01. The Unmentionable M

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'For the last time, Sir: when are we going?'

'For the last time, Mr Linton – when the time is right.'

'And when will that be, Sir?'

'Soon.'

'How soon?'

'Quite soon.'

Across the miniscule carriage we were squashed into, I glared at my employer – to absolutely no effect. The perfect, chiselled face of Mr Rikkard Ambrose remained as stony and composed as ever, not a muscle moving. The only reaction I got was a look cold enough to freeze a volcano. Thank God I had developed immunity to frostbite after about a year in his employ.

'If you intend to pay your family a visit,' I explained for the umpteenth time, trying to keep my voice calm and patient and failing miserably, 'I need a date. That's what secretaries do. They ask their employers on which date they plan to do stuff, and then they write it down in things called "calendars" – look, like this little papery fellow I have here – so they can make all those pesky little arrangements their employers are far too important for.' If you insert a 'self' before 'important', that is. 'So, I ask again, Mr Ambrose, Sir: when are we going?'

His answer was the one he preferred to give in any and all circumstances: cold silence.

'Just one date. Come on. Just one measly little number.'

Silence.

'Do I need to get on my knees and beg?' Not that I would. I would sooner stab myself with my own pen. But I thought it might startle a response from him. Instead...

Silence.

'For goodness' sake! Why is it so difficult? It's just a date!'

He threw me another cold look. 'I am a very important man, Mr Linton. I have many demands on my time, and a lot of business to take care of before I can even think of leaving town.'

His left little finger made a nervous twitch.

And finally, it hit me. Of course! Why hadn't I seen it earlier? Slowly, a grin spread across my face. 'You're scared!'

'What? That, Mr Linton, is utterly ridiculous.'

'You're scared of your mother!'

His left little finger twitched again. 'I most certainly am not!'

'Ha! Liar, liar, pants on fire!'

'Not that it is any business of yours, Mr Linton, but my undergarments happen to be at a quite comfortable room temperature. I am no liar. I am, as I said, an important man. You cannot simply expect me to up and leave, merely because my bothersome relatives demand it. There is much important business–'

'Oh really?' I cut in, throwing him an innocent smile. 'Let's see what this "important business" is that you had to take care of during the last couple of days....' Crossing my legs, I leaned back and started flicking through his calendar. 'Yesterday, a visit to the match factory to check the average sulphur content of medium-sized matches. The day before that, a visit to the East End warehouse to check the state of the building–'

'That was perfectly legitimate. There were important repairs needing to be done on that building.'

'There was one loose shingle on the roof.'

'You can never be too thorough. In my experience–'

I didn't let him finish. 'The day before that, we took a trip to that farm out in the country to check whether the furrows were straight enough for your liking. The day before that, we spent breathing smoke, determining the best plant for a tobacco plantation you might be planning to open in two years, once the land it's supposed to be on is cleared of forest, rocks, and the occasional mountain. The day before that–'

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