The Hieronymus Bosch didn’t look too bad, Toby decided as he passed it for the fourth time. He could probably bid for it without raising too many suspicions. If he hadn’t known it was a fake and had been thinking of buying it for real, he would have had it X-rayed to examine the under-drawing. Given Bosch’s habit of constantly changing his mind as he painted, it should have been easy to see whether this was genuine or a copy. Then to be absolutely sure, he would have taken the panel to the Prado to compare it in detail with the real thing. As it was, he hoped there was no one else interested enough to take any such precautions.
On the other hand, he thought as his breakfast muesli churned in his stomach, if no one else were interested at all, he would never be able to get the price high enough to satisfy Ben’s boss. You couldn’t go bidding in millions when no one else was prepared to offer more than a few hundred quid, which was probably all this wretched fake was actually worth.
He wondered who had painted it, and where they’d got the panel itself and the paints. There must be a mini-factory somewhere, breaking up rotten old coffers for wood of the right date, and making their own paints to ensure they used only ingredients known at the time the pictures were supposed to have been painted.
Ben had promised from the start that they’d be fed on to the
market slowly enough to look convincing. Even he had been able to see that one ‘lost’ painting might come up every so often but that if you put two or three into every old master sale you’d lose all chance of persuading buyers they were real.
All in all, it wasn’t such a bad plan, Toby told himself, trying to make it seem ordinary and bearable so that he could forget the threats to Mer. At least Ben’s team had had the wit to pick a dullish subject that might well have escaped notice in some church or other over the past five hundred years.
Toby walked on and stood for much longer in front of a very dubious Dürer drawing, peering and shaking his head, before ostentatiously checking the glossy catalogue.
‘You’re not really interested in that bit of old tat, are you, Toby?’ said a voice from behind him.
He turned to see the arts correspondent of the
a waspish man called Mark Sapton, who was always on the hunt for gossip and scandal. Toby felt faint with relief that he hadn’t been standing in front of the Bosch when Sapton arrived.
‘God no!’ he said, sharing a cheerful sneer. ‘I just couldn’t believe the catalogue description.’
‘I know. Standards are slipping horribly, aren’t they? I can never decide whether it’s wishful thinking or straight dishonesty. You busy? What about lunch?’
‘I wish I could,’ Toby said, lying easily, ‘but I’ve got to get back. Too much to do. Next time, maybe.’
‘Sure. See you.’ Sapton walked on in search of an easier target.
This was definitely not the time to have another look at the Hieronymus Bosch, Toby thought. He hoped he’d spent long enough in front of it to satisfy whomever Ben had sent here today to spy. Now all he had to do was bid for the wretched thing, and pray that he could push the price up high enough to please Ben and so keep Mer and Tim safe.
As he walked down towards the Embankment so that he
could pass Blackfriars Prep on his way back to the gallery, Toby tried to persuade himself that Ben’s threats hadn’t been serious. It was ludicrous to think that anyone, however criminal, would really torture or kill a child just to get a better price for a faked old master.
There was no sign of anyone in the school courtyard, so Toby rested against the broad granite balustrade and stared out across the river at the Oxo Tower, trying to hold on to hope. He’d always thought of good as the opposite of evil before; now he knew goodness wasn’t enough. Only hope could keep you fighting.
The stone felt like ice under his clasped hands. He pulled them back to stuff them in the pockets of his expensive coat and felt his teeth chattering as he shivered. That reminded him of Nepal, even though it had been fever then, not cold or fear, that had made his whole body shake.
How could Peter have treated him with such gentleness then, fought so hard to keep him alive and wanting to live, and now do this to him? Had Peter nursed a grievance for eighteen years and been thinking of the cruellest possible revenge? Had he blamed Toby for his exile? Or had he thought Toby insufficiently grateful for everything that had been done for him?
Voices, high and excited, broke into his misery. There were clattering feet too, and the heavy rhythmic slap of a kicked football. Dragging himself back into the present, he turned to look. Boys in the familiar uniform were pouring down the grandiose steps in a yellow-and-grey river. He stared, squinting, until he caught sight of Mer hopping down the steps beside another, even smaller, boy. Moments later he saw his brother Timothy, too. Thank God. Both of them were still safe.
Toby turned east without trying to attract their attention and set off towards the gallery. His phone rang before he’d got as far as the pedestrian crossing all the boys used. The sound made him feel as though icy spikes were being driven into his spine. Even
though the number on the screen was unfamiliar, he knew who was at the other end of the phone, just as he knew he had to answer.
‘Toby Fullwell,’ he said, trying to believe it could be an ordinary call from someone who didn’t matter, but knowing it wasn’t.
‘Nice to see Mer’s in such a good state, isn’t it?’ Ben’s sarcasm sharpened the spikes and dug them further into his spine. Toby’s hand clenched so hard on the phone he heard the plastic casing crack. He looked behind him, but there was no one there.
‘Don’t bother,’ Ben said. ‘You won’t see me. But I can see you. I’ve been watching you as you mooned over the river. What did you think of the Bosch? I know you’ve just been to Goode & Floore’s.’
‘There’s no need for that. Treat this as a business transaction and you’ll find it easier to keep your head. So, what
you think? We went to a lot of trouble to make it look right.’
‘It’s just about convincing enough for me to buy,’ Toby muttered.
‘Good. And you should sound a lot happier about that. Don’t forget it means you’ll have less to worry about. Not nothing, mind, but less. And your boys will be safe.’ Ben cut the connection.
Toby looked all round, but he couldn’t see anyone obviously watching him. Of course, Ben’s heavies could be anywhere, hidden in one of the buildings or tracking their quarry from one of the hundreds of cars that were inching along the Embankment. A man on a motorbike, dressed all in black leather with vicious-looking studs, sneered at Toby from across the road. Was he one of them? Or the man who looked like a low-grade sales rep, picking his nose at the wheel of a red Vauxhall?
It could be either, or any of a hundred others. There was no way of knowing. Toby felt as though he was living inside a net,
ready to be hauled out of his real life at Ben’s whim. How was he ever going to get free? And how was he ever going to keep Mer and Tim safe if Ben was keeping this close a watch on them all?
They’d have to leave London. There was no other way. Margaret would have to take them somewhere and hide them until this was over.
Ten minutes later Toby was standing in front of her in the middle of the main gallery. His hand was stinging and Margaret was holding the side of her face. He knew he must have hit her, but he couldn’t remember doing it. He couldn’t remember anything since the moment he’d come in and found her here in front of the Fragonard, waiting to tell him that Henry Buxford had invited himself to lunch on Sunday.
Her lips were moving now, pulled from one side to the other, although she wasn’t making any noise. She was obviously exploring the inside of her mouth with her tongue. Could she be tasting blood?
‘Have you gone mad, Toby?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Shock had wired his jaws together so that his voice was thin and hissy and his cheeks blew out like balloons with every syllable. He forced his teeth apart so that his mouth opened properly. ‘I’m only trying to make you understand that this is important.’
‘So is my life. And the boys’ education. Take them out of school and drive them up to your bloody mother’s? It’s only three weeks since half term. And they hate her as much as you do. You
have gone mad.’
‘Margaret.’ He stopped and breathed hard through his nose. Somehow he had to make her sense the urgency without giving her any clue to what was going on all round them. He knew he looked ridiculous, while she stood swaggeringly beautiful in front of him. Her flowery scent made her seem even more
superior now that he smelled of fear all the time. He tried to straighten up and his vertebrae crunched. His face hurt. His back hurt. His sore hand twitched. Somewhere another phone was ringing, as though to remind him how close Ben must be. Not that he needed any reminding.
‘If you hit me again,’ Margaret said in a voice like a knife, ‘I will call the police.’
He turned away, to face the Fragonard. He’d once loved the idea of the frothy woman kicking her legs on a swing. Now he hated her for her insouciance, just as he hated Margaret for her stubbornness.
‘Why can’t you ever listen?’ Toby said, trying to put some authority into his voice. ‘You
to take the boys to Scotland, Margaret. Today.’
‘Who the hell do you think you are to give me orders?’
Hot tears were bubbling up round his eyeballs. He knew if he tried to speak they would leak out.
‘What’s the matter?’ Her voice had softened, as though she might still care a little, but that made it harder to hold on.
His lips felt stiff, as though they’d been sprayed with local anaesthetic. He licked them and forced some sound out of his throat: ‘Nothing. I told you, I want you and the boys out of London for the next two weeks. Scotland’s the obvious place. I’ll phone when you can come back.’
Margaret looked as beady as she always did when she was deciding how to win her current argument. Toby had never been a target before. In the past her most effective insults had always been flung in his defence.
‘Is this about Jo?’ she said nastily. ‘Do you want everyone out of the house so you can screw her in peace?’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
‘I’m not. When she first came to work for you, she wafted around the house, looking at you as if you were some kind of love god. And you enjoyed it.’ Margaret laughed with the kind
of cruelty he hadn’t heard from anyone since the last time he’d been up to Scotland himself. ‘I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you. Not that I’m bothered. I know she won’t get much of a bang for her buck.’
The ache between his shoulders sharpened. If he’d been able to tell her the truth about Ben, she might have softened. But he couldn’t. It would be far too dangerous. She might insist on standing up to Ben or going to the police or doing something equally fatal. He knew now that Ben could get to them at any time, so there was no way the police could keep them safe, even if they wanted to.
Only getting her and the boys away from London would give him the slightest hope of protecting them. Even that might not work. But it was their only chance.
‘It’s just work, Margaret,’ he said, knowing he sounded feeble. ‘Far too much work. And I can’t get it done while you and the boys are here.’
That might persuade her. She knew he had to satisfy the trustees if he were to keep his job and the flat. Oh, God! Henry. How could he sit through a whole meal with Henry cross-examining him all over again about the de Hooch and why he’d wanted five million pounds? Margaret would have to phone him back and say he couldn’t come.
‘Why not?’ she demanded, making his eyes hot and wet all over again. He swallowed hard.
‘Because I don’t want him here.’
‘Him? Who? You really are cracking up, Toby. We’re talking about your ludicrous conviction that the boys and I might stop you working. When has anyone ever stopped you doing anything you want? We never come down here or to your sacred basement without an invitation as it is.’
‘You know that’s not true,’ Toby said, feeling better now he had some justification for what he had to say. ‘Mer followed me down there again only yesterday, in spite of everything
I’ve always said, getting in the way and putting his fingers in—’
‘Is that what all this is about? Poor Mer’s attempt to get a little fatherly attention after weeks of alternating blankness and snapping?’ The pupils in her toffee-like eyes grew smaller as she peered into his face. ‘Just exactly what have you got in the basement, Toby? Body parts? Or are you adding exciting signatures to second-rate canvases down there?’
He grabbed her shoulders and started to shake her. He couldn’t see her any more, only the paintings turning into a bright kaleidoscope around them as his head rocked in time with hers. Her shoulders were dense under his hands, and her weight threw them both off balance.
‘Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.’ Mer’s voice battered at his ears.
Toby’s hands tightened, then let go. His eyes cleared. He saw his younger son crying in the doorway. Margaret was wiping her face. She coughed and straightened her hair, moving round him as she tucked most of the thick dark-red curls behind her ears.
‘It’s all right, Mer. Daddy and I were just arguing. You go on up to Tim. I’ll be up in a moment. It’s not a problem. Run along.’
Mer scuttled off.
‘I’ll take the boys away all right,’ Margaret said, slicing the edges off each syllable with a viciousness that made her seem almost as cruel as Ben. ‘But not to your bloody mother’s. Or to anywhere else you might think to look, so don’t even try to find us.’
Nicky put a full mug of coffee down on Trish’s desk in the flat, asking: ‘D’you want a biscuit or anything to eat with that?’