WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from David McCallum’s Once A Crooked Man
Until he pulled open the door of the Starbucks at 50th and Lexington, Carter Allinson II had only experienced crushes on the fair sex in his early years and minor infatuations in his teens. Some of the latter had led to wild sexual exploits but Carter had never fallen deeply in love.
The line was mercifully short and he soon had his usual fix of a regular coffee with a double shot, along with a slice of lemon cake with white icing. He looked around for somewhere to sit, and that’s when the Fates took a hand in his future.
She was seated at a table in the far corner reading a book. In front of her was a small beaded purse and a mug with a Camomile tea label hanging out. On the far side was an empty chair. The only one in the whole place.
Carter threaded his way through the crowded room.
“May I?” he asked, and pointed at the chair.
“Of course,” she replied and moved her purse.
“Thanks. Busy here this morning.”
“Yes,” she said.
As he sat down she looked at his face for the first time.
Poets have tried to capture in words that rare and magical moment when eyes meet and lives are permanently changed. Some come close in both prose and verse. It is one of the world’s great tragedies that some people never experience it and possibly never will. The animal kingdom knows it well: bald eagles, beavers, wolves and vultures mate for life, just to name a few.
On the fourteenth of July 1998, Carter extended his hand and said simply, “Carter.”
“Fiona,” she replied, taking it and marveling at the intensity of his blue eyes.
For half an hour they sat in silence, but before parting company they exchanged the briefest of pleasantries and he invited her to have dinner with him. The whole encounter was so natural to both of them that there was no need for any beating around the bush or subterfuge. He had asked and she had accepted.
Over dinner she discovered that he had recently graduated from Vanderbilt and was now going on interviews. Most of these had been unsuccessful, not only as a result of the current state of the financial world but also because the young man with the deep blue eyes was not particularly well organized and definitely in need of feminine guidance.
Perhaps if she had known just how much guidance that would be she would have nodded politely, got up from the table, and walked out of his life. Instead she invited him to meet her father, who just happened to run a Wall Street investment firm.
On the following Friday evening in the paneled library of the family apartment Carter found himself before Charles Maitland Walker, Fiona’s father and the founder of the firm of Walker, Martin, Pomeranz and Fisher. In his hand he held the young man’s resume.
“I see you went to Deerfield. Great school. One of my partners went there. But that was back when it was all boys,” he said wryly.
“Yes sir, that was before my time.” Carter took slow deep breaths.
“And then Vanderbilt, I see.” Charles Walker looked up. “Why did you head south?”
“I think it was the weather, sir. I had had enough of snow and cold.”
“And I see you did a stint over in the UK.”
“Yes sir, in England. Bristol University. I got to play a little rugby.”
“That must have been interesting. I saw a great game at Twickenham once. Fascinating. So simple by comparison to what we do here.”
Carter crossed fingers on both hands as he watched the pages turn.
“I get the impression from what I read here that you have all the necessary qualifications for this line of work, but lack the motivation. Apart from sports. It makes me wonder whether you are cut out for a career in finance. My daughter thinks otherwise.” He sat down on the sofa. “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
Carter took a deep breath and forced himself to relax before he answered. “It is true, sir, that my efforts in the past have been less than satisfactory, but can I assure you that need no longer apply if you put your faith in me. I shall work hard to learn the specifics of whatever you choose to give me. I can promise you enthusiasm, loyalty and a strong desire to succeed, both for my own future and more importantly to justify the trust that your daughter appears to have in me.”
Fiona and her mother rose up when the two men came out of the study. They spoke in unison: “Well?”
Charles Walker laughed aloud. “He starts tomorrow. In a very minor capacity I might add,” he said as he kissed his daughter on the cheek. “Then, as my mother used to say: ‘We shall see what we shall see.’”
Carter put his arm around Fiona. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m a little shell-shocked. This is all happening so fast.”
“Welcome to the Walker clan,” she replied. “Let’s have some wine and toast to your success!”
“Our success,” said Carter with a broad smile.
The next weeks were extremely hard for him. The pace of his life tripled as he learned the pleasures and pitfalls of investing other people’s money. But in six months he had proved his ability. As he was the constant companion to a partner’s daughter, he was given his own small office on a lower floor.
The young couple were inseparable and it came as no surprise when they married at the Church of the Heavenly Rest and honeymooned in the Swiss Alps. James was born the following year and Amanda fourteen months later.
No one in the family at any time had the slightest idea that Fiona’s new husband had a sizeable skeleton in his cupboard.
• This is an extract from Once a Crooked Man by David McCallum, who starred in the cult 1960s series, The Man From UNCLE, and now appears in NCIS. This is his first novel. Once a Crooked Man is published by Sandstone, £8.99