Ashdown Forest, England, November.
The house was set about two hundred metres back from the road in a little copse of trees. If you didn’t know it was there you’d drive right past without spotting it. Berger turned into the mud track and immediately knew something was wrong. The strand of almost-invisible nylon he’d fixed between the two pine trees had been broken. He checked his mobile. No security message. So no one had got inside the house. Probably just fallow deer, then, of which there were plenty on the forest.
But it was best to be careful. He stopped the pick-up in the dip, from where no-one could push it out or drive past, immobilized it, climbed out and studied the ground. There were tyre marks he didn’t recognize. Not deer! He made his way through the trees. In the little clearing in front of the house there was a white van. Old but clean and well-maintained. The door to the house, at the top of a short flight of L-shaped stone steps, was open. No one was in sight. He checked his phone again then switched it off.
Cautiously Berger approached the van, keeping it between him and the house, and took a look inside. The first thing he saw was his laptop. Not the really important one but, nevertheless, one he wouldn’t want to lose. Not for the first time he cursed the day he had joined the Organization. Cursed the day his path had crossed that of Lucio ‘Lucky’ Buendia! Cursed Lucky for plucking him from the happy, irresponsible life of a ski-and-surf-bum and making him the target of dangerous men. The fact that these people had got in without triggering the alarm suggested they were more likely to be intelligence professionals than burglars. Suggested people against whom his own special talents might not be enough.
Then he saw his downwind board hanging inside the van from two rope slings. A Naish fourteen-footer. Only a few days previously he’d ridden the surf and wind from Bournemouth to Milford-on-Sea in a powerful westerly. At least 30 knots. It had been tough and the Naish now felt like a pal who had been in a big adventure with him. Anyone who knew about such things would pay good money for a Naish. But it wasn’t the kind of thing any intelligence service would be interested in. Not unless they suspected it was packed with Semtex.
Which, come to think of it, could be a clever idea.
So he was probably dealing with kids. Just kids! He relaxed a little. But only a little. Kids who had got past his alarm system could still be dangerous.
Very quietly he opened the van door, slid the keys from the ignition, pocketed them and waited.
After a couple of minutes a man appeared in the doorway of the house, waddling awkwardly backwards, holding one end of something quite big. It was the glossy wooden bureau, the one he’d bought in Damascus with the mother of pearl inlay. Skinny guy in tight jeans, short leather jacket and wearing a flat tweed cap. Didn’t look like a professional. Berger relaxed some more. A moment later, as the skinny guy felt his way backwards with his foot, a second man appeared, holding the opposite end. He was taller and, by the easy way he was handling the bureau, he could be dangerous. He looked as if he could just still be in his teens. He wore a red beanie from which brown curly hair stuck out at various points, and a T-shirt and jeans that were both having trouble containing his muscles. He caught sight of Berger, stopped, put down his end of the bureau and said something to his mate.
So it looked like just a couple of young housebreakers. Berger could handle that. He called out in a friendly South-London voice: ‘I can give you an ‘and if you like. You takin’ the stuff in or aht?’
The men looked at one another.
‘Out,’ said the one facing him. ‘But…we…don’t…need…any…help.’ He spoke very slowly and very quietly. Berger had to strain to understand him. The guy obviously had some kind of speech problem.
‘Aht? That’s a pity,’ said Berger. His voice was still cheerful but now there was an edge to it. ‘If you’d said “in” then the three of us could have put all the stuff back and enjoyed a nice cuppa together afterwards. No real ‘arm done. But “aht” is completely different. Innit?’ He paused, while they processed what he was saying. ‘‘Tell you what,’ he continued, his mouth now a slit and his lips hardly moving. ‘Put the stuff back nicely without damaging anything and we’ll say no more abaht it. OK?’
The two men looked at one another.
Berger strolled over, hands by his sides, and walked up the steps behind the skinny one. Neither intruder moved. Something about Berger’s body language somehow said, ‘Don’t mess with me or you’ll regret it.’ He was in charge. He knew it. And they knew it.
‘It’s Syrian,’ Berger said, placing a proprietary hand on the bureau. He stroked it. It was somewhat out of keeping with the crude ethnic pieces he usually favoured but it had a romance that, when he’d seen it in Damascus before all the trouble, had been irresistible. ‘The wood is walnut,’ he said, ‘and all the inlay is done by ‘and. It’s fucking mother of pearl. They call it intarsia. Workmanship is exquisite. I ‘ope you weren’t going to try to sell it rand ‘ere. You’d never get anything like its value. Up in London it’s worth about a year’s salary.’ He paused. ‘For a s’licitor, that is.’
He pushed past, went into the house and surveyed the scene. The door had not been damaged so they must have picked the lock. And, despite a complicated code and sophisticated protection devices, the alarm had been deactivated without any damage. Impressive! Just inside the door, waiting to be loaded, was the heavy teak box from Sumatra. His other laptop, the important one, the really important one, had not been discovered. Which meant the hidden space had not been discovered. Not so impressive!
He moved on into the kitchen area, filled the kettle and placed it on the hob. He heard the doors of the van slam shut. He grinned. They’d discover the keys were missing and, if the van was stolen, they’d make a run for it on foot. But if the van was theirs they’d have to come in and negotiate. They could obviously manage without the keys. The front door and the alarm proved that. They knew how to hot wire. But there was no easy way they could get the van past the immobilized pick-up.
How long would it take them to come up with a plan?
Not long! After a couple of minutes they were back. But this time they were carrying a crowbar and a wheel brace.
‘Keys!’ said the big guy. ‘Hand…them…over…and…you…won’t…get…hurt.’
He was tall and he was muscular but it was difficult to take him seriously. His face was too open. Berger smiled, put three Winnie-the-Pooh mugs on the table and unhurriedly added three tea bags.
‘Keys!’ the big guy said again.
As if he hadn’t heard, Berger opened the fridge and brought out a carton of soya milk. ‘Five minutes ago it was just a spot of ‘ouse-breaking,’ he said. ‘Not something the courts treat very seriously nahdays, I’m sorry to say. Now it’s starting to look like something more significant. You can do a lot of damage with a crowbar. It’d be grievous bodily ‘arm at the very least, assuming you managed to ‘it me. Are you ready for that?’
He looked at each of them in turn. They said nothing.
‘Bloody fucking audacity,’ he said suddenly. ‘Me! Rob me! You must be out of your minds. Do you know who I am?’
They shook their heads. ‘Well you don’t want ter find aht the hard way.’
He looked around. ‘What abaht the paintings?’ he demanded. ‘Weren’t you at least going to take that one?’ He pointed to a moody seascape. ‘That’s by Fred Cuming. Worth quite a few quid.’
‘That!’ jeered the big guy. ‘Looks…like…it…was…done…through…a…dirty…window.’ His voice was squeaky with derision.
‘You’re bloody hopeless!’ Berger shook his head. ‘If you’re going to do ‘ousebreaking you need to do a bit more research. Fence’ll take you for a proper ride. Jesus!’ He shook his head again. ‘Think abaht it. Put the stuff back and you get off.’
The skinny one spoke for the first time. ‘How do we know we can trust you?’
This voice, too, was startling. But in a different way. Berger reached forward and pulled off the cap. Black hair tumbled down to her shoulders. Not a man at all. A woman. Or, rather, a girl. Breasts not large enough to deform the leather jacket but clearly a girl. Maybe sixteen.
Berger grunted angrily. ‘You shouldn’t bring a kid on a job,’ he snapped at the guy. ‘Not professional.’
‘Who’s a kid?’ the girl said fiercely. ‘I’m older than ‘im. Nearly twenty. And it’s me that makes the decisions.’ She tapped her chest with a forefinger.
He looked at her again. Maybe she could be nineteen. What made her seem more childlike were her arms, her legs and her neck. All long and skinny. But give her a couple of years and she might fill out into something quite attractive. Her face was certainly pretty.
He looked her up and down quite openly, as if to emphasise that she was somehow in his power. His eyes lingered on the bare skin below her neck and then on her crotch. It was only a moment each time but she noticed. Then he looked her in the eyes and she stared defiantly back.
‘Okay!’ he said. ‘The best way to find aht if you can trust someone is to trust ‘em. You start with something small. And if they do that okay then you trust ‘em with something big. We ‘aven’t got a lotta time so we’ll start with something big straight away.’ A gun suddenly materialised in his hand. ‘I could ‘ave shot you. Self defence. But I didn’t. So you know you can trust me. Now I’ll give you this gun and you can kill me with it if you want and scarper. Then I’ll know if I can trust you.’
He held it out by the barrel. The girl shook her head as if it were a dangerous reptile. He turned and offered it to the guy. The guy took hold of it. His eyes were wide and excited.
‘Know ‘ow to use it?’ Berger needled him. ‘Or only seen it in the movies? Just don’t touch the trigger unless you intend to shoot.’
The guy flicked off the safety, held it out towards Berger with a straight arm, and sighted on Berger’s face. Yes, he knew how to use it. For maybe ten seconds everyone remained very still. Ten seconds can be a long time. Then the guy said, ‘Bam!’, and laid the gun on the table.
Berger turned back to the stove, brought over the kettle and poured boiling water into the three mugs. ‘Winnie-the-Pooh used to live rand ‘ere,’ he said. ‘Did you know that?’
‘You a cop?’ asked the girl.
‘Don’t be daft.’ He stirred the teabags round a bit, squeezed them out with his fingers and dropped them into the rubbish bin
‘Who are you, then?’
Berger picked the gun up by the barrel and slipped it inside his jacket somewhere. He sat down, stretched out his legs, poured the soya milk into his tea, stirred it and shrugged. ‘’Elp yourselves,’ he said. ‘There’s no sugar. It’s bad for you.’ He took a sip and looked thoughtful. ‘That gun was used in a murder last week,’ he announced. ‘Now you’ve got your fingerprints on it.’ He shook his head regretfully. ‘You really aren’t doing very well. Bloody amateurs!’
‘Christ, Shane!’ said the girl. ‘Now you’ve fucking done it.’
The intruders stood glaring at one another, arms hanging uselessly at their sides, unsure what kind of a situation they’d walked into.
Berger shrugged again. ‘Makes no difference. Even if you’re using a stolen van, or stolen registration plates, I’ll still be able to track you down. I’d be surprised if you’ve driven more than twenty miles. More like two miles. That’s why you do burglaries. You’re not prepared to make much of an effort. At least one of you probably comes from the Evesham estate. Am I right?’
The two looked at one another again.
‘Thought so,’ said Berger. ‘In fact, I’m guessing you’re brother and sister. Maybe even twins.’ He looked at the girl. ‘That’s why you smirked when you said you were older. Because you’re only a few minutes older. Not identical, of course. A phone call to the nick in Evesham should confirm it. I got contacts. The tearaway twins. One called Shane. Easy!’
‘Oh…fuck!’ Shane pulled out a chair, sat down, laid his forearms on the table, then rested his face on his arms as if trying to block everything out. His sister remained standing, the wheel brace at her side.
She decided to try the conciliatory approach. ‘Who are you? Look, we didn’t know. We didn’t know you were, you know…whatever. We should be, like, on the same side, you and us.’
‘Yeah, well, I gave you a chance to be friends and you turned me dahn.’
‘Okay, okay. That was a mistake.’
‘It was. ‘ow did you get in?’
‘Shane picked the lock.’
‘With a torsion wrench?’
‘Shane fixed it. Easy.’
‘Shouldn’t ‘ave been. Bloody security company! How did he learn?’
‘Taught himself. It’s all on the net nowadays, innit! With videos and everything. Just practised and practised.’ She sounded proud of him.
‘He’s obviously got a talent for it. Why ‘ere?’
‘Anyone who lives on the Ashdown Forest has got to be rich.’ She turned her head all around. ‘Nice place.’
It was, indeed, a nice place. It had been a traditional Sussex barn for more than two hundred years before Berger had converted it. He’d kept as many of the old oak beams as he could. Where he couldn’t he’d often used iron. He liked the industrial feel of it. So the way up to the old hay loft, which was now the sleeping area, was via a spiral iron staircase and, where there might have been a big fireplace held up by an oak lintel there was instead a spectacular black iron woodburner with a glass front at least a metre high.
‘Thanks,’ said Berger sarcastically, ‘I value your opinion,’.
She gave him a sharp look but let it pass. ‘You haven’t got a missus,’ she said. ‘That’s obvious. No feminine touches. A bit dusty. And there’s no walls inside, so you obviously live alone.’
‘Fewer places for people to ‘ide, if you understand me.’ Berger made a gesture like sweeping everything off a table. ‘Down to business. Whose is the van?’
Shane suddenly looked up. ‘That’s…mine,’ he said, as if fearful Berger might be about to take it away from him. ‘It’s…not…nicked…or…anyfing.’
Berger nodded. ‘Okay. Let’s get to know one another. I’m Berger. And what’s your name young lady?’
She flinched. She obviously didn’t like to be called ‘young lady’.
‘Sam,’ she said.
‘Okay Sam, sit down. Here’s the deal.’ Berger arranged his forearms on the table like Shane’s. ‘As it ‘appens this is your lucky day. I need someone I can trust to do deliveries for me. Someone with a reliable motor who can collect a parcel from A and take it to B, no questions asked, no looking inside. Understand what I’m saying?’
The twins exchanged their glances.
‘How much?’ asked Sam. She sat down opposite Berger, tossed the wheel brace onto the floor, and locked eyes with him. Hers were alert and intelligent, he thought. He had the power to make a lot of trouble for her and, yet, she was negotiating as if she had the power. Yes, for sure she was the leader. Shane was just the muscle.
‘Enough,’ he assured her. ‘Don’t worry about that. But you don’t work for any other firm. Right? Not the Catford mob, not the Crawley firm, not anybody in that scene. Understand? You’ve got to look clean. Impeccable. So you’ll do legitimate delivery work as cover. ‘ere.’ He tossed a bunch of fifty pound notes onto the table.
The twins raised eyebrows at one another, trying hard not to grin. They’d come to rob the place and now the guy was actually giving them money. Cash! It seemed too good to believe.
If they’d had more experience they’d have known it was.
‘That’s a Monkey to get you started,’ Berger went on. ‘You give your enterprise a name and design a logo. Make it classy. Get it put on the side of the van with the telephone number. Don’t have it painted on. Magnetic. That way you can remove it when necessary and it won’t affect the value of the van. Get it? Advertise for deliveries in the local paper.’
‘Why not just do your deliveries?’ she wanted to know.
Berger screwed up his face as if he’d been asked a very irritating question. ‘Because I say so. Right? You have to have a legit cover story. Right? You have to be able to go places without arousing suspicion. See? And don’t question my instructions again. Gottit?’
Berger leaned back and put his hands behind his head. After a moment Shane followed suit.
‘You know what really pisses me off?’ said Berger. ‘You takin’ me downwind board. That’s a Naish. Know what that is? That’s the best. It’s like a pal to me. Been through some things together. You can’t replace that. You look after your pals and your pals look after you. Know what I mean?’
Shane did seem to know. He took his hands down, looked at the table and mumbled something. Maybe ‘sorry’.
‘You do downwinding?’ Berger asked.
‘Nicked a board for that, too?’
‘No.’ Shane looked almost hurt by the suggestion. ‘Made…me…own…didn’t I!’
‘’andy bloke!’ said Berger, with genuine appreciation. ‘Reckon you could be quite useful.’ Then once again he made the sweeping gesture. ‘What date is it?’
‘November 29th,’ the girl said.
‘OK. You’ve got two weeks. Around December 15th I’ll call you. Give me a mobile number.’
Like clockwork the twins looked at one another. ‘Haven’t got a mobile,’ said the girl after a moment.
‘Yeah, like you haven’t got a cunt either, I s’pose.’
She glared at him. He wondered how much it would take before she told him to shove it. The look was followed by a number, and Berger keyed it into his phone. Then he rang it.
He raised an eyebrow at her. She came up with another number. Berger keyed it and heard the phone go off in her pocket.
He smiled a big smile, like all is forgiven. ‘Okay!’ he said. He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. She leaned in, too.
‘I’ll need to know that everything is set up,’ he said. ‘Name. Sign. Business cards. Convincing front with legitimate business. You understand? A couple of weeks, then we move to Phase Two.’
‘We could just clear off,’ the girl said, challengingly. ‘There wouldn’t be any point calling the police because they won’t do anything anyway. And even if they did we’d only get a caution.’
‘Yeah, but you won’t, because you don’t want to make me have to come and find you.’ He gave her a meaningful look. ‘But let’s keep it all friendly like. We don’t want things to get unpleasant. This is a big opportunity. You don’t want to miss Phase Two.’
He leaned back, replaced his hands behind his neck and watched Sam do the same.
He grinned. She was mirroring him. They were both mirroring him. Unconsciously copying his body position. Signalling that they were becoming putty in his hands. And they didn’t even know it. He’d got them! It was only the start but he’d got them. ‘After you’ve finished your tea bring my stuff back in nicely,’ he said. ‘And be careful with the Naish. That cost me more than a grand.’
Play them for a while, he thought. Then spring the trap. They really had no idea what they’d walked into. No idea at all! He reached for his mug, blew across the top of it and slurped some tea.