© William Baxter
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With the premature death of Lord Elmer, the House of Solbern is shaken to its foundations. The family’s malign tentacles, reaching far into affairs of state, are weakened.
The heir presumptive is rumoured to be ineffectual and also lacks a male offspring. He is keen to gain part-ownership of a small island off the south coast. His daughter, on the other hand, has altogether more ambitious plans.
The taxicab stood empty on Main Street.
Before long, a stranger with a camera slung over one shoulder was bent down, peering inside. A senior citizen exited a nearby shop, adjusted his sunhat, and came strolling. The stranger stepped back to gain his attention.
“Good day ’n’ all, sir.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know if the taxi driver’s about, would you?”
The man had drawn abreast and stared into the emptiness too.
“You just off the ferry, like?”
“First time on Bayne Isle?”
“Then welcome, sir, you’ve found a hidden gem.”
“Thank you. I was wondering – ”
“I may stay overnight.”
“You’ll be wanting the Regency, top of Quay Lane. You must have passed it on the way.”
“Right, thanks. Listen, about the taxi…”
“Were there none waiting at the quayside?”
“There was one but someone else was quicker to it.”
The man considered. “That’ll have been Derek’s. This one here’s Benny’s.”
“Benny’s. Right. And where will Benny be?”
The man sucked on his teeth, sank hands into trouser pockets to rattle coins or keys. “More ’n’ likely he’s in church.”
“Yes sir, church warden,” and nodded towards the row of buildings opposite. “Keeps him out of the way of mischief – or should I say: the missus.” His face creased with amusement.
“Thank you.” The stranger set off uncertainly, in the direction indicated.
There was nothing remotely like a church on the other side, only shops and businesses. Then his eyes fell on a passageway cleaving two premises and his doubts vanished.
He looked back as he entered the semidarkness. The man had yet to move on, his vacant pose showing no sign of a change.
“Local yokel,” muttered the newcomer, pulling the camera in front of his chest to avoid the rusty pipework which jutted from walls.
He emerged into bright sunlight. An old church faced him from across a small square. It was no taller than a two storey house though it had an extensive garden of graves.
He entered the grounds and as he walked a pathway of laid-out headstones his revulsion grew. He stepped into the church porch and his stomach was lurching. No way was he going in.
He kicked the large oaken door three times. No response but the action eased his nausea. He kicked again, alternating left foot with right, and felt even better.
The door opened a few inches and a round, balding head appeared in the gap, blinking in the sunlight. The stranger was standing erect.
“Good day. Could you tell me if a man by the name of Benny is in there somewhere, please?”
“Benny? Why, I’m called Benny.”
“Then you’re the man. Benny, I’m Roy, Roy Knightley, and I’m in desperate need of your services. I’m on a mission to sightsee the entire island but time is already against us…” He waited for the penny to drop.
“You want a taxi?”
“Precisely. Got it in one, Benny.”
“I’ll be out in less than two minutes, sir, just a few things to tidy away.”
“That’s quite all right,” the tourist said to the now empty gap.
Several minutes later a small, plump figure bounded into view and locked up with a large key. The tourist, who’d resorted to pacing like a guard, reined himself in behind a smile.
“This way sir.” The church warden shot off along the path but stopped abruptly. “Now, where did I park it?”
“Along Main Street, perhaps?”
“Of course! C’mon, sir, I’ll show you a short cut which very few know about.” He led the newcomer across the square and back through the dingy passageway.
They exited onto Main Street and crossed over to the car. The yokel was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll sit in the back, Benny. I’ll be wanting to take shots in every direction.” They climbed aboard through a wave of heat making its escape.
The passenger ignored seat belts and essayed a few camera angles through the opened windows. The car exhaust grumbled into life and a part of his brain estimated a full afternoon’s work to fix such a noise. He looked at the back of the driver’s head and asked, “What’s the most popular excursion?”
“That’s an easy one: following the coastline all the way round – ten miles of breath-taking scenery.” He tried to second guess what a man in top brand casuals with matching camera would be seeking. “There are some who come for Hermit Brow alone,” he pointed to the butte which dominated the tiny island. “A few want to do both.”
“Let’s do both – the grand tour.”
The cab pulled away from the kerb, took a right near the end of the thoroughfare and then a left onto the rising Coast Road.
The sightseer gazed through the rear window to get a measure of Staiby, Bayne Isle’s sole town, as it receded into the distance. What he observed tallied with gathered information: island population getting on for a thousand.
Ahead lay farmland to the right and cliff tops to the left. The undulating road came within feet of the edge at intervals, presenting him with snatched views of secluded coves. Sand, sea, sunshine – and deserted: something cheering to tell the latest lord of Solbern.
“How come there’s nobody on the beaches?”
“Summer holidays haven’t begun yet,” the cab driver answered and then added, “There’s a fortnight to go at my own son’s boarding school.”
“Right. That would explain it,” said the man as his camera snapped away.
“Although, it never really gets busy, sir. We all want to keep the island unspoilt – you’ll find no tourist information centre here.”
The passenger made an approving sound before asking: “How do you manage that? People must have seen photos of the beauty spots?”
The cab driver cast a wary eye in the rear view mirror but couldn’t help himself: “Well, there aren’t that many places to stay in for a start and, well, there’s lots of talk goes on between the council and ferry company – how many tickets to be sold, that sort of thing.”
“Nice,” smiled the tourist. “Simple yet effective border controls.”
About half way round, the taxi turned inland along a road sign-posted ‘Hermit Brow’. The butte towered over them though it was still a few hundred metres away.
“You have a choice, sir – steep or gentle?”
“I’d like to get it all in, Benny. How about gentle ascent and steep descent?”
“Good choice, sir. It’s the way we normally do it, Derek and me. Derek runs the other taxi.”
“Just the two taxis?”
“Hardly a call for two, sir. We mostly do it part-time.”
He veered right when the road forked. From there the route was one long rising loop round the hillside, building up a seaward panorama on which the camera could feast.
At the summit the roadway petered out and the car came to a stop on a grassy track. They were the only visitors. They got out and left the car unlocked.
“Wasn’t expecting it to be so level – or so much of it, for that matter. I’m impressed.”
“Nine point something acres, sir.”
They were not alone. There were sheep – too many to count – static and ruminating, unconcerned at the arrival of a car and humans.
The majority were gathered in clusters, making the most of any shade amongst a collection of indeterminate ruins. Broken walls and decapitated columns lined the rim of the plateau for a quarter of its circumference.
There was no structure left which reached higher than head height. The cab driver turned tourist guide as they ambled towards them.
“The remains of a penal colony, sir. And before that, monks. Not much to see now, I’m afraid.”
“I suppose it gets hit by the elements up here.”
“It’s milder than the mainland even up here, sir.” Then, catching on, he said: “The buildings would still be standing if it weren’t for scavengers.”
“Abandoned buildings, sir. They disappear bit by bit, only to reappear elsewhere. If you have time to look around Staiby you’ll notice some interesting stone features.”
The cameraman nodded between shots of the ruins and Benny wondered if it was the history of the island that had brought him.
“Obviously, we get our share of archaeologists and such like, who reckon this is an important site – ” A sharp look silenced him.
“How many? How often?”
“Oh not many, sir. Maybe one every other month, just for the day. Then half a dozen come to camp among the ruins for a week early June. They do a bit of digging and leave. That’s it, no discoveries that I’m aware of.”
The newcomer relaxed. He reflected awhile, camera forgotten.
“Why didn’t they spread the buildings over the whole area?”
“I’ve no idea, sir. Maybe that’s one of the things they’re trying to find – ” he found himself having to break into a trot to catch up with the cameraman, who’d set off without warning, striding across the plateau.
“Of course, there’s the island legend if you believe that kind of thing…”
The man slowed so Benny could tell the story.
“The island had a mythical god – a giant – no name, at least I can’t remember being told a name. Anyway, this summit was his altar; he would sacrifice lesser giants on it. Only in the dead of night, though, and only rarely – seeing as there were so few giants about – maybe once every few hundred years.
“The last time he came, he was pulling a fiery monster in chains but then discovered there were humans living on his sacred altar. This so enraged the giant that he straight away slew the beast and drained its bile onto the plateau before dragging the corpse off to the depths of the sea, never to return.”
They’d reached the centre of the plateau according to the cameraman’s reckoning and he stopped; Benny was grateful for the chance to draw breath before finishing the tale.
“The humans knew nothing of all this – they’d been asleep – but over the following weeks, one by one they noticed a funny taste in their food. And one by one they died – or rather, they threw themselves off a cliff edge… There are many to choose from on Bayne Isle.
“A tail end to the legend has it that the plants on the brow still take in the beast’s bile from the soil – at least that’s the ending put about by farmers who wish to monopolise the area for their animals.”
He glanced at the man’s face for some appreciation of his humour.
The newcomer’s face was a mask, however, his lips pursed; he was idly tapping some knee-high weeds with his stout shoes. He came to a decision.
“I’m satisfied I’ve seen enough, Benny. Let’s complete the circuit.”
They returned to the car. He capped the lens and climbed into the front passenger seat.
The cab took the zigzag descent. Shrubbery growing at precarious angles along the road edge hid the downward view but did not lessen the steepness.
Roy Knightley gritted his teeth through the grating beat of tortured brakes. His business was transport – he ran a fleet of limousines amongst much else – and never would a vehicle leave one of his garages with a death rattle like that.
He looked sideways and could tell the danger hadn’t registered with this Benny bloke; in other words he was in a car being driven by a moron. He gripped the arm rest and endured the trickle of his own sweat till the base of the butte was reached.
“Four miles to Staiby now, sir. You’ll find the scenery continues to be spectacular.”
It most certainly was. The passenger had lost count of the number of showpiece beaches: double figures certainly. They came to the streets of Staiby and Benny slowed to ten miles per hour.
“That’s my shop ahead, sir. Some say the best of the three mini marts.”
The passenger could just make out the sign in the distance: ‘Coleman’s Convenience Store’. A woman exited, not young but with a nice turn of ankle below her knee-length skirt.
“Ah, Jolanta,” beamed the cab driver.
“My wife, sir. She’ll be on her way to organise the venue for the council meeting – every other Wednesday. She’s very important in island affairs,” he added proudly.
The cab slowed to a halt outside the shop.
“How do I get to the Regency from here?”
“Follow this road to the end, then turn right. You’ll see it at the corner, top of Quay Lane. But I can drive you there.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I want to take in the town, like you said. Now, what’s the damage?”
The cabbie consulted the meter and knocked off a fiver.
“Very reasonable, Benny. Look, here’s a twenty pound tip. I’m almost certain to return and, if I do, I’ll be wanting your valuable help once more.”
Benny took the extra cash with child-like delight. “Thank you, sir, thank you. I will make myself available whenever you need me.”
Roy Knightley got out and crossed over. He followed in the footsteps of Benny’s wife, slowly closing the gap, until she took a sharp right and disappeared. Less than a minute later, he passed the entrance to a ginnel but she was lost in the shadows.
Finding the Regency and booking a room for the night were readily accomplished. The desk clerk assured him there were generally a couple of rooms available at any one time.
His single was well-appointed for the price: a firm mattress the way he liked it, his favourite tea brand among the selection on offer. Ignoring the t.v. remote, he checked out the shower and placed his toothbrush by the washbasin.
He got comfortable on the bed and retrieved a carefully folded sheet from his shirt pocket. On it he’d scribbled all the queries he could remember from Lord Maurice’s casual chat.
Secluded? Hill top big enough for a manor house? Locals friendly? Too touristy? Accessible? Temp accommodation? Contacts?
He rooted for a pen to put Ys and Ns where he could and jotted down a further question: ‘Historic site?’ This he arrowed with other words: ‘tiny’, ‘wall it off’, ‘separate access’.
He inscribed the word: ‘LEGEND’ then immediately thought: stuff and nonsense. Yet he had to admit none of the sheep ventured far from the ruins, as if that was the only safe part of the area. He clicked the nib in and out repeatedly before writing: ‘worse comes to worst, change all the top soil – problem solved’.
Contacts? He was too bushed to drag himself out for a bit of socialising in the local pubs. He wrote, ‘Benny’ then overwrote it with ‘the Colemans’. Yes, a little voice was telling him they were going to be useful.
He lay back against the bunched pillows well pleased with himself. He was confident the facts found on this mission amounted to good news, that Lord Maurice would be pleased.
Even better if the new ubermensch were to be swayed by this success when recruitment started for the inner circle.
Charles Bracewell toured the ancient corridors of constitutional authority.
A solidly built man, he walked slowly so as to absorb the aura of historic events emanating from the many burnished panels lining the route. This would probably be his last chance to indulge.
The PM had offered and he, Charles Mortimer Bracewell MP, had accepted.
The decision entailed the loss of his office at the very heart of the action but gained for him an entire floor of a nearby building, as befitting a new cabinet minister.
The look on his face betrayed nothing; indeed, emotion was generally filtered out before delivery. At that very moment it was an expression of practised inscrutability – a slight smile to those wishing for a smile; seriousness, perhaps a hint of sadness, to others. Never drop the act: that was a cardinal rule.
This day marked a huge step up the ladder. Was it in recognition of an exceptional talent? Of course not. He knew his limitations as he did his strengths. He was neither an intellect nor quick to perceive.
Instead, he had a flair for generating trust in listeners and was an excellent mouthpiece for powerful figures in the background. He never strayed from the script yet lent their words a certain gravitas as a result of his developed statesman-like manner.
Harsh experience as a novice had convinced him of the dangers wrought by off-the-cuff remarks. Such temptations were batted away to the boundary these days – little conscious effort was required.
He had perfected a hundred phrases of verbal blancmange with which to deflect media questions; he could string them together like guitar riffs. Dependable and effective, he had served his masters well; it had been inevitable he would rise.
Over the last few weeks, however, one particular question had begun to bounce back into his head with growing persistence: was it time for a change? With the day’s events having placed him even nearer the top he could no longer evade coming to a decision.
His main sponsor from the outset had been Lord Elmer Lyne of Solbern – a formidable personage with powers beyond the normal. A man without equal in the black art of political control. But his main sponsor was no longer alive.
Years of scrambling for position in life’s rough and tumble had taught him that anybody could be frightening if they were wielding a gun in a demented fashion; Lord Elmer, on the other hand, was the only person who’d ever struck fear in him merely by meeting his eye. There was nothing throughout the constituency he represented as an MP which had escaped that man’s controlling hand. Nothing and nobody.
At the archduke’s behest he had joined The Way – how could he have refused? This ‘cult’ he never brought up in conversation; he banished it from his own thoughts as much as he could. If cornered, however, he would admit to having heard rumours of its existence and say it was probably a modern version of the masons – full stop, next topic.
He had promoted the archduke’s aims at every turn. For many months he’d been pushing for changes in the law regarding land ownership, something Lord Elmer had made a top priority. These efforts would continue and, now he was a cabinet minister, progress would be accelerated.
And that, despite Lord Elmer being dead. A huge and recent shock, a tragedy – he had been at Solbern House the night it happened. Admittedly, he’d had to try and piece the bits together in hindsight, once he’d sobered up from the revelry. There had been no official news. As a consequence, the exact sequence of events remained unclear.
Nevertheless, to be brutally realistic, the death also presented an opportunity. Was it not now time to disengage?
Since becoming an MP, he had steadily attracted other influential backers; it seemed to require no effort on his part. Even the PM regarded him with favour. There was, therefore, little advantage in remaining a member of the cult, especially when Lord Elmer’s successor was Maurice Lock.
Maurice Lock – Lord Elmer’s glorified butler! This had been almost as much of a shock as the tragic death. Though it shouldn’t have been – the landed gentry never accepted constraints in matters of the flesh.
So, a manservant in charge and, by all accounts, someone wishy-washy, a ditherer: totally unacceptable. At the very least it meant he could and should put distance between himself and The Way, now that it would be in terminal decline.
The circuitous tour had finally brought him to his office. He pulled out a key to unlock the door, entered and re-locked it.
He’d never had to share an office and this was amongst the most desirable – such were the perks he’d enjoyed from his first days in parliament. There was a large window with an executive armchair pulled close by for the view; it was there he would spend quiet periods dreaming dreams and scheming.
He moved to his desk, sat down and shoved aside files requiring immediate attention. Now was the appropriate moment for exultation, for the cork to give way to pressure. He brought two fists thumping down onto the desk top: “Yes!” He did it again, and a third time. Had orgasm ever been better than this?
“Congratulations, Home Secretary.” A voice had come from the armchair.
“Huh.” The startled MP scrambled to his feet in annoyance.
The armchair rotated. Maurice Lock, formerly comptroller of Solbern House, was staring at him over interlaced fingers.
“How did you get in here?” the MP demanded.
The answer was a thin smile. Another question shot out of the MP’s mouth.
“How did you know about the appointment? I’ve only just found out myself.”
“My dear Charles, I knew before the PM. I wanted it done and dusted before flying back to Solbern.”
The new home secretary slumped back onto his chair sensing, but unable fully to grasp, that he’d made a grave error of judgement somewhere. He kept his eyes fixed on the desk top in the ensuing silence. Slowly, the rising tension forced him to look up, make eye contact. The new lord of Solbern spoke:
“You’ve not been returning our calls, Charles.”
“I’ve been too busy. Urgent matters to deal with, the reshuffle obviously…”
“Obviously.” Unnervingly, no part of the new archduke’s body was moving except his lips; his eyelids did not blink.
“You don’t appear to know who I am, Charles.” It was an accusation but delivered with indifference.
*You’re nothing more than a jumped-up lackey, the bastard son of a roving dick.* The insults had assembled on the minister’s tongue, and were ready for firing.
Instead, a spasm in his leg muscles jerked him to his knees, an open drawer catching his forehead on the way down. That wasn’t all: he was being attacked by insects; his skin was alive with them, or so it felt. Sweat was getting in his eyes, clouding his vision.
“Who am I, Charles?”
“The pain will only get worse, the longer you show disrespect. Do come out from behind the desk.”
The MP tried to stand but couldn’t. The insects had started to nip. Sweat was dripping freely from his brow onto the carpet. His heart was racing as he figured out his next move. He started to crawl.
The archduke waited until the minister was kneeling before him, shoulders hunched, head bent low. The minister missed the almost benign smile that flitted across the archduke’s features.
“Charles Bracewell, you will repeat the words: ‘I come to do you homage, Lord Maurice, Archduke of Bedmorland’. You will then kiss my extended shoe.”
Despite the torment he was suffering, the minister raised his head in an attempt to fix the archduke with a look of disdain. It was then he noticed the backs of his own hands. He quickly pulled aside a sleeve: his skin was sprouting spots of blood - everywhere! It was a breaking point. He bowed low enough to bang his nose on the carpet.
“I come to do you homage, Lord Maurice, Archduke of Bedmorland.” He almost prostrated himself to kiss a shoe then shrank back to put a yard between the two of them. There he waited, eyes an inch from the coloured pile, unable to focus.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, be a good chap, back to your place.” The mock jollity, its very hollowness, made the words chilling.
The minister hadn’t noticed. His clamped knees were being released: that’s what got his attention. Tentatively, he struggled to his feet, careful not to show anything on his face – no anger, no relief, nothing. This damnable upstart had more of the Solbern streak in him than he’d been led to believe.
He returned to his chair dabbing his forehead. The insects were gone; the spots of blood had magically disappeared. He was about to slam the desk drawer but slid it shut after a moment’s thought.
“I presume you are carrying out the final instructions Lord Elmer sent you?” Still the unwavering gaze.
“Of course I am.” The testiness escaped his lips before he could stop it. Immediately, he affected a more chastened tone. “What I mean to say is, the amendments will be on the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity.”
“Excellent. And you will be attending the extraordinary meeting of the Inner Circle?”
The MP looked down, deflated. “Yes.”
“That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic, Charles.”
Seconds passed in cold silence.
“My powers are not as spectacular as Lord Elmer’s but they are every bit as effective. I shall leave you with a little reminder that henceforth your loyalty must be beyond reproach. Look at me!”
Their eyes locked.
“Now, let me see… You have the reputation for being something of a ladies’ man…”
The archduke maintained eye contact for a further count of three after which he sprang to his feet, causing the politician to flinch.
“I shall see myself out.” He turned towards the door.
“My lord, my lord, I beg you tell me what you’ve done.”
The archduke continued walking. “Your show of respect is welcome but a little tardy, Charles.”
A moment later, he seemed to think better of it and paused. “You’ve been quoted as saying you’d be ready for the next election even if it had to happen next week. Well, you’re going to have to wait a lot longer for your next erection.”
The MP put his head in his hands and groaned. Then, remembering, he rose quickly from his chair to go and unlock the door for this most unwelcome of visitors. But the lord of Solbern was gone.
Two hours later, a helicopter touched down on the Solbern Estate. Maurice Lock alighted and walked the short distance to the house. He did not head for one of the top floor offices but went downwards, cutting along hidden corridors.
Pargeter, the butler, followed his lordship’s movements on CCTV. He recognised the rage in the determined strides. He guessed the destination and switched the monitor to the gallery.
In less than a minute, lights came on and the archduke entered the long chamber. His pace slowed but he ignored all the portraits till he came to the last one. Pargeter turned away from the screen, lifted a prepared tray, and followed the quickest route he knew to the other gallery entrance. He entered like a ghost.
Maurice Lock was facing a painting of Lord Elmer Lyne, 67th Archduke of Bedmorland. He reached out sideways to lift a glass of wine from Pargeter’s tray. He continued to stare at his father’s image as he spoke.
“There is insolence in the ranks.”
“It is to be expected, sir. They have yet to discover that you are your father’s son and much to be feared.”
“Quite.” Maurice Lock took a sip of wine. The portrait was recent and rushed: Lord Elmer’s death had been unforeseen. It should have been foreseen and prevented.
“I blame myself as much as anybody else. I too underestimated Daniels.”
“My lord, it will make revenge all the sweeter when you’ve rounded up the others involved. Death can be made slower, more painful.”
“Torture will be at its most exquisite.” The archduke was lost in thought until his eyes were distracted by the two empty frames to his right. A weariness came over him.
“There are complications over succession.”
“I have several half-brothers and I have no son.”
Pargeter said nothing.
“My half-brothers rejected the Solbern lineage many years ago. Even so, they are still alive – each a claimant to the title.”
The archduke grunted and took the rest of the wine in one gulp. “As for having no heir, Pargeter,” he replaced the glass decisively on the tray, “it must be months since I last made contact with my one and only daughter. Time I arranged a date.”
Southwest of the capital, on the outskirts of another city, stands an octagonal boundary wall built high in red brick; it encloses what once had been a park-and-ride area. At the end of a short turn-off to the octagon is a single placard bearing the words: Lock & Lock; this gives the misleading impression of a home security company.
There are eight manned barriers in the wall, each guarding access to its own fenced-off segment of carpark. Each carpark leads up to an entrance in a wide octagonal building; the building is single storey except for an inner octagon which rises to two floors. There is no indication as to the nature of the business conducted within.
Beyond each entrance is an identical suite of offices unconnected to those on either side. The passageway through each set of offices leads to a centrally controlled door which opens onto an octagonal corridor. Directly across the corridor another centrally controlled door marks one of eight entrances to the very centre: the office of Evelyne Lock.
No pair of doors is ever unlocked at the same time as another pair; any dallying in the corridor is picked up by CCTV and can lead to summary dismissal.
Evelyne Lock is at that moment seated at the centre of the centre, surrounded by a large octagonal desk partitioned into eight wedges.
Each area has a different coloured phone dedicated to a single client firm or partnership. She is holding the grey one to her ear.
On the other end of the line is the CEO of BlueSkyBio. The ideas are bouncing in and out of her head – the number of ways it would be better to see out a morning than listening to the long-winded gripes of Alastair Tolby. She has passed number twenty.
“ – no, I would say in hindsight that perhaps it wasn’t the best direction we could have taken. Several staff have approached me independently, like I said, and maybe ‘complain’ is too strong a word but each of them pointed out that we are blue sky research here so what are we doing shelling out for a biofactory? Not that I’m calling into question your judgement, Evelyne, far from it,” and on he goes.
She puts the phone down to rummage in her bag for a nail file; it is hidden under car keys. She picks up and traps the receiver in the crook of her neck then turns fiery eyes towards a conveniently placed wall mirror. The irritation eases.
Violet nails, carmine lips: they give her blue suit that something extra. Dark, dark hair tumbles in cascades over accentuated shoulders. She flips open a desk planner to double-check an appointment at the salon. Alastair’s word-rate is slowing down.
“Alastair, do you mind if I interrupt?”
“Not at all, Evelyne, go right ahead.”
“You mentioned blue sky research and that is your company’s strength, without question. But until you stumble on a winner blue skies have to be supported by boring old money makers, do you not agree?”
“Yes, of course –”
“ – The biofactory was too good a business opportunity to ignore and it’s practically on your doorstep. You got it at a fraction of its value, did you not?”
“ – Is it operating at a profit now that debts have been written off? Does it not incorporate a facility for vaccine production?”
“Yes, yes, agreed –”
“ – So, consider it an asset – change perceptions in your labs. Inform complaining staff that bioreactors will generate all the finance they need for pure research – if they put them to use.”
“Will do, Evelyne. Yes, I will do that.” His voice trails off.
“There’s something else, Alaistair. I can hear it in your sighing.” She waits.
“It’s Dr Sneddon.”
“Dr Sneddon, head of virology. You head-hunted him about a year ago. Was it you or your father who interviewed him? I can’t remember – never mind, you considered he had the right profile to take our company forward. May I say it was a splendid appointment, Evelyne; some of his ideas, I tell you, and he’s full of them,” he is off again.
Oh do stop wittering and get to the point! You’re worse than an old woman. She begins drumming a pad with the point of the nail file.
A man swaggers down the steps from the upper floor. Her latest personal trainer; tight leather pants, mesh vest and bare feet. Her eyes stray over the yummy body and the drumming quickens. He arranges his musculature on an armchair to maximum effect and gives her a wink.
“ – There is no need to keep defining every other term, Alastair. You seem to forget I have a degree in microbiology.” Her eyes dart from crotch to abs to chest upwards.
I wonder how long you’ll last, loverman? Not another day, from the smirk on your face. Last night you met little Miss Mademoiselle: this morning you’ll discover Madame Ballbreaker.
“ – Don’t go on about it, Alastair, one heartfelt apology will suffice. You can’t remember everything and, besides, you’re getting on in years.”
“Ouch, yes, I deserve that, Evelyne; it must have come across as patronising… Anyway, he’s convinced we’re wasting time and energy developing vaccines for unlikely influenza candidates – there’s ‘no reward in random’ he’s fond of saying. Like I said, he wants to switch focus to engineering phages for resistant bacteria, bacteria which are already out there. The chances of success are so much higher and he’s impatient for success. He’s certain we’ll miss the boat unless we act now.”
“You have done, Alastair.”
“Missed the boat.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I know of two companies not a million miles away who are already well on with such projects. They’ve both bought into cutting edge technology.”
“Oh no. How do you know this?”
Because I consult for them too, you imbecile. “How I know this, is why you pay such a high consultancy fee.”
“Yes, well. Hmm.”
“It’s been five years now, Alastair. Have I ever given you unsound advice?”
“No, Evelyne, it’s always sound, often bang on target. Your predictive powers are uncanny.”
“And in that time interval has not your company increased in size and, I believe, tripled in profitability?”
“It has, it has.”
“So, Alastair, explain the facts of life to this Dr Sneddon. Encourage him to air his ideas sooner so I can give feedback from the wider perspective.”
“Will do, Evelyne. Will do.”
“And, Alastair, get your workforce back into line, all moving in the same direction – our direction. It was what you were appointed to do.” She breaks contact and rises to her feet.
A voice comes from the armchair. “Hi there, Eve. Reporting for duty.”
She ignores it and presses the grey intercom: “Jenny, please dig out the file on a Dr Sneddon. I will need it for when I return this afternoon.”
She straightens up, hands on hips, eyes flashing.
“Roger, at work my name is Ms Lock.” She presses an unseen button causing a gap to open up in the octagonal desk. Her hand whips out to fling a bunch of keys in his direction. He has to catch them or be struck in the face.
“Kindly clean the car while I’m out at lunch.”
“Hey,” he bristles, “don’t you have staff for that kind of thing?”
She grabs her bag and walks through the gap towards the grey door. “Yes I do and you’re one of them. When you’ve got yourself properly dressed leave by this door and report to Jenny who will provide you with a list of jobs. Do not stray or touch anything that does not concern you. There are hidden cameras everywhere and you are expendable.”
She leaves without looking back; there is no need for her to check his face has been stripped of its veneer.