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Vast: A Novel
Ch. XIII: Omens

by Nicolas Travers

Colin secures his first interview the following week, with the chairman of Global Technology, a powerful industrial conglomerate and FT-SE Index component, controlling operations in Britain, Europe, North America and throughout the civilised world from a base in leafy Surrey. A breathless public relations man calls first, confirming an appointment for midway through Friday morning, then a despatch rider arrives soon after, bearing sheaves of reports and analyses and press cuttings. Colin immerses himself in research, and Twister is kindness itself, allotting him a spare office all to himself, complete with his own personal telephone extension, whilst Wendy is formally instructed to treat him with care, and provide him with frequent mugs of piping hot black coffee - for the Sultan's interest in the Bat Group has triggered an immediate climb in office living standards.

Valerie Sweetdreams also smiles at him fondly from a distance. But Colin is much too busy steeping himself in Glotech corporate thinking, assessing the relative importance of assorted geographical markets and product segments, compiling a raft of performance charts, and sketching out a possible interview structure to dally. He reads Glotech, thinks Glotech, and takes Glotech home with him each evening. Jane and Sarah are impressed, and Sarah listens to her radio through a huge set of earmuffs.

Twister knocks at his door on Thursday morning, amity personified. "How's it going?" He is cheerfully brisk and breezy. Karim has been on the telephone, and he is flying to Geneva with Nat Batten and the Bat Group solicitor in the morning to meet the Sultan in person. Documents are being prepared for signature, and salvation is virtually in the bag.

"It's going well." Colin is checking a compact little Sony tape recorder, bought from a petty cash fund that now positively weeps money. "That's Liscio." He gestures at a carefully posed studio picture of an aquiline face pinned up behind his telephone. "I think he's quite vain. I'll lay on flattery with a trowel, build him into a corporate megastar."

"Get him to talk about Glotech's future." Karim is very keen on the interview, and Twister suspects that the Sultan may be considering making a major industrial investment. "New technology, and all that sort of stuff."

"Plus a hint on future profits?" Colin can sometimes be just as smooth as his boss. "I'll give you a buzz as soon as I get to the nearest payphone."

Twister beams. He is thinking of doing a little front-running, buying a few Glotech traded options ahead of the pack. "I'll give you our number in Geneva."

"Won't that be a bit obvious?"

"Dear boy." Twister's tone is reproving. "I'll pass the info straight on to the Sultan."

"Before or after you hit the market?"

Twister winks conspiratorially. "We'll work together." He feels good: he is sure the Sultan will reward such help either by giving him a half hour start, or allow him to ride on an oriental carpet, taking a slice on options whilst the market punts up on the back of a really solid order.

Colin is flattered - it sounds as though Twister may be contemplating passing him a tiny bribe. But there are also technicalities to resolve. "How many words?"

"As many as you like dear boy." Twister is expansive. "We'll give you four or five pages."

"Nice big byline?"

"Bring home the bacon and we'll give you a thumbnail pic in the contents page."

He pats Colin's shoulder affably, and both men beam. Success is close at hand, and rewards are likely to prove golden.

Colin rehearses Glotech on his way home, barely glancing at his evening paper. But something nags at the back of his mind, and he suddenly connects. It is Thursday, and Dorothy may be visiting the secret garden again.

He determines to talk a walk after dinner, ostensibly to get his mind right for the following day, a last chance to rehearse, to stroll along practising questions on himself under his breath and get some fresh air into his head.

However he will also walk in comradeship, just in case he meets and greets a friend and caresses a cat - and a secret corner of his mind urges him to have the courage to caress a friend as well.

This is a dangerous thought, and a small voice warns Colin to be careful. Life is now starting to treat him with favour, and he needs risks like he needs a hole in his head. He is winning victories, and should build on them, not knock them over. But Dorothy smiles at him in his mind, and he is sorely tempted, and so he travels homeward in a state of thoroughly contented confusion.

Dinner is chicken with peaches and rice, and Jane and Sarah are both charming. Colin is smitten with a twinge of guilt as he makes his excuses after the meal, leaving his womenfolk to clear away and wash up, but he reminds himself that he is only going out for a stroll, and that he may not greet or caress any living thing at all, and so he lets himself out into the evening air, and strolls off jauntily.

The secret garden is quite empty. Colin settles on the bench, and stares at the small lawn laid out in front of him, and listens to the rustle of an evening breeze, and the sleepy sounds of birds settling for bed, and feels momentarily lost. He is getting his mind right, practising questions, blowing some fresh air through his head - and Dorothy and Prince are nowhere to be seen. He waits, increasingly restless, for a quarter of an hour, and begins to grow a little desperate. It is starting to spot with rain, and he is going to have to walk home, practised, totally aired, and possibly rather wet, and may catch a cold, and rank as a bit of a failure, and not shine so brightly at Glotech after all.

He knows that this is all silly superstition, and tries to push it out of his mind. But childhood fears have long lives: good prospects rest on good omens, and dark shadows flag misfortunes. Now he fears returning home emptyhanded, with Dorothy ranking only as a mirage - and perhaps his Glotech interview will flop, and the whole Bat Group and QuickRich renaissance will crumble, and he will be back to square one, and possibly on an express train to disaster. It is also starting to spit rather harder, and he is growing damp.

He hauls himself slowly to his feet. He must be brave, if he is not to win, and take refuge in stoicism. At least he has torpedoed Jane's vegetarian campaign. Then he pauses. Footsteps are clicking along the path towards him - women's steps. But his hopes fade again, for he can hear that two women are walking together, and he only wants one. He brushes his hair with his hand, to shake off some collected moisture, and hunches his head into his shoulders, and prepares to trudge back to Jane and Sarah.

The two women come closer, rounding a bend concealed by a bed of shrubs, and Colin stops short. Dorothy is hurrying towards him, enveloped in an anorak several sizes too large for her, cradling her cat against her.

She smiles shyly, and also stops at the sight of him, her face a little pink from hurrying. But Colin is staring at her companion, a tall girl of eighteen or so, very like Dorothy, in a short silver swagger coat cut in a rubberised satin that he has not seen for a long, long time.

"Our mum tried to stop us going out." Dorothy pants slightly as she speaks. "But I shooed Prince out of a window, and then got Sandy to come with me to look for him."

She lets her anorak fall open a little so that Prince can free his front paws. But Colin is still staring at her sister.

Alexandra Sorrow sketches a polite smile, but finds his stare disconcerting, and looks away.

"We can't stay long, else Mum will come looking." Dorothy notes the fixed, almost obessional, way look on Colin's face, and is a little bewildered. Neither of them particularly fancy the other, she can tell that at a glance, but her sister appears to have hooked him without even trying. However the rain is now starting to fall harder, and she must be quick. "Are you going to be at your missus' fete, on Saturday?"

Colin, now sheltering in the lee of the shrubs, nods reluctantly. He remembers having agreed, in a moment of folly, to man a stall.

"We'll come and see you there." Dorothy closes her anorak again to prevent Prince getting wet. "I'll bring Prince with me, I'll put him on a lead, that way he won't be able to run away."

Another quick smile, and the two girls are hurrying on their way, with Colin following at a safe distance, all three bending their heads into the gathering rain.

Later, in her bedroom, Dorothy conducts a post-mortem. There are things she cannot understand, which she thinks she should know.

"Sandy." She is playing with Prince, balancing him on her lap with his legs in the air, combing the soft fur of his belly. "What did you think?"

"Wasn't much to think about." Alexandra is non-committal. She know she is about to be interrogated, and intends playing everything by ear.

"No, I mean, him. What do you think about him now?"

"Not much to think." Alexandra knows that evasion is a very safe tack. "He didn't say much, did he?"

"But do you think he's nice?" Dorothy is insistent.

"I just think he's a middle-aged man. I told you, they're all the same." Alexandra decides to back away. There has been something a bit spooky about Dorothy's man, something a bit weird, a bit too kinky. She knows well the magnetic power possessed at nightclubs by willowy blondes in tight leather outfits, and little ravers tarting themselves up in body-hugging lycra and latex. But Dorothy must wait to learn these things.

"But a nice middleaged man?"

"He might be."

"He's going to take me away."

Alexandra snorts irritably at this, to flag her disapproval.

"He'll be my slave." Dorothy rolls the word on her tongue. She is not totally sure what she means, but she knows that it will give her a man all to herself.

"What do you mean?" Now Alexandra speaks in her most huffed, scolding voice. She has a good idea what may be coming, and Dorothy is sailing into much too dangerous waters.

"Didn't you see the way he looked at you?"

She snorts again. "He's kinky. That's why he looked at me like that."

"How kinky?"

"It was my coat, it turned him on."

Dorothy has now reached the point of depart, and she is determined to know. "Go on."

Alexandra yields. "He's one of these men that are kinky about rubber, and stuff like that. It's like showing a rabbit to a greyhound, they just can't resist."

"You mean it's like a magic spell?"

"Something like that."

Dorothy is thoughtful. "So if I borrowed your coat, I'd have a hook through his nose?"

Alexandra is alarmed. Things are now getting totally out of order. But she also has a small secret feeling of relief, for at one moment, just for a brief second, she wondered, suspected, that Dorothy might try using her as a bait in most unsisterly manipulation. "Oh, Dot, you're mad. You're playing with fire."

But Dorothy is very determined. "I know what I want, Sandy, I want to get away from here, and I'm going to get away. I'm going to make him want me so much that he'll do just anything for me."

Meanwhile Colin skips home in a state of the most complete elation, despite rain now soaking though his shirt. Everything is going to be good, and his mind has a field day conjuring up dangerous visions, in which his fantasies run riot, and he is blissfully happy, because fantasies are a freedom quite devoid of action and peril.

Jane, who is beginning to wonder if she may not be overplaying her solicitious wife role, scolds him, but also provides him with a dry towel, and a large scotch from a bottle kept for snuffles and similar ailments, and runs him a hot bath. Sarah watches her father vanish into the bathroom, and returns to the family television, turning the volume up just a fraction.

However not every omen is auspicious. Angela Scolding, Jane Vast's Church Guild colleague and rival, has also been making her way home through the gathering rain, sensibly shielded under a large black umbrella, and has noted, with a disapproving mental sniff, passing the two Sorrow sisters, and then - with a twitch of suspicious surprise, Colin's hurrying figure.

At least she thinks that it was Jane Vast's husband, but she is not sure, for the rain had begun to fall really rather hard, and she had been intent on getting along home as quickly as possible.

But she has made a mental note, and wonders - with the very worst of suspicions - whether there may be any connection linking the three, and what - if connection there might be - Colin Vast could possibly have been about, and she makes another mental note to keep a sharp eye open, and thoroughly pursue the matter.

For Angela Scolding is a woman of the most solid rectitude, and a true believer both in the duty of righteous people to preserve public virtue, by helping the errant mend their ways, and in the use of every possible social weapon in the fight against evil.

She will find out whether Colin Vast is being tempted by either of the two little Sorrow sluts, or - perish the thought - trying a little tempting himself, and - if evil there be - will help expose any hanky-panky to the brightest and truest lights of public censure, and maybe, by performing her public duty, take Jane Vast down a peg or two into the bargain.

To Be Continued...


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