Hunching down into my favourite navy-blue, woollen overcoat didn’t help. I could still feel the biting easterly cut right through me. The bright sunshine was deceptive. I shuddered thinking of the warm home I had left behind. The trouble was I had no idea for how much longer I could call it home. Not that it seemed like much of a home since my wife died but at least she insisted I got that old gas central heating boiler replaced with a new one. Just a shame Liz is not around to enjoy the warmth. Walking past the market’s food stalls, I could smell the roast pork sandwiches. The smell reminded me of the Sunday lunches we once enjoyed at home. I was alone with my thoughts on a bitterly cold November day in Hounslow of all places. There was a fuzzy noise in my head. I found it difficult to concentrate.
“White noise, I guess. That’s what it is.” I said it aloud causing an old lady to stare at me as if I was crazy. Perhaps I am. Revenge … and murder were in my heart, mind, body and soul.
The noise invaded my head rendering logical thinking impossible. Looking down at my feet, the rest of me followed in robotic movements. Roaming around the open market, I must look like a zombie with sunglasses. Fourteen years of practice at London’s Criminal Bar had taught me west London’s Hounslow Heath Car Boot market was a den of iniquity. Most things, legal and illegal could be found here – at a price. Stolen goods, drugs, guns, pirated DVD’s, sex workers, contract killers and what I was searching for – a bomb maker. You just had to know where to look or who to ask without ending up in hospital, or worse.
My mind cleared for a while. I could hear the market sounds merging into one cacophony of Babel-like tongues rising then falling like a furious sea lashing a rocky shore. I was faintly aware of the immigrants’ yells and calls as they crashed through my mind’s white noise. The market was a magnet for London’s immigrants old and new. Somalis, and east Europeans counting as the new. Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the old. The eastern Europeans were of interest to me. I had an inkling I needed a Russian. Not any Russian but preferably a former Spetsnaz or GRU agent. I say an ‘inkling’ because I knew I was going to kill and I knew who, but I didn’t know how, when or where – yet.
A voice startled me. “Mister Mercer, what brings you here?” It snapped me out of the fugue on hearing my name spoken in a Cockney dialect.
“Just looking, Dave.” I recognized Dave as one of my old clients I had defended at the Old Bailey some years back. It seemed like he was now selling smuggled cigarettes at the market, judging by the cartons on his stall table.
“I know this place like the back of me hand. So, fart and give me a clue and I might be able to point yer in the right direction.”
I chuckled at the colourful language and decided to seek help. “Russians. Do you know any or where they hang out?”
“No, nothing like that. Just Russians.”
“Gotcha. You need an interpreter.”
“Try over there. The stall selling the golf clubs. Don’t buy the snide though. They do ‘ave some genuine but obviously they’re half-inched.”
I did a quick take on the rhyming slang of “half-inched” meaning pinched as in stolen before smiling. “Thanks, Dave. Golf clubs in winter?”
“Yeah. Crazy eh? Lots of golf nuts like to go to places like Portugal and Spain in winter, though.”
“Suppose … how’s the wife these days?”
“Fucked off. Good riddance but thanks for asking, Mister Mercer.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not,” Dave laughed, “take care now, Mister Mercer. Those Russians are heavy. Don’t fuck with them. Wouldn’t want you to get killed or nuthin. You’re okay not like those posh boy barristers.”
“Thanks, Dave. I’ll take your advice.”
“Dave, one other thing.”
“What’s that, Mister Mercer?”
“I hope you’re staying away from railway tracks these days.”
“Haha! You remember.”
“How could I forget? You were banged up for a burglary to feed your habit. You told me how desperate you were to get clean as you tried to do away with yourself. I could not help piss myself when you told me how you laid down on the tracks waiting for the next train to come along. That’s when you delivered the punch line, ‘Trouble was, Mister Mercer,’ you said, ‘the railway porter looked down at me from the platform. He shrugged and said, ‘Mate, you’ve missed the last train.’”
We both laughed at the memory before Dave spoke again, “You’re alright, you know. As I said, better than those posh boys. They know fuck all about real people.”
Reminding myself it was partly the “posh boy barristers” that brought me to the market cleared my head. I started out for the stall pointed out by Dave, but not before I turned around to speak to him once more as I recalled my erstwhile client was one of the most agile burglars in London. That triggered something, an idea, in my mind.
“Dave, are you clean these days?”
“Been clean for years, governor.”
“Good. I may have something for you if you are interested. It’ll pay well.”
“Yes. Give me your mobile number.”
Dave scribbled it down, thrusting the scrap of paper in my outstretched palm.
Arriving at the stall, I saw rows of golf clubs in branded bags set out on display on a stepped table. A young woman who seemed to be a sales assistant smiled. Encouraged, I removed my gloves and took one club out of a bag, then I felt a hand grasp my shoulder.
“You look? Timewaster or buy?” The voice was deeply accented and sounded Russian, but I was no linguistics expert. Turning to the voice, I was surprised to see a slight, even wiry, man about five feet ten inches tall with shoulder length hair. I had been expecting a larger, heavier, and shaven headed man to accompany the voice.
“I don’t know yet. I’d like to have a proper look.” I felt emasculated by this weak response. Looking around, I noticed the smiling young woman had gone. Drawing a deep breath, I soon added, “Look. Is there somewhere private we can talk? I have a business offer you may be interested in.”
The Russian did not answer. He turned towards a large, white VW Transporter van at the back of the stall and whistled loudly. A larger, heavier, and shaven headed man hopped out of the van’s passenger door. He walked to me, grunting something in Russian. Sticking a gun into my back or what I thought was a gun, he prodded and pushed me inside the back of the van.
Pushing me on to an old torn armchair, the two Russians jumped into the back and locked the door from the inside. I watched the two have a heated debate in their native language. I sat silent until the shaven-headed Russian spoke to me in clear but heavily accented English. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m not Trading Standards looking for counterfeit goods nor am I a cop.” That was true but I didn’t volunteer the fact I was Military Intelligence and worked undercover before becoming a barrister.
“I didn’t ask you who you aren’t. I asked who you are.”
“I’m a barrister. I defend people accused of crimes.”
“I know what a barrister is. What brings you here?”
“I need help.”
“What kind of help?”
“I need to know how to make bombs?”
“You can do that by using Google.”
“Yes, but I need to know from an expert about different types of explosions.”
“You want to kill people by bomb?”
“No. I want to destroy buildings.”
“Not kill people?”
“Yes, but not by bomb.”
“Are you crazy?”
I probably am. I had no idea I wanted to destroy buildings rather than kill people by bombs until now. It was a voice somewhere inside me telling me to say that.
The Russians, looking at each other, shrugged, before my interrogator said, “You wait here.”
The bald Russian returned after five minutes. “Sergie,” he said to his compatriot, “go check the stall. Make sure that girl doing her job.” Now I was left alone with one Russian.
“Dave, the cigarette guy, vouched for you. Lucky for you.”
“I’m not a spy or a cop or anything else. I am who I say I am. I only need expert help. Nothing more.”
“What about materials?”
“Materials?” I echoed. What does he mean?
“How you going to blow something up without materials, explosives, detonators?”
I now felt stupid but also relieved. The Russian was taking all this seriously. “Yes, of course. How stupid of me?”
There followed a long silence discomforting me. The bald Russian scratched his chin, deep in thought.
“Five thousand plus materials,” the Russian said eventually.
“No, not okay yet. We meet next week. You tell me more. I can then instruct you and I will know what you need.”
“Materials, you mean?”
“I will get message to you.”
“Leave that to me.”
“One other thing, Philip Mercer, you mess around with us and you will die a horrible death.”
I just knew the Russian was talking about death by nerve agent. I shuddered inside. COLLAPSE