“A word, if you please.” The scariest phrase in the world. Apt when addressed to a technical writer, you may think. But not when that technical writer is in a deserted car park in the early hours of the morning, at a time when she usually has only the kookaburras for company. Not when that technical writer has warded off a violent attack just a few metres away from this very spot, just a few hours ago.
Two men appeared from the shadows as Trilby opened her car door. One of them was James Amity, her new boss. The other was the thug she’d fought off the previous evening. She had the bruises to show for it.
Last night, Trilby Trench had been working late at the offices of Amity Loans, a small mortgage broker in Sydney’s inner west. Trilby was following a trail of documents through her new employer’s computer system. Documents were her speciality, and these didn’t add up. She was doing her digging after hours, because she didn’t want to bill the client for the time she spent. Unless it turned out she was right and something fishy was going on. Then she’d bill them for sure.
Heavy footsteps and a slammed door alerted her to the man’s presence. He wasn’t going for stealth. Perhaps he was a security guard, thought Trilby. James Amity had talked about hiring a firm to protect the premises after hours, though Trilby couldn’t see why. There was no money on site. On the other hand, the offices were in a less than salubrious part of Sydney. Trilby’s boy friend had advised her not to accept the role, given its location in Sefton, an inner west suburb notorious for its high crime rate. However, Trilby was not one to back down from a challenge. She was between jobs and the money was good. Besides, it was a short-term contract, a few weeks at most.
Trilby half-turned towards the man as he came through the door, swivelling easily on her wheeled office chair, expecting him to greet her and walk on past. But this guy went straight into attack mode. So, not a security guard. Trilby had time to raise her arm and block his inexpert blow to her head. It was probably meant as a king hit. He’d planned to knock her out cold.
Using her office chair as a rotating platform, Trilby kept low and swung her legs out straight. Her feet, encased in sensible leather business shoes with solid heels and soles, hit her attacker’s knees. He was off balance from the misplaced sucker punch, and he went down hard. His head collided with the edge of her desk.
His rage was instantaneous. “Bitch! You’ll pay for that!” He grasped the top of her desk and pulled himself up, his face red and angry in the glow of Trilby’s desk lamp. The hard knock had raised an instant welt over his right eyebrow and across the side of his face to his ear.
Trilby grabbed a pencil from their place in a mug on her desk. No time to check if it was one of her hardest pencils. Luckily they were all in the hard to mid range. Trilby used them for drawing flowcharts and conceptual diagrams, rather than moody sketches. She clasped her fist around the pencil, and thrust the point into the intruder’s hand, which was still resting on her desk.
He grunted in disbelief, then yowled like an enraged tomcat. The pencil wobbled then fell to the floor, trailing gobbets of blood. Trilby snatched her mobile phone from its place next to her pencils, yanked the charging cable off the phone, and ripped the other end of the cable out of the wall. Thank heavens for ergonomic work spaces, with power points on a neat row above the desk. She looped the ends of the cable around each of her fists. The thug was still bent over his hand, gazing at the blood welling from it. There was a pencil-sized hole right between the tendons leading from his pointer finger and middle finger. In the centre of the hole was a black knob. OK, thought Trilby, it must have been a soft pencil. Probably my 4B. My favourite.
Trilby stood up. There was no longer any advantage in being lower than her opponent. In one fluid motion she stretched her long arms over his head, whipped the charging cable past his face, and snapped it against his Adam’s apple. One of the things she’d noticed about him, in the brief moment before he attacked her, was that his Adam’s apple was unusually prominent. She felt the cable snag up against it, then she yanked back with all her strength.
His hands flew to his neck. He tried desperately to pull the cable off his throat, grunting as his injured hand twinged in protest. Off balance yet again, he fell heavily into the chair that Trilby pushed up against the backs of his knees. She let the cable go and kicked the back of the chair, propelling chair and attacker towards the door.
The intruder had had enough. He pulled himself out of the chair, stumbled over its protruding feet, and stalked off towards the staircase. Trilby heard him muttering words under his breath, none of them complimentary.
Trilby rested against her desk, breathing a little shakily. Should have kept up those gym sessions, and had less chocolate recently, she thought. No wait, keep the chocolate. She finger-combed her short hair. No damage up there. It’s hard to spoil a style that’s meant to look edgy anyway. Her shoes were a little scuffed after their close encounter with the intruder’s denim pants and the back of the chair. Other than that, her clothing seemed to be in good shape. A classic cotton shirt and cargo pants can take a fair beating.
Who was the intruder? Not a security guard, that’s for sure. Nor did he seem to be carrying out a planned burglary. He wasn’t organised enough. Perhaps he wandered in off the street looking for easy pickings.
Trilby considered calling the police. They’d listen nicely to her description of the man, and take notes about the scuffle. Beyond that, there wasn’t much they could do. No harm done, nothing taken, that’d be their assessment. Call us if you see him again.
Fat chance, thought Trilby. If I see him again, I’ll be ready. Nobody hurts Trilby Trench and gets away with it.
Time to go home. She closed the files on her computer, turned off the monitor, and pulled the door shut behind her.
Forty-five minutes later, Trilby walked into her apartment in Pyrmont. As she shut that door behind her too, she realised that she couldn’t remember a single thing since leaving the office. She’d been in automaton mode, driving home by instinct and muscle memory. The scuffle had affected her more than she’d thought. It’d be good to talk it through with someone.
Luka Blunt was the obvious choice. He was her confidant, her lover, her friend. They saw each other a few times a week. Sometimes he stayed over at her place, but they preferred to keep their own separate homes too. For now, at least. It had been that way for two years, and no signs of changing soon. She picked up the phone.
“Blunt.” Trilby smiled. She loved the way he answered the phone.
“Luka, it’s me. Can you come over? A hug would be good. And a late dinner.”
“Sure, I’ll be right there. Everything good?” Luka had picked up a tremor in her voice.
“Fine. Never better. I’ll have the coffee ready.” As she put down the phone, Trilby was already shedding clothes on her way to the shower. By the time the doorbell rang, she had soaped and rinsed herself from head to toe, tossed two ready-meal pasta dishes into the oven, and turned on the espresso machine.
Luka Blunt was medium height and stocky. Solid. Good for a hug. Trilby took advantage of that talent as soon as she opened the door.
“Trilby, you’re white as a sheet. What happened?” Luka had had time to see her face, it seemed, before she’d wrapped her arms around him.
“I had a bit of a barney. No lasting damage. A bloke walked into the office and tried to knock me on the head.” Trilby shrugged.
“Ah. Did you see him out, then?” Luka’s tone was light, but he hugged her even tighter as he spoke. Then he pushed her gently away from him and examined her from top to toe. He saw a tall, slender woman in white tracksuit pants and hoodie. Her off-the-shoulder dark hair was still damp from the shower. Big brown eyes looked back at him defiantly. Tough and cute, all in one delicious bundle.
“Yep, saw him out good,” she said. “Come on in. Coffee’s ready, food has a couple of minutes to go.”
They settled on the couch, close as possums in a tree hollow, with their mugs of coffee. “OK, go,” said Luka. “Tell me what happened. From the start.”
“You know that contract with Amity Loans, the one I mentioned a few weeks ago?”
“The one in Sefton? The one I suggested might not be a good idea?”
“That’s the one. I took the job.”
“Of course you did.” Luka went for a noncommittal tone. It didn’t fool Trilby.
“I’ve been working there a few days now. It’s a good contract. The money is excellent.”
“It’s odd that a mortgage broker can afford to pay so much for a technical writer,” commented Luka. “How much value can technical documentation add to a business like that?” He dodged the cushion that Trilby threw at him. “Hey, you know what I mean. Don’t you usually write instructions for people about using computer systems? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a small home loans company would need.”
“They want me to spruce up their website. It’s a little different from the work I usually do, and it’s a short contract. I took it on for some light relief.”
“Light relief, huh? Looking at your pale face, and the bruises on your fingers, it seems to have become rather heavy.”
Trilby laughed. “You should see the other guy.” Her expression sobered. “The bruises on my hands are from my makeshift weapon. It’s amazing how strong a phone charging cable is. I used one to discourage the thug.”
“What was he after?”
“I don’t know,” said Trilby. “Maybe just a random robbery. He was pretty easy to discourage.”
She sat quiet for a couple of minutes, thinking back over the evening’s events. “Maybe I’m crazy,” she said slowly, “but I’m wondering if the attack was related to some files I was looking at.”
“How could it be related? That’d mean they’d have to be tracking your activity.”
“That seems unlikely. Still, it’s quite a coincidence that someone jumped me just when I’d found something potentially criminal. On the other hand, I’m not even sure I’ve found anything criminal.”
“What did you find?” If Trilby thought something was up, it usually was. Luka didn’t say that out loud. No need. They both knew it to be true.
“Some documents don’t add up. I was searching for information that I could use for the website. The guidelines they’ve given me are a bit sketchy. I found some customers’ loan applications squirrelled away amongst the notes about website content.”
“Wait, what?” Luka was usually a calm bloke, cool as a dip in the sea, smooth as a summer evening. That was one of the things Trilby found attractive about him. But now he sat up straight and looked at her in consternation. “You were looking at customers’ personal data? Shouldn’t that be hidden behind some sort of privacy guard or something? I’m not technical and I don’t know much about the financial sector, but if I gave my personal details to a home loans broker, I wouldn’t expect a technical writer to have access to them.”
“Exactly right. At first I thought it was test data. You know, examples to use on the website. That’s what made me look more closely at them. One of the loan applicants had two different figures quoted for her salary. The figure on her loan application was much higher than the figure on a reference letter from her employer.
“For another applicant, there was an evaluation of his family home. It was sky high. I like details to make sense, so I did a bit of research on the neighbourhood where the house is located. It’d have to be a mansion to warrant that price, but it was just a standard home. Not even a large garden.”
“That is odd,” said Luka. “Dinner?” He grabbed their mugs and walked towards the kitchen. Trilby followed him. They spooned their dinner onto plates and found their places on the couch again. “So, you were looking at docs,” Luka prompted.
“That’s when this dude walked in and attacked me.” She looked at her fingers. Purple tracks marked the pressure she’d exerted with the phone charging cable around the man’s neck. “The thing is, there was no reason for him to try and bonk me on the head. If he was just a random robber, he could have turned around and walked out.”
“But how could the attack be related to those customer records?” asked Luka.
Trilby agreed. It did seem too much of a stretch. Even if the files were evidence of wrongdoing, how had someone known she was following the document trail? If someone was sophisticated enough to tag files so the system sent notifications when she opened the files, then that someone would surely hide the files behind a password or even encryption. They wouldn’t leave the evidence sitting out in the open where anyone could find it.
“Mmm,” she said, “I’m making too much of this. I’m tired. It’s probably only test data, and the intruder was probably someone looking for easy money.”
“Still, you should be careful,” warned Luka. “There are some rough types around Sydney.”
Trilby laughed. “You’re in the construction industry. I’m sure you run into rough types all the time. But this is the financial sector. White collar crime at most. I’ll be fine.” It was Luka’s turn to throw a cushion at her. That resulted in a pleasant wrestling match, which left them both happily warm and winded.
“You know,” said Trilby, “this job was losing its gloss even before all this happened. The money is good, but I’m not enjoying creating the type of content they want on website. It’s kind of sleazy.”
“For example, there are slogans like ‘A little tight now. Profit soon. When you need it most.’ The aim is to persuade clients it’s OK to pay high interest rates at first, and to assure them their debt load will lighten up soon.”
Luka smiled lazily. “That’s par for the course for a lending agent, isn’t it?”
“OK, but how about this: ‘Borrow up to 110%, no trouble. The purchase of a home brings along many hidden costs. For example, you need extra funds to move house, or to redecorate. We help you with all those costs, right now. No fuss, no bother.’”
“Again,” said Luka, “sounds reasonable to me. Perhaps you’re just not used to marketing-type content. You technical writers like words that are cut and dried. All facts, no glamour.”
“Want another fast-bowled cushion?” she warned. “But you’re probably right. I’ll email my boss, James Amity, about my concerns. Then let’s go to bed. Everything will look better tomorrow.”
The next morning Trilby got up early, as she often did. It was a beautiful autumn day, already cooking up to be a warm one. The events of the previous night seemed like a dream. She grabbed a lightweight dress and sandals, and crept out of her bedroom, leaving Luka sleeping like a baby. Coffee and a muffin, accompanied by the latest Jack Reacher book, constituted a good start to the day. She drove to work through the sleeping streets of Sydney.
When she pulled into the car park behind the building in which Amity Loans rented office space, she looked at her surrounds with a newly critical eye. The place was a bit of a dump. In fact, it was surprising that anyone came here for help with a bank loan. The customers must be people who were down on their luck. So, how come the business seemed to be thriving, so much so that they could hire a technical writer, even if short term, to make their website shiny?
A shiver tracked its way down the back of Trilby’s neck. The first hint of winter, or a premonition? Trilby turned off the car’s engine and opened the door. That’s when she saw the two men waiting for her in the shadows. One was the unknown thug from last night. The other was James Amity, her boss.
“A word, if you please,” said Amity. His tone was cold and flat.
“That’s her, bro,” said his companion. “That’s the bitch who was going through your files. She was looking at the home evaluation for William Carruthers. I saw his name on her screen.”
END OF CHAPTER 1