LONDON, JANUARY 1998
When Arthur Sandwhistle woke up on the morning of what he knew would be the greatest day of his life, he couldn’t get the bloody rhymes out of his mind.
One, two, unbuckle my shoe.
That one went through his head, unbidden, as he was pulling on his Doc Martens.
He threw an overstuffed rucksack over his shoulder and grabbed a hard black pudding off the kitchen table on his way out the door.
“You’re twenty-four,” shouted his uncle, standing at the stove. “Get off the dole. Get a real job!”
Arthur didn’t answer. He knew he no longer needed to.
Three, four, shut the door. And he slammed it.
Now he was out on the street.
Five, six, she’s turning tricks.
Okay, he’d just made that one up on his own. The team had changed that rhyme, as it had many of the others. But it had become “throw down sticks,” instead of “pick up sticks,” and it certainly wasn’t “turn tricks.”
But tricks were what she’d been turning, and a trick is what he’d been, though she hadn’t let him know until the very end.
When he did find out, it had been almost enough to make him bail on the whole deal. But not quite.
“I don’t know who paid me,” she’d said, with one hand clutching her purse and the other on the door. “I got a phone call and a few quid put under my door, but I never saw his face, and I never got his real name, just like you never got mine.”
“You mean your name isn’t even—”
“Of course it isn’t. Grow up. I was to sweeten the deal. I was paid to be the sugar on your cornflakes. And breakfast is done. Get over it, sweetie.”
And then she was gone.
But she was right. He’d get over her quick enough. And he bet that if she knew just what the cornflakes were—just how much he was getting paid for his own part in it—she’d have thought twice about skipping out.
She had no idea how important he really was. Without him, the whole thing would be a bust.
Programming and installing the microchips had been easy. No one was better at that. Certainly no one who had to live and work in his uncle’s cellar.
The problematic part had been the degrees of separation—all this insistence on the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, the anonymous, encrypted communications—just so much cloak-and-dagger twaddle. A gigantic pain in the bum.
Personally, he didn’t care one way or the other about the royals. And he himself was no anarchist, so far as he knew. He wasn’t even sure what one was.
But no matter. His own part of it was finished and delivered. When he got his money, the birds would flock. And the tail in Rio would have an all-over tan.
Now he would just pick up his payment at King’s Cross station. Then it was forty minutes to Heathrow for the flight to Brazil.
Perhaps he’d even learn to surf. They did surf in Rio, didn’t they? For a moment he had a vision of himself, tanned and buff, riding the crest of a twenty-footer, like some Hawaiian god—or Brazilian, whatever—to the giggling applause and adoring stares from the smoothly waxed—now that part was Brazilian, he was sure—beauties waiting on shore.
His adrenaline was pumping now.
Seven, eight, lay ’em, mate.
Seven, eight, don’t be late.
He laughed. The damn singsongs were swimming in his head. It was a bloody good thing he had already sent the code, or the whole thing would be completely bollixed up, the way he was making them up now. Hey, how about “Little Jack Horner craps in the corner”? Why didn’t they use that one?
He reached the corner of Euston Road and Upper Woburn Place, and the light was against him; he had to stop to let the traffic go by.
Across the street, a bobby stepped out of the small Indian grocer. That was no concern. If necessary, Arthur could outrun and lose him in a block. But there was no need; the bobby did not even look in his direction.
The light changed; Arthur stepped back from the curb as a delivery van sped through, and then he trotted on across. He dodged and weaved around other pedestrians, keeping an eye out all the while, until he approached Euston and Midland.
Now he looked toward the intersection ahead. There was a Tesco convenience store on the corner, and he didn’t like what he saw standing at the entrance.
Not bobbies. It was worse than that. Probably MI5.
Three men, two tall, one short, all in their early or mid-thirties, and each wearing the sort of Marks & Spencer friendly gray suit that business gits like to wear on casual Friday.
Only it wasn’t Friday.
And now they’d seen him. They were all three pretending to be arguing about something in the sports section of the Daily Mirror, but Arthur knew that was a sham. He had been warned about their type. He knew what to look for. He knew to check their shoes.
And though it was hard to tell from this distance, he was pretty sure they were wearing rubber-soled Oxfords.
Not good, the rubber-soled part.
Arthur quickly looked away from the three gray suits and continued walking. He was not far now from King’s Cross at Pancras, and the pedestrian crowd was getting thicker; he would make his move there and lose the gray suits.
Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw the man with the tabloid lower it suddenly and look straight in his direction.
Bloody hell. They’d read his body language, just like he was reading theirs.
No point in disguising things now.
Arthur stepped behind an old man with an umbrella. He skipped around a woman with two children and a stroller.
And then he took off running for all he was worth.
He was only blocks from the entrance to Kings Cross station. He could make it; once in the station, he could disappear in the crowd. They wouldn’t know whether he was heading for the tube or the trains, and there were too many exits for them to cover. King’s Cross, and he’d be home free.
Arnold looked back over his shoulder. Bloody hell, they were gaining. The shorter pursuer was faster than the others. Bloody overcompensater. He was catching up.
But now Arthur was at the intersection of Euston Road and Pancras. King’s Cross was within sight.
The light was red and there was heavy morning traffic—and that was perfect. Arnold knew his pursuers would slow down and try to be safe; he would not. All he had to do was time it right and pick his spot.
He saw the entrance to King’s Cross station across the street, heard the roar of trains pulling into the station, and he bolted suddenly, quick like a rabbit, into the street—for King’s Cross and freedom.
King’s Cross, King’s Cross, you can’t touch me now.
It was his last thought. The impact from the lorry he didn’t see left no room or time for anything more.
The sickening sound of the impact carried the length of the block.
The shorter gray-suited man, the first in pursuit, ran up to the intersection and saw that Arthur Sandwhistle had been separated from his Doc Martens, and most of his blood, by about fifty yards.
The second gray-suited man arrived on the scene. He allowed himself the luxury of leaning forward, hands on his knees to catch his breath, and then he said, “There’ll be hell to pay when the director hears of this.”
“I can’t see we could have done anything differently,” said the first man.
The third gray-suited man trotted up and looked the scene over. “You know the rules,” he said. “Do not pursue into dangerous traffic unless there is risk of imminent harm to civilians.”
“Well, I’d say delivery of an explosive device poses a risk of harm, wouldn’t you?” said the first man.
“Unless he already delivered it. And now we’ll never get to question him. Was he a pawn, or a planner?”
“He ran too fast for a planner,” said the first man.
“Well, whatever he was,” said the second man, as an emergency crew put Arthur’s body onto a carrier, “he’s no good to us now.”
“Or to anyone else,” said the first man. “I’m feeling winded. Lets get a pint.”
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Robertson