I never thought I would do a follow up to The Key, which was out last year (on Amazon). However, I was hoovering at work and a thought occurred to me, “What if a woke person met these characters?” The idea was too delicious to ignore.
I didn’t want to write a two dimensional character in Chloe. I wanted to make it clear that she was intelligent and very able, but also has been emotionally neglected by her mother most of her life and so has found solace in the internet. Chloe has been given a chance – she is given a lot of chances and is treated very well and lovingly throughout this novel. The characters all affirm Chloe in her abilities, and they give her opportunities to gain more abilities, to grow and to add to her CV (resume).
At the end of this chapter, Chloe is advised on what not to wear for the job. It is the same advice I was given by a manager – a tough gay woman – in one of the services I worked in in Edinburgh. I had worn a short dress over a pair of tweed trousers. It looked good, believe me. The manager told me to not come back in a dress because the clients will want to protect me. People I’ve told this to have gasped and said how awful the manager is. I said, no, she is right. The work we were doing, the clients we were working with, she was right to tell me what she didn’t want me to wear in the workplace.
We return to the house where the security firm is run from four months after the events of The Key. The Key is still available on Amazon, £7.99 as a paperback and £1.99 as an ebook, and so is The Underground. Please do enjoy this glimpse into the new book.
Chloe smoothed down the front of her blouse as the breeze blew the hem of her skirt about her legs. She took a breath, remembering how her last job had ended the previous month. She knew it wasn’t her fault, no matter what they had said. She took her phone from her shoulder bag. Her mother hadn’t answered yet. Chloe took another breath and rang the doorbell.
Inside the house, Graeme Evans shouted from the kitchen, ‘Jack, answer the door!’
The slight man in a denim jacket and jeans, whose head was crowned with untamed hair, looked up from his black phone and called back, ‘Why me?’
The Welshman replied, ‘Because of what the rest of us look like.’ He pointed a finger at his shaved head, hard muscled body and black T-shirt and jeans.
Jack got up from the armchair that he always occupied, put his phone in his pocket and went to answer the door. He opened the door to a young white woman with spiralling dark hair, dark eyes and pleasant make up. Jack took in her white blouse with a black bow at the neck, and he took in the billowing black above the knee skirt and black with black heeled sandals.
‘I was told to ask for Graeme,’ Chloe said.
‘Kitchen,’ Jack said. He turned and went back to the living room to his chair.
Frowning at the rudeness, Chloe followed him along the hallway. She saw two small flags on the hallway wall that she knew; the flag of France and the flag of the UK, but there was another small flag with pink and white stripes that she could not identify. Chloe stood by the open living room doorway. Graeme left the kitchen with two cups of tea in his hands.
‘Shoes off love. Do you take sugar?’
‘I have a name.’
‘Right you are. Chloe.’
‘Do you have any fruit juice?’ Chloe asked. ‘I try to not drink caffeine during the week.’
‘Right you are,’ Graeme said. ‘I’ll find you some juice. Shoes.’ He handed Jack a cup of tea and put the other cup on the carpet next to a teenager who was sitting on the floor with his head down, reading a graphic novel. His fingers twitched.
Chloe sat down on the hallway stairs to remove her shoes. As she did, she looked into the living room. All the others in the house were men. This was a risky situation for any woman to be in. She also said to herself that a business that was run from a backstreet terraced house could not be legal. She had spoken to the Frenchman on the phone. He was the manager of the company and he had told her that this was an internationally recognised security company. Chloe’s own research online had confirmed this.
Chloe went back into the living room where Graeme handed her a glass of orange juice. ‘One hundred and eleven calories per every one hundred and twenty millilitres.’
Chloe looked up at him, unable to gauge from the tone of his voice whether he was mocking her or simply being helpful. ‘Where is the manager?’
Graeme sat down on the sofa in front of the window and indicated for Chloe to sit down on the sofa to his right that ran along the wall. As she sat, Graeme pointed at a photograph on the mantlepiece. ‘Yannick and Gillian are away and will be back on Wednesday. They’ve had Easter in the Seychelles, the lucky buggers.’
He pointed to himself. ‘Operations manager.’ He pointed to Jack who was tapping out an email on his black phone. ‘Communications manager, which is ironic considering he hardly speaks.’ Graeme pointed to the teenager with the comic. ‘My protégé. Eh?’ Graeme tapped the teenager’s head.
The young man looked up. ‘What Dad?’
Chloe’s eyes widened as she saw the scars on the teenager’s face.
‘Steven, this is Chloe. She’s going to do the books.’
‘Cook the books?’ Steven asked with big eyes.
‘You misheard me son,’ Graeme said, tapping a finger against Steven’s skull. ‘Chloe’s a business graduate. She’s going to do all the paperwork, that sort of thing. She’ll make sure we do everything right now that the business has boomed.’
Graeme asked the teenager, ‘Have you had your meds?’
Steven’s face was blank when he said, ‘I forgot.’
‘You’d forget your cock if it weren’t sewn on,’ Graeme said. ‘Go and take your meds. Go on.’
Steven scrambled to his feet and ran out of the living room to the kitchen and took some boxes from a cupboard.
Chloe’s fingers clenched the glass that stood between her hands.
‘Don’t worry yourself about Steven,’ Graeme said. ‘We all have problems. He’s been with us for nearly two years now. He’s learning to read, and he is doing something productive with his life.’
Chloe’s eyes darted from side to side as she tried to understand.
‘He’s not my son,’ Graeme explained. ‘My own son is a tiny bit smaller and shits himself more often than Steven does.’
Graeme took out his phone and showed the screen saver to Chloe. Chloe leaned forward and squinted at the picture of the newborn wrapped in a powder blue crocheted blanket.
‘He’s cute,’ Chloe said, noticing Graeme’s simple gold wedding ring as he held his phone in front of her. ‘How old is he?’
‘Seven weeks. My little Spencer.’
Graeme put his phone away. ‘Joe’s family name is Spencer. Spencer Wyn Evans. We decided to not double barrel.’
Steven came running into the living room again and sat down again on the carpet. He closed his comic and looked up at Graeme.
Jack put down his phone and Steven picked up a writing pad and pen.
Graeme sat back on the sofa and said, ‘So this is Chloe. She is joining us to help with the books and paperwork and she will put systems in place for us all. Chloe is a Business graduate, so she knows much more than we do about these matters. She speaks Chinese too, is that right Chloe?’
‘So, you can order us take out,’ Graeme said.
Again, Chloe could not gauge if Graeme was merely joking or making fun of her.
‘This is a security business?’ Chloe asked, despite having researched the company online. ‘What kind of security?’
Graeme stretched out his arms and then said, ‘We are the Stockport Team, and it all started here, in this very room, with me and Yannick.’ Graeme pointed to a photograph on the mantlepiece of an athletic man with short dark hair and a short beard. ‘Ugly bastard, isn’t he?’ Graeme didn’t wait for Chloe’s response. ‘He was an inspector in Paris, he came over this way and we worked together on the local police force. We wasted a lot of time, we had few resources, there was too much red tape and we weren’t helping anyone, so we set up our own security firm to deal with all the low-level crime that blights the lives of normal everyday people that the police nowadays simply ignore.’
‘Oh.’ This caught Chloe’s imagination. ‘So, this is a community project?’
‘No, this is a business,’ Graeme reiterated. ‘We have a team here, we have the Bolton Team run by security specialist Donald Fairbank, and a new team in Blackley run by our very own Nigerian soldier Anderton Garba. Residents in these areas pay us ten pounds per person per year, and we take care of any low-level crime that comes their way.’
‘Ten pounds per person,’ Chloe wondered out loud. ‘On a street of fifty to one hundred houses, that’s five hundred to one thousand pounds, assuming everyone on that street buys your services.’
‘They usually do,’ Graeme smiled. ‘When people see their neighbours getting their stolen goods back or us removing the graffiti on their walls and stopping the little pests from coming back, they hand us ten of their British pounds.’
‘How do you get stolen goods back?’ Chloe asked.
‘We know people who know people,’ Graeme said. ‘We keep our ears to the ground on many matters. Our girl Gilli deals with much of the underground rumblings. She’s still officially a detective sergeant, so she has all her police informants, as well as a few other characters that her husband Yannick keeps an eye on.’
‘On top of all of this, as though it weren’t enough, we have the overseas work, body guarding for VIPs, and this is where your Chinese will come in handy,’ Graeme told Chloe. ‘I was told you write the characters?’
‘I’m at B2 level,’ Chloe said.
‘That sounds wonderful but I have no idea what it means,’ Graeme replied. ‘Will you be able to read and translate documents?’
Chloe nodded. ‘I’ve got an app for anything that’s beyond me.’
‘You’re not just a pretty face,’ Graeme said.
Chloe’s jaw clenched.
‘Now,’ Graeme continued. ‘Your pay -‘
‘The Boss will like you!’ Steven interrupted.
With flared nostrils, Chloe stood up. ‘I don’t think this “job” is for me.’ She put her glass of juice down on the carpet, picked up her handbag and went to the hallway to retrieve her shoes.
Graeme tapped Steven on the head. ‘Look what you’ve done.’
‘Sorry Dad.’ Steven put his head down and began doodling on his notepad.
Graeme went to the hallway, where Chloe was struggling to put on her shoes without falling over in her effort to leave as quickly as she could. ‘It helps if you sit on the step.’
‘You patronising bastard!’ Chloe said, shocked that someone was mansplaining to her, but she knew that in reality she shouldn’t be shocked. ‘What was I thinking? A business run from a house!’
She finished fumbling with her shoes and stood up straight. She pulled the strap of her handbag onto her shoulder.
Graeme stood between Chloe and the door.
‘Let me pass!’
‘In a moment,’ Graeme said.
‘What? Are you kidnapping me now?’
Graeme took a deep breath. ‘I think you’ve misinterpreted my sense of humour for something it isn’t and -‘
‘Do you tell the men they have a pretty face?’
‘Yes I do,’ Graeme replied. ‘We try to keep things light around here because of the severity of our work. Did you hear about the woman who killed herself and her disabled daughter because of the campaign of anti-social behaviour against them? Or the four teenage boys who committed suicide last year because of the bullying at their secondary school?’
‘I heard about the woman and daughter,’ Chloe said. ‘I didn’t know about the boys.’
‘We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives. We take it seriously. That’s why we piss about when we’re in this house.’
Chloe looked past Graeme.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘if you don’t want to come back, we’ll pay you until the end of the week. If you do want to come back, come back on Wednesday. Gilli will be here. You’ll have another woman here.’
‘I might do that,’ Chloe said.
‘Don’t pay any attention to Steven. You can see his lift doesn’t go all the way up to the top.’
Chloe nodded, noting that Graeme had a problem with people with mental health conditions.
‘You’ve walked into a house full of men you don’t know,’ Graeme said. ‘We should have arranged for your first day to be when Gilli is here.’
‘Can you drop me a text to let me know your decision?’
‘And if you are going to come back, can you not come in a skirt again? Jeans and a top will be fine.’
Chloe sighed. ‘Right.’
Graeme put his hands up. ‘Women can wear whatever they want. I really don’t care. But we’re in the business we’re in. If you come here in a skirt, some of our clients will want to protect you, and the others might not be so polite.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’
‘Chloe, this isn’t a perfect world,’ Graeme said. ‘We work with people as they are, not how we would prefer them to be. Do you see me and the others in suits? We’re all in casual.’
‘This isn’t Paris Fashion Week, even though I wish it were.’
‘Come back on Wednesday,’ Graeme said, trying to smile. ‘Gilli will be here, in jeans and a top. Yannick will be back. He and Gilli can go through things better with you and take you out and show you what we actually do.’
‘We could really use someone who speaks Chinese,’ Graeme said. ‘We’re not used to having women folk around. Forgive us for any mansplaining or manspreading or whatever we’ve done.’
‘See you on Wednesday,’ Chloe said in a tight voice.
‘That would be wonderful Chloe.’
Graeme held the door open for Chloe, who left, unsure if she were really going to come back, but the hope of another woman being around and the Frenchman who had sounded so nice and intelligent when she had spoken to him on the phone was enough to keep her interest.
Graeme waited until Chloe was halfway down the street before he closed the door. ‘Well!’ He exhaled and staggered back into the living room.
‘Whipped by a woman,’ Jack said without looking up from his phone.
Graeme sat down on the sofa. ‘Enough of my private life. Boyos, we need to become conversant in Woke.’
Jack raised his eyebrows and Steven carried on sniggering.
Graeme decided, ‘I’ll call Anderton. He knows about all this modern talk.’
Steven looked up from his doodling. ‘Bin her Dad!’
‘No son,’ Graeme said wearily. ‘Out of the list of candidates, Chloe was among the most able, and the one most in need of help. I think we can help that girl.’
Graeme leaned back on the sofa, hoping he, Gilli and Yannick had made the right decision.