White. Everywhere white. It had to be a hospital. Nowhere else is as white. White walls. White ceiling. Crisp sheets. White of course. Bright white light through the window.
Only my bed in here. A private room? I can’t afford a private room. Flowers. Fresh fruit. I can’t afford health insurance. How am I supposed to pay for this?
Things started to come back to me. An accident. A job. Something had gone wrong. Most of the crew were dead. There was a rustle beside me. Turning my head hurt. He sat there beside the bed impassive. I recognized him from his poster.
“Good your awake. Well now your going to go to sleep again. Look into my eyes.”
I couldn’t stop myself. The neck brace held my head in place but I could have closed my eyes.
“I’m going to count back from three to one. When I reach one your going to fall asleep. While your sleeping you’re going to dream. You’re going to remember what you did from when you met Dale Hoover to the accident. Your going to tell me what you did. Three. Two. One.”
Dale Hoover was a small time operator but a big fish to his crowd. There was something about the guy I didn’t like. I spent maybe twenty minutes trying to figure it out. Maybe it was the tone of his smile. It might have been the way he kept one eye on me and the other was watching the blond in the corner. Probably it was just that I was sick of doing jobs for other big shots just like him. I wanted a regular office, regular hours and a regular girl, preferably not unlike the blond.
Guys like me don’t get that kind of luxury though. I get it. I get messages left at a bar I frequent. Some acquaintances would say prop up. I prefer frequent. It doesn’t matter really; nine times out of ten it’s where I get an invitation. Invitations to discuss opportunities. Opportunities that come with a side helping of quotation marks on the left and on the right. If you’re lucky the chump doesn’t wiggle his fingers to make the point. I’ll let him get away with it maybe a dozen times. My pal Vincent now he likes to snap their fingers the first time they do it. Says it serves as a warning to others.
This one had his own quirk and I don’t mean the trick with his eye. He’d been in procurement somewhere. He kept telling me how he was inviting me to tender for the job. He kept on acting like that was how it worked. The only thing I wanted to tender for was the blond.
I listened politely for an hour and a half. He had paid for the steak. I figured that had to be worth about an hour of my time. A couple of drinks maybe another half hour. He’d got a line of a rare item that he knew he could move for a healthy return. All he needed to do was separate it from its current owner. Not its rightful owner just its nine tenths of the law owner. There’d be no interference from the cops if we only snatched it. He’d got a crew, they were all set to do the job but there were certain special requirements. The guy they’d got lined up for them had had an earful from his old lady and his feet had gotten like she’d filled his boots from the icebox.
He offered me a half a share for one night’s work. I countered for two. They needed me more than I needed some half-baked scheme and years of pacing a room shared with a guy called Bubba. We went back and forth. He wouldn’t budge up. At least he wasn’t a cop. A cop would have gotten desperate sooner. They’d have wanted to seal the deal. To shake on it then shake me down. They’d have been thinking about the doughnuts at the station house and needing me to sign on for the wire.
I gave him ten percent more time than I’d figured he was entitled to. Ten percent including generous rounding in his favor. I wasn’t sure why. Just something I had to do. I finished my drink and made to leave. I figured the blond might be interested in a little bit of rounding up in her favor. She’d probably show more appreciation than this guy and his half share. Finally he saw sense and offered what I had coming to me. An equal share in the proceeds of our labors. Small timers like him have to go back and forth. It makes them feel big. For long time losers it’s the closest they’ll ever get.
He wanted to set it all in stone right there. He’d have had blue prints on the table and pushed toy cars round on them like he’d seen in the movies. I told him to beat it, that some off duty cops had just walked in. I told him I was going to get myself an alibi just in case. I’d call him around noon. I didn’t tell him I wanted to see a blond about some mutually beneficial equity.
I’d spent the night discovering an error by the taxman in my favor. The error was letting me buy her a drink or maybe it was asking me in for coffee. We’d been practicing our arithmetic till the sun came up.
I called him after one. I wanted him off kilter. He thought he was too smooth. A bit of edge and he’d be more careful. Not too much, I didn’t want him doing something stupid. I met him under the clock as its Westminster chimes struck quarter to two. He wanted to know about the cops. Had they run me in for questioning? Had they’d asked about him. I told him not to worry. They’d only be interested if they knew him. They didn’t know him right. Right?
That switched things in my. People expect us electron jockeys to be nervous types. We aren’t supposed to be cool. We’re supposed to sweat under pressure; sometimes to crack. Sure we sweat. It’s natural when your sharing a crawl space that’s hotter than a Turkish bath and smaller than a coffin with juicy high voltage cables. If you short the wrong wire bells start ringing in the local station house. Inside we’re cool. We need to be to know if it’s the red, the blue or the striped wire we need to cut. That takes cool.
He’d rented a pad in one of the fashionable parts of town. Fashionable for rats and woodlice. No frills. No maid service. He pushed beer bottles and cigarette ends into the bin before he laid out the plan. It was a top-notch piece of security. Custom designed. I knew the style. The guy who’d put this together was top of the line. Given time I could crack it. First I needed these bozos to get me past the guards, the wall, the dogs and the doors. If they could do that I could do my part and make a call on my alibi to practice some of the finer points of triple entry bookkeeping. Had I got any questions? Just the three. Who was the mark? What were we lifting? How could they be certain they’d be out?
He played it cagey again. Like I was a stooge. Getting him to crack was easier than that alarm was going to be. The cops would wilt him like a geranium under the interrogation room lights. The mark was a big name stage magician. For one night only he was appearing at the White House. It was the butler’s night off. The target was a green jade statue that disappeared from China during the Wuchang Uprising. Certain Chinese warlords were prepared to pay a handsomely for it. How it came to be with its current owner he didn’t say just no matter how well connected he was he wouldn’t be keeping it should the authorities find out.
How soon would I be ready? As soon as he was. Did I need anything? I just needed to fetch a few tools. He was coming along. Sweet but no thanks, I don’t take girls back to my place so no way I was taking him. I’d be back at six.
I felt eyes on the back of my shirt. I wasn’t wrong. I made the car before I’d taken three corners. Two hoods. I let them follow me the whole way there. They had to be with him because if they weren’t I’d call the job off before we did more than consort with intent to look shifty in a public bar over a badly cooked steak. I laid my stuff out then laid myself out for a few hours shuteye.
I woke refreshed. My new friends were still outside. No point in trying to give them the brush off now. They knew where I lived and where they’d first picked me up. It wouldn’t take a genius to know where I was going.
Five minutes after I’d climbed the stairs Dale’s crew started arriving.
Raul Harrison and Dusty Sellers arrived together. They were the pair who’d eyeballed me earlier. A more unlikely pair you’ve never seen. Raul was a hulking man who’d fit right in as an ex-boxer in some low budget sports movie because that’s what he was.
Dusty spent all his time polishing the little glasses that clung on the end of his nose like a damsel clinging to the cliff edge in a silent movie. His name sounded fake to me like a bad alias. He’d been a racing driver in his youth or so he claimed. He was an antiquarian bookseller by trade. Hard times had pushed him into Dale’s scheme. He said it was more honest than selling specialist books to wealthy customers and paying protection money to the boys from the vice squad. He was educated, said knew a thing or two, like how to take care of the dogs.
Roxie Ryan turned in next. She was the kind of dame that sprains men’s eyeballs. She’d worked nights as a singer at a gin joint till the owner’s wife took a dislike to the way he watched Roxie. This gig was just to keep her going till she made it big.
Last to arrive was Ferdinand Largent. I knew his reputation. We moved in similar circles. We’d never worked together. Our paths had barely crossed. He specialized in box jobs and locks. He certainly wasn’t a yegg more of a possible suspect than the top dog. He kept clear of nitro. He liked to keep all his fingers on his hands. I liked that. There wasn’t much else though.
They all already knew the plan. Dale insisted we go over it for my sake. It was the same as it had been that afternoon, a simple in and out to remove an item from a safe. Dale was very insistent that we weren’t to take anything else even if it looked a bit tasty.
Roxie was first up. She’d distract the guards while we went over the wall. A simple damsel in distress gig. Dusty tricked her car’s engine. It wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry. Roxie had tricked her outfit. The guards would neglect their duties. Somehow the knit of the jumper and the tightness of the jodhpurs made her appear more unclothed than if she’d gone naked. When she got their attention all she had to do was hold the hood release on and a light would come on on our car’s dash.
Roxie gave us the signal on time. Raul had the ladder from the car to the wall and Dusty was on his way up in seconds. He’d brought steak for bait. He didn’t need it. The hounds wanted his blood. The pfft of his dart gun silenced them.
Landscaping covered us most of the way from the wall. The last thirty yards were open lawn. I expected the alarm at any moment. Roxie was earning my gratitude and her share. The ladder was against the side of the house and I was filling the bell box with quick setting foam. There was no way to stop the alarm sounding as we broke in but it rang in stages. This would buy the time to neutralize the remote alarm while the guards were otherwise occupied.
While I’d been up the ladder Ferdinand had been at the locks. Raul had the ladder down and was on his way. Dale held the door with one hand and passed me my tools with the other. Two minutes. Like I needed reminding. The main security box was in a room described as a cupboard. I’ve lived in smaller houses.
First I needed to disable the anti tamper. I didn’t have time to be subtle. I measured the spot, marked it with a chalk cross, pressed the punch against the box and smacked it with a hammer. The first blow made a dent. The second almost went through. The third went deep into the box smashing the circuit board. In an ideal world Ferdinand would have finessed the lock. He was needed elsewhere. The lock was a second victim to the punch. That was when I realized I had an audience. Dusty was in the doorway. He should have been waiting in the car. If I wasn’t the last minute help I’d have said something. That was the moment I knew this crew were amateur hour through and through. It was too late for second thoughts. I swung the box open and went to work on the circuits inside. A wire snipped here; an extra connection there and the house’s alarms were off.
Most jobs my work would be done but not tonight. This house had at least two other independent alarms and one of those ran from the safe Ferdinand was working on.
I didn’t have time for gawping around the place but even by torch beam I could tell the guy who’d fitted this place had class. Solid wood paneling. Antique furniture. Subtle lighting from hidden fittings lit framed posters for the world’s most famous illusionists’ shows. You had to wonder where the cash came from. He might be a world-renowned but this had taken serious money. Either this guy was old money or he’d got dirty hands. As my granddaddy used to say old money is dirty money with a couple of generations of trying to scrub the grime off.
The study was something else. It went all the way to the roof where a huge skylight was set. Spiral stairs lead to a balcony round the rooms six sides. Where the wall wasn’t doorway it was books. A desk dominated the room’s heart. Hexagonal display cases with pyramidal glass tops housed one of the finest private collections of the objects of the performers art. It was as if I could hear a voice telling me their origins. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s automata shared a case with locks and chains used by Harry Houdini. Cards, handkerchiefs, throwing knives and every device of the trade had their place and history. Many would fetch a year’s salvation from work from the right buyer.
Ferdinand and Dale had found the catch to swing a section of the bookcase away from the wall. A drill stood on a complex frame precisely locating its diamond tipped bit. I set myself up to one side ready. Dale nodded to Ferdinand. Slowly he started the drill.
Dusty was wandering around the bookcases behind me. Dale should have told him to be in the car with the engines ready for a quick getaway. I heard the drill bit bite into the hardened metal. Ferdinand pressed forward spraying lubricant as it worked its way in. The maker claimed the safe uncrackable. Ferdinand didn’t agree. He had a precise target; a point where a wire was soldered onto the mechanism. If we could drill to the contact and juice it we’d burn out the vacuum tubes and destroy the alarm. A fine theory but not one we’d tried. Not one anyone had tried.
Ferdinand had the Turkish bath look. I’d have been the same in his shoes; especially with Dusty going on about the books. It took five long minutes to drill the hole. I checked through an illuminated lens. There was the solder. Perfect. I slipped a probe into the hole; a contact went on the case both secured with putty. Raul returned lugging a heavy box. I pulled it open and hooked wires to terminals. I told them to stand back.
I threw the knife switch on the box. Ozone and acid. Even Dusty shut up. The alarm didn’t sound. Raul was on his way. Ferdinand swapped the bit of his drill for a less refined tool and went to work on the lock. No finesse this time. This was brute force without the mess of gelignite or the dull assault of sledgehammers and crowbars. The safe surrendered with a whimper. Dale swung the door open and reached inside pulling out a translucent green statue. I couldn’t make out the detail but it was covered in fine engraving. Maybe I’d have gotten a better look except that was the moment the world exploded.
Dusty had found something. A rare book. Something antiquarian he couldn’t resist. He’d had to touch. Hadn’t his mother ever smacked his hand as he reached for a cookie? Didn’t he know how to control his impulse? The book had moved in his hand. Then the whole shelf moved. I don’t know what was behind it. It was too dark to see. Somewhere secret. Not on the plans. An alarm sounded, more foghorn than alarm. That wasn’t on the plans either. Ferdinand and I started to move. Instinct. Our only hope was to run and run fast. Dale was behind us. Dusty didn’t move. He couldn’t. The book he’d taken was part of the shelf. From the shelf a trap had sprung around his hand. He’d have had to chop it off or spend hours with tools to get free.
Ferdinand had the lead. That’s what saved me from the dog. There must have been one of them than we’d missed. It came out of the dark and had him on his back. I could smell the scent of his fear in the air.
Dale and I made it to the wall. We were up and over in nothing flat then into the car. Rusty sat patiently in the back. No Dusty to drive. Dale grabbed the wheel. No keys. Dusty must have them. I ripped wires from under the dash and started it the hard way.
Behind us a pair of headlights were catching us fast. We broke into the city at speed. Down one street. Sudden turn here. Double back there. Trying to shake our pursuer. It was no good. Maybe with Dusty at the wheel we’d have stood a chance.
The left front blew I think. I’m not certain. Rolling. Tumbling. Red. Spinning. Then we really hit something. A brick wall? Upside down. Rusty lay still his unnaturally thick neck at an unnaturally twisted angle. I watched Dale through the shattered windscreen staggering away. Roxie had him now helping him into her car. My world faded to red then black.
Antiseptic odors. Clean sheets. Dark outside. A polite cough. Pain as I turned my head. He’s still there beside the bed. Might as well wheel me off to prison and save the cost of the trial. He doesn’t look angry. He looked concerned.
“You’re awake. Excellent. Now look into my eyes. When I count to three you’ll remember everything. One. Two. Three.”
The veil lifted from my memory. I remembered. My special job. Had we pulled it off?
“Don’t look so worried you pulled it off. Dale and Roxie were on the first plane to Rio. The statue will soon be in their master’s hands. Everything is going according to plan.”
“Your car crash was a bit dramatic. Made the whole thing seem more real. Now you get well. I need my favorite handyman up and about. Seems your impregnable alarm system wasn’t quite impregnable.”
“Oh one last thing. Someone from the tax office is asking to see your accounts. Something to do with an irregularity and needing to audit your tangible assets to identify inflationary activity.”