‘Oh bollocks,’ said Moira, looking at the dark, forbidding entrance to the alley. She really needed to buy some milk before the shop shut at ten but bloody Alfie wouldn’t stop banging on about the Miller project, even when she’d turned her computer off, put her coat on and started jiggling her keys in her pocket.
‘Well, I must go, Alfie. See you tomorrow.’ She headed towards the lifts, lifting her hand in a weak farewell.
Alfie followed her. ‘Yeah, see you tomorrow. So should I call Frank about the overspend or send another email, do you think?’
Despite her best efforts, it had been another ten minutes before she’d finally got out of the office and now she had less than five minutes before Tesco shut. She peered into the shadows. She could either walk the long way around, which Usain Bolt would struggle to make in under five minutes, or she went through the alley. She hesitated before making a decision and, putting her bag over her head and across her chest, ran into the alleyway. What was the worst that could happen?
Amber ducked into the alley, listening out for the sounds of footsteps behind her. It was almost completely dark between the rows of buildings and she clung to the shadows, creeping further into the darkness. The opening to the alley was small and she prayed George would run straight past it.
He’d had a knife. She’d seen the glint of it when he approached her across Tesco’s carpark. She’d panicked and rammed him with her shopping trolley, crushing him against a parked car. Then she’d fled while he was on the ground. If he caught her down here she was dead.
Amber frantically searched her pockets for a weapon, nothing. Even her handbag had been on the trolley with her abandoned shopping.
‘Shit,’ she hissed into the darkness. Then stopped dead as she heard footsteps coming from the other end of the alley…
Had George phoned for back-up already? Surely they couldn’t have got there this quickly? The footsteps were approaching fast, actually running towards her. It had to be them. Amber pulled the flash-drive from her pocket. There was no way they were going to get it from her; she’d worked too hard, sacrificed too much for this information. She frantically scanned the wall in the faint light, feeling with her fingertips for a gap or missing brick where she could hide the flash-drive. The footsteps were almost upon her, along with the sound of loud, laboured breathing, as she felt a loose piece of plaster and pulled it away from the wall, shoving the flash-drive into the tiny space left behind. Before she could replace the plaster, the owner of the footsteps almost crashed into her, stopping abruptly and letting out a loud scream.
‘Oh my god! Shit! You scared me! Christ, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Um, sorry, I need to…can I just get past?’
Amber could just make out a young woman (well, young to her, but it seemed like everyone was younger than her nowadays), with curly hair, glasses and a panicked look on her face.
‘Did George send you?’
‘What? I don’t…George? I just need to get by. Can I please…?’ The young woman’s voice faltered as she tried to move past Amber towards the end of the alley.
A figure stood outlined in the light at the end of the alley. Amber reacted like lightening grabbing the woman and pinning her arms to her sides, while her other hand pressed against her mouth muffling her scream. ‘If you want to live, stay quiet.’ She hissed in the woman’s ear and pulled her back into the shadows.
The woman struggled feebly and Amber tightened her grip, glad for the gruelling sessions in the gym and with her personal trainer.
‘Amber, I know you’re down there.’ George lumbered further into the alley, moving with a pronounced limp. He used his phone as a torch and she glimpsed the knife shining in the glare of light.
The woman must have spotted it too as she stopped struggling, her whole body tensed. They were backed against the wall. Amber calculated her chances. She could throw the woman at George and make a run for it, but this woman was an innocent; the reason she’d joined the firm was to protect people like her.
‘Hand it over,’ George called. ‘Hand it over and you can walk away.’
She backed away, shuffling and stumbling, dragging the woman with her. She would just have to leave the flash-drive in its precarious position and hope George didn’t spot it.
‘We need to get out of here,’ Amber whispered. ‘Don’t suppose you have a car nearby?’
The woman shook her head.
Duh. She wouldn’t be walking through a dark alley if she had a car.
‘Amber, I’m not leaving without it,’ George was still waving the knife, the light from his phone not quite strong enough to reach Amber and the woman. ‘I know you’re there. You can either give it to me now or wait until C Team get here. There’s no way you’re going to get away.’
Why didn’t he just try to get it off her if he was so sure she was still in the alley? It suddenly dawned on her. George was scared. He could give it all the big man talk but she hadn’t seen him on an active mission in months. Not since Rome. C Team, on the other hand, were another matter. A right bunch of nasty bastards.
‘Right, I’m going to count to three then we’re going to run as fast as we can,’ Amber whispered. ‘Stick close to me. We need to keep out of sight, find some cover until I can get another car. Christ, what a fuck-up.’
‘Sorry. I shouldn’t be here. My god. I feel sick.’ The woman took a deep breath through her nose. ‘Oh, I just thought. My work is literally around the corner. Is that any good?’
‘Lead the way.’ Amber heard the sound of at least two cars speeding down the road towards the end of the alley where George was, and shoved the woman in the opposite direction. ‘Now!’
Moira ran. She sprinted through the blackness and didn’t look back. She could hear the woman’s footsteps close behind and prayed she didn’t trip. Her whole body throbbed with fear; she’d seen the knife in that crazy man’s hand.
They broke through the alley into the lesser darkness of the street.
‘Which way?’ The woman she assumed was Amber asked as they huddled against the closed shop fronts and caught their breath.
Moira pointed to the tall office building at the end of the street. It was in darkness; Alfie had finally gone home.
Checking up and down the empty high street, they made a run for it. She fumbled in her pocket for the keys as they approached and unlocked the deadbolts.
Amber shut the door and locked it from the inside while Moira ran to the flashing alarm panel and punched in the numbers. Crouching low, she led the way across the deserted foyer to the receptionist bay at the back. At the same time she heard the rumble of several cars driving slowly down the street before Amber pulled her down out if sight.
‘What do you do here?’ Amber whispered at her ear. How could her voice sound so calm?
‘It’s an accountancy firm, all very boring,’ she managed to stutter out as she slid to the floor and hugged her knees to her chest.
She hated the offices at night, especially with a strange woman who was being chased by a mad knifeman and C team, whoever the hell they were.
Why the hell had she taken the alley? Just for a pint of bloody milk!
‘Are you alright?’ Amber asked, sitting down next to her with her back against the desk.
Moira sucked in a breath. ‘What… yes,’ she said eventually and then searched in her bag for her phone. ‘We should call the police.’
‘No!’ Amber kicked the bag away before she could grab her phone.
‘But that man. He had a knife. He’s dangerous!’ Moira’s voice wobbled, close to tears.
‘George? Nah, he’s a bit of a wanker but he’s not dangerous. What’s your name?’
‘It’s Moira. My dad named me after some newsreader, so he said. I don’t really watch the news, does anyone now? Just look at the BBC news site if I need to know anything. I mean, my dad does but he’s old. Well, not that old but probably your age. If you know what I mean.’
Amber waited for her to stop rambling. ‘Right, Moira, I don’t think there’s any way they could have seen us come in here so we should have a bit of time.’ She looked around the office in the dim light provided by the street lamps outside. ‘Is that a kettle back there? A cup of tea would be good. You should have one too.’
‘Shall I make some tea then? You don’t seem like the type of person to be ‘Mother’.’
‘Yeah. Couple of biscuits if you’ve got any. Keep away from the window. I’m going to think for minute.’
Amber closed her eyes, looking as relaxed as Moira’s dad having his Sunday afternoon nap. Moira, on the other hand, was still shaking as she made her way over to the tea station, crouching awkwardly as she tried to keep below the level of the window. She flicked on the kettle and put a couple of teabags in two cups. The familiar actions of tea making – sniffing the milk for freshness, rummaging in the biscuit tin for the chocolate hobnobs which always made their way to the bottom – began to disperse the adrenaline in Moira’s body and her breath slowed and the pounding in her chest faded away.
Amber watched Moira through slitted eyes. The tea wasn’t really necessary but she could see that Moira had been heading towards hysteria and doing something, didn’t matter what, was always good for nerves. She considered her options. Not that she had many. Not if George had C Team in his pocket. The trouble was, when your whole life was based on lies and deception, it was hard to know who you could actually trust when the chips were down. She tried to think who owed her the most, who would at least help her to get away before double-crossing her – as they undoubtedly would. As, to be honest, she probably would in their shoes.
She went round and round her contacts but kept coming back to the same name. Roman Braff. You’d struggle to find a meaner son of a bitch in the Northern Hemisphere but he had a strange sense of loyalty. And, hopefully, a strong memory. It was a long time since she’d last dealt with him but he’d promised he’d repay her when she needed him.
‘Here you go.’ Moira interrupted her thoughts, handing Amber a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit before sitting next to her on the floor. ‘I didn’t think you’d take sugar, hope that’s okay.’
‘Cheers. I’m going to need to borrow your phone, Moira.’
‘Oh, of course.’ She found her bag and handed it to Amber.
Amber hung up and handed the phone to Moira. ‘I have a friend who can meet me in two hours. Ok if I hide out here until he arrives?’
‘Um sure, I guess… but I should let my dad know. He’ll be worried.’ Moira studied the older woman’s reaction and imaged her pursing her lips though she couldn’t see her face clearly.
Eventually she heard a sigh. ‘Fine, but just text him. Say you’re out with mates from work or something.’
Moira sniggered. ‘Yeah, right, he’d never believe that. He’s met the stuffy old bastards I work with. There’s only Alfie, and he’s not my type… I’ll tell him I met up with friends and not to wait up.’
‘Whatever he’ll believes to keep you both safe,’ Amber said.
There wasn’t any overt threat in the words, but Moira’s fingers still shook as she typed in the message and sent it with a smiley face emoji.
The phone pinged a minute later. ‘Be safe.’ She smiled; her dad was such a worrier. She couldn’t image what he would think of her current situation; he’d probably have a heart attack.
‘So, two hours.’ Moira sipped her drink. ‘What are we going to do for two hours?’
Amber had grabbed the biscuit pot and was munching her way through the receptionists’ supplies. ‘I need sugar when I’m stressed,’ she said wiping away crumbs. ‘It helps me think.’
Moira didn’t feel like eating anything. She suddenly remembered the crazed knifeman and wondered how this woman could stay so calm. Apart from stuffing her face with calories, she hadn’t even broken a sweat.
‘Why were you in that alley and why was that lunatic chasing you?’
Amber drained her tea and took her time to answer. ‘If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.’
Moira spurted out a mouthful of tea.
‘I’m only joking… It’s just the less you know about me, the better. In two hours we’ll part ways and you’ll never see me again.’
‘But you are a spy, aren’t you? All this talk of handing something over, a friend coming to get you in the middle of the night, no police. It’s not exactly an average day at the office.’
‘Spy. That’s such an old fashioned word. I’m in the information business. Simple as that.’
‘Oh, that’s what my Dad says. He’s a journalist.’
‘Yeah, he works for The Guardian.’
Amber considered this information. She had planned to give the evidence on the flash-drive to the highest bidder, but maybe going public with it would be better? Not only would it bring down half of MI5, it would be the moral thing to do really. Yeah, right. Amber had given up on morals a long time ago. But a newspaper might also be willing to pay, maybe not quite as much as certain countries might, but enough to make it worth her while. Revenge and money. Two of Amber’s favourite things.
‘What does he write about then?’ Amber said casually, mentally crossing her fingers that he wasn’t a sports writer or restaurant reviewer.
‘Politics mainly. He did that big story on election fixing last year. Did you see it?’
Bingo. ‘Yeah, it was everywhere for a while, wasn’t it?’
‘He’s doing something about the police at the moment. Cases that have been dropped because of cock-ups, that sort of thing. I think that’s why he worries about me so much, he’s always reading about really bad crimes, makes him paranoid something’s going to happen to me.’
Amber was barely listening. This could be good for her; she could get his details from Moira, hide out with Roman whilst she made a deal then take the money and run. Off to some country with no extradition treaty – mind you, they were usually a sweaty shithole, some bloody war raging or full of malaria-ridden mozzies. She racked her brain, making her way through the list of countries. Yep, shithole after shithole. Although, wasn’t Japan on the list? That might not be too bad, she did like sushi. And there was always Russia. She chuckled silently to herself. For every enemy she had in England, she had at least five in Russia. Her Moscow posting had been extremely busy.
‘Although, maybe he’s right,’ continued Moira. ‘I mean, this is dangerous, isn’t it? Hiding out here, running from that man. George. And you said you’d kill me.’
Amber sighed. She needed to get Moira on her side. ‘Moira, I said that was a joke. I’ve never hurt anyone. It’s a misunderstanding, that’s all. Once my friend arrives, we’ll head off and you’ll never have to see me again. You can go back to your nice, peaceful life as an accountant.’
‘Um, I’m not actually an accountant. Well, not yet. I mean, I want to be one but, well, if you must know, I failed the exams. Twice. So bloody stupid. So, anyway, I’m just working as an assistant.’
‘I’m sure it’s a very important job. Your dad must be proud of you.’
Moira shrugged her shoulders. ‘I dunno, I’m sure he thinks I’m thick.’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t. Anyway, talking of your dad, I may have some information he might be interested in. I could maybe give him a bell. What’s his number?’
‘You want to ring my dad? Isn’t that a bit weird?’
‘Believe me, if he wants a big story, he’ll be very happy to hear from me.’
‘Okay.’ Moira sounded uncertain but she opened her phone and scrolled through her contacts. ‘Shall I text it to you?’
‘No, no. Just read it out.’
Like she was going to give her number to Moira. No, she’d call – ‘What’s his name, your Dad?’
‘Pete. Pete Gibbons. Have you heard of him?’
She’d call Pete on a secure line, give him a little flavour of what was on the flash-drive and then – shit. The flash-drive. The fucking flash-drive was still in the alleyway.
To be continued…
© Barbed Words and Suzanne Rogerson