The Wreckageby Michael Robotham
An international thriller based on one of the bigest bank heists in history.
Billions of dollars are missing from Iraqi banks, and journalist Luca Terracini will risk everything to discover where it is. His Iraqi-American background has made it easier for him to infiltrate the darkest corners of the war, but death of his beloved Nicola in a suicide bombing/b>
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An international thriller based on one of the bigest bank heists in history.
Billions of dollars are missing from Iraqi banks, and journalist Luca Terracini will risk everything to discover where it is. His Iraqi-American background has made it easier for him to infiltrate the darkest corners of the war, but death of his beloved Nicola in a suicide bombing has made him reckless. He has nothing left to lose.
In pursuit of the money, he meets UN representative Daniela Garner, who seems to know more about the heist than anyone else. She's a valuable asset in Baghdad where the possibility of an explosion lurks at every checkpoint. Luca's investigation proves volatile as well, and as he gets closer to the missing money, his actions begin to reverberate around the world.
In London, Richard North, a top-tier international banker and the one person who might be able to explain where the money has gone, vanishes. The manhunt for him will get Luca evicted from Iraq, separated from Daniela, and possibly end both his investigation and his life.
As usual, it's all about the money: who has it, who's lost it, and who's ultimately going to pay, as clandestine agents emerge from the shadows and powerful nations seek to control information and bury secrets, whatever the cost.
"Vibrant and utterly contemporary.... An altogether superior thriller."
PRAISE FOR SHATTER:"The most suspenseful book I read all year."
Fine and ambitious [with characters who are] wonderfully humansmart, determined, decent, and flawed. Thoroughly compelling."Booklist (starred review)"
A high-voltage international thriller ... terrific suspense set against an exotic backdrop, The Wreckage is easily one of the summer's most unputdownable books."BookPage"
I have seldom read a more chilling and suspenseful tale. Robotham makes you see the sand, smell the burning oil and feel the bullets flying past. Most thrillers are lucky to have one great character; Robotham has given us at least four. They sweat, bleed and cry with such raw emotion that you can barely catch your breath and the words on the page feel like a million needles beneath your clenched fingers. This is a writer who will give you a slice of the Middle East you will never see on CNN or Fox. Robotham is the real deal and we can only hope he will write faster."David Baldacci"
[An] international crime thriller with short, punchy chapters that shift abruptly-suspensefully, even-from London to Baghdad to Washington and other locales, just like the movies....I read The Wreckage on vacation...a good call on my part; it's nothing if not a summer read...There are plenty of murders, chases, explosion and general mayhem."The New York Times Book Review"
A fast-paced, gritty story that raises disturbing real-world questions ... will appeal to readers seeking summer fiction with depth."Library Journal"
High-octane [and] complex ... Robotham, a former investigative journalist, weaves current events and white-knuckle suspense with a practiced hand."Publishers Weekly"
An absolute stunner in every possible way."The Review Broads
PRAISE FOR SHATTER:
"The most suspenseful book I read all year."
Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly"
Pleasantly creepy....Plotted with precision and narrated with real intelligence."
The New York Times Book Review"
Terrific...a classic 'wrong man' thriller that puts its hero in hot water, then raises the Fahrenheit to a fever pitch....Robotham not only builds the suspense masterfully but tops it off with a stunning twist."
A taut, swiftly paced thriller [of] speed and strength ... satisfying."Kirkus
PRAISE FOR THE NIGHT FERRY:"
Vibrant and utterly contemporary.... An altogether superior thriller."
Los Angeles Times
Taut, swiftly paced thriller involving big money, big business and big government, a promising trifecta that Robotham (Shatter, 2009, etc.) works to good advantage.
Long retired from the Metropolitan Police and now widowed, Vincent Ruiz (last seen in Robotham'sNight Ferry) has seen enough of life to be world-weary—and now he's got to see his daughter off into wedlock to a lawyer ("He votes Tory, but everybody does these days") and, worse, buy a new suit in the bargain. Enter a femme fatale—or is she?—and a good clocking, in which Ruiz is relieved of his briefcase, containing rings and a comb that belonged to his late wife. But why? Ruiz theorizes that it's a case of mistaken identity, but there's something more to it than all that. Meanwhile, American journalist Luca Terracini is poking around in Baghdad, tracking the 18th bank robbery to strike that city in a few months, mostly relieving the vaults of American reconstruction funds in crisp green dollars. Generals, soldiers, guards, civil servants—no one seems to have the answers, though a judge speaks wisely when he says, "There is a war on, Luca. Perhaps you should ask the Americans where their money is going."Well, their money, it seems, is winding up in London, where it most certainly should not be. Enter Ruiz again, indefatigable if easily bruised, and Robotham's neatly constructed plot gathers speed and strength, an elaborate game of cat and mouse that involves some unusual suspects, and with explosions to boot.
About the only thing to fault Robotham for in this neat thriller is an unfortunate allusion to a Brad Pitt film best left unmentioned.That desperate slip aside, a satisfying confection, equally good for beach and airplane.
The New York Times Book Review
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The WreckageA Thriller
By Robotham, Michael
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Robotham, Michael
All right reserved.
During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
Have you killed?”
“Were you scared?”
“It’s not hard to take a life when a life has been taken from you. It is not about embracing revenge or nurturing hatred. And forget about taking an eye for an eye. Equality is for the weak and stupid. It’s about pulling the trigger… simple as that. One finger, one movement…”
“Who was the first?”
“I can’t remember, but I’ve never forgotten the warmth of the day, the blinding glare, the dust on the leaves of the apricot trees. It was apricot season. In that final instant everything slows down—the cars, the buses, voices on the street. Everything goes quiet and all you hear is your own heartbeat, the blood squeezing through smaller and smaller channels. There is no other moment like it.”
“Why do they call you the Courier?”
“I deliver messages.”
“You kill people?”
“People kill every day. Nurses push needles. Surgeons stop hearts. Butchers slay beasts. You’re doing something good here. You and the others are going to be famous. You are going to create a day that will live forever, a date that doesn’t need an explanation. History made. History changed. These things begin somewhere. They begin with an idea. They begin with faith.”
“The others will also be tested.”
“Are you going to film it?”
“Yes. Here is the gun. It won’t bite you. This is the safety. Pull back the slide and the bullet enters the chamber.”
“Nobody will see my face?”
“No. Now walk through the door. He’s waiting. Seated. He will hear you coming. He will beg. Don’t listen to his words. Press the barrel to the back of his head and pull off the hood. Make him look at the camera’s red light: the drop of electrified blood.”
“Should I say something? A prayer.”
“It’s not what you say—it’s what you do.”
The most important lesson Luca Terracini ever learned about being a foreign correspondent was to tell a story through the eyes of someone else. The second most important lesson was how to make spaghetti marinara with a can of tuna and a packet of ramen noodles.
There were others, of course, most of them to do with staying alive in a war zone: Do not make an appointment to see anyone you do not trust absolutely. Do not go out before checking whether any suspicious vehicles are loitering outside. Do not assume that a place that was safe yesterday will be safe today.
These security measures were followed by all western reporters in Baghdad, but Luca had added a few of his own over the years—advice that came down to possessing three vital tools for survival: a natural cowardice; several US hundred-dollar bills sewn into his trouser cuffs; and a well-developed sense of the absurd.
The first call to prayer is sounding. Sunrise. Luca had been woken by the racket of washing machines, TV sets and air conditioners coming to life simultaneously. The government can only provide electricity during certain hours, which means the appliances trigger at random times, day or night, creating a strange symphony of music and metal.
Stripping off his T-shirt, he scoops water from a bucket with a ladle, pouring it over his head. Droplets pour from his short dark beard and down his chest over his genitals. It’s already nearly ninety degrees outside and not even the shutters can keep the heat out once the sun hits the side of the building.
Drying his hair, he chooses a thin cotton shirt, something plain, cheap. He dresses like an Iraqi and tries to sound like an Iraqi. His shoes are not western. His sunglasses are not too foreign looking.
Sliding his hand beneath the mattress, he pulls out a compact semi-automatic 9mm pistol and tucks it into a holster in the small of his back. In his office, he unplugs his mobile, grabs his camera gear and opens the front door of his apartment, checking the corridor and then taking the rear stairs.
A security guard dozes behind a desk in the foyer.
“Sabah al-khair, Ahmed.”
The guard jerks awake, reaching for his rifle. Luca holds up his hands in mock fear and the guard grins at him.
“Have you made the city safe, Ahmed?”
“I have defused two dozen bombs.”
“Excellent. Just don’t recycle them.”
The guard laughs and gets to his feet. His belt is undone, his stomach bulging freely.
Luca opens his mobile and calls Jamal.
“Where are you?”
“Two minutes away.”
Glancing through the taped windows, the street view is shielded by concrete blast walls that are fifteen feet high. There are checkpoints at the two nearest intersections, giving the illusion of safety. Just like his rules for survival, Luca has developed his own conflict metabolism, attuned to the violence. His heart no longer punches through his chest when a mortar explodes and he doesn’t duck when a round zings overhead.
Most of his colleagues reside in secure hotel compounds or in the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone), seeking safety in numbers, which is another illusion. Clean sheets, cold beer, wireless broadband and satellite TV—modern tools for the modern reporter.
The bombings a month ago had provided a salutatory lesson. The first explosion targeted the Sheraton Ishtar, toppling the concrete blast walls and leaving a crater fifteen feet deep and thirty feet wide. Cars were torn apart by the spray of metal and glass, which littered the lawns and courtyards of the fish restaurants along the river.
Three minutes later, a bomb went off near the Babylon Hotel; and six minutes later at the al-Hamra, tearing off the façade. Fourteen people died at the Sheraton, seven at the Babylon and sixteen at the al-Hamra, including a policeman who once helped Luca find a new battery for his mobile.
Luca had arrived at the hotel when the plume of dust and smoke still drifted across the skyline and the scent of shorn eucalyptus trees mixed with the ugly, sweet stench of burning flesh. Two women were found beneath the rubble, one of them covered in dust with long streaks of blood running down her face. “May God kill the government,” she shouted as they pulled her free.
Another ordinary day in Baghdad.
A text message on Luca’s mobile: Thirty seconds. Out front.
Moments later a battered Skoda 130 pulls up outside the apartment block, a young man behind the wheel. A second vehicle is immediately behind—a Toyota HiLux—the “chase car.”
Luca stays low as he runs. The moment the car door closes, Jamal jams down on the accelerator, swerving around the flat-faced concrete barricades. The HiLux is close behind, ready to intervene in case of an ambush.
The Skoda is a classic Baghdadi car with a windshield crisscrossed with cracks and a dash covered in an old strip of carpet and faded pictures of Shia martyrs. Beneath the bonnet is a V8 engine from a Chrysler 340 and slabs of iron welded inside the doors, bullet-proofing Iraqi style.
Jamal drives like he’s at Le Mans and dresses like he’s a gay cowboy in plaid shirts and western-style jeans. He was studying to be a doctor before the invasion. In the chaos that followed, the university’s computers were stolen and the files destroyed by fire. Now he can’t prove he has a science degree or three years of medical training.
Jamal’s cousin Abu is driving the HiLux. He’s older and built like a battering ram, with a semi-automatic pistol beneath his shirt and a sawn-off shotgun on his lap. In the four years they have worked together, Luca has exchanged little more than a dozen words with Abu. Jamal does the talking. On a busy thoroughfare, the vehicles travel bumper to bumper, weaving between groaning trucks, vans, mopeds and cyclists.
“There was another robbery,” says Jamal.
“Overnight. They set the bank on fire.”
“I want to go there.”
“What about the media conference?”
“They still won’t have formed a government.” Luca mimics the voice of the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. “Today we are a step closer to agreement. Old hatreds are being put aside and we are talking in good faith. I am committed to the constitution and believe Iraq will get the government it deserves.”
Jamal laughs. “One day they’re going to kick you out of Iraq.”
He calls Abu in the HiLux. “We’re going to Karrada.”
“Follow the smoke.”
The two vehicles circumnavigate Firdos Square and head south along the dusty dual carriageway past mud buildings and footpaths lined in places with drums and razor wire.
Baghdad used to feel foreign to Luca but he’s no longer spooked by the strangeness of the place—the jangle of tongues, the confusion of smells and the thick honey-colored light. A bus has broken down. Passengers are standing on the pavement, arguing with the driver. The men draw on cigarettes, forming wraiths of smoke that are whisked away on the breeze. The women are delicate, unknown creatures swathed in black, with non-descript bodies and dancing eyes.
Jamal takes a stick of chewing gum from his pocket and turns on the radio, beating out a rhythm on the steering wheel as he listens to a local pop song. He and Luca have become friends over the years, but that friendship has boundaries. Luca has never been to Jamal’s house, or met his wife or his two young sons. There are people who cannot know that Jamal and Abu are working for an American journalist. Sunnis. Shiites. Insurgents. That’s where death lurks. Grudges are a national sport in Iraq.
A black plume of smoke rises into the white sky ahead of them. Normally Karrada is one of the havens, thrumming with street traders and gaudy shouts of greenery. Now police and fire engines have sealed off an intersection and hoses like black pythons twist across the asphalt, bulging and squirming. Some are so perished and worn they are spraying the concrete instead of the smoldering building.
The Zewiya branch of the al-Rafidain Bank has been gutted and the windows are ringed with dark shadows of soot that leak like a beauty queen’s tears down the pale walls.
Jamal parks the Skoda and Luca takes his camera from his rucksack. He signals Abu, who waits with the cars, keeping watch from a distance.
“How many is that?”
“Six in the past two months.”
“And this year?”
“Soon there will be no banks left to rob.”
Across the street, a group of teenage boys are laughing and shoving each other, frantic to be noticed. They are admonished by older men and told to show some respect.
A siren. A convoy. Four military vehicles weave between the fire engines, escorting a white police car with blue doors. The car pulls on to the curb, scraping metal beneath the chassis. Luca recognizes the man in the passenger seat: General Khalid al-Uzri, Commander of the National Police. Two uniformed officers wrestle each other to reach his door.
Al-Uzri stands and stretches, cracking his vertebrae and rolling his head from side to side. Cigarette smoke hangs over him like a personal cloud. Dressed in black-and-blue camouflage with a beret and epaulettes of a crossed wreath and star, he waves dismissively at the offer of an umbrella and walks through the spray, pausing to appraise the bank building as though considering making an offer.
A senior fireman emerges from within. His uniform looks too large for him, like he’s wearing his father’s clothes. He shakes al-Uzri by the hand and kisses each cheek.
“What has been lost?” asks the general.
The general brushes water from his jacket sleeve and glances at Luca.
“You’re a photographer?”
“Yes, General,” he answers in Arabic.
“Today you work for the police.”
Luca exchanges a glance with Jamal, who shakes his head. Luca ignores him. He follows the general and the fireman down the ramp, stepping through oily black puddles and around piles of smoldering debris.
The large roller door has buckled and twisted in the heat. Two bodies lie inside. Security guards. They look like discarded mannequins with melted and blackened flesh. The smell pries open Luca’s senses. Vomit rises. He swallows hard, coffee chewing at his stomach.
Al-Uzri crouches beside the corpses. “It’s the protein,” he explains. “When it burns it sticks to your clothes and the inside of your lungs.”
Holding a skull, he turns it as if he’s testing the firmness of melons at a market stall.
One of his aides speaks. “There were six guards rostered on last night.”
“Where are the others?”
“We’re looking for them.”
“These men were shot. Take photographs of this.”
The general stands and walks onwards, wiping his hands on the coat of the nearest fireman.
The concrete vault has a heavy metal door that has barely been singed by the blaze. It opens easily. Nothing remains inside except a single aluminum case, smashed open. A handful of US banknotes are floating in a grimy puddle.
The general leaves the vault, moving towards the internal stairs. Firefighters have erected ladders to the upper floors.
“Is that going to take my weight?” asks al-Uzri.
He points at Luca. “You go first.”
The journalist climbs the ladder and steps over a collapsed section of the floor. A toilet has come through the ceiling and landed vertically across a doorway. Glancing past it, he can see a long corridor with offices on either side. The desktop computers have melted into modern sculptures.
The senior fireman stops at one of the offices. It takes a moment for Luca to realize what he’s supposed to photograph. A blackened corpse is seated at a metal desk with stiffened half limbs reaching towards the blown-out window. Charred beyond recognition, the skin of the face is shrunken and leathery, gripping the skull, and the mouth is wide open in a scream. A swollen tongue protrudes from between teeth that seem unnaturally white.
Al-Uzri circles the body, examining it from all sides, his wet brown eyes full of wonder but not horror. Luca is taking short breaths through his mouth.
“This is one of the ignition points,” says the fireman. “Someone doused the body with petrol and poured a trail along the hallway to the door.”
Al-Uzri has moved behind the carbonized body. He pulls a small Swiss army knife from his coat, unsheathing the blade. His hand steady, he holds the sharp edge against the corpse’s neck and pulls something away, a wire thread embedded in the skin. A garrote.
He nods to Luca. More pictures are taken.
Closing the knife, he lights a cigarette, blowing smoke towards the ceiling.
Nothing shows in his eyes. Not surprise or sadness. Luca has seen that look before in soldiers who have witnessed such horrors that nothing is new under the sun or moon.
“A bad business,” says the fireman. “Have you seen enough?”
The general nods. He addresses Luca. “Deliver the photographs to my office. They are the property of the Iraqi police.”
Descending the ladders, he retraces his steps through the puddles and up the ramp, pausing only to blow cotton wool from his nostrils. Luca follows him outside where drivers scramble into cars, preparing to depart.
“Excuse me, General, I have a question about the robbery.”
The commander turns.
“Luca Terracini—I’m an American journalist.”
“Your Arabic is very proficient, Mr. Terracini.”
“My mother was Iraqi.”
Al-Uzri lights another cigarette, shielding it from the spray. He takes a moment to study the journalist.
“Most of your colleagues wear Kevlar vests and travel in numbers. Do you think having an Iraqi mother will protect you?”
“Perhaps you are very brave?”
Water trickles down Luca’s back. It might be sweat. “The bank manager was tortured.”
“It appears so.”
“Do you know how much money was taken?”
“What happened to the other security guards?”
“Perhaps they chased after the robbers.”
“Perhaps they ran off with the money.”
The leaking hoses have doused the general’s cigarette. He stares at the soggy offering. “It is not a good idea to make accusations like that.”
“This is the eighteenth bank robbery in Baghdad this year. Does that concern you?”
The general smiles, but the corners of his mouth barely move. “I find it reassuring that somebody is keeping count.”
His car door is being held open, the engine running. He slides into the passenger seat and waves the driver onwards with a flick of his hand. The convoy moves off, weaving between fire engines, adding one more siren to a city that sings with them.
Being measured for a new suit was not something Vincent Ruiz expected to happen until he was lying cold and stiff on an undertaker’s slab. And if that were the case, he didn’t suppose he’d care about an effeminate stranger nudging a tape measure against his balls. Maybe he’s weighing them. Every other measurement has been taken.
Emile drapes the tape measure around his neck and jots down another set of numbers.
“Does sir want the trousers to touch his uppers or the top of the soles?”
“Call me Vincent.”
He holds the tape measure against Ruiz’s hip and lets it fall before tugging it tight again. “Has sir considered cuffs?”
“Are they extra?”
“No. You have the height to wear cuffs. Short men should avoid them. I’d recommend about one and a half inches.”
Next the tape measure is wrapped around Ruiz’s upper thigh. “Does sir dress to the left or the right?”
“I like to swing both ways.”
Emile’s eyebrows arch like inflection marks.
“Just give me loads of room,” says Ruiz. “I want to be able to hide a hard-on. My ex-wife is coming to the wedding and she’s a lot hotter since we divorced.”
“Very good, sir.”
Ruiz sighs and gives up trying to get a smile out of Emile. Instead he ponders his daughter’s wedding. Claire is getting married in just under a week and he is supposed to walk her down the aisle and “give her away.” She rang him last night and threatened to ask someone else if he didn’t start following instructions.
“That’s just it,” he told her. “I don’t want to give you away. I want to keep you.”
“Very droll, Dad.”
“I’m being serious.”
“I’m getting married whether you like it or not.”
“I could have Phillip arrested.”
“He’s a lawyer, Dad, not a criminal.”
“Is there a difference?”
Emile picks up his brocade cushion and retreats from the fitting room. Ruiz pulls on his worn corduroy trousers and heavy cotton shirt. As he buttons the front, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Turning sideways and sucking in his stomach, he straightens his shoulders and examines his physique. Not bad for a man who has hurdled sixty. Some mileage on the clock, but that’s to be expected. His doctor wouldn’t agree, of course, but his doctor is the sort of idiot who thinks people should live to be a hundred and fifty.
Slipping on a jacket, he pats the pockets and takes out a metal tin of boiled sweets. Unscrewing the lid he pops one into his mouth where it rattles against his teeth. He gave up smoking six years ago. Sugar is the substitute; calories as opposed to cancer.
As he steps out of the menswear shop, a hand slips through his left arm, pulling him close. He accepts Claire’s kiss on the cheek, bending slightly so she can reach.
“Is it done?”
“That wasn’t so hard?”
“A strange man has been weighing my balls.”
“Emile is lovely.”
“He’s gayer than a handbag full of rainbows.”
She giggles and skips to keep up with him. Dark-haired and pretty, she walks on her toes like a ballet dancer—her former career. Now she teaches at the Royal Academy, crippling prepubescent girls who look pregnant if they eat an apple.
“OK, now remember we have a dinner with Phillip’s folks tomorrow night. They’re catching the train from Brighton. Mr. Seidlitz has invited us to his club.”
Ruiz’s heart sinks. “What sort of club?”
“Don’t worry, Daddy, he doesn’t play golf.”
Seidlitz is a Ukrainian name. Maybe golf isn’t big in the Ukraine. Ruiz isn’t looking forward to it—a table for six, small talk. Miranda will be his date. His ex-wife. Number three. She’s the one who acts like they’re still married. Ruiz knows there is something fundamentally amiss about this fact, but Miranda is the sort of ex-wife that most men dream about. Low maintenance. Self-sufficient. Classy. When they divorced she asked him for nothing except for a few souvenirs from the marriage and to be allowed to stay in touch with Michael and Claire. They still needed a mother, she said.
Over the past few years Ruiz and Miranda have periodically fallen into bed together—a perfectly satisfactory “friends with benefits” arrangement, offering companionship, a pinch of romance and the sort of sex that can fog the windows. Not love, it’s true… not exactly—but closer to love than most relationships Ruiz had known.
Claire looks at her watch. “I’m meeting Phillip. He’ll be early.”
“He always is.”
“That’s another reason not to marry him.”
Blowing him a kiss, she skips across the road, leaving him on the corner. He wants to call after her, to hear her sweet voice again.
Married… in a week. She seems too young. Thirty-two on her last birthday, yet Ruiz can still picture her in pigtails and braces. Her fiancé is a lawyer who works for an investment bank. Does that make him a lawyer or a banker? He votes Tory, but everybody does these days.
Ruiz wishes Laura were here. She would have loved all this—preparing menus, choosing flowers, sending out invitations—weddings are about mothers and daughters. The father of the bride just has to turn up, walk down the aisle and hand his daughter over like she’s part of a prisoner swap.
Ruiz isn’t even expected to pick up the tab. Phillip has everything covered. He earns more in a month than Ruiz used to make in a year as a detective inspector. He didn’t even melt a little during the global meltdown, while Ruiz’s retirement funds have halved. His investment advisor isn’t answering his calls, which is always a bad sign.
Office workers are spilling out of buildings, their day ending, the commute ahead. Ruiz tries to avoid public transport during the peak hours. Lust, greed, sloth, envy, pride… the full pathology of human behavior is played out on the tube every morning and evening. It’s like an experiment in overcrowding using humans instead of rats. Ruiz prefers to conduct his own scientific study, which involves a pint of Guinness and a table by the window where he can watch the office girls walk by in their tight skirts and summer blouses. Not a dirty old man but a lover of the feminine form.
The Coach & Horses in Greek Street used to be one of his favorite pubs, back in the days when Norman “You’re Barred” Balon was still in charge. Norman was London’s grumpiest publican, famous for abusing patrons. He retired a few years back. Regulars gave him a standing ovation and three cheers. Norman told them to shut up and “spend more fucking money.”
Setting his pint on a table, Ruiz pulls out a notebook and reads over the sentences he wrote this morning. Stories. Anecdotes. Descriptions. Ever since he retired he’s been making notes and trying to remember things. He doesn’t see himself as a writer. He has no desire to be one. It’s about finding the right words and sorting out his memories, rather than justifying his actions or leaving something behind.
Forty-three years as a copper, thirty-five as a detective, all he has left are the stories: triumphs, tragedies, mistakes and missed opportunities. Some may be worth reading. Most are best left alone.
Ruiz misses the camaraderie of the Met, the sense of purpose, the smell of cigarette smoke and wet overcoats. It was an unreal world, yet it was more real than real, if that makes sense. Important. Frustrating. Over.
Three empty pint glasses are sitting in front of him. It’s growing dark outside, but the streets are still teeming with tourists and diners. London seems more foreign to him every summer—not just because of the influx of visitors, who are mainly Japanese, American and a generic kind of East European. The city is changing. Old haunts disappear. Safe streets become less safe. The heart beats to a different rhythm.
Ruiz notices a girl sitting on her own at a corner table. Her eyes are faded, almost transparent blue like his own and somehow even worldlier. Sullen-faced and pretty, she’s wearing leopard-print leggings, lace-up boots and a white peasant blouse. Her coal-black hair is cut short and curled where it brushes her shoulders and swings when she turns her head, waiting for someone to arrive.
She’s reading a newspaper with a pen in her hand. It’s a copy of The Stage—the theater magazine, the auditions page, looking for work. Checking her watch, she folds the magazine and goes to the bar for another drink.
Her eyes, unnaturally wide, flick from face to face as if rapidly collecting details or assembling a jigsaw puzzle. There are two suits on stools at the bar, junior executive types with their ties at half-mast. They offer to buy her a drink. She declines. One of them motions to her with his forefinger. She steps closer.
“You see that,” he says. “I just made you come with one finger—imagine what I can do with the rest of them.”
A flush of embarrassment colors her cheeks, quickly replaced by anger.
Back at her table, she tries to ignore them, but they follow.
“Why won’t you have a drink with us?”
“I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Is she as pretty as you?”
“No, but he’s bigger than you are.”
One of them snatches the magazine from her and holds it out of her reach. She knows they want her to humiliate herself by trying to retrieve it but she simply waits until they grow bored and give it back to her.
Ruiz is watching, impressed. The little actress is a no-nonsense sort of girl.
Ordering another pint, he goes back to his notes and doesn’t look up again until much later. A man has arrived and is talking to the actress. Perhaps he’s her boyfriend. Tall and loosely strung, he’s wearing a frayed turtleneck, dirty jeans and boots.
They’re arguing. He grabs her by the wrist and tries to make her stand. In the next instant, his fist swings into the side of her head. The blow is so short, sharp and unexpected that nobody in the bar reacts. The girl is holding her face. Wide-eyed. Shocked. The boyfriend is standing over her with his fist clenched, ready to hit her again. Ruiz doesn’t let it happen. Grabbing the upraised hand, he wrenches it backwards, twisting it up the boyfriend’s spine.
“Maybe you should pick on someone your own size.”
“What’s your fucking problem?”
“Honestly? If she weighed another hundred pounds I’d call it even and watch her kick your arse.”
Ruiz twists the arm higher. The boyfriend grunts and rises on to his toes. The main door is only three paces away. Cool air. A wet pavement. Ruiz shoves the boyfriend against a parked car and waits for him to spin, knowing he’s going to fight. At that same moment, one of the barmen makes an appearance, gripping a metal bar. The boyfriend steps aside. Mumbles something. A threat. An insult. Ruiz can’t hear the words but he knows the odds have altered; the chemistry changed. The boyfriend points his finger at Ruiz as though marking him for future reference and then slinks off. Inside the pub someone has filled a towel with ice, which the actress has pressed to the side of her face. Ruiz buys her a drink. Scotch. Neat.
“This will settle your nerves.”
He watches her throat move as she swallows.
“My name is Vincent.”
“You want to call the police, Holly?”
She shakes her head.
“Show me your cheek.”
She lowers the towel. One side of her face is a little swollen. There’ll be a bruise. Her eyes shift past him, searching the floor.
“What did it look like?”
“It’s black… with buckles.”
Ruiz helps her search. “What did it have in it?”
“Money. My phone.” She groans. “My keys.”
“Does anyone have a spare set?”
Ruiz makes her put the ice-towel back on her cheek.
“Is there someone you can call?”
“I don’t have any numbers.”
“Maybe your boyfriend has cooled off by now.”
Holly borrows Ruiz’s mobile. The call goes straight to voicemail. She leaves a message. Apologizing. She shouldn’t have to apologize.
Ruiz gets her another drink. She pushes the hair off her face, hooking it behind her ears. Her accent is from the north.
“So you’re an actress.”
Holly eyes him nervously over the rim of her glass. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw you reading The Stage.”
She shrugs. “Someone left it behind.”
Ruiz wonders why she would lie to him.
“I’ve been all sorts of things—a waitress, a receptionist, a dishwasher, a barmaid—I was even a badger.”
“I was supposed to be a beaver, but they couldn’t find a beaver costume. It was for a building company at a trade fair. Beavers make stuff in wood, you know, like dams.”
“I can see the connection.”
“Good. You can explain it to me.”
She smiles for the first time. Ruiz notices a small silver teddy bear on a chain around her neck; her piercings, one through her nose, more in her ears.
“Has your boyfriend ever hit you before?”
She shrugs ambivalently. “It’s what unites all men.”
“Not all men are violent.”
She shrugs again and changes the subject.
“What happened to your finger?”
She points to his missing digit, severed just below the first knuckle on his ring finger, a pale stump where the flesh seems to have folded in on itself.
“It was bitten off by a crocodile.”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
“It was shot off.”
“How did it happen?”
“You believe me then?”
“Is being shot more believable than being attacked by a crocodile?”
“We live in England. There aren’t many crocodiles.”
“It’s a long, boring story.”
“It doesn’t sound very boring.”
“It was a high-velocity bullet. I took one in the leg and one in the hand.”
“You were a soldier?”
Concern flashes across her eyes and just as quickly disappears. She starts a new conversation, jumping subjects. Ruiz feels as though he’s being dragged behind a speedboat bumping over the swells. It’s getting late. He has to make a decision.
“What are you going to do, Holly?”
She shakes her head.
“Do you have anywhere to stay?”
“You could come back to my place. Make some calls.”
Holly ponders this for a moment. “You live alone?”
“Is it that obvious?”
Outside the temperature has dropped and a breeze sprung up. Holly pulls on a distinctive red jacket with wooden pegs as fasteners and a hood. Pulling it tight around herself, she waits while Ruiz hails a cab and then slides across the seat.
The driver is listening to the radio. Evening talkback with Brian Noble: “The Voice of the Lord.”
Mersey Fidelity today announced a record profit while the rest of the economy continues to struggle. Isn’t it nice to know that our banks are back in business again? We bailed them out, gave them half a trillion pounds in cash, loans, shares, lucre, dosh, quantitative easing—no strings attached—and now they’re making hay while the rest of us shovel horse manure.
Now I know that Mersey Fidelity weathered the storm better than most of our banks, but I ask you this: Why hasn’t there been one court case, one prosecution, one political resignation, or one apology from a banker? Too big to fail, now they’re cashing in. The lines are open. What advice would you give our banksters?
The cab navigates through Piccadilly, Knightsbridge and along Old Brompton Road. Holly holds on to the side strap as the cab corners, occasionally glancing behind her through the rear window.
Ruiz lives in a three-storey terrace, open plan on the ground floor, bedrooms above and narrow stairs to a loft with his study. The house is too big for him. He should have sold up and moved years ago, but wasn’t willing to abandon the memories.
There is a bicycle partially blocking the hallway. Brand new. Unused. His birthday present from Miranda. She expected him to keep fit by riding along the river. Good luck with that.
“You want a tea or coffee?”
He opens a bottle of wine and lets Holly do the pouring. He gives her the phone to use.
“I don’t have any numbers,” she says.
“What about your parents?”
“I don’t really know anybody in London.”
Ruiz sits on the sofa. Holly prefers the floor. She nurses her wine glass in both hands.
“When you got shot—did you think you were going to die?”
“Is that why you limp when you walk?”
“What would it take for you to kill yourself?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“It’s just a question.”
“I’ve seen too many suicides.”
“What if you were in awful pain, dying of a terrible disease?”
“There are painkillers.”
“What if your mind was failing? You had dementia and couldn’t remember your own name?”
“If I had dementia it wouldn’t matter.”
“What if you were being tortured for top secret information?”
“I don’t have any top secret information.”
“What if someone had a grenade on a bus and they were going to blow it to the sky? Would you throw your body on the grenade?”
“Where do you get these questions?”
“I think about stuff all the time; how one decision, even a small one, can change your life. I have really weird dreams. I once dreamed I had a penis. Does that make me bisexual?”
“I have no idea.”
She tops up Ruiz’s wine and begins looking through his collection of DVDs stacked on a shelf. Old films.
“Oooh, I love this one.” She holds up Philadelphia Story. “Katherine Hepburn.”
“And Cary Grant.”
“I loved him in To Catch a Thief.”
“Favorite old-time actor?”
“Mine is Peter O’Toole.”
“What does that mean?”
She shakes her head. “Favorite old-time actress?”
“I thought you’d say Grace Kelly. Men seem to prefer blondes.”
“Not this one.”
The room has warmed up. Holly unbuttons her jacket, letting it slip off her arms. Her blouse is edged with silver thread and beads. The fabric pushes out over her breasts and she looks more like a woman than a girl.
If Miranda could see him now, what would she say? She’d tell him to go to bed and to stop embarrassing himself.
Holly has poured him another glass of wine. How much has he had to drink? Four pints. A scotch. Three glasses of wine…
Ruiz is trying to shake the fuzziness out of his head.
“I could make a bed for you,” he says, feeling his thoughts drifting. Sliding. Spilling down the mountainside, settling in the hollows. His legs are so heavy he can’t move them.
Holly sits next to him on the sofa and puts a pillow beneath his head. He’s watching her lips move. What is she saying? It might be goodbye. It might be sorry.
Sunshine crashes through the lace curtains. Ruiz opens one eye. The ceiling comes into focus, dead moths in the domed light fitting. His right nostril is grouted closed. His mouth tastes like a small animal has crawled inside and died.
Rolling on to his knees, he groans and feels his stomach lurch and gurgle. The rug has a pattern. He hasn’t noticed it before. Perhaps he’s forgotten. Another convulsion and he stumbles to the toilet, holding on to the side of the bowl.
His stomach empty, he sits against the tiled wall. Shaking. Sweating.
The events of last night—the girl, the trip home, the bottle of wine—what’s the last thing he remembers? She put a pillow beneath his head. She said she was sorry. What did she slip him?
Rinsing his mouth out under the tap, he scoops water on to his face, eyes stinging, the cold working. Looking in the mirror, he blinks through bloodshot eyes. The foul taste is in his mouth, the toxins in his system. The smell of urine in his hair, on his clothes… Someone pissed on him. The boyfriend wanted some payback.
He walks up the stairs. Drawers have been pulled out, up-ended, searched. The contents lie on the floor.
What’s missing? His camera, a police medal, an iPod Claire gave him (still in its box), some euros, his passport… He flicks through his checkbook. Two blank checks are torn from the middle. They were clever. Practiced.
He should make a list. Not touch anything. Call the police. Then what? They’ll send a car out sometime in the next two days. He’ll have to make a statement. He can hear them laughing already. The jokes. The ribbing. Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, taken in by a girl he invited home. They’ll suspect she was a hooker or a call girl. Ruiz is paying for sex now, they’ll say, like some sad old pervert.
Another thought occurs to him. He climbs the stairs to the study. The desk has been swept clean. The pages of the manuscript are scattered on the floor. He didn’t number them.
The drawers have been forced open. One of them had been swollen shut for twenty years. Ruiz remembers what it contained—Laura’s jewelry, her engagement ring and an antique hair-comb that had been passed down through her family. When Laura knew she was dying, when disease swam in her veins and grew in her chest, she wrote a series of letters to the twins—to be opened when they turned eighteen, or when they married, or when they had children of their own…
One of the letters was for Claire on her wedding day. It contained the rings and the hair-comb. Now the torn envelope lies discarded on the floor. The letter screwed into a ball. The small drawstring bag with the jewelry has gone.
Ruiz picks up the crumpled letter and tries to smooth out the creases. Laura’s handwriting had grown spidery as the chemo robbed her of energy, but none of her sentences are crossed out or corrected. Perhaps a person knows exactly what to write when the sand is trickling away.
Ruiz stops himself reading. The letter is meant for Claire. His eyes drift to the bottom of the page where Laura finished with hugs and kisses. A small circular stain has marked the porous paper—a fallen tear as a punctuation mark.
Anger rises. Burns. Most of the missing items can be replaced—the camera, the iPod and the money—but not the jewelry. He wanted Claire to wear the hair-comb on her wedding day. It was the “something old” to go with something new and borrowed and blue—just like the rhyme says. But it’s more than that. The hair-comb is something that Ruiz has cherished. Laura was wearing it when they first met at a twilight ball in Hertfordshire in 1968. She looked like a proverbial sixties flower child with her hair braided and pinned high on her head.
Early in the evening she danced with him but then Ruiz lost her in the crowd and spent four hours trying to find her. It was after midnight. People were starting to leave. Buses were waiting to ferry them back to London. Ruiz saw Laura standing near the entrance. She pointed to him and summoned him with her finger. Ruiz looked over his shoulder to make sure she wanted him.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Laura. This is my phone number. If you don’t call me within two days, Vincent, you lose your chance. I’m a good girl. I don’t sleep with men on the first date or the second or the third. You have to woo me, but I’m worth the effort.”
Then she kissed him on the cheek and was gone. He called her within two hours. The rest is, as they say…
Picking up a notebook, Ruiz makes a list. First he contacts his bank and reports his cards stolen. The recorded messages give him six options and then another six. Eventually, a girl with an Indian accent takes the details. Checks his account. There was a cash withdrawal just before midnight and another one just after; a thousand pounds in total. There were two other online purchases. She won’t give him the details.
“Someone from our fraud department will call you, sir.”
Sunlight makes his head throb. He considers his options. How can he find the girl? The actress. The boyfriend either followed them home or Holly must have called him. Maybe both.
Ruiz picks up his phone and hits redial. The last number she dialed was a mobile—the boyfriend perhaps.
A man answers with a grunt.
“Listen, I don’t know who you are. I don’t care. But you took something of mine last night, something of great sentimental value. You can have the rest of my stuff. I don’t care about that. But I need the jewelry—the rings and the hair-comb—they belonged to my wife. Give them back to me and I won’t come looking for you. You have my word on that. If you don’t give them back, I will find you and I will punish you. You have my word on that too.”
He pauses. Listens to the breathing. The boyfriend clears his throat.
Ruiz listens to the dead air.
“Who was that, babe?”
Holly Knight is awake now. She won’t go back to sleep.
“He sounded angry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Zac rolls over and squashes a pillow beneath his head. Within half a minute he’s asleep again, his nostrils barely moving as he breathes.
Holly examines his sleeping face, the angular jaw line, darkened with growth, his heavy lids hiding blue-green eyes. There were no nightmares last night. No silent screams or sobs.
Running her fingers across his exposed back, the scars look like ripples on a dried-up lake bed, pink and grey and dead looking. When she touches them in the dark it feels as though his skin has been eaten away by acid or dissolved by some sort of flesh-eating bug.
Slipping out of bed, she goes to the bathroom and sits on the toilet, staring at the discolored tiles and the rust stains in the bath. Finishing, she pulls her jeans over her panties, buttoning them on the flatness of her stomach.
Looking in the mirror, she touches the bruise on her face. Zac hit her too hard last night. Sometimes he forgets his own strength. She will say something to him when he wakes and is in a good mood.
The flat has peeling walls, mismatched furniture and different floor coverings in every room. Poverty in progress. An old armchair sits in the middle of the kitchen floor, because Zac likes to watch Holly cooking and doesn’t like to be alone.
Smearing butter on the inside of a frying pan, she cracks two eggs. The smell of breakfast wakes Zac, who comes out of the bedroom in his boxers, scratching the line of dark hair below his navel.
Self-conscious about his scars, he pulls on a T-shirt, and brushes a finger across Holly’s cheek.
“You hit me too hard last night.”
“Didn’t mean to.”
“You might break me if you’re not careful.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
Holly sets his plate on the table.
“Do we have any… any… you know?”
“We didn’t have any bacon.”
“No, do we have any, ah, any…?” He begins shaking his hand up and down. “Brown stuff.”
Holly finds the bottle in the fridge. Zac eats with his head low and one arm curled around his plate. Yesterday he forgot the word for petrol. He kept saying he needed to get “stuff” for the bike, “to make it go.” And before that he drove himself into a rage because he couldn’t remember who played left back for Spurs in the League Cup final in 2008. That’s one of the reasons he gets so angry—he can’t remember things.
According to the doctors there was no sign of brain damage, but something got rewired in Zac’s head when he was in Afghanistan. Now he forgets things. Not the big stuff, but small details—names and words.
There was a fire. Seven men were trapped inside a troop carrier, according to the commendation they gave Zac with his gallantry medal. He pulled three men from inside the carrier while it was under attack. That’s when he got burned. That’s when he started forgetting things.
Zac turns on the telly. A girl in a raincoat is giving the weather report, pointing to a map with cartoon clouds.
“How pointless is that,” says Zac. “Look out the window and you can see the sun is shining.”
Next comes a report on the stock market, the Dow Jones. Is that a person, wonders Holly; is there someone called Mr. Jones?
Zac picks up the near-empty bottle of Scotch.
“It’s too early,” she says.
“Hair of the dog.”
He pours two fingers into a glass.
Holly leaves him to get changed.
“I’ve got to go and see Bernie,” she yells from the bedroom.
“We owe the rent.”
“Comes round every month. We don’t have enough to pay Floyd.”
Floyd is their landlord on the estate and also a local crack dealer.
“I’m going to sell that stuff we got last night.”
“Don’t let Bernie rip you off.”
“And don’t let him touch you. He’s always trying to touch you.”
“Bernie is pretty harmless.”
“You want me to come?”
“No it’s OK. I want you to fill out the form from the DSS. You need to get your pension sorted.”
Holly has changed into her nicest clothes. She rinses Zac’s plate in the sink.
“I’m going to sell Bernie the laptop and other stuff. Then I thought I might take the jewelry to Hatton Garden.”
“Don’t let them rip you off.”
“I won’t. I have my audition today.”
“Can I come?”
“You know I get nervous when you’re there.”
He nods and goes back to watching an infomercial for a hair-straightening wand that features women with perfect teeth and lottery-winning smiles.
The queue outside the Ministry of Finance stretches more than a hundred yards, snaking between concrete blast walls that are decorated with political posters and daubed with anti-American graffiti.
Checkpoints are always dangerous. Anyone can approach—beggars, vendors, teenagers selling soft drinks or newspapers; fuel sellers carrying jerrycans and rubber hoses that are swung through the air making a whooshing sound. Any one of them could be carrying a grenade or wearing a suicide vest.
Luca produces his accreditation. The Iraqi soldier looks at both sides of the media pass, studying the English and Arabic versions. Then he consults a visitor’s book in the plasterboard kiosk.
“Your name is not on the list.”
“I made the appointment only an hour ago.”
The soldier taps the pass against his cheek and slowly circles the Skoda, as one of his colleagues checks the boot and passes a mirror beneath the chassis.
They are waved through. Jamal pulls up outside the Ministry. Engine running. Luca opens the door.
“Are you going to wait?”
Jamal taps the dashboard. “I have to get petrol. The queues are long today.”
“I’ll give you money for black market fuel.”
“I should queue like everyone else.”
Luca smiles. “You’re the only person in Iraq who doesn’t buy on the black.”
Jamal looks a little sad. “It won’t always be this way.”
The two men slap their palms together and their shoulders touch.
“Give my love to Nadia and the boys.”
Luca jogs up the stairs, zipping up his jacket. There are more checkpoints inside, along with metal detectors and bag searches. He surrenders his pistol, which is placed in a strongbox, and asks for Judge Ahmed Kuther, the Commissioner of Public Integrity. The receptionist points to a row of a dozen plastic chairs, all of them taken.
A cleaner is polishing the marble floor, running an ancient machine across the smooth slabs. Elsewhere workmen are peeling blast tape from the windows. Wishful thinking.
It has been more than a year since the Coalition Provisional Authority handed over control of Iraq to the Iraqis, but independence is still mostly a state of mind. The parliamentary elections were five months ago but no single party emerged with a clear majority. The level of violence has increased since then as various groups have tried to influence the outcome or scupper the talks completely. Uncertainty is the only constant in Iraq apart from the petrol queues and power outages.
One of the security guards begins telling a joke. Luca has heard it before. A young boy runs to his mother, sobbing, because his father has touched a live wire and been electrocuted. Throwing up her hands, she says, “Allah be praised—there is electricity!”
A convoy of four SUVs has pulled up outside, doors opening in unison. Six men in black body armor emerge from the vehicles, setting up a perimeter guard. Two others jog quickly up the stairs and scan the foyer before giving the signal.
Four passengers climb from the SUVs and are ushered up the stairs. Heads down. Moving quickly. The guards are civilian contractors. The passengers are westerners, dressed casually apart from the Kevlar vests.
One of them is a woman with a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes. Pretty. Hair bunched up in a ponytail, poking through the back of the cap. Dressed in a loose white shirt and cargo pants, she’s wheeling a pull-along bag, looking like an off-duty airline hostess or a film star checking into the Betty Ford clinic.
Half the security team escorts her across the foyer, while the rest stay behind, making sure they’re not being followed. Luca recognizes one of them. Shaun Porter runs one of the smaller American security companies. Big and bulked up, he looks like a surfer with his sun-bleached hair and brightly colored Hawaiian shirt beneath a Kevlar vest, but he was born and raised in New Jersey.
Shaun slings his weapon over his shoulder and gives Luca a high-five.
“Yo, my man, my man! Long time no see. How’s it hanging?”
“I’m good. I’m good. How about you?”
“Same old shit—babysitting some IT geeks.”
“UN auditors—they’re installing new software.”
Luca watches the woman enter the lift. She turns and peers between the shoulders of her bodyguards. Their eyes meet for a moment and she glances away, taking in everything.
Shaun punches his shoulder. “Hey! What you doing tonight? It’s my birthday. We’re having a few drinks at the al-Hamra. Come along.”
“How old are you?”
“You were thirty-nine last year.”
Shaun punches him harder. Luca tries not to grimace.
Most of the contractors are good old boys, former soldiers with shaved heads and softening bodies, who couldn’t cut it in civvies. They have nicknames like “Spider,” “Whopper” and “Coyote.” Luca met Shaun when the latter was still a Marine and came walking into the bar of the al-Hamra one night asking journalists if they had any books they wanted to exchange. He and Shaun had been swapping novels ever since—mainly crime stories: McDermid, Connelly and James Lee Burke.
“You still living outside the wire?”
“And you think I’m crazy!”
“Maybe just a little.”
Shaun scratches his unshaven chin. “I lost money on you.”
“Some of your colleagues in the pool ran a book on how long you’d survive outside the wire.”
“I heard about that.”
“Some guy had you down for six days. I gave you six weeks. Thought I was being generous.”
“You’re one lucky SOB.” Shaun looks at his wristwatch, which is big and silver with lots of buttons. “I got an airport run. Some new blood coming in.”
“Don’t let them shoot anyone on their first day.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“How is the Irish route?”
“Safer than it used to be, but I miss the old days—we could fire first and ask questions later.”
Luca shakes his head and Shaun laughs. “Got a mate coming in. Dave Edgar. ‘Edge.’ You’ll like him. Edge was Third Infantry Division Armour, first into Baghdad in ’03. Toppled Saddam all on his own.”
“And he wants to come back?”
Shaun rubs his thumb and forefinger together. “It’s all about the folding stuff.”
The SUVs are ready. He nods to his colleague.
“Come to my drinks. You can meet him.”
After Shaun has gone, Luca goes back to waiting. Iraqi bureaucrats operate on their own timetables and the idea of an independent media acting as a guardian of the public interest is a complete anathema to the culture.
Minutes pass slowly. Closing his eyes, his mind floods with images from the bank—the burnt corpses and empty vault; the manager’s body, a macabre Venus de Milo dipped in tar, locked in a silent scream.
He opens them again. A secretary is standing in front of him; her body garbed in black and her head covered in a white scarf. She does not make eye contact with him in the mirrored walls of the lift or as she holds open the doors. Falling into step behind her, Luca is taken along wood-paneled corridors hung with tapestries.
Judge Ahmed Kuther isn’t alone. Five of his colleagues are leaning over his desk, looking at photographs.
“Come in, Luca, come in,” he says, waving him closer. “I’m just back from Moscow. I have pictures.”
Someone passes him a photograph. It shows Kuther in Red Square, grinning widely, with his arm around a blonde wearing a short skirt and a slash of red lipstick.
“She had a younger sister. Another blonde.”
“Double the fun,” says one of his friends.
“For double the price?” jokes another.
Luca puts the photograph on the desk. “It’s a nice souvenir. Not one for your wife to see.”
Everyone laughs, including the judge. Kuther is wearing a well-cut suit and a blue tie rather than the traditional loose-fitting shirts and long cloaks. His only concession to his heritage is a kaffiyeh, a square scarf folded and placed over a white cap, which he wears on those rare occasions he risks appearing in public.
Twice tortured and imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, the judge is now tasked with the most dangerous job in Iraq. The Commission of Public Integrity is the country’s anti-corruption watchdog and has issued over a thousand arrest warrants against corrupt officials in the past four years. Seven members of his staff have been killed during the same period, which is why Kuther travels with up to thirty bodyguards.
Clapping his hands together, he sends people back to their desks. Then he slumps in a leather chair, spinning it back and forth from the window.
“How was Moscow?”
“It’s not Baghdad.”
“How does one measure the success of such a trip? I addressed a legal conference, while the Minister asked for money, shook hands and smiled for photographs.” He circles his hand in the air. “But you didn’t come here to talk about Moscow.”
“There was another robbery.”
“How much money was taken?”
“Even if I knew the exact amount, I could not comment.”
“It was US dollars.”
“Are you telling me or asking me?”
“It could have been an inside job. Four security guards are missing.”
Kuther raises his shoulders an inch. Drops them. A cigarette appears in his hand, then between his lips. He lights it with a counterfeit Dunhill lighter.
“I cannot become too fixated on money, Luca. Do you know how many people die in this city every day?”
“No, you don’t see all of them. You hear about the bombings, the big events that provide footage for your news bulletins.” The judge points to a report on his desk. “This is from last night: seven bodies were found in Amil, three bodies in Doura, two bodies in Ghasaliyah, one body in Khadhraa, one body in Amiriyah and one in Mahmoudiyah. There were eight more bodies in Rusafa. None have been identified.”
Luca looks at the file. “Why are they sending this to you?”
“Because the Interior Ministry cannot handle so many.”
“You’re supposed to be investigating corruption.”
“I do what is necessary.”
Kuther draws on his cigarette and exhales a stream of smoke that looks like his very spirit escaping from his chest.
“We are tearing ourselves apart, Luca: kidnappings, executions, house by house, family by family. The same people who celebrated the toppling of Saddam would today go down on their knees and kiss his feet if they could bring him back.”
“You’re losing hope?”
“I’m running out of time.”
The judge crushes the cigarette. He’s a busy man.
“Tell me exactly what you want, Luca.”
“I want to know who’s robbing these banks. These are US dollar robberies. Reconstruction funds.”
“Money is money,” says Kuther. “Green, brown, blue… any color.”
“A platoon of US Marines captured an insurgent two months ago with a wad of hundred-dollar bills that had sequential serial numbers. The bills were part of a shipment from the US Federal Reserve in 2006. They were stolen from a bank in Fallujah four months ago.”
Kuther bows his head and places his hands together as though praying.
“There is a war on, Luca. Perhaps you should ask the Americans where their money is going.”
The pawnshop is on Whitechapel High Street, squeezed between a Burger King and a clothing emporium that has “ladies, gents & children’s fashion wear” spilling from bins and racks. Bernie Levinson’s office is on the first floor, accessible via a rickety set of metal stairs at the rear of the building that are held in place by a handful of rusting bolts.
In the basement there is a clothing factory where thirty-five workers, most of them illegal, sit crouched over sewing machines that operate day and night. Two shifts of twelve hours, Bangladeshi and Indian women earning three quid an hour. It’s another of Bernie’s business ventures.
A dozen people are waiting on the stairs to see Bernie, mostly junkies and crackheads. They’re carrying a selection of car stereos, DVD players, laptops and GPS navigators—none of them in boxes or with instruction manuals. Holly Knight waits her turn, clutching her shoulder bag on her lap.
Bernie sits behind a big desk next to an air-conditioning unit that takes up most of the window. A goldfish bowl rests on the corner of his desk, magnifying a lone fish that barely seems to move. Bernie is a short man with a doughy body, who favors baggy trousers and candy-colored shirts.
“Do a twirl,” he tells Holly. “Show me what you’re wearing, such a pretty bint. My daughter is the size of a cow. Takes after her mother. Bovine family. Built to pull ploughs.”
Holly ignores him and opens her shoulder bag, placing the contents on his desk. She has a passport, three credit cards, a mobile phone, a digital camera, four collector’s edition gold coins and some sort of medal in a case.
“What’s this?” asks Bernie, flipping open the box.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s only a police fucking bravery medal!”
“You turned over a copper, you daft cow.”
“He said he was retired.”
“Yeah, but he’s going to have friends, isn’t he? Colleagues. Old Bill.” Bernie is waving his hands at her. Wobbling his chins. “I don’t want any of this stuff. Get it out of here.”
Resting her hip on the desk, Holly leans closer, letting the front of her blouse casually gape open.
“Come on, Bernie, we look after each other. What about that gear I brought you the other day?” She points to a dark leather briefcase sitting on top of his filing cabinet. “That’s top quality.”
She and Zac had turned over a suit in Barnes and scored the briefcase, a laptop, two mobiles, passports and jewelry.
Bernie grunts dismissively. “You’re getting sloppy. Taking too many risks.”
“It won’t happen again… I promise, but I’m really short this week. My landlord is going to give me grief.”
Bernie hesitates. Contemplates. The pawnbroker is not a soft touch. He thinks the only true sin is to surrender. He lost most of his family in the ghettos of Warsaw and at Treblinka. They meekly surrendered and were led away, a fact that Bernie despises. That’s one of the reasons he keeps a pistol in his top drawer, a shotgun downstairs and a bodyguard in the next room. Whatever happens, he’s not going to simply disappear.
Glancing at Holly’s cleavage, Bernie wets his bottom lip. “How much you short?”
“And what does Uncle Bernie get?”
Holly thinks, if Zac were here he’d reach across the table and squeeze your head until your eyes pop out. But she needs the money and she’d rather owe Bernie than Floyd, who charges interest with a silver knuckleduster.
Holly walks to the door and locks it. Then she pushes back Bernie’s leather chair and sits astride him, her knees on either side of his thighs, grinding her pubic bone into his groin. Her hand slides down his chest, unbuttoning his shirt so her fingers can slide across his chest.
Leaning forward she whispers something into his ear. Then she straightens and slowly undoes the buttons on her blouse, opening it a few inches. She’s wearing a black lace bra. Bernie takes a wheezing breath, lust painted all over his face.
Motioning to the cashbox, Holly waits while Bernie fumbles with the key. She takes four twenties and slips the notes into her shoulder bag. Bernie begins to unbuckle his trousers but Holly starts moving again, bumping and grinding. She increases the pressure, whispering in his ear, letting her tongue trace the outline of his earlobe. He tries to stop her, to lift her off, but Holly keeps moving.
Bernie groans. “No, no, nooooo…!”
His eyes roll back into his head and his molars grind together, shuddering.
Holly buttons her shirt and swings her body off his lap. The wet spot on his trousers is starting to spread.
“I want my money back,” he bleats.
Holly scoops the stolen goods into her bag and swings it onto her shoulder. Unlocking the door, she turns. “Here’s what I’ll do, Bernie, I’ll sign you up for membership of the Premature Ejaculation Society. They got a strict dress code. You got to come in your pants.”
She opens the door. Tommy Boyle, Bernie’s bodyguard, is outside. “Everything OK, boss?”
Bernie has a tissue in his hand. “Just shut the fucking door.”
Late morning in Central London: Ruiz is waiting downstairs at Scotland Yard. He still has a few contacts in the Met—colleagues who have survived the shake-ups, shake-outs and new brooms. Some adapt. Some pucker up. Some bend over and brace themselves.
Detective Superintendent Peter Vorland is one of the good guys. Snowy headed, thinning on top, he has a powerful handshake and an Afrikaans accent. He came to the UK in the late seventies, escaping apartheid. Thirty-five years later and he’s never been back—not even for a holiday.
Ruiz once asked him why, but Vorland wouldn’t talk about it. Later, when they got drunk after a Twickenham test match, Vorland said he couldn’t forgive Mandela for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It’s not in my nature to exonerate torturers and murderers,” he said.
A few years back Vorland had a heart attack. Thought he was dying. He told Ruiz he saw fireworks exploding above Table Mountain and heard a black gospel choir singing. The crash cart and 300 volts brought him back.
Everyone thought Vorland should have retired but he wanted to come back. After six months recuperating, he was leaner, fitter, no longer drinking. Ten years younger and twice as miserable.
His office is on the fourteenth floor with a view across the rooftops of Whitehall to Westminster Cathedral.
“You want some crap coffee?”
They spend the first few minutes talking about rugby, more out of habit than need. Finally Ruiz elaborates on a phone call he made earlier, telling the DS about “a friend” who was robbed after playing the Good Samaritan.
“Why didn’t your friend report this crime?” asks Vorland.
“He thinks his wife might misinterpret what happened.”
“Where did your friend meet this girl?”
“The Coach & Horses in Greek Street.”
Vorland glances down at a yellow legal pad by his elbow. “I did a computer search and came up with five robberies in the past six months, same MO, two perps, one female, one male.”
“The girl is eighteen to twenty-five, Caucasian, five-five, blue eyes, dark hair, cut short, but it could be a wig. She’s also been a blonde and a redhead. The boyfriend is six foot, close cropped hair and a northern accent.”
Vorland taps a fountain pen on the pad. “I also checked out that phone number. The SIM card is registered to a fake address in Wimbledon. Pay-as-you-go. The police won’t track the handset unless your friend reports the crime…” He raises an eyebrow. “Maybe you could convince him…”
Ruiz gives a non-committal shrug. “I’ll have a word.”
Vorland remembers something else.
“You could talk to the CCTV Control Centre at Westminster Council. They’ve got a hundred and sixty cameras in the West End.”
“Big Brother is watching.”
“They do a job.”
“I preferred the cowardly old world to the brave new one.”
Ruiz rises slowly and makes his way downstairs, dropping his visitor’s badge at the security desk. When he steps outside the revolving door he exhales as though he’s been holding his breath this entire time. Sometimes he needs a reminder that retirement was the right decision.
City Watch Security is in Coventry Street, up a narrow stairway from street level without any signage on the door. The reception area is a small windowless room with posters on the wall urging people to be eternally vigilant. The control centre is registered as a charitable trust, funded by Westminster City Council, the Metropolitan Police and private businesses.
The woman in charge, Helen Carlson, has white-grey hair and a head that looks slightly too large for her body, giving her a doll-like quality. Ruiz follows her to a separate building, around the corner in Wardour Street, where they enter a dark sub-basement with industrial bins and a caged lift. Ms. Carlson taps a number into a panel. The door opens. They wait for it to close behind them. Another panel, a different code and a second door opens into a large room where dozens of men and women watch the streets of London on vast screens, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
There are images of pedestrians in Oxford Street, couples embracing on a park bench in Leicester Square, a bicycle courier weaving between buses at Piccadilly Circus, a tramp going through bins in Green Park, a delivery van blocking a street in Soho, three teenagers kicking a can outside Euston Station. Snapshots of London, viewed from swivel chairs in a darkened room—Orwell’s imaginary world, twenty-five years later than expected.
Ms. Carlson taps a keyboard. Her pink nail polish stands out brightly against the keys.
“Between eight p.m. and ten p.m.”
She swivels a joystick control. Fast forwards through archival footage. There are four views of Greek Street. One of them shows the Coach & Horses. The screen has a red square box in the top right corner.
“That signifies the street is an area of suspicion,” explains Ms. Carlson. “We focus on hotels, nightclubs and alleyways.”
“Must be riveting.”
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
“Did Stalin write that?”
The time code is running along the bottom of the screen. It slows as the footage decelerates. Ruiz sees the boyfriend walking towards the camera carrying two motorcycle helmets. He must have stashed them somewhere.
Fast-forwarding again, the time code says 21.24. Ruiz sees himself emerging from the pub and shoving the boyfriend into a parked car. The barman appears. The boyfriend walks away from the camera. At 22.08 Ruiz leaves the pub and hails a cab. The actress is wearing her red coat. The door closes and the cab pulls into the traffic. Moments later a motorbike passes the camera. The number plate has been obscured.
“Did you get what you wanted?” asks Ms. Carlson, clearly proud of the technology.
“Tell me something,” asks Ruiz. “If your cameras see a crime being committed, what do you do?”
“We alert the police.”
“And you keep filming?”
Ruiz grunts dismissively.
“We’re fighting crime,” she says defensively.
“No, you’re recording crime. Your cameras can’t intervene to stop a rape or a murder or a robbery, which makes you just another bystander, sitting on the sidelines, watching it happen.”
The Coach & Horses is busy with a lunchtime crowd. Ruiz recognizes the Aussie barman. His name is Craig and he has freckles on his eyelids.
“You remember me?”
He nods and keeps stacking drinks.
“The girl who was in here last night, the one who wore a fist from her boyfriend; ever seen her before?”
“What about her charming fella?”
“You should have hit him harder.”
“She was reading a copy of The Stage. You must get a lot of actors in here.”
Craig grins. “You want to see my show-reel?”
Ruiz orders a steak-and-Guinness pie and a pint of ale. While he’s waiting he ducks outside to a newsstand and buys a copy of The Stage. Turning to the listings, he runs a finger down the page. Most are by appointment only. She was looking for an open casting. His finger stops. Taps the page.
Speed Dating, a romantic comedy.
Alasdair has been dumped by his girlfriend and is convinced to go to a speed dating night. Rehearsals begin September 18.
We are looking for:
—Alasdair 25–35. Northerner. Slim, a little clumsy around women.
—Jenny 20–30. Confident and sassy with a bruised heart.
—Felicity 20–30. Jenny’s best friend.
—Chris 25–35. Jenny’s fiancé.
Casting at Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
(Please bring headshots and a brief resume.)
Ruiz looks at his watch. It’s almost two now. Lunch first and then a look-see.
The helicopters are flying close tonight. Luca can hear the whump whump of the propellers concussing the air as they pass overhead. American troops are patrolling, searching for weapons and insurgents and “wanted” faces on playing cards.
They’re early. Most of the raids don’t happen until after midnight. The Apaches hover above convoys of armored Humvees that will seal off entire streets. The phys-ops vehicles are fitted with loudspeakers broadcasting messages in Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish, telling people to put their weapons next to the front door and walk outside. Few have time to comply.
Five soldiers will enter the house while five wait outside. They go upstairs first, grabbing the man of the house, dragging him out of bed in front of his wife and children, forcing him up against a wall. Other family members are corralled into the same room and made to kneel with their hands on their heads.
The interpreter will ask the head of the household if he has any weapons or anti-US propaganda. He will then ask if he is involved in any insurgent activity. The householder will say no, because that is normally the truth. If something is found, they will shackle and hood the men and teenage boys, tossing them in the back of a Bradley. If nothing is found, they will say, “Sorry to have disturbed you, sir. Have a nice evening,” before moving on to the next house.
Luca spent three months embedded with the Third Brigade, First Armoured Division, and watched these “cordon and search” operations first hand. He saw Iraqi men humiliated in front of their terrified families and their homes trashed. He saw accidents because soldiers, wound up with fear, were convinced that people inside these houses were waiting to kill them. One wrong move, one mistaken gesture, and innocent people died.
Passing through the hotel security screening, he enters the foyer of the al-Hamra. Some of the windows still haven’t been replaced since the bombing and are covered with plywood. People have taken to scrawling their signatures on the wood panels and leaving short messages.
The bar is crowded with security contractors, engineers, journalists and western NGOs. Luca knows most of the reporters, cameramen and photographers. Some of them are in the veteran class because a year in Baghdad can seem like a lifetime.
They’re talking about a car bombing this afternoon in al-Hurriyah Square. Fifteen civilians died and thirty were injured in the marketplace. One of the Associated Press photographers has photographed the severed head of a small girl. Now he’s drinking tonic water and showing the picture to anyone who wants to see it.
The security contractors are out by the pool because the al-Hamra doesn’t like guns in the main bar. For the most part their weapons are hidden, tucked into shoulder holsters or socks. Their heavy artillery is at home in their apartments and hotel rooms.
“Hey, Luca, you made it!”
Shaun Porter waves from a deckchair. He’s lying next to a pretty Iraqi girl who is sipping a fruit juice. Prostitution in Iraq is one of those hidden vices, outlawed under Saddam, but never stamped out. Now there are families that bring their daughters to the hotels for the enjoyment of the westerners.
Shaun pulls a beer from a bucket of ice and flips it open with the edge of a cigarette lighter. He hands it to Luca, who wishes him a happy birthday.
“You know most of the guys.”
“I’ve seen them around.”
Beer bottles are raised in welcome. A redneck from Texas is wearing a T-shirt that says, “Who’s your Baghdaddy?” He starts telling a joke about why Iraqis have only two pallbearers at their funerals.
“Because garbage cans only come with two handles.”
The men laugh and Luca wishes he were somewhere else. A big guy in a cut-off sweatshirt joins them. He has blue flames tattooed on his forearms.
“This is the mate I was telling you about,” says Shaun. “Meet Edge.”
Edge’s grey eyes flick over Luca as though sizing up his fighting weight. Slightly older than the others, he has deep wrinkles around his eyes and a crushing handshake.
“You’re that journalist living outside the wire.”
“Does that make you crazy or fucked up?”
Edge raises his margarita and sucks salt crystals from around the rim. Behind him, the pool lights glow an alien green beneath the water.
Two Filipino women shriek with laughter. They’re wearing short denim skirts and skimpy tops, flashing midriffs and muffin tops to the group of contractors who keep plying them with drinks.
Edge is watching, amused. Sexual conquest is a local sport among the contractors.
“You were here in ’03,” says Luca.
“Saw the whole clusterfuck.”
“So what made you come back?”
“I missed the place.”
Edge drains his margarita and licks his lips.
“I got bored working for my father-in-law. America’s fucked, man—people losing their houses, their jobs, factories going offshore—the bankers and politicians screwed everyone over.”
“You think this place is any better?”
“Here you can shoot the bad guys.” He grins. “In America we give them corporate bonuses and promote them to Treasury Secretary.”
He holds his glass aloft, signaling to the barman for another. “You know the moment I knew I was coming back to Baghdad?”
“Happened before I even left. I had to pick up a package from the Military Postal Service—it was a birthday present from my folks. This fat chick was sitting behind the counter painting her nails. She said it was her coffee break and she made me wait fifteen minutes while I watched her stuff her face with Twinkies. I was getting blown up and shot at for twenty-five grand a year while that fat chick, sitting on her fat ass, lifting nothing heavier than a pencil was making four times what I did. Tell me if that seems fair?”
“I’m not a great judge of fairness.”
“Yeah, well, nobody twisted my arm to come here the first time, but now I’m gonna fill my boots.”
Luca glances past Edge to a table on the patio. A woman is sitting with two men. Luca recognizes her from the Finance Ministry. She was part of the UN Audit team. Dressed in grey flannels and low-heeled shoes, she’s wearing her hair down and nursing a glass of wine. Her high cheekbones look almost carved and her eyes are shining in the reflection from the pool. She doesn’t seem to be listening to the conversation at her table.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath,” says Edge, following his gaze.
“I offered to buy her a drink and she treated me like I was contagious.”
“Maybe she’s sick of being hassled.”
“Or she could be an uppity, better-than-everyone, super bitch.”
Edge has the barman’s attention. Luca slips away and stands beneath a palm tree, checking the messages on his phone. The woman is no longer at the table. She’s standing by the pool, talking on her mobile, arguing with someone.
“It’s only for two more weeks… I know… but you can wait that long. No, I’m not at a party. It’s the hotel.” She makes eye contact with Luca. Looks away. “I think you’re being totally unreasonable… I can’t talk to you when you get like this… I’m going to hang up…”
She snaps the phone closed and purses her lips.
“Problems at home?” asks Luca.
“That’s not really any of your business.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
She has an American accent and large eyes with eyelids that pause at half-mast like a face from a da Vinci painting.
“I shouldn’t have been listening. I’ll leave you alone.”
Luca walks away. She doesn’t stop him. He goes to the bar and has a drink with a German journalist and his French colleague, who are both pulling out when the last of the American combat troops leave at the end of the month.
At nine o’clock Luca calls it a night. As he crosses the hotel lobby, he notices the woman again—this time she’s arguing with the hotel receptionist. There is a problem with the room. The power points don’t work. She can’t recharge her laptop.
Luca is going to walk right by but stops and addresses the receptionist in Arabic—sorting out the problem.
“They’re moving you to another room,” he says. “It will take fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you,” she says, hesitantly, her mouth fractionally too big for her face. Luca nods and turns to leave.
“Where did you learn to speak Arabic?”
“My mother is Iraqi.”
“And you’re American?”
“I was born in Chicago.”
She glances at her feet. “Can I buy you a drink?”
The question flummoxes her.
“Do I have to explain?”
“You could say loneliness, or guilt, or perversity…”
“I’m sorry for being so rude to you.”
“In that case I’ll have a whisky.”
Rather than go back into the bar, they go into the restaurant. She’s a foot shorter than he is, but carries herself very straight, her footsteps almost floating across the tiles.
“I’m Daniela Garner.”
“That’s an Italian name.”
“My grandfather came from Naples.”
“It’s impressive to meet a journalist who speaks Arabic.”
“I’m glad you’re impressed. How do you know I’m a journalist?”
“Most of the people here are journalists or private contractors. You don’t look like a mercenary.”
“I saw you today. You were at the Ministry.”
She shrugs. A waiter takes their orders. She’s drinking white wine. Luca tries again.
“You’re working for the UN?”
“Who told you that?”
“Shaun is a mate of mine. He called you an IT geek.”
“I’m an accountant.”
She shifts in her chair, recrossing her legs. Everything about her is dainty and refined, yet strong. The restaurant is dark apart from the table lamps.
“We’re installing new software to audit government accounts and keep track of reconstruction spending.”
“How long will the job take?”
“They told us two weeks, but from what I saw today, it’s going to be longer. I don’t think anyone in Iraq understands bookkeeping.”
“Good luck with that.”
He drinks half his whisky but can’t really taste it. Downs the rest. Orders another.
“How long have you been here?” she asks.
“Do you mind if I ask why? I mean, who would stay here… if they had a choice?”
“Most Iraqis don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, but you have an American passport. Do you have any family here?”
She motions over her shoulder towards the bar. “I mean, those guys out there—the mercenaries—they’re here for the money or to play at being soldiers or because of their homoerotic fantasies; and most of the journalists are here because they have this romantic ideal of being war correspondents in flak jackets, appearing on the evening news. You don’t strike me as being like the rest of them.”
“Maybe I’m deranged.”
“Or pumped full of drugs.”
“It’s something else.”
Luca can feel a dangerous light-headedness coming over him, a trembling inside. He knows he should end the encounter. Draining his glass, he gets up from the table.
“Thank you for the drink.” He gives her a tight smile.
Daniela looks disappointed. “Have I offended you?”
“I think I have. I’m sorry. Your friend in there—the one with the tattoos on his forearms…”
“He’s not my friend.”
“His first words to me were that we might get blown up tomorrow and did I fancy a fuck? I’m not interested in your life history, Luca. I was just making conversation because you were nice to me.”
Luca takes a deep breath. Relaxes. Manages a proper smile. “There are things you do to get by in a place like this. Masks you have to wear.”
The way she looks at him, her silence, her detachment, it reminds him of a shrink he went to see after Nicola’s funeral.
The hotel receptionist has crossed the restaurant. Daniela’s room is ready.
She looks down at his hands and then up into his face. Her tongue touches her lower lip.
“Do you want to help me move my luggage?”
“They can send someone up.”
She doesn’t reply and turns away, leaving the restaurant. Luca walks outside, beyond midnight, making his way home to an unmade bed and sweat-stained sheets. He doesn’t contemplate what it would have been like to sleep with Daniela Garner. He doesn’t fuck any more. He’s not a performer.
Trafalgar Studios has crimson carpets, dusty chandeliers and an ageing splendor. Dozens of wannabes are milling in the foyer, pretending to ignore each other. Some are rehearsing soliloquies or listening to iPods or chewing gum. Multi-tasking in the modern age.
Holly Knight gives her name to a brisk young assistant wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard. She’s handed a scene to read—a two-page dialogue between “Jenny” and “Alasdair,” a young couple meeting for the first time.
“You’ll be assigned a partner,” says the assistant.
“But I’ve prepared my own material,” says Holly.
“I’m sure your mother loves it.”
The assistant is already taking another name.
Holly has to climb the stairs to find a square of carpet, beneath a window. She reads each line of her dialogue and closes her eyes, trying to memorize them.
After waiting an hour she gets bored. Pushing open a polished wooden door, she finds herself in a small theater with a brilliantly lit stage. Tiered seats rise into the darkness on three sides.
The director, dressed in a Che Guevara beret and fatigues, barely seems to pay attention as names are called and a new pair of actors arrives on stage. Candidates are whittled down. Holly watches them, some trying too hard, others battling nerves. Periodically, the director whispers something to his personal assistant, an unnaturally tall, thin girl with large eyes and a swan neck—a model with dreams of becoming an actress; not beautiful, just different.
It’s almost five o’clock before Holly’s name is called. Her assigned partner is an inch shorter than she is and seems to be channeling Hugh Grant with his flop of hair and nervous mumbling. Holly ignores his affectations and tries to relax, finding places in the dialogue to move and look away and back to her partner.
When she finishes, she waits. The director confers with his assistant. Then he tells Holly to leave her number. It’s not a call back and it’s not a rejection. She almost skips off stage.
Outside she runs along the street and descends the steps into Charing Cross Station. She needs to get to Hatton Garden before the jewelry shops close. Walking down the escalator, she follows the subterranean maze of passages until she reaches the Northern Line and takes a tube to Tottenham Court Road, before changing to the Central Line and surfacing again at Chancery Lane.
Stepping into a doorway on Holborn Road, she takes off her coat and pulls on a cashmere cardigan before brushing her hair. Using a small compact, she paints her lips and checks her make-up, pouting at her reflection. Finally she unwraps the delicate hair-comb from tissue paper, sliding it into her hair and looking at the result in a shop window. Satisfied, she turns into Hatton Garden and chooses a jewelry shop that is clear of customers.
An assistant is returning a tray of engagement rings to a display case.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t done this sort of thing before,” says Holly, putting on a perfect Sloane Square accent. “My mother wanted a few pieces of jewelry valued. She’s looking to sell them. They were gifts from Daddy, who isn’t her favorite person.”
Holly takes out a small velvet box and places it on the glass counter-top. The assistant fetches the owner, who emerges from the back room as though he’s been interned there since the war. Blinking at her shyly, the old jeweler examines each stone and setting with an eyeglass.
Holly leans closer. She’s wearing an expensive watch on her wrist. She wants the jeweler to notice.
“There’s nothing here of particular value,” he says. “Apart from the sentimental sort,” he adds.
“Oh, Mummy will be disappointed. I think she was hoping… well, it doesn’t matter. Thank you anyway.”
As she’s talking, Holly takes out the hair-comb and tosses her hair back before reinserting it again.
“That’s a very interesting piece,” says the jeweler. “May I see it?”
“What? This old thing.”
Even before she places the hair-comb in the old jeweler’s hands, she can see the hunger in his eyes. Desire is something Holly understands, particularly in men.
“It belonged to my grandmother.”
“And perhaps to her grandmother,” he says.
“Is it that old?”
“Indeed it is.”
The jeweler motions to his assistant, who unfurls a dark velvet cloth. The hair-comb is placed carefully at the center of the fabric.
“Would you consider selling it?”
“But it’s an heirloom.”
“A shame.” His fingers tap thoughtfully on the counter. “I could give you seven hundred pounds.”
Holly has to stop herself from looking surprised. “Really? I didn’t think…”
Opening the cash register, the jeweler begins counting out notes in front of her. “Perhaps I could go as high as a thousand.”
“No, really, I couldn’t.”
The stack of notes has grown higher.
“What about these?” Holly motions to the velvet box.
“Fourteen hundred for the lot.”
“If I change my mind?”
“By all means—come back. I am a reasonable man.”
The door opens behind her and a man enters. Holly turns. She recognizes him but it takes a moment for her mind to put him in any sort of context. Then it dawns on her. The robbery… last night… the ex-copper!
Panic prickles on both sides of her skin and she hears a sad little squeak in the back of her throat.
“That’s stolen property! She stole those from me,” says Ruiz, pointing to the jewelry.
Holly blinks at him, shocked, telling herself not to lose control.
“Is there a problem?” asks the jeweler.
“Yes, there’s a problem,” says Ruiz. “This girl is a thief.”
Holly clutches her bag to her chest. “Stay away from me, you pervert!” She turns to the jeweler. “This man has been following me. He’s a stalker. There’s a court order out against him. He’s not supposed to come within a hundred yards of me.”
The old jeweler looks alarmed. “Should I call the police?”
“Good idea,” says Ruiz. “Let’s do that.”
Holly doesn’t flinch. She scoops the hair-comb into her hand and jabs her finger at him. “Don’t touch me! Don’t come near me!”
The door opens. A security guard enters. Short and muscular, he’s carrying a baton and every pie he’s ever eaten around his waist. Holly takes one look at him and collapses in a dead faint, scythed down like a stalk of wheat.
Ruiz catches her before she hits her head on a display case. Her eyes are shut. She’s unconscious. Out cold. Her arms flung wide.
“This man has been stalking her,” says the jeweler.
“That’s not true.”
“Step back, sir,” says the guard. “Did you hit her?”
“No, you moron, I caught her as she fell.”
Holly’s eyes open and she blinks at him.
“Did I do it again?” she asks.
“Just lie still,” says Ruiz. “Someone call an ambulance.”
She shakes her head. “I just fainted.”
“You were out cold.”
“It happens sometimes.” She sits up. Pushes hair from her eyes. “Something about my blood sugar level.”
“No. I just sort of fall down. It’s no big deal.”
Someone has brought her a glass of water. She needs some fresh air. The security guard walks her out on to the pavement. Holly asks for more water. The guard takes the glass from her and turns his back. In that moment, she’s gone, sprinting down the street, dodging pedestrians and shoppers.
The guard has no chance of catching her.
Holly doesn’t stop moving. Doesn’t look back. When she reaches an intersection with a red “don’t walk” sign, she turns left and heads down the road, trying to lose herself in the crowds of shoppers, tourists and commuters. Further along the street, she makes the crossing, skipping between cars and buses.
The Underground is just ahead. No, not the tube, she could be too easily cornered. She walks past the station entrance and heads south towards the Thames.
On Waterloo Bridge a jaundiced sun is setting through the haze. Finally she pauses, sweating under her clothes, cold on her face. For twenty minutes she studies the pedestrians and cars. How did he find her—the man from last night? The ex-copper. He said his name was Vincent. He looked harmless. Old. Crippled.
She calls Zac. He’s not answering. He was the person who taught her about counter-surveillance: how to blend in with a crowd and lose a pursuer. For the next thirty minutes she continues south, occasionally doubling back and ducking into shop doorways where she can watch the street behind her. Her feet are hurting. She’s thirsty.
The streets become shabbier as she gets closer to the Hogarth Estate. Shops give way to factories, railway yards and seventies tower blocks that rise above the rooftops like tree stumps in a nuclear winter.
It’s almost dark on the estate. Children have been summoned indoors and TV sets drown out the arguments. Pushing through the entrance, Holly steps past old food containers and discarded Styrofoam cups.
Why isn’t Zac answering his phone?
She doesn’t trust the lift. Takes the stairs. A smell she can’t place in the stairwell mingles with other odors that she doesn’t want to name.
The door is open. The frame splintered. At first she thinks Zac has locked himself out and broken into the flat. She looks into the living room. The sofas have been disemboweled. Drawers pulled out. Furniture broken. Clothing scattered. A pressure band tightens around her skull.
Stepping across the threshold she can see through the partially opened door of the bedroom. The mattress is no longer on the bed.
Then she sees the chair. Zac sitting upright, his skin slick with blood, his arms bound behind him, his feet tethered together at his ankles. His eyes open at the sound of her cry. She wants to go to him, but he mouths a word through broken lips.
He says it again.
As Holly turns she catches a glimpse of a hand reaching for her. She ducks, falling, scrambling on her knees. The hand comes again. She knocks it away, scuttling backwards, kicking with her legs.
“I don’t like hurting a woman, but I have made exceptions,” says the shadow.
Holly tries to scream. No sound comes out.
“Where is it?”
“You took something that wasn’t yours.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He grabs her by the hair with both his hands and begins to spin, forcing Holly to run in circles. She grabs at his wrists to take pressure off her scalp. Faster and faster he spins, finally letting go, flinging her across the room where she ricochets off a wall and crumples. She tries to crawl away. He keeps coming. Amid the debris her fingers close around something cold and heavy. A saucepan. Cast-iron.
He grips her ankle and tries to drag her back to the bedroom. She kicks. He has her hair again. Lifting her. She swings the saucepan into his face. Blood sprays from his mouth. The man picks a broken tooth from inside his cheek and stares at it like he’s found a penny in a Christmas pudding.
Twisting her wrist he forces Holly to her knees and the saucepan drops from her fingers. Holly bunches her fist and swings, driving her knuckles into his groin. He doubles over and groans. It’s an animalist sound. Picking up the saucepan she hits him again across the side of the head. He staggers and raises his gun hand. Tries to focus. Pulls the trigger. The bullet hits the wall behind her.
Holly runs. She’s small and agile. Four years of gymnastics. Seven years of running from her father. At the door, along the walkway, at the top of the stairs, letting gravity carry her down. Almost out of control. Zac’s face in her mind, his body broken.
Reaching the ground floor, she hurls herself at the fire door, which bangs open. She’s almost to the road. There are cars. Lights. People. Somebody steps in front of her. She can’t stop. Her arms fold across her head, bracing for a collision.
The girl is screaming hysterically, fighting at his arms, scratching at his face; her cheeks streaked with tears and snot.
Nothing Ruiz says seems to make any difference. Holding her firmly, he tells her to settle down. Getting rougher. He slaps her hard across the face and then holds her tightly, his arms around her chest, her feet off the ground.
“What’s wrong? What are you so frightened of?”
Her eyes shoot behind him, looking over his shoulder.
“He’s got a gun! Run!”
“Who’s got a gun?”
She sucks in a breath. “Him. Upstairs. Please, let me go.”
She shakes her head and tries to pull away from him again. This is not another performance. She’s terrified. Shaking.
Ruiz takes her to his car and puts her in the front seat.
“OK. Stay here.”
“Don’t leave me!”
Ruiz crosses the road at a jog and pushes through the fire doors. Looks at the lift. It’s on the third floor. He peers up the central staircase. Concrete. Cold. It’s hard to move quietly. He climbs slowly. Counting the floors.
There is a long walkway, open at one side, overlooking a quadrangle. More concrete. Another set of stairs is at the far end. The flats are numbered, all beginning with “3.”
Glancing over the railing, he peers into the darkness. The lights in the quadrangle float like yellow balls suspended from above. Something moves in the shadows, a hooded figure, head down, walking quickly. It could be anyone.
The flat is fifteen yards along the walkway. Edging along the wall, Ruiz stoops in a crouch and looks through the splintered door. He can only see one half of the entrance hall. Keeping his back to the wall, he steps inside. A darkened bedroom is off to the right. The place has been searched. Ransacked. Drawers pried open, yanked out, emptied. Wardrobes pillaged, clothes ripped from hangers and tossed on the floor.
The sitting room is another disaster. The sofa slashed, a bookcase overturned, the back smashed in. Dishes and cups have been raked from kitchen shelves and lie broken on the linoleum.
The boyfriend is sitting in a chair in the main bedroom. Naked. Rail thin. Covered in wounds. His forearms and wrists are thick and corded with muscles and veins; his thighs are slick with blood.
Ruiz tilts Zac’s head, looking for signs of life. His eyes are open. The neat hole punched through his forehead is like a red bindi on an Indian bride.
Standing frozen for a moment, Ruiz drops his hands to his sides, his senses dulled, his mind deafened by the sound in his head like pounding surf. He backs out the door, not touching anything.
Excerpted from The Wreckage by Robotham, Michael Copyright © 2011 by Robotham, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 3 daughters.
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I loved this book. Suspensful, exciting, could not put it down. Characters were wonderful, felt like you were right there with them.
I have found a new favorite author! I can't wait to read more by Michael Robotham. Daisy
Foreign correspondent Luca Terracini knows the rules of survivability in a war zone; recently affirmed by the bombing of the chain hotels in Baghdad. He gets around the country without being imbedded due to his being an Iraqi-American and having a terrific local entourage starting with his driver Jamal. However, he has broken his prime rule of cowardice ever since his Nicola died in a suicide bombing. Currently Luca is investigating the bank bombings with the eighteenth for the year being the Zewiya Branch of Al Rafadain Bank. His theory is these incidents are thefts on a massive scale rather than terrorism or insurgency. As Luca follows the money trail, he encounters UN representative Daniela Garner, who apparently is the expert on the bank robberies. Her appearance affirms his belief about the robberies. At the same time in London, international banker Richard North disappears. Governments, mobsters, and financial institutions employ the best to locate him. The North incident ties back to an amazed Luca who is thrown out of Iraq by Iraqis who he believes were pressured by American authorities; apparently the west wants the missing money to remain secret. Based on real bank robberies in Iraq, the IG report of nine billion dollars in Reconstruction money unaccounted for and a UN chief claiming drug money saved the finance industry during the recent meltdown; The Wreckage is an exhilarating financial thriller. The story line is fast-paced as the hero follows the money in which Baghdad, London and several other finance centers connect. Readers will relish this solid tale while wondering about the underlying plausibility as this cannot have happened yet facts are stranger than fiction. Harriet Klausner
This author is amazing... I wish he would write faster, he is that good .