According to my business card I was one Harrison Foster, Legal Consultant, but I was known universally as Harry and my specialty was crisis management.
And today's crisis involved a murder-not that anyone knew it at the time.
ÒNewmarket!Ó I said. ÒBut I know nothing about horse racing. I hate it and donÕt even enter the office sweep on the Grand National.Ó
"No matter," ASW said. "You know about business and you're needed."
ASW was Anthony Simpson-White, founder, chairman, chief executive, owner of and driving force behind the Simpson White Consultancy Ltd-my Boss with a capital B-and he was standing in the doorway close to my desk.
"Can't one of the others go?" I asked. "Rufus loves the horses. He spends most of his salary at the bookies."
ASW shook his head. "Rufus is stuck in Italy with the wine people. You're my best available man."
I looked around at the other desks in what was called the Operatives' Room. Each of them was unoccupied.
Even on a Monday morning, I was his only available man.
"And anyway," he said, "the client has asked for you specifically."
"Oh," I said, somewhat surprised. "Who is the client?"
"It will all be in the brief. I'll send it to you by email while you're on your way. Take a fast train from King's Cross to Cambridge."
"Not Newmarket?" I asked.
"Cambridge is better. You'd have to change there anyway to get a local service. I'll get Georgina to arrange a car and driver to meet you."
Georgina was his PA: fifty-four years old, divorced with two grown-up sons, she was always smart, bright and happy. She was also ASW's mistress, not that either of them would ever admit to it. But we operatives knew. Of course we knew. As the Boss was always telling us: "I expect my operatives to know everything about everyone."
"Whose stables in Newmarket?" I said.
"That'll be in the brief too. I'll get Georgina to book you a room. Now get going, Harry, there's a good chap."
In spite of his genial tone, it was an order, not a request.
I immediately closed the laptop on my desk, stood up, put on my jacket and collected my already-packed suitcase from the cupboard in the corner where it sat, permanently on standby, primed for an instant departure to anywhere in the world, hot or cold.
How to pack was one of the first things taught to new operatives at Simpson White.
The main rule was that the suitcase had to be small enough to fit into the overhead compartments on an airliner-standing waiting at baggage reclaim was considered to be time that could be spent more productively with the client.
Two clean shirts, a change of underwear, toiletry kit, hairbrush, razor, phone and laptop chargers were all essentials; chinos, running shoes and a polo shirt were optional, while shorts and flip-flops were frowned upon. Operatives were expected to always wear a suit and tie to the office so as to reduce the need to pack them.
My case also contained a small first-aid kit-scissors removed-a pair of swimming trunks and a small rolled-up Union Jack.
One never knew when that might be useful.
Anything else that an operative might need on assignment was expected to be bought "in theater," as ASW called it, and he provided us with a company credit card for the purpose, although any purchases were tightly scrutinized to ensure that they were absolutely necessary.
Not that Simpson White was exceptionally mean toward its employees. In fact, quite the reverse. Operatives traveled business class on long-haul flights so as to be rested and ready for work immediately on arrival, and provision of a comfortable car with a driver was the norm, as were four- and five-star hotels.
"I need my staff fresh," ASW would say, and he would charge his clients accordingly.
Retired colonel Anthony Simpson-White had established Simpson White Consultancy Ltd in the mid-1990s, partly with his lump sum retirement benefit paid on completion of eighteen years' exemplary service in the British army. But ASW had not been a fighting soldier. He was a lawyer.
He had served as a senior officer in the advisory branch of the Army Legal Corps, dispensing advice on military and international law to prime ministers and the High Command, including during British wars in the South Atlantic, Persian Gulf and Bosnia.
"I spent most of my time telling the bigwigs what they didn't want to hear," he'd once said by explanation of why he had finally resigned his commission even when tipped to be a future director general of Army Legal Services. "Not that things have changed much since," he'd added with a laugh, "except the bigwigs now pay me more for the privilege."
He'd started as a one-man operation, giving legal advice and opinions to companies in financial or operational difficulty, using the same authoritative and blunt manner that he'd employed at the Ministry of Defence in London. The company directors might also have not liked hearing what he had to say but he had an uncanny knack of cutting through the chaff to the meat of a problem before offering a lifeline, palatable or otherwise. It was then up to the company to decide whether to accept or reject his recommendations-to survive or go under.
And ASW was never one to stand idly by and say nothing when he believed that his intervention would help. His favorite saying was If you live without making a difference, what difference does it make that you have lived.
Over the years his reputation had grown and so had his business, so much so that he now had ten operatives working under his watchful eye, and there was talk of recruiting numbers eleven and twelve.
Most of us were lawyers but there was also an ex-special-forces sergeant plus two financial whiz kids enticed from the City not so much by a huge paycheck but by the promise of a more varied and exciting life.
And varied and exciting it had proved to be.
I was operative number 7-007, I liked to think-and I had been with the company for almost seven years, having become bored with transferring titles, drawing up wills and submitting divorce petitions-the staple diet of a local small-town attorney in rural Devon.
One particular wet and tedious Wednesday afternoon in Totnes, I had spotted a small, understated advert in the corner of the jobs section of the Law Society Gazette.
"Vis mutare aliquid magis excitando tuum?" was all it said, with a London telephone number alongside.
Vis mutare aliquid magis excitando tuum?
I'd done a year of Latin at school but, clearly, not enough.
I typed the words into an online translator and it spat out: "You want to change to something more exciting?"
On a whim, I called the number.
"Can you come to our offices for an assessment?" asked a female voice immediately without so much as a hello.
"Certainly," I replied. "When?"
"As soon as possible," said the voice.
"Where?" I asked.
"That is your assessment. Don't call this number again or you will have failed." She had then hung up, leaving me baffled but intrigued.
I remember having sat staring at the phone in my hand, quite expecting it to ring as the woman called me back. But she didn't. It remained silent. There had been no name offered, not even the name of the firm. The voice hadn't even asked for my name.
Was it a scam? Or was someone just playing silly buggers?
Or was it actually for real?
But where did I start? There were over ten thousand law firms in the UK, almost half of them in London alone. Did I go through the Legal Directory looking for a telephone number to match? But this number seemed to be just for the advert, not the one for the firm's switchboard.
I entered it into Google but, predictably, it gave no clue to the number itself . . . but it did provide some pointers. When I inserted only the first seven digits, the search results showed various entities, including a string of foreign embassies, a medical practice and several restaurants. All were in the London SW1 postal code area, and most in subsection SW1X.
I googled SW1X-Knightsbridge and Belgravia-the smartest parts of west London, but both with thousands of addresses.
I had sat at my desk idly staring out the window at the people hurrying up and down Totnes High Street in the rain rather than getting on with my work, wondering what sort of idiot would place such a stupid advert.
But it made me determined to find out.
So I called the office of the Law Society Gazette and asked for the classified-ad department.
Sorry, they said, they were not at liberty to give out the details of who had placed the advert, data protection and all that. Indeed the man I spoke to seemed quite amused by my request, as if it was not the first time someone had asked him the same thing.
Then I searched on my computer for law firms in London SW1X and made a list. There were just eight of them.
Things were looking up.
Next I compared the telephone number in the advert to those of the eight firms. None were identical but three had the same initial seven digits, even if the last four were all significantly different.
Now I felt I was really getting somewhere.
I again called the Law Society Gazette and asked to be put through to their finance department.
"How can I help?" asked a female voice.
"I'm chasing an invoice for an advert placed in your jobs section," I said.
"For which firm?" asked the woman.
"It could be one of three," I said. "We act as a recruiting agent for a number of firms." I gave her the name of one of the firms on my short list.
"Sorry," she said after a few seconds. "No record of that one."
I gave her the name of the second firm.
"Ah, yes," she said, raising my hopes. "They advertised with us two years ago for a legal secretary. Is that the one?"
"Is there nothing more recent from them?" I asked, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.
I could hear her tapping on her keyboard.
"No, nothing," she said.
I gave her the third name.
"Sorry. Nothing from them either."
"How odd," I said. "I'm sure it was one of our firms in the SW1X postal code. Could you please check again?"
"SW1X, you say?" I could hear her tapping the code into her system.
"We only have one other record of an invoice going to an address in SW1X, but that wasn't to a law firm."
"When was the invoice sent?" I asked quickly.
"Last week. It's for the current edition. But it was sent to an individual rather than a firm."
"Could you tell me the individual's name?" I asked in my most enticing tone. "It must have been a mistake."
"I can't," she said, sounding almost apologetic. "Mistake or not, it's against our rules."
"Could you give me the full postal code then?" I asked. "I can work out which firm it was from that."
She hesitated, obviously debating with herself whether that was also against the rules. She decided it wasn't.
"Right, thanks," I said, jotting it down. "I'll get on and check."
I hung up, smiling. Surely that was it.
But the postal code didn't match any of the eight law firms I had on my list.
Hence, two days later, I had found myself walking up and down Motcomb Street in Belgravia, a road of designer shops, art galleries and fashionable restaurants, wondering which of the unlikely twenty-eight addresses that shared the postal code SW1X 8JU was the one I wanted, assuming that it was one of those addresses anyway.
None of them looked remotely like a legal firm and there were no helpful brass plaques on any of the doors, so I went into each of the shops, galleries and restaurants to ask the staff if they knew of any law offices in the vicinity or anyone who might have placed an advert in the Law Society Gazette. None did. But it at least eliminated half of the addresses on my list.
Most of the buildings in the street were fine examples of Georgian architecture, three stories high with intricate wrought-iron railings surrounding balconies on the upper floors. They had originally been built as single-family homes but each had long since been converted into a self-contained retail space on the first floor with accommodation above accessed through a narrow front door squeezed alongside the shop and opening directly onto the sidewalk.
I looked up at the high windows, trying to see someone sitting at a desk or to spot some other clue that would indicate a place of work rather than a residence, but the angle from street level meant that mostly all I could see was the reflection of the sky.
In the end I resorted to simply knocking on the front doors or ringing the doorbells and seeing who was in.
By the time I got to the last one, I was beginning to be disheartened. At eight of the fourteen properties there had been no reply, while at five others the occupants obviously had no idea what I was on about when I told them that I'd arrived for my assessment.
"Get lost," a man shouted at one property. "I'm not buying anything."
At another, the door was opened on a security chain by an elderly woman. "Are you from the council?" she asked through the crack.
"No," I replied. "I'm here for my assessment."
"I'm the one who needs assessing," she said. "Are you sure you're not from the council?"
I explained that I was absolutely certain I wasn't from the council, and she was clearly not pleased at having come all the way down the stairs to open the front door for no good reason-"not in my condition."
So when I pressed the cheap plastic bell push on the very last door, I was thinking more about the times of the trains from Paddington back to Totnes than anything else.
The door was gray with grime. I imagined it had once been white or cream but time had not been kind to the paintwork, which was flaking off badly at the top. The small brass-surround mailbox was corroded green, and the central doorknob had several screws missing such that it hung precariously to the wood.
"Yes?" asked a voice through the tiny speaker situated above the bell push.
"I've come for my assessment," I said once more, with no hope or expectation.