“I'm afraid Mr. Wilkins is not in,” Sophia said. She had only been working at the publishing house for four days, but she immediately knew she was not supposed to let the current visitor in. He said he was the printer and he may well have been – his hands were covered in black stains, possibly ink – but his coarse posture showed that he was up to no good.
He leaned forward over the service counter as if to detect whether she was lying. The leather jacket creaked as it tightened around his broad shoulders. She could smell his breath. He was a smoker, obviously, and had not brushed his teeth since his last lager. Sophia studied the deep lines that emphasized his determination to see the publisher. His skin was rough and dry and could not recover with any anti-aging product she knew of. The wrinkles were so deep, they made her wonder if it was actually possible for him to smile. But she was not intimidated; as the mother of three children she had learned to defy fierce demands.
“I can try to reach him on is cell phone,” she offered.
He nodded and grunted a confirmation. People have no manners any more, she thought to herself. Why would such a decent man like Mr. Wilkins do business with such a churl as this printer?
Sophia pressed nine idle buttons at the right of the elaborate phone, then she pressed one. She held her breath as she heard the publisher's phone ringing three doors down the corridor. The unwanted visitor fixed his gaze at her. Sophia took up a pen with her left hand and scribbled something down to divert his attention. In vain. The jacket crackled again. Though she had lowered her eyes, Sophia felt how he invaded her personal space. Finally someone picked up the phone.
“Mr. Wilkins,” she said hastily. “I know you told me not to disturb while you were at the lake with your family, but I've got someone from the printing-office at my desk and apparently it's very urgent. No, you don't need to come over, I can take care of things fairly well, thank you. Just stay where you are! It's just that...” Her voice trembled slightly and revealed her nerves.
“Let me speak to him!” The rogue grabbed her arm to get hold of the phone. When he jerked her towards him, she dropped the receiver. As it clattered on her desk, his eye caught sight of a thin but splendid bracelet around her wrist.
“Where did you get that?” he asked. His facial expression smoothened as he examined the silver band. With his plump index finger he traced the pattern of diamonds embedded in it. Sophia did not know how to respond to this sudden change of demeanour, and kept quiet.
“My mother used to wear one exactly like that,” he explained. “It's a handmade Russian bracelet, my granddad brought it from St. Petersburg in 1912, as an engagement present for my granny. My mom used to wear it every day, until...” His voice died away and his grip loosened. Absent-minded he gazed down the corridor.
Sophia shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She thought of the publisher in his office. What was he to think, after she'd dropped the phone? And what if he would decide to have a look? Slowly she retracted her arm and covered the bracelet with her sleeve.
“Until she was raped and murdered in her own house, three years ago. The only thing that was reported missing was this particular bracelet.”