Charlie spark villain.., p.13
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.13

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  Fire and fury possessed him as he paced up and down while jerking his head and shaking his fists. A social fiasco would end with the Loathberys as upper class pariahs unless something was done to restore the situation ; Lord Loathbery wouldn’t listen to him but the Manor House had been infiltrated – the mere sight of that effluvient zombie – Spark – spoke volumes ; then there was a group of the strangest types arriving at the front drive and how they’d gone to the cellars for some sort of primitive knees-up. And to cap it all, that fat old fellow with the snowy whiskers and high blood pressure had tried to disable the croupier’s brake on the roulette wheel.

  In short, the Cad's venom for Spark, Sir Harry and their entire party was of an animal nature and he wanted to shoot them or be shot of them as soon as possible. It was imperative to find out why they were there and expose them. By this time, Antoinette had recovered her senses and was sitting upright, listening to her husband with a look of distraction as she wiped the iced water from her face – something in the room was a bit whiffy.

  Meanwhile, in the gaming room, Charlie Spark had been wandering aimlessly, looking for the nearest brandy-vat. After some dithering, he turned around and came face to face with Antoinette Loathbery.

  With a crazed smile, she demanded that he join her for dinner, then grabbed his arm and dragged him in the direction of the dining hall.

  This was too much for Spark – or for any man. Yet, the answer was obvious – he had entranced her – and it wasn’t surprising she’d forgotten her husband – who wouldn’t ?

  He was dragged through the corridors, past the reproduction suits of armour and the portraits of Lord Loathbery's reconstituted ancestors until they reached the dining hall where they took their seats at the end of the high table.

  Charlie looked around him : the room was vast enough to accommodate two hundred people, all the size of Sir Harry ; from the ceiling hung a chandelier afire with light ; candelabras sat on each of the tables. As the guests made their entry, the waiters floated like fireflies, lighting the candles and spreading the soft glow of light throughout the room. On the upper walls was a frieze in white stucco of life in Tudor times – gentry hunting boar ; villagers being oppressed ; someone on a ducking stool ; a woman wearing a scold’s bridle : not a lot had changed.

  Everyone waited for Lord Loathbery’s entry until he appeared, refreshed and dressed in a rusty dinner jacket. His youngest daughter, Marie rushed in after him. She was the reason for the celebrations and sat next to her father. Piers Loathbery sat at the opposite end of the room, looking flustered. As Spark's weather eye darted about the hall, Simon Cadwaller was nowhere to be seen.

  Through the rows of tables, trolleys of food edged their way down the aisles, serving shoulder of mutton or mad roast beef or cordon bleu. There was Normandie lobster (a few days old due to the Jersey blockade), wild pheasant full of shot, salmon and trout farmed in Scotland and a smorgasbord which would have incensed gourmands and food hacks alike.

  Across the room, the clatter of cutlery grew louder. Everywhere, soup was dribbled down dress and shirt fronts ; reddened faces shone with grease as they gnawed at grilled and roast meat torn off the bone ; everyone gulped down pints of claret to wash away the taste of the food. By the time the dessert had arrived, some of the guests were reeling at the sight of burnt custard and spotted dick, after the waves of cheap brandy.

  Charlie Spark had been stumped by the multiple sets of napkins, plates, glasses, spoons, knives and forks and used his fish knife to butter his bread, his sorbet spoon to add a dab of mustard and was stabbing and hacking away at a bloody piece of filet claiming that it was still alive. As he was used to drinking pints, he kept topping up his wine glass. Beside him, Antoinette Loathbery gaped in horror, then sniggered uncontrollably for ten minutes when he wiped some mustard from his dessert spoon and used it to stir the sauce pot. She was agog at the way he loaded the food onto his fork and shovelled it into his mouth and laughed herself silly, just as she did at the yokels on her father's estates.

  Spark portrayed himself as an ecologist – of sorts – he was in the 'recycling' business. He'd made his fortune buying and selling anything at all which was in demand (like your sapphire necklace, he thought).

  Antoinette’s fit of hysterics soon ended and just as suddenly, she became moody and distant. Her face was flushed and her cheeks were red. There was something threatening about her – the way her eyebrows emphasised her arrogance – to Spark, she looked stubborn and obstinate and used to getting her own way. And her perfume was definitely off.

  As the fourth or fifth courses were served, she tapped his arm and handed him a note under the table, before making her exit. Without showing the least interest, he glanced at the paper which read : "3rd Floor east wing, door at end of corridor, 30 minutes" and a wave of expectation ran through him – could he escape from her in one piece and also pocket the sapphire bracelet and necklace without her knowing ?

  Chapter 35

  Sir Harry Is Besieged

  On the opposite side of the dining hall, near a fake Rubens depicting goddesses attacked by gorgons, Sir Harry had been cornered by some rich, old widows and heiresses. Each of them wore a variety of precious stones. And while these had naturally captivated him, he was in dire need of rescue.

  For over half an hour, they’d been harangued by a dour, old bat called Lady Birch who was embarrassingly drunk and kept repeating herself. They’d suffered her politely, out of respect for her wealth – not because they liked her. Sir Harry could only nod vacantly and grimace. He correctly surmised that her husband had endured years of wedded purgatory. In vain, he tried to think of some way of escape, just as she got onto her hobbyhorse.

  "D'you know ay'm a magistrate ? Oh, have I said that before ? Well, we on the bench think the system's too soft on 'em by far. In our court – we lock 'em all up. And if I had my way, the cat o'nine tails would have been brought back years ago. But all those weak-livered politicians. None of 'em have got the backbone of a slug. If I was running the country, I'd string up all those nasty villains and hang the lot of them. I see what goes on. These ‘fellows’ are before my court, day in, day out. They're not all murderers but many of them definitely have a murderous instinct and a flogging would do 'em the world o'good. It needs to be flayed out of them, y'see ... 's in their blood, there's nothing one can do about it exzept teach them respect for prop'ty and their betters – the only things they understood in the old days, were the rope and the lash. In those days, they didn't have social enquiry reports and other soft-soapin'. They burned 'em at the stake – that was the right idea. Put 'em on the rack. Hang, draw and quarter the lot of them. Then they wouldn't re-offend, would they ? Ha ha, would they ? Now, what say you, Sir Harry ? Sounds like good advice, doesn't it, ha ha. Because, I know, you see, I'm a mag'strate."

  "Gawd struth. Pass the ammunition," he thought, as he made an almost impossible attempt to look seriously concerned when the lady was proposing the disembowelment of recidivists such as Spark, King and all of them.

  A softly-spoken, old maid spoke up. “Lady Birch, I do think you’re being rather harsh. Do you know that the vast majority of these people are from desperately poor backgrounds and should be treated charitably. Punishment, no matter how terrible, never achieves anything. They should be rehabilitated back into society to stop them re-offending. And we can only do that if the government spends more money on such programmes.”

  This caused the magistrate to laugh hysterically while pointing at the speaker and yelling, “You’re a fool, Sarah Bottomley. You’ve been taken in by them. Har har har har ..” and so on.

  Feeling semi-comatose, Sir Harry was at last joined by Helmut Schwager who had observed his signals from across the room.

  He made his apologies to Lady Birch and her cronies then staggered down the corridor to a room furnished with green leather chairs and a billiards table. Schwager offered Sir Harry a Vulcano Fuego cigar and they sat near the roaring fire despite it being
mid July.

  "Ach, Sir Harry, you vish to discuss our business venture perhaps ? We do not need to wait for Herr Loathbery. This is something which we should consider for our benefit, ja ? Especially as the proposition I wished to raise concerns uh.. a new situation for you – you know Africa so well – maybe it is a good opportunity."

  Schwager whiffed and puffed on his cigar, awaiting the verdict.

  At the same moment, a short, odd-looking figure stepped through the doorway and from what Harry recalled in the newspapers, he thought it looked exactly like the infamous Lord Ruffer who in turn noticed Schwager and headed over to them.

  "We will talk of this subject again Sir Harry but please think about it..."

  In the City, Lord Ruffer was recognised as a dynamo of boundless energy, standing five feet two inches, always conducting business on the run and never still for a moment. Sir Harry knew all about Ruffer’s history : originally, the dynamo had been a lowly estate agent and later became a property developer in the sixties. After amassing his fortune, he'd set up a charitable foundation and while keeping the politicians on side with copious party donations, (as did Loathbery), he’d weaselled himself a life peerage. He was Chairman of the Society for the Restoration of the Workhouse and of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Outhouses. He was a charmer with the ladies which had helped him to decimate many of the ancient parts of the City which had survived until then. He was a slave to some sort of demolition mania, always threatening to level a row of Georgian terraces to make way for a high rise block designed by the notorious Van Spentit.

  Schwager greeted Ruffer with open arms. To him, this was a double bonus – both he and his escargot partner wanted to use Sir Harry to do their bidding. Like manna from heaven, another man of straw had just descended on them which would double the continentals’ chances of breaching the Loathbery stronghold.

  After the introductions, Ruffer got straight to the point : what were they doing with their property portfolios ? Were they were thinking of any disposals, exchanges, conversions or redesigns or would they consider a joint project ?

  Schwager who pretended to fawn to the gentry – and life peers – hinted that he could well be interested but wanted to speak to Lord Loathbery about it.

  The conversation went on with the German thinking that Ruffer would aid his ingratiation with Lord Loathbery and patiently, he and Sir Harry feigned interest in Ruffer's stories of his latest plans.

  After what seemed like an age, Ruffer ceased talking when Sir Harry’s snoring was drowning out his voice. Schwager roused him and said : "You'd better get some rest, Sir Harry."

  "Just had my eyes closed for a short while, old boy," came the reply. "I've had a rather busy day. Yes, let's chat about it all tomorrow in the open air, away from all of this…"

  As soon as he’d said goodnight and toddled off, Lord Ruffer resumed his ravings ; Schwager hinted that one or two buildings in Berlin and Cologne might be re-developed, using a design by the German architect, Groetestkius. “Tell me more,” said Ruffer, lapping it up madly.

  Chapter 36

  Charlie Spark Is Surprised

  "Nice bit of treacle tart," said Charles as he ran into Sir Harry in the corridor.

  "Too much sauce for my liking," was the bristling reply. "Anyway, I haven't finished with you yet. Precisely what were you trying to achieve at the blackjack table earlier on ? I've already told you – just watch it. If you wreck this plan, after all of the work I've put into it...if that infernal husband of hers doesn't come after you, then we will....Comprendo ?"

  He stopped short and glared at the younger villain. "I don't want anything else to alarm them. Already they suspect something, I'm certain of it. And what did Lord Loathbery’s daughter want ? I hope you were careful about what you said to her. What did she say ? Well ?”

  “Nothing at all – I think she fancies me. Who wouldn’t, compared to her goon of a husband ?”

  “Steer clear of them – they’re trouble. Do you know that they were cheating all the way through ? I was astounded that you couldn’t see that. Her husband is a bigger card-sharp than both of us together. And after all of their antics, anyone in their right mind would keep well away from them. You’d better understand me on this – but I'm too tired to go into it, after all of that performance earlier on….just get some rest, we’ll need it for the hunt tomorrow."

  Spark rehearsed his look of remorse which sometimes got him a lighter sentence.

  "P'raps you're right. I shouldn't have avoided the blackjack table – it was dodgy from the start but I didn't see that till I was up to my neck. Well, anyway, I've got to get some sleep (yawn). We'll need to be ready for tomorrow."

  And giving another fake yawn, he thought of his appointment on the third floor, a short while later.

  A lackey gave them the keys to their rooms and said that the hunt would start at half past eight. As they walked down the corridor, Spark said he couldn’t make any promises about how he’d go at riding to hounds the next day.

  "Nonsense," snorted Sir Harry."There's nothing to it, it's just a free for all. After you get on your horse, just lead him in the general direction where everyone else is going and take your time – only, make sure you let the blighter know who's master."

  By this time, they'd reached another long corridor in the east wing and seemed to be wandering endlessly through countless turnings and stairwells. Eventually, they located their rooms which were across the corridor from each other.

  "Dear me, what a lark," groaned Sir Harry as he removed his coat and threw it aside. "I'll see you at breakfast. A quarter to eight sharp."

  And within the space of a few minutes, he was stretched out on a chesterfield he'd mistaken for a bed and was snoring like a lorry changing gears.

  "He'll need a bit of galloping tomorrow to straighten out his back after lying on that thing all night," grinned Charlie Spark to himself.

  Having left Sir Harry like a beached whale, he went to his own room across the corridor and locked the door. Five minutes later, he quietly slipped the lock and tip toed out in the direction of where he thought Antoinette's rooms were located.

  As he shuffled along, he went down various turnings and stairs, to reach the third floor by the least conspicuous route and without bumping into some of the guests who were still crawling around the corridors.

  As he walked, he thought about the day's events, Sir Harry's plan and at what point he would spring his surprise double-deal on the others. Even so, he had to admit that the old fellow certainly knew his way around a casino table and it didn't much matter what was being played – he could still wring the money out of their wallets one way or another.

  Soon the corridors and stairwells were empty and silent. Fortunately, Antoinette had given him directions before leaving him and in a short time, he located the third floor and a sumptuous corridor, flanked on either side with Roman busts. All of them stared after him and with their unseeing eyes, asked "What are you after, as if we didn’t know ?"

  At long last, he was at the end of the corridor in front of an oak panelled door at the side of which stood a bowl of blue carnations on a stand. Yes, it had to be her apartments – no-one else would keep flowers at the entrance to their room. He picked one, placed it in his buttonhole, took a deep breath and with a shiver running down his spine, knocked gently at the door.

  A distant, muffled voice from within, perhaps somewhat high-pitched, faintly said "Entré."

  He turned the handle, opened the door and closed it behind him.

  Inside, the room was in darkness. A thin stream of light fell a few feet in front of him from the outside corridor across a large Persian carpet. The rest of the room was pitch black and he could see only one or two feet in front of him. There was no proper perspective to be gained and he imagined the room to be spacious in its dimensions however there was no indication in the darkness where exactly the furniture was or if there were any windows.

  He stood stoc
k still and whispered : "Where are you ?"

  A woman's voice returned, in a whisper : "Over here."

  He advanced a few paces to his right and said softly : "I can't see you. Where are you ?"

  Once more the voice replied : "Here….I'm over here."

  He took another step in the direction of the voice and said in a whisper : "Where ?" with arms outstretched, feeling for anything in his way.

  Just at that moment, there was a discernable 'click', the lights flashed on, blinding him momentarily and on opening his eyes, he saw before him, grinning maliciously, the triumphant Cadwaller.

  "Ahhh, there you are," said Spark with a silly smile, more to himself than to the persons in the bedroom for there were several of them.

  The Cad was in the company of two of his banker friends from the City – a prop forward and a scrum half who were experts in pounding their opponents on Saturday afternoon rugby matches. For the rest of the time, they were probably in the thick of pub punch-ups, aside from being maniacs in the gymnasium and on the trading floor.

  Across the room, in the middle of an enormous bed, sat Antoinette Loathbery, calmly filing her nails and smirking.

  Cadwaller was the first to speak.

  "So. You thought you'd pay us a little visit, did you ? How thoughtful. Oh, by the way, you mustn't mind her – she’s always doing this sort of thing but we have an understanding between us, you see and unfortunately you'll have to pay for your indiscretion, you disgustingly repulsive oik."

  And then moving slowly forward, flanked by the swells on either side, he shouted : "But before we set to work, we want to know all about you. Who are you really ? What are you doing here ?.....Well ? Are you going to tell us ?.....Nothing to say, eh ? Alright, then…." said the Cad to his comrades, "Come on, let's give him a damned good thrashing," as Antoinette clapped her hands and giggled dementedly.

  There was no time for Charlie Spark to reach the door and whatever faults he had, cowardice wasn't one of them even if he later regretted a hammering for his bravado. All hands on Spark's ship were going down fighting and he planted a cracking blow to the Cad's right eye, after which he was seized by the two rugger types. Cadwaller then began punching him in the stomach while the other two held him against the wall. There was a scrum of arms and legs flying in all directions and Charlie, after being viciously beaten from both sides, thrust his elbow into the ribs of the scrum-half who recoiled, groaning onto the floor.

 
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