Charlie spark villain.., p.27
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.27

           J M S Macfarlane

  From the perimeter of the field, Charlie saw through the sham and shouted : "What are you waiting for ? Christmas ?"

  A look of outrage passed over Piers's face. After some further shuffling about, a medium pace bouncer was delivered, only to be knocked clear across the outfield. It was almost retrieved by Lord Ruffer who tripped and fell flat on his face in a mad dive as he scrambled to pick it up off the ground.

  "Fellow's half shot," murmured Lord Loathbery to himself.

  The gap in runs was reduced to sixteen for victory by the Londoners.

  The situation was now as taut as over-tuned cat's gut on a Stradivarius. You could almost feel the approaching rain in the air as the black cloud drew closer with every second until it was only two or three miles away. The spectators on both sides were hushed with anticipation and none quieter than Richie Snaggs and Bob King who each saw pound signs, dancing or taking wing before their eyes.

  Piers Loathbery drew the sea of anxious faces backwards and forwards at what would have been the clubhouse end, if there'd been a clubhouse. After a short run up, he bowled a frenetic yorker which Sir Harry flicked between the theatre producer’s legs and a further four was made. The gap was reduced to twelve.

  The umpire was casting doubtful looks at the sky and sorting through his collection of fieldsmen's jumpers ; he was obviously going to call a halt as soon as the next ball was bowled. They had to make twelve runs off one delivery – clearly an impossible task. Sir Harry frantically signalled to Gresham to try and hit a four and with an overthrow at the wicket, anything might happen. It was a desperate, hare-brained idea but it was all they could do.

  Piers's bowling was as inviting as an empty car with its windows down and keys in the ignition outside the Magistrates Court. His spin ball angled down the pitch as if he’d made ten trips to the bar. Gresham cracked the ball straight along the ground but it headed towards the stage producer who was directly placed to wing the ball back to the wicket keeper. Everyone expected Gresham to be run out before he could reach his wicket and with that, the game would be over. But something unexpected threw all their aspirations straight down the gurgler.

  A dark object, travelling faster than the cricket ball, darted from out of nowhere and as swift as a crack of lightning, tore senselessly in the direction of the stage producer. With around five feet to go before it reached the producer, the ball was scooped up by what appeared to be a large, black labrador.

  "Blimey," said Gresham to Sir Harry when running past him in the middle of the pitch. "It's Growler – keep going Sir Harry...Keep running."

  When Sir Harry next passed him down the wicket, he said : "Who or what is Growler ?"

  "Him ? Oh, he’s always around when we’re having a game. Don't worry, we can walk up and down now. Look at that. We've got plenty of time."

  And as Sir Harry turned about, he saw a crowd of almost thirty people gathered around the dog, trying to get him to give up the ball while others made insane dives to catch him. Growler seemed amused by this as he cunningly dodged and swerved and feinted to right and to left, giving playful snarls as they tried to catch him. But no matter how hard they ran or how many surrounded him, he always evaded their bumbling grasp by running in, around and between their legs and sometimes biting them on the rump then picking the ball up and running off with it. One of the unfortunates with wounded pride was Antoinette Loathbery who had only received a gentle nip but was telling everyone at the Cricketers Arms that the dog was mad and that she might also go mad (if she wasn’t already, thought Spark to himself).

  The dog's owner was usually to be found in the public bar but on this occasion was making selections in the betting shop around the corner so that no one knew where to find him to make the dog surrender the ball and allow the game to continue.

  And so merrily, after Sir Harry and Gresham had ended their attack, the Londoners had scored one hundred and twenty runs with three wickets in hand to win the match – or at any rate, that’s what they thought.

  Both of the batsmen wandered over to join their team mates who were enjoying the preposterous spectacle of over thirty ninnies springing and diving over each other, as they chased around the field trying to wrest the cricket ball from the dog. In the end, Growler ran off home with it then the rain bucketed down in sheets and they all got soaked to the skin.

  Chapter 71

  A Final Reconnoitre

  True to his word, Sir Harry asked Bob King to take Gresham and his older brother down to Battersea Dogs Home where they picked out a few of the inmates for early release. The menagerie was carted back to Hendon Warpley with the dogs yapping madly in the back at the joy of experiencing freedom again, while some were left in the stables with the villains and the rest sneaked home by the Greshams.

  Meanwhile at the Manor House, the local quack was busy with rabies and tetanus jabs for those who had been nipped. In the evening, a play was to be performed in the west wing by Piers and Amanda with a lavish dinner to follow.

  This was more than Sir Harry could abide, to spend yet another night with the despicable Loathbery cheats and he excused himself due to all of the activity that afternoon to collapse early on his bed.

  The next day was Friday – the fateful day of the wedding – and the culmination of their plans to blow open the vault and make off with the swag.

  With the raid brought forward, Spark, King and the other villains held a final meeting in the stables to make sure that all would run smoothly including their escape, once the vault was cleaned out.

  To begin with, there was grumbling that Sir Harry was missing.

  Secretly, Charlie Spark sensed that the author of the scheme was losing interest. It was possible Sir Harry could have arranged something with Bulot or Schwager – but that was unlikely. There was no denying that he was of a nervous disposition (from what had happened at the cricket and the races). Or he may have had second thoughts due to the presence of Snaggs. Whatever it was, they needed to keep a close eye on him and stick to him like glue. That way, there was no chance of being left in the lurch or of the swag disappearing – if they got that far.

  After going over what each of them had to do the next day, Bob King said that he’d take a last reconnoitre of the State Room to be certain of everything, especially as they were unsure how much nitro to use.

  After an hour, Charlie Spark left them to it and wished them good luck. Then King, Rourke, Rooney and Riley changed into electricians overalls and entered the east wing through a back door shown to them by one of the lackeys. They’d waited until midnight to avoid running into anyone and took their usual route through the corridors until they arrived at the State Room door.

  After turning the handle, Tim Rooney said " We’re in luck, it's open," and after stepping inside, they were confronted with Marie Loathbery, sitting on the chaise longue. Around her, were a group of what appeared to be students, travellers and squatters. Some of them were leaning against the fireplace and all of them stared at the intruders.

  "Do you mind ? We're having a private meeting in here. Who are you ? What do you want ?" said the bride-to-be.

  "Electricians, madam. We had an urgent call – ‘fuses blown in the east wing’. We're trying to find out what's causing the trouble. Traced it to this room – so far."

  Marie grudgingly retreated. "Oh, very well, get on with it."

  Then, watched by the others who remained silent, the villains began prodding the walls on the pretence of locating the wiring. Riley felt around the fireplace, made a show of discovering the switch to the vault, flicked it and the fireplace swung away from its mounting, almost crushing two of the squatters.

  Straightaway, Pat Rourke said : "Oh, there's your problem. Look at all that cabling. It'll all have to come out – what a fire hazard. There'll be days of work getting at that lot."

  At that point, Marie and her friends crowded around the vault. Some of them examined the dials, switches and handles while inspecting the 'damaged' electrical wiring. Many
of them were visibly excited at the discovery and began debating among themselves how it could be opened while pulling at the handles, tapping the dials and spinning some of the combination locks.

  One of them suddenly asked Bob King, “If you’ve got to get in there, how are you going to open it ?”

  The Scotsman was amused at the suggestion. “Who ? Me ? Haw haw – well, laddy, ah cannae answer ye that. Ah’m just a poor, wee electrician tryin’ to do ma jawb. But, yoo’re right. It’ll have tae be opened somehoo.”

  “Imagine if someone was trying to break into it. How would they do it ? With explosives ? Or could they pick the lock ?”

  The Scotsman stared wide-eyed in amazement and gave a belly-laugh. “What a thought – and what about the police, laddy ? Where would they be ?”

  "Oh, you wouldn’t have to worry about them. They’re so useless, they don’t know what day it is. If someone was trying to get inside that thing, I’m sure they could do it fairly easily.”

  “Could they indeed ? And how might that be done ?”

  The squatter (who turned out to have a doctorate in physics) gave them a brief dissertation on the scientific principles he would use to open the vault, namely a quantity of nitro-glycerin or sticks of gelignite in close approximation to what Bob King himself was intending to use.

  At this point, Marie-Sainte cut in and said, “Well, that’s all very interesting but vaults like this have super-toughened steel and I doubt that even a nuclear explosion would get it to open. But it does have a special automatic time-lock. That would be the only way to get inside it without the security keys and combination which only my father has. You’ll have to see him about it but I doubt that even he could get it opened for you tonight."

  "But this cable leads into the strong room, miss. The whole lot will need to be taken out or it could burn the building down."

  “I think you’ll be out of luck – and now, if you will excuse us.”

  As soon as the villains had closed the door behind them, Rooney whispered to Bob King, “Do you think they’re onto us ?”

  The Scotsman turned to the other two and said “Ah was going tae ask ye the same question.”

  Chapter 72

  The Wedding

  The next morning, the wedding ceremony took place with all of the usual hypocrisy mixed with the ritual of bygone times.

  A line of white limousines preceded a rear guard of luxury saloons to ferry the bride and groom, their families and guests cross country ; the bride wore a dress of white brocade, silk, satin and pearls with the train fetched up by horsey-type bridesmaids ; the church nave was festooned with floral decorations ; over two hundred sweaty, restless, bored and bemused guests were packed into the church ; bets were taken on whether the bride or groom would be the first to decimate the other's family fortune ; the bishop droned on about vows in marriage, in the knowledge that everyone broke them ; Lord Loathbery led his daughter down the aisle with pound signs in his eyes ; at the crucial moment, the best man who was a bullion dealer, fumbled the ring out of his pocket and dropped it on the floor where it rolled underneath the altar ; some of the toffs spent twenty minutes trying to find it ; when the groom was finally told : “You may kiss the bride”, he lifted her veil but she offered the side of her face to be kissed.

  "Very original I must say," said Sir Harry. "Pity about the groom – he won't last two minutes. Then again, the fellow is obviously an expert in all sorts of flim-flammery."

  Charlie pictured himself standing in the place of the groom. His encounter with the bride on the day of the hunt was fresh in his memory : there had been a glimmer of attraction between them ; now she was married, it was back to reality.

  After the service and an hour's rumbling over potholes in the A204342, the guests arrived back at the Manor House where the servants directed them to the gardens behind the main building and a summer house set in seven acres. These were to be used for the bout of revelry prior to the wedding breakfast.

  The entertainment was due to start ; refreshments were set out under a marquee. Scores of waiters and lackeys moved through the crowd with hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne. They included the tabloid hacks who were circulating with hidden cameras while serving the guests and helping themselves to a glass or three on the sly.

  With his usual bravado, Sir Harry led the way to the garden lawns at the rear of the mansion where the clutter and commotion had a life of its own.

  "Just look at all this," he muttered to Spark. "Almost as good a show as that rabble yesterday, chasing round the village green."

  Charlie Spark stopped in his tracks. "What's my old man doing here ?" he said, catching sight of Maxi Spark bounding over to them with a broad smile and a kipper tie almost as wide.

  "Hello, son, you here too ? Sir Harry. Should be a good day for it," and noticing his son's look of astonishment at the hurly burly around them added, "Yes, lad, it's all here. 'Specially for his Lordship, his friends and everyone. He said it'd be 'amusing' to have a country fair in his back garden after the wedding, so we’re doing the business for him. Well, I've just got to go and see if the sword-swallowing juggler and the Indian rope-trick are ready.....see you later," and with that he hurried off through the crowd of guests.

  Chapter 73

  Sir Harry In A Quandary

  The Manor House sommelier who was the cellarman and wine-keeper had only been recruited a few weeks earlier.

  As to his experience, no-one could say or whether he'd blundered in selecting drinks for the guests. He later said that he’d done nothing wrong and had only been making a 'little harmless profit', as he called it.

  It all started on the previous Thursday which was the day when the sommelier visited a discount wholesaler to order bottles of wine and spirits after sampling them. Only the week before, the wholesaler had told him of a new consignment of Montenegrin peach brandy (reputedly rocket fuel) which he’d just had in. This stuff always produced a horrendous hangover the next day – but the wholesaler was offering it for thirty per cent less than the usual price for the same type of wine which Lord Loathbery always bought. And into the sommelier’s pocket went the savings.

  In retrospect, the brandy on its own might have been tolerable but no one appeared to know that its potency increased fourfold when mixed with cheap champagne.

  Inside the marquee which was thick with wedding guests, the waiters were serving buckets of this brandy mixed in enormous bowls of fruit punch or in concoctions of brandy fizz or with juice, all mixed in with champagne.

  Sir Harry noticed this when he and Charlie Spark went into the marquee and after insisting that they only wanted bubbly on its own, discreetly went over their evening’s schedule and what time their own ‘entertainment’ would commence.

  “Chortle, chortle,” said Sir Harry mockingly.

  Despite his forebodings, the others had voted to blow open the safe at midnight. Earlier that morning, he’d given the vaguest of hints that it might be better to call the whole thing off. To go against Snaggs and whoever was paying him, was to reap the inevitable whirlwind. (His real concerns were of course, quite different.)

  Instantly, he’d faced a barrage of protests but particularly from Spark (who suspected Harry’s motives) and no matter how he approached it, they all refused point blank to give up on the scheme. Bob King was immovable and said that he would ‘see off yon Snaggs’ and in the end, Sir Harry could see that there was no way of backing out without them later coming after him, even if Snaggs didn’t.

  This was his dilemma – whether to press onward with them or whether to abandon them and throw in his lot with Lord Loathbery. What if the robbery was to go ahead, exactly as he’d planned from the very beginning ? He still might reach some type of arrangement with Loathbery – after all, everything in the vault would be insured.

  Despite Sir Harry’s wavering, the assault on the safe was irrevocable. 'Horrible Haggis' had already slipped away during mid-afternoon with Rourke, Rooney and Riley to s
et events in train while everyone was at the wedding. They hoped that with a fair wind, Snaggs and his cohorts would have left their arrival for the following day but it was all down to timing.

  With this in mind, Sir Harry decided there was nothing he could do for the moment. He might as well enjoy the calm before the storm when the villains’ scheme would burst forth like Mount Vesuvius over the Manor House Pompeians later that evening.

  Chapter 74

  Lord Loathbery Magnanimous in Victory

  By the time the wedding bells had stopped ringing, the guests were back at the Manor House and mingling in the grounds at the rear.

  The men were still dressed in their top hats and tails ; the women were flaunting their dresses and enjoying the parade. While the gentry usually avoided any sordid discussion of business, on this occasion they lost no time in seeking ‘support’ from those in the City for their polo clubs, horseracing syndicates, racing car syndicates, yacht clubs and offshore interests, all for charity, of course.

  Lord Loathbery cut through the crowd to take Sir Harry aside, even though they'd fought each other over roulette, fox hunting, horse racing and cricket. While Sir Harry wanted to remain loyal to the others, he still clung to the hope that Loathbery would enlist him after proving his worthiness as an adversary.

  Sir Harry bore the upper-class guilt of a privileged upbringing and a more comfortable life, compared to those at the bottom of the ladder such as his friends in the Old Kent Road. This was at odds with the stolid, traditional values which had been thrashed into him in boyhood and youth. Which was right ? Part of him wanted to empty the vault and be victorious against the toffs. But he also wanted to be in the corporate mega-league of villainy so that he could live well in his declining years.

  Loathbery and Sir Harry were both tipsy from the champagne and in the peer’s case, by the brandy added to it. Soon they were joined at the marquee by Schwager and Bulot.

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