The passage of earlier traffic on the road past Kate’s house had turned the snow to slush and it was possible to drive at a reasonable, but careful pace towards the city. Closer to the city centre the roads had been gritted with rough sand and were wet but clear. Kate managed to reach the car park and make it to the office without incident.
Using her own key, she entered Sharpe’s by a little black door. One of many overlooked between the closely packed shops on Stonegate, in this case a high end clothes store and a chemist, and climbed the stairs to the office.
She was already scribbling notes, totally engrossed in the information displayed on her computer screen, when Brian showed up. A rough layout of the family tree she’d begun researching at the church was spread out on a table to her left and every few minutes she would add a new name to another branch.
The jewelled casket lay locked away and hidden in her desk drawer, wrapped up in the canvas shopping bag.
“Morning, Beautiful,” Brian said in a cheery, sing song voice that broke her concentration.
Kate looked up at him as though he’d fallen out of the sky.
“You OK?” he said, dumping a battered box of Christmas decorations on the desk.
She nodded, continuing to stare at him. Brian’s eyebrows met in a frown and he narrowed his eyes. He was unused to this much attention from her. On any other day she brushed off his flirty greetings and compliments with practised nonchalance. The look she was giving him now made him feel wary and uncomfortable, as though he’d left the house with his breakfast stuck to his face. He wiped his hand over his mouth and chin, just in case.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She nodded again and he turned his back to her, still aware of her gaze. When he looked back he was relieved to see she’d returned to work. He crossed the room and set the steaming mug on her desk.
“How’s it going?”
“Fine,” she said. “all straightforward so far.”
Kate sat back in her chair and sipped her coffee. She wrinkled her nose. It was a cheap instant and worse still, made with milk powder. One day, she was going to treat them all to a jar of rich roast granules, or better still, persuade Peter to invest in a Cappuccino machine. She looked up at Brian from the corner of her eye. Should she ask him about opening the box now or wait? What if he asked her too many questions that she couldn’t give a convincing answer to? She bit her lip before taking the plunge.
“What?” he asked, a little too sharply.
He’d caught her looking at him again and was starting to wonder what the hell was going on.
Before she could go any further the door opened and two men entered, laughing and joking about some incident they’d witnessed in the pub the previous night.
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter,” Kate said.
She’d missed her chance and now she’d have to wait.
The new arrivals hung up their coats. Good mornings were exchanged all round and they took their seats at their own desks. James, the youngest researcher in the office, was already complaining about the number of cases he was having to work on at one go.
“Have you seen all these?” he said, picking up a pile of blue folders and slapping them down on the desk again. “There must be twenty cases here and another twenty to start on after this lot. What’s happening about the new researcher, does anyone know?”
His friend, Nathan, nodded in sympathy. His desk too was piled with files, each containing a different case, all of them urgent. In addition to genealogical work the company also took on cases of intestacy, searching for the rightful heirs to estates that would otherwise revert to the government. It was a very lucrative side of the business and an extremely competitive one. The two of them liked nothing better than signing up clients before rival firms had the chance to do so. It was a game to them, but even they were struggling under the sheer number of cases.
James fixed his gaze on Brian. If anyone knew what was going on it would be him. Despite being no more than a couple of years older than Kate, he had been at Sharpe’s the longest, making him the senior researcher. The two young men considered him their leader.
Brian shoved a tack through the tail of a piece of tinsel and turned to look down at them, trying to keep his balance on the wobbly table he was using in place of a ladder.
“Peter’s ‘working on it’,” Brian said, around a mouth-full of drawing pins, adding finger quotations in the air.
He spat the pins into his hand.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath though, he’s off on one of his little holidays at the moment.”
“Bloody no chance then.”
Peter Sharpe had turned his hobby of genealogy into a business after being laid off from a twenty five year career in insurance. It had grown and expanded until he’d had to move it out of his home and into the offices on Stonegate, taking on four employees in as many years.
The company was desperate for a new researcher and Kate wasn’t sure if Peter had even advertised the post yet, let alone started interviewing prospective candidates. She could understand James’ frustration, and thought better of telling him she’d had to add three of her cases to his ‘to do’ pile because of her instructions on the family tree. Instead, she put her head down and got on with her work. So far, she had worked her way back to the client’s great grandparents and their large family of children in the late eighteen hundreds and she’d been far from finished with the church archives when the discovery of the box had interrupted her research. She had enough information to keep her going for now, but it wouldn’t be long before she’d have to go back through the parish registers again. She wondered whether Reverend Pilling had found the damage to the aisle floor yet and whether he would know something was missing. She felt guilty about her actions, but her overwhelming need to know what was inside the box prevented her from calling him and confessing her crime.
* * *
At midday, Brian was surprised to find Kate standing at his desk, asking if he would like to go to lunch with her. He’d caught her watching him several times throughout the morning and she’d seemed lost in thought more than once. He’d also noticed her checking something in the bottom drawer of her desk every ten minutes or so. She would open it, peer at whatever was in there, then close and lock the drawer again. It was all very suspicious and completely out of character.
He remembered when she’d joined the firm. He had taken a shine to her as soon as he saw her and had tried numerous times, all unsuccessful, to get her to go out with him. The more she refused the more of a challenge she became. Until he’d taken things a little too far one day and she’d let him know, in no uncertain terms, with a well placed knee to the groin, that he was wasting his time. He winced from the memory. It hadn’t stopped him flirting, but he did it from a distance now. So, at this sudden change in attitude towards him he couldn’t help thinking he’d won her over at last.
“OK,” he said. “I know a good place.”
He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. While Kate was preoccupied with retrieving the mysterious package from the bottom drawer, he held up a piece of plastic mistletoe and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at the two other men. They snickered and Kate’s head whipped up. She narrowed her eyes at him, but he feigned innocence, hiding the mistletoe behind his back and she let it go.
She held the bundle close to her chest as they left the building. She could see Brian was curious, but would say nothing until they reached the café. He was going to have to wait a little longer before she revealed her secret.
* * *
They sat opposite each other in the café Brian had chosen. The box, still wrapped in the calico shopping bag, was out of view, under the table, on Kate’s knee.
“So, that’s one full English breakfast, a tuna mayo and sweetcorn salad sandwich and two coffees,” the waitress said, confirming their order.
Brian winked at her, swivelling in his chair to stare at her bottom as she walked away.
“So, what’s going on then?” Brian asked, bringing his attention back to Kate. “Are you going to tell me what’s in the bag?”
Kate’s eyes swept the Café, observing the customers, hunched over their tables. They looked weary, despite the cheery seasonal background music and the bright, multi-coloured paper chains strung across the ceiling. An old woman with a pull along shopping trolley sat by the window with a cream cake, warming her chilled hands around a mug of tea. Two burly builders, half way through their all day breakfasts sat at the table next to them and a short queue had formed at the counter for take away orders. There was one other customer, a man sitting in the corner, with his back to them, reading a newspaper. Kate judged he was about her age, but couldn’t be sure.
None of them appeared interested in their little tète-a-tète. She took a deep breath.
“I need to ask you a favour,” she began.
“So you’ve finally realised that I’m the man for you?”
“Brian, I’m serious,” she replied, giving him the look.
He squeezed his knees together for protection and nodded.
“All right, but you can’t blame a guy for trying. Ask away.”
Kate brought the package out from under the table and began to unfold the layers of the bag. Brian, intrigued, leaned forward and watched in silence. She put her hand inside and was about to pull the box out into the open when a loud voice broke the spell.
A large man with a scruffy beard and long, greasy hair slid onto the seat next to Kate, leaving her no option but to shuffle closer to the wall. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of engine oil, mingled with the overwhelming aroma of patchouli that wafted from the stranger’s denim jacket and jeans. The name of the heavy metal band on the front of his faded T-shirt was illegible and Kate felt small and invisible beside his Hagrid-like bulk.
“Ronnie!” exclaimed Brian. “Good to see you man!”
The two clasped hands across the table. Brian’s, clean and rather well manicured was enveloped in a large, grubby fist with blackened nails. Kate covered the box again and kept a tight grip on it beneath the table as the two men became engrossed in a conversation that Kate found unintelligible, briefly interrupted by the waitress with their food order. The dialogue continued over lunch, comparing the attributes of one engine type over another, until their thirty minute break was almost over. Kate was ignored throughout.
Somewhere in the midst of all this a cup of tea and a large slice of apple pie and cream had materialised in front of Ronnie and when he’d finished, he rose from the table, shook hands with Brian again and nodded at Kate.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
It was the first indication Kate had that he even knew she existed. He walked away towards the till.
“Sorry,” said Brian. “What were you going to say before all that?”
The waitress returned and leaned across the table, her coffee pot poised above Kate’s cup.
“Free refill?” she chirped.
Kate didn’t get a chance to decline as Ronnie returned for a last farewell, jolting the waitress’s arm as he squeezed his heavy frame past her.
From that point on everything seemed to move in slow motion. The coffee pot tilted, sloshing the hot, black-brown liquid over Kate’s hand and arm. It washed over the table and onto her lap; she moved on instinct, pulling back her arms and getting the box out of the way just in time. She saw Brian stand up and try to grab the waitress’s arm, but too late to stop the inevitable, shock and concern on his face. The waitress reached for the tea towel tucked into her apron and Ronnie took a step backwards, horrified, hands waving in the air, falling over himself with apologies.
Behind him, the other customers had all turned in their direction, all except the man in the corner. In the timeless seconds that seemed to stretch on forever he rose from his seat, leaving behind the newspaper still open on the table and made his way towards the door. She saw now that he was wearing earphones. That would explain why he hadn’t turned to gawk along with everyone else. She’d guessed correctly about his age, give or take a year or two, maybe, and as he walked past he turned his head in her direction and looked at her. His expression was neutral and he gave no indication that he knew her, but Kate thought she recognised him. Then he was through the door and gone and on the jingle of the shop bell the world came rushing back to normal speed, with the noise of everyone shouting at once, all vying for her attention, eager to know she was all right. Brian and the waitress tried to mop up the spilt coffee and get a look at her arm. It should have been starting to blister, but apart from being soaked, showed no signs of pain or redness.
“I’m fine,” Kate protested. “It was cold. I’m fine.”
Brian and the waitress exchanged puzzled looks. Kate held out her arm and pushed up her sleeve, turning it over to show the unblemished skin. Brian stroked his fingers over the area.
“It is cold” he said, not quite believing what his own eyes were telling him.
“But I just got it from the machine,” the waitress insisted. “It was freshly percolated”. She burst into tears from the shock, and Brian sat her down in the chair he’d vacated, patting her shoulder, already thinking he could turn the situation to his advantage.
Through all the commotion, someone had alerted the manager and he now emerged from the kitchen at the back. The last thing Kate wanted was more attention. She grabbed her bags and stood up, putting on her coat to dissuade anyone else from looking at her arm.
“Everything’s fine,” she reassured the manager. “It was an accident. I’m not hurt, but I am dripping wet. So, if you’ll excuse us.”
She motioned to Brian. The manager’s relief that he wasn’t going to get sued was evident.
“Please accept your lunches on the house,” he grovelled. “I’ll take care of Jenny.”
His hand rested on the waitress’s shoulder, where Brian’s had been a moment before. Kate got the impression Jenny wouldn’t be a waitress for much longer.
“It wasn’t her fault,” she said, hoping it would make a difference to her keeping her job, and made a beeline for the door.
“Wait up,” Brian shouted, following her out. He ran after her as she strode away. “What the hell…?”
Kate didn’t stop until he grabbed her arm.
“Kate, you know as well as I do that coffee was steaming hot. What happened in there?”
“It can’t have been, or you’d be taking me to hospital right now.”
She tried to laugh, but it sounded thin in the cold, bright daylight. She was surprised at how calm she felt. The waitress was adamant she’d brought fresh coffee and Kate saw no reason to disbelieve her, but she must have been mistaken, or have picked up the wrong jug. How else could she explain what had happened?
“Look, I’m going to have to get changed so I might as well work from home today.”
And with that she left. Brian, stunned and confused, watched her go, her long, shiny, conker brown hair swishing from side to side in time with her hips.