A Modest Prophecy
‘We need to circle the wagons,’ said the CEO, clicking to a slide showing month-by-month patronage for the current and previous financial years. There was a pause to allow us to grasp the significance of the image on the Boardroom screen, but the implication of the blue bars towering over their red neighbors was obvious.
‘So guys, later this week I’ll be reaching out to each of you, to discuss rightsizing measures for your departments,’ she continued.
I looked round the room to see how the rest of the management team were taking the grim tidings. Liam, the Head of Operations stared out of the window, suddenly fascinated by the scaffolding across the road; Sandra from HR, wide-eyed, shaking her head; Robin, Chief Engineer, deadpan, absently twirling his pen and striking an imaginary cymbal. Shauna, marketing manager, glared at the CEO.
Then there was Kristie, yet again scrawling in her blue A5 notebook. Too intense and writing too much too quickly to be taking notes. Another of her satirical sketches?
‘It’s mission critical that we get down in the weeds before cascading our concerns to colleagues,’ the CEO reminded us before closing the meeting.
‘That was the linguistic equivalent of a novelty toilet paper dispenser,’ Kristie muttered, flinging open the door to our office. ‘She’s hiding something nasty.’
I grabbed a pack of Hobnobs from my desk and waved it at her.
‘No thanks mate, you need to watch the comfort eating or you’ll end up with diabetes,’ she said, flinging her notebook into her desk drawer.
‘Rightsizing?’ She made air quotes with her fingers. ‘I’m not waiting to be rightsized right out of my job. I’m zipping into town to register with a couple of agencies. Coming? I need a walk to clear my head, and you could do with the exercise.’
I shook my head, my mouth crammed with chocolate and rolled oats.
‘Suit yourself, I’ll catch you later.’
Off she went, without locking her desk drawer. Kristie trusts me implicitly.
A big mistake.
I peered from our window until she appeared at the pedestrian crossing directly below, then dashed to her desk, yanked open the drawer and grabbed the blue notebook.
Kristie's looping, expansive handwriting was easy to read. I was disappointed: not a bitter screed or series of character assassinations after all. What I’d found was a story with a title poorly suited to its genre. I read on…
A Modest Prophecy
On a late afternoon in autumn, as the sun dips over the city’s ‘industrial heritage quarter’, the target slows down to check his phone and stops – very briefly – to look in a gallery window. Lucy is far enough back to keep out of his ten-to-two visual field. No need to overtake or cross the road.
Suddenly, there's a problem. He's heading left up the alley next to St Mary's Church. It will give the game away if she follows, so she dashes to the next left turn and heads through The Broadway, a curving canyon of late-Victorian factories lavishly repurposed as galleries, upmarket brasseries and luxury flats.
She’s glad she opted for student chic – rather than office wear – as a choice of camouflage. When you're in a hurry, thick-soled sneakers are a better bet on wet, authentically restored cobbles than high heels.
Lucy slows. Gets her breathing under control. Strolls onto St Mary’s Gate. Catches sight of the target. Damn, she’s ahead of him and has to adjust. Crossing to the opposite pavement, she feigns fascination with the lunch menu of an exorbitantly priced tapas bar, until she spots his herringbone tweed suit reflected in the tinted glass. She counts to ten and resumes the pursuit, past a deli, chocolatier, baker…
He turns a corner and the vibe changes: budget jeweler, nail bar, charity shop, boarded-up windows, sleeping bags in doorways…
They come to a spectacular warehouse conversion, a geometric
symphony in concrete and glass, hosting an independent cinema. Outside, there’s a woman in a black aviator jacket, her long red hair held from her face by a headband. A TJ Maxx Lady of Shalott, thinks Lucy. The target embraces her, and they head into the foyer.
Lucy hangs back, staring at the Future Presentations poster long enough to hear the woman buy two tickets for Screen Six. She follows suit.
There are a handful of seats on the back row of the auditorium. People stand and swivel their knees as Lucy squeezes past apologetically. From her seat, with the houselights on, she can see the target and Lady of Shalott three rows ahead and four seats to the right – at the end of a row.
The houselights fade. The target is silhouetted by the pale glow of the Emergency Exit sign. The movie seems pretentious and incoherent but, every so often, events onscreen distract her from the target. Just for a second or two.
Set in the 1920s, the plot centers on a pair of would-be necromancers competing for possession of an ancient grimoire, translated by a medieval mage, and containing a vision of the times to come. Eventually, one of them cons his way into a roomful of forbidden volumes, a restricted collection in a university library, and begins combing the shelves.
Hooked on this scene, Lucy misses the switch, the point at which the target deftly changes places with a man of similar height from next row but one. She glances from the target’s last known location to the movie and back, unaware that he’s slipped her net. Meanwhile, on the screen…
The intruder sweeps the room with his flashlight, inspecting
worn leather spines of black, grey, brown and dark green. The light glides carefully along every shelf on every wall until it stops – suddenly – and focuses on a single volume. Bound in black, it is embossed in faded gilt with the title ‘A Modest Prophecy’.
The intruder reverently places the book on a lectern and opens
the cover to reveal an illuminated page in fastidiously formed Gothic Book Hand. The opening paragraph reads as follows:
‘We need to circle the wagons,’ said the CEO, clicking to a slide showing month-by-month patronage for the current and previous financial years. There was a pause to allow us to grasp the significance of the image on the Boardroom screen, but the
implication of the blue bars towering over their red neighbors was obvious.