Finetor by Alex Barr

Dawn is running out of time to deliver her software project, until a consultant turns up and offers her a deal that seems miraculous - as long as she can pay on time.

Image generated with OpenAI
Yes, Finetor. Okay, you haven't heard of it, unless you read the more tech-heavy video-gaming mags. But that multiplayer game you just bought, with the meaty skirmishes, amazing lighting, and believable characters, that you and your pals have been so hooked on you forgot to eat, what's the engine driving it? That makes it so realistic? Finetor.

I'm Dawn Olivia Temple. If you've heard of me, fine, but if not, no problem. All I want is to post a dreadful warning to anyone earning a crust writing code. Don't, don't, don't do what I did.

We all want success. Some of us chase it and it spits in our face. Others stroll along and success offers both cheeks to kiss. Some deserve it more than others. I deserve it more than most. I grew up in one of the shittiest parts of Manchester. Fierce dogs, gangs, shootings, drugs... you know the scene. How did I survive? By keeping my head down - literally. Eyes glued to a computer screen every waking hour.

People say I see things in black and white. Well that's me, folks - Black mother, White father who fucked off before I was born, biracial Dawn. A stone's throw from our ghetto apartment was a university. Strange juxtaposition, and it saved me. Five years from enrolling I had a house in a decent area, a software firm with six employees, and the eureka moment that became my dream project, Finetor. But dreams don't come cheap. To earn enough to develop and launch it I had to win a multi-million IT contract with a major corporation I prefer to forget the name of. A fateful contract. Even telling you about it makes me shudder.

The clients wanted an interlocking package of software to speed up data access and transfer throughout their organization. It was called The Skein - one of the suits thought that a fancy metaphor for tying things together. "I hope you don't pull the wool over our eyes," he joked. Ha bloody ha.

I hired more young programmers to build the team to twenty. Feisty folk hungry for recognition. Okay, there were settling-in problems, but I told them, "Any prima donnas can piss off," and only one left. The rest had to bear with my dingy suite in Bermondsey.

For over a year all went well. I even had time to myself, to develop and patent the basic outline of Finetor. Yes, all plain sailing - but I misread the compass, because eighteen months in, instead of heading for the Happy Isles we were steaming up Shit Creek. The problem was time. Completing on it. On page one of the documents were the words Time is of the essence of this contract. Oh yes, they've learned the hard way, these public bodies.

The penalty clause was for an eye-watering - or as Tom my head programmer said, scrotum-shrinking - amount. What it came down to - and in the euphoria of winning the contract I'd pooh-poohed the possibility - was that if we failed to complete on time I, the firm, and my beautiful staff, were fucked.

I said as much to Kirsty, my lawyer.

"Swear in your own office, not in mine, Dawn," she snapped.

Besides running a law firm Kirsty is a lay preacher. Tall, fierce, and elegant, with a shock of grey hair. Tight black trousers, boots, and close-fitting jackets which give her a military look.

"Is there no way out of this?"

"Not even death, Dawn. Your estate would be up for grabs. But you've no dependents, so why worry?"

"Thanks a lot."

"May I say, you should have consulted me before you signed that contract?"

"I was still with Rudd Sykes and Barnaby."

"Oh yes, those timewasters." (So much for Christian charity.)

"I thought we could do it, Kirsty. Okay, I undercut the competition to win the contract, but the team said they were happy to turn out code sixty or seventy hours a week."

"For two years? Have a heart, Dawn. There are limits to youthful optimism."

"Could I claim the end users were slow in providing information?"

"What information?"

"Staff locations, pay structure."

Kirsty shook her head so hard her jade earrings clattered. "Not enough, Dawn. I'm afraid, unless you complete on time, that bad word you used still applies."

I don't need to remind you that staring at a screen day and night, sometimes fourteen hours out of twenty-four, does funny things to your head. The stress level mounted, along with the fear of unemployment. We argued over the air-conditioning (inadequate to cope with sun entry, sweat, and machinery), coffee quality, and the sound of one another's sighs and groans. My partner, Johnny, got tired of my angst and left. I couldn't blame him. Some of Tina's hair fell out. Jed's wife filed for divorce. Ryan fell in love with Tom, who rejected him, so Ryan left. The end users kept trying to add more twiddles. Every day some unforeseen snag arose like an accusing finger. We were obsessed, like gamblers. One more hour and that problem might be solved. No? Then another hour. Another night.

Then... a day in June. One of those where the sun blurts through the curtains at six am as if to say, "Isn't life in London glorious?" (No, sun, it bloody ain't.) The walk to the station reveals details in parks and on buildings you'd never noticed. If it's a weekend the kids in the playground sound excited and their parents relaxed and chatty. And hey-ho, you shut the door on life and stare at rows of gobbledygook and long for it to be over, over! And most of all, to have time to develop your own pet project... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

That morning was the worst ever. Jed in tears, Tina monosyllabic, Pete droning on about car repairs, Rohini whistling manically - I hope you get the picture. I'd stayed off the drink the night before, but now I regretted not dosing myself into a stupor with g&ts. Now, I was popping tranquillizers and neutralizing them with coffee. Cue music: 'The Entrance of the Gladiators'.

"Someone to see you, Dawn," said Rohini.

"Tell him - a him, yes? - to piss off. We can't take any more work on."

"This guy is saying he can help."

"With what? Stress counselling?"

"With the project."

"And how does he know we need help with the project?"

"I make it my business to know things."

And there he was, the Presence, the Terminator, the... ugh, don't get me started. Rohini had let him into our lives.



I suppose I have to describe him. Here we go. White male, middle-aged. Below average height - say five three. Dark suit, silk tie. Squarish head a bit too large for his body. A fringe, graying from black. Stubble-length goatee. A smile. I never believed that stuff about eyes not matching a smile, but his eyes froze me, cold blue and hooded. Or maybe I'm thinking of later, I don't know.

"So what can I do for you, Mr..."

"Call me David. No, my dear, it's what I can do for you."

"'My dear' eh? Well David, you sound like a bit of a dickhead."

"Apologies. I understand where you're coming from, Dawn."

The familiarity unnerved me. "So what are you selling?"

I scowled at Rohini, who looked ashamed of letting him in.

"My services."

He flourished his card, and I noticed he wore gloves, soft smooth leather. Surely not kid, I thought. I looked down to see if he wore spats, but no. His shoes looked handmade.

I still have the card, bent and sweat-stained:

DAVID BOWEE

Trade & Technical Development International Ltd

Lloyds Building

1 Lime Street, London EC3M 7DQ, UK

I had to laugh. "Nice address. And wow, interesting name."

He shrugged. The gesture made me notice how little he moved.

"The coincidence is embarrassing. But note the different spelling."

It was mainly his eyes that moved. From my ankle bracelets to my shiny headband, taking in everything - and I mean everything - between. And when he suggested we talk in private, and I led him to my cubby hole, aka office, I felt his eyes on my bottom. He smelt strongly of stale cigarette smoke and Paco Rabanne 1 Million aftershave.

"So, David, what can you do for me?"

"Save you a fortune in penalties. Save your reputation. Save you from a world of embarrassment."

"How?"

"I can finish The Skein."

I had to laugh again. "You?"

"Not me. My crack team of programmers. Believe me, Dawn, they're good. Their CVs would make you drool. Most of them came to me because they weren't being challenged in their last jobs, even though they were earning ten times more than they could ever spend." He coughed. "Sorry. I'm giving up smoking. Next year. Where was I?"

"Your crack team. So who gets the credit?"

"Oh you, my dear, you. Think of us simply as ghost writers."

For the next half hour he filled my ears with a long discourse. His team had just completed a major project. Another was starting in three months' time... a week after the deadline for The Skein. So by happy coincidence, they were free to work on my rescue package should I so desire. What did I think?

"I think there's a catch."

"No catch, Dawn."

"How much?"

"Straight to the point, I like that. Name a figure."

I gritted my teeth and looked through the glass at twenty heads bent over keyboards. Twenty hearts to save from heartbreak and the Job Centre.

"Twenty-five percent of the contract sum."

David Bowee smiled, eyeing my bosom. "I like a woman who drives a hard bargain, Dawn. But I was thinking more like fifty."

"What!"

Six heads looked up at me. I said in an undertone, "Thirty." A long pause. "Oh all right, thirty three and a third." The weakness of desperation.

"I hate messy figures. Thirty-five and we're done."

"But only if you meet the deadline."

"We'll beat it to a pulp."

Still eyeing my torso, he took out his phone - the latest model - and two minutes later his company secretary, who'd been waiting in the car, appeared. A respectable motherly woman with half-moon specs and grey hair in a plait over one shoulder. Expensive twinset, opal brooch, a whiff of Chanel. She had a contract already drawn up!

I read it through, my hands shaking, watched by two cold blue eyes and two warm brown ones. The moment seemed unreal. Could this really be our salvation?

To summarize: T&TD International guaranteed to complete The Skein on time to the satisfaction of my client. The party of the first part (that's me) agreed to pay the party of the second (the board of directors of T&TD), in person and within six weeks of completion of the project, thirty-five percent of the contract sum. (The bugger already had thirty-five typed in!)

Then the small print. Take note. 'In the event of non-payment by the time agreed, the party of the first part assigns to the party of the second, Patent Number...' My heart froze. It was the patent for Finetor. The software that was due to make millions once the bloody Skein was done and dusted. Finetor was big - I knew that. (And now you know it.) As I've just told you, all I needed was the time and capital to get it up and running.

I said in a hoarse whisper, "How did you know?"

"It's in the public domain."

"Yes, but -"

"I make it my business to know things."

"But... my patent as collateral?"

"Now Dawn, no need to get excited. I understand your concern, but there's really no problem. The Skein contract stipulates that they pay you within three weeks of completion. A day or two for their BACS transfer and that leaves you the best part of three weeks to pay me."

"So why...?"

"A matter of trust, Dawn. I'm sure you're a model citizen, but I've had burnt fingers from model citizens before now." The grey-haired lady nodded grave agreement. "I'm laying my firm on the line for you. My programmers aren't geeks. They have expensive tastes in silk shirts and City wine bars, and smart lawyers who could sue the pants off me."



Well, you've guessed it. I signed. Michelle witnessed my signature, Tom witnessed the grey lady's. She signed as Cornelia Graham. I didn't contact Kirsty. I knew she'd talk me out of it. But what could I do? And anyway, it all went smoothly.

David Bowee spent a full week in my office with one of his programmers, a spotty beanpole of a lad called Meck, who despite his weird name and appearance had a gift for the job. I was heartily reassured. They soon had the whole thing transferred to their system. I never saw their office and I didn't want to.

There were several times when they both hung over me while I typed stuff in. I preferred Meck's B.O. to David's smell of cigarettes and various brands of after-shave, and Meck's embarrassment to David's unashamed peering down my front. Still, it was a relief to feel the job was being sorted, and the tension in the office was going down several notches with each day that passed.

Some time later David and Meck came over to run what they'd programmed so far.

Tom said, "I can't believe it, it's like magic."

"Genius not magic, Tom," David said. "But my role is like a football manager. Buy in the best players. Give one of them the task of keeping them all communicating."

When they'd gone Michelle whispered, "Are we home and dry, Dawn?" Dabbing her eyes, which were far from dry.

"God willing, yes, Michelle."

And it seemed God was willing, because as you'll know from the press, The Skein was completed and test-run on time. It worked! This was unheard of. Big news! And all I had to do was sit back while they paid me.

But they didn't.



Cue Mr Sanders, finance officer. Pleasant, curly hair, round wire glasses, rosy cheeks. About my age, I guessed, i.e. fairly young. Big desk you could play table-tennis on. Big photo of a fair-haired woman in glasses and two toothy kids. Otherwise, plain white walls.

"So where's my payment?"

"Good question. Let's have a look." Big smile while he searched the same bloody Skein that I wanted paying for. "Ah, here we are. Much faster with the new system."

"Good. Excellent. So what's the answer?"

"A cheque is being raised."

"Like the Titanic?"

"Sorry?"

"Never mind. When will this cheque reach me?"

He hummed an unrecognizable tune while pretending - I knew he was pretending - to carry on searching. After a few minutes I said, "You don't know, do you?"

He actually blushed!

I picked up a copy of the corporation's house magazine, with news of The Skein splashed all over it. "Look. It says here that's it's a great success. That there are no bugs. So where's my money? 'Payment within three weeks of delivery,' my contract says. It's now three weeks and a half."

Mr Sanders frowned. "I know, but this is a big big enterprise. Sometimes the wheels move slowly."

"I thought The Skein would oil the bloody wheels."

He was still looking at his little screen, which reflected its movements in his glasses. Suddenly he jerked his head back.

"Got it."

"Got it? Where is it?"

"It has to go through our accountants."

"What, they eat the cheque and then shit it out?"

"You have to realize, Ms Temple, it's a large sum."

"Oddly enough I had realized that. So it'll give your accountants constipation?"

He looked at me with great concern. "I understand your anxiety, but believe me, you will be paid."

"Not good enough, Mr Sanders. I've got debts to -"

"Listen, I'll chase them. Okay? Come back tomorrow and I may have good news for you."

I clamped my mouth shut to stem a tide of curses, and left. You think I slept that night? Think again. I'd never realized how many hours there are in a night. Even when stressed like hell over the Skein project I managed some sleep. My namesake dawn seemed to take forever to arrive.

At the late late hour of nine the corporation's switchboard finally woke. Grumpily. The girl tried to get Sanders but all I got on his extension was a recording. I had to ring off and redial to get the switchboard. A different girl, more friendly.

"When is Mr Sanders due in?"

"Hold on, caller, I'll check." Theme music. Then, "I'll put you through." Relief!

"Yes?"

"Dawn Temple here. It's about my payment."

"Dawn who?"

"Temple! Temple! I came to see you yesterday."

"I was in Brighton all yesterday."

"You fucking weren't, excuse my French. You were in your designer office peering at me through your wire-rimmed specs."

"I don't wear glasses, Ms Temple."

"Are you not Robert Sanders, head of finance?"

"No. I am Richard Saunders, head of credit control."

"Don't go away. I'm coming."

Whereas Sanders was calm and met my eye, Saunders was nervy, checking out the walls and ceiling rather than me. He was plump and balding and middle-aged. Under his desk I saw his feet in slippers, jiggling. His highly polished shoes were on the windowsill.

"I have a huge debt to pay off, Mr Saunders. Why can't you people pay me as agreed?"

"Why were you seeing Sanders? He isn't head of finance."

"What is he?"

"Deputy chief accountant."

"He said my check had to go through your accountants. Are they not him? Is he not them?"

"Does he mean our auditors?"

"I don't know! Ask him!"

There was a lot more of this. I haven't the heart to go through it all. In the end I refused to move until something was done. I said they had this wonderful software which I'd provided to speed up all manner of internal communication, so why weren't they bloody well using it? I said it was a pity, when I designed the system, that I couldn't redesign the godforsaken humans who were going to use it.

At last, after many tedious phone calls, "A cheque is on its way."

"Fantastic. Where do I collect it?"

"It's on its way to your office by courier."

"I wanted it here and now."

"I'm afraid that's procedure."

My office was oddly quiet. No tapping of keyboards, no muttering or whistling. Then I remembered I'd given the staff the time off they so deserved. The courier had called and left a 'while you were out' note.

I'll spare you the tedious saga of further phone calls and gut-wrenching waiting. At last the courier came. I saw my anxious features reflected in his visor. By the time I tore open the envelope he'd gone. A good thing the staff were away - I could scream without restraint. The cheque was made out to Dawn Olivier.

I phoned the bank. Would they accept it? No. I thought of printing my surname, but the print would never match, and I'd be done for fraud. I looked at the calendar. Two weeks left to pay David Bowee. By the time the corporation 'raised' a new check and it cleared through my bank I'd have maybe a week left. That's if it all ran smoothly. One hiccup and I could lose my future forever, and have the enduring pain of seeing Finetor bring fame and millions to someone else. And did it run smoothly? What do you think?

They tried a BACS transfer. It didn't arrive. Not surprising - they had my account number wrong. More human error... I longed for machines to take over the world. I went to the bank to ask for a bridging loan. Fine - they'd consider it if I brought my lawyer and the firm's accounts. Was I going to tell Kirsty why I was desperate? I was not. Were the accounts up to date? The Dead Sea Scrolls would make easier reading.

One morning - I remember it was a Thursday - I woke late after a dream of being trapped and starving to death like Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer. A morning of wind and rain, of dazed-looking crowds on Oxford Street, trying to make sense of their lives with work or shopping. I must have looked like the living dead when I walked into the office, because Tom and Rohini looked up from their keyboards, shocked, and quickly looked down again.

Something in me had changed. I know the exact moment. I was passing a billboard on Tottenham Court Road showing a travel scene. Some high tropical waterfall, Iguaçu maybe. I pictured myself in a canoe approaching from above. Finetor, in the shape of a dark-haired child, was in the canoe. Suddenly I was on the bank, clinging to a tree, while child and canoe went on and tipped and disappeared.

It seemed very clear as I walked slowly on. Farewell, Finetor! David Bowee can have you. I'll start over. (Later I would try to recapture that moment of calm acceptance.) On the stairs to the office I bumped into an alien in a space helmet. He muttered something in Martian and hurried down.

Michelle was outlined against the window, an aura around her hair. She was holding something.

"You've just missed the courier, Dawn," she smiled. "Is this what you've been waiting for?"

Unbelievable. A cheque for the full amount, made out to Dawn O. Temple. I broke down and wept unashamedly like Iguaçu Falls, while the staff clucked and whispered around me and stroked my shoulders. After which I hurried to the bank - then slowed down, afraid a bus might run me over - and paid it in.

It took a whole twenty-four hours for relief to settle the tension, but when I looked online and saw my bank account leap into the stratosphere it was better than sex, better than the finest wine, better than the loveliest view or a helicopter ride over Iguaçu. I was home and completely dry. Even after paying the Presence, I'd have enough moolah to seed the start-up of Finetor. My sparkling new reputation (wow!) for delivering stuff on time would attract venture capital. I could give my staff a bonus. I could move our office to a smart address in Tech City, aka Shoreditch. And with ten clear days to pay my debt, Finetor was mine again.



Or was it? Here's a question for the philosophers among you: is happiness real even when founded on false hopes? The journey on the Central Line that Monday morning seems very real in my memory. Some young French lads were sitting opposite, bouncing around on their seats, excited at being in London. Above their heads, in the row of ads, was one with a picture of a grasshopper. I forget what it advertised, but it fitted my mood. I thought of lying in long grass with the sun on my face, seeing through half closed eyes the swallows darting and swerving. I nearly missed getting off at Bank.

At the Lloyds Building the glass elevator seemed magical. I found the registered office of Trade and Technical Development International and handed the guy at the desk a cheque made out to David Bowee. He pushed his specs onto his forehead and squinted at it.

"Just give it to him," I said. "Is Mr Bowee in?"

"Who?"

"The boss, CEO, MD or whatever you call him."

He put his glasses back down and stared at me. The lenses made his eyes look huge. He made little snuffling sounds, and I began to think of a vole.

"No-one is in," he muttered.

And I realized there were no doors apart from the one I'd just come in at. No suite of offices, just this little space. Of course - it was just a service address, where they forwarded mail to various client companies.

"Then forward it, could you? Or better still, tell me his address and I'll take it myself."

The Vole murmured something I didn't catch.

"What?"

He said, showing his teeth, "Con. Fi. Dential."

"You're not being very helpful."

He leaned his vole head to one side, considering his unhelpfulness as an impartial observer. He pushed up his specs again and gave my cheque another once-over.

"No point," he sighed.

Did he mean the futility of all human endeavor? I was beginning to feel unreal.

"It's urgent." (Surely urgency trumped metaphysics?)

He nodded, like one of those toy dogs in cars. "The thing is, there is no David Bowee. Not with that spelling. Not in T&TD. Well, maybe as a cleaner or janitor in one of the computer suites. But not a director."

The tension of the last few weeks came clumping back, as if someone had dumped a sack of gravel in my chest. I wanted to sit, but there was nowhere. Without a trace of sympathy the Vole handed back my cheque.



Sure enough, the stuff I downloaded from Companies House had no T&TD director listed as David Bowee. So which one was The Presence? Impossible to tell. Apart from one recent they'd all been appointed the same time. But then I realized it didn't matter, my contract said I could pay any director. I stuck a pin in the list, wrote a cheque to Paul Kant, and headed back to the Vole.

"It has to reach him by Wednesday."

"I can't guarantee that."

"Then give me a chitty acknowledging receipt of this cheque."

"I'm not authorized to do that."

I wished a big cat would come in and bite him by the scruff. "What am I to do, then?"

He stared at me. I thought he was processing possibilities for me. No way. After a couple of minutes he just sighed. I left in tears.

There were now just forty-eight hours to the deadline. Companies House didn't reveal directors' home addresses. I could engage a private detective, but there was hardly time. On the card the Presence had given me were two phone numbers. One led me straight back to the Vole. The other got 'has not been recognized.'

I checked the emails to find the drop box Meck and the Presence had sent the Skein stuff to. It had been deleted. I remembered the grasshopper in the Tube train, how happy I'd been to think I'd saved Finetor. Now it was lost again. I sat in my cubby hole and wound myself into a ball and cried. A hailstorm rattled the windows and I didn't hear Michelle come in. She stroked my back.

"Dawn? What's wrong?"

"All our futures are down the drain!"

She brought hot sweet tea and held my hand while I sobbed out my story. She began to look distant, staring through the window at the clearing sky and a sun stripe on the tatty warehouse opposite. But unlike the Vole, she was processing. She took out her mobile.

"Who are you phoning, Michelle?"

"Ssh. It's a long shot." She scrolled through lists on her phone. "Ah. Here's one of my dialed calls I don't recognize."

"I don't follow. Why would you -"

"Because Meck borrowed my phone once when his went flat. He may have called his boss."

"Could you try it for me? My hands are shaking."

My heart beat a military tattoo when a man answered.

"Who's that?" I breathed.

"This is Ken. Hey, Michelle! Didn't think you'd call again after you turned me down for a date."

"Oh fuck," I muttered.

"Pardon?"

"Sorry, I'm Dawn not Michelle."

"Dawn! I saw you walk past the café I was in with Michelle. You looked harassed, otherwise I'd have asked to be introduced."

"I'm still bloody harassed, dickhead!"

I ended the call and handed the phone to Michelle with a look of evil. She blushed.

"Okay, not that one." She scrolled again. "Try this one."

"Forget it."

But she dialed anyway. A man answered.

"Yes?"

"Who's that?"

"Who's calling?"

"Dawn Temple."

"Dawn! How are you? Lovely to hear from you. How did you get this number?"

"It's a long story."

I flashed Michelle a look and she mouthed, "I'll leave you to it," and went back to her work.

"So," said the voice (I'd forgotten how fruity it was), "not long to the deadline. Don't think you're going to make it. Do you?"

"Get stuffed, David Bowee. What's your real name, anyway?"

"I do love women when they're angry."

I opened the download from Companies House. "Okay. Are you Eric Byson?"

I hoped he'd chosen an alias with the same surname initial. I heard him laugh. I couldn't tell what his reaction meant.

"Try again, dear."

"Bartholomew Burlow-Davies?"

"Now there's a name to conjure with. Try again."

Again, the reaction held no clue.

"Mitchell Calzavacca?"

"Try again."

"Nestor Delaney?"

"Try again."

"Samuel Garstang - oh, no, his appointment was terminated. Jonathan Grover?"

"Eight out of ten for homework." I heard him cough. "But full marks elude you, dear. Try again."

"You aren't Cornelia Graham. Ralph Gutteridge? Logan Hipperson? Cooper Horrocks? One of those three?"

"You'll have to keep trying."

"You aren't Paul Kant because he was appointed recently. You aren't Elsa-Mae Llewellyn."

"Clever."

"Worthington Raymond. No, surely the other way round."

"Either way, dear, the scent is cold."

"You aren't Mariella Tudor. And that's the lot."

"Oh dear, we are in trouble aren't we? You don't know their home addresses, and their phones are all ex-directory. And even if you could phone them, unlike your friend Meck, who no doubt gave you this number, they know which side their bread's buttered. The silent side."

"Damn you, Bowee."

"Who?" He laughed and coughed again. "I do sympathize with your plight, Dawn dear. Losing the chance to make millions hits hard, I know. Which is why I'm prepared to do a deal with you."

I shivered. Suddenly my body was all gooseflesh, but the hand holding the phone felt on fire. I heard him sigh. "Oh dear, you've gone very quiet."

"Tell -" My voice came out as a croak. I swallowed hard. "Tell me the deal."

"I'm prepared to appoint you as a director. As a newcomer you receive a two-per-cent share in the profits of Finetor. Interested?"

"What's the punch line?"

"Ah. A woman of the world. Yes, of course, all directors have to make a commitment."

"How much?"

"Oh, there's no money involved. Just - well, yourself."

The handset fell out of my hand. I picked it up, trembling.

"Are you still there, Dawn?"

"Tell me what's involved," I panted.

But I already knew what was coming, even though he spent a full fifteen minutes of circumlocutions and double entrendres to get the message across. I would have sex with him. Protected, of course - no way would he risk catching anything. We would check in at six at the Dorchester - oh yes, no cutting corners, though it would be one of the cheaper rooms - and spend the evening till eleven, when I'd be free to leave. Or if I found the experience as enjoyable as he hoped, to stay on overnight with him. After all, he pointed out, I hadn't had sex for over a year (it was his business to know things).

During this monologue, delivered in the tones of a solicitor reading a will, with plenty of breaks for coughing, I progressed from nausea to frozen calm. Enough calm to ask, "How will I prove the deal's done?"

He laughed. "Good point. Mrs Graham will be there throughout. Purely as a witness."

"Oh my God."

"Him too no doubt."

He left it with me to decide. If yes, I would simply turn up at the Dorchester, showered, powdered, and ideally, Brazilian waxed. If no... fine. But no share in the profits, and a lifetime of regret.



Reader, I went. The grass in Hyde Park sparkled in the evening sun as I entered a hotel for rich gits the first time in my life. A kind of excitement with undertones of horror, like biting a delicious cake full of maggots.

The room? Vast. Everything salmon pink apart from three mustard armchairs with dark brown hardwood arms. The Presence and his sidekick were sitting in two of them. They didn't rise to greet me. Mrs Graham nodded towards the mini-bar (not exactly mini). "Help yourself, dear, he prefers his women tipsy."

They both laughed. When I think back, their laughing was the worst thing. Until then I'd imagined some po-faced medical procedure where you strip and have things poked into you. I'd hardly finished my g&t before Mrs G came up to me. Her breath smelt of cream liqueur. She was wearing horrid leather trousers and a ridiculous frilly top.

"Let me help you off with your things," she purred, grinning right into my face. Over her shoulder I saw him take off his jacket and drape it carefully over one of the chair backs, then his shirt, which he folded carefully and placed on the seat. His chest hair was like a rug - no, a dog's belly. I shut my eyes and kept saying to myself, "Let it be over, let it be over," so when Mrs G manhandled me firmly to the bed, her touch like a foretaste of worse to come, I was at least glad the wait was nearly over.

The bed was enormous. So was its pink padded headboard. I lay propped against it, naked and vulnerable, an expression on my face like someone in a dentist's chair, while he approached, silent on the deep-pile carpet like someone stalking prey. Mrs G sat down and watched with a well-fed expression.

The Presence stood at the foot of the bed and studied me with a broad smile. It occurred to me that I'd never seen him without a smile. I longed and longed to wipe it off.

He cleared his throat. "Now, my dear, shall I take off my trousers?"

I said hoarsely, "Do what you bloody like."

"What I like! Now there's an offer. An offer some men would die for. If they were desperate." He stroked his goateed chin and ran his hand over that stupid fringe. "The thing is, now I see the real you I'm unbelievably disappointed." He turned to his sidekick (still smiling, oh yes, still smiling). "Let herself go, Mrs Graham, hasn't she? Don't you think she's let herself go? What am I supposed to do with her, looking like that?" And to me, "Should have warned me about the flab, Dawn. You haven't kept your side of the bargain. So the deal is off."

I thought his grin would split his face. Laughter exploded out of him. "You should see your..." he began, but the laughter was uncontrolled and took him over. He folded in a fit of coughing. It went on and on. Still doubled up, he headed for the bathroom, waving a distracted arm at Mrs G en route. She hurried after him. I heard retching somewhere remote.

A moment of forking paths. I could have sat stunned with despair that my last chance with Finetor had gone, crushed by the realization that he only brought me there for ritual humiliation. But no, I took the road of risk. Sprang off the bed, rushed silently to the chair, and felt in his jacket. Ciggies, gold-plated lighter, car keys... yes, pigskin wallet! I rifled through gold credit cards, store cards, membership cards... driver's license! I took it, replaced the wallet carefully, adjusted the jacket, darted back to the bed, and did the best acting of my entire life, sobbing my heart out into the pillow.

"Pathetic." Mrs G beside the bed. "Didn't imagine he'd make you a director, did you? Get your cheap Marks and Spencers kit on and get lost."

She went to the window, which was in a kind of alcove, and looked down at - what? Hyde Park? Rotten Row? Mayfair? I didn't care. My tormentor was still in the bathroom. I dressed quickly, slid the license from under the pillow where I'd hidden it, and left.



I had my tormentor's name, address, and photograph, but the triumph didn't last. Forty hours to the deadline, and if I couldn't beard the bastard in his den and pay him, Finetor was his. I couldn't see him giving me a receipt, so I'd have to find proof of payment that would withstand an onslaught from some smooth Queen's Counsel.

Ergo, I would need a lawyer. Which lawyer? There was only one answer, and it brought a fire of embarrassment to my cheeks. And there was no time to hang around. I phoned Kirsty. She replied, thank God. I expected her to sound cold and distant, but she sounded friendly - as she would, not knowing I'd kept her in the dark. Having read in the papers that The Skein was delivered on time, she would assume all was well. Ah, Kirsty! My ordeal with you was still to come.

The flat she shares with her (female) partner in Hampstead is a Victorian pastiche. Dark heavy drapes, wax fruit, stuffed birds in glass bell-jars, and an obstacle course of small walnut tables with lace cloths. I'd been there once before, at some small gathering, and I longed for the innocence of that occasion.

"Well, Dawn?"

I wanted to kneel at Kirsty's feet and hold her hand while I stuttered out my confession. Instead, unable to look at her, I stared at the Turkish rug. Stylized magenta tulips burned into my brain. She was totally silent throughout - and for minutes afterwards. When I forced myself to look her eyes were moist.

"You've hurt me, Dawn," she said dully.

"I know, I know."

"Deeply hurt me. Kept me in the dark, not trusting me, while you went off and burned your boats. But. That's just a feeling, and this is no time for feelings."

"No?"

"No! We must do something, and i'th'heat."

She likes her quotes, does Kirsty. I always have to go and look them up. Now, I did go down on my knees to her, but she snapped at me to get up, and over Lapsang Souchong tea and Garibaldi biscuits we made a plan we hoped was worthy of the eponymous Garibaldi.

"I hope you realize how easily this can fail, Dawn. Are you prepared for failure?"

"Yes," I lied, "I am."



Wednesday morning, seven am. Kirsty in her element, cracking jokes, like, "A Dawn raid in both senses, ha ha." A bypass near Bagshot, busy with early commuter traffic. A foursquare mock-Georgian mansion set well back behind iron gates and a yew hedge protected by an iron fence.

To our relief, despite there being a security pad with buttons, the gates were very slightly ajar. Kirsty laughed at the nameplate: Lofty Larches. I felt like part of a high-powered drug deal. There were six of us in a people carrier (I thought of as a personnel carrier): Kirsty, Michelle, Tom, Rohini, Michelle's latest boyfriend (an actor), and me. We left the vehicle blocking the gates with Michelle and the actor minding it. The rest of us squeezed through the gap and traipsed up the winding drive.

The doorbell, as you might guess, was a wrought-iron dangler. Now the tension really got to me. I doubled up with a fierce pain in my kidneys. Kirsty jangled and the door stayed shut. She jangled again. I clung to Tom to keep from collapsing. The door opened. We stared at a tall slim man in his thirties, clean-shaven but with heavy beard shadow. Would you believe he wore a striped apron? He did. And that one of his black shoes had a red shoelace? It did.

"We are here to see Mr Byson," Kirsty announced.

I expected him to say, "Very good madam," but all he said was, "Yeah?"

"Yeah," we all answered.

"If he's in."

"Clearly."

Kirsty offered her card, but the apology for a butler ignored it, didn't ask who we were, and retreated inside leaving the front door wide open. So in we went, and saw him stride up a grand staircase, pale limestone with a green carpet. And what do you know, next moment the man himself appeared, in a silk dressing-gown. He hurried down the stairs but paused halfway because we'd crowded round the bottom.

"What the fuck are you doing here, bitch?" he snarled at me. Kirsty covered her ears. "How did you find where I live?"

He obviously hadn't looked for his driver's license, but then, who does?

I said, "I make it my business to know things."

Kirsty uncovered her ears, warily. "Let's get down to it. You are Eric Byson."

"David Bowee."

Kirsty held up the license for all to see. "Are we all agreed that this is the likeness of the man in front of us?"

"Yes!" we chorused.

"Good. Mr Byson, my client Ms Temple has cash here to liquidate her debt to you. Be so good as to count it and sign this receipt."

"I'll wipe my arse on your receipt."

"As you wish. In that case we shall count the cash in front of you and leave it. My colleagues here will provide incontrovertible testamentary evidence that you received it."

I took the bundles of fifties from my holdall and started to count them. The money had a hypnotic effect on our party, so no-one noticed the butler appear behind us. He must have come down the back stairs. He had a gun. He waved us away from the money, and when we hesitated, fired a deafening round into the carpet between my feet. We retreated, stunned. The butler re-packed the notes and backed away.

"Oh dear," said Byson, "my bloody butler's pinched it! What a pity it never reached me."

He threw a set of keys over our heads for the butler to catch. We were still too dazed to move, while the butler vanished and Byson grinned.

"Listen," he said.

And after a moment we heard a high-performance car roar into life and set off with a squeal of tires. We rushed out and ran down the drive. The sound of rending metal greeted us. Rounding the bend we saw a yellow Ferrari being intimate with our people carrier. (Lucky that Michelle and the actor were outside it.) The butler must have opened the gates remotely, assumed there was no obstruction, and taken the last bend too fast.

He was slumped against the dashboard. The actor grabbed the gun off the passenger seat, emptied it, and threw shells and gun into the bushes. (It seems he'd done the same in a film.) Rohini phoned the police and ambulance.

The small figure of Eric Byson appeared, arms waving, dressing-gown flying. The sound of the crash must have reached him. For once he wasn't smiling. So furious, in fact, that he aimed a savage kick at the distressed Ferrari and collapsed in agony. Two for the ambulance.

By the time it came we'd counted out the money in front of Byson's perspiring face and tied the bag to his wrist. Then I sat in the Ferrari and sobbed a whole symphony of relief.



That's my only time in a Ferrari. I could afford one now, but most of my loot from Finetor goes to charity.

By the way, Ken phoned again. The guy Michelle turned down for a date, remember? Said he was sorry we'd spoken at a bad time, and could he make amends by taking me to dinner. I said no, I'd take him. Nowadays we take turns.

Sitting in my new office in Tech City, I often think of that room at the Dorchester. (Another indulgence I could afford, though I choose not to.) How Byson wanted one more turn of the screw (no pun intended). If he hadn't sought one last ounce of humiliation, I'd never have found his address in time, and Finetor would be his. I often wake in the night in a muck sweat, thinking how easily Mrs G the Witch of Mayfair could have come back too soon out of the bathroom. Fragile, success, fragile.

9 comments:

  1. This is the definition of both suspense and plot. I enjoyed it thoroughly. My breathing did not return to normal until the last sentence. I enjoyed this line, “ We were obsessed, like gamblers. One more hour and that problem might be solved. No? Then another hour. Another night.” I know that experience from practicing law. I also know contract mistakes the same way. Very enjoyable!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Masterfully written and chock full of suspense. This story plays out like an episode of Black Mirror, and doesn’t let up until the end. Good job.

    ReplyDelete
  3. When I saw the AI image introducing “Finetor,” and then began reading the story, I felt like the computer-generated illustration was apropos to the tenor of the narrator’s character. What a lot of fun! Heaps of misfortune fell upon poor Dawn and as the story wound down and her poor luck didn’t change, I really felt for her and hoped she’d overcome her obstacles. In the end, she did; Yay! I didn’t understand much of the tech and business-savvy parlance used in the story, but that doesn’t matter; it just lent a sense of authenticity to the proceedings. I thought The Presence was a vilely sadistic, malevolent, well, “presence,” and was expertly etched in the reader’s mind. Dawn was a terrific, likable protagonist everyone could root for. I really, really liked this story. Though it was quite long, by FOTW standards, it seemed to just fly along, certainly a compliment to the author. Well done, Alex!

    ReplyDelete


  4. With each chicane I was twisted up inside and left enrapt .

    Contemporary thrillers rarely race like this one does.

    The obsidian edge upon which most with intellect in tech balance is sharply accurately defined.

    Grit and skill, unrelenting determination and all wise counsel fell short of the hands of fate.




    ReplyDelete

  5. This is an exciting tale from the world of corporate venture capital, with Kafkaesque twists and and turns.
    I particularly enjoy the exaggeration at each stage, each level elevates a notch until the exciting final conclusion.
    Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I suspected what Bowee would do half way through, but had no idea of the denoument (end spelled wrong). Something seems odd - Bowee's team could perform a miracle that Dawn's team couldn't and yet he turns down a big fair payoff for something dishonest. Second thing - it seems Dawn's lawyer or Dawn herself might have penned down how the check could be delivered - an address and a signature perhaps. Some people enjoy being crooked. Example - a presidential candidate.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I enjoyed the rollercoaster pace of this story. Dawn's irreverent "voice" was also entertaining. Well done, Alex!

    ReplyDelete
  8. This moves along at a great compelling pace, and the tension builds and builds. Such a good read, a serious page turner. Dawn's story and her narrative voice are excellently done.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Bud P.
    Breathtaking pace. Some very interesting twists and turns along the way. Well done!

    ReplyDelete