The Russia Syndicate, Chapter Two

Today, in the offices of Simmonds Chartered Surveyors, Auctioneers and Estate Agents, it was just another normal Tuesday.
Robilliard went out at ten o’clock for a series of routine meetings. When he returned at half past three, Sarah was waiting in his office. She closed the door behind him.
“Tom, where have you been? You’ve not been picking up your phone.”
“James Parnell and I went for lunch after the meeting.”
“For two hours? The lady in fifteen Lombard Street has called three times. There’s a leak from number thirteen and it’s going all over her back porch.”
“Sounds like an overflow pipe. Have you called the plumber?”
“Tom, number thirteen is Mr Pietersen’s house. We need to go round there ourselves. That’s why I’ve been trying to call you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think about it. You had that weird conversation with Pietersen last Wednesday. He wasn’t at the café this morning. Now the neighbour says there’s a leak. He’s not been answering his phone. Don’t you think we should at least go round and take a look?”
“Get the plumber round there. Let’s wait and see what he says. I really don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
“You were worried this morning.”
“I was surprised. We don’t have time to drive round Portsmouth chasing after missing tenants.”
“You were worried. It will only take half an hour. You were happy enough to spend two hours boozing with James Parnell.”
“He’s a very important client.”
“Yes, he is. And Pietersen’s one of your best friends.”
“I can’t drive. I’ve had a couple of drinks.”
“More than a couple, knowing you and James. I’m insured on your car. I’ll drive.”
“There’s no point both of us going. I’ve got a bit of work to catch up on.”
“I don’t give a shit,” said Sarah. “You’re coming. Put your coat on.”

Robilliard lived round the corner from Pietersen’s house, so they parked in his space and walked.
“What are we looking for?” said Sarah. “Are we looking for a leak, or are we looking for Pietersen?
Robilliard did not answer.
A few fishing boats idled on the quay, their catch unloaded hours ago, their crews in the pub not long after that. The late afternoon sun broke into a million fragments on the sea. The Isle of Wight ferry was ready to sail. This is a town of arrivals and departures, thought Sarah.
Lombard Street is a rather pretty jumble of old-fashioned brick cottages, with parking opposite. Today there was just a plain blue van, with an elderly refrigeration unit on the roof.
There it was: number thirteen, opposite the blue van. A heavy black door, a heavy black knocker, and a steady dribble of water from an overflow pipe on one side of the house, spattering onto the neighbour’s back porch.
“It’s only a cistern overflow,” said Robilliard.
“Come on,” said Sarah.
The key turned smoothly in the lock. Robilliard pushed the door wide open, looked, and entered. Sarah followed him in and pushed the door shut behind her. The lock clicked shut.

The house was dark, and the polished floor was dark. Their eyes took a moment to adjust from the bright sunlight outside. Robilliard took a few careful paces forward along the hall passageway. His footsteps seemed loud in the heavy silence.
“This way,” said Robilliard. Sarah followed him upstairs to the bathroom.
Robilliard found and repaired the cause of the overflow within seconds, but it did not set his mind at rest.
“What is it?” said Sarah, seeing his confusion.
“The ballcock was tied down, so the cistern kept filling.”
“Someone did it on purpose?”
“Someone wanted it to overflow,” said Robilliard. “Why would you want to make a cistern overflow?”
They stood in a thoughtful silence for a moment.
“Can I have a look at that piece of string?” said Sarah. “How was it tied?”
Robilliard passed her the piece of thin cord.
“Funny you should ask. One end was a round turn and two half hitches, and the other end was a clove hitch.”
“Pietersen likes knots, doesn’t he? Most people would tie a granny knot. Look at this.”
She showed him a part of the cord that had black marks on it.
“It’s old cord. So what?”
“There’s a pattern.”
He looked again. There was indeed a pattern to the marks, and now he looked more carefully, they were not just grubby stains, but had been made deliberately with a black marker pen.
“I know exactly what this is,” he said. “It’s Morse code. Look: dit dah dah dah — dit dah dah dit. JP, Jonathan Pietersen. He’s signed it.”
“Pietersen sabotaged his own cistern,” said Sarah. “He made it overflow, knowing it would annoy his neighbour, and that she would call us. This was his way of summoning us to his house.”
“Why did he want us to come here?”
“That’s what we need to find out. Come on.”
The room next to the bathroom was Pietersen’s study. They went in. There was a large fireplace on the inside wall, and a pair of sash windows overlooking the street on the outside wall, their curtains closed. Every other inch of wall was taken up with bookcases, numbered with polished brass plates at the top of each column of shelves. In front of the windows was a large wooden desk, topped in red leather. A pair of red leather armchairs sat in one corner of the room, with a small table between them.
“You’ve got to hand it to Pietersen, he knows how to live,” said Robilliard.
Sarah walked over to the window, pulled back the edge of the curtain, and peered out. The blue van was still there.
“There’s nothing obvious here,” she said. “Let’s look downstairs.”
They walked downstairs and back along the hallway to the sitting room. Robilliard remembered it as a light, airy, comfortable room. Today, the curtains were drawn shut, and the room was dark, and strangely empty, as if Pietersen had moved out, but not yet collected his furniture. Robilliard noted the oversized fireplace, and the familiar leather armchairs with their side tables. Pietersen did not own a television. He and Pietersen had passed many long evenings here with a bottle of Pietersen’s whisky. “We tired the sun with talking,” Pietersen would say, as Robilliard left unsteadily, “and sent him down the sky.”
There was an ashtray on one of the tables, half full. Mostly Camels, Pietersen’s brand, and one slim cigar butt. Pietersen did not smoke cigars.
In front of the window stood a large desk. Sarah glanced over it. “He’s not finished his sudoku puzzle,” she whispered.
“Check the drawers,” Robilliard whispered back. “Perhaps he’s left a note.”
Why are we whispering, he thought.
The walls, like the ones upstairs, were entirely covered with numbered bookcases.
Sarah looked out of the window. The blue van had gone, and a white electrician’s van had taken its place.
“I think we’re being watched,” she said, and told Robilliard about the vans.
“That doesn’t seem very plausible,” Robilliard replied. “Nobody knows we’re here.”
“But perhaps somebody knows that Pietersen was here,” said Sarah. “Perhaps someone wants to see who visits.”
She turned, letting the curtain fall back, and brushed her hand over the smooth, cool leather of Pietersen’s desk. It looked as though it was regularly polished. Pietersen was so careful with everything. He never left anything unfinished.
“Sudoku!” She sat down at the desk and studied the sudoku.
“What do you mean?”
“Pietersen would never leave a puzzle half-finished. He’s completed three sets of three numbers, but one of them is wrong.”
“So what?” said Robilliard.
“I think it means something.” She waved her arms at the bookcases. “How many people have numbered bookcases? Look.” She handed him the book, her finger pointing to the wrong answer. Their fingers briefly touched, and they smiled at each other.
Sarah was right. “1-6-9,” he read. “Column, shelf, book?”
“I think so, yes.”
“I can’t see bookcase number one.”
“It must be in the basement,” said Sarah. “The lowest number in here is five, and the ones upstairs were higher.”
They walked back up the hallway. The door to the basement was in the kitchen. “Let’s have a quick look round while we’re here,” said Sarah.
The kitchen, was clean, tidy and spacious, as was the gloomy, curtained conservatory behind it. The door to the conservatory was open. Sarah went in and tried the back door key. It unlocked easily. She opened the door and found herself in a long, narrow garden, accessible only from here. She closed and locked the door. Satisfied, she walked back into the kitchen.
Robilliard was looking at the washing machine. It was full of wet towels.
“He left in a hurry,” he said. “Let’s go downstairs.”

The basement had been laid out years ago as a self-contained guest flat, with a bedroom at the back, a cosy sitting room at the front, and a bathroom in the middle. There was a door at the top of the stairs leading down to it, to give privacy to the friend or grandparent that was staying there, or perhaps to keep them out of the way. The key was in the lock, on the house side of the door. Robilliard moved it to the basement side. The feeling that someone could lock him in was one of his great aversions.
They walked down the stairs. The door to their left was open. They could see shelves and bookcases.
This was the room that had been a bedroom. Pietersen had made it a kind of archive. There was a small long window at the top of the far wall, which gave onto the street, at pavement level, in front of the house. The walls were covered with numbered bookcases, like upstairs. Some of the shelves held books, some had files, and others had cardboard boxes, neatly labelled. An auction catalogue lay on top of one of the shelves, open at a notable recent lot: the Solent forts. In the middle of the room were two more rows of shelves, back-to-back.
“Pietersen needs to start using a computer,” said Robilliard.
He looked at the brass number plates. Bookcase number one was behind the door. He counted six shelves down from the top, and nine books along from the left. Homer’s Odyssey, Rieu’s translation. He flicked through it. A postcard fell out. The picture was of a floating casino in Gibraltar, and a name: Halcyon. On the back, in Pietersen’s writing: Wish you were here! He passed it to Sarah, who looked at it curiously.
The middle shelves were full of box files, with the names of Pietersen’s accountancy clients and the years neatly written on the sides in black marker pen. Robilliard recognised many of the names. Most of them were local property developers that he dealt with at Simmonds.
A whole section of box files had the same name: SOTHERBY, C.
Robilliard had dealt with Caroline Sotherby many times and considered her a friend. She was well-known in the town – almost a local celebrity – and had been a Simmonds client for years, like her parents before her. She attended a local school, went up to Cambridge to read modern languages, and qualified as a solicitor. After a few years in London law firms, she tired of selling her soul, as she put it. She returned to Portsmouth for the quality of life and the sea air, and to pursue her pet project: a charity helping refugees in North Africa.
“Isn’t that Caroline Sotherby’s yacht?” said Robilliard, looking at the postcard over Sarah’s shoulder.
“Yes, it is, although I think it’s more Emma’s project than Caroline’s.” She gave the postcard back to Robilliard, who put it in his pocket.
Emma Lancaster was Caroline’s partner in business and in life. Emma was less than a year younger than Caroline, but her energy, her impish sense of humour, and her enthusiasm for life made her seem younger than her thirty-seven years. Nothing was ever especially serious or important for Emma. Caroline – steadier, measured, practical – valued that difference.
“We sat next to each other in a lecture one day,” Caroline told Robilliard over the third bottle of wine one summer evening.
“We hadn’t finished our conversation, so we went for coffee,” said Emma.
“And nineteen years later, we still haven’t finished it.”
“Because she never lets me have the last word,” said Emma, who always had the last word.
Portsmouth business gossip had it that Caroline was in trouble. It was true that she had sold some properties lately: Robilliard handled the sales personally. But he had no interest in gossip.
“What do you think?” said Robilliard.
“I know what it means, but I don’t understand why.”
“We’ll go back to mine and think this through. Let’s have a look in the other room first. More archives, probably.”
Sarah opened the door. It was not more archives.

Click here for Chapter Three