By Robert Bagnall
Gail Burden stared out of her window at the traffic kicking up the puddles in the Greys Inn Road, then back to the files on her desk.
A red light blinked on her voicemail. It had been blinking for some days now.
The issue was a trivial one. Burden had been Director of Central Services for the Corporation for three years, and she did her utmost to avoid trivia. When Shelley, the internal consultant, started to explain the background to what had now become known as the “Lodeon Situation” she felt the hot pressure of a migraine coming on. It took a moment to grasp why she was being involved in a matter of detail, a petty issue of a couple of hundred Euros a year at most. But she also fully understood dangers of precedent, of policy decisions coming back to bite you when you least expect it.
But there was another angle to this. The Lodeon situation was threatening to take on a life of its own. Burden had stepped into the lift a few days before with the Director of Customer Relations. John Guy was a big man, six-foot-two or -three to Burden’s five-foot-two, and had a way of looking some inches taller.
“About Lodeon,” he growled then leaned back, looking at her down his nose and letting his jacket hang loose. It was a subtle but quite deliberate act. Protruding just under his armpit was a beautifully worked pearl handle, like a creamy white phallus, anatomically misplaced. The meaning was quite clear. Lodeon’s grievance had filtered as far as the director, who was prepared to make a stand.
“It’s a matter of policy, John,” Burden said coolly.
“It’s a matter of principle. Gail.”
The lift slowed, a bar of daylight passing over them. The doors opened and John Guy got out without a backward glance, carefully buttoning his suit.
Afterward Burden realized that she had automatically assumed it was the handle of a small pistol, but it could equally have been a dagger. A sudden, ridiculous, mental image of John Guy with a tiny lady’s pistol in his hand flashed before her mind’s eye. She could not imagine anything punier, more laughable. Like knitting needles in the hands of a heavyweight boxer.
A dagger would be more his style. But to be in a scabbard below his armpit would mean that it would have to be strapped vertically downward if it was not to poke obviously through his jacket. Arm raised, she imitated reaching for the weapon and found that it could only be drawn with the blade pointing down. Perfect for stabbing people in the back. So very, very John Guy.
It was the continuation of a trend that had worried Burden for some months. She felt, in her role, she should have made a stand against it. But by the time she had realized that it existed it had become ingrained in the organization, so all pervading, that she felt somewhat ridiculous raising the matter so late in the day. She discussed it with Toni Carr, the only other female director, who narrowed her eyes and told her that she needed to get real, that it was part and parcel of how business was conducted now. There was something in there about leaving “soft, pink, fluffy human resources” outside the boardroom if Gail wanted to have any influence on the business. After that she pretended it didn’t exist, looked the other way. A weak stance, she knew, weak but pragmatic.
It first manifested itself in small ways. The number of people taking days off work with visits to casualty or other sudden unspecified injuries. The need for a new accident book after less than a year. The sheer lack of questions at a colleague arriving for work with a large dressing over a cheek wound. Adverts for fencing lessons tucked away in the Evening Standard or self-defense classes on late night television. A woman bearing a scar with pride. A minor but infectious pop hit for a band called Guns or Knives.
And, Gail realized in retrospect, a total lack of shock or surprise from anybody: the media, the government, friends, relatives, colleagues. Not a single word said against it. Maybe it’ll help get rid of this health and safety nonsense, help people make proper decisions, her father had said, oddly merging two unrelated points.
Closer to home, her twenty-two-year-old son had been asked to be best man at his best friend’s wedding with the words “Will you be my seconds?” The words made her shiver.
Even the coffee table in the Chief Executive’s office had gained a mahogany box, twelve inches by six by four, with rosewood inlay. It could have been cigars. But the CE did not smoke, to the best of her knowledge.
Burden found herself staring at the box, imagining the pair of pistols that lay inside. Probably custom made, with rococo engraving. Darkly oiled metal and wood, grain brought to the fore, sitting on a bed of rumpled silk. What color? Something told her imperial purple.
“This is taking up far too much management time. For what? A few hundred Euros a year,” the Chief Executive said.
“It’s a matter of consistent application of policy.”
She dragged her eyes from the box. “In this particular case, yes, I agree. But where does it stop? We have people acting into higher positions all the time. This isn’t a one-off.”
The Chief Executive leaned back into his leather chair, almost forcing his shoulders into the padding. “There are a lot of people getting quite emotional over this…”
“If you’re instructing me to revise the policy, that’s fine, as long as you appreciate the implications.”
The CE held up a calming hand. “I’m not instructing you to do anything, Gail. This is your call. All I’m saying is that there are certain people who…”
“Have their knives out for me?”
The Old Man, as he was affectionately known, but never to his face, smiled benignly. “A very appropriate turn of phrase.”
Returning to her office she found another message on her voicemail. “Hi, Gail, it’s John calling from Allied Inter-European Insurance. I can keep the exclusive introductory premiums open for you until the end of the day only. That’s on emergency staff cover insurance for whatever reason, temporary or semi-permanent, including adventure sports, attempted suicide, and dueling. These premiums undercut all other major insurers and we are only able to offer them because we are the market leader in your business sector…”
Burden stabbed at the bank of telephone controls cutting John from the Allied Inter-European off in mid flow. Why do they call them premiums, she found herself wondering in frustration, when the plural of premium is premia?
The two files, Lodeon’s personal file and the grey reward and remuneration policy file, were still on the desk. Maybe she was being too hung up on her principles over this. What if she let Justin Lodeon have his way? There was a logic there. She needed the co-operation of people like John Guy to make the things she was responsible for work. She remembered her college tutor telling her that it was the fate of the human resources manager to manage a business indirectly, through other people. Why make life hard for herself?
But there was more to this. There were issues of consistency, of how she would expect to be treated in a similar situation. After all, she had spent periods acting in her current role before being promoted officially. No, there was a clear and unambiguous policy and the grey file showed no precedents to fall back on. She rationalized it this way — too many people think that if a decision goes against them they can simply appeal and keep appealing until the answer magically changes. Burden’s underlings had given their response, and so had she. That had to be final.
She had always been a woman of principle. The concept of turning the other cheek had somehow had a disproportionate effect on her as a child in Sunday school, leaving her with a martyr’s sensibility. She had been one of the first in line for national identity cards whilst they were still voluntary. On the only occasion she had been called upon to show it she displayed it with smug pride. She had once appeared on a daytime television program supporting gene-based insurance without knowing the tendencies of either her or her children toward disease. She had even found herself arguing for the radical conservative proposal of limiting the vote only to those with formal qualifications. She thought in terms of the greater good, of altruism, regardless of where that left her as an individual. Although she barely recognized it, she took great personal pride in her complete lack of personal pride.
The telephone jolted her from her thoughts. “Meet me on the roof.” It took her a second to realize that it was John Guy’s voice.
“The roof? But it’s pissing down, John.”
The connection was dead.
Burden pushed open the door marked “Authorized Personnel Only” and stepped out onto the roof. She could feel the gravel in bitumen through the soles of her shoes. John Guy was waiting for her, leaning against a cooling duct, with another man in his twenties. She recognized the face from his file. Justin Lodeon.
“Have you brought your seconds?” John Guy called.
“Yes, your seconds.”
“John, we’re directors of this corporation. We do not solve problems by fighting like school children.” There was a good ten feet between them. A neutral zone.
“School children don’t fight like we will.”
“John, this is ridiculous.”
“Are you refusing to fight?”
“This is silly.”
“Are you refusing to fight?”
Lodeon slowly tilted his head back and narrowed his eyes in imitation of his director. Rain ran into his eyes but he did not blink. Burden recognized the body language as that of a coward, of somebody out of his depth.
“We’re adults, John. Call me when you’re ready to talk about this.” Her heel crunched in the gravel as she turned back to the door.
She took the lift down to the ground floor in a haze. Later she recalled the doors wheezing open and a small knot of admin staff entering. Their voices dropped and their eyes glanced occasionally to her, standing silent and erect in the corner of the silver lift. They got off before her, muttering. As the doors closed she thought she remembered giggles.
In her office Gail looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was in rat-tails. Her purple business suit had been rucked and furrowed by the rain. Mascara had streaked down her cheeks. She was pale. She was shaking.
Like when holidaying in a foreign culture, Burden had picked up a sense of what was now considered right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, without fully understanding. A chief executive with dueling pistols on his coffee table. John Guy himself openly brandishing weaponry. And had not Cartwright, the sales director, returned from a major client meeting with a memorandum of understanding for a six-figure order and a bandaged chest? A fall, Cartwright had told her, but she felt others were given a different story, probably told with glowing pride. Sometimes Burden felt that she was being frozen out, that her colleagues were using a language that she could not understand.
Without telling anybody she took the rest of the day off.
In many ways the Corporation was lazy, stupid, and fat. It had been discovered during a routine audit that an order for new display screens adding up to several tens of thousands had been paid three times. The supplier had now gone into liquidation and the money was irretrievable. The individuals responsible for letting the contract and signing off the invoices had both left at the same time and had now set up in business together. When the audit was completed, some nine months later, the mysterious source of their start up funds was revealed. They had even made veiled references to the difficulty of raising seed-money in their leaving speeches.
Everybody had assumed that Gail was aware of the open secret that the two had been sleeping together for years because, seemingly, everybody else knew. And because everybody else thought that Gail knew everybody thought that there was no problem in them working so closely together, in selecting suppliers and signing checks. But how could Gail know if nobody told her? At least they were spared the cruel irony of the two setting up in business as rivals. In the end no legal action was taken against the pair. The matter and the money were written off.
Or so Gail Burden thought.
She came in the next day to find the internal auditor, Kingston, awaiting her. He leafed through papers, flicking each one over, as she hung up her raincoat. The red light on her voicemail continued to blink.
“What can I do for you, Duncan?”
“It’s the McClellan business.”
“McClellan and Casey. What about it?”
I prefer to refer to it simply as McClellan. Or, perhaps, McClellan and McClellan now that they’re married. Or didn’t you know?” Duncan Kingston had the look of a man who had been brought up sucking lemons. But his voice rarely had this sour edge.
“No, I didn’t.” Gail sat down. She had no idea what was coming but she felt that she wasn’t going to like it.
“It’s to be re-opened.”
She shrugged. “To what end? The money’s lost. And we agreed the adverse publicity would do more harm than prosecuting … McClellan and McClellan.”
Kingston looked at her with his yellow, jaundiced eyes for the first time. “It’s being re-opened to look at your role in all of this.”
“My role? But I didn’t play a role.”
“This was all to do with Information Systems and Procurement. That all falls under Finance, not Central Services.”
“People are your business.”
“But I’m not bloody psychic.”
“My brief is to ask the question whether there was a foreseeable risk and, if so, whether appropriate steps were taken.”
Gail’s mind spun. “You’re saying as Director of Central Services I should know who’s screwing who on the payroll?”
It was Kingston’s turn to shrug languidly. His mouth made a strange turned-on-its-side S shape. Gail suspected it was his attempt at smiling. “All I’m asking is was there a risk which could have been mitigated.”
“Is this the formal interview? Is this what we’re doing? Are you taping this?”
“I put the meeting in your diary yesterday afternoon.”
“I’m allowed two days notice of an audit interview. That’s my right.”
Kingston removed the tape recorder from his pocket and clicked it to off. “You are,” he said blankly and gathered his papers.
Almost out of the room Gail called after him, “John Guy’s behind this, isn’t he, Duncan?”
Kingston replied that this was a routine audit conducted to the corporate timetable, but the pause he made beforehand told Gail all she needed to know.
Less than a day after her stand off with John Guy he already had her on the run. She knew only the guilty called for the two-day audit rule. Everybody knew that. If you didn’t have anything to hide then why delay the investigation? And it was all on tape. Her outburst. Her defensiveness. Kingston had caught her cold and she was on the canvas before she even realized what was happening.
She shivered with the realization that the tape was probably being played at that moment. Who would be leaning over, straining to catch her every word? A self-satisfied John Guy? The Old Man, eyes half closed? Maybe the whole of the Board?
The clock was ticking. She could either sit there, like a rabbit caught in headlights, or she could act. How much more like her to stare out of the window at the rain splashing in the Grey’s Inn Road than to physically act. Something had to change.
“Where’s Shelley?” Burden stabbed a finger at one of the admin assistants as she strode into the Human Resources office. The girl’s frightened look indicated one of the glass-fronted offices where the team of HR consultants could be seen laughing and shaking off biscuit crumbs.
Gail threw the door open, freezing the jollity of the team meeting into a tableau. Shelley was caught as a ginger nut disintegrated into her mug of coffee. “Come with me.” No apology, no explanation.
In the lift Shelley timidly asked where they were going.
“You’re going to see John Guy.”
“I heard…” Shelley trailed off.
Shelley’s eyes darted to the floor of the lift as bars of daylight slowly passed over her. “I heard a rumor that he wanted to duel. Only a rumor. I can’t remember who told me…”
“What do you reckon? Guns or knives?” Gail asked bluntly. She had no time for Shelley’s whimperings, but somebody had to act as her seconds.
The doors opened on John Guy’s floor but Gail did not get out. “Tell him I’ll be on the roof.”
Shelley held out a hand to stop the doors closing. “What’s your preference?”
“What are my choices?”
“Guns, knives, swords. Normally.”
The lift doors closed.
A swathe of London was visible from the roof. The gothic towers and white brick piping of the St. Pancras Hotel and the railway stations beyond. The pinnacles of the Royal Courts of Justice. Canary Wharf. Even the tops of Tower Bridge. The rain had stopped but a damp grey wind had got up. She hoped this would be over quickly.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind her. John Guy, Lodeon, and lastly Shelley stepped out from an access door. John Guy grinned. Lodeon looked blank.
Shelley carried a knife over to her director. Burden felt its weight in the palm of her hand. It had a good balance. Her inside knotted at the thought that she was adjudging such things.
“I’ve informed Friedmann,” Shelley said. Friedmann was the company doctor.
“You fill me with confidence. How do go about this?”
“The first to draw blood.”
“I know that. I meant the etiquette.”
Shelley was flustered. “I don’t know. Maybe I should drop a handkerchief or something.”
“Do you have one?”
“Well, that was a stupid idea then. John,” she called, “How do we do this?”
Lodeon was helping him off with his jacket. “On your seconds’ mark, we fight until blood is drawn.”
Gail took a deep breath. “Just say, ‘one, two, three’ or something.”
John Guy was in his shirtsleeves, crouched, knife balanced and ready. Burden felt woefully under-prepared, not even sure how to stand let alone fight.
“Ready?” Shelley never sounded less ready. “One, two, three, fight.”
John Guy shot Shelley a sarcastic glare and lunged at Burden who took a step backwards, heels scraping in the gravel. She wondered whether she ought to have taken them off.
He shuffled forward, keeping his balance, moving like a cat, lithe shoulders swaying. For a big man he was agile, mobile. His tie caught in the wind.
And then he lunged. Gail felt the swish of metal not far from her face. She leaned away from the blade, stumbling backward against a cooling duct. She expected a flurry of arms and legs, cold metal biting hotly into flesh. But her opponent did not go in for the kill as she thought he might. He would probably call it gallantry.
She wiped her palms clean of sweat on her suit. It would no doubt be ruined by the conclusion. Blood was screaming in her ears, pulsing, pounding. Her breathing was labored.
John Guy came at her again, knife dully glinting. The duel was finding its rhythm. A frantic few moments between glares and heavy breathing. He stabbed but the blade caught in cloth. Their faces were inches apart. His eyes were like coals. She made a swing at him, but he broke free too quick for her.
John Guy laughed. This was easy for him. Gail Burden had been lucky so far, or maybe he had just been toying with her, teasing.
“You can concede, Gail. There’s no shame.”
“You know my feelings about dueling, but I don’t think that’s how it would be seen.”
“I’ll try not to scar you where it shows, but I can’t make guarantees. In the heat of the moment, you might lose an eye. All over this petty, peripheral issue. Think about it.”
“Are you conceding, John? Is that what you want to tell me?”
There was no answer. Instead John Guy dropped to his trademark crouch. He grinned up at Gail. It was obvious to both of them what it meant. This time he would make it count. After this exchange the fight would be over. He took a deep, audible breath and came at her.
And as he did so Gail swung her knife at him and let go.
Almost on top of her, John Guy swung his knife at Gail. But he was falling. His eyes registered shock as his target seemed to tumble away. But he was the one slithering into the gravel.
He looked down at where Gail’s knife quivered in his thigh. It had buried itself by a good four inches. John Guy’s hand came away bloody.
“That’s not in the rules. You can’t throw the bloody thing.”
“Why not? We used knives, and I was the first to draw blood.”
Karl Friedmann was by John Guy’s side, slitting open the trouser leg of his suit, staunching the quiet flow of blood.
His face creased up in pain as the knife was extracted.
“I don’t think anything major’s been severed, but you’re going to need to go to A and E.”
John Guy’s face was almost as red as his leg. “You can’t throw the bloody thing!”
“Why not?” said a deeply resonant voice behind them. The Old Man. “Gail’s quite right. She was the first to draw blood.”
John Guy was on his feet, one arm over the shoulder of Lodeon. “But you can’t throw it…”
“Enough,” the Old Man barked. He held himself stiffly, like a butler. There was something of Noel Coward about him. In one hand, instead of a silver platter he held the mahogany box. With it he advanced toward Gail. She found herself easing backward as he unclipped the lock.
A dozen thick Havanas stared up at her from the box. “Don’t partake myself, but I understand that following a dueling victory there is nothing quite like a real cigar.
As John Guy limped off the roof with Friedmann and Lodeon, she rolled her chosen cigar slowly under her nose, taking in the honey sweet scent of the tobacco. She had never smoked a cigar before. But she had never fought before, either. It felt good. It made her feel powerful. Sensual. Sexual.
“Welcome to the Board,” the Old Man grinned.
Robert Bagnall is an English writer and sometime management consultant and property developer. He is currently in the process of moving from a doubly landlocked county to the coast to renovate a rambling Victorian house. He has had short sci-fi and crime fiction irregularly published over the last twenty years, a list of which together with his science fiction musings can be found at meschera.blogspot.co.uk.