“The cat’s in the bag”
He’d been watching her for weeks. Following her, in fact.
She didn’t look the same as in the press photos from the earthquake, but a couple of years had passed and of course she would have taken pains to make herself look different. Different hair – longer and died a shade of red. Different clothes – far more sophisticated and flattering. And she wore sunglasses always, deliberately big dark ones. As if they would help hide her!
He had found her by her behaviour and her actions. He had acted on a tip off, from one of many sources he had set up around the world, primed to look out for a key set of clues. A series of good deeds – some sort of unusual human interest story, with a touch of mystery about it. A young woman who lived alone, but who appeared to be wealthy and well guarded. A woman who took particular pains to keep herself to herself, who didn’t go out much, didn’t socialise with friends, didn’t appear to have a lover. A woman who had secret.
New York. A good place to hide. Lots of people, lots of tolerance, lots of anonymity. But she couldn’t hide from him, couldn’t hide from his network.
He had bugged her phone. She made various mysterious long distance phone calls. She spoke both in French and Italian, but her English accent was British. She appeared to have her own network of informers, people who told her about certain events, and who acted on her instructions.
He had hacked her computer. She made occasional large deposits in a number of bank accounts. Less often, she made large withdrawals.
A month ago she had shown a particular interest in a story which had hit the headlines about corruption and abuse at a famous church in the City. Several pillars of the establishment had been exposed and shamed. Some children had been rescued. The press were trying to track down a mystery benefactor.
Oh yes, he was certain the woman he had been following was Laura.
He was sitting opposite her right now, watching from his car as she walked into a diner near her apartment and sat down in what he knew to be her favourite spot by the window.
He had observed her like this several times before, being very careful to remain unseen. But tonight was different. Tonight was decision time. He was under pressure to take action, and he had decided to take a risk and try to engage with his target before bringing her in.
Because he was a man who worked on gut feeling, and trusted his own judgement. And he felt like he needed to talk to her, just the once – just to be absolutely and completely sure.
He left his car and wandered over to the diner. He had thought this through – he would pretend to be a passing customer, and simply chat the young woman up. She couldn’t possibly know him, he had taken such pains to keep himself and his operation ultra discreet.
Even if, as he believed, she might have the ability to project her mind to other places – even if she had somehow become aware of his pursuit and had observed him secretly; well, he wasn’t at all bothered by this eventuality. If she recognised him, it only confirmed her identity further. And there was no way she could escape him, not this time. He had all escape routes covered – literally. There were six agents surrounding her apartment and two would have tailed her and would be standing guard at the back of the diner. They’d been aware of her every move for weeks now. There weren’t going to be any surprises.
He pushed open the door of the eatery and sauntered over to a table opposite from hers. He turned on the charm, made it obvious he had noticed her and was in a mood for some flirtation.
“Well, what’s the food like in this place – is it as good as the company? Mind if I sit here? I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
She looked up rather blankly, took in his good looks and his cheeky grin, seemed to be wavering over how to react.
Certainly there didn’t seem to be any recognition in there, though – unless she was a very good actress. He decided to believe that he was in the clear, that she’d never seen him – in any way – before after all.
“Can I buy you a drink? Really, I’m not staying long, I won’t hassle you all night, I promise.” Mark slipped into an empty chair and picked up a menu. “What do you fancy? Martini or milkshake? What are you in the mood for tonight?”
She didn’t remove her glasses, he noticed, but he could tell she was looking him up and down, and coming to a decision. “Okay, I’ll have a Martini, thanks.” She gave a little smile – but only a little one, like she didn’t really care for his company that much, but was deciding to tolerate it for the time being. “They do good pasta here, I recommend it.”
“Thanks,” he said, and called his order over to a waitress. “So can I join you?”
She shrugged, so he slipped quickly from his seat at the spare table to the space directly opposite from her. He was now just a foot away from the woman who had been his target over so many months – it was so tempting just to grab her by the arm and drag her out into his waiting car. But no, there was no point causing a scene.
“What’s your name?” he asked, staying in the role of amorous admirer. “I’m Dale, I work just up the block, got a nice new place with a great view.”
People don’t hesitate over their own name, do they? In his eyes, her reticence gave her away.
“Vanessa,” she said. “Vanessa Matthews.”
Oh no it’s not, he thought to himself, but he only smiled at her and folded his hands together underneath his chin, peering into her face with what he hoped was a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, pleased to meet you Vanessa. Maybe we can get to know each other a little – the night is young.”
The Martinis arrived.
“I am married, you know,” she said to him, sipping through a straw.
“My commiserations.” He raised his drink. “To absent husbands.”
She stiffened and he feared he’d made a mistake. “Who says he’s absent?”
Mark thought quickly. He could hardly admit that his men had been observing her apartment for weeks and had seen no trace of anyone coming or going.
“Well, surely someone as attractive as yourself wouldn’t be eating here alone unless your husband was away? Or is that just my wishful thinking?”
She appeared to consider before giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Okay, you’re right. He’s away. And whilst I have no intention of leaving this restaurant with you – or anyone – tonight, I find I don’t mind the idea of some conversation over pasta, if you’ll settle for that.”
“Sounds good to me,” he grinned and made show of making himself more comfortable in his chair. “So tell me about yourself – I want to know everything!”
And so it was that Mark managed to engage this woman who was calling herself Vanessa in conversation for a good half hour, and extracted from her by what he hoped were surreptitious means, details of her history and private life he hadn’t previously been aware of.
Parents? They were estranged now, which was a fact that saddened her.
Work? Well, nothing formal, but she kept herself busy with various schemes.
Interests? She particularly loved dance, especially ballet. She had studied a little once, but now didn’t have time to pursue it.
Children? Oh, she would love them, most definitely. But her personal circumstances just weren’t right at the present moment.
“How does your husband feel about the children issue?” Mark queried as he downed his second Martini, thinking to himself that as he knew very well his companion didn’t have a husband, he could observe how readily she would lie as she replied.
Suddenly Vanessa jerked a little and sat back, as if something had just occurred to her.
Ah-ha! thought Mark. He was enjoying the moment now and beginning to look forward to the instant when he would finally put his long-rehearsed plan into motion.
“Dale,” said Vanessa, putting down her fork. “That’s a very personal question.”
“Is it? I’m sorry. I guess I was just practising getting personal with you.” He smirked in a suitably sleazy fashion.
For the first time, she reached up and removed her dark glasses – as if she wanted to get a better look at this man sitting opposite her, in order to better judge his character.
Her eyes, he noticed, were rather red and tired, but nevertheless pretty. He realised he did actually find her very attractive. Unfortunately, though, he had a different agenda and so would never be able to do anything about it.
“In fact Dale, I’m getting a bit suspicious about you.” She regarded him stoically. “I’ve never seen you before and I’ve as much as told you I’m not interested. But you’re keeping those personal questions coming.”
“Well, you’ve been answering them – and anyway, it’s just idle chat. As a matter of fact I’m not remotely interested in your husband, I assure you. The less I know about him the better.”
“Hmm,” she rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’m not sure about that. I think maybe it’s my husband you’re trying to find out about. Maybe you’re going to ask me where he is and what he’s up to? I wasn’t born yesterday – who sent you, Dale? What’s this all about?”
Mark began to regret the Martinis, because he couldn’t quite clear his head and he needed to think straight. It must be that she was trying to distract him with this focus on the imaginary husband. Maybe it was time he was more direct.
“Okay – Vanessa.” He spoke the name sarcastically. “What if I told you I know all about who you really are. Particularly about – how shall I put it – your state of mind.”
He should have been ready, but he couldn’t have anticipated how she would react.
She leapt to her feet, pushing the table away from her and against him.
“Bastard!” she shouted. “Impostor!” The restaurant staff and other diners turned to look at what was going on, and she appealed to them, gesticulating broadly.
“This man is harassing me! Get him away from me! Get away!”
And suddenly she was storming towards the door, and though he reached out to try to grab her arm, she brushed him off and was gone.
“Just a misunderstanding,” Mark said quickly, as a waiter and a burly customer stepped towards him. He threw some money on the table and headed towards the exit. “The lady has a temper – see what I have to put up with?”
On the street he looked both ways and saw her on the sidewalk, hurrying away. She looked over her shoulder at him and actually started to run.
She had spooked. She was caught. No doubt about it.
He reached for his phone and called his team leader.
“Plan A, now!” he commanded. “Get her secure, and tell me when it’s done.”
He strolled across the street to his car and got in, feeling a rush of emotion – a mixture of exhilaration and relief. It was only a few minutes before he got a call back.
“The cat’s in the bag,” came the voice of his man. “Easy as pie.”
Mark allowed himself a moment’s elation before starting the engine and driving away. Time, at last, to move on to the next phase.
Less than 24 hours later, and he found himself being the cat in the bag.
Walking along the street near his apartment, out shopping for cigarettes – and a long saloon pulled up beside him, black and forbidding.
Two heavies ushered him inside, where he found himself face to face with ‘probably his boss’ Porter.
For an instant he smiled, as if expecting a cheerful hello and perhaps even a word of congratulation. But the mood was way off for that. Something must have gone wrong.
“Fingerprints,” said Porter, as the car moved away and began to speed through the suburbs, away from Mark’s home. “Checking fingerprints – it was as simple as that.”
A black feeling descended over Mark. The sense of relief and celebration he had been privately nurturing over the last day turned abruptly to trepidation and horror.
“Wh – what do you mean?” he stammered.
Porter stared at him coldly. “You brought in the wrong woman,” he said. “She’s the wife of a known criminal-turned-informer who went missing a few months ago. She’s struggled to recover from a mental breakdown and has been under Police protection. She swears she has no psychic ability and has just tried to commit suicide, certain we were either associates or enemies of her husband.”
“But – ”
“But, it can’t be – ”
“It is. We’re sure.”
“I – ” Mark closed his eyes and began to tremble.
“I just don’t know,” said Porter, shaking his head. “What on earth are we going to do with you now?”
The car sped on.