She wasn’t sure, Chloe Jamieson, what depressed her more – catching this train from Lytton-by-Sea at the ungodly hour of 8:22 this late January when she no longer had to, or just the bleak, orange garishness of those two-carriage sprinters. Hideous, soulless trains.
Maybe it was the events she was about to witness at Lower Leethorpe, that’s if she ever got there.
Maybe it was just the fields and trees rattling by the other side of the fogged up window – she hated the cold, she hated what this was all about, she hated all of it. There was a message, she looked down and deleted it.
Thirty-eight minutes till the first change.
Miles, possible hubby to be, had got it into his head to visit separated wifey Melissa at her family home but for what? He didn’t know Chloe knew the address but why would he? In their months together so far on that island, his estranged wife’s parents had never entered the conversation – why would they?
Melissa had not asked for a divorce and he’d not asked either, Chloe had seen the spectre of signing on yet again, an ex-secretary but Miles had climbed out of the dotcom abyss, then a miracle had occurred – this ex-boss of hers had bought this island and phoned. It wasn’t a large island admittedly, it was rocky and windswept, but he’d asked her to join him. She’d jumped at it.
They ran livestock, they made ends meet, the island was theirs. And now he’d decided he was going to visit dear Melissa at home with Daddy and that woman of his. Maybe Miles was going to ask for that divorce after all and if so, Chloe was going to have a ringside seat. Just in case, you know.
It hadn’t been easy setting up that island. Miles’s friend from online days, Stephen Brown, had put him straight:
‘No-one relies just on crops on an island in a cool temperate climate, Miles. The best and most profitable agricultural undertaking would be the raising of sheep or other ovine creature. Salt-tainted pasture gives a distinctive and delicious flavour to the meat. Poor soil, as on your island, would give the right sort of pasture for a rare breed like the Manx Loaghtan – in the Manx language, Loaghtan means ‘mouse brown’. The breed originates from an island off the UK coast anyway. Listen, my friend, if you want to get anywhere with this, forget the tilling, except for your domestic needs and go the rare breed route.’
Miles had done just that but those already breeding on the Isle of Man were not playing ball, devil of a job getting Devon breeders either to allow a couple of ewes for a substantial consideration, at a time when funds were thin on the ground.
He’d needed to up his game, do his own slaughtering but had then had second thoughts. It hadn’t been squeamishness as such but the quality of the cuts which had been the issue and so mainland butchers had been brought in, on condition Miles would farm some of their own breeds for their specialty shops, this required outhouses and then there was the tax man’s cut and so on and so on.
So, thought Chloe, now as near as dammit an equal partner with Miles, they’d always split the proceeds 50/50. Then there was that visit by two of his Swiss contacts from the dotcom era, they’d seen the gite he’d built at the other end of the island and they’d put it to him that if the island could not legally be a tax haven, then it could at least be a haven for those needing an address … for a consideration.
She was against it at first, reasoning that as the two of them were already turning over a pretty penny, then why complicate things? When she’d seen the amount of the ‘consideration’, she’d changed her mind but had quietly urged him to vet each potential tenant carefully.
‘You vet them,’ he’d told her. And she had.
Things had been fine for some time but this romantic line they’d crossed a few days back now – that’s what had triggered this journey. And he’d not been open about it, not a great start to a life together.
Paul Glendinning’s section was one of those nondescript little units just out of London whose brief was tracking down naughty people funded by sources the Treasury itself could not quite nail, especially naughty people with a continental connection. His higher-up, though a middle man in the scheme of things, Gerald Haas, had demanded this meeting, in fact the man was due here now – through the single side window, Paul could see the unmistakable greatcoat waddle in downstairs.
‘You say you don’t know her name, Paul, why not?’
‘We call her Emma -’
‘You call her Emma? Call her? What’s her name, man, where does she live, what’s her NI number? Give me something at least.’
‘We can’t get it. There’s no such person.’
‘Europol, PRISM any of the others? This is the EU, man, not the bloody keystone cops. One female, about thirty-four, nondescript and clearly from these islands – there’s your starting point.’
‘We’ve done all that, sir. She has a few identities, slips away every time. I was hoping you could shed some light -’
‘Me? That’s your department, you’re the one with a finger on the pulse. Supposedly.’
‘It gets worse.’
‘We think there’s more than one of her.’
‘Suffer the little children. I’m listening.’
‘We’ve got Janine Cain with us today. Strictly speaking, it’s her baby, can I bring her through?’
Glendinning buzzed, there was a knock at the door and a short-haired lady was bidden enter. Introductions done, Ms Cain got down to it. ‘Aged 34 …’
‘On record or on your say-so?’
‘On my say-so, according to various domestic staff. We’re pretty sure her hair colour is brunette, a light brown. Turned-up nose, pointy at the end. Hair usually covering the ears but not always. May have a slight indentation in the chin, perhaps not.’
‘Always a female, as a matter of interest?’
‘Not always … she’s played the young man a few times. Did it well too by all accounts.’
‘She varies her appearance.’
‘Yes, we know that. Such a person, August 4th, ruined Michel Lefebvre near Neuilly, descriptions of such a woman came in. Pulled out of the race following the disgrace.’
‘Thing is,’ added Janine, ‘there would have been no investigation at all but for the complaint by the opposition campaign manager about various other goings on and from that alone, days later, a description of Emma emerged. Long gone by then of course, on to her next job.’
‘Someone pays well,’ grunted Haas.
‘You’d have to say so. She takes her time and that doesn’t come cheaply. Whether she was approached by money or whether she approaches money she thinks is a prospective job – we’re not sure.’
‘Mercenary more than freedom fighter then. But why bother with minor targets? She’d make more on big hits. Is that her only game, do you think?’
‘If you look at Lefebvre, sir, he has connections with Pascal Lebois who’s denied dealings with Marc Dutroux but Lefebvre certainly did have. Dutroux himself opens a can of worms no one cares to be associated with. There’s also the little matter of one entire village and allegations coming out of there.’
‘The paedo thing? That’s Belgium. No one ever dies in this? I mean as a result of our lady’s exertions?’
‘Only from shame,’ put in Glendinning. ‘She’s no assassin but there’ve been consequent deaths – suicides. Remarkable talent for getting close to targets we can’t touch.’
‘So, she’s of value to people above who are of no particular concern to us and who’ll pay. And yet I’m getting heat to identify and bring her in. Seems she’s doing our work for us but of course, not at our behest, and she’s blown more than one of our projects.’
‘That was her error each time, target was a bit clever,’ said Glendinning, ‘She’s not attached to any agency we know, none that will own her anyway. Forgive me but what if she were onto one of the people leaning on you, sir?’
Haas stroked his chin. ‘Can we trace her if she was in Lefebvre’s employ?’
‘No. She wasn’t taking Lefebvre’s shilling, not officially, not directly, possibly she was doing dirty work for him.’
‘Unless her legit work has lots of perks and she does not declare the perks as income, as long as she remains a good girl and keeps the taxman happy, I’d not go the tax route on this.’
Janine spoke. ‘If she’s able to get this time off to do these things, sometimes for six months or more, then her day job is piecemeal, or else freelance.’
There was a long pause. Haas ran stubby fingers through his hair and asked, ‘And that’s it? No photo, no eye witnesses …’
‘Oh there are photos all right,’ said Glendinning, ‘three we thought might be legit but they’re of different women. They’re here.’ She extracted the prints and handed them across.
Haas studied them. ‘Why do you not think them legit?’
‘Domestic staff say that, shopkeepers.’
‘All right, let’s all three of us meet here again Tuesday next, same time.’
Frank O’Brien could have moved out of the dingy office at the back of the garage in Lower Leethorpe any time he’d wanted in the past eight years. Financially, that was. The little MOT business had expanded, he’d kept up with the latest automotive technology, a struggle but he’d done the exams, he’d employed the right graduates – the new vehicles were almost an apprenticeship in themselves. This was his field, this was what he knew.
And he was annoyed at Melissa. For someone who’d been educated at Woodburn Hall, Melissa had chosen a man below her but that was OK in one way because Miles was making money hand over fist back then in computer things, now as a bloody farmer. Fine by Frank but with his daughter, the ultimate fashionista? Miles must have known that wouldn’t wash with the apple of his eye.
He suspected Miles had wanted shut of Melissa – she was a right little pain for sure but he hadn’t asked for a divorce, neither had she. Darling daughter seemed perfectly happy at home with Laura and him.
The girl Chloe – fair-haired, curvacious cutie in her early-30s – why didn’t Miles just go for that, start proceedings? Melissa wasn’t to know this but there wasn’t a lot left in that fund of hers, there’d been certain … difficulties. Expenses.
Frank stared ahead, deep in thought. Daughter or no daughter, Melissa was getting in the way now.
Glendinning turned to Janine, once Haas had left. ‘Describe her more fully than just now, more than you’ve done before.’
‘You understand a lot of this is guesswork on my part, Paul, that’s why I haven’t offered it. Why would people trust Emma? Because she’s nondescript and serious, with strong business ethics, maybe not personal ethics, relationships, quite vulnerable – a criminal sees her as easy prey. Good manager, the type you’d employ, takes on the work, never complains, makes some errors but not enough, she’s generally forgiven. Only works for men.’
‘What’s the longest she’s been on any of these … projects?’
‘One went eleven months, one was over and done with in three weeks. No pattern.’
‘There is in the final result – the man is ruined or the wife is, or else someone withdraws from office or emigrates.’
‘We’ve been over that. On occasions, she does do the chantage but then it goes to a charity. She doesn’t need it, obviously.’
‘Your appraisal of her nature, her wherewithal?’
‘Normal, I’m afraid. Can be arrogant and sassy, can be moved to tears, can be strong, can stand up to her employer if it’s a matter of justice.’
‘Does she ever smile?’
‘Men report the sun coming out. Women say she’s into classic fragrances, such as Chanel, likes florals. One thing she never varies is delicacy – she likes lace, chiffon, likes to feel a woman. Even when she stacked on the pounds during one of her jobs, she was still delicate.’
‘Well, there’s a vulnerability. Do her scruples extend to bed? You hinted at that.’
‘You mean does she sleep with them? She laughed. ‘It really depends. The elegant lady, apparently, is her usual style, the kiss in the doorway, the lingering goodnight, the good humour and deep interest in only him, which lets her string him along. In some cases, it’s been said to have ended up in bed. She doesn’t strike me as a saint.’
‘How is she with women?’
‘Supportive shoulder, not into women as such, though women reportedly trust her, as do men.’
‘You like her.’
‘So do you. As you learn your target, it’s possible to appreciate them. Would you bed her, Paul?’
He blushed. ‘That’s no question to ask of a married man.’
‘Do we have anything else?’
‘She doesn’t bleed in public. She’s flawed, she’s had close shaves but someone up there is covering for her, we know that much, perhaps for services rendered. I think she’s doing high grade work on a private basis but not ad hoc – there’s a definite pattern – the gathering of data, the extension of her network all the time. I think she’s mercenary but not unprincipled – she needs to live with herself.’
‘Does she move in high circles? What’s her milieu?’
‘In the case of John Malthas, you’ll recall – it was only because someone made a casual remark over tea and clotted cream that he was caught out. I’d say she helped organize that guest list, she has the social sense of a hostess. Yes, she moves in those circles. It seemed wretched luck for our John that this woman whom the wife could not have possibly known the connection with was invited. I’d say luck had nothing to do with it.’
Glendinning took another sip of his now cold coffee. ‘And after her rare mistakes?’
‘Disappears into the ether of course. Appears a few months later, that much the wiser. She almost always plays within her limits, doesn’t demand too much, is reliable once she takes on the task.’
‘All right, look at it another way – what does she offer that money could want?’
‘Nondescript, discreet, leaves no traces, gets the job done.’
‘The only reason I agreed to see you again, Miles, was to confirm in my mind, once and for all, that my decision was the correct one.’
Melissa gazed at him for precisely five seconds for maximum dramatic effect, then delivered:
With that, she turned on wobbly stilettos and clattered across the faux Provençale tiles of the conservatory, through the double doors to the steps which led up the back of the house to the stables.
He watched her disappear with as much hauteur as she could muster, all 159cm of her, in those label-out garments he hadn’t a clue about, except that they must, by definition, have cost more than he’d pay out in six months on the entire island.
All the way up that stone path towards the muddy surrounds of the stables – he could hear the clatter of heels and the cursing – she’d looked the goods all right but he had to own she seemed further away than ever. Well, that’s what he’d come to find out.
He looked down at himself – the gladrags still stood up – she’d have said they were three years out of date, yet she’d been the one who’d chosen them. His leather shoes were still smart and polished, his outdated cords were well cut, the leather jacket was soft and fitted him carelessly. It was one of two outfits he maintained, the rest being outdoor gear for the island.
The island – he had vague ideas of bringing Melissa in and if she refused, he’d put this proposition today to her … well, an ultimatum really. As it turned out, he’d not been given the chance.
Paul stood back and surveyed the whiteboard – nothing to do with this Emma, this was about a nondescript island up north where there’d been some interesting goings on.
London had gone to ground. Everyone was all of a sudden cagey – Peter Thomas had always played fair but now it was, ‘Sorry old boy, no can do.’ Money was involved, lots of it. Someone had discovered something maybe as big as fracking, maybe bigger … and then the curtain had come down.
A message had been intercepted, unencrypted, a geological report which spoke of something the government had sat on for years, a possibility off the north-west coast.
Chap up north had bought an outcrop in the middle of the chain. He’d not keep that island long.
Miles stood on the slate foyer tiles at the back of the house, considering her action.
He wasn’t going to demean himself running after her – it was clearly finished, she seemed to have her own agenda, it might have to be done via letter. In a nutshell, if she filed, she’d get her fair share, if he filed, he’d lose all. He didn’t wish to be as mercenary as she was but he was damned if he was going to give it all away, just the same.
No, she’d have to file, after which Chloe and he would marry and develop the island further. He had to make it worth her while to file … but not in perpetuity.
He looked at the double doors and wondered why she’d made for the stables instead of pushing past him and barricading herself in her own room, demanding he got out or whatever – seriously, was she going riding in those stilettos?
So, what to do now?
Go up to the stables of course, have it out, see what her game was, then take his leave to consider it. So sad. He’d hoped for too much with Melissa, besotted he’d been in the early days. He still sort of hoped – you don’t marry someone for nothing.
The chill hit him as he skipped up the two lots of ten steps to the stables, the dew had still not lifted from the grass and it was muddy to the left.
He turned the latch handle and pushed, it gave slightly, not locked but there was something blocking it the other side, probably a bale of hay, whatever. Damn, he’d just stood in a muddy puddle too. And Frank needed to repair these rotting panels in the door.
He called her name.
Pushing a bit more, it moved, whatever it was, which gave him about a 70cm gap and wasn’t going to give any more.
Should he be doing this? If she wasn’t answering and she’d put it there, was his trying to break in now going to be seen as an act of aggression to be used against him?
He called her name again.
And once again.
He pushed harder now, the upper half of the door moved just enough for him to slip through, turn and in closing the door, gaze down upon the crumpled body of his estranged wife.
She’d been shot through the back of the head, a gun with silencer lay about a metre away. He ignored it, dropping to his knees, near numb, turning her onto her back, probably shouldn’t have. Surprise on her face, she hadn’t seen it coming, had Melissa, the poor pet.
Killer probably still here but now he lifted her upper body in his arms and everything from the last three years came out.
Some minutes later, Frank heard rapid footsteps coming down the gravel driveway and saw Miles go past his living room window, he crossed the tiled foyer to the front door, Miles told him to put his boots on and come, which he did.
They went together up to the stables, Frank saw her and lost it for the best part of half an hour while Miles stayed outside, rubbing his hands, blowing on them.
Frank eventually came out and they walked back down to the house in a daze, neither knowing how to emote, what to say. The coldness of the day and the utter stillness seemed to amplify the emptiness inside.
Frank walked over, got two glasses, grabbed the whisky, sloshed two and handed Miles one. They knocked them back.
Then they did it again.
‘Why haven’t we called the police?’ asked Miles. ‘Why haven’t we raised the alarm?’
‘It’s only just happened. You’ll help me get her down here now?’