The restaurant is heaving. Couples sit packed tightly at the extra tables that have been added at short notice to the already crowded room. Roses and candles hurriedly brought in from nearby shops decorate table tops artfully strewn with napkins concealing holes in table cloths that have been dragged out from the bottoms of boxes and cupboards at short notice to fill the quota required. Kitchen staff have not had time to shine crystal glasses and silver cutlery to their brightest and ordinarily calm waiters dash around the room wearing harassed expressions.
Despite this, there is overpriced French cuisine that is meant to be classy, crystal chandeliers and cliché jazz music, so couples seeking that authentic valentines day ambiance still crowd around the swing doors, pushing and shoving to get in. Of course, Valentine's day is always busy, but really. There are other restaurants. Mr Brown stares at the chaos around him with distaste.
"This wine is abominable." He passes a hand over his mouth and sets his glass down with a thump. "What is it?"
"Sauvignon Blanc apparently," his companion replies mildly, "but I agree, it is rather foul." He turns his head and beckons over a waiter momentarily unoccupied. "Do you serve other wine?" He asks.
"I am sorry the white is not to your taste. We do an excellent rosé, if that is preferable?" The man gives him a curt nod. "Fine." The waiter smiles and retreats to the back of the restaurant and through the kitchen door.
Mr Brown pours himself a glass of mineral water and sips it tentatively. "I'm sorry to ask sir, but why Valentine's day? It's second only to Christmas. All these people." His brow furrows in annoyance. "Can't they see it's all about the money?"
The other man just shrugs. "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups. I can't remember who said that, but I think it fits rather well. I am sorry to drag you out like this, John, but it's rather an important matter, it can't wait."
Mr Brown folds his arms. "Who's done what and why?" At that moment the waiter returns, bringing with him two glasses of rosé which he sets down with a flourish, but neither men moves to take his glass.
"It's someone new." Replies the other man. "Well that is what we believe."
Mr Brown arches a surprised eyebrow. "You're sure?" He asks. "It's been a long time coming." His companion nods in affirmation.
"Who?" A piece of paper is passed across the table.
"On that piece of paper is the address of a small school in London. Two weeks ago they reported a case of cheating. Two students handed in identical GCSE French papers. They were asked to identify which student was guilty of copying the other. They looked at the CCTV, spoke to invigilators, inspected the exam hall. All the pupils had their hands, clothes pencil cases checked for hidden writing before the exam, they made very sure mobile phones were removed, wifi was switched off, there were no loopholes. They don't know how it was done. The two students were sitting on opposite sides of the room, we can't find hidden wires, anything. One of them knew the answers, the other copied. I can only see one way that was done. Can you find any others?"
Mr Brown pauses for a moment, taps his fingers idly on the table, but, after a minute, shakes his head. "No, I think we've got one. Alright, you said there were two students. So which one is it?"
The other man shrugs. "Impossible to be sure of course, but we think we know."
"Was the paper good?"
"Very. It couldn't have been done without a very good mind and exceptionally hard work."
Mr Brown smiles. "Then if one student is cleverer than the other, it's simple to solve. You have interviewed their teachers?"
"I'm told the boy is thick as two short planks. Harsh, but probably true. The girl is sharp, intelligent, ambitious, a hard worker."
"Then it's the boy."
"I agree." Mr Brown's companion sits back in his chair. "Of course we can't prove it, but there's no reason for a clever girl to cheat. I'd like you to take the boy as soon as possible. Before he does any more damage. The school are suspicious enough as it is. Please be as discreet as possible."
Mr Brown nods. "Naturally. Any preferred method? Children are always harder." A shake of the head is all he receives. "I'll see what I can do." With a jerk of the thumb he summons the wine waiter. "The bill please?"
"You will not be eating? I hope there were no problems."
"All is well." He is assured by the other man at the table. "The bill, please."
"Sirs, you have not finished the wine."
"The bill, please." The waiter, forehead still creased slightly with worry, dips his head and brings out his pad, hurriedly scribbling on it. "Two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and two of rosé, twenty pounds please."
The customer shakes his head adamantly. "No no, I will not pay for bad wine. I will not be charged for the Sauvignon."
The waiter dips his head. "Of course. I do apologise. Ten pounds."
His customer pays in cash in full. "I have no time for credit card machines." No tip is left.
Mr Brown pockets the piece of paper on which the address is written as he leaves. The meeting is brief, short and to the point. As always.
The waiter is left standing, money in hand, by the empty table as the two men stride out into the street, unsure how to react. They cannot have been here ten minutes. After a moment, he drops the ten pound note on the table along with the two glasses of wine, still full. Crossing to the coat rack, he chooses at random a large brown overcoat belonging to some unknown customer. Having discarded his dinner jacket, he slips the other coat over his suit, pausing only to transfer something from the pocket of one jacket to the other, before stepping out into the inky darkness of the street outside, striding rapidly after the receding backs of his customers.
As he walks, he takes out his waiter's pad. On it is scribbled an address, memorised from a brief glimpse of that same address written on another piece of paper and pushed across a restaurant table.