© Mark Frankel
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“That’s the trouble with these hand-held mixers," said Tom. "It’s the vibration that does the damage. You have to remember to keep them away from the edge of the bowl."
Maryon frowned, the hint of steel appearing in her blue eyes as she stared at the delicate piece of white equipment nestling in her husband’s large hands. “We can get it repaired, though – can’t we?”
“Not worth it. Probably cost as much as buying a new one. We can pop into Curry’s later. Probably get the latest model at half the price we paid for this one.”
“We didn’t buy it. It was a wedding present from my mother. I couldn’t just get rid of it.”
Tom sighed. “Suppose a new head might do the trick – if we can find someone who’ll bother.”
Maryon, smoothed her straight blonde hair back off her face and went into think-mode. “What about that new kitchen appliances factory on the Marlow Industrial Estate? Looks really swish. Have you heard about it?”
If it’s a factory they probably only deal with wholesalers.”
“Yes but Laura said they’re producing a really elaborate supplement in ‘The Guardian’ for the opening of their new superstore next month. She’s been working on it. They’re not only going to be selling direct to the public, but for the first week of the launch – and she told me this in confidence – they plan to offer everything at factory prices. She says that’s half retail. And they’re adding a children’s leisure area with professional entertainers. I reckon the whole town will be there.”
“Fine. If you can manage without a mixer until next month.”
“Why can’t we ask them now?”
“It takes a while to set these things up. They’re probably not ready to deal with the public just yet. It’s a totally different technique, staff, check-outs, that sort of thing. Don’t you remember; I went through all this with Simpsons last year?”
“But we could try, couldn’t we?”
Tom smiled fondly at the uplifted face with its furrowed brow. What Maryon lacked in size she more than made up for with other strengths. He bent down to kiss the tip of her small, perfectly straight nose. He’d often thought that if he had just one half of his wife’s determination, he’d be an associate partner in the company by now instead of just another consultant. “Suppose they might have a trade counter. Give me an excuse to leave my business card, anyway.”
“I’ll get Jamie.”
Raised voices from the back garden indicated that Jamie wasn’t coming quietly.
“Why do we have to go to a rotten old factory?” he shouted as he stomped into the kitchen. “Mr Bruce said I need to practice kicking with my left foot if I want to get in the school team and we're going to meet Wayne Rooney. He can kick with both feet and he’s going to give us a demonstration. We’ll be late and I’ll miss Wayne Rooney.”
He was tall for an eight-year-old. The dark-haired bulk mirrored his father, but the steely blue eyes were strictly his mother’s.
“Half an hour top whack,” soothed Tom. “We’ve got loads of time. I give you my solemn promise you won’t miss a second of the coaching.”
The sleek, white building dominated the industrial estate.
“Very smart,” said Tom. “Wonder why it doesn’t have a name up.” He pressed the buzzer.
“Probably haven’t got around to it yet. I don’t think it’s been open more than a couple of weeks.”
“Looks like they could do with someone to handle their PR,” said Tom. “The Company name is usually the first thing that goes up.”
“Can I help you?” said a voice from the intercom.
“I’d like to make an enquiry about a kitchen appliance,” said Tom.
The glass doors slid silently open. They followed the arrow up the stairs to Reception.
The slim, dark-haired girl behind the desk wore a warm smile and pink-framed spectacles. She had a curious habit of bobbing her head from side to side each time she spoke, rather like a sparrow listening for intruders.
“Don’t suppose you have a trade counter?” Tom said.
“What were you looking for?”
“I wanted to ask about repairs.”
“Mr Harris!” she called into a desk microphone. “Can you come to Reception?”
Tom tried to identify the clipped accent and decided it was probably a Swedish company. There was something clean and clinical about the whole set-up that reminded him of his last business visit to Stockholm.
An elderly man with wayward white hair and pink-framed glasses appeared at their side.
“What is it Zara?”
“The gentleman was asking about repairs.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” said Tom. “I can see it’s not really the sort of thing you’d normally get involved in but we understand you could be opening a retail outlet soon?”
“What seems to be the problem?”
Tom held up the mixer. “I think it needs a new head.”
“Let’s go though to my office. Follow me, please.” He had the same accent as the girl.
Promising start, thought Tom. Unusual these days. He could really do something with that if he got their account.
“Not one of ours, of course,” said Harris, after he had examined the mixer, "but I’ll get some parts sent up and we’ll see if we can get a match.”
He beamed and patted Jamie, gently on the head as if he were afraid he might break. Clearly he wasn’t used to the durability of children. “Not playing truant I hope, young man?”
“It’s half-term,” said Maryon.
“Ah!” He pressed a button on his intercom and gabbled instructions. Shortly afterwards, the door opened and a young man in a white coat entered holding an assortment of mixer heads on a tray. Harris tried each one in turn but none of them fitted the base unit.
“Never mind,” said Tom getting to his feet. “Thanks for going to so much trouble. It’s appreciated.” He slid his business card across the desk. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. I’m in public relations. My firm has very good connections with consumer organisations.”
Harris waved him down. “No, no, no! We don’t give up that easily. You stay right where you are and we’ll try again.”
He put the mixer on the tray. “Take the whole thing with you and see what you can do, Daniel.”
Jamie had been pulling desperately at Maryon’s hand for some time.
“Now stop it, Jamie. Daddy said we wouldn’t be long.” She bent down as he continued to tug at her hand and he whispered in her ear.
“Oh dear. Is there a toilet my son could use?” she said, apologetically.
“Of course; this way,” said Harris.
Maryon followed him along the corridor, Jamie hopping from one foot to the other.
Left alone, Tom studied the various pictures on the walls. You could learn a lot about people from the stuff they kept in their office. Harris certainly had a wide appreciation of art. Traditional old English landscapes jumbled together with Andy Warhol posters and some modern art that Tom didn’t care for at all. But the books were even stranger. They reflected tastes more diverse than the pictures. A set of Churchill’s Second World War rubbed shoulders with The Kama Sutra and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, whilst several titles appeared to be in other languages. It gave the impression of someone walking into a large bookshop and grabbing a random handful of volumes from different sections.
Fifteen minutes dragged past, a second at a time. Tom pulled the door open and scanned the corridor. He could hear the hum of machinery from somewhere below. Impatiently, he called Maryon on his mobile. A man’s voice answered . For a moment, Tom was too shocked to speak.
“Who’s that?” he finally demanded.
“Who is calling?”
“Tom Jeffers – who are you - and what are you doing with my wife’s phone?”
“She won’t be long, Mr Jeffers; I’ll tell her you called.”
The line went dead. Tom rang back immediately but this time there was no reply. Now thoroughly alarmed, he found his way back to the Reception area. “Look - do you think you could locate my wife? She may have lost her way in the building.”
“Mr Harris!” the girl called.
To his relief, the elderly man appeared again.
“Where’s my wife and son?” Tom demanded.
“They haven’t returned, yet? I’ll put out a call from my office. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation.” Moments later he reappeared, all smiles. “Apparently one of our managers is escorting them round the factory. Your wife expressed an interest. I’m sure she’ll be back shortly. Perhaps you’d like to have a look around, too? He grasped Tom by the elbow and started to propel him away from the Reception area.
Tom shook him off. It was unlike Maryon to go off by herself – and what about her phone?
“I rang her mobile and a man answered. How do you account for that?”
“Perhaps she dropped it.”
“Where’s the factory?”
“It’s downstairs; I was just about to escort you to the lift.”
Tom felt his shoulder gripped with a force that surprised him.
He broke away and raced along the corridor, taking the stairs two at a time and bursting through the first door he came to. ‘Strictly No Admittance’, it said but he was in mood to respect courtesies. He found himself in a long white room with glass-fronted cubicles all the way along each wall. He thought he detected movement behind some of them. Masked and gowned figures moved silently between benches piled high with myriads of glass tubes. It looked more like a giant laboratory than a factory. In front of the cubicles was a moving belt of smooth white, shiny material covered with strange-looking red objects. Curiosity moved him closer but before he had a chance to examine them he was grabbed bodily from behind and spun around. He found himself held fast between two burly, white-coated men.
“This is a sterile area,” snapped a thin faced woman who was hurrying towards them. “Would you kindly leave immediately.” She pointed a remote at the wall and a concealed door slid open.
“I’m looking for my wife and son,” protested Tom as he was dragged towards the opening. He glared at each of his captors in turn but not only was there no reaction on their passive faces, they showed no sign of the effort required to restrain him. As prop hooker for his local rugby league team, his helplessness stung his pride.
He found himself outside what he took to be the rear of the building and ran all the way round until he reached the front entrance. This time the doors didn’t respond to either the buzzer or the intercom. Cold trickles of sweat chilled his lower back. With increasing anxiety, he dialled the police. It seemed like hours before he saw the car approaching .
“What’s the problem?” asked the younger of the two officers.
Breathlessly, Tom explained.
The constable started to make an entry into his notebook.
“Look – there’s no time for this,” said Tom. “I think something might have happened to them.” He hurried towards the entrance, the policemen following.
“What do they say?” asked the older of the two.
“I can’t get back into the building to ask them. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
“Police,” said the officer into the intercom. The doors slid open.
The Receptionist looked up at Tom’s reappearance, now accompanied by two uniformed police officers, but showed no sign of recognition.
“This gentleman says his wife and son are missing. He thinks they’re somewhere in the building,” said the senior officer.
The girl stood up and emerged from behind the desk, her head bobbing like before. “They couldn’t have gone far. We’ll try the canteen first; that’s where they usually assemble.”
What a curious choice of words, thought Tom.
She led them along a corridor. To his overwhelming relief, Tom spotted Maryon and Jamie almost immediately. They were sitting at a table towards the rear of the room. He felt his face flush and cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment.
“They’re over there,” he said, pointing.
The Receptionist smiled, bobbed her head briefly, then turned and walked rapidly away.
“You could be on a charge for wasting police time,” grumbled the younger of the two officers as he pocketed his notebook.
“It just looked so bad. I was desperate – didn’t know what to do. Suppose I panicked when I couldn’t get back inside.” Tom shrugged. “Sorry. I don’t make a habit of this sort of thing – honest.”
“That’s okay, sir,” said the older man “Glad it turned out all right.” He jerked his head at his companion and they walked off down the corridor.
Jamie watched him approach but Maryon seemed to be deeply engrossed in conversation with a woman at the next table who looked familiar. Probably one of the mothers from the school, he decided.
"God – you gave me a scare,” he said. “Wait till I tell you what happened. What made you go off like that without letting me know?”
Maryon turned towards him. “Hello, Tom. I’d like you to meet Clara.”
“How do you do.”
The woman smiled in response. Tom blinked. Now he recognized her. She must be the twin of the one who had just had him thrown out. He would have liked to tell her what he thought of her sister but decided against it. There was something about this place that made him feel uneasy and the quicker they got away, the better. Besides, he was dying to hear Maryon’s version of events.
”Can we leave now?” he said. “Don’t want to be late for Wayne Rooney do we Jamie?”
“There’s plenty of time,” Maryon said.
Tom stared at her, puzzled. “Are you okay? You look strange.”
“I’ve got a bit of a headache. Why don’t you help yourself to a cup of coffee?”
“Wouldn’t you rather go straight home if you’ve got a headache?”
“No, it’s all right; they’ve given me something.”
A man approached carrying a package “There you are, Mrs Jeffers. Good as new.”
“What is it?” said Tom.
“They’ve repaired the mixer.”
Tom reached into his pocket. “How much do I owe you?”
“All part of the service.” He smiled and walked away.
“How did they manage that?”
“They made it specially,” said Maryon. “They say they can duplicate anything – and sometimes improve on the original version.”
“Why would they go to all that trouble?”
“They’re just nice people.”
Maryon stumbled on the way to the car. Concerned, Tom put his arm around her.
“Are you sure you’re all right? What did they give you?”
“I’ll be fine,” she reassured him. ”Just takes a while to work its way through the system.”
They drove home in silence. He would have to wait until later before telling his side of the story – but there was one question that wouldn’t wait. “By the way - do you have your mobile phone?” he said.
She hesitated and then fumbled in her bag. “Yes, it’s here. Why?”
He didn’t know why he felt uneasy; of not quite being in control of the situation.
“No reason,” he said.
When they entered the house, Jamie immediately crossed to the computer.
“Shouldn’t you be getting changed?” said Tom.
“In a minute.”
A low cry made him turn in time to see Maryon missing the step of their split level living room. Anxiously, he helped her to her feet. “Maybe you ought to lie down for a bit? I can take Jamie by myself. It’s probably not your scene, anyway.”
“Just a headache,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
He watched her slowly mounting the stairs until he became aware of a strange fluttering noise behind him. Astonished, he watched his son’s blurred fingers flying over the computer keyboard. Images were racing across the screen.
“When did you learn to type so fast?”
The fingers were suddenly still, then resumed their tapping at a slower pace. “Just something you pick up.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting changed? Don’t want to miss meeting Wayne Rooney, do we?”
“Okay. I'll just finish this.”
Tom felt a pulse in his temple beginning to throb. The package was lying on the table. He strode across the room and picked it up. The name REPRO stood out in scarlet letters on a white background. He ripped off the wrapping. It looked like their mixer all right but it seemed brand new – and not just the head. More like a perfect reproduction of the whole thing – but better.
He shivered, his blood suddenly running cold. Somewhere deep inside him a swelling bubble of fear was getting ready to burst.