Chapter 5 – Bluff, Blackmail, and Backup

 

Wednesday 2nd March

Clydebank

Rachel tucked her blonde hair up and pulled on a green baseball cap which had a small gold leave motif. A heavy check shirt and green body-warmer with regular jeans gave the right look.

While enjoying a coffee, Rachel lifted her forestry recognition book and flicked through the appropriate pages. She practised once again saying a few of the Latin names so that they flowed without any difficulty. When content she knew enough for conversational purposes she attached her notes to her clipboard.

Before leaving, Rachel lifted her wallet of identity cards, all with small photographs and a variety of names for the characters in question. She slipped the appropriate card inside the green plastic identity card holder and attached a green lanyard from her selection. Rachel had checked the remainder of her equipment in the back of her Discovery on the previous evening.

*

Bearsden

Three streets away from the target, Rachel pulled into a narrow leafy avenue and parked between two other vehicles. It had taken ten minutes to locate the street where she’d remembered seeing cars parked away from driveways. She used magnetic studs to attach the number plates she’d taken from a car in a long-stay car park. Finding a vehicle with a suitably lengthy parking period had taken five minutes before she went to meet Amy the previous day.

When content that all was in order, Rachel donned her lanyard and placed her clipboard on the passenger seat of the Discovery. She drove around into Earl’s Crescent. The first port of call was a grand old house of two-storeys with a small hatchback parked at the side. Rachel recalled that the hatchback had been there the previous day, but there had also been a big white Lexus.

Rachel parked on the driveway but away from the front of the house.

“Good morning dear.” The woman who opened the door was well-dressed and in her fifties. “How can I help you?”

“Good morning, my name is Jo Branagan.” Rachel was holding her clipboard in her left hand, so briefly held up the card dangling from the green lanyard. “I’m an arborist with the Forestry Commission. We’ve been asked to do a few checks for the Glasgow authorities.”

“We have quite a few trees as you can probably see—is there a particular problem?”

“I’m on the lookout for any impressive aesculus hippocastanum, that is Horse Chestnut specimens. I see you have two magnificent examples at either side of your three lovely Spruce.”

“I didn’t think the Horse Chestnut looked good until the leaves and blooms appeared.”

“Of course, as an arborist, I tend to see the beauty, structure, and condition at any time of the year.”

“Why would you want to check them now?”

“You may know that they’re prone to two different types of damage. The first is an insect which affects the foliage, but there is a particular bleeding canker that can cause terminal issues within the trunk.”

“What does the check entail?”

“I’ll climb up there and leave a small monitor on both trees and come back to retrieve them before the trees are in full bloom.” She winked. “It won’t cost you a penny and you might get a mention in a national magazine.”

“Will it take long?”

“Good heavens no—if I can get up to the lower branches with my ladder I might not use my full equipment, and I’ll be gone in about an hour.” Rachel paused. “Would it be okay to leave my car parked there rather than on the roadway—I have rather expensive equipment.”

“Of course dear … would you like a cup of tea?”

“That would be most kind. One sugar and no milk, please. I’ll get myself organised.” Rachel didn’t want to stop for a cup of tea and idle chat but she was prepared as always for such occasions.

Ten minutes after the doorstep introduction, Rachel had her collapsible ladder lying beside the tree on the left of the property, and with the tailgate of the Discovery open it allowed the homeowner to see the large bag with various harnesses and coloured carabiners.

“Here you are, Ms Branagan.”

“Thank you very much.” Rachel was now wearing an orange helmet and had heavy gloves tucked into her jeans. She sipped the tea. “I’m going to break a few rules to speed things up. I’ll just use the ladder and climb.”

“Right-oh, you know best.” The woman looked at the five large trees which effectively screened the house from view for most of the year. “You said there was a second problem—an insect?”

“Yes, the cameraria ohridella, or leaf-mining moth. It’s not dangerous and affects the leaves.”

“Oh right.” The woman asked about the job of an arborist.

To avoid getting stuck, Rachel took little time in rerouting the conversation to the state of the planet. She finished her tea. “Right I’d better get going. Thank you so much—the tea was lovely.”

Rachel climbed to around twenty feet and then thirty feet, attaching small green monitors. A glance over her shoulder assured her of the correct angle. She made her way down, took the ladder and went along to the other end of the large garden. Fifteen minutes later she was packing away her gear.

Two and half hours after setting up the first devices, Rachel had visited two other homes nearby and secured similar equipment in Horse Chestnut trees. The same line of questioning happened each time, but she’d learned what was important to these people and was able to sound sympathetic.

She drove into an area of woodland which ran parallel to Earl’s Crescent and found a suitable tree to set up two monitors. There were no homeowners, questions, or interference. One elderly man walking his dog said a cheerful hello and went on his way.

Before leaving, the fake number plates were thrown in with the climbing equipment.

At 13:30 in a pleasant cafe, about a mile away from her morning venture, Rachel sat at a window table with a coffee, sandwiches, and her laptop. She powered up the machine and flicked through a sequence of screens. On each, she adjusted the zoom on a particular aspect of her target.

“Eight cameras and six are almost perfect—good enough.” Rachel enjoyed her lunch and coffee before heading to Clydebank to clean up and change.

*

Byres Road

The glass door of Stroud and Elliott swung open and the redhead at the desk looked up from her mobile phone, sliding the device behind her computer monitor. She first glanced at the visitor and then adjusted her malevolent glare to something resembling friendly. 

“Good morning.” The redhead was wearing a light floral blouse and a short navy skirt, promoting the curvaceous body and shapely legs rather than providing formal appearance.

“I’ve come to see Mr Elliott.” The long brunette hair, long lashes and bright red lipstick called attention, but the tight blue blouse, black miniskirt and stilettos suggested this visitor wasn’t coming to check the gas meter. Big hoop earrings, scarlet nails, and shapely, bare legs all sent out a message. The only thing missing was a price tag per hour.

“Is Mr Elliott expecting you, madam?”

The brunette hung her jacket over her arm and checked her watch. “I may be a little early but he did say anytime after three—tell him it’s about a personal injury claim caused in a shooting.”

The redhead stood, but had lost concentration and openly appraised the woman in front of her before she turned to walk towards Elliott’s office. “I’m sorry—you didn’t give your name?”

“Oh, I didn’t, did I … just tell him it’s … Franny.”

It took two minutes before a flustered receptionist stepped out of Elliott’s office and forced a smile as she gestured for the visitor to approach. “Mr Elliott will be happy to see you now.”

Rachel reached the door, paused, and winked at the other woman before going inside.

Francis Elliott was still standing after his brief conversation with the redhead. He stared at his visitor, his lips parted and trembling. “What are you doing here—this is my office?”

“Of course, it is, and that’s why I’m here.” Rachel pulled a chair in front, but slightly to one side of the man’s desk. “Please, calm down, and ask Jessica Rabbit to bring us coffee.”

“Her name is Dominique—”

“Ooh, touchy. I bet that’s a mouthful to whisper when you’ve got a mouthful.” Rachel looked him up and down. “Of course, if she was in leather you could reduce her name to Dom.”

“What are you—” Elliott’s previously pale complexion coloured rapidly. “What—”

“Coffee, please, or I’ll start using your nickname.” Dimples appeared on Rachel’s cheeks.

There was silence in the office as the pair gazed at each other waiting for the drinks that Elliott had opened his office door to request.

The redhead brought in a tray, serving coffee to her boss and then placing a cup and saucer on the small table beside his guest. As she leant forward she realised the visitor was checking her impressive cleavage.

Gorgeous,” Rachel whispered. “Thank you, Dominique.”

The girl stood, swallowed hard and left them to their business.

“Why are you here?” Elliott’s voice was close to a childish whine. “And why are you being like that with my assistant?”

Rachel sipped her coffee. “Control, Mr Elliott—it’s all about control. I want you to understand that I can affect any part of your life. Whatever you may be to other people, you are now one of my assets.”

“Tell me how much—”

“You’ve been watching the wrong dramas. Money couldn’t buy me, as much as I’ve made the effort to produce a look suggesting otherwise.”

Elliott lifted his coffee and before the china cup cleared the saucer it betrayed the state of the man’s nerves. He swallowed. “What do I have to do?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Rachel wanted to extend the conversation as long as possible, knowing that there were two hours before the premises were due to close. She wanted among other things to screw up the man’s schedule.

“Please, I have to—”

“Okay, I don’t want to see you burst into tears. We’ve been there and it’s not a good look. Let’s get a few things out in the open. Importantly, I don’t like you. I have certain information I require immediately, and other things I’ll need to know in due course.” She paused. “You will not at any time presume what you do for me—you will be as obedient as a well-trained dog.”

The man sat with his coffee cup in his hand hovering between the desk and his trembling lips.

“Before I leave here today I want everything you have on a certain Mr Armstrong. I also want the information you hold on anybody whom to the best of your knowledge is an associate of the man, including any now-deceased characters still on your files.”

Elliott squinted and slowly shook his head. “There is no way I can—”

“Oh, I think you can, and you will.” Rachel sipped more coffee. “To put things in perspective. I have a gun which you used to kill a man a few days ago. I have a birthday card to send to your lovely wife next week and enclosed is a brochure on breast enhancement—

“You fuck—” He finally slammed his cup on the saucer spilling most of the coffee.

“Don’t dare curse at me, at least until I’ve finished. I have a box of chocolates already injected with something not particularly pleasant all ready to leave where your cute, curly-haired little daughter will find them.”

Elliott’s lips parted again and his features crumpled in the realisation of his plight. He produced an immaculate pocket hanky to wipe spilt coffee from the desk.

Rachel leant forward. “As for the desirable Dominique out there, I’m considering seducing her, but that’s a fringe benefit.” Rachel lifted a memory stick from her shoulder bag and placed the small device on the desk. “Turn your laptop to the side and I’ll watch as you choose the initial files, oh, and please remember I already know some of Armstrong’s associates.”

Elliott moved his cursor back and forward for twenty minutes, seemingly not having the need to think for too long about whom he should include. “Five of those files are associates and one file is a short list of deceased or missing people who’ve had connections to Armstrong’s business.”

“Now before we finish today I’d like some details.” Rachel produced a small notebook and pen from her bag. “I have listed here what the late McQuade used to blackmail you.”

“He didn’t, and anyway, he’s dead now.”

Rachel poised her pen over the blank page. “Okay, let’s do it your way. I’ve got the names and locations here of four people, and if you don’t want to piss me off, you’ll confirm them.”

“What do you mean … confirm them?”

“You’d think you didn’t know how the blackmail model works. Until all the blackmailers or the subjects have disappeared, you as the victim must play ball.”

“There wasn’t four—” Elliott’s eyes squeezed tight. “Fuck.”

“Okay, Franny, I want three names, with locations and contact numbers.” She gave a false smile. “If you don’t confirm them, I’ll find them anyway and give them your home address.”

“Anne Scott—Knightswood, Sharon Brownlie—Yoker … and … Nicki Walker—Maryhill.”

“I don’t have it written as Nicki down here ….” It was a further bluff, and it worked.

“Nicholas for Christ’s sake.”

“Contact numbers?”

Elliott lifted a mobile phone from his desk drawer and reeled off the numbers for the three names he’d given. “Wait a minute … who is the fourth person named?”

“Oh, silly me.” Rachel looked at the details she’d just acquired. “The fourth name was our Mr McQuade—you didn’t do anything disgusting together did you?”

Elliott stared at his desk and took several deep breaths.

Half an hour after entering Elliott’s office, Rachel stood and slipped her notebook and the memory stick into her bag. “Now take off your tie and undo the first three … no, four buttons of your shirt.”

“What—”

“Your short-term memory really isn’t good is it—fucking do it.” Rachel turned to the door and paused while the solicitor obeyed.

Elliott stood, panting with nerves, undid his tie and slowly unbuttoned his shirt.

Rachel went out, closed the door and partially pulled white lace underwear to hang from her bag. She paused at the redhead’s desk. “He’s bloody insatiable—he wants to see you now.”

The redhead was halfway to Elliott’s office before Rachel had left the building.

Rachel returned to the apartment in Clydebank. A few items were left behind because they’d be required again locally in the near future. She packed what she needed and drove home.

*

Pitlochry

Rachel’s house was situated to the extreme western boundary of the small Highland town, close to the edge of woodland. The building was originally an 18th-century cottage. The interior had been destroyed by fire, but an enterprising businessman had commissioned an architect to rebuild the house from the inside. It had taken a year for work to be completed because of two new features—a habitable basement and a large attached garage.

Sadly, the businessman died in a road traffic accident and the house was put up for sale. It was thanks to Stella Kavanagh’s vigilance and her wide network of contacts in the housing market that the peculiar property was secured for her special client.

The extra space underneath the house had been created by improving an already sizeable cellar. Any additional building had to blend with the old cottage, retaining the original appearance. In a move which won over the local planning authority, the garage had a room built on top, complete with similar windows to the main house.

The finishing touches were a single slated roof, and a garage door rendered to appear like the old stonework, complete with a framed window. Unless a person saw the electrically-operated door raising upward, it appeared to be a ground floor room.

Rachel reset her deadly alarm system before going upstairs to shower and change. Revitalised and dressed in a light tracksuit she returned downstairs to prepare and enjoy a simple meal.

At 20:00, Rachel punched in her code onto the small access panel, and went down into her basement. In her underground space at the bottom of the stairs, the area under the garage was fitted as a multi-gym and fitness area. The area to the left, under the house, was a much different affair.

The basement of the house was an operations centre with attitude—serious attitude.

The north-facing wall had a large desk set up with a computer terminal and a phone dock, complete with a loudspeaker to enable hands-free. On a shelf unit to one side were all the office equipments which might be required. Production of fake documents was only possible with the best quality materials and devices. Above the desk were similar boards to those which had been used in the BTL Enterprises office. A pin-board allowed for photographs and brief notes, while a whiteboard was ideal for brainstorming.

“Let’s see what we’ve got.”

Rachel opened her small notebook and reached out to draw a small oblong box in the bottom left of the whiteboard. She printed ELLIOTT, and beneath, she listed ANNE SCOTT—KNIGHTSWOOD, SHARON BROWNLIE—YOKER, and NICKI WALKER (M)—MARYHILL. Opposite each name, she printed the contact numbers.

As an afterthought, she added DOMINIQUE ?—DRUMCHAPEL.

Rachel powered up the PC and selected remote view on the large TV monitor. The screen was fitted on a bracket high in the right-hand corner of the room. The monitor could be used as a playback for video, although it would most often be used to keep up with news reports.

Rachel accessed one of her live links and noted the views as she checked them individually.

“Camera one sees the left side of the house, two—front upstairs, three—front downstairs, four—the right of the house, five—not operating, six—obscured, seven and eight—full rear view.” Rachel sipped her coffee and observed each camera for five minutes. A branch had fallen from above and was now a close-up on number six. “Six out of eight operational.”

When satisfied, Rachel took the memory stick from her pocket and plugged into her PC. Five folders appeared on the monitor to her front.

“Now, we’ll see what shit is sticking to you, Armstrong.” Rachel opened the first folder and read the information about the person named. It took an hour to read the notes in all five folders. Between the four men and one woman closely linked to Jazz Armstrong, the crimes ranged from petty theft to murder and human trafficking.

Rachel stood and lifted a broad-tipped red marker. She drew a large circle and within printed ARMSTRONG. She drew five regularly-spaced straight lines out from the large circle, ending each line with a circle and in these she printed the names of the five known associates.

“Not a bad day’s work.”

*

Thursday 3rd March

Rachel had gone to bed with a sense of achievement and had been tired enough to sleep soon after her head hit the pillow. She woke up at six o’clock feeling revitalised. An energy drink was gulped down before she pulled on her hooded sweater, shorts and cross-country trainers. A ten-minute warm-up preceded a steady five miles through woodland.

As she approached the house and slowed to a gentle jog, Rachel fished the key fob from inside her sweater and deactivated the trigger which protected her property—if five strategically-placed blocks of explosive could be referred to as protection.

A shower, followed by a hearty breakfast saw the young woman feeling mentally and physically prepared to begin her mission in earnest. She entered her code on the panel and went downstairs.

“Now we’ll see how busy your household is Mr Armstrong.” Rachel flicked the large monitor to six-view, split-screen. She stood at the end of her desk and organised a coffee, happy that she’d remembered to include a brew kit in her operations room.

For three hours, Rachel observed the camera views of the gangster’s home, zooming in and making notes of details which would be hard to see in passing. One aspect of physical security was good to see because it showed weakness. It was duly noted and highlighted.

The east wall of Rachel’s basement, to the right of the desk and noticeboards, was dominated by an array of weaponry which included handguns, rifles, knives, crossbows, individual telescopic sights and suppressors.

Below the armed display was situated a large wooden bench complete with vice and other accessories to allow repair or adjustment to weapons. A specialised set of equipment for producing bespoke ammunition was housed in a cabinet underneath.

For two hours, Rachel stripped, cleaned and checked the operation of her handguns and their associated magazines. Her preferred weapon when at home was her trusty Walther because it was small, but dependable in a close-quarter environment. She serviced the weapon as she’d done the others, and then emptied and refilled the magazine, leaving it one round less than full. Rachel’s method of doing this was to cock the weapon—thus it was ready to fire, and there was less pressure on the magazine spring.

After a light lunch and a quick look at the views of Armstrong’s house, Rachel turned to the south wall of her operations room. This was the largest wall and mounted there were large scale maps of Glasgow, Scotland, and Europe. The maps were already dotted with coloured pins denoting places of interest or importance.

On a white panel to one side of the Scotland map, Rachel had printed the approximate journey times by car or motorbike from Pitlochry to Glasgow and to Edinburgh, both during the regular working day, and when it was the wee small hours. Prior to the hit, she’d made on McQuade, Rachel had performed several rehearsals of her main journeys, wishing to be confident of her ability to respond quickly if needed.

It would be alarming for a visitor to see inside Rachel’s operations room, but by far the most dangerous part of the entire house was there. To the left of her desk, under the wooden stairs—a door to the storage area for ammunition and explosives.

Rachel stood at her desk and stared at the large whiteboard for a few minutes, tracing a line with her eye between each of the names. She lifted the red marker pen and drew a single long line from the centre circle out to the bottom right.

Inside, Rachel wrote NADIA HENDERSON aka … new name?

Rachel wouldn’t rest until she’d dealt with the woman who had shot Jake, causing his nightmare condition. It may have been Rachel who switched off the machines, but it was Henderson who took Jake’s life, and for that, she would pay.

***

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