Michael strange, international art dealer, has everything: wealth, power and prestige. But his privileged world is brought to the brink of collapse when a series of unforeseen circumstances leave him face to face with financial ruin. Then, out of nowhere, comes a phone call from a mysterious woman which offers him a way out. He's hooked. But who is this woman and what exactly is she selling?
The temptation for Michael to become involved in her murky dealings becomes irresistible after meeting her. Enraptured, he soon realises he has made a pact with the devil who is determined to make a financial killing, whatever the cost to human life. In order to survive, he has to play her at her own game - and play it better!
Against a backdrop of London, Ireland and Venice, Michael races against time to claim the riches on offer. But first, he has to confront her complicated and murderous past. He has to find answers, and fast, if he wants to avoid the fate of those who have dared cross Lauren O'Neill before.
If the love of money is the root of all evil; what lies at the root of an evil love?
About the Author
Nick Oldham is the author of the successful novelization to the film Vendetta. He is also the author of the Henry Christie series, which includes Backlash and Psycho Alley.
Read an Excerpt
WINTER 2005, MAYFAIR, LONDON
He knew her dark secrets. The recollection of her was crystal clear and just as painful now as it had been during those years in between. The past never vanished entirely; it simply retreated into a corner of his brain. All it needed was for something to expose the hidden scars once again. This was one such moment. Standing alone on the street, staring, he recalled the scent of her body, her lustful kiss, her sex.
The painting hung in the gallery window as a solitary piece, measuring four feet square, encased in a gold and black baroque frame. The girl was painted lying naked upon crumpled silk sheets. He knew that looking into her emerald eyes was a dangerous game, a distraction without exit.
She was unknown to others, perhaps, but not to him; memories could be so heartbreaking. Back then, she caused such havoc. Today, though? All that remained was this: a simple female nude, staring back in his direction. The expansive scale of the canvas, however, ensured a greater power – a sensual invitation to examine with the eyes and caress with the fingers. Exposed skin and hidden flesh. Forbidden parts: who exhausted their fiery passion here? The question would haunt him to his grave. The heat of her alluring body, combined with the abandoned gaze and glistening, tumbling wet black hair, told of a sexual encounter. He knew of it so well.
His eyes focused upon an accompanying card. The gold lettering named the artist as Patrick Porter (Deceased). The portrait was titled ‘A’ on green silk. It was an oil on canvas priced at £55,000. Her inner secrets did not come cheap.
He was sure that many people had stopped over recent days to view this sumptuous piece. The painting first mesmerised, and then captured those who dared to admire it. On this miserable late afternoon in November, the man in long raincoat and trilby stood firm on the pavement. Gazing intently, he was transfixed by this image of a soiled goddess. He examined every detail of her nubile proportions, recalling the dark Italian skin, the ample breasts, the slight opening of her slender legs. He imagined being part of her mystery again. Her mouth was moist and inviting; the full red painted lips quivering with youthful mischief and pained decadence.
According to his memory, the girl in the painting was between sixteen to eighteen years of age, and rather unnervingly, there was a touch of cruelty behind her demeanour. It was this that had caught his eye. He was hooked. Minutes passed. Half the hour was gone in a flash. The sky darkened, and rain gradually fell. This wouldn’t deter him. He lit a cigarette and simply stared, trapped, needing to own her, possess her as he once had, and imprison her.
More disturbingly, he knew the workings of her mind. He was aware of what she was thinking and how she had first manipulated and then diminished him.
He suddenly grew restless, aware that the proprietor in the gallery had noticed his interest in the painting, and was ambling toward him. He sighed, anticipating the usual patter: an invitation to enter the premises, engage in conversation, sample a small drink together; a glass of fine burgundy perhaps…even a little negotiation. He resisted the temptation. She was enticement enough, and he had paid many times over for her pleasures.
He tightened the white silk scarf around his throat, adjusted his raincoat collar and disappeared as if he had never existed.
Further down the street, the man took shelter in the doorway of a shop. He was cold and impatient for a taxi. His eyes scanned the empty road. Fat chance. However, nothing could distract from the professional pride that had overwhelmed him just moments earlier, while gazing in the gallery window. There was a certain egotistical pleasure from seeing a work of art displayed so predominantly, created by the hand that held the cigarette to his mouth.
SPRING 2006, MAYFAIR, LONDON
The sky on this morning was clean and watery, with a lemon sun emerging above the bare branches of the trees surrounding Berkeley Square, Mayfair. Michael Strange always enjoyed this particular route through the elegant public garden, which ultimately led him to his gallery on Cork Street, situated just a few blocks further on. After parking his silver BMW 6 Series Coupe, he reminded himself that he had undertaken this walk maybe a thousand times. Usually, he moved briskly and purposeful on a journey that was at best a fifteen-minute trek. Today though, he found himself slow of pace. His eagerness to get to work had evaporated. Some days he felt good. This was not one of them. Within his current fragile existence, everything of any consequence was touched with despair and foreboding. Lately, he was enthralled by the absurdity of life and death in equal measure. It hadn’t always been like this, but he was at his very lowest point. The words of Dylan Thomas burned into his head, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In truth, the light behind his eyes was fading fast into a kind of sightlessness. A thought crossed his mind: the blind never see the truck coming; they only hear the sound of the approach. Then it’s too late. Far too fucking late.
This was his London. This was March and, despite the bright weather, Michael normally associated this month as a black hole, winter’s backside. Raw and brackish, it was for him a seemingly dark procession of long hours and achingly dull vacuums. All that he knew and trusted was on the verge of going down the pan. He paused near the gallery, drew breath, and gathered his thoughts. It often went like this. Surprising mood swings. Where was this madness coming from?
Normally, he liked to arrive on the premises at nine-thirty, open the mail, consume a strong black Columbian coffee, discuss matters of the week with his secretary, Kara, then catch up with the sport pages from The Times and eventually settle down with the tasks in hand. It was almost a daily routine. However, of late he had developed an unwelcome habit of reflecting on the dreadful things in this world with an unhealthy morbid fascination. It was happening more and more, and it wasn’t to his liking.
Take London, for instance. Just as March can be a solemn month, so too can London be a solemn city. Michael marvelled and despaired at the insidious interaction of over ten million inhabitants, ebbing and flowing like the great tidal waters of the river Thames. The city had many uneasy cultural divisions between its clash of people, a kind of tribal occupancy, almost. Strangers, after all: a complexity of egos and ambitions, survival and lust. After the atrocity of the tube suicide bombings, misguided hatred now prevailed, resulting in a mass of people who were either confused or wary of their neighbours. All that remained was a vast contradictory melting pot, a city deep in loathing, a city full of love. Perhaps even a place to hide within.
He banished such a notion, and told himself to get a grip on the week ahead. It was a Monday, his team, Chelsea, had drawn 1-1 against Arsenal at the weekend and all was apparently well with the world. He deserved a second cup of coffee.
He surveyed his kingdom. The gallery Churchill Fine Arts occupied an imposing corner site on one of London’s prime locations and had been trading for twenty three-years. It began on Albemarle Street before establishing its current standing in the city specialising in contemporary figurative paintings from around the world, most notably from Russia, Cuba and Spain, as was the latest trend. The title of the gallery came from his wife’s maiden name, which Michael felt was appropriately grand, durable and patriotic. It worked. The “Strange Gallery” somehow did not have the same dignified importance to it. Opening time was ten and as he glanced at his Cartier, Kara pushed the button to retract the electronic grille from the window and turned the brass “OPEN” sign to make it visible on the door.
Michael William Strange was considered to be a highly successful businessman, well regarded throughout the world of art, with a secondary interest in a modern conceptual gallery in Shoreditch, East London and an art magazine entitled All the Rage publicising the latest trends and promoting up-and-coming artists in the capital. His influence and knowledge were far reaching and reflected in his fortune, with homes in London, the Home Counties and Marbella in Spain. His biographical details would have him contentedly married to the same woman, Adele, for twenty-six years with one son, Toby, now living in New York, working in the money markets on Wall Street. Who’s Who described Michael as an international playmaker of many diverse talents.
On the face of it, he had it all. As he idly contemplated this blessed scenario he began to feel his hands become hot and wet with perspiration. He removed his horn-rimmed glasses from his face and rubbed his temples, feeling a distant migraine rumbling in his head. He had it all. Earlier, during his walk to work, he had given out the contented air of a man in control. Acknowledged on the streets, he waved happily to his fellow shopkeepers. He stopped to buy flowers for his secretary, knowing he was away on her birthday the next day. Little details, but they meant so much. He even shared a private joke with a traffic warden who was in the process of booking an illegally parked vehicle belonging to the proprietor of the gallery next to his. Sweet justice.
Yes, on the face of it, he really did have it all. Following his last health check, barely two weeks earlier, his doctor had stated that he was in the rudest of health. Again, just yesterday morning, on opening the mail, he discovered a premium bond win of five hundred pounds. On top of that, Kara briefly interrupted him to tell him that an invitation had arrived for a private dinner engagement at Buckingham Palace. He shrugged. It came with the territory.
Michael thanked her politely, presented the flowers (‘Freesias, my favourite!’ she said) and then removed himself quietly to the basement bathroom. Standing at the sink, he sprinkled cold water on to his face and then stared long and hard at his troubled features in the wall-mounted mirror. He groaned aloud. It was an unflattering reflection. He was forty-eight years of age and although everything appeared to be perfect, the truth was…he was going broke.
In fact, he was going under, going down.
His recent birthday on the 26th February had signified a low point in his life. He had spent this uneventful evening alone in his duplex apartment, without celebration. That was eight long nights ago, and since then he had remained in solitude, adrift. In most social circles this period was politely referred to as a trial separation, a time to find “space” and reflect upon life, and more importantly, his marriage. Just before his birthday, Adele had matter-of-factly announced – insisted – that their union was at an end. She wanted a divorce and a very substantial settlement; substantial enough to reflect her current social status and maintain the standards she had come to expect and…to hurt him like hell. He faced possible ruin. Just like that. It scared him shitless.
Of course, it was never “just like that”. He understood the deep seated problems and the rifts that existed between them. But still, it was a massive shock to the system. If he were brutally truthful, the signs had been there for him to see. Little cracks, huge chasms, but, as with many long relationships, he was only too aware that the well of passion had dried up and, slowly, companionship and shared experience turned to something else – what was it? Ah yes, a partnership of compromise, then apathy, a reluctance of accountability, the death of marriage.
He recalled with a shudder how her words had dropped over the breakfast table like spilled sugar granules – they seeped everywhere, far reaching, scattered forever. Once spoken, they could not be retracted or swept away.
Adele, with cold steel in her eyes, had said, ‘I need space, Michael. Put the bloody newspaper down. I want a divorce.’
Looking back, hurt by those cold calculated words, he did not fully recognise this same woman. He knew everything about her, but they had become insufferable strangers; impostors living under the same roof. It was a bitter pill to swallow. He did not put the newspaper down, merely ruffled the pages. Torn between anger and resignation, he remained steadfastly impassive, as only the English can do so well.
Thinking back about this absurd ability to remain in control of his emotions, his reply had been impeccable, and without hesitation: ‘Yes, very well. I’ll move to London.’
Clearing his head, he shook off his malaise, returned to his desk, and checked his diary. His first appointment of the day was at 11.30am with an up-and-coming artist, a “thirty-something” self-opinionated painter called Marcus Heath. It was a routine discussion in relation to a forthcoming exhibition entitled “Confessions.” Between them they decided on thirty paintings for the first autumn show of the season to be displayed on the upper gallery space, beginning 15th September. During their meeting Michael noticed he was impatient with this brash young man and in turn he detected Marcus Heath’s displeasure at his pessimistic assessment of the possible outcome of the show. The work didn’t excite him. He understood that the young man wanted the reassurance of knowing if the exhibition in the current economic gloom would be a success, before embarking on it. Michael’s response was unenthusiastic, but he endeavoured to be a little more positive, if only to remove the gloom on Marcus’s expression. Sadly, it was a losing battle. Michael had other more pressing priorities on his mind.
Kara began to sort through the late morning post. She discovered the usual invitations to various gallery previews, an electricity bill (red reminder), catalogue proofs, and an envelope marked ‘private and confidential,’ also several business flyers relating to printing requirements and gallery wholesale equipment. During an uneventful period she cleaned the kitchen crockery and worktop, typed two letters and took eight phone calls. Several of these she dealt with herself, the rest she jotted on a notepad for her boss.
As was customary, Ronald arrived just after twelve o’clock to take charge of the front gallery. This allowed Kara to go out for lunch and the gallery to remain open, especially if her boss had a lunchtime appointment as well. Continuity of business was essential. Ronald was sixty years of age, rather dapper in navy suit and red striped shirt and loud tie. He worked part-time, four days a week. His hours were twelve till four daily, except Thursday, when he visited his elderly mother. On this day his duties included changing the paintings in the windows, attending to clients, preparing a parcel for shipment to California, and then pricing and hanging four new acquisitions from an artist that had been delivered the day before. Ronald was calm, professional, possessed a sharp wit and preferred an orderly existence and a routine without incident. Each evening, his boyfriend, also called Ron, arrived promptly to accompany him home. Often they would all divert to the local watering hole, The Duke of Wessex, for happy hour. Kara enjoyed this ritual encounter – the affectionate greeting of a big hug and often a small gift from one to the other. She referred to them, quite naturally, as “The Two Ronnies.”
Kara applied lipstick, pulled on a long black wool coat and gathered her notes together. She was tall and slim and dressed with an assured elegance. Aged twenty-eight, she currently lived alone after the break-up of a long-standing relationship, and had worked at The Churchill Gallery for a little over five years. She enjoyed her position in the firm and considered herself a good amateur artist as well. The best of both worlds, she smugly reminded herself.
The door to the main office was open. This allowed her to pop her head through without the need to knock.
‘Back at the usual time, Michael,’ she said. ‘I’ve sorted the mail. There are three phone calls that will concern you. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber requires confirmation regarding delivery of his painting; Lauren O'Neill needs a valuation on several works of art, oh, you’ll like this – she owns a Patrick Porter! Her number is on the pad. And finally, the framing workshop requires clarification on two jobs – apparently, your writing is indecipherable! You’d make an excellent doctor.’ She placed the yellow notepad on his desk, turned sharply on her fine heels and called back, ‘Can I get you anything?’
She knew by Michael’s vague expression that the little aside joke regarding the medical profession had passed him by.
‘I’m fine for the moment, Kara. Ask Ronald to put the kettle on, Earl Grey would be perfect.’
Michael heard a muffled conversation in another room and assumed his tea was on the way. He studied the list from Kara. Who was Lauren O'Neill? He initially dismissed this as a request for insurance valuations, which for him often meant tiresome and underpaid work. Still, Kara did mention a Porter original. Perhaps he could persuade her to sell it? He underlined her phone number with a marker pen. He dutifully telephoned the workshop, reaffirming the framing measurements in question with his senior framer, Johannes Brouwer. They had worked together for over fifteen years. Michael felt a great loyalty to his staff. He hated failure, and the bleak mood which had descended upon him made conversation short. Careers were at stake here. If the worst came to the worst he would have no choice but to remove people from their jobs, however horrible that task would prove to be. He knew that costs would have to be cut drastically in order to survive the downturn in the economy.
Ronald entered silently with a silver tray and Earl Grey in a bone china cup and matching saucer. He cleared his throat. ‘Ron sends his regards, Mr Strange. He particularly likes the Alexander Averin of the two boys bathing in the Black Sea. The picture is overpriced, of course.’ He placed the tray down on the desk.
Michael was amused, and distracted, as he usually was by his conversations with his employee. ‘Please reciprocate my regards to Ron when you see him. I trust he is on sparkling form. Incidentally, it’s the Mediterranean, just off Antibes, and it certainly is not overpriced. Well, maybe…’
They laughed fondly, with Ronald voicing both their thoughts, ‘Well, whatever. Actually it is the men he favours. Just typical of him, of course. Like the water in the painting, he’s terribly shallow, I’m afraid, especially when it comes to fine art appreciation.’ He retreated to the door, a thin smile and a raised eyebrow, delivering the punch line: ‘Of course, on matters of greater importance, he can go surprisingly deep, as deep as he likes.’
The afternoon in the gallery moved unexpectedly fast. There was no time for any more idle chat. At one stage Ronald sold a small oil of a ballerina (Russian) for £2,500 and agreed for a larger painting to go out “on approval”. Kara eventually settled the matter with the framing workshop and spent the remainder of the day updating the mailing list. Michael tried to busy himself, mainly with the contents of the next month’s issue of All the Rage. However, his mind lacked concentration and he was angry with Adele. He knew that any impending divorce and the financial repercussions that would follow could be catastrophic. Ruinous, in fact. Pressure encased him, squeezing and suffocating like a straightjacket.
It was 4.45pm. Kara and Ronald had departed moments earlier to avoid the mounting problems with the underground “go slow”. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had a lot to answer for, according to Kara. Michael began to reshuffle his briefcase and contemplate eating alone once more when the phone rang.
He slowly lifted the receiver, his voice less than enthusiastic. ‘The Churchill Gallery,’ he announced.
‘May I speak with Michael Strange?’
‘My name is Lauren O'Neill. I called earlier. No one got back to me.’
He detected a slight impatience in her tone, but it did the trick. She somehow gained his immediate attention. Her voice was husky and honey-warm, alluring even underneath the initial starchiness.
He took up the conversation. ‘I do apologise, Mrs O'Neill. Your message was passed on to me: simply an oversight. I had every intention of coming back to you. I believe you require a valuation on various paintings.’
Her voice remained guarded but precise. ‘My husband is an artist; possibly you may recognise his name – Julius Gray?’
‘Yes. I preferred to keep my own name, and since he subsequently walked out on me, that wasn’t a bad decision in hindsight. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come. Anyway, are you familiar with his work?’
‘No, to be honest with you,’ Michael replied, without wanting to tax his brain unduly at the end of the day. ‘Should I be?’
The caller fell silent, then said, ‘Julius exhibited mainly in Germany and Scotland, his Glasgow outlet was the Oberon Gallery. Unfortunately, they are now closed. The owner had a heart attack.’
Michael rubbed his chin and loosened his tie. ‘What would you like me to do, Mrs O’Neill?’
‘Please, I prefer Lauren. I have a problem, Mr Strange. My husband deserted me, many years ago.’ She hesitated, clearing her throat. ‘He is now living overseas with . . . with another woman. To simplify matters for you, we are currently contesting the value of our assets. To be perfectly blunt, I’m broke. Many of his major works are still here at the home we once shared and I believe they have a considerable financial worth. Of course, his advisers tell me they are worthless.’
‘And you presumably want someone to verify valuation for your solicitor?’
Michael stifled a yawn. He chose his words carefully. ‘Unfortunately, Lauren, I am not the man for you. I would need to be familiar with both his work and current market prices in order to provide a correct assessment. Surely there is someone else, an agent that he employed perhaps, who would be better qualified to deal with this?’
‘I am willing to pay,’ she interrupted, ‘generously.’
Michael was struck by the immediate contradiction between being “broke” and her ability to pay generously. It did not add up, but he chose to ignore it. ‘I appreciate your generosity, Lauren. However…’
‘I will make it worthwhile, Mr. Strange. Please, this is important to me, I don’t know who else to turn to. Everyone I know in the art world would have an overriding loyalty to Julius. This is a very delicate matter. Will you help me?’
There was a certain childlike vulnerability to her voice. He took a deep breath and hesitated as to whether to get involved, especially after her earlier remarks. However, something indefinable drew him to her.
‘Mr Strange,’ she continued, ‘a while ago you displayed in your window a painting by the artist Patrick Porter. It was a very fine nude.’
‘Indeed we did. I understand you own one?’
She lowered her voice. ‘I own twelve in total, to be exact.’
Michael lifted a hand to suppress a gasp. For the first time during their conversation his brain engaged, triggering a full alert message to start taking her seriously. He sat upright in his chair, well and truly hooked.
‘All oils?’ he enquired casually, trying to keep a damper on the mounting excitement in his voice.
‘And…and are you aware of the price we were asking for that piece?’
‘Yes, which is the reason why I want to sell them all, Mr Strange.’
Michael cleared his throat. ‘Then we both know this represents a considerable amount of money, Lauren.’ He held his breath for a moment and removed his tie altogether. Beads of sweat formed on his brow.
‘I did say I would make it worthwhile,’ she murmured. She let a silence drop between them, which seemed to reinforce her viewpoint.
It was becoming a game of cat and mouse, in his opinion. He delayed his response, his mind a whirl of possibilities and fiscal calculations. Now he understood the contradiction. God, she was good.
‘Why don’t you call me Michael,’ he said, ‘and let’s meet and discuss this further over a drink.’
Later, he began to think about the gradual disintegration in his life. He had thought of the word “ruinous” earlier in the day, and now, toying with his single malt and idly overlooking the steel coil of the River Thames below, he realised that he was swimming against the tide. And these were treacherous waters. The glass frontage to his riverside apartment afforded him a magnificent panorama of London and the dazzling lights reflected in the icy flow. In the distance he caught sight of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, now motionless. Beneath him, the white hulls of sleek and opulent yachts bobbed in the private moorings. From afar, the sound of a horn blasted from a huge dredger as it pushed against the swirling cold current. Michael watched all this – his London – and yet felt detached, a forlorn figure on the landscape.
He began to examine the motives behind his wife’s demand for a divorce. In the morning post he had received a letter marked “private and confidential”. It made heavy reading. The letter from her solicitor clearly marked out her territory, insisting on a financial settlement of a proposed one million pounds, the villa in Marbella and maintenance of £100,000 per year. On top of that was a secondary list of “minor demands”: the Mercedes, furniture, paintings. If she had intended to hurt him, damage him, she would undoubtedly succeed, spectacularly. Adele had petitioned for divorce citing “unreasonable behaviour.” Moving across the room in order to refill his tumbler with his third whisky of the night, he caught sight of his reflection in the window glass, a grotesque apparition of the man he once was. It greatly disturbed him that he was visibly shrinking.
Beyond this, the business had suffered badly post 9/11 and since the more recent tube bombings. A decrease in tourism from overseas visitors had hit the City in dramatic fashion and as a result, business in the gallery had plummeted, suffering in particular from a lack of turnover from rich Americans. Trade had dropped by over twenty-five per cent. This was not recoverable. Even more of a concern was the unpalatable fact that his lease was up for renewal shortly, triggering a large rent increase on his prestigious premises.
It went further. The current tax demand for January 31st, his accountant informed him, was close to £150,000. He hadn’t paid it. The Inland Revenue had written to his advisers with confirmation of an official investigation into his tax affairs. It was strictly “routine business” they pointed out with professional coldness. He knew what this entailed.
All in all, Michael had held his composure with remarkable aplomb. On the outside he appeared calm and collected, even untouchable, but within, his insides churned and tightened like the unforgiving grip of a python. There was simply no escape. Slowly but surely, his empire, his world, was being constricted. It was dying.
Showering and refreshing himself, he ate a light supper of grilled tuna and green salad, washed down with a glass of chilled Muscadet. However, his mood of apprehension did not vanish, unlike the wine, which began to make his mindset more bullish. He would not lie down and let Adele walk all over him. He would fight back as he had always done in the face of adversity. A calculated plan of vicious counter-attack began to formulate in his head. And then, inexplicably, he thought of Lauren O'Neill.
This was a woman who intrigued him deeply. Her voice conveyed a sexual undertone, an invitation to sin. He held a visual picture of her in his head and it enraptured him. Earlier, on the phone, they had arranged a meeting at her home for the following day. He would ascertain the collection of her husband’s canvases and endeavour to produce an overall valuation, as she had asked. More importantly, it gave him an opportunity to market the twelve paintings by Patrick Porter. In this respect, he saw a way to raise a great deal of money. Handled properly, the sale would actually raise a substantial amount of capital for him. He cared little for the work of Julius Gray. Quite simply, by employing a tried and trusted camouflage technique, he might ensure a survival of sorts, and find a solution to pay off his wife. It was his only shot.
Lauren O’Neill would be a formidable woman, he concluded. He sensed that from her manner, and his feverish imagination, she was tactile, very attractive and probably dangerous. But nothing, he had to admit, actually pointed towards this. It was his fantasy. It surprised him that he cancelled his appointments so readily in order to see her. It surprised him still further to admit to a certain nervous tension building in his stomach. What was he looking for? Idiot, he muttered to himself.
Before retiring for the night, he phoned Kara.
‘Sorry it’s so late,’ he told her, ‘but I won’t be in tomorrow.’
Kara responded by stifling a yawn, which he picked up on. ‘Oh, OK,’ she said. ‘Can I contact you on your mobile if anything crops up?’
‘Sure. Oh, by the way: Happy Birthday!’
‘I’ll make it up to you.’
Michael detected a losing battle. ‘I’ve cleared my appointments for tomorrow and left you a list of priorities on your desk. It’ll be a long day for me, I feel. Appraisals: quite a lot it appears.’
‘Is this to do with Mrs O'Neill?’ Kara asked.
‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Her details are now in a file on the computer.’ He hesitated, adding, ‘Something big may be in the offing.’
‘Oh, really’ she teased, ‘anything to do with a certain artist you might want to get your eager dirty hands on?’
‘Kara, this is not a game,’ he said, reeling from the effects of the alcohol. It surprised him to see he had consumed the whole bottle. It made him nauseous and unsteady on his feet, but he was in full flow now. He dismissed her little joke. ‘I cannot stress the importance of all this. I do not intend to get my hands on just anything.’ He stopped for a second, imagining this woman called Lauren. It consumed him. ‘I intend to get my eager dirty hands on everything. The rewards are just too great to ignore, and I won’t be denied. Is that understood?’
Michael halted his rant. He hated himself for this display of anger and knew that Kara would be embarrassed. Where had this suddenly come from? Idiot.
He waited for what seemed an eternity before she responded. His gut twisted. He imagined a knot tightening in her stomach as well, such was her feeble comment.
All she managed was a pathetic, ‘Oh...’
Michael’s impatience surfaced once more. He gave her no chance to react further. With one swift movement, he clicked the line dead.