|Vast: A Novel
Ch. V: Plots
by Nicolas Travers ©
Next day finds Richquick a hive of energy. Colin arrives early, eager to catch up on ground lost the previous afternoon, and starts polishing up bright little diary pieces. Wendy is flirtatiously charming as she taps at her keyboard, and looks more than pleased with herself. Twister is late, but arrives in the very best of spirits.
"Morning, lambs!" His voice rings out brightly as he thrusts his way into his office, all boss and bushytailed, in a tone signifying great satisfaction, for on bad days he refers to Colin and Wendy as his sheep, and hounds them like a wolf.
This joviality sours Colin a little, for he suspects that sex with Wendy is the trigger. But he has no certain knowledge, as Wendy has decided to play all her cards very close to her generously curved bosom, and merely smiles provokingly at all Colin's hints and insinuations - though she does concede demurely that she and Twister might have shared a convivial glass after leaving work early together.
So he writes jealously, ravaged by the thought that Twister having sex with Wendy might very well be a very much better bet than his own sex with Jane, but equally conscious that he is unlikely ever to get an opportunity of putting this challenging suspicion to proof. However words are hard to chisel out of an absent mind, and after a while he switches to compiling some of the statistical tables that RichQuick uses to try and convince its readers that investment predictions rest on science.
Twister busies himself opening his morning post, neatly laid out on his desk, meanwhile summoning Wendy for a spot of dictation and administration. He leers at her meaningfully as she seats herself demurely, but Wendy is far too clever a girl to publicise a peccadillo in public, and for a moment they sit in silence, each remembering the events of the previous afternoon - triumphant conquest to one, useful opportunity to the other.
Then Twister twitches and stares unhappily at a letter in his hand, all his exuberance quite gone. The letterheading flags a grasping finance company based in Birmingham, and the text is brief, but quite deadly.
'Dear Sir, we write to you as a director and joint guarantor of Moneybuilding Publications Limited, which stands as our debtor in the sum of £250,000 (two hundred and fifty thousand pounds). Your company has failed to meet payments scheduled on this debt for more than six months, and is therefore now in breach of our loan agreement. We intend - if accrued capital and interest payments are not defrayed within seven days of the date of this letter - to take legal action for recovery. Please note that we intend taking action both against your company, and you as a guarantor.'
Twister racks his brains unhappily. He remembers signing a boardroom loan agreement some six months since, urged on by group managing director Nat Batten after a boozy boardroom lunch, pinned between a pair of sharp lawyers. But Nat had explained the loan away as a stepping stone, a tiding over thing, a merely temporary facility.
Now the letter on his desk suggests that shadows of bankruptcy loom. Twister thinks of his beautiful home in Devonshire, nearly Grade II but not quite completely, bought from the profits of close on forty successive Richquick issues, his wife's social ambitions, lofty and far-reaching, and his two children at expensive boarding schools, chillingly smart, and his heart thumps painfully.
His first reaction is to hurtle, panic-stricken, to confront Nat, letter in angry hand. But Nat is probably closeted in a meeting, and might well send him off with a flea in his ear, piling shame on fear, and very possibly setting gossipping tongues wagging most dangerously.
Twister hesitates, prey to accelerating angst. Wendy, who is watching him closely from beneath her long curving eyelashes, clears her throat. She can see clearly that he has a problem, and feels that she owes him a gesture of friendship for his generosity the previous evening, when promises of promotion and a handsome end-of-year pay packet hike followed an interesting spot of wrestling cooled in good champagne.
The sound brings Twister back to earth with a bang, and he stares at her wildly, his mind trying to get to grips with the situation, trying to locate a way out, a solution, an escape.
Wendy smiles sweetly, with just the merest hint of a pout to show that she is a little hurt at being kept in the dark.
But Twister knows that he must fight this battle all on his own, and he makes a dismissive flapping gesture. "Er, you better go back to your desk for a moment." He pauses, mind churning, and thinks of sharp ears. "And close the door behind you."
He speaks sharply, as he might speak to a dog, or a servant, and his dismissal spins Wendy straight into a huff. She gathers her notebook and makes an exit, taking care not to allow her rear the slightest hint of a twitch, to settle coolly at her desk, staring at Colin with a look of disdain. Men, she thinks, are a pain, and totally not to be trusted. She wonders at the same time why the letter in Twister's hand has frightened him so, and makes a mental note to hunt it down and enlighten herself.
Twister waits for his door to close, and grabs his telephone, nervously punching Nat's personal extension number. A girl's voice answers, Nat's secretary, and his fury mounts, for Nat has obviously gone to ground.
"Tim here." He tries to keep his voice steady. "Something important has come up, I must speak to Nat."
The girl barely hesitates, but her pause fuels suspicion - Tim can visualise her glancing at Nat, and Nat making a chopping negative motion with his hand, to signal that he is completely unreachable.
Her voice, when she replies, is cool. "I'm sorry, he's..."
She pauses again for a second, confirming Twister's worst fears - Nat is plainly in his office, and uncertain how best to bolt his door. Twister lets his telephone drop, not bothering to wait out her reply, and is gone, rushing out of his door towards the stairs leading down one floor to the Bat Group's administrative offices, grasping finance group letter clutched tight in his hand.
Colin and Wendy both watch, awestruck. Twister trails an almost tangible aura of fear, and suddenly unknown catastrophes cast a dread shadow over RichQuick's office. Colin wonders, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, whether the Bat Group may be finally about to turn rumour into fact, and collapse. Wendy compounds fear with anger, conscious that lust may well have made a fool of her.
They look at each other, and then avert their eyes. Catastrophes can sometimes build unity and comradeship. But fear can also separate, and Colin and Wendy know only too well that each of them must pursue their own individual quest for survival.
Meanwhile Twister has reached Nat's office, and pushed his way unceremoniously past Nat's secretary, who barely resists, scenting a major panic, possible treachery, and very bad news for financial problems of her own.
Nat is hunched behind his desk, as though shrinkage might diminish his vulnerability. He is a thickset, stocky man, with shifty eyes and a heavy blue shave. He knows very well what is coming, but has very little defence to offer.
Tim waves his letter. "Have you seen this?" He leans across Nat's desk, pushing the sheet of paper at Nat's face.
Nat nods wearily. He has seen it, and knows that collapse - long feared, but always to date averted - really may loom now just a few days away. The grasping finance group letter poses no immediate threat, legal action takes time. But the letter is bound to leak out to Bat Group suppliers, and a leak can be counted on to melt Bat Group credit away faster than snow on a summer day.
"What are you going to do?" Tim is almost hysterical.
Nat rubs his eyes wearily. "I'm working on it." He wonders as he speaks whether he can abandon everyone and everything and hie himself away to South America, or the South Pacific, or somewhere on the far side of the moon. But he knows that all escape routes are closed, for the Bat Group's chief accountant - long Nat's most trusted henchman - has recently discovered a secret Bat Group bank account set up to help Nat handle some attractive unofficial payments, and has made some barely veiled threats.
Nat consequently rues the day he first decided to trust the chief accountant, and wonders for a moment whether he has enough money in a second secret account to pay some friendly thug to send him to meet his maker. But this is an ignoble thought, and he fears anyway that the chief accountant may well have taken steps to protect himself by lodging incriminating documents with a bank all of his own.
"Can we sell something?"
Nat considers Tim's question for a moment, and then shakes his head. "Nothing worth selling." His voice is bleak and flat.
"Could we still sell the business?"
The two men stare at each other. Both are thinking of a tentative offer made by a shadowy, but reputedly super-rich, Malaysian, and earlier rejected. The Malaysian is seeking a vehicle to build ambitious Pacific Rim expansion plans, and possibly scatter a little islamic propaganda on the side. But he is reputed a domineering, arrogant, man, and a cruel and hard taskmaster, and Nat and Twister both fear that new ownership will drive them inexorably either to drink or to fearsomely early graves.
Nat is silent for a long moment, and then he sighs. "It's about our only chance."
Twister recognises a fitful gleam of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. "Could we bring him in, and then bunk out?"
Nat smiles thinly. "I don't think he'd like that."
Another long silence. Both men have a fair idea of how a cruel, hard, super-rich Malaysian might react to a double-cross. Then Nat sighs again, and it is a sound of surrender.
"I'll try him."
Twister's tunnel begin to glow with a rather brighter light, and his panic ebbs as suddenly as it has grown. "Get him to pay part of the cash on the side." He has a secret Swiss bank account in mind, something to fund a bolthole.
Nat nods non-committally, but has already mentally pigeonholed Twister as a totally non-esential priority. Tricky negotiations must now be opened, and the road may prove rocky. Any cash side payments will flow first and foremost to Nat Batten, with something set aside for the Bat Group's chief accountant. He ponders the possible impact of this latter unpleasant erosion, and suddenly remembers that the chief accountant is a Hindu, and might not take kindly to working for an islamic propagandist. This is a happy realisation, a sharp stab of joy that enables Nat immediately to trim his side payment provision, and suddenly he feels rather brighter. Perhaps selling out will solve more than one problem.
Twister is now buoyant again. He bounces out of Nat's office and returns to his own in a dynamic frame of mind, striding arrogantly up the stairs to the RichQuick floor two at a time, sweeping triumphantly back to his desk.
Wendy and Colin are both mightily impressed by the change, and Wendy immediately shimmies into Twister's office to ask, ever so charmingly, whether he would like morning coffee.
Her question reminds Twister of his generous cash donation to Colin the previous afternoon, not to mention buns lost by bedding her. But he is now in a very upbeat mood, and really does not care to be thought of as mean, and so decides magnaminously to let Colin keep his change, though he also determines to refresh Colin's memory at a suitable moment, to prevent him from developing acquisitive ambitions.
The rest of Richquick's editorial day ticks by uneventfully. Colin finishes his tables, and then embarks on a bit of corporate analysis, rehashing opinions culled from the Financial Times.
Wendy takes herself off shopping, and returns after a generously long lunch hour, laden with plastic bags, to punch a freelance feature on unit trusts into her terminal.
Twister dashes off an editorial urging understanding for ayatollahs, and then fashions a feature about possible fortunes to be made by investing in tiger markets east of Rangoon.
The sun beats down, RichQuick's office is hot and stuffy, and by teatime all three are thinking of ways to escape.
Twister's telephone rings as he runs a final check on his feature copy, wondering whether he can tempt Wendy a fresh dalliance. Nat Batten's voice is a little hoarse, but cautiously optimistic.
"I'm making progress. I've spoken to our man's office in Geneva, they've faxed KL." Batten talks as though he does business with Kuala Lumpur three times a day. "Karim, his PA, came back to me personally, said he'd be staging through London on his way to New York early next week - he'll give us an hour at his hotel."
Twister chews his lip. Meetings with PAs fall far short of deals with principals. "Will he bite?"
"He asked us to bring our accounts and a draft agreement." Now Batten's voice starts to drawl with the cool understatement of a city slicker making good. "He's flying back to Geneva to meet the Sultan the following week. He suggests, if things go well, that we fly there as well, and talk business."
Twister absorbs his words slowly - they are almost too good to be true. "Can we hack it?"
The telephone laughs at him sharply. "We have to hack it, Timothy, we don't have a choice. Either the Sultan buys, or we're bust."
A click, and Batten is gone. Twister mops his brow and looks at his watch. It is time to go. He thinks again of inviting Wendy, but then changes his mind. Now he needs space for thinking, and planning - a quiet corner, and a stiff drink, all on his own. So he stands up, tidies his desk, tucks the grasping finance company letter inside his jacket, mindful of prying eyes, and strides to his office door.
"I'm going home." He beams at his workforce, notes the envy in their eyes, and decides to be generous for a second day on the trot. "Pack up when you've finished whatever you're doing." Ten seconds later he is gone.
Wendy and Colin wait for five minutes, a decent interval, and then hasten after him.
Colin finds his mind filled with the fairhaired girl as he sits homeward bound in a sweltering, jolting, Underground carriage, the best part of an hour ahead of rush hour chaos. He wonders whether she really will turn up at her secret garden, or whether she will make a fool of him. He also wonders quite why she wants to be friends with him. But only fools question unexpected wonders, and he sweeps doubt from his mind. It is enough to be chosen, and wanted, and he revels in his good fortune.
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