To read from the first episodes click here: Episode 1
It was Friday afternoon and Nigel and Amelia were sitting side by side at the pine kitchen table, a replacement for Nigel’s desk that had been taken during the last bailiff’s visit. No new business had come in for either of them and they were wiling away the too-quiet hours with The Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword.
“13-across”, said Amelia, “‘Certainly, I start to notice every innermost thought’. Three words, two, three and ten letters.”
“What letters have we got?”
“First word is something-N, so it could only be ‘in’, ‘an’ or ‘on’. Second word A-something-something. Then in the third word we have C-something-N-something-C-then four blanks and it ends with an E.”
Nigel scribbled this down on a scrap of paper, saying, “What’s the clue again?”
Amelia repeated it and he gnawed the end of his already-chewed biro as he pondered.
“Got it!” He was triumphant, as it was usually Amelia who got cryptic clues more quickly than he did. He was better at general knowledge, though, he had to admit, Amelia was usually better at that too. “It’s ‘In all conscience’.”
“Oh yes, so it is. Right, let’s try 3-down as we have a few letters for that. Er … are you OK?”
Nigel had jumped up, rubbing his shirt-sleeved arms. “Did it suddenly get really cold in here? It’s not the first time and I’ve got chills all over.”
“Someone stepping on your grave?”
Nigel frowned with distaste as he sat back down. “I’ve never understood that expression. How can someone step on your grave when you’re still alive?”
Laughing, Amelia said, “Aha, dear husband, I know the answer to that one! It’s an expression from the Middle Ages meaning that someone has stepped on where your grave is going to be. Rather morbid, but there you go.”
They both froze at the sound of the outer door opening and closing, then they exchanged wide-eyed, hopeful glances as Amelia rose and went to see who had come in.
She entered the tiny reception area as if she had all the time in the world, and was back in a few seconds, quietly announcing that a gentleman had arrived for his 11.30 appointment. Her puzzled expression matched Nigel’s – he was not expecting any appointments today. Or any day in the foreseeable future.
He riffled through the diary, fully expecting that day’s page to be blank, muttering quietly so only Amelia could hear, “But I don’t have an appoi … Oh, wait. There is something …” He turned the diary towards Amelia. “You didn’t put that in there, did you? And I certainly didn’t. How mysterious! Well, you’d better show him in, Amelia.”
Amelia whispered that she would go out so the client could have a private meeting with Nigel, then she squared her shoulders and widened her mouth into her warm, professional smile before returning to the visitor. Nigel heard her say brightly, “Please do go in. Can I get you a drink of anything? Tea, coffee, or would you prefer something cold as it’s so hot today?”
Whoever she was talking to murmured a reply that Nigel couldn’t make out. He just had time to move to Amelia’s desk, do up the top button of his shirt, tighten the knot of his tie and shrug on his navy-blue jacket, which almost but did not quite match his trousers, before the visitor strode in. Tall and imposing, oozing confidence and authority, his presence filled the room. Behind him Amelia made wide eyes and a shrugging motion, miming that she had no idea who this man was.
Nigel swept his eyes over the stranger, easily recognising sharp dressing when he saw it. He’d worn couture clothes himself not so long ago. But he could tell that the garments this man wore were in another league entirely and Nigel’s teeth ached just being in such close proximity. He longed to know the identity of the man’s tailor, clearly a genius with cloth and cut. And, surely, only a master craftsman with a lifelong love and deep understanding of leather could have made those highly polished, soft-as-butter shoes, not to mention the burgundy briefcase?
He thought with a sharp pang about the bespoke suits and shoes he’d once owned. All of them, as well as his cashmere sweaters, silk ties and handmade shirts, had been cruelly and horribly vandalised by his ex-wife with bleach and scarlet nail polish, slashed to ribbons and left in a tragic pile on the thick cream carpet of his walk-in wardrobe. He’d had to recover his shoes, belts and underwear from the ornamental fishpond.
As he rose to greet the visitor, Nigel’s nostrils caught the unmistakable scent of Amouage Gold Pour Homme, the same brand of aftershave Tansy had bought him for their first Christmas together. That had ended up in an explosion of lead crystal, inaccurately aimed at his head. It had smashed against the bathroom wall, showering him with bits of broken glass and the potent amber liquid. The glass he’d been able to wash out of his hair, but the Amouage clung onto his skin for days afterwards.
The visitor smiled and spoke in a deep, melodious voice, “Good morning, Mr. Hellion-Rees. How do you do?” He clasped Nigel’s outstretched hand and shook it, once up and once down, very firmly, but he did not give his name and Nigel’s brain churned trying to phrase the words to ask it. After all, what would the man think if he were to admit he had no recollection of this appointment? He’d lose the job before he even knew what it was, and he couldn’t afford to lose it. Really, he couldn’t. He just had to hope that things would become clear once the meeting was underway.
He beckoned the stranger to be seated on the one decent piece of furniture, and glanced again at the diary, trying but still failing to read the name scribbled there in a bronze-coloured ink he was quite sure came from none of the office pens.
The visitor sat down and Nigel’s eyes caught the gleam of a scarlet silk lining as the man undid the buttons of his exquisite jacket. He was wearing a tie of deepest midnight blue, patterned in various shades of deep orange and red that seemed to flicker like flames in an open fire, and Nigel found himself transfixed by it as the man settled himself. It’s just a trick of the light, he told himself, and tried to concentrate instead on the bright white shirt that would do a washing powder commercial proud. Nigel saw a glint of gold and rubies in the cuffs, and his teeth ached some more.
A deep voice, tinged with amusement, whispered somewhere by his left ear: “Tut, tut, thou art coveting!” Nigel’s skin instantly contracted into a thousand goosebumps, just like it had moments before the stranger arrived, and he shivered and blinked in bewilderment. He had distinctly heard the words, but the visitor’s lips hadn’t moved.
He was the most strikingly handsome man Nigel had ever seen, and he could well imagine how women would swoon and blush and act all silly when they met him. The stranger, a knowing smirk on his face, stroked his fingernails with his index finger one by one, first the left hand then the right. The nails were short and manicured smooth, buffed to a soft sheen, yet the image of long, pointy talons came unbidden to Nigel’s mind and he had to give himself a mental shake. The self-satisfied smirk widened to a grin.
Nigel was immensely relieved when Amelia came in with two cups of coffee, for her arrival seemed to break some kind of spell. Nigel watched to see if she simpered at the visitor when she gave him his cup, but all she did was politely ask him to excuse her and then she left. Nigel thought she’d probably go to the cafe round the corner for an hour.
He felt cool grey eyes on him, and their expression made Nigel’s scalp tighten and prickle. It was as if he knew exactly what Nigel had been thinking, as if, indeed, he’d taken his full measure and found him wanting, in an amusing kind of way. He again desperately tried to remember how this appointment had come about, but all he encountered in his perplexed brain were vacant pockets where the information should be. Maybe, he consoled himself, he was coming down with flu. Or something even nastier.
He pulled a pad towards him and picked up a pen, giving himself some time to gather his scrambled thoughts. He cleared his throat to speak, intending to take the initiative and regain some sense of control, but the potential client beat him to it.
“I am here to hire you to do a job in Wiltshire. We wish to purchase a disused mill there, which you and, I hope, Mrs. Hellion-Rees, will renovate and convert to a top-class restaurant.”
For a moment, just a teeny tiny moment, Nigel felt like jumping up and dancing round the room. A construction job! A chance to get back into the work he loved! But reality hit him with a cold splat and he sputtered, “But, sir, you need an architect, and although I-”.
The words dried in his mouth as the man held up his hand, palm towards Nigel, in a gesture of complete authority.
“I haven’t finished!” The man paused, visibly reigning in his temper, and continued in a more conversational way, “While you are project-managing the work, you will also be using your PI skills for getting to know the locals – their hobbies and talents, likes and dislikes, their relationships, things like that. Easy enough, I would have thought. However, the first thing we need to do is secure the mill. It belongs to a woman called Violet Cattermole. She doesn’t have it on the market, but she’ll sell it to us once you put the proposition to her.”
“I see,” said Nigel slowly, though he didn’t see at all. His mind raced, knowing how much he needed the job, but knowing, too, that he’d have to turn it down. “Sir, this sounds like a job I would truly love to do, but you see there are problems and, for reasons I do not wish to go into, I am unable to take on work of this nature.”
The man leaned back and regarded Nigel for a long moment. “Mr. Hellion-Rees. Or may I call you Nigel? Good. So, Nigel, let me lay it out for you. You need this job. You were a highly respected and extremely well paid architect and property developer, work you loved and were exceptionally good at. You married the boss’s daughter and she gave you the run-around, but would only grant you a divorce if you took the blame. This you graciously did, so her daddy fired you from his firm believing that you had mistreated his daughter.”
Nigel sputtered, “How do you know all this?”
The man ignored the question and went relentlessly on, “Despite your agreeing to her terms, your ex-wife vowed that she would make your life an utter misery. Her lawyers proceeded to take you to the cleaners and they continue to make it virtually impossible for you to even make ends meet. And on top of all that, her father used his considerable influence to make sure no other architectural practice or construction firm would take you on. How am I doing so far?”
Speechless, he could only stare at the man who seemed to know far too much about his predicament. And he hadn’t finished.
“The divorce agreement – if you can call something so blatantly one-sided an agreement – ensured that not only were you stripped of practically everything you owned at the time of the divorce, you are now locked in to handing over a percentage of your earnings, or any items of value in lieu, until your ex-wife remarries.” He tapped the pine table and said, “Do you know that your fine desk is gathering dust in a warehouse? Your leather chair is there too. As are all the items she has taken instead of money she doesn’t need. Your ex-wife is doing this out of sheer spite.” He grinned, real amusement twinkling now in his grey eyes. “But, hey, Hell hath no fury and all that.”
Nigel felt helpless. His swivelling, reclining leather executive chair had indeed been taken and his case files were now piled in a corner because they had also robbed him of his filing cabinets. But how did this stranger know all this? Stunned by the conversation, he pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “It’s somewhat ironic, but it seems you have had a private detective investigating me.”
“I apologise if I have embarrassed or shocked you, but you must understand that this project is of global importance; we had to be sure we had the right man.”
“Global importance? Converting a derelict mill into a restaurant? I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to understand at this stage, just do as we ask and all will become clear in good time.” He sat back in his chair and brushed a non-existent piece of lint from his thigh, then he leaned forward and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “And I promise you, you will be very well rewarded.”
He named a sum just as Nigel took a sip of coffee to relieve the dryness in his throat. When Nigel, eyes watering and deeply embarrased, had recovered from his choking fit and mopped up the spilt coffee, the man repeated it and slid a bulging brown envelope across the desk.
“And to show our good faith, here’s a little something to get you started. Hard cash, so you can buy all the equipment you need to draw up the plans for the mill without your ex-wife knowing about it.”
Nigel eyed the envelope but didn’t touch it. He would be delighted to go out and buy stuff, but Tansy’s henchmen would simply take it all away again when they came the following month and saw it in his office. The thought was unbearable, and he wished for the thousandth time that some other idiot would take her on and so set him free.
“Ah, yes,” said the man, clearly and disconcertingly reading his thoughts, “You’ll have to keep any new equipment well-hidden, won’t you? We’ll put our minds to the situation and see what we can do about that.”
The way he said it sounded so sinister, Nigel started to object, but he was silenced by the expression in the man’s eyes. His mind danced with images of carnivorous creatures like wolves and hyenas and vampire bats. OK, the man had white, even teeth and charming dimples, but there was definitely something a little … dangerous about him. The wolves and bats disappeared from his fevered brain, only to be replaced with visions of sinister men in fedoras and heavy overcoats, machine guns hidden in violin cases.
Of one thing he was certain: this was someone you didn’t mess with.
The new client took a slim folder from his briefcase and handed it to Nigel. “Everything you need to know is in here.” He rose from his seat and buttoned up his jacket. The tie still flickered. He put his hand out to seal the agreement, and said, “So, Nigel, please apply your finely honed skills to the matter straight away and we will sort something out so you can work in complete privacy. We are most confident that you and your wife will do an excellent job.” He paused as Nigel didn’t speak or move. “I take it you are going to do the job?”
Like a robot, Nigel clasped the hand in his own and so sealed the deal.
“Good man!” The client’s perfect white teeth gleamed. “Here’s my card. You will be so kind as to contact me only when you’ve got something useful to tell me. I shall not expect to hear from you until then.”
Nigel nodded and took the thick white card. At last, he would know the man’s identity and the name of the outfit he worked for! Nigel would have some clue as to what type of business he was about to get involved in. He glanced down. There was certainly something printed on the card in fancy raised copper-coloured lettering, but, try as he might, he couldn’t read it.
When the stranger reached the door, he turned back, his hand resting on the handle, and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Nigel. And your charming wife.” Then he was out of the office and Nigel could hear his and Amelia’s voices as they talked. Amelia must have just returned.
The building renovation sounded simple enough, and it was, he admitted to himself, something he’d be thrilled to do, and Amelia would jump at the chance to do the interior decor. No, it wasn’t that that bothered him. It was the snooping around the people of the village for an unknown reason, and it was also the nature of the man sitting in front of him. Something about him deeply disturbed Nigel, gave him the creeps in fact, though he couldn’t articulate why. Some instinct told him he should have refused the job, but the pound sign and the number written after it on his notepad were circled again and again, and he knew he couldn’t possibly let this opportunity slip away. More importantly, he rather thought that this man simply would not accept a refusal. He pictured himself wearing concrete shoes and being thrown over a bridge. Then an even more horrifying image came to him, of Amelia, bound and gagged, held captive until he agreed to do their bidding.
The air in the office felt supercharged, and Nigel felt … peculiar. Had the meeting lasted half an hour or half a day? His workaday watch, bought to replace the Patek Philippe the bailiffs had taken some time ago, told him it was 12:05. He felt distinctly tired and even a little sick. The business card was still clutched in his hand, but he couldn’t make out the words printed on it no matter how hard he squinted. He held it up to the light, but although he could see what he thought was a series of letters, they seemed to shift and change as he stared, until he could swear that what he was seeing were tiny ants criss-crossing the card.
He most definitely had the flu.
He jumped when Amelia suddenly came angrily stalking in stood in front of him with her hands on her hips, making her displeasure obvious as she demanded, “Whatever possessed you to tell that man that I’m pregnant?”
His mouth moved but nothing came out.
“Before leaving just now he took my hand and congratulated me, he even asked if I knew whether we were having a boy or a girl. How could you, Nigel, we haven’t even told mum and dad yet?”
“I … I didn’t tell him! You didn’t come into the conversation at all!”
“Then how did he know, huh? How?”
Nigel came round the desk and tried to pull Amelia into his arms. She kept herself stiff and unyielding, but Nigel held her firmly and kissed her cheek. “I didn’t tell him, Amelia, I swear I didn’t. But he knows an awful lot about me and the situation with Tansy, so maybe … well, I don’t have an explanation, but he knows far more than I’m comfortable with.”
“OK, so he has supernatural powers, is that how he had an appointment that we knew nothing about?”
“I really don’t know how that happened, either, Amelia, believe me.”
As she opened her mouth to speak, no doubt with more sarcasm, at which she was extremely talented, Nigel showed her the number he’d written on his coffee-stained pad and the envelope stuffed full of ten, twenty and fifty pound notes.
“Amelia, look at this. Whoever they are, they certainly have money to throw around.”
“Wow! Well, we really can’t turn this down, can we?” Her face softened as she looked at him, and she said, “You’re very pale, darling, maybe you should taken some aspirin?”
Relieved that the storm was over, Nigel nodded and sat down again. He noticed that the stranger had not touched his coffee, so he downed it himself, hoping a hit of caffeine, albeit tepid, might help him think. Sweetness hit the back of his throat, making him sputter once again; he didn’t take sugar, and he reckoned he’d just swallowed at least three heaped spoonfuls.
He slowly swung the typist’s chair, salvaged from a roadside skip the day after his executive chair had been taken, and faced the window to gaze through the dirty glass at the wall of the decaying warehouse opposite. The sight of the familiar brick wall was strangely comforting, because somehow, and it was an uncomfortable feeling, Nigel wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the view had changed. A spooky mist hovering over Highgate Cemetery maybe, or moonlight glinting eerily above the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Amelia asked him to fill her in about the man who’d just left. “Sexy chap, I must say. So, I ask again, how did he get an appointment without either of us knowing about it?”
“I really don’t know. I thought you’d made the appointment until I saw the look on your face. I certainly didn’t.” He turned the diary so she could read it. “Look. That isn’t my writing.”
Amelia leaned forward. “No,” she agreed, “And you know full well that it isn’t mine either. I can’t even read what it says. Who is he?”
“I’ve no idea. Didn’t he give his name when he came into the office?”
Amelia shook her head. “I know this sounds crazy,” she ventured, “but is it possible that someone just walked unnoticed into the office and wrote the appointment in the diary?”
Nigel exhaled noisily, “How could someone possibly manage that? Either you or I are here, or the door is locked. And all it takes to make an appointment is a phone call.”
“But there was no phone call,” Amelia pointed out. “There’s no sign of forced entry or we would have noticed, and neither of us wrote that in the diary. But anyway, putting aside the odd way this came about – and I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation – we have a new client, he’s offering pots of money, so what does he want us to do for it? An investigation into a wayward wife?” She laughed, “Though I can’t imagine any woman playing around if she had him for a husband!”
Nigel scowled and she leaned across his desk with a saucy smile to pat his cheek, “Don’t worry, my darling husband, you know I want no-one else but you.” Then the expression in her hazel eyes changed from flirtatious to thoughtful. “Actually,” she said, “I felt there was something not quite right about him. Something that made me a little … uneasy.”
Nigel was relieved to hear it, as it confirmed his own misgivings, but he didn’t want to mention words like mafia or some other terrifying criminal organisation to Amelia, although he was sure he was on the right track. He outlined the content of the meeting, showed her the dossier – in which there was no mention of any names, company or otherwise, to tell them who they’d been hired by, and finished by asking, “Are you sure we should take this on? We both think there’s something a bit suspect, don’t we?”
Amelia nodded, “Hmm, maybe, but, Nigel, we need the money, especially with the baby coming, and they are offering an awful lot of it. I suggest we at least make a start, and see where it takes us. You go to – what’s the place called again?”
Nigel searched for it in the documents. “Ham-Under-Lymfold.”
“What a pretty name. I wonder if it’s as quaint as it it sounds? Anyway, I suggest you go there on Monday and get things underway. At least you’ll be doing something you love, hmm?” She stood up, then exclaimed, “Oh, Nigel, is that a business card? Why didn’t you say he’d given you one?” She held out her hand for it. “Now we can find out about our new client, and if anything looks at all dodgy or dangerous, then we’ll withdraw.”
It made sense to Nigel, but then Amelia always saw things so clearly. He gave her the card.
“What is this? I can’t read what it says!”
“Neither can I, it’s just like the writing in the diary, same colour and illegible.” He shook his head. “This is really weird, Amelia.”
Amelia brought the card close to her eyes then squealed and threw it on the floor. “Ugh! It’s like tiny ants are crawling all over it. Oh … wait a minute … I think I can read it.” She picked it up again and held it at a distance, squinting until her eyes were almost comically crossed. “Yes, it says … ‘De Angelo Corporation’. There’s more, but I can’t make it out.”
Nigel winced at the Italian name, thinking again about the possibility that they were dealing with the Mob.
Amelia came round and sat on his lap so she could tap out the name on the computer keyboard. The flimsy chair creaked but held their weight.
The search engine found De Angelo Corporation, but ‘website under construction’ was printed in dark blue across a picture of an ultra-modern building. Its frame was silvery steel, it had acres of mirrored glass, and the tall, thin upward-pointing icicle shape reminded Nigel of The Shard, the London building with an amazing 95 floors. But there were marked differences: the building was rounder, the glass appeared to be black, and there was a silvery ring around the building about three quarters of the way up. Nigel was puzzled that he didn’t recognise it because it was the sort of construction that would make the cover of most if not all of the architectural magazines he still read.
“Well, their office is impressive, but this doesn’t help us much, does it? Hardly professional not to have a working website.” He looked up at Amelia.
“You know, I’ve just had a crazy thought,” she said, “It sounds ridiculous, but do you think it could be something to do with espionage? You know, MI5 or MI6! A top secret mission, and they need us to do this thing as a cover for something?”
Although it was alarming, Nigel liked Amelia’s speculation a whole lot better than his own. “It’s a possibility, I suppose. It would certainly explain a few things, wouldn’t it? I’ll go to Wiltshire on Monday. Let’s hope we find some answers there.”