‘… tell you, it is in perfect condition,’ the older of the two said. His double chin wobbled as he spoke and he made energetic gestures with his pudgy hands to underline his speech. ‘The best of all the houses I have.’
‘Indeed?’ The other man sounded curt and cool. I didn’t see his face since he stood with his back to me. All I could see was his lean black figure, erect as a rod of iron. ‘Interesting that you are willing to part with such a treasure.’
‘It is out of the goodness of my heart, Sir, out of the goodness of my heart!’ the fat man assured him. ‘Wilding Park is a treasure, and I hate to part with it, but I know that with you it will be in good hands.’
I hadn’t really paid attention to their conversation before, but the name caught my ear. Wilding Park? Surely not the Wilding Park?
‘Bah.’ The young man waved his hand depreciatively. ‘I have no time for this. Karim, pay the man and let’s be done with it.’ He raised a hand, pointing at the fat man. ‘However, you should remember: If you haven’t told the truth, I shall be very… displeased.’
Even through the fog I could see the double-chin of the fat fellow tremble.
‘Karim? The money.’ The young man snapped his fingers.
A gigantic fellow, one of the people surrounding the two, started forward but stopped and turned his head abruptly when I took a few steps in the direction of the group and cleared my throat.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! What was I doing? What was it to me if some rich chauvinist fellow got swindled and lost a few thousand quid? Nothing. But then, this might be a brilliant opportunity to test my disguise.
It was also a brilliant opportunity to procrastinate and put off my attack on the fortress of male political power for just a few moments more.
‘Excuse me, Sir?’ I wanted to tap the lean man on the shoulder, but the giant called Karim grabbed my arm before it even got near him and pulled me back, towering over me.
‘On your way, you lout!’ he growled in some thick, uneven accent I couldn’t identify. I looked up at him, eyes wide. Now that he was so close, with no mist obscuring his form, I could see he was a mountain of a man, with a face as dark as his long black beard, and a turban, yes, an actual turban on his head. What freak show had I wandered into? A turban? In the middle of London?
‘On your way, I said!’ he growled, twisting my arm painfully. ‘The Sahib has no time for beggars!’
Beggars? I was more than a little peeved, I had to say. I was dressed in my uncle’s Sunday best, after all. And all right, the clothes were three sizes too big for me and hadn’t been used or washed in years, but still.
At least he hadn’t said ‘The Sahib has no time for girls who dress up as men.’
‘I don't want any money from him,’ I retorted. ‘In fact, I want to help him save some!’
‘Save Money? Karim - let him go, now!’ the young man commanded, turning to look at me.
The big fellow did what he said so quickly that it was obvious he was a very obedient servant. His master was staring at me intently, but because of the fog I still couldn’t see much of him - except his eyes.
‘You,’ the man said, fixing me with his dark gaze, dark as the sea, somewhere between blue, green and grey. ‘What do you speak of? How exactly can you help me save money?’
I swallowed, wishing I hadn’t said or done anything at all. I could be safe in the polling station by now. Instead I was stuck here, because once again I couldn’t keep my nose out of things that didn’t concern me.
When I tried to step towards the man, thinking I should bow or shake his hand, the big dark-skinned servant blocked my way and put his hand to his belt. For the first time, I noticed the giant sabre that hung there. Obviously he didn’t think much of handshakes, bows and formal introductions. So I simply spoke from where I stood.
‘I couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation with…’ my gaze strayed to the fat man.
‘Mr Elseworth,’ the man with the sea-coloured eyes supplied, curtly.
‘…with Mr Elseworth. Am I right in thinking that you intend to purchase Wilding Park, Sir?’
‘If you don’t mind my saying so, Sir, I would advise against it.’
‘My… my grandmother lives in the vicinity of Wilding Park, Sir. I visit her now and again and have caught glimpses of the house. It is not pretty.’
‘I am not concerned with whether it is pretty or not. Is it sound?’
‘That it is, Sir, that it is,’ the fat man cut in, throwing me an evil glare. ‘Don’t listen to this foolish youth!’
‘It is not sound,’ I snapped.
‘And you know that how?’ the man with the dark eyes asked.
‘Half the roof tiles are missing, and I have seen unhealthy-looking stains on the walls. Once, in passing, I heard the steward complain about the wilderness in the grounds and an infestation of rats. The road up to the house, from what I could see from my coach as I drove by, also looked in bad disrepair.’
‘And you remember all that just from passing?’
‘Yes?’ I responded nervously.
He gave a curt nod. ‘I see. Exactly what I have been looking for.’
That statement slightly confused me. ‘But I just told you the house is dilapidated and…’
The shadowy stranger cut me short with an impatient gesture. ‘Not the house, young man. You.’
I blinked, totally taken off guard. ‘Me?’
‘Yes, you.’ Carelessly, the lean figure in the fog waved a hand towards the fat man. ‘Karim, get rid of that individual. Our business relationship is terminated. I have no further use for him.’
Seizing the stunned Mr Elseworth by the scruff of the neck, this fellow Karim hauled him off into the mist without so much as a second to consider. The protesting shrieks of the man could be heard for about two or three seconds, then abruptly ceased.
‘Now to you,’ said the dark-eyed man as if nothing particularly strange had happened. ‘I know a good man when I see one, and I need a bright young man with a good memory and quick mind as my secretary. The last one I had has just left my employment for some unfathomable reason. I think you would be exactly the man for the job.’
I managed to turn my involuntary laugh into a cough. ‘Err… the man for the job? Sorry, but I don't quite think that I’m the one you want, Sir.’