Emily Swanson sat behind the wheel of a silver Audi, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, green eyes vivid against her pale skin as she watched the terraced Edwardian house on the other side of the road. Few streets like this remained in Hackney. World War II had seen much of the east London district obliterated by bombs, with scores of ugly tenement buildings quickly built in the aftermath to house thousands of homeless citizens. These days those tenements were used as dumping grounds by borough councils, forcing struggling families to live in a pit of knife crime and impoverishment. But this street, where Emily was currently staked out among a line of parked vehicles, was a distinct reminder of a distant, gentler Hackney.
She’d been watching the house for three hours now, the engine switched off and the cold slowly seeping into her bones. Three hours in which she’d seen the winter sun melt through the early morning darkness and scores of workers and school children hurry by, faces burdened with grimaces as they made their way towards offices and classrooms.
But there was no activity from the house in question.
Shifting her gaze for a second, Emily glanced at the empty coffee cup that was stuffed into the side pocket of the driver door. She was tired and thirsty, her back ached, and her fingers were numb. Worse still, she had a pressing need to pee that was only growing worse. Adjusting her position in the seat, she let out a long sigh and returned to watching the house.
This was the hardest part of the job—the sitting and waiting, waiting and sitting, in a vain hope that something would happen. Something that would mark another job done. This was not Emily’s idea of fun. Boredom was already setting in, and when boredom came, so did distraction, and distraction always led to mistakes. But Emily wasn’t surprised—this was the second day she’d been stationed in the street with zero activity. If she didn’t come up with incriminating evidence soon, Erica Braithwaite would want to know why.
Rubbing her frozen hands together, Emily shifted her gaze from the closed blinds of the living room, to the upstairs bedroom. The curtains were open. They had been closed a few minutes ago, she was sure of it. Which meant she was already making mistakes.
According to the case file, the sole occupant of the house was fifty-seven-year-old Brenda Carlyle. It was a big house for someone who lived alone and hadn’t had a job in several years despite being below retirement age. Through her own research, Emily had discovered the house had been signed over to Brenda Carlyle as part of an alimony agreement with her recently divorced husband. Her fifth husband.
As Emily stifled a yawn, she wondered if each of those marriages had been their own carefully executed scam. Because Brenda Carlyle had procured a long track record of clever scams, all of which she’d managed to get away with. At first glance, her history of accidents appeared as circumstantial or just plain unlucky. But as you looked closer, it seemed strange that one person could have suffered so many injuries and ailments. Over the years, Brenda had encountered broken paving stones left in disrepair by the council, food poisoning from reputable restaurants, and lately, a series of falls caused by hazardous spillages in supermarkets and department stores.
Her latest incident had involved a nasty fall in the frozen food aisle at one of the larger supermarket chains, caused by an apparently leaky freezer. Despite the freezer being checked and found without fault, Ms Carlyle had sustained numerous injuries including a badly sprained ankle and a torn ligament in her shoulder. There had indeed been water on the floor around the freezer where the woman had slipped, but where it had come from was a mystery. An even greater question presenting itself was how Ms Carlyle had sustained three different injuries in three different supermarkets over a period of three years.
It was why Emily was here now—to find answers to those questions and to ensure Ms Carlyle had no further accidents.
Her left buttock was growing numb. She shifted in the seat again, trying to ignore the pressure building in her bladder and wishing she’d made herself go when she’d stopped to grab the coffee earlier. She watched the bedroom window. Still no movement despite the open curtains. Downstairs, the blinds remained firmly shut.
“Come on . . .” Emily hissed between clenched teeth, willing the front door of the house to open as the pressure in her bladder pressed down harder. A minute later, she’d taken to jigging her foot up and down. “Screw it.”
She needed a break and the parking meter needed refilling. Grabbing her wallet, she pushed open the car door and stepped onto the road. The cold bit into her clothes as she circled the vehicle and mounted the pavement, frosty plumes billowing from her nostrils. She made her way towards the parking meter, past tall, three-storey houses and lines of barren trees, keeping her eyes straight ahead and her gait natural. She still felt conspicuous, but less so than her first stake out. Back then she’d been paranoid as hell, convinced every passer-by knew what she was up to and that every neighbour was picking up the phone to inform the police about the suspicious woman who’d been sitting in her car for four hours straight. After her second stakeout, Emily had realised that not a single person had even noticed her. After all, this was London, where ignoring others was a way of life.
She reached the parking meter. As she fished coins from her wallet and fed them into the machine with shivering fingers, she wished she’d accepted Carter’s offer of a pair of his long johns, but even though they’d been in a sort of relationship for the best part of a year now, Emily was still bringing a toothbrush when she stayed the night instead of leaving one in his bathroom; borrowing his clothes would be akin to accepting his hand in marriage.
The meter spat out a new ticket. Emily plucked it between frozen finger and thumb, then made her way back to the car. A young mother was walking towards her, pushing a toddler in a buggy. Emily watched the woman cooing and laughing as her child watched the world zip by with large, wonder-filled eyes, his tiny gloved hands clutching a stuffed monkey. Emily offered the woman a polite smile, who retaliated with a suspicious glance. London, Emily thought as she stood on the pavement, watching mother and child grow smaller. She turned on her heels. And saw the front door of Brenda Carlyle’s house swing open.
Resisting the sudden urge to duck down like a wanted criminal, she watched a glamorous middle-aged woman with coiffed silver hair and an expensive looking winter coat emerge from the harbour of the doorway and descend the steps to the street. Completely unaided.
According to the case notes provided by the insurance company, the injuries Carlyle had sustained had reportedly left her with mobility issues that required the use of a walking stick. Now, Emily watched as the woman made it to the gate in three quick strides and stepped onto the pavement. Brenda’s eyes swept the street and landed on Emily, who quickly glanced away and continued back towards the Audi.
When she looked up again, Brenda had turned in the opposite direction and was now heading straight towards Mare Street, Hackney’s busiest road, at a determined pace. A familiar rush of adrenaline shot through Emily’s veins. This was it. Proof that Brenda Carlyle was the fraud the insurance company believed her to be.
And she was getting away.
Any minute now she would reach Mare Street and she would be lost in the heaving crowds. Quickening her step, Emily made it to the car and ducked inside. A digital SLR camera sat in an open bag on the passenger seat, ready for action. She scooped it up, slung the strap around her neck, locked the car, and started down the pavement at a feverish pace.
Brenda still had distance on her side, but Emily had youth. Racing forward, she started to close the gap. Mare Street was just up ahead. Streams of traffic blocked the road. Hordes of people hurried by. In just moments, Brenda would be another anonymous face in the crowd, and any opportunity to photograph her perfectly healthy stride would be snatched away. Emily broke into a run.
Brenda was now less than ten feet from the crowds.
Emily skidded to a halt, raised the camera, and quickly adjusted the lens. Carlyle pulled into focus, just as she reached the end of the road.
“Brenda Carlyle!” Emily shouted above the din of the crowd. Just ahead of her, the older woman froze. Then turned on her heels. Confusion swept across her face as she stared into the camera lens. Emily depressed the shutter release and the camera snapped away.
Brenda Carlyle’s mouth swung open, her eyes grew wide with horror. Then narrowed with outrage.
Emily lowered the camera, and before the woman could utter a word, she turned and hurried back down the street. By the time Emily had reached the car, her heart was pounding. She’d taken a risk, but it had paid off. Brenda Carlyle’s long history of scamming was about to come to an end.
Climbing inside the Audi, Emily put the camera away, slipped the car key into the ignition, and started the engine. As the heating began to kick in, she pulled away from the kerb and started the journey back to the office, feeling neither satisfaction nor joy about solving another case. What she did feel was a sudden guilty weight pressing down on her chest, and a now overwhelming desperation to pee.