Charlie spark villain.., p.24
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.24

           J M S Macfarlane

  And as soon as the corridor outside was empty, they wandered back to their billet in the stable loft to calculate the precise amount of nitro-glycerine, to the last microgram, which they'd need to blow the vault door off its hinges and without flattening the rest of the building or making pancakes out of themselves.

  Chapter 60

  At The Constitution Club

  After Sir Harry and Charlie Spark had cleaned themselves up, they received an invitation from their host to join him for dinner that evening at The Constitution Club in Pall Mall. This was a gesture to smooth things over, following the riot outside the racecourse.

  Examining the note delivered by a lackey, Sir Harry was secretly encouraged that all was forgiven and that his subterfuge (to avoid blowing open the vault) might still be in play : with some clever thinking, he would pretend that Snaggs had forced the issue to a conclusion, quietly move to the Obsydian camp and head off to sunnier climes.

  Later that evening, when he and Spark arrived at The Constitution Club, they were bluntly refused entry. The doorman said they were 'not properly attired'.

  When Lord Loathbery's invitation was produced, they were told that their ties and jackets were out of place : everyone entering the Club after seven o’clock had to wear either black tie and evening wear or a club blazer and an ‘acceptable’ tie (to parade one’s rank or position in society for the amusement of wealthier members).

  The doorman led them to a side room and handed them bright red and purple striped ties (the infamous 'Old Grog' colours) and blazers with the club coat of arms. These also identified visitors or newcomers to the members (so that they could promptly avoid them).

  Chief Obobo had also been invited by Lord Loathbery along with Simon Cadwaller, Piers Loathbery, Jean-Pierre Bulot, Helmut Schwager and others.

  When Sir Harry and Charlie Spark entered the Smoking Room and bar, they found that everyone, apart from them, was in black tie and evening wear. Someone had forgotten to tell them there was a dress code and of course, all of the others were delighted at this, particularly Simon the Cad whose face and hands displayed wounds from the afternoon’s fracas.

  Sir Harry put on a brave face but was dreading the next three or four hours. To Charlie Spark, the scene reminded him of the places he’d burgled in his youth.

  The Constitution Club was known as a refuge for high Tories ; women, lefties and liberals were barred at the door ; the members all had pots of money, were full of themselves and treated the management and staff like slaves ; in answer to this, the directors charged stupendous subscriptions and the staff filled their pockets with every ‘fringe benefit’ they could steal and every tip they could purloin ; on the walls hung portraits of past members who had ravaged everything from their farmer tenants to the French ; blood red wallpaper decorated the Reading Room where everyone was asleep in armchairs ; a public school atmosphere pervaded the place.

  As the champagne, brandy and gin flowed by the gallon, after two hours of hypocritical and ridiculous toasts, everyone felt suitably ‘relaxed’ – so relaxed in fact, that they could hardly stand up.

  Charlie was shattered after the ride and the riot. He had no idea that his tie was over his collar or that his shirt-tail was out of his trousers. After tearing out of the racecourse pursued by punters, he couldn’t care less about anything. Meanwhile the toasts kept going one after another – when Cadwaller had been brought to heel by Lord Loathbery.

  As for Sir Harry, he was out to impress his host. After choosing his moment, he called for silence, raised his glass and said : "Gentlemen, let us drink to today's contest – and tomorrow's match."

  This rankled the peer who murmured that apologies weren't necessary and as a true sportsman, he hadn't taken any offence because he knew that none was intended – but whatever the position, he knew that the following day, they were going to win the match as they had the better team.

  "But shurely, father," interposed Piers Loathbery, "the day's events demand some comment. Good Lord, if anyone's interested, I've disposed of next month's stipend." (This was despite his visit to the vault earlier that day as he never lost an opportunity to squeeze money out of his father.)

  "Whaaatt ? You simply can't be serious. That is preposterous. I refuse to accept the situation, do you hear me ? You're nothing but a blasted spendthrift, a wastrel and a vagabond .." And an altercation took place between father and son watched by the hangers-on who were either dependent on the father's patronage or the son's largesse.

  "What possible use can money have, father, when it's kept forever inside a bank ? What happiness can it bring when it’s under lock and key ?" asked Piers, exuding enough alcoholic fumes to flame half of Birmingham's kitchen stoves.

  "Yes – what harm is there in spending money ? Provided it's lavished on oneself, one's girlfriend or the gaming tables or some such harmless interests..." said a pie-eyed banker who was amazed he could still string a sentence together.

  "Balderdash," snorted Lord Loathbery. "Money is power, it commands nation states, it buys whole armies, it can destroy almost anything and pass me that decanter again, will you ?"

  "Certainly, old fruit," said Simon Cadwaller, as he saw three arms attached to his shoulder, reach out and grapple about for a few moments until he was sure he'd caught hold of three brandy bottles and conveyed the triple image across the table where he thought three peers were sitting. No sooner had he done this than he fell under the table and went to sleep. No-one bothered to pick him up or even noticed his absence.

  After the main course was finished and dessert had been served, Piers Loathbery and the bankers began throwing food at each other and an enormous gob of whipped cream splattered straight in his father's face and ricocheted across his coat.

  As the food fight intensified, with salvoes of custard and jam roly poly being hurled across both sides of the room, Charlie Spark and Sir Harry dived under the table, then crawled their way to the cloak room, retrieved their clothes and escaped through the Club's back door.

  At that point, Spark made some excuse about having to go to his flat in Walworth and after depositing Sir Harry in a black cab (where he fell fast asleep without saying goodnight), he hailed a second taxi and directed the driver to the fourth pylon from the second exit beneath the Westway Flyover where he got out and waited.

  Chapter 61

  Westway Flyover

  At around half past midnight, just as Charlie was on the point of leaving, Antoinette arrived in a limousine and wearing a long, satin dress. She told her driver to take the car back to Wiltshire and then they stood together beneath the concrete Flyover, amid the wind blown rubbish.

  “Now, at last, we can get to know each other better. You must tell me all about yourself. Where shall we go ?” she asked as they dashed across the three-laned exit road, narrowly avoiding colliding with a lorry.

  "Let’s go somewhere private. I'll take you to a place your husband will never find. We can talk there without anyone bothering us," said Spark.

  They found a minicab office in the High Street. Antoinette had to roll her dress up in the back seat. Eventually, it came as a shock when the driver delivered them to a dingy hotel in a back street near Paddington Station. On either side of the road, the shabby Victorian terraces had neon bed and breakfast signs.

  “Where are we ? What are we doing here ? she demanded.

  “Relax. You worry too much. It’s nice and private here.”

  She began to panic and felt unable to speak. “But look…I’m….where are we…..What is this place…..?”

  The manager in a string vest, handed Spark the key to an upstairs room. As they climbed the stairs, they could hear doors banging with people yelling and arguing. Someone rushed past them on the darkened landing. This frightened her.

  Inside their room which was illuminated by a single bare light bulb, the floors and wallpaper were rotten and grimy : no-one had bothered to sweep the floor, let alone clean anything else, for quite some time.

  "Eugghhh....Why have you brought me here ? Do you seriously expect me to be in this....this dungheap ??" she squealed in a fury.

  "What's wrong with it ?" asked Spark.

  "Eugghh....Just look at the place – it's horrible – and aaahhh....Look...There are things crawling on the walls....Oh, Lord – it’s a ghastly, ghastly place...."

  “Well, you wanted somewhere private, didn’t you, where we could talk without your husband storming in with his friends ?”

  Yes, but it’s dis-gust-ing….and there’s no ensuite or room-service or…..”

  Just then, the room shook as the 12.40am Inter City to Penzance thundered out of Paddington Station on the start of its journey. Some of the passengers stared in at them from the first and second class compartments as the railway line was all of twenty feet from their window. Spark and Antoinette stared back at them. One or two passengers laughed and pointed at them and a child made a rude face.

  After the train had swept past, he was about to comfort her when they suddenly heard further down the corridor, loud hammering on several doors with the words : "Police. Open up."

  Both of them stood stock still. Evidently, the hotel's patrons were not ‘respectable’ and realising this, Antoinette instantly hissed in a whisper: "I cannot abide this place for one moment longer. I'm leaving...."

  She refused point blank to risk running into the special constables and insisted on clambering onto the fire escape outside the window : the only exit from the rear of the hotel was down an embankment adjacent to the railway line.

  As Spark followed her, he complained that it was madness to be scrambling down a ditch full of stinging nettles. Despite that, he continued running after her down back alleys and side turnings until she stopped when she felt safe.

  By the time they found a mini-cab driver who was willing to take them to Wiltshire, it was two in the morning. Antoinette was itching and scratching all over, cursing him for taking her to the hotel and that she'd need to lie in a bath of disinfectant for to get rid of whatever was biting her all over.

  Half an hour into their journey, she began crying pitifully and tried to appeal to his sympathy : she still wanted to find out as much about him as she could.

  He was happy to oblige and spun out his usual ragbag of stories about his scrap metal business listed on the Stock Exchange, his mansion in Essex, his butler and the twenty limousines in his garage. Then she asked about his Uncle Richie. He seemed such a nice man. She'd like to meet him.

  "Listen, luv, you don't want to meet him – and anyway, he's the owner of the hotel we just left."

  At first, he thought she’d taken the hint, to stop asking questions – and what was worse, she hadn’t worn her jewellery. He’d under-estimated her and had to fend her off using the same evasiveness when cross-examined at the Old Bailey, the Inner London Sessions and the twenty other courts where he’d played to an audience. But even an amoeba could see what her game was – to get as much out of him as she possibly could. And he was left in no doubt that she knew almost everything about their plans.

  Chapter 62

  The Morning of the Cricket Match

  The following day, the shadow on the sundial was approaching X as the sun had reached a third of its arc. Across the countryside, a sultriness pervaded the fields and streams.

  Crowds of spectators had gathered around the village green at Hendon Warpley. Outside the Cricketers Arms pub overlooking the green, the usual scrum was in play, ready to invade the bar.

  Almost the entire village had turned out to watch the combined eleven of locals and toffs play against Sir Harry's team of London unknowns. But despite Loathbery's players being ready on the field by eleven o’clock, there was no sign of their opponents.

  Chief Obobo was taking hair of the dog and downing a pint of stout while bemoaning the superiority of the Nigerian brew to a City wine merchant. Just then, the Teuton swept into the pub carpark with Sir Harry, Clifton Earls and Tim Rooney. They were followed by the Garrard and the orange mini carrying Spark, King and the other villains who were squeezed in so tightly in both vehicles that they could hardly breathe. There was also Maurice, Sir Harry's off-sider, brought down specially from London for the day with a lot of cricketing gear stolen from shops in the West End.

  After some fumbling, Bob King produced their kit from the Garrard and carried it into the pub. All of them were all resplendent in creams and whites and moved through the crowd to a room next to one of the bars.

  "'Art'noon," yelled one of the spectators to Sir Harry. "Nice to see you – we thought you'd gone to the wrong ground." At this, a chorus of laughter erupted from the regulars outside the pub.

  After the disastrous events of the previous day, Sir Harry had kept his own counsel and waited. While there was Snaggs still to contend with, the baronet’s plan had relied on artifice to get at the vault. But the tail had been wagging the dog : instead of concentrating on the vault, the contests with the toffs brigade had taken them over. And although their goal was to blow open the safe, they wanted to give Loathbery and the swells the hiding they deserved.

  Yet, if they rubbed his nose too far in the dirt, it might provoke him : he was known to be a bad loser ; Loathbery might take revenge at losing – and Sir Harry would be ruled out as a future partner. Despite this, if he threw the game, he knew it would forever rankle with him as a cricketer and a sportsman and would cut to the very fibre of his being. Could he really suffer being thrashed by the toffs as the price of carrying off their riches ?

  The upshot was that he only needed one more day before deciding which way to jump – either to leave everything for Snaggs and side with Loathbery or stay the course with Spark and the others and reap the whirlwind, come what may. A draw would be the best way of satisfying everyone’s honour and of putting to rest any doubts, at least for the moment.

  From the saloon bar, came Helmut Schwager and Jean Pierre Bulot, both lost for words at the scene on and off the pitch. They joined Chief Obobo. After hearing Cadwaller's description of no balls, slips, silly mid on and other such terms, they looked at each other blankly and again asked how the game was played.

  "It is quite simple, really," observed the Chief, dressed in an olive safari suit – and bowler hat. As he explained the finer points of the game, he made grand sweeping gestures to describe different ways of bowling and batting.

  "The object of the game is to hit the sticks wi' the ball. One bowls the ball, like so, in this mahner," and at the same time, moved his arm to describe a curve while leaning forward with his body.

  At that moment, a waiter happened to be passing by with a tray of champagne glasses. Purely by chance, the Chief's fingers clipped the edge of the tray, sending the entire load somersaulting in mid-air before crashing to the ground.

  Everyone looked in their direction. Obobo pretended nothing had happened and continued on, with a grin on his face like a guilty schoolboy : "And so, the fellow who has the bat, holds it like this and takes tha shot, like so."

  However, the finer points of the square cut, the forward stroke and the hook shot seemed lost on the Frenchman and German who both looked baffled by it all and were shaking their heads from side to side. As for the waiter who was fuming at all of the broken glass, a twenty pound note smoothed things over.

  As soon as the London squad had set themselves up next to the public bar, Sir Harry and Charlie Spark arranged the batting order and selected their bowlers. Spark nominated himself as the first batsman ; Bob King would be second. Sir Harry would bat at four or five depending on how the day turned out.

  Mick Riley said he'd played a few games at school and was given the wicket-keeper’s gloves.

  With the selection process concluded, Sir Harry strolled onto the pitch, occasionally stopping to dab down clumps of grass or to test the moistness of the ground. At the umpire's stumps stood Lord Loathbery and some hangers-on, some of whom were already padded up with boxes in situ.

  "About time we made a start, Sir H
arry. What do you say ?" said his host while looking at the sky.

  "Couldn't agree more," said Sir Harry.

  "Hills or hollows ?"

  "I'll have hollows."

  Cadwaller twirled the bat until it fell over with the flat side down.

  "We shall bat," declared Loathbery."Simon and my son will be first in."

  "Right ho, then," said Sir Harry turning on his heel to whip up the attack.

  After a few minutes squabbling in the bar, his team took the field and were politely applauded with some limp-wristed claps. Sir Harry grouped most of his players near or around the wicket to take any catches and to prevent the ball being hit across the green and the batsmen scoring runs. Some of the others were positioned halfway between the pitch and the boundary. Griffey was to bowl the first ball of the day to Loathbery the younger.

  Against his better judgement, Charlie Spark had decided to let Griffey redeem himself after the Blunderwood fiasco. On the first few balls of the over, the wheelman surprised them by studying the pitch then hurling himself at the batsman with a series of medium pace deliveries. Before long, Piers Loathbery hit a glancing shot and the batsmen scored one run to change ends.

  At the wicket stood Simon the Cad, waving pompously to his wife in the crowd. He was bare-headed and refused to wear a padded helmet, claiming that they were only for girls. Then Griffey began rocketing some medium pace deliveries at the wicket until one of them bounced directly off the Cad's foot and cracked him sharply on the nose which produced a bellowing roar.

  "Good heavens, is he alright ?" said Sir Harry with mock concern, from his position at the end of the pitch as Cadwaller flung his bat aside and started to run madly around the field, his batting pads scooping out at the knees while holding his damaged proboscis, all the time howling threats and oaths of the crudest kind which seemed in character to those who knew him.

  "Listen, old boy, can you hold it down ? There are ladies present," said Sir Harry, this time genuinely offended.

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