Charlie spark villain.., p.8
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.8

           J M S Macfarlane

  The first blow caught Bob King completely unawares and made him lose his concentration. He half-turned and stared witheringly at the wheelman, just as the petrol flew quickly up the pipe to his mouth. Immediately, he began coughing and spluttering and spitting, swearing and gagging. His face turned green, then blue then green again. "Watter, give me watter here. I'm on fire," he yelled. They brought him some water out of a nearby stream with a few tadpoles in it but no-one appeared to notice that. As soon as he could breathe again, a row broke out as King chased Griffey around the sedan, threatening to smash him.

  While this was going on, the driver who had donated his petrol, stared wide-eyed at them, their suits blackened and almost ruined by engine soot, petrol and oil.

  Riley and Rooney filled the Teuton's tank and Spark started the engine running. Just as Bob King was about to deliver a head butt, Charlie Spark began to move off. The other two quickly forgot their argument, dived into the back of the Teuton and they were on their way again.

  Behind them, standing at the side of the road, the driver whose petrol they’d taken, stared in annoyance and yelled "You could at least have said thanks."

  Stung by their ingratitude, he replaced his petrol cap and resumed his journey, irritated that he was now late and that his wife would ask questions. The interrogation might prove difficult if she didn’t believe him, especially as he’d just finished seeing his secretary at the pub. After a short time, the red light on his dashboard began winking at him in the darkness on the space marked 'Empty' as he slowly came to a juddering halt.

  Chapter 23

  Sir Harry Receives A Challenge

  The village of Golden Pot consisted of a church built in Tudor times, a cluster of black and white thatched cottages, a few modern-style butterboxes, some farmhouses, a pub and the surrounding farmland. At the end of the short high street stood the inn, shaded by oak trees from whose branches, rooks plundered the crops in summer. Across the flat open countryside, a mist had dug itself in for the evening. Only the church and hostelry lights shone out in the evening drizzle.

  Positioned at the public bar, Sir Harry was quietly smouldering. It was a quarter past nine with no sign of Spark and if he didn't appear through the door very soon, the entire plan would fold. To make matters worse, he was in a dispute with the publican who fancied himself as the world’s expert on everything, including cricket. The pub was almost empty that night and the landlord was eager to vent his wit. One or two of the locals had also joined in and added their two penn’orth to the evening’s entertainment.

  "Did you say a duck ?" Sir Harry had asked. "Now when did Blakestead ever score a duck in his entire career, that anyone could remember ?"

  "You call yoursel’ a cricketer ?” laughed the publican. “Hand me that almanac and I'll show you."

  "I don’t need to," retorted Sir Harry. "I know you're wrong."

  "I'll be hanged if I’m wrong," returned the publican in mock anger, ready to leap over the bar and grab the book. "Theer's no sich entry in theer – I can tell ‘ee that now, for a fact, fattee."

  Tormented by the sudden onslaught, Sir Harry’s face was a fiery red as he exploded, "This is a blasted outrage. I demand an apology, you oaf."

  "Don't 'ee coome at any o' that in 'ere, matey,” the landlord shot back. “Why don't ye hand t’ book over and then we’ll soon see." The publican’s goading was now syrup-thick. "T'don't want t'be proved wrong, do yer ? You're just one of those armchair crick'ters, ain't ya, wi' mad interest in cricket scores, joost lahk those train spotters on t'main lahn platforms a' Clapham Joonction. Har Har Har." And the publican and his regulars roared with laughter at the sight of Sir Harry defending his reputation.

  "Listen, I may be beyond my prime," said the veteran,” but I can still hit a six off every over you'll bowl any day of the week."

  Old George the farm manager (who had discovered crop circles while harvesting that morning) spoke the thought which occurred to them all.

  "Well, now. Why don't we just organise a friendly match and we'll see who can be believed ?"

  And just when Sir Harry decided that he was going to deck both the publican and Old George for their impertinence, Charlie Spark at last strolled into the bar with King, Griffey, Riley and Rooney. All of them were covered in engine grease and reeked of petrol fumes.

  Preoccupied with raging at the landlord and ignoring that they were late or even caked in dirt, Sir Harry straightaway introduced them as part of his eleven. The publican took one look at the doorframe dimensions of Bob King and gingerly asked for Sir Harry’s telephone number so that the match could be arranged. When he learned that they were guests of Lord Loathbery, the landlord wryly suggested that his Lordship himself might play a few overs. If he was available, the game could be held at the village green at Hendon Warpley towards the end of the following week.

  After the inevitable harangue from Sir Harry about the delay, they cleaned themselves up with soap and water as best they could, then quickly emptied their glasses. Sir Harry exchanged a final insult with his northern adversary and then all of them swiftly filed out of the door. Just outside, he stopped then turned to Charlie Spark and said : "I'll show that yokel, just see if I don't."

  Then he hurriedly squeezed himself into the Garrard’s drivers seat, slammed the door, spun the wheel, took the car in a near pirouette and headed full throttle in the direction of the B5432 towards Weldon. The outwardly respectable Teuton followed at a stately pace with the engine occasionally cutting out.

  About a mile down the road, Sir Harry screeched to a halt at a grove near Shaledone then inspected their armouries for the last time : truffles, oysters, champagne, smoked salmon, Havana cigars, dinner service, silver cutlery, hunting attire, tweed jackets, binoculars, formal evening wear, wads of money, safe cracking equipment, skeleton keys, disguises – the list went on and on.

  They all knew their lines and exactly where to go, what to say and what to do on arrival. Sir Harry drew a plan of the Manor House in the dirt to indicate where the safe was located. The manor house was divided into two main areas, the east wing and the west wing. The only information available was that the vault was located in a large library called the State Room in the east wing. The cracksmen among them would have to find that for themselves.

  The vault would be blown tomorrow week – on the following Saturday night at 11.30pm in the middle of the final evening’s entertainment – a grand ball which would be held in the west wing, after the wedding, the next Friday.

  At last, after one final grilling, they were pronounced ready – or at least, as ready as they ever would be, thought Sir Harry to himself.

  Chapter 24

  Sir Harry Receives An Offer

  It was after ten o’clock when they passed through Lashem, arriving at the entrance to the Manor House estate ten minutes later. Outwardly, the mansion looked like a life-sized doll's house ; some thought that it was filled with overgrown children. Around the fountains in front of the building, the chauffeured limousines made the front lawn resemble a luxury caryard in Mayfair or Belgravia.

  Drivers, porters and lackeys stood around, idly smoking cigarettes, gossiping and exchanging malicious chit-chat about their employers' households while the Manor House servants arranged billeting for them above the stables.

  From inside the west wing, enormous chandeliers blazed out a flood of light through the gallery windows and shimmering through the plane trees.

  Lord Loathbery had invited the cream of the financial set who all competed with each other and him. Some of the guests were just arriving and with noses in the air, were appalled to see their bitterest rivals. All of them discreetly scrutinised each other, particularly the wives and mistresses who smiled ironically or scowled.

  Sir Harry spotted an estate sedan containing the Euro-financiers, Helmut Schwager and Jean Pierre Bulot who had swung the invitation for him.

  At Epsom, Sandown and Goodwood Racecourses, he’d stalked them and finally bagged
them at Ascot in the Members Bar, as if by accident. Somehow, he’d begun a conversation with them and had casually mentioned he’d spent time in Africa whereupon Bulot introduced himself and offered to buy Sir Harry a drink. The performance was contrived from start to finish as he already knew their entire history and that they were business partners and friends of Lord Loathbery with a special interest in all things African.

  On flourishing his card with its title, their politeness knew no bounds : they loved mixing with the gentry, despite their republican posturings at home.

  Sir Harry had invented tales of his adventures in Africa : he knew that Loathbery was trying to get a foothold there but wasn’t having much luck. Dead on cue, they said they needed someone just like him as an ‘intermediary’ (bag man) in their ‘negotiations’ (bribery) with ‘certain heads of state’ (tin pot dictators) and ‘government representatives’ (corrupt ministers). Sir Harry had picked this up in the financial press : the newspapers hadn’t openly said that Loathbery did business this way but it was easy to read between the lines.

  Many in the City knew there was a dark side to Loathbery but were afraid of saying so : he used defamation writs to silence his enemies – and he had lots of them. At any time, there were scores of cases dragging on for years in the High Court against journalists who had merely hinted at the truth about him or former business partners whose honesty was unsuited to his double-dealing. And although there were loads of rumours circulating about his business practices, no-one fancied a writ landing on their breakfast table with the morning’s post.

  Thus, Sir Harry had found it too easy to use the continentals as his introduction to the House of Loathbery and with all the cunning and guile of his sixty five years of roguery, he swore that he would strip them of every scrap of loot, on which he could lay his thieving paws.

  From the Euros’ perspective, things were rather different : they wanted to use him to probe Loathbery’s business empire. Between themselves, Bulot and Schwager had their eyes on the Loathbery conglomerate and were convinced that the English upper class including life peers, only dealt with its own. For this, they needed someone who ‘spoke the same language’.

  Their interest was piqued when a disaster hit the Loathbery companies in the Far East. Speculators had staged a run on the share price in Hong Kong. News of the fiasco was only known by a small number of people including Schwager. He was always the first to hear of these things, being originally from East Germany, former state security and the wearer of a black leather overcoat.

  The upshot was that the Loathbery holding company, Obsydian PLC was played out and the continentals knew it – or thought they knew it. Now was the time for old scores to be repaid by decimating Obsydian’s assets and transferring them to deepest Lyon or Schweinfurt. Then again, there might be no need to sweep the remnants across the Channel – a French or German-owned factory might do well in Doncaster, subsidised by the British taxpayer and churning out what it had always produced but now with souped-up Euro-dynamism. After all, thought Bulot and Schwager with satisfaction, the British may have had an Empire and won both wars but their economy was like their detested baked beans, insubstantial and full of wind.

  To complicate matters further, a fierce rivalry existed between the continentals themselves. Neither would admit to the other that Schwager's vampiric tendencies were more voracious than Bulot's. Both of them secretly viewed their collaboration as a temporary one. Naturally, the German was willing to throw his froggy partner a few tasty flies. This was anticipated by Bulot who had a network of alliances with other larger monsieurs to out-trump the lederhosen steinswiller. Yet anyone seeing them together could easily have mistaken them for long-lost brothers.

  Both were resplendent in white dinner jackets. Their ladies wore the window displays from jewellers in L'Opera and the Kurfürstendamm. These same women usually sat each evening in their front rooms in a certain street in Brussels, framed by a picture window and randomly entertaining male visitors.

  Jean Pierre Bulot suddenly noticed Sir Harry then ran across to embrace him, kissing him on both chops and trying to drag him away.

  "Sacre Nom de Dieu, Sir Harry, we are so 'appy to see you, bygar," he yelled while grabbing the baronet's hand, shaking it violently, slapping him on the back and refusing to unclench the handshake as he waved to the rest of his party to join them.

  "My dear fellow…..Jean Pierre, I'm truly overwhelmed," crowed Sir Harry, thinking of the last occasion when they’d met at a French restaurant whose speciality was offal and that he was made to eat something indescribable to avoid giving offence.

  Meanwhile, Charlie Spark was organising the unloading of both cars so that the others could bed down at the stables. Fortunately, his black evening wear hid most of the engine grease and petrol and on joining Sir Harry, Schwager said "Mein Gott, vot is that smell ? Vhere is it coming from ?" At which point the entire group turned in Spark's direction and stared at him.

  "A slight accident…." murmured Sir Harry with the sweetest of smiles and taking Spark to one side, was told that there were no other clothes and that they would have to put up with it.

  It occurred to Charles that he didn’t look too much out of place. By coincidence, just next to them, someone in an absurd eighteenth century costume announced that the guests should make their way into the Manor House.

  When everyone was walking up to the steps, many of the guests caught the smell of petrol and engine grease and began looking in his direction.

  As they stepped into the grand entrance hall, Spark realised that what had appeared to be a costume, was in fact the servants' livery. A conceited lackey, dressed in wig and breeches inspected their invitations and said, "This way 'ere, guv. Mind 'ow yer go.."

  After taking Schwager's black leather coat (which the lackey thought ridiculous) and noting the state of Spark who was almost ejected but rescued by a fifty pound note, they were shown into a vestibule. Adorning the walls were paintings of fat horses and farm animals and a large, moth-eaten tapestry.

  Through a gap in a side door, Sir Harry noticed several flunkeys popping open champagne bottles, filling glasses, repeatedly toasting someone's health, each time roaring with laughter and knocking back their drinks in one go. Others had trays of hors d'oeuvres and canapés and were stuffing their mouths with food.

  As Schwager held forth to Sir Harry while making loud, demonstrative gestures and frequent guffaws, Charlie Spark noted the location of each door and window from the plan of the Manor House which Sir Harry had drawn in the dirt.

  Beyond the vestibule, there was the heady fragrance of perfume and champagne and the hum of a large crowd.

  Another lackey soon appeared and was oblivious to them. Charlie recognised him from years earlier in the juvenile resort known as Latchkey House.

  "Ah, zees ist very splendid," barked Schwager. "It brings to me many ideas for my hotels in München und Schweiz, especially zees flunkeys, haw haw." He was imagining how the Manor House and everything in it, could very shortly be his.

  Sir Harry took a glass of champagne which was offered to him and said : "Of course, Helmut old boy....but where exactly was it that you met Lord Loathbery ?"

  "Vell, it was like zees, Herr Baron – der Herrn Loathbery has a company which is part of the Obsydian Group and has interests everywhere, especially in Chermany. Some of zese companies manufacture veapons and armaments such as tanks and personnel carriers – very good quality. Ja, zo – many liddle republics and kingdoms, mostly in Asien and Afrika cry out for more of these products to keep out the kommunisten.."

  "Or to keep the food riots from reaching the presidential palace ?"

  "Ja...his Lordship knows many heads of government, dictators for life and warlords ; zere is much money to be made and the Loathbery companies have influence there, you see, because zese maniacs will pay the right price. I run a large cherman steel mill. We make zis und zat und Herr Loathbery decided our association could be very profitable. But....he need
s someone to, how you Ang-lish say it, blaze ze trail and ven I informed him of your experience in ze Congo und Ghana und other places in ze vorld, he was naturally vanting to meet you. Und zo, it was a lucky thing for us to meet at the races, my friend."

  Feigning surprise, Sir Harry said, "Yes, you’re quite right – it was lucky, wasn't it." Everything which Schwager had said was already known by Sir Harry months before ; in fact, he viewed himself as an expert on Obsydian and its ventures in Africa – ‘Sir Harry Hoppitt, contestant on MasterMental, special topic – Loathbery companies’. It was only when he knew he could hoodwink the Euros in his sleep, did he attempt to bump into them, as if by accident.

  "Eh bien, Sir Harry, we would like to discurs wiz you un projet in Afrique. We need someone with the insider's knowledge of zese African militaire and how we can uh.. persuade them to accept our very large... contracts, par example.."

  "Jean Pierre, old boy, I'm very flattered, believe me, it's very kind of you but I really don't know whether that's entirely up my street or not..."

  "Sir Harry, please, allow me to say, we have absolute respect for you. We seek someone of your presence and gravité. After all, it's not every day one meets a retired British brigadier who has spent his professional life in zese countries. What you told us about the Mau Mau you captured after the army patrol deserted you and your men and wiz ze bullet wounds in your shoulder and leg and zey were attacking you from all sides but you managed to reload your gun just in time yet you still got a spear in the back, but it missed your heart by millimetres....c’est incroyable, mon vieux."

  "Oh, listen old chum, ha, it's not something I really like to discuss especially in front of the ladies…"

  "But please – consider our offer, Sir Harry – please do not make a decision now – let us enjoy ourselves at the casino to begin matters and all in good time, we can discuss it with Lord Loathbery. And so, do you feel lucky tonight ? Is the goddess of fortune smiling on you, just as she did last Thursday at Ascot – you must certainly know something we don't, I think it is true – bygar, I am sure."

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