Acquisitions - a Marshall, Carter & Dark Tale Act II
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Chapter Four: "You Are Invited"

"I must say," Jeremy said happily, "I was beginning to think you had taken our money and run. I mean, investment bankers." He chortled as he caressed the codex with long fingers, feeling the texture of the illustrated letters. "But I shouldn't have doubted. This is quite incredible."

They sat in a long tearoom at the clubhouse—this time Edward had been allowed the privilege of walking through without a blindfold. Thus far he had seen at least two of the Dragon's Den judges, a pop star and a member of the royal family. There was a tray of jam scones with clotted cream on the table—Edward had not dared take one. Jeremy, on the other hand, showed no such compunction; Edward winced at every crumb that fell onto the fourteenth century document.

"And what's this?" Jeremy's voice changed to one of genuine surprise as Edward held out a traveller's cheque for ten thousand pounds. He held it up, chuckling.

"You certainly give good value for money. I am impressed. How did you … no, don't tell me. However you did it, I have to admire your ruthlessness. I think it's time you got to know us a little more closely." Leaning back languorously he pulled on a white silk cord which engaged an intercom.

"Please tell Mister Carter that we're ready for him."

A few moments later the doors opened and an attractive young nurse entered, preceded by a shrivelled figure in a wheelchair. If he had to guess, Edward would have put Mr Carter's age at a hundred and ten or more—alarmingly frail, folds of liver-spotted skin rippling inwards towards a collapsed, toothless mouth. The ears and downturned nose seemed overlarge on him, in the way they often appeared on the extremely elderly. Edward had read somewhere that cartilage continued to grow throughout one's life. A thin ruff of white hair surrounded the lower back of his head, with the occasional straggling hair clinging to his pate. The eyebrows in contrast were thick and bushy, and the eyes underneath still alive and twinkling with a sharp, predatory brightness that belied his outward decrepitude. His hands fluttered from his lap and shook as the young nurse poured him a drink.

"So! Mr Marshall. What do we have here? That—bright young man you were talking about?" When he spoke it was in short, anoxic gasps. Nasal tubes connected Mr Carter to a bulky apparatus mounted on the back of his chair, discreetly covered by a deep blue throw with silver threadwork; some sort of iron lung, Edward supposed. He found it vaguely disquieting to look at—it wheezed with him, rising and falling in a disturbingly organic way, as though there were some horrific tumour or Siamese twin under the cloth, growing out of the back of the aged man.

"Mr Gradley," prompted Jeremy, smoothing his tie. Or rather, Edward realised, Mr Jeremy Marshall. He found it incongruous that the two could have undertaken any enterprise together given their difference in ages. Mr Carter might well be old enough to have founded a prestigious gentleman's club, but Marshall? Most likely, the named partnership had been transferred dynastically; Jeremy's father had clearly had no compunctions in giving his son the keys to the kingdom.

"Gradley! A good—Yorkshire name," wheezed Carter affably. "But the build doesn't match. Actually -" he struggled for the spectacles hanging around his neck with the hand and the nurse retrieved them for him—"yes, the face is all wrong. I consider myself an expert in—anthropometrics. I can see that you're—baltoid, gracile, brachy—excuse me—cephaly—I'm going to guess Baltic or perhaps—West Slavic." He scanned Edward's face for a reaction. "Am I close?"

"My mother was Polish," said Edward, feeling a sudden twang of revulsion towards him.

"I knew it! Still sharp, eh, Mr Marshall?" The blond nodded, almost affectionately. "Ah, yes, Bernard Gradley. I remember him well. Thought he was much too good for us in the end, as I recall, and after all the help we gave him. Mail order bride, was it?" He chuckled for a second before collapsing in a coughing fit. Edward sat silently, reasoning that contradicting the ghastly old man was unlikely to yield results. Another thing you never told me, father, he thought.

"Mr Gradley has completed his first Acquisition for us. The Codex, if you recall." Jeremy Marshall reached into his drawer and withdrew something wrapped in a rich velvet cloth.

"Ah—at last! I've been waiting to get my hands on it for some time. Try not to lose that one to You Know Who; at least until you've perused every last delightful inch. It seems like only yesterday they sent the poor fellow back…"

"Indeed. Perhaps the status of our mutual friend might be reconsidered after being so thoroughly beaten to the prize by Mr Gradley here—even after we fulfilled his perverse little Cinderella fantasies."

"Ye-e-es, the problem being that at midnight he turns into a pumpkin!" Carter chuckled.

Marshall, seeing Edward's bewildered expression, interjected to return the conversation to something approximating sanity.

"Accordingly I felt it time for us to present Mr Gradley with provisional membership—and to discuss his reward, if he feels this an appropriate time. Would you care to do the honours, Mr Carter?"

Carter put his wine down and took the cloth in hands which suddenly seemed a lot surer than they had a few minutes ago. He leaned in, eyes lit by an unholy light, putting it in Edward's hands.

"This is knowledge. This is power. Take a look."

Unwrapping the soft fabric his fingers encountered a cold, transparent sheet about six inches by three. Perspex? No, glass, he realised, turning it over in his hands. In one corner, the MC&D cartouche, in another, a contact number. In the centre, in almost unreadably tiny gold lettering, the words 'Edward Gradley, Acquisitions'. The reverse side showed what at first glance appeared to be a circuit diagram but which on closer examination was a tiny map of the City of London engraved into the glass, with several clubhouses marked.

"Take good care of it, my boy," wheezed Carter. "Keep it safe. You only get the one!"

"Thank you," said Edward, coolly. "Now, as to my reward…"

Edward knew that Marshall, Carter & Dark had held up their end of the bargain when he walked onto the trading floor the next morning. Went, MacIntyre and a couple of the other early risers had made it in ahead of him and had populated his table with little pots of bombay mix and bottles of champagne.

"I think congratulations are in order," MacIntyre hailed him.

"Oh?" said Edward.

"We were getting a bit worried about your Western Instruments speculation. But you came through in the end, even if it wasn't quite the way we thought. Cheers!" David popped a cork and filled glasses for the early brigade. Edward casually walked over to one of the touchscreens and saw the headlines.

Western Instruments to be acquired by 'Mad Hacker' Reginald Price

In a shock announcement, troubled scientific calculator manufacturer Western Instruments has become the subject of a hostile takeover by American cost-cutter Reg Price. Nicknamed 'The Mad Hacker' due to his efforts to restore profitability to failing firms by making steep efficiency savings, Mr Price will be looking to reverse the fortunes of the ailing giant…

Edward trotted back to the table with the others and accepted a glass of champagne. He raised his glass and smiled at Liz, who didn't smile back, instead looking away with a troubled expression. Now what have I done, he wondered.

That morning Western Instruments' shares rose by thirteen percent; Edward cashed out at midday, making a profit of £540,000. Edward couldn't comprehend the magnitude of what MC&D must have on Reginald Price to be able to compel him to launch a hostile buyout worth hundreds of millions in the space of a few hours, but right now he wasn't complaining. And, he thought, feeling the heft of the folder Jeremy Marshall had presented him, this was only the beginning.

"Edward, thank you. Come in."

Edward closed the door of Raymond MacIntyre's office. MacIntyre, David, Liz and a couple of other partners sat around a table. Edward felt a frisson of anticipation but also apprehension. Their faces were neutral.

He sat down at the table, taking in the documentation in front of each member. He had received a simple message by email, asking him to attend a meeting that afternoon, and to leave the rest of the day free. Edward had felt confident that it had been good news—recognition of every perfect, unbelievable deal he had made since his meeting with Jeremy Marshall. But as the morning had gone on, little things had made him feel more and more uneasy—the way Liz couldn't meet his eyes, the way David kept pacing back and forth between the desks, on several occasions walking halfway to Edward's team before changing his mind and walking back. The junior associates under him had picked up on the atmosphere and begun ribbing him about a coming inquisition.

"He's done it now! You've made 'em so much cash they want to know how you're smuggling that much coke into the country!"

Now he sat on the opposite end of the table to Raymond MacIntyre and he still couldn't determine whether he was about to be promoted or roasted over a slow fire.

"Edward," said Raymond MacIntyre slowly, "I don't think there's any doubt that your trades have been—sensational. From Cholmondeley Holdings through to Abacus Productions, you've made the company three point one million pounds in profit over the last six months. I'm a man of my word, and I haven't forgotten what I said when you asked how much you would have to pull in before we bent the rules for you and gave you a fast-track partnership." Edward began to pull himself up in his chair, eyes bright. "But Cooper Drake is an ethical firm, and before we can think about admitting a new partner, we need to clear up a few things. Ensure everything has been -" MacIntyre loosened his cotton collar slightly, visibly perspiring, "on the level."

Edward immediately modulated his body language—concerned, understanding.

"Take this trade, for example, on the Sixth of November. A ten million pound short sale transaction against ACTLE. It was taken out twelve hours before the Argentinian government announced the nationalisation of Wincanton Oil, a wholly owned subsidiary of ACTLE. I have spoken to the heads of both ACTLE and Wincanton, and this was news to them until the Minister of Industry made her announcement. Now, there's nothing wrong with scooping a firm on a political sea change that could affect them. If that's what you did, congratulations."

"I -" Edward began to speak, unsure of what he was going to say, but Raymond rode straight over him.

"Then there's this business over Carmichael & Sons. This is especially concerning to me because of the involvement of Gerald Spointer, a man whom I believe you may know. Someone—and it has not been established with certainty that it was Mr Spointer's company that originated these rumours, so to avoid prejudicing the partners I shall not mention the name of this company—leaked false information to the press about alleged corner-cutting and use of cheap materials in C&S's latest furniture range. Now, you sold and persuaded other members of your team to sell a total of twenty-five million pounds worth of shares in Carmichael & Sons, half an hour before the leak went to press. Just prior to this meeting Carmichael & Sons' share price has recovered somewhat but it is still significantly reduced, most likely as a result of your trades. The Director of that organisation is understandably upset that large sales were made based on false information and I still have to get back to him to justify why—or even how—that decision was made. There are two ways I can get back to him; firstly, that the trade was made by our latest partner based on immaculate planning and assessment of C&S's long-term prospects and the connection to the dirty tricks campaign was coincidental. Or, I could tell him that the shares were sold at the insistence of a trader with a personal family connection to his competitor, and that the trader has since been disciplined for ethics violations." Edward felt a thin film of perspiration forming. He hadn't even made the connection between the rumours about Carmichael & Sons and Gradley Industries. He wondered if Marshall had found pleasure in linking him back to his father's firm.

"You see Edward, what concerns me most about all these wonderful trades is that for the last few weeks there has been almost no activity at all on your research pass. When a trade which could be construed as potentially based on insider information goes through, we like to look at our traders' research logs and see plenty of data that shows they've been looking up that organisation's past trends, scouring industry gossip, etc. I called this meeting because we haven't found anything like that. To get your side of the picture. If you can justify your trades, Edward, then a partnership is open to you. Right now. If not, we need to think about what we do next."

Edward's mouth was dry, ashy. He scanned the faces at the table. Of course there was no activity; every single trade had come straight out of Jeremy Marshall's big bent playbook. Why the hell hadn't he thought to cover his tracks? Had he thought Cooper Drake was stupid?! He had one tenuous lifeline.

"Liz," he croaked. He didn't want to say anything more.

Liz was studiously gazing down at the table, face bright red. "Sorry Edward, 'fraid I can't play along on this one. We've been rating Carmichael & Sons a strong buy for months. And we had no clue on Wincanton." Her voice had a bitter edge to it. "You seem to have some insight we don't. Sorry for lagging so far behind you." She seemed to shrink under Edward's vaporising gaze.

Raymond was sighing now, putting aside his paper and reaching for a set of other forms. Gardening leave, Edward thought mutely. They'd pull apart every email he'd ever made, ransack his phone records. When they found out that Western Instruments had apparently been a hot tip from Edward's old firm, he'd be finished. The whole world buzzed around him, and it was a second before he realised that David had weighed in.

"No, Edward's getting mixed up. There won't be anything on his research log because he lost his access card in a taxi. He couldn't afford to report it at the time so I've been lending him mine. Sorry, it's a breach of protocol, I know."

Edward was left speechless, as much because it seemed like a suicidal gesture as anything. What would that do? They'd just look up David's records and find the same absence of evidence.

MacIntyre turned; something weary in his voice. "I see. As you say, that's a breach of our policy, David, I'm surprised at you." David nodded, almost smiling now. "So you're saying that if we looked at your log we'd find excellent, bookmarked documentation showing that young Mr Gradley here has exhaustively researched Argentinian domestic economic policy and the furniture wars in the north of England?"

David nodded. "Amongst quite a lot of other stuff. You see, I have to confess that Edward wasn't the only person I was loaning my card to. These things are just so flimsy—and they slide right out of your pocket when you're sitting down. Half my team have been using it, and Michelle, and Paul." He glared meaningfully at two of the other partners, who immediately started nodding their heads. "That's a hell of a lot of data to sort through, Raymond. Besides, as lead partner, to go through my research logs would mean a formal investigation into both Edward and myself. Are we sure that's justifiable?"

Edward sat, gobsmacked by David Went's audacity. He had effectively dared MacIntyre to sack his two most valuable traders, and he could see from Raymond's increasingly washed-out face that he was in no mind to call David's bluff.

"As you say, David, I don't think that's warranted. I'm happy to have received justification for these trades, and will now move to call a formal meeting of the board to admit Mr Gradley as a partner. Edward and anyone else who has"—he coughed—"lost their research passes is to purchase a new one immediately, and I expect to see all future trades documented on the right accounts to avoid embarassing situations like this in future."

MacIntyre walked over to Edward, whispering something in David's ear along the way, and shook his hand.

"You almost self-destructed there," he said quietly. "I think you owe Mr Went a big favour."

"'Almost' never needs apologies," said Edward evenly.

"Damn right. Well done, Mr Gradley," MacIntyre said in a louder voice, clapping him on the back before opening the door.

Everyone filed out, Edward's team making distant football-celebratory noises when they saw his relief-flushed face.

"David -" Edward said, grabbing the shorter man's shoulder, "Thank you. Why did you do that?"

David looked at him with a deadpan expression.

"Because we're friends, I thought. Besides, I'm 2-0 on you now, by my reckoning. I'm gunning for the hat-trick."

He didn't see Elizabeth again until he broke for coffee—she was the only other person in the trading floor kitchenette, sitting under a dark cloud at the table with a cup of cocoa.


She looked up at him, eyes and nose red. "Guess you want to know why I didn't back you up earlier. Well done on the partnership, by the way."

"I kind of do want to know, yes."

Her gaze carried absolute venom.

"We never went for that coffee, did we?"

He saw in that moment that she felt used, had realised the part he had made her play in the departure of Peter Davis. Perhaps she had even figured out where the Western Instruments tip had come from; even now she had refrained from doing the worst she could to him. He turned and walked away.

Death found Edward browsing for ideas for a new car. As partner his salary would start at two hundred thousand a year, not including bonuses. Right now he was trying to decide between the Porsche Panamera and a Toyota FT-86 Coupe. This time they didn't wait for him to log onto IRC; they did that for him, opening a new foreground tab that jerked him wide awake.

Death_4H: I see you've been busy

Edward had almost forgotten about these jokers. They were the ones who got him into all this by trying to threaten him over the Cholmondeley takeover of Hong Kong Electric. Thoughts of saloons vs sports hatchbacks set firmly aside, he began typing.

EGradley: yes. working for a living tends to imply that. what do you do?

Death_4H: very funny. we said we would be in touch.

EGradley: still with that? let me guess, you want information on Marshall, Carter & Dark

EGradley: i don't feel like playing

Famine_4H has joined the channel
Pestilence_4H has joined the channel

Death_4H: I know you've been trying to squirm further into their confidence because you think it will protect you

EGradley: I'm pretty sure it does, as a matter of fact.

Death_4H: you have no idea who you're in bed with

EGradley: really? here's a thought: I'll tell you whatever you want if you go away

Pestilence_4H: tell us what you think you know

War_4H has joined the channel

EGradley: MC&D the gentleman's club incorporates an art brokerage which is a front for insider dealing.

EGradley: you can earn membership by acquiring pieces for resale, which is rewarded with information

Pestilence_4H: which you've used

EGradley: definitely did not say that

Death_4H: try telling us something we don't know

Pestilence_4H: wasn't a question

Famine_4H: like the man says

Famine_4H: no idea

EGradley: what the hell are you going on about?

Death_4H: we need to meet in person

EGradley: not going to happen.

Death_4H: it will. we're going to expose MC&D and you're going to help.

EGradley: why is that, exactly?

Death_4H: because, your recent illegalities aside you're not actually evil, as far as we know

Death_4H: when you're ready, you'll figure out how to contact us.

Death_4H has left the channel.
War_4H has left the channel.
Famine_4H has left the channel.
Pestilence_4H has left the channel.

Well, that seemed to be it. Edward noted that they hadn't tried to blackmail him this time, which as far as he was concerned indicated they'd waited too long to play their hand. He couldn't decide whether they actually knew more about MC&D's activities or whether he'd just handed them Jeremy Marshall on a plate; either way, he thought, they were more likely to go after someone else now.

Edward was returning to his apartment after picking up the new car—he'd opted for the Porsche—when something struck him as slightly off. The door remained firmly locked—all the windows were closed, and at first glance nothing seemed out of place, but he had a sudden and unmistakable feeling that someone had been there. He immediately booted up his computer and checked the access times, allowing himself to breathe out as it showed no unusual activity. The two encrypted files that now held his strange communications with Death and his friends were apparently inviolate.

He had almost forgotten his worries when he found the card, nestled inside his fruitbowl. It was smooth and black, with rounded edges and a familiar gold cartouche. This is what the card said:

Edward Gradley

You are invited.

Christmas Ball
24 December 9.30pm
London Chapterhouse

Edward sat for a while looking at it. Did everyone involved with Marshall's little club get this special treatment? Or was this a warning?

The twenty-fourth was the busiest Edward had seen the clubhouse—though the foyer remained intimidatingly shadowy, the doors were for once wide open, as guests from politics, finance and the media flocked in. Edward had followed the directions on the glass membership card and arrived at the same time as David, who had brought Maria and the Parker girl. Edward felt a twinge of—pride, guilt?—that his car, suit and watch were all significantly more expensive than David's this time around. He had eschewed the services of Mr Stathopoulos, opting instead for Huntsman, Saville Row.

Before he could speak to Maria she was whisked away by David and he was left talking to the willowy blonde who had sat with Maria before—Lady Penelope, he remembered—who had materialised suddenly.

"Edward! So good to see you. You look positively edible," she said, as before not extending her hand but smiling prettily.

"Thank you. Uh, are you here on your own?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. I usually come with Maria Beaumont, but she's been stolen away by that fat little banker." She sounded genuinely put out. "Oh, but I forget; you're in the trade too, aren't you? You must excuse me, that was horrible."

"That's okay. Erm, do I say Dear Lady?"

"Only if you have to! Call me Alexandra."

"Thanks. I'm here on my own too."

"Oh, you're too cute to be on your own. I'll keep you company."

Lady Penelope was an amiable enough companion; he wasn't sure if her flowery compliments indicated sexual interest on her part or whether that was just her way of getting attention. They chatted for a few minutes while he tried to catch sight of Maria, wondering what spectacle MC&D would put on for its guests.

They didn't have to wait long. A mist spread out over the whole ballroom, arching over the guests, faint pricks of precipitation spotting their hands and faces. After a few moments the air became vaguely irritating to the eyes—guests started to murmur that something had clearly gone wrong and a few started for the exits. Edward closed his eyes for a moment to clear the stinging mist and to his amazement another scene altogether appeared before his eyes; a picturesque rocky shore, somewhere northern, pocked with rockpools and with seagulls flying overhead.

It was clearer than a dream—as though by closing his eyes he had opened another pair somewhere else entirely.

"Close your eyes," he said to Lady Penelope, then louder, to the other guests. One by one, they seemed to populate the scene, appearing in their tuxedos and elegant ballroom gowns along the shoreline. They started to clap as they realised that this was no mere illusion—however MC&D had managed it, they were able to see and interact with each other in this ethereal world. The eyes of every other guest appeared closed; Edward wondered how his own eyes would appear in the nearest rockpool, and cautiously stepped towards it, wondering if he was about to walk into a table or another guest. The still, clear water showed no signs of his reflection, though he was able to cup the water in his hand and taste the sea salt. He realised he could hear the seagulls.

A low, bass music began, booming out of the tide and the sea. The Marshall, Carter & Dark Christmas Ball had begun. Edward offered Lady Penelope his hand again but she shook her head, a strange mix of longing and fear on her face.

The guests of Marshall, Carter & Dark danced on that strange, otherwise deserted shore in their ballroom garments, whirling and turning in space, kicking up small plumes of sand. Not one guest stubbed their foot on an invisible table or stumbled into a clubhouse wall. Edward had no idea how this was being effected, but it was the most astonishing thing he had experienced in his life. He looked at a distant, crumbling lighthouse on a rocky outcrop, and wondered if he could reach if it he walked long enough.

Suddenly left adrift on the sand by his previous partner, who had spun away, Edward found himself facing Maria, wearing a white, almost bridal gown. Looking at her, he remembered the codex and almost turned away, heart stung. Instead, she took him firmly by the hand.

"Dance with me," she said.

It was a surreal experience—dancing on the shore of a great silver sea under a watery sun, seemingly miles away from London, his partner's eyes and the eyes of the dancers all around pressed firmly shut. As they moved he drew Maria closer until his nose was buried in her dark hair. She clung to him fiercely.

They slowed and stopped, and the dreamlike dance around them seemed like an eternal progression; as though time had ceased to exist in this place. Then Edward looked past Maria and saw David there, facing them. His eyes, like the others, were shut, but his face was etched with lines of misery and betrayal. Edward disengaged himself from Maria, who turned and realised what he had seen.

They hid themselves in the crowd, then, watching diplomats and celebrities dancing to that great thrumming noise at the edge of the impossible ocean.

After a long time, the hiss of mist they realised had been there all along faded and the shore grew wavery and dim, as though the tide had come in and drowned the scene. One by one they winked out of existence, opening their eyes to find themselves seated or standing where they had been at the start of the dance. Out of the corner of his eye Edward saw Maria get up and leave David's table, though she did not come to him.

Guests were not left long to discuss what they had experienced—a German-language operetta began, the female soprano's voice hauntingly beautiful yet startling in its mundanity next to that timeless waltz. During the opera guests were served small dishes of seafood and crudités in fresh seasonal dips, and it seemed normality had reasserted itself. An authentically MC&D touch at the end of the opera—the pain of the singers and the blood as the tenor threw himself upon his sword and the soprano agonisingly dragged herself onto the point projecting from his spine seemed very real, though this time the performers did re-emerge after the curtain came down to make their bows.

Christmas dinner was served thereafter—marine variations on Christmas fare. Three chefs had been drafted in for this occasion, and again Edward had to wonder whether the Ready, Steady, Cook presenter, the Domestic Goddess and the school food campaigner in one kitchen wasn't a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. However, his meal of wild salmon with fennell and stuffed with bacon, pears, pecans and caramelised onion put paid to any criticism. For dessert, mixed white, milk, and dark chocolate had been woven into the form of various sea creatures, doused in spiced milk and nutmeg. On other tables he saw artificial coral crennelations in the shapes of Christmas trees, stars and angels, miniature undersea castles made from strands of sugar, a honeyed ship-flambé slowly drowning in a lake of warm rice pudding, bodies of marzipan castaways littering the surface.

As guests finished their meals, the only thing left to do seemed to be to depart. Then, the lights began to dim, until the ballroom was lit only by cold, distant stars in the domed ceiling above.

"I have a special part to play this time around," said Lady Penelope, as she stood up, taking a slim red leather volume out of her carrypurse. Edward obligingly clinked his glass until its sound had covered the whole length of the great hall.

"Ladies and gentlemen," announced Lady Penelope, "we thought you really couldn't go home without just a little more excitement. So, we're going to play a party game. I've looked through this darling little book until I found something that sounded just right. We're going to play Sardines!" A couple of appreciative murmurs.

"And because this is no ordinary place and no ordinary time, we're going to play this game with a twist."

To Edward's surprise, Lady Penelope began disrobing in sight of the astonished guests. "We're going to play it entirely nude." Lascivious chuckles.

"In a few minutes we'll draw straws and the longest is our first Sardine. At that time we'll extinguish all the lights. Our Sardine will go and hide somewhere in the chapterhouse. Every successive player will have to clamber in there with them, and we'll all feel sorry for the poor loser, as they'll be wandering all on their lonesome, in the dark."

Each guest took a 'straw'—a piece of starched seaweed of varying length, some already beginning to remove their clothes. Edward saw David taking his straw—a stub of wrack—and heard him laugh, loud and bitter.

"We have a winner," exclaimed Lady Penelope, "Maria Beaumont."

Flushed with embarassment, Maria Beaumont stripped to the waist—Edward tried to avert his gaze, but caught a flash of tan skin. He glanced, and met her eyes—wide, the whites showing, like a wild animal. She shrugged off her skirt, her shoes. The lights went out, and he heard her footsteps pattering away, before they were engulfed in a tide of rustling and clandestine giggling, as though the great and good had been reduced to so many teenagers. He undid his zip, his buttons, and let five thousand pounds sterling of suit fall to the ground. The temperature of the ballroom had been lowered enough to induce shivering, all the better to make guests huddle together. Then the hunt began.

Feeling their way in absolute darkness, the finders called out to each other to avoid colliding and to determine who was still in play. One by one, they went silent as each found Maria's hiding place. Occasionally enough moonlight shone through a vent or a locked backroom door to suggest some feature to the dark-adapted eye; an ornate lampshade or an Elizabethan chair.

"Hello?" he called. "Am I the last one still out here? Come on guys, it's cold!" He thought he could hear a quiet suppressed snigger but careful exploration in the direction he thought it had come from failed to yield any results.

Suddenly, a collision in the dark with something yielding, motile. He barely checked a yelp and startled back, his shoulder impacting what felt like wood panelling. For a moment there was nothing and he wondered if he had imagined that it had been a body—something about it had felt too cold, not alive. Then a hand touched his shoulder—icy, painfully cold.

"I'm—sorry," he said, "I didn't hurt you, did I? I didn't think there was anyone left."

The hand began to slide along his shoulder, up the side of his neck.

"Erm, hi," Edward said. "I really don't think…"

Before he could continue the shape pushed up against him—a body, unmistakeably female but so unbearably cold the absurd thought crossed his mind that he had somehow collided with a mannequin or something else human shaped. The notion was dispelled as it began to move against him, and he found it had pinned him to the wall by both shoulders, impossibly strong. It pressed in—so cold, and damp; clammy, like uncooked meat. It pressed against him, chilling, insistent, and Edward found himself fighting his gag reflex.

"No," he said, and tried to pull away. The presence gripped him by his arm and chest, its nails digging into his flesh. "Let me go!"

He twisted sideways, the woman's nails tracing lines of pain across his chest and left arm. He stumbled, bruising his shin on a low table, and half-ran half-crawled away on all fours.

He blundered around in a daze, trying to navigate by the thin shafts of light, until a hand gripped his arm. This time he cried out, but was immediately checked by a chorus of muted laughter, and he realised the hand holding him was warm and alive.

"Is that you, David?" said Maria's voice. He muttered an affirmative.

"Somebody scratched me," he whispered, unable to vocalise the horror that he had felt.

"It was probably an accident," she said, holding his face.

Moments later, the lights slowly brightened—politicians, bankers, debutantes and stock traders found themselves in an undignified pile at the base of a staircase, spilling up as high as the mezzanine. Sheepish cheers gave way to a more businesslike atmosphere as everyone bustled to find their clothes.

"I thought it was a cupboard," Maria said, standing up, covering herself with her arms.

Who had been left out? Scanning the faces Edward could see only one omission—David Went. This has got to be the worst night of his life, thought Edward. He didn't know what he could or would say to the man. A couple of other guests went searching for Went, whom they agreed had probably got turned around somewhere upstairs.

He redressed, noting ruefully the creases and footprints across Huntsman's best. Maria joined him, and acquiesced to his barely audible offer of a lift home.

A sudden scream rang out, amplified by the domed roof. Then another. Edward got to his feet and ran towards the sound. Why 'towards'?, said his Philosophy lecturer, sitting on the lower fold of his right ear and kicking his legs against his earlobe. The human survival instinct as commonly understood that you run away from possible danger; that you take concern for the collective rather than yourself proves you to have social—in fact socialist—tendencies. Now, are they innate, or are they learned? Are you running because as a man you are socially conditioned to risk your own life for others? Are you incapable of resisting that programming, or do you have free will?

Maria followed, still buttoning her blouse. As Edward crossed the threshold into the back stairwell, an elegant thing of three floors and jutting balconies over an alcoved space filled with flowering plants, and saw the thing hanging from the top railings by its belt, he doubled back and caught Maria.

"Please," he said, "please don't look." She tried to push past him but at the same time buried her head in his chest, as though she already knew.

The body of David Went, suspended in the air, rotated a quarter-turn, then reversed itself. One of his shoes—Church's, two hundred and fifty pounds—had fallen off and lay on its side two floors below. A crowd had gathered to behold the spectacle; some of them even started to applaud, as though it might have been some grisly finale to the evening—Murder in the Dark, which it was—before realising everyone else was looking on with horror. Edward pushed past them and went back to his table. No-one would be going home yet.

Chapter Five: "There's Five"

Along with the Parker girl, the only other guest from Cooper Drake, he had been asked to come down to the police station and provide an oral statement. At the firm's insistence he had been accompanied by Cooper Drake's lawyer, a hawk-faced gentleman with thin, slicked-back dark hair in a widower's peak who answered every question with a question and would only allow Edward to answer after whispered consultation. The police had found a note in David's pocket, handwritten, scrawled apparently blind on a napkin. Edward knew what it said because the police had shown it to him.

This is what it said:

I am guilty. Tomorrow is Christmas Day and I cannot bear to see it. I have made millions from deceit and I can no longer stand silent. I cannot confess and I will not go to jail. I am left with one honourable outcome. I say honourable, but I will be spoiling everyone's evening. I am sorry. Birkman, Solico, UN Ltd. There is more. I operated alone; I did not involve others from Cooper Drake, or any other firm. I'm sorry.

Edward stared at it, speechless. Something was terribly, horribly wrong here. Could David have been driven to suicide by the events of the evening? Perhaps. Would he have completely omitted his betrayal by a man he thought of as a friend and perhaps protégé? By a woman he loved? Would he have imputed his own death to guilt felt over insider trading? Edward couldn't believe it. All the deals the note mentioned predated Cholmondeley; the note read like it had been penned by someone ignorant of the last few months of David Went's life.

The lawyer allowed him to tell the police that David Went had not seemed suicidal earlier, though he had appeared agitated at the party. Was it Went's handwriting, they asked. Edward considered the haphazard lettering. The lawyer permitted him to express the view that never having seen anything written by David in the dark he was unable to form a verdict. The police nodded sagely and handed the plastic bag containing the note back. Had Edward ever known Went to be anything less than a perfectly ethical broker? Before Edward could even begin to formulate a response the lawyer leaned in and snippily told the officers that any questions about Went's performance were a matter for Cooper Drake's management alone, in the first instance for his direct manager, Raymond MacIntyre.

At work, Edward watched in shock as police came and took all David's computer equipment away for forensic analysis. Another round of interviews for everyone on the trading floor; Edward insisted on hiring his own lawyer, who sat on his other side and got into short, terse disagreements with Cooper Drake's representative for four hundred and fifty pounds an hour. It didn't help that at some time since the ball Edward had caught some respiratory infection which left him hawking great lumps of phlegm into a tissue, which both his lawyers insisted on pointing out to the present police officers—every single time—did not constitute an answer and should not be taken as an affirmative or negatory response.

After intense discussion with both his legal counsel, Edward was able to represent to the police that David had passed on several leads which seemed unusually hot; but which he had insisted originated in conversations overheard at his gentleman's club. It did not escape Edward that the words 'Marshall, Carter & Dark' were never mentioned by the police at any time; the venue's own lawyer, slick and toothy in a black suit and coiffed hair, seemed to have the power to always appear just outside any room where David Went was being discussed.

Edward had phoned through to MC&D and demanded to speak to Jeremy Marshall.

"Complete immunity, you said. When the police search David's computers and find reference to the Cholmondeley deal…"

"You're safe, Edward," he crooned, voice slightly distorted by the line. "Everything's being taken care of. How unfortunate about David. Still, we have a bright new star at Cooper Drake, don't we?"

Edward had ended the call and immediately thrown up in his sink.

He had not been mistaken; there had been no other guests legitimately playing 'Sardines' left by the time he was wandering in silence. He felt sure that David Went had been killed, perhaps as soon as the lights had been extinguished. That cold, damp presence … the woman who had effortlessly pinned him to the wall but whose body felt like a dead thing—he was left in no doubt that she had been the killer. And he was just as sure that the agency behind her had been Jeremy Marshall. He suspected that Went had made no further acquisitions for Marshall after Cholmondeley. But if Edward had not involved himself directly with the firm, surely David would still be alive. No, Marshall, Carter & Dark had David killed because they had a shiny new toy, at least, until they got bored of him too. Perhaps it had even been a warning. Probably all three—Jeremy Marshall didn't seem like the sort of man to order a murder for just one reason.

He needed a plan. Googling '4H' yielded nothing useful. '4H Death', similarly. '4H Death War Famine Pestilence' told him what he should probably already worked out, that '4H' meant 'Four Horsemen', but nothing else. Finally, in desperation he returned to #theologywars and asked if anyone had heard of a group or organisation called '4H' or 'Four Horsemen'.

Acts238: Actually, it's Conquest, War, Famine, Death, and Hell. There's five.

Acts238: But only four horses; Zech 6:2-3 calls them the spirits of the heavens (KJV 1611)

nodeceit: that's a deceitful interpretation. there are many horses of each kind in Zechariah, and they are chariots, not horsemen. they don't represent the same thing

nodeceit: and KJV-onlyism is a doctrine from hell, see our expose

landoverbaptist: Your mother sucks cocks in hell.

Edward sighed. He probably should have known better than to ask about anything with an eschatological subtext here. Then something caught his eye.

911truther: They're a conspiracy theorist group. Let-it-happeners.

911truther: Big into black helicopter stuff: see here—link

The blog seemed to have been abandoned a long time ago; mostly blurry pictures of paramilitary-style SWAT teams raiding houses, unmarked planes and the standard conspiracy spiel about various shady non-state actors who supposedly had tendrils in every level of national and supranational government. No wonder Marshall, Carter & Dark are giving them such a boner, he thought, Secretaries of State, big business tycoons, movie stars… if the Illuminati exist, MC&D are cramping their style.

The nicks of the authors were the same—Death_4H, War_4H, Famine_4H, Pestilence_4H, confirming for Edward that he'd found the right place. There were no contact details listed, but after trawling through their archives he found an appeal for information about an obscure Red Scare-era organisation called GRU Raskolnik P (supposedly headed by chess grandmaster Ivan Sokolov and the Soviet counter to Project Stargate), with a hotmail email address. He had no idea if it was even still active, but decided it was his best shot. He wrote:

To: FourHorsemen
From: EGradley

Subject line: Marshall, Carter & Dark

It's Edward. I'm ready.

O'Reilly's Grill and Diner was about as far from the art deco café used by Jeremy Marshall as you could get. Dark colours, stained padded seats, with a cracked television blaring out horse races and occasionally football. The smoking ban was in force but the smell remained, pressed horribly into every surface by years of nicotine exposure. The owner, an incomprehensibly Irish man with a limp, scowled when Edward ordered a black coffee and what slid over the counter a few minutes later was some sort of tea with black grit floating in it. Edward strained some of the granules out with a napkin and took a cautious sip. It tasted like burnt toast.

Edward wasn't sure what he had been expecting from the Four Horsemen—what did conspiracy theorists wear these days? Tie-dye and ripped jeans? Then again, if Hollywood had taught him anything about hackers, he should be looking for beautiful people in black leather and wraparound shades. The odd couple who walked in the door and ordered drinks didn't even register on his radar until they slid in beside him. One was literally a kid—a young teenager in a school shirt and trousers with dark hair in a flippy haircut with white highlights and painted fingernails. The other looked to be well into his forties, tall and borderline obese, with a massive gut hanging over his belt below a Metallica teeshirt, a goatee and thinning curly brown hair scraped into a ponytail. He did wear shades—but they were brown with big plastic frames.

"Edward Gradley," said the kid with the black fingernails.

"You two? You're the four horsemen?" said Edward, amusedly.

"Well, I'm Death," said the kid, who had the good grace to look a little embarassed as he said it. "This is War -" he gestured to the overweight metal fan. "Pestilence's mom wouldn't let him come and Famine couldn't get the day off work."

"If you don't mind me saying so, you're a bit of a mismatched pair."

"This is the first time we've met up in person, actually," said War, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "Look, we're here for one reason, and that's to talk about Marshall, Carter & Dark. Why the sudden change of heart?"

"They killed David Went."

"We heard suicide," said Death measuredly, sipping his glass of Sprite.

"That's what the police think. But his suicide note doesn't make sense. It couldn't have been written by him. Things that happened that night, things that could have really pushed him over the edge, he doesn't mention at all. There was a party game—in the dark. I bumped into someone still walking around after everyone was supposed to be hidden. A woman."

"And you can prove that MC&D were behind it?" War sounded excited.

"No. Sorry. But Jeremy Marshall…"

"Who Marshall?"

"Jeremy. That's what he said his name was."

"Interesting," said Death, and scribbled something in the margins of the ringbinder he'd brought along.

"…Jeremy Marshall all but told me he'd had David killed because I was … better controllable, more promising, I don't know."

"You must feel good about yourself right now," Death said flatly.

"Look," said Edward angrily, "I didn't come to get lectured at, okay? You said you were going to explain what's really going on here."

"We're trying," said War. "You got it the wrong way round. The art stuff isn't a cover for the insider trading—the trading covers a worldwide art theft and money laundering operation. Members ask for a piece and MC&D get it, no questions asked. In return they're taking in money from drugs, illegal arms deals, regimes like North Korea and Iran. They have a catalogue—you've seen it?"

Edward nodded.

"That's so any criminal can walk in and trade as much cash as he can carry for a legitimately acquired piece; guaranteed value. Right now they're untouchable—their membership includes police chiefs and politicians; not just here but in the USA, France, Germany. They make sure they have something on all their members; whether it's dodgy deals based on information they've provided, photos of kinky sex scandals orchestrated in their own clubhouses, or just straight-up bribery."

"So they're a gentleman's club fronting an insider trading ring fronting an international crime syndicate? It seems unbelievable."

"Well," said Death, "you've apparently met the fuckers behind this thing. Does it strike you as beyond them?"

Edward fell silent for a moment.

"What can I do?

"First, you need to figure out who you can trust at Cooper Drake. If what you say is true, MC&D wouldn't have had Went killed unless they had someone else in place to keep tabs on you. Then you'll set up another acquisition with Marshall."

War nudged the kid's arm and he stopped talking.

"I don't wish to alarm you but that car's gone past twice already." Edward looked up but it had already gone. "Black Citroën, license plate starts 'SE'".

Death looked up, eyes flashing. "You idiot! You didn't check to see if you were being tailed?"

"I think you're being paranoid," said Edward, though even as he said it he thought: but that doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

"Fuck that," said Death. "Look, we'll be in touch. Hey, O'Reilly, is there a back door to this place?" The barkeep said something neither Edward nor apparently the Horsemen could make out. Instead, Death tapped his watch and War nodded. Death left first, followed fifteen seconds later by War. They went in different directions. Edward was left with his toast-flavoured hot water, which after a moment's consideration he swapped for Death's half-finished soft drink.

Who can you trust, he thought? It would help if I could trust myself first.

After another twenty minutes he left the bar and walked back to his apartment. Half-way he bumped into a man he didn't recognise—thirties or forties, stubbly, balding. "Sorry," Edward said, absent-mindedly. The man's reaction, however, stuck in Edward's memory—he fixed Edward with a look of fear or embarassment, then brought his hand to his mouth in a strangely feminine gesture. Then he turned and fled. There was something strange about the way he ran, but Edward couldn't put his finger on it.

This time Edward walked from his car to the Beaumont house under cover of an umbrella. She opened the door, resplendent in an apron and the smell of something hot and sugary filling the air.

"Edward," she said, smiling. "I wasn't expecting -" she trailed off as he shrugged off his shoes, walked past her wordlessly. She followed him, tugging at his sleeve, asking him what was wrong.

They stopped in the library, and he took her to the shelf containing the replica codex. Lifted it out, placed it in her hands, saw her feel its weight. He opened it for her, let her see the Currys-spare-part hinges and chipped washing-machine paint interior—its empty interior. She dropped the box, turned and grasped him tight around the chest with one arm, beat on it with the other.

"I'm sorry." he said. "I'll get it back. I swear. I'll get it back."

As he drove away he saw another car, a red Vauxhall Meriva, put its lights on and pull out of the row in front of the terrace. He looked in the mirror every few minutes and could see it hovering at the very edge of visibility in the London traffic. Then he saw it signal off and turn into a side road, and he allowed himself to exhale deeply as another vehicle emerged. Then, five minutes later, the car that had turned onto his road turned off, and the red Vauxhall was back. Edward deliberately took a detour from his usual route, even circling around a roundabout three times as though trying to make up his mind. When he exited, the second car was a short way behind him. He pulled over, watched it pause, then indicate that it too would park. He got out of his car and walked towards the vehicle, not caring about the rain. When he got ten paces from its tinted windows its engine started up again and it pulled away.

That night he played chess online again for the first time in years, against a self-professed first-timer from Texas. He played under a pseudonym, just in case anyone still recognised him from that brief glorious summer when he had seemed invincible.

Edward hadn't been able to see six moves ahead—those corridors were still closed to him. But he realised he could remember thinking that way, could recall the output of that black box if not the mechanism by which it had operated. He had played White and the game had resulted in a stalemate. Still, he thought, it was a start.

To Liz, he said that he had gambled on the launch of the latest iPhone and lost. Raymond MacIntyre heard that he had been blindsided by aviation fuel increases that put paid to a key engine refit on Ryanair's fleet. He confided in Michelle Myers that he had tied himself into four million pounds in European options on Microsoft that unless Ballmer spectacularly screwed up in the next month would leave him hundreds of thousands down. Paul Reagan offered sympathy when Edward bemoaned a million pounds of Turkish government debt wiped out by a bondholder haircut. Various members of his team were left believing he had made disastrous trades in biotech, solar power, soft furnishings or vacuum cleaners.

No matter how you looked at it, Edward had had a rough week. Except, of course, he hadn't. The secrets left in Marshall's little red book had expired, but he had put in a few long nights and his current trades—geothermal startups in Norway, Chinese infrastructure firms in Ghana, an Oxford outfit that had worked out how to manufacture buckypaper for electronic heatsinks at a fraction of the usual price, and for old time's sake some aerodynamics contractors who had recently been signed by Lockheed Martin—were ticking over very nicely.

Now he was just waiting for the phone call.

"Mr Gradley," Marshall's voice oozed from his mobile. "I'm so sorry to hear you've been having some difficulties. Oh, but I shouldn't offend your pride. You're being faced with new challenges, and new opportunities. Mr O'Leary clearly lacks vision—those new engines would have paid dividends in the long run. I'll tell him how disappointed I am at our next brunch. In the meantime, perhaps you would care to consider making another acquisition for us?"

"I'd love to," said Edward, through clenched teeth. MacIntyre, you insufferable shit. No wonder you called that meeting. I wonder, did you know what that meant for David? Did you realise he was signing his own death warrant by saving me?

Breakfast at the smaller MC&D clubhouse on Wood Lane was a surreal affair. BBC personalities—including several Edward had been quite sure were dead—and private sector TV and newspaper execs rubbed shoulders with international dignitaries over freshly baked crumpets and sticks of warmed salted butter while small drama and music acts performed enthusiastically. Every so often one of the media goliaths would politely excuse themselves and shamble over to the performers that had just left the stage. It's a glorified talent show, Edward realised; he could only imagine what the young people on stage had had to do to get their chance.

There, at the centre of it all, was Jeremy Marshall, alternately smiling and nodding to the presenter of Newsnight and snarling into a slim mobile phone.

"Too rough … no, my dear fellow, you gave them exactly what they were asking for. Excuse me … well, I didn't give the PM a bloody horse. Take care of her! My apologies … yes, I've seen University Challenge several times… Ah, Mr Gradley." His companion apparently sensed he had been dismissed and wandered over to the next table where Sir Trevor McDonald was holding court with a surprisingly risqué story about his time in the Caribbean.

"Well, plant some of Mulcaire's letters in her home. No, we didn't destroy them, do you think I'm an idiot? You're supposed to be the professional, think of something." He ended the call and looked up at Edward.

"Please, have a seat. Have a crumpet—or there are cinnamon bagels, if you like." He clapped his hands and one of the blank-eyed serving staff appeared with a serving dish covered by a cloche. Edward shook his head.

"Very well," he said, dismissing the young man, who vanished quietly and efficiently. "Now, Edward, you are familiar, I gather, with the Lady Alexandra Penelope?"

"Yes. I spoke to her at the Christmas Ball."

"Very good. Yes, the dowager countess of Swindon. How tragic, to be widowed under suspicious circumstances at such a—well, at her age."

"Which is?"

"Entirely irrelevant, Mr Gradley! A dashing young man such as yourself should have learned never to ask a lady her age. Now, as to the acquisition I want you to make. Since you have proven yourself so able to acquire items without financial outlay—and are a man of means these days, I understand—I don't anticipate any expenses will be necessary in this case. The Lady Penelope has a certain antique comb which you are to retrieve without delay. Oh, don't adopt that ridiculous expression, Mr Gradley. The comb in any case belongs to Marshall, Carter & Dark and was lent to Lady Penelope on the understanding that she could retain it only if she met certain conditions, which events have now rendered it impossible for her to do. Go to her house, get the comb. I don't really care how you do it. And then we can talk about rectifying your latest misadventures in the big wide world of finance."


Marshall passed him another briefing document with an image of the comb—an ugly, twisted thing wrought in ivory and bearing a singularly confused version of the Last Supper, wherein at least the central four figures all appeared to be Jesus Christ. Edward thumbed along the photo, counting the participants; excluding the ones with haloes and short beards there were only 11 other figures. Now he knew what he was looking for, he realised Lady Penelope had been wearing it at least the last time he had seen her.

"So, where do you keep all this stuff?" he asked, as nonchalantly as he could. "I'd love to take a look at the warehouse, as it were."

Marshall looked at him, warily. "Have your eye on what's behind the shop curtain, eh? Maybe once you get the comb. Don't push your luck, though—you've already chosen your reward for this acquisition."

Lydiard Manor, the family residence of Lady Penelope, formally the Dowager Countess Swindon, was a stately Georgian pile set away from prying eyes down a long, leafy private lane. Edward pulled the Porsche up next to the expansive lawn, framed on either side by leafy conifers, and walked up to the front door—a plastic sheeting was visible pulled over the door from the other side.

"Side entrance," the cut-glass vowels of Lady Penelope intoned from the window directly above him. He looked up but could only see billowing lace curtains. Obligingly he crunched the gravel path which he suspected had been a moat and found a bay door wide open to the exterior, propped open with a singularly hideous garden ornament. It led through to an attractive summer-room, decorated with fine portraits of the family—the Bolingbrookes, he recalled.

Lady Penelope stepped out from behind a rich purple curtain, wearing a diaphanous, floaty dress that seemed at odds with the wintery drizzle outside. She looked tired—certainly older than he remembered, maybe late thirties rather than late twenties. The skin around her eyes seemed loose, as though she hadn't slept for days, and her complexion was pallid. Her hair was loose, shoulder-length, and pale—a section had been pinned diagonally over her eyes for a fringe and he could see the cream outline of the comb holding it in place.

"La- I mean, Alexandra," he said, recalling their conversation at the Christmas Ball. "It's good to see you."

"So good to hear from you too," said Lady Penelope. "I heard they investigated David's work—how tragic! How is Maria taking all this?"

"I don't know," he said. "I haven't spoken to her much."

"Really," said Lady Penelope thoughtfully. "So, what brings you to this little place?"

"Not so little," chuckled Edward. There was something in all this that was making him nervous; the air was so dusty it was aggravating his sinuses. Didn't she clean, or hire someone to do it? He supposed if she was rattling around in here alone after the death of Lord Swindon she might only clean the rooms she used on a daily basis. He had planned to flirt his way in, exploiting her apparent affection for him, find the comb and leave—after all, he had no intent of actually leaving it in the hands of Jeremy Marshall. However, the sight of her wearing it had drained his courage and he felt suddenly guilty.

"Alexandra, it's about Marshall, Carter & Dark."

Her expression grew troubled. "What have they said? What have they told you?" she said, voice suddenly sharp.

"No, no," he said. "it's just that I've gotten myself into a bit of a bind, and you might be able to help." Her expression was replaced with one of all smiles and she gestured to the staircase on their right as they left the summer-room.

"Why didn't you say? I'll help in any way I can. But let's go somewhere in a bit of a better state, shall we? I'm sorry about all the mess, I just haven't been keeping up appearances, I'm afraid. Upstairs, first room on the left. I'll get something to drink."

Edward ventured up the dark flight of stairs—all the doors were shut and he had to feel his way along until he found the frame. Opening it he found what had once been a great master bedroom—a colossal bed with an overhanging lace curtain and ornate frame, great wooden drawers and a writing desk in the corner. This room had been dusted but was still in a sad state of decline—damp patches were peeling the wallpaper and cracks appearing in the ceiling.

"Here we go," the Lady Penelope said, closing the door behind them and brandishing a bottle of red wine. "Chateau Margaux, ninety-five. Not the oldest vintage but it's one I enjoy."

She poured out a measure into crystal glasses—Edward sat at the writing desk and took an exploratory sip.

"So Edward," she said, delicately, "what was it you hoped I could help you with?"

She walked towards him, brought her face near his, letting him scent the frankly excessive amount of perfume the blonde seemed to be using.

"Oh. No, I mean, Alexandra, I think you've got the wrong idea—I was hoping to ask if I could borrow that comb…" Her eyes flashed. This close he could see how made-up she was, how the skin beyond the foundation had lost its elasticity—he mentally revised his estimate to early or mid forties.

"You don't want the comb," she said, an element of pleading entering to her voice. "You want me, don't you—you came here because you've fallen in love with me."

Edward's mind reeled. What the hell was this? He hadn't even made any hints in that direction; had, in fact, decided to ask her plainly if he could borrow the antique comb for a day in the hopes of recovering the codex. Her personality seemed to have changed utterly since their first meeting at the chapterhouse.

"You don't love Maria, that unfaithful bitch," Lady Penelope continued, her voice suddenly raw, croaking. "You've only wanted me."

She took hold of his arm with surprising force, and to his horror Edward felt the cold of her seep through his suit and into his flesh. She pushed herself against him, so horribly unlike anything alive, and he knew she was the presence that had met him in the dark.

"You killed David," he whispered.

"He was in your way—in the way of what you wanted—he was yesterday's man," she said, voice cracking. "Please, don't hate me. I don't want you to hate me."

And under the cloying perfume, he smelled it, as her face pressed up against his, makeup rubbing off on his collar, his skin—the smell of meat that had gone bad, rancid, and as he grabbed her arm to try and lever her off, her skin began to slip off the underlying muscle. He screamed.

With strength he didn't know he had, he gave her an almighty push, dislodging her grip from his arms. Screeching like something possessed she toppled backwards and hit the floor with a horrible sucking sound. He didn't wait to see if she recovered; he ran through the house, out to the summer-room. The door was locked from the inside. He scrabbled around, couldn't see a key. Not knowing why he did it, he grabbed the nearest thing to hand, a Complete Works of Goethe, and hurled it with all his might at the French window. It shattered and he hurled himself through the gap, running raggedly back to to the Porsche.

Edward drove, taking turns at random, for as long as he could, and when he was too weary to continue driving, he parked and curled up on the back seat in his five thousand pound suit. He dreamed, and his dreams were a horrible, confused mess of everything that had happened to him.

His father had died, he remembered, and in the terms of his will he had left everything to the son who surpassed him first. In the dream Edward had two brothers and a sister, though for some reason she had been left out of the will. Somehow they were all at Cooper Drake and were working side-by-side on different deals, except he knew something they didn't; Jeremy Marshall stood over his shoulder, whispering in his ear, and in the way of dreams it was all dire nonsense, about throwing sugar into people's eyes and doors that opened into other places and investing in a liquid that turned anything into food, and he prospered while his brothers grew poorer. And Maria was there, no, he was at her house, but she was made of glass and he had to stop her breaking because you only get one, and she was so cold to the touch, her skin just sloughed off the bone until there was nothing there but a skeleton made of glass.

And now he was a child again, about twelve or thirteen, and he was at an outdoor chess club, and he suddenly realised in a flash of lucidity that this was a dream, but it was also a memory, this was something that happened and which he had forgotten. Someone cast their shadow over the table, and he looked up to see a tall man with wavy blond hair and perfect teeth, and cruelty in his blue eyes.

"Do you want to play?" he asked. And he folded out a chessboard that was not a chessboard, because every move Edward made it countered perfectly, all on its own, and when it did it it picked at a golden thread from deep inside him and tugged a little more of it away. And the blond stranger went up to his mother, watching as the board ate her son a little bit at a time, and said something that at the time he had not understood. "Tell your husband he will have what he wanted."

Edward awoke rumpled and bleary-eyed, the rain sluicing down the car's windows, and the dream tumbled away from him into the dark.

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