Author of Alex Rider, Foyle's War, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, TV and film writer, occasional journalist.


Short Story: Prisoner 2412

Originally published in New Statesman

Detective Superintendent William Hendricks was not a happy man. He had drunk too much the night before and he still had a dull, unforgiving headache; someone playing a slow march on a drum inside his head. There was a nasty taste in his mouth and for once it wasn't his wife's cooking. He knew he should have shaved. He could feel the stubble on his chin, spreading across his face like some sort of disease. He wondered what he looked like and decided it would be better to avoid any mirrors - at least for the time being.

He hated this week, the six days between Christmas and New Year, and resented having to leave the warmth and comfort of the small, terraced house where he lived to go to work. Even the criminals, it seemed to him, took a holiday. There might be a few drunks. A punch-up outside the local pub. But usually the big boys stayed in bed. So why did he have to drive his beaten-up VW through the streets of Plaistow to the grim, solid building round the corner from the Tube station that had swallowed up so much of his life?

On Boxing Day, it had begun to snow. Great, fat flakes had fallen out of the grey sky and set about clinging to any surface they could find. By lunchtime, the snow was an inch thick and according to the forecasters, there was plenty more to come. Somewhere, up in the attic, Hendricks had an old wooden sleigh that he had bought in a second-hand shop and suddenly he wanted to find it, to take the twins up to Hampstead Heath or somewhere with real hills and have an afternoon of cold feet, runny noses, numb fingers and hot chocolate . . . just like he'd done when he was young. Not, of course, that it would be easy to prise them away from their PlayStation and the new game, which seemed to involve killing as many people as possible and stealing their cars. Just what the teenage sons of a senior police officer ought to be playing. But would he be able to drag them away?

"Oh Dad . . . !"

He could almost hear their protests, the familiar whine, before he got anywhere near them. Why did modern children have to be so difficult? Well, it wasn't going to happen anyway. He had drawn the short straw: on duty until the weekend. He would be stuck in a half-empty police station with the tatters of the Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling and already looking sad. The Christmas tree had lost all its needles and looked like something from an alien planet. He would spend the next five days stuck in his office with a handful of cards on the filing cabinet, a half-bottle of whisky in his bottom drawer and mince pies lurking at every corner. Who had decided you had to eat mince pies at Christmas? Hendricks didn't even like them. Did anyone?

He had thought he would be on his own - only it hadn't quite worked out as planned. The police had made an arrest . . . a major one. It was fortunate that the press was half-asleep, the local newspaper operating on a skeleton staff. Otherwise, they'd be crawling all over him. Hendricks hated the press. All they wanted was big headlines, easy answers before he'd even had time to work out the questions. And then they'd lose interest and move on, leaving him with months of paperwork. They still thought police procedure was like those programmes on TV. A murder, a handful of suspects, ask a few questions, find the killer then roll credits and on to the next case. If only real life was like that.

But the man sitting opposite him in the interrogation room right now wasn't going to be so easy to crack. He had said nothing since his arrest - not so much as his name - and he was sitting there with empty, unfocused eyes, his arms crossed over his ample stomach and his face giving nothing away. The man was in his late fifties, Hendricks would have said, perhaps older, unshaven, with hair that had long ago lost any of its colour and dozens of tiny veins showing through the skin around his nose and cheeks. He was not English. That much was obvious, even though he had refused to speak. Hendricks would have said he might have been from Germany or from one of those small European countries that no one could quite point to on a map. The man carried no clues. There were no labels in any of his clothes. That was quite suspicious in itself.

Forty-eight hours ago, he had been dragged off the roof of a house in Marlborough Terrace, one of the few wealthy streets in the area, while the owners - a husband and wife who had made a fortune in the travel industry - were asleep below. It was lucky that they had recently installed a sophisticated alarm system. Otherwise, their unwanted visitor would have been and gone with their jewellery, spare cash and silver candlesticks before they knew what had hit them.

There were two other people in the room with Prisoner 2412. Since he had no name, they had assigned him a number based on the date when he had been caught. Detective Sergeant Veronica Branson had also been called in, away from her parents (she wasn't married and still lived at home), two uncles and a Polish neighbour who had made up her family Christmas. She was probably glad to escape. And then there was a duty solicitor, Ian Packard, who was only half-awake. He was in his forties, incredibly shabby, with sherry stains on his tie.

"Recording. Eleven forty-five on 26 December 2008," Hendricks began, speaking for the benefit of the tape recorder that stood on the bare, metal table that was itself screwed into the floor. The room was horrible, the walls painted two shades of grey. Although smoking had been banned more than a year ago, it still smelled of cigarette smoke. There was only one small window, high up and barred. Even the light bulb was in a wire cage. "Present are the suspect, Mr Ian Packard, Detective Sergeant Veronica Branson and myself, DS William Hendricks." He paused, then looked directly at the overweight man. "Are you going to tell me your name?" he asked.

The man said nothing.

"Prisoner failed to respond," Hendricks said, again for the benefit of the tape. Everything had to be recorded properly. Any hand gesture, a grimace, a scowl . . . they all had to be explained. "You were attempting to break into the home of a wealthy businessman on Marlborough Terrace," Hendricks went on.

"I object to that," the solicitor interrupted, suddenly waking up. "You have no evidence that my client was planning to rob anyone."

"He was halfway up the roof, Mr Packard," Hendricks exclaimed. "It was the middle of the night. And when we found his getaway vehicle, it was absolutely stuffed with the proceeds of more burglaries than I care to imagine. I might also add that your client assaulted the two police officers who were trying to arrest him, punching one of them on the jaw. As is usual in these cases, he was breathalysed when we brought him in and he was found to be several points over the legal limit, so we can add drink-driving to the charge sheet . . . although given the amount of trouble your client is in, I doubt it will make much difference."

"My client denies burglary - and he denies assault. It was dark and he didn't realise that the two men attacking him were police officers. It was self-defence."

"Well, it might help if your client agreed to speak to me. So far, he's said nothing."

"His English isn't good."

"You seem to be able to communicate with him." Detective Sergeant Branson chipped in. It was the first time she had spoken but Hendricks knew her well from past cases. She never said very much - but on the other hand she was a good listener. She never missed a word.

The solicitor ignored her. He turned to Hendricks. "You're making a mistake . . ." he muttered.

"I don't think so, Mr Packard," Hendricks re plied. "And since you've now confirmed for us that your client isn't a British citizen, perhaps you would be kind enough to let us know where he is from and, more to the point, how he got into this country. As I'm sure you are aware, we have taken fingerprints and DNA samples . . ."

"You did so without my client's permission."

". . . and so far we have drawn a complete blank. He has no police record. But then he has no record of any kind at all. Your client is a bit of a mystery man, Mr Packard, and I think it's about time he started answering questions . . . starting with what he was doing in Marlborough Terrace in the middle of the night and what other homes he'd broken into before we caught up with him."

There was a knock at the door. It opened and Police Constable Silas Brown, who had been manning the front desk since breakfast, put his head in. He was very young, in his early twenties, and had joined the police straight from sixth-form college. "There's someone here to see you, sir," he said.

"Can't it wait?"

"They say it's important, sir."

Hendricks reached out for the tape recorder. "Pausing interrogation, 11.49," he announced - and left the room.

He followed Brown back to his office, where there were two men waiting for him. Hendricks knew at once that they were trouble. They were in their thirties, serious-looking, dressed in expensive suits with brightly polished shoes. Both were fair-haired. One of them had glasses, wire-framed with tinted glass. At first glance, Hendricks would have said they were Special Branch . . . high-flyers, fast-tracked through the ranks. But then they began to speak and he realised that, like the prisoner, they weren't even English. What on earth were they doing here?

"Good morning, Detective Superintendent," the man with the glasses said. "My name is Sven Bjork. My colleague - Olaf Johannsen." As one, they took out neat leather wallets and opened them to show Hendricks their ID.

"You're from Interpol," Hendricks said, not quite believing this.

"Yes, sir. And we may have an interest in the man you are holding. In fact, we flew here the moment we heard he had been arrested."

"You want a drink?" Hendricks asked. He was thinking about the bottle of whisky in his desk but then he remembered that it wasn't even midday. "I can get you some tea or coffee . . ."

"No, thank you, sir." Bjork had a soft voice. He seemed uncomfortable being here. He was perched on the very edge of one of the office chairs, his hands resting on his knees. "We would like to speak to the prisoner," he said.


"We are not authorised to tell you that."

"In that case, you can get lost." Hendricks smiled sourly. "This is my case. My prisoner. I don't know where you've flown from to be here today but I'm afraid you're wasting your time. You've got no authority in this police station and there's no way you're butting in on my case."

"I do not think it would be in your interest to prevent us," the man called Olaf Johannsen said. He had not raised his voice but there was no mistaking the menace in it.

His partner raised both his hands, as if he were the Pope, about to give a blessing. "We do not need to fight with each other, Detective Superintendent," he said. "Especially at Christmas. Since you ask, we came here today from Svalbard." ("Where the hell was that?" Hendricks wondered. But he said nothing.) "Of course we want to co-operate with you. But we have to be very careful how much information we give out."

"I'm still waiting," Hendricks said.

"Very well. We believe that you have arrested a man we have been searching for for some time. Let me say at once that he is a major, international criminal, and a very wealthy person. He began life as a businessman and still owns a large factory in the north but even here he actively breaks all international laws. Conditions in the factory are on a level with an Indonesian sweatshop. The wages he pays are way below the agreed European minimum. Worse than that, the majority of his workforce is disabled. They work for him because they would be unable to find a job elsewhere and he ruthlessly exploits them on account of it."

"What are they manufacturing?" Hendricks asked.

"The range is enormous," Johannsen replied. "It stretches from cheap novelties and leisure items to electronic goods. Anything you'd find in any street market in Taiwan, only created by slave labour."

"But I don't understand," Hendricks growled. "If he's heading up this operation, and if it's as big as you say it is, what was he doing breaking into a house in east London? In fact, what's he doing in the UK at all?"

"That's what we want to know," Bjork said. He blinked slowly. Both men looked as if they hadn't slept in days. "It may be that his whole business is just a front. Camouflage." He glanced at his partner as if waiting for authorisation. Johannsen nodded and he continued. "We believe that your prisoner may have terrorist connections."

Hendricks tried to maintain a poker face. "What makes you think that?"

"Because exactly a year ago, he was positively identified in Afghanistan. Who do you think needs novelties in Afghanistan? At the same time, he was also spotted in Pakistan and Iraq."

"He gets around," Hendricks muttered, wondering if he would have to hand over his papers to the anti-terrorist squad. And to the Home Office while he was about it.

"He certainly does. And he probably crossed your borders illegally. He has a private pilot's licence and he flies all over the world. But he never puts in a flight plan. That should tell you something. He obviously wants to stay one step ahead of the authorities . . . but it's a miracle that he's never caused a mid-air collision. Even so, there have been one or two close escapes."

"Near misses," Johannsen agreed.

Hendricks considered all this. What had started as a simple burglary in a smart street in Plaistow was fast spiralling out of control. And at Christmas, too! Suddenly he had an urge to get back home to Sandra and the twins. He wondered if it was still snowing. His office had a window but no view. It looked out on to a block of flats directly opposite and he kept the blinds permanently closed.

There was a commotion outside in the corridor and before anyone could stop her, a large, red-faced woman burst into the room. She was wearing a two-piece suit made out of some sort of tweed with a scarf hanging loose around her neck. She had no jewellery or make-up and reminded Hendricks of a schoolteacher - a headmistress, perhaps, coming in to report that someone had just kidnapped an entire class.

"Are you Detective Superintendent Hendricks?" she demanded.

"What now?" Hendricks thought. "Yes," he said.

"I'm Fiona Bradshawe." The woman fished in her pocket and produced a crumpled business card. "I'm with the RSPCA."

"I'm afraid I'm rather busy, Ms Bradshawe," Hendricks said.

"I'm here about the man you're holding. The one who was caught in Marlborough Terrace."

"Do you know him?"

"I've never met him - and I don't want to, thank you very much. I'm here about his animals."

"His animals?" Hendricks's head was beginning to spin.

"They're being held downstairs in your pound. I've only had a chance to examine them briefly but it's obvious they're exhausted. And one of them needs to see a vet immediately. The poor thing has a bleeding nose."

"Ms Bradshawe . . ." Johannsen began.

Hendricks held up a hand. Enough was enough. "All right, everyone," he said. "Let's do this one at a time. My prisoner has been arrested for burglary and assault and drunk driving. I was questioning him when you two gentlemen turned up." He glanced at Johannsen and Bjork. "You can see him as soon as I've finished with him. You're welcome to wait in my office. As for you, Ms Bradshawe, if you want to remove these animals, talk to the duty officer. If the RSPCA wants to bring a prosecution, I'd have thought that would be a civil matter. Whatever . . . ! That's the least of my concerns right now."

He walked out of the office before anyone could argue and went back to the interrogation room. But when he arrived, the prisoner was no longer there.

"We couldn't go on without you," Detective Sergeant Branson explained. She was sitting on the table, adjusting her lipstick but she stood up and put it away when he came in. "And that lawyer of his was getting stroppy. He said his client had been up all night and needed a rest so I let them take him back to his cell."

"That's all right, Veronica," Hendricks said.

"I have to say, he seemed a nice old man to me, sir. Reminded me of my grandad. Friendly and cheerful."

"I don't suppose you managed to get anything out of him while I was away?"

"As a matter of fact . . . ," the policewoman blushed. "You won't believe this, but after you'd gone, he asked me if I'd like to sit on his knee!"


"That's what he asked me, sir."

"He fancied you?"

"I don't know. Of course, I told him to get lost. There is one thing, though. He did at least give me his name so when we question him again, at least we'll know what to call him."

A few doors away, Prisoner 2412 sat on a bunk, his legs apart, a perplexed look on his face. His red jacket hung on a hook in the corner of the room. One of the policemen had chalked his name - S CLAUS - on the door.

Outside, a security camera swivelled round on its metal post, surveying the high street. The snow was falling more heavily than ever.