Claire Cusack is a 2020 BA English graduate from Middlesex University and winner of the Dean’s Award for Best Independent Project in English.
“Studying BA English at Middlesex was a great experience and one that allowed me to grow immensely as a writer. Over the past 3 years I have learnt new skills that have helped me to enrich my creative pieces and become a more confident writer.
My third year at Middlesex especially helped me hone in on the skills I have learnt as my final project was a 5,000 word piece of creative writing. After putting a lot of time and effort into finishing the piece and therefore completing my studies, I feel satisfied knowing that I have done my absolute best and can take what I have learnt and use it in whatever career path I end up taking.”
Read Claire’s award-winning crime-fiction that she developed for her final year Independent Project, featuring detective Jennifer.
‘On the Chase’
The meeting room fell silent when the retrieved footage appeared on the screen and showed the robber at work. Covered from head to toe in all black protective gear and a motorbike helmet, the individual opened the money vault, having punched the numbers in without hesitation. They strolled away confidently. Hips swayed. A woman? She departed with two gym bags filled with cash.
One officer laughed in complete shock while another let out a frustrated sigh before looking back up at the grainy screen.
“So, what does that tell us?” Jennifer Taylor asked.
“That they’re a cheeky, brazen bastard,” agent Doyle said.
“Come on! They knew the code somehow. Have any of you checked?”
“Boss, if I had a spare second, I’d scratch my ass,” Doyle said with a slight laugh, but he was being serious.
This couldn’t go on.
Jennifer had worked for the British secret intelligence for ten years and had never felt so outdone by a case. At this point, the team had been so under-resourced and stretched thin that she really couldn’t blame them for falling behind on orders.
“It’s just ridiculous. How are we expected to operate like this?” Jennifer vented to her boss and old friend, Thomas Dewy.
“Maybe this is the perfect time for me to let you in on a little secret.”
“Why’d you stop talking? Out with it and save me from putting myself out of my own misery.”
“Okay, so, you know how I’ve been out of the office lately and I told you it was because I’ve had to work from home while I look after Jade?”
“For the love of God, would you just finish the story without pausing every five seconds?” Jennifer’s annoyance provoked a laugh from Dewy.
“I’ve been interviewing people I would like to form a new team to work solely on this case and I want you to lead them.”
She didn’t believe him.
“This is not the response I was hoping for, Taylor.”
“You do realise that everyone’s going to think we’re shagging? You don’t just get handed a team of shiny new recruits, ready and raring to go, and told that you’re the boss of them without people raising their eyebrows.”
“I don’t give a damn what they think, and neither should you! I’ve put this team together for you because I know that you are the only person that can lead them. Interpol are saying there’s an insider. You’re the only person I trust to do this right,” Dewy said vehemently.
Jennifer had never known how to accept compliments, and definitely not ones that came from someone superior, even if that superior was a friend. She couldn’t make eye contact and looked at the ground as she processed.
“Okay,” she said quietly.
“Okay?” Dewy questioned.
“Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll manage the team. Why should I give a fuck about what anyone else thinks of me? Lord knows I deserve some sort of promotion,” Jennifer said, the confidence in her growing the more she spoke.
“I knew you’d come around.”
“I’m trying that thing you suggested. I think it’s called ‘believing in yourself’,” Jennifer said, pretending to look unsure of the phrase. Dewy laughed.
“Right, now get out of here, and make sure you pack up everything you’re going to need for the case. You meet with the new team at 9am tomorrow.”
The next morning Jennifer walked into the office, holding two coffee cups and a box of doughnuts, and received a few looks from people she was sure she had never even spoken to. While she understood that they could have been staring at her in hopes that she would offer them a doughnut, she was pretty certain that they had heard the news and wanted to make their opinions known by screwing their faces at her in an attempt to make her feel uncomfortable.
Jennifer was not going to give them the satisfaction though. She made eye contact with everyone who looked her way and simply smiled at them. In response, she received a few confused looks and raised eyebrows, but she couldn’t help but feel great about it.
Once she had passed her now inferiors, Jennifer glided into Dewy’s office.
“Well, good morning to you,” Dewy said as he accepted the cup of coffee Jennifer handed him.
“A good morning it is, indeed! I brought doughnuts for the newbies but please don’t let me take one for myself. This is already my third cup of coffee and I have no self-control when it comes to caffeine and sugar, so unless you want me to die of diabetes, please stop me,” Jennifer said, somehow getting faster with every word.
Dewy laughed, filling up a cup of water from the dispenser before handing it to her as she took a seat.
“Uh-no, you can walk and drink. The team are waiting for you down the hall and I want to keep on track with time as best I can today.”
“Oh, yes. Definitely. I know I have my work cut out for me but I want this day to go well just as much as you do, Tom.”
They walked into the meeting room and were greeted by nods from the six new recruits.
“Nice to see you all again,” Dewy said. “I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Taylor. She will be leading you on this case. Anything you learn you must report to her immediately,” Dewy said, turning to Jennifer to allow her to speak.
“Hi, everyone, it’s nice to meet you! I hope you’re all ready to knuckle down ‘cos this robber is currently running circles around us.” Jennifer thought this would elicit a laugh but all she got in response was silence.
Becoming serious, she coughed and stood up taller, hoping that by doing so it would help her assert some authority.
“Today I’ll get you all up to speed on the case and inform you of the next steps I want to take. Oh, and please help yourself to a doughnut. I thought it’d be nice to have something sweet to eat while I’m telling you about the horrors of a European serial robber,” Jennifer said as she laughed.
Although hesitant, everyone made their way to the front of the room and picked a doughnut out of the box before returning back to their seats.
This settled Jennifer’s nerves as she proceeded to open up the CCTV footage of the first robbery on the projector screen.
It showed the mysterious figure in their infamous attire, opening the money vault of the Banco de España in Barcelona just four days prior.
The second clip was almost identical to the first, except this time the robber was in the Banco de France in Marseille, only yesterday.
Once the clips stopped playing, Jennifer closed the tab and moved to the centre of the room.
“Okay. Any thoughts?”
“She definitely doesn’t waste any time, that’s for sure,” said Jason Motts, an ex-police detective.
“Well I think it’s clear that this brazen asshole has an inside source. There’s no way you could walk up to a huge vault that confidently without already knowing that you have guaranteed access.” This theory came from the youngest of the new recruits, Beth Farewell.
Everyone seemed to agree, causing Jennifer to smile and nod. She instantly liked Beth, the woman’s confidence reminded her of when she’d been that young and once had had a huge fire in her belly. But that was something she had seemed to lose more and more over the years.
“That makes sense and I think it may lead us somewhere. I’m going to talk to Dewy and have him arrange two trips. One half of you will go to Marseille and the other to Barcelona. I want you to talk to every employee that was there the day of their robberies and see if anyone was weak enough to give in to this bastard.”
The next day Jennifer boarded a 6am flight to Marseille. Once they had safely landed, she called Dewy. When she was unable to get through to his work phone, she decided to ring his mobile.
“Hey, boss, I just wanted to let you know that we got here in one piece and will be heading to the bank as soon as we dump our stuff at the hotel.”
“Okay, that’s great. I’m working from home again today, as you have probably already gathered, so you can keep me updated on my mobile.”
“Sounds good. I’ll leave you to it.”
She then sent a text to Eric Wilson, whom she’d left in charge of the Barcelona team. Knowing that the sub-team were most likely still on the plane, Jennifer told Eric that they had landed safely and instructed him to keep her updated throughout the day.
As soon as they had put their bags in their hotel rooms, the French team made their way to the bank.
There had been eighteen associates and four senior members working on the day of the robbery, all of whom needed to be interviewed. Jennifer wanted each interview to be done in pairs: one asking the questions, the other closely observing body language and anything else that may seem suspicious.
Jennifer paired herself with Beth and let her lead.
After watching Beth for hours, Jennifer felt like she had her all figured out. It seemed that Beth had a way of asking questions that would make you feel nervous even if you hadn’t done anything wrong. A way of making you unsure of your answers even though deep down you know that what you’d said was right. A way of getting to the truth no matter how long it took.
The thirteenth interview to be conducted was with Adele Ansel, branch manager. As soon as she walked into the room, Jennifer knew that she was nervous. She had pulled the sleeves of her cardigan over her hands before she timidly sat down on the other side of the table.
“Please state your name and employee number for the recording,” Beth instructed once Adele seemed comfortable.
“Adele Ansel, 1392561,” she said quietly.
“Okay, Adele. What time did your shift start on 21st May 2019?”
“I started at 8:30am. Half an hour before the bank opens,” she said, avoiding eye contact with both Beth and Jennifer.
“And when you arrived did anything seem different to you? Anything at all that you can recall as strange or suspicious?”
“No. Everything was fine.”
Sensing Adele’s nerves, Beth closed her notepad and leaned forwards, her arms crossed on the table.
“Are you sure?”
Adele opened her mouth as if to say something, but stopped. Beth and Jennifer stared at her intently.
Once again, she dropped her head to the ground and Jennifer saw a tear escape her eye.
“Is everything okay?” Jennifer asked, sounding sympathetic.
“I just can’t do this anymore,” Adele said, more tears running down her cheeks before she finally looked up and faced Beth and Jennifer.
Both of them kept their eyes firmly on Adele. They had been waiting all day for something like this and did not want to jeopardise it, so they waited until she was ready to speak again.
“I can’t keep coming here every day, pretending that I don’t know anything, when I was the one who helped all of this happen.”
Beth and Jennifer exchanged a glance. After spending seven hours at the bank conducting interviews, they finally seemed to be getting somewhere.
“What do you mean by that, Adele?” Beth asked calmly.
“It was me. I’m the reason why the robber was able to break into the vault so easily. I gave them the code.”
Beth opened her mouth to ask another question but Jennifer put her hand on her shoulder to stop her. She could see that Adele had more to say.
“You see, my mother has been suffering from breast cancer for almost two years now, but she doesn’t believe in receiving treatment so I care for her as much as I can at home. And then one day I received a text message from a strange number saying that if I didn’t reply with the code to the vault in 24 hours, my mother would be ‘put out of her misery’,” Adele said, her voice cracking towards the end.
Jennifer showed sympathy while Beth made notes on her pad. Trying not to think about her own mother’s horrific battle with cancer, Jennifer took her eyes off Adele and gazed down at Beth.
“I panicked and after much deliberation I went to the police station with intent to show them the text. But just as I was about to walk in, I received another text with a photo attachment. The photo was of my mum sleeping in her bed, lying in the exact position I had left her in before leaving. At that point I had no choice but to send the code.”
“Right, okay,” Beth began. “And do you still have the messages on your phone?”
“No. It said that once I had sent the code, I had to delete the messages straight away,” Adele explained, tears welling up in her eyes, yet again.
“That’s completely understandable. But what we’re going to have to do is take your phone in to investigate further,” Beth said as she closed her notepad. She was clearly done and ready to progress the case elsewhere.
Beth walked out of the room, with the phone in an evidence bag but Jennifer stayed back to say one last thing to Adele.
“However you do it, please take your mum to a hospital. Once she gets worse and you’re unable to do anything about it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Jennifer took a second to herself before she exited the bank and joined the team.
“I want you all to make some calls to the local police stations and get in touch with their best phone analytics teams while I call Dewy and Eric,” she said, separating herself.
She dialed Dewy’s number but didn’t get through.
After what she had just discovered, though, there was no time for her to wait for him to answer. She sent him a quick text summarising all that she had learned before dialing Eric’s number.
“Eric, we’ve just finished with the interviews at the bank. It seems our suspect is blackmailing those with sick relatives in exchange for the code to the vault, so keep an eye out for that.”
“Right, okay. We’re half way through interviews and have yet to get anywhere, but we will definitely adjust our strategy know that we have this information.”
Jennifer told Eric to keep her informed before she hung up and made her way back to the team.
“I just got off the phone to the local station, they’ve forwarded our case to their cellphone analytics team,” Beth said.
“Great. Let’s get moving.”
The analytics team took the phone in to begin an analysis not long after Jennifer and her team had made it to the station.
They sat, agitated, in the reception area for approximately 40 minutes before the lead technician appeared with the results.
“The message received on this phone came from what we are almost certain was a burner phone. The only messages sent from it were to this phone. We also managed to track the location that the text message was sent from,” the technician said, handing a small piece of paper to Jennifer.
“We need to get to this location as soon as humanly possible. There was only three days between the French and Spanish robberies. It’s possible that the bastard is planning the next as we speak.”
Jennifer and her team jumped straight into their hired car and made their way to the address.
Within fifteen minutes they had arrived.
They stepped out of the car and found themselves at the back end of a small abandoned retail park.
“We’re going have to split up,” Jennifer said, counting nine shops.
Beth followed Jennifer to the right while the other two took the four shops to the left.
Jennifer slowly entered the door of the furthest shop.
The second shop, the same.
The third felt different, though. The room was warm when they entered. It smelt as though something had just been cooked.
Beth wandered off into a different room while Jennifer stayed in what seemed to be an old staffroom.
“Jennifer!” Beth shouted.
Jennifer ran into the next room. Beth was staring down at a desk that had just one piece of paper and a freshly brewed cup of tea sitting on it.
‘You’ll never catch me,’ read the note.
“FUCK!” Jennifer screamed. She banged her fist down on the table, tea spilling over the edge of the cup, burning her hand.
“She must have been tipped off,” Beth said, the anger obvious in her tone.
“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock!”
Jennifer and her team regrouped at the hotel. It was late so she told them to go and get some rest, while she went and sat in the hotel bar alone, sipping on a large glass of chardonnay. As she took her hair out of the tight ponytail it had been in all day, her eyes made contact with the CCTV camera.
The grainy CCTV footage that they had received from both the French and Spanish banks had been close to useless, only showing the robbery in action. But it was in that moment when Jennifer realised that they hadn’t yet checked any CCTV footage of the streets surrounding the banks.
Even though she’d only had one glass of wine, Jennifer felt a little tipsy and stumbled towards the lift on the way to her room. As soon as she entered, she turned her laptop on and opened Google Maps.
She noted all of the buildings surrounding the Banco de España and had the urge to start calling them, then and there. But reading the clock at 10:52pm, she decided to take the advice she had given her colleagues and head to bed herself.
The clock read 7:04am when Jennifer woke. She sat up as she rubbed her eyes and reached for her laptop. When she opened it, it was left exactly as it was the night before.
Deciding that it was probably still too early to call the stores, Jennifer showered and got dressed before knocking on Beth’s door.
The younger woman opened it seconds later, squinting, still in her pyjamas.
“Get ready. At 8 o’clock we’re going to all the buildings surrounding the bank to view their CCTV footage.”
Still half asleep and annoyed that she had been woken, Beth groaned but nodded her head.
“And let the other two know, please. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 10 to 8.”
Jennifer was sipping on a cup of tea when Beth, Kyle and Amy joined her in the lobby.
“Don’t sit down, we’re heading straight out.”
As they left the hotel, Beth mumbled something about the fact that she had been in France for a full day and still hadn’t had a croissant.
Less than fifteen minutes later they were back at the bank. “Beth, you’re with me. We’ll take this side of the road. Kyle and Amy, you take the other and call me as soon as you find anything.” They both nodded before crossing the road, going into the bakery at the end of the road first, Beth evidently jealous.
Jennifer and Beth entered the small supermarket roughly 100 metres from the bank.
“Can I speak to your manager, please?” Jennifer asked, approaching a staff member stacking tinned beans onto a shelf. She held up her badge and the young woman’s eyes widened in shock.
“Oui, of course. Please follow me.”
Jennifer and Beth were taken to the manager’s office and left alone to look through the CCTV footage.
“Oh, my God, did you see that?” Beth exclaimed.
“No. See what?”
“Top right-hand corner. The very back of a motorbike, turning left and heading south towards the coast. She must be getting away by sea.”
“Holy shit! We need to get a better angle on this,” Jennifer said, already getting up to go to the adjoining shop.
Once they were in the next store, Jennifer pulled up the footage as quickly as she could and once again skipped to the time of the robbery.
All of a sudden, a grey motorbike swerved onto the screen. The woman steering it towards the coast was definitely their suspect. But what happened next sent a chill down Jennifer’s spine. The woman on the bike looked up to the camera, like she knew exactly where it was, lifted the visor up from the helmet and winked.
“Son of a bitch.”
Jennifer and the team headed back to the hotel with the footage, calling Dewy as soon as she was in the lobby.
“Hi, Jennifer, how’s everything going?”
“Well I have some good news; we have a clear shot of the suspect escaping on her bike, heading towards the coast. We think it’s highly possible that she is getting from country to country via sea.”
“Oh, really?” Dewy asked, surprise in his tone.
“There doesn’t seem to be any other logical explanation as to how she’s getting away unnoticed. Think about it, if she’s rolling around in money, she’s bound to have a private boat that we’re unable to trace.”
“Yeah, that sounds right,” Dewy said flatly.
Jennifer didn’t know what to make of his response. She’d expected more enthusiasm about such a breakthrough.
“You don’t sound too pleased.”
“Sorry, I was just thinking. But I am more than pleased. Keep me updated.”
Jennifer agreed to keep him updated before she hung up and joined her colleagues who had begun dining on the complimentary lunch buffet.
Moments later, the television in the lobby was flicked to another channel, reporting breaking news of a robbery at a bank in Genoa, Italy.
Jennifer slammed her hand down on the table, knocking over a glass of orange juice while gaining a few looks from the people around them. She didn’t care though. She’d had enough.
“I can’t fucking believe this. We need to get over there right now,” Jennifer said, her face burning with anger.
Jennifer told the team to pack their bags as quickly as possible while she asked the receptionist where the closest dock she could catch a ferry to Italy was. She then ran up to her room and packed her own bag, re-joining the team in less than fifteen minutes.
Whilst on the ferry, countless possibilities and scenarios swirled through Jennifer’s mind. The eyes that had stared straight into the CCTV camera seemed familiar but she couldn’t put her finger on it. How long before they’d arrived at the robber’s hideout had she fled? Had Dewy been a bit odd on the phone earlier?
Beth nudged her arm to let her know that they’d arrived.
“Kyle and Amy, I want you to go on to the bank. Beth, you’re staying here with me. If our theory is right and she’s escaped by sea again, someone is bound to have seen her speeding down or around here.”
Kyle and Amy nodded before departing.
“Right, we’re going to have to split up here if we stand any chance,” Jennifer said. “You turn back and I’ll continue this way.”
Jennifer walked away from the ferry towards the marina and approached a local fisherman.
“Excuse me, sir. Have you seen a woman on a motorbike at all today?” she asked, hoping the man understood English. When he shrugged his shoulders, Jennifer lifted her hands up as if to place them on a motorbike and said, “Vroom vroom?”
She sighed and threw her head back when the man still had no idea what she was saying. But a split second later she lifted it again and turned around, for she had just seen a motorbike that was almost identical to the one in the CCTV footage.
She thanked the man before heading towards the motorbike to inspect it. Everything about it seemed normal, apart from the blue footprint on the left pedal.
Just as Jennifer bent down to examine it, she got a call from Kyle.
“Boss, there’s a lot going on here right now. It’s literally chaos. I just spoke to a man who was painting a building next to the bank and he said our suspect ran straight towards him, not looking where she was going and stepped right in his palette of blue paint.”
“I think I’ve just discovered that. Let me call you back,” Jennifer said, following the faded footprints down to a long line of small boats.
She knew that the likelihood of the robber still being in Italy was slim but she didn’t let that stop her from trying.
Adrenaline raced through her veins as she continued to follow the footprints. She tried to prepare herself for the probability that this was just another dead end but she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the moment.
But the adrenaline pumping through her paused when she heard her phone ringing in her back pocket. She took it out to find that Dewy was calling her.
Stuffing the phone back where she found it, she reassured herself that this was not the time for distractions, even if the person calling was her boss.
She began to follow the footprints once again but a cold rush passed through her whole body when she stopped at the sloped entrance to a small but luxurious looking yacht. Looking down, she saw a faint blue footprint and instantly reached for her phone to call Beth.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thomas Dewy appeared at the bottom of the slope, the gym bag seen in the CCTV footage clasped in one hand and a pistol in the other.
“Dewy, what the fuck have you done?”
Just as Jennifer asked, the figure that had been haunting her dreams ever since she had started working on the case appeared. Dewy’s wife, Jade, swayed effortlessly past him in those black leather pants.
“Come on, Jennifer. Has it never occurred to you that someone with as much power as me could get away with something like this?”
Full of rage, yet speechless, Jennifer just stood there and stared at the man she had thought she could trust.
“I knew you would figure it out eventually. It was just a matter of time. That’s why you’re here now. That’s why I’m offering you the chance to join us. With the amount of authority we have between us, we could get away with a lot more than this, Jen.”
Jade wandered back and stood by her husband’s side, staring out and instantly making eye contact with Jennifer. “You know I’ve always liked you, Jen. I’m sure the three of us would have some wild adventures if you joined us,” she said with a wink. “And you would never have to stress over a case ever again. Never have money problems keeping you up at night again.”
Jennifer genuinely considered accepting for a few seconds, imagining a care free life with her boss and his wife. But she snapped out of it seconds later, shaking the idea away, telling herself that she is actually a decent human being, unlike the people stood in front of her.
Just as Jennifer was about to finally speak her mind, umpteen Italian police officers carrying rifles raided the marina, demanding Dewy and Jade raise their hands.
At the same time, Beth ran towards Jennifer, out of breath, “Christ on a bike I am so unfit. But God am I glad that you’re okay.”
“Beth, you little genius. How did you know?”
“Well I was getting nowhere asking strangers questions they couldn’t answer so I decided to make my way back to you. I saw you one second and those infamous black leather pants, the next.”
“Thank God that you did. I don’t think what I was going to say to him is something that should ever leave my mouth,” she laughed.
The two walked away from the scene, Jennifer turning her back on the man who had ultimately betrayed her and in that moment, she knew that it was Beth who she wanted to solve cases with for the rest of time.