Extract: Pick Any Title by Russell James

Chapter 1
Let’s sort out where everyone was when this farrago started. In London, Mickey Starr was in bed – alone – while Strachey, benefiting from an eight-hour time difference, was sunning herself in San Francisco. I hate to tell you this, especially on page one, but if she had been in bed Strachey would not have been alone, since she had for some three months been hitched up with what Mickey later described as ‘that piece of lowlife’, Lord Clive Lane. Clive had acquired the title at auction a year before for three thousand pounds sterling. You may scoff, but to Clive that was a considerable investment and one he intended to grow. For Clive Lane to lay out several thousand of his own money was an unheard-of event, one that would make most of his friends (he had several) shake their heads in disbelief. It made Clive shake his own head. Strachey wandered into the bathroom once when Clive was shaving and found him staring at his reflection as if he’d stolen it.
‘Swallowed your shaving soap?’ she asked.
He coughed as if trying to spit the soap out. That, coupled with the lopsided frozen grin he gave from the mirror, was enough to convince her something was wrong. And Strachey was persistent: once she set her mind to something she stayed with it like a cat on a mouse. ‘Something you should tell me about?’
‘Where did I leave my brown gloves?’
Clive’s problem was that he could never admit to anything straight out – his first instinct was to lie. He had so many guilty secrets it was impossible for him to produce an honest answer first try. Clive felt honesty was overrated, a hangover from the Victorian era, inextricably entwined with teetotalism, hypocrisy and manly virtues. ‘You only get one chance at life,’ he’d say. ‘Give it your best shot.’
To Strachey, this had the ring of a line he’d used before. Clive had a gold-tooled leather diary in which every page was graced with a witty quote and once, when they had been stuck in a dull but expensive Fresno hotel and Clive (for no reason he could convincingly explain) had been away the whole afternoon, Strachey had leafed through that diary looking for coded phone numbers or concealed female names. She had also read the epigrams for each day. None suggested you should give life your best shot. There were cringe-making cracker mottoes such as ‘Miracles happen to those who believe in them’ and ‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going’, but the nearest she could get to Clive’s philosophy was ‘Accept nothing but the best – you’ll be surprised how often you get it’. She found, as can happen on a dull afternoon – especially in Fresno – that the 365 epigrams had a hypnotic effect. Some actually sounded profound. She found herself repeating one particularly trite motto and had to stop herself from learning it by heart. It read, ‘The future comes unannounced’.
Fresno? That was where they met with another man germane to this story, a vanilla-suited farmer-turned-businessman called Lincoln Deane who had recently turned two thousand acres of semi-desert on the South Central Plain into the Lincoln’s Inn Vineyard, a struggling, would-be Gallo extravagance that survived only because of an exclusive supply contract he had wormed out of the ‘Happy Hacienda’ chop-house chain. As he had learned during a two-year stint as a Napa Valley Wine Trail Tour Facilitator, Lincoln himself was no viticulturist – he was barely a farmer – but he was a businessman. He knew therefore that having all his bottles in the ‘Happy Hacienda’ wine rack made him vulnerable, and he was desperate to expand. But California was awash with decent wine and Lincoln’s insipid pink Zinfandel tasted like a similarly colored mouthwash. A TV wine critic once said it had ‘a flavor not unreminiscent of wholesome shampoo – bringing back childish memories one would prefer to forget’. Lincoln remembered how the critic fingered the lapel to his jacket and grinned at the camera. ‘Short in the mouth but excessive in the nose.’
Summed the guy up.
Anyway, Lincoln had responded to one of Clive’s advertisements because he sensed an opportunity to expand his wilting empire into the old colonialist itself – the British Isles. Lord Clive could help.
Just as Clive helped Frankie di Stefano. That afternoon, some three thousand miles from California, Lord Clive had caught a cab from JFK out to a so-called hotel on Long Island – a motel really – littered around a semi-Olympic-size swimming pool, where the cagey di Stefano had agreed to meet. Frankie at this time – to be truthful, at most times in his adult life – displayed an almighty reluctance to allow anyone admittance to his property. Meeting on his territory was OK, since his territory stretched in a ten-mile arc from outer Queens towards Garden City and included any number of public meeting places – quite a number of which were not controlled by his gang. These neutral venues were a safe place to meet. If, as had become increasingly the case nowadays, the visitor was from the tax office or the FBI, Frankie preferred that they poke around the furniture or computer records of an entirely innocent establishment in the mistaken belief that it belonged to Frankie’s gang. He would often encourage this misapprehension by whispering to the waiters and wandering in and out of unlabeled doors.
The sun-baked poolside of the Captain Nemo provided an abundance of entrance and exit opportunities and was the kind of suspiciously innocent-looking venue you’d expect in a David Lynch movie. Several businessmen lolled around in tee-shirts and trunks. They sipped their drinks and scowled at local teenagers leaping in and out the pool, water gleaming on lithe bodies, flesh-tones golden like beer. It was easy to see why salesmen would scowl. Three other men – also bulky – sat at strategically placed tables and made no attempt to look like salesmen. One of them removed his jacket and draped it over a metal chair. The other two kept theirs on.
When he arrived, Clive Lane was in laid-back English mode. He followed the waiter across the patio, smiling as he went, right arm extended for a handshake, the striped linen of his Henley jacket setting off his shirt and Jermyn Street tie. From his left hand dangled a beautiful fawn leather briefcase. Its rightful owner, fortunately, hadn’t been so vulgar as to personalise his luggage with initials, so Clive had been able to place his own subtle but unmissable baronial crest exactly where he chose (beneath the handle, a quiet spot, but high enough to catch the eye).
He sang out an unmissable ‘I say, delighted to meet you,’ which, although it would have been over the top in many a venue, seemed unremarkable in a glitzy motel half a mile from Queens. It was difficult to be over the top on a coral-and-apricot chequered patio where the host’s bodyguards were arranged conspicuously around the pool. And Clive was a real-life English lord.
‘You’ll have a drink with me,’ Frankie said.
He waved a finger at a waiter. Since he hadn’t yet removed his shades he could stare at Clive, his gaze concealed by mirror lenses, while he decided whether this aristocratic faggot was the genuine muffin or a plant from the Internal Revenue office. Clive lounged in the poolside chair, one leg draped across the other like a picture in an interior decorator’s catalog, showing off his only pair of Saville Row trousers. He half closed his eyes against the sun and pretended to be unaware of the various bodyguards – each of whom was staring in his direction as if daring him to go for a gun.
He would open his briefcase slowly.
Clive’s ads ran through a box number, and when he had read the reply from Frankie di Stefano there was nothing to indicate his profession. He hadn’t known how to spell ‘baronial’ but that didn’t make the man a gangster. Clive took a dim view of the ability of most people to spell correctly but as long as a punter could write his signature on a check he didn’t care. Clive was not as unworldly as his languid pose suggested. He had been around as many blocks as had a fifty-year-old mailman, and the hairs on his sensitive antennules quivered as soon as di Stefano suggested meeting at a motel someplace near Queens. It hardly seemed an appropriate spot to discuss his ennoblement and inclusion in the higher echelons of British aristocracy. The Captain Nemo Motor Lodge was no Savoy. And it was Clive’s custom when arriving at any meeting to first ignore the punter and take in the room – or in this case, the poolside. Among the bathers, di Stefano’s three heavies stuck out like pallbearers at a feast. They looked like busy men whose dentists were running late. Clive could guess what service they provided their boss, and the swarthy di Stefano looked to have as much noble blood in him as a warthog.
Clive wasn’t fazed.
‘You’re not staying at this hotel?’
Frankie shook his head.
‘Can’t say I’ve come across it before.’
Frankie gave a less than friendly grin. ‘They hadn’t heard of you at the Claremont, neither. An’ that’s the best hotel in town.’
‘I’m staying with friends.’
Clive checked his smile against the reflection in Frankie’s mirrored sunglasses as the man persisted: ‘Sellin’ the family silver?’
‘Not my silver, Mr di Stefano. Cousin – somewhat remote.’
‘Short of cash, right?’
Di Stefano clearly wanted to establish his financial superiority, and as an experienced con artist Clive knew the value of letting the punter think he knew best.
‘Troubled times,’ he admitted.
‘So the old guy wants to sell his title?’
Clive tried a teaser. ‘I advised him not to. Frightfully bad show. Terrible letdown for succeeding generations of his family.’
Frankie sneered. ‘Who are gonna lose the thing, right? I mean, once the title’s sold, it don’t come back to ’em?’
‘Quite. Stays in the family of whoever buys it. Do you have a family, Mr di Stefano? I have to tell you that the very idea of buying and selling titles appals me. A title means much more than family silver.’
‘Which he’s sold already?’
Clive closed his eyes and nodded: the reluctant seller.
Frankie decided the Brit was kosher – or at least, wasn’t a set-up from the Feds. No one was ever exactly what he said. This Clive guy was the family’s number one reluctant schmuck, sent over to do the dirty deal. Sully his hands. He wouldn’t like doing it, but since when did anyone like eating dirt?
‘This title, then – come down the family—’
‘Eleven hundred years,’ Clive agreed sadly.
‘An’ he can sell the thing – get rid of it – just like that?’
Clive leant forward. ‘Exactly. I’m so glad that you agree with me. Appalling idea. The title should stay in the family, don’t you agree?’
Frankie opened his mouth as the waiter reappeared with his tray. He watched the way the man laid out the drinks as if he suspected one might have been spiked. The waiter hovered momentarily but remembered who Frankie was and disappeared.
Frankie said, ‘Let me get this straight. You don’t wanna sell it, but your cousin does. He don’t wanna sell it neither, but he’s got no choice. An’ you’re over here to fix the deal?’
Clive sighed and reached for his drink.
‘An’ if he sells it to me, it’s permanent? When I die it goes to my kids?’
‘One of them. There can be only one Lord di Stefano. Your eldest son.’
‘Then after him, it’s his son, right?’
‘Through perpetuity.’
Frankie frowned. ‘OK, the whole caboodle comes to me? Can I sell it?’
Clive looked surprised. ‘It would be a far better investment if you didn’t sell it. It transforms one’s life – gives you status, that kind of thing. How can I put this? It’s not anyone who can become a Lord.’
‘I’m not good enough?’
In any trading situation Clive preferred to have the other person beg to buy, rather than show that he was anxious to sell. ‘You would be joining the British aristocracy, and it’s beholden upon me to ensure that the new entrant is truly fit.’
‘Wanna see me do some press-ups?’
‘I meant—’
‘Take you on any time, buddy. Watch your step.’
Clive risked a trump, though not the ace: he took his briefcase and stood up. ‘Awfully nice meeting you, Mr di Stefano. I must pop along.’
Frankie was finessed. ‘Where the hell you going? Sit down.’
Clive looked at his watch and shook his head. ‘Becoming a British lord is an awesome responsibility. One must be the right kind of man. Blue blood, you know?’
He was aware of a bodyguard at his shoulder. Frankie snapped, ‘Be some red blood on the table, you don’t sit down.’
The bodyguard prodded. Clive asked, ‘Is he with you?’
‘Beat it, Lennox.’ Frankie removed his shades. ‘So what is it, Clive – you don’t wanna do business with me, or you don’t wanna do business with nobody?’
Clive pursed his lips and appeared to think. ‘It’s nothing personal – merely that I find the idea of selling one’s inheritance distasteful. But it has to be done.’ He looked at his watch again. ‘I’m afraid my time in New York is limited, and here on Long Island we’re a long way out.’
‘Goin’ someplace?’
‘I have to be at the Algonquin—’
‘You don’t have to be nowhere, buddy. You just sit down another two minutes, finish your drink – which I bought you, by the way – and tell me what I got to do to buy this title.’
Clive savored the moment. He had Frankie where he wanted him. The man hadn’t even replaced his shades.
Strachey didn’t spend the whole day sunning herself. Like anyone attached to Clive, she had become part of his schemes. So far, all she had done was act as his personal secretary – and you don’t get much more personal than sharing a one-room rental in what Clive claimed was Pacific Heights but which everyone else called Western Addition. The first time Clive left her alone in San Francisco, Strachey had taken herself a long walk down through Pacific Heights, continuing through steep streets of pastel Victorian houses to reach the sea. She had drunk coffee in Union Street, taken a brief look at the Cannery and Fisherman’s Wharf, glanced inside three art galleries, and had then climbed slowly up through Nob and Russian Hill. Although she could think of nowhere like it in England, the relaxed beauty of the place and the sudden long views made her wistful for home. Often in America the unfamiliar sound of her English accent would be greeted with incredulity. People would ask, ‘You from Australia?’ But San Francisco was populated by Americans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and the city was used to foreigners, outsiders and offsiders of many kinds. It was tolerant, easy. Cops in shorts rode on bicycles – men with big shoulders and clean hairy thighs, guns bulging on manly hips. They rode in pairs, chatting, smiling, leaning across to each other from their saddles.
It had seemed that way three weeks ago, but now this beautiful city wearied her. Life wearied her. Recently she had started waking up with a headache – and she wasn’t the sort of girl who suffered headaches.
Catching sight of herself in a shop window, Strachey realized that she had begun to look American. In one of his rare attempts at flattery, Mickey Starr had said her light skin was English rose, but over here her height, stride and bobbed blonde hair would persuade anyone that only a few years earlier she’d swirled batons as a majorette. Even her cool reserved look didn’t seem out of place. Scandinavian, you’d say, brought up in one of those wide-open central states – Lake Woebegone country: when she left for High School she never went back. Then she would open that sexy mouth of hers, say something, and you’d know. Not American – but not Australian either, dumb cluck! Where have you been – don’t you go to the movies?
She was striding along Geary on her way back from the Clift. This was Clive’s idea: he’d told her that although there was a coin phone in their rental she should go to one of San Fran’s most expensive hotels and do her phoning from there. Strachey was more at home in top hotels than he realized and she had more than enough clout to pass as a guest, but this time, rather than worm her way into the Clift’s business center, she simply stopped by for English tea and phoned from the table. She was not phoning nobodies. The kind of people she called did not answer their own phone and although she might get straight through to them, she often did not. ‘Have him call me,’ she’d say. ‘At the Clift. I shall be here until six but then, I’m afraid, I have a dinner and cannot be reached.’
‘And who’s that calling?’
‘Lord Clive’s PA.’
Many telephone con artists revel in the anonymity of a voice-only line, and to work their scams they lock themselves in a room. But Clive recommended public spaces, as upscale as possible: having people around compels one to act. Sit for hours in a room and your loneliness comes through. Certainly Strachey found it easier to sit in the Clift, surrounded by clinking coffee cups. Sometimes a waiter would be with her as the telephone rang and when she spoke into the handset and confirmed that yes, she was Lord Clive’s PA, she could see a reaction as well as hear one down the line. It made her sparkle. You wouldn’t get that in an empty room.
To tell the truth – somebody has to – one of those waiters hung around rather more often than was strictly necessary to keep her charged with Earl Grey tea. He had noticed that this pretty English Miss always drank tea on her own. Lord Clive’s PA did not mean Lord Clive’s mistress – and who the hell was Lord Clive anyway? Probably some old guy laid up with gout. The blonde English Miss never seemed to phone her boyfriend. She just sat there, cool as ice cream, and talked of titles and heritage and when would the caller like to meet? What the waiter wanted to ask was when would she like to meet?
It was fantasy, he knew. Million-dollar blondes at the Clift did not go with two-bit waiters who commuted daily from Oakland. But a guy could dream. A guy could hang around her table, even if she only left an English tip – because the main thing was that she left her smile. A guy could take a lot from that.
Fresno – there’s a place. First is the getting to it. If you’ve a yen to see all the wrong parts of California just take the drive down from San Fran to dreary Fresno. You leave the city on the 101 and grind through dust and concrete sprawl, through San Jose and Gilroy, until with some relief you head inland across the flatlands that are the least scenic part of this fabulous state. The sun glowers behind a faint agricultural haze, and fields look parched. You reach the north-south 99 and make the only good move of the journey by turning south and missing Merced, a city so ugly you wonder how it ever erupted in California, when its citizens would obviously prefer to live in shacks beneath a flyover in Hermosillo. You trudge down the 99 through what’s billed seductively as the San Joaquin Valley but is a desert where crop peasants grow cotton and nuts, while smarter farmers make wine.
All of which guarantees you reach Fresno with a headache.
On the outskirts (most of Fresno looks like outskirts) they had to refill the car, and Clive, temporarily free from the need to flatter and impress, made a barbed remark about Fresno to the attendant – probably assuming, Strachey thought, that the peon did not speak English – but the man smiled and said smugly, ‘Well, at least it ain’t Bakersfield, buddy,’ as if that proved anything.
They drove on.
They had noticed vineyards on the way but since the town also housed the world’s largest raisin-packing plant – Sun Maid – they weren’t optimistic about the wine. Nevertheless, there were some big operators in the area – families that had constructed huge, sprawling haciendas to front their wine-making factories, and the sight of them helped Clive and Strachey get to the nub of their man today.
He’d want status.
Lincoln Deane greeted them himself. In the shaded courtyard of his three-year-old antique Colonial, he wore a broad-striped linen jacket and white pants. The stripes were pale pastel and the jacket looked like a deck-chair left out too long. Clive was glad he hadn’t brought his Henley jacket – he and Lincoln would have looked like competing sticks of rock.
Strachey was more struck by Lincoln’s head. Till now she had only spoken with him on the phone and in her mental picture Lincoln had hair. But he was spectacularly bald. As they crossed the dappled courtyard, shafts of sun bounced like laser beams off his scalp. Obviously he polished the thing – sun-factor eighteen, you bet, but also with some kind of long-lasting wax. His head gleamed. It gave a startling effect, as if the man normally wore a toupee and didn’t know it had fallen off. He wore tan shoes of crocodile leather.
He led them through the main hall of the house – marble floor under natural light – and out through a large glass double door to a patio and duck pond. The pond had a clinical look, as if it had been designed as a plunge pool but had been converted. A pile of rocks created an island in the center and housed an unlikely crop of ferns. The ducks’ nest halfway up was surely false. But real enough were the two black swans sailing round the outcrop as if connected to the island by underwater spokes.
Lincoln indicated a pond-side table. Marble again.
‘You want a drink? Something fancy – Pina Colada, maybe, or perhaps you’d like to sample our wine? Someone has to!’ Lincoln laughed.
‘I’m sure it’s beautiful,’ Clive said.
Strachey asked for tea.
‘You know, we had some of that. I bet there’s some in the kitchen.’
Lincoln pressed a cast-iron desk bell and in the far distance they heard a four-note chime. But a haughty, dark-haired woman had followed them silently on to the patio. She looked like a flamenco dancer between breaks. She glanced at Strachey and asked, ‘China or Indian?’
‘China would be nice.’
Lincoln chuckled. ‘Of course, the English drink tea from china cups. And what about you, my lord – some wine?’
‘I can’t wait to sample your wine, Lincoln, but just now I’d prefer tea.’
The maid glanced at the bowl on the marble table. ‘You have tacos, burritos, chilli, artichoke hearts. I bring biscuits.’
Lincoln smiled proudly as she left. ‘My housekeeper. Quite a girl. Beats a butler.’ He glanced at Clive. ‘I guess I’ll be led by you on that one – I mean, you being a lord, et cetera. Think I’ll need one?’
‘A butler?’
‘That’s supposing I buy into this.’
‘Forgive me, Mr Deane, but becoming a lord is not something you buy into. It’s an institution. The financial arrangement is incidental.’
‘It still costs something, right?’
‘Surprisingly little,’ Clive purred.
Lincoln shrugged and looked aside. ‘How much is surprisingly little?’
‘We can’t say exactly. There will be an auction, as you know.’
‘How many will be bidding at this auction? Fill in the details.’
Clive glanced at Strachey. ‘I thought Jane had explained?’
Lincoln grinned at her. ‘Jane, is it? You didn’t tell me that.’
She smiled back. ‘I’m a formal person.’
‘Jane Strachey, right?’ He turned to Clive. ‘While we’re on this, what do I call you – Lord Clive or what?’
‘Lord Clive is correct, but please call me Clive. You, of course, would become Lord of the Manor of Hexcombe.’
‘I wouldn’t be Lord Deane?’
‘My Lord of Hexcombe has more of a ring about it, wouldn’t you say?’
Lincoln sat back in his chair. ‘I want Lord Deane.’
Lord Clive smiled wistfully. ‘I’m offering my cousin’s title. He has… fallen upon hard times, and has decided to relinquish his heritage. I can’t say I think him right, but I’m here to help him out.’
‘You didn’t think of helping him out with cash?’
Clive sighed. ‘I did think of it. But I’m not a rich man myself, and I’d never have got my money back. Lord Hexcombe has not always been wise where finance is concerned.’
‘Lord Hexcombe, eh? What d’you think it’ll cost me?’
Clive turned to Strachey. ‘What have we heard on the rival bids?’
She pursed her lips. ‘Difficult. Everyone is keeping their cards close to their chests.’
Clive nodded. ‘Well, a number of titles have been sold in recent years – some as low as a few thousand, ten to twenty, that kind of thing. But the Manor of Hexcombe… I’d say fifty plus.’
‘Fifty thousand pounds?’
‘At least.’
‘You know, I might pay a hundred thousand for plain ‘Lord Deane’. It sounds smarter. Think about it, Clive: if I get to become Lord Deane you could pull in a hundred grand. Worth considering.’
Clive smiled. ‘I have a single title to offer and I’ll confess I’m loathe to sell it – which is why I must ensure that the title falls into the right hands. Any parvenu could buy it.’ Clive looked around him. ‘But I’m reassured.’
They paused while the maid laid out gold-rimmed tea cups and a pot of tea, with a silver jug of coffee on the side. She replaced the Mexican appetisers with sugared biscuits. Although Strachey’s headache lingered she managed, ‘Lovely tea.’
Lincoln grinned. ‘Let’s cut to the chase then, Clive. I want to be called Lord Deane, not Lord Hexcombe. You can fix it?’
‘Sadly not.’
‘Sounds to me like you get a hundred thousand one way, a cup of tea the other – and you’ve drunk the tea. You should make an effort, Clive. Could be a long trip back.’
Clive nodded sadly. ‘It has been a long trip. And if you don’t mind, Mr Deane, we’d better start that journey back.’ He smiled. ‘Shame, of course. I could just see you as the Lord of Hexcombe. Never mind. How’s the wine business?’
Lincoln waved a hand. ‘It flows.’
Strachey appeared to have been struck by a sudden thought. ‘I hope you hadn’t thought of putting the baronial crest on your wine labels – to increase sales or give the product a special cachet? Not that it matters now, of course.’
‘Can’t I do that?’
She glanced inquiringly at Clive, who pulled a face. ‘We couldn’t stop you profiting from the lordship, of course – if you had bought it. You’d have a number of rights and privileges. Anyway—’ He downed the remainder of his tea. ‘Good to meet you, Mr Deane. We must get on.’
Lincoln watched them rise, then stood up himself. ‘You’d just walk out on me – walk out on a hundred thousand dollars? You must be genuine.’
Lord Clive shrugged modestly. Lincoln scratched his shining head and grinned. ‘Don’t be insulted, Clive, but we’re talking big money here. I thought I’d see how you responded to temptation.’
‘Let you into a secret. I’ve been reading up on this lordship business because I do not go into any deal I know nothing about. You’re offering this English lordship and I don’t even if know if the damn thing can be sold. So I check up and I find you can’t buy any old lordship – you’ve got to buy one that’s on the market. Like your cousin’s. Like you say.’
Clive made his lip tremble. ‘I’m not used to having my word doubted.’
Lincoln chuckled. ‘Well, no, you being a lord, et cetera. But I’ll tell you this: I checked up whether the Lord Hexcombe title exists.’
Clive raised an eyebrow. He appeared untroubled but didn’t trust himself to speak.
Lincoln continued: ‘My attorney checked something called the Manorial Documents Register and it shows this title of yours going back to the fifteenth century.’ He smiled. ‘Which is reassuring. But are you entitled to sell it, Clive?’
Clive stiffened and looked English, but Strachey touched his arm. ‘Make allowances, my lord. America’s a long way from home.’
Clive said, ‘A gentleman’s word is his bond.’
‘Well, like she says, Clive honey, America’s a long way from home. So if you sell me this thing, you have to produce the documents – what d’you call them – the deeds? Anyway, my attorney can deal with that. My guy tells me you’re on a percentage – is that right?’
Clive lowered his eyelids. ‘It is customary.’
Lincoln grinned. ‘Ten per cent, right?’
Clive said, ‘You certainly know your stuff.’
‘Too right, Clive. If I get the documents, you get the cash.’
‘I dare say your attorney also mentioned the deposit?’
Lincoln’s eyes narrowed, but he still looked good-humoured. He felt himself in charge now – which is how a mark should feel. ‘I thought he just meant his fee. Look, Clive honey, come back and sit yourself down. We’ll talk about it.’
Clive held his ground. But he smiled too. ‘We wouldn’t be wasting each other’s time?’
‘Oh, sit down, for Christ’s sake. We’re talking details, aren’t we?’
Which is where Clive and Strachey were two days later, with a tall mark in Carmel. This one had his attorney with him. It didn’t worry Clive: paying an attorney meant the mark was set to do business.
‘The first step,’ the lawyer said, ‘will be for me to write a contract with Lord Clive’s attorney, specifying exactly what is being sold and for how much.’
Clive murmured: ‘The sale is by auction.’
‘I don’t like that.’
Clive nodded sympathetically. The attorney wore a suit of pale blue, made of a material so lightweight it was a miracle it remained opaque. Though he looked desk-bound his skin was tanned. He turned to his client: ‘You must realise, sir, that there will be restrictions on what rights the lordship confers. You may not even have the right to pass on the title.’
‘He will,’ Clive cut in soothingly. ‘Mr Delarme will be able to pass the title directly to his children – natural children, that is.’
He added this to tease Delarme – because he had already learnt that the man was a fervid bible reader. He was a huge man, hopefully possessed of Christian restraint. He must have been six foot six and he sported a black beard so daunting it could have stood for president on its own. And won. The deep voice buried within it declared: ‘All God’s children are natural. I can assure you that mine were born inside wedlock.’
‘Naturally,’ said Clive.
The voice rolled again: ‘And the title will be Lord of Hexcombe? My son would be called what?’
‘He’ll keep his present name. He’ll refer to you as ‘My father, Lord of Hexcombe’, but for him there can be no title till he inherits.’ Clive smiled. ‘Does that worry you, sir?’
Delarme’s eyes were black as unlit coal. The attorney cut in: ‘You said something about lands and property?’
Clive shook his head. ‘Just the title, and some rights to verges and unclaimed land stemming from the original ‘copyhold’ lands of the manor. There are some mineral rights also, I believe,’ he added nonchalantly.
The attorney and Delarme responded in unison: ‘Mineral rights?’
‘Oh, don’t worry – “copyhold” lands can be explored only with your permission. You don’t want people digging for gold all over the parish, do you?’
Clive chuckled at the absurdity of the idea, well aware that it sounded far from absurd to the mark and his attorney. While their minds raced Clive continued: ‘Have no fear: your prerogatives are clearly documented and once the sale has gone through, these documents – which incidentally are rather charming things on ancient vellum – pass over to you with the title. You don’t pay, in fact, till you have those documents in your hand.’
Delarme’s eyes gleamed.
Strachey threw in her two-penn’orth: ‘D’you know, vellum documents can often be worth money? Apparently there have been cases of people selling them for quite considerable sums. Ridiculous, isn’t it?’
‘Vulgar,’ snapped Clive. ‘Putting money before heritage.’
Strachey added, ‘You may unearth other amusing benefits such as the right to fly your banner from the church tower on your birthday. I believe you’re a God-fearing man, sir?’
Delarme’s voice resonated. ‘I certainly am.’ He stared back at them. ‘I trust you have both found the Lord?’
Clive said, ‘We have only one to sell—’
Delarme cut across him: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord!’
Clive and Strachey said, ‘Amen.’
Tell me, have you ever been to Carmel? Strachey had checked in everything from Frommers to California On Twenty Dollars A Day and discovered that in that part of California – and on Clive’s budget – they couldn’t afford a night in a tent. So it meant another slog up Route 101 to San Francisco. When they got there – tired and dark-eyed – their resemblance to British aristocracy had waned. Clive parked the hired auto San Francisco style – on a twenty per cent hill, engine in gear, wheels forty-five degrees to the curb – and they trudged up the stairs to their rental. Which smelled stale. As she trudged up the stairs, Strachey realized that despite her persistent headache she relished the tawdriness. As Mickey used to say, she enjoyed slumming.
Inside the room, Clive aired a thought that had been worrying him: ‘The trouble is we have to wait so long for our money. We don’t get so much as a deposit until auction day.’
‘So it’s the diner tonight?’
‘Oh, Strachey, I can afford a meal. But this room… ’
‘Is no place for a lord?’
He smiled wearily. ‘Nor his lady.’
He threw his tan briefcase on the bed where it raised a small cloud of dust.
She poked a finger in his side. ‘Don’t come the aristo.’
‘I paid good money to become one.’
‘Three thousand. And how much was Hexcombe?’
He clucked her gently beneath the chin. ‘Five and a half. You see, my title was a folie de grandeur. I’m Lord Clive of Lower Marsh, and that’s it – no attachments. But Hexcombe is the real McCoy.’
‘It’ll have to be if you’re going to get a hundred thousand for it.’
‘It’s a rural hereditament, nice part of the country, some scraps of property rights.’
‘But a hundred thousand – seriously?’
‘It’s all down to presentation. When they sold the Barony of Clanmaurice, as you know, it went for £27,500 – in Britain, not America, though at the same auction other titles went for laughably small amounts. Renacres in Lancashire cost a mere £4,250, and even Amberley in Sussex fetched less than thirteen grand. Peasemore, a gem in Berkshire – imagine it: the Lordship of Peasemore – went for a derisory £6,000.’
‘You’ll have your work cut out on Hexcombe.’
‘Trust uncle Clive.’
He took her out that evening to a modest restaurant in Haight Ashbury, and while they were eating (and long before they ran out on the bill) he expounded on the delights of Hexcombe – the wild Devon countryside, the thatched cottages, the high-banked lanes – and in what seemed a natural consequence he gave her a single air ticket and told her what she had to do.

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Other books by Russell James
(published by The Do-Not Press)
Oh No, Not My Baby
Painting in the Dark

About Russell James