Anthony J. Crowley hated a lot of things, and he was very good at it.
Took a special sort of skill to muster up enough feeling about things to hate them, he rather thought. Most people went through life with a sort of apathy about their surroundings that they occasionally exaggerated into hate, but Crowley didn’t have time for apathy. Tourists, tacky souvenir shops, cameras that made a big clicking sound when their buttons were pressed, gossip mags, the royal family, adverts that strobed unholy light at innocent people just trying to walk down the street, incompetent drivers, scented soaps and hand lotions in hotel rooms, scratchy shirts, dating apps, book editions that used a corresponding film poster as cover art, people who were early to meetings, people who were late to meetings, pop music, burnt coffee from popular chain cafes that would have over-roasted their beans if the beans were equipped with klaxon alarms to tell when they were done, and galoshes: Crowley hated it all.
He especially hated Christmas.
Christmas, in Crowley’s opinion, was one great big capitalist free-for-all hiding under a thin veneer of religion and mandatory good cheer, plunging one-half of the country into debt as they desperately tried to keep up with the other half, complete with sky-rocketing rates of disappointed children, domestic violence, and bigotry all wrapped up in the tidy bow of nosing-into-other-people’s-business. The insistence on being nice when nobody bothered the other eleven months of the year made for the worst of false kindnesses and competitive do-gooderism, complete with simpering well-wishes from people who wanted to be remembered in your shopping and gifts of ten-quid bottles of wine from people who remembered you in theirs, and then come the first of the year it was back to business as usual, leaving everyone ten pounds poorer and richer in nothing but cheap, bitter wine. Load of bollocks, if you asked Crowley, but no one ever did.
Until this year.
“Oi,” Beez had said, poking her head into his office. “Christmas. Thoughts?”
“Load of bollocks,” he’d answered, without looking up from his computer.
“Got any plans? Never mind, I don’t care.” She’d come in, slapping a file on his desk. “I need someone to take this file. Developer wants to close their deal on a property before Christmas. Small village called Tadfield. Just a purchase on a stretch of the high street, putting in condos, offices, probably a Costa or a Pret, that sort of thing. You’re going down.”
“Rural account?” He hated the rural accounts; the countryside really wasn’t his thing. “Isn’t that Dagon’s?”
“Dagon’s busy over the holiday,” Beez had said, with a look that dared Crowley to ask busy doing what. Something involving Aruba, electric blue drinks with little umbrellas, and Beez herself, no doubt. “And I’m not asking, I’m telling. You’re going.”
Crowley had looked up. “Hang on, I don’t know the project,” he’d protested. “How am I supposed to have a whole sale in hand before Christmas?”
“By doing your bloody job,” Beez had hissed, and she wasn’t just Beez standing in his office, but B.Z. Prince, the cutthroat negotiator and ruthless solicitor that had made Morningstar & Prince a force to be reckoned with. Luke Morningstar may have been the devil himself—and plenty of solicitors certainly thought he was—but Beez had been the one to organize his powerful personality into the firm they ran today. “You make this deal, and you’ll be looking at partner. You don’t make this deal, you’ll have a lot more problems than your high score on Solitaire.” She glanced pointedly at his computer. “You’re on thin ice.”
It wasn’t Solitaire, actually; it was Minesweeper, but Crowley had doubted that Beez would appreciate the distinction just as he doubted that she cared about the rest of his book of business with the firm—very successful, if he could add, and he knew with Beez he very well could not. “Yes, ma’am,” he’d said, with a winning grin. “I’ll do my best, but I don’t know how fast I can get it done. New counsel, new clients—might take a while.”
“Before Christmas,” she’d repeated, glaring. “Three weeks. Do the wining and dining, use the holiday angle to get everybody to compromise, you’re not stupid.” High praise from Beez. “I expect to see signatures in my email on Boxing Day. I’ll be checking.”
So Crowley had closed up his office, packed up his files, and headed out.
Small English villages had learnt early how to capitalise on Christmas, and Tadfield was no exception. It was only the first of December, and already the lamp posts were festooned with greens and red ribbons as Crowley rolled past, looking for parking; already the little shop fronts had snowflakes and candles and Santas lined up in their displays. It was all a sham, honestly, intended to draw in the city folks for a weekend away and charge three times as much for a scarf marked as hand-made just because a real person had operated the machinery.
He’d gotten the last room at the inn and pub on the high street, though he might’ve preferred the Comfort Inn just off the highway, because it was one of the properties that would be affected by the sale if it should go through and it was better to know your enemies. There were a handful of little shops pressed close together, all owned by the prospective seller—a cafe, an Oxfam shop, a bookstore, an off-licence—and those proprietors would obviously be the most likely to raise a fuss and make a sale difficult, especially during the holiday season. The lights up and down the street were all on, making everything look warm and inviting and a little magical with atmosphere. Crackling loudspeakers piped old Christmas carols into the night. A group of kids rode bicycles down the middle of the street, laughing and yelling at one another, scarves flying behind them like wings.
Everything had a little bit of a run-down look to it underneath their garlands and fairy lights, as if the shops were all holding their breath for the holidays, hoping that the shopping season would put their grimy little businesses back into the black after months of wallowing in the red. He wondered if they all knew that their livelihoods were about to be sold from underneath their feet, and if they knew that no amount of praying was going to bring them a Christmas miracle to save them.
That was none of his business, Crowley reminded himself. He was here to do a job. He was here to close a deal. He was here to be put up for partner at one of the top firms in London, and he was here to do it whether it was Christmas or not.
You’re on thin ice, Beez had said, but that was fine.
Crowley would just learn how to skate.