Overnight, as predicted, the temperature had dropped and it was through a frosty city that he walked to work that day. Anonymous in the throng of hundreds, if not thousands, a human river, he saw no-one and nothing; he just wanted to get to the office. Clouds of steaming breath mingled with the acrid, milk-white curdlings of car exhausts, traffic noise and horns battled with Christmas carols and deep-bass hip hop for decibel dominance.
He had plans for the day, which included getting away early for the seasonal exodus. It was an unwritten understanding that his hours would remain unchanged, which was why he was coming in a full three quarters of an hour early; besides, he had things to do at lunchtime. Disgorged by the nameless throng that had carried him from the tube station across the bridge and into the financial quarter, he pushed through the revolving doors and drank in the quiet sanctuary of the foyer, marble-finished and tastefully lit, the logo of Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax picked out in five-foot gold flecked letters on the floor.
He met the eyes of the receptionist only momentarily as she handed him his post, which he clutched under one arm. The foyer was blissfully warm after the December chill of the walk to work, and he felt himself start to sweat slightly in his overcoat. The lift arrived and he punched in number sixteen, letting the stomach-lurching sensation carry him to the dizzy corporate heights of Refinanced Property Management Consultancy.
With a practised movement, he set his briefcase onto his desk, flicked open the locks, lifted the lid. Out came his laptop, several files, the FT and a well-thumbed copy of Monday’s City Trader Weekly. He had made sure it was pretty well obvious that he had been looking at the jobs pages. He had no intention of moving, but management didn’t know that and what better way to keep them keen than to hint that their star broker might be getting itchy feet. He checked his e-mails, called up the spreadsheet he had been working on the previous night till half-one, then walked to the coffee machine to get himself an espresso.
“Coming to the bash tomorrow?” asked Jacobs from two sections over.
“Er, no, looking to get away tonight, if at all poss.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not as if there’s some piece of hot totty in the Cotswolds with your name on it, is there?”
“Who says there isn’t?” he snapped back, slightly irritated both that Jacobs had got to find out about Marielle’s brutal ending of the relationship and that he lost no opportunity to remind him of his single status.
“I think we’d know,” smirked Jacobs. “Chap like you wouldn’t want to keep something like that to yourself eh, would you? Especially after the way that Marielle…”
“Just piss off, Jacobs.”
“Compliments of the season to you too,” Jacobs laughed at his retreating back.
It rankled him all the way back to his desk. It was the one thing he didn’t seem to be able to sort out in his life. He had the job, the flat in one of the most desirable areas in London, the car (for out of town business only – damn congestion charge, bloody car parking fees), the membership of a very exclusive gym on the river (normally a two-year waiting list) but to lose the woman in such a spectacularly galling way (dumped by e-mail, copied to his friends for good measure) made it all seem somehow rather hollow. It wasn’t as if he had the time to find anyone else, and all the executive dating agencies he had looked into seemed set up to prey on lonely and loaded suckers like himself. So he had put the dumping behind him (or tried to) and buried himself in work, gaining good notices from the board and promising whispers of things to come at the next half-yearly appraisal. That’d shut Jacobs up, he thought.
He opened a tightly-packed envelope postmarked Huntingdon and unfolded the sheets of paper. As he scanned it, he was confused. It was nothing that he knew about, yet it seemed to be some sort of précis of a very tasty land deal near Brampton, excellent connections to the A1 and A14, near Huntingdon race course, a bargain price to acquire, but the potential to make a very large amount of money. He could almost taste the commission when he noticed that the envelope and the letter were addressed to Andy Jacobs, Refinanced Property Management Consultancy, Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax
He glanced around; Jacobs was busily chatting to Kate Beaumont, one of this year’s graduate intake (clearly inexperienced if she thought Jacobs was worth getting to know, he thought) so he was going to be unavailable for quite some time. He picked up his mobile (leave no trace) and dialled the number. The dialling tone taunted him for at least twenty seconds. Come on, he thought, pick up.
“Hello, Mr Tenby? Yes, it’s Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax here. No, it’s not Mr Jacobs, he’s tied up with a hot property locally and he’s asked me to handle your situation. Jamie Lessing. Yes, yes, I appreciate that. No, no, nothing that can’t be rescheduled. This evening? Can’t see why not. Looking forward to it. You too. Bye now.”
He ended the call. Looking round again, he noticed that Kate Beaumont was laughing in an exaggerated way at something that Jacobs had said. A girl who laughs at your jokes, Andy, he thought; who could possibly ask for more? He slipped the deeds and details into his overcoat pocket and got on with the day’s business, sinking further and further into it until it was only the grumbling of his stomach that reminded him it was approaching lunchtime.
The cold air of the city, so heavy with exhaust and the exhaled dreams of millions that it clung to the buildings like a shroud, filled his lungs as he walked the quarter-mile to his favourite eaterie. It was run by two ebullient Kurds, who he was not quite sure were not gangsters. He had been going only a matter of weeks, and would abandon it when the broadsheets’ food editors discovered it too. Letting his pace drop a little, he had slightly more time to look around. The Christmas lights were on already and there were noticeably more children in the streets now that the schools were out. There in a little piazza was a Salvation Army brass band, puffing out festive melodies as deep and warm as a tankard of mulled wine (now that definitely meant Christmas was nearly here) and just there….
He stopped, gazing in at the window. Something like a thrill, a shiver that had nothing to do with the weather ran through him. The mannequin in the window of Broadhurst and Tompkins, Gents Outfitters since 1871 was wearing the most exquisitely tailored, superbly cut, class-oozing overcoat that he had ever seen. It was the sort of coat that he had always promised himself, a coat that made other coats want to run away and hide in shame. It made him acutely embarrassed of the worn and frayed effort that he was wearing. He nodded to himself and then, with the thought that a visit to Mr Tenby demanded the very best (as if the purchase of such a coat needed any further justification), he went in.
Ten minutes later he emerged, feeling somehow enriched by the new coat, putting to the back of his mind how much it had cost, knowing it was worth it. Success had its rewards and this was one of them. He quickened his step, knowing he had not that much of his lunch-hour left. The Kurds would not miss him. Perhaps he could get a take-away. Suddenly, he was jerked out of his reverie by a voice from practically underfoot.
“That’s a nice coat, mate.”
He glanced round, then down to see the man in the doorway, his grubby clothes and weather-beaten face a stark contrast to the immaculately groomed reflection in the shop window beside him.
“Yes, it is,” he replied, wanting to get away, yet held by something indefinable.
“Spare some change?” the man asked, and he held out a chipped and scratched enamel mug.
“I don’t carry any,” he said, which was the actual truth. “All plastic, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, right,” said the man with a half-laugh, accompanied by an exhalation of steam. That doorway might offer some slight protection from the cold but not much.
He reached into the Broadhurst and Tompkins bag and pulled out his old overcoat. There were still plenty of miles left in it. He handed it to the man in the doorway, then hurried off. There was a faint “Thanks, mate.” which was swallowed by the bustle of the city’s busy lunchtime.
The afternoon passed more quickly than he had thought, and outside, the cityscape gave way to the illuminated reflection of their office. He paid a visit to the coffee machine, timing his trip to coincide with Jacobs’ one to the washroom, got replies to several of his e-mails sent that morning about a lease on a dockside office block that had been sitting vacant since the summer, and played a game of Free Cell while waiting to be put through to a Herr Rolf Schroder in Dusseldorf. Finally, it was time to go. He cleared his desk in the exact reverse of the morning’s routine, spun the dials on the combination of his briefcase locks and headed for the lift. He was feeling so up that he even passed the time of day with Jacobs in an almost-friendly way until they reached the foyer and went their separate ways. He was headed for Kings Cross and Huntingdon; Jacobs, he hoped, was heading nowhere. The earlier departure meant the streets were slightly emptier than they would be in half an hour or so. He dropped his pace, and – purely for reassurance – reached for the deeds to the Huntingdon property.
Oh my god, he thought, they’re not there! Jesus, did I drop them? No, I can’t have done. Did Jacobs filch them while I was away from my desk? No, he was always in view and so was my desk.
Then, with a realisation that made his face crease with anguish, he remembered. Broadhurst and Tompkins. The shop assistant, only too helpful, had folded his old overcoat and slipped it into the bag. And he had given it to the down-and-out. A tramp had the paperwork for the deal of a lifetime! He altered course, heading for the shop doorway where he had been so generous and so stupid at the same time. That was what he had felt, that indefinable sensation – his future self shouting Check the bloody pockets, you fool!
He reached the piazza, started to hunt through the crowds of shoppers. Which doorway had it been? Blast, he couldn’t remember. There was no sign of any down-and-out in any of the doorways on the piazza. The man had probably vanished into the teeming hordes flowing though the city, along with his one chance at glory and fortune.
He kicked an empty Starbucks cup into the road where it was flattened under the wheels of a black cab, then sat down on the nearest bench. He was going to have to call Tenby, invent some plausible excuse for the delay. The man would have copies, of course he would. It would have to be after Christmas. But the delay might be fatal; it was a chance, a slim chance but a chance nonetheless.
He blinked, looked around, looked up. There, looking down at him was a pretty young girl, her face framed by a black bonnet, wearing a black tunic with Salvation Army wording on her epaulettes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash. Just plastic.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said and smiled. “I believe that you’ve given already today.”
“I saw you at lunchtime,” she said. “When you gave that man your new overcoat from Broadhurst and Tompkins. I know how much they charge. You didn’t have any cash on you so you gave what you had. Do you know how rare generosity like that is these days?”
“Pretty rare, I guess.”
“Try nearly impossible,” she replied. “Anyway, it proves that the Christmas spirit isn’t completely dead.”
As if realising that she had been gushing, she blushed, which he found curiously endearing. She had brown eyes (Marielle’s had been a glacial blue) and her hair below her bonnet was dark and curly (Marielle’s had been straight and blonde). She turned to go.
“Wait a minute,” he called out. “I don’t suppose you know the man in question?”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “We know most of them in this area.”
“Do you know where he is now?”
“He’ll be at the drop-in centre, ready for his hot meal,” she said and then an earnest expression crossed her face. “You know, you’re not just generous, you’re caring too; you were obviously worried about him and wanted to make sure he was okay.”
“Er, yes, of course. Who wouldn’t?”
“Lots of people,” she said with a hint of regret in her voice. “You’re a rare find, Mr…”
“Lessing,” he said, smiling “but call me Jamie.”
“I’m Ellen,” she said, extending a hand “Why don’t you come with me? I’m on my way there now.”
“That’d be nice,” he said. “Truth to tell, I could use the company.”
He set off with her, allowing her to direct him. Halfway there, he asked her to stop a moment.
“Is there a problem?” she asked
“No, just got to make a quick call,” he replied, then took out his mobile, pressed a few buttons and waited for his call to be answered.
“Hello?” he said, “Is that Mr Tenby?”