Caspar had been recruited for some of the deception and he had been bemused, dubious, patient up until things looked like they might become serious. Whilst his wife had slept, he had reset the times on her phone and tablet from 0204 to 0304. His single finger had dipped into the plastic face of the kitchen clock and wound its moustaches on an hour. Glyda’s therapist was supposed to come at twelve the next morning and afterwards Glyda would go straight out to lunch. Today Claud Orkish would come at eleven and hopefully Glyda would be out to lunch by the time that the real therapist was on the scene.
Caspar would put the clocks back again when Glyda slept the following night, returning the missing hour. The poor lady was thus cast as the unsuspecting housewife in a fairytale, with intervening elves busy all around her, spying on her from corners and ready to make the mischief right again.
The therapist was a cat therapist. This would have readily appealed to most men with its comedic value, but Claud took an even view, just as a general might factor the chance presence of a nunnery on the battlefield into his calculations. Claud drove around the streets of Morningside until he happened upon the right sort of cat – a richly fluffy cat, with fur that was as loose as chicken feathers in his hand. The animal screeched as Claud bundled it up inexpertly and stuffed it into the carrier.
“You’re new, eh?” Glyda asked sharply at the door. She was a businesswoman – she ran a nightclub on the Lothian Road. This was obviously the face, scrunched down to a pure glare, which she would point at unpunctual bar staff and abusive customers.
Claud nodded. He was already looking past her, reading the décor, the colours. He would have liked to have visited her in her nightclub, in all of her pomp, but there were numerous pictures of it to view online. Only by making a study of Glyda in her home could he connect with the exact current of instinct that he needed.
It was all instinct. Although Claud had received next to no scientific education and he could not have said from where he got his knowledge, he was as familiar with his own neurological layout as he might be with any office plan. The detail that he was searching for was always in his immediate vicinity – say a couple of inches behind his eyeball – but in all practical respects it was as remote as a household item that had been thrown away long ago, something that was currently forgotten and buried in landfill. He would have to read this apartment, its unique configuration of books and furniture and cushions, and let all of this random clutter rain down into the blackness of his brain, until there was finally an answer, a tiny electrical correspondence. Then a world of landfill would be sieved away in an instant. The retrieved detail would leap straight into his mind, to become the most dazzling item there.
Claud is an ageless man, perhaps forty, perhaps a bit more, insofar as you can ever tell with men these days. He dresses carefully, stylishly, to ensure that your gaze finds and caresses the last soft patches of his youth. So you first notice that his hair is glossy rather than greying and that his figure is slender rather than tentatively frail. He exhibits the slightly sinister calm of a male nurse. Had she been confronted with somebody less calm Glyda would have noticed at once that his cat carrier was in fact an office waste-paper basket. She would have noticed that the cat, when it was poured out, was wailing with terror. Claud looked down at the cat with curiosity. “There is clearly a lot of negative energy in your home this week.”
Inside, Claud led Glyda to an armchair and squashed the resistant cat down into her lap. Glyda shuffled in her chair crossly. “Why is the cat screaming?”
“He is soaking up the negativity. Grip the cat.” Claud looked around him, reading the spaces between the bookshelves, the titles of the books, the drapes over the sofas…
“I would say that he is a female cat,” Glyda remarked crisply. “Och, you bugger! His… her… claws are in my… these jeans are Calvins!”
The cat and the lady were now wriggling in union, as though they were part of the same clockwork display. “You have a lover,” Claud said sternly. “Young. A university student. One of your husband’s… undergraduates?” He had not got this from the décor – earlier in the week he had paid a man to watch her apartment.
She nodded over the spitting kettle of cat, as alert as one can be during therapy. She was on the verge of saying something but she then tucked up her lips into a small cube and bit it.
“Tell me about your son.”
She shuddered. The cat froze for a split-second in her arms and next it was gone. They let it go and it bolted out of the room in exaggerated terror.
“He is from a previous relationship?”
She smiled a smile as thin as gossamer. “He is dead. I was a teenaged mum, many years ago.” She smiled again, this time with affection. “For a long time I hated it – being alone in that tiny house, day after day, with nothing but his voice going on and on and on.” Her eyes twinkled.
Claud took a last look around the apartment before plucking at his coat. “I will leave the cat here – there is a lot of negativity for it to work on.”
Caspar phoned Claud later in the week. He began to list the wrongs that had been done to him, expectantly, as if it was all simply information and Claud would know how to act on it. “There is an animal running around our apartment. Neither of us can recapture it. It has destroyed the box bedroom – shredding wallpaper, shredding the bed…”
“I am in the Loire. We are making leaps and bounds,” Claud reported. He supposed that he should address this business about the cat. “Have you put down a saucer of milk?”
“I knew we should have signed a contract,” Caspar despaired to himself.
“Mr Pitti-Conti, the reason why we did not sign a contract is because the thirty thousand you have paid is a floating sum. Whatever is not incurred in payments or expenses will be fully reimbursed. And I can promise that in your case there will be a substantial refund.”
This was news. Claud had just confirmed that he intended to steal the object rather than purchase it. But Caspar could only hear excuses and he continued to reiterate how Claud had disappointed him. A man whose value is not floating but fixed, Claud thought sadly. As the starch in his wife’s diet, as the flavourless weight in the stomach before the sweets can be enjoyed. He hung up and Caspar’s voice vanished between two firm clicks, hundreds of miles apart.
“Welcome to my château.” The Duc beamed like some ghastly unseeing machinery; he wiped his hands upon an untucked shirt that was already as blotched as chip wrappings. He turned and lumbered into motion, swaying from side to side, and Claud followed him obediently, over the cobbles of a white bridge that gleamed acutely in the afternoon sunshine and on into the dimness of the building. They entered a kind of cubby that turned out to be a rudimentary shop and the Duc took his place at the till. “I give the tours with me,” he confided significantly. He probably thought that he was collaborating with Walt Disney’s plans for France, with this Duke’s personal tour around his own sparkling château. “My father and his father and his father owned this magnificent château, all the way back to the tenth century.”
Yes, the château was magnificent, or at least pretty, Claud reflected, but it appeared to be embarrassed to the point of wretchedness by everything around it. You went down a dust track, past some eerie farm buildings, past fields so still that a crow’s caw boomed like a thunderclap, until you startled the château in a clearing behind a row of silos. You might suspect that it was really a cottage and that its lake was just a mill pond, but any confidence in its true perspective was lost in all of those turrets and towers, which were jumbled together like hats on a stand. The towers meandered up and down around a cobbled courtyard that was so small that a Mini surely couldn’t turn a circle in it.
Claud bought a ticket. How many tickets did this Duc sell? One a day? A week?
“Come on!” The Duc smiled with a mixture of encouragement and faultless patience at Claud, as though he was being forced to entertain a schoolchild. Outside again, they jogged up a stone staircase that was unconventionally steep and lacking a handrail. They arrived at a shrunken door and a chamber in which you could have stirred the gloom with a pitchfork. “This is the Summer Tower,” the Duc declared finely. “Added in the fifteenth century. The fireplace, fifteenth; the windows, fifteenth.”
Tat, Claud saw at once. All of the furniture had been purchased in some department store in the 1930s. You could walk into any antique shop in Edinburgh… in fact, you could see more remarkable specimens lined up outside such a shop in the rain.
The Duc paused for a quarter of a second to allow Claud to absorb the room, before flourishing a scrawny arm onwards. “This way!”
The tour spun on into another dreary interior. “The Rose Tower,” the Duc sang. “Seventeenth though the ceiling 1980s; that gun is seventeenth.” How do I stop this?, Claud asked himself frantically.
From over the moat came the abrupt salute of a car horn.
The Duc stopped on tiptoes. “The Duchess?”
Claud moved to the window. He could pick out bawdy voices, which were being already flung at the castle walls like rocks. “Fuck, her sisters too!” the Duc whimpered in French. Claud gathered that he boasted about his château in English and whimpered about his wife in French.
“Eh, c’m out an’ show your pig face. Your children are here.”
Rampaging on the grass verge, there were three stout women who looked as belligerent as a whole hen night. A boy and girl in smart shoes had been left a little distance back, waiting meekly under a tree.
The Duc had fled to the other side of the room. On hearing mention of his children, he flinched as if a cannon had been fired.
“I’ve had them for the last three weeks solid,” the chieftain of the women maintained. “You’re weeping in the court, oh I must have custody, oh she’s wanting not to let me see them. How can I have a sex life with them in my flat every day? Well we are going out tonight and you are having them for all the weekend!”
The Duc took Claud by the arm. “We need to go this way…”
“Yes, I’m glad we’ve got around to the subject at last. You possess something like a panic room. I’ve been contemplating the floorplan of your château and I believe that the gap is located between the curtain wall and that sixth tower.”
The Duc did not hear a third of this. He just nodded at the words “panic room.”
The door was concealed behind a tapestry that was by this century so murky that it might have depicted pondwater. The Duc now found that Claud was ushering him into his own haven. “I’ve long had a crocodile eye on this château and I fancy that the story goes rather like this. During the war, your father was a party member and there were strings he could pull in the Red Army. The Russians had carted off huge chunks of the German state art collection but eventually the time came when a lot of the booty had to be given back, on Stalin’s express orders. Your father stepped in. He purchased art which was not easily sellable in the Soviet Union. And not so easily sellable here by the looks of it.”
The Duc glared dully at Claud. He was trying to worry about the siege of his château and so what was this surplus distraction?
The panic room was conceivably rather bigger than a standard box room, but there were so many items, cocooned in wrapping and piled everywhere, that only a thin path between them was available to stand on. A space had been additionally assigned on the wall between the cocoons to exhibit a canvas. Claud glided up to inspect it.
“A self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn.” The artist looked characteristically podgy and glassy-eyed. “Well it’s… oh… goodness!”
Despite the velvety noiselessness of his movements, Claud had disturbed a fug of dust. He had sneezed explosively before he could stop himself.
“Man!” The Duc was gaunt with outrage.
I’ve never liked Rembrandt, Claud chuckled to himself. He managed to pinch away a string of phlegm from the artist’s fleshly face with his fingertips.
He spun around to the Duc with a brand new smile. “You can keep your Rembrandts. The particular piece that I want is a statue, made of terracotta.”
And if I find it, you’re going to have to scream with all of your might for weeks on end, trussed up with your own artworks in this panic room. Claud communicated this very lightly, with a bob of his eyebrows.
Fortunately for the Duc, he was unable to satisfy Claud. “I know the one. My father sell it. It was different to the others an’ he find a special buyer.”
“My client will pay very generously for any information. More, in fact, than he will spend on purchasing the statue itself.”
Unwisely, the Duc tried to haggle. “Your gnome’s castle in a pond isn’t worth that much,” Claud snapped.
After he had been begrudgingly supplied with a name and an address, Claud remembered something else. “Can I please take a photograph of the Rembrandt, or something better if you have it? I won’t identify your château, of course.”
“It’s a euro to take photos… but…” the Duc regarded him narrowly. “This only for the château main tour.”
“You see,” Claud recounted, “I have a Twitter account and I live tweet my research for a small following of art connoisseurs and experts.”
The Duc broke into beauteous smiles. “Oh me too the Twitter. I am meant to be live tweeting our tours here.”
“Gosh, we should retweet each other.”
“Yes, please yes!”
He has nine times more Followers than me, Claud would reflect enviously later.
The next day Claud was driving to the airport. He had had no breakfast and he was anxious that he would not possess the strength to fly. There was a McDonald’s beside the road and so he pulled up.
The Duc was behind the till, scowling like a cherub beneath the baseball cap. He did not recognise Claud. “You want Big Mac Deal?” he snarled, his face savage. “With Coke or Diet?”
On his way to the exit, with his meal swinging in a paper bag beside him, Claud saw the two solemn children. They were seated on high stools in front of the glass window, with a carton of uneaten French fries before them. The Duchess had evidently overrun the castle.
It is midwinter in Berlin and the cold is as dry and fine as powder. The neighbourhoods north of the Hauptbahnhof swarm with that tatterdemalion army that gathers each night in its war against the cold. Claud looks up at them as his taxi sweeps past. The poor, the homeless, their suffering is like the affairs of an unmemorable African nation to him. Next the façade of the Reichstag building catches his eye and it is as if a newspaper page has turned.
Alec Zoubaroff lives in a nineteenth floor apartment on Potsdamer Platz. The building is a light brown and just there to make up the numbers; it is dominated by the shinier and more visibly conceited wedges of steel and concrete to either side of it. Claud takes the lift up. He is here by appointment and on time.
Zoubaroff’s secretary, Reggie Quintus, is waiting for him outside the lift. A roly-poly man, who always looks as new as if he is fresh out of a box, he is today dressed in a check picnicking suit and his hair is sculpted in fanciful waves. The face in the centre of the petals is, however, rustic and doughty. Claud knows a bit of Reggie’s past: Zoubaroff had found him in the middle of nowhere, working in a petrol station or a one-room village bar, and he had gazed into those stupid eyes and seen that they were so clear you could look down to the very bottom. And at the bottom, if you fed Reggie and petted him and took him away from his hateful village, there was total, canine loyalty.
Reggie is now staring at Claud with a composed smile but with the blank alertness of a suspicious guard dog. “Alec is not here. He will be soon.” He might sometimes chuckle about his boss, “Oh he’s awful today. I’m in for a rough time this evening.” Claud knew that you should never make any sign of agreement with this, otherwise Reggie’s eyes would flash and you would be privately confirmed as holding his master in disrespect.
What I want is somewhere in this apartment, Claud thought. There are now only two or three doors between me and it.
For a Berlin art collector, Zoubaroff’s motives were of a plebian simplicity. He was infatuated with gore and he would pay lavishly for gruesome rarities and delicacies. In his lust, he was prepared to pay an equal amount for a painting of a decapitation by Caravaggio and for a spectator’s amateur scribble of a drawing and quartering. Perhaps Zoubaroff considered himself to be some sort of sophisticate; Claud viewed him as a plain nuisance, who devalued art and distorted markets.
Reggie was fiddling over some coffee apparatus. “Alec offers you a cigar,” he called over his shoulder. The cigar was waiting on the sideboard in a personalised box that resembled a glasses case.
Claud hesitated. With so much art under this roof, there was bound to be sprinklers. Reggie understood his confusion and nodded him on, apparently towards the window…
Outside, once the curtain was pulled back, there was a small balcony under an awning, with two chairs and a stupendous view across the city. The lights of the streets and buildings were now piercing when compared to the pale glimmer in the sky. Claud sat down, lit his cigar, and drank. Like most true connoisseurs, he smoked only until the first of the ash fell. After that, of course, the flavour was irreparable.
His mind drifted. Far below him, the city simply continued, like water pouring from a forgotten tap.
He heard faint movements back inside the room. This irritated him – he was unwinding like a snake here in the cigar smoke when the situation actually required every pixel of his mind to be present. He tried to concentrate on achieving full mental capacity again. For this reason, when the sound of the chainsaws struck up, directly next to his ear, he thought that he had somehow caused it by exerting his brain too much.
The curtain was flung aside. Alec and Reggie stood over him, two plump, gorgeously tailored men who were brandishing chainsaws. I’m going to have my arms and legs sliced off, Claud comprehended to his amazement. He settled down for the show – he was of a mind that was sure to relish every new experience. But Alec was sneering at him in a shrill, plastic-sounding voice over the motor of his chainsaw. “We know who you are – Claud Orkish, the international art thief!”
“Yes,” Claud replied.
“Let this be a lesson to you. We are not the men to mess with.”
As the chainsaws dipped in unison, it occurred to Claud that there was no other balcony on the vast side of this building. He felt very stupid. The entire structure was made of cheap wood and this was what the two men were about to amputate. He sat forward expectantly in his chair. When the balcony came free, the pavement below shot up to him on the scale of a cricket ball being hurled across a park into his eyes. The balcony landed with a considerable crash and Claud jumped into the air, his arms waving.
He fell and stood up quickly, not wishing to look foolish. The adrenaline was buffeting him in huge swells and he staggered on his feet. The continued stillness of the balcony now seemed to roar everywhere around him like a gale.
He swallowed back vomit. His mind danced around his body – was this broken, was that okay? He scooped up one of the chairs from the balcony and slammed himself down on it hard.
He looked around again. His balcony had landed in Potsdamer Platz, in the midst of coffee shops and restaurants. A lady was standing next to him, gibbering and clutching a length of coloured rope. Whatever the rope had been attached to was now under the balcony.
It was either the lead for a dog or the walking rope for a toddler. Claud had no desire to haul the ruins of the balcony over to ascertain which.
He greeted the lady. “Madam, you are evidently distressed at the loss of your… companion…”
A small crowd was gathering around her. Somebody was yelling, almost chanting, remonstrances at the balcony. Claud stood and forced his business card into the lady’s shaking hand. He was relieved to find that he was quite steady on his feet though he did not yet wholly trust this sensation. He needed to run straight to a hotel room and lie down on a cool fresh bed. “Here are my details Madam. My insurance is copious and it will cover burial, counselling and all of your compensation needs.” The bolder of the crowd were now trying to grab at him and he skirted nimbly through their fingers. His mind felt like oxygen that was so thin that he had to take ever larger gulps.
The feeling that Reggie Quintus is currently experiencing is as powerful as grief, though it has crept up on him imperceptibly over the last week, without any of the shock that might alert him to its full force. Last Tuesday Alec was due home after midnight. He was flying back from Paris and he had left orders to have a supper ready for him. After Alec had still not arrived by one, Reggie’s annoyance at the cooling, damp food had contained the grit of apprehension.
He looks back on that night as on a trek across hell. He had phoned Alec every fifteen minutes and the recurring ring had grown as familiar as a lover’s voice. He had sent emails; he had tried, hopelessly, to contact his boss’s colleagues and friends. This became the pattern of the subsequent days: phoning; waiting; calculating frantically; setting little deadlines for Alec to respond before he phoned again; alone with his lost, futile strokes on a great sea of loneliness.
What was so frustrating was that nobody else was interested in sharing this grief. The police registered that Alec was missing but they appeared to have concluded that he and Reggie had fallen out. Why, Alec had yesterday attended the opening of an art exhibition in Oslo. His attendance had been recorded at a fashion show.
How?, Reggie demanded. He hasn’t been home – he is missing all of his stuff.
The police inspector shrugged and Reggie could almost detect the smirk throbbing behind his watching face. “Maybe he has a secret lover. Maybe he’s staying for a while in somebody else’s flat.”
Maybe he had another secretary? Reggie had been always required to feel absolute loyalty towards Alec and yet what if this had been only ever one-sided. What if it was psychologically possible for his boss to grow bored with him and to keep an eye out for a new henchman.
When Reggie looked back over the last few weeks, in search of any remark or insinuation which might now possess massive retrospective significance, there was nothing. Irksomely, he kept getting snagged on that morning with the bird. He had awoken early one day to hear a huge bird roaming around the apartment. It must have been a seagull from the size of it. The bird’s wings had brushed the walls and it had knocked several bottles and vases over. Reggie had run out of his bedroom but the bird had already slipped out through the living-room window. Seagulls were said to be remarkably intelligent – this one appeared to have advanced from dragging things out of dustbins to making actual raids upon the kitchen.
The sting of the open wound had soon settled into an unvarying background pain. It was always there, even when Reggie was not conscious of it, when he was just trying to use up all of those hours in the loneliness of Alec’s apartment.
One day he received a visit from Claud Orkish. Claud had come to tell Reggie that he had kidnapped his employer. He was quite prepared for violence from this fat little thug – to be punched, to be spat at, to have his mother insulted. Instead, Reggie looked as if he wanted to hug him passionately.
Claud was detailing how the Zoubaroff art collection would be delivered to a mystery location, that there must be no surveillance equipment hidden in… yes, yes, Reggie hissed. Take it all – it’s all as worthless as a grain of sand when compared to Alec.
If the world had been turned upside down with the news that Alec was safe, it was given another spin when Alec stamped back into the flat the next evening. “WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN!” he bellowed. He was about to break Reggie’s arm but Reggie’s white-faced perplexity caused him to raise an eyebrow. This eyebrow was now all that stood between Alec and a massacre.
“You’re back?” Reggie prompted. “From the kidnappers?”
“You’re the one who’s helped yourself to a three-week unauthorised holiday! You’re the one who’s run off with my entire art collection!”
Reggie cringed and quailed. “I’ve been here! I’ve been in the flat every day!”
“I’ve been here! I’ve been in the flat every day! Cooking for myself – making my own bed – cleaning my own toilet!”
This was largely the same trick that Claud had played on Mrs Pitti-Conti. He had rented the identical flat directly below Alec’s apartment; he had used a drone to invade and photograph the interiors of the upstairs original; and he had then replicated these scenes as best he could downstairs. The walls and ceiling had been treated to render them mobile phone proof. The only details that he was not intending to match were Zoubaroff’s artworks.
On the night that Zoubaroff had flown in from Paris, Claud had reprogrammed the building’s lift to ensure that it stopped a floor below the one advertised on the display panel. Alec disembarked on the wrong floor and he duly arrived at the mockup of his home, to find his art collection missing and his secretary gone. In his astonishment, he was insensible to the rather flimsy, stage-scenery quality that his apartment had lately assumed. He immediately saw that he had no chance of recovering his art collection. Half of it was Nazi and Soviet loot, and so the police were never going to be natural allies.
Alec and Reggie will spend many weeks debating what happened to themselves and to the Zoubaroff art collection. They will weep; they will come to blows; they will bawl abuse; they will struggle to reconcile their impossible stories with the pleading honesty that is stamped across each other’s faces. Claud will sell almost all of Zoubaroff’s collection to recoup the costs of mocking up the apartment. Only the single item that concerns him will remain.
The present was so big that Caspar had been unable to fit it under the tree. For the first time that morning, Glyda wore a businesslike expression and she did not have a wine glass in her hand. She had come in from the kitchen, where she had momentarily left the day’s merry smile with the children. Her household was busy on Christmas day and the windows were already steamed from the cooking. She regarded her present mildly, as she would a visiting stranger who it was necessary for her to be courteous towards and politely judgemental about.
As the silver paper slithered from around it, she grew grave at its size and the unexpected terracotta colour. Then she had stopped. She stood back – she could not touch it.
It was a young man, a handsome, pleasing young man, but not a young man who you could ever smile at. He was dancing, with that utter abandonment in which the mind becomes the body and the body the mind. It was not a performance but devotional – one of those acts, as in prayer, when you briefly, directly connect with the rawness of the universe.
This young man might have been naked but he had huge flaps or scales draped across his torso. And from somewhere in the landfill, from down in the depths of years of fallen clutter, Glyda knew that this young man was an acolyte and that he was dancing in human skin. She could have told you straightaway that he was Aztec and, with a little straining, she might have placed him as early medieval. But she knew without question that he was dancing in the flayed skin of another, older man.
The first man had been tired, bored, and jaded. He had made a lazy mistake on the battlefield and he had been captured. The priests had held him down over a stone and for more beats than you might suppose his bloody heart had slipped and shuffled enraged in the executioner’s bare hands. Now this young man danced in his skin and soon he would step out, new and naked, and it would be his time in the world.
The Christmas scene was still there unaltered at Glyda’s side and waiting for her reaction. “Where did you get it?” she asked drily. She suddenly wanted to down a whole glass of wine.
Caspar smiled. “Oh I bought it myself. In an antique shop – I knew that it would be just the thing.”