To Jake Barton, machinery was always feminine – with all the female’s fascination, wiles and bitchery. So when he first saw them standing in a row beneath the spreading dark green foliage of the mango trees, they became for him the iron ladies.
There were five of them, standing aloof from the other heaps of worn-out and redundant equipment that His Majesty’s Government was offering for sale. Although it was June and the cooler season between the monsoons, yet the heat on this cloudless morning in Dar es Salaam was mounting like a force-fed furnace and Jake went thankfully into the shade of the mangoes to stand closer to the ladies and begin his examination.
He glanced around the enclosed yard, and noticed that he seemed to be the only one interested in the five vehicles. The motley crowd of potential buyers was picking over the heaps of broken shovels and picks, the rows of battered wheelbarrows and the other mounds of unidentifiable rubbish.
He turned his attention back to the ladies, as he slipped off the light tropical moleskin jacket he wore and hung it on the branch of a mango tree.
The ladies were aristocrats fallen on hard times, their hard but rakish lines were dulled by the faded and scratched paintwork and the cancerous blotches of rust that showed through. The foxy-faced fruit bats that hung inverted in the mango branches above them had splattered them with their dung, and oil and grease had oozed from their elderly joints and caked with dust in unsightly black streaks and blobs.
Jake knew their lineage and their history and as he laid aside the small carpet bag that held his tools, he reviewed it swiftly. Five fine pieces of craftsmanship lying rotting away on the fever coast of Tanganyika. The bodies and chassis had been built by Schreiner – the stately high cupola in which the open mounting for the Maxim machine gun now glared like an empty eye-socket, the square sloping platform of the engine housing, with its heavy armour plate and the neat rows of rivets and the steel shutters that could be closed to protect the radiator against incoming enemy fire. They stood tall on the metal-bossed wheels with their solid rubber tyres, and Jake felt a sneaking regret that he would be the one to tear their engines out of them and toss aside the worn-out but gallant old bodies.
They did not deserve such cavalier treatment, these fighting iron ladies who in their youth had chased the wily German commander von Lettow-Vorbeck across the wide plains and over the fierce hills of East Africa. The thorns of the wilderness had deeply scarred the paintwork of the five armoured cars and there were places where rifle fire had glanced off their armour, leaving the distinctive dimple in the steel.
Those were their grandest days, streaming into battle with their cavalry pennants flying, dust billowing behind them, bounding and crashing through the dongas and ant-bear holes, their machine guns blazing and the terrified German askaris scattering before them.
After that, the original engines had been replaced by the beautiful new 6-½ litre Bentleys, and they had begun the long decline of police patrol work on the border, chasing the occasional cattle raider and slowly being pounded by a succession of brutal drivers into the condition which had at last brought them here to the Government sale yards in this fiery May of the year of our Lord 1935. But Jake knew that even the savage abuse to which they had been subjected could not have destroyed the engines completely and that was what interested him.
He rolled up his sleeves like a surgeon about to begin his examination.
‘Ready or not, girls,’ he muttered, ‘here comes old Jake.’
He was a tall man with a big bony frame that was cramped in the confined area of the armoured car’s body, but he worked with a quiet concentration so close to rapture that the discomfort went unnoticed. Jake’s wide friendly mouth was pursed in a whistle that went on endlessly, the opening bars of ‘Tiger Rag’ repeated over and over again, and his eyes were screwed up against the gloom of the interior.
He worked swiftly, checking the throttle and ignition settings of the controls, tracing out the fuel lines from the rear-mounted fuel tank, finding the cocks under the driver’s seat and grunting with satisfaction. He scrambled out of the turret and dropped down the high side of the vehicle, pausing to wipe away with his forearm the thin trickle of sweat that broke from his thick curly black hair and ran down his cheek, then he hurried forward and knocked the clamps open on the side flaps of the armoured engine-cover.
‘Oh sweet, sweet!’ he whispered, as he saw the fine outlines of the old Bentley engine block beneath the layer of thick dust and greasy filth.
His hands with the big square palms and thick spatulate fingers went out to touch it with what was almost a caress.
‘The bastards have beaten you up, darling,’ he whispered. ‘But we will have you singing again as lovely as ever, that’s a promise.’
He pulled the dipstick from the engine sump and took a drop of oil between his fingers.
‘Shit!’ he grunted with disgust, as he felt the grittiness, and he thrust the stick back into its slot. He pulled the plugs and, with the promise of a shilling, had a loitering African swing the crank for him while he felt the compression against the palm of his hand.
Swiftly he moved along the line of armoured cars, checking, probing and testing, and when he reached the last of them he knew he could have three of them running again for certain and four maybe.
One was shot beyond hope. There was a crack in the engine block through which he could have ridden a horse, and the pistons had seized so solid in their pots that not even the combined muscle upon the crank handle of Jake and his helper could move them.
Two of them had the entire carburettor assemblies missing, but he could cannibalize from the wreck. That left him short of one carburettor – and he felt only gloom at his chances of finding another in Dar es Salaam.
Three, then, he could reckon on with certainty. At one hundred and ten pounds apiece, that was £330. Less an estimated outlay of one hundred, it gave him a clear profit of two hundred and thirty pounds – for surely he would not have to bid more than twenty pounds each for these wrecks. Jake felt a warm spreading glow of satisfaction as he tossed his African helper the promised shilling. Two hundred and thirty pounds was a great deal of money in these lean and hungry times.
A quick glance at the fob-watch he hauled from his back pocket showed him there was still over two hours before the advertised time of the commencement of the sale. He was impatient to begin work on those Bentleys – not only for the money. For Jake it would be a labour of love.
The one in the centre of the line seemed the best bet for quick results. He placed his carpet bag on the armoured wing of the mudguard and selected a three-eights-inch spanner. Immediately he was totally absorbed.
After half an hour he pulled his head out of the engine, wiped his hands on a handful of cotton waste and hurried around to the front of the car.
The big muscles in his right arm bunched and rippled as he swung the crank handle, spinning the heavy engine easily with a steady whirring rhythm. After a minute of this, he released the handle and wiped off his sweat with the cotton waste that left grease marks down his cheeks. He was breathing quickly but lightly.
‘I knew you for a temperamental bitch the moment I laid eyes on you,’ he muttered. ‘But you are going to do it my way, darling. You really are.’
Once more his head and shoulders disappeared under the engine cowling and there was the clink of the spanner against metal and the monotonous repetition of ‘Tiger Rag’ in a low off-key whistle for another ten minutes, then again Jake went to the crank handle.
‘You are going to do it my way, baby – and what’s more you’re going to like it.’
He spun the handle and the engine kicked viciously, back-fired like a rifle shot, and the crank handle snapped out of Jake’s hand with enough force to have taken his thumb off if he had been holding it with an opposed grip.
‘Jesus,’ whispered Jake, ‘a real little hell cat!’ He scrambled up into the turret and reached down to the controls and reset the ignition.
At the next swing of the crank handle she bucked and fired, caught and surged, then fell back into a steady beat, quivering slightly on her rigid suspension, but come alive.
Jake stepped back, sweating, flushed, but with his dark green eyes shining with delight.
‘Oh you beauty,’ he said. ‘You bloody little beauty.’
‘Bravo,’ said a voice behind him, and Jake started and turned quickly. He had forgotten that he was not the only person left on earth, in his complete absorption with the machine, and now he felt embarrassed, as though he had been observed in some intimate and private bodily function. He glowered at the figure that was leaning elegantly against the bole of the mango tree.
‘Jolly good show,’ said the stranger, and the voice was sufficient to stir the hair upon the nape of Jake’s neck. It was one of those pricey Limey accents.
The man was dressed in a cream suit of expensive tropical linen and two-tone shoes of white and brown. On his head he wore a white straw hat with a wide brim that cast a shadow over his face. But Jake could see the man had a friendly smile and an easy engaging manner. He was handsome in a conventional manner, with noble and regular features, a face that had flustered many a female’s emotions and that fitted well with the voice. He would be a ranking government official probably, or an officer in one of the regular regiments stationed in Dar es Salaam. Upper class establishment, even to the necktie with its narrow diagonal stripes by which the British advertised at which seat of learning they had obtained their education and their place in the social order.
‘It didn’t take you long to get her going.’ The man lolled gracefully against the mango, his ankles crossed and one hand thrust into his coat pocket. He smiled again, and this time Jake saw the mockery and challenge in the eyes more clearly. He had judged him wrongly. This was not one of those cardboard men. They were pirate eyes, mocking and wolfish, dangerous as the glint of a knife in the shadows.
‘I have no doubt the others are in as good a state of repair.’ It was an enquiry, not a statement.
‘Well, you’re wrong, friend.’ Jake felt a pang of dismay. It was absurd that this fancy lad could have a real interest in the five vehicles – but if he did, then Jake had just given him a generous demonstration of their value. ‘This is the only one that will run, and even her guts are blown. Listen to her knock. Sounds like a mad carpenter.’
He reached under the cowling and earthed the magneto. In the sudden silence as the engine died, he said loudly, ‘Junk!’ and spat on the ground near the front wheel – but not on it. He couldn’t bring himself to do that. Then he gathered his tools, flung his jacket over his shoulder, hefted the carpet bag and, without another glance at the Englishman, ambled off towards the gates of the works yard.
‘You not bidding then, old chap?’ The stranger had left his post at the mango and fallen into step beside him.
‘God, no.’ Jake tried to fill his voice with disdain. ‘Are you?’
‘Now what would I do with five broken-down armoured cars?’ The man laughed silently, and then went on, ‘Yankee, are you? Texas, what?’
‘You’ve been reading my mail.’
‘I try, I try.’
‘Buy you a drink?’
‘Give me the money instead. I’ve got a train to catch.’
The elegant stranger laughed again, a light friendly laugh.
‘God speed, then, old chap,’ he said, and Jake hurried out through the gates into the dusty heat-dazed streets of noonday Dar es Salaam and walked away without a backward glance, trying to convey with his determined stride and the set of his shoulders that his departure was final.
Jake found a canteen around the first corner and within five minutes’ walk of the works yard, where he went into hiding. The Tusker beer he ordered was blood warm, but he drank it while he worried. The Englishman gave him a very queasy feeling, his interest was too bright to be mere curiosity. On the other hand, however, Jake might have to go over the twenty pounds bid that he had calculated – and he took from the inside pocket of his jacket the worn pigskin wallet that contained his entire worldly wealth and, prudently using the table top as a screen,he counted the wad of notes.
Five hundred and seventeen pounds in Bank of England notes, three hundred and twenty-seven dollars in United States currency, and four hundred and ninety East African shillings was not a great fortune with which to take on the likes of the elegant Limey. However, Jake drained his warm beer, set his jaw and inspected his watch once more. It gave him five minutes to noon.
Major Gareth Swales was mildly dismayed, but not at all surprised to see the big American entering the works yard gates once more in a manner which was obviously intended to be unobtrusive but reminded him of Jack Dempsey sidling furtively into an old ladies’ tea party.
Gareth Swales sat in the shade of the mangoes upon an upturned wheelbarrow, over which he had spread a silk handkerchief to protect the pristine linen of his suit. He had set aside his straw hat, and his hair was meticulously trimmed and combed, shining softly in that rare colour between golden blond and red, and there was just a sparkle of silver in the wings at his temples. His moustache was the same colour and carefully moulded to the curve of his upper lip. His face was deeply tanned by the tropical sun to a dark chestnut brown, so that the contrasting blue of his eyes was startlingly pale and penetrating, as he watched Jake Barton cross the yard to join the gathering of buyers under the mango trees. He sighed with resignation and returned his attention to the folded envelope on which he was making his financial calculations.
He really was finely drawn out, the previous eighteen months had been very unkind to him. The cargo that had been seized in the Liao River by the Japanese gunboat when he was only hours away from delivering it to the Chinese commander at Mukden – and receiving payment for it – had wiped away the accumulated capital of ten years. It had taken all his ingenuity and a deal of financial agility to assemble the package that was stored at this moment in No. 4 warehouse down at the main docks of Dar es Salaam port. His buyers would be arriving to take delivery in twelve days – and the five armoured cars would have rounded out the package beautifully.
Armour, by God, he could fix his own price. Only aircraft would have been more desirable from his client’s point of view.
When Gareth had first seen them that morning in their neglected and decrepit state of repair, he had discounted them completely, and was on the point of turning away when he had noticed the long muscular pair of legs protruding from the engine of one of the vehicles and heard the barely recognizable strains of ‘Tiger Rag’.
Now he knew that one of them at least was a runner. A few gallons of paint, and a new Vickers machine gun set in the mountings, and the five machines would look magnificent. Gareth would give one of his justly famous sales routines. He would start the one good engine and fire the machine gun – by God, the jolly old prince would pull out his purse and start spilling sovereigns all over the scenery.
There was only the damned Yankee to worry about, it might cost him a few bob more than he had reckoned to edge him out, but Gareth was not too worried. The man looked as though he would have difficulty raising the price of a beer.
Gareth flicked at his sleeve where a speck of dust might have settled; he placed the panama back on his golden head, adjusted the wide brim carefully and removed the long slim cheroot from his lips to inspect the ash, before he rose and sauntered across to the group.
The auctioneer was an elfin Sikh in a black silk suit with his beard twisted up under his chin, and a large dazzling white turban wrapped about his head.
He was perched like a little black bird on the turret of the nearest armoured car, and his voice was plaintive as he pleaded with the audience that stared up at him stolidly with expressionless faces and glazed eyes.
‘Come, gentlemens, let me be hearing some mellifluous voice cry out “ten pounds”. Do I hear “ten pounds each” for these magnificent conveyances?’
He cocked his head and listened to the hot noon breeze in the top branches of the mango. Nobody moved, nobody spoke.
‘Five pounds, please? Will some wise gentlemens tell me five pounds? Two pounds ten – gentlemens – for a mere fifty shillings these royal machines, these fine, these beautiful–’ He broke off, and lowered his gaze, placed a delicate chocolate brown hand over his troubled brow. ‘A price, gentlemens. Please, start me with a price.’
‘One pound!’ a voice called in the lilting accents of the Texan ranges. For a moment the Sikh did not move, then raised his head with dramatic slowness and stared at Jake who towered above the crowd around him.
‘A pound?’ the Sikh whispered huskily. ‘Twenty shillings each for these fine, these beautiful –’ he broke off and shook his head sorrowfully. Then abruptly his manner changed and became brisk and businesslike. ‘One pound, I am bid.
Do I hear two, two pounds? No advance on one pound? Going for the first time at one pound!’
Gareth Swales drifted forward, and the crowd opened miraculously, drawing aside respectfully.
‘Two pounds.’ He spoke softly, but his voice carried clearly in the hush. Jake’s long angular frame stiffened, and a dark wine-coloured flush spread slowly up the back of his neck. Slowly, his head swivelled and he stared across at the Englishman who had now reached the front row.
Gareth smiled brilliantly and tipped the brim of his panama to acknowledge Jake’s glare. The Sikh’s commercial instinct instantly sensed the rivalry between them and his mood brightened.
‘I have two–’ he chirruped.
‘Five,’ snapped Jake.
‘Ten,’ murmured Gareth, and Jake felt a hot uncontrollable anger come seething up from his guts. He knew the feeling so well, and he tried to control it, but it was no use. It came up in a savage red tide to swamp his reason.
The crowd stirred with delight, and all their heads swung in unison towards the tall American.
‘Fifteen,’ said Jake, and every head swung back towards the slim Englishman.
Gareth inclined his head gracefully.
‘Twenty,’ piped the Sikh delightedly. ‘I have twenty.’
‘And five.’ Dimly through the mists of his anger, Jake knew that there was no way that he would let the Limey have these ladies. If he couldn’t buy them, he would burn them.
The Sikh sparkled at Gareth with gazelle eyes.
‘Thirty, sir?’ he asked, and Gareth grinned easily and waved his cheroot. He was experiencing a rising sense of alarm – already they were far past what he had calculated was the Yank’s limit.
‘And five more.’ Jake’s voice was gravelly with the strength of his outrage. They were his, even if he had to pay out every shilling in his wallet, they had to be his.
‘Forty.’ Gareth Swales’s smile was slightly strained now. He was fast approaching his own limit. The terms of the sale were cash or bank-guaranteed cheque. He had long ago milked every source of cash that was available to him, and any bank manager who guaranteed a Gareth Swales cheque was destined for a swift change of employment.
‘Forty-five.’ Jake’s voice was hard and uncompromising; he was fast approaching the figure where he would be working for nothing but the satisfaction of blocking out the Limey.
‘And another five.’
That was break-even price for Jake – after this he was tossing away bright shining shillings.
‘Seventy,’ drawled Gareth Swales, and that was his limit. With regret he discarded all hopes of an easy acquisition of the cars. Three hundred and fifty pounds represented his entire liquid reserves – he could bid no further. All right, the easy way had not worked out. There were a dozen other ways, and by one of them Gareth Swales was going to have them. By God, the prince might go as high as a thousand each and he was not going to pass by that sort of profit for lack of a few lousy hundred quid.
‘Seventy-five,’ said Jake, and the crowd murmured and every eye flew to Major Gareth Swales.
‘Ah, kind gentlemens, do you speak of eighty?’ enquired the Sikh eagerly. His commission was five per cent.
Graciously, but regretfully, Gareth shook his head.
‘No, my dear chap. It was a mere whim of mine.’ He smiled across at Jake. ‘May they give you much joy,’ he said, and drifted away towards the gates. There was clearly nothing to be gained in approaching the American now. The man was in a towering rage – and Gareth had judged him as the type who habitually gave expression to this emotion by swinging with his fists. Long ago, Gareth Swales had reached the conclusion that only fools fight, and wise men supply them with the means to do so – at a profit, naturally.