The Lazarus Vault
Ellie told herself she didn’t want the job. Didn’t need it. She’d just started a PhD in the subject she loved, which was more than a girl like her should ever have dreamed of. Her life until then had been concrete and rust: now she’d stepped through the door into an enchanted world. After nine months in Oxford, she still had to pinch herself at the beauty that surrounded her, the gargoyles and pinnacles, the panelled rooms and immaculate lawns. She had a supervisor who respected her, a boyfriend who adored her, and a mother who almost burst with pride when she told the neighbours how far her daughter had gone.
But none of that stopped her from getting up at six on a grey morning, tugging on some tights that were too thick for May and the tweed skirt she’d bought for her doctoral interview, and taking the bus down the M40 to London. At Marble Arch, she got on the tube with a thousand other commuters, squeezed into the carriage like toothpaste, and wondered how people could endure this every day. She clutched her bag tight to her stomach. Inside was a bottle of water, a sandwich she’d made for the way home, and a letter on thick cream paper with a crest stamped at the top. The reason she’d come.
The Director, Mr Vivian Blanchard, would be delighted if you could visit him to discuss possible career opportunities at the Monsalvat Bank…
Sweat pricked the back of her neck as the train swayed into the tunnel. The air in the carriage was thick with body odour and lowest common denominator perfume. She felt ill. She didn’t even want the job.
The moment she came out of the ground at Bank station she could feel the danger in the air. A crowd of demonstrators had gathered outside the Bank of England, chanting and clapping and waving their ragged banners. More were expected. Police horses stamped their massive hooves and bared their teeth; stiff-backed riders stared down from behind the opaque visors of their helmets, or over the rim of their shields. They gripped their batons like knights getting ready for battle. Above, the barons of capitalism watched from their glass towers and agreed that this was what they paid their taxes for.
Ellie edged around the demonstration. The crowd jostled her; she almost dropped her bag. A policeman looked her up and down and decided she wasn’t a threat. In her tweed skirt and woollen jacket, she didn’t look much like a demonstrator. Not much like anyone in the City. Expensively-dressed mannequins reproached her from behind the barricaded shop windows, their faces fixed hard in contempt. She wished she hadn’t come.
‘Look out where you’re going!’
An indignant, wheedling shout. She’d walked straight into someone – one of the protesters. Wild, stringy hair hung over a gaunt face with staring eyes and ragged teeth; his t-shirt looked as if he’d lived in it for weeks. The sign over his shoulder said, ‘CAPITALISM IS KILLING US’.
‘I’m sorry.’ She tried to edge around him, but he sidestepped to block her.
‘Dangerous times, love.’ He thrust himself forward, leering at her. ‘Got to be careful, know what I mean? Got to chop away the deadwood, stop the rot before we get got. Cut out the disease.’
He smelled like week-old rubbish. Ellie recoiled, but the crowd pressed her towards him.
‘Society’s dying.’ Spittle flecked his mouth; his voice was rising. ‘There’s a disease in this world and it’s killing us all. Look around. The bees are dying and the trees are dying. The oceans are rising but there’s no fish in them. It’s a sickness.’
Ellie glanced at her watch. She didn’t have time. ‘Listen, I’m sorry but–’
‘No you listen.’
A hand reached out, grimy nails like talons. He probably meant to grab her arm. But Ellie twisted away, so that the fingers caught the strap of her bag instead. He tugged it off her shoulder; she must have shouted or screamed.
Something blurred the air behind him and the protester sank to his knees with a squeal. A policeman in a fluorescent yellow jerkin stood behind him, baton in hand. He must have been watching, waiting for the excuse. In an instant, two more officers had zip-locked the man’s wrists behind his back and dragged him away.
Ellie began to stammer some thanks, but the policeman cut her off.
‘Go away,’ he shouted. ‘You aren’t safe here.’
The look on his face, half-hidden below the visor of his riot helmet, was almost more frightening than the protester. Ellie clutched her bag and stumbled away through the crowd.
A few moments later she felt a sickening stab of guilt. The protestor hadn’t meant any harm. Perhaps she should have taken the policeman’s badge number, in case the man wanted to make a complaint. She glanced back, but he’d already disappeared into the yellow-jacketed battle-lines.
Ellie arrived ten minutes late, hot and flustered. The encounter with the protester had left her shaken, but that wasn’t what made her late. She’d got lost. The map she’d looked at before she came showed nothing but a grey block of space where the bank should have been. On the ground, that translated into a maze of tiny lanes and alleys worming between old buildings: dead ends that turned into blind corners, passages that led through houses or slipped through ancient walls. And, just when she was ready to give up, an old stone building with narrow windows and little turrets on the corners, craning out over the cobbled lane.
A gleaming black Jaguar was waiting outside. How did that get there? The moment she came into view, a chauffeur in a peaked cap jumped out and opened the rear door, almost as if she’d been expected. But it wasn’t for her. A man in a pinstriped suit and a red tie strode down the steps and slid into the back of the car. The chauffeur slammed the door and drove off; Ellie had to press herself flat against the wall to avoid being run over. As it rumbled past, Ellie glimpsed a familiar face bowed over the contents of a red leather briefcase. Only for a second, before the Jaguar disappeared round the corner.
Ellie looked back to the bank. A cast-iron sign hung over the door, a snarling eagle framed by a shield, holding what looked like a spear in its claws. It was repeated in frosted glass on the door, and again inside, in brass, on the wall behind the reception desk.
A sour-faced receptionist, with a more-than-passing resemblance to the eagle on the shield, glared her down as she approached the desk. Ellie fumbled the letter out of her bag.
‘Ellie Stanton. I’m here to see, um, Vivian Blanchard.
The receptionist lifted a phone and announced Ellie in a crisp, cut-glass voice.
‘He won’t be a minute.’
There were no chairs, nowhere to sit. Standing at the desk, not knowing what to do, curiosity got the better of Ellie.
‘That man who just left.’ Was that–?’
The secretary pursed her lips. ‘I’m afraid we never discuss our clients.’
Ellie blushed. Had she already ruined her chances? Pull yourself together, she told herself. You don’t have anything to prove. They asked to see you.
The ring of a telephone broke the silence. The receptionist answered without taking her eyes off Ellie.
‘You may go up now.’
Vivian Blanchard’s office was on the fifth floor, just high enough that you could see the landmark towers of the city skyline through the back window. Ellie barely noticed them. Blanchard filled the room with his presence, welcoming her in, apologising for the delay, offering her coffee, overwhelming her with his energy. When he shook her hand, he tugged it towards him ever so slightly and leaned forward, almost as if he meant to kiss it.
He ushered her into a deep, leather-upholstered sofa. From a box on his desk, he took a fat cigar and a silver knife. He sliced off the end of the cigar with brutal economy, then pulled out a gold lighter.
‘You don’t mind?’
Ellie shook her head, still struggling to take him in. He wasn’t like anyone she’d ever met. Everything about him was larger, grander than real life. His tall frame and broad shoulders, and the grey suit that fitted him like armour; the swept-back mane of silver hair, his craggy face and aquiline nose and eyes that glittered like pins. His cufflinks were Cartier, his tie Hermès, and his shoes (though Ellie couldn’t know it) were hand-stitched in Paris by a man who only made a hundred pairs a year. When he spoke, there was a hint of a foreign accent behind the words.
‘Thank you for coming, Ellie. I can call you Ellie?’ He didn’t wait for permission. ‘I apologise if our approach seemed unnecessarily… mysterious.’
‘It’s not every day you get invited to interview for a job you never applied for.’
‘And with a company you have never heard of, no?’ Blanchard blew a cloud of smoke towards an oil painting hanging over the fireplace, an imitation pre-Raphaelite knight.
There was no point denying it. Nobody she’d spoken to seemed to have heard of the Monsalvat Bank. They had a website but it was a joke, a single page with the crest and a phone number. The university careers service had nothing in its files. The sum knowledge of the World Wide Web had amounted to a few references in the Financial Times, always in passing; a couple of mentions in The Economist. Almost as if the bank didn’t want to be found.
‘Not much,’ Ellie admitted.
‘Entirely understandable.’ Blanchard bared his teeth in a reassuring smile. ‘Discretion is one of our cardinal virtues. We go to considerable lengths to protect our privacy.’
‘I do know that it was established in the sixteenth century by a merchant who came over from France,’ Ellie added. ‘Saint-Lazare de Morgon. That must make it the oldest bank in England, one of the two or three oldest in Europe. In the reformation it grew rich handling the proceeds of the dissolution of the monasteries. By the eighteenth century it had established itself as a prime financier to any country in Europe that wanted to start a war.’
Blanchard inclined his head, admitting the charge.
‘In the twentieth century it survived wars and depressions as a small but influential merchant bank catering to rich individuals and their companies. In the twenty-first, it’s about the last of the old firms that hasn’t been taken over by one of the big international conglomerates. Yet.’
Blanchard’s cigar had grown a long finger of ash as he listened to her in silence. He tapped it into the crystal ash-tray and took another mouthful of smoke. He looked pleased.
‘I don’t believe that most of that information has ever been placed in the public domain.’
Ellie found herself blushing under his gaze. ‘I was curious when I got your letter.’
Curious why a bank no-one’s ever heard of wants to hire a girl no-one’s ever heard of, with no experience and no interest in working in the City. She’d spent two days digging through bundles of yellowed documents, crumbling ledgers and arcane forms, trying to work out if the Monsalvat Bank even existed.
‘But actually, there is no great mystery how we found you. You remember your undergraduate dissertation? Your prize-winning dissertation?’
‘The Spenser Prize.’ She’d never heard of it until her supervisor put the entry form in her pigeonhole one day, the only time he’d shown the least interest in her. She’d sent off her essay and forgotten about it. Three months later, back came a letter of congratulations and a cheque for five hundred pounds.
‘We administer the prize on behalf of one of our clients,’ Blanchard was saying. ‘Occasionally, with his permission, we use it to select individuals who may be of interest to us.’
His gaze landed on her like a physical blow. Ellie squirmed and looked away, back to the painting over the mantelpiece. A woman in a gauzy shift, so sheer it hid almost nothing, was tied to a tree in the background. The knight had his sword half-drawn, though whether to cut the damsel free, or to challenge some enemy approaching off the edge of the canvas wasn’t clear. Ellie began to wonder if the painting really was an imitation.
Blanchard leaned back in his chair. ‘Let me tell you how we are today. We’re an unusual firm. Exceptional, I would say. Some call us old-fashioned, and in certain ways we are. But we also know that if we wish to maintain our independence we must keep ahead of our competitors. The most modern practices, the most up-to-date thinking. New furniture in an old building.’
He was obviously speaking metaphorically. The dark, heavy wood of his claw-footed desk had to be three hundred years old at least. It might even have come from one of the dissolved monasteries the Monsalvat Bank had done so well out of.
‘Our clients mostly represent old money – some of it very old indeed. They understand that money needn’t be vulgar. They require bankers who guard their wealth with a certain…’
‘Discretion?’ Ellie suggested.
Elllie nodded, though she didn’t really understand.
‘The nouveaux riches – the Arabs, the Orientals, the Americans – we leave them to others. The Jews have their own people.’
He saw the look that Ellie, despite her best efforts, couldn’t keep off her face.
‘I know this is not politically correct to say, but it is factually correct. Money allows nothing else, only facts. ’
Blanchard rolled his cigar around the ash-tray again.
‘I told you we are an exceptional company. But we do not have great assets or vast sums of money invested on our own account. Our wealth is in the minds and hearts of our people. Exceptional people. People like you.’
Ellie sat stiffly on the huge sofa, knees pressed together.
‘You think I am flattering you? I can place advertisements in the right universities and next week I will have five hundred impeccable applications. All the same: the same schools, the same degrees, the same thinking. They will all have worked hard – but only within a system that is designed to make them succeed. Whereas you, Ellie – you have succeeded outside this system. And that is exceptional. These others, they think life is a game played between white lines, with rules and scores and referees who blow the whistle if someone kicks them in the shins. You and I, Ellie, we know better.’
Blanchard opened a file on his desk and took out two sheets of paper that looked very much like her CV. How had they got hold of that?
‘Tell me about yourself.’
‘Why don’t you tell me?’
She surprised herself with the boldness of her answer. Perhaps she really didn’t want the job. But Blanchard didn’t look offended. Somehow, she’d known he’d approve.
‘Eleanor Caris Stanton. Born the twenty-second of February 1987, Newport, South Wales. Your mother worked in various industrial jobs; your father…’ He shrugged. He didn’t seem to be reading off any piece of paper she could see. ‘You attended an unregarded school and achieved remarkable results; you were offered a scholarship to Oxford university which you turned down in favour of a local former polytechnic of no great distinction. Were you intimidated by Oxford? The privilege and elitism? Did you fear you would be found wanting?’
‘No.’ Too defensive? ‘Even with the money they were offering, I couldn’t afford to go.’
‘It is no bad thing to be afraid,’ Blanchard admonished her. ‘Those who think they have nothing to fear usually have nothing to gain.’
Ellie wasn’t sure that was true. ‘Anyway, I got to Oxford in the end.’
‘Indeed. Top of your undergraduate class, a first-class degree in medieval history, you could have walked into any graduate training program in the country. Instead, you chose to pursue a doctorate. Not many people would have made the same choice. Were you not tempted to go for the money, to escape your background?’
Ellie stiffened. Was he being crass? Or was he testing her? She looked into his face, the handsome lines etched deep into the skin, and thought she saw the curl of a smile. Bastard.
‘Money isn’t the only way to escape,’ was all she said.
Blanchard nodded, rocking in his high-backed chair. ‘The poverty of ideas, no?’
‘Something like that.’
‘But ideas have their own poverty. The ivory tower of academia is an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. You look at the world through glass, and eventually all you see is yourself. Would that satisfy you?’
You aren’t safe here. The policeman’s words suddenly came back to her.
‘Academia’s where I am.’ she said firmly. ‘I’m very flattered you’ve asked me here, but I’ve got three and a half years to go and I’m fully committed to the doctorate. I’m afraid there’s absolutely no way I could give it up at the moment.’
She’d rehearsed it on the bus, knowing the moment would come and wanting to get the tone right. Don’t give offence, but don’t leave a scrap of doubt. Like telling your date you had no intention of going home with him.
Blanchard heard her out and looked bored.
‘You have worked in banking once before?’
It took her a moment to realise what he meant. The memory was so distant. ‘Just a summer job. Very different to this.’ Twelve hours a week in the local ex-building society, brown carpets and pebbledash walls. The only old money there was pensioners cashing their giros.
‘What attracted you?’
Ellie blinked. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘To that job. Why not a bar or a clothes shop?’
‘I was getting plenty of university. I thought I should see the other side of the coin too.’
I wanted to see where the money came from. To handle it. To be close to it. Just once, to have enough. She’d been poor all her life and hated it. The desperation in her mother’s eyes when she came home from the night shift, her terror every time there was a knock at the door. More than once, a sudden departure from a house she’d just started to feel happy in, bundled into a car at night with their few possessions. The injustice of seeing other kids at school coming in with clothes and phones and laptops they’d been given by their parents, while she bought her uniforms second-hand. At university the phones and laptops had turned into cars and flats, while Ellie lived over a kebab shop, sweated over her books late into the night to the smell of chip fat, and filled her spare hours earning minimum wage wherever she could find it.
‘Let me tell you a little about our pay policy,’ said Blanchard, almost as if he could read her mind. ‘Because we’re a small firm, we know we have to offer more than our rivals.’ He picked up the silver knife and wiped threads of tobacco off the blade. ‘Fortunately, we have deep pockets. As a starting salary, we will offer seventy-five thousand pounds, plus you can expect a bonus that would increase that by about ten to fifteen percent.
Ellie’s mouth hung open. She didn’t care if Blanchard saw it. Had he really said seventy-five thousand pounds? The grant for her doctorate was eight thousand, and that was more than she’d ever had to live on in her life. People she’d known at university who’d gone to the top London law firms weren’t earning nearly that much. She knew, because she’d heard them bragging about it for months.
‘We know London is a difficult place to live,’ Blanchard was saying, ‘so we try to help the transition. For the first year you work here, you can live in the company flat. The Barbican, the thirty-eighth floor. The views are stunning.’
Ellie nodded thoughtfully. Seventy-five thousand pounds.
‘Naturally, we provide all the tools you need for the job. A laptop, the latest mobile phone, if that matters to you. A clothing allowance.’
Unconsciously, Ellie rubbed the cheap fabric of her skirt and imagined herself in some of the clothes she’d seen in the shop windows.
‘We don’t provide a car because you won’t need it. Driving in London is impossible. If we send you further afield we have someone to drive you. And most of your travel will be abroad.
‘Would there be much of it? The travel?’
‘Our clients are spread all over Europe. Switzerland, Italy, Germany – France, of course. Sometimes they come to London, but usually they prefer that we go to them.’
Ellie had only left the country once, at eighteen when she passed her exams. Six months saving the wages from her Saturday job, gone in a week in a Spanish hostel that smelled like a toilet.
‘Naturally, we make it as comfortable as possible. We send you first class and try to find agreeable hotels.’
Blanchard cut her off with a flick of the silver knife.
‘Ellie, let us be honest with each other. Most job interviews are built on lies. The candidate lies about how fantastic he is, how dedicated, and the company lies about how great it will be to work for them and they know he will have a glittering career. Really, they will work him until he goes blind on paperwork, and then let him go.’
Ellie listened in silence. The smoke from Blanchard’s cigar was making her dizzy.
‘We are not like that. We hunt carefully for the one we want and, when we catch him, we keep him. You are an investment for us – potentially worth millions. Like any investment, we want to help you to grow. Yes, the job is demanding. There will be long days – and nights, sometimes – but I promise you, it will be more fascinating than anything you have ever done before. You will come face to face with some of most powerful and intelligent men in Europe, and they will listen to what you have to say. Eagerly, gratefully. Because you represent the Monsalvat Bank, and because they will recognise in you a kindred intelligence. As we have.’
He clasped his hands together and reached forward over the desk.
‘Ellie, we very much want you to come and work with us. Can we tempt you?’