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A Simon Bognor Mystery
By Tim Heald
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Tim Heald
All rights reserved.
The death of their leader did not come as an overwhelming shock to the small team who daily produced the Samuel Pepys column. It came first to Eric Gringe at his home in Bromley. 'Oh Lord,' he said to his wife Thelma when the phone rang. 'I knew it. It'll be something to do with that piece on the Anglo-Rhodesian Friendship society. I told St John to leave it out.' A moment later he said simply, 'Oh dear. How shocking. I'll come right in. Oh all right then ... nine sharp ... in your office.'
After he'd rung off Mr Gringe sat up in bed and put on the bedside lamp. 'I'm going to make a cup of tea,' he said, 'St John Derby's dead.'
His wife stirred at his side. 'Mmmm?'
'Dead. St John.' Mr Gringe put a hand inside the jacket of his pyjamas and scratched abstractedly. 'It would be the drink of course,' he said. 'I'm amazed it didn't happen sooner but the way he abused himself it's hardly surprising.'
Mrs Gringe sat up beside her husband.
'What a dreadful thing,' she said. 'Does that mean you'll take over?'
Mr Gringe made a face. 'Really, Thelma, I think you ought to have a little more respect. He only died an hour or so ago.'
'He's been dead from the neck up for the last fifteen years at least, as you well know. You've said as much time and again. If it hadn't been for all the work you put in on that column he'd have been sacked years ago.'
Mr Gringe who was a conscientious forty-five knew it perfectly well.
'I'll be in charge until they find someone else of course,' he said.
His wife grimaced. 'Eric Gringe,' she said, 'you let them ride over you, you do really. There's no reason on earth why they should find someone else. You've a right to that job. You've earned it.'
Mr Gringe looked at his watch. It was six. 'I'll go and get that tea,' he said, 'then I'll tell the others. I've got to be in the Managing Editor's office at nine.'
The first call was to Molly Mortimer. All the time he was making the tea, getting the Garibaldi biscuits out of the tin, and emptying the dog, he was wondering in what order he ought to tell his colleagues. It would have been simpler and more effective to tell them all at once as soon as he'd seen Clapham, the Managing Editor, but that would be too late. By then the rumours would be spreading up Fleet Street, distorting in and out of other newspaper offices, garbling at early morning press receptions ready for the full scandalous blast of half-truth which would come as soon as the pubs opened. No, he would have to telephone.
Upstairs again he dropped crumbs on the sheets and decided to begin with Molly Mortimer. Nobody could complain if he began with the column's woman. He looked the number up in the back of his diary where it was pencilled in his neat cramped clerk's handwriting. She had a flat just behind Sloane Square. He and Thelma had been there once for cocktails. It had been full of mirrors, and Thelma, who had left her coat in the bedroom, had pronounced it scandalous.
He dialled and waited while the phone at the other end rang for an age. Just as he was about to give up it stopped and a man's voice said, 'For Christ's sake. Have you any idea what the time is?' It sounded to Gringe suspiciously like young Willy Wimbledon but the idea was ridiculous.
'This is very important,' said Gringe, 'is Miss Mortimer there?'
'Hang on. Who is it?'
There was a pause and then Molly's throaty voice saying 'Darling, whatever is it? It is dreadfully early.'
'I'm sorry, Molly,' he said, 'I just thought you ought to know that St John's been found dead.'
A short silence, then. 'Oh darling. How frightful. Can I help? I mean what would you like me to do?'
This slightly nonplussed him. 'Nothing much we can do,' he said, 'but I'm asking you all to come in to the office at half past nine for a conference. Is that all right?'
'Is that all?' She sounded disappointed.
'Yes. Can you manage it?'
'I did have breakfast arranged at the Connaught but I shall just have to cancel. What was it? Stroke?'
'I don't know. I should think so.'
'So should I. See you at nine-thirty.'
Next, partly so as to dismiss the absurd suspicion, still lurking irrelevantly at the back of his mind, he called Viscount Wimbledon's number. There was no reply. The suspicion advanced.
It occurred to him that the Honourable Bertie Harris might already have heard of the tragedy. As the son and heir of the Globe's proprietor, the first Baron Wharfedale, he was often privy to information which was not advanced to relatively junior members of the staff such as Eric Gringe. This did not improve his relations with such people in general nor with Mr Gringe in particular.
'Ah ...' he said when he heard his colleague say a brusque 'Harris', in answer to the ringing tone. 'Ah ... have you heard the sad news?'
'Sad news, what sad news? I'm still in bed so of course I haven't heard any news, sad or otherwise. It's not my habit to hear news until I wake which thanks to you I now have. So tell me, what sad news?'
'St John Derby has passed away.' Mr Gringe had no idea why he used the silly euphemism. Bertie Harris always forced him into self parody.
'Some would say that that is neither sad nor news,' said Lord Wharfedale's heir. 'I can't say I find it hard to believe though I could perhaps, if pressed, muster the merest twinge of regret.'
'I'm asking everyone to come into the office at nine-thirty for a chat,' said Gringe, lamely. 'Can you manage it?'
'I'll be there. Good morning.'
Mrs Gringe looked at him with some contempt. 'You should stand up to them, Eric. You really should,' she said.
He said nothing but dialled the number for Milborn Port, the last member of the Pepys team who inhabited a bijou residence overlooking Stoke Poges golf club.
'Good God,' said Milborn when the news had finally permeated to his brain, 'so the grape got him in the end. Poor old sod. There but for the grace of God ...'
'Can you be in at nine-thirty?'
'It'll be the first time for twenty years, but I'll make it. I think we owe it to the old boy, out of respect.'
Eric Gringe drank the last of his milky tea. It was too bad about Willy Wimbledon. He wondered if he ought to tell Anthea Morrison, the secretary, but decided to postpone it till later. It would not be proper for her to be at the meeting so there was no particular hurry. As for Horace Peckwater, the sub-editor, he could wait too. He certainly wasn't having any tuppeny-ha'penny sub-editor at a writers' meeting.
It was after seven now and outside the Gringe semi, Bromley was beginning to stir. Mr Gringe went to the wardrobe and selected an appropriate tie, the only one he had which meant anything, his RAC tie, then he took off his striped pyjama top, slipped on a string vest and went to shave. With a tremor of guilt he realized that he was feeling strangely excited, even exhilarated, at the prospect of the day ahead.
Later that morning he emerged from the Managing Editor's office, white faced and trembling. It had been a distressing interview. Short and to the point but definitely distressing. As it was only nine-fifteen he went across the road and bought a cup of coffee in a plastic cup to steady his nerves. Back in the Pepys office he noticed that St John's desk had been cleared and a hole cut in the carpet immediately next to his chair. There was also a lot of grey powder about the place which Clapham had said, with a touch of melodrama, was to do with finger printing. For a moment Mr Gringe wondered whether it would be proper for him to sit at St John's desk as he normally did when he was deputizing for his chief but decided against it, as Milborn Port would have put it, 'Out of respect for the old boy'.
He felt rather sick.
His colleagues arrived singly. Harris first, smirking as usual, then Molly Mortimer, then Port and finally, to his surprise, a breathless Willy Wimbledon.
'Who told you we were convening?' he asked him tetchily, but before the Viscount could reply, Miss Mortimer chipped in. 'I did, Eric. I had a feeling you might forget the new boy so I rang him to make sure and I was absolutely right. Very naughty of you.'
'I tried to ring you,' he said crossly, 'but there was no reply. None at all.'
'You must have mis-dialled,' said Wimbledon, grinning boyishly. 'It happens a lot.'
'I did not mis-dial,' said Gringe, his voice rising a dangerous octave. 'I quite definitely did not mis-dial.' He stopped and took a breath. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'I'm afraid I've been more affected by what's happened than perhaps I realized. You're probably right. I probably mis-dialled.'
'Anyway,' said Bertie Harris, 'let's get on with it. I rather gather there's more to this business than meets the eye. Are you going to do some explaining, old boy?'
Mr Gringe fingered his RAC tie and tried to glower menacingly. The effect was simply one of extreme petulance.
'You seem to know a lot, Harris,' he said. 'Perhaps you'd like to tell us yourself?'
Harris shrugged. 'You're in charge and I understand that Martin Clapham's put you in the picture ... well,' he coughed deprecatingly, 'well into some of the picture at least, so I suggest you tell us whatever it is that you feel you ought to tell us.'
'For God's sake get on with it,' said Milborn Port.
Eric Gringe flushed. 'Originally,' he said, 'I just wanted to meet like this so that we could discuss arrangements for producing the column over the next few days, and also so that we could decide what sort of arrangements we ought to make for the deceased. You know he didn't have any family and in a way I think perhaps he looked on us as his family and therefore it seemed only proper that perhaps we ought to make some special effort, and assume some special responsibility for making sure that everything is done properly. He'd have wanted everything done properly. It would have been important to him so I think that it should be important to us too. But ... but, I'm afraid Mr Clapham has told me something which while it doesn't make any real difference to any of that, is still, er, more important. Well, immediately important.' He paused and looked at his colleagues. 'You see,' he said, 'poor old St John didn't have a stroke at all. He didn't die from natural causes of any sort. He was stabbed. With a paper knife.'CHAPTER 2
Simon Bognor was also summoned to an unexpected meeting that morning. He was lying half asleep in the bed he shared with his longstanding girl friend Monica, reading The Times while she scrambled eggs in the distance. As usual he began at the end, with the obituaries, and was on the point of entertaining her with a recitation of the salient points in the career of a West Indian diplomat who had been assassinated the previous day while shopping in Regent Street when the phone rang.
'Parkinson,' he moaned, 'two to one on Parkinson. Nobody but Parkinson would ring like that. So shrill and aggressive.'
'For heaven's sake answer it,' shouted Monica, emerging briefly from the kitchenette, hands full of saucepan and wooden spoon. Obediently he went lethargically to the instrument.
'Bognor,' said Parkinson, 'you are indolent and slothful and by this time of the morning you should be sufficiently wide awake to answer the telephone before it has rung three times.'
'I was in the middle of my press-ups,' said Bognor looking down at his thickening waist and thinking that the idea was not a bad one.
'I am in the office at this moment, Bognor, and I want you round here in half an hour at the latest. Can you do shorthand?'
'One hand and two fingers.'
'It'll have to do. You're going to spend some time on a newspaper, though, so help me God, it's no wish of mine that you should. I will see you here in twenty-eight minutes.' The line clicked and Parkinson's voice vanished.
'Funny,' said Bognor. He sauntered into the kitchen and kissed Monica idly on the cheek.
'Parkinson wants me to be a journalist. At least I think he does.'
'What's journalism got to do with the Board of Trade?'
'I should know in about twenty-five minutes.'
Because of the unwonted urgency Bognor splurged on a taxi. Normally he was more cautious. The Board of Trade did not pay its investigators handsomely, and although Bognor had been with the organization for some years he had not obtained preferment. It was painfully obvious to all concerned that Bognor's talents, whatever they might be, were wasted in the Special Operations department of the Ministry. The qualities demanded of men in the Department were patience and courage, ruthlessness and cunning. Simon Bognor was impatient and cowardly, squeamish and utterly straightforward. He was poor at poker, increasingly fat and florid. Years before, his honest degree and his guileless manner had plainly qualified him for the conventional Civil Service career which all about him had predicted. Then at that fateful interview with the University Appointments Officer he had made that totally whimsical error. It was still etched on his mind. He could see the stiff donnish figure leaning across the table at him and saying 'There is another branch of the Civil Service, a rather special Branch.' He dreamt about it sometimes but even in his dreams his own response was the same: an eager nod, an indication of genuine enthusiasm and real intent. Then the ensuing nightmare of weekend house-parties and mysterious men in pubs in macs. Later decoding, and reading ciphers and debriefing people and suddenly that dreadful experience of being sent out on his own to investigate the mystery of the smuggled secrets from Beaubridge Friary, and then the even worse affair of the murdered peers and the Umdaka of Mangolo. He shuddered at the memory and paid off the taxi.
Trotting downstairs he wondered what on earth Parkinson had been on about. After the last case, from which despite some undeniable faux pas he and the department had emerged, Bognor reckoned, with no little credit, Parkinson had vowed to keep him chained to his desk for ever and ever, never to be allowed out on even the most menial errand. Secretly Bognor was pleased. He was not ambitious.
Outside Parkinson's office he stopped for a moment, pulled at his tie, patted his jowls, smoothed the thinning hair which stuck up rebelliously at the back, and then knocked.
Bognor waited and counted to ten. He delayed partly because he was afraid and partly to annoy. As he finally entered Parkinson was in the middle of saying 'Come' for the second time.
'Why,' he snapped, 'you are incapable of coming when I say "come", I shall never understand. However there are many other things I fear I shall never understand and most of them concern you, Bognor. Sit down.'
Bognor sat and stared thoughtfully and apprehensively at his chief's steely eyes and impatient mouth.
'What do you have in mind for me ... sir?'
Parkinson twitched. 'I personally have nothing much in mind for you. Others evidently do.
You've heard of Lord Wharfedale?'
'You know that he owns the Globe Group?'
'And that the Globe sponsors the Expo-Brit scheme in which you became so hopelessly embroiled while investigating if that is the correct word the agricultural secrets which were being smuggled to Eastern Europe?'
'Yes.' Bognor was very perplexed indeed.
'It appears, and I don't have to tell you that I find this most surprising, it appears that his Lordship was exceedingly impressed with the way in which you handled the case.'
Bognor was surprised.
'So impressed,' continued Parkinson, 'that when a member of his own staff is found murdered at Wharfedale House he is not satisfied with the perfectly adequate measures being taken by the excellent Criminal Investigation Department of the City Police. No, not a bit of it. So he immediately telephones the Minister, who is naturally a very old friend, or to be more accurate, is naturally a politician to whom a kind word from the Daily Globe means a great deal and he says to him and here my comprehension is strained to its very limits and says to him, "I want Simon Bognor of the Board of Trade assigned to this case".'
Bognor couldn't help smiling. It had been his first case.
'What exactly does he want me to do?'
Excerpted from Deadline by Tim Heald. Copyright © 1974 Tim Heald. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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