Charlie spark villain.., p.21
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.21

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  At the Enclosure fence, the retired sleuth with the unerring sense for sniffing out villains, had disappeared somewhere. The morning suits and decorative hats craned their necks in disbelief at the invasion of this loon who silenced conversations in his wake, leaving mouths wide open with expressions of shock and panic, no less than Charlie Spark's amazement at glimpsing the ponderous form of Richie Snaggs, also of south London infamy.

  It was a measure of Spark's consternation that a tray of champagne glasses, each filled to the brim, passed by his nose without the least acknowledgment.

  Chapter 52

  Sir Harry Meets Chief Obobo

  Feeling like a barnacle without a hull, Spark drifted in the crowd, seeking a way of avoiding Snaggs.

  Nearby, in the thick of the Loathbery party, Sir Harry had met Chief Aweni Obobo, a Nigerian oil baron. The Chief was clad in traditional Ibo dress with the exception of a top hat.

  "I was thinking to maself the other day, how important our ties with this old country are – but you know, our cricket team is still as bad as it ever was. You must know what I'm talking about, Sir Harry. What do you think can solve this situayshon, my Lord ? Hee hee hee." The Chief had a squeaky laugh like a set of door hinges which needed oiling.

  The peer gave the hint of a smile and said "Hmmm….well….if anyone should know the solution, it's Sir Harry, eh ?" whereupon all eyes – German, French, Nigerian and English directed themselves at the professed 'expert' who drew an Inflatando Grande Pantalones cigar from his pocket, struck a match and looked skyward for inspiration.

  "You know, it does take me back to the time when I declared at Lagos cricket ground for eight hundred and thirty two against a team from Port Harcourt. Naturally, it was a sweltering hot day and the other side had travelled overnight for the match but I'll never forget the eighty two....no, actually from recollection, it was eighty seven sixes, I whacked over the members' tent. But even in those days, far off as they are, I did think the same thing as you, Chief. It seemed to me then that the young fellows aren't encouraged enough. If a bat and ball and a few stumps are given to a group of young shavers, they'll be out there all day, every day, if you let them. And who could possibly blame them ?" then he absent-mindedly tapped some ash from his cigar which scattered over Lord Loathbery's shoes and pretended not to have noticed.

  "I reckon Chief, you should import more cricket kits, of the half-size variety.." said Charlie Spark who had joined the group as tail-ender and earned a stare of disbelief from the peer.

  "That is a capital idea, sir. If we cannot persuade the parents to buy them, the bats could always be sold to hinder the spread of the meddling rodents – everything we have in Nigeria is big – big rats, mouses, flahz, ahnts, bees – and they eat up everything, everything in living sight. Hee hee hee."

  "That's the ticket, Chief ," said Sir Harry. "Yes, I have fond memories of my days in Lagos and Kaduna – you know, we have a great deal to discuss. Why don't we head down to the bookmakers and see if we can steal the shirts off their backs instead of losing our own. Your wife doesn't forbid gambling, does she ?"

  Chief Obobo grinned a set of porcelain whites and said: "My wife has graciously chosen to stay at home during my visit to England. And anyhow, while I’m here, I can get myself a bit of peace and quiet. Hee hee hee..."

  "Absolutely delighted to hear it," said Sir Harry as he was sheepishly followed by Spark who peered around him in all directions for any sign of Richie Snaggs. He was bursting to tell his mentor the news but was forced to sit it out and wait.

  Before setting off, Sir Harry was taken aside by Lord Loathbery who explained he'd left his wallet at the Manor House – terribly embarrassing of course – but he’d be hugely obliged if he could be stumped for a thousand pounds and naturally he’d pay the money back as soon as they returned, immediately they arrived, without fail.

  As Sir Harry again counted out the notes, he imagined that Loathbery spent all of his time cadging money. And though he said nothing, he vowed either to exact a grandiose fee from Obsydian (the thought of which soothed his anger) or to leave the Manor House stripped bare, right down to the last cufflink.

  Through the sea of top hats and foliant millinery, they edged their way to the Members' Enclosure where they were gawped at until they reached a row of short price bookmakers and their pencilling clerks who were ploughing through odds, betting slips and a steady stream of mugs.

  Each bookmaker stood astride a box which had his name painted on it in large, faded letters. Surveying the rabble from on high, multiple bets were haggled and money raked in from all sides at the same time. Each bookie used a small blackboard with starters’ names and prices in white chalk for the next race.

  One or two of the bookies had thin moustaches or pork pie hats. All of them were portly, no-nonsense types who spent long evenings counting their profits. Like Sir Harry, they knew their art well and there was little likelihood of securing a large win from them or breaking even against them.

  The bookies stretched in a line near the starting post. At any time, they might be looking at their neighbours' odds or staring into the distance to see if their spies had discovered anything to change the starting prices. To a foreigner, they might have been enacting some strange custom, with a spirited tapping of heads and shoulders, fingers dancing salutes from hand to hand and on chests and arms and in the air, followed by a spirited rubbing out of numbers on the slate and different prices chalked up, all concluded with a smug grin which said "That'll fix 'em."

  Sir Harry pondered his competitors and the odds on offer and muttered : "Bunch of crooks," inaudibly to himself. Yet despite that, he staked two hundred pounds (with no metal stripe by the Queen's head) on the favourite in the second race.

  After he’d explained the science of the form guide and steered Chief Obobo to the nearest bookie with the best odds, Charlie Spark coughed hesitantly and said : “You're not going to believe this but just now I saw Richie Snaggs over there in the Royal Enclosure…"

  This caused some of the colour to drain from the old fellow's face but secretly, he thought that it might offer him the way out he'd been seeking.

  "And what has brought him here, I wonder – as if it isn't obvious to Lucky the seeing-eye dog. Well, that's it, we're done for. I knew something like this would happen – he’s here to apply some gentle persuasion, isn’t he ? Well, there's nothing to be done but give up the ghost."

  "Give up ?" said Spark. "Well, I'm not giving up."

  "There's nothing else for it…. "

  "If you walk away, Bob King and the others won’t like that, will they ?"

  "I'm merely stating facts. If anything goes wrong, you know what Snaggs will do. You say you saw him in the Enclosure ? The only reason he’s here is to find us."

  "Well, what are we going to do then, Sir Harry ? "

  "Whatever we decide, we've got to put him off, somehow…it's obvious he knows what we're up to. There's no use hiding it from him. Try and find out if he wants to take over the job from us and then we'll decide from there – but don't tell him too much – and don't make a mess of it."

  "Leave it to me..." said Spark, motioning to the Chief in the distance that he should bet straight out on the fifty to one outsider. Then both of the villains went their separate ways.

  As Sir Harry led the Chief to the hospitality marquee, he rubbed his hands at the stroke of good fortune which had arrived in a peculiar form.

  Chapter 53

  Snaggs Has A Word With Charlie Spark

  After leaving the others, Charles wended his way to the Members Bar en route to the stables while resolving to get rid of Antoinette Loathbery as quickly as possible.

  As soon as he reached the bar in the New Grandstand, he ordered a bottle of champagne. A chorus of whistling had started up, as if a crowd of Chelsea supporters were nearby. The whistling around him grew louder and louder and for some reason, seemed to be heading directly for him.

  Soon, everyone in the Member
s Bar was staring at Antoinette Loathbery who floated across to him with such theatricality that some of the bystanders applauded : it was as if she’d materialised from another world which wasn’t far from the truth.

  No sooner had she sat down, than she looked at him and said : "At last. We're alone together. I do so want to get to know you. You must tell me all about yourself so that we can get properly acquainted," and she looked at him as sweetly as a fox looks at – in this instance – a rooster – perhaps not a pedigree one – while trying to find out everything about him.

  Spark pretended to look longingly at her while knowing full well what she was after. "Why don’t we get to know each other better, away from here ?” he said while looking into her eyes whose lids were a metallic blue. “Let’s meet tonight and I’ll tell you all about myself – but somewhere more comfortable than here."

  Antoinette hadn’t expected this but her determination to unearth the truth made her to accept his invitation. At Spark's suggestion, they agreed to rendezvous at midnight at the fourth pylon from the second exit under the Westway Flyover in Hammersmith from where he would take her to a secret location where no-one would recognise them.

  Suddenly their table near the bar was overshadowed by someone wearing a shabby, ill-fitting morning coat and holding a roll-up cigarette in his hand.

  "Well, bless my soul," said Spark in amazement. "Just look at that. Fancy seeing my old uncle Richie here – we haven't met in years, have we, Uncle ? Uh, listen, luv, my Uncle and I need to go off and have a chat. I'll see you tonight where we arranged. Alright ?" And then he and Snaggs disappeared into the crowd.

  At the sight of Snaggs, Antoinette had frozen rigid and as soon as they’d gone, she knocked back a glass of champagne to revive herself. After collecting her wits, she followed in the same direction where Spark and Snaggs had gone – to the upper level of the Members Stand and a row of private boxes.

  After rounding the corner at the top of the stand, Charlie was grabbed by the collar and thrown into a room with a panoramic view of the course. The box happened to be empty while its occupants were placing their bets downstairs.

  In the corridor outside, Antoinette clip-clopped in her stilettos past each of the rooms, pressing her ear to the doors and peering through keyholes until finally, she arrived outside their room and could just barely recognise the sarflunnon accents.

  The keyhole was wide enough to allow a half perspective of the scene inside and she was forced to kneel down with her forehead under the door handle, her right eye tightly shut and her left eye peering through the keyhole.

  Inside the room, Charlie recalled Snaggs' reputation as a hard nut and an enforcer. He raised the hair on the heads of most people he met, even from a distance.

  In the CID at Cartemorf Street, the Flying Squad called him "Stuffer” or “the Mummy", snide references to his taxidermy hobby and what he did to anyone opposing him. Like King, Rourke, Rooney and Riley, Snaggs sometimes rummaged around in steel vaults in the early hours ; he was also a chancer and on occasion, accepted ridiculously huge bets and either kept the stake or didn't pay up ; his other hobbies were protection, extortion, blackmail, forgery, poncing, bribing police and paying off council officials. He was also fanatically superstitious and a regular church-goer. Every Tuesday, he had tea with his vicar and every Sunday without fail, he went to evening communion at All Hallowes Church in Lombard Street in the City.

  There were rumours he'd donated half a million pounds to the church's restoration fund to seek salvation from roasting in hell for all of his horrible deeds.

  "Listen you," said Richie Snaggs, obscuring Antoinette's view by placing a chair under the door handle and growing redder and redder in the face. "A little bird told me you was planning to do over the Manor House....Well....wot about it ? Is it true ? Or is someone messin’ me around ?"

  "Would that 'little bird' be a fat vulture by the name of Waterson ?"

  "That ain't for you to know. Now, I'm startin' to lose my patience with you, Charlie boy. You'd better start on about it or I'm going to get very unhappy...Well, come on, let's have it."

  Perspiration dripped from Snaggs’s forehead as he paced up and down the room as if tormented by toothache. It was his habit to stride the length of rooms, fuming to boiling point as he prodded his victim, toying with them and cornering them until finally delivering the coup de grace. Spark had heard of Snaggs's fits and foaming at the mouth, screaming and uncontrolled rage, sometimes rolling about on the floor or jumping up and down on the spot, shouting hysterically and usually performed to an audience. His vileness literally inflamed him as his ears burned a tomato red and his face turned a crimson blue.

  Often in these interrogations, he broke chairs or tables, overturned furniture or fired shots into the ceiling to terrorise his victim but as a fracas couldn't be risked in the middle of the Members Stand, especially when there were warrants out for his arrest, he was at first at a loss how to explode himself into a rage as he rushed to and fro, from one end of the room to the other in a nervous sweat.

  All of a sudden, he stopped and began frantically searching all over the room for anything he could lay his hands on. Then he began ripping up, in a demented fury, all the newspapers, telephone books, form guides and any other pieces of paper or cardboard he could find as if he were about to build a bonfire in the middle of the room and throw Charlie Spark onto it.

  Snaggs's audience (inside and outside the room) listened to the performance with contempt until in a short time, the room came to resemble a stable with a ready made bedding for horses.

  When Snaggs could find no other newspapers, he began stamping loudly and slamming his fists on the tables and walls. Then he suddenly stopped, undid his coat and took out of his pocket a pair of brass knuckles, a switch knife and a cosh and laid each of them side by side on the table, saying matter of factly to Spark : "Any preference to start with ?"

  At that point, his victim turned pale and decided to appear helpful, agreeing that the plan to blow open the Manor House vault was set for the coming Saturday at midnight when the east wing would be deserted and everyone was at the grand ball to be thrown by Lord Loathbery.

  "Perfeck…." mused Snaggs, staring out at the racecourse in front of them. Then turning around swiftly, he looked Spark straight in the eye and said, "Just you tell Sir Harry it’s all off – because I'll be doing it....Awright ? Right then...Fank you very much..."

  In the corridor outside as she heard them heading for the door, Antoinette hit her head on the brass handle and quickly hopped and jumped to get out of the way. Having knelt so long at the keyhole, a crick had developed in her neck and her right leg was aching. With her back bent double, she hobbled into the next room where a race-goers party was in full swing. Taking care to leave the door sufficiently ajar, she saw Snaggs dash away down the corridor, later followed by Charlie Spark wearing the broadest of grins.

  As she watched them disappear around the corner, she was seized with a blind panic at what she'd heard but found herself being dragged into the party with glasses of wine and champagne being offered from all directions until she pretended she was going to faint. Then, she tore outside and made straight for the Royal Enclosure in a desperate bid to find her father or her husband or any of them and to get them to ring the police.

  At the same time, on his way to the stables, Spark smiled to himself, in the knowledge that the wedding was fixed for the Friday, not Saturday night. Instead of blowing open the vault on the Saturday as originally planned, they would change it to one day earlier. This would allow them ample time to get what they wanted and clear out.

  But Spark hadn't reckoned on the swishy dress or her galloping tongue which was a short while later recounting in exasperation what had taken place between him and the volcanic Snaggs.

  Lord Loathbery patiently listened to his daughter prattle on that the plot had been hatched by Sir Harry at which point, the peer cut in derisively.

  "Hahahaha
...My dear, I am not a simpleton – I know all about Sir Harry and his eccentric friends. What a furtive imagination you have. It never ceases turning itself over and over like a….a somersaulting circus seal ? Get a grip on yourself, woman. What do you take me for ? A complete fool ?"

  And ignoring her tearful protestations of "But what about..." and "But you can't mean...", he sought out Cadwaller who was just at that moment scraping some horse manure off his shoes while no-one was looking.

  Whatever her father’s views were, she was not so easily put off ; as usual, none of the silly men were taking her seriously ; this happened all the time but on this occasion was doubly annoying ; she would make every one of them eat their words, with or without Gentleman's Relish.

  Chapter 54

  Sir Harry Up The Creek

  With the amusing thought of Snaggs’ discovery that the vault had been emptied one day earlier, Charlie Spark wended his way through the crowd to reach the stables near the two mile mark where they were getting the Bolter ready for the third race.

  The other runners were smart thoroughbreds owned by syndicates with limitless rupees beyond the grasp of the Revenue, the Excise and Europlod. In comparison, the Bolter and his horsebox were on loan and everything else for him had been stolen. Walking past the one mile mark, Charles wondered whether Sir Harry's competitive streak would work against them : Lord Loathbery was a bad sport who would wangle a second roll of the dice without asking whether the first throw even counted. Spark had already found that out for himself. And aside from the developments involving Snaggs, the number of enemies pursuing them was growing by the day before the job even started.

 
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