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Brought to Book
A Simon Bognor Mystery
By Tim Heald
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Tim Heald
All rights reserved.
Vernon Hemlock caressed the bulbous base of his brandy balloon with almost as much lascivious pleasure as he devoted to the sublimely erotic bottom of his mistress, Romany Flange. The grey-blue coil of smoke from his enormous Romeo y Julieta eddied towards the deliciously rude ceiling painted for the house's original owner in 1864. Hemlock gazed wistfully at the sportive nymphs, shepherds and satyrs frolicking about a Tuscan countryside in which every piece of topography seemed to be a phallic symbol of one kind or another.
Vernon Hemlock smiled. It had been a good day at the office. The six-monthly sales conference of Big Books PLC, the publishing giant he had created with a ten thousand pound loan from his old chum Barrington-Fingest, was an occasion of ever-increasing self-satisfaction. Big Books grew bigger and bigger. As the books got bigger the cheques got bigger and so did the American sales and the film options and the enormous co-produced TV series. Hemlock published fewer and fewer titles every year, but such titles! Today had seen the announcement of The Royal Family Cookbook, a certain bestseller for Christmas with the astonishing innovation of edible pages. Biochemists in Taiwan had come up with a revolutionary form of rice paper which could be impregnated with whatever flavour you wanted. An edible Royal Family! Hemlock purred.
Tonight as so often he decided to take a last look downstairs in the library basement where he kept his magnificent collection of erotica and pornography. He was not certain whether he would be bedding Romany tonight or whether he would have to make do with his wife but whatever was in store it always helped to have a last salivating linger over the goodies in the basement. He rather fancied a look at the Scandinavian section.
He took the lift to the basement, inserted the plastic card which was the only way to get through the computer-controlled security doors and swayed over to the stack marked 'S'. 'S' was for 'Sade', and for 'Sweden' and 'Swiss Army Knife'; for 'Sachertorte' and 'Syphilis' and 'Scrotum' and 'Sarcophagus' and, indeed, for 'Sex' itself. There was more in 'S' even than in 'F.'
The entire collection was willed to the Getty Museum in California. Perhaps it should have gone to the nation, but if the nation had it it would be kept on locked shelves whereas in California it would be available to all. Besides, Hemlock relished the thought of the nation's predicament in having to decide whether or not an export licence would be granted. It might be filth but it was unique filth and priceless, too. There was a Leonardo cartoon of mind-boggling ingenuity; a Picasso of geometric perfection and physical impossibility; a Laughing Cavalier who saw a joke unsuspected by anyone who knew only the original; a Constable in which the beasts of the field were as bestial as Henry VIII in Holbein's extraordinarily irreverent portrayal The Monarch at Rest in the Dedans.
Hemlock exhaled and licked his lips, then turned the wheel to prise the shelves apart. He had always had a weakness for this sort of thing ever since his first glimpse of Health and Efficiency on Platform 3 at Bristol Temple Meads so many years before. He was one of nature's voyeurs. It was what made him such a successful publisher.
The floor was shiny tiled and his slippered feet made a sibilant lounge lizard sound as they greased along the newly opened aisle. At Stradivarius he paused. There was something extraordinarily titillating about erotic stringed instruments of the seventeen hundreds. He removed the bulky vellum volume and licked his lips again.
He was so engrossed that he never heard the turn of the screw, or noticed that the shelving was starting to move together again. It was only when his brandy glass toppled, spilling VSOP over a naked nun playing the cello, that he realised something was wrong. The shelving was power-assisted so that within seconds he was trapped. For a moment there was a pause, and from what seemed a long way off he heard laughter, muffled by volume upon volume of priceless erotica. The tip of his cigar caught the edge of the page, which started to smoulder, but his arms were now trapped at his side and he could not move to put out the fire. Coughing now he began to call out but the shelves ground on, tightening their grip remorselessly to the accompaniment of the distant laughter.
The fire triggered the smoke detectors about half an hour later, by which time it had gained a strong enough hold to effectively destroy the entire collection. Luckily it was well insured. Oddly enough it was not until morning that a thoughtful police constable opened up the shelves marked 'S' and discovered Vernon Hemlock of Big Books PLC.
He was, of course, extremely dead.CHAPTER 2
Simon Bognor and his wife Monica were guests at Hemlocks that night. Not that Bognor was what you might call 'bookish'. Not in the modern sense. Apart from one or two whodunits and other 'genre' novels he eschewed contemporary fiction, leaving it to his wife Monica, a devotee of the East Anglian school of writing which drove Bognor into terrible rages. Bognor believed that the novel had died at around the outbreak of the Great War.
Occasionally Monica would encourage him to read something safe and old fashioned like the latest Amis but after a few pages Bognor would give up, muttering, and return to Dickens or Mrs Gaskell. He was none too keen on non-fiction, either. 'If it's true it's boring; if it's not boring it's bound to be lies.' He was becoming curmudgeonly in middle-age, only saved from being a tiresome fogey himself by his contempt and distaste for those who really were members of that peculiar brotherhood. 'Teenage pensioners', Bognor called them with all the middle's hatred of extremes.
It was this hostile attitude towards modern literature which had led Parkinson to propose that Bognor should prepare the Board of Trade's preliminary working (mauve) paper on 'The Publishing Industry'.
'This should force you into the twentieth century, laddie,' Parkinson had said, announcing the project. 'I want no leaf unturned. A Good Book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit and nowadays Good Books are Big Bucks. I want none of your mimsy Oxford college nonsense about aesthetic values. This is a commercial business. No claptrap about starving novelists in Bloomsbury attics. No Times Literary Supplement arty-fartiness. We need to know about the sort of books people read, Bognor. Not pseudointellectual sociology lecturers. Real people.'
'I see,' Bognor had said, biting his lip dolefully. 'I see' had been his standard response to Parkinson ever since he had first joined the Board of Trade so many years before.
And there was another project not known to Parkinson. Now that Bognor was in his forties, contemporaries of his seemed to have risen to positions of eminence and even power. One, a porcine economist called Weinstube, was a junior minister in the new Socialist Coalition Government. His curious task was concerned with propaganda and the rewriting of history. After only a few weeks in office Weinstube had come up with a long list of utterly uncommercial titles such as The People's Friend—The Role of the Job Centre in Post-Industrial Society and a two-volume life of Patrick Gordon Walker. One such project was a history of the Board of Trade. Meeting Bognor at an Apocrypha College Society Dinner he had, after port, asked Bognor if he would take on the volume dealing with the Special Investigations Department, where, God help him, Bognor had worked all his adult life.
Weinstube might have been a silly man but he wasn't stupid. His silver tongue had secured considerable sums of government money for his department and its publications. He had also negotiated a number of deals with Vernon Hemlock. These were unorthodox and the only certainty about them was that they reflected personal financial credit on the two principals. This was arranged through carefully selected third parties acting through a discreet bank in Liechtenstein and was reckoned by both Weinstube and Hemlock to be foolproof. Thus it was – up to a point and in a manner of speaking – that Bognor became a Big Book author. Not that Hemlock would be publishing under his Big Book imprint. That would be wholly inappropriate. The almost certainly unsalable Weinstube books would be published by Aspen and Larch, the small subsidiary house Hemlock had acquired for just such contingencies. Aspen and Larch dealt in rubbish of various kinds and operated mainly as a tax loss. The publishing industry was full of Aspens and Larches.
'I suppose they'll have to call off the sales conference,' said Bognor, peering morosely out to sea. He and Monica were taking a modest constitutional along the front after breakfast. It was noticeable that Hemlock's demise had had very little effect on their appetites. Nor on anyone else's.
'I doubt it.' Monica yawned. 'Whatever time did those perfectly bloody fire alarms go off?'
'About half an hour after I nodded off,' said Bognor. 'Worst possible time. Just when you're into deep sleep. It could be quite dangerous.' Bognor had been reading an article about sleep patterns in the 'specialists' page in the Daily Telegraph – the page which was always illustrated with pictures of building blocks and arrows. It looked like the instruction manual for a build-it-yourself Finnish picnic table which still lay half-constructed in the Bognors' garden shed back home.
'You were snoring. I was still asleep.'
'Lucky you!' Bognor spoke feelingly. 'That means you've had more rest than I've had. I've actually had a minus quantity of sleep, being woken up like that.' He flexed his paunch and turned inland, breathing deeply. 'I must say I do like the seaside,' he said.
'You can't like Byfleet-next-the-Sea.' Monica spoke with the asperity of an insulted and quite exhausted wife but her husband seemed not to notice.
'Oh, but I do,' he said, 'I think it's enchanting.' He gazed along the promenade, absorbing the shuttered soft-drink stalls. the bolted bathing huts, the upturned dinghies, the tarpaulir over the stacked deckchairs which flapped in the winter wind 'Where else in the world would you get this sense of desolation' "Listen! you hear the grating roar of pebbles which the wave ... er ... te-tum ... and fling ... until ..."'
'"Draw back, and fling at their return, up the high strand" you illiterate oaf!' Monica snorted her exasperation. 'Come on she said, 'we'd better get back to Hemlocks and see what' going on.' She started to stride back, taking long sensible stride in her flat, sensible shoes.
Bognor had to run to catch up, then fell into step. 'The there's something about "eternal sadness", isn't there?'
'"Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in."'
'That's right.' He spoke with approval and also the bogus knowledgeable manner of someone who knows he is a bit of a ninny but does not need or wish to be reminded of it. 'Poor old Hemlock!' he said, after a pause. 'The eternal note of sadness certainly sounded for him.'
'He was a rapacious slug,' said Monica, 'a nasty, greedy, mercenary brute.'
'Steady on!' said Bognor. 'He was my publisher.'
'You hadn't signed anything.'
'No, but we had an understanding.'
'Understanding be jiggered.'
'I don't think you're being entirely fair, Monica. And anyway he's dead now.'
'Good riddance!' Mrs Bognor lengthened her stride, leaving her husband bobbing in her wake.
Bognor leant against an Edwardian street-lamp lovingly preserved by the Byfleet and District Townswomen's Guild and panted. A tattered poster advertising August's end-of-the-pier show leered down at him from the pebbledashed wall of a gentleman's lavatory and a couple of seagulls mewed overhead. They could have been fighting or mating, he wasn't sure, being no ornithologist. Came to the same thing in the end. In the distance he watched his wife buffeting against the wind, closing in on the grey sub-Lutyens bulk of Hemlocks. It had been built for Norbiton, the margarine magnate, who had perished in a flying-boat accident off Salerno before he could take up residence. A cross between the Cenotaph and Anne Hathaway's cottage – a gross pillbox, half-timbered and bloated, barnacled with turrets and conservatories and roof gardens. Hemlock had bought it from nuns in the sixties for a song.
Bognor sighed. Monica was little more than a matchstick person now. Maddening woman, though he was fond of the old bag in his way. And she of him, he thought, ruefully. He sighed again and began to rumble after her, flatfooted, hung-over and a little depressed. He wondered if he would see the year out or would end up dead like Hemlock, lightly toasted between two library shelves. A wave broke close by, sending a shower of spray over his rising forehead. He turned up the collar of his coat and paced purposefully back towards the great house. He was afraid his troubles were only just beginning.
'They're all in the library,' said Hastings. Hastings was the butler. He had been with Hemlock since the beginning – first as office, errand and tea boy, later as a rep. He claimed never to have read a book in his life and nothing about him suggested this to be untrue. He had sussed Bognor as a Right Wally the moment he saw him. Most of the other guests got a 'sir' or 'madam' from Hastings, mainly in the hope of a tip when they left. Not Bognor.
'Right,' said Bognor, with an air of purpose. He handed over his Burberry and straightened his tie.
'Am I to join them?' he asked.
'The Chief Inspector said he gave instructions for no one to leave the house.' Hastings accepted the coat with ill grace. 'And that included you. If I were you I'd cut along sharpish and say sorry like a good boy.'
Bognor said nothing, just pulled at his cuff and gave Hastings one of his famous but unconvincing withering looks.
'Git!' mouthed Hastings in a stage whisper.
Bognor ignored him. He had long since learned never to bandy words with a butler.
The library door was stiff and squeaky so that he entered the room with a fanfare of protesting hinge. The room was uncarpeted so that even if he went on tiptoe, which he did, every step was noisy. He hated making this sort of entrance. It always reminded him of that terrible morning so many years before when he had arrived late for morning chapel and walked down the aisle under the sniggering gaze of five hundred boys. The headmaster, gowned and mortar-boarded on his wooden throne, had looked on with no amusement at all. Beatable offence.
Now that he was a grown-up, indeed middle-aged, person, Bognor knew that he should not be embarrassed at being the centre of attention. He certainly shouldn't be fazed by the censure of some two-bit Detective Chief Inspector and a roomful of Vernon Hemlock's bestselling-author houseguests.
But he was.
'You must be Bognor.' The Chief Inspector was the sort of pedestrian oaf Bognor abominated. He wore the suit one associated with professional footballers and his hair was cut short with the suspicion of a Derek Hatton bob at the back. His was the sharp, fashionable, scented appearance which Bognor mistrusted very much indeed. He used to think he disliked the old-fashioned detectives in trench coats and chunky black shoes, but he preferred them to the new breed.
'Simon Bognor, Board of Trade,' he said, trying to sound polite.
'I gave instructions that no one was to leave the house.' The DCI dabbed at his ducky little moustache.
'I'm sorry. The instructions didn't reach me.'
Bognor sat down heavily on a set of library steps next to Arthur Green, author of The Billion Lire Breakfast, The Million Dollar Martini, The Lunch that ended the World and Last Supper. Mr Green, mousey as ever, gave him an encouraging glance and a quarter-smile. Like so many authors he was as near the opposite of his hero, Lance Remington, as it was possible to imagine.
'Honey, I had no instructions!' This was Marlene Glopff, the sinuous raven-haired superstar of the American soap Homer. The series was not, as Bognor had supposed, a Greek epic but something to do with baseball. Miss Glopff was a fitness freak who lifted weights and lived almost exclusively on wheatgerm and carrot-juice. She had just produced ('written' was not the word) her first book, Working Out with Glopff.
Excerpted from Brought to Book by Tim Heald. Copyright © 1988 Tim Heald. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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