With one professional and practised sweep of her grey eyes Helena checked out the VIP lounge at Barcelona airport then lowered herself into one of the smart leather chairs. She sat well away from everyone else and sipped her strong espresso. No one noticed the business woman in her navy suit. But if they were observant, they might recognise this season’s designer silk scarf by Ferragamo and shoes that were handmade. Not the obvious outfit for an assassin. But then Helena did not conform to the stereo-type glamourised by TV and films, depicted in black leather and boots. She looked down on the crowd below; the executive lounge was built a level above the main concourse with full length plate-glass windows, completing the sense of voyeurism. Helena was angry and impatient to be back in London. This latest job – all the meticulous planning wasted for no reward, someone was going to pay.
The day before she had taken the Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord crossing Paris to Gare d’Austerlitz and caught the overnight train to Spain. Helena often travelled by train, security was less stringent. It also gave her time and space to go over all the details of the hit. As she lay in the compartment she let the rhythmic sway of the train form part of her mental shut down exercise, clearing her mind of all extraneous trivial matters.
From the Franca train station in Barcelona, it was a short walk to the rendezvous point. Even this early in the morning Helena could feel the beginnings of the heat of the day as she entered the narrow winding streets of the Gothic Quarter. It took ten minutes to reach the Cathedral. She was early. Inside there was an aroma of incense and candles. She walked up the south aisle pausing at one of the small side shrines to the Virgin Mary. Helena was not religious – how could she be in her line of work? But whenever in a church she lit candles. She put five euros into the box and took three candles. One for her father, killed by a bullet in Northern Ireland, one for her sister, who had swum out to sea too far and one for Jack. She bowed her head in the merest gesture to prayer. This done she walked on through the choir stalls and turned right into the cloister. Here there was dappled shade and the sound of water. She leant over the stone balustrade and breathed.
Her contact was 5 minutes late. He looked younger than the photo sent through by the agent. He put his hand out to shake hers; she did not proffer her own gloved hand.
“I am sorry I am late,” he said trying to control his breathing.
“Ashall Khan sent you?” Helena asked.
“No, Ben Ashall.” The concern in his voice was obvious.
Helena looked at him over the top of her sunglasses. And gave him a curt nod.
“Just testing, you have something for me”
The young man slid his hand along the stone balustrade towards her and she felt the nervousness in his fingers; they trembled. She took the brown A5 envelope, inside was an invitation on crisp white card, all was in order.
“Ashall said I was to come with you”
“No.” Helena said.
“But, Ashall said.” The young man trailed off. Helena had turned and was already making her way back along the cloister to the Cathedral. The young man hurried after her.
“I am meant to come with you.”
“I said no. I don’t need any help. I told Ashall when I took this job I work alone. Go home.” She looked at him. He couldn’t be more than nineteen, twenty at most, someone’s son. What was he doing working for a man like Ashall? How had he got into this business? How did anyone get into this business? The young man frowned and Helena could see there were already lines forming across his brow and down between his dark brown eyebrows. She placed her gloved hand on his arm and with the other removed her sunglasses. Looking into his worried brown yellow speckled eyes she said. “You have delivered the envelope. What does Ashall want you to do next?”
“Just come with you, help you find your way around.”
“And track me via your mobile at the same time?”
The young man did not answer.
“Give me the phone.”
Helena scrolled through the numbers and dialled.
“Ashall, Belladonna here. Thank you for the envelope. I have,” she tilted her head and the young man mouthed his name. “Felipe here. I made it quite clear when we discussed terms. I am a one woman operation. I neither need help nor do I intend to nursemaid someone you are training. No offence Felipe.”
Felipe shrugged his shoulders.
“I will give Felipe back his phone and I will get on with the job. Comprende?”
Helena walked with Felipe to the main door of the Cathedral. As they emerged into the sunshine she adjusted her sunglasses and handed back Felipe his phone.
“Think carefully before you get into this business, it is like quicksand, it sucks you in. Ashall uses people like those flimsy plastic bags those sellers of tourist trash put their wares in.” Helena pointed to a stallholder in the square who was trying to cajole a tourist into buying a souvenir. “He will throw you away as soon as you are of no more use to him.”
Helena interrupted him. “I am from a previous generation, it’s different now. Snakes like Ashall have been and always will be the same.”
Helena watched Felipe walk across the square. He turned back three times to look at her standing on the steps. She did not move until she was sure he was out of sight.
Helena checked her watch. She was on schedule. Her target was addressing the Faculty of Economics and Business at the Pompeu Fabra University in the Roger de Llúria building. It had once been a barracks – now students learnt to make money not war. Following the address there was to be a reception. Her target would have minimal security as it was an invitation only affair. There was no CCTV in the reception space, this had been checked and double checked. Helena had her invitation in her bag, this last piece of planning was now in place.
When she said she worked alone this was not entirely true. Back in the UK there was Ian, the technical brains of the outfit. It was the perfect arrangement, he was happy sitting behind a bank of computer screens. Ian had an aversion to field work. And as far as clients were concerned The Belladonna Agency was a one woman operation. They didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, about the existence of Ian. The choice of jobs was Helena’s. Today’s target Mr Salazar, a successful businessman, was suspected of bank rolling cyber terrorism. The client had paid well to send a message to the cyber terrorist community.
There had been the standard security checks to enter the lecture hall for the address, just a bag search and metal detectors. Mr Salazar was a charismatic speaker and had talked for an hour and a half about the need for big business to have a moral conscience. Gaining entry on the other hand to the exclusive reception was a different matter. All invited guests had a personalised invitation with a unique identifier which was scanned and checked against a database. There were further metal detector and x-ray checks. Now Helena would see if Ashall had delivered. The man in front of her had his invitation swiped. She could see the screen flash up a green bar with the word ‘Cleared’. Helena waited. The security official motioned her forward and took her invitation. He passed it over the reader. There was a pause of a few seconds and then the screen flashed amber. The security official held his hand up to bar Helena’s path and in a thick accent he said.
“No entry, not allowed.”
Helena was about to speak but a large American in a six gallon Stetson behind her butted in.
“Hey, it says on the screen, ‘Check Required’, so do the check. Get on with it. Don’t keep the lady waiting.”
The official gave the American a sour look.
“Look, just do the check or whatever it is you have to do. Does she look like a terrorist?” The American waved a hand in Helena’s direction. The official consulted a sheet of paper on a clipboard, he ran a grubby finger down a list of names and numbers. And then examined Helena’s invitation. Again in his thick accent said “Autorización. Cleared.”
Helena nodded at the American and said ‘Gracias, Señor”
“My pleasure ma’am.” And doffed his Stetson.
Helena moved on through the metal detector and x-ray with no further incident and on into the reception. Ahead she could see her Mr Salazar. A group of people were gathered around him and he was looking relaxed. She took a glass of wine from a passing waiter and circled around the edge of the room, moving ever nearer her target. From her inside pocket her phone buzzed. With her free hand she fished out her phone and read the message.
“Urgent – change of plan. Call me. NOW. ”
END OF PART ONE
The Female of the Species
In Part Two find out what has happened to change the plan and what happens next.