A few minutes passed. Then the door creaked open and Miss Talbot shuffled into the room. Behind her walked a tall, thin man in an elegant suit, which struck Joffrey as being out of style by an easy century. His hair was neatly pomaded back from his forehead, and he wore a close-shorn beard. Perched on his nose was something resembling glasses.
“Is that …,” started Joffrey, searching for the word, “a pince-nez?”
The man ignored him as he strode confidently into the room. He carried a worn leather briefcase under his arm, and he seemed to be surrounded by an aura that Joffrey could only later describe as being somewhat otherworldly, as if every time you glanced in his direction it was like you’d just woken from a very strange and wonderful dream. Joffrey remained frozen for a time, marveling at the man, before he remembered his objective.
“Dear sir,” said Unthank, before the thin man had an opportunity to speak, “I realize that you might be unhappy with your decision to—how should I put this?—part ways with your child or children, but I can assure you that—”
The thin man interrupted him. “Are you Joffrey Unthank, machine parts manufacturer?”
“I am,” said Joffrey, after first sharing a questioning look with Miss Talbot. She’d evidently decided her job was done, as she promptly turned about and left the room, closing the door behind her. The thin man waited until she’d gone before he continued.
“I’d like to commission an object,” said the man.
“A … what?” asked Unthank, confused.
“An object. A machine part. I’m given to understand that is your specialty?”
“Well, yes. But wait a second. Who are you? What’s your name?”
“My name is incidental,” said the thin man.
Unthank cracked a wry smile. “It might be to you, but I like to know with whom I’m doing business.” He leaned back in his chair, waiting for the man to respond.
“Very well,” said the thin man after a moment of hesitation. “If you insist. My name is Roger. Roger Swindon. And I wish to have a machine part made.”
“Nice to meet you, Roger,” said Unthank.
“May I sit?” asked Roger.
“Sure, Mr. Swindon. Have a seat.” Joffrey waved at one of the leather chairs in front of the desk.
Setting the briefcase down at his feet, Roger first fanned out the twin tails of his black suit jacket before setting himself on the edge of the leather chair. He then picked up the briefcase and set it on his lap. Unthank was still staring at his suit.
“That’s a fancy getup you’ve got there,” Joffrey said. “You going to a costume party?”
This comment was ignored. “A very great deal depends on the manufacture of this object, and I would prefer if it could be done with the speediest diligence.” He began unfastening the buckles on the leather briefcase as he spoke. “I have procured the design, no small feat, which should make the entire process fairly simple. I am told, by trustworthy sources, that you are the best.” He paused and peered up at Unthank over his pince-nez.
Unthank smiled warily. “I like your sources,” he said. “Can I ask who they are?”
“That is of scant importance.” The man continued opening the briefcase. There seemed to be an inordinate number of buckles on the thing. “It would behoove me to point out at this juncture, though, that I expect you to work in absolute secrecy. No one must know that you are crafting this object. You are to speak only to me.”
“Listen, buddy,” said Unthank, growing weary of the man’s attitude. “You come in here, insisting on seeing me. You interrupt me from my work. You won’t tell me who referre
d you. And then you just assume that I’m going to bend over backward to—what—make some kind of object for you? It doesn’t work that way. I have contracts with major appliance manufacturers, relationships I’ve fostered over years and years of hard work. I’ve got my hands full as it is. I can’t rightly drop everything I’m doing in order to make this object for you—I owe it to my clients to make sure their work comes first. And also: I don’t like secrets. I don’t like working in secret. Secrecy means illegality, and that’s the last thing I need right now.” Unthank pulled open the center drawer of the desk and began rummaging through its contents. “I can give you the names and numbers of a few smaller-quantity manufacturers; they don’t quite get the quality I do, but they’ll suffice for whatever dryer manifold or replacement blender blade you’re looking for.”
The man listened to Unthank’s monologue quietly. When Joffrey had finished and was offering Swindon a small, gold-foil business card, the man spoke again. “You’ll be rewarded for your services, Mr. Unthank. I think it is in your interest to take this commission.”
Unthank waved the business card impatiently. “I’m doing just fine, thanks very much. Here, take this card. This guy’s pretty good.”
“I can offer a very, very appealing exchange, Mr. Unthank.”
“I don’t work in exchanges. Maybe this guy will.” He was still wagging the business card when the thin man said something that made him stop.
“Access, Mr. Unthank. I can offer access.”
Joffrey raised his right eyebrow. “What kind of access?” he asked.
“The kind of access you’ve been looking for, Mr. Unthank.”