CHAPTER TWO

Derek the Inspired
The Means


TUESDAY AFTERNOON, NORMALLY A FAIRLY SEDATE AFFAIR ON
Manchester Square, fairly hummed along that day. Having put Derek through to the solicitors, Angie was hardly out of the office and down the stairs to the messenger waiting in Reception before another equally important call came through. Cyril Harrap, Editor-in-Chief, wedged behind his desk in his overstuffed leather chair on the fifth floor picked up the phone and found himself being shouted at by the firm’s North American Correspondent making his early morning calls from New York.

Cyril was a large man with a timid personality. He had become Editor-in-Chief, to his own surprise, as a result of attrition and forty years of obsequious loyalty. He took little satisfaction from his success and was perpetually uncomfortable. Not only was his body too large for his meek spirit but his sense of duty and responsibility was far greater than his capacity for authority and his ability to command. He ended up like a bloated schoolboy playing at teacher but terrified of the headmaster, who in this case was Colonel Loudsley, the real power on the board. Loudsley had married old Wallthorp’s daughter and was generally regarded as the de facto head of the firm, regularly standing in for his father-in-law at board meetings.

Cyril twisted uncomfortably in his revolving chair and hit his bald head against the sloping roof of the dormer window, which was the only spot in the tiny attic room, originally intended as servants’ quarters, where there had been room to install his oversized chair of state. Previous Editors-in-Chief had occupied more spacious apartments on the second floor, but the Colonel had insisted that the proper place for the chief in-house executive was at the very top of the building; as if this were some New York skyscraper with the executive suite on the penthouse floor. Cyril, of course, had had no alternative but to acquiesce, and every day he heaved his embarrassed hulk up the last flight of twisty stairs and installed himself in the big chair, out of everybody’s way. It was for the most part a lonely life, but not today.

“You gotta send someone over immeeediately!” bellowed Herb Rosen. “This baby’s hot, and if he don’t get some personal attention right away, the damn book’s gonna go to auction. How many times I gotta tell you ‘gentlemen’ — he twisted the word out with a bad imitation of a English accent — that things don’t sit around waitin’ for tea time here? Last Weeks of the Presidency is gonna look great on someone else’s list unless you nail this sucker right away.”
“But Herbert, my dear chap, the rumour concerning the President’s resignation is totally unsubstantiated. We could be buying a complete fiction.”
“Yeah, and you know what the Colonel’s gonna say if impeachment goes through and he finds out you blew the chance to be first on the stands with what everyone and his uncle’s out buying!”
“Well, I suppose so. But what makes you think we can get this chap to sign with us in the first place? We’re hardly the biggest fish in the market.”
“I tell ya, you send someone over with one of those stiff white collars and the old club tie, and he’ll go for the accent. He needs the rep’. He wants to look good in the academic establishment. Word has it he’s after a job in a think tank. You boys can give him a little class. Published by Wallthorp ’n Johnson (he abbreviated the ‘and’ horribly) — that’s as good as a doctorate from Yale, believe me.”

Cyril believed him but was not so sure of the effect of such an author on Wallthorp and Johnson’s reputation. At the same time, the effect on himself of missing an opportunity as topical as this would be assuredly most unpleasant. He’d have to do something about it. Sign the chap up for as little as possible and hope the Presidency remained intact. Or hope that it collapsed and the book sold a million copies. Sending someone to New York on a wild goose chase or making a large advance against a book that could never be published would surely cost him his job. But so would losing such a prize if the fool President were to be forced to resign. These Americans! So unpredictable! And so pushy.

“All right,” he sighed, “expect someone tomorrow. But Herbert, if this turns out to be idle speculation I’ll probably lose my job — and I’ll never forgive you.”
“Sure baby, we’ll both fry in hell if the Colonel fires you — but you’ll be fine. I’ll set up an appointment with Scouselinger right away. Just be sure your man gets here pronto.”
Cyril put the phone down and considered whom he should send. Toshoff was the most expendable, but he hardly fit the stiff collar image. He was more the woollen tie and muted flannel shirt type. No, Davis would have to go. He was smart enough. He just hated having anything to do with Davis though. He always felt so intimidated. As if the chap was sneering at him. He managed to avoid him most of the time. He would tell Deirdre to attend to the details. Oh dear, how he hated these things, he should have stayed in accounting.

While Cyril Harrap was agonizing at the top of the building a commotion was breaking out in the basement. Wynton Churchill, the rangy Jamaican Rastafarian who had replaced Toshoff in the mailing department, was throwing a fit. He had been carefully separating the mail into piles for running through the franking machine, each pile at a separate rate, so as not to have to reset the amount every other letter, when Toshoff had descended on him and dumped his own pile of outgoing letters right on top of Wynton’s carefully arranged stacks.

This was one of the few opportunities Toshoff had of enjoying his elevation and he indulged himself in this fashion at least once a week. Wynton was usually too mellowed out to mind, or even notice, but he’d had nothing to smoke for three days now and was not about to stand for such treatment, least of all from the likes of Toshoff, whom he regarded with a disdain as great as Derek’s.

His indignant and noisy outburst brought Angie running to see what was the matter. She had been in the process of sending the messenger away with a flea in his ear from Reception, where he’d been larking about with Eunice, the stunning blonde receptionist from Fulham whose life as a competition ballroom dancer had been recently nipped in the bud by a motorcycle accident that had cost her both feet. Her boyfriend Clive brought her to work every day in his sidecar and picked her up again at five o’clock with a devotion that everybody ascribed to guilt, but which in reality was due to Eunice’s nymphomania. She was as good in bed as ever, and Clive would have carried her about even if she had lost both legs and her arms as well. He had never known such a woman and was convinced that long life and perfect health would be his for ever so long as he could keep Eunice. But it was a struggle. Eunice was worse than a Venus flytrap. She had only to smell a male at twenty paces and the poor unfortunate was entangled. The messenger, alone with her in Reception for a good fifteen minutes, had stood no chance. He was actually unbuttoning his shirt when Angie came downstairs and discovered him sitting on Eunice’s lap in her wheelchair. She shouted at him and was about to box his ears when the ruckus from below drew her attention.

Abandoning the panting messenger in the arms of the footless Aphrodite, she ran around the corner and down the narrow flight of stairs which led to the basement. Her skirt, like her blouse, was too tight and her heels too high for such precipitous haste and she lost it on the third step down. Letting out a shriek louder than Wynton’s ranting she tumbled down the rest of the short flight, fortunately as thickly carpeted as the rest of the building, to land at Toshoff’s feet as he backed up the stairs away from Wynton’s flailing anger. He sat down on her with a thump, his glasses flying off his head to land some distance away. She wailed again and Wynton roared in triumph to see his adversary suddenly collapse in front of him.
“Ha, now we see how the mighty are fallen, maan!”
“Oh, Miss Wagstern, are you all right?”
“Ooooooh!” squealed Angie in reply, struggling to pull down her skirt in front of Wynton’s interested gaze. But Toshoff was still sprawled across her, groping blindly for his glasses, and she only had one hand free. “Get off me, you pervert! Wynton, help him up — and stop staring!”

There was the sound of little rubber wheels rolling over the floor above them as Eunice came to the top of the stairs to see what was going on. The phone at the reception desk began ringing, and was ignored, and then all at once the front door was opened vigorously — right into the face of the lovelorn and dishevelled messenger who was finally leaving. The door knocked the messenger down and before he could scramble to his feet Colonel Loudsley had walked right into, over, and down upon him, spluttering and expostulating like an exploding steam engine as he did so.
“Who the deuce are you?” he gasped, sitting up, “What on earth’s going on here?” he added as he became aware of the unanswered phone still adding its persistent shrill to the commotion below.
At that moment Derek appeared on the first floor landing. “Colonel Loudsley, are you all right, sir?” he called down, hardly daring to hope that the Colonel had finally collapsed with apoplexy and was about to depart this vale of tears and leave them all in peace. But the Colonel spluttered some more and struggled to his feet.
“Davis, just the man I want to see! Come here sir, and give me a hand, and get this fool out of my feet.” He trod on the messenger’s hand as he stood up and the messenger, wrenching it free with a howl, upset the Colonel again, who sat down hard on his coccyx, opened his eyes wide with inexpressible pain, and passed out.

The Colonel’s bowler hat rolled slowly to a stop, and suddenly all was silent. Eunice wheeled about and gaped at the insensate Colonel. Over her shoulder, having found his glasses and now climbed to the top of the basement stairs, Toshoff peered nervously. Over his shoulder appeared the woolly head of Wynton. And finally, beneath both their elbows, Angie thrust her flushed face and said in awestruck dismay: “Oh my! Whatever’s happened to the Colonel?”

Several other faces had by now appeared over the banisters and out of ground floor doors, and the whole building was soon abuzz with the excitement of the Colonel’s collapse. Two of the larger office boys carried him into the boardroom and laid him down while Eunice called for doctors and ambulances. Toshoff disappeared back into his own office. Wynton made some comment — he thought he was paying a compliment — about Angie’s taste in underwear and received a slap in the face for his trouble. And Derek, when no one was looking, slipped out the front door, hard on the heels of the messenger. Had anyone been watching they would have been surprised at the speed with which a normally languid Derek, who rarely moved faster than an unwilling schoolboy on his way to school, hurried across the square in the direction of Bowles, Bowles, and Biddlington: Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths.

Only Cyril Harrap, insulated in the attic, remained unaware of the disturbance below, until, frustrated by Deidre’s slowness in returning from her commission to Derek, he poked his head out of the window to see what had occasioned the arrival of the wailing ambulance in the street below. His glasses nearly slid off his nose with surprise as he recognized the lobsterlike pate of the Colonel on the stretcher being loaded into the waiting ambulance.
Derek returned to the building shortly before four o’clock. Eunice stopped him at the bottom of the stairs and was about to say something when Angie appeared from the boardroom and told him Deirdre wanted to see him on the fifth floor, urgently. He looked questioningly at Eunice, who heaved her perfumed décolletage at him, and then ascended to the executive attic, full of trepidation.

Deirdre was brief and efficient: “Have Toshoff take care of whatever needs attending to on your desk, Mr Davis. You’re off to New York first thing in the morning to meet Mason Scouselinger. And Mr Harrap says don’t come back without a signed contract.” Her beady eyes glittered at him fiercely from her pale face, devoid of the least trace of makeup, and he wondered if she had ever had lips. Harrap deserved a secretary like that. But he forced a small smile and took the proffered envelope. “The tickets and the contract are inside. Mr Harrap says make sure you dress like an Englishman. He will expect to see you back on Friday. Goodbye.”

Derek stumbled back down the twisty stairs to his own office hardly believing his luck. According to Bowles, Bowles, and Biddlington, the solicitors for the Harlech Miners’ Union, the mysterious Judith Callaghan’s last known address was in New York. So far she had not responded to any of their written requests to come forward. He only had a couple of days but it seemed like a heaven sent opportunity. Maybe he could find her before the solicitors got to her. Maybe he could bribe her, give her some story, send her on an untraceable excursion for ninety days. And then to hell with Wallthorp and Johnson, Harrap, Scouselinger, Iris’s great-aunt (maybe even Iris). He would be free, free for the rest of his life. No more uphill battles with the wretched system. They could keep their clubs and their ties. Margate — or Rio de Janeiro, come to that — here he came.

*

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