Acting Illegally

Acting Illegally

A novel by Terry Dwyer Chapter 1 Not again!
JUNE 15, 2004, AND A FINE MORNING. David Stoner finished shaving, rubbed his chin as he stared despondently into the mirror, and slowly put on his jacket. Would it be another difficult day? He passed his wife’s bedroom door, descended the first flight of stairs and looked out of his landing window at Wimbledon Park golf course across the road, where he could discern some players already at it. Hmm . . . wish I had time for golf again, he thought. I suppose that’s why we moved here originally . . . He continued down the soft carpet into the breakfast room and sat in his usual place. “Much to do today, David?” David looked warily across the table at his wife and thought for a moment. “Nothing much planned, but I’ll have to do something if the business is not going to fold up completely. I’ll be going round to Television Centre to see what’s cooking there. What are your plans, Rachel?” “I’m off to golf in a while, lunching at the club. Thought I’d do some shopping in town this afternoon.” “Now look, watch what you’re spending, OK? I haven’t got a bottomless bank balance. Stay out of Harvey Nicholls, will you?” “Really, David, I don’t spend much, do I? But the dinner dance is coming up next week, and I can’t go dressed in rags. And don’t forget you’ll be coming with me.” Oh, will I? thought Stoner; I’ll be getting out of that if I can — there’s somewhere else I’d rather be. After breakfast he sat and read his newspapers, then carefully studied The Stage and Box to get the latest gossip and news about the entertainment world. Nothing to speak of. David slowly put on his coat, left the house and walked up the road to Wimbledon Park tube station as usual, thinking that this was the only exercise he got these days. Getting too fat if I’m not careful. I don’t want Jessica giving up on me. He got a seat in the tube train near his usual corner, but grimaced as the carriage rapidly filled up at each station. It always did, even at this hour. Long before the change at Earl’s Court they were stubbing his toes. Ever since the Blair government had banned cars from all major cities the public transport systems had been bursting at the seams. He winced as a bulky strap-hanger tottered in the swaying train and nearly sat on his lap. Why don’t I give all this up and live in the country? he thought, but knew that his job would always keep him in London. Anyway, it was the only thing he was good at . . . Alighting at West Kensington station, he made his way to a neat Art Nouveau building in Barons Court Road, climbed the stairs to his office and greeted his secretary. “Morning, Ruby. Anything?” “Nothing in the post. One or two phone calls. The usual people, asking for news.” Once upon a time, especially when David had dealt with stage work, the phrase had been “Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you”, but for some time now actors were getting more and more desperate and so were inclined to take the initiative, on the grounds that continually badgering the agent would at least keep them in his mind. David was, after all, the principal link between them and TV jobs. He made his way along the short passage to his private office and sank into his comfortable leather chair. Smiling photos of stage and TV stars surrounded him on the walls. Look how many people I’ve helped in the past, he thought; it’s all so different these days . . . And now the phone rang in the outer office. Ruby, sounding somewhat harassed, came through on the intercom. “It’s Linda Martin, David.” “Tell her I’m out; no, tell her there’s nothing . . . For God’s sake, tell everybody there’s nothing.” “But David, you can’t put Linda off, you know how well she used to do.” “Oh, well, put her on, put her on.”

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Stoner lifted the phone. “Linda, my dear, how are you? And that hunk of a husband of yours? Both well, I hope? I hear you were prominent at Victor’s party last week. Popular as ever . . . “ Linda Martin’s slightly acid voice interrupted. “Stop babbling, David; you know perfectly well why I’m ringing up. Did you find me anything or didn’t you?” “Yes, well, there’s a nice little perfume commercial Nick’s got lined up for you, if you want it.” “I’ve told you a thousand times I will not do commercials. I’m an actress, not a goddammed paperheaded model. It’s parts I want, parts!” David groaned inwardly. “But, sweetie, you know what it’s like these days; there just aren’t any. Do you think I wouldn’t find you one if I could? My living depends on finding parts as much as yours does.” It was true. Stoner & Co. needed parts for all the actors on their books if they were to survive. For months and months, years it seemed, David had had to cut down on his living standards, sell one or two paintings, lease out his little motor-yacht for hire, and tell his high-living wife to wear some of her dresses more than twice. “All right, David. But if something doesn’t come up soon, I’m transferring to Golding. Be warned.” “Yes, Linda, yes. Can he do any better?” “Maybe. He got Jackie Diamond that part the other day.” “What part? You mean that two-liner in Emmerdale?” Linda Martin nearly screeched. “Two-liner it may be, but it’s money, David. Enough to feed her for a couple of weeks, anyway. And it could lead to something else. You’ve got to keep in the public eye to survive!” “I know, I know, darling. I’m doing my best, really I am. But for two pins I’d jack it all in and grow potatoes or something.” The prospect of David Stoner, fifty-something and a little portly, growing potatoes for a living was enough to make both of them smile. Almost. “All right, all right. But keep me in mind, OK?” “I will, of course I will. Leave it to me.” He put the phone down with relief. More and more these days he felt ashamed of his inability to find work for his actors. Once he had been proud of his reputation for finding his clients work quicker than any other agent, but now . . . “Ruby, no more phone calls today. I’ve had it with nagging actresses. I have to go round to Auntie’s this afternoon anyway.” “Right, David. But there’s a John Appleton just arrived to see you. Remember?” Stoner expelled his breath. He remembered. Appleton was a young hopeful, straight from drama school, looking for his first job. Well, he might be hopeful, but Stoner certainly wasn’t. “Oh God, I’d better have him in.” A moment later the applicant stood before him. “Good morning, Mr. Stoner.” David had looked at Appleton’s CV, but was now in a position to judge appearance and presence — vitally important to an actor. This lad was a 22-year-old with a totally nondescript appearance and a slightly reserved manner. David’s heart sank. Hardly the heartthrob type: how in heaven’s name could he fix him up? Now if he had been really good-looking, the type to make the girls swoon, maybe there would be a chance . . . “Hello, young man. Harold Watkins sent you along, didn’t he?” “That’s right, Mr. Stoner. He told me you could fix me up if anyone could.” “Call me David. Well, I have to tell you that Harold’s living in the past. Time was that I could have fixed anybody up. ITV came to me as well as the Beeb because they knew I only passed on good people. But now . . . “ “You mean things are difficult. Well, I’d gathered that. But there’ll always be room on television, surely?” “Television, television, why does everybody want television? What’s wrong with rep? In the old days everybody started in rep. If you were any good you got noticed. People like me were always around spotting talent, and rep’s where it was. Besides, it gets you the experience.” “I know that. But things have changed, haven’t they? People don’t go out any more because of the high prices, the theatres are struggling, some of the top London ones have even closed down. They don’t even go to the pictures any more. It’s TV or nothing, surely? Well, that’s what they’re all saying at RADA.” Stoner knew the lad was right. Ever since the driving restrictions, people had more and more cut down on their leisure outings rather than face the queues for the over-priced and packed buses and trains. London was now a city of telly-watchers, and to a less extent, of library-book readers.

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“Yes, it’s true they watch the box all the time. But haven’t you noticed what it is they’re watching? Repeats, repeats, repeats! We’re lucky to get one new production a week now on each channel. Up come the old programmes, time after time. Look at the Radio Times; what do you see? Last of the Summer Wine, Cheers, The Good Life - for the umpteenth time. Any minute now they’ll put on The Prisoner again!” “The Prisoner?” David stared at Appleton. “You mean you never heard of . . . ? My God, I should remember how young you are. Well, it seems there’s nothing they won’t repeat nowadays so long as it hasn’t been on for six months or more.” “But why is it like that?” “Why? Because there’s no money about. The Labour government cut the cost of the TV licence as you know, so the BBC’s finances depend on more and more on government grants, and the independent companies can’t put up their fees to advertisers again, they just won’t wear it. So out come the repeats.” “So you’re saying there are no jobs for people like me? People who’ve spent years training as actors and looking forward to their first real part?” “Son, that’s not only what I’m saying, I’m also saying there’s little or no work for established actors - big names. Acting’s going down the toilet as a profession, that’s what.” John Appleton was silent for a moment. “So you really can’t help me? I’m a good actor; I won the Olivier trophy and the Redgrave award. And I had rave notices after the academy’s production of The Apple Cart.” David smiled a little. “The Apple Cart? Appleton in The Apple Cart?” “Yes, all right.. But that’s quite a part, the king.” Stoner’s eyebrows rose a little. “You played the king, eh? Yes, that is quite a part. Hmm.” A year or two ago he would have attended all the drama schools’ productions, looking for new talent, but these days there seemed little point when work was so difficult to find anyway. He pondered for a few moments. “Wait a moment. You any relation of Ambrose Appleton?” “He was my dad.” “Well, well! One of the best, Ambrose. We were all sorry about the heart attack.” Watkins had sent him details of the lad’s experience, but he’d overlooked that bit. If he was Ambrose’s son, he could well have inherited some of the family talent. He certainly seemed to be the right stuff. Pity about the looks . . . “Well, John, is it? I’ll certainly keep you in mind, but I’ve told you the score. I may be able to find you something; let’s both keep hoping. Meanwhile, we’ll put you on the books. You’re agreeable to my taking twelve and a half per cent?” John Appleton looked up in surprise. “Ten per cent, surely?” The agent raised his eyebrows and spread his hands, and the aspiring actor nodded despondently. “Got your Equity card with you? Right, well, you go out there and show it to my secretary and give her any more details she wants. And good luck.” They shook hands and the young hopeful departed to the outer office. Stoner heaved another sigh. Running his finger down his desk diary, he checked his afternoon appointment at the BBC Television Centre. “Hmm, I think I’ll take an early lunch. Ruby, book me a taxi for 1.30 at the Feathers.” JUST BEFORE TWO O’CLOCK Stoner made his way up to the third floor to meet Kevin Bestwick, a television producer in his late thirties. He didn’t often come to the TV centre to meet producers, he mused: they normally phoned him or came round to look through his books for suitable actors. What do I mean, normally? They used to come to me . . . “Hi, Kevin, how’s tricks?” he asked as the two shook hands. “Pretty bloody poor. Two productions in the last six months. I did Twice Round the Block and the new Alan Bennett — Heads of State. See either of them?” “Saw them both. Damn good work. But what’s in the pipeline? Anything new?” “Not a sausage. All I do is sit around all day; that’s when I’m not dropping broad hints to the controller . . . “ “It’s these repeats, isn’t it? Night after night after night.” “You said it. Know what the latest is? Miss Marple, the whole blasted series.” “Good God, that again? Well, some of my people will get a bit of a fee out of that. Not as good as a new production, obviously. Lack of money again?” “Yep. We’re on such a tight budget these days, our jobs are all walking on tightropes. Rumour has it there’ll be more job cuts soon. If something can’t be done before long the whole television business

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will turn into a vast video playback machine. We shan’t need any more actors and producers, just cassette jockeys.” Stoner sighed. “Same with Beeb Two?” “That’s the word.” “What do your technical boys think about it all?” “Well, like I said, all we’ll be needing is morons to put the videotapes on. Scene builders, props, lighting, sound —all the rest, they’re all feeling the pinch and wondering how long their jobs are going to last. My contract runs out in three months, and I wouldn’t bet on it being renewed. Doom and gloom, that’s what it is. Come down for a coffee.” Soberly the two men took the lift down to the canteen. Stoner thought for a moment. “Things are pretty bad,” he said, “but of course there’s still a bit of live or new stuff?” “Live, yes: news of course, weekly commentaries, that sort of thing. Usual soaps of course, plus one or two comedy series — ten-week runs. Very little new drama. I’ve put up a proposal to do a six-week Brave New World, but I’m still waiting for the all-clear.” The pair stepped out of the lift and made their way into the canteen, got their coffee and sat down at a corner table. “Bit crowded here, surely?” asked David. “What do you expect? Most of us here are kicking our heels, waiting for the axe. There’s nothing else to do but drink coffee and grumble to each other.” “There is something else we might do. Something that would take care of the whole situation. Something that would put paid to all these repeats.” The producer stared at Stoner. “What are you talking about?” Lowering his voice, David said “I’ve been doing a bit of thinking. Suppose there wasn’t anything to repeat?” Bestwick looked puzzled. “I’m not with you.” “Look — these repeats are done by replaying the original videotapes, right?” The other nodded. “I think so.” “So what if the tapes weren’t there? If they couldn’t be found?” “Couldn’t be found? Of course they can be found, they’re all stored in the Archives Department in the basement.” “Yes, and how do they get to the studios?” “One of the controller’s staff makes out an order well in advance and somebody takes the order down and picks up the tapes. Usually they phone through in advance so that the tapes are ready. Then it’s a simple matter of bringing the stuff to the appropriate studio.” “As I thought. So all we have to do is to make sure the stuff doesn’t get there.” There was a moment’s silence as Kevin digested this suggestion. Then “What!” he exclaimed, “Intercept it? How?” “Keep your voice down. Look, things are desperate. We have to do something, both for ourselves and for all the people that depend on us. If we can kill the repeats, the Beeb’ll have to commission new stuff. That means work — and money.” Kevin rolled this over in his mind. The logic was irrefutable: no tapes, no repeats. No repeats, then new productions. “But where’s the money to come from? Funds are low, that’s why this is happening.” “Think what will happen: either the money is found or the channels will have to shut down for a few hours a day. Public outcry will mean the government will have to stump up or face a political showdown. Believe me, money won’t prove a problem. But we have to take care of the tapes first.” “Hang on, if we waylay the tapes, they’ll just put others in their place.” “I agree, but this is worth a try. For starters it would disrupt things and worry the controllers into thinking again. If we can find a way to keep intercepting tapes for just a few weeks it may do the trick.” Kevin shook his head. “I can’t see this as a permanent solution. And what do we do with the tapes? Destroy them? . . . You’re joking!” “No, he’s not joking. He means it.” Startled, the two men looked up and saw a burly figure standing a few feet away. Kevin recognised him as Peter Rockforth, one of the young floor managers. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Peter around for some time. “Have you been listening?” “It wasn’t difficult: I was only at the next table. You ought to be more careful when you discuss subversive activities in a public place.” David Stoner flushed and began to bluster. “Look here, we were just mulling a few ideas around: purely theoretical, airing a few fancies — you know the sort of thing.”

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Rockforth sat down at their table without an invitation. “I think not”, he said carefully, “you meant it all right, and what’s more I agree with you. It’s not a bad idea, but I’ve got a better one.” There was a short silence as the two other looked at each other. “Who is this guy?” asked David. “Peter Rockforth, one of our floor managers,” replied Kevin. “He’s OK, I’ve worked with him. This is David Stoner, Peter. Actors’ agent, one of the better ones.” David nodded to the younger man. “All right,” said Kevin, “go on.” Peter drew a breath. “I used to work in Archives before I started as a floor manager. I know the drill, and I know the staff. The last few weeks I’ve had so little to do, I’ve spent my time mooching around, keeping an ear to the ground, and I’ve learnt one or two things. Prospects are bad, as you say. Know the latest? Next month we shall see — yet again — Absolutely Fabulous, Lovejoy, and — wait for it — Dad’s Army.” “Is this kosher?” asked David. “Depend on it.” Kevin looked furious. “So that doesn’t give my Brave New World much room now!” Rockforth said soberly “Sorry, I happen to know that’s right out. Kaput, cancelled, finito.” “What! How do you know?” “Overheard Alan talking to D.A.” Kevin was even more furious now. “But I’ve got a cast lined up and waiting in the wings; locations, camera crew, everything — “ “Bad luck” was the sympathetic reply. “Make a habit of eavesdropping, do you?” asked David sourly. The young man shrugged. “Don’t knock it. It’s dog eat dog nowadays, and every bit of information can be useful.” He grinned. “If nothing else, you find out who you need to suck up to.” The other two looked at each other again. “All right, then”, said Kevin. “Let’s hear what you have in mind.” Peter Rockforth looked around, then motioned the two men closer whilst he whispered. “What!!” they croaked simultaneously. Kevin Bestwick stared at the floor manager. “Set fire to the whole caboodle? Are you mad?” “No,” replied Peter, “just desperate.” “But that’s criminal,” exclaimed Kevin, “not to mention dangerous. And how do you expect to get away with it?” “Keep your voice down and listen. I know the place, I worked there, remember? The whole basement, bar a few store-rooms for cleaners and office supplies, is occupied by Archives. Inside Archives, the first thing is a sort of outer office, with a counter. That’s where the duty man takes orders for releasing cassettes. This office includes a computerised filing system which stores everything under titles and dates, plus a code showing which shelf the tapes are stored on. When the clerk takes an order, he looks up the location of the stuff, goes behind to get it, makes a copy, logs it out on the computer to whoever requested it, and there you are.” “So how does that make it possible to fire the place?” “The point is that there’s only ever one man, or girl, on duty down there, since there’s little to do most of the time. There’s no Archive staff as such, they are General Admin staff who do a spell down there whenever it’s their turn. All we need to do is get down there on our own and do the deed.” Kevin frowned. “You’re not worried about torching the whole building, then?” “Shouldn’t happen. Every floor is isolated with fire doors, and there’s a good alarm system. We let the fire get sufficient hold, then activate the alarm. Fire station’s not far away, so they should arrive in time to control things. Meanwhile the flames will have done enough damage to the cassette stores to put the whole repeat policy out of the question.” “My God...” “What do you think?” asked Peter. “It sounds mad to me, much as I’d like to scupper the damn tapes. Forget it.” David Stoner had been listening carefully to all this. “Hang on,” he said, “this could work. But there’s a few things to straighten out first. Are there no duplicate tapes anywhere? You said the clerk makes a copy.” Peter shrugged. “That’s just a temporary copy. The original is not released in case of accident. There’s a copying machine down there, so the duty clerk copies the set of tapes and puts the originals back. When the temps are returned they are simply used again for the next copy and so on.” “What about this duty person? They’d have to be in on the scheme.”

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“Well, that could be a problem, yes. But I was hoping to offer myself as a relief there; you know, get the regular person out of the way.” David shook his head. “No dice. You’re then the obvious candidate for criminal charges.” “Not if it looked like an accident.” “I doubt it. Too difficult to make it convincing.” “Look,” interposed Bestwick, “we can’t go on discussing it here: too many people around. Let’s go up to my office and talk there.” “THE OTHER THING IS,” asked Kevin after he had closed his office door, “will the tapes burn?” “They don’t have to burn,” replied Rockforth, “just melt a bit. It only takes a reasonably high temperature to start curling the edges. And the slightest physical distortion will ruin the picture, sound, everything.” “Surely there’s some sort of protection system?” asked David. “There was in the old days, I believe,” replied Peter, “Everything was in metal cabinets. But the sheer number of tapes building up made this too expensive. Some of the really old stuff is in these cabinets, but most are on open metal shelves. And they were going to install a sprinkler system, but the money ran out. You see, the videotapes themselves are jolly expensive because they are in a special high quality format.” “So you’re saying that once the place goes up in flames, most tapes will get sufficiently damaged to be useless?” “Right. It’s criminal, really, how vulnerable the whole place is.” “It’s criminal what you’re proposing,” said Kevin, “but things are desperate for all of us. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be criminals when half the world breaks the law in other ways. And at least we’d not be harming people, only striking a blow for actors and production staff. Do you agree, David?” “Yes, I agree,” said David, “It’s got to be done. But let’s go back to this business of getting staff out of the way. I suppose we couldn’t get hold of a key and go down there when everyone has gone home?” “That wouldn’t work. Security staff patrol the place at night. We wouldn’t get far before they’d be on to it — and we’re caught then for sure,” replied Kevin, “but, my God, David, I want to see this work. I’d set my heart on the Brave New World production. When I think of all those people standing by, who are out of a job because of these bloody repeats...” “Not to mention my lost commission,” murmured David, “but come on, what about this key business — who keeps the keys?” “Security again. They know most of the Admin people by sight, and anyway they can always ask to see an authorisation,” said Peter. “They just might let me have a key, because they know me, but that will hardly work if they’ve already issued one to someone else.” “And another problem is actually starting the fire,” David pointed out. “Even if we get in and successfully burn the place, there’ll be questions about how it began. I take it we couldn’t blame a cigarette?” “Come on, David,” replied Kevin, “The whole building is non-smoking, you know that.” The plotters continued their discussion. Downstairs in the Archives Department a young woman sat yawning behind the reception desk. The daily computer update entries had been made and there was little or nothing to do for the rest of the day. She wished she had brought some knitting.

Chapter 2

Plan B

WHEN JOHN APPLETON LEFT STONER’S OFFICE he set off to walk the couple of miles back to his flat in seedy North Kensington, musing morosely on the way. What did I expect anyway? he thought, you can’t just drop into work from the word go. You have to get known and be seen. Still, at least I’m on Stoner’s books now, and there doesn’t seem any better chance around. I’ll just have to hope: meanwhile there’s that job going in the supermarket; it’ll keep us alive for a while. But I must keep my eye on any acting chances that are going. Maybe I should apply to the television companies myself. No, no, if I did that I’d lose David Stoner’s support straight away. You have to have an agent, everyone says that. He turned up Bassett Road and made his way home. “Are you in, Angie?” he called out as he closed the flat door. Flat? Not much more than a bed-sit really; still it did have its own kitchen/bathroom attached. He often thought it was illegal to have only one door between the lav and the food-store, but he was wary of arguing with the landlord; accommodation was all too hard to get anyway. He just

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hoped he could somehow help keep the rent going for the two of them now his allowance had ceased. Mum had been great, financing him through college but he knew it had to end there and he was on his own. Angie did not seem to be in. Out shopping, I suppose, he thought; it’s her day off from the building society. I hope it’s only food she’s shopping for; if she’s back on the junk again we’re in big trouble . . . Angela Snow’s upbringing had been so carefully watched over by her father, a country vicar, that it was almost inevitable she should break out in an effort to find herself once she was free of the paternal shackles. Studying drama in London had been her chance to taste some of life’s forbidden fruits: drugs had been the first, offered to her at a party and for a long time now focussed into a cocaine-sniffing habit. Sex had been the second; when she saw John acting in Scarlet Pimpernel rehearsals she was bowled over by his romantic dash and shyly, or was it slyly, made herself available to him, whereupon, like many who lose their virginity comparatively late, she became hopelessly in love with him. It had been a while before she found that the romantic dash had been a sample of John’s acting talent, and that at heart he was a proud, comparatively cold young man whose sights were firmly fixed upon his future career. His self-contained manner had never made easy the task of acquiring, or at any rate keeping, girlfriends and so he had accepted Angie more or less gratefully as a source of sex. Oh, he was fond of her too, but in a big brotherly sort of way. Besides, she did the mending and washing and most of the cooking . . . Well, it was 12.15 so perhaps he had better think about some sort of lunch. He found some bacon and eggs in the cupboard and decided to make chips. He had been peeling potatoes for a few minutes when he heard Angie’s key in the door. “Hello, darling,” she said, and crossed the room to kiss him. “What’s cooking?” “Nothing yet,” John replied, “but I can get some chips on now you’re here.” “Yes, but how did you get on at the agent’s?” “Much as expected. No work; they’ve put me on the books, that’s all they can do. It looks as though I’ll have to take that supermarket job now.” “Oh dear, bad luck. I’ve bought a new bed-cover, you know how thin the old one was getting.” John peered at her covertly. Was she just a bit too gay; were her eyes brighter than usual? Had some of the shopping money gone on tablets, or worse? You never knew who was waiting around the street corners in this district . . . A knock at the door. “I’ll go,” said Angela and opened it to reveal the sagging features of landlord Zach Rowntree. “Ah, my pretty one, just the one I want to see.” He was almost leering at Angela, whose rosy cheeks and corn-coloured hair were after all worth leering at. “You’re overdue two weeks’ rent, did yer know that?” “Sorry, Mr. Rowntree,” she answered, “We’ve been a bit short, I’ll get it now.” Whilst she rummaged in her purse, John made for the door. “Now then, Mr. Rowntree, what about that leaking cistern? It’s three weeks or more since we reported it. The floor in the lavatory is continually damp.” The landlord stroked his chin. “‘Asn’t he been yet? I’ve told ‘im twice. Leave it with me. Ah, thank you, darlin’. Hundred and twenty pounds, just right. G’day to yer both.” And away he whisked. “Lousy swine,” said John, “he’ll never fix that damn cistern. It’s a bloody scandal, for the money we pay.” “Never mind, darling, “coaxed Angie, “Come here and give me a cuddle. I’ve been missing you all morning.” “But I’m doing these chips,” protested John. “They can wait,” she said, drawing him to her. So the chips did wait - for quite a while. WHEN THEY HAD DRESSED and completed their simple meal, John decided to go down to the local supermarket to try for a job. He asked for the manager and was shown into the presence of a sourlooking man. “My name’s Mr. Roberts,” announced the latter, “and yours is?” “John Appleton. I heard there’s a job going; is that right?” “What experience have you had?” “Well, none really; I trained as an actor.” Roberts stared incredulously. “An actor, is it? You won’t need that sort of skill here.” He sniggered. “Unless we need you to tell some old lady she can’t have her money back.” John waited patiently.

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“Well, John,” said Roberts, scratching his head, “You look strong. It’s stores for you, carting goods about. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, those are our delivery days, nine till five, hour off for lunch, fifteen pounds a day.” “Is that all?” “Best I can do till something else comes along. Take it or leave it.” “I’ll take it”, said John glumly. “Right. Start tomorrow? Good.” John returned home with a heavy heart. OK, he wanted the job, but was it for this he had trained for so long? Letting himself into the flat quietly he stopped as he heard a sharp intake of breath and a quick rustling noise. Angela stepped out from the kitchen. “Hi, darling,” she said with a smile, “get the job all right?” “Yes,” said John, “I got the job all right. Start tomorrow, lumping boxes around.” “Oh dear. Well, it’s a start, isn’t it?” she commented brightly and turned back into the kitchen. What had she been doing? wondered John. Did she look a bit guilty then? Was she up to her old tricks? He hoped not, but couldn’t be sure. DAVID STONER LEFT THE BBC TV CENTRE and took a cab to a mews address in Fulham. He knew Jessica would be waiting for him; he always came on Tuesdays and Fridays unless he left a message. Pity about her expensive tastes — nearly as bad as Rachel — but he regarded it as an investment, for Jessica was well versed in the arts of love, and spent money on perfumes and seethrough undies to entice David to feats he had once thought the province of much younger men. And he had to admire the way she managed to dress so well and always look well groomed, on the money he allowed her. He was very fond of Jessica — a divorced ex-dancer he had taken a fancy to at an audition and whom he had wined and dined on the spot. She was dark-haired like Rachel, but instead of Rachel’s slimline figure had a slightly plump, cuddly shape. Now and then he had even wondered whether married life with her would be preferable to the mutual tolerance he had at Wimbledon Park. However, there were more serious things on his mind today, and he looked forward to being distracted from them in the next two hours, as once again he “worked late”. Jessica gave him a nice cooked meal and a good time in bed afterwards, casually and cleverly bringing round the subsequent conversation to her forthcoming birthday. “What a wonderful lover you are, David! I could swear you were only twenty-five.” “Flatterer. You know I’m the wrong side of fifty.” “Not when you’re in bed. Now take me, anyone can tell my age.” David struggled nobly to reciprocate. “Seventeen?” Jessica giggled. “Now you’re being ridiculous. Very soon I’ll be thirty-six.” Very soon? puzzled David. Crikey, it’s her birthday this month, no, hang on, next week. Careful. David; don’t let on you forgot. “Of course, my darling, and there’ll be a special treat for a good girl.” He turned his face away as he grimaced. He would have to buy her a decent birthday present. More expense! And he was sure thirty-six wasn’t the right figure, either, but there’s a time and place . . . ABOUT TWELVE HOURS LATER David was tossing and turning in the spare bed at home as he came out of deep sleep into the dreaming stage. There had been an awkward scene when he got home as his explanation of late arrival was no better received than Rachel’s defence of her large West End shopping bill. Although neither party had reached the stage of overt anger, there was sufficient tension to ensure that the door of the conjugal bedroom was shut in his face. David had shrugged this off; it was nothing new, and anyway he didn’t fancy lying next to Rachel after his evening adventure. In his dream it was Jessica’s birthday party. He was in a garden amongst many guests, sitting in a chair with Jessica at his side. In front of him was a group of people who were (he somehow knew) the actors in Hamlet performing the orchard scene for Claudius and Gertrude. As the chief villain leaned over the sleeping king he drew out, not a vial of poison, but a revolver and pointed it at the sleeping figure on the ground before him. Then suddenly the whole cast of actors produced guns and pointed them at David and Jessica. “Stick ‘em up!” they cried in chorus. Amazed, David and Jessica raised their hands, whereupon the cast all burst out laughing and gestured behind them, where two flunkeys walked forward bearing an enormous cake dotted with a host of flaming candles. “Happy hundredth birthday, Jessica!” they shouted in unison, “Happy hundredth birthday!” and bells started ringing . . . David silenced his alarm clock and passed his hand through his thinning hair. Some dream, he thought, some dream! Jessica isn’t a hundred, though she’s certainly more than she lets on. But can I afford to go on keeping her in that flat? It’s been three years now, and I must have spent thousands on

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her. Is it worth it after all? With money so tight, it looks as thought she’ll have to move to a cheaper place before long . . . After a gloomy, silent, and late breakfast he decided to potter about the garden. He was not an enthusiastic gardener, in fact he had a man in once or twice a week to look after the place, but today he felt he couldn’t face work. In the potting shed he found three trays of bedding plants he had asked Fred to buy in for the side plot, and decided it would be therapeutic to plant them himself. An hour later he found to his surprise that he was humming quietly to himself, actually enjoying the job. Well, well, he thought as he crouched over the flower bed, this may not solve life’s problems, but it certainly lets you pretend they don’t exist. I ought to do more gardening; there was a time when it would have been a habit. I remember when we lived at Bickley . . . David suddenly shot bolt upright. I have it! The way to set fire to the Archive Department is to have a little birthday celebration there, with a cake and candles. After the fire we will be terribly repentant and say that the cake got knocked over accidentally, the candle fat got on the carpet (there is a carpet, I hope) and the fire spread before we knew it — in fact our backs were turned, no, we were drunk, that’s it. We can work out the details, but basically that’s the plan. For a few minutes he squatted on the edge of his lawn, glowing with his own cleverness, then rose up, leaving the rest of the plants, went indoors, lifted the phone and dialled a number. “That you, Kevin? Listen, I’ve had an idea!” “David — “ “What we need is an excuse to have a flame down there — “ “David — “ “A birthday party, that’s it. A cake with candles, then we have a bit of an accident -” “David! Will you shut up and listen to me?” “Why? Something the matter?” “Not on the phone. Get up here as quick as you can. Now!” The phone was slammed down. David gaped. Something bad must have happened. He had better do as he was told. He quickly washed his hands, grabbed his jacket and shouted a brief goodbye to Rachel. Forty-five minutes later he was shutting the door of Kevin Bestwick’s office behind him. “What’s this all about? I thought my idea was a good one.” “Forget it. It’s all off.” “For God’s sake, why?” “That idiot Rockforth has jumped the gun. Got it into his head to go it alone. Went downstairs this morning, chatted up the duty girl and persuaded her to let him take over duty whilst she went shopping, waited a few moments, then started a fire with paper in a waste-basket.” “He what!?” “You heard me. The whole floor might well have caught fire, too, it was spreading well enough — there’s lots of papers up there, apparently — but then Peter thought he was getting cut off, panicked and raised the alarm. A couple of security men rushed in and put out the fire double quick with the hose on the wall. All over.” David could hardly take all this in. “What’s happened to Peter? Wasn’t he suspected?” “Oh, he’s suspected all right. He’s in with the beak now, and a couple of policemen, being asked the obvious questions. He’s landed himself right in it. What we’ve got to worry about is whether he’s landed us in it as well.” David hadn’t thought of that. “Will he talk, do you think?” “Well, we can only hope not,” answered Kevin, “I think he’ll keep quiet there. In fact, I doubt whether he’ll admit anything at all if I know him. Probably blame the duty girl for leaving a cigarette burning or something. Or maybe just stay completely mystified. I think that’s what I would do.” “But surely they’ll think it funny that a fire starts precisely when an interloper worms his way into the place?” “Well, yes. But thinking is one thing, proving is another. Peter is under suspicion but it’s difficult to see what they can pin on him if he says he was just trying to be helpful to the girl.” “I suppose she’ll be in trouble, too. She shouldn’t have left her post.” “Right. But when you think of it, the whole thing will probably blow over in a week or two, with heavy slaps on the wrist and redoubled security. I should think they’ll definitely install the sprinkler system now.” This was a gloomy prospect. No chance now of pulling off the stunt, and both men knew it. They were stuck with the original situation. Back to square one.

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THE NEXT DAY THE LEADING NEWSPAPERS carried a feature on the fire, longer or shorter depending on the news editor’s approach. The Times was fairly typical: MYSTERY FIRE AT TELEVISION CENTRE
BBC chiefs, fire officers and police are holding enquiries about a fire which started at the BBC Television Centre at Shepherd’s Bush yesterday, threatening to burn precious tapes and other records in the basement of the building, which is mainly occupied by the Archives Dept. Fortunately little damage was done before the alarm was raised and nearby staff were able to extinguish the flames. David Attwood, BBC TV’s Chief Controller said “It is very fortunate that the blaze was stopped in good time. We have thousands of priceless videotapes, films and other records stored down there, and it would have been a disaster for Western culture if they had been destroyed.” Asked why fire precautions were not better, he replied that he was looking into the whole matter of further safeguards, and also at the possibility of removing the more valuable records to another place. Staff on duty are understood to have been questioned, but cannot throw light on the cause of the fire. Police have not ruled out arson as yet.

Kevin Bestwick ground his teeth as he was shown it in his office. He was already in a foul mood, having just been told that his Brave New World was definitely cancelled. Worse, in his opinion, was the instruction to hold himself ready to produce a feature on consumers’ box-watching preferences, to be called Your Favourite Video. All his chosen actors who had been awaiting the scripts and first rehearsals of the Huxley dramatisation were now to be told there was nothing for them. He flung down the paper and stormed out for some fresh air.

Chapter 3

Public enemy

THREE DAYS LATER it was Jessica’s birthday, and David had bought her a bicycle. He couldn’t think of anything more exotic, and anyway she seemed to have plenty of jewellery, perfumes, negligées and the like. He would have preferred something a lot cheaper, but in view of the news he was about to break to her, he thought he’d better give her a substantial present to soften her up. Now that car travel was severely restricted, many people got around London on bicycles; besides, David privately thought Jessica was getting a little too plump lately. At least Rachel kept a reasonable figure, with her almost daily golf. He collected the machine from the Fulham shop and pushed it the short distance to Jessica’s flat, not fancying the ride himself, especially on a ladies’ cycle. “A bike, darling?” she cooed, barely suppressing a gasp. “How, er, enterprising. I won’t need taxis any more, will I?” David thought she looked almost accusing. He cleared his throat. “Well, that’s right. It’s got the latest anti-theft device, too. Look here: press the button on this key-ring when you leave it and the wheels lock up. An alarm goes off if anyone lifts it up. Good, eh?” “Thank you, darling. I’ll have a look at it later. Now come and have some tea. I’ve got a birthday cake.” How many candles? thought David, but saw there were none. Candles! Birthday cake! A sore point, he mused as they sat sipping tea. And why on earth did the thought of guns come into his mind as he looked at the cake? Perhaps Jessica would get a gun out when he told her his news . . . He’d better get it over with. “Jessica,” he began, “I hope you like the bike; but I’m afraid there’s a disappointment I have to tell you.” He looked anxiously into her deep brown eyes. The deep brown eyes looked anxiously back. “What is it, David?” “I’ve got to cut your allowance. This is an expensive place, and business is very bad just now. Something has to go — I can’t go on running two homes the way I have. Maybe you should move to a smaller place. I’m sorry, I really am.” Jessica looked incredulously at him for a moment and then stood up. “David, what a thing to spring on me on my birthday! I thought you loved me better than Rachel — have you cut her allowance too?” Oh dear. This was going to be difficult. “Sweetheart, I do love you best. And I have cut her allowance too.” he lied. “But you must realise how bad things are — “ His mistress interrupted. “Look, David, I’m not getting any younger. I’ll be honest, I’m forty-two today, and frankly, I’m scared. I can’t get a job, I depend on you absolutely.” The deep brown eyes filled with tears. “I think it’s time you chose between me and Rachel. You just said you love me best, so why don’t you prove it?”

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David was aghast. He hadn’t foreseen this. “Now, Jessica, calm down. There’s no need for that sort of thing. I’m sure we can work something out.” The word ‘calm’ was a mistake, only serving to fan Jessica’s rising emotion. “I will not calm down! I’m sick of being second fiddle to your Rachel. I’ve seen her, parading round in those fancy clothes that I never seem to afford. She gets the best of everything, and I get nothing!” He was appalled — too appalled to correct her last untrue statement. She had seen Rachel? Had she been — “Have you been to my house? I told you never to go near it!” “Can you blame me? I wanted to see what I was missing. Why shouldn’t I live in a house like that? I ought to be your wife, not her. Why don’t you divorce her and marry me? Do you love me or don’t you?” She was almost screaming now. “Yes, I love you!” he shouted, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t!” “The prove it. It’s me or her. Either you divorce her and marry me or it’s all over. I can’t go on like this.” Jessica slumped down in her chair and began sobbing noisily. David put his head between his hands. He was finding out what usually happens to men who keep mistresses. God, he groaned to himself. A fine mess this birthday party has turned out to be. Now Jessica is putting a gun to my head. And why the hell do I keep thinking of guns? “I think I’d better go,” he said, “all this needs thinking about. Cheer up, love, it’ll work out, you’ll see.” “Yes, you go! But don’t think you can get out of it! I mean every word. And take your damn bike!” He went. She didn’t mean that last bit, surely. About the bike. Oh well, if she did, he could always get his money back on it. Well, probably, even though it was second-hand. DAVID WENT GLUMLY BACK to his office. He had made a fine mess of Jessica’s birthday, he could see that now. There’s a time and place for everything, his dad had never tired of telling him. Yeah, yeah. But what could he do? Choose between Jessica and Rachel? He was not ready for that, certainly not till the financial situation improved. Acrimony, alimony and still two homes to keep going, no thanks. Things would have to muddle on for a bit, though Jessica would have to suffer her cut. But once back behind his desk, after a check with Ruby confirmed no calls from any of the television people, he sat thinking. Birthday cake, guns, actors out of work, something there tickled his thought processes and began vaguely to excite him. Think, David, think. You’re in trouble. You had a good idea about the videotapes but that went wrong. You need money. It comes from commissions on actors’ fees. They need work but are sitting idle. You’re sitting idle. There must be a solution somewhere. Think, David, think. RACHEL STONER WAS THINKING, TOO. David had been acting strangely lately. He kept grumbling that business was at a standstill, yet went up to town most days and often got back late. Something was going on and she wanted to know about it. How could she find out? There must be somebody who knew David or worked with him . . . Suddenly she remembered — Linda Martin, the actress. She was one of David’s, and a member of the golf club, too. Lived, where was it, Putney Heath or that way. Someone had mentioned that Linda had been seen playing golf a bit lately; was she “resting”? She might know. Rachel lifted the phone, dialled the golf club, and got the secretary. “Hello, George, is that you? Rachel Stoner here.” “Ah, morning, Rachel. What can I do for you?” “George, can you give me Linda Martin’s phone number, please? I want to fix up a game with her this week.” Two minutes later the actress’ voice came on the line. “Yes, who is it?” “It’s Rachel Stoner — David’s wife. I believe we’ve met a couple of times, and I thought perhaps we ought to get better acquainted. I hear you’re playing a bit more golf these days, and wondered if you’d fancy a game this afternoon, just the two of us. Would you be free for two-thirty?” “Er, yes, I think so. I remember you. Yes, all right. See you at the club, then. ‘Bye.” THE TWO WOMEN SAID HELLO in the ladies’ changing room, got their gear ready for the game and went to the first tee. “What’s your handicap, Rachel?” asked Linda. “My husband!” A stale golfing joke the world over, but used with more feeling this time. “He’s mine too, would you believe?” replied Linda. “No, seriously, what do you play off?” “Seven.” said Rachel, not too humbly.

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“Wow! You’re too good for me, I’m off twenty. You’ll give me the strokes?” “Of course. Let’s see, that’s . . . ten, isn’t it? Loser buys the tea?” “Fine.” Linda thought what a fine figure Rachel cut as she swung the club smoothly and punched the ball straight down the fairway, and what a lucky man Stoner was to have such a good-looking wife. “Good shot! I don’t suppose I’ll get half that distance.” She didn’t. A somewhat nervous swing flunked the ball into the rough, and off the two set in search of it. AFTER FIVE HOLES Rachel was two up and decided to let her opponent win the next hole before she broached the subject that was on her mind. “Oh dear,” she exclaimed as she carefully missed her putt, “Your hole this time.” They padded to the next tee, where they had to wait a while for the players in front to move on. Rachel judged this as her moment. “Linda, there’s something I’d like to ask you.” The actress smiled. “I thought there might be.” “As obvious as that, was it? Well, I’m sorry, but it’s important to me. You see, David’s very secretive these days, and I’m sure there’s something going on he won’t tell me about, and . . . well, I think he’s got a mistress. You wouldn’t know about it, would you?” Linda looked taken aback, and for one heart-stopping moment Rachel realised the possibility that Linda herself might be the lady in question. But her mind was soon set at rest. “David with a bit on the side? I must admit I’ve never thought of him as that sort. David? Surely not! And why would he want to, with a lovely wife like you?” Rachel flushed. She wasn’t going to tell Linda how seldom she let David make love to her. or why. “Well, he keeps telling me business is bad, yet he’s always up in town, and comes home late, saying he’s been working all day. What is there for him to do if the acting profession’s as stagnant as he says? Do you know anything about it?” “It’s certainly stagnant as far as I’m concerned — Oh, look, we’d better go.” The men in front had moved on and Linda was anxious to drive off first. They both hit good drives and continued the conversation as they walked down the fairway. “I’ll be honest with you,” said Linda, “I was ready to meet you today because I hoped you could tell me something about him. Why can’t he get me a job? I’ve been out of work for months.” “Linda, I don’t know. We don’t speak too much these days, at least not about things that matter. But he says the money’s running out, and if he’s spending it on some tart then that’s the first thing I want to know.” “I understand. But I don’t see what I can do about it.” “Well, I was wondering if you saw him now and then — in the way of business, of course — and might keep your ear to the ground — you know, anything.” “Hmm. It might be a good idea if I went to see him anyway. I ring up from time to time to see if he’s found me work, but he fobs me off. Putting a bit of pressure on might achieve something; they say the one that shouts the loudest will get served first. Right — leave it to me, I’ll go to see him, more than once if necessary. It won’t do either of us any harm. And I’ll see if I can steer the subject round to his private life. Ever so subtly, of course!” Rachel smiled nervously. “Thanks, Linda. That’ll be great.” “Well, we’ll see.” And the game continued. LIFE IN NOTTING HILL was not John Appleton’s idea of fun at the moment. The supermarket job was menial and exhausting, making him feel inferior to Angela. She was engaged at the building society virtually full-time, whereas he had time on his hands half the week, leaving him to cope with the domestic chores. Christ, I never thought shacking up with a girl would be like this, he thought; I feel like a part-time housewife. I used to manage at college, but this rathole is something else. The loo still has water on the floor, and that shit Rowntree has done nothing. Something has to be done about landlords like that — surely we’ve got rights. He had been talking to some of the other residents in his building. Similar stories to his own were forthcoming: a leaking roof, rotting banisters, unsafe wiring. And rumour had it that Rowntree owned half the street. Other locals were always muttering about the terrible state of the properties, but Rowntree, full of promises, rarely carried out even the simplest repairs. Angie was a worry, too. He was sure she was on drugs again. He had noticed the bright eyes and animated manner, followed by listlessness a few days later and then a kind of pinched desperation after that. Then the cycle would begin all over again. She always denied it, of course. They always do, he

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thought bitterly; he had known a couple of lads like that at school. John began to wonder whether he would stay with Angie. You have to love someone to put up with their faults, and he didn’t feel really in love with her. Well, he didn’t think so. Sex was good, of course, but that’s what girls were for, wasn’t it? The rest is for chumps . . . And if she was going to be a junkie for life, well, he didn’t want any part of it; there was his career to look forward to. He would get into television somehow. He had seen Angie talking to a rough-looking youth on the street corner a few days ago, and he was almost certain something had changed hands. When he had questioned her she had told him lightly that he was homeless and that she had given him a bit of loose change. Did she really expect him to believe that? He would keep an eye on things. “John! Get on with that shifting! Are you dreaming or what?” He came to with a start. “Sorry, Mr. Roberts. Right away.” Back to the delivery bay with his trolley to move another load of canned goods. He loaded three cartons on to the trolley and turned round for another load when a movement caught his eye across the back alley behind the delivery bay. His eyes narrowed — surely that was the rough youth Angie had been talking to the other day, the suspected drugs pusher. Another man had his back turned to John, but not enough to prevent him seeing that something changed hands furtively. He crouched behind the stacked goods and watched as the pair broke up and the second man walked away. John’s jaw dropped as he recognised Zach Rowntree. So he was the local dealer! His thoughts in a whirl, John returned to his task. Something had definitely got to be done about this unscrupulous bastard. He would go to the police, that was it. Tomorrow was his day off, that’s when he would go. THE NEXT DAY JOHN VISITED his local police station, determined to put a stop to Rowntree’s criminal activities — and his criminal negligence, if possible. The duty officer looked up patiently as John came to the desk. “Yes, sir?” “I want to report somebody,” said John, mustering his best stage manner, “for lawbreaking.” “Oh yes, and who would that be?” “Well, it’s my landlord actually. His name is Rowntree.” The policeman looked interested. “Rowntree? Would that be Zach Rowntree?” “Why, yes,” said the surprised John, “do you know him?” The officer chuckled. “Do we know him? Oh yes, we know him. We know quite a lot about him. And what particular law was he breaking?” “Drug dealing, actually. He was passing drugs to another man.” “You saw this?” “Yes. Yesterday, in the alley behind the supermarket. I saw them both.” “You saw them both. Go on.” “Well, that’s it. Aren’t you going to do something about it?” “Possibly. There’s just the question of hard evidence. How do you know he was passing drugs?” John swallowed. He hadn’t thought of this. He hadn’t, of course, actually seen what was being passed, though he was sure Rowntree had received money. “Er, well, the other man is a, what do you call it, pusher. He takes the drugs and passes them on.” “And this man’s name, sir?” “I don’t know. But I’ve seen him before. I know he’s to do with drugs.” “And how do you know that?” “Well, I . . . I feel sure he is. He hangs around the area.” There was a pause whilst the officer looked caustically at John. “Did you actually see the drugs?” “Well, no.” “And you want me to, what, arrest both these men, I suppose? On the evidence that you saw one of them give the other one, whose identity you don’t know, some object which may or may not be drugs? Do you know there’s a penalty for wasting police time?” John flushed scarlet. He realised he had rushed in foolishly where angels . . . “All right. I’m sorry,” he said hastily, “I should have realised I’d need proper evidence. I hadn’t thought it through. But there are other things. Rowntree’s a bad landlord: he doesn’t repair his property. The flat I live in isn’t maintained properly; it isn’t even sanitary, and lots of other people in the road say the same. That’s against the law, surely.” The policeman looked pityingly at Appleton. “Yes, you’re right, it is against the law. But it’s civil law, not criminal. We can do nothing about it; you’d have to bring an action yourself in the courts, unless you can get the Health and Safety people round from the council. I take it that will be all? Good day to you.”

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John left the station with his tail between his legs. He had never felt such a fool in his life. Why am I doing this anyway? he thought. It’s because of Angie, I suppose. I don’t want her to go on with the drugs; it’ll ruin her life if she’s not careful. He walked back home slowly. Poor John Appleton. He didn’t even recognise one of the signs of love when he experienced it.

Chapter 4

Got it!

THINGS WERE QUIET in the Stoner household. The daily help had been and gone, and after a light lunch husband and wife pursued different domestic tasks. Rachel decided to clear out some old dresses to give to Oxfam, and so was busy upstairs; whilst David, mindful of the unexpectedly inspirational effect of his previous horticultural enterprise, was in the garden weeding — and thinking. Rachel too had been thinking. She felt a certain relief now that Linda Martin had promised to keep an eye on David. She didn’t really believe it would be a matter of finding out whether David had a mistress: all things considered, it would be surprising if he hadn’t; but she considered it high time she knew what sort of woman her rival was, and if possible, what he was spending on her now that money was apparently getting tighter. She looked appraisingly at a scarlet evening dress. She had worn it no less than three times; that could go for a start . . . Outside, David had weeded for no more than five minutes before he was sitting on his garden bench, a faraway look in his eyes. A plan was forming, and he needed to work on a few details. The sun moved on, until he was first in shade, then out of it again. “Cup of tea, David?” He came to with a blink, to see Rachel with a tray, offering him tea. “What time is it?” “Three-thirty. Do you want the tea?” “No thanks, I’ve a phone call to make.” Whereupon he made off for the house, leaving a shrugging wife to sit down with her beverage. “Kevin Bestwick here.” “Kevin, it’s David — David Stoner. I want to see you. This is important.” “What’s it about?” “I’ve got an idea — a way to get our actors working.” “Say again?” “An idea to get our actors working. You want that, don’t you? Money for both of us?” “Of course. But if it’s anything like that last doomed idea — “ “No, no. But I need your co-operation. Can you come to my office tomorrow? Say half ten? But don’t mention this to anyone. Especially that Rockforth fellow.” “All right, David. I’ve little else to do at the moment.” “I thought you had to do a programme on videos or something.” “Well, I do, but there’s no hurry, and I nearly turned it down anyway — I can’t get up any enthusiasm for it.” “Right, then, till tomorrow.” David rang off, feeling a small pang of excitement. If he could get Kevin’s interest and support, who knew where it could lead? NEXT MORNING LINDA MARTIN phoned Stoner’s secretary for an appointment, and after some argument, got one for 10.15. Ruby had received notification of the Bestwick appointment but didn’t think David would spend long on Linda, so squeezed her in. Once the tall, red-headed actress arrived the interview was indeed short and sharp. Linda demanded to know what jobs were going, and refused to believe, or pretended not to believe, that there was no work for her. Failing to shift the agent’s position, she tried turning on a little charm but that didn’t work either. Huffily, she went through to the outer office just as Bestwick arrived. He might be useful, she thought. “Why, hello, Kevin. How are things? Anything going for little old me?” “Linda. Long time no . . .” He pulled himself up before he sounded too tactless. “Nothing doing, darling. Things are very tight. I’ll let David know if anything comes up.” “Thanks, sweetie,” she said as he passed along the short corridor to the inner office, then, mindful of her promise to Rachel, turned her attention to the secretary.

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“Ruby, dear, David’s promised me a bit more of his time when he’s free. What is he doing this afternoon?” Ruby eyed her coolly, not believing her claim. “David normally goes scouting in the afternoons. He doesn’t tell me where he’ll be, because he doesn’t know himself. All interviews here are in the mornings. I thought you knew that.” Nothing doing there. But Linda chatted on, hoping that a clue might drop her way. WHEN KEVIN HAD SAT DOWN and refused the offer of a coffee, David came to the point. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the situation we’re facing. Clearly nothing is going to happen about the TV repeats. Meanwhile we’re both frustrated and a lot of good actors are doing nothing. I think there’s a way of getting them to earn money with their talents, and I don’t mean in the usual way.” Kevin said nothing, waiting for elucidation. David cleared his throat. “You remember how we cooked up the fire plan for the Archives?” Kevin nodded, still wondering what was coming. “Well, in effect we were prepared to commit a crime to put actors back on their feet. Right?” “Yes, but it didn’t work.” “It might have done — but the point is, we turned to crime because we were desperate. Let’s turn to crime again. Come to think of it, crime figures have never been higher. Other people have turned to crime because of financial difficulties; it happens all the time, the prisons are overflowing.” Kevin’s impatience showed in his face. “David, what are you talking about? That we should chuck up our jobs and turn burglars? And just how would that help the actors?” “No, no,” replied David quickly, “we don’t give up anything. But while things are quiet we can use the time to pull a few stunts off. This is where the actors come in. What is an actor’s talent? That he can play a part, impersonate someone. Learn a script, co-operate with other actors, build up a scene! If we can devise the right operations, we can use actors to carry them out. We organise it, pick the teams, brief them and send them in. These would have to be money-making schemes, of course, to pay the cast. We’d treat each operation just like a production, so you and I would collect our fees as usual. But perhaps we’d be playing for much higher stakes than usual.” He looked anxiously at the producer. “What do you think?” “Good God, David! What do I think? I think you’ve gone round the twist.” “Well, I don’t think so. The point is, we’d be dealing with professionals. Most crimes are committed by people with no special training for anything, but actors are trained to play a part, to respond to each other, to improvise if need be, and they’d have got over stage fright long ago. They’re not likely to panic if difficulties arise.” Kevin blew his breath out. “Where do I come into all this? Why me?” “Quite simple,” said David, “I need your expertise in getting resources going. You’ve access to make-up people, transport facilities, props and so on. You’d be chief co-ordinator, in fact.” “Props, what sort of props?” “Oh, all sorts of things, guns for instance.” “Guns! Count me out.” replied Kevin. “No, no, fake guns, of course.” went on David hastily. “That’s still a criminal offence.” “All right, forget the guns, but it’s crime with or without guns. Costumes, that’s another thing, you can get costumes, can’t you? Just say it’s for your production. Who’s to know what you’re doing with them?” Kevin breathed out heavily, sat silent for a minute, then spoke slowly. “I can see you’ve given this a bit of thought, David. It might just work, though there’d be a lot of details to work out, And I’d be in charge, you say?” “Completely.” “Hmm. Still wants thinking about.” In the outside office Linda had gone to the toilet. Ruby, intending to ring up an actor, reached out towards the telephone console to pull the appropriate switch and found that she had pulled on the intercom to David’s office instead of the correct switch. Afterwards she was to wonder whether her subconscious mind had directed her to do this. What she heard was David speaking coaxingly: “It’s the only thing left for us to do, Kevin, really it is.” Then Kevin: “But turning to crime, David! Bad enough for us, but we’d be asking dozens of actors and other people to do the same.” Ruby’s hand hovered over the switch. She wasn’t going to turn it off just yet. David continued: “We’d have to hand-pick our cast, of course. They must be people who wouldn’t squeal, and they’d

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have to have enough nerve to carry off the jobs.” And Kevin: “Right. We would need good actors, ones who could perhaps improvise instead of blindly following a script.” David sounded relieved. “So you agree with me? You’re in?” After a slight pause Kevin replied “What the hell — yes. It may be illegal and dangerous, but it’ll be worth it if we can make it pay. And a lot more fun than sitting around.” “And a lot of out-of-work actors will be getting back to grips with their calling!” said David. Ruby turned suddenly and became aware that Linda Martin was standing behind her. Quickly she flicked the switch off. “How long have you been standing there?” she asked shakily. “Long enough, dear.” said the red-head grimly, and marched straight towards the inner office door. “You can’t go in there!” cried Ruby, moving towards her. “Try and stop me!” said Linda, throwing open the door and crashing it behind her. The two men stared at the intrusion. David was the first to speak. “Linda! What do you want? I thought you’d gone.” “Well, I haven’t. And I’d like a few more details of your little scheme, if you don’t mind. If there’s work for actors that goes for actresses, too.” “What little scheme? What are you talking about?” Linda smiled. “Don’t pretend. You are cooking up some illegal scheme to get actors working for you. Sounds like a crime syndicate to me. Well, count me in, too. I can face a little crime just now. Legit. acting doesn’t keep me in business.” The two conspirators looked helplessly at each other. “You’d better say yes,” went on Linda, “or yours truly will be keeping an eye on you, and before you can run from the scene of your first crime there’ll be coppers waiting for you.” “That’s blackmail!” said David indignantly. Linda laughed. “Do you realise how silly that sounds, coming from you?” Again the two men looked at each other, and this time chuckled themselves. “All right, Linda,” said David, “you’re in. But nothing’s guaranteed yet. We have hardly begun, and there’s a lot to work out yet.” “Fine. And I won’t interfere. Just remember to include me. I’ll go now. And by the way”, she added as she moved towards the door, “Ruby heard you, too. I thought you ought to know that.” When she had left Kevin said “That’s the second time we’ve been overheard. We have got to be more careful. But how did she hear us? Listening at the door?” “I don’t know,” said David grimly, “but she said Ruby knows too. I’ll find out what they’ve been up to.” When Ruby had explained, and sworn secrecy, the two men decided to appoint her as secretary to the enterprise, and gave her her first task — to comb the lists of actors who fitted three criteria: that they had been out of work for six months at least, that they were relatively unknown, and that they were thought to be good at improvisation. She was given a day to submit a list to David, who would select a core list for her to contact the actors and assemble them at BBC TV headquarters, in Studio 8, without revealing anything but that there was work for them. This was a location that Kevin knew he could use by pretending to start on the forthcoming Your Favourite Video programme. Meanwhile Kevin would return to Shepherd’s Bush to sound out some technical staff. He would have to tread carefully, but he felt he knew enough people who were in the right mood — principally the technicians provisionally booked for the aborted Brave New World. As this included just about everything one could need, from make-up to hand-held cameras, from transport drivers to carpenters, he thought this could encompass enough resources to perform any heist they might devise. He and David were to meet in three days to discuss further details and work out a plan for their first job, if possible. DAVID STAYED AT HOME for the next couple of days, retreating to his now favourite garden spot to sit thinking, or brooding in his study with sheets of paper on which he wrote cryptic phrases and drew little diagrams which held meaning only to himself. Once or twice he made long phone calls which seemed to spur him on to further activity in his study. He quite forgot to make his usual visit to Jessica, which alarmed that lady considerably and made her wonder if she had gone too far in presenting her lover with an ultimatum. Rachel observed her husband’s presence with wonder. He didn’t usually stay at home in the week. What was he up to now? What David was up to would come out eventually, but the jigsaw was far from complete. He was excited by the whole concept and began to believe it could work. Everything depended on getting the right people involved, he knew that, but he felt ready to put his case to Kevin: proposals to get the network set up ready for action.

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AT SHEPHERD’S BUSH Kevin was laying his groundwork too. First he submitted a budget for the Favourite Video programme, stretching his requirements as far as he dared. It would, according to his detailed schedule, involve both studio and outside work, would require transport, catering, studio time, recordists and so on. Whether he would in fact use these particular resources was very doubtful, but he knew that once the application was passed by the controller, he could vary his requirements as needed. Next he made sure that he had the use of Studio 8 on Friday morning at 11 o’clock. Finally he made the rounds of the building, having a quiet word with various staff and fixing the all-important appointment with them. JOHN APPLETON WAS INCREASINGLY WORRIED about Angie’s behaviour. He was quite positive she was using drugs again but she always denied it. He knew that drug users were devious and would lie their way out of any confrontation, so decided to search the flat thoroughly whilst she was at work and he wasn’t. Having tried all the drawers and other obvious hiding places, he began searching under the beds and even under the tattered lino. After an hour and a half of baffled scratching around, he went to relieve himself in the lavatory, and after flushing, was further annoyed to watch the moisture seeping round the down pipe as usual. That bloody landlord wants choking, he thought bitterly, and then froze as a thought occurred to him. Standing on the toilet seat, he lifted the cistern lid, fumbled around, and felt a small triumph as his hand encountered a plastic bag taped near the top of the cistern. What an idiot I am, he thought, I’ve seen enough films with this sort of thing. Now for Angie. Angela had no alternative but to admit her guilt when she came home. The confrontation was uncomfortable for both of them, and led first to tears and then to hugs, kisses, and visions of better ways, mostly made by the shamefaced culprit. “Angie, we just can’t afford money for drugs” accused John sternly. “I know, darling, I know. I’ll try very hard to give up.” replied Angela, but knew that John would never understand the physical craving, the need she had for the stuff. She daren’t think how she would get through the next few days, now that the cocaine had gone down the toilet. ON FRIDAY STUDIO 8 was half filled by a chattering group of actors, actresses and technicians, standing or sitting on whatever loose furniture or staging was around. On an improvised dais at one end sat Kevin and David, with Ruby alongside, ready to take notes if need be. She also had a typed list of names she had carefully checked off as the actors entered. Kevin had done his checking by eye as his people came in. There were eighteen actors and fifteen technicians. He took one more look around, and gave a signal to a man in the recording booth at the side. This man then left the booth and joined the others. Kevin rose and asked for quiet. “Good morning, everybody.” he began, “Thanks for being on time. You’ve been called here because there’s a new production in the offing, and I want to tell you that you’ve been hand-picked for it as it is something really special.” A small appreciative buzz followed this. Kevin raised his hand. “But not special in the way you may think. As a matter of fact, the BBC knows nothing about this project, and what’s more, they are not to know.” A rather louder buzz followed this. Kevin raised his voice. “Please! Everything will be explained if you’ll give me a chance. Now you may notice that the doors are locked — well, they are, and Roger there has just switched on the red light outside. There’s nobody in the recording booth to capture what I’m saying, and I’m relying on you all to say nothing afterwards. This is a top secret undertaking. In fact, I’m about to propose something illegal to you, so if anyone has any qualms about it, I suggest he leaves now before I go any further.” This buzz exceeded both the previous put together. When it had died down sufficiently, a voice called out “You’ll have to be more specific. What kind of illegal? I mean, if you want us to go around murdering old ladies, you can count me out.” Others voiced their agreement to this sentiment. “OK, good point,” replied Kevin, “There’ll be nothing of that kind, in fact no violence at all. But the law will either be broken or, let’s say, bent a bit. Look, I think David should explain the details since this is his idea. Most of you know him; for those who don’t, David Stoner is a well-known actors’ agent; he looks after the majority of the people in this room. And this is Ruby Woods, his personal secretary.” “Hi, Ruby!” cried one wag, “and I always thought your name was Moneypenny.” Ruby smiled and waved her fingers.

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David stood up and let his eyes take in everyone in the room before he spoke. “I should think most of you are fed up with having nothing to do, and wondering just how long you are going to last in this profession. I know I am. A lot of the blame belongs to the BBC’s policy of continual repeats, though we know that’s not entirely their fault. But either way it’s left you with time on your hands. When people have time on their hands, and no money, they turn to crime. So that’s what I’m proposing: that we all turn to crime. The point is, that you all here have talent, specialised talent, and that’s what’s going to put us ahead of the ordinary criminal. I’m not proposing petty theft here; I’m talking about highly organised operations, fronted by people who can play a part convincingly, and backed up by technical and organisational resources. You could think of each operation as a theatrical production, if you like. A particular job may well need rehearsals: there needn’t be a script, in fact, improvisation is essential, which is why we’ve chosen actors who we think can improvise. I’m in charge of planning, which means that I dream up the operations and explain them to you, though I could do with some help in that direction, and will always welcome suggestions. Kevin here will be in charge of the actual operation: he’s a producer, so he has the overall view, and you’ll be taking your orders from him. He may want to appoint assistants or directors for particular activities. He’ll also call upon the technical staff for their expertise as required. Clear so far?” “I suppose so,” called out one voice, “but we still want to know what sort of crimes you’re talking about.” “That’s easy in one way,” said David, “they’ll be money-making schemes. You all want to make money, surely? We have to dream up various swindles, cons, even bank robbery if need be, to get funds. I’m acting as treasurer, and will put everybody here on a salary. It will have to be nominal at first, or even non-existent, but as soon as the funds roll in, you can all be paid, hopefully a satisfactory sum, plus a bonus for each job that you pull in the front line..” “That’s all very well for the actors,” objected a props man, “but we technical boys won’t be in the front line, so we get less, presumably.” “Well, you always did, didn’t you?” replied David, “and the front-line actors are taking the real risks.” “Yes, what about that?” called another, “what are the risks of getting caught?” “Less than you might think. One idea I have is that the actors are accompanied by camera crew, so that we excuse ourselves by saying it’s a film we’re shooting, or a vox pop programme, or whatever seems appropriate to that job.” “But don’t police have to be notified of every camera job?” “Yes, but there are ways round that. We can have our own policemen, for that matter. There are plenty of costumes available here.” The previous speaker called out again. “I still want to know what sort of crimes. Who will suffer?” “When there’s a crime,” said David, “someone usually suffers, yes. What I’ll be aiming at is people who can afford it — profiteers, overpaid executives, big companies that exploit their workers. Get the picture?” Kevin stood up again. “Look, friends,” he said, “why don’t we take a ten-minute break so that you can discuss it among yourselves? This is only going to work, really, if we all agree on it.” So the meeting broke off for a while, the audience gathering in small groups for animated discussion. One or two people drifted from group to group, gathering opinions, though most of the time the technicians and the actors stayed grouped on opposite sides of the room. “What do you think, Kevin?” murmured David anxiously. “I thought you put it over bloody well. Eh, Ruby?” “Yes, you did, David,” said the secretary proudly, “and I think you’ll get their vote.” A few minutes later Kevin judged his moment and called the meeting to order. “Well, folks?” he asked, “What’s it to be?” A tall man stepped forward. “I speak for the actors. We’re a hundred per cent in favour.” A small man with a ginger beard spoke for the rest. “We’re all in, too.” A relieved general cheer followed this announcement. Ruby looked up with a mischievous grin, pencil poised over her pad. “Proposed by Paul Rossiter,” she said, “and seconded by?” indicating the bearded man. “Roger Wallace, cameraman,” answered the man. “Then it’s carried!” announced Kevin. “And now for the next meeting. We can use this studio for a while. It’s booked for a production called Your Favourite Video, so as far as anyone else is concerned, you’re in that. If anyone queries it, refer them to me. We all meet here next Tuesday, ten o’clock, when we hope to have final details of our first job.” “Will we all be in it?” asked someone.

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Kevin looked at David. “I’m not sure who’ll be wanted yet, till I’ve completed the plan.” said David. “Meanwhile, everybody make sure that Ruby has your contact number for permanent reference.” “Well, that’s all, then,” said Kevin, “till Tuesday.” “Wait a minute.” This was Mary Douglas, rising young actress. “What are we going to call ourselves? I mean, we ought to have a name, an identity, if only among ourselves.” “Ah! I forgot. David’s already thought of that, haven’t you, David?” David smiled proudly. “I have. We’re the Exactors.” It took a second for the penny to drop before cheers and laughter rang out.

Chapter 5

Hello, sailor

DAVID REMEMBERED JESSICA only the following Monday once he had reached the office. He had spent the weekend in a mental turmoil as he tried to put together the elements of his first caper. Ever since an item in The Times had caught his eye during the previous week announcing the visit to London of Sanyo Takomoto, the Japanese car magnate and art collector, he had been puzzling for a way of exploiting this fact: now he thought he had the answer. So a lot more scribbling had gone on at home over the weekend, where Rachel had given up in bewilderment and gone off to play bridge. But Jessica was a problem which had to be faced — there was no putting off the reduction of her allowance. He decided to do this by letter, not wishing to undergo another scene like the last one. Accordingly he wrote as follows:
My dear sweet Jessica I am so sorry not to have seen you last week; business has been so bad that I have been struggling to get round to various people looking for openings. I do hope all is well with you. I know I upset you on my last visit, and I admit it was bad timing to do so on your birthday. For this I am truly sorry. But facts have to be faced, and the unpleasant truth is that you will have to leave your flat. I have cancelled the rent as from the end of the month, and am presently looking for a less expensive place a bit further north. Will let you know as soon as I have the details. Meanwhile I suggest you start thinking about what to take with you. I will try to get one as big as the present one, but we may have to settle for something less. I am as sorry as you must be, for we have had many happy times together at Fulham. Ever your loving David

He sealed the envelope and gave it to Ruby to post, together with instructions to scour the house agents for a nice three-roomed flat in the North Kensington or Willesden area. The ever-loyal Ruby had known about Jessica from the first: without her co-operation David would have found it difficult to sustain his liaison. Now he relied on her yet again to look after his interests. Poor Ruby, he thought, if I get back in the money I must give her a rise. TUESDAY WAS THE 10TH OF JULY. David’s heart was racing as he stood up to brief the Exactors in Studio 8. He had the plan worked out, but so many things could go wrong. But since that was true of any new stage or TV production, he steeled himself and tried to feel optimistic. “Morning, everybody. Well, here it is. You’ve perhaps seen that Takomoto is visiting London for a month’s holiday, and the word is that he is looking for art treasures to add to his collection. He’s already been to Christie’s twice, and — “ “Just a minute,” called someone, “Who the hell is Takomoto?” “Oh. Well, you’ve heard of Motoswift cars — who hasn’t? Takomoto is the big boss. If it wasn’t for his cheap mass-produced vehicles flooding Europe, we might never have come to this traffic choke-up that forced the car ban on us.” A murmur of recognition followed this statement. “Takomoto has the second biggest fortune in the world, and also happens to be an avid art collector. He boasts that his art collection is ahead of any museum in the world. Could be true.” The assembly waited impatiently. “Like all powerful men, he is incredibly vain, and that sort of combination can make a man vulnerable.” “Come on, David,” cried Paul Rossiter, “How are we going to get some of his money?” David took a deep breath. “If everything works out the way I hope, we are going to get a great deal of his money. We are going to sell him Nelson’s statue.”

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After a moment’s incredulous silence a pandemonic mixture of scoffing, laughter and some helpless coughing greeted this prediction. Mary Douglas spoke up. “Really, David! I’ve heard about selling Brooklyn Bridge, but Nelson’s statue — come along!” “You do mean the one in Trafalgar Square?” asked someone else. “The very one,” answered David, “What wouldn’t a man like Takomoto give to add that to his collection?” Kevin interrupted the further small uproar that followed. “People, people! Quiet and give David a chance!” They settled down. “There are some great parts for you to play.” said David. “You are going to love this, if it comes off. And whether it comes off is up to you. Steve, how do you fancy yourself as an American tycoon?” Steve Vernon smiled. He liked to think of himself as a good character actor. David continued: “However, I’ll leave the actual casting to Kevin, not to mention a considerable amount of work for the technical staff. Now here’s the plan . . .” TWO DAYS LATER A PHONE RANG in the Ministry of Works. “Monuments,” said the tired voice which answered it. “Ah, is that the person in charge?” “Yes, Henry Wilson speaking. What can I do for you?” “I read in the paper that Nelson’s statue is due for cleaning next week. Is that right?” “Yes, well?” “How much is that going to cost you — or rather the taxpayer?” “That’s not information we give out to all and sundry.” “How would you like a situation whereby you’d never have to have it cleaned again?” “Look here, who is that?” “I’m Roy King, managing director, Stoneguard Ltd.” “Stoneguard? Never heard of them.” “Not yet, Mr. Wilson, but you will! Stoneguard is an entirely new product which protects stone from deterioration - for ever.” “Rubbish! Get off the line.” “Hang on, please. It’s true, we’ve proved it abroad, the Italians are already using it on a test site in Pompeii, and you could be the first to have it in this country.” Wilson was taken aback by this reference to Pompeii. Surely the Italians wouldn’t let these people loose on Pompeii unless there was something in it . . . “Well, what sort of stuff is it?” “It’s a new plastic coating which we spray on. It bonds into the stonework invisibly and shrugs off water, chemical pollution, the lot. We’d like to offer you a free coating for the Nelson statue while your workmen are up there.” “Free? What’s in it for you, then?” “Why, the publicity. Once it’s on Nelson we’ll have a wonderful selling point. And if you like it we could extend the offer to other London monuments — up to a reasonable number of course; the plastic is very expensive to produce.” “I don’t think we can do this, really.” “Mr. Wilson, we can give you a . . . er, personal advantage.” “Huh?” “I’m talking four figures.” Wilson looked round his office hastily but saw no-one within earshot. “Go on.” At the other end of the line, actor Mark Glover almost chuckled. He was beginning to enjoy this. “I’d like to show you how good our product is. I wonder if I could visit you today with some samples of our work? Just small stone artefacts which have been treated?” “All right. Can you come at half-past two?” “Certainly. I know where your office is. I’ll ask for you personally, right?” “Yes, yes. Till later, then.” THE SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR at the Dorchester Hotel took a call, “Mr. Takomoto’s suite? Hold the line.” John Haisu, Takomoto’s London aide, answered. “Who is it?” “This is James Newall, of Newall and Son.”

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“So sorry. Never heard of you.” “Crown Auctioneers.” Haisu was puzzled. He thought he knew all the big London auctioneers. “What do you want?” “I’d like a personal interview with Mr. Takomoto,” said Newall. “I don’t think that is possible; Mr. Takomoto has a very full schedule.” “I think he’ll see me. Tell him I’m giving him the opportunity to acquire a priceless work of art.” “What work of art?” “Sorry, that’s entirely confidential. For Mr. Takomoto’s ears only.” Haisu hesitated, then called across the room with his hand on the mouthpiece. “Mr. Takomoto, I think you should speak to this person.” He spoke English on his employer’s instructions. The great man was still trying to master the language and wanted the practice. Sanyo Takomoto, who had been standing by the window watching the London scene, turned and furrowed his brow. Small, even for a Japanese, he tried to look imposing in his karate-style dressing gown by stumping his legs apart and glaring at his subordinate. “Who is he? What he want?” “James Newall? He says he’s an auctioneer and has something you might be interested in.” “Huh! Another man to waste my time.” “Perhaps. But you have bought nothing yet — “ “All right. Give me the phone. This is Sanyo Takomoto. What you want?” “Good morning, Mr. Takomoto! I hope you’re having a pleasant stay?” “Cut crap. Who are you?” “I’m James Newall, Crown Auctioneer. I’m ringing to give you the opportunity to buy a unique work of art, worth — well, it’s priceless.” “What is it?” “I’m sorry, I dare not say on the phone. I must speak to you in private. May I call on you in a few minutes? I’m just around the corner.” “What is this Crown Auctioneer?” “Why, we’re auctioneers to the Queen. Royal appointment, you know.” “I never heard of you.” “Of course not. We only operate on behalf of the Queen or the British Government — and our clients are privately invited. As you are a specially important visitor we wish to include you.” The tycoon was by now intrigued. “Very well. You come. I give you ten minutes most.” “Many thanks. I’ll be round very shortly. You won’t regret this.” But Sanyo Takomoto would indeed live to regret it. Norman Newcombe, Exactor, put down the phone and smiled broadly. THAT AFTERNOON A SMALL VAN stopped outside the Ministry of Works and dropped off two men, one lugging a large bag which looked heavy. It was fortunate for them that Mr. Henry Wilson was not on the doorstep to notice the letters BBC TV on the side of the van, which drove off smartly. They found their way into Wilson’s office and were greeted by a portly, self-important-looking man with a military moustache (grey, retired-officers-for-the-use-of). “Ah, Mr. King, is it?” “That’s right,” said Mark Glover, “and this is my colleague Harold Collins. Here’s my card.”” Wilson briefly examined the card and they shook hands, ‘Collins’ placed the bag on Wilson’s desk and took out some small stone objects. “Now, Mr. Wilson,” said Glover, “have a look at these.” He took two similar lumps of carved stone in his hands. “See these? They were made at the same time five years ago when we started trials. One was treated with Stoneguard, the other left untreated, and both were exposed on the roof of a chemical factory in Middlesbrough. Look at the difference.” Wilson looked at the difference. One was rough and pitted, the other looked smooth and newlymade. He became suspicious. This was too glib. “How do I know you’ve treated this one? It could be new. I can’t see any plastic coating.” “Mr. Wilson, Mr. Wilson!” boomed the Exactor. “Didn’t I tell you that Stoneguard bonds with the stone to make an invisible film? Of course you can’t see it. Do you want your statues to reflect light? Here — can I borrow that glass of water?” Without waiting for permission he took up the glass and poured a little on the rough stone, which absorbed the water immediately. “Look at that. Now watch this.” Wilson forgot about his wet carpet as the water glided straight off the smooth stone. “That’s impressive. But you could be using two different materials there.” Glover was unabashed. “Harold, the other two.” he commanded.

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Out came two more stones. “We’ve got to be careful with these,” said Mark, “they’ve got to go back to Pompeii next month: we had the devil of a job to borrow them as it is. We’ve treated one but not the other.” Wilson’s eyes nearly popped out of his head as he looked at the artefacts. They appeared to fit together, and across the pair could be read the word “NIHIL” in faint carving. “This was part of a doorway pediment which fell down last year and broke in two. Go on, try the water yourself.” invited Mark, and Wilson did so, with similar results to the first demonstration. Glover pushed his advantage home. “We’ll cover Nelson for free, so long as we can use the fact for advertising.” He coughed. “And the rest of the . . . offer is guaranteed once the job’s done.” Wilson said nothing, but put out his hand. Mark Glover shook it. “When will your workmen have finished cleaning the statue?” he asked. “Let’s see, the ladders go up on Monday. Cleaning should be finished by the end of Tuesday.” “Very good. We’ll deliver the liquid direct to Trafalgar Square first thing Wednesday morning, together with everything needed to apply it, and your workmen can spray it on. You won’t regret this, Mr. Wilson.” he said earnestly. KEVIN BESTWICK RECEIVED two telephone calls that day. Shortly after noon Norman Newcombe rang to report that Takomoto had taken the bait. “The visiting card with the royal coat of arms looked superb,” he said cheerfully, “it probably tipped the scales.” At 3.15 Mark Glover came on the line. “Everything’s fine,” he said cheerfully, “worked like a dream. Got to hand it to those backroom boys. The rocks behaved as predicted, and he never suspected they were all made of plastic! We’ve promised delivery Wednesday, ready for immediate spraying.” Kevin rang David Stoner in his office. “Stoneguard project all right so far,” he said, “so we’ll put the next phase in motion. Get Ruby ringing round, will you?” “OK,” said David. “I wish I could be there tomorrow.” “Same here. But you know we have to leave it to the professionals. Sleep tight!” David didn’t think that very likely. ON THE MORNING OF FRIDAY THE 13TH a smart limousine drew up outside the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. The commissionaire went forward to open the rear door of the car but a small Japanese swiftly alighted from the front, brushing him aside. A similar figure simultaneously emerged from the opposite side and joined the other on the pavement, making a miniature guard of honour. After a suitable number of seconds had elapsed, the stocky figure of Sanyo Takomoto appeared and ploughed at a steady pace between the two bowing figures, looking neither to the right nor the left. Inside the hotel John Haisu was waiting to escort this imposing party to the lift. Once the lift doors closed he snapped his fingers at the attendant and murmured “Connaught”. The lift stopped at the second floor. Inside the Connaught conference room a small number of people was already assembled, mostly sitting in red plush chairs, except for a man by the door and two men standing at the far end of the room behind a table on which rested an extra-large television set. Precisely at ten o’clock the room doors swung open and Takomoto entered with his acolytes. “Look at the little buggers,” murmured Norman Newcombe to his companion, sotto voce, “They’d sweep the floor in front of him if they had brooms. . . Ah, good morning, Mr. Takomoto; so glad you could join us. Would you like to sit here?” He indicated an empty chair at the front of the semicircle. Takomoto looked around. “Who are these people?” “Ah”, said Newcombe, “do you not know everybody? May I introduce Mr. Jensen, of Stockholm Museum?” A neat-looking man dressed in an old-fashioned jacket, impeccable shirt, and string tie with metal clip rose and clicked his heels, and Takomoto bowed. “ — and Mr. Jochen Freud, from Vienna — “ Takomoto bowed to a black-bearded man who did not bother to get up. “ — Mr. Sayed, of London — “ The Japanese’s eyes narrowed as he forced himself to bow to the smiling Arab. “ — and Mr. Tom Halliday, of the USA.” Takomoto stiffened. He knew all about Halliday, his hated American rival who had amassed an even larger fortune than himself by making Hallisport cars for the Yankees, though he had never actually met the man. He eyed a well-built middle-aged man with greying temples, dressed in an impeccable suit and a garish tie. He certainly resembled the photographs he had seen. “Honoured,” he hissed, bowing again, “Nobody told me you collect art.”

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“Why, yes, sir. I sure have been dying to meet you. Guess we’ve got a lot in common, hey?” Careful, you ass, thought Norman Newcombe, Don’t overdo the accent. “Kin I sit next to you, Sanyo? That would be some honour to tell Rosie about when I get back home. Is that all right, Mr. Newall?” Norman nodded ungraciously and the pseudo-American flopped into the chair next to the seething Takomoto. “Let us begin,” snapped the second richest man in the world. “Sorry,” said Newcombe, “but there’s one more client to arrive yet.” “You said ten o’clock. We begin. What for we wait for rate-comer?” Newcombe appeared apologetic. “We can’t start without the Earl — he’s royal family.” “Earl? What earl?” “Why, the Earl of Dorset. He has a special interest in today’s item and it simply wouldn’t be fair to proceed without him.” The Japanese growled and scowled, but was secretly impressed at the imminent arrival of royalty. “Say, Sanyo,” boomed Halliday, “what do you think of the car business in England right now? Guess you can’t sell as many vee-hicles as you used to, eh?” “What you mean? We do good trade everywhere.” “That’s not what I heard. The latest market figures show American cars lead the world market now…” Norman Newcombe murmured uneasily to his companion. The other men in the room chatted quietly to each other, casting occasional amused glances at the American taunting the Japanese, who was beginning to get very red in the face. The atmosphere in the room was getting more and more tense. “Hurry up, Tony, for Christ’s sake,” muttered Newcombe, “The little bugger’ll walk out in a minute.” He was looking at his watch for the fourth time when the door swung open. “Ah, hello! Bit late, am I? Sorry about that. Morning, everybody. Mr. Newall! Hope you haven’t started without me.” Takomoto peered perplexedly at the late arrival. He couldn’t quite place the earl, but those stickingout ears seemed familiar . . . The relieved Norman quickly mustered his aplomb and replied “Of course not, your Grace. But we are ready to start as soon as you are comfortable.” It was a full minute before the earl had nodded amiably to each of the foreign visitors, cried “By Jove! Those tapestries look interesting, are they for sale too?” and levered himself finally into a seat. Newcombe was looking at him accusingly, but he didn’t care. Hadn’t enjoyed himself so much since he played Bottom. “Well, gentlemen, now that we are settled, we’ll begin.” announced Newcombe/Newall. “This is Richard Ponsonby, my chief auctioneer, and he’ll be taking charge in a little while. You all know why we’re here: there is only one item to bid for. It is usual on these occasions to display the goods for all to see, but of course that isn’t quite feasible with this one.” He waited for a polite snigger but got nothing. He went on quickly. “Instead we have arranged a very short display just to ensure that you all know exactly what is on offer. Richard?” Richard Ponsonby switched on a video-recorder, someone put out the lights, and a film began to show on the TV screen. It didn’t take long. First a view down Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, moving quickly up towards Nelson’s column, where the camera dwelt first on the lions, then on the column’s base, tilting the view gradually upwards to the top, where the jutting corners obscured full view of Nelson himself. Next a cut to a full-screen shot of the statue, taken from a moving helicopter, showing the English hero from every angle, and ending with a close-up of the head and shoulders. All of this to the background music of Rule Britannia, verse and chorus, swelling to a climax at the final shot. The film ended and the lights came on again. “There you are, gentlemen, Nelson himself; a statue of major importance to London and to every Britisher everywhere: probably the most famous statue in the world. Five and a half metres high, made of Craigleith stone and has stood in Trafalgar Square since 1843. Symbol of England’s greatness in times past, and hope for the future. Visited by millions of visitors every year, and the focal point of every New Year celebration.” “All right, good,” interposed Freud, “we understand Nelson. But why is this so important statue for sale?” “Good question, Mr. Freud. Did you notice, gentlemen, the white deposits on the top and sides of the statue? Pigeon droppings, caused by the hundreds of birds who inhabit the square, and who are indeed encouraged by the visitors who feed them. Such droppings are acid and attack the stonework. So does the air polluted by vehicles and industrial effluents. Like every other piece of stonework in the world, this statue is slowly decaying.”

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Newall paused and caught the gaze of each visitor in turn to ensure full attention. “That is why the statue is to be replaced by a copy made of plastic.” Some of the audience gasped. Newall went on. “This plastic will resist the elements — not to mention the birds — almost indefinitely. In fact, it is believed that the droppings will simply slide off the statue leaving it unmarked.” “Where is this copy?” asked Sayed. “At the Ministry of Works. Plaster moulds of the original model were borrowed from the Admiralty and the copy was made some time ago. The replacement will be made this week, and so the stone statue has become available. Of course the British Museum wanted it, but the government is so short of cash that the Prime Minister asked us to dispose of it privately, by auction to specially invited bidders.” A small buzz went round the room. These Exactors knew a cue when they heard it. “How will they get the statue down?” asked Jensen. “It’s in sections, like most stone structures,” answered Newall, “three in this case, and it will be lowered piece by piece by the contractors, using a winch. The plastic copy is in exactly similar sections and will go up shortly afterwards. As far as the public is concerned, it’s the original after cleaning.” Norman Newcombe took a deep breath. He hoped he had remembered everything Stoner had told him. It was Takomoto that mattered. How was he taking it? A glance at him showed that he was whispering over his shoulder to Haisu, who shrugged now and then and whispered something back. Better get on with the next stage. “Any more questions, gentlemen?” “Yes, please.” This from Jensen of Stockholm. “If the public are to think that the stone statue is still in place, must the buyer to keep his purchase secret?” “Good point, Mr. Jensen. That will be entirely up to the buyer. Should he want to keep his purchase secret, we would prefer that. If he feels otherwise, then the government will have no option but to reveal the truth.” A little smile crossed Takomoto’s face. He could already picture the statue in his Tokyo garden. A fine talking-point for visitors, who would be able to laugh at the British for such a loss of face. “What about delivery?” asked the American. “Yes. Delivery to any part of the world: we will pay half the cost. Anything else?” “Start the bidding.” grunted Takomoto. “Very well, if there are no more questions. Mr. Ponsonby?” Ponsonby produced a gavel and took the stand. “Well, gentlemen, you know what you’re bidding for. I would only like to add that Her Majesty has expressed a wish that this unique statue is given a worthy home, that it should be loved and cared for by some-one who appreciates its true value.” He looked directly at Dorset, who immediately took his cue. “Gad, yes. One’s family goes back to Trafalgar, you know. In fact, I’m related to Horatio on my mother’s side. If anyone should have him, it’s me.” Takomoto swivelled his head to stare at this English milord. He had heard that all the English aristocracy was impoverished, but he couldn’t be sure about this one. Again he consulted Haisu, who again shrugged. The smiling auctioneer raised his brows as he looked at the Japanese art-lover. A nod from the latter gave him the all-clear to begin. “I’m taking bids in pounds sterling. Who’ll start the bidding at half a million?” The Swede raised his hand. Takomoto smiled. He would not demean himself until the bidding got hotter. “Six hundred thousand? Thank you, sir.” This to the earl, who had lifted his forefinger. “Seven?” Jensen got back in. “Eight . . . Nine . . .One million , , “ They were all bidding now, except the Japanese. Ponsonby and Newall began to get worried. He had to bite, he had to . . . “Any advance on one million pounds? No?” Ponsonby paused. “To Mr. Freud at one million pounds . . .” Still no move from the quarry. Ponsonby began to feel very hot. He glared at Halliday, and the American sprang into action. “And two!” “One million, two hundred thousand, thank you. Any advance on one million two?” Halliday leered at his oriental counterpart. “Guess you can’t afford to pay for a real collector’s piece, eh, Takomoto?” The Japanese drew his breath in sharply and glared fiercely at Halliday. “And four!” he snapped. “And six!” riposted Halliday. “And eight!”

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“Two million! There was a pause. Christ, thought Ponsonby and, for that matter, half the assembled Exactors, Steve’s blown it now. He’s the last bidder at two million. Enough is enough, surely? Takomoto’s eyes narrowed. “And two.” Halliday rubbed his chin and pondered. The company held its breath. Stop right there, Steve, stop right there! “You know,” drawled out the quasi-American accent. “I was thinking of setting Nelson up in my backyard, for the kids to drive their go-carts round. Let’s say Two, two and a half.” Ponsonby nearly died. Dorset squawked, “I say, that’s a bit off. Jolly undignified, you know.” Takomoto’s contempt for all things American knew no bounds. Adding a mere five hundred pounds to the bid! “Two and half mirrion!” he almost spat the words at his pestilential neighbour. Even Steve the Yankee knew when to stop now. “Hey, Mr. Auctioneer, are we talking American millions or English?” “English.” “OK, you win, son. Guess I’ll buy sumpun’ else.” Ponsonby quickly held up his gavel. “Going to Mr. Takomoto once — twice — “ and down banged the gavel. The collective sigh was palpable. “Congratulations, Mr. Takomoto,” said Jensen, offering his hand. “Yes, well done,” said the earl, sportingly, “You’ll look after the old boy, I hope.” Takomoto received these and other felicitations with smiling bows and a triumphant glare at Halliday. His celebration was dented somewhat by the auctioneer’s next statement. “Now about payment, sir. We require this to be in American Federal Bonds. Half to be paid immediately, the rest on delivery.” “American bonds? Why not cheque or banker’s order? My credit is good in all the world.” “I’m sorry, that was the Prime Minister’s condition, not ours.” “You take banker’s order. I have no Federal Bonds.” Halliday stepped in, quick as a flash. “Can’t pay, huh? Look here, Mr. Auctioneer, I’ve got plenty of the right stuff. Knock down the statue to me, and you can have the bonds tomorrow.” This was more than Takomoto could bear. “I find the bonds. You will have them tomorrow. But I must have proper receipt and authorisation for possession of the statue.” “Certainly, certainly. “ “Where you want the bonds?” “At our office — you have our card. But the bonds must be there by eleven o’clock on Tuesday or I will have to take Mr. Halliday’s offer seriously, I’m afraid.” “You will get them. Now I bid you all good day.” A few more bows and scrapes, mostly from the Japanese henchmen, and Takomoto’s party swept out. The man by the door watched them along the corridor until the lift doors closed, then waved his hand in signal to the other men. Immediately there were gasps, whistles, small cheers, and backslapping. Norman Newcombe quickly called out “OK, cut it! Cut! This isn’t finished yet. You know what to do. Make it look good!” The Exactors came to their senses. The Earl, Jensen and Halliday strolled out of the room and made their way downstairs. You never knew who was watching. Halliday went to the bar and called for a Bourbon, the other two asked for taxis and dropped a fiver each into the commissionaire’s hand as they left. Upstairs the Exactors’ doorman moved towards the television set, put his hand round the back and fiddled for a few moments, finally removing a small hidden camera which he switched off. “Show of the century! Wait till the others see this!” he cried ecstatically. “Mike,” said Norman patiently, “you know this isn’t finished till we get the money. Start rejoicing when that happens.” “Yes, sir!” was the cheerful reply, “If I can wait that long.” Back at the Dorchester Takomoto had a short spell with Haisu during which he issued certain orders. Haisu bowed and retired to an adjoining room where he picked up the phone and requested the telephonist to get the Admiralty. “Admiralty — can I help you?” “Yes, I hope so,” said a voice in perfect English, “This is the Daily Telegraph. I’m just checking on a few facts about Nelson’s Column. Doing an article, you know.” “The Column? You want the Ministry of Works, they look after that.” “Ah, right. But don’t you have the original casts?”

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“I believe we do. Yes, Now I come to think of it. Somewhere downstairs, I think.” “From which the copy was made?” “That’s right.” It was indeed right, for the statue which had stood on top of the column for over a century and a half was actually a copy of the first carving, still held in the Admiralty. “Now when is the work being done?” “On the statue? You’ll have to ask Works for that. Ring them.” “Thanks for your time. Goodbye.” “Ministry of Works.” “Good morning. I’m enquiring about Nelson’s Column.” “Nelson? you want Monuments. Putting you through.” “Hello, Monuments.” “Could I speak to the person in charge, please?” “Just a moment . . .” Wilson came to the phone. “Yes, what is it?” “Sorry to bother you. Daily Telegraph here, Andrew James, reporter. Could you please tell me about the work on Nelson’s statue? I hear there’s to be a big change.” Wilson marvelled at the speed of the grapevine. “Yes, this week.” “Could you tell me when the plastic goes up?” “The plastic? Goes up next Wednesday, first thing. Ladders go up Monday. Preliminary work Tuesday.” “Thanks a lot. That’s all I really want to know.” Haisu put the phone down and returned to his master. “All confirmed, Mr. Takomoto,” he said, “Work starts Monday and the plastic statue goes up on Wednesday.” Takomoto grunted in satisfaction, but went on “I’ll have a look at it, all same.”

Chapter 6

Transaction complete

BACK AT SHEPHERD’S BUSH Norman Newcombe reported to Bestwick, who immediately phoned Stoner. After a short conversation the men agreed to a full meeting of the Exactors on the following Friday, by which time they felt the matter would be resolved one way or the other. Until the bonds were handed over, the affair was still on a tightrope. If Takomoto got suspicious and backed out, the team would not only have wasted its time, but lost money. The Connaught conference room had cost £1500 for one morning, and there was also the rent on the office in Canary Wharf which was to serve as the base of Newall & Co., auctioneers by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen. These sums had been supplied from David Stoner’s dwindling coffers. He fervently hoped it would prove a wise investment. LATE THAT AFTERNOON Takomoto was on the line to his Tokyo office. Having given a secret password which identified him beyond doubt, he gave instructions for his bank to acquire American Federal Bonds to the tune of one and a quarter million pounds, to be made available at his Swiss bank and to be flown from there by charter jet to Heathrow, where a security van would be waiting to bring the precious documents to the Dorchester. It was not a particularly large sum to him, in fact he knew that it was far, far less than the statue’s real worth, and although he had some faint doubts about the transaction, the thought of having upstaged Halliday so cheaply more than compensated for this. He smiled as he imagined the statue in his garden. He would surround it with oleanders and jasmine and shady trees which would reduce the imposing nature of the figure and make it seem like a lost giant in a fairy wood. Only privileged guests would be allowed to see it, though he would certainly put it about that the article was in his collection. ANGELA HAD BEEN BEHAVING ODDLY most of the week since being deprived of her cocaine. John noticed her restless sleep, irregular breathing during the day, short temper and general twitchiness. She still called him darling but he felt a faint hostile undercurrent and he didn’t like it. Even sex lacked its usual satisfaction. This is all down to that bugger Rowntree, he thought; If only I could nail him with real proof. He had no wish to repeat his embarrassing experience at the police station. On Monday morning he was taking a breather from shifting crates of canned goods around the supermarket warehouse space when through the entrance to the shop he thought he recognised the

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drug-pushing youth he had spotted before. He moved forward into the doorway to observe better, only to find no trace of the lad. Into the main shop he went and turned round into the next aisle. There he was, putting goods into a basket. John wondered if he were a shop-lifter, too. The youth moved round the corner and John followed cautiously. “Now, John, haven’t I told you to stay at the back? You’ve not been promoted yet.” “Sorry, Mr. Roberts, just, er . . . wondered what the time was.” “Really. Well, back you go. I won’t tell you again.” When the manager had departed John cautiously looked through the door again. He stiffened as he glimpsed Rowntree standing at the other end of the aisle. A second later the youth joined Rowntree and they began to whisper. Rowntree turned his head to look round and John quickly ducked behind the thick plastic doorflap. Peering out a few moments later he was disappointed to find that the suspected drug-dealers had vanished. Surely he could creep up on them and find something out? Walking cautiously to the end of the first aisle he realised they were just round the corner and audible, too. “I’ve told you before, you’ll get the stuff when I get it.” This in the hoarse voice of Rowntree. “I know,” said the other, “but there’s people yelling at me. There’s Stuffy Brown and —” “Keep your voice down.” The voices dropped to a mumble. John, straining to hear, moved closer to the end of the row, leaned on a display, lost his footing and brought a hundred tins of beans crashing down. A startled Rowntree peered down at the poor would-be-detective. “Bless my soul, young Mr. Appleton, ain’t it?” Young Mr. Appleton stared back at him, speechless. Roberts, behind him, was not so speechless. “Right!” he shouted, “That’s it! In my office now — you’re finished.” Rowntree shook his head and tutted. “Little bit careless, was we, son?” Of the other conspirator there was now no sign. John breathed heavily and inwardly cursed Rowntree, Roberts, and anyone else he could think of, even including Angela. Most of all he cursed himself for losing this job. He hated it, but it brought in a little money, more than the pitiful unemployment benefit that looked inevitable now. NORMAN NEWCOMBE ADMIRED the professional look of the brass plate, convincingly “aged” by the BBC technicians, which proclaimed James Newall and Son, Crown Auctioneers, from the wall outside the main door to the office on the seventeenth floor of Canada House, Canary Wharf. Beside it, a bell push with “Please ring” would ensure notice of Takomoto’s arrival. A couple of actresses sat ready to type in the outer office, and the inner office looked convincing with its solid mahogany desk, telephones and wire baskets containing papers. Bookshelves in the background and comfortable leather chairs for the visitors enhanced the general air of thoroughly British respectability. He and Paul Rossiter, aka Richard Ponsonby, sipped coffee as they awaited the crucial delivery of the American bonds. ABOUT THE SAME TIME two workmen took a break from scrubbing Nelson at the top of his monument in Trafalgar Square. “Lovely view from here, Ron” said one, unscrewing a thermos of coffee. “Not ‘alf,” came the reply, “makes you feel like God, don’t it?” “You won’t feel like God tomorrow,” said the first man, “we’ve got all that spraying to do.” “I know. But according to form, we’ll never ‘ave to come up ‘ere again.” “I don’t know about that. But here’s hoping it’ll make the work easier in future. By the time it’s gone on to all the main London statues, they reckon it’s the end of cleaning.” “Wonderful what they can do with plastics these days, ainit?” Twenty minutes later they came across a particularly stubborn deposit of bird-droppings, so out came mason’s chisels and mallets and they started chipping away at the hardened crust. Some hundred yards away two Japanese stood on the fifth floor landing of a building at the corner of Northumberland Avenue. Takomoto raised the binoculars and trained them on the workmen. They were partly shielded by Nelson himself but he could see that they were hammering away at the stonework. After watching them intently for a few minutes he closed the binoculars and nodded. The other man swiftly dialled a number on his mobile phone. “Haisu? It’s OK. Go ahead.” THE DOORBELL RANG in the Canada House office. Immediately the two women started typing and Rossiter/Ponsonby made his way to the front door. “Good morning! Mr. Haisu, isn’t it? Come in, come in. Cup of coffee?”

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Haisu declined, and followed the other into the inner office, where he was greeted by the senior partner. “How are you, Mr. Haisu? Mr. Takomoto not with you?” Haisu smiled and shrugged. Would people never understand Japanese protocol? Great men did not run errands. “You have the bonds?” Haisu produced a small leather case and passed it across. Newcombe opened it and removed the bundle of papers. They looked all right to him, but he wouldn’t have known if they were as fake as the whole of his office. He made a show of counting them. “Fine, Mr. Haisu. Everything is in order. Mr. Ponsonby has the receipt and the bill of sale for the statue. Now where is it to be delivered?” Haisu gave him the Tokyo address, took the proffered documents and examined them carefully. The receipt was signed by James Newall and acknowledged the bonds; the bill of sale was the important one. Printed on high quality paper and embossed with the royal arms, it entitled Sanyo Takomoto to possession and all rights in the statue “ . . . hitherto surmounting Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London”. It was signed D. Blunkett, Minister of Works, and countersigned R. Cook, Home Secretary. It was the real thing all right. After a few more polite exchanges Haisu made his way out. They gave him fifteen minutes to get clear and then decamped themselves, locking up after them. In the street below they met a waiting motor-cyclist who carefully put the leather case in his saddlebag, saluted with a grin, and set off for Heathrow from where, by a strange coincidence, the bonds would return to Switzerland, albeit to a different bank, where the manager had instructions to dispose of them and place the proceeds into a numbered account, from whence he would then transfer the balance, minus charges, to a British bank account in the name of “N. Equity”. JESSICA’S MIND WAS IN A TURMOIL. She had not seen David since that dreadful birthday scene, and now this awful letter was threatening to spoil her comfortable life style. She liked it here in her little mews flat on the east side of Fulham, and did not fancy a life in some North Kensington hellhole. That would not be nearly so handy for her mornings-only job as beauty consultant at the Swan Salon in Earl’s Court. David must never find out about that, of course, or the allowance would stop, or be severely cut. For days she had agonised over the best course of action, but now she felt the moment was upon her. She drew a long breath, fetched paper and pen, and sat down to write the following letter:
My darling David, I don’t know what has kept you from my side for so long, unless it was my silly outburst on my birthday. I do miss you dreadfully, and am going to need you a lot more in the coming months. I have to tell you that I am pregnant. I feel very happy about this, and I hope you will be, too, for I know how much you have wanted children. You wanted me to move house, but doesn’t this change everything? We could get married if only you would finally divorce Rachel, and then we could live together for ever. I do want that so much. I’m sorry I was so snappy at our last meeting. I was uncertain about being pregnant and I suppose it affected me. Darling David, do tell me that you are happy at this news. With all my love Jessica

She addressed the letter to his office and went out to post it. She knew David had solemnly warned her never to do so, but she reckoned this was an emergency which would bring home to him the seriousness of the situation. ON WEDNESDAY THE 18TH Haisu’s man had stood in Trafalgar Square half the morning watching developments on the Column. At about eleven o’clock he was dismayed to see the workmen begin to dismantle the scaffolding and lower it to the ground. He quickly used his mobile phone and then made his way to the Underground station. In the Dorchester Hotel Haisu turned as pale as a Japanese can, and spoke to Takomoto in the next room. A few minutes later he was back, trembling, and asked the operator for a line. When he had dialled a number and waited for a whole minute, he returned to face the angry Takomoto again. “There’s no reply, sir,” he said shakily. “Get out there now and send that Newall man to me at once!” snapped Takomoto. But when Haisu finally reached the Canada Wharf office he found no brass plate on the door, only a “To Let” notice. He shivered so violently that he had to lean against the wall for a few moments.

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THE EXACTORS GATHERED TOGETHER that Friday in Studio 8, agog to hear how the first operation had gone. They knew all was well because of the relaxed smiles on the faces of David and Kevin. After an attendance check the doors were again locked and the red light switched on. Kevin was the first to speak. “Well, friends, as you may have guessed, we can report a complete success for our first, er, production. Takomoto swallowed the entire story, has bought the statue and paid for it.” Enthusiastic cheers interrupted this announcement. Kevin then switched on a video machine whilst the assembled company watched the overhead monitors display a videotape he had made up the day before. The title was “Goodbye, Horatio?” and began with a close-up of a newspaper cutting announcing the forthcoming cleaning of the Trafalgar Square statue. Then followed the Ritz Hotel auction scene, from Takomoto’s entrance to his final exit, interrupted at the appropriate moment by the short video of the statue that had been shown that day. The programme ended with the cast list, beginning thus: Sanyo Takomoto Himself James Newall Norman Newcombe Richard Ponsonby Paul Rossiter Tom Halliday Steve Vernon continuing with the rest of the cast and ending as usual with the names of technicians responsible for various production aspects, then finally: Script by David Stoner Produced by Kevin Bestwick An Exactors’ production. Laughter and clapping followed this little display. As it died down Kevin held up his hand and continued in a more sober fashion. “There’s a lot more to this operation than you’ve seen just now. In particular we have to thank Mark Glover and Andrew Short for a little precautionary side-show that we did.” And Kevin continued by describing the complete “Stoneguard” affair, ending with congratulations to the backroom boys who had mocked up the stones. “And we must also thank the lads who created the necessary fake documents. They looked so convincing, I think I’d have bought Nelson on the strength of them if I’d had the chance.” More laughter. “But most of all, we have to thank David Stoner. He dreamt up the whole project from start to finish. I think he’s fantastic — he should have been a scriptwriter.” Spirited and prolonged applause brought David, almost blushing, to his feet. “Thanks, everybody. I’m more than glad that we pulled it off. But I wonder if you realise how many things could have gone wrong? At any stage Takomoto could have got suspicious and pulled out. If any one actor had slipped up he could have spotted it. A man like him doesn’t make a fortune unless he’s sharp-witted. The big danger with this sort of operation is over-acting. Fortunately as television actors you are used to close-up acting as distinct from the, you know, larger-than-life stage manner, but there’s still a danger of getting carried away with your own virtuosity, particularly as you’re improvising.” Kevin broke in, “Yes, David, I agree. I thought Steve came pretty near the mark there. He pushed the bidding beyond the agreed figure.” Before Steve Vernon could defend himself, David spoke. “I should explain about that. Two and a half million pounds for Nelson seems a pretty low figure, and indeed it is; the statue is worth far more than that. But I wanted Takomoto to feel that he had a real bargain — a figure he could easily afford. Otherwise he would have been much more careful not to be hoodwinked, for one thing; and for another, he would have felt so cheated that he would have spared no effort to hound us down. As it is he would probably rather lose the money than lose face admitting that the incident ever happened. Steve was told to manoeuvre the bidding to get him to buy at two million, but in the event got another half million.” “He scared the shit out of me,” said Norman; “It was irresponsible.” “I don’t agree,” said David. “I have watched the video very carefully, and I think Steve showed great judgement. The Jap was too calm at the time, and a calm man is alert. Steve niggled him to the point of losing his equilibrium, so that made him think of nothing but beating the American. This made him too careless to do things like checking the bona fides of the people involved.” This little speech got murmurs of appreciation for Steve and a handsome apology from Kevin. David continued. “Another thing that could have gone wrong was the Stoneguard bit; in fact it was the most dangerous part of all. This was put in in case Takomoto decided to phone the Ministry of

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Works to check out the statue substitution. The idea was to hope that he would ask about the plastic statue and that Wilson would interpret that as meaning the spray. We still don’t know whether he did so, but as we’ve got the money it doesn’t matter either way now. Incidentally I expect Wilson is still wondering why the plastic spray hasn’t turned up.” More laughter. “Now about the money. Two and a half million seems a lot, but there are one or two adjustments to be made first. To begin with, we only got half that sum, of course. Bank charges and exchange rate losses creamed off a hundred thousand. The fund owes me for the hire of the Ritz suite and the Canary Wharf office. On top of that there’s the office furniture, removal expenses, taxis, tips and so on. By the way, I got the method for laundering the big money from Alan Underhill. Remember him, anyone? Nice little actor till he got caught for fraud. I visited him in Wormwood Scrubs and promised him five hundred for the information. So there’s that, and one or two other expenses. However, that still leaves us with over a million to play with.” He had the complete attention of all present. “Everyone here will get a basic wage, equivalent to your normal salaries at least: I’ve already promised you that. In addition there’ll be big bonuses for all the principals involved. I don’t just mean the actors, though the front-liners will get the most, especially Steve who got us the extra quartermillion. Also, as you’d expect, Kevin and I will get a good directors’ salary. You’ll just have to trust us to allocate money in a fair manner. OK?” The company voiced its assent readily. “BUT — “, went on David, “although what’s left may appear to be a huge sum, there are a lot of us to receive pay. We could last out for about four months without moving a muscle, but if we want to try more scams there’ll be more basic expenses. There’s always a risk element. People might get caught, or an enterprise might fail completely. Do we go on or not?” Even he was surprised by the unanimous roar of “YES!” “Right,” he said, “but it’s only fair to warn you that I can’t guarantee another caper as good as this one. I just saw an opportunity and took it. We’re going to need a lot more ideas if we do carry on. So why don’t you all get your heads together and come up with suggestions. Kevin and I will then judge whether to carry them out.” “David,” cried Mary Douglas, “just make sure that the same people don’t get all the fun every time. There’s just been, what, eight or ten people getting front-line money; it’s someone else’s turn now. And I notice the men got all the plum parts: you had just two women doing non-speaking parts as typists. Let’s have no sexism here!” “You have a point, Mary,” interposed Kevin, “and we’ll certainly bear it in mind, But you must realise that the parts go to whoever is best fitted for the role, just as in normal professional acting.” This did not seem to mollify Mary completely, but she bore it with a grimace. “Right, then,” said Kevin, “that’s all for now, until the next operation. I’ll be out of action for the next couple of weeks: I simply must get this Favourite Video thing out of the way.” He chuckled. “Though I must say my favourite at the moment is Goodbye Horatio!” David spoke next. “Ruby here has got everybody’s details. As soon as we’ve worked out the arithmetic, cheques will be on their way to you. Meanwhile start thinking of ideas!” The meeting broke up amid animated conversation. Kevin shouted above the noise “For God’s sake keep the bloody thing secret!” and turned to David with a smile. “Put it there,” he said, and David shook the outstretched hand. Ruby Woods spoke up plaintively. “David, if I’m to take on as paymaster, not to mention my other work — “ She paused and hissed in a low voice “like estate agents . . .” “I get the message,” said David hastily, “you want some help. Take on another staff, by all means. I’ll leave that entirely to you.” Ruby nodded. She didn’t think this was the moment to tell David about the letter waiting for him at the office, which she had opened, since Jessica had forgotten to mark it “Private and Confidential”. David went off whistling happily, determined to take Rachel out for dinner. That would surprise her, he knew.

Chapter 7

Fresh ties

JOHN HAD TO FACE ANGIE with the news of his lost job. He told her about the meeting between Rowntree and his henchman, and how he was determined to impeach them if he could. And, of course, how he had blown it. Angela burst into tears.

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“Oh, John, it’s all my fault.” she sobbed in his arms. “ If I hadn’t been a junkie none of this would have happened. You deserve someone better than me; I don’t know why you stay with me.” John smoothed her rumpled blonde hair and kissed her. He had just realised something momentous and needed to say it. “Angie, darling, I love you, I love you. You won’t get rid of me that easily.” Angela looked up with a start, for there was something totally different in the way he had said that. Never before had he sounded so earnest, so genuine. Her love for him had kept her faith going but she had always felt just a little uneasy about John’s commitment. This was another matter. She looked him straight in the face. “John, do you truly love me?” “I do, Angie, I do. And I’ve got a confession to make; something I should have told you long ago.” “Darling, what is it?” “I don’t know where to start. It’s about love and sex. You see, I’ve been confusing the two. No, I don’t mean that . . . I knew what I was doing when I took up with you, but I’ve been pretending, up to now. I don’t think I did love you until recently, not properly anyway, I just sort of pretended. Oh, Angie, can you ever forgive me?” “John, sweetheart, I’ve never complained. I’ve been . . . happy.” “I know, but I’ve been a sort of deceiver. I was in it for the sex, because, to be honest, I thought that’s all women were good for.” Angela stared at him. “You can’t mean that!” John looked away for a moment, ashamed. “I’d better tell you everything. When I was adolescent, I mean, you know, when my voice broke, I guess I was like other lads, I just thought about girls and longed to sleep with one, hell, it’s pretty natural, after all — “ “Right, darling, you don’t have to excuse yourself for that. But didn’t you think you’d ever fall in love?” “I did, I really did. But something happened to spoil things. There was a games mistress at my school, fairly young, about twenty-two I think. She was not particularly good-looking but had a good figure. Her name was Shirley Watts. Most of the lads used to whistle after her till she put a stop to it.” “Did you fancy her?” “A bit, but I never expected anything to happen. Then one day she caught me watching the girls playing netball when I should have been in lessons. She told me to report to her room after school, so I did. She had this sort of little equipment store where they kept all the sports gear. She got me in there and shut the door, locked it in fact. Then she said she had been watching me for some time and thought I was a very nice boy, and if I wanted to know about girls I should have come to her. She put her hand on my arm and felt my muscles, than laughed and kissed me.” “She kissed you?” “Yes. Then she placed my hand under her blouse, and God! she wasn’t wearing anything under it. I couldn’t believe it. I — well, you can guess I didn’t take it away. Then she pushed her hand down my trousers and I was done for. She dropped her skirt and knickers and told me to undress. We, well, we did it on a mattress that was lying there. I’m sure she had got everything ready. It was my first real sex.” “How old were you?” “Just sixteen. But it didn’t end there. We did it most days, whenever we could get away with it. I was hooked on it, just like a drug, so I guess I can understand addiction. I didn’t love her. After a while, three months I think, I wanted to stop. I suppose I saw the light and realised we could never end up together. But she wouldn’t let me. Said I was her toyboy and I could be expelled if I said anything. I didn’t know any better so I believed it. She kept me at it the whole year, until in the end she left for another job. She even gave me a little parting present but I threw it away.” “Oh John! I can’t believe it!” “It’s the gospel truth. But it . . . sort of affected me, I suppose. Embittered me? Women equalled sex, it seemed. That’s what they wanted, and that’s all they were good for. Girls never looked the same after that. I suppose it killed romance in me. And when I took up acting and had to pretend romantic scenes, I forgot how to feel. I mean, really feel.” “Darling, I see. But you can’t be blamed for that. She nearly ruined your life, really. It’s a wonder you didn’t need a psychiatrist.” John gave a grim smile. “I probably did. But I don’t think I do now. I owe you such an apology: all this time I’ve gone on using you the way Shirley used me. But all this business lately: you and the cocaine, that bloody landlord and all: I suddenly realised I do really and truly love you and all I want is your happiness. Oh, Angie, I’m so sorry.”

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Angie didn’t speak, but drew his head to hers and kissed him slowly and tenderly. Before long they were on the bed, then in it. Later they agreed that they had both experienced real loving sex for the first time in their lives. THE FOLLOWING MONDAY Ruby Woods began to sort out her priorities at the office. She soon realised that running an actors’ employment agency was going to take second place for some time, but managing the Exactors would take a lot of work. There were all the salaries to work out: she would ask David for the extra bonus figures when he arrived, as she felt sure he would. He had never missed a Monday morning yet. There were also a fair number of bills to settle following the Nelson episode. Meanwhile, there was the question of the estate agents. In the light of Jessica’s news, would she now be moving out after all? Or would she move in with David? This was a delicate matter and would also have to await his arrival. Whilst she was pondering these things the door opened and a young man walked in. Oh yes, the one who had come for his first interview not long ago. He still looked pretty ordinary, she thought. “Morning. Is Mr. Stoner in?” “Not yet, dear. It’s Mr. Appleton, isn’t it? What can we do for you?” “I wondered if there were any openings yet. I know I’m supposed to wait till I’m called, but, well, I need a job and thought there was no harm in asking.” Hmm, thought Ruby, the only openings now are in crime . . . Hang on, what about my little helper? “Would you like a coffee?” she asked, and switched the kettle on when she got a yes please. “Tell me about yourself. I don’t mean your acting experience, I’ve got all that. What sort of other things can you do? What sort of things do you like?” John was surprised by this turn, but responded in a frank manner, telling Ruby about his college years and the friends he had met, plus a little about his family and how his father had died a couple of years ago. She began to warm to him: there was a lot of feeling behind that rather impassive face, feeling that seemed to tumble out as he described his favourite pastimes and activities. She was not to know that this was a new man, one who had only just discovered, or rediscovered, the power of true feelings. He began to talk of Angela, and his face began to light up. What a lovely young chap he is, thought Ruby. If my Colin . . . “Are you any good with figures? Any clerical experience?” she asked. “Some. I was secretary of the Badminton Club and treasurer of the college charity fund.” Right, thought Ruby. He’ll do. “How would you like a job here?” she said. “Till an acting opportunity comes along,” she added hastily. “Here? Doing what?” “I need a bit of clerical assistance just now. Can’t say how long it would last, but you’re welcome to the job if you want it.” If he wanted it! He had taken to Ruby from the start; she reminded him of his mother when she was a little younger, and here was an opportunity to work in far more congenial conditions. “Won’t I have to see Mr. Stoner about it?” “No, he’s left it to me, and as far as I’m concerned, you can start right now.” John was delighted, and confessed to Ruby about the botched supermarket job, leaving out the drugs business. She laughed heartily, and cleared away the coffee cups. “Come along, then, John, let’s get you started. There’s a load of filing to begin with.” Half an hour later David walked in, and was startled to see John moving round the outer office with papers in his hand. “Hello, what’s all this, then?” “He’s working for me,” said Ruby firmly, “You gave me a free hand.” “Sure”, said David, “just didn’t expect it so soon. John Appleton, isn’t it?” “Yes, Mr. Stoner.” “For God’s sake, will you call me David? Given up the idea of acting, then?” “No, he hasn’t,” cut in Ruby, “so don’t leave him out when there’s an opportunity. And David,” she cried as he made towards his private office, “I need to talk to you.” She followed him in and shut the door. “This letter came for you. I didn’t know who it was from till I’d opened it. Sorry.” The puzzled entrepreneur took the letter and read it. He went white, then read it again. “God, Ruby, have you read this?” She nodded. “What are you going to do?” “Do? I haven’t the faintest idea, yet. There’s a lot to think about here.”

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It was almost as if his past life flashed in front of him as his mind raced round the possibilities. Or was it his future life? Divorce Rachel and marry Jessica? Spurn Jessica and give her up? Pay for the child’s keep? Take over the child? He bit his lip as he thought of his sterile marriage. Rachel not by any means barren but so devastated by her miscarriage that she had fought a lifelong battle against getting pregnant again. That had consisted mainly of refusing sex unless it was unavoidable. With Jessica pregnant it could mean a son at last! What to do? What to do? “David?” He looked up at Ruby’s concerned face. “What about the house agents? Do I cancel or what?” “Leave it for now, Ruby. I have to think.” “Have you got the salary list? I need it to carry on.” “Yes, yes. Here it is.” “And about John — “ “Later, Ruby. Leave me for now, will you?” Ruby slipped out quietly. She could understand David’s problem. She knew what was involved, she had met Rachel many times and marvelled at how such an attractive woman could apparently live without a sexual life. She had never met Jessica but knew how important she was to David. She sighed as she slowly returned to her desk and began to study the money list. RACHEL HAD HEARD NOTHING from Linda Martin, so rang her up and invited her to another round of golf that afternoon. She was still puzzling about the meal David had taken her out to on Saturday night. No expense spared at Leith’s, and a good deal of meaningless chatter from David throughout the meal. Just not like him at all. Was he covering for some guilt? Monday afternoon brought the two women together again on the first tee of the golf course, and again, once they were away from the clubhouse, they could talk. “I was wondering,” began Rachel, “if you’d heard anything yet . . . you know.” “Early days yet, Rachel,” answered the out-of-work actress, “I did go to the office last week, and kept my ears open . . .” She hesitated. Better not say anything yet about the crime idea. “But nothing about a mistress. But I’ll be trying again.” The subject was dropped and they talked of other things as the game proceeded. After the game, won by Rachel, they changed their gear in the ladies’ room. “Linda,” said Rachel, “are you in a hurry to get back?” “No, not really. I’ve plenty of time on my hands these days.” “Would you like to take tea over at my house instead of here? I only live across the road, you know.” “Oh — all right. I’ll be ready in just a moment.” So the Stoners’ house for tea it was, taken in the back garden under the shade of a jasmine tree, with milk and lemon available, along with naughty-but-nice cream cakes which both the ladies sampled, winking and laughing. They sat and chatted amicably, gradually discovering a compatibility of spirit and a number of common interests. Linda fascinated Rachel with her lurid accounts of the private lives of some well-known television personalities, whilst Rachel amused Linda with her send-ups of mutual golf club acquaintances, displaying no mean histrionic talent herself. “You should have been an actress yourself, Rachel.” “As a matter of fact, I was, years ago. I worked over at ITV; had some good little parts in sitcoms. London’s Burning, remember that?” “Oh yes. Can’t remember you, though.” “I was only in the first series. Played a sexy lady who seduced Bayleaf. But I stopped all that when I married David — he needed me to run the house. Still miss it now and then.” The conversation bowled along till the shadows lengthened and Linda stood up. “Now I really must go. I’ve had a wonderful time. Thanks, Rachel. You’ve a lovely place here.” “Linda, why don’t we make this a weekly thing? Game of golf and tea round here afterwards. Just the two of us?” Linda held out her hand. “What a great idea. I’d be absolutely delighted.” ALL THIS TIME David was in Fulham. After a morning spent in agonising mental wrestling, he took an early lunch and went round to see Jessica, who was half expecting him in spite of this not being his usual visiting day. After letting himself in, he nearly fell over the bicycle in the hall, which looked as if it hadn’t moved since it first appeared there. “Is that you, David?” “Of course. Who else?”

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“Oh darling!” cried Jessica, rushing to him and enveloping him in her arms, “I’m so happy to see you. You got my letter?” “Yes, yes. Jessica, we need to talk.” And talk they did, at some length. First, David enquired whether Jessica was sure about the pregnancy (strangely, men always seem to do this), and on being assured that she was, asked when the baby was due (also a predictable question) and was told February. After a short bit of mental arithmetic he then enquired why she had not told him before, whereupon she replied that she had not been sure before. This led to some discussion about whether the projected cut in allowance and consequent move of house was still to take place, with the eventual decision that these deplorable events need not happen yet as business had temporarily picked up, but the situation would have to be reviewed in a month or two. A cup of tea then followed, during which time Jessica screwed up her courage for the crucial question. “David, sweetheart, sooner or later you’ll have to take responsibility for the child. Isn’t this the right opportunity to leave Rachel?” David had been dreading this question and had his answer ready. “That’s an enormous decision to make, and it needn’t be made yet. If I left her, I couldn’t live here, the place is too small for two of us and a baby. She’d be left in possession of the Wimbledon house and I’d be well out of pocket having to keep her and you. There has to be another solution.” “I can’t see what else there is,” wailed Jessica, “you just have to choose between us.” “Not necessarily. I’ve not had to choose between you all this time. We could carry on the way we’ve always done.” “David! How can you say that? With your own child here, not in your own house?” He groaned aloud. She knew how he’d always longed for a son, and knew that his desire for one was her most potent weapon at the moment. That and sex, of course. It was time for that. “Come here, darling,” she murmured, “Let me take your coat off.” NEXT DAY DAVID TURNED UP to his office after a largely sleepless night. He supposed he’d better see what was wanted there: brushing Ruby aside yesterday needed atoning for. He was greeted cheerily by John and solicitously by Ruby, who followed him into his office and asked him to sign the Exactors’ cheques she had prepared the previous day. “Don’t forget to sign them N. Equity,” she reminded him, “these are on the new special account. Incidentally, what a funny name. Why did you choose that?” The ghost of a smile came to David’s face. “N. Equity? Say it.” “What do you mean?” “Say it.” “N. Equity.” “Quicker.” “N. Equity, N. Equity . . .Oh, I get it! Iniquity! Oh, David!” They enjoyed a laugh together, and he began to sign this iniquitous name on the cheques. “There’s something else, David. About John out there. He’s a nice lad, I’m sure we’re all going to get along together.” “Glad to hear it. Anything else?” “Yes, the Exactors. David, we can’t really keep it from him, can we? Much better to take him into our confidence than have to worry about whether he overhears anything.” He gazed approvingly at her. This sort of common-sense was part of what made her indispensable to him. “Of course, you’re right. I’ll have a talk with him in a bit, put him completely in the picture. I’ll give you a buzz when I’ve done these cheques. Send him in then.” Some twenty minutes later John, having uttered things like “What?”, “Really?”, “Phew!” and the like, emerged from the inner office bearing the batch of signed cheques and a dazed expression. “Ruby, he said at last, “What a man!” Ruby looked gently through him into some unimaginable distance, “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “He’s asked me to try and think up a worthwhile scheme,” said John, “and there is someone I’ve got my eye on, but I’m sure I’d never think up anything so clever as his Nelson idea.” “No. Probably not.” DURING THE NEXT THREE WEEKS a number of things progressed quietly. At BBC TV Kevin Bestwick got on with the despised Your Favourite Video and submitted it to his controller, who was so delighted with it that, after a short consultation with David Attwood, came back to Kevin with the welcome news that his contract would be renewed and he could go ahead with any new drama

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production of his choice, so long as it was not Brave New World, and a reasonable budget was allocated. Kevin had not forgiven the top brass for messing him about, and decided privately that the Exactors was a much more exciting prospect. All that was needed now was another idea. David went on seeing Jessica as usual but continued to agonise about choosing between his two women. Jessica got a little more agitated each time he visited her without coming to a decision, and even took a few rides on the bicycle to please her lover, but he did not seem impressed when she reported this to him. Rachel and Linda, having discovered their affinity, continued their friendship and upped the golf game to twice weekly. A few other lady members of the club noticed this fact. “Thick as thieves.” remarked one of them, and wondered why they were never seen taking tea in the clubhouse afterwards. Angela had promised John that she would definitely kick her cocaine habit, but he kept a very anxious eye on her, suspecting every mood change as the result of drugs, but not liking to mention the subject. Eventually he decided to take Ruby into his confidence and ask her advice. He and Ruby had continued to get on well and he was by now almost indispensable round the office. He learnt how to keep in touch with all current drama and broadcast events, to check off every published performance against the Stoner agency list and to look for openings for actors. One lunch hour they both got out their sandwiches and Ruby put the kettle on. He decided to approach the subject in a roundabout way. “Ruby,” he began, “did you ever have a bad habit?” “What on earth do you mean?” “Well, something you kept doing and knew you shouldn’t, but couldn’t stop.” “What, like smoking, do you mean?” “Yes.” “I never smoked. It’s stupid. I’m surprised there are any smokers left.” John’s face fell a little. This wasn’t so easy. “Let me put it another way. How truthful do you think women are — in general, I mean.” Ruby stared at him. What was all this about? “Women are no more truthful than men, and no less,” she stated. “Truthfulness is up to the individual. I suppose we all tell lies sometimes; but we have to face the consequences.” “Well then, how do you know whether to trust someone?” “I’ve got a simple rule for that. I always trust everyone until they prove themselves untrustworthy. That way I don’t do anyone an injustice.” This didn’t help John much either. The kettle boiled and he stumbled on as Ruby made the coffee. “What if someone has lied to you but promises it won’t happen again?” Ruby brought the mugs over. “Come on, John. What’s it all about?” So out came the story of Angela’s addiction and struggle to give up. While he was at it he revealed the incidents involving Rowntree, the suspected pusher, the police station and the overturned cans incident. Ruby listened gravely, but couldn’t resist a smile at the last part. “So that’s how you came to be looking for a job again!” she said. “You remind me of my Colin,” she went on,” he was always so keen to put wrongs right that he fell over his own feet.” “Who’s Colin?” asked John. “Colin was my son,” came the sober reply, “he and my husband were killed three years ago in a car accident.” “Oh, Ruby. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” “Of course not, dear. But every time I look at you I can’t help thinking of him . . .” Ruby looked at John with eyes so full of emotion that on an impulse he leaned forward and put his arms round her. She hugged him with surprising ferocity and gave a few sobs. He held on till she seemed more composed, “Sorry, John,” she said as she fumbled for a tissue. “I felt like a mother for a moment there. Colin would have been about your age now. But I mustn’t try to take your mother’s place.” “That’s all right, Ruby. I’ll always love Mum. But you’re so nice, can’t I think of you as my auntie? I haven’t got a real auntie at all.” “Of course. That’ll be splendid.” They began their lunch in a shy silence, John marvelling at his own ability to show warmth, and Ruby glowing with the knowledge that here was someone she was at last free to love. Both of them forgot about Angela’s problem for the time being.

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Chapter 8

Wholesale deception

DAVID AT LAST CAME TO A DECISION. He would try hard to improve relations with Rachel., and if that didn’t work then his course was clear. Again he took her out to dinner and this time managed to allay her suspicions as to an ulterior motive. After all, he was her husband, he should take her out from time to time. She was wearing one of her smartest and most seductive dresses, and was delighted to see several heads, male and female, turn as she walked in. By the time they arrived home she was in a particularly relaxed mood. They decided to go straight to bed and she went into the master bedroom, David taking the spare room as usual. She had just donned her night-dress when she was surprised to see her husband walk in, wearing only a dressing gown. He shut the door behind him and approached her. “What is it, David? I’m tired.” “Rachel, Rachel! Haven’t you enjoyed this evening?” “Yes, but now it’s time for bed.” “That’s what I thought, so here I am.” And David put his arms round her. “No, no, David. Don’t be silly.” and she pushed him away. His patience snapped immediately. “What the hell’s silly about a man wanting to make love to his own wife?” He lunged forward again as if to kiss her. Some instinct told Rachel to submit a little. “All right, then. A goodnight kiss.” and she put her lips up to him. As he kissed her he felt the old magic that had first attracted him to her, and the blood flowed into his loins. He pushed her back on to the bed, and put his hand on her breast. “No, no, David. I’m sorry. You know I can’t. Stop it! Stop it!” He relaxed his hold and let out a long, resigned breath. So it was business as usual. “All right, Rachel; you win.” “Why do men always want the same thing?” moaned Rachel, oblivious of the cliché‚, “It’s sex, sex, all the time.” “Why? It’s time you knew why. Because Mother Nature planted the instinct in us, that’s why. We didn’t ask for it, and we can’t get rid of it: it haunts us all our days. You can’t live without food and sleep; it’s the same with sex.” “What about monks? Don’t they do without it?” “I don’t know what monks do, and I don’t care! I only know I need it. I’m surprised you don’t: aren’t women supposed to want children?” “That’s not fair, you know I always did. But that’s all in the past now. Can’t we just be friends?” “I doubt it,” muttered David, and padded off to his room. That was it, then. She couldn’t say he hadn’t tried. It would be Jessica and his child from now on. NEXT DAY KEVIN PHONED David at his office. “Do you want the good news or the good news?” he asked, and when David had plumped for the good news, he went on, “Beeb have given me carte blanche for a new production, no strings. I can take my time for a bit, and go on using our facilities.” “That’s great,” said David, “and the other?” “One of our chaps has come up with a good suggestion for our next operation. I’d better bring him to see you. All right?” They agreed to an immediate meeting and replaced the receivers. When Kevin arrived he was accompanied by a small man David thought he had seen before. Kevin introduced him. “This is Mike Priestley, one of our BBC staff. He’s a bit of a whizz with props.” They shook hands and sat down. “I was at your previous meetings,” began Mike without prompting, “so I guess I’m an Exactor like anyone else. You said you wanted ideas; well here’s one. Do you read The Financial Times? Well, I do; always taken a bit of interest in shares and so on. I’ve been following share prices and profits and so on of any company I might be interested in. What annoyed me this week was the announced profits of Bestsave the supermarket people: twenty-seven million last year.” “That’s a lot,” said David, “but why does it annoy you?” “It’s a huge profit considering they only operate in fourteen London locations and nowhere else. And do you know how they make their profits? I do, because my wife works in one of them part-time. First of all, they pay slave wages to staff. Take it from me, it’s sweated labour. Edith only does it because jobs are scarce, and the store is round the corner. Twenty years ago the unions would have put a stop to that sort of thing.” He looked at David. “Go on,” said David.

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“The other thing is dishonest labelling. They buy cheap substitute stuff and then put well-known brand labels over them. These labels are very clever copies, hard to spot; but Edith has done a bit of detective work and compared them with the real thing. The labels can’t be told apart, but the bottles have little differences in the shape, or the screwtops are not quite right. So Joe Public pays top price for second-rate stuff. So far she’s identified seven different products.” “Nasty, eh?,” said Kevin, “so I thought you’d be interested in targeting these gentlemen, David. I’m all for it, and again there’s plenty of backup once you say the word. Can you come up with a plan?” “I’ll do my best,” promised David, “Sounds just the sort of thing we should take on. Bestsave, eh? And you say your wife works there?” “That’s right — Ealing branch.” “Can she give us any inside information, perhaps?” “As a matter of fact she can. She works on the checkout, and she’s noticed that all the till keys are identical. There’s a very good chance that that goes for all fourteen branches. I could easily get her to make a wax impression so that we could make a set.” “Hmm. Might be useful. But surely the money is all collected at the end of each day and banked?” “Put in a safe overnight.” “Of course. Banks are shut. How is the money transported to the bank, do you know?” “Bestsave have their own security van which goes round all the London branches picking up the takings and then banking them. I don’t know which bank.” “I see,” said David, “so if we could waylay the van . . .” “Bit tricky, in daylight,” suggested Kevin. “Yes. All right, give me a few days to think about it and I’ll get back to you.” RACHEL AND LINDA SAT taking their tea as usual in Rachel’s garden. Linda had noticed how preoccupied Rachel had been during the golf game, to the extent that she had made several poor shots and lost the game. “Anything wrong, Rachel?” she asked when she judged the moment right. “You haven’t seemed quite yourself today.” “It’s David. I’ve had another row with him. He wants . . . well, he wants to make love and I don’t. I suppose that’s the long and short of it.” Linda gave a short laugh. “Sounds like Alastair and me. We gave up sex long ago, and he’s always having it off with other women. Actually, I’ve had enough, and I’ve decided to divorce him. It’ll be easy enough, he’s never bothered to cover his tracks.” Rachel stared. “You, too? I didn’t know.” “Why should you? I don’t broadcast it. But believe me, his days are numbered. I don’t suppose you’re anywhere near that stage yet.” “I sometimes wonder. But I’ve no proof; I don’t even know his mistress’s name, let alone whether he has more than one. That’s why I asked you to help, remember? “Yes, of course, but I’ve so little to go on. But given half a chance, I’ll find out — you’ll just have to be patient.” A small silence fell, and the women sipped their tea thoughtfully. “Rachel”, asked Linda, “do you have any children?” “No. Why?” “Oh, I was just wondering how it might affect a divorce. Alastair and I have none.” “I wanted children when we were first married. David particularly wanted a son, and I was only too happy to try to give him one.” “Did it turn out that you couldn’t have a child?” “Not exactly. After two years I got pregnant and we were both very happy about it. But things went wrong. I was in my sixth month when I was suddenly taken ill and it turned out to be a miscarriage. I went through agony — I mean real, terrible physical agony, and then of course the agony of having lost a wanted child.” She fell silent and Linda waited. “After that I was terrified to get pregnant again: I couldn’t bear the idea that it might happen all over again. I got a sort of fixation that if I conceived we would both die this time, the baby and me.” Rachel shuddered at the memory. “But you got over that, surely?” asked Linda carefully. “I never did. To this day I can’t face the idea of pregnancy, though I’m nearly into my menopause anyway.” “Didn’t you try for psychiatric help?”

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“Yes, for a while, but it didn’t do any good. I suppose I’m, well, sort of crazy really.” “But you and David carried on with normal sex, surely?” Rachel gave a wry smile. “If you can call it normal, taking at least three types of precaution simultaneously. After a while David dropped his demands and left me alone most of the time. I can’t blame him having an affair; I just don’t want him abandoning me and leaving me penniless; I’m just too used to a good style of living. That’s why I need to know what’s going on.” Linda sat thinking. Christ, these two must have been like this for twenty years at least. It explains so much. She rose and thanked Rachel for the tea. “Must be going now. I’m so sorry things have not gone well for you. We must try and cheer you up somehow.” THAT SAME AFTERNOON David was at Jessica’s, where he was regaled with warm greetings, anxious enquiries as to his future intentions, protestations of undying love, semi-sulky sniffles, tea, seduction and inventive love-making, in that order. To the enquiries about his marital intentions he decided to reveal nothing for the time being: he needed to make quite sure that Jessica was indeed the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, being aware (from what source he knew not) that the qualities required of a mistress are not the same as those a wife needs. He knew of Jessica’s expensive tastes; did he want a repetition of the Rachel spendthrift situation? However, the prospect of a child at last, coupled with Rachel’s renewed coldness, swung the scales firmly in Jessica’s favour for now, and he resolved to get Ruby to cancel the house-hunting. There was plenty of time yet for other decisions. . . As they lay naked in bed after their sexual activities, he was struck by a sudden alarming thought: what if Jessica had a miscarriage the same as Rachel? Rachel had been young at the time, but here was Jessica in her forties: wasn’t a miscarriage that much more likely? Something else to cause a deferment of decision-time. And of course there was the Bestsave operation to think about . . . All in all he was not very good company for the rest of his visit. On leaving Jessica he decided not to go home yet; he wanted some thinking time away from Rachel; but bearing in mind the beneficial effect his garden had previously shown, he walked along to a little public garden just off Fulham Palace Road, and sat on a bench to ponder. After one hour he had not moved; after nearly two hours he sat up with a smile and made his way to Putney Bridge tube station, a mere three stops from home. He had to stand all the way, but was oblivious of the crush as he continued to turn the Bestsave scam over in his mind. Next morning he attended the office as usual and immediately rang the BBC and asked for Kevin Bestwick. When his questions had been answered he asked for a full meeting of the Exactors two days later. Kevin would round up the technicians and Ruby would get the actors. There was no more he could do for the time being. He walked into the outer office and watched his two employees for a while. Then he addressed Ruby. “How’s John getting on, then, Ruby?” he asked. “Terrific,” she said, smiling proudly in John’s direction, “He could run the office single-handed now.” “That’s good news,” said David, “for he may have to. There’s another Exactors’ job coming up, and I want you to round them all up for Friday morning, 11 o’clock.” “Fine!” said Ruby, her eyes twinkling as she foresaw another Stoner masterpiece, “I’ll get right on with it.” “I’m going to take the rest of the day off,” announced David, “there’s nothing for me here. I’m thinking of having a round of golf — haven’t played for ages, and God knows I need some exercise. So I’ll just turn right round and go back to Wimbledon Park.” “OK, boss,” said Ruby, “I’m sure it’ll do you good. I know you haven’t played for a long while; don’t suppose they’ll recognise you there!” “That’s a point,” said David thoughtfully, “I haven’t a regular partner. Do you play golf, John?” “Tried it at school”, replied John, “and liked it a lot, but I haven’t played since. Can’t afford it, for one thing.” “Tell you what, “said David, “if Ruby can spare you, why not come with me? You take the rest of the day off, too, and we’ll see how good you are.” John looked at Ruby for permission. “Of course you can go,” she said, “and have a good time. Mind you,” she added, looking severely at David, “I want him back here at nine sharp tomorrow.” “Thanks, Ruby,” said John, then paused in moderate dismay. “There’s one problem,” he went on, “I’ve no clubs, no proper gear or anything.” “Leave that to me,” said David, “what size shoes do you take?”

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“Nine.” “No problem, you can borrow a spare pair of mine, and we simply hire the clubs from the professional. Come on. ‘Bye, Ruby.” And away went the two men. Half an hour later they left the Underground and walked along Home Park Road to the golf club. “That’s where I live,” said David, pointing out a large house some fifty yards past the club entrance, on the opposite side of the road; “I can see most of the course from my upstairs windows, but I seldom have time to play.” They turned in along the club drive. “What we’ll do,” he went on, “we’ll see if the pro can give us both a lesson this morning, then we’ll have a spell on the practice ground. We both need that. Then lunch in the clubhouse, and a round of golf this afternoon. You should be back on the tube train by six at the latest. Suit you?” “Er, is it very expensive?” “This is my treat, son, don’t worry about it!” “In that case, it sounds ideal. Lead me to it.” In the locker room David found John a spare pair of golf shoes and a sweater, then took him along to the pro’s shop. Luckily the professional was free, and prepared to give a simultaneous lesson to two people. They watched each other as the pro took them through the various shots until time was up. “Gosh, I learned a lot there!” said John, “I’m hoping to play well now.” “Hmm. I’m not sure my old bones can do everything I want, but I’m going to try.” And the rest of the day went as planned, with both men playing a mixture of good and bad, as golfers do, congratulating each other on the good, and laughing at the bad. After a while they gave up keeping the score and just conversed as they walked along. It wasn’t long before David found himself in possession of much the same information about John’s and Angie’s situation as Ruby was, and like Ruby, began to warm towards this young man whose depths of character and feeling were so unapparent on the surface. He could understand why Ruby had taken him on, and why the atmosphere in his office was so tranquil and happy. Remarkable, he said to himself. Remarkable. “David,” began John towards the end of the game, “I’ve got a project for the Exactors if you’re interested.” “Oh? Let’s hear it.” “Well, I’ve told you about this horrible Rowntree man. Couldn’t we have a go at him?” “What exactly does ‘have a go’ mean?” “You told me the idea of the Exactors is to make money for out-of-work actors, preferably from the undeserving rich — swindlers, that sort of thing. Rowntree fits the bill in my opinion.” “I agree he’s a good target. I meant, how do we get the money out of him?” “Oh, I thought that’s where you came in.” “Yes, John, but I can’t do two things at once. I’m working on another project at the moment. Let’s put your man on the back burner for the time being. After this next show we might have a look at it.” So John had to be content with that. However, he had thoroughly enjoyed the golf and hoped he would be asked again. He arrived home late but happy. FRIDAY MORNING SAW ANOTHER expectant meeting of the Exactors in Studio 8. David had been closeted in Kevin’s office since 9.45, and Ruby acted as doorkeeper to the studio as the actors and technicians filed in. John had begged to be allowed along, but was told to man the West Kensington office in her absence. As previously, Kevin opened the proceedings. “Morning, everybody. Well, kiddies, Uncle David and Uncle Kevin have another exciting party game for you, and this time virtually all of you can join in. First, I want Mike Priestley here to start us off. Mike?” Priestley stood up and gave the assembly much the same picture of Bestsave Supermarkets as he had to his principals two days earlier. There were approving nods as he finished by saying that David had devised a scheme, and a respectful hush as David stood up to speak. “Mike here has told you about these rogues, and what I want us to do is, frankly, steal some money from them. They’ve stolen enough money from the public for a long time. Here’s how I think we can do it. Picture the scene in your local supermarket, as experienced by the manager. You are approached by an anxious customer, two or three in fact, who say they think there’s a bomb in the shop. Somewhat alarmed, you follow them through the aisles and they point to a black attaché case which someone has left right in the middle of the frozen peas. It looks just like a piece of lost property to you, so you move as if to pick it up. “Don’t touch it!” screams one of the customers, “it’s ticking!” and indeed it is. Now considerably alarmed, you move back towards your office to ring the police, but before you can reach the phone you are met by a policeman who has entered the store. “Are you the manager?” he asks, and

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when you say yes he explains that one of the customers has already rung in, and that a bomb disposal squad is on its way. Meanwhile you are to clear the store immediately, so, grasping the microphone in your office, you call out ‘Attention, attention, all staff and customers! There is a suspected bomb on the premises and everyone must leave immediately. All staff will follow normal emergency procedure.’” David paused for breath, whilst the Exactors waited eagerly. “Now your checkout staff know that emergency procedure means instant locking of the till and pocketing the keys. Any goods at checkout not paid for are to be left where they are. Customers and checkout staff will leave by the front entrance and warehouse staff by the rear entrance. As you are manager it is your duty to see the premises clear before you leave, so you wait till last. Just before evacuation is complete two men arrive, dressed in the uniform of the Royal Engineers and carrying two large toolbags. They ask to see the bomb, the policeman directs them to it and asks you to leave. He accompanies you and then clears a 100-yard area in front of the store. In this he is assisted by another policeman who has appeared. You wait anxiously for a few minutes and then hear an explosion. A certain amount of smoke drifts out of the front door, or is seen escaping from a vent. Thinking the danger is over you go to move forward but the policeman restrains you. Five minutes later the two soldiers emerge bearing their toolbags and the attaché case. They have words with your policeman who comes over to you and explains that there was a second bomb which has been detonated, and that they have disarmed the first one and are taking it for forensic examination. The soldiers leave in a plain van. The shop is full of noxious smoke and it will not be advisable to enter for ten minutes. You wait ten minutes and re-enter the shop, round up your staff and try to get back to normal. All seems fine till first one then another checkout girl comes reporting the loss of money from her till. In the end it turns out that all the tills have been stripped of their banknotes; the coins are all that is left. You rush out to find the policemen but they have disappeared. So has your reputation.” Again David paused for breath (or was it for effect?) An animated murmur followed, which he allowed to die down. “That’s the broad picture,” he said, “and now for a few details. The bomb of course is no such thing, merely an old-fashioned clock ticking away. The second bomb is necessary because our men need to work at the checkouts without being seen. Although the policemen have cleared the area outside the shop, there could always be the odd person breaking through, or a smarty looking out of a window across the street. So the second bomb is supposed to be discovered near the checkouts and goes off. Actually it will be a simple firecracker-type device linked to a small smokebomb — well, not smoke at all, but a harmless chemical vapour I’m told is used all the time in film work and pop concerts. We can’t have our men breathing real smoke. So, under cover of the smoke, we rob the tills with duplicate keys which Mike can easily make: as he said, his wife works in one of the branches and will help us get a copy. I need hardly point out that the money is taken away in the sappers’ toolbags— and the attaché case if necessary. We leave the clock in the frozen food as a souvenir. “The soldiers have arrived in the plain van and will leave in it; the policemen walk off into the crowd who by now will be pouring into the supermarket out of curiosity. The van is waiting for them round the corner. The money will be transferred to other bags which will then be delivered to my office in West Kensington and the money locked in my safe until your salaries are due. You’ll all be paid in cash for a while — I can’t pay a suspiciously large sum into my bank. Any questions?” “Yes!” This was Mary Douglas: David had half expected her to speak up. “You said we could all take part, but your scenario only calls for, what, four men plus the one who gives the alarm.” “That’s right,” answered David, “five, possibly six people if we have two alarmists to make it look good. But Bestsave have fourteen branches in London; we’re not stopping at one store. We have thirtysix people available all told — that includes everybody in this room: that’s seven teams.” “You mean — “ started Mary. “Yes,” said David, “we’re going to knock off seven branches simultaneously. Then twenty minutes later we do the other seven.” A buzz broke out which made the Nelson reaction seem like a whisper, and it was several minutes before order was restored. “So we’re in the action?” asked one of the cameramen. “But we’re not trained actors.”” “No problem,” replied David, “you’ll be the bomb experts. What training do you need to set off a smoke-bomb, open half-a-dozen tills, and stuff money into a bag? You’re practical men; you’ll probably do it better than the actors. They’ll be the policemen, mainly.” “That brings up the question of risk,” piped up an actor from the back, “What if a real policeman comes along? We’re right in it then.” “Ah yes,” replied David, “let’s look at that. Number one, it’s very unlikely. Do you ever see a policeman when you need one? Come to that, do you ever see a policeman?”

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“Only on television.” That got a laugh. “Number two,” continued David, “if one comes along, you simply explain the situation briefly and ask him to help keep back the crowd. Then he’s left holding the baby when you disappear. Number three, you’ll be wearing special uniforms with unknown identity tags. If another copper wants to know who you are and what you’re doing on his patch, you say you are from Special Emergency Squad responding from Area Headquarters, tell him not to waste time arguing but look at that chap over there trying to push through.” The questioner nodded, satisfied. “What about the bombs?” asked someone else. Kevin spoke up. “Mike Priestley’s responsible for those. He’s got them in stock, or can make them up. Everything else, uniforms, bags, and so on, come from Costumes and Props. The worst problem is the vans. I don’t know if I can get seven plain vans from Transport. They might have to paint one or two to make the numbers up.” “How do we identify the store manager?” asked someone. “Good point,” said David, “the most crucial part of the timing is to intercept him before he gets to the phone, and the snag is that he could be anywhere in the store. Our policeman mustn’t enter the store before the right moment, either. Come to think of it, this needs changing a bit . . . Right, here it is: we don’t really need to have a customer report the bomb, just someone to plant it when nobody is looking. Then he or she leaves quickly, which is a signal for the copper to move in. He simply asks for the manager and says the police have had an anonymous tip-off that a bomb has been planted, and that the army is on its way. Much simpler really.” “This is all very well,” shrilled a female voice, “but Mary had a point. The men get all the fun. We women can’t be policemen or soldiers, so all we get to do is plant the case and walk out. How thrilling!” David looked at Kevin. Is he thinking what I’m thinking? What a comment on today’s world that women are actually fighting to play a leading part in a crime to get kicks? What have we started? “All right, darling, don’t worry.” This was Kevin talking. “You can always be a policewoman holding back the crowd if you don’t want the other part. It’s a very important role, keeping people out of the way, and you will have to think on your feet if anything goes wrong. As we have said, you might have to deal with the real police.” “OK; that’s more like it.” The female contingent seemed temporarily satisfied. “How are we going to manage two jobs each?” asked Paul Rossiter. “Surely the alarm will be raised by the time we get to the second job?” “I don’t think so,” said David, “One essential thing is that we all start at the same time. The date is Friday, today week. I propose seven o’clock in the evening, when most of the day’s takings will be in. The stores stay open until eight anyway. The whole job should take about fifteen minutes — six or seven minutes to clear the store, another seven or eight to set off the bomb and clear the tills, then of course we get away promptly and we are on our way to the next location. The journey should take about ten to fifteen minutes. We’re telling the managers not to enter the stores for ten minutes to clear the smoke, then it will take a while to open up the tills and for the boss to realise what’s gone wrong. Will it occur to him that the same thing is about to happen to another branch? I very much doubt it, but even if he does, by the time he has phoned head office and they get back to the branches we’ll be well into the second phase, with managers out in the street. On top of that, head office isn’t even open that time of night, as far as we know. It’s not a problem. Each working party will be allocated two branches within reach of each other, for example Ealing and Notting Hill, Shoreditch and Islington, Battersea and Stockwell — we’ve got it all worked out. Once the cash has been delivered the vans return here and as far as the BBC is concerned we were out making Kevin’s new programme. He’s devising a cover story for that. Debriefing on the following Monday at 10 o’clock, by the way, so all be here for that.” David nodded to Kevin, who took over. “I’ll put an order in to Costumes for the right number of uniforms as soon as we’ve sorted out how many policewomen we’re having. Mike will supply the bombs and bags. See me about the vans.” One of the cameramen spoke up. “This caper is bound to be reported in all the newspapers next day — and on TV for that matter.” “Yes, well?” “People here will put two and two together. Costumes will remember handing out loads of coppers’ and soldiers’ uniforms; Transport will remember seven vans. One phone call to the police and there’s a lot of explaining to do. What about that?” “Don’t worry about the costumes: I’m the one that issues those,” came another voice.

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“Right,” said David, “but that’s a good point. I think seven vans from Transport is too much of a clue. We’ll take three, and hire the rest from outside. Ruby?” Ruby made a note, and Kevin continued, “One more thing: if anyone feels nervous about being recognised let me know and we’ll get Makeup on the job. A little cheek padding, bigger nose, darker eyebrows, something like that. Right! Now we’ll start forming seven groups of five. We need two technical staff in each group, the rest from the actors . . .” “Hang on,” called out Ruby who had been looking through her notes, “Eighteen actors and fifteen technicals is thirty-three. We need thirty-five.” “Not to worry,” beamed Kevin, “David and I are taking part.” Ruby turned to look at David in astonishment. “That’s right,” he said, “We wouldn’t miss this for the world.” He was lying, because he dreaded taking part: he thought of himself more as a manipulator of people than a protagonist, and would never have agreed to Kevin’s idea if a refusal hadn’t meant that Ruby would have to do it.

Chapter 9

Day’s takings

RACHEL AND LINDA came off the golf course and crossed over to the Stoner house as usual. They had had quite an exhausting game as the wind had been unusually blustery, and the previous night’s rain had left the course rather muddy. As they entered the house Linda said, “I feel really messy. Any chance of a bath or shower?” “Of course. I’ll take a shower myself. You first.” When Linda emerged from the shower she stayed in the bathroom drying her hair while Rachel took hers. Five minutes later Rachel emerged to dry herself, looking a little surprised to see Linda still naked. Linda sat on the edge of the bath watching her until she finished and dropped the towel on to the rail. “You know,” said Linda, “you really do have a beautiful body, Rachel. And it’s all going to waste.” “What do you mean?” said Rachel, flushing a little. “Why, David doesn’t get to see it much, does he? Is there anyone else?” Rachel shook her head. Linda stood up and approached her. “Well, I appreciate it,” she said, and stroked Rachel’s sides with both hands, then caressed her breast, gently flicking the nipple back and forth. Rachel jumped, feeling as if a thousand volts had coursed through her body. “Linda!” she gasped. “Wasn’t that nice?” murmured Linda, “didn’t you like it?” Rachel swallowed. She had liked it. But . . . It was too late. Linda put her arms round Rachel and looked straight into her eyes. Rachel’s blood was now roaring, and as she looked back she found herself reciprocating as Linda’s lips moved slowly towards hers. They kissed, at first hesitantly, then more and more passionately. Rachel felt like a puppet in a master’s hand, so when Linda whispered, “Bedroom?” she nodded, her mouth now dry, and led her new partner by the hand into her bedroom. Half an hour later they dressed and went down for tea. Not much was said until after the second cup, then Linda looked directly into Rachel’s eyes and asked, “Well?” Rachel drew a deep breath before answering, “That was the most wonderful sexual experience I have ever had. It was never like that with David. I never knew . . .” “My darling, men never seem to know what women need. You’d been waiting a long, long time for that. But I must say you surprised me with your passion even then. Tiger!” and she smiled affectionately. “I suppose I ought to be ashamed. But I’m not. I suppose it was knowing I couldn’t possibly get pregnant, I could really let go. Oh, Linda, say this isn’t a one-night stand!” “It isn’t. I’ve been waiting quite a while, too.” A thought struck Rachel. “Have you done this before?” “Once. I did have a thing with a girlfriend two years ago. It didn’t work out, but I’ve never been the same since. You can’t blame Alastair for playing around, because I went right off men. Anyway, his idea of foreplay was to say “Coming, ready or not!” “Linda, I’m fifty, and I know you’re younger than me. I don’t see how — “ “Shush! Since when did age matter? I’m not much younger, anyway. We’re two of a kind, and I know we’re fond of each other. This had to happen.”

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They were silent again: there was plenty to think about. But both women felt the happiest they could remember: there was so much to look forward to now. THAT EVENING JOHN CAME HOME to find Angela already there and making some tea. He was disturbed to see how downcast she looked and how avidly she seized the teacup when he poured it for her. “What is it, darling,” he asked, “missing the coke?” “Yes,” she whispered, “I’ve been twitchy all day at work. One or two customers noticed it, and I’m sure all the staff have. I don’t know if I can go on . . .” and she broke down in copious weeping. John hugged her, cradling her head between his hands and rocking her gently backwards and forwards. “Keep your chin up, my sweetheart. We’ll fight this together: we’ll win, you’ll see.” But his heart was heavy; it had been hard to watch her deteriorate like this. He had repeatedly pleaded with her to seek suitable medical treatment, but she always stubbornly refused, saying it would kill her father if the news got back to him. It’s Rowntree I’d like to kill, he thought. Perhaps the worst is over? What she needs is something to occupy her, something physical perhaps, to take her mind off the drug. I wonder . .. Next day he confided in Ruby and told her about his worry. “I was thinking,” he said, “Do you think David would let her join the Exactors in an escapade? It might give her more purpose than her routine job and keep her going long enough to finally kick the drug habit.” “I’m not sure, dear. You’d have to ask him yourself. Ah, good morning, David.” David, who had just walked in, looked at his helpers. “What are you two up to?” Ruby nodded a silent “Go on” at John, so John repeated his request. “Sorry, lad,” was the reply, “the Exactors is for out-of-work actors. And our little jaunts need a cool head and sound judgement. Do you honestly think your girlfriend has those at the moment?” Poor John could not gainsay this eminently sensible argument, so gave up with drooping shoulders. “But I’d still like to get back at that drug dealer,” he said earnestly. “Perhaps, perhaps. Give it a while: I haven’t forgotten it.” And away went David into his inner office to phone his chief collaborator. A FEW DAYS LATER it was time for the ladies’ golf date again. After the game they went across the road and straight to bed by mutual consent. Both were glowing with love and a feeling that something was right in their lives at last. Rachel had again been the dominant partner on the golf course whilst Linda reversed the roles in bed. After dressing and making tea, Rachel was struck by a thought. “If David ever finds out about us,” she said, “he could divorce me, and I want it to be the other way round. In future we had better meet in the mornings. He always goes to his office in the mornings but occasionally comes home in the afternoons. Not often, but once would be once too many.” Linda agreed, so in future, mornings it was — three times a week. FRIDAY ARRIVED AT LAST and David fretted all morning as he went over the Great Supermarket Robbery in his mind. Had he foreseen all the possible snags? He decided to get Ruby in to check with him. “Are all the teams briefed properly, do you think, Ruby? “You were there, David. I though Kevin put it over quite thoroughly. The idea of a role-playing rehearsal by one group was a great idea. We all felt reassured by watching that, surely.” “But something could go wrong I haven’t thought of.” “Like what?” “Any of the vans could get stopped for travel permit checking.” “Well, they’ve all got either a BBC permit or the hire permit.” “Won’t the warden remember that when the robbery is front-page news?” “Maybe, but why should he connect the BBC with it? Remember, we know the connection, but nobody else does.” “Hmm, yes. What if a van breaks down?” “They’ll simply abandon the trip.” “What if the store manager turns awkward?” “He thinks he’s dealing with the police — the cop’ll simply have to be firm with him.” “Yes, of course. I’m just fussing over nothing, aren’t I?” “You are, David, and it’s not like you.” “Does John know what to do?”

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“Not yet, I’m going to tell him this afternoon. Why don’t you go off and see Jessica till this evening? You don’t have to be at rendezvous till 6.15. And get something to eat there. I’ll ring Rachel and tell her you won’t be home till late.” “Bless you, Ruby, you really are a treasure.” And David planted a kiss on her cheek. Now there’s a thing, she mused as she returned to her office. “John, sit here and listen. I told you you’d be working late tonight, didn’t I? Well, it’s an Exactors’ job. I’ll be here, but David won’t, and I need a bit of help. About half-past seven onwards there’ll be several visits by our people dressed as police or soldiers. They’ll be in plain vans which will stop outside the office. One or two of them, probably two, will emerge carrying bags of money which are coming up here to go in the safe. All I want you to do is stand downstairs in the doorway and look out for them, then direct them up here. Some of them might not know the way, you see. And don’t draw attention to yourself.” “Money, Ruby? It’s a robbery, is it?” “Yes, John. And there could be lots of it.” “Wish I could join in.” “Perhaps you will another time. But wouldn’t you rather earn money honestly?” He stared at her. “Of course I would. I want to act on television more than anything; but you know better than anyone there are no jobs.” “Yes, and I would prefer honesty too. But this is what we’ve come to, so it’s up to us to make a good job of it.” DAVID WAS AT HIS RENDEZVOUS by 6 o’clock and waited nervously for the van at the agreed spot. He had chosen the Ealing and Notting Hill run hoping to be the first to arrive at his office so that he could watch progress as the others came in. Likewise Kevin was in the Stockwell/Battersea party which should complete the operation at nearly the same time. Finally the van arrived, driven by Lucas Doyle, a burly sound engineer who was already in his army overalls marked with “Royal Engineers” and a woolly cap. David climbed into the back, where he found Norman Newcombe dressed as a constable, and began to change into his own police sergeant’s uniform. He was half-dressed when a knock on the back door of the van gave him a bad start. Norman opened the door with a smile and admitted cameraman Roger Wallace, who was to be the second Royal Engineer, and Karen Morgan, the actress who was to plant the briefcase. “Don’t mind me, boys,” she said blithely as she sat on the side bench, “Carry on changing.” She herself already looked like a typical harassed housewife, with jeans, anorak and shopping bag. A few skilful lines of makeup had added ten years to her visible age. Kevin’s boys had been doing some useful scouting during the week, for every party had been provided with a sketch map of the streets around each supermarket, with a cross marked where the van should park, out of sight of the store. Doyle now made his way carefully to the Ealing location and they waited until two minutes to seven. “Right, Karen,” said David, “off you go.” Karen left the van. David waited till the stroke of seven and followed her, wondering if his nervousness would jeopardise the whole enterprise. To his surprise, he found that once the van door closed behind him, he felt confident, his breathing slowed down, and he even found himself believing he was a police sergeant. He had not acted a part since his early twenties, and he had quite forgotten how stage fright disappears once the play begins. Rounding the corner, he saw the supermarket, already lit up for the evening, and with a fair number of shoppers coming and going. He approached with steady tread, realising that he could not turn back now whether Karen had emerged or not. He turned into the store and marched straight up to the nearest checkout girl. “I need to speak to your manager, please, miss. Urgently!” “Oh,” she replied, “I don’t know where he is — somewhere out the back, I think. Sharon! Do you know where Mr. Mason is?” Sharon didn’t know. “Hazel! Do you know where Mr. Mason is?” Hazel didn’t know. “Claire! — “ “Oh, never mind!” snapped David. This was wasting time. He strode into the shop and marched down the central aisle, pushing shoppers aside and bawling at the top of his voice, “Mr. Mason! Mr. Mason, please! Urgent!” Eventually a man approached him near the back of the shop. “What is it, officer?” “Are you the manager, sir?”

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“Yes, what’s the matter? Caught another shoplifter?” “No, sir, I’m afraid it’s more serious than that. We had an anonymous tip-off that there’s a bomb been planted in this store. Animal Rights, I think; not sure. But one thing is certain, you must evacuate this store immediately.” Mason’s jaw dropped. “Clear the store? But it’s crowded.” “All the more reason to clear it. Do you want dozens of deaths on your conscience? Now get to your PA system and announce it. Now!” “But where is this bomb?” “I’ve got a bomb disposal squad on the way; they’ll find it. Now please hurry — it could go off at any time!” Thoroughly convinced by David’s sergeant’s uniform, his imposing presence and earnest manner, Mason scuttled to his little office and grabbed the microphone. “Attention, attention, everybody! This is a staff and customer announcement. There is a bomb scare and you are asked to leave the premises immediately. Immediately! Staff will follow emergency procedure. I repeat: everyone must leave the store immediately!” There was stunned silence for no more than two seconds, then a babble broke out as people hurried to escape. “Well done, sir,” murmured David to the manager, “Now you and I had better leave when we are sure the store is empty.” Between them they quickly scanned the aisles and made sure the store housed no lingering people, then went past the silent checkouts to join the excited crowd outside in the street. “Clear the area!” shouted David, waving his arms furiously at the nearest bystanders who were gaping into the window, “Everybody back!” It isn’t safe here.” He looked over to his left, where he saw that Norman Newcombe was already shepherding people efficiently. Where’s the van, he muttered mentally, Where’s the van? “Back, please! Back!” The van rounded the corner and screeched to a halt outside the front door. Out sprang the two soldiers, each grabbing a bag and approached David. “Captain Mulligan, Bomb Squad,” said Lucas Doyle, “Any idea where the bomb is exactly?” “‘Fraid not,” replied David, “We’ll leave it to you.” In went the soldiers. David saw Mason hovering anxiously, too near the door. “Now, then, Mr. Mason, you know you can’t do any good in there. For your own safety, please keep well back. I want a hundred yard gap at least.” And with shouting, cajoling, and a little pushing, David manoeuvred the crowd away from the store. Feel like a bally sheep-dog, he thought, Wonder how the lads are getting on in there . . . Just then a loud bang was heard, followed by gasps and small cries from the crowd. Mason started to move forward again. “Hold it, sir! Hold it! There could be more than one device. Wait till the experts give the all-clear.” The white vapour came into view now. David didn’t think it looked entirely convincing as smoke, but at least it rendered the inside of the shop invisible. There was nothing to do now but wait. Minutes passed, and David looked anxiously at his watch. Good Lord, only ten past seven. It had seemed like an hour. Better not look at my watch again, it could look suspicious. At last the soldiers emerged and David hurried to meet them, Mason at his heels. “Ah, sergeant,” said Doyle, “everything’s all right. We have detonated one bomb, and disarmed the other. But that smoke’s pretty toxic. No-one had better go in till it’s cleared. This the manager? Give it ten minutes at least, sir, before you or anyone else goes in, OK? Hope we haven’t done too much damage.” Doyle saluted and made off with his companion, carrying the bags to the van which they then started up and drove away round the corner. Now for the escape. David walked over to Norman Newcombe and said, “Right, Smith. With me, now.” They sauntered casually to the edge of the crowd, pushed through, and made their way round the corner to the waiting van. Into the back and away they went. David and Norman flopped down on the seat and both let out enormous breaths. “OK, everybody?” shouted David to the two in front and got a cheerful wave of the hand. He looked at his watch. Twenty-two minutes past seven. Not bad, not bad at all. Now for Notting Hill. The Notting Hill operation went much easier. David felt more confident now and had little or no trouble. With superb luck he found the manager talking to the first check-out girl and there was no demur or delay in getting the announcement made and the store cleared. He chuckled wryly as he saw three people grabbing goods on the way out. Typical, he thought, but who are we to moralise?

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When the affair was complete and they were on their way to his office, David already thought that the whole thing seemed like a dream. The others obviously didn’t feel like that as they chatted eagerly about the escapade. At about ten to eight the van slowed down and stopped outside the office in Barons Court Road where John was waiting for them. “Hello, David,” he greeted, “you’re not the first. How did it go?” “Fine, fine. Who beat us to it?” “The Streatham/Wandsworth crowd. Something went wrong.” “What do you mean?” “One of the bombs didn’t go off or something. I don’t know much about it.” David followed the booty-bearing impostors upstairs, greeted Ruby and turned to his companions. “Well done, chaps; well done indeed. Now off you go — see you Monday.” “Ahem, Sergeant Stoner,” interposed Ruby before the men could move, “are you going home dressed like that?” He had forgotten to change his clothes! Chuckling, the three men went down to the van so that David could change in the back. Five minutes later he returned. “I don’t think your safe is going to hold all the money by the time it all comes in,” said Ruby, “so what we’ll do is simply lay it all out on the floor in your room for the time being, and count it later. Meanwhile I’m attaching labels to everything so we can see how much each party makes.” “Good idea,” said David, “and now I could do with a nice strong cup of tea.” He had just felt his knees beginning to buckle, One hour later all the vans had reported in and dumped their takings, except the Lewisham/Deptford contingent. Kevin and David began to get worried. “What do you think has happened?” asked David. “God knows,” said Kevin, “they could have been caught, perhaps, or the traffic is bad, maybe.” “At this time of night, with all these travel restrictions?” “Well, road works maybe, or a diversion.” David shook his head. “Do you think they have made off with the money?” “Never thought of that. Surely it wouldn’t be worth their while for the sum involved: they know they’d never work for us again. Anyway, they’re good people; I trust them. Mike Priestley is one of them, and this whole thing was his idea originally, remember.” “They’ve been caught, then. Oh dear.” “Stop worrying, give them time.” “They’ve had time!” “Ruby, could we have some more tea, perhaps?” They drank tea in silence, each worrying in his own way. At a quarter to ten the missing robbers arrived, looking weary but triumphant. “Here you are, boss,” said Mike Priestley, dumping his bag on the floor, “All done.” “What the hell happened?” demanded Kevin. “Bloody van broke down in Peckham. Engine just petered out. Plenty of petrol showing. We tried to fix it but couldn’t.” “So what then?” “Well, we needed a garage but the problem was we didn’t know the area.” “So what did you do?” Mike grinned. “Asked a policeman.” “What!” “Why not? This copper strolled up and asked what was the matter. When we told him we had to get back to barracks by ten he got all helpful. Phoned his station on his radio and they looked up a garage that was open and sent a truck round.” “Didn’t anyone spot the people in the back?” “No, we told them to keep quiet and they did. The truck towed us to the garage and they fixed it there. Loose manifold or something.” “Didn’t they want paying? Did they demand an address?” “No problem,” said Mike cheerfully, “I took the cash out of the sack. Here’s the receipt — forty-two pounds something.” The two organisers looked at each other and back at Priestley, then all three burst out laughing. “All’s well that ends well,” said Kevin, “See you Monday.”

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Chapter 10 Naked truth
WHEN JOHN RETURNED HOME on the evening of the supermarket robbery he was surprised not to see Angie waiting for him. Glancing round he saw that she was on the bed asleep. “Angie, I’m home!” he called, but got no reply. He moved to the bed and shook her gently, then with increasing force as she did not respond. He stopped as a dreadful thought struck him, and slowly his gaze moved round to the bedside table. On it was a glass half-full of water, and an aspirin bottle, half-empty. John went white and his head swam for a moment. He grasped the unconscious girl with both arms and shook her vigorously. “Angie, Angie!” he screamed, “Wake up! Please wake up!” No result. He paced the floor. “Oh God, oh God, what shall I do?” he mumbled, then realised he was panicking. Steady, steady, John, you have to help her, One more try. He shook her again and slapped her face. “Angie, Angie!” This time there was a reaction. She murmured, “What, what . . .” He breathed more deeply than he had ever done. “Thank God, darling, you’re still — “ He could not bring himself to say the word. But she slumped back in his arms, silent again. Something had to be done. Grasping the glass of water, he splashed it over her face. This time she opened her eyes and stared unknowingly at him. He hugged her to him and took another deep breath. “Angie, stay awake! Stay awake, do you hear me?” He pulled her upright somehow and leaned her against the wall. Should he call an ambulance? He knew she wouldn’t like that, so decided to try something else first. He opened the window to let fresh air in, and moved to the kitchen where he put a kettle on to boil. For the next five minutes he talked to her, shook her, kissed her, shook her again, and kept her on the verge of consciousness until he could make hot black coffee which he made her sip somehow. Gradually she came awake and he began to relax as the awful knot in his stomach slowly loosened its grip. She continued to drink the coffee herself, looking at John all the while with trusting blue eyes. Ten minutes later she was awake enough to talk. “Oh, John, I’m so sorry. Did I scare you?” “Only out of my skin. You weren’t . . .” “No, darling, I wasn’t trying to kill myself. But I got the shakes so bad, and with you not here to comfort me, I just needed something to stop the nightmare. I thought the aspirins would knock me out enough to dull the pain . . .” “How many did you take?” “Ten, fifteen . . . I don’t know.” “God, Angie, you could have killed yourself. Don’t ever do that again, promise me.” “I promise. I feel better now you’re here.” They talked for an hour. John made her keep drinking and going to the toilet until he felt that some of the drug was out of her system. He then decided it was safe to let her sleep till morning. As he got in bed beside her he fiercely determined that Rowntree was going to pay for his part in the affair, however long it took. Next morning John was supposed to report at the office to help Ruby count the money but he phoned in and explained what had happened with Angie. Ruby immediately told him not to let Angie out of his sight all weekend and suggested taking her out in the park or something similar. He agreed with this and took her to Kew Gardens on Saturday and Hampstead Heath on Sunday. As the young couple walked and talked they came to believe that Angela was over the worst now and that the road to recovery was before her. This was truer than they both knew, for youth was on her side, aided by the power of love, and indeed in a month’s time they would know that she was cured of her dangerous addiction. Meanwhile they cuddled and comforted each other and John continued to marvel at the force of the emotions he had experienced in the last few weeks. In every sense he began to feel like a new man. DAVID AND KEVIN TURNED UP at ten o’clock on the Saturday to meet Ruby as arranged, both bearing a newspaper to show each other. “Look at this one,” said Kevin, spreading out the Daily Telegraph, “We’ve hit the front page here.” Together they read the news item, second only to the headline “Gorbachev in secret visit to China”: SUPERMARKET CHAIN HIT BY THIEVES
A daring series of robberies took place last night in London as virtually every store in the Bestsave supermarket chain was robbed of its takings by the same ingenious method. In each case a bomb scare was reported and the building evacuated whilst bogus army experts entered to defuse the bomb. Under cover of smoke they opened the tills with

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duplicate keys and made off with the cash. They were assisted in these manoeuvres by fake police who kept curious onlookers at bay whilst the robbers made their escape. Bestsave’s general manager, Mr. Ronald Yates, said last night that he was puzzled why his company had been singled out for these attacks. “Someone must have a grudge against us,” he is reported to have said.

And the item went on to list the branches hit. David said, “The Times doesn’t seem to have got round to it yet, nor most of the other papers, so I bought a copy of The Sun. Look at this.” The Sun was rather more sensational. Its banner headline read: COPS TURN ROBBERS THE GREAT SUPERMARKET SCAM
Bestsave stores suffered their greatest loss leader ever last night as robbers lifted the till contents of twelve of their fourteen London branches. Men dressed as police pretended that bombs were planted in the stores and persuaded managers to empty the shops of customers. Bogus bomb experts in army uniform then entered the premises and stole money from the tills under cover of smoke they created themselves. The copycat nature of the robberies indicates a clever gang operating under some mastermind. Police, who deny all knowledge of the operation, are on the lookout today as rueful store managers count their losses.

“The Sunday papers will all be full of it, no doubt,” said Ruby, “but meanwhile, gentlemen, we’re here to count some money. The doors are locked, so we won’t be disturbed. Shall we begin?” “What sort of total were you expecting, David?” asked Kevin. “It’s difficult to be exact,” said David, “but I calculated roughly seven thousand per store, so that’s twelve times seven: eighty-four thousand if we’re lucky. But supermarket tills get emptied by the manager two or three times during the day, so it all depends on when the last clearout took place. The amounts are bound to vary.” Just over two hours later the count was finished, a total of £76,345. The Battersea takings were small, implying that the regular clearout had taken place not long before the robbery. As much of the money as possible went into the safe, and the rest was locked in various cupboards. They chuckled when Ruby hoped that the office wouldn’t be burgled over the weekend. “Was everything all right at your end?” David asked Kevin. “Yep. I looked in earlier this morning to make sure. All costumes were checked in, and vans returned. I mentioned the van repair and the Transport manager apologised. As far as BBC are concerned, we were shooting film yesterday.” David went off to Fulham at the end of the morning. He wanted to spend more time with Jessica now, and decided to treat her to a shopping spree now that his finances felt more secure. He caught her in a state of alarm as he had never visited her so early in the day before, and she was only just back from her salon job. However, she made him some lunch and was delighted when he explained his intentions. After lunch they took a taxi to Oxford Street and he trailed happily after her as she took him through some of the expensive dress shops. It was fortunate they didn’t run into Rachel and Linda who were on an exactly similar errand in the same area. When the Stoners finally met late that evening they had little to say to each other. But each wondered why the other seemed so contented. MONDAY MORNING FOUND THE EXACTORS assembled for their debriefing as arranged. The atmosphere was lively, with conversation and laughter everywhere. Word was even going round that a new romance had sprung up between the lighting gaffer and one of the more attractive actresses after their enforced confinement in the van. Kevin called the meeting to order. “Morning, everybody. Did you enjoy it?” “YES!” they roared back. “Well,” continued Kevin, “we think it was a great success. We didn’t take quite as much money as we hoped, but the main thing is that nobody got caught, and the papers are buzzing with it. BBC News reported it fully, little suspecting how much Auntie had helped in the job.” Laughter. “There were two stores where we got nothing. Streatham and Wandsworth had bomb trouble. Would somebody like to tell us about it?”

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“Yes, I can.” This was a cameraman. “Quite simple. When we were in at Streatham the smoke-bomb failed to go off, so we had to use the other one. We did the job all right, but it meant we had to scrap Wandsworth and go straight home.” “Did you pull the string smartly as I said?” asked Mike Priestley. “Yes. Tugged at it several times. It was a dud.” “Hmm,” said Mike, his pride hurt, and rubbed his chin. He knew he should have thought of providing spares for this very emergency. “Then there was Golders Green: the keys didn’t fit,” went on Kevin, “You know, we were jolly lucky to fit so many locks as we did. Apparently they had gone over to a new pattern of checkout machine there and that was that. So all told we only hit twelve stores properly. Anybody else have problems anywhere?” One or two actors spoke up. At West Ham a football supporter complete with scarf had got drunk a day too early and refused to leave the store’s drinks section, so had to be carried out bodily. The Shoreditch people couldn’t find the manager and got a bit panicky until they found him in the back warehouse cuddling one of his staff. He was so embarrassed that he then cleared the store in record time. And at Notting Hill an amorous dog chased a bitch into the store in the middle of operations and nearly knocked the bomb-bag over. Obviously nothing serious. Not one party reported seeing police, except for Mike Priestley, who once again related how the police had helped them get the broken-down van running. When this discussion had ended, David took the floor. “In retrospect, we needn’t really have bothered with the planted briefcase. The appearance of the police and bomb squad would have been enough. But we learn as we go along.” Mark Glover called out, “There was another flaw you didn’t notice. The manager was supposed to keep the crowd out for ten minutes after we’d left. Now why was that again?” “Because the smoke was supposed to be toxic.” “Exactly. So how come the soldiers didn’t wear gas-masks?” David hadn’t thought of that, but replied quickly, “They might have done, for all anyone knew. They couldn’t be seen, remember. You certainly have a point, though, Mark. We got by because it didn’t occur to anyone else at the time.” A small hum of conversation elapsed before David resumed. “Now for the best part. You’re all wondering how much money we made. Allowing for expenses to be deducted, it was £76,000. That’s a little under £2000 each for most of us. Well done, everybody.” When the applause had died down, Kevin spoke again. “David and I think that in view of our healthy financial situation and the time of year, we should call a truce till the middle of September so that those who want to can take a holiday. So don’t expect anything for a while. Don’t ring us — “ “We’ll ring you!” chorused the audience. “However,” he continued, “I have to produce something for Auntie to justify the expenditure and costumes so far. So very shortly I’ll be coming to some of you for some TV work. If you’d rather not be considered, leave your name with Ruby before you go.” “One more thing,” announced David, “that doesn’t stop any of you from further, er . . jobs in the meantime, if you can cook up something satisfactory between yourselves. But if you do, remember one thing.” He paused solemnly. “If you get caught, it’s nothing to do with the Exactors.” DAVID DECIDED TO PUT OFF holiday plans for a while, mainly because he wasn’t sure whether to take Jessica or Rachel, or even go by himself, though he didn’t know how he would face his wife if he didn’t include her. In the end he decided to get out more, move around a bit, and play some more golf. He had enjoyed his round with John and felt the lad needed encouragement. So he invited John to have a twice-weekly game with him, on similar terms to before. John was very ready to agree, and came to an arrangement with Ruby that he and she would take time off alternately, for it needed only one of them to man the office for the rest of the summer. Accordingly the pair played regularly for some weeks, sometimes on their own, sometimes playing as partners against two other men, and always with a strengthening of their friendship. It wasn’t long before John was playing to an unofficial handicap of fourteen, rather better than David’s rusty twenty-one. They never bumped into Rachel and Linda, who were playing on different days: for that matter David never told Rachel he was playing golf; he preferred her to think he was working every afternoon, so that he could visit Jessica when he wanted to. But the day came when the two Stoners were indeed on the Wimbledon Park course at the same time. It was a hot, sultry day in mid-August, and the dry fairways were perfect for golf. When David arrived at the office, earlier than usual, he decided he was not needed there so promptly invited John to

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a morning game. By the time they reached Wimbledon Park the course was full of players and the small queue of others waiting to drive off meant that they didn’t start before ten-thirty. Up ahead, Rachel and Linda were playing the fifth hole as John drove off on the first tee. An hour later, a few rumbles of thunder were heard not far away. This was disturbing because a golf course can be a dangerous place in a thunderstorm, the metal golf clubs and umbrella spikes being particularly inviting to lightning seeking the earth. However, most golfers continued with their game, hoping the storm would give them a miss. In vain, though, because suddenly a lurid flash was followed by a tremendous thunderclap three seconds later. Rachel looked at Linda, worried. “What shall we do?” she asked. Linda looked at a nearby copse. “It’s only a couple of hundred yards to the clubhouse if we cut through the trees. The storm isn’t on us yet.” The women hurried to the clubhouse and put away their clubs. “Let’s get to the house quickly,” suggested Rachel, “We don’t want to be stuck here when the rain comes down. It could go on for hours, and we’ve no waterproofs.” So out of the drive and across the road it was. On the far side of the course David and John, like many other golfers, were too far from the clubhouse to think of making it. They soldiered on amid various thunderclaps for ten minutes until a sheet of rain descended on them and they dashed for cover under a large elm tree. “Shouldn’t shelter under trees in a thunderstorm, really,” advised David, “but let’s see how it turns out.” They sheltered for some fifteen minutes until the rain eased off a little, then played a couple more holes in the wet until the clubhouse came into view. “We’re never going to finish the round, and we’re both soaking,” said John, “let’s walk in.” David agreed and the two walked as far as the entrance road which led to the clubhouse. “Tell you what,” said David, “The changing room will be crowded. It’s hardly any farther to my house than to the clubhouse, and the shower’s better there. You can change into some of my old clothes. Let’s dump our clubs and go straight over for a shower, then we’ll have a nice cup of tea and you can pick your gear up from the club later.” Three minutes later they were in the house. “Rachel!” called out David, and got no reply. “She’s out, then. Come straight up; you can change in the bedroom. This way.” David led John up the staircase, along the top landing and opened the bedroom door. What he saw caused him to stand stock still, more puzzled than surprised, for there was a woman in the marital bed. He might have thought it was Rachel having a nap except that he knew Rachel’s hair was not auburn. “What the — “ he uttered, causing the red-haired woman to sit half up, startled. “Oh, my God,” she drawled, “the jealous husband.” He was still nonplussed. Nothing made sense. “Linda — Linda Martin?” It was. And now he noticed a curious hump beside her. Good God, it was a human bottom! “Who the hell’s that?” he demanded, and strode farther into the room. After some wriggling motions the sheets were pushed back and the shamefaced wife emerged. This was too much. “Rachel?” He could hardly whisper it. “Rachel? What’s going on?” “Well, what do you think?” said Linda sourly, “You can’t make your wife happy: I can.” John was by now standing in the room, unable to resist his curiosity. The row of four breasts made it clear to him, after a few seconds, what had been going on. “Brought your friends, have you?” said Rachel, “why don’t you invite the whole neighbourhood in?” “I’m sorry,” said John quickly, “but David invited me to have a shower, and — “ “John,” said David, “You are a witness to this pretty little scene. Remember that. Now I suggest you wait downstairs. Or go and have a shower first if you like — through there.” John, dripping wet, decided to take the second option, and found his way to the bathroom. “I’ve nothing to say to you, Rachel,” said David, “ that won’t keep. Now get that dyke out of here!” He opened the main wardrobe, fished out some clothes for himself and John, and stalked out of the room. The crestfallen women got out of bed and began to dress, conversing in low tones. “I didn’t expect David home, he usually works in the mornings,” said Rachel. “It was bound to happen one day. Did you notice they were wearing golf sweaters? I bet they were on the course, too.” “I didn’t even know David was playing golf these days. But, Linda, the thing is, I can hardly go for a divorce now, can I? What am I going to do? If David divorces me I shan’t have a penny.” And she began to sniff.

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“Don’t worry, darling, it may not come to that.” “But if he doesn’t want a divorce he’s bound to make me promise to give you up. Oh Linda, I can’t do that!” “You won’t have to. I was on the verge of filing against Alastair. This settles it. I shall definitely divorce him now, and as soon as that’s out of the way, you can move in with me.” Rachel looked doubtful. What would they live on? Whilst she was under this roof she had the good life. If only one could have one’s cake and eat it . . . Linda looked gloomy. She knew she now had an enemy.

Chapter 11

More plans

IT WAS SEVERAL HOURS before David confronted Rachel. After showering and changing he had taken John across to the clubhouse for a gloomy lunch, during which David kept snorting and John did not know what to say, so held his peace. After lunch he was despatched off home and so took his leave with relief. David drank several whiskies at the bar before returning home, where he found Rachel in the lounge nervously fiddling with her nails and pretending to read. This must be sorted out. “So how long has this been going on?” he almost shouted. “Now David, please don’t make a scene. Sit down and let’s talk like adults.” “How long?” “Only a week or two. We didn’t plan it. It just . . .” “Happened! I know all the standard excuses.” “It wasn’t like that. I was lonely and Linda had been so good for me. We both seemed to want it at the same time. I know you won’t understand; I hardly understand it myself. But we — we love each other and that’s that.” “Love! You always said you loved me! What hurt the most was hearing that woman say she made you happy and I couldn’t. Haven’t I always shown you love? Who was it refused me sex last month? And now this!” “I can understand you feeling hurt, David. I know I’ve been a right cow to you, but only in bed. I thought you knew why: it’s not you personally, it would be the same with any man.” This was small comfort to David. “So I lose out to a two-bit actress!” “That’s not fair — she isn’t two-bit and you know it. And she’d have a job if you’d find her one.” “This is serious, Rachel. I shall have to think about divorce.” She stared at him. “That doesn’t come well from you, sweetheart. Is that so you can marry your mistress?” “What mistress?” “Come off it. I’ve known for ages.” “Known? What do you know? There’s nothing to know.” “Oh yes, there is. You can’t hide a thing like that. What’s her name?” He felt a small relief. She didn’t know everything, then. He saw no harm in telling her the name. “Jessica.” “Jessica! Gone for another biblical name, then. Is she pretty?” “What does it matter if she’s pretty? The main thing is she loves me — and she’s good to me.” “That means sex, I suppose.” “You can hardly blame me.” “David, I wouldn’t even mind that, but tell me you don’t love her.” Was she asking this from jealousy or fear? Neither of them knew the answer. “I’m extremely fond of her, and now this has happened, I’d rather face life with her from now on.” “Do you mean you’re moving out?” “No; it means you are.” Rachel’s throat tightened. “But you’re better off with me. Look, stay with me, we can live our separate love lives, but we mustn’t split up!” He stared. “Why not? I don’t want to go on living this farce.” “But surely she can’t offer you anything but sex?” “Oh, can’t she?” He was raising his voice. “She can give me the one thing you can’t, or won’t!” “What’s that?” “A child! She’s pregnant!” he roared. It was out now. Rachel drew breath after breath, almost hyperventilating before she could speak. “A child?” she whispered, “pregnant?”

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“Yes, pregnant,” said David, and added sarcastically, “It’s what happens when a woman lets a man make love to her properly.” “I can’t believe it.” Rachel was still whispering. “You’d better believe it, because some time in February I’m going to be a father.” “Oh God . . . Oh God . . .” She began to weep, quietly at first, then with more intensity. David began to feel pity for her. He had always half understood her curious phobia, though he had never liked it. “You brought it on yourself,” he said. This tactless remark led to a worse fit of crying, and David dimly realised that the whiskies had not been such a good idea. However, it was done now. What next? Firmly rejecting the notion of putting his arms round her, he turned and left the room. WHEN LINDA LEFT THE STONERS she went home, phoned a solicitor and made an appointment for later that afternoon. She was determined that her liaison with Rachel would continue, and she didn’t want David to win a divorce because of his bedroom discovery: this would probably deprive Rachel of her share in the house and other property. The meeting with the solicitor was brief and to the point, unlike the bill that would follow. The law did not regard a homosexual relationship as adultery, and no matter how flagrante the delicto had been, there had been no penetration and that was that. However, since the current climate of both public and legal opinion now regarded gay and lesbian relationships as virtually as valid as normal ones, one could never be sure that a judge might not establish a precedent by granting a divorce on such grounds as the present case, in fact it would surely happen sooner or later. This advice left enough doubt in Linda’s mind to lead her to the conclusion that it was now essential to track down and identify David’s mistress so that Rachel could file for divorce. From now on she and Rachel would have to redouble their efforts in that direction. NEXT DAY DAVID CALLED IN to his office, more to get away from Rachel than to look for business. He sat behind his desk, wondering morosely whether to tell Ruby about it, when John knocked and walked in. “Ah, John, is it about yesterday? I’m sorry you got catapulted into my private affairs, though in a way I’m glad you were there as a witness.” “No, it’s about something else. This landlord of mine who supplies drugs. Remember?” “Yes, I suppose we ought to do something about him. But I haven’t had time to think about it yet.” “But I have,” went on the young man eagerly,” and something’s happened that might give us a lead.” “Go on.” “You see, Angela has decided to kick the habit, and I think she’s just about succeeded; it’s been weeks since she took any cocaine. But her supplier has been looking for her, making enquiries, I think; anyway he tried to accost her across the street yesterday, but she pretended not to see him.” “Her supplier? Is this your landlord?” “No, it’s a youth, we don’t know his name. Rowntree supplies him — and we guess, a lot of other pushers in the district.” “How does all this help?” “Well, all last night I was thinking of a way to trap this lad into getting information out of him.” “How?” “I think we can do it, with help from Kevin Bestwick. If he would lend us a camera which we could hide in my flat, we then get this youth to call on us, pretending Angie wants the junk but is too ill to come out for it. We film him handing over the coke and then we’ve got him. What do you think?” “Candid Camera stuff, eh?” “What do you mean, candid?” asked John. “Never mind. It might work. One or two things to get straight. Where did Angie used to meet this guy?” “On a street corner. Bit of an alley, really. But if we can get word to him to come to Angie he’d probably do it because he wants the trade. He used to get twenty-five pounds a time from her.” “So how do you make sure he gets into the flat?” “I drop a note to him asking him to call with the stuff. I don’t think he knows me; perhaps doesn’t matter even if he does. We leave the door unlocked or ajar. She’ll be in bed, and calls him over to her to do the deal. The hidden camera will be focussed on the bed, and of course we have a tape-recorder as well.” “Sounds good so far. Are you afraid he might try to take advantage of a lonely female in bed?” “I’ll be behind the kitchen door. Nothing to worry about there.”

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“You realise to make this stick she’ll have to actually hand over the money and take the coke?” “I suppose so. But the point is, we’ll than have a handle on this lad. We threaten exposure unless he tells us the time and place of his next meeting with Rowntree, when the supplies will change hands.” “What good would that do?” “We repeat the trick somehow. I mean, we film him doing it.” “Hmm. Needs a bit more thought there . . . OK, we’re halfway there, leave it with me. I’ll do what I possibly can.” John left the room, pleased with this progress, and David sat a while thinking. He was glad to help his young friend, and this would stop him brooding about Rachel. Anyway, what was there to brood about? His course of action was clear, and he would go to see a solicitor as soon as he found time. Meanwhile . . . But try as he may, his mind kept wandering away from John’s problem to his own love life, and in the end he decided to spend the rest of the day with Jessica. She would surely be glad to see him — twice a week was never enough in the past, surely — so round to Fulham he would go. He had already renewed the rent there when Jessica had told him of the pregnancy. ONCE THERE, HE LET HIMSELF IN and called out his mistress’ name. No answer, so he wandered round the flat, admiring the spick and span way she kept it. Tastefully furnished lounge with hi-fi and TV, well-appointed kitchen and utility room, main bedroom (plenty of frilly drapes and flower pictures here), small spare bedroom and large bathroom with attached toilet. He wondered if it would ever come to his moving in here. But where was Jessica? He sat in the lounge and fingered a magazine for a few moments, then switched on the TV and watched BBC1 for a while. A black-and-white film from the thirties. BBC2: Open University. Channel 3: commercial break. Channel 4: a discussion group about lesbianism, of all things. Impatiently he switched the set off, then looked at his watch. Nearly twelve. Where was she? Out shopping, presumably. He decided to walk around for a little, so left the flat and wandered along the road and round the corner. A small restaurant caught his eye so he decided to have an early light lunch. One omelette with salad and two beers later, he walked back towards the flat, catching sight of Jessica letting herself in. He hurried his steps but she was inside before he could reach her. A few moments later he had let himself in a second time. “Why, David, darling!” she cried, “What a surprise — you never come so early. welcome anyway. Can I get you something to eat?” “No thanks, I’ve had something. But I was here earlier and you were out.” He looked at her quizzically. “Oh, just popped out to the shops for a few things,” she answered lightly. Funny, thought David, I could have sworn she only had a handbag when she came in now. “What did you buy?” “Oh, just a few groceries. I’ve put them in the kitchen.” “Sit down, sweetheart,” he said, “I’ve something to tell you.” Her heart dropped a beat. Was this the end? “I’ve decided to divorce Rachel.” “David! Are you sure?” “Pretty sure. Rachel has overstepped the mark.” And he told his all but incredulous paramour about his bedroom discovery. When he had finished she flung her arms round his neck and babbled ecstatically about the future, gradually leading the talk around to the question of ultimate accommodation. Would Rachel be leaving the Stoner home? Where were the new couple to live? “Steady on, love,” protested David, “there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge yet. The first thing is to get the divorce going. I’ll be going to my lawyer this week. We need to put Rachel in the wrong over this; if she can prove my adultery with you it may be difficult to get her out of the house.” He stayed in the flat for most of the day, discussing the probables and maybes of the situation, until it was time for tea and bed as usual. During the lovemaking his body shuddered in ecstasy at the physical congress, but his mind was churning. Rachel and Linda, Rachel and Linda, Rachel and Linda! Why the hell did she go for a woman? For the rest of the day, nothing was farther from his mind than John’s drug-dealer problem. At ten o’clock Jessica started to get worried, and suggested that it was perhaps time for him to make tracks home. Dismay crossed her face when David announced that he would stay the night. “But, darling, you always go home.” she said anxiously. “Not tonight,” he replied, “what is there to go home for? I’d rather be with you. Besides, it’s not very far to the office from here.”

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“But you’ve no toothbrush or pyjamas.” “Jessica! What do I need with them? I can always buy some tomorrow.” The thought of David staying continuously panicked Jessica: surely he would now discover her secret. She would have to make the best of it somehow. “Of course, darling.” So stay he did, and showed no sign next morning of rushing away. Biting her tongue lest she appeared to hurry him, Jessica made conversation until at last he departed for his office. Nine fifteen! She quickly changed into her working clothes, peered out of the window to make sure he was well away, and rushed out looking for a taxi. She would have to pretend at the beauty salon that she had overslept. When David walked round the corner towards his office he did not see the woman sitting in a nearby café‚ who had been waiting and watching for half an hour. Her breakfast stood nearly untouched, but she nodded to herself when her quarry appeared. She could eat for a while, now she knew he was at work. AT THE OFFICE RUBY GREETED DAVID with a smile. “Good news. Ronald Yates rang up first thing from Beeb Two. They’re doing a new production of Kidnapped and they want us to supply the cast, subject to approval. There’s a messenger on his way now with a list of requirements.” “Excellent,” said David, “we’ll go through the books as soon as he’s here. We want a lot of Scots, or good dialect people. We won’t bring any Exactors into this; they’re already being paid, and anyway we’ve given them a holiday.” I could do with a holiday myself, he thought. Ten minutes later the messenger arrived, and Ruby promptly ensconced herself in David’s office whilst they considered the cast list, sifting through folders and selecting the most likely candidates. Every so often she would call out to John in the outer office for another file. By the time they had selected their cast and made numerous phone calls the morning was gone. David made a couple of phone calls of his own, made an announcement to his staff, then left for Jessica’s flat. He decided to walk back as it was under a mile, so he set out south, calling in at his favourite pub The Feathers for lunch. He sat down in the restaurant section and ordered cottage pie, unaware of the woman in dark glasses and headscarf who had followed him, and who now sat across in the other bar keeping a careful eye on him as he ate. When he had entered Jessica’s flat the woman, forty yards away, strolled past the house, noted the number, wrote down the address in her diary and then turned away, satisfied. Jessica greeted her lover with an effusiveness which covered a slight panic: she had only just made it home in time again; and was he going to stay overnight once more? “How lovely to see you, darling!” After a few minutes’ chat David sprang his surprise. “You’ve always said you’d love to spend more time with me,” he said, “and now you can. I’ve booked us a fortnight’s holiday in Jersey.” She did not know what to say. Holiday? What about the salon? How could she take time off? Would she lose her job? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if she and David were to marry . . . “Jess?” “Sorry, love, I was thinking how wonderful it would be.” He beamed. “It’s a four-star hotel in St. Helier, right on the seafront. We’ll be able to walk, swim, dance, whatever you want. Or we could just laze around and really get to know each other at last.” “Lovely. When?” “We fly this Monday from Heathrow.” “Monday! But it’s Friday now! That’s not much time.” How could she get away from work? Would she just tell them she was taking a holiday? Oh well . . . “What time do you need? If you need to buy anything, we’ll get it in Jersey.” “Will you have time to get ready?” “Of course. I’ll just pack a few things. I’m just happy to be with you.” They discussed details for a while, and spent the rest of the afternoon as usual. David went off eventually, explaining that he wanted to keep an eye on Rachel over the weekend. Jessica found that a little peculiar, but didn’t argue. Neither of them noticed that David had quite forgotten to contact his lawyer. RACHEL ANSWERED THE PHONE. “It’s me,” said the voice, “I’ve tracked her down. Followed him to her place. Got the address, then went to the public library and looked through the electoral roll. She’s Jessica Reynolds, 12a Tournay Road, Fulham. We’ve got him.” “Well done,” said Rachel, “ but we need to prove he’s gone to bed with her. How do we do that?” “All in good time, honey. That’s Step One. We’ll catch him, never fear.”

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RUBY AND JOHN had been taken aback by David’s decision to take a holiday, leaving them in charge of the Kidnapped project, and agreed that both should man the office for a few more days. “Not like David at all,” said Ruby, shaking her head, “but I guess we can handle this affair. It’s nearly wrapped up, anyway.” John was unhappy about something else. “Ruby, he promised to help me deal with my landlord. Now he’s off for two weeks. Something must be done quickly if I’m to catch this lad.” “What lad?” So he explained the preliminary part of his plan. Ruby listened, then said, “Kevin might help you. Let me have a word with him.” THAT EVENING ANGELA could get little sense out of John as he brooded over his thwarted revenge, and soon she left him to his own devices. Next day he went out on a visit to his old workplace the local supermarket. Pity it’s not a Bestsave, he thought, Roberts would have deserved that. Slowly he walked round to the back of the store, into the alley which served the loading bay. After carefully surveying the immediate surroundings he walked further up the alley and discovered a narrow passage which led out on to the next street. Thoughtfully he completed the circuit and returned home.

Chapter 12

Italian opera

JOHN SAT DOWN in Kevin Bestwick’s office. “Now,” said Kevin, “Ruby has twisted my arm to see you, though I’m very busy just now. What’s it all about?” John explained the situation with Rowntree, and outlined his plan to trap the anonymous young pusher, which would lead them to his next meeting with Rowntree. “All right so far,” said the producer, “and then I suppose we use cameras again to film the meeting and handover of the drug.” “That’s what I was thinking,” said John, “and then we could use that film to show the police.” “Hmm . . . and when the police see this film, how does anyone prove that what they see on the screen is drugs?” John was appalled. He had slipped up again! Hadn’t he learned from his abortive visit to the local police? “Oh God,” he groaned, “I didn’t think of that. So it’s all a waste if time.” “Not necessarily. There could be a way of getting money out of him: that’s what the Exactors are for. Let’s have a think.” For the next twenty minutes the two talked round the subject and finally agreed on a plan, largely based on a further idea of John’s. Kevin chuckled. “This is so good, I wouldn’t mind suspending what I’m doing for a bit. Perhaps I won’t even need to. We want, what, five or six actors plus the cameraman. The hardest thing will be the placing of the camera. Ideally it should be in the supermarket loading bay, but we’d never manage that without being seen.” “There’s a better way, I’m sure. The alley behind the loading bay backs on to a row of houses with a high fence. There’s a convenient hole in the fence just in the right spot. We get our cameraman behind the fence, and he could probably run the tape-recorder at the same time.” “I’d prefer a small recorder concealed on one of the actors; that would be sure to get the conversation. But how can we get the camera into the garden without the owner being suspicious?” “Easy enough. The police call on the owner and commandeer the garden as part of a hush-hush operation. They simply warn him to keep his mouth shut.” “Sounds good to me.” Kevin was beginning to respect the ingenuity of this young man. “There’s just one more thing. I’d like to take part in this operation myself.” “You? But this is a job for the Exactors. I thought that’s why you asked me.” “Yes, but I’m an actor, too — and I’m out of work. Well, no, I have a job, but it’s only temporary, and I mean to be an actor.” “I don’t care — “ “Please, Mr. Bestwick, this is important to me. This man is a villain, and he nearly ruined my girlfriend’s life. This whole thing is my idea, and mostly my scheme. But I do need your help. Can’t you give me a chance? If I muck it up I have only myself to blame.”

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Kevin now began to respect John’s nerve and determination. “All right, then, you can be one of the team. Let’s see — “ “I want the chief part.” “What?” “The drug baron. I want to face him myself and screw him myself.” Kevin could only stare at him. “But he knows you. It wouldn’t work for a moment.” “Look, I’m an actor. I know it will work. I just need a bit of help from your makeup people, and the right props. I can disguise my voice.” “All the same — “ John sprang up and scowled menacingly at the older man. “Get this, you scumbag,” he growled, “if you don’t take this offer you can kiss goodbye to your kneecaps! Well, what’s it to be?” Kevin’s jaw dropped a good four inches. He couldn’t believe the transformation. For a moment he had stared into the face of a much older man, whose threatening presence was enough to inspire fear in the bravest heart. And as for the voice . . . “Christ! Can you do that to order?” “Of course, boss. Anything you say, boss. I’ll do it!” This in a whining, coarse voice, which, if Kevin had only known it, was exactly like Rowntree’s. Again the face had changed completely, a sagging mouth and limp expression depicting yet another personality. “Jesus! You’ve got some talent there, son. We’ll have to keep an eye on you.” “Can I have the part?” “Can you have the part? Yes, by God, you can have the part. As you say, it’s your show anyway. I’m beginning to wish I could come along, just to watch you.” “Thanks a lot. I promise you I’m going to make this work.” They lost no time in making it work. John spent the rest of the day near his home, wandering the streets in the hope of catching sight of the young drug pusher. At half-past two, starving hungry, his persistence was rewarded as he rounded a corner and saw the lad lounging near a shop window. He walked up to him, nudged him and pushed a piece of paper into his hand. Five minutes later he was in a phone box making a call to Shepherd’s Bush, and then he returned belatedly to Stoner’s office to explain progress to Ruby. At half-past six John admitted Roger Wallace to his flat. The BBC engineer did a quick survey of the living room and nodded in satisfaction: a group of books on the sideboard made a perfect hiding place for the miniature videocamera. At ten to seven the two men retired to the kitchen, leaving the door slightly ajar, and Angela partly undressed, putting on a dressing gown. She unlocked the outer door, slipped into bed and waited. Just after seven a knock on the door brought a call of “Come in!” from Angela. The youth entered, looked round, and walked over to the bed. “So yer changed yer mind,” he said, “ere’s the stuff.” “Just a minute,” said Angela, trying to croak as if she had a bad cold, “what is it exactly?” “Eh? ‘Swhat you always ‘ave: coke, o’ course.” “Let me see.” And she manoeuvred the packet to make sure it was in full view of the camera. “Come on, twenty-five, you know that.” Angela reached under her pillow, drew out the money and handed it over, taking the small packet of cocaine. “Right!” she snapped. John stepped quickly out of the kitchen and pushed the door shut. His companion followed and loomed over the boy. “Right, lad,” he said, “you’re nicked.” The youth quickly darted towards the door but was no match for the two determined men. “Just hold him, John,” said Roger, “while I show him something.” And he pulled out the camera from its hidingplace. “Now this,” he went on, “is a complete recording of this little transaction. We have enough evidence here to put you away for a spell.” “Are you the fuzz?” asked the unhappy victim. “What do you think?” snarled Roger, “What’s your name, son?” “Les Missenden.” “Les Miserables, more like it!” Steady, thought John, you’re not a trained actor. Time to take over. “Can’t we give him another chance, officer?” he asked, “He has some information which could be useful.” “Go on.”

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“If he tells us when and where he next picks up his supplies, perhaps just a caution?” “Hear that, laddie? Got anything to tell us?” “I ain’t a squealer.” “Well, you’d better squeal this time, or it’s the nick for you.” “Promise you’ll do nothin’ if I tell yer?” “It’s a promise. Come on.” “I pick up the stuff every Wednesday, Snake Lane, back of the supermarket up the road.” “Who from?” “Don’t know his name.” “It’s Zach Rowntree, isn’t it?” said John, “I’ve seen you with him.” “All right, if you know that.” “Right then, said Roger, “What time?” “Two o’clock.” “We’ll be there. Now if you say a word to him or anybody else, the deal’s off. Is that clear?” “Yeah, yeah.” “One more thing. Empty your pockets.” “What for?” “You know what for: come on, get on with it!” Reluctantly Les produced half a dozen more packets of cocaine. “Now clear off.” Les the pusher cleared off. “Good God, can’t be more than sixteen,” said Roger. “Old enough to know better,” answered John. He was startled at that point to hear Angela burst out crying. “What is it, darling? Bit of a strain?” “Yes,” said Angela through her sobs, “but the worst of it is, once I got the stuff in my hands I was tempted again.” “Give that here,” said John savagely, and stalked towards the toilet with it. “Hang on!” cried Roger, “we need all the coke we can get.” JUST ABOUT TWO O’CLOCK on Wednesday Zach Rowntree strolled round to Les’ dropping place as usual. In his hand he carried a canvas bag with his ready-made-up packets of dope, concealed under some innocent-looking shopping. Les was waiting for him, trying to conceal his nerves. Rowntree looked carefully around, then brought out a package and handed it to Les, who passed over a wad of money. He turned to leave by the way he came, but stopped short as he was confronted by two men, both looking tough and menacing. “Right, Rowntree, we know all about you.” “What is this?” “It’s a little talk we’re going to have. That’s junk you passed over.” “Rubbish. Don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Like to show us what’s in your bag?” Rowntree’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly he turned and bolted the other way, towards the narrow exit, but found his path blocked by two more men who had suddenly appeared. He turned to face his first accuser, who, he noticed, was wearing smart clothes, a soft trilby and a silk tie. Looks sort of Italian, he thought. “Watcher want?” “Like I said, a little talk. You and I are going to do business.” Yes, there was a sort of dago accent there. “What business?” “Drugs business, my friend. Allow me to introduce myself: Gino Rossini — you can call me Gino. I’m taking over this patch, and in future you’ll be getting your stuff from me.” “What?” “I t’ink you heard me. I supply the junk round here, and if you don’t like it, too bad.” “No thanks, I’ve got a supplier, and he won’t be very pleased if I shop elsewhere.” “And who is your supplier?” “Come off it, I ain’t telling you that.” “Nick,” said Gino, and his companion promptly grasped Rowntree’s arm. Likewise one of the other men moved forward and took his other arm. Les took the opportunity to slip past Gino and made his escape. “Name?” asked Gino politely.

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Rowntree shook his head. Gino nodded, and Rowntree’s arm felt as if it would come right off his body. “Joe Abbott!” he screeched. Gino laughed. “Joe Abbott? We’ll take care of him. He crossed my path once before: he won’t do it again. Now you just listen. What stuff you pushing?” “Coke mostly,” gasped the dealer, still feeling the pain, “can’t get ‘orse except now and then.” “Coke, eh? Right, you get your first delivery this week — from me.” “Don’t need any yet. Aargh!” The arm had been twisted again. “I can let you have eight kilos. Price, ten grand to you.” Zach’s mind raced. Ten grand for eight kilos wasn’t bad, even if it wasn’t pure. He could make three times as much for it. But did he trust this man? “What is it, pure?” Gino laughed. “Not at that price, mister. This is cut ready for street sale.” Zach hesitated. There had to be a catch. “What if I say no?” Gino pushed his face right into Rowntree’s. He whispered softly, “Don’t say no.” Zach shuddered inwardly. Those were a killer’s eyes, he was sure. He’d better play along for now, but he would alert Joe Abbott and get some backup for the next meeting, if there was to be one. “I can’t get ten grand.” “Yes, you can. In cash. Twenties preferred.” “So what do we do?” “Simple. We meet here in two days, same time. You come alone, with the money. Then you get the goods. No argument.” Zach nodded. A promise was one thing, keeping it was another. Perhaps with a bit more help, and Joe’s mob, they could overpower these people and put the frighteners on them. “OK.” “There had better be no tricks,” murmured Rossini, “or you won’t be seen around here for a while.” Zach licked his lips. Was this man dangerous or not? “Police! Hold it right there!” Two men in police uniform had just appeared from the narrow back lane and were rapidly approaching the party. “Just stand still, all of you!” One of them advanced purposefully towards Rossini. The Italian swiftly felt in his pocket, took out a revolver and held it at arm’s length. Rowntree could see that a silencer was screwed to the barrel. He swallowed. Didn’t want to be mixed up in any shooting. “Put that gun down!” cried the constable. Gino Rossini pulled the trigger and there was a soft plop. He pulled it again and the stricken officer stopped in his tracks with an amazed look on his face. He dropped slowly to the ground and remained there motionless. The second policeman raised his hands and came more slowly towards the Italian. “Look, we can work this out. Just drop the gun before you’re in any worse trouble.” Rossini calmly shot him, and down he went too. Rowntree stared at the two bodies, and felt rising panic as he noticed a red stain spreading over the first man’s blue shirt. “You — you’ve bloody well killed them!” he gasped. “Yes,” said Gino, “and I’ll bloody well kill you if you put one foot wrong. If I hear you’ve made contact with Abbott, it’s curtains for both of you. Now get out of here while we clean up. Be here on Friday — with the money.” Rowntree scuttled off. Christ! The man’s a head case. I’ll have to take his offer. Should do well out of it, but no way am I going to cross this man. Rowntree spent the next day getting the money together from various sources; three building societies, a safe deposit and a private cache at his house. He was already working out what he would get in return for the dope. Each kilo would provide three to four thousand shots. He usually sold packets of five shots a time, for twenty pounds each (the pushers could make what they liked on top of that.) Why was he getting it so cheaply? He thought he knew the answer: it was like what the pushers did to a beginner, they let them have the first packet for peanuts, or even free, then raised the price as dependency grew. Was this to happen to him? Well, time would tell, but he had better get this transaction over with first. On Friday, Snake Lane saw the anticlimactic finale of this three-act drama. Rowntree turned up alone with a suitcase and was met by Rossini and one other, carrying a zipper bag. “The money?” murmured Rossini. “Wait a bit. Don’t I get a look at the stuff?” “Nick.”

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Nick opened the zipper to reveal eight plastic bags. “Help yourself,” he growled. Zach opened one at random, wet his finger, pushed it into the powder and licked it. It certainly wasn’t pure, but it tasted right. “Well?”, asked Rossini, “Is it cocaine or isn’t it?” Zach looked at the Italian for a moment, and saw Gino’s hand twitching in his jacket pocket. “OK ” he said hastily, and the bags were exchanged. Gino opened the suitcase and swiftly riffled through some of the notes. He closed the case, satisfied. “Remember,” was Gino’s parting shot, “we’re watching you.” Rowntree made off round the corner. When he was out of sight John shook hands with his companion and waved towards the fence. A week later Rowntree was to receive a small parcel in the post. It contained a videotape and a typed message which said as follows: I am taking over distribution in this district. You will cease to trade in drugs from now on. If you disobey this instruction, a copy of this videotape will be sent to the police. Gino With trembling fingers Rowntree switched on his video-recorder and played the tape. It showed first the meeting of himself and Les Missenden, handing over the stuff and taking the money, continuing with the appearance of Rossini and his gang but omitting the policemen and their shooting. After that there was the handover of the fake stuff and the payment. All accompanied by a perfect recording of the conversations. It was enough to incriminate him, and Zach knew how tough the courts had been getting lately over drug dealing — fifteen, twenty years in some cases. He felt sick; sicker even than he had felt when he opened the drug packets, only to find icing sugar under each thin top layer of cut cocaine. The oldest trick in the book, and he had fallen for it. It was a measure of the man’s disturbed mind that not once did he wonder why the killing of two policemen was never reported by the media.

Chapter 13

Taking sides

WHILE DAVID WAS AWAY Linda and Rachel spent a rapturous fortnight in each other’s company, golfing, shopping, eating, dancing, talking, sightseeing — and going to bed. One morning they paid a visit to Jessica’s street to observe any movement but saw none. It seemed that Jessica had gone off with David but this absence was of no use as evidence in a divorce action. Having peered through the front window with no success, they turned to go away when they were accosted by a woman leaving the next house. “Looking for Mrs. Reynolds?” she asked. “Yes,” said Rachel, “is she away?” “Don’t think so, dear; she works in the mornings.” “You wouldn’t know where?” “Er, it’s a beauty shop, Swan Salon, Earl’s Court way, I think.” “Thanks very much.” As the neighbour departed the two women looked at each other, simultaneously raised their eyebrows, and nodded. A few minutes later a phone call to the salon drew the information that Jessica Reynolds did indeed work there, but had been called away ‘on a family emergency’. Rachel and Linda filed away in their memories the fact that Jessica had a morning job. Did David know? Later, Linda went to BBC TV Centre at Shepherd’s Bush to see if she could pick up any information about the illegal operations she had overheard David and Kevin discussing weeks ago. She was becoming very aware that they had not fulfilled their promise to include her; nor did she expect it after recent events, but she wondered if she could use her knowledge to her advantage and perhaps put David at her mercy. She was reasonably well-known by sight in the TV world and so was able to pass around the building unchallenged. First she tried to see Kevin Bestwick but was told he was working. Then she wandered round the studio floors with her antennae up, pausing at each studio door and examining the roster board hoping to see Kevin’s name. Coming to Studio 8 she discovered that it was indeed in use

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for a production of All the way to the Bank, a new drama series by Roger Weelkes, director James Stilwell, producer Kevin Bestwick. “Interested?” She turned to face a stranger, a young man standing rather too close to her: this easy familiarity jarred on her slightly. “I might be. Know anything about it?” The man laughed. “Who knows what goes on in there? It might be a production, it might not.” “What do you mean?” “Some funny things go on in there, you know.” “What kind of things?” “I wish I knew. But it’s always when Kevin Bestwick has booked that studio.” Linda looked carefully at the man and decided to take this further. “Where can we talk?” she said. “Talk? Oh, let’s have a look in here.” He crossed the corridor to a hospitality room and peered round the door. “Nobody here. Come in.” She followed him in and shut the door. “I’m Linda Martin. And you are — ?” “Peter Rockforth. I know you, I’ve seen you in one or two things, let’s see, now — “ “Never mind that. What can you tell me about Bestwick? I’m very interested in that man.” “Is this confidential?” “Just between the two of us.” “Right. Just lately there have been sessions in that studio and nothing seems to come of it. Always the same people go in there. I happened to see them coming out for the first time, oh, a month or more ago, and recognised David Stoner and Kevin Bestwick plus a whole lot of actors and BBC staff, technicians, you know. I wondered why Stoner should have been there but didn’t think much of it at the time. Next time I noticed the studio was booked in Bestwick’s name I waited to see who came out. Guess what? As far as I could tell, exactly the same lot, including Stoner. You’re nodding. Know something about this?” “A bit. Go on.” “So I went into the studio when they had gone and had a sniff round. It didn’t look right. Too . . .tidy somehow. You see, a studio normally has traces of activity after a rehearsal or shooting. Difficult to explain, you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m a floor manager, you see, so I know what normally goes on. I touched the lights and they were all cold: they had only used the auxiliary stuff. I went into the recording booth. Similar. Every use of the equipment is supposed to be logged — dates, times, tapes used and so on. Nothing logged. I don’t know what they were doing but it wasn’t TV work.” Linda breathed in satisfaction. “I’m beginning to see the light. But go on.” “I kept an eye on all his visits to that studio after that. Wasn’t always the same, once or twice it looked as if something had been rehearsed. Bit mystifying.” “Not to me,” said Linda, “I know what they’re up to, and it most probably is illegal.” “What?” “There’s a plot going, I’ve heard Stoner and Bestwick discussing it.” Linda went on to fill Rockforth in with what she had overheard, suppressing the miscreants’ promise to include her. The two new friends talked on for quite a while, discussing what might be done about it. Once it slipped out that David Stoner was not Linda’s favourite person these days, Peter revealed that he, too, had been somewhat hurt by the way he had been ignored by the pair after . . . He decided to tell her all, and confidence led to confidence on both sides. By the time they went their separate ways they had become sworn partners against the Stoner-Bestwick faction. JOHN LOOKED ONCE MORE at his soaking lavatory floor and muttered under his breath, then grinned broadly as a thought struck him. Two days later Zach Rowntree received a brief typewritten letter which read: I have been having words with some of your tenants. It appears you are not too careful about keeping their houses in good repair. I do not like this. Put all the faults right immediately. I give you two weeks to do this. After that, if I hear a single complaint about your negligence — I think you know the rest. Gino He groaned aloud. Was he never to be free of this man?

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DAVID AND JESSICA HARDLY SPOKE on their flight back from Jersey. The holiday had not been a success: although the first few days had gone well enough, things had gradually deteriorated. It began to be clear that Jessica had little conversation outside domestic and sexual matters: there was no interest in world affairs, making new friends or trying new experiences. Arguments had broken out about how the days were to be spent, and in fact most of the second week was spent apart, he exploring the island and she exploring the St.Helier shops. Only the nightly sex had brought them together, and David began to wonder if sex was in fact the only true common ground between men and women. Much as he deplored the idea of wanting a woman only for sex, he could not deny that his own sex drive needed constant fulfilment, and that if one woman did not fulfil it then another must. Am I going through the male menopause, midlife crisis or whatever they call it? he asked himself. After the flight they went their separate ways home, and by unspoken consent did not meet again for a week. THINGS WERE NO BETTER at Wimbledon Park. Naturally, husband and wife behaved like the bitter enemies they had become. Living under the same roof was a necessity because each knew that leaving the house permanently would give the other a lever in the divorce case that now seemed inevitable. It had occurred to both of them that a divorce on broken-marriage grounds would be quickest and easiest, but John was unwilling to see Rachel get half the property, so was relying on the lesbian issue. Neither mentioned the subject, and their continual icy silence brought raised eyebrows to their charlady’s expression, even though she was used to the couple’s normal guarded coolness. Rachel in particular was put out by David’s return, for she no longer felt easy about having Linda in the house after that embarrassing discovery, so she and Linda were forced to play things carefully for a while. WHEN DAVID DROPPED IN at his office again it was John’s day off. After the greetings were over Ruby brought David a coffee and surprised him with her next announcement. “There’s another big chunk of money in for the Exactors’ account.” She explained proudly that it was all John’s doing. He had taken part in a scam which defeated his landlord and ripped him off for ten grand in cash. “But I was going to handle that for him,” said David, “as soon as I got back.” “Well, you won’t have to now. Kevin helped him: ask him about it. He’s got a videofilm of the whole thing.” “Good Lord. I’d better talk to Kevin. Will you get him on the line, please?” “That you, Kevin? What’s all this about another, er, enterprise?” “You know something? That Appleton guy of yours is a bloody marvel. Come over here, I’ve got time to show you the recording this morning. No more now.” David knew they must be careful what was said on the phone, so replaced the receiver and made his way over to Shepherd’s Bush. When David had sat down in Kevin’s office in front of a TV set, Kevin switched on his videotape and commented as it ran. “Now, this first scene is John’s flat. His girlfriend is pretending to be ill so that the pusher comes into the flat with the stuff. Watch.” When the first scene had run its course Kevin paused the tape. “That gave us what we needed to work Stage Two. Now we’re at the back of the local supermarket. The film was shot through a hole in a neighbouring fence, so nobody saw the camera. Watch John at work in this scene.” Then followed the whole of the meeting with Rowntree, this time including the arrival and despatch of the policemen. Again Kevin paused the tape. “Not bad, eh?” “Excellent. The policemen were our boys, obviously. But I thought you said John was in that bit.” Kevin grinned widely. “So he was. Didn’t you spot him?” David was totally puzzled. “No, I didn’t. What was he, one of the police?” “Try again.” “Give up. I recognised the rest, oh, except the Italian.” “That’s your man.” “John was the Italian?” David was incredulous. “I can’t believe it. He was nothing like John.” “Take my word for it. That boy is one damn fine actor.” “But that was an older man, forty at least!” “You could swear it, couldn’t you? But, do you know, he stood in this very room and made me believe he was that old, without makeup even.” “I can’t get over it!” said David, “How does he do it?”

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“He seems to have remarkable control over his face muscles. He can put on any expression he likes and it simply changes his whole personality. Not to mention his wonderful voice control, too. He’s a born impressionist.” “Good Lord, and I always thought what a nondescript face he had. I’m beginning to see now that’s an advantage: it’s like a blank canvas he can paint on.” “Yes,” chuckled Kevin, “and the point is that nobody recognises him afterwards. You didn’t, and you know him well. Perfect for crime!” “Even so . . .well, I’m flabbergasted.” “We did help a bit with makeup, of course. Made him sallow, gave him the clothes, padded his cheeks a little. Still, most of it was his. Incidentally, most of the plan was his, too.” “Can I see that episode again?” “Why not?” And Kevin rewound the tape and played Stage Two again. “God,” said David afterwards, “that man was terrified of him.” “Right. And don’t forget he knows John, too.” “Marvellous. Now let’s see the rest.” After viewing the taking of the money both men sat back shaking their heads. “That boy has got a great future in acting, David.” “I agree with you. We’ll have to launch him somehow. I never thought he’d be that good: runs rings round old Peter Sellers.” “Well, in the meantime I suggest he’s made a member of the Exactors, what’s more, he should get a grand to himself for that little venture. That still leaves the funds with a tidy profit.” David agreed readily and went back to Ruby to tell her all about it. He did feel ashamed, though, that he had not kept his promise to handle the affair himself. Next day when John was on duty, David praised him warmly for his performance and told him of the decision to reward him. “There’s only one little thing, though, son,” he added, “We have a no-violence rule in the Exactors. I know arm-twisting is not very serious, but I’d feel better if it didn’t happen again.” He smiled as he said it. “Sorry, guv,” replied John, “No one told me. But I think he’ll live.” David retired into his office. He soon dealt with a few papers that were waiting for him, and sat thinking. He ought to be getting on with sorting the divorce out, but something held him back somehow: he couldn’t really say what . . . He called John in. “John, it will soon be time for another Exactors’ show. I’m not too sure what comes next, but I was so impressed with your planning in the landlord affair that I’m asking you to consider yourself a co-planner with me. Anything you come up with will be gratefully received. Any ideas?” “Thanks, David; that’s a real honour. I’ve nothing in mind myself, but I’ll look forward to working with you.” “You must join Kevin and me for a chinwag soon. I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, how about a game of golf tomorrow? I haven’t played for a fortnight.” A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER Ruby was at home. Having done her morning shopping and made herself a little lunch, she had little to do but tidy a couple of rooms and then she was at leisure. To do what? she asked herself; life had been so lonely since her bereavement. Working with David had kept her from too much introspection, but now that she alternated shifts with John there was more time on her hands — time to wonder where her life was going, and to whom she could give her love and feel it returned. Of course she could sack John instead of taking turns with him, but she had already grown far too fond of him to think of that. Perhaps he would break into acting soon . . . She looked out of her French window into the pleasant garden. Once this house had been a comfortable home for three; now it was too big and she felt a little lost in it. If only someone could share it with her . . . One question kept coming to mind: which woman had David taken on holiday? He had not said, either before or after his trip, though she had noticed his sober demeanour on his return: obviously he had not really enjoyed his break. He would have done with me, she thought; he would have done with me . . . She pulled herself together with a start and entered the house. There she phoned the office and invited John to bring Angie round to her house for dinner the following Saturday. John’s the nearest thing I’ve got to a family, she thought.

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Next day at the office, Ruby plucked up her courage and invited David to the dinner also. He was a little surprised: in all the years Ruby had worked for him they had never met on any social occasion; indeed the invitation made him realise with a shock that he knew very little about Ruby except that she was a capable and loyal worker. To her delight he accepted with little or no hesitation. He certainly believed that however the evening turned out it would be better than eating with Rachel. On Saturday evening John and Angie arrived early at Ruby’s house in Streatham. John quickly introduced Angie, who was surprised to be gathered warmly into Ruby’s motherly arms and told “Welcome, my dear. I’ve been dying to meet you. Now both of you come along into the back garden; it’s a lovely evening, and you can sit in the sun with a nice drink.” In a few minutes she had shepherded them on to her patio and supplied them with cooling drinks, chatting to them whilst keeping an ear open for the doorbell. When David did arrive, he gallantly presented her with a small orchid for her dress, complete with a little ornamental brooch to pin it with. “David”, she gasped, “how lovely! Thank you so much.” And into the garden they went to join the others, David accepting a gin and tonic whilst she excused herself and made last-minute culinary preparations. Before long they all went indoors and sat down to a salmon mousse starter followed by coq-au-vin with a bottle of St. Emilion. The ice was well broken and the four engaged in animated conversation, mainly about the acting profession but also the difficulties of finding suitable jobs, about the rotten government, the meaning of life, and all those other topics beloved of any group of friendly and like-minded people. Ruby spoke least (there was no need for the hostess’s task of keeping things going) and only intervened when the talk threatened to revolve round golf. After home-made apple pie, coffee and liqueurs all four felt there was little wrong in the world; or at least there was rather less wrong with it than when they had first sat down. Ruby looked with affection at her three guests: the two men she was already fond of and the young girl she had just met. She had taken to Angie immediately, for it was clear this was a thoroughly sweet girl who obviously adored John and whose lapse into drugs was perhaps understandable considering the temptations of modern youth. She had kicked the habit and certainly looked healthy and attractive now, with her classic English Rose looks. Ruby hoped fervently that she would never relapse: it would break John’s heart, for one thing. Further, it had not taken much womanly intuition to notice that David had been completely charmed by Angie, too. As they relaxed after the meal and after Ruby had accepted the unanimous congratulations on her cooking, John came out with a surprising suggestion. “Now then, David, you were asking for further Exactor ideas; here’s one.” David raised his eyebrows and surreptitiously indicated Angela. “It’s all right,” went on John, “She knows all about it, and you can trust her. In fact she’ll be involved in this. She trained as an actress, you know. What I have in mind is a building society robbery. Building societies are a worthy target; they treat their investors badly by suppressing information on superior interest rates; they treat their borrowers badly by putting up interest rates when they don’t have to; and they make huge profits every year — too huge in my opinion. And this year the chairman of the Minster Building Society voted himself a 200% pay rise.” “You seem very well informed,” remarked David. “I take an interest in the Minster,” said John, “particularly as Angie works there, and not for a princely salary, I can tell you.” “Go on.” “Angie works in the Harlesden branch. We hold it up for cash. The staff don’t resist because they believe it’s all part of a film they’re helping to make. Why? Because the BBC cameras are there filming it all. It’s as simple as that.” “No, it isn’t,” retorted David, “there must be no comebacks to the BBC or Kevin is dropped right in it.” “All right, then, we cover up the logo on the cameras, or hire anonymous cameras.” “Not good enough. The manager would have checked with the BBC.” “Angie tells me her manager goes on holiday soon; we kid the deputy into thinking the manager had it all arranged before he left.” “Oh, come along, John, no manager would go on holiday without telling his deputy personally about a thing like that. A staged robbery is an enormous undertaking; the manager would have to clear it with Head Office, anyway.” John’s face fell. He had done it again. He realised at last his fatal flaw, that of not thinking a plan right through. “Sorry, David. Got carried away a bit. I guess I’m no good at planning.”

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“Not true,” said David, “You planned the Rowntree scam beautifully, and carried it off. But I must say your talent seems to be for instant improvisation rather than long-term thinking. Don’t worry about it, just take your time a bit more. There may be something in your plan; let’s sit on it for a while.” “Never mind, darling,” said Angie, kissing John’s cheek, “You’ll get it right in the end. By the way, where was I supposed to come in?” “Oh, you had to convince staff and customers it was all play-acting, whilst making sure we got real money.” Angela gasped. “You serious? I don’t know if I could do that.” “Never mind, sweetie,” interposed Ruby, “It doesn’t look as if you’ll have to.” But David was already turning ideas over in his mind.

Chapter 14

Nothing expected

KEVIN STOOD UP to address a full meeting of the Exactors. “Greetings, everybody,” he began, “I hope you have had a nice break. And now I know you’d like to get on with something. David?” The usual expectant hush greeted the agent as he rose to his feet. “Morning, everybody. First I want to introduce a new member — John Appleton here. He has fine acting ability and has a great future, we think. But more than that, he’s already an accomplished Exactor, and has given a valuable contribution to our resources. Perhaps one day we’ll tell you the full story of that one, but this morning we have much to do. So now for the next project. John has taken a major part in planning this one; in fact it’s mainly his idea, though of course I have taken charge of final details. We’re going to hit a building society, the Minster. Good target, do you agree?” Murmurs of appreciation were heard. Many of those present had cause to resent the society’s concealed derision of their customers. “Only one branch, though, so I’m afraid we can’t involve everybody.” “So the women get a back seat again, I suppose?” cried Mary Douglas. David looked steadfastly at the actress. “Not necessarily,” he said, “Women can be in the front line of this one, if you like.” “Oh. Right, then, let’s hear it,” said Mary. “There are two important features of this raid;” explained David, “the first being that our cameras are inside the building, filming the whole thing, in full sight of everybody throughout. Staff will be told that it is not for real; that they are part of a film and so nobody need be scared out of their wits. You see, there’ll be sawn-off shotguns brandished about, and threats made. We’ve already got the cooperation of the branch involved (it’s Harlesden, by the way) so we know that nobody on the staff will panic and try something heroic to spoil things. “The other important thing is that the local police have been informed, and have agreed to ignore an alarm if it should go off, also they will guard the immediate area with a couple of bobbies who will stop the public from entering the place and perhaps mucking up the scene. So some of you will play the part of customers already inside the building, others the raiders. And of course, there will be the cameramen, and probably a bit of extra lighting. Jim Stilwell will be on hand, too, as director. All this happens next Tuesday, 11 am. Any questions?” “Yes,” asked someone, “Who gets the parts?” David looked at Kevin, who answered, “In view of Mary’s point, we need to think this over and let people know. There’ll be another briefing once we have the cast allocated. I’ll leave the selection of technical boys to Roger Wallace.” As the meeting broke up a few minutes later, David beckoned to Mary Douglas and whispered a few words. Mary turned and called several other women over. “Come with us,” said David, and the mystified group followed him to Kevin’s office, where a significant private meeting took place. Ten minutes later Peter Rockforth put his head cautiously round the door of Studio 8, and, when satisfied that it was empty, walked across the floor to a pile of staging blocks. Putting his hand behind them, he drew out a small machine. Linda Martin watched with interest and followed him into the recording booth. When Peter had shut the door and placed the machine on the table, he pressed a switch to rewind his tape, then pressed another button to start. The pair listened carefully, then smiled in satisfaction. “We’ve got them,” said Peter.

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THAT EVENING AT WIMBLEDON PARK Rachel had burnt the dinner and thus put David into a foul mood. “I’ll be glad when you’re out of here and I can live the way I want to,” he growled. Rachel stared at him. “What makes you think I’m leaving?” she asked, “I intend to divorce you, as it happens.” “Do you now? What about you and your lady-love? I can get a divorce easily enough on those grounds: I’ve got a witness, remember.” “Forget it! That won’t stand up against our case that you have had a mistress for years — and admitted it,” said Rachel, failing to notice that she had said “our”. “Admitted it? When?” “You told me her name was Jessica.” David sneered. “It’s your word against mine. You can’t prove she even exists.” “You told me she was carrying your child.” “I, er — I made that up to hurt you. There’s no Jessica.” “Jessica Reynolds? Tournay Road, Fulham?” This stopped David in his tracks. “How did you know? Have you been spying?” “As a matter of fact, we have.” Again the plural. “You and that damned lesbian! So you know where Jessica lives. Now prove I’ve been unfaithful with her.” “Who did you go on holiday with? Yourself?” “Never mind, it’ll make no difference. You’re done for. Jessica loves me and is having my child. She’s wonderful and she’s going to live with me.” Rachel ground her teeth. “She’ll be giving up her job, then, will she?” “Job, what job? She doesn’t work.” “Try telling that to the beauty salon at Earl’s Court.” “What are you talking about?” “She works at a beauty salon, called the Swan, mornings only. Are you telling me you didn’t know?” David was dumbfounded. That explained why she was out when he had paid a couple of morning calls, and why she had seemed reluctant to go to Jersey, and . . . She stared at him. “You didn’t, did you?” He collected his thoughts quickly. “Well, no, I thought she relied on me, plus her state security money.” Rachel frowned. “How much have you been paying her? Come on, let’s have it!” David hung his head. “Sixty pounds a week,” he muttered. “What was that?” demanded Rachel, “I didn’t quite hear that.” “Sixty pounds a week!” he exclaimed defiantly, “and worth every penny!” “Sixty pounds a week,” she repeated severely, like a schoolmarm showing a little boy up, “and for how long?” “Three years.” “Three years,” she repeated, nodding her head disgustedly. “And I suppose you paid her rent as well?” she went on, not really expecting a confirmation. David nodded, and had the grace to blush. “David! All that money, all that time; and you kept telling me to economise because money was so tight? Just for sex?” “We’ve been into all this,” he snapped, “It’s all very well for you to say ‘Just for sex’ — sex is a human necessity. What about the sex you’re having now? Perhaps you begin to understand that good sex is worth more than any money in the world? I would have had sex with you, but — “ “All right, David,” she said, more softly, “It’s water under the bridge now. All we can do is try to pick up the pieces somehow.” He grunted, and no more was said on the subject that evening. NEXT MORNING David visited Earl’s Court and found the Swan Salon on Warwick Road, within walking distance of Jessica’s flat. He walked in and looked around. “Can I help you, sir?” asked a young girl. “No, sorry, this is the wrong place,” he said, and walked out. He had already spotted Jessica at the back of the shop. THE DESK SERGEANT at Willesden police station looked up as the striking redhead approached the desk.

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“Yes, madam?” “I want to see the head officer, whoever’s in charge.” “May I ask what it is about?” “Don’t waste my time,” said Linda angrily, “let me see him. What’s his name?” “Sorry, madam, but he won’t thank me to disturb him unless I can tell him what it’s about.” “Very well. There’s going to be a big robbery, at the Minster Building Society in Harlesden.” “Really? Well, it so happens we know about that.” Linda stared at the sergeant. “You know? How can you know?” “It’s all arranged with the BBC. It’s not a proper robbery, it’s a programme they’re making. But may I ask how you know about it?” “Me? I, er — have a friend at the BBC. But it’s not what you think. They’re pretending to make a programme, but they intend to steal money.” “Really, madam! The BBC? I suggest you’ve got your facts wrong.” “No, I haven’t!” shouted Linda, “Now can I see your chief or not?” “What’s the problem here?” said a new voice, and a calm-looking man in a grey suit appeared at a side door. “Ah, guv. This lady’s got the wrong end of the stick. About the M.B.S. job.” “M.B.S., eh?” The new-comer looked appraisingly at Linda. “I seem to know your face,” he said. “I’m Linda Martin; you may have seen me on television.” “Ah, that’s it. Well, I’m Inspector Scott. You’d better come into my office.” Linda followed the inspector and sat down after he had closed the door. “Would you like to tell me what’s on your mind, Miss Martin?” “Some people from BBC Television will be pretending to make a film at the Minster Building Society in Harlesden, next Tuesday.” “Yes, we know about that. And since you obviously do, I don’t see where the problem lies.” “The problem, Inspector, is in the fact that they intend to steal real money. It’s not a pretence operation at all.” “Really, Miss Martin, how do you work that out?” “Because my friend has made a tape-recording in which they can be heard planning the whole thing. They’ve been doing this for ages.” “Doing what exactly?” “Pulling off crimes — robberies and so on. I know because I heard the two leaders setting up the whole thing some time ago.” Linda neglected to mention her part in that original confrontation. “And what crimes are these?” “Er, I don’t know exactly, but I know they are using out-of-work actors to help them. This is the first time I’ve had any concrete evidence, so why don’t you listen to this tape?” And she pulled out a cassette from her handbag. “Miss Martin, I must tell you that the BBC contacted us days ago about this filming. They have our full co-operation and that of the Minster, both the local branch and their head office. There will be police officers on duty outside the building during the whole of the operation. If there is any money missing afterwards we shall know where to look, won’t we?” “Will you listen to this tape?” hissed Linda, “Wait till you’ve heard it till you brush me aside.” “Very well,” sighed Scott, “please come with me.” Inside the interview room he placed the tape into a machine and they both listened to the recording of the meeting. “Well, there you are,” said Linda triumphantly, “the two speakers are Kevin Bestwick — he’s a producer, and David Stoner — he’s an agent. Why would he be there at all? He doesn’t even work for the BBC.” “Miss Martin, really. All I’ve heard is a group of people being told about a forthcoming production, and what part they are to play in one episode of it. I have personally spoken to Mr. Bestwick, and he has told me that Mr. Stoner is acting as ideas man. Apparently he’s better than some of their scriptwriters.” “But it’s all a cover for a real crime,” protested Linda, “you’ll see! And don’t say I didn’t warn you.” “I’m sorry, madam, nothing doing. And now you really must excuse me; I’m a busy man.” And the frustrated actress was shown out, fuming. DAVID VISITED JESSICA late that afternoon. He had given himself time to think about the revelation of Jessica’s job, and though he was not very pleased about it, he thought that in her place he might well have done the same thing. He therefore decided to say nothing for the moment; after all, if

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she was going to end up as his wife there was no point in further aggravating the present uneasy situation. On reflection he thought it might be better to get her into a good mood, then calmly mention the job and let her off with a tut-tut and a hefty reduction in her allowance. Maybe she would come clean about how much she was earning at the salon. Come to think of it, she must have a tidy sum tucked away by now. Useful after the wedding . . . “Hello, darling!” cried Jessica, who also had made up her mind to mend relations after the Jersey débacle. “Lovely to see you!” She bustled about making the tea, and as David watched her, the old lust returned as she moved about in her thin dress, her figure showing clearly. Funny, thought David, she’s showing no signs of the pregnancy. Still, I suppose some women don’t. After the tea he sat beside her on the settee and began to embrace and stroke her. She didn’t quite respond as he had expected. “What’s the matter, bunny-love?” he murmured, “Gone off little ol’ David? Have I done something to upset you?” “Not really, darling, I just don’t feel like it today.” He stared. This was not like Jessica. She always felt like it. “You still love me?” “Course. Why don’t we go for a walk?” Walk? He could hardly get her to do that the whole time they were in Jersey. What was going on? He decided to play it cool for a while, so sat back and chatted aimlessly. She started to look more relaxed, so he decided to spring his little trump card on her. “I know about your job, you know,” he said quietly. “Job? What job?” “The Swan beauty salon. Is there another one, then?” She paled. “How did you know?” “Mmm . . . a little bird . . . But I’m not going to get angry. Mind you, I could. I never thought you would deceive me like that. I ought to give you a good spanking, really.” “Oh, David, I’m so sorry. I didn’t like deceiving you, but I get so scared sometimes. What if you were to leave me? I’d have no-one.” “Leave you? Of course not. Come here, I forgive you.” He drew her to him and kissed her. She responded, anxious not to put a foot wrong. He looked at her, smiled, and kissed her again. This time his hand fell on her leg, and before she could resist he had moved it all the way up. Trembling, she seized his hand and pulled it away sharply. “No, David, no!” But insistently he pushed his hand under her knickers and groped quickly around like a masterful lover. What he felt there stopped him like a thunderbolt. Nobody moved for three seconds, then he slowly took his hand away. “What is that, Jessica?” he asked in a low voice. “Oh God, oh God!” said Jessica, trembling more violently, “I can’t keep it from you any longer, can I?” “What is it you can’t keep from me?” His voice was now cold and hard. “Oh God, oh God!” she wailed. “What is it?” he demanded, more fiercely. “David, darling, I’m so sorry — please don’t blame me!” “You’re not pregnant, are you?” She could hardly whisper it, but managed. “No.” “And you never were, were you?” She hung her head, unable to speak. “Were you?” he thundered. “No, no! But it was all because I loved you, and I only wanted to please you, and — “ He cut in. “You — BITCH!!” and struck her across the face as hard as he could. “You’ve been lying to me all this time! And I believed you like a fool. Do you know what you’ve done to me? You’ve ruined my life, that’s what you’ve done. How could you do it? I thought I had found real love, and now this! I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it. No, no no!!” And he broke down, sobbing as if his heart would break. Jessica was sobbing too. “Oh God, oh God!” was all she could say for some time. David sat silent for a long time with his head in his hands. Eventually he drew out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Jessica waited apprehensively. “Well,” he said in a quiet voice, “this is the end of the road for us. You know that, don’t you?” She nodded miserably.

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“How did you think you could get away with this pretence?” he asked, “It’s a wonder I didn’t spot it sooner.” “I don’t know”, she said, “At first it was just a way to stop you moving me out of here. Then it seemed to make you so happy, I daren’t tell you the truth.” He thought for a few more minutes, then rose. “I might have forgiven you one deception, but not two, and especially about the child. I can never trust you again. I give you one week to pack your bags and leave this place. Unless, that is, you can afford to keep it on yourself.” “Yes, David. I suppose I deserve it. But I’m truly sorry, really I am.” “I hope so. But I don’t think you’re as sorry as I am.” He turned and left the room. In the hall he saw the bicycle he had given her. Drawing a firm breath he grabbed it, manoeuvred it out of the door into the street, mounted it, and rode it all the way home to Wimbledon Park, thinking gloomier and gloomier thoughts the nearer he got to home.

Chapter 15 Say again
HARLESDEN, TUESDAY, 10.50 A.M. Inside the Minster Building Society Angela Snow, seated at her place behind the cashier’s bench, looked round her with pleasant anticipation, for it had been some time since she had been present at a rehearsal or performance of live actors. In front of her, three cameramen waited beside their strategically-placed equipment, ready to roll on the director’s signal. Lounging round the banking hall were five actors who were to be playing the part of customers. Behind the grille, on the staff side, was another camera aimed along the cashiers, ready to record their reactions when the raid came. Overhead were several microphones which the sound boys had spent half the morning positioning and testing, and on the floor beside each cashier was a pile of fake money ready to be put into the bags which the “robbers” would provide. The manager and his assistant had been requested to keep out of sight and they had reluctantly agreed to miss the fun. A camera in the street was focussed on the front of the building, where the raiders’ car was due to arrive. The last real customer left the hall. Soon the performance would begin. Eleven o’clock was the deadline; eight minutes to go. As Angie turned away for a moment she heard the door burst open and a shout of “This is a raid! Everybody down!” Surely they were early? And the director hadn’t called for action, either. Puzzled, she turned round to see three figures in dark clothes pulling on gas masks. Gas masks? Next moment she cried out in alarm as an object came spinning over the counter and landed six feet from her, giving off white fumes which caught her throat and made her cough. Then her eyes hurt and began to run badly. Very soon she could see nothing as her eyes stung and watered. Helplessly she collapsed into her chair and coughed continuously, whilst dimly, as if from far away, she could hear other people coughing and gasping. Near her she heard footsteps and a rustling sound but could see nothing for the dreadful pricking that made her keep her eyes shut. Her lungs felt painful and she began to think she would die. Oh God, don’t let me die, I love John, I want John, where is he? Some time later she heard a voice call “Open some windows, for God’s sake open the windows!” and soon the blessed fresh air swept in, the fumes blew away and she was gradually able to open her eyes. The room seemed in chaos: around her the other girl cashiers were weeping and wiping their eyes: on the other side of the counter the actors were doing the same, and now through the open doors stepped three raiders with balaclavas, brandishing shotguns and carrying bags. They stopped, amazed at the scene before them, and pulled off their woolly headpieces to reveal women’s faces. “What the hell,” said one, “is all this about?” Jim Stilwell the director came forward, rubbing his eyes. “Somebody’s beaten us to it,” he said shakily, “God knows who or how, but some other gang got here before we could start.” Behind him the Minster branch manager gulped. “Do you mean they were nothing to do with you?” he asked. “That’s exactly what I do mean,” said Stilwell, “they were not in the script at all.” “Oh, my God,” moaned the other, “let’s find out what they’ve taken.” Twenty minutes later a very shaken manager was on the phone to his head office, reporting a cash loss of uncertain amount but in the region of seventeen thousand pounds. Protected from interference by the tear gas, the intruders had made off with real money from the tills. AT WILLESDEN POLICE STATION two worried constables faced Inspector Scott. “Higgs, let’s go over this again,” said Scott, “starting from the arrival of the first car.” P.C.Higgs cleared his throat. “We were standing outside, sir, according to orders, to keep the public out, and the car drew up outside the building. Three people got out, wearing balaclavas. So of course I

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thought they were the TV actors we’d been told about and I took no notice. My job was to make sure the public didn’t interfere.” Scott looked severely at the constable, who flushed and went on “All very well being wise after the event, sir, but how was I to know any different? Nobody told me what they would look like, just that actors would pretend to be robbers, and it was all OK.” Scott bit his lip. He knew the man had a point, and could hardly be blamed. Would he have done any better himself? “What then?” he asked. “Well, a bit of shouting and that, and then these three come running out, pulling off gas masks. and carrying these bags. They got in the car and drove off smartly like. Round the corner and away they went.” “Did you see their faces?” “No, sir, they had balaclavas on under the masks.” “No other description?” “There was one thing, they were a bit small, I thought. Might have been lads, perhaps. One of ‘em might have been a bit bigger than the others.” “Hmm. Very helpful, I’m sure.” Sarcastic bugger, thought Higgs. “Johnson, what about you?” “Well, just about the same, really, sir. In fact, I couldn’t see ‘em quite as well as Higgs. Had their back to me.” “Did either of you get the car number?” They sheepishly shook their heads. “Brilliant! Got any ambitions for the CID, have you?” “Be fair, sir,” said Johnson, “we thought it was all part of the acting. Why would we take the number?” “Oh, I don’t know. I was hoping it would be out of habit. At least what car was it?” “I saw that, sir,” said Higgs eagerly, “Motoswift, it was.” “That Japanese rubbish?” said the inspector despondently. There’s only about two million of them in the country. What happened next?” “Then the other car arrived,” said Johnson, “This was the real actors. We was flabbergasted.” “Were you really? All right, off you go. I want your reports on my desk in the morning.” Thankfully the two constables slipped away. Scott tapped the table nervously. He would have to bring Scotland Yard in on this, for he was getting nowhere. He had grilled the director and all the actors, not to mention the Minster staff — all without result: there was no real description of the villains because they had all been stricken by the tear gas. He began to wonder about that red-headed actress who had tried to warn him — was there something in her story after all? But how could there be, when the fake robbers were ready to do their act and were surprised to have been pre-empted? Scott got on the phone to Scotland Yard and reported the matter to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bailey. After a long conversation it was agreed that Bailey would send his bright boy CI Preston down to interview all the BBC people at the TV centre the next day. Meanwhile Scott was to round them up and make sure they all appeared there. “Thank you all for attending at short notice,” began Chief Inspector Preston, “It’s important to strike while the iron’s hot in these cases.” “And thanks for not dragging us all down to the police station,” said Kevin, “We appreciate your letting us use our normal meeting-place.” “Right, sir. And you are?” “Kevin Bestwick, producer. I have the overall responsibility for the production involved. It was I who fixed up the event with the Minster people although I wasn’t actually present when this deplorable incident took place.” “Thank you. I would like to speak with you a little later. But first I want to interview all those who were there. I have the list of names you gave me and I would prefer to start with eye-witnesses if you don’t mind. I understand there is a suitable interview room close by?” “Correct, Chief Inspector; just across the passage. Whenever you’re ready.” For the next hour the people involved were called into the interview room and grilled by Preston and his assistant, DI Coleman. Actors, cameramen, lighting staff, sound crew, drivers, director, even makeup staff; all had their turn, and none had anything to say other than that either they were not on the

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scene or if they were, they were totally surprised by the sudden appearance of the masked raiders who turned out not to be the expected robbers. Preston called for a tea-break and lit a cigarette. “We’re getting nowhere, Coleman,” he said, “If these BBC people are involved, they’re not letting on. What about the building society staff? Did you get Scott’s report?” “Yes, sir. Complete blank there. To be expected, really.” A few minutes later Kevin was called in. “Now, Mr. Bestwick, you’ve admitted overall responsibility for yesterday’s affair. Would you like to start by telling me the object of the charade in the first place?” “Correction. I’m responsible for filming an episode as part of my larger production. I’m not responsible for the robbery.” “Sorry, poor choice of words. All right, what is this production?” “Quite simple: it’s a six-part series called All the way to the bank, which is about a criminal gang who pull off various hold-ups and so on. The idea yesterday was simply to film the building society hold-up as realistically as possible.” “So how did you expect to get the realism?” “By using an actual location (for which we had official permission, of course) and asking the counter staff to behave in their normal manner. We used actors for the customers because we didn’t want any unpredictable behaviour from the public like trying to stop the robbers. In fact a couple of your men were on duty outside keeping the public out.” “And what were your raiders supposed to do?” asked Preston. “They come in with sawnoffs and demand the cash. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure.” “Any disguise?” “Yes, balaclavas. That was how the other robbers fooled everybody — they wore balaclavas too, so naturally they were not challenged. They only came a minute or two before we were due to start shooting.” The detective’s eyebrows shot up. “Shooting?” “Shooting film.” “Oh, of course. So you are saying that the people who took the cash were nothing to do with your outfit; that you knew nothing whatsoever about them?” “Right. Our actors were told to take the fake cash which was already in position behind the counter.” “Mmm. And nobody could stop the raiders because of the tear gas. Was tear gas part of your plan?” “No way. Ours was a simple hold-up job. Stick-em-up, take the lolly and run.” Preston glanced at Coleman, who took over. “Mr. Bestwick,” he said, “It’s an enormous coincidence that these robbers came almost split seconds before your show was due to start. We can’t help feeling that you, or someone in your mob, was definitely involved in this. I mean, it was awfully convenient for them that two policemen were outside keeping the public out, and that they passed unhindered because of the similar dress.” “You may think that,” replied Kevin, “I can only assure you that is not the case.” “But the BBC is bound to be held responsible,” persisted the junior inspector, “The Minster are hardly going to take this lying down, are they?” “That’s for the legal boys to sort out,” said Kevin, “All I’m saying that it’s nothing to do with my production.” “It looks to me,” said Preston loftily, “that word of your little visit leaked out, and somebody took advantage of the knowledge. Is that possible?” “Very possible,” said Kevin, “with so many people involved in the trip, from actors to drivers and other staff, not to mention that all location shootings have to be logged, why, almost anyone in this building could have picked up the information.” A short silence later, Preston nodded his thanks to Kevin and released him. “We’re not getting very far, are we?” said Preston, “Come to think of it, it’s not only the BBC people who could have leaked it out, it’s anyone at the building society; they were in the know.” “Don’t forget our people, too, guv,” suggested Coleman, “Willesden Nick knew about it in advance. There are still bent coppers about.” Preston nodded sadly. “The number of possibles is running to three figures now,” he said gloomily. “Right, let’s have this mysterious lady of Scott’s in now. The one who claimed to have predicted everything.” “Sit down, Miss Martin. Now I’m told by Inspector Scott of Willesden that you have a taperecording which you claim is a plot to rob the Minster Building Society.”

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“That is so,” said Linda eagerly, “and I have it with me.” She drew a small tape machine from her handbag and placed it on the table. “That’s very convenient. Where did you get this recording?” “Er, from a friend who works here.” “What friend?” “I’d rather not say for the moment.” “Really! Well, let it pass. Where was this recording made?” “In Studio 8, just opposite here.” “Very well. We’d better hear it.” Linda played the tape through and watched the detectives’ faces carefully. “Well? Isn’t it obvious?” “Isn’t what obvious?” “That Stoner planned the whole robbery.” “Who’s Stoner?” “The one talking. He’s in cahoots with Bestwick, and has been for some time. He plans things and Bestwick carries them out.” “Agreed.” Linda was surprised. “You agree?” “Of course. It’s obvious. But just what are they planning?” She stared. “Why, the robbery.” “Of course the robbery,” said Preston impatiently, “the make-believe robbery that everybody knows about. The one they were to have filmed. They mention the co-operation of the building society and the police; that all ties in with the idea of a film. We want to know who is responsible for the extra robbery, the people who took the cash.” She began to get excited. “But I know it’s those two. I heard them conniving months ago. They’ve been at it some time. I don’t know exactly what else they’ve been up to, but they intended this sort of thing from the start. They planned to use actors to commit crimes: I heard it! And now you’ve got a crime, why don’t you do something about it?” “You actually heard them?” “Yes, in Stoner’s office. And they admitted it, to my face.” “They admitted it? Can you prove this?” “There was a witness there, Stoner’s secretary. She heard them talk about it, every word.” Preston looked at Coleman and back at Linda. “We’d better interview your witness, hadn’t we? Name?” “I’m not sure. Ruby something. But she’ll be easy to find. David Stoner’s office, Barons Court Road, West Kensington.” “Right, Coleman, have her brought in — and Stoner, soon as you can.” Coleman left the room and instructed a sergeant to find and pick up the two people. “Thank you, Miss er, Martin. We might need you again, so just wait across the corridor, please. Leave the tape here, if you will.” Linda went back to Studio 8 where she was met by suspicious glances from Kevin and a few others who remained there. Airily she sat on the nearest chair and ostentatiously turned her back on Kevin. Coleman returned to the interview room. “Well, sir, what do you think? She on to something?” “Could be,” replied Preston, “Can’t afford to ignore it. We’re getting nowhere with the other witnesses. Let’s send for a cup of coffee.” Half an hour later Ruby was sitting in front of Preston. “Good morning, madam. I’m Chief Inspector Preston of Scotland Yard. This is my colleague, Inspector Coleman. May I have your full name, please?” “Ruby Alice Woods — Mrs.” “Mrs Woods, you work for a Mr. Stoner, as a secretary, I believe?” “That is correct.” “What is Mr. Stoner’s occupation?” “He’s an actors’ agent.” “What is his connection with the BBC, and in particular with Mr. Kevin Bestwick?” “Excuse me, Chief Inspector, but why am I being asked these questions?” “There has been a serious robbery and the BBC are involved. We have good reason to think Mr. Stoner is also involved.” “Then why don’t you ask him?” “I intend to; but I prefer to see you first. Now please answer my question.”

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“David supplies actors for television work mainly, and Mr. Bestwick is one of the producers he sees from time to time.” “I see. But why was Mr. Stoner addressing a bunch of actors in the studio across the corridor? Surely an agent has no part in arranging the actual production?” “I agree it is a little unusual,” said Ruby, “but David and Kevin were good friends, and it turned out that David could come up with good ideas for programmes, so Kevin started to consult him and then work on the ideas David came up with.” “Hmm. Were you by any chance present on the occasion when there was a briefing on robbing Minster Building Society?” “I was not. I heard about the incident. As far as I know, David planned the pretence scenario and that’s it. I knew he was going to give his ideas to the cast.” “Isn’t it normal to have a script for a television play?” “Not with Kevin. He liked his cast to improvise from a skeleton plot: he said the acting was better that way.” “Really. Well, Mrs. Woods, cast your mind back. Did you at any time hear Mr. Stoner and Mr. Bestwick plan together to use actors for criminal purposes?” “Good Lord, no.” Ruby was getting a little puzzled now. “We have a witness who says that you did.” “Who?” “Miss Linda Martin. Remember now?” “No, I do not.” Preston nodded to Coleman, who put his head out of the door and muttered to the sergeant. Moments later Linda Martin entered the room. “Please sit there, Miss Martin,” said Preston, “and repeat your accusation in front of Mrs. Woods.” Linda looked Ruby straight in the eye and said, “Come on, Ruby, you remember a month or two ago when I was in your office, we overheard David and Bestwick on the intercom.” “I remember that, yes.” “And what did they say?” “You expect me to remember every word?” “No, but what was it about?” “It was about a forthcoming production, I suppose. All they said was that the story would involve illegal activities. Actors do that, you know, they play coppers and robbers and do murders and all sorts of crimes. It’s what the viewers want, apparently.” “But this was real crime! They said they were going to use actors to commit crimes!” “Ridiculous,” said Ruby, “you’re letting your imagination run away with you.” “All right, ladies,” interposed Preston, “I’ve heard enough. Clearly Miss Martin is under a misapprehension. Thank you both very much.” “She’s lying!” cried Linda angrily, “They’re all in this together. Are you going to let them get away with it?” “Thank you, Miss Martin, that will be all. Don’t go far, please.” David was last to be interviewed. In the police car he was a little worried because of Ruby. He couldn’t discuss anything in front of the policewoman who accompanied them, and he hoped Ruby wouldn’t crack under pressure. “You are Mr. David Stoner?” “Yes.” “I’m told you work in conjunction with Mr. Kevin Bestwick to help plan his productions, is that right?” “Yes.” “Isn’t that rather unusual?” “Yes.” Preston wriggled a little; that had been a silly question. “Hmm. Did you ever discuss criminal activities with him?” “Yes. He produces TV programs, and some of them are about crime.” “Very well. What do you know about the Minster robbery.” “Not a lot, except that some clever gang got wind of our show and pre-empted us with real money.” This was getting nowhere. Preston tried another tack. “Did you know we have a tape-recording of you addressing some BBC people in the next studio?” David’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t know that. “May I ask where that recording came from?”

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“It’s not important at the moment. The point is that we have every word you said to them.” David was really worried now. What had he said? Don’t let them see you’re bothered, he thought; keep a straight face. “So?” “Nothing perhaps. But I was puzzled by one thing. You introduced a new member, what would that be, of the cast perhaps?” “Er, yes. John Appleton.” “Right. But you said he was an exactor. What does that mean?” “Exactor? Did I say that? Probably I meant to say actor.” “Coleman, play that tape again, will you?” After a few moments David’s voice was heard saying “. . . he’s already an accomplished Exactor, and has given a valuable contribution to our resources.” Coleman stopped the tape on Preston’s nod. “Curious, isn’t it, Mr. Stoner?” David was flustered. He was good at long-term thinking, not improvisation like John. What to say, what to say? “I’m waiting, Mr. Stoner.” “Er, I really can’t explain that. Accomplished actor is what I surely meant, but perhaps I . . . yes, I probably was thinking he was out of work at that point, in other words an ex-actor, and I got mixed up. Sort of Freudian slip.” “I see,” said Preston, and tapped the table thoughtfully. David palpitated as he waited for the blow to fall. Surely he was caught out now? “Very well, Mr. Stoner, that will be all, thank you.” said Preston. Trying not to display relief, David left the room as steadily as he could. “What do you think, sir?” asked Coleman when the door was shut. “What do I think? I think we’re well and truly up against it. We’re not going to get anything out of these people.” “But what about Linda Martin?” “Do you think her evidence would stand up in court? Not for one moment. They’d have her down as a nutcase in no time. She’s obviously got her knife into those two, and is pushing credibility as far as she can go. She probably wasn’t given an acting part she wanted; something like that.” “So what do we do now?” “Not a lot. We can send the foot-soldiers out following every slender lead we’ve got, but until we can trace the source of the leak I can’t see us catching the gang. Come on, call it a day. You can let all the witnesses go.” DAVID, KEVIN AND RUBY quietly convened in Kevin’s office to discuss the CID’s visit. “Think they suspected anything?” asked Kevin. “Possibly,” said David, “They asked me some awkward questions, but they couldn’t pin me down. What about you?” “They got nothing out of me.” “Nor me,” said Ruby. “That was a wonderful idea of yours, David,” said Kevin, “having two teams. Did Mary enjoy it?” “She certainly said so when she delivered the money to the office,” said Ruby. “How much was it anyway?” “Near enough fifteen thousand pounds,” she said, “It’s all stashed away now. Ready for cash payments to the members.” “What I want to know,” said Kevin, “is what the hell is Linda Martin doing here? She was questioned along with the rest of us.” “I can tell you that,” said Ruby, “She brought up that incident at the office months ago, when you first had the idea of the Exactors. She overheard, remember? Just now she was accusing you both of planning this whole robbery. She is virtually on to us.” “Good God!” said Kevin, “How do you know this? Did Preston tell you?” “Yes, and he brought us face to face, so I denied it, of course. I said you were merely planning a TV crime show and she had misunderstood it.” “Did Preston swallow that?” “He did,” grinned Ruby, “and sent her packing.” “I get it,” said David slowly, “It’ll be her that produced the tape. They had a tape-recording of our last meeting; did you know that?” “God, no,” said Kevin.

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“So that’s what he meant,” said Ruby, “Preston asked me why David was addressing the actors in Studio 8. I never thought at the time to ask how he knew that. Where would she get this recording anyway?” “I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Kevin, “but I’ll do my best to find out.” “We’d better wait till this affair dies down a bit, “said David, “and call another meeting. If there’s a traitor in our midst we’ll have to run carefully in future.” “Agreed,” said Kevin. “Ruby,” said David, putting his arm round her and giving her a squeeze, “Thanks. For everything.”

Chapter 16

Enough already

LINDA RETURNED TO HER HOUSE to find Rachel there waiting for her in the lounge. “Hi, darling,” she said, “made yourself comfortable?” “Yes. Wondered where you’d been lately. Tried ringing you this morning but no reply. Alastair’s still away, I suppose?” “Yes, and I’ve been busy the last few days. Read about the Minster robbery, didn’t you? Has David told you about it?” “No, why should he? We don’t speak much these days.” “He’s mixed up in it, that’s why.” Rachel stared. “David? What are you talking about?” “He’s in cahoots with Bestwick, didn’t I tell you?” “You’d better spell this out.” “Sit down, darling. Bestwick produces TV shows, right? David’s friendly with him. Together they cooked up a scheme to use actors for criminal activities, and for months they’ve probably been at it. But at last I caught them out. A chap at the Television Centre left a tape-recorder in a studio where they meet, and captured them describing the plans for the Minster robbery. David’s the master-mind, would you believe? He tells them what to do, and they do it. Now they’ve robbed the Minster of thousands, and the police were investigating it all at Shepherd’s Bush. I told them all about David.” “You what?” “I told them all I knew: you see I overheard them when they first set up this crooked organisation, and then there is the tape of this particular crime. The only problem is that the police didn’t seem to believe me.” “Hang on a minute,” said Rachel, “Why would the police want to interview you? Are you part of this group?” “Of course not, but I had this evidence so I came forward.” “Evidence against David.” “Yes.” “Which could have got him arrested.” “Yes. Only they haven’t. I mean not yet. But they will, you’ll see, I’ll get them to believe me yet. I’ll get Peter to come forward, too.” “Peter?” “He’s the man who got me the tape-recording which incriminates David. He works at the BBC.” Rachel put her head in her hands for a moment, then spoke as quietly as her mounting rage would allow. “You’re telling me you went out of your way to try to incriminate David in some scheme? You spied on him, got someone else to help you, told the police, they didn’t believe you, and even now you are determined to get him arrested?” “Yes. Aren’t you pleased?” Rachel’s voice rose. “Aren’t I pleased? Aren’t I pleased? That’s my husband you’re talking about! Do you think I’m going to listen to this stuff and then congratulate you? What the hell are you playing at, Linda? Have you gone mad?” Linda was bewildered. “But darling, you want rid of him, surely? So we can stay together?” Rachel too was at a loss for a moment: she couldn’t explain, even to herself, why this attack on David had so outraged her. Till now her thoughts had been on divorce followed by life with Linda; but suddenly things appeared in a different light. David a criminal? David in prison? Unthinkable! She rose. “I need to think about this,” she said, “I’m going now. I’ll be in touch.” “Rachel!” cried Linda, “What’s wrong? Let’s talk about this.” But Rachel was already through the door.

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“GOOD MORNING, DAVID,” said Ruby as he arrived at the office. David merely nodded to her and passed into his own room. This wasn’t like him. She followed him and studied him for a moment. “David,” she said gently, “What’s wrong?” He looked up at this faithful, capable woman on whom he had relied so much for so long, and sighed. “Ruby,” he said, “my life is in a mess. There’s not a lot to live for.” “Surely that’s not true. You have so many friends, so many who . . . love you.” “Have I?” he said bitterly, “With my wife gone lesbian, and now Jessica . . .” His voice trailed off. Ruby was startled. “Jessica gone lesbian?” “No, no. It’s the pregnancy: there isn’t one. She isn’t pregnant and never was. She deceived me. I thought I was going to have a child at last, but now — “ “Oh, David, I’m so sorry. That’s awful.” She longed to put her arms round him, but dared not. “So I’ve finished with her. And finished with Rachel, of course. No family now. No family, nothing.” This black despondency was more than Ruby could bear. Briskly she marched out and put the kettle on. Busying herself with making coffee, she wondered what she could do to snap David out of his mood. She knew how much the prospect of a child had meant to him. Now it looked impossible. But perhaps . . . there was always John. David was certainly fond of him: there must be a way to bring his thoughts round in that direction, perhaps. She took the coffee in to him. “Come along, David, drink this; there’s work to do. All the Exactors’ monthly cheques need signing: I’ve got half of them ready, and soon I’ll have the rest done. The papers are full of the Minster business. MPs are starting to ask questions about the efficiency of the police.” “I know. All right, Ruby, let’s have the cheques.” Half an hour later he seemed to be a little more cheerful, but Ruby was worried this might not last. The phone rang. She lifted the receiver, listened to the voice the other end, and said, “Putting you through.” David took the call, and she went on seeing to her filing. Five minutes later David came out, actually smiling. “Ruby, can you get John round here? I’ve got him a part.” “A part? In television? That’s wonderful! What is it?” “Never mind, can you get him here?” “Not easily, he’s not on the phone. Tell you what, shall I send a taxi round to his house?” “Yes, that’ll do it.” Quickly she called up a taxi service and made the arrangements, then burst in on David again. “Please, what is it? Is it a good part?” David smiled. “You could say that. Beeb Two want a whole cast for a new serial. They were so pleased with the Kidnapped people, they’ve asked me again. This one is by Alan Bennett, no less. You’ll never guess what it’s called.” “Go on!” “Charles and Camilla. And guess who’s going to play Charles if I have my way?” “Oh!! Can John do it? I mean Charles is what, fifty-odd?” “He can do it, I think. Well, he’ll have some tough auditions, but he can play older men, and this series starts when Charles is much younger. Traces the whole story, you see.” “That’s wonderful!” Ruby’s eyes sparkled; in fact so did David’s. “He’ll be so good, I know it,” he said, “They’ll do something with his nose, and then there’s the ears, of course. Once he gets into the part, you won’t know the difference.” “I can’t wait to see John’s face when he hears why he’s coming here,” she said proudly. THAT EVENING DAVID ENTERED HIS HOUSE a little more cheerfully than usual, and soon sat down to dinner with Rachel, this having become normal lately. He expected the usual cool, noncommittal conversation but was a little surprised at what took place. After the sweet had been eaten and the coffee produced, Rachel said quietly “David, I want you to tell me about the crime syndicate.” He looked at her with surprise. She was not supposed to know a thing about it. “What crime syndicate?” “Linda claims you are mixed up in a racket using actors to commit crimes. Is that true?” David thought quickly. If he admitted it, would not Rachel use the knowledge against him, and speed the divorce? He’s better play this by ear. “What exactly does she claim?” “That you and Kevin Bestwick are partners in a scheme to use actors to bring off crimes. That this latest robbery — the building society thing — is all your work. She actually said you are the master mind.” “And if I was?” “You mean you are?”

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“No, I mean I’m asking what you would think of me.” “I wouldn’t want you to go to prison. Not that. Whatever you’ve done, I — I — Well, I wouldn’t want that.” David looked at her carefully. “I’m not going to prison, Rachel. I do plan crimes with Kevin Bestwick, yes, but these are television scripts. Linda Martin’s got it all wrong.” “I’m so glad,” said Rachel with relief, “I knew she was wrong about it. The thing is, she seemed so — well, vindictive over you, and I didn’t like it.” “Oh. I thought at one time you’d have been delighted.” “Perhaps I would have, at first. But, well, time has passed, and I’ve had time to think. David, I realised something yesterday that I’ve been blind to for so long.” She paused, uncertain how to go on. David merely looked puzzled. “What is it?” he asked. She fidgeted, feeling like a schoolgirl on her first affair. “That I love you,” she said, “There: it’s out now. I feel such a fool, the way I’ve behaved; the way I’ve treated you, and especially for this Linda thing. I’m sorry, David, I really am.” He sat open-mouthed. At last he said “Rachel, I can’t take this in. What are you trying to tell me?” “That I love you. Didn’t I just say so? I’ve always loved you. You may not believe that, but it’s true. You’ve always been the man for me, though I guess you haven’t believed it, with my attitude to sex. You know all about that, how the miscarriage put me off it. All right, I admit it, I was totally neurotic about getting pregnant again, and now of course it’s too late for children. But that has never stopped me loving and admiring you.” “But what about Linda? Didn’t that prove you were really lesbian?” “No, David, I’m not a les. But having the affair with Linda opened my eyes to what sex can be like when you give yourself totally: you see it’s impossible to get pregnant by another woman so I was able to let myself go fully — for the first time in my life, I think. Now I understand how important sex can be to a person. Now I understand what I’ve been depriving you of all these years.” He drew a deep breath. “Well, that’s something, I suppose. But you’re with her now, aren’t you?” “No, David, I’m going to split with her. I haven’t told her yet, but I will. After the first excitement had died down, I began to realise that a woman needs a man. I’m not homosexual at all, and now I realise what was wrong with me, I want proper sex, the real thing. I won’t be frightened of pregnancy any more. Perhaps I’m too old now anyway, but even if I’m not, I don’t care. I want you. Do you still want me?” He sat still, looking at her, his mind in a whirl. She waited anxiously. “David, please answer me. I would understand if you didn’t want me; after all, you’ve got Jessica, and she can give you a baby. I can’t really offer you that, only myself. Is that enough?” He said heavily “I haven’t got Jessica. She’s not pregnant and never was. It was all a lie. You’ve no idea how shattered I was when I found out. So we’ve split up — for good.” “Oh, David! I can’t believe it! How could anyone play a trick like that?” “Well, she did. Can you understand that I feel I can’t trust any woman now? How can I trust you after the way you’ve treated me? It’s too much!” “Yes, David, I understand. I can only say that I truly mean every word I’ve said. I do love you and I want you back. Please say you’ll think about it. Surely you don’t want a divorce any more than I do now?” “I can’t say. Yes, I’ll think about it. It’s all a bit of a shock.” “There’s another thing. For a long time now I’ve been a terrible spendthrift, always buying new clothes and only thinking of myself. I realise now that was just selfish. I suppose it was some sort of compensation for not having a baby. I was punishing you and I should have been punishing myself. I can only ask your forgiveness and say that I intend to change totally in future. I just want to make you happy now, and try to make up for those lost years.” David looked at her dubiously. Did she mean it? Could she change after all this time? Did she really love him? She was still a beautiful woman and the old twinge of attraction returned as he thought of being in bed with her. But he couldn’t risk being hurt again, not yet. She would have to wait for an answer. RUBY STOOD EXPECTANTLY as John came into the office. “Well?” she almost screamed. John beamed. “I got it!” he said. “Wheee!” she cried. “David, David! Come here! He got it!” “Congratulations, lad,” said David warmly, “I knew it. Well done.” “Thanks to you,” said John, “If it hadn’t been for you — “

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“Forget it, you thoroughly deserve it. Of course, there’s one snag, you know.” “What’s that?” asked John anxiously. “You can’t belong to the Exactors any more!” “Oh,” said John with relief, “That’s right. And I can’t work here either. I guess you’ll be taking your twelve-and-a-half per cent from now on.” Ruby looked severely at David, who hastily said “Ten per cent to you, son.” “Right,” said Ruby, “Here’s a little something I prepared earlier.” And out of a cupboard came a bottle of champagne and three glasses. As they drank the warm wine John proposed “Here’s to Stoner and Co., agents extraordinary.” Amid chuckles the three friends drained the glasses and refilled them. TWO WEEKS LATER the Exactors were again in Studio 8, strangely quiet compared with previous meetings. Kevin stood up. “We’ve carefully checked the room for bugs this time and it’s clean. I don’t suppose you know that our last full meeting was tape-recorded and the tape given to the police?” The resultant babel confirmed that they didn’t. “Well, we got away with it. The police thought it was all a discussion about a programme, as indeed it was, virtually; so that’s all right. And another thing that only a few of you know is that the marauding robbers at Harlesden were actually our people. Stand up Mary Douglas and friends!” Amid gasps, applause and cheers Mary and two companions rose and clasped arms. “Yes, behind the balaclavas and gas masks were three ladies who wanted a prominent part. Happy now, Mary?” “I got a great kick out of it,” said Mary, “but I was terribly nervous something would go wrong. And breathing through a balaclava and a gas-mask is no fun, either.” “Never mind, you pulled it off. The fund got — what was it, Ruby? — Fifteen thousand, that’s right.” “Where do we go from here?” called out Paul Rossiter. “We’re not sure yet, are we, David? But we thought we’d better fill everybody in with the result of last time. And plan for the future. We don’t want a repetition of the bugging affair. Maybe we’ll need to meet somewhere else.” “Hang on,” said Rossiter, “What I mean to say is, do we need to go on? Haven’t we gone far enough? Get out while we’re winning? There’s always the danger that the next job will go wrong and someone will get caught.” “Finish the whole thing? Is that what you mean?” “I think Paul’s right,” said someone else, “This whole thing was fun for a while. But now, what with all the police questioning and that, well . . .” Norman Newcombe spoke up. “I agree. It’s true you get a terrific buzz doing these stunts, but it’s not like real acting. we’ve got no audience, or just a small one. We don’t reach millions like you can do on the box, and well, an actor wants that. I don’t know how others feel.” For the next few minutes several people spoke, the majority in agreement with Norman, though half a dozen wanted to carry on. “If that’s what most of you think,” said Kevin, “we have little option. What about the technical boys?” The technical boys looked at each other and shrugged. “About the same, really,” said Roger Wallace. “We like to think our work is appreciated by a lot of people.” Kevin looked at David questioningly. He stood up and spoke. “I hear what you are all saying. There’s no point in arguing with you; you all have to be for it or it doesn’t work. To tell you the truth, I’ve got a little tired of playing Robin Hood myself. It can get a bit dangerous, for that matter. So if you all agree, we’ll wind up the Exactors as from today. It was good while it lasted.” “I wouldn’t quarrel with that,” said Newcombe. “Right,” said David, “that leaves the question of what to do with the money. There’s plenty left, and I propose to go on paying out-of-work actors till it runs out. As before, anyone out of work for six months or more will qualify. And jobs are still tricky to find, but let’s hope things will get better. As soon as you get a job, no more money. Fair enough?” “Fair enough”, murmured most of the assembly. “Well, that’s it, then. Goodbye and good luck!” said David, then turned and shook hands with Kevin. The meeting broke up with animated conversation and the ex-Exactors drifted away. “Well, Kevin,” said David, “It’s business as before, then.” “Not a marvellous prospect compared with what we’ve been doing,” commented Kevin. “True, not so interesting, or exciting.” “I didn’t mean that. What I mean is, the actors are back to scripts now, instead of improvising.”

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“Of course they are. That’s what drama is all about. You need a script.” “You need a plot. A script’s different. It never goes properly.” “What do you mean?” “Have you ever sat through a play, television, cinema, anything, and not heard half a dozen lines spoilt by actors who don’t think what their lines mean? Time and again they accent the wrong word in a sentence because all they’ve done is learn their lines without looking at the rest of the dialogue to get the context right. For example: you know phrases like ‘isn’t it’, ‘aren’t you’ and so on? How many times do actors get them right?” “I don’t follow.” “All right. If I say to you now ‘You do, don’t you?’ I can either drop my voice at the end or raise it. That gives two different meanings, one where the speaker sounds sure, one where he’s unsure. Try it.” David tried out the two ways. “Yes. Two meanings.” “You start listening to how actors do it. They almost invariably give the unsure version whereas the script clearly calls for the other. They just don’t think.” David laughed. “Being a bit hypercritical, aren’t you?” “No, I’m not. No scriptwriter likes his subtleties obscured. And show me an actor who can pronounce ‘Ma’am’ properly.” “I’m beginning to see what you mean. When an actor improvises, he’s far more natural and doesn’t make these mistakes.” “Absolutely. And the worst thing is, these young directors don’t notice a thing.” “Let’s hope the audience doesn’t, then,” said David, “Well, I’m off now. We’ll be in touch before long. Cheerio.” DAVID FELT LIKE GETTING AWAY from his marital problems, so arranged another golf game with John. Once they were on to the first fairway he asked how the Charles and Camilla was going. “Not much yet,” answered John,” I’ve got the script and started reading it. It’s great stuff. Sure to attract a huge audience. This is one hell of an opportunity for me; I just hope I don’t blow it” “You won’t. Didn’t you tell me you once played the king in The Apple Cart?” “That’s right. But this is so much bigger, somehow. Oh well . . . Hey, look at my damn ball: stuck right behind this tree.” David chuckled, and watched his protégé‚ extricating himself from this setback. “How’s Angie?” he asked as they walked on. “Angie? Ah, I’ve some news for you there. She’s expecting.” “John! Angie pregnant! That’s terrific!” “She wanted to tell you herself, but I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer.” “Are you pleased?” “Am I pleased? You bet! And of course we’ll be getting married real soon.” “John, I couldn’t be happier for you. And I envy you, too.” John was silent. He knew David was childless. “We’ll see you get a slap-up wedding. And christening, if that’s what you do.” “I don’t know about the christening. But if it’s a boy, we’re calling him David.” “Are you really?” David was beaming now. “And Ruby if it’s a girl.” “Wow! This calls for drinks in the clubhouse. Have you told Ruby yet? “Not yet. But I thought Angie and I would invite you both out to celebrate somewhere soon.” “Suits me.” And the rest of the game went with a swing . . . AT A SMALL RESTAURANT in Holland Park the promised celebration was well under way. Towards the end of the meal David proposed a toast. “To John and Angie — and their future family.” All drank cheerfully and John replied “That includes you, David, and you, Ruby. You’re family to me.” Ruby wiped a little tear from her eye, and David coughed. “I was just wondering,” he said, “Where you’ll be living in future. Your present place doesn’t sound too good, from what I’ve heard.” “We’ll be looking out for a better flat or something,” said John, “won’t we, Angie? Probably this side of London, or maybe north.” “Well, I’ve got a better idea. There’s a very nice flat not a million miles from here that would suit you admirably, rent paid for six months. Consider it a wedding present from me.”

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“David! Do you mean it?” “Of course. Bring Angie along to look at it any time. If you don’t like it, just say so.” “That’s wonderful. Thank you so much!” Angie planted a huge kiss on David’s cheek and hugged him like a bear. He didn’t mind a bit. “For that,” he said, “you can have a bicycle.” She looked puzzled, so he continued, “I’ve got a spare lady’s bike at home, nearly new. Yours if you want it; you could cycle to work on it till you give up.” “Thanks, David,” she said, “I’d love it.” A MONTH LATER John and Angie stood outside Treversley Parish Church to have their wedding photographs taken. Around them stood Angie’s parents, John’s mother, and several family and friends. Close to the newlyweds stood David, flanked by Rachel and Ruby on either side. As the photographer marshalled them all into his pattern David put an arm round each of the women and smiled broadly at the camera. Later at the reception he sat quietly watching the cheerful scene as couples danced. He had had two sherries, three champagnes and a glass of port and was feeling happy and mellow. He looked fondly at the bridal pair, and at Ruby and Rachel as they chatted together. He caught Ruby looking at him and smiled back. Funny, he thought, when I was running the Exactors I felt so important that all those people depended on me. But these are the ones I really want to depend on me. If only I could match their expectations. I’m far from being a perfect person . . . BACK AT WIMBLEDON PARK, the Stoners dumped their travelling cases and flopped on the settee for a while. Rachel switched on the television and they sat through the news, each busy with their own thoughts. David sat up and nudged Rachel as a trailer came on, announcing the BBC’s programme of forthcoming productions, beginning with Charles and Camilla and going on with several others. Was television drama turning the corner at last? Fewer repeats, more new productions? A little later they trudged upstairs, Rachel leading the way. David paused at the landing window and looked out. Too dark to see any golfers. Were there any fanatics out there? More likely a few trespassing lovers, if anybody. He continued on up the stairs and smiled at Rachel standing in the bedroom doorway. He entered and placed a loving hand on her shoulder. “It was a happy day, wasn’t it?”, he said as he closed the door behind him.

Postscript
A WEEK LATER, over in Streatham, Ruby sat watching The Lust Triangle starring Linda Martin. I see she’s made a come-back since she went over to Golding’s agency, she thought; oh well, she and David never did get on, and after she nearly ruined him… I wonder how he’s getting on with Rachel now: he seems a lot happier. She sighed wistfully. SITTING BEFORE HIS TELEVISION SET in Hampstead, John Haisu watched Cards on the Table, the first of a new series of dramas produced by Kevin Bestwick. Quite interesting, he thought, might stick with this. Suddenly he sat bolt upright and regarded one of the characters intently. Impatiently he waited until the end of the programme and grunted with satisfaction as the cast list rolled up. “Norman Newcombe,” he murmured. He crossed the room, reached for his phone and dialled a Tokyo number.

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