The Colnbrook Caper

This short story is taken from ‘Thames Valley Tales’, a collection of 15 stories, now available on Amazon:


THE GENTLE SEA swell lapped on the shiny white hull, nice in Nice, nice in Nice.  Rami Raja leaned on the polished chrome railing and surveyed the bay, smug in the knowledge that his yacht, the sleek and fast Arianna, was the best and most expensive within sight.  In the Bay of Nice he was the Big Dog, and other yacht owners waved enviously at him.

He sauntered with the gentle swaying motion back to his tablet and sipped ice tea, in a bubble of contentment, not disturbed in any way by the squawking gulls, dive-bombing the scraps thrown on the lower deck by his chef.  Although technically on holiday with his wife and daughter, he always spent the first hour after breakfast checking the financial markets, before calling his CEO at his business, Travel Cash Limited, in Colnbrook, near Heathrow Airport, to discuss the day’s objectives.

The Arianna, a Class B type-luxury yacht, was his indulgence – his reward, for the successful management and growth of his now international travel cash business.  The yacht cost a cool two million pounds and was built to order by Italian firm Benetti.  Sixty-five metres long with three decks, six luxury cabins, swimming pool and helipad, it was the ultimate status symbol for the Travel Cash millionaire boss.

On the upper deck his beautiful daughter, Jasmine, wearing a yellow bikini, rubbed sun oil onto her slim bronzed limbs, as she casually surveyed the walkers on La Promenade des Anglais, swimmers splashing in the surf and sunbathers on the crescent-shaped beach.  Ahh, so nice to be in Nice, she thought to herself.  Maybe I’ll stop playing Miss Casual and take up the offer from one of Daddy’s friends to appear in a Bollywood movie.  A brief walk-on part could help launch my career as a model.

Rami, resplendent in palm tree motif Bermuda shorts, looked up from his tablet.  Now he could relax.  The Travel Cash share price was up, following a slight dip, and he was assured by his stockbroker that it would continue to trade strongly following good quarterly turnover and profit figures.  Money makes money.  As long as travellers needed to change currencies, he was assured of a cast iron income from his chain of bureaux.

EIGHT HUNDRED MILES north, in Colnbrook village, on the north bank of the River Thames just west of London, David Willis put on his cycling helmet and surveyed the grey morning sky as he pushed his bicycle out of the front door of the worn brick terraced house he shared with two others.  It was drizzling lightly, not enough to put him off cycling.  He would change out of his cycling gear and into dry clothes in the locker room at work.  He worked as an Order Checker at Travel Cash in Hounslow, West London, fairly close to Heathrow Airport where most of their customers were based.  He was a temp, modestly paid at £9.00 an hour and with no job security.  In fact, his employers preferred a steady turnover of staff – it was a soulless moneymaking operation and people were just cogs in the cash-counting machine.

Travel Cash was based in a large warehouse, occupying a block in a grey, featureless business park about two miles from Heathrow.  It was an ugly breeze block building with blacked-out windows and thin metal roof sheets.  The building was surrounded by a three-metre-high wire mesh fence, with electric fencing around the top.  Outside the fence were concrete bollards at intervals of two metres, designed to stop the most determined ram raiders.

David pushed his bike through the security checkpoint.  He was eyed suspiciously by the guards as he swiped his ID badge.  No friendly “Hi, how are you?”  These guys never smiled.  Funny, he thought – Eastern European guards protecting Indian money from British employees.  There was an absence of trust when money was involved.  This lack of trust deepened when tribal factors were added in.  He locked his bike in the shed provided and walked through the revolving front door into the high-ceilinged reception area.  At least here there was a friendly face – fake-boobed Sheila, the morning shift receptionist, gave him a warm smile: “Hi Dave, how are you today?”

“Just fine Sheila, and you?” “I’m OK”.  She smiled at him and he had to restrain himself from staring at her ample cleavage.  I wonder how much they cost?  I could park my bike in there.  He continued moving through the lobby during this brief exchange, to the door marked Staff Locker Room.  As he got changed, his eyes were again drawn to a notice on the staff noticeboard.  ‘Computer Equipment and Printers for Sale’.  It had been up for a week and had got him thinking.  He didn’t need a computer as he already had one at home, but he was drawn to the offer and a mischievous possibility.

His workspace was in a large open-plan office with a dozen desks, each with an Order Checker.  In the corner of the room there was a large cage in which boxes were piled high.  Each box was labelled with a major currency and contained bundles of cash.  A small, sweaty Indian man called Randeep delivered bundles of currency to each Order Checker on demand, with a small trolley he wheeled around the floor space.  The Order Checkers would receive an order for foreign exchange, usually from a travel bureau, by email on their computers.

DollarsThese order sheets were printed out, then bundles of cash were requested from Randeep who would deliver them to the appropriate desk.  The Order Checkers would then count out the exact amount ordered, less commission, and the bundles were banded together with elastic bands, put into large envelopes with the order slip and the details written on in black marker pens.  The packages were then put into a chute, similar to laundry chutes in old hotels, where they tumbled down one floor to the Despatch Area, where they were wheeled in big blue bins to waiting security vans for delivery.

There were no security guards in the room where David worked, only CCTV.  The guards were guarding the entrance and exits to the building, checking people in and out.  During the morning shift David processed on average six orders per hour – about one every ten minutes.  By lunchtime he had handled US dollars, euros, yen, yuan, Turkish lira, Thai baht, Indian rupees, South African rands and Canadian dollars.  Big orders were quite common, maybe two or three a day with a value of over three million pounds.

The largest order he had ever processed was for five million euros (£4,237,288 on the invoice) and it was surprisingly small in size and weight.  He received twenty bundles of 500 euro notes, 500 notes to a bundle.  The 500 euro note was by far the highest value note at that time.  He picked up one of the bundles and could easily hold it in his hand.  It was about two inches high and weighed no more than 300 grams.  Hmmm, he thought, if I could figure out a way to get twenty of these bundles out of the building I’d be four and a quarter million pounds richer.  Without a doubt this was a life-changing amount.

He had never stolen anything in his life, and generally conformed to the British norm of respecting other’s property and accumulating stuff.  He was a dutiful worker and consumer, paying taxes and supporting the system whilst being patronised by politicians.  Could he possibly break out?  Could he make the quantum leap from this dull but safe life to one of a criminal on the run?

At the end of his shift he got changed and wheeled his bike out through the security hut.  He had his backpack searched by a bored-looking guard.  No words were spoken, and he still had to swipe his ID card to open the outer steel doors.  There could be no carrying bundles of cash out of this place.  At home that evening, he got a screwdriver and took off the back of his PC hard drive tower unit to see how much space was inside.  Actually, quite a lot of space.  Particularly if you remove the cards on which circuits, switches and wires were mounted, there was an empty cavity behind it.  He got some old newspapers and made up some bundles of similar size to the ones he had handled earlier that day.  He was able to fit twenty bundles into the cavity and then replace the circuit board.  It was a bit of a squeeze, but it fitted, and if the back was taken off there was no sign of the paper bundles.

HE DECIDED TO ease his rising anxiety with a pint at his local pub – The Ostrich in Colnbrook High Street.  It was quiet on this mid-week night, and the friendly publican, Steve, was happy for someone to chat to.  David picked up a booklet on the history of the area, and Steve drew his attention to the chapter on this very pub.

“This pub has a long history, dating back to medieval times when it was a hospice for the sick of the parish.  It was known as the ‘Ospice, which gave way to the ‘Osbridge Inn’ when it became a popular resting place for travellers going to and from London.  This road outside, Colnbrook High Street, is actually a part of the old Roman Road, now the A4, that runs due west to Bath.  Travellers have been passing this way for close to two thousand years.  Some years later the name was further corrupted to ‘The Ostrich Inn’.”

David, happy for the distraction, sipped his pint of beer and skimmed over the section on the pub.  He stopped at the mention of the word ‘murder’.

“What’s this about murder?  Does the old inn have a dark past?”

Steve brightened up:  “Oh yes!  This place gained an infamous reputation.  During the eighteenth century, when highwaymen roamed the road from here to Reading, this was a popular stopping point for weary travellers on horseback.  The landlord was a man called Jarman, and he made a good living with his wife providing a room and a hot meal for the night.  They had also earned a reputation for their delicious pork pies.

“One evening, a merchant from Reading arrived, one Thomas Cole, and he handed over his pouch of coins to the landlady for safekeeping, as was the way.  He was given the best and warmest room – the one above the kitchen, and tucked into his dinner of pies and ale.  That night the evil and conniving couple carried out their plan.  They prepared a large vat of boiling oil and then crept upstairs to see if their guest was sleeping.  Satisfied that he was in a deep sleep, they tipped up the bed, and slid his body through an open hatch in the floor, right into the vat of boiling oil.  The poor merchant was killed instantly.  They then removed his body, quartered it and cooked it in an oven, ready to be mixed with other ingredients for their delicious pork pies!”

“How ghastly!” David said.  “To think such a horrific murder was committed here, not far from where I’m sitting.”

“Well, the local sheriff was alerted when the dead man’s horse escaped from the stable and made its way home, and an investigation into his disappearance took place.  Other travellers had also mysteriously disappeared, and Jarman, fearing their discovery, fled into the Windsor woods.  He was tracked down by the sheriff’s men and confessed to as many as twenty such murders of travellers with his wife, who cooked and served them up in their famously tasty pork pies!”

David was suitably impressed with this gruesome story: “I’ll have another pint, but I think I’ll pass on the bar food!”  They both laughed and David was grateful to have his mind taken off his predicament.  Was this a warning tale that criminals eventually get caught?  He decided to sleep on it, but knew if he went ahead, he would have to make sure it was the perfect crime – and a one-off – never to be repeated.



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