From time to time, Auntie M likes to mix things up a bit so her readers won’t get bored with straight book reviews. Today she’s thrilled to welcome Gordon Brown, whose new book FALLING is out in the US through Down & Out Books. Gordon is a great lad and crime fiction promotor extraordinaire, who helped start Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, Bloody Scotland. Today, he’s here with the prequel to his book as a treat for Auntie M’s readers:
Long Before I Fell
The room is designed to put the occupant in a state of mild panic. There are two comfortable but incongruous armchairs, sitting opposite each other. Both have signs of wear and tear—blue leather, fading to holes on the armrests.
The floor is wooden, real wood not fake laminate, with decades of use and abuse. It was once shining dark oak reclaimed from an old house but years of neglect have transmuted it into stained, warped planks separated by gaps packed with dust, dirt and crap. There are no windows and the only door is locked. The walls are magnolia, fresh, as if someone had started to think about selling the place. The ceiling is bare concrete with a small light fitting above the door. The bulb is fifty percent less powerful than it needs to be.
Below the light and above the door sits a small, scabby grey grill. The slats are furred from years of non-cleaning. A small hiss hints at some form of air movement from inside. It’s not air conditioning; the temperature in here is high enough to keep food warm before serving.
I’m sitting in a Marks and Spencer’s charcoal grey suit. It’s a few seasons past its best but in my trade the cash margins do not warrant new suits very often. My shoes are twice re-heeled rejects bought from TK Maxx. I’ve never heard of the brand printed on the insole but that means it’ll be well known to those with thicker wallets. My shirt is staining under my armpits as the lurid green that so appealed when I saw it for a fiver in the charity shop a few months ago is excelling as a sweat highlighting colour. I’m nervous enough without advertising the fact so graphically—so my jacket is staying on.
I’m sitting with a small briefcase clutched in both hands. I’ve had the case since I graduated from University. A present from an old girlfriend. The lining inside is ripped in several places but its outward distressed state is cool in certain quarters.
The briefcase contains one stapled sheaf of papers. They are my hope and my support. That is if, and if is small word for a large prayer, they stand up to scrutiny. There are five sheets, each one hand written and each one signed. There’s a lot riding on them.
I play with the lock on the front of the bag. Broken and without a key it stays shut with the aid of a small piece of cardboard.
The handle of the door turns and in walks a man I’ve never seen before. I stand up, my briefcase clasped to my chest. ‘Hello, I’m…’
‘Charles Wiggs. I know.’ The visitor ignores my outstretched hand. He’s dressed to heighten the rooms menace quotient. Black suit, black waistcoat, black tie, black shoes, white shirt and dark glasses. I’m thinking Matrix here. He’s clean shaven with a cropped hairstyle that looks DIY. Nose hair crowds both nasal passages, at odds with the neatness of the rest of him. He’s a little under six feet tall, wiry but with a beer gut that the suit is cut to try and hide.
‘So, Mr Wiggs, let’s get down to business.’ He perches on the edge of one of the chairs as if he’s expecting this to be a short meeting. ‘You’re here for a specific purpose and I’m short on time.’
There’s not much to say to that. This is the latest step in a six-month journey that started with a rather innocuous letter from a firm called Retip asking me to give them a call.
Nasal Hair, for want of a better name since he did not introduce himself, has an iPad in one hand. He’s doing that sweeping thing with it. He looks at me. ‘Two years and struck off as an accountant.’
He returns to the iPad and waits for a reply. I’m not sure whether this is a threat, an offer or the name of a new movie. I play dumb; I’m good at that.
‘How would you cope with two years and struck off as an accountant?’ This time he doesn’t lift his eyes from the screen.
‘Two years of what?’
He does the fingers opening wide trick on the iPad. ‘Jail.’
‘What about four years and a fine?’
Okay, so this is some new game. I fire back. ‘I’ll raise you six years, a larger fine and a weekend in a country house hotel.’
Nasal Hair lowers the iPad. It looks like it hurts for him to do so. ‘Mr Wiggs, you do realise why you’re here? Flippancy is not something I would advise at this stage.’
I thought myself good at this. After so long in the profession I know how the game is played. Every step so far had been by the book. His tone was making me wonder if I’d missed something. ‘Mr…’ He doesn’t offer a name so I keep going. ‘Look, what’s with the jail thing?’
He lifts the iPad up and fiddles with it again. I wonder if he’s checking me on Google? I Googled myself once and found a single reference to me joining Cheedle, Baker and Nudge. It was below a reference to a guy called Charles Wiggs who had been arrested for exposing himself on the beach near Santa Monica.
The sound of a cat meowing slips from Nasal Hair’s machine. He gives it his full attention and I think I’ve been demoted to a level that lies beneath checking new emails. The cat kicks in again and I’m forced to sit back and wait while he catches up on shit.
‘So do we have a deal?’ He half drops the iPad to his side. Not quite wanting to go the full hog and lay it down.
‘We haven’t discussed any deal, and by the way, you owe an apology to Sarah.’
‘I told you, Mr Wiggs…’
‘Sarah is very important to our company. Do you know her? Sarah Gilmore. Nice lady. In her sixties, not quite sure how well into her sixties but looking good on it. She does some bookkeeping for us. Has a cat, sounds a little like your email alert. A tom. She had it done a few years ago. A bit late in my opinion. Story goes it’s the father to half the cat population in the area. Then again you can’t blame him. A bit fat now though. Anyway Sarah is a sensitive lady and takes things very personally.’
‘We met Miss Gilmore and others.’
Sarah had been scared to death by the meeting. They can have a go at me. They can have a go at the others—we’ve all been around long enough to take it. But Sarah? That’s below the belt, even if you were wearing your belt round your ankles. I’d almost considered not coming. I lean forward. ‘Lawyer.’
‘I’ll need a lawyer if we are looking at a deal.’
‘To hold his hand and listen to my mum’s old 78’s.’
‘Funny. Accept our deal and then we can get down to the brass tacks.’
‘What deal?’ I struggle not to swear. There are times in my life when I meet people and wonder if it is me or is it them. I learned long ago that no one ever thinks it’s them. Except me. I think it’s me all the time. Does that make sense? No. Let me explain.
In this world you need someone to blame for all the shit that goes down, and in my experience, no one ever thinks it’s them at fault. So I figure why shouldn’t it be me. Why not? It makes life easier when you take the blame for things. ‘Who ate the last biscuit?’ ‘Who left the toilet seat up?’ ‘Who was supposed to lock the door last night?’ Take the blame and move on. It just helps the world run bit smoother. Except not now. It’s okay to be thought of as the ‘never closes the toilet seat man.’ The consequences for that are minimal. The consequences of getting this wrong are a little more serious. ‘Excuse me but who are you?’ I feel I should ask.
‘So do you want the deal?’
‘What deal?’ I’m sounding like a stuck record.
He shakes his head and stands up. His perfect black suit falls back into place. A tiny spot of dirt, sprung from the floorboards has landed on his shoe. He examines it, raises his foot and flicks at the offending fleck. Satisfied that all is right with his apparel he knocks on the door and is let out.
I’m left to stew in the rising heat. No doubt a temperature selected by hired psychologists to maximise the discomfort for a person. I’ll expect the white noise, water boarding and stress position in due course.
The entrance of someone new catches me by surprise. The theme is black again. This time black skirt, jacket, high heels, stockings and a white blouse. ‘Hi. I’m here to get your signature.’
‘It will formalize our deal.’
‘We have a deal? And when did I agree to this?’
‘Just now. My associate just told me.’
‘He did? And you are?’
‘Are you happy with an electronic signature or would you prefer to use pen and paper.’
She’s in her early-forties, hair tied tight and a lack of make-up that doesn’t detract from her looks. She doesn’t need the stuff. I’ll call her No Make-up for the moment. ‘Look, who are you?’
No Make-up tilts her head a little. ‘No, what?’
‘No to anything. No to signing—electronic or paper. No to being here. No to coming here in the first place. No to this room. I mean, in this day and age, who holds interviews in a room like this. All in all the answer is no.’
‘So you don’t want the deal?’
‘What deal? We haven’t discussed a deal. There’s no deal. If you want a deal, tell me what deal you want. I have signed testimonials to our work in this bag. Do you want to see them? Will that help?’
‘We won’t make this offer again.’
‘What offer?’ This time I know it’s not me. It’s definitely them. It’s so them that if you opened the Oxford English Dictionary up at the word ‘them’ there wouldn’t be a written description lying there—instead there would be two small, passport size pictures of Nasal Hair and No Make-up. That’s how them, they are. ‘Look I’m not sure how this is supposed to work.’
‘Is your middle name Tyber?’
My head grinds to a halt as my brain stalls. ‘Sorry?’
‘Tyber. Is you middle name Tyber?’
‘What? I mean what? I mean…’ Shit I don’t know what I mean.
‘I had a boyfriend once that was called Tyber.’
‘Congratulations. And this is relevant how?’
‘If you were on your own in the desert and had run out of water, how long do you think you would last before you drank your own pee?’
I check that today is still Tuesday and that I’m still on the planet. I then check the room to make sure that someone else hasn’t snuck in and is now No Make-up’s new target.
I stand up, still clutching the bag.
No Make-up moves to cut me off. The door opens and Nasal Hair comes back in. He stands behind No Make-up. ‘Did he sign?’
She shakes her head. ‘He won’t even tell me if he’d drink his own pee.’
‘Did you tell him about your boyfriend?’
‘Do you think it’ll help?’
‘Maybe.’ He turns to me. ‘Mr Wiggs, how long is a snake?’
I have no idea what to do here. I can’t think of anything to say other than. ‘I think I want out of here.’
Nasal Hair stands firm. ‘A rough guess will do?’
‘What is wrong with you people? Let me out right now.’
‘Any guess and you can go.’
‘And I can go?’
‘And you can go.’
‘Shit. Twenty feet.’
No Make-up smiles. ‘Good answer.’
Nasal Hair is smirking. ‘One of the best. Now can I have the testimonials you talked about.’
At first it doesn’t register that he’s talking about the papers in my briefcase. He holds out his hand. ‘Good answer by the way.’
I surprise myself by extracting the papers and handing them over. He takes them. ‘We’ll be fifteen minutes. It’s hot in here. We’ll get you a cold drink.’
With that they exit and I stand like a lemon.
True to their words they’re back in quarter of an hour, cold Coke in Nasal Hair’s hand. ‘Sorry to have kept you. We’ve kept the papers. I’m assuming you have copies. Everything looks in order. Oh sorry, do you not like Coke?’
I realise he is offering the can to me. He pulls it away and shakes my hand. ‘So I think we can close this one.’
No Make-up nods. ‘After the snake answer I think we can say that we’ve found who we need.’ She turns to me. ‘You’re free to go.’
Half my head wants to spit out a rant. The other half tells me to get the fuck out of there. I walk towards the door and it opens.
‘Oh, Mr Wiggs.’ I stop and turn at Nasal Hair’s voice.
‘Next time it’ll be a lot easier if you remember the snake answer up front.’
The door closes behind me. I’m in a normal corridor with normal windows looking onto normal offices on either side. I’m not in some displaced world and I hear the sound of laughter from behind the door.
The man who opened the door for me hands me a piece of paper. ‘This way, sir.’ He gestures along the corridor.
I’m guided to the exit and take the lift to the ground floor. I step into the freshest air I have breathed in a long time.
I look at the piece of paper in my hand and open it. In neat Times New Roman it reads. ‘Thank you for your application. We are pleased to say that we are going to appoint Cheedle, Baker and Nudge as our accountants.’
It’s signed: ‘Simon Malmon, Managing Director and Karen Lewis, HR Director, Retip’
It wasn’t usually my job to interview new clients. I’m too low down on the pecking order but my boss had made a big deal of winning the account. How this was my opportunity to shine. It’s why I had been so nervous. Cheedle, Baker and Nudge isn’t in a position to turn down business at the moment. Retip might be run by some oddballs but if we only dealt with the sensible business people we would be bankrupt. I’d done my job and with a bit of luck they might give Retip to one of the new boys to look after.
I decide I need some caffeine. As I cross the road I look up at the forty story high building I’ve just left. I can’t tell which is their office and I don’t care. We’ve won the business, I’ll get a pat on the back, maybe a small bonus, and anyway, how much trouble could they be? The answer to that question was more than I could have ever imagined.
About G. J. Brown
G. J. Brown lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the U.S.A. and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non-alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange.
He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final.
Gordon has been writing since his teens and has four books published–his latest, Meltdown, being the second in the Craig McIntyre series.
Gordon also helped found Bloody Scotland—Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.