David Tyler stood by the reception desk, shoulders hunched. At the sight of his bloodless face Helen Moody veered from her march toward the crowd around the coffee urns.
“Are you OK, David?” she whispered.
“No I’m bloody not.” He winced as he drew breath. “I was just about to call the police. I disturbed some yob in the admin office and got a punch in the gut for my pains. He got away with a couple of your laptops, I think. The bastard took the mailbag, too, though Christ knows what value he thought he’d get from that. You’d better check if anything else is missing; I don’t know how long he’d been there.”
“Shit.” David watched various expressions chase themselves across her face, and was impressed with the speed with which she seemed to absorb the implications. “Right, leave the police to me,” she said. “Can you describe the guy?”
He shook his head. “All I saw was leathers and a crash helmet. I thought he was the courier until he punched me. I reckon I’ll have some serious bruises, though; he used a fancy brass knuckleduster.”
Helen’s eyes widened with concern and she grasped his arm. “Do you need a doctor?”
“No, I’m fine, I was just winded.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” she said with a dubious look. “So you remember nothing else about him?”
“Not really. He moved damn fast when I walked in, like he knew his business and how to handle trouble. I don’t reckon he was some amateur opportunist thief.” He wrinkled his brow in thought. “There was one thing, though. I was mostly concerned about trying to get some oxygen into my lungs at the time, but when he looked down at me I had the strangest feeling he knew me, or at least who I was.”
“Hmm.” Helen quirked an eyebrow. “Sounds unlikely. What happened after he hit you?”
“The sash window was open. He just stepped through it onto the path at the back of the office block and vanished, smooth as you like. I heard a motorbike shortly afterwards, so I suppose he’s long gone by now.”
“So you can’t really tell the police anything useful?”
“I guess not.”
He saw her face firm up into what he privately thought of as her ‘nanny knows best’ expression.
“Okay, then, we’ll leave you out of it, otherwise the police will waste your time with formal statements and God knows what else. I’ll report it as a burglary, they’ll give me a crime report number for the insurance claim and then they’ll happily forget it. There’s not a chance in hell of catching the bastard anyway.” She peered at him and frowned. “You’re looking pretty rough, though. You’d better get off home, I can organise cover for the rest of the day.”
He watched her bustle off to get things organised, and ran his fingertips gingerly over his stomach. No doubt she was right, but it felt like it would be a few days before the bruises would let him forget about the incident so easily. The memory of the instrument that had caused those bruises sent a shiver through him and his knees went weak. The brass studs on the business end had ended up only inches from his eyes before the fist was slowly withdrawn, and what was that all about? It seemed like a threat, but it was odd behaviour for a thief. He shook his head to get rid of the thought. He’d take the rest of the day off as Helen had suggested. The way he felt right now, he wasn’t in good shape to coach students in the finer points of management consultancy in any case.
He turned to go, but his eye caught his name on the message board beside reception. He reached for the slip without thinking. Ring Ted Willis, urgent. Damn. His heart sank. It was the last thing he needed. There was no mention of why the chairman of the Risk Management Committee wanted to speak to him immediately, but it was a summons that he couldn’t ignore.
He strolled outside and switched on his mobile. A few moments later, Ted was on the line.
“David, how kind of you to call back.” The plummy voice caressed his ear. “I need you to do me a favour.”
“What sort of favour?”
“I want you to pick up a major risk review for me at PetroProm. I expect you’ve heard of it, you know, the big oil company? There’s a very large potential contract there to upgrade their computer systems, and we need an experienced eye to check out the background. You know the sort of thing, it’s right up your street.”
David thought of his existing workload and sighed.
“Look, Ted, I’d like to help, but I’m already up to my eyeballs. Apart from everything else, I’ve got a review of the Delta Oil project in Frankfurt on my hands right now.” He cast around for another plausible get-out. “PetroProm’s Russian, isn’t it? Eastern Europe is Luke Graham’s patch. He knows the environment over there a heck of a lot better than I do and should be well able to handle that sort of job for you.”
“Ah.” There was a pause. “You haven’t heard, then?”
David frowned. “Heard what?”
“Well, Luke was handling the project, of course.” The voice had dropped a register and become even more unctuous. “The thing is, I’ve got some terrible news. You see, Luke Graham was shot dead on London Bridge last night. He’s been murdered.”
David guided his BMW through the heavy traffic on autopilot while his mind wandered. The idea that Luke Graham’s casual camaraderie and sharp intelligence could be snuffed out so callously nagged at him like one of those songs you can’t get out of your head. Violent death seemed to be in the news every day, but with strangers you could blank it out. It didn’t touch you where it mattered. When it happened to someone you knew, things were different. He shuddered. He didn’t want to think about random chance and his own mortality.
They also seemed to expect him to pick up Luke’s responsibilities, and the implications made his stomach churn. He already had more than enough to handle with Western Europe, but they wouldn’t see it that way. To them, it would be a simple and obvious way to fill a gap. Christ. Eastern Europe? That really was the pits.
It could be dangerous, too. The thought sprang from nowhere, and he dismissed it with a shake of his head. It was ridiculous to suppose Luke’s death was connected with work. But either way, Luke was dead, and it could happen to anyone, anytime. What if it was his turn tomorrow? Or next week? If he knew for sure he only had a few days left, there was no way he’d waste them on all the shit at Blake and Moorfield. His life was a mess. It was three years now since Rosalind walked out on him and everything he valued had turned to ashes. The razor-sharp fragments of their disintegrating marriage had cut bloody scars, which still hurt like hell however much he applied the sticking plaster of other relationships. He couldn’t see a way out, and a wave of depression threatened to overwhelm him.
The car purred into its normal parking slot under the sign that said ‘residents only’. The narrow city street was a far cry from the gravel drive and coach house of the rural home he’d shared with Rosalind, but the mews flat around the corner was at least more convenient for the office. He switched off the engine and tried to summon the enthusiasm to get out of the car. Depression was a familiar enemy, and he began to pull himself together. Think of the positives. Life wasn’t so bad. He could still work the professional magic better than anyone when things got tough, despite his worries about the way the firm was going. The money was good, and his conscience was clear about the way he earned it. On top of all that, one of the prettiest girls in London was waiting for him at home, even if the relationship wasn’t all sweetness and light. He managed a weak grin. That was good enough for now. The future would have to take care of itself.
At the front door of the flat he juggled his keys, his laden briefcase and the computer bag, and let himself in. He kicked the door shut with his heel and crabbed his way up the narrow stairs, careful to keep the brassbound edges of the briefcase well clear of the wallpaper. It had been Patricia’s choice, and God forbid he should damage it. He reckoned it would have been cheaper to stick banknotes on the wall.
She was stretched out on the sofa in the first floor sitting room with what looked like the script of a play in her hand. He dropped his bags on the Turkish rug and leaned over to kiss her.
“Hi darling. Any luck with the audition?”
She was an actress, and if the script called for a leggy blonde with a figure to die for, she’d be a shoo-in. She curled an arm round his neck and returned his kiss with interest.
“I don’t think I got the part,” she said after a while. She waved the script and wrinkled her nose in mock disgust. “They said they’d let me know, and you know what that means.”
He did, only too well. It seemed blondes were out of fashion in the London theatre this season. She had been ‘resting between jobs’ ever since they’d moved into the flat together six months ago, and he sometimes wondered if the frequent auditions were just a figment of her imagination.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m sure something will turn up soon.”
She tucked her legs up on the sofa, and shrugged. “Can’t be helped,” she said. “I don’t think the part was quite me anyway. So how was your day?”
“Bloody awful.” He flopped back into the cushions. “There was a break-in at the training centre, and then to cap it all I found out one of our partners was murdered last night.”
“Murdered?” She sat up and looked at him wide-eyed. “What happened? Was it anyone I know?”
“It was Luke Graham; he and I worked together a bit, but I don’t think you’ve met him. They tell me the poor bugger was shot last night on his way home after work. It must have been a mugging, I suppose; nobody seems quite sure.”
She looked at him, the world-weariness in her expression at odds with the youthfulness of her face. “Muggers don’t shoot people, it’s not worth it. Are you sure he wasn’t targeted?”
“Nobody would have any reason...” His voice tailed off in disbelief.
She shrugged. “You can never tell. You guys all travel abroad a lot. Maybe he was a drug smuggler or something.”
“Luke spent a lot of his time in Eastern Europe; his job was to check up on client projects over there. But there’s no way he’d be involved in drugs. He wasn’t the type.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Eastern Europe? Well, there you are then.”
“What do you mean?”
“You read the papers,” she said with a frown. “It’s one of the hottest areas in the world right now for international crime. Money-laundering, illegal technology transfers, arms, drugs, you name it. If he was mixed up with any of that...”
“No, no, that’s crazy,” he interrupted. “We’re management consultants. We advise people on how to run their businesses better. I hardly think a bunch of crooks would knock on our door and ask us to review their operations to see if we can suggest any improvements.”
She shook her head. “If this was a contract killing, it must take money and organisation. Somebody must have had a powerful reason, something big to protect.”
He looked up and gave her a glare. “There’s absolutely no way Luke or the firm would get mixed up in anything criminal.” He recalled some of Luke’s wilder stories and hoped his inner qualms didn’t show. Those were jokes, tongue in cheek, weren’t they? He took a deep breath and continued. “You’re barking up the wrong tree altogether. This isn’t a TV drama.”
Her lips curled unattractively. “You wouldn’t be the first bunch of professional types to put easy money ahead of your scruples. I bet the police will see it that way too.” She shrugged and he saw a look of calculation enter her eyes.
“Whatever, I’m so glad you’re home early. I thought you might have forgotten the party tonight at Stringfellow’s.”
“Party?” The question slipped out before he could catch himself. Bugger. Would he never bloody learn?
“You damn well have forgotten, haven’t you?” Her voice turned shrill and her smile vanished like the morning mist. “You know how much I’ve been looking forward to it. All the smart set will be there.”
“But you will take me, won’t you darling?” She put her arms round his waist and the honey back into her voice. “It’ll be fun. Max and Pete and the rest of the gang will all be there, and it’s ages since we’ve been out. You’ve got plenty of time to get ready. You promised.”
He looked into the clear blue eyes close to his, and tried to shield his thoughts. Deep down he could feel his Welsh Baptist ancestors stoke up the hell-fire at the thought of a drunken evening with a gay couple and a mixed bag of unrepentant sinners. It wasn’t that he lacked a sense of fun. That bubbled away, alive and well under the sober exterior. But after the run-in with the burglar and the shock of Luke’s death, a party was the last thing he could stomach this evening. In any case, his taste in entertainment ran in very different directions. He tried hard to fit in for Patricia’s sake, but her friends weren’t his idea of a good time. Nor he theirs, as she must be very well aware. And anyway, he’d be damned if he’d give in to emotional blackmail.
Patricia wouldn’t give a toss about any of that, though. There was only one excuse that might circumvent one of her tantrums - if he was lucky. He waved in the direction of his briefcase.
“I’m sorry, darling, today’s been a complete bloody disaster and I’m really not in the mood. Besides, I can’t.” He spread his hands and forced a repentant expression onto his face. “I’ve got to get myself up to speed for my meetings in Frankfurt tomorrow. Honestly, there’s a mass of stuff to get through, and the contract there could cost the firm a fortune if it all falls apart. I’ve got no choice.”
She went rigid and pushed him away.
“No choice?” she yelled, “What do you mean, no bloody choice? With you it’s always the firm this, the firm that. What about me? You might as well be married to that bloody firm for all the attention I get.”
He watched tears gather in the corners of her eyes, and wondered if crying on demand was a skill they taught in drama school. Just in time, he engaged his brain before his mouth got into gear.
“Look, I’m truly sorry.” He knew it was probably a lost cause, but maybe he could divert some of her wrath. “Like I said, I’ve had a hell of a day. I’ll make it up to you....”
Later, after Patricia left, alone, to head for the party, he sat and nursed his wounded feelings. The flat still echoed with the vicious slam of the front door. He should have learned by now it was a fatal mistake to try and sweet talk her out of anything once she’d made up her mind. In any case there was no tactful way to explain that Blake and Moorfield’s global reputation and a few million dollars in potential contract penalties really were more important than taking his girlfriend to her favourite nightclub. Women just didn’t seem to understand the sacrifices that had to be made to build a successful career.
What the hell. He opened his briefcase and extracted a thick report. Life was full of conflicting pressures and priorities. He tried his best to strike a balance at home, just as he did at work. But sometimes compromise wasn’t possible. He’d make a real fuss of her when he got back from Frankfurt. Flowers, dinner at the expensive new Italian restaurant she’d been banging on about. Champagne. He could talk her round once the dust settled. But like most men he could only handle one crisis at a time, and tomorrow he would have his hands full with Delta Oil.
For a couple of hours, the silence in the flat was disturbed only by the rustle of paper and the click of the computer keyboard. Finally, he leaned back with a satisfied grunt, pressed the print button, and the small laser printer whined into life. His stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten, so he left the machine to it while he headed for the kitchen to get a sandwich.
He whistled a tune as he buttered the bread. He’d never understand women, but client problems were much more straightforward. All that was needed at Delta Oil was a bit of applied common sense, despite the threats of legal action against the firm that had been bandied about. Unless he had missed something fundamental, and he was pretty damned sure he hadn’t, the meeting tomorrow should be a breeze.