He walked swiftly and purposefully, his navy Italian suit and crisp white shirt allowing him to blend in easily with the crowd spilling out of the tube station. Strongly built, mid-30s, with close-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he fitted right in with the thirty-something bankers and businessmen walking round the City. Their expensive suits and inflated sense of status belied the precariousness of their jobs. It was Friday lunchtime, everyone winding down for the weekend, leaving their desks and screens to reward themselves in the expensive bars and restaurants near their offices. The heavy traffic was at a standstill so he crossed the main road, walking quickly between cars and vans: he knew his route and the area well. Checking his watch, he turned left towards the busy shopping area filled with outdoor cafés: thirty minutes early. He sat at the nearest free table and ordered an espresso.
Two smiling girls, laden with backpacks and brandishing an open map, approached him. ‘Excuse me, could you show us how to find our way to the nearest tube? We are so lost.’ As one girl pushed some loose strands of golden hair behind her ears and smiled at him, her dark-haired companion attempted to spread a map on his table. He put out his arm to block her and the map, his eyes never leaving the blonde girl’s face. ‘It would be great if you could just . . . ’ The words faded away as the smile started to falter. His arm remained outstretched and the dark-haired girl looked hesitantly at her companion, waiting for a cue. Still he said nothing but just stared, knowing she would break first. She scowled and swore at him under her breath, then nudged her companion.
They roughly bundled up the map and turned to leave, mingling back into the crowds of shoppers. He watched them approach a group of smartly dressed businessman sitting at the café opposite, their large table strewn with empty wine glasses and half-eaten plates of food. They were only too happy to give directions, flirting and smiling, unaware that when the girls left they would be missing two mobile phones and a laptop bag.
Checking his watch again, he threw some coins on the table then made his back on to the main thoroughfare. Crossing in to a side street, he walked past smaller shops and fewer people then turned right into an alleyway. Halfway down was a metal door with a buzzer and pad. He tapped in a six-digit code and pulled the door. It didn’t open. He frowned and re-entered the number, more slowly this time. Again, the door didn’t open. A prickle of fear crept up his neck. Hesitating for a moment, he knew he had no choice but to go ahead. The cameras would be on; they would know he was there. He buzzed and, after a moment, the door opened with a click.
He blinked in the darkness of the stairwell. Glancing up, his hand instinctively reached inside his jacket but he saw no one looking down at him. He straightened his shoulders and climbed the two flights of stairs quickly, feeling a damp sheen of sweat starting to collect under his shirt.
When he reached the unmarked black door he tried the handle, half-expecting it to be barred too. It swung open and he stepped into a dark, bare room, the unwashed windows on the far side covered with grime and dimming the daylight. It looked like an old office space, the business it once housed long gone. The walls were shaded, the wood chipped and marks on the paint showed where notice boards and shelving had once hung. The room was almost empty except for a cheap old wooden desk, a couple of mismatched plastic chairs and a man who put the fear of God into Gibbs.
Grey was on the phone, his back to the door. He didn’t look round or acknowledge Gibbs’ entrance but there was no doubt he knew who was standing there, waiting. Grey paced slowly, listening intently to whoever was on the phone as he walked over to look out of the grimy window. His tone was quiet, controlled and, though there was no sound except the distant hum of traffic, Gibbs couldn’t make out anything Grey was saying other than his final words: ‘Do it now.’ The call finished, but still Grey didn’t turn round or acknowledge Gibbs. It was an unnerving and effective way of setting the tone of the meeting.
‘So. What went wrong?’ Grey asked, slowly: only then did he turn to look at Gibbs. The newcomer stood straight and tall, his broad shoulders and athletic build perfectly clad in the expensive wool suit under the arms of which sweat patches were creeping. Grey knew at a glance that Gibbs was desperately trying to hold his nerve.
‘She has proved to be more resilient than I thought but I am confident we will get her,’ Gibbs replied.
‘More resilient than you thought? You were the one who recruited her. You brought her in. You bloody well vouched for her. Have you any idea what a screw-up this is? She could bring the whole thing down around us. She’s leaving a trail of dead people behind her and is starting to attract the wrong kind of attention.’ He spoke with a quiet menace, not even raising his voice. He didn’t need to.
‘This is your mess. I am calling everyone else off. You brought her in and you can get rid of her. You worked with her and you trained with her, so you must know how she thinks. You’ve got a week to close this off.’ Grey stared at Gibbs intently, reading in his face every nuance that Gibbs was desperately trying to blank out.
‘Don’t have any misplaced loyalties on this one, Gibbs. Either she dies or you die. It’s the only way you can save yourself. You have one week. Go.’ Grey turned away, signalling Gibbs’ dismissal. After hesitating for a moment, Gibbs realised there was nothing more to be said and left the room. He ran down the stairs, two at a time, and went through the heavy door into the alleyway. He stretched his fingers then clenched his fists, repeating the exercise until he felt his heart rate normalise. He started walking, slowly, running his fingers around the inside of his shirt collar then pulling down his cuffs and straightening his jacket to release some of the heat from his back and neck. It calmed him while he allowed his mind to pause, briefly.
His thoughts started to come together as he walked through the crowds, passing four or five tube stations. The pace of his steps picked up as his mind started speeding through the possibilities and the consequences.
She’d saved his life once. She had the strength and stamina of men twice her size. He had trusted her. She was the first person he thought of when Grey told him a position had opened up on the team.
The one thing he hadn’t factored in was the strength of her integrity; it was her greatest weakness where this operation had been concerned. Why couldn’t she have just taken the money and left her conscience behind, like the rest of the team?
He had dreaded it coming down to this. But he knew it was inevitable when he had heard Jackson had been found dead, dumped in a hotel skip.
She was feral when she was cornered, completely ruthless. Gibbs needed to get to her before she realised who her pursuer was.
To be continued
With grateful thanks to Lesley Close – Editor
© 2017 LIZ LOSTY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED