When you're an ex-cop and an ex-doper scratching a living as a private investigator in the unromantic streets of south London, you take any work you can get. Even a dreary little debt collection job for some toe-rag of a used-car dealer. When Nick Sharman collects the money due on a classic Bentley, though, he finds himself stepping into another world. A world where a reclusive rock musician in a secluded mansion complete with its own recording studio—and firing range—broods on the royalties stolen from him by a crooked management—and decides Sharman is just the guy to get them back. Taking the job could be the worst mistake of Sharman's disaster-ridden life. And when rock 'n' roll's godfathers take on the Mafia, south London explodes in a maelstrom of violence.
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By Mark Timlin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 1990 Mark Timlin
All rights reserved.
The cold rain angled down and beat a faint tattoo on my office window. The water was trapped against the glass by the vicious wind and blurred my view of the outside world. The gas fire bubbled blue flame, and the air in the room was warm and comforting. I sat in my office chair and read the new John D. MacDonald novel. Although I didn't know it at the time it was to be his last. I rested my foot on the open drawer of my desk as I relaxed. The weather was cruel to the walking wounded at that time of the year, the early months when the bills come in and people give up and die quietly in their beds. I longed for the touch of sun on my body.
My old beaten-up cat seemed to agree with me. He was stretched out on the carpet in front of the fire, fast asleep. He was dreaming as cats do and his body twitched with the excitement of his fantasy world.
I had nothing to do and I wasn't looking. For a change I was fairly comfortably off, money-wise. It was a good feeling to know that I didn't have to go out on to the cold streets and hustle for a pound coin.
The telephone rang. Cat's body jumped at the sound. I picked up the receiver.
'Hello, Nick. Charlie,' a voice said. Charlie was an old friend who owned a garage located a mile or so from my office. He looked after my transport and I owed him one or two.
'Morning Charlie,' I said. 'What can I do for you?'
'I need your help,' he replied. 'Not for me – it's for a friend in the trade.'
'What kind of help?'
'A debt, well overdue. He can't locate the face that owes him the dough. I told him you might be able to help.'
'Twelve or fifteen hundred quid. I'm not sure exactly, but he did say he'd pay you a straight twenty per cent recovery fee.'
'Travis McGee gets fifty per cent,' I said.
'Who?' Charlie asked.
'Never mind,' I said. I had forgotten that Charlie wasn't a great reader. 'What's the bill for?' I asked after a moment.
'Car repairs, a respray, who knows?'
'What's the name on the ticket?'
'I don't know that either Nick, but I'll find out.'
'Seems to me you don't know much,' I moaned. 'And it's a pretty small amount –' I left the sentence unfinished. I suppose that I hoped that Charlie would go away and leave me alone. Fat chance.
'Come on, Nick. Don't tell me you're too big-time to earn a few bob these days.'
'I never said that,' I retorted.
'Just because you were in the papers for a day or two, there's no need to turn down work.'
I capitulated. 'All right Charlie, all right,' I said. 'I give in. Find out the details from your mate, or better still, get him to give me a call. I'll need the name and address of the debtor, and a receipt book or a letter of receipt with the amount filled in. Does your pal think it's fraud or what? How come he let the car out without payment?'
'I don't know any details,' Charlie interrupted. 'I think I'd better get him to call you – his name's Ted Dallas.'
'Oh, really,' I said. 'I bet he gets a lot of stick down the boozer with a name like that.'
'Yes he does, but he's all right, one of your own. I hate to see him get ripped off. We go back a long way.'
'Yeah,' I agreed with what I hoped was a hint of irony, 'it is a shame to see a motor trader get the worst of a deal.' I think the irony was lost on Charlie and I left it. 'Well if he gets in touch, I'll see what I can do, but I haven't got a lot of time to spend on it.'
'Cheers, Nick. I'll call him up now. How are the motors by the way?'
I was the proud owner of three cars then. All illegally parked by my office. My VI2 E-type had been repaired by Charlie after a little contretemps with a firm of particularly nasty villains the previous year. I'd bought an old Pontiac Trans-Am off him after I'd borrowed it when my Jaguar was off the road. And he'd lately sold me a 1978 Volkswagen Golf to use in my business as a private investigator, the other two cars being somewhat conspicuous.
'Fine,' I said. 'All running well, I'm spoilt for choice these days.'
'I always knew you'd make it to be a three-car family, Nick,' said Charlie sarcastically. 'Expect to hear from Ted today. And come up for a drink soon, perhaps I can sell you something else.'
'OK Chas,' I said. We exchanged farewells and both hung up. I went back to my novel.
The call from Ted Dallas came about an hour later. I was right there with good old Trav on his houseboat moored on the Florida Keys. Plenty of sun, sea and sand. And I was ready to shuck the bikini bottom off any bronzed beach bunny who might happen along when the sound of the telephone bought me back to reality. The rain outside had let up slightly, but the wind was still howling around the building. At least, I thought as I reached for the receiver, I had a date that night. It was with a pork butcher's daughter from Balham named Edith House. The only trouble was she always made me think of jokes about meat. Still, she was a nice enough girl, if only she'd learn to stop borrowing my boxer shorts. I caught the phone on the third ring. 'Hello,' I said, 'Nick Sharman speaking.'
'Oh, hi Nick,' said a man's voice I didn't recognise. 'Charlie told me you'd be expecting my call.'
'Mister Dallas?' 'Just call me Ted,' said the voice jovially. He sounded like a DJ on local radio.
Or J.R., I thought.
'Or some people call me J.R,' he continued.
Christ, I knew it.
'Ted'll do,' I said. 'Charlie tells me you're having some trouble with a bad debt.'
'That's correct,' the voice went on. 'He said you were good. Machine-Gun Sharman, he called you.'
'Let's not go into all that,' I interrupted. 'I'll need some details and paperwork. Can we meet?'
'Sure, Nick. I'm free right now – why don't I call by?'
'Listen,' said Ted Dallas. 'I'm in Putney. I'll get on to the South Circular and I'll be with you in an hour or so. Is that OK?' The more we talked the further his accent moved into the mid-Atlantic.
'Sure,' I said. 'I'll be here all day.'
'Perhaps we could lunch?'
'Perhaps we could.'
'Great. I'll see you soon.'
'Great,' I replied.
'Bye now,' he said and hung up.
'Have a nice day,' I said to the dialling tone.
By that time I was ready for a drink. I slid into my double-breasted Crombie overcoat and battled the wind across the road to my local pub. I sat amongst the early lunch-time drinkers and ordered a brandy. No one spoke to me. It wasn't the friendliest of boozers, but then I wasn't the friendliest of people.
I sipped at the liquid and checked out the bar in the mirror behind the optics. Everything was quiet. Just the way I liked it. I'd had enough excitement to last one lifetime. I drained my glass, then ordered another drink. I could feel the liquor warming my insides. It was an illusion. The second glass went the way of the first. I ordered a third and paid with a ten pound note. Big spender.
After I'd finished the third drink, I went back to my office. Cat cried for food and I fed him. As I knelt and pushed meat from a tin on to his plate a huge sadness engulfed me like a black tide. I stroked Cat's back as he bolted his meal. He ignored me except for one, quick sideways glance. 'Son of a bitch,' I whispered.
I hung up my coat and sat behind my desk again. I looked at the brightly coloured cover of the paperback I'd been reading. I flipped it into my desk drawer and slammed it shut. 'Bullshit.' I said to no one. Cat meowed his agreement.
Ted Dallas arrived at one o'clock precisely. A huge Cadillac pulled into the cul-de-sac where my office was situated. I stood at my window and admired the beast. Its bright-red paintwork shone through the raindrops and the chrome gleamed like silver in the harsh winter light. A fat man exited from the driver's side and looked around. He saw me standing at the office window and waved hesitantly. I lifted my hand in salute and he walked across the street towards me. I opened the office door for Ted Dallas.
He was effusive in his greeting. He pumped my hand for about thirty seconds too long, and told me how pleased he was to meet me and how he'd read about me in the newspapers. I shrugged off the crap and sat him down in a hard chair. If I wanted to remember, I just needed to close my eyes and sleep. The images of the past were clear enough without reminders. I sat down opposite him with my desk between us.
'Mister Dallas ... Ted,' I said as he flapped his hands at me in mock indignation at my formality. 'Let's get down to business. Have you got all the details of the debt with you?' He nodded agreement and took some papers and a receipt book from his inside coat pocket. He placed a sheet of paper in front of me. Underneath the heading DALLAS AUTOS, and dated February of the previous year it read:
14 Hillside Close, Richmond,
To: Repairing bodywork, spraying in and making good Bentley Turbo Reg. No. A938 JPB £1100.50
VAT £ 165.50/£ 1265.50
'Hefty,' I said.
'My firm specializes in high-class work on high-class cars,' Dallas protested. 'It was a nasty little dent and we had to order special paint. Do you know how much those motors cost?'
I left the question unanswered. 'How come you let the car out without payment?' I asked.
'It's a long story,' replied Dallas, clearly embarrassed. 'Simply, I don't deal with every car that comes into the shop. I try, but it's impossible. This particular customer was looked after by my chief mechanic. He was told that there was an account in the name of McBain at that address. And there is. The account used to be settled by a firm of city accountants, very prompt they were too. At the time the car was brought in, the account was clear and in fact hadn't been used for some time. Unfortunately my secretary authorized its revival without reference to me. The bill was passed to the accountancy firm in due course, who informed us that they no longer acted for McBain. I've sent copies of the bill to the address with no luck, and there's no trace of a telephone number listed.'
'Have you visited the house?' I enquired.
'Yes, and it's locked up tight as a drum. It's a huge place and without climbing over a twenty-foot wall there was no way of getting in.'
'Voters' register?' I queried. Dallas looked blank so I left it. 'Who signed this?' I asked, picking up the copy of the bill and feeling the greasy carbonized paper on my fingertips.
'Ah,' Dallas said even more shamefacedly. 'It wasn't McBain who brought the car in, or collected it. It was someone else. He said he worked for McBain. He had a letter of authority.'
'Not very clever of your people, was it?' I asked, allowing a slight rebuke to enter my voice.
'No,' he agreed. 'But as I said, I can't be everywhere at once.'
'Who is this McBain anyway?' I went on. 'You must know him if he had an account with you.'
'Oh yes,' replied Dallas quickly. 'He's in show-business, a singer. Used to be very big years ago. He was in a group. But nobody's heard of him for ages. At one time we used to do lots of work for him. Flash cars. You know pop stars.'
I refrained from making any comment about the Caddy parked outside. 'What else have you got with you?' I asked.
He poked at the papers he'd put on the desk. 'A receipt book filled out for the full amount, carbonized for your signature and a letter threatening legal proceedings if he doesn't pay up. At least you can get that to him even if he's broke. Mind you he's ignored all the others.'
'I doubt if he is broke,' I said. 'Not with a car like that.'
'That's nothing,' said Dallas craftily. 'The biggest dealer in used Bentleys and Rollers is the official receiver. McBain may have gone skint by now.'
It was an interesting observation and I filed it away for future reference. 'I believe you're offering twenty-five per cent recovery fee on this,' I said, tapping the bill.
'Twenty per cent,' said Dallas quickly. 'And preferably cash.'
I looked closely at old J.R. as he sat sweating in his camel coat. I noticed the shadows under his eyes for the first time. 'Are you short of cash?' I asked, not that it was any of my business, at least not until I billed Dallas myself, if I collected anything.
'Not at all, Nick,' he said, beaming a fake smile. 'Just liquidating a few assets and dragging in some old debts. Get this one and there may well be more work for you in the future.'
Sure, I thought, you're going skint yourself, my fat friend. 'I may only be able to get a cheque.' I said. 'If anything. I can't even guarantee finding this bloke after a year. In fact, I'll be honest, Ted. I'm not keen on the job at all.' He began to protest but I continued: 'If it hadn't been Charlie who asked, I'd probably turn it down flat. But as he did I'll have a go. Can I .contact you here?' I pointed at the number on the letterhead of the bill Dallas had given me. He nodded. 'All right, I'll snoop around and see what I can come up with.'
'Fair enough,' said Dallas. 'Try your best, now how about a spot of lunch? I'm famished.'
I looked at him and guessed he could live for a month on his excess weight. 'No thanks,' I said.
'Why not?' I replied. I'll drink with anyone.
Dallas pulled a bottle from his coat pocket: Glenlivet, finest malt. Here we go, I thought. 'Take off your coat,' I invited him. 'And I'll get some glasses.'
I went out into the tiny kitchen at the back of my office. It was freezing in there. I found two clean glasses and returned to find Dallas hanging his overcoat next to my Crombie. I placed the glasses on the desktop. In the heat of the room they misted over immediately. Dallas unstoppered the bottle and poured two generous drinks. We raised our glasses. He toasted me with a big, greasy smile. 'To crime,' he said. I didn't toast him back, just took a long swallow and felt the whisky run smoothly down my throat. If I'd known what was soon to happen I'd have choked.
Dallas left about an hour later, after we'd killed more than half the bottle. I watched him drive the Cadillac that was about the size of a small boat out of the street, in the rain that was coming down heavily again, and lose himself on the main road.
I sat down and tasted the liquor in my mouth. Cat and I regarded each other silently. I decided to leave my debt-collecting chore until the next day. The thought of paddling through Richmond right then left me cold.
I put the papers and the receipt book into my desk and rescued my book. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternately in Florida and dreaming about the butcher's daughter. Nobody rang, wrote or called. It was to be one of the last peaceful afternoons I would have for a while.CHAPTER 2
I spent the evening dallying with Edith House, or Eddie as she called herself. She was a great girl, but rather too intense for me right then. She was just one of those women you knock around with when there's nothing better available. I know it's a horrible thing to say, but she was a bit like an off-peak train ticket. I lay with her in my arms after we'd made love and watched a video on my new super stereo TV. I smoked a rare cigarette I'd pinched out of her handbag and drank some coffee. She'd nearly worn me out. She was the kind of woman who wanted to do everything at least twice. She fell asleep next to me and began to snore gently. I turned up the volume on the set using the remote control. It seemed to me that Edith had turned me up using the same sort of thing.
I gazed at Michael Caine chasing women across the screen and thought about my ex-girl-friend, Teresa. It was nearly two months since I'd seen her. I thought back to our last meeting. I'd met Teresa at six in the evening down in the Battersea boonies. I drove the Jaguar through the pouring rain across South London. She was sheltering in a shop doorway and waved when she saw the car. She dodged through the puddles and I pushed open the passenger door as she got close. She fell into the suicide seat and I leaned over and kissed her. Her response was somewhat cooler than I'd expected. I examined her face by the light from the headlamps of the passing cars. The drops on the windscreen dappled the dark skin of her face. For a moment I saw her as she would be as an old woman. I blinked and she was my Teresa again. Rain had caught in her fall of thick, black hair and made it shine as if it were full of diamonds. She gathered her coat around herself and shivered.
'Nick, I want to talk,' she said quietly.
Excerpted from Romeo's Tune by Mark Timlin. Copyright © 1990 Mark Timlin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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