3. The Carlton Club
In an attempt to look busy Len Burns once again picked up a glass cloth and began polishing the first in a line of already sparkling wine glasses, lifting them one at a time and holding them up to the light, turning each glass this way and that like a detective in search of a single damning fingerprint. A quiet night, even for a Monday.
A peal of deep, male laughter rolled out from a dimly lit booth on the far side of the room to rupture the hush of the near-empty nightclub. Spit Wilkins, Len’s boss and proprietor of the Conway Club, was entertaining.
Billows of cigar smoke blued the air above the booth. More laughter, then, “Len! Fetch us a bottle of bubbly, a decent one,” Wilkins yelled without showing his face. He didn’t need to. Len would recognise that quacking voice anywhere.
“Yes, Mr Wilkins,” the barman called across. Pleased to be taking a break from his glass polishing, Len lifted the cellar flap and descended into the coolness below. He headed for the champagne racks. A ’57 Bollinger would do nicely, he thought. Back in the bar, he wiped the bottle clean, filled an ice bucket and arranged it on a tray with four glasses, the wide-mouthed sort that Wilkins preferred. A tart’s glass, Len told himself. Anyone with a bit of refinement would drink his or her champagne from a flute, but then Spit Wilkins wasn’t refined – far from it.
The barman crossed the room with the tray, but something made him slow as he approached the booth and he hovered for a moment, unseen in a pool of shadow. A squat, balding man drained his pint and rested the glass on his enormous paunch. “Gentlemen, this is a historic night for the town of Medgate, and it’s largely thanks to the matchless talents of our friend, Mr Wilkins here.” A general murmur of agreement spread through the group.
Wilkins, a short, sharp-faced man who liked expensive suits but who lacked the gravitas to get his money’s worth, smirked unpleasantly. “Thank you, Mr Whitmore, or might I be so bold as to call you Russ? I can just picture you in a couple of years’ time, dressed in your mayor’s finery, standing at the front doors of the new shopping centre, proudly cutting the ribbon. Len! Where’s that shampoo?”
Len stepped forward to place the tray on the table between the four men. “Sorry for the delay, Mr Wilkins. I couldn’t decide between the Bolly and the Taittinger.”
He glanced at the other men’s faces but found his apologetic smile matched with indifferent stares. One of the men he did not recognise but, with an electric jolt, Len realised who filled the seat next to Wilkins: none other than Superintendent Harry Cray, Medgate’s most senior police officer.
In the club’s early days, Wilkins had received a visit from Cray, to spell out how a constructive relationship with the police would greatly help his business to flourish. A favourable word with the magistrate when the time came to renew the drinks licence, an assurance that the club would not receive unplanned visits from the local beat bobby if out-of-hours drinking was suspected, things like that. Protection, in other words. And in return, the club would make a voluntary donation to the ‘Police Benevolent Fund’ in the form of a brown paper bag containing twenty £5 notes, to be left in the glove box of an unlocked car that would be parked in Church Street on a Sunday morning. This job, needless to say, Wilkins had immediately delegated to Len.
Wilkins liked to open his own champagne and, while he struggled inexpertly with the cork, and Len stood ready to mop up any spilled wine, the conversation continued as if he didn’t exist.
“So, time to take a look at the paperwork,” the fourth man said. He wore a cheap suit that looked years old. He had removed his tie; it lay on the seat beside him along with an ancient leather briefcase. The man looked tired.
Wearily, he pulled the briefcase on to his lap and withdrew its contents – a buff folder, fat with documents. He opened it and withdrew the wrinkled sheet of paper that lay at the top. Len could see it was handwritten. The tiny copperplate script made it look ancient, like something from a museum display.
“As far as we know this is the only surviving copy of the agreement between Medgate Town Council, as it was then, and Montague Cook, stipulating that the council would take Medgate Park into its stewardship and hold it in perpetuity for the benefit of the people of Medgate. Few people have ever seen this document, and even fewer have read it. Purely by chance, I found it in a sheaf of other papers concerning the old municipal golf course: the one that closed during the First World War. It’s fairly likely that no one will even remember the golf course ever existing.”
“Doesn’t this agreement mean the council can’t build on the park, even though they hold the rights?” the policeman interrupted. “George, I thought you said no hurdles remained in the way of the Council’s development plans.”
George Southern, Deputy Chief Planning Officer at Medgate District Council, leaned forward and picked up the Mayor’s cigar. “May I?” He took a puff of the cigar and held the glowing cigar end to the paper. In an instant, yellow flames engulfed the document. He dropped the last burning corner into the ashtray and looked round at the men’s astonished faces.
“What agreement?” he pronounced. “End of hurdle. Medgate Council can now lease the land to whomever it likes for up to 99 years, so long as the land is used for the benefit of the people of Medgate.”
Superintendent Cray spoke up. “When you say ‘So far as we know’, does that mean there might still be another copy of the agreement out there somewhere?”
Southern smiled thinly. “Possibly,” he replied. “But I would say the chances of that are small. If you know anything about the history of this town, you will know that Medgate Hall burned to the ground in 1901, in fact on the same day Queen Victoria died. The fire was extensive and much of the house’s contents burned to ashes, or so the newspaper reports of the time tell us, with what remained of the hall demolished shortly afterwards. It would be nothing short of miraculous if the Cooks’ copy had survived that.”
The mayor laughed raucously and banged his empty glass on the table. At last, with a fat pop, the Bollinger’s cork came loose and, for once, the champagne didn’t spill everywhere. Len felt his presence becoming increasingly superfluous and he attempted to step away from the gathering. He had seen and heard more than he should, that much he knew, but why? Wilkins might be an uncouth savage but he wasn’t stupid. He did not have long to wait before finding out.
The Mayor lifted his glass. “Gentlemen, I’d like to propose a toast. To the Medgate Shopping Centre.” The others clinked glasses and tipped them back, although Len noticed that the planner hardly touched his drink before setting it down. He looked sweaty and uncomfortable.
The Superintendent eyed him with a faint air of disgust before turning his attention to Len. He squinted up and with the grin of a rattlesnake raised his glass to eye level. “My colleagues and I thank you for your regular contributions to The Police Benevolent Fund, Len,” he said, this being an unsubtle reference to the regular police payoffs delivered by Len on his boss’s behalf. “And how’s Cathy? How’s the family? Your boy, Tom, isn’t it. He must be…”
“He’s nine now, nearly ten,” Len replied, not wishing to extend the pleasantries any longer than necessary.
“Is he, indeed? So, coming back to our more usual conversation, Mr Burns, you can arrange some female company for me and the Chief Super next Friday, yes? A couple of those young-uns you knock about with. Usual terms and conditions.” He glanced over at Wilkins, who nodded and smiled his weaselly smile, pursed his lips and slid his gaze back towards Len.
“Sure, er…” Len looked at Wilkins for some guidance.
At last, Wilkins nodded. “Yeh, no problem, eh Len? Just before you go, there’s something else we’d like you to take care of. Show him, George.”
Southern fumbled in his folder. He withdrew a photograph and handed it to the barman. The picture, taken in an office somewhere, showed Southern with an older man. Between them, they held a trophy cup. Wilkins stood and placed his finger on the photograph. “We’d like this man to leave Medgate. We don’t really care how or for what reason – that is going to be up to you. You know many interesting people, Len, with the right skills to make this happen. If the price is right, obviously. Having said that, Mr Southern here has hatched a bit of a plan you might want to consider.”
The Mayor reached inside his jacket and produced a fat envelope. He slapped it down on the table. “There’s five hundred quid there. There’ll be another five hundred when he’s gone. Want the job?”
Len looked at the envelope. He could see the bundled five and ten pound notes. “Who is he? What’s he done?”
Three of the men laughed. Wilkins answered. “What’s he done? He’s a dinosaur. He don’t want progress. He ain’t interested in the modern world so he’s trying to hold it back. He wants Medgate to stay just the way it is now, all quaint and folksy. He don’t like the idea of progress; we do.”
Len felt out of his depth, but he took the envelope from Wilkins. It felt heavy and squashy, like a chunk of raw steak; Len badly wanted to put it down somewhere, anywhere. A bit of thieving was one thing, a bit of intimidation, even a bit of drug trade. But what piece of mischief could possibly be worth a thousand pounds?
“You don’t want me to…” Len could not bring himself to say it, especially in the presence of Superintendent Cray.
Wilkins leaned forward and put his hand on Len’s arm. “No, Len, we don’t want you to hurt him, not unless he won’t play along. No, Mr Southern wants you to become his shadow. Mr Southern tells us that the Chief Planning Officer of Medgate District Council has hobbies, not all of which are known to his wife. He would no doubt be especially unhappy to have one particular hobby shared with her.”
“And what’s that?”
“Mr Southern tells us that Chief Planning Officer Simms has a boyfriend. Quite by chance you saw them together in Canterbury, isn’t that so, Mr Southern?”
Southern nodded and passed a slip of paper across the table. “The man has a flat. I followed them. That’s the address.”
Wilkins picked up the note and held it out. “All you have to do is get a few snaps of them together, ones that leave no doubt as to what’s going on. We want him to decide for himself that early retirement is his best choice, and then our man here will step into his shoes. He only has a few years to go but we don’t have the time to wait. If you manage it, you get another five hundred. Sound fair?”
The Mayor nodded towards the envelope. “Enough there to get yourself a good camera, son. Then you can use it when you go on holiday; isn’t that right, Mr Wilkins?”
Spit Wilkins cracked his knuckles and gave Len a look that no one would mistake for friendship. “That’s right, Len. You can take a couple of weeks off when the job’s over. Have yourself a little holiday. Clear off to Spain with your missus and kid. What’s his name?”
“His name’s Tom.” Compared to some of the more dangerous activities he had carried out for Wilkins over the years, this one sounded low-risk and relatively easy. Len nodded. “OK, I’ll do it. But when is he in Canterbury?”
Southern repacked his briefcase. “Every Tuesday, for the County Council Planning Committee meeting. After about five, he and his boyfriend meet in a pub called The Mitre.”
With a flourish, the Mayor drained his glass and set it down. He addressed Len with a narrow squint. “Good luck, Burns. A fortnight should be long enough to get this done. Mr Wilkins will keep us informed of your endeavours. Please don’t come back empty handed.”
Wilkins finished his drink and rose. “Customers at the bar, Len, customers at the bar. Better be off. Oh, and don’t wave that envelope around anywhere, especially in front of Cathy. She’s not stupid.”
When Len had returned to the bar, the superintendent stood up and pulled on his sheepskin coat. “If this little caper goes wrong then we’ll make sure the finger of blame points away from us. It’ll be our word against his, and who’s going to believe the ramblings of a petty criminal?”