Follows, The Job and The First Date. Part 1.
When you live your life on the margin that’s practically a lifetime.
‘You are exceeding the speed limit,’ she told me.
‘No shit!’ I replied as I pushed the Aston Martin to over a hundred.
There was no way they were to going to keep up. Not that I knew who ‘they’ were, and in my line of work you don’t stick around to find out.
‘You are driving at an unsafe speed … again.’
The ‘again’ hit a nerve.
‘Look I’m the one doing the driving. Got that?’
‘Very funny. ‘
Trust me when I tell you there can be a drawback to having an ‘intelligent’ Sat-Nav.
I glanced in the mirror.
It all started with a dropped crisp packet. I swear I would have picked it up, but that mouse really had an attitude. I looked at him, he looked at me, we both looked at the empty crisp packet lying on the floor. He folded his arms and started to tap his foot impatiently. That really wound me up.
“What’s it got to do with you?’
Mickey Mouse flashed me his sheriff's badge. Now would have been the time for any sensible person to apologise and just have picked it up, but not me, oh no, not me. Mr Rebel Without a Cause, just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
‘Why don’t you make me.’
It was then that Donald and Goofy suddenly appeared and things started to get really weird. I wouldn’t have minded, but it hadn’t even been my crisp packet to begin with.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, whilst being chased by some very irate Disney characters, I ran into the men with the shiny shoes. Government slash ex-military types, you can always tell, no one can get shoes looking that shiny without some serious training. Time for me to exit stage left. They shouldn’t have been there for me, and probably weren’t, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
For someone who liked to be invisible being followed was a little disconcerting. I did a quick mental check, none of my last few jobs were over my self-imposed limit of $100k and to the people I stole from that was just change. There was Julian and he would sell me out in a heartbeat, but right now I was useful to him. That just left her.
I’d waltzed into a company and stolen my $100k without once realising she was there doing the same thing. Then she’d stolen the money from me and disappeared. Not that any of this was personal, far from it.
If this was a film I’d scan a photograph into a computer, run a search of all the world’s CCTV’s on my laptop and by the time I had made a Cappuccino I would have a location. Then I would fly in the private jet, that I somehow acquired, to some exotic location and after a few hair-raising stunts, preferably performed by someone else, I’d have everything wrapped up by dinner.
Except it isn’t.
What did I know about her? Kept cats, I don’t think so. Fake name, fake Id, rented property, completely sanitised. The references, one fake company after another, several overseas just to make the trace harder. She was very good at the paperwork, no way in whatsoever. I visualised her desk, usual ‘personal’ items and potted plants, undoubtedly just props. She read library books during lunch time. Why library books, some personality leakage from her real life? I broke into the local library that night. Her library records told me she read art books, mostly about Monet. Not enough to go on. Question, why had she been there? Alternate question, why had I been there? Answer, because of the newspaper report about the billionaire American owner. The report was practically begging someone to take him down a peg or two. Who wrote the report? Some more research. Female correspondent, freelance, nothing known about. Either, she had a grudge against the owner and everything else was just a coincidence or I’d followed a trail of bread crumbs. I needed to find her and France was as good as any place to start.
I glanced in the mirror. Not there. A few more minutes and I would lose them completely.
My phone rang, it was Julian.
‘Hello, err …,’ he knew the name just not the one I was using at that precise moment.
‘Roger Thornhill.’ I prompted.
‘Of course, I’m afraid there is not much on your mysterious girlfriend.’
‘I’m sure you’ve found something, you’d wouldn’t have called otherwise.’
‘How well you know me. Word is, she used to work for the Collector.’
I had a vision of a Bond villain stroking a pussy, the four legged variety.
‘There was a falling out, and now she’s on the run.’
‘Her name?’ The Bond villain wasn’t my problem.
‘That’s not much and considering what I am offering in return?’
‘But you haven’t actually got it yet have you?’
‘Fair point, how about a down payment?’
’She’s 55 miles south east of you.’
I damn near totalled the car at that one.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’ll get back to you.’
Stripping down the Aston Martin down to find whatever tracker Julian had somehow managed to install would have to wait. Right now the men with shiny shoes were back in sight.
It was going to be a very long day.
I was playing the percentages, our American friend had just bought a Monet and had his own private museum in the South of France, it was practically an invitation. True, she might never go near the place, but the odds were good, particularly given her current location. What would I do? I’d go for it. So the key was getting in ahead of her. A quick internet search gave me a lot of general background, there was even a virtual tour of the place. Ancien Regime on the outside, all high tech on the inside. The sensible thing would have been to spend some time planning, but I couldn’t wait.
It was a two laptop problem. Laptop one running Tails with a TOR browser for the general scoping and laptop two running Kali for the penetration testing to look for the openings. Over the years I’ve developed a lot of scripts for this sort of thing, you let the computers do the hard work, the skill comes in the interpretation of the results and the planning a way in.
Whoever was doing the security was good, but not quite good enough, I wouldn’t even need a physical entry. I assembled the necessary programs, to loop the CCTV, change key codes, manipulate locks and sensors, delete various entry logs and so on. With everything to be run from my iPhone. The last set of programs were to detect someone else trying to do the same thing. It was at this point when I had a slight problem.
‘Crap!’ I shouted as laptop number two started spewing out errors at something approaching Mach One, missing this, that and the other, permission denied, install fails and just about every error code you could imagine.
There was a time when I would spend hours on end, tracking down errors, researching problems and writing the corrective code, but there comes a point when sub-contracting becomes attractive. Obviously, I don’t exactly advertise, and one has to be extremely careful, but over the years I have developed a sort of ‘approved’ contractor list . There used to be four names, but miz938 turned out to be an FBI agent called Kenny who worked for one of their cyber crimes units in New York. Now there was just three, there was Electra434 an elegant coder but a bit standoffish and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t really find anything out about them. Next was Natasha, a 13 year old who lived with her aunt Ludmilla in St Petersburg and was basically running an international crime syndicate out of her bedroom. Finally, there was Harry, who liked football, the proper sort and who, it turned out, was available.
‘When do you want it?’ Was the message over the screen.
‘About 30 minutes.’ I typed. Any longer and something about my half completed job was going to get noticed.
‘A bit steep.’
‘I’m missing the football.’
‘Ok.’ I transferred the money. The answer came back way too fast. Less than 10 seconds in fact.
‘I don’t understand.’ I told the laptop, spending the next hour before finding that Lib32-16_04.03 should have been Lib32-16_05.03 and that had thrown everything else out. Basically, I had just paid $40k for a typo. Ah well. I made the required change, remotely installed the code and settled down for a long wait.
I was playing over some old chess games of Capablanca and was deep into game 7 of the 1927 World Championship when laptop one beeped. Someone was mucking about with the museums computer system. Nice elegant coding, time delays, feedback loops, automated unlocking, I plotted the route in and out. Then the laptops beeped in unison, she would be by the Monet at 2.28 a.m. I transferred the programs I needed to my iPhone and had a little think about some suitable mood music.
‘Hi,’ I said and ducked. Two more shots followed in quick succession. All very predictable. She rushed for exit route whilst I decided it was time for a bit of Kylie Minogue over the museum’s PA. I strolled out watching her progress via the CCTV feeds to my phone.
Trust me when I tell you I took no pleasure watching her run about the place like some mad woman trying to evade the reprogrammed security system. Okay, you have me, it was immensely satisfying.
‘Oops,’ I said as she barely got under one of the descending security gates. ‘And that’s not very ladylike,’ as she gestured at the CCTV.
I drove the Aston Martin round to one of the side entrances and waited. A few minutes later the passenger opened and slammed shut. She was breathing heavily.
‘Seat belt,’ I instructed without looking at her.
She really, really, wanted to say something, but knew if she did I would just prolong the agony. As we drove off , my little computer programs, wiped all the CCTV and other records, reset all the locks and then removed all traces of themselves from the museum's computer systems.
As first dates went, so far so good, but just when you think life is starting to go your way, somebody always comes along to mess it up again. I increased speed. She gave me ‘a look’ and it’s hard to do that successfully in the dark, but she definitely tried. A quick glance in the mirror, told me all I needed to know. Definitely headlights, a car at speed, couldn’t be anyone from the museum yet, they would still be trying to unlock all the doors.
I increased speed.
‘You are exceeding the national speed limit.’
‘Not now Mathilde.’
Always trying to get the last word. Was it my imagination or was I being given another look? I took a right-hand at speed, a quick glance in the mirror, no way they would catch us. I knew she had moved from a look to a hard stare, but I wasn’t going to let it bother me. A few more turns, over the hill and a long straight flat out to the start of the forest, a couple more minutes and we’d be safe. You would have thought she would have been more appreciative.
‘What?!’ I demanded.
‘Is your driving always this bad?’ she asked lightly.
We found out just what the stopping distance in an Aston Martin really is, as I jammed on the brakes.
‘Now look lady, let’s get one thing straight right from the start -.’
The first shot took out the rear windscreen, God knows where the rest of them hit us. I floored the accelerator and cried out in pain as we sped away.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, more annoyed than concerned. ‘They didn’t come anywhere near you.’
‘Do you know how much a rear windscreen in one of these things costs?’
We found what looked like an unoccupied holiday cottage, not ideal but we were well off the beaten track and it would do for a while.
‘Since we are going to be spending some time together, don’t you think we should introduce ourselves?’ I asked.
‘You first,’ she challenged.
I only hesitated for a fraction of a second.
‘That’s what I thought,’ she said and went off in a huff.
My thoughts turned to a late dinner. I owed her that much on a first date. I rummaged in the kitchen, mostly tinned stuff. I turned the power on and got to work.
She joined me later.
‘There’s a double bed.’
I had a vision.
‘You can take the couch.’
I no longer had a vision and went back to the beans.
'You’re not sulking about your car? Mathilde?’ She asked with a only soupçon of sarcasm.
‘Mathilde, is the Sat-Nav.’ Okay, I was being a little pompous, but I wasn’t prepared to introduce her to Jennifer, not on a first date anyway.
‘It can be repaired and you wouldn’t notice the bullet holes. ‘
Not helping, and the beans were done.
‘So?’ I asked as we sat down.
‘Is that the cue for me to tell you my life story?’
‘Something like that.’
‘What can I say, I’m a poor orphan who fell into bad company at an early age. ‘
‘Then I was saved by an angel of the Lord.’
‘That’s a new one. ‘ I waited, but there was no more. ‘You’re not going to tell me are you?’
She smiled. I guess it is possible to look enigmatic while eating a tin of beans.
As we headed for bed, her one way, me sadly the other.
‘At least tell me your name.’
There is only one thing worse than waking up and finding the love of your life is not there and that’s realising that’s she’s also nicked your car.
I’m a light sleeper, it’s an occupational requirement, but I hadn’t heard a thing. She really was very good. At least she’d left me my mobile.
‘Do you know what time it is? This had better be good.’
‘Where’s my car?’
‘How should I know?’ Perhaps not quite the words he used.
‘Julian, I’m really not in the mood,’ I told him, with just the right amount of menace in the voice.
‘Ah,’ as the penny dropped, ‘you’ve found her. Give me a moment. …. About 25 miles east of you … seems to have stopped. Roger.’
‘That account of yours, it’s now overdrawn.’
It was going to be a very long walk.
Do you ever have one of those days when you are not looking for trouble, but crap just seems to come at you from all directions? I’d been walking for about three hours on what seemed to pass for the main road in these parts when salvation suddenly appeared in the form of a bus going my way. Naturally, you do the only thing you can do in the circumstances. You stand in the middle of the road and trust the bus company has a rule against running down potential passengers. I guess the company rule left some room for discretion. I stared at the driver he stared at me.
‘Braking any time now would be good.’
The bus kept coming.
‘Go ahead punk, make my day.’ I really was that tired.
But the driver thought better of it and braked.
It was close, but I could live with that.
I could have bought the bus for what the driver charged me, but there was no point in complaining and meekly sat down in an otherwise empty bus.
I guess I must have dozed off as the next thing I knew was that we had stopped and a nun with a large bag of shopping was climbing onboard. Maybe I just attract weird people, but Sister Agnes just had to sit next to me and start a monologue on the latest events at her convent. It was a bit like one of those daytime soaps you wouldn’t watch in a million years, but somehow become unmissable in a disturbing sort of way. Anyway, Sister Winifred was busy with her experiments, Sister Caitlin was travelling trying to raise funds to repair the convent roof and you’d be surprised what Sister Maria was getting up to.
I don’t know how she did it, but Sister Agnes somehow talked me into having a meal at the convent. I had a vision of bread and water and lots of DIY on the convent roof. As it turned out the DIY was less than expected, the food better and Sister Maria was an absolute riot.
‘Come with me, . . . Roger,’ said Sister Agnes after the meal.
I confess I did feel a slight twinge about lying to a nun. I made a mental note to make a small act of repentance, sometime much later, when I had the time, and nothing better to do.
We wandered through the convent, chatting about this and that and generally nothing in particular until we came to Sister Winifred’s little workshop which turned out to be a very large, extremely well equipped modern garage.
Then I had my first revelation. Before me was Jennifer, sans bullet holes, avec rear windscreen. Serious respect Sister Winifred who was grinning broadly as she gave Jennifer a final polish.
Then I had my second revelation.
‘Christ! She’s a nun!’
I had a vision of years of therapy and going straight to hell afterwards.
‘Roger?’ asked Sister Agnes gently.
‘Yes,’ I replied weakly.
‘The sisters and I have a little favour to ask.’