Panicking Ralph is a big-time villain – but he’s a local villain – and when his life is threatened, policemen Harpur and Iles are straight on the case
Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, worry about the safety of one of the big-time crooks on their ground, Ralph Ember, sometimes known as Panicking Ralph. Yes, Ralph is a villain, but he’s a local villain, and Harpur and Iles feel a kind of bizarre affection for him. And in any case, Ralph helps Iles keep the city reasonably peaceful. But now some awkward repercussions from Ralph’s lawless past seem to bring danger.
Ralph is aware of this new peril and has installed a bulletproof steel barrier to protect himself in the club he owns – but will this be enough to keep him safe? Harpur thinks not. Surely the upcoming party at the club will provide the perfect moment for a gunman to do for Ralph? The only way Harpur can be sure of protecting Ralph is to attend the party himself . . .
About the Author
Critically-acclaimed crime writer Bill James is a former journalist, and wrote for The Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror, the Spectator, the New Review and Punch. Married, with four children, he lives in Wales.
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By Bill James
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Bill James
All rights reserved.
Now and then, during a quiet spell at home in his authentic, multi-chimneyed, paddock-graced manor house, 'Low Pastures,' or, say, when business went sluggish at the club he owned in Shield Terrace, Ralph Ember liked to think back to certain, undeniably very rough, handgun episodes in his past. Liked? No, not quite that. In fact, not that at all. He didn't enjoy recalling those harsh times. The memories could cause near-paralysing pain, and possibly some shame. He had to compel himself to re-run them in his head.
So, why do it? Why pipe torment aboard? He knew the answer. Of course he did. He wanted to check something, recheck something – something crucial to him, something sensitive, something non-stop fucking troublesome. He had to prove that nothing in his behaviour during those lawless, violent capers long ago could justify the disgusting nickname some still vilely blessed him with: 'Panicking Ralph,' or even worse, 'Panicking Ralphy.' In Ember's opinion, this foul, dangly 'y,' stuck on to give an entirely unwanted jingle, made him sound feeble and pathetically childish, a gibbering kid.
Very few – other than that insolent, eternally savage, bombastic sod, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles – would call Ember Panicking Ralph or Ralphy to his face. But he felt certain the slur circulated as more or less routine abuse among his enemies; and probably among some of his seeming friends, too: anything for a smirk, disloyalty included. Although this hurt and angered Ralph he obviously could not prevent it. But he searched for solace. By going over and over the ancient details he tried to convince himself he'd never in fact actually faltered, had never chickened, despite terrible, salvo dangers in some of the gang jobs then. 'Panicking Ralph,' 'Panicking Ralphy' – these were surely utterly undeserved smears, weren't they? Weren't they? The word 'Mondial' kept recurring among his memories – kept badgering and taunting him.
Ember had a high business status now (income, six hundred thousand plus a year, and rising, the bulk untaxed, naturally) so that those contemptuous nicknames seemed especially offensive to him. And he enjoyed an admirable civic status, too, frequently publishing very heartfelt and constructive letters in the local Press on environmental and pollution matters. The signature he used for these was 'Ralph W. Ember' – such an immense distance in tone, import, quiet dignity from 'Panicking Ralph' or 'Panicking Ralphy.' Befouled rivers he particularly focused on. He felt more or less sure his wife, Margaret, had run across at least hints of those cruel names, but she had the decency and kindness not to mention them to him.
Ralph's social club, The Monty, also brought him a kind of distinction. It used to be a select, comfortable haven for local professional and commercial people, and, although the clientele had changed since Ralph bought it, he was careful to preserve the rich mahogany panelling, spacious, marble-themed lavatory-cloakrooms, and excellent brass bar room fittings, which he would often polish himself. Ambience. He longed to create the perfect ambience: vital; indispensable for any communal meeting place. This objective had the irresistible strength of a grail for Ember.
Not long ago he'd decided to fix a heavy metal sheet aloft between a couple of pillars. He thought it would baffle any attempt by envious, recession-poxed rival trade colleagues to rip him apart with sudden automatic fire from just inside the club doorway, before hoofing it to their getaway car, the murderous bastards. Without that elevated defensive barrier he'd be a simple target, seated at his little accounting desk behind the bar.
Of course, he could have found himself a less exposed position in the club, somewhere not so easily targeted. This, though, would have been a virtual admission that the label 'Panicking Ralph,' or even 'Ralphy' was spot on. Ralph at his miniature desk, very obviously presiding over things at the club, had become part of Monty tradition. To wilt by seeking out some obscure, sheltered corner would indicate a sickening collapse of courage and of dignity. It would, in his opinion, be like the master of a ship abandoning his sinking vessel in a storm before making certain all the crew and passengers had safely taken to the lifeboats. This didn't mean he should casually leave himself vulnerable. It was only intelligent and realistic to establish basic precautions. And so, the metal umbrella.
But to offset the rather chilling impression it might give of The Monty's character, he had arranged for this rectangular, three-centimetre-thick, anti-dum-dum screen to be covered with enlarged prints from the poet and illustrator William Blake's famous work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a sort of montage. These sketches had a real, swirling power to them, inevitable if you merged two opposites like heaven and hell; there'd be aggro; it would be no tranquil marriage, and this was before the time of Relate counselling. If anyone quizzed him about the purpose of his decorated metal slab he'd say it was to do with controlling the air-conditioning currents. 'Please don't ask me how, though! I obediently do what the experts recommend.' Or he might reply that he'd introduced this shield to match the club's address in Shield Terrace. He would have been interested to know why the terrace had that name. Perhaps in another century there had been a battle hereabouts, with shields used against longbows and/or halberds. He felt that this possibility gave the club extra significance. History could thrill Ralph, make him feel part of what he called 'a grand panoply'.
He had very major ambitions for The Monty, but occasionally he'd wonder whether it was grossly and stupidly optimistic to think he could bring about the enormous changes he wanted. This deep doubt made him more determined to buttress his identity in other ways. One of these was to abolish if he could his dread that those smelly monikers, 'Panicking Ralph' and/or 'Panicking Ralphy' might be terribly accurate and justified. He sometimes sensed a gap inside him where his hopes for The Monty had previously thrived.
He used to believe that one day he'd raise the social and intellectual standing of his club to match The Athenaeum's or at least The Garrick's in London. Ralph intended to chuck most of the current Monty membership and put a definite end to many types of rowdy shindig he tolerated there at present. Although some of these festive functions might be absolutely OK and acceptable – wedding receptions, christening parties, post-funeral get-togethers, gatherings to honour Her Majesty the Queen's official birthday, or the anniversary of Trafalgar – others were not. He had meant to exclude what he thought of as definitely 'non-Athenaeum, non-Garrick' type celebrations marking, for instance, prison releases; turf war victories; paroles; acquittals; bail awards against all the odds; effectively silenced and/or retracting witnesses.
He could still think along those lines, but not with quite the same bounce these days. Ember didn't understand how it had come about. For the present he'd lost some of the absolute, bullish faith in his scheme to lift The Monty to a different class. He knew that most people had always regarded as utterly and preposterously loony this dream of Shield Terrace transformation. Until recently he'd discounted their view: treated it as malicious, negative and defeatist. There was a phrase in the commercial realm 'to turn a company around'. That is, to take a failing firm and revive it, bring it back into profit. This was the sort of conversion he sought for The Monty.
On a special trip back up to London not long ago he'd gone to look at some of these clubs, from the outside, naturally. He'd needed to see the facades and doorways and, indeed, doors, and members entering and leaving, some with walking sticks, some taking taxis, vans delivering newspapers or new chalk for the snooker cues; or possibly the more traditional billiards cues in this type of club. He'd needed plain, physical expressions of what he was aiming for. Templates. Concreteness. He'd felt, here it really was! Actuality. Achievable actuality for The Monty. These London buildings were simply that – buildings. The Monty could equal this: it, too, was a building. The members going and coming were, obviously, people, and so were the Monty's members, people.
But in retrospect this seemed to him sometimes now a sad, pitiable visit, like that famous picture of salivating urchins at night with their noses against a restaurant window, watching the customers inside fill themselves with expensive food and wine under bright, cheery lights. At moments he feared The Monty was The Monty and would stay so. Ember realized he'd better try to get some of his prestige from elsewhere now. He should struggle to annul anything that brought him disrepute, such as, yes, the grossly slanderous tags 'Panicking Ralph' and/or 'Panicking Ralphy.'
He was Ember, or less formally, Ralph, or in those press letter columns, Ralph W. He didn't mind any one of these. He liked to think of himself as easy-going, unfussy, without side, yet possessing fully earned self-esteem. When someone asked him what the W stood for in 'Ralph W. Ember,' he would reply either, 'Wait and see,' or 'Who knows?' Humorous quips Ralph loved. Weren't they part of his wry, amused, laid-back approach to life? Weren't they? The satirical magazine, Private Eye, ran a supposed letters-from-readers feature where the signature of the writers comically echoed the topic of the correspondence. In a witty mood, Ralph had sent in one about gross vanity as from 'E.G. O'Tripp'; another dealing with behaviour of the work force on a construction site from 'Bill d' Urs-Kleevidge'; and a third bemoaning broken government promises, from 'J.A.M.T. O' Morrow'. None was printed. Probably too subtle for those infantile buggers, Ralph decided.CHAPTER 2
Now and then, during a quiet spell at home on a day off, or when matters at the office were not too pressing, Esther Davidson liked to think back to certain handgun episodes in the past. Liked? No, not quite that. In fact, not at all like that. Not as planned as that. She didn't exactly think back. Her mind would seem to return of its own accord, frogmarching her memory to one or other of these incidents, as if responding to a prompt she was hardly aware of. It troubled her. She wanted to be in control of what her brainbox did. The word 'Mondial' kept badgering, taunting her.
Well, didn't everybody have this sort of weird experience occasionally? A borrowed French phrase covered it: déjà vu, meaning 'I've seen this before.' Usually it was spoken as, 'I had a strange, unexplainable feeling of déjà vu', so possibly the best translation with trimmings might be 'I've seen all this before, haven't I? Haven't I?' People would observe or hear something now that in totally unpredictable style triggered a memory of a similar happening previously. Or seemed to. This needn't be anything massive or striking or unusual, but it would appear to match and reproduce conditions of an earlier date, utterly forgotten until now. It was forgotten, yes, but not lost. Instead, it had lain stored somewhere in the subconscious, very ready to pop out on cue, the process more or less subliminal. Esther didn't feel comfy with subliminal stuff. For her, extremely slight, even trivial, occurrences would set this mysterious type of sequence off: say the sound of a revving, low-powered car; or sight of a starling formation buzzing the street below; or a rush of jagged, dark cloud blanking the sun; or the crying of a child. She'd find herself transfixed for a moment, trying to locate where, when, originally she'd registered something similar without knowing she'd registered it at all: a comparable car engine din; glimpses of an identical bird patrol; the abrupt onset of shadow when the sun got lost; the yelling of a baby.
Today, a starling squadron criss-crossing not a street but the Davidson rear garden three or four times bamboozled Esther into revisiting some violent, bloody, mini-war minutes in her history. She lay stretched out, fully dressed – jeans, woollen socks, desert boots, polo-necked dark sweater – on a lounger in the conservatory. It was sunny but December sunny, pale-sunny, and she had a Calor gas stove alight. She'd been a detective superintendent in the Metropolitan force then, not long before she was promoted and moved here, away from London, to take charge of Operations. She'd learned a lot about such duties with the Met.
Possibly it was the gunfire that day, in the jumbled, rambling district between Peckham and East Dulwich, south of the Thames, that disturbed the starlings and got them formation flying; some of the bullets from Esther's people, some not. Like most police hits of this sort it originated from what was called 'advice': a bland, seemingly harmless term, but meaning a confidential tip-off, or confidential tip-offs, from an informant or informants. 'Advice' was graded as to quality.
There were – and still were – four categories. The lowest rated as R-minus, rumour so frail and unverified that it hardly added up even to rumour. But best not ignore it. Suddenly, there could be a jump up the league to a more compelling status. Stay watchful. At the level above came plain R – rumour, but with a possibility of turning fairly soon into something more than that. If it happened, this would then become category three: R-plus, which allowed for some rumour still present, but with more than three checked certainties. In police work three checked certainties stood fairly close to Gospel truth.
And then, at the top of the whisper scale, stood classification AREA, referring not to a patch of ground, but Advice Requiring Emergency Action. It had been a flash flood of AREA-quality signals from their voices inside a couple of the London gangs that led to the SWAT move with Esther in command. And to the starling street theatre that day.CHAPTER 3
Ralph Ember was at his accounting desk behind the bar at The Monty, business slack just after opening at noon. He felt it necessary to spend time at the desk to check over the previous night's takings and do some stock ordering by phone or email. But, of course, he meant his spells seated there to be about more than club management: those deeper things. To be installed here, unruffled, in an open, potentially hazardous position surely made those sickening nicknames, Panicking Ralph, or Ralphy, totally misguided, and vicious slanders. Ralph was coolly maintaining a core Monty feature; a feature he, personally, had initiated and would now honour. This captain wouldn't ditch his responsibilities but was on the bridge, so to speak. And those speaking it would say 'Ralph' or 'Ember' not 'Panicking Ralph,' or 'Ralphy'.
He had command, and, more important, it could be seen by anyone about that he had command. Admittedly, there weren't many to see him at present, but enough: the word would circulate – Ralph was where he should be; where his social standing, his character, his robust temperament said he should be, regardless. All right, so there was the thick, inter-pillar metal extra up there offering a degree of protection. Ralph regarded that, though, as simply a bit of basic strategy. Panic it certainly did not signify. Panic took away thought and rationality, but that fortification was the fruit of thought and reasoning. When a jet fighter pilot strapped on his or her parachute this didn't indicate cowardly terror. It was necessary preparedness; it could save his life and enable him to fly and fight again. When a surgeon pulled on his face mask before operating it was to avoid contagion, giving or receiving, so that he or she and the patient might go on unimpaired in their careers. The shield at Shield Terrace was comparable with that type of professional counteraction against risk.
Excerpted from Disclosures by Bill James. Copyright © 2014 Bill James. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Table of Contents
The Harpur and Iles Series by Bill James,
Part One: Reminiscences,
Part Two: The now and the near future,