Criminals always think they are cleverer than the rest of the world. I would suppose it is that arrogance that usually leads to their capture. In this particular instance, fate conspired to concoct a menagerie of coincidental errors. The best crime would probably be one that no one would report, thus it would never be officially recognized as a crime. Getting away with it should be easy. One such opportunity presented itself in a public house called the Sassenach Arms, situated in Inverness, Scotland.
The hour was approaching closing time and few people were left in the pub. A lowlife, petty thief who doubled as a deckhand on tramp steamers sat in the barroom and two other men were talking with him, one sitting and one standing. The drunk sounded loud, very intoxicated and overly boastful.
‘Yee two could’nae knock oo’er a lemonade stand,’ he said and then hiccupped. His eyes blinked and his mouth slipped into a silly smirk. ‘I could m-m-make mig-lians, hic. Yous chaps are too th-th-oopid.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Ian McDonald said, leaning closer.
Now Ian was short and scruffy. He looked like he would be at home on the garbage truck, but in reality the last thing Ian wanted was work. He had tried almost every confidence trick and almost always got caught. Brains, one could say, was not his forte. Robert McLaren, a tall dapper-Dan type happened to be considerably smarter but just as unfortunate. Robert knew that somewhere there was that one big score waiting for him.
‘Yah dinnae ken dick,”’ Ian growled in his Scottish drawl.
‘I ken,’ slurred the drunk. ‘I ken where there’s miligans and miligans of poonds, so there, hic.’ He blinked furiously and almost fell out of his seat.
‘Crap, laddie,’ Ian growled. ‘If you ken yah woulda took it already.’
‘Huh! Double huh! I know, I know. See, the VanDugan, see, yeah. Ith, ith, a, sm, a smuggler, see. A smuggler. They move diamonds. I know, see. I know. She’s due again and she’ll be carrying miligans in diamonds. All smugg, gulp, smuggled, see?’
Robert sat down, leaned forward and whispered, ‘So where’d they keep them?’
The drunk wobbled in his chair trying to sit upright. ‘In the s-s-s-s-s, in the s-safe, thu-pid, where elth?’
Robert, who seldom if ever imbibed, quickly realized the implications. He grabbed Ian by the collar and said, ‘It’s time to leave. Now.’ Standing up, he dragged the reluctant Scott from the barroom.
‘Wha’s the rush?’ Ian hissed between his teeth.
‘Money, laddie,’ Robert said with a glint in his eye. ‘De ye ken anything aboot ships?’
Ian shrugged. ‘Ships? Ships? They float. What’s to know?’
Robert smiled. ‘If our drunken friend is only half right, there could be a fortune in diamonds on the VanDugan.’
‘So, my simple friend. Those could be our diamonds. Who’s gonna complain? If they’re being smuggled, they won’t report them being stolen. We’ll mak a killin’.’
Ian grinned as the light of dawn began to illuminate his weak mind. Already, visions of vast riches were affecting his hearing. The grin of a simpleton slipped across his ugly face. ‘Right, laddie.’
‘I can oopen a safe,’ Robert said. ‘If ye can get a getaway motor.’
‘Aye,’ Ian said with glazed eyes. I can get a motor, all reet.’
As a very famous Scotsman once said, ‘The plans of mice and men oft gang awry.’ Which means idiots should make better plans. Finding the arrival time of the VanDugan was a simple matter of talking to the harbour master. Dozens of small ships visit Inverness yearly – some are regulars. The VanDugan makes a constant run from Amsterdam to Inverness and then down the coast, eventually stopping at London and then round she would go again. No one apparently suspected that she also carried contraband.
Getting aboard the ship would be the only difficulty in the plan. Robert carefully made all the arrangements. The VanDugan would be in port for three days refuelling, offloading and reloading in her never-ending cycle. Ian would steal a car ready for the getaway on the last day before high tide. Robert would board and apply for work as a seaman in order to case the vessel.
Both Robert and Ian stood on the jetty with bated breath as the little VanDugan steamed into port unaided by tugs. The crew easily and quickly tied her alongside and almost immediately began leaving for their home visits. Customs officers made the cursory search. Everyone knew everyone and no one suspected her real mission.
Early the following morning Robert walked to the gangplank. He found no difficulty boarding the ship. Once on deck he met a sailor, who asked him his business.
Robert gave his best smile and lying through his teeth said, ‘I’m lookin’ for labour. I need work tae help my poor old sick mother.’
‘You’ll have to talk to the skipper, Grumpy Bill,’ the sailor said. ‘You’ll find him up on the bridge.’ He pointed in the appropriate direction.
With such a small ship it would be difficult to get lost. Robert walked the deck and up the ladder to the small windowed office known as the bridge. He stood on the small, wing-like landing and knocked then pushed open the door. An old seadog with a grey beard sat at the navigation table. He looked up and growled. ‘Aye?’
‘Sir. I’m Randy McNeil,’ Robert lied again. ‘I’m looking for work to help look after my old, sick and ailing mother.’
‘We need no extra crew,’ he growled and waved, indicating for Robert to leave.
Robert looked around the room as quickly as possible. The safe stood against the back wall away from the ship’s steering wheel and quite close to the navigation table.
‘I can cook, clean; even spit and polish is my thing. I can navigate and I ken security.’
‘Excellent,’ the captain said. ‘Then ye’ll have no difficulty navigatin’ yee’sel’ off my ship.’
‘Then you can’t offer me work?’
‘If ye dinnae leave, laddie, we’ll be giving yah swimming lessons. Now get oot.’
The captain’s rudeness had no effect on Robert. He knew he’d found and seen all he needed. He saw that the safe was a Chubb and it’s location was nice and handy with only one door to open.
‘Did yah get the job?’ Ian enquired eagerly when they met later.
‘No, yah fool,’ Robert growled. ‘I’ve seen the safe. I’ve been there and seen it all. Now, if you can do yah part, we’ll be rich afore the week is oot.’
Carefully, the two conspirators adhered to the plan. At low tide, before the VanDugan’s scheduled departure and before the crew returned for duty, Ian found and stole the perfect car. The near new brilliant red Jaguar pulled up outside the Sassenach, where Robert awaited his ride.
‘Could ye no have taken a car less conspicuous?’ Robert growled as he climbed in.
‘Fast, good cornering. You said a getaway car; ye dinnae say a jalopy.’
‘All reet, tae tha docks.’
The brilliant red Jaguar slipped through the town and glided to a silent halt at the quayside. The gods had shown their favour by making low tide at the convenient hour of one in the morning. The moon was opportunely hidden behind black storm clouds blowing in from the west. The world seemed silent and at rest. The VanDugan lay low as the water was out and the gangplank seemed unguarded.
Robert slunk silently along the shadows of the storage sheds and stopped opposite the boarding ramp. A quick look around, a listen for extraneous sound, followed by a scuttle to the plank. A dog barked in the distance. Music drifted in on the ever-growing wind and the sea slapped the side of the boat.
Crouching, the would-be thief crept across the gangway and slipped onto the boat’s deck. Still unchallenged, Robert reached the ladder to the bridge. The light was favourable as in the almost total darkness he could neither see nor be seen. Silently and with heart pounding, he reached the small landing at the apex of the ladder. The bridge door was, as expected, closed and locked.
The primitive lock on the small sliding door yielded easily and silently to Robert’s crowbar. He stood for a moment listening for the telltale ringing of any alarms. Still the world seemed to be at peace. The target now stood only a few feet away. The bridge lay in almost total darkness. Only the radar screen glowed green, but the display did not rotate. Robert carefully extracted his stethoscope and sat on the floor in the darkness by the safe’s lock.
For a moment, Robert sat in silence trying hard to relax and quiet the pounding of his heart in his ears. A few slow and deep breaths as he leaned against the cold metal. In the near absolute darkness he slowly rotated the dial and listened for the informative click of the tumblers. Hardly daring to breathe, he listened as the last of the six tumblers dropped into place.
‘Got ye, ye wee devil,’ he whispered to the iron door.
The well-oiled hinges allowed the heavy door to swing open noiselessly. With hands trembling in anticipation, Robert clicked on his small hand lantern and peered into the mysterious inner sanctum – three shelves, and two of which were loaded. One shelf contained ship’s papers and ledgers. The second shelf had a cloth bag and three bundles of money held tight by elastic bands. Opening the drawstring bag, Robert’s heart almost stopped. Sparkling back at him lay hundreds of diamonds, some as large as peas.
For the first time in his criminal career, Robert had scored big. Now, only one open door, a short ladder and a couple of hundred feet of concrete separated him from freedom and a very rich future; provided that the fool, Ian, was still there with a hot engine.