They suggested I should have counselling.
I said no.
They said their professional advice was that I have counselling.
I said no again.
I wanted to stand on my own, not get sucked into a lifetime of therapy like – what’s that weird American film director? – like Woody Allen.
I said no fifteen years ago and I haven’t regretted my decision.
At least… Not until this story happened.
As they say, it all began just like any other normal day…
The woman from accounts was fussily checking the bundles of notes.
For a third time. Anyone would think it was her money.
I needed to get a move on.
I glanced out to where the sun was reflecting off the dome of St Paul’s and spun things through in my head. Had I forgotten anything for the handover? Criminals expecting a large cash hand-out are unpredictable. So I try to expect the unexpected. Logically impossible, I suppose, but you know what I mean.
‘Seventy-five thousand?’ the accounts clerk said with an annoying upward inflection. Like challenging us to dispute her figure.
‘You tell us,’ I said.
The woman gave a little toss of her head, reconfirmed the total in a clipped voice then said, ‘Fifties would’ve taken less space.’
‘Twenties was the deal,’ I said.
No one except used car dealers and dumb tourists carries fifty pound notes.
I began to stow the seventy-five bundles in my Superdry sports bag.
‘Is that safe?’ the clerk said, looking at the bag disdainfully.
I was about to tell her where to get off but Fiona MacIver intervened:
‘Kite knows what he’s doing,’ she said.
Thank you, I thought, for the vote of confidence and for shutting the other woman up. MacIver was my employer on this job and didn’t suffer fools. But she was more diplomatic than me.
A sports bag is as safe a way as any to transport cash along a street. Stand in a queue for a bank cashier while shop staff pay in takings – you’ll have plenty of time to watch. See how they carry cash in supermarket plastic bags. The only time a sports bag attracts attention is when it’s left unattended in a public place.
The phone on MacIver’s desk rang. She picked it up, listened, and looked at me.
‘The car’s ready.’
I zipped up the bag.
MacIver held out her hand and we shook.
‘Good luck, Kite,’ she said. Then after a questioning look, ‘Haven’t seen the suit before.’
‘Final day,’ I said with a smile. ‘Thought I’d posh up.’
She didn’t smile. She wasn’t a smiley person. She just gave my suit another look, nodded approvingly and said, ‘I expect there’ll be others when this job’s over.’
The accounts woman insisted on seeing me off the premises, as she put it. Insulting or what? I nearly asked for her defence strategy if we were attacked.
She also insisted on using the lift. Which delayed me further. MacIver’s department is only on the eleventh floor and I always use the stairs. It beats going to a gym.
In the lift I looked at the accounts clerk. She could lose a few pounds. Too much sitting at a desk. Too many Snickers bars to ease the boredom. She saw me looking and turned away. As if I was mentally undressing her. Some chance.
I got in the back of the car and put the bag next to me.
‘Take care now,’ the accounts woman said, like she was seeing a child off on holiday alone for the first time. Then she shut the door and gave me a little wave.
I didn’t wave back but turned to the driver and saw a face I recognised.
We greeted each other and Jason set off at a lick.
‘May I confirm the destination, sir?’ said Jason with a knowing smile. ‘TQ 332832?’
I laughed. He must have looked it up and memorised it. I was touched. Jason, whose grandfather was one of the few genuine Windrush immigrants, had only driven me a few times, but he was a bright spark.
‘Grid reference right?’ he said.
‘That thing you do… It’s real spooky.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘We can’t choose what we’re born with.’
Like we can’t choose our parents. If only we could.
‘My girlfriend can’t even find B & Q,’ said Jason.
‘Can she find H & M?’
‘Then I don’t think map reading’s the problem.’
TQ 332832 is Hoxton, by the way. Still as cool and hip as it used to be? I didn’t care: I was going to an office, not a bar.
It was where I was exchanging the seventy-five thousand for an early sixteenth century oil painting.
That’s what I do: recover artworks. Stolen artworks. I’m an investigator, not a lost property man. I spent eleven years in the police, but I’m freelance now and work for owners or insurance companies. I scrutinise every aspect of an art theft, try to discover where the missing item has ended up, then bust a gut to get it back.
I was swapping my bag of cash for a picture by the not so famous German artist Christoph Amberger which had been stolen two years previously from a country house in Northamptonshire. A similar painting sold a few years ago for about £800,000. So £75,000 was a good deal all round. For the bad guys. For the insurers. And for the owner.
BetterWork, the sign read in a self-confident sans-serif. And below it, A new concept in office-space.
Jason stopped outside and I told him not to wait. I would get a taxi later. Or maybe just hop, skip and jump back to MacIver’s office with the picture.
BetterWork is one of those start-ups that go from being worth ten cents one day to a billion dollars the next. All they do is rent out office space. What a doddle. But these guys say their mission is to make work more enjoyable, more creative and more productive. Music to any employer’s ears. But it sounds like mission impossible to me.
Even so, I have to admit the place I went into wasn’t like anywhere I’d ever worked.
The building was a radically up-cycled nineteenth century warehouse. On the open-plan ground floor there was bold artwork in funky colours, vaguely in the style of Howard Hodgkin, with some vogueish, balloon-like structures imitating Jeff Koons.
I saw signs directing eager workers to a yoga studio, to a wellness room, to bike storage, to showers, to the games area, to the brainstorming room. Spa hotel meets students’ union, I thought.
The location for the handover was the choice of the man I was meeting, Jamie Rind. He was a solicitor, the intermediary between me and the criminals. Jamie was far removed from the lawyers on TV shows like Suits. His suits – or rather his suit – always looked like it needed cleaning. His hair was shaggy and straggly and his shirts weren’t Jermyn Street but George at Asda. Based in Streatham, south London, many of his clients were career criminals who’d put in long service.
We’d met previously in pubs, all of them within spitting distance of the Old Bailey or the Law Courts in The Strand where he frequently appeared. His favourite drink was what he called a Dry Legal Aid – in other words a spritzer. He said its curious nickname was an invention of his supervisor’s when he was a law student, thirty years ago. It was an old fashioned kind of drink but it suited Jamie. His humour was dry and laconic and he certainly did lots of legal aid work. His chosen field was unglamorous and not a big earner. But he had a social conscience and believed however much previous an old lag might have they still deserved a fair hearing.
I’d had four meetings with him so far. He brought quality jpegs of the picture for me to check and in the end we agreed a price. But a pub was too public a location for the actual exchange of hard cash so Jamie Rind had booked a private space in this Hoxton office-fun-hub.
I went towards the receptionist who was standing motionless behind a narrow glass counter. She was a perfectly slim young woman with a perfectly slim Ultrabook in front of her. Her hair, make-up and skin were immaculate. Her short, black dress snugly fitted the contours of her body and her features suggested a grandparent from Japan. She was real looker.
So naturally I gave her my best smile. ‘Hi,’ I said, ‘John Kite. I’ve a meeting with Jamie Rind. I think it’s on Level 2.’
Some women have told me my voice is sexy. All I know is it’s deep and resonant. I’m muscular, but not excessively so. Tall, but not so I can’t blend in with a crowd. My eyes are ultramarine and I have cheekbones sharp as razors. I was told once I looked like a young Brian Ferry – though the woman who said this was a bit drunk. Correction, she was so drunk her hangover lasted thirty six hours. I’m not trying to big myself up. Don’t think I’m vain. I’m just pointing out I’m not pug ugly.
But the receptionist woman said nothing. She blinked once, so slowly I thought she was having a zizz, then registered my arrival with the thinnest twitch of her lips. She languidly lifted a finger, with its sublimely turquoise-painted nail, pressed a key and her eyes flicked to her screen. She was like those humanoid AI robots: both disturbingly sexy and strangely sexless.
Call me old fashioned, but I want people who stand behind counters in some sort of service capacity to be a teeny bit welcoming. And to give some bloody service.
‘Level 2, Zone Delta, Room 6,’ she said. It was dialogue from a sci-fi movie.
‘Is there somewhere I can leave this?’ I said, holding up my Superdry bag, which in this oasis of fashionistas seemed gross and ugly.
Her eyes scanned me up and down in a way that made me worry my flies were undone.
Then suddenly she was holding out a key which seemed to have appeared by prestidigitation. She nodded ever so slightly towards a bank of brightly-painted lockers.
You might think it dumb to leave £75,000 in a cupboard protected by a lock so feeble it could be picked by a four year old with plastic cutlery. But I had to see the artwork before producing the cash. And I calculated nobody would expect rich pickings in a place where people normally kept lunchtime bananas, bicycle pumps and a book to read on the tube home.
I stowed the bag. Then out of nowhere came:
I don’t usually jump at loud noises. But I jumped now.
It was almost a scream.
Her voice no longer sounded computer-generated but drill-sergeant harsh and commanding.
She was staring at her screen, her face showed emotion for the first time.
‘No…,’ she said, looking pained and even trembling slightly. In her perfect world there was a glitch. A Houston-we-have-a-problem kind of glitch.
She eyeballed me, her eyes like lasers. ‘Mr John Kite has already arrived. He checked in at the west door seven minutes ago.’
Her look was saying I was a con man, a danger to society, a potential assailant. I wouldn’t want to face her alone on a dark night with her rape alarm and can of mace.
But I could read the situation better than she could.
If someone was pretending to be me it meant only one thing.
The meeting was compromised.
Which meant potential disaster.
I ran towards the stairs and raced up, my shoes clattering like machine gun fire on the bare oak treads. On the second floor, I followed the zombie’s instructions and ran through an area where people with headphones were video-conferencing then raced down the corridor. The private office suites had doors painted in narrow vertical stripes of bright colours: red, blue, yellow, green arranged like bar codes. Presumably to dazzle workers into more creativity. Or give them headaches.
I halted by Suite 6 and put my ear to the door. There was no sound from inside. I stepped back and kicked the door hard. It was a strongly built thirty minute fire door but the frame was cheap whitewood and the ironmongery even cheaper. Timber splintered and metal alloy bent. The door crashed back against the plasterboard wall as I slipped back into cover beside the door-frame.
The only sound was the dry trickle of falling plaster where the door handle had punctured the wall. But the smell of detonation was unmistakeable.
I peered round the doorframe and saw the solicitor Jamie Rind in a swivel chair behind a desk.
He looked more unkempt and bedraggled than usual. He looked dead.
There was an unpleasant bullet wound to his head and some of his brains had made a mess on the wall behind him. Another man I didn’t recognise was on the floor, also dead with bullet wounds. I assumed he was Rind’s client, one of the gang who owned the picture.
I glanced around the little office. There were four swivel chairs with blue upholstery, three tables of beech-look laminate and a black plastic waste bin. The carpet still showed stripy marks from being vacuumed, the coffee in its stainless steel pot was scalding, three cups and saucers were nested together on a tray and mini-packs of homely custard creams and digestives were untouched in their cellophane.
Except for Rind’s battered leather briefcase and the messy bodies, the space was as neat, clean and antiseptic as you could wish for in an office rented by the hour.
All it lacked was a fine piece of sixteenth century artwork.
Unique is an over-used word. People who know about grammar tell us it’s an absolute; an adjective that can’t be modified. Tough. I’m breaking the rules.
To steal a stolen painting which is about to be swapped for cash is an absolutely unique event. Extraordinarily, incredibly unique. An unheard of crime. Infinitesimally unlikely.
There’s not even a word for it. “Re-stealing”? It doesn’t compute.
Of all the unexpected things I could have expected – and planned for – this would never have figured among them.
I wasn’t just gobsmacked. I was furious. I grabbed at the first thing within range – a pack of digestive biscuits – and hurled them across the room with all my strength.
Immediately, I controlled myself.
This was a crime scene. Forensics wouldn’t appreciate biscuit crumbs on the bodies.
I crossed over and picked up the packet. The biscuits were pulverised but the cellophane was intact. The digestives went back on the tray.
But my mind was zonked.
Why would anyone want to steal a picture so brutally? It was a picture they could have paid for in the same way MacIver’s insurance company was going to pay for it. Seventy-five thousand is not big bucks. Not to a professional gangster. Not if they were that keen on German Renaissance art.
I felt bad for Jamie Rind and his client. They shouldn’t have been in danger. Had I been careless? Given something away? I didn’t think so.
But I’d failed. It was a catastrophe. I felt abject.
I stumbled a few paces to the window and looked out. My brain was buzzing with theories, motives, consequences, explanations, repercussions, strategies, excuses.
My unfocussed gaze drifted down from the sky to the street outside and then suddenly became very focussed indeed.
A man in a shiny grey bomber jacket was walking briskly along the pavement carrying one of those A1 size carry cases that art students used to have in the days before digital.
The case had a distinct bulge in it. Like there was a framed picture inside.
I felt I was watching a reconstruction from a Crimewatch programme.
But this was real.
The man in the street was not behaving oddly. He wasn’t looking around, not making any obvious check for observers. His pace was neither fast nor slow. He looked professional. But I detected an intensity about him, the air of someone on assignment. In a heartbeat, I knew he was the killer and the bulge in his carry case was the Amberger. As I watched, he flagged down a taxi.
I turned at once and raced out of the room, back the way I’d come, through the open area and down two flights of stairs. At the bottom I literally crashed into the torpid receptionist who was coming out of the Ladies. She reeled back in shock.
‘Two dead upstairs.’ I said. ‘Get the police.’ Her mouth gaped and she looked horror-struck. She thought I’d killed them.
‘Call them,’ I said and ran to the door, not bothering to look back to see if she’d fainted.
I came out on to the street in time to see the killer’s taxi a hundred metres away driving north. There was a time, I think, in London when all so-called black cabs were actually black. But now many are brightly painted in advertising liveries and the escaping man had bizarrely chosen one of these. It was decked out in the red of Virgin Media. I looked around desperately for a taxi of my own but there were only delivery vans.
I cursed myself for letting Jason go.
Now there was only one option.
I started to run.