Checkmate: (An Unexpected Turn.)

Ruth Leggott

Rory O'Byrne pushed his bicycle deep into the leafy mass of hydrangeas; then, protected by shadow from an overhanging sycamore tree he approached the wrought-iron gates. Through the bars the Mansion rose impressively in the subdued light of an intermittent moon. Ragged shards of cloud drifted across its surface from time to time, making his headlamp a vital necessity for the delicate job ahead.

Slipping out of his back-pack with the fluidity of long practice, he pulled on his balaclava then found the tin of face-black and applied it deftly where necessary. Everything he wore was black. In the shadows he dissolved into invisibility.

Next he strapped the headlamp onto his forehead and focused the light to a narrow beam. He was proud of this piece of ingenuity: adjustable to be either fine or broad-ranging, a dull gleam or piercingly illuminating, according to what the situation required.

He glanced along the country road towards town. The Mansion lay a kilometre from the outskirts and there were no street lights to break the inky darkness on a moonless night. But tonight was just right. He heard a dog barking in the distance, a more-pork closer at hand. Otherwise all was silent.

Briefly he reviewed his strategy. His station-wagon was parked on the edge of the residential area, outside a motel. It would be inconspicuous amongst the irregular comings and goings of the other cars. Once he'd acquired his 'treasures' he'd conceal them briefly under the hydrangeas, ride the bike back towards town then dump it in the ditch and walk the final block to his wagon. Then he'd drive back, park in the shadow of the sycamore while he loaded the bags, and be off.

Now. He must concentrate intensely. He pulled on the latex gloves and began the delicate operation of disconnecting the alarm on the electronic gates.

That done, he slipped through and closed them carefully behind him. Next: to disconnect the burglar alarms in the house. He knew precisely what to do. He'd installed them. Rory considered himself a consummate professional:

He was extremely selective of his 'clients' and researched them thoroughly;

He waited at least 13 months after any installation before targeting that house;

He used no contacts whatsoever from the underworld;

His Fence was a thoroughly respectable gentleman whom he trusted implicitly (and of whom he had sufficient inside knowledge to guarantee his silence in all exigencies!)

In the present case, he knew the owners were away overseas for three months. He also knew they were the inveterate collectors of the biggest hoard of antiques and antiquities he'd ever encountered outside a museum.

These would be impossible to dispose of in the normal way. But his Fence had a number of distinguished clients who were private collectors and whose greed had long since led them to abandon all pretence of a conscience.

Rory completed the dismantling process with his usual impeccable efficiency. Once inside he closed the door quietly, adjusted the lamp to its widest beam and looked around the broad entrance hall. With a joyous sense of anticipation he took in the polished rose-wood tables, the pedestal stands with their precious ornaments carefully arranged to enhance their individual beauty. And there was still the formal room and the library.

From his backpack on the floor Rory took out a roll of bubble-wrap and a number of woven polyester bags with handles. Strong but light-weight, they were ideal. Then he began the task of wrapping each piece individually and packing them into the bags. As he filled each one he left it in position to collect on the way out. The larger pieces he reluctantly passed by.

Two hours later he had completed the formal room and begun on the library when he heard an unmistakeable sound. All senses alert he instantly switched off his headlamp and froze. Was it merely the breathing of an old house, where the timbers expanded or contracted at night? He waited; seconds turned to minutes and he was about to turn on his lamp and resume his work when suddenly a beam of light swung across the room: the next moment he was gazing full into the dazzling glare of a spotlight held only a metre from his face. Then it jerked aside as a woman's scream rent the silence.

"Hell's teeth!" he thought frantically. "They've come home early!" Two options leapt to mind. He could tackle her, shut her up before she woke the household. Or he could run.

Rory was not a violent man. He ran.

He had the presence of mind to scoop up his backpack, then he was out the door, sprinting along the hall and down the front steps. As he raced through the gates his mind was already planning what evasions to take. Forget the bike. He crossed the road, scrambled over the fence and ran for dear life across the paddock, all the while expecting to hear shouts from behind, to see the house flooded with light as the family roused.

Heart thumping, breath rasping, slipping and sliding on the dew-soaked grass, he made towards the far side of the paddock where scattered clumps of bushes would afford him some shelter. He'd ground the treads off his shoes to make to make the prints less identifiable. Now he cursed the fact under his breath.

Suddenly he felt a sensation of suspension; the next thing he was lying flat on his back gasping for breath, his head spinning, his body stunned from the impact. He lay for a while in complete confusion. Nothing else happened. Venturing to prop himself up on his elbows he saw a thin metallic strip shining horizontally in front of him, several metres away. Then he realized it was the single wire of an electric fence. The weight of his momentum had carried him to the full extent of its slack then it had rebounded and shanghaied him forcefully backward. The wire didn't appear to have been alive - the only shock had been his own violent collision with Mother Earth. Never-the-less he gave it a wary berth as he crawled underneath. Then he was loping unsteadily across the final stretch, made it without mishap.

Still no pursuit. Of course! They'd have phoned the police. He'd see headlights, hear sirens at any moment.

Quickly removing the balaclava, he wiped it repeatedly on the grass, scrubbed at his face to remove the black, then began jogging towards the periphery of town. Hitting the first streets he slowed to a casual walk until he reached his wagon, unlocked it and released a long tremulous breath.

Even if they got tracker dogs he'd be safe now. He drove a circuitous route to his home in a smart street; considered leaving the vehicle in the drive-way but decided the stealthy opening and shutting of the garage would be interpreted simply as consideration for his neighbours.

With infinite relief he locked his door behind him. He was bone weary, knew sleep would elude him whilst the adrenalin still coursed through his body.

He washed the black residue off his face and inspected the contents of his bag. Every-thing was there, except - Damn! - he'd lost the headlamp, must have been when he fell. The bike didn't matter, it was clear of prints and he'd intended dumping it anyway.

He hid the bag and clothes under the false bottom of his wardrobe - he'd dispose of the tracksuit and balaclava later. He was always careful about fibres and hair; they had electron microscopes, DNA analysis and other challenges to a professional operator. Not that the police had him on their computer files - he'd never even been questioned. But you never knew….

He began to review the events of the evening. He was massively disappointed in himself. Not just the shock of being discovered, but the shattering of his perception of himself as a super-smart and invincible operator.

Next day he examined the evening newspaper carefully; no mention whatsoever of a break in or attempted robbery. Puzzling.

The following day he opened his paper - and instantly the headlines jumped out at him. He read in mounting disbelief. He leapt out of his chair, threw the paper on the floor and began to thump the table with both fists, releasing a stream of profanities the while. Then he picked up the paper and read the article again:

Audacious Burglary of Local Estate.

The police were called this morning after the caretaker reported the break-in and theft of a large number of valuable antiques while the owners are holidaying abroad. Authorities are attempting to contact the family, who are not expected to return until next month. It is believed the burglar could have been a woman, due to a small item dropped at the scene etc etc…

Rory didn't know whether to cry or laugh. In the end he did both, in a form of hysteria, as he subsided helplessly into his chair, still clutching the paper.

**********

The End.


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