else was in the room when he’d found the vault, who were they and what were they doing there ?

  Tormented by this turn of events, he heard the Gallery door open and close and then the lights came on. A woman walked over to the front of the desk and stood there for a short while. Above his head, papers were shuffled. He guessed that the woman was in her twenties ; she was also wealthy, from the look of her designer-label shoes.

  Having seen what she wanted to see, the visitor slipped back across the room and out the door as if she'd never been there. Only a hint of French perfume lingered in the air after she'd gone.

  With the agility of a grouse pursued by poachers, Bob King scribbled down the facade of the vault, noting its measurements and probable thickness, then listened for a few seconds at the door to hear if anyone was in the corridor. In the silence outside, he slipped out unseen, locking up as he went.

  At the end of the corri
dor, he waited around the corner for half an hour or so until he heard the door of the State Room opening from the inside. A thin man with red hair and beard, crept his way down the corridor in his heavy boots. Instantly, Bob King recognised him as Richie Snaggs whose reputation as an enforcer for the criminal bosses in south London was well known.

  As he retraced his steps, Bob was seized with a blind panic. Exactly what was going on there ? Why was Snaggs at the Manor House and what was he doing in the State Room ? What was the connection ?

  Chapter 34

  Charlie Spark Receives An Invitation

  In the west wing, as the lackeys stumbled senselessly about, clearing away the wreckage of glasses and bottles, a sloshed waiter tripped over a rug, careered headlong, fell flat on his face in front of the guests then calmly picked himself up, dusted himself down, staggered across to a brass gong, bashed it several times and slurred out first call for dinner. A short time later after finding his way back to the kitchen, someone roared at him : "You clumsy dolt," as he was grabbed by the collar and thrown out the back door where he collided with a pile of rubbish bins and lay there until dawn.

  Meanwhile, at the thought of their lost millions, Spark wanted to get drunk and drain the nearest brandy barrel. Lord Loathbery was certainly a miser and for Charlie who had always been poor, he couldn’t understand why anyone with so much money, obtained pleasure in penny-pinching.

  His companion viewed matters philosophically and went in search of something to eat – his stomach was rumbling terribly. Their host was a disgrace, thought Sir Harry : it was close to midnight and dinner had only just been announced. Most of the guests were also ravenous but some were either too drunk or too tired to bother.

  In a nearby ante-room, a different scene was taking place : Simon Cadwaller was describing to his spouse (who was horizontal), everything of he'd seen in the cellars. As he spoke, he dabbed her forehead with ice water from a champagne bucket which, unknown to him, was used by one of the lapdogs sometime earlier.

 
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