05 March 2018

I feel safe here. That’s really what it comes down to. Oh, there’s the sea as well. I like the ocean in all its moods, from stormy to still: white, grey, turquoise, blue. I can watch the surf crashing on the rocks for hours. On windless mornings, I can hear the skylarks circling above me as I walk down to the beach, my legs brushing through the drifts of wild mustard and cow parsley on the narrow path. And then there are the sunsets, pink and scarlet and gold, out beyond Wolf Rock, over the tilt of the world. Nothing here is like where I came from originally. I don’t want to leave, like I did there, all the time. I want to stay. Maybe forever.

I can’t, of course. I don’t know how long it’ll go on. I try not to wonder. Harkness is in big trouble. He won’t have much chance to think about what’s going on here. He definitely won’t be helicoptering down for a visit any time soon. I’ve got the place to myself. That’s how I like it. Peaceful. Quiet. Alone. I swim. I walk. I run. I clean the place – just in case. I sell my driftwood art. I enjoy feeling safe.

Thanks to Harkness, I’ve got a lot of luxury to wallow in here. But the biggest luxury of all is the space. Glenys the gardener comes three days a week, Andy the pool man as often as he reckons he needs to. Otherwise, I don’t get many visitors. Nor does Harkness, which is a relief. I wondered, when his case hit the news, if the press would come poking around. But they didn’t. Maybe they don’t know about his Cornish bolthole. Here’s hoping they go on not knowing.

It might be best for Harkness as well as me if they did. I have a feeling this place is his biggest secret. And that’s saying something. ‘Notoriously secretive’, they call him. He’s not your obvious saviour material. But he’s been my saviour. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me when Muriel chucked me out if I hadn’t been able to come here. Harkness doesn’t know that, of course – or anything much about me. I don’t suppose he gives me a single thought. Which is probably just as well.

We’ve got a good thing going, him and me, even if he doesn’t realise it.

It’s just a pity, one way or another, sooner or later, however hard I pretend otherwise, it’s going to end.

                                                                      * * * * *

Panic Room

There was, though Don did not know it yet, something else he had Fran to thank for. He had just become a marked man

Don Challenor had never been one for recriminations, particularly where his own behaviour was concerned. He had inherited more of his father’s fecklessness than he would have cared to admit. But the key to living with the consequences was not to acknowledge responsibility for them. Accordingly, he interpreted the circumstances of his departure from Mendez Chinnery as a reflection on their narrow-mindedness rather than his corner-cutting. Estate agency, especially in the overheated central London market, was a dog-eat-dog world. The commission Mendez Chinnery paid him was not exactly over-generous. They should have expected him to take a few liberties and should certainly have been willing to overlook them in view of the amount of business he brought in.

But his boss – young, smug and idle by Don’s reckoning – saw things differently. So Don was out, casting around for another berth with age no longer on his side. Only his natural complacency prevented him worrying about what the future held. An opportunity would surely present itself. He had put the word out. He was keeping his ear to the ground.

It was a surprise, nonetheless, when the first contact he had after leaving Mendez Chinnery was not from one of their competitors but from a solicitor several of their clients used. Fran Revell also happened to be Don’s ex-wife, which might have caused a less self-confident man to doubt she wanted to do him a favour. But they had communicated cordially enough on business matters since their divorce. And Don for his part remembered their parting as more sorrowful than angry.

The fact that Fran had nominated a nearby coffee shop for their meeting, rather than her office, should perhaps have served as some form of warning. But Don chose to interpret that as her preference for a relaxed and informal environment, which was fine by him. He had even been tempted to suggest putting back their appointment by an hour and meeting in a bar. There were several in the vicinity he could recommend. Wisely, however, he had not pushed his luck. Pushing his luck, after all, was what had wrecked their marriage.

Fran was already there when he arrived, busy on her iPhone between sips of cappuccino. She looked, as ever, some years younger than her age, slim and groomed and glowing. As for her expression when she caught sight of him, well, there was no imagining away the tightness of her smile. But the half-affectionate, half-wary shake of her head suggested his goodwill account had not yet reached its overdraft limit.

‘You’re looking great, Fran,’ he said after an air-kiss greeting.

‘Thanks.’ She made no comment on his appearance.

‘I’ll grab a coffee. Then you can tell me all about it.’

‘This is just a bit of business, Don.’

‘Sure.’

He pondered her remark as he queued for his Americano, but not for long. There was nothing to be gained by trying to guess what Fran was thinking. There never had been.

He went back to her table with his coffee and sat down. The place was crowded with a predictable weekday haul of assorted professionals, killing time between appointments. Glancing around, Don found himself missing the rumbustious characters he had started out his working life with. Everyone now seemed bland by comparison. But the coffee was better. There was certainly no denying that 

‘How’s the family?’ he ventured, smiling across at Fran after trying to drink some of his coffee before realizing it was far too hot.

The ‘family’ Don referred to comprised the husband and two daughters Fran had acquired since their divorce. ‘They’re fine,’ she said briskly. Perhaps just a little too briskly, Don thought, who secretly hoped to hear one day that his replacement was being ditched in turn.

‘So, what can I do for you?’

‘You could start by explaining the “ethical differences” Ben said had led to you leaving Mendez Chinnery.’

‘I should’ve got out of there yonks ago. How can I be expected to do my best work when I have to answer to a prat like him?’

Fran closed her eyes for a second. ‘Maybe this was a mistake.’

‘Look… Ben and I had a major falling-out. That’s all there is to it.’ Don shrugged. ‘I’d probably have resigned anyway. It was time to move on.’

‘Where to?’

‘Not sure yet.’

‘No.’ Fran sighed. ‘Exactly.’

‘Well, if you know of a juicy opening . . .’

‘I don’t. But, as it happens, I do have an urgent job that needs doing and, since you’re available at short notice…’

‘Good of you to think of me, Fran.’

‘Yes. I can’t seem to stop myself doing that.’ She frowned away the hint of affection. ‘Occasionally.’

He grinned. ‘So what’s the job?’

‘I’ve been handling a divorce for a woman who wants to sell a property ASAP. It’s in Cornwall and she’s anxious to proceed quickly. I need a valuation, floor plans, photographs, et cetera, to present to suitable agents. We’re talking about a price tag of five million or so – the international market.’

‘I wouldn’t mind having a crack at selling it myself.’ Don was hardly exaggerating. A £5 million property could net him more than a hundred thousand. ‘I could put several buyers her way.’ 

‘We’ll see. For the moment, I just need you to go down there and put the particulars together.’

‘She doesn’t want this dragged into the divorce settlement. Is that it?’

‘She owns the place outright, Don.’ Fran looked reprovingly at him. ‘And the divorce is done and dusted. She has an unfettered right to sell. I’m simply making the arrangements on her behalf while she spends some time abroad.’

‘Of course, of course. I don’t know what came over me.’

‘Can you do it?’

‘Sure. Subject to . . . an agreement over terms.’

‘Two thousand. Plus accommodation and travel. On condition I have all the details by the start of next week.’

‘That’s tight.’

‘That’s why it’s also generous. And I’m guessing you won’t find it too difficult to clear your diary.’ Fran smiled. ‘Do we have a deal?’

‘Why not? It’ll be a nice run for the car.’

‘Don’t tell me you still have the MG.’

‘She’s a classic. Like me.’

Fran did not rise to the remark. She drained her cappuccino, plucked a couple of sheets of paper out of her briefcase and laid them on the table in front of him. ‘Sign on the dotted line, please. Both copies. It’s our standard contract for freelancers.’

‘Do we really need a contract?’

‘I’m a lawyer, Don. Remember how much I saved you on our divorce?’ Don managed a crumpled smile at what sounded to him like a considerable misrepresentation and cast his eye over the document. Fran thumbed away at her iPhone until he had signed.

‘I’ve just emailed details of the property’s location. It’s on the Lizard peninsula, near Mullion. Wortalleth West. The client’s name is Jackson. Mona Jackson. There was a live-in housekeeper, but she left a couple of months back. Her part-time assistant’s been looking after the place since then. There’s also a part-time gardener. You might run into them. Otherwise, it’s all yours.’

She plonked a bunch of keys on the table. Tied to the ring was a label bearing the printed initials FR/MH – some kind of filing reference at Fran’s firm. Don pocketed the keys and Fran retrieved her copy of the contract.

‘I should be getting back to the office,’ she said briskly. ‘I think we’re done here, aren’t we?’

‘Yes.’ Don nodded compliantly. ‘And I can always phone you if something crops up.’

Fran frowned. ‘I can’t see why it should.’

‘No, well...’ Don shrugged. ‘Thanks again, Fran.’

‘You’re welcome.’

Don stayed on to finish his coffee after Fran left. He paid no attention to a heavily built, bearded man nursing a minute espresso cup in the corner. The man had a vaguely Slavic appearance, though he was reading, or at any rate turning the pages of, an Italian newspaper. He did not seem to pay Don any attention either. But, when Don rose and left, he suddenly found it necessary to rise and leave as well. In a rustle of newspaper-folding and a scraping of chair legs, he was up and on his way.

Which happened to be the same way, though at a discreet distance, as Don was going, west along Piccadilly, towards Green Park station and a Tube ride home.

There was, though Don did not know it yet, something else he had Fran to thank for. He had just become a marked man.

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