|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XIV: Glotech
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin is not always the most dynamic of men at dawn, but Glotech promises to be something special. So he bounds out of bed bright and early on the magic day, shaves with special care, and brews himself a cafetiere of fiercely strong coffee as he skims through his FT, just in case Glotech is in the news, before buttering himself a single slice of toast as a concession to weight-watching, and spreading it thickly with home-made Church Guild marmalade as a downpayment on celebration. Jane and Sarah sleep on, and he toys for a moment with the thought of stealing off quietly. But it is a day for actions to dictate omens, and his spirits are high and rising, so he plays the generous husband and father by ferrying a cup of sweet black coffee up to Jane, who grunts, and buries herself deeper into her duvet, and sweet white coffee to Sarah, who waves sleepily and turns on her stereo, but softly.
The sky is blue, and the day promises to be fine and warm. Colin checks that he is fully armed with his interview notes, including biographical background on Niccolo di Bernardo Liscio, Glotech's Italian-born chairman, and a set of carefully drafted questions on Glotech plans and prospects, plus new tape recorder, spare cassettes, spare batteries, and a couple of propelling pencils, loads a cassette of Vivaldi opera overtures into the Renault stereo, and is on his way.
Glotech's headquarters is hidden away in the depths of the country, at the end of a quiet tree-lined rural lane. A red and white pole bars the way, and Colin slows uncertainly: a neat little sign proclaims the lane as the directors' entrance to the Corporate Headquaters of Global Technology PLC, and a van is parked on a grass verge just beyond the barrier, but a small white prefabricated gatehouse seems to sleep.
Colin glances at his watch, notes that time is still well on his side, and sounds his horn experimentally. A blue uniformed guard emerges from the gatehouse to stare at the Vasts' pensionable Renault with an expression well on the wrong side of respect, and inspects Colin with disdain. But the guard's manner changes instantly as Colin mentions Liscio's name: he stiffens to attention, turning aside to mutter for a moment into a mobile telephone, and disdain is transmuted into benevolent deference as he explains that Colin has missed Glotech's main entrance. The red and white pole rises silently, and he waves Colin on with a respectful benison.
The road becomes a tunnel between walls of neatly trimmed rhododendrons. Suddenly the rhododendrons part, opening out onto a wide sweep of close-cropped grassland sliding through a gentle slope to a large brick and steel and glass building, nestling like a space age palace in a vast shallow green bowl, and Colin coasts down in state, to park alongside five glossy black Mercedes ranged in a row on a wide strip of gravel.
Glotech's headquarters building is huge, rising from the gravel in an impressive copper-sheened glass wall reflecting and rejecting all curiosity. High glass swing doors open into a foyer as high and broad and silent as a cathedral, and an immaculate receptionist, supertopdrawer in white silk blouse and blue suit, with just a little makeup to enhance the appeal of her blue, blue eyes, looks up and gleams, all respect and charm, and glances at a notepad.
"Mr. Vast? I have a message for you." Her elegantly manicured fingers tear a slip from the pad with a pencilled telephone number, and the number is long, a whole raft of digits, not British.
Colin takes the slip and stares at the number in bafflement, racking his brains, and wonders whether Twister is already in Geneva and brimming with bright last-minute suggestions.
The receptionist cuts in on his musing, holding up a cordless phone. "You can call from in here, Mr. Vast, or take the phone out into the sunshine if you prefer." Her voice is deferential, and she is a vision of helpfulness, with eyes that are really most dazzling.
Colin smiles. But he has nothing to hide, and charm quite outbids sunshine. So he parks his briefcase, nestles comfortably into the corner of a deep leather sofa, safely out of the receptionist's earshot, and punches telephone buttons.
"Good morning, Colin, I thought I might give you a little surprise." He is bubbling with cheerfulness. "Is it a fine day in England?"
Colin is momentarily taken aback, and tries to mumble a startled reply. But Karim is already bubbling merrily on.
"Niccolo has told the Sultan he is really looking forward to seeing you, we have painted you in the most rosy colours." He giggles, and then pauses, and purrs. "He will also have a little present for you."
Colin pricks his ears, but waits. Businesss presents tend to come tied with sticky strings.
"He wants to see your article, before you show it to anyone else." Karim grows unctious: he knows that journalists can carp at controls, but also has a great belief in the persuasive powers of kindness. "He is afraid he may be indiscreet with you, and let cats out of bags: we are planning big tricks together here and there." Another giggle, Karim is above all proud of his idiomatic English. "He explained this to the Sultan, and the Sultan asked me to talk to you, because he wants us all to be the best of chums. But I told him to tell Niccolo that nobody deserves something for nothing, and you are really a most valuable man, so we hammered out a little deal: a peek for Niccolo, a present for you."
Colin starts to purr in chorus, for value never comes cheap.
"Good, good. I am so glad you are glad." Karim is blissfully happy: the Sultan's plan to buy the Bat Group is really proving a most felicitous choice. His voice becomes cosy. "Soon, I think, we shall all be making our fortunes in Glotech shares." The telephone tinkles with yet another giggle, a complicit sound loaded with promises of impending and impressive wealth, and he is gone.
Colin's mind pictures luxury, and a whole progression of goodies. But a slight cough breaks into his reverie: an elegant young woman in pale grey, perhaps a year or two younger than the receptionist, is standing a couple of metres from his sofa, smiling down at him, and holding a long slim envelope.
"Mr. Vast?" Her smile is radiant. "I work for Mr. Baptiste, group director of public affairs."
Her long slim fingers hold out the envelope, and Colin takes it, and it feels well packed, and solid.
"He asked me to give you this, and to tell you he will come down and greet you in a couple of minutes before he takes you to meet the chairman."
Another radiant smile, and she is gone.
Colin turns the envelope over in his fingers, and stabs at it with the point of a propelling pencil, tearing quickly along the edge. Then he stares at the contents, and sucks in his breath sharply, and wonders if he is dreaming, for the envelope is plump with crisp new fifty pound banknotes. He counts them rapidly, fanning them out in a heartwarming wave, and swallows hard, and the crispness of the notes in his fingers is a much, much better thing than the most lavish of daydreams. For suddenly he is all of a thousand pounds richer, and the envelope paves his first step into a new life promising a most delicious luxury and importance, and Glotech's cathedral has begun to glow with a truly divine and inspiring aura.
It is all a wonder, and even a miracle, and he knows, as he tucks the banknotes neatly into his wallet, that the money will hone his creative skills to a sharpness capable of powering Glotech's share price on a sharp climb towards heaven, that heaven will smile, that Karim and Twister and the Sultan will be proud of him, that RichQuick's readers will all think him a very, very smart writer indeed, and all this collective expected pleasure renders him ready to dance with joy.
But now a fresh cough breaks into his daydreaming, and a well-groomed middle-aged man is approaching, holding out both hands.
"Colin! I'm Jean Baptiste." Baptiste beams with all the enthusiasm of a man welcoming a long-lost friend, and grasps Colin's hand warmly. "It is so kind of you to come, this article is going to be really important." His eyes twinkle with respect and expectation. "I trust our friend Karim is keeping well?"
The question is heartwarmingly solicitous, but his manner somehow suggests, with the utmost delicacy, that he has been eavesdropping.
Colin's mind fills with pictures of the good things that money can buy. "He said he's counting on me to write something really dynamic."
"Ah." Baptiste's voice positively purrs. It is a most happy sound, and for a moment he seems to be planning a hug. But then he recollects himself, and glances at an elegant wristwatch. "The chairman will be ready in two minutes." He frowns slightly. "He is thinking of giving you an hour. Will that be enough?"
Colin glows. "It's most generous."
"And then." Another slight frown, suggesting that important matters are to follow. "He wondered if you might like to spend half an hour or so watching us at work, and then stay for lunch."
Colin's smile fades a fraction. He is counting on making a fast exit once Liscio is in the bag: transcribing an hour from tape will take him about four to five hours at a wordprocessor, and moulding the piece into dynamic share-punting prose possibly another couple of hours on top of that, so time will be precious.
"We're having a short board meeting, then a rather tasty little buffet." Baptiste's voice flows on enticingly. "I thought you might like to leave your tape with me, when you come out of your interview, and let me get the girls to transcribe it for you." He pauses. "You may find the chairman adding the odd tidbit, here and there, once he's had a chance to size you up." A well-groomed eye droops in a hint of a wink. "Could be worth your while."
This sounds like a tempting proposition. But Colin also feels a twinge of doubt, for a transcriber may be selective.
Baptiste looks positively shocked at this suspicion. "Colin, you don't really think we'd chop you about?" It is a reproof. "How could we, if we give you back your tape?"
Colin hesitates for a bare split second longer, and is converted. Transcription is a deadly tedious task, possibly the worst writing job in the world, and certainly one of the most boring. Delegation will be a wondrous thing.
Baptiste's smile broadens, suggesting that the transcription might also materialise as a polished two thousand word feature with just a little prompting. But Colin is a proud man, and has ethical standards, so he shakes his head firmly.
A bleeper sounds faintly, and Glotech's PR man is suddenly alert. "Ah, the chairman is nearly ready." He leads the way to impressive stairs curving upwards past their heads. The radiant girl is waiting at the top, and they make their way in a small procession towards a door that opens into a long room with huge windows looking out over an ornamental lake.
A tall man in a light grey silk suit is standing by the nearest window. He turns towards them as they enter: Niccolo Liscio, Glotecch's chairman, a man of presence, perhaps sixty or so, good-looking in a matinee idol way, with the authority of a commander, a man accustomed to giving orders and exacting obedience. Colin is presented, and Baptiste and the radiant girl withdraw. Liscio waves him into an armchair - the room seems more drawingroom than office, furnished with a sofa and a cluster of comfortable armchairs upholstered in pale grey grouped around a low glass and metal coffeetable, with huge etchings in abstract designs making occasional splashes of colour on the room's pale green walls.
Liscio is charm itself. Colin has prepared well and explored the Glotech chairman's life thoroughly - from youth in Italy through legal training in Europe and the US to Glotech corporate leadership - and sees him as a business star with an impressive corporate future.
Glotech's chairman smiles slightly at this flattery, and repays it with a detailed picture of group strengths and ambitions, building on powerful bases in Europe and North America to meet mushrooming world technological needs, whilst at the same time developing promising new markets in Far Eastern tiger economies.
He lingers for a moment, and it is a signal, and both have the Sultan in mind. Colin asks some smart questions about Glotech finances, which seem stretched a bit tight for major expansion, but Liscio counters by painting the strength of Glotech's standing in the City and on Wall Street, hints at massive growth possibilities ahead, and waxes lyrical about future rewards.
He then moves on to more philosophical matters, sketching a future world of promise, in which comradeship, and energy, and sacrifice replace jealousy, and idleness, and greed.
"I have a word for it: I call it networking." Glotech's chairman leans back in his chair, and looks judicious, and puts the tips of his fingers together in a little tent. "Most people think short-term, and greedy. They focus on the ends of their noses, they get tunnel vision. I try to get everyone here at Glotech thinking together, keeping an eye on the people either side of them, and the people behind them as well as in front, helping the weak, supporting the strong."
Colin prompts with a murmur. "Teamwork?"
"More than a team." Liscio is far away, speaking as though to himself. "More like a family." He pauses, as though searching for words. "The family spirit, a sense of community, of sharing, makes a good family. A good family invests in family strength, maybe clubbing together to send a promising youngster to college, maybe pooling savings in a family business."
Colin thinks of Jane and her father and Sarah. "Maybe getting together to head off problems?"
Liscio's look is suddenly sharp. "Maybe that too - except businesses sometimes have to chop problems out."
"Families too." Colin's riposte is quick with feeling.
"Families?" Liscio smiles wryly. "Families have different routes. You can refuse to speak with another family member. You don't dig a grave."
"Families have divorces."
"Oh, yup, that too. But good families can read each other: they don't need to go so far."
Colin feels a bitter comment rising, but a door opens softly, and Baptiste is standing unobtrusively in the background. He glances at his watch, and realises that he has had just over an hour.
Liscio gets to his feet, the interview has run its course. He smiles at them both, and eyes his PR man. "I'd better get moving." A fresh smile for Colin. "Can you stay and eat with us?"
Colin beams. This is living: he has a starbright interview in the can, ace for building a rounded portrait with market-moving potential, somebody else is going to do his transcription, his wallet is well padded, and lunch is thrown in for free.
Relaxing with Glotech proves equally pleasing. Baptiste explains that Liscio is booked for a half hour transatlantic video link, hands Colin's tape to his secretary, and escorts Colin to an elegant managerial clubroom, all light cane furniture and pastel furnishings, with a glass wall providing a panoramic view out over a large ornamental lake. A pretty waitress in a tight black dress, with matching sheer black nylons and a starched white pinafore apron, deftly conjures up large aperitifs, whilst two chefs in the background busily assemble what seems destined to form a lavish buffet on two long tables.
A tall young man with the greyhound air of someone smart in the City, elegant in navyblue Savile Row suit, colour keyed dark blue silk tie and light blue shirt, with handmade black shoes polished to a glossy shine, arrives, and Baptiste introduces him as Mark Tyler, a merchant banker.
Tyler talks bids and deals, Baptiste smiles a great deal, and both men make Colin feel important. Then more men flow into the room and Baptiste presents them as Glotech directors and senior managers, though Colin judges them a touch colourless for the top management of one of Britain's major industrial empires, and the gathering collectively makes small talk for a few minutes. But somehow all is not well. The newcomers seem twitchy, and a space opens around a gnomish little man responsible for Glotech finances.
Tyler edges close to Colin. "We're coming up to feeding time." He grins, and it is a cruel little smile.
The clubroom door opens again, and Liscio comes in. Suddenly all the directors and managers are nervously alert. Glotech's chairman smiles graciously, and speaks to each in turn. But it is plain that he turns cool when he reaches Glotech's financial director, and the gnomish little man looks deeply unhappy.
"Money must still be a problem." Tyler's voice is a mere whisper in Colin's ear. "I think a purge is on the way."
Baptiste's 'tasty little buffet' is now impressive. A bevy of lobsters cluster behind a giant salmon mousse sculpted in pinkly fishy form, small mounds of caviar sail glistening black islands between overflowing silver salad bowls, and cascading slices of beef and pork lay a meaty patchwork enclosed by huge dishes of rice and potatoes, with the whole framed by a background of creamy gateaux and crystal bowls of fruit salad, plus a tempting array of breads and biscuits and cheeses.
The tables yawn with enough food to feed a small army, and expensive red and white clarets and burgundies flow in rivers. But it is plain that Glotech's financial director has lost his appetite, and the rest of the group's top team huddle away from him. Liscio eats and drinks very little, talking quietly with a couple of men in a corner, and then suddenly all three are gone, and the remaining Glotech directors and senior managers file nervously towards the clubroom door, with the group's financial director trailing behind them.
Baptiste stays for a moment, but his mind is obviously on other things, and soon he is gone as well. Tyler watches the door close behind him, carefully refills his glass, and arranges a selection of cheeses on a plate.
"You should try a bit of each of these." He beckons to Colin, engaged in swallowing the final spoonful of a particularly boozy helping of sherry trifle. They are alone in the clubroom, apart from a waitress clearing up debris, and Colin has a strange feeling that some secret drama is being played out beyond the clubroom door.
He watches Tyler fill a second glass, and glances at the door pointedly. "What's going on?"
"Werewolves." Tyler savours his wine, and looks pleased with himself. "Ordinary food in daylight, human flesh behind locked doors."
"That's your purge?"
"Nicco's purge." Tyler drains his glass appreciatively. "He likes beating the fear of God into them from time to time, it keeps them under control."
Colin is baffled. "Liscio?"
"The very same."
"But he's into networking and so on." Colin listens to his voice, and realises that he is slightly slurring his words, but it is not a concern. "He's one of the good guys."
"He's one of the hard guys." Tyler pours himself a third glass, and holds up the bottle, but Colin demurs: he is going to have to drive home. "Networking is like the KGB, eyes and ears in every wall."
"No team spirit?"
"Supporting the summit."
"Everything belongs to the boss."
"Nicco has the only knife."
Colin decides that just one more glass might just be in order. "But I'm supposed to paint him in glowing colours." Now his voice is clouded with an edge of bewilderment, and he has a suspicion, underlying the muzziness of the drink clouding his mind, that he may have been taken for a ride.
"He'll be grateful." Tyler smiles, and it is a hard little grimace. "He'll see you right with the Sultan - could be your lucky day."
Tyler's words are a key, probing at a lock, and the fuzziness in Colin's head swirls and opens, and he is on his guard.
The two men stare at each other, and Tyler shrugs imperceptibly. "It's no great secret. Both of them want to cut a deal, but they want to test the markets first. You've got the flag, I'll be watching the institutions."
"And the purge?"
"Nicco first thought he could grow on his own, and tried tapping the bond market. But he fucked Conran, his money man, about something rotten, and Conran got his timing wrong. They had to pull it."
"No help from the top?"
Tyler now laughs outright. "Nicco? Never. He never makes mistakes - Conran has to go."
"And the Sultan?"
"We've all got to pull together."
Colin's wine swells his bewilderment. "Pull?"
"Now Nicco's counting on the Sultan. They cut a deal, Glotech makes a bid, the Sultan gains world market status, and the Sultan's political pals stump up the cash." Tyler has the hungry look of a wolf scenting lamb. "They swap shares in the Sultan for shares in Nicco, and bankroll Nicco with government cash. It's going to be a real sweetie."
Colin's equanimity starts to recover. "Something for everyone?"
"Big, big bonuses." Tyler looks at Colin hard, and alcohol fades into the background. He holds out his hand, and they are sealing a bond. "Just let me know what Nicco adds to your transcript, and we'll mop up some of the long-dated Glotech traded calls on Monday, before the gang piles in."
"Oh, Christ." Colin suddenly remembers his promise to Twister. "I'm supposed to call Geneva right now. What do I tell them?"
Tyler smiles conspiratorially. "Tell them the best plums are still in the pie. Nicco will like that."
Colin is momentarily bewildered.
"Glotech tape everything that comes in, or goes out."
It is a fearsome thought, and Colin feels a chill twitch of alarm. His eyes swivel anxiously. "Hidden mikes?"
Tyler shakes his head scornfully. "Just phones. Mikes would cost too much."
Colin shivers. He is still a little unsure, and merchant bankers can rapidly metamorphose into blood-lusting sharks. "What about my neck?"
Tyler pats his shoulder, and it is an assurance. "We'll be running together, and I'm not the suicidal type." He raises a long forefinger to the side of his nose, and taps slowly. "We shall be truly crafty, just like Nicco. Rumour has it that his parents named him after Machiavelli. We shall watch him, and practise statecraft."
To Be Continued...
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