Authors: Ritter Ames
Entering the trust company's main lobby, I eventually turned down a hallway and entered a service area. A skip down a ramp led to another hallway—and a janitor's closet. I took a quick look around before slipping inside. Under the third shelf on the back wall was a small knob that felt like a knot in the wood. I pressed the spot, then quickly stepped back as the row of shelves swung outward to reveal a locked door. Martha had never been too keen on Simon and me
, so to smooth ruffled feathers he had given me the key to his back door. Or, as he put it, his "escape hatch."
Keeping my fingers crossed, I inserted a small silver key in the lock and turned, hoping the end of our affair had not also signaled a visit by the locksmith. The key turned easily, and the door slid open, revealing Simon's private washroom.
I peeked through the crack in the door that led to his office. My fears were confirmed. The Amazon was ransacking Simon's office, working with an abandon that bordered on hysteria. Whatever she was looking for, she hadn't found it yet.
I moved back to the janitor's closet, pulled the door nearly closed, and reached for my cell phone. Looked like all the hours I'd spent absorbing the atmosphere while Simon devoured fish and chips would be put to good use.
After a number of rings, I finally heard a breathless, "Hello—I mean, Beacham, Ltd."
Assuming my best, working-class
London accent, I said, "Yeah, we got yer package by mistake."
"A package, dearie," I enunciated the words slowly. "As in the post. Ya know, from the parcel service. Came in with the new menus. The bloody printer finally got the bloomin' things right."
"We have a package from the printer?"
"Nah, I got the printer's stuff. Yer's is from someone else."
"Look, I don't know anything about—"
She sounded ready to hang up. Time to send the hook out a little farther. "I thought yer might be wantin' it, seein' it's marked urgent an' all."
"Urgent?" She was biting. I prepared to reel her in.
"Tha's right, dearie. Oh, my, there's som'thin' else written here as well. Let me see. Why it looks like it starts wi' an A. I'm afraid I can't see very well without me specs . . . let me . . . well, I ain't real sure, but it might be sayin' 'author'."
The redhead nearly screamed. "What's inside?"
"Well, I could look if ya want me to, dearie, but—"
"No!" This time she did scream. Then in a calmer tone, she said, "I mean, that's okay. I wouldn't want to get into trouble with Mr. Babbage. He might want to open it himself. Could you bring it here, to the office?"
"Sorry, ducks." I was grinning so big my cheeks hurt. "Gotta make more chips for the late-lunch crowd, I do. Yer gonna hafta come yerself."
A sigh escaped. "Where are you?"
"Jus' go out yer door and head five blocks east, then take a right. Sign in our window says 'Jenny's Chips.' That's me mum, God rest her blessed soul. Can't miss us."
"Who do I ask for once I'm inside?"
"Sheesh, didn't I just say? Jenny, a'course. Named for her I was. An' ya best 'urry. Once a line starts formin' you'll need to wait yer turn like ever'one else.
I broke the connection and clapped a hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. When I stepped back into the washroom, I heard the Amazon hustling out of Simon's office, but I didn't move until I heard the key turn in the outside lock.
There wouldn't be much time. With legs as long as hers the redhead could cover the distance pretty quickly. I'd wanted to make it farther, but that might have meant a taxi ride, and my ruse would have been discovered much quicker. Given all the variables, I could only hope for a good fifteen minutes before she figured out she'd been scammed and returned to the office. I mentally adjusted the time estimate down five minutes, just to be sure.
My Prada went into a corner of the washroom for safekeeping, and to aid in an unimpeded search. I locked the door connecting this office with the front one, then looked around. The place was a mess. Books lay strewn across the floor, pages rifled for God knows what. Paper in the wastebasket burned to scraps and ashes. Files scattered drunkenly on and off the disaster that used to be Simon's desk. Shredded paper embellished every surface like a macabre party decoration. Credit card receipts were mixed with paperwork on a Picasso. Bills of sale, bills of lading, and bills of office expenses, all crumpled and torn.
At some point, frustration apparently led to a bottle of Perrier getting thrown at the paneled wall, thin water streaks marking silent witness to the office chaos.
Strangely, Simon's pride and joy, a three
-hundred gallon saltwater aquarium had not yet been touched by the vandalism which dominated the room, its pristine condition a sad mockery to the rest. I don't believe in precognition, but even I had to admit that "something fishy" was going on.
First, a look at the desk calendar. The leather case didn't take long to spot beside the tipped-over rubber plant, but the pages had been rifled and ripped. All I found was a partial page for the day. Simon scribbled in a meeting for twenty-one
hundred hours, with the name Jones marked beside the time, and a GPS location with DOCKLANDS added. I pocketed the scrap, making a mental note to give the numbers to Nico for a translation I could actually understand. There was no sign of a note on the morning meeting Simon mentioned on the phone, but I couldn't find the previous day's calendar page either, so I could only hope the evening event was a follow-up to the original meet of the day.
A quick search revealed no laptop. Nothing to do but check the front office. I unlocked the door and moved quickly through the receiving area, finding the computer propped against the wall by the door, ready for the final getaway.
I grabbed the laptop and moved it to Martha's now spotless desk. Even the pictures of her nieces and nephews were gone. The drawers revealed little except a dog-eared copy of
Pride and Prejudice
and a few phone bills. I scooped up everything and stuffed it into my jacket pocket.
Back in Simon's office, I balanced the laptop and relocked the door, just as I heard noise coming from outside. In front of Simon's desk stood two sturdy visitor's chairs, the upholstery ripped open with a knife but the frames still intact. I grabbed one, wedging the back of it firmly under the door handle.
The outer door opened, and I was treated to sounds of fury from an angry Amazon when she discovered the laptop wasn't where she'd left it. The doorknob rattled, and a key was stabbed into the lock, but the chair held everything tight.
. The lighted tank filled my vision. Three hundred gallons of salt water perfection that only occurred through human design. The Amazon was looking for something here, and I needed to find it. But what?
The fish were beautiful, shiny rainbows, swimming in and around the huge chunk of pink coral that had cost Simon the earth. I remembered shuddering at the amount he'd spent the day it arrived, but he smiled and said the price was well worth it, before he quickly changed the subject.
But how . . .?
The other chair might work, but the follow-through would be awkward and the effort could take more than one throw. The door started vibrating on its hinges, and I took another frantic look around. The chair would have to do.
A loud jarring sound made the door and wall tremble. The Amazon apparently decided to throw herself against the barrier.
As I moved toward the desk, my foot hit something heavy. I retrieved the object at my feet. The ugly paperweight Simon's mother bought him last year for Christmas. The laptop went onto a high shelf near the escape hatch, and I hurled the heavy lead crystal at the tank with every ounce of strength I had.
Glass hit glass. For a second nothing happened. I crouched behind the desk and wondered what to try next. Then I heard a sound like a gunshot. The Amazon quit pounding. There was one second of silence, then a great cracking noise, like a thousand breaking glasses. The peace of the room was breached, and splintered glass and salty water swooshed onto the floor.
I raced over, trying not to notice the fish, floundering and helpless. It took a second to find the coral, but it was right there, near what was left of the tank, under a large, jagged-edged piece of glass. The twin pieces, naturally dissected right down the middle, came apart as I pulled. I could still see how together they had formed the perfect cavern for fitting the waterproofed, salt-water protected envelope that now lay in my other hand. An envelope holding one precious thumb drive.
The ramming resumed, and I noticed a crack form down the middle of the door. Clutching my treasure, I grabbed the laptop and flew through the washroom door. The same moment, one of the chair legs splintered. I slammed the back door. Shelves again in place, the locking mechanism snapped home, and I felt immense, but momentary, satisfaction. Even through the thickness, I knew from the sound of another mighty crack when the washroom door gave way. I smiled, wondering if the Amazon had enjoyed Jenny's Fish and Chips, and how long it would take her to find out how I'd escaped.
The thumb drive was returned to the coral and went into the pocket with Martha's books and the bills. I wanted to give it as much protection as I could. Getting Simon's laptop into my purse proved a bit more difficult, but determination won out. When I heard a gunshot on the other side of the wall, my smile widened. Guess the woman was tired of messing about with locked doors. Definitely time to get moving.
A service door led from the hallway to a sheltered exit, where I skirted a delivery lorry. With another backward glance to assure myself there was no fire-topped fury behind me, I blended in with the noontime masses. I needed somewhere to land for a few minutes and regroup. As luck would have it, the crowd herded me toward a busy fish and chips in the opposite direction from the fictitious
. A perfect place to hide.
The shop was full of hungry diners. At the counter, still panting a bit, I pointed at something on the overhead menu, little caring what I ordered, simply trying to rid my memory of those other fish. The gorgeous wonders dying on Simon's floor.
"I so love a good fish, don't you? With chips on the side, naturally. My idea of heaven."
I froze. The sound of his voice fueled my already spiked adrenalin. I prayed I was imagining things. Surely, he wasn't really there.
My hopes were dashed when the counterman brought my order and my imaginary friend swiped a chip.
"I must say, you're looking well, my lovely lioness. A bit more windblown than the last time I saw you, but the casual look suits you somehow. Still blonde, I see."
And he was now fully British.