SPECTRES IN THE SMOKE
So there I was lying on the lids again, not yet the dead of night, but almost the witching-hour and the chill on me already enough to keep a corpse from smelling, and me barely breathing, all wrapped-up in my listening, just waiting for London finally to succumb to sleep.
You could tell the nightingales had got the night off; there hadn't been a single chirp from down in the Square let alone a song. And the only real noise I'd heard was the quiet tread of the beat copper proceeding at his regulation two miles-per-hour up towards Mount Street. There'd been a couple of happy drunks serenading the chimes of midnight an hour or so earlier and the inevitable screech of brakes as black cabs scurried round the top of Berkeley Square back to the West End clubs in search of another 'double fare.' And I suppose if you'd lumped it all together it wouldn't have been loud enough to set anyone's heart racing, but every single sound had me as still as the brick walls around me and my senses thrust deep into the void that followed. But every silence during that first long, slow hour of the creep seemed to be even emptier than the one before it, and bit by bit I got the feeling I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Normally, I'd have heeded my sixth sense and abandoned the creep on the spot, but that night the decision wasn't mine to make, it'd been made for me. Not that I'm pretending to be anything other than what I am; a cat burglar and jewel thief, and one of the very best if you're interested. It's just that this time I'd been prodded and pushed out onto London's slippery soot-covered tiles by a cold-blooded master of the game. And all, as he'd so silkily put it, "in Defence of the Realm." Though why he'd needed me out on the rooftops again, so soon, I don't know, especially as he must've known I wasn't fully recovered from the last caper he'd sent me on. One minute, it'd been a private hospital room and pretty nurses, and bunches of grapes and postcards telling me to 'get-well-soon.' The next, ka-bosh, I was being lifted off a busy Soho street and bundled into the back of a big black motor car, and back on the other side of the looking-glass.
On top of which, he hadn't even given me time to plan the creep properly, and I hated a rush job, that was always a sure way for things to go wrong in a hurry. I heard a sound and sent my senses flying out across the rooftops again. But, just as before, it was nothing. So I melted back into the walls and let the Smoke swirl around me like a wet army blanket to dampen down all thoughts of irritation. There's never any place for ruffled fur on a creep, and even waiting is work in my business.
* * *
Colonel Walsingham of "I'm somebody quite high up in Military Intelligence" and his Savile Row-suited partner-in-crime Simon Bosanquet of some very special branch of Special Branch had silently side-stepped into my life the previous year and made me the sort of proposal that only ever has one answer. They'd asked me to do a creep for King and Country, while making it very plain I had no choice at all in the matter. And having not been born yesterday, I'd done what they'd asked and had very nearly died for their sins. After which, I'd thought that in gratitude Walsingham would've left me and mine alone to get on with our lives. But, oh, deary me, no, up he'd popped again, all brushed bowler hat, George Trumper haircut, and tightly furled umbrella, with news that he had yet another nasty little itch and that mine were the hands he'd chosen to scratch at it with. "I can assure you, Jethro," he said, "that if it wasn't of the utmost importance to national security, I wouldn't have bothered you again, so soon. But as it is, with all my resources seriously compromised, I needed to call on someone I could trust absolutely."
Trust absolutely? That's a bit rich, I thought. But I was what he called "a gifted irregular." I possessed certain skills that he'd deemed he and his department could and should put to better use. And as the tricky bugger had also gone and got me to sign the Official Secrets Act, I couldn't exactly go and complain about it. Not that anybody would've believed me. Sometimes, I could hardly believe it myself. And what's more, as I didn't appear on any official list he could deny all knowledge of me should I ever find myself in the middle of some really nasty mess.
So I'd sat there in his secret office that was hidden in plain sight on Regent Street, the sounds of Soho still ringing in my ears, him and Bosanquet on one side of the big meeting room table, me on the other. "So good of you to drop by," he'd said, pleasantly, tapping on a buff-coloured file folder with his briar pipe. I knew from the letter 'J' on the red card stapled to the cover, that it was the 'unofficial' file Bosanquet had compiled on me. The very sight of the bloody thing was enough to bring on a fear of heights. If any of the stuff inside was ever given to Scotland Yard or, worse, the Tax Man, I'd be hauled away in irons, and my sister Joanie and her old man, Barry, out on the street. Very soon after which, they'd have had me and my one and only fence, Ray Karmina lot more about him laterbanged up in some damp distant clink far, far away from any recourse to legal counsel. And the both of us gone from the Smoke forever.
As usual, Walsingham was all business. "It'll be a snap, Jethro," he said. "Simplicity itself, for someone of your nefarious skills. The owner will be away for the weekend, staying at the country estate of a friend. His manservant is sure to accompany him, so the house will be empty. You can be in and out in a trice." Easy enough for him to say; it wasn't going to be him hanging from a drain-pipe, five-stories up in the air. He slid a piece of paper across the table to me. It had an address on it. Then Bosanquet leaned over and took the paper and set alight to it with his gold lighter and let the burning ashes drop into one of the ashtrays. Walsingham pointed at me with his pipe "It must appear to be just another run-of-the-mill job; no subtlety, no finesse; nothing that might prompt difficult questions later." And I thought, Bugger it, then, I'll go in through an upstairs' back window, just like any other self-respecting Mayfair cat burglar. I asked him if he thought a striped jersey and a mask were in order, but he didn't even bother to respond to that. "Do understand, Jethro, it has to be done quickly and without fuss. As I said, old chap, it'll be a snap." Yeh, I'd heard him the first time. I only hoped it wasn't my neck he was referring to.
* * *
It was a nice, respectable-looking Georgian house; perhaps, not as nice as some of the others along that part of Berkeley Square; but nothing for anyone to be too ashamed of. It was certainly better than the huge, shapeless office blocks and motor car showrooms over on the far side. At the rear of the house, a few lights were still showing from the line of cottages that fronted onto Hay's Mews. There was a faint glow coming from the upper rooms of the house next door, but one. Light showed from the caretaker's flat in the basement of the eight-story office building to my right. But there was nothing but darkness below me. Then all of a sudden the night changed and it was curtain up. And in the blink of an eye, I was over the side of the house and hanging from a black silk rope, ready to enter down-stage-left, the classic first steps for villains and villainy.
I felt for and counted the knots tied every eighteen inches along the working-end of the rope, and followed them down. I didn't have far to go, just a bend in a soil-pipe that angled up to just below the main bathroom window on the third floor. And I hung there for a moment, a shadow against the brick wall. I'd studied the rear windows the night before, with a big pair of German Afrikakorps binoculars, so I knew there were no iron bars for me to deal with. But as people are so untrusting, I'd taken it for granted the place was wired and had come prepared to loop the alarm. The sole reason I'd gone down from the roof and not climbed up from below being that I wanted the extra purchase the rope gave me. And with it coiled around my left shoulder, I wedged myself on the ledge and studied the casement window. I felt along the underside of the upper window frame, probed gently with the flat blade of a putty knife, but felt nothing out of the ordinary. And I was just about to push against the catch when I heard my old dad's voice: "Measure twice, cut once." And in a spit, I had a little rubber suction cap moistened and was drawing a hole in a windowpane with a diamond-tipped pencil. I stuck my hand in and felt around inside, the soft buttery leather of my turtles brushing the paintwork; but there were no telltale bumps or pimples; everything was as smooth as a baby's arse. The brass catch was as clean as a whistle, too. I slid the catch, and with a gentle heave, I was in and through and down onto the black and white chequered bathroom tiles. I closed the window, felt for the circle of glass, removed the rubber suction cup, pocketed it, and turned and crouched down in the darkness. I put the glass on the floor, and sent my senses flying through the apartment. But there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Then out of nowhere, there was a whistling in my ears, like a badly tuned radio set and my forehead beaded with sweat and I began to sway. And I was tempted, even in the dark, to look down at my feet to check that I was really standing on solid ground. That's a bit odd, I thought. And for some reason, I felt for my watch like a blind man groping for a hand and felt strangely comforted it was still on my wrist. I remember thinking, that time waits for no man, and I should get on, and I turned back towards the window and was up and on the sill and halfway out before I realised what I was doing. It was the chill night air that stopped me. I blinked. And the next second, I was back crouching on the bathroom floor, the hairs on the back of my neck waving like reeds in a cold Norfolk wind.
Funny, how you suddenly know you're coming down with something. I shivered. It was all I bloody needed, but there was no turning back; the quickest way out was forward. And I shook my head and crept towards the bathroom door. I opened it and stepped straight into a corridor as dark as a cupboard. The silence echoed back, mocking me, but at least, the whistling in my ears had stopped. I wiped my forehead and reached for the glim. The thin beam of light cut the dark like a butcher's knife and I slipped into the gap and crept slowly along the top corridor.
I turned the handle of the first door I came to. It was a large bedroom with all the usual furniture and effects. Bed, night-tables, tallboy, dresser, writing-desk and chair, leather club armchair, side-table, standard lamp, bookshelves; Oriental carpets on the floor, oil paintings on the walls; and everything antique or very expensive. I skimmed the glim over the tops of the desk, tables, and bookcase. There were small groupings of statues and figurines, busts and heads; in stone, metal, and pottery; Egyptian, Greek, Roman, that sort of things you see down the British Museum. I crossed to a door on the far side; it was a dressing room. I skimmed the glim over the top of the tallboy and saw a metal bust, eight or so inches high, and a leather tray full of wrist-watches. And like a magpie, I swooped in for a closer look. There was a Jaeger-Le Coutre Reverso, a Girard-Perregaux chronograph, and a Breguet chronograph; in gold, rose-gold, and silver; two square-faced, one round; all very nice, and each worth a working man's annual wage, at the very least. Now, a nice watch is catnip where I'm concerned, time, of course, being of the essence in my line of work; so in seconds, I had all three timepieces safe inside my satchel.
I slipped out of the room and padded along the corridor to the next room. I wiped my forehead on the back of my sleeve, opened the door, and flashed the glim. Silvery things twinkled and sparkled as the finger of light touched them; solid silver candlesticks; dozens of them; a bloody fortune. But there was no way I could carry off a single one on this creep. I could always come back another time, under my own lights, I said to myself.
I stepped forward and stopped dead in my tracks. Someone had moved over on the far side of the room. I thumbed off the glim, took three steps to the right, slid my Commando knife from its leather sheath and crouched down and listened. But all I heard was me. I crouched, ready to spring, held the glim away from my body and thumbed it back on. It took me a moment or two to realise that what I'd seen was me reflected in a wall of mirrors, in front and behind me. It looked as if I was trapped in a tunnel with many exits, but no end. It was very disorienting.
"Come on, Jethro, pull yourself together," I whispered. I was giving myself the willies and no mistake. The place was empty; it was just my imagination that wasn't. Then I heard myself whistle and that just about stopped my heart dead. I never whistled while I worked, never. Not when creeping, it'd be like setting off an alarm bell; and never in the theatre, either, where I worked occasionally as a stage-hand. It was dead unlucky for anyone to whistle anywhere on stage; almost as bad as mentioning the name of the Scottish play, and that you never did. The theatre wasn't my real job, you understand, it was just my way of hiding in plain sight so the rest of London's criminal fraternity would think I'd lost my bottle and leave me be. But, still, I'd whistled on a creep, and that I never did. I mean, the whole point of being dressed from head to toe in black and swathed in a cloak of silence, was to help render me invisible. It was all very odd.
I swept my glim round the room. There were two walls covered in mirrors and two walls covered in heavy black drapes. It looked like a fitting room in a mortuary. I sniffed up the cold in my nose and went downstairs to slide-shut the top and bottom bolts of the front door, so if the house's owner or his faithful manservant suddenly appeared on the doorstep, I'd have time to get away. Then I searched the rest of the house.
There were four floors, plus the basement, all beautifully furnished and appointed. And one good thing; they hadn't closed the curtains on the lower floors and the faint glow coming from the lamp-posts outside gave more than enough light to work by; so I pocketed the glim. And I stood in the doorway of the big drawing-room, on the second floor, and let my eyes adjust. The door on the far side of the room led to the library, where Walsingham had assured me I'd find an old Milner safe. And true enough, there it sat, in the corner by the window, all squat and black ugly, just waiting for me to go up and stroke it.
There are only two kinds of safes in the world; beauties and beasts; and it's my good fortune I was born with the gift of being able to tell the character of a safe merely by stroking my fingertips across its front and down its sides. And if you find that a bit hard to believe, I do, too. So let's just say, that having studied them as much as I have, I find it easy to imagine what's going on with the lock, and I sometimes even 'see' what's locked away inside the safe. But that night, although the knack had worked a thousand times before, I couldn't sense a bloody thing from that old Milner, not a thing. And I stood there, in the semi-darkness, scratching my head. Then I remembered I wasn't even supposed to be acting like me, so it didn't bloody well matter. I rippled and flexed my fingers inside my leather turtles, more out of nerves than out of habit, and I was just about to get started, when I sneezed, a bloody great big sneeze, all but blowing my head off. "Bloody hell," I croaked, "I'll be glad when I've had enough of this."
© Tony Broadbent
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