The Main chance
There was nothing to warn Tweed he was setting out on the strangest case of his career, as Deputy Director of the SIS and, earlier, as Scotland Yard's ace detective.
It was a glorious March day as he drove well south of London with his second-in-command, Paula Grey, seated beside him. She studied a map, navigating for him; they had left the motorway on her instructions, were now driving south-west along a wide country road. On either side rose steep banks topped with hedges, green leaf-shoots already showing. The sun shone down out of a clear blue sky. Occasionally they passed an isolated house, its front garden covered with crocuses and sheaves of daffodils. `This is the life,' Paula remarked, glancing out of the window. Attractive, slim, thirty-something, jet black hair reaching her neck framed a well-shaped face. `Any idea where we're going?' Tweed asked. `Of course I have. Hengistbury Manor is buried deep inside what they call The Forest, which is vast. A weird area to site the headquarters of the Main Chance Bank.' `Richest private bank in the world, so Buchanan said.'
It had started early that morning, when Tweed arrived at SIS headquarters, at Park Crescent in London. All his key staff were assembled in his spacious first-floor office. The tall ex-reporter Bob Newman sprawled in an armchair. Typically, Harry Butler, the Cockney, perched on the floor, Paula sat at her desk in a corner near the windows. Marler, ace marksman, stood next to Pete Nield.
Tweed had hardly settled behind his antique desk, a present from his staff, when the phone rang. He raised his eyebrows. 8 am. Who was calling at this hour?
Monica, his secretary for many years, a middle-aged woman who wore her hair tied back in a bun, answered. Covering the mouthpiece she called out: `Commander Buchanan of the Yard is phoning you urgently.' `Bit early, Roy,' Tweed began, after signalling Paula to listen in on her extension. `It's an emergency,' Buchanan's crisp voice told him. `I need to ask you an important favour. You've heard of the Main Chance Bank, richest in this country, maybe in the world. Totally independent. No shares on the Stock Exchange. Controlled by Bella Main. Eighty- four years old with all her marbles. Met you at a party a year ago. Was very impressed. Could you make it down to see her today?'
Where is she?' `Hengistbury Manor. Located in an area called The Forest.' `So where the devil is that?'
Paula, a map open, was signalling She had already located it. Tweed nodded, spoke again to Buchanan. `Forget that question. Paula has it. Now why on earth does Bella Main want to see me?' `I don't know. She wouldn't say…' `Roy,' Tweed growled, 'then why is it important to you, for Heaven's sake?' `The government thinks there's something funny about that bank.' `Funny in what way?' Tweed demanded. `I don't know.' Buchanan was sounding desperate. 'I think maybe several rich ministers have money in the bank. Just a guess. But at the moment I'm choked up with my present job, all my present problems. You know I've been appointed Commander of the Anti-Terrorist Squad? Please make the effort. Could be important…' `In what way?' `No idea.' `You're a barrel of information. When does she expect me?' `This morning, Tweed. As near eleven as you can make it. I've made an appointment on your behalf.' `Without consulting me? Thanks a lot!' `I'm sorry, but I'm really in a jam. I told her you might take Paula with you. I do apologize.' `Get back to chasing terrorists. We'll go. You owe me a big one.' Tweed slammed down the phone before Buchanan could say anything else, looked across at Paula. 'Is it easy to find?' `No, but I'll get us there.' She turned to Harry, who was peering over her shoulder. 'Why are you so interested?' `Just curious about where you're going.' He jabbed a thick finger on her map. 'That's it?' `Yes, it is.' She stood up. 'I'd better put something on. It could be chilly down there. And Tweed is pawing the floor.' Her chief had already slipped on a camel-hair overcoat, was standing by the door. She was inside a fur-lined leather jacket in seconds. She sat on her chair, checked her 6.35mm Beretta automatic was tucked snugly inside the holster attached to her lower right leg. She had earlier checked the 7.65mm was inside her hip holster. She jumped up. `Ready and willing!' `Then let's get moving,' Tweed said.
The phone rang. Tweed shook his head as Monica answered. 'I'm not here,' he warned. `You are for this one,' Monica told him. 'It's Philip Cardon. From abroad as usual, I expect.'
Tweed perched on the edge of his desk, signalled to Paula, who darted back to her desk. They lifted their receivers at the same moment. Tweed's impatience was replaced by a tone of genuine pleasure. `Philip, you old dog. Haven't heard from you for ages. How is the world?' `Is this line secure?' Philip's voice was unusually abrupt. `If it isn't we're out of business.' `This call will be brief. I have a deep-cover agent. He tells me Calouste Doubenkian is on his way to Britain. Could be there already. You know who I mean?' `Vaguely. Never made his acquaintance.' `You don't want to. He's very dangerous, enormously powerful. My information is that he's on his way in connection with something concerning you.' `In what respect, Philip? I can't imagine why.' `Neither can I. But watch your back. I'll call when I've dug up more data.'
Tweed heard a click. Philip had ended the call suddenly. He put down his phone as Paula and Monica replaced theirs. He shrugged as he opened the door, ready to dash down the stairs to his car with Paula at his heels. As Tweed opened the front door she glanced back. Harry had followed them silently down the staircase, was now scuttling out the back way where the transport was kept. `I wonder what Harry was up to in such a rush?' she mused as she fastened her seat belt.
Working on some job. You know I give them all latitude to do their own thing.' `Philip sounded unusually tense,' she remarked as Tweed drove away from Park Crescent, heading towards the motorway which would take them south. `Maybe we should bother about this Doubenkian,' she suggested. `Oh, I don't think so,' he said dismissively.
Well I think we should bother,' she persisted. 'Philip knows what he's talking about. Always.' `Belt up,' Tweed said cheerfully. We're going to have an uneventful day in the country in this lovely spring weather. Relax.' `Said he was dangerous,' Paula went on.
Tweed looked at her, smiled. He didn't make any further comment, settled down behind the wheel to enjoy a peaceful day.
They were driving deep into the countryside, having left the motorway ages ago. The sun still shone out of a clear sea-blue sky. They had met no traffic for a long stretch. Nor were there any more isolated houses with front gardens blooming with spring flowers. Paula's mobile buzzed. She had a short conversation. `That was Monica,' she said as she pocketed it. `Really?' said Tweed as though his thoughts were miles away. `Monica traced where Philip called from. Somewhere in Belgium. Don't know where. They'd only give Monica the country. I didn't think that was one of Philip's happy hunting areas.' `It isn't normally. But he roams round the Continent.' `Have you noticed the light aircraft that has been flying roughly on a parallel course to this road?' `Yes. I have noticed.' `Maybe it's Marler watching over us.' `No. Not his aircraft.' `It's flashing a light now, on and off. What's it doing?' `No idea.' `It's stopped. It's flying away north now.' `So it is.'
She glanced at Tweed. He was answering automatically, as though his mind was elsewhere. He had slowed down as they approached the crest of a high hill, was almost crawling. From the crest they had a panoramic view of the countryside ahead before the lane sloped downwards to a long straight stretch. No more than half a mile ahead, a huge tractor was perched on top of a small hill. The field behind it was ploughed. Large chunks of soil paraded back as far as the eye could see. Tweed stopped, turned off his engine. In the sudden silence the only noise was a faint whine. The digger was stopped but the driver, a vague motionless figure, had kept his motor running. Tweed started his own engine, began moving slowly down the hill. Paula had expected speed. Checking the speedometer she saw they were crawling at a maximum of 25 m.p.h.
Puzzled, she glanced at Tweed. She had never seen him look more relaxed. She was itching to press her foot