The End of the Web: A British Library Classic Thriller

The End of the Web: A British Library Classic Thriller

Leo Selver, a middle-aged antiques dealer, is stunned when the beautiful and desirable Judy Latimer shows an interest in him. Soon they are lying in each other's arms, unaware that ...

About The Author

George Sims

George Sims (1923-1999) was an antiquarian bookseller and unorthodox writer who wrote highly popular thrillers with cleverly woven narratives.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

 

Women! Everything about them fascinates me! The thought came into Leo Selver’s mind so vividly that for a moment he felt that he had said it out loud. It was a naïve confession and not the kind of thing he wanted to admit. It was quickly pursued by a cynical comment from his other self: Seriously, though, there have to be worse ways of spending an afternoon.

Dichotomy: division or distribution into two parts; hence, a cutting into two; a division. He did contain two selves, dissimilar but complementary characters. There was the more obvious extrovert one, call him Leo for short, a typical Sun subject, born in August, romantic, impulsive, generous, greedy, vain, a man who made money quickly and lost it, philandered, played the fool, got into trouble. Then there was the subtler character, sober old Selver who had the second thoughts, watched everything and everybody including Leo, made sly comments and criticized, saw the absurdity of Leo’s behaviour, tried to take evasive action whenever possible.

Judy Latimer was making a graceful exploration of Leo Selver’s small sitting-room like a cat taken to a new home, at once inquisitive and wary. His flat was at the end of Welbeck Street Mews, a convenient situation that made it quiet and not overlooked. The sitting-room and kitchen faced the entrance of the mews; the bedroom and bathroom were at the back, and the only windows in those rooms were skylights.

Judy touched two paper-weights on the desk then turned towards Leo, using her greenish-blue eyes in an expressive way to show that she was enjoying herself.

‘Fantastically quiet here! Why should it be so quiet?’

‘It’s a backwater of a backwater. There’s not much traffic in Welbeck Way, and then being tucked away from that.’

Judy opened her eyes very wide in a bold expression that Leo found rather sexy though he knew it usually accompanied some criticism. ‘But you don’t live here most of the time, do you? Someone in The Olive Branch said you lived in a country cottage.’

Selver thought: So! You’ve been asking about me in my local. What do you want?—the whole picture?—that I’ve been married for twenty-six years, that we had a son who died when he was seven leaving us an inconsolable couple, that my wife had a hysterectomy a year later, that the operation which wasn’t supposed to affect her sex life left her indifferent to it, that I’ve become a girl-chaser? He said, ‘That’s right. A small cottage near Alton in Hampshire. Not all that distance from London but sometimes I work late at the shop and feel too tired to tackle the trip home.’

‘And your wife, doesn’t she stay here?’

‘Occasionally, when she comes to London to do some shopping, that kind of thing. She’s having a few days by the sea at the moment.’

Judy nodded significantly, conveying the thought: Aha! So that’s why the mice can play. She turned away to continue her exploration, or was it a valuation survey?

Selver watched closely as she picked up an enamelled Arita jar then replaced it after a hasty glance and clambered on to the large leather couch to examine a small painting he had craftily hung above it.

Surely there could be few men who after consuming a good lunch and just too much wine would not experience some sexual stirring as Judy disclosed more and more leg. Leo was aware of only one handicap that prevented the situation being perfect: August 1973 was presenting another stifling hot day and a sexual wrestle would be less pleasant in such heat.

Leo was drawn to the couch nevertheless and sat down at the point furthest from her, closing his eyes for an instant listening to the Nat Cole disc spinning round in the bedroom. It was an old favourite, ‘Cherchez La Femme’:

Look for the girl, monsieur,
You’re sure to find
Clouds silver-lined
Such is amour…

Intoxication, the music, Judy’s jonquil perfume, her visible charms and hints of those that were hidden, together with a faint sense of mystery about the girl, all contributed to Leo’s sensual mood. Her skin looked as if it had been dusted with talcum powder then rubbed to achieve a silky smooth effect. He could imagine just how her long blonde hair would look falling over bare, satiny shoulders.

Leo steepled his fingers, looking as though he might be brooding on the world’s problems, trying to dissemble his obsessional thoughts. The desire to touch Judy’s skin was working in him like a fever, particularly now that he had only to reach out a few inches to fondle the back of her thigh, but he felt this was a game he had to play with skill. Disconcertingly Judy also seemed to contain two selves. He had thought so the first time he had seen her, only two weeks before this pleasant rendezvous, while having a lunch-time Guinness and sandwich in The Olive Branch, the nearest pub to his antique shop in Crawford Street. On that occasion she had been talking animatedly to a striking-looking Chinese girl. Watching them covertly, he had thought: If the Devil came in now I’d gladly strike up some kind of bargain with him, swapping a few of the fag-end years for the chance of an affair with either of those two beauties. A moment later, as if in quick response to his imaginary arrangement with Mephistopheles, Judy had smiled faintly in his direction, a gambit which had so surprised him that he had looked around to see if it had been intended for a younger or a better-looking man.

That meeting and two more in the same pub had shown her to be moody, at times appearing uninterested in him and then suddenly switching back on, using her eyes to beckon with, holding the back of his wrist whenever she wanted to see the time. But now that another lunch-time meeting in The Olive Branch had led to her accepting his invitation to eat with him at the Hellenic in Thayer Street, now that she had been plied with good Greek food and wine, he felt quite uncertain as to the outcome of further proceedings.

‘This I like. I mean very much. Really beautiful.’ Judy turned round with an awkward, rather tantalizing movement showing even more leg. There had been a flash of white briefs and Leo’s impulse was to kneel down and worship at the shrine of sex, kissing that delicious-looking bent knee.

But Selver noted the momentary business-like look in her eyes, just as if she was trying to get his weight in some deal. Without animated eyes and flashing teeth she looked rather cold and calculating. Perhaps she was the kind of girl with whom everything she touched turned to ‘sold’.

Judy had removed the tiny Lucien Pissarro painting from the wall and seemed entranced by its jewel-like colours; her hands now formed an additional, possessive frame. Impulsively Leo, who placed little value on material possessions, having attended a thousand house-sales where all the hoarding of a lifetime was dispersed in a day, felt like offering it to her as a gift, but Selver was in control, as he was when it came to business, censoring the offer, saying nothing but nodding sagely.

Judy smiled mischievously and replaced the painting quickly, saying, ‘I feel rather guilty. I mean…I must be holding you up, keeping you away from the shop. Expect you’re busy.’

‘Dear girl, business deals for me are just necessary to bring about delightful moments like this. You see I’ve got my priorities right. Pleasure before business always.’

It was Leo speaking and Selver thought: Listen to him. Another glimpse of underwear and he’ll be singing ‘Love is my reason for living’. But even Selver had to acknowledge that the girl had a beautiful mouth, like that of the Michelangelo statue Pietà, her yellow hair shone and bounced with health, and her breasts looked high and perky.

Judy slid down on to the couch, turning round and lying back in one lithe movement. She said nothing but smiled enigmatically. She looked very relaxed and definitely seducible. Now was the time to cut out words and make some direct physical approach. Years ago he would not have hesitated but some vital confidence had ebbed away, leaving him at times in the unhappy position of a tyro in the arts of love.

Judy sighed, and even that slight movement of her breasts had a voluptuous appeal for Leo. She lifted her head, making a point that she was trying to catch the lyrics as Nat Cole sang ‘Let There Be Love’.

‘That’s nice too. A golden oldie all right, but it’s still good. And the piano.’

‘The pianist is George Shearing…’ Leo hesitated, realizing that the name would probably mean nothing to her, wondering whether to add a few words about the brilliance of the blind pianist. Leo was so intent on gaining access to the girl’s pearly belly and the secret mouth between her legs that his anxiety prevented him from thinking straight, and that would probably sabotage the operation. One part of his mind was foolishly acting like an advance scout, running on ahead of the present proceedings, warning him to remove his socks at the earliest opportunity, reminding him there were few less romantic images than a middle-aged man in pants and socks. All this elaboration and he had not yet touched the girl apart from putting his hand on her back as they left the restaurant.

‘Oh dear—I just can’t concentrate on the words. You gave me much too much wine. That was naughty! Now I’m feeling very vague. Everything is a bit unreal.’

‘Would you like to lie down in the bedroom for a while? It’s cooler in there. Just a quiet lie-down and little cuddle perhaps. Nothing more than that.’

‘Next thing you’ll be suggesting I take off my dress so it won’t get creased.’ Judy smoothed the hem of her short blue shantung frock over her knees in a demonstration of modesty that was not really convincing.

‘Well I’ll have a bet with you that I shan’t ask you to take off anything else. I just thought it would be nice to have a little lie-down in the cool, hold you in my arms for a while…’

‘I don’t know…Once I get horizontal…’

‘Don’t be silly. You’ve got a will of iron.’

‘And you’re a tricky character, that’s for sure. Well, what’s the bet?’

Again Selver was put off by her business-like expression, as if the bedroom decision depended solely on the size of the wager. For a moment he felt sure that this was not the first time she had put herself up for sale. She said she was a model but was vague about where she worked. Leo disliked the idea of paying directly for sex although quite willing to be generous about gifts. And the conversation was going on too long, practically turning into a debate. Obviously he should pull her off the couch and carry her into the bedroom, wrestle with her or smack her bottom, anything to make physical contact and achieve that happy position where words became superfluous. But the effect of the wine was passing off and his sexy mood was being replaced by one of tiredness. If the chat continued much longer his tone might become querulous. Selver mentally counselled himself to accept defeat: Ah well, it’s all part of life’s going-grey pattern. Give up, you fool, and let the girl go. Face the fact that she’s not at all keen on this lying-down lark and pass off the situation with a joke.

As he was swallowing the toad of defeat, which encompassed sexual frustration and a deflated ego, his Trimphone gave its preliminary note. At once he experienced a flicker of fear in case it was another of the subtly sinister anonymous calls: it reminded him vividly of the terrible risk he was taking under the pressure of that chancer, Sidney Chard. They were like men walking through a lions’ den, with the deluding sensation of safety as long as the lions slept.

‘Sorry, I’ll have to take it. Might be a friend I was trying to contact this morning.’ He moved his head in the direction of the ringing phone.

‘That’s all right. Go ahead.’ Judy gave Leo a teasing kind of smile in which he thought he detected some affection. Had he been saved by the bell from giving up hope with her—was there still a chance of some lovers’ games? He left the room momentarily buoyed up by this thought, but it had deserted him by the time he picked up the phone.

Once the toy-like receiver was off its stand there was an attention-focusing silence that made him realize this was not going to be an unusually welcome call from Sidney Chard, but another bizarre communication from Mr Anonymous.

Selver said hello three times in quick succession without any hope of a reasonable response; a fatal sense of curiosity stopped him from replacing the receiver and made him press it closer to his ear, as if that might help in picking up a clue about the mysterious caller.

On the other end of the line the silence was punctuated at first by the faint sound of breathing, then by the silvery chimes of a clock. The chimes were very much like those of his own old French clock. He was struck by the frightening idea that the telephone lunatic had somehow obtained access to the Welbeck Street Mews flat and made the recording in his own sitting-room. He suddenly shivered as though exposed to a chilling wind instead of midsummer heat. His heart vaulted as a Vox Humana voice read out what sounded like excerpts from references: ‘E should be your middle initial. Yes, E for efficiency. Highly pleased. Oh yes, indeed. Miracle worker! Your plan seems to have worked like a charm. No one else could have tidied the mess…tidied the mess…tidied the mess.’

As the phrase was repeated mechanically a feeling of panic shot out of Leo Selver like a frightened horse with a kick and a sickening plunge that left him breathless, with a sharp pain in his side. He slammed down the receiver. He had practically forgotten what it was like to be really scared: during the war he had found it difficult to face up to terrors; now it seemed unbearable. He was long-suited on imaginative apprehension and short on guts—just the opposite type to Sidney Chard who appeared to revel in danger. So where was Sid now that he needed him?

Leo Selver’s mind was a jumble of disconnected thoughts, and he knew that he could not continue immediately with the protracted seduction dialogue, but there was a chance that a pee and a quick wash might work wonders. He turned left instead of right on leaving the bedroom, walked a few paces along the corridor that led to the stairs down to the front door, and quietly locked himself into the bathroom. He turned on the cold tap hard to mask the sound of his peeing.

A flushed, exhausted face looked out at him from the mirror. ‘No fool like an old fool’; he spoke the cliché in a not quite natural voice, and saluted his mirror image ironically.

Vivi pericolosamente.’ Standing by the lavatory, Selver remembered Mussolini’s exhortation: ‘Live dangerously’, looked down at his flaccid penis shrivelled by nerves, and laughed silently at himself. It was hard to believe that six months previously he had sometimes felt he might die of boredom because his life was so peaceful and uneventful. Each month then had appeared like the previous one, with only minute variations as to whether they were having dinner with friends or inviting them, making a buying expedition to York instead of Leamington Spa, and attending sales at Christie’s rather than Sotheby’s. All that had been altered in the course of a few days, and he had got the longed-for adventure. It was common enough to wish for a changed existence, but before embarking on dangerous escapades one should consider whether one had the courage to face them out.

As Selver pulled the chain he said, ‘Yes, go on then, live dangerously!’ in a quiet sneering voice. The fat buffoon Mussolini had provided an admirable tailpiece illustration to his own precept by appearing hung upside-down with Clara Petacci outside a petrol-station in Milan.

Cool down and calm down, Selver advised himself, filling the basin and splashing his face with cold water till the mirror presented a less hectic visage. He thought of Sidney Chard’s motto, ‘Here goes nothing’, to see if it had any magic left in it, and oddly enough found that he was feeling less panicky. Daredevil Sid would think of some way of dealing with the worrying telephone business.

The door to the sitting-room was open wider than he had left it and Judy was no longer seated on the couch. Pushing the door right back, he found that the room was empty. The surprise brought back the sharp pain in his side. The silhouette of the standard-lamp blurred against the sun. The room became dark, almost black. It was an effort to make his legs work, as though he were following a dimly remembered pattern of behaviour. He took a few angry, excited steps at seeing a piece of paper propped up on the mantelpiece.

Dear Incorrigible,

Had to scoot—chance of a job and jobs are scarce just now! Apologies—and thanks for the delicious lunch and the chatting up and everything! Long day tomorrow slaving in front of hot lights and cameras—I shall be in need of lots of wining and dining! Would you like to call round at my grotty pad in the evening, 8 p.m.? 14 Stephen Street, by the Gresse Buildings, off Tottenham Court Road. I like this quiet flat—and its tenant.

Not quite yours,

JUDY

P.S. Shall not wait after 8.15 as I shall be starving!

The note had been written with Selver’s black felt pen, though her light touch disguised this to a certain extent. Her writing was nervous, sharply pointed, and degenerated into scrawl at the end. He thought: I’ve taken another blow to the ego. Knowing that she ‘had to scoot’, she could not have taken his suggestion about lying down seriously and was just teasing. So much for his seductive powers, so much for the charm of the older man!

He screwed up the note and threw it into the waste-paper basket, but it was an act of bluff, a mere pretence of independence. Tomorrow pathetic old Leo would be in Stephen Street at 8 p.m. sharp. He could have taken the pretence further and dramatically burnt Judy’s message, as each word was engraved on his brain.

Walking back to the bedroom, Selver realized that coming face to face with yourself was sometimes an unpleasant experience that did not take place in front of a mirror. As he became older his attempts to seduce girls like Judy would become more and more ludicrous.

He removed the Trimphone from its stand. The room was comparatively cool, and the clean sheets looked inviting. He sat down on the edge of the bed and took off his shoes and socks slowly like an old man. The pain in his side, which his mother would no doubt have classified as ‘a stitch’, had moved a little and become duller, but he had a sensation of exhaustion as though he had not slept for several nights in a row. He was profoundly weary and a nap was essential before he again tackled the problem of finding Sidney Chard.

Reviews of

The End of the Web: A British Library Classic Thriller

“Sims proves to be an expert plotter here and quite deft at quickly summing up character. He’s also adept at using the interiors of rooms to represent characters’ inner lives.”

Booklist

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads