‘And you work on commission?’
‘It varies, but we take a small percentage of the final settlement, yes. And we have an in-house legal department here.’ He flicks through the folder. There is nothing in it other than a few pictures of the painting, a signed affidavit from Anton Perovsky saying that Kandinsky had given him a painting in 1938. They were driven from their home in 1941 and never saw it again. There is a letter from the German government acknowledging the claim. There is a letter from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam gently denying that it’s in its possession. It’s a pretty thin skeleton to hang a claim on.
He is trying to calculate whether it has any merit at all when she speaks again: ‘I went to see the new firm. Brigg and Sawston’s? They said they’d charge one per cent less than you.’
Paul’s hand stills on the paper. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Commission. They said they’d charge one per cent less than you to recover the painting.’
Paul waits a moment before he speaks. ‘Miss Harcourt, we operate a reputable business. If you want us to use our years of skill, experience and contacts to trace and potentially recover your family’s beloved work of art, I will certainly consider that and give you my best advice as to whether it will be possible. But I’m not going to sit here and haggle with you.’
‘Well, it’s a lot of money. If this Kandinsky is worth millions, it’s in our interests to get the best deal possible.’
Paul feels a tightening in his jaw. ‘I think, given that you didn’t even know you had a link to this painting eighteen months ago, if we do recover it, you’re likely to get a very good deal indeed.’
‘Is this your way of saying you won’t consider a more … competitive fee?’ She looks at him blankly. Her face is immobile, but her legs cross elegantly, a slingback dangling from her foot. A woman used to getting what she wants, and doing so without engaging a shred of feeling or emotion.
Paul puts down his pen. He closes the file and pushes it towards her. ‘Miss Harcourt. It was nice to meet you. But I think we’re done here.’
There is a pause. She blinks. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘I don’t think you and I have anything more to say to each other.’
Janey is crossing the office, holding up a box of Christmas chocolates when she stops at the commotion.
‘You are the rudest man I have ever met,’ Miss Harcourt is hissing at him. Her expensive handbag is tucked under her left arm, and he is thrusting her folder of letters at her as he shepherds her towards the door.
‘I very much doubt that.’
‘If you think this is any way to run a business then you’re more of a fool than I thought you were.’
‘Then it’s just as well you’re not entrusting me with the epic search for the painting you clearly love so much,’ he says tonelessly. He pulls open the door, and in a cloud of expensive perfume, Miss Harcourt is gone, shouting something unintelligible as she reaches the stairs.
‘What the hell was that?’ says Janey, as he strides past her on his way back to his office.
‘Don’t. Just don’t, okay?’ he says. He slams his door behind him and sits down at his desk. When he finally lifts his head from his hands, the first thing he sees is the portrait of The Girl You Left Behind.
He dials her number standing on the corner of Goodge Street, outside the Underground station. He has walked all the way up Marylebone Road thinking about what he will say, and when she answers, it all falls away.
The faint pause before she answers tells him she knows who it is. ‘What do you want, Paul?’ Her tone is clipped, wary. ‘Because if this is about Sophie –’
‘No. It’s nothing to do with … I just –’ He lifts a hand to his head, gazes around him at the bustling street. ‘I just wanted to know … if you were okay.’
Another long pause. ‘Well. I’m still here.’
‘I was thinking … maybe when this is over, that we … could meet …’ He hears his voice, tepid and feeble, unlike himself. His words, he realizes suddenly, are inadequate, no match for the chaos he has unleashed in her life. What had she done to deserve this, after all?
So her answer, when it finally comes, is not really a surprise.
‘I – I can’t really think beyond the next court date right now. This is just … too complicated.’
There is another silence. A bus roars past, squealing and accelerating in an impotent rage, drowning sound, and he presses the phone to his ear. He closes his eyes. She does not attempt to fill the silence. ‘So … are you going away for Christmas?’
Because this court case has eaten all my money, he hears her silent response. Because you did this to me.
‘Me neither. Well, I’ll go over to Greg’s. But it’s –’
‘Like you said before, Paul, we probably shouldn’t even be speaking to each other.’
‘Right. Well, I’m – I’m glad you’re okay. I guess that’s all I wanted to say.’
This time the silence is excruciating.
‘Goodbye, Paul.’ She hangs up.
Paul stands at the junction of Tottenham Court Road, the phone limp in his hand, the tinny sound of Christmas carols in his ears, then shoves it into his pocket and walks slowly back towards the office.
‘So this is the kitchen. As you can see, there are spectacular views on three sides over the river and the city itself. To the right you can see Tower Bridge, down there is the London Eye, and on sunny days you can press a button here – is that right, Mrs Halston? – and simply open the roof.’
Liv watches as the couple gaze upwards. The man, a businessman in his fifties, wears the kind of spectacles that broadcast his designer individuality. Poker-faced since he arrived, it’s possible he assumes that any faint expression of enthusiasm might disadvantage him should he decide to make an offer.
But even he cannot hide his surprise at the receding glass ceiling. With a barely audible hum the roof slides back and they gaze up into the infinite blue. Wintry air sinks gently into the kitchen, lifting the top sheets from the pile of paperwork on the table.
‘Don’t think we’ll leave it open too long, eh?’ The young estate agent, who has not tired of this mechanism in the three viewings so far this morning, shivers theatrically, then watches with barely concealed satisfaction as the roof closes neatly. The woman, petite and Japanese, her neck secured by an intricately knotted scarf, nudges her husband and murmurs something into his ear. He nods and looks up again.
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