A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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A Mugging Plague In Middle England

A Mugging Plague in Middle England

Vorov gazed at the front cover of the Average Towns Chronicle. It screamed, white-on-black, in 72-point type: ‘Our Towns are a Muggers’ Paradise!’

He chuckled.

It was not a malicious chuckle, but a contented one. His trainees were apparently robbing the citizenry en masse. They were clearly beginning to understand their jobs.

Harrowshow. Go there, bratyers!’ Vorov whispered to himself and cast a benign eye around the reading area of Didcot library, with its blue plastic chairs and melamine tables.

He was as happy as any businessman would be when he feels he is successfully fulfilling a promise to a client.

An early release might be in order for him, or even an ex gratia payment.

Vorov was savouring the moment. He flicked through the cheap newsprint of the Chronicle to where he suspected a comment piece might lie, and duly found it.

‘First they hit Slough, then Basingstoke, then Crawley, and most recently, Didcot,’ lamented the Chronicle’s leader writer.

’These muggers are not ragged, loner types, lurking in a stairwell with half a brick in hand, desperate for a bit of cash to get a heroin fix.

’No. According to the victims – who told the police – they work as a team. Like a pack of wolves, they surround their victims and herd them into dark alleys. There, a couple of collectors rifle through pockets and bags for wallets and purses while another fellow, bizarrely, records the takings on a clipboard.

’What to say? All the places that were hit are members of the Average Towns Association, and we sympathise with the citizens there for the grim ordeals they have suffered.

’But here on the editorial board of the Average Towns Chronicle, we are also quizzical. Why was Slough targeted and not neighbouring, wealthier Windsor? Why Basingstoke, and not Winchester – arguably, Britain’s richest city? Why Crawley, and not affluent Ascot? And why seek ready cash in hard-pressed Didcot, rather than the opulent suburbs of north Oxford?

’We also ask: what manner of mugger logs his takings in writing, on a clipboard? Why create evidence? Were they planning to declare their ill-gotten gains to the Revenue? The mind boggles.

‘Whoever these oddballs are, we deplore them for victimising our brother boroughs: Britain’s average towns. We wish we knew why they are doing it, but – more to the point – we wish they would stop.’

Vorov replaced the Chronicle carefully on its shelf alongside some other, little-read quarterlies to do with municipal affairs, the Church, and civil engineering.

‘Manner of mugger. Brother boroughs,’ he muttered to himself, repeatedly, as he sauntered out of the library with two burly men in tow. Vorov liked practicing tongue twisters. They helped him to improve his English. He needed full command of it today, because he was on his way to Chieveley Motorway Services to meet his gang and brief them on the next phase.

*

The first time Vorov had met the gang, in a dusty drill hall off the Oxford ring road, he thought the whole scheme was gloopay. The English for that? Stupid. That’s right.

And he didn’t care who knew it, even if it was the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, who had loomed over Vorov in the drill hall’s low-lit backroom – Burberry coat still on to keep out the chill – and had told him that the state of government finances was now so perilous, his department had been forced to enact special measures.

Vorov had expected none of this. He had been called from his prison cell, bundled into a van and driven through drizzle to goodness knows where. Could someone explain? he asked the important official. Even criminals get scared.

The Permanent Secretary continued talking, regardless.

Crime, he said, was now the UK’s fourth-largest economic sector. Yet it was the one sector that paid no taxes.

Vorov had shrugged. He paid no tax himself. And that wasn’t only because he was in prison. He had never paid income tax either in Russia or Britain, even when free and earning. ‘What should I do?’ he asked the Permanent Secretary. ’Declare it all on a tax form? Give them kvitantsia? Receipts?’

‘Clearly not,’ replied the official, suavely. ‘But law-abiding citizens pay taxes out of their modest incomes and are getting ever-diminishing levels of government service in return. Criminals, on the other hand, keep all their money and mock the rest of us by buying luxury villas on the Costa del Sol and flashy jewellery for their women-folk. The good are suffering while the bad prosper.’

That, thought Vorov, was the eternal irony of life. The good suffer. That is what had inspired him – as a desperate young louse in Saratov – to embark on a life of crime.

It was just as well, in Vorov’s view, that most people were freiers, mugs. Otherwise everyone would be a crook, and then where would he be?

‘So here’s the question,’ continued the official, placing an avuncular arm around Vorov’s scrawny shoulders. ’If the government cannot raise tax from criminals, how else might it take its fair share of the money that crime generates? Ask yourself this: why should crime go to pay for champagne dinners and over-powered Maseratis, rather than helping fund schools and hospitals?’

Vorov shrugged. ‘Makes sense, when you look at it like that,’ he said, with a complaisant grin. But he didn’t believe it, for a second. Crime was one thing. His thing. Schools and hospitals were another thing. Their thing. And crime had always known its place. It didn’t try to run the world.

‘Come with me. I have something to show you,’ said the Permanent Secretary.

Prodded by his guards, Vorov followed the official into the drill hall, everyone’s footsteps echoing off the hardwood floor.

In the centre of the hall stood a ragged line of men, dressed almost identically in padded black jackets and beanie hats.

Vorov had briefly clocked them before, as his guards and two young government officials had quick-marched him across the hall to his meeting with the Permanent Secretary. He had wondered whether the men in the line were raw recruits to the army, not yet deemed worthy of proper uniforms.

Each man wore a wispy, ginger moustache – almost as if a drill sergeant had handed them out from a box, with orders to glue them on.

Vorov had wondered whether he, too, would be made to join the squad and wear a false moustache.

Another thing he had noted about this bunch of men is how uncomfortable they looked – as though the same sergeant, for reasons of his own, had ordered them to stand ill-at-ease, and they were doing their best to obey.

The two young officials who had met Vorov off the prison van were standing to the side of this strange assembly.

‘The men are ready, sir,’ said one of the pair, in a well-spoken voice.

‘Carry on then, Albert,’ said the Permanent Secretary quietly, with an air of benign concern.

The man called Albert moved to face the row of men. On his nod, each squad member took from inside his padded jacket a small, rectangular piece of white card and his personal choice of offensive weapon.

‘Number One, carry on,’ said Albert to the man on the far left of the line.

Number One held a kitchen knife in front of him, as gingerly as if it were a lit candle, and squinted at his card.

‘Give me your money or I’ll slice you open!’ he mumbled.

Brandish, Number One,’ cried Albert. ’You have to brandish your weapon. And speak up. Your go, Number Two!’

Number Two made a ponderous impression of grabbing his imaginary victim around the neck and then jabbing a feeble-looking pellet gun into the small of an imaginary back.

‘Hand over your wallet or your bird loses a kidney,’ he muttered, wall-eyed, to no one in particular.

Vorov imagined him in his day job, perhaps in a bank or government office, telling someone in the same dreary voice and with the same blank expression to fill out this form and sign it at the bottom.

‘Be quicker with the neck lock, Number Two,’ said Albert. ‘And no droning. All of you, listen! We have prepared some really terrifying threats for you, but they won’t work as well if you drone them.’

Vorov turned to the Permanent Secretary. ‘What is this, please?’ he asked. ’A raskash? A play for me?’

‘Hardly,’ the Permanent Secretary replied, staring ahead. ‘These men are muggers.’

‘Muppets?’

‘No. Muggers. Hardened criminals.’

‘They are not that.’

‘Very well. They are not muggers. They are civil servants who have volunteered to be muggers for the sake of the Revenue. This is how we are going to raise our share of the money that comes from crime. We’re going to mug people before the real criminals do. Our need is greater than theirs, right now, so we’re right to do it.’

‘And you’ll raise all you need from muggings?’ asked Vorov, whose grasp of government finances was sketchy.

‘This is a pilot project,’ explained the Permanent Secretary, ‘and this is a skeleton crew. After this, we plan to expand our complement of criminals and branch out into other fields: armed robbery, burglary, drug smuggling, the protection racket. The list is endless. We’re not going to prosecute ourselves, so we can do what we like.’

The Permanent Secretary turned back to the squad and clapped his hands. ‘Colleagues’, he said, ’we can practice our technique later. Let me tell you about the next stage of the pilot. We will conduct field trials in a series of towns, starting in Slough and heading further out from London in concentric circles.

’We have chosen what the government defines as average towns, rather than the major cities, because I don’t think you chaps would like to go up against real muggers in places like Everton or Handsworth, would you?’

There were mutters of agreement and thanks along the line.

’And we don’t want to choose the pretty, affluent towns because the all the barristers and senior executives and company directors who live there would kick up a fuss at the highest levels if they felt their territory being invaded by low-lives. I know I would. And imagine the headlines if Britain’s nicest places suffered a concerted crime wave? But let’s say Swindon gets hit. Who would care, outside Swindon? So it’s the average towns that we’ll targeting, with apologies to the good people who live there.’

The ranks murmured their accord.

‘Now: the field trial procedure,’ said the Permanent Secretary, moving business-like through his agenda. ’What you do is take the wallet, count the money inside, make a note of the amount and then give it back. Then you tot up the totals that you could have taken and report them to us.’

Vorov started spluttering.

‘If the review stage is positive,’ said the Permanent Secretary over the noise, ’we may scale up to full operations after Didcot.

He paused and raised an arm to indicate Vorov, who was doubled over in a coughing fit. ‘This is Pavel Vorov,’ he said, voice raised. ’He’s a criminal serving twelve years for everything from pimping to cyber-fraud, and he will be coming here on day release to be your professional coach.

‘Please take a five minute break.’

The squad did its best to dismiss in good order. However, half the men decided to march off to the left, and half to the right. Having noticed their error, they all drifted back to the middle of the hall again, where they stood about with their usual air of discomfort.

The senior official caught Vorov by an arm and guided him to the corner of the hall.

‘Vorov, you have shown your disapproval,’ he said, in a low voice. ’However, we are the government, and we have procedures. Pilot studies, field trials, review stages, and then – after inter-departmental meetings – we may move up to full-scale operations. However, we can’t just dive in. We are the government. We are responsible for public welfare and public funds.’

’You are vors,’ Vorov hissed. ’You are thieves, now. For thieves, it is irresponsible to rob someone and then hand back the money. All that suffering for no purpose. Nepravda. It’s immoral. And I want nothing to do with those muppet muggers. Ne shto. Nothing.’

The Permanent Secretary gazed coolly at the ceiling for a while.

‘Vorov, when you are finished here, where are you going to go?’

‘Back to Belmarsh, I hope. I want my dinner.’

‘Prisoners get transferred, you know. They get transferred constantly. I am afraid if you do not co-operate with our important pilot study, you may be transferred so often that you will never see the inside of any prison again for more than a single night. Think: the rest of your sentence spent out on the road, in the back of a prison van. Meeting no one. Talking to no one. Making plans with no one. Forgotten to everyone. An un-person. Think it over, Vorov.’

He turned on his heels. At his signal, the guards crossed the hall, grabbed Vorov by the arms, and marched him back to the van.

*

Augustus Brierely, part-time magazine editor, had a soft spot for ordinary towns. As he told his friends: ‘the rarest flowers often blossom on the driest plains’. JRR Tolkein had come from Birmingham, Philip Larkin from Coventry and Tim Page, the insanely bold war correspondent, from Orpington.

‘No one comes from Orpington,’ his fellow journalists in Vietnam had told him, mockingly.

But they do. Make an alphabetical list of Britain’s most nondescript places – from Addington through to Yately, say. You would find that millions of people had started their lives there, had grown and had adapted and flourished or merely survived there; had begat more lives; and then ended theer days, peacefully or otherwise.

How many of our fellow souls live in Britain’s average towns? Ten percent of the population? Twenty percent? There should be a special census.

Augustus Brierely had been born in Maidenhead and had stayed there. Now he owned a narrowboat on the Thames, which he called Enemy of Capitalism. He liked to invite colleagues aboard it for beers. While they were there, these off-duty local government officers put the world to rights, and they formed the editorial board of the Average Towns Chronicle.

Augustus was particularly fond of Didcot. He had crowned it King of the Average. While Country Life deplored its power station as Britain’s third-worst eyesore, he admired its stark beauty – especially when seen from the A34 or from Wittenham Clumps.

Outings to the railway museum had been a delight of his childhood.

On trips up the Thames with his own children, he liked to move inland from the river, to take them to Didcot Wave. Did London have a public swimming baths with a tidal wave feature? Or Paris? Or Florence? Not that he knew. But Didcot, with its steam trains, its power station and its Wave, had easily enough entertainment to make his eight year-old twins faint with excitement.

So when he heard a mugging plague had descended on Didcot, Augustus Brierely felt protective. He learnt what he could about the muggers from the police and dashed off a rebuke in the Average Towns Chronicle, just in time for its quarterly print run. The superintendent in Didcot told him there was more to say.

*

Vorov’s guards easily located the mugging squad’s battered white Transit van. It was parked in the far corner of Chieveley Services car park, next to a copse of silver birches. They opened the back of the prison transport to release a Vorov who was in high spirits.

’Fame at last, my cheloveki!’ he cackled, as he stepped into the Transit. ’Angry words in that boring towns joornal. We’re shaking up the suburbs, for sure.’

He had failed to gauge the squad’s gloomy mood.

The mugging experiment in Didcot had apparently gone badly. The squad’s members filled him in, in turn. Number One had been kicked in the shins by an angry female vicar and was hors combat for the rest of the evening.

Number Four had been laughed at by everyone he tried to waylay. Demoralised, he had resigned from the squad.

Number Six had come off worse. He had put down his brick to count the money in a victim’s wallet and the victim had picked it up and mugged him back.

Outraged, Number Six went to the police. A desk sergeant took his details and asked what a civil servant from Hornchurch was doing hanging around the edges of the Ladygrove Estate on a weekday evening.

He was taken to an interview room to talk to a detective inspector. Why was he dressed in a padded jacket and beanie hat on a balmy May evening? Strangely, Didcot police had been getting many reports about people dressed in black padded jackets and beanie hats that evening. Some people described them as muggers, although others thought they were a theatre troupe putting on an avant garde entertainment. What did he know about it?

A detective constable came and went, bringing new snippets of intelligence. A white van had been clamped for being illegally parked at Didcot Parkway. The station’s security guard had rung to report something suspicious. Six men in padded jackets and woolly hats had got out of the van and marched in lock-step towards the town centre, with apparently evil purpose.

The men of the squad finished their accounts. Now, one of the two young officials cleared his throat to speak. He explained sheepishly that he had mis-parked the vehicle and gone to a nearby pub. The police were waiting for him on his return. He, too, saw the detective inspector. He couldn’t think of a cover story and had stumbled through his answers.

The police arrested everyone in the squad as they returned to the van, except for Number Four, who had made his own way back to London by train. All the rest were now due to appear before magistrates on charges of attempted robbery. The police had discounted the theatre troupe theory.

The Permanent Secretary first chided them and then soothed them. The mistakes occurred because everyone had tried to be his own mugger. They had disregarded the tactics of surrounding and herding the victim to the mugging location, as taught them by their good coach, Vorov.

‘Let that be a lesson,’ he said, as Vorov nodded and grunted angrily.

But no one was going to prison, the Permanent Secretary assured them. He would have a word in the right ears.

Vorov gave him a piercing stare.

Glava! Boss! Listen to me once. How much money have we made from these operations? I mean, how much have we counted out from people’s wallets and then handed back, like duraki?’

‘Two thousand pounds and 79p,’ mumbled Number Two. He had become the team’s clipboard man.

‘Not enough even to cover everyone’s salaries for nights worked, and to pay for the fuel for this van,’ said one of the young officials, gloomily.

‘Maybe that’s what we must report to the review committee: crime doesn’t pay,’ said the other.

This crime doesn’t pay, glavi,’ interjected Vorov. ’No one carries cash any more. The money is in their banks. That’s why people like me, we go phishing now. We write malware and viruses and worms, and then drill inside people’s accounts and empty them before the bank securitati know what’s happening. Give me the hardware and I’ll write the codes and then I can make you two thousand pounds every hour. Tochnost.’

The officials listened impassively.

’But this needs to be po rykam. I want a deal,’ said Vorov, pressing home his case. ‘I want ten percent of everything we make, and early release when you’ve got what you need from me.’

The Permanent Secretary drew breath. ‘Well, let’s set up an inter-departmental group with broad terms of reference to discuss the options for your future, and then I’ll get back to you.’

Vorov found that encouraging.

Things moved quickly after this. The van ferried Vorov from place to place around Britain, where anonymous people supplied him with laptops, USB sticks, wi-fi connections and fake log-ins.

He spent hours in the van, immersed in his work, writing code. And he spent hours in service station cafes, drinking filthy coffee with the two young assistants, describing to them the arts of hacking, phishing and malware, of bank firewalls and the ways round them. Sometimes, in the drill hall or in service station car parks, he would hold dummy hacking runs with the squad.

All the while, Vorov could sense freedom and wealth coming his way. An inter-departmental group was discussing his case.

*

Augustus Brierely sat in a café at Chieveley Services opposite Superintendent Grobelaar, who had come in plain clothes. They were drinking vile coffee, having already sampled the insipid tea.

‘I don’t like journalists,’ said Grobelaar, bluntly. ‘Low-lives. The reporters in court, they look like they should be in the dock. It’s the way they dress: like the accused. And I don’t like the shifty look in their eyes.’

Brierely cleared his throat to say something, but the policeman spoke over him.

‘You’re a bit different. I hear your magazine has made Didcot its average town of the year three times over. The councillors on the police committee like you for that. And if they like you, I might just be able to tolerate you.’

Grobelaar took another slug of coffee, pulled a face and stared out of the window to the car park, where some crows were raiding a rubbish bin for discarded food.

‘What would you say, Mr Brierely – I mean, how would you report it – if I told you all those muggers we caught were career civil servants, many of them married, and all of them working as tax officials at the Treasury in London?’

Brierely cleared his throat to say this would be big news, but Grobelaar overrode him.

’You wouldn’t report anything, right now. That’s because it’s sub judice. You can’t say anything about the details of the case before they’re told to the jury in Crown Court. Otherwise, you could go to prison.’

Grobelaar tapped Brierely’s pen and pad, and nodded his head.

‘Neither can you report that the sheets of paper on the clipboard we caught them with were official HMRC cash ledgers. Or that the van they were travelling in had been hired from an East End garage by an under-secretary at the Treasury called Albert Something-or-Other.’

He paused for Brierely to finish his notes.

‘The reason I’m telling you this is there’s a smoothie of a senior official who was at the magistrates’ hearing and is now soft-talking the Crown Prosecution Service and the trial judge.

‘The point, Mr Augustus Brierely, is that all this might fail to come out in open court, because this smoothie mandarin is right now trying to ensure it will all be supressed. If that happens, no one will know anything close to the truth, apart from you and me.’

He sidled his way off the plastic-cushioned bench and stood up with a grunt.

’That would be a shame. But after the trial is over, it’ll be open season again, so happy hunting. I’ll give you all the ammo you need, if you pull the trigger. Through the pages of the Chronicle, I mean.

‘That coffee,’ he added sneering at the half-empty cups. ‘I wouldn’t waste good money paying for that.’ Then, whistling and jangling his keys, Superintendent Grobelaar was off. Augustus Brierely gazed out of the window at a battered white van leaving the car park to join the M4 eastbound. His heart was palpitating. He had picked up the scoop of his life and had not uttered a word to earn it.

*

Life had gone strangely quiet for Vorov. The van still drove him around, but to nowhere in particular. Seemingly, he had been cast into perpetual random motion on Britain’s motorway network. He didn’t meet with the squad any longer, or the two young officials.

Nights spent in prison became a rarity. So did showers, and conversations. He ate meals in service stations and took his exercise in their car parks.

Vorov asked his guards if there had been any messages. Maybe from the Treasury? A distinguished civil servant? Or his two assistants? One of them called Albert, or maybe both were? The guards grinned to each other and told him he had gone stir-crazy.

Then, one evening in September, the van pulled into Cherwell Valley Services and the back doors were flung open. However, rather than ushering out Vorov for his daily walk, the guards stepped in and handcuffed his wrists to the joist of the fold-down table. Then, without a word, they shut the doors and left.

Vorov could hear them waiting outside, scuffing the tarmac. He heard the purr of a car, and some muttered greetings. The van doors opened again to reveal one of the young officials – Albert, or the other one.

‘Sorry about this, Vorov,’ he said, taking a seat on the chemical toilet. ‘I’ve got bad news, I’m afraid.’

‘You’re not here to give me the money?’

‘No. I’m afraid not.’

‘Or early release?’

‘Not that, either. The point is, the squad was all sent down. Six months each. My colleague Albert got a year, because he confessed to being their ringleader. He shielded the Permanent Secretary, though. And the existence of the Treasury project. Isn’t that thoughtful of him?’

‘I’m sorry they were busted,’ said Vorov. ‘It was always a dumb idea.’

The young official gazed over Vorov’s shoulder, through the van’s tiny, barred window.

‘All of them understood what would happen to them if they spilled the beans on the government’s special project. That’s why they were so decent about covering it up, you see.’ He grinned encouragingly. ‘But the Permanent Secretary wants you to know: the cyber-fraud project is an awfully good money-spinner. The committee progressed it to full operational mode almost a month ago.’

‘Great,’ said Vorov, drily. ‘So where’s my ten percent?’

‘I mean, the Permanent Secretary was flying solo on this one, but when the rest of the government’s departmental heads learned about it… how much he was getting from it, and how you fixed everything so it couldn’t be traced, well….’

‘Well, what?’

‘They all wanted in. They wanted in big time.’

‘To bail out their own ministries?’

‘Sure, Vorov. All the money goes to the ministries. Almost. The point is, you’ve got to keep working for us. No let-up and no early release. It’s all been decided. Sorry about that.’

There was silence. The pair of them listened to the sound of a family from the Black Country arguing with each other, and car doors slamming.

Droog, I don’t need this,’ said Vorov, eventually. ’Your government – it promised. What if I break my promise, too? What if I just retire? Shto? No more code-writing and phishing from starets Vorov? I think I’ll just tour Britain in this van, visiting your service stations. I heard of a place called Leicester Forest East. I’d like to go there one day. It sounds nice.’

‘Vorov,’ said the young official, ’let me explain. The more you tour – as you call it – with government drivers at the wheel, the more risk there is of an accident happening to you on the motorways. If you ignore the needs of your former co-workers, then the government will not be able to guarantee your safety, here in this van on these treacherous roads. There are no guarantees at all. Think it over, Vorov.’

The assistant banged on the van’s back doors and the guards opened them promptly. The official alighted and looked back. ‘You haven’t struck rich, Vorov, but then again, you’re still breathing. Just keep your head down and keep writing those codes. And meantime, here’s some reading matter to help you on your way.’ He tossed a paperback onto Vorov’s table and strode to his car.

The guards came in afterwards and took off the handcuffs saying things like ‘soz, Vor,’ and ‘no hard feelings, mush’. In time, the van pulled out of Cherwell Valley Services and took the M40 northbound.

Vorov climbed onto his bunk bed and glumly reviewed his lot. The punishment for his career in crime was not being banged up – either in prison, or in the back of this van. It was being forced to commit the same crimes, for the benefit of other people, over and over again for the rest of his life.

After a while, he heard the guards debating what to do when they reached Birmingham and the motorway split in two directions. M42 east or west?

The eternal question.

He looked at the paperback the young civil servant had left. Dante’s Divine Comedy. Oh well, what the hell. He read the first verse.

’Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.’

Bratyer Dante might be on to something, thought Vorov. And as the van circled the outmost perimeter of Birmingham, he nestled down on his bunk bed and read on.

*

Augustus Brierely – in Reading to attend the annual conference of the Average Towns Association – had hunkered down on the back deck of his narrowboat on the Avon and Kennet canal, equipped with a laptop, notebook and mobile phone.

Tentatively, he made the first of what would be several calls to the office of the Permanent Secretary of HM Treasury. Eventually, he would reveal the true story of the government’s short-lived, but cynical, attempt to shake down the citizens of Middle England – and he would bring it to its knees.

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