It was freezing those few days before Christmas 1998, and the snow was slowly drifting past my office window drawing a curtain on the morning world outside.
I was sitting inside with Ben, my three-legged ex-army sergeant German Shepherd who had won a bravery medal in a far-flung foreign war. I’d inherited him from his handler before he died, and we communicate in a language only we understand. The pair of us sat together in the miserable heat from a one bar electric fire that smelled of dust and mildew in equal parts, when we could have been in the pub opposite drinking mulled wine and eating hot mince pies, or at home mulling my own, and enjoying mince pies hot from Waitrose. Not Ben though. He was strictly a beer man.
Now, someone once said that a Christmas was the loneliest time of the year, and I was beginning to think they were right. This year it was just me and Ben for Christmas dinner. My daughter was with her mother, my friend Madge was in Australia with her friend Owsley visiting her children, Lionel from the Vietnamese restaurant was off on Christmas Eve to Vietnam to visit his family, and Jack Robber was on duty protecting the citizenry of London from villains of every stripe and hue. Nicky no mates, me. Apart from Ben of course. At least I had some Christmas tunes on my office CD player, a compilation of festive R&B favourites old and new.
Charles Brown was just grooving Merry Christmas Baby, when, all of a sudden, things changed. There was a rap on the glass, and my office door opened, bringing in cold air and a new client. The person who stepped inside was a slight young bloke supported by a single crutch. He was blonde, wearing what I suspected to be a cashmere overcoat, suit trousers and Wellington boots. “Mr Sharman?” he asked.
“That’s me.” I really must get an artist to paint my name on the glass. ‘Come in, sit down.”
He let out a long sigh as he sat on one of my client’s chairs.
“Coffee?” I asked. “Something stronger?”
“Coffee would be great.”
I set about preparing two beverages, and added a slug of Jack to mine. He shook his head at my offer. Well, it was Christmas, and I was temporarily between jobs.
When we were both seated again, he began his story. “My name is Timothy Cratchit,” he said. “My father is Robert. Bob. He works for Marley Inc. You may have of heard of them.”
Who hasn’t? I thought. Just about one of the biggest investment firms in Europe, maybe the world, with headquarters in London.
“My father is an accountant. One of the top men there. On the board. He’s vanished.”
“Two days ago. He went to fetch our Christmas provisions from his favourite butcher. Or some of them. A goose and other things. It’s a tradition. He’s very fussy about our food. Me. I’m vegetarian. The shop depresses me. Always has. Stinks of death. He left the office after lunch and didn’t return.”
“What does his office say?”
“Very little. It’s driving my mother mad.”
“Have you been to the police?”
‘No police. I fear he has become involved in something...... Something illegal.”
“Great. Not really my bailiwick. More serving summonses. Finding erring husbands, things like that.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“You really shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
“I’ll pay you well.”
“My fees are two hundred and fifty pounds a day, plus reasonable expenses.”
“I think I can better that.”
“I’m not a poor man Mr Sharman.”
‘I can see that.” The coat was definitely cashmere, the cut Savile Row.
“Will a cheque suffice?” he asked.
“I haven’t said yes yet.”
What could I say? How could I refuse, and besides cheques were always welcome, and it was the season of goodwill to all men. And his poor mother was suffering. “OK,” I said. “If you insist.”
He hauled out a cheque-book the size of a small novel and a gold fountain pen and wrote me a cheque. Coutts. He passed it over and I stuck it straight into my desk drawer. I thought it would be rude to look at the amount.
“So, this butchers shop. Where is it exactly?” I asked.
“Theobalds Road. In the shadow of Marley’s offices. You can’t miss it. Dead animals and fowl hanging outside like something from the last century. Butcher to the royals. I’m surprised you don’t know about it. Especially at Christmas.”
Considering the Christmas lunch I had planned for Ben and me, was sharing a sausage bap in front of the TV, I wasn’t in the least surprised.
“Let me explain the hierarchy of Marley’s,” said Timothy. “Marley’s dead, the CEO is Ebenezer Scrooge. A miserable soul. Head accountant Soloman Fagin, head of security William Sykes, He has a dog too. A sad animal he keeps under his thumb with a leather cosh. His number two is a younger man, Arthur Dodge. They have a gang of reprobates who come and go as they please as security staff. Altogether a most unpleasant bunch.
“Sounds like fun.”
“Don’t underestimate them Mr Sharman, at your peril.”
“I’ll try not to.”
At that he left, and I called up DI Jack Robber, my to go-to-guy when it came to the ungodly. “Merry Christmas Jack,” I said when he answered.
“Humbug,” was his reply.
“Marley Inc,” I said back, ignoring his comment. “Any intel?”
“Got a little job looking for a lost accountant”
“They can all get lost for my money.”
“So young, so bitter.”
“They’re big boys Nick. Tread softly.”
“So Whaddya know?”
“I know that there’s people at the Met, would dearly like to lock a lot of them up.”
“Bad Billy Sykes for one, and his creepy little stooge Arthur Dodge. The artful dodger as he likes to call himself.”
“Just because they deserve it. A right little bunch of thugs they run.”
“Blimey Jack. I thought they were legit.”
“Clean as the driven. They just make my skin crawl.”
“As I said Nick. Box clever.”
“Count on me,” and we broke the connection.
“Time to go time,” I said to Ben. He nodded and we went out into the snow, fired up my Range Rover and headed to Theobalds Road, thanking the Lord for four wheel drive, as the snow was laying deeper by the minute.
Young Timothy had been right. It was impossible to miss the butcher’s shop. Dead chickens, turkeys and geese hung outside, plus rabbits, hares, and all sorts of furry friends. Ben nearly had a orgasm at the sight of all that meat. I left him in the warmth of the motor and slipped and slid over to the shop which I noticed was still lit by gas-lights. Inside it indeed did stink of death. There was bloodstained sawdust on the floor, and the three geezers behind the jump wore bloody whites, and one was missing three fingers of his left hand. Many a slip.
I spoke to the eldest of the trio, imagining he was the guv’nor, and I was right. “Mr Cratchit” I said. “Ordered a goose.”
“And a bunny,” the geezer said. “And a rib of beef. Already out back. Bought and paid for. You collecting?”
“No,” I replied. “Just wondered if you’d see him.” He frowned, and rubbed his head with a bloody hand. “Now you come to mention it, he said he’d pick it up days ago. Is he alright?”
“Don’t know. His son Timothy has asked me to find him.”
“That baby. Won’t cross the threshold. Veggie, see. We’ve never got on.”
“Right. I’ll enquire at his office.”
“Tell him we close twelve o’clock sharp Christmas Eve morning. See.” He pointed his finger at a blackboard with the same information written in chalk. “After that we’re off to the Elvish Arms in Holborn for a staff and family party. No exceptions, it’s a tradition.” Seems like there were a lot of those about that Christmas.
“I’ll be sure to,” I told him.
And with that I went back to my truck through thickening snow. Ben asked where his treat was.
I said nothing.
Then I pointed the Range Rover at the huge building that overshadowed everything else in the area and with MARLEY INC. writ large in red neon the colour of the devil’s cloak. I parked up and headed for a reception area that was decorated with enough tinsel to choke an elephant, and a Christmas tree as tall as a house, covered in gold and silver balls.
At the desk sat three receptionists, all plugged into keyboards and wearing tiny headphones. Like at the butchers I headed for the eldest, imagining she would be boss. She was blonde and gorgeous, and I gave her my most engaging boy-next-door smile.
She didn’t reciprocate. I guessed my beat-up leather jacket, faded jeans and snow covered boots didn’t deserve a second glance in such elegant surroundings.
“I’m looking for Mr Robert Cratchit,” I said to her icy boat race.
“In what connection?”
“Personal call on behalf of his son. It’s urgent.”
“And your name is?”
She pressed some buttons on the keyboard in front of her. ”I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “There’s no answer from his PA’s extension.”
“How about his extension?”
“All calls go through his personal assistant.”
“Fair enough. How about Mr Scrooge?”
I could see she was getting irritated. No Christmas cheer here. “He’s not be disturbed.”
Certainly not by the likes of me.
“Then Mr Sykes.”
Her hiss was like a balloon going down. She hit her keypad hard, and eventually said, “there’s a Mr Sharman here looking for Mr Cratchit. He says it’s urgent.”
She looked at me and listened to her headphones. “Fine. I’ll tell him” Then to me.”
“Someone will be down directly.”
And he was. A few minutes later one of the trio of lift doors in the reception opened and a swaybacked individual in a suit that looked glued to him it was so tight, emerged. The unhappy receptionist nodded at me. Swayback stuck out his mitten, which I accepted. “Mr Sharman is it?” Swayback asked. “My name’s Arthur. Arthur Dodge. I believe this concerns Mr Cratchit. Robert.”
I nodded. “He seems to have vanished,” I said.
Arthur frowned a pretty frown and said, “I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation. My boss, Mr Sykes would be happy to hear your concerns. If you’d just follow me.”
The lift still gaped and we slid through the gap and the doors hissed shut behind us. He hit a button and the lift took off like a rocket ship, leaving my insides in my socks.
“Give you a thrill did it?” Asked Arthur. I was beginning to take a sincere dislike to this bloke.
The lift stopped sharply on floor 45 as the digital display on the control panel told us. Arthur ushered me out and led the way through a maze of carpeted corridors past a dozen closed doors, where inside I imagined busy bees were busy making and losing fortunes
Eventually he flung open a door to what I took to be some sort of board-room. A massive table stood proudly inside and a little coterie of equally sharp suited gents were seated around it. But the piece de resistance was the picture window at the far end. It was huge, and a snow-covered London lay beneath it in all its glory, from Canary Wharf to east, to Crystal Palace TV mast down south, and all points between. In fact, it was almost too much. Overkill. And that wasn’t the only overkill in the room, standing in front of a Gaggia coffee machine the size of a small car was I presumed, bad Billy Sykes. Maybe the view wasn’t the piece de resistance. Maybe it was his ridiculous outfit. He wore a cheese cutter cap, a tattersall check shirt with a red cravat, a tweed jacket with leather on the collar, leather patches on the elbows and leather round the edges of the sleeves. And I kid you not, cavalry twill riding britches and knee-length black riding boots that shone like the day they’d left the last. In one hand he held the lead of a white bulldog with one black eye patch, and in the other a serious looking quirt made of leather carefully plaited like a schoolgirl’s hair. The bulldog huffed and puffed and so did the Gaggia, but slightly louder.
He confirmed his identity by introducing himself as William Sykes head of security. I confirmed mine by introducing myself.
“Looking for Robert?” asked Sykes.
“In what connection?”
“I’m an enquiry agent.” I took out one of my cards and laid it face up on the table. He didn’t look. “Engaged by Mr Cratchit’s son Timothy.”
“Ah Timothy. Tiny Tim. Always did over react. He worked here briefly. Did you know that?”
I shook my head
“Couldn’t take the stress. The pressures. And my lads here. He looked at the besuited gents. Have a peculiar sense of humour. Always hiding his crutch.”
There was much giggling from his gaggle of associates. I didn’t join in.
“I wonder if you’d care for a coffee?” Sykes asked.
“Wouldn’t say no.” I replied.
He nodded. “Twist,” he said. “A special coffee for our guest,” and one of his acolytes sped across the carpet and fired up the coffee machine. Now it catawauled like a banshee, steam exploding, and one very small, very black espresso arrived. The acolyte put it on the table next to my card, with a tub of sugar, half bowed at us, and Sykes pulled back a chair for me. “Thank you, Oliver,” he said to his servant.
I sat and took a sip. Big mistake.
+++ TO BE CONTINUED +++