Out of work actor William Lewis made a living playing ‘Edwin,’ the fictitious boyfriend of high-powered executive Nathia. Or at least he used to, until Nathia decided to let him go. No matter, Zlata, his best friend and supposed theatrical agent has a new job for him… one that on the face of it is completely ridiculously and risky in the extreme. Although it would involve working very closely with someone Will rather likes… someone who seems to be no stranger to the concept of ‘secret identities’…
“Gentlemen – welcome to my ’umble restaurant, I am Stephan LeBlanc…” I am not Stephan LeBlanc. I am William Lewis. Will to my friends. But these are not my friends. And I barely own anything more than a watch – restaurants are definitely out of my league.
I shake the hands of the two gentlemen and waiting staff step forward and offer to take their coats. I’d half expected them to be wearing traditional Arabian dress, but instead they’re dressed in three-piece business suits. Savile Row, if I’m not mistaken. And I only know this because they’re similar to my own, though I’m guessing that they probably own their suits, whereas mine is most definitely hired.
“It is so nice to finally meet you and put faces to names,” I continue, though as I’m sure you’re beginning to realise, I’ve never had any kind of contact with either gentleman before this moment.
“Allow me to introduce my personal assistant; Miss Taylor. Miss Taylor handles many of my day-to-day activities.” Rachel steps forward and offers her hand. For a tense moment I watch the reaction of the two men. Much has been said in the previous few days about particular cultural attitudes towards women, and the reception Rachel might get as a woman working in a key role within ‘my’ organisation. But the two men bow and clasp her hand much more warmly than my own.
“Also, let me introduce Jarad Hossaini, my head of catering and senior chef. It was Jarad that started me on this wonderful journey when he introduced me to his fabulous Jordanian cuisine. Shall we sit?”
Whilst waiters distribute coffees I sneak a glance at my ‘colleagues’. Jarad looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut. Rachel, on the other hand, seems unfazed. She smiles shyly whenever anyone looks in her direction, which they do, often, and I can see that our guests are rapidly becoming beguiled by her charms. And for the first time since I agreed to take on this role, I’m starting to believe there’s every chance we might just pull this off.
Eight days ago I sat in this same restaurant, and discovered that the woman I knew as Rachel Richmond – shy and retiring wife of venture capitalist Michael Richmond – wasn’t so shy or as retiring as she’d led everyone to believe. Whilst Michael spent his days breathing life (or not) into fledgling companies throughout London, his wife was secretly running a restaurant, with Jarad – a talented Jordanian chef, and as it turns out, a distant cousin on Rachel’s mother’s side.
“But why keep it a secret?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“If you knew my husband, it would make total sense.”
“But I do know your husband! Don’t I?”
“You only know what you see, Will; the man who likes to put on an expensive suit, drink an entire bottle of port, and entertain you with tales of his investment exploits. But there’s another side to Michael. A darker side. A cruel side. Did he ever tell you how we met?”
“Many times,” I replied. “You were waiting tables. He was meeting a business associate. Your eyes met across the crowded restaurant…”
“I suppose that’s one version of events,” said Rachel. “It was my first job and I loved it. That quirky old building, the people I worked with, the customers – I could have happily waited tables for the rest of my life. And then Michael started coming in with his ‘business associates’ – first once a week, then twice, then every day.
“I thought nothing of it at first. Why wouldn’t you come in every day if you could afford to? Then he started making demands: first he wanted the same table, then he refused to be served by anyone else, finally he told me he wanted to marry me.”
“Crikey,” I said. “That really is demanding!”
“Yes, well, I thought he was joking at first. An extension of his lewd comments, and attempts to pinch my bottom, but it turned out he was serious. He told me if I agreed to marry him he would buy the restaurant and give it to me as a wedding present. It would be mine. I could run it.
“Well, I was used to customers coming on to me, it came with the territory, but no man had ever offered to buy me anything more than a drink – but then, Michael wasn’t your average man. He was older, wiser, more confident, more powerful. He was very, very attractive. And I was young. A little naïve. And maybe… a little greedy. I loved that restaurant so much, Will. If Michael was willing to get it for me then I figured he must really… I thought it meant…” Rachel blinked a few times, bit her bottom lip, then turned to look out of the window whilst she bunched the table cloth in her fists. I exchanged glances with Zlata.
“That he genuinely loved me,” she said, so quietly I could barely hear her. I shuffled in my chair.
“Well I’m sure he did,” I said. “And probably still does. Doesn’t he?”
“No, Will,” she said, her voice hardening. “I didn’t realise it for a long time, but it turned out… he was just buying me. He’d figured out my price, and was adding me to his ‘portfolio’.” She stared off into the distance, her eyes full of the past.
“That sounds a little harsh,” I said eventually.
“It’s also true,” she said, coming back to the here and now. “But who am I to judge? I wanted that restaurant, just as Michael wanted me. So I agreed; I married him.”
“Wow,” I said.
“And then I watched Michael do what Michael does so well.”
“He bought you the restaurant?” I asked.
“In a manner of speaking. The owner didn’t want to sell it – not even with my assurances that nothing would change. But that wasn’t going to stop Michael. Within a few months he’d acquired the building, and terminated the lease on the restaurant. The brasserie closed shortly after I became Mrs Richmond, and the owner and all my old colleagues found themselves out of work.
“I told myself it didn’t matter. That we’d re-open, under my management, and that I would re-employ as many of the original staff as I could, and together we would win back our old customers. It would be even better than it had been. Everybody would be happy.”
“I take it that’s not what happened,” I said, after a long pause. Rachel shook her head. “Michael never gave me the restaurant,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “He struck a deal with a property developer, and together they tore that lovely old building to the ground, and replaced it with a block of ‘luxury’ apartments. And one day he presented me with a piece of paper telling me that those flats were mine – that was my wedding present; a constant reminder of a place I’d once loved, the people I used to enjoy working with, and how my greed had destroyed it all.”
“Gosh,” I said. Eventually. Though more to fill the void with something other than the sound of Zlata’s rings clinking against her coffee cup. She’d obviously heard the story before, but still, I couldn’t help thinking that a moment of respectful silence was called for. Whilst I glared at Zlata, Jarad came over with another coffee and set it on front of Rachel.
“For you,” he said, placing a hand tenderly on her shoulder, and then taking the seat next to me.
“Thank you,” she said, with a smile.
“So, how did you come to run this place?” I asked.
“I met Jarad at a family function,” said Rachel, picking up her frothy milky drink. “He told me about his passion for cooking, how he’d always dreamt of owning a restaurant, and I realised that here was an opportunity to make up for what I’d done. We found this premises and together we started this business.”
“And Michael doesn’t know?” I asked.
“He knows the restaurant exists, of course – but he doesn’t know about my involvement. Or that Jarad is my cousin. And that’s the way I want it to stay.” Something didn’t make sense.
“Then how on earth did Michael end up coming here for a business meeting?”
“Ah, well – in retrospect perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea,” said Rachel, shooting Jarad a look.
“The restaurant, this restaurant, has been extremely successful. A few months ago we started to wonder whether we could expand. Open a second restaurant. Perhaps even a small chain. But expansion needs money, William. Investment.”
“You’re kidding me. You contacted your husband! After what happened before?”
“Perhaps it was madness, but it felt like fate had handed me an opportunity. If I could get that… miserable worm to invest his money in our restaurant, it would, in some small way, be a kind of retribution. I wrote to Nathia, as Jarad, and asked whether her firm might be interested in discussing an investment opportunity. She came, saw the potential, and took the idea to her boss – my husband. Everything seemed to be going to plan – until, that is, the evening Michael came to see the restaurant for himself.
“I sat next to him, as his wife, and watched, helpless, as he fired his stupid investment questions at my cousin: what was his gross turnover for each year we’ve been in business? How much of that was net profit? What were his projections? And even though Jarad promised to provide Michael with everything he wanted, and more, by email the next day – that wasn’t good enough for my husband. Eventually he wasn’t even asking proper questions any more, he was just saying anything he could to belittle Jarad, my cousin, my business partner, right in front of me! I was livid, but what could I do? Once again this man had taken my dreams, and crushed them!”
Rachel sat back in her chair, exhausted. I was pretty shell shocked myself, my mind reeling at how much more there was to this melancholy beautiful woman I used to sit opposite at dinner parties.
Zlata broke the silence. “Nonsense,” she said. “The dream is not over! Always there is another way to skin dog!”
“I think you mean cat,” I said.
“I know what I mean,” said Zlata. “And this time we cannot fail!”
“Well – possibly,” said Rachel. “Zlata has this… alternative… idea.” I was starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Why do I get the impression that this somehow involves me?” I asked hesitantly. Rachel looked at her watch, and glanced at Jarad who left the table to fetch her coat and scarf.
“There are one or two complications,” said Rachel, getting out of her seat, taking the items from Jarad, and putting them on. “Unfortunately I don’t have time to go into them now – Michael will be wondering where I am – but let’s just say that we’re in need of an actor who specialises in playing unusual roles in real life. You can imagine how surprised I was when Zlata said she knew someone, and even more when I discovered that I already knew you – albeit as Edwin, boyfriend of my husband’s right-hand woman.” I shot a look at Zlata, who shrugged.
“Yes, well, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about her telling you that!”
“Don’t worry William,” said Rachel, reaching across the table and placing her hand on mine, “your secret is safe with me. Let’s talk tomorrow if that’s okay? I’d like to become your newest client.”
Not twelve hours later Zlata and I were parked in her ancient Mini Cooper, on double yellow lines, in a side street near London Bridge. Ahead of us, on the other side of a busy main road, was an austere looking coffee shop. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“So, that’s the place eh?” Zlata was leaning forwards, her torso pressed against the steering wheel, her nose almost touching the inside of the windscreen. I checked my watch. It was still on my wrist, which was a good thing, but it was way too early in the morning, which was not. “Why don’t we go in?” I suggested. “I could really use a cup of coffee. I was awake half the night worrying about what will happen if Michael finds out I’m not Edwin; he’ll confront Nathia, my god he might even fire her, and then there will be… ‘ramifications’.” I shuddered.
“That will not happen,” said Zlata, without ever looking at me. “Nobody is telling anyone anything.”
“You told Rachel!”
“That was different.”
“No it wasn’t!”
“Hush now,” said Zlata, turning to face me. “Look at the cafe.” I glanced back across the road, then at Zlata, who’d resumed her original position. At any moment I expected her to produce a pair of binoculars.
“Yes, it’s still there!” I said. Then frowned. “Not exactly busy, are they?”
“Exactly!” hissed Zlata. “Here we sit – looking at the many peoples; all going and coming. All of them needing something to eat, some coffee, a place to meet other peoples. And yet, no one goes in. No one comes out. It is like it is invisibles.”
“Too expensive, eh? It looks as if it might be quite pricey.” Zlata gave one of her eastern European shrugs. “Terrible food?” She shrugged again. “Okay, so why is it empty? At… nine-forty-five on a Monday morning?”
“It is the magic,” said Zlata.
“You mean like a curse?”
“No! Not like curse – I mean it has no magic! You go in, you drink coffee, you talk, you chat, but no magic. Nothing. It is empty experience.”
“Right,” I said. My stomach rumbled to let me know that it too was empty.
“And not just this restaurant,” continued Zlata, “all of them.”
“There are others?”
“Thirteen. All over London. All dead. All empty. No magic. But we – we have the magic!” Suddenly everything fell into place.
“Are you proposing that Jarad and Rachel merge with these guys?”
“Exactly!” replied Zlata. “It is perfect solution.” I rubbed my tired eyes.
“Well, it’s an interesting idea,” I mused. “But what makes you think Café Al Muteena would be remotely interested?”
“They will,” said Zlata. I narrowed my eyes. I could tell when she was up to something. “It is owned by two gentlemens. The Tahan Brothers. Abdul and Sadaqat. They are Arabian princes.”
“Princes? You’re kidding me.”
“I am deadly and serious. We had… the friendship.”
“Yes.” I raised an eyebrow.
“The ‘special’ friendship?”
“Sometimes it was special.”
“You and Abdul?”
“Yes. And his brother.”
“Both of them!?”
“They are very close. They share everything.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Dear god…”
“And they are very proud men. Very traditional.”
“Not that traditional by the sounds of it!”
“It would be very bad thing if business fail. And so, like all business men, what they don’t have, they buy. We have the magic. They need the magic. They’ll talk to you.” She sat back in her seat and started the ignition.
“Hang on! Me?” I blurted.
“Yes. Of course you. And now we go for coffee – somewhere else.”
“But why me? Why not you?!”
“Our friendship,” said Zlata checking over her shoulder, “–not so special anymore.”
“Okay, well, then Jarad!”
“Jarad not so good with the business meeting. Remember?”
“Like I say, they are traditional.” There was a metallic crunch whilst Zlata went through her usual unique approach to putting a car into first gear. “Arabian business gentlemens only do business with other gentlemens.”
“So because of your not-so-special-relationship, Jarad’s missing business acumen, and Rachel’s misfortune at being female, I have to negotiate with these… gentlemens!”
“Yes. That is about the shape of it.”
“You mean size!”
“I know what I mean,” said Zlata. The car launched forward, approached the junction at an alarming speed, and then joined the traffic on the main road to the usual fanfare of angry car horns.
“And who exactly am I supposed to say I am?” I yelled over the noise of the engine.
Without the hubbub of diners and waiters weaving between tables, Jarad’s had a church-like tranquillity about it. I, however, was feeling anything but tranquil. I waited impatiently for Zlata to light her cigarette and explain what mysterious Czech logic had led her to choose such a ludicrous name. Rachel glanced nervously from Zlata to me and back again. Jarad shuffled in his seat.
“Zlata thought that was quite a good name,” said Rachel.
“Zlata always thinks her names are good! Look, getting the name right is perhaps the most important part of developing a character. Would Macbeth have worked quite so well if the murderous Scottish general had been called…” I hunted around in my psyche for a suitably absurd name to illustrate my point. “… Bertram?”
“Well he could be, couldn’t he?” asked Rachel. “Isn’t Macbeth a surname?”
“My point is–”
“Never mind point,” interrupted Zlata, “Abdul and his brother already know Stephan LeBlanc. We write them nice letter and we sign it; Stephan LeBlanc. It is good name! Very convincing! And we cannot change it. Not now.”
“But it’s French! And I am not French!”
“But you are very good actor. This will be walk in the street.”
“I know what I mean!”
“And what if I don’t agree to this… lunacy?” Zlata said nothing, just took a long drag of her cigarette.
“Well,” said Rachel, “we’d have to find someone else.” But I could see she wasn’t convinced.
“Who? Who else is going to play this part?”
“I would play it!” said Zlata defiantly.
“Why not me?”
“Several reasons,” I said, preparing to tick them off my fingers. “A) You’re not a man, B) you’re not French, C) they already know you as their ex-‘special’ friend Zlata! And D)… you’re not a man!”
“I will wear disguise!”
“I am good with disguise!”
“Look, Will,” said Rachel, reaching across the table and touching my arm, “There is no one else! We know that. So does Zlata.”
“I could do it!”
“Yes, Zlata, er, possibly, but not as well as Will. That’s why you suggested him. And that’s why we went ahead and contacted Abdul, because we were reasonably certain we knew someone who could play the part of Stephan when and if the time came. True, we probably should have waited until you’d agreed, Will, but we had to move quickly. Abdul and his brother aren’t in the country all that often.” She held my gaze, those cappuccino eyes never leaving mine for a second, and though it really was lunacy, a part of me wanted to do it for no other reason than it was important to Rachel. And I liked her. I liked her a lot. If she’d put her faith in me then I wanted to show her it was justified.
“Fine,” I said eventually. “Fine! I’ll do it. For you. But on one condition!”
“Name it,” said Rachel.
“None of this, none of this, ever gets back to Nathia and Michael. Or anyone else.” I looked at Zlata. “Is that understood?”
“Of course,” said Rachel.
“I could have done it,” said Zlata.
Rachel is in full flow, taking the brothers through ‘our’ turnover figures for the past five years, our projections, all those things that business people obsess about. We’ve even alluded to Stephan’s ‘interesting’ personal taxation conundrum, and why his name might not be on the bottom of any contract. A first step in removing the fictitious element from this business arrangement. And the brothers seem fine with that. In their hearts I suspect they already know that Rachel is the true business brains of this operation. And it doesn’t seem to matter that she isn’t a man.
“I think I speak for both of us,” says Abdul, “when I say that you are a most impressive individual, Miss Taylor. Monsieur LeBlanc, you are indeed most fortunate to have Miss Taylor in your employ.”
“Thank you gentlemen, I am indeed very lucky. Miss Taylor tells me much the same thing on almost a daily basis.” Everybody laughs.
“Normally I’d like some time to consider such a proposal but…” Abdul looks at his brother who returns the merest of nods, “I’m not sure there is anything to consider. We would be honoured to form an alliance with you. To take what you have done here and replicate it in all thirteen of our establishments.”
“Well, gentlemen,” I say with a respectful bow of my head, “words cannot express how happy that makes me.”
“There is just one thing we must do first,” continues Abdul. “As a courtesy to our investors, we are legally obliged to run a decision of this magnitude past them.” Abdul continues to talk but all I can hear is the word ‘investors’ echoing inside my head. This is the first time anybody’s mentioned investors.
“Of course, gentlemen,” I say. “Absolutely no problem.” Rachel gives me a sideways glance. And I know what she wants me to ask. “But, just out of interest,” I continue, “may I ask who your investors are?”
“Michael Richmond, of Steele & Richmond,” says Abdul. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
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