Recently widowed Marcia has begun a fresh start with her seven-year old son. But their safe life is threatened by a new neighbour, Harrison, a frightening and aggressive man who does what he likes, as loudly as he likes, when he likes. With her physical and mental health deteriorating, Marcia receives some risky advice and decides to take it.
She paced around the lounge with the business card in one hand and the phone in the other. Full of anxiety and running on adrenaline Marcia was aware of how sick her body felt and she owed it to herself and David to make it better. She had nothing to lose. She dialled the number and waited.
“Hullo,” a curt voice answered.
“Er, hello is that John Smith?”
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Marcia, you dropped by the other day and advised me to get the tree at the front cut back.”
“Oh yes, yes. I remember,” he said more pleasantly. “You’re over in Vernon Close aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s right. Am I speaking to John?”
“Do you live on the travellers’ site on the way to the airport?”
“I don’t reveal my home address to customers. Why, what’s it to you?”
Marcia thought his reaction was defensive and guessed she was right. “Actually, there was another job I had in mind.”
“What kind a job?”
“I hope you don’t mind me asking but I’m having a bit of trouble with someone. I need them to have a bit of a scare. I was wondering if you knew anyone that could do that sort of thing? I’m happy to pay them and you for your trouble.”
“Now look, lady, I’m a tree surgeon. I don’t know what else it is you think I do but that’s all I do, understand? He was annoyed.
Disappointed and defeated Marcia gave up. “Yes, of course. I understand, I’m sorry if I offended you.”
But John was a businessman. “If you still want your tree done I can be round tomorrow at 3pm.”
Marcia thought having the tree done was the least she could do for having insulted him with her stereotype assumptions about the travelling community. “Sure, of course that would be great,” she smiled into the phone.
John Smith hung up.
The next day was Monday and that meant a fairly good chance of two days without much noise from next door and so Marcia was able to relax a bit. She joked with David on the way to school and managed to get some work done. The weather was hot and, although she didn’t venture out into their back garden anymore, she was able to sit in the kitchen with the doors open. She almost forgot about John Smith coming to cut the tree when he knocked at the door. Marcia was ready to apologise and pay through the nose to make amends for having offended him.
John stood in the porch with another man. He looked like he’d been to prison. He was tall and heavy set with greenish, offensive tattoos that covered 95% of his body. His scarred face and hands had seen fighting action and Marcia felt completely at his mercy.
“This is Shadow. He’s going to talk to you while I look at yer tree.” And with that John walked around the front of the house and left Shadow standing in the doorway with Marcia.
“Would you like to come in, Mr Shadow?” Marcia asked with her trembling palm pointing to the lounge.
Shadow walked over to the sofa and sank into the upholstery. “So, John says you need me to pay a visit to someone?” His accent was as strong as John’s and he spoke so fast there was a delay while Marcia deciphered what she thought he’d said.
“Is that what you do?”
“I’ll do whatever you want for the right price. Who’ve you got in mind?”
This was real. What was happening right now in Marcia’s lounge was real. She needed to think.
Shadow lifted himself up to leave. “I don’t have all day, Mrs. If you want my help you need to tell me now. No messin’ about.”
“Ok, ok.” Marcia took a deep breath. I have a problem with a neighbour that’s moved in. He’s loud and selfish but also aggressive and unapproachable. I just want to scare him enough to make the noise stop. To make him want to leave and not come back, ever.”
“Ok,” Shadow said satisfied the deal was done. “It’ll cost five hundred now and the other five hundred when the job’s done. I just need to know who he is and where he is.”
“What? A thousand pounds?” Marcia whined.
“That’s my price. Take it or leave it.” Shadow shifted his feet impatiently.
“For a black eye and a few threatening words?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“What would you do to him? I can’t risk there being any trail leading back to me. You have to ensure that I’ll have no connection to this whatsoever.”
“That’s what you pay me for. I can rough him up a bit, give him a scare. Tell him to piss off if he knows what’s best for him. They’ll be no trail back to you, I know how to keep under the radar. I do the job and disappear. Why do you think they call me Shadow?”
“Ok, that sounds ok. A thousand pounds. Cash? Of course. I’m afraid I don’t have a thousand pounds on me, Mr Shadow.”
“Can you get to the bank now? We’ll wait here. You pay me five hundred now and then you’ll get instructions for when the job’s done.”
Marcia thought about this. Would she have to leave Shadow in her house while she drove to the bank? She looked at him and said, “You’ll wait here?”
“Yep. Don’t worry, I’ve got a better television at home.”
Marcia cringed inwardly, knowing that he knew she suspected this was all a con. She was going to have to risk it and be quick.
“Help yourself to tea and coffee,” she said sounding almost hysterical as she picked up her bag, keys and dashed to the car. She could do it in fifteen minutes at this time of day if luck was on her side. She pulled out of the street and prayed her jewellery would still be there when she got back. At the cash-point she was aware of the hidden cameras and tried to relax her facial muscles into looking normal and not harassed.
She was home in just under fifteen minutes. John was sitting in the truck outside and Shadow was still standing in the lounge. She handed him the cash. He counted it quickly and stuffed the wad of notes in the wide back pocket of his jeans.
“On Friday, you’ll find John in The Woolpack pub on Maulden Road, between six and eight. Do you know it?”
“I know of it.”
“Good. You meet him and he’ll take the money. Don’t be late.” He held out his hand and Marcia took it. They shook and Shadow opened the front door and turned around. “Don’t worry. Soon your troubles will be over.”
“Thank you,” Marcia said and waved at the truck.
Walking back into the lounge she faced the wall and with a surge of courage she said, “OK Harrison. Let’s see how long you laugh for now.”
The mood in their home lightened over the next couple of days. Marcia no longer feared the noise now that she knew the end was near. She was still sensitive to sounds and tracked Harrison’s movements around his house and watched his car, so she knew when he had left. She felt a small pang of guilt for Sally but she would most certainly be better off without him.
Finally, for the first time in months, that Thursday evening was quiet. Apart from usual neighbourly sounds of Sally’s front door shutting and water running, there was no loud music, banging or slamming coming from the house or garden and more importantly no laughing or shouting. All Marcia had to do now was to pay John and her nightmare would finally be over. They would go out for dinner and finally celebrate the return of her appetite this weekend. But first, there was the issue of meeting John. She searched up The Woolpack pub and found quite a few reviews warning against entering there, unless you were a criminal or a junkie. One review rather unkindly suggested that drinking there put you at risk from contracting Herpes or Hepatitis. Marcia reassured herself with the knowledge that she wasn’t stopping for a drink and as she had a pretty influential person to meet, she would be ok.
On Friday, she left David with Shirley for an hour and with an envelope stuffed with twenty pound notes in her handbag she drove to meet John. On arrival in the pub carpark it didn’t look too rough but, as soon as she stepped inside, the heat and smell of marijuana hit her open nostrils. She looked around for John but the place was so dimly lit it took a while for her eyes to adjust. She made her way to a clearing at the bar and waited. The bar was sticky and wet and two men beside her watched and sniggered as she groaned and wiped her hand down the leg of her jeans. She turned and pretended to read the spirit labels of the bottles lined up on the countertop. A young, friendly man appeared and tried to compete with the chatter and music.
“What’s your poison?”
“Oh, no poison thanks,” Marcia shouted back. “Actually, I’m here to see someone. John Smith, do you know where I can find him?”
“We’ve got a few of those in here. What’s he look like?”
“He’s got dark hair, a tan and a beard.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Go over to the table in the corner.”
Marcia thanked him as he hopped over to the next customer.
As she walked across the room she felt people watching while they spoke behind their hands. She was relieved to see John wave her over. He was sitting around a crowded table and excused himself as he turned his back on his friends. He patted the bench seat for Marcia to sit down.
“Hi,” she said.
John leaned into her ear and said, “it’s all done. You won’t be getting no more trouble from yer neighbour. You got the money?”
“Yes, it's here in my bag.”
“Ok, just pass it under the table.”
Marcia reached into her bag and keeping her hand low, held out the envelope. John looked as if he was adjusting his belt and the money was gone.
“I’ll check it later. Better all be there. I know where you live remember.”
“Oh gosh yes, it’s all there, honestly!” Marcia claimed.
“I’m only joking. Now off you go. Good doing business with you.”
Marcia had more questions, but John had turned back to his conversation and she knew that that was the end of it.
Turning into her street Marcia felt relieved to be home for the first time in months. But relief turned to alarm as a new white car was parked outside of her house. She knew the bright yellow, orange and blue colours could only belong to the police. She hurried up to Shirley’s door and knocked. Shirley shuffled around before taking off the chain and opening the door.
“Mummy!” shouted David and ran up to hug her around the waist.
“Hi, darling. Hello, Shirley. Thank you so much for having him.”
“He’s been no trouble at all, dear. Although the police came around while you were out. I told them I was looking after David for you. I think they want to talk to you.”
“Oh?” Marcia stared at Shirley. “What do they want to talk to me for?”
Shirley leaned closer to whisper, so David couldn’t hear her. “They want to talk to everyone about the terrible news. Poor Harrison has been seriously hurt, beaten up to within an inch of his life they said.”
Marcia felt her face paling. What had Shadow done? They had an agreement. He was only supposed to punch him on the nose and scare him a bit. She needed to leave.
Shirley’s slippers slowly brushed across the carpet. “Cup of tea, dear?”
“Oh, no thank you, Shirley. I’m sorry to rush off, but David needs to have a bath before bedtime. Is another time OK?”
She turned and smiled. “Of course, dear. Well, anytime you need me you just ask.”
“Thank you. Say thank you, David.”
“Thank you David!” he laughed.
At home, Marcia got David into the bath and ran downstairs to find John’s business card. She probably shouldn’t call again but she needed to know what had happened. Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. The evening was still light and Marcia could make out a high visibility vest through the glass door panel. She groaned inwardly and readied herself. After taking a few quick deep breaths to calm her pulse she opened the door to two police officers, male and female who introduced themselves as police officer Jenny Barnes and detective Richard Quinn.
“Good evening. We’re investigating a recent attack on one of your neighbours, a Mr Harrison Walsh, and are asking people in the area if they have any information that could help with our enquiries. May we come in?”
Marcia smiled obligingly and invited them to sit in the lounge. She told them that her son was in the bath, giving her a reason to kick them out at a moment’s notice if she needed to.
Detective Quinn switched on some type of recording device and officer Barnes took out a notepad and pen. “Can you give us your full name please?” asked detective Quinn in a gentle, professional tone.
“And how long have you lived here, Mrs Clarke?”
"Since February this year. We moved here after my husband died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Pause. “How well did you know Mr Walsh?”
It struck her as strange that she had never known Harrison’s surname, making her realise how little she really knew about him. “Not very well.” She hesitated. “He moved in with my neighbour Sally not very long ago.” Officer Barnes was staring at her intently and Marcia’s heartbeat quickened. She hoped it didn’t show through her skin. She had watched enough crime programs to know that police psychologists knew that you were lying if you didn’t look someone in the eye when answering a question, but they also knew you were lying if your pupils dilated, so she was screwed either way.
“Your other neighbour, Shirley Baynham, told us that you were having trouble with noise from Mr Walsh? Is that right?”
Marcia’s heart was pounding now and she massaged her sweaty hands. What had she said that for?
“Oh, they had a party once that went on a bit late and I had to ask them to turn the music down. Which they did.”
More note taking.
“Was there any other trouble?”
“Have you noticed anything strange or different recently in the local area? For instance, have you seen anyone hanging around or have you received any cold callers?”
Marcia thought of John and tried to look thoughtful while hoping her trembling body didn’t betray her. “No, not that I can think of.” Thankfully, David called her from upstairs and that was Marcia’s chance to get rid of them.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve got to see to my son and I’d rather he didn’t know about any of this. I don’t want him to have nightmares.”
“Of course, that’s fine. We’ve asked all we need to for now.”
They got up to go. “If you do remember anything that you think might help us with our enquiries, please give us a ring on this number.” They handed a card to Marcia which she pretended to read and said that she would. Closing the door she went upstairs to see to David.
The attack on Harrison made front page news in the local newspaper. Reading at her kitchen table, Marcia discovered that Harrison had been attacked on the way home from a local pub one evening and was beaten so badly he had to be rushed to the intensive care unit. Medical professionals were unsure if he would make a full recovery and the police were asking for witnesses for what had become a case of attempted murder. Marcia stared at the paper and had to restrain herself. Attempted murder! How could this have happened? She had instigated the near death of a neighbour and was guilty of attempted murder. For the first time she hoped to see Harrison walking into his home fit and well so the murder charge could be dropped. Perhaps she should leave the country and take David to somewhere clean, like Canada. Health advisers were needed all over the world so getting a visa shouldn’t be a problem. But wouldn’t applying for a visa now look suspicious? Marcia streamed thought after thought until she decided her only realistic option was to stay cool and calm and if she could pull that off, hopefully she would be eliminated from police enquiries.
A couple of weeks later the police returned with some good news. Harrison was out of danger and had been able to talk a little bit to Sally and the police. He had described the men who had attacked him and was able to remember what they said.
“I’ll spare you the details,” officer Barnes said standing between the kitchen and the lounge. They had opted to stand this time, which Marcia thought was odd and put it down to police tactics. She focused on her calm breathing. “Mr Walsh described one of his attackers as a heavily tattooed man who spoke with a London Irish accent. Do you remember seeing anyone of that description?”
Marcia’s legs nearly gave way but she had no option other than to lie. “No, I think I would remember someone like that.”
Detective Quinn spoke. Marcia noticed officer Barnes walk over to the fridge and remembered John Smith’s business card was pinned behind a wine bottle fridge magnet right next to the detective’s.
She was fighting to physically keep control of her mind and body.
“One thing that did seem a bit strange to Mr Walsh was that the attacker told him to get out of town and called him a noisy .… I won’t say the profanity. Would that mean anything to you?”
“Of course it bloody does!” she screeched in her head. But she managed to purse her lips together and shake her head slowly as if completely baffled.
“Well please try not to worry, Mrs Clarke. We’re pretty sure this was a premeditated attack and we have one or two leads.”
Marcia wondered what their one or two leads were and if either of them led to her.
“Well that’s reassuring. Thank you for letting me know.”
The police said goodnight and left.
Marcia sat down and went over the conversation a few times. Everything seemed to go well, although she’d have to take that business card off the fridge. She dropped it into the knife drawer and shut it firmly. The last remaining piece of evidence that connected her to Mr Smith.
Even with the investigation continuing into Harrison’s attack, life was less stressful just knowing he was miles away on life-support. Marcia and David were able to enjoy the back garden in summer bloom once more and lived in a more carefree way now that sleep was guaranteed at any time they chose. Work was thriving. Marcia had managed to secure two more clients which was great for her newly growing business.
The police returned a couple of weeks later to let the neighbours know that while Harrison’s recovery was making good progress (no murder charge eminent) it was unclear whether or not he would be returning to his current address due to the circumstances of the attack.
Marcia could feel all the remaining tension drain from her body. Perhaps Shadow had known exactly what he was doing after all. On hearing the good news, Marcia felt a lot more hospitable the next time the officers turned up the house and she offered them a cup of coffee.
Chatting between sips, detective Quinn put down his cup to end the pleasantries and got back to business. “There is something we have come to speak to you about, Mrs Clarke.”
“You see we’ve been investigating a criminal who is well known to us and the travelling community, monitoring his movements and that of his family. His name is Mr Davey Lee and we have reason to believe he is connected to the attack on Mr Walsh. Have you heard this name mentioned to you at all?”
Marcia’s back was rigid, unsure of where the conversation was leading. “No, I haven’t.”
“How about a Mr John Smith?”
Marcia tried to remain expressionless as she quickly thought about her reply. If she lied and they proved she did know John Smith then she would become their main suspect. But if she said yes and they linked her to him then they could link her to Shadow. She just couldn’t take that risk. Marcia decided to keep it vague so that if she did give the wrong answer, she could always blame her poor memory. A criminal psychologist would probably say she had paused too long already.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“OK. Have you ever heard of a pub called the Woolpack?”
Heat prickled Marcia’s skin and her face felt hot. They were onto her now, somehow. She fought off the desire to squirm in her chair and decided to play along with this game of truth roulette. “Yes I have. You pass it on the way towards the airport.”
“The Woolpack is often frequented by Mr Lee and Mr Smith. We have had police surveillance monitoring the pub for a while and when we looked through the most recent CCTV footage of the pub carpark, we were surprised to see your car registration appear. Can you explain why your car was seen parking in the Woolpack patron’s carpark at six-thirty pm on Friday the eighteenth of June?”
Marcia frantically thought of reasons why she would have been at that pub other than to partake in criminality. It certainly wasn’t somewhere she would choose to relax with a friend and a glass of wine at the end of the week. But there was a way to still proclaim her innocence in all this.
“I had to see a man about a tree. He was in the area recently and pointed out that my tree needed cutting back a bit. I told him I didn’t have any cash at the time and so he said that was ok, when he was done I could drop the money off at the pub.”
“That must have been a bit scary for you walking in there on your own,” good cop Barnes chirped in.
“I didn’t realise how rough it was but when I arrived John was there and so I didn’t have to hang about.” Marcia was getting more animated, playing the role of a naïve middle-class single mother.
Detective Quinn seized on the name John.
“Was that the name of the tree surgeon? John? Can you remember his surname?”
Marcia inwardly berated herself. “Umm, no, I can’t.”
“Was it John Smith perhaps?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Have you got a receipt or anything with his contact details on it?”
Marcia was struggling to keep her wits about her. She felt like a worm under their microscope. But as she had shoved the business card in the drawer, she could deny ever having it.
“I think I threw it out.”
“How much did you pay him for cutting the tree?”
Marcia knew five hundred pounds was too much money for the job and so she shrugged and said, “A couple of hundred pounds. I don’t really know what the going rate is.”
“OK,” said detective Quinn standing up. “Well you’ve been very helpful, Mrs Clarke. I think that’s all for now.”
“Sometimes we need to ask people connected to an investigation for documents such as phone records and bank statements. We’ll be in touch if we need any of those.” They were putting the pressure on now. “Also, we may need to speak to close family friends and relatives to take statements to help us build up a picture of events.”
“What?” Marcia checked she had understood them. “Even David?”
“If need be.”
“But he’s only seven years old.” She stopped before officer Barnes could cry “Sir, she doth protest too much!”
“You would be present of course and we would only speak to him if absolutely necessary.”
They thanked her for coffee and Marcia stood in the doorway watching them walk down the pathway.
Detective Quinn stopped and looked back at the house. “You know, you want to be careful trusting some of these cold callers. I can’t see that John has made a single cut anywhere on this tree. It looks like you paid him for nothing.”
He looked at Marcia, smiled and walked away like Lieutenant Columbo, come back to haunt her.
The metallic body of the V8 supercharged SUV glistened on the hot asphalt, but the radiated heat of the sun could not penetrate the executive comfort of the refined, luxurious interior. Elliot rolled up the sleeve of his designer shirt resting his elbow against the glass and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Mia leant forward in her cooled seat to check the touchscreen again. Even in the ionised air there was a sheen of perspiration on their skin. Parked up in a side street they sat waiting while the faint hum of the air con compressor purred under the hood. Chewing a fingernail, she considered how much they had risked to get to this moment; money, time, their security and then quickly swallowed down the burning sensation that began to rise in her throat. If they didn’t get this contract they would still be ok, just. Elliot would carry on pricing up regular building jobs and Mia would have to design a lot of kitchens and bathrooms to keep up with repayments. But if they were very careful, they might just be able to keep the house. The car would have to be returned of course for something a lot smaller, like a Citroen.
Her worries were interrupted by the shrill tones of a smartphone. The dashboard lit up. Their eyes met in agreement and she pressed the accept button. This was it. Elliot crossed his fingers.
‘Hello, Elliot and Mia, this is Haruki speaking.’ He knew they would be waiting for his call.
‘We have discussed your credentials at length and, on the whole, are happy.’
Mia’s brow strained with concern and she mouthed silently at Elliot, “on-the-whole”?
Shrugging and grinning, Elliot mouthed back, “happy”! Ever the optimist.
Haruki spoke with a smooth, deep voice which was both unanimated and unemotional. ‘We have performed the necessary due diligence checks, company history and so forth. As you know it is of paramount importance that the excellent perception of our company image and reputation is always maintained.’ Mia pictured Haruki hunched over his laptop in a hotel lounge, uniform bespoke suit, shiny dress shoes and a bottle of San Pellegrino water. She was burning calories in anticipation. ‘We are satisfied you can maintain our image.’
Too right, Mia thought. She was a master of deception and perception. She had learnt the tools of that trade as the poor kid in private school thanks to a wealthy granddad, an absent father and a determined mother. Her father, Barnaby had worked for her grandfather who owned a bank in the city until their relationship deteriorated so much that one day Granddad asked to see Jennifer, Mia’s mother. He told her that Barnaby was so rude and disrespectful towards him that he was leaving him out of his will, but he wanted her to know that Mia’s education would be provided for. Soon after her grandfather’s death, Barnaby left them both with nothing but the trust fund he couldn’t touch and Mia ended up being privately educated, while her mother took on cleaning jobs. They moved into a flat above a pet shop and that is where Mia had to get clever with the type of information she shared with her privileged school friends. On passing their driving tests, Mia’s friends began to drive new cars with huge price tags and insurance premiums to match, which Mia’s mother couldn’t afford. So, she saved up and bought an old VW Beetle which her friends thought was hilariously cool. Now, as an adult she knew how to be accepted into exclusive, high-end establishments not intended for the general public. It was all in the little details, things like a real gold key chain hanging from an off-the-peg pocket or a high- end designer purse in a low-end leather bag. Made to measure clothes with a designer belt or shoes, enough to look classically chic and hard to price.
And here she was sitting in a rented top of the range car, still pretending to be living a life she couldn’t actually afford. Haruki continued. ‘You are our preferred design and refurbishment contractor for our most valued clients and we are awarding you a 10 year contract agreement initially, subject to standard probation and termination clauses.’
Their words jostled for position, ‘Great, that’s great, Haruki. Thanks, that’s good news.’
Haruki closed the meeting and hung up. The car exploded into laughter and screams. Then Mia put her arms around Elliot and held onto him as if he’d just stopped her from falling off a cliff edge.
The next day was back to work with a hangover. Their first project was to fit out an ageing apartment in a sought-after postcode for an important client to use as a base whenever he was in the city. They had just four weeks to complete and Elliot began putting his work team together while Mia prepared for the meet and greet, with planning and design options.
She dressed carefully for their first meeting in a black Chanel dress and formal shoes with a loosely flattering hair knot. It drove Elliot crazy watching her get dressed up, knowing she would be spending hours working alone with a male client they knew little about. He told her to remember her phone in case she needed rescuing. She reassured him with a smile and a kiss before heading out.
Mia had agreed to meet Mr Bolton at his hotel before driving him to view the apartment. Her shoes clicked across the marble floor to the concierge desk and her stride slowed in time to the classical music being played. It was busy, with guests lounging in soft leather seats in various corners of the space, privacy maintained by large exotic plants and trees potted around. She was directed to a blond-haired man sitting in the centre of the room with his back to her, engrossed in a screen. Walking closer she could see the ankle of his leather shoe resting on his knee. Probably an old cigar smoking tycoon, with little interest in what his crash pad was going to look like. She smiled and stepped around the plant to face him.
‘Mr Bolton? Mia Porter from Porter and Gable.’
‘Ms Porter. It’s great to meet you.’ He smiled, showing a row of perfectly straight, unstained white teeth in a face that she found rather attractive. Mia guessed he was from a southern state of America, but his accent was subtle. ‘Please call me Jake.’ The American stood and held out his hand. His handshake was surprisingly limp for such a muscular man. He massaged his whiskered jaw as a loose strand of blond hair dropped across his eyes. He swiped it back while his other hand held on to hers for just a heart-beat too long before letting go. Jake tucked his device into a large tanned leather satchel and lifted it onto his shoulder. ‘Well, Ms Porter. Shall we go and see this place you’re gonna transform for me?’
‘Please, call me Mia. The car is just outside.’
‘After you.’ Mia was conscious that his eyes might be on her back so she took extra care to perfect each stride as they made their way across the polished lobby.
On the way to the apartment Jake made easy conversation, as if they were old friends. They laughed about accents and country music and when Mia found a station playing metal he smiled and said, ‘Now I feel like I’m home.’
The apartment was in a stunning street with beautiful buildings, huge trees and street lamps from a world gone by. The wide roads gave a sense of space. Leading the way inside Mia felt around for the apartment keys in her uncluttered bag.
‘OK. Well as you can see we’re in a great location, not too noisy for a city street but we can look at sound-proofing options. Remember we can create the right configuration to suit your style.’ She really needed him to like the place. Opening the door Mia stood aside and waited in the hallway for Jake’s reaction. She had left a few items in the rooms as starting points to gauge what Jake liked in terms of old verses new, colour schemes and textures. She watched him walk around the low coffee table and a couple of chairs, one modern and one aged leather. He stopped between the floor to ceiling curtains and looked out at the view for a minute, deep in thought.
‘Big windows,’ he said, finally. ‘There are some lovely features, but some updating is needed.’ He continued to walk through into the next room. ‘Nice sized bathroom, but I’m never gonna fit in that bath!’
‘We can change that,’ Mia called back.
‘I’m getting used to the hotel spa. Maybe a walk-in shower would be best. I like to work out so I shower a lot.’
Mia’s voice squeaked up an octave at the thought and she coughed. ‘Sure, that’ll be no problem.’ Jake leaned around the door frame, probably to check she hadn’t turned into Minnie Mouse. He took a while longer to walk around the rest of the apartment, fiddling with the taps and kitchen blinds before finally walked back into the lounge.
‘You know, I think it’s gonna be just fine. The kitchen area needs to be more practical though. I like to cook. Gotta have my tacos and chimichangas.’ He smiled that smile again. ‘And I want the lounge floor to be smooth, like I could push back the furniture and dance on it.’ Mia couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
‘Then you and I had better get our heads together and start discussing some of these ideas of yours.’
‘Well, now’s as good a time as any.’
Relieved to be getting started on their tight schedule so promptly, Mia fetched her laptop from the car and set it up on the coffee table. As they planned together she learnt that he liked his home to feel modern and decluttered with natural wood and warm colours. Jake told her that he was the son of a very successful Arizonan motor industry dealer, but he gave very little away about his business dealings other than that he was an exporter. She couldn’t help notice that he wore a silicone prosthetic thumb on his right hand. Jake saw her looking at it.
‘Were you wondering about this?’ he said holding up his hand.
‘I did notice, but really it’s none of my business.’
‘That’s ok, I lost a thumb in an accident as a kid. Sometimes I wear a splint. Can’t tell you how hard it is to chop vegetables or button up my shirts without one.’
‘We can consider that when we choose fixtures and fittings if you’d like us to?’
‘No need. I can manage alright.’
‘Right then, the preliminary plans are done. All I need to do now is call my partner, Elliot and ask him to join us to discuss the practicalities of making the dream come true.’
Jake leaned back in his chair and slapped his hands on his thighs.
‘Are you hungry?’ At this stage of their working relationship, if he was then she was. ‘I’m getting kinda hungry. You got any good take-outs near here?’
‘Sure. There’s a nearby restaurant owned by a famous TV chef who apparently do the best Chimichangas in town.’
‘I believe I’d like to try that!’
Mia stepped outside to call the restaurant and Elliot to update him on their progress. She lowered her voice. ‘I’ve just ordered food. Jake’s been very polite and easy to work with.’
He seemed relieved.
‘I can be with you within the hour. Are you ok?’
‘Yes. How about you, have you got who we need? Do you think we can turn this around in four weeks?’
‘We have to. See you soon and call me if you need to.’
‘Will do, bye.’
Back in the apartment Mia sat opposite Jake, the small table between them covered in takeout wrappers and boxes.
‘You’ve got something on your mouth there.’ Jake acted as a mirror with his finger pointing to his mouth.
‘Oh, thanks.’ Mia quickly wiped both sides of her mouth for mayonnaise with a serviette. ‘Is that better?’
‘Nope, it’s just…’ He reached over and gently stroked the side of her lip. It was unexpectedly intimate. There was a knock and Mia spun around to see Elliot standing in the doorway, spare keys hanging from his hand.
‘Hey Clark!’ She tried not to sound too relieved to see him - or flustered or whatever it was she was feeling. She stood up and introduced their client. Elliot walked over and held out his hand to Jake, who looked confused.
‘Sorry, but I thought your name was Elliot?’
‘Oh, it is.’ Elliot shrugged. ‘Clark is just a nick-name I picked up when I was younger.’
‘Right, right. As in Clark Gable? Like your business name Porter and Gable?’ Jake guessed.
Mia rested her hand on Elliot’s shoulder. ‘No, because he looks like Clark Kent!’
They talked through the plans and Mia picked up the take-out rubbish while Elliot walked around measuring up and examining walls.
‘Well,’ Jake stood up and stretched. ‘I’d better be getting back to the hotel. I’ve got some calls to make.’
‘I can take you back now,’ Mia said cheerfully. She looked at Elliot. ‘Do you want me to come back for you?’
Elliot looked up from under a kitchen unit.
‘No, I’m going to be here for a while. I’ll see you back at home.’
Mia parked on the street outside the hotel. As Jake got out he bent down and looked back into the car. ‘You know, I’m gonna be done with my calls in half an hour or so. Would you like to come in as my guest and join me for a drink and then maybe escort me to a bar somewhere later? It’ll be good to have your company.’
Mia wanted everything to go smoothly. She needed Jake to have a positive experience to report back to Haruki, but she couldn’t escort him to a bar. Escorting was not part of the deal. ‘Hey, thanks but I’m sorry, Jake, as good as that sounds I can’t. I have too much work to do this evening. Another time?’ she lied.
‘Hey, if it’s my place you’re working on then you can take the night off! I don’t mind if the apartment is a few days late getting finished.’
‘Umm. Unfortunately, Haruki will.’
‘Haruki? Hell, that man is all work and no play ain’t he?’ Jake’s laugh was reassuring. ‘Well, if you change your mind, you know where I am. Give me a call.’
Mia smiled through the open window. ‘Thanks and have a good night.’ She watched him disappear inside and hoped she’d done the right thing.
The building and decorating gangs were in an out over the next month and the deadline to meet Haruki was getting nearer. Jake had returned to the US for a couple of weeks while Elliot was ripping out units and rebuilding a wall, but with the usual sourcing and delivery challenges it was taking longer than hoped. Elliot had to leave his carpenter to get on with the refits while he got on with fixing up the rest of the apartment so that Mia and the decorators could carry on working around him. They worked later and later into each night right up to the day before the completion date.
In the morning of their planned meeting with Haruki, the painters were still finishing up and Mia was worried they wouldn’t be out before Jake arrived or that they might get wet paint on some of the bespoke furniture. None of their options looked as if they were both going to be able to arrive at Haruki’s meeting together, which was not going to look good.
Elliot came up with a plan. In the morning he would stay until the painters were finished and get them out of the apartment while Mia was on her way to collect Jake Bolton from his hotel. Then while Jake was hopefully giving his approval of the end product, Elliot would head to the restaurant to meet Haruki for their business lunch and explain that Mia was spending some last-minute customer care time with their client. Then, Mia should be able to leave Jake to join them still in time for lunch. It was going to be close.
The time came for Mia to collect Jake. She left Elliot and the team collapsing step ladders and rolling up dust sheets and hoped they would leave it immaculate for when they returned. She arrived at the hotel feeling nervous but Jake was already walking across the lobby towards her and his smile instantly put her at ease. He embraced her like an old friend and said, ‘It’s good to see you, Mia.’ They walked out to the car and Jake walked around to the passenger side. ‘So, you’ve finished the place. How’d it go?’
‘Like a dream!’ Mia smiled as if she was remembering good times. ‘It looks amazing, I just hope you like it.’ As they neared the apartment Mia began to wonder where Elliot was. She hoped he was on his way to meet Haruki and they weren’t about to pass him on his way out. She took her time parking.
‘You’re quiet.’ Jake said gently.
‘I really want you to be happy.’
‘Don’t worry, I have complete faith in you, Mia.’
As she stepped inside, Mia had the chance to see the apartment complete for the first time, without tools and equipment scattered around the place. It was so beautiful. She became aware of how tired she felt and could have cried at that moment.
‘Wow!’ Jake walked around looking at everything and standing with his arms out wide he said, ‘Four weeks? You did this in four weeks?’ He walked through to the kitchen and bedrooms seemingly impressed with everything he saw. ‘This is gonna be a great place to stay. Heck, I’m not gonna wanna leave! Wait. Is that my sound system?’
‘Yes,’ Mia laughed a genuine, health-restoring laugh. Her first in weeks. Jake hurried over like a boy on Christmas morning and touched the controls. ‘We’ve used noise reducing materials in here, so you can turn it up a bit.’ Jake selected DAB and selected a station. The music was Spanish American, the kind that sways to a rhythm. He turned to Mia.
‘Fancy a dance?’ He held out his hand and looked at her as if to say ‘Come on, don’t leave me hanging here.’ She really didn’t have time for this, she needed to get to Elliot and Haruki. But she also needed to get to Haruki with a happy client and it would be just a quick dance in the middle of the day. Mia decided she would leave on a high and smiled as she walked over and held his hand. He looked at his thumb and said, ‘Hold on a minute, let me take this off. It doesn’t feel right.’ Jake removed his splint and put his hand in hers. The skin around the stump was smooth and she had to wrap her hand around his fingers. She hoped she wasn’t holding on too tight. Jake was a confident dancer. He tried to swing her to his side but tripped over the fire surround. Mia felt herself fall but Jake put his hand out to stop them both and she fell back onto his other arm. His hair had fallen into his eyes. ‘You ok?’ He smiled knowing that she was and pulled her back up onto her feet. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not usually such a clutz.’ He held her closer this time and Mia wasn’t sure how to break the moment without ruining it.
A phone tone stopped the rhythm and she took a small step back away from Jake.
‘I have to get this,’ she said walking towards her bag. It was probably Elliot wondering where the hell she was.
‘Wait,’ Jake said. ‘It’s mine.’ He reached into his jacket and looked at the caller ID. ‘It’s the fun guy himself, Haruki.’
‘Oh no!’ Mia cried. ‘I’m supposed to be at a meeting with him. I must be really late.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll tell him you’ve left already and stall the bore as much as I can.’ He chuckled as she headed for the door. ‘Come back and dance with me sometime, won’t you?’
Mia paused in the doorway. ‘I hope you’re very happy here, Jake,’ and as soon as the door closed behind her, she ran to call the lift.
Outside the restaurant Mia fixed her hair while she worked on steadying her breathing. She smoothed her dress and stepped into a cool place of tranquillity. Light music, the delicate clink of glasses and cutlery over murmured conversations, reached her ears as she searched the room for Elliot. A host came over to take her name and showed Mia to their table.
‘Ah, here she is. I’m glad you could make it.’ Haruki sounded almost jovial and stood politely as Mia sat down. Elliot looked at her, wide eyed with relief.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ she began. Haruki interrupted her.
‘There’s no need for more explanations, Mia. Elliot has told me that you are a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to customer care and satisfaction. It seems your methods are effective. I just spoke to Mr Bolton who is delighted with your work. It would appear that you have both represented my company very well indeed. Would you like to order now? We also need to toast our success.’
Mia ordered and excused herself for a moment to visit the bathroom. As she crossed the restaurant, she caught a glimpse of Elliot and Haruki reflected in the huge Georgian style mirror that hung impressively on the far wall. They were staring at her in what looked like alarm and she quickened her pace to the ladies.
Mia checked herself out in the mirrors and as she turned around saw to her complete and utter horror, a four fingered handprint in nutmeg white printed across her backside.
‘Now that,’ Haruki whispered, ‘takes customer care to a whole new level.'
Elliot sat with an icy glare as he watched Haruki smile for the first time.