Charlie spark villain.., p.9
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.9

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  With a slight turn in the direction of his secretary who for some reason was staring at the floor with a smile on his face, Sir Harry pondered inwardly : "If only you knew, you teeming tub of bouillabaisse.."

  As the queue moved forward, they were ready to enter the gaming room attended by a lackey who was so drunk that he was seeing triple. To avoid falling over, he slid along a few steps and then halted every so often to keep his balance but eventually stumbled and careered headlong into a group of waiting guests.

  Chapter 25

  At The Gaming Tables

  They waited outside two oak doors on which there were carvings of snarling wildcats. As the doors parted, each of the guests’ names and titles were announced by a bellowing lackey. When he reached the Londoners’ names, he coughed momentarily, stared at the list and with the broadest of grins, said in pure Cockney : “ ‘Ere, is that righ’ ? Sir ‘arry ‘oppitt ?” and then turned to the wall and gave a cackle. When he’d recovered, the baronet assured him with bulging eyes and reddened face that the name was correct, whereupon the lackey replied “Well, if you say so, guv,” and roared out “Mr Charles Spark and Sir Harry Hoppitt”, followed by a lot of sniggering.

  Then they were ushered into what looked like a gambling palace, filled with over a hundred guests. The champagne was flowing freely and the assembly was hell-bent on enjoying themselves as much as they possibly could : all of them secretly mistrusted their host but were forced to attend as they were in some way beholden to him.

  Across the room, was a sea of black and white jackets, colourful gowns and fashion statements, all illuminated by the chandeliers. The gaming tables had overhead lamps where blackjack, roulette, whist, bridge, poker and backgammon were being played. With this scene before them, Sir Harry and Charlie Spark felt like beggars entering Aladdin’s Cave.

  Without a word, Bulot headed straight for the roulette table, took out a wad of notes, thrust them at the croupier and received a pile of chips. Half of them he wagered on red and before he knew it, he’d lost them all.

  In contrast, Helmut Schwager wished the baronet good fortune and slowly meandered past each table as if he was at a funeral. After following the backgammon game for half an hour, he exchanged five hundred pounds and began staking bets at the lowest limit of twenty five pounds a time. Whenever he lost, he would pick up his remaining chips, glare at them, slam them down and furiously shriek, "Verdammt."

  As for the Londoners, they both understood that the contest had well and truly begun – Sir Harry’s plan might actually stand a ghost of a chance. Spark had never seen such ostentation before and was struck rigid as he stared from one table to the next, at the sight of so many women and their jewels.

  Over a hundred of the wealthiest and most powerful aristocrats, politicos and mercantilists in the kingdom together with less important bigwigs, fops, floozies, artistes and musicians had all been assembled together. Many were notorious and were regularly denounced in the press. Most of the men, whether married or not, were perpetually seeking women of an ‘adventurous’ disposition. As most of the women were thoroughly mercenary, there was always a large assortment from which to choose – so long as the price was right.

  Sir Harry sensed that both he and Spark looked out of place – especially Spark – and that they should mingle with the crowd. His wallet was full of stolen fifty pound notes and grimacing at wasting so much money, he counted out a thousand pounds and exchanged them for forty blue chips. Half were given to Spark and the other half he kept for himself. Then he looked at his companion, frowned, told him they would rendezvous again in half an hour, rattled off a list of things to avoid and wended his way through the crowd to the bridge table.

  Left to himself, Spark instantly put out of mind everything Sir Harry had told him. Instinctively, he was drawn to any trinketry or cash he could lay his hands on and on this occasion, there was an abundance to be had.

  Firstly though, he would begin by drinking the house dry of champagne and grabbed two glasses from a passing tray. He fancied trying his luck at the closest table while filling his pockets full of jewels and banknotes lifted from the spectators. Such were his thoughts as he clicked his chips to and fro and unaware of the stares he was attracting.

  The nearest table was obscured from view by a row of backs. The only way he could even glimpse the game was to stand on tip toe and breathe down someone's neck which would also give him a chance to delve about in their pockets. Eventually, he could see there were two players sitting at the blackjack table. One of them was a youngish woman of ample proportions harnessed into a tight-fitting gown. Just as he was lifting a wallet out of someone’s pocket, the woman at the table screamed at the croupier, causing the crowd to recoil and the wallet to fall on the floor.

  From his limited view of the game, his eyes alighted on her sapphire bracelet, as her hand rapped on the table, demanding another card. Finally, he jostled his way in to the front, to the horror of the others who held their noses or scowled and backed away from him. He ignored them as his attention was elsewhere : it was curious how her hair was swept up and plaited like a horse's mane ; he was so close to her that he could almost have reached out and unclasped the matching sapphire necklace, gleaming around her neck, beneath her second chin.

  As he edged nearer to the light, he felt about in a few more pockets as he went. The champagne had gone to his head. He hadn’t noticed that he was in the middle of a wealthy clique who viewed ‘the lower orders’ as ‘amusing’. Anyone else would have taken the hint and immediately vanished. But none of that occurred or even mattered to Spark. Even if he'd known their real identities, as far as he was concerned, the gentry and the middle classes were there to be plundered. They were all a pushover and fair game and while anyone could burgle their houses in the dead of night, it was another thing altogether, to be stealing from them face to face.

  As for the ‘boat race’ – the face – directly opposite him, the fellow dishing out the cards was anything but a croupier by profession : he was well over six feet tall, had a curly head of hair, a muscular frame and spoke with a Chelsea drawl.

  Aside from the pong, as soon as Spark had approached the table, the croupier sensed what their visitor was after. Like most profligates, the dealer burned with jealousy if there was the vaguest suspicion that another man was attracted to his wife. For his spouse was the lady herself sitting straight in front of him, flashing her sapphires, whining about the run of cards. She also happened to be Lord Loathbery's eldest daughter, Antoinette.

  The croupier was called Simon Cadwaller but was known as 'Simon the 'Cad' to everyone including the boneheads in his rugby squad. With an intense hatred, he could see that Spark exhibited all the reminders of poverty and deprivation which Cadwaller despised : the sallow complexion, greasy clothes and slovenliness. Intuitively, he suspected that despite any money entering the equation, Spark was really a prole and a loutish one at that. Whatever the newcomer's background was, at best he was part of the lower money set and was likely to be base, uncultured and churlish. Having decided that Spark was his enemy, the Cad resolved to find out all about him, how he'd got his invitation, where he came from and how he'd been able to sneak inside the Manor House in the first place.

  Bets were placed and another round of cards was dealt as Spark grabbed a seat at the blackjack table to be in the thick of the game. A bit of old chat to his gaming partner and before she knew it, the sapphires would be his. Across from him, the dealer decided to have some sport.

  "Oh, look everyone, we appear to have a serious player in our midst. You there. Yes, you. Would you like to join the game ?" The sarcasm was disarmed by Spark's smarmy look of innocence, of a little lamb on a frolic.

  Observing the social niceties, he stood up, introduced himself as Charles Dangerfield, extended a clammy palm to the Cad who almost fainted at having his own hand gripped by something slimy, following which Spark resumed his seat and meekly set his chips before him in readiness to play. An awkward
silence followed as they looked at the dirt on his face and clothes. Suddenly, Antoinette Loathbery (who styled herself by her maiden name) flung a bucket of cold water by complaining that just as she was winning, the game was being handed to someone else. Then she leapt out of her chair, threw down her cards and sulked off, whining : "Why are you interrupting the game, Simon ? Why won't you let me win my money back ?"

  As she rushed away, the folds of her gown swished past Spark's face, scattering his chips across the table. A closer look at her face revealed blood red lipstick, black false eyelashes and layer upon layer of make-up and pomade in a variety of clashing shades. "Gawd struth..." he thought with trepidation. "What a terrier. Just as well she's gone."

  Suddenly, everyone was staring straight at him as if he’d caused all the trouble.

  "Ha ha...sorray," he said with a hollow laugh, while mustering his poshest, plumbiest accent. "Not intruding, am I ?" when it was obvious to the most obtuse goat, that that's precisely what he was doing.

  "Not in the least," lied Cadwaller with false humility. "Glad of the company. Always ready to meet a serious gambler. So – want to play, do you ? Right then."

  Chapter 26

  Charlie Spark At the Blackjack Table

  Although nothing was said, Cadwaller’s friends were furious that Spark had barged in, uninvited. The last time they were so annoyed, they’d lost a rugby match in Paris, been laughed out of town and the wine had tasted like old socks.

  Sour grapes indeed. Apart from that, one look at Spark told them that he was embarrassingly low on the social scale. Obviously, his father had been in some trade or other – no pedigree. Never mind that their own family histories included people exactly like Spark or even worse, two or three generations back. His blackened dinner jacket, gold watch and chain and faux accent might have belonged to an Essex stockbroker or a millionaire second hand car dealer but what exasperated them, was that he was impervious to their hostility.

  Simon the croupier decided to make short work of the interloper and get rid of him. "Let's get on with it, shall we ?" he said as Spark gave his innocent tomcat look which infuriated the Cad even more.

  Before they started, Cadwaller downed two gulps of armagnac, almost choked on them, had a fit of coughing, turned bright red and shuffled the cards for a final time before depositing both decks in the sleeve with the cut card at half way mark.

  Without thinking – as it didn’t matter to Spark how much would be staked – he placed a hundred pounds at the corner of the square (or ‘box’) marked on the playing area in front of him. In return, he was dealt two cards face up, a seven of hearts and a six of diamonds.

  Cadwaller dealt himself two cards, one face up, an ace (which could be either one or eleven) and the other card face down. The champagne and brandy were making him sweat and he was impatient to see what his opponent would do. Around the table, they wanted revenge : Spark would be baited like a performing bear.

  Appearing bewildered, the ingénue drew another card – a five of spades.

  Cadwaller stared at his opponent's cards, announced “Eighteen. Bank to draw,” in a rasping voice, his throat burned by the armagnac ,then dealt himself a third card face up – a queen of diamonds. Triumphantly looking at his supporters, he turned over his third card, a ten of clubs and gloatingly roared, "Blackjack."

  With that, the table erupted in backslaps and whinnying ; Spark's was the only straight face.

  "Bad luck, old man," said the croupier in mock apology. "What bad, bad luck."

  Around them swelled the noise and heat of the room, the clinking of champagne glasses, silver salvers and trays, the reflected flickering of the candles in the mirrors, the rack of cigar smoke and in the distance, a shriek : "Schwein," and shortly afterwards : "Verdammten Schwein". It was all buzzing inside Spark's head as if a fly was bouncing from ear to ear. And the price of the revenge he would wreak on them, had just risen by another hundred thousand pounds.

  Chapter 27

  Simon Cadwaller’s Feud

  "Deal again…" smiled the late resident of Her Majesty’s Sanatorium Wandsworth, as if nothing had happened. This caused the entire table to squeal with laughter at his audacity to stay the distance, with the croupier laughing the loudest.

  It occurred to Charles that if the game had been played at the Tyburn Tree or the Black Lion, he would have jumped across the table to make a few gaps in Cadwaller's front teeth. Instead, to their annoyance, he joined in the laughter, clapped his hands, slapped the table, whistled then assumed his original dim-wittedness by stacking a quarter of his chips at the corner of the box.

  The croupier decided some further cavilling was needed and said, "Listen, old fellow, have you actually played this game before ? I mean, we wouldn't want to take advantage of you."

  "Are you winding me up ?"

  "Winding you up ? Do you mean – like a clockwork monkey ?"

  At this, everyone around the table exploded with laughter which lasted for several minutes until order was restored.

  This way and that, Cadwaller slid out two cards in a flicking motion as though trying to rid himself of their visitor. Spark was dealt a king of spades and a seven of hearts, totalling seventeen. In the heat of the room, sweat was trickling down his back. Stupidly and without thinking, he said : "Double," and with that, his last remaining chips were lumped onto the corner of the second box.

  Cadwaller slid a further two cards out of the shoe and turned face up, a four of spades and an eight of diamonds. He dealt himself another two cards.

  "For the bank : first box – twenty. Second box – Seventeen. Hahahahaha – what terrible luck you're having, old fellow," roared the croupier in mechanical laughter through the applause and ridicule. One of the guests laughed so loudly that he slumped over a chair in hysterics (where he continued quacking for a full quarter of an hour) until a pair of lackeys (who were undercover hacks) were asked to ferry him out, still pointing at Spark and howling with laughter.

  As his chips were swept away like the outgoing tide, Charlie Spark realised his bankroll was broken.

  Soon, the laughter stopped. Across the table in front of him, standing around the croupier, no-one moved or said anything : they were all either poker-faced or looking bored. They knew he'd run out of money and were praying for him to pack up and go. But his sheer doggedness pushed him on, at whatever the cost, like some sort of kamikaze robot. He couldn't have given a tinker's cuss about the money he'd lost – if it came to it, he'd lose another half a million or a million or ten million – it was just play money anyway (which his opponents didn’t realise).

  He suspected Cadwaller was a cardsharper – his witless friends were laughing as they knew full well that Spark didn't stand a chance and that the Cad knew precisely in advance which cards would be whisked out next. Strip away the pretentiousness and when you got down to it, they were playing him for a fool, merely for the entertainment value rather than the money. It was a strange reversal of fortunes – instead of him fleecing them, they were stripping him. And the more he thought about it, the more fixed he was, either to crash or crash through.

  To their utter consternation, instead of becoming angry and leaving the table, he merely laughed to himself when the crowd was deathly silent and the croupier stared at him, expecting him to go.

  Spark knew full well that Sir Harry had forbidden him, on pain of death, from using any counterfeit notes at the Manor House but this was an emergency – alarm bells were ringing and he had no other money – so there was no escaping it. Only one thought possessed him : to trounce that jumped-up, public school baboon, whatever the price – even at the risk of endangering their plan.

  He took a glass of champagne, drained it off in one and took another for good measure.

  "I've run out of chips. Can I buy some here at the table ?" he asked.

  Cadwaller nodded in irritation and stacked up ten thousand pounds worth. In return, he was given a wad of sooty, well-used fifty pound notes.


  "I won't bother counting it," he said, meaning that any shortfall in such a paltry amount was of no consequence and that he refused to soil his hands with it.

  In a frenzy of one-upmanship, they played ten more hands, of which Spark was able to win only one. Across the table, he watched the dealer passing the cards to and fro, to and fro. In return, the Cad’s eyes probed his opponent who persisted in banging on because no one would demean themselves by asking him to leave. Instead, they ground their teeth and wrung their hands behind their backs at this woodlouse who had dug himself in for the duration.

  After ploughing through nearly all of his chips, Spark was left with five hundred pounds in front of him. Without the slightest concern, he was reduced to wagering a hundred pounds on each game, to try and scrape back the money he'd lost. But try as he might, the cards were dead against him like those around him.

  His dress shirt was soaked with sweat and yet he calmly examined his cards over and over again as they were dealt, in an effort not to betray his anger and give Cadwaller the bump on the snout which he richly deserved.

  At long last, the ten thousand had disappeared and the crowd were insensible with impatience to see whether the upstart would be bankrupted or thrown out. A lackey appeared and offered Spark a cigar which gave him time to think.

  "Is my credit at the table good for a further hundred thousand ?" he asked, sending out a smoke ring.

  "Hahahahaha, whatever do you mean, old chap ?" said the dealer, caught off balance and wondering how it was possible that anyone invited to the Manor House would dare ask for credit. There were yelps of dismay and whispers of disbelief at the request.

  "He wants credit," said Cadwaller who by now had had as much as he could stand. The audience collectively snorted at the suggestion.

  Their opponent delighted in the opportunity to act the part of the aggrieved guest and thumped the table in fury, insisting that Sir Harry Hoppitt known throughout the world as such and such and whatever, bla bla and a man of immense wealth, bla bla, would guarantee any amount.

 
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