By Lauryn Poynor
to Anne for editing and to Ace for encouragement and suggestions.
Note: I’m aware my British spellings aren’t consistent, but I thought a few here and there would enliven the setting.
It should have been easy for a thief of his pedigree, simplicity itself -- but it had all gone spectacularly, badly wrong – and nothing to show for his trouble but a week in hospital and a painting he couldn’t shift without bringing half the city down around his ears.
On happier occasions, over brandy and cigars, he and Daniel would hold court and opine that their profession was the best in the world, they could do as they liked when they liked, no man was their master, and they would pat themselves on the back for their cleverness. But the unvarnished truth, they well knew, was a shade less romantic. London, like any great metropolis, was a target of opportunity, but it was thick with bosses, a rogues’ gallery of villains, each with their own fiefdoms, and their own standing armies to enforce the rules.
Harry knew planning a caper in the heart of Mayfair meant he had to pay a call on Eddie Squires. And if it didn’t mean he had to stoop to forelock-tugging deference, it meant bowing to the realities, and promising tribute in the form of a percentage of the profits.
His progress to Eddie’s inner sanctum in Soho turned out to be even more encumbered with bodyguards than usual. The firm’s “office” had moved to new digs, a suite of rooms once rented by a Chinese drug lord who been sent packing to Kowloon by the authorities. It was obvious there’d been no time to redecorate. Harry’s gaze roamed possessively over a massive ebony and glass case crammed with what looked like rarities. He’d recently dabbled in such heirloom pieces and he wondered if the two-foot cream and amber vase was T’ang Dynasty and the dragon-carved one was by Ch’ien Lung. He folded his hands together in his lap, warning himself to keep his thoughts strictly academic. It would be suicide to steal from these rooms, even if Squires didn’t yet know what he had. Eddie was a careful and deliberate man and there would’ve been the devil to pay when he got things sorted.
Harry hadn’t known just how careful that eminence was these days until one of Eddie’s thick-necked associates pressed him against the wall and frisked him, then guided him none-to-gently into a chair. That indignity had never happened before, not under Squires’ very roof. It seemed beneath their association. Harry might have taken it as a warning, or a premonition, as he waited for his audience, tugging his cuffs and tweaking his stone-faced minders by asking for tea and biscuits. Automatically, he began to rise to his feet as Eddie was escorted in, but was so shocked by the sight in front of him that that he could only sit and stare. The man himself, almost unrecognizable, was in a wheel chair, his body thin and shrunken under the shell of his chalk-stripe Welsh and Jefferies’ suit.
As long as anyone had known him Eddie Squires had been a daunting specimen, as intimidating physically as he was by his chess-master’s ken of every square patch of his empire. The force of his schemes had been matched by an iron constitution and an iron fist; Harry could say truthfully he’d never known a prize-fighter who was in better nick. That was, in reality, Squires to the life. He’d come up in the world through the boxing clubs in Shoreditch, and through the sharp-eyed management of his winnings and career, soon owned a piece of many fighters, some whom he’d battered in the ring. He loved sport and built his firm, with its crew of villains, from a loose federation of bookmakers and gaming clubs, both legal and illicit, and a host of protection, money laundering, and other rackets. His pride was his racing stable, nominally owned by a third party and quite set apart from the rest of his enterprises. Only the most reputable and skilled riders and trainers were given the seal of approval and his jockey’s colours, three gold chevrons on a crimson ground, were famous at Epsom and Newmarket.
Squires’ success in the winner’s circle had him rubbing shoulders with the city’s most moneyed and traditional elite. He was a keen observer, and through hard study, acquired a sophistication and courtliness that seemed almost genuine, behind his cold-eyed stare. His firm’s move up the ladder to the primacy of Mayfair and the West End, though not without its share of bloodletting, was seen as a measure of Squires’ peculiar grace. Even Scotland Yard viewed the coronation as inevitable, though its law dogs tried their best to topple him. If Eddie were a half-caste, neither outlaw nor aristocrat, he infused both ends of society with his own raw vigor.
Looking at him now Harry could hardly believe this was a force the world had reckoned with, a bare-handed killer, whose upper body strength was legendary, in the ring and out.
“Stop gawping, Harry.” Squires drew on a cigarette, and gave a failed bark of laughter. “You must be thinking -- ‘what’s that when it’s at home?’ Not Eddie bloody Squires!”
Harry felt a chill settle between his shoulders. “Jesus, Eddie. What’s happened?”
“Throat cancer, the doctors say. If I were a horse I’d be dog food in a week.” The words came out in harsh puffs, as if he were winded.
“Surely there’s something they can do?”
“I’m just waiting for the man to count ten. Might as well wait here. One more day in hospital, and they’d hang my portrait next to Hogarth’s Christ.” Squires, with typical gallows humor, meant the famed murals at St. Bart’s, but Harry imagined that Eddie had been tucked away in some more exclusive hospital in Harley Street.
Eddie had always taken an interest in Harry, though the lad relished his independence more than was good for him. Harry, to his mind, was the sole holder of talents no one else had in the same degree -- and though his cooperation was sometimes reluctant, Squires had never known him to fail. Eddie felt an old eagerness return to his limbs now that his favorite would soon be under starter’s orders. “So, what’s your pleasure these days, my son? Some trinket caught your discerning eye?”
Harry told him of the particulars of the job: the art gallery on Mount Street, the wall safe in the private flat above, the painting in question, and his agreement with the buyer.
“A Cezanne, never before seen? A forgery, more like.” Squires followed the art world enough to know that very little was new under the sun.
Harry shrugged. “Might be one, might be the other.”
“If the gallery owner got it from Josef Dusek…”
“Dusek’s known for dodgy goods, they’re his trademark, but he may have stumbled upon on the real thing this time. My source tells me the gallery owner’s subjected the painting to every form of divination that the experts can offer. Nearly all of them are convinced it’s authentic.”
Squires steepled his fingers. “You’ll tread carefully Harry, I trust.”
“No need. Only the buyer has to beware, and he’s willing to pay as if it’s genuine.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow in salute. “I should have known you’d have it all sussed out, lad. Let me know if there’s anything you need. Why don’t you take Tom Fenner along? Wall safes are his speciality when they don’t yield to persuasion.”
Harry considered the offer. They both were aware that most wall safes, if need be, could be opened from the sides like a tin of sardines, where the metal was often cheap and thin. All the real manufacture was concentrated in the front door. Side entry would mean removing it bodily from the wall, which was messy and noisy, but still possible as a last resort. Harry expected Squires knew he’d get the safe open cleanly without a fuss. Eddie just wanted one of his crew along so that they could do an accounting of the contents, and if anything more was there for the taking, the firm would get its fair share.
Squires studied him, his eyes still clear, his broken-nosed profile as keen as a hawk’s. “How’s Daniel?” he asked, after motioning one of his men to pour two glasses of claret.
“Keeping well,” Harry replied with an edge of wariness. Daniel and Eddie had tangled once before, over Harry and a job that ran over schedule. Daniel would never have truly put him at risk with a man like Squires, but walking the tightrope between them had required a delicate sense of balance. It had all worked out in the end, but ever since, Harry had done his level best to stay out of the middle.
“Pity he has such a claim on your talents.” Eddie studied the wine in its crystal glass, holding it up to the light. “You’re a rare one, Harry,” he rasped in his ruined voice. “If you’d thrown your lot in with us, my lad, this could have all been yours.” Squires spoke with an air of self-mockery, as if his empire extended to a rented flat in Soho, but Harry knew the true extent of the compliment.
“I’m sure your son Jack might have something to say about that.”
Squires put down his glass. “Well he might. But he could do with a chap like you at his elbow. He’s fearless, is Jackie, and hard as fuck, but he hasn’t your brains, your finesse. It’s not like the old days when all you had to do to make money was to cosh some heads together. We’re the sharp end of the economy, my lad. A proper firm now, like an investment bank.”
“Thanks for the offer, but it’s entirely too respectable for me, I’m afraid,” winked Harry. The truth was, he was probably right. If a life of crime was just totting up revenue streams he’d as soon chuck it in and go straight.
Eddie cocked his head, regarding the prodigal before him with fond exasperation. “If all that lovely money won’t tempt you to settle down then what will?”
“Damned if I know, Eddie. Damned if I know.”
Eddie raised his glass. “Well, then, Harry,” he replied, as if to the shade of his youth, “a toast. To the sporting life.”
“The sporting life.”
Harry spent the night dreaming in colour, in swirls of paint. He hadn’t thought of the Venice forger in years, his old tutor, hunched over his hoard of antique finds, trying to teach him by sight, smell, and touch, whole centuries of art. Time was full of tricks to snare the unwary, from the dates of pigments and canvas, to the patterns of worm holes in wood. Daniel had despaired of a boy of sixteen, and a particularly restless one at that, ever recalling a tenth of that knowledge, but it had been drilled into Harry’s skull with such precision that it still had the power to disturb his sleep.
He came awake in the darkness
and flicked on the low flame of a cigarette lighter. He picked up the photo
on the nightstand and watched as the light flared around it. Though the
image was slightly blurred it was alive with greens and blues and yellows
-- laid down in parallel strokes, with the thick creamy edge of a palette
knife, and the precise hatchwork of a brush – a swell of thick, dark foliage,
the bold slant of a roof. He had lied when he said it didn’t matter. He
wanted the Cezanne to be real, and for him to be the first to steal it,
to be a thief of time, if only for a moment, to capture its brilliance,
to feel its texture under his fingers, to hold it like a talisman in his
When the moment came, it was just business – or so he kept telling himself. Your average midnight creep. And so it was, so smooth it was textbook. Harry rappelled up to the roof without trouble, looped the alarm, and let himself down to a casement window, slipping the latch with ease. He made his way to the ground floor, three flights below, and let Tom in through the rear entrance. They climbed back to the private flat above the gallery, and no one ever the wiser. The safe proved no more of a challenge than the rest. It yielded to Harry’s touch in just under two minutes and swung open like the front of a doll’s house. His senses felt painfully sharp as he unfurled the painting and let his small torch play upon the canvas. The colours leapt up under the soft beam as they might once have glowed by candlelight.
“There’s the pearl in the oyster, eh, Harry?”
“A pearl of great price,” he whispered. “As soon as it gets into the proper hands.”
“Nothing more worth a nick that I can see.”
Harry agreed, closing the safe door. “Just odds and sods.”
“I think I’ll have a look around the gallery.” Tom gave a wink. “See if there’s something I can bring home to the missus.”
“I’ll leave you to tidy up, then. I’ll go topside to check out the street.” Harry rolled the painting inside a waterproof mapcase tube with leather cords that fit over his shoulder. Through the fire hatch he gained access to the roof of the building and walked over to the front facing the main road. He crouched, taking care not to be seen, but there was little sign of life about, most of the shops were shut. Only a few bright-cheeked patrons from a wine bar spilled out onto the pavement below.
Harry crossed the roof and looked out over the small rear courtyard, with its tall green hedges and Georgian flagstones. He knew its dimensions by heart. He’d spent several days sketching the pretty row of buildings, with their old stable yards and grey slate roofs. Just a street artist, he was. No one for the coppers to pay any mind.
There was something peaceful about rooftops. There was no better perch to be alone with your thoughts while the life of the city went on below. He lit a cigarette and smoked it half down, watching the smoke curl into the dark. Bright embers flared as he tossed it away and froze, the sound of the creak of the fire hatch nearly stopping his heart dead. He turned and saw Tom’s head and shoulders bobbing just over the roofline, spilling a soft ray of light from the top floor.
“Need a lift?” Harry pulled him through, relief washing over him. He brushed back a comma of hair, his brows knit in slight puzzlement. “You left a lamp burning.”
“I’ll be back to bag a few more things. Everything check out up here?”
“Not a sign of the local plodforce. They must be sleeping in.”
“In that case, Harry -- I’ll trouble you for that painting, if you don’t mind.”
Harry could only gape at him, though the other man looked deadly serious. “Are you having me on?”
“Not in the least, my son.” Tom stood, blocking the fire hatch, his bulk a looming, sudden threat.
Harry shook his head, still disbelieving, talking gently as he would to a child. “Tom, this is crazy. You queer the pitch for Eddie and take off on your own, you’ll be in bother for the rest of your life, mate.”
“You haven’t been keeping in touch, have you, lad? Eddie snuffed it yesterday morning.”
Harry felt the beginnings of fear creep down his spine. The world had just turned upside down, and he’d been a fourteen carat fool not to see it coming.
Tom grinned with unsavory satisfaction. “In two days he’ll be in his grave.”
“And you’re going to dance on it now he’s gone,” Harry spat. Maybe a villain like Squires was owed no loyalty, but it still left a sour taste in the back of his mouth.
“’Don’t be daft. So this little caper took a turn. Just oiling up the wheels of commerce, like Eddie always said.”
But in the end, the old lion was dead. And all that was left was for the scavengers to pick his bones. It was the law of the jungle now, on Squires’ patch, no rules, and not even a thin blade of grass to hide behind.
Tom reached inside his coat and palmed a long army knife, the sort designed for close combat. The move was casual, as if he was in no hurry.
Harry stepped back. “What about Jackie? Surely he’ll take over now that his father –“
“The poor lad will have his hands full, no doubt. Putting out a lot of fires.”
He wondered if Tom meant it as a fact. Harry had seen gang wars before, in other parts of the city, with shops and pubs firebombed, and people killed and maimed.
“Let’s not have any aggro, Harry. Give it over, nice and easy. And you can be on your way.”
It began to rain. Fat, wet drops, sluicing down the knife’s edge as it shone in the light from the fire hatch.
Harry backed away, slowly, in the direction of the rear roof’s edge. It was the only way out, if he were desperate enough to take it. “If you want the painting, you’ll have to come after it.”
“You’re out in the cold, my son. If not me, some bugger will want a piece of you -- and that painting, whether half or whole.” Tom swung the blade in front of him in a wide, wicked arc.
Harry stared down at the neat slice that had just opened in his shirt and leather jacket. The knife had come at him with the speed of a snake, and it had been impossible to miss entirely. But there was no blood underneath, so he suspected he was in for more of the same. It seemed a rather nasty joke that a roof’s edge, fifty-five feet from solid ground, would appear the safest place to be, but it didn’t take much persuasion to keep inching toward it, praying he wouldn’t lose his bearings, trying to measure his footsteps in his head.
There came another flash of the knife, in close, aiming for the gut. Harry’s dodge was blind luck, his opponent overbalanced as one foot slipped wide on the slate. The rain was bucketing down now, pounding their backs like hailstones. “Give it up, Harry,” said Tom. “It’s just a few daubs of paint.”
Desperate to get a look behind him, Harry needed a distraction, even a foolish one. He slipped the mapcase tube off his shoulder, holding it in front of him like a shield. A quick turn of the head had confirmed that the edge and his climbing rope were less than ten feet away. “You’re right,” he said, backing slowly, step by step. “Just a few daubs of paint. Nothing to cry over, eh?”
“Don’t bluff me, boy. You won’t risk damaging the goods.”
“I’d be careful with that knife if I were you.” He saw the other man hesitate, and he knew it was more than just fear for the painting. They were getting close to treading on air.
Tom made a lunge for him that hit him solid, and Harry fell to the slate, kicking out from under the weight on top of him like a halfback at the bottom of a rugby scrum. Harry got up at a run and slung the mapcase over his shoulder, his shoes slaloming on the roof tiles, slick with rain. He tumbled for the edge and the climbing rope, knowing he had only seconds before Tom would use the blade to sever his only lifeline.
Daniel had always told him that sometimes it was worse looking up than it was down, and that was true enough as he saw Tom scrabble to the edge on his hands and knees, eyes wild with fury. Harry had barely got his hands securely around the rope when he felt the knife bite deep into his shoulder. Tom had aimed for the leather cords holding the mapcase and missed, though Harry was sure cutting him to ribbons would be as satisfying a way for the bloke to spend his evening. A wildly successful slash at his right wrist came next and then Harry saw Tom retreat and he knew he had to move faster than he ever had in his life.
Rain and blood streamed from
his wrist and on to the wet rope as he slid down it with the speed of a
fireman. The wind rushed up madly at his feet, his progress halfway to
ground, when, driven by instinct, Harry kicked out, as the rope gave and
there was nothing but air to catch, praying he would land in the hedges
instead of on the hard flagstones below.
He fumbled for the keys, tossed the mapcase on the floorboard, and turned the engine over, heading north east to the covered car park near Bond Street tube station. He had no time to take inventory but the face that stared back at him through the mirror looked like a bloody apparition.
Harry left the Triumph in the car park and unlocked a Bedford van parked in a nearby space. He opened the rear doors and pulled up the battered carpet, and with a home-made key, lifted the cover on a compartment that ran the length of the floor, neat as a smuggler’s hold. He tucked away the mapcase and topped it with some old rags and rubbish.
The van pulled out onto the street under a pelt of rain that ran down the windscreen in blinding sheets. Headlights and street lights bent and scattered as if distorted by a pane of pebbled glass, but it didn’t really matter as Harry drove through high streets and back turnings, homing south, to Daniel and Belgravia, one more roundabout to manage, one more street, until the van wheeled into the quiet mews. It jumped the kerb with a screech of brakes, just before Harry collapsed on the horn.
“It’s a diabolical liberty, keeping me here.”
“Actually, Harry, it’s a very large male nurse, and if you don’t behave I’ll ring and have him bring you some more tinned soup.”
“Not fair, not fair at all. You’re a born blackmailer, Daniel. I’m surprised you haven’t tried it for a living.”
Daniel ignored him. “You’re in hospital for very good reason. Let’s see, at last count, four broken ribs, two knife wounds, a punctured lung –“
“And god’s own headache.”
“I forgot to mention the severe concussion. I hope you’ve learned your lesson. You know what they say, ‘pride goeth before a fall.’”
Harry winced. “Yes, well I always thought it was meant more symbolically.”
“‘Cat burglar’ is just an expression, too, Harry. One can’t go leaping from buildings and trot off perfectly unscathed.” Daniel spoke lightly, but a shadow of worry clouded his features.
A sharp pain reminded him squarely of the fact as Harry shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “Well, I did it for art’s sake, not merely for the exercise. Is the Cezanne still tucked neatly away?”
“Safe as houses. And only I know where it is. You should get away from London for a while, Harry. To the country, or the seaside.”
Harry mulled it over, but not for very long. He grinned slyly. “Seaside it is. The South of France, the quiet life, what do you say?”
“The quiet life? The two
of us, in the South of France?” Daniel waved a farewell. “Harry my boy,
I give it a week.”
Note: If you’re interested, the story of Harry’s ‘Cezanne’ can be found here
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]