It had been a tough meeting. The kind of board meeting where questions get asked, and voices get raised. Worse still you’d set it up as a “weekend away” so you’d have to meet them all at breakfast at 9.00 tomorrow. The evening meal was still heavy in your belly, and that sullen nightcap you all shared hadn’t done much other than give you heartburn.
An early night was turning into a sleepless one…
…you were wide awake. The luminous hands of the Omega you bought when you thought you were James Bond said it was nearly midnight. Out of bed, you pulled back the drapes and looked out across the city. The cobbles of the square were wet from an earlier downpour, and the streetlights picked out a stray dog marking its patch.
There was going to be no sleep any time soon, so you pulled on some clothes put on your jacket, made sure you had your wallet and room key and headed for the elevator.
The reception area was big and deserted apart from the elderly night porter who looked up from a magazine and nodded as you pushed open the glass doors to the street. The night was chilly, and the rain was starting up again. You turned up your collar and headed off into the night — a walk to the Old Town by the river. There might still be some people around, perhaps an all-night diner with decent coffee if you could remember how to order coffee in the local lingo.
The town looked different at night. It certainly didn’t look anything like what you saw in the taxi coming in from the airport that morning. You turned past a shuttered print shop down a narrower street. The rain was lashing now. If you kept close to the wall, there was some shelter but not much of it. Damn, you should just have turned on the TV in your room.
Rounding a corner, you saw a yellow light behind an ornate door carved with hops, grapes and satyrs. Over the door was a plastic sign “L’enfer” with a picture of the local brew at each end. A bar.
You pushed the door. Yup, not only a bar but an open one. Not busy, though. A tall young looking barman with long dark hair was polishing a glass while glancing at the football highlights on a TV with no sound. On the other side of the bar a man was reading a newspaper.
The place had a smell of beer, lunchtime burgers and drains that needed attention.
The barman looked over as you squelched to the counter.
“The usual?” he said in perfect English.
“What?” you said.
“The usual?” he repeated.
“Okay,” you said. This was no time for a conversation with a stranger about mistaken identity.
The tall barman went to the tap and drew a dark ale into a large ceramic mug. He walked with a slight limp and a stoop. His face looked 25, but he moved like your grandfather. He walked back over with the beer and a small plate of dark green olives. “There you go,” he said and picked up the glass he’d been polishing and looked back up at the TV.
You took a drink. Dark and creamy, not too cold, just right. An olive perhaps. Big and luscious, perfect.
You took off your coat and settled onto a stool.
The man on the other side had put down his paper and was looking at you. Dapper in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie. He had raven black hair and a carefully trimmed goatee. The green, tired, bloodshot eyes said he was old. The pale skin and dark hair said he wasn’t.
“You mustn’t mind Stan,” he said in a low voice, “he’s worked for me for years, but I still haven’t worked out how to make him treat customers properly.”
“You own this place?” you said.
“Ha! As much as anyone can own a place like this.” He smiled. Well, he turned up the corners of his mouth.
“Yes, I’m Nick. I run this place.”
“What time do you close?”
“I have a special licence. We close when the last customer leaves.” Saying this, he stood up and walked over to your side of the bar. He drew up a stool and perched on it opposite you. He looked uncomfortable as if something in his back pocket was stopping him sitting down properly.
“I just run this place because I like it,” he went on, “It’s a family thing, keeps Stan here out of trouble and my Lucy comes in through the day and does the cooking.”
“Anyway,” he said, taking an olive from the dish, “what brings you here?”
You coughed and said, “Business, I thought it would be great to have our board meeting here instead of back home. Brought our partners out too to make a long weekend of it.”
Nick looked you in the eye. “But it hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would.” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. “Things look good on the outside, but on the inside, you’ve discovered that you’re all at war with yourselves.”
“How did you know that?” you said.
“This bar is just a hobby for me now,” said Nick. “Hell, we used to be packed every night back in the day, but people have moved on, they want loud music, live bands and cheap beer. So I went into consultancy a few years back. Found I was good at it, and the rest is, well, history.”
“So how do you know my board meeting went badly?” you asked.
“It’s my job to know. You’re not in town as a tourist, wrong season and wrong clothes. You’re in a bar that you have to look for; nobody comes here by accident. If you do have a partner they’re not in town; otherwise, you’d be back at the hotel complaining to them that you couldn’t sleep.” He took another olive, and you noticed that Stan had pushed a glass of spirits next to his hand. “So you’re here on business, and when business is going well, you don’t come to bars like this.”
Nick moved his face closer. You thought about asking about the drains but right now didn’t seem quite the time. “You’ve got a great idea, and the investor representatives on your board loved your passion when you pitched in Geneva and Paris – that’s why they invested all that money. However, they’re asking questions now. You said the device would be out next summer, but the summer after that is looking more likely, isn’t it? The whole board wants your scalp now, don’t they? They can all do a better job than you. You’re just a scientist who’s never run as much as a model railway.”
Your beer forgotten you said slowly, “How do you know this? Are you a friend of Peter? Did Paul put you up to this?”
“No. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me, but I know you. The whole product, the whole business, sits on what you discovered for your PhD. If they take you out, they don’t just take you out of the company they take your soul because the IP belongs to the company now, not you. Without that, you’re worthless.”
You just looked at Nick. You couldn’t speak.
As he went on, you got the feeling that Nick was just warming up. You were both mesmerised and horrified. “You got it wrong,” he said. “You got it wrong from the start. You know your product will change the world and that you’ll be able to do what you want once it gets to market. You got the money because you believe all this. But…”
“But what?” you found yourself saying.
“You’re clueless with people. You have no idea how to make people work with you. You don’t have the first idea of how to put the right people around you. You think that you have charisma, but that’s just your cronies and the press agreeing with you. They hate you. They hate your motivational quotes, they hate your temper, they hate your bullying, they hate your droning voice, and they want you out of the way.”
A feather could have felled you.
“Truth hurts, huh? Dry your eyes. I’m going to give you a solution.”
“What’s the price?”
“A simple contract with nothing up front and forever to pay. I don’t need the money, but I want to see you succeed.”
“Huh?” was all you could manage.
Nick stood up. He was taller than he looked when he first came over. “I know you don’t like recruiters — dreadful people. You can do a better job yourself in an afternoon using LinkedIn. You know everyone there is to know in your business anyway, don’t you?”
“I do” you replied.
“This is the name and address of the world’s best headhunter. Results guaranteed. Do what he tells you to do, and you’ll have no more problems. My contract is in here too” He pressed an envelope into your hand. “Now, you need some sleep. Go out the door, turn left and follow the alley back to the square. Your hotel’s on the other side.”
A moment later you were dashing along the alley in the pouring rain, your coat flapping unbuttoned like a torn sail behind you. The lights of the square were all around you. The bedraggled stray dog looked up from a dead pigeon as you walked back into the hotel foyer.
The night porter nodded again. The elevator, a fumble for the keys, wet clothes over the back of the chair, a shower. Bed.
In the morning, bright light streamed through a gap in the curtains. The sound of the square coming to life. Fresh air from an open window.
Your room was neat. Your jacket was where you hung it after supper. Your dry and ironed clothes were hanging in the closet.
“Weird dream,” you thought. Last time I’m eating strong cheese and biscuits before bed.
Damn, breakfast meeting at 9.00, and it’s 8.45 now. Well, you’re as ready as you’re going to be. Get dressed and get a coffee. No need for a tie but a jacket will look okay. Glasses, key, wallet. What’s this envelope? You take it out — creamy high-quality paper with your name written neatly by hand on the front. On the back, a dollop of sealing wax and a monogram – a five-pointed star? It’s not that clear. Funny smell, almost like sulphur. Wonder what’s inside…