Charlie spark villain.., p.30
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.30

           J M S Macfarlane

  Surveying the scene around him, Lord Loathbery was without words. Suddenly, he grabbed the nearest brandy bottle, tipped half the contents down his throat (and his shirt front), went red as a beetroot then let out a manic roar.

  "You've seen it all for yourselves. Sir Harry Hoppitt and his cohorts have daaarred to carry out this... this….vile, backbiting insult to the House of Loathbery....Who will capture him ? Can anyone answer me ? I'll offer a reward of one hundred thousand pounds."

  Several of the guests (mostly City nobs) immediately raced forward with outlandish proposals of how they should find the thieves. The peer tried to get some sense out of them but was about to call for a bucket of water to throw over them and shouted "One at a time now, let him speak first, ye brutes."

  The uproar continued until one of the lackeys said that in the past ten minutes, he'd seen two of the wedding guests running off to the stables then disappearing into the woods on their horses.

  "Gadzooks, man – it must have been them....Tell me – who were they ? What did they look like ? Did ye see them clearly ? Quickly, y'blundering fool."

  Words indecipherable to the toffs were spluttered by the squiffy footman, from which they could only make out the words ‘fat cigar’, ‘a right old tub o' lard’, 'white moustache’ and ‘smarmy mate’.

  With narrowed eyes, Lord Loathbery cast a slow, careful search across the flailing, bewildered guests as if he'd lost his wits and was looking for them in the crowd. Suddenly, he shouted, "Aa-ha...I knew it," and went running out into the vestibule of the Manor House, muttering to himself that he knew something like this was going to happen – that he knew it in his bones but without explaining to anyone what it was that his bones knew.

  Within a remarkably short time, seven panda cars from the Wiltshire Constabulary's highway patrol had been alerted, along with the county's only police helicopter (the pilot had been dragged out of bed), prompted by the missing diamond pendant belonging to the Chief Constable's hysterical wife.

  "I know his game. He thinks the Lashings and the forest are large enough to hide him but he's wrong – I'll catch the thieving, plundering wretch – I'll hunt him down like a dog," proclaimed the enraged peer to an audience of swells and police.

  The pursuit was organised into ten mounted riders and the Manor House foxhounds who were falling over themselves, ready to set off for the fray even if it was the early hours of the morning and they hadn't the faintest idea, who or what they were supposed to be chasing.

  Chapter 85

  In the Forest At Night

  Having gone seven or eight miles into the forest, Sir Harry saw a flicker of light in the distance ahead of them. He signalled to Charlie Spark but they decided there was no time to go around whoever it was and they had to push on.

  As the path led directly into an illuminated grove, they spurred their horses to a light gallop. It was only when they were yards from the site that they saw three men sitting around a campfire, roasting trout on skewers. The fish had been poached from a river on the Loathbery estate.

  The horses had no choice but to jump over the fire and after bounding over it, there was an uproar behind them, with missiles flying past their ears as they wended their way through the trees, keeping close to the paths.

  On and on they rode, as the horses cantered along the moonlit path this way and that and seeming to know their way by instinct. As they hurried on through the night, Sir Harry knew that by this time, the lights would be back on in the west wing, the robbery would have been discovered and a swarm of angry wasps would be chasing them, comprising Lord Loathbery, his family and the Wiltshire constabulary.

  There was still the carve-up of the spoils to get through before all of them could go to ground – and that would take time. It was odds on that one of them might run off with the loot before the others could attempt the same. But for Sir Harry at that moment, his main concern was to avoid being captured, in any way he could.

  After a solid hour of riding, he signalled a halt. He was fast becoming saddle sore and like the hounds trailing them, he needed to find a tree.

  While Harry was engaged, Charlie Spark had found the pouch and note left for him by Bob King in his saddle bag. The note read : ‘Job done – 20s & 50s – rendezvous 0600 hours – no time to open box.”

  Inside the pouch, Bob King had left a small, flat container made of polished rosewood and sealed with a combination lock. The Glaswegian hadn’t had time to get it open and thought that it looked out of place : everything else in the vault was cash. Obviously, it contained something valuable but this might have been of sentimental value, for all he knew. In any event, he didn’t have time to waste on it and just wanted to get rid of it.

  In the space of a minute, Sir Harry was reading Bob King’s note and looking at the box. Whatever was in it, would have to wait and he told Charlie Spark that they should leave their loot somewhere safe where they could collect it later on. A nearby oak tree looked as good as anywhere else.

  After shining their torches around the bark and in the branches, Spark clambered up the trunk and found a squirrels hole about fifty feet up. He stuffed the swag into the hole and covered it over with leaves and twigs.

  While he was swallowing a diamond or two, Sir Harry said: "I hope you're not helping yourself to anything while you're there – it would be rather unpleasant to have to get them back."

  "What ? Who me ? Don't you trust me ?"

  "Of course not. But we'll sort that out later. Right now we have to get away from here."

  And he quickly sprinkled bags of pepper around the tree trunk and a trail of dognip leading away from the tree and the immediate area, in order to put the hounds off the scent.

  After briskly walking around the tree and pointing out features of the landscape they would recognise, they resumed their journey with the same haste. After a painful hour of trotting through almost complete darkness, Sir Harry had briefly dozed off but woke up with a start. By this time they'd reached the farthest edge of the forest which bordered on farming land for the next twenty five miles.

  They decided to chance the obstacles of hedges and ditches as the moonlight had become so bright that the trees and bushes were casting shadows. Across the sky were rows of billowing clouds stretching over the horizon in typhonic waves. Their objective was a deserted stonewalled barn with its thatched roof half blown in, seven miles onward across open fields of corn and silage.

  As they guessed that those searching for them, had already caught the scent and long been in pursuit, they bounded over fences, stiles and places where the corn was flattened in broad swathes. In the middle of their ride, they passed two men pushing a roller over an unharvested crop. Both groups were surprised by each other’s appearance and wondered what they were doing there.

  Chapter 86

  The Pursuers

  Almost twenty miles behind them, the Loathberys including father, eldest daughter, son and son-in-law together with a large group of rugger thugs were riding as fast as their horses could carry them through the forest.

  It was no surprise that the inexperienced riders occasionally disappeared from sight, never to be seen again that night. And with the molehills, poacher's snares and the paths’ unpredictability, eventually they were forced to settle down to a trot.

  At various turns in the path, the lead was taken by Antoinette or Piers Loathbery while their father fumed behind them in the main group of riders. Several discomfiting thoughts tormented him like a Napoleonic attack of piles.

  After finding the vault wide open and mostly empty, Lord Loathbery’s crisis had been brought to a head. The theft included unique, numerical keys to his web of offshore bank accounts and were irreplaceable. This had implications going beyond the Manor House. There were also jewels worth several million pounds which had been stolen from his own collection.

  If the situation couldn't be resolved quietly, his plans to make off from Obsydian’s corporate wreckage might fizzle out on the launch pad, a
side from the loss of everything else he'd greedily amassed during the past forty seven years. On top of his disgrace, would come a lengthy prison sentence. And he was determined at all costs, to retrieve what had become a bad, bad business using a strategy to set matters to right as his horse trotted pompously with the others down the bridle path.

  Ahead of the peer, like hell's furies unleashed, the constabulary had already swooped on the only light discernable in the forest from the poachers' camp fire. When the dust had settled and the peer and his party arrived, the Weldon station sergeant surveyed the clearing from which the poachers had scattered in all directions.

  Feeling pangs of hunger, some of the officers promptly feasted on the skewered trout while assuring the nobs and Lord Loathbery (who was incandescent with fury) that they would get the thieves, all in good time.

  “Seems a pity for it to go to waste, m’Lord,” said the sergeant.

  Chapter 87

  The B3779 via Welpham

  Twelve miles away, in the nether regions of the forest, Sir Harry and Charlie Spark quartered their horses next to the deserted stone barn.

  Hidden in a haystack, they uncovered an old farm lorry of fifties vintage together with some clothes on the front seat. In the rear of the lorry was a load of manure which announced itself fifty feet away.

  After ten minutes of changing clothes and applying disguises by torchlight, they were less recognisable. Sir Harry had coloured his moustache and hair black, making him look twenty years younger. On his head was an old trilby full of hay stalks ; the rest was mud-caked boots with army surplus overalls. Charlie Spark had sprouted long sideburns, added a moustache and turned grey overnight. A pair of spectacles sat on the end of his nose for added effect.

  "Well, that's it, old boy," said Sir Harry to the Bolter and offering him an apple. "You've given us a good run and if ever I return to England or my fortune changes, I'll buy you and race you all over the world."

  "You couldn't run as fast as him," said Spark.

  "If the old bill get within spitting distance, I will," came the reply.

  He blew out the lamp, started up the lorry and said "Ugh, it reeks in here."

  Once they were back on the B37895, the lorry ground its way through the darkness at twenty five miles an hour flat to the floorboards. This was the average speed for farmers using that road even at rush hour. The road led onto the new high speed motorway link built by Obsydian Construction and on which there was a pile-up every Saturday.

  Fear of the cells pushed them onward while the load of manure reminded them of the spot they were in : there was nothing for it but to keep driving until they reached the south coast and safe territory. There, they would rendezvous with the others.

  The lorry's motor pounded arthritically as its headlights blinked through the dawn. The moon was still shining above them ; strange moths and insects darted about in the glare of the headlights and Spark more than once fancied he'd seen something moving in the undergrowth at the side of the road.

  "Look at that light up there," he cried in a sudden ferment. "It's rozzers for sure or I'm Noddy."

  Sir Harry squinted into the distance and said "You're right. Let’s use Plan C."

  "You can't be serious," was all Spark had time to say before they were hailed down by a motorcycle plod and a vanload of police parked across the carriageway.

  "Arr, 'ullo there, young feller," said Sir Harry in his broadest West Country accent. "They broken down there ? Need some 'elp do yer ?"

  "Step out of the vehicle, please," said the highway patrolman, speaking through his handkerchief. "Ugh, what a stench. Tell me, just what are you doing carting this lot around in the middle of the night ?"

  "Ah well, lad, we farmers never sleep, y'know. Cows to be milked at four, pigs to feed, all a' that carry-on, it's hard going and them blighters in Belgie aren't makin' it any easier neither, an' it's grain mountains for this an' bloomin' great subsidies for that, an' I could tell you what I really thought about it. Y'know, last year.." and Sir Harry launched into a tirade in the style of some of the estate farmers he’d met.

  The policeman was impatient. "I'm not interested in that. Let me see what's in the back."

  "Ooohh, zat so ? You sure now, constable ?" said Sir Harry and pinched thumb and forefinger together on his nose.

  "Just do it – and as quick as you can," barked the cycle-plod through his handkerchief. When they reached the tailgate, they were ordered to open it and to unload all of the manure onto the side of the road.

  "But this truck don't tip up and we ain't got any shovels," whined Spark.

  "Then you'll just have to use your hands. Now get moving."

  Charlie opened the van's tailgate but swiftly snatched a handful of manure and threw it in the copper's face, causing him to gag violently and go running into the bushes to clear it off. At the same time, the grey suit brigade stepped out of the police van just as the sky rained manure on them. It was only when Sir Harry heard someone say in a high pitched scream : "I ain't gettin' very pleased abart vis," that he recognised the voice of Richie Snaggs and that further resistance was useless even though those apprehending them couldn’t approach the two muck spreaders from less than fifty feet away.

  Chapter 88

  All Hallowes, Lombard St

  After they were made to wash in a stream to rid themselves of the stench, the two villains were marched at arm’s length to the police van and pushed inside. Snaggs spoke to them through the grate in the back door.

  "Matter 'o fack, I've done meself a little favour wiv the rozzers," he crowed triumphantly. "You pair o' pigeons are gunna be exchanged fer awl the warrants out fer me this year. Whadayer fink o' that, 'old boy' ? Har har har har...." he laughed as the occupants of the van peered dejectedly in the darkness.

  "You despicable grass," roared Sir Harry, which was met with cackles from Snaggs and the police. Quickly the engine of the van was started, Richie Snaggs hopped in the front and the van tore off at a psychotic speed which fitted the attitude of its driver and navigator.

  In the rear, Sir Harry and Charlie Spark were rolled about like dice in a cup. For nearly an hour, the uneven roads bumped and threw them about from side to side and then suddenly smoothed out. From the speed at which they were travelling and the sulphur yellow of the lights outside, it was evident they'd reached a motorway and when the sun climbed out of bed at a quarter to five, Spark peered through the black glass windows and said: "We're on the M3 – and heading north. We must be going to one of the London nicks."

  "Or to the Black Lion for a little chat."

  Soon, they could recognise the all too familiar London landmarks and at last the van hurtled over Westminster Bridge by the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben was striking six bells. Frantically, the black van raced its way up Whitehall, occasionally sounding its siren to clear straggling trucks and cars out of its way.

  "This is the high jump," said Charlie Spark. "I just know it – I wonder if Bob and the others got away clear…"

  "They can look after themselves," said Sir Harry, peering out of the bottom of a window (for that was as far as his height would carry him). "We're not heading in the direction of City Magistrates Court – perhaps they’re taking us to Bow St.."

  This could hardly have been the time to panic whatever the situation presented ; instead, Sir Harry sat, deep in contemplation like Dr Johnson. Their journey had caused him to consider their plight in the same way that the fox at the Manor House hunt had looked out of his cage a few days earlier.

  "We've just cleared Whitehall – maybe they're taking us to Vine St Station or Snow Hill or West End Central ?" said Charlie Spark as he flattened his nose harder against the window. "Gawd struth," he cried suddenly, trying to catch a better view through the windows, "Have a look out there. There's some sort of rumble going on in Trafalgar Square. Right under old Nelson. Wish I was out there with 'em."

  And he roared encouragement to the massed students, miners, hippies, dossers, begg
ars, punks, crusties, skinheads, anarchists and part-time revolutionaries who were pushing against several lines of riot police. Many of the protestors had placards denouncing the government, the councils, corporate enterprise and the capitalist system. Although the Strand was closed to traffic, the van was allowed through on the pretext of charges to be laid against the prisoners in the rear.

  Past St Clement Dane's, St Mary le Strand and the Aldwych until they reached the dread gothic spires of the Royal Courts of Justice with its sinister, black iron fence of spiked sunflowers on which many an unfortunate had been impaled.

  "Oho," groaned Sir Harry, "How well I remember that place."

  Through the narrow space where Temple Bar once stood, the van hurtled down Fleet St which had lately become a building site, past the tiered wedding cake spire of St Brides, across Ludgate Circus, the dome of St Paul's, down Queen Victoria Street, past the Royal Exchange and finally into Lombard St.

  Charlie Spark peered up at the guild signs hanging from the buildings on each side of the road – the golden grasshopper, the cat and fiddle, the castle and cannon, the golden anchor, Charles II, the rearing horse and old St Edmunds clock. And all at once the van came to a screeching halt.

  When the doors were thrown open, they were blinded for a few moments but could see that the street was deserted and silent : it was Saturday morning and the usual crush of jobbers, brokers and underwriters had all retired to their Essex or Surrey estates in readiness for the following week's tribulations when the pound would be pummelled ever lower on the currency markets.

  "Right. Jist keep your gob shut – vis way," said Snaggs as they sidled briefly down the road until they reached the square tower and Doric pillared entrance of All Hallowes Church in the middle of Lombard Street.

  "Going to say a few prayers are we ?" said Charlie Spark, more to himself than anyone else.

  "Shut your marf," screamed Snaggs.

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