Jen tried to ignore mornings, if it was at all possible.  Mornings, however, usually had other plans.  Light streamed through the gap in the curtains that Jen hadn’t closed properly, hitting her face like a plasma ray.  The local sparrows were yelling their heads off in the usual morning cacophony, harmonizing with the sound of milk bottles being hurled about in the street below.  She blearily opened one eye, just making out the face of alarm clock through the heap of red curls draped suffocatingly over her face.  Six-thirty.  Still half an hour until her alarm was due to go off.

“Shut up, you noisy little bastards!” she yelled, pulling the pillow over her head to muffle the dulcet tones of the dawn chorus.  Blindly, her arm groped across the bed.  Sadly, it was empty, as usual.  This only gave her momentary pangs of grief, though; she was well aware that the advantages of being single could often outweigh those of being in a relationship for someone who took her sleeping arrangements as seriously as she.  Getting the whole bed to herself, to stretch and contort into any weird shape she fancied, without having to fit it into the contours of another weird shape that would usually dictate how weird her shape was to be was, in Jen’s book, a big advantage.  In addition, she had no sleep patterns or body clocks to deal with, save her own.  Apart, perhaps, from those of the local avian population.

“Please” she begged, of no one in particular, “”let me go back to sleep for a bit – just a little bit.”  Nevertheless, the universe obviously had other plans.  Her neighbour decided that six-thirty in the morning was the perfect time to mow his lawn.

Jen growled.  Then she cursed.  Then she cursed a bit more.  She knew that if she tried to drop off now, she would only succeed about five minutes before the alarm clock started screeching its reveille.  Then she would be bleary for most of the day.  When you spend most of your day squinting at tiny typeface, or trying to decipher writing that looked like a spider fell in an inkwell then went for a brisk canter across the pages of a water-stained and faded piece of parchment, this was not a good thing.

Reluctantly, she rolled out of bed.  This led to her promptly getting her legs tangled in the duvet and landing on the hard wooden floor with a loud and bone-jarring thump.

At least it woke her up all the way.

She reminded herself to look on the bright side as she attempted to untangle herself from the bedclothes that seemed determined to hold on to her for the rest of the morning.  The sparrows continued to chirp and the lawnmower to roar as she made her way to the bathroom to perform her morning ablutions, thence to the kitchen for toast, marmite and a bucket of tea.

Some time later, sufficiently revived, Jen left the house for a leisurely wander to work.  The neighbour had seemingly decided that the lawn was now immaculate, and had disappeared, so Jen didn’t get the satisfaction of giving him a really filthy look and a barbed greeting as she passed his front lawn.  Therefore, she contented herself with muttering the vilest imprecations that she could think of against the tyranny of naturally early risers.

The streets were coming to life slowly in the already warm sun as she passed through.  There were cars starting, front doors slamming, adults on their way to work, children on their way to school.  Jen reflected as they passed her that she would far rather be one of the adults going to work than one of the kids off to school.  She didn’t envy the kids.  As far as Jen was concerned, the best thing about school for her was the day she left.  Being short and red haired was never going to be an advantage.  However, along with history, geography and the rest of it, at least she’d learned to defend herself – mainly with her tongue.  This had often led to having to defend herself in other ways, though, when the stupid people got upset that she’d talked rings around their predictable and poorly thought out insults.  Fortunately, being someone who liked to avoid physical arguments, she’d also been a pretty good runner.

As she reached the tall, gothic building that housed the museum in whose archives she worked, she sighed, said goodbye to the delicious warmth of the summer morning sun, and prepared to enter the cool, dry, climate-controlled corridors of the archive.  Oh well, at least the evenings were longer and she’d at least get to see it again today.  Winter was a nightmare.  She spent all of her time in the bowels of the building and rarely got to see whatever faint sunshine there may be.

Arriving in the windowless cubicle that timidly called itself her office, Jen put the kettle on for another bucket of tea to keep her going.

Firing up her computer, Jen deleted about a dozen pointless emails and some spam, before getting to one from her boss, which (after about half a page of badly executed prose) said, in essence, “See me.”

“Now what?” Jen thought, as she sighed and took her mug with her through the maze of corridors towards Brian’s office, hoping it wouldn’t take too long.  Despite her habitual reluctance to get out of bed, Jen was eager to get back to her current assignment.  She was halfway through cataloguing a set of 18th century journals that had been donated to the museum, and was eager to discover what Master Thomas Ryman had said to his doctor to explain how he’d come by the embarrassing rash he’d developed.

When she finally reached her destination, Jen knocked on the door of the outer office and slipped inside.  Joy, Brian’s stern-faced but good-hearted PA, looked up from rattling the keyboard of her computer (or “that infernal machine” as she habitually referred to it).

“Morning, Joy,” said Jen, cheerfully “any idea what His Nibs wants me for?”  Joy shook her head, grimacing and pointing to the slightly open door of the inner office, from whence was issuing the falsely jovial tones of Brian, along with another voice, as smooth as oiled silk, with the clipped accents of serious Old Money.  Jen made a “whoops!” face and Joy smiled.  Fortunately, it seemed that Jen’s faux pas had not been heard, as the voices continued rising and falling for a good ten minutes.

Itching at the delay, Jen fidgeted.  She’d initially sat in one of the red leather armchairs in the room, ostensibly there for the comfort of any visitors that the archive manager was regrettably forced by some terribly important and demanding business (usually placing stamps with microscopic precision in his collection album) to keep waiting.  However, it didn’t take long for the armchair to reveal its true nature; it was that of a devilishly cunning device of torture that reshaped the coccyx of the sitter into something fresh out of H. R. Geiger’s nightmares.  When she’d been forcibly reminded of this, she rose, wincing, to examine the badly executed watercolours on the walls.

Finally, the inner door opened fully and a figure emerged.  He was tall, with thick, dark, silver-shot hair, and walked as if he owned the place.  He swept past Jen and Joy in a cloud of expensive cologne and through the outer door without sparing either of them a glance.  Jen looked at Joy with an eyebrow cocked in enquiry.  “Who was that?” she whispered.

“No idea, Jen.” answered Joy, in a low voice.  “He just showed up first thing this morning and told me he would see Mr Mountjoy now, and just stood there insisting he see Mr M immediately.  I must say, he had more than a whiff of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ about him.  Anyway, I went to inform Mr M that he had a visitor, and he seemed to be expecting him – took him straight in and shut the door.”  She frowned “Come to think of it, I’m sure I heard Mr. M call him Lord Something as he was closing the door.”

They heard the heavy tread of Brian making its way towards the inner door.  “Ah, Jen!  Thank you for coming.  Come in, come in my dear.  Sorry to keep you waiting” he ushered Jen into his office and shut the door firmly behind them.  “Please sit down, my dear,” he said, waving her to a seat and sitting down opposite her on the other side of his unnecessarily large antique desk.  Before Brian began his usual waffle as prelude to whatever it was that he wanted to talk to her about, Jen decided to head him off at the pass.

“So what was it you wanted me for, Brian?”

He blinked at the derailment of his train of thought, collected himself and, amazingly enough, got straight to the point.

“The gentleman you just saw leaving here and I have been having a most interesting and profitable discussion.”

”Who was he, then?” asked Jen with mild curiosity.

“That gentleman was none other than Lord Ambrose Harrington-Harrington” supplied Brian, with smug and pompous self-satisfaction.  Jen was unimpressed.

“What did he want?” she asked hoping she wasn’t coming across as too blunt, but with the awareness that with Brian it was best to be, to keep the conversation on track.  She was also wondering, vaguely, what this had to do with her.

“He came to us, Jen – us in our humble institution – with a suggestion that would be hugely beneficial to both parties.  He came to us, my dear, with a proposition.”  He sat back and smiled.

Jen waited a moment, and then prompted, “Which was…?”

Brian leaned forward eagerly in his overstuffed leather swivel chair, elbows on the desk “Lord Harrington-Harrington has a large collection of rare books – mostly family heirlooms – that he needs cataloguing for insurance purposes.  He suggested that in return for our help with this matter, he would be prepared t o donate several unique and priceless pieces to the museum and archives.  Pieces, I might add, that the museum has long been covetous of.”

“What kind of help with the matter?” asked Jen, suspiciously.  “Does he need us to make recommendations or suggest a suitable firm for the undertaking or what?”

Brian laughed a patronisingly indulgent chuckle “No, no, my dear sweet Jen!  Nothing so complicated.  He merely requires the services of our archivists to travel to and reside at Harrington Hall until the task is complete.  What could be simpler?  I’m sure the board of trustees will be delighted with the most recent acquisitions – for so little in exchange, too.”

“So little?!” said Jen, incredulously.  “Brian, we don’t have enough staff – you ought to know that!  We can’t afford to go running around the countryside pandering to every Tom, Dick or Harry that offers us a few old books – we’ve got enough on sorting out the ones we’ve got!”

“My dear, sweet Jennifer, there is no need to worry your lovely head about it.” began Brian, in the manner of a patient uncle.  Jen wanted to throttle the patronising lump.  “As it happens, we do have the staff.  I have already managed to redistribute your workload.  It’s a bit of a stretch, I grant you, but nothing your resourceful colleagues will not be able to handle, I am sure.”

“My colleagues?  You mean I…?”

“Yes, you, my dear.  Lord Harrington-Harrington wanted only the best.  Therefore, tomorrow you will be heading to Harrington Hall on special assignment.  If it helps, try and think of it as an extended field trip.”