Book Jacket

 

rank 5670
word count 87314
date submitted 09.11.2010
date updated 30.08.2011
genres: Fiction, Thriller, Romance, Crime
classification: moderate
incomplete

The Unluckiest Woman in Belfast

Maria Coyle

What do you do when money laundering, blackmail, death, and a troublesome face from the past surface, and you're a stranger in the city?

 

Belfast is a city with a history for Sian O’Neill, so when she is sent there on a business trip, all she wants is to get in, get out, and keep it simple.
Instead she finds evidence of money laundering in the books of her client, Provincial Bank, and witnesses her teenage sweetheart roughing up a suspect during an arrest. This pales into insignificance though, when the manager of the team dedicated to preventing money laundering at Provincial is found dead. Sian finds herself accused of killing her, and only hours after she is interrogated, wakes up in casualty – the victim of a hit and run.
What is at the bottom of the quagmire in Provincial?

 
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tags

1990s, belfast, crime, information technology, ireland, romance, white collar crime

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21

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Setting Up

Sian woke at seven thirty Saturday morning. She spent the next fifteen minutes futilely trying to doze off again, before finally conceding and getting up slowly. The bottle of wine she’d drunk the previous night had left her a bit dull. Normally she wasn’t up this early on a Saturday. She decided to finish painting the dining room. She’d started a month before, but ran out of paint. One wall remained needing its second coat. She’d picked up the paint to do it a week earlier, now was her chance to use it. By nine thirty, Sian was dressed in a worn out “What Would Joan Jett Do?” tee shirt lightly speckled in “Soft Light” emulsion, and the wall looked spiffing. She was admiring her handiwork, when the doorbell rang. Who in their right mind calls to someone’s house this early on a Saturday morning, she wondered on her way to answer.

It was a bright February morning, the type that clears the frost early. When Sian opened the door the sun was bouncing off Jack Ferguson’s strawberry blonde hair. He was dressed in jeans, docs, and a once black, now washed out grey ‘That Petrol Emotion’ tee shirt. It was worn so thin, it clung to him like Lycra. She was gob smacked. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not sure; I’m not meant to be here.” He glanced down awkwardly.

Sian thought about his bruised hands momentarily, but there was nothing aggressive about his stance. Nothing about him ever had ever been. “Do you want to come in? I’m in the middle of decorating, it’s a mess. But I can make tea or coffee.”

He nodded. “I can’t stay long. I’ve got to get back to pick up Polly by twelve thirty. It’s my visiting day. Coffee would be good before the drive.”

Sian led him back to the kitchen and filled the kettle. “Do you want something to eat?” I’ve fruit, brown bread, some biscuits.”

Jack looked at the fruit bowl on the breakfast bar. “I’ll take a banana please.”

Sian put two mugs, milk and sugar on the small kitchen table, and began adding coffee grounds to a plunge pot. The kettle boiled, and she added water to the grounds. She put some McCambridge’s brown bread, butter, the banana and a plate on the table. “Makes a lovely sandwich”. He still hadn’t said why he’d come. “Isn’t this a little bit risky?” Sian asked finally.

“Risky?”

“Won’t it look dodgy? If that guy you arrested Monday night tries to claim you brutalized him, he’s already got my name as a witness to the arrest. Won’t it look bad if they find out you spoke to me, compromise things?”

Jack smiled. “It’s already compromised.”

“How do you mean?”

“Do you remember the other guy we arrested that day?”

“No. I didn’t get a close look at him.”

“Turns out he’s the brother of the guy Mel is dating now. Imagine that… How do you think a defence barrister will portray any evidence I gather against him - the brother of the man now bedding my ex-wife?” Jack wasn’t looking at Sian. His hands were knitted on the table top before him, his thumbs steepled. He was studying them as he flexed the thumbs back and forth.

“I guess they’ll suggest ulterior motives.” Sian watched Jack nod silently.

“I’ve got to keep my distance from any evidence we compile on him to avoid just that.”

“Did you know Mel’s new partner had a dodgy brother?”

“No. This is his first arrest. We’d never set eyes on the guy before. Mel’s partner is a bank manager. That’s all I know about him.” Jack looked up at Sian and grinned. “I haven’t exactly been introduced to his family yet.”

Sian nodded. She was leaning against the worktop beside the coffee pot waiting for it to brew. “So what brings you here?”

Jack didn’t answer right away. He returned his gaze to his hands as he searched for words. Finally he said, “Sandra told me that you sent her the UCD undergraduate prospectus each year, every year that you were there.”

Sian nodded. “I can’t imagine you’ve come to talk about that…”

“No.” He straightened himself a little in his chair, inhaling. “You were involved in an incident at Provincial bank’s offices on Tuesday morning?”

Sian tensed. How and why would he know anything about that? “Yes. A woman shot herself. Another woman and I were the first to find her. How would you know that?”

Jack shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Sian was taken aback. She said nothing just looked at him for a minute. Finally she snapped back to reality when a timer she’d set for the coffee beeped. She pushed the plunger to the bottom of the coffee pot, and poured the mugs. She added milk and sugar to her own, once Jack had waved away both. She began to take a drink. Jack didn’t pick his up right away.

“They don’t think it was suicide anymore.”

“What?” The mug froze, suspended half way to Sian’s lips. “But the gun was still in her hand.”

“Yes, and apparently it was her gun too. The bank offered that model to branch managers for personal protection when tiger kidnappings became common.” Jack took a drink.

“But she wasn’t a branch manager, she was a sales manager.”

“Yes. But she used to be a branch manager. She left it to go to her final job.” Jack took another drink.

Sian finally started hers. “So why do they think it wasn’t suicide?”

“She was left-handed.”

Sian’s mind retrieved the image of the body slumped against the blinds. “But the gun was in her right.”

“Yes.” Jack nodded. “The office was in disarray, indicating a struggle, and there was no evidence of having fired a gun on either of her hands.”

Sian looked at him, upset. “That’s awful… So what did happen? Who shot her?”

Jack shrugged. “No one knows yet. Are you coming back up to Belfast?”

Sian nodded. “Provincial contacted BankSys while I was out of the office yesterday. In spite of the circumstances, they have to go ahead with the software upgrade. They have an anti-money laundering compliance audit coming up. Tim - my boss rang me to let me know. I’ll be heading back up on Thursday.”

Jack looked at her directly. “That’s why I came. This is unofficial. If they knew I was here they’d sack me, and they’d be right to. They are going to re-interview everyone at the bank next week. They will, no doubt, take their chance to talk to you again on Thursday. Be very careful of what you say. The questions might seem straightforward, but they will have an agenda. I don’t know why, but I do know that they are very interested in you.”

Sian was at a loss. “They can’t be. There’s no logical reason. I’d never met the woman before last Monday. Why would I want to hurt her?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. But they think they have something on you.” Jack’s coffee mug and plate were empty. He looked at the clock. It was almost ten. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I have to get back.”

Sian nodded. “I understand.” They went to the front door. She opened it and shook hands with him. “Thanks for calling Jack, thank you for letting me know.”

He nodded, said “Thanks for the coffee” and left.

It was shortly after ten. Sian closed front door. She felt exhausted again. Wanting alcohol, but knowing it was too early, she put the kettle on, two slices of bread in the toaster, then went upstairs to change out of her painting clothes. A few minutes later she came back, dressed in combats and a fleece top. She made herself tea, and smothered the toast in peanut butter and strawberry jam. Then she went into the living room and flicked on Saturday Kitchen. She watched the minutes crawl by until noon. She’d kept her promise to Cara. Now she hit her number on speed dial.

On Thursday, Sian arrived in Belfast, pre-armed with the number for a reliable solicitor. As she was only up for the day, she drove. After parking in Provincial’s visitor’s car park, she signed in and picked up her visitor’s badge, asking for Karen McConville. Karen arrived in reception a few minutes later. She welcomed her with a sad smile. They went back up to the sales floor. The journey was almost familiar by now to Sian. The sales floor didn’t feel familiar though. There was a sense of unease like the quiver of a nervous stomach. Karen brought her to the coffee dock.

“Everyone seems jittery” Sian remarked as they sat down at an empty table.

“I know. It’s been tough. After we left last week, the police sealed off the office and once they were sure they’d spoken to everyone they needed to, everyone on the floor was sent home.” Karen studied the contents of her cup. “We only got back on Thursday, after the CSIs or SOCOs or whatever they’re called finished.” She looked back up. “The door has been locked every day since. Special cleaners were in over the weekend, but it’s still locked. It’s weird, but not as bad as it was all day last Friday, when I knew what was behind that door.”

Sian shivered at the thought. “Did you get counselling?”

Karen’s cup was empty. She began peeling the top of it into polystyrene strips. “Yes. They recommended follow-up, but I don’t know.”

Sian swirled the coffee in the bottom of her cup, and finished it. “I have a friend in the trade who insists it’s worth it. She’s booked me into a group. I had the first session last Friday if I’m honest. I’ll know soon enough if it works for me. You could always do the same.” She looked directly at Karen. “You never know.”

“I suppose not.”

Sian picked up their cups and went to the bin with them. When she came back, Karen was still sitting sombrely in place.

“The burial was Monday” she said. “We all went, got the morning off. I’m not religious, but in some weird way it felt like it returned her dignity. Especially since…” Karen stopped herself.

“Since what?” Sian prompted.

Karen was hesitant. “On Friday, there was a rumour in the office that the police don’t think it was suicide.”

Sian dropped her voice to a whisper. She didn’t want her voice to betray that she already knew. She couldn’t reveal her source. “Why would anyone kill her? I just assumed the pressure from the job here, and whatever else was going on in her life got the better of her. I don’t know. The gun was still in her hand. It doesn’t make any sense!”

Karen shook her head too. “Yesterday we all got an email. It was to ask us all to make ourselves available for an interview with the PSNI again. They are coming in today. Did you hear from them?”

“No. Not yet. But when they realize I’m here today, they might ask me to speak to them again too.”

“Probably.” Having looked pensive, Karen’s expression lightened a little. “Maybe we should get started while we can so.” 

Sian nodded. She opened her laptop bag, and handed over a DVD. “That’s your installation disk. Follow the instructions, and it’ll deploy a new web client on any machine you run it on. Your license allows you to put it on the network, so that any user can just download and install it for themselves. There’s also documentation on the DVD. A user guide, and we’ve updated the online help that comes with the client.”

“In other words” Karen said, “it’ll tell me how to upgrade my machine, and how to use what’s new.”

Sian nodded. “Yes.”

“So what do I need you for now?”

Sian smiled. “Well I was going to walk you through it first time, so that you can see what’s been added, and satisfy yourself that it’s what you wanted… But you’d prefer just pay me, that’s fine too.”

“I better start installing so.”

“It’s okay” Sian said, “I have a copy of it on my laptop. You can give that to the network guys, and let them figure out how best to distribute it.”

“Great. I’ll give it to Jimmy on our way back.”

An unsettling sense of déjà vu hit Sian when she went back to the desk Reena McCauley had first shown her ten days ago. Karen pulled up a chair beside her a few minutes later. “Jimmy reckons it’ll be ready to go by lunchtime. So we’ll know that everything is okay before you leave.

“That’s great.” Sian opened the application on her laptop, and started to navigate to its reports section. “This is the new software, but obviously because it’s on my laptop it’s still looking at the masked database you gave me last week” Sian told Karen. “We used it for testing.”

“Okay. Did the same patterns come up that we saw in the prototype?”

“Yes.” Sian clicked on a link for the first report from a list. It was the one that she and Karen had worked on the previous week. “Watch this.” Sian searched for accounts with four lodgements of £10,000 or more, in the last month. A second passed, and then a message appeared on screen. “No accounts found matching your criteria.”

“Nothing” Karen said.

“Right” Sian answered. “Now watch this.” She changed the minimum amount to £9,000, and the maximum to £10,000 and tried again. The screen filled with a list of ten or so accounts. “Look at that” Sian said, pointing to a field on screen called Branch Sort Code. The same value appeared on each of the transactions. “It’s the same branch all the time. When you get a version installed that looks at the live data, you’ll be able to see who it is.”

“Can I see the list of transactions on the individual account?” Karen asked.

“Yes”, Sian clicked a link next to the fake account number on one of the rows in the list, and the transactions on the account for the month appeared.

Karen’s eyes scanned the column showing the cashier name. “It’s a different cashier on almost every lodgement. And there isn’t any one day of the week that seems significant.”

Sian was intrigued. “Why would that matter?”

“If you’d managed to somehow coerce a cashier into helping you, or if it was a crooked cashier in business for themselves, we’d see one name popping up for the lodgement all the time.” Karen looked to see if Sian was following her. Sian nodded. “You might also see particular days of the week repeating, ones when the depositor can be sure their guy or girl is on the front desk. But there’s no evidence of that here.”

“Good.Sian replied.It isn’t an inside job then, if it really is a significant pattern, and not just a red herring.”

“Maybe.” Karen seemed non-committal. “Look at the previous month.”

Sian changed the dates and searched again. This time only eight accounts came back.

“And the previous one, please.”

Sian searched again. Twelve accounts came back.

“I won’t know until we are up and running live, but I think that five or more of those accounts were repeating.” She smiled at Sian. “I’ll know soon enough.”

“Good morning ladies.” Behind their backs Rebecca Healy had come up unnoticed.

Both Sian and Karen were startled. Karen recovered quickest and stood up to greet the police woman. “Detective Healy, how are you?”

“I’m fine, Karen. I hope you are feeling better.” She shifted her gaze to Sian. She nodded, “Ms O’Neill, it’s lucky that you’re here today.” She didn’t smile. Sian felt like she was being sized up. “I just came over to ask both of you if it would be possible to have another chat. We’ve been in since nine talking to your colleagues. We’d like to speak to everyone before we leave.”

As she spoke a door opened behind her, and Sian saw Stan Wilson exit it. As he walked towards the three women, Sian noticed Karen do a double take on another man approaching from the same direction. Both men stopped when they reached the women.

Stan acknowledged both Karen and Sian, then asked, “Karen, I wonder if we might speak with you a minute?”

“Of course.” She looked questioningly at the other man. “Joe, can you hold on?”

“I was just stopping by to say hello Karen” he smiled. “I can wait, no problem.”

Karen stood up and joined Stan and Rebecca, leaving Sian with the stranger. He smelled of something made up of orange and cinnamon. The cleanliness of the citrus was dominated by the sensuousness of the spice. He was a fit, handsome forty. Dark haired, but with a small spray of grey appearing at both temples, his eyes were a remarkable colour of turquoise that Sian had to consciously will herself to not stare at. He wore a charcoal suit, and a plain white shirt complimented by a tastefully patterned burgundy silk tie. Sian’s attention was so completely engaged by him, a moment passed before she realized he was absorbed in the contents of her laptop screen. There was something familiar about him, put she couldn’t put her finger on what.

“You must be new” he said distractedly. Then he broke his gaze from the laptop and turned the turquoise wonders on Sian, extending his hand and a smile, “I’m Joe, I used to work here. Welcome to Provincial.”

Sian shook his hand. “Thanks, I’m Sian. I’m only here for today. I’m doing some IT work for Karen.”

“What a shame, there won’t be time for me to show you the sights around Belfast.”

Sian smiled back. “Shame.”

He looked back to the laptop. “What is that?” He asked her, pointing at the screen.

“It’s some new software for the AML team” Sian replied. “It’ll let us see suspect patterns of lodgements, rather than just individual lodgements that are suspicious.”

“I see.” He straightened up. “That’s a leap forward for the team.”

“Yeah, Karen’s been waiting a while for it.” Sian noticed that Joe’s collar was a little too tight. Red was rising from beneath it. That was what triggered where she’d seen him before. He was the guy Reena had met after her the night she died. The gargoyle… but not today. Today, with his colour normal he looked a different man. There was something predatory about him though. Sian put it down to the fact that in spite of his age, there was no sign of a ring, or its indent, on his wedding finger. Toxic bachelor? He was certainly slick. In spite of herself, Sian couldn’t avoid the unsettling realization that she was very attracted to him.

“Do you know Karen?” Sian asked smiling.

“Yes - I used to work with her on the AML team actually. But then an opportunity came up. I became the assistant-manager of the branch Reena used to manage. When she came here, I took over her old job as manager.”

Sian nodded. “I’m sorry for your loss. It must be terrible.”

He nodded, saying nothing, expression a little drawn, just staring at the laptop.

Karen returned with Stan and Rebecca. She greeted Joe with an awkward kiss on the cheek. “Hi Joe. It’s good to see you again. Shame it has to be in such unfortunate circumstances.”

Joe smiled at her. “You too. I’d hoped to speak to you at the funeral, but we missed each other.” He nodded towards Sian and the laptop. “I see you are still fighting the good fight.”

Karen smiled back. “Every year they get smarter, so we have to too.She nodded towards Stan and Rebecca. “Detectives Wilson and Healey have a lot of colleagues in the Assets Recovery Agency I have to keep busy.”

Oh I see.” Joe smiled. “I’m sorry, we haven’t met”. He shook hands with Stan and Rebecca. “I’m Joe McGrath, I worked with both Reena and Karen in the past. It’s a terrible time. We are all so shocked.” He turned to Karen. “I can see that now is not the time Karen, I’ll get out from under your feet, but we must meet up for lunch someday soon. I’d love to talk.

I’ll be busy until our software upgrade is complete Joe, but once that’s done I’ll make sure of it.”

Joe nodded. “Look forward to it.”

Karen watched him leave, then turned to Sian and whispered under her breath so that the detectives wouldn’t hear, “I’ll look forward to it too, the same way I look forward to plague.”

“Ms O’Neill?” It was Stan. “I’d like to speak to you again today, but I’m afraid it’ll be four thirty before we can get to you. Will that be okay?”

“Itll be fine, I drove today. I was hoping to get away around six, but if you need more time, it’s fine.”

“We’ll see if we can be done by six so.” Stan smiled. Rebecca’s face remained impassive.

Karen took Sian out to a small café called the Soup Dragon for lunch. It had homemade soup, and made up fresh wraps, sandwiches, and rolls to order. There was a large chrome Italian coffee maker behind the counter, with a full time barista. Armed with soup, wraps, and two strong coffees, Karen and Sian took a table at the back of the café.

“It’s good to get out of there” Karen said. “It’s even more oppressive with all the interviewing today. I know they’re only doing their job, and we all want to know what happened, but still, it’s horrible.”

Sian nodded. “Hopefully this’ll be the end of it. They’ll be able to rule everyone out after a second chat. They’re certainly being thorough. That guy Joe was the meeting Reena had at five thirty that night...”

Karen shook her head a little. “Surreal isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Sian chewed on her wrap silently for a minute. “How come you don’t like him? I thought he seemed okay. A bit predatory maybe.”

“Just a bit? He’s got enough notches on his bed post to make Warren Beatty blush.”

“Ah.” It wasn’t surprising really. “Hence your comment about plague?”

Karen nodded. “That’s only one of the things he might be carrying…”

Sian laughed. “He must have been a delight to work with.”

“Mm hmm.” Karen polished off her wrap, and wiped her hands on a napkin. “He was an education.”

Sian’s eyebrow raised in a question.

“He’s not as bright as he thinks he is - or at least the rest of us aren’t as thick as he thinks we are, but I’ve never seen a smoother operator.”

Sian had seen some of the smooth operator that morning. “He got a good position, taking over from Reena in her old branch. He can’t be that stupid.”

“He’s not stupid, far from it. He’s got that kind of slyness you need for office politics in spades. That, and word has it, he and Reena were investigating a number of positions before he finally landed that one.”

“They were together?”

Karen nodded silently. “That was one of the reasons why I figured Reena would be disappointed to discover you weren’t a man last Tuesday. Shortly after Joe got his new job, his ardour waned for her, if that’s the right way of putting it. Apparently, he met someone new. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had someone else all along…”

“Maybe that was why she was so dressed up that day? She knew she had to meet him, so she put on her Sunday best to let him know she’d moved on?”

Karen shook her head. “You didn’t know Reena. She dressed like that every day.”

“Chanel suits for office wear? Why?”

“She liked the way it emphasized her position. I’m the queen of the jungle. Hear my wardrobe roar.”

Sian had seen it before. “I don’t suppose she could have just relied on competence to establish respect?”

Karen smiled, and almost imperceptibly shook her head.

It was two o’clock before Sian and Karen got back to the office. By three Jimmy had added the new software to the network. Karen downloaded a local copy, and started the install on her PC. Five minutes in, Detective Healy reappeared.

“Do you mind if we speak to you now Ms McConville?” she asked Karen.

“No, of course not.” Karen stood up.

“That’s great, I think we can only hold on to the meeting room we have to until four. Then we’ll have to get another one.” Rebecca stood aside to allow Karen walk ahead of her. Karen looked at Sian apologetically.

“Don’t worry, I’ll finish this” Sian said. “It’ll be done by the time you get back.”

The setup completed a couple of minutes later. Sian wondered should she wait for Karen to come back, before opening the application to view live data. But she’d forgotten that after installation completed, it needed to restart the PC. Sian restarted, but couldn’t go any further when the network login screen appeared, requesting Karen’s user name and password. Stumped, and with nothing else to do, Sian wandered down to the break area and made herself a cup of coffee. She picked up a newspaper someone had left behind, and read it for half an hour. A man who’d been arrested the previous week, accused of running a drugs distribution gang selling everything from cannabis to heroin and cocaine, had been remanded in custody until a bail hearing to be held on Friday. The police who had been investigating him for almost a year believed he was the gang boss and would be objecting to bail. His lawyer was alleging brutality during his arrest. A snapshot of Jack Ferguson’s bloodied hands flashed into Sian’s head and froze, when near the bottom of the story she saw a picture of the man who’d been remanded. “Mr William Murphy, who was remanded in custody, pending a bail hearing on Friday” the caption read beneath. It was the man she saw Jack restrain the previous week. She put the paper down as she felt the blood drain from her face, and her stomach fall. She went back to Karen’s desk.

Karen was there when she arrived. Stan and Rebecca were waiting with her.

“There you are Ms O’Neill, we were wondering where you’d got to” Stan greeted her in a friendly tone. “We’re ready to talk to you now, if that’s okay?”

“Yes, of course” Sian said flatly. She was already wishing for the trip home. “The setup is finished Karen, it should work for you when you log on again.”

Karen nodded. “Thanks, Sian.” She seemed more sombre again. Going back over the details of the story must have been disturbing Sian figured.

“I’ll just see where there’s a free office or conference room” Rebecca said, starting to move away.

“No. That’s okay, I’ve thought of something already” Stan replied. “Just follow me.” Sian and Rebecca followed Stan up the corridor. Sian couldn’t believe it when he stopped outside Reena’s old office. “I still have a key from last week” he smiled, retrieving it from his trouser pocket. “I hope you don’t mind Ms O’Neill”. Without waiting for a response he slipped the key in the lock and opened the door.

Chapters

21

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