Posts Tagged new writing

Excerpt from upcoming novel: True Colours


Chapter One 

I STARED at a virgin, white canvas. I had been staring at it every day for a fortnight and I was beginning to appreciate how the Russian born, American artist, Mark Rothko must have felt. He would spend weeks, sometimes months sat on a chair in his New York studio, chain-smoking and staring at a blank canvas, agonising over what to put on it. At the end of all this solitary contemplation, he would do what he always did; paint a red square on a black background, or a black square on a red background, or two red rectangles on a dark brown background. If you have ever seen one of Rothko’s paintings you will know what I mean.

Now, I don’t know what was going through Rothko’s mind; if he was looking for a new direction or if he just found it hard to get started – the point I’m making is, he stuck to what he did best – which worked out well for Mr Rothko because his work continued to sell. Sadly, doing what I do best was the one option that was no longer open to me. Let me explain. You see, artist is a blanket term for someone who creates art; Rothko was an abstract expressionist (no, I don’t know what it means either; the art world is full of bullshit terms like that) I’m a Portrait painter. He was an artist, I am an artist but the only thing our work has in common is that, to put it crudely, we have both slapped a bit of oil paint onto a piece of canvas.

Before the invention of the camera, an artist who could produce a true likeness was considered something of a magician. These men and they were mainly men, great British portraitists like Reynolds and Gainsborough were lionised by society; their work held up as representing the very pinnacle of their chosen profession. Anyone who was anyone, would commission a portrait of themselves, their wives or their children.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that Leo Tate, will only ever be a tiny footnote in the history of art. Leo, short for Leonardo – my mother is an art historian and my father was an art critic, what can I say? I may have been treading in the footsteps of geniuses but I’m never going to stand on their shoulders. Still, modest though my contribution has been, I have managed to earn a decent living out of Portraiture, until recently, that is.

In the last two years I’ve received just three commissions. Three! And two of those were in the first of those two years. Call me a digital dinosaur but I blame the iPhone and the selfie. These days, any fool with a phone can achieve immortality in an instant simply by posting a selfie on their facebook page. As long as the worldwide web exists so will they.

After six months without so much as a sniff of a commission, my long-term girlfriend, Josie felt a change of direction was called for; “You’re a painter,” she said “If no one wants a portrait – paint something else.” I couldn’t fault her logic so I tried my hand at landscapes; they’re always popular, I thought. My landscapes weren’t bad – a bit derivative perhaps – but neither were they good. More to the point, they didn’t sell. Three months later, Josie took her cat and went to live with a Turner Prize Winner; an installation artist called, Zak – in other words a man who represents everything I despise about modern art. Her leaving sent me spiralling into a deep hole of self-pity and despair. We’d been together a long time; since meeting as students at St Martin’s School of Art in fact. It seemed that everything I loved had been taken away from me; career and soul mate gone and still only a thirty something!

That was three months ago which brings me back to where I began, and the ‘Rothko stare’. Having failed to produce a saleable landscape, I decided to abandon the purely representational and embrace the abstract. That’s what people want these days I convinced myself – a splash of colour to liven up those plain magnolia painted walls. Wouldn’t take much more than a few splodges of paint on a white canvas and it would be money for old rope – I could easily knock one of those off, perhaps two in an hour or so…

Turned out it was harder to do than I’d thought and as creative strategies go, the ‘Rothko stare’ just wasn’t working for me. It had a calming, almost soporific effect which left my mind as blank and empty as the canvas I was staring at. Nothing was happening. Rather like the videos that Josie’s new lover, Zak produces and a damned sight more interesting than the piece of crap he won The Turner Prize with.

The ‘Rothko Stare’ was so soporific indeed that when the phone began to ring I didn’t immediately recognise the sound; it had been so long since anyone had rung me. It rang for some time before I came to my senses and dived across the room to snatch it up. My heart skipped a beat – was this a tearful Josie ringing to say leaving me had been a big mistake, a remorseful Josie who would beg me to take her back?

‘Hello?’ It was a woman’s voice, but disappointingly not one that I recognised.

‘Hello?’ I answered warily in case it was one of those damned ‘ambulance chasers’ who want to know if you have had an accident that wasn’t your fault or if you have been imprudent enough to take out Payment Protection Insurance.

The woman on the other end of the line sounded as wary as myself, ‘Am I speaking to Mr Tate, Mr Leo Tate, the portrait painter?’ she enquired.

The jury was still out on that, I thought but decided to go with it, ‘Er… yes, that’s me,’ I said.

‘You don’t sound too sure….’

‘No… I mean, yes, it’s definitely me,’ I confirmed.

‘Well, now that we’ve established I’m speaking to the right person, perhaps I can explain my purpose in phoning you,’ she went on. No longer wary, she spoke to me in the tones of a maiden aunt from a Victorian novel. ‘My employer would like to meet with you. Can you make yourself available tomorrow morning?’

At that particular moment I was available any and every morning for the foreseeable future but I didn’t want her or her employer to know that. ‘Well, let me just consult my diary…’ I said and flipped through the empty pages.

‘Excellent. You will be collected at exactly nine-thirty tomorrow morning. My employer doesn’t like to be kept waiting so please ensure you are ready in good time.’

Collected? What was I, a parcel?

‘Yes, but who are you and who are you working for… hello?’ I said belatedly but I was speaking to myself.

 

Chapter Two

AT PRECISELY nine-thirty the following morning a car horn sounded in the street outside my loft apartment in Bermondsey. I went to the window and looked down. A sleek, black, BMW X5 stood at the kerb. Beside it on the driver’s side, the door open, was a tall, well-built, blond-headed guy dressed in a dark blue suit. The entry phone buzzed and I realised there must be two of them. I went to the wall phone beside my front door and lifted the receiver.

‘Mr Tate?’ enquired a disembodied voice. ‘Could you let me in please?’ The tone was clipped, military.

I hadn’t expected them to want to come in. I surveyed my home which also served as my workplace. Weeks of staring blankly at a canvas and very little else had resulted in my apartment looking as if it had just been turned over by the drug squad. There wasn’t time to tidy up and in any case it would take several days, so with a reluctant sigh I said, ‘Come on up,’ and activated the door release.

Another dark blue suit but this one had slicked back, black hair like Al Pacino in Godfather II. He was wearing an ear-piece communicator and holding one of those wands that security guards all over the world wave at you.

Who are these people? I wondered.

‘Could you step back please, Mr Tate and raise both arms.’

It seemed absurd but I complied with his request as he didn’t strike me as the kind of man who would take no for an answer. This went way beyond cautious; his anonymous employer had to be seriously paranoid to see a man armed with a sable brush as any kind of threat to his personal security.

The wand produced an electronic screech not unlike the sound a mouse might make if someone stepped on its tail and the ‘Michael Corleone’ look alike asked me to empty my pockets. I took out my car keys and a small collection of coins, showed them to him and placed them in a little heap on the nearest chair. He repeated the business with the wand and this time it made no sound. The man swept the room and his cold gaze fell upon the brown leather satchel I had dumped beside the front door. He had the kind of eyes you would normally only ever expect to see on dead people.

‘Is that coming with you?’ he asked in a tone that implied I had been trying to slip the bag past him.

‘Er…yes,’ I said a little nervously. ‘There’s just a sketchpad in there and a few pencils.’

‘Give it here,’ he said and held out a hand. I was a little surprised to see he had beautifully manicured nails like a woman’s. He caught my look. ‘My employer is a stickler for cleanliness,’ he explained, somewhat defensively.  A tough guy with a thin skin – who would have thought it?

I picked up the satchel and handed it to him. Those dead eyes of his took in my bitten down nails and then my tip of a room. He gave a disapproving sniff. ‘Oh, he’s going to love you,’ he said.

He took the satchel over to the chair and, undoing the straps, emptied the contents onto it. The first item to fall out was my mobile phone. ‘Dead Eyes’ pounced on it and held it up as if it were exhibit ‘A’ in a particularly gruesome murder trial. His eyes narrowed with suspicion and the look he gave me, you would have thought it was a block of weapons grade Plutonium rather than an iPhone, and an old one at that. Replacing the pad and the pencils in the satchel, he handed it back to me.

‘The phone stays here,’ he said sternly and proceeded to remove the battery which he slipped into his pocket.

‘Hey,’ I protested. ‘What are you doing?’

‘You’ll get it back when I drop you off,’ he said and that was that; end of discussion.

Just what was I getting myself into? I wondered. The more I learned about my prospective client, the less I liked the sound of him; not only was he paranoid about personal security but was obsessively compulsive in matters of hygiene. This behaviour of his was disturbingly reminiscent of the reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes.

And what if he had good reason to feel paranoid? If someone really was out to get him, I could be putting myself in harm’s way.

‘What’s his name – this boss of yours?’ I asked ‘Dead Eyes’.

‘If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you himself,’ he said. He consulted his watch; one of those flashy, expensive, aviator timepieces. ‘Time to go,’ he said then, raising his right hand to his mouth, he spoke into the cuff of his sleeve. ‘We’re coming down.’ A pause, presumably while he listened to the guy downstairs, ‘Roger that,’ he replied.

 

Downstairs in the street I was bundled into the back of the BMW like a hostage and ‘Dead Eyes’ jumped in beside me. Without a word to either of us, his blond-headed colleague slid behind the wheel and buckled his seat belt. A glance in the mirror and we were off.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked as we pulled away from the kerb.

“Just sit back and relax,” I was told and after that all three of us sat in silence as ‘Blondie’ as I had christened him, skilfully weaved his way through South London’s busy streets. With nothing to do but look out of the window – tinted, naturally, I consoled myself with the fact that at least they hadn’t put a hood over my head.

It soon became apparent that we were headed westwards and to pass the time, I tried, using the meagre clues I had to go on, to make an educated guess as to our destination. My prospective client was undoubtedly wealthy – bodyguards and all the paraphernalia that went with them didn’t come cheap. So, assuming that he didn’t live too far from central London, I concluded that his multi-million pound residence would most likely be located in Berkshire, or perhaps, Surrey. It was still so vague that I might as well have closed my eyes and stuck a pin in a map, so I decided to suspend further speculation until I had more to go on.

Forty minutes later, having meandered, like the Thames, through Lambeth, Vauxhall and Nine Elms, I was still wondering where we were going. Not long after we had driven past Battersea power station, the driver made a right turn and drove at speed down a narrow road which was hemmed in on both sides by high walls.

I heard it before I saw it; its arrival announced by an angry whirring. As we approached a wire perimeter fence, the helicopter came into view hovering like a shiny black insect above a white circle painted on the tarmac apron below it. There was nothing, not even a company logo, on the all black livery of the aircraft to identify the owner, other than the white registration letters on the nose and tail. We swept around a bend and pulled up in front of the heliport terminal; a low curved building that seemed to have grown out of the tall glass tower next to it.

My dead-eyed friend got out of the car and held the door open for me.

Exciting though the prospect of a first flight in a helicopter was, I hesitated. I was used to my clients coming to me. On the rare occasions I had to go to them, I drove myself or took a taxi. I’d never had anyone send a car for me, let alone a helicopter.

‘We’re flying the rest of the way?’ I queried, still not quite able to believe it.

‘Dead-Eyes’ gave me a withering look. ‘Well we’re not here to collect aircraft numbers,’ he said.

In the end it was my desperate need for cash that overcame the doubts that had assailed me. Feeling sheepish, I followed him into the terminal, where the staff greeted us like VIP’s. Whoever he was, the owner of the black helicopter certainly carried some clout with these people, I thought. I felt like an ‘A’ list celebrity as we were ushered through with the minimum of formalities and escorted to our helicopter by the managing director of the company who ran the terminal.

Up close, the helicopter was even more impressive than the brief glimpse I’d had of it earlier. Its streamlined curves and an aggressive looking snout gave it a disturbingly military look. An impression belied by the interior which was reassuringly luxurious and comfortable with wall to wall carpet and real leather seats.

I’d hoped that my taciturn travelling companion would sit up front with the pilot but to my displeasure, he followed me into the passenger section of the cabin. As I eased back into my seat and strapped myself in, he sat down in the seat opposite me and stared at a TV screen which was mounted above my head.

The rotor blades began to turn, slowly at first but gradually gained speed until they were little more than a blur; the engine noise building at the same time until it became a banshee scream. And then with a slight wobble we rose slowly into the sky and I could see the Thames and a line of barges and small boats strung out parallel to the north bank. We rose a further 50 feet or so and the pilot dipped the nose and turning, headed across the Thames in, as near as I could judge, a north westerly direction. I’m not good with maps or navigation and never drive anywhere outside London without my trusty Sat Nav, but Berkshire now seemed to be our likeliest destination. Moments later a motorway came into view which I assumed must be the M4 and I felt a smug satisfaction in having my prediction so quickly confirmed. But as the flight time grew longer, I began to think my confidence had been misplaced.

My guard, as I’d come to regard him, had yet to utter a word. So far I’d managed to ignore him by staring out of the window but he remained a silent presence; the elephant in the room that was making everyone feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like the man, he made me feel nervous but when I’m nervous, I have the urge to talk. I just can’t help myself.

‘I suppose this is just like catching a bus for you,’ I said, indicating the well-appointed cabin.

He turned those fish-cold eyes on me. ‘It’s a helicopter,’ he said, ‘So no, it’s nothing like catching a bus.’ And went back to staring at the TV.

Thankfully five minutes later we began to descend and craning my neck, I was surprised to see the mellow spires of Oxford looming up below us.

*

We landed on a rooftop helipad. The roof in question was keeping the rain out of one of those grand Palladian mansions; once the home of the impoverished nobility, but now the must have status symbol for the nouveau super-riche. I just caught a glimpse of walled garden and some parkland beyond it, before I was taken through a doorway set into a sentry-box like structure. A tiny service lift, barely big enough for two people, took us down through the core of the house and into a marble floored reception room. ‘Dead Eyes’ led me to a leather chesterfield and told me to wait there, then left. Frankly, I was glad to see the back of him. I sincerely hoped that his employer had a sunnier disposition.

The only reading material in the room was a copy of that day’s Financial Times. Beside it on a marble topped table was an internal telephone. High finance didn’t interest me; I was more concerned with where my next month’s rent was coming from. Besides, the room contained something far more interesting – paintings, and not just any old paintings either; these were genuine surrealist masterpieces. Amongst others there were two Picassos and a Giacometti. Millions of pounds’ worth of art and they were hanging in a reception room! The proceeds from any one of those paintings would have set me up for the rest of my life.

I was back on the chesterfield considering how much more I could charge my prospective client for his portrait, when a young boy bounded into the room. He was brandishing a toy gun. Holding it out in front of him, he advanced upon the sofa until the muzzle was within a foot or so of my nose.

‘Hands up,’ he said.

Spoken in a cut glass, public school accent, the words sounded incongruous from one so young, for judging by the missing front teeth, I reckoned he must be 6 or 7 years old.

Playing along, I slowly raised my hands above my head. ‘Please, don’t sh-sh-shoot me,’ I stammered.

Apparently dissatisfied with my play-acting, the fair-haired boy waggled his gun at me to indicate I should raise my hands higher still. I was thinking to myself how much more realistic toy guns were nowadays when a very large, red-faced man in shirt sleeves burst in. When he saw what was happening he froze, and the blood drained from his face. It was then I noticed the empty shoulder holster he was wearing.

Until that moment, I had only pretended to be scared, but now I was doing it for real. Time slowed, as if I were watching a movie frame by frame, and every detail of the scene before me was thrown into sharper focus. Staring down the dark muzzle of that gun was like staring into eternity. I thought my hour had come.

“Leo Tate, this is your life”, would be a much shorter programme than I had envisaged when, in wilder moments, I had allowed myself to believe that I would someday join the ranks of those great English portraitists who had gone before me.

Coupled with the terror of imminent death, was a fixation with the instrument of my extinction. I just could not take my eyes off the open maw of that gun barrel, at the other end of which lay a bullet which apparently had my name on it. The boy’s finger closed around the trigger. I held my breath…

‘Sasha.’ A woman’s voice. ‘Take-your-finger-off-the-trigger.’ She spoke in a calm, measured rhythm, her voice almost a whisper. She must have nerves of steel, I thought, but then it occurred to me that the boy might have done this before. ‘Now, I want you to turn around and look at mummy.’ Reluctantly, the boy complied. ‘Good boy,’ she said.

I breathed again.

Eternity postponed for a while longer, my attention shifted to my rescuer and I was immediately struck by how beautiful she was. A tall, willowy blonde of roughly my own age, she was blessed with the kind of bone structure that would ensure she retained her beauty well into her later years. I found myself hoping, praying even, that she was to be my subject. The time spent capturing that beauty on canvas, would go some way to compensating me for the trauma her gun-toting son had just put me through.

The lady in question went down on one knee. ‘Gently now, Sasha,’ she said. ‘Put Kolya’s gun on the floor and come to me.’

A moment’s hesitation then the boy knelt down and carefully placed the pistol on the hard marble floor. Having done so, he ran straight to his mother, and she gathered him up in her arms.

The bodyguard who had failed to guard his gun, wiped a trembling hand across his glistening brow. I had a feeling he was likely to be out of a job before the day was through. From his hangdog expression, I could see that he was of the same mind. He and the lady of the house exchanged meaningful glances, and the hapless bodyguard approached his discarded weapon, with the leaden steps of a man mounting the gallows. The gun back in its holster, he addressed a mumbled apology to me in a heavily accented baritone. As he was leaving, the blonde turned and said something to him in what I took to be Russian. Whatever was said, it didn’t make him any happier.

Unfolding her arms, she took hold of her son by his shoulders. Gazing straight into his eyes, she said, ‘Go to your room now, Sasha. I’ll come up and see you in few minutes.’

‘But mama…’

‘Now, Sasha.’ She reiterated in a sterner tone.

She released him, and he meekly obeyed without further protest.

His mother watched him go, then with a sigh, got up off her knee, and came rushing towards me.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, and looked as if she was about to burst into tears. ‘What must you think of us?’

‘Oh, it’s all right,’ I said, with the air of a man who deals with this sort of thing all the time. ‘Boys will be boys.’ But when I went to stand up, I was as unsteady on my feet as a new born calf; my legs so shaky I almost toppled back onto the chesterfield.

She took my hands in hers, steadied me. ‘No, it’s not all right,’ she said. ‘You’re shaking. It’s inexcusable. Please forgive my son. Sasha’s not a bad boy. He just gets very bored in the school holidays and Kolya should have been more vigilant.’ Her eyes, I noticed, were hazel and flecked with gold. They stared pleadingly into mine. ‘I know I have no right to ask this of you, but could you please not mention this unfortunate incident to my father. He sent me to fetch you, and he’ll be wondering why we’ve been so long. I’ll deal with Kolya. He’s been with the family for a long time, but my father won’t forgive him for endangering Sasha’s life, and yours too, of course,’ she added, just a fraction too late.

‘Your Father?’

‘Yes. You are Leo Tate… the portrait painter, aren’t you?’

‘That’s right. So, it’s your father I’m to immortalise on canvas then?’

She smiled. ‘We think so…’

I assumed by ‘we’, she referred to her husband and herself, but I asked the question anyway. ‘We?’

‘Me and my sister, Polina, but he won’t tell us. He’s being very secretive about it in fact. So I’ll leave him to tell you himself. ‘If you’re ready, I’ll take you to him…’

There followed an expectant pause, and I realised she was waiting for a reply to the plea she’d made.

How could I refuse?

‘Yeah, I think I’ll be all right now,’ I said. And don’t worry; I won’t say anything to your father about Sasha having the gun.’

Her relief was palpable. She took my hand in hers. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

Amen to that, I thought. If I were to get the commission, it would almost certainly involve return visits to the house, and I didn’t fancy playing Russian roulette with Sasha every time.

My guide took me out into a wide hallway, and led me up a grand staircase complete with red carpet. I imagined us both in period costume; me in a Hussar’s uniform with lots of gold braid, and her in a silk ball gown. As if reading my thoughts, she turned and looked back at me.

‘I’m Sofia, by the way,’ she said.

With all these Russian names – it could be War & Peace, I thought.

 

At the top of the staircase, there was a galleried landing and another flight of stairs which gave access to the second floor. Dotted around the landing were a series of alcoves, each one containing a piece of sculpture. In one, I spotted what I’m fairly certain was a nude figure of a woman by Matisse. There was more modern art hanging on the walls. Not all of these paintings were priceless by any means, but quite a lot of them were. I followed Sofia through an archway, and came face to face with yet another bodyguard – how many of them did it take to guard one man? He was stationed with his back towards a pale duck-egg green, panelled door. The man looked me up and down, then gave a gentle tap on the door, and a gruff voice from within commanded us to enter.

We stepped inside.

It was a very masculine room with lots of dark wood, and an absence of bric-a-brac; a room where business was done, rather than a den. The sole decorative ornament was an ornate, silver Samovar. As we entered, a short, stocky man with heavy jowls and a shock of jet black hair, came out from behind a large leather topped, partners desk.

‘Ah, Mister Tate. There you are,’ he said with a sidelong glance at his daughter, who averted her eyes. He didn’t offer to shake my hand, I noticed, presumably because he feared he might catch something. Instead, he waved me to a chair. He had thick bushy eyebrows, and looked like one of those soviet era presidents.

‘Can I offer you something to drink, Mr Tate… tea, coffee?’

His accent was decidedly Russian, though not as thick as Kolya’s had been.

Still feeling the after effects of my close encounter with a loaded automatic, I was tempted to ask for a brandy, but settled for strong black coffee. It was barely 11am, and I didn’t want him thinking I had a drink problem. That kind of bohemian behaviour, though expected of us arty types, tends to put a punter off.

He turned to his daughter, ‘Sofia, darling, would you see to that for me, please?’

‘Of course,’ she said.

As she came past me on her way out, she mouthed ‘thank you’.

Her father returned to his high-backed, leather chair behind the huge desk. From this biologically safer distance, he appraised me from beneath heavily-lidded eyes that were almost as black as his hair.

‘Tell me something about yourself,’ he said.

‘By all means,’ I said. ‘But first, do you mind if I ask you a question?’

He’d guessed what was coming, of course, was prepared for it.

‘You want to know my name, yes? I understand this, but I am not yet ready to exchange such confidences. I am a very successful man and successful men have enemies. If they became aware of our association, they might use you, to get to me and my family. So, for the moment, you may call me, Andrei.’

Andrei? Right…’

I should have asked his daughter while I had the chance, I realised. But for the moment, it seemed I had no choice but to humour his paranoia, and so I gave him a potted history of my life and works. This résumé was punctuated by frequent stops to answer his often probing questions. I was about done, when Sofia returned with the coffee, which she served up, along with a warm smile and an almond biscotti. After which, she lingered; eager no doubt to learn which of them her father wanted me to paint, but seeing her hovering, he shooed her out.

‘OK. I like you, Leo,’ he said, expansively. ‘I have decided. I want you to do the work. You are prepared to accept this commission?’

‘Well, yes. I’d be delighted, but who…’

‘Good. That’s settled then,’ he said, before I could finish speaking then hurried on. ‘Now, I have some conditions and, they are non-negotiable. Firstly, all sittings must take place here.’ He looked up enquiringly, and those eyebrows of his shot up like a couple of dancing caterpillars. ‘How many would you need?’

‘Oh, half-a-dozen at least, probably more, but I’m still not clear who I’m being commissioned to paint?’

‘It is to be a family portrait,’ he said. ‘My two daughters, my grandson, and myself, of course. So, I will set aside the whole of next week for the sittings. You will stay here with us.’ I opened my mouth to voice an objection, but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. ‘A fully equipped studio has been prepared for you.’ he assured me. ‘When we have finished here, I will get Sofia to show it to you. Let her have a list of the materials you will need, and they will be here when you come back on Monday morning.’

‘But you don’t understand,’ I explained. ‘The sittings are an ongoing part of the process and occur at different stages of the work. You can’t just lump them all together and do them in one go.’

‘Then you must stay here until the portrait is completed,’ he said, as if there was no other option.

Granted, I was in no position to turn down the work. As things stood, this commission represented my one chance of straightening out my finances. Without it, I was in danger of becoming a pavement artist; literally, living and working on the streets. On the other hand, I barely knew these people; my client wished to remain anonymous, and I would be surrounded by armed guards – a prisoner, in all but name.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I’m more than happy to come and do the sittings here, but I don’t see why the rest of the work can’t be done in my own studio.’

‘I thought I had made it clear why that would not be possible,’ he said.

‘You do realise, that the painting will take several months to complete,’ I countered

He nodded, and his heavy jowls quivered. ‘Naturally, I would expect to pay more for this level of service,’ he said. ‘And so, I’m prepared to pay you three times your usual fee.’

Ker-ching! I couldn’t believe it. He’d just offered me the best part of £30,000. He knows, I thought. He’s had someone look into my circumstances and he knows I can’t afford to say no. But then, why offer me so much, when he could have got me for a lot less?

He was growing impatient for a reply. ‘And still you hesitate?’ he said.

‘I’m stunned,’ I explained. ‘It’s an extremely generous offer.’

A shrug of his shoulders, ‘The money is not so important.’

That was easy to say from where he was sitting.

‘You find this hard to believe?’ he said.

‘No, it’s just…’

‘Yes, you do. It’s written all over your face. But trust me, my young friend, money isn’t everything. You have family?’

‘Of my own? No,’ I said. With Josie gone, that prospect seemed farther away than ever.

He smiled. ‘Well, one day perhaps, you will understand what I am talking about.’

Funny how fond the rich are of saying money doesn’t buy you happiness, yet spend their lives striving to get their hands on lots more of the stuff that makes them so unhappy. And were those millionaire Beatles really serious when they sang, “money can’t buy me love”? If that is true, how come even the ugliest of millionaires, can take his pick of some of the world’s most beautiful women?

*

Before I left, Sofia showed me the studio. Situated on the top floor, it had two north facing windows and, best of all, a large skylight. As my client had promised, it was well equipped. The easel alone, a Jack Richeson ‘Crank’ model, would have set her father back at least £1500. But it was the room itself that appealed to me more than anything; light and airy, it was a perfect space in which to paint. A table and a swivel chair had been set up beneath one of the windows. I sat down and listed the paints and other materials I would need; canvas, linseed oil, turpentine and so on. Like most professional artists, I was particular in my choice of manufacturers and suppliers of these things, along with the palette of colours I preferred to use. When I was done, I handed the list to Sofia. She glanced at it, then folded it in half.

‘I’ll get these ordered for you today,’ she promised. ‘So, did he tell you who he wants you to paint?’

‘It’s about the only thing he did tell me,’ I said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, I still don’t know who I’m going to be working for.’

‘Oh, I see…’

She dropped her gaze.

‘You’re not going to tell me either, are you?’ I said. I got up, pushed the chair away. Took a few steps away from her, came back. ‘What is it with your family, why all the secrecy?’

She looked shamefaced, but said nothing.

‘Is your father in some kind of trouble?’ I asked. ‘Are the Russian mafia after him or something?’

She laughed at the suggestion. ‘No, nothing like that. It’s a family matter. Nothing you need worry about,’ she assured me.

I left it at that. Further probing seemed pointless, and in any case, it would be rude to pry into a private family matter.

‘In case you’re still wondering,’ I said. ‘Your father wants a portrait of himself, with you, your sister and Sasha.’

She smiled at that, but there was a sorrowful look in her eyes.

 

Chapter Three

THE SAME TEAM dropped me off outside my apartment at a little after two in the afternoon. As he was climbing back into the BMW, ‘Dead Eyes’ tossed my phone battery to me. I scrambled to catch it before it hit the pavement, and he laughed. When I looked up again, it was in time to see the BMW disappearing amongst the mid-afternoon traffic. I was glad to see the back of them. I was about to turn and go up to my apartment, when I noticed a dark blue Audi parked on the other side of the road. I barely had time to register the driver’s features; dark, bearded, before he started the engine and drove away.

I thought no more about it, but later, when I popped out to get some milk, I had the feeling that I was being followed. I glanced back over my shoulder several times on the way to my local convenience store, but no one particular face stayed there for long enough to make me suspicious. The feeling, however, persisted.

Who is paranoid now, I wondered?

I spent the rest of the afternoon searching for ‘Andrei’ on the internet. He’d implied it wasn’t his real name, but how many Russian oligarchs could there be in Oxfordshire?

Quite a number as it turned out.

I trawled through all the Googled images, but none of them bore much resemblance to Andrei. Perhaps the luxuriant eyebrows had been an attempt to disguise himself, or the man I’d met had been a stand-in; one of the oligarch’s retinue posing as my client, so that I wouldn’t know what he looked like until I came to paint him. The idea being that I would be unable to identify him until I was incommunicado; installed in that heavily guarded mansion of his until the painting was completed.

After wasting several hours on this fruitless search, I gave up. So the guy valued his privacy, so what? It was his prerogative, and none of my business how he conducted his affairs. After all, he was paying handsomely for the privilege.

By this time, I was beginning to feel hungry. I couldn’t face cooking another meal for one, so I ordered a take-away pizza and, when it arrived, I opened a bottle of red wine. I ate the pizza on my lap in front of the telly. When it was finished, I continued to drink steadily. When the bottle was empty, I downed several cans of beer, along with a couple of shots of some vodka I found in the cupboard under the sink. All that alcohol made me maudlin, and my thoughts turned to Josie and the life I used to have. On a drunken impulse, I picked up the phone and dialled her mobile. It rang and rang, and I was about to end the call, when she answered it.

‘Oh, hello, Leo! I’m glad you phoned,’ she said, brightly.

It wasn’t the reaction I’d been expecting.

‘Are you?’ I said, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice.

‘Yes. You see, the other day, I was unpacking the last of the stuff I brought from your place, and I found that lovely little painting you did of your mother.’

‘Oh that… I didn’t know you had it.’

But then it wasn’t the painting I’d been missing these past three months. Sadly, it didn’t sound as though she’d been missing me. After the initial lift of hearing her voice again, my spirits had sunk even lower than they’d been before I made the call.

‘Thing is,’ she continued. ‘I don’t want to post it to you, in case it gets lost or damaged. But I’ll be in all afternoon tomorrow, if you’d like to collect it.’

‘Tomorrow? Sure, I can do that.’

‘Th-a-a-nks Leo. The sooner it’s safely back where it belongs the better. We wouldn’t want Mr Muggles to get his claws into it now, would we?’ she said, in that soppy voice she used when talking to her cat; a great brute of a ginger Tom. ‘Have you got a pen and I’ll give you the address?’

I grabbed a pen and wrote her it down on the back of the empty pizza box.

‘How have you been?’ I asked.

‘Oh, Busy, busy. Zak’s got a retrospective coming up at The Saatchi Gallery and we’ve been rushed off our feet. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,’ she trilled.

‘Oh, Josie, before you go,’ I said quickly. ‘I’ve just landed a big commission…’

But the line was already dead.

*

The following afternoon, I ‘ubered’ a cab to take me to the address in Camberwell that Josie had given me. Minutes later, it pulled up outside my building. I’d been using the uber app for a while, but recent events had made me cautious and I checked the driver’s face against the photo on my phone. There was another man, I noticed, sat in the passenger seat. As I got in the back, the driver, a swarthy looking man, turned to me and gave me a beaming smile that revealed two rows of large, white even teeth.

‘You don’t mind if I give my friend a lift, do you? He’s going your way.’

His friend peered round the headrest of his seat.

‘My car broke down,’ he explained. He had an eastern European sounding accent.

‘Bummer,’ I said, sympathetically. Breaking down anywhere is a pain at the best of times, but in London it can be positively traumatic. London’s drivers are an impatient lot, and if you delay their progress for as much as a few seconds, watch out!

Conversation lapsed after that brief exchange, which suited me perfectly. I’d been in a pensive mood all morning. The malaise had taken a hold on me while I was still lying in bed. Once I’d started thinking about the phone conversation I’d had with Josie the previous evening, I couldn’t stop. In the hours since, I’d repeatedly analysed every word and nuance of tone in her voice for clues as to her true feelings. Was she glad that I’d phoned purely because it had saved her the trouble of delivering the painting to me herself, or because it provided her with a face-saving excuse to see me again? Was she happy in her new life with the great Turner prize winner, or was she already regretting moving in with him?

Questions, questions, nothing but questions… I was going round in circles. It was enough to drive a man mad. It was answers I needed, and I could only get those from Josie herself.

I also examined my own feelings. I was about to bounce back in a big way; in a few months I’d be ‘The Come Back Kid’, with money in the bank, and the possibility of more to come, if my retiring oligarch was prepared to introduce me to some of his mega-rich friends. But, did I want her back after what she had done? We had a lot of history between us, and I felt I knew her better than anyone else in the world, yet still couldn’t understand why she had betrayed me, and with that pretentious prick, Zak of all people.

Hunched up against the nearside rear passenger door, my face pressed against the window, I stared out at the passing streets with unfocussed eyes. Lost in my misery, it was a while before I realised that the driver seemed to be taking me on a decidedly long and circuitous route. I sat up in my seat then, and started to take an interest in my surroundings, tried to get my bearings. I saw a sign for The Den, home of Millwall Football Club and realised we were travelling in entirely the wrong direction.

‘Scuse me driver,’ I said, leaning into the gap between the front two seats as I did so. ‘You’re going the wrong way.’

‘I told you, we have to drop my friend off first,’ he said, over his shoulder.

‘Yes, I know you did, but you said, he was going my way,’ I reminded him.

The man in the passenger seat appeared round the edge of his seat.

‘I think you’ll find you’re going my way,’ he said, with heavy emphasis.

‘But someone is expecting me…’ I protested.

‘Don’t worry, Mr Tate,’ said the driver. ‘I’m sure the lovely Josie won’t mind if you’re a little late’

‘Josie… You know her?’

‘We know everything,’ he said.

‘So why don’t you sit back and enjoy the ride,’ said the guy in the passenger seat.

His hand came up, and for the second time in almost as many days, I found myself staring down the wrong end of a gun.

 

Copyright: Chris Niblock 2018

 

 

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It ain’t the end, when you type, ‘The End’ . . .

As an indie author, I’ve always thought that the writing was the easy bit. Certainly it’s the most enjoyable part; creating your characters and conjuring up lives for them. It’s when the work is finished; when it’s been edited, formatted and uploaded that the hard work begins. Because, although you might think yours is the novel the world has been waiting for, apart from your friends and family, nobody is going to know about it unless you publicise it. But there is the rub, for how do you do that without an agent or a publisher to fund it. Advertising is expensive and beyond most indie authors means. That leaves you with social media. Which is my excuse for using my blog and facebook to inflict this message about my second novel, or more accurately, novella, Soul Trader on you.

SoulCov6

Soul Trader is a tragically funny, noir comedy. Think Brief Encounter meets Dangerous Liaisons; Cyrano de Bergerac versus Darth Vader and you’ll get the idea.

Divorced and unemployed, Owen Leadbeater is embittered and envious of others’ success. One desperate night, drunk and full of self-pity, Owen appeals to a higher power to help him. Unfortunately for Owen, his call is answered by the darker side – envy, though one of the seven deadly sins isn’t a problem for them – just sign on the dotted line and you can have anything you desire.  Problem is, the devil’s contract is as dodgy an instrument as anything a bent banker could dream up and Owen, trusting soul that he is, doesn’t think to read the small print.

But a contract is a contract and the devil, in the form of Sebastian Tantalus, is not to be messed with, as Owen soon discovers to his cost. The price for a lifetime of glittering success mounts as Owen is forced to commit one deadly sin after another, but just how far is he prepared to go, before the cost becomes too high for him to bear?

You can read the first chapter here, or click on the link above or, those listed below the book’s cover to the right of this post, and download  it  to your kindle or other e-reader device.

SOUL TRADER Chapter 1: Sign your name and cross your heart

Owen Leadbeater pulls the ring on a can of lager and takes a large swig of the cold, gassy liquid. He has been drinking steadily since lunchtime and so far has consumed the equivalent of nine pints. The reason for this booze-fest is standing on the mantelpiece; a solitary birthday card with the number 40 emblazoned on the front in large, embossed silver numerals. He raises his beer can as if about to propose a toast, then, swinging his arm back, angrily hurls it at the card, knocking it off the shelf and spraying beer all over the chimney breast. The can clatters onto the tiled hearth where it continues to glug out what’s left of its contents.

‘You can beam me up now,’ he yells, throwing his head back and his arms up as if expecting someone to lower a rope and haul him skyward. ‘I’ve had enough, more than enough. My fortieth birthday, the big four oh, and all I get is one lousy card from a brother I haven’t seen in years!’

Owen doesn’t blame his brother for this lack of contact so much as that stuck up wife of his – Patricia. Patricia, mind you, not Pat or Tricia; she is very particular about that. In fact, she is very particular about everything and like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca she keeps their large detached house as if it were a shrine to the god of Homes and Gardens. You didn’t visit with his brother and his wife so much as view a show home. One was permitted to look, but on no account to touch the beautiful, and by definition, expensive items on display there. On the rare occasions he has been allowed to enter this palace of middle-class virtue, Owen has at times found himself holding his breath, fearful that in breathing out he might dull the shine on the highly polished mahogany dining table – Waring and Gillow – a snip at two thousand pounds.

‘More money than sense, if you ask me,’ he bellows drunkenly. Not that anybody is asking, he reflects with some bitterness. ‘Some party, eh?’ He waves an invisible tankard at the empty room. ‘Happy birthday, Owen. Here’s to forty years of being pissed-on from a great height.’

Swaying like a sailor on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, Owen navigates an erratic path to the kitchen where, after several fumbled attempts, he manages to yank open the fridge door and grab another can of lager. Returning to the living room in the same ziz-zag fashion, he pulls the ring and with beery foam fizzing over his fingers, raises the can high in the air.

‘Come on then God, if you do exist, come and get me. I’m offering you my soul on a plate. It’s on special offer this week.’ He quaffs some more beer before continuing. ‘Well, what are you waiting for? I’ve been a good boy. That was the deal, wasn’t it? Be a good boy all your life and you’ll go to heaven. Well? I stuck to my side of the bargain. I’ve been legal, decent and honest; always kept my nose clean.’ His eyes begin to fill with tears and he wipes them away with the back of his hand. ‘And look where it’s got me – one lousy birthday card.’ He checks himself. ‘No, I tell a lie; just a small stain on an otherwise unblemished life, believe me. I did have one other card, but it doesn’t count. It doesn’t say ‘happy birthday’, it just has a picture of a bowl of fruit on the front – you know, a still-life, and on the back it says, ‘this card is left blank for your own message.’ From my ex, that one; didn’t even put best wishes, just to Owen from Maureen. We were married for the best part of fifteen years and she can’t even bring herself to write happy fucking birthday. Blank for your own message, but you’re not supposed to leave it blank are you!’ he shouts, snot mingling with the tears he can no longer control.

In something approaching an out of body experience, Owen looks down on the pathetic wretch that he has become; sees a grown man who has fallen to his knees and is howling like a baby. He pities, and at the same time, despises this tragic figure but is powerless to help him. A floodgate has opened up, and years of suppressed emotions, bitterness and disappointment are suddenly released; a tsunami that is totally overwhelming and unstoppable.

Fifteen years . . . that ought to count for something, he reflects, once the emotional tidal wave that has engulfed him recedes a little and he can breathe normally once more. After all, forty is a milestone in any man’s life. The least she could have done was to wish him a happy birthday. A blank card, an empty space – it was a perfect metaphor for their married life, one which they hadn’t even managed to fill with children.

The wretch on his knees raises his face heavenwards. ‘Love . . . that’s your big thing isn’t it? Your great gift to the world? I missed out on that one actually. I don’t know if you noticed. Did you hear me? I said, I missed . . . hello, is there anybody there? No? Well, perhaps there’s a hotline I can ring. Get them to put a call out, ‘Come in number 52, your time is up. Sorry it wasn’t much of a life, but there you go. Luck of the draw I’m afraid. Better luck next time, old chap. Oh, sorry, I forgot. There is no next time!’

On hands and knees Owen crawls over to a shabby armchair and hauls himself up onto the seat. No easy task for a drunken man, further handicapped by the can of lager he insists on taking with him on this arduous journey. When he raises the can to his lips he is surprised to find that it’s half empty and his shirt front is sodden.

Oh what the hell, he muses. God probably doesn’t exist anyway. It was all down to the big bang; nothing one minute – a vacuum – then, KABOOM, you have an expanding universe. Life was nothing more than a series of random events and accidents. You could sum it up in one word – chaos. There was no guiding hand, no omnipotent creator. You might just as well throw a dice as try and plan your life. Still, it was worth one more try.

‘OK, I’m going to give you one last chance,’ he says out loud. ‘It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m offering you here. Are you going to take it or not? You haven’t got the monopoly on the afterlife you know. I can take my soul elsewhere. There’s always the other lot. I just felt I ought to give you first refusal, as it were. So, if you could just give me a sign; one knock for yes, two for no or something . . . anything?’

In the silence that follows, Owen becomes acutely aware of the everyday ambient sounds of the house that would barely register with him at any other time; the soft ticking of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece; the occasional burp from the hot water tank in the airing cupboard on the landing upstairs, but of divine intervention there is no sign or sound.

‘That’s a no, then? Okay, Hell it is. I’ll get a warm welcome there, if nothing else.’ Arching his back, Owen thrusts his free hand down the back pocket of his jeans. It’s a difficult balancing act for an inebriated man, and he struggles to extract the object he is seeking. So much so, that by the time he lowers himself back into his chair, Owen is red-faced and breathing hard. The hand resting in his lap cradles an amber-tinted, Perspex tube of tablets. Small and white, they nestle together like the incubating larvae of a malevolent insect. Through narrowed eyes, he studies the label intently for a time then, as if coming to a sudden decision, he removes the plastic stopper with a flick of his thumb. Raising the tube to his lips, he tips some of the pills into his mouth. They taste bitter on his tongue, but he continues to hold them there a moment longer before taking a hurried swig of beer, and swallowing them down. Tears striping his face, he repeats the process until the tube is empty and, feeling very sleepy now, curls up in the armchair like a contented cat. Within minutes he is snoring noisily, an empty beer can still cradled in his lap.

*

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and brilliant sunshine is blazing through the un-curtained windows when Owen rouses from his sleep. As he uncurls his cramped limbs from the confines of his narrow armchair, he is surprised to discover that he is not alone in the room. Standing between him and the window and haloed by the blaze of light behind him is a tall, smartly dressed young man with a face that belongs in a Renaissance painting; a man so strikingly handsome that beautiful is not too strong a word to use to describe him. For some moments, Owen believes that God has taken him up on his offer of the night before and he is in the presence of an angel; perhaps the Archangel Gabriel himself.

This supernatural being is carrying a leather briefcase and Owen wonders if this contains a ledger in which the transgressions of his misspent life are recorded and on which he is about to be judged. He also wonders why, if he is in heaven, he is apparently still sitting in his own lounge with its faded carpet and tired looking furnishings. Or is this just an illusion; a stage set; a way of lessening the sudden shock of discovering you have died by providing you with familiar surroundings until you get used to the idea of no longer being alive.

A driver honking his horn in the street outside and a neighbour shouting abuse back at him breaks the spell, and Owen realises with a start that he is not in fact dead, just suffering from an almighty hangover. Leaping from his chair, he scurries round behind it.

‘What the fuck! Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?’

‘You sent for me, I believe,’ replies the young man in a soft, slightly effeminate voice that matches his androgynous looks.

‘I did? When?’ Owen enquires, wonders if this unexpected visitation is the result of a drunken call to a random number he came up with himself or one he plucked from the telephone directory.

‘Yesterday evening.’ His visitor flips open the briefcase and, withdrawing a manila file, consults it. ‘Let me see . . . ah yes, here we are. Call received at eleven thirty-two and ten seconds precisely. Ring any bells?’

‘That’s impressively precise, but the only bell ringing round here last night was my front door bell. Just about everyone I know was here helping me celebrate my fortieth birthday,’ he lies. ‘Place was heaving.’ It suddenly occurs to Owen that his visitor hadn’t rung the bell. ‘How did you get in, by the way? You shouldn’t creep up on people like that, scared the life out of me, waking up to find you standing there.’

‘Sorry about that but there’s no need for concern on that score, you’re not due to pass over until three months after your seventy-fifth birthday; June the twenty-first, two thousand and fifty-seven, to be precise.’

Owen can’t help laughing at this prediction but his laughter is tempered with a degree of nervousness. His visitor has a certain stage presence; an undeniable gravitas that is both unsettling and totally convincing. A consummate actor or an outright fraud he may be, but Owen is inclined to believe him.

‘Who are you?’ He asks in an awe filled voice.

The young man approaches Owen’s chair and, like a conjuror performing a card trick, produces a business card  with a flick of the wrist, ‘My card, sir.’

Owen reaches over the back of the armchair and takes it from him. ‘Sebastian Tantalus, unusual name but I’ve never heard of you. You sure you’ve got the right Leadbeater, only there are several in the book.’

‘Book?’

‘The phone book.’ There is no address or phone number on the front of the card; just Sebastian’s name and below it the words ‘Carpe Deum’ which Owen assumes must be the name of the company the man works for. He turns the card over and, finding the reverse is blank, turns it back again. ‘Your number in there is it, or are you ex-directory?’

Sebastian flashes a mouthful of white teeth as brilliant as diamonds. ‘Oh, I think you could say we’re strictly . . . ex-directory.’

‘So, how did I get your number?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I phoned you, you said. If you’re not in the book – how did I get your number?’

Another dazzling flash of those perfect teeth. ‘Ah, with you now, I didn’t say you phoned. I said you called.’

Owen is growing tired of this verbal ping-pong. He has a blinding head-ache and his blood sugar level is dangerously low. If he doesn’t get some caffeine and a couple of paracetamols inside him and soon, his head is going to explode ‘Called… phoned. What’s the bloody difference?’

His visitor by contrast remains maddeningly calm. ‘Cried out in your extremis? You know, appealed to a higher court?’

Owen steps out from behind the armchair and thrusts the card back into his visitor’s hand. ‘Look, I’m sorry; I’m having trouble following this. It’s probably the hangover or maybe I’m still asleep and this is some weird, alcohol induced dream, but just what the fuck are you on about?’

Sebastian places a slim hand on Owen’s shoulder. ‘I’ve come for your soul, old love.’

Owen’s jaw drops. ‘My soul . . . so, I was right, you are an Angel.’

‘It’s sweet of you to say so, but sadly no, I’m batting for the other team, as it were.’

‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ murmurs Owen under his breath.

Seemingly oblivious of this aside, Sebastian continues in a whisper, ‘you know… the fire and brimstone brigade. I’m what you might call a fallen angel.’

Suddenly Owen doesn’t feel too well; there’s a buzzing in his ears and he feels decidedly nauseous. When he wipes a hand across his forehead, the skin feels cold and clammy. He staggers and has to grip the back of the chair with both hands to prevent himself from falling. Taking hold of his arm in a surprisingly strong grip for such a slim man, Sebastian guides Owen around the chair and lowers him into it, where he sits slumped forward with his head cradled in his hands.

‘Oh God, the doctor warned me if I didn’t stop drinking something like this would happen; blackouts, memory lapses – hallucinations,’ he moans.

His visitor gives a theatrical cough. ‘Excuse me, but I am still here you know. I’m not a figment of your imagination. I am, therefore I exist, to quote one of our more eminent residents.’

Owen’s head jerks up. ‘Really, Neil Diamond is in hell?’

Sebastian arches an eyebrow ‘Neil who?’ he queries.

‘It’s OK, forget it. I’m talking rubbish. Neil’s not dead. And anyway he said, “I am, I said” not the other thing.’

Sebastian considers this for a moment. ‘I am, I said – what’s it supposed to mean?’

‘It sounds better when you sing it,’ Owen assures him.

Sebastian is about to launch into song but Owen forestalls him. ‘Please don’t. My head feels as though it’s about to explode, and I can’ believe I’m explaining Neil Diamond’s lyrics to one of Beelzebub’s little helpers.’ He collapses back into the chair.’ Oh God, what have I done?’

‘Cheer up. It’s not that bad. We won’t collect until you’re seventy-five, as long as you don’t breach your contract.’

Owen shoots back up again. ‘Contract . . . what contract?’

His visitor delves into his briefcase and with a flourish, produces a document. ‘Ta da! Here’s one I prepared earlier,’ he declares. ‘It’s all quite straightforward really. I’ll just whizz through the main points. I, Owen Leadbeater, that’s you of course, hereinafter known as the party of the first part, do hereby solemnly agree to surrender my immortal soul to His Satanic Majesty, hereinafter known as the party of the second part, on expiry of this contract, or before on demand, should I be in breach of any of the clauses set out in the attached schedules.’ Sebastian dismisses these with a wave of his hand. ‘There’s rather a lot of those so I think we’ll just cut to the chase, as they say. It’s a standard contract. No special clauses. In return, the party of the second part agrees to use his considerable powers to enable and assist the party of the first part to achieve all his earthly desires. Not bad, eh?’

Sebastian stands there beaming like the Cheshire cat, as though he has just performed an amazing conjuring trick, but there is no applause from his audience of one.

‘This is what you wanted?’ says Sebastian, his irritation at Owen’s lack of enthusiasm evident in the sharper tone in his voice.

‘Yes and no. I mean, it’s a big commitment. This isn’t some piddling life insurance policy you’re asking me to sign.’

‘But don’t you see, that’s exactly what this is.’ He flourishes the document, bringing it down with a smack on the palm of his free hand to emphasise each point. ‘A seventy-five year life span – smack – guaranteed. A successful, a spectacularly successful if you wish, career of your choice – smack – guaranteed. Whatever you want, whatever you need – smack – it’s guaranteed. G-U-A-R-A-N-T-E-E-D!’ Sebastian gives a contemptuous laugh, ‘And still he hesitates. Time you woke up and smelt the coffee, my friend.’

At the mention of coffee Owen’s eyes light up. ‘Coffee . . . now you’re talking. I would kill for a cup of coffee right now. My head’s hurting so much, I can’t think straight.’

‘Owen, when I said, wake up and smell the coffee, I was of course speaking metaphorically.’ Owen mimes lifting a cup to his lips. ‘You’re expecting me to make you a coffee?’ his visitor asks incredulously.

‘Yes. I wouldn’t have thought that would be too difficult a task for a man who’s offering to hand me the world on a plate.’

Sebastian’s eyes narrow and his eyebrows come together to form a dark ‘V’. The finely sculpted features take on an altogether uglier twist, and Owen fears he may have pushed this dark angel too far. Owen flinches as Sebastian tosses the contract into the air, and then brings his hands together with a sharp slap. When he opens them again, he holds the contract in one hand, and a Costa take-away carton of coffee in the other. With due ceremony, he hands the hot beverage to a visibly stunned Owen, then proceeds to give him a smart tap on the head with the rolled up contract.

‘A small demonstration of the powers at my disposal my friend, I assure you,’ he says with just a hint of venom in his tone.

Anxious to avoid making matters worse by saying the wrong thing, Owen elects to remain silent; concentrates instead on carefully removing the lid from his carton of coffee and, aware of the irony involved, breathes in the strong, dark aroma of arabica beans. The coffee, when he takes a tentative sip, is surprisingly hot and Owen wonders how Sebastian pulled off this seemingly impossible trick – if indeed it was one – without scalding himself in the process. His natural timidity, and a terror of the horrors his visitor could inflict upon him if he is what he claims to be, however, deters him from seeking an explanation.

As he quietly sips his coffee, Owen uses the time to study his charismatic visitor more closely. Sebastian’s good looks aren’t restricted to his finely chiselled face, he is also extremely well-dressed in an exquisitely cut charcoal grey suit that could only have been tailored in Savile Row. The pale pink shirt too looks bespoke, as do the black leather Oxford shoes. It is clear, even to an unsophisticated shopper like Owen, who buys most of his clothes from his local supermarket, that no expense has been spared in putting this impressive ensemble together. All six foot of him, from the top of his swept back, black hair down to the toes of his highly polished, black shoes, bears the stamp of quality and good taste. The shoes alone would have cost Owen the best part of a month’s wages in the days before he was made redundant 18 months ago. A bit of a dandy is our Mister Sebastian, Owen decides, but is still not sure if he is the fallen angel he claims to be, or just a clever conjuror. The pride the man takes in his appearance, his vanity seem all too human and yet there is something about him – Owen couldn’t yet say what – that points to the unearthly.

Owen drains the last of his coffee but playing for time, continues to take the occasional sip from the empty carton. Sebastian’s dark eyes narrow to slits and with a shudder, Owen realises that he has been rumbled. It’s uncanny, as though the man can read his mind, or has x-ray vision.

‘Now that you’ve had your caffeine fix perhaps we can get back to the business in hand,’ he says sharply. Producing a pen, seemingly from thin air, Sebastian hands it and the contract to Owen. ‘Just complete the declaration and sign here,’ he adds, pointing to the relevant section at the foot of the document.

‘A ball point?’ queries Owen, pen poised in his hand. ‘Shouldn’t it be in blood?

‘Much too melodramatic darling, plain old-fashioned ink is perfectly acceptable and just as legally binding, you’ll find.’

Just as well, thinks Owen, as he turns his attention to the list, he can’t stand the sight of blood.

I the undersigned do hereby swear that I have committed each of the following deadly sins. (Please tick appropriate box)

Lust

Gluttony

Greed

Sloth

Wrath

Envy

Pride

Chewing nervously on the end of the pen, he proceeds to re-read it several times more.

Sebastian, meanwhile, is displaying increasing signs of irritation; retrieving his briefcase, he paces the floor, dramatically shooting his cuff and consulting his watch at frequent intervals as though he has a train to catch. ‘Need some help with that?’ he snaps.

With a trembling hand, Owen quickly places a tick in two of the boxes, scribbles his signature on the dotted line below and thrusts the document at his impatient companion.

Sebastian scans the document with rapid, darting movements of his eyes which glitter despite their dark colouring. ‘Are you for real, Owen?’ he growls. ‘Or should that be Saint Owen? You’ve only ticked two of the boxes. Nobody’s that perfect.’

‘It says tick the appropriate boxes and I have – that’s all there is,’ says Owen defensively, and wonders why he is being so apologetic for having led a decent life; one untarnished by most of the sins that flesh is heir to.

‘Oh, I think there is. Aren’t you forgetting something?’

‘Am I, what’s that then?’

Sebastian grins wolfishly. ‘Don’t be coy, Owen. You know what I’m talking about.’

Owen stares blankly back at him. ‘Your sibling . . . your very successful sibling?’

‘My brother? What’s he got to do with this?’

‘Oh, I think you know where this is leading . . .’

‘And where’s that then?’

‘E-N-V-Y, my dear. They’ve got it. You want it. ENVY! Flaunt it, don’t they?’

‘Who does?’

‘Those that have it.’ Sebastian grins broadly. ‘That brother of yours and his wife for instance. You’ve had your nose pressed up against their window pane for years, haven’t you, Owen? All those shiny new things in that big, expensive house of theirs. You’d love some of that, wouldn’t you, eh?’

‘No, not really. I’ve never gone in for ostentatious consumerism myself,’ Owen, declares loftily.

Sebastian can see that he has touched on a raw nerve and presses home his advantage. ‘Ostentatious consumerism indeed. Just listen to yourself, Owen. You’re a man in denial. Come on, admit it, you sometimes long for the life they lead. And hey, why not? Why should he have so much, when you have so little?’ He takes in Owen’s shabby living room with a sweep of his hand.

Owen shifts uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Well, I suppose I do sometimes think it’s a bit unfair. I mean, I worked really hard at school. Stayed on for the sixth form. Got my A levels. I was the clever one. The grafter. Ashley was the dunce . . .’

‘Ash . . . ley, really?’ Sebastian rolls the name around his tongue as if savouring it.

‘Yeah, at least I got the better of him there.’

‘No, I think it’s a lovely name. Good for a boy or a girl.’

‘See what I mean.’

Sebastian places his briefcase on a pine coffee table and seats himself in the armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace to Owen, crosses one lanky leg over the other. ‘Go on. Tell me more about Ash . . . ley,’ he purrs.

Owen can’t help himself. Years of barely supressed sibling rivalry come bubbling to the surface and pour out of him like lava from an exploding volcano. ‘Well, he just bunked off lessons. Never did his homework. He was always getting the cane for some prank or other. Sent him to the head myself once, when I was a prefect. He got six of the best that time.’

‘You reported your own brother?’ says Sebastian gleefully.

‘Had to, he was late for school three days in a row,’ Owen declares righteously.

‘But still, your little brother . . .’

‘Yeah well, he was a pain in the arse. Mummy’s little favourite. If I had a pound for every time I had to give him one of my toys just to shut him up, I’d be a millionaire. “I want. I want,” that’s all you ever heard from our Ashley. Funny thing is, he never wanted to play with the damned thing until I picked it up.’

‘Oh Owen, so bitter and so twisted . . . I love it!’ Sebastian brings a hand down on his thigh with a resounding slap and chuckles throatily. ‘It’s still not bad enough though, I’m afraid. You have to have committed all seven to qualify for entry. It’s tedious I know, but the Boss made a deal with He who must not be mentioned and a deal’s a deal.’ He strokes his chin thoughtfully. ‘We’ve only got three so far. Oh dear, this is going to be more difficult than I thought. Perhaps you should consider the other place. With your record you should have no trouble getting in upstairs.’

‘I’ve already tried them. They didn’t want to know.’ Owen admits glumly.

Sebastian jumps to his feet and vigorously rubs his hands together. ‘Well then, we’re just going to have to put a few more stains on that unblemished character of yours. Oh, I can’t believe I’m saying this Owen, but you are one of the saddest cases I’ve had in the last three hundred years. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride – Uncle Sebbie is going to take you in hand!’

‘Oh no,’ whines Owen. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’

‘Trust me Owen, Sebbie knows best.’ Sebastian assures him.  ‘But before we go, a bite to eat, I think,’ he says and claps his hands.

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