Alexander Webb, a gifted product designer (akin to Q in the Bond movies), has a new job. After years creating tactical weapons and innovative solutions for the Armed Forces, he is now a civilian, working for a design consultancy on the south coast of England.
A contract to develop a ground-breaking electric vehicle for a Japanese conglomerate proves to be a major success and triggers the opportunity of a lifetime; to see it implemented into production.
Stepping foot on Japanese soil for the first time he's excited, anxious, misses his dog and is completely ignorant of a criminal underworld initiative to host the world's greatest auction of stolen works of art.
Webb of Thieves is the first novel in the Alexander Webb series. By way of a taster you may like to read a few chapters:
Her eyes tracked it. Left…right…left…right. It was mesmerising and incredibly soothing. She didn’t really need the monotone voice to remind her that her eyelids were getting heavy, she already knew.
The small gold medallion, swaying a hand’s span from the tip of her nose, was as irresistible now as it had been the first time. It was intoxicating and so pleasurably cathartic that it captivated her consciousness, even her ability for coherent thought pixelated and fell like confetti before it.
‘Come with me Mariluz, let’s go somewhere quiet. Somewhere warm and secure. I need you to listen to my instructions, but first we must be where our wills are as one, somewhere no one else can reach us.’
Her mind drifted.
She was in his arms, beside a fire. Their special place. She could smell his musk and the briefest hint of a male fragrance on his clothes. Comforting smells. He was stroking her hair, telling her she was safe and urging her to sleep. Why should she resist? He was her protector, her guardian, the person she trusted most in all the world. She would do anything for him.
‘Your right arm, Mariluz, it’s as light as a feather. Raise it slowly. Show me how light it is.’
She willingly obeyed.
‘That’s perfect. Hold it there. Excellent.’
He pooled the fine-link chain into the palm of his hand, closed his fingers over the American Gold Eagle and slipped it into his trouser pocket. She was truly a remarkable subject.
Reaching to the inside of his jacket he drew out the photograph and held it steadily in front of her face.
‘Open your eyes Mariluz and focus on the picture. I would like you to study it carefully and commit every detail to memory.’
Her subconscious groaned at the sight. It was nothing special, just another gemstone. In her four years as Gem International’s Marketing Director hundreds if not thousands passed through her hands every week.
‘Do you recognise it?’
‘Good. Listen carefully. You will receive a telephone call tomorrow at exactly 1:00 pm. You will hear my voice and a word; “Mishima”. When you hear this word, you will thank me for the call, hang-up the phone, and go directly to the sales department.
‘When you get there, you will ask Miss Sonya Martin for her sample box. Tell her that you’re checking inventory and that you need to take it with you into the vault. Proceed to the vault. Make sure that she does not follow you and that you are alone.
‘In the vault you will locate the gem in the picture. You will exchange it for the glass sample you will take from her box. The gem from the vault you will then place into her box to refill the empty compartment. Do you understand?’
‘Good. Repeat back to me my instructions.’
Mariluz replicated his directions word for word.
‘Good. When you have returned the box to Miss Martin you will feel elated. Ecstatic. You will be compelled to call me, to tell me how well our sessions are working. Do you understand?’
‘Good. You can now lower your arm. Relax and breathe deeply.’
He watched her slink back into the couch and smiled.
It had been a long journey. Two months in all to arrive at this point. Getting into her apartment every couple of days to break the capsule on her pillow had been relatively easy. Getting close enough to persuade her to use his services a little harder. Now with ten sessions of deep hypnosis behind her, ostensibly to help cure her chronic insomnia, she was ready. Over the last week the dose had been steadily reduced, she should soon start to reap the benefits.
‘I will count down from three to one. At one, you will be completely awake, refreshed and alert. Three… two… one.’
‘How’d I do?’ asked Mariluz enthusiastically.
‘You responded beautifully, Miss Fernandez. Another week and we’ll be having you sleeping like a baby.’ He pressed the switch to start the percolator. ‘Coffee?’
‘Yes please Mister Robotti, milk and one sugar.’
The BlackBerry vibrated urgently on his desk.
‘Good afternoon. Carlo Robotti, how can I help you?’
She was giddy with excitement. ‘It’s Mariluz!’
The sun rose spectacularly through the broken cloud, casting beams of sunlight onto Kawaguchiko Lake. With barely a breath of wind, a near perfect reflection of Mount Fuji shimmered on the still water.
Hideo Matsumoto had viewed sunrise here, on the lake’s north shore jetty, for as long as he could remember. Some days, of course, it barely made an appearance, buried deep behind a curtain of rolling grey, on others it strained earnestly to reach him through a veil of morning mist. Today though, it was magnificent. A veritable emblem of his country. It was on days like this that his decision to buy the land and build upon it all made sense.
He’d loved the valley since childhood and would never forget the day he had made it his own. It had taken the full resources of his organisation and the sale of his first legitimate business to achieve it, but it had been well worth the sacrifice.
He briefly closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment’s meditation.
No other month smelled the same. Of all the months in the year, May unquestioningly wore the crown. With the cherry blossom in full bloom and the birds in full song, none other could equal it.
If only life was as simple and as beautiful as this, he thought, working quickly to capture the moment on canvas before the magic passed.
Concentration did not come easily.
Precious little time remained to carry out his commitments before the gathering and his logistical burdens of security and organisation played heavily on his mind.
Furthermore, he couldn’t shake the regret.
He’d been too rash, too impulsive, far too quick to clean house. The whole idea of engaging the gifted American had simply been to fulfill a flight of fancy. A “what if?” scenario, elicited from witnessing first-hand his extraordinary talent at the new-year’s eve celebration party. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected it to work. But work it had, and with spectacular results.
In retrospect he should have ignored Borello’s advice and dismissed his concerns out of hand.
Robotti had acquitted himself with consummate professionalism throughout, he’d been tight lipped and proved himself an asset, no way should they have construed him a threat. And leaving him dead in a hooker’s apartment! That had been just plain cruel. His family would be devastated, and probably stigmatized. He certainly hadn’t deserved that.
The smart thing, rather than order the hit, would have been to nurture Robotti and invite him into the fold.
He forced the thought from his mind. Regret… a pointless emotion.
Fortunately, the remaining task was easy. An opportunity would surely present itself, and if not, Kumagai would almost certainly engineer one. He had to be patient. A week, perhaps two and the prize would be his. A prize, sufficiently worthy to satisfy his honour at this year’s event, and spectacular enough to ensure his position amongst the Oyabun elite forever.
Stepping back from the easel he compared his efforts against those of the Creator and smiled.
Going for an impressionist fusion of Cézanne and wood block prints he was pleased at the result and set to cleaning his brushes.
An archway of cherry trees lined the blossom-covered pathway leading up from the lake to the terrace. He paused momentarily at the edge of the stream separating the extensive lawns from the orchard and admired the view.
Even at a distance the house was impressive. Styled on the castles of the great shoguns, the three tiered pagoda structure epitomised the empire he had created over twenty years. With accommodation exceeding that of most hotels it served his needs perfectly as a base for operations and would perform the task of housing the gathering with ease.
Meena, his Filipino maid bowed low as he entered the breakfast terrace. ‘Matsumoto-san, ohayou gozaimasu,’ she greeted.
‘Kumagai, is he here yet?’ he inquired, barely acknowledging her presence.
‘Arrived late last night sir.’
‘Excellent. Have him join me for breakfast at seven, he has a preference for fruit cocktail,’ and almost as an afterthought, ‘collect my painting equipment from by the lake, would you?’
Meena again bowed low.
Shedding his pure silk Yukata robe, Matsumoto changed into western attire. Barker brogues, a crisply starched Dior shirt and a dark blue Caraceni suit. Exquisitely hand tailored in Milan, it had been styled personally by Gianni Campagna the atelier maestro to complement his stocky yet powerfully built figure.
He admired the result in the full-length mirror. Good living and constant light exercise had kept him in shape. For a man of sixty years he had worn well and knew his physique would not have been out of place on a man twenty years his junior.
Meena appeared at the entrance to the dressing room and remained silent until she had been noticed.
‘Breakfast is served on the terrace and Kumagai-san is waiting for you in the library.’
‘Have him wait for ten minutes then bring him to my table.’
‘As you wish sir.’
He jogged lightly down the staircase and into the study.
Lit softly by brass picture lights, the room held the warm sheltered glow of a winter’s evening, and in pride of place, above the fireplace, hung his favourite work of art. A dramatic scene of swirling skies oppressively dominant over windswept golden fields. Every fluid, pain-filled brushstroke upon it accurately portrayed the terrible loneliness and uncontrollable fear of Vincent’s final years in Arles after Gauguin’s departure. At one million dollars it had been an unbelievable bargain.
He released the concealed catch, a detail in the swept frame, and the painting slid silently to the side. The dull grey textured surface of the safe came into view. With six light touches on the keypad the door eased open. He reached inside, removed the package containing Kumagai’s briefing and three million Yen in cash.
Kumagai arrived as he settled down to his daily routine: Rice, fish, miso soup and O-cha; a sweet pale-green tea that grew in abundance on the estate.
Constantly keeping eye contact, he bowed respectfully at the waist and waited for permission to sit. At thirty-five, he still exhibited the self-assured air of a man confident in his abilities, and the solid stance reminiscent of disciplined military training.
With a brief nod, Matsumoto motioned for him to take a seat. ‘I am pleased that you could join me, I’ll make it worth your time, I promise you,’ he said, indicating that Kumagai should help himself to the prepared fruit and coffee, ‘I trust my staff have made you comfortable again?’
‘Perfectly, thank you.’
‘Good. For a man with your special talents and contacts, you should make light work of this.’ Matsumoto slid the package across the table. ‘I need something rather special this time. You have twenty-six days in which to complete it, the sooner of course the better. Your deadline is the end of May. You must not fail, my reputation depends upon it. There’s enough in here to complete your objective. It’s all for you, use it as you wish. Any travel costs and accommodation expenses can be direct billed to the American Express card, sign it before you leave.’
‘Can it be traced?’
‘Back to you? No. Payment of the card will be covered by an offshore account; it’s quite secure I assure you. I would like you to read the brief while you are here, and remember, please, no loose ends.’
Matsumoto stood and walked to the shallow wall at the edge of the terrace as Kumagai read in silence.
‘Who else knows it will be here?’ he asked finally.
‘No-one. The representative believes it to be a facsimile, a copy, to be used as an example of the real thing. This is also reflected in the import documents. As you have read, the item was substituted last month in New York. Stealing it and smuggling it in would have been far too risky. This way it is much better, don’t you think? The itinerary suggests it will be in the country by the middle of next week. All you have to do is make the second switch. Can you do it?’
Kumagai smiled. ‘Of course.’
Alexander Webb had to admit it, there was nothing quite like a wet nose in your eye, to give you that wide-awake feeling, first thing in the morning.
He’d pretty much tried everything. Pushing him off the bed, buying him a basket, even locking the bedroom door didn’t help, the whining kept him awake all night. Whatever he did, the result was invariably the same; a spread-eagled comatose dog on the pillow next to him every morning when the alarm went off.
As far as being a substitute for a girlfriend, Maverick definitely had his limitations, but as an all round companion, he was just about perfect.
The notion made him smile.
They’d been together for two great years, through puppy youth to brotherhood and were almost inseparable. Faithful and incomparably bright, his tricolour Border Collie had been a Christmas gift from an old flame. That flame had long since dwindled, but the fire that raged in Maverick warmed the very depth of his soul.
Dutifully he sat by his side, grooming his coat, whilst Alexander shaved.
The face in the mirror looked tired. It accurately reflected how the rest of his body felt. Five years of developing weapons and operational kit for the armed forces had been a cake-walk compared to the twenty-four month programme he’d led since resigning his commission. There had been no time for socialising, no time for women, and on the only occasion he’d given less than a hundred percent, he had given blood.
He’d worked on groundbreaking projects before, of course, but none as complex or as time consuming as the LX4. The remit had been enigmatically brief. “Create an electric vehicle that everyone would want to own.”
Easy enough to say, especially if you said it quickly, but turning those simple ten words into reality had been the greatest task he’d ever undertaken, and although stimulating, it had caused many a sleepless night. Just a final round of testing and the decisive presentation to Tri-Star remained, and that would be it. Time to rest. He’d take a month off, he decided, find a deserted beach somewhere and play with the dog.
It was raining again, the fourth day in a row. With April having been dry, May appeared to be exacting its revenge.
He hoped it was just a shower.
The old Alfa Romeo spider burst into life at the first turn of the key, purred out of the driveway and headed eastwards along the sweeping coast road towards the track. It had been in a hell of a state when he’d bought it, primarily to hone his machining skills, but now, after a considerable investment in time and money, it was close to perfect. The engine sang musically on the light throttle, the suspension rode smooth, and on the winding country roads of Sussex the slick gear changes were an unequalled pleasure.
Since the age of ten, and on into his early twenties, motor racing had been his life. First carts, then through the formulas to 3000. Regrettably, at his father’s insistence, university studies followed by a decent stint in the armed forces had sadly put paid to any greater ambition. Fortunately, he reflected, he still had historic racing on summer weekends to keep his eye in.
‘One day we’ll be making this journey in a Ferrari,’ he said, for the benefit of Maverick. ‘Though by then, we’ll probably be too old to enjoy it.’ An attempt at a toothless geriatric grin creased his face as he imagined a bottle of Benylin rocking arthritically in the glove compartment and a Zimmer frame creaking in protest on the boot rack.
The development centre lay ahead.
He signed in at the gate, drove to the old aerodrome control tower and parked up. As soon as the car had come to a rest Maverick jumped out, paddled the door to the entrance and bolted up the stairs. Alexander could understand Mav’s motivation as soon as he went inside. He too could smell it. The professional inside of him said he should head straight in to the changing room to don his Nomex driving suit, but the draw of the frying bacon and percolating coffee rendered any possibility of that happening as highly unlikely.
The test track felt empty. Deserted. Considering it had once been a Second World War airfield, he would almost have described it as haunted. On all of his previous visits to Global Design’s performance facility the security had never been this tight.
Alexander Webb switched on the Arai racing helmet’s radio-mic.
‘Is there anybody there?’
His playful disembodied séance voice echoed ghostly over the pits address system.
‘You’re coming in loud and clear, Alex,’ replied Greg looking down from the observation tower, ‘Let’s see if the telemetry works. Start her up.’
The screen in front of him resembled a flight simulator video game. The four oil-cooled twenty-four pole DC motors were idle, power reserve one hundred percent and speed zero. All motor, transmission, brake and sodium-sulphur battery sensors glowed green.
‘Everything’s A.O.K. Alex, she’s all yours.’
Selecting drive, Alexander gingerly depressed the accelerator. Silently the car rolled forward and progressively picked up speed.
‘The display indicates twenty-five miles per hour, power drain five kilo watts and coolant temperature stable, are you getting the same data Greg?’
‘Yes Alex, the system’s working perfectly.’
Before any in-depth vehicle test, experience had taught him that early brake assessment was an essential safety precaution. With sixty percent of the vehicle weight at the front and forty percent at the rear, there was barely a hint of a dive, even under quite violent braking.
‘The brakes are fine,’ he said, ‘I’m approaching the snake, let’s see how she handles.’
Entering the first corner at forty miles per hour, he gradually eased on the power, the car negotiated the series of esses as though on rails. The tyres were perfect. There was no sign of under-steer, and on exit he could feel the merest suggestion of predictable over-steer. With its centre of gravity lower than a hundred and fifty millimetres above the road, that was to be expected.
The mile long straight was now in his sights.
‘Current speed sixty. Plot the acceleration, I’d like to compare it with last week’s test,’ he said and floored the throttle.
The force on his neck was brutal as the needle in the Speedo raced urgently past one hundred. Trees bordering the circuit Armco hurtled passed with increasing swiftness and detail began to meld into flashes of colour as the LX4 consumed tarmac. The sensation felt unusually strange. Chaotic uncontrollable action outside, yet inside the cabin an all-pervading sense of calm and order. Theoretically he was within ten miles per hour of the top speed. He glanced at the rising needle. It was slowing. Then, as though on cue at the design limit of one hundred and fifty five, the corner of the bonnet nearest to him started to vibrate.
A resigned smile grew irresistibly on his face behind the visor. There always had to be something.
He eased back to one-twenty, entered the banked oval, and settled down for what he hoped would be the longest part of the test.
‘Everything seems to be working perfectly Greg. According to the sound measuring equipment, the noise in the cabin is roughly equivalent to a Jag travelling at thirty, and most of that is road noise. Right, as the actress said to the bishop, let’s see how long we can keep this up.’
At noon, Greg knew tomorrow morning’s presentation to the Tri-Star board would be a major success. The LX4 had already covered four hundred and fifty miles, and according to the telemetry there was still a power reserve of thirty percent.
‘Alex,’ he called, ‘before we break for lunch, I think we should record a few nought to sixty sprint times.’
The test track canteen resembled a nineteen-fifty’s truck stop, and was just as uninviting.
Gathered around the large white Formica topped table, exuberant and vocal, sat the key members of the design team discussing the morning’s data. Hand written notes and a selection of computer printouts, arrayed in a random collage, covered the table’s surface. Every digit and graph confirmed what each of them already knew. Save for a few minor tweaks, and easy to fix details, the car was just about perfect.
Greg Matthews, Global Design’s Managing Director was the last to arrive. A bottle of Champagne capped by a nest of plastic cups was in his hand.
‘For the best engineers in England!’ he acclaimed, popping the cork and pouring generously. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, a toast: The Tri-Star LX4. The most production feasible, Usable and Saleable electric vehicle ever created. Well done, all of you!’
The cheer was loud and unanimous.
‘And listen to this! Higaki sent an email last night. It’s his last line that’s important. “…If our expectations are realised at the presentation on Friday, and I’ve no reason to doubt that will be the case, a gesture of appreciation of £10,000 will be paid to each of your staff on the LX4 project team.”
The room went silent.
I knew that would shut them up.