The cactus was dying by prickly degrees. Kelly was inclined to blame the weather: it'd rained straight through last week, with the sky clearing only just long enough for Kelly to ruin a pair of Jimmy Choos dashing through puddles outside Thames House. (She'd given the statue of St George a dirty look for that, though politely excluded Britannia.) In its blue pot the cactus was a picture of succulent woe, drooping and yellowing in a way that would suggest, in any other plant, a lack of water. The thing was probably drowning, in sympathy with the grey-speckled pavement outside the window. Though that pesky Viscount with the red hair had made a citrus face on being informed that said cactus was a gift from Kelly's girlfriend, so perhaps he'd surreptitiously poisoned it. Politicians. You couldn't trust them. And there was such a tiresome number of them in this place.
Her phone rang. Kelly stopped prodding at the cactus with her Rimmelled nails and answered with an inwards sigh of relief.
"Meet me at the front, please."
"On my way, Mr H."
She made her way through the corridors holding the grim Mondayness of everything about herself like a scarf, avoiding eye contact with everyone except the Honourable Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, who stopped growling instructions into her phone just long enough to return Kelly's smile.
"How d'you do, Kelly?"
"Morning, ma'am." As far as most of Westminster was concerned, Kelly didn't have a first name, but such rules didn't apply to Old Girls. Wendy Laing bestowed another harried smile upon Kelly and swept past in a cloud of greying blonde hair and L'Air du Temps.
When she located him, Kelly's boss was gazing into his paper coffee cup with an air of distracted dubiosity, as though he had located there a vital dossier written in one of the few languages with which he was entirely unfamiliar. At Kelly's approach he tossed back the last of the coffee and used the cup to salute her.
"Miss Jones. I trust your weekend was pleasant. I've got something rather big for you, today."
"It isn't anything to do with your brother, is it?"
"Of course not. Mostly. No." He handed her a thin sheaf of stapled files. "I require incontrovertible proof linking this individual with this company, and the company with this incident in Montevideo."
Kelly skimmed fast. "And do these links actually exist?"
"They do." He pulled out his pocketwatch and glanced at it. "But if proof of them cannot be found by the deadline, it may be necessary for us to construct some. Do keep that in mind."
"The deadline being?"
"Ah." He glanced just over her head and to the left, which was never a good sign. "Close of business, Friday."
"This Friday. Absolutely imperative, I'm afraid."
"Anything else, or is this my only job for the week?"
His face creased into an arid smile. "Very amusing."
"I thought so."
"Our other immediate tasks have been emailed to you. I thought it best to leave the minimum electronic trail regarding - this matter." He tapped the papers she was holding with the handle of his umbrella. "Thank you, Miss Jones. I'll be at the Foreign Office this morning."
He stepped out of the door again, unfolding the umbrella. Kelly speed-dialled the first number in her phone.
The noise in the background was chaos bordering on the juvenile, sending Kelly the remembered scents of neon chalk, gunpowder, cigarettes, cushions with the comfortable reek of old vodka and new shoe polish. School things.
"I can already tell it's going to be one of those days. My place or yours for drinks?"
"It is," Annabelle groaned. "Half the New York office is over here, nosing around and making comments about the way we do things. I have a meeting that's meant to end at five, but there's no chance it won't go longer. Mine, around six?"
"The Pregnant Man it is," Kelly agreed.
A passing MP, to whom Kelly couldn't put a name, but vaguely remembered as being a Lib Dem, gave her a startled look. She blew him a kiss, and walked on.
A little more than three years ago, Kelly had found herself perched on the edge of Miss Fritton's office couch, hands wrapped around a glass of gin lightly sprinkled with tonic, complaining about the fact that she was once again between jobs. (Annabelle had listened patiently for the first two days and then packed her off to St Trinian's in search of an older, wiser, and fresher ear.)
Miss Fritton nodded along with junipered sympathy until Kelly had finished the spiel about how utterly, utterly tedious everything was, and how little imagination ever seemed to be expected of her, and how she'd promised herself that if one more man described her outfits as 'unique' while staring at her breasts, she'd knock him to the ground.
"And I did," she finished. "And here I am."
"Jolly good show," Miss Fritton said firmly. "Good riddance to that job, I'd say, my dear, it sounds a dreadful bore. And as luck would have it, I think I might have something for you. There's a chap I know who's looking for an assistant - data acquisition, something along those lines. Now, where did I put that card?" She swept a pile of unopened envelopes onto the floor and began to rummage. "Let's see: air pollution complaints, press releases, bribes - we're becoming quite the fashionable thing, you know, half of England wants their daughters toughened up, we're adding a whole new wing - ah! Here it is."
Kelly glanced at the business card, which had an arc of coffee-cup ring stamped across one corner. "Not very informative, is it?"
"I think you'll like him." Miss Fritton's eyes had the glitter of glee in them. For anyone else, Kelly wouldn't even bother to show up to an interview for a job as somebody's assistant. But Miss Fritton always did right by her girls, and after all, she'd landed Celia that job in New York through a combination of blackmail and aggressive disregard for the trans-Atlantic time difference when it came to making phone calls.
"But what does he actually do?"
The Headmistress shrugged. "As far as I'm aware, he occupies a minor position in the British Government."
Kelly turned up to the interview in her plaid DAKS dress and her most provocatively scarlet lipstick, a sartorial dare if ever there were one, but the man gave her no more than a single thoughtful glance.
"Miss Jones. You've had six jobs since graduation, of which you were fired from two, and the other four of which you quit in order to deny them the satisfaction. Your background check in no way reflects your true criminal history, which goes some way to explaining how you and Annabelle Fritton managed to pay off the mortgage on your flat within a year. No, don't bother sitting down, I don't intend on asking you any questions. That's far too dull, don't you think?"
Kelly curled her hand around the top of the chair, mostly to stop herself from saying anything. None of that was on her resumé.
"You come highly recommended by a mutual friend," he went on. "All that I require is a small aptitude test."
"What sort of test?"
"Find out what the wife of the Speaker of the House had for breakfast this morning."
Kelly blinked. "So when you say data acquisition..."
"Quite so." His smile was affable. "See you soon, I'm sure."
The dark-haired girl whose fingertips hadn't once left her Blackberry looked up as Kelly was refreshing her lipstick immediately outside the office door.
"He'll know if you make it up," she said, matter-of-fact, and then: "St Trinian's, yeah?" A quick, humanising grin. "I did two years there myself. You'll be fine."
And she was. She'd never expected to find herself a government employee. But these days Kelly had a boss who'd never once tried to hit on her, an expense account of apparently exospheric height, and a job that was almost as fun as outright crime.
"Grass-fed beef? I'm sure that sounds lovely, but - no -"
A chirpy staff member at the Uruguayan embassy with strategically inconsistent English comprehension skills was trying to tell her about something called Estancia tourism, while Kelly tried to explain that she had no plans to visit the country in the near future. She had to admit that St Trinian's uniquely focused Spanish lessons had probably prepared her better for a life of espionage than those at any other school would have done, but said lessons had been a long time ago.
She gave up and texted Miss Smith, her close-proximity counterpart with the Blackberry: Do you speak Spanish?
Sorry, came the answer. Russian and Greek.
Luckily, Kelly's inbox supplied any number of other activities with which to fill her Monday. She got her hands on a copy of someone's notes from the last meeting of the Joint Committee for Security, sorted through a ridiculous number of briefing papers originally written for the FBI, and ruined the day of an analyst at MI6. She was halfway through talking one of the crossbench Law Lords into supporting a bill about which he had inconveniently lukewarm feelings when a partial solution to the Uruguayan impossibility presented itself to her mind.
"Miss Jones?" the man said politely, when the pause became awkward. Kelly rocketed herself back into the present moment.
"I'm sorry, sir. Five things in the air, I'm sure you know how it is. Now, we were talking about tripartisan appeal..."
Peer duly persuaded, boss duly briefed (the background noise on his end of the phone sounded like a construction site, and Kelly knew better than to ask), she calculated the time difference in her head and dashed off an adjective-stuffed email to Celia, who had spent less time running the school and more time paying attention in Spanish, and who had interesting American friends in interesting American places.
By two Kelly had well and truly run out of both legitimate tasks and ways to procrastinate, so she headed to her favourite tiny café, where she undid the top button of her shirt and leaned over the counter at a generous angle.
"I'll have a large mocha with two extra shots, please."
"Kelly," said the barista, his eyes moving like a child on a trampoline between her cleavage and her smile. "For me?"
"You know how much I appreciate you, Stephen."
"You appreciate all the free brownies." His dreadlocks swayed as he shook his head. "Triple-shot, Kel, really?"
"Yes," she insisted.
Back in her office she toed off her shoes, gulped down half of the coffee, cut her pistachio-studded, immorally-acquired brownie into disciplined quarters, and settled in to discover everything the internet knew about a man and a corporation that she'd never heard of.
Her eyes were aching and the rain had shrivelled up into an oppressive evening chill by the time she left work. She tugged her scarf up to her mouth and took advantage of the dry skies to save herself the trouble of changing lines at Embankment; instead she walked briskly to the station and took the Northern line to Goodge Road, then headed northwest. The after-work crowd was already buzzing when she walked into the Pregnant Man, and Annabelle had to give an undignified whoop to catch her attention.
"Admit it," Kelly said, sitting down. "You took this job because the name of the pub is so bloody ridiculous."
Annabelle pushed a beer across the table. "There's no need to be jealous just because policians have less imagination than advertisers."
"The Red Lion has a better range of ales," Kelly countered.
"I like the curly straws here." Annabelle puckered her lips around her own in illustration, and vodka lemonade giddied up the tube. "How's Frederick?"
"I'm not naming the bloody cactus."
"Which is why I named him for you. How is he?"
"Damp," Kelly said, and grinned into her beer.
The one and only time Kelly had met her boss's brother in person, the first thing out of his mouth had been: "You don't spend much time sitting down for someone who purportedly works in an office. Interesting."
"And you don't have much in the way of social graces for someone in a four-thousand-pound suit," Kelly had shot back, and then retreated as fast as was dignified, in case he kept talking and she was forced to throw something at him.
He'd been right. Frederick the cactus lived a lonely life in her office, which mostly served as a place to leave her coat and bag, and to spend the rare quiet lunch hour reading Polly's dry email missives and laughing around forkfuls of roast pumpkin and feta. Most of Kelly's working life was spent on foot.
For the first year of her employment certain aspects of it had been a lot easier, because she'd been a new face; a face more or less unconnected to other faces and other names. She'd bidden those days farewell. Anyone who'd been around long enough knew who Kelly Jones worked for, which lent a lot more weight to her smiles and clout to her threats, but did mean that some sorts of data acquisition now required... outsourcing.
"Chelsea Parker," came the breezy voice.
"You know, I almost miss the days when you answered with 'Posh Totty'."
"Kelly. No, shoo shoo, there's a sign on the door, silly. Office hours are Mondays, two till four. That's right. Byeeeee. Undergraduates, honestly."
Kelly tuned back in. "Sorry? Undergraduates."
"I simply can't believe I ever was one." A delicate yawn drifted down the phone. "This is Cambridge, you'd think they would have learned to read signs."
"Do you remember what I told you about my expense account?"
"Ooh, yes, I'm ever so jealous."
"Come to town, pick a restaurant. Any place you like."
This yawn was more pointed than delicate. Kelly reminded herself that, having gotten it irrevocably into her head that smart was sexy, Chelsea had then set about acquiring smartness with the same determination she would have shown had 'smart' been replaced with 'beige python shoes' or 'red hair'.
"All right, yes, I need a favour."
"Then just ask! We're friends, aren't we?"
"I know," Kelly said ruefully. "It's this place, all the politics. I'm used to making deals."
"You don't need to tell me, darling, academics can be such tiresome little twerps. What do you need?"
"I need you to take someone out to dinner and discuss - I don't know, the endowment of a scholarship at your College, some excuse involving pots of money. And I need you to get some specific information out of him. But he can't know I'm involved."
"Do you want me to shag him?"
"No need to get huffy, I just thought I'd ask. Do you mind if I shag him?"
"You haven't even seen him."
"But - pots of money, you said?"
"Probable criminal, I didn't say."
"Ooh, danger. I like it. When?"
"Tomorrow night." She winced. "I'm on a deadline. Say you can make it."
"We-ell, I had dinner plans with Ronnie, but he won't mind."
"Come and see me in the morning," Kelly suggested. "I'll give you all the details, and by then I should know where you can find him to do the asking."
"All right, ta ta. Ooh, Kelly, is it true about Miss Fritton's brother? I heard -" her voice dropping to a sultry hush "- he died of tertiary syphilis."
"Something like that."
During her lunch break, Stephen took one look at Kelly's face and began scooping brownies into a paper bag.
"Kelly. You need a new job."
"I like this one." She glanced down at a beep from her phone.
Mr H says check Europarl voting records.
Which meant another afternoon spent online, and she still had to answer the barrage of questions that Celia had responded with, and that MI6 analyst was apparently someone too valuable to piss off, so she'd probably have to drag herself over to Vauxhall Cross with a Fortnum's hamper and make apologetic noises.
"I need an assistant. Stephen, do you want a new job?"
Stephen shook a generous amount of chocolate powder onto her coffee and handed it over. "You know, I like this one."
"Queen and country?"
"Pass," he said cheerfully. "Enjoy your afternoon. Don't kill anyone."
"And I didn't," Kelly reported to Annabelle, that evening. "Though I think that girl at the embassy is now on a mission of cultural education. Did you know that every child in Uruguay is given a free laptop?"
"And all I did today was fight about placement with the ad sales people at GQ."
"That doesn't sound too bad."
"It was a very long fight."
"I know the feeling."
"Kelly Jones," Annabelle said softly, the sticky peach gloss of her lips warm against the side of Kelly's face. "I know exactly what you need."
The nearest field belonged to a school, and Annabelle started laughing halfway up the wire fence and nearly dropped their hockey sticks onto Kelly's head, but they made it over without injury. Kelly inhaled the smell of damp grass and freezing air that stretched all the way up to the faintness of the stars.
Annabelle tugged up the wristbands of her gloves and exhaled into them. "Fuck, it's cold."
"Only one thing to do about that, isn't there?" Kelly returned. "Ready?"
A flash of her teeth, joyous, white against the night. "Ready to kick your arse up and down this field, Jones."
"We'll see about that, Fritton." She ground her foot back against a clump of grass and pushed off, weaving along a diagonal path.
Annabelle was the better player - and more in practice, having played for her university - but Kelly's body had never released the sense memories of the game: the gammy edges of tape between your palms and the wood, the angle of the elbow that tucks the ball backwards and away from a reaching stick. Their socks got wet, they lost the ball in the darkness five separate times, and the tips of Kelly's fingers were numb even inside her gloves, but when they stopped she felt looser, and exhausted in the comforting way that promises a good night's sleep.
"What did I tell you?" Annabelle's arm snaked around her waist as they walked back home.
"Yes, yes, fine, you were right." Kelly smiled up at a streetlight just as they passed beneath it. "That was exactly what I needed."
Lying on Kelly's desk was a glossy black cardboard box, about the size of a deck of cards, which she recognised as being from Taylor and Andrea's inevitable - and startlingly successful - cosmetics company. The trademark pink skulls adorned the packaging and the card beneath it said:
We heard your day could use a bit of sparkle. Chin up! MAKE US WORTHY, MAKE US PROUD.
- T & A
P.S. This is from our new winter collection so tell everyone that it's by us, yeah? Cheers.
Kelly dug in her top drawer for a tissue, wiped off the eye makeup she'd applied an hour ago, and carefully brushed the electric bronze shadow over her lids. It turned glittery where the light hit it, and made her feel at least twice as ready to spend a morning calling in favours from journalists and bullying people's secretaries.
Not that all of them required it, of course. Geoffrey Thwaites's secretary, a middle-aged marvel of organisation who as far as Kelly knew only possessed three cardigans (all blue) and a single facial expression (Placid Disdain), gave a sigh and pressed the intercom before Kelly could even state her business.
"Kelly Jones to see you, Minister."
There was a pause, which Kelly was fairly sure was the Minister getting his swearing out of the way before his own finger hit the intercom button. "Show her in, Marion."
Kelly afforded the ex-Minister for Education a certain amount of respect for a) refusing to let the media crush his political career, and b) treating Miss Fritton extremely decently, once he'd gotten over the silly habit of trying to ruin her.
"Miss Jones," he said, in tones of superb resignation. "What will I find myself doing for you today?"
She sat on the edge of his desk, largely because she knew it annoyed him. "I'd like you to start a rumour. One with momentum."
"Surely you don't need me for something like that."
"I can't do everything myself." Kelly tilted her head, showing off the Theo Fennel skull earrings that had been last year's Christmas gift from her boss. "Besides, you have access to circles that it would take me too long to infiltrate right now."
A slight inclination of his own head in return. His eyes were brightening; this, his irrepressible instinct for drama, made Thwaites a very useful ally in these games. As much as he liked to protest otherwise.
"Here." Kelly handed over a typed page. "You can embellish, but not too much."
"And I assume you want to know who jumps, and how high?"
"What are we fishing for, Miss Jones?"
"Whatever we can hook," said Kelly. "If a version of the rumour comes back to you with additional embellishments, I'll need to trace it immediately. Marion has my number."
He read the page, eyebrows lifting. "Hm. How shocking. Well, this will liven up my day."
"Thank you. How's Verity, by the way? I hear she reduced half a regiment to tears last month."
"Oh, yes, splendid." A flash of affable paternal pride. Verity Thwaites was enjoying a thriving career in the British Army, which encouraged her love for bloodthirsty team sports and paid her to shout at many, many people. "And you're well, I assume - and Annabelle? So sorry to hear about her father. Strongest commiserations and all that. Cocaine overdose? Shocking, shocking, we really must be firmer when it comes to cracking down on - er. Pardon the pun."
"I'm sure you'll make it a priority," said Kelly. She gave him a look that said: I know and you know all about Miss Fritton's stash of top-quality hallucinogens, and also the large cannabis crop nurtured by the Agricultural Studies class at St Trinian's, which paid for the school's new billiards room. And we're not about to do anything silly like blab about it. Are we?
"Always nice to see you, Miss Jones," said Geoffrey Thwaites. His look said: please, please, please leave me alone with the rags and tatters of the nice day I was having before you stepped into my office.
"And you, Minister," said Kelly.
Chelsea was next on the agenda. She was a difficult person to hide at the best of times, so Kelly didn't risk meeting her at the office; she gave her the details over coffee, and under Stephen's instantly-infatuated gaze.
"I owe you one," Kelly said, handing over the credit card. "And this comes straight back to me, understand? I can explain the dinner to my boss, but not charges from Harvey Nicks."
"Cross my heart," Chelsea said, and: "Give Miss Fritton a kiss from me."
There had been an embarrassing incident with a catapult and some mud the last time Kelly had driven down the long driveway to St Trinian's, but she assumed that the culprits had been given a talking-to (as well as some lessons in marksmanship), and the only sign of life as she approached the school was a flash of sunlight off glass on the roof. A lone sentinel, or else one of the staff members having a quiet drink in the fresh air; maybe Beverley, who was absent from her desk.
Miss Fritton had Handel blasting at rock-concert levels in her office and was happily working on three canvases at once. She gave Kelly a hearty wave and absently used her cigarette to transfer some blue paint from one blob to another on her palette.
Kelly located the CD player and twirled the volume knob down. "Good to see you, Miss. I'm looking for the twins?"
"What are we up to, dear? Friday?"
"Ah, well, one can only hope. In that case, I believe they will be in History."
The History class was finally located in the dining room, drinking cocoa and reading their copies of The Prince with uncharacteristic decorum. Kelly snuck up behind the two tallest blonde heads and poked them both between the shoulderblades.
"Kel!" Less piccolo now and more clarinet, but still in hair-raising unison.
"Tara, Tania. I hope you're looking after the place for me."
"We're getting by," said one of the Head Girls. Their plaits were longer, their grubby tunics discarded in favour of skirts and mascara and well-ironed blouses, but it was still hard to tell them apart.
"Nice eyeshadow," the other one said.
"Taylor and Andrea's new stuff. See if you can start a trend, would you, girls? Let's push their sales up a bit in time for Christmas."
"All right, Kel."
"How do you feel about a school trip, this Friday?"
"Harrods?" That one was Tania, Kelly decided.
"Parliament," said Kelly.
They exchanged a glance. "That could be arranged."
"I may need a riot. Just a small one."
"Our specialty," said the twins.
"And tell Annabelle we liked the marketing ideas she had," Tara added.
Annabelle, when this was passed on, gave a shrug. "It's not exactly hard to sell flavoured vodka to rich teenagers. Chocolate? Samples from a client, they're good."
"Peppermint, if you've got any," said Kelly. "He should leave the house soon, Chelsea says the dinner booking is for eight. I'm sorry about all this."
"Oh, no, I've always wanted a girlfriend who would take me on a date that involves breaking and entering."
"You're not even being sarcastic."
"I'm not," Annabelle agreed. "Though I do think your boss needs to do some of his own legwork." Her hand set the paper bag to rustling industriously. "Hold on, I think there's a peppermint cream down here somewhere."
"He doesn't like legwork."
"I suppose you do have the legs for it," Annabelle said, twisting in her seat. She lifted her own not inconsiderable limbs and laid them elaborately across Kelly's lap, vicious spike heels and all.
"My car's a bit small for that."
"Here." Annabelle leaned over and tucked the chocolate into Kelly's mouth.
Blended voices from the car's speakers informed Kelly that if she wanna be their lover, she gotta get with their friends. Sound advice, Kelly reflected, tracing idle circles with her thumb over the bony prominence of Annabelle's ankle.
"Shag cliff marry," she said, around the chocolate. Swallowed. "Ginger, Baby, Posh. Spice-era Posh, I mean."
Annabelle considered. "Cliff Baby, marry Ginger, shag Posh. You know I've always had an eye for a dark bob."
"One in particular."
"And yet you'd marry a redhead."
"It's a personality thing. You aren't posh." She leaned across and gave Kelly a quick kiss. "You just fake it well. Come on, let's have the next song."
They were lipsynching energetically - swing it, shake it, move it, make it - when the automatic garage door began to rumble upwards.
"Show time," Kelly said, and got her lockpicks out of the glove compartment.
Wind and gloomy clouds played a soft, dark counterpoint to Kelly's itchy mood as she hunched her shoulders and smoked on a ledge beneath the Paternoster Square Column. She was wearing her warmest boots and her Burberry studded wool trench, and the air had still managed to sneak its damp fingers in and against her skin.
"I thought you'd quit."
Kelly dropped the cigarette and crushed it under a knee-high masterpiece in Italian leather lined with lambswool.
"I did. Emergencies only, these days."
"Is this an emergency?" Polly's eyebrows shot well above the frames of her glasses. "Kelly, as your financial advisor, I recommend that you warn me in advance if it looks as though we're going to declare war on anyone."
"You're a dreadful war profiteer," said Kelly. "Potentially, anyway. Can we go inside?"
"Yes, of course, sorry. It's just security; I can't buzz you up, I need to escort you myself."
The militarised wedding-cake of the LSE glared down on them as Polly led her inside. It was always nice being around Polly. She refused to wear flats, on principle, and towered above all of the traders like a benevolent librarian goddess.
"Polly!" shouted a wild-eyed man from inside a room that they were passing. "There are rumours about a system switch next year, February, maybe March. Is that you? Who else is bidding for it?"
"You shouldn't listen to rumours, Roger," Polly called back. And to Kelly: "Honestly, one comment at a party about the ways you'd improve the platform if you could, and suddenly you're Steve Jobs."
Kelly smiled. "No truth to this rumour? None at all?"
"I certainly won't be ready to pitch the idea by March," Polly sniffed. "September at the very earliest."
"What's wrong with the system at the moment?"
"Oh, well, Linux," Polly said, as a lesser mortal might say Manchester. "Well and good in its way, of course, but we've been using the Millenium Exchange system since 2011 and there's so much room for improvement considering -"
From there things rose exponentially above Kelly's own knowledge of computer software and the intricacies of share trading, so she nodded along and enjoyed the noise until they reached Polly's office.
"Out," Polly ordered. A pale young man and an Indian girl with myriad piercings closed their laptops and skedaddled from the office.
"Minions," Kelly said, feeling a touch wistful. "I do miss having those."
"Ask your boss for an intern for Christmas. Hire an Old Girl. Hire two - the twins are graduating in a few months, aren't they?"
"They've already got the beginnings of a retail empire, they don't need to be let loose on the government as well." The thought was either hilarious or terrifying. "But it's not a bad idea. Miss Fritton might suggest someone."
"I heard about Carnaby Fritton. Jetski accident, wasn't it? How's Annabelle? I know her dad was a prick and a half, but -"
"She's fine. How's it working out with Aston, then?"
Polly beamed. "Fantastic. We're going to Prague for a week, just after the New Year."
Polly's boyfriend, Aston Martin Willis, had been afflicted with parents who had more fondness for James Bond films than common sense, but he seemed to have emerged from the public school system miraculously unscathed. He had a ready smile, was as tall as Polly's shoulder, and usually worked for about ten companies at once. Kelly was 99% sure he was one of the best hackers in the world, and almost as sure that if he and Polly put any serious effort into it, their combined talents could bring the techno-literate world to its knees in a matter of hours.
"Are you planning to have children, or just an army of intelligent robots?" she inquired.
Polly rolled her eyes. "I dug up everything I could regarding the company you mentioned. Biotech mostly, yeah?"
"I think so." Kelly helped herself to a chair vacated by one of the minions, and steered it so that she could see all three of the monitors that were arranged on Polly's desk. Polly herself was flicking the cursor from screen to screen like an indecisive Goldilocks. "How legal was your digging?"
"Not very," Polly said calmly. "But I did it from home, and wiped the history."
"And when you say wiped -"
Polly wiggled the fingers of one hand. "It never existed."
"All right. Cheers." Next to Polly's ability to weave through digital data, Kelly's efforts at digging were that of a plastic spade set against a pneumatic drill.
"There's nothing interesting until you start looking at individual share trading histories around the date of the first reports that came out of Montevideo."
"Surely he wasn't stupid enough to be trading under his own name?" said Kelly.
"No, but there's a link, through the other members of one of the committees he sits on. And I've found at least two accounts in foreign banks where the transactions match the share sales exactly, minus standard commission."
"Can you freeze him financially, if I need you to?"
"On short notice, it'll be riskier. Can your boss cover my tracks?"
Kelly nodded. "If he can't, I won't ask."
Polly glanced at her. "Is the rest of your day going to be emergencies as well? You shouldn't smoke, Kel, it's bad for you. Do I have to tell you the numbers?"
"No more smoking today," Kelly promised. "Even in emergencies."
She was cursing her own sense of loyalty four hours later, but contented herself with bribing Stephen with Chelsea's phone number until he handed over a cup so full of caffeine that it probably negated any health effects gained by not smoking the cigarette she actually wanted. Then she took her coffee for a long walk and made faces at every statue of a politician that she could find before heading back to work.
Her phone rang just as she left a futile name-dropping session with a staffer who was new enough not to know that her employer's importance extended a good way past the official job description.
"Where are we, Miss Jones?"
"I think we'll be able to stick with real proof, sir."
"How much do you have?"
"Enough that I think he'll try to run, especially if that rumour makes him twitchy."
"In that case, do you need more manpower?"
"No, but - if need be, can you declare any crimes committed towards the goal of a public arrest to be in the service of the country?"
"Miss Jones, I am quite accustomed to cleaning up after people. Don't tell me your little adventure in illegal entry was detected."
"What manner of misdemeanors am I to be erasing, then?"
"Computer crimes. One of my school friends can help out, as long as it doesn't lose her her job."
"Good, good." Kelly had a suspicion that Mr H. hadn't so much been impressed with her, personally; rather he had strategically employed the entire St Trinian's alumnae association. "There are one or two more things that have come to light and I'd like you to look them over. A car will pick you up. And buy some shortbread on your way over here, if you please."
"Now, sir, Miss Smith will have my head if I interfere with the diet," Kelly said, faux-sweetly.
He heaved a sigh. "The two of you would get along so well with my mother."
For her part, Miss Smith was having a relatively quiet afternoon, for which Kelly only forgave her when she made a pot of tea and showed Kelly what she'd been doing to Mr H's brother.
"Look at the comments to his latest website post," she directed, handing over the Blackberry.
"I don't - wait, are you MysticAura45? That's horrible." Kelly laughed. "That's horrible. I love it. I'm going to write something tonight."
"Make sure you mention how much you love CSI. Or homeopathy."
"I think my favourite part is this one where he makes a spelling mistake -"
"In his apoplectic rage, I like to think."
"- and you spend two paragraphs explaining why this proves he's stupid."
That buoyed Kelly's spirits until the moment the apartment's door clicked shut behind her and its cosy warmth began to permeate, when the realisation that she wanted to sleep for around eighteen hours swooped down and nested smugly in her consciousness.
Annabelle was on the phone - my aunt, she mouthed - and waved Kelly towards the living room, where another box of chocolates already showed signs of marauding fingers. Nobody was likely to press boxes of festive chocolates upon Kelly unless they were hoping for a favour, so it was nice that she could profit from the generosity of Annabelle's clients. She consulted the gold-trimmed cardboard map and was down to deciding between caramel fudge and a dark praline by the time Annabelle flopped onto the couch beside her.
"I made pizza, it's in the oven. And before you say anything, no, this will not be a repeat of the great yeast debacle. I bought frozen bases."
Kelly leaned back into Annabelle with a sigh. "Mushrooms?"
"Yes, I used lots of mushrooms. Even those odd ones you like, the ones that look poisonous. You alright, Kel? Polly emailed me, she sounded worried. And she wants me to destroy all your fags."
"I'm fine now."
"We can go to the shooting range this weekend, you know that always makes you feel better."
"Mm." With her eyes closed Kelly melted into her own tiredness and let it colour her senses. Annabelle's arms were very warm, sandwiched between her own arms and her stomach, and Annabelle's hair fell loose in curls that tickled the back of her neck.
"But," Annabelle said, soft, "I suppose we'll have to do something to release some of this tension in the meantime."
"Whiskey?" Kelly said, turning around so that they were face to face. "Pilates?"
Kissing Annabelle wasn't like it had been at the beginning, years ago, when the most exciting thing in the world was keeping a secret; finding dark rooms to meet in, a tingle when their eyes met across the dining room or when Annabelle's leg pressed up against hers in classes, purposeless drunken snogs in the small hours after a party. It had been as poorly kept as any secret in a school housing hundreds of anarchically nosy teenage girls could be, but by the time the peak of the good-natured teasing was over, the tingling had barely abated.
Now Annabelle's hot breath on her cheek, the lazy fitting-together of their legs, was as much a part of the fabric of Kelly's life as the grey stones of wintering London, the waxy taste of the lip moisturiser she'd been using since she was fourteen, the way it felt to stand upright on a well-fitting shoe and let one's arch settle into it.
Kelly skimmed her hand up Annabelle's thigh until the minutely textured gloss of her stockings gave way to a band of rough lace, and then skin, goosebumped and familiar and soft.
"You tease," Annabelle whispered against her mouth, linking her own hands behind Kelly's neck and tugging her more firmly down.
Kelly kissed her and laughed and kissed her again; she honestly couldn't understand how anyone could be attracted to men, when this was the alternative. Annabelle had tried to explain, once, using examples ranging from George Clooney to Gaspard Ulliel, but Kelly couldn't see it. She loved the way women smelled, with perfume or without, and the way the edge of a collarbone looked emerging from the V of a fitted shirt; she loved lipstick smears on her jawline, and lace gasping across nipples, and the cello curve of hips beneath her hands, and gold-crushed eyelids, and the harsh catch of breath in a graceful throat.
Most of the buttons were undone on Kelly's favourite Nicole Farhi blouse when the jarring brrrzzzzzz of their ancient egg-timer rang out. Both of them jerked to a standstill, then giggled. Then Kelly sighed.
"Let me guess," she said. "That's the pizza."
"I'm sure the idea of letting it burn is very romantic, but I missed lunch." Annabelle sat up, gave Kelly another completely filthy kiss - compensation - and wriggled out from under her and off the couch. "Come on, Kel. Pizza, then... pilates."
"I'm holding you to that," Kelly said, and went to fetch some wine from the rack.
"I need something that tells the universe not to fuck with me today."
"What?" Annabelle yelled from the kitchen, over the noise of the kettle.
"I need - never mind! I know exactly what I need." She pulled the dress off the hanger and it collapsed gracefully into her hands.
Once dressed, she slipped on her most terrifying black heels and walked into the kitchen to claim her cup of tea; Annabelle took one look at her and burst out laughing.
"You look like an Escher drawing threw up on you, Kel."
"And I love you too."
She'd bought the Emilio Pucci dress to wear to a wedding that had ended up being cancelled in a blaze of scandal; it was far too retinally befuddling to wear on a daily basis, but this morning she'd seize at anything that would get her through the day without resorting to hard drugs or homicide. It wasn't that she herself would have to work particularly hard; that would almost be preferable to the reality, which was that she'd set up a careful juggling act and was relying on a lot of other people - and a bit of luck - to keep all the balls moving in the right directions. Today her own job was, really, making the right phone calls.
"It's Kelly. Did you manage to stay in town?"
"Mm, yes, I've told everyone that I'm doing research at the British Library until the weekend. What do you want me to do?"
"Call him. Set up a meeting, around lunchtime; you can use my office. Tell him you're very sorry, but the College is no longer seeking his patronage, in light of what you've learned about his connections to illegal overseas trials of harmful products, not to mention insider trading. That should be enough to start him running."
"Polly? Kelly. Freeze his money, and set up alerts. As soon as he moves, get everything to the police."
A pause, peppered with clicks and the distant sound of fingers flying over a keyboard. "It's done."
"Hello, this is Peaches!"
"It's Kelly Jones."
"Kelly! It's been ages."
"Peaches, I have a story that I think you might be interested in. Can you get a crew over to Westminster?"
"Yes! Oh my God, is this a sex scandal? Are you an anonymous government source? Can I quote you as one?"
"You're not going to mention me at all," Kelly said. "You won't need to. I'll send you all the details you need. You might get a call from Chelsea, soon, and she'll tell you exactly where to go."
"It should be happening, sir."
"Good. I've issued a flag on his passport, just in case."
From sheer habit, Kelly's feet took her back to the café. "I think I'll eat here today," she told Stephen.
Once she had her mug of coffee, and her brownie on a dainty white plate, she nodded up at the café's television, which was mumbling along on a music documentary. "Turn it to ITV, will you?"
"It'll just be local news, this time of day," Stephen protested.
"Stephen, you remember all of those movies where people run into bars and yell at the bartender to change the channel, and it’s always a thrilling and explosive story on the news? This is not quite like that. But it's close enough that I still want you to do it."
"Well now I'm all excited," he said, and reached for the remote.
Sure enough, ITV's local news showed Peaches, her wire-rimmed glasses firmly in place beneath a fluffy white hat. Her breathless tones filled the room.
"...damning documents, received from an anonymous source. The former MEP, who we believe had been planning to launch a new campaign next week, was then discovered to be fleeing the country when his credit card was declined in an attempt to buy a plane ticket."
"Thrilling and explosive," Stephen drawled. "Corrupt politicians, sure, that's new."
"Shh." Kelly waved her paper napkin at him.
Peaches continued: "But even his escape from the building was hampered, by a group of students from the well-known girls' school St Trinian's, who are here on a school trip for their Political Science class. Seizing the initiative, these courageous girls apprehended the man and even restrained him using their school ties."
"Kinky," said Stephen approvingly. "St Trinian's, Kel, isn't that your old school?"
Kelly pulled a piece off her brownie and smiled at the screen, where Peaches was now interviewing the Head Girls. Tara was missing her tie.
"That's right," she said.
She paid her office a final visit, and was scooping a pile of scrunched-up paper bags into the bin when her phone rang again. Her chest seized briefly, but it was only her daily call from the girl at the Uruguayan embassy, who had skills of privacy invasion that were worthy of a St Trinian's graduate.
"Lucía," mused Kelly, sitting down. "I don't suppose you'd like to be the assistant to the assistant to a person who occupies a minor position in the British government?"
There was a long pause.
"No. I like my job. But thank you, Kelly Jones."
"More interesting facts. Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to have legal same-sex unions. We also have many delicious desserts, such as alfajores con dulce de leche. "
Kelly bit back an inquiry as to whether she sounded gay over the phone. "I'll keep that in mind, Lucía. Have a nice weekend."
She turned her phone thoughtfully in her hands. Now that the week was ending it didn't seem worth the stress that had plucked at her, held her taut as a string, throughout it all. She was sure she'd dealt with a lot more, and cared a lot less, eight years ago; but this was how it worked, when the bulletproof silk of youth began to wear off, when you began to accept that you only have one life and you can't live it in five directions at once. You are not the universe expanding and tireless: you are settled into a trajectory and your feet ache from the thin soles of your beautiful shoes and every year you have gained more, and so have more to lose.
Kelly leaned back in her chair and smiled, flicking one of Frederick's drooping spines with a finger topped with grape-shaded nailpolish. The polish was chipping; it needed another coat, or at least some sneaky retouching near the tip.
"Why on earth are you still here?" Her boss stuck his head into her office. He looked, as ever, as though he was in transit between two terribly important things. "Go home, go home."
"I'm on my way, sir. Just putting everything in order."
"Everything is, for now. As much as it ever is." He watched without comment as Kelly gathered her coat and bag, and then gave a brief nod. "Good work on this."
"Yes, it was, wasn't it?"
She stopped in the doorway; she even mustered a bit of a smile for him, because if her week had been long then his had been much longer, and he wasn't going home to a gorgeous girlfriend who was always up for playing schoolgirl.
"You do realise, I hope, that you look as though an Escher drawing --"
"I'm aware, sir, yes."
Back out in the evening air, crisp and nose-fizzingly cold as the best cider, Kelly made her last phone call of the day.
Annabelle picked up almost at once. "How did it go?"
"Like clockwork," Kelly said. "Like messy and frustrating clockwork. But it's done. How do you feel about a honeymoon in Uruguay, by the way?"
"Don’t you dare, Jones," said Annabelle. "You don't get to plan the honeymoon until you've actually proposed."
Kelly felt the smile recruit and brighten her eyes.
"We'll see about that, Fritton."