Tom smiled at the battered photo in his hand. A teenage boy and girl, arm in arm, smiled back at him, leaning against an old oak tree. The sunlight dappled around them, throwing warm shades of yellow and green far into the tree-filled background. His hair had been longer then, and those spots were long gone…in fact he’d changed a lot in two short years.
The girl in the photo had long, silky honey hair draped over one shoulder. And her smile…the rest of the photo had faded and dulled with time, but her smile remained as brilliant and shining as ever. Had she changed since then? If she had, he didn’t know. Months after that photo had been taken she was gone, never to be seen again. Where was she now?
His heart gave an extra hard thump, and he shook himself. This was no time to get sentimental. He’d brought the old photo along for luck, nothing else. Today, at last, was the reading of his father’s will. It had been a month since he’d passed away – of a heart attack while on some business trip in some far-flung Asian country, negotiating land rights – and Tom’s life had come to a stand still. He hadn’t mourned, not really: he hadn’t seen his Dad for years, seeing him for mere days at a time around Christmas, and even then he was always on the phone. Tom didn’t blame him for that; he was a busy guy. Work is important.
No, the real cause of the stand-still was that business had ground to a halt since the Managing Director of Verbrisser International Land Development and Estate Agency had suddenly died, and nobody knew quite what to do – not even the higher realms of the board: his Dad liked to keep as much of the business to himself as possible. They lost their head, quite literally, and when into shutdown, and Tom lost his sub-contracted work in London. All very inconvenient.
But, at last, a will had been found, and the reading was today. Whispers had been abound: that the son was to inherit. Tom clenched his hands together to stop them shaking with nerves: this great empire of his father’s creation was but moment’s away. He straightened his tie: he’d put on his best suit for the occasion, not just for the sombre mood of his father’s Last Testament, but also because he knew the press would be here, curious to know the fate of this mighty global company, and sure enough he could here lens shutter’s clicking away from the back of the room. Tom begged his nerves to calm, and he made a show of idly drumming hi fingers together. This will reading was, surely, a formality, a foregone conclusion. He had nothing to be worried about. He could almost small the leather in the back seat of the Rolls Royce, the uncorking of wine on private flights to Dubai…
He chanced a look behind him. He sat on the front row, and could see the rest of the congregated crowd behind him. The great and the greater were gathered, even a couple of famous entrepreneurs, waiting to hear what piece of the meat Gareth Verbrisser had carved out for them. Aside from them, however, Tom recognised none of them, and Tom silently berated his father from keeping him on the fringes of his work, stuck in London. He’d have to network like crazy to make contacts with these people…
…all except one, that was. There was one person he knew very well, but not in person: he’d seen him in numerous press photos with his father, side by side, arm in arm, smiling as they cut ribbons and posed in hard hats while holding up blueprints. And here he was, in this room.
Muezza Ailuros. He had a dark, leathery tan, a crooked smile, and eyes hidden behind huge sunglasses. He held a striped black-and-blue cane in his sun-toughened hands, and his suit and tie were a blinding white, with a canary yellow shirt. The whole shebang was rounded off by a cream trilby hat, complete with a sky-blue feather. The whole get-up looked tasteless and tacky, and he reminded Tom of some cheap 1960s American cop show gangster: cheesy and not in the least bit threatening. He turned, made eye contact with Tom, and his smile widened. He tipped his hat to him. Tom nodded, and turned away.
So, Muezza was here too. It was to be expected, Tom supposed, but still: now Tom had a genuine reason to feel nervous. His Dad had never had an official partner, but everyone knew Muezza was the unofficial second-in-command. Whenever his father took a rare holiday, Muezza took over. Whenever Tom snuck a peek at this Dad’s email inbox, most were from Muezza. And most important of all, Tom hated him. He had no real reason to, of course – business is business – but something irked him about this man, even moreso now he was in the same room.
At last, an attorney emerged from a back room, and the hall fell deadly quiet. She took to a lectern, and with little fanfare, jumped straight into the will reading.
Tom wasn’t mentioned in the beginning. At first this made him almost sick with worry, but then it became clear that it started with the minor parts of the will. The attorney read slowly and clearly as Gareth Verbrisser’s Last Testament shared out the spoils of his father’s work: subsidiaries and valuable contracts in Brazil and China, holiday homes in the Mediterranean, small branches of the business in Japan and the East Coast of the USA. Tom wasn’t worried: he knew the extent of his father’s empire. This was all minor pickings for the vultures.
“And lastly, we come to the matter of the cornerstone of my business: the ownership of my first and largest business: Verbrisser International Land Development and Estate Agency.” The attorney read crisply. She allowed a brief pause as everyone instinctively leaned forward. Tom could feel sweat beading on his forehead.
“Even now, as I write my will, I am torn,” the attorney read on, “on the one hand, there is my son, Tom. He is young, but he has been involved with my business since he first joined me for work experience, aged twelve, and has fought for every inch of the work he does in London. He practically runs my operations in the capital, and has done so competently for a year.
“But on the other hand, there is Muezza. A man after my own heart, we have worked together for more years than I care to count, and with his expertise I’ve extended my business into corners of the world I once only dreamed of. I never thought I’d meet a man who had as much ambition as myself, and though we clashed on issues now and then, we always resolved things amicably – especially when I reminded him who paid him.”
Light chuckles through the room. Tom took the opportunity to glance at Muezza from the corner of his eye: he too was laughing, though it seemed forced: the lines on his face deepened and his smile was without warmth. Tom gave a wry grin: perhaps things weren’t so smooth between Muezza and his Dad after all.
The laughter faded, and the attorney resumed; “I am torn. Breaking up the company is out of the question: it simply wouldn’t be right after all I’ve done building it from nothing to cut it down the middle, and besides, neither party would be happy with the result, and would commence to destroy each other. No, one owner must be decided, who will control Verbrisser International to the full. Therefore, I have set out a challenge.”
Murmurs of intrigue bubbled around the room, and chairs creaked. Tom raised an eyebrow.
“I have kept a property vacant for this occasion: Jacobsen Park. Both Tom and Muezza know it well, for very different reasons. As you well know, the Park is derelict, and in desperate need of renovation. You both have three days to draw up what you would plan for Jacobsen Park, and present it to a board of trusted advisors at my London Office. Details will be handed to you presently. Whoever my advisors select as the better of the two presentations will be handed full control of Verbrisser International.
“This concludes the reading of the Will and Last Testament of Gareth Verbrisser.”
“The usual, please, Barry,” Tom reached for his wallet, “Actually, make it a double.”
“A double, eh, Tom?” Barry grinned as he reached for a bottle of amber liquid and a tumbler glass, “What’s the celebration?”
“Half-celebration,” Tom corrected, loosening his tie, “Half to wind down. It’s been a tough afternoon.”
“You do look rough around the edges,” Barry admitted, scooping ice cubes into the glass.
“You have no idea,” Tom muttered, more to himself than Barry. He slumped himself onto a barstool and slackened his tie, “Why do people bombard you with questions when they’ve been in the same room as you and heard all the same things?”
“I’m guessing you just come out of the will reading, then,” Barry poured the drink into the glass and slid it across the bar to Tom.
“No sense hiding it,” Tom shrugged. Sipping on his drink, he relayed the events to Barry. “But like I said, this is a half-celebration,” Tom raised his glass, “I haven’t got my Dad’s company yet, but nobody does a presentation quite like Tom Verbrisser. It’s my speciality. And London is my territory.”
Barry snorted. “You could say that again. I’m more likely to see a sign advertising a Verbrisser development than a London double-decker these days. Have you heard that game? You have to see how far around London you can get without seeing your logo. The longest I’ve ever heard anyone manage is one mile.”
Tom detected a hint of sourness in Barry’s voice, but he let it pass: he was used to sour grapes from everyone by now. He put it down to jealousy, pure and simple. “You let me know where that one mile is and I’ll get right on it,” Tom replied. Barry gave a short laugh and began buffing the mahogany bar with an old rag. Not for long: Barry stopped, and turned to face Tom again.
“Can I ask a kinda personal question?” he titled his head.
“Go for it. You wouldn’t be the first today, not by a long shot.”
“Well…why? Why do you want your father’s old job so much? I mean, surely what you’ve got going now is enough: London’s plenty I’m sure, and you don’t seem to be troubled for cash.”
Tom didn’t get a chance to answer, because another customer called for service further along the bar, and Barry bustled away. Which was just as well, because Tom couldn’t think of an answer. He mulled over his drink. I’ve got loads of reasons, he told himself, haven’t I? The ice chinked lightly in his glass. His mind wandered to the challenge ahead of him: a presentation on Jacobsen Park. Tom pressed the old photo in his pocket. That Park meant so much to him. Of course, it had been a proper park of trees and streams back then. It had suddenly fallen out of maintenance when the local council could no longer afford to upkeep it. He’d had no idea his father had snapped it up. Was this his father testing him? To put aside his own sentiments, and focus on what a proper redevelopment of the Park would be? Flats, retail parks, shopping centres? He clutched the old photo tighter.
The doors of the bar swung open, and heavy boots clunked across the wooden floorboards. Tom looked up, and his heart sank. Muezza Ailuros stood at the entrance, still in his gaudy suit, now flanked by a huge shed of a man in a suit and sunglasses. Bodyguard, huh? Tom’s lip curled, either this guy really is important, or he just wishes he was.
Tom turned back to his drink, but he could hear Muezza approaching, steel soles stomping across the bar. A hand squeezed his shoulder.
“Ah…Tom Verbrisser, isn’t it?” Muezza drawled, his voice lazy and oily, “Gareth’s boy? May I join you?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. A stool scraped across the ground, and Muezza heaved himself next to Tom. He signalled for Barry, and rattled off a list of ingredients.
“And a drop of milk,” Muezza finished. Luckily Barry was used to complex cocktails, and was already fetching bottles from around the bar. Muezza turned to Tom.
“That was quite the face-off this afternoon, eh?” He said jovially, “Still! No hard feelings, eh?” He roared with laughter, and slapped Tom hard on the back, nearly making Tom bring up his drink.
“No hard feelings?” Tom turned on his barstool to face him. Up close, his face looked more leathery and scorched than ever, “You make it sound as if I’ve lost, Mr. Ailuros. Let me give you some advice: just because I’m young doesn’t mean you should take me lightly. I have time, and time is all I need to show my true colours.”
“I’d expect nothing less from Gareth’s boy. But I must disagree,” Muezza shook his head, perched his cane between them, and took off his sunglasses. His eyes were bolting blue and diamond-hard, as though they were endlessly focussed on something impossible, “When time’s on our side, we can prepare, steel ourselves. We are anything but ourselves. It is when we are pushed, with no time, and few choices, that we’re forced to make big decisions on the spot that our true colours show.”
There was a pause. Tom didn’t know how to respond to that, so he supped on his drink. The heat of his hands had made the ice cubes melt slightly.
“I’m intrigued to see what your true colours are, Mr. Verbrisser,” Muezza added quite suddenly.
Tom stared at him. What was that supposed to mean? Was it a threat? Muezza said nothing more; he only looked up at the T.V., his eyes smiling, until his drink arrived. It was in a tall glass, topped with a lemon slice and umbrella. It was a thick, creamy-white colour. Muezza took a long sip, his blue eyes brimming with relish.
“Ah!” he gasped as he came up for air, licking his lips clean, “Excellent! Keep the change, Sir.”
He handed a twenty-pound note to Barry. Barry couldn’t help break into a smile.
“Thank you, Sir,” Barry bowed slightly. With a meaningful look to Tom, he turned away.
“Care to try?” Muezza pushed the tall glass to Tom, “It’s a favourite of mine. I call it Cream of the Crop; not just because of the colour, but because when you drink it, you feel like you’re the most important person on Earth!”
Muezza roared with laughter again, and would have toppled from his stool had his bodyguard not been there to save him. That explains a lot, Tom thought with a grin.
He looked at the drink. Well, why not? He’d seen Muezza take a long swig, so it couldn’t be too hard a drink. He pulled out the umbrella and lemon slice. No fancy stuff for me, thank you. Had he not known better, he would have thought he was holding a normal glass of milk.
He took a small sip. It was sweet and moreish, with a small hint of almonds. He had to admit, Muezza had good taste. He took a deeper mouthful, and licked his lip clean. He was just about to order one for himself – when the aftertaste hit him. The sweetness dissolved away to a wall of sour. The milky flavour rotted in his mouth, sending fumes into his nostrils and making his eyes water. He wolfed down the rest of his own drink, swilling it around his throat to rid himself of the flavour.
“Powerful stuff, eh?” Muezza grinned, laying his hand on his shoulder, “Takes some getting used to. Here, let me buy you one.”
“No thanks,” Tom pushed Muezza’s hand away, “I must be getting back. Early start tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes,” Muezza’s grin only widened as he stood up, “Well…may the best man win.”
Muezza offered a hand, and Tom shook it. His grip has firm, crushing his knuckles together. Tom didn’t react, and didn’t do the same back: he wasn’t a child, and this wasn’t about who had the strongest grip. The stakes were Jacobsen Park, something which meant more to Tom than all the properties in the City, and who walked away with it would be decided on Tuesday.
Muezza released his hand. He turned, and headed out the bar, making for Bank Underground Station.