Ludlum first noticed the journalist or cop on Wednesday, the day after he took 30k from Hausmann. She was late thirties, in a smart jacket and a suit skirt that finished pleasantly above her knees. She walked past his table and he appreciated the rear view as she turned and made a beeline for an empty snug across the way.
Ludlum hadn’t got where he was today without learning how to identify the tell-tale signs, the smart not too expensive suit, slim, reasonably attractive, confident. Journalists, plain clothed cops, feds, etc etc they only had two templates; male, or female. The same seemed to be true in most countries Ludlum had visited, but she was a fellow American not a Brit. The JC Penny suit was a dead give away.
Kenny’s was a comfortably appointed wine bar a few blocks away from Oxford Street and somewhere that Ludlum always paid a visit to when in London. It had nice worn leather armchairs and brown and grey snugs with dim orange lighting and few windows, mercifully blocking the cold drizzle outside.
Ludlum ignored the journalist/cop/whatever woman and settled back into reading the engraving on the whiskey tumbler in front of him. Brown drink, brown seats, brown light even, and him in his shapeless over washed brown raincoat. It was almost like he thought he could blend in to his surroundings.
That evening he met the man he always thought of as Colonel Sanders for dinner in a poky Italian eatery in Soho where they faced each other over a tiny tiled table, elbows almost connecting with those of their neighbours.
They made small talk before the food arrived and then mostly just ate their pasta and sauce. Ludlum had hung his raincoat awkwardly on the back of his tiny chair, sleeves dragging on the floor, napkin tucked into the collar of his faded yellow shirt.
Then it was coffee time, if he gave a fuck Ludlum would have been concious of the affect of the red wine, bolognese sauce, garlic, and coffee on his breath, but he wasn’t the sort of man to give a fuck about things like that.
“OK Colonel, what can I do for you?” The other man winced, Ludlum knew he hated the reference to the Southern gentleman of chicken frying fame, the man shouldn’t wear a beard and moustache like that if he didn’t want to be compared to the man who made the look famous, he even wore black rimmed glasses for Christ sake.
“Mr Ludlum, my organisation wants something and thinks you’re the best man to get it. I’m not so sure, but the decision is taken above my pay grade.” Admittedly the fuck didn’t speak like the Colonel the soft Scottish accent destroyed the illusion as ever.
“Well, your bosses are your bosses for a reason. They’re more qualified than you to decide what’s best.”
The Scotsman smiled and shoved an Evening Standard across the table.
“There’s a tablet on there which has everything you need on it. Make sure you pay attention because it will shut down and erase all contents once you’ve read it once. It will also erase itself if you don’t enter the correct code. We have left the code in a Hotmail account which is clean and has never been used to send email. The address is your ex wife’s middle name followed by your date of birth and the password is her date of birth plus your mothers date of birth.”
Bastard. Ludlum wasn’t one of life’s smilers, but he knew how to look calm and accepting. Great. He would spend half the night looking for some grubby god forsaken internet cafe, and twice that trying to remember both of the cunt’s birthdays. Ludlum hated technology, but on his better days would admit that you couldn’t do much in his line of work without it nowadays.
He glanced around preparing to leave and saw her sitting at a corner table her shapely back to them, leaning over a bowl of something hot and an old paperback book. There are no coincidences only fuck ups waiting to happen. He didn’t let his gaze linger, didn’t want her to notice anything or the Colonel for that matter. Ludlum couldn’t let the organisation think he had led someone to them, whoever that person actually was.
“I’ve got to go, catch you later Colonel.”
Unlike Ludlum Mickey Parrett was one of life’s smilers, even when he was trying to explain to Mr Caldicott why he had returned from Strictly’s without the gun he’d been sent for.
“Listen, Mr Caldicott you know what old Strictly is like. He said you can’t have it on credit until you’ve settled your last bill.” Mickey may have been a smiler but he had a whine like a smackhead despite not being one for hard drugs.
“It’s not good enough Mickey. You go and get me a shooter and don’t come back until you’ve got one. And it better be semi at least, don’t go robbing your granddad’s old service revolver.”
Mickey was fairly quick on the uptake, and knew when not to push things.
“Okay, I’m on it.”
Fuck. He was going to have to buy a fucking gun with his own money, Strictly by name strictly by nature when it came to credit. He’d have to go home first, and open the biscuit tin.
Ludlum finally found a 24 hour internet cafe run by a miserable Somali guy in Camden, he had walked for ages to get there. One advantage of all the internet cafes vanishing was he could be sure the journalist/cop/whatever wasn’t following, and no one else seemed to be either. Thank Christ or at least Elvis, the walk in cold drizzle had allowed him to remember all the necessary dates to get into this dead letter drop at least, now he just had to figure out the damn computer.
Ludlum took his coat off and put it on the back of the chair in the cramped hot and spicy smelling internet cafe ad put the now soggy newspaper on the desk next to the computer. He went to log in, and noticed the guy behind the counter waving at him. You had to pay first of course. Ludlum stood up and shoved through the narrow space between computers rummaging in his pocket for a lousy pound coin.
Mickey Parrett was just about to put the key in the lock to go up the stairs to the flat when he glanced in the internet cafe downstairs and saw some ugly old bloke leaving a gleaming new iPad wrapped in a wet newspaper by his computer before going up to the counter.
We’ve already established Mickey was a quick thinker. Calculations whirred through his brain, new iPad worth a few hundred quid. Gun the loan of, worth a few hundred quid. Who knew, Strictly might accept a straight trade, he bought and sold all sorts of stuff.
Ludlum got back to his seat saw the newspaper open and the iPad gone, looked up and saw a skinny guy in a red and white Addidas tracksuit sliding quietly through the door rigidly looking straight ahead in that way amateurs do if they don’t want to be noticed.
“Hey, you little fuck, come here.”
Mickey continued to slide through the gap in the door then slammed it behind himself and lurched at speed into the rain.
Ludlum followed banging the door open and through himself towards his prey and into the rain. His body started working in automatic, he had grabbed his raincoat without knowing it, hand in to the inside pocket clutching the small cosh he’d picked up when he arrived.
Mickey pelted diagonally across the street and then jerked up to a narrow side street, slipping on a bit of wet cardboard before before bolting into the side street eyes focussed straight ahead.
Ludlum clenched his teeth and steeled himself to a fast jog through damp streets, he was too old to deal with this sort of shit, he hated England, fucking bad teeth, pasty skin, tea and fucking scones cunts.
The side street led out onto another main road, Mickey took a quick glance back before striking out to the opposite pavement, weaving past a couple of late night speeding minicabs.
Ludlum followed, his breath was getting ragged and his vision blurry. That was why he didn’t see the car that jerked to a halt just in time to tap his right hip and knock him to the ground. The pain shot through his body but even as he fell Ludlum was assessing the damage and threat, a small saloon car, driven by the journalist/cop/whatever lady; what a surprise.
She leant out of the window.
“Ludlum. Come with me if you want to live.”
Hmm, humour more likely a journalist then. Ludlum clambered up and limped round to the passenger side and climbed in. She was alone in the car.
She floored the pedal before he shut the door.
“Why are you chasing him?” She had an English accent. Strike one against him. Don’t make too many assumptions from visual observations, that’s where Conan-Doyle was wrong.
“He just stole my iPad.” No harm in telling her the truth. Always use as much as possible, it was easier to keep track that way. “Who the fuck are you anyway? Been following me since this afternoon.”
“Can’t talk, lets drive.” The thief had vanished down a narrow alley way. The interior of the car smelt like expensive perfume and a slight tinge of fresh sweat. Not unpleasant although Ludlum was aware he was tainting it.
She swung the car across two lanes and down a side street parallel to the alley way, they turned the corner at the end to see the skinny bastard jumping on a bus. The destination board on the back said Kentish Town.
“Ah, not far then, lets hang back and follow him I don’t think he saw me pick you up.”
She slipped the car into the slipstream of the bus, sticking to the bus lane. The thief had taken a seat near the back on the top deck, and was looking out the windows a grin on his face. He didn’t see the car.
“OK you know my name who are you?”
“I’m Mabel and I’m here to help you.” She said with a half smile on her lips as she focused on the bus.”
“Yeah? So why have you been following me all afternoon and evening? If you wanted to help you could have just come up and introduced yourself earlier.”
“I did, silly. I wanted you to see me in Kennys and in the restaurant. I’ve been following you for a bit longer. I followed you to Geneva.”
Ludlum stiffened next to her. If she was working for Haussmann?
“Relax, I thought it was funny how you pulled that on him. You’re a man of many talents Ludlum, that’s why I want to help you.”
They lost him when he jumped out hitting the emergency button just before the last stop. Not so stupid after all. He ran of the bus and shoving past outraged passengers as the bus wobbled to a sudden stop.
“Shit.” She lurched the car stop start fashion into the middle lane and round the side of the bus, passing the front just in time to see him push his way through some sort of Middle Eastern health food place.
Ludlum took his chance and jumped out of the car and followed through the food joint. Thanks Mabel but no thanks.
By the time he’s negotiated his way through the kitchens and the back yard and into the alleyway at the back Ludlum had lost site of his prey. He came out into a wider street, scanned it quickly no sign of the thief or mercifully of Mabel, but there was a darkened shop front opposite with three golden balls hanging over the door. Bingo. A car came slowly along from the direction of the high street and Ludlum pulled back into the shadows. It wasn’t Mabel so he breathed out while fingering the cosh in his coat pocket.
“Oh hello Joy, is your worse half in?”
Joy Strictly made Mickey nervous, which made him more smiley. Pursed lips and Deidre Rashid glasses on a slim frame, she was about the same height as Mickey and wore her years of dealing with losers like Mickey quite openly in her expression.
“No. What do you want?” Strictly no time wasters.
“I’ve got this iPad, it’s brand new and worth 500 hundred new.” Mickey had tried to work it while on the bus without any success.
Joy Strictly took the tablet from his hands and turned it around checking for damage, she swiped the screen which brought up the demand for a code.
“I assume you can’t unlock it though. Forgotten the code have you?” She looked at him, cold blue eyes magnified by her glasses. “I’ll give you a fifty.”
“Listen, you can get it unlocked for a fiver. Anyway I don’t want money, I asked Mr Strictly about a shooter earlier this evening. I just want a loan of one, a semi preferably. Let me have that and you can keep the iPad.”
Mrs Strictly thought for a moment.
“OK, I’ve got a Slovak Grandpower I want rid of. You can keep it, but I want this iPad and I want you to come back with another 200 in two days. I don’t want the gun back.”
Mickey nodded. It would do.
Mrs Strictly went into the back room and after a few moments returned with a padded camera bag.
“It’s all in here, the gun, and two mags. I know Mr Caldicott is normally quite tidy, so I’m sure he wont need more than that. Tell him he needs to clear his account soon though, or will collect.” She smiled as she handed the bag over. Mickey didn’t need to check the contents, he headed for the door, while she had been in the back he’d checked his mobile. Three missed calls from Mr Caldicott. That meant it was time to get back to the office.
Mickey stepped out into the passageway at the side of the shop and plunged to the floor as a hard object crashed into the side of his face. Stars and lights swam in front of his eyes and for a moment everything went black, a foot then thudded into his stomach making him wheeze and cough.
“Give me that you fuck.” An American accent, and jowl face from the internet cafe reached down and took the camera bag from Mickey’s open fingers. A zip noise, jowl face was keeping his foot on Mickey’s stomach pinning him to the floor. “Aha my friend, you traded the iPad for a tool for me. Why do people keep trying to help me against my will? I guess you lot are as polite as the cliché says.” Jowl face took the gun and tried the grip, stared down the snub barrel as he lined it up with Mickey’s face.
“Well I don’t want your help.” He took his foot off Mickey and grabbed the front of his tracksuit top dragging him to his feet. Mickey was bleeding from his ear. And started to hold his hands up in a placatory fashion. “Spare me, what you’re going to say, I’ve not got time.” Ludlum didn’t have time to waste, he rammed the gun barrel into the thief’s bleeding ear hard knocking him to the floor again and making him wail in agony. “You’d better not be here when I come back out.”
There was a sound behind the door of someone moving to lock it. Ludlum shoved it hard knocking whoever was behind it back into the room, and he barged through, loading a clip into the gun as he went.
Inside it was tidy for a pawn shop, dust free, a few mostly fairly desirable items on sparse shelving. It smelt strongly of disinfectant and anti bacterial hand wash. The woman who had been locking the door when he pushed in so rudely had retreated back behind the counter.
Ludlum raised the gun and pointed it at the broad. She was unarmed and raised her hands up, she seemed fairly calm considering, and Ludlum took a moment to appreciate her tall slim figure, neat grey hair and impressive eyes above high cheek bones. Probably about his own age.
“I don’t have time or patience to waste. Just give me the iPad that prick brought in and I’ll give you a hundred pounds for it. Don’t give it to me, or try to pretend you don’t know what I’m on about and I will shoot you.” He watched her appraising him for a few brief seconds, she was a fellow professional he could tell.
She reached behind the counter and slowly brought it up.
“Here and keep the money.” she had a hard brittle voice to match her ice eyes. “Now get out of my shop.”
Ludlum left, iPad in his copious inside coat pocket, should have put it in there in the first place. The sort of mistake he didn’t normally make. The thief was gone from the passageway but Mabel was standing there with a gun of her own pointed right at his left temple. The way she was standing, not to mention the deadpan look on her face suggested she knew exactly what she was doing. Ludlum lowered his own gun and tucked it in his pocket.
Mabel instantly lowered hers and made it vanish somewhere, her suit looked too tailored fit to hide it, and she didn’t have a handbag with her.
“Good work getting your tablet back. Now why don’t we go back to mine and look at what the organisation want you to do.”
Ludlum could have run now, knocked her to the ground and probably grabbed her car. But he didn’t have the energy, he was hot, sweaty and felt slightly sick, it wasn’t fair having to run after dinner at his age. He shrugged.
“I’m never one to turn down an offer like that.”
Mabel had already turned her back and was heading towards the car. She had confidence, but not the confidence of the arrogant young, more like someone who knew their own skills and those of their opponent and also knew that he was too much of a professional to do something stupid right now. Which reinforced his opinion that she knew far too much about him.
The shower was hot and powerful, the apartment (or flat) was comfortably furnished with fairly anonymous furniture, there were photos people on the walls and shelves that looked like the sort of photos that come with the frames to helpfully demonstrate what you could use them for. The few books on the shelves were the sort you buy in stacks for a certain type of bar or restaurant; a book on ornithology of the Soviet Steppes here, a novel by an American writer from the 19th Century Midwest he had never heard of there.
It all screamed safe-house to Ludlum. There had been shirts and trousers in the draws of one of the bedrooms but they were all a little tight for him, so he stepped into the large open plan living/kitchen area in a hoody and jog bottoms he’d found, while his own clothes went round and round in the washing dryer.
Mabel was frying an omelet for herself which Ludlum turned down a portion of, and making coffee for them both which he hadn’t turned down.
Mabel pointed to a desk in the corner without turning round from the hob.
“Laptops over there already got the internet open, help yourself.”
Ludlum was not a fan of technology but he did know enough to know that she could have some software on there that would allow her to record what he typed. Still it was a one use dead letter box he was going into and she would probably already know the dates he had to use to get in.
Two finger typing got him in to the Hotmail account. There was a message saved in the drafts. A long string of letters and numbers. Great. Ludlum wrote them down on a folded napkin, it could wait until after coffee now.
He sat at the table with Mabel and poured the coffee while she attacked her omelet.
“Mabel, who are you working for and why do you want to help me?” Straight to the point.
She swallowed the omelet down fast, she ate like a man. Ludlum admired that in a woman. He stared round the coffee percolator so she couldn’t see the way he watched her jaw and throat move as she hunched over her plate.
“Who do you work for Ludlum?” She took a sip of hot black coffee, and then raised a hand to placate him. “Don’t worry I’m not really answering a question with a question, it’s rhetorical. I’m self employed, a contractor like you. Well, that’s not strictly accurate, you’re a subcontractor right?”
He didn’t answer. Silence is a useful part of a conversation, as Mabel would know of course.
“Well I employ subcontractors, but sometimes I’ll work with them or for them as well. I own a small firm of which I’m sole director, the name isn’t important; it’s a string of random numbers and we’re registered in the BVI.”
Ludlum poured another coffee for both of them, and remained silent. He could do silence all day and all night.
“Sometimes I work for the same organisation as Heywood. But we recently had a disagreement. I think that whatever is on that tablet Heywood gave you relates to that disagreement. I also don’t think you’ll be able to get it without my help.”
Ludlum raised his eyebrows and put his drained cup down on the table. This was disapointing, he’s expected more from her. Some stupid argument between rival gangs and she wanted to involve him in it. He was strictly solo, he might work with partners on a 50/50 basis sometimes, but that was always informal. Ludlum didn’t hold with this new move to real companies with registration and shares, all that shit. The total colonisation of his world by business school geeks.
Mabel was looking directly at him. She smiled, reading him like a book or at least giving that impression.
“Look just take the iPad into the second bedroom and have a look at what they want you to do. If you want to go for it, and want to engage my services let me know, if not go on your way and do whatever it is you want without me, no hard feelings and I promise you I won’t follow you anymore.”
They both knew she didn’t need to promise not to follow anymore, she wouldn’t be able to now anyway. She had given too much of herself.
Ludlum took the tablet from the table where he had put it after stretching his coat in front of the radiator and went to the bedroom.
He swiped the screen, entered the code, and swiped again. The desktop was black a single app in the centre. There was no connection, either wifi or 4G. Ludlum stabbed a chunky finger at the app, and it filled the screen with a grainy black and white video.