It was a typical mid–November morning, dank and gloomy, a perfect match for my mood. At just after ten o’clock, I’d been in the office for about an hour. Not that it mattered when I came and went, since on most days hardly anything happened between those two activities.
I was just starting my third year as a private investigator and things were going from bad to worse. Private clients were few and far between and what they wanted me to do was usually humdrum stuff, though there had been occasional flickers of excitement. I’d been kept going by doing casual stand–in work for a security company when members of its regular staff were on holiday or sick.
My funds were reducing at a disturbing rate, since I’d dipped into them too often after leaving the army, where I’d served for a while as a military policeman. I’d somehow got the idea that the experience I gained there would help me as a civilian detective. It hadn’t, and the wolf was not far from my door.
With no work on hand, I was thinking for the umpteenth time of trying something more conventional. Trouble was, I hadn’t much in the way of qualifications. Anyway, there I was, twiddling my thumbs, when the phone rang. That wasn’t a common occurrence. Maybe somebody wanted me. I was so overcome that I let the ringing go on for about five seconds before grabbing the receiver. “Wilkin Investigations,” I said, trying to sound brisk.
“Norman, it’s Dave.” I hadn’t time to respond before he rushed on. “I’m in big trouble. Any chance you could fit me in for a talk?”
Of course I could, but I didn’t want to admit that too readily. “It’s a bit hectic here,” I replied, “but you know I always have time for you, Dave. It sounds urgent, so you’d better come right away and we’ll be able to manage a chat before my next appointment.” He thanked me, promised to be with me in ten minutes and rang off. I dug out three old files and spread them across my desk. That helped to give the impression of industry, and covered a few blemishes on the surface.
Dave Waddington was a friend of about a dozen years standing. At thirty–four, he was my senior in age by two years. We’d met as members of a chess club and kept in touch, though we hadn’t spent any time together for several months. I’d never allowed myself to forget that Dave had once done me a big favour. Following a row with my parents – I still didn’t have any communication with them – I’d wound up in urgent need of accommodation and Dave had put me up for a while. I reckoned I owed him one, and it seemed he might be about to collect.
My office was a single dingy room on the top floor of an old three–storey walk–up building on Great George Street, close to the Leeds town hall. It wasn’t much of a place but that was okay because I didn’t have much of a business. Immediately below me was a dental technician and the ground floor was occupied by a health food store. An accountant worked in the office on one side of mine and the other side was temporarily vacant, pending the arrival of a theatrical agent.
Dave lived in Headingley, about three miles from the city centre. He was in the art business and ran a small shop – it would have been pretentious to call it a gallery – quite close to his flat. As far as I knew, he’d never had any trouble making a living, so presumably something else was bothering him.
About twenty minutes after he’d phoned – parking problems being what they were – Dave came into my office. He didn’t look well. Pale at the best of times, he was as white as a sheet, but had still worked up a sweat. He sat heavily in one of my pair of visitors’ chairs. “Thank goodness you’re here,” he said. “I’m at my wits’ end.”
“You’d better spill the beans before you collapse,” I replied.
He ran a hand over his head. “I’m in a dreadful fix, Norman, and it’s all of my own making. Do you know anything about Ronnie Bascombe?”
“I know of him. Word is that he’s not very nice. I hear he’s mixed up in a variety of rackets but that the law hasn’t touched him sp far. Is that right?”
“Yes, as I’ve recently found out. One of his operations is gambling, and that’s where I’m involved. I’ve been a fool, Norman. Gaming is a disease. I caught it and now I’m in an awful predicament. If you’ve time to listen, I’ll tell you the story.”
I told him to go ahead and he poured out his tale of woe. He’d got into the company of a local businessman who gambled regularly but moderately at Ronnie Bascombe’s home. This fellow had initiated Dave. The activity was very hush–hush, limited to people who got into it by word of mouth and, as far as Dave knew – he hadn’t carried out any checks – illegal.
I was amazed to hear that Bascombe had allowed Dave to get himself into debt to the amount of just over ten thousand pounds. When I asked how that had happened, the extent of Dave’s addiction became clear. He admitted that he’d found a way of doctoring a building society statement so that it showed a balance of forty–odd thousand. He’d shown it to Bascombe, who’d allowed him to run up the five–figure loss before taking him to task.
Dave had nothing like the amount he needed to get out of the hole he’d dug. He said Bascombe had initially given him a week to put things right. Three days before the ultimatum expired, a door had opened for Dave in the oddest way. He’d had a phone call from an elderly woman to whose husband he’d sold two paintings four years earlier. When delivering the goods to the palatial house about a mile from his place, he’d got into conversation with the old fellow and given him some advice about disposing of some other works of art the couple owned and no longer wanted. The wife hadn’t taken part in the discussion.
One result of the brief contact was that the old boy sold several items, from which he raked in far more money than he’d expected to make before accepting Dave’s guidance. When the woman phoned Dave, she explained that her husband had died and that she had neither relatives nor friends. At eighty–six, she had outlived everyone who’d ever meant anything to her. It seemed she thought of Dave as the only person she felt she could trust to give her a few pointers in the matter of selling various objects, as she was about to go into a care home because of her poor health in general and her failing eyesight in particular.
With no aim in mind other being helpful, Dave had called on the woman and made some recommendations as to what she might do with her exquisite furniture and a number of small collector’s pieces she still had. He declined her offer of a fee for his help and was about to leave when she amazed him by asking him to open the safe in her late husband’s study and check whether it contained anything of significance. She gave him a key.
The woman had difficulty walking and when they got to the den, she sat at the desk, staring at a watercolour on the wall and showing no interest in what Dave was doing. When he opened the safe, he first found three insurance policies and a wad of twenty–pound notes, totalling two thousand pounds. As the old girl had trouble reading, Dave gave her the gist of the policies. He also handed her the money, having overcome the temptation to pocket it.
The bottom part of the safe was taken up by a drawer, and there Dave found a volume bound in black leather. It was a stamp album, and from the careful way the contents had been mounted, he suspected that he was looking at something of considerable value. This time the lure proved too strong for him. As the old lass hadn’t mentioned the stamps, he assumed that she either didn’t know anything about them, or had forgotten their existence. Beside the safe was a bookshelf and, thinking quickly, Dave put the album beside a dictionary, pending a decision on his next step.
When the pair went back to the hall, Dave picked up his briefcase then said that he’d left his car keys in the study. He darted back there, grabbed the album, stuffed it into the case and left the house, with the woman’s profuse thanks ringing in his ears. Within two hours, he’d visited a top philatelist in the city. The following day he paid an assessment fee and was told that though experts might have minor disagreements about the classification of some of the stamps, the whole lot was certainly worth somewhere between twenty–five and thirty thousand pounds.
I’d listened to all this without interruption, but at that point I broke in. “Well, well, you have been a naughty boy, Dave. Since you clearly haven’t extricated yourself from the mess, there must be more to the sad story.” I looked at my watch, trying to give the impression of a man who has another client due. That was a laugh – I hadn’t had one for over a month. “Go on.”
“Sorry to take up so much of your time, Norm, but I’ll be as brief as I can. Bascombe was true to his word. I was at home yesterday, a few hours after the week’s grace I’d been given had expired. Two of Ronnie’s thugs dropped in. One was Alf Bentley. He’s the physical bully and a terrifying specimen. The other was Billy Davis, and in a way he’s even more frightening. He’s a skinny little runt. I think of him as Ratface. He carries a gun and I understand he isn’t averse to using it. I suppose you heard about that chap whose body was fished out of the canal last year.”
“I did. He’d been shot in the head and no progress was made in solving the case, right?”
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