06. Empire House

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Inside it was dark. The sun hadn't risen above the houses of London yet, so only a little light fell through the high, narrow windows. What light there was, though, was sufficient to illuminate the scene in front of me well enough to make my throat constrict.

I was standing at the entrance to an enormous hall, at least seventy feet across. Apart from the gigantic cast iron chandelier hanging from the ceiling and the galleries high up on the walls, there was no decoration of any kind. No portraits, no draperies, nothing. The floor was dark, polished stone; the walls were painted a dark green-blue. In any other place the lack of decoration might have made one think the owner of the building was poor, but not here. The very enormity of this stark cavern repudiated poverty. And besides, it didn't take me long to realize the true reason behind the sparse decoration. I had lived too long with my dear uncle and aunt not to recognize the signs that somebody kept his purse up his arse.

Throughout the hall, people were jogging from one of the many doors to another, carrying pieces of paper, and obviously in a very great hurry to get their business done. The only person who wasn't moving an inch was a sallow-faced old man behind a plain wood counter at the back of the giant room. He simply sat, bent over a book in which he was busy scribbling notes.

Was he the receptionist? Well, there was only one way to find out.

I approached the counter and cleared my throat timidly. The man didn't seem to notice and continued writing in his book.

I cleared my throat again, louder this time, and crossed my arms. This fellow was getting my hackles up!

He finally deigned to look up and examined me over the tops of his small, steel-rimmed spectacles. The face he pulled made me think he wasn't very pleased with what he saw.

'Yes?'

This was it. Last chance to back out. Last chance to leave this place and never come back.

With great effort, I gathered all my courage and said, loudly and clearly: 'I'm here to see Mr Ambrose.'

I couldn't have gotten a more impressive reaction if I had said 'I'm here to see Father Christmas do a naked tap dance on your desk.' Everybody within hearing range stopped to turn towards me. One young clerk fell over his own feet and only just managed not to drop the large pile of papers he was carrying.

'Mr Ambrose?' asked Sallow-face incredulously. 'Mr Rikkard Ambrose?'

'Is there another one here?'

'Most assuredly not, Miss...?'

'Linton. Miss Lillian Linton.'

'Well, Miss Linton,' said Sallow-face, steepling his long fingers in a manner that I'm sure he meant to be threatening, 'Mr Ambrose is a very busy man. He does not have time for everybody who wishes to waste it.' He looked down at his book again. 'If you have come collecting for charity, try Lord Arlington's place, or Lady Metcalf's. I am sure they shall be more than happy to oblige you.'

'I have not come to collect for charity,' I said. 'I have an appointment.'

This time, somebody actually did drop his documents. I heard the clatter behind, me, and the hurried noises of someone running after flying bits of paper. Sallow-face had no eyes for the miscreant, however. His full attention was on me once more, sizing me up, and down, and up again.

'You have an appointment, Miss...?'

'Linton. Yes.'

'With whom, if I may ask?'

'With Mr Ambrose, of course. I already told you I came here to see him. I was told to be here at nine.'

Sallow-face's eyes bored into me, as if he was trying to see a note with the words 'April fool's joke' attached to the back of my head, although it was the middle of summer. 'Told by whom?' he demanded.

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