Friday, 17 January 2014

London Calling - short story by Clare O'Beara

London Calling

"London calling," said the investigator in the Moscow branch.  "Interpol wants us to send a liaison officer to them."
His superior frowned.  This might be a time to get on someone's good side by sending their son to this brief. On the other hand...
"We don't want to make it a permanent posting," he said.  "I can think of someone we can be well rid of for a few months."

Arkady Renko arrived in London overland, having endured a long wearying journey and with one bag.  Although he was well travelled, the price of a taxi staggered him.  Interpol, based in Lyons, had a branch office here in London in an ordinary office building.  Renko showed his ID and asked for his contact.
"Good to meet you, Investigator Renko," said a bluff man in his thirties with fair hair razored short.  His grey suit was practical but much better tailored than Renko's.  "I'm Derek Jameson. We've got an apartment ready for you and we'll get you a security badge for this office first thing.  Then you can meet the rest of the team."
This office kept tabs on the many immigrants and migrants in London, business people and gangsters, employers and exploiters. Renko nodded politely at the Jamaican, the Pole, the Indian, the Lebanese and the several English men and women. He was too tired to contribute much the first day, but after some days he had settled in and was running through photo recognition software of people well known to him as Russian merchants, or gangsters in this context.  In the new Russia, one often equated to the other.
"This man imports luxury cars," he said, noticing a face on a surveillance shot. 
"Yes, stolen to order, resprayed and driven across borders, sometimes hidden among cargo in trucks," said Jameson.  "Interpol keeps a lookout for stolen Range Rovers, Mercedes, Lamborghinis and the like.  The database is here... and there's one of stolen art and antiques, another very flexible commodity."
Renko had a lot to learn, including finding his way around the technology.
The investigator had been there for a few weeks, gradually gaining confidence in his peers, when the ground floor desk paged him on the mobile phone he'd been issued.
"A young man is here to see you, if that is possible," the receptionist told him.
"I'm not expecting anyone," said Renko.
"He says his name is Pribluda."

Renko stared at the young man, trying to recall the face of his friend and colleague from Moscow, all those years ago.  This man was dark-haired, with a round face, heavy eyebrows and a high forehead.
"I used to know a Pribluda," Renko said.
"My uncle," said the man simply.
"You are?"
Renko frowned.
"Vasily, in fact, but the English find Basil easier."
"Tell me about yourself," invited Renko, and they strolled to a nearby café which broadcast a scent of strong coffee.
"The man you knew had a little sister, called Anya. She says he hoarded goods. He had tins of ham and warm socks and electrical items when the Iron Curtain made importing difficult.  He had a purpose... he used them to buy his sister a place as costume maker with the Ballet, then when they went on tour, she went along, and slipped away from the supervisors.  She's been here ever since."
Renko nodded, smiling.   While Pribluda had been a chubby man, tins of ham were far too valuable to eat at a time when city dwellers lived on bread, sausage, pickle and vodka, and town dwellers had the boon of gardens which had to be pressed into service to grow vegetables that kept over winter, like cabbage. Tins and electrical goods were for bribes.
"He kept that quiet."
"As an investigator he could not afford to have a tainted family. He had to make it appear as though they were estranged for years."
"Your mother married here?"
"If you can call it that," said Bas.  "Two years of a marriage. But she got me out of it.  The man was gone by the time I was born, so I have her surname.  We live in Harlesden because it's a mixed immigrant community, cheaper housing than the better areas."
"How did you know I was here?"
"The Russian community isn't huge. I am night manager of a restaurant and people talk."
"So," said Renko, "what do you want from me?"
Bas picked up a menu.
"Can I buy you lunch?"
"You didn't come to London to eat blinis," said Bas.
Over fish and chips with a wedge of lemon, the young man opened up to Renko.
"My girlfriend has gone missing."
"Report it to the police."
"It's not that simple," he said. "She was housekeeper for a businessman.  It's an investment, a London apartment, and somewhere for him to run when the heat is on at home. His wife and children go with him to Bulgaria for skiing and sun holidays, but he doesn't bring them to London.  He wanted a girl here so he brought Nadia along, told her she was his housekeeper and gave her an allowance for when he's not here. But her duties then turned out to include in his bed, and she was beaten if she refused. I met her at the restaurant and we got chatting, she started seeing me.  If she lost her job she would have to go back to Russia, and she doesn't want that."  Bas produced a mobile phone and showed Renko photos of his girlfriend.  She had dyed blonde hair with an inch of roots showing, and she wore city fashions.  She looked young.
"How old is she?"
"Just twenty.  I'm twenty-six.  She doesn't want to be blonde, her boss insisted she dye it.  She was going to try to get a college course; he refused to allow her to study, because then she could have her own visa. But she vanished a couple of days ago and I think he's come back and taken her back."
"Back where?"
"Well, to his apartment. I don't know the address. That's what I thought you might help with.  Nadia never wanted me to show up there in case I'd get hurt - or she would - so she wouldn't tell me. She moved in with me while the boss was away, but if he found her she'd be terrified and I think she'd go with him."
"How could I find the address?  Do you have his name?"
"No, but I do have his car registration.  From a photo she sent me of herself on her phone.  She's not answering now, but he'd take it away from her."
"I'll look into it," said Renko. "No promises."  He was thinking that he was no longer young and his body had been through enough rough work, but still, he could remember being the same age as this earnest, grey-eyed young man.
"I just want to help her escape," said Bas.

Interpol communicated with the Met and a plate read was returned with a name and address.
"What do you know of this man?" Renko asked Jameson.
"Feet in trouble everywhere he steps.   We keep an eye on his movements but we've nothing solid... we'd love an excuse to investigate his premises, see what exactly he's moving and who his contacts are. Rumour says he traffics women. They move money between dozens of bank accounts, use tax avoidance, make occasional donations to charity as a tax loophole, appear to be solid burghers. He's got hired muscle in case of kidnapping. These are ruthless people, as you know, business is done with violence."
"Kensington is a wealthy area," said Renko, who had got the hang of the Tube, strolled around various streets, soaking up history, traffic, bike couriers, local character and tourists. 
"Expensive homes often don't get offered on the English estate agent boards any more.  Agents know where the money is. Arabs and Russians are getting first pick."
Neither Bas nor Nadia had any criminal background, to Renko's pleasure. Criminals didn't normally walk into an Interpol office, but one could never be too careful.

Renko phoned Bas. 
"I have some information, but you must understand that I have no police standing here.  I can't make arrests. If this girl is being harmed, she can make a complaint in a police station."
"If I could just find out if she's there, if she's okay or being ill-treated," begged the young man. 
After further consideration, and a pleasant meal at Bas's restaurant with Interpol picking up the tab, and Anya chatting volubly in Russian about the days before she was free, Renko relented.  He and Bas sat in the young man's car at a corner of the road and watched the house.  A whole three-storey town house was this businessman's hedge against inflation or unfriendly competition, with a railed park across the road.  A couple of hours passed with no result. They did not wish to ring the bell and draw attention and censure on Nadia, if she was inside, and traffic was brisk enough that their presence went unnoticed.
Bas talked about his Jafraican neighbours, and the Armenian dry-cleaners, while nannies and children with balloons walked past to play in the park.  Renko, liking this young man, ventured some stories of Havana, and of a fishing vessel in the North Atlantic.  London was warmer than Moscow in this autumn, and there were worse places to be.
A car with tinted windows drew up and parked - illegally, Renko thought - near the townhouse in question. A man in a long coat got out and walked up to the door they'd been watching. Blinds were down barring a view inside, but he rang the bell. 
"This doesn't look good," muttered Renko, his instincts sending a warning.  He jotted a note of the car's number plate.
The door opened and a girl with blonde hair was visible.
"Nadia."  Bas sat straight. They were too far away to be sure, but Renko thought the girl had bruising on her face.
The newcomer pushed past the girl and she appeared to fall in the hallway.  Bas was out of his car in an instant, and cursing under his breath, Renko followed. His joints creaked from sitting. Next they heard shots. Bas didn't slow.  Renko did. More shots pierced the afternoon air on this pleasant street. The man who'd arrived stumbled out the door and back to his car, a pistol dangling from his right hand. Blood splattered the pavement.  He got into the driving seat and started the engine, moving out without indicating. Renko was already phoning for aid, giving the police the plate and other details. Then the investigator continued to the door.
"She's okay, just shocked," Bas said as he helped Nadia out to the street.  Her eyes were wide and her hair was blonde all the way to the roots, but the bruising on her cheek told its own tale, and she was clinging to the young man's arm.
"Stay right there.  The police are coming," Renko instructed, and Bas nodded.
"Police," he called out in English and in Russian.
Inside Renko found a man slumped in the hallway, a bulky man with a gun on the floor beside him and blood staining through the back of his jacket.  A quick touch of his fingers told Renko that the man had no pulse.  He investigated the downstairs room off the street, which had lights showing. This was a crime scene, but there might be someone he could help; there might be someone who could shoot first, as well.
The man in this room was past either option. He was sprawled back in a leather swivel chair, and a few bullets had found their mark. A sharp smell of blood stained the air. There was a laptop computer open on the desk, and a screen showing. Renko pulled on the thin latex gloves all police carried nowadays, before touching anything.  The screen was open to a bank account with over a million pounds in the balance.
"Renko! Police car coming," called Bas from outside.
Renko made a swift bank transfer of one million pounds to an account number he knew by heart, the charity Children of Chernobyl.  Then he left the house. 

London Calling was the winning entry in the competition held on The Dark Pages to celebrate the launch of Tatiana, the brilliant new thriller from Martin Cruz Smith.

No comments:

Post a Comment