Consulate |

Fair Exchange

by Michael Marshall Smith

We’re in some bloke’s house the other night, nicking his stuff, and Bazza calls me over. We’ve been there twenty minutes already and if it was anyone else I’d tell him to shut up and get on with it, but Baz and I’ve been thieving together for years and I know he’s not going to be wasting my time. So I put the telly by the back door with the rest of the gear (nice little telly, last minute find up in the smaller bedroom) and head back to the front room. Been in there already, of course. First place you look. DVD player, CDs, stereo if it’s any good, which isn’t often. You’d be amazed how many people have crap stereos. Especially birds - still got some shit plastic midi-system their dad bought them down the High Street in 1987. (Still got LPs, too, half of them. No fucking use to me, are they? I’m not having it away with an armful of things that weigh a ton and aren’t as good as CDs: where’s the fucking point in that?) I make my way to Baz’s shadow against the curtains, and I see he’s going through the drawers in the bureau. Sound tactic if you’ve got a minute. People always seem to think you won’t look in a drawer—Doh!—and so in go the cheque books, cash, personal organiser, old mobile phone. Spare set of keys, if you’re lucky: which case you bide your time, hope they won’t remember the keys were in there, then come back and make it a double feature when the insurance has put back everything you took. They’ve made it easy for you, haven’t they. Pillocks. Anyway, I come up next to Baz, and he presents the drawers. They’re empty. Completely and utterly devoid of stuff. No curry menus, no bent-up party photos, no balls of string or rubber bands, no knackered batteries for the telly remote. No dust, even. It’s like someone opened the two drawers and sucked everything out with a Hoover. ‘Baz, there’s nothing there.’ ‘That’s what I’m saying.’ It’s not that exciting, don’t see Jerry Bruckheimer making a film of it or nothing, but it’s odd. I’ll grant him that. It’s not like the rest of the house is spick and span. There’s stuff spilling out of cupboards, kitchen cabinets, old books sitting in piles on the floor. The carpet on the landing upstairs looks like something got spilt there and never cleared up, and the whole place is dusty and smells of mildew or something. And yet these two drawers, perfect for storing stuff—could even have been designed for the purpose, ha ha ha—are completely empty. Why? You’ll never know. It’s just some private thing. That’s one of the weird bits about burglary. It’s intimate. It’s like being able to see what colour pants everyone is wearing. Actually you could do that too, if you wanted, but that’s not what I meant. Not my cup of tea. Not professional, either. ‘There was nothing in there at all?’ ‘Just this,’ Baz says, and holds something up so I can see it. ‘It was right at the back.’ I take it from him. It’s small, about the size and shape of the end of your thumb. Smooth, cold to the touch. ‘What is it?’ ‘Dunno,’ he shrugs. ‘Marble?’ ‘Fucking shit marble, Baz. It’s not even fucking round.’ Baz shrugs again and I say ‘Weird’ and then it’s time to go. You don’t want to be hanging around any longer than necessary. Don’t want to be in a burning hurry, either—that’s when you can get careless or make too much noise or forget to look both ways as you slip out—but once you’ve found what you came for, you might as well be somewhere else. So we go via the kitchen, grab the bin bag full of gear and slip out the back way. Stand outside the door a second, make sure no-one’s passing by, then walk out onto the street, calm as you like. Van’s just around the corner. We stroll along the pavement, chatting normally, looking like we live in one of the other houses and walk this way every night. Get in the van—big white fucker, naturally, virtually invisible in London—and off we go. It’s fucking magic, that moment. The one where you turn the van into the next street and suddenly you’re just part of the evening traffic, and you know it’s done and you’re away and bar a fuck-up with the distribution of the goods it’s like it never happened. I always light a fag right then, crack open the window, smell the London air coming in the van. Warm, cold, it’s London. Best air in the world. Weird thing, though. Even though it’s not that big a deal, the business with the drawers is still niggling me a few hours later. You do see the odd thing or two in my business—stuff that don’t quite make sense. Couple of months ago we doing over a big old house, over Tufnell Park way, and either side of the mantelpiece there’s a painting. Two little paintings, obviously done by the same bloke. Signed the same, for a start. Now, there’s huge photos all over the mantelpiece, including some wedding ones, and it don’t take a genius to work out that these two paintings are of the owners: one of the bloke, and the other of his missus. What’s that about? For a start, you’ve already got all the photos. And why get two paintings, one of each of you? If you’re going to get a painting done, surely you have the two of you together, looking all lovey-dovey and like you’ll never, ever get divorced and stand screaming at each other in some brief’s office arguing about bits of furniture you only bought in the first place because they was there and you had the cash burning a hole in your pocket. Maybe that’s it—you have the paintings done separate so you can split them when you break up. But if you’re already thinking about that, then... Whatever. People are just weird. Baz wanted to draw moustaches on the paintings, but I wouldn’t let him. They can’t have been cheap. So we just did one on the wife. Anyway, couple of hours in the Junction and everything’s peachy. Already shifted most of the electrical goods to blokes we know can be trusted to punt them on over the other side of town. Baz and I done a deal and he’s going to keep the little telly for his sister’s birthday. Couple bits of jewellery Baz found will go to Mr. Pzlowsky, a pro fence I use over in Bow. He don’t talk to no-one—can barely understand what the old fucker’s saying, anyway—and can be trusted to only rob us short-sighted, not actually blind. So the only thing left is the little thing I’ve got in my pocket. I get it out, look at it. Funny thing is, I don’t really remember slipping it in there. Like I said, it’s small, and it looks like it must be made of glass. It’s so shiny, and transparent in parts, that it can’t be anything else. But it’s got colours and textures in it too—kind of pinks and salmon, and some threads of dark green. And it feels almost wet, even though it’s been in my pocket for ages. I suppose it’s just some special kind of glass or stone or something. ‘Wozzat?’ I look up and see Clive is racking up at the pool table a couple of yards away. ‘What’s what?’ ‘What you got in your hand, twatface.’ I’m not trying to be funny, I don’t mind Clive, I’m just surprised he’s noticed it from over there. I hold it up. ‘Dunno,’ I say. ‘What do you think?’ He comes over, chalking up his cue, takes a look. ‘Dunno,’ he agrees. ‘Hold on though, tell you what it looks a bit like.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘My sister-in-law went on holiday last year. Bali. Over, you know, in Polynesia.’ ‘Polynesia? Where the fuck’s that?’ ‘Dunno,’ he admits. ‘Fucking long flight though, by all accounts. Think they said it was in the South Seas or something. Dunno where that is either. Anyway, she brought our mum back something looked a bit like that. Said it was coral, I think.’ ‘You reckon?’ He leans forward, looks at it more closely. ‘Yeah. Could be. Polished up, or something. Tell you what, though. It weren’t half as nice as your one. Where’d you get it?’ ‘Ah,’ I say. ‘That would be telling.’ He nods. ‘You nicked it. Well, I reckon that’s worth something, I do.’ And he wanders off to the table, where some bloke’s waiting for him to break. ‘Nice one,’ I say, and take another look at the thing. Even though I’m sitting right in the back of the pub, snug into the wood panelling there, this little piece of coral or stone or glass or whatever seems to have a glow about it. Suppose it’s catching a glint from the long light over the pool table, but the light coming off it seems like it’s almost green. Could be the baize, I suppose, but...I dunno. Probably had a Stella too many. I slip it back in my pocket. I reckon Clive’s probably right, and it’s most likely worth something. Funny thing, though. I don’t like the idea of getting rid of it. Next few days just sort of go by. Nothing much going on. Baz has gone East to visit some mate in the London Hospital, so he goes over and does the business with Mr. Pzlowsky. Usually I’d do it because people have been known to take advantage of Bazza, but me and the Pole had words over it a year ago and he plays fair with him now. Fair as he plays with anyone, that is. The handful of jewellery we got from the house with the empty drawers gets us a few hundred quid, which is better than either of us expected. Old silver, apparently. American. We play pool, we play darts, we watch television. You know how it is. Had a row with me bird, Jackie: she caught sight of the little coral thing (I’d just put it down next to the sink for a minute while I changed trousers) and she seemed to think it was for her. Usually I do come back with a little something for the old trout, granted, but on this occasion I hadn’t. Pissed me off a bit, to be honest. She just sits at home all evening on her fat arse, doing nothing, and then when I come home she expects I’ll have some little present for her. Anyway, whatever. It got sorted out. Couple days later Baz and I go out on the game again. Nothing mega, just out for a walk, trying back doors, side doors, garden gates, usual kind of stuff. What the coppers call ‘opportunistic’ crime. Actually, we call it that too. ‘Fancy a bit of opportunistic, Baz?’ I’ll say. He’ll neck the last of his pint. ‘Go on, then. Run out of cash anyway.’ We were only out an hour or so, and came back to the pub with maybe three, four hundred quid worth of stuff. Usual bits of jewellery, plus a Palm V, two external hard drives, three phones, wallet full of cash and even a pot of spare change (might as well, plenty of quid coins in there). That’s the thing about this business: you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Got to be able to have a quick look at rings and necklaces, and know whether they’re worth the nicking. Glance at a small plastic case, realise there’s a pricey little personal organiser inside. See things like those portable hard drives, which don’t look like anything, and know that if you wipe them clean you can get forty apiece for them in City pubs, more for the ones with more megs or gigs or whatever (it’s written on the back). Understand which phones are hard to clone or shift and so not worth the bother. Know that a big old pot of change can be well worth it, and also that if you tip it into a plastic bag it makes a bloody good cosh in case you meet someone on the way out. The other thing is the mental attitude. I remember having a barney with an old boyfriend of Baz’s sister, couple years ago. She’d met him in some wine bar up West and he was a right smartarse, well up himself, fucking student or something it was. He comes right out and asks me: ‘How can you do it?’ Not ‘do’, notice, I’d’ve understood that (and I don’t mind giving out some tips): but ‘can’. How can I do it? And this from some little wanker who’s being put through college by mummy and daddy, who didn’t have a lazy girlfriend to support, and who was a right old slowcoach when it came to doing his round at the bar. Annoying thing was, after I’d discussed it with him for a bit (I say ‘discussed’: there was a bit of pushing and shoving at the start), I could sort of see his point. According to him, it was a matter of attitude. If someone came round and turned me mum’s place over, I’d be after their fucking blood. I knew that already, of course, he wasn’t teaching me nothing there: I suppose the thing I hadn’t really clocked was this mental attitude thing. I know that mum’s got some bits and pieces that she’d be right upset about if they was nicked. Not even because they’re worth much, but just because they mean something to her. From me old man, whatever. If I turn someone’s place over, though, I don’t know what means what to them. Could be that old ring was a gift from their Gran, whereas to me it’s just a tenner from Mr. Pzlowsky if I’m lucky. That tatty organiser could have phone numbers on it they don’t have anywhere else. Or maybe it was a big deal that their dad bought them a little telly, it’s the first one of their own they’ve had, and if I nick if then they’re always going to be on their second, or third, or tenth. The point is, I don’t know all that. I don’t know anything about these people and their lives, and I don’t really care. To me, they’re just fucking cattle, to be honest. What’s theirs is mine. Fair enough, maybe it’s not a great mental attitude. But that’s thieving for you. Nobody said it was a job for Mother Teresa. Anyway, we’re back in the Junction and a few more beers down (haven’t even shifted anything on yet, still working through the change pot) when who should walk in the door but the Pole. Mr. Pzlowsky, as I live and breath. He comes in the door, looks around and sees us, and makes his way through the crowd. Baz and I just stare at him. I’ve never seen the Pole anywhere except in his shop. Tell the truth, I thought he had no actual legs; just spent the day propped up behind his counter raking in the cash. He’s an old bloke, sixties, and he smokes like a chimney and I’m frankly fucking amazed he’s made it all the way here. And also: why? ‘I’d like a word with you,’ he says, when he gets to us. ‘Buy us a beer, then,’ I go. I’m a bit pissed off at him, truth be known. He’s crossing a line. I don’t want no-one in the pub to know where we shift our gear. As it happens it’s just me and Baz there at that moment, but you never know when Clive’s going to come in, or any of the others. He looks at me, then turns right around and goes back to the bar. ‘Two Stellas,’ I shout after him, and he just scowls. Baz and I turn to look at each other. ‘What’s going on?’ Baz asks. ‘Fucked if I know.’ As I watch the Pole at the bar, I’m thinking it through. My first thought is he’s come because there’s a problem with something we’ve sold him, he’s had the old Bill knocking on his door. But now I’m not sure. If it was grief, he wouldn’t be buying us a pint. He’d be in a hurry, and pissed off. ‘Have to wait and see.’ Eventually Mr. Pzlowsky gets back to us with our drinks on a little tray. He sits down at our table, his back to the rest of the pub, and I start to relax. Whatever he’s here for, he’s playing by the rules. He’s drinking neat gin, no ice. Ugh. ‘Cheers,’ I say. ‘So: what’s up?’ He lights one of his weird little cigarettes, coughs. ‘I have something for you.’ ‘Sounds interesting,’ I say. ‘What?’ He reaches in his jacket pocket and pulls out a brown envelope. Puts it on the table, pushes it across. I pick it up, look inside. Fifties. Ten of them. Five hundred quid. A ‘monkey’, as they say on television, though no fucker I know does. ‘Fuck’s this?’ ‘A bonus,’ he says, and I can hear Baz’s brain fizzing. I can actually hear his thoughts. A bonus from the Pole, he’s thinking: What the fuck is going on? ‘A bonus, from the Pole?’ I say, on his behalf. ‘What the fuck is going on?’ ‘This is what it is,’ he says, speaking quietly and drawing in close. I won’t do his accent, but trust me—you have to concentrate. ‘It is from that jewellery you bring me last week. The silver. The American silver. I have one of my clients in this afternoon, he is the one sometimes buys unusual things, and I decide I will show this silver to him. So I get one of these things out—I always show just one first, you understand, because it can be more expensive that way. He looks at it, and suddenly I am on high alert. This is because I am experienced, see, I know what is what in my trade. I see it in his eyes when he sees the piece: he really wants this thing, yes? I was going to say two hundred to him, maybe two hundred fifty, this is what I think it was worth. But when I see his face, I think a moment, and I say seven hundred fifty! Is a joke, a little bit, but also I think maybe I see what is in his eyes again, and we’ll see.’ ‘And?’ ‘He says ‘done’, just like that, and he asks me if I have some more. I almost fall off my stool, I tell you truthfully.’ I nearly fell off my own stool, right there in the pub. Seven hundred and fifty fucking notes! Fuck me! The Pole, sees my face, laughs. ‘Yes! And this is just the smallest one, you understand? So I say yes, I have some more, and his eyes are like saucers immediately. In all the time I do this thing, only a very few times do I see this look in a man’s face which says ‘I will pay whatever you want’. So I bring them out, one by one. You bring me five of them, you remember. He buys them all.’ Baz gapes. ‘All of them? For seven fifty each?’ The Pole goes all sly, and winks. ‘At least,’ he says, and I knew there and then that one of two of them went for a lot more than that. There’s quiet for a moment, as we all sip our drinks. I know Baz is trying to do the sums in his head, and not having much luck. I’ve already done them, and I’m a bit pissed off we didn’t realise what we had. Fuck knows what the Pole is thinking. He finishes his gin in a quick swallow and gets up. ‘So, thank you, boys. Is a good find. He tell me is turn of the century American silver, from East Coast somewhere, he tell me the name, I forget it, something like Portsmouth, I think. And...well, the man says to me that if I find any more of this thing, he will buy it. Straight away. So...think of me, okay?’ And he winks again, and shuffles his way out through the crowd until we can’t see him any more. ‘Fuck me,’ Baz says, when he’s gone. ‘Fuck me is right,’ I say. I open the envelope, take out four of the fifties, and give them to him. ‘There’s your half.’ ‘Cheers. Mind you,’ Baz says, over his beer, ‘He’s still a fucker. How much did all that add up to?’ ‘Minimum of seven fifty each, that’s three grand seven fifty,’ I say. ‘But from that fucker’s face, I’m thinking he got five, six grand at least. And if he got that off some bloke who knows it’s nicked, then in the shops you got to double or treble it. Probably more.’ ‘Sheesh. Still, good for him. He didn’t have to see us right.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say, because he isn’t completely wrong. The Pole could have kept quiet about his windfall. His deal with us was done. ‘But you know what that cash is really about? Baz looks at me, shakes his head. He’s a lovely bloke, don’t get me wrong. He’s my best mate. But the stuff in his head is mainly just padding to stop his eyeballs falling in. ‘What it means is,’ I say, ‘is he’s very fucking keen to get some more. In fact, probably says he was lying about the seven fifty for the cheapest. He got more. Maybe much more. He got so much dosh for them, in fact, it was worth admitting he did well, and paying us a bonus so we go to him if we find any more.’ ‘Better keep our eyes open, then,’ Baz says, cheerfully. ‘More beer?’ ‘Cheers,’ I say. I watch him lurch off to the bar. My hand slips into my pocket, and I find my cold little friend. The bit of polished stone, coral, glass, whatever. I know then that Clive was right. My little piece is probably worth a lot of money. The bits of jewellery had been alright, but nowhere near as pretty as my stone. I’m not selling it though, no way. I’ve got too used to the feel of it in my hand. Twenty, thirty times a day I hold it. I like the way it fits between my fingers. Longer I have it, better it seems to fit. Sometimes, if I hold it up to my face, I think I can smell it too. Can’t put my finger on what it smells of, but it’s nice, comforting. The Pole isn’t getting hold of it. Not Jackie neither. It’s mine. * * * On the Sunday Baz goes on holiday. He’s off to Tenerife for the week. This is fine by me, because I need time to plan. Now Baz, he thinks we’ve just got to keep an eye out for this stuff, that it’s something like a particular DVD player or whatever. I know different. If it’s this fucking valuable, then it’s not something we’re just going to find in some gaff in Kentish Town, mixed in with all the shit from Ratners or Argos or wherever. This isn’t just common-or-garden thieving we’re looking at. This is nicking to order, which is a different kind of skill. Happens all the time, of course: you pass the word to the right bloke in the right pub that you want some particular BMW, or a new Mini in cream, and they’ll go do the business for you. There’s big money in it. Not my area, normally, but this is different. We do alright with the usual gear, but if me and Baz can take some more of this silver to the Pole, we can do very nicely indeed. It’s worth making an effort. So on the Monday night, I’m out on the streets by myself. It’s about ten-thirty. I park the van around the corner, and I take a stroll down the street where the house is, the house where we found the stuff. Couldn’t remember which one it was at first, but in the end I work it out. All the other houses in this street, they’ve been done up. Window sills painted, bricks repointed, new tiles on the path, that kind of thing. Scaffolding on a couple others. Lot of people have moved in recently, the area’s coming up. But this particular house, it looks a bit more knackered. I’m thinking the people have been there a while, which makes sense, what with it being so untidy inside. Could be they’re foreign. You get that, sometimes. People moved in just after the war or whatever, when it was dirt cheap. House gets passed on to the children, and then bingo, suddenly they’re sitting on a gold mine. Could be they’re Yanks, even – which would explain the old silver being from the US originally. I walk past the house and see the curtains are drawn and the lights are on. Lot of people do that when they go out, but if you take lights to mean there’s no-one at home, you’ll being doing time so fast your feet won’t touch the ground. Me, I’ve never been inside. Not intending to be, either. And I’m not planning on doing the job solo anyhow. It’s a big house. It’s a two person manoeuvre—not least because it was Baz who picked up the bits of silver in the first place. I don’t know where he found them, but it’s got to be the first place to look. Quicker you’re in and out, the better. I walk the street one way, then go around the corner and have a fag. Then I walk back past the house. I’m trying to remember the exact layout, because we’ve been in a few other houses since. I’m glancing across at the front window on the second floor when I see a shape, a shadow on the curtain. I smile to myself, glad I’m not so stupid as to have had a go tonight. And loyal, of course—I want Baz in on it, and he’s not back until Sunday. I slow the pace, keep an eye on this shadow. Never know, it might be a bird with her tits out. Don’t see nothing of note, though. Curtains are too tightly drawn, and it’s that thing where the light’s behind them and they get magnified till they’re just some huge blob. The light goes off, and I realise mostly likely that’s the kid just gone to bed. That tells me that room was where the little telly was from, and the whole floor clicks in my head. I walk back to the van, feeling very professional indeed. Next night I’m busy, and the one after. Not nicking. The Tuesday was our ‘anniversary’ (or so Jackie says; far as I can see I don’t understand why we have them when we’re not even fucking engaged, and anyway—anniversary of what? We met at a party, got pissed, shagged in one of the bedrooms on a pile of coats, and that was that). Either way we ended up going up West and having a meal and then getting bladdered at a club. Wednesday night I’m not going fucking anywhere. I felt like shit. So it’s Thursday when I’m outside the house again. I get there a little earlier, about quarter to nine. You look a bit less suspicious, being out on the street at that time; but on the other hand there’s more people around to see you loitering about. I walk past the house first, seeing the curtains are drawn again. Can’t work out whether the lights are on full or not: there’s still a bit of light in the sky. I’ve actually slowed down, almost stopped, when I hear footsteps coming up the street. I start moving again, sharpish. You don’t want the neighbours catching someone staring at a house. There’s some right nosey fuckers. They’ll call the old Bill quick as you like. Course the Bill won’t do much, most of the time, but if they think there’s lads scouting for opportunistics then sometimes they’ll get someone to drive down the street every now and then, when they’re bored. So I start walking again, and as I look I see there are some people coming up the street towards me. Three of them. Actually, they’re still about thirty yards away, which is a surprise. Sounded like they were closer than that. I just walk towards them. I don’t actually whistle—nobody whistles much there days, which I think is a bit of a shame—but I’m as casual as you like. Just as I’m coming up to them, them up to me, the streetlights click on. One of these lights is there just as we’re passing each other, and suddenly there’s these big shadows thrown across my path. I look across and see there’s two of them in front, a man and a woman. The woman’s wearing a big floppy hat—must have been to some fancy do—and the bloke happens to be looking across her, towards the street. She’s in shadow, he’s turned the other way, so I don’t see either of their faces, which is fine by me. If I haven’t seen theirs then they haven’t seen mine, if you know what I mean. I’m just stepping past them, and I mean around, really, because they’re both pretty big, when suddenly someone is looking at me. It’s the girl, walking behind them. As I’m passing her, her head turns, and she looks right at me. I look away quickly, and then they’re gone. All I’m left with is an image of the girl’s face, of it slowly turning to look at me. To be honest, she was a bit of a shocker. Not scarred or nothing, just really big-faced. With them eyes look like they’re sticking out too far, make you look a bit simple. But she was young, and I think she smiled. I walk down to the corner, steady as you like. As I turn around it, I glance back, just quickly. I see two things. I see the three of them are going into the house. They aren’t neighbours, after all. They’re the people from the actual house. The people with the jewellery. The people I’m going to be nicking from. The second thing I notice is that the streetlight we passed isn’t lit any more. I’m a bit unsettled, the next day, to be honest. Don’t know why. It isn’t like me. Normally I’m a pretty chilled bloke, take things as they come and all that. But I find myself in the pub at lunchtime, which I don’t usually do—not on a weekday, anyway, unless it’s a Bank Holiday—and by the afternoon I’m pretty lagered up. I sit by myself, in a table at the back, keep knocking them back. Clive pops in about three and I have a couple more with him, but it’s quiet. I don’t say much, and in the end he gets up and starts playing pool with some bloke. It’s quite funny actually, some posh wanker in there by mistake, fancies playing for money. Clive reels him in like a kipper. So I’m sitting there, thinking, trying to work out why I feel weird. Could be that it’s because I’ve seen the people I’m going to be nicking from. Usually it’s not that way. It’s just bits of gear, lying around in someone else’s house. They’re mine to do what I want with. All I see is how much they’re worth. Now I know that the jewellery is going to belong to that woman in the hat. And I know that Baz’s sister is watching a telly that belonged to the girl who looked at me. Alright, so she was a minger, but it’s bad enough being ugly without people nicking your prize possession. That could be another thing, of course. She’d seen me. No reason for her to think some bloke in the street is the one who turned them over, but I don’t like it. Like I didn’t like Mr. Pzlowsky being in the Junction. You don’t want anyone to be able to make those connections. I’m thinking that’s it, just them having seen me, and I’m beginning to feel bit more relaxed. I’ve got another pint in front of me, and I’ve got my stone in my right hand. It’s snuggled in there, in my palm, fingers curled around it, and that’s helping too. It’s like worry beads, or something: I just feel better when it’s there. And then I realise that there’s something else on my mind. I want to find that jewellery. But I don’t necessarily want to hand it on. The Pole is still gagging for it, I know. He’s rung me twice, asking if I’ve got any more, and that tells me there’s serious money involved. But now I think about it properly, with my stone in my hand and no Baz sitting there next to me, jabbering on, I realise I want the stuff for myself. I didn’t actually handle it, the last time. Baz found it, kept it, sold it to the Pole. If a little bit of stone feels like this one does, though, what would the silver feel like? I don’t know—but I want to know. And that’s why, on the Saturday night, I go around there. Alone. I park up at five, and walk past once an hour. I walk up, down, on both sides of the street. Unless someone’s sitting watching the whole time, I’m just another bloke. Or so I tell myself, anyway. The truth is that I’m just going to do it whatever. It’s a Saturday night. Very least, the young girl is going to go out. Maybe the mum and dad too, out for a meal, to the cinema, whatever. Worst case, I’ll just wait until they’ve all gone to bed, and try the back door. I don’t like doing it that way. Avoid it if I can. You never know if you’re going to run into some have-a-go-hero who fancies getting his picture in the local paper. Clive had one of those, couple years back. Had to smack the guy for ages before he went down. Didn’t do any nicking for three months after that. It puts you right off your stride. Risky, too. Burglary is one thing. Grievous Bodily Harm is something else. The coppers know the score. Bit of nicking is inevitable. The insurance is going to pay anyway, so no-one gets too exercised. But with GBH, they’re on your case big time. I don’t want to go into the house with people in it. But by the time I’ve walked past it three times, I know I’m going to if I have to. Then, at half-past seven, the front door opens. I’m sitting in the van, tucked around the corner, but I can see the house in the rear-view mirror. The front door opens and the girl comes out. She walks to the end of the path, turns left, and goes off up the street. One down, I think. Now: how many to go? I tell you, an hour is a long time to wait. It’s a long time if you’re just sitting there smoking, nothing but a little stone for company, watching a house in the mirror until your neck starts to ache. At quarter-past eight I see the curtains in the downstairs being drawn. Hello, I think. It’s not dark yet. Nothing happens for another twenty minutes. Then I see the door opening. Two people come out. She’s wearing a big old hat again. It’s a bit far away, and I can’t see his face, but I see he’s got long hair. I also see just how fucking big they are. Fat, but tall too. A real family of beauties, that’s for sure. They fuck around at the door for a while, and then they walk up the path, and they turn right too. Bingo. Fucking bingo. I’ve had a result. I give them fifteen minutes. Long enough to get on the bus or down the tube, long enough that they won’t suddenly turn up again because one of them forgot their phone or wallet. Also, enough for the light to go just a little bit more, so it’s going to be a bit darker, and I won’t stick out so much. Then I get out of the van, and walk over to the house. First thing I do is walk straight down the front path, give a little ring on the door. Okay, so I’ve only seen three of them before, but you never know. Could be another kid, or some old dear. I ring it a couple of times. Nothing happens. So then I go around the side, the way we got in last time. It’s a bit of a squeeze, past three big old bins. Fuck knows what’s in them —smell fucking terrible. Round the back there’s the second door. Last time it was unlocked, but I’m not reckoning on that kind of luck twice. Certainly not after it got them burgled. I try it, and sure enough, it doesn’t budge. So I get myself up close to the glass panel in the door, and look through the dusty little panes. Some people, soon as they get burgled, they’ll have a system put in. Bolting the stable door. It’s why you’ve got to be careful if you find some keys the first time and go back a couple weeks later. Can’t see any sign of wires. So I take the old T-shirt out of my pocket, wrap it around my fist. One quick thump. It makes a noise, of course. But London is noisy. I wait to see if anybody’s light goes on. I can be back out on the street and away in seconds. Nothing happens. No lights. No-one shouts ‘Oi!’ I reach my hand in through the window and would you fucking believe it: they’ve only left the key in the lock. I love people, I really do. They’re so fucking stupid. Two seconds later, I’m inside. Now here’s the point I wish Baz is with me. He’s not bright, but he’s got a good memory for places. He’d remember exactly where he’d found everything. I don’t have a clue, but I’ve got a hunch. The bureau with the empty drawer. The place where I got my stone. Well, Baz found it, of course. But it’s mine now. I walk through the kitchen without a second glance. Did it properly last time. The main light’s on in the living room, and I can see it’s even more untidy than last time. The sofa is covered in all kinds of shit. Old books, bits of clothes. A big old map. Looks very old, in fact, and I make a mental note to take that when I go. Could be the Pole’s contact would be interested in that too. I stand in front of the bureau. My heart is going like a fucking jackhammer. Partly it’s doing a job by myself. Mainly I just really, really want to find something. I want the jewellery. More even than that, I want another stone. I look through the drawers. One by one. Methodical. I take everything out, look through it carefully. There’s nothing. I’m pissed off, getting jittery. I’ve always known it might be that there just isn’t any more of the stuff. But now I’m getting afraid. In the end I go to the drawer I know is empty, and I pull it out. It’s still empty. I’m about to shove it closed again, when I notice something. A smell. I look around the room, but at first I can’t tell what’s making it. Could be a plate with some old food on it, I think, lost under a pile of books somewhere. Then I realise it’s coming from the drawer. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s definitely there. It’s not strong, but... Then I get it, I think. It’s air. It’s a different kind of air. It’s not like London. It’s like...the sea. Sea air, like you’d get down on the front in some pissy little town on the coast, the kind people don’t go to any more and never had much to recommend it in the first place. Some little town or village with old stone buildings, cobbled streets, thatched roofs. A place where there’s lots of shadows, maybe a big old deserted factory or something on a hill overlooking the town; where you hear odd footsteps down narrow streets and alleys in the dark afternoons and when the birds cry out in the night the sound is stretched and cramped and echoes as if it is bouncing off things you cannot see. That kind of place. A place like that. I lean down to the drawer, stick my nose in, give it another good sniff. No doubt about it—the smell’s definitely coming from inside. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. So I slam it shut. And that’s when I realise. When the drawer bangs closed, I hear a little noise. Not just the slam, but something else. Slowly, I pull it back out again. I put my hand inside, and feel towards the back. My arm won’t go in as far as it should. The drawer’s got a false back. I pull it and pull it, but I can’t get it to come out. So I get the screwdriver out of my back pocket and slip it inside. I angle my hand around and get the tip into the join right at the back. I’m feeling hot, and starting to sweat. Fucking tricky to get any pull on it, but I give it a good yank. There’s a splintering sound, and my hand whacks into the other side. I let go of the screwdriver and feel with my fingers. An inch of the wooden back has come away. There’s something behind it, for sure. A little space. I can tell because my fingertips feel a little cold, as if there’s a breeze coming from in there. Can’t be, of course, but it tells me what I need to know. Something’s behind there. Could be the jewellery I came for. Could be even better. Could be another stone. Another stone that smells like the sea. So I get the screwdriver in position again. Get it good and tight against the side, and get ready to give it an almighty pull. And that’s when I feel the soft breath on the back of my neck, and her hands coming gently around my waist; and one of the others turning off the lights. * * * It is just a question of attitude, it turns out. The student tosser had it right. It’s all a matter of how you see the people you’re doing over, whether you think about them at all, or if you just see what you can get from them. What you need. I gave them Baz, on the Sunday night. They didn’t make me watch, but I heard. An hour later there was just a stain on the carpet, like the one we’d seen upstairs. They gave me another one of the stones, even prettier than the one I had before. It’s beautiful. Fair exchange is no robbery. I’m giving them Jackie next.