The Dragon Lady
AVAILABLE SPRING 2024
Three days earlier, about four-thirty in the afternoon, the offices were emptying. The computer whir had stopped. Drawers opened and desks cleared. On a Friday no one stayed late. Noise levels in the corridors swelled with the clatter of heels and the echo of jumbled words.
On the ground floor Morris Peterson stood in the corridor off the main atrium. Standing in front of the closed lift door, the cuffs of his white shirt rolled back just once. Top button undone with a red tie dragged down loose. Sweat marks just visible under his arms and down his back. A reddish, damp face. Portly would be a fair description. In any event his stature would certainly benefit from exercise, gentle though so not to risk criticism of overexertion. That and of course reining in a surfeit of takeout food. He shifted his feet endlessly. Clenched knuckles white as he waited. He thought of the phone call. First the silence. Then the ranted threats. Then the ‘this is what will happen’ and that had made him shiver. Four-thirty and all the movement was heading out. What did the lack of jacket say apart from nervous heat? No home time for Morris just yet, he had things to do that required privacy. And the deli-bag clutched in his left hand indicated that maybe he would be there for some time yet.
Outside, a way down the street the SUV was parked facing the sprawling, dreary, brick and glass monstrosity so proud of its award winning credentials. The blond haired man in the passenger seat held his phone ready while staring towards the building. Noticeably, the tip of his index finger was missing. The finger on his right hand. Behind the wheel his partner played with the controls, flicked switches, rummaged through the door pouch and tray behind the gear stick.
“What do you know?” he said, holding up an empty packet. “Who’d have condoms in their car?”
“For the lady with dirty shoes,” replied the blond man indicating the footprints spread wide on the ceiling above the passenger seat. Two short oval dusty marks each with a one inch or so square mark maybe two inches back.
“Expensive car. You’d have thought they could afford a room.”
“Assignations matey. Secret. Hotels have to be paid for. Loose ends and you know all about them, don’t you. That’s the rule, isn’t it? Why we’re here. No loose ends.”
“Yeah? What about an empty condom packet then? That’s a bit loose, isn’t it? And the footprints.”
“Fella’s dumb for sure. Stupid. We know that. It’s obvious. Why leave your keys on top the front wheel?”
The blond man checked his phone.
“Not yet… Must be soon though. Look at all the sheep.”
The lift binged. The door slid with a rattling thump and the lift contents spewed into the corridor to flow towards the atrium, past security, cram through the tall glass double doors set in the centre of the wide, double storey glass wall and into the tranquil place. The tranquil place designed with care, the blurb said, to give employees a place to de-stress. That was what it said. De-stress. Surely there must have been a better way to describe it. Maybe involving fumes and noise.
The protesters had already left. Their departure timed to reach the cocktail bar in time for cocktail hour. Surprisingly they left no mess. No torn banners or worn out placards. No wrappers or paper cups. The tranquil place, the plaza, with its benches and raised flower beds and meandering paths positioned neatly between the main road and car park where traffic noise sucked away what remained of any tranquillity the protesters had left behind. The bus coughed a cloud of grey diesel fumes as it slowly accelerated being swelled by its latest load.
Morris did not enter the empty space but let the lift go, being called up to another floor to transport the next batch down. He just waited. Shifted right to the next lift and waited. The same bing and he stepped back. Let the occupants stream past. The lady in the blue coat. Scarf around her neck. Not for warmth. That was not needed. But for style. Even though it made her hot.
She swished her head, settling her hair and said, “Morris… How nice.” Then embarked on a stream of expletives that fortunately fell mostly on deaf ears. Two of them belonged to Morris. He maintained composure and smiled into her face with his head tilted slightly to one side. The only person to really hear was the security man behind his desk in the middle of the atrium, ticking names, sitting in the glare that emanated from the expanse of glass. He glanced their way. Caught a few words, frowned, then resumed his examination of security tags.
The lady paused for breath and Morris said, “So nice to see you… Goodbye,” pressed the button and waited the few moments for the door to open with his back to the lady and tapping his foot. As the doors slid back she moved her mouth as though to say some more but turned and stormed towards the exit dropping her tag in the tag-leave slot in front of the security desk where it slipped neatly into the hands of the security man who time marked her departure.
Entering the lift Morris pulled the pay as you go phone from his trouser pocket, pressed call next to a stored number. His voice shook as he said, “She’s leaving,” and hung up. The smile he felt forming as the lift accelerated was tinged with regret.
The security man scowled, remembering parts of the conversation. Watched the lady through the tall glass windows then glanced at the space where Morris had stood. Stopping just outside the door the lady smoothed her blue coat, re-positioned her scarf and took a couple of long, deep breaths. Checked her reflection, shifted a few strands then headed down the easy rise steps.
The blond man only said one word then put his phone into his jacket pocket. Brushed flat the pocket flap and nodded at the driver who fired up the engine. The SUV slowly accelerated.
The lady crossed the plaza past a couple seated. Chatting on a bench. Drinking coffee from paper cups. Past a raised bed with thick bushy shrubs. Flowers just opening from swelling buds. Briefly she slipped from view. The SUV continued to gather speed. Reaching the pavement she turned left striding next to a high brick wall. Heels clacking on the slabs. Phone in her hand punching numbers. The wall, a screen wall, maybe six feet high marked the edge of the car park.
Suddenly the SUV engine roared. She looked around. Saw the silver mass. Had no time to react or scream. The car jumped the kerb crushing her against the wall. The phone flew from her hand with a man talking. Holding her upright the car shifted her maybe ten feet, dragging her along the brickwork, before swinging back onto the road letting her drop in a slumped heap. Tyres smoked as it disappeared around the first corner. The two people on the bench stood. One raced to the ruined lady unmoving on the pavement. The other hit the same button three times and asked for police and ambulance.
Five floors up Morris stood looking out of the window. The smile had gone, replaced with a look of genuine sadness and a feeling that his greed had got him into something that had slipped so far out of his control he would never sleep again.
Sometime later the first loose end was tidied up with the smell of burning rubber and crackling undergrowth on a vacant plot almost out of town and certainly out of sight of any CCTV.
Three nights later around four early Tuesday morning a cop by the name of Wakes stood in the glare of an arclight, looking at the white sheet, listening to the forensics officer in the white overalls tell him everything he already knew. The man was dead. Shot twice. Neat group around the heart. Probably 9mm flat points but needed lab confirmation. No ID. Cheap throw away petrol station watch. A nothing special black tracksuit and trainers. No idea where he had come from except that direction. No idea where he had been heading except that way. Conclusion: a professional shooter. Not a robbery. The man died after a long chase from somewhere. One more thing: No phone. Where was the phone? Everyone has a phone.
Most people had drifted off. Curious people who had heard the noise. Maybe the cool early morning air had something to do with that. Or perhaps the officer telling those who had no input to go home. Witnesses who lived close by stayed. They all said the same thing. They did not see anything but heard. It woke them up. Loud bangs and squealing tyres. A range from one to six shots depending how interested they were or how excited they got. The mean: Four shots. Two real loud. Big calibre Wakes thought and two not so loud cracks. The loud shots first. One thing they were all sure about: There were two men and one car. Two thought a BMW and one thought a Mercedes. One thing they all agreed on. It was silver. Everyone had gone except the lady who stuck around sitting in the passenger seat of his beaten up old Ford. At one time it might have been a bright shiny red. Now it was just dull.
The white suit stopped talking and Wakes nodded and friendly punched his arm. Walked back to the Ford. The policewoman smiled as she slipped from the driver’s seat. He sat behind the wheel. The right side of his brown leather jacket snagged the door as he closed it. Opening the door he tugged the jacket in and cursed at the scratch.
“Tell me what you saw again Mrs Carter,” he said. He had seen her shaking when he had sat her down. The tears on her cheeks. That had been a while ago. She was calmer now. Maybe her thoughts would be more concentrated. “Sorry for the wait. Now, take your time. There's no rush. You live in the flats opposite?”
“Yes. First floor.”
“You said about coming out and finding the man.”
“I heard the car. Its tyres were squealing. I heard shots and came onto the walkway and saw the men. Not a good look though. It was dark and the headlights just made them look like shadows. One had come from the car in the middle of the road. It had its headlights on full. The other ran from that way. They were standing over him. I shouted. One looked up. The one from the car. He saw me. I shouted again. He looked again and I saw he was talking to the other one. They both left in the car heading that way. Away from the river. I came out. The man was shaking. There was blood everywhere. He grabbed my arm and spoke.”
“Would you recognise the men again?”
“No. They were hidden in the glare.”
“Can you remember what he said?”
“He said to tell them to find the dragon lady. That she had the answer.”
“Did he say who she was, the dragon lady?”
“No, that was all he said. Then… “ She put her hands on the sides of her head and started sobbing. “That poor man,” she struggled to say.
“Have you anyone at home?”
“No, but I’ll be all right.”
“I’ll ask the policewoman to stay for a while. It’ll help.”
As he watched her walk away he was thinking about the phone. Did they take it? If not he must have dropped it or did he dump it? Either way when it was light he would walk the streets and have a good look. He might get lucky. Checked the mirror and caught the tired look and ruffled black hair. Smiled at the good looking face roughed up by lack of sleep and stress. So that’s what I’ll look like in ten years when I’m fifty, he thought. Then thought about sleep, a shave and a shower. Then a new day and sighed.