Toby shut the door and checked that the lock had caught. Another phone was ringing upstairs, on and on. The sound made him feel as though someone was tightening a clamp around his head. ‘Jo!’ he shouted. ‘Answer the phone.’
He ran upstairs to the office and pushed open the panelled door. She was gazing at her computer screen, oblivious to everything else. He nearly hit her.
‘When will you learn to answer the fucking phone?’
Jo looked round, her usually sweet face ugly with contempt. ‘What phone? There isn’t one ringing.’
Toby looked round the room. His lungs were pumping so fast they seemed to tear at his chest and still left him without enough oxygen to breathe. She was right.
‘They’ve rung off,’ he said, fighting the thought that he might have imagined the sound because it frightened him so much now. ‘I’ve told you before, you
answer within four rings; otherwise they give up. It could have been important. I can’t cope with this much longer, Jo. You’re going to have to take your job more seriously or leave.’
‘I do take it seriously,’ she shouted. ‘And
not mad. Or deaf. This phone has not rung all morning.’ She turned away and muttered something he couldn’t hear. Then she looked back, her expression marginally more gentle. ‘What’s happened to you, Toby? You never used to be like this. At the beginning I even
thought you were the perfect boss. Now all you do is shout at me. Why?’
‘You’re imagining things.’ As Toby wiped his sweating forehead, he dropped his glasses. Stooping to pick them up, he knew that his face would redden as the blood rushed down into it. He hoped the colour would stop her noticing that he was in tears again, too.
‘Make sure you answer the phone as soon as it does ring,’ he said sharply, to counteract his weakness. ‘And for God’s sake remember to take proper messages in future. I can’t believe you let Peter go last night without at least taking a phone number from him.’
‘I told you, I tried.’
He didn’t believe her. He could always tell when someone was lying. But why should she lie now? What on earth could she be hiding?
‘But he refused to leave any details,’ she went on, not meeting Toby’s eyes. ‘He said you’d know who he was, and you did, didn’t you?’
Toby nodded. Then he took off his glasses again to rub the corners of his aching eyes. She was right about that. Her description had made it entirely clear that the mystery caller was Peter Chanting, whom he hadn’t seen for eighteen years and whose letters had stopped coming nearly a decade ago.
‘So why do you keep blaming
?’ She tossed back her hair. ‘If you’d been here at five o’clock, like you promised, you’d have seen him yourself. Anyway it’s no big deal. He said he’d come back again. It’s not my fault you haven’t seen him.’
Or mine, Toby thought, remembering the traffic that had clogged the Embankment yesterday afternoon.
‘But why didn’t you phone me when he came back the second time?’ he said. ‘You know I always have my mobile switched on when I’m away from the gallery.’
‘Because you make so much fuss whenever a phone rings and
bang on and on about how you hate them,’ Jo said with a snap. ‘I didn’t want to get another earful about not disturbing you. Why’s he so important anyway?’
Since he couldn’t tell her that, Toby went to sit in his own office and stared at the pile of post she’d put there when she arrived for work. Peter Chanting was important because he’d put the whole of Toby’s life at risk by blabbing the secret they’d both sworn to keep till they died.
Had it been a mistake or a deliberate betrayal? Toby had asked himself the question a hundred times in the two months since his persecution had begun.
At first it hadn’t crossed his mind that the well-spoken, well-dressed man who had appeared at the gallery on that dreadful, never-to-be-forgotten Monday morning could be dangerous. Toby had even been pleased to see him. There weren’t usually many visitors so early in the week, and the man had bought a catalogue without even raising an eyebrow at its price, which was rare. He had also seemed flatteringly excited by the idea of being shown around the collection by its director.
Toby had hated his own gullibility ever since, and now burned at the memory of his eagerness to tell the good-looking visitor the sad romantic story of Jean-Pierre Gregoire and his English widow. He had led the man on from canvas to canvas, revelling in his unusually intelligent questions and apparently genuine admiration of what he saw.
Then it had started to go wrong. Looking back, Toby tried to pinpoint the moment when the first tiny shiver of fear had made him pause. He thought they’d been standing in front of the Rembrandt when the visitor had put his simple, unemotional question: ‘Have you got any Clouet drawings in the collection?’
Toby had said no easily enough, before moving to the next canvas he wanted to show off. But the man hadn’t paid much attention. Within five minutes he’d gone back to asking questions about Clouet drawings, questions which had soon shown
him to be terrifyingly well informed. Toby had had to keep looking over his shoulder to make sure that neither Jo nor any other visitor had sneaked in to eavesdrop.
The one thing he could still feel good about was the length of time he had resisted the man’s attempt to make him incriminate himself. Toby had stuck to his story for what felt like hours until the visitor, who later said his name was Ben Smithlock, had said:
‘So if the story I’ve been told about those so-called Clouet drawings you found at Cambridge is all untrue, you won’t be afraid if I go to the papers with it.’
He had taken a mobile out of his pocket and stroked it, adding: ‘The papers and your trustees, of course. I have Sir Henry Buxford’s private number programmed into my phone, so it’ll be the work of a moment to tell him what kind of sleazy criminal he’s got running his favourite charity. You’ll be out on your ear in no time. And probably in prison soon afterwards.’
Gaping at him, Toby hadn’t had a clue what to do or say.
‘Your wife’ll leave you, too.’ Ben had said. ‘There’s no way a glamorous, intelligent woman like Margaret would stay if she knew the truth about you.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Even now, Toby could hear the hoarseness that had made his voice rasp as he’d forced out his pathetic protest. Still more humiliatingly, he’d felt spit dripping from his lower lip and had had to fumble for a handkerchief to wipe it off his chin and his cashmere sweater. Ben Smithlock had just laughed.
‘Of course, if you were to do me one small favour, I’d be more than grateful enough to suppress everything I know about you. D’you want to hear about it?’
Even then Toby hadn’t quite understood that what was happening to him was no more or less than straightforward blackmail. Nor had he realized Ben was not working alone. It had been at least a week before he mentioned his boss and even
longer before he’d hinted that they had enforcers working for them, too.
Sitting at his desk now, Toby retched and put his hand over his mouth to control the impulse to vomit. He’d been certain all along that Peter had betrayed him. Only now did he let himself contemplate the even worse possibility that Peter might be the blackmailer-in-chief.
Had he come to the house yesterday to bring the latest demand in person?
Too restless to sit still, and too sick to do any work, Toby went to the window to gaze down at the small paved garden with its few bare trees and empty urns. Wouldn’t it be better just to open the window and fling himself down on to the elegant paving stones? Even Henry Buxford couldn’t be cruel enough to punish Margaret and the boys for what he’d done if he were already dead. And her father was already paying their school fees and would make sure they had everything they needed.
The thought of the pain that would rip through him as his body hit the ground was enough to send Toby two paces back from the window. It was humiliating to find that he was too much of a coward even to take the most obvious way out.
Upstairs in the private flat that came with his job, his wife was talking to someone. The sound of her soft American voice buzzed through the floorboards, even though he couldn’t distinguish the words. There’d be no help from her either. If he went up now, she’d only ask why he was so jumpy, and he couldn’t tell her, any more than he could tell Jo or Henry. He was alone, just as he’d always been, except for the three years at Cambridge, when he and Peter had been inseparable.
Toby had once hated the sloppiness of people who talked about getting their heads round things, but now he understood what they’d meant. Somehow he had to get his head round what Peter had done to him.
They’d met in their second term. The first had been hell, as
he’d struggled with the unfamiliar work and his inability to find anyone who wanted to have anything to do with him. He’d tried clubs and pubs and university societies, and he’d always got it wrong, making jokes when everyone else was serious or taking literally what turned out to be hysterically funny anarchic humour. Then Peter – rich, good-looking and wildly popular – had whisked him up and, almost overnight, turned him into a different being.
Toby had learned how to talk to girls then and to ask them out. Pretty soon he’d even taken one successfully to bed. He’d learned to drink in vast quantities and make other men laugh. And later, when he and Peter had started to talk about things that mattered, Toby had also learned that being unhappy was neither unique nor any kind of failure.
That was how it had started, with their shared confession of growing up in a welter of misery. Then they had begun to trust each other. And later, when they had worked out their great money-making plan together, it had never occurred to Toby that trusting Peter might be stupid.
It had all started as a kind of a game. Toby couldn’t now remember whose idea it had been in the first place, but it didn’t matter. At that point it had all been ‘what if?’ What if we faked an old master drawing and took it to one of the big salerooms in all innocence to ask them what it was? What if they decided it was genuine – or near enough to get past their usual punters’ scrutiny? What if it was put into auction and raised a lot of money? Wouldn’t that be a gas?
Then they’d started to work out how they could do it. Neither belonged to the sort of family with grand attics full of ancestral rubbish that might yield valuable art, so they’d had to think up another way. Bit by bit the plan had become more and more elaborate until one day they’d had to try. They’d picked François Clouet because Toby could already draw in his style, and his figures were so lacking in personality and
emotion that they seemed easier to copy than anything more interesting.
The scam had worked so easily that neither of them could believe it. At every stage they’d been ready to give up and admit it was just a rag, but there had been no need.
Peter had laid out the money to buy four big sixteenth-century books with blank flyleaves they could cut out, and Toby had prepared and prepared until he was confident that he could draw exactly like François Clouet. He’d done all the necessary research to ensure the hats and doublets he was going to include were accurate. Even he had been impressed with the finished product.
He had dirtied the drawings up a bit and framed them in crappy cheap gilt frames under low-grade cracked glass, before flogging them as prints to a bottom-feeding dealer, who wouldn’t have known a Clouet from a Corot. Peter had breezed into the shop later that day and bought them at a rapacious mark-up, which still came nowhere near their cost of production, let alone the price the real thing might raise.
Then the fun had really started. Toby had talked to a few friends about the amazing find he thought Peter had made. Together they had taken the drawings, now out of their frames again, to Goode & Floore’s in London and asked humbly at the front counter whether they might show them to an expert.
It had been the expert who had first pronounced the name François Clouet. Toby hadn’t made any suggestion at all; he’d merely said that he thought the drawings might be interesting, but that he didn’t know enough to make even a wild guess. The expert had got very overexcited and almost insisted that the drawings went into the next old master sale. He’d been even more pleased than Toby and Peter when they’d made a record price for the artist.
That night the two of them had celebrated with wines finer than any Toby had dreamed of tasting, and they had solemnly
renewed their oath never – ever – to tell. Even when Peter’s father had guessed there was something wrong with the drawings and thundered and shouted about criminal records and a lifetime of shame, Peter had stood firm and made Toby stand with him.
When the old brute had left them alone again, Peter had insisted that so long as neither of them admitted anything, ever, or paid out too much of the money at once, or tried a similar scam, no one could touch them. The story was that they’d bought the drawings in good faith and it was Goode & Floore’s expert who had claimed they were by François Clouet. So long as they stuck to it and never tried to fake anything else again, they’d be safe. After a while, even Toby the terrified had come to believe it. And they’d gone swanning off on their holiday of a lifetime that summer without a care in the world.
Remembering it now, Toby shuddered. He should have known as soon as the trip turned into a disaster that it was an omen, warning them that they wouldn’t get away with the scam for ever. But he’d had too much else to think of, as he’d been sucked down into the hell of amoebic dysentery and the certainty that he would die.
A lorry thundered by outside, breaking off his memories. His head wasn’t anywhere near round them all, and he still had no idea how deeply Peter was involved. So far the only one of the blackmailers he’d met face to face was the appalling Ben, but Peter had to be in it somewhere. No one else had known all the details of how the Clouet drawings had come into being, however much some, like Peter’s father, might have suspected.