No Future Ch. 35bybradley_stoke©
Despite having spent a great deal of the millionaire's money on projects related to the online world of Virtual Reality, or perhaps because of that, Eden's request to meet him in his Mayfair house was filling Alex with dread. Although he'd worked hard at the hopeless task of making a success of his poorly specified role, he was acutely aware of who it was who would make the final assessment of the project's worth.
Eden's London home was very impressive. Berkeley Square was surely one of the most exclusive addresses in London, perhaps in the whole of the United Kingdom. It was a grand house in a grand square and everything adjacent to it, near it and what could be seen through the front door when it opened was also grand.
"You must be Alan," said the tall gentleman in a smart suit who opened the door. He was about Alex's age but dressed as if he belonged to a much older generation. "I'm afraid Mr St. John-Easton isn't in. However, I'm sure I can be of help. My name is Theo."
"Good afternoon, Theo," said Alex who was actually rather relieved that Eden wasn't at home. "Where is Mr St. John-Easton?"
"Not in the UK, sir," said Theo. "I daresay he's probably in Florida by now. Mr St. John-Easton is quite the globetrotter. However, please come in, Alan."
"Thank you," said Alex as he passed through the threshold into the hallway and passed by some paintings that he believed might have been painted by William Hogarth and were therefore priceless. However, as Alex wasn't especially knowledgeable on eighteenth century painters, the painter could well have been someone else and the painting therefore not nearly as valuable.
"In the living room, sir," said Theo as he directed Alex towards a room that was several times larger than it needed to be. It resembled more a room in a stately home managed by the National Trust than any room he'd ever been invited into before. Alex nervously sat down on the fresh new leather upholstery of a chair that was probably as old as the paintings. He looked around him. The centrepiece of the room was an imposing chimney place decorated by antique tiles. Portraits of grand dignitaries glared disapprovingly down on him. As they mostly seemed to have been painted within the last century they were probably all Eden's ancestors. Paul noticed with interest that the men portrayed weren't nearly as short in stature as the present master of the house.
"I'm confident that Mr St. John-Easton would convey his apologies to you for not being here," said Theo, "but if it's any consolation he very rarely keeps any appointment he's made. More often than not I have to stand in for him as I am doing now. Do you know why he asked you here, Alan?"
"No. Not really," said Alex nervously.
"Well, he did ask me to find out whether the work you've been doing on Virtual Reality is going well and that his ideas are being put into practice. I take it that I can reassure him on these concerns?"
"Yes, of course," said Alex.
"That is, I take it, what you are engaged in at Reuters-Fox? Virtual Reality. The kind of thing that involves wearing headsets."
"Yes, it is."
"Have you any idea how that in any way materially furthers Mr St. John-Easton's interests? He doesn't usually take much interest in computers or anything like that. It's quite unlike him to use a touch screen for anything but the simplest application. What could possibly have given him the idea that his business might be in any way served by investing in Virtual Reality?"
"It was him who asked me to get more involved," said Alex.
"I'm sure he did, Alan. And why might that be? Could it have anything to do with, for instance, his wife, Zara?"
Alex was shocked by the insinuation. What did this man know? "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I gather that you and Zara have been quite regular drinking partners at the Zenith for quite a while now. Don't worry about how I know this. Although Mr St. John-Easton takes very little notice of the information his security staff gather of activities that might affect his welfare, I've always maintained a very keen interest. It is imperative that I am better informed of such matters than anyone if I am to provide the quality of service Mr St. John-Easton expects."
"The ability to anticipate Mr St. John-Easton's needs requires a great deal of research. As you would expect, the welfare of his wife and her drinking habits are amongst the matters to which I pay considerable attention. I am also, of course, interested about any activity associated with Zara that might be useful to know should there ever be a time that her lawyers might threaten to make disagreeable allegations in a court of law. Mr St. John-Easton isn't aware of my curiosity in these matters, but he will very grateful for it if, for example, there should ever be divorce proceedings. On the other hand, Alan, I think you can be consoled by the fact that the evidence suggests that you have been quite the gentleman. And this despite several instances of rather unsubtle coaxing. You're a married man, aren't you?"
"Isobel, isn't it? And your wife is pregnant, I believe. A boy or a girl?"
"We chose not to find out."
"Very foolish, Alan. It means you have to think up about twice the number of names for your child than you might have done otherwise. You could go for Leslie or Sandy, I suppose. Useful for either sex."
"I'm sure it is," said Alex who was beginning to get irritated by this line of Theo's questioning.
"Although I have to look out for the welfare of both Mr St. John-Easton and his wife, you must be aware that it is the husband's interests that are of primary concern to me. It is he who pays my salary. I would say that your relationship with Zara is rather more as a drinking companion than as a fuck buddy. And as such you've had a longer and rather more successful relationship with her than the many other men whose details have been amassed. You've been very sensible not to push your luck. The vagueness and even vacuousness of this business with Virtual Reality is surely something that Zara would dream up than would a man like you who is steadily pulling himself up the slippery pole of middle management. Zara knows even less about computers than Mr St. John-Easton, but she knows how to press his buttons. I may not be a businessman but I can see that there is very little likelihood of a return on investment from any of the enterprises you're involved in. Does this trouble you at all, Alan?"
"I don't quite know what you're getting at."
"My guess is that Mr St. John-Easton believes that there is some propaganda value in having a presence in the VR space. However, unlike my employer, I've done some independent research into this strange world. Porn, hobbits, twentieth century science-fiction movies, celebrities and trivia: none of these are likely to be much use to Mr St. John-Easton in his evangelical crusade to convert a nation of complacent fools to the promised land of low taxation and lucrative business opportunities. His investments elsewhere are likely to do rather better than this little niche. Wouldn't you agree, Alan?"
"I guess so," said Alex.
"However, my belief is that Mr St. John-Easton is more concerned to be seen to be doing something that can be perceived as forward-looking and dynamic than of turning around much of a profit or, indeed, of having a great deal of influence. I hope that your project will at least fulfil those criteria."
"We have invested great talent into the enterprise."
"Make sure that it is easy enough for someone like Zara to use and for Mr St. John-Easton to appreciate. It is in my interest to keep my employer contented—and in yours to keep your job—that your project is not perceived to be a total waste of money. Nevertheless, there must be several people at Reuters-Fox UK who'd be happy to see your endeavours fail: especially those in slightly more junior positions than you. There must be others who wonder how you've managed to be lavished with so many resources when other projects have been downgraded or axed. You're in a precarious position, are you not, Alan?"
Alex nodded. Political infighting was what dominated most hours of every day and about which he spent most time agonising.
"What you might not be aware of is that Mr St. John-Easton is in the process of acquiring an internet content company: you know, one of those that provide the content for websites that deal with Virtual Reality, online gaming, news gathering, blogging, apps, and so on. This is a growing niche at the moment with plenty of job opportunities. I expect that once he's acquired the company my employer will want to move his own people onto the management board. Anyone fortunate enough to secure such a position is likely to find it a rather less challenging role than your present one. The main objective would be to keep the company's activities in line with what Mr St. John-Easton believes they should be. That would make such a role somewhat unpopular with the current board but it would be associated with very generous remuneration. I don't know if you've ever considered a move away from news media, have you?"
"No, I haven't," said Alex, who wasn't sure if he was hearing right. Was he being offered a lucrative job with virtually no responsibilities merely on the basis of his friendship with Zara?
"Obviously I am in no official position, Alan," said Theo with a reassuring smile. "What happens is totally out of my hands. Even so, what I suggest you do is focus even more assiduously on your current VR projects. Mr St. John-Easton likes to be kept informed, but he never has the time to focus on details. The waffle you provide his office on a regular basis is exactly what he wants, though I suggest you put rather more emphasis on the project providing online content that can be sold to other businesses. I also suggest you take every opportunity, even more than you do at present, to fan Mr St. John-Easton's passions. You know what he likes to see promoted, don't you?"
"Business. Britain. Low taxation. Roll back intrusive government. I think so."
"You don't have to actually believe what Mr St. John-Easton advocates. In fact, I think a healthy dose of scepticism would probably be more in order than any swivel-eyed evangelism. Just make sure that at least one of the bullet points in his agenda is covered in your reports. Clearly there's not much scope for promoting an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union or anti-layabout agenda. Especially not the last, as I suspect a very high proportion of the people who frequent VR websites are out of work, especially since last year's collapse of the banking system and the housing market. But you should have some success in promoting decentralisation from government and consolidation around already thriving multinational corporations. Keep a list handy of Mr St. John-Easton's principal business ventures and ensure that that you emphasis the benefits of cross-market synergy in your reports. That's something my employer has been particularly keen on since he bought all those collapsing banks in America like CitiGroup and JP Morgan."
"I see," said Alex who was still flabbergasted by this truly peculiar conversation. Was Theo being too candid or was he just being attentive to his employer's interests.
"Well, it's been good to see you, Alan," said Theo who stood up to signal that their interview was over. "I hope all is well with your wife and that you will soon be blessed with a bouncing boy or girl."
"Thank you," said Alex who was more or less hurrying towards the front door where he might at last pause and gather together his thoughts.
"I'm sure Mr St. John-Easton has no objection to you accompanying his wife to the Zenith for the moment," said Theo as they stood at the open door. "However, it is, as I'm sure you appreciate, a very delicate matter. I won't be surprised if my employer's tolerance towards his wife's flirtations begins to strain in the next few months. At the moment, as you might be aware, Zara is expecting."
"No, I didn't know," said Alex in surprise.
"Well, it is nearly a month since the two of you last met," said Theo thoughtfully. "It might be well not to be around when Zara next comes to your office. Perhaps you should arrange your working hours so that you're less likely to be there late in the evening. I'm sure Isobel would be very pleased to see more of her husband now that, like Zara, she too is expecting. In my experience, it's a very hazardous time in a couple's relationship when a new member of the family is born. There could be very serious repercussions if Zara's child isn't from the same genetic heritage as her husband. You want to be as far from the firing line as you possibly can. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," said Alex as he nodded his head. "Perfectly."