Stranger

Johan Stranger, as in ‘hanger’ not as in ‘danger’, ‘The Dago’ to his friends, is far from happy. At 53 years of age he has fallen from his motorbike, a large, classic machine from the Brandenburg Motor Werks; amongst other damage, he has broken his right thigh-bone and a small bone in the palm of his left hand. Neither are healing quickly enough for him. After a month in hospital he is still hardly mobile, just able to get about slowly on crutches. The motorbike is a write-off.

Johan has always been a vigorous man, a man of passions, a man whose mind is always dashing ahead and considering schemes, usually schemes involving some sort of action, some sort of derring-do. The crutches and the loss of mobility are a huge frustration to him.

His boss refuses to allow him to work in the service area, correctly assessing that a man on crutches can be of little help in servicing the vehicles of his customers. The other mechanics are sympathetic, but glad they don’t have to make these decisions: the Dago is popular amongst his mates, but a bloody nuisance on crutches.

Johan has tried the office, but, frankly, he is just no good there. He cannot type, his accent is too thick to be of much use on the telephone, and his leg, held stiffly in a cast, prevents him from sitting at a desk. After two days, his boss tells him to go home, and stay there until he is back to normal.

He is sitting in his kitchen, brooding over his coffee.

He rings his daughter. ‘Katerine,’ he tells her, ‘I need you.’

Catherine Stranger is twenty-four years old, and all her life her father has been telling her that he needs her. He doesn’t need her: he just wants her. Different altogether. ‘I’m busy,’ she tells him.

‘What you doing? What you doing, your father needs you and you say, ‘I’m busy’?’

‘I’m at work, and you’re sitting at home, bored.’ She hates having to bully him, but she has learned from bitter experience that it is the only way to get him off her back. ‘Get out and walk,’ she tells him. ‘Go to the library, change your books. Get a coffee. Talk to people.’

She waits for an answer, knowing that she has told him nothing new, that she has told him the same thing each day for nearly a week. She is surprised when he simply puts the phone down instead of arguing. Maybe he really does need her?

Johan stares at the telephone for a moment, then stands and takes up his crutches. He handles them quite well, really, but he feels clumsy and foolish. His kitchen is not designed for someone on crutches, and everything gets in his way. He edges his way past the table towards the door where his bag hangs from the doorknob. One handed, he slings it over his head and pushes it behind him so that it will not hamper him, then hobbles to the hall. He takes a book from the hallstand and awkwardly shovels it into his bag, then opens the front door and leaves the house.


‘You the guy they call The Dago?’

Johan stares at the man standing beside him, standing too close. He is at a table in the main street, waiting for coffee. The crutches are leaning across an empty chair, and he has raised his leg, the broken one, to the seat of a third chair.

The waiter, a very nice young girl, a blonde with heavy curls held in a black ribbon over her left shoulder, has helped him into this position, and he is very grateful: her perfume has kindled memories and her curvaceous body, generous and uninhibited, has aroused him. Her name is Karen; she knows the effect she has on men of a certain age.

He looks up at the man standing too close to him. He is overweight and dark, needing a shave, Johan thinks. Johan does not favour the two-day stubble that seems so popular; either shave or don’t shave, he believes. Johan does not shave. His beard is neat and sculpted, mostly black but with an attractive swathe of ginger weaving its way along his jawbone, on the right side only. The ginger is beginning to turn grey, but women seem to like it. His wife had hated it.

‘Who wants to know?’

‘Well, me, for a start.’

‘Who are you?’

The man reaches into his pocket and opens his wallet. He takes a card from one of the slots, and hands it to Johan. Johan looks at the card. Perry Humphries, it reads. Logistic Solutions.

‘Yeah,’ he says slowly, ‘I’m The Dago.’

Perry pulls the fourth chair out from the table and with his eyes and a slight bob of his head to Johan, suggests that he might sit.

Johan nods. Perry pulls the chair right out, and sits.

Karen brings Johan a smile and his coffee, and looks questioningly at Perry Humphries. ‘Just water,’ he says, and looks after the girl as she returns to the counter. ‘Great ass,’ he says to Johan.

Johan is offended that this oaf, this ugly man, is making these comments about such a nice girl. ‘I don’t notice those things,’ he says.

Perry shrugs. Johan sips his coffee.

‘So?’ he says.

‘A mate of yours. Carl Amsel. Remember him?’

Johan remembers Carl only too well. A big man, one eye missing and wearing a patch, black, to contrast with his blond hair, which he always used to wear long, to his collar at least. ‘No,’ Johan lies. Carl Amsel was exactly as he appeared, a nasty piece of work. Johan wants nothing to do with him.

Perry reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and brings out a photograph which he places on the table in front of Johan, leaving his hand there and tapping the photograph. Johan stares at it.

In the photograph Carl has his arm around Johan’s shoulders. They both look straight at the camera. Carl has that look of his, the sneering, arrogant look that was rarely far from his face. Johan is smiling in a sickly fashion, as though he is embarrassed by the moment. He is close-shaven, perhaps twenty-five years old. The photograph is in black and white, fine-grained, perhaps taken by a professional.

Johan remembers the day it was taken. He looks at Perry and does his best to show disinterest. ‘Don’t know either of them.’

Perry laughs, then is distracted by Karen who is approaching their table with a bottle of water and two glasses. She smiles again at Johan, leans forward and unclips the lid of the bottle.

‘Thanks, darlin,’ Perry says, reaching out and touching her just behind her knee, cupping the leg and stroking higher.

Karen jerks away from him as though stung. The scene is frozen

for a moment as she stares at him in disbelief. These things happen from time to time, but usually with young men, confident men sure of their attractiveness. With them she jokes and laughs, then returns, furious, to the kitchen for a while to calm down. She turns away from him, this ugly, fat specimen, and hurries back to her station.

She will not serve that table again, not while he is there.

Perry seems not to have noticed how upset Karen is. Perhaps he is used to this sort of reaction from the women he approaches, or maybe he believes that it is his right as a big tipper, which he always is. He looks at her retreating back and smiles at Johan. ‘Terrific ass, that one.’ He looks around the surrounding tables. No-one seems to have noticed that anything is amiss.

‘So, Carl,’ he says, returning his finger to the photograph and tapping it again. ‘A buddy of yours.’

‘Never heard of him,’ Johan says, but he knows he is not in the least convincing.

‘Sure,’ Perry says. ‘Now, Carl wants to talk to you, so we’re going for a little drive. A reunion, if you like.’

‘No.’ Johan is definite. He is not going to meet Carl again. Ever. He had enough trouble last time to last him a life-time.

Perry gives a patient smile and takes his mobile from his pocket, fiddles with it for a moment or two, then holds it out so that Johan can see the screen. He presses a button and the screen comes to life.

The video, jerky and poorly focused, shows Catherine, her face only thirty centimetres from the camera, her eyes wide and her hair messily around her face. ‘Dad, they’ve got me. I don’t know why.’ The video ends. Four seconds, that’s all.

Johan sits forward, shocked. He snatches at the mobile, but the hand holding it is jerked away. He struggles to get to his feet, but Perry restrains him with a hand across his chest. ‘Sit still, you fool. What you think you going to do, eh?’

‘You hurt her, I kill you. I kill you all.’

‘Ah, come on, Dago. You’re not going to kill anyone. You’re a nice guy. We’re nice guys. Your daughter, she’s nice too. We’re not going to hurt no-one.’

He leans forward until his face is close to Johan’s. ‘What’s going to happen is we’re going to finish our coffee,’ he pauses and flashes a wide-eyed smile right in Johan’s face, ‘an’ I’m even going to pay for yours, see?’

Johan turns his face away in disgust, but Perry continues. ‘Then

we’re going to have a little chat with Carl. See, all friendly like.’

‘I don’t know no Carl. Fuck off, and let my Katerine go.’

Perry chuckles. ‘Don’t you worry your little dago head about her, my friend. We got the solutions.’ He taps the business card where it lies on the table, then picks it up and replaces it in his wallet. ‘We got lotsa solutions,’ he confides, his eyes beaming.


August 13, 1983. Stuttgart, Germany

Johan is nervous. This is his first big job, and he knows the stakes are high. Raffi steps aside and he sees the vault. He hasn’t realised that he has been holding his breath, but in his relief at recognising the Haslinger, he lets his breath out in a ‘whoosh’. Raffi turns to him in concern.

‘No, it’s okay,’ Johan tells him, and smiles a tight smile. The Haslinger is a tough one, but he has opened them before.

It has taken the gang more than three hours to get to the vault, entering the building in Kronenstrasse through the underground carpark behind the building. Smashing through the poorly-built concrete wall, a relic of the rapid re-building of Stuttgart after the war and the corruption that led to the use of poorly-fired cement, still took considerable time. Bruno has already disabled the alarm system.

Johan kneels at the massive door and studies the combination lock. It is the ‘52 model, recognisable by the distinctive numbering on the dial. He reaches into his toolbag and extracts the stethoscope. He won’t be needing the other tools, just his ears and his sensitive fingers. He takes off the thin plastic gloves he has been wearing and drops them into the bag. He cannot work the lock in gloves. He spins the dial twice to the left, picking up the wheels. The mechanism, though it is now over thirty years old and must have been opened thousands of times, moves smoothly and silently.

‘How long?’ whispers Raffi urgently.

Johan shrugs. He has not yet started to concentrate, hasn’t yet reached the pitch of concentration that allows him to... well, to bond with the mechanism. That will come shortly, an almost trance-like state during which he will be aware of nothing else, just the spinning wheels and levers within the lock. ‘I’ll let you know,’ he says. Raffi irritates him. He always seems jumpy, his little goatee beard wobbling about as he speaks. ‘Why don’t you go and join the others?’

Raffi shrugs too, but turns away and leaves Johan with the vault.

Johan smiles. This is how he likes to work. He settles himself and starts to concentrate. He looks at the dial and controls his breathing, slowing it and his heartbeat. He allows himself to become calm, focused. He plugs the stethoscope into his ears and holds the bell to one side of the dial, holding it in his left hand. With two fingers of his right hand he gently turns the dial to the right, his head cocked to one side, not looking at the dial but concentrating to pick up the slight click as the nose of the lever drops into the sloping notch in the drive cam. He notes the point and continues turning until the lever reaches the second contact point, then quickly rotates the dial to the opposite side, parking the wheels. So far, so good.

He lowers his hands and rests for a few moments, then raises his hands to the dial and refocuses. He turns the dial slowly, his head again cocked, and counts the number of wheels. Five clicks. Five wheels. This is going to take a while, then. He takes a pad from his toolbag and notes the position of the contact area, then works slowly and carefully to define the positions of the five notches which, once known, will give him the combination.

He is oblivious of the time.

At 3.30 Harry comes and stands behind him. Harry is an old hand at this game, and knows not to break Johan’s concentration. He is the only non-German in the gang, and as such is slightly suspect; on the other hand he has more experience than any of the others, including Carl, and so is awarded a certain level of respect, which makes him even. He waits until Johan lowers his hand to add a number in his notebook, then touches Johan lightly on the shoulder. ‘How’s it going?’

Harry’s German is not up to much, and Johan thinks he has asked the time. He looks up, surprised that he would be asked that, but then realises that Harry wants to know how long it’s going to take. ‘Another half hour, maybe an hour,’ he says.

Harry nods and turns to leave. Johan returns to the dial.

Carl has chosen five men for this job: Harry for his experience, though Carl hates the English; Raffi because he has worked with him before and does everything, anything, he is told to; Bruno because of his strength and rapid response times and his understanding of alarm systems; Altman, too, strong as an ox though not particularly bright; and Johan, of course, because he has a growing reputation as a safebreaker.

Outside, too, is Helma, keeping watch. Helma is more of an entertainment than a gang member, but she could be useful sometimes.

There was also Adler, the bank employee who fed Carl all the information he needed, who had thought he was going to get a share in the proceeds of the robbery, but who is lying now in his kitchen with his throat cut. Carl smiles at the memory of Adler’s pleas for mercy. There was no point in splitting the proceeds more than he had to, and Adler would have been suspected of complicity anyway.

Carl is patient. He knows the vault is going to take time. They have another four hours in hand. He has made coffee in the little kitchen on the second floor, and is sitting behind a desk drinking it, relaxing in a swivelling chair. Not a bad office, he thinks. Herr Fuchs, whose name is on the door, is evidently a fairly senior member of the bank. Idly, Carl opens the drawers in the desk, but finds nothing interesting. He has tried the computer, but cannot get past the sign-in window.

He finishes the coffee and swivels the chair. Time to check things out. He leaves Fuchs’ office and walks swiftly to the stairs. On the first floor he finds Altman keeping an eye on the front entrance, sitting in an alcove where he can see without being seen from outside. Behind him is the security guard, trussed but unconscious anyway, with a little blood matting his hair on one side. Carl nudges the guard with his toe, hears him groan from behind the muzzle. He nods at Altman, then continues down the stairs.

Raffi is guarding the hole they made from the underground carpark. ‘How long now?’ Raffi asks. Carl shrugs. He will find out. He finds Harry outside the vault room. Harry is reading a book, sitting at a desk. As Carl enters he looks up. ‘Find out how long,’ he tells Harry.

Harry looks at his watch. ‘He was saying any time now,’ he tells Carl.

‘Find out.’

Harry puts his book in the pocket of his jacket and heaves himself out of his chair. As he enters the vault room Johan has just pulled the door of the vault wide. Harry turns. ‘Boss,’ he says quietly.

Johan is not interested in the contents of the vault. He has finished his part of the job, has proved his skill once again. He turns

away, takes up his notepad and puts it in his toolbag, removes the stethoscope from around his neck and puts that in the bag too. He takes the plastic gloves from the bag and pulls them on, then carefully wipes the door and the dial to remove any fingerprints.

Carl and Harry enter the vault. Harry has two large sportsbags in his hand. Carl is carrying a long chisel and a hammer.

The vault is comprised of two rooms, each lined with locked steel drawers. In the first room the drawers are thirty centimetres wide and ten centimetres high. There is almost no gap around the the drawers, but the chisel has been specially ground and re-tempered to provide a tough, knife-like edge that will slip between the top of the drawer and the steel frame. Carl goes to the drawer with the number 4863 stencilled on the front, and with no hesitation slips the chisel in at the centre mark, gives a smart blow with the hammer and twists it upwards. There is the small sound of something breaking and the drawer slides out a centimetre. Carl pulls it open and removes two packages, each appearing identical. They are very heavy. Carl drops them one at a time into the bag which Harry is holding open.

Carl immediately moves into the second room where each drawer is twice the size of those in the first room, and searches until he finds the drawer marked 8732. He uses the chisel once again to open it. It takes only a few seconds. The drawer is full to the brim with wrapped bundles of notes, American one-hundred dollar notes. Carl removes them and drops them into the same bag.

Drawer 6896 yields little leather bags tied with pull-strings, and 6852 offers flat transparent bags full of small yellow pills. All of these are divided between the two bags Harry is carrying.

The open drawers are closed, and Carl and Harry leave the vault. Johan swings the heavy door closed and resets the dial. All is as it was before. They join Bruno in the small communication centre adjacent to the reception area. Bruno removes the clips and wires with which he has circumvented the alarm system, and the gang leave the bank via the office through which they arrived, ducking through the jagged hole leading to the carpark.

The underground carpark is empty, and secured at night. There is a locked door at the side of the main entrance, and the gang wait as Johan uses a fine pick to unlock it. It is a simple mortice lock, no security at all, and it takes no longer for Johan to open it than if he had a key. The click of the lock as the latch is withdrawn is followed

by three muffled coughs behind him, and Johan turns in surprise. Bruno, Raffi and Altman are lying on the ground in a heap. Carl is holding a silenced pistol, smoke curling from the barrel. Carl smiles. ‘Three less to share the proceeds,’ he says, and pushes past Johan to open the door.

Helma has brought the van to the entrance of the carpark. Harry slides into the front seat next to Helma and Johan sits in the back seat with Carl, the two bags beside them. Helma pulls away carefully, driving through the empty streets. There is just the first glimmer of light in the sky, but in the canyons of the CBD the street lights are casting dark shadows. Neither Helma nor Harry comment about the three missing members of the gang. Johan is frozen with fear.

Helma drives for a quarter of an hour, and, with daylight growing now, pulls into a large carpark. They leave the van and climb into a car parked beside them. Helma takes the wheel again and drives for a further three quarters of an hour. They leave the city on a highway heading south, and shortly turn off onto a smaller road, and then onto a still smaller lane that leads to a village. Johan has no idea where they are. Helma slows before a large house and Harry presses the button on a remote. The doors of a double garage rise before them, and Helma drives in. Johan, still terrified, pushes himself into the corner of the seat.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Carl asks him, and Johan knows that he is amused that Johan is terrified. ‘What did you think, that I’d shoot you, too?’

Johan is too terrified to answer. He can’t even bring himself to nod or shake his head. ‘You’re too valuable to me, Johan. Not too many guys around these days with your skills. Isn’t that true, Harry?’

Harry has turned in the front seat. ‘Sure,’ he says. But there is a guarded light in his eye.


Perry chats away as he drives, almost as though this is just an afternoon picnic they are going to. Johan is silent, ignoring the comments from Perry. If they really have his Katerine, he’s in a fix. There can be only one reason why Carl would want to see him now, but his safe-breaking days are long over. And Carl wouldn’t want Johan talking about him, would he?

Johan hasn’t so much as looked at a safe for the last thirty years. He knows the technology has come a long way, knows he’d have no

hope of opening a modern safe, not without months of research and practice. Carl isn’t going to believe that, though.

They turn off the main road onto a narrow dirt road. The sign said a caravan park, so probably beside a river. After three bumpy, dusty kilometres they drive through a rough gateway, and shortly the road divides and they take the left fork. It circles the caravan park and returns to the road on the other side. The car stops behind the furthest caravan. A cloud of dust envelopes the car, and they wait a few seconds for it to drift on, then open the car doors together.

There is a canvas shade over the side of the caravan, a few folding chairs around a card table. Two wooden steps lead up to the door of the caravan, and Perry gestures to him to climb them. He pulls the screen door open, then turns the knob and pushes his way in.

It is a large double caravan, roomy and light. Catherine is sitting in an armchair, looking frightened. She is not tied or held in any way. Opposite her is Carl. Still blond, still with shoulder-length hair, but the patch is gone. Instead, he now appears to have two good eyes, both of them looking at him. He looks very old, much older than, what? Sixty-five? Seventy? Johan tries to do the maths, but can’t concentrate. There could not have been more than ten years between them, but this Carl looks ancient.

‘Johan,’ Carl says, holding out both arms as though offering a heart-felt welcome to a long-missed relative. The last time they saw each other, after the second robbery, Carl was trying to kill him.

‘You all right, Katerine?’

Catherine nods shakily.

Johan turns to Carl. ‘Okay, I’m here. Now you let her go.’

‘Ah, Johan,’ Carl chuckles, ‘always the dreamer.’ He shakes his head as though in wonder, still chuckling. He raises his head suddenly in that abrupt manner Johan remembers so well. ‘Why they calling you The Dago?’

‘What’s it matter, what they call me?’

‘Tell me why they call you The Dago,’ Carl says, his voice turning to a snarl. Catherine cringes back deeper into her chair.

‘Fuck you.’

Carl smiles. ‘You’ve grown some courage from somewhere, eh?’ He raises his hand from where it lay beside him in the armchair, and Johan sees the gun, and again a silencer. Carl points it at Catherine. She closes her eyes and lets out a smothered little shriek, turning her head away.

‘You going to tell me?’

Johan shrugs. Some things just aren’t worth it.

‘This country,’ he says. ‘If you’re not from here, you’re a dago.’

Carl laughs, and there is real mirth in his voice. He lifts the pistol and waves it. ‘We’re all dagos, hey?’

Johan nods.

‘These people, they stupid. They got no finesse. Dagos, Spics, Wogs, Wops, they all different. Calling all Dagos is showing ignorance.’

Johan shrugs.

Carl lowers the pistol again, hiding it behind the arm of the chair. ‘Okay, sit,’ he tells Johan. ‘What we’re going to do is another job, okay?’

Johan shakes his head, but it’s more in wonder that it has all caught up with him than it is denial. ‘You think I work with you again, then you kill me and my Katerina? Fuck you. You going to do it, do it now.’

Carl looks at Perry. Perry reaches out and pulls the crutch from under Johan’s right arm, a move so unexpected that Johan almost falls to the floor. Perry grins. ‘You want I smash your other leg?’

Johan is tottering, unbalanced. But he is also aware that he and Catherine are at the mercy of these two thugs.

Carl laughs. ‘Sit down, you fool,’ he tells Johan. ‘You think I don’t know all about you? I been waiting for the right job. You going to do it, or she gets the bullet first, and not in the head. Oh, you going to do it, alright.’

‘And we get the bullet after.’

‘You want me to show you where she going to get it?’ Carl asks. He looks speculatively at Catherine. ‘Like, maybe in the leg first? Then maybe in the hand? Lots of blood. Lots of crying.’ He lifts an eyebrow speculatively, looking at Johan.

Johan knows he has no option. He sighs, and Perry hands him his crutch. He sits at a table, his leg stretched out in front of him.

‘How you expect me to do it? Look at this leg. Look at these hands.’ He holds up his hands and looks at them himself. ‘They haven’t touched a safe in thirty years. Modern safes, they different. Electronic. I don’t know them.’

Carl laughs out loud again. ‘Tell him, Perry.’

Perry is unsmiling. ‘This one is old, same type as the Stuttgart job, they tell me. See, not everyone trusts modern technology. And in any case, they all be broken, in time.’

Johan isn’t quite ready to believe that, but he has no choice at the moment. ‘Okay,’ he sighs. ‘Tell me.’


It is indeed, Johan sees. It’s a Haslinger, but not the ‘52. He’s not exactly sure of the model, but he knows it won’t be significantly different to the ‘52.

Carl was clearly not joking. It is only two hours since they left the caravan park, Catherine securely blindfolded, gagged and tied, sobbing. Johan has no idea how he is going to get them out of this, but as he has no options, he must simply go ahead with Carl’s plan, hoping that he will find some ploy, some advantage, that he can use to survive.

They have driven south for an hour, Perry driving, Johan in the passenger seat, Carl in the back. Johan presses for information, but Carl refuses. ‘You just open the safe. I got everything planned.’

Yes, Johan thinks, even down to where to bump me off. He wonders if Perry is going to get a bullet, too; wonders if Perry knows the sort of guy he’s dealing with. They arrive in a small town as darkness is falling, drive up the main street and turn left, then left again into a dingy lane, rubbish bins and garage doors all the way. They pull into a garage half-way down the lane, and pull the roller door down behind them. They walk up a dusty path to the back door of a building. Carl speaks into a mobile phone, and the door opens. A young man in a track suit and bandana stands aside to admit them, and Johan sees they are in a darkened corridor. The young man closes and locks the door behind them, then leads them through another door into what is clearly the back room of an old-fashioned office, all varnished wood and leather chairs. There is a layer of dust over everything, as though the office has not been used for many years.

Johan wonders what on earth can be so valuable here. It’s not a bank, it’s just an abandoned office in a very small country town. Still, he thinks, Carl must believe it’s worth breaking into. He follows Carl and Perry into a third room, and the young man opens a door marked Private. Sure it’s private: immediately inside the door is a vault door, and in the middle of it is the Haslinger.

Johan peers at the dial. He raises his hand and turns it one full

circle. He turns to Carl. ‘I need a stethoscope and paper and pencil,’ he says.

Carl shakes his head. ‘No stethoscope. Just get on with it.’ But he sends the young man to fetch paper and a pencil.

‘Impossible,’ Johan mutters, but he turns back to the lock. Holding his ear very close to the dial, he spins it experimentally. It may be years since he touched a lock, but his fingers have remembered, he realises. More carefully, he turns the dial clockwise, and he feels the wheels being picked up, one by one. He parks them, then starts his deep breathing, focusing.

When he hears the tiny click of the lever dropping into the notch of the drive cam he feels the old elation: he can do this, he thinks, despite his years away from the trade. He counts the wheels, and is surprised that there are only three. This is going to be easy.

Nevertheless, it is two hours before he has the first two numbers, with one more to discover.

Carl, Perry and the young man are sitting silently in button-back armchairs behind him. Silent, but beginning to be impatient, he can tell. They know better than to interrupt him, but they have sat waiting for a long time. The young man, especially, is beginning to fidget.

Johan is working with only one part of his mind on the task of opening the vault. With the other part he is trying to formulate a plan, any plan, that will allow him to escape, to rescue his Katerine, to rid himself of Carl. So far, he can think of nothing. Once he has opened the safe he is expendable, and he is certain Carl will shoot him, and later he will shoot his Katerine, too.

He continues to turn the dial, his ear close to the lock, but he already knows the final number. He cannot continue for ever... he has to do something. But what, he has no idea. He continues turning first one way then the other, until at last Carl stands and approaches him, standing behind him, watching him more closely. Johan is sweating, his mind is numb. He must think of something. But Carl has pulled out his pistol once more, and holds it to Johan’s head.

‘You’re stalling,’ Carl snarls. But he can’t be sure.

‘No,’ Johan tells him. He tries to put conviction into his voice. ‘Something strange about this last number.’

Carl seems to think about it for a moment, then puts his pistol away with a crooked smile. ‘You got another five minutes, then I

shoot you in your foot. Your good one. Think that will help you work it out?’

Johan knows he’s not bluffing. He turns the dial a few more times, then scribbles the final number on the paper. He shows it to Carl.

‘Okay,’ Carl says. ‘What you waiting for?’

Johan dials the three numbers and hears the final click, turns the big wheel and pulls on it. The vault door swings slowly open. This is some vault, he thinks, but when he looks inside he sees that the vault is really quite small, no more than a metre deep and two metres wide. There are shelves to one side stacked with documents in manila folders, and steel drawers on the other side. Carl pushes him aside and enters the vault. Perry follows. Johan sees Carl has a small crowbar in his hand, and without hesitation he moves to one of the drawers and jams the crowbar into the tiny space between the drawer and the frame, straining upwards until, with a loud crack, the lock gives and the drawer opens.

Johan steps back from the door and leans on it, swinging it slowly closed. Carl and Perry are concentrating on whatever it is inside the drawer, and the vault is almost closed before they notice. With a cry of alarm, Perry leaps to stop the door shutting, but the door is very thick and heavy, and its momentum is too great to allow Perry to resist it. The door slides into place and Johan turns the wheel, then gives a twirl to the dial.

The young man looks at him, aghast. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he asks.

Johan asks himself the same question, but to the young man he replies, ‘Do you know these guys?’

The young man nods. ‘Of course I do,’ he says.

Johan doubts it. ‘The last job I did with them, the boss killed everyone after. Tried to kill me, too. Know that?’

The young man’s eyes open wide. ‘What... what for?’

‘What you think? Why share the money if he don’t need to?’

The young man stares at him. ‘You’re joking.’

Johan shakes his head. ‘No joking.’ he tells him.

The young man rubs his face. ‘Shit,’ he says. He’s way out of his depth, and this is only just dawning on him.

Perry stops beating on the door after a while. It’s not going to do them any good. Carl has moved to the back wall of the vault, examining it closely. He scrapes at the thick layers of paint with the crowbar, chipping it off and revealing the steel underneath. He grunts, and crouches, examining the floor in the same way. That’s steel, too. He looks up at the ceiling, but without much hope. There is a single lamp in the centre of the small ceiling, but as the door closed the lamp was extinguished too. Perry has a lighter, their only illumination. Carl can just reach the ceiling with his crowbar, and drives it upwards. The flat metallic sound confirms that the ceiling, too, is steel.

Carl understands what that means: the vault is fireproof, which means of necessity that it is air-tight, too. Perry is not stupid, but as yet he has not made the connection. Carl does the calculations, and though he has no idea of the actual values involved, recognises firstly that the oxygen in the vault is going to run out, and secondly that two pairs of lungs will use up the available oxygen twice as quickly as one pair. Without hesitation he raises the crowbar and brings it down heavily on the back of Perry’s head. Perry falls to the floor of the vault without a sound, the lighter flying from his hand. Carl crouches and searches the floor until he finds the lighter, opens it and spins the wheel. At the second attempt the spark catches. Carl holds the lighter up and strikes Perry again and again. He pushes Perry’s body to the side, and sits with his back to the wall of the vault. He can do nothing but wait. He takes the pistol from its holster and points it at the door, ready to shoot if the door opens. He closes the lighter, and waits patiently in the dark and the silence.

Johan is not sure what to do. He’s sure of one thing, though, and that is that he had better act quickly. He can see that the young man isn’t going to interfere with him, but until he has thought of something Johan isn’t going to let him go, either.

‘Sit down and stay there,’ he tells him, and the young man does as he is told. He is trembling.

Johan thinks. ‘Where are we?’ he asks.

The young man looks at him, not understanding. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know where we are. What is the name of the town?’

The young man tells him, but Johan has never heard of it. ‘You live here?’

The young man nods.

‘What’s in the vault?’

The young man hesitates.

Johan swings one of his crutches, catching the young man in the head. The young man howls and holds his head. Blood trickles from a large cut on his cheek.

‘What’s in the vault?’ Johan demands a second time, and holds the crutch high as though to hit again. They young man cowers, a mewling sound coming from him.

‘Don’t,’ he cries.

Johan lowers the crutch a fraction.

‘Uncut diamonds,’ the young man says. Johan looks disbelieving, and raises the crutch again. ‘No, really,’ the young man insists. ‘They nick them from a mine out west, and store them here. Used to be a legal office, years ago, so they thought they’d be safe here.’

Johan eyes the young man speculatively. ‘And you got greedy, and thought you’d take the lot.’

The young man lowers his eyes and says nothing.

‘Fine mess you got us into,’ Johan says. Eventually, he knows, someone is going to come along and Carl and Perry will be freed. Whoever it it is won’t be very happy with Carl, but it is unlikely that they will be prepared, and Carl has his pistol. The minute the vault is opened, Carl will start blasting away. What can Johan do to change this?

‘Who are the guys that stored the diamonds here?’ he asks the young man.

The young man doesn’t want to answer, but Johan raises the crutch as though to hit him again. ‘My brother,’ he tells Johan desperately. ‘And two of his mates. They fly into this place out west, work two weeks and fly back.’

‘When were they last here?’

‘Last week, Thursday.’

‘Do they come together?’

‘Yeah. They work the same shift.’

Johan eyes the young man. ‘Do they know you know about the diamonds?’

The young man shakes his head. ‘So how do you know about them?’

‘Followed them, watched them. Barry, that’s my brother, he was on the phone talking about them.’

‘Anybody else know?’

The young man rubs his chin. ‘Don’t think so. Not here, anyhow.’

‘How did you get in touch with Carl?’

‘The big guy with the hair? He came with Perry. I did time with Perry. Got out three weeks ago.’

‘Who, Perry?’

‘Nah. He got out months ago. I just got out three weeks ago.’

‘You heard about the diamonds, gave him a call? Smart move, pal. Smart move.’ Johan looked at the vault door, then closed the wooden door that hid it. ‘Reckon I probably saved both our lives. Now, when you see your brother you got to tell him about those two. The blond guy’s got a gun, and maybe Perry, too. They going to use them on whoever lets them out. If your brother wants the diamonds, they going to have to kill them guys first, understand?’

The young man stares at him. ‘Shit,’ he says again.

‘Yeah,’ Johan says. ‘Now, I got to get out of here. Get up and come with me.’

Hesitantly, the young man gets out of the armchair, and Johan points with his crutch the way they had come in. When they get to the garage Johan motions the young man to open the roller door and open the car door. As he does so the interior light comes on, and Johan sees what he had expected to see: no keys in the ignition. They must be in Perry’s pocket.

Johan thinks. ‘Can you start a car without the keys?’ he asks.

The young man shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Can you?’

He’s a mechanic, isn’t he? ‘Okay, get in.’ He gets in the passenger seat, and leans towards the young man. ‘See that cover there?’ The young man nods. ‘Well, gently pull on it and it should come away.’ The young man pulls, but nothing happens. ‘Harder,’ urges Johan. The cover pops off, and a tangle of wires drops down. Johan shows him which wires to cut, which wires to hold together. The starting motor whirs, the engine coughs into life, then dies.

‘A little throttle,’ Johan says, and this time the engine starts. Johan shows him what to do with the live wires, then sits back. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘We’re going north.’

They drive an hour to the north, but there is nothing there, just endless paddocks in the moonlight. Johan finds a map in the pocket in the door, and studies it. There is only one place it can be, but they should have taken a turn-off twenty-five kilometres back. They turn and drive south, then take the turn.

Johan is right, and in twenty minutes they come to a town. Half way up the main street they see a sign pointing to the caravan park. They lurch along the dirt road until at last they reach the entrance. Slowly they drive around the circular road until they come to the last caravan. There are the table and the folding chairs. Behind the caravan they see Perry’s car. Johan turns to the young man. ‘You want this car? It’s probably hot. If those guys get out of the vault, they kill you. The only way you going to live, you got to kill them first. You or maybe your brother. Maybe your brother will kill you, when he finds out what you done.’

The young man nods, still terrified.

‘You got to tell your brother, though, or maybe he’ll open the vault and those two will kill him, take the diamonds. Better you tell him.’

Johan opens the door and climbs out. He leans into the car and looks at the terrified young man. ‘Grow some balls,’ he advises, and the young man nods again.

Johan slams the door and moves towards the caravan. He opens the screen door and the young man drives away. Johan turns the knob, pushes open the door and feels for the light-switch.

Catherine has fallen from the armchair she had been in, and is lying on the floor facing away from him. He steps towards her and she groans loudly, clearly thinking it is Carl and Perry coming back. Johan puts his hand on her shoulder and pulls her towards him. She resists, trying to curl into a protective ball. ‘Katerine,’ he says. ‘It’s me. Is all right.’

He removes the blindfold and the gag. ‘Hey,’ he says as she bursts into tears, still securely trussed, ‘Hey, it’s okay.’ He struggles to untie the knots that bind her. They have been made by an expert, he realises. She would never have got free by herself. It takes him more than five minutes before she is able to struggle to her feet, rubbing her wrists in an attempt to restore the circulation. He holds her to him, holds her tightly like a precious gift.

‘You know, Katerine,’ he says, ‘maybe next time I tell I need you, maybe you come, hey?’


Afterword

It is nine days before they can get to the vault, though the young man has spoken to his brother by satellite phone: their contract is pretty watertight, and they are at the mercy of the mining company, who controls the fully-owned subsidiary which flies crews in and out.

Although his brother and his mates are thieves, they are not, fortunately for the young man, violent men; though they shout and scream at the young man when they hear what he has admitted to them, by the time they reach town they have settled down and begun to take a pragmatic approach. They listen carefully as he describes Perry and Carl, and Johan’s descriptions of their histories, and question him for further details, promising painful repercussions if he leaves anything out, or makes anything up. He has not grown the balls that Johan advised, and he tells them everything.

They gather in the room outside the vault and consider how they are going to manage this. They have armed themselves, one with a shotgun, one with an old pistol and the third with a length of steel pipe. The young man holds a baseball bat, but knows in his heart that he will not be able to use it.

Rob, the one who knows the combination, stands beside the vault door. He has the old pistol in his right hand. He is very afraid, but he knows the value of the stones they have pilfered, and despite his fear he is unwilling to give them up without a fight.

Beside the wall to the right of the vault door stands Marcus, his back to the wall, the shotgun held across his body, the safety off and his finger on the double trigger, ready to blast anyone who comes out of the vault. His breathing is erratic, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

Opposite the door but behind one of the big armchairs is Pete, the one with the steel pipe. He is not sure what the hell he can do with only a steel pipe, but he guesses it is better than nothing.

The young man, the baseball bat clutched tightly, stands by the outer door, hoping against hope that he will be able to escape through it if the worst comes to the worst. He didn’t want to be there at all, but his brother has threatened him with everything short of murder, and he is not certain that his brother would be unable to carry out his threats.

Rob dials the combination and turns the wheel. Then, taking a breath and shooting a silent warning glance to his partners, leans back on the wheel, pulling the door slowly open. The light in the ceiling of the vault clicks on automatically, but there is no other reaction. There is, however, a revolting, putrid smell. Rob, Marcus and Pete look at each other as though wondering what to do next.

Pete raises his head to peer over the armchair.

He sees one man lying on his side at the back of the vault, a second sitting with his back against the wall, his knees up before him. The second man’s eyes are closed, his head back. Resting on his knees are his two hands and what looks like a silenced pistol, dangling from the finger caught in the trigger guard.

Marcus sees Pete’s reaction, and cautiously peers around the edge of the vault entrance, ready to duck back if necessary. It is not necessary. ‘Shit,’ he says, staring.

The three thieves stand in the doorway, unable to work out what has happened. Even the young man approaches. None of them have ever seen dead bodies before, and are awed by the sight. The smell of decomposition is dreadful, however, and they pull back.

‘What now?’ Pete asks.

The drawer that had contained the stones is wide open, and they can see that it is empty. If the young man has told them the truth, one of the two corpses must have the stones. They look at each other. Someone is going to have to search the bodies. As one, the three turn to the young man. ‘This is all your fault,’ Rob says. ‘Go through their pockets.’

Hesitantly, gagging, the young man does so; first Carl’s pockets then those of Perry, whose smashed and bloodied head looks so frightful. The stones are in Perry’s trouser pockets.

They have never been particularly careful about security since using the vault, but now, with bodies involved, they realise they’d better do something about the fingerprints they must have left everywhere. They wipe the drawers clean and the frame around the drawers, then the edges of the door and everything else they might have touched in the months they have been visiting the vault.

Satisfied, they swing the door closed, turn the wheel and spin the dial, cleaning it and the outside of the vault afterwards. They wipe everything they can think of in the outer room, the door knobs, the leather furniture and the light switches. As they leave the building one by one, Rob is thinking that enough is enough: they should call a halt to their escapade.

Inside the vault, the gasses of putrefaction start to build up again.