Charlie spark villain.., p.2
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.2

           J M S Macfarlane

  Then, dispatched with venom : "Lissen, pal, ah wuz there right enuf while youse was back here quakin' in yoor boots wi’ frayt. An' ah wuz in Vietnahm an' Angoola an' a load o’ other warrs youse have only read aboot in yoor wee adventure mugazines. So jist youse shut yoor squeekin' gullet oor ah'll give ye a boot right in the..." At this point, the noise of the bar drowned out the precise threat.

  Just when the landlord was ready to signal to the doorman to eject them and when both sides were calling for reinforcements, Spark decided to make a run for it. He wanted to avoid being cornered for hours with a load of improbable war stories but had left his escape too late. King noticed him sliding from his seat and grabbed him by the collar then ignoring the taunts that his tales were fantasy, he waved his detractors away like so many bothersome insects and tapped the counter to gain the barmaid's attention.

  "A large whisky for the lad please, darlin'," rasped the hefty voice.

  "Struth. If it isn’t Mr King himself," said Spark, pretending not to have noticed the Scotsman as he steeled himself to be bored rigid for the next three hours.

  King's weightlifter frame squashed in at the front of the bar, crushing the incumbents as the barmaid rushed to and fro.

  "Well, well. Ah havnae seen ye in here for a while," said King, who aside from being a professional blagger was also a part-time wrestler, squatting eviction agent, trout poacher, haggis connoisseur and military historian. He’d also been out of the army for almost two years but sometimes felt he should have stayed there.

  "Yeah, Bob – only been out of Wandsworth a few days and I’m up against it... three giro cheques don't touch the sides, let alone one.." moaned Spark. "Anyhow, what's been going on while I've been away ? Anything happening in the next few months ? What about Big Stavros ? Is he still in Strangeways ? Oh, uh, how's your wife – still got you on the run ?"

  Bob King grinned sardonically, revealing a gap in his ivories. Like all prison wives, Mrs King fretted when he was inside but hounded him outside. Whenever he was locked up, she waited until the parole committee were feeling generous enough to let him out again, so she could sink her painted Dundee nails into him.

  "Aye, the missus ne'er lets up, so she does," King said wistfully. "If ah'm banged up, she can't visit me enough. Remands in Brixton – she's doon there every day with a hamper. She's a dab hand at shopliftin'. We came oot the soopermarket the other day and she had a turkey and two bottles o’ wine in her jumper. Dinnae ask me hoo she does it. But whene’er ah'm hoom, sittin’ aroond the hoose, it's nag, nag, nag – ‘Why ain’t youse doin’ a bank jawb tae get some money in ?’ "

  Spark was invited for supper at the King's flat and felt certain to be regaled with the one about bivouacking, jungle warfare and trying to avoid being blown up by guerrillas in Borneo ; or the story about how King had amassed a fortune in Chinese gold but had forgotten where he'd buried it ; or it might be all the old mercenary stories of his time in the African jungles.

  The Scotsman's anecdotes were so diverse and with so much embellishment that the original events on which they were based (which were probably mundane), were unrecognisable.

  After King arranged to meet Rourke, Rooney and Riley next day to talk about a bank they had their eye on, he and Spark decided to wander across the Walworth Road to the Tyburn Tree to see if any pugilistic talent was on the bill that evening.

  Soon, they’d escaped the vicinity of the Black Lion and the drunks stumbling nearby. The din of the juggernauts, jets and sirens was overwhelming and on reaching the Tyburn, Bob King paid for another round of drinks and led Charlie away from the public bar. From upstairs came the muffled roar of a crowd at a boxing match.

  In an alcove, the Glaswegian rolled up the sleeve of his right arm to reveal fifteen Francois-Demain gold wristwatches. Some were studded with diamonds and Spark saw at once that they were each worth several thousand pounds.

  He was dazed by the jewels. Although tempted, he’d learned to his cost years earlier that fencing expensive jewellery wasn’t for amateurs.

  "Thanks but like I said – I’m flat broke. Was that the Knightsbridge jeweller's vault last Thursday ?" he asked. In reply, Bob King merely winked but inwardly smiled as do tigers after a feast of curry spiced mahout.

  Chapter 6

  A Wager

  They decided to go upstairs to the boxing ring and with each step, the sound of cheering and padded blows grew louder. After a few taps, the door to the gym opened from the inside and they entered a haze of sweat, cigar smoke and beer which was almost overpowering. The potman knew them well, gave a brief nod and carried on shouting at his protégé in the ring to box harder.

  Around them were gathered a hundred spectators, all squeezed in together, spilling beer and treading on one another’s toes while clamouring in a deafening roar which suddenly broke off with the clang of the bell ending the fifth round.

  Several scarred faces in the crowd were walking exhibits of the life of a boxer. Spark spotted an undercover plod, conspicuously wedged in a corner, getting reports from informants.

  The potman was a reformed sponge and slept rough in doss houses or in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In his youth, he'd won and squandered a fortune as a professional boxer. These days, he spent his time training younger boxers including the Jamaican lad in the blue and silver trunks on the evening’s bill.

  When the bell rang for round six, the old man's voice could be heard above the taunts of the audience who had all wagered heavily on the contest, roaring dementedly for a knock-out blow. Some of them could only slur their words in a drunken stupor through the haze of smoke, the reek of cheap whisky mingling with the smell of sweat and grime.

  In the sixth round, the local boy from Bermondsey in the flashy green trunks was copping the worst of it and after many savage belts to the head, blood began trickling down his left eye. The bell at ringside clanged and the combatants broke off to their corners. The tension in the crowd unwound as everyone debated the merits of both boxers and who was going to win.

  Charlie Spark could hear moans of dissatisfaction about the performance of the favourite from Bermondsey. Many in the crowd realised their bets were as good as flown already, even though the bout still had a fair distance to go.

  "Seems they're a trifle put out, Bob," he said to his companion.

  "D'ye reckon he'll go another roond ?" asked Mr King as the seconds were furiously fanning, watering and patching up the contenders.

  "If ah saw him dive oot the door noo, run awl the way to King's Cross an' get a one-wee ticket to Inverness, ah wouldnae be surprised one bit."

  "He'll be going some alright," was Spark's reply although feeling indifferent. Suddenly, a polished voice addressed them :

  "Care to speculate on the lad's performance, gentlemen ?"

  The enquiry came from a mature voice with a public school accent through the clamour around them.

  They both looked sideways (and in King’s case, downwards) at an enormously stout, old fellow with a white brush moustache, snowy hair scraped back across his sun-tanned crown and sporting a white linen shirt, double breasted blazer, silk tie and matching handkerchief.

  He’d reached them through the crush of beer glasses and cheroots as he held several betting slips and a pencil in one hand, with a cigar and whisky chaser in the other hand. His bronzed face was set in an ironic smile, barely concealing his adeptness at outfoxing his opponents. Bob King could only stare at the old boy's shirt collar which seemed to cut into the perspiring blubber of his neck.

  "Try your luck, gents," he wheezed. "I'm still taking bets, seven to four on, for the Jamaican chappie, four to one on the Bermondsey wallah. Now, who will it be for you ?"

  It took all of a moment for Charlie Spark to size up the old fellow in the manner of a typical gamester. He detested posh accents (except for the times when he himself was pretending to be a toff.)

  "I haven't seen you here before. Where have you suddenly sprung from ?" He was always wary of first encounter
s at the Tyburn as was everyone who went there.

  "Listen, laddy, I've been drinking, gambling and debauching at this watering-hole, long before you were sat on your potty. That's how long I've been about these, are you interested in taking a bet or not ?"

  A shade of crimson fired up in the old boy's chops as he flattened down the white strands of hair swept back across his head and in outrage at the question.

  Bob King delicately interposed at this point to stake two fifty pound notes on the Jamaican boxer from Brixton who was at shorter odds.

  "Best of luck," said the old rogue good-naturedly as he pocketed the notes in a pigskin valise while ignoring Spark completely.

  Bob King said something in the bookmaker’s ear and took him to one side. Without attracting attention, he lifted half the cuff of a sleeve to reveal one of his timepieces. Then with the passage of some inaudible words between them, he dropped something into the bookie's pocket, gave a tiger grin and padded back to join Charlie Spark in the thick of the crowd.

  Chapter 7

  The Bookie Is Found

  The bell at ringside rang out the start of round seven. The Bermondsey lad began bashing his way around the ring, dancing and flying in hops and jumps then suddenly launched into a higher gear like an out of control Inter-City express train pushing ninety miles an hour. The usual experts derided both trainers with what they were doing wrong while around the ring, scores of bad losers were screaming blue murder that the match had been fixed.

  As time wore on, the Bermondsey lad grew fainter. In a matter of minutes, he was stumbling against the ropes, hiding his head in his gloves, suffering a battering at the hands of his opponent. The cut above his eye had opened again, producing a grotesque spectacle : the crowd goaded him as the last of his strength was visibly draining away while he tried to stay on his feet. Disgustedly, they screamed for a knockout as the room shook to a deafening pitch.

  For a short time, the Bermondsey lad seemed to regain some of the early momentum of the fight. With every jab that connected, sprays of sweat showered off the contenders’ heads and bodies in the humidity and clouds of smoke. Eventually, near the end of the round, the favourite stumbled, his legs gave way and he could take no more. Breathless and exhausted, he hit the canvas, near unconsciousness, without knowing that he'd already been counted out by the referee.

  In the same instant, Bob King was ecstatic and merrily danced a highland fling, calling to those around him : "Ah've won a wee ton. Ah've won yon pony. Ah've won, haw hey, ah've won."

  His friend had the composure of a Presbyterian minister at a temperance meeting but was also imagining ways to deprive the Scotchman of his wad. An irritating thought gnawed at him, whining to him that he should have taken the same bet in any way he could contrive.

  Bob King had wagered on both boxers, using one of his watches.

  "Where's the old geezer who was pencillin' his book, he was only here a wee minute ago..." he said to Charlie Spark as he anxiously looked around him.

  Together, they surveyed the devastated crowd but couldn't see any white whiskers or the distinctive pigskin bag. Through the crush, they scoured past various soaks, oafs, louts, cut-purses and villains in the gym until Bob King nudged Spark in the ribs and narrowing his eyes, growled restively : "Ye don’t suppoose he's done a runner, do ye ?"

  Spark scoffed mockingly then gave the Scotsman a look which immediately caused Mr King to push his way out to the stairwell leading to the bar.

  "Ah'll flay the old coot alive when ah get ma hands on him," he cried viciously, thwacking a great fist into the broad open palm of his other hand. Charlie Spark decided to go downstairs to the saloon bar to ask the landlord whether he'd seen the old cove hurriedly pass through. Everyone was too shattered to put a sentence together, let alone see anything ; chances were that the pretend bookie had slipped out through the dressing-room door into the adjoining lane, a few streets away from the Walworth Road.

  Swiftly, Spark rushed back through the gym to get to the laneway, followed closely by his enraged friend. As they ran through the boxers’ dressing room where the Bermondsey lad was being patched up with antiseptic and elastoplast, both boxers and their trainers were sharing a bottle of cheap champagne, lamenting their paltry winnings on the miserable odds for the Jamaican. Bob King flicked aside the trainers and seconds who were commiserating in this fashion until he was suddenly in the fresh morning air, the glint of a street lamp their only guide in the darkness of the laneway.

  From an early age, Charlie Spark had kept himself in trim after realising that in his line of work, he might be called upon to run for all he was worth at any moment. However, on this particular evening he was not the prey but the whipper-in and sprinted headlong in the direction of the Elephant and Castle, stopping to look in at some of the fish and chip shops and clubs which were still open.

  His hair was in a mess and blown all over his head yet thirty minutes later, they were back where they'd started at the Tyburn. Reluctantly, they decided that the old miscreant had got clean away so Spark bade goodnight to the volcanic Bob King who could be heard cursing in the distance as he trudged off in the opposite direction.

  Discouraged by the thought of walking a mile and a half back to Waterloo St, Charlie decided there was a strong chance that the back bar of The Crown pub at Camberwell Green would still be open ; its proximity to the street market meant that it would be full of barrow-boys and traders but the publican would probably let him in without any door-charge.

  As he strolled past The Globe which was also a pub in that area, he briefly glanced in at the public bar and blinked in amazement : sitting at the bar and chatting amiably to the barmaid was the old rake himself with a cigar and whisky soda and the pigskin bag beside him.

  In a moment, Charlie was inside the bar and confronting his quarry. Amazingly, the old fellow brazened it out. He didn't turn a hair at being found by one of his dupes and said he hadn’t a clue what Spark was complaining about.

  At this, the young villain grabbed him by the collar and told everyone in the bar that the bookie was a thief. The publican, barmaid and several other concerned drunkards stopped to listen to the history of the night's events and what had happened at the Tyburn Tree.

  "Dear oh dear," said the landlord, casting his eyes around at some of the helpless lambs. "What is the world coming to ?”

  Back across the Walworth Road, the pigskin bag was marched, the book-maker protesting every step of the way that he was well known in the Tyburn Tree, that three bouts were scheduled that evening with one fight remaining and out of necessity, he kept his swag in the Tyburn's safe, always settling up at the end of the third contest in the dressing room with two heavyweight witnesses present.

  "For your sake, it'd better be the truth," said Spark (who prided himself on being an articulate liar) "or you'll be paying a visit to King's College Hospital."

  As he was convinced that the bookie was a charlatan, he was deaf to all the entreaties the old fellow made.

  In the public bar of the Tyburn, two scowling orang-utans of the knee-capping variety agreed that Charlie Spark had been told the truth. In precisely five minutes time, the third event of the evening was scheduled after which all bets would be settled in full in the back room.

  "Now – there," chimed in the old stager triumphantly. "And you didn't have the courtesy of allowing me to explain. You lot are all the same – this wouldn't have happened before the war…" and he bemoaned the time when an Englishman's word was his bond.

  "What, down here ?" laughed the publican so much that his false teeth almost fell out. "Don't witter on – it was even worse then than what it is today."

  Although apologetic, Spark didn't want to be embarrassed any further and assuming a contrived look of stupidity, retreated somewhat cowed to call Bob King on the pub’s telephone. It took only a few syllables for the flabbergasted Scotsman to rush out the door, leaving the conversation not even started and a kitchen table covered in e
mpty beer bottles. In the twinkling of an eye, they were watching the third event on the programme, while carefully noting the barrel paunch and pigskin bag out of the corner of their eyes.

  At the end of the fight, Bob King joined a small line of winning gamesters outside the boxers’ dressing room. A table near the lockers served as the betting shop window where the bookie had established himself with his wrestler friends, Big Maurice McGurk and Sharma ‘the Indian Cobra Crusher’. The pigskin bag sat open on the table in front of them and in quick fashion, as in the Macau casinos, he rifled off four hundred and fifty pounds to the drooling King together with the return of the gold chronometer which had been staked.

  As soon as Bob King was handed the pile of notes, he slowly counted them out all over again at the table. The implied note of distrust appeared not to offend the bookmaker but instead fostered a geniality as he eyed each twenty pound note turned over in front of him.

  Hidden from view however, events were to take quite a different turn.

  The re-count, was in fact, the final straw as the old fellow burned with fury and a desire for revenge at having been dragged by the scruff of his neck across the Walworth Road. He also sensed that two perfect dupes were going cheap.

  "I say, you chaps must have thought me a perfect wretch . But you shall know me as a man of honour if nothing else and of that I can assure you. I stand by my word – they all know me here," he said with a sweep of his hand and taking a swig of whisky. "But I’m most awfully sorry for having caused that little misunderstanding earlier on – and to show there are no hard feelings, let me buy you both a drink," and over-ruling Spark's objections, they all shuffled off to an ante-room located at the rear of the gym.

  It was no coincidence that Spark was tempted by the bulging bag and imagined removing it without its owner even realising it, then making a mad dash down some of the back alleyways leading off the Walworth Road : there was a foetid rubbish tip on some empty land where they would never find him, even with the aid of bloodhounds.

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