Hard to Tell, Really

Hanging out in the shade of a small row of immature trees in the middle of the car park, Imogen, Barry and Left watch as Peter Small parks his Citroën a short distance away. Left looks at Barry who looks at his watch and nods, then at Im, who smiles reassuringly. The three of them rise from the shaded kerb on which they are sitting and follow Peter at a distance.

Peter is carrying a briefcase in his left hand. He’s wearing a dark suit. Behind his sunglasses his eyes check that everything is as it should be.

They make a great team, Im, Barry and Left. Im, at seventeen, is a beautiful young woman, built rather like a fashion model but with a wide grin instead of the sulk that mars the faces on the catwalk. Gamin, you’d describe her. Her eyes are startling, large and clear, the irises hazel. Though she is slim there is nothing of the anorexic about her. Wearing shorts as she is now, her legs are long and shapely. On her feet neat grecian sandals with a slight heel. She wears a long-sleeved T-shirt, pale apricot, with a deep V-neck. Her breasts bounce slightly as she walks beside the two boys, clearly unhampered by a bra. Her hair is light brown, almost blond, cut in a bob close to her head. As they walk, male eyes follow her. Im is the bait.

But just in case, they have Left, who is easily as beautiful as Im: he is taller by 15 centimetres, just as slim as she, though broader in the shoulder. He is darker, but not by much: while her skin shines golden, his is bronze. He could be a Spaniard, an Arab, a South American. He is none of those, however. His hair is dark and cut fashionably short, slightly tufted in the modern manner. Along his jaw-line is the thinnest of beards, hardly two millimetres wide. His eyes are deep-set, brooding, smouldering. He is the alternative bait.

Let’s see which attracts Peter.

Peter is actually the bag-man for a rather unpleasant group of financiers. Let’s say a go-between, really, rather than a bag-man, which gives the impression of seedy, underworld criminals. Or perhaps union operatives. He’s not quite like that. On the other hand, he also has a number of other skills that he carries out under contract for the highest bidder.His current job is to ensure that a variety of financial advisors working in many fields are feeding a sufficient number of unsuspecting investors in the direction of fraudulent ‘instruments’, these ‘instruments’ having been set up by those higher up the rungs of the financial ladder, who shall remain nameless. They are, in any case, incidental to this story, and it is best, always, to let sleeping dogs lie: they have ways of discouraging investigation.

So Peter, this morning, is visiting the branch office of a prominent bank where one of their financial advisors has fallen behind his target. Not the target of his bank, but that of Peter’s ‘associates’. I’m sorry to be so circumspect, but it is only wise, given the history of Peter’s ‘associates’.

In the quiet of a side office, Peter has passed on the views of his ‘associates’ that the financial advisor is slipping, and is suggesting that it might be healthier, both for him and his daughter Pauline, twelve, if he were to catch up on his target, his agreed performance indicator. The financial advisor, gulping, agrees, and wishes that he had never got into this business. Peter smiles and proffers an envelope containing a very small packet of bank notes that the advisor pockets: he knows it is more of a reminder than a reward.

Im sits outside the bank apparently fiddling with her smartphone. The walls of the branch office, both external and internal, are of glass, so that she can see, but not hear, most of the transaction taking place between Peter and the financial advisor. She has no interest in that transaction, being unaware of the back-story. If she had been aware, the trio would have re-considered their target; however, as far as they are concerned, Peter is simply a mark.

She watches, apparently disinterested, as Peter stands and shakes hands across the desk of the advisor, then leaves the inner office and moves to the main door of the branch office. The door opens at his approach and he walks out, checking the time as he does so. He is not interested in the time: he is, instead, checking out the activity in the mall from behind his dark glasses, which he has not removed during


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his interview with the advisor. Peter is always aware of everything going on around him. It is safer that way.

Im gets to her feet only metres away from him, the white leads connecting her smartphone to her ears suggesting that she is preoccupied, which is far from the truth. Peter notes her presence, and, after a successful meeting with the frightened advisor, is more than happy to spend a few seconds admiring her. He is attracted to beautiful young women. Aren’t we all? Well no; that’s why Left is the backup bait.

Peter likes them young. He’s not sure why, and in any case rarely indulges himself. Particularly when he’s working. But he’s finished working for the moment, and lets his eyes take in the swell of Im’s unfettered breasts, especially when, apparently unsuspecting, Im leans forward and fiddles with the strap of her left sandal. The V-neck hangs down and Peter can see the whole of her right breast, the soft gold of her skin and the darker nipple enticingly exposed, and so close that he could, if he allowed himself, reach out and touch it.

Barry slouches close on Peter’s other side. Barry is the odd man out of the trio. He is short and quite fat. He dresses badly, with grey below-the-knee shorts, heavy black trainers and a black T-shirt sporting the famous image of Che Guevara. Barry wears a rather scruffy black beard and a beret on his head with the star prominent. Barry, despite his affectations, is unnoticeable in a crowd. We’ve all seen so many like him that nothing really registers.

Nothing seems to happen. Im straightens up and saunters away, apparently dreamy and without any particular destination. Left, who was only three metres away in case he was called on in his role as bait if Peter was that way inclined, catches up with Im and they skip away together, hand in hand, smiling. They make an attractive couple.

Barry hurries behind them. They won’t have long.

Peter strolls to the exit of the mall. He never hurries, especially on such a hot day. After the slight excitement of seeing Im’s breast, he keeps an eye out for other young women, and in fact spies one not far in front of him, high heels and very long legs, just a narrow band of material around her waist and a very short top that exposes most of her belly. Her face is nothing to write home about, but her body… well! He slows down to follow her with his eyes.

In the car park Barry approaches the Citroën and operates the remote key. The lights flash and he opens the door without 120


hesitation, climbs in and turns the key in the ignition. The engine purrs to life and he quickly draws away, leaving the car park through a side entrance and driving two blocks before turning and parking in a leafy side-road. Barry is an expert pick-pocket. As yet, Peter is completely unaware that he no longer has the keys that had been in his pocket.

Barry inspects the cabin of the car. The seats are incredibly luxurious, wrapping him in nearly-new leather. He operates the sky-light, lifting the back a little with the almost silent hum of a well-designed motor. He links the iPhone in his pocket with the Citroën’s sound system, setting his music going on one of his favourite playlists. He waits, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

Peter has arrived at the car park and is looking at where he could have sworn he left the car. He is puzzled, but not, at first, alarmed. He looks back at the entrance to the mall. Yes, he’s sure he’s at the right exit. He gazes across the roofs of the cars nearby, and tries to remember exactly his arrival and the parking of his car. He notes the row of immature trees to his right, and he’s sure he left it here, exactly here. It is slowly dawning on him that he has not, in fact, made a mistake. He reaches into his trouser pocket for his keys, and fails to find them. He swaps hands on his briefcase and feels in the other pocket. Nothing there, either. He never puts anything in his jacket pockets, so they won’t be… damn, it was that girl! He realises that he’s been suckered. He pats his back pocket, but his wallet is still there. The only things missing are his keys. And, he finally admits to himself, his car.

Im and Left turn the corner and spot the Citroën. They speed up slightly, and Left, as he walks, takes a small box from his pocket. He slows as he approaches, looking at the tiny window. A beeping commences, getting louder as he nears the car.

Im gets into the front seat, but Left walks around the car listening as the beep gets louder still, then decreases again. He goes back to where the beep was loudest, crouches and peers under the car. He pulls at the magnetic device attached to the underbody of the car and places it on the kerb, then gets in the car. Barry pulls away without hurry and heads for the nearby highway.

In the car park Peter is on the phone. He listens as he is told his car is not far away, and hurriedly follows the directions given by the 121 Hard to Tell, Really


security firm. When he reaches the spot there is no Citroën, just a magnetic box on the kerb.

After thirty kilometres Barry pulls off the highway onto a small side road. He follows this for twenty-five kilometres then joins a different highway and drives west. After an hour he stops and pulls into a lay-by to check the boot. It seems empty, but there is a slight lump under the mat. They pull it aside. Instead of a spare wheel they find a round wooden box with a hinged lid. It has a padlock on it. Barry can pick simple padlocks as well as pockets, and he has it open within a minute. He opens the lid and draws his breath. In the box is a rolled-up boiler-suit, a cotton balaclava and two pistols in a wooden rack.

‘What the…’ says Im.

Left reaches a hand to pick up one of the pistols, but Barry stops him. He takes his handkerchief and uses it to lift the pistol himself. He releases the magazine and draws it out of the handle using the other edge of the handkerchief, and inspects it. It is fully loaded. He snaps the magazine back into the pistol and replaces it in the rack. Closes the lid of the box. Thinks.

‘This is shit,’ he says eventually.

Left agrees. ‘Can we ditch the box?’

Barry wipes the padlock clean in case of fingerprints. They are well out of their league. He hefts the side of the box, but it is bolted into place. He looks at the other two. ‘First the tracker, and now this. It stinks. We have to get back and ditch the car in town. Who the hell was that guy?’

‘But Chas is expecting us. He’s got the money.’

Barry snorts. ‘Don’t you get it? This car is owned by a real bad dude. It’s poison. We got to get out of here.’

They climb back into the Citroën and Barry drives again, while the others wipe down anything they might have touched. They take a different route back to town, planning to dump the car near a station and take the train back home. ‘Not too close to a station. You never know,’ says Im, wising up fast.

Security companies are two a penny these days. This is a very special, very expensive security company. Very professional. Peter Small shakes his head. ‘Probably just joyriders,’ he says.

Valery Manning nods, but still demurs. ‘We can’t take the risk. 122


You don’t want that car falling into the wrong hands.’

‘There was a girl. She distracted me. There has to be another, but he was good.’

‘Or she.’

Peter looks doubtful. ‘Or she, I suppose.’

‘Look, I can call a contact, and we should be able to find the car soon. Call in a favour. Knock up some story.’

‘Unless they’ve gone interstate.’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

He points. ‘What’s the range of that gadget?’

‘Anywhere in the world where there’s a cell phone signal.’

‘Do we get any feedback?’

‘What?’

‘Do we know if it’s been successful?’

‘Watch the news. We’ll know then, alright.’

‘Shit.’ He thinks for while.

‘I liked that car. Only had it a few months. Real classy.’

Im, Left and Barry stroll towards the station. The day has been a washout. Well, I suppose they’ve all learned a good deal, but in terms of the cash rewards that they had been hoping for, maybe a few thou or thereabouts, the day has been wasted. They try to look as though they aren’t hurrying, but the fact that they are silent and not even listening to their telephones is a dead give-away.

From somewhere behind them comes, even at this distance and with two rows of houses between them, a pressure-wave that hits them sharply in the stomach, followed shortly by an almighty boom. They turn to see a tower of smoke rising high into the sky over the roofs in roughly the direction that they have come since ditching the car.

They look at each other. Im has paled. Left is too slow to have worked it out yet. Barry says ‘Shit,’ under his breath, and holds out his arm in front of the other two to stop them running. ‘Cool it, you two. Just carry on walking slowly.’

‘But was it…?’ asks Im.

‘Of course it was. Don’t ask me how. Boy, have we been lucky, or what.’

‘The car?’ asks Left. ‘D’you reckon it was that car?’

Barry rolls his eyes. ‘Course it was, dummy.’123 Hard to Tell, Really


As they reach the station they hear the first of the fire-engine sirens, though they seem to be coming from several directions. Or maybe they’re coming from police cars. Hard to tell, really.