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The Good Neighbour

“The leak’s repaired, Mr Fleming,” Henry announced, as he trudged down the stairs from the attic wiping his hands with a rag. His heavy work boots thumped on each wooden step. “Now your roof’s not going to leak for the next few years. I guarantee that.”

 The old man looked up, smiled and nodded his thanks to the younger man.

 “But look what I found up there!” Henry stood in front of the old man and held up something that had been dangling by a strap from his broad shoulder. It was a Yashica Electro 35 camera that had evidently seen better days. It was rusted, scratched and covered with dust. Not to mention the cobwebs, which Henry wiped away with his rag.

Peter Fleming’s dull, rheumy eyes lit up with recognition when he saw the camera. “Oh, there it is! I thought I’d lost it. Haven’t been up to the attic in years, son.” He lifted his fragile frame from the sofa and shuffled across to take it from the younger man. He held the camera fondly, lost in thought, a lock of thin white hair falling over one eye.

“My dad had one too,” remarked Henry fondly. “He used to say that it was the most popular camera going around, way back in the 60s and 70s.” The old man nodded in agreement. He was examining the camera closely when he commented softly, “I do believe there’s a film in there. Can you believe that? I stopped using this camera forty… no, maybe forty-five years ago. Forty-five bloody years!”

Henry stepped forward to look. Yes, the old man was right. There was a film roll inside.

“Tell you what, Mr.Fleming,” Henry offered at once, “My friend has a photographic studio near the South Croydon railway station. He still develops film, you know. Gets the odd request now and then. Why don’t I get this done for you?”

There was a brief silence. The old man hesitated, mulling over the matter. What secrets does he want to hide from me? Henry wondered as he waited for a reply. Finally, Peter nodded. “Sure, Henry, go ahead. I’ve no recollection of what pictures I took last on this camera. But there’s only one way to find out, I guess.” He shrugged his thin shoulders.

Mr Fleming trusted Henry, his next-door neighbour, and treated him like a son. They had been neighbours for decades now in this quiet neighbourhood of South Croydon, Surrey, just an hour by train from London. Peter had seen Henry growing up before his eyes from a small boy to a strapping young man in his thirties, who always had a cheery smile and a wave for the elderly man, and was always ready to lend a helping neighbourly hand. Unlike many boys of his generation, Henry Whiting had not moved away. He had continued to live, work and raise a family here in his family home.

Henry too liked this quiet loner who kept to himself and yet always had a greeting and a gentle smile for him and his family. But despite all these years that they had lived side by side, Henry did not really know much about this man who had lived all by himself as far back as he could remember. No visitors that Henry could recall had ever darkened the doorstep of Mr Peter Fleming.

Two days later, the old man answered his doorbell to find Henry at his doorstep. He handed over a sealed Kodak envelope to Peter at the door. The old man welcomed him in. Sitting at the dining table, his gnarled fingers trembled slightly as he prised the envelope open; to watch two dozen photographs spill out.

Henry, who hadn’t opened the envelope earlier on his way, craned to get a better look, a tad curious. Maybe he’d get to know more about the old man’s past. But with a twinge of disappointment, he realized that these were only photographs of every major museum and art gallery in London – from every angle – front, sides, driveway, the gates. Was the old bugger so bloody boring, he wondered? Not a whiff of scandal about him.

But what surprised him somewhat was the old man’s reaction to the photos. A slight smile tweaked Mr Fleming’s lips as he perused each photograph. He would gaze at each one long and hard, trying to recollect the memory associated with it, before putting it to one side.

Henry left the old man listening to the music of old memories in his head and quietly left, clicking the main door shut.

The old man continued to gaze at the photos one by one, oblivious of his surroundings. The map of wrinkles on his face and the glint in his eyes reflected the journeys of his life. There was one particular photograph of an art museum that he looked at long and hard. As he gazed at it, the memories returned, like a tide rushing in, of his last job, his last assignment, before he had called it a day…

* * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * *

London 1970. He peered through the telephone booth’s scratched glass at the idling white van on the opposite side. Three men waited inside that van, wondering why he’d asked them to stop here at Brook Street when they were on their way to visit an art museum at Manchester Square.

He pushed his way out, jogged through the stinging cold and climbed into the passenger seat. Antonino, the pimply, skinny Italian behind the wheel, was chewing gum. Dimitri and Aleks, both big Slavic men, squatted in the empty rear on a side seat, staring at him impassively. He nodded to them in greeting. Antonino put the lever in gear and began to drive.

As they rolled past the streets of London driving at a careful pace, Aleks used a rag to wipe excess oil off the Beretta he’d picked up in a Hamburg market last week, softly humming a tune. The Beatles…. he recognized the song. The band had just broken up due to internal differences, and most of the world was in mourning.

“That Japanese woman… cagna!”Antonino cursed, slamming a hand in anger on the wheel, his Mediterranean temperament getting the better of him. Everyone knew what he was talking about. They all recognized the song. They then fell silent, each lost in thought.

The art dealer in Chelsea had promised him two million pounds – half a million pounds each – for four of the rarest paintings in that museum. A Dali, a Monet, a van Gogh and a Picasso. He wondered how much the old queer would be making when he sold these to his mysterious buyers if he could afford to give him that much. Two million pounds!

He went through the details with them again. It was a simple enough plan, made after weeks of reconnaissance, having taken photographs of every target in the city and finally zoning in on one. The Wallace Collection at Marylebone. When scouting this and many other museums in the city, he had noted the lack of real security, as if it had never occurred to those responsible for the Museum that someone might love art a little too much, or just want some easy money.

The plan depended less on its mechanics than on the element of surprise. Each man knew his role. But Aleks, he feared, had a sadistic, violent streak in him. He was, after all, the man with the gun. Might he take out his pent-up rage on a poor museum guard?

“Remember, guys,” he reminded them, “there’s no need for casualties.”

They all knew this, if only because he had repeated it continuously over the last week. It had become a joke among the men, their ‘old aunt’ trying to keep them out of trouble. They had worked well together as a team on jobs before. There was a silent camaraderie among them marked by comfortable silences.

“Just about there,” Antonino said as they came up to the imposing gates of the Wallace Collection museum. He checked his watch. It was nearly four forty, twenty minutes before closing time. Perfect.

Antonino drove through the open gate and across gravel along the curved driveway to where three cars stood in the parking lot. A middle-aged couple was just leaving, getting into their car. Behind their van, beyond the high steel fencing, more couples moved along the sidewalk. It was just another cold Sunday in London.

“The four I said, okay? They’re close to the front. Don’t waste time, guys. We have no time to shop around. It’s too huge a place.”

Aleks grunted in agreement, Dimitri nodded. Tough, silent mercenaries intending to efficiently carry out a job they were paid to do. They stretched black ski masks over their heads. Antonino remained behind in the van while the others climbed out. Aleks clutched the Beretta against his thigh, and the three men crunched over gravel as they walked purposefully to the entrance.

There were two guards in the front, retired policemen from The City of London Police Force who didn’t even carry weapons. It was Aleks’ job to neutralize them, and he did so with gusto, shouting in his heavy accent for them to get on the floor as he waved his pistol around. Perhaps sensing that this was a desperate man, the guards threw themselves immediately on the floor, their hands behind their heads.

Dimitri pulled the ticket clerk out from behind her counter and forced her down beside the guards as he checked for visitors. There were only two left – an elderly couple in the front room. They stared at him, baffled.

While Aleks kept a watch over his prisoners, he and Dimitri took out their wire cutters. The first snip set off a piercing alarm. But this was expected. They had ten minutes, he had figured before all hell broke loose. Time enough for a Dali, a Monet, a van Gogh and a Picasso.

With their heavy glass covers, the paintings were unwieldy. So it took both of them to hustle each to the van, while Aleks paced menacingly near his prisoners, enjoying his role. Seven minutes later, a tap on Aleks’ shoulder indicated to him it was time to run. They all withdrew.

Antonino stepped on the gas.

This, of course, was the easy part. Four paintings worth perhaps over forty million pounds at that time in less than ten minutes. No corpses, no injuries, no mistakes. Face masks, the minimum of conversation and a white van out of town.

Antonino kept to the speed limit, while behind him Dimitri and Aleks slipped two oversized thick plastic garbage bags each over the paintings before slipping burlap bags over them, fastening them tight, chatting all the while about the details of the job, the way they might discuss pretty girls they’d met on vacation. Like the expression on the guards’ faces, the ticket clerk’s admirably shaped behind, the old couple’s strange air of ease as they watched the robbery take place and so on. Casual conversation in low voices. Then, without warning, Dimitri leaned forward and vomited.

He apologized, but they’d all been through enough jobs to know that there was often one person whose nerves would finally give way and he would release the pent-up stress in one way or another. There was no shame in it.

Antonino got them out of London proper by a confusing sequence of turns he had charted out beforehand. As they sped on the M1 motorway heading north, the lush green English countryside welcomed them on both sides. Giant waves on a gentle green ocean dotted with horses, cows, and sheep. A moment of naiveté passed as if this peace could be theirs.

After about an hour of driving, they took an exit, then another left onto an unused dirt road where, a half mile in, a Volkswagen and a Mercedes waited for them in a clearing. They got out and stretched. Aleks uttered a Slavic expletive of glee before they transferred the paintings to the VW. Antonino doused the interior of their white van with a canister of gasoline.

He removed a leather briefcase from the trunk of the Mercedes. Inside about a hundred thousand pounds of used bills stared back at them, all in neat bundles. Dividing the amount equally into three Tesco grocery bags, he distributed the bags and shook their hands. He thanked them for their good work, and each told him to call whenever he had another job.

Aleks held his hand a little longer. “You know, Mr.Wolfe,” for as far as they were concerned, that was his name. He had several aliases; sometimes he forgot what his name was on a particular job. “I don’t really like British guys, but you, you – I like.” A wide grin followed. It was the ultimate compliment that one could ever hope for from a taciturn Balkan man.

Once they were gone in the Mercedes, Wolfe reversed the VW further away, then walked back and lit the van’s upholstery, flicking with his fingers a lit match that arced through the air over several yards. He waited until the red flames spread, turning blue as they began to melt the dashboard. He turned his back on the growing inferno and drove away further north.

It was dark an hour later when, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, he transferred the paintings to a garage he had rented a week before and secured it with a large lock. Because of the weight of the paintings, it took a while. The exertion made him sweat despite the chill of the evening. There was a single fluorescent light overhead inside the garage, and in its surreal glow, he unwrapped each painting carefully.

The beauty of each picture made him catch his breath in awe, and they were etched in his mind forever before he carefully wrapped each again in the same two oversized plastic heavy duty garbage bags and a burlap sack. He sewed each burlap tightly with the twine and needle he had kept in store in the garage. They were now ready for delivery to his client, the art dealer in Chelsea, who had already paid him in advance so that he could pay his crew.

He locked up and drove down to the market square, looking for an available telephone booth. He found one and placed a call to London.

“Hello?” A female voice. Must be the old faggot’s secretary, he guessed. They had never met, but he had spoken to her before on an earlier assignment. She sounded distraught.

“Hello, this is Ed Wolfe here. May I…?”

“Oh, Mr Wolfe! He’d mentioned yesterday that you’d call. But a terrible thing’s happened. Terrible…” He heard the sound of sobbing. His blood ran cold.

“What happened?” He feared the worst. Sure enough…

“He had a cardiac arrest last night. He couldn’t call for help in time. The maid found him dead this morning. By the time I came to work, his body was gone!” She started sobbing again.

“I’m sorry,” he managed to mutter before replacing the phone back in its cradle. His heart was thumping as he realized the gravity of his situation. There he was, with four of the most expensive objects of art in the world, four world famous paintings, with no one to take them off his hands. There was nobody else that he could trust. Soon Scotland Yard, and possibly Interpol would be on the case. His days were numbered.

His legs like jelly; he walked back to his car, sat in the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette and inhaled long and deep. The merchandise was too hot to handle, burning hot. He’d have to be very careful, very discreet. Calm down, he told himself, and think. Plan your next move; and the next. He realized then that it was time to retire and disappear into the shadows and fog.

* * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * *

“I think he was an art curator or somethin’”, Mrs Wilson spoke to her neighbour over the common fence dividing the two-row houses. “My hubby said he knew a lot about the art world. Not that he spoke much. But I think they discussed some great paintings once. Herb was impressed with the old bloke’s knowledge.” Her neighbour across the fence, nodded, easily impressed by anyone from the art world.

 They were watching paramedics wheeling the body of their neighbour across the street into the van to take him to the Emergency Room of the local hospital for a doctor’s verification. The man they had known for decades as Peter Fleming had died in his sleep the previous night. The old man with an unknown past had always lived alone, had never had any visitors and did not mix at all with his neighbours. But he’d never failed to doff his cap to the ladies on his walks when he passed them by. A polite, gentle, introverted man. Mrs Wilson and the other residents of Campden Road often wondered what kind of life he must have led in his heydays. Now they would never know.

He apparently had no next of kin. Nobody knew who to notify. He didn’t seem to have had much, but whatever he had, he had willed to various charities before he passed away. The house went to his next-door neighbour Henry Whiting, who one could have knocked down with a feather when a solicitor from Regent Street called to tell him this.

Some of his belongings went to The Salvation Army. There were large cash donations to the YMCA and The Children’s Society.

A couple of days later, the idle Mrs Wilson saw a van with ‘The Wallace Collection’ insignia stop outside the late Peter Fleming’s gate. Two delivery men and a representative from the museum went in briskly with a sense of purpose. They seemed to know what to look for and where to find it. The details had been explicit in the will. After half an hour, they came out puffing and panting with four large, heavy, rectangular objects, covered in moth-eaten burlap, loaded the van and drove away.

* * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * *