The next thing I knew I woke up lying on a strange bed in a strange room with a strange man sitting and looking at me with concern.
“What the....” I said through dry lips.
“Sorry,” the strange man said, ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He was middle aged, silver haired, on the plumpish side, wearing suit trousers and an unbuttoned waistcoat. His shirt was open at the collar, tie pulled down, and it looked like it was a few days since seeing an ironing board.
I sat up, and I had a light bulb moment. “Robert?” I said.
A nod, then “How do you know?”
“Your son Timothy. He hired me to find you”
“I’m a detective. Private. You’re missing, He suspected that you might be involved in something dodgy. Hence, no police.” I swallowed. Dry mouth. “Is there anything to drink?”
“No. Had enough coffee for now. Something with a sealed top. I looked at my watch. The date-a-day read 24. The time, half ten. Outside it was light, so it had to be morning. Looked like the goose and accoutrements had been cooked though. “Christmas eve,” I said.
He nodded. So I had been out for almost a day.
I felt in my pockets. Telephone absent. “Phone?” I asked.
He shook his head. Course not. Silly me.
“Bathroom,” I said.
He pointed at the door to an en-suite. I went and relieved myself. Afterwards I checked the medicine cabinet. Corporate hospitality. There were new toothbrushes in cellophane, and new combs the same. I cleaned my teeth to get rid of the aftertaste of the Mickey Finn, and combed my hair because I could. Feeling better I went back into the bedroom and he showed me round our digs like a estate agent looking for a rental from a punter. It wasn’t half bad for a prison as it goes. A large sitting room, sofas, armchairs, a dining table and chairs, no bars on the windows, but it was up at least half the building, so there was no escape that way. A flat screen plasma TV mounted on the wall was playing It’s A Wonderful Life with the sound down. Someone’s idea if a joke I imagined. The door was shut tight with no handle or keyhole on the inside. Off the room was a small kitchen with all the usual accouterments including a large fridge. Inside I found a bottle of Becks still sealed. I lopped off the top and dived in. That was better. There was also a plate of sandwiches which meant we weren’t supposed to starve. I helped myself. Egg mayo on whole-meal. Not bad.
“So, Robert,” I said, when I went back into the main room and sat on the arm of an armchair.
“Bob. Why are we here?”
“I made mistakes. I was blind. No. There’s an old saying ‘none as blind as those who will not see’. That was me. I’m a rich man. A very rich man. Marley Inc made me so. I have a wonderful wife, wonderful children. I live in a house fit for a king. But there was a price to pay. There always is. Then one night I had a dream. I dreamt that I could see my past, my present and my future. Not a pretty one. I won’t go into details. So, I looked closely at what previously I had ignored. Marley Inc is rotten from the ground up. From the bottom down. Right to the core.”
“In what ways?”
“Money laundering, fraud. Plain theft. We rake in money from the third world and decimate their countries, then leave them broke. It was all there and I collected the evidence and put together a file. Then I made my last mistake.”
‘I went to our CEO, Ebenezer Scrooge and told him what I knew, and what I intended to do.”
“Press one key on any of the keyboards here and hold it down for ten seconds, then the file would go”
“Everywhere I could think of. The Bank of England, Bank of America, financial regulators, newspapers, TV, radio. But it didn’t happen. Scrooge called in Sykes and his bully boys, and dragged me down here. Then you arrived.”
“What do you think they have in store for us?”
“Not a merry Christmas. There’s millions, billions involved. I think they planned to dispose of me. And now, I’m afraid you. I’m so sorry Mr Sharman. The firm closes down this afternoon for a week for Christmas. The only staff on duty answer to Sykes. He’ll be free to do his worst.”
“Call me Nick. And not if I have my way,”
“What can you do?
That was a question I couldn’t answer right then.
I sat and cogitated, and Bob stood by the window looking at the snow falling. Suddenly he said, “do you see what I see?
“Do you see what I see?”
“Are we singing carols?”
“No. Outside. Look”
I got up and joined him. By stretching my neck, I could see down to the street outside through the snowstorm, and which was swirling with blue lights. “Are they here for us?” Asked Bob.
I didn’t have a chance to answer as the room door burst open and Billy Sykes burst in dragging his dog behind him by the leash in his right hand. In the other hand he held that thick leather quirt. He was wearing the same costume as the day before except he’d changed his shirt, and his scarf was blue. “Did you do this?” he demanded, looking at me. ”Bring in the police.”
I shrugged. I hadn’t a clue, but I wouldn’t admit it to him.
“Did you tell anyone you were coming here?” he demanded.
“I may have mentioned the place.”
But he was interrupted as Ben blew in through the open door, skidded on the carpet and ended up in front of me, bum against my leg to protect me, fur bristling and teeth bared at Sykes.
“Get him Bullseye,” ordered Sykes.
But Bullseye knew, like I did, that Ben was the alpha dog in that room, like any other room he might be in. Bullseye pulled back behind his master’s protection only to get a kick from one of the riding boot Sykes was wearing. ‘Bastard,” he yelled and raised the quirt to batter his dog. But Ben was too quick for him and launched himself at his arm. Cloth ripped and Sykes yelled and went down on one knee. I ran across and kicked him hard in the ribs, knocking him flat, as Jack Robber and a load of coppers arrived. Jack was out of breath. “Christ,” he said. “For a three-legged dog he can’t half run.”
“How did you know?” I asked as Sykes was hauled to his feet by a pair of uniforms and relieved of his quirt and his dog.
“Fido was seen in your car. Traffic warden tried to get him out. Then traffic. They checked the reg and put out a call to find you. I saw the telex and when I saw where the car was found, and it looked like you’d not been seen or heard if for more than a day, I put two and two together and did what I’m paid for.”
“Thank God you did. I think this crew were about to dispatch us to an early grave. By the way this is Bob Cratchit. I think he’s got some intel that might interest you and the fraud squad.”
Jack and Bob shook hands and I looked at my watch. Just past eleven. “Bob. You’d better hurry if you want to get your Christmas dinner.”
“I need to call my wife first. Have you got a phone?” he asked Robber. “Ours were confiscated.”
Robber handed over his Nokia and Bob punched in a number. “Mary, it’s me,” he said. “I know. Now don’t cry. Thanks to a Mr Sharman and the police I’m safe. I’ll be home soon I hope. Got to go. It’s not my phone.” He disconnected and handed the instrument back to Jack.
He held it up and said to me, ”you?”
“Nobody’s missed me, but you Jack,” I said.
”So, what’s the score with wild Bill and his merry men?” I asked.
“We’ll hold them for kidnapping for now, and make further enquires.”
“Are Bob and I free to go?”
“Free as air. For now. But we’ll need statements.”
“Come on then Bob,” I said. “Hold on. Jack, where’s my motor?”
“In impound. Don’t know whether you’ll get it back before Christmas.”
“Lovely. Come on, we need rides.”
Jack went and talked to one of the plain clothes cops who’d come in with him. Then back to us. “Let’s go.”
“What about Bullseye?” I said.
“Kennels. Don’t worry about him. We look after animals better than people.”
We three went to the lifts and headed down. In the foyer icy knickers was still behind the jump. She smiled when she saw Bob. “We were worried,” she said. Her insincerity didn’t fool me, or him.
“No problem,” he replied, then said. “Let me see your keyboard.” I knew what he was going to do, and he did it. He held down a key, then came back to me. “It’s done,” he said. “For good or ill.”
Robber led the way to his car and we all piled in. “Theobalds Road,” I said. ”I hope we’re in time.”
We were barely. The butchers were on the pavement, fish and fowl safely inside, and the guv’nor was just about to pull down the shutters.
Bob dived out of the car and shouted, “hold on.”
“Mr Cratchit,” said the boss. “Almost missed us.”
“Ted,” said the boss to one of the others. “Mr Cratchit’s parcels. Look lively.”
Ted did as he was told and came back with three huge brown paper parcels all tied up neatly with twine.
“Better take you home,” said Robber as the snow kept falling.
“I’d be obliged” said Bob
So we all jumped back in Robber’s car with the parcels in the boot, and merry Christmas’s all round.
We drove through the snow to Bayswater, and Bob directed us round to a beautiful street full of beautiful houses. Bob’s was one of an elegant five storey terrace. All white with Doric columns outside. Black railings, and steps down to the basement. “Come in,” he said. “And have a drink.”
“No,” I said. “You need to get back to the family. They’ve missed you.”
“Then do come for lunch tomorrow. You’ve seen the makings we’ve got of a feast.”
I looked at Jack. Jack looked at me, and we both nodded.
Bob pointed at his house, Robber opened up the boot and Bob hauled out his parcels.
“Noon tomorrow,” was the last thing he said as we headed off again.
“If I’m out tomorrow I need to sort a few things out,” said Jack. “Mind if I drop you off? I’ll get you a cab.”
We drove to Bayswater Road and as luck would have it, a blackie was dropping off a fare. Robber turned on the blue lights under his radiator grille and pulled in front of the lobster. The cabbie gave a look through his window like he’d just had a demand from the revenue. Robber hopped out and shouted. “Got a fare for ya”
“I’m just off home,” came the reply.
“So, you can drop my mate off in Tulse Hill.”
“South of the river?” said the cabbie.
“Is that a joke?”
“Sorry. Just having a laugh. Come on then.”
I got out with Ben and we dived into the cab, and were regaled with tales of who this geezer had had in the back of his taxi, including a minor royal who had his hand up his companion’s skirt from Paddington to the palace all the way home.
I looked at Ben and he looked back, but neither of us spoke.
Our road was deep and crisp and even when we got there, but had been gritted so we were good to be dropped off at the garden gate. ‘How much? I asked the driver “Have it on me mate,” he said. “I never charge the Bill.”
“I’m not the Bill.”
“Close as, by the looks of it. And your dog could pass for police.”
“Army,” I said.
“Me too,” and he threw me a salute as he did a three-point-turn. “Merry Christmas.”
“You too,” I said as we went into the front garden where Ben turned some snow yellow before we went indoors.
Upstairs the flat was freezing, so I ramped up the thermostat and got out the gold watch for me, and a beer for Ben, There was a bag of albums I’d bought from my friend Al next to the stereo, so I put in my thumb and pulled out a plum. The Blue Note Christmas album, Yule Struttin’. Everyone from Baker to Basie. Fantastic. Then, all the hits from the Orleans, a fantastic dance album that had me up showing a few moves much to Ben’s disgust, followed by Etta James live in the house, on British Chess. Rare as hen’s teeth, and twice as expensive.
Later on, I cooked what was going to be our Christmas lunch for supper. A sausage bap. I had ketchup on my bit, Ben had brown sauce. I shook my head at his choice, but said nothing
Next morning after just coffee for breakfast for me, and Bonio for him, we took a taxi up to Bloomsbury. Double fare for Christmas Day, but I didn’t complain. The Cratchit house was, as Bob had said, fit for a king, and the size of a palace, and it needed to be, the number of Cratchits en famile. There was Mrs Cratchit, Mary, Timothy, Martha, Peter, and some whose names slipped past me, plus grannies and grandads and sisters and brothers, in and out of law.
Robber had arrived just before me and was already guzzling a Buck’s Fizz. A maid rushed to get me one too, and a bowl of water for Ben. It was too early for beer for him.
I was introduced to Mrs Cratchit in the kitchen, which was big enough, and full of enough equipment to cater for a small hotel, where she was overseeing a chef and a couple of helpers. “I hope we’re not intruding,” I said. “Seems like you have more than a full house already.”
“Nonsense,” she said back, whilst tasting from a pot full of bubbling gravy. “You and Jack and Ben between you saved Bob’s life. The Lord only knows what would have happened if you hadn’t turned up.”
“Fair enough.” She seemed to have gotten over the trauma of her husband’s disappearance quite well, and I sensed the steel beneath her calm exterior.
“And there are presents for all of you under the tree,” she said.
“Thank you. You shouldn’t.”
“Oh, I should.”
“How did you manage to organise that at such short notice.”
“It’s amazing what a Harrod’s platinum charge card can magic up on Christmas Eve. Now, off with you, I’ve got to make this meal happen dead on time.”
She kissed my cheek and showed me out, and I went back to the sitting room which was big enough to hold my whole flat twice over, where a monstrous Christmas tree held pride of place next to a roaring open log fire where Ben had found his natural home from home, and two kids whose names I hadn’t got were rolling round next to him. Someone had found a Santa hat and he was happily wearing it on the side of his head.
Jack was sitting in an armchair nursing his champagne glass. He was wearing a Santa hat too. I declined. Why spoil perfection?
Christmas dinner was served on the stroke of two. The dining table could have landed a jumbo jet. And what a spread. The goose took centre stage, next to the beef rib and a rabbit pie. There was a mountain of roast potatoes, a tub of mash, sprouts, carrots, fine beans, roasted radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, sauces and gravies enough to float a boat. On a side table was the vegetarian option for Timothy’s benefit I imagined. A nut roast, and more vegetables and a veggie gravy, the chef informed us. The chef carved, and his two helpers served. Bob sat at the head of the table, Mrs Cratchit at the foot. There were fine wines enough to fill a swimming pool, and pigs in and out of blankets.
Dessert was a flaming Christmas pudding set on fire as the lamps were lowered, plus mince pies, an apple pie, custard, ice cream, brandy butter and cheese from every corner of the globe. Coffee and liqueurs completed the meal.
Bob made a speech and thanked Jack, me and Ben.
Timothy stood, glass in hand and asked God to bless us everyone.
What a day!
So that was that. As usual, there were no papers on Christmas Day, but the story was the lead on the news that evening. Boxing Day it exploded.
Marley Inc tanked in the new year.
Scrooge, Sykes, Dodge, and a whole bunch of others went to jail. Fraud, money laundering, kidnap, false imprisonment, perverting the course of justice, were amongst the charges.
Bob turned Queen’s and got away with a slap on the wrist and a suspended sentence. He works for a charity now, and is famous for his good works amongst the underprivileged in east London.
The Cratchit family keep in touch. Always a Christmas card and lunch invitation. The presents Mrs Cratchit got us that day were top notch. It’s amazing what you can get on Christmas eve with a Harrod’s platinum card. Jack and I got Pateke Philippe gold watches with leather straps. Oblong, with an ivory coloured face. Beautiful pieces of kit. Mine had Nick, Christmas 1998 engraved on the back, Jack with his name and the date. Of course, being a serving police officer, he should have refused the gift. “Bollocks,” he said, “it’s mine.” And I don’t blame him. Ben didn’t need a watch, so instead, he ended up with a furry teddy bear that squeaked when it’s middle was pressed. He seemed satisfied.
The kite in my office drawer was for five grand and flew like bird. Good result.
A good result for Bullseye too. Seems Sykes was a regular at the butcher’s shop, and the top man was fond of the dog, when he heard he was in kennels, he made an offer and the dog was his. Fit as a butcher’s dog, as the saying goes.
Ben and Jack are in fine form. Me too.
© 2019 Mark Timlin