Paul Finch



The night before, they met up one final time to go through the plan.

They were consummate professionals. Each one of them knew his role to the last. Nothing had been left to chance: they’d researched the target thoroughly; any possible glitch had been considered and accounted for. Timing would be all-important, but as they’d rehearsed exhaustively there were no real concerns. Of course, the target wouldn’t be keeping to a schedule, so there were potential problems there. But they’d be in full contact with each other throughout by phone, and one of the things experience had taught them was how to think on their feet and, if necessary, improvise. Another was patience. If the schedule slipped drastically, to the point where there might be genuine variables to deal with, they’d withdraw, regroup and move again on a later date.

It was always best to keep things safe and simple. But good planning was the whole thing: gathering intelligence, assimilating it and then striking at exactly the right moment with speed and practised precision. And in many ways that was its own reward. As job satisfaction went, there was nothing quite like it.

After they’d run things through a couple of times, they treated themselves to a drink; a bottle of thirty-year- old Glen Albyn bought with the proceeds of the last mission. And while they drank, they destroyed all the data they’d accumulated during the prep: written documentation, drawn plans, photographs, timetables, tapes containing audio information, memory sticks loaded with footage shot by mobile phones or digital cameras. They placed it all in a brazier, on top of logs and kindling, doused it with lighter-fluid and torched it.

On the off-chance something did go wrong and they had to start the whole process again — the trailing, the observing, the intelligence-gathering — they would do it without question or complaint. Proficiency was all; they didn’t believe in taking shortcuts. In any case, with minds as focused as theirs, much of the key detail would be retained in their memories. They’d only had to delay things once previously, and on that occasion the second run had been much easier than the first.

As they watched it all burn, the hot sparks spiralling into the night sky, they slapped each other’s shoulders and drank toasts: for good luck — which they wouldn’t need; and for the catch — which they’d enjoy as much as the chase. They’d almost finished the Glen Albyn, but if they woke up in the morning with muzzy heads, it wouldn’t matter: the mission was only due to commence late in the day. They’d be fine. They were on form, on top of their game, a well-oiled machine. And of course it would help that the target didn’t have an inkling and would get up with the alarm clock, prepared for nothing more than another routine day.

That was the way most women seemed to live. How often it was their undoing.

Chapter 1

There was something innately relaxing about Friday evenings in London.

They were especially pleasant in late August. As five o’clock came and went, and the minute hand progressed steadily around towards six, you could feel the city unwinding beneath the balmy, dust-filled sky. The chaos of its streets was as wild and noisy as ever — the rivers of traffic flowed and tooted, the sidewalks thronged with bustling pedestrians — yet the ‘grump’ was absent. People were still rushing, yes, but now they were rushing to get somewhere where they wanted to be, not because they were on a time-clock.

In the offices of Goldstein amp; Hoff, on the sixth floor of Branscombe Court in the heart of the capital’s glittering Square Mile, Louise Jennings felt exactly the same way. She had ten minutes’ worth of paperwork to finish, and then the weekend officially began — and how she was anticipating it. She was out riding on Saturday morning, and in the afternoon was shopping for a new outfit as they had a rotary club dinner that evening. Sunday would just be a nice, lazy day, which, if the weather reports were anything to go by, they could spend in the garden or on a drive into the Chilterns.

Louise was a secretary by trade, but that job-title might have been a little misleading. She was actually a ‘senior secretary’; she had several staff of her own, was ensconced for most of the working day in her private office, and answered directly to Mr Malcolm Forester, who was MD of Goldstein amp; Hoff’s Compliance department. She turned over a neat forty thousand pounds per annum, which wasn’t bad for an ex-secondary school girl from Burnt Oak, and was held in high esteem by most of the company’s employees, particularly the men — though this might have owed as much to her shapely thirty-year-old figure, long strawberry-blonde hair and pretty blue eyes as to her intellect. Not that Louise minded. She was spoken for — she’d been married to Alan for six years now, and had dated him for three years before that. But she enjoyed being attractive. It made her husband proud, and so long as other men restricted themselves to looking, she had no gripes. If she was honest, her looks were a weapon in her armoury. Few in the financial sector, of either sex, were what you’d call ‘reconstructed’. It was a patriarchal society, and though the potential was always there for women to wield great power, they still had to look and behave like women. When Louise had first been interviewed for a job with Goldstein amp; Hoff, she’d been under strict orders from Alan to make the best of herself — to wear a smart tight skirt, high heels, a clingy, low-cut blouse. It had got her the job, and had remained her official uniform ever since.

Okay, on one hand it might be a little demeaning to consider that you’d only advanced through life because you were gorgeous, but that was never the whole story. Louise was highly qualified, but so were numerous other women; in which case, anything that gave you an edge was to be embraced.

It was just after six when she got away, hurrying across the road to Mad Jack’s, where Simone, Nicola and Carly, her three underlings — all of whom had been released at the generous ‘Friday afternoon only’ time of four- thirty — would be waiting for her.

Mad Jack’s, a onetime gin palace dating from Dickens’s day, had been refurbished for the modern age, but still reeked of atmosphere. Behind its traditional wood and glass entrance was a dimly-lit interior, arranged on split- levels and filled wherever you looked with timber beams, hardwood panelling and exposed brickwork. As always at this time of the week, it was crowded to its outer doors with shouting, besuited revellers. The noise level was astonishing. Guffaws echoed from wall to wall; there was a clashing of glasses and a banging of tables and chairs on the solid oak floor. It could have been worse of course: Louise had started at Goldstein amp; Hoff before the smoking-ban had been introduced, and back in those days the place was fogged with cigar fumes.

The four girls made a little enclave for themselves in one of the far corners, and settled down. They ordered a salad each, though with a central order of chips accompanied by mayo and ketchup dips. Louise made sure to drink only a couple of Chardonnays with hers. It wasn’t just that she was the boss and therefore had a responsibility to behave with wisdom and decorum, but she had to drive some of the way home. Nevertheless, it was a part of the week that they all looked forward to; a time for the sort of rude quips that were strictly forbidden during company hours (at least, on Louise’s watch). Occasionally other colleagues would drag up stools and join them, men to drunkenly flirt or women to share tasty snippets they’d just picked up. At some point that evening it would assume the dimensions of a free-for-all. By seven-thirty, Carly was onto her sixth Southern Comfort and coke and Nicola was in a deep conversation with a handsome young chap from Securities. The ornately glazed doors crashed open as yet more City guys piled in. There were further multi-decibel greetings, increased roars of laughter. The place was starting to smell of sweat as well as alcohol, and, checking her watch, Louise decided that she’d soon be on her way.

Before heading for home, she went downstairs into the basement, where the lavatories were. The ladies was located at the end of a short passage, alongside several other doors — two marked ‘Staff Only’, one marked ‘Gents’. When she entered, it was empty. She went into one of the cubicles, hiked her skirt up, lowered her tights and sat down.

And heard someone come into the room after her.

Louise expected the normal ‘click-click-click’ of heels progressing to one of the other cubicles or to the mirror

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