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?”
“Yes. I heard Davis was responsible for that. Anyway, they were about to give me a good going over but evidently had been instructed to see first whether I had any valuables, so they poked around a bit, then forced me to open my safe. The only thing of any importance in it was that stamp album. They used my phone to call Bascombe and ask for instructions. He told them to leave me in one piece for the time being and take the stamps to him, so he could have them appraised as possible collateral.
Before Bentley and Davis left me, I spoke with Bascombe for a minute or so. He said I’d better not try to do a runner because they were watching me twenty–four/seven. He added that even if the stamps satisfy him with respect to my debt, that will be far from the end of the affair. That’s all, Norm. I hate to think of what these people will do to me. I’m desperate. This is more in your line than mine, and I’m wondering whether you might be able to think of a way to deal with it.”
I imagined that even Sherlock would have regarded that one as a three–pipe problem, but I didn’t have a pipe, or anything else to smoke. I rubbed my chin and stared at my desk for what must have seemed like an age to Dave. Finally I stood and did my best to appear brisk. “You’d best go back home and make sure I can reach you. I’ll dwell on this and see if I can come up with something. Where is Bascombe’s place?”
“It’s a good few miles out of town and not easy to find. If you have a piece of paper, I’ll make a sketch for you.” I gave him a sheet from my notebook and he drew the route, then we parted company.
With nothing else to do, I spent most of the day pondering on Dave’s situation. If I really did owe him a good turn, which wasn’t clear, he’d asked for payment, big time. No matter how I looked at his problem, I couldn’t see a solution. Finally I gave up and decided to phone Bascombe, arrange to see him and play it by ear, though I had no confidence that my intervention would do any good.
Bascombe answered the phone himself and after I told him who I was and what I had in mind, he said he’d give me five minutes at ten o’clock that evening. He was completely non–committal and gave no indication of the kind of reception I would get.
I had a late evening meal then followed Dave’s drawing. Bascombe’s place was well off the ring road, northeast of Leeds, and it was quite a pad. There must have been at least four acres of grounds, surrounded by a tall, dense hedge of leylandii. Halfway along the frontage were two six–foot–high brick posts, anchoring a pair of gates of black wrought iron which were wide open. When closed they would have arched from the tops of the posts to meet at a height of eight feet or so. The drive – red gravel of course – was ten feet wide and ran for about sixty yards.
The house was a two–storey neo–Georgian job of red brick. I guessed the facade as well over forty feet wide and close to twenty feet high at the eaves. Upstairs there were five rectangular windows in portrait form, and at ground level four similar ones, two at each side of the king–sized front door, which looked like solid oak and was shaded by a portico featuring four fluted concrete columns under a classical shallow–pitched triangular roof of red tile.
A discreet sign to my left indicated parking at the rear, so I drove around there, noting that the original building was nearly as deep as it was wide, and that there was a big single–storey extension. By my rough reckoning, that made the house something like four thousand square feet in area. There were six upmarket parked facing a low sandstone wall about thirty yards from the property, and one big limo standing alone outside a three–car garage.
I had the temerity to slot my old heap next to a swish Italian sportster, then I returned to the front and stood, I must confess somewhat irresolutely, on the porch flagstones. I pulled myself together and pressed the bell push. It must have been at least a minute before the door was opened by a tall, gaunt woman of about fifty. I introduced myself and she said I was expected, motioned me in and asked me to follow her. We walked along the wide hall, passed to the right of a central staircase and reached a beautiful mahogany door. My guide opened it, waved me to go ahead and marched off.
Never having met a man with Ronnie Bascombe’s reputation, I had much the same feeling that Daniel must have had when he was about to enter the lions’ den. However, I was sustained to some extent by the thought that, formidable though he supposedly was, my man might back off a bit, knowing that Dave Waddington was supported by a real live private eye. How wrong can one be?
I stepped into the room. It was about fifteen by twelve feet and windowless. I was near an end of one of the longer walls. At the other end of the room, much of the shorter wall was taken up by a massive desk – more mahogany, I thought. Behind it, a man sat in a huge studded red leather chair. He had to be Bascombe.
Directly opposite me was another door, beside which stood a fellow who immediately gave me the creeps. At about five–nine, he was an inch or so shorter than me. I’m of about average build and no feather duster but this chap was constructed like a tank and must have outweighed me by close to fifty pounds. He looked like solid bone and muscle and was straining the seams in the jacket of his black suit. His straight black hair was shiny and slicked back over a head that made me think of a soccer ball. This was undoubtedly Bascombe’s bonecrusher, Bentley. Even just standing there, he exuded menace.
The man behind the desk motioned me to approach him. “I’m Bascombe,” he said. “Take a seat and tell me what’s on your mind.” His voice was low and neither friendly nor hostile. He pointed at the three visitors’ chairs and I took the middle one. I can’t fully describe the man because he never stood in my presence. The most I can say is that he seemed to be of about the same build as me and his hair was, like mine, mid–brown, well trimmed and unparted. His most striking facial feature was a pair of penetrating light–blue eyes. He was immaculately dressed in a dark–blue pinstripe suit, a white shirt and a plain wine–red tie.
It was obviously unnecessary for me to identify myself or state the business I was in but I did so, just for the sake of saying something to get going, then I launched into my tale. I concluded it by asking Bascombe to give me the stamp album, whereupon I would take responsibility for seeing that Dave Waddington would dispose of it and use some of the proceeds to settle his debt.
Bascombe listened without interruption until I’d said my piece, then he nodded. “Well, I’ve heard you out,” he said, “but I don’t see that we’re any further forward. I mean, if you had at least a pair of deuces, you might have been able to make some kind of impression, but you don’t appear to have any ranking cards at all.” He opened the top left–hand drawer of his desk, pulled out the album and opened it to give me a flash of the stamps, then dropped it back into the drawer. “Now you’ve seen the goods,” he said, “and that’s as close as you’re going to get. Apart from the fact that I don’t intend to pay for any of them, you could with a slight stretch of your imagination that I’m sort of holding them on approval. The dealers and their customers used to work like that, didn’t they?”
He was right. Many companies selling stamps used the ‘on approval’ system, whereby they posted ranges of their wares to collectors, who kept the ones they wanted, paid for them and returned the rest. “One or two still do,” I replied. He was also right about the poker analogy. How I would have loved to spread a royal straight flush under his nose. Probably most men in my position would have cut their losses at that point, but I had to go on – and what a blunder I made. “All right, Mr Bascombe,” I said. “If you want to play it the hard way, just bear in mind that David Waddington is under my protection and there will be repercussions on anyone who harms him. That includes you.”