Acquisitions - a Marshall, Carter & Dark Tale Act I
rating: +139+x

Chapter One: "Jellybeans"

The last will and testament of Bernard Gradley

So, I'm gone. You're sitting there in dear old Mr Pierce's office, waiting for the big news. The only question in your minds is, how is this all going to work? Old Bernard's company must be worth a few bob. More than a few. I'll tell you, it's forty million. It'll be sold on to the Japanese or the Chinese or whoever the hell else is buying Britain by the time I snuff it and then you can go and get your places in the sun and never have to worry about where the money's coming from again. But are there strings attached? That's what you're asking. Beatrycze, you're wondering whether you're going to have to go cap-in-hand to Edward because I've left everything to him. And Edward's wondering if it's all going to be stuck in some tiresome trust until he turns thirty or forty or whatever.

Well, that's not how this is going to happen. You can hate me all you want, because I'm dead, but I've thought a long time about what to do and this is the only course of action I can take and still hold true to the values that made me the man I am, or rather, the man I was. Beatrycze, I'm not going to pretend that you loved me while we were together. At best I was a nuisance standing between you and my money. I don't think it even occurred to you that you would have nothing had I not behaved the way I did—you wanted the great industrialist and the great family man, and I couldn't be both. The gifts I gave you were never good enough—too large, or too small, or last year's fashion. So here's what I'm leaving you—five hundred quid’s worth of crisp M&S vouchers. Have one last splurge on me, dear, and this time you can make sure it's right.

And Edward. You've made me proud—and you've also made me disappointed. Everything you've excelled in you've dropped out of—the chess, art, music. Now it's philosophy, which I'm sure will be just as temporary. Guess it just seemed like too much hard work with a life of leisure ahead. I'm sorry that you've ended up thinking that way—I take the blame for that. And I'm sorry if I let you believe that you'd never have to work a day in your life. That's not going to be true. If you want to be rich, you have the intelligence and the talent to achieve it. You could be a philosopher, you could be anything. But you'll have to do it by yourself. You'll have to get your hands dirty, like I did. To my son, Edward, I leave nothing.

Gradley Industries, my child, my prize, I leave to Gerald Spointer, who I know will continue his sterling work in the role of Chief Executive Officer…

Edward Gradley swore softly as he eased the Vauxhall Astra around yet another one of the serpentine parking bays in Cooper Drake's gargantuan car park. All full, of course. He squinted at his watch. Eleven forty. Five minutes to find a spot, get out, run what seemed like two miles to the front door of the CD head office, check in, and get to his interview. He ran a hand through short dark hair. Calm down.

Another painfully tight corner, maneuvering around bollards which seemed to have been designed for a Segway. And there it was, sitting invitingly between a black Cadillac and a lovingly maintained Bentley. A space! Edward gave thanks to a god he didn't believe in and pulled towards it hard. The Astra ramped over a speed bump and promptly stalled. Edward dutifully put his indicator on while he shifted out of gear, which didn't seem to bother the silver Mercedes which cruised effortlessly past, executed a distinctly cavalier three-point turn that almost claimed Edward's wing mirror and reversed into the spot. Its occupant, a neatly folded and pressed sixty-something in an expensive suit with incongruously gelled grey hair got out and raised an eyebrow in the direction of Edward, whose pale skin was turning vermillion.

"Some problem there, young man?" He adjusted his tie, bared his teeth and examined the result in the window of his car.

"Yes, actually, you prick," Edward said, a few dozen decibels too loud. "Didn't you see I was pulling into that space? I had my indicator on and everything! Plus, you almost hit me!"

"Is that so? Well, 'almost' never needs apologies. Besides, how do you know this isn't my space?"

Edward fell silent for a second as something small at the back of his mind tried to draw a conclusion from that and didn't like it.

"I didn't see a name on it," he said, at significantly reduced volume but still carrying a boom that made the little voice cringe.

"You're right! My word," said the older man, winking at him before walking towards the offices. "Must be I just like to screw with people."

"Wanker!" shouted Edward after him in a moment of catharsis before realising that the whole exchange had cost him close to a minute.

Edward finally arrived in the Cooper Drake reception at eleven forty-six and thirty seconds, trembling and breathless. The secretary gave him a sympathetic glance before passing him a series of forms and a viciously sharp name badge, which he just about managed to get pinned to his suit (thirty-five pounds from Matalan) without goring himself.

"Edward! How are you doing?" Edward jumped and turned to see a short, stocky young man about his own age grinning up at him.

"Erm, hi."

"How are things with the—oh, you know, the…" The over-familiar stranger patted Edward on the arm, rolling his eyes in what was apparently meant to be a gesture of solidarity.

"Terribly sorry, but this is going to seem awfully rude. Do I know you from somewhere?"

"Nope! It's David. David Went." He held out an immaculately manicured hand, wrist graced by a Rolex. "Don't mind my introductions, I always like to see how people react. You've passed the first test, by the way. I always tell Peter not to hire people who try to bullshit by pretending they remember me. Or if they tell me to go away, of course. I'm lead Partner for Stocks and Shares, so I get to sit on all Peter's interviews. That's Peter Davis, by the way. He'll be your line manager. So, let's get you introduced!"

This process first required a lengthy trek through the halls of power. Cooper Drake wasn't anywhere near as old or established as Redmayne–Bracknell, Edward's previous firm, but it made a bigger return on almost every investment it made and was widely seen as the uncrowned king of the British investment portfolios. There had certainly been an attempt to create the impression of old money, thought Edward, looking at the rich, slightly worn dark green leather seats in the consultancy area and the lacquered wood finish on the walls, adorned with a dizzying array of digital and analogue clocks displaying the time in New York, Moscow, Beijing…

Finally Edward was ushered through into a comparatively small office with a polished oak desk. At its head was a bored-looking ponytail in Raybans, probably no more than thirty himself. He was toying with a half-eaten sushi box while trying hard to appear absorbed in a slim document file.

"Peter! Meet Ed—can we call him Ed?" Edward nodded mutely, knuckles white on his slightly battered travel case. "Great. Come on, let's get sat down and we can have a chat."

Peter Davis removed his shades and seemed to see the document in front of him for the first time. "So, Edward," he drawled, ignoring David's suggested nomenclature. Edward thought the man sounded like Nigel Mansell after a few dozen pints. "Edward Gradley. Now, I look at that, and I think—any relation? To, you know, erm—"

"Bernard Gradley? The industrialist," prompted David, smiling broadly. Peter seemed to have taken that as the culmination of his question, so Edward drew himself up.

"He was my father, yes."

"Hmm, must mean you're pretty loaded." Peter's critical eye swept Edward up and down with the implication that he had done an exceptional job hiding it. "So, why are you slumming it with us?"

Edward groaned internally. Secret origin story in three, two, one…

"Unfortunately, he didn't leave me a square nickel of it." Peter seemed visibly surprised—David just continued his Cheshire cat grin.

"Not a penny?" Peter crossed his legs and did a passable imitation of 'sympathetically distraught'.


"Must be some resentment there!" exclaimed David, rather too happily for Edward's tastes.

"To be brutally frank, yes. I hate him for it. I don't hate him because I think I was entitled to something I didn't earn. I hate him because he let me believe I was preparing for one way of life, one mode of existence, then gave me another one altogether."

"That must be the, er, Philosophy degree talking," said Peter.

"Now, as I recall Mr Gradley passed away two years ago. Did that have any impact on your work?" David walked his fingers over the table and slid out two sheets of paper with the Redmayne–Bracknell letterhead clearly visible. Jesus Christ, thought Edward, they've only gone and told RB that I asked for an interview at another firm. I'd better pull this off, otherwise I won't have a job to go back to.

"I think you know it did. At the time I was an intern, and not a very good one."

"Honest!" exclaimed Peter through a mouthful of rice; he'd given up any pretence of examining Edward's CV and was tucking into his plastic clamshell of norimaki.

"I was marking time, waiting to get bored of investment banking like I've gotten bored of a lot of things. Then—well. The will basically said I was a disappointment to him, a dropout. I'd like to say that it was a sober wakeup that I took to heart, and that's why I pulled my finger out. It wasn't. I just wanted to prove him wrong. So I came in at five every morning, got coffee for the traders, did research on the hot stocks for the morning; did everything I could to add value. After six months I told RB I thought I was ready to trade. They recognised the effort I was putting in and gave me my first account."

"But now you want to leave them," prompted David. "Do you think you have loyalty issues?" Edward drew a deep breath. One of the tricky questions.

"RB took a chance making me a trader; I appreciate that. They invested in me. And in return they've made a profit from me of almost six hundred thousand pounds. That's after factoring in my salary. I believe in money—I wouldn't be in the business if I didn't. I believe in contracts. And the contract I signed with Redmayne–Bracknell says I have to give them four weeks' notice. I'm in investment banking because I want to get rich—"

"Don't we all!" interjected Peter with a glazed expression.

"And that won't happen if I stay at RB. Cooper Drake has taken over one thousand four hundred clients from the firm since I joined. You're going to flatten it."

"And you want to be on the upper side of the boot, so to speak?" David asked. He was looking for something under the desk. "I wonder, will your gratitude to Redmayne–Bracknell get in the way if you have to do business with them?"

"No. That's based on my philosophy of business." Edward wondered if he was about to put his foot in it. Please, please, said the little voice, don't start lecturing.

David had found what he was looking for—a glass jar full of something colourful. Right now he was trying to get the lid off. Peter waved his hands ineffectually in David's direction as though offering to try and open it before thinking better of it.

"Please, just give us a précis. It's really good to be able to get inside the head of someone coming to work with us." David beamed.

He didn't use 'potentially'; that's got to be a good sign, right? Edward marshalled his thoughts.

"Businesses are collections of individuals, just like countries or religions. The difference is that companies recognise—or should recognise—the fact. The ideal of capitalism is that everyone working for his or her own interests—and purely for his or her own interests—is ultimately beneficial for all. When I do business with Redmayne–Bracknell—or Lyons Patrick, or Kleiner, Puttel & Minsc, or swap stocks with colleagues, I'll be working in my best interests. If I'm working for you, my best interest makes you money."

"I like him!" chortled Peter, rocking back in his chair and twirling his Raybans. "David, what do you think? Give him the job?"

"Not just yet. We normally say 'we'll let you know in a week', don't we Peter? I will say that I'm impressed. You did well on the phone interview; you did better today. Have a jellybean?"

Edward blinked at the non-sequitur and saw David was holding out the jar, the lid still firmly jammed on.

"Thanks." Edward took the jar, gripped the lid firmly and with a sharp counterclockwise twist managed to push it past the obstruction; a flattened sweetmeat caught in the screwthread of the lid. Edward delicately reached in and took one orange jellybean. He looked up, suddenly conscious that he might have done the wrong thing. Peter was smirking and looking sideways at David with a knowing glance.

"Well done," said David. "Just a little something I like to do. Pinched it from Reagan. Decisiveness, will to profit, ability to hear and remember terms of contract. Bean, singular. Very good. Why orange?"

"Well, Belfree's jellybeans only come in two flavours—plain, and orange."

"Really?" Peter was mesmerised.

"They have two vats; one with just the sugar, corn syrup and starch, and another where they add orange flavouring. They found in the nineteen-fifties that the orange flavour was the most popular and that there were no other strong preferences, so they cut costs. There are eight colours, but orange is thirty percent of each pack. The seventy percent is their profit margin. You eat a red jellybean, or a black jellybean, or a white jellybean, and you think you can taste raspberry or blackcurrent or lemon. You can't; that's your body's learned response to the colour. You offered me a jellybean—I chose the more valuable flavour. Plus, I happen to like oranges."

"Fuck convention," announced David, after a second's silence. "I think we can move this along. As far as I'm concerned, you're in."

"Oh—yes, right, sure," Peter chimed in, leaning over the table. "Well done."

"Thanks. Glad to be on board." Edward got up and shook Peter's hand, then extended his hand to David, who pumped it enthusiastically.

"Well," said David, "there's one more hurdle to jump through. Just a formality, really. As head partner I get to introduce you to the floor manager, Raymond MacIntyre. He's the one with the final say in hiring. Come on, I'll take you up to the trading floor."

'Up' was right. Leaving Peter behind at his desk, Edward and David were wordlessly ushered into an opulent glass-sided elevator that gave its occupants a view of each floor as they passed through. Secluded, plush-walled rooms for meeting clients gave way to hard-linoleum warehouses of regimented accountants sitting at their computers, who in turn gave way to richly appointed executive offices. And finally, with such grandeur that Edward almost applauded, the elevator rose through a thick perspex mezzanine—literally punching through the glass ceiling, he thought, as if it made any difference to the silent, pretty secretary in the thick glasses who stood by the door buttons to let them off—to reveal a vast, open-plan area where men in designer suits barraged back and forth between colossal monitors displaying stock indexes in a hundred different countries and huge round glass tables strewn with paper like the aftermath of some gargantuan infant's temper tantrum.

It was a good four times larger than Redmayne–Bracknell's trading floor. At the far end, where David was leading him now with assured, vigorous strides, was a small enclosed area—comparatively small, he realised, as several more steps seemingly failed to bring it any closer—clad in light, honey-brown wood. When they finally reached the door, a gleaming plaque announced this to be the residence of Raymond MacIntyre.

"Here we go—good luck! Just kidding, he's a pussycat, really." David smiled reassuringly before rapping the wood with his knuckles and swinging it open.

The prick from the carpark, the wanker in the Merc, looked up from scribbling on a notepad and saw them. Recognition flashed immediately in his eyes and thin lips slid back from immaculately whitened teeth.

Oh fuck.

"So David, this is young Edward. Starting off as a junior associate, I presume. You must be taken to bring him up here on his first interview. Is it love?" There was an edge to his voice that Edward couldn't quite pin down but which couldn't be good.

"Well, he's proposed. And now we're here to get daddy's blessing." David winked and stepped aside to give Edward a full, unobstructed view of his own demise.

"I've met him already." Raymond MacIntyre started opening a letter with a very long, very sharp knife.

"Really?" David seemed utterly oblivious to the razor-atmosphere which Edward felt sure was about to engulf him.

"Yes. We ran into each other in the car park. Well, almost." A dangerous glitter again.

"'Almost' never needs apologies," said Edward. No job at Cooper Drake, a dismissal notice probably already waiting for him back at Redmayne–Bracknell. His father must be looking at him now and laughing his ass off. He'd be looking up, of course. Even if Edward was at ground level.

"No." Turning his attention to David. "This fellow cussed me out for backing into his spot. He didn't back down, even when I hinted as strongly as I felt able my position in the firm. Called me a 'wanker', as I recall." Edward saw David's florid face lightening to apricot out of the corner of his eye. "Now, how much were you intending to pay this young man for the privilege of doing that every day?"

"Erm, thirty-five thousand. Signing bonus of, ah, three thousand." David looked like he would rather be somewhere far, far away.

Something horrible was moving in Edward's chest, expanding and contracting rhythmically. Some parasitic thing, about to burst through the sparse flesh over his ribcage. It took him a minute to realise it was his heart. The room was filling up with yellow mist. I'm going to pass out, Edward thought. Failure, failure, failure.

"Really? Make it forty thousand. And double his signing bonus. He comes in at seven his first day, you hear me? I'll work him until he's dry. You may hold me to that."

Edward almost passed out anyway—David discreetly clapped a pally arm around him and steered him to the door. "Well done," he muttered.

The conversation with his manager at Redmayne–Bracknell went as well as could be expected; there are better ways to answer "why is our primary competitor asking about your work performance?" than "here's my notice." The phrase "ungrateful little bitch" was used; Edward was sure he'd never seen a man with so many letters after his name so closely approximating a primary colour. As it turned out, a philosophical expounding of capitalism proved less persuasive for those no longer served by your own self-interest.

On his last Monday at RB he found his name had accidentally been added to every slot on the coffee and danish errand rota. On Wednesday someone tipped the rubbish bin in his drawer. Edward didn't mind. In his last week he signed thirty new contacts and made sure to give them all his card. No company—just a name, private email and mobile number.

Edward spent his last weekend before starting work at Cooper Drake playing video games and trying for the fifteenth time to crack Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He tried to get to sleep early, on the assumption that MacIntyre wasn't the sort of man who would be disrespected twice if he came in late.

Instead he lay awake, mind churning. He found himself thinking—how much is enough? When have I proved to my father—who, let's not forget, is currently hard at work decomposing—that I've applied myself? Five million? Ten million? Maybe I need to beat him; that would be forty million.

Of course, he'd never accept I'd earned it, the way he did, putting together a company from the ground up. City traders, with their soft hands and wacky ties, were as far from Bernard Gradley, the man who'd made his millions selling furniture from the back of a van, as you could get. Perhaps I need to get a wife and kids just so I can leave them everything? Is that it? Do I never get to feel like I've won as long as I'm alive? Madness. It's madness.

Man works to cease from working, he reasoned; the purpose of work cannot be more work, as at each stage the objective of work is to reduce the total mass of labour left to do. In some ways the City exemplified this—you put in crazy hours, worked yourself to the bone, took insane risks, and the reward was the accumulation of wealth; early retirement while you could still enjoy the leisured lifestyle. But what of the grey-haired men who'd spent decades in finance, turning their whole lives into one huge accumulator bet as though they could take it with them? Bernard Gradley had gone one stage further—working month after month, year after year, burning his flesh like a candle: he had not enjoyed rest from his work, and he had denied it to his wife and son as well. In some ways Edward could see the sense in it. Gradley Industries had been a project, a great work. In his will he had called it his 'child', his masterpiece. What great work was there in finance?

"Time to get started!" chirped David as he ushered Edward around the great glass tables on the top floor of Cooper Drake's great City offices. Faces came and went in front of his sleep-starved eyes, people he needed to remember as his lifelines. Concentrate, he warned himself.

"This is Elizabeth. Treat her well; she's your source for leads. Her analysts work around the clock to tease out data from international stock markets and convert it into essential narratives for CD brokers."

At Redmayne–Bracknell you were more or less given a stack of newspapers and expected to get on with it. Elizabeth Keating was a plain, slightly overweight girl barely older than Edward; she favoured him with a winning smile but his mind was already somewhere else.

Edward would be working in Peter's team—a pod of four associate brokers focusing on British and international industry. Each would be working to invest money in stocks and shares around the globe; blue-chip companies would likely already have a recommendation from the firm's analysts—Strong Buy, Buy, Hold, Sell, or Strong Sell, but for the majority of startups, medium-size enterprises or just plain old-fashioned firms that refused to play PR ball with the market, brokers were left with gut feeling and what facts they could dig up themselves.

Edward was issued with a gleaming transparent plastic keycard—his research pass, which when swiped into the Cooper Drake systems permitted access to their vast, labyrinthine records of stock movements over the past century. "Don't lose it," warned David—"these things literally cost half your monthly salary. They're laser-engraved; everyone's is unique." At Edward's previous firm there had been a lengthy keycode instead; you were absolutely forbidden to write the thing down, but everyone did it anyway. If you wanted to snoop around someone's search history and get some juicy tips all you needed to do was open their drawer and find the sixteen-digit number scrawled on the Post-it note. Not that Edward would ever admit doing something like that.

"So Edward, I think I'm gonna throw you in the deep end," drawled Peter. "I've got some big aerospace trades and I want you to take a look. See what sense you can make of them, you know?"

That turned out to be not a lot. Edward went half the morning believing this was some kind of surreal training exercise or prank before he realised what he was seeing were actually Peter's positions. He was selling fast-growing R&D stocks with acute nervelessness, often missing out on hundreds of thousands, while clinging on to big-name shares that showed no signs of ever breaking even. Some delicacy required, he reflected, when your direct manager is probably the least capable person in the building. Peter wasn't even incompetent—he was clueless, making trades half an hour after the herd and hoping for the best. Edward would bet good money that each of Peter's prematurely abandoned tech picks had been the result of some offhand comment by a member of his team, while his touching faith in the stagnating giant firms that formed the core of his position seemed based on formulaic language in press releases no-one—except Peter, apparently—saw as exciting or indicative of rapid change anymore.

"Some bold choices," Edward finally concluded after spending the morning sweating over the bizarre pileup of incoherent stock picks that constituted Peter's portfolio.

"Really?" Peter sounded aghast.

"I mean, I don't think I'll have the nerve for some of these trades for a while. Like the Boeing position; that's huge."

"R-right. I mean, don't just copy what I'm doing. You've got to make your own style. To be honest, I think I'm a bit long on Boeing, even." A bit? It's been a Strong Sell for two weeks, thought Edward glumly. Over the course of the afternoon he was able to cajole Peter into abandoning most of his current positions and adopting a far more diverse spread with significant spend in the rapidly expanding British space sector. Peter finished the day half a mill up, and Edward caught him squinting in his direction from behind his shades.

"So how are things going?" David asked as the traders, at seven, slowly began filtering home.

"Great," said Edward with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. "Peter had me take a look at his portfolio; I was able to suggest some changes."

"Ah—good." David rubbed the sides of his nose with his thumbs. "Change definitely sounds good where Peter's portfolio's concerned. Glad he's started you on something challenging."

Poor Peter, thought Edward. He's a laughing stock at his own firm and he doesn't even know it.

"Say, will you do something for me?" asked David. It's going to be something weird, thought Edward, I know it. For some reason you couldn't help taking to David; he was relentlessly affable, though Edward sensed a hard core of steel beneath the chubby exterior. "Put your arms up, like this."

David raised both hands above his head, as though he were preparing to clap along to an old Gospel song. Edward did likewise, wincing as his suit pinched his chest.

"See this here?"—David ran a finger along the folds that ran from shoulder to shoulder on Edward's cheap suit. "These should not exist. This is your second trading job; you're pulling in the big bucks, well, comparatively speaking. You should get a better suit. I know a guy on Ludgate Hill that does the most amazing tailored suits… old Greek guy, he gets all his fabrics under the counter from the textile manufacturers who supply the big designers; Versace, Newman…"

"This conversation obviously has anti-gravity properties, because I can feel my wallet getting lighter," retorted Edward.

"You're thinking about it the wrong way. You spend the money to get the money. You show up at a client's offices in a cheap suit and shabby shoes, you think he's going to give you the time of day, let alone all his cash? No, you show up in a tailored suit and you let him see his face in everything else. That's how he knows you work."

"I guess," said Edward. But I like my suit, he thought. I don't think it looks bad, per se. How often during a meeting with a client do you have cause to walk around with your arms above your head? Maybe a deodorant manufacturer… He had absolutely no intention of visiting David's expensive friend.

"Yes, Sir has definitely gone up a size in the waist since his last visit. Would Sir like me to take out his current suit or place an order for a new one?"

Edward watched as David happily paid more than the price of Edward's car for a new pair of trousers and apparently on a whim ordered the next size up, too. The wizened gentleman in charge of Stathopoulos Fine Tailors and Drapers looked positively ecstatic as he took his details and arranged for the garments to be delivered hand-pressed and ready to wear. Always good when each time your client came in they made a bigger order—fabric-wise, anyway—than the time before, Edward mused. David didn't seem to mind his weight and appeared to wear it like a badge of his prosperity.

"Come on then, Ed, you're up next."

Edward tried his best to look stoic while the old man looped his tape measure around various parts of Edward's anatomy, making little clucking noises as he scribbled them on a yellowed tailor's pad.

"Sir is very slim; department store clothes that fit well around the chest will be too tight at the shoulders. You lose ease of movement. If Sir would just try this…" The old man brought out a mock suit frontage with adjustable bands and loosened and tightened them while asking Edward to raise and lower his arms, bend at the waist, lean sideways. When he was satisfied he totted up a few numbers on a pocket calculator.

"I can have a new suit in Sir's size ready by Thursday. As Sir is a new customer I shall make a special rate of seven hundred and fifty pounds."

Edward's jaw made a dedicated bid for freedom from the rest of his skull. David sauntered over and rested an arm on Edward's shoulder.

"He'll be paying by plastic."

While Edward was changing back into his off-the-peg suit—had it been this itchy before?—David sat in a leather armchair by the tailor's window and sipped tea brought to him by the tailor's equally elderly wife.

"You know, you should be looking at a new car, too. Surprised that old thing out there even works. It's like the suit—it's false economy. You get a car that gets you there fast, every time, and looks good when you arrive."

"Not much good if you can't find parking," Edward retorted.

"Hmm. You'll get the picture eventually. I'll tell you every trader does need, right off the bat—membership at a gentleman's club."

"Just the essentials, eh?" said Edward, thoroughly bemused.

"Damn right. Think about it for a second. When the clubs were founded they were originally just for people who were independently wealthy. That was the definition of 'gentleman'. But then came the franchise extensions. These days, who goes to gentleman's clubs? The captains of industry, the politicians. And why are they there? To talk business. I'm sitting there reading the Daily Telegraph, and behind me a Cabinet Secretary is discussing scrapping import restrictions on semiconductors. That's not a hypothetical situation—that happened last week. What do I do when I get back to the office? I sell every share I have in Ferranti at a quarter pence below the market price. They get snapped up by some chip freak at KPM. Bad news for him, because tomorrow when the news comes in that you'll be able to buy in the things from China at half the price, he's going to be left holding scraps while I got out forty k up."

"Is that legal?"

"Absolutely. It wouldn't even make a difference if instead I'd heard the CEO of Ferranti saying they were about to lose market share. If I'm privy to a conversation in a club at which I'm a member, it's no different to overhearing it on the street."

"I see. So where do you go, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Well, I started out at The Athenaeum, moved up to the Arts Club in my second year at Cooper Drake. Then I found my current haunt—they keep themselves off all the lists. They prefer to describe themselves as a 'private concern' rather than a club. Go in any time of the day or night; you'll see ex-PMs, foreign diplomats, billionaires…"

"Would I have heard of them?"

"If you have, they'd be mortified. I'll have to take you along sometime on my guest's pass; it's incredible. They're called Marshall, Carter & Dark."

Chapter Two: "Antitrust"

Over the next weeks, Edward picked up enough to put together his portfolio, centred around aerospace—a core of reliable performers like Staines Aeronautics with tendrils in fuel efficiency and carbon reduction research; any time a government anywhere in the world announced new breaks for cleaner fuels or started taxing emissions they would jump up in value. He built in a cheeky position on a couple of low-cost airlines; it fell outside his remit, but he figured Cooper Drake wouldn't mind too much; big, established companies were going broke all the time and their fleets being snapped up for a fraction of their value by budget carriers. It was trivial to predict takeovers and anticipate share price spikes.

At the same time, Edward continue to volunteer to handle Peter's stocks—always carefully phrased:

"You know, Peter, I'm a bit stuck for ideas. Mind if I take a peek at your portfolio? I'll tidy some of your picks up if you like—only fair while I'm snooping around."

"Peter—you've probably already seen it but Blue Zone is tanking fast. Do you mind if I pair up our positions? I have an American buyer who wants a lot of them inside the hour."

Peter was always pathetically grateful and soon Edward was more or less running his portfolio as a subsidiary of his own. Pacing himself carefully, he started putting in even later nights, staying long after Peter had shambled off to the pub. Each day he was able to persuade Peter to take leave of his desk sooner—'I'll finish these up for you,' 'Don't worry about these reports, I'll have them on Raymond's desk.' Members of Peter's team started coming to Edward with their requests for the research team.

These afforded him access on a regular basis to the Research desk, where he always lingered for just the right amount of time, flashing a boyishly embarrassed smile at Liz and making the feeblest attempts at small talk he could muster. The homely young woman didn't take long at all to pick up on his apparent attentions.

"Mr Gradley, if I didn't know better I'd think you were flirting."

"Well…" Edward had always had the ability to blush at will. It had proven incredibly useful in getting out of childhood misdemeanors for which he had felt not the slightest bit of contrition. And women seemed to find it cute. "Maybe we can meet up for coffee sometime?"—from then on Edward got the research team's leads coming in as well.

Around this time, Peter announced that he had become engaged to a woman called Roweena, and his already superfluous attendance became increasingly fragmentary. Edward did his best to encourage this behaviour. "No, don't worry about anything, Peter—we're on top of it."

Three months after Peter Davis hired Edward, Raymond MacIntyre walked past the industry brokerage team and stopped, sniffing. Edward was sitting at Peter's computer, pumping out a three thousand word investor report.

"Peter not in again?" MacIntyre looked at his watch and glanced around vaguely, as though Peter might be on the ceiling or under one of the desks.

"You know how it is, Mr MacIntyre—young love. You'll have to forgive him, his mind's not on his work." Edward looked up, face a picture of guilelessness.

"Hmmph." That one little noise as MacIntyre moved away told Edward it had all been worth it. He had just seen that the best-paid member of his stock brokerage division was the person who least needed to be there.

That Friday Edward was called into a meeting with Raymond MacIntyre and David Went where he was asked about how he felt about taking the 'Junior' part off his Associate title and assuming some managerial responsibilities.

"But won't the rest of the team mind working under me when I've been here for such a short amount of time?" Edward fell silent as soon as the words came out of his mouth, suddenly afraid he had assumed too much.

"I don't think so. They've already seen you can handle the responsibility and to be honest, I understand they're already coming to you for advice."

David looked over and smiled, and although it was superficially no different than usual, Edward was suddenly struck by the idea that there was some dark, gleeful recognition in it; as well as perhaps a hint of a warning: "Don't you dare try that on me".

Edward might have been persona non grata to Redmayne–Bracknell's management, but he was still on good terms with their HR Manager, Wil Hamilton. When he casually mentioned that one of the bright young things at Cooper Drake might be about to jump ship he knew that RB would be all too happy to take them on. Peter Davis left Cooper Drake 'eager to take on new responsibilities at one of the country's oldest and most established brokerage firms' and forever in Edward's debt: as far as he was concerned, Edward had done everything possible to prop him up and camouflage his lack of skill, all out of a selfless nobility of the heart. That's not how it works, Peter, thought Edward, as he took his seat at the head of his little team and allowed his gaze to stray further up the great glass hall.

The knock on the door of Edward's apartment took him quite by surprise; he was by this time firmly ensconced in his pyjamas, wanting nothing more than to catch half an hour's TV before bed after a punishing thirteen-hour day. He answered the door toothbrush in hand, and blinked owlishly at the sight of David in full evening dress, a couple of pretty if rather shapeless young women floating around behind him.

"Oh, don't tell me you've forgotten already," griped David, gesturing to the girls. "He's in his bloody nighties!" A peel of laughter.

"Forgotten what?"

"Really? I was supposed to be taking you to the club—you know, the gentleman's concern."

"Oh, right. That was for tonight?"

"Christ Almighty. Not one for the night life, are you? Come on, you've got five minutes before I leave without you. I hope you've got something presentable."

Edward ended up dressing in the suit David had pressured him into buying from Antonis Stathopoulous. He had to admit, the old man knew what he was doing. The material was light and cool without being slippery and for the first time in his life he could see his waist, normally hidden under a voluminous billow of surplus fabric. He actually thought he looked quite dashing. He tutted disappointedly at the contrast made by his cheap plastic watch. At least the shoes matched, now, a £140 purchase from a middle-of-the-road outfitters—sharp-toed with a slightly raised heel.

David's dark blue Ferrari purred happily as he drove them through the late night traffic. Edward had taken to walking around the City after hours, taking in the sights, and thought he knew most streets in the Square Mile by heart. David surprised him by taking a turn on Newgate Street he didn't even think existed; a half-concealed thing behind the projecting wing of St Bartholemews. From there he made turn after turn through strange streets lit by soft yellow streetlights quite different from those on the main streets. One could almost think one had left modern London behind and entered some twilight realm.

"They keep all this quiet, don't they?" Edward said as he stared out at a lavishly baroqued pile encrusted with grotesques.

"They appreciate their privacy," said David, as he drew up in front of a blind brick edifice protected by wrought iron fencing and fronted by a simple marble arch. If he had been keeping track, Edward thought, this was Twenty-Eight Great Rojet Street, which he had never even heard of before tonight.

"Here—hold onto this." David passed Edward a slim black card; gold-edged, bearing the single word 'Guest'. At the top left-hand corner was an ornate cartouche, which, on closer examination, resolved itself into the letters 'MC&D'. The card felt smooth; the corners rounded as though pressed individually rather than cut from a larger section of card. Edward had a horrible feeling this card probably cost more than his monthly rent.

David, Edward, and the two ladies whose names he had not asked for got out, breath hanging in the cold air, and made their way to the door. David rapped and a section of the door slid aside, revealing a perspex plate. From the other side a baggy bloodhound's eye roved back and forth before finding David's face.

"Mr Went! So good to see you. And Misses Parker and Cholmondeley!" The eye found Edward and searched him, disapprovingly. Edward found himself drawing up defensively before a word had been spoken.

"A friend of yours, Mr Went?" The voice managed to imply 'friend' occupied a position slightly higher than something you had trodden in.

"That's right," said David, unphased. "Now open up, there's a good fellow."

The door opened just wide enough for each of them to slip through—the haggard-faced porter shut it with an air of finality behind them.

"The party is taking their seats in the main room, Mr Went, ladies. If you would care to join them, a number of acts will be performed for your amusement before supper at eleven thirty."

At least at this time of day, the reception was shadowy and inhospitable, strange shapes pressing in from all sides. That one of them was almost certainly the porter, who had contrived to disappear into the darkness as soon as he had finished speaking, did little to allay Edward's nerves. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he picked out Regency furniture, gleaming candlesticks, grand portraits depicting strange, almost perverse, scenes. The transition to the cloakroom was blinding—they found themselves in a narrow corridor, dazzling white with golden hooks on either side. The attendant was tall, almost unnaturally so—as high above Edward as Edward was above David—and strangely gaunt, with a long, lugubrious face and dark, large-pupilled eyes whose gaze made Edward as uncomfortable as that of the porter, but in a different key; the feeling of handling something sick and squirming. He took charge of David's wallet and the women's purses, placing them into an itemised tray of polished wood which slid back into the wall of the cloakroom. Edward opted to hold onto his.

Then the main hall! From outside it seemed impossible that this space should be contained within—a grand ballroom in the rococo style, but so exaggerated in scale that it made Edward feel miniscule. A dozen separate fireplaces burned at distant points in the hall, which comprised the entrance level, a graceful marble mezzanine and a great balcony above. Directly ahead was a colossal theatrical stage, purple velvet curtains with gold trim and the 'MC&D' flourish closed, awaiting a performance. The men and women who stood or sat at the many tables, armchairs and rounds scattered around the edge of the hall immediately struck Edward as familiar—it took a moment to realise that he saw them every day; on the news, or presenting it. He wondered whether David had chosen this night to impress or whether it was attended at this level on a regular basis. Cabinet Ministers rubbed shoulders with TV personalities and knighted businessmen.

"David! David, you came. I wanted to see you again." The party was almost immediately waylaid by the petite brunette, dragging a much taller blonde woman by her dress. The former looked to be in her mid-twenties, like Edward—her hair styled in soft ringlets that brought out her Mediterranean complexion. Her lips were curled in soft amusement as she embraced David then looked over in his direction. Edward found himself blushing without having chosen it.

"Well? Won't you introduce us to your guest?" the brunette prompted David, who reluctantly disengaged from her.

"Of course, sorry, my manners. This is Edward—Edward Gradley. Edward, meet Maria Beaumont, of the Paris Beaumonts."

Edward was floored. The Beaumonts were one of the richest families in France—old money, based on colonial trade; Beaumont Shipping remained a dominant force in the French-speaking world.

"Gradley? You are not by some chance the son of Bernard Gradley? Our fathers did business, I think." Maria offered her hand to Edward, who found himself at a loss as to what to do with it. To let it go seemed rude—shaking it, terribly gauche. In the end he opted to bring it to his lips and offer a kiss—David turned away immediately, bringing a hand up to his mouth in a feigned yawn.

"And this is Lady Alexandra Penelope." David ushered Maria aside. The tall blonde was somewhat older than Edward—perhaps 30—and elegantly beautiful in a ruffled yellow dress. She favoured him with a smile but did not offer her hand; Edward made a mock bow instead.

"Edward—so, are you a man of leisure, or making your way in the world like David?" Lady Penelope asked, fixing him with very light blue eyes in which the pupils stood out like pinpricks. Edward sighed. One more time, ladies and gentlemen…

Fifteen minutes later, the group had found their place by one of the log fires and were chatting over honeyed sausage entrées and glasses of a sparkling white wine as though they had known each other for years. The conversation had drifted onto business, where Edward had shared his thoughts on labour and leisure, and Maria had begun expounding her own theory.

"Surely leisure," she said, "is merely doing any project or task which you enjoy doing, and which you direct. This last seems to me to be most key—it's all very well talking about getting a job you love, but unless you work for yourself, you're doing what someone else tells you to do. This seems incompatible with leisure—there is always that gap between the two. Labour is what earns leisure and it's foolish to talk about making your job your hobby."

So speaks a woman who has never worked, thought Edward wryly. "There's some truth to that," he ventured, "but a competent employer will recognise that he is hiring an employee to do something he cannot—or rather, satisfaction is to be gained in attaining such a role where it is recognised; work becomes leisure if a man is allowed to act freely, to use his reason to decide the best course of action and act upon it. If an employer comes to think that all those who work for him are are simply extra hands—people who do the jobs he doesn't have time to do at an inevitably lower level of quality than if he were to do it himself—then he sets himself up to fail. A man who makes himself the final arbiter of everything his employees do, who requires his approval for any task, no matter how minor—who seeks to micromanage them to that extent—must be immaculately logical and fair, otherwise he is abolishing truth and logic in his company. People who work for such an employer will ultimately no longer care about truth, only what he wants to hear—if their own initiative isn't valued, why should they exercise it? A man's creativity can only be exercised by his own free will and for a cause he believes in—I find it incredible that private companies think they are any different from the state in that regard."

"Oh, he's darling!" exclaimed Lady Penelope. "Where do you find these firebrands, David?"

"They all start out like that," grinned David. "It's the natural state of man."

"And long may it continue," proclaimed Maria. "To idealism." She raised her glass and the others drank with her.

There was a sleek glossy catalogue on the table and Edward flicked through it idly. From what he could gather it represented a place for members to buy and sell antique goods as well as advertise services. Very little of it made sense to him; it was written in an overwrought, hyperbolic fashion that made each item seem like the Second Coming. Take this one—"A statue which has an orientation that cannot be altered." How was that supposed to work? The statue itself was nothing special; a craggy sculpture of a human arm and hand, fifty centimetres tall. He took a look at the price tag and almost snorted Château d'Yquem out of his nose. If I was paying that much it would face whichever way I wanted, thank you very much.

The evening's entertainment started shortly afterwards; various illusionist and acrobatic acts led up to a final spectacular piece where a truly talented magician-aerialist appeared to fall apart in mid-flight; one by one his limbs seemed to detach from his body and continue the act unaccompanied—at times interacting with his body in ways that should have been impossible if they were still attached. By the end he seemed to have been reduced to a quadruple amputee, still arcing above the stage in partner acrobatics with what were purportedly his own limbs. Finally, the performer's disembodied arms and legs maneuvered his torso into position for one final gruesome trick; looping the ribbon around his neck as though preparing him for execution. A second later, both head and body fell to the ground with the other seemingly lifeless limbs. The curtain closed, and the performer did not re-emerge—though Maria, perhaps noticing Edward's pallor, whispered to him that she had seen the act several times previously, including versions of the trick where an assistant put him back together on-stage afterwards. Edward prided himself that he had a logical mind and could usually work out the mechanism between most magic acts. The severed-limb trick, however, defied explanation—he supposed there must have been at least four other acrobats on stage, with the rest of their bodies somehow concealed from view; how the performer had seemingly severed his own head in full view of the audience however went beyond the best of Copperfield. The only clue, to his mind, lay in the fact that each division of the magician's body had occured in an area wrapped in the white ribbon. The man needed his own TV show, Edward thought, he'd kick the shit out of Dynamo.

The chefs had emerged from the kitchens shortly before serving to explain the theme of the repast—the public school dinner, gourmet-style and eaten with oversized cutlery to recreate an authentic atmosphere. It was the right venue for it, thought Edward. He could scarcely credit the notion that Marshall, Carter & Dark had even contrived to get the owner of the Fat Duck and the Hell's Kitchen star around the same stove let alone produce something coherent. The result, however, was indescribable; a fusion of subtle undertones and a few big explosions of colour and taste that made him wonder if he could ever go back to his microwave ready meals. No wonder David keeps Mr Stathopoulos in such good business, Edward thought, savouring a shepherd's pie made with Kobe beef and topped with a selection of artisan cheeses. The serving staff—all young, attractive men and women in formal attire—were silent and efficient, if a little glassy-eyed. No wonder, if this is typical of what goes on here—I'd be perpetually shell-shocked if I worked here too. Or perhaps, like him, they'd just had a long day.

"So David," he asked his companion, currently gorging himself on waffles made from whole Tasmanian seed potatos and a take on the Turkey Twizzler whereby Bowman Landes free-range turkey meat was cut directly into the shape of the twizzler and breaded using vapor-deposited batter. "If you don't mind me asking, how much does membership at this place set you back?" Edward wasn't sure exactly how much David Went made at Cooper Drake, but he doubted it placed him in the same league, as say, Richard Branson, who he was fairly sure he'd seen disappearing into one of the Members-Only siderooms earlier in the evening.

"More than you could afford," was the reply. David must have seen something in Edward's expression as he rapidly amended himself. "I mean, more than I could afford too. I have limited access and some guest privileges; I'm not really a full member as such."

"And in return, they get?" Edward prompted.

"Payment in kind—look, I really don't want to get into it right now. Come on, you'll upset my stomach."

"Sorry." Edward turned his attention back to his shepherd's pie and the cheese-crusted leeks that formed his side dish.

If Edward had thought that the meal formed the climax of the evening, he was mistaken. As guests drifted back to their seats around the edge of the room a DJ in a vaguely sinister helmet resembling a neon Mickey Mouse with blank, empty eyes conducted an electronic tidal wave of sound from a podium atop two huge, illuminated glass slabs rising out of the floor. What kind of gentleman's club has guests dancing in full evening dress to house music? Edward wondered, finding himself plucked out of his seat and thrown between a number of young women. The guests danced in graceful loops, spotlights picking out white collars, silver ties and lacy décolletage.

As a new song began—upbeat but with a hint of something very dark underneath, like most of the DJ's set thus far—Edward found himself face to face with Maria. He must have looked as out of depth as he felt, for she just beamed at him, took his hand and led him confidently over the floor.

"Can you understand any of the lyrics to this?" he shouted.

"It makes more sense if you assume the 'Russian unicorn' is heroin."

"I generally assume every song is about drugs until proven otherwise."

"Oh, now where's that idealism?"

They arced over the floor, Maria subtly correcting his occasional stumble. Edward found himself wishing time would—not stop—but loop, right in this moment. Gradually reality reasserted itself and his mind cleared a little.

"I should return you to David. I don't want him jealous."

"Yes, he does get so protective of his new recruits."

"Very funny."

She spun away from him elegantly, moving towards David, who had evidently run out of breath and was waiting at their table. Edward waited just a little longer, just standing on the dancefloor, before he followed her.

As David made his bows for the evening and led them back out through that shadowy reception area, Edward was almost unsurprised to hear, distinct but unmistakable behind him, that the last song in the set, apparently without any sense of irony, was a remix of 'All The Right Moves', though as the grim-faced porter cautiously let them back through that great front door into the night he noticed that 'we' and 'they' were reversed.

Edward had expected to wake up the next morning—well, later the next morning—with a splitting headache. Instead he rose after no more than three hours' sleep with a sense of clarity, feeling energised and enriched for the experience. You have to make an outlay to profit, he thought—perhaps that also applies to time?

On the way to work, he noticed that the unannounced roadworks that had blighted traffic in the area all month with their shoddy diversions had disappeared overnight. Now if only the damn rain would clear up, he thought. Nothing seemed to have been done to the roundabout at the centre; in fact, it seemed in worse shape than before, with several pieces of the edging removed and left broken at the centre in a pile of dirt and rubble. Edward resolved, as he had so many times before, to write to the borough council and demand to know what firm the works had been hired out to. He supposed, though, that even if he remembered he would give up after trying to find their complaints form online. He was sure the council hired someone specifically to redesign their website on the fly to remove the information you most needed.

The next couple of days, buoyed by his promotion and experience at David's club, Edward was walking on air. Every deal he touched seemed to turn into gold. Even his mistakes seemed to come right in such a fashion that they looked like visionary thinking on his part; Edward had shorted stocks in Quadrant Turbines, an elderly firm that seemed to be going nowhere, when the news came through that it was to receive a one point five billion dollar contract from the US Department of Defense. His team had barely finished commiserating him when Liz sprinted in, flushed and out of breath, begging him to hold his position just a little longer. Half an hour later, it was being widely reported that the contract had fallen through and that Quadrant itself had made a surprise announcement that it was to be placed into administration. As it turned out, the bad news was a false flag—circulated by bloggers most likely in the pay of Lockheed Martin—but the effect was to send Quadrant's shares into a death dive. By the end of the day it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy and Quadrant were seeking bankruptcy.

In one month Edward had his first review. The review, to the investment banker, was God—a magic force that examined your life and blessed the worthy. Or perhaps it was like the lottery—one where every player expected to win every time, more each year than the year before. Whilst the firm didn't punish its traders for deals that turned out poorly, provided they were based on solid research, the size of your bonus would depend on the profit you'd generated for the organisation. A growing bonus would indicate to others in the organisation that you were going places and worthy of another rung on the ladder to partnership. A stagnant bonus—or no bonus—would indicate a poor performer, someone to pass over or even push out.

Edward already had a solid profit margin, but he didn't want to be 'solid'. He wanted the verdict on that gold slip to read 'exceptional'. By age twenty-five his father already owned his own factory. Edward's calculations said that if he wanted to outdo Bernard Gradley he would need to make partner in the next year. In any other profession and in almost any other city this was almost unthinkable—but this was the City of London. And no firm could fail to advance a trader who outstripped all his peers.

So it was that Edward went in search of a magic bullet—a deal that would in one month make him the crown prince of Cooper Drake. He took piles of papers from the Research team home with him and scoured them for something truly special. And after a couple of days he believed he had found it. A burgeoning EU antitrust investigation into Cliffes Aeronautic and Ballistics, premised upon alleged collusion between Cliffes and a couple of other aerospace semiconductor manufacturers to control the European import market. Cliffes' CEO, Martin Jacques, would be called to give testimony on September Fifth—that was when Edward would make his play. A firm's share value typically dipped between one point nine and four point eight percent during an investigation; Edward would buy up thirty-five million in put options on Cliffes Aeronautic Ltd. If its share value dropped by only three percent, Edward stood to make over a million pounds in profit. Normally a trader, seeking to make a huge investment on this scale, would consult senior colleagues, sound it out, and hope to spread blame were something to go wrong. Edward couldn't afford to do that—if the Cliffes deal were to have the effect he wanted he needed to be able to take sole credit for the move. Thirty-five million was well above his own daily transaction limit; fortunately, CD's tech team were slow movers and Peter Davis's account remained on the system, live and accessible by anyone in his team. Between the two accounts Edward drained the market dry before news of the investigation hit.

Cliffes released a press release filled with officese—"We look forward to co-operating any way we can with the Commission and reassert our belief in the European project and a free, open market," the sort of stuff that made traders throw up a little in their waste paper baskets before hollering 'sell'. By the time the markets closed Edward was already a good hundred thousand up; he hung on, however, sure that as soon as Jacques took the stand Cliffes' losses would snowball.

On the Fifth of September Edward sat silent in front of his computer, hammering the refresh button every few minutes as the investigation continued. It soon became apparent something had gone wrong. The hearing—held in a recently refurbished wing of the Château of Val-Duchesse—ended hours early, and it quickly emerged that Martin Jacques had experienced some kind of nervous breakdown, having an aphasic episode under questioning where he had gibbered nonsensically with no awareness that he was speaking anything other than his native French before collapsing. It had further impacted Cliffes' share price, but with no further information on the alleged collision coming to light, investors were wary about giving up their positions on a high-performing firm. Jacques had been a charismatic front man but his good health, or lack of it, impacted little on Cliffes' value. Looking back, Edward thought later, he should have taken the one hundred and fifty thousand profit and run—it would have been a decent trade, even if he would have had a dressing down for his use of Peter's account. Instead, he clung on a full week, barely closing any other trades, as Cliffes' shares teetered, wobbled, and even revived a little, until Jacques finally recovered enough to face the Commission again at the Berlaymont.

It was a disaster. Even before Jacques had opened his mouth, the share price spiked sharply, and continued rising until it had wiped out the profit Edward hoped to make. Edward interpreted it as a simple reaction to Cliffes' CEO looking hale and hearty as he waved to reporters outside the Commission, but later he wondered if documents had been leaked to key investors.

Then the hammer-blow. Jacques—now cool, calm and collected, to the extent that it seemed immediately obvious that his previous performance had been a sham to buy time while he collected ammunition, brandished papers documenting electronic communications between Cliffes and the Commission weeks before the announcement of the investigation. Cliffes had signed a contract with the Belarusian government to provide chips for a new generation of cruise missiles; the European Commission had warned Jacques off—even spelling out that they would find some fault with Cliffes Aeronautics' import agreements—but found their bluff called.

It was horribly obvious that the investigation could not go ahead; it had become a political embarassment for the Commission and the European Union more widely, with Belarus' Lukashenko weighing in smugly on the hypocrisy of EU protectionists. The market saw it as a triumph for Cliffes—not only was Edward now making a loss, but so unwilling were his partners in New York or Beijing to accept his tainted options that he had to watch Cliffes' share price skyrocket for a full eight hours before he was able to unload them all at a sickening low of twenty-eight million. Instead of making the company a million pounds he had cost it seven million. It was an appalling failure, something the average trader would barely be able to make up in a year. But Edward didn't have a year; he had under a month before he had to sit down with his managers and explain what had possessed him to break company rules to make such a horrendous trade.

Within hours, he thought, the little bespectacled men on the floor below them would have noticed the loss and reported it to Raymond MacIntyre. He might not even last until the review unless he pulled something now that wiped out every last penny of the deal. He sat for half an hour, clenching and unclenching his fists, face white as a ghost. He was lost.

The feeling clogging his throat was the feeling he had whenever he tried to play chess now; there was some shining path, some route that would save him, but the door was locked. He could no longer roam those mental avenues. As a child he had been a prodigy—he had stalemated his father—Bernard Gradley, a man who would never let another sentient being win a game if you tore his fingernails out—the first time he showed him the game, beaten him the second time. His parents had taken him to clubs and tournaments where elderly men stroked their beards and swore in Polish as he skewered their queens and forked their knights and rooks with a pawn.

His success had excited his father, who had a bespoke display cabinet produced by one of his top designers; dark wood with rounded corners and a polished glass front, lit by small, triangular spotlights. The cabinet had collected a steady smattering of trophies as Edward's victories grew, and his mother began to speak in hushed tones of a professional career. It all ended when Edward turned thirteen—his ranking collapsed almost overnight with the onset of puberty and his matches became a litany of defeats, reducing him to tears. Even now he could more or less remember what it had felt like to be able to think that way—looking at dozens of possible outcomes six moves ahead, comparing probabilities then sliding one's own life into the universe where success is guaranteed—but he could no longer access it. Whether it had been banished by hormones, the pressure to succeed or, as his father contended, just incipient laziness, his talent was gone. He had sought that vanished golden aura in everything he did, abandoning it as soon it became clear he was not a genius at it—music, arts, philosophy. Now banking was failing him too. He was hyperventilating, tears prickling his eyes. Fuck you, Bernard Gradley.

There was nothing else to do. He got up, knees weak, and walked what seemed like a mile to David's table, where he and his high-powered team threw tens of millions of pounds of government debt backwards and forwards like it was confetti. In Edward's head, everyone was watching, intimately aware of his humiliation. He was trembling—shaking like a leaf, worse than with MacIntyre.

"David. David," he said, his voice tiny and adrift.

"Edward? What is it? You look like hell. Seriously, calm down, you look like you're going to have a coronary."

"I've screwed up. I'm sorry, I've screwed up. I need help." David listened as Edward told him what he could, omitting how his desire to beat his father had led to him taking such a senseless risk. David spent a while in thought then spoke.

"Okay. How much liquid capital do you have?"


"You haven't registered a ticket for the twenty-eight mill, right? It's still in yours and Peter's accounts?"

Of course he hadn't. He'd been too upset. The little men at their terminals wouldn't see anything, because as far as they were concerned the money was still in play.

"No. It's still there."

"Good. Now, I'm going to do you a huge favour. Maybe sometime down the road you let me in on something big, or we pair up our positions and I get the excess, right?"

Edward nodded, mutely, still mortified beyond belief at his own weakness and stupidity.

"Cholmondeley Holdings is buying up Hong Kong Electric. The announcement is this afternoon, three pm sharp. HKE has subsidiaries on the mainland; Cholmondeley's gone from having no presence in Asia at all to being the pack leader. I was really hoping to save this one for myself, but with the amount you need back there's no way anyone else can get in on this. You'll need to use Peter's account again. Oh, and you absolutely didn't hear this from me, okay? Seriously. I'll fucking bury you if you say otherwise."

Edward was still shaking so hard he had to get one of his team to help with the transfer; they would almost certainly tell MacIntyre, but it no longer mattered. Cholmondeley was considered a busted flush in Beijing and Edward bought everything he could find. At three in the afternoon, just as David said, the venerable utility holding company announced its latest venture, taking over a concession-era Hong Kong utility with holdings throughout Guangzhou. Edward watched, hope welling in his heart, as the face value of their shares rose one percent, two, four, eight… By the close of the markets Cholmondeley was worth a quarter again what it had been and Edward held stocks worth worth well over thirty-five million pounds. He had not only made up his lost ground but converted a loss into a profit of close to a quarter of a million pounds. He cashed out immediately, not waiting to see if they rose further. Fortune had deserted him once today. Now he just needed to explain why he had used a previous colleague's account to gamble with far more money than he was trusted to handle. But there was one thing that needed to be done first.

Edward felt very small and fragile as he went over to David and shook his hand. David clapped his arm and looked him in the eye, smiling darkly, as though some great secret had passed between them.

"You see, Ed? It all worked out in the end. Don't forget that favour."

Somehow the nature of what he had done escaped Edward in the rush of adrenaline, the flight-or-fight response that comes with the loss and subsequent gain of seven million pounds. He woke up that night, screaming, scrabbling at the sheets. You bastard! There was no way David could have found about that deal—it had been agreed in total secrecy to protect Hong Kong Electric's shareholders. He lay, soaked in sweat, mind a black whirlpool. Insider trading. Probably the police were already coming for him. He would walk in tomorrow and MacIntyre would be standing with a squad of New Scotland Yard's finest, and he would point to Edward and say "That's him." They would walk him past David, who would sit there with that smile on his face. "I'll fucking bury you." But what did he have on Edward besides knowledge of the failed Cliffes deal? There was nothing illegal there, just another gamble by a City trader that went wrong. I'll tell them everything, swore Edward panickedly, curling up into a fetal ball. But was it illegal if you didn't act on it yourself? As far as he knew David had made no moves on HKE under his own account. Christ, oh Jesus. Maybe David had done it to get rid of him, feared ending up like Peter… Morning saw Edward still plotting, engaged in his long, dark Mutually Assured Destruction of the soul.

The roadworks were back, this time right outside his apartment. The workmen seemed to eye him suspiciously as he drove past and wrote things down in little notebooks. It did not escape him that no-one was even remotely near the roundabout.

Chapter Three: "Tender"

"You've impressed," said Raymond MacIntyre dryly, fingering through the stack of papers detailing Edward's trading over the past four months. "You've worked hard and added value—both on trades and in terms of new clients. I believe congratulations are in order."

"Thank you," said Edward, breathing slowly and carefully. The days after the Cholmondeley deal had been nervewracking, always wondering if something was about to happen. Now, the final moment of truth—the review. Once again he sat in Raymond MacIntyre's office with Will, as lead Partner, sitting in. MacIntyre furrowed his eyebrows and tilted his head forward so the light through the expansive glass ceiling lit up his scalp through his gelled hair.

"Frankly I thought your stunt with Peter's account was too cute for your own good. We place restrictions on how much associates can throw around for a reason. However, I understand you made several hundred thousand on the deal and we are not in the business of punishing success."

"Much appreciated, sir."

"Sir, now? Ah, it seems like just yesterday you were calling me a 'wanker'. Just one little query on the Cholmondeley business," Edward's breath caught in his throat again, "it seems an uncharacteristic choice. Your portfolio is overwhelmingly weighted towards aerospace; a utilities company seems a little out of your area of expertise. May I ask what influenced your choice?"

"I," Edward began, suddenly aware of David's eyes drilling into the side of his head. "I thought this was an excellent opportunity for me to expand into a new area; I think I'm ready to take on a broader portfolio and hope to continue to diversify my stock picks over the next few months."

"Good to hear it," replied MacIntyre—was there a brief sideways glance at David there, a measured appraisal of the situation?

"You will receive a bonus of twelve thousand pounds,"—significantly less than Edward had hoped, barely above average in fact, but a miracle given what he thought was inevitable after he screwed the pooch over Cliffes. "You'll be expected to better your performance next year, and the next, and the next; if you continue to perform, you're well on the road to partnership."

It was with some surprise that Edward heard himself speaking in an eager, almost aggressive tone. "And if I wanted to make partner this year?"

"I'm not sure I follow."

"How much would I have to bring in for you to make me a partner straight away, with no consideration of seniority?" Oh Christ, Edward, what are you saying. You've learned nothing, have you?

"I think, Raymond, he's asking whether there might be some target he can hit to accelerate the process, as it were," chipped in David.

"Hmm—our friend David here brings in three million pounds in profit to the firm every year, not counting clients added. I think, if we were talking theoretically, that any associate able to equal our lead partner would be automatically considered for partnership. I must stress, however, that does not mean that I am looking for you to take risks with the company's money." He looked away and started tapping away on his computer. David nudged Edward, clearly taking it as a sign for them to leave. They had risen from their chairs and were halfway to the door when MacIntyre threw out a final comment.

"And I highly suggest not gambling on the outcome of antitrust investigations in future. We had enough of that with Microsoft in '98."

When the door closed, David leaned against it heavily, looking at Edward through slitted eyes.

"I think we need to talk," Edward said.


There was a fire escape at one side of the trading floor—the actual alarmed fire door was a couple of floors down, transforming it into a deep well. Due to its lack of lighting and enclosed nature it was useless for a surreptitious cigarette, but it was a place you could go and be assured of privacy—the walls were too thick to overhear anything said in the stairwell and the steps were separated so one could see if someone was standing anywhere above you.

"So, Edward, is this about the Cholmondeley trade? Come on, out with it. You've been acting like a spooked deer for days."

"Yes. I've been out of my mind, waiting for the knock on my door. Even the Hong Kong Electric CEO didn't know about the takeover—the Board of Directors told him about at the same time Cholmondeley told the press. So how did I know about that, David? How did I know to buy up twenty-eight fucking million pounds worth of shares?"

"Relax, and stop being a prat. Think about it. Where have you heard the name Cholmondeley before?"

Now David said it, Edward recalled the name had seemed familiar, after a moment scanning his memory, he found it—the old porter at David's gentleman's club had said it. One of the blandly pretty girls who had shared David's Ferrari.

"Didn't I tell you? Anything you learn at a party, at a club, while having dinner with the CEO's daughter—it's all legal."

"David, I know the law. This is a tender offer. If you know the merger's non-public…"

"Who said I knew there was a merger at all? Maybe I just heard that Cholmondeley was going to be making some serious outlay on expansion. Exciting stuff. And voila, it's legal again."


"I didn't see a tape recorder when we spoke on Wednesday. Did you?"


"Good. If anyone asks, you were the one who heard Bernice Cholmondeley blabbing about how much CI was going to make and how her daddy was going to buy her a new pony, or something. Now, if you'll excuse me, 30-year UK government bonds don't sell themselves."

He left Edward in the dark stairwell, deep in thought.

There was no knock on his door. Instead, there was an IRC tab. It had opened in the background while he'd been trading midnight barbs with an advocate of natural theology on a philosophy debate channel. If the concept of God is not omnipotent, Edward was arguing, then it is evil; it is incumbent upon every moral person, if he or she believes God to be less than invincible, to wage war on the founder and author of all evil, pain and death.

When he idly flicked to the additional pane, bearing a single private message, he assumed it was a continuation of the debate, or perhaps someone playing a joke; their nick was 'Death'. The content of the message, however, dispelled that thought:

Death: we know about Cholmondeley

Edward straightened his spine in his chair, irrationally looked around him as though someone might be watching. The message was ambiguous enough that it might not refer to the trade—perhaps a friend of that forgettable woman; Bernice? He typed:

EGradley: ???

Death: don't play dumb. you brought twenty-eight million pounds of shares four days ago based on confidential information.

EGradley: who is this?

Death changed their nick to Death_4H

Death_4H: just some concerned citizens. we know who gave you the information.

EGradley: Bernice Cholmondeley

Death_4H: not exactly. whether you're protecting your friend or whether he has something on you doesn't matter

Death_4H: let me spell this out for you. you heard about the HKE takeover from David Went. he was given the information by Marshall, Carter & Dark

God damn it, thought David. What exactly had he gotten himself into here?

Death_4H: Bernice Cholmondeley traded the information to MC&D for membership.

War_4H has joined the channel

EGradley: and how do you know this?

War_4H: you'd be surprised at what people write down these days. MC&D's email servers are ironclad. the Cholmondeley's private network—not so much.

Edward blinked. That wasn't possible, was it? You couldn't just waltz into a PM thread mid-flow.

EGradley: as far as I'm concerned all my transactions are legitimate. if you have any concerns, David Went is lead partner at Cooper Drake. why don't you talk to him if you have some concerns about my transactions?

War_4H: we'd rather play with you. here's how this is going to work; you help us or we make an anonymous tip-off to the FSA, and they decide whether the Cholmondeley deal was above board or not.

War_4H: whether you give us Went or not doesn't matter; we already have emails indicating that MC&D intended to give him the info in exchange for various favours.

Shit. Shit.

EGradley: what, exactly, do you think I'm going to help you to do?

Death_4H: we'll be in touch.

War_4H has left the channel.**

Death_4H has left the channel.**

And just like that, they were gone. Edward sat in front of his computer, staring at the impossible conversation. He wondered whether this was David Went himself, or someone close to him, testing Edward to see if he would reveal his own involvement to a third party. But then, why would he contradict his own story and implicate himself in a trade for illegal information? Cautiously, Edward highlighted the whole conversation and saved it in a Word document, then encrypted it, just in case.

It was evident, he reflected, that Went was protected somehow by his affiliation with Marshall, Carter & Dark. Otherwise they would have gone after him rather than trying to scare Edward, a marginal player in what increasingly sounded like an illicit black market in insider information. At the same time, it was no longer clear that he could trust David Went, who had involved him in this mess. That left him with just one option.

Edward sat in the café, sipping a blisteringly hot black coffee and watching the rain washing down the windows like a giant carafe of lukewarm water was being slowly tipped over the world. It had to stop sometime, didn't it? He had begun to pity the poor workmen, who he had cautiously decided were probably not watching him. Today he'd seen one of them apparently in the grip of a nervous breakdown, ranting and raving like a lunatic and trying to scrabble towards the traffic island in the middle of the interaction while the others held him back. He checked his watch. Eleven thirty, he thought, sagging visibly. He had taken half the day off and increasingly suspected it was going to be fruitless.

Actually contacting MC&D had proven a chore in itself—their website was nothing more than a password-protected portal with sealed whois information, and their contact details weren't listed anywhere. One night after work he had gone walking on Newgate Street to see if he could find their London chapterhouse by memory, but quickly found himself lost in the strange maze of roads beyond the hospital; his phone and Google Maps couldn't even agree what street he was on. And of course, Great Rojet Street appeared absolutely nowhere. He had almost given up when he had remembered his guest card, left in the back pocket of his coat. It was folded and looked rather the worse for wear, but on close inspection it had what he was looking for—a phone number, made out almost invisibly in matt black lettering on the glossy black card, on the lower left corner of its reverse side.

When he had phoned it, there had been silence for almost twenty seconds—punctuated by the occasional pop of static—before a distant, faint ringing had begun. A short time later a cracked, singsong voice had answered, identifying itself as the Marshall, Carter & Dark switchboard. Edward had impressed himself by demanding a meeting with the head of their London club, refusing to be put off or transferred away. Once he had given the voice his name and sent it to get approval from a manager, it had been replaced by a smooth, lower-register male voice that made no mention of Cholmondeley, David, or even the club itself, but quickly arranged a meeting for eleven o'clock the following morning at an upscale eatery. Edward was sure he hadn't imagined the looks the staff gave when he mentioned he was waiting for a business associate; he guessed this was a locale used by MC&D for sensitive meetings where they didn't trust them enough to admit them to the clubhouse.

Just as Edward was about to call it a day and leave, the door chimed and a man walked in. He wasn't carrying an umbrella but was visibly bone dry, not a hair out of place. Impressive, thought Edward, though I can think of about five ways he could have pulled that one off. However he had made it from his vehicle—almost certainly the black Rolls Royce with gold trim parked outside—there was no doubt that the stunt had been intended for his benefit and that this was his contact. The man was tall—about Edward's height—and handsome in a high-maintenance, polished way. He could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, with blue eyes and a wave of fine blond hair. He sat, drawing back his lips to reveal perfect white dentition. 'Smile' was probably the wrong word for it.

"Mr Gradley. So good to meet you." They shook hands; the man had somehow contrived to signal for a tall latte, which was placed down quickly and efficiently by a wide-eyed young waitress who immediately backed away and all but ran into the back of the café, followed by the older brunette.

"And you are?"

"Just call me Jeremy. Now, I understand you have an interest in our little establishment."

"Yes. I've seen what you've done for David—David Went—and I'd like the same deal."

"I see. And do you understand the terms?" Jeremy listed his cup and sipped expectantly.

"I think so. I receive conditional membership—entitling me to, ah, help and support from your association, and in return I pass on information and make financial opportunities available to Marshall, Carter & Dark."

Jeremy chuckled, shook his head and emptied a packet of Splenda into his latte.

"It's a bit more formal than that, I'm afraid. Mr Went's membership comes with his place in our Acquisitions team. You see, we at MC&D offer our members the most expensive and exclusive experiences and articles anywhere in the world. You've seen our catalogue?" Edward nodded. "Well, for those who would ordinarily be unable to afford our membership we offer a limited package that permits access to our private events and the benefit of, well, bespoke consultation with MC&D experts on matters which could further their career. Oh, and complete immunity should they act on, or help others act on, the advice they have received. In return, they help us acquire special objects and people of interest to our established members. If they continue to get results, then they can expect a corresponding increase in the level of advice they receive until—who knows? They may be able to purchase full membership. And then they'll be the ones requesting rare and beautiful things from across the world."

Edward thought this all sounded very familiar.

"I see. And if I wanted to join this Acquisitions group?"

"Then you would need to undergo a formal orientation. If the opportunities I have discussed are of interest, please call through to our switchboard and have one of our cars bring you to our chapterhouse this evening. Orientations begin at ten sharp."

And with that the meeting seemed to be over. Jeremy left still holding his drink, elegantly dipping into the door of the Rolls-Royce held open for him by a stocky man with short salt-and-pepper hair who didn't seem to enjoy the same protection from the elements. Edward swirled his coffee and smiled at the staff as they ventured back out.

"Bit of a dragon, is he?" he asked cheerily. No-one responded.

The orientation was a surreal experience. One of the black Rolls stopped outside Edward's apartment, the contrast with his Astra finally persuading him that he would have to visit a dealership soon and spend some of his bonus. The driver, a skinny, young man with bright red hair and a long, lipless sneer, drove him in silence through the soft-lit streets that had somehow avoided Google Street View's vans, finally stopping outside the sightless facade of the clubhouse. Once inside a heavy, silken cloth was tied over his eyes and led through several rooms until he reached a cold, echoing space where he felt the presence of many other people waiting, probably similarly blinded. Then he heard a voice—it sounded somewhat like Jeremy, though the acoustics meant he couldn't be certain. This is what it said:

"Welcome to Marshall, Carter & Dark Ltd. If you are here, then you have been accepted into our ranks. Congratulations.

"A short summary of our organisation is in order. We are a gentleman's concern, providing our members with the most exclusive, expensive, and rare experiences available. We are centered in London, with agents all over the world, finding and retrieving items for us so we may better provide said experiences. Those of you here today, sitting blindfolded in the audience, are to be our finders, our retrievers.

"Many of you have connections to other groups that deal with objects or information that we are interested in—we expect full loyalty to our cause despite these connections. Any sign of deviance will be punished.

"As you will work on a case by case basis, I will be very broad. Cases, known as Acquisitions, will be assigned based upon your personal areas of expertise. You are not allowed to turn down an Acquisition. While working on an Acquisition, you will have access to the resources of our organisation, depending on the case. Abuse of these resources will be punished.

"You are to apply yourself to the assigned Acquisition with all due haste, whilst keeping up any required appearances. Under no circumstances are you to reveal that you are working for Marshall, Carter & Dark. Any attempt to speak about Marshall, Carter & Dark with people that have not been sanctioned by Marshall, Carter & Dark will be punished.

"This concludes your orientation. Please face to your right and take short, measured steps. You will be guided to a room where you will be allowed to remove your blindfold. Some of you will receive your first Acquisition case; upon completion you will receive limited membership and a reward to be arranged with your contact. Thank you for your time."

As Edward walked carefully towards the door he was struck by the fact that the other footsteps were only echoes of his own; in fact, the more he allowed himself to reflect on it the more certain he was that he was, apart from MC&D's employees, alone in the chapterhouse, and that the whole initiation ceremony with its cultic trappings had been arranged specifically for his benefit.

After walking a good hundred paces he heard a door close behind him and hands lowered him into a rich leather chair. The blindfold was removed—as he had expected, Jeremy sat across from him on the other side of a dark wooden desk lit by an elegant angle lamp, surrounded by densely packed shelves of aged-looking books.

"Edward! Glad to see you made it. Welcome aboard." He was toying with a gold-banded fountain pen.

"So, I imagine you'll be presenting me with a task right away." To prove my loyalty, he thought. He strongly suspected no-one walked out of the chapterhouse without a favour to complete.

"That's correct. There's a document we want you to acquire; nothing illegal, just a little straightforward persuasion. Some charm, Mr Gradley. Ten thousand pounds will be wired to your personal account to make the purchase—you will be expected to return any money left over. The current owner of the document does not know its real value and the amount we have provided should be more than adequate to persuade her to make the sale."

"Would I know the owner?"

"You were selected for this acquisition exactly because you have made her acquaintance; she is an infrequent guest of the Lady Penelope. The daughter of Christophe Beaumont—Maria Beaumont."

Edward fell silent for a second. He was effectively being asked to scam the woman. Not only that, but his instincts had told him of the existence of a relationship between her and David Went; she had not confirmed his suspicions but it was enough to make him wary of the errand. After a few moments he made up his mind.

"This document—what am I looking for? I imagine Miss Beaumont will have lots of valuable papers in her possession."

"A very astute question. You are looking for a manuscript authored by Gervase of Langford, a fourteenth century writer thought for a long time to be apocryphal. He is supposed to be a contemporary of Chaucer—a long-lost pioneer of English literature. Excerpts from the manuscript in question, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians, were touted around in the late Victorian era as prophetic literature, but scholars widely considered the book a 'ghost', a phantom invented by later authors or perhaps an embellishment of a more well-known document. Shakespeare's "Cardenio" is another so-called ghost. Except of course, the Viage has been found; traced, at considerable expense, by our Documents team." He slid a slim briefing document over the table—noticeably absent, Edward noticed, was any trace of the MC&D cartouche.

"In the possession of the Beaumont estate."

"Yes; the original manuscript is recorded as having been sold for four guineas to a French businessman called Guiger in the sixteenth century. There the trail ended, until we discovered a reference to a 'Voyage au Pays des Cimmériens' having been acquired by the library of Jean-Paul Beaumont in 1897."

"What would it look like?"

"Obviously we can't say for sure—we believe, however, that it will be a codex."

"A codex?"

"Much like the tomes surrounding me—a book. Most likely bound in metal, given the documentation. We believe it was transported from France in the 1980s with the rest of Christophe Beaumont's collection. It should be in the library of the Beaumont residence, which should not be hard for you to locate."

"And if it isn't?"

"Then our working relationship will be a brief one. Now, there are several non-disclosure agreements to sign, prohibiting you from discussing the involvement of Marshall, Carter & Dark during the transaction or thereafter…"

The Beaumont residence, located in Belgravia, was a six-storey terraced property; white stucco with fluted columns supporting an expansive porch supporting a balcony filled with a tasteful assortment of topiary. Edward all but hurdled the distance from his car to the doorway but still somehow managed to get drenched from head to toe. He rung the bell and stood shivering in his probably ruined suit until Maria opened it, summery in a floral blue dress and a wide-brimmed hat.

"Oh look at you; you're soaked to the skin. Come in, come in." Edward wasn't even sure if she recognised him from the clubhouse.

She laid down newspaper for Edward to tread on and took his coat, which she spread over the radiator.

"You should come through to the solarium. I'm just doing some gardening."

After removing his shoes Edward followed her through the elegant interior, furnished in the Louis XVI style and lit with high, diffuse lights that offset the cream walls. She led him up a short flight of stairs and into a wide circular courtyard surrounding a neatly maintained flower bed. The light here was a warm orange and they seemed to have suddenly entered evening in late summer. Edward looked up and saw the rain beating against a tinted glass dome. Maria knelt down on a small cushion and began bedding a number of small pink flowering plants from a tray.

"You have a lovely home," he said.

"Thank you, but it's not mine. It belongs to my father—but he spends most of his time in France, on business."

"Oh." He watched her gardening for a few minutes.

"I thought you might have been coming by to give me flowers," she said. "I don't like that. David always brings me flowers and I watch them die. Being uprooted like that; it's too cruel." Edward wondered if she was thinking of her own childhood, brought to Britain at the age of seven if the research he'd done last night on the family was correct.

"Actually," he said, "I was hoping to ask you a favour. There was a certain book I was looking for and can't seem to find anywhere. Someone told me that the Beaumont library might have a copy."

"Oh dear. You can certainly come and look, but I don't think I can be of help to you. Come with me."

Again Edward found himself trailing behind Maria as she navigated flights of stairs and led him through various impossibly lavish drawing-rooms.

Finally she came to a stairwell that led sharply upwards to a trapdoor.

"When my father came from France he had the whole collection put in crates and shipped over; but he never had the time to recatalog it." She opened the trapdoor and they rose into a high-vaulted loft space, the floor littered with dozens upon dozens of great boxes, every surface covered in a thick layer of dust and fibreglass fluff. Edward looked on in despair.

"So you see, if the book you were looking for is part of my family's library it is somewhere in there." She shook her head. "I'm so sorry."

Edward looked at her—the light from the trapdoor lit up her arms and legs and made her seem something ethereal, less than solid. He had already decided what he was going to say.

"I'll help you. I'll get it all organised, put them up on shelves."

Maria's expression was hard to read in the shadow of the attic. "Won't your bosses mind?"

"I'll do it out of office hours. That is, if you're happy?"

"Yes, yes! But you mustn't do it for free. I'll phone my father and ask him to pay you for it. There's a room on the second floor he always meant to be the library—there are some mementos on the shelves I will need to clear."

And that was how the weeks played out—Edward would play the stock market during the day and spend the evenings and weekends at the Beaumont residence, hauling boxes down from the attic and cataloging their contents. First-edition Proust, an autographed copy of Les Misérables, the complete works of François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d'Arnaud. Several times Edward found himself sitting and reading through volumes of Comte and Montesquieu in their original French, before chiding himself for wasting time. No date had been set by Jeremy for the acquisition of the Viage, but he imagined this delay could not have been appreciated.

The little library soon filled up and Maria annexed the parlour next door, bringing in new shelving during the day. Edward opened box after box of tomes packed in yellowed styrofoam, but there was no metal-bound medieval manuscript. Maria would walk in from time to time, bringing him sweet tea in little china cups and wafer-thin biscuits.

"Edward, you will not be able to come around tomorrow evening," she told him once.

"Oh. Why?"

"Well, David is coming over, and you were right. He can be a little jealous. You have been so good in doing this—I do not want him to get the wrong idea." She held his cheek with her hand for a moment and suddenly flushed before turning away.

One rainy Saturday—there was no sun anymore, it seemed, at least outside office hours—a bone-tired Edward levered off the top of the latest crate, a damp, miserable thing he had found lurking near the edge of the attic. The books at the top were ruined; little more than dried pulp between the covers. Seventeenth century Molière, now mush. Below the ruined books there seemed to be only emptiness; an expanse of styrofoam peanuts all the way to the bottom of the box. Or was it the bottom? The cool, unyielding surface he had encountered didn't seem far enough down. Scrabbling around he found one corner, then another, and lifted the object out of the packing crate.

It was more a box than a binding—a plain, almost crude iron cuboid with a hefty haft. On it the word 'Gervais'—presumably the French spelling—had been not engraved but scratched into the metal. He held his breath as he undid the clasp. Had it been reduced to mulch like the others? The pages were yellowed, brittle, cracked at the edges; but intact. The title page took his breath away—still-vivid reds and greens spiralling together in an ornate 'A' that began the title: 'A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians'. He closed the box, and took a deep breath. Now the hard part.

"To buy? Oh, no, I'm sorry, Edward. That book is part of my family estate—they all are. I could not sell them, not for any amount of money."

"Perhaps your father…"

"My father entrusted the house and everything to me—do you see? I cannot sell you the book."

"But … they were in packing crates for years. Your father probably doesn't even know it's in here, surely there's no harm in letting it go?" he said, a little roughly. Then, softening his tone, "It would mean a lot to me."

"Edward! Please, listen to me. You are a dear man and I hope a dear friend. I do not like to say no to you. Please do not let some old silly book come between us."

Edward collapsed into a chair and gazed into the middle distance. Maria, unwilling to let Edward see her cry, turned away. Edward left shortly afterwards, books and packing material still strewn around the floor like the wreckage from some terrible explosion.

Maria called several times over the next few days, each time on his home phone during office hours, hanging up when it went to answerphone. He couldn't bring himself to call her back.

Unable to decide what to do next in the Beaumont acquisition, Edward simply let it rest for the moment, the ten thousand pounds resting accusingly in his personal current account. He would have been content to leave it there forever before something happened to make him act. This time it didn't come from apocalyptically-named IRC personalities, shady gentleman's clubs or even David Went. It began with an innocuous phonecall from Wil Hamilton, his one-time best friend back at Redmayne–Bracknell.

"We should meet up for a drink sometime," suggested Edward, reflecting that since joining Cooper Drake he had all but given up friends. His occasional outings with David Went were the closest he came to sharing time with friends these days, especially since he had stopped going to Maria's house.

"Sure. So how are things as a master of the universe?"


"You don't say. Keeping your eyes on the prize, right?"

"When I can. How is HR treating you?"

"It's my busy season too. So many companies are closing we're getting deluged with applications. You know how it goes—all the handwritten letters, in the bin. All the 'To whom it may concerns'—in the bin. Pile A is the first-class degrees from Oxbridge, pile B is the first-class degrees from other unis. The rest go in the bin. All the off-white paper; in the bin. All the ones on company letterhead; in the bin. Interview the first ten from the top of each pile and chuck the ones who start the interview with 'um'. If you're left with one candidate from pile A and another from B, chuck the B-lister."

"Heh," Edward thought: you're missing out a trick there, mate. I know for a fact you look at the surnames and chuck the ones that don't sound like they attended Eton in the 1950s.

"Here's something you could probably use—you know Western Instruments?"

Edward vaguely remembered it as a dinosaur of a New England firm that made graphic calculators and replied in the affirmative.

"Well, they're jumping ship in their dozens. I'd say about one in every five applications we're getting over in Accounts are from them."


"Well, nothing's been announced yet, but it's common knowledge at the firm. They're only getting jumped by the Slasher."

Bashir "Slasher" Khan (he wouldn't have got into Redmayne–Bracknell under Wil Hamilton's watch, sad to say) was an aggressive young tycoon who had made millions buying up dying British and American companies, ruthlessly cutting them to the bare bones and selling them on to multinationals. He was the master of the hostile takeover, appealing directly to shareholders and bypassing management altogether. After firing half the workforce and paring back output to its most profitable components a company 'slashed' by Bashir Khan could be worth as much as fifteen percent more.

"Really? I'll look into it. Thanks for the tip."

They concluded their discussion with some light ribbing and a promise to get together some time, maybe pulling in friends who had left for different firms.

Then Edward started researching Western Instruments and Bashir Khan. It all seemed to check out—Khan hadn't made an acquisition for months and was surely looking to expand again. Western Instruments was a sad, bloated carcass of what it used to be, still insisting that people needed single-purpose computing equipment at the price of a smart phone. A trickle of orders from the schools were the only thing keeping them in business.

This time Edward ran the deal past everyone—Liz, David, even popping in to let Raymond know. Everything came together—Liz reported confidently that voluntary redundancies in Western Instruments were sky-high. David confirmed something big was in the works from Slasher Khan. Edward was authorised to buy up eighteen million in shares in Western Instruments.

"What, that old thing?" asked his American contact in disbelief. "They're dead, son—you might as well invest in abacuses." But Edward pressed ahead, confident that as soon as the Slasher made his move he would be holding gold dust.

A week passed. Two weeks. Then the news—Edward's heart leapt as he saw the headline 'Slasher strikes again!'. It might have been a grisly murder—which in some ways it was—except it was in the Finance section.

Bashir 'The Slasher' Khan has struck again, announcing a hostile takeover of Global Merchandise Limited, the international PR firm, which had been languishing for years following the collapse of the dot-com bubble…

Edward couldn't believe it. Surely there had to be some mistake, something misreported. He scanned the news for any mention of Western Instruments. And there it was.

Western Instruments today announced losses of twenty million in its second quarter in a major blow to the ailing scientific calculator manufacturer.

He had been set up. Instead of gold dust he'd been left with fool's gold. In under an hour the face value of his stocks dipped by eight percent. While desperately trying to find a buyer, any buyer, he dialled Wil's number.

"Hi there Edward." He sounded horribly, nauseatingly chipper.

"Hello Wil. Is there something you want to tell me now?" He couldn't prevent the note of panic from entering his voice.

"You know, Edward, some companies have institutional memory. Not Cooper Drake, of course, but proper companies. Companies with history and character. You fucked us over, Edward. Did you think we'd just forget?" Edward was speechless as Wil continued. "RB gave you your break, forgave you all those months you farted around twiddling your thumbs like the spoilt brat you are."

"I thought we were friends," Edward said. I wonder if Peter finally realised, he thought—put Wil up to this. There's a justice in it, I guess.

"I thought we were," said Wil. "That was before you screwed with Redmayne–Bracknell."

Edward's mouth went tight. "Then screw you, you piece of shit. You're a bloody racist, as well, you know that? You run your fucking HR department like the Klu Klux Klan. Go to hell." He put the phone down. One more bridge well and truly burned, he thought.

In some ways this was worse than what had happened over Cliffes—though the trade had been above board, signed and sealed by Cooper Drake's management, it had been based on lies, lies predicated on a personal vendetta against him. Lies he had believed and presented as fact. Even MacIntyre wouldn't fire me for this, he thought mutely. He'll just move me quietly to a back room and make sure every other investment bank firm in the world knows I can't handle the trading floor. And now, only now, did the sick lump form in his stomach, as he saw his only option to make good.

The first time he had gone to the Beaumont residence he had forgotten his umbrella. This time it was with him, but he left it on his passenger seat. He walked through the rain to the porch and rung the bell. Just like the first time. Put things back to how they were. Another visit to Mr Stathopoulos would be in order, of course.

Maria came to the door in a thick, fluffy dressing gown, hair tightly wrapped in a towel. She looked at him and a suggestion of tears began to form again in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"You poor man! You poor man!" she said, grabbing him and bringing him inside, where she rested his head on her shoulder and allowed the water from his suit to soak into her robe. He didn't allow her to take his bag but placed it on the newspaper she brought out.

"Maria," he said, "I came—that is to say I stopped by—I felt bad for leaving the library in such a state—and even if you didn't want—I wanted to finish it—and I was so out of line—and—" Edward was unable to tell if his own breathless incoherence was an attempt to win sympathy or not. She took him by the hand and led him back to the library. To his amazement the books and styrofoam remained where he had left them; scattered on the floor.

"Nothing has changed, you know? I was just waiting for you to come back. I was worried."

He leaned closer to her, kissed her hair. She took his still damp collar with both hands and guided his face to hers, kissed his mouth, hard. You bastard, he wanted to shout at himself, you fucking bastard. He was crying now, and she took a tissue and wiped his eyes.

"Please," she said, her smile illuminated in that little plaster room, "don't cry. I'll bring tea and biscuits."

After she left, he watched his body move over to the bookshelf where the Gervase codex sat, taller and wider than the books around it and 'Gervais' scratched on its spine. He watched himself take the iron box off the shelf and swap it for the shoddy replica he had pieced together from the remains of an old washing-machine, smoothly transferring the manuscript to his bag. And that was all there was to it.

He swept up the packing chips and picked up where he left off. A few minutes later Maria brought warm, sweet tea, and he drank it like a man dying of thirst.

« Act I - "Jellybeans" | HUB | Act II - "You are invited" »

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License