Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Payback’ by Gemma Rogers
I didn’t see the note when the post was delivered. I was later than usual and in a rush to open the agency. I’d thrown the collection of brightly coloured junk mail, leaflets and envelopes on to my desk to sort later.
Frank arrived as I took off my blazer, the office already impossibly hot, and I hugged him as I did every morning. Enjoying the woody aroma that transferred onto my shoulder. He smelt like home and I squeezed him tight, ignoring the pang in my chest as I was reminded our days together were numbered.
‘Morning, poppet,’ he said, wrapping his arm around me.
Frank joined the estate agency when my dad started the business in 1989. Around the time I was knee-high and playing with Barbies under the desks, hidden from the customers. Dad had a keen eye for business and when we moved to the small village of Copthorne in West Sussex from South London, there was one estate agency who held the lion’s share of the local market. Seizing the opportunity, he built the business from scratch with our family name over the door and learnt the trade. Creating an independent agency to rival theirs and within a year Whites had been established as the premium place to market your home.
Dad was a charmer, but he never cut corners and it was his integrity that became the building blocks of the business, with customer service always his number one priority. Now, I took care of it, since Dad had signed ownership over to me when he retired last year. He and Mum moved out of the two-storey flat above the agency and I’d moved in, as expected. It was strange moving back to the home I’d grown up in, but the memories were ingrained into the plaster. There was comfort, eating dinner in the same kitchen I’d watched Mum bake my birthday cakes in. She and Dad had downsized to a two-bedroom bungalow. At the grand age of sixty-two, she’d already had a hip and knee replacement courtesy of the NHS and Dad wanted to be around more to look after her. They talked about going on a cruise and Mum wanted to buy a beach hut at Lancing for day trips.
I had big plans to expand the business and open another office in a neighbouring village, but even though he no longer technically owned Whites, Dad had never fully let go. It quickly became clear that he still considered himself chairman of the board and even though I’d worked in the family business for almost ten years, I had neither the knowledge nor experience to match his.
My ambitions were put on hold, until Dad took more of a step back or he decided I could be trusted to fully take the reins. So, whilst I owned Whites, Frank managed the day–to–day running of the office. He was in his late fifties and would be retiring soon, leaving a massive hole not only in my heart but also in the Whites empire; which was the reason I had two new starters arriving that morning.
Gary was an experienced estate agent who worked for a competitor. A career–focused, thirty-year-old, unmarried man who had his sales patter locked down. He fancied himself as a bit of a Cillian Murphy look-a-like, never without his Peaky Blinders flat cap. I suspected it was because he was going prematurely bald, but I couldn’t be sure. I’d had my eye on him for a while. I’d heard customers liked him, he was smooth and easy to warm to. He modelled sharp suits in bold colours and came across a bit flash, but his sales performance at Osbornes spoke for itself.
There were now three estate agents in the village all vying for a piece of the pie. The initial independent rival was long gone and had been replaced by an established chain. Osbornes followed around five years ago as the small village expanded. Whites managed to hold on to the top position due to our excellent local reputation. Something that Dad constantly reminded me I mustn’t let slip.
I’d managed to entice Gary with the pull of an excellent starting salary and the prospect of taking over from Frank in a few months. Often, basic salaries were unimpressive in the property business; if you wanted to earn, you had to sell. However, I learnt that paying peanuts often bought monkeys and with a little extra incentive and a good working environment I was able to retain my staff easily.
My small team were loyal, they worked hard and in return were treated as extended family. There was a small Christmas and summer get–together every year, profit–related bonuses every quarter and the only stipulation was honesty and integrity. All sales were above board and there was no underhand dealing. My dad had run the estate agency the same way and I was carrying on the mantel.
The other addition to the team was Hope, a junior sales assistant. She’d previously worked in telesales fresh out of college and had no property experience. At twenty, she was a blank canvas, ready for training and wowed at interview. Confident and no–nonsense, she seemed much older than her years.
The bell jangled announcing Gary and Hope, who’d arrived together, just before nine. I greeted them with a welcoming smile and firm handshake.
‘Welcome officially to Whites Estate Agents.’
‘Thanks Sophie.’ Hope slipped off her beige mac and hung it next to mine on the coat stand. She was immaculately presented in navy-blue tailored trousers and matching waistcoat over a crisp white shirt. Her almost black hair elegantly tied into a chignon.
I looked away, smoothing down my red shift dress. Hope looked effortless, her make-up was expertly applied, skin flawless with perfectly sculpted eyebrows and a slick of peach–coloured lip gloss. Looking fabulous in your twenties was much easier than in your thirties and she had youth on her side. Gary took off his trademark cap, hanging it beside Hope’s coat and flattened down his thinning hair. Oversized garish cufflinks catching the light as he moved.
Frank shook Gary and Hope’s hands in turn and showed them to their desks.
‘I’ll leave you in Frank’s capable hands today, but I’ll be around to sit with you both later and run through a few personnel details. Pension forms, formal identification, next of kin and that kind of thing.’
‘No problem,’ Gary replied, already digging his passport out of his satchel.
‘Can I get either of you a tea or coffee?’ I asked, and once I had their preferences, I headed to the kitchenette at the back. I was always the first one to make the tea in the morning, not believing a hierarchy in the office was conducive to a pleasant working environment. Everyone was treated the same, from the manager to the cleaner.
The bell clanged again, followed by voices, muffled in the kitchenette, but I knew it would be Beth, the office junior, and Lucy, another sales assistant. I chewed on my nail whilst I waited for the kettle to boil, I hoped Gary and Hope would fit in. It was imperative to have a team that gelled, one that would push the business forward.
‘Here you go.’ I put down the tray and handed out steaming hot mugs of caffeine to fuel the team. Everyone chimed their thanks and I took my cue, retreating to my office to check emails and get the latest property chain updates.
Waiting for Microsoft Office to jolt to life, I fingered through the pile of post. Pizza delivery, window cleaners, a signed contract allowing Whites to market Mr and Mrs Green’s bungalow on Tindle Road and, lastly, a plain white envelope addressed to ‘The Owner’. Likely a charity letter, asking for direct debit details to support a child in Botswana or sponsor a snow leopard. But what stood out was the handwritten scrawl. Normally those kinds of letters had printed labels, mass–produced with no personal details at all.
Interest piqued, I stuck my index finger into the tiny gap, tearing open the fold. Inside was a sheet of white paper, with a lone sentence in the middle of the page, written in the same hand as the envelope.
Who was your first?
My first what? First sale? First car? First boyfriend?
Without hesitation, I ripped the sheet in half and tossed it into the waste bin, dismissing the note as nothing more than the marketing ploy of a local business to generate intrigue. A second later my email came to life and I turned my attention to everything I needed to action that day.
Frank knocked on the door, even though it was open – one of his many quirks that he still did daily. I waved him in, ready to go through the schedule for the day
‘We’ve got the bungalow on Tindle Road, can you block out some time to see if we can take photos today? Give that one to Gary, and Hope can work alongside him,’ I said, holding out the contract for Frank to take.
‘Brilliant. Gary is going through what we’ve got on the books, so he can get himself familiarised. I’m going to get Hope on the phone to everyone registered, see if they are still looking, introduce herself, that kind of thing.’
‘Good idea, we can see if she’s as good on the phone as her reference implied. Thanks Frank,’
‘Oh, do you mind if I turn the air con up, it’s stifling today.’
‘Sure, go ahead.’
I made a few calls to solicitors, chasing documents which were delaying an exchange of contracts. I spoke to most of the homeowners to give them an update on how much interest they’d had in their property. Keeping in touch with the clients was a high priority. The general public assumed that with websites like Rightmove and PrimeLocation, our job was easy, but securing properties, marketing correctly and fixing breakdowns in the chain was what earnt us our 1.5% fee. Something the team worked hard for.
Later that day, after I’d spent time with both Hope and Gary, the bell clanged announcing the arrival of a lady in her late-sixties, looking hot and bothered in a blue cardigan. Frank and Gary were out at the newly acquired bungalow, Lucy was on the phone and Beth was wrestling with a jam in the printer. Hope got up from her desk to assist, striding towards the lady. My chest swelled, she was a natural and I considered myself a solid eye for spotting talent.
I glanced back to my screen, but the customer’s agitated hand gestures caught my eye, although I was unable to hear what she was saying.
‘Can I be of assistance?’ I smiled politely, poking my head out of my office.
Hope’s eyes blazed in my peripheral vision, a tight smile stretched across her face.
‘We keep getting leaflets, every day now. We are well aware we’ve been on the market for a while, but can you please stop. Think of all the trees you’re wasting!’
I guided the lady into my office, flashing a grateful smile at Hope, and invited her to take a seat. ‘I’m sorry Mrs…?’ I spied the gold band on her finger.
‘Davidson. Mrs Davidson.’
‘Mrs Davidson. I’m very sorry, but I’m unaware of any leaflet dropping we’ve been doing recently. Could you tell me what road?’
’Park Lane. I’m at 32 Park Lane and I’m on the market with Osbornes.’ Mrs Davidson rubbed the side of her temple, sighing.
I let the address sink in, the flash of recognition catching me off guard. My stomach lurched.
‘I’m sorry, do you have one of the leaflets?’ I stammered, keeping my tone calm so as not to cause Mrs Davidson any further distress.
‘No, Gerald has thrown them all away, but they keep coming. I told him I’d come in and see you today, get you to stop.’
‘I do apologise, Mrs Davidson, I will speak to the sales manager, but I haven’t authorised any leaflet dropping this month.’
The woman unzipped her jacket, her neck flushed. I was worried she was going to have a funny turn.
‘Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Some water?’
Mrs Davidson waved me away.
‘Let me assure you, Whites don’t practise that kind of underhand behaviour with our competitors. I’m sure there’s been some kind of mistake. If another is delivered, would you be so kind to keep hold of it, so I can investigate?’ I passed Mrs Davidson a business card.
Her eyes darted around the office, her forehead crumpling into a mass of lines. ‘But I’m sure they had the Whites logo on them?’ she said, more to herself than to me.
‘It’s fine, Mrs Davidson, it’s no problem. If it is anything to do with us, I’ll get it rectified immediately. We’re always happy to help.’ I smiled. Did this lady have all her faculties?
‘Okay, thank you, Sophie,’ she said, lifting the business card to check my name.
I walked her to the door. Hope was on the phone and looked at me quizzically.
‘Sell a lot of houses, do you?’ Mrs Davidson asked on the way out.
I stepped onto the street with her as she surveyed the property particulars displayed in the window. Clear plastic cases, filled with houses for sale, hung with gold wires in a four by four pattern. Sixteen properties in the main window suspended beneath the swirly black logo my dad had created when he started the business.
‘We don’t do too bad,’ I replied with a conspiratorial smile. I glanced up at the logo, wishing I could change the curly calligraphy to something more modern.
‘Would you come and have a look at ours. Let us know why we aren’t getting much interest?’ her voice was small, the stress of selling her home plain to see.
My chest ached and I leant closer. ‘Of course. How about tomorrow? Perhaps you can show me one of those leaflets if you get another one through?’
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, buy the full novel here: https://amzn.to/2VKOaMK