It was a quarter to midnight on Christmas Eve. Reluctant customers had been shooed out of the Peeler's Rest. The last to go were a detective inspector and his sergeant, who had made a late finish at nearby King's Cross Road police station. A mountain of glasses had passed through the washer. The bins of wrappings and ashtray contents were full. Philip Honneger, a retired detective chief inspector, had paid the temporary staff. The regulars Robbie Barlow, Pearl Hackett and Molly Robinson had joined the landlord and his wife for a final drink. Blonde and elegant Kitty Honneger was in a giggly mood as she poured champagne for the ladies. Honneger usually drank white wine in a whisky glass to be sociable without becoming drunk. He poured two large measures of malt whisky for himself and Barlow, another ex-policeman.
"Are we all braced for another season of goodwill and mayhem?" said Honneger as a toast.
"Like hell!" replied his staff in chorus, giving the traditional reply.
"There's going to be mayhem at our place if my two horrors wake me up at half-five tomorrow morning," laughed Pearl. She was normally a quiet, resigned type but Christmas always cheered her up.
"I wonder if I'll be in Spain this time next year?" said Molly, a bachelor girl, who lived with an elderly and wealthy aunt. She planned to retire to the sun when her inheritance matured. "You ever been away for Christmas, Kitty?"
"Not as often as I would have liked," said Kitty Honneger. "Any copper's wife will tell you crime doesn't stop at Christmas."
"I don't know, we've not done too bad," said Philip Honneger defensively. "I've only missed a handful out of what, twenty-eight Christmases. And I've always made it up to you."
"Twenty-eight!" marvelled divorced Robbie Barlow. "That's a fair score. Nearly as good as Ernie Saunders."
"Ernie Saunders, yes. There's a prime example of marry young and regret it into your old age," said Honneger.
"One of the contradictions of being a Catholic. No divorce but a bit on the side is okay if you square it with the bloke upstairs. This will be his first Christmas on the outside for a couple of years."
"One of your customers, Robbie?" said Molly.
"In a roundabout sort of way," said Barlow with a grin.
"He committed the nearest thing to a perfect crime we've ever seen," added Philip Honneger.
"The perfect one being one you didn't find out?" said his wife.
"Exactly. What tripped him up was another caper a year later. That was one of the few cases that kept me working over the Christmas holiday."
"One of the handful," scoffed Kitty. "Go on, tell us all about it. I never got these stories in any sort of coherent order when he was working on them," she added to the company. "It's a bit like seeing the whole jigsaw puzzle ages after you've been shown all the bits in a box."
Philip Honneger lit his last cigarette of the day while the others made themselves comfortable in his alcove at the end of the bar. He had given up cigarettes in favour of cigars, but he had allowed himself one packet
of twenty over the holiday as a treat.
"Starting at the end, which is usually how the whole thing started for us, we were chasing shadows on a kidnapping case. Kidnapping for ransom is pretty unusual in this country. People do get snatched, as the Yanks put it, but we usually end up with a murder to solve, possibly with rape as the motive, if the kidnappers aren't armed thieves making a getaway in someone's car while using the victim as the driver.
"This time, the victim was a businessman early sixties, owned a chain of do-it-yourself shops and worth a small fortune. The kidnappers thought he wouldn't miss a hundred grand, which seemed very reasonable to anyone who could take an objective view.
"All we had to go on were three tape recordings. We missed the first phone call, but the wife called us in right away. We did all the usual things trying to find out where, how and when the victim had been kidnapped, looking for witnesses, trying to draw up a list of suspects - people with a grudge, people fired from his business, known criminals with that sort of inclination, who might be doing it just for the money, not the pleasure as well..."
"George Bilton," said Barlow, supplying the name of the kidnapped man in response to a murmured question from Pearl. "You know, 'Every job Bilton a firm foundation.'"
"Then we had the breakthrough," continued Philip Honneger. "A phone call with instructions for delivering the ransom and collecting Mr. Bilton. It was a rather involved procedure, and the kidnappers went through the arrangements twice just long enough for us to trace the call. This was on Holiday Sunday, one of the add-on bits to Christmas proper. Naturally, when we got the address from the trace, we shot round and had a look at the house. Just an ordinary semi-detached in Hounslow. No sign of life inside when we got there. Eventually, we got hold of a Securicor van and a uniform, and Robbie tried to deliver a parcel."
"I ended up taking it next door," said Barlow. "The bloke there was a bit surprised to see someone working on a Sunday, but I gave him a spiel about clearing the Christmas rush and Sunday's a good day to find people in. The neighbour told me Mrs. Saunders had gone away for Christmas but her husband was still there, working. He hadn't actually seen him but he'd seen lights on after dark and he'd heard the TV. He said he'd take the parcel round next time he heard someone in next door, so I left it with him."
"And we set up an observation on the house," said Philip Honneger. "From an empty house behind it and an observation van parked just down the road at the front. We watched the neighbour go and ring the front door bell a couple of times, and then go back to his place with the parcel when he got no answer." Honneger smiled. "We started to think the Saunders house was haunted when it got dark. We saw lights go on with no one in the room, and then off again. It took us a while to figure out he had an automatic timer to discourage burglars. After a conference with the Chief Super, we decided to go in for a look.
"Nobody will be surprised to hear we found George Bilton chained up in a small room under the stairs. He was delighted to see us he was bursting for a pee, which was a significant clue we missed in the general euphoria. We had a quick look around while Bilton was having his pee without switching on the bathroom light, then we all sneaked out again as quietly as we'd sneaked in.
"Ernie Saunders turned up at about seven o'clock on Monday morning. He got the shock of his life when a bunch of coppers appeared while he was groping for his key. He seemed to get another shock of his life when we told him we'd found George Bilton under his stairs. We put that down to brilliant acting at first. He was too surprised to say anything intelligent at first. When he got over the shock, he just clammed up. With hindsight, he must have thought he'd gone mad at first. What convinced him we were serious was when we put him in a line-up."
"We got a bit of a shock ourselves when George Bilton walked right past him," remarked Robbie Barlow.
"We sure did," nodded Honneger. "In fact, the kidnap victim turned out to be pretty much of a dead loss. Someone had got into the back of his car on the day he was kidnapped. All he saw was a masked man in blue overalls and a gun, which turned out to be a replica. He drove to a quiet spot and they he put a bag over his own head. The masked man tied him up, put him on the floor in the back of the car and covered him with a rug, and didn't take him out again until they were inside a garage. Bilton realized there was more of one of them when they took him through the kitchen to his private suite under the stairs.
"The bloke then fastened a chain to his ankle and told him he could yell all he liked, but he'd come and thump him if he did. He left Bilton with a chair, some blankets and a pile of old newspapers for company. After that, he looked in every so often to bring food and to unchain him so he could go upstairs to the toilet always a gunpoint. Bilton couldn't tell us anything about the man except that he wore a black mask, blue overalls and he was about average height and neither fat nor thin."
"What about the others?" said Pearl.
"He was pretty vague about them, too," said Barlow. "All he could tell us was he'd heard a woman whispering and he'd been able to smell perfume."
"Bilton not being able to pick Saunders out in the line-up was a bit of a disappointment," continued Honneger, "but we had a pretty cast-iron case without the identification. We'd found Bilton in the Saunders house, we had voice prints done to confirm Saunders had made the calls to Mrs. Bilton, demanding the hundred thousand and giving the delivery instructions.
"We didn't really need his co-operation, but it's always better for us when a criminal holds his hands up and tells us everything. It saves the prosecution having to react to red herrings thrown up in court. In the meantime, Saunders kept quiet for two days. Then he called me to his cell and told me an absolutely fantastic tale.
"A bit of background first. Lisa and Ernie Saunders were both in their early fifties. They'd been married for thirty-three years, starting with a shotgun job at eighteen. Two more kids came along before they found out what was causing it. All three had been launched into the world and rarely came back to the family home. Life for the Saunders family had been a long financial struggle. They're the sort of people who could be hard up on an income of a million pounds a year.
"It was to get away from rows about money that they'd decided to have separate Christmases. Lisa went to her sister's in Stepney and Ernie stayed at home. That was the official plan, anyway. Then he turned round and told me he hadn't been in Hounslow at all. He'd only been in Monte Carlo!
"Ernie tried to tell me he'd been leading a double life for a couple of years. With Mrs. Roberta Clark, age forty-three, checkout person at the local Fine Fayre supermarket, divorced and in need of a man to do a few odd jobs around the house. Such as building another of his gadgets for her lights.
"Ernie said he'd come into a little money and he and his ladyfriend had gone for a holiday of a lifetime in Monte Carlo over Christmas. When we stopped laughing, we made some phone calls. He'd left his suitcase and his passport at Mrs. Clark's place. He'd come home on the Monday morning to change for work. He was going to bring the suitcase home after dark that evening, when he was sure the coast was clear.
"Mrs. Clark confirmed every detail of the story, and she was virtually faultless on the details we got from the French police. It was the information that came from France that started us wondering.
"Ernie worked as a security guard at the air-freight terminal at Heathrow, walking round with a torch and a radio. He usually worked public holidays for the overtime. This was the first Christmas he'd had off for ages. When we checked his bank account, we found the money usually flowed out a couple of days before it went in. Ernie and Lisa were masters of the art of juggling how long a cheque would take to go through the post and then clear.
"According to the hotel and the French police, Ernie and his lady-love had spent at least twelve thousand pounds in five days. Which left us asking where the hell all that cash had come from. He'd obviously not kidnapped George Bilton. The first thing we asked him was had he kidnapped someone else, whose relatives hadn't called the police?
"Of course, it wasn't a serious question, but Ernie started to look pretty sick when he realized we were determined to find out where his cash had come from. He tried to tell us he'd had a big win at the casino. But we knew he'd arrived in Monte with a bundle. Then he tried to tell us he'd won it on the horses, but he couldn't tell us which gee-gees he'd backed.
"Meanwhile, we were asking ourselves how come Ernie's voice was on the tapes of the ransom calls if he wasn't involved in the actual kidnapping? Next thing we knew, his helpful neighbour did a runner. He turned up again in Dover, when he surrendered to the Harbour Police. He'd realized he didn't know where he was going and he didn't have that much cash, anyway.
"Lisa Saunders had come up with the kidnapping plan, He told us. Her nerves were a lot stronger than his, I can tell you. She was still at her sister's when we dropped round to pick her up. She knew all about her husband's affair she'd become suspicious and bugged their phone with Ernie's own cassette recorder. She'd also found out her husband had come into money. She didn't know how much, but she thought Ernie had pulled off some sort of robbery at Heathrow. Which is well known as Thiefrow in the trade. So she cooked up the kidnapping with John Whittle, the man next door. They made the ransom messages out of tape recordings they made of apparently innocent conversations between Ernie and one or the other of them. Such as Whittle asking him the best way to get to various places so that they could assemble the ransom delivery instructions.
"Lisa had told her sister she was going out shopping on the day of the kidnapping. Then she met up with Whittle, and once they'd got George Bilton locked away, she went back to her sister's. The helpful neighbour was ready to say he was just making sure the pipes hadn't frozen if anyone asked him why he was going next door. Remember Bilton was dying for a pee when we found him? That was because Whittle knew we'd trace the long phone call and he knew we've find Bilton fairly soon afterwards.
"Lisa had counted on Ernie taking his punishment like a man, perhaps going down for a couple of years as an accessory to the kidnapping. She was relying on him not daring to tell us too much because he had a lot on his conscience over the money. In other words, she expected him to keep his trap shut and accept a prison sentence for something he didn't do so we wouldn't find out what he had done."
"Are we going to hear what he did do soon?" Pearl covered a yawn. "Some of us have homes to go to, Phil."
"Oh, look! It's Christmas Day." Kitty Honneger pointed to the clock behind the bar, which was showing three minutes past twelve.
"Any second now," said Philip Honneger. "I'm just tying up the loose ends of motives and so on."
"I still don't see what the wife was getting out of it," said Molly, topping up her glass with the last of the champagne.
"Spending money," said Philip Honneger.
"What, the ransom?" said Pearl.
"No, it can't be that," said Molly. "Phil said they knew he'd find Mr. Bilton before they could collect a ransom."
"You could call it realizing an investment," said Philip Honneger. "Lisa and Ernie had been married for thirty-three years. They'd been short of money for all that time, but one thing they'd managed to do was pay off the mortgage.
"They'd bought their house for about thirteen hundred pounds. Similar ones were fetching sixty-five thousand up the road. Lisa planned to divorce Ernie after he went to gaol and split her half of the proceeds from selling the family home with Whittle, the bloke next door. She was going to move in with him, in fact. He had a job that paid more than Ernie's, he was more than interested in her and she reckoned if they invested the thirty-odd grand, the interest would make all the difference between struggling and getting by comfortably."
"She can still do that," said Molly. "When she gets out of gaol."
"Not really," said Honneger. "Ernie did a deal with his employers. He pleaded guilty to a theft charge and promised not to tell anyone how he'd pulled off his near-perfect crime in return for a light sentence one that meant just over a year inside. His employers agreed not to make him pay back the money..."
"What about his girlfriend?" interrupted Molly.
"She said she thought he'd made his money legitimately, and we were inclined to believe her. So she wasn't prosecuted. Lisa Saunders and John Whittle got seven years apiece for kidnapping George Bilton. It'll be a year or two before they're eligible for parole. Ernie's an old-fashioned sort of bloke. The house is in his name only. He sold it as soon as he got out of gaol and moved in with his girlfriend. He claimed he'd gambled most of it away by the time his wife found out and started a legal action for her share."
"I bet he's in Monte Carlo again this Christmas," said Molly in an envious tone.
"I'm about to turn into a pumpkin," hinted Pearl.
"Okay, the near-perfect crime," grinned Honneger. "We have to go back two years before the kidnapping. Ernie was working over the Christmas holiday for the overtime, as usual. One of the features of that time of year is the bags of money that pass through the security area of the freight terminal.
"It comes in sacks about a foot tall and six-inches square from duty-free shops abroad. Just like sacks for dwarf Father Christmases. What they do is sort paper money by country of origin, then dump it into another machine, which counts the number of notes and works out the total value. That gets printed on a label: so many notes worth so many thousand pounds. Then they put the bags on a plane going to the right country.
"At holiday times, the incoming bags pile up in the security area at Heathrow until the banks open again. One of Ernie's jobs was to count them at least once a day. One Boxing Day, he came across a sack that had a small rip at a seam. A corner of a note was sticking out of it. A twenty-pound note.
"Ernie had just eleven quid in his wallet a five and six ones. He had a hundred and forty quid when he went home. He figured if the number of notes was right when they counted them, the bank would assume a machine had made a mistake. Ernie bought a packet of cigarettes in twenty different pubs that evening. And he bought eight newspapers with fivers on his way to work the next day.
"That got rid of all the notes he'd taken out of the sack and gave him a stack of smaller denomination notes to exchange. Unfortunately, his boss had nothing much to do on that day. It must have been a Holiday Tuesday after Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Anyway, the boss went round with Ernie when he counted the sacks. And they went to the bank the next day. So Ernie had to be satisfied with a bonus of a hundred and twenty-nine pounds that year.
"He was more than ready for a happy Christmas on duty the following year. He managed to save up about fifty pounds, which must have taken a superhuman effort, and he raised about twelve hundred from money lenders. He used a piece of emery paper to wear a split about an inch long in a sack, and he found he'd hit the jackpot. That bag had a lot of fifties in it. So Ernie swapped the pound notes he brought for notes bigger than a tenner."
"And how much did he get?" said Pearl, fascinated.
"Just over twenty thousand," said Honneger.
"And no one noticed?"
"Well, someone obviously noticed an discrepancy when the bag got to the bank. They counted the notes by hand to check their machine, but the thing that threw them, as Ernie had figured, was the total number of notes was correct. They assumed the machine abroad had identified some of the notes wrongly."
"So they just wrote off twenty thousand pounds?" said Pearl incredulously.
"They weren't sure it was a real twenty thousand," said Honneger. "Or just a computer putting a tick in the wrong box. Calling a pound note a twenty, for instance. They'd had discrepancies before, if not on this scale, so the procedure for glossing over it was well established."
"Didn't anyone notice the tear in the bag?" said Molly.
"Not the way they unpacked them. It was: remove the tag and put it in the printer, turn the bag inside out to empty it into a hopper, drop the bag into a basket, and when the machine had counted the notes and printed the number and value on the tag, do the same with another bag.
"Some of the bags were quite tatty. It was a sort of point of honour to throw them around to show proper contempt for mere money. It was over a fortnight before they did any checks to find out if twenty grand really had gone missing, and then it was a purely internal inquiry, no police involved. By then, Saunders had stashed his loot, paid off the money lenders and booked every weekend in January for overtime to pay off Christmas, as usual. The investigation was a very casual affair just a few senior managers looking at people to see if they were wearing either a guilty expression or looking pleased with themselves. In the end, they dropped the whole thing.
"Saunders and his girlfriend spent the next year planning their Christmas holiday of a lifetime. And when his wife found out he was up to something, she found out what it was, then she and the bloke next door cooked up their kidnapping plan. They thought he wouldn't dare say anything about where he'd been because he'd end up in worse bother. They didn't bank on the highly efficient interrogation techniques we coppers use.
"A case of: Merry Christmas, Mr. Saunders, and an unhappy New Year," remarked Robbie Barlow. "That's what all the papers said when his case came up."
Philip Honneger spotted Pearl sneaking another glance at the clock. It was a quarter past twelve. He took three envelopes from his jacket pocket. "And a merry Christmas to my audience. I'll leave it up to your conscience whether you tell the taxman about your Christmas box."
"Anyone with two growing kids doesn't have a conscience," said Pearl. "Perhaps that's what numbed Mr. and Mrs. Saunders' consciences over the years."
"They certainly sounded made for each other," yawned Molly. "Merry Christmas, everyone. See you tonight."
For crooks, coppers and the staff of the Peeler's Rest, a Christmas meant business as usual. ■