Thursday, 22 December 2011

Arranging a meeting

The flame from the lighter was a bright, tungsten white and leaped nearly eight inches into the air.  He had held the lighter what I'd considered a ridiculously long way below his cigar, and now I understood why.  The flame played across the end, tickling the tightly-rolled leaves, warming them with a lethal embrace, and when he snapped the cap down on the lighter there was a tiny red glow indicating that ignition had been successful.
He put the lighter in a pocket, flicking his wrist casually so as to cause his sleeve to slide back down over his watch.  I'd not asked about it, but only because I was an amateur horologist and had recognised it immediately.  It had sold at auction four months previously for eighty-five thousand, which people like me considered to be a bargain.  Even though I didn't have eighty-five anythings.
"You're looking for advice?" he said, his voice deep and amused-sounding.  "Did you think that my only advice might be that you ask someone else?"
"Oh no," I said.  "I'm not looking for advice, I'm offering advice."
He eyebrows knit together, his forehead wrinkled.  "Why would I want to listen to your advice?"  He lifted a wine glass, and I knew that the nearly colourless liquid in there cost more to buy per bottle than my tuxedo had to rent.  He sniffed the wine briefly and sipped from it.  He was still watching me, he hadn't turned away yet.
"It's about your watch," I said.  "You might not want to listen to it, but the best advice is usually something we don't want to hear."
He sipped his wine again, and scratched his left temple.  Then the glass was placed down on the table and he leaned forward from his seat a little.  I could smell the fragrant tobacco of his cigar as he returned it to his mouth, could hear the crackle of the smouldering leaves as he inhaled.  "There is a smoking lounge here called the Abattoir," he said.  His hand dipped into an inside pocket and he produced a white rectangle of card.  "Find it, show the steward at the door this card, and you'll be allowed in.  I'll be along in about twenty minutes."
I took his card and walked away from the table while he turned to a woman who had been oohing and aahing over baby photos with an ugly couple and laid a possessive hand on her shoulder.  She turned her head slightly and smiled, and then I lost sight of them as a waiter crossed between us carrying a salver of terrines.
The Abattoir.  Not what I'd have called a smoking room, and perhaps a little sinister for the name of a place to be invited to by an important man with more money than Croesus.  I looked at the card and it was blank, on both sides.  I rubbed it experimentally with my thumb and felt the weave of the paper.  It was expensive, and it looked like it kept secrets as well.
I had to ask directions to the Abattoir eventually and the waiter who directed me looked me up and down twice before he asked me to repeat what I was looking for.  "I'm a jeweller," I said, "I've been asked by a client to meet them there."  He didn't look like he believed me but he pointed me to a lift and told me to press button -2.  The lift seemed ordinary enough, but nothing seemed to happen when I pressed button -2.  I was wondering if I'd pressed it hard enough and if I should press it again when the doors suddenly closed and the lift descended smoothly.  The doors opened again after maybe ten seconds, and I found myself looking at a man in a steward's white jacket who was carrying a very large, serious-looking knife.  I recognised it after a moment as a machete.  Without a word, I offered the business card and the steward glowered at me.  He took it after a few seconds of intimidation, and turned away from me.
When he turned back he looked less ferocious, but no more friendly.  He gestured with the machete, and I quickly left the lift and went down a short corridor to a steel door set into a plain white wall.  The door opened at a touch, and revealed only a rectangle of darkness beyond it.
"You should turn the lights on first," said a deep voice behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to find the man I was to meet walking towards me.  "The Abattoir isn't the kind of smoking room you'd like to be surprised by."

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