Copyright© 2011 by Barbara Davies.
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"Bonsoir, Mireille." Alex gave the brasserie's chalked menu a glance. "Gnocchi au gorgonzola, s'il vous plaît."
The woman behind the counter gave her a motherly smile. "And your usual glass of wine?"
"Sit," said Mireille. "I will bring it."
"Je vous en prie."
Alex sat at her usual table with a feeling of relief. At midday she'd had time only to snatch a slice of socca and now she was starving.
The table's other occupant gazed at her over the rim of his beer glass. "Hard day?" asked Helmut, raising blond eyebrows.
"God save me from Hollywood starlets." She straightened the red-and-white checked tablecloth.
Her passenger had departed for Monte Carlo at last, and Alex was glad to see the back of her. For the past week she had run Alex ragged with demands above and beyond the duties normally expected of a chauffeur. But Élite Voitures, the limo and chauffeur hire company that employed Alex, specialised in the top end of the market, and alienating the rich and famous was unfortunately not an option. So Alex had carried bags of shopping and ferried her glamorous passenger and various 'boyfriends' to the beach, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and on one occasion the home of a local celebrity.
It was just as well she kept herself fit—twice she had been forced to carry her unconscious client back to her suite at the Negresco, via the side entrance of course. She drew the line at supplying drugs, though. Not that it had made much difference. She had discovered a wrap of cocaine down the back of the Mercedes' rear seat when she valeted it that afternoon.
Mireille arrived at Alex's elbow with her food and a glass of red wine. "You look tired." She patted Alex on the shoulder.
"I am. Thought I might take a break, hire a car and take a drive up into the mountains." Alex stifled a yawn and picked up her fork. "It's cooler up there."
Mireille gave her an approving nod. "With Chantel?"
"Peut-être." It would mean delaying her trip. Tomorrow was Monsieur and Madame Fortier's wedding anniversary, so their daughter was spending the day with them. Chantel had invited Alex, of course, but her father, who was something in admin at the commissariat de police, disapproved of Alex, and she had no desire to be on the receiving end of any more of his frowning glances. Not that that was likely to be a problem for much longer, she thought wryly, given the speed with which her relationship with Chantel was cooling.
Mireille returned to the bar, and Jean-Baptiste came in from the brasserie's back yard, carrying a crate of wine. He joined his wife behind the counter, and began to transfer the bottles.
Alex returned her attention to Helmut. "Working tonight?" He was a bouncer at Toussaint's, a popular club in the old town.
"Ja." He gave his watch a gloomy glance. "I should get going."
"Why the long face?"
"Kapanadze's men have been sniffing around."
Alex frowned. The Georgian mob boss was a nasty piece of work, or so she'd heard. "What's he after? Protection money?"
Helmut nodded. "His fingers are in all sorts of pies. Drugs. Money laundering.... He has contacts in the Police Nationale also, they say."
"Wouldn't surprise me. Is Toussaint going to pay up?"
"Nein." Helmut cracked his knuckles. "I am to help him put on a show of strength tonight."
"Be careful," said Alex.
He waved a large hand in dismissal. "I'm a big boy."
And ex Foreign Legion, she reminded herself. "So I've been told." She returned his easy grin.
The gnocchi left her feeling pleasantly full, and with a sigh of contentment she reached for her wine. Moments later, Mireille was at her elbow.
"Dessert?" She collected Alex's empty plate.
Alex didn't have to look at the menu board. "Salade de Fruits Frais."
Mireille smiled and went to fetch it.
The door to the brasserie opened and Gil Cuvier came in. He crossed to the bar, accepted his usual glass of pastis from Jean-Baptiste, and brought it to Alex and Helmut's table.
"Salut, Gil," said Alex, as the little builder with the big moustache sank onto his usual chair.
"Avoiding your wife?" asked Helmut.
"No more than usual." Gil regarded her with a frown. "You look tired."
"Hollywood starlet. Staying at the Negresco," she said succinctly.
"Ah." He smiled.
The phone rang, and Alex dug it out of her pocket and looked at the caller ID. Damn! "Allô, Jacques. Ça va?"
"Ça va," came her boss's voice. He switched to English. "I have a passenger for you. Pick up is tomorrow morning. The client is here for a conference at the Acropolis. Could take two days, or three."
"But I thought we agreed," she said, exasperated. "I need some time off, Jacques. Can't Pierre do it?"
"If he has a sex change." Jacques paused to let his meaning sink it.
"Oh." He had hired her for just this eventuality. Some clients, especially women, felt safer with a chauffeuse, and many men weren't averse to having a woman at their beck and call. Jacques' last woman driver had relocated to Paris with her boyfriend, and Alex was beginning to see why. "All right," she said grudgingly. "Details?"
"The Managing Director of Myles Visual Communication will be arriving at the airport, first flight from Heathrow tomorrow."
"Is that it?"
"Oui. You have a tongue in your head? Eh bien. À plus." He rang off.
"Merde!" Alex thrust the phone back in her pocket. "So much for time off."
"Another Hollywood starlet?" asked Gil, who had been eavesdropping.
She considered what information she'd been given and shook her head. "Sounds corporate."
"Businessmen can be just as bad," said Helmut, finishing off his beer. "We get them in Toussaint's sometimes, after a conference, out of their heads on drink and drugs."
Her fruit salad arrived. Jean-Baptiste had brought it himself. He studied her. "You look tired, Alex. There is a saying: a man should work to live, not live to work."
"I know." She reached for her spoon. "Would someone tell my boss?"
Heather regarded the mountains passing beneath the airbus with a twinge of guilt. Lorraine had booked her a window seat, but for the past two hours she'd taken little advantage of it—too busy writing her speech and reading the conference notes. The seat was Club Europe too. Not that Heather needed the legroom—lack of height was a family trait. But she was glad not to be pressed up close and personal to a fat businessman, and the sausage, scrambled egg, fried tomato, mushrooms, bacon, glass of orange juice, and cup of coffee served soon after take off had been welcome.
She saved her latest changes and closed the laptop. She hated giving presentations, to complete strangers. It was bad enough giving talks at the local Chamber of Commerce concerning a subject on which she was an expert—the graphics design agency she had founded five years ago. But talking about batteries at a symposium on electro-chemistry? She had felt unable to turn down this opportunity, however, no matter how out of her depth she felt. Professor Barnes made such a point of inviting her, after all—the Oxford professor had always had a soft spot for Ben and wanted to help make his battery a success.
The seat-belt sign came on and Heather buckled up, listening to the announcements that followed, in both English and French, with half an ear. A businessman two seats in front of her had trouble with his seat belt, and a flight attendant came to help him.
Then they were over the sea, which was a clear, vivid blue, and the plane was going into a gentle, banking turn until they were flying parallel to the coast. Heather gazed down at the sun-baked city, dotted with pink roofs, which nestled between the foothills of the Maritime Alps and the ocean, and was fringed along its entire length by beaches.
"We are now making our approach to Nice Côte d'Azur International," came the captain's voice over the PA system. "We hope you have enjoyed your flight and that your stay will be a pleasant one."
A yearning to be here on holiday rather than on business overtook Heather—not that she had anyone special to share it with. She sighed. Lately, friends and family had taken to hinting that she should find herself a life outside work. She had told them she was too busy, which was true. She hadn't had a real break since Ben died two years ago, and feeling tired had become second nature. She had also reminded them that few, if any, opportunities to meet someone suitable came her way—the less said about that blind date fiasco just before Ben died the better (it had been a case of opposites repulsing rather than attracting). It hadn't stopped the hints though—they'd simply started emailing her links to gay dating websites instead. Perhaps they were right.
Maybe when the battery is in production I'll subscribe to one of those websites. She smiled wryly. Yeah, right.
The plane's descent pulled Heather back to her surroundings, and she clutched the arms of her seat and braced herself. She opened her eyes again only when a faint screech of wheels accompanied by a series of minor bumps, followed by the sensation of slowing, announced they were safely down.
As they taxied to the terminal complex, she undid her seatbelt, stretched, and gathered her belongings. Lorraine had arranged for a chauffeur-driven car to meet her and be at her disposal while she was in Nice—a luxury, but one worth the expense if it took the burden of getting to the right place at the right time in a foreign city from Heather's shoulders. She hoped Lorraine had chosen well.
The alarm brought Alex awake in a sweat that owed little to the heat of the French Riviera in July and everything to her dream. Dozens of machete-wielding militia had been charging the post where she and her fellow UN peacekeepers were stationed, and her rifle had jammed.... A shower sluiced away the sweat and the dream, but both would no doubt return.
She grabbed a clean uniform—Jacques liked his drivers to look smart—and dressed quickly, making a mental note to drop off her dirty clothes at the dry cleaners round the corner. As she brushed her hair and tied it back, her fingers working automatically to achieve a neat French plait, she wandered over to the window and looked out. The Alps seemed very close this morning and the sky was a clear, cloudless blue.
Jacques had specified the first flight from Heathrow. A quick call to the airport established that the plane had arrived on time and was currently taxiing to Terminal 1. By the time Alex got there, her passenger should have cleared immigration and customs. From the information she'd been given, he or she was probably British. Old or young? Male or female? And why request a chauffeuse? Given that it was a company Managing Director attending a conference, it would probably turn out to be a middle-aged man with a paunch and a roving eye. As long as his hands didn't rove too. If they did, he wouldn't be the first to learn that Alex could more than handle herself.
She shrugged her shoulders into her jacket and tipped her cap to an angle that walked a fine line between professional and jaunty. Then she checked she had her keys and wallet, and pulled her apartment door closed behind her.
Alex had picked her apartment for its location rather than its size, and a quick jog brought her to the garage showroom and forecourt that comprised Élite Voitures. As she closed the high gate behind her and strode towards the Mercedes assigned to her, one of Jacques' other drivers hailed her. He was valeting one of the stretch limos.
"Thought you were off today."
She lifted her hands and let them drop. "Moi aussi."
The sign board was in the Merc's glove compartment where she had stowed it yesterday. She scrubbed out the Hollywood starlet's name, and replaced it with 'MYLES VISUAL COMMUNICATION'. Then she slid into the driver's seat and switched on the ignition.
Heather wheeled her trolley case out of the restricted area of the arrivals hall and scanned her surroundings. ATMs, pay phones, gift shops, pharmacies, snack bars, and newspaper vendors jostled for her attention. But it was a group of uniformed chauffeurs, some looking alert and expectant, others bored, that caught her eye. One of them, a tall, dark-haired woman in smart navy cap, jacket, and trousers, her bearing erect, held a sign bearing the name of Heather's company.
With a feeling of relief, she made her way over. "I'm Heather Myles." She proffered her passport, in case the chauffeuse wished to confirm her identity, but a gloved hand waved it aside.
The woman was even taller close to and the eyes regarding Heather with interest were a striking blue. "Alex Rogers," she said, in perfect English. "Welcome to Nice, Ms. Myles. May I?" The sign was foldable, apparently, for she tucked it in her pocket and reached for Heather's laptop bag.
"Thank you," said Heather.
The driver slung the bag's strap over one shoulder, and beckoned with her free hand for the handle of the trolley case. Heather let her take it.
"This way." She led Heather towards the terminal exit, and they emerged through two sets of automated doors into dazzling sunshine. After the air-conditioned cool, the heat came as an almost physical blow. Heather wished she had her sunglasses, but they were in her case—it had been cloudy in London.
They turned left and walked past several palm trees to an exclusive 'permit-holders only' car park adjacent to the terminal entrance. The locks of a sleek black Mercedes with tinted windows clunked open as the driver approached it. She deposited Heather's bag and trolley case in its boot, then held the rear door open for her.
Heather slid inside the air-conditioned cocoon and let the cushioned leather envelop her. So far, so good.
Moments later, the engine purred into life and blue eyes regarded her in the mirror. "Where to, Ms. Myles?
"The Hôtel Saint-François." Heather hoped she hadn't mangled the name—she'd never been good at French. Belatedly the driver's command of English and absence of any accent struck her. What was her name again? Alex Rogers didn't sound French. Heather opened her mouth to ask if she was British, then closed it again. What business was it of hers?
The Mercedes moved smoothly out of the car park, engine humming. Heather stifled a yawn and gazed out of the window at a shuttle bus disgorging its cargo of passengers. A few minutes later, they had left the terminal complex behind, and were turning onto a busy thoroughfare. They picked up speed.
The drive was peaceful, and most of the route, which went on for miles, seemed to comprise a sunlit sea front dotted with palm trees and poles from which flags flapped in the breeze.
This must be the longest promenade ever.
To her right lay a broad, paved strip, frequented by dog walkers—miniature poodles seemed to be in vogue—cyclists, and inline skaters. It separated the road from the beach, which was of pebbles not sand, she saw with some surprise. Beyond it, the ocean stretched blue to the horizon. To her left, casinos, museums, and gardens flashed past. One striking building with an onion-domed roof called caught her attention. So that's the Negresco. Lorraine had asked if she'd like to stay there but Heather had opted for something less expensive.
Lights turned red, and the Mercedes halted to let a crowd of chattering pedestrians cross, before easing into motion once more. They were shadowing an open-topped bus, from which smiling tourists pointed and snapped pictures. Once more Heather felt a pang that she was here only to attend some boring conference. Which reminded her....
"I'll need you this afternoon," she told the driver. "I have to be at the Acropolis Convention Centre for 2pm sharp. Do you know it?"
"Of course, Ms Myles, " came the reply. "I'll get you there in good time."
"Thank you." Heather turned her gaze back to the ocean, her view blocked momentarily by a little train full of tourists trundling past. A few minutes later, the Mercedes slowed, and they turned left off the promenade onto a bustling city street, then right. Then they were gliding to a stop in front of a smart awning sporting the name, Hôtel Saint-François.
The driver turned off the ignition and silence fell. Heather checked her watch and was pleasantly surprised. She still had time for a nap and some lunch from room service.
Then the rear door opened and the driver stood waiting for her to get out. "If you'd like to register at reception, Ms. Myles, I'll arrange for a porter to take up your luggage."
Two olives, some bits of tomato, and an anchovy escaped from the scooped-out bread roll—eating a pan-bagnat was always a messy business. Alex popped the strays back where they belonged, retrieved yet more escapees—pieces of hardboiled egg this time—and dug in. It made a nice change, having time for a leisurely lunch at a bistro. She wondered what Heather Myles was eating at the hotel.
As she chewed, she considered her passenger. Heather was the embodiment of 'nice things come in small packages'—she only came up to Alex's shoulders, but she was very easy on the eye and a natural blonde, if Alex was any judge. The grey business suit revealed a pair of shapely ankles; a shame it was so dull—a colour that brought out the green of her eyes would have suited her better. And she should smile more. She seemed preoccupied, and there were shadows under her eyes. Was she worrying about the conference? A symposium on electro-chemistry wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs—Alex had checked the events list on the Acropolis's website.
She searched her memory. No wedding ring. Maybe Heather had inherited the family business. It must be doing OK, if she could afford to stay at a luxury hotel and keep a chauffeur-driven car at her disposal.
Alex checked her watch. Traffic in the city centre could be murder at this time of the day. It would have been quicker for Heather to catch a tram to the convention centre, or even to walk, but Alex wasn't going to do herself out of a job. She'd better get going. She wiped her fingers on her napkin, paid her bill, and went to fetch the car.
The receptionist at the Hôtel Saint-François's front desk gave Alex an impassive glance as she dialled the number for Heather's room. "Your car has arrived, Mademoiselle. The driver is waiting in the lobby." She replaced the receiver and indicated that Alex should take a seat.
Alex sat in one of the plush chairs and picked up a copy of 'Nice-Matin'. A few minutes later, the tap of high heels announced the arrival of her passenger. Alex put down her newspaper, and went to meet Heather. The preoccupied look was back and she was clutching the laptop bag like a protective shield.
"Shall I take that?" she asked.
Heather shook her head. "I'll keep it with me."
Alex led her to the car—she'd had to park a little further down the street this time. When Heather had put on her seat belt, she eased the Mercedes out into the traffic. "The Acropolis?" she checked.
Traffic was even heavier than Alex had anticipated—there'd been an accident on the Boulevard Jean Jaurés and two men were standing next to a dented van, gesticulating, while honking drivers tried to squeeze past. She gave the car clock an anxious glance and then relaxed—plenty of time.
At last, they drew abreast of a sign giving directions to the Acropolis. "Not far now." She glanced at Heather in the mirror, and saw her nod.
Movement up ahead snapped Alex's attention forward. A blue Volvo was swerving to block their path. It screeched to a halt and two men emerged, brandishing handguns. Without pausing for thought, she braked, put the Mercedes into reverse, and put her foot down. From the rear seat came a squawk of surprise as Heather was thrown forward against her seatbelt.
Keeping one hand on the steering wheel and her gaze on the road behind, Alex reversed round the car coming up fast on their rear to box them in. She cleared it by inches, and as she rocketed past, its driver gaped at her in dismay. She focussed on reversing in a straight line.
"What are you doing?" cried Heather.
"Hold on." It had been a couple of years since Alex had performed a moonshiner's turn. She reached for the handbrake and turned the steering wheel hard over. The world spun past her windscreen, and Heather yelped. When they had come to rest once more, the Mercedes rocking on its suspension, they were facing back the way they had come.
To the accompaniment of indignant shouts and the blare of car horns, Alex put the Merc in gear and her foot down hard on the accelerator. The frustrated faces of their would-be attackers receded in her rear view mirror as the Merc pulled powerfully away.
"Will you please tell me what's going on?" Heather's tone was icy, her cheeks attractively flushed, as she straightened her jacket and seatbelt.
Alex changed up another gear. What indeed?
"Over here, Heather."
Heather turned in the direction of the shout and saw a grinning Professor Barnes beckoning to her from the other side of the room. The Hermès was one of the smaller venues available at the Acropolis, but even so there was banked seating for 300, all with a good view of the stage. As she fought her way along the row of seats towards him, heads, mostly male and bearded, turned to follow her. She felt like a fish out of water.
"Glad you could make it." Barnes looked at ease in this setting, and was wearing his usual rumpled shirt and baggy tan corduroys. "Let me introduce you."
By the fourth name Heather had lost track. It might have helped if she didn’t still feel out of sorts, rattled as much by Alex's high-speed reversal as by the attempted carjacking.
Had she done the right thing, insisting the driver deliver her to the convention centre as planned? Alex had got quite heated, insisting it looked like more than a random ambush—the attackers had been carrying guns. Heather had to take her word for it—her view of events had been limited; she had caught a glimpse of the blue car blocking their path, but no more. It made no sense.
"By all means go ahead and report the incident to the police," she had told Alex. "But I'm here for the conference and I have no intention of missing it. Please drive me there. Now."
With an inward wince, she remembered the brusqueness of her tone. It had drawn a sharp look, but Alex had complied, taking an unnecessarily complicated route, it seemed to Heather, that approached the Acropolis from another direction entirely. She had also insisted on parking in the convention centre car park, though Heather warned she would probably be a couple of hours. Alex's business card, on which she had scrawled her mobile phone number, now nestled in Heather's jacket pocket, for use when Heather was ready to leave.
She wrenched her attention back to the conversation. Barnes was telling everyone how tragic it was that meningitis had cut short the life of one of his most brilliant students. Discovered amongst Ben's papers by his sister after his death, Ben's modification to the design of a conventional rechargeable battery, enabling it to retain a stunning 95% of its charge, was evidence of a potential that could now never be fully tapped.
"That young man is a great loss to Science," said Barnes. "And to his family, of course," he added, seeing the sadness in Heather's eyes, as his words brought back memories of that day. "Sorry."
Heather waved his apology aside. "It's all right, Professor." She paused as she caught a glimpse of a familiar face. That too long silver hair, those fleshy jowls were unmistakeable.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
She realised she was frowning. "It's nothing. I just caught sight of Sir Desmond Barrington."
At the mention of the industrialist, Barnes craned his head round. "I didn't know he was coming."
"Makes sense," said a thin-faced man, whose name Heather had already forgotten. "I've heard he's planning to move into cell technology."
"Really? I'd heard he was having money troubles," said Barnes. He glanced at Heather. "Do you know him?"
She nodded. Unfortunately. "When I was awarded the UK and European patents, lots of battery manufacturers came calling. Sir Desmond was one of them."
"He wants to invest?"
Hijack a cash cow and milk it to death, more like. "No. To buy the patent outright. When I turned him down, he tried to buy an exclusive licence."
"I take it you turned that down too?" said Barnes.
She nodded. "After that, he tried for sole licensee."
"Sounds keen," said the thin-faced man.
'Desperate', more like. But she didn’t put that thought into words.
"Why didn't you take him up on his proposal, Heather?" asked Barnes. "You're in graphics design, normally, aren't you? Wouldn't it have made life a lot simpler?"
She shrugged. "I've subcontracted the actual manufacture of the battery."
Barnes studied her. "Put your back up, did he? Barrington, I mean."
"Something like that." She had told Lorraine to stop taking his calls. So he had started ringing her at home. And now he was here.
At that moment, the man under discussion caught sight of her. What looked like astonishment flashed across Sir Desmond's face, then he turned and spoke to an aide. The man nodded and hurried away.
What was that about? I'm on the convention programme. Why should he be surprised to see me?
But she had no time to consider the matter further, for the chairman of the symposium had mounted the stage and was telling people to take their seats. And according to the schedule, Heather's presentation was up first....
Alex ended the phone call, and gazed, unseeing, through the windscreen. The policeman had been by turns dismissive and rude. She had been ready to supply him with full details of the attempted ambush—the make and model of the cars, the build and appearance of their occupants, and the calibre of their weapons, which she thought had been Sig SP 2022s—pistols issued usually to the French police. But his tone made it clear he wasn't interested. An armed attack in broad daylight, in the centre of Nice? Impossible. She had misread a simple traffic incident. And since no one was hurt....
Idiot. Even if he couldn't, she recognised the difference between a traffic snarl up and attempts to box her in. If it hadn't been for expertise gained courtesy of her time in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment....
She speed-dialled another number and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.
"Jacques. It's Alex."
Her boss's tone sharpened. "Problem?"
"Someone tried to ambush me on the way to the Acropolis."
"Quoi?" he said, alarmed. "Is the Mercedes OK?"
"Not a scratch on her."
"Bon." Relief filled his voice. "And the passenger?"
"Startled and a bit shaken up, but otherwise OK. I just dropped her off at her convention—she insisted."
"C'est bien. And you have reported this to the flics?"
"They weren't interested. Thought I'd imagined the whole thing."
His grunt didn't sound surprised. "But the car, it is OK?" he repeated.
"Yes, Jacques." Alex rolled her eyes. "And so am I, thanks for asking."
"I did not need to," he said, his tone indignant. "You are well enough to call me."
So much for advice and support, she thought wryly.
"So," he said. "Does the passenger still require you to drive for her?"
"Formidable." Satisfied, he rang off.
Alex stuffed the phone in her pocket. Two hours, Heather had said. Turning on the car radio, she settled down to wait.
Heather made her way downstairs to the Acropolis's foyer with a feeling of relief. She was tired of talking about the battery to complete strangers. It hadn't helped that several of the more technical questions had left her floundering. That she had learned only enough electrochemistry to enable her to get by seemed an alien concept to those whose speciality was cell technology. But what did I expect from a technical symposium? At least Sir Desmond had kept his distance. He must have realised now was not the time to continue his attempts to browbeat her.
She opened the glass entrance door and stepped out into the sunshine. As she adjusted the laptop bag's strap over her shoulder, she saw the Mercedes gliding towards her, Alex at the wheel. Good.
Movement from the corner of her eye made her turn. Two stern-faced, dark-suited men were making their way towards her, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Policemen? she wondered, as they closed in on her. By now, Alex would have reported the earlier incident.
"Mademoiselle Myles?" said the taller of the pair, while his companion reached for her elbow.
"Yes?" She shook off the hand, but he reached for it again.
"Come with us, s'il vous plaît." The taller man urged her towards the car park. Heather took a step, then stopped, internal alarm bells ringing.
"May I see some ID?"
"No time for that, mamselle." He gave her a tight smile. "Our instructions are to take you to a place of safety. Eh bien. Venez avec nous. Do not make things difficult."
The grip returned to her elbow, and she felt herself being tugged forward.
"Let me go." She dug in her heels.
Brakes screeched, and a man cried out. Then the hand grasping her elbow was gone and the Mercedes' bumper was brushing against her shin. She gaped at it and at the trouser-clad legs poking out from beneath it.
"Get in," shouted Alex, powering round the bonnet towards her.
The man who hadn't been run over cursed and raised his fist, but Alex's booted foot lashed out twice and he was unconscious before he hit the concrete.
"I said get in the car, damn it!"
Alex's yell jolted a still stunned Heather into action and she ran to the car. As she settled into the back seat, the Mercedes was already careering out of the car park, watched by the staff and delegates emerging from inside the Acropolis, drawn by the commotion.
"Are you all right?" asked Alex.
"I think so." With shaking hands, Heather fastened her seat belt. "What just happened?"
"We just saw proof that that carjacking wasn't random."
"But I don't understand." Heather tried to take it all in. "What were those men after?"
Blue eyes studied her in the rear view mirror, their expression sombre. "You."
For once Providence was on Alex's side. In the Rue Vernier, a car pulled out just ahead of her, leaving a rare parking space just round the corner from her apartment. She parked the Merc and switched off the ignition.
Heather peered through the tinted window. "This isn't my hotel."
"It won't be safe there. This is my place."
Heather gave her a confused look. "But— My luggage."
"Give me your room key and I'll fetch it for you. Come on."
Alex got out and waited for Heather to do the same. The knuckles clasping Heather's laptop bag were white, so Alex didn't offer to take it from her. She locked the car, and led the way.
"I'm on the first floor." She pushed open the front door of her apartment building and went in. "Up these stairs." Heather followed her.
On the top floor, Alex stopped outside her front door, found her keys and let them in. She hadn't left the place too untidy, thank heavens. "Make yourself at home."
Heather made for the sofa bed and sat down.
"I'd better have that key," said Alex. Heather gave her an uncomprehending stare. "Your luggage," she prompted.
"Oh." Heather made no move to produce the key.
Alex studied her. The confident businesswoman had disappeared, and in her place sat a vulnerable, shocked young woman, trying to come to terms with a world that had, without warning, become hostile and unfamiliar, and totally unlike the safe, civilised place she had always believed it to be.
A wave of weariness washed over her. She had thought, when she became a civilian once more, she'd left all that behind. But it was the same the world over, apparently: the strong tormented the weak, and the powerful, the selfish, and the greedy took what they wanted without let or hindrance, leaving in their wake only distress, pain, and destruction.
Anger at the injustice of it ignited in Alex's gut, sweeping away her tiredness. Self-knowledge followed. Something about this small, fair-haired woman had triggered her protective instincts. Was it that Heather was a fellow Englishwoman, alone and without protection in a foreign city, or that Alex was attracted to her?
Or all of the above? thought Alex, ruefully. My men always said I had a hero complex and never know when to keep my nose out of someone else's business. Looks like they were right.
She squatted on her heels in front of Heather, so that their eyes were level. "You're upset and confused. I realise that. But you can trust me."
"Can I?" Heather gave her a searching look.
Alex waited. If their positions were reversed, would she trust Heather?
"I don't have much choice, do I?" said Heather at last.
Alex cocked her head. "If you want me to take you to your hotel, then I will. But they'll almost certainly be waiting for you."
"Who are 'they'?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Those men at the Acropolis looked and acted like hired thugs. But as to who hired them...." She shrugged.
Heather scrubbed her face with one hand, then at last produced the keycard from her pocket. "Room 98," she said.
"Thanks." Alex took it and stood up. "I won't be long."
She drove twice around the block containing the Hôtel Saint-François before parking in a public car park. There, she mulled over what she'd seen—keen-eyed men, muscles bulking out their T- and sweat-shirts, lurking outside the front and rear entrances. They'd slipped up, though. There was a third way into the hotel, through the delivery entrance in the side alley, and it was unguarded.
She examined the key Heather had given her. Judging by her choices so far—a Club Europe flight, a hired limo for the duration—her room would be expensive, probably one of those with a balcony overlooking the sea front. But on which floor?
Alex took off her chauffeur's cap and shucked her jacket—some of the watchers might have been involved in the earlier ambush; no sense in inviting recognition. Hands in her pockets, trying to look as if she were merely a tourist taking an afternoon stroll, she made her way up the alley to the side entrance.
A concertina-style metal grill barred her way, but it was unlocked. She slid it open, and entered the cramped yard. Crates of empty wine bottles awaiting collection were stacked by the open door that gave access into a bustling kitchen from which enticing aromas wafted.
The trick was to act as though you had every right to be there. Curious glances from the kitchen staff followed her, as she strode past, but no one challenged her. She emerged by a staircase—from its narrowness, one used by staff rather than guests. It led to the next floor. Through the window of a fire door she peered at the room numbers in the corridor beyond. They were too low, so she resumed her ascent. It was another five minutes before she found the room she was seeking.
No one was stationed outside the door to Number 98 or at the end of the corridor. Sloppy. Unless they're already inside.
Muscles tensed, Alex slid Heather's keycard into the slot, and, when the lock clicked open, turned the handle. Her senses told her at once that the room was unoccupied, but she checked the en suite bathroom and fitted wardrobes anyway. Satisfied no intruder lay in wait, she relaxed.
The room had a wonderful view over the Baie des Anges. She spared it a single glance then flung Heather's trolley case onto the bed and opened it. Into the case she threw everything she came across that didn't belong to the hotel. Her packing wouldn't win any prizes, but she had no time for neatness. Fortunately, Heather travelled light.
She was giving the bathroom one final survey, to check she hadn't missed anything, when she heard the sound of a door opening, followed by men's voices. Peering around bathroom door, she saw two men had come in. Blue-grey overalls proclaimed them to be from maintenance, but Alex's instincts told her otherwise.
She darted out of the bathroom, grabbed the hard-sided case and flung it at the nearer of the two men. It hit him squarely in the solar plexus, and he doubled over, gasping. Cursing, his colleague fumbled inside his overalls and produced a pistol.
Are Sig SP 2022s standard issue for maintenance men?
Alex nerve-chopped him on the forearm, and with a pained yelp, he dropped the gun. She kicked it under the bed, then bent to retrieve Heather's case.
A fist struck her right cheekbone and sent her reeling. The first man had recovered more quickly than anticipated. He advanced on her, scowling. His friend joined him, shaking the feeling into his wrist. She backed up, putting the bed between her and them and looking for something to use as a weapon. A vase. A lamp. Nothing met the bill.
Hoping she hadn't forgotten all her unarmed combat skills, she launched herself across the bed. The heel of her palm struck the first man below his occipital ridge, and he collapsed without a sound. The second man let out a snarl and threw himself at her, but a strike to his carotid artery took him down.
Alex took a moment to catch her breath, then crouched and checked they weren't feigning unconsciousness. Satisfied, she straightened and crossed to a mirror to assess the damage. Her cheekbone stung. She brushed it with the tip of a finger and winced. Already there were signs of redness and swelling. I'm getting careless in my old age.
With a sigh, she retrieved and locked the trolley case she had come for, then she let herself out.
The view from Alex's living room wasn't much—rooftops, mostly—but visible behind them lay the mountains. Heather gazed at them, her thoughts distracted.
Those men were after me? But why? And how did they know where I'd be?
Lorraine knew her itinerary, of course, but Heather trusted her with her life. No. It must be her appearance in the electro-chemistry symposium's literature. Who had access to the schedule? At the very least, the attending delegates. And if it was also on the conference centre's website.... She regarded her surroundings without really seeing them. She should do something.
She had pulled her mobile phone from her pocket and flicked it open to call the emergency number for the police when she realised she didn't know the area code for Nice. I need a landline. A glance round the apartment revealed Alex's phone. She took the chair beside it, picked up the receiver, and dialled 17.
The conversation that followed was confusing and frustrating in equal measure. The policewoman at the other end spoke little English and Heather's French was terrible. Thankfully, the woman soon passed her on to someone in the Foreign Tourists Department who, much to her relief, spoke English.
"Have you contacted the British Consulate?" he asked.
"Not yet," said Heather.
"And there have been two incidents? Yes?"
"Yes. Both at the Acropolis. On my way there, and when I was leaving. Two men pretended they were there to protect me but—"
"Were they armed?"
"I didn't see any guns, but my driver said those involved in the carjacking were carrying some."
The man's tone sharpened. "Driver?"
"Alex Rogers. She reported the carjacking. She works for Élite Voitures."
"Ah. Jacques Balladur's company. I know it. The driver, she is with you now?"
"No. She's fetching my luggage from the hotel."
"Which hotel, please?"
"And where are you now, Mademoiselle Myles?"
"At Alex Rogers' apartment. I'm afraid I have no idea of the address."
"No matter. We will find it. I will send a car to pick you up."
"To bring you to the station, mamselle. A detective must enquire further into this matter."
"It will be there within minutes. The police car. Clearly marked. The officers will present their ID. Do not accompany anyone else. Do you understand, mamselle?"
"Yes. All right."
"Bien. We will be with you soon." He rang off.
Heather sighed. She should have phoned the consulate first. They could have sent someone to accompany her to the station and advise her during the interview. Too late for that now though.
She used Alex's toilet, and, while she washed her hands, regarded herself wanly in the mirror. "How long does it take to fetch luggage?"
As if in answer, a key turned in the apartment's front door. Emerging from the bathroom, she found Alex lugging her cases into the apartment.
Alex shook her head. Her cheekbone looked sore. Had it been like that earlier?
"I phoned the police," said Heather.
Alex straightened and looked at her. "And?"
"They're sending a car to take me to the station." A knock came on the door. "That might be them now." Heather started towards it.
"Wait. You gave them this address?" said Alex.
But Heather had already turned the handle and was opening the door.
Two policemen wearing short-sleeved light blue shirts and dark blue trousers stood on the landing. "Mademoiselle Myles?" asked the older of the two, holding out his ID.
She compared the photo on the ID with his face then nodded. "Yes."
"We are here to take you to the Station Nationale." His gaze travelled to Alex, who had come up behind Heather. "Are you the chauffeuse, Alex Rogers?"
"Yes. Why?" Alex sounded wary.
"Then you too must come with us, Mademoiselle." His face hardened. "For questioning."
For a moment Alex was tempted to refuse. She was satisfied the men were genuine policemen, but that didn't make them the good guys. That there were two wasn't an issue—she could easily take them both—but she had a made a decent life for herself in Nice that she had no wish to jeopardise. Then there was Heather to consider—her eyes were flicking between the policemen and Alex, her expression puzzled.
"What do you mean: for questioning?" asked Heather. "Surely you don't suspect my driver?"
"We have our orders, mamselle."
Alex gave an inward sigh. "It's all right. They're only being thorough."
The older policeman beckoned. "Come with me, please." At least he didn't try to put handcuffs on her.
"A moment." She pulled out her phone and dialled Jacques' number. "I need to tell my boss." It went straight to voicemail, so she left a message telling him an emergency had come up and giving him the location of the Merc so he could collect it. She didn't mention the police. He would find out soon enough.
As she replaced the phone in her pocket, a thought struck her. "What about her luggage?"
The policeman glanced at the cases then at Heather. "You wish to bring those with you, mamselle?"
Heather thought for a moment. "I suppose I’d better."
"Eh bien." He jerked his head at his colleague. "Porter ses bagages, Leon."
Grumbling, the younger man carried the trolley case and laptop bag down the stairs, and loaded them into the boot of a Citroen bearing police markings. A passer-by gave Alex a curious look as she took her place beside Heather in the back seat, aware of the watchful gazes in the rear view mirror.
"I expect it's nothing to worry about," said Heather, glancing at her. "They just need to eliminate you from their enquiries."
Alex grunted. She had less confidence than Heather in the local flics.
With lights flashing and sirens blaring, it didn't take the Citroen long to cover the distance to the Avenue du Maréchal Foch. There, Alex lost contact with Heather—she was escorted along the police commissariat's maze of corridors to a dimly lit room with no windows, furnished with only a table and four plastic chairs.
"Sit," she was told, and left to stew.
Half an hour later, the door opened and a middle-aged man with a beaky nose came in. The two stripes on his shirt epaulettes indicated he was a lieutenant. There were bags under his eyes and he had a bad case of five-o'clock shadow. He studied Alex for a moment, then took the seat opposite.
"Bonjour, Mademoiselle Rogers." He placed a manila file on the table between them. "I am Lieutenant Girard."
"Bonjour." Alex read the upside down lettering on the file. Her heart sank.
He followed her glance. "Did you think we would not have a file on you? Now you understand why we must question you."
She shrugged. "Meanwhile, Miss Myles's real attackers are getting away."
"No one will 'get away', as you put it, mamselle."
He flipped open the file and pulled out a sheet of paper. His fingernails were bitten to the quick, she noticed. "Dishonourable discharge," he read aloud from the narrowly typed contents. "Discharge papers available on request." He glanced at her. "I have sent for them, naturellement."
"Has caused no trouble while in Nice," he continued to read aloud, "but keeps company with undesirables."
Former members of the Foreign Legion might be considered undesirable by some, she supposed. "I'm not sure Jacques Balladur would take kindly to that description," she murmured.
He ignored the joke and held her gaze. "Someone fitting your description broke into Mademoiselle Myles's room at the Hôtel Saint-François and stole her luggage. What have you to say to that, mamselle?"
"Stole? She gave me her room key. I was retrieving her luggage on her behalf."
"Key? The lock was forced and the room is a mess."
No mention of the 'maintenance men' she had left lying unconscious, she noticed. Either they had recovered enough to leave under their own steam, or their colleagues had retrieved them. Not before staging it to look like a break-in and calling in a report to the police though. Damn.
"Two attempts to abduct Mademoiselle Myles. And in both instances you were present." He rubbed his jaw, and she heard the rasp of bristles. "What did you do, mamselle? Betray her whereabouts to your confederates so they could—how do you say?—lie in wait for her?"
She gave him a caustic look. "Don't be ridiculous? What do I have to gain? Besides, there are only so many routes in and out of the Acropolis. Anyone with half a brain and access to the conference schedule could have worked out where she was likely to be and when."
He sat back in his chair. "What do you have to gain?" He steepled his fingers. "Money. It's been hard finding employment since your discharge, has it not? Employers cannot take the revelation of your criminal record well."
"I get by."
He changed tack. "Mademoiselle Myles was in your apartment when the policemen found her."
Alex arched an eyebrow. "Found? She told you where she was. If I had kidnapped her and was holding her for ransom, would I have given her access to my phone?"
He waved a hand. "An oversight."
Suddenly angry, she leaned forward. "No. The oversight is yours, Lieutenant. For some reason, a gang is targeting Heather Myles." He made to speak but she stopped him with a gesture. "Don't bother to deny such gangs operate in Nice. So far their efforts have failed. But they'll try again."
"Is that a threat?"
"Of course not. Just an observation. And if you keep me here, I won't be around to help her."
"She doesn't need your 'help', mamselle. My men will keep her safe." Alex didn't try to hide her scepticism. "Besides," his smile filled with satisfaction, "you will not be able to contact your confederates from a police cell."
"Am I under arrest?" Indignation made her voice rise.
"No." Lt. Girard kicked back his chair and stood up. "You are helping us with our enquiries. Reason enough to detain you overnight."
"Promise me you'll at least look into the possibility that someone other than me is after Heather Myles."
"Do not try to teach me my job, mamselle." He flung open the door of the interview room and yelled for someone to come and escort her to the cells.
"Why not?" said Alex under her breath. "Someone has to."
Commandant Thibault smoothed his tie with well-manicured hands. "Why did you choose Alex Rogers as your driver, Mademoiselle Myles?"
"I didn't." Heather shifted in her seat and regarded the overweight policeman with a jaundiced eye. She should feel honoured to be interviewed by someone of his rank, she supposed. But why had he felt the need to separate her from Alex? Once more, she wished someone from the consulate had accompanied her. "My personal assistant made all the arrangements for my trip, as usual."
"She is trustworthy?"
He made a note on his jotter. "And you instructed her to ask for a woman driver. Is that correct?"
"No. Lorraine must have remembered what I told her about the driver on my last trip, to Seattle, and used her initiative." She saw his puzzlement. "He became, well, overfamiliar, I suppose you'd say. It made me... uncomfortable. Lorraine must have thought a woman driver would be less likely to overstep the bounds." She wondered where Alex was, and how they were treating her. "Why all these questions about my driver? She saved me from two attacks."
"She certainly made it appear so."
"You think she's involved?" said Heather, perplexed.
"It's a possibility. Her actions made you trust her, did they not?" The smile he gave her was disarming, inviting confidence. "So you went to her apartment willingly."
She frowned. "Why shouldn't I? If Alex had wanted to harm me, she's had ample opportunity. At the airport, for instance. Why didn't she kidnap me when I got into her car?"
Thibault didn’t answer. "Did you know she has a criminal record?" he said instead.
The news jolted Heather. "No."
"Captain Alex Rogers was court martialled, and dishonourably discharged from the army."
Captain! That explained the military bearing. "Even so. It doesn't mean—"
"No, mamselle. But it shows what she is capable of."
A memory of that high-speed reversal through the streets surfaced, followed by Alex's efficient despatching of the 'security men' outside the Acropolis's foyer. An army background would explain a lot. The court martial was a worry, true, but every instinct Heather had was telling her Alex was on her side.
"You are a wealthy businesswoman," continued Thibault.
Heather wrinkled her nose. "In some respects, I suppose."
"In Nice all alone." He held her gaze. "That makes you an easy target "
"But I've hardly any money in the bank. Everything I have is tied up getting this new battery into production—"
"A kidnapper does not care about such matters."
"I know nothing of how a kidnapper's mind works," she said, exasperated.
"And I know too much. Trust me, mamselle." Did the commandant realise how patronising he was sounding? "He believes that somehow you will find the means to pay what he asks."
"And you think Alex Rogers is in league with him?" She let her scepticism show.
"But you have no proof."
"It is only a matter of time. In the meantime, mamselle, may I suggest you return to England today?"
"Today?" She blinked at him. "But my return flight is booked for the day after tomorrow."
He shook his head. "Until the driver's associates are apprehended, I cannot guarantee your safety. Do you still have important business to transact in Nice?"
"Not important, no," she admitted, "but—"
"Then it is settled." His frown eased and he stood up. "I will tell one of my men to get you on the next flight to Heathrow."
"I see." She bit her lip. From his manner, it was an order not a request. But what choice did she have? "Thank you for your time and trouble." She too stood up, then she paused. "Commandant. What will happen to Alex Rogers?"
He gave her a reassuring smile. "She need concern you no longer."
While Alex slid her feet into her boots and buckled her belt, the policeman emptied the contents of the plastic bag onto the counter. She gathered up her possessions—keys, mobile phone, tissues, wallet (its contents thankfully intact), and that shirt button she kept meaning to sew back on—and distributed them about her person.
"Sign here," said the policeman, who hadn't booked her into the cell last night—there must have been a shift change.
She finished fastening her wristwatch, accepted the pen, and signed. "Is Heather Myles still here?"
"The English businesswoman who came in with me." She saw his incomprehension. "Never mind. Can I go?"
"Oui. No charges have been pressed." He waved a casual hand towards the exit.
"Thanks for nothing," she muttered.
There was a mirror in the corridor on her way out. She glanced at it at she passed then wished she hadn't. Her hair needed a comb, and there were shadows under her eyes and a nasty bruise on her cheekbone.
"Alex? What are you doing here?" came a familiar voice.
Heart sinking, she plastered on a smile and turned round. Chantel's father regarded her with a frown. With his beetling brows and large ears, he always reminded Alex of a cathedral gargoyle. It was fortunate his daughter took after her mother.
"Salut, Monsieur Fortier. Bon anniversaire to you and your wife."
Keen brown eyes raked her from head to foot, taking in the crumpled state of her chauffeur's uniform. "Don't tell me you spent the night here."
She gave him a sheepish smile. "A misunderstanding."
"Hm." His expression was sceptical. "Does Chantel know?"
"That's something at least." He walked away, muttering. He was still shaking his head when he disappeared round a corner.
With a sigh, Alex made her way outside. She jogged down the steps, then walked to a café further along the Avenue du Maréchal Foch, and ordered a croissant and cup of coffee. There, she rang her boss.
"A driver of mine in the cells," said Jacques, before she could say hello. Evidently someone had told him her whereabouts. "My reputation!"
"The flics are idiots. All I did was try to help my passenger."
"I didn't say you were involved in anything criminal." He sighed. "It was a risk taking you on. I knew that. A foreigner with a murky past."
Hardly unusual for the Riviera. "And I'm grateful. You know that, Jacques. I'd never do anything to bring your company into disrepute. You have my word."
He gave a mollified grunt.
Belatedly it occurred to her, if she was their prime suspect, the police would almost certainly be tailing her. Through the café window, she scanned each passer-by. Long dormant senses honed during her time in the SRR sparked into life. Not him. Not her. Ah. That hard-faced man in the jeans and sweatshirt standing on the other side of the road, smoking a casual cigarette and keeping an eye on the café. Should she let him dog her footsteps or shake him? It would depend on what she was doing....
"Are you still there?" asked Jacques.
"Oui. Have you heard from Heather Myles?"
"She left a message on the answer phone last night. She was about to catch a flight to England and no longer requires the services of a driver."
No message for me? thought Alex, disappointed and a bit hurt. No concern for my welfare, or thanks for my help? It was her turn to grunt.
"You sound tired, Alex," said Jacques, his voice warmer. "Why don't you take some time off?"
That was a turn up for the books. "I was thinking of going up into the mountains for a while," she said.
"Do that." She heard the relief in his voice and tried not to mind. "Maybe this will have blown over by the time you return."
"OK. I'll call you when I get back."
"Á bientôt." He rang off.
Alex contemplated what remained of her croissant. But her appetite had gone, so she paid the bill, then headed for the tram stop, the plain-clothes policeman trailing her thirty metres behind.
At her apartment, she showered away the stink of the police cell and pulled on jeans and a short-sleeved pique. She was flinging things into an overnight bag and wondering whether to ring Chantel or call round in person, when she spotted the unfamiliar mobile phone lying on a table. Frowning, she picked it up. Only one other person had been in her apartment recently. It must belong to Heather Myles.
The numbers stored in the phone's memory meant nothing to her, so she fetched her laptop, sat down, and logged onto the internet. A quick trawl of overseas phone directories soon netted her the current number for Myles Visual Communication. She dialled it and found herself speaking to Heather's PA, who introduced herself as Lorraine.
"My name's Alex Rogers. I've been driving for Miss Myles during her stay in Nice. May I speak to her?"
"I'm afraid she isn't here. Can I help?"
"She left her mobile phone here, and I was just wondering where to send it."
"Here will be fine, I'm sure."
Lorraine rattled off the address and Alex made a note of it. Then some instinct made her ask, "I hope you don't think me impertinent, but Heather is safely back in England, isn't she?"
A pause followed, as if Lorraine was deciding whether to answer, then she said, "When she rang me, she was about to leave for the airport. But the driver I sent to Heathrow to meet her told me she didn't make her flight." Lorraine paused. "To tell you the truth, Alex, I'm a bit concerned. It's not like Heather. Normally if she's been delayed or had to change her plans, she rings me."
"But I have her phone."
"She managed to ring me from the police station," countered Lorraine. "She often uses public phones if her battery goes dead or there's no signal."
"I see." Alex felt a growing disquiet. What's happened to her? "Want me to check into it at this end?"
"Would you?" Relief suffused Lorraine's voice. "I'd be very grateful. I'm sure it's nothing, but as I said, it's not like Heather. Will you let me know what you find out? Even if it's nothing? I'll only worry otherwise."
"Of course," said Alex. "I'll be in touch."
Heather pounded her fists against the door. "I have to use the bathroom." They couldn't expect her to go in a corner, could they? They would have provided her with a bucket or something, but she had felt her way round the cramped, windowless storeroom and found nothing on the shelves or in a corner.
"Please." She thumped the door again.
At last, heavy footsteps approached and a key fumbled in the lock. She stood back as the door opened, and a bear of a man in a dirty singlet glared at her from under thick black eyebrows.
She shaded her eyes against the daylight, which was dazzling after the darkness of her prison. "I need to use the bathroom." Small eyes held little comprehension. The pressure on her bladder encouraged her to dredge up some rusty French. "J'ai besoin d'une toilette."
His scowl eased and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder and backed up a step. She emerged into the open, the acrid smell of the hangarlike space—mould, machine oil, and sawdust—assailing her nostrils.
He took her biceps in a vice-like grip and hurried her past old crates and rusting machinery to the far end of the abandoned warehouse. Two men in sweat-streaked T-shirts, jeans, and scuffed work boots, one sporting a buzz cut, the other a shock of unruly black curls, regarded her with disgruntled frowns. A vacant seat and discarded hand of cards face down on the crate revealed Heather had interrupted their card game.
"Marie," said the man in the singlet.
Sitting slightly to one side, engrossed in a copy of 'Marie France', was a young woman in shorts and a striped T-shirt. She looked up, an expression of annoyance on her sallow features. "Quoi, Thierry?"
"Toilette." The man indicated Heather.
He shrugged and the other men grinned. Marie gave them the finger and threw aside the magazine. She got to her feet and beckoned to Heather. "Venez."
Her grip on Heather's arm was less brutal but as firm as the man she had called Thierry. She led Heather to a door marked Toilettes, kicked it open, flicked on the light—a dim bulb flickered—and gestured her to enter.
"Merci beaucoup." Heather ventured inside.
There were three stalls, all vacant. The toilets inside needed a good clean. Beggars couldn't be choosers, though. Heather made do, sighing with relief.
"Dépêchez vous," came Marie's voice.
"I'll just be a moment." Heather washed her hands in a filthy basin and looked in vain for a paper towel. As she shook her hands dry, she scanned her surroundings for a way out. No door and no windows. She caught sight of her reflection in a foxed mirror above one of the sinks and winced. Her hair was a mess, her business suit crumpled and smeared with dust and cobwebs. She finger-combed her hair as best she could.
"Voyons." An annoyed Marie appeared in the doorway. Grabbing Heather by the arm once more, she escorted her back to her storeroom prison.
"Please." Heather glanced to where the three men were talking and smoking and lowered her voice. "I've done nothing to you. Can't you let me go?"
Marie didn't answer.
"Keeping me locked up in the dark, without even a chair to sit on. It's inhuman."
"What do you want? Money? I'll give you money. Just let me go."
Wordlessly, Marie shoved Heather into the storeroom and slammed the door behind her.
"Some food then," shouted Heather through the wood. "Please. I'm starving." There was no reply.
When her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she felt her way to a wall, turned her back, and slid down it. She drew her knees up to her chin, clasped her shins, and thought about the people holding her captive. Thierry and the others simply didn't look capable of coming up with the idea on their own, so they must work for someone else. And whoever it was must have infiltrated the police—a fact Heather had learned the hard way.
"I am to take you to the airport, Miss Myles," the policeman had said, smiling at her. "Permit me to carry your luggage."
Trustingly she had followed him to his car. Like some dumb animal to the slaughter. When it had dawned on her that he was driving the wrong way—they should have taken the endless road along the sea front—it had been too late. Producing a pistol, he told her to be quiet or he'd shoot her in the leg, and the mean look in his eyes had convinced her he meant it.
Had Commandant Thibault been in on the kidnapping or had the policeman merely taken advantage of the situation? How he must have laughed. No need for a complex ambush, all he had to do was ask Heather to get in his car.
And Alex wasn't around to save me. If she saved me. She thrust that doubt aside. Her instincts had told her to trust Alex, and she wouldn't ignore them just yet. Besides, if the commandant was in the plot, she must treat anything he said with caution. A dishonourable discharge though.... Wasn't that the worst punishment the army could dish out? What on earth had Alex done to merit that?
Pushing thoughts of the driver to one side, she stripped off her jacket—it was stiflingly hot in the confined space. By now the kidnappers must have sent the ransom note. To her parents? She hoped not. Losing Ben had been ordeal enough. To have their daughter's life hanging in the balance too... I hope they've sent it to my office. The indispensable Lorraine would be able to handle the demand. But how much would they ask for? And what if Lorraine couldn't raise the sum?
A feeling of light-headedness made Heather realise she was hyperventilating. She took a breath and let it out, then forced herself to breathe normally. The light-headedness receded, though she still felt a little wobbly. Probably just lack of food. Her stomach growled in agreement. She sighed and tried not to think about how hungry she was. At least they hadn't tied her up.
Her thoughts turned to work. There was a 'kick-off' meeting scheduled for Friday morning with her lead designer and the rest of his team. It wouldn't be the first time Martin had conducted a brainstorming session for a new project without her, but.... Would she even be free by then, she wondered bleakly, let alone back home?
A key turned in the lock, and the door opened enough to allow something to be flung in, before closing again. On hands and knees, she felt around. Paper rustled under her fingers and she grabbed what felt like a paper bag and retreated to her place by the wall.
Inside were two wedges of something neither crepe nor cake but something in between. She nibbled the corner of one—it tasted of chickpeas. Whatever it was would have been nicer hot, and needed more salt, but it filled her stomach. She ate every scrap then wiped her mouth and fingers on the paper bag and discarded it. Now I'm thirsty. After a while, the wobbliness passed.
A little later, the door opened again. Something thumped to the floor and rolled towards her with a sloshing clanking sound, before coming to rest against her feet. A can, by the feel of it. She found the ring pull and heard the hiss of pressure released. Something sticky spurted over her fingers. Cola. It was warm and not very thirst-quenching, but it would have to do. She took a few sips then set the can to one side. She had no desire to visit the bathroom again just yet.
They had given her food and drink, and let her use the bathroom. A good sign, surely. They must need her alive. For now. She wondered if anyone other than the recipients of the ransom demand had noticed she was missing yet.
Once more she explored her surroundings by touch, making sure she hadn't overlooked anything she could use to defend herself—a broom handle, for example. Nothing. She sat back down, thoughts of self-defence leading her naturally back to Alex. Had the police let the driver out of her cell yet? If so, would she look for Heather, or merely assume she had returned to England?
With a sigh, she finished off the cola.
It was less stressful to think about work than about her current circumstances, so Heather cast her mind back to the review meeting she had held late last week. Impressed with the presentation and mock-ups produced for the Kettridge brief, she had felt no need to request changes. The newest and youngest addition to the design team, Jason, was proving to be a creative goldmine. Of course some of his proposals were off the wall, but others....
Something blocked the sliver of light creeping beneath the door, drawing her back to the present. The key turned and the door creaked open.
"Vous avez un visiteur," said Thierry.
She scrambled to her feet. "A visitor?"
"Oui. Venez." He reached for her with a brawny hand, and hurried her along the now familiar route through the warehouse.
Marie and the other two men were standing around the packing crate card table. They turned at Thierry's approach and drew back to reveal a silver-haired figure sitting on a chair. Heather gaped at him in shock.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Myles." Sir Desmond Barrington gave her an awkward smile. "I hope they've been looking after you?" He indicated another chair. "Sit down. I have some papers for you to sign."
Alex entered the little café that was just down the road from the perfume shop where Chantel worked. It was lunchtime, and the tables outside were crowded, but those inside still had a few seats spare.
Chantel was sitting at her usual corner table, halfway through a plate of ravioli Niçois. Her face broke into a smile of relief when she saw Alex. "Alex." She beckoned. "Comment vas-tu? Papa told me—"
"That I spent the night in a cell?" She pulled out the chair opposite Chantel, and sat down, aware of the envious glances of other patrons. There was a ripeness to the Frenchwoman that few could resist. In time those curves might turn to fat, but for now Chantel was in her prime... and well aware of it. "I thought he might." Alex ran a hand over her face and yawned. "I'm fine. Just tired."
"Did they rough you up?"
Alex blinked then understanding dawned. "Oh, you mean this?" She touched her cheekbone. "No. I had that before I went in." She asked the waitress to bring her a café noisette.
The plain-clothes policeman who had been following her entered the café and scanned the faces of the diners. His gaze locked with Alex's. Face flushed, he made a hasty exit. Alex suppressed a smile then got down to business.
"I need a favour," she told Chantel.
"Is that the only reason you're here?" Chantel's forehead creased.
"Of course not. I wanted to see you too. Jacques has told me to take some time off, and I was going to ask if you want to come on a trip to the mountains. But...." She trailed off.
"But?" prompted Chantel.
"Something's come up."
"I see." Chantel forked ravioli into her mouth. "And what is this mysterious 'something'?"
"Can you ask your father some questions?" Alex's coffee arrived and she thanked the waitress and took a sip. "I'd ask him myself, but he disapproves of me and might not want to help."
Chantel made a face. "Can you blame him?"
"Not really. But this is important and it's not about me. It's about Heather Myles."
"My passenger. She left her phone at my place." She saw Chantel's look and added, "It's nothing like that."
Chantel shrugged. "It's no business of mine anyway."
Ouch. "I rang her office, to find out where to send her phone," said Alex. "She wasn't on the flight she was supposed to be on, and her PA hasn't heard from her. And the last I saw of her was at the commissariat de police."
Chantel blinked. "She was there too?"
"Well, not in the cells." Alex sighed. "It's a long story. Look. I have a really bad feeling about this. So could you please ask your father if he's seen or heard anything? Who was the last person to see Heather, and where? That kind of thing?"
Chantel finished the last of her ravioli and patted her lips dry with a napkin. "He might not know," she said.
"But he can ask around and find someone who does. Discreetly." Alex held Chantel's gaze and willed her to help.
Chantel rolled her eyes. "All right," she said, but her smile showed Alex was forgiven. "I'll ask."
In growing disbelief Heather scanned the document. 'Intellectual Property Office,' she read. 'Patents Form 21. Patents Act 1977 (Rule 47). Application to register or give notice of rights acquired in a patent....' Why was Sir Desmond showing her this? She skimmed further down the page. That patent number was familiar. Hang on a minute! Wasn't that the number of her patent?
"Is that what this is about? You want me to transfer my rights to your company?"
"I'm sorry it had to come to this." He sounded genuinely regretful. "But I offered you a fair price, Miss Myles, and you turned me down."
"My answer hasn't changed." She ignored the pen he had extended to her and slid the papers back across the packing crate towards him.
Thierry stepped forwards, his hands curling into fists. Sir Desmond stopped him with a gesture. "Please," he said. "She doesn't understand. Give us some space, so I can explain." Seeing Thierry's incomprehension, he repeated his request in stumbling French.
Thierry thought for a moment, then gave a reluctant nod. He and the others found things to occupy them in other parts of the warehouse, but frequent glances in Heather's direction showed she was still under surveillance.
"Miss Myles." Sir Desmond leaned forward, his normally bland countenance creasing with worry. "May I call you Heather?"
"Please, don't do something you'll regret. The people I was forced to go into business with have far fewer scruples than I do."
"You should choose your business partners more wisely, Sir Desmond." She folded her arms. "Hiring thugs to kidnap me, for God's sake! How could you even consider such a thing?" Her thoughts raced. "It's not too late. Call them off and let me go. You have my word I won't press charges."
"I'm afraid things have gone too far." He sighed. "I wish you no harm. If there was another way I'd have taken it, but," he raised his hands and let them fall, "believe me, there isn't. Hundreds of employees rely on me, Heather, and I'm not about to let them down. This was my father's company, and his father's before him. I'm not going to let it go under without a fight."
She stared at him. "What about the people who depend on me?"
With a tired shrug, he replaced the form in front of her. "I no longer have a choice." He pointed to a section labelled: full name and address of each person acquiring the rights. Alongside his own details were a name and a Nice address.
"Malkhaz Kapanadze," she read aloud. "Who's he?"
"He has connections in high places, and his business interests are wide-ranging. Let's leave it at that, shall we?"
The door to the warehouse creaked open, and Thierry came alert. At the sight of the new arrival, however, he relaxed and gave a respectful nod.
Avoiding a streak of engine oil and a puddle of rainwater—one of the warehouse skylights was cracked—the stranger strolled towards Heather, soles silent on the dirty concrete. Close-cropped brown hair, tinged with grey, complemented a Mediterranean tan, and Armani casuals and Italian loafers showed he wasn't short of cash. He came to a halt a couple of yards from her, and tucked his sunglasses in the breast pocket of his jacket. The affable smile didn't reach the steel-grey eyes. Heather disliked him on sight.
"Miss Myles," he said, in a thick Russian accent. "I hope you are well?" It was clear from his tone that he couldn't care less. He glanced at sir Desmond. "Has she signed?"
"Not yet, Mr Kapanadze." The industrialist ran a finger round the inside of his collar. "I was just explaining the situation."
"What is there to explain? She signs or we hurt her." Cold eyes regarded her once more, making her skin crawl. "There are many ways to hurt a woman," he continued softly. "And even more to hurt those she loves."
Alex drew a pattern with her forefinger on the red-and-white checked tablecloth and willed the phone lying next to her wine glass to ring.
"Girlfriend trouble?" asked Helmut, round a mouthful of linguini.
She nodded. "I think it's over between me and Chantel. But actually, I'm waiting for her to call me about something else."
"How is Jacques taking things?"
She gave him a wry look. "I take it you're referring to my run-in with the flics?" He nodded. "How do you think?"
"He has not fired you."
"Jacques is fair, I'll give him that."
The phone rang and she snatched it up. "Ça va?"
"Papa just got back to me," came Chantel's voice. "He isn't happy."
"No surprise there. And?"
"The Myles woman was last seen with a police lieutenant. He was escorting her to his car. To take her to the airport."
Alex didn't like the sound of that. "But she didn’t arrive."
"So you say," said Chantel. "Papa was concerned to hear that. No one has reported her missing."
She frowned. "This policeman she was last seen with. Does he have a name?"
"Braque, spelled B-R-A-Q-U-E. First name Clovis."
Alex jotted the name on a napkin and added a question mark. Was Braque working for the person who had organised the ambushes at the Acropolis?
"Papa doesn't like him, Alex," Chantel went on. "He said not to quote him, but he has a feeling something is not right. He seems to spend much more than he earns."
Dirty cop, she thought. "Do you have an address?"
"No. But there cannot be many with that name in the Nice phone book, can there? Shall I see you later?" asked Chantel, changing the subject.
"If you still want to." An awkward silence fell.
"We need to talk," said Chantel at last.
"I know," said Alex. "But I'd like to get to the bottom of this business with Heather first." She hoped whoever had her was keeping a tight rein on his men. She had seen what thugs like that could do to a defenceless woman.
"The Englishwoman is not your responsibility, Alex."
Yes she is, thought Alex, remembering the silent, shocked figure sitting on her sofa, and the decision she had made. And I'm not going to abandon her now. But all she said was, "If I'd been the one missing, would you have said the same thing?"
Chantel sighed. "All right," she said. "But be careful."
"D'accord." Alex pocketed the phone, aware of Helmut's frowning gaze. "What?"
He tapped the scribble on the napkin with his index finger. "Clovis Braque?"
"Yes. Heard of him?"
"If he's the one I'm thinking of. Ja. He frequents the casino opposite Toussaint's. I have seen him there several times, with some of Kapanadze's men. Must have a gambling habit."
"Well, well." Thoughts racing, she drummed her fingers on the tablecloth. "Those can be expensive to fund."
She pushed back her chair and stood up. His hand on her forearm stopped her. "Need some help?"
"Not yet." She smiled at him.
Eyes as blue as her own held her gaze. "If it's muscle you need—"
"I know where to find you," she finished. "Thanks, Helmut. I'll keep that in mind."
Heather blew her nose. Crying wouldn't help. The only escape possible from this storeroom was that of sleep. And there's fat chance of that. Even if she could get comfortable, her left hand would keep her awake. At least the pain was now a dull throbbing rather than the agony it had been. It was just as well it was dark—she couldn't bear to look at her swollen little finger. Was it broken or merely dislocated? Either way, it hurt like hell.
The Russian had done it himself, a smile curving his lips, those dead eyes alight with enjoyment. Bastard. "In the morning she will sign," he'd told Sir Desmond, his tone one of absolute confidence. The industrialist, meanwhile, had looked as if he wanted to be sick. Heather took retrospective satisfaction from his discomfort. Lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
But if getting through the night was bad, contemplating what the morning might bring was worse. Those bloody patents!
Guilt followed her stab of resentment. It wasn't Ben's fault she was in this mess. Involving his older sister in anything to do with his battery design had probably been the last thing on his mind. If his thoughts had even got that far. Turning dreams into reality had never been his strong suit. It was the challenge Ben relished; once that was overcome, he lost interest.
But if I sign, they'll have no further use for me. Suppose they decide to kill me? If she were to vanish permanently, though, questions would be asked. And the transfer of patent rights just after her disappearance would surely attract suspicion. The tension in her shoulders eased a touch. They wouldn't dare.
All right then, for argument's sake, suppose she did sign. Might there still be some way to get the patent rights back later? Perhaps she could challenge the legality of the transaction by proving she'd signed Form 21 only under extreme duress. I'll need to consult an Intellectual Property lawyer. It wasn't much, a mere sliver of hope, but it helped.
There was only one Clovis Braque in the Nice phone book and he lived in the Avenue George Sands. The residents had parked their cars for the night in the winding avenue, but there were a few spaces left. Alex parked her borrowed VW one door down from the single-storey house with the tiled roof, and settled down to wait. No sign of her police shadow, she was glad to see—she had made sure he followed her home and saw the light go on in her apartment, then sneaked out by a ground floor back window while he was taking a cigarette break.
It was just as well she had her iPod with her—there was nothing on the radio. Around 3am, a blue Peugeot drew up and parked crookedly outside Braque's house. She checked the driver's face against the photo on her phone—the same dark hair, big nose, heavy-lidded eyes, and pockmarked skin.
To her dismay, an overweight blonde, whose skimpy outfit screamed prostitute, emerged from the Peugeot's passenger seat and helped the lurching policeman to his front door. After three attempts, he succeeded in digging his keys out of his trouser pocket and let them both in.
The presence of a third party put a spoke in Alex's plans—she had no intention of involving an innocent bystander. Not that the prostitute looked all that 'innocent', she amended wryly. But ten minutes later, the front door reopened and the woman emerged with a sour look on her face. Evidently things hadn't gone to plan for her either, thought Alex, watching her hurry away.
When the clip clop of impractical heels had faded into the distance, Alex put on her gloves, grabbed the balaclava lying on the seat next to her, and got out. She crossed the road on silent feet.
For a policeman, Braque's security measures were pathetic. Perhaps he had nothing worth stealing. Or perhaps he figured his connection to Kapanadze would protect him from burglars. Whatever the reason, Alex was able to disable the alarm without much effort, slide open a back window, and slip inside.
She pulled on the balaclava, then followed the sound of loud snoring. Clovis Braque was sprawled on his back, stark naked, on the bed, his clothes lying in a crumpled pile on the floor. Alex eased the belt from the discarded trousers and crossed to the supine policeman. With one swift movement, she turned him on his stomach, yanked his hands behind his back, and looped the belt around his wrists.
With a startled huff he came awake and tried to free himself. She pressed his face into the mattress and waited for him to stop struggling, then jerked his head up by his hair.
For a moment he simply gulped in air with relief, then he twisted, trying to catch sight of her. She pushed his head into the mattress again and let him choke.
This time, when she let him up, he didn’t try to see her face. "Que voulez-vous?" he gasped.
"Speak English," she whispered, in an adopted Russian accent.
"What do you want?"
"Where's Heather Myles?"
"The English businesswoman you took from the commissariat de police."
"Je ne sais—"
She pressed his face into the mattress again.
When he could breathe once more, there was an edge of panic to his voice. "S'il vous plaît. Je suis..." He stopped then started again in halting English. "If you kill me, every flic in Nice will hunt you."
"What makes you think I care?"
He digested that in silence, then said in a resigned voice, "I took the woman to a warehouse on the Rue de Grenoble."
That road went on for miles. "Which warehouse?"
Braque described its appearance and location. "You cannot miss it."
"I'd better not. Is she unharmed?"
"She was when I left her."
"How many guards?"
"Three? Maybe four? I may not have seen all of them."
"And Kapanadze? Was he there?"
He flinched at the mob boss's name. "How did you... I never mentioned—"
"Was he?" she interrupted.
"Non. But he was expected."
"What does he want with the woman?"
"I didn't ask." He cleared his throat. "Why do you want to know?"
"Let's just say," she leaned closer, "everything Malkhaz Kapanadze does is of interest to the people I work for."
"Old friends from his Georgia days."
He gave a convulsive swallow. "I don’t know anything about that."
"You should have made it your business to find out, Monsieur Braque." The pressure point beneath his left ear would render him unconscious. She drew back her arm in readiness. "From now on, stay away from Kapanadze. Well away. Do I make myself clear?"
"Oui," he whispered.
Like a cobra, she struck. "Good boy."
The sunshine streaming through the warehouse's skylights made Heather blink as she emerged from the storeroom. She glanced at her watch. Mid morning.
A strong hand gripped her upper arm—her good arm, fortunately. "Venez," said Thierry, hurrying her over to the packing crates, where a familiar figure awaited her.
Sir Desmond Barrington looked up. "Good morning, Heather." She didn't return his greeting.
Marie vacated her chair, averting her gaze from Heather as she did so. Feeling guilty? she wondered. Good. There was no sign of the Russian, she was relieved to see. Probably off somewhere drowning kittens or stealing pension books from old ladies. Cradling her injured finger, Heather took Marie's seat.
"I hope you've changed your mind," said Sir Desmond, eyes anxious. "Now that you've had time to think it over."
"No," she said, her reply taking her as much by surprise as it did him.
"You've not had time?"
"I haven't changed my mind."
"But surely— You can't possibly need the royalties. A wealthy young woman like you.... There'll be plenty of other business opportunities...." He trailed off under her icy stare and flushed.
"I'm not just in it for the money, Sir Desmond. This battery is my brother's legacy. And since he's dead, there'll be no more 'business opportunities' from him."
"Please." He shifted in his chair. "You must sign. Surely you can see that." He produced the familiar patent form, now looking a little worse for wear. "If you don't...." He glanced to where Thierry stood, scratching an armpit and observing them, then lowered his voice. "That man has orders to break another of your fingers."
A wave of nausea swept through Heather at the thought, but she tried not to show it.
"And you're to be given no more food or water," Sir Desmond went on.
Her heart pounded in her chest. "Take your form and stuff it."
His face fell. "Your courage is commendable, but misguided. Men like Kapanadze don't stop until they've got what they want. But I see you're determined to learn the hard way. So be it." He beckoned to Thierry.
A stink of diesel filled the Citroen HY's cab. Alex glanced at Gil Cuvier. He was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and humming under his breath, the tune barely audible above the chug of the ancient engine.
"Thanks for helping out, Gil," she said.
"De rien." The builder shrugged. "My wife's mother is staying. I was glad of the excuse." He nodded at the two men standing by the low railing, oblivious of the Roman ruins that lay beyond it in the Parc des Arènas de Cimiez. Their heads were close together, their expressions serious. "Don't much like the look of Helmut's friend."
The man in the shabby aviator jacket had a shifty look, Alex agreed. But beggars couldn't be choosers. "An old army buddy," she said. Some of the men in her regiment had looked as unpromising, yet they would have laid down their lives for her and she for them. "It was either Helmut's contacts or mine. But mine aren't local, and the one thing Heather Myles doesn't have is time."
Gil glanced at her. "Do you think the English woman is still alive?"
"I hope so." She frowned. "But there's been no ransom demand." Lorraine had wanted to call in the police, but Alex had counselled her to wait another day. "Odd."
"Perhaps it's not money they're after."
"Perhaps." Alex glanced through the windscreen again, and saw the two men shaking hands and preparing to go their separate ways.
Moments later, the van's side door slid open, and Helmut climbed in. He closed the door, rested both hands on the backs of their seats, and squatted behind them.
"Well?" said Alex, half turning.
"We should be able to find what we need." Helmut rattled off an address.
"Good." She turned to Gil. "Let's go."
With a rusty screech, the builder put the van in gear and pulled out. As they drove away from the park, Alex kept an eye on the rear view mirror.
"Thanks, Helmut," she said.
He gave her a grin. "Who's paying by the way?"
"My rainy day fund." Alex sighed. "It's just as well I'm not after anything expensive. Just a few stun and smoke grenades."
She glanced in the mirror again, to reassure herself they hadn't picked up a police tail. An older man with thinning hair and a paunch had drawn the short straw today. Poor bastard. Making sure he saw her, she had walked to the tram stop, caught the next tram to the old town, then jogged a complicated route through the narrow streets to the corner where Gil's van was waiting. By the time her panting pursuer emerged, she would have been long gone.
"Want me to check we have no flics on our tail?" Gil had noticed the direction of her gaze.
Gears crunching, he took the next left, then the next right. No car followed them.
With a smile, he resumed his humming.
Ten minutes later they had reached the address Helmut had specified—a crumbling old mansion divided into apartments. Alex got out.
"Round the back," said Helmut, sliding the door shut and joining her on the pavement.
Gil rolled down the window and stuck his head out. "I'll keep the engine running," he called.
Alex nodded and set off round to the rear of the mansion.
A knock at the back gate brought a stooped old man, who gave them a suspicious look. Helmut murmured in his ear, and, grudgingly, he invited them in.
Down some steps he led them, stopping at the bottom to stub out his cigarette. Very wise, thought Alex, as she followed him into what seemed to be a cellar. The overpowering smell of machine oil and high explosives took her back to her army days.
Boxes and crates, their contents stencilled on them in assorted languages, filled the cellar to head height. Alex squeezed along the narrow rows, examining the containers stacked on either side, her worry easing. God knows how these people had come by their munitions, but there was everything a one-man army could possibly want. Handguns, shotguns, assault- and sniper-rifles, mortars... You name them, here they were, along with the requisite ammunition. She couldn't find what she wanted, though, and time was short.
"I need some Flash and Bang stun grenades," she told the old man, who had been watching her with eyes that were surprisingly sharp. "M84s will do. And I wouldn't say no to some CS gas or smoke grenades either, if you have them."
At her words, he broke into a smile and beckoned her. "Venez, mamselle. Ils sont ici."
The familiar grin made Heather's heart leap in her chest. Then it plummeted. "You're dead," she said.
"So?" Ben sipped his coffee and picked crumbs off his favourite T-shirt—the black one with 'nerds do it better' emblazoned across the chest.
They were in the little cafeteria at his Oxford college, the buzz of student conversation providing a soundtrack. She reached for her cup and saw it had turned into a jar of pickled eggs.
"But I don't like pickled eggs."
"Should have ordered something else then," said her brother. "What's wrong with your hand?"
She glanced at the injured fingers. "Someone broke them. A Russian gangster named Kapanadze."
"Careless of him."
"He was trying to hurt me." She frowned. "You could show a bit more sympathy."
Ben gave her a wry look. "Who should be sympathising with whom? I'm dead, remember?"
"How could I forget?"
Her tone provoked raised eyebrows.
Abruptly the scene changed and they were sitting in the kitchen of her parents' house. The pickled eggs had disappeared.
Her mother appeared, carrying a plate of bacon and eggs. She placed it in front of Ben and smiled. "There you are, dear."
Heather's stomach rumbled. "Where's mine?"
Her mother didn't answer. She went to the sink and began to wash dishes.
Ben made no move to pick up his knife and fork. He was busy tossing something from hand to hand—one of his batteries.
Heather blinked at it. "Is that one of the prototypes? How did you get hold of it?"
"Does it matter?" He studied her. "I didn't expect you to manufacture it, Heather. What happened to your own plans? Your own life?"
"She's putting them off," came her mother's voice.
"That's not fair." Heather glowered at her mother's back before returning her attention to her brother. "Maybe I felt I owed it to you."
"For what? Being mean to me when we were kids?" Ben grinned. "All big sisters do that, Heather. It's part of the job description. No need to play the martyr over it."
She tried not to feel offended. "Is that what I'm doing? Since when did you get to be so all-knowing?"
"Must have been when I died." He glanced at her fingers again. "Those look really sore." At his words the throbbing in her fingers intensified. "Is it worth it?"
His question still ringing in her ears, Heather woke up. Disoriented from the dream, it took her a few minutes to get her bearings. Then reality came crashing back. That stink was coming the corner she had been forced to use as a latrine last night.
At least it's my own excrement and not someone else's.
Licking dry lips, she wondered what time it was. From the dim quality of the light beneath the storeroom door, not long after dawn. The muffled snatches of conversation and the gunfire-filled soundtrack from an action movie DVD had stopped. Her captors must be asleep or patrolling elsewhere.
She sighed and tried to get comfortable. If she ignored the throbbing in her hand, closed her eyes, and willed herself back to sleep—
A dull boom shook the storeroom, accompanied by a bright flash. She sat up with a start, wincing as she forgot and put weight on her damaged fingers. The acrid scent of smoke reached her nostrils, and a chill ran down her spine. To be trapped in a fire...
From the other side of the door came shouts. Then something thudded into it. Wood splintered, and a crack of light appeared, growing larger with every thud. Petrified, Heather backed into a corner. With a groan, the door popped off its top hinge and leaned at a crazy angle.
Silhouetted in the doorway was a tall figure clutching a crowbar. A beam of light made Heather shade her eyes with one hand.
"Sorry," came a familiar voice. The beam shifted and she could see again.
Lowering her arm, Heather took a step forward. A balaclava hid the face, but those blue eyes were unmistakeable. "Alex?"
"Hush." The driver glanced behind her and lowered her voice. "I'm pretending to be Russian."
She turned to Heather again, and held out a gloved hand. Heather clasped it and let it lead her out into the warehouse, coughing as the stink of smoke grew stronger.
Two ropes hanging from a shattered skylight and glass crunching underfoot betrayed how Alex must have gained entry. The toe of Heather's shoe hit something solid. It skittered across the floor. Her eyes tracked the metal cylinder, leaking wisps of smoke. More cylinders lay scattered about the warehouse, which had become a scene of chaos.
She took another step, and felt her knees buckle.
"Hey!" Before she could fall, Alex had grabbed her and swung her up into her arms. Her strength took Heather by surprise. "Clasp your arms round my neck," she ordered.
"I can't. My hand—"
Alex's gaze sharpened. "What's wrong with it?"
"I think they broke my fingers."
Alex let out a hiss then adjusted her grip. "OK. Let's get you out of here."
As she carried Heather towards the warehouse exit, a man appeared. He was tall with broad shoulders and huge biceps, and like Alex wore a balaclava. Over his shoulder, as if he weighed nothing at all, was slung an unconscious Thierry. The man exchanged a nod with Alex, and dumped Thierry next to two unconscious figures—one with a buzz cut, the other a shock of black curls.
That makes three. Where's Marie?
"We're done here, Helmut." Alex paused to address the tall man in a low voice. "I saw Heather's luggage over there." She jerked her head in the relevant direction. "Can you bring it?"
He grunted agreement. "After I've given her your message." Heather followed his glance and saw Marie sitting bound and gagged beside a packing crate, glaring at her.
"OK." Alex resumed her progress towards the exit.
"What message?" asked Heather.
"We're pretending we work for Targ."
Alex glanced down at her. "Tarel Gelashvili, nickname Targ. A rival of Kapanadze's. From Georgia."
They emerged into the open air, and the sight of the sky, brightening perceptibly as the sun came up, brought home to Heather that she was really free. A surge of emotion threatened to undo her.
"Almost there," said Alex, her voice gentle. She was heading to the far side of the weed-infested car park. There, a battered blue van with the legend 'Cuvier et Fils, Constructeurs de Maison Individuelles' stencilled on it, was waiting, engine idling.
Alex lowered Heather to her feet, slid open the door in the van's corrugated side, and helped Heather into the draughty interior. As Alex settled her onto a mattress that had been placed on the floor, amongst traces of what looked like brick dust and cement, the driver turned to watch them.
"Broken fingers," said Alex. "You'd better drop us off at a hospital, Gil." She pulled off her balaclava, and scratched her scalp with an expression of relief.
"D'accord," said the driver, before adding, "Bastards."
The side door slid open once more to reveal the man Alex had called Helmut. He had taken off his balaclava to reveal fair hair and eyebrows, and eyes almost as blue as Alex's. He handed through Heather's trolley case and laptop bag, and Alex placed them beside the mattress.
"Thank you," said Heather, relieved to have her property back.
Helmut slid the door closed, and reappeared moments later in the passenger seat. "Ready?" He twisted round to regard the two women.
"Did you give her the message?" asked Alex.
"Ja." He grinned. "'Tell Malkhaz, Targ sends his regards.' In my best Russian accent, naturlich."
"Good. Then let's go."
Alex shifted on her seat and tried to ignore an old man coughing up his lungs a few feet from her in the reception area. That was the trouble with hospitals—no matter how clean and airy they might be, and this one was a palace compared to most English hospitals, they were always full of sick people.
She checked her watch. Nearly half an hour had passed since the nurse had ushered Heather away to get her hand x-rayed. She ground her teeth as she remembered the misshapen fingers. That bastard deserves everything that's coming to him.
At that moment, Heather reappeared round the corner, escorted by the nurse. Her left hand had been splinted, and her expression was slightly glazed. The nurse smiled at Alex and beckoned her over. Alex got to her feet.
"Are you all right?" she asked, after the nurse had relinquished Heather into her care.
"A bit woozy," said Heather. "They gave me a sedative before resetting my fingers."
Alex winced in sympathy. "Reset? So they weren't broken after all?"
"No. Just felt as if they were." Heather grimaced.
It occurred to Alex that some of Heather's wooziness might also be due to low blood sugar. "When did you last eat?"
"I've lost track. They gave me a couple of slices of something—couldn't tell you what it was. And a cola," she added.
"We should get some food inside you."
"Can I clean up first?" Heather's brow creased. "Where's my luggage?"
"Safe. I asked Gil to drop it off at my place." The police observer would get quite a shock when Alex turned up at her apartment with Heather in tow. Perhaps, after he had reported in, his superiors would call off the surveillance operation. She wouldn't bank on it, though. She took Heather gently by the elbow. "Come on. You can shower and change while I get us something to eat."
A thought struck her and she delved in her pocket. "While I remember. Yours, I believe."
"My phone!" With a relieved smile Heather took it from her. "Thank you. I was wondering what had happened to it."
"You should call Lorraine." Alex urged Heather towards the exit. "She's been worried sick."
"Goodness, I'd forgotten all about her." Face stricken, Heather halted. "I'd better do that right n—"
"A few minutes more will make no difference." Alex urged her into motion once more. "Call her from the taxi."
It was awkward showering in Alex's bath-with-shower, and being able to use only one hand didn't help. Heather was grateful for the plastic bag Alex had taped round her bad hand to keep it dry, and as the hot water sluiced away the grime and stink of her captivity, the tension in her shoulders eased.
It's not over yet, though, she reminded herself. Sir Desmond and Kapanadze might try again. She must discuss it with Alex when she got back from the shops.
As Heather dried herself on the large, fluffy towel, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Though she felt much better—the painkillers had forced the throbbing from her fingers into temporary retreat—the hot water hadn't been able to wash away the deep shadows beneath her eyes or ease her drawn expression.
With a sigh, she stripped the plastic bag from her wrist and rummaged in her trolley case for clean underwear. The contents were more creased than she was used to. Alex must have been in a tearing hurry when she packed it.
It dawned on Heather that she had left the jacket of her business suit in the storeroom. Holding the grimy skirt that matched it at arms length, she carried it over to the waste bin and dropped it in. There was no point in having it dry cleaned; it would always hold bad memories for her. She returned to the case, pulled out a pair of jeans and a loose-fitting blouse, and dressed as slowly and carefully as she had showered.
Though this wasn't the first time Heather had been in Alex's apartment, last time she had been too stunned by events to take in her surroundings. Now she took the opportunity to explore. There was only one bedroom, and a double bed took up most of the space in it. She picked up the framed photo perched on the tiny bedside table. A curvaceous redhead with a sultry expression had her arm around a laughing Alex's shoulders. Girlfriend? she wondered, as she put it back. They made an attractive couple.
The tiled kitchen was small but well equipped, with a table and two chairs in the dining area. In the fridge was an opened container of milk and that was all. Takeaways? Eats out a lot? The dishwasher needed emptying.
She returned to the living room, where a humming fan, turning rhythmically, was doing battle with the July heat. The sofa would turn into a double bed, she saw, as she sat on it then gazed at the pictures and framed photographs that hung on the walls. In one photo, a group of grinning young men in jungle fatigues and sky blue berets were carrying a similarly clad Alex on their shoulders.
Without warning the apartment's front door opened. Heart pounding, Heather feared for a moment that Kapanadze's men had found her.
"Sorry," said Alex, taking in her expression. "Didn't mean to startle you."
Heather let out her breath in relief. "It's OK."
"Breakfast. Ta da." With a triumphant grin, Alex held up a brown paper bag, from which a baguette peeked and enticing aromas wafted. She made for the kitchen, and Heather got up at once and followed her, stomach growling.
"Sound like that beast needs feeding," said Alex, glancing at Heather with a smile. She placed the bag on the table, then retrieved plates and cutlery from the dishwasher and set them next to it. "Don't wait for me."
Heather needed no further encouragement. As Alex put coffee on to brew, she sat down and investigated the contents of the paper bag. As well as the baguette, there were two croissants, butter, a selection of ripe French cheeses, and half a melon. Mouth watering, she tore off a chunk of the baguette with her teeth.
When the coffee was ready, Alex poured two cups, and brought them over. She took the other chair, and without having to be asked, sliced up the cheeses and the rest of the bread into pieces Heather could manage with one hand.
"Thanks," said Heather, indistinctly.
They ate in silence, until the edge of Heather's hunger had been blunted. Then Alex said, "Did you reach Lorraine?"
"Yes. I've asked her to settle my bill at the Hôtel Saint-François and to book me on a flight home this afternoon." Her PA had also been full of questions, but Heather hadn't felt up to answering any of them. "I suppose I should go to the police again." She bit her lip. "But it was a policeman who kidnapped me."
Alex nodded. "Clovis Braque. He was kind enough to tell me where they were holding you."
"Was he?" Heather took in Alex's hard expression. She had been going to ask how Alex had prised the information out of him, but decided she would rather not know.
"The police probably know you're here, anyway. They've been keeping me under observation." Alex grinned. "Without much success."
Heather stared at her. "They still believe you had something to do with this?"
"Once they get an idea in their heads—"
"That's not fair."
Alex gave a shrug. "I'll live."
Heather sighed. She met Alex's gaze. "The truth is, I don't know what to do next. Suppose Kapanadze and Sir Desmond try again."
"To kidnap you?" Alex took a sip of her coffee. "Or to steal your patents?"
"Both. And it's not just kidnapping I'm worried about. Kapanazde threatened to burn down my parents' house." Heather took a breath. "With them in it."
"Did he?" Alex frowned. "Best if you leave Kapanadze to me. I have my own plans for him. I don't know anything about Sir Desmond though." She cocked her head. "Could you frighten him off?"
Heather gave Alex a helpless look. "How?"
Alex thought for a moment. "Contact the local police when you get home," she suggested. "Explain what he's been doing and ask them to have a quiet word with him."
"Will that be enough, though? If he's desperate enough to have tried something like this once.... His company's on the verge of bankruptcy."
Alex shrugged. "Then threaten him with exposure. Tell him, if he doesn't leave you alone, you'll go to the newspapers. If his company name is as dear to him as you think, he won't want that."
That made sense, Heather supposed. I'm a Managing Director. I should be able to handle another businessman. But her fingers were hurting and she felt exhausted and muzzy-headed. All she wanted to do was sleep for a week.
Alex studied her, her eyes kind. "I can have a word with Sir Desmond, if you like."
"Would you?" asked Heather, grateful beyond measure.
Silence fell, and the hum of the fan in the living room became audible. Heather's curiosity got the better of her. "Your plans for Kapanadze—do they involve this Targ person?"
Alex nodded. "Word has it there's been bad blood between Kapanadze and Targ for years. If I can stoke their feud, get Targ to come after Kapanadze...."
"Isn't that rather a long shot?"
"Not if Kapanadze goes after Targ first."
Heather stared at her. "Why on earth would he?"
"I've already laid the bait, by pretending Targ's men raided the warehouse," said Alex. "If there were also to be a failed attempt on Kapanadze's life, and the ordnance used were traceable back to Georgia...."
"Can you arrange that?"
"Yes," said Alex, sounding confident.
Heather remembered the spent smoke canisters rolling around the warehouse floor and that photograph of soldiers carrying Alex shoulder high. If she said she could manage it, who was Heather to doubt her?
But the stakes were so high. "What if it doesn't work? What if Kapanadze still comes after me or my parents?"
Alex's expression darkened and Heather was glad she wasn't the recipient of that look. "Then the next attempt on his life will succeed."
Alex overtook a dawdling motorist then got back in her lane.
"You've got the Merc back, I see," said Heather. For the first time she was sitting in the passenger seat next to Alex. Jeans hid the shapely legs, though, much to Alex's regret.
"Jacques okayed it after I threatened to take you to the airport in Gil's van," she said. "He nearly had a fit. Asked if I hadn't done Élite Voitures' reputation enough harm already." That made Heather smile. "Besides," Alex went on, "I need this." She tapped the G1 parking permit attached to the interior of the windscreen.
Heather shifted in the cushioned seat, wincing as her splinted hand brushed against the door.
"I hope someone's meeting you at Heathrow," said Alex, worried how Heather was going to manage her cases with one hand out of commission.
"Lorraine will have arranged it. She's good like that."
She wished Heather had taken up her offer of a bed for the night—the sofa bed in her living room was comfier than it looked. But Heather had said she would sleep on the plane. After what she'd been through, she couldn't wait to get out of Nice. It was a shame, but Alex couldn't blame her.
The road sign for Terminal 1 appeared up ahead and she changed down a gear. She became aware that Heather was studying her, expression thoughtful. She had been doing that a lot lately.
"Want to ask me something? Go ahead."
Heather reddened. "What were you court martialled for?"
"You know about that?" asked Alex.
"The police commandant mentioned it."
"He would," she muttered. For a moment she concentrated on negotiating the turn off for Côte d'Azur International Airport, then she said quietly, "Disobeying orders."
"I shot some people I hadn't been ordered to."
Alex stole a glance at Heather. She was frowning. "The local militia. They were out of control." Raping and killing while Alex and her fellow peacekeepers were forced to look on, helpless. "We were supposed to turn a blind eye."
"But you didn't."
Couldn't, more like. It had been eating her up inside. "No," said Alex. The militia needed to be taught the lesson those ridiculous hand-painted murals proclaiming it wasn't 'manly' to rape had failed to deliver. So she and a few volunteers from among her men had obliged. She still dreamt of that night sometimes. The bullets, the bodies, the blood. And the grateful faces of the local women the next morning.
"I see," said Heather, her brow smoothing. Alex doubted that but said nothing.
She wound down the window to speak to the attendant of the secured parking area next to the terminal main entrance. He checked her permit then waved her through. She made for a vacant parking space.
"Would you do it again?" asked Heather, wrinkling her nose in a way Alex found cute.
There had been times over the past two years when Alex had asked herself that question. Her actions had put paid to a promising military career, and blotted the records of the most loyal of her men. But their answers would be the same as hers, she knew. "In a heart beat."
She put on the handbrake, switched off the ignition, and glanced at her watch. "Three hours until your flight. Should be plenty of time."
Alex got out and walked round to Heather's side.
With a grunt of effort, Heather eased herself out, cradling her left hand as she did so and grumbling, "You don't know how much you use a hand until you can't any more."
"At least it's not broken."
Heather gave her a wry look. "I'll keep telling myself that."
Alex extracted Heather's trolley case from the boot and extended the handle, then slung the laptop bag over her shoulder. "Come on."
She set off towards the main entrance, Heather falling in beside her. The double doors slid open and the air-conditioned cool embraced them. A chauffeur waiting for his client nodded at Alex as they walked past towards the check-in desks.
A woman in BA uniform accepted Heather's ticket and trolley case, and produced a boarding pass and invitation to the private departure lounge. Heather accepted them with a murmur of thanks.
Alex couldn't accompany Heather through security control to the boarding area, so she handed over the laptop bag.
"Thanks," said Heather, slinging it over her own shoulder. "Will you keep me up-to-date on Kapanadze?"
An awkward silence descended and Heather studied her shoes.
"If you're ever in Nice again," said Alex, "and you need a driver, look me up. Even if you don't need a driver, look me up," she added, on impulse
At that, Heather glanced up at her and gave her a shy smile. "And if you ever come to England...." She let the sentence hang.
"It's a deal."
Heather accepted her house keys from the driver with a murmur of thanks, then watched him return to his Bentley. She couldn't help but contrast his slouching walk with Alex's erect stride. A memory of blue eyes gazing at her in the rear view mirror surfaced. She sighed and closed the door on the night.
Every stage of her journey back had gone smoothly, but she was very glad to be home. Even so, as she carried her cases upstairs to her bedroom, one at a time, she couldn't help noticing how empty the place felt.
I need a pet. But she was out at work all day. It would hardly be fair on the poor thing. Perhaps not.
She used the bathroom, careful not to jostle her splinted fingers, then unpacked, putting the dirty clothes in the laundry basket to be dealt with when she had the energy. Compared with the room at the Hôtel Saint-François, her bedroom lacked a certain 'je ne sais quoi', she decided. And my view is rubbish. She drew the curtains and went downstairs.
In the hall, her answer phone message light was blinking. She pressed play, and felt a sense of relief as voices filled the silence.
"Heather, dear," said her mother. "Hope you had a wonderful time in Nice and didn't work too hard. Call us as soon as you get back. We worry, you know. Bye."
"Colin Watkins from Pembury Manufacturing here, Miss Myles," came a man's voice next. "Thought you'd like to know, production of the battery is going well—in fact it's actually a day ahead of schedule. See you at the launch party on Monday night."
The launch party. She'd forgotten all about it. Her parents had promised to attend. So had Professor Barnes. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now.... She grimaced. A splint wasn't the ideal fashion accessory for an evening dress. People were bound to be curious about her injured hand. But she couldn't very well tell them the truth, could she? She must concoct some more plausible explanation. Trapped her fingers in the car door, perhaps.
"There are no more messages," announced the machine.
Nothing from Sir Desmond. Her shoulders relaxed.
Heather rang her parents, and mentioned that she had hurt her hand but glossed over how it had happened. No need to alarm them. If Kapanadze or Sir Desmond confounded Alex's expectations, she would warn her parents then. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Having promised to pop over to their house tomorrow, she rang off, made herself cheese on toast, and settled down in front of the TV. Her attention wasn't on the drama unfolding on the flickering screen but back in Nice, however. On strong arms and a bruised cheekbone.
Alex had talked of taking a break—a trip to the Alps. With that redhead from the photograph? wondered Heather. The stab of jealousy took her by surprise. Just because she rescued you, and you saw her eyeing your legs once or twice.... You only met her three days ago, for God's sake, and she lives in Nice. Get a grip.
Laughing a little at herself under her breath, she returned her attention to the TV. One good thing—if jealousy was all she could think of, after what she had been through, she must be feeling better.
Alex pocketed her phone, leaned on the stone balustrade, and sighed. As expected, Chantel had called time on their relationship, which meant she would be taking her mountain drive alone. Oh well. Their year together had been fun.
She gazed out over the old town. It was windy today, but although she could see the waves crashing on the beach below, she could hear only the sound of the waterfall cascading nearby. She glanced at her watch. Five to midday—the time she had specified for her rendezvous. But would Barrington respond to her invitation? And if so, would he come alone?
A group of tourists passed her on their way up to the Colline du Château. They paused to take pictures of the view before going on their way. That man with the straggly silver hair in need of a trim. What kind of person would wear a suit and tie in this heat? If his clothes hadn't already set him apart from the other tourists, the way he was frowning and looking around as if he had lost something—Or someone.—would have.
She pulled out her phone and compared his face to the mug shot of Sir Desmond Barrington, then left the balustrade and made her way towards him.
"Yes?" The crease between his brows deepened. "Do I know you?"
"No. Heather Myles sent me."
"Oh. I was expecting her to come in person."
"And risk you kidnapping her again?" said Alex. "Sorry to disappoint. She's gone back to England."
From his expression, he was undecided whether to take offence. But there would have been little point. "Then I have nothing to say to you." He turned to go.
"But I have something to say to you." Alex barred his way. "A message."
Barrington halted. "From Heather? Well, why didn't you say so?"
"If you go near her or her family again, the part you and your company played in her abduction will appear on the front page of all the newspapers."
He recovered his poise quickly; she'd give him that. "An empty threat," he said, adopting a bored tone. "I'd see both her and those rags they call newspapers in court for libel. And I'd win."
"You're probably right," said Alex, equably. "Which is why I have a message for you of my own."
Barrington gave her an impatient look. "Well?"
"If you so much as blink in Heather's direction," said Alex, her tone suddenly icy, "you're dead. I have contacts in the military in England who owe me. They'll do what needs to be done, no questions asked."
For a moment he looked taken aback, then his urbanity returned. "You don't scare me, Miss whatever your name is. I have powerful friends of my own."
"Malkhaz Kapanadze?" She shook her head. "I wouldn't count on any help from that quarter. Kapanadze's going to be occupied with problems of his own."
A look of uncertainty appeared. "You're bluffing."
"Try me. Which would you prefer, Sir Desmond—bankruptcy or a coffin? The choice is up to you."
A loud bang from the top of the hill made him jump and look round. A distant puff of smoke revealed it was only the cannon announcing midday—a retired English colonel from India had started the custom, so the story went, to remind his young wife to prepare lunch. But it had served its purpose, and when Barrington turned back, he was visibly rattled, she saw with a sense of satisfaction.
"Last warning," said Alex. Then she walked away.
Two Months Later.
It had been a long day. Heather had spent the morning in meetings with prospective clients, and the afternoon with Martin Tindall and his team, reviewing the mock-ups they had produced for the O'Leary brief. She was glad to regain the sanctuary of her office at last.
Two new items had been added to her desk while she was away from it: a phone message pad, and a newspaper folded neatly to reveal an article circled in red ink.
With a sigh, Heather sank into her swivel chair and picked up the message pad. Disappointment swept over her as she read Lorraine's flowing script and realised who had called in her absence.
She'd received an unsigned picture postcard of Nice's sea front soon after she got back from France. If she hadn't already recognised the flamboyant scrawl, the content made clear who it was from: I've spoken to Sir D. If he gives you any grief, let me know. But he hadn't, so Heather had lacked any excuse to contact Alex Rogers. And now the chauffeuse had rung her while she was out. Damn.
The phone message Alex had left with Lorraine was as circumspect as the postcard. Tell Heather she needn't worry about MK any more.
MK? Frowning, Heather put the pad to one side and turned her attention to the newspaper.
The article Lorraine had circled in red ink had been written by the paper's technology correspondent. It paid glowing tribute to Ben and his battery, and Heather read to the end with a pleased grin. She had refolded the newspaper, and was about to set it one side, when an item at the bottom of the front page snagged her attention.
Crime Boss murdered on the Côte d'Azur
A car bomb blast has killed Georgian-born Malkhaz Kapanadze, 47, and severely injured his driver. According to the police, Mr Kapanadze was being driven along Highway A8, just outside Nice, late on Saturday night, when a motorcycle drew alongside his car. The masked rider attached a device to the rear door adjacent to Mr Kapanadze. Seconds later it exploded, killing the crime boss outright.
Suddenly the meaning of Alex's message was crystal clear.
"I'm just off home, Miss Myles. Is there anything you need before I go?" Her PA was standing in the office doorway, shrugging her shoulders into her coat.
"No thanks, Lorraine. That'll be all for tod—" A thought struck Heather. The perfect excuse. Before she could change her mind, she said, "Oh. Actually, there is something. Can you get me Alex Rogers on the phone before you go?" She opened the top drawer of her desk and retrieved the business card Alex had given her in the Acropolis car park. "If she didn't leave a number when she called earlier, try the one on here."
Lorraine took the card and glanced at the number scrawled on it. "Won't be a moment." She disappeared back to her desk.
Heather turned back to her newspaper.
There were no other casualties. Police say it was fortunate the incident took place at a time when that particular stretch of highway is usually deserted.
The motorcycle was found abandoned nearby, and investigations are continuing. Police sources say evidence retrieved so far points to a revenge attack by a rival from Mr. Kapanadze's Georgia days. Eight weeks ago, an attempt to blow up his car failed when the detonator misfired.
Mr. Kapanadze's driver underwent emergency surgery and is currently recovering in hospital under police guard.
The desk phone rang and Heather put aside the newspaper and picked up the receiver.
"Alex Rogers is on line 1, Miss Myles," said her PA.
"Thanks, Lorraine. Have a good evening." Mouth dry, heart pounding, Heather pressed the button that would connect her. "Hello, Alex, is that you? How are things in Nice?"
"Fine, thanks," came the familiar voice. "I take it you got my message."
"Yes, thanks." There was a background murmur of voices and the clink of cutlery. Heather remembered the time difference. "Sorry. Have I interrupted something?"
"Nothing important. I'm in a brasserie with Helmut. He sends his best wishes." A memory of a fair-haired man with a German accent and huge muscles surfaced. "Merci, Mireille," said Alex, her voice muffled. "That looks delicious."
"Should I ring you later?" asked Heather. "Don't want your food to get cold."
"It's fruit salad. How are your fingers?"
She glanced at her left hand and wiggled it. "They still ache a little, occasionally, but otherwise they're fine." She took the plunge. "I just saw an article in The Times. About Kapanadze."
"Ah. I wondered if it would make the papers over there."
Heather paused. She couldn't very well ask straight out if it was Alex who had blown him up or Targ. Instead, she said rather feebly, "That's a weight off my mind."
"I thought it might be." A pause followed, then Alex said, "What about that other fellow? Barrington, was that his name? Did he cause you any grief?"
"Sir Desmond. No. Thanks for speaking to him, by the way. Whatever you said, it did the trick. He sold his company. And sent me a note."
Alex's voice sharpened. "What did it say?"
"Sorry." The scrawl, on its expensive headed paper, was locked in her safe and had brought with it an almost overpowering sense of relief.
Heather's gaze wandered to the night sky visible through her office window. "So." She searched for something to say. "How are things in Nice?" Didn't I already ask her that? She rolled her eyes. I'm acting like a schoolgirl.
"I already told you." Alex sounded amused. "Fine. Much cooler, thank God."
"Any trouble with the police?"
"Cooler on that front too. They trailed me for a few more days after you left, then gave up. Lt. Girard must have changed his mind about my involvement."
"That's good." Heather paused. "I was thinking of coming to Nice again," she improvised. "For a holiday, this time. When's the best time of year?"
"Now," said Alex at once.
The swiftness of her response was flattering. I mustn't read anything into it though. "Really?"
"I know someone who could show you the sights." The amusement in Alex's voice had increased.
"But won't your girlfriend object?"
"Chantel?" Alex sounded surprised. "We broke up a while ago—the day after you went back to England, I think it was."
"I'm sorry," said Heather, though she wasn't in the slightest.
"So you're free then?" The double meaning hung in the air between them.
"Yes. What about you?"
Heather's thoughts whirled. The battery production line had been up and running without a hitch for weeks, now, and in the unlikely event something went wrong, it was Pembury Manufacturing's responsibility. As for Heather's design agency, Martin would take over for a while, if she asked him to. She could afford to take time for herself at last.
Alex's prompt reminded her she hadn't answered. "I can be free too."
"Good." Alex sounded pleased. "Let me know what flight you're coming in on, and I'll meet you."
Just like that? Last time Lorraine had booked her a hotel, hired a car— "Should I call Élite Voitures, ask for you to be my driver again?"
"Let's keep the arrangements informal this time, shall we?" said Alex. "I'll ask Jacques for some time off. And you can sleep on my sofa bed." She paused, then added, with the hint of a question in her voice, "Unless you'd rather book into a hotel."
Heather considered that option for all of a nanosecond. "Your sofa bed sounds great." And who knew, if things went well, she might get to try out that double bed in Alex's bedroom.
"It's settled then," The smile was back in Alex's voice. "Stay at my place and we'll go sightseeing, get to know Nice... and each other... a little better. How does that sound?"
It was time to take a risk, to get on with her life. Heather could imagine Ben smiling encouragement at her. "Sounds perfect."
Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Val, for helping me to distinguish the wood from the trees. J