white on green graphic reading 'The Balanced Scales Agency Francesca Burke'

The Balanced Scales Agency by Francesca Burke

The Balanced Scales Agency looked from the outside like every private investigator’s office in every film or TV show ever made about private investigators. Its shopfront was a faded green, tucked between two large, corporate, glassy buildings in London’s Square Mile. How it hadn’t been subsumed by developers yet, Bradley Henderson had no idea.

Bradley’s appointment was at two o’clock, and he had arrived with a sheath of paperwork, his best suit and a sneaking sense of foreboding. Would this really work? Should he really be doing it? He’d paid quite a lot for the train fair, so it was time to find out.

The waiting room was no less dingy; Bradley’s grandmother had the same three-piece suite. He had only just made pleasantries with the receptionist and chosen an armchair when a young woman appeared from a side door.

‘Mr Henderson? Come right in. I’m Marina,’ she continued, with a firm handshake. ‘My desk’s this way.’

Bradley followed her through one of those old timey open plan offices. Dark wood desks were arranged in a neat grid. Huge older model computers—the only technology Bradley could see, apart from a wall clock—sat next to piles of paperwork. Poster-covered walls were painted that shade of taupe one usually associated with schools or hospitals. The only windows were set high in the walls and the lamps wheezed out a foggy yellow light, which accented the gloom. Bradley rather expected Humphrey Bogart to be sitting at one of the desks. A chalkboard filled the back wall, displaying a neat drawing of a set of scales. Underneath read the date and ‘Balances so far today: 6.’

The staff were the only reason Bradley was sure he was still in the twenty first century. Sat at the desk to Marina’s left was a wiry twenty-something with a highlighter-green bob, rainbow jumper and chipped blue nail varnish. At the desk to her right, a tiny East Asian woman was wearing a severe black and white pinstriped suit and large pair of glittery hoop earrings.

Marina herself had tucked a rose into her afro and wore a yellow pullover embroidered with the words ‘cats against catcalls.’ A small white kitten slept soundly at the bottom of the double L’s.

‘You’re here because of an old client…’ Marina said, reading from her screen. ‘Quite an old grievance, actually. What made you come to us now?’

‘Things escalated,’ Bradley said quickly. He passed her his print outs. ‘Here.’

Marina read thoroughly, frowning slightly. At the left-hand desk, an elderly gentleman was saying to Highlighter Hair, ‘The fence belongs to me. It’s my boundary, and they built on it anyway.’

At the right-hand desk, a heavily pregnant woman told Hoop Earrings: ‘He’s gone off with my best friend. We were supposed to be getting married this week. And I might have coped, except he’s emptied the joint account. I have no idea how I’m going to manage when the twins are born.’

‘Okay,’ Marina said, pulling Bradley out of his earwigging. ‘This has intensified even since you contacted us last week! So, you’re a trained patisserie chef…?’

‘Yep,’ Bradley knew he didn’t come across as artistically or culinary minded. He had inherited his mother’s Celtic complexion and his father’s resemblance to a string bean, so he mostly looked a lot like one of the Weasleys. ‘I went freelance a couple of years after I finished my training, making cakes for private events and birthdays, things like that. I made Mr Campbell two dozen cupcakes for his wife’s birthday and a gateau for their anniversary later that year.’

‘Did they pay on time?’

‘No, I had to chase my final invoices for three months, both times.’

‘Were they grateful for the work?’

‘His wife was. She left me a great social media review both times and has recommended me to friends. She’s been the ideal customer, actually. He begrudged paying a deposit, changed his mind about the cupcake designs four times and wanted to know why it wasn’t possible to bake cake for twenty people with eight hours’ notice. That was over the Christmas just gone. I flat out had to turn him down.’

‘He’s got an interesting habit of disagreeing with everything you’ve emailed him,’ Marina noted, eyes on Bradley’s print outs. ‘And then agreeing with you when you repeat yourself, using exactly the same language, in the next email.’

‘He says that because he’s so busy and overworked that he misses things,’ Bradley said. ‘But his Instagram is ninety per cent nature photos and philosophical platitudes about focusing on the moment.’

‘You’d be surprised at how many of those we deal with,’ Marina said with a smile. ‘Let’s see, the proverbial broken straw was… Mr Campbell entered the baking industry earlier this year.’

‘From corporate law, yeah. He said he wanted a change of pace, et cetera et cetera.’

‘Is he any good?’

‘A few of his employees are. I tried a cherry bakewell at a craft fair. I’m still thinking about it. But he doesn’t do much of the baking. Most of his time is spent on the phone or in meetings, drumming up work.’

‘Right, so according to your records, a week ago Mr Campbell arrived for a meeting with one of your clients while you were having a tasting with them, and produced the exact same cupcakes you made three years earlier for his wife.’

‘He even used similar packaging,’ Bradley said. ‘That’s when I decided I’d had enough. I’m not vindictive by nature. My dad’s parents escaped Nazi Germany and managed to retain their grace and dignity. Most of my family are so relaxed we’re going backwards, you know? I thought I was too; I didn’t think Mr Campbell would get under my skin like this. But I have other friends who are caterers, and I know he’s pulled the same trick with them—using their services then copying the product, sometimes before he’s even paid them. He thinks that because a lot of us are starting out, and because he’s got all this corporate experience, that his business will stand head and shoulders above ours. But he has no love for the art. He’s only in it for the money and the prestige.’ As he spoke, Bradley felt months of increasing anger uncurl from his stomach.

‘Oh, and a couple of days ago one of my friends messaged me that there were posts on his company Facebook page that had been copied word-for-word from social media posts I shared months ago. I get that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but this is ridiculous.’

‘Well, I think there are ways Balanced Scales can help you,’ Marina said briskly. ‘Let’s see… Next week, Mr Campbell’s car will break down. It’ll be fixed by an elderly neighbour who he’s always dismissed as doddery. The neighbour spent fifty years as a mechanic and won’t mind doing the work in the slightest. Mr Campbell’s wife will tell him off when she realises he hasn’t said thank you.

‘Later this year, his kid will come down with eczema. Nothing serious. He’ll overreact and take them to Accident and Emergency at eleven at night. He will be genuinely surprised by how good staff are. While he’s waiting around, he’ll probably chat to some other waiting patients, and they’ll probably be in there for horrific illnesses. The whole experience will remind him what living in the moment actually means.

‘And the pièce de résistance…’ Marina tapped at the clunky keyboard. ‘You’re… mid-to-late twenties, aren’t you?’

‘Twenty-six.’

Marina shrugged. ‘By thirty-five, you’ll be running a small but successful order-only patisserie from an industrial unit. You’re going to complete jobs for people who are famous on the Internet and for lower tier members of the royal family. Mr Campbell will come to you at a trade event. His business will be failing due to a variety of errors of judgement, made in part by Mr Campbell himself, and in part by staff he hired because he was too cheap to pay for experienced professionals. It’s quite possible that he will sell his business, Bradley, for a very good price.’

‘I see.’ Bradley thought it over as Marina organised her notes. One of the wall posters bore a spidery illustration of a Greek goddess holding a set of scales. Bradley wondered if he’d ever look at his kitchen scales in the same way again. ‘The work required to get to my minor royalty level… I’ll have to take a course in business, some sort of evening class I suppose. Or I could go to college full-time and bake in the evenings….’ Bradley realised he was thinking out loud and shifted in his seat.

‘It’s tough.’ Marina surveyed him with sympathy. ‘I’m doing an online degree in archaeology at the moment. I’ve forgotten what my mother looks like.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘It’ll be worth it when I’m qualified and can afford to go in digs, though.’

‘Exactly. Marina, I think that everything you’ve suggested sounds more than adequate.’

Marina smiled. ‘I’ll process it for you this afternoon, then, sir. You will receive an invoice in two weeks’ time.’ She stood up and shook his hand. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you, Bradley. Best of luck with the business.’

‘You too.’

Back in the city, Bradley allowed himself one visit to a well-known patisserie, to bask in its ambience and enjoy a cake he hadn’t made. He gave himself precisely fifteen minutes to look forward to the next ten years, then pulled out a notebook to edit his business plan.


Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing this with anyone you think may enjoy it.

Did you know you can read my short stories before they’re public by joining my Patreon? When you join, I’ll name a character after you. Alternately, consider buying me a coffee – you’ll still be helping me to build a sustainable career, but with fewer direct debits.

Learn about where you can get my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes here.

Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

What did you think of this story?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.