‘Calm down, Brooke! Are you sure Harlmann’s rumbled you?’ Dent snapped irritably, h is professionalism grating on Brooke’s raw nerves.
Brooke swallowed the lukewarm espresso coffee. His weak blue eyes scoured the deserted Wimpy restaurant. ‘I’m not – it just adds up. Shortly after I slip out a sample of FL3 for you, Harlmann convenes an urgent executive meeting!’ he explained edgily.
FL3 was the codename for Portable Cutting Equipment Limited’s new liquid chemical to power their revolutionary lightweight portable thermic-lance called ‘Fire-lance’.
Nervously, Brooke loosened his collar. ‘I don’t like it…’
Dent’s stony grey eyes narrowed. ‘You’re doing this because of what I’ve got on you; you’re committed. It’s not a case of what you like – it’s what I want!’
Brooke paled as Dent’s gravelly words sank home.
On becoming the Development Manager for PCE he had celebrated during his wife’s absence and unwittingly committed the indiscretion Dent had traced – or engineered. He had no choice but to go along with Dent.
‘Stop worrying!’ Dent said. ‘The way I see it, if Harlmann had anything concrete, you’d know by now. Maybe he suspects a leak in your security and wants to clamp down hard…’
‘But wouldn’t that make access to the FL3 formula almost impossible?’ He wanted to get out – and quick!
‘True. Still, the sample you smuggled out should prove valuable on its own – without the formula.’
‘You’ve no further need of my … services?’ Brooke queried hopefully.
Dent’s lips curved thinly, eyes flickering. ‘Not so fast.’ Brooke’s heart jerked. ‘We could still get a bonus from PCE: kidnap Harlmann before tomorrow’s meeting and demand a ransom for his safe return…’
Taken aback, Brooke gasped, ‘Kidnap?’ The very word sent cold shivers down his slightly yellowed spine. ‘What’ll you do to him?’
‘A simple abduction job. I’ve done it before. He’ll be all right. Then I’ll ring the executive meeting and demand the ransom, suggesting you as courier.’ He smiled sweetly. ‘What could be easier?’
Brooke’s stomach churned. ‘What about me?’ he demanded warily.
‘No trouble. Obviously, I’ll emphasise no police. I think Elmsby on the coast would be an ideal rendezvous spot. I’ll arrange a speedboat to get you to France in no time at all.’ Dent raised a gnarled finger, added, ‘With your share of the ransom money – minus the boat-fare, of course…’
Brooke sighed, relaxed in the hard plastic chair. It sounded reasonable enough. ‘You’ve timed the demand just right,’ he remarked, admiringly. ‘The end-of-month salaries are due and PCE has at least £20,000 at hand in cash…’
Dent grinned. ‘Well, we won’t be greedy, let’s settle for £15,000.’ With that amount of money he would be glad to desert wife and firm!
Brooke was sweating heavily under his pin-stripes as the large pine-smelling conference room filled with members of PCE’s executive. Agitatedly smoothing his greasy dark hair, he eyed the studded door, fearing Harlmann would turn up and denounce him after all.
The telephone’s insistent blaring ring startled him. For an instant he hesitated, then grabbed the receiver.
It was Harlmann’s throaty business-like voice: ‘The meeting’s cancelled, Brooke. I’ll speak only to you and the Chief Cashier.’
Lips trembling as he spoke, Brooke informed those present of the cancellation. As they departed, amidst a drone of mumbling, he faced the cashier.
‘Harlmann’s been kidnapped,’ he whispered.
Head cocked to the extension phone, the cashier’s bespectacled sharp features crumpled in shock. ‘They – they want £15,000!’
Slowly, Brooke nodded. Then Harlmann said haltingly, ‘They want you to deliver it at the North Crossroads outside Elmsby at 11pm tonight.’
‘And no police,’ Harlmann warned.
The cashier wavered and Brooke’s pulse threshed maddeningly. ‘What – what can we do but agree?’ he asked persuasively.
‘Yes.’ The cashier nodded. ‘It’s Mr Harlmann’s money… I just hope he’ll be all right…’
With his wife away visiting relatives, Brooke felt uncomfortable fondling the ransom money in the solitude of his Edwardian home.
He switched on the radio to drown the silence. ‘If only I had the guts to run off now, with the lot,’ he mused as the bleeps of the nine o’clock news sounded.
‘… further peace moves are expected soon… The body of the man found by police this evening in a burnt-out car outside Elmsby has been identified as millionaire Benjamin Harlmann, the well-known founder-owner of CPE. Cause of death has not been established but foul play has not been ruled out… Next of kin have…’
Suddenly Brooke’s mouth dried up. His spine tingled: a double-cross! Dent was likely trying to frame him for Harlmann’s murder! He’d better get out fast, before Dent arrived for the money and fixed him for the frame up.
His ears pricked, detected a roar of cars. Police sirens wailed, freezing him to the spot. Two Panda cars braked at his feet, splattering his trousers with gravel. A deflated sinking sensation contracted his stomach.
So Dent had informed on him. Then he mustn’t want the money; probably content with having the FL3 sample.
In the drab confines of the small interrogation room, Brooke slouched over the bare table and confessed: he had no intention of being charged with Harlmann’s murder.
‘Well, that’s very interesting, Mr Brooke,’ Inspector Green observed.
At that moment his Detective Sergeant raced in. ‘We’ve picked up the other man, sir!’
Brooke smiled sanguinely. So they’d caught the murderous swine! He thought as the door swung open.
Then his mouth dropped wide in disbelief.
‘I’m no ghost.’ Harlmann sneered, fingering his bandaged head. ‘Dent took everything that might identify me – wallet, chequebook, clothes labels, car…’ he explained. ‘He intended killing me all right. I tried struggling, he left me for dead.’ Flushed face grimacing, he sat down. ‘Naming you as courier sounded suspicious,’ Harlmann went on, ‘so when I came to I rang the police.’
Brooke sank defeated in his chair.
‘Driving down to deal with you,’ Harlmann went on, ‘Dent discovered some relatively new properties of FL3. It possesses an alarming instability when constantly vibrated. As he carried the stolen sample in his car, the motor’s vibrations must have set it off.’
Staring incredulously, Brooke shuddered.
‘Actually, I learnt of the instability from the lab yesterday. That’s why I called that urgent meeting. To warn everyone concerned.’
Previously published in Parade, August 1972 under my joint-penname of Jon Teiffort.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
A handful of short stories were a combination of ideas and prose between a friend, Neil Robson, and me. We settled on the fairly simple anagram of ‘joint effort’, and the fee was split 50/50.
***Naturally, looking back over this now, some 42 years later, I know it could be improved. A certain magazine style was considered necessary to tell a tale in 1,000 words, so genre fiction short-hand prevailed in the writing. Still, I feel it holds up as a story, of its time.
If you enjoyed this moral tale with a twist, then you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases, 'in his own words'.