Three men watched the girl.
They sat on wooden boxes around a makeshift table in a dusty farmhouse outbuilding. Slivers of sunlight penetrated the long disused stable through slatted windows, dusty beams illuminating the rusting machinery, the sour and rotten straw and the warped door opposite.
On the table was a gun. A Ruger LCR.
The men sat tight up close to the girl, touching her: two either side, one behind.
The one behind yanked the dank canvas hood from the girl's head and she gulped in air as though it was her final breath. She blinked away tears and tried to control herself.
"Look straight ahead," said the first man. "If you look at us we'll hurt you."
"We'll tell you once more in case it wasn't crystal clear the first time," said the second man. "My friend behind you has a knife; a very sharp knife. Can you feel it?"
The third man stroked the nape of her neck with the cold, flat eight inch blade then ran the tip down along her spine until it reached the rope that bound her wrists together. Taking his time he cut the bonds and the girl rubbed the red weals on her skin with relief.
The man behind her spoke. "When we give the word you'll pick up the gun and shoot the man who comes through that door."
"Do you understand?" asked the first man running his blackened fingernail along her cheek, stroking the fine, downy hair on her face.
She nodded again. She would agree to anything to get away from these men.
"Don't hesitate," said the second man. "Do exactly as we say and you're free."
"I don't think I can kill anyone," the girl said with a quiet whimper.
"You'd be surprised," said the third man. "Sudden death concentrates the mind."
"Fired a gun?" said the first man with a laboured groan. "We’ve shown you, haven’t we? You pick it up, point and pull the trigger. It has a polymer frame. Weighs around fourteen ounces. There'll be a little recoil but not too much. A monkey couldn't miss from this range."
The first man leaned in so that his chapped lips touched her ear lobe. “That’s the first sensible question you’ve asked, darlin’.”
“It’s called irony, my love,” said the second man. “Our boss has an unusual sense of humour. He likes to be, what he calls, ironic. Beats me why. There’s a reason why it has to be you, all right.”
"No one steals forty million from the big man and gets away with it," said the first, his voice hardening.
"Who is…" the girl began.
"That's enough with the questions," the second man said with a snarl.
“If,” said the third man from behind, “you fuck up, we will do it for you. And then we’ll shoot you. If you hesitate pulling that trigger for one second once he’s in the room, you won’t see tomorrow. Understand?”
The girl nodded.
They lapsed into silence, all staring at the door, listening out for the sound of footsteps.
The girl could smell the men. Sweat and stale body odour mixed with the distinctive stench of adrenalin-fuelled fear seemed to ooze from them creating a kind of pungent inversion layer. The stink blended with the faint aroma of long dead cattle, dung and rodents.
For a long time they remained silent.
The girl could hear the faint ticking of three wristwatches as they merged into a syncopated rhythm.
She had never been so frightened in her life. A warm, damp feeling was spreading between her thighs. She tried to control her bladder but failed.
"Bloody hell," whined the second man. "She's pissed herself." He spat on the floor and the girl watched the gobbet land near a trickle of urine.
"She's scared," the first man said. "Aren't you, darlin'? Not long to wait now and it'll all be over."
The girl fought hard against the impulse to weep. Could she really believe these men who had kept her prisoner for so long? What was so special about the man who would walk through the far door? When it came to it, could she really shoot someone in cold blood? A complete stranger. Was it some kind of test? Would they actually set her free? If they thought she could recognise them was this likely?
A noise outside the building alerted the men. The girl found it hard to swallow. Her larynx felt as though it was filling her throat. She sensed tension rising amongst her captors.
She looked at the gun only a foot away from her. She could pick it up by leaning forward a little. They had made her practice holding the gun and pointing it at the door when they first brought her to this place. It was light and she was strong. All those years of rowing had given her good arm strength. She could point it without wavering too much.
They heard something.
Someone was walking as lightly as they could towards the door. The three men tensed themselves. The third man placed the tip of his knife against the girl's ribs, just below her heart.
Whoever was approaching was quiet. He knew how to move without making much noise: like a cat burglar.
"Pick up the gun," the first man whispered into her ear.
She reached out but fear had almost frozen her limbs. She began to disassociate in an attempt to bury the thought of what she was about to do.
"Point the gun at the door," the second man mouthed hoarsely.
The girl could feel the presence of someone standing directly outside. She made herself a promise. If she had to pull the trigger she would close her eyes. She couldn't watch as she killed someone.
She pointed the Ruger as the door started to open. Whoever was outside was aware of how much noise an old, misshapen timber door with ancient hinges could make. The girl could sense rather than see an eye peering in through a gap in the vertical timbers by the hinge.
The second man leaned harder in towards her. She knew that he was holding a gun in his right hand. He pushed his moist lips into her ear.
"Wait till he's inside," he whispered softly.
The second man gripped her other arm tightly pinning it to her thigh.
The door opened an inch, then another.
The girl closed her eyes tightly shut suppressing the welling of tears that threatened to overcome her.
Then someone kicked the door open. It swung screaming on its rusty hinges and slammed into the barn wall.
A tall man ducked under the door frame and stepped inside filling the room with his physical presence.
"Now," the first man ordered.
"Shoot, bitch," the second man snapped.
The girl felt the knife prick her skin.
She sucked in her breath, squeezed her eyes till it hurt and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot rattled the rafters of the stable. The girl dropped the gun and opened her eyes. It took her a moment to realise. Then she began to wail and shake.
The scream when it came was wrenched like acid from her insides. She fell to her knees yelling one word.
Two weeks earlier
It was standing room only.
Cheapest ticket price was fifty smackers. Double that for the raised circle of seats surrounding the cage. They'd come to see what was billed as the last time Irish Eyes would step into an arena anywhere. His light heavyweight opponent tonight was Charles 'Hatchet Man' Morrison who had sworn to tear him limb from limb. Morrison was not known for sticking to the rules – no head butting, eye gouging, biting, attacks to the groin or spine, throat strikes, elbow jabs, hair pulling, kidney strikes and a host of others. Morrison ignored most of these and had been banned for a long period. This was his comeback fight and he wanted Irish Eyes's scalp etched on his belt.
The cage was thirty feet in diameter, fully padded, complying with Mixed Martial Arts rules. It was hot in the privately owned men's club with two narrow gangways either side of the cage leading to changing rooms with opposite entrances into the ring.
Harry Chance stood quietly at the end of one of the corridors surrounded by a gang of hangers-on, fans and devotees.
"Thanks for this, Harry," said Maxie Dixon, the stocky promoter who had his hand on Chance's shoulder. "The punters have been crying out for the return of Irish Eyes."
"I retired a year ago, Maxie," said Chance. "There are new kids around now. They’re hungry and I've got my looks to think about."
"Morrison's all noise and nonsense. You're not worried about him, are you?"
"I've fought him before. He's dirty." Chance looked down at Dixon. "I'm doing this as favour to you, Maxie. Don't think you can talk me into making a comeback. It's not going to happen."
"I appreciate this. I really do, Harry."
"I might ask you for a favour one day."
"So ask. I can only refuse." Dixon growled a low laugh then coughed heartily. "No, no, Harry. You know I'd do anything for you, well almost.”
Chance tapped his fists together encased in four ounce gloves. "Sure, I know."
"Are the rumours true?" asked Dixon.
Dixon leaned in and spoke quietly so no one around could hear. "You've salted away big bundles of dosh and a ton of sparklers. Your ill-gotten gains, mate."
"I never discuss my business in public. You should know that, Maxie. You never can tell who's got their fat ears wagging."
A fanfare suddenly blasted throughout the club as the MC began his pre-fight presentation.
Harry Chance could feel the excitement building within the crowd. There was a hum of expectation rising to boiling point. Irish Eyes was back for one night only.
Dixon tapped him on the shoulder and Harry Chance strode out into the arena to a swell of applause while on the other side of the cage the Hatchet Man met with a cacophony of booing.
The hall stank of cheap booze and burger fat and a hazy inversion layer of smoke hovered under the ceiling. Chance remembered when he had been the light heavyweight king of the ring. He'd been unbeaten for two years and largely unscathed. He hadn't got away injury free as his ribs and nose could testify. But the broken bones had mended and he only had a couple of small facial scars to show for his time at the top.
Mixed martial arts fighting wasn't his main line of work despite the purses he'd won. No, that was something that certain members of the Her Majesty’s police forces would dearly love to nail him for.
The two fighters entered the cage. Chance stared at Morrison, heavier by more than a few pounds, hairy and tattooed like a graffiti artist's worst nightmare. He was bouncing on his toes, snarling and snorting, his bald head gleaming under the spotlights.
The referee recited the rules and the warnings.
The fighters retired to the edge of the cage and the bell rang.
Morrison charged at Chance like a bull with testosterone overload. Chance feinted to his right, swivelled on one leg and danced away from Morrison then stepped in and delivered a vicious left hook that rocked his opponent's head on his shoulders. Chance moved away.
Morrison charged again and this time Chance could not get out of the way quickly enough. He was driven back onto the cage with Morrison flailing and hooking. Chance locked his opponent's arms and tried to avoid the illegal head butt. Morrison's skull nudged Chance's temple raising a bruise by his right eye.
"I'm gonna rip your heart out, Irish," Morrison mumbled through a mouthful of blood.
Chance twisted out of the sweaty embrace and delivered a stabbing two-knuckle strike deep into the pressure point on Morrison's waist before the heavier man could move.
Morrison dropped to one knee as though electrocuted.
The bell rang but the noise of the crowd was so deafening it almost drowned out the sound.
Chance heard it, turned and walked away.
Morrison could only hear his blood boiling. His ears were buzzing with the tinnitus of hate.
He charged Chance and body checked him into the cage. Chance went down spreadeagled. Morrison charged again and lifted his heel screaming obscenities.
The referee stepped in and dragged Morrison away issuing a warning to the judges.
The crowd was baying for blood.
Chance stood up and stretched his back. He looked out of the cage at Dixon and grimaced.
Chance deceived the lumbering Morrison with a Tai Chi thunder punch followed by a series of kicks to the waist that put the Hatchet Man down. It was now or never for Chance. He knew he was running out of steam. Chance sucked in a deep breath, sprang into the air and landed with huge impact on Morrison's chest winding him. Chance locked up Morrison in an arm triangle, garrotting his opponent with his arms and digging two thumbs deep into a deadly pressure points behind his ears. Chance was sorely tempted to keep the stranglehold going but the referee tapped him hard on the shoulder screaming into his ear above the roar of the crowd.
Chance rose to his feet, panting heavily as the referee raised his arm in the air as a wave of weariness swept over him. He walked out of the ring and an attendant threw a dressing gown over his shoulders. He half listened to the cheering, chanting crowd as he began a slow shuffle towards the dressing rooms.
He looked up and saw a familiar face in the crowd. Tall, rangy with a flickering, supercilious smile, he was standing but not applauding. It was a face Chance did not particularly want to see.
As Chance reached him Detective Inspector Alan Richards stepped out and stood by his side. Chance stopped.
"Impressive, Harry," said Richards. "Your fighting ability will come in very useful when I've put you behind bars."
"Good to see you, too, DI Richards. Didn't think this was your kind of sport. Thought you'd be more of billiards and meat pie man."
Chance carried on walking and Richards fell into step with him as the slow moving group of well-wishers headed by Dixon entered the tunnel.
"I see you haven't lost your sense of humour, Harry," said Richards with a twitch of one shoulder. "You're going to need to see the funny side of things. You haven't been forgotten. Oh no, matey. You are still on my radar. One day, someone's going to talk. Someone's going to point the finger. Someday soon you're going to make a mistake."
"I hear you've taken up playing cards as a hobby," Richards said. "Bridge, isn't it?"
"Am I under surveillance?"
"Like I said, you're on my radar. I'm just waiting for you to slip up."
"Only fighters and staff beyond this point," yelled Dixon over the clamour staring fixedly at Richards.
"You must be mixing me up with someone else," Chance told him. "You've spent too much time in the sewer mixing with lowlifes, thieves and murderers." Chance leaned into towards him before he walked away. "It's you who's making the mistake, DI Richards. Have a pleasant evening."
Chance couldn't wait to pull the gloves off, strip and spend long minutes under the shower. He peered out through the steam at the peeling walls, scratched with the names of fighters past and present; the pale, dangling light with no shade, the lockers dented by so many frustrated fists and he felt nostalgic.
He touched his bruises, stroked his sore ribs and allowed the high-pressure water jet to ease his muscles. His whole body was one big ache. If he hadn't known it before he knew it then. This had always only been a sideline, one that was well and truly over.
He turned the shower off and wrapped a towel around his waist. The door opened and Maxie Dixon came in.
"Good fight, Harry," he growled handing Chance an envelope. "Your purse. You deserve every penny."
Chance took the envelope. "I don't need it, Maxie but I know some people who do. Thanks."
"Oh, by the way," said Dixon, "there's a bloke outside wants to see you. Says it's urgent. I don't normally let the public down here but he knows some faces I know and he looks kosher. You want to see him?"
"Sure, show him in."
Dixon opened the door and beckoned to someone outside. A large, square man entered. He was wearing a pair of sagging jeans with a tight belt holding up a beer paunch, and an unfashionable overcoat. Dixon left him alone with Chance.
"You wanted to see me?" said Chance, towelling his hair.
He answered in a rough, rural voice. "My name is Charlie, Charlie Morgan. I've got a message for you, Mr Chance."
"Oh yes, who are you exactly?"
"Let's say I've been a guest of Her Majesty for a couple of years. Wandsworth."
"Okay. Am I supposed to be impressed?"
Morgan shuffled his feet. "No, nothing like that. I'm doing someone a favour is all."
"All right. You say you've got a message for me."
"Yeah, from Brogan."
Harry Chance stopped rubbing his scalp and dropped the towel.
"The very same."
"What's the message?"
"He wants to see you, Mr Chance. Urgent, like."
Chance was thoughtful for a moment. "Well, if Patrick Brogan says it's urgent it must be."
"Right, that's it then. I've delivered the message so I'll be on my way." Morgan looked around the dingy changing room, sniffed then said. "You'll need this." He delved into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a piece of scrappy paper, handed it to Chance then turned and left without another word.
Chance sat deep in thought. "Patrick Brogan," he muttered to himself. "Well, I'll be damned." He opened the folded note and saw visiting instructions, Brogan's prisoner number and visitor order number.
"It's been years. What do you want with me, Brogan?" he muttered to himself.
Harry Chance stood for a long moment outside the austere edifice of HMP Wandsworth Prison regarding the dun coloured exterior with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity. He had spent most of his adult life actively avoiding the remotest possibility of spending any leisure time at Her Majesty's pleasure and had succeeded. He had never voluntarily entered the environment of a Category B penal institution.
The prison didn't have its own car park so he parked his Bentley Continental in as dark a side street as he could find. The immediate neighbourhood was lower middle class but that didn't mean his precious car wouldn't be a target for some passing oik. The only personal possessions he had with him were his driving licence and a handful of change. Otherwise he was clean.
Patrick Brogan was serving eight years for his part in the Trim's Bank bullion heist, the biggest and most notorious robbery ever carried out in the country. Brogan had been the quartermaster and had managed to reduce his sentence by grassing on some lesser associates on the periphery. The gang had walked away with nearly seven thousand gold bars worth today approximately ninety million.
Some of the gold had been smelted down mixed with copper to make it difficult to trace. To date only a proportion of the bullion had been recovered. Half of London's underworld seemed to be connected in some way to the disposal of the haul although it was suspected that the Trim's Bank gang itself consisted of only four well-known criminals. Of these only two had ever been convicted. Brogan was one, leaving two very smart individuals lying low having fenced large quantities of adulterated gold bullion and siphoned cash into a network of hard-to-trace bank accounts and property investments.
Even now, five years later, a sizeable chunk of the Trim's Bank haul was still missing. The whereabouts of over fifteen hundred gold bars was unknown – except by the mysterious person who, under the noses of the gang, had absconded with the rundown Transit van containing the bullion. Whoever took it could be biding their time, or was dead, or had already removed the gold from its hiding place.
Harry Chance had steered well clear of the job. He preferred the simpler life of targeted safecracking and relieving the rich of their high-value jewellery.
His connection with Brogan went back before Trim's Bank. They had once collaborated when Brogan offered Chance a job. He'd needed someone to step into the breach when his safe man had pulled out. It had been a vital freelance job at a time when Chance needed the money. So he owed Brogan a favour even after all this time. He'd had no contact with him since then so the request for this visit surprised him. What could Brogan possibly want?
Near to the prison entrance was the visitor centre. Spurgeons House was a nice-looking detached property where visitors were processed. Brogan had completed a visitor order naming Harry Chance although he couldn't know his address, phone number or date-of-birth. Chance had supplied this information. The visitor number would be married up with the strict identification procedures at the prison.
He sat in the waiting room with the other visitors, mostly wives and a few children. It was hot and noisy with an underlying feeling of tension that Chance could sense but not quantify.
When his name was called he went into the identification queue, showed his driving licence, and was frisked and checked over by a guard using a metal detector that reminded Chance of airport security. He underwent a stringent mouth examination and the back of his hand was stamped with an invisible marker. He stood while a spaniel sniffed him and then walked outside for fifty yards to the prison gate and on into the prison reception area and locker room.
Chance glanced up at the CCTV cameras, then looked away quickly. Turning his head he joined the queue.
A prison officer stood at the head of the line. After a short time, he barked the order. "Follow me."
Chance walked in convoy along a corridor, through unlocked barrier gates and into a large, low-ceilinged room, illuminated by long, locked windows. Inside were neat rows of tables and chairs with gap lines between them, like an examination room. The other visitors moved quickly to their loved ones or friends. Chance had to stand for a moment to spot Brogan. Finally, a grey-haired man wearing pale-rimmed spectacles perched on an aquiline nose waved him over.
Chance went and sat down opposite Patrick Brogan. "You've lost weight," he said. "I hardly recognised you after all this time."
"Prison diet," said Brogan smiling through thin lips. He regarded Chance with interest. "It's been a while. I’ve been inside three years."
Chance said. "I was surprised you wanted to see me. It's not like we were close."
"I thought you might be intrigued."
"That's one way of putting it."
"You've done well for yourself, Harry. That's what the word is."
"Is that right?"
"How's the wife? What’s her name, Valerie isn't it?"
"Ex-wife," said Chance. "She's doing all right as far as I know. You've got a good memory."
"You had a daughter."
Chance paused. "Amanda, yes. She's fifteen now."
"How they grow, eh, Harry?"
"What is this, Brogan, happy families?"
"Just showing an interest."
"You haven't asked me here to talk about my family."
"It's my way of broaching the subject."
"I haven't seen you for years. And we never really knew each other."
"Did you a favour, didn't I?"
"Here we go."
"Do you know I'm the crossword champion of this prison? Four minutes twenty-three seconds for the Times cryptic. Not bad for an old lag."
"I remember you loved conundrums."
"Yeah, I've just got that sort of brain, I suppose. Puzzles intrigue me. I've made a study of riddles and brain teasers."
"I can see why. I'm none the bloody wiser."
Brogan paused, adjusted his spectacles and glanced around. When he spoke his lips hardly moved.
"I need a favour from you, Harry."
Chance said nothing. Just stared at Brogan.
"I want you to steal something for me." Brogan watched him.
Chance remained silent for a moment. Then he said. "Are you sure we can't be overheard or recorded?"
"If we talk quietly like this we'll be safe. Well, what do you say?"
"On how much of a debt I owe you and what the risks are."
"It'll be like taking candy from a baby for someone like you."
"You'd better tell me everything."
Brogan smiled. "Ever heard of Maurice Cunningham?"
"The do-gooding MP, OBE?"
"The very same. The Honourable Maurice Cunningham is campaigning to have my sentence reduced."
"Good for you. Why?"
"He's made a reputation for himself supporting the downtrodden and rectifying injustices. I fall into both categories."
Chance had to suppress a chortled laugh.
"Don't mock me, Harry. The evidence against me was circumstantial. Richards was fitting up anybody he could to get a result. He only got two of us and one of them is sitting here before you."
"Funny, I bumped into Richards out-of-the-blue a few days ago. He's a DI now."
"Out-of-the-blue? Don't bet on it. That scheming scumbag never does anything by chance. Sorry for the pun, mate. He's up to something, believe me. He's been gagging to put you away for years. It's eating him up. I was just higher profile and the pressure was on from the Home Office."
"Our Mr Cunningham is not the virtuous paragon of justice he claims to be. His public image would be permanently damaged if the information I have on him was ever made known to the media."
"He's been a naughty boy, then?"
"I wouldn't trust my child with him put it that way." Brogan coughed quietly. "There's more, Harry and we haven't much time left."
Chance inclined his head.
"He's got a good chance of succeeding in his campaign. I'm hoping he won't run out of steam. But, because he's the only person trying to help me and he's high profile, I gave him something to look after for me. I had no one else to turn to. He was the only one I knew who would keep it safe and secure."
"I made him promise to give it to my daughter if anything happened to me. I also gave him some names: some big names."
"You grassed. Hope those names don’t find out. No, don’t tell me. Don’t want to know. Can you trust him?"
"Trust an MP? Don't be soft. Course I don't trust him. If anything happens to me and my daughter does not receive the special gift he keeps in his safe then the plan is that a certain person will know this and send some pretty damaging, career ending information to the media. Cunningham knows this too so he's playing ball so far. He has no interest in my daughter's heirloom. To him, it's just a sentimental memento."
"So what's the problem?"
"The certain person I mentioned has died."
"I see. And Cunningham doesn't know this?"
"I see your situation."
"So, I want it back. I can’t exactly ask him for it."
"I think I see where I come in."
Brogan leaned forward a degree. "I want you to get it back for me. You're the only one who can."
"Where? How much security?"
"You need to memorise this. The Wentworth estate in Surrey, near Virginia Water.”
"I know it well. Upmarket or what?”
"The house is called Park Manor. It's on Belvedere Drive. Cunningham is rarely there. His wife works away most of the time. She's a corporate lawyer having it away with her boss. And their only child, their son, is at university. Security is just the usual. Alarms linked to the local constabulary and a few cameras."
"You've been to the house?"
"Once, before I was arrested. I knew it was coming and I knew about Cunningham. He grudgingly agreed to allow a lowlife like me to enter his Englishman's castle."
"What if I refuse?"
"I can't force you, Harry. But you do owe me. When you were on your uppers I helped you out. When I get out of this place I'll make sure you're properly rewarded. That's all I'll say about it. Well?"
"What do I have to steal?"
Brogan smiled. "It's a box."
"A very special box. It's a puzzle box: a Himitsu-Bako. I had it especially designed in Hakone, Japan. It’s not off the shelf. Try to smash it open and you destroy what's inside. And what's inside is worth more than you can imagine."
"How much of a puzzle?"
"I think even you would struggle to open it. The key to unlocking the box is in my will to my daughter, along with the information on Cunningham."
"You're right. I’m intrigued."
"Cunningham put the box in his safe. It's behind a hideous painting of a cathedral in his study." Brogan glanced up the wall clock. "Five minutes. Yes or no?"
"Describe the box."