A Whiff of Suspicion
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The Nutcombe Tales


A Whiff of Suspicion

Relations between Bob Wetherby the baker and Fred Atkins at the garage had been cooling for some months. Bob believed, unfairly, that Fred had been behind the departure of his underpaid bookkeeper Prudence, which had necessitated an increase in his wages bill. In order to offset this he had made alternative arrangements for obtaining petrol for his van. Fred had noticed that Bob no longer bought petrol from his garage, and had taxed him with filling up in Nutchester. Bob had denied the charge. He acknowledged that he now bought less petrol from Fred, but claimed that it was because he was using an additive which improved petrol economy.

Go on, Fred protested, Red X isn't that good.

It's not Red X, replied Bob, It's a new discovery. I can't tell you what it is, because it's still secret.

How come they've given you this new secret discovery to use, then? demanded Fred.

That's a secret too, Bob answered, and hurried away.

Bob still had his van serviced by Fred, who charged less than the agents in Nutchester, so Fred was well aware of the mileage the vehicle clocked. He calculated that if Bob was telling the truth, he was now getting something like 400 miles per gallon. He felt justified in believing that Bob was not being entirely truthful, and antagonism developed between them.

Fred's suspicions were confirmed on the day he ascended the church tower to repair the clock. That vantage point offered a bird's eye view of Bob Wetherby's back yard, and there he had seen the baker filling his van with petrol from a forty gallon drum fitted with a hand pump. Stung by the discovery that Bob had not merely taken his custom elsewhere, but was actually obtaining his petrol wholesale, Fred vowed vengeance.

The next day he went into Nutchester to pick up a consignment of spare parts, and called in to Timothy White and Taylor's, the chemists, as was his custom. Seeing him enter, shop assistant Miss Cynthia Higgins stood aside and allowed her male colleague, Mr Flowers, to serve him.

The usual, sir? Flowers murmured, placing a small packet on the counter.

Yes, thanks, replied Fred, and have you any castor oil?

Flowers gave him a sympathetic look. Certainly, sir. Would you like the small bottle, two and a half ounces, the medium, five ounces, or the large, ten ounces?

Have you got it in a gallon can?

Flowers blinked. A gallon, sir? You want a gallon of castor oil?

Fred stuck to his guns. Yes, that's right.

May I ask what you intend to do with it, sir?

Fred wondered if he was going to be asked to sign the poisons register, and replied on the spur of the moment. It's not for me. It's for my aunt. She's the matron up at the boys' academy.

Flowers relaxed. Ah, quite so. Excuse me one moment, sir.

He went behind the glass screen, and Fred saw him in agitated consultation with the white-coated pharmacist. Their problem was not in supplying a gallon can of castor oil. That was in fact how they received it from the wholesaler. Usually, however, they dispensed it into bottles themselves, and no retail price had been set for the gallon size. After earnest discussion and much calculation they finally decided to charge sixteen times the price of a ten ounce bottle, minus 2½% discount for the saving of the bottles, plus 2s/6d refundable deposit on the can. Fred paid and left with his purchases.

That night Fred Atkins stealthily climbed the gate into Bob Wetherby's back yard, the gallon can of castor oil in his hand. He made his way to the drum of petrol and rocked it slightly to gauge the contents. He guessed it to be about half full, which suited his purpose. The hand pump was screwed into one of the openings in the top of the drum, but there was a second opening, the stopper of which was already loosened to let air in as petrol was pumped out. Fred removed the stopper and emptied his can into the drum. He replaced the stopper and wiped around it with an oily rag. He then left the way he had come, taking the now empty can with him.

*****

Over the next few days the inhabitants of Nutcombe noticed a distinctive smell whenever the baker's van passed by. Eric Wrigley could have told them what it was. He was familiar with the heady aroma of burning castor oil, being a devotee of the dirt track racing at Nutchester Speed-O-Drome, where the speedway motorbikes burned a mixture of petrol and Castrol R. But nobody consulted Eric, and he did not volunteer to share his knowledge. After a day or two Fred noticed that Humphrey Snoad's Rover exuded the same smell, and the discovery that Bob was hijacking some of his other customers hardened his resolve to get even.

On Tuesday afternoon Bob took his van to Fred's garage.

Mr Atkins, I wonder if you would be so kind as to look at my exhaust for me? It seems to be making an odd smell.

Certainly, Mr Wetherby.

Fred stooped and sniffed at the exhaust, then straightened up and inhaled through pursed lips. Oh dear! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!

What is it, Mr Atkins?

Well, Mr Wetherby, it seems that the fuel economy additive you are using has been converting your petrol into high octane aviation spirit.

Is that bad?

Bad? It could be disastrous. Powerful fuel like that is only safe in special engines. Using it in an ordinary engine . . . Well, you wouldn't put a shotgun cartridge into a kiddie's cap pistol, would you? It could blow it to pieces.

Is there anything you can do, Mr Atkins?

Leave it with me, Mr Wetherby, and I'll have a look at it. It might take a few days, mind. I'll have to strip her down.

When Bob had left, Fred drove the van over the inspection pit, drained the petrol tank, flushed it through, and refilled it. He ran the engine to burn off any petrol left in the carburettor and fuel lines until the smell was no longer produced. Satisfied that the van was back to normal, he parked it in his yard. The whole operation had taken less than half an hour.

On Thursday Bob rang to ask if the van was ready.

Give me another day, Mr Wetherby. It's a big job.

When Bob called at the garage on Friday, Fred greeted him with, Good news, Mr Wetherby! I've managed to fix her, and he handed over an invoice. Bob gulped when he saw it. As much as that? he stammered.

Well, I had to fit new big-end bearings, new piston rings, new valves, and new plugs. And a lot of the labour is charged at overtime rates. I've worked all hours on it. It's still a lot less than fitting a new engine. In any case, you can claim the cost back, can't you?

Claim it back? What do you mean?

I mean claim it back from the outfit who supplied you with the additive. Anyone who supplies a product that causes damage has to pay for it to be repaired. Any court in the land will uphold the claim. I feel sorry for them if they have been supplying that stuff to anyone with an expensive motor, like a Jag or a Rover, say. It'll cost them hundreds to replace an engine in one of them.

Looking more than a little worried, Bob paid the invoice.

Thanks for all your help, Fred.

Any time, Bob mate, any time.

That evening Fred saw Humphrey Snoad in the Red Lion and went across to him. Ah, Mr Snoad, have you heard about the black market petrol that has been going around? No? Well, apparently a lot of cars in London have had their engines ruined by it, and the police think it might be on offer around here. I just thought I'd warn you, in case any is offered to you. Not that you'd be daft enough to fall for it. Anyone with half a brain can tell it's dodgy by the smell it makes.

*****

The next few days were not enjoyable for Bob Wetherby. The delivery driver who had supplied the drums of petrol resolutely refused to give a refund for any that remained unused.

It's not sale or return, mate! If you want me to take any away, it'll cost you.

He also had an uncomfortable interview with Humphrey Snoad. In vain he pleaded that he had been a victim too, and showed the invoice from Fred's garage to prove it. This was a mistake, as he then had to persuade the bookmaker not to take his own vehicle to Fred to be fixed.

Snoad promised he would not to do so, provided Bob met the cost of a full overhaul and repair of his vehicle at the Rover dealers in Nutchester. This negotiation was taking place with lowered voices at a table in the bar of the Red Lion and had almost reached an agreed conclusion when Fred Atkins spotted the two men together. He came over and asked genially, So, Bob, did you get your money back?

Not wishing to lose his reputation of never being bettered in a deal, Bob felt constrained to reply in the affirmative.

Seeing that Snoad was puzzled by the exchange, Fred helpfully explained to him. Bob's van was damaged by a faulty product he'd been supplied with. But you know Bob. No-one can put anything over on him. He's made the supplier meet the cost of repairs, plus a healthy bit of compensation on top, I bet, eh Bob? Must be off. Enjoy your drinks.

*****


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