Prologue

The shrill bleat of the phone ripped through the hush of 3am. Ear-splitting. Marianne’s hand reached out to grab the source of the unwelcome noise even before she was consciously aware of what she was reacting to. Late night phone calls when George was away sparked her body with a deeply-rooted panic. Was it him? Had something happened to him?

“Hello?”

“Mrs Blake?” The voice on the line was tinged with an unnerving abruptness and sense of urgency.

“Yes?”

“This is Sergeant Thomas from Police Scotland. I don’t want to alarm you but there are intruders on your property. I have officers preparing to enter your home now to apprehend them but it is vital that you do not leave the room you’re in, keep away from the windows and do not turn on any lights. I’m going to stay on the phone with you and talk you through this. As long as you do what I say, you’ll be safe. Now, I need you to tell me two things. First of all, is anyone else at home with you, and secondly, are you in your bedroom?”

A frantic whisper, the voice of wide-eyed terror, “I’m on my own, my husband’s away with work, and yes, I’m in my bedroom. Oh god, I can hear them!”

“Please stay calm, Mrs Blake. Now, as quietly as you can, go to the bedroom door and lock it. Then get under the bed or into the wardrobe and bring the phone with you. Let me know when you’ve done that.”

Shuffling and anxious breathing, the sounds of someone who hasn’t had cause to climb under a bed for at least thirty years. “OK, I’m under the bed. They’re downstairs, aren’t they? Oh god, oh god, please help me, please…”

“Mrs Blake, you’re going to be fine, I promise. Take a deep breath and listen to me. I’m going to keep you safe but you must stay where you are. It looks like the intruders deactivated your alarm and broke in through your back door so my officers will enter the same way. They’ll be as quiet as they can until the last possible moment, but there’s likely to be some noise when they make the arrest. We don’t know yet if the intruders are armed but my men will do whatever it takes to find them as quickly as possible and get them out of there. We assume they’re here to steal particular items of value and they may have been watching your home for a while. To give me an idea of where in the house they might be headed, can you tell me where the most valuable items are kept?”

“There’s a safe but it’s in the bedroom with me. So is all my jewelry and my husband’s watch collection. We don’t keep cash in the house. There’s silverware downstairs, in the dining room. And the good china. And the crystal in the living room. And the ornaments, they’re family heirlooms. And all the art…oh god, my husband collects it and there are paintings in every room.”

“Where are the most valuable paintings? Those are what they’ll go for first.”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re all valuable. I don’t know about art. It’s George’s thing and…I can hear them moving around downstairs. What if they come up here? What should I do?”

“It’s alright, Mrs Blake. The officers will get to them before they try to go upstairs.”

“Sergeant Thomas, how did you know they were here? And how did you get here so quickly?”

“We were responding to a report of a stolen vehicle and were able to use GPS to track it to your address. When we arrived, it looked like they had just gone inside.”

“But how did you get my phone number? It’s unlisted.”

“We’re the police, ma’am. Nothing’s unlisted to us.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I can’t imagine what would have happened—”

“Hold on, something’s coming through on the radio…Mrs Blake, there’s about to be quite a commotion. I need to be in contact with my officers so I’m going to mute this call, but I promise I’m still here and I want you to stay on the phone. I’ll be back with you as soon as I can. Alright?”

It was impossible to discern precisely where the noise was coming from but there was a lot of it, footsteps thundering and the occasional loud bang of furniture being tipped over and doors being slammed. Not quite chaos, but almost. Shouts, muffled voices, the front door being unlocked and opened, then quieter footsteps moving through the lower floor of the house. Silence. After the longest five minutes of Marianne Blake’s life, the voice came through the phone again.

“Mrs Blake, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Have you got them? What happened?”

“We’ve got them. They have no idea you’re in the house and we want to keep it that way. I’m going to have my men take them down to the station, but I’d like to come in and talk to you, make sure you’re alright, give you some information about what happens next. You can come out from under the bed but please stay away from the windows for a few minutes. You’ll see flashing lights and hear one of our vehicles pulling away, but don’t worry. The worst is over and you’re safe. That’s the important thing. You can hang up now and I’ll see you shortly.”

Relief. “Alright. Oh, thank you so much Sergeant Thomas. Thank you.”

“It’s OK, Mrs Blake. It’s what we’re here for.”

Marianne waited a full fifteen minutes after hearing the engine vanish into the distance. Having had no further contact from Sergeant Thomas, she crawled towards the window, then taking a deep breath, carefully pulled the bottom of the curtain out just enough to tuck her head beneath it. When she looked out the window, there was no-one to be seen, only a blue flashing light sitting in the middle of her lawn, silently illuminating the vast, expensively landscaped garden with its dizzying spin.

As the dark blue van sped through the countryside with its precious cargo of silverware, crystal, the good china, and the hideous but valuable paintings and ornaments, Andie Valentine shouted over the rumble of wheels on uneven road, “Guys, you could’ve been faster than that. It’s not easy keeping them talking.”

Hugh MacRobert, decorator by trade, burglar extraordinaire by design and pathological flirt by nature, replied with a good-natured smirk, “As much as we appreciate the performance review, you might want to hold off on the critique there, ‘Sergeant Thomas’. Unless you fancy doing the heavy lifting next time?”

“And let you loose on the phone with the rich middle-aged woman? No chance. Three seconds in and you’d be talking her clothes off. Besides, this isn’t the kind of thing you pull twice. It’s too specific. Word gets around.”

Hugh leaned forward, emerging only slightly from the darkness in the back of the van, and winked at Andie in the rear-view mirror, fully aware that she was speaking the truth, about all of it. “Aye, well, it’d work too. With the woman, on the phone.”

Andie rolled her eyes and took one hand off the steering wheel to push her short red hair back from her face. Hugh was indeed an expert in all of his fields and was blessed with the kind of face people with too much money paid surgeons to create. Still, they had known each other for long enough that for all his bravado and teasing, Andie trusted him with her life.

Jamie Sharpe, Hugh’s nephew, and apprentice in both decorating and less legal activities, shifted nervously in the seat next to Andie, gnawing on a thumbnail through the hole in his black balaclava. He hadn’t been in this line of work for long and was constantly on edge, although he showed great promise when it came to breaking and entering thanks to his talent for parkour. All that jumping around and climbing up things was proving very useful. He straightened his balaclava with his free hand and stopped chewing his thumbnail for long enough to ask, “Are we nearly at the drop-off?”

“Yeah, it’s just here,” said Andie, turning the van into an almost-hidden entrance to a private road, leading to a farmhouse surrounded by outbuildings, all in darkness, “and for fuck’s sake Jamie, take that mask off. You look like a criminal.”

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