By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train on to the platform at Tring, forty miles north of London, it was already quite late. The residents of the sleepy town had finished their suppers; the little ones were in bed. As he began the long walk into town, the Midland line train glided off into darkness.
A few hours earlier Edwin had performed in the Royal Academy of Music’s ‘London Soundscapes’, a celebration of Haydn, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Before the concert, he’d packed a pair of latex gloves, a miniature LED torch, a wire cutter, and a diamond-blade glass cutter in a large rolling suitcase, and stowed it in his concert hall locker. He bore a passing resemblance to a lanky Pete Townshend: intense eyes, prominent nose, and a mop of hair, although instead of shredding a Fender, Edwin played the flute.
There was a new moon that evening, making the already gloomy stretch of road even darker. For nearly an hour, he dragged his suitcase through the mud and gravel skirting the road, under gnarly old trees strangled with ivy. Turlhanger’s Wood slept to the north, Chestnut Wood to the south, fallow fields and the occasional copse in between. A car blasted by, its headlights blinding. Adrenaline coursing, he knew he was getting close.
The entrance to the market town of Tring is guarded by a sixteenth-century pub called the Robin Hood. A few roads beyond, nestled between the old Tring Brewery and an HSBC branch, lies the entrance to Public Footpath 37. Known to locals as Bank Alley, the footpath isn’t more than eight feet wide and is framed by seven-foot-high brick walls.
Edwin slipped into the alley, into total darkness. He groped his way along until he was standing directly behind the building he’d spent months casing.
All that separated him from it was the wall. Capped with three rusted strands of barbed wire, it might have thwarted his plans were it not for the wire cutter. After clearing an opening, he lifted the suitcase to the ledge, hoisted himself up, and glanced anxiously about. No sign of the guard. A space of several feet between his perch on the wall and the building’s nearest window formed a small ravine. If he fell, he could injure himself – or worse, make a clamour that would summon security. But he’d known this part wouldn’t be easy.
At nearly four feet in length, the birds were particularly difficult to stuff into his suitcase, but he manoeuvred thirty-nine of them inside by gently curling their sweeping tails into tight coils.
Crouched on top of the wall, he reached towards the window with the glass cutter and began to grind it along the pane. Cutting glass was harder than he had anticipated, though, and as he struggled to carve an opening, the glass cutter slipped from his hand and fell into the ravine. His mind raced. Was this a sign? He was thinking about bailing out of the whole crazy scheme when that voice, the one that had urged him onward these past months, shouted Wait a minute! You can’t give up now. You’ve come all this way!
He crawled back down and picked up a rock. Steadying himself atop the wall, he peered around in search of guards before bashing the window out, wedging his suitcase through the shard-strewn opening, and climbing into the Natural History Museum.
Unaware that he had just tripped an alarm in the security guard’s office, Edwin pulled out the LED light, which cast a faint glow in front of him as he made his way down the hallways towards the vault, just as he’d rehearsed in his mind.
He wheeled his suitcase quietly through corridor after corridor, drawing ever closer to the most beautiful things he had ever seen. If he pulled this off, they would bring him fame, wealth and prestige. They would solve his problems. He deserved them.
He entered the vault, its hundreds of large white steel cabinets standing in rows like sentries, and got to work. He pulled out the first drawer, catching a waft of mothballs. Quivering beneath his fingertips were a dozen Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, gathered by naturalists and biologists over hundreds of years from the forests and jungles of South America and fastidiously preserved by generations of curators for the benefit of future research. Their coppery orange feathers glimmered despite the faint light. Each bird, maybe a foot and a half from beak to tail, lay on its back in funerary repose, eye sockets filled with cotton, feet folded close against the body. Tied around their legs were biodata labels: faded, handwritten records of the date, altitude, latitude and longitude of their capture, along with other vital details.
He unzipped the suitcase and began to fill it with the birds, emptying one drawer after another. The occidentalis subspecies that he snatched by the handful had been gathered a century earlier from the Quindío Andes region of western Colombia. He didn’t know exactly how many he’d be able to fit into his suitcase, but he managed forty-seven of the museum’s forty-eight male specimens before wheeling his bag on to the next cabinet. Down in the security office, the guard was fixated on a small television screen. Engrossed in a football match, he hadn’t yet noticed the alarm indicator blinking on a nearby panel.
Edwin opened the next cabinet to reveal dozens of Resplendent Quetzal skins gathered in the 1880s from the Chiriquí cloud forests of western Panama, a species now threatened by widespread deforestation and protected by international treaties. At nearly four feet in length, the birds were particularly difficult to stuff into his suitcase, but he manoeuvred thirty-nine of them inside by gently curling their sweeping tails into tight coils.
Moving down the corridor, he swung open the doors of another cabinet, this one housing species of the Cotinga birds of South and Central America. He swiped fourteen one hundred- year-old skins of the Lovely Cotinga, a small turquoise bird with a reddish-purple breast endemic to Central America, before relieving the museum of thirty-seven specimens of the Purple-breasted Cotinga, twenty-one skins of the Spangled Cotinga, and another ten skins of the endangered Banded Cotinga, of which as few as 250 mature individuals are estimated to be alive today.
The Galápagos island Finches and Mockingbirds gathered by Charles Darwin in 1835 during the voyage of HMS Beagle – which had been instrumental in developing his theory of evolution through natural selection – were resting in nearby drawers. Among the museum’s most valuable holdings were skeletons and skins of extinct birds, including the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Overall, the museum houses one of the world’s largest collection of ornithological specimens: 750,000 bird skins, 15,000 skeletons, 17,000 birds preserved in spirit, 4,000 nests, and 400,000 sets of eggs, gathered over the centuries from the world’s most remote forests, mountainsides, jungles and swamps.
But Edwin hadn’t broken into the museum for a drab-coloured finch. He had lost track of how long he’d been in the vault when he finally wheeled his suitcase to a stop before a large cabinet. A small plaque indicated its contents: PARADISAEIDAE. Thirty-seven King Birds of Paradise, swiped in seconds. Twenty-four Magnificent Riflebirds. Twelve Superb Birds of Paradise. Four Blue Birds of Paradise. Seventeen Flame Bowerbirds. These flawless specimens, gathered against almost impossible odds from virgin forests of New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago 150 years earlier, went into Edwin’s bag, their tags bearing the name of a self-taught naturalist whose breakthrough had given Darwin the scare of his life: A. R. WALLACE.
The guard glanced at the CCTV feed, an array of shots of the parking lot and the museum campus. He began his round, pacing the hallways, checking the doors, scanning for anything awry. Edwin had long since lost count of the number of birds that passed through his hands. He had originally planned to choose only the best of each species, but in the excitement of the plunder, he grabbed and stuffed until his suitcase could hold no more.
The guard stepped outside to begin a perimeter check, glancing up at the windows and beaming his torch on to the section abutting the brick wall of Bank Alley. Edwin stood before the broken window, now framed with shards of glass. So far everything had gone according to plan, with the exception of the missing glass cutter. All that remained was to climb back out of the window without slicing himself open, and melt into the anonymity of the street.