Val McDermid


The second book in the Kate Brannigan series, 1993


The Case of the Missing Conservatories. Sounds like the Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle didn't get round to writing because it was too boring. Let me tell you, I was with Conan Doyle on this one. If it hadn't been for the fact that our secretary's love life was in desperate need of ECT, there's no way I'd have got involved. Which, as it turned out, might have been no bad thing.

I was crouched behind the heavy bulk of the elevator machinery, holding my breath, desperately praying I'd pick the right moment to make my move. I knew I wouldn't get a second chance with a nasty bag of works like Vohaul's hit man. I caught sight of him as he emerged from the stairwell. I leaped to my feet and threw myself at one of the pair of heavy pulley attachments suspended from the ceiling. It shot across the room towards my relentless opponent. At the last minute he turned, spotted it and ducked, letting it whistle over his head. My mouth dried with fear as he caught sight of me and headed menacingly in my direction. I dodged round the elevator machinery, trying to keep it between us so I could make a dash for the stairs. As he rushed after me, I desperately swung the other pulley towards him. It caught him on the side of the head, the momentum plunging him over the Up of the lift shaft into the blackness below. I'd done it! I'd managed to stay alive!

I let my breath out in a slow sigh of relief and leaned back in the chair, hitting the key that offered me the 'Save Game' option. A glance at my watch told me it was time to leave Space Quest III for the day. I'd had the half-hour lunch break that was all I could spare in my partner Bill's absence. Besides, I knew that our secretary Shelley would be returning from her own lunch break any minute now, and I didn't want her wandering in and catching me at it. While the cat's away, the mouse plays Space Quest, and all that, which isn't very businesslike behaviour for a partner in a security consultancy and private investigation agency. Even if I'm only the junior partner.

That particular week, I was the only show in town. Bill had abandoned ship for the fleshpots (or should that be lobster pots?) of the Channel Islands to run a computer security course for a merchant bank. Which meant that Kate Brannigan was the only functioning half of Mortensen and Brannigan, as far as the UK mainland was concerned. Say it fast like that and we sound like major players instead of a two-operative agency that handles a significant chunk of the white-collar crime in the North West of England.

I headed for the cupboard off my office that doubles as the ladies loo and office darkroom. I had a couple of films that needed processing from my weekend surveillance outside a pharmaceutical company's lab. PharmAce Supplies had been having some problems with their stock control. I'd spent a couple of days working on the inside as a temporary lab assistant, long enough to realize that the problem wasn't what went on in working hours. Someone was sneaking in when the lab was locked and helping himself or herself, then breaking into the computer stock records to doctor them. All I needed to discover was the identity of the hacker, which had been revealed after a couple of evenings sat cramped in the back of Mortensen and Brannigan's newest toy, a Little Rascal van that we'd fitted out specifically for stake-out work. Hopefully, the proof that incriminated the senior lab technician was in my hand, captured forever on the fastest film that money could buy.

I was looking forward to half an hour in the darkroom, away from phones that didn't seem to have stopped ringing since Bill left. No such luck. I'd barely closed the blackout curtain when the intercom buzzed at me like that horrible drill dentists use to smooth off a filling. The buzzing stopped and Shelley's distorted voice came at me like Donald Duck on helium. 'Kate, I have a client for you,' I deciphered.

I sighed. The Tooth Fairy's revenge for playing games on the office computer. 'I was playing in my own time,” I muttered, in the vain hope that would appease the old bag. 'Kate? Can you hear me?' Shelley honked.

There's no appointment in the book,” I tried.

'It's an emergency. Can you come out of the darkroom, please?'

'I suppose so,” I grumbled. I knew there was no point in refusing. Shelley is quite capable of letting a full minute pass, then hammering on the door claiming an urgent case of Montezuma's Revenge from the Mexican taco bar downstairs where she treats herself to lunch once a week. She always varies the days so I can never catch her out in a lie.

Still grumbling, I let myself back into my office. Before I'd taken the three steps back to my chair, Shelley was in the room, closing the door firmly behind her. She looked slightly agitated as she crossed to my desk, an expression about as familiar on her face as genuine compassion is on Baroness Thatcher's. She handed me a new-client form with the name filled in. Ted Barlow. Tell me about it,” I said, resigning myself.

'He owns a firm that builds and installs conservatories and his bank are calling in his loans, demanding repayment of his overdraft and refusing him credit. He needs us to find out why and to persuade his bank to change their minds,” Shelley explained, slightly breathlessly. Well out of character. I was beginning to wonder just what had happened to her over lunch.

'Shelley,” I groaned. 'You know that's not our kind of thing. The guy's been up to some fiddle, the bank have cottoned on and he wants someone to pull him out of the shit. Simple as that. There's no money in it, there's no point.'

Kate, just talk to him, please?' Shelley as supplicant was a new role on me. She never pleads for anything. Even her demands for raises are detailed in precise, well-documented memos. The guy's desperate, he really needs some help. He's not on the fiddle, I'd put money on it.'

'If he's not on the fiddle, he's the only builder that hasn't been since Solomon built the temple,” I said.

Shelley tossed her head, the beads woven into her plaits jangling like wind chimes. 'What’ s the matter with you, Kate?' she challenged me. 'You getting too high and mighty for the little people? You only deal with rock stars and company chairmen these days? You're always busy telling me how proud you are of your dad, working his way up to foreman from the production line at Cowley. If it was your dad out there with his little problem, would you be telling him to go away? This guy's not some big shot, he's just a working bloke who's got there the hard way, and now some faceless bank manager wants to take it all away from him. Come on, Kate, where's your heart?' Shelley stopped abruptly, looking shocked.

So she should have done. She was bang out of order. But she'd caught my attention, though not for the reason she'd thought. I decided I wanted to see Ted Barlow, not because I'd been guilt tripped. But I was fascinated to see the man who had catapulted Shelley into the role of a lioness protecting her cubs. Since her divorce, I hadn't seen any man raise her enviable cool by so much as a degree.

'Send him in, Shelley,” I replied abruptly. 'Let's hear what the man has to say for himself.'

Shelley stalked over to the door and pulled it open. “Mr… Barlow? Miss Brannigan will see you now.' She simpered. I swear to God, this tough little woman who rules her two teenagers like Attila the Hun simpered.

The man who appeared in the doorway made Shelley look as fragile as a Giacometti sculpture. He topped six foot easily, and he looked as if a suit were as foreign to him as a Peruvian nose-flute. Not that he was bulky. His broad shoulders tapered through a deep chest to a narrow waist without a single strain in the seams of his off- the-peg suit. But you could see that he was solid muscle. As if that wasn't enough, his legs were long and slim. It was a body to die for.

Nice legs, shame about the face, though. Ted Barlow was no hunk from the neck up. His nose was too big, his ears stuck out, his eyebrows met in the middle. But his eyes looked kind, with laughter lines radiating out from them. I put him in his mid-thirties, and he didn't seem to have spent too many of those years in an office, if his body language was anything to go by. He stood awkwardly in the doorway, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, a nervous smile not making it as far as the gentle blue eyes.

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