Mods and Rockers specialised in Fifties and Sixties interior design furnishings. Modernist, plastic crap, smooth curve chairs with black ferrules on shiny spindly aluminium chair legs.
Baby boomers no doubt flocked in on Saturdays to pounce on green glass citrus juicers and exclaim rapturously over pointy nose tin openers with folded corkscrews while they sat giggling on pouffes.
The shop was a possible destination for the stolen diamonds I was tracking on behalf of a client; so I had been watching the place since early afternoon, hoping for a sign of the blonde woman who had stolen them.
At first, I had not paid much attention when the little man left the shop after locking up, just past 5 o’clock. Then he scuttled anxiously to the nearby bus stop, glancing around as if he expected pursuit. His puffy blue anorak and wilting pork pie hat didn’t quite suit him. He was short and chubby, not an athlete; a quintessential clerk.
My interest was drawn because he was not self-absorbed and inwardly projected like a routine commuter. Popping up from behind his newspaper shield to check the surrounds like a meerkat, peering through his pebble-lensed spectacles, he made me wonder why he was so apparently nervous.
When the bus came, I knew I must follow him. He did not notice me.
When he got off, I followed him surreptitiously to his flat. As he opened the door I hastened up and pushed him in, quickly closing the door behind me. He fell down and lay cowering on the floor like a stunned rabbit.
I said, “Tell me everything”. This is what he told me:
His name was Hubert Philpott and he was the bookkeeper for Mods and Rockers, which was, he suspected, a money laundering operation for a local gangster, known as ‘The Tiger’. Up until today he had kept his nose to the books and never asked questions. Then that changed.
In the morning, the salesgirl Maria Fuentes reminded him he would need to shut up shop in the evening as she had the afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment. Just before lunch, a young woman appeared in the store and thrust a small package at him saying: “Make sure Bruno gets this – keep it safe until you see him” and left in a rush.
Bruno was the Tiger’s manager, a surly brute. He was away and would only return late on Friday.
Consumed by curiosity, he had opened the package and seen a fortune in sparklers. He knew then that he was in grave danger, so he hastily locked it in the safe.
As he said that he looked even more nervous, so I growled: “What aren’t you telling me?”
He started blubbering and jabbering. Eventually, he scrabbled in his pocket and produced five of the largest gems. He swore he had not taken more. I believed him; not many people lied to me.
After a little prompting he even told me about the security system and safe combination. He clearly perceived that playing dumb the next day was his best bet.
Leaving him, I made a call to a friend and we arranged to meet at the Savoy where, he told me, I would find the skilled operator I needed.
“Strawberry jam is not as good with Camembert as raspberry but it will do,” said Larry, helping himself to another cracker. His canary yellow waistcoat and silk cravat underlined the exhibitionist bon-vivant persona he hid behind.
In fact Larry was a thief, an athletic cat burglar who scavenged through the richer suburbs of European cities. He had never been caught, but his flagrant lifestyle unsupported by any visible means of income had caught the eye of a friend of mine in Special Branch. They have been known to appreciate risk takers with unorthodox skills. Larry was on their tab, but they owed me a favour. I needed to get the diamonds back, but could not risk doing it myself.
I had sat down at his table at the Savoy, unannounced. His finely tuned eyebrow showed he had me ‘sussed’ but he greeted me politely enough. He must have surmised that I too had him ‘sussed’.
I let him get to the point. “What can I do for you and you for me?”
“Missing sparklers,” I said. “Mine”.
“Not me – I haven’t seen much of that for some time,” he said.
“They are in a tiger’s cage and I want you to fetch them for me.”
A shadow flickered in his eyes and he shook his head. I pointed at the man leaning on the piano near the window. My friend from Special Branch
Larry looked at him then at me. Then we began to negotiate. He settled for five hundred quid.
He knew who the Tiger was and had a wise respect for him. I told him I had the alarm code and safe combination, so he wouldn’t need to ‘break’ to enter. He was to get the brown package out of the safe in the shop tonight; he was wise enough to know not to sample the product. Anything else was gravy for him. He was to leave the safe open, to deflect suspicion from Philpott.
We exchanged packages at breakfast. All the diamonds were there. I caught a plane from Gatwick to Dublin. Over a glass of champagne, I looked at my hands and smiled – they were remarkably clean.
I’d thought I might have to get them dirty.