Below you’ll find the first three chapters from my forthcoming novel, The Art of Misdirection. In this extract we meet the apprentice thief, Hudson, and his legendary mentor, Howell, as they embark on a dangerous art heist.
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London, 1944. It was as if half the world had gathered to find shelter in the station. Crammed onto the platform, along the passages, the stairways and the escalators, they lay on their bunks or on frayed squares of carpet, playing cards here and there, knitting, singing songs and exchanging stories. Frequently their pale faces would lift up to the ceiling as if from down here, on the crowded second platform at Holborn, they could see up through the ninety feet of steel and concrete and dirt, through the very pavements, to the awful savagery of the air raid above. From the depths of the deep-level station, the grinding of the flying bombs could not be heard and the explosions that were pulling down their homes could not be felt.
It was not a suitable place for men like us. It was filthy, noisy and crowded, and it had long been considered unmanly to shelter in the Underground. It was not unknown for those without families in tow to be turned away, but in the last few weeks, since the first V-1s had scuttled overhead with their tails on fire, the Underground had once more become shelter to thousands of Londoners and what was manly or not no longer seemed to matter. Now the queues at the ticket office were full of all sorts and frightfully long with it. Not that it troubled us. Howell had paid an over-the-odds 3d to a spiv outside the station and had procured us two tickets. I looked to him now, as those around us looked up, and saw the briefest of smiles play on his lips.
These people would not notice if two of their number slipped away.
On Howell’s nod we made our way through the aisles of people, many starting to bed down for the night where they lay, to the end of the platform where a group of flat-capped men were playing cards. Behind them was a curtained-off area that held the open buckets that passed for the shelter’s toilets, and beyond that, past the stink and the sounds of sloshing effluence, the cross-tunnel that led to the vacant third platform where the last trains of the day were due to pass.
At that quiet juncture with no eyes upon us Howell motioned for me to remove my coat and I did, revealing the extent of my disguise: a dark blue waistcoat embroidered with the insignia of the London Passenger Transport Board.
Howell, having a more distinct look about him, had endured a more thorough process to hide his true appearance. Employing equipment that he had acquired from his favoured costumiers on Shaftesbury Avenue, he had blackened his hair, applied makeup to the creases around the corners of his eyes and mouth and donned a fake moustache and sideburns, the combined effect being a reduction of his age by twenty years or more. He had also acquired the softest of limps when he walked—as if the damp were troubling an old injury—and beneath his greatcoat he too wore a jacket bearing the insignia of the LPTB. We were a convincing duo, an old hand and his young apprentice. When we approached the shelter marshal blocking access to the third platform, he was forced to cut himself short.
“No access this way, gents,” he began. His eyes narrowed under the lip of his tin helmet and he touched at his white armband to remind us that he was responsible for keeping order, then he noticed our uniforms and stepped aside.
“Begging your pardon, sirs,” he said, “maintenance work is it?”
Howell replied in a chipper Cockney accent that was not at all like his own. “Tunnel inspection is all. Got to make sure everything’s in good workin’ order.”
“Ah, right you are chaps, right you are.”
We walked by him, down the tiled corridor until we emerged onto the empty platform into a wedge of light that widened and dimmed as it spilled out of the passage, pouring across the floor and onto the track.
By my calculations we were running ahead of schedule. I took a cigarette from my case and lit it. Howell immediately leaned over and whispered in his real voice, an elderly headmaster’s baritone. “Hudson, please!”
“But we are alone,” I protested, looking into those disapproving grey eyes of his. “Look around. There is not a soul here to see us and no light to see us by anyway. Besides,” I tapped the face of my wristwatch, “we are ahead of schedule.”
“That is not the point, as well you know.”
It was not the smoking itself that Howell objected to, but what would be left behind once I had finished: the ash and the butt, where they might fall and how they might be arranged on the ground. To Howell the remains of a cigarette pressed into the platform with the sole of a shoe could hold any number of clues to a smoker’s identity. But there were other butts scattered around and I was loath to give him the satisfaction of following his instructions to the letter, especially regarding something so petty. I took a deliberately long drag on the cigarette, blew a plume of smoke out over the track.
“I am not so stupid,” I offered. “It is not my usual brand.”
“Really?” he exclaimed with mock excitement. “I suppose it is a new brand that does not hold fingerprints? What a remarkable achievement from a mere tobacco company!”
I often wondered if Howell, a criminal whose deeds were known throughout the land (though of course, he was not fool enough to come forward and take credit for them) overestimated the police somewhat, so minute and particular were some of the details he chose to lecture me on and berate me for. I had begun to think him paranoid.
“Mr Howell,” I said, “for a gentlemen who has stayed one step ahead of the law all his life, and barely broken a sweat doing so, you remain as tense as ever. You have said yourself how foolproof your plan is. Relax a little. Have some faith in yourself.”
“It is not myself that I worry about,” he said, shaking his head. “Do you know, Hudson, the police have been collecting and cataloguing fingerprints since nineteen oh-two, and I daresay they have dusted many a crime scene containing yours. And as for the brand, you’d have been far better sticking to your usual since you have inadvertently done yourself a disservice. Between your lips, a Viceroy cigarette, imported from the United States and with a distinct cork tip, currently sold, at my estimation, at no more than four, perhaps five, tobacconists in the whole of central London, all of whom would not struggle to give a description of the young man who purchased those cigarettes should the police come asking. Matched with a set of prints, even a half-competent detective would have no trouble tracking you down. So by all means leave your fingerprints and your cigarette butts scattered around willy-nilly when you are working on your own, but please, not when you are working with me.”
I dropped the cigarette, extinguished it with the sole of my shoe. Howell raised his brow expectantly and I retrieved the butt from the floor and placed it in my case and the case back in my pocket. He was in an unusually dark mood and I thought it wise not to push the matter any further.
“Good,” Howell said, though his countenance did not brighten. “Now, prepare yourself. The train will be here in a moment. Are you ready? You have everything you need?”
I patted my jacket, felt the outline of my tools and nodded.
Before embarking on any job we traditionally shook hands and now Howell thrust out his smartly and I shook it, surprised as always by the firmness of his hold despite his age. As our hands parted the train charged out of the tunnel, a gale of steel and wood, the gauzed windows a black blur, the carriages thundering west towards Covent Garden. The moment the train had passed, Howell checked his pocket watch.
“Fourteen minutes to ten, coming up,” he announced. “D’you hear?”
I heard. I checked my own watch to make sure we were still in time.
“A moment.” Howell held up a hand and his watcher’s eyes travelled up and down the length of the platform. There was nothing unusual in two workers of the LPTB engaged in some sort of inspection work, but it would be better if we were not seen entering the tunnel at all. “All clear,” he said. He dropped his hand and the two of us carefully lowered ourselves over the platform edge until our feet rested either side of the tracks, and switched on our torches.
“Ready?” Howell asked.
“Ready,” I said.
“Remember, when you reach the door, don’t wait for me, just get to work on it.”
“Yes, Mr Howell.”
“Now, Mr Hudson, let’s get on.”
With no more delay we set off into the darkness.
We moved as fast as we dared, though it was not a graceful run, with our feet coming down either side of the live rails, and bolts, bars and metal braces every few yards to be avoided. Rather it was a clumsy, wide-legged jog through the narrow tunnel, our torchlight bouncing around the cabled walls. The air was hot and reeked of the stagnant water pooled in the sump beneath the tunnel’s floor. It would have had us retching if we had breathed in enough of it, but we barely had time to breathe at all.
Howell called out from behind me: “Faster! Go on, don’t wait for me.”
I picked up the pace, my feet darting in between the rails and ribs of the tunnel floor, and quickly left him behind. He moved well for a man of his age but his stamina was not what it once was. The sound of his footfalls lessened behind me, becoming slight against the deep-level rumbles of the Underground. The tunnel’s insides rushed past until in the far distance I saw the pathway change shape, becoming wider on one side, and as I shone my torch into the darkness I saw the barrier that Howell had told me to look for—my sources speak of a guardrail on the right-hand side. When you see it, get over it and get to work. Pick the lock or force the door and prop it open. By the time you are done I’ll be right there with you.
In the event, the door was rather normal looking, separated from the track by a steel guardrail at chest height, no doubt to prevent anyone unwittingly taking a tumble onto the tracks.
“Howell, I am at the door!” I called back into the darkness.
After a moment, the draft brought me his faint reply, “Quiet, you fool!”
I climbed under the rail and crouched before the lock and took from my pocket my tension-wrench and picks and set to work. It was not an especially unusual lock—I recognised it as being from the Schlage Lock Co., a key-in-knob type, first manufactured in 1928 and at its heart a basic five-pin tumbler. I selected a diamond shaped pick and inserted it into the keyway and, with the wrench inserted beneath, raked the pointed edge of the pick along the base of the pins making them stutter and jump. As I did this I applied a measured degree of pressure to the wrench and, as is often the case with poorly maintained locks, got lucky. I caught three out of the five pins straight away and had the fourth up on the shear line within moments. The fifth troubled me and I probed at it with the pick for a while but after some persuasion it too slotted into position and the lock’s plug rotated freely within its hull. I turned the door knob, gave the door a push and it opened.
Glancing back along the tunnel I could see torchlight bouncing around, shadows flashing on the tunnel walls. Howell was drawing close. I took out a crowbar from my jacket, brought along lest picking the lock should prove too tricky, and used it to prop the door open, and with that my first job was done. The door, which would give us access to the disused second platform at Aldwych, was open.
Howell appeared out of the darkness, clutching at his left side.
“Well done, Mr Hudson,” he wheezed. “Come. We can’t afford to stand still. Let’s see what we have to deal with.” Together, we stepped through the door, down a short tiled corridor and onto the platform.
The view was illuminated softly by hanging lights, their bare bulbs blinking to reveal three rows of tall crates, narrow avenues of wooden boxes and sheet-covered antiquities. It was hard to believe that some of the British Museum’s most priceless exhibits were right there, on that ordinary looking platform. From the Parthenon to subterranean London, Elgin’s Marbles had been crated up and hidden down here, ninety-two feet below the surface, away from the public and away from those blasted German bombs.
I’d laughed when Howell first told me. We had been sat at adjacent sides of the desk in his hotel room in Bloomsbury, with blueprints, books and plans of the Underground, all covered in ruled lines and Howell’s distinctive hand, laid out before us. Before the hour was up every last note, plan and drawing would be thrown in the fire, the relevant details committed to memory.
“The Elgin Marbles? Howell, have you lost your mind?” I said, thinking of those huge friezes, all those rearing centaurs and naked soldiers. Their combined weight, I could only guess at. To steal them? Impossible. Ridiculous, even.
“Of course we couldn’t steal the Elgin Marbles,” Howell said, although as I watched, his eyes glazed and he licked his lips and I knew he was considering it. “Even if we could assemble a suitable band of men—nine or ten would be enough—and obtain the necessary lifting equipment—though I do know a shipyard-worker in Hackney who could acquire such things—and if we commandeered the ten-thirty-five supply train, stopped it in the tunnel, loaded up the goods, and rode the train all the way back to Acton—there is a warehouse we could use near to the station …” His eyes narrowed as he toyed with the idea but he finally shook his head. “Even if we were to accomplish all of that, we would never find a buyer for objects so large and well known, and never get them out of the country if we did.”
As Howell took a sip from his coffee I said brief thanks to God.
“What we are going to take,” he continued, “is a small part of the marbles, a fragment. A fragment of a fragment.”
Howell tapped the book in front of him with his forefinger, open at a photograph of a finely sculpted female face that had been fractured from the rest of the head and body. I placed my splayed palm on the page and turned the book to face me so I might see her marble skin, the bow of her lips, the gentle slant of her nose and her blank eyes that gazed serenely up from the page. She may have lost most of herself over the last fifteen hundred years, but she had not lost her beauty.
I was puzzled. “God knows we spent enough hours at the Museum when it was open,” I began, and Howell nodded acceptingly for he had always been insistent that I work to expand my knowledge of history and antiquities and we had on numerous occasions walked those galleries together. “Why have I never seen this piece before?”
“Too delicate or too valuable,” he said. “Who knows? For every item on show at the British Museum they have another fifty in their stores. But now, thanks to you, we know where this statue of Athena, the goddess of courage, civilization and justice, is hidden. And she may yet see the light of day once more.”
He had smiled at me, and I had flushed at the rare compliment. He may no longer have been the most wanted man in London, his star having faded considerably in the last decade or so, but he remained a man of a certain reputation. A compliment from Mr Howell was still enough to swell the chest.
“And when are we due to carry out this daring raid?” I asked.
“Tomorrow?” I was caught off guard. In all the years I had been working with Howell we had never embarked on a job together that had not been planned most thoroughly. Weeks, if not months, went into determining the best way to approach a theft, acquiring the correct equipment, studying maps and blueprints and committing the whole lot to memory—and doing all of this without leaving a trace behind.
“I may already have plans,” I protested.
“What plans?” he barked.
I’d had in mind an evening of drinking at The Gargoyle Club on Meard Street but Howell had long since made clear his displeasure in my frequenting of such places lest my face become too well known. “Nothing important,” I said. “It is, you must admit, rather short notice. I have barely heard the details never mind had the chance to memorise them. Why not some other night when we have had more time to prepare?”
He peered at me over his spectacles. “Tomorrow,” he said, and from his tone I knew there was no room for negotiation on the matter. “Whatever frivolities you might have in mind can be put off for another time. We shall go over the details now, until they are thoroughly lodged in that brain of yours. Besides, your particular skills are required. We have a door that may or may not be problematic.”
“Howell, you taught me everything I know. I am sure you can still get through any door you choose to.” My words were laced with both false modesty on my part and flattery for his benefit.
“You know as well as I that a strange lock can be difficult, even to the steadiest of hands.” At this he held up one of his own hands to demonstrate the tremble that had plagued him so these last few years. “I have no doubt I could get through the door, but the speed at which I could do so is another matter. And speed is what we require tomorrow night.”
He began to summarise, as he would over and over again that night, for it was the best way to make sure I had understood the plan entirely and that nothing had been left to chance: “Sixteen minutes to travel nearly two thousand feet through the tunnels from Holborn to Aldwych, to get through the door, find the Athena, then run back through the tunnel and get up on to the platform before the arrival of the last train. Then back to street level and on to our rendezvous where we shall, within the hour, make our exchange with our American buyer.”
“Sixteen minutes?” I had broken out in a sweat just thinking about it. “What if we move too slowly?” I had asked. “What if the plan goes wrong and we are not out of the tunnel before the train comes?”
He gave only a remonstrative lift of his eyebrow in reply and I sat back. I should not have questioned him. Mr Howell’s plans never went wrong.
The next night I stood on the platform, aghast at the rows of bomb-proof boxes, wondering at their contents. Given the number of precious artefacts, documents and artworks hidden away down there, the contents of any one container could be worth thousands of pounds.
“Come now,” Howell said, though he had been staring too. “Let’s not forget ourselves.”
We took separate avenues, quietly making our way along the aisles of crates, running our eyes across their wooden faces searching for a brief combination of digits that we knew would mark the location of the Athena.
I moved quickly from box to box, sizing them up, checking each one’s number before moving to the next, hoping that I would be the one to find her. In the end, it was not to be. Howell suddenly cried out as loudly as he dared: “I have it!”
He waved an arm to reveal his location and by the time I had retraced my steps and made my way over to him he had removed the small crate from its place and was crouched before it. Having cut the twine that had been wrapped around it, he now began digging at the corners with his crowbar, working expertly around the lid until there came a cracking sound. The wood splintered and the lid came free. Inside there lay a bundle, wrapped in cloth and bedded in straw.
“Is that it? Have we the right one?” I asked.
“Let us see.” He lifted the object from the box, its heft apparent as he took it in both his hands and set it on his bent knee. He brushed away the straw and unwrapped the cloth until the top of the object was revealed and the unseeing white eyes of the goddess stared up at us.
“It has already been on a great journey,” Howell said, marvelling at the object. “No doubt a casualty of the war between the Venetians and the Turks. Stolen from the Parthenon, caught in a storm off Cape Matapan, sunk to the bottom of the ocean for two years and retrieved at great personal expense to the Earl of Elgin himself. She is one of the smallest parts of the marbles, but she is worth more than she could ever guess.”
“She’s beautiful, Mr Howell,” I said.
“She’s priceless, Mr Hudson,” he replied, and he covered the face with the cloth. I put out my arms and he carefully handed the statue over and rose to his feet.
Could it really be that easy? To swoop in under the Museum’s nose? To avoid the guards and all that trouble simply by using a back door? Years of such dishonest activity had taught me that if things are going to go wrong it is always at that moment, when one draws breath to push out a sigh of relief, when one is as near-as-damn-it home safe, that they do. Tonight was no exception, for as we started to move towards the door we heard the sound of a guard’s steps on the stairwell at the far end of the platform and suddenly the avenues of crates were bathed in torchlight.
“Be still,” Howell said, and we both froze. For a moment we were as statues ourselves, hopeful that the guard had not seen us and that his light would pass us by if we were still and silent. But it was not to be.
“Hullo?” came the voice of the guard. “Who’s down there?” The light swung above our heads, to our left then our right, suddenly settling right on us.
We should have bolted for it right then but Howell motioned for me to remain where I was. Caught in the torchlight, we could see nothing of the guard but his silhouette moving towards us, rifle in-hand. There could be no doubt he could see us a good deal better than we could see him.
“Hello,” Howell called back, in that same Cockney accent that he’d used with the warden. “Sorry to startle you. We’re from the Transport Board. We ’ave been inspecting the tunnel here but ’ad to step inside ’cos there is a train due.”
The guard called back, “Stay where you are. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Howell, what should we do?” I said urgently, fearing that the guard would not hesitate to shoot if he got a clear view of the scene—the broken crate, the splinters of wood at our feet and the bundle held in my arms.
“Hold still,” said Howell, then, to the guard, “We’ll come to you sir, where the light is better, and you can see our papers.” Then quietly to me: “Be ready, lad, be ready.”
“Right you are,” the guard hollered back and the torchlight steadied and strayed from us for a split second. I saw Howell reach inside his coat and withdraw his pistol then turn to me.
“Go now,” he said, and with the statue in hand I turned and made for the door.
Behind me I heard Howell fire his gun, a great crash filling the underground platform. The guard cried out, from shock or injury, or to alert his colleagues, I could not tell and did not care to hang around to find out. I was back through the door in seconds, Howell’s footsteps at my heels.
“Run boy, as fast as you can!” he called from behind me.