The Present Day
Spit Wilkins poured more champagne. “A toast to Chief Planning Officer Simms. Sorry, ex-Chief Planning Officer. Shame about Simms. He’d be retired by now.”
“Long retired. But instead, he’s one of the dearly departed.” Superintendent Harry Cray, head of Medgate CID, lifted his dark green trilby off the seat, held it to his chest and tried hard to look sincere.
“Now, this might sound a bit funny,” Councillor Russ Whitmore, the oldest and stoutest of them, intoned solemnly, “but I can’t help thinking that in some respects at least we might be partly to blame.” Then, by degrees, his expression changed and his thin lips parted as he bared his brown, crooked teeth in a gurning display of mirth that bore comparison to that of Kano, the zoo’s toothiest ape.
For a brief moment, silence reigned. The three men regarded one another with smiles and nods, and then the laughter began, and peal after peal of drink-infused, smoke-saturated guffaws echoed around the empty club. After more than a minute of this, Whitmore held up a hand. Two men dressed in expensive-looking business suits had appeared in the doorway. They had visitors. The taller man wore black-framed sunglasses and remained by the door, feet set apart and hands clasped in front of him, while the smaller, hook-nosed older man crossed the room to the alcove where the others sat. The three moved along the bench seats to make room for the newcomer.
Mayor Russ Whitmore seemed to be in charge of the meeting, for he said, “Gentlemen, and now to business. May I introduce Mr Sinclair of Mayfair Holdings? He has some good news for each of us, I believe. As you know, earlier today an agreement was signed between Medgate Council and Mayfair Holdings. That’s right isn’t it, Chief Planning Officer Southern?”
George Southern, a man who never looked very happy in his own skin, flicked the corner of his papers and nodded. He did not look up. Spit Wilkins clapped him on the shoulder. “C’mon, Southern, cheer up mate. We all got we wanted, didn’t we? You got your job plus a nice pad in Spain, any time you want it, courtesy of Mr Sinclair here. Those two got a very nice top-up to their retirement pensions. And me? I’m going to be running the trendiest nightclub in town and, from what I’ve seen of your plans, Mr Sinclair, also the biggest and swankiest. Mark my words, that new shopping centre is going to be the making of this town. So, we’re all happy.”
If George Southern was appeased by Wilkin’s breezy oratory, he didn’t show it. “I don’t imagine Len Burns is too happy, or Mrs Burns or their kid,” he said.
“Burns is a puppy dog,” Superintendent Cray put in. “He coughed for the photos, sweet as a nut. Hardly had to put any pressure on him, even. And he kept his mouth shut. He doesn’t have the imagination to cause us any trouble, even after he gets out, so I wouldn’t worry about him. We’re making sure his family send him lots of good reports about how well Uncle Spit is looking after them.” He looked across at Wilkins and winked.
“He’s a good enough barman, isn’t he?” Whitmore chipped in. Couldn’t you give him a job at your new club? What are you going to call it, by the way?”
Wilkins blanched. “He can come back here, I suppose, if he’s got the stomach for it. Somehow, I doubt he has. I got friends on the inside who say he’s expecting some kind of payoff when he gets out. He is going to be sadly disappointed. I’ve spent a small fortune looking after his wife and kid so, if anything, it’s him who owes me.”
Whitmore put down his glass. “Y’know, a payoff is not such a bad idea. He could take it and disappear off to London, make a new start. At least he would be out of our hair. A couple of thousand ought to do it. We need never see him again.”
Wilkins scowled. He looked across at the moneyman, who sat clutching his briefcase. Physically quite small but, by some means, he radiated a persona that seemed imperturbable and flawlessly protected, as if behind him stood an invisible but terrible authority, ready to shield him from harm, should such a thing be necessary. “Yeh, well there’s more than one way of making someone disappear, and some methods are cheaper than others,” Wilkins bragged. “So, Mr Sinclair, you let me know when they’re ready to start pouring the concrete for the foundations of your new development.” He eyed Sinclair for a hint of endorsement
“I didn’t hear that, Wilkins.” Superintendent Cray’s brow furrowed briefly. “I didn’t think you were that type,” he added coyly, like a girl speaking to her beau after he had made an improper suggestion.
Mr Sinclair looked quite unruffled at the change in direction of the conversation. He fastened the straps of his briefcase and reached for his raincoat. As he made to stand, Whitmore put his hand on the man’s arm. “One last thing. As you know, the site is currently occupied by a collection of animals tended by an assortment of circus freaks – I won’t dignify it with the name ‘zoo’. It’s a mystery to me how they survive, but survive they do and they seem to be getting busier with every passing year. I even had a phone call from the BBC a while back, wanting to send that Johnny Morris down to do a feature.”
“Why not just serve them notice?” Cray said. “We’ll make sure they’re turfed off sharpish.”
“It’s not that simple,” Whitmore replied. “They have a lease with Medgate Council that runs for another five years. I have had Mr Southern look into the legalities and, on the face of it, we have a problem; unless the site is given up voluntarily, that lease stands. It’s the last, small hurdle standing in our way and, knowing the bloke who runs the place, it’s going to need some delicate negotiations to get him to budge.”
“I could find some people to go and visit him, persuade him that it’s in the best interests of his unbroken legs to move on,” Wilkins offered.
Both Cray and Whitmore gave a humourless chuckle.
“That, I’d like to see,” Whitmore said, and took a sip of his drink.
“You ever met Bob Leno?” Cray added. “I don’t think you’d be saying that if you had.”
“Is there an alternative site they could move to?” Sinclair asked.
Whitmore gave an exasperated groan. “I’ve tried to interest him in a bigger location, on the disused railway sidings, right next to Memorial Park. I managed to persuade the Council to offer him an interest-free loan to develop the site. I even had an architect draw up detailed plans for the layout, and Leno actually liked the plans when I showed him. Whatever we think about Leno, and his band of circus misfits, a new zoo would be a real asset for Medgate. However, he turned me down flat. He said there would be too many strings attached and he preferred his independence. He’s a stubborn man.”
Sinclair removed his spectacles and polished them on his handkerchief. “What does he want?”
Whitmore looked puzzled. “What do you mean, what does he want? He wants to stay put.”
“Sorry, I don’t get you. What do you mean?”
Sinclair replaced his spectacles and stood. “Look around this table. Everybody wants something, and that will certainly include Bob Leno. You’ve just got to find out what it is.”