Maloney’s Law by Anne Brooke
The glow from my ex-lover’s cigarette lights up the warm night air, and I catch a faint impression of his hand’s shadow before the darkness descends again.
In the silence, I sense rather than see his lips draw on the smoky pleasure, tingling tar and need into his waiting lungs. I don’t ask to share it and he doesn’t offer. More than anything this reminds me of the last time we almost had sex.
‘I suppose you’re wondering why I asked to see you, Paul,’ he says, and his voice makes me shut my eyes for a moment. In the deeper blackness I can see the strong, sensual lines of his face as clear as if it were daylight. ‘I mean why now? Not the greatest of meeting places for us, is it?’
‘You’re here, aren’t you?’ I reply and wait for him to speak. It’s 2.02am. I’ve picked a disused chapel in Hackney for this meeting, as it’s near home, it’s private, and it’s dark. Inside, it’s a good place for sex, if you’re desperate and don’t mind the broken glass. I thought he wouldn’t turn up, but I was wrong.
For a moment he seems to be trying to choose his words, then he says, ‘I need your help, you see.’
I laugh. There doesn’t seem any other way of responding.
‘I’m serious. It’s a business offer.’
At once I shut up. Money is money, whoever it comes from. And five years, ten months, and five days in my job as the proprietor of Maloney Investigations (anything considered) has taught me never to turn down business.
‘Go on,’ I say, and as I speak, a lone car swings into the street, its headlights illuminating our shapes and outlining the solid lines of the chapel that frames Dominic.
Instinct kicks in and I propel him back into the safety of the doorway. It smells of cannabis and urine. As the car approaches at a crawl, I shield him with my body, pull the cigarette from his mouth and kiss him. He tastes of nicotine and mint. The blokes in the car shout abuse out of the window but, thank God, don’t stop, and after a tense few seconds they drive off into the darkness. I don’t want to stop either, but when the danger’s past I’m the first to pull away.
When I do so, I wonder who he’s screwing now — some young, good-looking bastard, I bet. Yeah, I can just see it, and the look on Dominic’s face when he gets what he wants, too. Maybe I can try to mix business with pleasure? As he's the last man I’ve slept with, it must be three years, four months, and one week since I had sex at all. At least with someone else in the room. I wonder if that makes me unusual.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Thought they might leave us alone if they didn’t recognise you. Cruisers only.’
He nods. ‘You were right. Can I have my cigarette back now?’
I pass it to him, my fingers lingering on his before he eases them away. He doesn’t comment. Instead he wipes the back of his free hand over his mouth, and I blink back tears.
When he speaks, he speaks quickly. ‘There’s a business I want to investigate, buy if the money’s right. Information Technology. They deal with Eastern European markets, but there’s something not quite right about them and I want to know what.’
‘What is it? Drugs? Porn?’
At once he shakes his head. ‘No. I’d know if it was. But I want you to look into it anyway, see what you can find. My business has to be clean; there can’t be any dirt thrown that might stick. Do you understand?’
‘Sure. Sounds simple enough. You say something’s not quite right, but you don’t think it’s serious. So what’s got you suspicious?’
‘Rumour only. You know what the business world is like. I want to be certain, that’s all.’
Again his answer is too fast and I don’t believe him.
‘Why don’t you use some of your own hot-shot investigators? I know you have them. Won’t they be able to do your legwork for you?’
He drops his cigarette and crushes it underfoot before lighting another. In the flash of fire, I catch the intensity of his gaze.
‘Even my own people have been known to talk, and I don’t want to give my competitors reasons for suspicion. Not at the stage of negotiations I’m at now. I want someone who, if they go down, won’t take me with them.’
His reasons are too slick, too unconnected, but his last statement makes me blink again. He was always honest with me, something I never got used to.
‘Yes, I know what you’ll say,’ he continues. Even though I have no idea what that might be. ‘You’ll say we used to fuck each other regularly, in spite of my situation, and that would be enough to crucify anyone. But no-one knows this, except you and me. And that time-waster assistant of yours. So if it becomes public knowledge, I’ll know who to blame, won’t I? And when I hold a grudge...’
He doesn’t have to complete the sentence. I’ve read enough in the papers about the boardroom — and backroom — battles fought and won by Mr. Dominic Allen to know the extent of his power. Oh yes, more than anyone I understand his strength compared to my weakness, and I’ve almost made up my mind to walk away from his problems, and my past, when he speaks again. This time his voice is softer.
‘And there’s another reason,’ he says. ‘You’re the only one I can trust. Please, will you help me?’
‘You don’t have to help him, you know. He’ll only screw you over, like last time.’
First rule of PI work. If you have to hire a secretary, or any staff, never get someone who knows you. They’ll only end up telling you stuff you don’t want to hear. And, worse, it might even be the truth.
‘No, he won’t,’ I say, wishing again for a way to afford more than my one-roomed office plus kitchen. ‘This time I’m wise to him. Anyway, it’s cash. I’d be crazy not to take it.’
‘You’d be crazy to do it, too.’ Jade stops staring at her computer screen and throws me one of her accusing looks from behind her blonde lashes. ‘You’ll just go stupid again.’
I grimace at Jade’s use of the phrase, “go stupid”. It covers the time, nearing the end of my eleven-month affair with Dominic Allen, and afterwards, when I stopped eating, left hundreds of pleading messages on his mobile, and lurked night after night outside his house in Islington waiting for one glimpse of him. After seven weeks of this, on the morning of Friday 1 June 2001, in the office, I’d smashed every single breakable item I owned in front of Jade’s horrified eyes. I’d then collapsed onto the floor and sobbed for an hour and a half without being able to stop.
It was a difficult time for us both and I can understand her concern. Now though, I’ll make sure it’s different. I’m older and calmer for one thing and my dealings, if any, with Dominic will be carried out in the light of this new maturity.
‘No, I won’t “go stupid”,’ I say with a smile. ‘He’s history. So much so that I was fine when we met last night. Or rather early this morning. It was–’
‘Did you snog him?’
‘No, don’t be silly. Of course I didn’t. He’s a client, or might be. I wouldn’t be that unprofessional, would I? What the hell kind of a question is that anyway?’
‘So you did then.’
‘But not in the way you think. I was carrying out my duties, protecting him from the greedy eyes of the public. You know he’s better known than Beckham. Almost.’
I pause and feel my face redden. ‘Is George Michael gay?’
Jade nods, her lips pursed. ‘And while your tongue was reacquainting itself with his tonsils, did you happen to ask after Mrs. Allen and the two little Allens? Or did Mr. Allen’s wife and children not cross your mind?’
This is a dirty move and I don’t stoop to answer it. Second rule of PI work: don’t employ someone who’s moral. Jade has a Baptist background, though I’ve never seen her enter a chapel since I’ve known her, so that’s twelve years and ten months. But a religious upbringing can never be wiped away. It certainly hasn’t stopped her asking a knife-twist question, which I ignore. Instead, I drop the file I’ve been clutching onto my desk, fling myself into my chair, and flick through the papers to find the one I want.
It takes me longer than I’d anticipated. At the end of ten minutes, I still haven’t located it and, just as I’m wondering if it was one of the items I’d burnt After Dominic, there’s a slight cough. When I look up, Jade is standing in front of me holding out a mug of hot chocolate as if it’s about to explode. I don’t like hot chocolate, though I’ve never dared tell her this. It’s her usual way of dealing with a crisis; Jade counts gay men as honorary women, so I just smile and take it.
‘Sorry,’ she says.
Still unable to trust myself to speak, I nod, and she returns to her desk. While Jade starts tapping away on her keyboard again, I pretend to be looking at my file. It’s hard to concentrate on what Dominic told me last night, when all I can think about is either our past or the way his lips felt under mine seven hours ago. I wonder if he’s remembering, too, but it’s unlikely. He was never one to look back. All he’d done when I lunged at him was to tolerate my kiss before wiping it away and getting down to business. This was a shame as at 2.05am last night — or again is that this morning? — and indeed now, the most compelling thought in my head is the memory of how he and I first met. When–
‘Paul? Paul? You okay?’
At the sound of Jade’s voice, I jump, startled out of my thoughts, and look up to see her leaning over me, frowning. The scent of Anais Anais mingles with the now congealing hot chocolate.
‘Yeah, sure. I’m fine. I just need...I think I’ll go home for a while. I’ll take the papers with me, get to grips with some of the background. If anyone calls, tell them I’m on a case,’ I pause in the act of getting up. ‘In a way I suppose I am, if only for an initial read-through, so it won’t be lying.’
‘Okay,’ Jade thrusts a slim pale blue A4 folder into my hand. ‘You’ll be wanting this then, whatever you decide.’
I glance at the empty file with a fresh label on the top right hand corner, just where I like them to be. On it is typed: The Dominic Allen Case, 11 August 2004 to...Below it is my name in italics.
‘Thanks.’ I can’t help smiling. ‘You’re right, I’ll be wanting this.’
‘Thought so. You’ll be back later, before the end of the day?’
‘Sure, see you at 5.30.’
On the way out, I look back at her, and she gives me a little wave before the solid oak door with the central spy hole clicks shut.
The eleven-minute walk home clears my head. I’m glad I don’t have to commute; I hate the sweat and sourness of the bus in the morning, and it was a deliberate decision when I set up Maloney Investigations, to base myself as near to home as I could. Not that the office is much: just a one-windowed room big enough for two desks and a large, black filing cabinet and a narrow promise of a kitchen built along one end. But it’s mine, and Jade’s light touch with the Constable prints and seasonal flowers means clients, when they turn up, aren’t frightened away. Or if they are, it’s not because of the office.
Hackney’s changed so much in the seven years and five months I’ve lived here; it’s become leaner, darker at the street corners and at night when most of the drug-dealing takes place. During the day it’s brighter and more strident, filled with the sound of beggars and Indian women wrapped in saris the colour of desert, sky, or fire. It’s poorer, too, but that’s never bothered me. I hope it doesn’t bother the clients. Now my stride takes me along the familiar pavements lined with small squares of brown grass, leading in their turn up to countless flats carved out of Victorian houses once owned by rich people. The air is heavy with car fumes and the taste of undiscovered dreams.
At home, I drop my jacket on the mahogany hall table, next to the emergency cigarette packet, before heading into the box-shaped kitchen and pouring myself a Highland Park. Whisky is for home, for privacy. It’s medicinal. Besides, it’s turning out to be one of those days, so I deserve better than the Glenfiddich. Gazing at the golden liquid as it shimmers in the glass, I wonder. One breath, two. The smoky scent of it fills my head and I breathe out again. Then leaning against the metal coolness of the sink, I pour the drink away, swilling the drips with tap water. It’s too early for this. I promised myself once that I would never drink before 6pm, and it’s a rule I’ve always kept. Almost always.
Still the space in the day where I should have had a glass of whisky in my hand lies empty now so, clutching Jade’s file and my papers to my chest, I wander back through the hall and into the living room. The main room, to be honest. My income isn’t great. Even though I’ve lived here for so many years, today it’s as if I’m seeing it from a new perspective: the shabbiness, the old beige sofa with its light blue throw — a present from Jade — and the glass coffee table with its immovable scratches. Not to mention the pine dining table for four with the mismatched chairs, the scattering of crime novels and old newspapers, mainly The Independent, which hide the shortcomings of the carpet. Against all this and at the far end of the room is the magnificent Victorian fireplace and mantelpiece. Upon it stand my only ornaments: two Staffordshire dogs, which were a present from my mother for my eighteenth. God knows why.
What would Dominic see if he were here? The dogs he’d always hated, but what would he see that was different from three years and four months ago?
Answer: nothing. Nothing has changed, nothing at all.
Dumping the papers onto the sofa, I stride into my bedroom, where the deep green duvet still lies crumpled at the foot of the bed where I left it this morning. In the long mirror inside the wardrobe, my face gives nothing away.
I take off my clothes. Slowly, as if unpeeling the layers could remove the present. When I’m naked, I gaze at my image for a long time, trying to see myself as if I’m someone else. There are many things here that Dominic would remember: my face, thin and narrow, a throwback to my paternal grandfather; green eyes framed by short, almost black hair, a wolf on the hunt so another lover told me once; a long body, dark wavy chest hair leading down to strong, muscular legs; an average cock, not too small, thank God, though I’ve always wished it larger. Don’t we all? There are things here that he wouldn’t remember, too: a touch of grey around the hairline; a slight softening of the belly — must get to the gym again on a regular basis if I can afford it — and the scar on my right arm where two years ago a suspect knifed me. It still hurts a little in winter. My eyes are more cautious, too.
Would he find this attractive? Would he?
Damn it, damn me. Swinging away from the mirror, I drag my clothes back on, curse myself again, and head back into the living room for the comfort of the sofa and the papers I must read this afternoon.
It will be a thick folder, containing, as it will, the outline of DG Allen Enterprises and all the facts of the company Dominic wants to buy. The Delta Egypt Group, maker and supplier of IT accessories and software games to Egypt and northern Africa. Headquarters in Cairo and 400-strong. The name is familiar, though I don’t know why. It appears to be doing okay and, in my non-expert opinion, the accounts look to be in order. Why is Dominic suspicious, and why now? I should have asked him this last night. Never mind, I’d be seeing him again — at his request — in five days’ time for an initial opinion meeting. In five days, four hours and...God, I should just stick to the business and stop obsessing over time.
Pushing the memory of Dominic out of my mind — never an easy task — I focus myself in the way suggested by the counsellor I’d seen for a while after my breakdown. Breathe slowly and concentrate on one aspect of whatever is in front of you. Let it enter and fill your mind so there’s no room for anything else. Live in the papers I see, the dark print, the white smoothness.
All very well, but everything I’m looking at has some connection with my one-time lover, the scent of him is clinging to the pages. The counsellor never told me what to do under these circumstances. Frowning at my own cunning weakness, I grab the first set of documents and try to plunge into their murky depths, to read again all about Delta Egypt.
After a while, I can see why Dominic would want to buy them. They’re not too big, and their client base would give him access to a geographical market he’s never yet tapped into. In his position, and if I were a cut-throat well-known businessman, I’d do the same. They can’t be doing that well either, not in the current economy, but they aren’t large enough to have drawn other enemy takeover bids. Apart from Dominic’s. He’s done well to find them. So why is he so suspicious?
At last, I come to the end of the papers, and I don’t know if I’ve gained much of use from them. Underneath those is the file I took from the office, the file from my lockable drawer that Jade doesn’t know about. I began keeping it there three weeks into my breakdown recovery regime, believing if I kept it at home then I would read it too much. Now it’s only in the flat at weekends, when it’s easier to update. In it are all the cuttings about Dominic and everything he’s ever done that’s been in the newspapers since two months after he and I started our affair.
In front of me now lie pictures and articles about him, his family, his successes, his fortune, his public life. Still it tells me nothing about the man. It’s only at the end of my search that I find what I think I’m looking for, what I’ve only half-remembered. A small news item hidden in the corner of a page torn from The Financial Times, the date scrawled in biro across the top. Wednesday 6 March 2002: “Radical entrepreneur Dominic Allen, pictured here on the left [as if they needed to note that even], greets Blake Kenzie, MD of newly set-up IT games manufacturer, Delta Egypt, at the recent International Business & Marketing Conference held in Cairo. Mr. Allen says...”
I put the cutting down. So Dominic already knew about Delta and was keeping it a secret from me. Why? He must realise I’ll find out. It’s in the public domain, no matter how brief the article. What’s he playing at? I’ll see if he tells me the truth when I meet him on Monday, but I won’t raise the subject first.
For the rest of the morning, I gather information, think, make notes, and form a plan of sorts. By 3pm Jade’s file is no longer empty, but I’m starving. As usual there’s nothing in the flat, so I grab a pack of sushi and a bottle of orange juice from Sainsbury’s and come home again. It’s only when I’m standing in my kitchen arranging the sushi on a side plate and pouring the juice, that I clutch the nearest work surface, close my eyes, gulp once, twice, to keep myself steady as the wave, whatever it is, passes. I know it will pass, it always does, and when it does I wipe my hand across my eyes, blow my nose on a torn-off section of kitchen towel, and carry on preparing my meal.
Food for a single person with no lover. They might as well have branded that onto the packaging. I balance the final arrangement onto a tray and transfer it into the living room where I sit at the table and pretend to eat. This isn’t where I expected to be by now, not here, not alone. Until Dominic, I’d had no regular partner, at least never for any longer than a couple of months, and never in a way that entailed not looking at other blokes, acting on it, too, but it hadn’t seemed to matter. I’d wanted to get serious with someone one day, become faithful, but there always seemed to be plenty of time. Then Dominic had punched himself into my existence like a chord of wild music to a man trapped in silence, and I’d learnt what being serious, being committed, had meant. Along with several other words, too: secretive, careless, cruel. Since then there’s been nobody. I’ve learnt in the end how to be celibate, and now I wonder whether there’ll ever be anyone in my life again.
The scattered remains of sushi, only half-eaten in spite of my hunger, stare up at me from the plate. I drink the juice, throw the sushi away, and, after a while, head back to the office.
Jade looks up when I enter, ‘Good to see you, Paul. The phone’s been hot while you’ve been out. You okay?
‘Uh-huh. Just a memory trip, you know? I’ll recover. Who called?’
Flicking through the pad on her desk, she names a couple of my regular clients, just checking up, I imagine, on what I’m doing for them. Right now I’m doing nothing. There’s also one newbie, and I tell myself I’ll contact him by the end of the day. Or maybe tomorrow. PI Rule Number Three: Never call straight back, or they’ll think you’ve got nothing to do. Make them wait.
It’s the last call that interests me most. No name given, no message, just a number to call. A foreign code, not one I recognise.
‘What did this one sound like?’ I ask, leaning over her shoulder to study the information.
She thinks for a minute. ‘Male. Terse. Any age. No social graces. When he’d given the number, he put the phone straight down. Didn’t even say goodbye. Oh, by the way, have you had time to catch the London paper yet?’
‘No. Should I have?’
In answer, Jade unfolds her copy of today’s Standard, turns to Page Five and points. I pick it up and read.
‘“Muswell Hill Author Charged with GBH?”’ I query.
‘No, you idiot,’ she snorts. ‘The one underneath that.’
I turn back to the page and find the article she means. It’s only six lines long, so I’m not surprised I missed it. Obeying instructions, I read it out for both of us.
‘“Body Found Outside City Pharmacy: The body of a young woman was found abandoned last night outside one of the City’s major pharmacies. She is thought to have been stabbed to death, but so far no identification has been made. Police are continuing their enquiries...”’ I swallow once, telling myself not to be stupid. ‘Terrible stuff, Jade, of course, but what about it?’
‘Look where she was found.’
The remainder of the article tells me the name of the pharmacy and quotes a brief, sympathetic statement from its manager. I put the paper down and give my assistant a questioning glance.
She sighs, ‘It’s exactly opposite DG Allen Enterprises. Don’t you think that’s odd?’
‘You think Dominic killed her and is using me as an alibi?’ I can’t help but laugh at the idea. ‘He wasn’t covered with blood and sporting a wild look in his eyes when I saw him. Far from it.’
‘Yes, you go ahead and laugh. But I still think it’s strange that on the same night this poor woman is killed, Mr. Allen arranges to meet you again.’
‘It’s a coincidence, sure. Look, I know Dominic isn’t your favourite person, and he’s a businessman with a killer instinct — excuse the pun — but you don’t really believe he’d actually murder someone, do you?’
I’m still laughing as she frowns and stalks back to her desk.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not directly anyway, but there are other ways to kill, you know. Just be careful, will you?’
I stop laughing. ‘Okay, okay. Listen, I’ve got an appointment with him on Monday. I’ll mention it then. See if he confesses, though he won’t as he’s got nothing to do with it. You’re too hard on him.’
‘I know,’ I hold up my hand and Jade falls silent. ‘Only because you’re being loyal. And I’m grateful, you know that. It seems to me there’s nothing we can do until Monday anyway, so I may as well get on with other work. Where’s that number you gave me? The foreign caller?’
Jade hands me the information, and I perch myself on the edge of my desk. Putting the phone on speaker mode, I dial the number she’s written down in her large open handwriting. When the line is answered, a young female voice trills something incomprehensible into the air, followed by a pause and then:
‘Good afternoon. Delta Egypt. May I help you?’
I share a quick glance with Jade, then explain I’ve been given this number to ring. There’s a pause, then the sound of an internal connection being made. It’s picked up, there’s a silence, but I know someone is there on the other end of the line, waiting. Waiting. Without even knowing why, I hit the disconnect button, push myself off the desk, and head to the window. It feels cool against my forehead. Outside the traffic is caught nose to tail in the beginnings of the rush hour.
‘Any thoughts?’ Jade asks at my shoulder. I hadn’t heard her get up.
‘Not yet. I expect I’ll have some soon though. Still, at least there’s one good thing to say.’
‘And that is?’
‘I don’t have to decide whether or not I take Dominic’s case. Someone else has already assumed I have.’
The first thing I notice is Dominic has changed the colours of his office suite. Even though it doesn’t matter how I look, I’m wearing my best suit, bought with my father’s money when I first started out in this business, inherited cufflinks, and a pair of shoes I have polished until I could have used them as a shaving mirror. My hair is smoothed down with gel, but I’ve been twice to the Gents to check it. I don’t recognise his PA and wonder what happened to the other woman, but already the new slim brunette is smiling at me and asking if I want coffee.
‘No. Water, thanks.’
She brings me two bottles of cool water and a glass. ‘Mr. Allen tells me you won’t want ice. Is that right, sir?’
I nod. ‘Yes. Yes, that’s fine. Thanks, again.’
‘He’ll only be a few minutes, Mr. Maloney,’ she sings out and returns to her typing. She’s faster than Jade, but it doesn’t matter. There are more important things than keyboard skills. Especially for someone in my business.
I while away the four minutes before my allotted appointment by admiring the new outer office décor. The PA’s desk is vast and pale and curved, the computer as thin as a sliver of ice, and the carpet a sea of soft lilac. The leather armchairs are a rich and earthy brown, and I make a mental note to upgrade my own furniture soon, if cash flow allows it. Five minutes and seventeen seconds after 2.30pm, the internal phone finally buzzes, and the PA picks it up. ‘Yes, Mr. Allen’, she says and smiles at me.
‘Please come through now, Mr. Maloney.’
She opens the door to an empire of ivory-coloured panelled wood, contrasted with two red tapestries. Under my feet is a deeper pile of carpet, this time in champagne, that you could fall into and lose yourself, and straight ahead a desk with nothing on it at all except a slim, black laptop. On my left, a plinth of water falls safely forever in a sparkling sheet of movement. At the other side of the room, there are two other red leather sofas, three matching armchairs, a light oak wooden table, and a large drinks cabinet. This is where Dominic is standing, his back to me.
‘Thank you, Deborah,’ he says without turning round. ‘You may leave us now. While Mr. Maloney is here, I don’t want to be disturbed.’
‘Yes, Mr. Allen.’
The door clicks shut and the two of us are alone. I stroll across the room towards him, my feet soundless, as Dominic finishes pouring drinks and at last swings 'round to face me. For a second, his eyes widen.
‘You look good, Paul,’ he says. ‘Nice suit.’
‘You’ve seen it before, but thanks. I didn’t want to look out of place.’
‘You never have. Please, sit.’
It’s the first time I’ve seen him close up in the flesh, in daylight, since we split. An extra three years, four months, and four days have only improved what was, to me, perfect to start with. He’s a head taller than I am, and his dark blond hair frames grey eyes, an almost Roman nose, and full lips. I’m sure there’s not an inch of fat on his muscular body, not like me right now. Today he’s dressed in a charcoal suit from Jermyn Street — Dominic taught me well — matched with a blue silk shirt with gold cufflinks, no tie, and all I want to do — for starters — is ease my fingers down his face, kiss his throat, and begin to undo the buttons of that shirt. I hope he realises none of this.
Exuding a shimmer of subtle aftershave and seductive power, he gestures me towards a sofa, but, instead, I choose one of the single armchairs and try to get comfortable. A second later, he has placed a jug of water on the coffee table, together with the two glasses, taken one for himself, and sat down on the sofa opposite me. The table lies between us, and the sunlight from the window frames him so he can see my face, but I can’t see his.
I get up and choose the other chair instead. He turns to follow my movement.
‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘a cigar is just a cigar. I would have closed the blinds.’
He shrugs. I take a sip of my water. ‘You’ve changed the décor since I was last here.’
‘Of course. We all have to move on. Do you like it?’
‘Sure. What’s not to like? And a new PA, too. What happened to...?’
‘Jacqueline? She left, ten months ago.’
‘What for? Better prospects? More money?’
He leans back and gives me a cool, assessing gaze. ‘No. I asked her to leave.’
‘I thought you always prided yourself on choosing the right staff and keeping them.’
‘I had no choice. I was sleeping with her, and she became too emotionally involved. I paid her off to keep her quiet.’
I gulp down my water and try not to choke. Dominic waits for me to recover but makes no move to help.
‘You never paid me off. Didn’t I merit it?’
‘Of course. But you would never have taken my money. You always had more pride.’
This, I suppose, is true, though I’m surprised he thinks so. Especially after our last encounter. No, make that our last two encounters. ‘Thanks. So now you have Deborah.’
‘In a business sense only, thus far. I do intend to put our relationship on a more intimate footing in the near future, however, and, when I do, there’s one thing I’m sure about.’
He smiles. ‘She’ll be better in bed.’
Than who, I want to ask. Jacqueline? Or me? But already Dominic’s mind has filed the conversation and moved to the next point.
‘Have you had any thoughts about Delta Egypt?’ he asks. ‘What do you intend to do next?’
‘You mean, am I going to take the case?’ I say.
His response is a quick smile. ‘Yes, if you like. Are you going to take the case? I would appreciate it very much if you did.’
He names a price. I double it, and after a few minutes we reach a negotiated figure, not including reasonable expenses, which will keep Jade and me going for a good six months. Dominic won’t even miss it.
‘So,’ he says again after we’ve shaken hands on it. ‘What do you intend to do next?’
‘Ask you again whether you have any practical basis, apart from business gossip, for your suspicions about Delta Egypt. Do you, Dominic?’
For two heartbeats, he doesn’t answer. Then he says, ‘I’ve hired you only to give me peace of mind and a clear path for takeover. No more. No less.’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘In that case, what I’ll do next is the usual. Carry out what initial investigations I can here, then make contact with Delta, pose as a buyer, fly out, and pretend to do business with them. I’ve always fancied visiting Cairo anyway, so if it’s a wasted trip and they’re as clean as you hope they are, then at least I can take in some of the sights.’
‘Do. It’s a unique city.’
‘You’ve been before?’
‘Of course. I never do business with people I haven’t met.’
I see another chance and use it. ‘Any prior knowledge of Delta at all? I don’t mean recently, but you IT types must meet up at all sorts of events, conferences, whatever, and if so any impression you might have got at the time is bound to be useful.’
He doesn’t even blink. ‘No, I can’t help you there.’
The way he’s phrased both his answers means he still hasn’t broken his record of honesty with me, but even so the glass of water in my hand doesn’t seem to taste so good any more. I put it back on the table and spring to my feet.
‘Okay, it was worth a shot. If there’s nothing else?’
‘No. Keep me informed of your progress.’
‘I will. You’re a client now.’
I’m almost at the door when my memory clicks in. I turn, and he’s still sitting, just watching me. ‘I almost forgot. There is one thing.’
‘Nothing to do with the case, but I see a woman was killed and left in the street outside last week. The night we met up. Turning out to be an unusual week for you.’
His expression remains the same. ‘Rather, an unusual week for the pharmacy.’
‘Yes. An unfortunate coincidence.’
‘Indeed so. Paul?’
‘When you fly, I expect to pay for Club Class tickets, not Tourist. And stay at the Mena House Oberoi. The views of the Pyramids are unparalleled.’
‘Fine by me.’ Knowing I’ll get no more information from him now, I place my fingers on the door handle, my body ready to go.
‘And, before you go …’
‘Please believe me when I say I’m sorry for what happened before, for how we ended it.’
Jade smiles and drops her Lulu Guinness handbag down onto the corner table we always try for at The Bell and Book on a Monday evening. ‘Please.’
I nod and shoulder my way to the bar through groups of mixed Germans and Greeks, shirt buttons undone and sleeves rolled up, all raucous with laughter. What they’re doing in Hackney is a real mystery. The dark side of London, maybe. Our work local is more East End pub than wine bar, and there’s always a distinct smell of warm beer and the barman’s sweat, but it’s cheap, friendly, and asks no questions. Much like my taste in men. Apart from when it comes to Dominic. Damn him for his throwaway comments. I’d been doing well, too, Mr. Professional PI, all business sense and cool assessment, but one mention of our affair from him had kicked my façade away. If only on the inside. I’d started shaking though, once out on the street. Now as I wait to be served, I glance around the dirty counter, the old, dusty beams, the faded carpet, its original pale green long since lost, and wonder what my ex-lover might think if I asked him here. Not that it matters; he’d never come.
‘What’s it to be then tonight, sir?’
A couple of moments later I’m weaving my way back to Jade, clutching a bottle of Waggledance and one chilled Chardonnay, dry but not too dry. She greets me with a smile that lights up the dusty air.
She sips her drink, crystal half-moon earrings sparkling in the gloom, while I take a longed-for swig of my beer. By the time I wipe my mouth, she’s already primed for the kill.
‘Pretty boy at the end of the bar’s been giving you the eye.’
‘Sure it’s not you? Those earrings would dazzle the angels in heaven.’
‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what you always say.’
‘But it’s true. You keep half the jewellers of Stratford in business. It’s obvious I’m paying you too much.’
‘Dream on,’ she sighs and takes another sip of her wine. ‘So, what do you want me to do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you want me to vanish, I can. There are a million things I could be doing, rather than being a fag-hag for the night.’
‘Thanks a lot, Jade. Don’t you like the boss taking you out for a well-earned drink to celebrate the fact that we’ve broken the back of Monday?’
‘I’ll drink anything as long as it’s free,’ she says. ‘But, seriously, why don’t you take a look? He’s still interested. Even in spite of me. That at least shows determination.’
Groaning, I put down my beer and turn round. Over the years, I’ve learnt that when Jade has that look in her eye, it’s best to give in with grace. I’ll only have to give in with humiliation later on if I don’t. At once I see the bloke she means. He’s on his own at the left of the bar, one drink in front of him so he’s not waiting for someone. And she’s right, he’s pretty. Young, maybe not even twenty yet, blond hair, willowy, dressed for sex with tight fuck me jeans putting everything on view. If I was a couple of years younger then maybe, but even though he won’t be going home alone tonight, it’s not going to be me having the pleasure. Even if I was up for it, I don’t want a blond; I’ve had my fill of them. As I’m thinking this, pretty boy catches my eye and smiles, the sort of smile that promises everything and as soon as you want it, sir. Hooker, for sure. Not my scene any more. I frown and turn away.
‘So?’ Jade asks.
‘No, thanks. You’d have to pay for that one, and even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I’m not sure I could afford it.’
‘Oh well,’ she shrugs. ‘It was worth a try. So, as it seems I’ve got you all evening after all, and don’t think I’m complaining because I’m not, why don’t you talk me through Mr. Allen’s case? Seeing as you appear to be taking it on.’
I take a deep breath and tell her everything I know. It isn’t much.
‘That surprise you?’ she asks, her scarlet-and-white stripe fingernails tapping at her glass.
‘No, not really. Not after that phone call with the Delta Egypt number attached. Maybe I should have waited for whoever was at the end of that line to speak, but something tells me it wouldn’t have been much help.’
‘What about the meeting with Mr. Allen? Did you glean anything useful?’
‘No. He won’t tell me why he lied about not knowing Blake Kenzie from the past, even though I gave him all the chances to do so. And he won’t tell me anything more about his suspicions.’
‘Sounds like the Mr. Allen we know.’ Jade shrugs, then adds, ‘Did you remember to ask him about the woman?’
‘Yes, but only just as I was about to go. There wasn’t any reaction, and I don’t think he’s–’ I break off, as something occurs, something I haven’t thought of.
‘What? You don’t think he’s...what?’
‘There wasn’t any reaction,’ I say again, this time more slowly. ‘But maybe there should have been. He didn’t ask me why I raised the issue. That’s odd. Somehow. Don’t ask me how. Tomorrow, I’ll do some more research, pull in a few favours, if I still have any left. I’ll need your help, too, once I know what we should be looking for. Might be nice to have something to go on when I’m in Cairo. Fourth rule of PI work: Never give up hope.’
‘You’re such a dreamer, Paul,’ Jade takes a sip of her wine. ‘Is that rule more important than Maloney’s Law?’
I haven’t thought about Maloney’s Law for a while. When I’d first taken her on five years ago, she’d been as keen as a rookie on a stakeout to know all about the business and how I dealt with the exaggerations, prevarications, and simple lies that come my way. Not just from suspects, but from clients, too, God help them. How do you know what’s true? she’d asked me. How do you tell which one’s right?
At the time I’d invented the Law on the basis that I’d better impress her with some kind of professional expertise and moral standing, but since then it had stuck and assumed an importance all of its own. And even though — after Dominic, to be honest — it’s more or less faded away, I still like the idea of it.
‘Hmm, Maloney’s Law. Can’t remember that one, but, hey, good name. You’d better remind me.’
Her answer is a quick and thankfully not too hard punch on the arm across the table. ‘Don’t be stupid. You know. It’s...’
‘Sometimes you just have to trust that someone is telling the truth,’ We chorus in unison and drain our drinks home.
Time for another round. And I’m happy to pay again. With the money from Dominic, we could probably afford the pub. Just about. Waiting my turn at the bar, I see pretty boy has gone and think, yes, Maloney’s Law is fine as far as it goes, as long as there’s no evidence to the contrary. That, as always, is the crucial question.
Right now, of course, evidence or at least some kind of connection between facts is what I need. And I’m not going to find it here.
Neither, it seems, am I going to find it by ringing 'round the six business and three press contacts I have and performing unhelpful Google searches in the office. Tuesday afternoon finds me, feet on the desk, folding sheets of paper to impossible smallness and arranging them in colour-coordinated piles.
‘How’s it going?’ Jade sashays her way in from the kitchen, deposits her camomile tea on her desk and gives me a shrewd glance. Her earrings seem larger today. Fierce-looking diamond shapes that almost reach her neck. She must be worried about something. Probably me.
‘Fantastic. I can tell you how effective the Delta Egypt marketing department is, as well as show you a record of their last three years’ annual reports. I can also give you a full and detailed account of the personality, lifestyle, and future plans of Mr. Blake Kenzie. He’s a man born to an Egyptian mother and an American father, and he seems to have worked his way up from a poor rural Nile background to the dazzling halls of Cairo society purely by dint of his own saintliness. He’s earned a fortune from business deals but makes regular and generous donations to local causes, including, of course, political parties destined to win. That explains his popularity.’
‘So he’s a manipulator and a cheat with something to hide?’
‘As always, your gift for summary gets right to the point.’
‘Thank you. He seems much like our client then. Apart from the background.’
‘That’s unfair. And you know it. By the way, are those new earrings?’
‘Sorry,’ she hesitates. ‘And don’t change the subject. Do you want to hear how I’ve got on?’
‘If it’s going to be any help.’
I lean back, but not so far that I fall over, and prepare to listen to what snippets of gold Jade may have been able to dig up. She’s one of the best computer hackers I know, and I like to think I provide a legal outlet for her skills that otherwise, bearing in mind her moral code, would go to waste.
Nine minutes later, I’m flipping through her comprehensive report. It tells me that, although Blake Kenzie has no known police record, there are periods of time in his business and personal life, sometimes stretching to weeks, that are unaccounted for. Not that he has much of an obvious personal life, with no wife or apparent partner — of either sex — and no known children. Not many friends either, or none who will admit to it. He stands alone. What is Dominic doing with him? All this is good stuff. However, the information that earns Jade the salary I pay her is the sheet of paper at the end of her report. Blake Kenzie’s business schedule. He’s in the Cairo office on Thursday. Two days’ time. A press call to Delta Egypt in Jade’s best journalist voice confirms it, and by the time she puts down the phone I’m ringing the airline to book the flight.
When I’ve finished, I give her a thumbs up. ‘I have no idea how you do it, but thanks. You’re a genius.’
‘I know. And you’re a PI. Who are you going as?’
In answer, I unlock my desk drawer and bring out my business cards folder. Not other people’s, but mine. Whenever I need to pretend to be someone else for a client, I always have several business cards made up, as you never know when they’ll be useful again. The one I choose today is one I used for the first corporate case I ever had, and I’m rather proud of it: matte black background with gold scales logo and lettering, Paul Maloney, Special Investigations, International Monopolies & Markets.
‘I never thought we’d see that one again,’ Jade says. ‘We must be going posh. Does the patch-through number still work?’
It does, though not before several phone calls and some speedy testing. Not that I think it’ll make any difference. I’m assuming Mr. Kenzie knows my name already and won’t be fooled, but there’s no harm in making it look good.
When we’re done, I smile at my assistant, who coughs and fiddles with something on her desk, something I can’t see.
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘You’re coughing and fiddling with paper. I know the signs by now. What’s up?’
‘Nothing, I think. It’s just...’
‘Go on. Tell me.’
She sighs, straightens her shoulders, then stands up. Clutching a few sheets in her hands, she walks over. I catch a glimpse of what looks like a typewritten report that she lays, face down, in front of me.
‘I found this,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if you want to look at it, and you don’t have to, but I thought it might be useful.’
That said, she goes back to her desk, sits down, and carries on with her work. I turn over the report, and the scent of this morning’s roses seems to wash over my face, clinging to my skin. It’s a draft report on the dead woman. Initial findings, assumed cause of death, and preliminary, if so far abortive, police investigations. Her throat has been cut, and there’s some evidence of sexual activity, but it’s not conclusive. Jade hasn’t printed off the pictures with the report, though I know there must be some and I also know I won’t ask for them. There’s no point. The woman here, a slim brunette, is thought to be in her early twenties, so there’s no need for me to check any photographs. The body has no identification. The only items recovered apart from her clothes are a silver necklace with one small star and a torn-off scrap of paper scrawled with the word, “Bluesky”, the latter found neatly folded in her bra. A plea has already gone out for reports of any missing women, with no results as yet. Good luck to them. It isn’t much to go on.
‘“Bluesky”?’ I ask.
Jade looks up and shrugs. ‘Sorry. I don’t know what it means. It’s just business-speak.’
‘True. Not much help then.’
Snapping the report shut, I place it on the edge of my desk, as far away as possible. ‘Sure. Good work, Jade. Doesn’t seem much there of use to anyone in terms of identification. They’ll have to rely on dental records if no-one comes forward to claim her.’
She nods but says no more.
By the end of the day, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I hope.
‘You dancing tonight?’ I ask as Jade switches off her computer and reaches for her jacket. Tuesdays are her salsa nights, but sometimes in August she and the other girls from the class don’t bother and just go drinking instead.
‘Sure. With these new earrings, why wouldn’t I be? You coming?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Coward. You know you’d love it if you tried.’
‘Not my scene, no matter how much you ask me. Besides I need to be my best for tomorrow, assuming your research is right.’
‘Of course it’s right,’ she starts before realising I’m joking. ‘Oh, very funny. Are you sure Cairo is ready for you?’
Cairo may well be ready for me, but I’m not prepared for it. Or the chauffeur.
The moment I step off the plane, the heat wraps around me like another, stickier layer of skin. By the time the customs men are waving me through, hardly glancing at my passport, my shirt is welded to my back and I’d pay a month’s salary for water. Not having any change makes that impossible. The smallest of my Egyptian pound notes not only seems to have been processed through the digestive system of a camel but will probably be the equivalent of two months’ wages for the average water seller. The best thing to do is get a taxi to the hotel where I can have all the water I want, together with some decent beer. Plus points all round.
I’m about to head to the taxi rank when a tall man, dressed in a uniform I don’t recognise, steps in front of me. He’s holding a silver rectangle with my name emblazoned on it, and it’s all I can do to avoid the pull of instinct that makes me want to push him down and run. Not the best idea in an airport full of armed officials.
‘Pole Melanie?’ the man says, grinning and nodding, and it’s another moment before I recognise he’s saying my name.
‘Good, good. I know you from photo, sir. You have car, yes?’
‘Not yet, no, I’m just on my way–’
‘No, no! You not understand. There is a car booked for you. By Mr. Allen. He has booked a car for you, yes? To Mena House, yes? Please, sir, follow me.’
He leads me to a dark-blue Mercedes gleaming in the sun. Next to the battered old Peugeots and Renaults I’ve glimpsed steaming for business at the taxi rank, it’s a racehorse amongst donkeys. There’s just one question.
‘Who’s paying?’ I ask my driver.
‘No problem, sir. Mr. Allen, he pays for everything. Even baksheesh, yes?’ He gives me a knowing look, eases the hold-all from my fingers, and deposits it in the copious boot. The next thing I know I’m sitting on grey leather in the back of pure air-conditioned class and facing a drinks cabinet filled with water bottles and whisky. I take the former and wish for the latter, but I’m not at home, and the heat will kill the happiness of it.
The drive to the hotel takes an hour and a half. As I gaze out of the window, it’s as if I’ve not only been transported thousands of miles away from London, but also two thousand years into the past, except for the traffic. The men and women I see wear long flowing robes, blue, red, orange. Some of the women wear black scarves to hide their hair or carry impossibly tall packages on their heads. Jade would have loved it. For her, it would be like living in Bible times, taking her back to her Baptist roots.
Along the roadside are half-finished houses, children all but naked, donkeys — with visible ribs — grazing on scraps of brown grassland, and broken-down abandoned machinery. Through it all, expensive cars and Western tourists flow into the heart of the city. Rich people. People like me.
I tap on the glass. The driver leans forward, presses an unseen button and the barrier slides across.
‘Yes, sir?’ he gazes back at me and ignores the stream of battered cars all hooting for supremacy outside us, each one appearing to follow its own set of rules.
‘Hey! Watch out.’
He swerves 'round a straight-backed woman, dressed in blue, pacing calmly down the middle of the road, and almost collides with a lorry coming the other way. Somehow we survive both encounters, and I look out the rear window to see the woman continuing on her path as if nothing has happened.
‘God, and I thought London was bad. Is Cairo always like this?’
Waving one hand in the air, my chauffeur laughs. ‘No, sir, no, no, no! This is good. Sometimes it is far worse, in the rush hours, yes?’
Arriving at the Mena House Oberoi is like being given the gift of life when you’re expecting nothing but the bullet. A lot of this is to do with the Pyramids. My ex-lover is right; they’re overwhelming, and Mena House is all but next door to them. Until today a part of me hasn’t believed they really exist, except in films, and certainly not so close to civilisation. Aren’t they supposed to be in the desert? Or has Hollywood managed to fool me over the years? No more, because now I can see. The three great structures dominate the skyline, shimmering in the afternoon heat, and I swear I could almost lean over from where I’m standing and touch them.
‘Good, yes, sir?’ the chauffeur hands my bag to the eager doorman. ‘You have not seen them before?’
‘Not in real life, no,’ I tip him anyway, a gesture that doesn’t surprise him. My choices aren’t going to be constrained by Dominic.
Once in the hotel I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to leave. The marble lobby floor reflects the lights of at least five glistening chandeliers, and as I check in I wish I’d shown less business morality — Jade’s doing, as always — and not booked myself into the cheapest room available.
‘Good afternoon, Mr. Maloney,’ the man behind the reception desk says. ‘You had a pleasant flight?’
‘Sure. No problems.’
‘Your room is ready now, sir. And I am pleased to tell you that you have been upgraded. You are in one of our deluxe suites. It is a beautiful room, I trust you will enjoy it.’
I raise my eyebrows at him. ‘Yes, I’m sure I will. But before I do, can I ask who’s paying for this?’
‘Mr. Allen, sir. He said you are a very important guest. There is a communication for you.’
Trying not to think whether all this attention from Dominic is going to make things difficult for me to do the job at all, or whether it might mean something else entirely, I take the letter he hands me and follow my luggage on its journey to my suite. I make no comment as the boy deposits my well-used bag on the bed as if it’s designer and shows me 'round the enormous bedroom with its soothing arches and Arabic décor, wooden and ivory furniture, and green silk tapestry. The living room, bathroom, balcony, and dining area all hold to the themes of green and wood and ivory, but each with an individual twist. As his pièce de résistance, the luggage boy flings open the curtains and gestures at the pyramids. Somehow they seem even closer than before. I’m still silent but when the boy leaves, I tip him double what I’d given my driver.
The first thing I do is ring Jade.
‘Hello, Paul. How are you doing?’
‘Great. What’s it like then, the land of the pharaohs?’
‘Rich if you’re a tourist. Utter poverty if you’re not. Come one day. You’ll love it.’
‘Yes, I know. If only my harsh, unfeeling boss allowed me to take leave.’
‘Oh sure, I forgot. It’s my fault. Any updates on Blake’s schedule I should know about?’
‘No, it’s still worth you being there. I checked. The press office confirms he’s in all morning tomorrow, though he’ll be out at meetings early afternoon.’
‘Thanks. You’re the best. Any other calls I should know about?’
She hesitates, ‘None of your usual clients; they’re all fine. Someone rang earlier, though. Same caller as before, I think. All he said was your name and then he rang off. You will be careful, won’t you?’
‘You know me, indestructible. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. You just look after yourself and try not to leave early while I’m away. I’ll ring you tomorrow. Let you know how I get on. Who knows, I might even have cracked the case by then. I’m such a genius.’
‘Of course you are,’ she says and hangs up.
As I fling myself onto the bed, I can’t help hoping I don’t find out anything useful too soon.
When I slit open the envelope that Dominic left for me, I find I’m shaking a little.
“Paul”, the note says, “I hope your journey was a good one and I trust you will find the room acceptable. When I am in Cairo, it is where I always stay. Yours, Nic”
Nic. He’s signed himself Nic. A name I only ever called him in bed. Or just before it.
I eat breakfast in the Khan El Khalili restaurant and pore over the Egyptian phrasebook I discovered in the bedside cabinet last night. As I memorise what I hope might turn out to be a useful set of words, I admire the brass tables, the marble floor, and the intricate white ceiling. I thank God I don’t have to clean it. I glance at my watch for the tenth time this morning and see it’s 7.52am, Egyptian time. Already I know it’s going to be a hot day, in more ways than one. Breakfast is a feast of bread and butter pudding, fruit, yoghurt, and croissants, plus coffee that could line the stomach in a nuclear attack, if there was one, and I take as much as I can. The day ahead will be long and hard.
Outside, I check my map, get in the taxi I’ve ordered, and head off to my first meeting with Delta Egypt. In central Cairo, through the press of traffic and the bustle of the streets, I can see the glistening waters of the Nile, taking with them downstream many lifetimes of history and culture. As we drive past the Egyptian Museum, dusky pink and grand, I wonder if there’ll be time to visit before I leave. We turn into the heart of the Sharia Qasr el-Nil, the city’s financial trading district, and my professional day is about to begin. Time to get into character.
Delta Egypt has the second floor in a four-floor building, situated on the corner of two wide streets packed with shops and bars. The foyer is calm and white, with two statues of eagles either side of a small water fountain, which provides a soothing background gurgle to the hum of the receptionist’s computer. Today, I almost fit into this world, dressed as I am in the suit I chose to visit Dominic’s office.
I stride up to the reception desk and showcase one of the two pieces of spoken Arabic I hope I’ve picked up, at least phonetically. ‘Sabaah al-khayr. Good morning. I’m here to see Mr. Kenzie, of Delta Egypt.’
The dark-eyed woman studies my card.
‘Certainly, sir,’ she says in perfect English. ‘Do you have an appointment?’
‘No, but I need to see him urgently.’
‘I’m afraid, sir, that it may not be possible. Mr. Kenzie is not often here. I'll try his PA for you.’
‘Trust me,’ I lay my hand on hers as she reaches for the switchboard. ‘If I’d wanted to see Mr. Kenzie’s PA, then I would have asked. It’s the man himself I’m after, and I think you’ll find he’s here.’
The woman frowns, ‘But, sir, it’s standard practice to contact the PA first and I–’
‘No,’ I cut her off. ‘Ring him. If he objects, tell him my name. Tell him it’s concerning DG Allen Enterprises. He’ll see me.’
For another second, she stares at me. Then she stabs a number on her keypad and the two of us wait. There’s a burst of quick-fire speech I can’t understand, and I hear my name, a pause, then she breaks the connection.
She hasn’t mentioned Dominic’s company, and I just have time to file that as an interesting fact to be mulled over later before she directs me to the lift.
‘Second floor, sir,’ she says.
I step out into sunlight and cool air and find myself face to face with a clean-shaven young man dressed in a dark grey business suit.
‘Mr. Maloney?’ he asks, and I nod. ‘Please, come this way.’
I walk in his trail past a row of offices, doors all shut, and then out into a communal area filled with low glass tables and easy chairs on one side and a series of work stations on the other. Most are in use, but one or two people are standing, drinking from small white cups. The smell of coffee is overpowering. The windows curve 'round the length of two walls, and I realise I must be facing the interconnection between the two streets outside. There’s no noise.
‘Please,’ the young man says, ‘sit.’
This doesn’t sound like a suggestion so I obey.
‘When can I see Mr. Kenzie?’ I ask.
My companion smiles, ‘Please, wait. I will find out for you. Help yourself to a coffee if you wish, please.’
He disappears back the way we’ve just come, and enters an office on the right. At once I get up, avoiding the coffee machine and the silent workers, and sit myself at one of the empty computer terminals furthest from the corridor. Nobody pays me any attention. The system I’m looking at is a simple one, just a Windows environment with the usual icons on the left. I speed through the more interesting-looking folders, but all that’s on there is some company background, at least twenty sparkling PR articles, and a resume of the Chief Executive that tells me nothing I don’t already–
‘Ah, Mr. Maloney,’ I glance up as my young escort — or should that be minder? — returns. His brow glistens with sweat even though the air conditioning is working.
‘If you could...Mr. Kenzie can see you now.’
‘Good.’ I take my time bringing the computer back to its home page before standing. ‘Please, lead the way.’
He does, still sweating. Five seconds later, I’m in the office of the Chief Executive of Delta Egypt, and the man himself is striding towards me, hand outstretched in greeting. The décor is stark white, softened only by angular black furniture and the cream-coloured orchids on his desk. Blake Kenzie is smaller than I am, clean-shaven, thick-set, and swarthy. All these facts I already know, but nothing I have seen has prepared me for his manner. Pale blue eyes look me up and down without expression, judge me, and then move on. I shiver and suppress the urge to run.
‘Mr. Maloney,’ he says, his accent revealing the mix of his American and Egyptian ancestry. As he speaks, he turns away, and I let go of the breath I didn’t realise I was holding. ‘It’s good of you to come and see us from such a distance. Tell me, can I offer you anything? Mint tea? Coffee?’
‘No. Thank you.’
He pauses. ‘No doubt a wise choice. Here in Cairo our coffee is best served bitter and is not to the taste of our European friends. However, if I may be so intimate, I question the wisdom of some of your other choices. What can I do for you?’
I don’t like his use of the word, intimate, or the way he says it to make it carry a multitude of meanings. Handing him another of my cards, I launch into my spiel, but I’ve barely reached my third sentence when he takes the card, holds it up in front of me, and tears it into two. I stop talking. With a brief shake of his head, he tosses the fragments into the bin without even looking.
‘Please, Paul,’ he says. ‘I may call you Paul, of course? I must say I’m disappointed in you.’
‘Simple. When I see people in my office, I like them to tell the truth. I don’t like to see them lie. I don’t like that at all.’
I try to understand what’s behind his gaze, but it’s impossible. ‘If you already know why I’m here, why ask me to explain myself?’
‘Because I like to listen to what people have to say. It’s always interesting. You can tell many things from the way they phrase their statements, even the tone of voice. Did you know that, Paul?’
Yes, I do know that. And if I hadn’t before, then I’m certainly learning it now. But I say nothing, I just wait.
After a fractional pause, he walks right up to me, so close I can smell the cigars on his breath and his herbal aftershave. He continues, ‘I am assuming, and I hope rightly, that this conversation is not being taped in any way. Because if it were, the consequences might be painful. Of course I wouldn’t want, even indirectly, to cause your parents any further grief, bearing in mind the unfortunate events involving your...what is that very English word you use? Sibling?’
‘No,’ I say, taking a step back. I try not to blink. Or sweat. Or swallow. ‘There’s no tape.’
Another pause. ‘Good. Those are the first true words you’ve spoken since you entered the building. Our scanners would have shown if you were lying again, of course, but it pleases me to hear you say it. Now let me tell you the truth also. If I may?’
There’s no choice but I nod anyway, trying to ease the irregular pounding of blood to my ears. Blake Kenzie smiles and saunters away to his desk. Turning his back to me a little and picking up a letter opener, surely for decoration only, he slides it from hand to hand like a toy as he talks.
‘The truth,’ he says. ‘The truth for me is that I have nothing to fear and little of consequence to hide. It pleases me that your client, Mr. Allen, is interested enough in Delta Egypt to go to the extraordinary lengths of hiring you, a private eye from a part of London I have never been unfortunate enough to visit, to do his dirty work for him. I too have people for that kind of business, but I choose not to use them against friends and, I hope, partners. Therefore I suggest you leave and go back to your home. And when you do, I trust you'll tell Mr. Allen one important thing.’
He pauses, and I see my chance. ‘And what do you suggest that might be, Blake? I may call you Blake, mayn’t I?’
My voice is steadier than I expected, but when he swings round, he’s clutching the paper-knife in his fist and I flinch. After a heartbeat or two, instead of impaling me with it, he drops it onto the table and rearranges his face into another smile. The unexpected anger is more real, though, and I’m pleased I’ve managed to rouse it.
‘No,’ he says. ‘My name, to you, is Mr. Kenzie. Not that it matters, Paul, as I do not think we will need to worry about such niceties again. But, please, be so good as to tell your wage-master two important things instead of one.’
‘The first is this: If he learns to trust me, then the business we do together will be profitable, and he has little to fear. He will find nothing wrong with Delta Egypt.’
‘And the second, Mr. Kenzie?’
‘The second is perhaps more to the point for us today; tell Mr. Allen that if he uses bad seed, then he cannot expect to harvest good wheat.’
Outside, the air clings to every item of clothing and every part of my body. After such a meeting and the realisation of how much Blake Kenzie knows about me, I need to regroup. There’s no use thinking about it — it won’t change anything. So shaking away all thoughts of the past, I flag down a taxi.
‘Khan al-Khalili,’ I say, the name almost identical to where I took breakfast only an hour and forty minutes ago, but the meaning a lifetime of difference away. The old bazaar, Cairo’s commercial centre. A good place to get Jade a present. Something normal, something expected. A perfume bottle perhaps or an item of Muski glass, as the blue will go with her eyes. A good place also to shake any tail, if there is one. How does Blake know what he shouldn’t? And why?
The taxi deposits me in a square bordered by several cafés and a mosque. I give the driver enough baksheesh to keep his family in stuffed lamb and baklawa for a week, glance 'round to see if I recognise any of the cars now hooting for supremacy around us — I don’t — and amble off in the direction of the nearest water-seller. Once I’ve checked the top’s not been tampered with, I sit on the small stone wall of the square, open the bottle, and pour half of it over my face and neck. The water runs inside my shirt and over my skin, as cool and refreshing as the first touch of a lover’s hand. I shut my eyes for a moment and enjoy the respite, before the blast of city heat rolls back, then I drink the rest of the water and gaze at where I find myself now. Or more vitally who I find myself with.
Several groups of men are drinking at the nearest café, and there are women with young families milling outside the mosque. Donkeys and carts trot through the square and disappear into side streets, their owners shouting and gesticulating as they go. In front of me, a small boy covered with dirt carries a casket of bread twice his size on his head, yelling over and over again in accented English, ‘Bread! Buy! Bread!’
He looks at me, one small eyebrow raised, but I wave him away and he moves on. As he does so, one of the rolls falls to the ground. He picks it up, spits on it, wipes it on the dust of his robe and replaces it above him. He then makes his way to a group of what look to be Americans on the other side of the square. My skin is prickling with the sensation of being watched, but nothing around me seems at all out-of-place. One of the men in a nearby café makes me look again, even as I’ve almost discounted him and moved on. The man is in his thirties, dressed in long off-white Arabic robes, dark-haired, clean-shaven, nondescript, but something about him draws my eye back. He’s not sitting at the same table as the others but seems to be echoing their conversation in his gestures. They however take no notice of him. Have I seen him somewhere before? Today? It eludes me, and as I continue to puzzle over it, the man raises his eyes from the papers in front of him, sees me looking, and at once glances away.
I begin to approach him, striding forward with a confidence I don’t feel. He gathers his papers and makes a move to leave, but by now I’m too close. I notice a twisted scar on his left cheek and realise he’s one of the people from the Delta Egypt lounge. As I brush against his table, his right hand flickers near a slit in his robes at chest level, but I keep on walking.
I smile brightly, ‘Aasef, sorry.’
And then I’m gone, weaving my way between the tables and towards the bustle and noise of the Khan Al-Khalili. The streets are narrow and lined on either side by stalls. I push my way through the throng of tourists and traders, donkeys and dealers. When I glance behind me, I don’t see the man with the scar, but it’s hard to be sure. The air is laced with pungent spices. With every step, someone smiles, grabs me, tries to sell me waterpipes, carved camels, fridge magnets shaped like pyramids, saffron, or silk. I don’t even mind; it’s harder for anyone to get as close to me as they might want to if someone else is trying to claim a piece of me first. On the other hand, it’s also hard for me to see the enemy, if I’m being pursued at all. Around me, gold, silver, brass, and copper ornaments hang glittering inside the shops like magic curtains concealing a secret cave. Young boys and occasionally women are dyeing cloth, sewing shirts, and carving elephants from stone. Once again, only a few paces from the café have taken me back a thousand years.
After five minutes, I’ve seen nothing that might worry me, and nobody has jostled me with anything more dangerous than a robe called a “galabiya” or a pair of hand-crafted sandals. Maybe I overreacted. Perhaps the innocent man at the café was reaching for a wallet or handkerchief. I turn a corner and see a large sand-coloured stone gate covered with intricate carvings. Next to it, a shop selling postcards and a window-full of blue Muski glass catches my eye. The danger, if there was any, is past, and I may as well make the most of my time here. As I reach for my cash, there’s a sudden flicker of movement on my left, the impression of tanned flesh and a scarred cheek.
At waist level, the steel of the knife flashes in the morning sun, and there’s no time to cry out.