Read a sample of ‘Until the Fat Man Sings’

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Until the Fat Man Sings

Chapter One

A Chance Meeting

The overnight stay at Angoulême in France had seemed a good idea at the time, but the reunion with Philippe after five years was too much for the Frenchman to let pass without the consumption of vast quantities of good food and wine.  The conversation was as good as the fare and the morning had found them both with not only aching heads but aching jaws from laughing as they recounted their old exploits in business and pleasure.

Now Mike was suffering the consequences as he fought to stay alert, oblivious to the fact that he was commencing a chain of events that would change him and his family irrevocably.  An arduous phase in his life had begun, one that would require him to dig into the deepest parts of his being and employ every skill he possessed, and some he did not, to survive.

He scanned the instruments automatically and then made a minor adjustment to the starboard engine fuel flow.  He glanced over at his wife, Caroline, in the seat next to him.  She and Philippe’s wife had been a bit more conservative the previous night and as a result she looked as fresh and as immaculately presented as always.  It was a constant source of wonder to him how such a lithe, beautiful woman had stayed with him over all the years.  The attention she drew from males eight to eighty on all occasions proved her unfading attraction.  The headset flattening her auburn hair was the only thing out of place.  She also looked bored.  She could never share her husband’s enthusiasm for flying or his beloved Aztec.  The overkill of taking a six-seater aircraft with two people on board from Aberdeen to Faro in Portugal at three times the cost of flying scheduled airlines upset her economical nature.  That, however, was Mike’s philosophy on life: make large amounts of money and spend even more in the most conspicuous way possible.  It did have its compensations in that the spare space in the aircraft contained more luggage than four people would be allowed on a package holiday flight.

They had both been looking forward to the three-week stay in the rented villa, each for their own reasons.  The past six months had been a long, hard slog for Mike, forcing his North Sea oil service company to produce sufficient money to support his extravagant lifestyle, and his mind was set on total relaxation.  His wife’s intention was to use this holiday to try for the umpteenth time to impress upon Mike that his behaviour was killing him, as only she could see.

Mike selected the frequency for the automatic weather report from FaroAirport, taking notes on the kneepad strapped to his leg.

“Twenty three degrees and clear skies at Faro.  That will seem hot even for a Cornish maid like you!”

“It’s never too hot for me, you know that,” she replied, and smiled at the thought of being warm after the bone-numbing cold of a Scottish winter.  “How long before we land? I feel as if my bum is welded to the seat of this crate,” and she glanced at him wickedly, knowing that the crack at the aircraft would sting.  She shifted her tall, slim body in the seat to emphasise her discomfort.

“The CRATE,” he replied, “will be looking very attractive to ordinary mortals on the apron in Faro in thirty minutes, air traffic control willing.  Let’s see what they have to say.”

He changed the frequency to the Faro approach control and made the initial contact.  The electronic voice came immediately back.

“Golf Victor Tango, pass your message.”

Mike mused at his surprise that air traffic controllers the world over spoke English, and then slipped into the affected voice of a commercial airline pilot.

A dialogue was struck up where he identified the aircraft, and then landing instructions were given which would mean them first arriving at Faro to clear Customs.  They would then fly on to Portimao where they would be based for the remainder of their holiday.

Mike repeated the instructions to confirm and busied himself with setting up the aircraft for the approach.  Caroline knew not to distract him at this point and lapsed into dreaming of lying in the sun.  The aircraft was still taxiing to the customs stand when the cockpit temperature soared, giving a taste of the hot weather to come.

Caroline had to get out to allow Mike to climb over the seat and begin the tussle with the customs officials.  He took the chance to stretch his limbs and ease the pain in his back gained from a long career in amateur rugby, a game to which his physique was well- fitted.  With shortish legs and a long torso, his upper body strength had been put to good use in such a bruising and brutal game.  Although retired from such exertions he had stayed reasonably fit due to a hectic lifestyle and a high metabolic rate.

The customs’ inspection was much more thorough than Mike had expected and the crevices of the aircraft and the paperwork were checked several times before the official was satisfied.

Mike was not slow to show his impatience.  It had always been difficult to hide his emotions given his Irish background, ably demonstrated by his sandy hair and rough-hewn looks.  His impatience was driven by the fact that their next destination, Portimao airfield, did not have runway lighting – and daylight would soon run out.  The last thing he wanted was to spend a night at Faro airport.

The official was unrepentant.

“Unfortunately we have a large drug problem in Portugal, Sir, and we must be careful, particularly with private flights.  But now you may proceed.” He spun on his heels and marched away.

Gratefully, Mike climbed back into the aircraft, his external checks completed during the customs inspection.  The westward flight of thirty miles was rapidly completed and the aircraft tucked up on the apron at Portimao as the sun’s disc settled on the horizon.

The villa rental agent, a Mr Mendez, and his small, ancient Fiat, clattered into the car park of the airport in response to the phone call and clattered out again with the two of them on board.

The villa was only ten minutes drive away and the small car screeched to a halt next to the large BMW parked outside.

“Couldn’t you have hired a bigger car?” said Caroline sarcastically.

“Not if I didn’t want to make four trips from the airport with your luggage,” he replied, lighting the first cigar since Angoulême.

“I thought you were going to stop smoking those filthy things,” she said sincerely.

“Perhaps nearer the end of the holiday.  Now, let’s get inside, I’ve got to phone the office and check on the bid for that contract.”

Caroline made to object but the look on his face warned her to leave it for a while.

Mike wrestled with the unfamiliar telephone system and dialling codes for some time before Ken, his office manager, answered the call.  At once Caroline blanked out the conversation and wandered around the villa, checking the rooms and the facilities.  The villa was extremely private, surrounded as it was by mature trees and a large walled garden she remembered from the photographs in the brochure.  Sliding open the glass patio doors she stepped out onto the veranda and she noticed that the evening air was cooling rapidly.  She was secretly glad because the heat had been a little oppressive over the last couple of hours.

Her eye was caught by a large electrical switch at the side of the patio doors and she walked over and flicked the switch.  A series of soft lights illuminated the garden and the edges and bottom of the swimming pool.  At once the pool beckoned to her and with little ceremony she slid out of her sticky clothes and plunged into the water.  The cool water felt wonderful on her skin and she powered up and down the pool several times before floating on her back and gazing up at the moon.

Mike’s voice broke into her dream.

“Ah! Mr Mendez, I’m glad you’re still here.”

She involuntarily jumped upright and covered her breasts with her arms.  Mike stood at the poolside laughing, handed her a drink and dropped a towel by the water’s edge.

“Gin and tonic, mixed to perfection.”

“You bastard!” She laughed with him and accepted the drink.  ”Why don’t you get in with me? It could be very relaxing,” and she stretched out invitingly.

“If you want clean clothes to wear when you get out, I’d better drive down to the airfield and unload Victor Tango.  Will you be alright on your own for a while?”

“Victor Tango,” she mimicked.  “You love that plane more than you love me.  Yes, I’ll be okay.”

“I love Mendez’s little Fiat more than I love you,” he joked.  “I won’t be long.” And he was gone.  She heard the car roar off in a spray of loose gravel and then the screech of tyres on the road.  He couldn’t possibly take it easy, could he, she thought, as she climbed out of the pool and covered herself with the towel Mike had left.

True to his word, he was back shortly and sweating profusely as he dragged in the various pieces of luggage.

“And now for a drink and then the pool,” he said, mixing the gin and tonic with practised ease.  “What do you think of the place?”

“It’s wonderful! We will have a nice time, won’t we?” she said, and looked at him hopefully.

“Of course we will, but it might have been nice to have the children here as well.”

“Perhaps, but Tamara will be enjoying the pony camp and Kieran’s continuing exploration of the Scottish hinterland with his climbing friends will keep him busy.  Besides, remember the fiasco in the gite in France last year.  They just do not want to do the same things as us anymore.”

“I suppose you’re right, they won’t miss us until we’ve been back for two days, “he conceded, ” but I feel as if I don’t know them at all now.”

“You know nothing but your business and that bloody plane!”

“Yes! Yes!” he said quickly.  “But let’s not fight now.  We’re here to enjoy ourselves.  Now, go and make yourself beautiful while I have a swim and then we should think about going out for something to eat.  I thought we would go into downtown Portimao and see what it has to offer.”

He knew that one of Caroline’s greatest pleasures was to eat out and he could see the anticipation flit across her face.

“Okay, but let’s keep this evening on the quiet side, you had enough to drink last night with Philippe.”

“You’re right, I don’t suppose I was totally fit to fly today,” he replied, and headed for the pool.

As Caroline readied herself to go out, the nagging thoughts regarding Mike’s health came back.  No one could sustain the pace he worked and played at without causing some damage to themselves but she could see the evening unfolding into the usual pattern.

She was basically a very shy person, and constantly marvelled at Mike’s ability to walk into a strange environment and fill the room.  His confident air and engaging wit would first be directed at the restaurant staff to ensure the best of service, and then directed at anyone within hailing distance at the adjoining tables.  By the end of the evening everyone would feel as if they had known him for years, even if they were Portuguese without a word of English.  He wasn’t the most handsome of men but he made up for it with excessive charm and social ease.

A lot of it stemmed from his Irish upbringing, followed by the time in the Royal Navy cruising the world at the tax payer’s expense; Betty Windsor’s Yacht Club, as he called it with affection.

By the time she breezed down the stairs he sat relaxed in an easy chair, casually dressed, holding another gin and tonic and a cigar.

“You look stunning, darling,” he said, genuinely.  “Let’s go and knock out some Portuguese eyes.”

“Of course! But can you please not smoke that cigar in the car? You know what it does to my sinuses.”

“For you, my love, the bull’s ears.” The alcohol is starting to tell already, she thought.

“That’s Spain, Mike, they don’t do that in Portugal.”

“I’m afraid they do, my darling.  I thought we might go to a bullfight while we’re here,” he said, and watched the reaction.

“You are joking, aren’t you?”

“Of course! You know I couldn’t watch anything die like that, unless it was an Englishman.  Now, come on before everywhere closes,” and he threw open the door.

“Shall I drive?” she asked, as they approached the car.

“No, I’m fine, but watch the road and you can drive back.”

Well, at least that was something, she thought.  Caroline had in recent years gone off the idea of excessive drinking, leaving that province to Mike and staying composed to look after him.  For all his faults she was resigned to her deep love for him; not only as a husband but as a friend.

The short journey into Portimao was not the headlong dash she had prepared herself for, but that would only last until Mike got the lie of the road system.

Mike parked the car on the waterfront and, taking Caroline’s hand, he walked over to the quayside and peered out into the gloom at the yachts riding at their respective buoys and anchor lines.

“Now that would have made a great holiday, soaking up the sun on the deck of a big yacht.”

“Don’t start on about a boat again, I think I might even prefer the plane to freezing on something that is constantly tossing about on the sea,” said Caroline.

“The trouble with you is that you have no sense of adventure.”

“That’s not what my friends said when I told them I was marrying you,” was her quick riposte.

He put his arm around her waist and held her to him.  ”They knew about your sense of humour though,” and they laughed together as they walked towards the bright lights of the waterfront restaurants.

They had walked past several downbeat eating houses before they approached the Casa Inglesa, which looked quite inviting.  Neither of them could have realised the effects they were about to set in motion by this selection.

The decor of the restaurant was a sort of neo-art-deco, and a reasonable crowd were enjoying the evening.  Mike sat Caroline down at a table where they could see most of what was going on and still look out over the harbour.  Caroline noted that they were fairly close to a table of eight to ten people, all of whom seemed quite boisterous and had obviously been carousing for some time.  It won’t take long, she thought, before he joins in with that little party.  In fact, it only took until the gap between the first and second course.

The only surprise was that the contact came the other way.  Mike had been talking to Caroline about the possibility of flying over to Gibraltar or even Tangiers some time during their stay, when a voice from the adjacent table said, in perfect English, “You’ll have to accept very close scrutiny from the airport officials when you return from a trip to Tangiers.”

“Things were bad enough coming in from France today,” replied Mike.

That will be enough to start the ball rolling, thought Caroline, as she studied the man at the other table.  She had noticed him earlier as he had been staring unabashed at her.  He was not unattractive and had the same confident air that she admired in Mike.  He had the classical Mediterranean looks and the lean, muscular appearance of someone who exercised regularly.  He was not relaxed though; when he hadn’t been looking at her, he had been watching the movements of people in and out of the restaurant, concentrating in particular on new people coming in until they sat down.

The man introduced himself: “Angelo Darante.  I run a yacht charter business from Cadiz, in Spain.  My friends here,” he waved round his table, “and myself, are cruising the Algarve for a few weeks.  I would introduce them all but I am afraid I am the only one who speaks English.”

Mike introduced Caroline and himself and the conversation continued until the second course arrived.  The food was excellent, Mike revelling in the vast choice of seafood and the local wines, and Caroline enjoying a traditional dish of pork.  The conversation continued with Angelo, as the necessary details of each other’s business were offered and accepted.  By the time the coffee arrived, the number at Angelo’s table was dwindling.

“What’s the local firewater?” Mike asked Angelo.

“Medronho,” he replied, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“You must always try the local hooch at least once.”

“Allow me, then.  Caroline, for you?” said Angelo, but she smiled politely and shook her head.  Angelo beckoned over the waiter and dispatched him to the bar with a quick burst of Portuguese.

The waiter swiftly returned and placed the glass in front of Mike.  Mike cautiously picked up the glass and smelled the spirit.  “God! I think you’re right,” he said, but tasted it anyway.  “It’s not too bad,” he said, and then swallowed the rest.  “But I suspect that tomorrow would not be a good day if I drank anymore of it.  What we need is something decent to drink with our coffee,” and he got up and made his way to the bar.

When Mike returned, Angelo was engrossed in a conversation with the last of his dinner companions who were making to leave, although he did not show any signs of leaving himself.

Mike sat down and turned to Angelo, now on his own, and said, “It’s my turn, I think.  I’ve spotted a bottle of Bushmills Black Label whiskey, will you join me in one?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“Caroline, will you have one too?”

“Just one, Mike, seeing as I’m driving back, but I’d like some more coffee as well.”

Mike called over the waiter and ordered more coffee and three Irish whiskies.

Angelo stood, placed his chair next to their table and sat down.

“I was interested when you said you might be flying over to Tangiers,” said Angelo.  “I was thinking of sailing over there at some point but we have a problem with the steering on the yacht, which is why we are staying here for a while.  If you were to go to Tangiers I would appreciate accompanying you.  If it would not,” and he glanced at Caroline, “be an intrusion …”

Caroline took the hint.  “I think that I could forego a trip to Tangiers, unless it was on a proper magic carpet and not in that noisy plane.  I had enough of it on the way over.” She knew though this would not be enough to stop Mike.

“Well, I would like to go across, and you are welcome to come with me, Angelo.”

“I would be prepared to pay your expenses for the trip,” Angelo quickly added.

“No! I don’t think that would be necessary, seeing as I’m going anyway,“ and he looked at Caroline who had taken a sudden interest in the contents of the harbour.

“Perhaps you would like to have lunch on board my yacht tomorrow and we could discuss the details?” asked Angelo.

Before she could say anything, Mike said, “Yes! We’d love to!”

“I must return to my crew.  Goodnight Caroline, Mike, until tomorrow then.  If you’re at the quayside by eleven, my tender will ferry you to the yacht.  The yacht’s name is Siva.  Goodnight, then,” and he swiftly strode out of the restaurant without looking back.

“Mike! You really are the limit! You’ve only been in this country a few hours and you are flying off to another country with a complete stranger.  For God’s sake, you know nothing about this man.  He could be anybody, a thief, a murderer or worse, and you could have asked me before you decided we are going to jaunt off to his yacht for lunch.”

As usual, Mike’s surprise at the tirade was genuine.  He never would be able to see Caroline’s objections to his impulsiveness coming.

“But he seems okay.  You are just too suspicious of people.  The man is only being friendly to people in a strange country.”

“There’s something I do not trust about that man.  One minute he said he was cruising the Algarve and the next he was thinking of sailing into Tangiers.  Even my limited knowledge of geography tells me that is a different continent to the one we’re on.  And another thing: he said he was going back to his crew but he set off into town, not back to the harbour!”

“How do you know where his crew are?” he asked.

“I don’t particularly care.  But I do care that we are supposed to be on holiday together.  Now, can you please pay the bill? I think it’s time we both went to bed.”

Mike knew it was pointless to argue and signed to the waiter for the bill.

The trip back to the villa was a silent affair apart from a few curt requests from Caroline to Mike regarding the direction.

As they stepped into the villa, Mike caught hold of Caroline and held her to him.

“Look! I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have made arrangements without talking to you first.  I’ll try and be a bit better from now on.  Now, please don’t be angry.”

All through their married life arguments had never spilled over into the next day, and this was to be no exception.

“It’s my holiday too.  Just remember that,” she said, then kissed him.  “Let’s go to bed.” And she led him by the hand up the stairs to the incessant serenade of the cicadas from the garden.

 

Chapter Two

The Siva

The day dawned and the sun’s rays crept across the floor until they bore down on Mike’s face.  He awoke with a start and sat bolt upright, alert to the strange surroundings, and then relaxed, realising where he was.  He looked down at Caroline’s slumbering form and softly brushed the hair from her face with his hand.  She still looked beautiful, even in the morning, and just for once he took the time to remember that he still loved her very much.  The thought came to him that even she did not realise how important she was to him in providing such a firm base to allow him to launch himself on the world as confidently as he did.

He eased himself out of bed and walked over to the balcony door.  The door slid effortlessly open and he stepped out on to the dusty terracotta tiles.  A cloudless day unfolded in front of him.  In the distance, over the sparse, dark green vegetation, he could see the tightly-packed hotels of Praia da Rocha and the early morning sun glinting off the sea.  He looked at the closer environs of the villa, and could see that the nearest habitation was a clutter of whitewashed buildings in the area of the airfield, which he estimated to be over half a mile away.  I should be working in metric in this country, he thought, so that would be four-fifths of a kilometre.  He laughed softly to himself at the stupidity of his train of thought, and then suddenly felt conscious of being naked.

He walked back into the room and out to the bathroom, and turned on the shower.  For some time he luxuriated in the shower, allowing the warm water to wash the sleep from his eyes and his body, then he suddenly shut off the warm water to let the cold water tingle his skin.  This proved to be less than satisfying as the cold water wasn’t that much colder than the hot.  I’ll leave that little trick until I return to Scotland, he thought, and turned off the shower.  The mint of the toothpaste didn’t make that much impression on the stale whiskey either.  He stepped quietly back into the bedroom, found some fresh boxer shorts and then pulled on a tee shirt and jeans.  His next move was to find the kitchen and make some tea.  Only after the third cup of tea and a cigar on the veranda did he feel that he was back with the world.

The second pot of tea went on a tray and up to the bedroom.

“Come on, sleepyhead!” he said, and gently pulled the covers from her tousled head.  “Tea for Her Ladyship.”

“Bugger off!” came the less than polite reply.  “You kept me awake with your snoring again, and you don’t do much for my stomach with the smell of smoke this early in the morning.”

“I’m glad you’re getting into the holiday spirit so quickly,” he laughed.  “Now, drink your tea and I might be persuaded to take my clothes back off.”

“You’ll have to clean your teeth again, and so will I,” she said, and she rose quickly and stumbled to the bathroom.

When she returned looking slightly more awake, he was undressed and back in the bed.  She walked over to the window and looked out.

“What a beautiful day.  Not a cloud to be seen anywhere.  I can’t wait to get out in the sun.  Well! I can for a little while,” and she ran over and threw herself on top of the bed.

“Careful! You’ll have the tea all over the place,” and he lifted the tray on to the floor.

“Sod the tea,” and she wrapped herself around him and kissed him hard on the lips.  Their lovemaking was fast and frenetic but nonetheless enjoyable.

“I didn’t mean that little a while,” she said, as their sweating bodies collapsed back on to the bed.

“It’s been a while since we last made love, it’s no wonder,” he defended himself.

“Whose fault is that? Sorry, I know that you work hard, but you should find more time for your family, especially me,” and she grinned up at him.

He held her tight.  “You’re right, and I will do.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.  Now, go and make some fresh tea while I have my shower and then I’ll make us some breakfast.  What is there in the cupboards?”

“Lots,” he said.  “They have stocked everything up as I asked for on the fax, including your favourite breakfast cereal; in Portuguese, of course.”

“Then we’ll lie by the pool for the rest of the day.”

“No, we won’t.  We’re going on board the Siva.  Remember?”

At once her face clouded over.  “God! I’d forgotten about that.  Do we have to go? I mean, if we didn’t he would think we had just said it to be polite.”

“Yes we do! For one thing I’m looking forward to seeing the yacht, and for another you should never turn down the opportunity of meeting other businessmen.  You never know what openings might arise.”

“Christ! You never let go, do you?” And with that she walked off to the shower.

After a leisurely breakfast they sat out by the pool; Caroline sat in the sun, while Mike pulled a table and chair under the shade of a large tree and busied himself with some paperwork he had hidden from her in the luggage.

“I promise this will be the last, once I’ve faxed this back to the UK,” and she begrudgingly left him to it.

It was not long after that that he suddenly rose and said, “Right! That’s that.  Let’s get down into Portimao.”

“I’ll have to get changed, Mike.”

“Be quick then, we don’t want to keep our host waiting.”

“I’ve a feeling he’d wait all day,” she said mysteriously, and went to change.

He looked at her retreating figure and wondered what she had meant, but then quickly returned to sorting the sheaf of papers in order, and then numbered them in preparation to transmit them by fax.

Not quickly enough for his liking, Caroline returned, looking cool in a loose-fitting white cotton dress and white sandals, despite the rising heat of the day.

“You can be very infuriating when we have to go somewhere,” he snapped.

“We don’t HAVE to go anywhere! Besides, it’s better to give them something worth waiting for,” and she smiled up at him sweetly.

“You’re right, as always,” he said, and he guided her out to the car.

Caroline pushed herself back into the seat and braced herself for the war between Mike and the road and anyone else unfortunate enough to be on it.  Mike was a good but aggressive driver, and each manoeuvre was punctuated by a stream of abuse directed at other drivers, the stupidity of the road planners and the performance of the car he happened to be in; although this particular car seemed to warrant less of that than normal.

It was with relief that Caroline stepped out of the car on the waterfront.  Mike locked the car and said, “We haven’t time to find somewhere with a fax, we’ll have to go and meet the Siva‘s tender.” Taking her arm, he walked off at a brisk pace along the quay.  As they approached the steps down to the water, a lithe young man leapt up smartly onto the quay.

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