DI Rachel Prince clipped the edge of a concrete column with the front offside wing of her car as she negotiated the overflowing underground car park. She was driving carelessly because she was late, and she was late because despite the rain she had hit a perfect stride and ended up running for forty minutes instead of twenty.
Her kitbag caught in the lift doors as they were closing, requiring such force to free it that she crashed against the far wall. And then, since she was still in her running gear and trainers, her blonde hair scraped back in a high ponytail, she entered the fifth-floor office at a jog and attempted to vault straight into her desk chair. But her bag clipped the chair arm and sent it skittering to the right. Her backside caught the edge of the moving seat, then slid off. She tumbled inelegantly to the floor.
‘Morning,’ said DS Mark Brickall. ‘Strike Three, by any chance?’
He was making a calculated guess, since Rachel was usually punctual. The office rule was that if you screwed up three times on your commute to work and were more than ten minutes late, it was your turn to buy the drinks at their local pub, the Pin and Needle, that evening.
‘Strike Three,’ admitted Rachel, booting up her terminal. ‘It’s definitely that kind of day.’
‘Fucking weather,’ Brickall flicked a rubber band across his desk for emphasis. Raindrops were streaming steadily down the outside of the windows of the National Crime Agency and condensation was misting the inside. The NCA had been set up to tackle serious and organised crime, and its staff included police officers and ex-servicemen, but also civilian analysts and intelligence personnel. They were a cutting-edge team, and the atmosphere was usually lively, but with the backdrop of gunmetal February sky above an olive-drab river Thames, the effect today was that of being trapped in a giant grey box.
Brickall’s phone rang.
‘International Liaison, DS Brickall speaking… you’ll want my colleague.’ Brickall gestured to the receiver in his hand and mouthed ‘For you’.
Rachel straightened her chair and picked up. ‘DI Prince.’
‘Nothing like being given a bit of a wake-up on a Friday morning.’
‘Bit of a weird one, was it? Bloke sounded like a Yank.’
‘Correct. It was the Alien and Fugitive division at US Interpol HQ, no less. A Mis-Per found dead in unusual circumstances. A twenty-something female and – guess what – she’s a UK national. Looks like blunt force trauma, but apparently the body’s a bit too far gone to be sure. So they want someone from this end to go out and liaise with the local police department.’
‘And where would that be then?’
‘Los Angeles. Hollywood, to be exact.’
‘Except…’ Rachel said with a grin, standing up and collecting a pen and her notes, ‘I happen to know that his new baby is due next week.’
Commander Nigel Patten, Deputy Director of International Crime, glanced quickly away from his computer screen and started shuffling files in a transparent attempt at looking busy. Although he’d recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday, he had a much younger second wife who was about to give birth to baby number two.
He waved at the chair opposite his desk, and Rachel sat down and filled him in on the little she knew of the case that had come in.
‘So they need someone from Investigation Support out there?’
Patten frowned. ‘Not great timing; you’re spot on about that. Danielle would have kittens if I left the country at this point.’
‘Or possibly a baby,’ suggested Rachel.
Patten sighed. ‘I suppose your firearms training might be useful. And if I remember rightly, you’ve done a stint in Crime Analysis?’
Rachel nodded. ‘I did a placement there soon after I came to NCA.’ She had started out as a regular beat officer before joining the Metropolitan Police’s CID and then Interpol, before it had been absorbed by the National Crime Agency. That had been nearly five years ago, when she was still in her mid-thirties.
Patten considered this.
‘And you’re happy to go, Rachel? What about your promotion board?’
Following her investigation into a child grooming ring in Edinburgh, Rachel had been invited to apply to become a Detective Chief Inspector.
‘Okay, go and hand over your existing files and I’ll get Janette to book your travel.’
‘For today would be great, if she can swing it.’ Rachel looked over her shoulder as she left the office, ‘Oh and good luck, sir. With the new sprog.’
‘Jammy cow’ Brickall took some files from her and placed them at the bottom of the heap already on his desk. ‘You’d do anything to get out of buying a round. And if you think I’m actually going to do any work on these, you’re dreaming.’
‘No change there. You always were a lazy tosser.’ Rachel grinned.
‘And I hope the jet lag’s horrific.’
She blew a kiss at Brickall over her shoulder as she hefted her bag and headed for the door. She knew the jealousy on his part wasn’t entirely faked. Rachel and Brickall both worked in the team that covered international coordination. They occasionally travelled to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, Rachel had been to Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands the previous year, and Brickall had recently attended a security briefing in Brussels. But this was the first time in their three years at the NCA there had been a long-distance case. The excitement gave Rachel an added bounce in her step as she ran down to the underground car park.
She honked and swerved her way through the three miles to her flat, and wasted no time once she was there; hurling her carry-on suitcase onto the bed and reaching into drawers and cupboards to fill it. No frivolous holiday brights or heels; just plain-clothes policewoman garb. Well-cut black trousers that flattered her athletic shape, plain white cotton shirts and T-shirts, her trainers and running gear and – her sole concession to California warmth – a bikini and flip-flops. Toothbrush, hair products and face wash, a minimal stash of make-up.
The kitchen, with its exposed brick walls and open shelves, was rarely used. The fridge was more or less empty already apart from the beer she stocked for her son Joe: no need to deal with leftover salad and half-used milk cartons. Rachel didn’t cook often. She didn’t know when she was going to be at home, so she’d got into the habit of surviving on takeaways and the work canteen. No young children, no pets, no spouse: leaving was gratifyingly easy.
Her phone buzzed as she was closing her case.
Okay if I crash tonight? Got Friday night drinks and it could get messy. J xx
Her son Joe was working as an intern at a management consultancy in Canary Wharf. He had been adopted as a newborn – when she was estranged from her ex-husband and Joe’s birth father, Stuart Ritchie – and had only made contact with Rachel the previous summer, when he turned eighteen. After navigating painful guilt on her part and bitter recrimination on his, their relationship had thrived, and he now occasionally spent the night in Rachel’s spare room when it was too late to catch the train back to his adoptive parents’ house in Sussex.
Once she’d sent the reply, she opened her taxi app, booking a car for the morning.
The next morning, as she was heading to the lift, she got another text. It was from Brickall.
I’ll miss you, you flaky tart.
Rachel smiled at the closing lift doors. She was sorry she wouldn’t be working with her right-hand man on this case, but that didn’t prevent her from being excited about escaping wintry London and getting her teeth into an intriguing international job. She typed a reply.
Get a grip, loser