Short story (977 words)
“FIRST you sleep with me. Then you bounce my contract.”
“Both good tactical moves,” said Marcia sitting at her desk. Her blouse had vertical dark blue stripes and looked over-starched. The horn-rims were obvious stage props.
“So the programme and the algorithm are now Bullard’s?” he said.
“We’ve proof you created them here.”
Which explained the interrogation on the bedside. His tee-shirt bore the Dirac electron equation; he plucked at his sleeve. “Is there anyone here who can tweak it?”
“It doesn’t need tweaking.” Shaking her head caused two crescents of black hair to swing forward. “We know it works.”
Since she’d not invited him to sit down he stood indecisively, overhanging her Apple laptop and a letter opener styled as a kukri. She took off her glasses as if to remind him why he’d talked so willingly. “Look, Chas,” she said. “You’re young and out of your depth. Playing with C-sharp is just talking to computers. It’s no guide to business.”
He walked out into a sunny morning, a modest cheque in the back pocket of his jeans. Decided he’d had enough machine language for a while. Walked down the street to an employment agency specialising in hospitality work - as if they were giving it away! Started work that evening in The Grand’s Harpo bar.
Fernando, the bar manager didn’t see him as competition, “The cocktails. I show you. Until eleven o’clock at night it is easy. Lager in bottles, glasses of wine.”
Andy, whey-faced from five years of programming, came in at six and ordered a Peroni Red. Smiled at Chas knowingly. “She took you to the cleaner’s.”
“Gorgeous and clever. She didn’t need much.” Chas shrugged. “I was easy meat. A freelance programmer.” But perhaps Andy was gathering crumbs Marcia had left behind. Chas stayed schtumm on tweaking. “I should have known. She was out of my league.”
They talked about Bullard as a business, vaguely, since neither knew the financial jargon. Andy left at seven and the bar closed at two in the morning. Beyond midnight the clientele changed; young women who’d come to ogle Fernando practised on Chas. The sexual byplay demanded a light touch but it was fun. No one tipped less than a fiver.
He’d reckoned on a fortnight just to clear his mind but the money was good and the approaches – from twenty-five-year-olds who wore designer clothes and didn’t apparently work to pay for them – were becoming ever more specific. Perhaps, one said, Daddy might find Chas something.
Hardraw arrived during the slack period, seven to nine, and immediately took a bar stool. “Young Chas, good evening to you. A KCB if you please.”
Chas reached for the kummel, surprised Hardraw knew his name. All Chas was sure of was Hardraw had a named parking space close to Bullard’s main entrance and took the special lift to a floor Chas had never visited. He mixed in the gin with tiny amounts of lemon juice and apricot brandy, conscious of being watched.
Hardraw sipped and smacked his lips. “The only really adult cocktail,” he said, then looked around. “Bit of a come-down.”
“Bit of a holiday, really.”
“I’m told this place livens up.”
“No problems later, getting programming work?”
“Never has been.”
Hardraw finished his cocktail in one gulp. “Another please. So you hold all the cards.”
Chas said nothing.
“I said you hold - ”
“I heard you. Didn’t think you needed an answer.”
Hardraw laughed. “You do hold all the cards. When Marcia gave you the bullet I take it you knew about tweaking?”
“I sort of warned her.”
Hardraw asked, “Did you now? How did you know?”
“It’s a search engine. It had never been tested at four on Friday afternoon. Maximum traffic.”
Hardraw laughed again. “Got to hand it to you, young Chas. That’s when it crashed, 16.15 last Friday. Can it be tweaked?”
“What would it cost?”
“You could pay me a lot and I’d have it done in two weeks max. Pay someone else the same amount and it would take a month or two. Perhaps.”
“How much is a lot?” asked Hardraw.
“Not sure I’m keen.”
Hardraw drained his KCB, stood up. “Thought that might be the case. Be seeing you, young Chas.” Dropped a twenty-pound note and walked away.
Marcia arrived ten minutes later and took Hardraw’s stool. “Did he order that liquorice thing?”
Chas nodded. She said, “Martini with a twist, straight up.”
Mixing the drink he watched her in the bar mirror. Those crescents bracketing her cheeks looked recently styled.
“You’re playing hard to get,” she said. “Officially I’m here to change your mind; unofficially to salute your financial martyrdom.”
“How wide’s your brief?”
She sighed. “I’d love to go all moral. But I’ve already whored my way into your secrets; better I should plead guilty to being a tart. Hardraw being Hardraw expects more whoring from me but he can go screw himself.”
“Sounds as if there’ll more than one martyr. Hardraw didn’t strike me as the tolerant sort.”
She said, “I’ll be better out than in. But there is one service. Would you like to know what you’re turning down?”
“Is it a lot?”
“That’s all I need.” He put out some cashews. “I knew you’d turn up. I had this idea. That we’d meet for a fortnight. Just socially. Then I’d decide.”
She thought. “A double whammy. You turn down Bullard then drop me. Sounds like one of mine. It wouldn’t have worked. Being social isn’t my line. You wouldn’t have lasted the fortnight. Bed is what I’m best at.”
“You haven’t tried your martini.”
“I didn’t feel entitled. Gahhhd. Now I’m getting sentimental.” She sounded tired.
“And you’re so damn certain about everything.”
“Drink the martini. I made it for you.”