The pace of the auction is fast and furious, as I surreptitiously check out my main competition. The bids start to slow, but we remain engaged in a battle of wills; this is a fight I cannot afford to lose. Charles Ridings made it abundantly clear that my job was on the line if I did not deliver.
I have no idea why this particular 12th-Century manuscript is so important to him, but this is the first time since I started working for Charles twelve months ago that money has been no object. When I first applied for the position, the job description was particularly vague, and the only thing that stood out was the need for a background in rare books. Well, that fits me to a tee. I had just spent the last ten years working as a curator of rare books at the London Museum and, well, circumstances meant that I needed the money this new role was offering. It broke my heart to think about leaving my little cubicle and all the colleagues I had made over the last decade, but the opportunity was too important to pass up.
When I was interviewed for the role, which was never given a formal title, I discovered that it was a rather obscure one. The Ridings, it turned out, were an old family dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and, in the ensuing centuries, had accumulated an enormous amount of wealth and status. But it would seem that, in the last hundred years, luck was not on their side, and much of their wealth dwindled as a result of bad investments and sheer stupidity, as Charles told me in a long-winded monologue about his family’s less than illustrious past. To maintain their livelihood and to remain in their family ancestral pile, Charles’ ancestors began selling off the contents of the family’s library. And essentially that is now my role: to track down and buy back those lost titles, all marked up in detail in beautiful script in an old-fashioned leather-bound ledger, making sure that they are authenticated originals. So, in essence, I am a glorified bounty hunter for books.
This is why I am now standing in the Christie’s auction room, battling it out against some guy who seems as intent as I am on winning. For a moment, I think the guy is going to fold, but then he suddenly ups his bid by an amount that makes the room gasp collectively and I am forced to respond in kind. I glance in his direction, and I can see the muscles working in his jaw as he maintains his concentration. Just then, I feel the soft vibration of my phone in my pocket. There is only one reason that my phone would be ringing at a time like this and my stomach drops. The world spins as I try to catch my breath, my vision tunnelling as I attempt to pull out my phone with shaking fingers. I glance at the screen, only to see that the call has been dropped, though the number is one that I instantly recognise. I let out a small sigh, dreading whatever message will be currently filling my voicemail. All it takes is that momentary loss of concentration for the gavel to come down and the auctioneer to declare the other guy the winner.
I feel myself going pale, the blood draining from my face as I stare across at the man standing there with a smug smirk. The next lot is about to start and I see him glance at me before heading out of his nearest exit. Great, I think to myself as I try to push through the crowd. I finally make it into the corridor to see the man walking away with purpose, and I rush to catch up, trying to smooth down my flyaway locks with my hand as nerves take hold of my body.
“Excuse me, sir?” I call out. The man whips his head around and pierces me with a laser-like glance, and for the first time, I really take a proper look at the man I am about to plead my case to. The first thing that strikes me is his height; at five-five I am pretty much always towered over, but this guy is well over six foot. His broad shoulders are encased in a beautifully tailored charcoal suit that seems to be moulded to his body, but the messy, just-too-long-for-corporate hair makes me think he would be just as comfortable in a pair of jeans. But what really grabs me are his eyes; the flint grey colour gives his expression a dark, inscrutable countenance that gives little away.
I keep walking towards him as he waits for me to catch up, his eyes roaming across my body. “Excuse me, sir,” I repeat, and at the word “sir,” a strange expression crosses his face. But as soon as I blink, it is gone, only to be replaced by a completely neutral expression.
“Yes?” His tone is abrupt, and a little harsh, as he runs a hand through his hair.
“S…s…sorry,” I stutter. I wring my hands, desperately trying to summon up the courage I need. I am not a confrontational person in the slightest, nor a particularly forward one, so I am completely out of my comfort zone. I have always been one to fade into the background, waiting for opportunities to present themselves rather than grabbing what I want with both hands. I have heard myself described as passive, but my back is against the wall, and it is now time to sink or swim. “Is there any chance you would be willing to sell the manuscript? My employer, well, money is no object, so I can offer you more than what you just paid.”
“No,” comes the reply. “If you had been paying attention, then perhaps you would have won, but the auction room is no place for amateurs.” I pick up a faint Aussie accent, but the delivery is as cold as ice, and I feel like I am five years old, being told off by my mum. Still, I get the weirdest feeling that his reluctance is a ploy, that there is something else going on, like there is a joke somewhere in all of this and I am the last one to be let in on it.
“Please,” I implore, dignity going straight out the window. “My job is on the line. I need that manuscript…” I trail off, my mind spinning as I try to school my thoughts into a persuasive argument that will let me obtain the document and preserve my job.
“Well, you should have thought of that before you started playing with your phone in the middle of the auction.” I feel like I have been slapped. I have never been talked to like this and part of me wants to tell this arrogant arsehole to go fuck himself, but the saner part of me realises that that would get me nowhere. I have too much riding on this to mess it up.
“Please, I’ll do whatever it takes.” Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say, but I suddenly see a slight shift in his expression as he reaches into his pocket and draws out a small card. He quickly writes something out on it and then hands it across to me. “Meet me at the address on the back at seven tomorrow evening and we’ll discuss this further.” With that, he turns on his heel and stalks off before I can say anything more.
I stare down at the stark white card with the name Alexander Davenport embossed in dark grey. I turn it over and see ‘1 Lombard Street’ written in bold script. Hmm, the address rings a bell and I guess that it is somewhere in the City.
I take a deep breath before picking up my phone and clicking on the voicemail icon to retrieve the message that is waiting for me. When the voice informs me that they are calling from Ravenscroft care home, my heart starts to pound rapidly, imagining the worst. Well, the news is almost as bad…my payment didn’t go through and now they are requesting that I pay it straight away. I close my eyes knowing that there is no way I can pay the bill, and since I have not managed to secure the manuscript, there won’t be any more money coming in until next month. I had been banking on my finder’s fee from Charles to pay the bill, and now the only way I can see myself getting out of this mess is to persuade Alexander Davenport somehow to sell me the manuscript before Charles returns from his business trip to Singapore. Hopefully, I can persuade the accounts people to give me a couple of extra days to pull the funds together, so for the second time today, I take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself to plead my case.