Even only half awake and nursing the hangover from hell, Gareth Flynn had no trouble spotting Aidan Conrad. At six feet four, his friend towered over most people in the arrivals hall of Heathrow’s Terminal 1.
Travel case in hand and dark blue wool coat folded over his left arm, Gareth trudged across the tiled floors, dodging people and rolling luggage. After spending many years slinging his gear on his back, he wasn’t fond of hand luggage whether it had wheels or not. He also hated dragging coats around when he flew, but in the middle of January Florence was as cold as London. Not bringing a coat would have been stupid. He didn’t like freezing his arse off any more than the next man.
Inside a crowded, stuffy airport terminal, even a three-piece suit felt too warm and too much of a bother. He shrugged his shoulders, hoping to loosen the shirt sticking to his back.
“You look disgustingly awake,” he complained as he drew level with Aidan. In tailored trousers, a pale grey cashmere rollneck, and black leather jacket, Aidan looked far too chipper for nine o’clock at night.
“You look supremely out of it.”
“Too much talk, too little sleep,” Gareth said, summing up the four days he’d spent in Italy.
“And an excess of alcohol.”
The man Gareth had been to see would never pass up the opportunity to indulge in rare, expensive single malt to flavour the negotiations. And Gareth had a better head than Aidan for those kinds of nights.
Gareth’s higher alcohol tolerance was one reason why he and not Aidan had flown to Florence. The other was his knack for getting people’s co-operation. Gareth could convince the devil to hand over his pitchfork, while Aidan, when he wasn’t in the thick of the action, preferred to work his magic behind the scenes. Together, they made an excellent team, whether they worked for Nancarrow Mining or tackled one of the cases that landed on Aidan’s desk.
Their current caseload included a web of lies that was proving tricky to unravel. Gareth had been flying all over Europe bartering for information, coming home only to repack and head out again. He was tired, fed up, and close to selling his soul for a proper cup of tea. Something deep gold and delicately flavoured, worlds away from the tannin-dark, paint-stripper-strong brews he’d drunk over the last so many days.
The Italians had a knack for brewing coffee Jack would approve of.
They knew bugger all about tea.
“Did you get what we needed?” Aidan asked as he followed the stream of traffic from the airport.
“Of course. But it will cost you.”
Aidan made a rude noise. “I didn’t expect him to help us out of the goodness of his heart.”
“You owe him a weekend’s grouse shooting and a case of Islay malt.”
“Told you.” Gareth yawned, the crack of his jaw carrying over the engine noise. “He had to postpone a visit to his favourite gallery in Dubai to help us. Such generosity doesn’t come cheap.”
The case had dropped on Aidan’s desk four days before Christmas, already urgent, and he’d called Gareth late on Boxing Day to ask for his help. They’d gotten so busy Gareth couldn’t remember when he’d last slept in his own bed. New Year’s Day after returning from Norfolk, maybe? Now, with the last puzzle piece in place, his involvement in the case was over. And he was too tired to do more than take comfort from the fact that an innocent man wouldn’t go to jail.
He unzipped his leather case and liberated a thin blue folder. “Doesn’t look much, eh?”
“I don’t care what it looks like as long as it does the job. He vouches for the data?”
“He does. It’s exactly what your client said it would be. To the last comma.”
Silence settled between them as Aidan drove. The smooth purr of the Jag’s engine was putting Gareth to sleep. He fought to stay awake, wanting to greet Jack and the boys and wash the travel grime off himself before he stretched out. He was about to lose that fight when Aidan roused him.
“Flynn. Where do you want to be?”
“No idea.” He and Jack had become Nico and Daniel’s guardians back in October and were buying a house together. Meanwhile, they switched between Gareth’s Richmond home and Jack’s house in Wimbledon. They spent more time in Richmond since Jack had put his house on the market, but Gareth didn’t want to assume. He reached for his phone to call Jack when the Westminster chime of Aidan’s car phone stayed his hand.
“I’m told the flight from Florence landed on time, so you should be on the way back from Heathrow,” Aidan’s PA said. “You may want to come straight to the Inn. Rafael has a break in the Filbert case and he says it needs dealing with ASAP. I’ve taken the liberty to call in Dr. Horwood. He’s on his way here.”
“Understood,” Aidan acknowledged. The brief touch to Gareth’s shoulder was an apology. “We’ll need tea.”
“I should think so.” The amusement in her voice was impossible to miss. “Food and aspirin won’t go amiss either, I imagine. I’ll have everything ready when you get here.”
~ oOo ~
Mayfair after midnight could be romantic, Jack supposed. A place for gentle strolls in the moonlight and intimate dinners at a restaurant with muted decor, invisible waiters, and food that was out of this world. Somewhere streetlights washed translucent rainbows across the pavement and traffic noise dulled to a soft burble on the breeze. A place to watch lit windows blink out one by one as their owners called it a night and wonder over the lives they led. A place for murmured confidences, and steps that carried you home to red wine and cool jazz and from there to soft lights and softer sheets.
Yes, Mayfair after midnight could be romantic.
Unless it was a night in mid-January that offered nothing more enticing than freezing fog and clandestine endeavours. A night when his belly clenched with nerves while Raf and Gareth climbed up the apartment building’s fire escape, and one slip on the icy rungs would land them down in the alley with broken bones.
The opportunity to break into the penthouse had come late that evening, a slim chance after weeks of waiting. There’d been no time to make detailed plans, so all three of them were on the job instead of Raf going in alone.
Raf would get them into the penthouse and open the safe. Gareth had studied the penthouse’s owner since the middle of November and knew what kind of document they needed to find. Jack dealt with the electronic surveillance system in the penthouse suite, and the security guard. There was no room for failure, no chance of a do-over if their attempt wasn’t successful. Aidan needed proof his client was as innocent of the drug-smuggling charge as he said he was.
Going in as a team had been the only choice, even though Gareth had stepped off a plane just four hours earlier.
They divided the tasks to play to each of their strengths and got on with the job, assisted by the food, coffee, and aspirin Aidan’s PA had provided.
While Raf and Gareth searched the penthouse, Jack waited in the alley beside the apartment building. The narrow space was without street lights and the glow from a waxing crescent wasn’t strong enough to cut through the shadows. Jack was grateful for the chance to hide in the gloom. He’d bagged Aidan’s Jaguar for this outing. It was less conspicuous in this upscale neighbourhood than their usual black van, which was functional, but lacked style and panache. It also lacked the powerful Wi-Fi hotspot Jack had added to Aidan’s mobile office, and the comforting smell of plush leather seats.
Maybe the Chimaera he and Mel had brought back from an assignment, and the AC Ace he’d rescued five months earlier from a fiery grave, had ruined his taste for mass produced transport. Jack didn’t know and didn’t care. While the van would have been roomier, it wouldn’t have been as luxurious. And it wouldn’t have had a view.
He pushed the driver’s seat back as far as it would go to give himself room to turn without leaning on the horn. One of the three tablets he’d set out on the passenger seat showed the street view around the apartment block. On the second Jack monitored the building’s lobby, the stairwells, and the lift. The third screen showed the inside of the apartment.
The heart of the setup was Jack’s laptop, screen propped up on the dashboard and the keyboard resting on his thighs. It let him keep an eye on Gareth, Raf, and the whole neighbourhood without having to leave the car.
Some days, being a hacker had distinct advantages.
Gaze fixed to his screens, he picked up his phone and dialled.
“It’s bedtime,” he said when the call connected. “I hope you’re not still playing Call of Duty.”
“We were doing homework, actually,” Daniel said.
“Well, give it a rest now. It’s late.”
“Where are you?”
“Sitting in Aidan’s car outside a house, keeping an eye on Raf and Gareth.”
“Gareth is back?”
“Yep. Aidan picked him up from the airport. They were on the way to us when Raf called him for help. And then Moneypenny called me.”
“Her name isn’t Moneypenny.”
“I know. But she acts like it.” Jack had a soft spot for Aidan’s PA, for the way she was never rattled whatever one of them said or did. “I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be. Are you okay to go to bed?”
“Yeah.” Nico’s voice came from a little farther away and Daniel echoed him.
“I’ll be there when you wake up. No… we will be there when you wake up. Gareth is done with his job.”
“Is he okay?”
“He looks as if he hasn’t slept in a week. Come to think of it—” Jack chuckled. “Ask him about the time he fell asleep over breakfast and ended up with a faceful of porridge.”
“Ask him.” Jack caught movement from the corner of his eye and sat up straighter. “I need to go. You’re going to bed?” His fingers were already moving, directing the lobby cameras. He waited until he’d heard two sets of confirmations and good-nights before he ended the call.
The security guard who manned the apartment complex’s front desk had spent the last hour going over his fantasy football league team. Now he was earning his pay. He flicked through the surveillance screens, checked the status of all the electronic locks and alarms in the building, and ticked items off a list on the tablet beside him.
When he went over the penthouse alarms for the third time, Jack sighed.
“There is always one,” he whispered into Gareth’s ear and watched his gaze flick around the room in response. Gareth had placed himself in the centre of the open-plan penthouse suite. The position gave him a view of all entrances and exits except for the bathroom and bedroom windows. Those Jack kept an eye on.
“One nosey boy scout of a security guard.”
Gareth relaxed his tight stance when he heard the amusement in Jack’s voice. “Did he notice you inserting the loop?”
“There’s no need to swear at me.” Nobody spotted him inserting loops into surveillance systems. Not since he’d been a cocky thirteen-year-old breaking into off-licenses to protect the local street kids. He’d taken pains to turn off the shops’ alarm systems, but he’d forgotten about the cameras in the alley. The ones Rio had used to watch him. Once Rio had read him the riot act and pointed out where he’d gone wrong, he’d never made that mistake again. “You may want to wind it up. I mean, how long can it take to photograph three sheets of paper?”
“Get your arse up here and I’ll show you.” Raf worked on the wall safe’s lock, his broad back blocking Jack’s view.
“Unnecessary. I can see you from here. I’ll distract the security guard, make sure he’s out of the way. Stick to the schedule. We don’t want the tenant of the joint to come home and find you setting up shop in his living room.” Jack’s fingers got busy and he chuckled to himself.
“I’m going to open a few doors.”
“Something Daniel asked me a while ago. Never mind. Yell when you’re ready to come down. We don’t want the guard catching you on the fire escape.”
He waited just long enough to hear Gareth confirm his instructions before he set to work.
~ oOo ~
The security guard had a mind of his own. It was damned inconvenient. At first, the man had followed where Jack had led him: to the delivery entrance at the back. On a normal day, the door would be locked and alarmed. Jack had unlocked it and opened it a tiny crack by playing with the electric latch.
The fact no alarm had sounded despite the door being open bothered the guard. He shut the door, then opened the control panel and made sure the alarm was set. Jack turned it off the moment the man closed the panel and then watched with glee as the guard opened the door.
The guard went through the routine again. Check the panel settings. Turn on the alarm. Open the door.
Defeated, he locked the door with a key he had on a bunch and bolted it for good measure. He even scribbled a note on the tablet he carried clipped to his belt, while Jack rigged something else for him to check. Something on the other side of the building.
The guard ignored the alarm.
He returned to the front desk, traded his tablet for a key he took from a drawer, and moved across the lobby to the lift reserved for the penthouse suite.
That… was a bad idea.
Once he reached the top floor of the building, a short flight of stairs would take him to the suite’s front door and close to Raf and Gareth. Too close.
Jack glanced at his third screen. Gleaming wooden floors, tall windows, and chunky furniture made up the suite’s living space. Leafy plants and flowering orchids sat on low tables. Jack had taken a liking to the garnet cushions and bronze-and-cinnamon coloured rugs, but he had no time to wonder where the interior decorator had found them. He couldn’t see Gareth or Raf anywhere, and his screen showed him the steel door of the safe wasn’t quite shut.
“Status?” Jack whispered into his comm.
“Going through the papers.”
“The guard’s coming up to your floor. He’s shed his tablet, so I can’t distract him.”
“Trap him in the lift?”
“Negative. The lift alarms are almost fireproof. I’ll try to slow him down. Be ready to drop from sight.”
Jack’s palms grew sweaty despite Gareth’s calm tone. It was so much easier when he was the one doing the crazy shit. Watching from the sidelines was hell. “Why the fuck can’t I see you?” he complained.
“We’re in the bathroom.”
There was a beat of dead silence as Jack’s brain worked overtime.
“Opening a sealed envelope, if you really want to know.”
Jack breathed again. “Fuck you, Flynn!”
There was no time for a comeback. The elevator doors opened on the top floor and the guard stepped into a small reception area. He turned his head from side to side and Jack had no idea what he was looking for. Or at. The space was bland and boring with pale carpets and pale walls. Two spindly chairs upholstered in duck egg blue sat in front of the window, and a ficus benjamina shed leaves in a corner too dark to keep it healthy.
It wasn’t a space designed to linger, so why was the guard standing there as if he wanted to grow roots?
“Turn around,” Jack muttered under his breath. “This place is boring, and you’ll be so much more comfortable at the front desk.”
The guard didn’t listen.
He took the four stairs to the penthouse suite instead.
And he had a key in his hand.
~ oOo ~
“Get clear!” Jack hissed. “He’s coming in.”
“I can’t fucking see you!”
Jack ground his teeth.
It didn’t help.
He took a deep breath.
That didn’t help either. He had to sit tight and watch the guard insert his key into the lock on the penthouse suite’s door, convinced this wasn’t standard procedure.
Moments later, he was sure.
The man switched on the wall sconces. He didn’t check the locks on doors and windows, or the safety of the apartment. He didn’t even notice the door of the safe standing open an inch. Instead, he made a beeline for the antique drinks cabinet in one corner of the long room. He lifted the cabinet’s lid to reveal a double row of bottles, grabbed one, twisted the cap off, and took a swig. Tension drained from his frame as the booze went down. His shoulders relaxed, and his stance softened. He raised the bottle for another mouthful, and then his head bowed.
It was the strangest performance Jack had ever witnessed. Especially when the guard then replaced the cap and set the bottle back into the cabinet. He lowered the lid, polished his finger marks off the wood with his sleeve, and left the apartment.
“What the fuck?”
“Good question. Is he gone?”
Raf stepped through the doorway leading to the bedrooms, Gareth a few steps behind him. “What was he doing?”
“Helping himself to a drink.”
“O…kay.” Raf dismissed the guard and his incomprehensible behaviour. “Flynn? What the fuck are you doing?”
“Checking out what had the guard so… ooh, nice, Armenian brandy. Good taste. Excellent taste, in fact. I approve.”
“Keep your hair on. I’m here.”
Jack’s lip quirked at the quiet, unhurried reply. He’d thought Aidan’s PA had plied Gareth with caffeine. But maybe Moneypenny was more devious than that.
“Did you find what we came for?” he asked as he watched Raf replace papers in the safe.
“Yes. Ready to leave in five.”
“I’ll clear the way.” Jack muted his mic before he could warn the two to take care with the ladder’s frozen rungs. Raf would only give him shit for sounding like a mother hen.
Now lubricated and visibly relaxed, the guard settled back at the front desk. The change in him was uncanny and digging into the guard’s past and present might have been amusing. But with Gareth and Raf due to climb down the fire escape, there wasn’t time.
Fantasy football wasn’t the distraction it had been earlier in the evening. More alarms would look suspicious.
They needed their final distraction.
Jack zipped up his jacket to show the red and blue logo of Lightning Fast. It was one of London’s newer, brasher courier companies, offering door-to-door deliveries whatever the hour. He clipped on his name tag and retrieved a clipboard and a padded envelope from the glove compartment.
The package, addressed to one of the other tenants of the building, contained nothing more exciting than bubble wrap. And the form on Jack’s clipboard demanded the package only be released against a signature.
“I’m going in,” he appraised his team mates.
“We’re coming down,” Gareth replied.
Jack stepped from the car, ready to make sure the security guard in charge of the building looked anywhere but towards the fire escape.
Coming soon to a bookstore near you:
Swings & Roundabouts, book #4 of the Power of Zero series.