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.