Charlie spark villain.., p.19
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.19

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  By then, the rest of the audience had openly erupted into a wave of laughter which was unstoppable. Not only that but they began laughing at anything and everything, even themselves. For some strange reason, their voices had become transformed into what can only be described as high-pitched squeaks like the uppermost notes of a violin recording played backwards.

  All of this seemed even funnier to them and the laughing went on for over an hour until they gradually recovered their voices. Then someone discovered that the fizzy fruit punch which had been served by Sir Staynesford Loathbery at the orangerie bar and in the intermission, had been aerated with nitrous oxide rather than carbon dioxide and that their host had unwittingly caused them to lose their voices.

  Chapter 48

  Sir Harry Learns More

  After finding Charlie Spark and returning to the Manor House just before ten, Sir Harry doused his head under a cold water shower so that his voice didn't resemble a castrato mouse and then found his way to the State Room for his appointment with Lord Loathbery.

  When he eventually poked his head around the door, he saw his adversary sitting bolt upright in a high backed chair beside the fireplace and its Georgian marble hearth. Drinks and cigars were already laid out on a nearby table. Opposite Lord Loathbery sat Helmut Schwager, rattling away in German.

  "Ah, Sir Harry, here you are, punctual as ever – good of you to remember our engagement," said the peer, as he pointed to the decanters. "What happened to you earlier today ? I don't recall seeing you when we were being pursued by that rabble of psychopaths ? What became of you ?"

  "After the hunt ?" asked Sir Harry, fixing himself a whisky soda. "Oh, uh, well, it was late and actually, we'd arranged to have lunch…..had to meet up with my fellows, you see.....had the vichyssoise on the boil..."

  "Yes..." mused Loathbery, peering down the end of his nose. "Can't say I blame you, from what happened later. It took me a good two hours to scrub off the blasted muck they pelted at us – some of it's still stuck to me. And as for poor Antoinette. The girl's in a complete state. Her doctor thought she'd developed something nasty...turned out to be lumps of flour paste stuck to her….uh...her... Anyway, what a shower. What a shambles it all turned out to be. But I will not let some worthless anarchists think they've got the whip hand over me. No. Oh, no, no, no, no, no...."

  "Bravo, mein Herr," spluttered Schwager with glazed eyes, at the same time realising he was so drunk, he'd have to crawl on his hands and knees back to his room. Lord Loathbery ignored the applause and angrily chomped on his cigar.

  "Hm....Now then, Sir Harry – let's get down to business. My friend here tells me that you know the local 'customs' in Africa and the Near East, especially in political circles and government. You’ve ‘negotiated’ trade concessions in the past, so I hear – is that right ?"

  Sir Harry was unfazed : he’d done his homework and knew his opponent and understood exactly what Loathbery wanted. He’d hooked his fish and now he had to reel him in using all the skill and experience of his years of villainy.

  "Yes, quite right – I have a fairly wide knowledge of what goes on there – from having known the right people..."

  "I seee…" said the peer, impressed by the news. "That is interesting. You're probably aware that your invitation here was no accident – we need someone like you to help us break into these new markets. Our wares are diverse, from saucepans to snowmobiles – but we also manufacture rocket launchers, cluster bombs, missiles and armoured tanks – and you would not believe the demand for them – even from opposing armies fighting the same war. There are so many presidential dictators, desperate to have them....and that creates a unique opportunity for expansion – as soon as their silly wars have ended, the flow of inward investment can then exploit the country's resources."

  "A double bonus ? But, er, how much do you have at your disposal for.."

  "Gifts ? Millions, of course. In any denomination, in any bank account, in any name, in any country. Because we're playing for billions – in fact – for unlimited sums. Yes....and tell me, Sir Harry, when you were in Nyasaland, did you ever meet President For Life Kimbalu ?"

  "Actually, I wasn't there very long – I got to know some of the local dignitaries," said Sir Harry as he sensed a welter of cross-questioning. "My postings were always fairly brief in each country – if you're a wholesaler selling perfume amongst other things, you.."

  "What ?" interjected Loathbery. "Did you say ...you were selling perfume?"

  "Yes, that's right. And in that part of the world, you don't bump into many people in the same line of business – and so I was always in and out of these places, then onto the next place but usually I was there long enough to get to know who controlled the er... local ‘market’ and the politicians or the police."

  "You saw all of that, selling perfume ?”

  “Not just perfume – everything.”

  “Well, I'm astounded…"

  "Everyone usually is. Ah, the times when I arrived in places like Sharjah or North Yemen with a crate of Eau de Poissonelle, the politicians’ wives clamouring for it…and then I'd be run out of town by an angry mob and escape by the skin of my teeth. But of course, there were other things I learned.." he said, glancing down at his whisky glass. "Official secrets….I’m sure you understand….sorry I can't tell you more..."

  "Now I see. Yes, yes....oho… How very fascinating. Well, well.." said the peer, concentrating his hypnotic stare. "And no doubt you're wondering what possible use you could be to us and what incentive we could offer you ? Put simply…we need inside information and if you were able, you could join us. Your fee could ultimately be quite substantial….depending on what you could achieve for us….it could be....a few million…..perhaps."

  Anyone else might have considered the deception had travelled well beyond any expectations Sir Harry had ever had.

  The landscape was now so altered that he was for the first time to consider a new possibility – whether to abandon his original plan altogether of robbing his host's vault and instead, accept what appeared to be an extremely generous proposition.

  His overtures to Schwager and Bulot were only to gain entry to the Loathbery party by spinning a load of cock and bull about his time in Africa. But now, things had changed – what he hadn’t expected, was for Loathbery himself to be fully taken in and to offer him a part in their crooked venture, no questions asked.

  The prospect of a few million in an offshore account, had come out of the blue – he imagined himself traipsing the globe far and wide, living on expense accounts with his fee deposited in some tax haven, leaving him free to haggle favours from corrupt politicians and civil servants over black market profits – the sheer greed of it all would be hard to resist. 'To hell with risking ten years inside,' he thought, as he mentally totted up his future ‘commission’ (it would be more accurate to say ‘pay-off’). At a rough calculation, it would be a hundred times more than what he'd stolen, probably in his lifetime. In addition, he would be given limousines, apartments and everything else to impress the black marketeers he'd meet. Yes, he thought, the true master criminals were the ones protected by oceans of money, contacts, influence, political power and even the law itself – they were much too clever to get caught. And in fact, the largest nation states were some of the main dealers in the grubby armaments trade even though it brought death and destruction far and wide.

  "I can see you're interested, Sir Harry," observed the peer with the faintest of smiles. "I'll leave you to think it over – let us know what you decide by the time our entertainment has ended here – does that sound fair ? Oh, by the way, about the cricket match at Hendon Warpley the day after tomorrow – did you know that I will be leading the team from Golden Pot ? My bowling isn't what it used to be – at least when I played for Surrey in 1938."

  The last sentence made no impression on Sir Harry at all as he bade Lord Loathbery good night. His mind was elsewhere as he stepped over the tortoise-like heap of Helmut Schwager
who was crawling on all fours along the corridor.

  When Sir Harry reached the foot of the main staircase, he decided to take a brief stroll on the front lawn as it was useless to sleep while so many ideas were buzzing about in his head.

  "At last," he thought, "the chance to join the 'elite' of villainy – the crafty lot who operate within the last syllable of the last letter of the law. Those with the powerful friends at the top – who can afford the best briefs – who dish out writs if anyone so much as asks what they're doing. Could I really take it on ?"

  But after spending months, planning the robbery, if he accepted the offer, it would all have to be ditched – there was no way around it ; he hadn’t foreseen this latest turn of events.

  If he joined Loathbery, Spark and the others would have to go, to leave the way clear for his plans – and it wouldn't be easy : all nine of them were expecting the safe to be blown and its contents shared. Any hope of joining the white collar, super-villains would be decimated along with the vault. On top of that, he'd be unable to escape the criminal investigation and would be viewed as the chief conspirator.

  And so the question which troubled him as he stared into the night was whether his plan had gone too far to stop and whether he could persuade the others to drop the scheme completely. There was as much chance of that happening, as Spark, Bob King and all of the others renouncing their sinful lives and joining a born-again congregation to sing and clap to religious songs, shouting ‘Hallelujah brother and sister,’ and embracing theire neighbour at the end of the service.

  Chapter 49

  Blunderwood Racecourse

  "Mmm...What wondrous delights have we here ?"

  The distance between the Manor House and the entrance to the estate was around a quarter of a mile. Just outside the gates, there had once stood a set of stocks, a century and a half earlier. These days, the area was occupied by the Manor House dustbins where a shabby rummager caked in dirt and in a tattered overcoat, raked through the muck and fish bones of the previous day’s banquet.

  With a toothless grin, he drew out the remains of a game pie shrouded in newspapers and began stuffing his face, keeping the flies at bay with his left hand and shying away two stray dogs with his right foot. Then having sampled the pie and blinking in the sunshine, he set out his breakfast on some greasy paper laid over a dustbin lid as he unearthed a trove of moulding delicacies.

  The Lashem parishioners called him 'Old Scrapper' and taunted him with the title wherever he went, as he raked through public and private refuse or scrounged donations thrown from a distance. None of the villagers knew his real name or whether he really was a disrobed judge as some said, yet there was no mistaking his mastery of terrorising people with sprays of abuse.

  As Scrapper was digging his way through chicken bones and potato skins, the gates to the estate yawned apart and a procession of limousines and crates filed out of the drive.

  The third day's carousal was at Blunderwood Racecourse for the Obsydian Ledger over four furlongs with a dozen nags including Lord Loathbery's thoroughbred 'The Flip'. One of the other starters was Bolton's Revenge – with Griffey in the saddle.

  Some of those in the passing cortege, laughed and waved at Scrapper who spat and threw rubbish after them with venomous threats. When the parade had disappeared in the distance, he went back to raking up his breakfast fare, unconcerned at the disapproving look of a special constable (the high street butcher) who was out on his bicycle looking for collars to pinch.

  Following behind in the smoking Garrard with Bob King and Charlie Spark, Sir Harry told them to stop at the front gate. Then he jumped out of the car, ran up to Scrapper who seemed taken by surprise, gave him fifty pounds, said something inaudible at parting and leapt back into the rear passenger seat.

  "I just reminded him that in 1951, he kindly put me away for eighteen months. And now look at us. That was also a bent fifty I gave him. Har Har Har."

  Charlie Spark was unused to morning dress and while feeling absurd, was ready to perform as a wealthy, arrogant race-goer. Fortunately, everyone else admitted to the Royal Enclosure that day, also looked the same. And although he was relaxed about what lay ahead, he felt as if he’d been tied into a straitjacket, wondering, "'How can they wear these get-ups all the time ?"

  "Now listen, Griffey," said Sir Harry in chiding tones, "I don't want any misadventures today, so, not one drop of anything. Is that perfectly understood ? Because if you do, I'll have you tarred and feathered and run down the length of the Old Kent Road, hanging from a bamboo pole."

  "I won’t let the side down, guvnor. Have faith in me and I promise you, there'll be no hitches. Mark me words. The Bolter's a good horse and I’ll get him to the winning post, even if I have to carry him there." The others scoffed.

  "You'd better because I'm not one to be disappointed. Now then…ah, what a beautiful summer's day it's going to be. I hear the green at Hendon Warpley is being rolled firm for us today so everything will be trumps for tomorrow's game. Do you know something, chaps ? I'm going to thrash Loathbery over the roof of the village pub – I’ve heard he's an horrendous bowler. Haw haw haw haw."

  This reminded him of his meeting with Lord Loathbery the night before and his dilemma which was worrying him like a sore tooth.

  As the Garrard clattered into the members’ car park, the others laughed at some of the crowd.

  Sir Harry had knocked his way around Blunderwood and every other racecourse across England during a lifetime of gambling. He was at home among the bookmaking fraternity with an eye for bent odds, form, jockeys, trainers, owners, judges, stewards, patrons, syndicates, certainties, dead losers, fixes and the undercurrent of nods and whispers.

  When he was eleven, he'd walked four miles from his family's holiday home to Blunderwood and after getting under the fence at the five furlong mark, was almost mown down by the field of riders flying past in a race. Although he was only dazed and shaken, a tipster who was first on the scene, tried to revive him with some brandy. A short time later, young Henry in his sailor's suit was hauled before the course judiciary, ruled over by a dried-up old dowager, decked out in black serge and white lace. She took one look at him, peered down at him for a moment, looked up again at the assembled company and said : "This boy is drunk."

  In those days, the upper crust were wealthier and had servants traipsing after them. After the war, the gentry were tipped out of the old Victorian pavilion. Now it was occupied by the racecourse stewards with their managers and officials inspecting the runners, weigh-ins and the start. And despite several battles fought over the lawn of the pavilion, the Jockey Club had failed to claw back what later became the Royal Enclosure which was the toffs' last redoubt.

  In this way, the 'Royal' Enclosure had stuck to it's Rorke's Drift in front of the old Pavilion and the Stewards Office. Entrance was scrutinised to exclude any blow-ins other than the upper class, their hangers-on and crony business partners.

  On arrival at the gate to the Royal Enclosure, the Loathbery party fluffed up their cravats, dusted down their designer creations and floated with noses aloft, into their domain.

  Dwarfing the pavilion with its union flags on either turret, rose the golgothic edifice of the New Grandstand, overwhelming the length of the finishing post and the straight as though they were its front footpath. Its creators, the post-modern architects (Ruffer & Ridges) felt they’d achieved a certain grandeur as their monster loomed over the entire course.

  Inside the New Grandstand was the Members' Stand with its automatic betting machines, self-service caféteria, bars the size of marshalling sheds and plastic-on-concrete terraced seating. In the least expensive part, there was wooden seating and a few ratburger stalls.

  In the middle of the racecourse itself, was a grass verge where the families from the council estates could drink themselves to sleep, in the open where there was no cover if it rained. Wave after wave of gamblers trudged past them to the bookies and the betting shops, then hung ove
r the course railing, urging their horse to run faster. This was repeated until all of their money had somehow disappeared for another week.

  Meanwhile, in the Royal Enclosure, the top hats wore the men ; the ladies posed in their Bond St couture with their hats bobbing and flapping in the breeze. Everyone was enduring the heat while perusing form guides and prices.

  Their neighbours in the Members' Stand wore double-breasted suits or blazers, Panama hats and white flannel suits or grey lounge suits. Some of them wore the Jockey Club tie ; others had their regimental tie ; many preferred their college tie or Inns tie or Flying Squad tie ; from their lapels hung diamond-shaped admission tags fluttering across their jackets. Their wives, grandmothers, girlfriends and mistresses were uninspiring in off-the-peg twin sets and hats which they usually wore at weddings and funerals. The women nagged the men not to gamble too much but the men got drunk and ignored them. Revenge was exacted at lights out and last post.

  On the grassy slope in the middle of the course, everyone dressed how they wanted and be damned. This could mean short sleeves and short trousers or going shirtless with only a towel, strategically positioned. There were knotted handkerchiefs on billiard ball heads with the odd pork pie hat or trilby. The ladies stretched out on the grass, in sunglasses and sun cream but no headgear ; their dresses and skirts were short – sometimes hardly even there ; some were reduced to bikinis or their underwear, depending on how drunk they were. Infants were bawling and babies were shrieking from their prams. The teenagers moaned when they’d gambled away their pocket money.

  The centre of the course looked like a beach with no sand. The race-goers hung near the fence, lying peacefully in the open while guzzling crates of beer and cramming down a pre-packed lunch.

  Finding the racecourse divided, foreigners would wonder which part they should enter. Were they properly dressed and how should they behave ? But as outsiders, they were a complete irrelevance to everyone.

 
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