Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Biter Bit by Harry Downey

Small-time actor and impressionist Charlie recruits a motley cast of characters to help his friend Freddie out of a tight corner, including a disabled knife thrower and a scar-faced animal lover, in Harry Downey's thoroughly British story of intrigue and deception.

I.

As Charlie was just about to offer up his customary incantation about 'the first of the evening,' Freddie came up to him and offered to buy him a pint. Freddie was known as a man with 'short arms and deep pockets' - so Charlie realised something unusual was in the offing.

Freddie was a whippet of a man compared to Charlie's massive six feet three with matching bulk, so his whispered, 'I'd like a word on the Q.T. Charlie,' wasn't easy to hear even in a half-empty bar. Charlie would have preferred to remain where he was, but seeing the pleading look that Freddie gave him he pointed to an empty table and they went across and sat down. Even though there was no risk of being overheard he still looked around carefully before speaking to match Freddie's obvious concern.

'What's the matter, Freddie? You look like a man with problems. Tell your Uncle Charlie all about it.'

Freddie didn't seem to hear - just sat there looking anxious with such an 'I'm feeling sorry for myself' look that Charlie felt tempted to shake him vigorously out of whatever it was.

After what seemed like minutes of this Freddie pulled a postcard from his inside pocket and passed it over for Charlie to read.

It was a perfectly ordinary, standard-type card with views of London in a little montage - coloured pictures of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace - the sort of thing the tourists bought in its tens of thousands, if not more. The postmark was blurred but he thought it was E15 - a district he remembered slightly from years before. Not up to much back then, but possibly peopled by millionaires these days the way property prices had gone. The world has gone crazy, he thought for the umpteenth time.

'Never knew your surname before, Freddie. Chessington. Are you named after the zoo or is it the other way round?'

That attempt at cheering him up fell flat, so Charlie read the card in silence. The message was brief and handwritten - in a scrawl that wasn't easy to read.

Freddie, old boy.

Haven't heard from you for a while. I thought we were going to keep in touch. Surely you haven't thought of moving on again without letting me have an address, have you? I know you wouldn't do that to an old friend. I still have the note you and Elsie left with me. Money's a bit tight down here so another little contribution by return would be welcome.


There was no signature.

He passed the card back.

'Come on Freddie, my seat is getting cold and you know I like to sit there where I can philosophise and watch the world go by. Well, sit at the bar anyway. The card's nothing to get worked up about. Explain everything or I'm off. Chop, chop.'

'Point taken Charlie. Just bear with me while I get you that pint then all will be made clear.'

The first time you heard it, Freddie's voice came as a surprise. In this small Derbyshire town where the local accent was strong and ugly, Freddie's carefully modulated tones and enunciation that Charlie had heard referred to in the bar as 'very Daily Telegraph' stood out.

Charlie's own accent had changed to come closer to that of his companion. This modification was almost instinctive by now, and owed much to his time as a young man at Drama School and afterwards in repertory companies, progressing to being a minor name in the West End, in occasional films and latterly sporadic appearances on television. Over the years he had found that he easily took on an accent and speech pattern that was right for the company he was with at the time.

His background had also left him with a range of impressions - not earth shattering, Charlie knew his limitations - but decent enough to entertain at the occasional fund-raising show for local charities. Charlie was especially proud of three of his voices - people seemed to like his Basil Fawlty, and that gift for impressionists everywhere, Michael Caine.

His 'piece of resistance' as he called it was his impression of Sean Connery. It was so good that Charlie had once been asked to dub the Scotsman's voice in a comedy television advert, but he turned it down, even though Connery himself had given his permission. The fee was very generous and afterwards Charlie often regretted his refusal. Particularly when the ad was made and screened. It made quite a stir in the press when the news slipped out - or was more probably deliberately leaked to get a little bit more publicity - that it wasn't the Scot himself but one of the country's top impressionists who was being paid a small fortune for the voiceover. Charlie's professionally objective view was that he could have done it himself just as well. It still rankled a bit when he looked at his diminishing bank balance.



II.

Freddie came back from the bar with a pint of local bitter and his own preferred drink - a glass of red wine. The two men were not in the least danger of being overheard but still Freddie looked around closely before he began to speak. For a man on familiar territory he seemed remarkably ill at ease.

'It's like this.' He sipped his wine as a connoisseur would but clearly from his grimace the house red was not a wine-buff's vintage of choice.

'The man who sent me the card is blackmailing me. He's saying that a fresh payment is due and warning me not to try to move on as he will trace me. I did try once to shake him off by leaving where I had been living, with no forwarding address, but he managed to trace me. He has contacts that do that sort of thing, you see. He wasn't pleased with me and made threats - enough to make me not to want to try it again. Really he says a lot in a single card if you know how to read it.'

Charlie chose not to interrupt and Freddie carried on. Again he glanced around at his neighbours - none of whom could have heard him but he kept his voice low when he next spoke.

'I have a record - a police record. I did time about five years ago for embezzling some money from an employer. I have no complaints about it - I did wrong, was caught, and punished for it. It taught me a harsh lesson and I don't want to go back inside ever again. It wasn't the doddle that people think it is. Not for me anyway, it wasn't. You'll have to take my word for it that since I came out I have been clean.'

'Point taken Freddie. I've always found you OK and if you say you're straight now, of course I'll take your word for it. I assume we're speaking in confidence about your past?'

'Indeed we are. Apart from me you are now the only person in Heanor who knows what I have just told you. I may be here for a while yet so I want to keep it quiet.'

'That's OK, Freddie. It'll go no further - but why are you telling me this and why now? It's obviously something to do with this postcard you've just shown me.'

Initially not caring one way or the other what Freddie's problem was - after all, who doesn't have something that's bothering them - Charlie found he was getting interested. Life was routine these days and he needed some variety. Here he was: no regular job, just the odd bits and pieces his agent found him. They helped to top up his savings and as he had never been an extravagant person he managed to get by - with a few years to go until pension date he couldn't splash out much.

Other people, people like the regulars here in the pub, imagined he was, if not loaded, at least 'comfortably off.' This was because if Charlie got the occasional odd part or a couple of lines in a sit-com or a walk-on bit in the pub scene in a soap, when finally they were seen on the box, somehow his jobs invariably seemed to be screened closely together. So when the folks in the Nag's Head saw him on the TV perhaps twice in a week they assumed he had masses of work. If only. Those two tiny jobs could have been after months 'resting' (the old euphemism easily came back to him). They just didn't understand. Who outside the business ever would really be clear about the acting profession? Even using that word for a job was a bit pretentious.

'Let me tell you some more and then we'll talk about it. I need some advice and a friendly face and a shoulder to lean on, Charlie. You might even be able to help me a little. Who knows?'

'Two things I can't help you with, Freddie. One is cash. There's no way I can help you out there. Sorry. The other is this shoulder business. Lean on it by all means; but cry on it - no way. I don't like to see grown men cry.'

'No Charlie, it's not money I need - at least not from you. And you're safe on the crying bit. That's not my style.'

Freddie looked around again, saw there was no likelihood of being overheard, settled back and began.

'You can probably appreciate that with a police record job openings are rather restricted. You don't know my background, but my family is what you might call 'upper crust' and has pots of money. They gave me an expensive education, and it was always assumed by the family that I'd just potter along until the time came to inherit - I'm an only child. This family assumption didn't include asking my opinion on the future and when I left Eton and went on to Cambridge, after a year and a bit I chucked it all and just drifted for a while. I was determined to make my own way in the world without the family money, so I took on the job in that office that eventually put me into jail.

'When I came out things were pretty iffy until finally I got a job of sorts with a fellow called Solomons - Jonty Solomons. He's a car dealer in East London. The card you've just seen is from him. He has a pitch where he sells second-hand vehicles, and does all his repairs and stuff in one of those places you see in those crime programmes on the television - under those massive railway arches.'

Oh, the number of those garages under the arches that Charlie had gone into dressed in blue in his time. The memories came flooding back. He tried to push them away to concentrate on the man in front of him.

As Freddie told his tale and Charlie listened, taking the occasional sip from his pint, he studied this interesting character who had appeared from nowhere some months earlier. He first met him here in the pub when he saw him sitting alone in a corner. He was dressed then - as now - in a dark blue suit, the sort the locals would sometimes refer to as an 'interview suit' except that it was of a better cut and quality than your average Nag's Head punter could probably afford. In his early thirties, about five feet six, slightly built, pale rather than sallow skinned with regular features that some might regard as feminine. In a 'short back and sides' pub his longish fair hair parted on the right with carefully combed wings at each ear was certainly different. An open neck blue shirt, no tie but a matching blue handkerchief draping casually from his breast pocket, added to the effect.

The reaction of many of the regulars was obvious and their views were strengthened the moment he opened his mouth. 'Posh queer probably looking for a bit of rough.' Almost inevitably, with an opinion like that being widely held, as a newcomer to the pub he was avoided at first, but when Charlie started to have the occasional chat with Freddie, and others too found he was worth talking to, he became generally accepted as one of the regulars. This assimilation was helped when one evening he was dragooned into the pub 'Quiz Nite' team and helped it to a decisive win over the team from Barley Mow. Freddie clearly knew about matters that were way beyond the knowledge of his team-mates and his status shot up as a result.

Freddie did drop one clanger though. In a way that clearly was normal to him he referred to the landlord using just his surname. 'Another one in there, please, Garthrop, there's a good chap' − and you could have heard the proverbial penny as it hit the floor. There was a heated exchange that finally was sorted out by Freddie apologising and doing his best to explain that he meant to be sociable and not condescending.

Charlie took him to one side later and tried to explain that round here you didn't use a man's surname like that. It was too much like 'us and them,' 'Officers and ORs' - and in an area where there were few officers and masses of other ranks he had rubbed people up the wrong way.

By now though, Freddie was accepted by almost everyone, and as he had been seen in the town with female companions, the 'gay' tag had virtually gone.

Charlie's full attention went back to what was being said.

'Solomons took me on and I jumped at the job. Jonty himself was too smooth for my taste - I simply didn't like him or trust him, but beggars can't be choosers, as they say; so I finished up working for him. He was out a lot and he had the two areas for his business to keep an eye on, so he needed a dogsbody - a 'gofer' is the term they use these days, I believe. I would go to the sales pitch or the repair shop - wherever he sent me - and basically did everything he threw at me. Rudimentary book-keeping, phone messages, pay a few bills, contact him if there was a possible sale - more or less everything. He didn't pay me much, but even so, I sometimes wondered why he needed to employ me at all. I was never over-busy and without my little contribution the place would have continued to run well enough. I was to find out quite soon why I was there.

'I can see by the quizzical raising of the eyebrows - by the way it's very 'Roger Mooreish' Charlie - that the matter of handling books and cash puzzles you. Yes, Solomons knew all about my past. And, I was to find out soon enough - he knew all about my father and his position too. It was all in his master plan.

'I knew that he knew a lot about me - the family and its money and my brush with the law. So these things were openly discussed between us: Solomons doing all the discussing. As far as I was concerned my family and previous history were my business.

'So far I haven't told you about Solomons himself. He was regularly turned over by the police, but he was usually a move ahead of them. He was getting tip-offs from the local gendarmerie and paid well for them. I know that for a fact. He'd done time at least twice before, but they wanted him again. His main scam was selling stolen vehicles. Top of the range models - Mercedes, Rollers, Jags, that sort of thing - were stolen and ended up with Solomons in his workshop. He fitted them up with new plates and fresh papers and they were through the docks like a flash - out to his contact in the Middle East. He had other minor things going, but that was his main work. He sold a few ordinary cars from the site too, something that might help him to pass as a genuine car dealer. Something in the books for the tax man to see. He was a real bad sort. After a time working for him he began to act as if I was invisible and he made no real attempt to hide anything from me. I knew a lot about his dealings but he took it for granted that I would keep it all to myself. He was right, of course. Until now that is.

'Even with all his interests, legal or not, he was greedy and always wanted more, and in me he thought he had a golden goose. He set me up for blackmail on the basis that my father would always bail me out to protect the family name and to keep it out of the newspapers. He was completely wrong. The old man wouldn't have raised a finger - noble family digit or not. I told Solomons this but until he telephoned the old man and got the complete brush off he just wouldn't accept it. His scheme counted on some family solidarity and with my lot that was a non-starter. He couldn't understand it. Even after the phone call he still had hopes in that quarter.

'What happened next was this. There was a young woman there, Elsie, who cleaned his cars for him, made the tea and dusted round the office, that sort of thing. He paid her a pittance but she seemed grateful for even that. I saw her most days and found her pleasant enough even though she was always a little distant and not very bright, and her thoughts were usually somewhere else. I scarcely knew her really.

'Then one day we were in the office together and she started crying. She told me she was behind with her rent and the landlord was threatening her with eviction and possibly court action too. Somehow that didn't quite ring true, as it seemed rather futile to me - if the girl couldn't pay her rent then how could she pay a fine? When she told me that she was already on probation for shop-lifting I understood her problem. Any infringement of the terms she had to observe could end up with her going to prison.

'Solomons came in at that moment and saw my arm round her shoulders and Elsie in tears. He began to bluster away about me taking advantage of a young woman and reporting me to the police. Obviously I told him it was all nonsense but his mind seemed made up on the matter. Then he checked the petty cash box - something that hadn't been opened that morning until then when he came in and did it.

'The outcome was that he then said he was twenty pounds short in the float and I'd taken it. Elsie was sobbing away continuously and Solomons was trying to look sympathetic. He said he would forget her part in the business if she wrote a statement saying that I had tried to sexually assault her, and that I'd taken the cash from the box to pay her.

'Elsie jumped at this and wrote something out on a paper that Solomons had handy which he then locked away in his safe. He then told her she could go and he would take care of everything. She couldn't get out of the office quickly enough and stumbled on the stairs in her hurry.

'It was all a set-up, of course, and she was paid by him to stage the show. Solomons knew all about her probation and used it for his scheme by blackmailing her too. I told you he was a really nasty piece of work. He still has that paper and if he keeps his threat and uses it then I will be inside again for a spell, probably a long term this time. It's two against one and I don't have much chance as long has Solomons has his hold over Elsie.'

Freddie grimaced again as he sipped his bottle of cheap plonk and Charlie wondered why he didn't get Dougie to keep a decent red for him behind the bar. No-one else in the Nag's Head drank anything as exotic as a reasonable claret so his personal cache would be safe enough. No need to put pencil marks on the label or anything like that.

'That's my problem, Charlie. These days you're the closest thing I have to a friend round here I can turn to - so, to put it simply - can you advise me or see some way out of the jam I'm in? Any thoughts you might chip in with will be very, very welcome. I'm in a mess and need help.'

Charlie didn't know what to say. Until that evening he had known very little about Freddie and his life. To him he was little more than just one of the blokes in the pub - better educated and better spoken than the others, but little more than a slight acquaintance. So Charlie did what came naturally to him and went to the bar for another pint along with Freddie's refill before responding.

'You've caught me on the hop here, Freddie. I haven't a clue what to say. I'd need to know much more about this Solomons fellow and his situation before I could even begin to think of offering a solution. I'd like to help though. He sounds like a real bad 'un who should be sorted out.

'For instance. You know about his dealings in these stolen cars. Why don't you make it clear to him that what you have on him cancels out what he says he has on you? That might work. Then this Elsie girl. Why don't you try to trace her and get her to tell the truth to back up your story?'

Freddie was sipping his drink thoughtfully as he listened.

'Yes, I do probably have enough on him to tell the police a good story but Solomons has a contact with the local police he pays regularly, and anyway I have no written proof. It would be my word against his - and don't forget in their eyes I'm an old lag who has been helped out by a kind-hearted and compassionate employer. He just has to produce the paper from his safe and tell them I'm trying to wriggle my way out of the trouble I'm in. As for Elsie - she's terrified of him. He knows all the local gangsters and is a bit of a bully himself so she knows that she would get a good hiding, or even have her faced slashed perhaps if she tried to retract her tale. That's the sort of thing Solomons is capable of. And, don't forget, he could rig something that would break her probation. She could be inside in no time. He seems to hold all the cards.

'Another option would be to move away from here and hope he doesn't track me down. If I did that I could end up looking over my shoulder all the time. I don't want to live like that. What I do want is to clear it up, once and for all.

'I realise that what I've already paid him has gone - and I won't see any of it again - but I don't want Solomons to keep leeching off me every few months for the rest of my life. It's a tall order, I know, but you might have a thought or two that might help. He's a wicked man and should be in prison in my view.'

Charlie, who had been mainly a listener so far, spoke up.

'If we're talking about prison for wrongdoing then I'm with you, Freddie. I'm an old-fashioned 'small c' conservative man in my views. None of this Political Correctness and 'everyone's a victim' nonsense. And if we can rid the Met of a couple of bent coppers, then let's do that too. I have many friends in blue and I respect what they do. It's a hard job in the police and they deserve all the help they can get. I'd like us to write that into the ground rules if we do find there's something we find we can do.'

'We're agreed then, old boy. Let me put something to you, something that might be the basis of an idea and one that needs a man with your special sort of skills to make it work. It's just the germ of an idea, that's all, but you might like it. OK Charlie? My thinking goes something like this.'

Charlie listened carefully to Freddie's little plan, liked it and suggested additions and improvements. The two became more animated as the discussion progressed and Charlie produced a small book and started to jot various things down in it. Freddie marked the occasion by having a fourth glass of wine before the two agreed to meet again the following evening to compare notes.

The final words of the evening came from Charlie. They were spoken in the manner of a man who was not drunk but was nearing the point when he soon could be. Inevitably some of the longer words did not come out as the speaker intended but neither of the men seemed aware of it.

'The Germans have a word that we English haven't that just about sums up the situation, Freddie. The word is 'schadenfreude' and it means getting pleasure from someone else's discomfort. Having heard about your Mister Solomons a little bit of that might be called for and let's see if we are the ones to do it. Let's drink to that.'

The two left the pub - Freddie feeling hazily happier than he had for some time - Charlie to go home and look for his personal phone book before he fell into bed.



III.

Before David Protheroe was born his father, Idwal, had two ambitions for him - that no son of his would ever go down the pit where his father had laboured for twenty three years and had the cough and the scarred body to show for every single one of them, and that young Dai - his first son − would play rugby for Wales. Not in the pack where Protheroe Senior played as a journeyman back row forward for his local club, but in the glamorous backs to eventually become the latest in the distinguished list of great Welsh stand-off halves. No doubt the latter wish was shared by many fathers and fathers-to-be in the Principality but few would have wanted it more than Idwal.

So when baby Dai was found to have his left leg shorter than the other and it later became clear that he would never be able to walk without a limp and running at any pace was not a realistic option, all of his father's hopes and plans became focussed on Evan, born fourteen months after his brother and physically perfect. The unfortunate Dai also had a vivid birthmark scar on his right cheek that Idwal's Trade Union paid the medical people to examine. Their conclusion was that it could be made slightly less obvious but would still blight him for his entire life. Also the boy had a slight turn in his right eye and was destined to be a short man even when full grown.

Shunned by a disappointed father and merely tolerated by his mother Dai was left to his own devices and became a nervous, introspective boy with no academic skills, and understandably enough, limited social graces. Uneasy in company he spoke only when he had to and was always embarrassed by a slight stammer that nature had added to his other defects. Nothing seemed to interest him particularly or hold his attention for long, and the only future anyone could see for him would be some moderately paid work above ground in the local pit. He seemed happiest when alone and that suited his family which by now had another boy and a girl to care for.

In the school summer holidays of his thirteenth year a small travelling fairground and circus arrived and set up its attractions down the valley at Cwern - about five miles from the Protheroe's home village. Dai found an old school satchel, filled a lemonade bottle with water, took a pork-pie from the fridge and an apple from the bowl on the kitchen table and trudged to the show. He spent hours there, carefully protecting and recounting his small hoard of coins. He went back home that evening a changed boy. There was now something in his life that for the first time had really taken his interest. Even his father, deep in his own preoccupations, could see a change in his son. His parents' enquiries as to the boy's day seemed to open a floodgate.

Dai had spent most of his day at the fairground watching the knife-throwing of 'The Magnificent Modred'. From what their son told his parents, his absorbed watching of the knife-thrower as he rehearsed on some ground behind the main tent had caught the man's eye and he started to take some interest in the boy. He had been allowed to make a few tentative throws and appeared - according to what 'Modred' had said − to have a good eye and balance for what he was trying to do. It was 'Modred this' and 'Modred that' almost non-stop from the excited boy. According to the great man, the defect in his eye didn't appear to handicap young Dai, and 'Modred' had said that he had 'a genuine talent and feel for the knife-throwing.' Dai was going to return to the Circus the next day and see his new best friend again. Pleased to see signs of a change in their unfortunate son his parents gave him a few shillings to add to his money and his mother made him some corned beef and brown sauce sandwiches to carry in his bag. From somewhere she produced a bottle of lemonade to replace the tap water he had expected, making Dai feel wanted and important instead of the semi-intruder that he often believed he was in his own home.

Dai had found his niche in life. He left school with a minimum of qualifications on the earliest date the law would allow and went off to join a small travelling circus that had a circuit around the English Midlands. The job was found for him by his mentor Modred - whose real name of Arthur Bush had been dropped at the first opportunity as not exotic enough for the glamorous trade he followed.

Dai was not bright but he was not stupid. He knew that all the glamour was superficial and that under all the glitzy costumes and glitter there were usually ordinary, hard-working people trying to make a living. All the performers were looking for that little something that would mark them out as different in the eyes of the audiences who paid to see them.

He had been taken on to assist the show's big star 'Nero' - an ageing and increasingly erratic thrower - who was the first to notice, then envy and finally grow to fear the skills of the younger man. As the circus's autocratic owner as well as its major attraction, 'Nero' quickly decided that Dai had to go elsewhere.

Being unfairly dismissed by a rival jealous of his talent proved to be the turning point in Dai's short career. Always a hard worker he practiced even harder believing implicitly that his natural skills would soon be recognised and his efforts rewarded .Others were only too ready to employ the quiet young Welshman and by his late teens he had his first regular solo spot with a bigger touring show in the Greater London area and became 'Franco - The Masked Magician of the Blade'.

As a man of only 5'4" with thick black curly hair and dark eyes the name he had finally decided upon for his career had something of the exotic about it to suit his gipsy-like appearance. The black mask he wore helped to hide the scar that had held him back previously, and for a while his became an act seen regularly on television. In a striking black and silver outfit with black boots - the left one of which had a built-up heel that made his limp less obvious − his physical deficiencies were much less apparent. For a short period he was even something of a heartthrob and built up his own small bunch of female admirers. Within his circles they became known as 'Franco's Groupies' and the name was even used in the Sun in a feature article that was cut out and became a much valued and regularly exhibited addition to Dai's wallet.

Technically he was superb, throwing knives of all sizes and styles, axes, and for a short time an occasional feature in the act was a competition between Franco and a former World Darts Champion with darts being thrown against Franco's knives. People who claimed to know about these things stated that Dai was easily the best knife-thrower currently performing and called him 'World Champion,' and no serious challenges were made to take the unofficial title from him.

Speciality acts like Dai's inevitably have a limited time at the very top - that is if they ever do actually manage to get there. Dai had a few good years before his popularity began to wane. The public's reaction against circuses that had animal performers reduced attendances at any show carrying that label, and most people who saw Franco's act thought it entertaining but not enough to go to see more than once. He left the circus world and began to perform in night clubs with reasonable success, and his future looked secure if not earth-shattering.

Then it all went wrong for Dai. A big television Charity Spectacular Show was arranged to raise money for an appeal for world-wide famine relief. Massive viewing figures were anticipated and the stars were very keen to be on the show - sadly not always for altruistic reasons. Some of them found it impossible to miss out on such a high-profile programme and look public-spirited at the same time. Certainly one or two whose star was on the wane saw an opportunity to revive their reputations.

Dai saw it as a means of making a big come-back. He practiced like he had seldom practiced before - he had a new outfit and was convinced nothing could go wrong. Tonight was going to be his big night - even as low in the billing as he was. His appearance was scheduled for early evening before the viewing figures had reached their peak.

Dave's stammer and fear of speaking were well known to his friends and associates but not, apparently, to the TV production team. Just minutes before he was due to perform some young woman with a clipboard and purple hair told Dai that a special award was to be made to him live during the show. A group of circus entertainers from the United States would be seen watching his act, then present the award and he would be expected to thank them with a little speech. 'Nothing too fancy - just how much you will treasure the award, you know the sort of thing.'

When, moments later, Dai went on to perform he was shaking like a leaf and in a terrible state. His act he had chosen for that evening was routine. 'The Exotic Juanita' -actually Dai's wife Doris - was led to the vertical disc and her hands and feet were fastened to it. This part of the Act was controlled by a young and delightfully proportioned blonde assistant in a revealing blue satin dress. The wheel began to rotate at its carefully regulated speed and Franco simply had to throw his twelve knives as had done thousands of times before. Most of the blades came to rest around the outer perimeter of the circle, far outside the line where they should have been. Three missed the wheel entirely and clattered to the rear of the set, two hit the disc but bounced out again to lie quivering on the studio floor. Just one was close to Barbara and she screamed loudly as it nicked her ear. She was still screaming when she was helped down from the wheel. All of this was seen and heard live and in gory close-up, the cameras making the most they could out of the tiny amount of blood that the errant knife had caused.

The repercussions for Dai were spectacularly bad. Doris / Juanita was convinced that the evening's show had been an attempt to murder her and have her replaced by the young assistant whom she fired on the spot, and Dai felt he was fortunate not to have a matching scar put on the other cheek by his irate wife who chased him round the studio with one of his knives in her hand. She did manage to knock out his two front teeth.

Her injury looked a lot worse than it really was but she insisted on being taken to hospital and when she came back she told Dai that the next morning she was going to see about a divorce. The cameras had kept running throughout for what most people thought was the best live television they had seen for a long time.

Dai's career was finished. Millions of people had seen the fiasco as it happened and those who didn't would see the many screened repeats - all with mocking comments added. YouTube, just within weeks of its first appearance on the entertainment scene, had colossal viewing figures world-wide for their listings of the affair. Over the next few days all of Dai's bookings were cancelled and his diary was left completely blank.



IV.

'Sean Connery's on the phone for you, boss. He don't sound happy.'

Jonty was upstairs in his office when the deep West Indian voice interrupted his day-dreaming. In his mind he was enjoying the hot sun of southern Spain, a long drink in his hand and with plans to go on the golf course soon. He didn't play, but 'When in Rome,' etc, etc. He had a few old contacts in Spain and really he should be making plans very soon to look for a nice place out there. The money was ready, just waiting to be used. And the house over here - that was worth a tidy sum. He'd need a replacement for Miriam too. She was harmless enough and had been a good wife to him for years, but was so dull and predictable. A younger woman would be better for his new life-style and image. It would cost him to see the old girl right and he'd get a lot of stick from the family, but it was his own life after all, and he planned to enjoy what years he had left. She'd become such a nag lately and had allowed herself to go to pieces - the weight was piling on her these days. Yes, there was a lot to look forward to in the near future. Don't hang around too long, Jonty. There's not much left round here for you now.

'What was that, Errol?'

'That Sean Connery fella is callin'. He sounds niggled about sometin'.'

To Jonty that was the last thing he wanted to hear. He picked up the telephone -quickly but reluctantly. His caller was a man he seldom wanted to speak to - and certainly not now. But when he did ring it didn't do to keep him waiting.

'Hello, Angus. How are you? What can I do for you?'

Sean Connery was on the phone. Angus himself was the only person Jonty knew who seemed unaware of the remarkable similarity of his voice to the James Bond actor, and no-one seemed willing or foolhardy enough to tell him about it. Angus was an important man in his circle - very important - and not a man to be taken lightly.

'Jonty, my friend. What kept you? Trying to avoid me are you?'

Being addressed by Angus as 'My friend' wasn't good. In fact it was very, very bad.

'You are in serious trouble. Very serious. You know I do not swear, Jonty, so I will say no more than you are in very hot water. Mr Gillespie is not pleased with you.'

Jonty knew better than to interrupt. Angus had his own particular way of speaking - he was a rarity. A man who almost always spoke the full words where normal colloquial speech called for short cuts.

'You know, Jonty, we do not have any secrets from each other, do we? No, of course we do not. So why does not Mr Gillespie know about your nice little earner on the side, eh? Why does he have to be told about it by someone else and not by you?'

Jonty could feel himself beginning to shake. This was seriously bad news.

He decided to speak to Angus who cut him off with a voice that oozed menace.

'Jonty, be quiet and listen to me. We both know Mr Gillespie is a fair man. A very fair man. He has no objections in the least to you or anyone else in our 'little group of associates' who wants to make a few quid for himself. All very commendable - private enterprise and all that. He approves of private enterprise, does Mr Gillespie. What he does not approve of, though, is theft. And theft it is when he does not get his fair share. You know, of course, what I am talking about, Jonty?

'He knows that you are in the blackmailing business on the side. We both know that you owe him a lot of money for his cut. Naturally enough, he wants his share. Soon. Very soon. So go into your piggy bank or under your mattress or wherever you keep your money, work out what you owe Mr Gillespie and have it ready to be collected tomorrow morning.'

The tirade stopped but Jonty knew it would resume when Angus wanted it to.

'Because we are both businessmen, Jonty, and time is money to us, I will do you a little favour. Do not waste my time and yours working out what you owe Mr Gillespie, just write down on a piece of paper what I tell you to. Write it down now, Jonty. A pound sign followed by a figure two, then a nought, then a comma, then three more noughts.'

Jonty did as he was told and did not like what he saw on the pad in front of him.

'So let us just agree when we compare, Jonty - twenty thousand pounds you should have written down on your pad. You will see that the commission is considerably higher than normal but Mr Gillespie has included an amount that he likes to call 'punitive damages' because you have let him down. I know you know what it means because I happen to know you're a Daily Telegraph reader, Jonty.

'Have it ready for tomorrow at eleven and make sure that man of yours has been sent off somewhere out of the way. I was going to send Tommy Craddock, but instead you can meet another of our little team. Tommy has broken his hand on someone's jaw and so he's resting up at present. You'll like our new man, though. We call him Pancho - he has no English, so do not waste your breath on trying to charm him. Just have the money ready for him when he calls. Just one thing about Pancho - he might leave you a message. If he does it will be short but certainly to the point.'

At this Angus began to chortle to himself.

'Short and to the point, Jonty. You will see what I mean tomorrow. You will not let Mr Gillespie down now, will you Jonty? We do not want to terminate our relationship, do we?'

The telephone was put down at the other end leaving Jonty as uneasy as he could ever remember. The dry, high pitched laugh was from a man no-one had ever heard tell a joke or be amused by anyone else's, something that made what Solomons had just heard even more sinister. Jonty fancied himself as a 'hard man', a term of flattery in his circles, but he knew his limitations. He had no choice. There was no way he could challenge Gillespie and Angus and still hope his Spanish daydream would come true.

Craddock was a man who would give his old Granny a good hiding if Angus told him to, and it was no good trying to resist him. Massive, muscled and stupid - like a trained rottweiler. At least he wouldn't have him to face. Angus would be sending this Pancho character because he knew that realistically Jonty had no choice other than to pay up so muscle wouldn't be called for.

The real danger was Gillespie himself - 'The Big Man'. No-one in his part of London dared cross him. It had been tried in the past and those who had dared to resist had vanished from the scene. Where they went to no-one really knew but there were plenty of suggestions - whispered gently of course. The currently popularly held view was part of the foundations for the M3 motorway. In earlier years the M1 to Luton had been favourite.

Solomons knew there was no point in trying to hide the truth. He'd been caught and had to settle up and put a brave face on it even though the amount he was expected to hand over far exceeded the amount the blackmail had paid him so far. At least he still had the car scam working for him, a part of his business dealings that Gillespie knew all about. Thank God that he'd never tried to hide that from Gillespie and he was up to date with the 'commission', as Angus always called the creaming off of twenty percent of Jonty's profit. 'Commission' or 'theft' - Jonty was well aware he was in no position to argue.

Two things to do now. Make sure he had the money ready for tomorrow and try to work out how his venture into blackmailing had gone so badly wrong and how Angus had learned of his new sideline.



V.

There are many animal sanctuaries in the South of England - some good, some less so, but all devoted to the welfare of the animals in their care. One of the most highly regarded and certainly one most often in the public eye was The Ashford House Animal Charity, near Reading. Started over thirty years ago in a rambling old house that was nearly decrepit, with some outbuildings that lacked roofs and several acres of rough arable land attached, it had become an impressive showpiece that was happy to open its doors to visitors who flocked in their hundreds most weeks. People who did go to the Sanctuary usually left afterwards a few pounds (Sterling) lighter than when they arrived. But what they had seen there they liked, and their donations from buying gift shop items, having snacks or drinks in the cafe, by sponsorship of individual animals, or simply by putting cash into old-fashioned collecting boxes was done generously and with no sense of being under duress to contribute. The Sanctuary had a dedicated staff that was proud to be linked with it and a reputation for animal care that was the envy of certain jealous rivals. But no-one aware of the Sanctuary's history would deny that without its founder and driving force, Gilbert Jeffries, the story of the last thirty years would have been completely different.

Jeffries was a run-of-the-mill actor who had a passion for animals. This passion had been his as long as he could remember and his choice of the acting profession was purely fortuitous. He was a big man - a massively built 6'6" by his early twenties. He had drifted into boxing and was good enough to win regional titles. He played rugby and he was never clear in his own mind whether he played rugby to make himself fit for his exploits in the ring or whether the reverse was true.

In both sporting spheres he was decent performer, a tough competitor and a hard opponent to play against. Outside the ring or off the rugby field, the term 'pussy cat' would have applied to him. He was a gentle, quietly spoken man who remained at the back of the crowd and always allowed others to lead. Except where his beloved animals were involved where some inner demon took over and nothing was ever too much, or no task was too hard for their needs.

He was seen one Saturday on a muddy rugby field by an individual who had fingers in many pies, one of which was film-making. He contacted Gilbert, offered him a screen test and the rest was history. The best known 'heavy' in British films was launched on his career.

Not that Gilbert was ever to be Oscar material. He would be the first to admit to his limitations in front of the camera. He was poor at remembering lines, had a gravelly voice that came over even in the best sound-systems as slightly muddied and he could never quite rid himself of a gentle Bristol accent that completely lacked any sense of menace. But he looked right - and that was what the men who made the films wanted. They could find their way round the other matters. That was their job.

None of these deficiencies stood in his way. His looks were his fortune. 'The ugliest man in Britain' was the Daily Mirror verdict on one of his films and the term had stuck. Remarkably many women - and a lot of men - thought the term was unfair. He wasn't, in their view 'ugly' − he simply had a lived-in, battered face. Years of boxing and rugby had left their scars. His nose had been broken several times and badly reset on at least one of these occasions while the cauliflower ears were simply a mark of his sporting career, as were the assorted scars around the eyes and cheekbones and missing teeth. Kind people simply said that the face of an unappealing child had become that of a rugged battered adult. They wanted him to look like a brutish gangster and his face obliged for him.

Whatever he had turned into, the camera loved him. He would never in a million years be cast as a leading man with any romantic interest but he was never short of work and many gangster films were built around him, even though nominally he was in a supporting role.

None of this worried Gilbert in the least. He knew his financial worth to the penny and he made sure that he was paid it in full. Then, as he began to have an extra degree of bargaining power he started to do what he became best known for. A fee would be agreed with the film-maker: then Gilbert would simply add ten percent - money that was to go directly to his beloved Animal Sanctuary. Initially the studio would resist, then they realised that if they handled their reaction correctly and paid the extra that was being asked, there would be good publicity for them and for the film concerned.

This became normal practice for Gilbert's fees and the results made the studios richer, and Gilbert's dream nearer to fruition. As he became older this well-known face appeared less in films but his Sanctuary consistently drew in more contributions than most of its rivals did. The final accolade was a Knighthood that was awarded not for services to films or acting but 'For services to Animal Welfare' - a dedication that made Sir Gilbert a proud and very happy man.



VI.

Solomons followed Angus's instructions to the letter. He had the cash ready in a grey zip-upped holdall and at twenty to eleven he sent Errol out to collect several parts for his cheaper cars on the lot - a journey he knew would take well over an hour. He sat in his big swivel chair and waited uneasily.

'Try to take your mind off things, Jonty. Cheer yourself up. Think of something pleasant.'

His eyes were drawn to the cork-faced notice board on the wall to his right opposite the door. Pinned to it was a calendar, a couple of official documents - a Trading Licence and a Health and Safety at Work notice that he used to impress his customers. What did often catch his customer's eyes - certainly the men almost invariably remarked on them after Jonty had casually, almost by accident, drawn their attention to the board - was a set of three coloured 8 x 10 prints. They featured just two men in each. Jonty was in each one, always beaming away at the man on his right and shaking hands as if they were bosom friends from years back. The pictures had cost him a couple of hundred pounds for the set. They were part of a fund-raising event with the beneficiary being a local children's charity and the three other men were members of the local football team.

But the footballers were special. The three were members of England's World Cup winning team and they were Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and − in pride of place − the England captain, Bobby Moore. Jonty was not a football supporter but he knew the value of public relations and told himself that when he went to Spain, the photographs would be going with him even if most of everything else was left behind. Thinking that adding something to them might seem a little too showy for their purpose, Jonty had deliberately left the three prints unframed but carefully pinned to the board exactly where he wanted them to be seen.

Jonty was nervous, and, as he admitted to himself later − he was frightened. The big doors downstairs were left open but his office door was shut. Jonty was determined not to be taken by surprise but even so he failed to hear anything until his door was opened silently and the man he was told to call Pancho was standing in front of him.

Surprised would have understated what Jonty's feelings at that moment. Expecting a Tommy Craddock clone instead he saw this wizened little man with almost everything about him black. The silk shirt with long flapping sleeves and tassels, tight-fitting trousers, high-heeled shiny boots, a black leather belt with unusual pouches that were closed by silver buttons, black gloves. The blackness of his hair, dark eyes, strong signs of a five-o-clock shadow even at that time of the morning, ear-rings and that vivid scar on his right cheek. A strange creature whose slight stature did nothing to lessen the implied menace.

Jonty remembered that the man allegedly spoke no English but saw no reason not to try to humour him. Perhaps a little old-fashioned courtesy would help his cause with Angus. His 'Good morning, Mister Pancho' went unanswered but the little man responded with a smile that added to Jonty's unease when he saw the amalgam of gold fillings and gaps where teeth should have been. By now he was also aware that Pancho had eyes that never quite seemed to focus on him as they should, and Jonty had difficulty in knowing exactly where he should look when he wanted to look the man in the eyes.

The two men, both still standing, looked at each other. Pancho held out his left hand and motioned towards the bag that lay on the floor next to the desk. Jonty handed it to him, Pancho checked the security of the fastenings, picked it up in his left hand and in three paces he was at the door.

Pancho turned and faced the office. Jonty was silhouetted against the weak sunlight that sometimes managed to get through his dirt-streaked windows and was watching the other man uneasily. The little man's next movements were almost too quick for the eyes to follow. Three silver buttons were undone and three knives appeared in his right hand - held by the points and with same watery sun reflecting off the shiny blades and jewelled handles.

With his left hand Pancho pointed towards the far end of the room. Instinctively Jonty looked there, to see three knives still quivering from the force of their entry into their targets. Their movement had been too quick for Solomons to follow. Each had found its target. In Jonty's three prized photographs the beaming man next to the star footballer had a knife in his heart.

Dai went to the board, pulled out the blades, turned and was gone − as silently as he had arrived.



VII.

Growing up in the east end, Jonty had had to learn to fight to look after himself or life would have been impossible. He could still take or throw a punch if he needed to and was in reasonable physical condition, but as he became older and better off he saw how pointless that was and instead employed Errol to do it for him.

The West Indian was a decent enough mechanic, but no better than any one of a dozen Jonty could have hired. He was paid a little extra, in cash, for his looming physical presence, very useful when a customer was being difficult about one of 'Jonty's Famous Deals - My Word is My Bond.' Or if he found the small print of the contract leaning too much in the dealer's favour. The big man usually did no more than be there and look menacing and the customer gave up, signed the papers and remembered to buy a car elsewhere another time.

Errol's presence downstairs and a locked door to his office were Jonty's two rules - laid down by himself and known to no-one else, just enough for the minimum security he needed to allow him to open his safe. On this occasion his preoccupations and the problems he had with Angus caused him to fall down on both.

He had his back to the door as it opened, turning quickly to see the two men who stood in front of him, filling the office. The faces weren't familiar but the bulk of the two implied their errand. What did Angus want this time − the bastard? Think, Jonty, think. That Pancho weirdo had only been gone an hour or so.

Neither of the two men spoke for a minute.

'Mister Solomons? Mr Jonty Solomons? We did knock - twice actually - but obviously you didn't hear us. Don't bother calling down for Frank Bruno - we sent him to the caff up the road. Gives us a better chance of having a quiet little chat, doesn't it, Jonty?'

The speaker was well over six feet tall and big with it. His manner of speaking was of a man used to power and a voice that carried authority - though the accent was from the North East and Jonty struggled to understand it all. He wasn't used to hearing many Geordies in Stratford East.

His colleague was a huge man - Jonty thought he was one of the biggest he'd ever seen. He might even qualify as one of the ugliest too, with cauliflower ears and a nose that wasn't quite where it had started when its owner had been a baby and someone's pride and joy. He hadn't spoken yet and apart from going over to the safe and stopping Jonty from closing it, simply by standing in the way, his involvement so far had been minimal.

'He doesn't know us, Detective Sergeant Riddings. He knows all the chaps at the local nick - he has some very special chums down there, has Jonty - but he doesn't know us. I think we'd better introduce ourselves properly then to Mr Solomons.'

Riddings stayed silent. The Geordie continued.

'I am Detective Chief Inspector Robson and I have already told you the name of my colleague. Show him your credentials D/S Riddings. No, man, leave your fly buttons alone.'

Then, in an aside to Solomons - 'He likes the old jokes best does my associate and I do try to keep my staff happy. It stops them from feeling too violent. He suppresses it well, don't you think?'

Robson put back in his pocket the police warrant card he had waved at Jonty.

Solomons needed no reminder of the threat the two men were. They seemed harder and less tolerant than the local police he had had dealings with over the years - dealings that had become more expensive as time passed and his 'retainer' as they called it increased regularly - 'Just to keep up with inflation, Jonty. You know how it is these days.'

'Right then Jonty, no more levity. To business. Why don't we try to keep the civilities going and keep the unpleasantness to a minimum, shall we? You don't mind me calling you Jonty, do you? Good man, I thought you might agree.'

As far as Solomons was concerned he could have called him Buttercup and kissed him if he wanted to. Anything to keep him sweet and get rid of the two of them.

What Solomons didn't know was that Charlie was enjoying every minute of his act. Much of his portrayal came from an eighties TV series in which he personally had been successful but which had 'bombed' - a word he remembered the studio using at the time. Two things flashed into his mind - whether or not anyone else remembered 'On the Beat' -something he doubted - and if one of the mass of channels on Sky would repeat it. That would be a nice little earner, if it ever happened.

Concentrate Charlie - remember you're working.

'I see your safe is open. No doubt there's lots of private stuff in there that you don't want any Tom, Dick or Harry to see - or indeed, 'Frank and Ernest' either. That reference to the 'well-known local schizophrenic' is another little quip my associate enjoys - don't you, Detective Sergeant? Just before you do lock it though, do you mind if we have a quick rummage?

'You will have noticed, Mr Solomons, that both of us are house-trained and have worn gloves since we came into your office to avoid compromising any evidence we might touch, so you need have no fear of us leaving dirty finger marks all over the place. Shall we look then? After all, Jonty, you've nothing to hide in there, have you now?'

Riddings stood back and allowed Charlie to open the safe door wider and to look inside.

'There is one thing we are looking for specifically today. Her Majesty's Government is most appreciative of your efforts in exporting motor vehicles but seems to lack the necessary paperwork to include the sales in the national figures - something we want to correct. I'm sure you wouldn't want your contributory part to the UK's economy going unrecognised. What you've done might even put you in the Honours List; all those big expensive motor cars. Much more than a humble copper could afford. I used to have an Escort but it was a bit small for a bloke like me so now it's a Sierra. I like Fords: I have always got on with them. Nice cars.

'No Jonty, don't get up - our friend here will save you the trouble. You just continue to sit there and tell us where everything is so that we find it quickly and can go very soon.

'Shall we tell him where we go next, Detective Sergeant Riddings - or shall we keep our planned visit to the local nick to speak to a certain D.I. down there to ourselves? Oh, dear. Have I let it slip out? What a naughty policeman I am.'

Robson's apparently easy-going flippancy vanished in a moment as his voice hardened.

'Come on Jonty - stop messing us about. We haven't got time to waste. We know about the cars, the number changes, the shipping, everything in fact. We don't want to waste too much time on that - we leave the details to the office boys. We'll just take away any paperwork you have and then have our uniform people take you away. 'Carry on, Sergeant.' (He likes that one too, Jonty.) Isn't my talkative colleague a wag? You may not realise it but he was a star debater in his days in Oxford Union. Talk the hind leg off a donkey he would. Please, don't get him going.'

Robson's rapid mood changes were confusing Solomons. He was baffled by the man's jokes which fitted badly with the way things were looking for him. Clearly the police had more on him than he thought they had and their knowledge of his contacts down at the local station was not going to do him any good. Instead his years of bribery might go in his favour with the way the police were on corruption these days. He could always offer them something to stir the pot with. Slip in a name or two. Just a couple of bent coppers less. After all, nobody would miss them.

'Right, Solomons' - a change of name and another mood change for the increasingly confused Jonty - 'I'll just go through your safe and see what I can find before the serious stuff starts. Keep an eye on him, George, try not to let him fight his way past you.'

Jonty had met many policemen in his time but never one like this. He simply didn't know quite how to deal with him. He'd probably a better chance trying to head-butt a brick wall than pushing his way past this non-speaking mountain of a sergeant.

'Mr Robson. Chief Inspector. I know you probably believe you have something on me - perhaps you have - but can we do business?'

Charlie looked up from the safe. 'You mean you're attempting to bribe two police officers?'

'Certainly not. I wouldn't do anything like that. But I do have information that could be of value to you.'

Solomons looked hopefully at his tormenter. For a moment he felt the tension ease slightly. The next words confirmed his optimism. As usual, it was Robson who spoke.

'Jonty, my friend, sit down and make yourself comfortable. Just relax and say nothing till I've finished. Have a cigarette or something. Think about what you know and when I've gone through this lot here we'll have words. I'm so glad you want to co-operate.'

Jonty, feeling he should do anything to ease the situation with the two, lit a cigarette, firstly taking care to offer the packet to the two massive figures who seemed to fill his office. Both men declined, Robson with a polite, 'No thank you, Jonty,' and Riddings with an equally courteous gesture without saying a word.

His offer to give them information seemed to have found the chink in their armour that Jonty wanted. In his mind he began to consider how much he could pass on to the two detectives and how much difference it would make to the outcome. Tactics? How to play it? Should he allow what information he wanted to pass on about his various dealings with corrupt policemen dribble out over a period in an attempt to bargain, or tell them everything in one session?

His partial relief lasted just a moment.

'What's this, Jonty, this paper here?' Charlie showed it to Riddings, keeping an eye on Solomons who went white as he realised what it was.

'That looks to me like a statement alleging something serious about a young lady and the theft of some money. It's most definitely a police matter. What's it doing in your safe Jonty?'

Jonty mumbled something about 'keeping it safe for a friend before it was handed in to the police'. It was the best excuse he could think of on the spur of the moment. Robson handed the paper to Riddings along with several others he had found and the huge man put them away in the cavernous pockets of his overcoat.

'Just three things before we leave you - for now that is. Firstly, we want the keys to the cars that match these papers we're taking away, and then I see there's your passport here in the safe. I think we should take that with us - just in case - and finally, just for the record, in advance of the full statement you will be called up to give by somebody from the local cop-shop we want you just to confirm verbally that the senior man on your payroll is D.I. Arthurton. Yes?'

Jonty nodded miserably.

'And Sergeant Morrison?'

Another nod. Jonty was feverishly considering possibilities to ease his position. It looked like another term inside - for a man nearing sixty that was a prospect he feared. He knew that some of his bargaining powers had already gone by confirming the names. His bargaining options left him with just two things he could offer as a deal. Either Angus, Mr Gillespie − or both − on a plate, or making sure there was enough cast-iron evidence to properly put away some corrupt policemen - men who were hated and despised by police colleagues, the tax-paying public and by the criminal fraternity equally.

Grassing on Gillespie - the real Mr Big in the local criminal set-up - would be just like signing his own death warrant and was not a serious option. The same thing would apply to Angus. In no way would any sane man consider doing that. No prison in the land would save him if Gillespie decided he wanted a grass disposed of. Jonty would probably be dead within a matter of days. The same applied to Angus. That left Arthurton and his side-kick. Now that he had confirmed their names to the two policemen he had nothing left to bargain with.

Arthurton was the only man he had told about Freddie Teddington and his family connections. Just three people knew about the blackmail. Freddie himself, Arthurton and Jonty. It could only have been Arthurton who told Gillespie prompting the call from Angus, a call that put him in the mess he was in now. They always said Gillespie had half the police force in London in his pocket and probably the local D.I. was on his payroll. So Arthurton was getting paid twice over. Nobody likes a bent copper. And we touch our forelock to them as they grab their bribes. Scum. Arthurton's the man to get. Hope he gets twenty years. Shop him properly, Jonty, and try to do yourself some good.

Back to earth with a bump.

That Geordie voice - mocking, teasing, wheedling.

'I can see you're thinking hard Jonty. What's that evil mind of yours telling you to say next? What is it? A plot to assassinate the Prime Minister or a coup at dawn on the seventeenth, eh? Do tell us, we both enjoy a good yarn, don't we, Riddings?'

The massive figure of Riddings still did not speak. Solomons found his silence more threatening than anything he could imagine the man saying.

'I have a diary.'

'Good man. I have one too. And what's special about this diary you have? Or is it that kid's game we've all played. Remember it Jonty? 'Show me yours and I'll show you mine'.'

'My diary has dates, amounts and account numbers.'

Now he had done it. There was nothing in reserve to bargain with.

'Well done, Jonty. They say confession is good for the soul. Hand it over then.'

Jonty did as he was told. Robson had a quick look at the diary's contents, asked for clarification on one matter and the book disappeared into Riddings' pocket.

'Thank you for your time, Jonty. Some of our colleagues will be in touch very soon. Just wait for them and don't do anything foolish, will you? We're leaving a couple of plain clothes officers outside to make sure those two big saloons aren't touched - they are police evidence now so give your man the rest of the day off when he turns up. Just stay in the building, there's a good chap.'

Riddings still hadn't spoken when the two left. They took with them a leather case with over forty thousand pounds in cash - mostly in large denomination banknotes.

Solomons was arrested two hours later by officers he did not know and taken to a police station he did not recognise from the inside.



VIII.

They chose a hotel in Solihull for the celebration, handy for the four of them and conveniently near the motorways. With rooms booked for an overnight stay each was able to drink as much as he chose - Freddie set a new personal record that night with five glasses of a wine much better than the Nag's Head had in its cellar.

Dai admitted he had revelled in the role of 'Pancho'. If he had missed with one or two of his three throws - so what, there was no audience. He'd no lines to remember and just had to do what he was best at. With no pressure he'd enjoyed the morning's work and a lot of his confidence had come back. Among friends the apparently taciturn semi-recluse with a stammer was good company and had a fund of stories.

The little Welshman told them of his early life and how happy he was now that he and Ingrid - his latest assistant - were 'an item.' Some studio in America wanted him to feature in a western and he'd always believed that if he'd been around in the days of the silent films, well - 'Pancho' might have become a big star.



Gilbert admitted that any payment for his half-hour's work was 'money for jam'.

'I simply had to stand there, listen to what Charlie said and follow any cues as to when to move and when to stand still. As for looking menacing - well, just look at me. I'm 90% there, aren't I? Not that I'll turn the fee down, of course - and very generous too, thank you Freddie - and you all know where it's going.'

All Gilbert's props were the real thing. A genuine warrant card, handcuffs, police notebooks - all used in various films and 'They never came and asked me for them back after we'd finished. They can have them anytime - all they have to do is make a donation to the Sanctuary.'



Freddie naturally was delighted. He had his money back and even after generous payments to the team there were a few thousand pounds in his pocket he thought had gone for good. In fact he had come out with a profit. He felt that he had done little to recover his own money - but the others reminded him that he had approached Charlie and told him of the problem and sowed the seeds of the plan that Charlie worked on. 'DCI Robson' pointed out that without Freddie's personal courage in coming forward and by owning up to the 'little problem' in his life none of the affair would have happened. Anyway hadn't he made some more good friends because of what had happened? Freddie was a happy man that evening, content with his lot and enjoying their company and his wine. What was that German word again Charlie?



Charlie was the happiest of them all. Most of the scheme had been his and he had made use of what skills he'd learned over the years. His ego had been given a boost when some of his bounce and confidence had been starting to drain away, his plan seemed to have helped a friend's flagging career, an animal cause had been helped, and he'd made a few quid for himself. Not bad for an ageing thespian. He admitted to the others that at times he had thought of adding a bit off the cuff but was glad after he'd stuck to the plan. Even so he had been tempted. It just shows you what people can do when they try.



Charlie was well away by the time he came up with his big idea - a strategy for their futures.

'Here's a thought for the three of us. Suppose Gilbert sits on a stool with Dai on his lap and his hand up Dai's back. There's a screen behind and I go behind that. Gilbert is the ventriloquist, Dai is the dummy and I do the voices. That would work wouldn't it? Folks would love it. The ugliest vent with the ugliest dummy in the business talking like Basil Fawlty. At least it would be different. We'd make it big. Hollywood here we come.'

At this point Dai began to repeat the phrase 'A gottle o'geer, a gottle o'geer', giving the victory sign and waving a small cigar in his other hand, and at the same time attempting an impersonation of his own. The impression was so bad that the others insisted on the Welshman buying a round of drinks to compensate.

Within minutes Charlie and Dai were both fast asleep. It needed all of Gilbert's strength, with Freddie fluttering around trying to help like a sparrow with an injured fledgling, to carry Charlie up to his room. On the second trip upstairs Dai was simply tucked under Gilbert's arm and carried like a rag doll. All four slept the deep and undisturbed sleep that comes after a job well done.



IX.

Jonty was fifty nine on the second of the month - a Tuesday. He had slept badly in his prison cot the night before and a simmering dispute with the big Glaswegian 'Razor' Devlin made him uneasy. He knew that there was no way to avoid the other man and that the matter had to be settled very soon - probably later that same day. There were three letters for him and after a quick glance he left the one with familiar handwriting to be opened last.

The first letter had a London postmark. It was written in pencil on cheap lined paper.

Dear Mr Solomons,

This is from Elsie wot used to kleen your office for you. I want to thank you for your cheqk and the kind thorts you sent me through Freddey. I was very suprisd when it come. £500 is very welcome. Freddey sed that the paper that you asked me to sin has now been ripped up something that I am very glad about and greatfull for. Freddey was always very kind to me and I never did like what you did to him. I hope you dont find prison to hard.

Elsie Walters (Miss)


Jonty didn't like the second letter either. Animals had never been a part of his life and unless there was something in it for him, Jonty turned a deaf ear to charity appeals. So receiving a hand-written letter from the Hon. Treasurer of The Morton House Animal Charity thanking Mr Solomons for a generous donation of £5000 did not please him.

The third letter did not contain the card that Jonty expected. Inside were two sheets of pale blue, delicately scented paper closely written in an immaculate hand with backward sloping script. His wife.

Dear Jonty,

I don't know your new official address but I hope that sending this letter to Her Majesty's Prison, Wormwood Scrubs will find you.

By the time you receive this I will be in Spain - somewhere I always fancied but which never seemed to appeal to you for some reason. That's just another thing we didn't share.

Good villas don't come cheap but with everything in England being in my name I managed to raise the money with enough left over to live on quite comfortably when I'm out there. The house sale, I included the furniture, made a good price and the crazy way house prices have shot up in London worked out well for me. I have taken most of the cash but left you some that I put into your own personal account. Not much, but there again you probably won't need much for another eight years, or so I'm led to believe. I expect you still have some money hidden away that I don't know about.

I have started the ball rolling for a divorce. It makes sense doesn't it? I discussed what I'm doing with the children and they all approve and they haven't any plans to visit you.

I bumped into Naomi (Greengross) the other day and she seemed very envious of me. My slimming regime has worked well and I've lost well over a stone - from the right places too. She used a word that you, as a crossword man, will know −'svelte'. What a lovely word that is. I had to look it up but I'm glad I did. It was worth it. It does wonders for the self-esteem. All I needed was a reason to start slimming, and you going gave me that reason.

As much as anything I think she was rather jealous of my companion. You haven't met Mike, but he's twenty-four, dishy (Naomi said she wants one like him too) and built like a Greek god. Not Jewish by the way. Mike will be going to Spain with me.

If you have anything to contact me about, please do it through our Solicitors. They have been instructed not to release my new address. You should be hearing from them soon anyway.

Miriam.

PS. Guess who I ran into recently when I was doing some shopping in Harrods? An ex-employee of yours - Freddie. Remember Freddie? Well, he's now Lord Chessington (like the Zoo). His father died so he inherited the lot. It sounds as if he's a very wealthy man now. You should have kept in with him. His Lordship said if I contacted you I was to pass on a message - something about two mutual friends - 'very big friends' I was to say - and ' the little darts player' were pleased the way things turned out, and to say 'Didn't Sean make a good impression?'

He was quite specific about the wording and said you would understand.


Jonty read through the letter a second time - still not quite believing what he saw.



X.

A bad day became even worse as 'Snouty' Green popped his head round the open door.

'Mr Devlin wants to see you, Jonty - 'very soon' he said. I shouldn't keep him waiting if I was you. He's got Big Fergie and McKinnon with him and they don't look happy. They're in the showers.'

Solomons shrugged his shoulders. He took off his reading glasses, put them into a case and put the case under his pillow.

'Don't bother reporting back to him, Snouty. I'll find them. I know what it's about. I'm the birthday boy today and they have something special arranged for me.'

2 comments:

  1. Karma makes a cameo in "Freddie's Revenge." Quite the cast of characters, and a nice development of each, some of which could have almost been short stories on their own! Nice job.

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  2. The last letter from his wife is so severe--materialistic, the children as things, the body remake, everything so casually factual, cold, clinical, even if the tone is that island politeness. A good upside down of the typical earnest emotion filled letter to close a story.

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