'... for some of the passengers it was a landscape seen before, others were seeing it for the first time, that other world of the river, of things normally seen from the front.'
'... the PS Batch Castle pulled slowly away, the Silver Band breaking into 'Hearts of Oak', the bouncy, sea-brisk notes following her out to midstream. The Cluny Steamboat Company was underway.'
The Commander rang down for ahead. And Tom in the engine room pushed levers and turned wheel valves until she breathed steam, and her paddle wheels stirred from their long years on the river bed and turned again on their journeyings.
The fourth book in the Batch Magna series. In the third book, The Batch Magna Caper, it is seen that the Commander’s wife Priny has arthritis, a condition not at all improved by sitting on a river. They take up Humphrey’s offer of a straight swap: their boat, the Batch Castle, for one of the Masters’ Cottages facing their beloved river.
The Castle is restored to river worthiness. It starts plying successfully as the Cluny Steamboat Company to Shrewsbury and back, and by doing so takes a good deal of profit away from a taxi firm in a local border town. The English owner of the firm, Sidney Acton, enlisting the aid of two corrupt Welsh councillors, plots against the new venture, and in this chapter the two councillors plot in turn against Sidney.
Mervyn arranged the round of golf that afternoon after morning chapel, suggesting it to Odgar Llewellyn-Jenkins like a code while talking with him and some of the other men, their wives chatting in a separate group on the pavement.
The golf course, a few miles outside Kingham, was on Mortwardine Hill, a place of legends, the mountains of Wales to the west rising in a mist with eagles in it, the hills and green folds of England tucked neatly away to the east, and elsewhere on the hill the rubble of the history between the two countries, the 14th century stone of what had once been a fortress.
Not that the two men showed any interest in the views. They were no longer even interested in the game. They had stopped playing on their way to the next hole, brought to a halt by what Mervyn meant, even though he hadn’t said it yet. He had told Odgar between holes what he’d laid on for the Cluny Steamboat Company, and how Odgar could shortly expect a bit of business to come his way. But that was not all he had to say.
Two things lately had been occupying Mervyn - how he might move in on Sidney’s business, and what Sidney knew about him. And it hadn’t taken him long to see that the resolving of the second thing would make him a present of the first. A present he was about to share with Odgar.
He’d already talked about the Prestige Car Service, how, as it was now the only taxi firm in Kingham, it was a money spinner. “Raking it in, he is,” he said, looking at Odgar, a border Welshman, with indignation, as if at the thought of an outsider coming in and helping himself like that. “I wouldn’t mind that business, I can tell you. If something happened to him, like.”
Odgar looked amused. “Why, left it you in his will, has he?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Mervyn said with a chuckle. “No, I was just saying, you know, if something happened to him. You know …?” he said again, glancing at the other man.
“Well, there’s no denying, Mervyn, that we are all at the mercy of time and chance, as Ecclesiastes tells us. The cruel net and the snare, and all that, you know. That ball looks to be further away from the hole than I thought.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t mean that, Odgar” Mervyn persisted. “I meant if something happened to him.”
“If something happened to him?”
“Yes, you know…”
“What do you mean if something happened to him?”
“You know …” Mervyn said again, softly, the words like a caress, an intimacy between them, Mervyn’s elbow lightly jogging his arm.
Odgar came to a halt and turned a face sharp with bones towards him, a face which seemed to have sprung from purer Welsh soil than that of the diluted borders, a Celtic redness high on his cheeks as if painted on, like Punch, his eyes the colour of sloes, eyes seasoned in calculation and alert now with suspicion, and something which might have been alarm.
“What exactly do you mean, Mervyn?”
Mervyn glanced swiftly around. “I mean, Odgar,” he said, getting down to business, and lowering his voice to match Odgar’s, although the nearest players were on the other side of the fairway, “if he were to meet with an accident. On purpose.”
Odgar said nothing, just stared at him. Mervyn was encouraged.
“That building he’s in doesn’t belong to him, you know,” he went on, as if offering it as a justification. “Oh, no. He rents it, that’s all, off the widow of the original owner. Like the chap who had it before him did.”
“Maurice. Maurice Cottingham. That was his name,” Odgar said, sounding awed, as if recalling some local event of great infamy. “It was called Globe Cars then.”
“Yes, well, basically all Sidney had to buy was the goodwill and the radio equipment. And that’s all we’ll be called on to fork out. He's living with some woman, but - "
"Living with some woman?" Odgar said, frowning.
"Oh, yes. Quite openly, too, apparently. Well - English, see. Anyway, even she did want to take it on, you’ve have revoked his licence by then. In proper constitutional accordance and under the Act, quoting evidence of improper purpose and criminal activity. I’ll come back to that in a minute. And we’ll have the paddle steamer licence by that time as well, we’ll make sure of it. A little goldmine, that is, that run. And Shrewsbury used to be Welsh so we’ll just be taking a bit of it back, plunder from under English noses. Be like the old days.” Mervyn chuckled. “Perhaps we ought to call it Owain Glyndwr Taxis.”
“What are you saying, man?” Odgar said fearfully, and as if asking himself the same question, his own thoughts starting to stray.
Mervyn glanced around again with an impatient movement.
“I am saying, Odgar, that we could be the proprietors of a going concern, meaning the Kingham Prestige Car Service. A going concern that would go even further if we were running it, with our contacts. It’s called the bigger picture, Odgar. And I see our future there,” he said, pointing it out with a finger. “I see us, Odgar, in the Kingham News when they do a feature on our expansion into new premises, out on the edge of town somewhere because of the acreage required. I see a fleet of coaches taking our company name to the far corners of these islands and beyond. I hear the applause of our peers in the community, and the after-dinner toasts at the Rotary Club and at the mayor’s table. And I see ease and leisure, Odgar, when our striving is done, the fruits of the labours of our hands, as the Psalms have it. All this I see, Odgar.”
So did Odgar. His tongue flicked out and back again, licking at his lips.
“You’d never get away with it,” he said then, looking at him as if in appeal, as if begging him to agree.
“I don’t see why not,” was all Mervyn said, and chuckled. “The police will be too busy looking elsewhere, meaning Birmingham. I’ll ring the office beforehand and speak to Sidney’s secretary. Tell her in the accents of that city to warn her boss that we run the drugs there and to stay away - unless he’d like to end up in a carpet. Remember that, Odgar, the body in a carpet? Someone else who tried to muscle in, and finished up fly-tipped down an embankment on the M One. That’s the way the boyos there do business. Brisk and to the point.”
“The Birmingham Carpet Murder,” Odgar intoned, seeing the headlines again.
“And poor Sidney just wouldn’t listen. Blinded by greed, he was. That’s the way the police will see it, once they’ve put two and two together. Simple enough arithmetic, even for our constabulary.”
“It won’t work,” Odgar said, as if warning himself, the thought of such a sin wrestling with the promise of riches, standing with his own temptation on another hill with the future he had seen from it. But with a voice at his ear that would not get behind him.
“For a man’s ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths,” he reminded himself anxiously, head bent over his golf club, hands clasping and unclasping on it. “The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him, the cords of his sin hold him fast. Proverbs five.”
“We have been tested and fallen short of His glory before, Odgar,” Mervyn said, bowing his head as if joining him in prayer. “And when our day comes we must throw ourselves on His abundant mercy and forgiveness, and ask for one more to be taken into consideration. God is good. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah, one-eighteen.”
Odgar, tested, grievously, once more, looked away, the weight of who he was, and was expected to be, on his shoulders. The generations of his forebears, their lives devoted to the public good, the family name a byword in the town for probity and civic duty, his reputation in the chapel and the community, his position at the Town Hall, and his wife’s dream of being the mayoress when he donned the chain of that office, another expectation to be met.
He then seemed to slump, as if exhausted by it.
“Saying that I agreed,” he said in a near whisper, “how would you - how would it be - er - you know …?”
“Ah, now you’ve identified, Odgar, that part of these undertakings that has led many into error and the dock. It is no time to cut corners!” Mervyn said emphatically, suggesting the reason for it. “If we want to stay free to enjoy that future then the job must be done properly. By a professional, meaning what is called a hit man,” he said, having read a feature on it while waiting to have his veneers polished at the dentist’s. “Someone to whom it’s simply a job of work. He will arrive, dispatch Sidney quickly and painlessly - he is not called upon to suffer - and depart as if he had never been. The waters closing again on the deed like those of Avalon, leaving not a trace. It is the modern way of doing things.”
“But where would we find such a person?” Odgar said, wondering at the exoticness of it, and not only now agreeing but sharing possible teething problems.
“Northern Ireland,” Mervyn said promptly. “I have contacts there among those already holding the English to account. And it’s best, Odgar, that that is all you do know,” he added firmly, Odgar nodding hurried agreement. “Now, I’ve made certain enquiries,” Mervyn went on like a salesman, “and I can get it done professionally at a round figure of three thousand pounds.” He held up a hand, cutting off any protest. “And that was a sum, Odgar, arrived between friends - plus, it includes the man’s expenses, which will be varied. Anyone else, I am reliably informed, would be looking at an extra couple of thousand plus. And of course it helped that Sidney’s English.”
Shortly after that, two voices were lifted on the summer breezes of Mortwardine Hill, singing softly in harmony ‘Lead On O King Eternal’ as they moved up the green, as if with one eye on their immortal souls, or that of the soon to be departed Sidney Acton, two voices, one a bass, the other a baritone.
Clouds in a Summer Sky