Throw Him Away and Get a New One

Mr Highsmith! Open up, please. I assure you I only have your best interests at heart.’

What’s wrong with you? I told you to go away!’ Angus Highsmith gave up his struggle with the childproof top and threw the bottle of drain cleaner at the wall. Unbroken, it rolled along the faded lino and snuggled up to a nest of empty whisky bottles.

The banging on the door continued. It played havoc with Angus’s hangover.

I know what you’re doing, Mr Highsmith. Or rather what you’re trying to do.’

Angus sat heavily on the bed and placed his head in his hands. ‘Go away, go away, go away!’

Very well. You leave me no choice.’ There was a sound of metal on metal and then the click of shifting lock tumblers.

The door opened. A man in a business suit and round glasses put away the hair grip he’d used to spring the lock. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said. ‘My name is Winthrop. May I come in?’

No!’

Winthrop came in. Closing the door, he gave the hotel room a cursory scan. ‘Well, I’ve seen worse. Do you mind if I open a window? Damp plays havoc with my lungs.’

Do what you like.’ Angus flopped back onto the bed with its uneven mattress, nearly-white bed sheets and strange aroma. Not for the first time, he noticed that one of the stains on the ceiling looked like a map of Africa.

After opening the window, Winthrop picked up the bottle of drain cleaner and read the label. He shook his head and tutted. ‘I can’t believe you chose this,’ he chided, placing the bottle on the window sill. ‘You’ve no idea how unpleasant an overdose can be. You’d have died in screaming agony.’

I don’t care.’

Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.’

Angus sat up. ‘What are you? A cop?’

Oh gracious me, no.’

So my wife sent you. Well, go on. Serve your papers and get out.’

You’re under a misapprehension, Mr Highsmith.’ Winthrop reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a business card. Angus took it with ill grace and read the copperplate lettering:

Mason Winthrop.

Life Consultant.

Angus flipped the card over but the reverse was blank. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘is a life consultant?’

I help people like you, Mr Highsmith. People whose lives have fallen apart. People who are sad, desperate and lonely. People who seriously contemplate drinking drain cleaner.’

You’re wasting your time, Winthrop. I’ve no money. So you may as well clear off and find someone else to scam. You snake oil salesman! I want nothing from you. Do you hear? Nothing!’

Really, Mr Highsmith?’ From his jacket pocket, Winthrop produced a small bottle of whisky. If he didn’t have Angus’s complete attention before, he did now. ‘I think you’ll find this tastes much nicer than drain cleaner.’

Angus wanted the whisky. If he wasn’t weak with hunger, he’d have attacked Winthrop to get it.

Winthrop’s smile said now I’ve got you. ‘You can have this one now and the one in my other pocket when you’ve told me how you’ve come to be sitting in a cheap hotel planning to dissolve your innards with caustic soda.’

Why do you care?’

What does it matter, Mr Highsmith? So long as you get your whisky?’

Winthrop placed the bottle on the mattress. He picked up three empty whisky bottles from the room’s only chair and crammed them into the waste bin with the two empties already in there. Then he sat down and straightened the seams of his trousers. ‘Tell me your story, Mr Highsmith. Delineate, if you will, your descent from middle class respectability to insolvent ruination.’

Angus took the bottle. He opened it and sniffed the contents. It was whisky all right. The glue that had held him together these past few weeks.

He took a swig. And then another. ‘I haven’t always been a bum,’ he said, sitting on the bed.

Winthrop nodded. ‘I know, Mr Highsmith. I know.’

I used to have a nice house, a great family and a job with prospects. If ever a man was living the English middle class dream, it was me. I was doing very nicely, thank you. And then, about a month ago, without warning, it all went horribly wrong.

It was a Wednesday. As soon as I woke up I had a feeling it was not going to be a good day. But if I’d known how bad it was going to get, I would have stayed in bed.

I smelt bacon. That was my first intimation that something was wrong. It was only 7 o’clock and Hilary, my wife, was seldom awake before 8, let alone up and cooking breakfast.’

Angus got out of bed and put on a dressing gown. He slipped into worn, grey slippers and went downstairs. From the kitchen came the sounds of breakfast. The clatter of crockery and plates. The hiss of a frying pan. The mechanical pop of a toaster. The happy gurgling of the coffee percolator.

A feeling of dread came upon him as he gripped the handle of the kitchen door. He had a notion his life was about to take a regrettable turn.

Don’t be silly, he told himself. This is your house, your kitchen. What on Earth can there be to worry about?

Nervously, he entered the kitchen. Hilary was frying an egg. His children – Andrew and Jessica – were at the table, looking smart and freshly scrubbed in their school uniforms. They, along with a stranger, were tucking into substantial breakfasts.

The stranger was about Angus’s age and well-dressed. His build was average as were his looks. In a crowd, he would not have stood out. At Angus’s kitchen table at 7 in the morning, he was an anomaly that refused to be ignored.

Angus refrained from interrogating his guest. Refrained too from pointing out that the chap was in his seat. A guest, after all, is a guest.

Good morning,’ said Angus.

Good morning,’ said the children.

The stranger rose. ‘You must be Angus. I’m Tony.’

Angus shook the proffered hand. ‘How do you do?’

Very well, thank you.’ Tony sat back down. ‘Lovely house you have.’

Hilary turned off the gas cooker and brought the frying pan to the table. With a deft flip of her spatula, she deposited an egg onto Tony’s plate. It settled like a sudden snowfall on a landscape of bacon, sausages and beans.

Marvellous cook, your wife,’ said Tony.

Thank you,’ said Hilary. She turned to Angus. ‘You’ll have to make your own breakfast. The house needs tidying and I don’t suppose I can rely on any help from you.’

Angus was baffled. ‘It’s a bit early for housework, isn’t it?’

In case you hadn’t noticed, we do have a guest.’

Oh please,’ said Tony. ‘Don’t go to any trouble on my behalf.’

It’s no trouble at all.’ Hilary smiled sweetly at Tony and then scowled at Angus. ‘You could at least get dressed before coming down. Whatever must our guest think?’

Perplexed and wounded, Angus sloped back upstairs. When he got to the landing, he heard Jessica say, ‘Mummy says you were in the army, Uncle Tony. Did you kill anyone?’

Angus showered, shaved and cleaned his teeth. He entered the bedroom to find Hilary in front of the full length mirror touching up her make-up. She was stripped down to the waist with her best top on the chair next to her.

Folding her arms over her breasts, she turned her back on Angus. ‘Do you mind? I’d quite like some privacy.’

After hastily dressing, Angus took refuge in his study where he leafed through sales reports without reading them. He knew manners dictated he should be entertaining his guest but Hilary had made it clear she’d rather he kept out of the way – perhaps for fear he’d embarrass her.

Finally it was time to drop the kids off at school and head into work. But when he came downstairs, Hilary was already ushering Andrew and Jessica out the front door. Tony stood by the hatstand jangling his car keys.

What’s going on?’ asked Angus.

Hilary barely glanced at him. ‘Tony’s very kindly offered to take the kids to school.’

I’m quite capable of doing that myself.’

You’re always complaining it makes you late for work.’

No I’m not.’

Let’s not argue in front of our guest.’

I’m not arguing.’

Good. It’s settled then.’

Tony stepped forward and patted Angus on the shoulder. ‘Pleasure meeting you, old chap. And may I say what an utterly charming family you have?’ On his way out, he kissed Hilary on the cheek. ‘I’ll be back soon.’

With a glazed look, Hilary closed the door after him.

Do you mind telling me what’s going on?’ asked Angus.

Hilary picked up the post. ‘Tony’s staying for a while. Did you see how the kids adore him?’

But who is he?’

He’s Tony.’

I can’t say I like the chap.’

No, you wouldn’t, would you? He’s funny, warm and attentive. Not your sort of person at all. Now why don’t you get to work and out of my hair? I have things to do.’

He is not staying in my house.’

It’s our house and I can invite who I like to stay with us. And I’d thank you not to raise your voice at me.’

I was not raising my voice.’

Just go, Angus! Before you make me lose my rag.’

Angus went. Perhaps when he came home, Hilary would be in a more reasonable mood and they could talk things through like adults.

Perhaps.

As was his habit when domestic matters troubled him, Angus threw himself into his work. He sat in his office going through reports he’d never meant to read and chasing orders that needed no chasing. It was just after midday when Mrs. Gladstone, his secretary, rang through to say there were two gentlemen to see him.

Who are they?’ He glanced at his appointment book and saw only blank spaces.

Before Mrs. Gladstone could answer, the two gentlemen in question entered. They wore raincoats, Trilby hats and an air of menace.

Angus Highsmith?’ said one.

Yes,’ said Angus.

Of 3 Acacia Avenue?’

Yes.’

We have a court order.’

The other man dropped an envelope in Angus’s lap. ‘You are to stay at least one mile from your house, your wife and children at all times. And you are not to contact any of them except through your wife’s solicitor. Any breach of this order could lead to your imprisonment. Good day to you.’

The men trooped out, leaving Angus moving his lips like a goldfish as he struggled to articulate his dismay.

Mrs. Gladstone hurried into the room. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Highsmith. They just barged in.’

Not your fault,’ said Angus distantly. With trembling hands he opened the envelope and took out three sheets of paper, each looking more official than the last. ‘Would you happen to know if Charles Warren is in?’

The company lawyer? I saw him not ten minutes ago.’

Could you arrange an appointment for me, please, Mrs. Gladstone? Tell him it’s urgent.’

I’ll get on to it right away, Mr Highsmith.’

Charles Warren saw himself as a lovable rogue. His slicked-back hair and pencil moustache were inspired by Errol Flynn, a man he believed to have been cast from the same mould as himself.

Feet on desk, he finished reading the papers and placed the pages back in their envelope. ‘Someone’s really done a job on you, my friend,’ he told Angus who was sitting opposite him. ‘I’ve never seen such a draconian exclusion order in all my life. What on earth have you done to your poor wife?’

Nothing,’ said Angus.

You’ve not hit her?’

Certainly not.’

Threatened her?’

I’m not a monster, Charles. I’m a perfectly ordinary husband who loves his wife and kids.’

I see.’ Warren didn’t sound convinced. ‘Have you by any chance heard of an organisation called Elixir?’

No. Should I have?’

Probably not.’

Who are they?’

An urban legend. Forget I even mentioned them.’

What do you advise me to do about the court order?’

Obey it to the letter. Stay away from your family and get yourself a good lawyer. There are about a hundred ways you can breach this order and any one of them will land you in prison.’

To the surprise of many, Angus left work early. It was almost unheard of for him to depart before 7 let alone the middle of the afternoon. In doing so, he was jeopardising the promotion he’d been fighting long and hard for.

As he walked across the company car park, he sensed his rivals gazing down on him, marking his early departure as some small victory. He considered flipping them a finger but decided now was not the time for petty gestures.

Besides which, the two men who’d served him the papers were hanging around his car. The shorter one was peering through the back window and scribbling in a notebook.

Get away from there!’ Angus broke into a half-run. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

The taller man answered. ‘Merely taking an inventory, sir. The court requires a list of your assets.’

This is a private car park. You’ve no right to be here and you’ve no right to be snooping.’

I think you’ll find otherwise.’

We’ll see about that. I’m on my way to consult a solicitor.’

A very wise move, if I may say so, sir. Very wise.’

Marcus Canning of Canning, Canning, Canning and Dunstan barely looked at the papers before handing them back to Angus with a sad shake of his balding head. ‘There’s not much I can do for you, Mr Highsmith. Except advise you to comply.’

Angus had expected more from such a renowned lawyer. ‘Can’t I appeal against this?’

You couldn’t afford to.’

I have money.’

Not any more.’

What do you mean?’

Canning got up from behind his fine mahogany desk and walked to the window. ‘Is that your car down there, Mr Highsmith? The blue saloon?’

With a sinking feeling, Angus joined Canning at the window. He was not altogether surprised to see his car being lifted on to the back of a truck while the two men from the court looked on. ‘They can’t do that!’ he protested.

I’m afraid they can,’ said Canning. ‘I see they’ve assigned Bateman and Redmond to your case. That’s a very bad sign.’

Which one’s which?’

Bateman’s the shorter one. You don’t want to be messing with him. He’s had four convictions for GBH. Come to that, don’t go upsetting Redmond either. It’s never been proven, but there’s every indication he murdered his own brother.’

Marcus Canning did not charge Angus for his time. On the contrary, he thrust a £20 note into Angus’s hand. ‘You’re going to need it, old chap,’ he insisted. ‘From now on, take every scrap of kindness that comes your way.’

Angus went straight from the offices of Canning, Canning, Canning and Dunstan to his bank. He inserted his bank card in the ATM and typed in his PIN. After what seemed an unreasonable length of time, a message popped up on the screen: ‘Insufficient funds. Your card has been retained. Ask at your branch for details. Thank you for using this machine.’

He turned to find Bateman and Redmond standing by the bank’s main entrance. Defiantly, he marched into the lobby.

They were still there when he came out of a hastily-arranged meeting from which he’d learnt two things: his wife had withdrawn the £30,000 in their joint savings account and his assets were frozen.

And to add salt to his wounds, he’d been forced to hand over his credit cards.

Angus started off down the road. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed he was being followed. He ducked into a supermarket and hid behind a rack of magazines. Bateman and Redmond weren’t far behind. Having lost sight of their quarry, they split up and disappeared down the aisles.

As soon as they were out of sight, Angus slipped out of the supermarket, ran down the road and took a couple of random turnings.

Satisfied he’d shaken his tail, he stood in the doorway of a fish shop, caught his breath and took out his phone. He rang home.

The phone was answered after three rings. ‘Yes?’ It was Tony’s voice.

Through gritted teeth, Angus said, ‘I’d like to talk to Hilary.’

She’s not here at the moment. May I ask who’s calling?’

Her husband.’

You know you’re not meant to phone here, don’t you? I won’t report you this time, but you really mustn’t do it again.’

All I want is to collect my things.’

I’ve arranged for them to be sent on to you. Goodbye, Mr Highsmith.’

Tony hung up.

There was a wheelie bin outside the fish shop. Angus kicked it. Then kicked it again. And then he punched it several times and kicked it once more.

Damn you!’ he cried. ‘Damn you all!’

A dog began to bark.

Angus spent the night in a YMCA where he was shown to a room with four rudimentary beds. Because the hostel wasn’t busy, he had the room to himself but was warned he might have to share if there were last minute bookings.

As he lay on his bed drinking cheap cider, he thought what a great idea it would be to kill Tony. Not only would it rid him of a great vexation, it would deter Hilary from hitting him with court orders. He’d show her he wasn’t a man to be trifled with.

Yes, he thought. I’ll fight for what’s mine and bad luck on Tony if he gets in my way.

Who was Tony anyway? This mediocrity who had pushed him out of his own nest? Had Hilary been having an affair with him?

No, he told himself. I would have noticed.

But was she having an affair with him now? He pictured Hilary and Tony together, in Angus’s bed in Angus’s home with Angus’s children asleep in adjacent rooms. And then he pictured Tony with a bullet in his head and Angus standing over him, smoking gun in hand.

Tomorrow he would take action. He’d somehow get together enough money to buy a revolver and then – court order or no court order – he was going home to Acacia Avenue to take back what was his.

And if he couldn’t afford a gun, he’d use the axe in the garden shed. Or the club hammer. Or his bare hands…

Eventually the cider numbed his mind enough to allow him to fall asleep. When he woke up, the light was on and a man was pacing the floor.

It’s a crock!’ spat the man. ‘A total and utter crock!’

His suit was crumpled; his tie was at half mast. He had the look of someone who had seen terrible things.

Do you mind?’ said Angus, propping himself up on his elbows. His stomach churned from the effects of the cider. ‘I’m trying to sleep.’

Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ said the man. He sat on the bed and hauled out a small bottle of brandy. ‘So you sleep with your clothes and shoes on, do you?’

I don’t see that’s any concern of yours.’

It’s just an observation. I ain’t criticising. Between you and me, I’ve been wearing these clothes the best part of three days. Slept in them too. And you want to know why?’

No,’ said Angus. ‘I do not.’

The man opened his brandy bottle and tossed aside the top. He took a heavy draft and sighed like a great weight had been dissipated. ‘I’ve lost everything. My wife, my kids, my house, my job. All gone!’

I know the feeling. Now will you shut up and let me sleep?’

A great wracking sob was the answer. The man started blubbered shamelessly. ‘Everything was great. I was paying my mortgage, playing squash, vying for promotion, getting my children’s teeth straight and going on holiday twice a year. I was living the middle class dream. Doing everything right. And then one morning I came downstairs and there was a stranger at my table.

His name was Gordon. I’d never seen him before but my wife treated him like an old friend. She got angry when I asked him who he was and what he was doing in my house. Said I shouldn’t interrogate guests that way.

Later that day, two men came to my office and handed me a court order. It said I was to keep away from my wife and kids. Did you ever hear of such a thing?’

No,’ said Angus. He lay back down and closed his eyes. ‘I didn’t.’

In the morning, Angus had a shower and noted with disgust that his room mate declined to do the same. He found the thought of going to work in yesterday’s shirt, socks and underpants abhorrent but he had no choice. What little money he’d had on him – including the gift from Marcus Canning – had been reduced to a handful of change. And there was still the question of how he was going to get to the office.

In the dining room, he piled his plate with bread, ham and cheese, poured a himself mug of coffee and sat at an empty table.

Angus surreptitiously slipped a few items of food into his jacket pocket. Then he built himself a sandwich with several layers of ham and cheese. He was halfway through demolishing it when a voice said, ‘Mind if I join you?’

It was his room mate sporting a plate even more crammed with food than Angus’s had been. He sat down, picked up a slice of processed chicken and crammed it in his mouth. ‘Hmm, delicious’ he said. ‘Name’s Bunbury, by the way. Felix Bunbury.’

Angus Highsmith,’ said Angus in a tone he hoped conveyed he was interested in neither company nor conversation.

It only occurred to me a few minutes ago that you must be one of us.’

Us?’

The Dispossessed. Your suit’s a dead give away. I mean you and I aren’t typical hostel fodder, are we? There was another chap here the first night I stayed. Name of Miller.’ Bunbury threw a slice of cheese onto a slice of bread, rolled it up and took a huge mouthful. He chewed six times before washing the food down with a slurp of tea. ‘He used to own a used car business. Did very well for himself. So well he was thinking of selling up and retiring to Spain. And then – well you can guess the rest. He came down one morning and there was a stranger at his table.’

I don’t understand how this can happen,’ said Angus. ‘It goes against every tenet of natural justice and British fair play.’

Bunbury leaned forward and whispered, ‘Elixir.’

Recalling his conversation with Charles Warren, a chill ran down Angus’s spine. ‘Elixir?’

A secret organisation that uses obscure laws to rid housewives of their husbands.’

You mean they really exist?’

Some say they’re as powerful as the Mafia or even the Freemasons.’

And all they do is wreck marriages?’

That’s not how they see it. As far as they’re concerned, they’re making discontented wives happy. Bringing magic back into their lives.’

But my wife wasn’t discontented!’

Sure she wasn’t. That’s why she threw you away and got a new one.’

It was a low blow that struck home. Angus decided to have no more to do with Felix Bunbury except to ask him one final question. ‘How much do they charge for their services?’

To get rid of a husband: 20 grand. To get rid of a husband and bring in a replacement: 30 grand.’

Exactly the amount in our joint savings account, Angus reminded himself.

Angus was about to tell Bunbury to go to Hell when two officious looking men strode up to the table. One placed a hand on Bunbury’s shoulder.

Felix Bunbury,’ he said, ‘I am arresting for being in breach of a court order. Namely that you are injuncted to keep a distance of at least one mile between yourself and your spouse, Mrs. Anthea Bunbury, and have failed to do so.’

Bunbury paled. ‘But I haven’t been anywhere near her!’

Au contraire,’ said the second man. ‘With our own eyes we saw her drive past this very building not two minutes ago.’

Well, I can hardly be blamed for that.’

Come along now, sir. Best you don’t make a fuss.’

No! I won’t do it. Do you hear?’

You’re only making things worse for yourself.’

Worse? How can they be worse?’ Bunbury leapt to his feet, knocking his chair over. He pushed aside the two men and ran out the door.

They made no attempt to stop him. Just stood shaking their heads sadly.

He’s really done it now,’ said the first man.

Silly person,’ said the second. ‘Silly, silly person.’

Angus walked to work. Along the way, he thought about his children and wondered how they were coping with the sudden upheaval in their lives. He hoped they were missing him as much as he missed them. Perhaps they’d be the ones to bring Hilary to her senses. Make her realise that children need a real father, not someone who’s just walked in off the street.

Not Tony. Whoever he was.

Arriving half an hour late, Angus said good morning to Mrs. Gladstone and went straight to his office where four suitcases stood in a row. Mrs. Gladstone hurried in after him.

They were delivered this morning,’ she said. ‘There’s no indication who they’re from or what’s in them.’

It’s all right, Mrs. Gladstone. I know what this is about. Will you see I’m not disturbed for the next half hour?’

You’re due to have a meeting with Willis from Manufacturing in five minutes.’

Cancel it.’

It’s very important.’

Rebook it for this afternoon.’

Mr Willis won’t like it.’

I don’t give a rat’s arse, Mrs. Gladstone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be left alone.’

Right,’ said Mrs. Gladstone with a note of hurt in her voice. ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’

As Angus had suspected, the four suitcases contained his clothes and toiletries. Nothing else. Everything that had once been his and Hilary’s was now Hilary’s alone.

He took out some clean clothes and his electric shaver. However bad things got, he was determined not to let standards slip and end up like Felix Bunbury. In fact, he was going to let Bunbury stand as a warning to him.

I can fight this,’ he said aloud. ‘They are not going to beat me!’

And now here he was in the crummiest hotel in town. No job, no money, no prospects. Nobody on his side. Feeling like a shell of a man. Pouring his heart out to a stranger.

I sold the contents of my suitcases and then the suitcases,’ he said. ‘I kept my electric razor until I had nothing else to sell. All I got for it was enough to buy me a scotch egg and a bottle of drain cleaner.

I’ve managed to get a bit of money out of the social services but that goes straight to the owner of this rat hole. I haven’t eaten properly in days and I smell.’

It can’t be easy for you,’ said Mason Winthrop solicitously. ‘You had it all, didn’t you? And you blew it.’

I said I’d never end up like Felix Bunbury and I have.’

Not quite, Mr Highsmith. Although you’re probably not aware of it, Mr Bunbury was until yesterday evening staying in the room above yours. You may recall there was a power cut.’

Yeah. I spilled some whisky because of it.’

That was Mr Bunbury stepping into the bath with an electric heater.’

Dear Lord,’ said Angus. ‘The poor man.’

I tried to help him, but he wouldn’t have it.’ Mason Winthrop stood up and advanced upon Angus. ‘Why do you think your wife wanted rid of you, Mr Highsmith?’

None of your damned business!’ Angus emptied the last dregs of whisky and let the bottle fall from his grasp. It bounced on the lino with a loud thump. ‘And you owe me another bottle of scotch.’

Winthrop produced the promised bottle and allowed it to be snatched from his grasp. Without asking if he might, he sat next to Angus on the bed. ‘You feel better for telling me your story, don’t you?’

Angus opened the bottle and took a bracing swig before answering. ‘Nobody would listen to me. No sooner had my work colleagues heard about my misfortune than a rumour went around that I’d been involved in domestic violence. At the YMCA they asked me not to come back. Said they didn’t want my type.

My boss sacked me for the most spurious of reasons. Then the Jobcentre told me I’d engineered my own dismissal and turned me down for benefit.

Even at church, I was treated as a pariah. There was me in one set of pews and everybody else in the other. Father Knowles, who’s known me since I was a boy, refused to take my confession unless I owned up to being a wife-beater.

I bet if I phoned the Samaritans they’d advise me to kill myself.’

Mason Winthrop chuckled.

What’s so funny?’ Angus snapped at him.

Your little joke about the Samaritans. It’s most amusing.’

Angus thought about it. And then he smiled. ‘I suppose it is.’

For the first time in a long while, Angus could see a break in the dark clouds hanging over his life. It was no more than a chink but it was enough to allow through a thin, watery ray of hope. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t go the way of Felix Bunbury; now was his last chance to make sure he didn’t.

You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve thought long and hard about why Hilary discarded me. At first, it made no sense. I was a good husband and father. There was always food on the table. My kids were the first on the street to get the latest Playstation. I never even came close to committing adultery.

I was everything any woman could reasonably hope for.’

Except?’

Except I was dull. Dependable, loving, faithful – but dull. Dull, dull, deeply and desperately dull.’

Now we’re making progress,’ said Mason Walters. ‘Admitting a problem is the first step towards curing it. Drink your whisky, Mr Highsmith. and get some sleep. On the morrow we’ll see about unfreezing your assets and getting you a new job. So long as you do as I tell you, you’ll be back on your feet in no time.’

Can I ask a question?’ said Angus.

Of course you can.’

Do you know anything about Elixir?’

Mason Walters smiled enigmatically. ‘I can’t say that I do, Mr Highsmith. I can’t say that I do.’

Jeremy Ashworth felt good. After a deep and refreshing sleep, he’d woken to find sunshine pouring through his window like liquid gold.

He slipped out of bed and noticed with satisfaction how crisp the bed linen was, how fragrant the room smelt and how neatly his clothes were laid out.

Perfection, he thought. Absolute perfection.

The smell of frying bacon and fresh coffee stimulated his senses. It was unusual for Mildred, his beloved wife, to be up so early. She must have decided to surprise him with a cooked breakfast before he dropped the kids off at school.

Donning dressing gown and slippers, he all but skipped down the stairs and into the kitchen.

Tarquin and Mathilda, his adorable children, were tucking into a hearty breakfast. Mildred – God bless her – threw a couple of rashers into the frying pain as she hummed a merry tune.

Good morning!’ chirruped Jeremy.

Mildred was startled. ‘You made me jump!’ she complained, placing a hand over her heart. ‘If you want breakfast, you can make your own. I don’t have time to fetch and carry after you today.’

Jeremy noted a place setting at the top of the table where he usually sat. The plate there was filled with sausages, baked beans and a fried egg.

He was about to ask who the third breakfast was for when a stranger in a business suit walked in.

Hello,’ said the stranger, sitting at the head of the table and picking up a knife and fork. ‘You must be Jeremy. My name’s Angus. I’ll be staying a while.’

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