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95

Tycienski threw himself like a tennis ball down flights of stairs. He was immensely cheerful now that he was free again. His legs were filled with such unbounded energy that it was as if they were borrowed from another animal.

At the bottom of the bottommost stair was a sequence of dingy corridors. There was that venerable grey-tinged avocado plastered across the walls which you usually find in dated council youth facilities. An uneasy hush floated over these corridors, the soundlessness of oil rolling over water, with occasional restless flickers and squeaks in the distance.

Tycienski could not help creeping down this corridor; he could not hold back his blood from racing with a distinct, almost pleasant feeling of mischief. He told himself sternly that this was inappropriate, that he might be in real danger. Imagine being shot or strangled whilst in this frivolous mood!

As he had suspected, there were no policemen guarding the doorways.

The restless noises ahead became louder and more recognisable. The gulp of a door opening. Something being placed on a table. From the airiness rising around him, Tycienski was evidently approaching a network of larger rooms, no doubt the kitchens.

He would need to have something to say if he was challenged.

I’m new from the agency. I’m here for the night shift.

Oh dear, it sounded like that spell which the protagonist utters at the beginning of a porn scenario to commence the action. He pictured himself marching into the kitchen, with a lewd sneer fixed to his face, to meet a miraculously accommodating blonde.

He then cursed his stupidity. He would have to remember to say this in Polish.

He paused in what was definitely a significant doorway. He could see a section of the kitchen: large metal extractor fans, cauldrons, and worktops. The first person visible to him was Agata and this gave him the surprised, relieved assurance that luck was on his side. She was standing beside a workstation, apparently studying a mobile phone.

Next, Tycienski’s gaze shot to two women who were sitting in a cabin office across the kitchen, in front of a single desktop. They were watching what looked like live footage.

After some frantic fiddling, Tycienski had snatched a photograph of the women on his phone. The camera-shutter sound effect had sounded horribly crisp but neither of the women had turned. Tycienski zoomed in on their computer screen.

The footage appeared to be showing some kind of conjuring trick. There were hands inserting swords into a large cumbersome box.

A safe. Yes, the box was the size of a safe.

It was time to go. Tycienski ran through the kitchen with his head down and he snagged Agata, dragging her along after him. She exclaimed once under her breath but otherwise caught up to run dutifully alongside him. They passed ovens which were so numerous and in such a jumble that they might have been on display on a warehouse shop floor. Tycienski soon pointed them into an unattended storeroom. He shut the door noiselessly behind them and stacked several boxes of tinned goods into a quick tower underneath the door handle to jam it into place.

He left Agata standing in the middle of the room whilst he went over to inspect the windows. They were too small to break out of if things got hairy.

He turned back to Agata. He had not yet decided what tone to take with her. When he began to speak, it sounded clipped and professorial. To his displeasure, he was a centigrade or so below a comfortable warmth.

She was still pretty, with those same dopey cow eyes and a kind of unthinking pout sitting within her face. Her sandy hair had been dyed this way and that, and there was still a twinge of purple in it somewhere. Sexually, Tycienski knew, she was exactly the right size for him. He could press her against him and she would fit neatly under his chin.

So he talked, in his distressed, frigid voice. “Let me guess, there are a gang of you, but you all have different motivations. You’re all Polish. You yourself want to get hold of the Joppa trove because you think that it contains secret information about where to find, oh I don’t know, a hidden cave which has maps of star systems painted on the walls. Your allies privately think that this is ludicrous. They just want the safe, the money, the jewellery. You see them as philistines, but you’re all working together.”

She looked bored, uncomprehending. Whatever he said seemed always to bounce off her brain without being properly absorbed. Her eyes did not widen at his deduction and indeed she did not appear to think it remarkable in any way. Then, strangely, she smiled. “Biggy, it’s always the same with you.”

Tycienski glowered. “What do you mean?”

“If you only opened your mind for once. It’s not a cave – it’s evidence Biggy, evidence that they were far more sophisticated than we ever thought. Can’t you understand why I want to learn?”

A million devastating comments rose up against the dam of Tycienski’s angry silence, but then sank again. Replying to her would lead only to an argument, raised voices, slammed doors. “So who else is in the gang?” he asked finally.

“Come and meet them. They don’t bite.”

“The three upstairs?”

“They are our friends. They work together as security guards – in the Edinburgh University library. We met them in the pub. They thought it funny – what we were asking them to do.”

“There has to be a landline in here,” Tycienski was muttering. “Ah, over there.”

Agata was unexpectedly alert. “What are you doing?”

“Calling the police. Our mobiles are jammed.”

She froze and then shook her head, blinking. “Biggy, open your mind. Use some positivity for once…”

Tycienski told the lady who inhabited 999 about the circumstances at Joppa Grange and the lady sounded entirely unfazed. The police, it seemed, dealt with things like this every day. A convoy of genuine police cars would soon appear, as instantly as a fairy godmother. If he would continue to stay on the line…

Tycienski put down the phone. “What have you done with the service staff?”

Agata was bored again. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen them.”

“Come with me.” Tycienski scraped away the boxes which were propping up the door handle. He stuck his head out into the kitchen.

There was a trail of distant footsteps and then silence.

He beckoned Agata. She traipsed after him sullenly as he advanced theatrically down the corridor. At last, he arrived outside a walk-in fridge. This was surely what Tycienski was looking for.

The door swung open to reveal a blameless interior, with trolleys in a row and goods stacked meekly on shelves. Tycienski was disconcerted and he then quivered, as if he had been tapped on the arm. No, they couldn’t have?

The fridge was semi-detached, with the walk-in freezer next door. Tycienski marched impetuously to the freezer door and flung it open.

A couple of faces looked up but most of them barely stirred. There were dozens of them huddling together. Tycienski was wrenching at clothing, falling over himself in trying to herd the stupefied agency workers out into the kitchen. They automatically stopped again at the door to the freezer, causing a bottleneck, and for a brief moment Tycienski felt nightmarishly that he was the only living figure within a batch of rocking statues. He shoved and pulled at indistinguishable human pillars.

Agata was watching from the side, blinking thickly. “They could have been killed – this freezer is airtight!” Tycienski yelled at her. She gazed at him and them as if they were all just a lot of predictable nonsense. Tycienski read this as insolence and he briefly wanted to take a spare second from saving lives to throw a punch at her.

The service staff were gradually pouring out of the freezer with the maddening slowness of ketchup from a glass bottle. Tycienski ripped the side off a cardboard box and began to flap air into their faces.

“You have to run!” Tycienski cried. “When they get here, they’ll shoot me and put you back in the freezer.” But without a word the service staff had all settled down to crouch or kneel on the floor again. Satisfied that the freezer had been completely evacuated, Tycienski started to herd all of these staff before him, out towards the back door of the kitchen. The thick plastic strips of a hygiene curtain roamed over them like huge paws. He had to leave three of the staff lying insensible outside the freezer. They could be retrieved once the police were here.

[Next instalment: “Up On The House.”]

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