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Greed Kills

 

Copyright © 2015 M.M. Bingham

Published by WMPD at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorised retailer.

Thank you for your support.

To Peter

The Myth of Persephone

The myth of Persephone is one of the oldest of all Greek myths. Her story is a personification of some of the most universal concepts about life and death. In her youth, Persephone represents the powerful bond between a mother and a daughter and the often-difficult transition from maidenhood to marriage. As the Goddess of Springtime and Rebirth, she is eternally connected to the cycles of the earth, which lies barren in her absence and bloom again each spring with her return. And her initiatory experience in the realm of the dead is such a powerful experience that it changes her life forever. It is after this transformation that we remember her most for her role as the Greek Goddess of the Underworld.

Interpretation of the Persephone myth by Laura Strong, PhD – her more detailed story can be found at http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Persephone.html

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Still the Same

Chapter 2 – Craig

Chapter 3 – Reg

Chapter 4 – Persephone

Chapter 5 – Craig’s Crime

Chapter 6 – Isaac

Chapter 7 – Israel

Chapter 8 – Consultant of the Year

Chapter 9 – Retribution

Chapter 10 – Protecting Persephone

Chapter 11 – The Other Scam

Chapter 12 – Aaron

Chapter 13 – The Prentice Affair

Chapter 14 – Japan

Chapter 15 – Justice

Chapter 16 – Revenge

Chapter 17 – Getting Away with Murder

The next Persephone Stone novel

Connect with Me

CHAPTER ONE

Still the Same

Persephone was stiff and sore from the previous day’s 13-hour drive home from the Sunshine Coast. She dragged herself to the bathroom, stretching her cramped shoulders and legs, realising that her life had been transformed. Nothing would ever again be the same. When she looked at her face in the mirror she was surprised at how normal she appeared. Surely there should be some sort of sign that she was now a stone cold killer?

‘Nope—still looking good,’ she said to her reflection, trying out a shy smile followed by an evil grimace. ‘Still the same old bird, just another day older.’

She wandered into the kitchen and made herself a strong black espresso with her sexy new coffee machine, a recent present to herself after discovering that she now needed caffeination at all hours of the day and night and her local café wouldn’t stay open for 24 hours, even for her. This did the trick, and soon her brain started spinning up as she contemplated her new life and what had led her there.

Corporate Australia had become a consequence-free zone, she judged. Bad behaviour, ranging from bullying and harassment through to large-scale fraud was at best ignored and at worst rewarded. Even when frauds threatened to surface, boards and executives worked hard to keep the news away from outsiders, especially law enforcement agencies, scared that the publicity would hurt the company. Hidden behind this tacitly-condoned white collar crime, some perpetrators moved seamlessly into violent and even deadly action. It had become so bad that innocent whistle-blowers were routinely sacked and then publicly vilified by the PR departments of these immoral corporations in an attempt to protect executive bonuses.

If these crimes had been committed outside the corporate veil, society would demand that the criminals be vigorously pursued and prosecuted. But in today’s world, it almost never happened.

Sadly Persephone contemplated her previously successful corporate career in her adopted country of Australia. She had become totally disillusioned by the lowering of ethical and personal standards and the rise of self-serving behaviour that was now being rewarded in an increasingly greedy and heartless corporate world. She was determined to strike a blow for all victims of fraud and corporate wrong-doing. She reckoned she had already started to balance the ledger with Craig’s death; and accepted that her new career as a corporate avenger had begun.

With the reckless bravado that had marked many of the decisions which had changed the course of her life, she had leapt into action. Now here she was delivering on her promise to herself, just like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, to make the punishment fit the crime. The trouble was that she didn’t feel as if she were a player in a comic opera. Craig, the man she had murdered, was well and truly dead and nobody was going to applaud as the final curtain came down. In fact Persephone would find out over the next few days if she had managed to carry out the perfect assassination.

But in the meantime, she had another job to do. This one was personal—but just as deadly.

‘Time for some fresh air,’ she thought, ‘and some sugar wouldn’t go astray.’

Her local café was round the corner. The owner, Vinh, was a small man whose parents had brought him to Australia in a boat with dozens of other refugees at the end of the Vietnam War. Although his outward appearance was Vietnamese, he was Aussie through and through, with the broadest of dinkum Aussie accents and mannerisms. He could, however, feign a complete lack of English whenever some patronising customer treated him as if his café were some sort of Asian marketplace and tried to get discounts for coffee and cake. Most of his clientele were local, however, and knew him and his wife Mai well. He especially liked Persephone, who not only always treated him well but spent hundreds of dollars every week in his establishment.

Mai had recently started to bake ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern pastries and to Persephone’s taste they were indistinguishable from the ones you could buy at the Lebanese patisserie a bit further down the road. She hurried in, her mouth watering in anticipation of the sweet treats waiting for her.

CHAPTER TWO

Craig

It was a typically hot and humid Sydney February day and Craig was sweating so hard he was finding it difficult to hold Brad Jones’s arm in place so that he could get the saw in the right position to cut it off at the elbow. He dropped the arm into the bath for the third time and some blood escaped from the already-severed shoulder, splashing in a crazy pattern on Craig’s T-shirt and also into his right ear. As the warm fluid ran down his neck, he lost it.

“Why couldn’t your stupid bitch of a sister find your policy in winter?” he whined at the necessarily silent Brad. “Stupid cow, this is all her fault!”

Craig fumed and muttered to himself as he completed dismembering Brad’s scrawny (but surprisingly heavy) body in the bath at Brad’s smart flat in Neutral Bay. He had paid thousands of dollars for gym membership to sculpt the lean, strong physique that looked so impressive on a surfboard at the weekends when he went to Bondi for his favourite activity, surfing. As he sawed away he thought that it was really now his second-favourite activity since he had upgraded his drug habit from dope to include cocaine and the occasional puff of heroin, just to keep him mellow. Now he was realising, however, that the exercises he did every morning to improve his appearance on a surfboard didn’t really equip him for cutting up a man’s body, bagging it up and lugging it to his car so he could get rid of the pieces. And he still had no idea how he was going to get the body parts discreetly on to his mate’s tinnie so that he could dump them somewhere out to sea.

But he would work something out. Craig was a very deliberate man who carefully and meticulously planned his exploits, both work and play. He prided himself on understanding the risks that he chose to take, and was always a patient and watchful achiever of his goals. He didn’t work in the insurance industry for nothing.

He was still smarting from the mishap that had upset the highly successful scheme he had been running at work for the past few years. He was now a middle-ranking manager in the Sydney office of a major French multinational insurance company. He had worked there for 15 years in a number of departments, from customer service to underwriting, IT and actuarial and was now a senior claims manager in the life insurance division. He was not stimulated by his job but treated it as a source of funds for his surfing and his drug habit. His fellow workers were either adoring fans of his surfing exploits (as shown on his many YouTube GoPro videos) or willing recipients of his sexual offerings. There was a deep and fertile pool of adoring young women.

All in all, Craig’s life had played out pretty much exactly as he wanted, he thought. The only problem was that his salary, like those of most middle-ranking office drones, was far too small for his many needs. Craig spent his day signing off on life insurance claims that ranged from $50,000 to $990,000, that being the upper limit he was authorised to clear. Anything from a million dollars upwards had to go to the divisional director for her signature before the funds were released. He was getting sick of doling out this money to other people while he took home an amount that just covered his living expenses and leisure activities. It wasn’t fair! He became even more disgruntled every time the local CEO was in the paper bragging about the billions of dollars profit he was making for the company and how he was going to spend his exorbitant multi-million dollar bonus on more diamond knuckle-dusters for his teenage bride.

The unfairness of it all had for years worked its insidious way into Craig’s psyche. Finally, after a particularly long and uncomfortable trip sitting in the back of a plane from Hawaii next to a sweaty, obese 45-year-old mother and her 6-year-old brat, he had resolved to get some of this cash flowing his way.

Craig was a good planner and this skill had served him well in his slow climb up the corporate ladder. He had worked on a number of projects over the years delivering ‘business process improvement’ across the company. This had given him a thorough understanding of how the life insurance process worked from beginning to end, including the potential loopholes or control weaknesses that had so far not been plugged.

Life insurance is not a good way to spend your hard earned money unless you have a terminal illness that nobody knows about but you. Then you have to hoodwink the insurers into accepting the risk. The truth is that most people in countries not in war zones can expect long and healthy lives. A fair number of them work this out and stop paying for totally unnecessary life insurance policies as soon as they can. For instance, such insurance is not a lot of use to the vast majority of young families with large mortgages, due to the incredibly high property prices in Sydney. They often take it out only because the bank insists. The banks, of course, frequently collect a commission from the insurer along the way, assuming that they don’t actually own the insurance company.

Craig knew all this, and he also knew that the policies at his company held by people who each year let them lapse was in the thousands. There was a half-hearted sales process in place that had been started just after a business process improvement project to address ‘revenue leakages’. After an initial burst of enthusiasm from the telesales team who were to call these people within 90 days of the last paid monthly premium and offer to reinstate them, it was discovered that the company only paid a bonus on the missed premiums. So the telesales people stopped doing this and only chased new business. By the time that Craig was hatching his plan, pretty much every lapsing policy had been allowed to die a natural death.

The chances of these people trying to make a claim on the lapsed policy was almost zero, especially when Craig was careful about his selection of those to back up his personal plan. The clever idea was that he produced a monthly report which picked up the lapsing policies and would select one that looked likely just before the 90-day grace period expired. He would then change the contact details on the paperwork to a mailbox that he rented in a newsagent at Kings Cross, update the premiums and then continue to pay them at post offices in cash, every month for at least a year. After that, he then ‘killed’ the policyholder.

He had decided that given the hundreds of people who died on the roads each year, traffic accidents were a useful cause of death and would not raise any questions among the team who processed the falsified documents. As long as the policy was under a million dollars, the final approval came from Craig. He was home free.

Even if the policyholders did die, the only evidence relatives would find in the deceased’s personal papers was an insurance policy that had expired over a year before. The chance of their making a claim was slim to none.

After six months of meticulous planning, going over the details of his plan time and time again, Craig decided he was ready to give it a go. He had found a great candidate. Brad Jones was a 28-year-old accountant living in a flat he had bought in trendy North Shore Neutral Bay. Since Brad Jones had a very large mortgage, the bank had insisted on a mortgage insurance policy.

Brad was unmarried and had named his sister Alice, his only living relative, as the beneficiary of the policy. She would also inherit the flat with the idea that she could use the payout to settle the mortgage.

Brad had held on to the policy for three years, but had recently stopped paying the premiums. After a Facebook search, Craig discovered that he was about to be posted to the London office of Price Waterhouse Coopers and was looking for tenants for his flat. Perfect!

Craig was excited and nervous. He stayed back late at work one Friday, three days short of the mandatory lapse date and logged on to the system using one of his team’s user ID. Maddissynn was an airhead who always used the name of her cat with the current month as her password.

He was surprised to find himself shaking and had to try three times to change the contact details before he got it right. “Take a deep breath—you can do this,” he muttered nervously to himself after his second attempt was rejected. “Please note that you have one more attempt remaining before your account is locked and you will need to contact IT support to have your access reinstated”, was the helpful message on the screen.

Craig carefully retyped each character: M e o w l y c y r u s 0 4

He took a long deep breath.

Welcome Maddissynn

Slowly exhaling, Craig made the necessary changes, logged off and went home. Luckily he had just restocked with some excellent buds from a mate of his who lived in the bush. Tonight he was going to celebrate.

He waited for nearly two years before psyching himself up to make the ‘claim’. He fabricated a death certificate for Brad stating death was due to ‘rupture of aorta, following road traffic accident’, filled in the claim form in the name of Alice Jones and placed it in the mail.

Everything worked like a dream. Craig collected a cheque for $350,000 from the post office box he had entered on the claim form and paid it into his special overseas account after ‘Alice’ had endorsed it over to the fictitious name on the account.

Then he set about identifying his next targets. Over the next four years Craig ‘killed’ another ten people and amassed nearly $8 million in his retirement fund. Following his careful selection of Brad Jones, he found a number of young, outwardly healthy people with no dependants and large mortgages, who lived in places spread around Australia. As each person’s policy lapsed, he carefully changed their contact address, paid their arrears and kept it up to date for a couple of years before faking their death.

But now he was starting to get bored. He was now in his early 40s with no obligations and his retirement fund was beckoning. The young women at work were less inclined to succumb to his advances, and his occasional ‘puff’ of heroin had turned into a regular intravenous bender every weekend. He was going to have to get his hands on the money he had stashed away overseas to begin his fully funded retirement.

But just after returning from his regular Christmas surfing trip, his carefully planned future started to disintegrate. He was having lunch at the crowded, noisy food court underneath the company building when his peace was shattered by the piercing voice of the blonde and vacuous office receptionist at the next table. She was regaling her friends at the top of her voice about an incident that had happened that morning.

“Oh My God!” she began. “You won’t believe what happened to me this morning!”

Her friends noisily encouraged her to reveal all.

“This total drug-fucked junkie whore just walked in waving a bit of grubby paper and shoved it under my nose, screaming at me to give her the money. I was really, really pissed off. Think of what I could of caught if I touched it!”

“Ooh yuck,” and other expressions of sympathy emanated from her cheer squad.

”She thought that she could just give me the paper and I would pay her money! The stupid fucking bi-atch didn’t even understand that it was a life policy and not a savings account.”

“How can you not know that? Stupid cow!” chimed in the friends.

“I told her to fuck off.”

“Really? In reception? Did anyone hear you?”

”Actually I said to her: “Madam, this is not a policy you can cash in. The only way you can collect is if the policyholder dies, and then only if the policy is paid up to date.”

Her friends rallied, asking what happened next.

”She sure didn’t like that! She told me her brother was an accountant who had been living in London and was coming back to Sydney. He had asked her to cash in the policy since he needed the money. I ask you! She was a fucking lunatic. I told her that her brother could be God Almighty and would still have to die to get the money. Then she started to yell and scream at me, saying that her brother Brad would be there tomorrow and he would sort me right out. I called Security. That was when I told her to fuck off.”

“Then what?”

“She threw the scungy bit of paper at me and ran out. Fucking useless fat Leb security guard turns up once she’s a hundred metres down the street.”

“Shut up! Don’t you know Shazza’s dating Rafiq? Don’t be such a racist!”

After this, the conversation turned to the interesting matter of whether Shazza was going to convert to “Muslimism” and what colour the babies would be.

Craig was paralysed with shock. This had to be Brad Jones the accountant. What was he going to do? Where had he gone wrong? He had to get back to the office straight away and get hold of that piece of paper the ‘junkie whore’ had thrown at the receptionist. Then he needed to calm down and make a new plan.

He quickly gathered up the remainder of his chicken-and-rocket wholemeal wrap and raced upstairs.

Rafiq was loafing around in the reception area and was only too happy to hand the offending piece of paper to the important manager. Craig took it and went back to his office. Yes, it was the same Brad Jones that Craig had ‘killed’ in the random accident four years before.

But who on earth was the ‘junkie whore’? Suddenly he remembered the sister, Alice. Craig thought fast. He didn’t want any traces of his research on the company computers, so he feigned a gastro attack, apologised to his team and headed home to do some serious searching for Brad and Alice.

Brad was still living his life large on Facebook. It announced that he was coming back to Australia and would be looking for a job. 756 of his Facebook Friends had welcomed his impending return with dozens of invitations to drinks and parties. One of them was Alice Jones. Brad followed the links to find a hard-partying, skanky-looking woman who was apparently 24 years old, even if she looked at least 50. According to her version of her life, her arsehole brother was about to return from overseas and was kicking her out of his flat. She was quite outraged that Brad had wanted her to pay rent. Several of her Facebook friends agreed that this was indeed quite unreasonable.

At this point, since Craig had the policy document, it looked as though the situation could be contained. There was probably no need to worry, even though Alice was clearly a drug addict and so quite unpredictable. He would, however, be extra-vigilant should she decide to take the matter further.

Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what Alice did.

The amount in dispute, $350,000, is a large amount of money to most people, and Alice, who had already worked out how to spend it, saw the insurance company as snatching it away from her. She was so furious after her encounter with the receptionist that she ran all the way down George Street and straight into the front door of the police station near Town Hall. The young constable on duty at the front desk was not inclined to believe a word that was coming out of Alice’s mouth, due to his already extensive experience of dealing with junkies and also because she didn’t have any paperwork to back up her incoherent screeching.

However, policemen are bureaucrats and there are always forms to fill in for any situation. The constable patiently filled in a form so that Alice could lodge a complaint of fraud against the insurance company. He told the slightly mollified woman that he would give the form to the Fraud Squad and they would be sure to follow this up for her.

Alice then went back to Brad’s flat and continued to ‘tidy up’, hoping to find more valuables that she could steal from her brother before he returned.

It was a bit of a miracle that the complaint form made it out of the front office at the police station, but within a couple of weeks it reached the Fraud Squad where it was read by a clerk looking to get home to feed his cats. He rated its priority F and filed it at the back of the queue. After a few more weeks, an equally bored Fraud Squad detective was given the file, whereupon he called the insurance company and after some delay was put through to Maddissynn in the claims department.

“Bradley Jones?” Maddissynn repeated. “Just let me look him up on the system.”

She found the policy but was confused. “Hang on a sec, Detective, I’ll need to talk to my manager about this. It looks as if it’s been paid out already.”

Maddissynn put the detective on hold and went into Craig”s office. “Craig, do you have a minute?” she enquired sweetly.

“Sure, what’s the problem?”

“I’ve got a detective on the phone asking about a closed policy. It’s a bit strange, apparently they’ve had a complaint we won’t pay. But I’ve looked it up and we paid the claim in full two years ago.”

Craig went very still. “What name is on the policy?”

“Bradley Jones.”

Making sure he appeared outwardly calm, Craig told her to put the call through to him. He would clear it up.

“Detective, Craig Sellars here. How can I help?”

“Well, Mr Sellars, I’ve been given a complaint to look into. An Alice Jones states that she visited your offices and was refused a payout. Your girl told her that her brother had to die first.”

“Well, Detective, Alice would appear to be a little confused. Her brother did indeed have a policy with our company, but it lapsed over four years ago. In any case, as she was told, the policy is a life policy and only payable on the death of the insured.”

That would get rid of him.

“Thanks, Mr Sellars, but can you clarify for me why your staff member said just now that the money had already been paid? Alice Jones was quite clear that her brother was in London, not dead.”

Craig found his hand shaking. The detective wasn’t sounding particularly concerned, but at the same time he was clearly not an idiot and had been paying attention to the story he had been told. It didn’t seem to Craig as though this matter was going to be dispensed with through bland assurances over the phone.

“I’m sure she just made a mistake. I’ll make some enquiries and get back to you. Can you please give me a contact number?”

The detective gave Craig his number and hung up. Craig was in a lather of sweat. What was he going to do now? He had to think calmly and rationally. There was no way he was going to be caught for this. He had his retirement fund primed and ready in a safe location overseas, and at some point very soon would repatriate the money, head to the Gold Coast and spend the rest of his life surfing and having sex with chicks desperate to fuck the new rich bloke. That was the plan and he was sticking to it.

He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but the only way it was going to go away was if Alice were to go away too. And given that the records on Bradley showed him as already dead, he would have to follow that up in real life.

It wasn’t looking good for Craig. He had managed over the past six years to become totally comfortable with being a criminal, but this was something else. Was he prepared to take the risk of murdering someone? On the other hand, did he have the guts to spend years in jail being beaten and raped by thugs and real murderers, not to mention having to hand over his hard earned retirement funds?

When he put it to himself like that, it was really quite an easy decision. Alice and Brad were both toast.

The first question he needed to answer was how long he had to do the deed. Given the pace of progress so far by the Police, he reckoned there was at least a week before anything was going to happen. After all, they were just looking at a possible $350,000 insurance fraud and that had to be pretty low down their priority list, given the millions that the papers were all talking about involving politicians, gas companies and developers all giving each other large brown paper bags in dodgy pubs.

According to Facebook, Brad was landing in Sydney the following Wednesday. That gave Craig five days to work out a plan and kill him before he settled in and was harder to get to without being spotted. Brad was landing on an early flight and had told his Facebook followers that he just wanted to get home, dump his gear and have a shower before meeting up with mates at the pub. This gave Craig enough time to act.

Alice would be a bit harder to pin down, but he would work on her later.

The next question was how to kill Brad. Craig wasn’t a particularly violent man, but given the time constraints and his need to ensure that nobody found him out, he was going to have to resort to simple methods.

The previous summer he had been surfing at Tamarama just down the coast from Bondi when a surfer next to him had been wiped out in spectacular fashion by an enormous wave. The board and surfer had parted company, but as the leash reached the end of its length, the board snapped back and caught the unfortunate man smack on the side of the head, killing him instantly.

Craig had been shocked at the time to see such a violent death occurring just metres away, but had also been fascinated by the sight of the man’s skull coming apart as the board tip buried itself in his temple and blood and brains were washed into the surf leaving a pink trail delineating one of the rips for which Tamarama is famous.

The lasting memory for Craig had been how quick and easy it had been for the vibrant young surfer to become a floppy, broken corpse.

Okay, sharp blow to the head it would have to be for Brad, he thought. Craig had been impressed with the effect that the tip of the surfboard had delivered, so he considered weapons that could achieve the same effect. He would prefer to kill with a single blow rather than having to keep battering Brad until he succumbed. He also had to get it to Brad’s flat, the best location for the kill, so a large axe might not work. He would certainly attract attention carrying something like that along a suburban street.

Sporting goods are less conspicuous to transport, and after a bit of research, Craig settled on a golf club. Even though he didn’t own any, it was easy to buy second-hand clubs at pawnshops across the city. He was careful to buy for cash and picked up an old heavy steel-shafted set of irons in a pawnshop in Bankstown, a place that Craig had never before visited. After this trip, he was not keen to return.

Initially it all went quite smoothly. Craig knocked on the door and Brad answered. In a blitzkrieg approach, as soon as the door opened Craig swung the six-iron at Brad’s head with all his strength, connecting with his left temple.

Brad dropped instantly to the floor. Craig pushed him inside and noticed that there was very little blood spattering the corridor, then quickly closed the door. He checked for a pulse. Luck was with him. Brad was dead.

“How easy was that?” Craig realised he had just said out loud. He paused, checked his own pulse and found it to be a steady 80 beats per minute, rapidly slowing towards his normal resting rate of 58. Clearly he was made for this type of work.

Now for the clean up. There was no time to waste. He partly lifted and partly dragged Brad into the bathroom. All the movies showed that this was the best place to cut up a body, and who was Craig to reinvent the wheel? After dumping the body, he crept down to the car and retrieved his tools.

Back in the flat, he plugged in the angle grinder and turned it on. The noise was ear- splitting! Quickly he turned it off. The building had parking underneath and seemed to be inhabited entirely by working professionals, none of whom were currently home. But even if they were all at work, people in the next suburbs would hear this racket.

Bugger! Hand tools only then.

Craig found himself sweating and swearing over the partially-dismembered corpse of his young victim on a hot February morning that was getting hotter and more uncomfortable by the minute. Apart from his initial panic about the noisy angle grinder, the heat, and the way the blood made the body slippery and difficult to handle, it was a relatively straightforward job.

After cleaning up the bathroom and the rest of the blood spatter, he enjoyed a long cool shower aided by a quick puff on a joint he had brought along with him. He started to relax. He casually drove his car into the garage and carried the pieces of Brad downstairs, neatly wrapped in strong orange garbage bags. He manhandled them into the boot beside some heavy grey concrete bricks he had purloined from a building site in Waterloo, and fastened them with gaffer tape.

His good mate Gazza was a keen fisherman who kept his tinnie in a shed at the back of his house up in the Northern Beaches suburb of Avalon. Gazza was currently up north on a surfing holiday and wasn’t due back for a couple of weeks. He had given Craig his keys so that he could clear the mail while he was away and had offered the use of his boat in return.

Now all he had to do was drive up to Gazza’s place where he would put all the pieces of Brad in the boat before he went ‘fishing’ at dawn off Avalon the following morning. He would have preferred to get everything done that evening, but nobody goes fishing in a small tinnie off Avalon at night. He would have attracted unwanted attention had he gone straight out that evening.

As he drove his car north through leafy beachside suburbs, Craig congratulated himself on a job well done. It had all gone very smoothly, and as long as nobody spotted him loading up the tinnie in Gazza’s shed that evening, he was home and hosed.

The following morning as the sun rose over the mirror-like ocean, Craig cleared the boat ramp, pointed the tinnie at Auckland and after half an hour, every two minutes or so he dropped a bit of Brad over the side.

Job done. That had been sweet. Now for Alice.

Back home Craig half-watched the midday news through a smoky haze as the newsreader started droning on about how sad the escalating drug problem was among today’s youth. Only last night, he continued, police had discovered the body of a young prostitute and drug addict behind a strip club in Kings Cross. They were looking for anyone who knew the recent movements of the woman whose picture was now up on the screen.

Staring sullenly at him from his TV screen was a dirty and wasted Alice Jones. Craig was not sure whether to be delighted or disappointed.

CHAPTER THREE

Reg

Brad’s disappearance didn’t go totally unnoticed. One of the girls had been looking forward to seeing him again at the welcome home drinks, as the last time she had seen him was a sweaty one-nighter just before he left and she had been on a bit of a dry spell since. Actually a bit more like a four-year stint in the Kalahari. After he failed to front at the party, Tracey Jane decided that she would report Brad’s disappearance to the Police at North Sydney.

Constable Ian MacNamara was watching the clock. It was only 11 minutes until his scheduled break when he could nip out the back of North Sydney Police Station for a sly ciggie. He had sworn off the smokes for the fiftieth time as he left for work that morning, grinning desperately at his girlfriend Kylie as she glared at him, crossing her arms over her heavily pregnant belly.

“It’s for the baby, you know,” she called out as he ran for the car, trying to escape her whining, “we don’t want to give her cancer before she is even born!”

Ian watched the clock hands moving ever more slowly as his nicotine addiction made him more and more irritated with every passing minute. It was just poor timing that Tracey Jane summoned up her courage and walked into the front desk area, almost as desperate to tell her story as Ian was for a smoke.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to report a missing person.”

Ian’s heart sank. He knew this was going to take ages. If Tracey Jane had been a bit better looking, he might have had a chance to pass her off onto Dan, the bloke who was due to take over while he was on a break, but she was a bit of a dog, and she had that needy pathetic look about her that makes most men run a mile. No help from that corner, then. Diane the lezzer clerk, who was supposed to look after this sort of stuff was off sick and in any case, Tracey Jane needed a few more tattoos and a bit less hair to get Diane enthusiastic.

“Yes madam, can we please start with your details?” Ian smiled faintly, “Name and address?”

“Brad Jones, but I’m not sure about his address.”

Ian sighed. This was not starting well. “I meant your name and address, madam, we need this information to lodge the report. We will get onto Brad’s details shortly.”

Tracey Jane was embarrassed. “Oops, sorry” she giggled, “I’m a bit nervous – I don’t make a habit of visiting Police stations normally. It’s Tracey Jane”

“Tracey Jane what?” asked the exasperated constable, “and where do you live?”

“Tracey Jane Dunlop and I live at unit 15, 275 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills. Do you want my phone number?”

“In just a minute, let me write this down first.” Ian painstakingly wrote in his notebook.

“You’d think I was used to men asking me for my phone number, wouldn’t you?” said Tracey Jane, flirting with the good-looking young man.

“You’ve gotta be joking,” Ian muttered to himself, “only if they’re deaf and blind”

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”

“Sorry madam, just talking to myself. Phone number?”

“0457 349 213. I don’t have a landline, is that ok? I just think that it’s an unnecessary thing these days, none of my friends have home phones, just mobiles. I mean, who stays home much anyway? These people with landlines clearly don’t have a life.”

Ian’s head was starting to really hurt. He was fanging for a cigarette, but this silly fat cow was going to drag this out as long as she could. He was considering shooting her when Dan poked his head around the corner.

“Mate, are you busy? We have just had a call to duck next door to the Union – some local suits reckon it’s funny to get full of piss and wind up a couple of bikies. It’s not particularly urgent – I reckon they deserve all they get, but the landlord is screaming something about the suits being regulars and they keep him afloat in winter.”

Normally the thought of busting up a fight in a bar filled Ian with dread – these days you never knew who was going to be armed with knives or guns and what substances they were taking to drive all reason out of their thick skulls, but today was an exception.

“I’ll be right there mate” he said and turned to Tracy Jane, “Can you please just jot down your friend’s details on this sheet of paper here?” He grabbed a form at random off the desk, not worrying about the form that bore the title of ‘Application for Apprehended Violence Order – Spouse’.

“You can just leave it on the desk here and I’ll get to it as soon as I get back. No need to wait, I have your phone number if I need more information. Thanks.” He reckoned that even though the Union Hotel was less than a block away, he would still have time for a quick drag or two as he joined his fellow officers at the punch-up.

Tracey Jane was a bit surprised, but as Ian dashed out the back, she sat down and got to work. She ignored the instructions on the form and put down all the details she had, which weren’t much. The problem was that she had only the vague drunken recollection of a nice flat somewhere in Neutral Bay with a comfy bed and spa bath. Brad had somehow forgotten to give her his number and had left for the UK with what had seemed at the time to be unseemly haste. She put down the name of a couple of his friends who she thought might have better information and, feeling a bit foolish and embarrassed, signed it at the bottom in the space marked ‘complainant’.

All finished, she leaned over the counter and deposited the form on the desk as requested. She was a bit frustrated, as she had some serious concerns about Brad’s disappearance that were clearly not shared by the Police, but at least she had done her civic duty – and that’s all you can do, she rationalised to herself. That night at the pub, she met a pudgy lawyer who was on the rebound from a recent breakup with a vicious harpy who had dumped him for someone with a larger pay packet. Tracy Jane was instantly besotted and all thoughts of Brad disappeared from her mind as she pursued her new target.

About 20 minutes after Ian had left, which had been enough time to get to the pub, stand around as Dan took a brief statement from the landlord about the long-departed bikies and smoke three cigarettes, he returned to the station. He was relieved to see that Tracey Jane had left and had deposited the form on the desk. He put Brad’s details into the computer system and noted with mild interest that his sister had already reported an alleged insurance fraud and the report had her address in Neutral Bay. It was work a bit of a look, he reckoned – maybe it would be something a bit more interesting than the usual drug-related thievery and domestic mayhem that made up his normal day. He decided to check it out himself when he next had the area car before he handed it over to the detectives, maybe they would let him stay involved if turned out to be a serious matter.

The following day, Ian drove round to the unit to see if either Alice or Brad were at home and got no reply. Writing it off as Tracey Jane’s over-reaction to being dumped, as there were no suspicious signs at the unit, he went back and wrote his report. At the weekly team update, he told everyone what he had done. He also mentioned that there was an alleged fraud on the system that had been reported to the Fraud Squad. As luck would have it, the Superintendent in charge of the North Sydney Police Station was a good mate of Reg Blake, who ran the Fraud Squad in the city, so he said he would give him a call and let him know. He congratulated the young bloke on his initiative and they all moved right along to the far more exciting multiple fatal stabbing outside the Victoria Bar the previous night.

Chief Superintendent Reg Blake ran the NSW Police Fraud Squad. He had joined the force at the age of 18, 40 years ago because he wanted to catch criminals. He had managed to survive all the purges that had come out of the corruption scandals and had risen to the very senior ranks of the force. He was a not just an old-fashioned cop, he took the time to understand modern technology and how it can apply to law enforcement and was considered an expert in the area of modern fraud. Reg was uncompromising in his pursuit of criminals, and became frustrated that the law seemed to treat white-collar crime as a ‘soft’ crime, and he was constantly annoyed that the victims of this crime were often forgotten in the headlines that were all about how many zeros were involved.

Like a lot of policemen, Reg was divorced and his life therefore revolved around work, drinking and becoming competent at golf in preparation for his retirement in seven years. He tried hard to keep fit and has fought a constant and losing battle with his weight.

That morning, as he shaved himself standing naked in the bathroom, he sucked in his gut for a second or so, then reluctantly let his belly flop back out, realising yet again that he is going to have to rely on wit, good humour and possibly dollars to get his sex life back.

“You handsome man, you.” he remarked to his reflection, “What woman wouldn’t want a piece of this?”

Being the eternal optimist, Reg was convinced that he will find himself the perfect partner for his retirement, and there was certainly a steady stream of reasonably attractive although somewhat desperate middle-aged women passing through at his local.

“How about this week you find a woman whose reading habits extend beyond ‘No Idea’ and who doesn’t talk to an oversized pampered rat wearing a dog collar as if the bloody thing can understand perfect English!”

He showered, dried himself, wrestled himself into his largest suit and drove into the office.

Later that afternoon, sitting at his desk in his enormous office in the city, surrounded by the usual collection of commendations and tacky photos, the phone rang. The display showed ‘CSprNSyd’ – his mate from long-gone footy days.

“Reg, mate, how’ve you been? Must have that beer some time before we are both put out to pasture.”

“Sure Stu, a beer would be great. Do you get over this way much? Or have the blue-bloods of the Lower North Shore converted you to pinot gris?”

“Piss off, still can’t beat a cold Reschs, you just can’t get one round here. All the suits at the locals drink hand-made boutique micro-shit. Anyway, I was just calling to give you a quick heads up on a report that one of my young layabouts actually took the time to get off his arse and follow up. Apparently there’s a link to some fraud case that has your name on it. You might want to check it out, may come to nothing but you never know, the young bloke has a bit of an eye for dodgy stuff. Will probably head up internal affairs one day!”

Reg took down the details, thanked his friend, hung up and with a spark of interest, set out to track down the file on Brad’s alleged fraud. Hunting through the outer office, he found a couple of scrappy pieces of paper in a dirty manila folder at the bottom of a pile of pending investigations that looked as though they were going to be dealt with shortly before hell froze over. As he read through the half-baked incomplete and careless report, Reg experienced the familiar taste of disappointment that yet again, the prioritisation approach based on only chasing frauds with large dollars and hopefully large headlines had effectively relegated this case to the garbage tip.

He looked around for someone to give the file to, but the office was empty.

“Must be beer o’clock” he muttered to himself. Tucking the file under his arm, he turned back into his office, picked up his jacket and headed purposefully for the pub. Perhaps tonight would be his lucky night.

Persephone was truly over her latest consulting job. “I don’t care about the money, I will NEVER work for these pricks in financial services again!” she muttered as she left the boardroom of the latest financial institution to engage her to “rationalise our customer-facing activities to focus on areas that will provide better service whilst improving long term shareholder value”, which was code for, “get rid of as many of the customer service staff as possible without pissing off too many customers and send the rest of the jobs offshore to somewhere we can pay less than a living wage to some third world country’s child labour. Just make sure that this year’s margins stay high so we can all get our bonuses and don’t worry about long term growth or risk.”

Persephone was used to this level of hypocrisy, but this time they had really crossed the line. Along the way to ‘rationalising customer service’, she had discovered that the head of the customer service division had been taking substantial bribes from the operator of some very dodgy call centres based all across Asia so that they would be awarded the contract. This was despite their having been featured on a recent current affairs program in Australia for brutality towards their workers, who even in these third-world countries were being paid so little it was almost slave labour. Persephone had brought this to the attention of the CEO in an email requesting a meeting to discuss the matter.

The reaction from the CEO and the rest of the management team had been swift and brutal. Persephone was asked to wrap up her analysis and present only the numbers and potential cost savings to the Board, who had been expecting her full report including recommendations on how to manage any transition the following week. No mention of any possible inappropriate management behaviour was to be included in the report, as Persephone was unable to substantiate her ‘ridiculous’ claims. She was to complete her report working from home and her access to the company’s email systems and offices was removed from that very moment.

Vague threats about reputational damage to Persephone were made should she consider raising her concerns with anyone in any form. She was offered a payout that was nearly twice the agreed fee for the original work, should she agree to this early finish. Left with very little she could do under the circumstances, Persephone agreed to their terms. They were going to sack her anyway, she realised. In any case, she had copies of all her records at home, so she agreed to their offer and headed out of the office towards home to write the piece of fiction that was going to be her final report.

She decided to walk home to try to burn off some of her frustration and anger, but as she was walking along the street, she noticed an old pub with big signs offering ‘happy hour every day from 2pm to 6pm’ next to a promotional poster stuck to the wall with an enticing picture of a Tanqueray gin and tonic set against an idyllic scene of palm trees and sunshine. She took a sharp left turn. Bugger walking home, this was what she needed.

As she sat in the bar nursing a very large gin, she raged silently. Why did these bastards keep getting away with these nasty corrupt antics? I hate all this corporate hypocrisy, she thought. How can I stop them?

Pausing in her fury, she glanced over at the man sitting to her right who appeared to be having similar thoughts.

At the Royal, it was a bit early for the nightly beauty parade, so Reg settled on a schooner of Reschs and a more thorough read of the file. This did nothing for his mood as he realised the lack of interest that everyone had shown in the matter, right down to his detective not even following up the claims manager at the insurance company who predictably hadn’t bothered to call back. Consequently he didn’t even notice the woman who took up position next to him at the bar whose stylish dress and confident air bore no relation to the normal patrons of The Royal. He continued to mutter under his breath about what he wanted to do about the level of incompetence and lack of commitment to the job that his team was exhibiting.

“Bloody useless pack of idiots!” he exclaimed upon getting to the last page and reading that the matter was now too hard to progress due to the drug related death of the reporting person, Alice Jones and was about to be closed.

“Is joining the dots too hard for the useless dickheads? What do I have to do to make these bloody idiots get off their fat arses and actually use their pea-brains for anything other than picking the bloody footy results?” He slammed the folder on the bar and stared morosely at the dregs of his beer.

“Well, I’m bloody sure none of us know.” was the answer from his left.

Reg hadn’t realised that he had spoken out loud. He snapped the file shut and tried to apologise.

“I..I..I’m very sorry,” he stuttered “I don’t usually talk like that.”

“Really?” she raised one eyebrow, “Sounded like it was exactly how you normally talk.” She gave Reg an enormous grin and stuck out her hand.

“Persephone Stone.”

Reg was gobsmacked and unable to answer. Where had this woman come from? Had she gotten lost on the way to one of those trendy wine bars that were popping up all over the neighbourhood? He looked around the pub, spotting a couple of locals who were pretending unsuccessfully to concentrate on their beer whilst they waited to see what would happen next. He quickly got a grip of himself. For goodness sake, he thought to himself, you are a senior officer of the law. A halfway decent bird talking to you in a pub shouldn’t leave you looking and sounding like a teenager caught with his hands in his pants! He recovered some semblance of control, reached out his hand to shake hers and smiled.

“Reg Blake. Pleased to meet you.”

The locals all relaxed and went back to their conversations and card games.

“Persephone?” Reg asked, “Where does that name come from?”

“Actually my father was a bit of a classical nut. He decided that I should be named after a Greek goddess. Persephone is the goddess of The Underworld; kidnapped by Hades and rescued by her mother Demeter after an indecently long interval. I reckon I got off lightly; my sister was called Pandora! She has had to bear the stigma of being the person who released all the evils of humanity. Mind you, she didn’t have to spell her name to all the uneducated peasants every time they wanted to fill in a form.” Persephone caught herself, “Not that you’re a peasant, of course.”

Reg laughed, not at all offended.

“Luckily for my brother, by the time he turned up, my mother had a bit of a say in his naming, so he got Matthew. It was just another reason for my sister and I to hate him though.”

“So tell me Reg, what’s made you so angry?” Persephone asked with what she hoped was a friendly smile. She had read the file over Reg’s shoulder when he had been absorbed in coming to terms with the incompetence and laziness of his staff and was intrigued. Perhaps this might be something she could get her teeth into. It certainly looked like there was something very bad happening and the Police were clearly not interested in pursuing it with any enthusiasm.

“I had a bit of a squiz at the file while you were reading it, but I don’t really know what it’s all about.” Persephone reckoned that honesty was the best policy if she was going to get anywhere with Reg. “Can you tell me about it? Tell you what, let me get you another Reschs and let’s go over there and have a chat”. Persephone pointed at a table away from the bar and the other drinkers.

Reg was again flabbergasted. Nobody is as forthright as that. Well, actually lots of people are. It’s just that they don’t casually admit to it and then act like it’s perfectly normal for him to share information on a confidential police investigation.

His initial reaction was to refuse, but just as he was summoning up the words to politely decline, he spotted one of the blue rinse set coming in the door of the pub.

“Yoo hoo Reg!”

Reg quickly reassessed his choices, smiled, picked up the file and moved towards the table. Persephone leant over the bar, flashed her considerable assets at the barman and called out, “A Reschs and a large Tanqueray and tonic please. We’ll be sitting over there, thanks sweetheart.”

“I’m not sure they do table service here,” offered Reg.

“Don’t worry Reg, I’m sure they’ll make an exception for us.”

Reg plonked his backside down on the bench, inviting Persephone to sit next to him. She looked a bit taken aback, so he reassured her it was only so that they could both read the file together.

Once they sat down, and their drinks were delivered to them by Tom the barman, who delivered a warning to Reg under his breath that he was only doing this for the bird and that Reg shouldn’t get used to this service, Reg sat back and had a better look at Persephone.

On second look, she was striking rather than classically beautiful with an open face and what looked like a great set of tits. Although she was a fair bit younger than Reg, he could now see that she was not young woman and looked to be at least in her late thirties. She was dressed in a black figure-hugging dress covered in small strips of what looked like leather, with a neckline that was not at all out of place in the pub, but would have been pushing it a bit in an office. Her long blonde hair was roughly clipped back with a few curly tendrils framing her slightly square-jawed face. Reg had already been struck by how tall she was, but now he noticed that she was wearing knee-high black shiny boots with heels that had to be at least 4 inches high. He looked up at her face again and encountered an ear-splitting grin framed by a blood red mouth.

“Oops, I guess she noticed me ogling her.” He thought

“Gotcha.” Was Persephone’s simultaneous silent opinion.

“So,” Persephone started “I’m absolutely fascinated to find out what on earth can get under the skin of a clearly decent and self-possessed man such as yourself. Why don’t you tell me all about it?”

Reg realised that as he had come this far, he might as well keep going.

“Well, Persephone, I wouldn’t normally share information like this, but as you’ve already read the file, I can at least put you straight on what this is all about. I trust that you can keep this to yourself though, I really shouldn’t be talking to you about confidential police investigations.”

Persephone laughed. “Yeah, well if there actually was an investigation going on then I guess you might have a point, but my reading of your file and your reaction to it suggests that nothing of the sort is actually happening. You look like you are pretty senior, so if even you can’t get it happening, then not much is going on in the ‘confidential investigative’ sense, don’t you reckon?”

Embarrassed, Reg tried to recover. “Look, I have a very large case load and when you run a high profile squad like mine, you have to prioritise cases. Not every little fraud gets our attention; we have to concentrate on the serious ones. It’s not how I would like it, but that’s the reality of the situation.” Even as he spoke, he realised how defensive he was sounding. Notwithstanding Persephone’s cynical look, he kept digging himself into the hole. “I have a very dedicated team of conscientious officers who I am sure will investigate this matter as soon as they have completed other, more critical, cases.”

“Yeah, right Reg. I can see how this case wouldn’t be anywhere near as important as your current high-profile investigations into corrupt banking practices. I mean, it must be incredibly difficult to spot criminals in the big banks – who would have thought that there were bad bastards there?” Persephone laughed, diffusing the tension that her overly aggressive sarcastic retort was starting to generate. This was not the way to get her ingratiated with this person. “Sorry, I guess I was just feeling some of your frustration and pain there. So you run the Fraud Squad? That must be a fascinating job.”

Reg nodded, “It is, but not a lot of people see it that way – they think the only interesting cases are ones where people die. Most people don’t think about the victims of fraud and the lifelong damage that these crims cause.” He paused, feeling like he was regaining some control, “Most murders are boring anyway, they are either the sad and sorry end to a violent marriage or one crim shooting another over a drug deal. Any mug could work out the culprit and after a few years, most homicide detectives get totally bored and cynical. Give me a complex fraud any day. At least I feel like we are actually using our brains to figure it out rather than waiting for somebody to rock up and tell us who did what to who, why and how.”

Relaxing, he explained the background to the case as far as he knew it. Persephone was impressed that she had fallen across the path of such a senior police officer, but as Reg recounted his frustrations about why this had so far died as an investigation, she became far more interested. This looked like something that she could help solve. From her reading and Reg’s explanation, she reckoned that not only was there something clearly going on at the insurance company, but also there were at least one if not two deaths. Reg went up to the bar to get a round in (he tried to get Tom to come to the table, but received the international signal that let him know he was unlikely to get table service) and while he was away, Persephone casually picked up the file and re-read the full contents. This didn’t take her long as there were only five sheets of paper in the file, and Reg was too captivated by her charms to worry about this latest breach of security to worry.

“So what do you think, Persephone?”

Persephone paused. “This needs another drink.”

Despite Reg having just brought beer and gin over to the table, Persephone waved at Tom for another round. Tom gaily waved back that he would be right over with them. “Drink up Reg, I reckon this will take a while.”

Reg decided that this was a woman after his own heart and settled back to enjoy the ride.

Persephone was enjoying herself. Despite outward appearances, she was not a woman who normally went around picking up strange men in bars, but for some reason Reg had struck a chord with her when she sat down and saw his anger and frustration at the injustice that was being done to the victims of this crime. She was totally in tune with this sentiment, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that there were still decent people high up in the police force who still held true to their values and hadn’t become completely cynical about crime and criminals.

CHAPTER FOUR

Persephone

At 48 years old, Persephone had never been in the police, but in her early career she had served in the British military, joining what was a bit of a ‘family business’ all bright eyed and bushy tailed and excited at the prospect of serving her country in order to bring peace and justice to the world. This desire to do the right thing had surprisingly survived all the horrors that her military service had thrown at her, despite her realisation fairly early on that she was probably unsuited to a life as an Army Officer, being far too disruptive and irreverent for this historically rigid and conservative organisation.

The Army probably should have spotted this on their first encounter with the young Persephone. In the UK, to be considered as a suitable candidate for a commission in the Army, you had to attend a three-day ‘camp’ called the Regular Commissions Board. This involved staying in a small Army base where you and about 50 other young people were put through your paces with physical tests, intellectual exercises and opportunities to demonstrate how socially acceptable your behaviour was. Persephone had been a keen and successful sportsperson throughout her school life and had achieved very high academic results as well as having been involved in a range of musical, theatrical and community activities, so she found most of the tests a bit of a breeze. So much so that by day two she was getting bored. Having spent the morning ensuring that her fellow candidates actually applied the rules about cantilevers to pass the obstacle course test (three people on the fixed bit for every one person hanging out over the ‘crocodile infested pit’), they were split up into small syndicates to debate some world-altering issues. This was intended to demonstrate how eloquent each person was in expressing their views and also provided a bit of an insight as to how right-wing the young people actually were (as the Army was keen not to bring in too many socialists into its hallowed officer corps).

Persephone was more than used to vigorous debate. Both her parents had been school teachers and throughout her childhood, she and her brother and sister had been actively encouraged to debate current affairs at the family dinner table each night, with extra helpings of dessert for properly presented dialectic. It had mostly been fun as her father held very firm left-wing views on most topics (which is why he was the black sheep who didn’t join the military), so Persephone, who tended more towards her grandmother’s views (Gran being a personal friend of Enoch Powell), had developed a good understanding of the many varied ways of looking at any given situation.

The first topic up for debate was the old chestnut of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. As you could chose which side you argued, Persephone chose the argument in favour of it. It helped that her grandfather had been a submariner, and the Royal Navy’s submarines were Britain’s sole strategic nuclear defence platform. After 5 minutes letting everyone know that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) had kept the planet from having a nuclear war for the past 35 years, she discovered that nobody in the group was prepared to stick their neck out and argue that it was a bad thing. Frustrated at the intellectual and moral inferiority of the other kids, Persephone then decided to offer the counter-argument, using the socialist derived propaganda that her father had thrown at her for years. Listening to her lecture on the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the risks that these weapons could fall into the hands of regimes less principled than NATO or the USSR, the staff members at the Board were stunned and more than a bit taken aback. So much so, that the moderator immediately stepped in and stopped the debate, taking Persephone outside and letting her know that this was absolutely not the sort of thing they were looking for in future officers. Chastened, and being quick on the uptake, Persephone returned to the room and kept very quiet as the argument ranged from whether eighty thousand or ninety thousand nuclear missiles was enough for each side. For some reason the staff completely forgot about her appalling lack of judgement in expressing left-wing views and passed her for attendance at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – the school that produced army officers for the British and large numbers of African and Middle Eastern states.

So despite a natural tendency to bolshiness, Persephone was still a person who had high standards about her own and other people’s behaviour and how we treat each other in the society in which we live. Persephone remembered the first big executive role she had landed. She had just been appointed to the Divisional manager for a major multinational and had inherited a team of over 2,000 people. On day two, she was sitting in her office when a young woman from the projects team stuck her head around the door. “Can I have a minute?”

Persephone waved her in and the woman sat down and promptly burst into tears. Persephone handed her a tissue and asked the woman to tell her what was the problem. Over sobs and sniffles, it transpired that the woman had been out on a team lunch the previous day to celebrate finishing off a difficult project. After lots of food and wine, her boss had propositioned her and when she had turned him down, had grabbed her, ripped open her blouse and laughed at her in front of the rest of the team. Persephone was horrified, but it got worse. Apparently she had gone to HR to lodge a complaint and the HR people had dismissed her, telling her that she shouldn’t go out drinking with the boys if she couldn’t handle it. She was only coming to Persephone because she was now really scared of retribution from her boss (who she now knew was in a relationship with the HR manager) and was going to quit. She just wanted to let Persephone know because this stuff was happening a lot and she thought that perhaps with a woman in charge, something might be done about this.

Persephone had immediately started a formal investigation and when she met with the perpetrator, he sat back in his chair, laughed and admitted that he had torn the buttons off her shirt, but excused it by saying “She asked for it, stupid drunken tart, she was all over me.” Persephone fired him on the spot. HR then tried very hard to get him reinstated and despite legal advice that she had acted properly, Persephone was labelled as a troublemaker. The CEO told her that he wished she hadn’t fired the man, as he was very well liked across the company and she had now made lots of enemies. A couple of long serving senior women who worked with Persephone dropped by to let her know that she was making way too much fuss over this incident. She never recovered from the results of her actions and after a couple of years she resigned, unable to change the attitudes and behaviours of the rest of the company towards harassment, even among the women.

The sad thing was that now she couldn’t even remember the young woman’s name.

Persephone had seen enough of this activity and the devastating effects on employees, customers and their families. She had met too many victims of these greedy, evil people and their heartless crimes, and had seen the relentless cover-ups and whitewashing by the guilty corporates, which ensured that the crimes never came to light and were never investigated or prosecuted. It had been sheer luck that had sent her new friend Chief Superintendent Reg Blake across her path, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. She had become determined to never again work to the benefit of this corrupt and evil part of society, when the opportunity fell into her lap to right at least one of these terrible wrongs.

Neither she nor Reg knew how momentous their meeting would be, and how it would change everything.

It was clear to Persephone as she sat in that pub in inner Sydney that something very dodgy was going on at the insurance company. Whether this had anything to do with Alice’s death or Brad’s disappearance was yet to be determined. Even though Reg was now fired up about this case and burbling about assigning it to one of his detectives, Persephone was determined to make sure that this didn’t happen. She wanted the chance to fix it herself.

First things first – more grog. Persephone waved Tom over again. “Up for another one Reg?”

“Sure thing” mumbled an increasingly incoherent Reg, “might make it a small one though”

“No worries,” replied Persephone, “schooner of Reschs and a small G&T, Tom please.”

Persephone was keen to get started, but first she had to hook Reg. She whipped out her phone and took photos of the pages in the file. Now she had evidence of Reg’s indiscretion just in case he got cold feet.

“Ok Reg, you’ve told me a little bit about your job. Before we go any further, I should tell you a little bit about me.”

Reg drank his beer and eagerly waited to find out more about this exotic and interesting woman who had barrelled into his life. Persephone decided that there was no point in hiding much and her real goal was to convince Reg that she was a suitable ally, but also a formidable enemy. She realised that she needed to get the relationship onto a businesslike footing, but wasn’t sure how to handle the sexual attraction that Reg clearly felt for her. She had no intention of sleeping with Reg, but you never know when his infatuation might come in handy, so she decided not to rule anything out at this point. Anyway, he wasn’t all that dreadful for a 58 year old man – God knows she had slept with older men than him when she was much younger. So, her first tactic was to establish the common ground that they could use to justify her emerging plan.

Persephone started by telling him she was originally English but had moved to Australia in the late eighties following a brief time in the Army. She knew that even though police work and military work were quite different, officers of sworn services typically had some affinity and mutual respect for each other. Reg was quite surprised. After all, Persephone didn’t look much like a typical female soldier, or at least not like Reg imagined one would look.

Persephone leaned forward, crossed her legs and told him about her first trip to Beirut.

Reg was appalled that not only did this stuff go on, but also that the army had thought fit to send a young woman into that situation. Having been a police officer for nearly 40 years, he thought he had seen pretty much everything that bad people can do to each other when they are sufficiently motivated, but this was a new one. She followed up with a couple of choice stories about the IRA and some of the things they got up to, then paused for effect.

“I guess we have it pretty good here in Australia, don’t we?” he asked, “it’s easy to forget how privileged we really are here.”

Persephone agreed and decided to take it up a notch.

“And that makes it worse, don’t you think? You can almost understand why people in desperate situations do such awful things. But what excuse do we have – here, now?”

Reg nodded. He was well aware of how badly behaved people can be in big business when they see an opportunity and aren’t stopped. He smiled at Persephone, “I don’t think I’ve told you about my brother Steve, have I?”

He sipped at his beer as he told her his sorry tale.

Reg and Steve had been inseparable as kids. Steve was a year older than Reg and a very different person. Where Reg was solid, hardworking, dependable and diligent, Steve was quick witted, creative and a bit of a dilettante. As they grew up, they took very different paths. Reg joined the Police Force and made his way up through the ranks, serving in a number of areas, from general duties through drug squad, child protection, local command, strategy and policy and now heading up the Fraud Squad. Steve went off to university where he studied mathematics, then followed that with a masters degree in applied quantum mechanics. He took these qualifications to the major computing companies and landed himself a job in one of their labs in the USA. After several years working his way up through the engineering ranks, he got homesick, came back to Australia, and set himself up with his own business developing and selling specialised devices to the Australian security industry.

Steve’s business became quite successful, and just as he was about to make some serious money, the company he had worked for in the states made him an offer to buy him out. Steve was initially tempted, and started negotiations. Following an extended period of due diligence, the company made a ridiculously low offer, which Steve declined, and the deal was pulled. About a month the company in the States sent later Steve a letter, informing him that he had infringed the intellectual property clauses of his employment contract with their company and that the devices that he had invented in Australia were theirs. They alleged that Steve had invented these devices whilst he was in their employ, and according to the contract he had with them, they therefore had full intellectual property rights over his invention. Furious that these people wanted to steal his invention, Steve instructed his lawyers to write back to them and inform them that this was indeed his intellectual property and he had every intent of strongly defending his rights.

Within 6 months the US company launched a product onto the international market that was identical to Steve’s. They didn’t even try to hide the fact that they had obtained the information on the product during the due diligence process on Steve’s company. Steve couldn’t believe that such a large and heretofore reputable company would stoop so low as to blatantly steal his invention. He was determined to fight it.

After nine years in the courts Steve was almost bankrupt, and even though he finally won his case, he never managed to recover either the costs of running it or his business, which had foundered over the years as Steve spent his time flying backwards and forwards to the US, ignoring the needs of his own people and his own customers. Suffering the same amount of neglect, Steve’s wife (who he had met and married whilst living in the US) left him, taking the children and moving back to her family home in Arizona.

Steve finally suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent months in hospital fighting depression. When he came out of hospital he decided to get out of the rat race and moved to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales. Luckily for Steve, winning the court case had established that the product the US company had been selling was based on Steve’s invention, and the US company was forced to pay Steve a royalty on all their sales. That left Steve a tidy nest egg, which he used to buy himself a small property just outside town where he continued to live his reclusive life, continuing his ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. Reg tried to visit him as often as he could but given his busy police career, this was never as often as he would have liked, and every time he saw Steve, who was a shadow of his former self, Reg became more and more angry at the cynical unprincipled bastards who ran these large corporations.

By the end of the story, Reg’s head was bobbing around like a car dashboard ornament. He really was feeling a bit drunk now. He was sure that he should take control of this situation as it was getting a bit out of control, but Persephone seemed like such a decent person and really, she was only trying to help. Persephone, sensing that she was winning, went for the close.

“And this is why you need to let me have a go at sorting it out. After all, the useless slackers at your work have already shown they don’t care. I have all I need to work out what is going on and I can get to the heart of this much quicker than you, once you have re-prioritised your budgets and wound up your people to actually care. I care. I care a lot that people are being hurt by some smartarse who thinks that he can just rip them off, or worse.”

Reg nodded. This all sounded stupid, but he was far to drunk to worry at this point. He was still hoping for a mercy shag.

“Ok, ok, you can stop now. I’ve got it. You can have the bloody case. Go fix it. Just tell me when it’s done. Now, can we please go home?”

“Great – let’s go then”

Persephone grabbed the file and put it in her handbag. She took hold of Reg’s hand and helped him stagger unsteadily to the door. “Gotta have a piss” mumbled Reg.

“Ok, I’ll just wait here for you”

Reg weaved his way past the drinkers at the bar to the men’s toilet. When he came back, Persephone was nowhere to be seen.

“Bloody Hell!” he shouted at Tom, “Did you see her go?”

“Sure mate, she left you this.” Tom handed Reg a business card. “Persephone Stone, Corporate Fixer and Consultant” was embossed on a heavy cream business card. He turned it over and found her phone number and email. Well at least she hadn’t vanished completely with the official police file, even if he clearly wasn’t going to get a shag tonight. Reg reckoned that he was in no fit state to sort this out that night, so he decided to go home, sleep off the beer and work out what to do in the morning.

CHAPTER FIVE

Craig’s Crime

It was company-reporting season in Sydney. All the big listed companies were firing up their PR firms to get the message out that profits were up, their contribution to the economy was improving and their executive bonuses were in line with international standards. For the unfortunate companies whose profits were actually down, this was the time to announce a restructure, which was typically to “align the company activities more closely with its customers”, i.e. get more money from them. Craig’s insurance company was not immune, and rumours were rife in the office that ‘management’ were going to get rid of hundreds of staff in the biggest ‘restructure’ the company had seen for years. If you looked closely at the numbers, both worldwide and locally, it was pretty clear that this was a plan by management to use the actually quite minor downturn in profits as an excuse to get rid of a large amount of cost and shore up their bonuses for another year or so before anyone looked too closely at the real data on customer revenue and service.

The news when it came, was greeted with a wide range of responses. Many people with large mortgages and school fees were immediately terrified and stopped working almost entirely to focus on spreading the gossip about who was going to go and who would stay, as well as brushing up their resumes and calling up their recruitment mates. Others, especially those with long service and small personal debts, stopped working to calculate their redundancy payments. Craig was firmly in the latter camp. He realised very quickly however, that he had a bit of a potential problem.

Despite his occasional overseas surfing trips, Craig was a very patriotic Australian, even verging on jingoistic. He loved his Aussie beer, Aussie pies, Aussie footy teams and the Aussie surfing culture. At no time had he considered retiring to anywhere other than the Gold Coast, as it had the perfect compromise of having some great surfing beaches, plenty of willing chicks, fabulous weather and even though it was in Queensland, it was close enough to his home state of New South Wales to make him feel like he wasn’t really deserting the Blues. His problem was that he now had ten ‘loose ends’ and should he be made redundant himself, would be in no position to tie them up if there was a repeat of Brad and Alice situation. Clearly he needed to sort them out before he left. Given the smooth execution of the first ‘loose end removal’, Craig was confident that he could finalise the remainder with little or no trouble.

After all, he didn’t even have Brad’s junkie sister to make any fuss, as none of the others had turned up anywhere to date, so the only time pressure he was under was the redundancy program. That was likely to take at least six months according to the briefing that HR had given the senior management team, so that would be plenty of time to carefully plan his ‘retirement risk reduction’ program. He wished that his mother was here to see what a success he had made of his life.

Craig Sellars was an only child. His father Bob was a narcissistic bully who married Craig’s mother Mary because she was pregnant and that’s what you did at the time. Since his marriage to the needy and not very bright Mary, Bob found solace in a string of affairs with other women and never made any secret of it, putting Mary down and insulting her, calling her useless, thick, ugly, fat and telling her he wouldn’t touch her with a bargepole. Bob was seen as quite a catch, being the local footy star with plenty of money from the family construction business.

Mary was over-protective of her son, and in an attempt to counteract the insults that his father threw at both of them, she constantly praised Craig for everything he did, telling him he was special, talented, better than everyone else, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. Mary told Craig every day that he would be successful and wealthy when he grew up and everyone would see how wonderful he was and adore him.

Craig was a very average student, and his mother made constant excuses for his less than stellar academic results, blaming the teachers and the other students for her son’s shortcomings. Craig believed her and he would never forget the time he tried to explain this to a group of boys in the playing fields during lunchtime.

“The only reason I’m not at the top of the class is because all my teachers are shit.” He announced boldly to the mob of fascinated boys, “My mum reckons they are only teachers because they are shit at doing a real job.”

“Yeah, well they might be shit, Sellars, but that doesn’t mean you’re not stupid as well, dickhead” was the quick-witted response of Dave, the leader of this particular pack.

“You saying I’m stupid?”

“No, mate, just a bit thick. Everyone knows, dunno why you even bother turning up to school, although we always like a bit of a laugh”, Dave’s banter was interrupted by Craig’s fist to his face and after a short and painful melee that stopped when it was broken up by a passing teacher who reckoned he should probably intervene before Craig was carted off in an ambulance, even though he, like the rest of the boys, was actually quite happy to see Craig on the receiving end of some violence rather than just dishing it out.

Craig was big and strong, like his father, so far from being bullied; Craig became the school bully, dishing out physical torment to boys and girls alike. Bob, sick of being hauled into the school to bail Craig out, hit Craig with his belt every time this happened. Craig was moved from school to school in the Sydney private school system, each time to a school with a stronger reputation for dealing with boys like him. This made his academic results poorer each time he moved.

Bob proved finally that he was in reality no catch at all, drinking the family money away over several years and ruining the business, leaving him and Mary broke and having to move to the holiday home on the NSW mid North Coast and leaving the Sydney Mansion behind. When his father’s business failed, at the age of 16, Craig was taken out of the private school in Sydney and had to attend the local public high school up the Coast.

His behaviour continued to deteriorate and despite his physical prowess, he was booted off the school rugby league team for on field violent behaviour, kicking another boy repeatedly in the head after he scored a try against Craig’s team, and having to be dragged off by the PE teacher. It was then that he learned to surf, that being the only sport in which he could now participate on school sports days. He immediately fell in love with surfing and it became a life long obsession. It was only when he was screaming down the face of a wave or flying out of a barrel that he was calm and happy.

He spent as much time at the beach as he could get away with, further ignoring his studies. Another major advantage for the hormone-filled Craig was the seemingly endless supply of bikini-clad adoring young girls who were impressed with the skill and daring that he now displayed. Gone was the angry violent Craig they knew from school, to be replaced by a confident, athletic and grinning tanned young Adonis. It was here that he developed his habit of smoking marijuana, as it appeared to be an inextricable part of the surfing culture.

Unfortunately for the girls, when they succumbed to his advances, often the old Craig resurfaced. Knowing only how his father treated his mother, Craig was fortunate to escape rape and assault charges. It was only because attitudes at the time tended to blame the girls who were seen to be ‘asking for it’ with their dress and ‘loose morals’. After a few months, Craig had to travel out of town to other beaches to find both new breaks and unsuspecting girls. His father continued his womanising, and father and son developed a nasty reputation up and down the coast. It was only then that Craig received any guidance from Bob. After a few visits from irate fathers of the girls Craig was having sex with, and occasionally the Police, Bob finally gave Craig some heartfelt advice. “Lay off smacking these bitches around, mate, and take it easy on the dope – it brings out the worst in you. Try to stay out of trouble – there’s still plenty of fun you can have, especially for a chip off the old block”. He followed this up with a smack across the head, just so Craig didn’t forget who was boss.

Craig was very angry at his father, who he now blamed for ruining his life. He managed to scratch out a reasonable HSC result and secured a place at Wollongong University, mostly through paying or bullying brighter kids to write assignments for him. After less than a year, he dropped out, unable to keep up and ostracised by his fellow students who were now old enough and smart enough to keep well away from this angry and violent young man.

He returned home to find his father in hospital with terminal liver cancer and his mother drinking herself slowly to death at home. Desperate to escape, he packed his bags, moved back to Sydney, and found himself a job in a call centre for an insurance company – a job that paid the rent and allowed him enough free time to surf and smoke dope, all the while working his way through the fresh crop of Sydney girls, keeping his temper and drug habit mostly under control.

At the same time that Craig was reminiscing about his childhood, Persephone was pulling her plan together. She had a long history of working with major corporates as a consultant, and she had her own business that she had started after doing her ‘apprenticeship’ in one of the big international firms about 15 years ago. Given her broad experience across a wide range of businesses it wasn’t surprising that she had useful contacts to help her get underway. As it turned out, she had met Matt Aitkenhead when she was on the board of a small listed company that Matt’s firm was auditing. He had since moved to KPMG who were the auditors of Craig’s insurance company and he even led the audit team. Persephone gave him a call and asked him to introduce her to the local CEO. She told Matt that she was looking to pick up a consulting gig helping them with the restructure. Matt agreed and even promised to talk her up as the greatest restructure expert in the history of Australia.

Persephone was delighted to get her introduction so easily, and even agreed to the long-promised dinner with Matt.

That night over a candlelit meal at one of Sydney’s fabulous restaurants, China Doll at the Woolloomooloo wharf, next to multi-million dollar yachts with their rigging gently clinking in the still evening, she pumped him for details about the company.

“So what’s the CEO’s major objective from this restructure? Does he have a target headcount reduction number in mind? What’s the head of HR like? Painted bitch or fake earth mother type?”

Matt was a bit taken aback. His plans for dinner hadn’t focused much on the job, and he had thought he was getting Persephone liquored up for a night of passion in the room at the hotel just above the restaurant in the room he had secured earlier in the day.

“Hey, slow down babe. Thierry is cool about you doing the job – you will have to ask him about the target numbers, but just be careful of Sophia – for God’s sake don’t call her Sophie, she is married to Thierry’s CFO and an uber-bitch in stilettos. Now, how about a top-up for your bubbles?”

Persephone had known about Matt’s plans for her before she even called him. For years he had made it clear that he wanted to sleep with her – actually ever since she met him, but so far Persephone had always gently turned him down. It looked like she was going to have to put out this time, so she might as well relax and enjoy the whole night. The dinner and champagne was going to set him back hundreds of dollars, and the W hotel was certainly not cheap. Even if Persephone felt this was turning into a bit of a transaction, she rationalised that it was her choice to go there, and was determined not to feel too cheap. They finished their dinner and agreed to have dessert upstairs.

Matt had checked in earlier so they both just went straight up to the room. He opened the door and gestured for Persephone to enter. The room was pretty standard five star hotel fare, and he had organised more champagne, which was sitting in an ice bucket next to the enormous luxuriously upholstered king size bed. Persephone paused, feeling quite awkward for a minute. Up to this point, their physical contact had been limited to handshakes and socially acceptable cheek kisses in public. She was wondering how they were going to cross the gulf that separates handshakes from sex. Luckily she didn’t have too long to worry about what was going to happen next as Matt took the initiative.

“Christ Poppy, you are absolutely gorgeous! Do you know how many years I’ve been waiting to do this to you?”

Persephone realised that this was not a question that required her to answer, so she wandered over to the window and gestured at the bottle of Cristale. “What are you planning to do with that?”

Matt walked over to Persephone, grabbed both her shoulders and pressed his stubbly cheek against hers. He whispered in her ear, “First I’m going to make sure you’re really thirsty.”

He moved so that his lips brushed Persephone’s and gently kissed her. As Persephone surrendered to his clearly well honed technique, her curvaceous body moulded itself to his. As they came closer together, she could feel him hard against her stomach. Not bad, she thought to herself, this could be fun. Matt ran his hands down her back, slowly unzipping her tight red cocktail dress. Using his teeth, he slipped the straps from Persephone’s shoulders, and the dress fell to the floor at her ankles. Persephone was now only wearing a bra and her 5-inch studded Louboutins, having never seen the point of wearing knickers in summer.

She stepped back. Take a good look Matt, she thought, and peeled off her bra, dropping it on top of her dress. Matt looked very impressed and quickly unbuttoned his shirt, dropping it on the ground behind him and stepping over Persephone’s tangled dress, he pulled her close to him.

“You are amazing” he growled softly into her ear, “I’m so hard I hurt.”

Persephone pulled away an inch or so, “Slow down cowboy, let’s make this fun.” Running her fingernails down his washboard stomach, she slowly sank down, crouching elegantly on her 4-inch heels until her mouth was level with his waist. She unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers and with one hand, ever so slowly drew down the zip. As his erection sprang forward from his navy silk boxer shorts, Persephone pulled his trousers and shorts down to the ground, trapping Matt where he stood. Looking up at Matt’s face, Persephone put her scarlet-polished index finger in her mouth, sucked it and then touched the already glistening end of Matt’s penis. His face contorted as his body jerked and shuddered. Persephone then stuck out her tongue and licked his shaft from the bottom to the top, and then took him into her mouth, lowering her head to take him all. As she sucked and moaned, Matt tried to hold back, but in an instant, he lost all control.

Persephone smiled to herself. She could now enjoy herself, having established who was in control. She stood up and walked over to the bed, leaving Matt to disentangle himself from his shoes and other clothing. She laid back amongst the brocade and cotton pillows and gestured to the champagne. “A glass would be nice….”.

Matt, with slightly shaky legs, hurried over and poured her a glass of the exquisite bubbles into the tall champagne flute. Persephone took a small sip, savoured the feeling as the bubbles ran down her throat, then slowly poured the rest of the glass onto her chest, where it ran in rivulets between her breasts, over her stomach and into her bush. She shivered as the cold champagne reached her clitoris. “Oops, what are you going to do about this?” She smiled at Matt.

Matt needed no more encouragement. He put down the bottle and leaped onto the bed, burying his head between Persephone’s thighs. With strong, sure strokes, he lapped at the champagne-soaked crack until her clitoris stood up and vibrated. Persephone lay back, and let the warm buzzing build to a crescendo. As the orgasm ripped through her body, she arched her back, screaming.

Looking down at Matt, who was now kneeling at the end of the bed looking pleased with himself, she spotted that he had fully recovered from her earlier ministrations and was again fully erect. “Come here, gorgeous” she patted the pillows next to her. “Let’s see what we can do with that.”

Matt laid back on the pillows as Persephone climbed on top, lowering herself gently onto his quivering cock. She started rocking slowly backwards and forwards, feeling him grow inside her and watching his face as he moved closer and closer to coming.

“Now!” she panted, “Hard!”

Matt plunged into her and Persephone screamed again.

“Don’t stop!” she demanded. Matt drove himself into her again and again as they both raced towards a sweaty, shuddering, breathless climax.

Lying spent on the soaked bedclothes, they each looked at the other, temporarily incapable of speech. After a few minutes, Persephone got up from the bed and started to gather her clothes.

“Where are you going, babe?” was the puzzled question from Matt, who was still bathing in the significant post-coital afterglow.

“For a shower before I head home.” was the matter-of-fact reply from Persephone, although inside she was feeling far from the detached cold-hearted woman she was trying to portray. She was really quite shaken about how she had nearly lost control when Matt was pounding her. She strolled into the shower and cleaned her body off, careful to keep her hair dry – she would have to just touch up her makeup a bit, then she should be fine for the walk of shame through the hotel lobby. When she came back into the bedroom, Matt was tucked up in bed watching a football match on the television, so Persephone went over and gave him a tender kiss.

“That was fantastic, Matt. Enjoy the footie, and feel free to give me a call some time if you want a re-match.”

Matt grinned. “Sure thing babe. You know, I’m going to stay here and watch the game and maybe even stay the night. Marika always wants to discuss shit about the kids or her mother or some other crap when the footy is on and I never get to watch the game in peace. Have a nice night.”

Persephone left Matt in his version of bloke heaven and caught a taxi home to her flat in Surry Hills to start her planning for the insurance company job.

CHAPTER SIX

Isaac

As she let herself through the door, Persephone was comforted by the silence that reminded her that this was her sole domain. The flat itself was quite large by local standards with a roomy bedroom and bathroom and a balcony that faced the morning sun where Persephone would often enjoy her early morning coffee, sitting on her chair and waving at the locals on the street below as they journeyed to work. Persephone had made the second bedroom into her home office and had equipped it with all the technology she could possibly need as well as a whole bunch of gadgets that she had just coveted and hadn’t been able to resist. The centrepiece standing in the middle of the huge Tasmanian Blackwood desk was an iMac with another enormous screen set up next to it that she used both for her work and also to play the television when she needed distraction in order to solve some tricky problem, or just for a break. She had a couple of other notebook computers and tablets around the place, all of which were networked and had cameras set up in every room that she could access from her smartphone anywhere in the world.

Her close friend and techno-wizard hacker extraordinaire Isaac had been instrumental in setting up her home and network security and was always around to help. Her long-standing and very close relationship with Isaac had managed to remain totally platonic partly because Isaac was overweight, hacker-pasty and bearded, and Persephone preferred her men lean, tanned and clean-shaven. She also needed them to not be as smart as her. This last aspect had always been the key problem with Isaac who was easily the most intelligent man she had ever met.

It had become a long standing game for Isaac to keep Persephone in his sights and for her to find out how he was doing it, get rid of the tracking device or software and escape his surveillance. To date, Isaac reckoned she had been out of his view for maybe a total of 24 hours over the past ten years. He frequently told her she had dropped off the grid even though this was typically when she found one of the primary tracking devices and was not aware of the backups. Persephone also suspected this was the case, but played the game anyway, feeling a little bit safer, if a bit creeped out, knowing that Isaac was watching over her.

Isaac Ben Meissen was a Sabra whose parents had moved to Israel in the early sixties from Dresden. Isaac came from a moderate but devout family and despite his grandparents’ time in the Nazi concentration camps, had been brought up to be an inclusive and tolerant man without the ultra-Zionist beliefs that peppered his generation. Like all Israelis, Isaac was required to serve 3 years national service and despite his lack of enthusiasm for the military and the ease by which he could have avoided it, his parents encouraged him to sign up as soon as he finished his degree in computer science at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheba. BGU taught him a number of things – most of them technical, but it also exposed him to some activist student politics in this West Bank location. As soon as he commenced his military service, he was snapped up by Unit Hatzav, where he learnt all about OSINT gathering. This is the specialised area of gathering information that is in the public domain (Open Source) and putting it together into useable military intelligence. This was probably the most useful training Isaac received in his entire life and underpinned his later life living on the fringes (and sometimes venturing into the depths) of lucrative criminal activity in Australia.

It was while he was working in Hatzav that Isaac had met Persephone. She was in Israel in a joint operation with a Shin Bet operative. They had both come to his unit to get some information on a terrorist group that they suspected was operating in Tel Aviv. Isaac had uncovered information about the group itself and had also uncovered some links to a prominent right-wing politician. This made any operation far more dangerous for the Shin Bet and also for Persephone and Isaac, who was smitten from the moment she walked into his office, was determined that she should know about this extra threat to her safety and the operation’s success. His commanding officer, however, had strictly instructed him to keep this specific information to Israeli eyes only.

Isaac’s attraction to Persephone, coupled with his dislike of the currently very popular right-wing politics, meant that he totally ignored his commanding officers instructions. After handing over the official version to both intelligence officers, as they were leaving, Isaac subtly whispered in Persephone’s ear that he had more to offer and would meet her for coffee at the Leonardo Hotel at 6 that afternoon. Persephone was surprised. How did he know that was where she was staying? Figuratively smacking herself in the head, she realised. She said nothing, silently nodded and left.

Once Persephone had left, Isaac started to realise the effect of what he was about to do. Not only was he about to disobey a direct order, he was about to step into a very murky and dangerous world where politics and terrorism collide. He started to sweat profusely, then panic set in as he realised that he was going to meet Persephone dressed in a soaking wet smelly shirt. What was she going to think? He had to find another shirt or Persephone wouldn’t want to some near him and he would have no chance of winning her heart.

In the hotel lobby, dressed in his friend David’s bright blue super-sized shirt and looking not at all inconspicuous, Isaac waited nervously for Persephone to appear. When she did, he was blown away. She was dressed very modestly in lilac silk pants and a cream long sleeved chiffon shirt that covered her completely whilst hinting at a spectacular body underneath. She wore a small set of pearl stud earrings and no makeup. Her long blonde hair was tied casually back and the overall effect overwhelmed Isaac who suddenly realised that he was punching way, way above his weight.

“H-hello” he stuttered, “you look lovely.”

Persephone said nothing, looked around the lobby and, finding nowhere that they could have a private conversation, walked over to the bar, which at this time of the afternoon was only half full. She chose a booth in the far corner and beckoned for Isaac to join her. Getting a firm grip on himself, Isaac slid onto the bench next to Persephone, who ordered a martini for herself and a beer for Isaac as the waiter walked over to serve them.

“Thanks, Persephone, a beer would be lovely.”

Persephone smiled at him. She was curious about what Isaac had to say, and although she could see that he was very attracted to her, she realised that this was not a date and that Isaac had important information that for some reason he was unable to talk about in the office. She was a bit suspicious, but unless the IDF had trained its operatives to perspire on demand, Isaac was clearly genuinely afraid and she was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had come with glowing recommendations from her Shin Bet contact and she had nothing to lose meeting him and hearing what he had to say. Isaac coughed and was about to start when the waiter arrived with their drinks. He quickly stopped himself and waited until the waiter withdrew and nobody could hear their conversation. He explained the link between the Tel Aviv group and the ultra-right wing politician and how this impacted the operation. He stressed that this man was very well connected with some right-wing groups who were not above spilling Israeli blood if it served their cause to stimulate fear of Palestinian terrorists in the Jewish community.

Persephone was grateful but not surprised at the news as she had already had significant experience of the complex and dangerous political and military situation in the Middle East and knew all too well that there were some very unscrupulous players on each side. She was also very pleased to have such a great source of information within the IDF and she knew that now Isaac had compromised himself on this occasion, she had a significant hold over him and would be able to use him again if the need arose. Despite Isaac’s valiant efforts with the clean shirt, she was not at all attracted to him and although she was sympathetic to his desires, was not going to take this in the direction that Isaac clearly wanted. She was conflicted, as although she could see that having Isaac under her spell could be handy, she was beginning to really like the man and didn’t want to start this relationship by deceiving or manipulating him. Or at least not too much.

She was amazed, therefore, at Isaac’s insight behind his next statement.

“I know I’m never going to get anywhere romantically with you, Persephone. But I want you to know that I would like to be your friend. I’m not going to be in this job forever, and maybe later on we can get to know each other. I’ve done a fair bit of reconnaissance on your background and history – sorry about that, but it’s what I do – and I think you are a decent and honourable person who happens to be doing a pretty difficult job right now. I reckon you too will get sick of this soon and I want you to know that I will be keeping an eye on you wherever you are and hoping that we can meet up again some time. I am not going to repeat this information security breach again and although we both know you can get me in real trouble, I know you won’t.”

With an effort of will that Isaac didn’t know he had in him, he casually finished his beer, got up from the bench, shook Persephone’s hand and walked out of the bar.

Although Persephone had no idea at the time, Isaac’s obsession with her continued unabated. He watched as she left the military and moved across the world. He didn’t know what had precipitated this enormous change for Persephone but vowed to himself that if someone had hurt her enough to cause her to run halfway across the world to escape him or her, then he would one day make them pay. As Persephone moved into the corporate world, he used his growing contacts in the Jewish business community to not only keep an eye on her, but wherever possible, give her assistance with her new career. Persephone was totally unaware of her guardian angel’s help and continued to gain more and more experience across many industries and roles both in Australia and across the world.

Persephone sat down in front of her computer in Surry Hills. As she fired up the screen, a window popped up containing a grinning face of her techno-pal.

“Christ Almighty, Isaac, it’s one o’clock in the morning! Are you spying on me?”

“Of course I am Bubbala, why would I spend all that time putting cameras in and not pay attention to your comings and goings? You know I only do this to keep you safe.” Isaac grinned, not at all apologetic. Actually Isaac had set up motion detection alarms so that he was notified of anything happening in Persephone’s flat. Luckily Persephone chose to keep her home pretty much to herself and rarely invited anyone there, so Isaac had not to date been treated to full-colour video of her sexual exploits.

“It’s great to know you have my wellbeing at heart, Isaac, but is there any chance you can fuck off and let me get on with some work?”

Isaac grinned again, waved and turned off the video link and Persephone started to type up a skeleton plan.

This was the first time Persephone had taken on a clandestine project like this, but she saw no reason to abandon the techniques that had worked well for her for years in conducting consulting assignments and major projects across the corporate world. So she started at the top.

What were her objectives?

Find out who had perpetrated this fraud; what was its exact nature and scope; and how many people were involved

Punish the perpetrator or perpetrators

Track down the money and retrieve it

Successfully complete the consulting assignment

These clearly needed a bit of refinement and weren’t in any particular order, so she sat back and considered them. The first objective was okay and didn’t need much work. The second, punishing the evil bastard or bastards, needed to be scoped. What punishment was appropriate to the ‘crime’? Bit hard to work out until she knew what the crime was, but the real question was looming. She already knew there was at least one person missing and one dead related to this matter, so if the perpetrator had caused the deaths of these people, how far was she prepared to go to punish them? The problem was that she and Reg were already outside the law and there was really no foolproof way to get back, so relying on the police and legal system to deal with it wasn’t going to work. In any case, long exposure to the behaviour of corporates had proven to Persephone that crimes were mostly covered up and the criminals paid off to keep quiet, all in an effort to keep the company looking squeaky clean and acceptable to shareholders and the media, again keeping executive bonuses high. So clearly, any punishment meted out to the bad guys was going to have to be meted out by Persephone herself. This could be put on the back burner for now, but she really needed to think this through – after all, if she was going to be a vigilante or avenger, acting for the victims of corporate evil, it was no good slapping the bad bastards over the wrist with a limp lettuce leaf when she caught them. She had to be prepared to go all the way. This would not be her first time that she had taken lethal action when it was required, but it was still a big step to take on her own without the protection of an organisation to support and legitimise it.

The next objective was finding and retrieving the money. Finding it would probably be reasonably straightforward, especially as she had Isaac in her camp, but what would she do with it when she found it? You can’t give money to a dead person, and like many other corporate frauds this might well turn out to be the classic ‘victimless crime’, which is okay as long as you don’t worry about shareholders. And how could you possibly distribute the proceeds to these shareholders anyway, especially when most of them would be other corporate entities who were doing the same thing anyway? It was looking like there was only one reasonable destination for any funds recovered from this work – Persephone. Funnily enough, she was having no problem at all justifying this decision. This was going to be her ‘finders fee’.

The final objective was there mostly so she didn’t forget that the job still needed doing. After all, she had a professional reputation to maintain, and Matt wouldn’t be pleased if he put her into the company and she screwed up the job. And the sex had been mind-blowing so keeping Matt sweet had a number of potential benefits.

Okay, so the next step was to try to identify the key challenges that would lie in the way of achieving the objectives. She eyed the computer screen, but it was getting a bit blurry. Determined to get at least the first bit down before she fell asleep, she wandered out to the kitchen, retrieved a bottle of Scarborough Chardonnay from the fridge, poured herself a large glass and went back to the study.

The challenges she could work out at that time of night were:

Finding out who was doing this without them knowing that she had found them (at least until it was too late for them to do anything to help themselves)

Tracing the money without letting them know that they had found it and working out how to get it

Delivering the punishment without getting caught. Nobody must know that she had done this, especially Reg, who could probably be relied upon to turn a blind eye to stopping a white collar crime that his boys couldn’t, but would certainly not be able to ignore a violent or even deadly retribution.

Working out how to launder the proceeds – after all, no point in collecting them if you can’t spend them

It looked like secrecy was going to be critical. The different parts of this plan must be kept separate to make sure that nobody saw the whole thing. On this thought, Persephone drained the last of the wine, saved her project plan on the computer (first encrypting it and putting a password on), and staggered off to bed. Her dreams that night were pretty confused, and ran from wild sex to back-alley murder all mixed up with a mysterious figure that looked a bit like Reg, but was somehow sexy and violent at the same time.

The following day Persephone woke up with a pounding head and a nauseous taste in her mouth. She dragged herself off to the shower and stood under the hot water for at least ten minutes while her head cleared. Towelling herself dry she vowed never to drink again. Today she was determined to finish her plan and get the important bits set in motion. Before getting back into it, she badly needed coffee, so she pulled on a pair of shorts, bra and t-shirt and headed downstairs to the coffee shop two doors down, where Vinh spotted the signs of her hangover and sat her down in the corner with a promise to look after her. He quickly brought her a double espresso and yelled at his daughter to “hurry up and cook the hangover special for Poppy, and make it extra greasy today!”

After her “Dinkum Aussie Fry-up”, Persephone felt much more human and even smiled and thanked Vinh for his kindness as she paid him for the coffee and grease and another espresso to take home. She walked briskly back to the flat and was greeted again by the familiar face of Isaac as soon as she turned on her computer.

“Morning beautiful, what’s happening today?”

Persephone was about to tell him to go away in no uncertain terms again when she realised that Isaac was going to have to help her with her new task and that perhaps she should try to be nice. She was going to have to get Isaac to track down the money for her and show her how he did it so that next time (should there be a next time) she could be a bit more self-sufficient. Isaac watched as Persephone struggled with the dawning realisation that she was going to need his serious assistance. He reflected that he was now at a point in his life where he both wanted to help and could offer skills, contacts and experience that made him the ideal partner in her mission.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Israel

During the years after he met Persephone, as Isaac was watching her from afar, he became more and more familiar with the Australian culture and way of life. It was natural therefore that when he had the opportunity to meet Australians, he would embrace the occasion, not only learning more about Persephone’s adopted country but also in some way feeling closer to her each time. Since the State of Israel was formed in 1948, millions of young Jews from all over the world have come to live in Israel, following their cultural heritage and as an important tenet of Zionism. This is called making Aliyah and many of these people were arriving from Australia as well as the major immigration wave from the USA and post-war Europe.

Inevitably, Isaac met several young Australian women. Their independence of spirit as well as their exotic looks drew Isaac under their spell and he enjoyed a number of short lived and pleasurable relationships with these women, who found Isaac to be equally exotic and quite unlike the boys they had left behind in Australia. This fun-filled existence came to an abrupt end though, when Isaac met Annabelle.

He first saw her coming out of Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem where she was surrounded by a crowd of other students who were hanging on every word of this lithe carefree blonde as she was clearly poking fun at them all, laughing and tossing her hair in the afternoon breeze. Isaac was smitten, and followed the group to a nearby café where they all sat down and practiced the latest in conversational Hebrew that they had been learning that day. Isaac took a seat at a nearby table and lost himself in the soft tones of Annabelle’s attempts at Hebrew mixed up with her raucous laughter as she completely lost her way in this new and difficult language.

“Bloody hell!” she exclaimed in a raw accent that pierced the air, “how are we supposed to get the hang of this bloody stuff in three months? They must think we all learnt this at our mothers’ knees!”

There was general nodding and words of support and approval. She carried on in the same vein and at ever increasing volume, “Some of us are here because we bloody well want to get away from the crap at home where, surprise surprise, our families didn’t want us to come here and deliberately kept all this stuff and language from us all our bloody lives!”

She sat down, exhausted and suddenly realising that everyone at the café was looking at her, some of whom with severe disapproval at the disgraceful behaviour of this young woman, who clearly didn’t appreciate that she was not at home here and a bit more decorum was expected of young women in Jerusalem, regardless of their background. Isaac seized his opportunity to intervene before one of the matrons sipping tea at a nearby table delivered a severe censure to this lively young woman.

“Hi, my name’s Isaac, I reckon you’ve got a real point, but Madame DesFarges over there is about to run you through with her knitting needles and I would hate to see you impaled on them, especially on such a lovely afternoon. How about we go for a stroll to the next café down the road and I will buy you a coffee and you can tell me all about it? I promise I won’t be shocked.”

Annabelle was a bit taken aback at the offer from this complete stranger, but what the hell, she thought, these sabras are always direct. Nice eyes too. She grabbed her bag full of heavy textbooks and, waving goodbye to her fellow students, left the café with Isaac.

Over coffee that afternoon and the many days and nights that followed, Isaac learned that Annabelle was from Sydney where she was the only daughter of a large family who were very wealthy and not at all devout third generation Australian Jews. Over time, she let him know that they had amassed their wealth through a number of businesses, most of which were linked to organised crime and her seven brothers were firmly ensconced in this way of life, running gambling parlours and brothels as well as dodgy construction businesses and lately drug distribution. She had rebelled against this way of life and after enduring relentless pressure from her father to join the family business as soon as she finished her law degree, she had decided that the only way to escape was to make Aliyah.

Isaac introduced Annabelle to his family, who just about adopted her, teaching her how to live in this new society without crushing her independent spirit. Isaac wondered, not for the first time, what he had done to deserve such an amazing mother as he watched her gently show Annabelle that life in Eretz Israel can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience, and that the constraints imposed by adherence to the faith were not only reasonable, but easily adopted by her new ‘daughter’. After a few months, as soon as Isaac could see that his growing love of Annabelle was being returned in full, he asked her to marry him. Annabelle joyfully agreed, and they were married in the tiny synagogue that had joined his parents together many years before in a ceremony that filled the building with over a hundred friends and family celebrating the union.

Annabelle very quickly became pregnant and eleven months after the wedding produced a healthy baby girl whom they named Sarah. The new family settled into their new life, living in a small apartment near to Isaac’s work at Hatzav back in the Negev. Annabelle decided that she didn’t want to be just a housewife and as soon as she could, she enrolled in a postgraduate course at BGU to gain the qualifications she needed to practise law in Israel.

Isaac and Annabelle were both working hard to build a life with their new family when the unthinkable happened. As Annabelle was enjoying an interesting lecture on human rights law as it applied to the Occupied Territories one of the other students blew herself up, taking out fifteen other students, both Arab and Israeli and turning the lecture theatre into a dusty and bloody arena, strewn with bodies.

By the time that Isaac arrived at the scene, Annabelle was confirmed to be among the dead. Isaac raged at the policemen, who were all too familiar with his grief and they allowed him to cradle the broken body of his wife as she lay on the floor, surrounded by the other victims of this dreadful act. That night Isaac lay in bed cuddling his tiny daughter, unable to sleep as he tried to contemplate life without Annabelle.

He was full of rage and was looking for someone to take it out on, so at seven o’clock the next morning, he went to the police station to see the person in charge of the investigation. The senior officer took him into his office and surveying the still bloody and dusty shell of a man in front of him, told him sadly that there was nothing he could tell Isaac about the bombing as Shin Bet had taken over the investigation and they weren’t talking. Isaac slowly nodded, taking it all in, and silently left the police station and walked the short distance home. There he showered and changed and made a vow to avenge her death, regardless of anything the Shin Bet people did to the perpetrators when they found them.

Later that day, his mother and father arrived and while his mother tearfully hugged him and then cooked enough food for a month, his father helped with arrangements for Annabelle’s funeral, which would take place later that day. Isaac had recovered enough to call Australia and tell Annabelle’s father about what had happened. He was met with a stony silence on the phone when he broke the news. After a while Isaac hung up, unable to do or say anything more. None of her family made it to Israel for the funeral.

The funeral was held under the clear blue desert skies that belied the grief and anger felt not only by Isaac but also by all his friends and colleagues who attended. After a week, Isaac parents returned home to Jerusalem, taking Sarah with them as Isaac now could not look at her, let alone look after her. Isaac promised to visit and take Sarah back with him once he had made arrangements. As the events of the next few days unfolded and altered the course of his life, it was to be many years before he next saw his daughter.

The day following the funeral, Isaac went into his office and started calling his contacts in Shin Bet to see what he could find out. There he was met with a wall of silence. Even people who had been close personal friends for years were not willing to talk to Isaac. Frustrated, he returned home to ponder his next course of action. Outside the door of his apartment stood an unfamiliar middle-aged man.

“Who are you?” a startled Isaac asked, “what are you doing here?”

In a strong Australian accent, the man answered, “Mate, I’m Joe Frimann, Annabelle’s father. I presume you’re Isaac.” He gestured to the door, signalling that Isaac should let them both in. Once inside, Joe removed his jacket and sat down on the couch.

“Perhaps you could let me know what happened to my daughter and why she’s dead and you’re standing here in front of me.” His quiet calm tone was menacing in the extreme.

Isaac was struck dumb. After the phone call two days prior, this was the last thing he had expected. He had thought that her family had written her off, but clearly this was not the case.

“Come on lad, speak up, I want to know whose head I have got to cut off and whose family I have to chop into tiny pieces so that nobody thinks that they can get away with killing the daughter of Joe Frimann.”

Isaac told Joe everything he knew, including how Shin Bet weren’t talking. Joe was silent for the whole time it took Isaac to bring him up to speed, and when Isaac had finished talking, Joe stood up and walked to the window.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here. I don’t know what my daughter told you about me, but rest assured, regardless of any disagreement she and I may have had about her choices, she was still my daughter and I will make sure that whoever arranged this bombing is taking their final breath on this earth before I go back to Sydney.” He paused, looking hard at Isaac, “Do you clearly understand? I will do this with or without your help and this is your chance to let me know if you are with me.”

Isaac didn’t even pause, “Joe, I know you don’t know me, but rest assured, should you get in the way as I avenge my wife’s death, then I will not stop until you suffer the same fate.”

There was a long pause as both men sized each other up. Eventually Joe gave a short laugh, stepped across the room and gave Isaac a hug.

“I should have known she wouldn’t have married a wimp! Let’s agree that we both want the same thing.”

Joe had already spoken to a friend in Tel Aviv and when he mentioned his friend’s name, Isaac realised quite how deeply Joe was into organised crime and where this was going to take him. He didn’t care, however, as avenging Annabelle’s death was the only thing that mattered. All thoughts of his fatherly responsibilities were gone in his desire for revenge for the death of his beloved wife. Together they formulated a plan to uncover the secret that Shin Bet was hiding.

Within a couple of days, Joe had some inside information from his criminal partners’ contacts inside the security service.

The news was devastating to Isaac. It was clear from the information that the target of the bombing had been the lecturer, who had apparently been operating in Africa as a Mossad asset and upon whose return it had become clear that he was no longer espousing Zionist views and was now seen as a serious liability. Shin Bet had engaged the services of a ‘freelance’ organisation to take him out, and somewhere along the line, the idiots had decided that a bombing was the most effective method. The woman who had blown herself up was supposed to have planted the bomb and left, but it had triggered early, killing Annabelle and the other students. Miraculously, the lecturer had survived, although he was minus an eye and an arm. The people who had let out the contract were quite embarrassed and currently concentrating on how to finish off the lecturer without raising suspicion.

Isaac was horrified. He had spent his adult life in the service of the State of Israel and in return, this very State had killed his wife. At that moment, he made a vow that after he had avenged Annabelle, he would leave and never return.

“Do you know who gave the order?”

Joe nodded. “I also know who is heading the operation to finish off the lecturer and when their next meeting is with the top bloke. Wanna be there? It’s now seriously off the books, so they are meeting outside the office. I have someone waiting downstairs to take us there now.”

Isaac was almost out of the door before Joe called, “Wait! You do realise you can’t come back here – I have an aircraft waiting at the airport to take us out of Israel as soon as we kill the pricks, so you had better take anything you want now.”

Isaac looked around the small apartment. There were photos of Annabelle and Sarah, knick-knacks she had bought to make the home attractive and many other things that he could have taken. None of them were Annabelle though, and he knew he didn’t need physical items to remind him of her. Her spirit was burned into his heart and he would never forget her. He grabbed his passport and walked out, not looking back.

Outside the apartment block was a black armoured Mercedes saloon. Inside a swarthy man handed Joe and Isaac each an Uzi and they both instinctively checked the magazine. Joe then outlined the plan, which involved meeting their targets in the hotel car park and killing them as soon as they saw them. That was pretty much it, and although it seemed to lack the precision of a military operation, as it turned out, the targets were confident enough of their security that the man who had given the original order to kill the lecturer actually got out of the car to meet the operations team leader. They both paid for this arrogance with their lives. Isaac emptying his entire magazine into the senior man as Joe took out the other. The swarthy man from Joe’s car neatly dispatched the bodyguard/driver and all three men piled back into the Mercedes, which laid rubber as it exited the car park.

As they sat, breathing heavily, their hearing slowly returned.

“Did you recognise either of them?” Joe asked Isaac

“Of course I did. Who doesn’t know the face of David Mendelsson? Who’d have thought that the head of Shin Bet would get his hands dirty like this? Didn’t know the other bloke though.”

“Well, son” a smiling Joe put his arm around Isaac’s shoulder. “I guess we’ll have to find a job in the family business for you, they probably won’t welcome you back at Hatzav now. I’m sure we can find a use for your skills.”

It was not until Isaac landed in Sydney that he remembered Sarah. It was too late now to try to bring her with him – he would have to rely on his mother keeping her safe and hidden from the authorities in Israel. He had no illusions about their willingness to use her as a lever to get to him. Maybe later he could organise for her to come to his new country once things died down.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Consultant of the Year

Isaac was jolted out of his reverie by a snide comment from Persephone.

“Actually Isaac, I have something for you to do that is far more interesting than your amateur snuff movies.”

That last comment was a bit below the belt. Over the past ten years or so, as well as his work for the Frimann family business, Isaac had built up a decent sized niche web publishing business producing and hosting extreme sports videos. His clientele were the sports enthusiasts with a desire to see their exploits professionally edited then publically displayed and were prepared to pay for the privilege. To supplement this income stream, he had a number of side deals with the sporting bodies for these sports (rock climbing, parachuting, white water kayaking etc.) and some very nice royalty deals with the specialist camera manufacturers for the kit that these lunatics stuck on their heads and other parts of their bodies when jumping off cliffs and buildings or literally traversing lions’ dens and the like.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of these sports, some of the participants didn’t always make it to the finish line, so the editing required for the funeral service needed special care and attention to ensure that the grieving relatives could celebrate the full life lived by the recently departed without having to confront the grim manner of their demise. This business provided a legitimate front for Isaac’s far more lucrative and clandestine activities of illegal and untraceable hacking for the Frimann family; a select few local private investigators; and the odd international intelligence agency seeking deniability.

Together, these businesses provided a lifestyle that allowed him to live in a penthouse apartment in the middle of the city with harbour views and to own the three floors below him. He leased these premises at extortionate rents to corporates for temporary executive accommodation and one floor contained a high-end brothel run, of course, by one of the Frimann brothers.

It was the less legitimate end of Isaac’s business expertise that Persephone was hoping to use to help her with her money tracing and (hopefully) laundering issue, as the tax office appeared to be taking absolutely no notice of Isaac’s lifestyle compared to his income from web publishing. She outlined the situation to Isaac, letting him know that this was a sensitive matter that he was not to share with anyone, and asked for his help. Isaac could not believe his luck. He was happy to find and move money for Persephone and also was looking forward to spending the hours and hours it would take him to teach her how to become a successful and clandestine hacker. He was imagining days and nights with his body pressed up against Persephone’s working together on hot keyboards with nobody to interrupt them, with Persephone showing her undying gratitude by finally agreeing to sleep with him when he was jolted out of his reverie by a loud shout,

“Wake up dickhead. I’m happy to pay you for this, but not in the way you are thinking. Get your hands out of your pockets, you perv.” Persephone was laughing so hard tears were running down her face.

Isaac was offended and embarrassed at being caught out.

“I don’t need your money. Luckily for you I’m not all that busy at the moment, otherwise I wouldn’t help you, you bitch.” He muttered, not at all convincingly. He was working up to a bit of a dummy spit, when he stopped.

“Which insurance company are you talking about?”

“Élan International”

“I’m in.” was the immediate firm statement from Isaac. “It’s not just because it’s French, although that certainly helps, but those lazy arseholes have had a fair slice of my money for three years while the share price has tanked, the dividends have dried up and the Board and CEO have all voted themselves multi-million dollar bonuses every year. I was actually thinking about taking some sort of action against them anyway, but got a bit distracted with another quick job last week moving some money for the soon to be ex-wife of a triad boss to her account in the Caymans, so I temporarily forgot. Your timing is perfect.”

Persephone was taken aback. Clearly shareholder activism wasn’t completely dead.

Persephone and Isaac put their heads together and came up with a plan for how to track down the perpetrator, find and move the money and show her how to do this for herself so that she was a bit more self-sufficient in the future. First things first, Persephone had to secure the job with the HR Manager Sophia Prentice.

Matt Aitkenhead had set up the meeting with the Élan CEO for the next day, so Persephone made sure she had an early night drinking only one glass of chardonnay with dinner. Dressed in her silver Hugo Boss suit with killer Fendi heels and black lace stockings, Persephone was ready to tackle not CEO, who was reported to be a bit of a lady-killer, and also to try to establish some sort of rapport with Sophia. Early the following morning, she met up with Matt in the coffee shop in the foyer of the Élan building at Circular Quay. Matt was looking far more corporate than when she had last seen him and Persephone made sure that she was all business after her greeting kiss on the cheek. A double espresso and a banana muffin later, they both went up the express lift to the top floor and were greeted by a young woman with impossibly large breasts balanced on top of a tiny frame tottering on what can only be referred to as stilts.

“Hello, my name is Tiffany. I am the CEO’s personal assistant. M. Chiraq will be with you shortly; he is just on a TelePresence call to Paris. Please follow me to his office. Can I get you an espresso, herbal tea, sparkling spring water or anything else to drink?”

Persephone considered asking for First Flush Darjeeling tea with Black Locust Honey, but restrained herself. They followed the unsteady young PA into an office that could have doubled as a small ballroom, while Persephone positioned herself to catch Tiffany at any point should she topple off her shoes while traversing the highly polished marble floor. Once inside they crossed about thirty metres of carpet that appeared to give Tiffany far more trouble than the slippery-dip outside and made it to a couple of hot pink leather lounges that sat against a floor to ceiling glass wall with views across the harbour and out to the ocean. Neither Matt nor Persephone was unused to this scene, but both were a little envious that it wasn’t their daily office panorama.

After a short interval, a tall dark man crossed purposefully across the enormous office, holding his hand out to Persephone and smiling broadly. Persephone was taken aback as she had been expecting someone more noticeably horrible. She quickly got a grip on herself – of course he was personable and attractive – that’s how they get away with the crap that corporate executives inflict on the rest of the workers and the unsuspecting shareholders.

“Thierry Chiraq, and you must be the accomplished Persephone Stone.”

“Pleased to meet you Monsieur Chiraq.”

“Thierry, please, now how can I help?”

Persephone was used to this type of charm. They all knew that she was there to pitch for a job and this was just a polite start to the conversation. She opened with a summary of the position in which the company found itself; according to the briefing that Matt had already given her. She confirmed that this was indeed accurate, requesting that Thierry add any pertinent detail, then went into a brief description of the approach that she would take to such a situation, based on prior experience and her unique talents. Predictably the CEO had limited attention span for this type of information, especially when she started talking about sustainable downsizing and appropriate treatment of staff during the process and very quickly he suggested that he call in Sophia Prentice, his HR manager. He pulled out his phone and Sophia entered the room within seconds. This really was a boring dance, thought Persephone.

Sophia was an attractive and very smart woman in her forties by Persephone’s estimation. As previously described by Matt, she was dressed in an immaculate Versace suit with a silk shirt and pearls. Her heels matched Persephone’s for height and looked to be last seasons Louboutins – perfectly acceptable for work although the stockings were a bit plain. Her hair was blonde and tied up in a severe French braid and her makeup was precise if a bit over-done. Her teeth when she smiled at everyone were the whitest of white, and her smile stopped just below her clearly botoxed cheekbones, framing eyes which were pale blue and ice cold. Sophia held out her hand and gave a firm handshake to Persephone, nodding at Matt,

“Hello again Matt, and good morning Thierry”

She looked enquiringly at Persephone. Thierry explained that he had just hired Persephone to help her out with the restructure. He told Sophia that as she had recently shown significant concern about lack of staff in her HR department, he didn’t want her to take on such a large and high profile activity while she had so many other critical and strategic things on her plate because she had complained that she was so under-resourced. He went on a bit about Persephone’s credentials and how he was confident that she would do a terrific job under Sophia’s direction. He added that he would be looking for frequent and regular updates from both of them. Having successfully undermined his HR manager and ensured that she understood that this was deliberate, he dismissed the women with a request to see an interim report in a week. Sophia, furious, gritted her teeth, smiled and gestured to Persephone to follow her. Persephone was simultaneously pleased to have landed the job and impressed that Thierry had sabotaged her so effectively all inside 2 minutes. She really had a job on her hands to get Sophia to cooperate enough so she could deliver something credible as well as being able to get on with the real reason she was there.

“Do you have the time for us to sit down and discuss this now?” Persephone enquired of Sophia. “I am keen to understand this from your perspective before I put a plan to you. Monsieur Chiraq really only gave me a brief overview and Matt isn’t on the inside.”

Sophia regarded Persephone with suspicion. She was very well aware that she had just been smacked by her boss and was trying to work out what was the relationship between this glamorous woman and Thierry. She would be sure to ask her husband that night if he knew anything about this. He was supposed to be a good mate of Matt’s, for goodness sake, why hadn’t he warned her before today? Like all successful corporate executives, Sophia was blessed with a healthy dose of paranoia, but given the world in which she lived and worked, that didn’t mean that she wasn’t being persecuted. She was well aware that she was not well liked and was not normally bothered by this, as the ‘cover’ she had from being the CFO’s wife generally kept most of her enemies at bay. The ones who had taken her on had discovered that she was a ruthless and implacable adversary, and unfortunately for them, the one with her hands on the staffing and remuneration budgets. The problem here was that the CEO had put this new consultant in the joint, so her normal tactics wouldn’t work. She determined to sit back and see what Persephone had to say. Who knows, she thought, perhaps I can make her my ally and use her to get rid of the people I have been trying to get out of the company for years.

Persephone was well aware of the situation that Sophia was facing and quickly worked out that she could play this to her advantage. Sophia needed to be reassured that Persephone was not going to make her look bad, not going to take her job, and most of all, that she was not going to report to the CEO behind her back. The one thing that Sophia was not worried about was that Persephone would do a better job than her, as they both knew that the job itself was not all that difficult. Despite the mountains of literature on how to do downsizing, the reality of the task was that it consisted of putting together a list of people that the managers wanted gone, balancing it with the financial impacts of redundancy payments and dressing it up so that it looked like the impact on the business was going to be negligible. Luckily there was so much time wasting and ineptitude buried in most corporates that you could take out half the workforce and not impact the performance, so this was going to be a doddle.

“Let’s go next door for a coffee,” suggested Sophia, “fewer people will hear us and this is a very sensitive assignment for us both. I have a great spot I go to for coffee that nobody else knows about.”

This was code for “I want to have this meeting out of the office while I work out if you are a threat or not and I want to impress you with my class and sophistication by not drinking the office coffee because I am really unsure about where I stand and I don’t want any of my staff to hear this before I have got my shit together.” Persephone smiled to herself. Sophia was not going to be a problem.

Sitting on a ridiculously uncomfortable stool sipping her double espresso and looking askance at Sophia’s skinny latte at the coffee shop curiously named The “C” Spot, Persephone started her ‘bonding’ session.

“So Sophia, how great is this café! You know, it’s really worth making the effort to find somewhere with such a great blend and such a gorgeous barista!”

Sophia, feeling flattered, was still keen to get to business, but was happy that Persephone was prepared to suck up to her a bit. Persephone kept up the sycophantic crap for a bit until she was about to throw up and then got into the job itself.

“Look, I realise we had a bit of an unfortunate start to this – I have got to say I was surprised when Monsieur Chiraq announced he had given me the gig, but I reckon we can make this a big success for you. These exercises are generally pretty poorly done because people are running around ‘engaging’ everyone in an attempt to avoid being universally hated. The truth is, I don’t care if I am loved, hated or treated with indifference. That’s the real benefit in having me here rather than you and your staff having to do this.”

Sophia nodded. She was getting it.

“The critical thing here is that I get totally unfettered access to your personnel records, salary and payroll information, employee contracts including current key performance indicators, organisation charts and any past or current disciplinary records.”

Sophia reckoned that this was pretty much perfect. She readily agreed and gave her PA a call to set things in motion.

“I’ve got our new consultant Poppy Stone with me and we’re having a cup of coffee round the corner. She will need an office with whiteboard, computer access, meeting table and a lock on the door.”

Persephone added, “I will also need an access key for all offices as I will certainly need to visit managers in other states. Do you have a really good administrative assistant that I can get to help me set up appointments, travel and the like? Other than that, I really won’t need much from you – we will just have to get together every week to get our report together for the CEO.”

Persephone was feeling smug and thought that this was the best opportunity to get the next sticky thing out of the way.

“Between you and me, we both know that this is a great opportunity for you to get rid of anyone you want out of Élan that you haven’t been able to eliminate to date. Why don’t you have a think about this, and let’s get together after work today once I have settled in. We can have a quick drink somewhere out of the city. Do you know The Gazebo Wine Garden at Potts Point?”

Sophia agreed and they both headed back to the office where her PA was waiting with office keys, computer logons and an office set up for Persephone. The previous occupant was just packing up his photos of his partner hugging their labradoodle, packs of musashi protein bars and a small statue of Kylie Minogue. He gave Persephone a look that should have had her bursting into flames on the spot. You’re going to have to stand in line sunshine, she thought – by the end of this job I might need a flak jacket when I go to work. She moved herself into the office that funnily enough didn’t boast quite the view of Thierry Chiraq’s palace, but she wasn’t there for the view anyway. She unpacked her briefcase, putting her laptop on the desk next to the Élan computer and logged onto the system. After having checked that it seemed to be working, she logged off and then tried to log on again, deliberately getting the password wrong three times. Sure enough, the system promptly logged her out and gave her the helpful message on the screen to call IT support. Okay, step one underway.

Persephone called the number on the screen, navigated her way past the front line support and, dropping Thierry’s name liberally into the conversation, got onto the specialist team that provided PC support for the executive team. Sounding confused and panicky, she persuaded Mark the senior support tech to come up to the office and show her how to log on. Step one in intelligence gathering was to establish key relationships, and one of the critical early ones was with the IT support geeks. This was going to help Isaac get her inside the systems without leaving a trace.

Persephone had long ago learned this lesson well and it had stood her in great stead on her first job after leaving the military when she landed a job with a major defence contractor where she was given the role of support manager for the weapons systems in the submarines. Day one on the job and she was sent to the company headquarters to learn how to write software programs. She turned up to the course to be confronted by a room full of pasty looking blokes with beards wearing sneakers and large digital watches. After about an hour of listening to an equally unattractive instructor drone on about language constructs for real-time command and control systems, she ducked out for a coffee and vowed not to return. The way she looked at the situation was that she had no idea about submarine warfare and she was about to be responsible for delivering the systems that the Navy needed in order to fight the evil empire (this was still pretty much cold war days) and she had no intention of ever writing a line of software code. Luckily her sister had been dating a submariner for the past couple of years, so she called him up and explained her problem.

“No problems, old chap,” was John’s cheerful response, “my mate Brownie is running the latest Perisher course and I’m sure he will take you on and give you a few tips.”

Persephone was a bit baffled by this, but as the alternative was to go back to the smelly roomful of geeks, she was prepared to do anything. John called her back inside ten minutes and gave her instructions to go to Devonport Naval Base and ask to see Commander Ian Brown, who would sort her right out. Not bothering to say goodbye anyone at the training centre – Persephone had always believed in the approach that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, she headed off to Plymouth on the next train. For the next month Persephone had the time of her life, whizzing around underwater with about 50 young men who were aiming to one day command a submarine (this course being the “Perisher” to which John had referred). During this time she not only learned about how submarines and their crew go about their business, but she also made a number of key contacts upon whom she would later rely once she returned to her real job.

Back at her desk, she discovered that the work that her company had been contracted to undertake bore little resemblance to what the people who were trying to use the systems actually needed or even wanted. She also found out that the process by which the works program was put together was flawed, with decisions being made by people who had neither skin in the game nor knowledge of the real priorities, or both. Having just come from a role where she was a serving officer in the military, she was determined that she would not allow men to go into combat with weapons systems that were less than the best she could provide. Trouble was, that in order to achieve this, Persephone was going to have to bypass the contracted ‘chain of command’ and get things done through other means. The only way she could hope to get away with this was by using her contacts from the Perisher course and rely on their gratitude that someone was at last giving them something they actually needed to help her when the shit inevitably hit the fan. As it luck would have it, the contract for the support services was up for renewal and one of the submariners from the course got promoted into a role where he was highly influential in the decision to renew or not.

Following the successful renewal of the contract for a further five years, Persephone was further convinced that the relationships she had forged, along with her natural tendency to ignore direct orders had been instrumental in her success. She learned the lesson well, and every time she started a new job, she made sure that she found the people who were going to make a difference to her success and built relationships early with them. Finding out what is going on when the people who already know are prepared to tell you is a lot more efficient. And when things get sticky, then having people who are prepared to put themselves out to help is critical, especially in large bureaucracies. Many of Persephone’s consultant friends and colleagues over the years never worked this out, and despite spending days and weeks analysing spreadsheets, reports and other documents, never seemed to get to the root of the matter anything like as quickly as she did. Mind you, given the model for consulting delivered by big firms, taking longer to do the job generally resulted in bigger fees, so nobody was too worried about trying to be more like Persephone.

So back at Élan, Persephone was keen to get to know someone who would help her navigate through all of their systems, saving her crucial hours finding out the extent of the fraud and who was behind it. As she was waiting for Mark the techo to arrive, Persephone took a USB stick out of her pocket and inserted it into the desktop computer. As instructed by Isaac the previous night, she opened the folder called Spector and click on the file called Install.exe. With the modifications that Isaac had made, this software bypassed all the controls that would normally stop this sort of software being installed, and Persephone now had a sophisticated keystroke logger on her desktop. Now every move that Mark made would be recorded, including his administrator login and passwords.

Just as she was putting the key back in her bag, there was a knock on the door, and a head topped with spiky black hair, a badly pockmarked face festooned with face metal and a grin a mile wide poked itself into the office.

“What’s happened to Crispin? Bloody hell, he’s even taken his Kylie statue! Hi I’m Mark from the executive support team. You must be Poppy Stone. What can I do for you Poppy?”

Mark bounced into the room. Persephone was pleased and gave him a wide grin. She knew how to deal with guys like Mark.

“Is this Crispin’s office? I don’t know anyone here yet – I only started today. What does Crispin do anyway? Do you reckon I’ve pissed him off?” Persephone simpered, as office gossip is often the best way to kick off this sort of discussion.

Luckily Mark was up for a bit of chat and proceeded to give Persephone a vicious character assassination. Apparently Crispin was the recruitment manager in the HR department and he was widely understood to be the person who ensured that the people hired were Crispin’s mates and not necessarily the person needed or even wanted by the hiring manager. He was also reputed to be getting backhanders from a couple of recruitment agencies. Every time anyone got close to exposing him, he would cry harassment and play the “you’re just persecuting me because I’m gay” card. Mark was just warming up at that point. Crispin’s personal life was also ripe for malicious disparagement. Not only was his partner reputed to be the pill dealer for the entire call centre, but the two of them apparently had an initiation ritual for the young men that they hired into it that consisted of taking them to one of the clubs on Oxford Street on their first Friday night and subjecting them to forced homosexual acts (and that even included the straight ones , although truth be told not too many straight men applied for call centre jobs). And finally, the look on the face of the labradoodle in the picture, according to Mark, was one of terror.

Mark finally stopped, realising that he might have crossed the line with this new chick, talking about buggery and bestiality on her first day, but Persephone was laughing uproariously.

“So anyway, how can I help?”

Persephone gestured to her computer in frustration. She explained that she had a new logon but after the first attempt when she reset the password, it no long worked. Mark immediately stepped over to the computer, logged on as an administrator and checked out that her account was indeed locked. He unlocked it, reset her password again and got her to log in. Once this was sorted, Persephone asked him to set her up with full access on the major underwriting, claims and customer systems. Mark gladly helped her and she kept up a steady stream of compliments as to how clever he was, how much better than the IT dudes at the last place she worked, and made sure that she got Mark’s personal mobile phone number so she could call him any time for help if she needed it.

Once Mark had finished and everything was working, Persephone thanked him profusely and locked the door behind him. She picked up her mobile phone.

“Isaac, it worked – just had the IT support tech in here and he used his admin logon. What do I do now?”

Isaac told her how to extract the information from the key logging application and she gave him the details of the supervisor login. Grateful that he didn’t have to spend hours breaking into these systems, Isaac started to trawl through the insurance databases that opened up to him, looking for information about Brad Jones and his policy and claim history. Within an hour, Isaac had discovered that there had been some changes to the contact details made by a person in the claims department and then shortly afterwards, and a couple of years before his ‘disappearance’, Brad had ‘died’ and there had been a successful claim against his life policy. The person who authorised the cheque for $350,000 was a Craig Sellars, who was a senior manager in the claims department. Also, the person who made the contact details changes worked for Craig. It all looked a bit simple, but then the most successful frauds often can be quite uncomplicated and easy to unravel once you got hold of one end of the ‘string’. The trick with this one was that you had to know it had happened in the first place otherwise you wouldn’t be looking for the piece of string in the first place. It looked as though Craig had hidden this transaction well by keeping it small and banking on the likelihood that nobody was game to unravel the ball of string that was the multi-billion dollar insurance company.

Isaac sent Persephone a text to meet up with him later that day. She got back to him and told him it would have to be later as she was meeting Sophia after work for a drink, but that she would call him once she was done. Isaac happily visualised a cosy evening with Persephone going through the details of the fraud and, having time on his hands until she called, decided to see where else this trail led. He started by looking for other claims that followed the same pattern of address changes followed by death within a couple of years, were under the financial delegation limit that Craig had and were for people under 35 years old. He quickly found about forty such claims, but through cross-referencing the policy holders with other public information, narrowed it down to eleven dodgy claims. When he added up the amounts, it came to just under eight million dollars taken in four years.

Isaac was quite impressed. This was not, of course on the scale of proceeds that he normally played with, but for an amateur it was quite a haul. He then started to have a closer look at Craig. He became even more impressed when he discovered that Craig’s lifestyle, while it was not very savoury, it was also not extravagant. He appeared not to suffer from the impatience that caught out many fraudsters – that of spending their ill gotten gains too publicly and too early. This was going to be great news for Persephone, as it looked like all the proceeds of this fraud were going to be intact, and all they had to do was find them. Now he was in his element – finding and moving money without anyone knowing he was there until it was too late was his day job. He settled down as his software trawled across the world tracking down and marking Craig’s money. This was too easy.

Meanwhile back at the office, Persephone had spent her time looking at the company’s organisation chart. This was going to be the main document that she would work from and by the end of the exercise, her personal copy (never to be included in any report) would have exactly 250 red dots applied to the lucky (or unlucky, depending on their personal circumstances) people who were about to receive a smaller cheque than they thought they were entitled to and a rest from the daily grind. She resolved to ensure that the poisonous Crispin was not going to be one of these people. For starters, she reckoned that Élan deserved people like that to stay around and continue to screw up their ability to hire good people, and secondly Crispin had been with the company for far too long and would have been given a generous payout that he clearly didn’t deserve. She would enjoy enrolling Crispin in the project and would get him to do all the redundancy calculations, rubbing his nose in the fact that he wasn’t getting any.

She put a list together of middle management and gave it to Sophia’s PA, asking her to set up interviews with all these people for the next two weeks. This would give her the initial group of staff that their managers wanted gone, and also a chance to meet her fraudster, assuming that he or she were in middle management. Having thought about it, she suspected that the process to undertake this type of fraud would generally require a reasonably high level of access that was only given to management level staff. Once this was done, the only item left was to get Sophia to the bar and pump her for information, hopefully lubricated with liberal amounts of alcohol. She still had a few hours to kill, so she spent it writing the report that would be the covering document for the list of people and costs: the thing she was being paid for. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t done the work yet; the result was so predictable that she could write the report now and it would require almost no modification at the end of the assignment.

At 6pm, she tracked down Sophia and they both hopped in a cab and headed off to Elizabeth Bay, where they secured a table in the garden and Persephone leaned back and appeared to relax. Surrounded by the eclectic mix of pretentious items that decorated the bar, including a stuffed upside-down fox hanging from a plastic vine set off nicely by the ever so stylish basket of pink lipsticks, she waved at a waiter.

“The barman here does a spectacular martini. I recommend the T10 martini, naked with a twist of grapefruit. It depends if you prefer a more citrusy gin, but I personally love the balance between the spices in T10 – I’m sure he can do anything you want though, they have some great margarita recipes as well”, Persephone put just the tiniest hint of derision into the comment about the margaritas and Sophia bit.

“A T10 martini sounds fabulous”, she retorted, not actually knowing that she was about to get a quadruple measure of neat gin, chilled so that it had a syrupy texture that was just perfect to slide silkily down the throat, leaving you wanting more.

Persephone was an old hand at this, and years of drinking had left her with a harder head than most. She was confident that she could remain in charge of the situation while the gin did its inexorable damage to Sophia’s self-control.

“So tell me about what it takes to become the head of HR at Australia’s most successful insurance company”, was Persephone’s opening gambit on the basis that most people loved to talk about themselves and how great they were. After a boring potted resume and two more lethal martinis, and with very little encouragement from Persephone, Sophia started to spill the beans on the sort of behaviour that really happened at Élan. It turned out that Crispin was indeed pretty much the scumbag that Mark had earlier disclosed, but he knew about an incident that had occurred at a Christmas party five years ago, where Sophia had one of the staff on her desk. The man who Sophia had sex with had boasted to Crispin and he had seen the opportunity this presented to have a hold over his boss. Every time Sophia tried to discipline Crispin, he hinted that he might not be able to continue to keep the information about the desk sex to himself. As Sophia had been married to the CFO for the past 9 years, and had two young kids, a beachside mansion and a great lifestyle, she was not prepared to risk all this in order to get rid of Crispin, so he stayed. Sophia and Crispin had reached this understanding years ago and she now relied on him to be her ‘hatchet man’ and take on the jobs that she needed done but didn’t want her reputation tarnished by being associated with them.

“What a pair” thought Persephone, “I just need to find out who this bloke is and my job tonight is done.”

One more martini was all it took for Sophia to disclose the name of the person she had shagged on her desk. Great, thought Persephone, first red dot for the chart.

Persephone poured Sophia into a cab and called Isaac. He was very animated and told her to get her cute backside round to his joint straight away. He refused to tell her anything over the phone but promised to give her all she wanted as soon as she got there.

“Make it strong coffee,” Persephone told him “I’ve had a couple of martinis and no food. Got anything to eat?”

Isaac quickly ordered a couple of pizzas to be delivered. They turned up at the same time as Persephone, who fell into the boxes like she hadn’t eaten in a month. Wiping tomato and cheese from her face with the back of her hand, she started into Isaac

“So, spill the beans darling, what have you found out? Come on, don’t keep me in suspense!”

Isaac laid out the full details of the fraud, giving Persephone the names, amounts and dates of each of the fraudulent claims. They looked closely at the Brad Jones claim and saw why he had looked like an attractive target – single, about to go overseas for an extended period, no dependants and had let his policy lapse for a couple of months. As they got further into the scheme they were more and more impressed at the analysis, patience and care that he had taken. When Isaac first mentioned Craig’s name, Persephone didn’t react, but by the third time he said his name, the gin-sodden brain cells in her brain snapped to attention.

“You’re not going to believe this!” shouted Persephone, startling Isaac who was trying to sneak a slice of Pizza from the box next to Persephone.

“This is the bloke Sophia shagged! What a coincidence! This doesn’t get any better – she has already told me to make sure he gets on the redundancy program, so I don’t have to worry about questions being asked about him.”

Isaac was cautious, as he didn’t believe in coincidences, but no matter how closely they looked for a connection between Sophia and the frauds, they couldn’t find anything and they both finally agreed it was just a stroke of good luck. By this point, Persephone was tired, drunk and full of pizza, so she dragged herself up from the desk and staggered into the spare bedroom, face planted the bed and passed out. Isaac followed her into the bedroom, took her shoes off and gently covered her with a blanket. He turned out the light and went back to his computers. He still had a bit more work to do to tie up all the loose ends.

Early the next morning, Persephone woke up disoriented and hungover. Upon hearing the swearing and groaning from the spare bedroom, Isaac went to his kitchen and made a very strong espresso and took it into Persephone.

“Rise and shine, sweetheart” was his over-cheery exclamation, “gotta get going, day two striking a blow.”

Persephone threw a pillow at him, which he neatly dodged and placed the coffee on the table beside her head.

“You might want to do something about your hair and makeup darling. Not sure if madwoman with scary hair and panda eyes is quite the latest look for corporate consultants these days.”

Persephone gulped her coffee and persuaded Isaac to give her a lift home as after looking in the mirror, she agreed with his assessment and wasn’t prepared to expose this particular vision of poor grooming, even to a taxi driver. On the way home they discussed the next steps. Persephone thought that her best approach at this point was to get on with the management interviews, making sure that she got to meet with Craig early on, while making sure her cover was intact and that Sophia was reassured that Persephone was on the job. In the mean time, the issue of what had actually happened to Brad needed Isaac’s attention. They already had the police files, but despite their suspicions that Craig had killed Brad, they needed to check that he wasn’t just off the radar for some reason. Isaac was confident that if Brad were hiding out somewhere that he could find him, so they agreed that if he couldn’t find Brad within a week, then they would assume he was dead. They deduced correctly that the reason why he had escalated from fraud to murder was that Craig’s fraud had potentially been exposed due to Brad’s sister asking questions both of the company and the police.

This seemed a big step to take for Craig, but it was consistent with his careful and meticulous approach to this crime and showed them how far he was prepared to go to keep his involvement secret. It dawned on them now how far would Craig go if he felt threatened that the other ten ‘dead’ people who weren’t actually dead might also turn up. This needed careful consideration. Now, even more than keeping Persephone’s real task secret, stopping any more murders was going to be their highest priority.

Isaac dropped off Persephone and headed home to sleep. Like most hackers and geeks, he played best at night and while Persephone had been sleeping he had been at his normal work. This time, funnily enough, helping the Federal Police build up a body of evidence to help them take down the CEO of another major insurance company for insider trading. Once this was over he was never going to go near an insurance company ever again, neither inside it spotting dodgy stuff, nor as an investor.

At her apartment, Persephone stood in the shower contemplating her situation. It was all moving a bit quickly and she hadn’t expected to be sitting down opposite a murderer within a day or so. She wasn’t sure she was really prepared to carry this through. Even though she had lived through some pretty violent and hair-raising situations in her time in the military, this was different. Craig didn’t have a good reason to kill anyone and Persephone believed he had only done this out of a selfish desire for money. This made him very different from the bomb-throwing, gun-toting types she had run into years ago, who at least justified their actions with political or religious rhetoric. Was Craig the archetypal cold-blooded killer? From the profile drawn up by Isaac, there was nothing particularly hot-blooded or unplanned about his behaviour. She was now getting a bit worried about whether she could carry this off. Despite her many and varied talents and experience, when had she ever had to actually deal face to face with a totally ruthless murderer?

CHAPTER NINE

Retribution

Then she remembered her first experience with hardened criminal types. She had been 14 at the time. Persephone’s father, Thomas Stone was a dedicated, popular teacher and a bit of a bleeding heart. He loved teaching at the local prison on Portland, the island where their family had been for generations, which is where he found himself after having abandoned the school system a short time earlier and finding it impossible to return once he was over his mid-life crisis.

The jail was a very bleak place. In the First World War it had been an armaments depot and was basically a series of stone buildings built into a large hill at the top of the island. It was very secure because if anyone escaped there was only one way off the island and the police found it very easy to spot anyone trying to leave along the exposed road on the causeway to the mainland.

This didn’t stop prisoners regularly trying, and at least once or twice a year when Persephone was on the school bus going to Weymouth, there would be a roadblock where a poor young constable would board the bus and deal with several rowdy teenage girls yelling “He’s here! Under my seat! Get over here copper, he’s got a gun!”, accompanied by wolf whistles and catcalls from all aboard. Funnily enough, no prisoner had ever been brave enough to escape via the school bus method.

Over the years, the prison had come to be used to house serious offenders – murderers, rapists and other violent offenders who had served several years of their life sentences and were leading up to being released on parole or licence. These prisoners had often spent most of their lives in reform homes and jails and were ill equipped for life on the outside of this highly structured system. It was Thomas’ new mission to transform them through education into potential valuable members of society with the writing ability to at least fill in a dole form.

Thomas loved his work. He applied his enthusiasm and professional experience to tailor programmes to suit his new pupils and a number of them gained GCSE ‘O’ levels in English, maths and science (although there was very little practical chemistry taught). He made a number of new interesting acquaintances among the student body and regaled the family over dinner with hair-raising tales of murder, extortion and mutilation. The entire family was fascinated and horrified in equal parts and were drawn into the drama that Thomas was now living.

The only fly in the ointment for Thomas was that following their release into freedom and after a fairly short break, many of his star pupils kept reappearing in his classes. They had broken their licence conditions after being launched into the world with their 1953 suits, bus fare and nothing else and were relieved to be back home in the safe regulated world of the prison with its 3 square meals a day and interesting chemistry theory classes. Thomas was determined that he would do something to help these poor men transition into normal society in such a manner as to improve their chances of being successful in ‘real life’.

For a few weeks, dinnertime stories revolved around the sad and sorry tale of Ron, the reformed murderer and rapist. Persephone and the rest of the family listened enthralled to Thomas as he recounted the sorry story of a boy born into a violent and criminal family who was given no choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps into the family business. This had been a protection racket involving a number of brothels and illegal gaming houses and had undergone significant turmoil when Ron’s father died (in the arms of a prostitute with insufficient cash to hand over on the day but who happened to be skilled with a cutthroat razor) when Ron was in his early twenties. Rival protection racketeers had seen the opportunity to move in on the business, leaving poor young Ronny in the unenviable situation where he had to resort to extreme violence to hang onto the business, just to put food on the table for his family. This all sounded vaguely romantic to the teenage Persephone, and sitting safely at the family dinner table, was even better than the telly.

They really shouldn’t have been as surprised as they were when Persephone, her sister Pandora and brother Matthew turned up to breakfast one Saturday morning to find a heavily tattooed man wearing a rather fine if slightly old-fashioned grey pin striped suit with large lapels sitting quietly at the table.

“Say hello to Ron” announced Thomas to the three open-mouthed children, “and Persephone, will you please put some proper clothes on.” Persephone looked down, realised she was dressed only in her underwear, sprinted out of the room, screaming, and found some jeans and a t-shirt to put on.

Pauline, Persephone’s mother, was sitting at the table, arms crossed, looking less than happy about the situation and the girls sat down at the table trying unsuccessfully not to stare at Ron. Ron, however, sat quietly waiting for his food. Persephone and Pandora were far too scared to say anything. Matthew, at ten years of age though, had no such problems.

“Are you really a murderer?”

Ron looked at him, expressionless. Persephone and Pandora interpreted this look as the steely glare of the serial killer previously described by their father. They prepared to bolt. At his young age, Matthew was not aware of the potential ramifications of his innocent question and just thought that Ron hadn’t heard him. He asked again, slightly more loudly, “So, are you really a murderer, Ron? Who did you murder?”

Ron was struck dumb. The last time he had to deal with a ten year old was when he was in the school playground and one of his classmates had been giving him stick about his sister’s habit of taking boys out the back of the bike sheds, taking off her knickers and making the boys touch her in an inappropriate manner. He really wasn’t sure how to deal with Matthew, as knocking him down and giving him a kicking until he bled all over the dining room carpet was probably not the best idea in the circumstances. So he just sat there and didn’t move or speak.

Thomas came to his rescue in quick order. He backhanded Matthew sharply across the side of his head.

“Don’t be so bloody rude to our guest you little shit!” Thomas remonstrated, “ Ron will be staying with us for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks while he finds his feet.”

Thomas looked everyone in the eye, challenging them to object. Not including Ron, of course.

“I want you to treat him as a member of the family. You are to behave with respect and courtesy towards him at all times and help him out if he has any questions with how things work round here.”

Pauline smiled at Ron in what she hoped was a friendly encouraging way, but to Persephone and Pandora she looked more nervous than friendly. Ron smiled back, also trying to be friendly, but to Persephone’s view, he now looked menacing, as the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. Breakfast was completed in very quick time and the girls announced that they had to tidy their bedrooms before going out to meet friends at the park. Matthew said nothing and slunk away from the table as soon as his plate was clean. Pauline announced that she had shopping to do and asked Thomas and Ron to clear the table and wash up as she stalked from the room.

That night, Persephone couldn’t sleep. After an hour of staring at the ceiling and worrying about the safety of her family, her bedroom door slowly opened, and in the dark, she saw someone sidle up to her bed. Terrified, she lay like a statue, held her breath and tried unsuccessfully not to make a sound. Pandora jumped into bed next to her, wrapped her arms around Persephone, begging her to let her stay. Persephone screamed, somehow muffling the sound with her pillow. After the initial shock wore off, Persephone was now irritated. She had fought for years to have her own bedroom, and now her boring little sister thought she could just turn up whenever she felt like it. How could Pandora be so selfish? Her own fears of a few short minutes before forgotten, Persephone snarled,

“Piss off! You’re cold!”

Pandora however, had Persephone in a death grip and wasn’t going anywhere.

“Please don’t make me go! He’s going to kill me!”

“Don’t be stupid, of course he’s not going to kill you.” Was Persephone’s reassuring answer, “but I might if you don’t get your feet away from my legs!”

Pandora relaxed a bit and Persephone was now able to breathe again. After a little while, realising that she wasn’t going to get any sleep with Pandora now snoring away in her ears, Persephone started to ponder. Maybe Ron was going to rape and murder them in their beds. After all, he had been deprived of female company for years, and he now had easy access to two nubile teenagers with no locks on the doors. Then she had an even more shocking thought. Actually, maybe while he was in prison he had been more use to sex with men, and now Matthew was in danger!

Persephone was freaking out. What could she do? Thomas was unlikely to be sympathetic to her concerns, as he had brought Ron there in the first place, and was notoriously grumpy if woken up in the middle of the night in any case, so she was not really keen to raise the issue at that point. Despite being terrified, Persephone decided that the only course of action was for her to check it out herself. The house was very old and had thick inside walls that effectively muffled sound, so she was not worried that Ron would hear her coming, but she pulled on a black tracksuit and grabbed her hockey stick from the wardrobe just in case. First, she checked Matthew’s room by holding her breath (she had learned years beforehand that this was the most effective way to avoid the sickening odours that pervaded everything in Matthew’s room), opening the door, running over and poking the lump on the bed to see that he was still alive. Temporarily reassured, she exited the room and then exhaled.

Okay, seems like Matthew hasn’t been anally raped, otherwise he would have been whining and crying like he normally did when Persephone or Pandora hit or pushed him around. This didn’t mean though, that Ron wasn’t planning something later in the night. Given that her single bed was already over-full with her snivelling sister, Persephone was not keen on inviting Matthew to join them both for the night, so the only course of action was to keep watch over Ron in the spare room. If this worked tonight, maybe the siblings could take turns each night while Ron was staying.

The spare bedroom was down the hall away from the children’s and parent’s bedrooms, and Persephone crept quietly along its carpeted length, staying close to the walls, as this is what the heroes did in movies. She got to the door and carefully pressed her ear to it. This was completely ineffective as the door was two-inch thick oak. Ron could have been using a chainsaw to cut up the mutilated bodies of Persephone’s parents and she still wouldn’t have heard anything.

“Well that’s it then” she thought “nothing more I can do.”

She turned around and started back along the hall. After a couple of steps she caught herself and with steely determination, turned back to complete her task of protecting her family from slaughter.

Never has a door taken so long to open. Persephone turned the handle so slowly that time-lapse photography would have been needed to spot any movement. After several minutes and with her heart in her mouth, Persephone opened the door just enough to get her head inside so that she could see the bed. Her eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and there was enough streetlight coming through the curtains in the spare room for Persephone to see quite well.

He was there in the bed!

In the gloom, Persephone could see the shape of Ron’s entire body under the sheets. He was lying on his back with his arms down at his sides and just his face protruding from the bedclothes, facing straight up towards the ceiling. He wasn’t making a sound and was completely motionless. Persephone slowly let her breath out. Maybe he was dead!

Suddenly there was a tiny movement from the bed. It was so subtle Persephone almost missed it. Ron’s eyes moved. Towards Persephone.

Transfixed, her heart pounding, Persephone searched for something to say or do. Ron was not moving, just staring at Persephone with a vacant expression on his scarred and wizened face.

They both stayed there for a few seconds, neither moving nor saying anything. Ron’s eyes stayed fixed on Persephone, whose feet were frozen to the floor. Persephone thought she might pass out from the terror.

After what seemed to her like an endless moment, but finding herself still conscious, and with Ron’s gaze boring into her terrified eyes, Persephone slowly backed away and shut the door behind her. Her knees finally gave out and she collapsed onto the floor just outside the door. She decided to stay there and keep watch – partly due to her sense of duty to protect her family from this monster and partly because she was trembling so badly that she couldn’t walk anyway. Despite her best intentions, exhausted from the night’s adventure, she soon fell asleep.

Early the next morning, Thomas woke up and went to make a cup of tea to give to a still very pissed-off Pauline. As he staggered down the hall towards the stairs, he spotted a small back bundle near the door to the spare room. His heart nearly stopped. What had Ron done? Upon discovering Persephone was merely curled up fast asleep, he picked her up and took her to her bedroom, where to his surprise, Pandora was in residence in Persephone’s bed. Trying to keep it simple, he then took Persephone to Pandora’s bedroom, put her in Pandora’s bed and went back to his own bed. Pauline immediately booted him out to get her the promised cuppa that he had completely forgotten.

That Sunday, Persephone and Pandora had a job on their hands. After praying hard for divine intervention at church during the morning communion service, they tracked down some of their friends to get some help. One of the boys secured a couple of flagons of cider and they all retired to the beach to discuss the problem.

After abandoning ideas involving kidnapping Ron and throwing him off a cliff, bribing him to go (with the £3.50 that they scraped together), tempting Ron with the skankiest girl in the group so that he would rape her and go back to jail (the most popular idea for a while with all but Trudy going for it), the group came up trumps.

Ron’s stay in jail had been ordered and predictable. To make Ron so uncomfortable that he would have to leave, the kids decided to make it the exact opposite.

The first action would be a ‘kid-swap’. They would achieve this by random children turning up to meals at the Stone household. As this happened on a frequent basis anyway, Pauline would not be particularly alarmed and Persephone suspected that even if their scheme was rumbled that her mother would be supportive anyway. The trick was that they would just turn up in place of Persephone, Pandora or Matthew, who would get their food at that child’s home. They would then act as if they were the Stone children, even calling Pauline “Mum” at the table.

This was carried out for three days and the kids reported that Ron was looking quite disconcerted, while Pauline was clearly finding the exercise amusing and Thomas, who was completely focused on Ron’s rehabilitation, had totally failed to notice. Ron, however, was still in residence, so clearly phase 2 was now needed. It was time to re-form THE BAND!

This required two days of non-stop auditions. Luckily Portland had an ample population of completely talentless spotty teenagers for whom volume was a totally appropriate substitute for tone. Matthew was in seventh heaven as the band drummer. Matthew even managed to find four aspiring ten-year-old punk rock chicks who danced around the house in rags, screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs and generally crashing into furniture and people trying to avoid the caterwauling. They were probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for Ron, who took off to the pub over the road as soon as it opened on day four of the campaign.

Ron still appeared for dinner that night, but was so drunk that Thomas had to admit that his attempt at prisoner rehabilitation was a failure and that Ron was now behaving in a manner that wasn’t really appropriate in a house full of his children. The following morning, Thomas asked Ron to leave. By lunchtime, Ron had left, along with Pauline’s food money from the jar in the kitchen.

This experience didn’t deter Thomas, who over the next few months brought home a ragtag assortment of ‘students’. The band was only needed once more, when a cross-dressing axe murderer got into Persephone’s wardrobe and then Thomas’ tool shed.

Persephone marvelled that she had forgotten about the procession of criminals that her father had brought home. “God, that was a long time ago”, she thought. “I wonder how Dad is going?” She hadn’t spoken with her father in years, having fallen out with him over her move to Australia. She only thought about the family she had left behind on the other side of the world from time to time when she was feeling a bit low. She generally fixed this with chardonnay or gin, and consequently had no idea what most of her family were doing these days. Now was definitely not the time to be rekindling family ties. She had a job to do, and her skin was going wrinkly from being in the shower for so long. She climbed out, dried herself off and got ready for day two in the Élan office.

Persephone spent the next three days interviewing managers at the insurance company and putting red dots on her chart. On the Friday, she had booked a 4pm meeting with Craig Sellars in her office. Steeling herself, she prepared to meet the man that she had demonised in her dreams the past three nights. When he turned up, he was far from the horned devil she had in her mind’s eye. In walked a six-foot tall, self-assured attractive man in his mid-forties with a deep tan, blonde sun-streaked hair flowing over his collar and looking every inch the surfie dude he clearly worked hard to portray. It was really only his bloodshot eyes and slight tremor that gave any hint that he was a habitual drug user. She came out from behind the desk and shook his outstretched hand.

“Craig Sellars, pleased to meet you Poppy. Nobody told me you were so gorgeous”

Instantly, the spell was broken. Persephone saw the smarmy, narcissistic junkie that she was determined would pay for his deeds. She smiled, said nothing in reply and motioned Craig to join her at the conference table. Once they were seated, she opened the conversation with a brief businesslike description of her role and the work she was there to do. Craig smiled and nodded and waited for Persephone to get to the point. Persephone, however, was in no hurry. She wanted to find out what made Craig tick. Information she gleaned during this meeting could prove critical in her planning for his punishment.

“Tell, me about your department Craig. Can you take me through what you and your team do? I really want to understand you and how you work.”

Like all narcissists, Craig was only too happy to talk about himself and Persephone sat back and pretended to take notes every time Craig said something that could have been significant in a downsizing exercise. All the while, she was looking for personal information and any hints as to how he was feeling about the current situation. She was particularly looking to see if he was worried about the changes. Surely he realised that once he was not working at the insurance company he would be unable to intercept any person enquiring about his fraudulent claims. Her big question was whether this was going to be a worry for Craig.

“So is my name on the list?” Craig asked with a small smile, “Assuming there is a list, that is.”

“How would you feel if it was?” replied Persephone with an enigmatic grin, “of course assuming this hypothetical list currently existed.”

Craig paused for effect. He was actually dead keen to get made redundant. After 15 years at the company, he was up for a sizeable payout, but knowing how tight the company was, he reckoned he had no chance. But then again, he thought, who knows these days?

“Do you know what, I would love it. I’m a bit of a surfie, actually more than a bit: I could actually be a professional – I’m that good. It’s always been my dream to quit work, buy a little pad up at the Gold Coast and spend my days surfing some of the country’s greatest breaks. You know, the Gold Coast isn’t the best surf, but it’s pretty central to lots of great beaches and Queensland is much cheaper to live.”

“Aren’t there really great surfing beaches in the Pacific Islands? Wouldn’t you be able to stretch your payout much further there?”

“Sure, but I’m a bit of a redneck at heart – love my footy, beer and Aussie babes. I reckon we live in the best country on earth and I’m planning on spending my retirement swapping tales about great breaks, footy games and where to get the best pie in town.”

This was not actually what Persephone wanted to hear. If Craig were not planning on leaving the country with his loot, then a careful man like him would be sure to tie up all his loose ends. There were at least ten people out there who she realised were now in dire danger. She would have liked to let Craig think that he was unlikely to get the payout so he had no reason to start a killing spree. Unfortunately it now looked like it was a bit late for that and she had opened the door by putting the idea in his mind.

Craig realised he had been a bit too open about his plans. “Look, I reckon I could lose 4 people out of my team without much impact on the throughput, the ones that I reckon we could most easily lose with nice low payouts are these four.” He pointed to four names on the organisation chart. Persephone highlighted them and thanked Craig for his time. Craig left, thinking about how he could influence the redundancy decision in his favour. Being so completely self-absorbed, he had totally forgotten about the drunken romp with Sophia at the Christmas party so she didn’t even come into his consideration. Perhaps he could talk to the Head of Claims and suggest a real restructure – amalgamate the group from four claims departments to three, getting rid of his entire team in the process including himself. He could certainly get the support of the other claims managers who would then retain their jobs with no change to their team numbers and only a minimal increase in workload. Given the amount of time they seemed to spend doing team building off site exercises, impromptu office parties, and ‘early marks’ with the lot of them adjourning to the pub at lunchtime and not returning, they could probably take up the slack without even noticing. All fired up with his plan, he went home to plan how he was going to secure his other ‘retirement fund’.

Persephone went straight home. She was now a bit worried. Her big problem was that she had no idea how to deal with the ten ex-policy holders. She wanted to warn them, but that would be impossible without alerting Craig that something was amiss and exposing her involvement. She also had a resource shortage problem in that there were ten of them and only one of her. Isaac was a great hacker and friend, but she was not sure she wanted to involve him in the messier side of this job. As far as Isaac was concerned, the plan was to relieve Craig of his money and use it to set up Persephone in a lifestyle to which she wanted to become accustomed. She had no way of working out which person Craig would eliminate first, nor had she any understanding of how he was planning on doing it. This was all coming apart at the seams. This was not the start to her career as a corporate avenger that she had planned.

She needed a clear head to think this through. She poured herself a glass of chardonnay, tore off a large sheet of butchers paper from a pack she kept in her office, laid it out on the dining table and started to write. First thing, what did she know about Craig? She wrote a list under the heading ‘Craig Characteristics’: single; careful, narcissistic; patient; surfer; drug user; greedy. She thought the list a bit short, but she could always come back to it. Now she needed to think like Craig. If she could put herself in his shoes and pull together a plan for how to get rid of the remaining people who were risking his retirement, then she reckoned she had a reasonable chance of stopping him by implementing targeted countermeasures. Given the characteristics that she had listed, she reckoned that Craig would plan this carefully before he rushed into anything, but given his previous success he wouldn’t be having difficult conversations with himself about whether he could kill them, these conversations would be more likely about how quickly he could get this done and knock at least the first three off. She didn’t think he would hire anyone to do the job as that would have increased the risk, but it couldn’t be ruled out.

She put another two headings on the paper, “Craig’s Objectives” and “Craig’s Challenges”. Under the first heading she wrote: ensure all ten policyholders actually dead; don’t get found out; keep the money; get out of Sydney. Under “challenges” she wrote: making sure deaths are ruled accidental and not linked together by police; time pressure – after leaving Élan, can’t intercept anyone; need to find the people while still have access to Élan systems.

This was a good start. She felt that the paramount need for Craig to tie up these loose ends soon would override his natural caution and he would rush this, improving the chances that he would make a mistake. She couldn’t rely on this so she set about making a plan to kill ten people, putting on the mantle of the narcissistic Craig.

Step 1:

Establish the current location of the ten people at risk. Isaac had already got the list of names and basic details, and Persephone was sure he could track them down and find out as much information as possible.

Step 2:

Rank them in order of risk that they or a close relative will do something like Alice and discover the lapsed insurance policy and contact the company. This has always been a risk, but it is far more serious once he leaves. Given the need to balance speed with safety and being methodical and careful, Craig would work out which of his victims was most likely to expose him and start with them. She needed to discuss with Isaac how they were going to rank them, as that would guide him in what sort of information to gather. Things that would matter would include: having a terminal illness; being under severe financial stress; undergoing a major life change such as divorce; birth of the first child; major promotion; moving or returning from overseas (as that is what triggered Brad’s incident). That was a big enough list for a start. Isaac might come up with more, but this was a lot of work for him to get hold of even this information for ten people whose last contact with the insurance company was up to four years ago.

Step 3:

Devise a way of killing them that would look like an accident. For a target group of ten individuals, he would need at least three different methods, with the ability to tailor each method to the individual. There were a few of fairly straightforward options: Drug overdose (illicit or prescription depending on target); anaphylactic reaction/poison; falling off a balcony drunk; and traffic accident. Disappearance was more problematic, as he would have to get rid of the body, but then again, this had worked with Brad, so it was maybe the fall-back option. Persephone made a note to get Isaac to find out the driving record and any evidence of drug use or mental illness for each person.

Step 4:

Draw up a schedule for the exercise. This would have the target and timings identified with details of how each specific killing would be undertaken, including preparation time. This needed to fit in with Craig’s work schedule, as he couldn’t be taking large amounts of time off to execute the plan.

The first thing that Persephone needed to draw up the plan was the information on the people on Craig’s list. She picked up the phone and called Isaac. “I’m heading over. Got anything to eat?”

By the time she got there, Isaac had ordered a Thai feast for them both. Persephone fell on it like a she hadn’t eaten in a week. After Isaac successfully fought her for the last fish cake, he sat back, patted his stomach and asked Persephone to tell him where she was up to, and how the meeting with Craig had gone. Persephone proceeded to tell him, and after a bit of an internal battle, also confessed that she thought she had made the situation worse and that now Craig was probably going to go after the remaining people whose policies he had used for his scheme.

“No shit, babe,” was the exasperated response from Isaac, “What on earth did you think you were getting into? This guy almost certainly killed Brad Jones, maybe his sister as well and you thought you could just waltz in with your charts and spreadsheets and make the world a better place? Of course you have moved his plans up and probably made it more likely that he will kill again. You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get onto stopping him.”

Persephone was miffed. That was exactly what she had been doing, she just wanted a bit of sympathy. Clearly she wasn’t going to get it from Isaac. She explained what she had been doing prior to coming over and unfolded the sheets of butchers paper, pushed the empty containers aside and put them on the table so Isaac could read them. She explained what she needed Isaac to do and asked him how long it would take.

“For all ten? Give me a week. I have to fit this in between some other jobs. Should be pretty straightforward. How about I get mobile phone numbers for all of them as well and then we can track them real-time when we need to?”

Persephone thought that was a brilliant idea and immediately agreed. They opened a bottle of rather nice cabernet sauvignon that Isaac had been given by a grateful client and snuggled up against each other to watch a murder mystery movie on the TV. They didn’t get any inspiration from the movie, but Isaac had a great time fantasising about what he was going to do to Persephone as she snored noisily for most of its second half.

Saturday came and Persephone woke up again in the spare bedroom at Isaac’s penthouse. She snuck out before Isaac noticed she was awake and went home to undertake the planning for her own objectives.

First and easiest thing for her to deal with – how was she going to get hold of the money that Craig had hidden, presumably overseas? Isaac had promised not only to do this, but also to show her how he did this sort of thing, so that she could take on at least part of this job herself. She would call Isaac later that morning and set up a time to go over and have her first lesson.

Next thing though was how to deal with Craig. Given the events of Friday she was now forced to confront the fact that she was dealing with a murderer, who was in all likelihood and unless she stopped him, was about to murder again. She had finally accepted that there was only one way to stop him, and she was now able to reconcile this with her conscience. The trick, a bit like Craig’s problem, was how to do it without getting caught. She thought she had the germ of an idea, but that could wait.

Timings were going to be critical. She didn’t want to set off alarms in Sydney by making Craig disappear too soon after he left the company, as he might still be in touch with workmates for a while after he left. She needed to wait a while after he moved away up the coast, but she also needed to strike before he moved the money so that she could still secure it for herself. Perhaps there was a way of setting some sort of alarm on his accounts so that if he tried to access it, she would find out before he had a chance to move the money. She would have to ask Isaac about that. She also needed to get the money before Craig had any chance to realise that something was wrong, as that might make him more alert and more difficult to kill.

There. She had said it, at least to herself. Now she had to make sure that nobody, not even Isaac, knew about this part of her plan.

After a quick check with Isaac, she now knew that she had a 48 hour time window between when Craig tried to move the money and when she would have her hands on it. She decided that she would wait a minimum of six months after the redundancy and then move on Craig and the money. If he accelerated this by accessing the money before her six-month deadline, she would have 48 hours to eliminate Craig. She needed a plan therefore that could be executed quickly without compromising her anonymity. She needed to do some research, making sure that there was no record of her searching for the methods that she would need to make sure that Craig disappeared from the face of the earth and was never found.

She had a lot of balls in the air. She needed to: get the redundancy sorted, both for Craig and the rest of the unfortunates; intercept Craig as he tried to eliminate the other ex-policyholders; work out how to eliminate Craig; get her hands on Craig’s money.

Getting the redundancy sorted was the easiest. She had already prepared the report and financial impact spreadsheet for Sophia, she just needed to finish interviewing managers at Élan and finalise it. The report already had Craig’s name included and she still had a little bit of work to do to find some more long-serving management types to include so that Craig’s name and rather large payment didn’t stand out too much. Luckily Élan seemed to have a policy of promoting arseholes to middle management where they were almost universally hated by their underlings and looked upon with distaste by the senior management who were frequently called upon to deal with their most recent act of bastardry and other general harassment that was the long standing hallmark of this organisation. She was well on track to have a first draft to Sophia by the end of the month, so that was pretty much ticked off.

Intercepting and stopping Craig’s next murder was more problematic. She needed to get the results of the research that Isaac was doing for her, pick the top three most likely targets and set up some sort of surveillance on these three. Ten was just too many to watch given her limited resources so she would just have to hope that her assessment of the priorities was the same as Craig. Her big issue here was what does ‘intercept’ actually mean? Obviously she needed to head off any attempt to eliminate these people, but what was she actually going to do if she spotted Craig making a move? She decided to go for a stroll and pick up a coffee at her local. Maybe the distraction would give her inspiration.

When she got to the coffee shop, Vinh made her a double espresso without being asked.

“Sit down and relax darling, Mai has prepared some authentic baklava just like the wogs do – try a piece and let me know what you think.”

Vinh shoved a piece of pastry dripping with honey and walnuts at Persephone as she took up a seat inside the café. As she was licking the honey from her sticky fingers, down through and wrist and nearly to her elbow where it had somehow ended up, she glanced at the television in the corner. One of the early morning shows was doing a blatant piece of advertorial for a holiday company. The impossibly skinny announcer was raving on and on in a piercing nasal twang about how “fabulous” the holiday was, and how for only $26,000, it was a “real bargain” and she was planning on going there next summer with her boyfriend Jayden.

Persephone suddenly froze. What a great idea! All she had to do was remove Craig’s potential victims from his reach for a while – that would at least give her time to set up the ‘permanent solution’ without Craig being suspicious that someone had spotted his crimes. She was going to wait and see if he moved on any of them, then they could ‘win’ a long overseas holiday to somewhere exotic that they had always wanted to visit, only catch being they had to leave pretty much straight away. This could work! Persephone jumped up from the table, gave an extremely surprised Vinh a big hug and ran back to her flat.

“Looks like the baklava was a hit, Mai.”

Persephone gave Isaac a call and asked him to find out the favourite holiday destination for each of the top three ‘targets’. Once he found out why, Isaac was quite impressed with the idea and also offered to do the research to find suitable holiday packages that Persephone could use as the prize. Persephone did a quick check of her finances, and worked out that she could afford to spend up to $30,000 which she reckoned would be a pretty compelling holiday for someone whose lapsed life insurance policy was for less than a million. Telling them that they had won this in a way that didn’t look like some sort of internet scam was fairly simple, given the information they had on these people. She would use one of the loyalty programs they were on and tell them they had been entered into a prize draw for this holiday as they had racked up a certain number of points that month or year or something, and that they had won. She would give them a phone number to call and claim the prize and she would then make all the arrangements. She would even have them take part in a promotional photo shoot with their winner’s certificate and luggage to make the whole thing more real for the winners. This was not without risk, but looking at the numbers of people who actually fall for scams where they have to give money to strangers, surely these people wouldn’t look this particular gift horse in the mouth? She would make sure that the holidays were with reputable and well-known travel companies to mainstream destinations so they wouldn’t worry about being kidnapped either.

She was now committed to the project and had $30,000 of skin in the game. She still needed to work out how to kill Craig and get away with it.

CHAPTER TEN

Protecting Persephone

The obvious way to do this was to make it a surfing accident. Craig had already announced to her that his plans were to spend his retirement in the surf up the coast, so she just had to work out a way of getting him into the surf so she could deliver the final blow. It needed to be something she could arrange on short notice and had to be fool proof, as she was not going to get another chance. Poison was the clear winner in the method stakes, so she did some research on how to get the right poison and how to administer it. She was acutely aware that her computer systems at home were like an open book to Isaac, so she decided to only research this part of the mission on an anonymous system away from home. Luckily Surry Hills had plenty of Internet cafés that she could use, and it was to one of those she went, first dressing up in grubby old jeans, a huge sweatshirt and beanie, so she was fairly unrecognisable. She looked in the mirror at her front door and caught herself – this is a bit over the top, she thought. Pausing and feeling ridiculous, she decided to stay with the disguise – she rationalised that it was better to look like an idiot than be caught later by being traceable.

After only a short time, she came across an article on Tetrodotoxin, the famous poison from the puffer fish. What she hadn’t known before reading this though, was that this is the same poison secreted by the blue ringed octopus. This looked like a winner. This deadly little creature was found up and down the Australian coast, and is certainly a credible candidate for the accidental death of a surfer, assuming that the poison is even found in the body at a post-mortem. Persephone was also a fairly competent surfer, having learned on the beaches of North Devon when she was a child and updating her skills in far warmer waters once she came to live in Australia. Her simple plan was to ‘bump into’ Craig on the beach and invite him to show her the best break at that location. She would then paddle out the back with him and engage him in conversation, flirting with him a bit in order to get him close. She would then inject him with the poison using a pen syringe that she had secreted inside her steamer and stay with him for the 2-3 minutes it would take for the poison to work. At first Craig would feel nauseous, then he would lose his sight, touch, speech and the ability to swallow. After this his nervous system would stop working, paralysis would then set in and he would no longer be able to breathe. Persephone was confident that she could surf in, leaving Craig’s body to be found later, by which time she would be long gone. The only thing to do was buy the pen device, which was readily available, although she had to be a bit careful not to be identifiable. She could set this up well in advance and be ready to go on short notice, assuming she had Craig under surveillance so that she knew where he was surfing on any day. Getting her hands on the tetrodotoxin without any trace was going to be harder, but with a bit of thought, not an insurmountable issue. It just needed a bit of creative problem-solving.

The final piece was the money. Persephone was confident that Isaac had this under control and that all she had to do is get him to set up the alarms once he traced the money that Craig had hidden and wait. She would set up some accounts overseas to receive the money and work out how to launder it back into Australia with no fuss and not too much tax. She was sure she could find some relative in the UK who would leave her a substantial inheritance or something similar. In any case, Isaac was a master at this and she could rely on him for help.

The next day, Persephone went around to Isaac’s home, bringing coffee and a box of Mai’s delicious baklava. Isaac was pleased to see her and keen to show her the results of his work tracing money and people.

Isaac then presented the results of his analysis about Craig’s potential targets for murder. For each one he gave her a potted biography including age, current job, marital status including dependants, financial position, health summary, home address, major life goals (mostly from social sites) and covering the risk factors that Persephone had previously outlined to him. Four of the ten were under financial stress; one was in the final stages of cancer; two had applications in for divorce; and one was about to return from a two year sabbatical in Africa. After a bit of filtering and re-ordering, Isaac and Persephone settled on the ‘top three’ that they felt were the highest risk for early elimination by Craig. They were, in order: Max Forrest – the African trip person, who was an artist and sculptor with a wife who was in and out of rehab for alcohol addiction. He was also one of the two with an application for divorce and his financial position was pretty perilous, having spent all his money on care for the wife in institutions for the past three years. He was ranked number one due to the frightening similarities to Brad Jones and would certainly look high risk to Craig.

Next was Alison Burridge. Alison was a married mother of three children who had recently resurrected her career as a systems engineer, going back to work once her youngest child started full time school. She had been very successful with one of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, had won a couple of awards and had just received a promotion to a senior engineering role that required her to move to Adelaide. Given her personal circumstances, and also because her new employer routinely insured its senior people with Élan, there was a real risk she would pop up on the system and cause all sorts of problems as she was already ‘dead’.

The final person was Tony Adolfo. Tony was a self-employed builder. His income had varied wildly over the years as he landed work and then had long periods where he earned very little. He was married to Isabella and they had no children. Isabella was undergoing her third attempt at IVF, and at this stage, it looked as though she was finally pregnant. This was very expensive treatment, but their whole world looked like it was about to change, and there was a real chance that they would look to sort out their finances, especially considering life insurance now that they were about to have their first child.

None of the rest of them looked anything like as risky for Craig, as although there were a couple that on first look might have been good candidates, as soon as Isaac had dug into them a bit more, the terminally ill person turned out to be in remission; and one of the others, who had actually applied for a job at Élan, had just been offered a promotion at his current employer and had decided to stay.

Isaac agreed to put all three under close surveillance and work out the best holiday prize option for each one. Isaac also organised for the latest generation of tracking devices to be placed on Craig’s phone, his car and even got a geeky surveillance mate of his to drill a hole in a couple of his surfboards, insert a GPS tracker and seal them up again. He sent Isaac ‘before and after’ pictures and they both agreed it was a very professional looking job with no trace of his surgery showing. This way, if Craig showed up in the vicinity of any of their top three, they would be instantly notified by some software that Isaac set up with proximity sensors on the trackers. They were confident that Craig would not attempt to eliminate any of them without serious planning and would have to visit their homes or places of work to check them out.

Isaac was having the time of his life working closely with Persephone tracking down a bad guy and relieving him of all his money. He still had no information about Persephone’s real plans for Craig but would not have been surprised had he known.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Other Scam

Monday morning, bright and early Persephone rocked up to the Élan offices. She had only 8 more interviews to conduct and her report was already almost complete. She was feeling confident that she had the situation under control with Craig and his potential targets and the money was almost in her grasp. The only thing that was nagging at her now was the disquiet that she was starting to feel about the 200 people who were about to lose their livelihoods. There was very little she could do about the situation, as the company was determined to make the cuts, and the managers she had interviewed so far had been ruthless in their pursuit of ridding their little empires of anyone who either: they disliked; was potentially better than them; had refused to sleep with them; or was otherwise a threat to them. The senior team, who had the same problem in spades, encouraged this middle management behaviour. There had been a cutthroat approach to reward and punishment in Élan for years and Persephone had seen it in action when the CEO had spoken to Sophia in his office as he appointed Persephone to the job. Persephone was sick of dealing with this sort of behaviour, which seemed to have percolated throughout corporate Australia and had led to a work environment for people that was mostly driven by fear.

While Persephone had been conducting the interviews, she had come across a few people who she was told were ‘untouchable’. She had seen this in several other companies before, and was curious as to what was behind this. She decided to have a bit of a chat with a couple of these people to see if she could uncover why nobody wanted them made redundant. They all worked in the general insurance division, and their length of service varied quite widely. They were mostly relatively junior people, and unremarkable on the surface. They were both men and women, so the sex angle was less likely, although not out of the question. The first two Persephone interviewed were tight-lipped and refused to discuss anything about their jobs, their history with the company and their future plans. They were angry that Persephone was even talking to them, and as she pushed a little harder, it was clear to her that something was scaring them. She backed off quickly, so as not to raise anybody’s suspicions.

When she sat down with Maria, a middle-aged woman who worked in the home insurance group of the general insurance division, she got quite a different response. Maria was certainly angry, but she didn’t appear afraid to talk. Persephone noticed that her clothes hung loosely on her and under the heavy make up, her face was dry and sallow. She asked Maria if she was feeling okay and if she wanted a glass of water. Maria waved her off, telling her that she wanted to get this off her chest and that she was really happy that someone was finally interested in fixing this.

“ This goes right to the top”, started Maria, “you’re not going to believe what these bastards are up to.”

Persephone was delighted to hear this. It looked as though she might have come across something that she could use to punish the people at the top of the organisation for the atrocious way they had treated their staff, their customers and their shareholders for years and years. She asked Maria to continue. It was like opening the floodgates. Maria started by saying that she was very angry that her boss had taken her aside and told her that while there are a number of redundancies being offered that she was not going to be considered because she was ‘protected’. She had told him that she didn’t want to be ‘protected’, and that given her cancer, which her boss knew all about, she would be delighted to receive a redundancy package which she would spend on a world cruise rather than having to endure another bout of futile chemotherapy with all its horrible side-effects. She had promised him to keep her mouth shut and in any case, he didn’t have to worry for too long as her doctors had told her that her chances of a cure were now very low, and she should put her affairs in order. She didn’t have any children and her husband had left her after her mastectomy, so this cruise was a bit of a dream for her but she could only afford it with a redundancy package. Her boss was unmoved and told her that there was nothing he could do. Maria was furious, as she also believed that the cancer has been made worse by the long-term ongoing stress of having to live with this really big secret.

“I’ve watched the bastards who engineered this scheme make millions and millions of dollars while the only thing I have received in return apart from a small cash bonus – which they only paid me so they had a hold over me – was threats of losing my job and going to jail should I talk.”

According to Maria, Rob Prentice (Sophia’s husband) who was now the CFO of the company, used to run the general insurance division. When he was in that job, he spotted an opportunity to build a property development business on the side by some really nasty and underhand means. He identified underinsured aging properties that, if you could acquire the houses, you could knock them down and build significant high value properties such as blocks of units or townhouses. These properties were throughout Sydney but mostly in high value harbourside suburbs. Élan Insurance had just less than 40% of the home insurance market in Sydney. He secretly ‘red flagged’ each of these potential sites for which they held the insurance policy, and given that there were thousands of these properties, at least a dozen or so every year were severely damaged or destroyed by flood or fire or storm damage. When this happened, the claims clerks (of which Maria was one) were instructed to sit on the claim so that Rob Prentice could make his move. He needed each property to be under insured so that the owners could not rebuild for the amount of the claim. If the property fitted his parameters, then while the claim was being disputed, through another company that he and his wife owned, hidden in a family trust, they would visit the owners of the property (who were mostly elderly with very little or no income) and make an offer to buy the property at significantly more than the value of the claim, and a fair bit less than the market value. The owners were given very little time to accept the offer, and the high-pressure tactics on people who were already traumatised by the loss of their home were frequently successful. When that happened they would redevelop the property into apartments or the like. Over the past 10 years with the help of a small number of claims staff, they had made millions.

Persephone thanked Maria and asked her what she would like her to do with this information. Maria told her that if she could get her redundancy, then once Maria was on the cruise ship then Persephone was welcome to do what ever she wanted. Persephone promised to make sure that Maria was included on the list. She wasn’t entirely certain how she was going to do this given the level of resistance, but she thought she could work something out. Maria finally broke down and cried. Persephone, feeling a bit awkward, gave her a tissue and patted her on the shoulder. When she stopped crying Maria fixed her make up, gave Persephone an enormous hug, and went back to her desk with a bit of a spring in her step.

This was perfect for Persephone, not only did she have something in her power to really hurt this company and its senior management, who after 3 weeks had demonstrated to her that they really were amongst the nastiest that corporate Australia had to offer, but she also had something really good to give to Reg once she had finished to keep him focused away from Craig.

In the meantime, Persephone was determined to do her bit wherever she could, and even though years ago she had given up trying to change things from within as a corporate executive, she felt there were still things she could to as a consultant to alleviate some of the distress and indignity that these soon to be redundant people were going to face. She settled down to her computer and started to write her recommendations on the specifics of how to deal with the process of terminating the employment of 200 loyal staff. Before finalising this part of her report, Persephone needed to gain the support of Sophia the HR director.

If rumours about Sophia were true, this was going to be difficult, but she had to give it a try. She set up a meeting in Sophia’s pretentious coffee shop, hoping to put her at ease. Once perched on their tiny stools, Persephone started on her pitch.

“I’m pretty much done with the list of people and while I am planning on going through it in some detail with you in the next day or so, I thought it would be a good time to talk to you about the process that we need to run to get through this in an efficient and appropriate manner.” Persephone confidently started, “In my experience, there are several ways we can get this done, and providing a dignified exit for your people will not only be a decent thing to do, but will also protect the company’s reputation and minimise risk of future action by angry ex-employees.”

Before she could go any further, Sophia interrupted.

“Look, Poppy, we are spending quite enough time and money on this exercise already. I’m sure you have some great ideas, but we have done things like this plenty of times before and I am confident that we can handle this in our normal way with no problems. Why don’t you just finish up the list and let me handle this?”

Persephone was keen not to give up. She persevered in trying to get Sophia to consider including outplacement services in the package being given to the staff, managing the process to allow the people to return to their desks after being told of the redundancy, giving them assistance with transporting their personal effects and other such simple courtesies. She was met with a stony silence from Sophia and she quickly realised that she was getting nowhere with this argument so she tried another more detailed explanation.

“Small-scale redundancy exercises have small-scale risks attached. The situation here is quite different. The chance that someone will be angry enough to take on an unfair dismissal action against Élan is quite high. They will certainly be able to find themselves a rat-bag lawyer who will take it on a contingency basis, just for the publicity. Even though they won’t succeed – as you are being very careful about how you go about this, Élan’s reputation will suffer in the press. Dealing with this once it happens will be massively more expensive than heading it off by giving them a bit more than they are actually entitled to by law.”

Persephone could see that she wasn’t really getting her point across, but continued, “At the very least this will give you a much better story to tell the press when the shit hits the fan.”

Sophia appeared to be giving this argument some consideration, but after a short pause, she reiterated that she was still going to handle this part herself in her own way. She was keen to let Persephone know that she was not going to spend a single dollar more of the company’s money on these people than she was legally required to, as this was her job as a senior executive at the company. Persephone was disappointed but not surprised. Pretty much everyone she had met at Élan who worked in any sort of management or leadership role had not been interested in the welfare either of his or her staff. None of them cared about looking after the interests of the company either, even though like Sophia, they would protest this if pushed. The atmosphere of fear that they had built over the years had meant that the only people they cared about were themselves. Shareholders and customers never got a look-in. As Persephone sat back and looked at Sophia, she marvelled that there hadn’t been more instances of employee driven fraud. Upon reflection she realised there may well have been plenty more, but the management was so afraid that it would get out into the public arena that they just buried it.

Persephone decided to shut up. She was not going to get anywhere with Sophia and she needed to get this assignment finished and the redundancies, especially Craig’s, completed. She resolved to put some recommendations in her report, even if they were buried at the back so that the senior people, Sophia included would not read them (attention span of these people being notoriously short) but she had given them a chance to do the right thing. She would have one more go at her weekly report to the CEO, but she would be careful not to offend Sophia and would let Thierry know that this was not an approach that Sophia supported. Finishing their coffees, the women headed back to the office; Persephone to conduct a few more painful interviews and Sophia to make sure that she completed her plan to conduct the redundancy execution herself at minimal cost to gain Thierry’s support.

By the end of the week, Persephone had completed all her interviews, had a list of people to be made redundant that had been approved by Sophia, including the unfortunate Maria, who Persephone managed to get approved by hinting that she was a little puzzled as to why Maria’s boss was so reticent to let her go when Maria was such an ideal candidate. She suggested to Sophia that she was happy to investigate this if necessary as it probably bore looking at. Funnily enough, Sophia quickly approved Maria’s inclusion on the list.

She was then ready for a final presentation to the CEO and senior management team. Persephone had managed to find three more long-serving employees that were almost universally hated misogynists who had sexually harassed most of the female front line workers. It was not lost on the senior management team that they were also getting rid of some people who were high-risk employees anyway. Craig’s name went entirely unnoticed in the mix. After the presentation, the CEO thanked Persephone for her work and told her that he was confident that Sophia could handle the actual implementation. Secretly Persephone was quite pleased – that was the part that had the highest chance of going badly and not being associated with the impending cock-up suited her just fine.

As Persephone predicted, the redundancy process at Élan was far from smooth. Although she was not present for the meetings with staff being made redundant due to Sophia’s insistence on managing it all herself, Persephone got a great view of the process as stories leaked into the press. The most entertaining stories were penned by a particularly acerbic columnist Hugh Penrite, working for one of the last remaining newspapers in Sydney not owned by multibillionaire businessmen.

His first tale was a ripper.

Today at Élan International, the French multinational behemoth that has single-handedly redefined the term ‘détente’; the diamond-encrusted and Versace-suited HR Director Sophia Prentice told us, “a small number” of employees were “reluctantly retrenched”.

As the long line of non-French speaking ex-employees were turfed out unceremoniously onto George Street, we were treated to the sight of a large sweaty security guard of Middle Eastern appearance wrestling staplers and manila folders from the grasp of the sobbing downtrodden workers as they emerged, carrying small cardboard boxes with photos of heretofore happy children and pets, half-dead plants and purloined office equipment. The pile of recovered contraband climbed inexorably, drawing a crowd of onlookers, eager to catch the first sight of resistance from the sacked proletariat. With Marie Antoinette (aka Sophia Prentice) watching from on high, they didn’t have to wait long. As a young woman wearing a wide belt in lieu of a skirt and tottering out on sky-scraping platform shoes was confronted by the person we now know as Rafiq (or “Rafiq you dirty pig” as uttered by said young woman), she dropped the box, tore off her top, revealing a large set of breasts barely held back by a red lace bra and screamed at him, “here, you dirty bastard, search me! It’s not like you haven’t been here before!”

Rafiq, clearly uncertain as to what he should do, bent down to pick up the shirt. Just in time for his head to connect with the business end of a large platform shoe. The crowd roared in support of the half-naked woman who, encouraged by their chants, proceeded to pick up staplers, tape dispensers and other heavy items from the pile and hurl them at the unfortunate Rafiq, who by this stage was lying on the ground, arms over his head, crying. The onlookers felt that she needed some help and a number of them picked up their own projectiles, now throwing them through the doors to the lobby of the Élan building, breaking the glass and drawing the attention of passing police. After enquiring of the mob as to the reason for the disturbance, the police went off in search of illegally parked vehicles in the vicinity as these would clearly pose more of a danger to society than the destruction of this edifice of French colonialism.

Meanwhile, the steady stream of retrenched workers continued, although at least these new ones managed to hang onto the staplers.

Your writer, upon hearing of these events, was determined to understand what lay behind this tragedy. Tomorrow we will be bringing you some tales from behind the oak doors of the insurance company, casting light on how such a clearly caring and responsible group of highly paid executives manage through the stressful and personally distressing situation that has clearly been engendered by the poor behaviour of the irresponsible workers involved.

The following day was even better as Hugh was on a roll.

Today, the day after the breakdown of order at the George Street Offices of Élan, the multinational insurance company that manages to repatriate several billions of dollars of profit to France each year whilst avoiding having to pay more than $3.56 in company tax in Australia, we are shining the light on a triumph in employee relations that has been so successful that the Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a thank you statement for the 250% increase in membership enquiries across Australia yesterday. Their opening statement reads, “We are forever in the debt of the management of Élan International for yesterday’s demonstration of how to reward the loyalty and hard work of hundreds of our brothers and sisters and reminding us all that the union movement is still a vital component of today’s commercial and industrial landscape.”

My assistants approached CEO Thierry Chiraq and the aforementioned HR Director Sophia Prentice, but they both declined to comment on yesterday’s events. I have therefore had to rely on the interviews that I conducted with a large number of ex-employees of this compassionate and responsible company. So as to ensure that they remain protected from any retribution from the capitalist thugs who may seek to part them from their small but important statutory entitlements in court, I am using a typical example of these interviews and refer to the ex-employee as Sheila.

Sheila’s tale of the day was heart-warming. Upon arriving at work, she was summoned to a meeting with her manager and HR on the 65th floor of the building. Risking a nosebleed from the height, she tremulously pressed the button on the lift, and emerged onto an oak-panelled corridor that clearly was the province of hallowed clients and executives. She was excited at the prospect of what was obviously going to be some sort of promotion. She was ushered into a meeting room with “Champs Elysee” etched on a brass panel by a man dressed as a butler from the late 19th century. Inside at the far end of a 30 seat boardroom table, sat her manager Bob and some young child from HR with a pad and pen poised to take down any significant utterances. Bob waved Sheila into a chair at the near end of the table, and asked in a loud voice, due to the distance between them, “You are probably wondering why you are here today, Shirley.”

“It’s Sheila, actually”

“So Shirley, you may be aware that the company has been experiencing a slight downturn in earnings in the past three quarters, coupled with a deterioration in market bond rates and escalation of the actuarial forecasts for climate risk.”

Sheila nodded, not understanding a word. They didn’t normally discuss such matters in the call centre, preferring to chat about celebrity scandals or the latest diet sensation in the news.

“Well, Shirley, as a result of this ‘perfect storm’ we have had to make a few changes. In order to protect the company’s position and the future of key personnel upon whom we rely for revenue assurance, we have made the decision to rationalise the broader workforce, paying special attention to our customer contact resources.”

Sheila was still none the wiser. He continued, “Tiffany here has an envelope that shows you the generous sum of money that once you sign this form that is intended to protect both you and Élan, you will have transferred to your bank account today. After signing, you may return to your desk to collect the belongings that you have accumulated in your time with us. So as to further protect you, we have provided a security guard who will escort you back to your desk and the out of the office.”

The penny dropped. She was being sacked. Tiffany walked around the table, thrust the 5-page document at Sheila and pointed at the space on page 5 for her to sign. When Sheila made moves to try to read the document, Tiffany huffed and waved around the piece of paper with an amount that looked roughly like 3 month’s salary and said, “Can you just sign this now? We have a lot more staff to see today and we don’t have time for you all to read the entire document. It’s very difficult to understand for anyone without legal and HR training anyway, so you would just be wasting your time. Unless you sign it, I can’t release the money so you won’t be getting anything.”

In shock, and seeing the meagre amount (which turned out upon inspection to be the minimum due under law) disappearing, Sheila scrawled her name and fighting through tears as she was wondering what to tell her husband they were going to do about the mortgage and feeding the children, she took the proffered envelope and staggered out to be met by the enormous security guard. The last thing she heard as she left the boardroom was an irritated Bob asking Tiffany if “….they were all going to be difficult like that….”

Feeling like a criminal, Sheila went back to her desk, where some anonymous person had packed up and placed her personal belongings into a cardboard box. She looked into it, and saw at the top the photos of her children, which were now missing the corners, having been ripped unceremoniously from the partition where they had been neatly pinned. The rest of the call centre team were occupied taking customer calls, and none of them dared to look at Sheila as she came into the office. In a moment of retaliation, as the security guard glanced towards the exit, Sheila grabbed the stapler marked clearly “property of Sheila, do NOT steal” and shoved it to the bottom of the box, under her cardigan and pack of tampons that someone had been kind enough to take out of her desk drawer. Holding back tears, she called out “Goodbye everyone” and walked to the lift. Gazing steadfastly at their screens, nobody replied.

We have asked Sheila and a number of other ex-employees for a copy of the document that they all signed, but have so far been unable to obtain it. We are confident however, that it will contain clauses threatening the employee with terrible consequences should they even think about saying anything nasty about Élan or the way they have been treated. Luckily Sheila and the other 299 retrenched employees have me to tell the tale of the de-humanising manner of their dismissal without fear of retribution. They also have the resources of internationally renowned legal firm Tiler & Highland who are running a class action in the Federal Court against Élan for underpayment of entitlements. It would appear that they forgot to pay out leave and also taxed nearly all of them at the wrong rate. Giles Goodenough, senior partner told this paper that, “ We are determined to protect the rights of workers in this case and will be seeking punitive damages to the sum of several million dollars in addition to retrieving their rightfully owed monies.” Any worker who was retrenched by Élan can contact the firm on 02 9555 1234. You will not have to pay for any of this, as it is being conducted on a pro-bono basis. Perhaps because the managing partner in Sydney lost a close personal friend in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985 and is a bit anti-French as a result.

Persephone read Hugh’s articles with glee. All was going exactly as she had predicted in her warnings to Sophia.

Serve them right.

In the mean time, Craig had been busy doing his own research. He had ten people he had to track down without anyone noticing and a limited time to get all the information he could before the axe fell. He still had his day job to which he had to pretend to pay attention, at least for a couple of weeks. He couldn’t wait to be out of the company with his nice payout and head up the coast for days upon endless days of surfing, drug-taking and shagging Queensland chicks.

He decided to make a list of his targets, put it away for a month or so, then get on with eliminating these people in order of the highest risk first so he could relax and enjoy his retirement. His payout would be plenty to live on for at least a year, so he didn’t have to rush.

Persephone and Isaac had been watching carefully, but so far had seen no activity by Craig that would lead them to activate their plans. They realised that Craig had probably decided to get out of the company before he acted, so they patiently waited for their plans to come together.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Aaron

The ‘Big Day’ came and went at Élan. 200 people, Craig included, were escorted from the building, and for most of the day there was a steady trail of stunned men and women wandering down George Street holding cardboard boxes containing photos, pot plants and the odd purloined stapler, heading for train stations and bus stops. The press release was sent out at 3pm from the CEO which “regretted the necessity brought about by the recent economic downturn” and congratulated the management team on their sterling work that “had ensured that only 200 people’s jobs had to be cut” as well as “reassuring our shareholders that the company was well positioned to deliver long term stability and growth”, which was code for “don’t cut our bonuses this year, please.”

Persephone and Isaac settled in for a bit of a wait. This was now an exercise in who had more patience, Craig or Persephone. For six weeks there was no suspicious movement by Craig, who had packed up as promised and moved to Surfers Paradise. He had rented a modest apartment and appeared to be spending his days surfing and nights partying. The ‘targets’ were also going about their daily lives in complete ignorance of their perilous position. Persephone even wondered if she had over-reacted and that Craig hadn’t felt there was sufficient risk to his retirement to tidy up his ‘loose ends’. This didn’t mean she could switch off, as her determination to eliminate Craig was still solid. She had decided that she would wait either until Craig attempted to eliminate one of the targets or six months from the redundancy, whichever came first, and she would then execute her plan with the Tetrodotoxin.

After three uneventful months, Craig’s GPS trackers showed him visiting Melbourne. This was a bit unusual, as although his phone went to Melbourne, his surfboards stayed in Surfers Paradise. All Craig’s trips so far had involved surfing so this was different behaviour for him. After the initial concern, Isaac and Persephone reckoned he was just visiting friends, as none of the top three targets lived in Melbourne and whilst they kept a bit of an eye on Craig, he didn’t appear to get up to much, hanging out in city bars and after three days, he flew back to Queensland. Four days later Persephone was half-watching an item on the television news about government initiatives to combat alcohol and drug problems in inner-city clubs and she suddenly sat up and started to pay close attention as she heard a name that she recognised mentioned by the reporter. She was talking about some of the recent fatalities that had occurred across the country in night-club hot-spots and was shaking her head sadly at the terrible consequences for the victims and their families. The story cut to a sobbing middle-aged woman.

“We had no idea Aaron was taking drugs. The police said that he just took some drugs that were too pure and his brain just exploded.”

The screen went back to the reporter, who was standing outside a seedy looking girly bar in Sydney’s Kings Cross, a favourite spot for TV reporters to showcase all these stories, despite most of these drug problems being suffered elsewhere, including Aaron’s sobbing mother who had been filmed outside her home in suburban Melbourne.

“Sadly, Aaron’s story is only one of many, with Australia averaging over two deaths from drug overdoses per day. This number is increasing despite all our governments are doing to try to stop the dreadful march of this plague that is affecting our youth.”

Persephone sprang up from the sofa and ran headlong into her study. Tearing apart the neatly piled documents that she had kept from her planning sessions, and muttering to herself in ever-increasing dread, “Noooooooo! Please let this not be true!”

As she was thrashing around looking for the list of ten policyholders, her phone rang. She picked it up and Isaac’s face was displayed on the screen. With her heart in her mouth, she answered.

“How on earth did we miss this guy?” Isaac sounded outwardly calm, but Persephone could hear the inner tension. “I’ve just checked our stuff and he didn’t even make it into the top five. I mean, on the face of it, he looked like he could be a problem – he had a known drug addiction that he had declared on the insurance application, but he had been through rehab, had got his life back under control after his divorce and was basically stable and on the slow way back. He was temporarily staying with his parents in Melbourne and had no dependants.”

Persephone was beside herself. “Stop talking. I’m coming round.” She ran outside, grabbed a cab and headed over to Isaac’s place. Once she got there, Isaac pulled up the information on Aaron. They had both been hoping that maybe, just maybe, it was not the person they had on their list. They were disappointed. More than that, they were horrified. It was now clear to both of them that they were not the infallible planners that they had believed, and that an innocent man had suffered the consequences of their failure.

Persephone was in tears. Sobbing and shouting at Isaac, “I killed him! I was so bloody arrogant I could predict everything Craig would do that I killed him! Why did I start this shit? How could I have been so stupid and egotistical? What makes me think I can pull this sort of stunt off? If I’d gone to the police once we had the evidence on Craig, this bloke Aaron would still be alive.”

“For goodness sake Persephone, shut up! We both screwed up, but stop feeling sorry for yourself and focus on the real problem. There are nine more people out there and he might hit any one of them at any time!” Isaac shook Persephone by the shoulders, “We have to go back to the plan, and we have to get it right this time!”

Persephone stopped like she had just been punched. She knew what she had to do and although she also knew that she would punish herself later for this, it was not the first time she had made the wrong call. It’s also not the first time someone has died as a result. The first time she accomplished that feat she was only twenty years old.

Captain Persephone Stone was sitting at her desk in London, still feeling warm and gooey from her weekend in the Cotswolds with her boyfriend Brian. The weather had been atrocious so they had spent the entire time tucked up in the magnificent four-poster bed in the converted manor house, ordering room service meals when they felt hungry. At some point on the Sunday, Persephone was lying in Brian’s arms nibbling at a chocolate covered strawberry and he had suggested that they should be looking at flats to rent in London so they could live together, as he was about to be posted there on secondment to the Metropolitan Police from his current job with the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast.

Persephone had tried to hide her elation, but as she had needed Brian to slap her hard between the shoulder blades to dislodge the piece of strawberry she decided to inhale rather than swallow, it was pretty obvious that she was excited at the prospect.

As soon as she got home that night, she looked up names of estate agents and decided to make some calls on Monday lunchtime. She was beside herself with anticipation, but had a lot of work to finish before she could apply herself to finding the new love-nest.

On her desk was a report from an informant working in Northern Ireland. This was not her normal area, but her fellow-officer who managed this area was currently on leave so she was looking after urgent things for him. The report had information about an imminent bombing that he had heard was to take place in Londonderry in the next two days. Persephone reckoned that the sensible thing to do was to pass on the information to the RUC and let them run with it, as this was the normal approach for bomb threats received by her organisation. She sent off the appropriate secure signal and got back to her normal work, eager for lunchtime to come around so she could start to get the search for their new home underway.

On Wednesday, with a couple of appointments to view flats already arranged for the weekend, Persephone was summoned to her Commanding Officer’s office. A stern Brigadier Collins told her to change into her combat uniform and to go to a local sports field where a helicopter would be taking her to Londonderry to meet with the RUC Liaison Officer. Despite Persephone’s request, he refused to give her any more information and peremptorily dismissed her.

Inside the farmhouse in the Irish countryside, Persephone was shown the bodies of a number of men. In the middle, almost unrecognisable, was Brian. She went white and threw up. The policeman who had met her when she landed was taken aback. “Did you know Detective O’Hara?”

Through sobs and gulps, Persephone told him about Brian and their plans. She hadn’t told anyone at work, which was a breach of the security protocols, but she had preferred to keep their relationship to herself, at least until it became more serious. The policeman was not appeased, but he let go of her arms, stepped back and motioned for her to leave.

“We’ll take it from here Captain Stone.”

Returning to her office Persephone requested a meeting with Brigadier Collins. By this time, he had been briefed on Persephone’s relationship with the RUC officer who had been killed by the bombers. Persephone had also realised her mistake in passing on only the information on the bomb threat and not properly liaising with the RUC so that they could have pulled out their people – Brian in particular – before the bombers realised that they had been compromised.

Persephone, dressed in full dress uniform, marched into his office, saluted and stood stiffly to attention.

“Sir, I would like to formally apologise for my negligence over the Ireland matter, and I would like to tender my resignation.” She stood immobile, waiting for the axe to fall.

“Persephone, sit down.” was the quiet, almost gentle reply, “I know what happened. You made a mistake and people died. It is a terrible thing to happen to you, but the truth is that it’s our job. We take risks with other people’s lives and sometimes we make mistakes. I know how you are feeling – not just because of Detective O’Hara’s death, but also because of the other three men who died that day. I know you feel responsible, and in part you are, but this is what we do. I guarantee that if you stay in this job you will make more mistakes and more people will die. You just have to believe that the work that you do and the many lives you save, and the society that you are protecting make it all worthwhile.”

He was right, but it was a lesson that Persephone never forgot.

This cock-up with Aaron took her straight back to the house in Antrim and Brian’s distorted and bloody face. She ran into the bathroom and threw up. With that out of the way, she washed her face, cleaned her teeth using a guest toothbrush that she found in a drawer alongside a box of super-sized condoms, and walked shakily back into the living room to work out how they had gone so wrong in the planning.

Isaac was going through all the information they had on all the potential targets. He looked exasperated and was muttering to himself.

“Why, why, why would he have picked Aaron? Anything more than a cursory look shows that he is probably the lowest risk of all people that we found in the list.”

Persephone agreed and they both sat down to look at all the information they had on each of the people, realising they would have to go through the whole exercise again if they have any chance of stopping Craig. They had to get it right this time, otherwise more people would die. So that they could both look at the information more easily, Isaac had printed out all the information on paper, even though it was against his religion as a tech geek and it covered the enormous dining table with some piles nearly a foot high. It was all a bit overwhelming, and Persephone put her face in her hands. “Where are we supposed to start with all this stuff? How on earth do we get through it before Craig makes his next hit?”

It suddenly dawned on her. The reason they have so much information was because Isaac was so good at his work. Craig might be quite accomplished in getting information out of his own insurance company systems, that there was no way he was in the same league as Isaac. They made a classic error, assuming that Craig had the same information they did.

“Isaac, can you just strip out the information that Craig would have access to?”

Isaac immediately got it. “Oh no! I can’t believe we made such an elementary mistake! This is my fault. I should know better.” He thrashed around amongst all the papers, throwing huge piles onto the floor. After he had finished, the table had maybe 50 pieces of paper on it. It was pretty obvious to both of them how they had screwed this up so badly. They were both kicking themselves; after all, weren’t they supposed to be professionals? Persephone especially was completely distraught, she knew in her heart of hearts, that if she had just tracked Craig down and taken the information back to Reg, then Aaron’s mum wouldn’t have been sobbing her heart out on prime-time television.

The problem that they now faced was that they didn’t have enough information to sensibly prioritise Craig’s next target and therefore the chances of saving the next person’s life were slim to none. Persephone realised that she was now going to have to implement plan B straightaway and she wasn’t going to be able to keep her intentions from Isaac.

“Okay, we have to stop Craig” Persephone stated firmly, “and there really is only one way to do it.”

Isaac looked at her, sadness dawning on his face as he realised what Persephone was talking about. “Ok sweetheart, are you sure you want to take this there?”

Persephone looked at him sadly, “This was always about murder, Isaac. We just didn’t start it, but we’re going to have to finish it. Let’s be clear about this though, this is my problem to solve, and I don’t need your help for this bit.”

Isaac suddenly saw Persephone in a whole new light, he’d always known the sort of work she did when he met her but he had chosen to ignore it. He couldn’t any more. He felt terrible. On one hand it was partly his fault that she was going to have to kill Craig, but on the other hand he knew that this has always been her plan. Regardless of this, he realised deep down that he didn’t want anything to do with this part of the job. He knew what he was good at, and he was going to stick to that. Perhaps next time he would be better at his job and then Persephone wouldn’t have to take extreme measures. He nodded at Persephone, knelt down, and started to pick up all the paper that he had thrown across the floor. Neither of them felt they needed to say anything more. Persephone picked up her handbag, bent down and kissed Isaac on the cheek, and silently left the flat. She trusted Isaac, but she was going to make sure that he had no direct knowledge of what she had to do now.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The Prentice Affair

It was now nearly three months since the retrenchments had happened at Élan. This was not quite the six months that Persephone had hoped for, but just the day before she had opened her mailbox to find a cheery postcard from Maria, who was having the time of her life on her final cruise. Before Persephone embarked on her final activity to permanently remove Craig from the face of the earth, she needed to make sure that Reg was not going to be a problem for her. Now was the time to unveil the major fraud that the CFO and his wife had been running for years under the not very watchful eye of the CEO.

Persephone had kept in touch with Reg and regularly had a drink with him at his local. Every now and then, Reg would ask her how she was going with the insurance company. Persephone would make some sort of noncommittal noise and promised him faithfully that as soon as anything significant happened he would be the first to know. Now she actually had something to tell him, she wasn’t really sure how to go about it. When she thought about it, she didn’t really know Reg very well even though they had been drinking buddies for a while. It was critical to her plans that she used this information not only to ensure that the senior executives got what was coming to them but also that Reg was tied so closely to her that he would never risk disclosing her involvement in what he almost certainly knew was a criminal activity.

Persephone needed to find out a lot more about her policeman friend and she didn’t want to be relying on Isaac for everything so she thought she would put her research skills to the test. Luckily Reg had lived a fair part of his recent life squarely in the public eye so there was no shortage of information on his professional achievements as well as a number of his squads failures. It was clear from the public information that Reg was a dedicated and hard-working police officer who was passionate about ensuring that white-collar criminals weren’t given any special privileges because of their wealth and connections. He had publicly campaigned to try to remove the phrase “victimless” from descriptions of fraudulent behaviour that peppered the media’s coverage of such crimes. He clearly identified strongly with victims of these crimes and Persephone wondered what it was that had caused him to develop this view. There was very little to be found on his personal life and Reg did not appear to be an avid social network user. She found his Facebook page, but it was operated by the New South Wales Police PR department and not Reg himself as it had no information other than police work.

From chatting to Reg at the pub, she had found out that he was divorced, no children, no pets and didn’t appear to have a significant other in his life, male or female. He sounded more resigned than bitter about his marriage, which had ended in divorce several years ago. She decided on the old-fashioned route to get some more information about Reg and the next time they met up at the pub she asked him. Reg was initially a bit reticent about telling her his family history but after a couple more beers he loosened up a bit and told Persephone about his brother.

As Persephone sat there listening to Reg telling her this tale, she was both saddened at Steve’s plight and pleased that she understood Reg a lot better. She now saw how she could make the information she had on Élan compelling enough for Reg to act on it even though he had received the information based on her illegal activities.

“So Reg,” she took a deep breath, “I know you’ve been waiting a while for some information about the insurance scam. It’s been a bit difficult, and I’ve got to say that you might not approve of some of the methods that I have had to use to get you the information I’m about to give you.”

Persephone swallowed, and waited to see how Reg responded. Reg, who wasn’t born yesterday, sat back and said nothing. Persephone continued, “Before we talk about the insurance company, let’s get to the matters of Alice and Brad Jones.”

She paused again and receiving no sign from Reg to stop, she continued, “I’m pretty sure you already know that Alice died as a result of a self inflicted drug overdose and had probably been an accident waiting to happen for years. Brad however, remains a mystery. I’ve had some people looking really closely at what might have happened to Brad, but try as we might; he’s just dropped off the face of the earth. If anybody’s going to find him, it would be the police but it doesn’t look as though they are looking for him and nobody else seems particularly worried. At this point, I’m not sure anybody is served by us taking any further.”

She stopped talking, and looked hard at Reg. She was hoping that Reg got the message that he really didn’t want to know what had happened to Brad. Reg now had a decision to make, was he going to behave like a policeman or was he going to go with the program and accept that he had now crossed the line into an area that was marginal at best and certainly required him to keep his mouth firmly shut. Reg took the hint, so Persephone continued and related to him the tale of the greedy CFO and his demanding wife and their clever and nasty property development scheme. When she got to the end of the tale she paused and asked him, “is this the sort of thing you wanted?”

Reg nodded, a slow smile creasing his face, “this is exactly the sort of stuff that I can deal with. Thanks Persephone.”

Persephone continued, “How much documentation do you want to help you get started on this? I realise your only witness so far is on the high seas and isn’t going to return, but I’ve got the names of some of the others who are involved and that might be enough for your people to start with. I assume you can get some sort of a warrant to look at the insurance company’s systems so you don’t need any of the other stuff I’ve got.”

Persephone shut up, realising she was starting to tell Reg how to do his job. Reg smiled, seeing Persephone’s embarrassment. He was really excited at the prospect of getting his teeth into this new investigation. Who knows, maybe they had even taken the next step and set some of the fires themselves? In any case, it certainly looked as though his initial drinks with Persephone had paid off big time. Reg yelled at Tom, “A couple of drinks over here mate please.”

Tom studiously ignored him. Reg was suddenly very angry. He’d been a patron here for years, and Persephone was just a Johnny come lately so how come she got table service and he had to get out of his seat and drag his arse to the bar? He turned to Persephone, and through clenched teeth asked her, “Any chance you can get that arsehole Tom to send us over a couple of drinks? For some reason he doesn’t want to do it for me.”

Persephone tried very hard not to laugh out loud but failed. “Maybe if Tom were gay you might have more success.”

Reg, only slightly mollified, shrugged, and grunted something to Persephone along the lines of, “well you’d better get them in then”.

Persephone smiled, turned around and waved gaily at Tom. Tom gave her a big grin and instantly brought over the beer and chilled white wine that he previously poured when Reg had asked for them. “Here’s your drinks darling. Reg, that’ll be $12.50.”

Reg slammed a $20 note on the table, which Tom daintily picked up between his thumb and forefinger as he nonchalantly strolled back to the bar. Reg was in too good a mood to let this little incident spoil his day, and he sipped his beer and considered all the options that were available to him to take the insurance company down. He was pondering about which of his officers to assigned to this case when Persephone interrupted his thoughts, “so Reg, are you totally sure there’s nothing more to be done on the insurance case you showed me?”

Reg paused, he knew what Persephone was up to, and he had to make a decision as to how much he really wanted to know about her activities. It was true he was curious to know what Persephone had actually been up to and he was experienced enough to know that he was not getting the full story. His problem was that he was still an officer of the law and still believed in trying to do the right thing wherever possible. He knew that if Persephone had broken any laws then he was going to have a very hard time ignoring that, so how much did he really want to know? He already knew about some of her illegal activities, but these were pretty minor in terms of privacy and some slightly dodgy computer hacking so he felt he could overlook these given the nature of the prize that she just presented him.

He was in a dilemma, as he had a very strong suspicion that there was much more to Brad Jones’s disappearance then he was being told. The problem was now that it would be almost impossible to get the investigation into his death reopened without disclosing how Persephone had become involved and the links to the property scheme, which he dearly wanted to investigate. If any of his disclosure of the police reports came to light he was going to be in very deep trouble. He knew why Persephone was pushing the point, and he was pretty angry with her. He was also pretty embarrassed to have been called out by Persephone, and blamed her for his behaving like a rookie.

“Fuck you Persephone!”

Reg stood up and stormed out of the pub. Persephone was worried, perhaps she had pushed a little bit too far, but it was too late now to worry about that as Reg had clearly just realised the mess he had got himself into that day he started drinking with Persephone. She forced herself to remain calm hoping that he would get over it, and sure enough, before she had a chance to finish her glass of wine Reg came stomping back in through the pub door.

He sat down opposite her, reached across the table and grabbed both her hands so she was forced to look into his eyes. Persephone was quite startled as Reg had never laid hands on her prior to this but she realised that she was going to have to see this through. She looked back at him with what she thought was a determined steely glare. Fortunately for Persephone however, Reg saw through this front to the Persephone that he had come to know and respect, and maybe even like more than a little bit. He spoke carefully,

“You need to know sweetheart, that I will not be messed around by you. I’m not some idiot who came down in the last shower, and if you try and treat me like one you will discover that it is really bad news to piss me off. You may think you’ve got me where you want me, maybe in some way you have, but you don’t own me and you never will.”

He paused and looked deep into Persephone’s eyes. Persephone had been expecting this, and while Reg frightened her a little by his comments, she had been stared down by much more vicious and ugly people than him. She smiled, “and you need to know, darling,” as she paused for effect, “that I will never compromise you. Nothing I do or say will ever come back to hurt you. I need you to trust me in this.”

Both Reg and Persephone knew this was an empty promise but Reg appreciated the sentiment anyway. He resolved to go ahead with the insurance investigation and to make sure nobody went anywhere near the Brad Jones ‘disappearance’. He lifted his beer glass and tapped it against Persephone’s wineglass. “Cheers to that.”

With both of them reassured, and comfortable that they had established the rules of the game, they had a couple more drinks. As the clock ticked on past closing time, Tom came over and joined them for a couple more, ensuring that he only ever brought over a glass of wine for Persephone, sending Reg to the bar to get his own beer. Tom flirted outrageously with Persephone and had the same amount of success that Reg had experienced over the past few months. Nevertheless all three of them had a riotous time exchanging tales of drunken idiots seen in bars and police cells over the years. Tom was quite curious about the relationship between Persephone and Reg but try as he might, neither of them gave him a hint as to why they were such fast friends and what they were discussing when they had their heads pressed together in the far corner of the bar. Being a bit of a busybody, Tom was determined that one day he would find out what was really going on between the two of them, because it certainly wasn’t sex. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, Tom booted the two drunks out and staggered off to bed in his little flat above the bar. Persephone and Reg went their separate ways and collapsed into their own beds, waking up in the morning to the all-too-familiar hangovers.

Regardless of his pounding head and dry mouth that felt like the bottom of a birdcage, Reg was eager to get into the office and kick-off the investigation into the CFO-led property fraud at Élan, so when his bursting bladder woke him up at shortly after five he leapt out of bed, ran through the shower and drove straight to work. When he arrived, he noticed one of the junior detectives who had only just joined the squad already sitting at his desk. Not sure whether to reward this kid for being super keen or just a crawler, he decided to give him something useful to do by kicking off the research to uncover the scope of the fraud that Persephone had told him about. The good news about using this kid was that he was going to be far too scared to ask where the information came from, the bad news being that he wasn’t going to be able to find it out as efficiently as some of his more experienced hands. Mind you, this would test the young lad’s ability to work as a part of a larger team, enlisting the help of his colleagues where and when he needed them.

Reg was very careful as he briefed the young detective, giving him the name of the insurance company, a brief description of the alleged fraud and instructions to track down transactions that could fit this description without alerting anybody at Élan. This was going to be a challenging task as they would need access to information in the company’s computer systems in order to track the transactions down and they wouldn’t get that level of access without first obtaining a warrant. The Catch-22 problem was they didn’t have sufficient evidence to gain a warrant. Reg was interested in seeing how the young detective would deal with this. He dismissed him just as the rest of the squad started to turn up at their desks. Let’s see who he asks the help on this one, he thought to himself, I really need my team to be very creative, just not too creative. Reg then settled down to a day of boring administrative tasks: approving leave, attending management meetings, writing reports and reviewing investigations with the team. He was really starting to look forward to his retirement, which due to his very expensive divorce, was going to have to wait for another for five years yet. Let’s hope that some more interesting jobs like this insurance fraud come my way, he thought, otherwise I’m going to die of boredom before I even get to retire.

At the end of his long, tedious day, Reg was really looking forward to a beer at the pub when Jimmy the young detective stuck his nose round the door into Reg’s office.

“Excuse me sir, can we have a chat about this insurance job please?” He looked pretty flustered, so despite his burning thirst Reg nodded resignedly and waved him into his office.

“Take a seat son, what do you want to talk about? And make it quick, you need to know you’re standing between me and a beer.”

Jimmy didn’t seem too worried by this, Reg thought, bloody typical of these young fit buggers, nobody drinks beer any more after work, they all seem to be rushing home to go to their Pilates classes and drink vitamin shakes with weird green shit in them. Jimmy took a deep breath, and launched into a very long lecture stating the bloody obvious about how difficult it was to get information on these transactions. Irritated, Reg snapped back at him.

“Where did you come from son before here? Bloody traffic? Did nobody ever teach you to think laterally about a problem? While don’t you have a go now?”

Jimmy went as red as a beetroot, and stammered something completely unintelligible to Reg. He was floundering about like a fish out of water so after a decent period, Reg decided to help him a little more.

“Do you know what hypothesis is, son? Do they teach that sort of stuff at school any more?”

“Yes sir, of course Sir, yes I know what a hypothesis is.”

“Well why don’t you try and formulate one then?” Was Reg’s exasperated reply, “and use that as a starting point to come up with a plan for how you’re going to find out what’s really going on there.”

The lights slowly dawned for Jimmy, who started to give some examples of what he thought would be an acceptable hypothesis.

“Not now, didn’t you just hear me about what you were standing between me and?” Reg snarled at Jimmy, then realised he was probably being a bit harsh on the young lad. He moderated his voice a little bit and carried on, “Tell you what, why don’t you join me? We can just duck up to the Beauchamp near Vinnie’s, it’s on my way home, serves a decent beer and is probably just trendy enough for you to be seen in.”

Even though Jimmy was running a bit late for a spin class at his gym, there was no way he was going to turn down an invitation from the chief superintendent. He would even have a beer, he just hoped they served low-carb as it was now after 6 PM. They got to the pub about 15 minutes later, and luckily for the both of them it was just filling up with nurses coming off shift. Despite Jimmy being keen to talk about possible hypotheses for the fraud, Reg insisted that they talk about football and whether Jimmy was a leg man or a breast man as they surveyed the noisy crowd of young women who were intent on drinking as many cocktails as they possibly could during the three-hour long “happy hour”. Jimmy, who normally cycled the 15km home to his trendy inner west flat, resolved to stick around after work in the city bit more often. After a bit of pressing from Jimmy however, Reg agreed to a ‘brainstorming’ session the following day and to give him a bit of a hand, suggested he might like to invite a couple of the more senior and experienced detectives to the session.

Next morning Jimmy crawled into work feeling and looking like he’d just been hit by a train. His head pounding and his stomach churning, he promised himself to stay out of the boss’s way at the end of the working day. His fellow detectives were not at all sympathetic and when Jimmy explained his plan to them, suggested through riotous laughter that perhaps he just get in a bit more practice. One of the older detectives took him aside, put his arm around Jimmy’s shoulder and deadpan said, “Mate, this is just the start of it. Now that he’s taken you under his wing, and you survived the training session at the bar, he’s going to take you to the next step. You’ve got a girlfriend at home haven’t you? You’d better word her up that she’s not going to see much of you in the next few weeks.”

Jimmy really wasn’t sure what to expect but he knew it wasn’t going to be good. He swallowed, regretted it, coughed and stuttered, “So what’s the next step?”

“Mate, can’t say too much about it, but you need to be aware there’s going to be cameras on you at all times. Oh, I assume a good looking young bloke like you carries condoms?”

Jimmy was horrified. He was fairly sure that his mates were taking the piss, but given all the stuff he’d heard about old-timers, he wouldn’t have put it past Reg to put him through some strange initiation rite, and he wasn’t going to discount it completely. He struggled to put a brave face on it, ignoring the laughing and jeering from his colleagues and went to set up the room for the brainstorming session. After a couple of minutes Reg came out from his office to see his entire squad hanging around, laughing uproariously and generally not getting anything done.

“Okay lads, let’s have those of you in this brainstorming session in the conference room, and the rest of you can get on with something useful. I want full investigation status reports to me on every open investigation by 3 PM.”

Amidst a chorus of groans and complaints, Reg turned on his heel and went into the conference room where Jimmy was busy setting up whiteboards, butchers paper and coffee. This was going to be interesting for Reg, he knew much more than he was telling his young detective and he didn’t want him to waste too much time going down blind alleys, but equally, he couldn’t afford to give away the knowledge that he had illegally obtained from Persephone. Oh well, he thought to himself, let’s see how good this young lad really is. As two more of his squad shuffled into the room, Reg settled back to see how they would all perform.

There was a bit of an awkward silence as everybody looked expectantly Jimmy, who suddenly realised he had to kick this off.

“Okay, this is what we know so far.” He started writing the bare facts of the matter on the whiteboard, and there weren’t very many. Anonymous informant complaint about parents house being sold to a developer for less than market value after a fire. Ownership of development company difficult to ascertain and tied up through several trusts. Complainant says that insurance company stuffed them around on the claim and the developer seemed to know far more than they should have done. Have uncovered seven more properties that would appear to fit the same pattern over the past five years, major damage to property followed by purchase by the same developer at what looks like less than market value. He paused, looking around the room to see how this information was being received. The questions came thick and fast.

“Is it the same insurance company?”

“Where are the properties?”

“What’s the name of the development company?”

“How long would the insurance companies take to pay these claims normally?”

“What are all the developments that the company has done the past 10 years?”

“Are any of the trustees working at the insurance company?”

“Have you spoken to any of the owners of these properties, and have you found out who they were dealing with at the insurance company?”

“How much money are we talking about when you add up all the properties that you’ve just found? Have any of the developments been sold? How much? To whom?”

Jimmy was trying his best to write up all these questions but Reg could see that he was struggling. He waved his hands at the other detectives to get them to slow down a bit and they paused to let Jimmy catch up.

“How about you boys give Jimmy a bit of a hand to get some of these questions answered?” Reg gently suggested, “I would certainly like to know exactly how much money we talking about if this really is a scheme on the sort of scale that it looks like. I also want to know about the specific tactics that the developers took to persuade the owners to sell. On the face of it there may well be something dodgy going on at the insurance company, but if they’ve been using standover tactics on the owners there are potentially some very serious charges that can be aimed at these arseholes over and above the fraudulent use of the insurance data.”

Reg then suggested that the three of them work up two or three hypothetical scenarios that would provide a good starting point for them to answer some of these questions. He reminded them to be careful and not alert anybody at the insurance company until they had enough information to support a warrant to obtain the insurance company records. He was confident that a search run on the trustees of the development company would yield rewards, it would just take a little time, and it certainly looked as though there were tens if not hundreds of millions at stake so he would have no problems at all justifying the manpower to undertake the investigation. He left them to it, confident that within a couple of weeks or so, they would be going into the insurance company armed with all the information they needed to nail the perpetrators. It would be easy for him to gently steer the team in the right direction rather than see them wasting their time going down any blind alleys or chasing the wrong people.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Japan

In the meantime, Persephone was working on her plans. She needed to get her hands on both the poison and the method of delivery. The syringe was fairly straightforward: she just spent a couple of hours searching for syringe suppliers for diabetics on the Internet. But the poison was going to be more problematic. Tetrodotoxin, her poison of choice, is actually reasonably easy to get hold of but very difficult without anybody knowing. Before she got into any more research, Persephone realised she was going to have to be a little bit more anonymous. The government was paying far more attention to who was doing what on the Internet and she really couldn’t come up with a good explanation why she would be researching poisons and poison delivery mechanisms should she be asked. Anonymity was pretty easy to achieve however, and all she needed was a laptop computer and the cash to buy coffee in the many free Wi-Fi hotspots that peppered Sydney’s cafes. She needed to keep the laptop somewhere secure as well and certainly away from Isaac’s prying eyes and she needed to make sure she never logged on at home with it.

Her local coffee shop seemed like a pretty good option and Vinh was more than happy to help such a good customer. He was also smart enough not to ask Persephone why she wanted to store this computer at his shop. Persephone was careful do not undertake the actual research at the local coffee shop and spent the next few days touring through the city drinking average cups of coffee and eating stale muffins at various locations, never staying in one for more than an hour or two while she undertook her research into how to obtain tetrodotoxin without anyone knowing she had it.

It would appear that in Japan, fugu was still a popular delicacy and was served in many restaurants throughout the country. Even though there’s been quite a bit of work done to breed non-poisonous versions of the puffer fish, preparation and serving of this this is highly regulated and chefs have to undertake a three-year course in order to be licensed to prepare and serve fugu in their restaurants. The reason is that because the poison is so dangerous, they have to be absolutely certain to remove the liver and ovaries of the fish, which are the most poisonous parts, so as not to kill their customers. Persephone was not sure how she was going to get her hands on the poisonous part of the fugu, but it looked like Japan might be a good place to start. She just had to come up with a good plan to get to meet someone who could get her these fish so that she could turn them into injectable poison. If only she were a marine biologist, she could run a research project into the effects of tetrodotoxin and obtain the samples through that. Smacking herself literally in the head, she remembered that she had an old friend who was exactly that. Jane was currently living in Townsville and teaching at one of the world’s leading universities for marine biology, James Cook University, and although Persephone hadn’t seen her for years could be a great assistance for Persephone’s scam.

When Jane was a young and enthusiastic undergraduate, she had become ‘involved’ with one of her tutors. That summer, as the festivities at the end of the academic year got into full swing, Jane invited her friend Persephone up to Townsville to take a break and join in the partying. Unfortunately Jane became pregnant and when she joyfully told her lover of their impending parenthood, the louse chose that moment to tell her that he was already married, had three young children and was not interested in fathering any more. Devastated, especially because her family was deeply religious and she had believed the louse when he had assured her he was single, Jane was suicidal. Persephone talked her into an abortion and to protect Jane’s reputation, they booked her into the clinic as Persephone Stone.

It was now Jane’s turn to help Persephone. Persephone called her friend in Townsville and told her that she was going on a trip to Japan and she needed to pass herself off as Jane. She explained that the job she was undertaking was unremarkable for a marine biologist, but would attract unnecessary attention should she try to take it on as a management consultant. She offered to tell her friend the details, but Jane quickly told Persephone she didn’t want to know. Jane, now married and the mother of a teenage boy, was happy just to be able to repay the favour from all those years ago.

Persephone explained that she would try to ensure that there were no fallout for Jane from the trip, but should she hear anything, then she was to let Persephone know and she would handle it. Persephone had no idea how she would do that, but reckoned she could work it out at the time, if it happened at all.

Jane was a similar height and build to Persephone and with a bit of effort, Persephone could easily make herself look just like Jane, right down to the frizzy brown hair and thick black-framed glasses that scientists seem to wear the world over. It should at least fool a Japanese scientist, for whom all Caucasian women look the same.

Persephone would meet with a Japanese marine scientist to give her the documentation to give to the Japanese fish farmers. She could then visit the fugu farms and obtain the whole fish without raising suspicion. In this way there would be no paper trail for importation of poison into Australia. She undertook some research on how to extract the poison from the liver. It looked fairly straightforward for anyone with a basic understanding of high school chemistry, which she could vaguely recall from all those years ago in England. Most of the information on the internet about extracting the poison was all about how to remove it from the fish so that it was safe to eat; in Japan you had to undertake a three-year long course before you were let loose on unsuspecting diners who wanted to survive the experience. Given that her intentions were quite the opposite, she didn’t worry too much about whether the left-over fugu was edible after she had distilled the poison from the liver. Her plan was to process these livers in Japan, put the liquid into a perfume bottle, store it in her handbag and get it home that way, disguised as Eau de something.

After all this planning, pretty much every night Persephone would go to bed and her sleep would be interrupted by nightmares of mishandling puffer fish poison, being found out by mad Japanese fish farmers and drowned, injecting herself by mistake, being arrested wherever she went in Sydney by clones of Reg all while Isaac looked on laughing at her. Whilst she wasn’t getting much sleep, the dreams had the effect of ensuring that she planned down to the finest possible detail she could think of, hopefully reducing the chances of being found out whilst she undertook this entirely new phase of her life.

She was trying to keep as much of this plan to herself, so with the things that Isaac had already taught her, she was confident that she could mock up some fake university ID. However, after a couple of failed attempts, she gave in and asked Isaac to get her some decent high quality ones. He supplied her a full set of ID in Jane’s name and a couple of driver’s licenses in a couple of other names for good measure. He didn’t ask what they were for and she didn’t offer.

A nervous Persephone, masquerading as Dr Jane O’Mara was perspiring slightly as she struggled to get through the crowds at Sydney airport to board the JAL flight to Narita airport in Japan. The international terminal, looking slightly the worse for wear as it hadn’t been upgraded since Sydney had hosted the Olympics in 2000, was definitely bursting at the seams as the ever more frantic tourists pushed at each other to get hold of their ‘bargains’ in the duty-free stores and then have to go through the whole rigmarole again as they needed to queue to get them after they had been through customs. Persephone watched them with disdain. She had far more important things on her mind than perfume or Scotch that looked to cost pretty much the same price as you could get them in a Sydney high street anyway. Remaining aloof from the bustling crowds of noisy sweaty families with screaming children; businessmen rushing to get whichever flight for which they were far too important to have been there on time; and backpackers who were totally zoned out and enjoying the whole process; Persephone found the way through the confusing maze to the business lounge for Japan Airlines.

She had treated herself to a business class seat, which turned out to have both pluses and minuses. During the ten hour flight she was forced to listen to a slimy “Importer/exporter, you know darling, a little bit of this and a little bit of that” tell her about how his whole life had been turned on its head when he recently married his Malaysian born wife, who happened to be 30 years younger than him. Persephone, not wanting to draw attention to herself in any way, refrain from stabbing the sleazy idiot through the heart when he started on the topic of threesomes and insisting that he give her all his contact details so that when they return to Sydney they could “Get together, relax in the hot tub with the missus, and see what comes up.” On the plus side, the selection of top-class sake led to a new passion for Persephone for Yonetsuru. According to the beautifully produced menu, “Yonetsuru has introduced two sake products of Junmai (fine) and Junmai Daiginjo (finest). The brewing of Yonetsuru, carefully performed by local workers with original skills, is based on harmony with nature and people. We are trying to brew soft and honest sake specific to the snow region.” Persephone was unsure as to how dishonest sake tasted, but the finest honest sake was fantastic, so fantastic that after the fourth one, even the sleazy prick with the hot tub was starting to look almost attractive.

The flight attendant arrived with fresh sake. “Dr O’Mara, can I get you some food?”

“Dr O’Mara, eh? What sort of doctor are you?” The obnoxious sleazy bastard was instantly hassling her again. Persephone was pretty drunk but not too drunk to spot an opportunity to get rid of the idiot.

“I’m an infectious diseases expert,” she smiled sweetly and leaned closer, “I’m heading to Tokyo to present at a conference about some of the more intractable diseases I encountered in my recent work in West Africa. It’s quite incredible how many deadly viruses are still out there that no matter how many vaccinations you have we still can’t cure you. Ever heard of Ebola? Nasty bastard. Lost a number of my staff as well as hundreds of patients.”

Sleazy Bastard jumped back as if he’d been stung. He developed a sudden interest in the duty free section of the in-flight magazine and all discussions on threesomes in hot tubs were immediately discontinued. Persephone smiled sweetly at the flight attendant, “Another sake would be super thank you.”

Dr O’Mara settled back in her seat, and got on with reading a number of articles about Jane’s area of interest, the puffer fish or fugu. She really needed to get into character and be able to at least have some sort of level of conversation with the contact at the university to establish her credentials. She assumed that the fish farmers would expect her to be an ignorant rude gaijin woman and would probably not be interested in having much of a conversation anyway but it would be good insurance should she come across anyone who might be at all suspicious. She had done a fair bit of research in the area before she left home and was fairly conversant with the types and habits of the puffer fish, but the articles that she had printed out to read on the flight were serious scientific papers and the language in them was both obscure and dry. Halfway through a paper entitled “Artificial propagation of nontoxic Takifugu obscurus cultured in pond”, the sake caught up with her and she nodded off. She was woken several hours later by a flight attendant tapping her gently on the shoulder. She was surprised to see as she opened her eyes, that the seat next to her was vacant. The flight attendant, noticing her expression, smiled.

“The gentleman did not want to disturb your sleep, so he asked to move, and we found him another seat. I hope you are not too upset Dr O’Mara.”

Persephone laughed. “Not at all, thank you. How long before we land?”

“About half an hour, can I offer you a light refreshment?”

Persephone gratefully accepted a pot of Japanese tea and went off and freshened up to get ready for the landing and her next set of challenges. She looked around carefully as she came out of the toilet dressed in a stylish but casual Harry Who black silk shirt and skinny jeans, but luckily Sleazy Bastard was nowhere to be seen.

Persephone had arranged to meet a researcher at the university in Shimonoseki, but as that was an 8½ hour train ride away from Tokyo she had arranged to spend the night in this city that she had never before visited. Sparing no expense, she had booked herself a room at the fabulous and famous Imperial Hotel and she planned to make the most of her short stay by enjoying being a tourist.

Leaving her small carry on bag with an incredibly helpful porter, Persephone took the long walk across the beautiful golden brown marble lobby. Sitting down opposite a young woman with a smile that looked like it could split her face, Persephone handed over her credit card and passport and asked her what she thought she could do with the rest of her afternoon.

She was rewarded with a polite and monotonous list of activities such as a guided tour of the Imperial Palace just adjacent to the hotel, that held little or no appeal to Persephone, she was trying hard to concentrate when the girl, noticing that the guest was not exactly leaping out of the chair with excitement, suddenly brightened up.

“Madam could go up the Skytree! Then Madam can have a look and see if anything that she sees from the sky is of interest. She can then come back here and I will organise.”

Persephone agreed and was given the necessary information to go and visit the Tokyo Skytree, which boasted the world’s highest skywalk at 450m above Tokyo. After a bit of a wait in the queues that appeared to be a major part of the Tokyo experience, she found herself on the top deck.

Looking out over the city, surrounded by noisy and excited American tourists Persephone suddenly paused. What was she thinking? Did she reckon she was some sort of international vigilante, righting the wrongs of the world? What made the task she was about to undertake any less wrong than the things that Craig had done to his victims? Her feelings must have shown on her face, and as she was standing there, lost in her own fears, a friendly sounding voice broke through into her reverie.

“Are you okay? Have you lost something? Or someone?” Persephone opened her eyes to find a rather attractive, thirty-something man dressed in jeans and a grunge band T-shirt with untidy brown hair that fell almost to his shoulders, at least three days of stubble and piercing blue eyes that right now looking quite worried as he smiled gently at her. Persephone was really startled. She hadn’t even realised she had had her eyes closed and was quite disoriented. Her normal poise deserted her and she mumbled something unintelligible, even to herself. This did nothing to calm the young man down and he reached out to put his hand on her arm. In her disordered state, without thinking, Persephone reacted immediately and violently throwing him to the floor. As she stood looking down at the prone man, she realised what an idiot she was being. The last thing she needed to do whilst in Japan was to draw attention to herself and publicly knocking someone down in one of Tokyo’s most famous tourist attractions was right up there if she was looking for prizes for attention seeking. The man, who up until that point had been looking quite concerned, was now looking far more pissed off. She bent down to speak to him, just as he sat up. Their heads collided hard.

“Ouch!” they both exclaimed simultaneously. There was a short pause and then they both started to laugh. This had the desired effect of dispersing the crowd that was starting to gather and it also calmed Persephone down.

“Perhaps we should start again” the man offered, “Hello, my name is Jim Clayton, to whom do I have the pleasure of their company?”

“Hello Jim, my name is Jane, Jane O’Mara. Pleased to meet you”

Persephone smiled and held her hand out. Jim tentatively reached forward and with a rueful smile, shook her hand.

“Lovely to meet you Jane. My, that’s a firm handshake but at least I’m still standing.”

Persephone was at a bit of a loss what to do now. Jim however, wasn’t. Dusting himself off, Jim suggested a cup of tea, revealing his English heritage in that very instant. Despite having herself been born in England, Persephone had spent years in Australia and had managed to shake off the English habit of drinking tea on all occasions. It was by now early evening so Persephone suggested that rather than tea perhaps she could buy Jim a drink in recompense for knocking him over. Jim agreed with alacrity. After all, even if Jane was a little older than the women he normally sought out, she was in pretty good shape as she had just shown by throwing him to the floor seemingly without any effort at all. They quickly established that both of them were first-time visitors to Tokyo and therefore had absolutely no idea where best to go for a drink. Persephone suggested they go back to her hotel as they had several lovely bars there and Jim agreed telling her that he was staying not that far away from the Imperial at a cheaper establishment, as the Imperial hotel wasn’t in his budget. After a token glance at the illuminated Tokyo skyline they re-entered the elevator, got back on the train and returned to the hotel. They chatted a bit on the train and Persephone learned that Jim was visiting Tokyo for a conference. It turned out, funnily enough, that Jim was an underwriter for a large UK-based insurance company and that they had sent him on this conference as a reward for a job well done. Jim was quite enjoying Tokyo, having arrived the day before, but he admitted he probably would have rather had a cash bonus. He could then have spent the money visiting some exotic location with beaches, bars and scantily clad women rather than having to put a suit on every day to listen to people crap on about the same stuff that he can hear in the office without leaving London. Persephone told him that she was a scientist visiting Japan as part of a research project, which she kept deliberately vague.

When they arrived at the hotel, Persephone sent Jim up to the mezzanine level and asked him to wait for her in the Imperial Bar which was apparently a bit of an icon. She hoped they didn’t have any dress rules. Persephone then went up to her room and changed out of her tourist walking gear which had consisted of khaki slacks T-shirt and some very practical but hideously ugly walking boots and into a loose shift dress and a pair of Jimmy Choo sandals. She took her hair out of her ponytail, dabbed on a bit of eyeliner and mascara and finished it off with a slick of pale pink lip-gloss. She stopped for a minute to admire her reflection in the mirror, and then caught herself. Don’t do anything stupid, she said to herself, just have a drink with the poor young man and send him on his way.

She walked into the bar, spotted Jim at a table in the corner and sashayed over to him. Sitting down next to him, she nodded to the barman who was rushing over to take their order. After his initial shock, having not recognised her, Jim grinned widely.

“Wow, you look amazing!”

Persephone smiled. “What can I get you to drink? I’m sure they can do anything your heart desires.”

The barman proffered the drinks menu to Jim and Persephone. Persephone waved it off and asked for a T10 Martini, naked with a twist of grapefruit. The barman smiled and nodded and looked questioningly at Jim, who ordered a beer. After a bit of debate about which of the local or international beers were to Jim’s particular taste, Jim settled on Asahi which, whilst it wasn’t very adventurous was at least familiar to him unlike the huge selection of other local beers that could have tasted like rubbish. As they waited for the drinks, Jim was at a bit of a loss for conversation topics. Persephone hadn’t been at all excited about the intricacies of insurance underwriting and he certainly wasn’t up to asking her questions about her work, which sounded incredibly complicated and only likely to expose him as being intellectually inferior. He tried a typical British approach which is to talk about the weather.

“So is it really hot in Sydney at the moment? It’s bloody cold here.”

Luckily the drinks turned up, which saved Jim and Persephone from an excruciatingly boring conversation about how summer is hotter than winter. Jim quickly changed the subject, “So what exactly is an naked martini? Sounds quite exciting.”

“Actually, it’s a polite way of saying chilled neat gin.” Persephone grinned, “I only really like it made with Tanqueray T10 and it’s a bit of an indulgence for me, but I reckon it’s a bit of a special occasion.”

“What’s the occasion?” Jim seemed very interested. Persephone suddenly realised her mouth had run away with her again as she was thinking about the task she had in hand to find and collect the tetrodotoxin. She had to think of something quickly but the best she could come up with was a confused rambling about it not being every day that you meet such a good-looking man, knock him over, and get to buy him a beer afterwards. Jim was flattered and responded to this casual flirting by leaning closer, putting his hand on Persephone’s arm and saying, “See, look what I can do now without getting decked. You must be getting used to me.” Persephone laughed and made a sudden feint at Jim. Jim jerked back in his seat, laughing as well. This is better thought Persephone, and he really is rather cute, I’ve always been a sucker for blue-eyed boys.

They both relaxed, and after what seemed like no time at all Persephone looked at her glass, which was suddenly empty. As if by magic, the barman appeared at her elbow. She raised an eyebrow at Jim, who nodded and shrugged so she turned round and ordered another round. After her second martini and a light-hearted conversation about growing up in England and how different it was living in Australia, Persephone realised how hungry she was. She had a bit of a decision to make. She could call a halt to this and retire to her room and get ready for the next day, but the buzz she was feeling was contributing to her increasing attraction to Jim and her decreasing ability to do the sensible thing (not that doing the sensible thing was normally a part of her repertoire anyway).

“I’m feeling pretty hungry right now, I realise I’m being a bit forward, but do you fancy some dinner?” Persephone smiled at Jim, who readily agreed, “My shout of course.”

There were several restaurants at the hotel and neither of them felt like going out again so after a bit of debate they settled on one of the Japanese-style restaurants and enjoyed a fabulous dinner of sashimi and Kagoshima Kurobuta Pork chops that proved that good Japanese cuisine is a bit more than just sushi and miso soup. Dinner ended far too quickly for Persephone so she suggested a nightcap. Jim agreed and asked her if she wanted to have the nightcap in her room. Persephone finally got a hold of her senses, smiled and letting him down gently, suggested they go back to the bar and have a cocktail there. Jim looked a bit disconsolate but shrugged and acquiesced. At the bar, Persephone ordered herself a drink and told Jim she just needed to duck out and powder her nose, leaving Jim to order something for himself and to find a table. When she came back she found Jim sitting at the same table with an Asahi and another Tanqueray martini. She was feeling fairly drunk already, and wasn’t really up to another bucket of gin, but this was going to be her last drink for the night and it would certainly ensure she would sleep well.

Persephone relaxed, feeling full and more than a little bit drunk. Jim was good company, and while he was certainly rootable, she was determined to keep her Japan trip as low-key as possible, and sleeping with Jim wasn’t the most discreet thing she could do. After a few minutes however, Persephone found herself feeling very woozy and quite disoriented. She leaned across to Jim and started trying to say to him that she’d had enough to drink and was going to go to bed now. Jim smiled and nodded and agreed with her. Helping her up from the table, Jim held her firmly around the waist and walked her towards the lifts. Inside her head, Persephone was shouting to herself, “No, stop doing this, I’m going to bed on my own now.” But no words came out. Jim asked her which room she was staying in but Persephone was unable to answer him, and she couldn’t provide any resistance when he reached inside her bag and took out the little card that had her room key in with her room number written on.

Persephone woke up the next morning feeling hung over and sore. She opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling, and realised that there was something very badly wrong. She closed her eyes again and then opened them. Why did she hurt so much? She certainly had hangovers before, but this was different. Sure, her head hurt and her mouth felt like someone had tipped in most of Bondi Beach, but the rest of her felt like she just done ten rounds with Muhammad Ali. A sudden wave of nausea came over her and she made a dash for the bathroom, barely making it in time. She lay on the ground beside the toilet, naked and cold. What was going on? She tried to think back about what had happened last night and suddenly realised that she had no idea and couldn’t remember a thing. She was instantly very frightened and this brought on another bout of vomiting. She retched and retched until she had nothing more to bring up. Pulling herself slowly to her feet, she staggered over to the wash basin where through a veil of tears she saw herself in the bathroom mirror. The sight of her naked body covered in bruises, scratch marks and, yes she wasn’t mistaken, bite marks, sent another wave of nausea through her whole body. Terrified to even know the answer, she gently touched herself between her legs. Recoiling at the pain, she realised she couldn’t deny what had happened. The problem was that she had no idea about anything that had occurred the previous night. She threw up again, but only a trickle of yellow bile ran into the basin. She sobbed.

Persephone was tough, or at least she had always thought so, but this was almost more than she could bear. It was terrible to realise that she had been raped, but even worse to have no memory of it. Taking stock of her situation in an attempt to get her emotions under control, she tried to work out how she could be in this state. Hang on, she thought, I’m sure that date rape drugs cause amnesia. She got out her laptop and sitting on the bed, looked up ‘rape’ and ‘amnesia’ on the web. Sure enough, Rohypnol appeared to fit her symptoms. She read further.

“One of the most disturbing effects of Rohypnol is that it can cause complete or partial “anterograde” amnesia (absence of memory for the events that occur after it is ingested). This means that you may not be able to remember what was done to you while you were under the influence of the drug, which may have been for a significant period of time. This “amnestic” effect is especially likely when Rohypnol is ingested with alcohol.”

Oh God! What happened to me? She racked her brain, but couldn’t remember a thing. “Think hard Persephone,” she told herself firmly out loud, “what is the last thing you remember?” She tried hard, but this was only hurting her already sore head. She was now sure that she had been drugged with either Rohypnol or something very like it. Temporarily giving up, she decided that a shower and some breakfast could only help. Dragging her bruised and battered body into the shower, Persephone washed off any traces her attacker may have left. As she was doing this, she realised that she was removing any possibility of obtaining help from the Police to track down and catch her rapist. The problem for Persephone was that she was here in Japan under a false name with false papers and was trying to get in and out ‘under the radar’. A rapist attacking an Australian visiting scientist in a top Tokyo hotel did not fit that bill in the slightest, so she was going to have to forego police help in any case. She was furious. Of course she had walked into this situation – but she didn’t deserve to be raped!

She suddenly stopped. Maybe she did deserve this. She was in the country to obtain a deadly and undetectable poison in order to kill a total stranger who hadn’t done anything to harm her (even though he had killed at least two people that she knew about to date). How could she complain about this sort of treatment when she was planning on doing much worse? Maybe this is what those hippy people meant when they talked about karma? She shook herself. This was getting her nowhere and she didn’t believe in that crap anyway. It was just an unfortunate coincidence, and one she had to get to the bottom of so that she could finish her mission in Japan and get back to Australia to wrap up the job with Craig. She finished her shower, found herself a long sleeved shirt and pants that covered all the marks left by her attacker and gingerly went to breakfast. Maybe some food would help being her memory back. The articles on Rohypnol on the Internet were inconclusive about memory return so she was not hopeful, but maybe her loss of memory about pretty much everything that had happened the previous day would abate a little, giving her some clues about who she had been with prior to being given the drugs.

She went into the breakfast restaurant and was greeted by the duty manager. “Good morning Dr O’Mara, how are you today? Did you enjoy your visit to the Skytree yesterday?”

Persephone was startled as she still had no memory of the prior day’s events, but recovered quickly. “Yes, thank you, it was marvellous. Did you see me when I returned from my trip?”

“Actually, Dr O’Mara, it was my sister the concierge who recommended that you go. I was just wondering if it was a good recommendation.”

Persephone replied that she was happy with his sister’s choice and asked if they had a brochure on the Skytree that she could peruse during breakfast. Perhaps that would help bring back memories for her, she thought. The restaurant manager dutifully brought one over, not worrying about why she wanted a brochure when she had already seen the real thing – Gaijins are strange and he had learned not to bother to question their habits.

Munching her way through a thoroughly western breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage and tomato, Persephone flicked through the brochure. It was when she got to the pictures of the highest skywalk that she suddenly remembered her ‘confrontation’ with the man. Now what was his name? She thought really hard, but her mind was a complete blank. In complete frustration she pounded the table with her fist. The restaurant manager came hurrying over, and asked if there was a problem with the food. Persephone, embarrassed, apologised and told him no, the food was super but could she please sign her bill as she needed to check out of the hotel shortly. He brought the bill back with alacrity, pleased to have the angry woman out of his restaurant. Persephone signed it and went back to her room. As she got in the lift and retrieved her room key from her handbag it suddenly hit her. “Jim!” She shouted out loud, startling the elderly lady and her companion who had just got in the lift with her. “Sorry about that,” she grinned at the elderly lady, “Just remembered his name.”

Ignoring the pursed lips of her lift companion, she got out of the lift on her floor. She was elated for a brief moment until she tried to remember his surname or anything else about him, and drew another blank. “Jim, Jim something, Jim something,” she muttered to herself as she wandered along to her room, “Jim Carter, Jimmy Carter…what was the bastard called?” She reached her room door, leaned her forehead against it and gently banged her head on the smooth wooden surface. Unfortunately, this only added to the pain that was rapidly spreading through her body as she stiffened up. She put this card in the slot to open the door and went inside. Frustrated at her inability to remember anything useful, she decided to do some packing as he had a train to catch. She picked up a shirt from the floor, noticing that the buttons had been torn off, and she caught a sob in her throat.

“Come on Persephone, get a grip. You’re here to avenge the victims of that bastard at that insurance company, not to loaf around feeling sorry for yourself. You are Dr Jane O’Mara – fish specialist to the stars.” Suddenly an image came to her of her standing in a crowd shaking a man’s hand. What was he saying to her? She tried really hard to remember but the harder she tried the more the image slipped away. Giving up, she turned to her suitcase and started putting clothes into it. That was all it needed, as she suddenly remembered. Jim Clayton, that was his name! She grabbed the pad from the desk in the room and wrote the name down, as she really didn’t want to forget it again. She put the pad back on the table, looked at his name and picked up the pen again. Using it like a knife, she pounded it into the pad again and again, the nib piercing the paper, shredding it and obliterating his name until the pen broke.

“You bastard! How dare you!” Persephone realised she was screaming over and over again. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she found a sheet of paper at the bottom of the pad that still had enough room to write his name again. Taking a deep breath, she carefully wrote then folded the paper and put it into her wallet. She then calmly finished her packing, went downstairs and checked out of the hotel. She had a long train journey ahead of her to get to Shimonoseki, but she still had some unfinished business before she boarded in three hours. Bits and pieces of the previous afternoon were coming back to her and she remembered Jim telling her that he was an insurance underwriter and he was attending a conference in Tokyo. There can’t be that many insurance underwriting conferences in Tokyo at the moment she thought, and sitting in the lobby at the Imperial hotel she got out her notebook computer and did a bit of searching. Sure enough, there was a conference on at the Ochanomizu Conference Centre, which was less than 10 minutes away in a taxi. She spoke to the concierge who wrote a card for her to give to a taxi driver to get her to the conference centre. Leaving her bag with him, she went outside and got into a taxi, giving him the card, figuring out she’d come up with a plan along the way.

As she got closer and closer to the conference centre she got more and more angry. How could he do that to her! He was going to pay! At her destination she jumped out of the taxi, almost forgetting to pay him, she was in so much of a hurry to get in and confront Jim. Realising her mistake she quickly stopped, paid the taxi driver, and slightly more calmly, walked inside. Whatever was scheduled for that conference today obviously hadn’t quite started as the hall was full of people milling around looking at ring bound folders and calling out to people in other groups who appeared to be long lost friends. Trying to keep a low profile, which was difficult because it would appear that insurance underwriters were predominantly male, Persephone circled the room looking for her attacker. She was struggling a bit, partly because her memory was still pretty hazy, including what he actually looked like, but also because she was in a significant amount of pain and her head was throbbing as if it would burst. On her third circuit of the room and just as she was about to give it all up as a bad job she spotted someone who looked familiar. She lined up, and started to move a little closer then stopped. Hang on a sec, she said to herself, what do I plan on doing now? She kicked herself. She had completely forgotten what she was in Japan for! Thinking quickly she realised that she was in no position to exact any sort of retribution on Jim right now, so she was going to have to plan something for a later date. Having now found him however, she needed to get a bit more information so that she could track him down later. That should be pretty easy she thought to herself. She found the conference registration desk and sure enough the helpful young lady behind the desk was very happy to give Persephone copy of the list of registrants at the conference, which was very useful as it contained not only their names and titles but also the companies for whom they worked. Happy with her discovery, Persephone quietly left the conference, went back to the hotel, picked up a suitcase, caught a cab to Shinogawa station and boarded the train to Shimonoseki. She now had a bit over eight hours to get her head back on the job she was here to do. She also had plenty of time to plan her revenge on Jim Clayton.

Arriving at her destination, Persephone headed off to the Shimonoseki Academy of Marine Science to meet Professor Harumi Nakada, with whom she had been exchanging emails in the prior weeks. She was pleasantly surprised when Professor Harumi turned out to be a slim elegant woman who looked about 35 years old and who welcomed her in fluent English with a distinctive American accent.

“Hello Dr O’Mara! I am delighted to meet you in person – can I take your bag? Let’s go to the staff cafeteria and have some tea or coffee – whatever you would like.”

Persephone was pleased that she didn’t have to worry about the language barrier, but was keen not to make Harumi her new best buddy – she was hoping to make this visit as inconspicuous as possible.

“Please call me Jane – I am also very pleased to meet you. A coffee would be great.”

Both women took the five-minute walk to a very pleasant café with a beautiful garden filled with small fruit trees overlooking benches with foldaway chairs. Harumi, as she also insisted on being called, ordered coffees and brought them over.

“I developed a real taste for coffee when I was studying in the US and luckily there are a couple of Starbucks in Shimonseki now. I managed to persuade one of the baristas from the one in Daimaru to open this café here in the University and now we can all satisfy our new-found caffeine addiction in the gardens. I hope you like it.”

Persephone thought that the coffee was dreadful and was still in considerable pain, but summoned an appreciative smile and thanked Harumi profusely for her foresight and taste. She was aware of the Asian custom of not leaping straight into business, but if Harumi had lived and worked in the US, then maybe it wouldn’t offend her if she got straight into her business for being there.

“Harumi, it’s great to meet you and I really wish I had more time to visit your amazing facilities here, but I can only stay in Shimonoseki for a day before I have to get back to Townsville – perhaps when I visit next time you can tell me more about your research here and your amazing breakthrough in understanding of the metabolism of the Takifugu genus. I know I am being incredibly rude, but could you please provide me with a letter of introduction to your source of Takifugu so that I can set up a similar arrangement directly with them for JCU?”

Harumi looked very taken aback, and was clearly annoyed at this approach, so Persephone softened it with a vague promise that should she get this arrangement in place then there would of course be appropriate commissions paid to Harumi for the introductions. Slightly mollified, and knowing how badly mannered all gaijin are anyway, Harumi agreed. Persephone made a note to send a donation from JCU of a few thousand dollars to Harumi when she returned. She was pretty sure that Harumi would be happy to pocket the money and not pass it on. It would also help to keep Harumi’s mouth shut about her visit as well.

Armed with authentic official letters of introduction, Persephone went off to the fugu farm and after some negotiation on price, secured a couple of whole fugu, still intact with the poisonous livers in place. Persephone took the fish, her letter of introduction and her bags, boarded the train back to Tokyo and finally relaxed.

As she had read in her research, it turned out that it was far more difficult to safely extract the edible bits of the puffer fish from the poisonous bits than it was to extract the tetrodotoxin poison from the puffer fish. Simply put, you simply soak the relevant organs in water, heat it up a bit, mix it with a weak acid, filter and ‘serve’. Back at her hotel room in Tokyo, Persephone was taking no chances. She was extremely careful as she used gloves, safety goggles and a plastic apron, thus protecting herself as she slowly distilled the poison.

Left with a small amount of clear liquid, Persephone poured it into a sterilised bottle that had previously contained Bulgari Pour Femme. The bottle was looking a bit old and battered so it would be easy to pass off as one she already owned and Customs in Sydney would not be interested. Armed with this deadly poison, and despite her bruises and aching body, Persephone slept like a baby in her luxurious hotel room then flew back to Sydney the following day. This trip, all she had to deal with was a hung-over Australian banker who couldn’t even summon the energy to flirt with her, although he did make a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to get her phone number as they were landing in Sydney.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Justice

Back in the familiar comfort of her study in Surry Hills, Persephone started to pull together the final parts of her deadly plan. She was careful not to write anything on her computer and as she surveyed the bits of butcher’s paper that were papering her walls, she started to feel a bit more confident that she could successfully pull this off.

Once she was certain she had all the details committed to memory, she strode over to the wall covered with her scrawled action lists, tore them all down, threw them in the bath and went to find something to set them on fire. This was harder than it sounded as she was not a smoker and wasn’t really into scented candles, and her small gas barbecue had an electric starter. In a fit of pique – couldn’t anything just be straightforward – she grabbed her keys and wallet and stormed out of the apartment to go and buy some matches at the corner store. On her way there she passed by the café where Vinh was busy waving a cloth at some tables in a half-hearted attempt to clean up the spilt coffee and croissant crumbs left by his careless customers.

“Hey Poppy,” he called out, “you look like you need a cuppa. Mai, get Poppy a pot of that Chinese herbal crap you reckon is soothing!”

Persephone was about to refuse when she realised that a soothing cup of tea was probably just what she needed right now.

“Thanks Vinh – that would be great.”

She plonked herself down at one of the tables, where it appeared that Vinh’s washcloth had actually made contact with the surface, and took a deep breath. As she sipped at the hot beverage she calmed down and started to get some perspective on the situation.

Craig was a murderer. She couldn’t prove it, and in any case, by the time the Police got off their fat arses and pursued this case, Craig would spot it and be long gone, along with his millions. If she didn’t stop him then he would certainly kill again – he had proved that he was going to tidy up all his loose ends with Aaron’s killing in Melbourne. She was well equipped not only to carry out the deed, but to get away with it afterwards as she had spent a long time carefully covering all traces of her activity in securing the instruments of Craig’s imminent demise. All that was needed was for Persephone to take the first step.

Calmly and deliberately she finished her tea, put a $10 note on the table and strolled back to her apartment. Arriving back, she realised that she had forgotten the matches, so she returned to the café where a very pleased Vinh was quite happy to give her a book from a large bowl he had on the counter. She then returned home and burned all her notes and documents from Japan in the laundry sink.

Settling back in her ergonomic chair in her office, she called Isaac. “We need to talk. How about I come round to yours?”

“Sure babe”, was the eager response, “I will put the chardonnay on ice.”

“Don’t do that Isaac, this is strictly a working session. I’ll talk about it when I get there.”

Persephone pulled a brush through her curls, applied a spot of mascara and some red lipstick for courage, and headed out the door. On the slow drive over to the city, surrounded by sweaty cursing tradies in their utes, young mums talking on the phone to their friends completely oblivious while their kids escaped from the child safety restraints, mad taxi drivers aggressively cutting their way through the gridlocked traffic to their next fare, she contemplated her next steps. Oh well, at least it would be a temporary escape from the interminable traffic jam that was a standing feature of Sydney life.

“Die, stupid bitch!” she yelled from the comfort of her air-conditioned car, “No you can’t text and cut me off at the same time!” as she hit her horn.

A startled 30-something blonde driving a black convertible Mercedes slammed on her brakes millimetres from Persephone’s front wing. Pulling into the visitor spot at Isaac’s apartment car park, she decided that maybe chardonnay might not be such a bad idea. At the very least it would help reduce the stress for her drive back home.

Upstairs, leaning back in her chair admiring the harbour view from Isaac’s study, clutching a large ice-cold glass of white wine (Isaac had totally ignored Persephone’s instructions as he was well aware that she was going to change her mind), she took a deep breath.

“I need a live feed on the location of Craig’s surfboards. Can you put some sort of app on my phone?”

As Isaac fiddled with her phone she finished her wine and went to pour herself another glass. “Do you want my password, Isaac?” she yelled out from the kitchen. Isaac rolled his eyes.

“Are you for real, Persephone? Who do you think you are dealing with?”

Mildly embarrassed at her idiotic question, she wandered back into the study where Isaac was just finishing tidying up her home screen and installing some more software so that he could track her without her knowing.

Showing her the phone screen with a map and a blue dot currently in The Gold Coast area, Isaac ran through how to use the app. It was a pretty quick lesson – look at where the blue dot is on the map and go there. Persephone promised to delete the app from her phone once she didn’t need it any more. Stopping off on the way to pick up her surfboard from the garage at home, she began the long drive towards Southern Queensland.

Driving north long the Pacific Highway was a great break for Persephone from the inner city. For hundreds of kilometres, the great stretches of eucalypt forest occasionally gave way to glimpses of the bluest ocean. Diligently following the frequent signs erected by the Nanny State, she made sure to take a bit of a break every 2 hours and used the time to walk around a bit rehearsing her plan for killing Craig. After 6 hours or so, Persephone decided that she would stop for the night. She pulled into a deluxe motel near the Sikh temple in Woolgoolga, and paid for her room in cash.

The room at the motel was really special. When Persephone checked in, a suspicious receptionist told her that there were no rooms with double beds available, and in any case, this was strictly a decent place and no after hours entertaining was to be conducted in the room. Persephone would find the single bed quite adequate for her needs. Persephone couldn’t remember the last time she had to sleep in a single bed, but was so tired after her long drive she acquiesced and dragged herself off to the end of the low cinder block building. The room was quite long from front to back and very narrow across. The single bed proved to be made up of at least three mattresses that over the years had collapsed and had been supplemented rather than replaced by the next one. Persephone discovered this as she tried to sit on the edge of the bed and immediately disappeared into its lumpy depths, her knees ending up at her shoulders as she jack-knifed to the bottom set of springs.

The bed itself was up against the wall, which had a brown padded headboard that on closer inspection, appeared to at one stage have been cream, but was now the colour of the weary heads of the travellers who had stayed in this palace. Across the room, and about a metre from the end of the bed, a small television was screwed onto the wall. A menu on the bedside table detailed a range of meals that could be ordered for serving in the room. This appeared not to be so much about the motel being classy enough to have room service but more to do with the blackened shell of a dining room that she had noticed next to reception when she checked in. As Persephone was far too tired to go out for dinner, she phoned reception.

“What?” was the friendly answer after an interminably large number of rings.

“Could I please have some dinner sent to my room?” Persephone nervously requested.

“Only thing still on is soup.” Followed by an expectant silence

“That will be lovely. What sort of soup do you have?”

“Dunno.” The phone was abruptly cut off.

After about 20 minutes, there was a knock on the door. Persephone answered it to find the surly receptionist carrying a tray with a very large bowl of steaming hot soup and a spoon. Persephone considered for a second asking for a bread roll, but quickly thought the better of it. She thanked her and took the bowl inside. As there were no table or chairs in the room, she decided to get undressed and have dinner in bed watching TV. She took all her clothes off and gingerly climbed into the bed, reached down and picked up the tray with the still hot soup, placed it in her lap and, being too tired and hungry to care, lent back against the grimy headboard.

This was when she discovered that the bed was on well-oiled castors. The bed shot across the room stopping suddenly as it hit the far wall under the television a metre away. With the support of the headrest removed, Persephone fell backwards, her head hitting the floor. By some miracle, the bowl of hot soup was still in her lap, steaming gently away. She laid there for a few seconds, contemplating her options. Really, this was ridiculous. She couldn’t move without spilling the soup and she really didn’t want scalding liquid all over her bare legs. It was very uncomfortable lying with her head on the floor and her body on the bed. The TV was blaring away with some inane quiz show, so she resigned herself to waiting until the soup cooled down. The quiz show helped pass the time, and she distracted herself alternating between shouting the answers at the screen that was just out of sight and muttering about how stupid quiz show participants seem to be. I mean, who on earth thinks that a person who speaks concisely using very few words is ascerbic? They even had laconic as an option! Haven’t these people finished high school?

As the final poorly educated contestant failed to pick the element with the lowest atomic number and was sent away with a paltry $1,000, Persephone realised that the soup was now cold enough to risk moving. She was grateful for the hours that she had spent building up her core muscles at Pilates classes and slowly returned to a vertical sitting position, spilling soup into the tray, but avoiding the garish yellow bedclothes. The smell of Heinz tinned tomato soup was already filling the room with its slightly acrid smell, ruining her appetite. Still at least she wasn’t going to have to smell it all night on the sheets. She got up, put the tray outside her door, climbed back into the bed and immediately fell asleep.

The morning dawned with a beautiful clear blue sky and a strong easterly breeze. Perfect weather, as she looked up the surf forecast for the Gold Coast and Northern NSW, so hopefully Craig would hit the beach today. Persephone checked her phone, and Craig’s surfboard was still at his home, so she reckoned she had plenty of time for breakfast and a leisurely drive up the coast, planning on getting to Surfers Paradise (or wherever Craig picked) by lunchtime. Tripping over her tray from the previous night, Persephone made her escape from the motel, having paid in cash the night before and got on the road. She found a local retro pop radio station and passed the next few hours belting out 70s and 80s hits through her open window to the other motorists and occasional wildlife as she drove past.

After a few hours, she could no longer ignore the growling noises coming from her stomach so she pulled over at the next town, found a café and ordered a burger with the lot. She checked the app on her phone. Sure enough, Craig was on the move south – it was looking like he was heading in her direction so she decided to wait a while in the aptly named Sleepy Hollow while she watched to see his final destination. After an hour, he stopped in a place called Cabarita Beach. This was only just up the road, so she set off to check it out as a suitable place to do the deed.

Persephone drove north for about half an hour and found herself a car park at the unimaginatively named The Beach Resort, which was on the beachfront at Cabarita. It looked like a spectacular spot with a great break running off the point to the southern end. According to her phone, Craig’s surfboard was also in the same car park, so she put on a large hat and sunglasses and tried to spot his car. After a couple of minutes, she actually spotted Craig unloading his surfboard from the back of a very new and shiny blue ute. Careful not to get too close, she mentally noted the registration number and decided to take a closer look at the beach. She walked past the resort buildings and took the path through the trees to the surf beach.

There, laid out on the stunning white sand, were at least a thousand people. The surf was full of swimmers, kids on body boards, windsurfers and board surfers. She was frustrated and disappointed. Persephone liked an audience at times, but this was clearly not the place to be trying to kill Craig and go unnoticed. She returned to her car. Then suddenly she froze. She could scarcely believe her luck. There he was! Fortunately she was unrecognisable in a big hat, baggy top and wraparound sunglasses. He passed her without even noticing.

She decided to wait for another day when he went to surf at a more remote beach.

The Cabarita Beach Resort looked like a nice place to stay the night, and they were not at all put off when she offered to pay cash for her room. Retiring to the Beach Bar, Persephone tried out their selection of cocktails, finally settling on her favourite T10 martini after downing an adventurous but unrewarding selection of every more sickly sweet fruity concoctions.

After a very pleasant seafood extravaganza for dinner, watching Craig’s return to Queensland on her phone, Persephone retired to her modern bed in the air-conditioned room with cable television and a nicely firm mattress and slept like a baby. The following morning she leapt out of bed and went for an early swim. No point in not making the most of this trip, she rationalised. The water was glorious and the swim went a long way towards improving her mild hangover. Back in her room, towelling off after a quick shower, she checked the phone again. Craig was on the move!

This time, he was heading north, so she decided to follow him. By lunchtime, he had reached Noosa, on of the most popular resorts on the Sunshine Coast. It would be full of holidaymakers from Sydney who would be able to recognise Persephone.

She was relieved that as she passed through Brisbane, heavy rain and high winds swirled around the car. She turned on the radio for the surf report and found that the beach was recommended for only the most experienced surfers. Craig was of course one of those, so she counted on her trip not being a waste of time. She really wanted to get this over with as she still had a score to settle with her English rapist and dealing with Craig was starting to get in the way.

When she arrived in a grey, deserted Noosa, she checked the phone app. Craig was already in the surf at the southern end of the beach. As she reached it, she saw he was the only person on the water at this end. The rest were well to the north on a sand bar, avoiding the rocks in the ever increasing swell from the east. Persephone looked nervously as the crashing, churning waves. The surf was a bit stronger than she like. But she had to give this a go.

She donned her swimsuit and lycra vest, into the pocket of which she put the syringe with the deadly tetrodotoxin, took her surfboard out of her car, took a deep breath to steady her nerves and entered the water. She could see Craig on his own out the back of the shore break, so after a couple of short runs in to get her courage up, she swam out and joined him. She was a bit puffed when she got near to him and he didn’t immediately recognise the soaking wet red-faced woman as the poised confident consultant from his Élan days.

“Hey babe,” was his greeting, “you sure you really want to be out here? This is not really safe for chicks right here.”

Persephone spluttered. Now she was really pissed off with him. What a nerve! Just as a larger wave came through and knocked her off the board. Clambering back on and now red-faced with embarrassment, she decided to go with it.

“You’re probably right – reckon I might have bitten off a bit more than I can chew.”

Craig smiled condescendingly. “Certainly looks like it.” He paused and with a puzzled expression on his face said, “Hey, don’t I know you?”

Persephone, having recovered her breath and now feeling in control of herself if not yet of the situation, answered him.

“I don’t think so, what’s your name?”

“Craig Sellars – I’m sure I know you from somewhere. Who are you?”

Steeling herself for the final act, her body still sore from the rape in Japan, Persephone paddled closer, speaking in a voice a bit too low to be heard over the surf crashing on the rocks just in front of them. Craig moved closer to her so that he could hear and as he came up beside her, she leaned over and whilst appearing to fall, grabbed his leg. Craig was a bit startled that this strange woman was laying hands on him, but not unhappy, at least until he felt a sharp sting in his thigh.

“My name is Persephone Stone, Craig. Not sure if you remember, but I was the person who made sure that you got your redundancy at Élan so that you could be well out of the way before I made my move.”

Craig was puzzled, and as he looked down to see a small dribble of blood leaking from his leg, he leapt back, furious at her.

“What the fuck have you done, you stupid bitch?”

He was starting to show the signs of the poison – he was rubbing his leg and even in the surf, Persephone could see that he was starting to sweat profusely. She now felt safe that he had absorbed a deadly dose and the symptoms were coming on even more rapidly than she thought would happen. There really was no way he was going to survive this, she realised. Better let him know why.

“My friends and I were very upset that you couldn’t just take your money and run. Killing Brad and then Aaron was an evil thing to do and we don’t like evil people.”

She paused for effect and to gather her breath. She had to shout over the wind and waves. “You should know that what you’re feeling in your fingers and face will soon take over your whole body. I’ve just injected you with puffer fish poison. You may even suffocate before you drown.”

Craig gazed at her in horror. Terrified, he lurched forwards to upset her board and grab her but his arms were already gone.

“And your money? I’ve got the lot, and I’m really going to enjoy spending it. You’ll be a long time dead.”

Persephone smiled. The surf noise was getting louder and they were drifting perilously close to the rocky shelves. She looked around. The other surfers were a long way up the beach, seemingly oblivious to the drama being played out a few hundred metres away. Craig made some gurgling noises, vomited and then fell off his board face down into the ocean. He was still tethered by his leg strap, and the wind and waves were pushing the board onto the rocks, where Craig would be battered and cut, maybe even obscuring the needle mark. The poison would metabolise and in any case, there were plenty of blue ringed octopus around to blame it on.

A large wave was heading towards her, so Persephone decided to finish with a flourish. She caught it and rode it all the way to the deserted beach. Quickly grabbing her board, she walked to her car, packed it away and drove out of town.

She felt remarkably calm. Once she was back in northern NSW, she phoned Isaac. “You can transfer the money now, thanks.”

Isaac said nothing and Persephone hung up. She decided to do the rest of the trip without stopping, except for fuel, and arrived back in Sydney at 3 in the morning. She went immediately to bed and when her radio alarm woke her at 6, there was no mention on the news of a surfing death in Queensland. She was initially surprised, but realised that this probably happened a bit when the surf was up and Craig’s death would not have impacted anyone as he had no living family. The following day she logged onto a Sunshine Coast news site and found a short article naming Craig and a quote from the local surf lifesaving organisation warning of the dangers of surfing on closed beaches in bad weather. That was the last thing she ever saw or heard of Craig from that day on.

The other thing that surprised her was her feelings about killing him. She had spent so much time agonising about whether she could do this, if it was the right thing to do, and what it was going to turn her into, but she didn’t feel any different. Perhaps, she mused to herself, she was actually a true psychopath. Killing Craig had just felt like squashing a bug, she had even felt some satisfaction in not only removing him from the world, but also making sure he knew why before he left it. Perhaps she needed therapy? She laughed to herself – might have a bit of a problem finding a therapist who could help her and still keep their mouth shut. She resigned herself to talking to her glass of chardonnay. Then the next one and the one after.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Revenge

Before Persephone could rest, she had another matter to deal with. She had put her vicious rape by Jim Clayton to the back of her mind while she dealt with Craig Sellars, but it was now right back at the forefront. She was as furious as the day when she had first realised what he had done and even though the bruises and scratches had faded, there was an indelible scar on her psyche.

She had temporarily forgotten her role dispensing justice on behalf of people wronged by rapacious companies. Now she felt only an overpowering rage. She wanted to mete out the worst possible punishment to the callous man who had drugged and violated her. She considered all her options, but kept returning to the only thing that would give her what she wanted. He was going to die, and she was going to watch him as he realised just what a bad mistake he had made the day he decided to rape Persephone Stone.

First, however, she needed a plan at least as good as the one she had used for Craig. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in jail. After a bit of digging, she found out that Jim lived in Surrey with his wife, three young boys and a large labrador. This gave her pause, but she reckoned the kids were better of without him – if their father didn’t get taken care of soon, he would probably just train them to rape women as well. He worked in the city and commuted daily by train. His job as a senior underwriter with a large insurance company was well paid, but according to his Facebook page, he appeared to be frustrated by the lack of opportunities to advance, as the next step in his career was into senior management and these jobs didn’t come up very often, especially since the global financial crisis, when everyone was hanging onto their jobs for grim life. She felt the beginnings of a plan coming on.

She needed to create a new identity but it only needed to withstand Jim’s scrutiny and only for a very short time so she decided that didn’t need Isaac’s help with this one. She now had plenty of money that she could use to set this up.

She flew to London and found herself a nice apartment in Hampstead, which was central enough to the city with easy access to the London Underground to get her back and forward without difficulty to the office she would also lease. She set up some false accounts in the Cayman Islands in the name of the fictitious company she was going to use to reel Jim in and paid the rent on the apartment up front for three months. Giving the name of Alison Dearlove, she told the real estate agent that she was moving to London from Europe and needed somewhere to live while she looked for a more permanent home. This made sure there was no obvious link between the office and this flat apart from the place where the payment had come from. She organised for the keys to be sent to a post office box that she set up in the city, dissuading the real estate agent from a face to face meeting by telling her the flight was arriving at 3am and she wanted to just go home and sleep.

The office was pretty much as simple as the flat, but as it was going to be discovered straight away, she decided to save herself some money and only paid the first month’s rent. After all, she was going to have some significant expenses setting it up to look just right for her plan. The office she found was in the centre of London and had recently been vacated by a small trading company, which had just gone bust. The building owner was happy to take a small deposit so that the place was occupied and offered the services of the building concierge to help Ms Brown the local VP of this vast international search company organise any refurbishment.

She gave herself a silent pat on the back for having been a good student in Isaac’s money-laundering course as she managed to do this without a hitch all on her own. Given what she was using the office for, there was going to be plenty of attention at that location, so the only critical thing was to make sure that none of the payments to the office or apartment rental agents were traceable and any attempt by law enforcement agencies to track her down would lead to a dead end.

The final piece was to build an identity for the company Glocal Executive Search, which she reckoned sounded pretentious enough for the job. As these types of companies were typically fairly discreet in their operations, the only thing that Persephone had to do was set up a credible web site that would look suitably high class. She did the simplest thing and copied the basic site layout of one of the majors, put in her own logo, put a blurry photo of herself amongst several other ‘executive VPs’, made up a number of glowing client references and left a spot for people to submit resumes if they were interested in being a candidate. It wouldn’t have withstood serious scrutiny, but was only going to be needed to convince Jim.

After only two weeks of frenzied activity she was ready to go

Persephone booked herself as Dr Jane O’Mara on a flight to London with JAL via Tokyo. She had a 10-hour layover and used the time to go into the city’s markets and make a cash acquisition. Boarding the second leg, she had some minor difficulty with her cabin baggage, but once she agreed to check her new item, everyone calmed down and Jane settled back in her first class seat to enjoy the sake she had developed quite a taste for.

When she disembarked into the cold wet London day, Persephone felt like an alien. It was hard to believe that she had grown up in this grey, miserable country and she immediately started counting the hours until she could return to her sun-drenched, colourful home in Australia. She really didn’t belong here any more, despite the sacrifices she had made for Britain in her younger days, and it made her sad. She caught herself before she got maudlin, and took the train to Paddington, rolling her smart hard shell luggage containing her new purchase onto the train and into the cab at the other end.

She got out of the cab, stretched and tried the door keys that the agent had posted to her post office box. They worked, so she paid the cabbie and went inside. She found the bedroom and decided to have a quick rest before she got on with preparing the rest of the items for her plan. Several hours later, she woke up in the pitch-black darkness that speaks well of good heavy blackout curtains. She checked her watch, which showed about half past three. Wandering out into the kitchen, and noting the dark skies and lack of neighbourhood movement, she ascertained it was 3:30am. Persephone made herself a cup of tea – when in Rome – and decided to try to go back to sleep – maybe this would reset her body clock and help with the jet lag.

After a couple of hours tossing and turning, she gave up. She got up, unpacked her suitcase, showered and changed. Might as well get on with the final preparations. It was too early to go to the office, but she could run through her prepared scripts for the call to Jim and re-read the emails she had prepared to follow-up if she needed them. She logged onto her laptop and checked that the corporate-looking web site she had set up was operating properly and was convincing enough to suck him in. Actually it was so convincing that it appeared to have attracted a number of enquiries from other people trolling the Internet for jobs.

“Okay Jimmy boy, here I come.” She said out loud to the empty flat.

At 8am, kitted out in her short black wig, heavy black-framed spectacles (which were right on trend so they didn’t reek of disguise) and grey Hugo Boss suit, she took the tube to Leicester Square and met the building manager for the office she had rented. He took her up in the lift to the 6th floor, where she was confronted by a substantial oak door with a large brass plaque bearing the name of the now defunct trading company.

“Sorry Ms Brown, I thought we had already replaced that.” Stuttered the embarrassed building manager, “I will get straight onto the sign people and make sure it’s fixed today. Just checking, you want Glocal Executive Search PLC on the new plaque?”

“Thank you Tim, that would be great. Can we go in now, I would like to check out the fit out and see what needs doing.”

The office inside consisted of a small reception area with an ugly grey Formica desk and two violent orange visitor seats that ensured anyone sitting in them who was over 4 foot tall would have their knees around their shoulders.

“Have the Glocal signs arrived?” she asked Tim, “maybe the men who fix the door plaque can erect them here and in the main office area?”

“They certainly have Ms Brown, I will get them sent up and you can tell the men where to put them.”

They both went through the door at the back of the reception area to find themselves in an enormous brown-carpeted open plan office with 4 cheap looking cubicles and a boardroom that looked liked it had been furnished at IKEA set off to the left hand side. This was going to need some work. Once Tim had left to go and chase up the sign-hanging people, Persephone got on the phone to an office fit out company she had spoken to the previous week from Australia.

“You had better get over here this morning. I am going to need a complete remodel.”

Gervais, the office designer turned up within the hour. Dressed in what appeared to be a costume from a Victorian country house play, complete with tweed waistcoat, monocle and fob watch, he was the complete dandy. Persephone told him the concept she was looking for and asked him to use his creative talents to come up with something great. She only had a couple of specific requirements and Gervais was happy to accommodate them in his grand design.

Spinning around and throwing out him arms with joy, he declared that it would all have to go and that he had “just the items in the warehouse that would send Modom into frenzies of delight!” Persephone made him promise to send at least a concept picture to her before he started shipping, but she was not confident that anything of the sort would turn up. She resigned herself to just accepting that Gervais’ inspiration would provide her with a suitably opulent office. As long as the specific item she wanted were delivered, the rest was really just for show, and only had to temporarily impress and distract one person.

As she had done all should could for one day at the office, she locked up and went back to the flat in Hampstead. She was sorely tempted to phone some of her family who still lived in England, but she realised that keeping this trip secret was imperative, and now she was independently wealthy, she could afford to travel a lot more and catch up with them at a better time. Switching on the television, she made herself another cup of tea and sat down for at least five minutes of daytime soaps before she nodded off again. Clearly she wasn’t quite over the jet lag yet.

Later that afternoon she went for a gentle walk on Hampstead Heath, found a pizza restaurant that served quite a decent dinner and went back alone to bed. She was not going to get herself into any more trouble by socialising in pubs or wine bars – after all, it was that sort of stupidity that had led her here in the first place. Despite the light relief of dealing with Gervais the office designer, she was still filled with anger and pain and was now getting impatient to deliver the coup de grace as soon as she could.

The following morning dawned clear and cold. Gervais had promised her that he was arriving at 10am with all the furniture and fittings for her new “fabulous space”, having of course completely omitted to send her the concept pictures. Persephone packed a briefcase and put her Tokyo acquisition in the front pocket. It was unlikely that she would need it that day, but it pays to be prepared, and she could leave it at the office anyway. Donning the wig, she set off to start the plan rolling.

Gervais proved to be a master at his craft. Once his team had left and all the air-kissing had finished, Persephone sat back in her chair behind the massive oak desk and surveyed the transformed office. Gone were the tacky cubicles to be replaced by two enormous leather chesterfield sofas facing each other across a low coffee table sitting on a beautiful Persian rug that did a great job of hiding the worst of the nasty brown carpet. The Boardroom had disappeared behind a plasterboard wall partition in front of which was Persephone’s desk. The visitor’s chair on the other side of her desk was an Edwardian reproduction high backed chair with ornate legs and arms and a red leather stuffed seat. Artworks covered the walls depicting scenes of the English countryside and rustic city scenes. The overall effect was one of solidity and history but with a real style. They had removed the hideous reception desk and left two small leather seats with the table in between. Gervais had even brought along a selection of magazines with topics ranging from art and design to finance and banking. It was perfect.

Now the scenery was in place, Persephone could kick off the action. She started with a call to Jim at work. His secretary answered, and Persephone, speaking with her best English upper-class accent, left a message for him to call Louise Brown on a ‘personal’ matter. She was banking on him being intrigued enough to return the call as he would either assume she was a head-hunter, or that it was always worth the risk to call a woman back, as who knows where it may lead? She made sure that the answering service at the office made it clear that this was Glocal Executive Search and waited for the call.

After an hour or so, Persephone realised her hands were hurting. She looked down at them and discovered that she had dug her nails into her palms almost hard enough to draw blood. She rubbed at the angry red marks as she tried to calm herself. Teeth clenched, she muttered to herself, “I will NOT let the bastard get away with this.” Over and over.

She realised that this was getting her nowhere, so she got up and locked up the office and went shopping. Unfortunately, in the state of mind she was, even retail therapy wasn’t working. Every piece of clothing she tried on was too big, too small, the wrong colour or just wrong. She changed tack. How about buying presents for Isaac and Reg? As she was just about to hand over her credit card, she suddenly remembered – this was supposed to be a covert trip. How on earth was she going to explain a Gieves and Hawkes trilby to Reg? She shook herself; clearly she was losing the plot. The only thing to do now was to find a bar and distract herself with cocktails.

After a few martinis in an-upmarket cocktail bar just off Piccadilly Circus, Persephone started to check out the talent. Sitting at the next table was an attractive 40-something man dressed in a polo shirt and slacks, looking like he had just stepped off the golf course. Athletic and browned, he looked to be right up Persephone’s alley. He caught her ogling him and tipped his head to one side, smiling and gesturing that Persephone might like to join him. Forgetting her mission, Persephone was there like a shot.

“Hi, my name is Mark, and who is this vision of loveliness that has agreed to join me in a small libation?”

This line of absolute crap jolted Persephone out of her inebriated musings. She looked again at Mark, and all she saw was a creepy middle-aged gigolo with a good eye for expensively dressed middle-aged women. Embarrassed, she stood up, thanked him (apparently she was still English enough to thank everyone for whatever they had done or said, no matter how inappropriate) and left the bar. Now angry with herself as well as Jim she resolved to just go back to the flat and wait to see what transpired the following day.

That night Persephone was wracked with nightmares about being beaten, raped and killed by a variety of men, all of whom kept taunting her that she was stupid, and ugly and deserved what she was getting. She woke up early covered in sweat with the sheets tangled around her body from all the tossing and turning. Even though it was not yet light, she got up and made another cup of tea.

“I really must get back home soon” she mused to herself, “I’m turning back into a Pom.”

She showered, dressed in her smart business suit and wig and headed off to find a café that served early breakfast. After a hearty meal of bacon, eggs, beans and chips, she got on the tube and went to the office. There, waiting for her on the answering service, was a message from Jim.

“Hello, this is Jim Clayton. You left a message for me to call you earlier today. I’m not sure what this is about, but if you would care to call me back, you can reach me on my mobile phone.” He left a number.

Persephone let out a huge sigh of relief. She had not realised how wound up she had been – the plan was pretty sound, but ultimately had relied on Jim taking the bait. Now she had to get busy. She called him back.

“Hello Jim,” she said once he answered, “this is Louise Brown from Glocal Executive Search. Can you talk right now, or is there a time we can have a confidential chat? I am happy to ring back, or you can call me on the number you already have.”

Jim told her that he was at his desk, but would call her back at lunchtime. She agreed and waited for the next call. At 1:30, the phone rang.

“Glocal Executive Search, Louise Brown speaking.”

“Hello Louise, this is Jim Clayton again.”

“Jim! So glad you called. As you have probably guessed, we are acting for a client who is looking for someone with a background in underwriting for an exciting role and your name came up in our research. Are you interested in a confidential discussion about a role outside your current organisation?” Persephone was careful to take this gently and bring him along willingly.

Jim explained that whilst he was happy and fulfilled in his current role, that for the right job, he would indeed be interested in a possible move. Persephone explained that this was a highly autonomous role, reporting to a Board at a company that was setting up a business providing underwriting consulting services to a range of new micro insurance origination business that were currently springing up across South East Asia. This was to be an ex-pat arrangement with all the benefits that this brought with it, and she mentioned that she had impressed certain people when he had attended the recent conference in Japan with his ability to sensitively deal with the cross-cultural issues that often caused trouble in this type of business. She had no idea what he had done at the conference, but reckoned that he would be flattered enough to ignore the details of the compliments being offered.

Jim became more and more interested – this looked exactly like the type of job that he wanted. It could be his opportunity to step up to the next level in his career and the ex-pat arrangements meant he could even keep his wife happy with the prospect of travel to exotic places and in-house nannies for the children.

“That sounds very interesting, Louise, how do I find out more about this?” Jim tried unsuccessfully to keep the excitement out of his voice.

“Our client is keen to fill this role as soon as he finds the right person, so time is of the essence here, Jim. We need to meet face to face to discuss this opportunity, and sooner is better than later.” Persephone paused, waiting for Jim to leap in.

“Look, I’m happy to catch up later today if that works for you.” an eager Jim replied, “where are your offices? I can be there this afternoon – I have a few meetings, but depending on what hours you keep, we could do 5:30 today?”

Persephone smiled. Clenching her teeth at the effort it was taking to be light and friendly, she arranged for him to come to the office at 6pm. She hinted that if they had a productive chat that drinks and maybe even dinner wouldn’t be out of the question. This would give him the opportunity to let his wife know that he might be very late so that the alarm would not be raised until she had plenty of time to get out of the country. The next thing she did was to phone the airline and book herself on the late night flight back to Australia that evening.

She went back to the flat, packed her suitcase and thoroughly cleaned the flat, taking care to wipe clean every surface she touched. She packed the cleaning items into her suitcase and took it back to the office to prepare for Jim’s arrival.

At 6pm on the dot, there was a knock on the door.

“Coming,” she called, “won’t be a sec.”

She took a few deep breaths. Her heart was beating so fast that she thought anyone within six feet could hear it. She had to calm down and give herself enough time to carry out her carefully prepared plan. Focusing on containing the anger that burned white hot inside her chest, she started to become more composed and her hands relaxed.

The next moment was going to prove crucial. Would Jim recognise the woman he had drugged and raped in Tokyo behind the severe wig and sharp suit of Louise Brown, executive search consultant? Taking another deep breath, Persephone opened the door, held out her hand to shake Jim’s, and welcomed him into her office. The work that Gervais had charged her several thousands of pounds for paid for itself in that moment. Jim was taken aback at the opulence and overdone office décor and forgot to even look at Louise. He allowed himself to be guided, slack-jawed to the high backed chair opposite her sumptuous desk.

“Tea?” Louise asked.

Jim agreed, still surveying the completely overdone office artwork and furnishings. Persephone got up and went over to the table between the lounges where she had already made a pot of tea on a silver tray with two fine china Royal Doulton cups.

“Milk, sugar?” she queried

“Both please, one sugar” was the reply.

“I would serve it here on the lounge, but I think it’s best we get the formal part of this meeting over and done with before we relax. Just sit there and I will bring it over.”

Persephone was careful to put the milk and sugar into the cup she had previously spiked with her remaining supply of tetrodotoxin. She had hers black so that there was no chance of a mix up when she went back to the desk. This was going to take a bit longer than when she had injected Craig, and she needed Jim to drink it all before she could be certain that its effects would commence. She smiled as she handed over the cup and saucer.

“Drink up, and let’s have a chat about your future.”

Jim thought the lukewarm tea was really bad with a strange metallic taste, but not wanting to offend the person who was going to help him get his next big job, he smiled manfully and sipped it gently.

“So Jim, why don’t I start by telling you a bit more about this job?” Persephone wanted Jim to keep drinking and if she had asked him to talk about himself first, then he wouldn’t drink the tea that she had so carefully prepared. She started by taking a sip of tea while looking pointedly at Jim and smiling in an what she hoped was an encouraging manner. Jim took the hint and made another effort to finish off the revolting brew in his cup. Encouraged, Persephone reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a manila folder. She opened it up and started to talk all about this incredible new concept that her client, a mega-wealthy Asian businessman had come up with and how its success was going to be due in large part to the new CEO, the role about which she was talking to Jim. She droned on about the sort of qualities they were looking for and how she had been told that Jim could be a perfect fit. After about 10 minutes of her monologue and watching him start to succumb to the effects of the drugged tea, she became bolder.

As Jim started to smack his lips together and rub his fingers on the arms of the chair, she started to let him know that this was no ordinary job interview.

“Jim, before I go any further with this information, could you let me know how you think your recent trip to Japan went?”

Jim, who was getting increasingly sweaty and uncomfortable, was shocked at the sudden change of tack.

“Sorry, what do you mean? I was jusht at a conference, met a bunch of people, saw the sights….” His speech was getting slurred and confused.

“What I really meant, was how did you enjoy dinner at the Imperial Hotel? Was dessert nice?” Persephone smiled gently. She was now enjoying Jim’s obvious confusion and discomfort and could barely contain herself and stick to her planned timings while the poison made its inexorable way through Jim’s nervous system.

Jim started to realise that something was really wrong. He stared hard at Louise, and was surprised to see that she no longer had short black hair, and was now a blonde. She looked just like someone he knew, and why was he suddenly feeling so ill? His fingers and toes and his entire face was numb and he was sweating like a pig. He was sure he was about to vomit, but he couldn’t seem to get up the energy.

Persephone watched the truth dawn on Jim as the horror took hold. She was delighted. This was everything she had wanted from this scene.

“Hello Jim, remember me?” She smiled sweetly, but it looked to Jim like an evil grin as she got up and came around the desk, laying one cool hand on his sweaty burning cheek.

“I’ve never been one to let a bad deed go unpunished, and being a bit competitive, I always like to up the ante. You gave me rohypnol before you raped and beat me, but I reckon that’s just child’s play. You played the date rape drug and I raise you a lethal poison”

As she spoke softly to him, she bent down and fastened his wrists and ankles with plastic cable ties to the arms of the mock Edwardian chair she had specially ordered.

Jim tried to move as she was trussing him, but his arms and legs felt like they were stuck in tar. He was finding it difficult to breathe and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets as the terror increased and he fought for breath.

Persephone continued in a calm even tone, “The trouble is that I don’t want to rape you back, even if I could, so this is my retribution. I understand that Tetrodotoxin takes a few more minutes before it kills you, Jim, but now that you are completely unable to resist, it occurred to me that a much more fitting way for you to die would involve some sort of penetration – just for balance, you realise.” She laughed loudly at her own joke.

Now, to Jim’s ever increasing terror, Persephone produced the knife she had purchased in Tokyo on the way over and had stored in the desk under the manila folder.

“This is just a holiday memento,” she said coolly as she inserted the tip of the 4 inch blade through his ribs and up towards his heart. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “I hope you got some pleasure out of raping me while I was incapable of resisting. But I bet it was nothing like how good this feels for me.”

She pushed gently, feeling the slight resistance as the knife pierced his chest wall, then she kept going until the ornate hilt was pressed up against his starched white shirt. Just like they had trained her, years ago in Hereford.

Persephone watched as Jim’s expression faded with the poison taking full control of his facial muscles and then his heart stopped. There was remarkably little blood coming out of the wound in his chest, and the high back of the chair was holding his head at a slight angle. If you didn’t know he was dead, it wasn’t obvious on first glance. She stood back, admiring her handiwork, pleased that she hadn’t even made a mess of Gervais’ interior decorating efforts.

“And that’s what happens when you fuck with me” she told Jim’s dead body, “you fucking bastard rapist prick!” She was surprised to find tears running down her face. This wouldn’t do at all. She was now a double murderer and both of her victims heartily deserved their fate, but why was she crying?

She didn’t have the time to deal with this right now as she had a crime scene to clear up and a plane to catch. Drying her eyes and banishing all emotion, she quickly retrieved the cleaning items from her bag and put her wig on again. She used the small vacuum cleaner to pick up any stray hairs that might have fallen out when she had removed the wig – it had been a vanity, but worth it just to see the look on his face as he realised who she was. Emptying the dust into a ziploc bag she put both into a shopping bag to be disposed of on the way to the airport. She then put on rubber gloves and thoroughly cleaned the rest of the office, making sure that she left no trace of herself, both in the office and the reception area. Wiping the outside door handle clean, she wheeled her suitcase to the lift. It was now 8pm, and the concierge was finished for the day, so the only things she had to worry about were the security cameras in the lobby. She had taken care not to show her face on every occasion she had been through the lobby and in any case, the heavy makeup and wig were doing a great job of disguising her true looks.

Having dumped the vacuum cleaner in a rubbish bin a couple of blocks away at the back of a restaurant, she caught a cab to Paddington station to avoid the CCTV on the London Underground. At the station she went into the Ladies toilet where she removed the wig, cleaned off the heavy makeup, changed into casual slacks and blouse, dropped the plastic bag from the dust-buster into the waste paper bin and took the train to Heathrow. Within an hour, Dr Jane O’Mara boarded the plane, welcomed back by the very flight attendant who had saved her from Sleazy Bastard on the trip to Tokyo.

“Would Dr O’Mara like another cup of our premier Yonetsuru sake?”

Persephone reflected on the day. Up until she had plunged the knife into Jim’s chest, she had been able to justify her actions by convincing herself that this was all for the greater good. That wasn’t true for Jim’s death, as she knew deep down at the core of her being that this had been purely about revenge. What did this make her – had she crossed the line into becoming evil herself or could she still keep up the façade of being its avenger? How was she going to face Isaac and Reg? She decided that this was all too hard to deal with at that point, as she was still hyped up from the killing and clean-up, so she silenced her demons by drinking sake all the way to Tokyo, boarded the final leg to Sydney and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Getting Away with Murder

At home in her flat, Persephone logged onto the UK Telegraph web site. There on the front page was the welcome headline, “Businessman Murdered – Police Baffled.” The story went on to say that apart from a Japanese dagger that had been found at the scene, there were no other clues and Police were keen to speak to an English businesswoman who was linked with the premises.

There were several video versions of interviews with Gervais who was highly entertaining as he covered his face with his hands as he exclaimed, “She was sooooo gorgeous, with exquisite taste! OMG! To think that I kissed an actual murderer! She could have killed me, you know, but maybe I impressed her with all my beautiful things for her office. Actually, Mr Clayton’s dead body looked quite striking in that Edwardian chair…oops, I really didn’t mean that to pop out!”

Over the next couple of days, the story slipped from the front pages, until an investigative journalist revealed in salacious terms that the murdered man, far from being an innocent person, was being accused of numerous counts of date rape, with women from his office, friends of his wife and others now coming forward to tell tales of friendly drinks that had led to vicious assaults and amnesia after Jim had spiked their drinks. The police were now saying that the Japanese dagger may have been related to another incident that may or may not have taken place during his recent trip to Asia. They were keen to implore women in similar situations not to take matters into their own hands if they were assaulted, and to come to the police, who would ensure that the matter was properly dealt with. This statement was treated with derision by a number of radical women’s groups and a small spate of stabbings broke out perpetrated by women who accused the person they stabbed of having raped them. This quickly died down again and people went back to their normal lives, such as they were.

Nobody knocked at Persephone’s door to accuse her and within a month, it was if Jim Clayton had never existed. Persephone was relieved to have gotten away with this second murder and although she occasionally suffered pangs of regret, they were mostly about putting herself in the situation where Jim could rape her and never about killing him. It had, however, left her feeling empty inside and she now felt she was living a life apart from the rest of the human race, unable and unwilling to risk any real connection with another person. Even her friendship with Isaac became quite strained until one night when Isaac confronted her.

“Persephone, I know what you did. I’m not sure why, but I know you would have had a good reason. I did a bit of research and found that Jane O’Mara made another trip overseas, this time to England via Tokyo. I read what happened to Jim Clayton and given the latest news to come to light, I can only guess what he did to you. Please know that I will always be your friend. There is nothing you can tell me that will change that and I will protect you with my dying breath.”

Persephone was aghast. Not so much at Isaac’s declaration, but at how easy it had been for him to put it all together.

“Oh God! They will find me and put me in jail! What am I going to do now?”

Isaac comforted her. “They will never find out. Only I know about the O’Mara link and I am not going to tell anyone. I know you’re scared and feeling alone. You don’t have to be as I am with you and am not going anywhere. You can trust me.”

Persephone was only partly reassured. “But I can’t put this stuff on you! I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want you involved in this side of what I am. I love you as if you were my brother but I don’t know what to do now.”

Isaac took her in his arms and held her to his chest. “I am involved. You can’t change that and I don’t want you to. You need someone to share this with or you’ll go nuts. Talk to me.”

Persephone broke down in tears. She hadn’t realised how close to the edge she had been and was so grateful to have someone to share this with, she blurted out the whole story. At the end, as she gulped and sobbed, Isaac stepped back and held her at arms length, both his hands on her shoulders.

“Look at me.”

Persephone saw an Isaac she had never seen before. In front of her, his eyes were black with fury and his jaw was clenched.

“If I had known about this, I would have killed the bastard myself with my bare hands. He was lucky you got to him first. I would have made him suffer for days before I finally tore out his heart in front of him, not just slipped a little knife in there.”

Something changed in Persephone as she looked as Isaac. She really couldn’t fathom what she had done to deserve a friend like this, but she was going to stop teasing him and become a better friend to Isaac. He was right, she thought, I really need someone to share this stuff with or I will go completely bonkers, and nobody else, especially not Reg, is going to want to hear this.

“Thank you Isaac. I needed to hear that. I promise I won’t hide things from you any more.” Persephone emphatically stated. She even meant it at the time

There was still plenty to do. Isaac had helped Persephone set up some overseas accounts to hold the money from Craig’s fraud. Along the way, he found another million in life insurance that Craig still had as part of his job at Élan, and as it was an annual policy it had not yet lapsed.

Isaac created a fictitious long lost brother for Craig called David, who lived in Thailand. He fabricated just enough documentation to satisfy the insurance company; then he submitted a claim for the life insurance. There was a bit of a hitch when Kylie in the claims department, swore that Craig had never mentioned his brother when he had been dating her, so Isaac had to pay a mate in Bangkok to make an irate phone call pretending to be David Sellars, demanding that Élan not exacerbate his grief and distress by unreasonably denying him. Getting a bit creative, ‘David’ told the insurers that he needed the money to set up a charitable foundation in Thailand in Craig’s name to teach young Thai women to surf, thus providing respite from the tyranny of their day jobs working as prostitutes. This completely outrageous tale actually aligned with several Facebook posts that Kylie had made over the past year or so as she encouraged her friends to support a number of causes in support of helping unlucky Asian sex workers across the region.

So with a bit of luck and some of Isaac’s effective research, the ridiculous story hit just the right buttons for the self-absorbed claims clerk and she signed it off, netting him a million-dollar payout. Ironically this was through Isaac’s use of a variant of the very fraud that Craig had perpetrated. As they were sitting on the balcony at Isaac’s flat, Isaac gave Persephone the news about the bonus million-dollar payout, telling her he was about to put it in her new bank account later that day. To Isaac’s amazement, she was furious.

“Who do you think I am, Isaac? Why do you think I did this? Do you think I am that greedy, you bastard? I started going down this path because greed drove Craig to kill two people and greed was driving him to plan to kill at least ten more. This was never, ever about making money for me.” She paused, glaring at Isaac.

“Let me tell you something really important. I have fundamentally changed the direction of my life as a result of these last few months. One of the big commitments I made to myself when I came back from London was my future would now be dedicated to avenging the victims of the greedy bastards who have taken their crimes from the boardrooms to the real world where people get hurt and killed. I can live with what I have done, but only because I am serving a greater good. You took that million bucks, just because you could. This is completely different to what I am doing and why. This is just a game to you, isn’t it? Never, never forget, Isaac, it’s deadly serious to me.”

She stopped and looked at the expression of sadness and shame written on her friend’s face. She realised that she had come on very strongly, but was glad that she had got it off her chest. Isaac was a dear friend, but he was also a professional villain. For too many years he had earned his living skating very close to, if not over, the line and was perfectly comfortable on either side of the law. Persephone was not the same. She needed Isaac to understand this and respect her rules so that they could continue to be friends and work together. She saw that Isaac was nodding to himself, and she took that as a sign that he had heard and understood at least part of what she had just yelled at him.

In the mean time, though, there was the million dollars to deal with.

“You should keep this Isaac, you’ve certainly earned it”

Isaac, still smarting from the tirade answered, “Don’t need it, don’t want it, thought you would like it, that’s the only reason I went after it.”

Persephone thought a bit and came up with an idea: as Alice Jones had been the one to kick this all off, despite being a hopeless junkie, perhaps they could give the money anonymously to a local charity that helped out kids in this situation. Persephone had heard quite a bit over the years about a man called Father Chris Riley who had founded a fantastic organisation called Youth Off the Streets. They had a button on their web site for making donations, and it took Isaac only a few minutes to make a one-time million-dollar payment from one of his untraceable credit cards in the name of Joseph B Lowe.

“That should give them something to celebrate,” said Isaac, “I hope they spend it wisely. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry.”

The following night on the news, an ecstatic Father Chris Riley was featured waving a printout with the anonymous donation. He said he understood that the donor did not want to be known, but he and thousands of children thanked them from the bottom of their hearts. Even Isaac felt good.

Although she could now afford to move up-market, Persephone loved her flat in Surry Hills and decided to stay, although she treated herself to a new bathroom with a nine-function shower and spa bath. She was still lonely though and quickly became bored and she decided she was ready for her next challenge, so back she went to the Royal to catch up with Reg.

Her timing was impeccable. The verdicts had just been handed down in the Élan property scandal case and Reg was the toast of Police Headquarters. She found him sitting at the corner table where she had last left him before her life had changed.

“Persephone!” Reg exclaimed, extracting himself from the attempted embrace of a violet-coiffed harpy, “Where have you been for the past couple of weeks? How are you? Come and have a beer!”

Persephone strolled over, nodding coldly at the desperate hopeful, who got the message and made her parting excuses, and sat down in the seat she had just vacated. She looked over at the bar to see Tom already with the beer and wineglass in hand, heading her way. Thanking Tom, she gave him a hefty tip.

“It’s great to be back Reg, I see you are quite the local hero.”

Reg tried to look embarrassed, but failed. He was delighted to see Persephone again, and had been worried that something had happened to her. “What have you been up to?” he tentatively enquired.

“Well I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” was the cool response. He waited a bit longer, but Persephone was not going to be drawn. He realised that this was how it was going to be with this woman and decided that he was okay with that. There was probably some truth in the old saying of ‘what you don’t know won’t kill you’, or at least won’t compromise your career.

“So tell me about what happened when you looked into that nasty property scam” Persephone asked, “I read a bit of information in the papers, but they never have the full story. It looked on the surface like a pretty complex setup, so it must have taken a fair bit of ingenuity and effort to unravel it.”

Reg, like all people, was not immune to flattery, even when he recognised he was being stroked, so he proceeded to give Persephone chapter and verse on the investigation. He was a bit indiscreet, but then again, it was Persephone who had brought the case to him and they were now convicted and probably heading for jail so he felt pretty safe sharing with his new friend.

Maria had been on the money. With some help from the boys at the Fraud Squad, Jimmy had unravelled the crime. By checking records of properties sold for well below market value following a fire and matching them with records of insurers who had paid out on policies, the boys had found over twenty families and elderly people who had been conned by the Prentice’s scheme.

The best one was the case of Agnes Strange from Dover Heights. Agnes was a 91-year-old widow who had owned a fairly small family house on a huge block with views overlooking the whole of Sydney harbour. It had burned down eight months ago and her family had used the opportunity to move Agnes into a small unit in a retirement village just around the corner, plonking the rest of the money into a family trust. The insurance company were fighting the claim, saying that Agnes had caused the fire herself by smoking in bed. Even though she was a non-smoker, when a developer offered the family a fraction of what the site was worth and told them they would deal with the insurance company, they jumped at the chance. That way they would get their hands on the family inheritance before Agnes died.

Agnes, although she was getting on a bit, was still in possession of all her marbles and was really pissed off about what had happened. She hated the oldies village and missed her large garden that she had looked after for over 50 years. on one of her daily walks she decided to go and see what they were doing to her old home. She was really shocked and upset. They had bulldozed the whole block, destroying the garden and the beautiful Moreton Bay figs that shaded the bench her husband had made for her golden wedding anniversary. In its place was a set of six towering townhouses. The sign on the fence at the front showed pictures of interiors with harbour views and stated prices of above four million dollars for each one.

Agnes was as mad as a cut snake. She had received less than a million dollars for her home and the developers were going to make at least millions. She was also pissed off that her spoiled son and daughter had locked her up in the retirement home. She stood on the footpath next to the fence and cried. She walked slowly back to her prison and decided to do something about it.

Agnes looked like a frail elderly woman whose French origins were hard to pick from hearing her speak, but inside she was still the fierce and intelligent member of the French Resistance from World War II. She had spent all that time blowing up and setting fire to as many German military installations as she could. So she had the knowledge and skills to improvise and make bombs out of whatever she could lay her hands on.

The following day, she went back to the site and by chatting up a young man who was going in with a load of bathroom fittings, got an introduction to the site manager. She told him that she was the previous owner and would love to see what they had done as it looked amazing.

“It’s remarkable what you young people come up with, dear. This looks absolutely beautiful!”

The site manager was in on the scam and was a bit worried when Agnes turned up. His first thought was to keep her away, but as he looked at this frail and slightly dotty old lady, he realised that the best thing to do would be keep her happy so she wouldn’t come back later with someone who might look a bit more closely at what was being done. He went off and found a hard hat and took her on a tour of the site. Agnes was really grateful and went on and on as to how beautiful everything was. She was keen to see the tool shed as well, saying, “My husband, God rest his soul, was a keen handyman, but I think tools have changed a bit since he passed away. I could tell him tonight when I talk to him about what sort of things you use these days.”

The site manager was a little puzzled, but as she was clearly cuckoo, there was probably no harm. He showed her the equipment and even explained how some of it was used. After this, Agnes thanked him and left, a spring in her step. She now had a plan.

Agnes then bought herself a black tracksuit and hoodie, then went to Bunnings and bought a set of bolt cutters. She went back to the site at night and broke into the tool shed, which had all the things she needed to pay the bastards back. Rigging the oxy tanks to a homemade fuse, she piled up cans of paint. She found a small can of petrol, opened it and splashed it around. She wanted to make the biggest possible bang. She figured the fuse would take about an hour to ignite the oxy tank, so she shut the shed door, hung the padlock back on and walked slowly back to her unit.

About 45 minutes later, the entire block was awoken to the sound of an enormous bang. Nobody got any sleep that night as the fire engines and police sirens went for hours.

The next morning, Agnes got up, bathed and dressed in her Sunday best and went to the Police Station in Rose Bay.

“I would like to speak with the Inspector please, I have a crime to confess.”

The copper saw this every day. The area was full of retired people living at home, in retirement villages and nursing homes and many of them would turn up and confess to all sorts of crimes and weird antics. Some of them were doing it because they were bored, others because they thought they had done something wrong and others were criminals who had gotten away with their crimes and had decided to confess to the Police as well as their local priest. So as not to upset these poor buggers, the standard process was to take their statement, reassure them that the crime would be investigated and send the criminal home.

The statements were then sent on to the appropriate Police squads. If they thought there was something to it, especially being able to close a long open case, then the detectives from that squad would interview the old buggers.

When Agnes turned up, she was given the same courtesy. Her statement was typed up, she signed it and went home. The statement, which mostly covered the arson and only briefly mentioned the property scam, was sent onto the Arson Squad, who promptly ignored it as the outpourings of a senile old lady. By sheer coincidence the following week, one of their detectives was on the treadmill next to Jimmy from Fraud at the gym and told him the side-splitting tale of the 91-year-old arsonist who had confessed to blowing up a townhouse development as revenge for being cheated out of her home by a filthy developer who was obviously in league with the insurance company. Jimmy’s ears pricked up and he went back to the office, called the Arson Squad and got hold of the statement.

Reg and Jimmy interviewed Agnes, despite Reg’s initial scepticism. Over tea and biscuits, Agnes told her tale, adding background about her wartime activities. Immediately Reg’s ears pricked up and he paid close attention.

“You know what really galls me?” Agnes asked Reg, ripe with indignation, “The bastards who are in on this are a French insurance company! After all I did for my country! You make sure they pay for this, young man!”

Reg nodded.

“Thank you very much Madame Strange, we most certainly will.”

Persephone laughed. “What did you do about the arson? Did you prosecute Agnes?”

“Don’t be a silly tart, can you imagine the public reaction if we took this lovely old duck who just happens to be a war heroine, and tried to put her in jail? In any case, Jimmy and I were more than sympathetic to her cause. What we did do for her was give her the chance to get her hands on the proper money for her home.” Reg laughed. “Funnily enough, she just said, “What would I do with twenty million dollars? Give it to my darling children who have locked me up in this bloody mausoleum?” I saw her point.”

“The funniest part, Persephone, was when we went and arrested them. The stupid bitch Sophia Prentice was hosting a dinner party at their Vaucluse mansion for a dozen or so close friends. We fronted up just as dessert was being served along with several lines of coke as a side dish. There was a local councillor and his mistress, her boss from Élan with his latest teen bride, a couple of neighbours and the Prentices, all wearing silver straws up their noses and white moustaches. They thought we were the drug squad. It was chaos. Sophia tried to make a run for it, but stilettos and marble floors are not a great combination so she collided with the maid who was trying to clear the table and went down like a sack of spuds.”

Persephone giggled, remembering the repulsive woman she had worked with at Élan for whom style was a complete replacement for substance. She would have been completely humiliated. Somehow this meant more to Persephone than the jail term Sophia was facing as well.

Reg continued his tale, “Next, she bounces back on her feet, showing us all what large amounts of cocaine can do for you. She had managed to break her nose on the edge of the table going down. As she reaches the front door, she sees herself in the huge mirror just to the left. At this point, she is covered in blood and white powder. She stops dead and tries to fix her hair, then grabs a cloth from under a vase to try to mop off the blood from her frock. The flowers go everywhere, the water soaks her as they fall, which then turns her whole frock pretty much see-through. Like she is some sort of lady of the manor, she coolly turns around to see at least a dozen cops pissing themselves laughing. She reaches into her handbag and before anyone can move, pulls out a lipstick and fixes up her face. Her nose is still bleeding all over her face, so now she decides to take her dress off so that she doesn’t get any more blood on it, hands the dress to the nearby young plod, then holds out her hands for the cuffs, just like in the flicks. The poor bloke didn’t know what to do with the dress, but luckily the maid walked over and took it from him, telling Sophia that she would get it dry cleaned on Monday.”

He continued, “So there she was, standing there clothed in just a red lacy g-string, sporting the tits of a sixteen year old, so new you could still see the scars underneath, nipples pointing to the ceiling. Quick as a flash, my young bloke says, “better get a space blanket boys – looks like she’s a bit chilly”. One of the squad – the only one not pretty much in tears at this point – went out to the squad car and brought one in and draped it round Sophia’s shoulders. The stupid bitch was pretty much out of it, so he got some gaffer tape and taped the edges together. She was standing there, bloody nose and all, looking like some sort of strange super-hero in drag when the ambos turned up and took her away. The rest of the dinner party guests were still sitting at the table, stunned into silence at the show. They dutifully filed out into the paddy wagons for the short trip to Rose Bay, where we handed the them all off to the local drugs squad, along with the bucket of cocaine that had been sitting in a bowl on the table.”

“Turns out that the coke had been supplied by some local celebrity footy player who had stopped by for cocktails earlier on in the evening but had left after dropping off the drugs and had missed the fun and games later. He was apparently not very happy to get a knock on his door at three o’clock that morning, but the TV News crew (who had mysteriously appeared) had a great shot of some handsome young bloke wearing very little else but a baffled expression as the local coppers went inside, released the furious footy star from the furry manacles on the bedhead and replaced them with NSW Police issue handcuffs.”

I tell you what, Persephone, I wish all our arrests were like this. The bloke who was filming the whole thing so we don’t get sued, reckons this will be the best Christmas party movie ever.”

Persephone guffawed. This was the funniest tale she had heard in a while. She asked Reg if Sophia would have to hand back the tits as they were clearly paid for from the proceeds of crime. Reg pondered this question, and reckoned that he would run it past the DPP and see what they said. He promised to tell Persephone the answer.

“I’ve got to say, sweetheart, that your information about that nasty mob has really helped my standing in the force. I got a call from the Commissioner saying that they were looking at me for promotion – I thought I had reached my top rank and was happily looking forward to a disgraceful retirement, but who knows, if I get to the next level my pension is much, much better and I could afford to have even more fun in a few years. The ex-missus is spewing I can tell you.”

Persephone congratulated him on a job well done, playing down her role in the situation, saying that she had only spotted the potential fraud and that it really had been him that had done the job of putting them away. Almost as an afterthought she asked,

“Did anything ever eventuate from that report about the bloke from Neutral Bay who disappeared?”

“Nope, I put a small team on it – couldn’t spare many more as we were all focusing on the property scam at the time. They are really good blokes, but they couldn’t get anywhere. There were no records of anything dodgy at the insurance company and the bloke never turned up, so there was nothing to do. It’s frustrating, as I am sure there was something going on. Your little exercise of making half the staff redundant didn’t help either; all the people who could have helped weren’t there any longer and were only interested in spending their redundancy payments and not helping my blokes.”

Persephone nodded. It looked like she was now in the clear. “So what’s keeping you up at night now that the glamour case is over?”

“Oh well, we are mostly back to the business of chasing dollars and not worrying about the victims. We get some strange ones, though sometimes.” Reg smiled, realising where this was going.

“Do tell,” Persephone leaned closer, “I’m dying to hear about this one.”

“Well, just this week, we ran into a brick wall with our investigation into corruption at that construction company…..actually, isn’t it your shout?” Reg smiled.

Persephone had no idea at that moment that she was about to become very familiar with Crowning Constructions.

Thankyou

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favourite retailer?

Thanks!

Mary Bingham

Connect with Me

Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/MM_Bingham

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You can find out more about Persephone at www.persephonestone.com

You can read the first couple of chapters of my new book, “Cruelty Kills” in the following pages. It is due for release in 2016 and you will be able to buy it at your favourite retailer as an ebook and in print.

CHAPTER ONE

A new start

Persephone switched on her radio. She wanted some distraction from the task she had set herself to clean out her home office. She had been reading from some old corporate client reports and was getting depressed. Even though they had seemed enthusiastic at the time to rid their organisations of waste, error and corruption, as time passed nothing had really changed. As if to further mock her efforts, the ABC morning announcer was interviewing Janet Goodright-McLaughlin; an ‘expert on corporate governance’ about the latest international corruption scandal to hit a global sporting body.

The announcer opened the conversation.

“So Janet. FIFA. How do you fix it?”

“Great question Linda,” said Persephone to the empty office, “this should be good.”

“Well Linda,” Janet started, “I think slowly and carefully.”

Persephone swore and threw the file she was holding at the radio. “For god’s sake! When will you people ever get it?”

The radio survived the missile and Janet continued in her calm and reasonable tone to explain that this was all quite fixable if only these bodies hired people just like her to help them see the light. Persephone stormed across the room and turned it off so she didn’t have to listen to any more of this rubbish. She returned to her desk and put her head in her hands. Was she the only person in the world who knew the truth?

After nearly 30 years of working in Corporate Australia and around the world. Persephone knew that ‘slowly and carefully’ ensured that corruption remained and that the people behind the schemes prospered. She had recently decided that trying to fix this from within as a consultant was never going to work and had taken a new approach. The directors of Élan international, the formerly successful insurance company, were languishing in jail and were no longer profiting from their illegal schemes. As well, Craig Sellars had been permanently prevented from murdering any more of the unlucky victims of his ruse to get rich quickly. She had been surprised at how easy it had been to kill him and also how simple it had been to get away with it. Her planning skills and ability to remain flexible when executing the plan, first gained in the military and then honed in her consulting career, had really paid off.

Persephone was now the grateful recipient of the millions of dollars that Craig had embezzled. It had proved far too difficult to return them as it would have exposed her role in the matter. In any case, eight million dollars was an insignificant amount to the insurance company, but was a great help to Persephone, who was using the money to pursue her new career as Australia’s avenger of corporate greed gone mad. Her new role had presented her with some challenges and she’d had to confront her own beliefs about how far she was prepared to go in pursuing her goals. She had accepted that she was willing and able to dish out the punishment to fit the crime; taking the ultimate step of removing the villains from the face of the earth was less troublesome than she had thought. The trick now was to make sure that she could continue to right these wrongs without getting caught.

Still fuming from the stupidity on the radio, she decided that she wasn’t going to get any more cleaning up done today. It was 10 o’clock and she needed a caffeine fix. Time for a trip down the road to her favourite café run by her mate Vinh the mad Vietnamese and his wife Mai the cook of the best middle eastern pastries this side of Parramatta Road. On her way out she called Isaac.

“Hey sweetheart, are you busy? We need to go through the information you have uncovered on my new target.”

“Anything for my Bubbala,” was the prompt reply, “got plenty of time? I have heaps of information.”

“Great, we can take all the time we need. I am just going to Vinh’s to pick up coffee and baklava. How about I grab some for you and jump in a cab? I can be there in 10 minutes.”

Isaac was a huge fan of Mai’s cooking so he agreed with alacrity. Persephone grabbed a dozen of the delectable pastries and a couple of strong lattes. Within a few minutes she was in the lift going up to Isaac’s penthouse apartment in the City. Isaac was one of the world’s best hackers and computer geniuses and she was sure that the information he had gleaned about Crowning Constructions was going to be gold.

CHAPTER TWO

Edward

Edward Brownlow stretched, turned over and tried to focus his scratchy and bloodshot eyes. Lying next to him on the 1,200 thread count pure Egyptian cotton sheets, face down, was a naked woman who, given the perfect skin covering a backside completely free of cellulite, was probably about the same age as his youngest daughter. This didn’t immediately occur to Edward, who was more interested in trying to recall salient details of last night’s dinner and working out where he was. It was obviously a 5 star hotel somewhere on the harbour as he could hear the special clinking sound made only by million-dollar yachts as they bumped gently into the wharf just outside his bedroom window. Sitting right next to his wallet on the bedside table, partially covered in white crystalline powder, was a room key with a large ‘W’ on the face.

“Guess I didn’t make it that far from the restaurant then,” he muttered to himself, “and this must be one of those hookers that James hired when we were finishing our cigars”

Getting up from the bed, he gave the woman a shove hard enough that she fell onto the floor. As she swore under her breath, he threw her $500 in fifties.

“That’s not going to cover it”

“I realise that you silly little cow – you came on account. The $500’s a tip. If you don’t want it though….”

The young woman grabbed at the cash, scrabbled around for her dress and shoes, threw the heels in her enormous handbag and pulled out a pair of cheap rubber thongs that clashed wildly with the gold Herve Leger bandage dress. Muttering a sullen “thanks”, she walked quickly out of the room, before the punter changed his mind.

Edward dragged his hangover to the shower, smiling to himself as he slowly recalled last night’s dinner. It had started out as a celebration of a new major contract and had rapidly morphed into a wild drunken and cocaine-fuelled romp in the famous steak restaurant on the Woolloomooloo Wharf downstairs. They had been in a private room, so the owners had been quite happy to let the boys party, even when it got quite rowdy. Edward was a regular there, and they were confident that all damages would be paid for – all they had to do was bill them under ‘beverages’. Stepping out onto the warm fluffy bathmat, Edward came back to reality with a thump as he heard the ringtone on his phone that was a signal that his wife was trying to get hold of him. Probably to give him grief about why he hadn’t come home. Again. He threw the bath towel at the phone, which muffled the sound a bit. As it rang for the third time, he debated turning it off, but as it was now 8am, he needed it on in case the office were trying to get hold of him. The last thing he needed was one of his underlings thinking that they could make a decision without clearing it with him first, just because he hadn’t answered their call!

He really was sick of Marianne and her demands. For years he had supported her and their four children, working exceptionally hard to give his family a lifestyle that most people could only dream of. All she’d had to do was make sure that their kids were suitably fed, educated and clothed while she had filled her days with whatever she wanted to do. It was just luck when that stupid little fundraising dinner she set up with her tennis-playing girlfriends had turned into one of Australia’s most high-profile charities, raising millions of dollars for underprivileged children. Being the husband of the CEO of Mums4PoorKids certainly helped him with his public reputation – it was hard at times being the ‘Mr Fixit’ of the construction industry and keeping out of jail. The publicity that Marianne got for her charity work softened his public image no end. He wondered what had happened to the beautiful and exciting young lawyer he had married and how their life now had all the trappings they had wanted, but none of the love remained. He realised that a fair bit of this fault laid with him, but seriously, he thought, women just want it all these days from their husbands: great wealth; and a man around whenever they wanted for entertainment, childcare or sex. Problem is, there are only so many hours in the day and he hadn’t been born with the proverbial silver spoon.

Now that the children had left home, Marianne seemed to want to spend more and more time with him. At the same time, Edward was starting to enjoy the freedom to do whatever he wanted, funded by his insanely large paycheck, supplemented regularly with payments from construction firms, unions and the like. His role in negotiating multi-million dollar contracts had allowed him to siphon off a number of special ‘consultant fees’ into shelf companies and the trades unions were always happy to supplement his income as long as he kept his construction sites staff only by union members. The dinner and ‘entertainment’ he had enjoyed the previous evening were rapidly becoming his primary after-hours pursuit. He was not at all interested in spending his nights in the company of his middle-aged wife with her sagging body and attempts to drag him into her boring life. He no longer cared if people thought he was a thug and a villain – in any case, he was old news. Yeas ago the Australian public had just accepted that the construction industry was corrupt and had now moved its focus onto celebrity lives, drug-smugglers and Masterchef.

That morning, he decided to get divorced. The following week, after a difficult meeting with Helen Spencer, divorce lawyer to many of Sydney’s wealthy elite, he changed his mind. Helen, despite living up to her reputation of fighting tooth and nail for every dollar for her clients, gave him the bad news on how much this divorce would cost him.

“What do you mean, half of everything? Are you kidding? The cow hasn’t worked a day in her life, apart from that stupid charity thing! I’ve paid all the bills from day dot and now you tell me that I will lose half of all my money?” He stormed around Helen’s palatial office, spitting and cursing.

“Well, Edward, there are of course things you can do if you are prepared to take a bit of time to properly secure some of your assets away from prying eyes, but realistically, even if you do that, she is going to get a few hundred mill. In any case, how closely do you want the court prying into your income and history?” Helen was well aware of who she was dealing with. “I’m pretty sure some of your business associates would not welcome any case that might shine light on your transactions with them.”

Edward was furious. He managed billions of dollars every day on construction jobs with ruthless and dangerous people and this woman couldn’t even take on his stupid fat cow of a blood-sucking wife!

“What’s more, Edward, she is a very well-known and well-respected person due to her ‘stupid charity thing’. There’s hardly a week goes by without a picture of Marianne in the social pages kissing an underprivileged snotty kid in the company of the Prime Minister or a rock star. The public love her and you will be crucified if you try to screw her in the Family Court.”

Edward started to realise he was on a hiding to nothing with this divorce. Even though he could pay Marianne off and still be a very wealthy man, his greed and stubbornness was making sure he didn’t give her a penny. He decided to go home and come up with another plan. He shook Helen’s hand, told her to send him her bill and left. Helen was very glad to see him go. She had experience of dealing with the Sydney underworld, and much preferred to keep her practice to super-wealthy celebrities and executives without Edward’s links to organised crime.

Edward walked through the door of his Point Piper mansion to be greeted by an exasperated Marianne.

“Had you forgotten dear? We are entertaining Father Josephson and Sister Andrea tonight – we are about to sit down to dinner to talk about Mums4PoorKids latest project. You’ve missed cocktails, perhaps Imelda can pour you a beer while you change.”

“You can shove your dinner up your arse!” Was Edwards shouted reply as he stormed upstairs to his bedroom, “I’m going out to eat somewhere I don’t have to deal with pious wankers who are just sucking up to you so they can piss more money away on dole bludgers and their kids.”

Marianne returned to the dining room where her guests were more relieved than offended, having had plenty of experience of the ‘real’ Edward Brownlow in the past.

Edward headed out in his Bentley to Botany, where nobody knew him and he could have some space to think. He pulled up in the car park of the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel beside a ten-year-old BMW and a shiny bright green ute. He hadn’t been around this part of Sydney for years, but it looked like it hadn’t changed much. “I could kill the bitch!” he muttered into his beer once inside, “She knows I hate those religious zealots and their so-called caring for the poor while their church is the richest institution in the world.”

He stopped. Actually that was quite a good idea. In over 30 years in the construction industry he had amassed plenty of dodgy contacts and he could think of at least three that would be quite happy to do the job for a reasonable fee. Certainly it would be less than the hundreds of millions of dollars that his lawyer had spoken of. The risk was pretty low – these guys had done a few similar jobs for him in the past and none of them had ever been linked back to Edward. He would probably just have to pay a bit more for a killing than a broken leg or arm. He realised he was hungry and asked the barmaid if they were still serving food.

“Our special tonight love, is $10 steak – pepper or Diane sauce. Chef reckons it’s really nice – fancy one?”

Edward was initially a bit turned off – this was not quite Kingsleys at the Wharf, but he was famished. “Okay, steak – no sauce – and another Carlton please.”

When it turned up, the steak proved to be terrific.

Having made the decision to kill Marianne, Edward now started to plan how to do it. Whilst it would have given him the greatest satisfaction to take one of the hideous statuettes that adorned their lounge room with inscriptions from poor kids from all over Australia, he had no intention of spending a single day in police custody, let alone jail. He had to satisfy himself with a mental image of pounding on her head until she stopped nagging. In the tradition of the construction industry that had financed his wealth, he clearly needed to outsource this task.

The construction industry was rife with thugs. Rarely did a day pass without the press reporting on union standover tactics; harassment of worksite inspectors; workers being killed in ‘accidents’, contract bribery and extortion. And that was just the stuff that got into the papers. The truth is that whilst large companies like Crowning Constructions Limited appeared squeaky clean, they maintained this image by operating at arms length from the thuggery through a range of partnerships, joint ventures and subcontract arrangements. Edward, as a senior executive with years of experience in the industry, knew exactly what was going on in the construction sites, but was careful to preserve a veneer of deniability. The unions and organised crime figures that peppered the game were quite happy with the arrangements and made regular payments to Edward and his cohorts to ensure that the status quo was maintained. As a result of these long-term associations, Edward knew just who to call to help him with his latest problem.

He made a short phone call to a man he hadn’t seen in person for several years, but who regularly sent Edward Christmas and birthday cards so that Edward knew that he was keeping an eye on his ‘asset’.

“I have a problem that I need someone to solve for me. One that needs your particular touch. Can you help?”

The person at the other end hung up. Edward was not worried. He knew enough about his contact to accept that he was not going to incriminate himself on the phone. Sure enough, the following day Edward received a call from an unknown number.

“3 o’clock at The Empire.” Then a click.

At 3pm, Edward dutifully presented himself at the iconic Kings Cross Bar. Sitting among the usual clientele of bikies, aboriginal locals and drug dealers was his contact.

“Don’t worry about this mob, they’re deaf and blind. Tell me what you want.”

Edward explained that he wanted his wife knocked off and that he would like it done while he was far away. He was heading off on a tour of a number of construction jobs across Asia the following month, so it would be particularly good if he could arrange it for somewhere towards the end of the trip. That way he could still get most of his work done before he was inevitably called back to Australia to do the grieving husband act.

His contact nodded. “Do you want her done nice and quiet, or do you need it messy?”

Edward was nonplussed. His contact continued, “look, do I just get someone to knock her over the head or do you want her raped and mutilated as well?”

Edward was horrified. “No, no! I don’t want any of that! I just want her dead with the minimum of fuss. How much will this cost?”

His contact smiled. “I reckon we can do this on tick. I’m sure we will have plenty of opportunities to make good in the future. That okay?”

Edward, still shaken from the last offer, nodded in agreement. He shook his contact’s hand and left hurriedly to get back to the safety and security of his city office. All he had to do now was wait.

CHAPTER THREE

Tony

Tony Cicerelli lugged the neatly wrapped package out of the back of the delivery van.

“Give us a hand mate,” he puffed, “This one weighs a ton!”

The driver leaned against the side of the van and lit a cigarette. “No way mate, they only pay me to drive them here. Goods handling is your job.”

Tony grunted and continued to move the package onto the trolley on his own, careful not to tear the tough plastic covering. Who knows what might leak out? He couldn’t bear to imagine. As soon as it was out of the van, the driver leaped in and drove off, the back slewing in the mud as he gunned the engine. Tony watched him leave in disgust.

“Pussy.”

He surveyed the site, bathed in the bright arc lights that turned the night into day. Good job the steel workers had gone home, he thought, they could hardly miss him manhandling this six-foot long plastic wrapped sausage into the matrix of reinforcing girders before he poured hundreds of gallons of concrete on top. With a well-practised shove, the package slipped neatly between the steel rods and came to rest with just the top of it protruding. Tony climbed over the lattice-work and jumped up and down on the bit that was sticking out until the top of the package was level with the top of the reinforced steel rods. Once he was happy with his preparation, he waved at the operator of the concrete pump. He walked over to the large silver hose and grabbed the end; he always preferred to do this part himself as then he could be sure that the bodies were properly covered before the rest of the pour was completed.

Having surveyed his work, he handed over to a younger fitter man who he left to finish the night’s work.

“See you tomorrow boys.” He called out as he climbed into his truck. He got out his smartphone to get his exact location, made a note of the time, date and GPS coordinates of the current pour in his notebook, put it in the glove compartment and headed home.

He rubbed his tired eyes as he was driving along the motorway. He really was getting too old for this shenanigans. He would have loved to hand over this part of the job to one of his staff, but the less they knew about this part of his business, the better. The customers of this service also demanded personal attention to the job and Tony was in no position to argue. Since his first foray into the concrete coffin business ten years ago, he had been handsomely paid for his services by some people to whom you don’t say no. He remembered how it had started all those years in the past.

Tony slammed the phone down, “Useless bankers! Can’t wait to be your ‘partner’ when times are good. Then as soon as you need them, it’s all ‘Sorry Mr Cicerelli, we can’t increase your overdraft’, ‘Sorry Mr Cicerelli, we can’t help you pay your staff until your client pays you’, ‘Sorry Mr Cicerelli, we don’t want to help you any more.’ Bastards!” he shouted at the walls of the demountable office. He put his head in his hands. He had more than twenty families to feed; Crowning Constructions were late in paying their bill – again – and the bank were being uncooperative. He stared hard again at the bank statements to no avail. The numbers still didn’t change and he still didn’t have enough to meet his salary bill. He considered phoning the accounts girl at Crowning again, but her really didn’t have the heart for listening to another pack of lies from some chick who was probably being lent on by her boss so that the project financials looked good for another month.

Closing his banking file in disgust, he glanced at the clock. The hands on the old-fashioned timepiece were moving towards four o’clock and he decided to give it a rest and come back tomorrow to see what cash he could wheedle out of his bank or client so that his staff could put food on the table for their families. He took out his own wallet and found $50. “Definitely beer o’clock” he announced to the empty office, “at least I can still pay for that myself.”

Tony reckoned that he would drive home and go to his local. Even though there was a great pub just around the corner from the work site, most of his men would be there having a knock-off drink and he really couldn’t face them tonight. The beer was a bit more reliable at his local and he was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces after another day out in the sticks on this motorway job. Tony was a bit of a traditionalist, and he lived with his extended family in the house that his grandfather had built in Leichhardt over 90 years ago . The house was getting a bit tight at the seams, with three generations and 8 people living in it, but deep down, he adored the atmosphere that his family generated as they fought for their places over dinner. Tony’s mother loved cooking for everyone and despite being in her late seventies, turned out Sicilian dishes every night to the delight of the entire family. It was quite funny really, as she was a third generation Australian of Irish stock, but when Tony’s father married her she avoided denunciation by the rest of the Cicerelli clan by ‘converting to Sicilian’. It was considered heresy in her house for the men to come straight home from work. She and the women of the household had to have time to get ready for them.

Nursing his second Victoria Bitter at the Royal on Norton Street, Tony the fourth generation Sicilian Australian was getting more and more glum.

“Hey mate, you look like you just copped the rough end of the pineapple! How about I get them in and you can tell me all about it.”

Tony looked up and saw his sister’s brother-in-law. Dave the Leb was a bit of a black sheep, having done a couple of stretches in Long Bay for robbery with menaces and various drug dealing offences, so he hadn’t been around for Sunday lunch in a while. Tony had always like Dave though, and despite his sister’s constant warnings to stay well away, he often had a beer or two with Dave, who he thought was funny and kind – at least he was kind to you if you didn’t owe him money for drugs.

“Thanks mate, would love a VB. Not sure if you can help me this time though.” Tony smiled at Dave, who walked up to the bar and bought a couple of beers. When he came back Tony told him about his cash flow problems. Dave listened to Tony’s tale of woe and nodded sympathetically.

“So I might be a goner this time, mate.” Tony finished up, “can’t bear to think of all my blokes’ families, it’s really tough out there for unskilled labourers. Although I reckon there’s nothing unskilled about concrete pouring. You just can’t get a uni degree in it”

“How much are you talking about?” enquired Dave the Leb. He had always kept his dealings with family separate from his business, but he could see that Tony was in a desperate state and he wanted to help. Tony had always looked after Dave when the rest of the family didn’t want to know him and he reckoned that it was about time he returned the favour.

“More than you’ve got lying around in readies.” Tony smiled, “We’re talking about nearly sixty grand. Thanks for listening though, I really needed to get it out before I went home and kicked the cat. Last time I did that my bloody missus chased me out of the house with a broom and I had to sleep in the ute!”

Dave thought a bit. He did know a way to help Tony, but he wasn’t sure if Tony was desperate enough to cross the line into the criminal world inhabited by Dave and his associates. He decided that he might as well make the offer; the worst that could happen is that Tony could be offended and turn him down, or even punch him, but he didn’t think it would come to that. Tony was really at the end of the line and he sounded like he would be prepared to try almost anything.

“Look mate….” Dave hesitated.

“Spit it out!”

“I might have a way of getting you enough cash to get you out of this hole. It might be a tiny bit illegal though. Wanna hear about my idea?”

“What’s ‘a tiny bit illegal’ Dave? Is that like being ‘a tiny bit pregnant’?”

“Well I don’t mean anything really nasty, mate and I know you’re not interested in dealing shit, it’s just that an associate of mine has a problem that I reckon you could provide a solution for, that’s all.”

“It must be a pretty big problem to be worth more than sixty grand, Dave. Thanks for trying, but I’m also no good to my blokes or the family in Long Bay for 25 years. I think I’ll pass.” Tony was laughing and Dave thought it was worth one more go.

“Look I promise it’s nothing that serious for you, just that there’s lots of money involved at his end so it would easily be worth that. No violence or drugs, I swear! Why don’t you just come and talk with him? I’ll give him a call right now.”

Tony was clearly wavering, so Dave picked up his phone and called his associate Sid.

“Hey Sid, it’s Dave the Leb. You know that problem you were whingeing about the other day, well I’m sitting in The Royal with my mate Tony – actually he’s family by marriage, yeah – Diana’s brother. Well, Tony has a contract concrete pouring business. He works for the big guys – you know, motorways, big buildings, all that stuff.” Dave paused while the man at the other end shouted something unintelligible, “Yeah mate, not going to talk about it now, but I reckon you and he should meet up.”

Dave listened some more. He pressed ‘end call’ and stood up. “Come on mate, we’re off to Redfern. Sid fancies a beer and a chat. I’ll let him tell you all about it when we get there.”

Tony got up. Looked like he was going to be late for dinner. This had better be worth it.

At The Duke of Wellington’s almost deserted public bar a very large dark-skinned man sat at a table on his own. All the other patrons were appeared to be giving him a wide berth and even Tony, who was used to working with some pretty rough-looking sorts on construction sites, was a little intimidated by this tattooed giant.

Dave didn’t appear at all worried and walked over to the man, holding out his hand. “Hey Sid, mate, how are you?”

Sid sat immobile, ignoring the outstretched hand. He looked up at Tony, “You’d be Cicerelli then?”

Tony nodded.

“Take a pew. I reckon you might be a bit of use to me and my friends.”

Tony sat down at the rickety table.

“Dave, why don’t you get Tony and me a couple of VB’s and then you can piss off.”

Dave moved with alacrity, putting the beers down on the table in front of Tony and Sid and making the universal symbol for ‘I’ll call you’, exited the pub.

After a long silence, Sid picked up his beer, drained half of it in one swallow and spoke.

“Has Dave told you about my problem?”

Tony shook his head.

“What has he told you then?”

Tony explained that he knew pretty much nothing other that the fact that Sid had a problem that was worth tens of thousands of dollars to fix and that he was there because he needed money in that sort of quantity. He started to explain about his business and the cash flow issues, but Sid waved to him to shut up. Tony got the impression that Sid already knew all about Tony and his problems and was not really all that interested. Tony was getting really nervous about what he was expected to do for Sid.

“Look Cicerelli, I’m going to tell you about a problem I’ve got. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what will happen if news of this gets out, so I know you will treat this information as highly confidential. It really wouldn’t be good if anyone else found out, and I would know where to come if that happened.” His face contorted into what was supposed to be a smile, but to Tony looked like a terrifying scowl. Tony nodded, still none the wiser.

Sid then explained that he was a distributor of all sorts of illegal drugs and that Dave was one of his mid-level dealers. Dave was a reliable bloke to deal with, but Sid had recently had some issues with a couple of front line dealers who had decided to stick the merchandise up their noses or into their arms or whatever rather than sell it. They had been therefore unable to pay the distributors and Sid was out of pocket for a very large sum.

Tony nodded – he knew exactly what it was like when your customers didn’t pay up.

Sid further explained that he was not really worried about the hundred grand that they owed him – that was chump change to him, but he had had to set an example in case any more dealers thought that they could emulated these two idiots.

“So I had them knocked of course.” Sid casually informed an increasingly frightened Tony.

He went on to clarify that the Police were well aware that these men had been killed, if not by Sid himself, then at least on his orders and were actively pursuing him in an attempt to charge him with their murders. The thing they really needed were the bodies and Sid currently had them in a freezer in a mate’s garage.

A light was starting to come on in Tony’s head. Sid seemed like an old-fashioned sort of criminal and he was clearly looking for an old-fashioned solution. How much more traditional could you get than burying bodies in concrete?

As he realised what Sid was asking him to do, Tony was simultaneously horrified and relieved. Horrified that he was being asked to deal with dead bodies, but relieved that at least they were already dead and neatly wrapped up – putting them into the concrete foundations at the motorway site should be a piece of cake.

“I can see that you are working out how you can do this Tony, so do we have a deal? I reckon you need about sixty grand to get you through the next month, how about we call it a round one hundred? Who knows, I may have more delinquent dealers in the next weeks.”

Tony, feeling like this was all a bit scary, but had worked out that saying no to Sid had never really been an option, agreed. Sid finally stuck out his hand and gave Tony a bone-crunching squeeze. “Your shout – reckon you can afford it now.”


Greed Kills

In this book you will see how a simple insurance fraud spirals out of control, turning a small-time larcenist into a calculating killer. As my new friend Reg gives me the opportunity to put this right, I find out that corporate avenging can be every bit as dirty as the crimes and criminals I am pursuing. It takes all I have to remain true to my cause. Helped by my best mate Isaac, the top hacker with links to the mysterious Jewish criminal underworld, I find the villain and avenge his victims in the only way that really counts. I throw Reg a bone – who doesn’t want to get back at the human resources director? Hopefully this will keep him interested enough to keep giving me the cases from his ‘too hard basket’. Gripping, amusing and challenging, this first book will make you think about what really goes on behind boardroom doors in the cities of this world. You will be dying to read about the next piece of mayhem and murder I uncovered in the construction industry.

  • ISBN: 9781311537997
  • Author: Mary M Bingham
  • Published: 2015-12-21 04:40:34
  • Words: 78078
Greed Kills Greed Kills