The feeling that Reggie Quintus is currently experiencing is as powerful as grief, though it has crept up on him imperceptibly over the last week, without any of the shock that might alert him to its full force. Last Tuesday his boss Alec Zoubaroff was due home after midnight. He was flying back from Paris and he had left orders to have a supper ready for him. After Alec had still not arrived by one, Reggie’s annoyance at the cooling, damp food had contained the grit of apprehension.
He looks back on that night as on a trek across hell. He had phoned Alec every fifteen minutes and the recurring ring had grown as familiar as a lover’s voice. He had sent emails; he had tried, hopelessly, to contact his boss’s colleagues and friends. This became the pattern of the subsequent days: phoning; waiting; calculating frantically; setting little deadlines for Alec to respond before he phoned again; alone with his lost, futile strokes on a great sea of loneliness.
What was so frustrating was that nobody else was interested in sharing this grief. The police registered that Alec was missing but they appeared to have concluded that he and Reggie had fallen out. Why, Alec had yesterday attended the opening of an art exhibition in Oslo. His attendance had been recorded at a fashion show.
How?, Reggie demanded. He hasn’t been home – he is missing all of his stuff.
The police inspector shrugged and Reggie could almost detect the smirk throbbing behind his watching face. “Maybe he has a secret lover. Maybe he’s staying for a while in somebody else’s flat.”
Maybe he had another secretary? Reggie had been always required to feel absolute loyalty towards Alec and yet what if this had been only ever one-sided. What if it was psychologically possible for his boss to grow bored with him and to keep an eye out for a new henchman.
When Reggie looked back over the last few weeks, in search of any remark or insinuation which might now possess massive retrospective significance, there was nothing. Irksomely, he kept getting snagged on that morning with the bird. He had awoken early one day to hear a huge bird roaming around the apartment. It must have been a seagull from the size of it. The bird’s wings had brushed the walls and it had knocked several bottles and vases over. Reggie had run out of his bedroom but the bird had already slipped out through the living-room window. Seagulls were said to be remarkably intelligent – this one seemed to have advanced from dragging things out of dustbins to making actual raids upon the kitchen.
The sting of the open wound had soon settled into an unvarying background pain. It was always there, even when Reggie was not conscious of it, when he was just trying to use up all of those hours in the loneliness of Alec’s apartment.
One day he received a visit from Claud Orkish. Claud had come to tell Reggie that he had kidnapped his employer. He was quite prepared for violence from this fat little thug – to be punched, to be spat at, to have his mother insulted. Instead, Reggie looked as if he wanted to hug him passionately.
Claud was detailing how the Zoubaroff art collection would be delivered to a mystery location, that there must be no surveillance equipment hidden in… yes, yes, Reggie hissed. Take it all – it’s all as worthless as a grain of sand when compared to Alec.
If the world had been turned upside down with the news that Alec was safe, it was given another spin when Alec stamped back into the flat the next evening. “WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN!” he bellowed. He was about to break Reggie’s arm but Reggie’s white-faced perplexity caused him to raise an eyebrow. This eyebrow was now all that stood between Alec and a massacre.
“You’re back?” Reggie prompted. “From the kidnappers?”
“You’re the one who’s helped yourself to a three-week unauthorised holiday! You’re the one who’s run off with my entire art collection!”
Reggie cringed and quailed. “I’ve been here! I’ve been in the flat every day!”
“I’ve been here! I’ve been in the flat every day! Cooking for myself – making my own bed – cleaning my own toilet!”
This was largely the same trick that Claud had played on Gylda Pitti-Conti. He had rented the identical flat directly below Alec’s apartment; he had used a drone to invade and photograph the interiors of the upstairs original; and he had then replicated these scenes as best he could downstairs. The walls and ceiling had been treated to render them mobile phone proof. The only details that he was not intending to match were Zoubaroff’s artworks.
On the night that Zoubaroff had flown in from Paris, Claud had reprogrammed the building’s lift to ensure that it stopped a floor below the one advertised on the display panel. Alec disembarked on the wrong floor and he duly arrived at the mockup of his home, to find his art collection missing and his secretary gone. In his astonishment, he was insensible to the rather flimsy, stage-scenery quality that his apartment had lately assumed. He immediately saw that he had no chance of recovering his art collection. Half of it was Nazi and Soviet loot, and so the police were never going to be natural allies.
Alec and Reggie will spend many weeks debating what happened to themselves and to the Zoubaroff art collection. They will weep; they will come to blows; they will bawl abuse; they will struggle to reconcile their impossible stories with the pleading honesty that is stamped across each other’s faces. Claud will sell almost all of Zoubaroff’s collection to recoup the costs of mocking up the apartment. Only the single item that concerns him will remain.
The present was so big that Caspar had been unable to fit it under the tree. For the first time that morning, Glyda wore a businesslike expression and she did not have a wine glass in her hand. She had come in from the kitchen, where she had momentarily left the day’s merry smile with the children. Her household was busy on Christmas day and the windows were already steamed from the cooking. She regarded her present mildly, as she would a visiting stranger who it was necessary for her to be courteous towards and politely judgemental about.
As the silver paper slithered from around it, she grew grave at its size and the unexpected terracotta colour. Then she had stopped. She stood back – she could not touch it.
It was a young man, a handsome, pleasing young man, but not a young man who you could ever smile at. He was dancing, with that utter abandonment in which the mind becomes the body and the body the mind. It was not a performance but devotional – one of those acts, as in prayer, when you briefly, directly connect with the rawness of the universe.
This young man might have been naked but he had huge flaps or scales draped across his torso. And from somewhere in the landfill, from down in the depths of years of fallen clutter, Glyda knew that this young man was an acolyte and that he was dancing in human skin. She could have told you straightaway that he was Aztec and, with a little straining, she might have placed him as early medieval. But she knew without question that he was dancing in the flayed skin of another, older man.
The older man had been tired, bored, and jaded. He had made a lazy mistake on the battlefield and he had been captured. The priests had held him down over a stone and for more beats than you might suppose his bloody heart had slipped and shuffled enraged in the executioner’s bare hands. Now this young man danced in his skin and soon he would step out, new and naked, and it would be his time in the world.
The Christmas scene was still there unaltered at Glyda’s side and waiting for her reaction. “Where did you get it?” she asked drily. She suddenly wanted to down a whole glass of wine.
Caspar smiled. “Oh I bought it myself. In an antique shop – I knew that it would be just the thing.”