“That’s him,” said Ed, half-turning in his chair. “See what I mean? A bit of style. You can’t create that, Bruce – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. You and I can simply look on.”
Bruce bristled with resentment. What was Ed thinking of – lumping him in with himself? He began to say something, but Gregor had spotted them and was making his way towards their table.
Gregor looked at his watch. “I’m sorry to be late,” he said. “My car wouldn’t start.” He sighed. “For the nth time. It’s got a new starter motor, but no luck.
Ed reassured him that he understood, and then explained to Bruce, “Gregor has a Morgan – an old one.”
“1953,” said Gregor, smiling at Bruce. “A very good year for Bordeaux, but not necessarily for Morgans. Or not for all Morgans.”
“That was the year they introduced the new Plus 4 with the Triumph TR2 engine,” said Ed. “You probably didn’t know that, Bruce.”
“Yes,” said Gregor. “They already had the one with the 2088cc Standard Vanguard, of course.”
Ed nodded. “Sure. You heard of Vanguard, Bruce?”
Bruce smarted. “Of course.”
Gregor sat down and looked in Big Lou’s direction. “Does the girl come over? Or do I go to the counter?”
Bruce caught his breath. “Girl? That’s Big Lou,” he whispered.
Gregor smiled. Bruce noticed his perfect teeth, white against the tanned complexion. He noticed the green eyes; the confidence.
Ed offered to order coffee and when he got up, Gregor looked at Bruce and smiled again. “I like your hair,” he said.
Bruce looked down at the floor, and blushed. You did not say that sort of thing. You did not.
“What do you put on it?” asked Gregor.
Bruce cleared his throat. He felt strangely embarrassed. “Gel,” he said. “Same as everybody. A lot of people use gel these days.”
Gregor was still staring at him. “Oh, I know that. I use a lot of products myself. But yours has an odd smell. Is it cloves?”
Bruce drew a deep breath. He was used to being in command of social situations, but now he felt at a distinct disadvantage.
“Might be,” he said.
“I think it is,” said Gregor. “I rather like cloves. I’ve never encountered them in hair gel, though.” He paused. “Ed said you’re a surveyor.”
“I am. And you?”
Gregor adjusted the cuff of his shirt. Linen, thought Bruce: green linen. “I do interior work,” said Gregor. “Hotels, offices, private houses. I source things.”
“Interior decoration?” asked Bruce.
“It’s a bit more than that,” said Gregor. “I source furniture. Say you have an office suite and you need twenty desks. You come to me. I get you what you need. Or flooring. You’re renting an office that needs new flooring. You phone me. You get a floor.”
“Or you have a house, right? You think: I could do with some new stuff, eg a couple of sofas. Where do you go? You come to me and I get you sofas that aren’t going to argue with one another. Most furniture, Bruce, is argumentative. Give it a chance, and it’ll argue with what’s around it.”
Bruce smiled. He thought the remark a bit arch, but it was funny.
“So,” continued Gregor, “I facilitate. You could call me a facilitator.”
“Or an interior decorator,” said Bruce.
Gregor’s manner changed. There was a coldness in the green eyes. “Let’s get one thing clear, Bruce. I don’t need any of that, see. Eg implications, right?”
“I wasn’t …” Bruce stuttered.
“You were, actually,” said Gregor. “I’m not naïve.” His eyes narrowed. “There are some people who are anxious about where they stand, eg in relation to sexuality. They make remarks that tell you more about them than the person they’re making remarks about. See? Freud, eg, opened our eyes to that one, I can tell you.”
“I didn’t …” Bruce began.
Gregor cut him off. “I’m not saying you did. I’m just saying: don’t.”
Any further developments in this conversation were stopped by the return of Ed, carrying Gregor’s cup of coffee. “All right,” he said as he sat down. “I’m going to explain to Bruce.” He glanced at Gregor, who nodded.
“Bruce can keep his mouth shut,” Ed went on.
Gregor glanced at Bruce. The hostility that had crept into his manner seemed not to have dissipated. He smiled. “Good.”
“So this is the story,” Ed began. “Let’s say you’re selling a property in Scotland. The standard method is to put it on the market and ask for offers. Right?”
“I know all that,” said Bruce. “Remember I worked for a property company.”
“All right. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of background. So the house or whatever goes on the market and the lawyer gets the offers – all sealed. Then they look at them after the closing date and see who’s put in the largest. That person gets the place – subject to whatever conditions they may have put in.”
“It works,” said Bruce. “The system works.”
“Yes, I know,” said Ed. “But what if you have somebody working in the solicitor’s office who sees the offers and tells a potential bidder what the highest one so far is? What then? I’ll tell you. That person then knows that he only has to offer one hundred pounds more – or even one pound – and he gets it.”
Bruce was silent.
Ed lowered his voice. “So the idea is this. Gregor has this place in the Grange. He bought it six months ago. Now the market has moved – upwards. If he sold it now he would make …”
“Sixty thousand quid,” said Gregor. “Ie sixty thousand above what I paid. Sixty grand profit.”
“But,” Ed said, now descending to a whisper. “If we have somebody …”
“Eg you,” said Gregor.
“Yes, somebody eg you who puts in a really high offer. But then we have this guy who works in the lawyer’s office – big friend of Gregor here – who goes to the person putting in next-highest offer and says the highest offer so far is …”
“What you … ie you, Bruce, have put in,” supplied Gregor.
“Then the under-bidder puts in a slightly higher offer than the figure he’s been told, and bingo! Gregor makes one hundred thousand rather than sixty thousand. Maybe more.”
Bruce thought about this. “That depends on the under-bidder doing what you expect him to do.”
“Under-bidders always will,” said Gregor. “In today’s market they are often desperate to be the one who makes the best offer. Some of these people have lost three, four, maybe more auctions. They are at the end of their tether.”
Ed sat back. “We pull it off in this one,” he said. “Then we do it again. Discreetly. Carefully. And the money rolls in.”
“You in, Bruce?” asked Gregor. “Some of it will roll in your direction. Percentage to be agreed.”
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.