The Mundane Adventures of Felix P. Wainwright, Businessman of Undisclosed Means
The clothes he wore, while being well fitting, bore the unmistakable signs of off-the-peg functionality and carried the air of aged comfort that only wearing the same suit day after day could produce. He wore the suit like a pair of overalls, the uniform of his trade rather than the apparel of his status or profession. With this, the plain white shirt worn with a thin, dark, unpatterned tie was equally routine and conventional. Walking half a pace behind his companion, head bent slightly down as if to reduce his not inconsiderable height, it was easy to tell that he felt out of place from the moment he entered the club’s dining room, the discomfort measured in every step and every furtive glance at the other diners. Not that this affected Mallow at all, whose self-assured stride was in direct contrast to his friend’s obvious unease. The pair had threaded their way through the maze of tables and after a brief exchange of uninformative pleasantries had deposited themselves in two of vacant chairs around the table. Mallow had done all the talking, introducing his associate simply as ‘CH’ without further explanation. I assumed he was there to shift the balance of numbers to Mallow’s favour, not that I would or could be intimidated by the presence of an extra diner at the table. The handshake was enough to tell me CH was not hired muscle, from his demeanour it was evident he wasn’t in the same profession as Mallow and from his deference to Mallow he clearly wasn’t the client. That was probably all I needed to know but not all I wanted to know, I do like knowing who I am dining with and I suspect that Mallow knew that too.
Through the course of the introductory conversation we’d established that the weather was uncharacteristically wet for this time of year, our respective families were ‘fine’ and business was ‘good’ for all our chosen professions. During this time I had beckoned Henri our waiter over, drinks were ordered and he silently departed allowing Mallow and his companion time to study the menu. To aid my fellow diners I had recommended the turbot should they be undecided on their menu choice. Mallow grinned at that point, silently indicating he was aware of my motives and I acknowledged his conclusion with a nod. When Mallow had called offering to buy me lunch I instantly knew he was on paid expenses so suggesting one of the higher-priced items was simply to gauge how lucrative his client was; having footed the bill on too many occasions for one of Mallow’s working lunches I was tempted to recoup some of that expenditure but decided against it. To be honest, whoever his client was the depth of their pockets was of no concern to me, I just wanted to play the game, and to be equally honest I just didn’t fancy the fish today.
As Henri returned with the drinks Mallow sat back in his chair and after a moment of carefully considered thought, CH did the same though unlike Mallow he didn’t immediately reach for the glass as Henri placed it on the table. From the look of unconcealed indifference he gave it I suspected that the Canadian dry would remain untouched for the duration. Henri tucked the empty drinks tray under his left arm and slipped a notepad from his back pocket, pen poised ready to take our order. We unanimously decided to skip a starter and no one requested the turbot, today would be a steak-day: two rare, one medium-rare, all with spaetzle and grilled mushrooms; I asked CH if he’d prefer a coffee but he declined the offer while still ignoring the fizzing glass of ginger ale before him. Clearly he was not someone who has forsaken alcohol, but someone who cannot drink while at his work. From our scant conversation and hopefully accurate reading of body language I believed I had all the information I needed so ventured a question to confirm my deduction.
‘What do you do CH?’ I smiled reassuringly, trying not to appear intrusive, but I could see his body tense at the enquiry.
‘I drive.’ He mumbled as though embarrassed by his reply, he gave me an unconvincing smile back and I felt a reprimanding tap against my shin as Mallow gently kicked me. From his stature this was evidently not in the field of motorsports and he lacked the calloused hands of a truck driver or the assured manner of someone operating on the wrong side of the law. Besides, people involved in driving of that sort never announce themselves to total strangers. I had accurately deduced he was a chauffeur or something similar and judging by his dress, self-employed. Looking over to Mallow I saw a wry smile cross his face.
‘Now, now Felix, quit teasing.’ He scolded jokingly, ‘CH is here for a pleasant lunch among friends, my treat for keeping him hanging around all morning.’ Admonished, I held up my hands in surrender.
‘It’s a fair cop.’ I admitted with a short laugh, then I lowered my hands and turned back to his companion, ‘I apologise CH, curiosity got the better of me.’ I lifted my glass from the table and raised it towards him before taking a sip. His glass remained untouched but he visibly relaxed as the tension flowed from his body.
‘It’s okay Mr Wainwright,’ he replied.
‘As Mallow says, we’re friends here, call me Felix. I hope you weren’t offended by my question.’
‘I don’t mind, Mr… err… Felix,’ it was clear he’d registered that I’d not referred to Mallow by his first name and I suspect that would prefer to call me Mr Wainwright. He continued, ‘I’d do the same if I didn’t know who you were.’
‘Ah, my reputation precedes me I see.’ I laughed and he laughed in return.
‘Well, yes and no. Everyone knows who you are of course, but we’ve met before,’ he paused for a second, ‘I mean, I’ve driven for you many times but I guess you only saw the back of my head.’ For emphasis he pointed to the back of his head as if I would be uncertain to where that was, I suppressed a laugh and nodded instead.
The food came and was quickly consumed as the conversation flowed freely, revolving around everything except the reason we were here. Visibly less perturbed by his surroundings and present company CH proved to be very knowledgeable and well informed on current affairs and some affairs that were just as current but decidedly not in the public domain. I made a mental note to be more guarded in any private conversations held in chauffeured cars, not that he was being indiscrete or betraying any confidences. In fact he was remarkably circumspect in that respect, carefully avoiding any imprudent slip that would reveal himself to be untrustworthy, but it was clear he knew a lot more than he was prepared to say on many subjects that some people would prefer that no one knew anything about. Mallow’s ulterior motive for befriending his driver, and for inviting him to lunch, was now all too evident. As a businessman I know the value of information as much as any private detective would and that value can be priceless. Mallow was either offering CH to me as a source of information or as a plant to glean information from me, the only question remaining being at what cost?
Mallow and I chose to forego a dessert and each ordered ourselves a coffee, CH (after glancing across to Mallow as if asking an unspoken ‘may I?’), ordered a trio of sorbet, though once it was placed on the table before him, looked quizzically at the flat grey slate with three tiny quenelles of brightly coloured ice neatly aligned on a smear of pea-green coulis, desperately trying to mask his disappointment. I made a mental note to speak to the club’s purser regarding our dessert menu.
While we supped our coffee, Mallow leaned forward as if to pull me into his confidence. We had too much reciprocated respect for each other to discuss business during a business lunch, and to be fair, I would not be here if I didn’t enjoy his company – it is hard not to like the man, for there is nothing to dislike about him. In different circumstances we really would be friends, of that I have no doubt. However, he is a detective whom I occasionally employ to “detect” for me, and I am a respected businessman who he occasionally taps for information. It is a good working relationship built on trust and unwritten understanding. We had long ago made an unspoken decision to keep our relationship on this professional footing and not socialise at any other level.
We had met many years ago over a matter involving of one of my more, shall we say ‘charitable’ interests. The finer details of those endeavours I leave to my Personal Assistant Helga Schaub, I merely supply the financial backing and the public persona. I had cause to visit his office on the pretext of finding an ex-employee who had absconded with a trifling amount of cash from one of portfolios that we manage. At first I refused Helga’s request that I made the visit in person, stating that such things were not of my concern and could be dealt with by an underling, but she advised that such a meeting would be mutually beneficial, the logic of which would become apparent once I had spoken with him. ‘Besides’, she had said in her efficient and direct manner, ‘he is a club member.’
Like myself, Mallow was one of the few hereditary members of the Athenaeum, a very select club within a broader select club of affiliates, yet strangely our two ancestral paths never seemed to have crossed at any point in the Athenaeum’s history. According to the records the Mallow family had played no part in the its formation and over the years had shown no interest in its operation, they were just one of the reserved group of silent, and for all intents and purposes to the outside world, anonymous benefactors who had been awarded hereditary membership by their continued patronage. It was surprising then to discover that the current member of the Mallow line was a ‘gumshoe’ (to use the vernacular) working out of a small office above a tailor’s shop in one of the more unsavoury areas of the city.
Hand-painted lettering on the frosted glass panelling of the office door had misspelt both Mallow’s name and profession and so announced him as a Pirate Instigator. The symbol that he used as a trade-mark however was rather well executed – a stylised eye with a single tear-drop no doubt carefully traced from a book on Egyptian mythology had been expertly rendered in gold and black. On receiving no reply to my knock, I pushed on the brass finger-plate and the door swung open to reveal the office. It was like a 1940s film-set, from the beaten-up oak desk with its brass and green glass art deco reading lamp and mottled brown Bakalite intercom (that connected to nowhere, as this solitary office had no anteroom or reception area) down to the wooden hat-stand replete with well-worn gabardine mackintosh and obligatory dark grey fedora hat. The wood-slat venetian blinds were half-closed to the glare of sunlight coming in through the partially open window, bringing with it the clattering sounds of the street below to mix with the thrumming hum of the chromium-plated desk fan sat atop an antique bookcase that ineffectually stirred the faintly fetid air of stale whiskey, musty human odour and the spiced aromas permeating up from the multitude of noisy take-away restaurants that lined the street outside. Mallow sat slumped behind the desk, red-eyed and unshaven, a bottle of bourbon before him containing less than a mouthful of the cheap liquor-store fuel in its dregs and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, none of them I noted were lipstick-stained, nor was there any sign of discarded crumpled cigarette packs or any trace of cigarette smoke fug in the air. A half-consumed pot of noodles bearing the Japanese kanji characters from one of nearby the fast-food joints sat proudly in the centre of the desk, a lone disposable chopstick planted unceremoniously in the tangle of congealed nut-brown soba noodles, its partner was nowhere to be seen.
‘Long night?’ I asked as he looked up at me and blinked at the narrow stripes of sunlight cast across his desk. Sitting up in his creaking wooden swivel chair, straightening his dishevelled tie and brushing an errant noodle from his shirt-front, he rubbed drunken sleep from his eyes and surveyed the room with a grimace. There was no hint of surprise in his reaction, nor should there have been, this meeting was by appointment after all and I was expected.
‘Please, ‘scuse the mess.’ He answered apologetically, hurriedly gathering scraps of paper and discarded bar-receipts from the desk and stuffing them unceremoniously into a manila folder that had evidently been repeatedly used and reused. ‘A complicated case,’ he unnecessarily explained as he attempted to clear his desk, slipping a crumpled photograph of a young boy into the file, ‘a run-away. Good family and all. You know’, he remarked in a casual yet dejected tone as he closed the file. Alas, I did know, the homeless were one of my charitable ventures and while I did not recognise the boy, I certainly knew of the boarding school uniform he wore and the prestigious establishment it represented. Mallow swiftly spun round in the chair, stood up and reached over to an old mahogany filing cabinet, as a drawer opened I could hear the unmistakable clink of more whiskey bottles as he casually dropped the file into the drawer, followed quickly by the almost empty whiskey bottle from his desk. He peered into the draw and winced, then reached back to the desk retrieve the carelessly missed screw top of bottle that he nonchalantly tossed that into the drawer and pushed it closed.
Out of his chair I could see he was tall and lean, not exactly gym-fit and muscle-toned but not as mistreated and neglected as his apparent lifestyle would suggest. I instantly recognised the quality in the cut of his business suit; if we did not share the same tailor then the owners of the store below were expert in counterfeit reproduction. On first impression I thought Mallow was playing the part, a dilatant distraction for a wealthy socialite, as everything in the room looked all too carefully staged, too perfect and too contrived. I knew from my prior quick perusal of the Athenaeum’s annual accounts that the not insubstantial donation cheques continued to arrive and were routinely cleared without problem. This of course could have been the result of some shrewd trust-fund investment by his forebears and not from his own finances. Yet from experience I could instantly tell that no money had been spared in giving the impression that none had been spent in this office and its carefully selected furnishings. This much attention to detail does not come cheap. Mr Mallow was not as breadline as he wanted the world to believe and I suspected that this was a professional ruse, a meticulously orchestrated window dressing.
Standing more composed than I would have anticipated, Mallow walked around desk, took two steps towards me and offered a handshake.
‘Mr Wainwright’, there was no trace of post-drunken slur in his voice, it was now clear and warmly animated, the rheumy redness in his eyes had quickly dissipated and they now shone bright, emphasising a probing stare that quickly scanned me from head to toe. I expected to be rocked back on my heels from the assault of his sour bourbon-soaked breath, but there was none. Another façade, an act he played out for my benefit, I now had little doubt that the glimpse of his current case-file I was given was no accident either. I shook his hand; it was neither limp nor aggressive for he matched the firmness of my grip with measured precision, a sign that he regarded me as an equal. ‘So, what brings you to our respectable neck of the woods?’ He asked. His joke was not lost on me, perhaps there was more honesty here than in the business sector of the city I frequent.
We conducted our meeting briefly and competently, he promised to find the miscreant within twenty-four hours and as I recall he kept that promise with several hours to spare. As reward for his prompt resolution of my case I later used my network of contacts to push helpful clues on the missing boy’s background in his direction, the conclusion of which had a profound and unexpected effect on me, unearthing as it did a network of human trafficking, the nature of which is seldom mentioned, even in the tabloid press. Being involved in closing down such a salaciously unsavoury operation, albeit not directly, was a strangely cathartic experience that caused me to rethink and realign my ‘charitable’ ventures into more legitimate directions. Not that this was a life-changing epiphany, just sound commercial judgement, guilt by association is bad for business.
‘We’ll have to do lunch at the club sometime.’ I suggested as the meeting concluded. Mallow grinned, whether he was expecting the invite or was surprised by it I could not tell. So began a succession of business lunches that did indeed prove to be advantageous to all concerned, including Helga, who received a modest bonus for recognising that someone that proficient at finding people needed to be kept close.
Now the lunch was over it was back to business… Mallow whispered a single name, a woman’s name, and while I had never heard the name before, I instantly recognised what it meant. As Mallow spoke I noticed that CH didn’t react at all, not even a flinch or tell-tale glance way from his dessert, yet I could tell that all he had heard would be filed away in his memory. Removing a business card from my wallet and a fountain pen from my inside pocket, I scribbled a name, address and telephone number on the back and dropped it on the table by Mallow’s now empty coffee cup. He picked it up without looking at it and on thanking me, slipped it into the breast pocket of his shirt. On a second card I wrote Helga’s name and number and passed it to CH, and he too slipped it into his shirt pocket with a polite thank you.
I did consider telling them of the smear of ink the cards had left on their shirt-fronts, but chose not to, affording myself a small self-satisfied smirk at such a childish prank.