Robin gave the receptionist the name of their prospective client as she and Strike entered the small restaurant. The client had asked if they could meet in the discreet venue, which didn’t even have its name displayed on a sign outside, to discuss a potentially complicated but lucrative case of corporate espionage.
Robin was excited about the meeting, as the client had asked specifically for her presence as well. Life after all the media attention and publicity brought about by the high profile solving of the Bamborough case had been eventful, but she had to admit it also had its advantages. Three months later, the increased respect she had from clients and the team alike had boosted her confidence, and even her family seemed to accept her choices a bit better.
She started following the receptionist through the beautifully decorated room, but being distracted by her own excitement, it took a few seconds for her to notice that Strike wasn’t following close behind her anymore. She turned around, finding him standing a few tables back, seeing even from this distance that his jaw was tense. A skinny but tall man ludicrously wearing a bandana and a broad brimmed Fedora hat indoors was blocking his way, holding his arm and speaking in hushed tones to him.
‘Cormoran?’ she called.
The garishly dressed man turned around, revealing Jonny Rokeby, who stared at her, then smiled widely. ‘Oh, you must be Miss Ellacott!’
He walked up to her and stretched out his hand, unnecessarily introducing himself. ‘I’m Jonny, Cormoran’s dad. I’ve read all about you, of course. Just asking my son here to have a quick chat, if you don’t mind? Have a drink on me while you wait?’
‘No need,’ Strike intervened, pushing past the older man and touching Robin’s waist, trying to guide her away. She let go of Rokeby’s hand without a word.
‘Wait, son,’ Rokeby reached out.
‘Don’t call me that. We’re here for a meeting. Won’t be late because of you.’ Strike’s tone was curt.
‘Fine,’ Rokeby had stopped whispering. ‘I’ll wait until you’re done. Then you owe me ten minutes. That’s all I’m asking.’
‘I don’t owe you shit, Rokeby.’ Strike turned to her again and Robin, though startled, resumed following the patient receptionist all the way to their client’s table.
Thankfully the client hadn’t heard any of their exchange, as he had been engrossed on his phone and finished his call only once they reached him. He was polite enough but went straight to the subject, only stopping briefly so they could all order. Robin was glad of this. She knew Strike would be unwilling to put up with any niceties or small talk now, though she hoped that food might soothe his mood, as it usually did.
He hummed every now and again as their client explained what he needed, to show he was listening, but Robin knew better: he would be asking questions by now, had he been mentally present at all. She took the lead on the conversation and note taking, praying the client would take Strike’s silence for quiet contemplation, and not rage, as she knew to be the truth.
They could not see Rokeby’s table at all from where they were sitting, a nook chosen by their client exactly for the privacy it gave them. Big flower arrangements between the tables gave them further cover. Whilst this was handy for avoiding any distractions during a business meeting, it also meant they wouldn’t know if he had left until they walked out. She’d planned to excuse herself to visit the loo and check right after they ate, but Strike was so tense and so absent that she couldn’t leave him alone with the client, who still dominated the conversation with the many intricate details of his problem and didn’t leave her with much time or headspace to concoct a plan B.
The client ended the lunch meeting as efficiently as he started it. He paid the bill and shook their hands, agreeing to sign their contract and send it over later the same day. Strike picked up his suit jacket from his chair, visibly dreading their exit, and Robin touched his arm in silent support.
‘Shall we?’ he asked and waited for her to lead the way.
Sure enough, Rokeby was waiting at his table, his previous companions gone, and stood up once he saw them. He lifted his hands in the common surrender sign and said softly, ‘I know you don’t owe me anything. But can you please do me the courtesy of ten minutes of your time? That’s all I’m asking.’
‘We’re busy,’ Strike replied curtly and touched Robin’s mid-back to rush her through.
She nodded at Rokeby and walked on. A noise behind her stopped her: Strike had nearly knocked over the huge flower arrangement next to Rokeby’s table. The pink roses still wobbled from his near miss, a small splash of water now on the floor between them. Strike was visibly shaken and stared at the flowers.
‘Cormoran?’ she called, but he didn’t reply. After a few seconds of stilted silence, with Rokeby still standing in the walkway just behind them, Strike sighed, a flash of a smile passing the corner of his lips so fast that Robin was certain she was the only one who could have noticed it. She had no idea what that was all about.
‘Fine. Ten minutes,’ he grumbled.
‘Great,’ said Rokeby. ‘Can we call you a cab, Miss Ellacott?’
‘She’s staying,’ Strike said, and backed up to clear her way back to Rokeby’s table. She understood it was his way of asking her to stay with him for this.
‘Of course,’ said Rokeby amiably. ‘I’m told you haven’t had any coffee or dessert. Shall we get something?’ He passed the dessert menu to Robin.
‘Just an espresso for me,’ said Strike, sitting next to Robin and across his father.
‘A cappuccino, please,’ said Robin, looking up at the expectant waitress behind them.
‘And another espresso for me, Katie, darling,’ crooned Rokeby. Once she walked away, he looked at Strike and laced his thin and long fingers together in front of him. ‘Right, I’ll go straight to the point,’ he began. ‘My treatment is not going well anymore – I’m dying. And I don’t want to go having you angry with me.’
Strike sat back. ‘Sorry to hear that. But why?’
‘Why do you care if I’m angry? You never did before. Why now?’
Rokeby raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t like the idea. I want to make peace.’
‘I’m not sure what you’re asking of me.’
‘I want to know you don’t hate me.’
Strike snorted. ‘Why? So Saint Peter lets you in?’
‘Something like that, yes.’ Rokeby’s nostrils flared. ‘I also want to get to know you a bit before I’m gone. Maybe have all my children together once or twice.’
‘You want to play happy families before you’re off, then?’
‘Why are you being difficult about that? It’s not a lot to ask.’
‘You refused to play that when I wanted to.’
‘You’re being obtuse now. What did you want? Leda was a nightmare, did you want me to what, marry her? I was already married at the time. I was only a notch on her bedpost, an extra point for her groupie game. We were all high most of the time, too.’ He paused and forced a smile for the waitress, who had arrived with their drinks. As soon as she turned away, his expression turned hard again and he continued. ‘It was the seventies, Cormoran. We all made mistakes then.’
‘And I was one of them.’
‘Well, yes. You were conceived in a quickie in the middle of a nightclub, for fuck’s sake. But it doesn’t mean I’m not glad you exist.’ Strike huffed at that, and Rokeby waved his hand at him. His tone softened. ‘I am. I am so proud of you, Cormoran.’
‘As you keep telling the press.’
‘Oh, you hold that against me, too? I am proud of you and want to talk about it!’ At Strike’s unimpressed reaction, he continued. ‘I mean it. It’s not only the detective stuff, your fame. Way back, I was so impressed when your uncle wrote saying you were going to Oxford. A child of mine, in Oxford! My dad worked at a bookie’s.’ He shook his head in wonder. ‘I never had the chance to tell you all this properly back then. Before you stormed off.’ He raised his eyebrow in a silent reproach.
‘You didn’t say it then because you were so busy rubbing your money in my face,’ Strike said and gulped his espresso in one go.
Rokeby didn’t seem to, or pretended not to hear Strike. He turned to Robin. ‘So many of my children have nothing of their own to be proud of, see. I gave them too much to make up for my fuck-ups. I was always touring, and for most of their childhoods I was still high.’ He shrugged. ‘They’re alright, but none of them did as well as this one here.’ He nodded at Strike. ‘You’re a self-made man, Cormoran, like me.’
Strike remained silent. Robin smiled faintly at Rokeby and went back to sipping her coffee, knowing Strike was letting his father say his piece.
Soon enough, the musician fell for their methods and continued. ‘I did my job, though. I paid child support. Leda blew the whole thing on her partying and her men. Every new genius she got thought he was smarter than the last, and she would be back for “renegotiations”, asking for more, prodded by them, no doubt.’ He shook his head. ‘It was a constant headache, until my team tried to pay for your expenses directly – school fees and such – and found out none of her wild claims were real. You were in state school, for starters.’
‘Is that what you wanted to tell me? You think I didn’t know the shits my mother dated? My sister and I lived through the whole shitshow.’
‘I thought that perhaps you didn’t know that she tried to defraud me. Fantoni didn’t have to put up with half the shit I had, because he never had as much money. She always came for me, and that husband of hers was the worst of the lot. He still tried it on, even though my lawyers had already safeguarded it all for you to use later.’
‘And I paid back every penny of it.’
‘That was a mistake. I was still angry after that crappy meeting of ours. Then I offer you money after your...accident, and you ask me for a loan! I told Gillespie to organise that. But I’m telling you the truth – I didn’t know he went so hard on you. Had no idea. But earlier this year I did offer you some money again; the offer still stands.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Rokeby. No. I don’t need it.’ Strike pushed his chair back.
Rokeby lifted his hands again. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. Please stay.’
‘I appreciate you’re trying. But the whole perfect family picture you seem so set on having now – not gonna happen. Let’s leave it like this, shall we? You get your pass to heaven, fine, but please don’t contact me again.’ Strike stood up and Robin copied him.
‘Why? You’re on my will, is that what you need to hear?’
Strike looked up to the ceiling in exasperation. ‘Why is everything for you about the money?’ He leaned towards Rokeby and laid both his hands flat on the table, his face close to his father’s. His voice was low, but Robin could still hear his flat tone clearly. ‘It was never about that. I only wanted your time. And now there is not much of that left for you to give.’
‘The little of what I have I am offering you now.’
‘It’s too late, Rokeby. I would have given anything to hear that 30 years ago. But now when I look at you, I can only think of that boy who waited for birthday cards and Christmas gifts year after year in vain.’ Strike shook his head and stood straight. ‘It took me nearly 40 years to understand that parents are the ones who raise us. And in this regard I was extremely lucky.’
Rokeby looked crestfallen. To his visible shock, Strike stretched his hand and they shook.
‘Thanks for the coffee.’
‘Bye,’ Robin said, and led their way out of the restaurant. Strike lit up a cigarette as soon as they reached the pavement.
‘Are you ok?’ she tried.
‘Yeah.’ He blew smoke away from her.
‘There is a bottle of whisky in the office…’
He smiled at her and slung an arm around her shoulders. Pressed against his side, she looked up and saw his face was now free of the tension of the past two hours. He also looked strangely younger.
‘Good to hear it, Ellacott. Let’s go home.’ After a few minutes of walking together in silence, he asked, ‘What do you think of Christmas in Cornwall?’