The Nottingham Faces

by David Young

Make the call and get it over with.

I stared at the phone pad on the wall of my cramped hotel room and debated with myself for a long time. Make the call, take some action, take back control of the situation. Don’t make the call, wait it out, prolong the torture. A logical, sober assessment pointed to the only practical move—make the call and put an end to it. But things weren’t that simple. Part of me thought I should just continue to take my beating, a beating that was long overdue and, let’s be honest here, more than a bit deserved.

* * *

Three weeks earlier, newly arrived in Torrox, Laurent and I sat across a meeting room table from the two Treasury officials.

We like to think of ourselves as in the life changing business.”

It was an (admittedly tired and lame) intro I’d used countless times, and even if it wasn’t entirely a lie, it still felt like one. Money always changed lives of course, and an injection of funds from Forerunner Capital always brought with it welcome relief to those in charge of choking, cash-starved entities. Companies on the brink of insolvency suddenly found themselves rescued; payrolls could be met, bills could be paid, executives could finally sleep at night. Smiles all around.

I’m happy to hear it.” Torrox’s Secretary of the Treasury Andersen gazed at me coolly. His face was a living medical disclaimer for the overuse of cosmetic gene hacking, the skin wholly unblemished (like a mannequin) and pulled tighter than a drum. With that face it was impossible to read if he was aware how much leverage he had over me, if he knew how badly I needed this deal.

Tell me,” Andersen continued, “what comes to mind when you think of us, Mr. Modriç?” I noticed that whatever he’d had done to his face stopped there; his decrepit neck had the texture and flimsiness of a wet paper bag. I recalled from his bio that he was one hundred and twenty years old. That explained the neck.

I’ll tell you what usually comes to mind,” he went on. “Most think we’re political fanatics, gene freaks, black marketers. Oh, we’ve been called just about everything, I suppose.”

Next to Andersen sat his chief economist, Finola Stanfield. She stared at me with emerald green eyes and the smallest hint of a grin, like she and I were sharing some kind of joke. Finola was gorgeous—wild mane of waist-length black hair, stylish attire emphasizing runner’s legs and a lean, muscular shape—even in silence she was a powerful presence in the room. Laurent discreetly nudged me with his elbow as he noticed my attention wander away from our host.

Fiscal responsibility, limited government, free markets,” said the Treasury Secretary. “That’s what we’re all about here. That’s why we built Torrox. Our liberty and freedom are the fundamental…” Blah blah blah. He droned on and on, giving us the long version of the Torrox political brochure like only a one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old could. His voice had the unwavering conviction of a true believer; Laurent and I smiled and nodded politely.

Andersen eventually stopped talking and Laurent said with apparent sincerity, “Mr. Secretary, unlike our competition Boris and I and everyone at Forerunner Capital have the utmost respect for Torrox’s deeply felt principles and operating philosophy. I can certainly promise you that.”

Then came the meat of the pitch. Laurent went over the proposed capital structure, debt covenants, funding rates, and so on, along the way discreetly sliding in a few digs about Vizcaya Partners, our only competition on the deal. The deal structure was complex and filled with legal technicalities—it’s not every day private equity firms bail out sovereign states. Even for the smooth-talking Laurent, one of Forerunner’s top pitch men, it took over an hour to review the main points. During that time Finola Stanfield said nothing and I sat there wondering what was behind that clever smile of hers.

Christ’s sake, Modriç,” Laurent laughed, “she was definitely a looker but you just sat there catatonic like you’d never seen a hottie in a tight skirt before.” Laurent’s laugh was more mocking than amused; I knew he didn’t want to be here. A Forerunner sales superstar, no doubt he saw a low profile debt package bid like this one beneath him, a waste of his talents, and surely he’d cursed his bad luck when he found out who he’d been partnered with. My record-setting dry spell without a sale (eleven months and counting) was well known across Forerunner’s sales teams—getting paired up with Boris these days was about as unlucky as you could get. Nobody told me as much of course, but nobody had to. You get a feel for these sorts of things.

Sorry,” I said.

We sat in the back of the robot limo that carried us from the Torrox Treasury to our hotel. Laurent shook his head and smiled. “Please don’t tell me she’s a notch on your belt—we don’t have a past with the lovely Ms. Stanfield, do we?”

No, nothing like that. I don’t know her.” I was sure I didn’t know her, especially not in the way Laurent implied.

The short ride to the hotel was our first opportunity to take an unhurried breath all day. Laurent and I arrived from New York only a few hours earlier on a tight schedule. As soon as we’d landed the robot limo whisked us directly to the meeting at the Treasury office. On the way I paid little attention to our surroundings; my detail-obsessed bid partner darkened the windows and insisted we spend our last few pre-meeting moments making final tweaks to the pitch.

I lowered my window and took my first real look at Torrox. The place looked like it was—and may have been literally—falling apart. Streets all but deserted (we could find no recent population figures), most visible surfaces rusted out or well on their way. Not exactly what you’d call prime real estate.

Laurent lowered the window on his side. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what a dump! Can you believe people actually live here?” He quickly raised his window and started scouring through the limo’s minibar. He gave up his search, sat back and sighed in disgust. “Nothing, not even a beer. We’re really flying first class, Boris. You know, until I got tapped to work this bid I didn’t think any of these places still existed.”

He was almost right. Torrox was one of the last of the so-called sea states, only a few were still operational. The massive manmade communities were founded by people like Andersen, ultra-wealthy political idealists who shared an intense hatred for what they called the ‘overreaching, illegitimate authority’ of modern European and North American governments. They were not a large group, but they had enough funds, influence and sheer willpower to become (literally) nation-builders. Some called them tax evaders and business criminals, others called them heroes of liberty. You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to.

And while its sovereignty was officially recognized by the United Nations, in reality Torrox was nothing more than a dozen repurposed oil platforms bolted together and crammed full of low-slung, modular buildings. Torrox didn’t even have a flag.

But that was ancient history. Torrox’s founding was decades ago, back when Andersen probably still had a human face. Almost all the sea states were colossal failures within a few years; the exciting new world free of government intervention turned out to be a capital-intensive money pit. Unrealistic revenue projections, underestimated operating costs, overexcited investors—it was a formula for disaster as old as the capital markets themselves. Too much speculation, not enough questions asked, a boom and bust cycle within a handful of years. Only a few of the sea states survived as tourist destinations or small banking centers; the fad of founding your own country faded as quickly as it had begun. My guess was Torrox still existed only because the original investors had extremely deep pockets, but it seemed the money was finally running out.

The moldy smell of oxidizing metal mixed with ocean air came through the opened window, and as I noticed the broken street signs and the rusting, abandoned buildings, for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what made the higher ups at Forerunner decide this dump was worth investing in.

Has to be genehack tech,” Laurent said, who must have been thinking the same thing. “We’re seeing more of that kind of thing lately. Genehack intellectual property as deal collateral.”

I nodded; it sounded about right. Genehacks could be big money, huge money, more than enough to justify a Torrox bailout. And with gene hacking strictly controlled in most countries, even banned in some, Torrox’s ideological bent toward zero government oversight made it a gene hacker’s paradise.

Not that it matters,” Laurent said. “As long as they sign the deal I could care less whether the partners are buying into genehack tech or Florida swampland. We get paid on what we sell down here, and that’s the bottom line.” He emphasized the word ‘sell’ just enough to needle me, to remind me that I hadn’t sold anything in a while and everything he touched lately turned to gold.

As we pulled up to the squat, industrial-looking hotel a figure suddenly appeared outside Laurent’s window, lightly rapping the glass and flashing us a familiar brazen grin. “Look at this asshole,” Laurent muttered, then smiled and touched his forehead in a mock salute. Mitchell Lewis from Vizcaya Partners stood on the other side of the glass, impeccably clad as always in an Armani three piece. Lewis returned the salute then with the same hand slowly dragged an imaginary blade across the front of his neck. He laughed, turned and headed into the lobby. Never lacking in subtlety, Lewis.

Laurent visibly deflated. “Jesus, it would have to be Mitchell-fucking-Lewis, right? That son of a bitch has taken so much business from us I’d bet the partners have a bounty on his head.” Mitchell Lewis was indeed a reviled name at Forerunner Capital; the megadeals he’d undercut, undermined, or just plain stolen from the firm were well known.

Well, at least we know who we’re up against now,” Laurent sighed, but knowing that didn’t make either of us feel any better. Lewis was a bulldog, as tenacious as they came, and he seemed to live for outbidding Forerunner at every opportunity. The odds of ending my dry spell suddenly felt a lot longer.

I stand awkwardly, dumbly behind the double line barrier of armed guards and police separating me and my colleagues from the surging throng of Nottingham locals. I look through the angry crowd of demonstrators. A frail, ancient woman in a shawl holding a sign that reads ‘Forerunner murdered me.’ A husky fortyish man with a shaved head, flushed with rage shouting obscenities our way. Children among the crowd, a waifish girl of ten or eleven with a tear-streaked face, a dirty-faced adolescent boy flipping us the bird…

I startled myself awake, heart pounding and drenched in sweat, the loathing and guilt fresh like it had only happened yesterday. The clock on the nightstand read five in the morning; I rolled out of bed and went to splash water on my face. Weird. I hadn’t had the Nottingham dream in years. After the incident there was a time when I thought I’d never stop having it, never stop seeing those faces. Drugs, therapy, nothing helped; only with time did the dreams become less frequent, eventually going away entirely. At least until now. Had to be the stress, I concluded. As if I didn’t have enough to deal with, now my own subconscious was betraying me.

I looked at myself in the tiny bathroom mirror, a middle-aged reflection lit by an unflattering fluorescent light stared back at me. Nottingham seemed so long ago.

I’d been with Forerunner only a year or two at the time, a behind the scenes deal analyst, still too green to let loose in front of actual clients. The company was looking to get out of nuclear energy and into higher growth areas and I made an airtight case for selling the firm’s interest in a fusion plant on the outskirts of Nottingham. During the research, quite by accident, I discovered the plant’s manager had been doctoring the safety records, a fact I didn’t document or mention to anyone. For a green analyst who couldn’t wait to jump start his career—even if it meant cutting corners and risky gambles—the information was worth its weight in gold, so I held onto it tightly until I had the opportunity to whisper what I knew into the ears of a few of Forerunner’s partners, who repaid my discretion with smiles, pats on the back, and a quick promotion to the sales team.

Weeks after Forerunner fire sold its majority position, the plant had its infamous meltdown, killing several workers and exposing thousands of nearby residents to radiation levels that ensured them a lifetime of precarious health. The disaster spawned dozens of lawsuits and criminal charges, but despite the public outrage and the horrible press around Forerunner’s dubiously timed divestiture, at the end of it all, amazingly, the company was never found legally or financially culpable.

After that the partners treated me differently. I’d suddenly become someone who could be trusted, someone who put the company’s interests first, someone who could keep secrets and a cool head even during the intense, charged atmosphere of a public scandal. My sins at Nottingham, it seemed, were the seeds from which my career blossomed.

Until I hit my dry spell, that is.

Immersing myself in work helped me drive the Nottingham faces out of my head; I spent the next couple hours prepping for a morning holo meeting with Laurent and a few of Forerunner’s minor partners. It was the usual drill we’d each done a hundred times before—how’d the meeting go? anything new to report? what do we need to do to close this deal?

After a quick breakfast Laurent and I crossed the lobby toward the onsite holo room. At the far side of the lobby I noticed Finola sitting at a table with a coffee; she smiled and waved.

Laurent nudged me. “We’ve got a few minutes before the meeting. Why don’t you go see what’s what while I get us a secure line with New York?”

I walked over and smiled. “So what brings you to our neighborhood? Looking for us?”

She stood and extended a firm hand. “No, no. I’m here on other business. Nothing terribly interesting I’m afraid. Please do sit down.”

Thanks. So did you have any questions about the material we reviewed yesterday? I know it was a lot to absorb.”

Finola nodded. “Yes, it was a quite the avalanche of detail, but Laurent did an admirable job of explaining everything. Well organized, straightforward, no nonsense. That’s how we like things down here.” She wore a sleeveless blouse that showed off her sinewy, muscled arms. “It went over quite well, by the way—the terms look good at first glance, very much in line with what we were expecting.” She leaned in a bit and gave me a small wink. “I’m probably not supposed to say this, but it looks as if you’re the team to beat at the moment.”

I jumped for joy inside but I managed to betray only a confident, pleased smile. “That’s great, glad to hear it. Please let me know if there’s any other information you need or if you have any questions.”

A tap on my shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt, Boris,” Laurent said. “But we’re about to get started in there.”

Good morning, gentlemen,” the figure said as it appeared in front of us. There was an instant of recognition and then I heard Laurent exhale, disappointed.

We had expected to be sitting across the table from the lifelike projections of a couple of third-tier partners, getting them up to speed on the deal, answering their predictable questions, the normal routine. Instead we got Carlos Westheimer, Forerunner’s hatchet man. Sixtyish, square-jawed and solidly built, Westheimer had been a low level partner for as long as I could remember. He had none of the polish and political skills of the partners higher up the food chain; he’d built his career by taking on the ugly tasks others didn’t want. Unglamorous deals, mass firings, shady transactions that were too risky for the higher profile executives to touch. His presence was never a good sign—it either meant your deal was totally off the radar or you were in trouble. In this case I figured it was probably both.

Despite our surprise the meeting started smoothly with Laurent, who does a verbal tap dance like few others, giving Westheimer a summary of the meeting with Andersen and Finola.

We know we’re facing stiff competition down here, but—“

So how do you two feel about your chances?” Westheimer interrupted.

I’d say our chances are very good,” I offered, still overflowing with confidence from Finola’s comments. Laurent kicked me under the table. He would have preferred a less definitive answer, something that preserved a bit of wiggle room if things went south.

Very good, you say?” Westheimer appeared amused.

Yes, sir. We even received positive comments just a few minutes ago.”

Delighted to hear it. And who exactly was it that gave you this feedback, Mr. Modriç?”

Andersen’s top economist, Finola Stanfield.”

Interesting.” Westheimer tapped his projected desktop and a document popped open and floated beside him. “So I’m wondering why Ms. Stanfield made these comments in the Journal’s ‘Daily Deals’ section last night. Any idea why she might say something like this?”

When asked about the likelihood of an imminent private equity deal that would rescue Torrox from insolvency, Senior Economist Finola Stanfield of Torrox’s Treasury department acknowledged that officials were having discussions with various private equity groups, though only Forerunner Capital was mentioned by name. In her statement she noted that the proposed terms of a Forerunner deal left Torrox officials unimpressed and disappointed.

I stopped reading and said, “Mr. Westheimer, I don’t understand. I just spoke to—“

If this is what you consider positive feedback, Mr. Modriç, I’m beginning to understand why you can’t sell anything lately. I’m amazed that someone who asked for you personally on this deal would say something like this.”

Asked for me personally?

Westheimer fumed. “Now I don’t know if this is the truth or if they’re just poking at us for better deal terms, but I don’t like to see kind of thing in the press, and in the Journal no less! Now you two are going to patch this up today, understand?”

Laurent and I sat there like scolded schoolchildren. “Yes, of course,” Laurent finally said in a small, very un-Laurent like voice.

After the meeting Laurent and I walked out of the conference room in a daze. I glanced around the lobby, no Finola Stanfield. I couldn’t grasp what she’d done. Praising me privately and slamming me publicly—not the kind of thing you do to someone you hope to do business with. It made no sense.

What did he mean she asked for you personally?” Laurent asked, suspicious. “You told me you didn’t know her.”

I shook my head. “No idea.” Laurent looked crossly at me. I raised my hand and said, “I swear to all that’s holy I don’t know the woman. Jesus, Laurent.”

Laurent made no effort to hide his contempt. “Boris, I don’t know what’s going on with you, whether you’re being straight with me or not.” He moved threateningly close. “Let’s just get this deal done and get the hell out of this godforsaken place.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

No no no no NO!” Finola Stanfield, who said virtually nothing during our first meeting, had found her voice, and it wasn’t a nice one. She slapped the meeting room table, making a loud smack with her open palm. Her Oxford-educated accent slipped into an angry Cockney. “What in heaven’s name were you thinking? I thought you lot were professionals, these terms are bleeding outrageous!”

For the second time that morning Laurent and I sat stunned and speechless. Finola let us have it the moment we walked into the room for our follow up meeting at the Torrox Treasury. Andersen was a no-show and his chief economist ranted and berated us for a torturous hour.

I waited for her to take a breath between tirades and said, “Dr. Stanfield, I can assure you the terms aren’t unusual in any way. They’re very much on par with the kind of debt packages we arrange for private entities about the same size as Torrox.”

The comment only seemed to enrage her more. “We’re not some Vietnamese widget manufacturer, Modriç, and we don’t expect to be treated like one. Torrox is a sovereign nation. Don’t you bloody forget that.”

I’d like to point out, respectfully, these are the same terms we reviewed yesterday, the ones you told me only this morning that looked all right—“

Don’t tell me what I said or didn’t say, Modriç! Do you take us all for fools around here?”

Of course we don’t,” Laurent said. “Of course we don’t.” For the next five minutes he groveled as if his very life depended on it, assuring Finola that Forerunner had Torrox’s best interests at heart. He exalted Torrox’s rich history, its bold vision, its unique place among nations. The bullshit got very deep very quickly.

Laurent’s obsequious magic seemed to work, Finola finally relaxed and even cracked a smile. She’s enjoys making us uncomfortable. Oh god, she’s one of those. I’d seen it before, lots of times, and surely Laurent had as well. But a Napoleon Complex was typically reserved for men of short stature and fragile egos, not an Amazon of a woman who could stare bullets through you while she beat you in arm wrestling. I wanted to ask her about the negative comments in the Journal that Westheimer had chided us over, the comments that were a complete contradiction to the encouraging wink and nod she’d given me earlier. But something told me doing so would have been throwing gas on the fire so I didn’t mention it; I’d been chastised enough, twice already and it wasn’t even noon yet. I did however take advantage of the lighter mood to ask something else.

Dr. Stanfield, can I ask why you requested my participation on this proposal?”

Her smile faded instantly. “Who told you this?” she asked, flustered. Laurent shot me a dagger of a look. He’d just brought her back into a happy place and here I was ruining it.

Not sure I remember. One of our partners must have mentioned it.”

She seemed to struggle for an answer. “Was that me? Yes, I believe it was. I believe in the course of our research I found, or rather, one of my analysts must have found that your experience—“

I just wanted to say I was flattered you thought of me.” She appeared relieved to be let off the hook. Her off balance, out of control moment was brief—her venomous demeanor returned and we spent the rest of the meeting getting lectured on the long list of reasons why the proposed deal terms were outrageous, the same terms that only hours ago made us the ‘team to beat.’

Finola Stanfield did not seem to be a stable person; it was not going to be a fun bid.

Bitch is crazy.”

We were in the shuttle bay and Laurent was about to head back to New York. After a painful week of more of Finola’s inexplicable reversals in position and the tongue lashings that came with them, Laurent somehow managed to get himself off the bid. When you’re a sales superstar you can pull those kinds of strings.

Sorry to bail on you, Boris,” he lied. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, you’ve worked solo on plenty of deals.”

What?”

Laurent looked like he was trying to hold back a smile. “Oh, I didn’t tell you?” He picked up his travel bag and threw a strap over one shoulder. “Apparently Ms. Stanfield didn’t want anyone else coming down, said it would be counterproductive this late in the game to get someone up to speed.” He had waited until he was seconds away from boarding the shuttle to drop that bomb on me. Weasel.

Minutes after I jealously watched Laurent’s shuttle take off and head west, Finola’s assistant called to tell me about the new schedule of daily one-on-one meetings. She said Finola wanted to hammer out the proposal until it was ‘fit to be received.’

Great.

At the first meeting Finola told me Mitchell Lewis had already submitted Vizcaya’s final bid, going out of her way to praise his work and their positive view of the Vizcaya proposal.

Top drawer, I really must say. Lewis truly impressed us. Organized, excellent communicator, did his homework. Outstanding experience, I can see why you wouldn’t want to be competing against him.” She might as well have been pulling my teeth without anesthesia.

At the second meeting the naked threats began, each delivered with a patronizing grin.

How do you deal with disappointment, Boris? I’d wager losing this deal would have none too small an impact on your career, eh?”

At the third meeting, she ordered detailed analyses and comprehensive proof points for the most inconsequential and innocuous areas of the proposal.

You call this an analysis, Boris? A first day intern could top this bloody rubbish.”

The daily grind of it was agonizing. Finola would insist on new deal provisions, then the next day claim the same provisions were in no way necessary, berating my inability to understand what she’d meant. Always shouting, always pounding a hand on the table.

This work is horrendous, we simply can’t go forward with the proposal in this state. We’ll keep this up until I’m satisfied and not a moment sooner, Modriç.”

The torture sessions, hours long and exhausting, continued every day for the next three weeks. By then I was so frazzled I had no idea if the cause was a Napoleon complex, simple masochism, or pure madness, but the effect was obvious. She no longer even attempted to hide her grins of pleasure; she enjoyed every minute of making me squirm. I wondered if Andersen, who never attended the meetings and delegated the bid work solely to Finola, had any idea what was going on, if he had any idea Finola was just plain nuts.

I wanted out of there in the worst way, and if it hadn’t been for my eleven-month dry spell, I might have risked hopping on a shuttle and going home. But I couldn’t of course.

Eleven months—it was the longest dry spell I’d ever heard of at Forerunner, and I knew they wouldn’t let me go a full year without a sale, Westheimer’s presence on the deal confirmed as much. He probably had standing orders to give me the ax if the deal went bad. Zero wiggle room, Boris. Win or go home. I had little choice but to sit there and take the abuse and try to land the deal somehow because I was my career and my career was me. Whether it was good or bad, I’d built it up over the better part of two decades and it was the only thing of value attached to my name. I didn’t want to just let it die.

I needed this deal, badly.

By some small miracle Finola’s assistant called and canceled our daily meeting the Sunday that began my fourth week in Torrox. And to my relief Westheimer hadn’t made his daily check-in call, giving me at least a day’s reprieve from his probing, insistent questions. Laurent would have appreciated my ongoing verbal tap dance—everything’s fine, making progress, looking good. It wasn’t unusual for the pre-bid work to stretch out a month or more so my extended stay in Torrox wasn’t a red flag (yet), but if things went on much longer the questions would start to get tougher and the patience would start to wear thin.

These thoughts I tried to push from my mind as I strolled down the narrow, uneven sidewalk that long ago stopped functioning as a moving walkway. I was near my hotel at the southern end of Torrox. A full moon was out and the offshore breeze brought the pure aroma of the sea, pleasantly untainted by the oxidized metal stench that normally permeated the entire complex. All things considered, it was a nice night for a walk and I relished my small window of freedom.

The few streetlights that still functioned provided the barest amount of illumination. A few blocks down I spotted my destination, a small pub the hotel staff had recommended. Just follow the light and noise, they said. The raucous sound of soccer songs and chants swelled as I approached, and through the window I saw the place was crowded and noisy, groups of fans huddled around various wall screens displaying games from mainland Europe. I smiled. Just what the doctor ordered.

I froze as I reached for the door. Finola Stanfield, casually dressed, holding a beer, laughing and carrying on with a small group of friends stood near one of the screens. She was having a great time, perhaps a little drunk. Before this moment I couldn’t have imagined her betraying even the smallest amount of good humor, much less laughing hysterically, holding a half empty pint of beer. The world seemed to turn upside down.

I decided to go over and say hi and, with a little luck, maybe I could turn the relationship around a bit. Nothing to lose—not like she could treat me any worse.

As I made my way through the crowd a goal was scored on the screen in front of Finola’s group and they howled in joy and started their celebratory chant.

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire,
put the Derby on the top,
put the Leicester in the middle
and we’ll burn the fucking lot.

I stopped and looked up at the screen; the game was a complete route. Nottingham Forest 5, Leicester City 0. Finola turned away from the screen and back to her friends, laughing and carrying on. Laughing so hard she looked like she was crying.

And that’s when I recognized her.

I whirled around quickly, hoping she hadn’t seen me and hurried back to my hotel.

* * *

Make the call and get it over with.

Two in the morning and I stared at the phone pad on the wall, still debating.

Finola was the small girl with the tear-streaked face all those years ago in Nottingham—one of many faces I saw that day that haunted my dreams for years. The moment I saw her face contorted with emotion in the pub I knew it was her, and any doubt I might have had was erased by the giddy enthusiasm for Nottingham soccer that only a local would have.

As I made the connection the grim logic of my situation took shape. I knew why I was in Torrox, I knew why Finola had requested me for the bid, and I knew what was behind that smile she shot me in our first meeting. I also knew my career was over; it had been over long before I’d taken my first step onto this dreary, rusting country. I just hadn’t realized it until now.

I tapped the phone pad and made the only call I could.

The next morning Treasurer Andersen showed up at the daily torture meeting along with Finola. Time to make the move.

Fiscal responsibility, limited government, free markets. I love it, and I’ve got to tell you, I love Torrox. This place is really starting to grow on me.” My unconventional opening statement and game show host grin prompted bewildered looks.

And is there anything lovelier than a landscape full of oxidizing steel? Did you know that before I came down here I had no idea how many shades of rust existed? I just love the whole we-can’t-pay-our-bills-in-the-post-apocalypse theme you’ve got going on down here. Very bold, I must say.”

While they sat and blinked, confused by or maybe not even believing what they’d just heard, I handed them a few papers. “For your kind consideration, a summary of Forerunner’s final bid proposal.” I winked at Finola and said, “Secretary Andersen, Finola and I have worked very hard on this and, I must say, we’re pretty darn proud of what we’ve put together here.”

The ridiculous deal terms would have made Shylock himself blush. I went over the high points while I watched Andersen’s eyes scan his copy, visibly moving from confusion to outrage in a matter of seconds. Even under all that stretched, reengineered skin I could see him boil over. Finola didn’t appear angry, only perplexed. Utterly and entirely perplexed.

Andersen spasmodically waved the term sheet in the air. “This is preposterous! What makes you think you can come down here and—“

Please, Mr. Secretary! Please don’t tell us our business, sir,” I shouted back with exaggerated indignation. “Forerunner is a recognized authority in these matters. Now we may not know much about cosmetic gene hacking, not nearly as much as you obviously do, but when it comes to capital infusions we’re the best game in town.”

I leaned forward and closely examined Andersen’s shapeless, saggy neck. “Mr. Secretary,” I whispered, “have you ever considered turtlenecks?”

Andersen stormed out not long after that, a baffled Finola Stanfield following in his wake.

I was unemployed before I even reached my hotel; the robot limo’s rejection of my company credit confirmed my status. I headed up to my room and started to pack. The door buzzed and I let Mitchell Lewis in.

Did you come all the way to Torrox to help me pack? Awfully nice of you, Lewis.”

He looked around stiffly. “Are we in black hole mode right now?”

I laughed and said, “Yes, of course.” Lewis appeared to relax as I pointed to the spot on the wall where a gray octagon confirmed the room was offline.

His patented grin returned. “Just wanted to say thanks for getting in touch. Even at two in the morning I’ll take that kind of call every time.” He laughed. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d be telling the partners at Vizcaya it was a good idea to give you a commission.”

Finder’s fee,” I corrected. “You earned a commission on this deal. I was paid a freelance finder’s fee.”

What’s the difference?”

Depends where you put the money. Some of the newer countries consider finder’s fees tax-exempt.”

Lewis nodded. “Well, I won’t ask why you bailed out on Forerunner like that—I’m sure you had your reasons. Anyway, I’ve got a meeting with Andersen in a bit, official signoffs and such, but I did want to stop by and let you know you just made my Christmas card list.” He reached out and shook my hand.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Here in front of me, bubbling over with gratitude and avaricious joy, stood the bane of Forerunner’s existence. A week ago, even yesterday, he was the devil incarnate, but now here in my hotel room he just seemed like another sales guy, someone you’d have a beer with, talking shop and swapping war stories.

After Lewis left I sat down on the bed, feeling heavy and exhausted; I thought about how masterfully Finola had set her trap and how I didn’t even know I’d walked into it. I shook my head and smiled at how I’d accidently put the pieces together, the randomness of it. If I hadn’t walked into the pub at that moment and seen her face contorted with emotion, cheering for Nottingham, I never would have connected her with that terrified child I’d seen years earlier.

I tiredly rose from the bed and continued packing; I couldn’t stop thinking about Finola. Had she read about me somewhere? Researched the deposition records, figured out my role in what happened? Had she lost family in Nottingham? So many questions I’d never know the answer to. All I knew was that she’d made sure I was on the bid team, and once I was in place, under her control, she took her time and enjoyed herself. Insulting me, berating me, burying me with loads of unnecessary work. Changing her requirements every day, reversing herself and laughing inside at how I never said a word, never pointed out her ridiculous behavior. It had been a game for her, and maximizing the suffering was the fun of it, like a lion playing with its injured prey until it gets bored then kills it.

We’ll keep this up until I’m satisfied…

I had no idea how long she planned to prolong my agony—maybe as long as she could get away with, maybe until she got bored. But at the end of it there could be only one outcome—Forerunner losing the bid and Finola making sure everyone knew Boris Modriç had blown the deal. And then I would be out. Big loss plus eleven-month dry spell equals Boris out on his ass. Done deal.

Once I knew I was doomed cutting a last-minute deal with Vizcaya was a no-brainer, and at least it landed me one last payday. Take a dive in exchange for a nice finder’s fee—it wasn’t the first case of bid rigging in history and it took Vizcaya’s partners all of two minutes to agree to it.

How do you deal with disappointment, Boris? I could still picture the gleam in her eye as she asked it. My career had blossomed from the seeds I’d planted in Nottingham, but something else had also blossomed, something ugly and hungry and insatiable, and it had finally found me.

Finola had relished my daily suffering, but I knew her ultimate payback would have come from finishing me off herself, personally ruining my career with a bid rejection in the most public and damaging way she could manage. She was so close she could probably taste it, but my bizarre act of professional suicide robbed her of that ultimate vengeance, that moment of cold, delicious retribution, that long-awaited moment when she would pull the hangman’s lever with her own hand.

And as odd as it sounds, I was sorry she wouldn’t have that moment.

The End