Edition 8: Tea In The Secret Garden by Emma Newman
Leonie wondered whether to start with an attack, and then be soft, or whether to draw him close and then, when he was truly relaxed, deal the vicious blow. Both had their merits, but neither was original. So she simply stirred in the sugar, picked up the tea cup and saucer and sat back in the chair.
She crossed her legs, making the nylon rasp, drawing Geoff’s eyes to them. It made her smile as she took her first sip. Exquisite; both the tea, and the hunger he couldn’t hide.
“Do you want to keep the corporation running?” he asked. “Or are you going to break it up and strip the assets?”
Years of cigar smoking and whisky had made his voice husky. Ignoring the bags beneath his eyes and the waddle of fat hanging from under his chin, she could still sense his vitality.
“So you finally admit that the takeover is inevitable.” She took another sip and enjoyed the heat on her tongue.
“It’s…theoretically possible, I suppose.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“I don’t believe that,” he swiped the cup off the saucer and cradled it in his huge hand, like a part of him needed it to feel like a whisky tumbler. “No doubt you’ve been fantasising about it for years.”
“I’ve been planning, not fantasising. Very different, darling. Would you like a cucumber sandwich?”
He shook his head, making the waddle of skin quiver. She wondered if he had to lift it up to button his collar. It made her want to laugh, but she kept it in, focusing instead on lifting the topmost sandwich onto one of the dainty plates. Considering the way he looked, she was surprised at his choice of china. The handles on the cups were so small and delicate, he couldn’t get a finger through them.
“Of course it’s inevitable,” he said, watching her eat. “As soon as the Competition Commission backed off, I knew it was over.” He scowled at her. “I suppose this is the point where I congratulate you.”
She shrugged. “Only if you want to appear gracious and not…” She leaned forwards to set the plate down, pausing to give his gaze time to tumble down her cleavage, “…a bad loser. Again.”
He reddened and then burst out laughing. Delighted, she smiled broadly as his tea sloshed over his fat fingers. “You’re such a bitch.”
“I know darling, I know.”
“So let’s chalk this one up to you,” he conceded, taking one of the tiny cakes from an elegant silver stand. “But before we draw a line under it, I want to know one thing.”
“How did you persuade Jackson to take the offer?”
She smiled, teasing the rim of the cup with a manicured finger. “I made him another one he couldn’t refuse.”
“No!” she interrupted him. “He’ll be CEO of my next venture, where his talents will be appreciated. Goodness me Geoff, does it all have to be about sex?”
“You should know better than anyone.”
“You’re just upset that I won’t let you get those chubby little fingers on me,” she reached for the teapot. “More tea?”
“No. You look good though Leo, you really do.”
“I know darling.”
He laughed, making him wheeze. “Still full of yourself.”
“You are too. You just don’t express it as well as I do.” She poured a second cup, sat back and looked around the garden. Now the tension was broken she could relax and take it in. Her gaze roamed over the statues scattered around them on the perfect lawn. Some were of young and ugly people, some were old and beautiful, all interesting in their own way. “It’s been a long time since we were here.”
He nodded, slurped. “We both know why. We’ve been more careful.”
She held up a hand. “Let’s not talk about that yet. I have a question too.” When he raised an eyebrow, she said “Why so fat?”
He shrugged. “Hidden calories.” When she stared, he added; “I just wanted to see if it made a difference.”
“Not when you’re a rich man, no.”
She nodded, agreeing. Birds sang and sunlight stretched through the gaps between the tall shrubs surrounding the tiny lawn. She scanned the top of the brickwork. It was still strong and the walled garden still felt special.
“I remember when you were lean,” she said, looking back at him. “You were very tempting then.”
He smirked. “I might go back to that. I still haven’t forgiven you for the India incident.”
“Oh that was a lifetime ago,” she dismissed it with a wave of her hand and he laughed. “There was nothing you could have done.”
“You were lucky.”
“I outsmarted you.”
He checked his watch. “I hate to say it, but I have an appointment in an hour.”
She put the cup and saucer down, taking the cue. “Well then, I suppose this is it until the next time. Shall we try something in Europe? It’s been such a long time since I was in Paris.”
“You hated it.”
“Of course I did, I had to wear corsets every day. I’m sure that’s why you won the estate from me; I had permanent indigestion. It’s much better now,” she smoothed her hand down her jacket front. “The clothes are much more comfortable.”
“And you have rights now,” Geoff added. “I couldn’t understand why you were happy with the forfeit, but you saw it coming, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “Amazing how many men denied things were changing.”
“I think this is the last year of the forfeit. Will you stay female?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.” She slid her eyes to the right whilst keeping her face turned towards Geoff. The shrub with the large, waxy leaves was definitely quivering. She concentrated on not smiling, wanting to draw it out as long as she could. “I miss having certain parts of the male anatomy.”
He chuckled. “If people knew what we were really like…”
“They couldn’t handle it darling. They’d never believe it.”
“But times are changing,” he said, hand swooping eagle-like over the cake stand and plucking a tasty morsel off it like a mouse from a field. “Investigative journalism is superb. They didn’t have that in the old days.”
“It peaked in the nineties,” she replied, watching the cake disappear in one mouthful. “Don’t worry, the internet will kill them off. Only one or two particularly bright and tenacious ones might be a problem. The ones hungry for promotion.”
Their eyes met, she gave a slight nod. “Yes,” he agreed. “It’s time now, don’t you think?”
She turned in her chair towards the shrub, staring through the tiny gaps until she caught sight of the wet glistening of an eye, wide and unblinking, staring back at her. “You can come out now.” When nothing happened, she beckoned. “It’s alright dear, we know you’ve been there the whole time. Come out and have a cup of tea. The sandwiches are excellent.”
The shrub trembled as a man stepped out from behind it. He was sweating so much a damp patch turned his grubby shirt into a dark purple beneath his tie. A forgotten Dictaphone hung from the strap on his wrist. He looked nauseous.
“I’ll pour,” she said, taking up the teapot again. “I think you need some sugar too.”
Geoff waved at the third chair. “Come and sit down son. What’s your name?”
“Thomas,” he said, dropping onto the seat, watching the tea cup placed in front of him. “I work for the Herald.”
“Bad luck dear,” Leonie said. “They’re about to go bust, did you know that?”
The young man shook his head.
“It’s not what it used to be,” Geoff said. “I remember when it was the most read paper in the country.”
“I remember the founder,” Leonie said, watching for a reaction from Thomas. “He was a small man and desperately boring at parties, but had a fantastic eye for talent.”
“But…the paper was founded over a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Have some tea,” she said gently. “This is very difficult I know.”
“I knew something weird was going on,” he said into the cup. “But not this weird.” He picked up the saucer, the cup rattling before he took a sip. “You’re trying to make me think you’re immortal or something? For a joke?”
“We’re not trying to make you think anything,” Geoff said, amused.
“We spoke openly to give you a reward for being so very clever,” Leonie resisted the urge to pat the young man on the head like a puppy. “You found a connection between us that no-one else suspected.”
Thomas wiped sweat from his forehead. “A few things didn’t add up. But it was more than that.”
Leonie looked at Geoff, who reflected her curiosity. “How about this?” she suggested. “Seeing as you’ve been clever enough to find out about our meeting and slip in without being caught, we’ll answer three questions. Truthfully. Choose well.”
Thomas drained the cup as he thought. “The takeover you talk about like a game might result in thousands losing their jobs…”
“I’m not hearing a question,” Geoff said, eyeing up another cake.
“I’m thinking aloud,” Thomas said, fidgeting. “Okay, here’s the first one. I suspected that despite your efforts to hide it, you both knew each other and all that crap in the press was just to protect the share price. So my first question is this: How long have you known each other?”
Geoff scratched his neck, looking to her for help. “That’s an excellent question,” she purred. “And has two answers.” She watched one of Geoff’s eyebrows arch. “We,” she pointed at Geoff and then herself, “have known each other for over thirty years. But we’ve had a relationship for over two thousand.”
Thomas dropped his cup, spilling the dregs over his trousers. It rolled under the table but he didn’t take his eyes off her. “What, like…vampires or something?”
Geoff and Leonie laughed. “No,” she said. “That would just be silly, wouldn’t it?”
The young man nodded nervously. “I don’t want to believe you, but you’re very convincing,” he finally said.
“Next question,” Geoff said, tapping his watch.
“Err…” Thomas scratched his head, banging his temple with the dangling Dictaphone. “I suspect you’re part of a secret organisation, something like the Illuminati. Is that true?”
“Only if two members constitutes an organisation,” Geoff replied.
“There’s no such thing as the Illuminati,” Leonie said, in a tone she would use to tell a child that Santa Claus didn’t exist. “You all want to believe in it, but there’s nothing more than powerful people staying powerful and passing on advantages to their children and friends. It’s hard to break into their world, so you invent these shadowy organisations to soften the injustice of it all. Poor things.”
Thomas frowned at her condescension.
“Why did you think we were?” Geoff asked.
“I saw links between assets…over places and over time spans that suggested something behind you both.”
“We simply plan ahead dear,” Leonie said. “Cucumber sandwich?”
When he shook his head, Geoff shifted in his seat. “Last one then.”
Thomas fiddled with the strap of his recorder. Leonie could see that he was struggling.
“Don’t you want to know about the garden?”
“You don’t want to know where all of these beautiful statues came from?”
“No, not really,” he said, twisting the strap nervously.
Leonie smirked and glanced at Geoff who was trying not to laugh.
She ate another sandwich, Geoff scoffed another two cakes, and the journalist was still sweating.
“Okay,” he finally said. “Seeing as I’ve found you guys out, and you’re two of the wealthiest business people outside of Russia, how much are you going to pay me to keep quiet about this?”
Leonie sighed. “Well, I thought you’d ask something much more interesting than that.”
“He’s just a hack Leo,” Geoff said disparagingly. “What do you expect?”
“I was hoping for something like ‘How do you have a relationship for over 2000 years?’ or ‘Why is this latest takeover like a game?’ or even ‘What is this game you’re playing?’ Not something as dull as self-preservation.”
“It’s not dull for me! I’ve got it all recorded,” he waved the Dictaphone at them. “I just need to send this to the right people and—”
“Play it,” Geoff said.
Thomas selected the file and pressed the play button. Nothing but a gentle hiss came out of the tiny speaker.
“To answer your question,” Leonie said, standing up and straightening her pencil skirt. “We’re not going to pay you a penny.” She slipped the strap of her bag onto her shoulder and took one last look around the secret garden. Her eyes fell upon a statue of a youth, not much younger than Thomas, stretching up towards the sun.
“Now look,” Thomas leapt to his feet, sensing he was being brushed off. “If you want me to keep this secret, then I want some money. I know it’s crass, but what you spend on shoes in a year will buy me a flat.”
“You don’t understand,” she lowered her voice to the soft intimacy of a lover. “It will be impossible for you to tell anyone.”
“Leo, stop playing with the poor boy,” Geoff said and belched loudly. “It’s time to go.”
“Goodbye, Thomas,” she said and went over to Geoff who was rubbing his chest in discomfort. “Too many cakes, darling.” She shook her head at him and they headed for the gates.
“Wait,” Thomas hurried after them, stumbling over the leg of her chair in his haste. “We haven’t finished, I—”
Geoff rounded on him. “Thomas, you’re not leaving this garden.”
“You’re going to kill me, is that it?” Thomas was frantic. “Like bloody gangsters? Just so you can do your deal and play your weird game?”
Leonie turned back to face him. His distress reminded her of someone but she couldn’t recall who. So many people had been loved and lost and ultimately forgotten.
“I won’t be a minute,” she said to Geoff, who grunted his irritation. She put her bag down and walked back to Thomas.
“Can’t I just promise to keep quiet?” His voice sounded small and childish.
She put her hand on his chest, hoping to soothe him. “Thomas, you have to understand that as soon as you decided to follow us in here, it was over for you.”
Tears were welling in his brown eyes. “I promise I won’t—”
“When we say that we’re going to have tea in the secret garden,” she said, glancing over at Geoff, “it’s not making a date. It’s a code we have, and bait for little fish like you. It means that someone has got too close. This was your last chance to leave us alone, but you took the bait…”
She pressed a finger to his lips. “Hush now. Be still. There’s nothing you can do.”
“I’ll climb over the wall, I’ll—”
She stared at him until he stopped. She slowly looked at the nearest statue and then back at him. “You won’t.”
Trembling, he twisted away from her, turning in a slow circle, taking the statues in properly for the first time. He saw the expressions captured on their faces, ranging from despair to rage, resignation to panic. One was lying in the longer grass at the edge of the garden, a person captured mid-stride that had then overbalanced.
“When we leave,” she said quietly, “you’ll join them.”
He was shaking his head. She knew he was questioning his sanity, the reality of this place, his situation, his fate. It was always the same.
She returned to Geoff, picked up her bag and brushed his cheek with her hand. “Go back to being lean,” she said. “I much preferred you as a knight.”
They reached the gates and she glanced back at Thomas, who was still standing where she had left him, staring at the fallen statue. She put a hand on the handle and called his name. When he turned she opened the gates and the magic stole the life from his body.
“What did you want to say to him?” Geoff asked.
“Nothing,” she said, taking one last look at the new statue. In time, she would forget who he was and how he’d found out about them, but that moment of hope would be preserved on his face, forever. “I just wanted one that didn’t look so upset.”
Emma lives in Somerset, England and drinks far too much tea. She writes dark short stories, post-apocalyptic and urban fantasy novels and records audiobooks in all genres. The first book of Emma’s new Split Worlds urban fantasy series called “Between Two Thorns” was recently published by Angry Robot Books. She is represented by Jennifer Udden at DMLA. Her hobbies include dressmaking and playing RPGs. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk, rarely gets enough sleep and refuses to eat mushrooms. You can sign up for a year and a day of free weekly stories set in the Split Worlds at www.splitworlds.com