Adam’s whole body convulsed, the way it always did on re-entry. Purple stains blossomed on the inside of his eyelids, the tendons in his legs and arms strained, and his chest tightened until his lungs felt like they were being crushed. He clenched his teeth and clutched the worn leather of the armrests, and waited for the convulsions to pass.
When his body finally relaxed he stayed where he was and took deep breaths, waiting while the nausea subsided, then hauled himself up in the chair and pressed his knuckles to his eyes until the purple spots began to fade.
The intercom clicked on. “Adam. Are you all right?” Femi’s voice sounded worried, as usual.
Adam nodded, still massaging his eye sockets. “I’m fine,” he called. “Just give me a minute.”
“It’s just that I’m looking at your readings here, and they don’t look good.”
“I said I’m fine!” The shout echoed off the white tiled walls of the camber. There was silence over the intercom. Adam lowered his hands and looked up. Femi was gazing at him through the wire mesh of the observation window, his arms folded and one eyebrow raised.
“Sorry.” Adam raised his hands in apology. “Just tense today. Not sure why.”
“You can’t keep doing this, you know,” Femi warned, returning his attention to the bank of monitors in front of him.
“I’ll talk to Jennifer tomorrow.”
“Talk to her today.”
“You know I can’t do that. Not right now. First thing tomorrow. I promise.”
“All right.” Femi sighed and tapped at a keyboard. “What colour are we?”
Adam swung his bare feet over the edge of the battered chair, which looked like it had been salvaged from an abandoned dentist’s surgery. It stood on a raised plinth in the middle of a featureless white room, overshadowed by a mass of wires and cabling that descended like tentacles from the ceiling. Adam was dressed in a white one-piece outfit, like a mechanic’s overall but made of a light, rustling material. Dark marks, like burns, circled the cuffs and ankles; the whole outfit steamed slightly.
“It’s a code red,” he said.
“Location?” Femi tapped the information into his computer.
“Central London. Mayfair.”
“And we’re due at … 5.53pm.”
“What time is it now?”
Femi checked his watch. “10.36am,” he said.
“Hmm.” Adam frowned. “Early again. Recalibrate the system when we’re done. We can’t keep overshooting like this.”
Femi tapped a final key, then looked up from the monitors. “Ok. That’s it. You’re good to go. Good luck.”
Adam took a deep breath and heaved himself out of the chair. He winced, feeling his joints crack as his bare feet touched the tiles. For a second his vision swam, and he swayed on his feet until it settled. It was getting worse with every trip, and he wasn’t getting any younger. He would have to tell Olivia soon — but not yet. Once she knew it would be the end for sure, and he wasn’t ready to stop. Not yet.
A heavy airlock-style door led him out of the featureless white room to a short, bare corridor lined with doors. The second door on the left opened into a stark concrete room containing a metal table and a row of shiny metal lockers, with a sink and a mirrored cabinet in the corner.
He went to the lockers first, opening them one by one until he found what he was looking for: a pin-striped suit on a hanger, together with a crisp white shirt and a paisley tie. He took out a long woolen coat as well, and a pair of shiny brown brogues, then shrugged off the white overall and pulled on the new clothes, wincing as he drew the shirt across a raw area of pink flesh that crossed his ribs and back.
When he was dressed he shuffled over to the mirror and inspected his face. It looked worse than he remembered, the lines deeper and the skin baggier. This was going to take some work.
He opened the cabinet and took out a razor and a can of shaving foam. He squeezed out a clump of the foam into his hand and spread it slowly over his chin and neck, then rinsed the razor and gingerly scraped the foam off, leaving behind a faint grey shadow. A tin of hair cream, worked into the grey tousled mess on his head, leant him a sort of tattered dignity. He took another look at himself and laughed. If only Olivia could see him now. He could almost pass for one of those insufferable city types.
On the table was spread an array of items: an Oyster card, a fold of banknotes, a prepaid mobile phone, a digital wristwatch, and a small black holdall. He pocketed everything, slung the holdall over his shoulder, and slipped the watch on to his wrist. He checked the display, where a row of digits was steadily counting down: 07:06:23 … 22 … 21 … More than six hours to kill. He might as well go. At least there would be time for sightseeing today.
He arrived at Embankment Tube Station at half past eleven, just as the lunch crowds were beginning to emerge. Embankment Place was a mass of bodies, everyone in a rush, everyone on their way to somewhere. Young men and women in sharp suits barged past him as he emerged from the station into a crisp, cold afternoon; he let them, and watched as they hurried off to the coffee shops and delis that lined the steep, narrow street. This was the part he most enjoyed: the calm before the storm.
He picked his way through the crowds, pausing at Trafalgar Square to take in the enormous Christmas tree. A couple asked him to take their picture as they posed in front of the tree; he obliged, smiling graciously as they thanked him, then checked the watch again: there was still plenty of time to treat himself.
He crossed Trafalgar Square and jogged up the steps to the National Gallery, where he spent an hour looking at the paintings. When he was finished he went for a walk across the river, pulling up the collar of his coat against the biting wind as he crossed the bridge above the choppy waters of the Thames. On the South Bank he browsed through second-hand books on the rickety tables under Westminster Bridge, watched street performers struggle to find an audience, and finally made his way back over the river for a late lunch in a pub restaurant. He sat by the window, sipped iced tea, and waited for the afternoon to pass.
At four-thirty he left the pub and walked back through Trafalgar Square, up Charing Cross Road to Leicester Square, then across the square to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street. The sun was setting, leeching the colour from the sky and drawing out an amber glow from the shopfronts. Above the street Christmas lights winked on, suspended over the traffic like brilliant white cobwebs. Adam did not stop to look at them. He turned off the main road, passing the Royal Academy of Arts, then down smaller and smaller streets until finally he cut through the Royal Arcade and found himself on Albemarle Street.
As he emerged from the arcade he stopped and looked both ways. It was quieter here, the noise of Regent Street a distant murmur. The white stone of the terraced buildings glowed in the streetlights, while light spilled out from under the awnings of cafes and from the windows of the Pret A Manger on the corner. Black taxis queued patiently in front of the Browns Hotel.
He turned right and walked past the hotel to the jewellers that stood next door, then stopped outside the shop and turned slowly in a circle, surveying the street once more. Once he was satisfied he stepped into the road and crouched down by the kerb, ignoring the passing traffic as he took something from the holdall and placed it in a crack in the tarmac. When he was finished he stood up, brushed himself down, adjusted his coat and walked into the shop.
The jewellers was empty: it was the end of the day, and the sales assistant was about to close the till. Nevertheless she smiled politely as Adam entered.
“Good evening, sir,” she said. “May I help you?”
“Yes …” Adam peered around the small interior, looking for the security cameras and scanning the exits. “Tell me: do you have a silent alarm on the premises?”
The smile froze on the woman’s face. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
“A silent alarm,” Adam repeated, checking the sight-line from the counter to the street. “To alert the authorities, should there be a robbery.”
“I really don’t think I—”
“In about—” Adam checked his watch “—two minutes a gang of armed men are going to arrive on motorbikes, come through that door and steal your merchandise. I suggest you activate your silent alarm now, the faster to receive help when they do.”
The woman took a step away from him, and her eyes flicked towards the phone by the till. “Maybe it would be a better idea if I just called the police now,” she said.
Adam shook his head. “Not fast enough. It must be the silent alarm. The armed response unit has orders to attend immediately to any break-in at this address, and there is about to be a break-in.”
“Sir, is this a threat?” The woman’s voice trembled, and she edged closer to the till.
“Not at all.” Adam sighed and checked his watch again. “One and a half minutes.” He looked up at the woman, who had darted over to the phone and was lifting the receiver. “Do what you must. The regular police will take approximately seven minutes to respond to your call, so I suggest you take cover until they arrive.”
He turned towards the door, adjusted the collar of his coat, and waited. He could hear the woman behind him, requesting the police then giving them his description in a frightened voice. He ignored her. He had an alibi.
He raised the watch again. 00:01:44 … 43 … 42 …
Behind him the woman replaced the receiver with a click.
“You might want to take cover,” Adam said. “They have sledgehammers, possibly other weapons, and they will not hesitate to use them. They know what they want — they will take it and leave. Do not try to stop them. Forty seconds, by the way.”
He heard her scrabbling, then a door opened and closed as she left through the back. He should probably leave as well, but he was just too curious.
He could hear the bikes approaching now, their rasping whine echoing down the narrow street. Three two-stroke scooters, each carrying two passengers: one to dismount and enter the shop, the other to wait outside with the engine running. It was the standard for this type of raid.
The engines rose to a scream, then fell to a sputtering cough as the vehicles pulled up outside. Three figures burst into the shop, their faces obscured by tinted motorcycle helmets, long sledgehammers in their hands. They paused momentarily when they saw him, but immediately discounted him as a threat and moved instead to the display cases, which they proceeded to destroy in a shower of glass. Adam waited patiently whilst they scooped handfuls of diamonds from the shattered remains, carefully checking his watch as they loaded their haul into black bags.
00:00:37 … 36 … 35
The three figures looked at one another, then one of them — the leader — nodded, and at the signal the other two turned and strode out of the shop without a backwards glance.
… 26 … 25 … 24 …
The leader paused in the doorway, took a black marker pen from his pocket, and scrawled something on the door: two circles, one within the other, bisected by a vertical line.
… 16 … 15 … 14 …
He pocketed the marker and strode outside, kicking glass out of the way with his perfect white trainers.
… 9 … 8 … 7
The leader of the gang swung his leg over the pommel of the bike that was waiting for him, turning his head to check on the other two bikes. The driver revved the engine, and the leader motioned for the others to move out.
… 3 … 2 … 1 …
There was a crack and a blinding flash of light, and all three bikes were tossed away from the sudden explosion that tore a hole in the tarmac between them. The riders were flung like dolls across the road and into parked cars. For a second there was silence, like a gaping hole — then the hole was filled by the frantic screaming of car alarms and the distant wail of sirens. People began streaming out of shops and houses, some curious, most panicking, hurrying away down the street without a backwards glance.
Adam strolled out of the shop and let them flow past him, observing his handiwork with a slight air of pride. A perfect hit. Femi would be pleased.
He stayed long enough to ensure that the authorities were on their way, then left the six figures lying broken and groaning in the road and disappeared into the night without a trace.