"The riff-raff we let in these days," said the little man in lace cravat and knee-breeches. "I dread the loving-cup. I swear it gave me mouth ulcers last year."
"It's all right for you," said the new Governor of the Bank of England, stretching his long legs out towards the flickering fire, "the Lord Mayor gets first go."
The tradition of passing round a chalice of wine at the banquets for each guest to sip was a symbol of the brotherhood of the City.
"I'm glad that's all you have to worry about," sighed the new Chairman of the Stock Exchange, scratching the side of his thin nose. "The reptiles are baying again."
"Reptiles don't bay," said the Governor, author of a dozen financial thrillers under another name and a stickler for words.
"I bet Tyrannosaurus Rex bayed," said the Chairman gloomily. "I bet he howled and gnashed his teeth."
They lapsed into silence, watching the flames flicker in the fireplace and dipping their faces into brandy goblets big as nose-bags.
"The City's the only decent industry the country's got left and the press want to ruin that as well," said the Chairman.
"Not their fault," said the Mayor, who was on the board of a newspaper company.
"Whose fault is it then?" grumbled the Chairman. "Just because there are a couple of rotten apples they condemn the whole barrel."
"They're fishing," said the Governor. "When you ask for proof they say they have to protect their sources. Which means they made the whole thing up."
They lapsed into gloomy silence again. The only sound in the Mansion House parlour was the ticking of a grandfather clock.
"So what do we do?" asked the Governor. "Tell them to stop rocking the boat?"
"They'll think we've got something to hide," said the Mayor.
"Who hasn't?" snapped the Governor. "What do they think we're playing here? Monopoly?"
The burden of responsibility hung heavy on the protectors of the City, the griffins at the gate with sword and shield and red pointed tongue.
"Throw them a bone," said the Mayor.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked the Chairman.
"Give them something to chew on. When the wolf's outside the door you don't stick your fingers down his throat. You throw him a bone. Ancient proverb."
"We can't shop our own chaps," said the Chairman.
"We don't have to," said the Mayor. "We just nudge the papers in the right direction. They invent the rest. I know an editor I can whisper a quiet word to."
"Anyone in mind?" asked the Governor.
"Not yet. We'll find some Johnny-come-lately too big for his boots," said the Chairman.
They chuckled and passed the brandy and poured it into their individual goblets.
It was a crisp May morning, the first of the merry month, May Day. A youngish man, slim and dapper in a dark three-piece suit, plucked a red carnation from the facade of the Moscow Narodny Bank. He hooked his neatly furled umbrella in the crook of an elbow while he fixed it and considered for a moment whether he should wear a buttonhole with a black tie. Life must go on. Despite the tragic events of the night he felt light-hearted, optimistic, glad to be alive, whatever the uncertain future might bring. He hummed to himself as he strode jauntily down Threadneedle Street. "Ti-tum-ti-tum ti-tum-ti-tum..."
The offices of Dividend Investments were in a new development of tarted-up warehouses at the eastern edge of the City. They took up one floor of Capital House, an old opium warehouse from the heyday of the China trade, gutted and scrubbed clean. It formed one side of a square around a cobbled courtyard. He walked briskly over the cobbles and up the steps, pausing for a beat to let the automatic doors sigh open. A fleshless man, scoured pink, in blue and red military uniform with thick gold stripes on his sleeve, snapped to attention behind a desk.
"Morning, Sergeant. Carry on."
He made straight for a waiting lift and pressed the button for the fifth floor. By the time the door opened he had his keys ready to unlock the reinforced glass door. With a sharp pang he realized that he was now the only living key-holder.
The reception area was panelled in dark oak. Step back in time, said the panelling, step back to the old-fashioned values of thrift and tradition and respectability. Our long-established firm was founded way back in 1979, you can trust us, and here are some old engravings of the Bank of England and Saint Paul's and the Guildhall to prove it.
A door on the right boasted 'General Manager' in gold letters. A door on the left muttered 'Staff Only' in silver. A door in the middle, behind the receptionist's mahogany desk, said nothing. He went to the unmarked door, reached a practised hand inside and flicked a dozen switches. Concealed lights flickered on and a red light on the alarm system stopped flashing.
"Ti-tum-ti-tum ti-tum-ti-tum..." With the decisiveness of habit he went through the door marked 'General Manager' into another lobby panelled in the same dark oak as reception. He stood for a moment while he reconstructed in his mind George Livery's last moments. Livery had been working late. He had staggered into the lobby clutching his chest and collapsed on the floor. Mentally he drew the outline of Livery's body on the carpet and respectfully stepped round it to go through an unmarked door into a kitchen where he switched on the coffee-machine cook had prepared the night before.
While he waited for the coffee to brew he went through the connecting door into the dining-room. It had windows along one side and a door that led into an ante-room where guests gathered for drinks before being ushered to the table. Both rooms were decorated in Barbican Nouveau, teak and chrome and white leather, with prints of exotic birds on the wall in aluminium frames. He walked round the long table, inspected the cocktail cabinet and the sideboard, glanced at the floor, to make sure nothing was out of place. He was particularly attentive to the ante-room, straightening the sofas and putting his hand down the back of the white cushions, as if he had lost something. All clear. Nothing to worry about. Fingers crossed.
"Ti-tum-ti-tum ti-tum-ti-tum..." He went back to the kitchen, poured coffee into a Doulton cup and carried it back though the lobby into the general manager's office. He looked round the empty sanctum, breathing in the smell of coffee and wax polish and cigars and thick pile carpet. He opened the Venetian blinds and sat down in the high-backed leather chair and put his cup carefully on the leather-bound green blotter. The red Economist diary was closed, the in-trays empty, the screens blank. It was innocent, ready for a fresh start, swept clean like sand for the next ephemeral footprint.
The grating, reproachful voice made him jump. He saw who it was, framed in the doorway to the secretary's office, and let himself sink slowly back on the farting leather cushion, trying to pretend he had not been leaping to his feet. Tall, pale, veiled in black, she looked like Death herself.
"Eddie, how could you?"
"How could I what?"
"Sit in his chair."
"Easy. I aimed my bum and bent my knees. I do it several times a day."
"It's Mr Livery's chair," she hissed.
"He doesn't need it any more. He doesn't need anything any more."
Death sobbed, turned on her heel, and disappeared. Eddie got up and followed her. She stood in front of an open filing cupboard dabbing her eyes and looking at herself in the mirror fixed to the back of the door. She took off a voluminous moiré patterned coat but kept on a black pillbox hat with a spotty veil designed for easy eye dabbing. She wore a black silk suit and black gloves.
"It's a bit soon for the funeral."
"Where's your respect?"
"More to the point, Nora, how did you know he was dead?"
Nora looked at herself in the mirror and pursed her lips. She was made up to look as though she had not been made up and her lips were much brighter inside than outside. She took off her hat and shook her hair, mourning hair, straight brushed. Black tears, made of jet, dangled from her ears.
"You phoned me."
"Just as long as I know. What time?"
"How should I know? Eight o'clock."
"I was still at the hospital. Make it ten."
"Wasn't there anything they could do?"
"Nothing. He was gone before he left here."
She threw her head back and slapped her forehead with a clenched fist as if she was rubber stamping it. Like all Nora's movements it was slightly awkward, uncoordinated, as if she were aiming somewhere else.
"What are we going to do, Eddie?"
"You can take off the funeral gear for a start. Your relationship with Mr Livery was purely secretarial. Then you could check the ante-room again. You wouldn't want anything left lying around."
"That's why I came in early."
"Go and do it, there's a good girl."
"This isn't true, is it, Eddie? Tell me it's not happening, tell me someone's making all this up."
"It's not true and someone's making it all up and it's all in your imagination."
"He's got a luncheon at National Midland today."
"He'll have to skip that one."
"I never picked up his bifocals."
"He won't be needing them for a bit."
"He was ever so cheerful and suddenly he said, Oh dear."
"Oh dear, he said."
"That was a bit of an understatement. In the circumstances."
She glared at him, her fist still fixed to her forehead.
"You don't know what I've been through. How can you know? How can anybody know?" She closed her eyes and moaned again, removed the fist from her forehead and put it in her mouth.
"They could put two and two together. Mrs Livery noticed his shirt was tucked inside his underpants. She said he never wore them like that. She accused the doctor."
"Oh no. I could have sworn..."
"She said it was common."
Colour burst through the white mask on Nora's face.
"What will she do?"
"She might forget all about it. On the other hand it could prey on her mind. She might start asking questions."
"If she finds out..."
"They'll be after us. We have to cover our tracks."
She looked at him blankly, blinking through tears black with mascara.
"What do you mean, after us? Who's 'they'?"
"General Manager Dead of Shock in Office Love Nest. After-hours Orgy Kills Bank Supremo."
"What are we going to do, Eddie?" She took a deep breath and pulled her broad shoulders back, reminding Eddie of a figurehead on a sailing ship.
"Do what we always do. Yes-Sir-no-Sir-three-bags-full-Sir."
"But they'll find out."
"There's always a way out, Nora. We just have to think of it. Leave it to me."
"Eddie? You won't tell anyone, will you?"
"It's not for me. I don't care. It's for his sake."
Underneath the flummery and posing Nora must have been genuinely upset. Eddie's feelings took him by surprise. He felt sorry for her. For Nora! He must be slipping. More important was that he had something over her. It might come in handy in the future.
"Don't worry. Of blessed memory, Nora."
He sauntered out into the general manager's lobby. It was furnished with a haven of sofas around a low coffee table, illuminated by a crystal chandelier and dominated by a portrait under a spotlight. It was a colour photograph of a middle-aged man fudged to look like an oil painting. He posed at his desk, one hand on a telephone and the other on a diary, a man of authority, a captain of industry, a chairman of the board. The scarcity of hair on his smooth, receding crown was compensated by black and bushy eyebrows brooding over eyes that were hooded yet protruding, like a crocodile's. His other features were lost among the wattles and swelling cheek pouches of the rest of his face. The identity of the great man was not entrusted to the competence of the artist. A brass label on the bottom of the frame announced 'Percival Wheeler, Chairman and Chief Executive of the Dividend Group of Companies'. Eddie stood in front of the picture. His impertinent good looks, sharp but cheerful with a crooked smile and straight nose, were superimposed on the captain of industry. He straightened his tie and smoothed down his dark curly hair and gave himself a cheeky grin. He switched on the spotlight and his reflection disappeared.
He went into the entrance lobby and brought the mail-bag in from outside the front door where it had been dumped and went through the door marked 'Staff Only'. It opened into a large open-plan office. Coming from the management suite across the no-man's-land of reception was entering another world. There was no panelling or subdued lighting here, no coffee-machines and soft cushions. The people who work here are different, it said, they do different things, they are not as important as the people on the other side. It was brightly lit with neon tubes, furnished with grey and silver metal. Free-standing partitions about five feet high divided it into a warren of cubicles and passages. The partitions, the floor, the walls were covered in fuzzy grey carpet, bristling with static. Stepping lightly and trying not to touch any of the surfaces Eddie went straight to a row of four fax machines against the wall and tore off the messages that had come in overnight. He read them carefully as he threaded his way back through the maze to the lobby. He picked up the mail from the reception desk and took it through the unmarked door into his post-room. He liked to get it all read before the staff arrived.
"Ti-tum-ti-tum ti-tum-ti-tum... We'll keep the red flag fly-ing..."
At five to nine he sat at the reception desk to tick off the names of the staff in the attendance register as they arrived. He could have done the job just as well in front of his television screen in the post-room. But he liked them to know they had him to thank when they were marked down as arriving on time even when they had not. As usual Norman, the Chief Dealer, was the first to arrive. He was in his early fifties but could have passed for sixty-odd. His ancient gaberdine mac and shuffling walk, eyes downcast as if prospecting for cigarette butts, would have gone unnoticed at a refuge for down-and-outs.
"Bad news this morning, Norman."
"Hong Kong dollar down?"
"Mr Livery. He closed out his options. Squared his position."
"What did you say?"
"Mr Livery passed away." Eddie forced his cheerful face into an expression of mourning.
"Swifter than. a weaver's shuttle his days have passed leaving no hope behind," intoned Norman.
"Does Mr Wheeler know?"
"He'll be here later. He had a heart attack."
"Who? Mr Wheeler? God bless us."
"Just thought I'd let you know. "
"Thanks, Eddie," he sighed and shambled off into the main office, shaking his head, body language he employed to ward off whatever news threatened his conviction that he had seen it all.
"Fleas? Have you caught the fleas?" said Freda Grafton, slamming open the glass door. She was a busy, bustling woman with a frizz of greying hair and a permanent frown. She was Head of Administration, nominally Eddie's boss, a pretence they kept up once a year when she gave him the envelope with his pay-rise notification. Nothing else connected them except a line on the corporate fiction entitled Organization Chart. Eddie shook his head.
"I knew it. That Louise telling stories again. She says they're in the walls. And in the partitions. She's a troublemaker that one. If I have to look at the bites on the back of her legs again I'll slap them. I'm seeing them now. Out of the comer of my eye. All of accounts is scratching themselves. We'll have to fumigate the place..."
Rumours normally lasted about ten days. They covered the spectrum of plausibility - impending closure, redundancy programmes, Legionnaire's Disease from the water cooler, cockroaches in the coffee-machine, impotence from the neon lights, radiation from the computer screens, death rays from the satellite dish on the roof. They gave shape to the general feeling of impending doom associated with boring work. This week it was fleas in the fuzzy wall carpet. It was eclipsed by Eddie's news of a doom that no longer impended but had fallen fair and square on their boss's head.
"Mr Livery," he said, the mention of management silencing her instantly, "passed away. Last night."
She clapped her hand to her mouth and turned round to glum Larry Chivers, Chief Accountant, sidling past behind her. He was thin and pale and insubstantial. Livery called him - used to call him - the ghost in the machine.
"We've lost Mr Livery," she said. Startled, Larry looked round to see where his boss could be hiding.
"He died last night," added Eddie, putting him out of his confusion. They observed a few seconds silence, each waiting for the other to express the first condolence.
"I've got a salary review with him this morning," murmured Larry.
"Better get out the ouija board then," said Eddie.
By half past nine there was a sense of industry in the main office that the employees of Dividend Investments rarely experienced, a buzz of excitement more usually associated with footage of dealing rooms on the television news or commercials for building societies than with real life. Nora typed out an announcement for Eddie to stick on the staff notice-board outside the toilets but like all information on staff notice-boards it was an empty formality. The real news grew like barley sugar on a string.
"...stabbed in the heart..."
"...collapsed in the office..."
"...buried by the market..."
"...in Leadenhall Market..."
"...knocked down by a delivery van..."
Between the caucuses of speculation and rumour went Eddie, listening, gathering, gleaning, enticing with a crumb of fact the conjecture away from its more fanciful flights and with crusts of disinformation steering it away from the truth. The colder the trail to his own small part in Livery's demise the better