As no one came, Mai Wei let himself in through the blue door. Immediately inside to the left another door: “Mrs Humpish”. On his right next to a light switch, a piece of paper sellotaped to the wall: “Upstairs for fortunes”. On another piece of paper: “And book-keeping”. In front, stairs in mustard linoleum reached up into the dark.
Mai Wei paused to catch his breath half-way and Greg Gloom appeared on the landing.
“Come on, then. Wang sent you, did he? The old take-away’s not doing so well these days. Going by the numbers. I told him. Four of diamonds isn’t a good one on the neap tide. You’re 38% down on chow mein and 28 on rice. Rice. Who’d have thought.”
Gloom tugged at his beard. As they stood on the landing, he peered at Mei Wei through thick glasses, then led him into his dark study and dived into a filing cabinet behind the desk.
“Mr Wang, Mr Wang, Mr Wang,” he hummed. “Just a moment. Value Seeds of Telford, Valves and Tubes Limited, Vasectomy Services, Audrey Vex, Warfare Solutions … Oops gone too far.”
“But Mr Gloom”, said Mai Wei.
“Just a moment, just a moment. Warfare, Warfare … Wang! Here we are: Wang Food Emporium. Can’t miss it.” Gloom chuckled. He hauled out a thick binder. Thumped it onto his desk.
“Now, Mr… Mr…”
“Wei. Pleased to-”
“Now, Mr Wei. What was it. HT return … September 2039 … And think a hundred years ago, dark days they were. Bad one.”
Mai Wei looked around the room. The curtains were drawn, daylight squeezed in through a gap at the top. In the corner a red light. He heard a snuffle and a cough. A glint of a reflection… a pair of glasses staring at him from the dark corner.
“Don’t mind her,” said Gloom, looking up. “Quiet, mother. Quiet now. Mr Wei won’t be long. He’s just come for Wang’s Hansen Tax papers. Another little Wang on its way.”
Gloom stuffed a wad of papers into Wei’s hands. “Actually, Mr Gloom,” said Wei finally… “Fortune. I came for my fortune.”
Gloom gasped; “Fortune? Oh lord. I thought… You seemed…”
Mai Wei smiled. “Appearances can deceive, Mr Gloom. You know that. You are an accountant.”
“Got you, got you,” sniggered Gloom. “Well that puts quite a different perspective on it.” He took Mai Wei by the arm and led him to a leather arm chair in front of the desk. “Make yourself comfortable. Cup of tea? Just so we’re clear, it’s £20 for the fortune, £21.50 with the tea option.”
He heaved up the heavy file and, scarcely able to bear its weight, shoved it back into the cabinet between Viscount Telford and Warfare Design Limited.
“Let me just …” He switched on the green lamp, rolled a piece of beige onto his desk and drew up a chair.
He closed his eyes, pulled his beard three times, and spoke: “Tell me, Mr Wei, what’s itching you.”
But before Mai Wei could speak, he said: “Come on, show us your pretty hands.” Gloom grabbed Mai Wei’s hands and pulled them towards him. Palms up, shadows dancing, as the bulb swung loosely in Gloom’s green desk lamp. It was hot in the room. Mai Wei’s palms gleamed with sweat.
Gloom drew a finger along Mai Wei’s palm. He took a quick intake of breath: “Golly!”
“Big ‘un,” said Gloom. “So what are you worried about?”
“An old friend, to whom I owe a certain loyalty … highly confidential … obligations…”
Gloom smiled. He gestured to the four walls. “It all stays in here. Got it get it out. Then I can put it back in the right way.”
The morning dragged on into afternoon. The sun found the first floor window and its warmth penetrated the heavy curtains, and Mai Wei sat in the dark room, perspiring into the leather armchair, as Gloom slowly stripped him of his tale. It was a tale of a Lord … of buying huge tracts of land across the country … a pact … the interests of one nation against another. Were the stars well aligned?
Gloom placed a sewn bag on the table. It was the letters bag from an old scrabble game but it had been dyed gold. The bag rattled. Gloom offered it to Mai Wei whose hand hesitated, then took out a walnut and placed it on the baize. “And another,” encouraged Gloom. But this time Mai Wei’s hand got stuck in the bag and he panicked and shook it off. Out spilled half a dozen stag beetles. “That,” said Gloom, “will be yours”. He bent down and picked one up off the floor.
The stag beetle stood next to the walnut. Gloom closed his eyes. Mai Wei felt the oppressive heat. Sweat ran down his forehead. He heard the mother in the corner wheezing gently. Gloom fell into deep thought. Mai Wei knew he shouldn’t be here. He thought of Chop Chop. He wanted to escape. But it was too late:
Slowly, slowly the stag beetle rose from the ground on its hind legs. Mai Wei watched transfixed. As the green bulb swayed, the beetle’s shadow lurched this way across the room and then that way and then shot back like a dark ghost returning, frightened, to its lair.
Mother’s breathing stopped; the stag beetle stood … wobbled … and fell over on to its back. It brushed the walnut as it fell. The walnut broke apart to reveal a tiny playing card. A Jack of Hearts!
Mai Wei gasped; he felt a chill spread through his body; it froze the joy of the morning, of his wanderings down memory lane. For he knew what an upturned stag beetle and a Jack of Hearts meant.
Greg Gloom was still whispering. “You will betray the Lord. You will betray him. You will betray him,” he whispered. Mai Wei stood up; he violently pushed away the table. He scattered the beetles and the walnuts, and he rushed to the door, crunching the beetles in his path. As he pushed open the door, he heard a half whisper, half growl – a gurgle – from the corner. It came from the old lady. “Beware the man. The man who is the devil.”