Chasing Cassandra

Page 14

But recently, some of his limitations had started to feel like limitations. Happiness—at least the way he used to experience it—was gone.

The wind danced and pushed at him from every point of the compass. A particularly sharp gust whipped the black wool felt hat from his head. It went tumbling along the pavement before it was snatched up by the little cigar stub hunter. Clutching the hat, the boy looked at him warily. Assessing the distance between them, Tom concluded it was pointless to give chase. The child would elude him easily, disappearing into the maze of alleys and mews behind the main street. Let him have it, Tom thought, and headed into the building. If the hat were resold at even a fraction of its original price, it would mean a small fortune for the boy.

He went up to his suite of executive rooms on the fifth floor. His personal secretary and assistant, Christopher Barnaby, came immediately to take his black wool overcoat.

Barnaby looked askance at Tom’s lack of a hat.

“Wind,” Tom said brusquely, heading to his large bronze-topped desk.

“Shall I go out and search for it, sir?”

“No, it’s long gone by now.” He sat at his desk, piled with ledgers and stacks of correspondence. “Coffee.”

Barnaby rushed away with an agility that belied his stocky form.

Three years ago, Tom had chosen the junior accountant to act as his secretary and personal assistant until he could find someone appropriate for the position. Ordinarily he would never have considered someone like Barnaby, who was perpetually rumpled and anxious, with a nimbus of wild brown curls that danced and quivered around his head. In fact, even after Tom had sent Barnaby to his tailor on Savile Row and footed the bill for some elegant shirts, three silk neckties, and two bespoke suits, one woolen and one broadcloth, the lad still managed to look as if he’d dressed from the nearest laundry hamper. A personal assistant’s appearance was supposed to reflect on his employer. But Barnaby had quickly proved his worth, demonstrating such exceptional abilities to prioritize and attend to details that Tom didn’t give a damn what he looked like.

After bringing coffee with sugar and boiled cream, Barnaby stood in front of his desk with a little notebook. “Sir, the Japanese delegation has confirmed their arrival in two months to purchase steam excavators and drilling equipment. They also want to consult about engineering issues of building the Nakasendo line through mountainous regions.”

“I’ll need copies of their topographical maps and geological surveys as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Mr. Severin.”

“Also, hire a Japanese tutor.”

Barnaby blinked. “Do you mean a translator, sir?”

“No, a tutor. I’d rather understand what they’re saying without an intermediary.”

“But sir,” the assistant said, nonplussed, “surely you’re not proposing to become fluent in Japanese in two months … ?”

“Barnaby, don’t be absurd.”

The assistant began to smile sheepishly. “Of course, sir, it just sounded like—”

“It will take a month and a half at most.” With his exceptional memory, Tom was able to learn foreign languages easily—although admittedly his accent usually left something to be desired. “Arrange for daily lessons starting Monday.”

“Yes, Mr. Severin.” Barnaby scribbled notes in his little book. “The next item is quite exciting, sir. The University of Cambridge has decided to bestow the Alexandrian prize on you for your hydrodynamics equations. You’re the first non-Cambridge graduate to receive it.” Barnaby beamed at him. “Congratulations!”

Tom frowned and rubbed the corners of his eyes. “Do I have to give a speech?”

“Yes, there’ll be a grand presentation at Peterhouse.”

“Could I have the prize without the speech?”

Barnaby shook his head.

“Decline the award, then.”

Barnaby shook his head again.

“You’re telling me no?” Tom asked in mild surprise.

“You can’t decline,” Barnaby insisted. “There’s a chance you may someday earn a knighthood for those equations, but not if you turn down the Alexandrian award. And you want a knighthood! You’ve said so before!”

“I don’t care about it now,” Tom muttered. “It doesn’t matter.”

His assistant turned stubborn. “I’m putting it on the schedule. I’ll write a speech about how humbled you are to be honored as one of the many intellects furthering the glory of Her Majesty’s empire—”

“For God’s sake, Barnaby. I have only five emotions, and ‘humbled’ isn’t one of them. Furthermore, I would never refer to myself as ‘one of the many.’ Have you ever met anyone like me? No, because there’s only one.” Tom sighed shortly. “I’ll write the speech myself.”

“As you wish, sir.” The assistant wore a small but distinctly satisfied smile. “Those are the only items for now. Is there anything you’d like me to do before I return to my desk?”

Tom nodded and stared down at his empty coffee cup, rubbing his thumb along the fine porcelain edge. “Yes. Go to the bookshop and buy a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days.”

“By Jules Verne,” Barnaby said, his face lighting up. “You’ve read it?”

“Yes, it’s a ripping good story.”

“What lesson does Phileas Fogg learn?” Seeing the blank look on his assistant’s face, Tom added impatiently, “During all the traveling. What does he discover along the way?”

“I couldn’t spoil it for you,” the young man said earnestly.

“You won’t spoil it. I just need to know the conclusion a normal person would come to.”

“It’s quite obvious, sir,” Barnaby assured him. “You’ll find out for yourself when you read it.”

After leaving Tom’s office, Barnaby returned only a minute or two later. To Tom’s surprise, his assistant was holding the lost hat. “The doorman brought this up,” Barnaby said. “A street urchin returned it. Didn’t ask for a reward.” Regarding the felt brim critically, he added, “I’ll make sure it’s cleaned and brushed before the end of day, sir.”

Pensively Tom stood and went to the window. The boy had returned to the gutter to resume his search for discarded cigar ends. “I’m going out for a minute,” he said.

“Is there something you’d like me to do?”

“No, I’ll handle it.”

“Your overcoat—” Barnaby began, but Tom brushed by him.

He went out to the footpath, narrowing his eyes against a gust laden with grit. The boy paused in his labors but remained in a squat beside the gutter, looking up warily as Tom approached. He was skinny and ropy, with a young-old look of malnourishment that made it difficult to assess his age, but he couldn’t have been more than eleven years old. Maybe ten. His brown eyes were rheumy and his complexion had the rough texture of a plucked hen. The long straggles of his black hair hadn’t been brushed in days.

“Why didn’t you keep it?” Tom asked without preamble.

“Ain’t a thief,” the boy said, harvesting another cigar end. His small hands were scaled with grime and dust.

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