“Asshole,” Boniface mouthed, snapping his phone shut with a flick of his wrist. Had Trudgett taken lessons in how to be annoying, or did he spend all day planning how to exasperate?
Boniface straightened, turning into the room. So this was what hand-printed wallpaper looked like up close. Burgundy highlighted with a deep red pattern—a texture of repeating geometric shapes—overlaid with gold leaf.
Lots of gold.
Gold applied without restraint.
Gold applied without any consideration for taste.
Gold applied without any consideration for cost.
Enough gold to fund the debt of all developing nations, leaving sufficient change to embarrass the zillionaires in Silicon Valley.
To Boniface it looked like the wallpaper he saw in Indian restaurants, but this came at an eye-watering price tag—apparently into seven figures for this reception area alone. All that for something displaying the subtlety of a vulgar property developer or the restraint of an oil-rich sheik.
The three pairs of eyes that had been on him since he arrived were still locked on him, emotionless but judging. Three men: one behind the desk, two in front. All standing. Each with the confidence of a man who had, and was prepared again, to defend himself physically. Each with the posture of a man conditioned to the discipline of the military. Each, in addition to his manifest physical presence, with a sense of menace seeping through his pores.
Veronica had told him about Kuznetsov’s ex-Spetsnaz bodyguards. Russian Special Forces who learned their trade under a regime that needed its soldiers to have near-superhuman powers, requiring them to succeed at any cost. And what weapon was issued to these human death machines? A shovel, apparently.
Whatever powers they had, whatever training they had received, they hadn’t been taught how to make a guest feel at ease. Boniface was avoiding eye contact but could still feel his skin blistering where the fixed gazes burned into him as he self-consciously moved to one of the sofas, rel axing into its delicate embrace as he rel eased his weight.
The furniture mirrored the wallpaper—well-stuffed chairs, covered in thick fabric repeating the pattern of the wallpaper. On the table in front of him—gold-framed, with a glass top—three newspapers had been arranged with architectural precision. In a room that was clearly intended as a defiant statement of opulence, the newspapers would usually have seemed somewhat incongruous, but these were a selection of newspapers owned by Kuznetsov and were left as a statement, not for information.
Without picking up a paper, Boniface scanned the headlines. The theme was similar—the continuing call for a referendum. Unsurprising, given that the man he was about to meet for the first time, Ivan Kuznetsov, was widely rumored to want to be the first British president, despite many unconvincing public denials, and it was his newspapers that conceived, launched, and supported the Referendum for Democracy campaign.
Boniface knew the argument he was going to hear when he got to meet the Russian: “The UK is a disgrace. You talk about being a democracy, but the head of state is only the head of state by an accident of birth. You have more influence over which singer gets chosen to keep singing on a Saturday night television show than you’ve got over who governs you. And this is the twenty-first century—why are you still voting on scraps of paper?”
The contradiction being that, as far as Boniface could tell, Kuznetsov had no interest in democracy.
Democracy was just a useful slogan to make a grab for more power and influence, and if that failed, then hopefully someone would be installed whom Kuznetsov could buy.
But it was still hard for Boniface to see a firm link between the task he had been hired to achieve—to handle the public relations for the launch of a book recounting, on the most flimsy evidence, the murder of perhaps England’s most famous monarch—and an attempt to start the process to replace the hereditary monarch with an elected president.
The tallest of the three men flicked his eyes to Boniface, dismissively wrinkled his nose, and gave a nearly imperceptible nod of his shaved head to the other man standing in front of the desk; then closed his eyes as if to confirm his affirmation. The other man, whose face was lined with a scar, turned silently, walked to the elevator, punched the lower button, and departed.
As the sound of the descending elevator faded, the man with the shaved head turned to the man behind the desk—a swarthy man, with hair just long enough to start to curl—who started to turn as if to come out from behind the bombastically ornate desk. The opulence of this piece of furniture desk wasn’t lost on Boniface, as he noted the massive pieces of mahogany, inlaid with rosewood and ebony, and with a corporate logo detailed in flamed maple.
The man with the shaved head looked at the swarthy man. Keeping his arm by his side, he lifted his hand as if telling a dog to stay, then walked to the elevators and jabbed the higher button. His boots, displaying a shine that only comes with many, many layers of polish applied with rigorous discipline, scraped through the thick burgundy pile with gold corporate crests.
The gold elevator doors opened, and the man with the shaved head glared at Boniface while gesturing into the waiting elevator. Boniface jumped up, hastily pulling together a few papers he had slipped out of his briefcase, and scurried over.
After a few seconds, the doors opened and Boniface stepped out of the elevator into the Observatory on the seventy-first floor of Kuznetsov’s London re-creation of the Chrysler Building, the building Londoners called the Silver Spike. The elevator doors—on this floor, exotic hardwoods with delicate fretwork—closed on his escort, leaving Boniface alone.
Where he had sat in an enclosed lobby on the lower level, this whole floor was open. There were no internal walls apart from the elevator block running through the central core, which had become more prominent as the building tapered toward its eponymous spike. The dull electric light from ornate gold lamps on the lower floor had been replaced by muted daylight straining through the triangular windows arranged in a sunburst arc on each wall, giving an effect of a child’s picture of the sun.
Boniface paused to take in the room. Apart from the large flat-screen television with a 24-hour news channel silently recounting the latest developments, one disproportionately sized chair, and a stand-up desk, the interior looked like a color re-creation of the black-and-white photos he had seen of the original building in New York.
Unlike the reception area, with its oppressive darkness and overly rich decor, this was a refined and perfect re-creation of the art deco interior, complete with starscape murals suggesting that the height of the skyscraper put the room into space, and with lights hanging like planets, in case you missed the allusion.
A slight shift in the shadows around the room alerted Boniface to the silent arrival of Ivan Kuznetsov. “Mister Boniface.”