Almost to a man, the 21st was bored. Most of the GIs had not been home since 1943. Embarked on a great adventure and purpose – to rid Europe of the most inglorious regime in five hundred years of history. Two days after Grover’s twenty-third birthday, the 21st began the embattled slog from Omaha Beach to the River Elbe. Grover got his first stripe after Baker Company broke out of Bastogne. Another after his platoon led the charge over the Saar River. As he slogged eastwards, his brother Arnold, building Sherman Tanks in Detroit, wrote to tell him his mother had died of liver cancer. The letter got lost and was eventually pinned to the side of his jeep by a corporal from Div Comms, two weeks after the funeral. He replied to the letter, stitched on his third chevron and kept going.
By June 1945 Baker and Charlie Companies were in the charnel house that was West Berlin. Over the course of eleven months, Grover had morphed from scared rookie into experienced killer. Close up, he had seen the whites of his enemies’ eyes. In summer 1945, he looked into the faces of bewildered mothers and children, sick, traumatised and homeless, and tried to help win the peace.
Four and a half years later, on New Year’s Eve 1949, the 21st flew from Templehof airport to Fairford in Gloucestershire. Those waiting to be repatriated home sat around with nothing to do. The weather was foul and all the comforts of home were conspicuous by their absence in the Cotswolds.
The USA and Tomah Wisconsin, were thousands of miles and light years away. Grover had nothing to go home to. So, if helping out the Adjutant gave him reason to stay where he wanted to be…
“The men need something to do, Sir,” he said.
“So?…” Berger said.
“I suggest you lift restrictions regarding fraternisation with the locals.”
Berger stared at him. Speechless for a moment or two.
“Let the men loose on the women of three counties?”
“No. Invite the women here.”
Berger’s eyes widened. Grover moved swiftly on.
“Able Company has a five-piece band. They’ve been practising out in the emergency hanger on the south western perimeter.”
Berger moved back to his desk. Reached down, adjusted a bronze paper weight of a rearing horse and stared at it for a moment or two. Then he looked up at Grover.
“Okay Ed. So long as you run the show.”
Grover stared at him.
“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind, Sir.”
“Take it or leave it Sergeant Major.”
Grover took it.
* * *
Sam Nicholson was red-faced, heavily built and around five feet eight. Leader of the City Council, business man, fixer and long-time fence; he was sitting alone in the office he shared with the Mayor. He had worked hard to get the red plush upholstery under his arse. Too old to be called up in 1940, he stayed in Bristol and kept his home fire burning, with some advantage to himself. Right now, however, he was not in the sunniest of moods. He could always smell trouble, and right now, the hair in his nostrils was standing on end.
As if on cue, the phone on his desk rang. He picked up the receiver and immediately panicked.
“Why the fuck did you call me here?” He listened for a second or two. “He’s what?… Slowly, slowly…” His eyes popped and his facial muscles began to twitch. “Alright. This is no fucking way to do business.” He listened again. “No no no, leave me to deal with this.”
He slammed the receiver down and stared across the room. “Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.”
Since the war, a series of one-way traffic systems devised to make journeys across the city smoother, had grown like Topsy. But Bristol traffic had never been speedy before the blitz, and now the Highways Department was baffled and desperate. A smaller lobby than the citizens who had no roofs over their heads, Nicholson mused, but a bunch of irritating fuckers nonetheless.
It took him half an hour to get to Albert Vale. And less than a minute to feel his gorge rising. He parked, got out of the Rover and fell to considering, yet again, what the hell Rodney Pride was doing to repay the city council’s generosity.
On the night of January 3rd 1941, the Luftwaffe had launched an eight-hour onslaught on the city. Two bombers overshot their targets and dumped one hundred kilos of high explosive on the citizens of Albert Vale. Now the area was a flattened fifteen acres of rough, stony land, ringed by a chain link fence.
Rodney Pride had persuaded the council to sell him three acres for ‘light industrial’ use. He told the planning department he intended to build a mini industrial park of warehouses, car workshops and small manufacturing sheds. He must have crooned better than Perry Como during his hour in the council chamber, because he got the three acres for a song. As yet, there was no development, save for the newly prefabricated headquarters of Prides Rides – a garage with offices above it, another alongside, and enough space on the site to park 30 cars.
At the window of his office, Pride grinned as he watched Nicholson muttering to himself. He waved as the Council Leader looked up at him from the tarmac.
Pride was short and wore shoes with lifts. He was thin and grey haired, with huge black eyebrows. His top set of teeth were uneven and he had a pronounced over-bite. To compensate for this physical injustice, he had bullied his way through life. He came home from the war with his army issue Webley.38 still in his kitbag, determined to exact revenge on those who had dragged him out of the pre-war rackets, put him in uniform and sent him to North Africa. He called in some favours he was owed by people who were shit scared of him and who had fervently hoped he would be killed in the conflict, and bought a couple of taxi cabs. Now he had thirty of them and no competitors on the streets of south Bristol.
Nicholson walked into Pride’s office and bellowed at him.
“It’s not what we agreed. And you’re now trying to extort money out of my fucking nephew.”
The greengrocery in question, was a shop on a disputed corner in Windmill Hill. It had been designated Nicholson territory until such time as Sam no longer had any interest in it. Sam’s brother had handed the shop over to his son in law, who put the business in his wife’s name and changed the sign above the door.
Pride leaned back in his leather swivel chair and spread his arms wide.
“Calm down Sam. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
“You’re fucking right it won’t.”
“For God’s sake man, sit down.”
Nicholson burbled into silence. He sat in the armchair facing the desk.
“That’s better.” Pride waited until Nicholson was settled. “The place changed hands and one of my associates saw an opportunity. He didn’t know, hell I didn’t know, he was a relative of yours. It’s all been ironed out now, so let’s forgive and forget eh?”
Nicholson grunted in agreement. Pride beamed at him. He stood up and stepped across the office to a sideboard with a drinks tray on it. He picked up a bottle of malt whiskey.”
“This is your tipple isn’t it?”
Nicholson nodded. “Thanks.”
Pride poured a generous double, handed the glass to Nicholson and moved back to his chair.
“Now, as you’re here, there’s something I’d like you to take a look at.”
He pulled out a drawer in his desk, reached into it, produced a sliver snuff box and placed it front of Nicholson.
“Georgian. Made around 1786, apparently. The hallmark’s underneath.”
Nicholson put his glass down, picked the box up and turned it over.
“Where’d you get it from?”
“I got it from a bloke who owed me some money,” Pride said. “
Nicholson turned the box the right way up and opened the lid.
“Where did he get it?”
“I’ve no idea.”
Nicholson gave him his best ‘this is me you’re talking to’ look. Pride reciprocated.
“Come on Sam… How much?”
Nicholson closed the lid and put the box back on the desk.
“On a good day, given the right circumstances… Thirty quid.”
“Bollocks. It’s worth three times that.”
“So, take it to Clifton Auctions and let them sell it.”
Pride grinned across the desk. “Don’t be too clever Sam.”
Nicholson sucked at his teeth. “I’ll give you thirty-five.”
“Sixty,” Pride suggested.
“Forty-five,” Nicholson said.
“Forty-five, is as far as I’ll go.”
“Fucking crook,” Pride said and held out his right hand.
Nicholson stood up and shook it.
“Meanwhile, I’m working on the scheme of a lifetime,” Pride said. “It’ll make us a fortune. I just need you to rubber stamp the project.”
Nicholson looked alarmed. Pride stared at him. The alarm morphed into mild terror, Pride’s stare into a wide smile. Nicholson managed two words.
“Make yourself available. I’ll keep you posted.”
Back in the street, Nicholson looked at his watch. 4.35. He decided he might as well go home. Give himself time to get into the right mood for the evening ahead. His wife had dinner planned for some relatives on the take. Another bunch of idle bastards he was expected to support.
He got into the Rover. Pride watched him from his office window.