Extract: Middleman by Bill James

Chapter 1
Don’t, fucking don’t, call me a middleman, right?
But he did not say it. He was alone, eating obnoxious bran for fibre at the breakfast bar, thinking about his trade. Henrietta had gone upstairs to get ready for work.
Middleman – it was a smear. Always lately this tag made rage hot up in his head, but the rage stayed there, inside, mute. There had been a time when he did not mind the term, had even gloried in it. Not now. Those words – Don’t, fucking don’t, call me a middleman, right? – the words were obviously like a yell or hurt scream, but were only a thought. He could manage thoughts.
The bran had skimmed milk on. A middleman berth in business made you careful about what you actually said. You built a knack of talking to yourself, and shouting to yourself occasionally. He more or less finished the bran and then washed the bowl. He went up to their bedroom. Henrietta was sitting at the dressing table, doing her face. Corbett opened a wardrobe. There were a pair of these, both mahogany, Victorian and ugly but all right for the job. He would have to wear a suit and collar and tie today. He had a meeting at the Complex.
He knew Henrietta was watching him off and on in the looking glass. ‘Darling, Julian,’ she said. She paused from lipsticking, her hand near her mouth but held there momentarily. It was not a deliberate pose, he was almost sure of that, and yet all the lines of her body seemed right: there was a lovely potential energy, and somehow the suggestion that she wanted to protect him. And somehow, also, the suggestion of the bully. Always these seeming opposites. That was how a living, lively marriage had to be, perhaps. Or their marriage. He would not have it any different, could not visualise it any different. They would repeatedly come back to each other, no matter where their wanderings took them. The wanderings were only that – wanderings; silly, fleshly digressions, boredom digressions. Her arms and shoulders had some weight, but nothing unsightly. ‘I can always tell,’ she said.
‘What?’
‘When you’re seeing someone really mighty and frightening on business – if you let them be frightening, that is, and sometimes you do, don’t you, Julian? Nobody does it better.’
‘Does what better?’
‘Cower. But I know, I do know, Jule, it’s cowering in a good cause.’ She brought her hand down slowly to rest on the dressing table.
‘Oh, the suit and cufflinks.’ He laughed. ‘Yes, a uniform thing today. Sid likes that. Black lace-ups. Must blend.’
‘No,’ she said.
‘What?’
‘I didn’t mean just the outfit.’ He’d known this, but could do without a long tease from Henrietta. He’d have to go on with it now, though. ‘What then?’ he said.
‘Nervousness. Uptightness.’
‘I don’t think so, Hen.’
‘Terrified you’ll speak out of line to one of these boardroom ogres. Mr Middleman utters only what the client wants to hear.’
Don’t call me a fucking middleman. He didn’t say it, didn’t say it again. ‘I don’t think so, Hen.’ When he was in a power tussle with her he liked to stick to one calm, polite sentence as much as possible. It allowed no wavering and displayed assurance and control. It would put things right. She wanted them right as much as he did, but she had this need to show edge and this need to demolish him occasionally, in order to restore him – offer back his identity. That was Hen. He could be put off balance by her, but he also loved her for the clear way she saw things, and the hard way she could describe them. Yes, a true marriage had to be like this. ‘They know me,’ he said. ‘They know my work, they—’
‘Respect you?’
‘Respect me.’
She half turned to Corbett and for a moment her voice softened. He knew, knew, that she did not really want to squash him, not flat. Acumen was a thing of hers. From somewhere he had a notion that women with fattish upper arms were often awkwardly bright. Possibly she had suddenly remembered he could be killed if he made a mistake, or was considered to have made a mistake. And a lot of very harsh considering went on in the Complex boardroom. Henrietta might realise he was all she had as a fixture. Perhaps widowhood was a dread: the drag of an autopsy and some solitariness for at least a while.
But, oh, it amounted to more than all that – more than just those bleak, legalistic, graveyard things. She was tied to him emotionally as tightly as he was to her, yet she did not always let it show. She said: ‘I’d be so pleased for them to respect you, Jule. I’m not just scoring.’ He believed this. Of course he did. They had to prop each other. She swivelled back to the looking glass and resumed making-up.
He sometimes wished she would leave the cosmetics alone. In Corbett’s opinion she did not need all that. Her features were forceful and regular; yes, forceful but still altogether feminine, oh, marvellously feminine. Sometimes when he looked at her he was put in mind of Anjelica Huston, especially the way he had seen her lately in a television showing of Prizzi’s Honour-dark-haired, getting on for statuesque, a face with some sadness, some devilry, buckets of intelligence. He revered Hen’s eyes, when they were friendly to him. They were as dark as her hair and could be so lively and supportive and encouraging. He needed all that, could not need it more. Corbett believed he was unquestionably entitled to encouragement. At these friendly times he did not doubt she wanted him and only him. He lived for such fine spells with her. Hen was almost 5’11”. He adored her tallness. There was a natural grandeur to her: not bulk, but what he liked to think of as presence. In a crowded room, people noticed her at once.
Now and then, of course, that could be a foul nuisance: men noticed Hen, saw some of the things in her that Corbett saw, and wanted to possess them. She might respond. Or – he had to admit this – occasionally, she would even go looking herself. Corbett tried to put up with it. He did put up with it. As a breed, middlemen often faced trouble from their women. But Corbett was confident none of the men who briefly intruded on their marriage could ever understand her as he did, and he was confident she understood this too and would never go from him permanently, as he could never go from her. Corbett himself might do some looking about from time to time. It did not matter. None of this could really shake the basis of him and Hen.
She said: ‘Obviously, I know about some of what you’ve accomplished, Jule, and it’s brilliant. Unique. I mustn’t talk like a holy nincompoop.’
‘They appreciate absolutely what an entrepreneur does, Hen. They know nothing could happen without people like me. Sid above all appreciates that. The Complex.’
Although Corbett preferred to be known as this – an entrepreneur – or possibly consultant, or Liaison Associate (Sites and Development) – any of these rather than a fucking middleman – yes, although he liked those terms, he never came out and insisted on one of them to the kind of folk he frequently dealt with, people like Sid. Stupid to offend clients by acting touchy; clients on all sides. This was the normal discipline of any profession – not to upset the customer. Although some clients could eye through a balance sheet with genius and had a true business status, they also had a true savagery aspect, particularly those in the sort of commerce Corbett did most of lately. Fees were highest there, and prospects, and risks. He had never actually picked that kind of work, but that kind of work had sort of come to him because of his talents and he had not turned it away. This was why a few of them referred to him as a middleman. He was in the fucking middle, wasn’t he, and he could get trouble from any direction, all directions, and at the same time? If ever Corbett incorporated himself he would call the company No Man’s Fucking Land.
He fitted the cufflinks in a tailored blue-and-white striped shirt and put it on. There were drawers in the lower section of the wardrobe which ran beautifully and almost silently on old type craftsmanship and genuine wood. He admired first-class carpentry and good materials. They made high achievement in life seem routine. He knew they were not, or not until you’d already had some high achievements, when perhaps things did begin to get easier because you could put others to handle the tricky stuff: others like himself now. He loathed being named a middleman since middlemen had not much real self left, not much core to call their own, hardly any separate soul. Soul he valued, and he would take in a religious service at Bethel church now and then and sing the hymns at full volume. His father-in-law, Floyd, would be in the pulpit, frail and imperturbable. This was release for Corbett, but generally middlemen just thought their thoughts. They skipped about, bringing this big investor or developer and/or loot launderer to that big investor or developer and/or loot launderer, or an even bigger investor or developer and/or loot launderer, and helping them struggle and thresh and compromise to a kind of deal. The kind of deal was one that looked as though it might last a while. These were the conditions of progress.
Yes, although middleman might be a shitty name, in some ways it was spot-on. Middlemen had no home ground. They commuted facelessly between others’ territories trying to be trusted and positive and, above all, unblamed, and therefore unhurt, long term and short. It could be hard to stay unblamed long term. There might be moments when even Henrietta, despite all her brashness, saw this. Long term was sometimes very long term. A project that had looked good, and which you helped on with all your soft-pedalled intelligence, eventually turned rotten. This could be an age after and, now and then, when an ex-middleman’s body was found in the channel or a kiddies’ pleasure park, you might not remember which transaction this death and obvious previous beating or defacement or scorching were actually for. Think how it had been with Boris Lowndes. God, yes; remember what Boris looked like when they found him on the beach? Boris had apparently been doing something intermediary for one of the big interests, but had offended. Nobody knew how, and nobody was sure which big interest he’d upset or when. It might even have been Sid Hyson himself. Well, not might. Boris had been a damn gifted, tactful fixer with almost enough built up to retire on. That was how he had finished, though. In retirement, he had intended writing a history of the refrigerator worldwide and had already done plenty of research. The waste of such knowledge depressed Corbett.
From the collection of ties hanging on a brass hook in the wardrobe, he chose one with a silver background and a motif of small red shields. He would wear a navy, double-breasted suit. A uniform, as he’d said. He liked to think it brought a flash of sameness with his hirers. They wanted you to look acceptable. They had a right to expect that. For now, this was his aim above all: to be acceptable. Henrietta said cowed, but that was just mischief. She did have a mouth on her occasionally, and lipsticked it into quite a bit of prominence, Corbett thought sometimes. But with it she would entirely spontaneously, and often in extremely unexpected settings, suck his cock to completion, and it would be perverse to think badly of a mouth like that. In the past, Corbett had never bothered greatly about clothes but, as things improved, he had decided to kit himself out with a few bespoke suits and shirts and some expensive, subdued ties.
While he dressed he watched Henrietta. He loved to be alongside her in this way, occupied with very ordinary things. It did not matter that she could be sharp. Such tolerance and relaxation were marriage, in his view. He definitely doubted whether she could get anything similar elsewhere. It did not matter, either, that her work with the make-up was half a botch. This made her pitiable, more lovable. He adored the long straightness of her back and the confidence of her hands as she worked the cosmetics regardless. There was a lot of powder about but he could still smell her skin; a nice, warm roundness, hygiene, like a very clean food shop where most produce was pre-wrapped.
Of course, anyone in Corbett’s job was for ever liable to lose his woman. From close to, a wife or girlfriend saw her partner was nothing and might go looking for someone who did have a proper self and being and soul and, if possible, property, or its intense likelihood. Corbett had forced himself to treat this as understandable, although heavy with pain, and had welcomed Henrietta back twice after three- or four-week love wanders, staying silent about the tit bruises and new junk jewellery she’d insist on keeping, though he would offer to at least match this crap for value if Oxfammed. Christ, did Hen hang on in case she went back to who gave it, so he would remember her? Corbett had schooled himself to be patient and adult. Although she could give him terrible, enduring misery, there were also lovely pluses, and not merely sex: that would be shallow thinking.
He sat at the end of the bed to put on his shoes. His lace-ups were beautifully lightweight and narrow, with an interesting mottled pattern on the uppers. Always he felt nimble and ambitious wearing these. He aimed for some coup in his career that would really transform him and secure Henrietta properly. Continually he met persons who had changed themselves into solid figures through smartness, luck and the neat ability to down enemies for keeps – not just trivia like Boris Lowndes but really forceful, hellish competitors. These victors had to be his ultimate models. Buyable and blank and very quietly clever, middlemen scuttled between individuals of this sort who did possess a self and all the rest of it – who had made themselves individuals. They also had capital or, alternatively, illustrious, titanic debt and harsh, eternally increasing power: men like Sid Hyson, with his – what? – £l00 million Gloria Complex at the Bay, named after Sid’s beaky wife. Around that happy figure. The Complex included a shopping mall, hotel, helicopter port, nursing home, casino and huge indoor, domed botanic gardens, worth £40 million on its own – forty big ones for immigrant fucking vines! Botanic gardens would never earn their keep, of course, not even at £10 a ticket for entry, and Sid had collected enormous grants from the European Union sub-division whose brief was glasshouse trees and plants. He knew about grants. The hotel had been burned down once, just before completion; possibly arson. Sid had rebuilt. He used to speak of the hotel as costing £100 million itself, which was ludicrous. But he envisioned each part of the Complex as part of its essence and as integral to the total outlay. Sid thought in themes and schemes. He had a kind of dirty grandeur. He, personally, would not have seen to Boris. Things did not work like that. Sid had a rarefied side to him.
Maybe because of the powder cloud, Corbett sneezed and mucked up his tie. Henrietta saw in the looking glass and laughed outright, despite the layers of cosmetics. He did not mind. She had her problems to cope with. He could easily change his tie. He wanted her happy. Any sort of laugh was a help. It did not involve real venom. She swung around on the dressing table seat and undid his tie. ‘We’ll get the mark out, Jule, no bother,’ she said. ‘Wear the dark red one today – more assertive, but not foolishly defiant.’
‘What I’d thought, too,’ he replied. It was one of her favourite kinks, playing about with words like that. She might get it from her father. Floyd excelled at pulpit spiels. Corbett always felt excited by this skill in Hen. It was educated and indicated a kind of optimism and even innocence. She knew – well, clearly – she knew he routinely worked with people who would suddenly turn and have him crippled or slaughtered if they thought things were going the wrong way, yet Henrietta could talk as though the right tie was so vital, and not just the right tie but the right words for the flavour of the right tie. He might be nothing, but Hen was not. She had a whole structure of taste and values and civilisation to her. The lipsticking was a foul oddity, nothing more.
Henrietta had turned to the looking glass again now and, bending a little, he stroked her back through her silk jacket; long, slow moves. She seemed to enjoy these for a little while, pressing hard against his hand, so notifying Corbett of something fine and wonderfully special to him, he felt almost certain. These moments of oneness would come like this, now and then. He prized them and knew they mattered more than anything else in his life, if his life were viewed in general. He knew he was reaching her core and spirit through her shoulders and back in a way that nobody else ever had or would. They could not get the measure of Hen in three or four weeks. She was too much for that. Corbett felt bucked by her statement that she recognised his achievements. He had handled much of what was referred to as ‘mature period facilitating’ for the whole Gloria Complex and kept violence around the negotiations to nearly zero from at least that stage, except for the fire, which might be regarded as an act of God, or of anything up to forty people who hated Sid. He had never accused Corbett of neglect or complicity. Sid could be reasonable.
Authentic skills had been required to get the Complex approved. Most of the Bay development was unbreakably honest. So was the Bay Corporation. Alone, Sid would never have reached final selection with his grandiose sprawl of a scheme and its wonky, hall-of-mirrors finance. Corbett’s deep local knowledge of where the Bay possibilities were had turned out to be crucial, as it always did in such ploys. In fact, he realised he hated being called a middleman because he was one, and tops at it. He knew how to smile and how to agree, and how to propose vital little amendments or deletions without seeming to propose them, and how to be a slick nothing. Now and then, he told himself that being nothing was his prime flair. This was a kind of joke, but it was also something he spelled out in case Henrietta spat it at him on one of her fucking phrasy days. He wanted to get himself used to the poison and inured beforehand.
This flair helped him keep his best thoughts sealed off and only for the breakfast bar. This flair had let him take Henrietta back after her love saunters and act with kindness to her, as if what she had done when she was away was also nothing. He did not know who the men were, or whether, in fact, there was more than one. Often, Henrietta was a proud and niggling cow, but he revered her, depended on her, wanted to guard her skin and frame. She was the kind who did not realise she needed guarding. They needed it most, obviously. If he had peril, so did she. He would never let himself make her anxious, though, by stressing his fears and Sid and Gloria’s deep unpredictabilities. Someone who made up her lips in the dauntless way Hen did had an unassailable faith in her destiny. He would like her to keep that if she could. Corbett did not wish to change her. He regretted the unfaithfulness but recognised it was linked to her fine vivacity and courage.
When Sid Hyson spoke to him at the beginning of this morning’s special meeting at the hotel in the Gloria Complex, Corbett could not tell whether he had noticed his tie but hoped that, if Sid had, he would observe it was assertive though not foolishly defiant. ‘This is your town and your country, Jule, and I trust I’m not one who’d have the crudity to say a fucking thing against them, even given present circumstances,’ Hyson remarked.
‘I’m sure of that, Sid,’ Corbett replied.
‘And what else I would never want to say a word against is you, Jule. I’d like to be able to go on thinking of you as almost a kind of partner, despite everything.’
‘I try all I know to give a service, Sid.’
‘Everyone in this room, not just self, accepts you really believed in it, Jule.’
One of the other board people, Jacob or Marvin, said: ‘Oh, absolutely.’
Gloria said, ‘Hear, hear, Sidney.’
‘I think I can say I’d never take on a project I did not believe in,’ Corbett replied. ‘Couldn’t. Against all my instincts.’ Of course, by now he was almost dazed by fear, agonisingly shaken at the turnaround he felt coming in Sid’s words. Corbett knew flattery from someone like Sid had to be the run-up to evil. This was not a situation to be affected by a tie.
‘We want out, Jule,’ Hyson said.
‘I—’
‘Gloria and I want fucking out of Cardiff Bay. We’ll quit the development. Plus the rest of the board want it,
naturally.’
‘Sid, I—’
‘When I say “naturally”, I don’t mean the rest of the board want whatever I want just because I want it. Are they nobodies, Jule? They want it because they’ve done their own thinking and happen to agree with me.’
‘Certainly not nobodies, Sid,’ Corbett replied. He could teach a course on what made a nobody. He said: ‘Excuse me, Sid, but the Complex was so – so, well, central to you, to your thinking. Admirable. You saw it as an entity even before it fully existed.’
‘Gloria’s never felt the same since the fire. I don’t say you should have prevented that, Jule, although you’re of the area and hear the mutterings, but for Gloria this was an untidy experience.’
‘Out,’ she replied. ‘We haven’t decided this in haste. There’s a spread of factors.’ They were in the penthouse boardroom, which took about half the hotel’s top floor. There was no table. People sat in easy chairs or on the two settees. A modern drinks cabinet stood against one wall, genuine timber, not veneer. Silver-framed class photographs of what appeared to be a very scruffy primary school hung near the drinks cabinet. Corbett imagined Sid or Gloria or both must be in them, but there had never been an explanation and Corbett felt it might be best to wait for one. Were Sid and Gloria sweethearts from school days? Corbett admired relationships of that sort: so sure, so total.
‘Let’s talk water, shall we?’ Hyson said.
‘Anything, Sid,’ Corbett replied.
‘And Henrietta – how is she?’ Gloria asked. ‘We’ve both been impressed by her over the months, Sid and I. She’s a presence, that one. I don’t mean burly. Majestic. We think of her quite a bit.’
‘Impressed,’ Hyson said.
‘In her own right,’ Gloria said.
‘She’s great,’ Corbett replied.
‘Very much in her own right. I believe she’d see the point of our change of mind,’ Gloria said. ‘A shrewdness there, a feel for the future. You chose well when you chose Henrietta, Jule – looking beyond the superficial. Oh, she moves around a bit, I hear. That’s not fatal, though. Obviously. You still value her.’
‘Would you say someone doing your sort of work ought to know about water, Jule?’ Hyson asked. ‘This is local water I’m discussing. We come in from Berkshire, Gloria and I, and buy a stake here, but you, you’re a local boy, yes? One of your assets, all right? Son of the soil, yes? So, if you’re truly local you ought to know about water that’s local, is that fair?’
‘I—’
Gloria Hyson slapped her chair arm playfully. ‘But, all right, if Henrietta came sniffing and lipping around Sid himself, I expect all my tolerance and liberal instincts would disappear fast,’ she said, chuckling. ‘I’m sure you’re thinking that, and I can tell you you’re damn right, Jule. Sid’s very mine.’
Hyson stood up and beckoned Corbett to join him. Corbett had been sitting on a long, blue leather settee. He went to Hyson. Sid took Corbett’s arm in a sort of partner’s, or asylum nurse’s, grip and led him to the window that ran along the whole southern side of the penthouse. They looked down together on Cardiff Bay’s 500-acre gleaming lagoon and the curving barrage that separated it from the sea. A couple of small yachts dawdled across the lagoon. It was a concept and more than that now. Sunshine glinted on the botanic gardens. The prestige they brought was especially welcome in the Bay, even though they’d cost only half what the Eden glasshouses project in Cornwall had added up to.
‘You heard about this water?’ Hyson asked.
‘Beautiful,’ Corbett replied.
‘Beautiful’s certainly one word, I don’t deny. But a brochure word? You heard that some safety people – this is official safety people, qualified people – you heard they were anxious because this water could flood? You’re local, yes? You heard this? I don’t mean just this water, the lake, but too much sea water coming in through the barrage. You heard about the tides in the channel out there? Only one other place in the world with bigger tides. New to you? Have you thought about this fucking jolly tide getting itself together to smash my £100 million outlay? Well, £l00K as starters. More like £180K, even £200 million now.’
‘Certainly. It’s all been sorted, as I gather, Sid – the flood danger,’ Corbett replied.
‘So, you heard of it? Did you mention it to me, I wonder?’
‘This was denied as soon as—’
‘So, you heard of it?’
‘Very sensitive detectors in the sluices to make sure it won’t happen, Sid,’ Corbett replied. ‘And even if there was a failure, the whole thing can be done manually. The detectors are overridden by an operator and the level kept down. Called fail-safe.’
‘In many ways a personable and engaging woman, Henrietta,’ Gloria said. ‘A very unusual woman, not flimsy.’
Hyson said: ‘Am I right they have to keep the level below full because they’re scared what could happen if they go to max? You heard that, also, Jule? Tell me what you see over that way, by Windsor Esplanade. Are they mud flats?’
‘Only for the time being, Sid,’ Corbett replied. ‘In months it will be different.’
‘Those mud flats are supposed to be covered, aren’t they? That’s why they’ve got a lagoon, isn’t it? This is supposed to be a beautiful stretch of water all the way across. They used to have mud flats but they built this barrage and made this lagoon so the mud flats would always be under. Have I got that right? That’s why I wanted a site here, isn’t it? That’s why Rocco Forté put his St David’s Hotel where it is, over there, wavelets lapping pleasantly just outside. Sir Rocco and family, 85th in the Sunday Times list of British rich with £300 million. All right, only 85th, but people like that probably know what they want. This water is what’s referred to by planners as an amenity, Jule. Folk like to look out and see a fine stretch of water. Mud flats are not an amenity, except for ducks, which are admittedly part of nature but not a business factor.’
‘Oh, they’ll fill it properly very soon, Sid.’
‘Will they? And? What happens? I have a nursing home in this Complex. Forgotten that? You ever seen a nursing home flooded, Jule? These are the elderly and sick, willing to pay for a waterside setting to help their cure. This is first-class medical equipment. Resuscitation gear, all that. Not pennies and it won’t float. Have you thought what happens if it gets on TV about a nursing home flooded – rich, worthwhile, old people washed out to Steep Holm island in the night, their cries refined, desperate but unheard? Property values? Where the fuck are they then, Jule? I have this terrible ability for visualising disaster in detail. My father was the same. This channel can be callous. Do you recall that lad they recovered – like a Russian name?’
‘Lowndes. Boris Lowndes.’
‘Awful,’ Hyson replied. ‘Gratuitous was a word used a lot about his injuries and death. This is how water can be: ungovernable. It does not know the rules of behaviour. I’m with Prince Philip, Jule, about water, as about so much. He said he can’t sentimentalise the sea because he’s been a sailor. All he knows is that the sea is cold and dangerous, and I think of that opinion when I hear of someone like Boris.’
Hyson had on a very traditional, dark blue, pinstripe suit; double breasted, non-boxy shoulders, unvented, and not that lesser-breed, high-buttoned style chosen by loaded soccer players. He was handsome in a Scandinavian or German way, a bit beaky like Gloria, nose high-bridged and his cheek bones strong, short of flesh, persuasive. Corbett’s mother would have described Sid as aristocratic-looking. By this she meant contemptuous.
Gloria said: ‘I believe that with only normal good fortune, Henrietta will really excel. As a wife and so on. It might be possible to discourage the kind of man she goes to. After all, can they whistle when their teeth have been pushed down their throats? We don’t want to be thought of as deserting the area, Jule. This is a financial readjustment only. We know you’ll wish to help us unload in time and at a fair price.’
Corbett tried to keep his breathing steady and unostentatious; no gasping, nothing tremulous. After all, they were handing him just a minor chore, really, weren’t they: simply locate some fucker with around £200 million on call, and find him fast? Then, after this formality, persuade him that Sid and Gloria were not on their way out because they feared for their money, but because… because what? Because they had decided from good nature to offer the market a bargain. So credible. Oh, Christ. And yet…. and yet what?
When Lowndes was found on the pebbles at Lavernock, he had no eyebrows and hardly any hair left – little face left, either – the whole area blackened by burning, not salt water. Lavernock was a distinguished spot, even before Boris appeared there: Marconi did his first radio communication over the sea from Lavernock Point. Boris Lowndes was another kind of communication. It was aimed at people like Corbett – middlemen. The state of him said: No errors, please. It said: Buy for me, or Sell for me, and, Do it spot-on right. Now it said: Sell for me. What did she mean about Henrietta’s men?
Corbett said: ‘If you’re determined, Gloria, I’ll—’
‘Determined,’ she replied.
‘There’s the usual fee plus – plus, Jule – one per cent of anything you get over the hundred and eighty mill,’ Sid Hyson said. ‘This could be retirement money.’
‘Heavy enough to anchor even Henrietta for you,’ Gloria said.
Boris Lowndes had had his retirement money piled and his refrigeration history nicely planned out. Fair price? What would Sid and Gloria really settle for to sell a thus far waterproof Complex? Were the banks leaning on Sid? They would have heard of the sluice scare, too. It made the national press and television. Communication had sharpened up since Marconi. Some of the banks Sid borrowed from were not main street and might be jumpy. Sid and Gloria appeared well ahead of Sir Rocco in the Sunday Times list of the British wealthy, but did the list concentrate on apparent assets and not know in full about debts? Was there interest as well as capital to be taken care of by the sale? Did Sid need £180 million, £220 million? And yet… and yet what?
And yet, one per cent of that extra £40 million would be £400,000. This, added to the standard half a per cent on the original £180 million, would take Corbett’s commission to £1,300,000 if he could work something. Amounts like these had to be studied, and given at least as much weight as Boris washed ashore. Such earnings carried solidity and character with them. They might grip Henrietta, as Gloria suggested. Such earnings, such possibilities, were what made entrepreneuring potentially a magnificent, unique game; yes, even if it were called – by the coarse and ignorant – ‘middlemanning’. These were the kind of fees that could mark the end of someone’s status as a faceless nothing. Who asked a nothing to look after, on his own, a deal that might touch £200 million? Plus?
Hyson said: ‘This Complex has my wife’s name on it: the Gloria Complex. Does she want her… well, image… does she want her image tied up with a cruel fucking disaster like flooding, or this comical Welsh Assembly they’ve built close to the Complex with all its wacky people and little, parish rumpuses? They’ve messed up what was a sparkling ambience. Oh, look, regard anything we can do to contain Henrietta’s heat and straying merely as a gift, Jule, an extra, thrown in. We’d like to see you comfortable. We need to have you comfortable and able to concentrate on our bit of business. What do you think’s going to happen to property prices when people outside hear about this water and hear more about this fuckwit Welsh Assembly in its building going up there bold as buggery, farcifying the whole Bay with its splutters and yelps?’ He pointed. ‘You ever tried to sell a place that no insurance company will consider because of flood risks? This scheme used to look like the 21st century. Soon they might need divers to find it. I adore the notion of Atlantis, Jule, but not if I’m paying. Assembly members up to their belly buttons in creeping Bristol Channel. The Welsh are a short-legged people. Over some of their heads.’
‘I’m assured the lake’s entirely under control, Sid.’
‘You’ve asked, have you? Why? You were bothered? Did you mention to me or Gloria you were bothered? But you might have been preoccupied with Henrietta and all that. This is what I mean, Jule – assistance there, to stop her sex- questing. Don’t misunderstand. I consider it normal for a man, any man, to be concerned about his wife if she’s banging someone else, or more than one.’
‘Sidney’s spoken to me about it with grief,’ Gloria said.
‘Certainly,’ Hyson replied. ‘Flood worries from far back, Jule. I knew about those, of course. The water table. You know about the water table, Jule? This is people not necessarily in the Bay at all, but waking up one day somewhere in Cardiff with tributaries of the lagoon in their cellars or drawing rooms. This is the water table. It means that under the ground there’s buckets and buckets of water, but not like buckets, like a table. Now, if you put something on top of a table, say a box or garments, the top of what you put on there is higher than the table. Likewise, Jules, if you put water, such as a lagoon, on top of the water table, the water you put on there gets higher than the water table. So – those early worries. I gambled that would be all right. But now this as well – the channel ready to bulldoze through the barrage sluices and fuck up the Complex, victimise me and, so much more important, Gloria herself. I’d regard that as akin to rape. In the past I’ve always spoken well about your loyalty, Jule. “Jule is integrity.” That’s what I used to say, and was proud to say it. Many have heard me say it. A mantra. First class for your CV.’
‘I’ve heard it. We would both praise you unstintingly,’ Gloria said. ‘We’ve undoubtedly been prepared to regard you as an asset, Jule, and Henrietta, despite the occasional wobble. Very correctable, believe me, Jule.’
Hyson said: ‘Have you had a look at the botanic gardens at ground level, Jule? These are splendid, splendid constructions, thought up by a genuine architect that Gloria chose personally, who’s in total harmony with leaves, branches, growth and useful insects, but in some ways the framework is frail. That’s part of the beauty, this frailty. It’s to symbolise man’s brave but fragile attempts to create soaring beauty in a harsh world, like a filmy dress on a lovely model. Think of the sea banging through there, flotsam and refuse cascading, knocking stanchions. All right, not necessarily final. So, say it’s repaired and restocked with rare plants from Botswana and Mexico, and it all happens again. Get us a buyer, Jule. Right? It’s on you to arrange it. This is a real prestige site while they keep the water out. Unmatchable. Real. A gift at anywhere around £200 million in today’s prices.’
Corbett said: ‘Sid – your anxieties: I can swear none of this will—’
‘We’re keen to turn to another kind of investment,’ Gloria said. ‘Internet companies. Still promising despite a setback now and then. We feel our funds have been misplaced. This Bay scheme looked like something fine for the future, as Sidney says, but then …. Oh, I don’t know – the gleam has gone – a whiff of catastrophe, an inescapable odour of clownishness, a stink of failure. So destructive of values. There’s got to be a different kind of prospect for us. As Sidney also said, we know, absolutely know, that your motives were good, Jule, in bringing us here and sewing us so tightly into it. Yes, motives almost certainly good, Jule, and we’re pretty sure you were not acting for any other interests. We’re definitely prepared to believe that middlemanning has its ethics. We’re never going to accuse you of playing for two sides or more at once, I’m nearly certain of that.’ Wearing an amber, roll-top sweater and stone-coloured cotton skirt, she sat very erect in the middle of a long, beige settee. She gazed at Corbett with something like considerateness. He was grateful for that. Gloria would be about sixty, probably a little older than Sid.
‘A buyer, Jule, before it all happens and while it’s still insured and insurable,’ Hyson said.
‘For the botanic gardens?’
‘The Complex,’ Hyson replied. ‘Toto. The whole fucking plateful. Think of flooding in a gambling centre, for God’s sake. I’ve never been in a casino under water, I’ll admit, but it’s clear that if you’ve got a drowned casino there’s going to be a total change of mood from when it was not drowned. There’d be less gaiety and sang-froid among punters. I worship this view, Jule, worship it.’ He waved one hand in a lingering semicircle, encompassing the lagoon. ‘I worship coasts and headlands. Those would be suitable words on my gravestone: Sidney Hyson – Coasts and headlands were dear to him. And, of course, I love Wales. I’m famed for that. Oh, absolutely. That dragon on the flag. Symbolic, or am I wrong? Just get us out of this fucking trap, will you, Jule? I haven’t time to be brought into the early negotiations myself. I’m going to be abroad quite a bit with Gloria so I’ll ask Marvin and Jacob to handle all that – I mean handle it with you, of course, Jule. It would be nice if you could report to them, say, twice a week. That suit you, Marv, Jacob?’ They nodded. Hyson went back to his armchair and Corbett returned to the blue settee. ‘That suit you, Jule? Twice a week? I don’t think it needs to be oftener, not at this stage. Let them know your progress, sift and sort the bids. All right, Jule? I don’t want you to think of Marv and Jacob as nothing more than heavies.’
‘Hardly,’ Corbett replied.
‘These are valid members of the board, fully accredited directors. They’re documented in Companies House.’
Marv, in another armchair, nodded a couple of times again, but more slowly, to get some gravity.
Corbett said: ‘What—?’
‘Timescale?’ Hyson replied. ‘Soonest. The thing about tides and sluices – uncertainties involved, Jule. OK, there are tide tables in the paper and it all looks spot-on to the minute, but when you think of tides and sluices together, this is where the imponderables start. We don’t want to hang about. We don’t want to get caught. You wouldn’t wish to be pinpointed as responsible for something like that, Gloria and I are certain of it. What I mean is that, having got us into this fucking dump, you’ll see it as a real and urgent duty to get us out of it. But I’ve told Marv and Jacob, no thug pressure on you, Jule, nothing… nothing… well, gross… haven’t I, boys?’ Marv and Jacob nodded instantly.
‘Thanks, Sid,’ Corbett replied.
‘They know how we esteem you, Jule,’ Gloria said.
‘Thank you, Gloria,’ Corbett replied.
‘And I’m sure they esteem you themselves,’ Gloria said. Marv and Jacob nodded instantly again.
‘Thanks, Marv; thanks, Jacob,’ Corbett replied.
‘They know, as well as Gloria and I know, that if you fuck up on this, Jule – if you are, say, less than committed or slow or can’t get our price – anything like that and they know their future is fucked up as much as mine and Gloria’s,’ Hyson said. ‘That’s what Gloria means when she says they esteem you – you and your fine missus, Henrietta, in the background and variable, yet so lovely – they esteem you and would therefore be unbearably disappointed in you if you fucked up, Jule. I expect you’ve still got a whole list of people with funds who wanted to get in here and had to be refused. It will only be a matter of returning to some of them and saying it’s a sweetly going concern now with brilliant appreciation, not just a scheme, and that you might be able to fix a deal for them. And then you start your auction, easing up the price to something in keeping. Marv and Jacob will be ready to advise on that – the level. Upwards of, say, that £180 mill. we mentioned.’
‘Marv has done some research on at least the last man Henrietta slipped away to,’ Gloria said.
‘And the previous,’ Marvin said.
‘There you are, then, Jule,’ Gloria said.
‘It’s all right now, Henrietta and me,’ Corbett replied. ‘No need for—’
‘Research carried out in an entirely discreet fashion,’ Gloria said. ‘This is Marv’s forté.’
‘Entirely,’ Marvin said.
‘Secrecy,’ Hyson said.
Corbett said: ‘Regarding the—?’
‘That we’re selling?’ Hyson replied.
‘Certainly,’ Corbett said.
‘This information gets out, what happens to the price? The Complex suddenly on the market is enough to knock confidence, destabilise the whole Bay project,’ Hyson said. ‘Like unloading a ton of shares. Especially if you take it alongside Fred Karno’s Welsh Assembly.’
‘It would be an added reason for feeling bonded to us and giving us your best if we can do something about men who treat Henrietta like a come-hither-love-to-me slag,’ Gloria said.
‘I do feel bonded to you already,’ Corbett replied. ‘I hope there’s never been any reason for you to think differently. And I’ll act for you now as I always have – wholeheartedly.’
‘Taking advantage of you, men like that,’ Gloria said. ‘Sidney and I can’t watch you being degraded in such a fashion, Jule. We’d like you to be able to look after our business without the distraction of your wife’s fits of “Take me, do.”’
‘It’s resolved now, it really is,’ Corbett replied.
‘Marv has at least the one man’s timetable and habits in remarkable fullness, should it come to a finalising interception and so on. I’ve glanced at the notes, mapping and photographs,’ Gloria said. ‘But we all know Marv to be like that, thorough, don’t we?’
‘And the previous one,’ Marvin said. ‘Educated. She might be fascinated by that. Women can be, I’ve heard. Affections may be back-burnered and then reactivated. It’s wisest to know about more than the immediate. Two shafters given a really bad time by us would be more than twice as effective as one. It shows seriousness.’
‘Think of it merely as a gift, Jule, if Marv does decide to intervene for you,’ Gloria said. ‘Oh, of course, we know we don’t have to purchase your gratitude by helping with your marriage. That would be damn presumptuous. Your gratitude is there anyway, a constant, and much appreciated, be assured. This would be just a kindness to a colleague, to a friend.’
‘Confidentiality absolutely vital,’ Hyson said. ‘Not just a matter of preserving values. If it got around that the board were losing faith in the project here, I could be in some peril. I mean, in person. People might think: Knock Sid Hyson over – I mean Sid in person – remove him, and what’s left? What’s left is Gloria, obviously, and the rest of the board – that’s Marv and Jacob. They’re all keen on the Bay, clearly, but the report would be around that they’ve grown uncertain about things here. Probably not so for me, yet. I, personally, am known as the one who was most strongly committed – my personal, intense love of the Bay and things Welsh in general. The dragon. Wipe me out and the value of the Complex crashes. Someone could take a pop.’
‘Oh, don’t talk like this, Sidney, don’t, don’t,’ Gloria cried. ‘Your death – as if it were just a commercial matter.’
‘It would be a commercial matter,’ Hyson replied.
‘That’s only a marginal concern. It would be you, you, Sidney,’ Gloria said, ‘a husband, a friend.’
‘I’m handing you something tricky, I know that, Jule,’ Hyson said. ‘How do you sell and yet keep things quiet at the same time? Someone has to know we’re selling, obviously, or where do the bids come from? But restricted, Jule, please. No general talk. That’s why we’re using you instead of property agents. And why we feel that a percentage for you shouldn’t be the only reward. No, indeed. So, Marv and Jacob have been looking at these warm rambles of Henrietta’s on your behalf.’
‘Sid, honestly not necessary.’
‘You value that woman,’ Hyson replied. ‘This weakens you.’
‘Sid, if one of these men got… well, got badly hurt… or… got really badly hurt… the police are going to start sniffing around and they’ll come up with Henrietta, most probably, especially if both men were done. This would be pretty conclusive, wouldn’t it? She’d be the unifying factor. So, who are they going to suspect? You see where it leads, Sid?’
Marv laughed. Jacob laughed a few seconds after him. ‘They’re going to think you’ve killed someone? That what you’re saying?’ Marv asked. ‘You? Or even two? Pardon me, Jule, but you don’t look to me like a crime-of-passion lad.’
‘Not the least cause for anyone to be killed,’ Corbett replied.
‘This would have an impact on Henrietta, you see, Jule,’ Gloria said. ‘She’d be impressed and, yes… impressed and a little afraid. No harm. She’d see you so differently. You become someone who does care and will ruthlessly act from jealousy, possessiveness. I think you’d find she’d cling much more willingly after this kind of signal; those sweet, considerable arms around you, rapturously. Obviously, she’s not going to know it wasn’t you who annihilated them. Marv’s not going to broadcast who actually did it. She’d admire the way you had identified them and then… then pushed things to a conclusion. Ignore Marv’s slur that nobody could think of you as a killer, Jule. She would, because she wants to.’
‘So, it’s important only to talk to interests where there’s a likelihood of a bid, Jule,’ Hyson said. ‘Interests like that won’t want to blab because it could bring competitors in. But, do I need to explain this? You’re a brilliant star in these things, Jule. We’re damn lucky to have you. I feel relieved at being able to hand it over to you and at knowing you’ll be able to focus, because your sex angsts will be removed.’

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About Bill James

Also by Bill James (published by The Do-Not Press)
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