The Russia Syndicate, Chapter Three

The room was in darkness, lit only by the light from the open doorway where Sarah and Robilliard were standing, and by dozens of flickering dots, red, green and yellow.

The room was too warm, and it stank of stale tobacco. There was a hum of electronics and fans. As in the archive room, there was one long, thin window at the top of the far wall, at ground level. A black blind was drawn down over it. Next to the window, an extractor fan whirred.

Their eyes were adjusting to the darkness now. To their right was a row of server cabinets. To the left was a long trestle table, full of paper files and dirty coffee mugs. The wall behind it was covered with maps and pins. Paper notes had clearly been ripped off the pins, because many of the torn corners were still there. The maps showed the western Mediterranean, north Africa, and Portsmouth.

In front of Robilliard was a long desk, with three computer monitors. There were speakers each side, a desk microphone, a keyboard, and a mouse. On the right hand side of the desk was a full ashtray. In front, facing the desk, was a very large and expensive-looking office chair.

“My god,” said Sarah. “I thought he hated computers.”

Of course Pietersen hated computers. He always had done. He didn’t even have a mobile phone.

“I don’t understand,” said Robilliard.

Sarah pushed the office chair away, so she could look at the computer monitors. The chair was heavier than she expected. Instead of moving aside, as she intended, it slowly spun round.

She uttered a short, strangled scream and hurled herself at Robilliard. She flung her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.

There was a dead man sitting in the chair.

Sarah stood up straight and looked at Robilliard, shaking her head, begging him with her eyes to lie to her, to tell her that there had been a silly misunderstanding, that it was her turn to make the tea. Her hair was wet with tears. Robilliard scraped it gently away from her eyes and tucked it behind her ears.

“It’s going to be all right, Sarah,” he said. “And remember: if it’s not all right…”

“…it’s not the end?” said Sarah, and laughed through her tears.

Robilliard felt the man’s pulse, listened to his heart, and rummaged briskly through his pockets. Just a tatty piece of paper scrawled with Pietersen’s address. He glanced round the room.

“I’m going to see if that van is still outside. Come to the foot of the stairs and wait for me.”

She followed obediently and waited, stifling her sobs and holding the banister. Robilliard was back in less than thirty seconds.

“It’s still there. We know that Pietersen knows something,” said Robilliard. “They probably think we know it too. We have to assume they’ve seen us.”

Sarah nodded, biting her bottom lip.

“We’re going to get out through the conservatory, into the garden. Once we’re in the garden, we only have to hop over the back wall and walk to mine as if nothing had happened. Sounds good?”

“You make it sound like a drinks invitation. If this is a date, it’s the worst one ever.” He laughed.

“Sorry: second worst. There was that guy last August.” They both laughed, for real this time.

“If we get separated, go to my house,” said Robilliard. “Here’s a spare key.” He handed it over. “If anything happens to me, go to Simmonds. Take my car if you can get to it safely. Say the word PINSTRIPE to him. He’ll understand.”

“PINSTRIPE,” she repeated.
“Ready?” he said.

Sarah looked at the dead man, agony etched permanently on his face.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The doorbell rang.

Pietersen had once spoken to Robilliard on the subject of doorbells for twenty minutes without pause. Over many years, he had formed clear views on how they ought to operate, and the kind of sound they ought to make. He gave his reasons based on historical usage, the need to interrupt activity without disturbing it, and the fundamental importance, in all societies up to but not including our own, of giving and receiving hospitality. During those twenty minutes, he never once discussed the now-topical question of what you should do if the person ringing the doorbell intends to kill you.

That was the first thing that passed through Robilliard’s mind.

The second was: What kind of assassin rings the doorbell?

The third was: How long do we have?

“Move now! Let’s go!” he commanded, unlocking and opening the basement door in one swift motion.

The doorbell rang again, but now Robilliard and Sarah were moving, quickly and silently, focused, alert. Robilliard closed and locked the basement door behind them and dropped the key in his pocket.

“Armed police!” he heard. “Open the door!”

Now they were in the kitchen, still moving fast.

Robilliard heard a crash, and wood splintering, and knew their visitors were swinging a battering ram against the door. It’s a seventeenth-century door, thought Robilliard. It’s pretty sturdy, and the locks are strong. How many blows can it take? Four, he decided, if they know what they’re doing.

A second crash. They were in the conservatory now. Robilliard’s hand was on the key.

“Ah! Tom!” Sarah was holding her ankle.

“Be quiet, deal with it, move,” said Robilliard. “You can do it,” he added, more gently.

A third crash. Robilliard was out of the door but Sarah could barely stand.

“Come here, Sarah.”

A fourth crash, and the graunching of a door being wrenched from its hinges as the ancient wood ripped and shattered.

Robilliard bent down and put his right shoulder into Sarah’s hip. He wrapped his right arm around the back of her thighs and stood up, throwing her over his right shoulder as if she were a toy.

“Armed police! We are entering the building. Stand still with your hands on your heads!”

Robilliard closed the conservatory door, locked it, and pocketed the key. He ran down the long, narrow garden, his right arm holding Sarah over his shoulder, his left extended for balance.

“Try to relax, love,” he said.

Robilliard knew the garden well. Against the bottom wall, on the right, there was a pile of old turves.

This part of town was a jumble of ancient fishermen’s cottages, squeezed around each other over hundreds of years. There would certainly be someone watching the back. Whether they knew all the walls, buildings and alleys that Robilliard knew was another matter. Even if they did, they could never watch all of them at once.

He heard muffled shouts as the police moved through the house room by room.

Robilliard was at the bottom of the garden now, still at a steady jog. He saw the wall and the turf mound. He ran up the turves as if he were stepping into a train.

The fishing quay was only fifty yards away, but to get to it Robilliard had to navigate a labyrinth of walls and outbuildings. He stepped onto the crumbling top of an old brick wall at a brisk walk. It was twenty feet, no more.

“Are you okay?” he said.

“I’m okay,” came the muffled reply.

He was halfway across the wall when he saw the police officer. He was less than thirty feet away, but he was below Robilliard, looking at head height towards the house and the road. Any sound might draw his attention. Robilliard dropped into a crouch and held Sarah tight on his shoulder. “Be very quiet and very still,” he whispered.

The officer turned and walked up the path.

Cautiously, Robilliard stood up, testing his footing on the loose old wall. He took a few careful steps and reached the cover of a workshop roof.

With his left hand on the slates and his right holding Sarah tight, he powered up to the top, driving with his legs. He felt a slate slip under his foot. He reached out his left hand and grabbed the ridge.

He waited. He watched the police officer from behind the ridge, hanging on with his left hand, but he could not support his own weight and Sarah’s on one arm for long. Which way is he going? Make up your mind, man.

The policeman dithered and then, after what seemed like minutes, but was a few seconds, he turned on his heel and dawdled amiably back the way he’d come. Don’t look up. Robilliard waited until the policeman was well behind him, and then clambered over to the other side of the ridge.

This would be the hard part, because there was nowhere to put his hand. He could feel Sarah’s weight now, but adrenalin and rage kept him moving.

Sitting on his heels, he inched his way to the bottom without dislodging any more slates. At last he reached the wall overlooking the path around the fishing quay. A six foot drop. No problem normally, but he didn’t normally have Sarah over his shoulder. Come on Robbie, get a grip.

He jumped. As he landed, he allowed his legs to crumple beneath him, breaking his fall. He would usually roll to absorb the momentum, but that would smash Sarah’s head on the pavement. So he took the whole force in his legs and body, and finished in a low crouch, head down, left hand flat on the ground. He heard himself breathing hard.

“You okay, Sarah?”

“Kind of.”

His legs and back screamed in pain, but he knew they were not badly injured. Pain is weakness leaving the body.

Robilliard stood up and ran, a steady ten-minute mile pace, until they were round the corner, well out of sight. At last he stopped.

“Down you come, then,” he said, and crouched, so her feet gently touched the ground.

Sarah was out of breath. She rubbed her ankle. It looked swollen and painful. She tested her weight on it.

“I can walk,” she said, “if I lean on you.”

Despite Sarah’s bad ankle, they went the long way, up the steps and along the top of Point Battery, the ancient harbour fortifications, because he wanted to see whether his house was being watched.

The clock struck five as they rested on the top of the ramparts that beautiful May afternoon, their arms around each other, supporting each other, looking out to sea. From time to time they spoke. To any passer-by, they were just another couple enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

Robilliard’s legs hurt like hell. He was drenched in sweat. Sarah leaned on him heavily. Her face was grey, and her eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing.

“Let’s go home,” she murmured.

And Robilliard thought, who called the police?

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