Expectations, he thought to himself. It all comes to down to expectations.
Take the office. When people heard that he worked from an office, they tended to jump to certain conclusions. Old wooden paneling, perhaps, or large antique furniture. Leaded windows and flickering oil lamps. Once, he’d even been asked if he worked out of a crypt. A crypt! How on earth would you get a telephone line, a computer, a coffee machine, and a few hundred years of filing into a crypt without somebody asking some fairly pointed questions?
No, he had an office, and it was as boring and as office-like an office as anybody could ever hope to spend their nine to five. Nice, of course; this was a well-paying job, and over the years he’d amassed a certain amount of seniority and standing. So he was two-thirds of the way up one of London’s more ludicrously-shaped buildings, with large windows commanding an excellent view of the river. Not that this was a day for gazing out at the Thames and watching the city seethe around him. No. This was a day for crisis management.
“Claudio, listen to me. Everything will be fine. You’re still two points clear … No, I know that. But listen. Claudio. We have a deal. And you know what that means … Look, these things happen. If you won the league with 38 wins, that would be weird, no? Nobody does that … relax, Claudio. Relax. Everything will be fine … No. No complications. It will all be fine.”
He hung up and shook his head. Despite the reputation of the firm and his boss, he didn’t like lying. It felt inelegant, somehow, when there were so many beautiful ways to stretch, manage, and evade the truth. But sometimes elegance wasn’t an option. Sometimes you just have to sit there, lie, lie, and lie again, and hope nobody noticed the forked tongue. Metaphorically forked, of course.
He’d told Claudio that they’d got a deal, and that was true, signed in the time-honored fashion, then sealed and stamped and hidden away behind six brass locks, as tradition demanded. But he’d told Claudio that everything was going to be fine, and that might not be true. And he’d told Claudio that there would be no complications, and that was … well, that was just a lie.
As if on cue, the phone rang again.
“Mauricio! Lovely to speak to you. And, hey, congratulations … no, look, you know how this works. A deal is a deal … No, that’s fine. Call any time … And yes, you too. Hey, one more thing. Good luck.”
Laughter at the other end. Click.
He’d been greedy. He’d known it before the blood was dry on the second contract. But he’d assumed that one of Claudio or Mauricio would lose his nerve toward the end of the season, and he’d be able to massage the terms of one of the deals down. Top four, and some time off for good behaviour? No problem. But he’d miscalculated. Neither man was blinking.
It’s not that he minded the extra work. He was most noted for his salesmanship, but in truth, it was the craft of the thing that he really enjoyed — the delivery of the promise. And he’d been doing well, even if he did say so himself. On the Leicester side of things, the Robert Huth-Wes Morgan partnership was an absolute joy, Riyad Mahrez’s serpentine trickiness was very pleasing, and Jamie Vardy’s goalscoring run had even earned him a commendation from Downstairs.
Tottenham had been great fun, too. He’d resisted the obvious solution of just doubling down on Harry Kane, and had instead decided to bring the rest of the squad into the picture. Dele Alli, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen … any old manipulator can pluck one wonder season from the air, but to elevate a team? That takes skill.
Which was the problem. He’d been showing off, and he’d been having fun, and he’d been putting off the question of just how, exactly, he was going to deliver two Premier League titles to two different football managers of two different clubs. Failing to deliver was not an option. One of the great ironies of this particular job was that he absolutely had to keep to the letter of his promises, if not the spirit, otherwise business would simply collapse. Expectations. If you buy a soul, you have to pay the price. He paced the room nervously.
This is the thing with the business, he thought. The ensouled take all the risk, but they get all the loopholes as well. Countless times he’d delivered up whatever had been requested — a lifetime of debauchery! otherworldly musical skills! a doughnut! — only for Him Upstairs to step in at the last second, at the moment of collection, and ruin the whole thing with His divine grace, leaving nothing to show for years of work beyond an empty space in Hell and a useless, frankly unhygienic contract. It was unfair. Whereas if he couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain, well, the paperwork was appalling.
He stopped pacing as an idea took shape. He couldn’t avoid disappointing one of his clients, so … what if he disappointed them both? What if he used them to get the bigger prize? Take Claudio and Mauricio, and the threat of their title wins, apply the pressure, then leverage it to … yes! A third contract. With the most tempting soul in all of the Premier League, the purest, most upstanding character that English football had to offer. And Downstairs would be so pleased; they might even believe that this had been the plan all along.
He picked up the phone. It would be easy to check. Ten years he’d been chasing this one, and for those ten years, not a single call had ever been put through. So if the target wasn’t willing to talk now, then he never would be, and it would be time to start panicking. But if he did take the call … well, then it was as good as done.
There was a click, and a voice. A secretary. He gave his name and asked to be put through. A pause. A long pause. And as the pause stretched out, he began to smile. A pause means consideration. A pause means a chance. His eyes flickered, imperceptibly, though there was nobody there to see them. Nor was there anybody there to pick up on the faint whiff of sulphur that drifted through the air. A click. A ring. Another ring. And then, finally, perfectly and beautifully, an answer.