I was down at the gym with Phil and David. We went there three times a week after work. Phil was a bit of a bodybuilding nut but David and I were just trying to keep the middle-aged spread at bay. Phil was spotting for me as I puffed and grunted my way through the third reps, or, more accurately, tried to prevent the bar from crushing my rib cage. There was the usual early evening crowd of overweight business types plus a few guys from the local Rugby Club. And there was Charles.
As usual, Charles was over by the full-length mirrors doing bicep curls and studying his image in the mirror. He was one of those people you've just got to hate. I would guess he was in his early thirties, extremely good looking, like a male model, and rich. He ran some property development company and had made a killing in the redevelopment of derelict land in one of the scruffier parts of London. Suddenly this grotty patch is fashionable - gentrification, they call it - and our boy Charles is rolling in it. He came to me for legal advice in his early days but I'm no property lawyer so I sent him to one of the big City firms. To be honest, I was glad to see the back of him, there was something about him that didn't sit quite right with me, I don't know why. He accepted my advice with good grace and he later claimed I'd done him a huge favour, describing me as 'a man honest enough to know his own limitations'. Patronising git!
I don't know how he did it but he managed to produce this incredibly toned body with an apparent minimum of work. I saw guys sweat blood in that gym and not achieve half the results. Charles was one of the favoured few. He dressed superbly, drove a new Aston Martin and always had some trophy girlfriend hanging on his arm and every word. I think we could have accepted all of that if he'd the good grace to have some flaw - any old small blemish would have made him tolerable - but no, Charles was perfect. Irritatingly, sickeningly, unendurably perfect.
Phil looked his way and said, "What do you give to the man who has everything?" David gave a wolfish grin as he hoisted the bar off my chest and said, "Syphilis, I hope!" That about summed up our feelings. I know it's petty and admit it's entirely motivated by insane jealousy, but Charles was hard to like. The women in the club seemed to have less of a problem, though. That part didn't bother me so much as David and Phil. Both of them had lost out to Charles in the pursuit of a particularly luscious young lady called Rachel. I have to admit she was gorgeous, even if she wasn't my type. Rachel was a tall, willowy natural blonde who graced the gym for aerobics classes. She ran her own PR Agency, so she was no dumb blonde, but on the odd occasions I'd met her, there was something about her that jarred. I couldn't put my finger on it for ages until I realised that she was a bit too much like Charles. One of the chosen few: beauty, brains and success. Again, there were no obvious flaws.
I suppose I'm a bit odd that way. I like my friends to be more human, more ordinary, if you will. You need a blemish or two to keep you humble, in my opinion. I have enough imperfections to keep me abject but I like being ordinary. The way I see it, if you're too perfect, you can only go one way. All the time I had room for improvement, I could keep trying. There's also a difference between liking who you are and being in love with yourself. One is healthy; the other makes you a pain in the arse. Charles was firmly in the latter camp. He was one smug bastard, in short.
Anyway, the three of us finished our work out and staggered off to the showers. I guess I'm lucky have to friends like David and Phil. We'd met at the Law College in Guildford and hit it off straight away. We all served our time in one or other of the big City firms and had then decamped en masse to set up MacDonald, Harvey and Le Clerc, 'Solicitors to the Gentry' or something. Eight years on and the practice was thriving. We weren't making a fortune, few solicitors in small country towns ever get rich, but we were comfortable and happy enough with our lot. David handled the domestic stuff, Phil was an employment specialist and I kind of swept up with the litigation, intellectual property and bits and pieces. We had a couple of newly qualified assistants for the drudgework and although we worked reasonably hard, we still had the time and inclination to play.
We showered off and headed into the Jacuzzi to ease the aching muscles. It was a bit of a ritual for us to sit in the tub and chat about nothing in particular for a while after we'd worked out. We have an unwritten rule never to discuss business outside of the office. Anyone attempting to breach this rule is immediately set upon by the other two. I think it helps us to stay friends as well as business partners.
That particular evening we were sitting in the tub chatting away about life, the universe and everything when Charles came waltzing in, not a hair out of place, as usual.
"Ah, the Legal Eagles. How are we this evening, gentlemen?"
"Fine, Charles. Just dandy, thank you for asking."
"Good, good. I've been meaning to come to see you, James. I think I can put some work your way."
"That's kind of you Charles. Why don't you give a ring tomorrow? We can fix something up."
"Well, if you have a minute now? It's, ah, a rather delicate matter. If we could meet in the bar in say, ten minutes? You can follow me back to my place and we could have a chat."
I could feel Phil and David getting ready to pounce. There was no need. The bastard assumed I'd jump at the chance. I smiled sweetly. "Terribly sorry, Charles, I'm about to arrange a prior engagement. Call me tomorrow and we can make an appointment." His eyes flickered very briefly. I couldn't say whether it was anger or disappointment. He gave a curt nod and left us. "That will teach him to mind his manners," said Phil, "cocky bastard!" I nodded but there was something nagging at me, something that hadn't been quite right with the exchange. I shook my head, no need to worry about it until the morning. Either Charles would call or he wouldn't. I didn't care too much either way.
Charles did call. He was most insistent on seeing me urgently. I did have a free slot, as it happened, and it would have been churlish to put him off just for the Hell of it. We made a date for 4.00pm. I went through the daily grind without breaking sweat. There was nothing interesting on my plate and, it being just before Christmas, I wasn't expecting too much new activity until after the holidays. On the dot of Four O'clock, Janet, our secretary-cum-receptionist announced Mr Forsythe-Wheeler was there to see me. "Mr Harrington will see you now," she said, or rather tried to say, before she was even half way through the sentence, the egregious Charles was into my office like a long-dog after a rabbit.
"James, good of you to see me."
"A pleasure, as always, Charles."
"I won't beat about the bush. I know you for a pretty discreet sort and it's discretion I most need right now. I'm in a bit of a fix and I need your help."
"Are you sure I'm the right man for the job, Charles? As you know, commercial property is not my forte."
"This isn't a business matter. It's personal. In fact, James, it's highly personal."
"If I can help you in my professional capacity, of course I will."
"James I know that you don't like me very much, which puts you in the vast majority in this town, but I do believe that you're a fair and honest man. Let me explain the situation to you. I hope you will see that I'm not asking you to do anything that would impinge on your integrity or professional ethics."
"Ok Charles, fire away!"
Charles began to explain his problem. It seems that about four years ago he had bought some property, a flat in Caxton Street, Westminster, to be precise. He hadn't put his name on the deeds, for tax reasons, as he explained it. The flat was actually registered to a girlfriend. Unfortunately for Charles, she was now an ex-girlfriend and was cutting up rough. He wanted to sell the property; she had to sign and would get the proceeds. He was prepared to 'see her all right', as he put it, but as matters stood she would waltz off with the whole six hundred thousand pounds. I questioned him some more. No, there was nothing in writing. No, there were no reliable witnesses to the arrangement. Yes, she had turned down £50,000. He didn't seem to have too many legs to stand on.
"I see the problem, Charles. We could hit her with some sort of 'implied trust' thing but it wouldn't stand up if she has a halfway competent lawyer."
"Ah. That's one of the difficulties. You see the young lady in question is actually Sally Rodwell."
I took a minute to absorb this piece of information. Sally was the daughter of Lord Justice Sidney Rodwell - Sid Vicious to the legal profession. Rodwell LJ was one of the most feared Judges ever to sit, even including Judge Jeffries! If his darling was in a legal wrangle, any lawyer with an ounce of brains would be running for cover. Whoever said I have an ounce of brains? I knew Sally fairly well. She was a close friend of my ex-girlfriend, Pippa. Pippa and I were on good terms and still occasionally partnered each other to formal 'dos' if we didn't have a current romance on the go. To tell the truth, I still carried a bit of a torch for her. No one else had come close after we broke up.
"OK, Charles, I'll tell you what I'll do. I will meet with Sally and see if we can resolve this amicably. I'm pretty sure that you've already been advised that, legally, you're dead in the water?"
He grunted but then agreed.
.... There is more of this story ...