MADDY BIRCH WOULD NEVER SEE THIRTY AGAIN. NOR forty either. Stepping back from the mirror, she scowled at the wrinkles that were beginning to show at the edges of her mouth and the corners of her eyes; the gray infiltrating her otherwise dark brown, almost chestnut, hair. Next birthday she would be forty-four. Forty-four and a detective sergeant attached to SO7, Serious and Organized Crime. A few hundred in the bank and a mortgaged flat in the part of Upper Holloway that North London estate agents got away with calling Highgate Borders. Not a lot to show for half a lifetime on the force. Wrinkles aside.
Slipping a scarlet band from her pocket, she pulled her hair sharply back and twisted the band into place. Taking a step away, she glanced quickly down at her boots and the front of her jeans, secured the Velcro straps of her bulletproof vest, gave the ponytail a final tug, and walked back into the main room.
To accommodate all the personnel involved, the briefing had been held in the hall of an abandoned school, Detective Superintendent George Mallory, in charge of the operation, addressing the troops from the small stage on which head teachers since Victorian times had, each autumn, admonished generations of small children to plough the fields and scatter. The fields, that would be, of Green Lanes and Finsbury Park.
Wall bars, worn and filmed with gray dust, were still attached to the walls. New flip charts, freshly marked in bright colors, stood at either side of a now blank screen. Officers from the tactical firearms unit, SO19, stood in clusters of three or four, heads down, or sat at trestle tables, mostly silent, with Birch's new colleagues from Serious Crime. She had been with her particular unit three weeks and two days.
Moving alongside Birch, Paul Draper gestured toward the watch on his wrist. Ten minutes shy of five-thirty. "Waiting. Worst bloody time."
Draper was a young detective constable who'd moved down from Manchester a month before, a wife and kid and still not twenty-five; he and Birch had reported for duty at Hendon on the same day.
"Why the hell can't we get on with it?"
Birch nodded again.
The hall was thick with the smell of sweat and aftershave and the oil that clung to recently cleaned nine-millimeter Brownings, Glock semiautomatic pistols, Heckler and Koch MP5 carbines. Though she'd taken the firearms training course at Lippetts Hill, Birch herself, like roughly half the officers present, was unarmed.
"All this for one bloke," Draper said.
This time Birch didn't even bother to nod. She could sense the fear coming off Draper's body, read it in his eyes.
From his position near the door, the superintendent cast an eye across the hall, then spoke to Maurice Repton, his detective chief inspector.
Repton smiled and checked his watch. "All right, gentlemen," he said. "And ladies. Let's nail the bastard."
Outside, the light was just beginning to clear.
BIRCH FOUND HERSELF SITTING ACROSS FROM DRAPER inside the van, their knees almost touching. To her right sat an officer from SO19, ginger mustache curling around his reddish mouth; whenever she looked away, Birch could feel his eyes following her. When the van went too fast over a speed bump and he jolted against her, his hand, for an instant, rested on her thigh. "Sorry," he said and grinned.
Birch stared straight ahead and for several minutes closed her eyes, willing the image of their target to reappear as it had on the screen. James William Grant. Born Hainault, Essex, October 20, 1952. Not so far then, Birch thought, from his fifty-second birthday. Birthdays were on her mind.
Armed robbery, money laundering, drug dealing, extortion, conspiracy to murder, more than a dozen arrests and only one conviction: Grant had been a target for years. Phone taps, surveillance, the meticulous unraveling of his financial dealings, here and abroad. The closer they got, the more likely it was that Grant would catch wind and flee to where the extradition laws rendered him untouchable.
"It's time we took this one down," Mallory had said at the end of his briefing. "Way past time."
Five years before, an associate of Grant's, ambitious enough to try and freelance some Colombian cocaine conveniently mislaid between Amsterdam and the Sussex coast, had been shot dead at the traffic lights midway along Pentonville Road, smack in the middle of the London rush hour. After a trial lasting seven weeks and costing three-quarters of a million pounds, one of Grant's lieutenants had eventually been convicted of the killing, while Grant had slipped away scot-free.
"What d'you think?" Draper asked, leaning forward. "You think he'll be there? Grant?"
Birch shrugged her head.
"He fuckin' better be," the Firearms officer said, touching the barrel of his carbine much as earlier he had touched Birch's leg. "Feather in our fuckin' cap, landing a bastard like him." He grinned. "All I hope is he don't bottle out and give it up, come walking out with his hands behind his fuckin' head."
As the van veered left off Liverpool Road, someone toward the rear of the vehicle started humming tunelessly; heads turned sharply in his direction and he ceased as abruptly as he'd begun. Sweat gathered in the palms of Birch's hands.
"There pretty soon," Draper said to nobody in particular. "Got to be."
Conscious that the man next to her was staring more openly, Birch turned to face him. "What?" she said. "What?"
The man looked away.
Once, after a successful operation in Lincoln, her old beat, a good result, she and an officer who'd been eyeing her all evening had ended up with a quick grope in a doorway. His hand on her breast. What in God's name had made her think about that now?
"We're getting close," the driver said over his shoulder.
One side of York Way was derelict, half-hidden behind blackened walls and wire fencing; on the other, old warehouses and small factories were in the process of being converted into loft apartments. Underground parking, twenty-four-hour doormen, fifteen-year-old prostitutes with festering sores down their legs and arms a convenient ten-minute stroll away.
From the front the building seemed little changed, a high-arched wooden door held fast with double padlock and chain, its paintwork blistered and chipped. Small windows whose cobwebbed glass was barred across. Birch knew from the briefing that the guts of the place had already been torn out and restoration was well in hand. A light showed dimly behind one of the windows on the upper floor.
Either side of her, armed officers in black coveralls, the single word POLICE stenciled in white at the front of their vests, were moving silently into position.
No sweat in her palms now and her throat was dry.
"YOU BASTARD!" LAUGHING.
Wary, Vicki walked over to where Grant was stretched out on the bed, cotton sheet folded down below his waist. For a man of his years, she thought, not for the first time, he was in good shape. Trim. Lithe. He worked out. And when he'd grabbed her just now, fingers tightening about her wrist, it had been like being locked into a vise.
"C'mere a minute," he said. "Come on." A smile snaking across his face. "Not gonna do anythin', am I? So soon after the last time. My age."
She knew he was lying, of course, but complied. Vicki standing there in a silver thong and a tight white T-shirt ending well above the stainless steel ring in her navel. What else was it about but this?
When she'd first met him, a month or so before, it had been at the Motor Show, Birmingham. Vicki not wearing a whole lot more than she was now, truth be told, a couple of hundred quid a day to draw...