This is Chapter Thirteen of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel, The War Party, the second book of the Big Shilling trilogy. ‘Verity Clissold wants the whistle-blower terminated. But he’s taken refuge in a London embassy and not even the CIA can reach him. There is only one solution. Call in the most accomplished assassin in the world, the Big Shilling.’
After his shower, the Big Shilling lay on the bed and closed his eyes for five minutes. He’d opened the upstairs windows, and, along with the banal cacophony of the city – emergency sirens, incessant traffic, airliners sailing overhead – there came the sound of a party in one of the back gardens. Raucous Australians were preparing a barbie.
As he drifted in his natural element, that state of consciousness on the borderland between waking and sleep, BS could smell burning charcoal, and sensed anger. He ignored it, and concentrated instead on imagining the future, on imagining the best.
Fidel, eh? You shouldn’t have crossed me, you shouldn’t have crossed me, Fidel. You’ll get what for, you’ll get what for. You don’t suffer from hives, eh? You don’t, Del? Are you sure, my boy? Are you sure?
A few minutes later, raised voices disturbed his tranquil state. There was some kind of altercation underway outback. No longer drowsy, BS threw on some clothes and went to investigate.
From the window of the back bedroom he saw that the garden next door was thronged with people, not only Australians, but Poles as well. There were two barbecues pluming grey smoke, but food didn’t appear to be the main attraction for these young men and women: no, they had gathered to get slaughtered. A black plastic dustbin was brimming with ice and cans of beer, and the Poles were doing vodka shots. There was an amusing drinking game in progress as well: with the aid of a funnel and a tube, an Aussie girl in cut-off jeans and a bikini top was able to consume half a litre of lager in two seconds flat. The Big Shilling watched as the girl gripped the handle of an upright garden hoe and attempted to circle the implement as quickly as possible. To hysterical laughter, she spun out of control, and ended up on top of a heap of half-naked men.
It gave the Big Shilling an idea. Seeing that girl and the hoe, and the smoking charcoal and the booze, it gave him an idea.
‘Soma,’ he said, delighted, ‘polar. The goddess naked, surrounded by flames, her hair loose, wearing a necklace of skulls, and dancing on the still body of Shiva.’
The secret ritual. Why not attempt it? Why not indeed? The powers would come to him. He would have powers. Now, that would be something to put his biography, wouldn’t it, eh? Powers? Yes, it would.
‘This is not fair,’ the Big Shilling heard someone call plaintively from above. ‘This is not right, or fair.’
From the garden there were a variety of replies:
‘Stop your whingeing, mate.’
‘It’s the Owl Man, woo-woo!’
‘Come and have a beer, mate.’
‘Let your bloody hair down for once and have a laugh.’
The Owl Man, thought the Big Shilling leaving the bedroom, how interesting. He went up the narrow stairs to the second floor. The door to the balcony was ajar, and he could see the painter of owls leaning over the parapet, appealing to the good nature of the pissed partygoers below.
‘Peace and quiet, that’s all I want, a little bit of peace and quiet,’ said the young man. ‘You said there would be no more noisy parties. But all right, if you are to have a party at least let it not go on till the early hours – please?’
‘All right, mate,’ said the biggest of the Aussies, ‘no worries. We’ll call it a night before eleven.’
‘Thank you, Brandon,’ said the Owl Man, as though he actually believed what the rugger-bugger had said. ‘I’m going to go out now, so you can make as much noise as you want.’
‘Yeah, see you later, mate,’ said Brandon, sarcastically. ‘Remember to stand well back from the platform edge, won’t you? Don’t want you throwing yourself under a train.’
‘Brandon,’ chided a couple of the girls, but their voices were submerged in the general laughter.
The painter of owls turned away, brushing his unkempt chestnut hair out of his eyes, eyes which spoke of pain and confusion and angst. ‘Swine,’ he muttered, ‘why can’t they leave me alone?’ Then he saw the Big Shilling, who had been observing him from the shadows, and started. Amused, Shilling raised a hand in apology, but the boy was gone, scurrying inside like a rabbit down a hole.
After observing the party further, particularly the girl with the hoe, the Big Shilling went downstairs and finished getting dressed. He was planning a night out as well, and as he dressed, he sang himself some Sinatra, some Frankie, even going so far as to perform a few dance moves. But the noise from the garden put him off his stroke.
‘Better not keep me awake tonight, Brandon,’ he murmured. ‘That wouldn’t be a good idea, Brandon. Eh?’
When he was done, he collected the bag with the painting, and went downstairs. He was locking the front door when he noticed the Owl Man coming down the steps next door.
‘Evening,’ said the Big Shilling, not too loudly. ‘Sorry if I startled you.’
The Owl Man again looked startled, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want to be forced to converse.
‘It’s all right,’ he mumbled, before lowering his head and setting off down Sundheim Street, shoulders hunched, his hands in the pockets of baggy, paint-stained brown cords.
The Big Shilling took his time following, not wanting to spook the young man further. But it soon became apparent that their destination was the same: Notting Hill Gate tube station. The Owl Man went through the turnstile, while Shilling went to the window to buy a Lobster card from a West Indian. He paid in cash, two twenty-pound notes, and admired the artistry of the black lady’s nail technician which earned him a shy smile.
Once on the eastbound platform, which was practically deserted, he encountered the Owl Man again. They stood well apart in the tunnelled heat, Mr Shilling relaxed and smiling, the Owl Man fidgeting in a threadbare tweed jacket, pacing up and down aimlessly, never calm, never still. Three minutes later, they boarded the same Central Line train. And both got off, eight minutes after that, at Oxford Circus. On the busy escalator, with its faint breeze of lukewarm air, Shilling stood behind him. The Owl Man glanced back, nervously.
‘Are you going to see Aunt Mimi?’ Shilling asked him.
The Owl Man nodded gravely.
‘Me too. She owns both houses, does she?’
The Owl Man nodded again. The Big Shilling climbed up the escalator until he was two steps in front of him. Since the Owl Man was stooping, they were at about eye level. Shilling pointed a finger at him.
‘You’re a painter,’ he said.
‘Not a very good one.’
The answer was immediate, and, Shilling decided, characteristic.
‘I’ve got a painting you might like to see, in my bag.’
‘It’s by probably the greatest British painter of the twentieth century.’
The Owl Man’s interest was piqued. ‘Bacon?’
The Big Shilling smiled. ‘The one and only Francis,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Geoffrey, I’m very pleased to meet you, eh, very pleased indeed.’
They reached the top of the escalator and proceeded, side by side, to the exit.
‘Have you really got a painting by Bacon in there?’ asked Geoffrey, boyishly.
‘As God is my witness,’ said the Big Shilling with solemnity.
Geoffrey’s eyes goggled.
‘Lead the way or lead astray,’ said Shilling. ‘I’ve never been to Mimi’s club before.’
‘Haven’t you? I think you’ll like it. It can get quite busy on a Saturday night. Auntie is always there. It’s hot, isn’t it? I’m rather thirsty.’
‘Are you going to speak to her about Brandon?’
Like a child, Geoffrey’s emotions immediately revealed themselves in his facial expression. Now he was anxious again.
‘Not sure there’s much point,’ he said. ‘I’ve mentioned the parties to her before, and she talks to them, she does, and it’s a bit quieter for a day, or even two, but then it goes back to the same way it was before.’
‘Well, maybe I’ll have a word as well. I’ve just moved in, you see, and I don’t want to listen to a racket from next door.’
‘Would you?’ said Geoffrey, hopefully.
‘In fact,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘I’ll probably be having a word with Brandon myself, hey?’
‘Oh, I see. He’s a nice chap really, just likes to let off steam. They all work jolly hard, you know, twelve hour shifts six days a week. At least I don’t have to. I mean I can’t, really.’
By now they had exited the station and were heading into Soho. The hot streets of the megalopolis were packed and rammed, and Geoffrey kept getting in other people’s way, and had to dart and skip to keep up with the Big Shilling who ploughed through the throng in his usual energetic manner, letting others get out of his way.
‘Are you a painter?’ Geoffrey said suddenly. ‘I mean if you don’t mind my asking.’
‘No, I’m not. You could say I’m a psycho-therapist.’
‘Oh,’ said Geoffrey, ‘are you? I see. That must be really fascinating.’
The Big Shilling guessed that young Geoffrey had had more than his fair share of dealings with the psychiatric and psychological professions, and really didn’t want to be reminded of it.
‘You know, I think I’ve changed my mind. I might just go and get a coffee somewhere, or go for a walk, or something. Or . . .’
But the Big Shilling didn’t stop moving, and the indecisive Geoffrey was forced to keep moving as well.
‘And miss out on the chance of seeing a Bacon that has been out of the public eye for over thirty years?’ Shilling said, smiling amicably. ‘Come on, Geoffrey, I’m new in town. Everyone needs a friend.’
‘I suppose they do. Are you American, by any chance? I mean, your accent, sorry, can’t quite place it.’
‘No, I’m a cosmopolitan, Geoffrey my boy. I’m a citizen of the world.’
Geoffrey smiled shyly.
‘Oh, all right then, you’ve convinced me,’ he said, and pointed up the street. ‘It’s not very far now, up there on the left. Glasp Mews, it’s called. Oliver Glasp was a painter. A bit like Van Gogh, in fact. Do you know him? It’s busy on a Saturday. That’s why I only come on Sundays, or Mondays sometimes. Aunt Mimi doesn’t like it if I keep myself to myself. She says it’s not good for me to spend so much time alone.’
Geoffrey was right. The New Colony Club was busy. In fact, it was standing room only, but at least there was air-con, as advertised on the torched flyer. At the top of the stairs, after by-passing the bouncers and negotiating the foul-mouthed greeter, Geoffrey held open the door, looking inside in what was almost despair. The Big Shilling ignored him, running an amused eye over the signs instead: No vaping. It is against the law to smoke in these premises. This is a gay-friendly space – respect it. We are a member of Soho Door Watch. Anybody found using or dealing illegal drugs will be banned for life and the police informed. On and on they went, the rules and regulations. Yep, the New Colony Club might have been as busy as the old place Shilling remembered, but it could not have been more different.
‘Come on, Geoffrey. Piss, or get off the pot,’ he said, encouragingly, and pushed the young man through the door.
‘Are you a member?’ Geoffrey asked him, looking surprised. ‘If not, I can sign you in as my guest. It’s cheap to join, just a pound for life membership.’
The Big Shilling laughed. ‘Anyone can join, eh?’ he said. ‘No distinctions anymore. The inclusive economy, eh? Well, Mimi invited me in. I don’t need to be a member.’
But Geoffrey couldn’t hear what he said because a noisy group of Tamils or Sri Lankans was politely pressing around them, ferrying drinks from the bar. The Big Shilling walked through them, tugging Geoffrey along by the hem of his disgraceful tweed jacket. Have to take him to my tailor. Have to, eh?
‘Sorry,’ said Geoffrey, ‘so sorry. I do beg your pardon.’
Eventually, the crowd grew too thick to penetrate. After a moment, Geoffrey tapped the Big Shilling faintly on the shoulder.
‘Sorry, Mimi’s over there.’
‘Lead the way, Geoffrey, or lead astray. I can’t see a thing from down here.’
So Geoffrey led the way, inching between people, apologising, over and over again.
‘The Owl Man cometh,’ the Big Shilling heard Mimi say, and not in a friendly fashion.
‘Hullo, Auntie!’ Geoffrey cried. ‘I’ve brought a friend.’
Mimi was perched on a stool at the end of the bar, drinking gin. She did not deign to look at the puppyish young man, so her face was in profile and the Big Shilling was reminded of the famous optical illusion of the pretty young maid and the old hag. In profile, like the tips of a crescent moon, Mimi’s nose and chin arced to meet each other. It was only when she turned her head that she looked younger, and much more attractive. Now she saw him and, as though a switch had been thrown, her expression changed from frosty to delight.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘so this is your friend, Geoff! Why didn’t you say?’
‘Yes, er,’ said Geoffrey. He didn’t know the Big Shilling’s name and was too shy to ask.
‘Hello, Mimi,’ said Shilling.
‘How lovely to see you! And you’ve met the wonderful Geoffrey. So nice to be neighbourly, isn’t it?’
‘Er,’ began Geoffrey, ‘Mimi?’
‘What is it, dear?’
‘Silly, it’s not your housemates been bothering you again?’
‘Geoffrey?’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Mimi? If I may, I think I can take care of this, eh. I’ll just have a little word with Brandon and sort it all out.’
‘Would you?’ said Mimi. ‘I’d be so grateful. You see, I have, in the past, but I think Brandon would respond better if . . .’
‘Say no more, Mimi,’ said the Big Shilling, sick of the sound of duplicity. The woman punched taxi drivers in the head, she could certainly cow a cretin like Brandon. ‘Allow me. Now, on the way over here I promised young Geoffrey a look at a painting.’
The Big Shilling pushed empty glasses out of the way with a forearm and laid his bag on the bar.
‘It’s by Francis Bacon,’ explained Geoffrey.
‘What!’ said Mimi.
‘Oh dear, sorry. Did I spoil the surprise?’
‘You’ve spoilt nothing,’ Shilling assured him. ‘First the photographs, eh? As you know, Francis didn’t like to paint from memory, let alone from life. He preferred to work from photos. These were taken by Carl Castering. You both know Castering, don’t you, the infamous thief and drunkard? Have a look, Geoffrey. Go on, open the envelope, it won’t bite.’
The young man opened the envelope with some reverence. The Big Shilling awaited his reaction.
‘No,’ he said. ‘This is you. Isn’t it? It’s you, when you were younger. I mean, is it? Yes, it is. Good Lord.’
‘What’s going on?’ asked Misha Bent, appearing from a mirrored door.
‘Bacon,’ said Mimi, excitedly taking the photos from the Owl Man. ‘Bacon.’
‘Uh?’ said Misha.
‘You’re a philistine,’ said Mimi, scathingly. ‘He’s a philistine, ignore him. Look at these, they’ve been retouched.’
‘By the master himself,’ said Shilling.
‘Oooh,’ said Mimi, ‘don’t keep us in suspense, I can hardly stand it.’
‘All right,’ said the Big Shilling, bringing out the painting, ‘feast your eyes, lady and gentlemen.’
He held up the master’s work for them to examine. It was Misha Bent who spoke first.
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘Bacon. Now I know who you mean. It’s the guy who did them screaming popes.’
‘Maybe he’s not so stupid,’ said Mimi, in passing. ‘Oh my God, is it real? Tell me it is.’
‘It is,’ said Geoffrey, reverently. ‘No one else could paint like this. The photos are obviously Castering.’
‘You know your art, my boy,’ said the Big Shilling.
‘I should hope so,’ Mimi interjected.
‘Big, contrasting blow-ups,’ said Geoffrey, ‘showing every pore and blemish.’
Overjoyed, the kid’s face gleamed with excitement.
‘That’s right, Geoffrey,’ said Shilling. ‘Hey, I’m proud of you, eh? You come alive, eh, you come alive when you’re in the presence of genius.’
Geoffrey blushed and briefly hung his head, a big smile on his boyish face.
‘Is there any label or a gallery mark on the back?’ asked Mimi, rubbing her hands together.
‘There’s a label,’ said Shilling, ‘but it was never exhibited. Francis gave it to me. He told a lot of people he painted that he’d give them the painting, but he never did. With me, he was different.’
He turned the painting round so that Mimi could read the label: ‘Study for a portrait of R.H. 1971.’
‘1971,’ Misha repeated, taking out his phone.
‘Why was he different?’ asked Geoffrey, solemnly. ‘With you, I mean? Sorry.’
‘Well, Geoffrey, I was a different man myself back then. I was a tough kid who only knew how to talk with his fists. As you know, Francis was a masochist, liked to be beaten up. Well, back then I liked to hurt people. Don’t look so worried, my boy, that was then, this is now. Now I like to help people. And Francis, well, let’s say he decided it was best if he handed over the painting. Shortly after, I went away, so to speak, and we stopped seeing each other.’
Geoffrey was goggle-eyed at this. He leaned back, away from the Big Shilling, as though in awe of him, and regarded him from a greater distance. Someone else was goggle-eyed as well: Misha Bent.
‘Well, whadda you know? The little guy wasn’t snowing us,’ he said, showing the screen of his phone to Mimi.
Mimi raised her voice, because the unveiling of the painting and the photographs had earned them something of a crowd, saying, ‘It’s genuine, everybody, it’s genuine! A real-life Francis Bacon, here in the New Colony Club! Never before been exhibited.’
There was a clamour of excitement.
‘Drinks on the house, Mimi?’ called a wag.
‘Any more talk like that and I’ll bar you for fucking life,’ said Mimi, to a gale of laughter.
‘Here,’ said the Big Shilling, preening himself, delighted to be the centre of attention. ‘Take it. Put it behind the bar.’
‘Really?’ said Mimi. ‘I can hardly speak.’
Misha, however, was looking at the Big Shilling like he was the biggest dumb ass he’d ever met.
‘You can display it for a few weeks,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘while I’m in town.’
Mimi took the painting. ‘If you’re sure, dearie.’
‘Sure I’m sure.’
‘You know how much the portraits of George Dyer made, don’t you?’ she said, eagerly. ‘There were three of them, but they made something like twenty-five mill at auction. This must be worth six or seven at least.’
The Big Shilling reached across the bar and gripped the painting by the frame. ‘Maybe I’ll change my mind, Mimi, if you keep crowing about how much it’s worth. Maybe I’ll change my mind, hey?’
‘Oh no,’ said Mimi, quickly. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’
The Big Shilling was looking into her eyes as she spoke and he could see she was furious at being criticised, and in her own club as well, in front of a crowd of sycophants she doubtless called her friends.
‘Here, Misha,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘hang it.’
‘You sure?’ asked Misha, his voice surly. ‘You better change your mind now, because once I hang something, it stays hanged.’
Shilling grinned at him. ‘Go get your toolbox, Misha.’
Misha grinned back at him, humourlessly, and took the painting from him.
‘Geoffrey, I want you to have the photos.’
‘Oh no, really?’
‘To remember me by, my boy. You know, Castering said Francis Bacon could be tender, generous, and cruel? Well, me, I’m just tender and generous, these days anyway. Mimi, give this young man a drink. Can’t you see he’s dying of thirst here? Give him a drink with plenty of ice. His face is all red, he needs to cool down.’
‘Your money’s no good here tonight,’ said Mimi with a sniff.
The Big Shilling winked at her and, unnoticed, slid a twenty into Geoffrey’s top pocket.
And with that, the Big Shilling slipped away. He slipped away through the gossiping crowd because the idiotPhones had come out and people were asking if he’d pose with his portrait, and what was his name again? Also, he had spied his quarry, the Latina diplomat, unlucky Loretta. He’d spied her in the mirrors behind the bar, drawn to the Bacon portrait like a moth to the flame.
At the door he turned and looked back through the throng. Loretta was speaking to Geoffrey the Owl Man who had a cold glass in his nervous hand. Loretta was asking if she could look at the photographs, and in his eagerness to accommodate her, Geoffrey spilled them on the floor. Quickly, he gathered them up and the girl examined them, clearly fascinated.
‘I am the power,’ said the Big Shilling to himself. ‘I cause it to happen. I imagine the best, and I create the future. My imagination is a godlike power, oh yes.’