The first thing you notice about Hank Elliotts is the immensity of his proportions. I don’t mean that he’s fat, our current diet is keeping that at bay, it’s just that everything about him is big. From his bushy beard, burnt red at the tips, to his eyebrows that seem to dance across his forehead as he speaks. When he enters a room, he fills it to the walls with his Hankness. When he plants his fists on his hips and juts out his chest, he demands your full attention, and you’ll be damned if you don’t give it.

So, you’re probably wondering, how did I end up meeting such a man? And in such a derelict world as this.

Having been a humble, recently-become-unemployed Front of House assistant before The Great Cockup (as some of the more beleaguered newscasters began calling it) I was woefully unqualified for the bright new world that emerged. The fact that I survived at all is a miracle I put entirely down to a dodgy plate of Chow Mein. After a few days, I emerged from the toilet, vowing to never again order from anywhere with less than three stars on Just Eat. Little did I realise that those days were long gone. Metaphorically.

During my first excursion to anywhere other than my abused toilet, I noticed the flat had a stale air; occasional wafts of unwashed dishes and rotten fruit pronounced themselves, and a dozen frantic messages from my mum waited for me on my mobile. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Even my return to the world of social media gave nothing away. The usual doomsday tweets and terrified Facebook posts scrolled past my unseeing eyes. It wasn’t until much later that I realised all the posts were at least three days old.

It wasn’t long before my stomach started to make itself known. Over the four days I’d been trapped in my bathroom, the only thing I’d had the strength to keep down was two and a half bottles of rioja and an old mint I found in the pocket of my dressing gown. The fridge offered nothing more than a pint of milk that crawled out of the bottle, and a lump of cheese that had a grown a thick, green skin. I was left with no choice. I’m not sure how my life would have turned out if I’d stayed in the flat. But what I can say for certain, is that it wouldn’t have been interesting.

*

The first thing I noticed was the quiet. My landlord had been very careful in not telling me about the school that was a mere street away. Eventually, after the initial fury, I grew used to the incessant chorus of rowdy children. That day, however, their absence became deafening.

I was beginning to question just how long I’d been stuck on that toilet, when I was struck by a second strange thing. The high street was a ruin. It had never been the most picturesque part of London, but a car in the bookies’ front window was a new addition. In fact, most of the town seemed to be in carnage. Cars, if not protruding from shop-fronts, had been abandoned in the middle of the road, their doors dangling open. Streets lamps had been torn down, tins of food lay strewn across the floor, and rotting vegetables were rolled into the drains.

I began to get a tingle that something had happened recently, and just as I was deciding I shouldn’t have left the flat, a third thing struck me.

It was a rock.

It hit me right in the chest, and I still have the scar above my left nipple. As I reeled from the impact, mainly focused on the fact my favourite t-shirt had just been ripped and was gaining a large bloodstain, a chilling scream rang through the street. About half a dozen figures burst out of various hiding places. Two of them sprang from a car, three from a nearby newsagent’s, and one even crawled out from beneath a manhole cover. In seconds they had surrounded me, chuckling to themselves as they waved weapons that were, at best, crudely homemade.

All the figures wore some sort of mask. There were surgical masks, dust masks, a rainbow-coloured bandana, one even wore a welding mask with the visor poked out.

“Well, well,” the masked figure closest cooed, waving his nail-studded pool cue threateningly. “Looks like we’re in luck, lads!”

“Oi, Glen!” the one in the welding mask barked. If I wasn’t struggling not to piss myself, I would have been surprised to hear it was a woman perched on the car bonnet and fingering a hatchet. “What have we talked about?”

The pool cue wielder sighed, rolled his eyes, and then turned back to me. “You’ve got to forgive Angie,” he said, chatting as if we were two punters in a bar. “Even in these end-times she’s still all about equality!”

“It’s because society has crumbled away,” Angie said sourly, “that I think we should abandon the patriarchal dominance that came to define life before the Great Cleansing!”

“We are not having this argument again!”

“It is not an argument! It is a healthy debate between two –”

“Are we going to kill this guy or not?” a third, gravel-voiced stranger murmured.

“Of course,” Glen said. He pointed the pool cue at me, giving me a perfect view of the stained nails.

“What – what do you want?” I whimpered, holding my hands up. “Money? Do you want money? I – I have cash!” It was two pounds and sixty-eight pence in all the wrong kinds of change.

The one called Angie gave a derisive snort. “Where have you been living, mate?”

“My bathroom,” I answered honestly.

My would-be attackers swapped glances. Their faces above the masks were crumpled with confusion. “You – you honestly don’t know?” the fourth one asked, slightly lowering his sharpened cricket bat.

“Well,” I said, quickly glancing at the wreckage of the high street. “I’m guessing something rather bad happened.”

“No shit,” Glen muttered. “The world went to pot, that’s what happened.”

“We’re all that’s left,” Angie added.

“And it’s all thanks to the grace of The Surgical Mask of Salvation!” the final assailant declared, waving his garden trowel.

“The . . . surgical mask . . .?” My head was reeling, and not just from the dehydration that comes from a week of having your head down the toilet.

“Of Salvation, that’s right,” Glen said, though without much enthusiasm in his voice.

“And now, to keep ourselves in the Mighty Mask’s grace, we must make a sacrifice out of you!”

“What?! M-me?”

“I’m afraid so,” Angie said, scratching her cheek with the hatchet. “It’s been a few days since the last one, and Clive always gets a bit antsy if we leave it too long.”

“The Surgical Mask of Salvation must be satisfied!” the one I guessed was Clive screamed, thrashing his bat in the air.

Glen, Angie, and the other marauders nodded grimly and then began to descend. I should have run, I’m certainly not the stay-and-fight sort of person. But terror had rooted me to the spot, eyes fixed on the approaching weapons.

Suddenly, just as the pool cue was raised to crush my skull, a deafening clap of thunder echoed through the air.

All heads, including my own, span to face this newcomer. At the top of the street, a gun in his hand, stood a man that could only be described as semi-mythical. The light shone around him, making him glow, and there was a look in his eyes that was sharper than flint. The masked cultists stared for a moment, then seemed to remember themselves.

“Err . . .” Glen said.

“Why aren’t we sacrificing anyone?” Clive whined.

“One reason, mainly,” Angie said. “That man has a gun.”

“When I have a rolling pin,” another of my attackers said.

“Back away from the kid,” the stranger declared. Glen instinctively took a step away.

“Why are we listening to him?” Clive asked, giving the man a venomous look.

“Again, Clive,” Glen said, “the gun!”

“How about a trade?” The man then removed from the depths of his parka a single roll of toilet paper. I was about to feel insulted when I suddenly caught a glimpse of Angie’s greedy eyes. In fact, no one was paying any attention to me. The loo roll was the centre of attention.

“One roll?” Clive scoffed. “As if you can turn us away from our divine duty!”

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” the man said, pausing for just one tantalisingly dramatic moment. “It’s triple-ply.”

“That’s a good deal,” Glen said. “Take it, Clive. We can sacrifice a rat later on!”

“And then we can eat it,” the man with the garden trowel grumbled.

For a brief second, I feared that Clive would declare himself unsatisfied, and would have me gutted right there in the street. But then he gave the toilet paper another longing look, and nodded. He caught the flung roll with one hand and pulled it close to his chest. He fired a dark look my way. “You don’t know how lucky you are!” he murmured. With that, he scurried back into the wreckage of the high street, his fellow marauders hurrying after him. 

As soon as they were out sight, I collapsed to my knees, my entire body trembling with shock. I didn’t even look up when my saviour stopped in front of me.

“That was a close call,” he said, scratching his thick, red beard. “Ya all right?”

“What the Hell’s going on?!” I wailed.

“Ya seriously don’t know?” he asked. “Looks like we have a lot to talk about.”

*

That was how I met Hank Elliotts. Once I was marginally recovered, he helped me back to my flat, and I learned just what happened to the world. Some of the story I already knew; after all, I had only been confined to the loo for most of a week, and the tale’s start began earlier than that. “Ya remember that flu that was going around?” Hank asked, rummaging through my cupboards and pocketing anything that caught his eye. “As ya probably remember, people went crazy about it. ‘Course, the really crazy part happened about a week ago.”

In an attempt to curb the spread, one industrious scientist from the recesses of America had tried to cook up a cure. As it turns out, trying to perform that sort of task from a garden shed is a bad idea. The man had only succeeded in causing the virus to mutate exponentially, and the survival rate plummeted. Some called it The New Plague, others the 2020 Blight, journalists began to call it the Great Cockup. “But, personally, I call it Yankee Fever,” Hank said, nibbling on a cream cracker he found tucked behind a stack of saucepans. “After three days it burned itself out, and this is the glorious new world we live in.”

“And . . . and everyone’s dead?” I murmured, feeling the strength in my body drain away.

“No,” Hank said with a shrug. “Some people were immune, though not many. Then there are some like us: lucky.”

“How did you survive then?”

“I was crackin’ a safe in one of them cellars up Covent Garden when I got a call from an old mate,” the man explained, plucking the crumbs from his beard. “Holed myself up there with half a tuna sandwich and a thermos of Mulligatawny soup to keep me goin’.”

I couldn’t believe it. I collapsed into my chair, struggling to take in the revelation. All my friends, I would never see again. My family, I would never speak to. All the TV I had been planning to binge. I didn’t even have time to process my loss before Hank was placing his meaty hands on my shoulders. “Look on the bright side, kid,” he mumbled, inches away from my face.

“What bright side?” I answered. “The world’s ended! There’s nothing left for me! I – I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“That’s where I come in,” Hank declared. “Yer with me now.”

I stared at him, blankly. He offered me his toothiest grin. I would come to dread that smile. “I saved ya,” he reminded me. “In some cultures, that means yer life’s mine. So, what do ya say? Wanna come with me?”

“Do I have much choice?” I asked, aware that his hands were still firmly gripped around my scrawny shoulders. His smile was my answer.

*

It was a whole three days before Hank decided to inform me of just what our relationship was going to be. Three days of sleeping either on the streets, or in the living rooms of whatever house Hank managed to break open. Of course, he always pointed out I could sleep in the bedrooms, but the idea alone made me feel uncomfortable. He, I soon discovered, could sleep anywhere, and at any time. It was a trick, he said, he learned from work.

Speaking of which; on the fourth evening, as I was meekly nibbling from a tin of rice pudding, Hank shuffled up closer.

“Yer probably wonderin’,” he said, his lips tinged orange from baked bean juice, “why I saved ya.”

I wasn’t. I had naively chalked it down to him having supped from the milk of human kindness. I pointed this out to him, then winced as his laugh echoed up and down the high-street.

“Nah,” he said, slapping me on the back. “I need ya, ya see?”

I didn’t.

“Ya see, I was a pretty big thief, back before the world went to shit. Oh yeah, you name it, I nicked it. Purses, jewellery, identities, the lot. I was a pro. The only problem,” he said with a sigh, “is I was never recognised. I never got a legacy. My name never got marked down as one of history’s greatest rogues.” He then fixed me with that devilish grin. “That’s where ya come in.”

Apparently, according to my saviour, my sole purpose was to document his various exploits, like some sort of post-apocalyptic bard. But it wasn’t just his past endeavours I was to write about, oh no. He had a nice little project in mind for the future.

“We’re gonna steal,” Hank revealed, his eyes glittering, “the Mona Lisa!”

I waited for him to burst into laughter, because obviously the man had to be joking. Only, there was no laughter. There was just that enormous grin. The Cheshire Cat had nothing on this man. I rifled through my limited supply of general knowledge; “Is – isn’t that in . . . France?”

Hank gave a nod.

Before I could broach the quandary of whether theft was even possible in our new post-apocalyptic world, Hank rose and clapped his hands together, as if he had won a long and arduous debate. The idea that I could actually offer an argument was an absurd one, both to him and me.

I literally owed the man my life. I could either repay him, and follow him on his madcap quest for infamy, or bid farewell and last a total of five minute before being mauled by a roaming pack of wild boars.

“So,” I asked nervously, “how do you plan on getting to France?”

Hank gave me a wink. “A mate of mine has a boat,” he explained. “He said I could borrow it any time.”

“And when did the friend make this offer?”

“2003.”

“I see. And what if he’s dead?”

The man shrugged. “I doubt he took his boat with him,” he replied.

Thus, our bizarre adventure began. In the morning, saddled with over a dozen notebooks Hank had pilfered from an abandoned – and until that point untouched – stationary shop, we departed.

*

Hank has led a vastly and wildly interesting life. Those are his words. They are not the ones I would use to describe his various exploits. Criminal, mind-boggling, utterly insane, biologically impossible, those are a few choice adjectives I would personally use. Just listening to them takes a herculean effort, putting them down onto paper is a task I’m putting off until we find some alcohol. It seems that, as soon as society collapsed, the liquor stores were the first thing to be raided.

The one upside to surviving the apocalypse in England is that it doesn’t take you very long to get anywhere. It took us only a couple of days to reach Mersea, the last known address of Hank’s supposed ‘mate’. The roads were littered with cars and lorries, some abandoned, some still carrying passengers, stuck in a never-ending traffic jam. Hank had skipped through these scenes with a cheery, if out-of-tune whistle, ignoring my uncomfortable requests to avoid such a morbid scene.

“Quickest way,” he hollered over his shoulder, chewing on a dried fig. “And they’re a good spot to kip in, if ya don’t mind the smell.”

And that was that. Mersea was no different to London, except smaller. Plus, it had a cheerful seaside tang in the air to overpower the stench of the dead. Seagulls perched everywhere, lining the silent streets and watching us as we made our way through.

“It’s like that Hitchcock film,” I had murmured.

Hank had rounded on me, a malicious gleam in his eyes. “No, it’s not!” he spat. One of the birds shifted on a windowsill, giving me a malicious glare. “There was no seagulls in Psycho!”

Eventually, as the sun was beginning to set, and the volumes of avian spectators had dwindled, we reached the pier. There certainly were boats there, that I could not deny. That’s about all I can tell you about the sight. I don’t know anything about boats; the different types they are, what the various parts are called, or even what port and starboard meant. I had hoped that Hank would know all that was needed.

He planted his hands on his hips, gave an impressive nod, then gave me a shove. “Well?” he asked. “Which do ya like the look of?”

“What? I thought you knew which one we were taking?” I said. “Your friend had a boat! That’s what you said!”

“Aye, I did,” he agreed. “But I’ve no idea what it looks like. I wasn’t expecting us to have a choice! So, which is yer favourite?”

A sudden boom sent me toppling over. The noise was louder than anything I’d heard, and I soon saw the cause. A man was standing at the pointy end of one of the boats, a large rifle in his hands. The barrel was smoking, and fortunately aimed at the sky.

A dead seagull landed an inch away from my foot with a sad thump.

“Who are you?” the stranger barked.

Hank shot him a wave. “The name’s Hank Elliotts.”

“I don’t care who you are,” the stranger exclaimed.

“Then why’d you ask?” I wailed, struggling to my feet.

“Bein’ polite.”

“We’re looking for a boat,” Hank said, taking a step forward. He moved no further as the stranger lowered his rifle, aiming it at their feet.

“You ain’t gettin’ my boats!” the man announced.

Hank twitched his coat aside, revealing the butt of his own gun. “I just want to borrow one.”

“Borrow someone else’s.”

I looked down the pier. There must have been a good dozen or so boats lined up. Hank had also done the same calculation. “I’m sure ya won’t miss just one.”

“I bloody well will!” the man cried. “These are like my wives!”

Hank and I shared a worried glance. “How much like yer wives?” he asked.

The stranger’s eyes began to boggle. “Get your minds out of the gutter!” he yelled, waving the rifle erratically. “I have a perfectly good pillow for that sort of thing!”

“Look, we have a very important business meeting in France, and we need a boat to get there!”

“Important business meeting?” the man murmured. “Didn’t the world end?”

“Yes.”

“Then what sort of business is so important that you need to be in France to do it?”

“There’s something I need to steal.”

The strange, yellow-haired man continued to stare at Hank, as perplexed as I was when I first met him. Then the confusion instantly evaporated. “Why didn’t you say?” he asked as he chucked the rifle overboard. “Come on up, I’ll give you a lift.”

Grinning like he’d just finished a high-stakes negotiation with a bank-robber, Hank began to clamber aboard the ship. “Welcome to Delores!” the stranger declared, once I too had climbed onto the boat.

“On the side it says she’s called The Heart of Mersea,” I pointed out.

“That was her slave name!” the man roared. In the brief time it had taken for Hank and I to join him, he had procured himself a loaded crossbow. He now waved it angrily.

“Dolores is a very fine vessel, yes she is,” Hank said quickly.

I nodded; my eyes stapled to the crossbow bolt zigzagging in front of my chest. “Well, keep your hands off,” he grunted, raising the bow. “The name’s Pete, by the way. But my friends call me Mad Pete.”

“Why do your friends call you Mad Pete?” I asked.

“Because they’re imaginary.” He gifted the pair a toothy grin. “Lift the anchor! We’re off to France!”

*

The complete downfall of society has taught me many things; the one that will stick with me the longest, however, is the fact that I hate boats.

Whether it’s down to Mad Pete’s terrible seamanship, or just a biological loathing for nautical endeavours, I had an utterly miserable time crossing the channel. When the ship began to buck and roll over the grey waves, I immediately secreted myself into a tiny cabin and tried not to violently vomit over the walls. Every now and then Hank checked in on me, to make sure I was making notes on his adventure. And, when he wasn’t visiting me, it was Pete popping in to see that I wasn’t trying to get frisky with Delores.

I did throw up – once. But I was able to direct it into a cabinet where Mad Pete kept his stock of tinned tuna. Thankfully he didn’t get peckish during the voyage.

Eventually the ship reached its destination and I was required to stumble back onto deck.

“Well, kid?” Hank asked, firing off an eager grin. “Ready?”

Any answer other than ‘You bettcha’ would have been promptly ignored. So, I gave a resigned nod and he clapped me on the back. Once we had been safely deposited onto the French soil, we turned back to our ferryman.

“What will ya do now?” Hank asked.

“Ah,” Mad Pete said with a lopsided shrug. “Probably see if I can’t pick myself up a French mistress!”

“Won’t Delores mind?” I asked, nodding to the boat.

Pete gave me a confused glare. “Why would she?” he asked. “She’s a boat.”

Unable to argue with his logic, Hank and I waved him goodbye before continuing our solitary trek.

*

In all the films about a post-apocalyptic world, they make the wastelands look busier than a Saturday night in Soho.The reality, of course, is the opposite.

This was made all too apparent as we traipsed our way down the French roads. How the Europeans reacted to the virus, I don’t know. Unlike Britain’s chaotic response, nothing of France’s fate was mentioned in the newspapers I could find.

The path to Paris was a solitary one, the silence almost suffocating at some points. This was my second trip to France, and it couldn’t have been more different. My first visit was during a school holiday, and I was stuck in a coach with forty other screaming students. I still can’t decide which was the more unpleasant experience.

What I will say in favour of France, however, is that for the duration of the journey we were not attacked by a wandering band of killer cultists. So, it was already doing better than back home.

Eventually, just as it seemed Hank had exhausted his litany of anecdotes to share, we saw it: the dazzling glass pyramid that was the Louvre. At least, it’s dazzling in all the pictures I’ve seen. It’s hard to dazzle in the middle of the night and in a city with no power. We were fortunate that a car was ablaze not far from the gallery, otherwise we may have walked into it before we noticed our arrival.

I glanced at Hank, the fire giving his grin a demonic flare. “We’re here!” he announced for the benefit of no one.

“When do you want to do it?” I asked, dropping my backpack to the floor and rubbing my aching neck.

“No time like the present,” Hank declared, clapping his hands together.  

Too tired to even act agog, I reluctantly trailed after the eager thief, wondering how long it would take to waltz into an empty gallery and pull a painting off the wall. He held up a hand as we approached the door. Silently, he removed from his inside pocket an iPod. This time I found a reserve of surprise.

“Back in the day,” he said, switching it on and beginning to scroll, “I always used to listen to a playlist on the job. You know, get me in the mood.” He handed me the music player. “With headphones, of course. But now, I don’t think they’re needed.”

I looked down at the device in my hand, and the track ready and waiting to play.

“Are you sure about this?”

“Never do a job without it.”

As commanded, I pressed play on the iPod. Hank’s ever-present grin lengthened as the unmistakable sound of Cyndi Lauper rang out in the night.

“Let’s do this.”

The task would have been laughably easy. The gallery doors were unlocked, and the lobby was seemingly empty of any lingering security. There was even a sign pointing exactly where we needed to go in half-a-dozen different languages. It would have been easy, that is, if a makeshift spear hadn’t been launched out of the shadows and landed with a clatter near our toes. I switched the iPod off, then glanced at our would-be attackers.

There were two of them, and ‘ferocious-looking’ would have not described either. The woman was glamorous in a past life. Now, however, her hair was untamed, one earring was a diamond stud, and the other was a rodent’s femur, and her blouse had both sleeves torn off. But the haughty gleam in her eyes made it perfectly clear that she was French, and prepared to weaponize that fact.

Her partner was a short, dumpling-shaped man with a beard that seemed to have a personality of its own. He was wearing what remained of a tweed suit, plus a napkin tucked into the collar of his shirt.

I glanced at Hank, faintly relieved  to see the gun in his hand, and the grin on his face.

“Qui êtes-vous?” the woman demanded, ignoring the pistol.

“Sorry,” Hank declared, “We don’t speak the lingo, I’m afraid.”

A stony expression landed on the woman’s face. She rounded on her companion. “One of yours,” she hissed.

“Oh, my, that’s a surprise!” the bearded man blustered. “Haven’t heard an English voice in quite a while! How do you do?”

“Not bad,” Hank responded, his hand quivering slightly. “Yerself?” This wasn’t how his jobs usually went, and it was obvious that he was struggling with this new terrain.

“My name is Professor Brian Yves-Major,” the man said, offering a polite little bow. “And this charming woman is Doctor Marianne Gruyere.”

“Bonjoor, mon Amy,” Hank said, nodding towards the woman. She bristled at his greeting.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“Err . . .” I foolishly began.

“We’d like to steal the Mona Lisa,” Hank foolishly finished.

Brian and Marianne stared at the man. “I . . . I’m sorry?” Brian murmured.

“Typical English!” Marianna snarled.

The Mona Lisa,” the thief repeated. “We’d like to take it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Over our dead bodies!”

“That’s sort of what this is for,” Hank said, giving the pistol a friendly wiggle.

“How many of you are there?” I asked, concerned of how many armed academics may have been hiding in the shadows.

The pair shared an awkward glance. “There used to be more of us,” Brian explained. “But, well . . .”

“We ran out of food,” Marianne stated.

The silence was thunderous.

“You . . . ate them?” I gasped.

“What?” the professor wailed. “We were starving! It was us or them!”

“It was always going to be them,” Marianne said.

“Okay,” Hank whistled, his grip tightening on the gun. “I think me and my friend are just going to go and take that painting now.”

“Non, non, non!” Marianne declared, planting her feet down and folding her arms. “I will not allow some Englishman to steal from the Louvre!”

“Would it help if I said I was half-Welsh?”

“You can’t steal the Mona Lisa!” Brian argued. “Once society has rebuilt itself, we will need such artwork in order to improve and better mankind!”

“What do you care about improving mankind?!” I suddenly exclaimed. “You ate people!”

“Oh, they weren’t going to bring anything substantial to society,” Marianne said. “They were minimalists.”

“Besides,” Brian added, “I only ate a little bit.”

“I don’t care who you ate!” Hank barked. “Let’s face it, who hasn’t tried a little light cannibalism in these end-days? All I want is the sodding painting!”

“Can we interest you in a Van Gogh instead?” Brian suggested.

“Or a Monet?”

“If you don’t let me steal what I came to steal,” Hank announced through gritted teeth, “both of you are going to get shot; where the bullets go, depends on how much you annoy me.”

The two academics glanced at one another; Marianne chewed her bottom lip, whilst Brian munched on his beard. “Do you promise to bring it back?” he eventually asked.

“I promise,” Hank said with no sincerity.

“Fine,” the Frenchwoman said with a resigned sigh. “This way.”

“Actually, I know the way,” Hank said. “And, do you mind staying here in the lobby? No thief worth his salt would allow himself to be escorted to the goods.”

The woman gave a shrug. “Suit yourself,” she said. “I could always whip us up a light supper? We have some security guard’s liver in the cooler, if you like?”

“Sounds delicious,” Hank said.

“I’ll see if we have any thighs left,” Brian murmured to me. “They’re the best part.”

With that, the two waltzed off into the gallery. Hank and I watched them go with amazement.

“You should have shot them,” I murmured.

“Just for being cannibals?” Hank asked, astounded. “You mustn’t be so judgemental about people’s lifestyle choices; you’ll just end up looking small-minded.” He clapped me on the back, then began striding forward. “Besides,” he went on, “I couldn’t have shot them. I used my last bullet in London.”

*

The Mona Lisa: painted in the 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci, owned by France since the 1700s, worth over half-a-billion dollars, all these facts disappear when you’re in a room with the painting.

It was smaller than I’d imagined, but the punch it gave was greater than words could describe. Given that the world had ended, the gallery was obviously silent. But when we approached that portrait, we seemed to be swallowed into another realm of silence. It was astonishing, it was breath-taking, it was beautiful, it was –

Hank clapped his hands together, stepped up smartly, plucked the picture from the wall, smashed the frame, pulled the canvas free, rolled it into a tube, then stuffed it into his backpack.

He rounded on me with a triumphant smile. “That’s that!” he declared. “Shall we get going?”

“I – but – you – the – what?!”

“It’s much easier nabbing things when society has completely collapsed,” the thief mused.

“That’s it?!” I exclaimed.

Hank looked at me, his face blank. “Yeah,” he said. “Shall we get going? I don’t really fancy any security guard today.”

And that really was it. We quickly made our escape and vanished into the gloomy streets of Paris, the priceless painting nestled between a tin of baked beans and a roll of triple-ply toilet paper.

As we walked those European roads, the sun rising ahead of us, and the night’s events racing through my mind, I turned to the man who would prove to be my long companion.

“So,” I said. “What next?”

The man gave it some thought, his face screwed up towards the sky. “Something I’ve always wanted to do,” Hank murmured, “is rob a Pharaoh’s tomb.”

And, I can assure, Hank Elliotts did just that.

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