Watching the Wheels Come Off

Watching the Wheels Come Off

by Mike Hodges

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Overview

From the legendary director of Get Carter comes a wildly entertaining fiction debut—a deliciously dark slice of black crime comedy

Today is a day Mark Miles will never forget—and it's only the beginning. Reg Turpin, the new Houdini and one of Mark's few remaining PR clients, is about to attempt a great feat of escapology, followed by the arrival in town of Dr. Herman Temple, the self-appointed guru, who will conduct a seminar on the dynamics of leadership at the Grand Atlantic Hotel. What could go wrong? Nothing, apart from the seedy private investigor who's unpacking his thermal underwear, pajamas, and a .32 Smith and Wesson at a local bed and breakfast; assorted women of easy virtue on Mark's trail; a man whose name is really Bela Lugosi; and that's just for starters. Matters invariably go from bad to worse, and the unheroic hero of this ferocious nightmare navigates the quicksand of fate with a total lack of poise and elegance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781844549092
Publisher: John Blake Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 07/09/2010
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mike Hodges is the director of the classic crime films Croupier, Get Carter, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, and Pulp.

Read an Excerpt

Watching the Wheels Come Off

A Novel


By Mike Hodges

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Mike Hodges
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-932-7


CHAPTER 1

Summer is hell here.

Winter is the only time to be in this place. On a wet night, preferably.

The dark sea, flattened by torrential rain, laps against the long, curving beach. White-painted iron railings and ill-lit weather shelters recede into the mist. An amusement arcade, boarded up, sits like a blind man watching nothing.

The Grand Atlantic Hotel, a vast, corroding edifice, looms over the deserted esplanade. The only sign of life is a flashing arrow and a neon sign with four defective letters, pointing to the location of a 'Cock**** Bar' in the basement. It's closed.

A torn canvas banner flaps above the darkened hotel entrance, announcing the presence of 'The Brotherhood of Magicians Conference'. Bedroom windows stacked up towards the murky sky are but black patches. The illusionists are long in bed. They'll need steady hands in the morning.

The clock tower strikes on the hour. Twice.

An approaching motorbike cuts through the sound of rainwater smacking the tarmac. It rounds a corner slowly, ominously, powerful as a shark. A metallic, flip-front, titanium helmet glints under the street lamps. Moulded gloves with visor wipes, grinder boots, cowhide jeans and, completing the biker's armour, a jacket with a lurid image of a bloody knife seemingly embedded in the occupant's back. He steers his machine along the esplanade before circling a traffic island housing the public urinals, all the while constantly scanning the empty street.

A municipal shelter with a noticeboard advertising local events for wet winter nights stands beside the amusement arcade. It's here the bike comes to rest. The rider leaves the engine running as he nervously pulls posters from a saddlebag. He works fast, skilfully.

Soon the forthcoming amateur-operatic production of Annie Get Your Gun is no longer forthcoming. But 'The Personal Improvement Institute: A Course in Leadership Dynamics' now is. The sharp-etched features of some wild-eyed explorer intending to give a lantern-slide lecture the very next evening are similarly replaced by the well-fed features of Dr Herman P. Temple, who will show you 'The QUICK way to the TOP' during his impending weekend course on 'SUCCESS-POWER getting!'.

A similar fate is accorded 'Pinkie and Barrie, the Comedy Duo', 'Diana Barnham playing Bach on the Clavichord', and the providers of 'Merrie England Banquets. Book now to avoid disappointment'. All disappear within seconds, to be replaced by five identical images of Herman Temple. A quintet of pointing forefingers, prominent quiffs, and eyes that would make a cobra back off.


* * *

A solitary light snaps on.

It's on the third floor of an office block situated five minutes from the esplanade. The bare bulb backlights the gold lettering inscribed on the window: 'Mark Miles Intercontinental'. Below that in smaller letters: 'Creative Publicity and Personal Management'. And on the bottom line, partly in italics for added impact: 'Make your MARK with MILES. He's WAY ahead.'

The block housing Mark Miles's office is just that: a block. It has all the charm of a coal bunker. Built in the Sixties, it's an early example of how easily even smart people can be conned. Concrete is beautiful, or so the autocratic architects decreed at the time. Even the Mafia, coming from ruthless peasant stock, had no such pretensions; they used concrete for motorway mausoleums.

Providence House, for that's the block's portentous name, takes on an even gloomier appearance in the rain. Mark Miles appears at the window, taking off his helmet while simultaneously lowering the slatted blind. One side falls faster than the other, which doesn't happen in films but almost always does in real life. Cursing, he tries to level it off, one-handed. Instead it becomes uncoupled and collapses on top of him. Mark Miles and his blind have certain qualities in common. Both spend their time dangling, stressed out, twitching: and both are dysfunctional.

Mark is sick of being a small fish in a small pond. His only remaining heroes are the sharks in the local aquarium. They eye the awed visitors on the other side of the glass with contempt, as they themselves sweep majestically past on their eternal search for a way out of the tank. Like them, Mark wants to command respect. To this end, his pinball mind has become hyperactive since being approached by Dr Temple's 'Institute' to promote their weekend course. 'Leadership Dynamics' might just provide the metamorphosis needed to take him to the top. And quickly.

He switches on a battered desk lamp, puts it on the floor and kills the overhead light. He has to be careful. The landlord already suspects that, contrary to the terms of his lease, this office also doubles as Miles's living quarters. The landlord is right. That's why the chipped commode with 'Hospital Property' boldly stencilled on its lid, and smuggled in under cover of darkness from his late grandma's council flat, is disguised by containing a potted palm. He lifts the plant out and urinates into the china bowl.

Slopping out has always been a complicated ritual. When he first moved into the building, the landlord – Fred Snipe, thin as a drainpipe – was wont to ambush him on his early-morning run along the corridor to the communal lavatory. After several narrow escapes, Mark devised a strategy whereby he transferred the contents of the commode into a plastic first aid box before embarking upon this essential mission.

Now, on their occasional encounters, Snipe's nose, alerted by a rank olfactory signal, twitches like a gerbil's. His mouth opens but words refuse to emerge: he just can't bring himself to ask what the container contains. Mark relishes these precious moments, smiling and patting the Red Cross symbol on the box: 'Preparation H, Fred. Works wonders,' he'll explain. He sometimes varies the exchange: 'Glycerine suppositories, Fred. Never fails to get you moving.' Or, if he really wants to make the landlord blush, he adds: 'Clinically proven to be effective against anal irritation and itching piles.' These words almost always guarantee the sight of Snipe's rapidly retreating figure.

Mark now eases out a crumpled futon and sleeping bag from under the defeated sofa, carefully avoiding tangling them in its bare springs. Rolling back and forth on the floor, to keep out of sight, he sheds his clothes and slips into the kapok envelope.

Light out.


* * *

In the street below Mark's office, a black umbrella is opened from the shelter of a shop doorway. A man, short and paunchy, his suet- pudding face glistening in the rain, steps out. His name is William Snazell. Dressed in a faded raincoat and shapeless trilby, he takes a final look up at the now-darkened window before crossing the road. His shiny rubber galoshes shuffle through the sheet of rainwater.

CHAPTER 2

Earlier that same night, the last train had arrived on time: at exactly 21.36 hours. The two carriages, all that remained of the express from London, had to be shunted backwards to the deserted platform.

Ayling-on-Sea is at the end of the line.

Water gushed through a hole in the glass roof of the station. A solitary passenger alighted, slamming the door shut. William Snazell noted the rain splattering the platform, put down his tattered suitcase and slipped a finger into the galosh that had become dislodged. Opening a black umbrella, he then proceeded to the unmanned ticket barrier.

Outside, a sign pointed to a vacant taxi rank. The lone passenger moved over to the courtesy phone housed under a plastic hood, and picked up the receiver. The line was dead. Cussing, he started his walk into the town.


* * *

The Journey's End boarding house stands at the unfashionable end of the esplanade. A 'Vacancies' placard dangles seductively between the frilly curtains of the front room. The passenger now lowers his umbrella to study a scrap of paper before pressing the doorbell. The red-and-yellow sunburst pattern of the glass front door is abruptly illuminated as a figure comes to open it. The passenger steps back to fully appreciate the woman standing before him.

'Mrs Westby?'

'Mr Snazell?

'That's me.'

'You booked en-suite for one night?'

'Correct,' he looks her over. 'Although the view's so good here, I may stay longer.'

Snazell eases himself past Mrs Westby's buffer-like breasts into the small hallway, his eyes still fixed on her white silk blouse and the black, ruched brassiere peeping out from behind a wayward button. Lewdness is an essential ingredient in Sandra Westby's life: she enjoys being the object of desire. Her glistening, blood-red lips shape themselves around each word before finally setting it free.

'You're my only guest tonight.'

'One on one? Great.'

'Choose a room number between 1 and 15.'

'How about 69.'

'Don't be saucy, now. I'll put you in Room 13.'

'Thirteen? That's my lucky number.'

'I'll put you in Room 7 then.' She plucks a key off a board behind the small counter and starts up the stairs. Snazell follows, his attention alternating between her arse rotating inside a tight silk skirt and the immaculately straight seams of her black stockings. Reaching the second landing she opens up Room 7 and switches on the light. Snazell steps inside the small room. He immediately pumps the mattress appreciatively.

'Very nice. Nice and hard, the way I like it.' He sits on it and bounces a couple of times. 'Bet this bed could tell a few stories.'

'Only cries and groans,' replies Mrs Westby.

'Of ecstasy?'

'I wouldn't go that far, Mr Snazell.'

'Just hanky-panky?'

'Yes. That's more like it.'

She sighs as she shuts the door, then opens it again.

'The bar will be open for aperitifs in half an hour.'

Left alone, Snazell snaps open his suitcase. Lifting out several pairs of thermal underwear and some woollen pyjamas he reveals the tools of his trade: binoculars, bugging equipment, and a Smith & Wesson .32 automatic with silencer.

CHAPTER 3

Morning.

Grey sky is indivisible from grey sea. A deep swell drives long rollers gently across the bay. On the horizon, a tramp steamer rises out of a trough. The Promised Land, now in the autumn of her sea life, is a significant russet colour from bow to stern. From the esplanade, onlookers can just make out a group of people huddled on the steamer's deck, at the base of a diagonal loading jib.

A small aircraft towing a sky banner suddenly appears. At first it's just a speck at the far end of the beach. This speck, along with the noise of its single engine, grows steadily larger and louder as it flies along the skyline, eventually passing low over the tramp steamer. Only then can the town's residents read its message: Mark Miles International ... proudly presents ... Reg Turpin, the new Harry Houdini.

Reg Turpin's voice drifts across the water. 'Tighter, Bela. Tighter.'

The metallic clank of chain links being manoeuvred is followed by a painful yell.

'That's my penis ... not a fucking salami, you dumb wop.'

The chain, already wrapped like a boa constrictor around Turpin's tattooed torso, is being delicately adjusted between his legs by Lugosi, his swarthy assistant. As he reaches behind the escapologist to take up the slack, Reg feigns being goosed through pursing his lips and fluttering his eyelids.

'Whoops! That's enough of that, sailor!'

It's all part of the act, of course. Reg keeps promising Lugosi to leave it out, but never does. There's a lot of coarse laughter as Lugosi blushes the colour of a chilli and seethes. His eyes blaze, his mouth and nostrils steam in the cold air; his machismo is like a fighting bull brought to its knees.

Mark, noticing his fuming face, quickly chips in. 'This is only a pre-tour rehearsal, you understand, fellas.'

Wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and clutching a wad of publicity handouts, Mark Miles faces the pack of media hacks crowded around the case of complimentary drinks. The sea's swell is beginning to tell and a few of them look distinctly green. Bile, normally reserved for their copy, is actually assuming a physical manifestation as it moves ever closer to their epiglottis.

One hack, with an especially bilious face, volunteers a question. 'It says in the handout that you're intending to take your act to America?'

'Right on, man. New York Harbour. Frisco's Golden Gate. Miami –'

Turpin interrupts. 'America. God's own country.' He rattles the chain and yells dramatically at the sky: 'Chains are for slaves. God bless America, land of opportunity. Last refuge for the individual.' Irony is clearly not Reg's strong point.

A large wave passes underneath and he lurches, helpless as a baby, arms closely pinned to his sides. Lugosi, still hopping mad, steadies him and takes obvious pleasure in snapping shut a large padlock, locking the chain confining him into place.

Jack Dickenson, the hack who asked the first question, tops up his plastic cup of sweet white wine, and poses another: 'Who is paying for all this? The ship, the hospitality?' He shivers in the cold wind, pulls his camel-hair coat closer and addresses his pencil to a dog- eared horseracing programme, while waiting for Mark to answer.

It's a tricky one.

'Good question. Mr Turpin is himself financing the whole operation – putting both his life's savings and his life on the line. Is he worried, you may ask? No, he is not. Our American agent is even now negotiating the television and film rights, which we feel sure will be extensive. Not since Harry Houdini has any escapologist attempted such a feat.' As if to illustrate the legitimacy of the project, Mark takes from his pocket a small case which he opens to reveal a minute headset system and transmitter.

'Even Mr Houdini didn't have the advantages of modern technology to heighten audience participation. With this little beauty, we'll be right there inside the trunk along with Reg.'

Lugosi places the headset over Turpin's ears and angles the microphone to his mouth.

'So what made you take up escapology, Mr Turpin?'

The question comes from Ralph Wilder, an aged lush who is clinging to his job as a local stringer, like one of the figures on The Raft of the Medusa.

'Got sick of being a nobody, sir ... just another face in the crowd, so to speak.'

Mark comes back like an echo. 'Just another face in the crowd? Sick of being a nobody? Did you hear that? Reg, baby, you're speaking for everybody. Let us quickly wind the clock back to when Reg was just a face in the crowd – a nobody. To when Reg was a steward in the merchant navy. Twenty years of serving the rich and famous on luxury liners. Twenty years on the high seas. Only signed off when he ran out of available flesh left to tattoo.' Nobody laughs, so he presses on. 'Gentlemen, so far we have seen the chain, the padlock and the trunk. Bela will now show us the final impediment Reg has to overcome in order to escape. Over to you, Bela.'

Lugosi holds up a grubby canvas bag, displaying both sides of it to the hacks. On one side there's the Stars and Stripes stencilled in colour; on the other is the Union Jack.

'As you can see this hood is especially designed to represent the special relationship existing between Uncle Sam and John Bull.'

'John Bull ... Shit!' snarls Dickenson.

Mark quickly cuts through the laughter and applause. 'While we await Mr Turpin's entrance into the metal prison from which he will attempt to escape, let me tell you about another of my most distinguished clients, Dr Herman P. Temple.'

Mark then moves among the hacks, dispensing flyers.

'Dr Temple will be here next week, residing at the Grand Atlantic Hotel, holding one of his famous courses in leadership dynamics.'

He reaches Dickenson, who fixes him with bloodshot eyes and asks, 'You American?'

'No, sir.'

'So how come the accent?'

Mark looks genuinely puzzled at the question. He'd adopted a mid- Atlantic accent when he was a kid. It had come with American movies and American gum, and it had stuck. The hacks watch him, gleefully, waiting for an explanation. He's grateful to be let off the hook when Ralph Wilder, studiously studying the flyer, interrupts with another question.

'Wasn't there a recent undercover exposé of this Dr Temple chap?'

'Where did you hear that, sir?'

Wilder looks to the other hacks for confirmation, but they show no interest. They're may be too intent on keeping their breakfasts in place.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Watching the Wheels Come Off by Mike Hodges. Copyright © 2010 Mike Hodges. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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