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"Which service do you require? Fire, Police or Ambulance?"
"Police," I said, and was immediately put through to another voice.
"Charing Cross Police Station. What is the nature of your enquiry?"
"I think my car has been stolen."
"Can you tell me the make, colour and registration number please, sir."
"It's a blue Rover 600, registration K857 SHV." There was a long pause, during which I could hear other voices talking in the background.
"No, it hasn't been stolen, sir," said the officer who had been dealing with me when he came back on the line. "The vehicle was illegally parked on a double yellow line. It's been removed and taken to the Vauxhall Bridge Pound."
"Can I pick it up now?" I asked.
"Certainly, sir. How will you be getting there?" Tll take a taxi."
"Then just ask the driver for the Vauxhall Bridge Pound.
Once you get there, you'll need some form of identification, and a cheque for 205 with a banker's card - that is if you don't have the full amount in cash." 'xo5 ?" I said quietly.
"That's correct, sir." Anna frowned for the first time that evening."Worth every penny."
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
Goodnight." I handed the phone back to Anna, and said, "The next thing I'm going to do is find you a taxi."
"You certainly are not, Michael, because I'm staying with you.
In any case, you promised my brother you'd take me home."
I took her hand and hailed a taxi, which swung across the road and came to a halt beside us.
"Vauxhall Bridge Pound, please."
"Bad luck, mate," said the cabbie. "You're my fourth this evening." I gave him a broad grin.
"I expect the other three also chased you into the theatre, but luckily they were behind me in the queue," I said to Anna as I joined her on the back seat.
As the taxi manoeuvred its way slowly through the rainswept post-theatre traffic and across Waterloo Bridge, Anna said, "Don't you think I should have been given the chance to choose between the four of you ? After all, one of them might have been driving a Rolls-Royce.'
"And why not, pray?" asked Anna.
"Because you couldn't have parked a Rolls-Royce in thats.p.a.ce.'
"But if he'd had a chauffeur, that would have solved all my problems.'
"In that case, I would simply have run him over." The taxi had travelled some distance before either of us spoke again.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Anna eventually said.
"If it's what I think it is, I was about to ask you the same thing."
"Then you go first."
"No - I'm not married," I said. "Nearly, once, but she escaped." Anna laughed. "And you?"
"I was married," she said quietly. "He was the fourth doctor in the practice.
He died three years ago. I spent nine months nursing him, but in the end I failed.'
"I'm so sorry," I said, feeling a little ashamed. "That was tactless of me. I shouldn't have raised the subject."
"I raised it, Michael, not you. It's me who should apologise." Neither of us spoke again for several minutes, until Anna said, "For the past three years, since Andrew's death, I've immersed myself in work, and I seem to spend most of my spare time boring Jonathan and Elizabeth to distraction.
They couldn't have been more understanding, but they must be heartily sick of it by now. I wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan hadn't arranged an emergency for tonight, so someone else could take me to the theatrefor a change. It might even give me the confidence to go out again.
Heaven knows," she added as we drove into the car pound, 'enough people have been kind enough to ask me." I pa.s.sed the cabbie a ten-pound note and we dashed through the rain in the direction of a little Portakabin.
I walked up to the counter and read the form $ellotaped to it.
I took out my wallet, extracted my driving licence, and began counting.
I only had eighty pounds in cash, and I never carry a chequebook.
Anna grinned, and took the envelope I'd presented to her earlier in the evening from her bag. She tore it open and extracted the two ten-pound notes, added a five-pound note of her own, and handed them over to me.
"Thank you," I said, once again feeling embarra.s.sed.
"Worth every penny," she replied with a grin.
The policeman counted the notes slowly, placed them in a tin box, and gave me a receipt.
"It's right there, in the front row," he said, pointing out of the window. "And if I may say so, sir, it was perhaps unwise of you to leave your keys in the ignition. If the vehicle had been stolen, your insurance company would not have been liable to cover the claim." He pa.s.sed me my keys."It was my fault, officer," said Anna. "I should have sent him back for them, but I didn't realise what he was up to. VII make sure he doesn't do it again." The officer looked up at me.
I shrugged my shoulders and led Anna out of the cabin and across to my car. I opened the door to let her in, then nipped round to the driver's side as she leant over and pushed my door open. I took my place behind the wheel and turned to face her. "I'm sorry," I said. "The rain has ruined your dress." A drop of water fell off the end of her nose.
"But, you know, you're just as beautiful wet or dry."
"Thank you, Michael," she smiled. "But if you don't have any objection, on balance I'd prefer to be dry." I laughed. "So, where shall I take you?" I asked, suddenly aware that I didn't know where she lived.
"Fulham, please. 49 Parsons Green Lane. It's not too far."
I pushed the key into the ignition, not caring how far it was.
I turned the key and took a deep breath. The engine spluttered, but refused to start. Then I realised I had left the sidelights on.
"Don't do this to me," I begged, as Anna began laughing again.
I turned the key a second time, and the motor caught. I let out a sigh of relief.
"That was a close one," Anna said. "If it hadn't started,we might have ended up spending the rest of the night together. Or was that all part of your dastardly plan?"
"Nothing's gone to plan so far,'
I admitted as I drove out of the pound. I paused before adding, "Still, I suppose things might have turned out differently."
"You mean if I hadn't been the sort of girl you were looking for?"
"Something like that."
"I wonder what those other three men would have thought of me," said Anna wistfully.
"Who cares? They're not going to have the chance to find out.'
"You sound very sure of yourself, Mr. Whitaker.'
"If you only knew," I said. "But I would like to see you again, Anna. If you're willing to risk it." She seemed to take an eternity to reply. "Yes, I'd like that," she said eventually. "But only on condition that you pick me up at my place, so I can be certain you park your car legally, and remember to switch your lights off."
"I accept your terms," I told her. "And I won't even add any conditions of my own if we can begin the agreement tomorrow evening." Once again Anna didn't reply immediately. "I'm not sure I know what I'm doing tomorrow evening."
"Neither do I," I said. "But I'll cancel it, whatever itis."
"Then so will I," said Anna as I drove into Parsons Green Lane, and began searching for number forty-nine.
"It's about a hundred yards down, on the left," she said.
I drew up and parked outside her front door.
"Don't let's bother with the theatre this time," said Anna.
"Come round at about eight, and I'll cook you some supper." She leant over and kissed me on the cheek before turning back to open the car door. I jumped out and walked quickly round to her side of the car as she stepped onto the pavement.
"So, I'll see you around eight tomorrow evening," she said.
Tll look forward to that." I hesitated, and then took her in my arms. "Goodnight, Anna."
"Goodnight, Michael," she said as I released her. "And thank you for buying my ticket, not to mention dinner. I'm glad my other three would-be suitors only made it as far as the car pound." I smiled as she pushed the key into the lock of her front door.
She turned back. "By the way, Michael, was that the restaurant with the missing waiter, the four-and-a-half-fingered chef, or the crooked bartender?"
"The crooked bartender," I replied with a smile.She closed the door behind her as the clock on a nearby church struck one.