Peter Saul and Mary Limited by Chris Jones - HTML preview

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Chris Jones

First published 2006 by Lulu.com © Chris Jones 2006
ISBN 978-1-84753-945-8

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
For Miriam,

who is still surprised The characters in this book are entirely imaginary. If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ve probably met most of them.

Peter Saul and Mary Ltd is an entirely imaginary business too. In this UK edition it is also an obviously British company using British corporate vocabulary. For non-British readers it is probably worth noting that ‘Ltd’ is the UK equivalent of the American ‘Inc’ but specifically denotes a company whose stock is not traded on a public exchange. The officers of a UK company are Directors and hold Board meetings to formally manage the company. Mary is Finance Director in this novel; in an American edition she would become Vice President of Finance or Chief Financial Officer.

Chapter 1

Mary walked into the boardroom. In her immaculate business outfit, cut just tightly enough to hint at the figure beneath it, she looked every inch the modern female executive. She was in her early thirties, and her crisp workplace efficiency was tempered occasionally by just a hint of femininity. In the office anyway. Outside the office… well, that was another matter entirely.

She was in a good mood, for this promised to be an excellent boardmeeting. Profits were up, market-share was up. The others had not arrived yet, so she sat down, sorted out her papers, and then eyed up the contents of the picture-frames hanging on the panelling of the boardroom walls.

“Peter, Saul and Mary Ltd - Soulbrokers,” said one. “Our Mission: to become the leading supplier of souls to the soul-refining industry by the end of the second millennium.”

Three other frames contained portraits. “Mary Magdalene, Finance Director” read the inscription beneath the first. Her dark eyes looked back out at herself. A second offered “Peter Fisher, Operations Director” and showed a large round man, smiling but with disapproving eyebrows. As she turned to consider “Saul Tarsus, Marketing Director” the man himself stepped into the room.

“Morning Mary darling,” said Saul. Saul was tall, thin and elegantly clothed. “Insouciant” was his word for his particular style of dressing. “Camp” was nearer the mark, thought Mary to herself as usual. Saul favoured cravats in place of the more usual tie, and today’s was a particularly luminous pink.

“8:59am and 50 seconds, 51, 52…” intoned Saul. “At the third stroke, Peter will be here, precisely” and indeed, here was Peter, exactly on time as usual. He was followed by a small bearded man, dressed in a curiously old fashioned manner.

“Come on Moses, come on, you’re late. Morning all,” boomed Peter. “OK whose turn is to chair this one. Not mine I did it last time.”

 

“Mine, Peter, remember” said Mary. “I sent out the agenda, if you recall. OK, item number one, tablets of the last meeting. Any points?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “I really must insist that the tablets are issued within forty days and forty nights of the previous meeting. It’s simply unacceptable for it to be three or four months.”

“OK, OK. Moses, please try and be more prompt with the tablets of the meetings will you?”

“I expect to see it recorded formally on the tablets,” said Peter firmly. Moses nodded, head down, and scratched a note. “Company Secretary to issue all tablets within 40 days and 40 nights of board meetings” reinforced Peter. Moses nodded again, while the others winced perceptibly.

“I think we’ve got the point, Saint,” muttered Saul. “OK item two, financial report” interjected Mary hastily. “Basically things are pretty good. Profits for the generation stand at over twenty-five million Credos and…”

“I do hate these new Credo things,” interrupted Peter. “What was wrong with the good old Sestertii, I want to know?”

“Peter, you say that every time I present the figures. Since the government took us into the new single currency, it’s Credos, OK? 7.5382 Sestertii to the Credo. It’s really not that difficult is it?” said Mary, trying to be patient.

“I think the currency is rather beside the point actually,” said Saul, breaking in.

 

“What is the point then, if it isn’t that we’re doing really well?” asked Mary.

 

“Yes yes, we’re doing really well now, darling. But just look ahead a little. Why are we doing well now?”

“The Black Death,” said Peter.
“Exactly” said Saul. “Fantastic for business right now. Almost more souls than we can conveniently handle. But what about next generation? Since half the population of our dominant sectors will be dead, they won’t be breeding the next generation of souls, will they? There will be a lot less people, so there will be a lot fewer people to die. At least in areas where we have the main market share. Other parts of the globe will be doing fine apparently. But not us stuck in Europe, oh no. We’re going to have a big problem sooner than you think.”

“Actually, there are more souls than I can conveniently handle at the moment,” admitted Peter. “We’re having to take on temporary reaper-callscentre staff. Anyway, Saul, you’re right. We’ve got a problem. What are you going to do about it? How about another direct mail campaign? The last one you did went OK, I seem to remember.”

“Oh come off it, Saint darling,” replied Saul. “That sort of thing went out with the dark ages. Letters to the Corinthians might have been fine in the classical first century, but I can hardly see ‘Letter to the Londoners’ or ‘Letter to the Frankfurters’ being a success in the mediaeval age. Most of them can’t read, for one thing. No, I thought maybe a schism would be a good thing to go for.”

“A schism?” asked Mary. “I though they were rather old-fashioned too?”

“No, no, this is the perfect moment for a schism, don’t you see? As soon as they divide like that, each side has to prove it’s best by going off and winning new converts for the faith. Just what we need in the forthcoming depressed market. Always works, and never goes out of fashion. And we’ve not had one for nearly four hundred years, so there’s no danger of customer concept fatigue.”

“So then Peter, will you organise it?” said Mary. “Saul, you’ll provide the theological basis as usual I take it.”

“Yes, yes” boomed Peter. “Leave it to me, I know just how to run a schism. I don’t think you need bother yourself much, Saul. I can create a basis myself for something as simple as a schism.”

“OK, Moses, take to the tablets that Peter will organise a schism and report back to the next meeting” said Mary. “Now, item two, forthcoming investors’ meeting.”

“Who’s coming to this one?” asked Peter.

 

“Mrs Carpenter as usual…” began Mary. Saul groaned softly. “And the Pantheon Fund Manager’s Alliance are sending a representative.” “Who?” persisted Peter.

 

“The guy with the footwear problem, you know, what’s his name?” replied Mary.

 

“Mercury you mean?”

“He’s just a messenger” said Saul. “They always send him to break bad news to us. It’s not a good sign, probably means they’ve spotted the coming trends too.”

“Anyone from the soul-refiners?” asked Peter.

 

“Well, Beelzebub, the chairman of Hell Refining, said he might drop in.” “He just sits in the corner and smokes all the time” said Peter.

“It is pretty hot in the soul-refineries Saint. He just doesn’t have time to cool off. Anyway, it’s not certain he’ll turn up. After all profits are up, he’s getting a good return on his investment, as well as plenty of supplies to his refineries. You know what he’s like, only puts in an appearance when things are bad,” said Mary.

“Depends if he can see the evil times ahead. Any of the other refiners?” “Not heard. Anyhow, I’m planning to simply report to them that profits are up, we’re going to pay out an excellent dividend, so they’re all getting great returns on their money.”

“What if they ask questions about future trends?” demanded Saul. “Well, Peter’s schism should be well underway by then. He can deal with them. Can’t you Peter?” said Mary.

 

“Oh absolutely. Just leave it to me,” answered Peter.

 

The meeting continued on…

…“And that’s about it. Good meeting I thought” concluded Mary. “Just before we break up, I thought I’d mention I’ll be introducing my new financial controller to you tomorrow. I’ll bring him round to your offices.”

“What’s his name again?” asked Peter.

“Croesus. He was financial controller at Olympus Souls, until they closed down, and then he’s done a spell as FD with Four Horsemen. Of course they’re a pretty small outfit. Anyway you’ll meet him tomorrow, as I said. OK, meeting closed.”

Moses tidied up his tablets and left quickly. Peter, the keys clipped to his belt jangling noisily, left behind him promising to get right on with the schism. “Mary, dear, do you think Peter really knows how to do a schism? You know what he’s like. Charges at things like a lion at a christian.”

“Well, we’ll see won’t we? Honestly, he was so rude to Moses at the start of the meeting. He’s getting so insufferable I’d quite like to see him mess up the schism, even if it is bad for business. He needs taking down a peg” replied Mary

“Deflating, you mean” retorted Saul waspishly as he left the room.

 

Chapter 2

 

“Good morning Ms Magdalene” said the smart young man at the door of her office. He had a soft New England accent.

“Good morning Croesus and welcome to Peter, Saul and Mary! There’s really no need to call me Ms Magdalene, we’re very informal here, Mary will do just fine.”

“OK, good morning Mary then!”

“Lovely. Look, I thought we’d start with ‘the tour’, show you around, meet Peter and Saul, understand the organisation. How does that sound?” asked Mary.

“Just great Ms Magd…err, yes great. Lead on”.

“OK, we’ll start upstairs in Operations. Follow me. Peter Fisher is Director of Operations. Everyone calls him ‘Saint’, you’ll see why after you’ve dealt with him for a bit. And we call his floor ‘heaven’, although only behind his back of course. It’s mostly a big call centre, hell to work in.” Mary headed out of her office and up the stairway to heaven.

They went in. The floor was almost entirely open plan, filled with endless rows of desks. Each desk contained a computer terminal and a telephone, and seated behind it was a generally bored looking operative. They listened into a call as they passed.

“Peter Saul and Mary Ltd Ann speaking how may I help youuuuu?” said the operator in one breath. “You’ve died and you want your soul taken off your hands right away? Fine, just give me the name, house number and postcode… You’re in Spain, OK just the address will do then… No problem Senor Felipe, a soulminer will be out to you right away… Oh less than ten minutes usually… Yes, yes straight to heaven, we’ve logged your details, the database says you’ve been more than good enough to qualify fine for a place …Our pleasure, thank you for choosing christianity, goodbye”.

“They do that all day and all night. Boring as hell. Anyway, here’s Peter’s office, let’s go in” said Mary.

 

“What would happen if they ever imagined there’s no heaven?”

 

“It’s easy if they try” answered Mary. “But it hasn’t occurred to any of them yet, thankfully.”

 

“No hell below them?” persisted Croesus.

“Above us only sky. And three bedrooms. Will you stop trying to flog me a ground floor apartment with two rooms and find me a proper holiday home?” said Peter crossly into his mobile as they entered. “Excuse me. Morning Mary, and you must be Croesus. Welcome to Operations” he continued putting the phone down on his immaculately tidy desk. “Sorry, having a spot of difficulty trying to find a holiday home now the third child’s come along. Never enough bedrooms in these country cottages. And they always seem to offer us ground floor apartments, when I can’t stand having anyone above me.”

“Too right” said Mary. Peter glanced at her sharply.

“Right, Croesus this is Operations, where it all happens” began Peter enthusiastically. “Split into four departments. First we have the reaper-callscentre which you’ve just come through. Guy dies, his (or her) body puts a call through to get rid of the soul before the body can participate in any kind of death rites. Reaper-calls-centre operator gets the details, and the job is automatically passed down to the next department. Come with me.” Peter headed on down to the far end of the floor, where the telephone activity was less hectic and the desks more widely spaced.

“Not much to see here, just a few managers, most of the staff are out on the job. Anyway, this is Soulmining, the heart of Operations. Soulminer goes out, traps the soul, and brings it back to Logistics. Finally he calls into the reapercentre again to confirm the collection. Hi Guys, say hello to Croesus, our new financial controller!” boomed Peter to the small group of staff. When they had finished exchanging introductions, Peter headed on again through a door and down a flight of steps. For such a fat man, he can move surprisingly quickly, thought Mary.

They stopped briefly in another office on the ground floor. “Special Operations on Earth” announced Peter. “Busy planning the implementation of this schism right now of course” as an aside to Mary. “By the way, you don’t know if Saul has the files from when he did that orthodox one do you?” They headed out.

“Finally Logistics, which is in that building over there” Peter declaimed, with a broad sweep of his hand. “On you come.” They headed over to a rather small building. “A lot of security needed of course. Souls are trapped in gem-crystals for shipment. All rather valuable”. He pressed his palm to a scanner, took a key from the bunch clipped to his belt, and inserted it into a small lock. The doors opened silently. Inside were rows of shelving, packed with small coloured gemstones. “We stone code them, and then ship them in bulk to the soulrefiners. Sapphire: died young – refines into higher grade Essoul you know; emerald: pretty nasty, probably not suitable for recycling, refining-only grade; diamond: was famous or suchlike, quite often their souls get employment at the refiners instead of being refined, that’s how I started incidentally; ruby: died in war so the soul is pretty low-grade, we mostly flog them to the Valhalla refinery, they specialise in low-grade souls; garnet: standard class, and so on.” Peter boomed on, apparently without needing to draw breath. “And there you have it. Operations. The heart of the soul business. I organised it all of course. We win awards for most efficient soulbroking operations department most centuries.”

“Very impressive” said Croesus. “It’s all much more advanced than we had at Olympus.”

“Thanks Peter, it all looks great as usual,” said Mary. “We’ll go see Saul’s team now. Good luck with the holiday home. This way Croesus, back to the main building. Let’s take the road to Damascus” she continued, leading the way back.

“Saul is Marketing Director, as you know” said Mary as they headed for the first floor. “He does…,” well perhaps he should tell you himself. They went in, and over to an office decorated with frescoes.

“Hi Saul, meet Croesus!”

“Croesus, how delightful to have you with us darling” exclaimed Saul, considering Croesus from head to toe. His gaze lingered a fraction too long before he continued “and welcome to Marketing”. Saul’s cravat today was lilac, to match his spats. They clashed rather badly with the fresco on the back wall.

“Tell him what you do Saul” prompted Mary.

“Ah, she thinks we’re just airy-fairies in here, don’t you Mary? Thinks we do nothing really. Not grounded in reality like you nice boys”, he paused meaningfully, “and girls in Finance”.

“Come on Saul, do get to the point.”

“I was” pouted Saul. “Oh OK, I’ve got three teams. Firstly there’s D&T, that’s Doctrine and Theology. Pretty standard stuff, I guess you had the same kind of thing at Olympus.”

“Oh yes, although the doctrines at Olympus were nowhere near as sexy as here” answered Croesus, looking Saul firmly in the eye.

“Really? Oh come, come, you flatter us. Anyway, we were developing this schism, but Peter seems to have hijacked it all for himself,” said Saul. “Then there’s Research. We try to find new concepts the punters will like. We’re working on one now to stop them moaning when Peter can’t process them fast enough. You might have heard we’ve got a capacity problem at the moment. I’m having to send my lads and lasses over to Peter’s to learn about his problems.”

“Sounds like purgatory” said Mary.

“Yes, that’s what we thought,” said Saul. “Anyway, lastly there’s Technology. We study possible technologies to introduce to the punters which might help us win market share. We’re looking at two at the moment.”

“What are they?” asked Croesus.

“Not sure I should tell you darling” said Saul. “But since you seem to be such a nice chap, I’ll risk it. We’re considering Printing and Ocean-Going Sailing. Printing might help us spread the word. The trouble is it might help everyone else spread their words too. OGS is so we can get the punters out winning converts in new lands, amongst the heathens. It’s a bit double edged as well, though. What if the heathens sail back and convert our guys? Anyway, we’re looking into it.”

Peter loomed suddenly in the doorway. “Hi Saul, have you got the files from when you did the orthodox schism?”

“What files? It was all improvisation darling. Ninety percent inspiration and a mere ten percent perspiration. Pure Marketing. And we didn’t write any of it down, since you ask.”

“How can we run a professional business like this? I really don’t think it’s acceptable. Mary, can we have this on the agenda at the next Board meeting?” huffed Peter.

“Oh Saint, you’re so judgmental” answered Mary sadly.

 

“Are you coming for a drink tonight Mary?” asked Saul, changing the subject hastily.

 

“No I can’t. Got to leave early.”

 

“Date?” enquired Peter.

 

“Yes” answered Mary tersely. “I think this guy could be the one.”

 

“Oh come on” said Saul. “You’ve had so many men before.” “In very many ways” chipped in Peter. Mary flushed angrily.

 

“He’s just one more!” teased Saul. “Do we know him?” “Maybe” answered Mary.

 

“She’s not telling” cried Saul. “Must be serious. And at your age too!”

 

“How about you Croesus, you joining us for a drink later?” asked Peter hurriedly, eyeing Mary’s expression.

 

Croesus hesitated.

 

“Oh go on” urged Saul, giggling. “We might learn something.”

“Come on Croesus,” said Mary. “Let’s go look at Finance and leave these two bickering about the filing. See you guys!” They headed back to the Finance Department.

“This is Midas, he’s Head of Treasury. Be careful how you shake his hand.” Croesus extended his hand gingerly, but nothing too dramatic seemed to happen as Midas took it. “Must be losing your touch Midas,” observed Mary. “Anyway this is the credit department”

“Credit?” asked Croesus.

“Yes. Somebody wants to mortgage his soul, Credit arrange it for him. Peter keeps wanting to move it into Operations, we’ve had endless battles over it. Here’s Aesop who manages it. He can spot someone who really wants to sell his soul from a spinner of fake fables at 50 paces. Real talent for undertaking underwriting, our Aesop here.”

“And here’s your team Croesus” finished Mary. I’ll leave them to you for now, and catch you again later. “Good luck”.

Mary sat at a corner table for two in the rather chic restaurant that, curiously enough (she smiled slightly to herself), was just a stone’s throw from her elegant apartment. Her dress had been chosen to set off the colour of her eyes and the black shininess of her long hair to perfection. Or so the shop assistant had attempted to flatter her into buying it. Actually, it had been chosen to display the maximum of cleavage to her dinner guest without obviously being indecent. She looked, in her own opinion, ravishing, which was consistent with her plans for how the evening would end.

Her date was a handsome man of vaguely south-asian appearance. He was talking, as he seemed to have done slightly too much this evening, about his business. Not that he didn’t deserve to of course. Where Peter Saul and Mary was largely set up with other peoples’ money, Gautama had created his brokers single-handedly starting with just a modest legacy from his father. He owned the lot himself. And being based around the huge Asian markets, it was a major player.

“So you see Mary,” he was saying, “you really should be looking to move over to recycling. It’s so much more profitable, and much more environmentally friendly. None of that nasty nuclear-chemistry-set business at the refineries. One day there’s going to be a big disaster at one of the plants, and then where will we all be? Why don’t you talk to your marketing guy about it?”

“I don’t know, Gautama, I really can’t see Saul being able to work reincarnation in with our current doctrines right now. It’ll have to be a long term project.”

The evening was not going completely as she had planned. Gautama had chosen the vegetarian options with every course, and was now picking fastidiously at his mango sorbet as they talked. Still, he was a very attractive man, even leaving aside all incidental thoughts of his enormous fortune. Just not very… red-blooded.

“I’ll talk to him. Anyway, tell me more about yourself Gautama. What do you get up to when you’re not working?” She leaned forwards a little, aiming to improve his view.

“Meditation mostly, Mary. I like to contemplate the circle of life and seek inner harmony.”

 

“Oh. I see. Nothing more… exciting? A gorgeous guy like you must be very successful with the girls?”

Gautama finished his sorbet, apparently pondering how to answer this. Just in time, a waiter appeared at their table. “Would you like coffee madam, coffee sir?”

“I don’t drink stimulants,” replied Gautama, “although if you have any herbal teas I might have one.”

 

“Just the bill please,” said Mary. “I thought maybe we could have coffee at my place, Gautama. It’s only a couple of minutes away.”

 

“Oh, well, er no, I really have a very early start in the morning.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll get the check. And I’ve arranged a car to take you home.”

“That’s fine, I can walk from here” she answered rather coldly. Then she collected herself. He was really very attractive. And rich. “I’ll speak to Saul about the reincarnation. Maybe we could have dinner again and discuss it. Why don’t you choose somewhere?” Maybe he’d be less uptight on his home territory, she thought.

“Yes yes, Mary I’d like that. Thank you for a great evening. Excuse me waiter, my car’s not due for about 10 minutes, is there somewhere quiet I could sit and meditate briefly?”

Mary bade him goodnight, and left.
They were assembling in the board-room for the investors meeting. Peter and Mary were just sitting down when Saul appeared. Today he had chosen a purple cravat, to match the colour of the huge black-eye he had acquired over the weekend. Mary raised an eyebrow.

“Went over to the festival in Tennessee for a couple of days” explained Saul.

 

“He met a bar-room queen in Memphis” amplified Peter.

 

“Spilt my G&T all over him actually,” added Saul.

“So you met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis?” confirmed Mary. Saul nodded. “And tried to take him upstairs for a ride?” she persisted. Saul nodded again ruefully.

“He had to heave him right across his shoulder,” said Peter.

“Yes, slung me out and gave me this enormous bruise to go with it. I just can’t seem to drink it off my mind. Hung-over as hell darlings. Never try to pull a bouncer,” concluded Saul sagely. “Virginia darling, good morning!” This to a prim, middle-aged woman, dressed in a blue twinset, who had appeared in the doorway escorted by Moses.

“That’s Mrs Carpenter to you, Saul” she snapped back.

“Yes Mrs Carpenter. Of course Mrs Carpenter. Do have a seat” finished Saul silkily, heading round with an oversolicitous manner to pull back a chair. “Is Mr Carpenter not joining us?”

“No, Joseph is busy today. How did you get that bruise? Been messing around trying to love the wrong neighbours again?” she asked sarcastically. Saul muttered something inaudible. He was saved from finding a more coherent response by the entry of a youngish man with shoulder length pale blond hair, clad in a startling white tuxedo. The overall effect was rather spoiled by his sandals.

“Good morning Mercury” boomed Peter. “What brings you here today?”

“Just a flying visit Peter. Morning Saul, morning Mary, morning Mrs C. The boys wanted me to come over and get the story about this rather worrying trend you have at the moment. We can discuss it in the meeting. Is anyone else coming?” There was something faintly Italian about his accent.

“Just Beelzebub, we think Merc,” answered Mary.

As if conjured up by the mention of his name, a cloud of expensive cigar smoke, followed by Beelzebub, chairman of Hell soul-refineries, made its way into the room. Beelzebub was a large man, fatter looking even than Peter, although with Beelzebub Mary had a sneaking suspicion it was all muscle. One day I’ll find out personally, she promised herself, especially if things don’t start going better with Gautama. He wore a check shirt, slightly baggy jeans, large cowboy boots with particularly outsize spurs curiously moulded into the leather of the heels, and a huge Stetson hat, which he never removed. It seemed to float just fractionally higher than his head.

“Howdee. Nice t’see y’all!”

 

“Morning Bubba” chorused Peter, Saul and Mary.

 

They all sat down, and the meeting began. It was Peter’s turn to take the chair.

“Every one got a copy of the agenda from Moses?” he asked. They all nodded. As Company Secretary it was Moses’ job to prepare the agendas for the Investors Meetings. As usual with his agendas, there were ten points.

“Point one, everyone happy with the tablets from the last meeting?” There were nods around the table. Moses etched a note.

“Point two, current financial returns. Mary, would you take the floor please?” said Peter. He’s at his most pompous in these things, thought Mary. Always sucking up to Mercury and Beelzebub in particular, try to play the bigbusinessman with them.

“Well, we’ll be paying an exceptionally good dividend to investors this generation…” she began.

“That’s just the point though, isn’t it?” interrupted Mercury. “The boys asked me to pass on the message that we’re worried. It’s all very well producing exceptional results from the Black Death, but what about future returns?”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine” boomed Peter.

 

“Is there any evidence that the Black Death was paid for by Sonny & Shia?” asked Mrs Carpenter suddenly.

 

“You mean, to depopulate Europe so they can move in on the territory?” asked Saul. “No, no, we’ve found no evidence at all.”

 

“You mean you haven’t looked, Saul, don’t you?” demanded Mrs Carpenter.

 

“I’ve got a new guy just joined us from Four Horsemen” said Mary brightly. “I could ask him if he knows anything about it.”

 

“Action to Mary for the minutes please, Moses” said Peter plummily.

“It looks to us at Pantheon Alliance that the fall of Constantinople can only be a matter of time now. In fact, this depopulation you’ve had can only accelerate the process,” said Mercury.

“Yes, yes” said Peter. “All taken care of. We’ve been expecting it for some generations you know.”

“Of course I know,” snapped Mercury. “What I don’t know is what you’re going to do about it. Sonny & Shia will be moving in on your territory before you know it.”

“We are kicking them out of Spain quite well at the moment, Merc” said Saul.

 

“Only after they kicked their way in in the first place. Which you should have stopped, shouldn’t you Saul?”

 

“I’m organising a schism” said Peter proudly.

 

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” cut in Mrs Carpenter. “I’ll bet that’s one of your ideas, isn’t it Saul?”

Mercury continued as if he hadn’t heard. “The boys think it might be time to cash-in. Sell up. You know, like we did at Olympus when it became obvious the punters were going to lose interest in our product. Close it down and sell it while it’ll still fetch a good price. We’ve had a lot of interest in buying this company from Gautama. Jupiter sounded him out at that conference.” Mary sat very still.

“I think it might be a bit premature, Mercury.” This from Mrs Carpenter. “What we need,” she added acidly “is some updated doctrine. That’s your section isn’t it Saul?”

“Well right now, Peter’s doing this schism” replied Saul. “And in any case, I’m not sure the Sonny & Shia stuff is really right for the more urbanized European customer segment. It’s hard enough to get them to pray once on a Sunday, without demanding that they do it five times a day. I don’t think they’ll be able to expand into our territories.”

“Didn’t stop them in Spain,” observed Mercury.

 

“A schism, Peter?” enquired Beelzebub.

 

“Yes, yes” said Peter enthusiastically. “We’re just drawing up the full implementation plans right now. Due for delivery within half a generation.” “Who’s doing the theological basis?”

“Oh Peter is, aren’t you darling?” replied Saul.
“Peter?” asked Beelzebub with sudden interest. “That sounds very good for business.” Saul and Mary eyed him suspiciously. Whose business, wondered Mary.

“Oh I’m sure it’ll be terrific, absolutely splendid” gushed Peter. “Maybe you could be a sponsor, Bubba?”

 

“I’d like that,” replied Beelzebub. “I think,” he suggested to Mercury, “that we should let Peter try his schism before we look at our strategic options.”

“I’ll take your views back to the boys,” said Mercury. “But I think I have to warn you we’re very concerned. We’d like it tabled formally for a full meeting of all investors. Moses, if you’d be so kind to arrange one as soon as Peter’s schism has reported some preliminary results?”

Saul and Mary looked at each other glumly. A full investors meeting, thought Mary? Close the company? And only Peter’s schism to save the day? “OK, item three, political donations. Mercury, this is your point I think?”

“Yes thank you Peter. As you know, it looks like we’re in for a change of government. The Philosophers Party is getting increasingly unpopular, the next election is due soon, and it looks pretty likely the Divine Right will form the next Government of the Great Planes.”

“Can’t disagree with you there, Merc” said Beelzebub. “The Deified Augustus’ll make a great PM of course, he can really organise things, but in other ways it’s a real shame. Nietzsche as Minister for Labour is doing such a great job on the Unions. Not had a peep from them for generations.” Ah yes, thought Mary dreamily. The divine Augustus. Bound to win, got the female vote wrapped up. Pity about that poisonous wife of his.

“What’s the Shade Minister for Labour called? I can never remember,” asked Peter.

 

“Charles Stuart,” said Mary.

 

“I’m worried he’ll just run around like a headless chicken as soon as the going gets tough,” said Beelzebub.

“Anyway,” resumed Mercury. “We think we should make small donation, make sure we get in on the ground floor, guarantee our access to the Ministers and the PM if we need it.”

“All in favour?” asked Peter, looking around. “Good. Another point for the tablets please, Moses.”

 

“OK point 4,…”

 

Chapter 5

 

After the meeting was over, Saul and Mary stayed behind in the boardroom. “I didn’t like that at all Mary darling” said Saul. “Sell us off while the going’s good? Not what I wanted to hear.”

 

“No. Our destiny in Peter’s hands. I just don’t trust his judgment.” “Why did we let him do this schism thing?”

 

“Seemed a good idea at the time to take him down a peg. Can’t you sort out a reserve plan or something Saul?”

 

“Well, as it happens, I’m doing just that.”

 

“I knew I could rely on you Saul.”

 

“We’ve found this chap Martin Luther,” said Saul slowly. “He seems like the just the right kind of material for us.”

 

“You’re going to get him to see the light?”

“No, no, don’t be naïve darling, you need to be a lot more subtle these days. No, he’s working on these Theses. He’s got about seven of them so far. Every now and again, one of my guys comes to him in a dream and gives him the idea for another. We can keep him in play until he’s needed that way. Of course we’ve had to give him the UHT treatment.”

Mary looked baffled. “UHT?”

“We’ve made him longlife. It could easily be a century or more before we’re ready to go with him, and he won’t be much use by then without some help on the side. It depends how long it takes to sort out the whatever mess Peter’s leaves us. At the right moment we just need to come to him in another dream at the right moment, and tell him to nail his colours to the door.”

“Don’t you mean the mast?”
“No, no. Yes, of course, we’re working on ocean-going sailing, like I told you when you brought that dishy boy Croesus round. But this time, he’s going to nail them to the door. Just you wait and see,” promised Saul.

“You leave my Croesus alone Saul,” warned Mary.

 

“Yes darling. Now then, tell me about your date with Gautama. Not consorting with the enemy are we?”

 

“I’ve a good mind to match your eyes up Saul,” said Mary. “How do you know about that?”

“Cocktail waiter in that restaurant is a ahhh… friend of mine,” replied Saul. “Anyway,” he persisted, “it’s got nothing to do with that threat from Mercury has it? You’re not working on selling us to Gautama are you?” He looked at her keenly.

“Nothing was further from my mind,” said Mary. “It was a date, not a business meeting.” Mind you, she thought, it was pretty hard to tell the difference. “You know that restaurant is just around the corner from my flat, don’t you Saul dear?”

“I just wondered,” said Saul. “I’ve heard Gautama’s a pretty tough date. Coffee in the flat and a night of wild passion at your place was it?” he asked sarcastically.

“Well… no,” admitted Mary.

 

“Thought so. You be careful Mary. Gautama thinks about business and only business. What did he talk about?”

 

“Recycling and the environment mostly. He wants us to go in for recycling.”

“Reincarnation?! Don’t be ridiculous. It’ll never catch on here, not if I work on it for a thousand years. We looked at it when we first set up the doctrines, and there was just no way. It’s just not compatible with resurrection. We can hardly get the punters to swallow that stuff about dying to atone for their sins if they think he’s going to come back as a rabbit or a traffic warden or something. You’re sure he didn’t mention our finances at all?”

“Look Saul, it was a date, OK?”

“OK darling, just wanted to be sure. I believe you, don’t worry. Are you going to check our whether Sonny & Shia got Four Horsemen to do the Black Death, by the way. Ask your nice new chappie?”

“Yes, I’ll see if I can find out. Look, please don’t mention my date to Saint will you. You know what he’s like,” pleaded Mary.

“Don’t worry. I certainly don’t want to put that idea in Peter’s head. Before you know it, he’ll be giving away our business plan to Gautama in exchange for some vague promise of a seat on his board. You know he’s always thought he could do better than this, be a big man at a larger outfit, don’t you?”

“At the rate he’s growing at the moment, he’s going to be a very big man indeed, and he’ll certainly need several larger outfits” replied Mary.

“It’s stress. Always makes him put weight on. It’s the embarrassment of being wrong with operational forecasts, being understaffed for the Black Death. You know how he feels a fool when he’s caught out like that,” said Saul.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t make him try anything stupid with this schism” said Mary.

“Hmmmm. Anatomy-crossed. Just before you go, darling, remind me how the shareholdings are divided, if it ever comes to a vote on Mercury’s plan to close us,” said Saul carefully.

“Well, you, me, and Saint have ten percent each, as you know. And Mr and Mrs Carpenter got half their son’s share each when …”

 

“…when he reached a special level of refinement, you mean” said Saul. “Exactly. So they’ve got five percent each, but Joseph’ll never disagree with

Virginia, so really it’s ten percent with her. The refiners have fifteen percent, but they all seem to vote with Beelzebub. And Pantheon Alliance have the remaining forty-five percent. So all it takes is either Beelzebub or Mrs Carpenter to vote with Pantheon, and they have a majority.”

“Or Peter?” asked Saul carefully.

 

“You don’t think?” asked Mary, wide-eyed.

 

“Depends, darling. Depends how much of a balls he makes of this schism, and whether or not Gautama gets at him.”

“Look, best of luck with the Luther scheme, Saul. I think we’re going to need it. I’m off now to grill Croesus about the Black Death. See you soon!” Mary left the boardroom. Saul followed her more slowly, deep in thought.

Chapter 6

It was Peter’s turn to chair the Board meeting. He was already there, drumming his fingers impatiently, when Saul and Mary headed into the room. Moses was hanging around outside toying with his gold-rimmed pince nez, waiting for them. Clearly he didn’t fancy being treated to Peter’s undivided attention.

“Morning, morning!” boomed Peter cheerfully.

 

“Hi Saint. How’s the holiday home going?” asked Mary.

 

“Great thanks. Look at this photo. We completed yesterday.” He skimmed a picture across the table.

 

Saul picked it up. “‘Paradise Villa’” he read. “Where is it?”

 

“Florida Keys. We got the keys this morning.” He flourished the bunch at his belt, and waved a large golden one.

 

“We’re starting the day by looking at the keys to Paradise? Should be a great meeting darlings!” cried Saul.

“Thank you Saul. OK, let’s get to it,” said Peter. “First item, tablets of the last meeting. I’d like it formally recorded that Moses is to be congratulated on getting them out within two weeks of the meeting. Moses, etch it down man, etch it down.”

Patronising git, thought Mary, trying not to look at Peter.

“Item two: this meeting to formally insist that all special operations and other earthly actions are properly documented and recorded, to Great Planes Standard GPS5750. We simply cannot operate like we did with the orthodox schism any more. This isn’t some two-soul outfit.” He sat back, and folded his arms.

“With respect Saint,” said Saul acidly, “this is a still a small operation. We simply don’t have the resources to comply with GPS5750. Maybe you do in Operations, but we certainly don’t in Marketing.”

Mary could see this going on for some time. She decided to step in. “I tell you what, I’ll ask my new guy Croesus to carry out an investigation into the possibility of us qualifying for GPS5750. He’s pretty good on this formal stuff.”

“OK,” said Peter shortly. “Take it to the minutes Moses, formal investigation into GPS5750, to report back at the next meeting.”

“It might take a while Saint,” said Mary. “Maybe we could just ask him to present when it’s ready?” Which will take several centuries, she thought to herself. “I’ll make sure it’s on his priority list.”

“Alright Mary, have it your way. Moses, if you please. But I still think it’s time we built the infrastructure for growth.” Peters arms, still folded, rose higher up his padded chest.

“Well, maybe we could move on to talk about growth, since it’s on the agenda anyway,” said Mary. “Croesus is hot on demographics, did it in soulaccounting school, studied under Soulon, one of the real authorities.”

“Oh yes, I remember him, he’s on the marketing syllabus too,” said Saul. “’Count no man happy until he is dead’” he declaimed theatrically.

“No, Saul, this is accountancy. We’re trained to take a pessimistic view. ‘Count no man until he is dead’. We don’t bother too much about the ‘happy’ bit. Anyway, Croesus has done these projections, counting just how many will be dead by next generation.” She handed around some slides.

“Turnover projected down by 35-50% within a generation!” exclaimed Peter. “This just can’t be true. We’re swimming in souls at the moment. We really can’t cope with the turnover.”

“Ah well, we can help you there,” said Saul. “You know I sent some guys down to study your problems Saint?”

 

“Nothing we can’t manage if I could bring some more staff in” said Peter huffily.

“Yes, of course you could, of course you could, but in the meantime, we’ve managed to get the punters to go for the idea that their souls have to sit in a kind of sorting office before they’re moved on to heaven. We’re calling it Purgatory.”

“Brilliant, Saul!” exclaimed Mary.

“Ah but, you see darling, it gets better. We’ve managed to persuade them that if they pay for it, they can be sent express class. Otherwise, they just have to wait for processing as usual. We’re calling it the Doctrine of Indulgences. The punters seem to love it, and you just won’t believe how much extra revenue it brought in during the pilot project. An awful lot of them seem keen to pay for faster shipment.”

“OK, Saul, I have to admit that’s pretty good,” conceded Peter. “Do I have your permission to roll it out to all countries then?”

 

“Of course Saul. Moses, to the tablets, please!” boomed Peter. “Otherwise, the finances are still fabulous,” said Mary.

 

“For now,” said Saul. “But thirty-five to fifty percent down by next generation? It’s going to be bloody. Better start praying for this schism.”

“Next agenda item, then, “ said Peter. “Progress on the schism.” He sat back, looking pleased with himself. “Moses, did you distribute the reporting pack?”

“Yes, Saint, we’ve all seen it. Lots of charts and figures. Lovely. I particularly liked the appendix on GPS5750 compliance you’ve included. There’s just one thing, Peter dear…” said Mary
“Yes Mary?”

“It doesn’t actually tell us what you’re doing, does it?” interjected Saul. “So maybe you could just summarise that for us verbally now?” put in Mary sweetly, seeing Peter start to bridle in response to Saul.

Peter recovered his enthusiasm. “Well,” he began bullishly, “it’s going great. The standard schisms operating procedure (GPS9988) mandates a division of doctrinal leadership as the key pre-requisite for a successful schism. So we’ve set up an Antipope in this place Avignon.”

Saul’s normally sallow complexion paled further. His whitening face contrasted with his thinning red-tinted hair, and today’s brown cravat. He looked like a Neapolitan ice-cream. “Using what theological basis?” he asked quietly. Mary steeled herself for the answer.

“Disagreements over Poverty,” replied Peter. Still wrapped up in his project plan, he failed to pick up the acute distress signals emanating from Mary and Saul. Even Moses looked more interested than usual.

“You… you… you plonker Peter” spluttered Saul.

“I really don’t think that’s appropriate language for a board meeting. Moses please could you add an item for the next agenda regarding a formal code of conduct? Saul, would you care to explain yourself in more professional terms?” demanded Peter coldly.

Mary decided to step in quickly. “Don’t you see Saint? With a basis like that, all they’ll do is fight each other. Have witch-hunts. Ravage the countryside. I bet the Holy Roman Emperor is already marching his armies around isn’t he?”

Peter nodded. “And the King of France. So what?”

Saul stepped in. “So they’ll just end up depopulating even more of Europe. It’ll just exacerbate the effects of the Black Death. Yes, great, you’ll get us another short term boost, although I don’t know what sort of price we’ll get for soldiers’ souls in bulk right now. Or for the souls of ravaged peasants or burnt witches either, for that matter.”

“But you’re just going to make the long term trend worse. I’ll get Croesus to do some flash figures. Saul, you need to do something. Didn’t you have an idea?” said Mary.

Saul sulked. “Yes, but with an antipope marauding around, the pitch has been rather badly queered.”

 

“You should know,” said Peter rudely. “What is it anyway?”

“I’ve got this chap Martin Luther all primed and ready to go with a reformation. The trouble is, he wants to abolish the Indulgences we’ve just got going so nicely, and mess up the Purgatory process.”

“I thought you said you were giving him his ideas in dreams?” put in Mary. “Couldn’t you have avoided those two?”

 

“Yes, yes, but sometimes he thinks of things by himself. We can’t stop that happening can we?” snapped Saul impatiently.

“Maybe we could keep him on hold for now. Give my schism a bit more time. Wait for Croesus to produce the flash forecasts. I’m sure it’ll be much more positive than you make out,” suggested Peter. “Could you UHT him?”

“We’ve already made him longlife. Just in case,” added Saul pointedly.

“Let’s go with that,” said Mary, glad to find a way to buy a bit of time to work out just how much damage Peter had inflicted on them. “Moses, could you take that to the tablets please. Now, any other business?”

“Ah well, er, yes, there is,” said Peter, suddenly sheepish. “I wondered if you’d mind accompanying me to the meeting with the unions this afternoon Mary?”

“Scared of that Winter woman, Saint?” asked Saul mischievously. “You mean the new General Secretary of the Soulminers Organisation of Unionised Labour?” asked Mary.

“S.O.U.L.” clarified Peter. “I used to get on so well with the previous guy, we were at disciples school together. But he’s been ousted by this militant monster Winter woman.”

“She calls herself the Queen of SOUL,” observed Saul.

 

I thought maybe you could give me a bit of support, Mary. Bring a feminine touch to the meeting?” pleaded Peter.

 

Mary looked irritated. “If I must. What’s she like anyway?”

 

“Don’t you watch the news?” said Saul. “She’s a rebel, you may not like her looks or her style.”

“The boys in her group they just want to drag her way down” said Peter. “But the majority of soulminers are women these days. She easily won the nomination to General Secretary.”

“If she comes your way, she’ll make you surrender” warned Saul.

 

“Not me she won’t,” said Peter firmly.

 

“I’m not so sure Saint,” said Saul. “What she wants is what you’ve got.” Peter looked alarmed.

“Fine Peter, I’ll come along,” said Mary crisply, deciding it would be better to close the discussion. Anyway, she was quite interested to meet a woman who could have Peter quaking quite so obviously in his boots.

Chapter 7

 

The meeting that afternoon with the new General Secretary was a short, sharp shock, for Peter anyway.

He hovered nervously in the board-room, jangling his keys, waiting for the arrival of the new Queen of SOUL. Mary watched him interestedly. She’d never seen him quite so keyed up.

A tall, glossy woman of African extraction was shown into the room. “Good morning Ms Winter” began Peter effusively. “And do let me introduce you to our FD, Mary Magdalene.”

“Well hello sister,” said the woman in a piercing voice to Mary. She smiled widely showing a lot of white teeth. “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!” she shouted at Peter. He flinched.

“Er, do have a seat Ms Winter,” he said. “Now what can we do for you?”

 

“Everybody gotta stop, look and listen!” she shouted.

 

“Yes, OK, well we’re listening to you,” said Peter patiently. He’s going to need the patience of a saint for this meeting, thought Mary to herself. “OK, I’ll get to it. Pay, that’s what we’re talking about bro’.”

 

“Well, er, the standard generational rises are always ahead of inflation and…” started Peter.

“SOUL is mostly sisters, these days, bro’” shouted the Queen over him. “And sisters’ pay is fallin’ behind their menfolks. Well behind. So cut out the ‘standard generational rises’ stuff and start talkin’ turkey, bro’.”

“Well, I really don’t think…”

“I gotta mandate from maah members” shouted the Queen. “Right now they’re telling me they can’t survive. At first they were afraid, they were petrified. But now they’ve got me, fighting for their side. I’ve spent so many nights thinking how you’re doing us wrong. We’re growing strong, we’re learning how to carry on.”

“What sort of figures did you have in mind, er, sister?” asked Mary.

“45% percent across the board this generation, and a further 55% percent next” answered the Queen immediately, dropping the home-girl accent to reinforce the point. Mary shuddered inwardly. “Plus 20 credos per soul trapped instead of the current 15.”

“We just don’t have that kind of money,” began Peter.

 

The Queen was back at full volume. “I got all my life to live, you got all your cash to give!”

 

“We won’t survive,” cried Peter. “It’ll be a miracle if we can afford more than 5%. Business is not good.”

“I believe in miracles!” shouted the Queen. She seemed to switch voices at the touch of a button. She got up and walked around the table. “You sexy thing” she finished, prodding Peter in the chest with her finger. “Anyway, aren’t you making record profits at the moment?” She was putting on her coat. Clearly she felt she’d made her point, and the meeting had no need to last much longer.

“Go on now, go walk out the door” suggested Peter. He was clearly badly rattled. “Just turn around now, ‘cause you’re not welcome any more.”

“You think I’d crumble? You think I’d lay down and die?” shouted the Queen at him. “Oh no not I. Maah members are one hundred percent behind me on this. Maybe not straight away, but once the new government’s in place, you’ll have to give in. Just you wait and see. No soulminers means no business. We’ll strike.”

She finished putting on her coat, and marched out. “Good day to you, sister!” she called cheerfully to Mary as she passed.

 

Peter was sitting with his head in his hands. “It took all the strength I had, not to fall apart,” he muttered to himself.

“I’m not looking forward to it all if/when Charles Stuart becomes Minister for Labour” said Mary. “If he does just run around like a headless chicken, we’re in for real trouble with that woman.”

Mary was on another date with Gautama. It was not going much better than the previous one. Gautama had chosen a Japanese place. Which was all very well, thought Mary, but then what’s the point of Japanese food if you don’t eat fish? He’d picked his way fastidiously through seaweed, tofu and soya. Although he hadn’t exactly objected when Mary selected the sashimi, she wasn’t entirely sure he’d approved. On the other hand, although he had confined himself to drinking mango juice, he seemed happy to ply her with sake. If it hadn’t seemed improbable, she’d have thought he was trying to get her drunk.

He was still talking business. “I met Jupiter at a conference recently,” he said. Mary concentrated her attention, as far as she still could.

 

“I’m really not at all sure about Pantheon Alliance, you know Mary,” he said. “I think they’re mixed up in some very strange business.”

 

“Such as?”

 

“Well, there are rumours about smuggling,” he continued.

 

“Smuggling?”

“Yes Mary, and drugs. I think Pantheon might just be a big money laundering front you know.” Mary tried to consider the implications of this, but decided to save it for tomorrow when her thought processes might be clearer. She leaned forward. Although her outfit was perhaps just a little more demure than last time, very few men could have prevented their gaze from straying just momentarily. Gautama, however, coped admirably with the challenge.

“Tell me more, Gautama,” she said, attempting ‘huskily’ for effect. “Well, it’s only rumours really. But I thought you might be interested. Not sure I’d want to be in bed with a shareholder mixed up in that sort of thing.” I’m not sure you’d want to be in bed with anyone, thought Mary sourly. “How’s Paul, Saul and Mary doing anyway? If Pantheon ever decide to sell any of their stake… how much have they got, by the way?” he asked silkily. Mary decided to avoid the question. “Oh, quite a decent holding.”

“Anyway, if they ever did decide to sell, I might be interested in buying you see. So I wondered if you could tell me a little about how you’re doing just at the moment?”

“Pretty well actually Gautama,” she replied.

 

“Do you have any numbers?”

“Well now Gautama,“ she said, leaning forwards just a little further. “I wouldn’t want to discuss the figures somewhere quite so… public. Maybe we could find somewhere a little more intimate. How about your place?”

“Oh, well, er no, I really have a very early start in the morning.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll get the check. And I’ve arranged a car to take you home.”

Snap, thought Mary sadly. Maybe he’s really not my type after all. It’s such a pity when he’s so charming and good looking. And rich. Perhaps I’ll keep my promise to myself about Beelzebub.

“That’s wonderful Gautama,” she said. “Thank you for a lovely evening.”

Saul was heading up the stairway to heaven. His slightly stooped shoulders seemed particularly hunched this morning. Mary appeared suddenly at the top, and began to descend rapidly. Saul glanced at the folder under her arm. It was clear from the high-quality printing and large label that it was Croesus’ work. He nodded at it. “Bad?” he asked.

“Bad,” confirmed Mary. “He’s just sitting in his office with the door closed.” “That the flash demographic projection for the schism you got there, darling?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Bad?”

 

“Bad,” confirmed Mary again. She headed on down the staircase.

Saul continued up to Peter’s office, knocked quietly, and entered without waiting for an answer. A copy of Croesus’ report was open on the desk. Peter was staring whitely at a graph.

“How’s it going, Saint?” began Saul.

 

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” answered Peter.

 

“Now you need a place to hide away?” asked Saul sympathetically. Peter nodded ruefully. “How did you get on with the Winter woman?”

“Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say. I said something wrong…” began Peter. “Actually that’s rubbish. The only thing I said wrong was that we couldn’t afford her ridiculous wage demands. And we can’t especially… especially now I’ve read the demographic projections,” he finished lamely, gesturing half-heartedly at the papers on the desk.

“Now look Peter, I’m sorry I was so rude in the board meeting last week,” said Saul. “It’s just… well anyway, I’ve been thinking, and maybe it’s not so bad after all.” Peter looked up at him.

“If you could just get your antipopes back in the box where they belong reasonably quickly…,” Peter nodded hopefully, “…then maybe I can use them constructively for my reformation idea. You see, I could get my Luther chappie to say how the arising of antipopes illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the papacy and throws the need for reform into a clear light. Or something like that anyway.”

“I tell you what, Saint,” continued Saul, “you can take the credit for it in the board meeting if you like.” Peter brightened. “You know Mrs Carpenter never gives me the credit for anything anyway. You could say you thought my reformation idea needed strengthening so you did your schism to lay the groundwork. How about that?”

“Thanks Saul,” said Peter bluffly. “I apologise for mucking up the schism,” he volunteered suddenly.

“That’s OK Peter. Maybe you’ll let me do the doctrine next time? It is my field of expertise after all. We should all play to our strengths in a team,” said Saul pointedly. Keen as he was on smoothing over any tension, there was no way he was going to let the opportunity pass to get Peter back off his territory.

As Peter opened his mouth to answer, Saul changed the subject. It was so unusual for Peter to betray even a hint of humility that Saul fell sure he had taken the point. There was no need to rub it in. “Are you coming to the election-night ball?”

“You mean the one at the Soulbrokers Guild-Hall?”

“Yes. The Four Horsemen are playing. Pestilence has the voice of an angel. I was at college with her, she had her own band there. I always thought she could have made it professionally. Then she met War, and he was keen on the business idea, and she went along with that instead of sticking with the singing. Mind you they’ve made a killing.”

“Especially since they teamed up with the other two,” added Peter.

“Yes,” said Saul. “It’s just given them that extra cutting edge in the market. I mean, they did OK as Two Horsemen, but adding Death and Famine has given them a range of concepts to offer that the competition just can’t match. Famine’s such a sweet girl too, you wouldn’t think she was tough enough for that business. Anyway,” he continued, “it promises to be a great party. Most of the soulbrokers are coming, I’ve heard, and quite a few others connected with the industry.”

Peter didn’t look completely convinced. “Well, you know, Saul, I’m not that much of a party-animal myself and my wife doesn’t like…”

“…Lots of chances to network. The big boys are all expected. You know, Gautama’ll be there, I’ve heard Jupiter and Saturn are thinking of dropping in, Beelzebub and Hades are both coming from the refiners” interrupted Saul, meaningfully.

“You know, maybe I will just put in a brief appearance after all, Saul,” said Peter.

What I have to do in the name of being a team-player, though Saul, as he bade Peter goodbye and headed back to his own offices. The reformation needed urgent work if it was to be credible by the time the full investors meeting was due.

Chapter 10

Mary was late for the ball. She’d had to stay behind in the office to finish the finances for the All Investors Meeting before hurrying home to get changed and make her way to the Soulbrokers Guild-Hall.

Before she left, she’d watched the results on TV. As expected, the Divine Right had won easily. Augustus had appeared on the steps of Number 666 to announce his first ministerial appointments. He had only become leader a few months earlier, after a couple of the previous leadership had died suddenly following a dinner party. Livia, his wife, smiled at his shoulder.

As Augustus was confirming that Rasputin would get the Home Office, while Scheherazade would become Foreign Minister, Mary had switched off the television and left.

Now as she stepped through the Guild-Hall doors into the main room, she was hit by a wall of smoke and noise. Saul, perched on a bar-stool with his usual Pink Margarita, spotted her and beckoned her over. As she made her way through the crush, she could see him flirting with the barmen, at least one of whom looked quite familiar.

“Evening darling, been working late? You’re right on cue, it’s just warming up,” he said, as she sat down on an adjacent stool. “What are you having?”

 

“Usual please Saul. So who’s here?”

 

“Look for yourself sweetheart. You’ve met the band I take it?” “The Four Horsemen? I knew Famine at school actually, she was really sweet.”

“And the guy talking to Moses is one of Jacob’s boys. I can never tell them apart, but I think that’s Zebulon. Jacob’s around somewhere too, oh yes, look over there, passing a request to the band,” pointed Saul. Jacob & Sons had agents all over the hemisphere, and were respected as one of the few early firms to have kept up with the times.

“This song was requested by Jacob,” announced Pestilence over the microphone as, to wild cheering from a corner apparently filled with identical looking young men, the band broke into the opening chords of Walk Like An Egyptian.

Moses, Zebulon (if it was him), Jacob and at least a couple – it was hard to count - of his other sons headed for the dance floor. A group of dancing girls, all sporting rather ridiculous hen-night style horns and tails made some room for them. “Beelzebub’s lot are sponsoring the party,” observed Saul. “The girls are from his corporate hospitality section.” Indeed looking round, Mary could see the symbols of Hell adorning the walls and doors.

“Is Peter here?” asked Mary.

“See for yourself,” said Saul, pointing to the dance floor. “Oh god darlings, just look at him.” Peter, clearly already rather the worse for wear, was attempting to join in walking like an Egyptian. Moses eyed him sourly as Peter went the wrong way and trod on his toes.

“Didn’t the Egyptians have some sort of hippopotamus god?” asked Mary.

“Catty, sweetheart, catty,” said Saul. He had half an eye on a large television screen behind the bar. “What’s he saying Bacchus?” he asked the nearest barman and pointed at Rasputin whose head now filled the screen.

“He says he’s going to appoint a new Drugs Czar, guv” answered Bacchus. “Part of their crackdown on the moral decay of society, so this Rasputin geezer says.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t visit the gents loo here tonight then,” said Saul. “Who are those two over there, talking to Gautama?” asked Mary.

 

“Oh come on, you must recognise Jupiter and Saturn, surely?”

Mary peered more carefully through the smoke. “Oh yes, never seen them in DJs, that’s why.” She studied Gautama. He was drinking mango-flavoured sparkling water from a small glass. She sighed. Maybe he’s really not my type.

“I wonder what he’s discussing with Jupiter and Saturn? From what I’ve seen of him, he only ever talks shop,” she voiced her thoughts aloud.

 

“Oh yes, how did the second date go?” asked Saul innocently.

 

She gave him a sour look. “Tell you tomorrow.”

 

The band was finishing a number, when suddenly there was a loud groan throughout the room.

 

“What’s that about?” asked Mary.

Saul was studying the television screen again. “They’ve just confirmed Charles Stuart as Minister for Labour” said Saul glumly. “Surely it’s too early for Augustus to have lost his head like that?”

“I’d heard a rumour that Augustus’ wife was having a bit of a fling with Charles actually,” said Mary. “Maybe that’s how he got the job?”

 

“Charles and Livia? Is that so?” commented Saul. “I’d watch out if I was him. She’s poison, that dame.”

A short while later, Pestilence suddenly began to sing: “I’m the devil in disguise, I’ll tell you no lies, I’m playing in a rock’n’roll band.” There were cheers from the floor. They’d all been before to parties sponsored by Hell Refineries, and knew what was coming next. Sure enough, as the Four Horseman hit the opening chords of Bat out of Hell, in swaggered Beelzebub from a side door, still in the Stetson hat and cowboy boots, but with the check shirt and jeans replaced by a glittering blue costume.

“At least the old devil can actually sing,” observed Saul. “Peter tried this trick at the reaper-calls-centre Christmas do, and it was excruciating by all accounts.”

Beelzebub belted out his party number: “Like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone when the morning comes,” and as the final chords died away, and they all dutifully applauded, held up his hands for silence.

“Actually, I hope we’ll all be still right here when the morning comes,” he grinned. “Anyhows. G’day y’all. Y’all having a good time?” he asked rhetorically. “I’d like to say thank you to The Four Horsemen for putting on such a great show for y’all here tonight.”

Death stepped up to introduce the band, his reaper earrings glittering in the spotlight. “Let’s hear it for Pestilence on keyboards and vocals, War on drums, Famine on Bass…” cheers greeted each name, “And me, Death, on leadguitar.”

As the clapping ended, Beelzebub resumed. “Just now, I’d like to say a coupla more serious words. Don’t worry y’all, I’ll keep it short.” He smiled good humouredly. “Y’all saw the new Minister for Labour, didn’t ya?” Groans from the floor. “Well, ah think there’s gonna be some trouble there. Mighty big trouble if we don’t watch out. Y’all know there could be a soulminers strike, and that there Charles is just gonna bury his head in the sand if it happens. Something real serious, not like that little accident in England last century.” There were some ironic jeers, and Peter waved half-heartedly in acknowledgement.

A hundred years or so ago, Peter had tried to impose new working practices on the soulminers (‘improved end-to-end documentation’ was his stated ambition), starting with a pilot project in England. The soulminers had denounced it as ‘a load of management Bull’ and gone to the High Court to obtain an interdiction against it. The local population had been forced to be born, get married or die only in church porches. Quite often their bodies had become disillusioned, and hadn’t bothered calling in until long after death, by which time their souls were almost unrefinable. The price paid by the refiners for English souls had dropped through the floor, and Peter, Saul and Mary Ltd had suffered an unpleasant cashflow crisis. They’d had to borrow a lot of money at extortionate rates of interest from their bankers, Cayman & Swiss, to tide them over.

“I said if it happens, but maybe I should say when it happens,” continued Beelzebub. “And when it does happen, I gotta tell y’all now, we gotta stick together, all of us here in the souls business, brokers, refiners, recyclers, everyone here. All for one and one for all. No selling out to the soulminers!” There were cheers.

“OK, that’s all folks! On with the party” cried Beelzebub, and went into his other regular number. “Coooooome on, come on!” he cried suddenly. Everyone stood up and began to punch the air and stamp. “Do you wanna be in mah gang, mah gang, mah gang?” he leered. “Oh yeah,” they all cried dutifully. After all, Beelzebub was paying for all this, and there was no shortage of drink or Hell refineries corporate hospitality dancing girls. Even Gautama could be seen tapping the floor half-heartedly with his foot.

Freed from the need to perform Beelzebub tribute songs, the Four Horsemen could now get on with their trademark blues. As Beelzebub headed back to the changing rooms, Pestilence began to belt out Your Can Leave Your Hat On, with grin in the direction of Beelzebub. He waved in acknowledgement at the door before disappearing. Saul returned to watching the television. Scheherezade was on the screen. “And this government will implement a major crackdown on smuggling,” she was saying.

“Smuggling?” asked Mary. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jupiter, who was also apparently listening to the TV, stand up suddenly, dialing his on his mobile while striding out in search of somewhere quieter to make his call.

“Yes, darling, apparently there’s been a huge increase in stuff being taken off the Earth, shipped through the Ether, and brought here to the Great Planes. It’s not ecologically sound and the Divine Right made a manifesto promise to put an end to it,” said Saul.

Scheherazade was continuing, “Maximum penalties for smuggling will be increased from a thousand and one nights to two aeons imprisonment in a pentagram. Over six-hundred new border officers will be recruited to patrol the Ether…”

Mary wasn’t listening. A tall blond man, immaculate in his white dinner suit, was approaching. He had the perma-tan of one rich enough to spend his whole year in resort climates, and surfers’ hair. He was really very good looking. “Good evening Mary,” he said, in an indefinable accent, faintly mediterranean. “You’re looking stunning tonight. Like to dance?”

“Love to, Apollo” she said, getting up. This was more like it. She led him ostentatiously past the table where Gautama was sitting talking intently with Saturn. Occasionally one or the other would scribble another figure on the sheet of paper between them. Gautama looked up briefly, before returning to his numbers. Mary and Apollo headed on to the dance-floor, and made for the end furthest from Peter, who was still dancing manically. Safety first, thought Mary, watching Mercury wince as Peter’s foot landed on one of his sandals.

Saul smiled benignly at them. Apollo was managing director of Worldwide Sunworshippers Inc. He had successfully diversified them out of soulbroking and into holiday homes. The holiday-homes division was said to contribute most of their profits these days. In fact, Peter’s new villa was a Sunworshippers development.

A thin, middle-aged man in an unusual green suit headed up to the bar and sat down on a neighbouring stool. He smiled at Saul, revealing a lot of wellcared for teeth. “Señor Saul, what news on the Rialto?” he asked.

“Pretty good right now, Croc,” answered Saul, as he motioned the barman to get the man a drink. “Did you see Livia grinning behind Augustus on the news?”

Charles ‘Croc’ Cayman, joint managing partner of the Swiss & Cayman Bank, shuddered. “I’m glad I’m not married to her,” he observed. “I’d be scared to turn over in bed. ‘Is this a dagger I feel behind me?’”

“Mmmmmm. I wonder if she cooks the dinners in their household?” “Augustus must be doing something right, since he’s apparently still alive.”

 

“Behind every great man…” intoned Saul.

As the night wore on, Saul saw Mary dancing frequently with Apollo. Beelzebub kept trying to get a look in too. At some point, she returned briefly to talk to Saul.

“You’re getting a lot of action, Mary?” asked Saul with a knowing look.

 

“Ah, that Apollo, just divine…” breathed Mary.

 

“And Beelzebub? He looks pretty drunk.”

 

“Beelzebub has a terrible desire for me,” answered Mary.

 

“He will not let you go?”

 

“He will not let me go, go, go…”

 

“Mamma mia, mamma mia” said Saul. “I should stick with that nice guy Apollo then darling.”

 

“I’m trying to!” squeaked Mary. Beelzebub was headed their way.

“Houston, we have a problem,” noted Saul. Mary was looking round for an escape route when Apollo reappeared in the nick of time, and bore her away back to the dance floor. Saul wondered if Beelzebub would bore him in place about the new Minister of Labour, but he turned and headed back to the dance floor. He was soon busy with Shia. Sonny looked on irritated from a side table, clutching a glass of orange juice. Peter appeared to be occupied with a Hell Refineries corporate hospitality girl.

Saul watched with amusement, wondering what Peter’s wife, of whom Peter appeared to be terrified, would say if she could see him. He was just turning to order another drink as Pestilence started on I Am Sailing. “Cross the water, cross the sea…” she sang. Of course, thought Saul suddenly. His eyes narrowed as he thought it through. Perfect! I’ll get the Ocean Going Sailing project launched urgently in the morning.

Next day, Mary was sitting in her office, attempting to focus through her hangover on the latest cashflow forecasts from Midas when Saul walked slowly in.

“Saul, hi, you look like I feel,” said Mary.

 

“Probably better that way around darling,” said Saul. “Is Peter in?”

 

“No, he rang to take a day’s holiday. I tried to get him to just say he was sick, but you know what he’s like.”

 

“I can’t quite muster the energy to disapprove this morning. Anyway, I thought you’d’ve been off somewhere with Apollo?” said Saul.

“On a first date? Really Saul!” Mary feigned shock. Saul raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Well it was rather late,” conceded Mary, “anyway, we’ve arranged to go out next Friday.”

“I thought you were meant to be seeing Gautama again then?”

“After the last one? You have to be kidding. You were right, he really only does think about one thing. And it’s not the right thing. Just business all the time,” said Mary. “Actually now I come to think about it…”

“Well?” said Saul.

“In amongst telling me how much money he was making, and trying to find out how much money we aren’t making, he had some rather odd gossip about Pantheon. I wouldn’t give it much credit, except…”

“Except?”

“Well, you remember Scheherezade coming on the telly to talk about cracking down on smuggling? Just as she finished, I saw Jupiter leave suddenly talking into his mobile,” said Mary.
“So what? He’s Italian, they talk all the time, darling.”

“So… Gautama said that Pantheon were mixed up in smuggling.” “Smuggling? They’re an investment fund alliance,” said Saul sceptically.

“Gautama mentioned drugs too. In fact, he seemed to think the Pantheon fund thing was just for money-laundering. Didn’t the new government say something about drugs as well. I don’t remember too clearly,” grinned Mary.

“Rasputin appointed a new drugs Czar. I’d have said you were putting two and two together and getting twenty-two, not very Finance Director-like at all, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was Gautama who put the ideas into your head. He always knows what’s happening. How very strange…” finished Saul.

“I wonder if we need to worry about it?” said Mary. “After all, we’ve got this bloody All Investors Meeting coming up, at Pantheon’s request too.”

“I honestly can’t see a connection, darling,” answered Saul, after some thought. “While I’m not that keen on being 45% owned by a money-laundering organisation, I don’t see it makes much difference to us. If it’s true, which personally I still can’t quite see.”

“Let’s hope you’re right. Anyway, what are you in for so bright and early? I really didn’t expect to see you in the office today at all.”

“I had an idea last night,” admitted Saul. “I’ve put the Ocean Going Sailing project into high gear. One of my chappies has been despatched to teach the natives about long distance navigation even as we speak.”

“How does that help us?” asked Mary.

“Wait and see, darling, wait and see. Don’t spoil the surprise now, and anyway it might not happen. Give it another generation will you, then ask me again. Right now, I’m off home for about a week’s sleep. See you tomorrow!”

It was the day of the All Investors Meeting. Peter, Saul and Mary waited nervously in the board-room for the other investors. Moses sat at the far end of the table, fidgeting with his tablets. They all knew it was likely to be a difficult meeting, and if it went really badly, they could end up being sold off or needing new investors. Mary pictured Gautama sitting there, telling her what to do. It was not a happy speculation.

Beelzebub appeared, brandishing his cigar assertively. “G’day y’all!” he cried, before taking a seat and studying his papers with surprising focus.

“Morning Bubba,” they replied. “Great party by the way!” added Saul. Beelzebub waved his cigar in acknowledgement before returning to the figures in front of him. Mary recognised Croesus’ demographic projections.

“Good morning Mrs Carpenter!” piped Saul, as she entered. To their surprise, her husband followed her into the room. Middle-aged at best, thin and rather short-sighted, Joseph Carpenter greeted them all carefully. “Good morning Ms Magdalene, good morning Mr Fisher, good morning Mr Tarsus,” he said in a reedy baritone. His large hands were heavily callused, and together with his shoulder length hair, were out of keeping with his formal pin-stripes. He wore a green hat.

“Good morning, Sir,” cried Peter, ushering him into a seat. Meanwhile Saul danced attendance on Mrs Carpenter, who glowered bluely at him. Today the twinset was matched by a blue rinse.

“Just the guys from Pantheon now, that’s right Moses isn’t it?” asked Mary. Moses nodded agreement.

 

“They’re a tad late,” said Peter. “Better wait for them of course.”

After a couple of rather tense minutes, Mercury appeared in the doorway. He had discarded the white tuxedo for a dark suit. The sandals remained in place. “The boys are just coming. Had a bit of urgent business to attend to on the way.”

As he spoke, Jupiter and Saturn appeared in the doorway. Jupiter was perhaps forty years old, broad shouldered, swarthy and heavy jowled. Saturn might have been in his fifties, his hair silvering. They were dressed in identical black suits, with a strong hint of the thirties about the cut. They took their seats, Saturn seated as always to Jupiter’s right, with his chair eased back from the table. They muttered quietly to each other in Italian as Mary brought the meeting to order. It was her turn in the chair.

“All set?” she asked nervously, before collecting herself, and beginning. “OK, item one, tablets of the last meeting. Any points? No, fine,” she looked around, “item two then, future financial projections. Mercury, this was your point, maybe you’d like to lead us into it?” She smiled hopefully at Mercury, who glanced briefly at Jupiter, received a nod in return, and began to speak.

“Well, now, we’ve been studying the projections you put together for us Mary,” he started, his Italian accent stronger than usual. “And we don’t like the look of them at all. As I said in the last meeting, it reminds us of the situation at Pantheon. We sold out there while the price was still good, and we think we should do the same here.”

“Perhaps we could hear what you propose to turn the situation round” cut in Mrs Carpenter. “Peter you had a plan as I recall.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Peter enthusiastically. “I’m going for a multiphase doctrinal splitting initiative, initially based around a GPS9988-schism, but then extending in phase two to reformation and in phase three to counterreformation.”

“You mean you’re just doing an extended schism?” asked Saturn sceptically. “How’s it going so far?” asked Beelzebub before Peter could answer.

 

“Well, in phase one I set up an antipope,” said Peter. Beelzebub’s eyebrows disappeared into his Stetson.

 

“That your idea was it Saul?” asked Mrs Carpenter sarcastically.

“But that was just to lay the groundwork,” continued Peter hurriedly. He glanced briefly at some notes in front of him. “I’m going to say that the arising of antipopes illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the papacy and throws the need for reform into a clear light.”

Mary, who was resisting the urge to hide under her chair, glanced at Saul. He winked back. “My idea,” he mouthed silently, noting approvingly that Peter must have written it all down after their chat. Maybe he’s got some sense after all, he thought.

“Very good Peter,” said Mrs Carpenter approvingly.

 

“And where does all this lead?” demanded Mercury.

 

“Er, well…” Peter floundered. Saul decided to step in quickly.

“The reformation will fuel the drive for competitive expansion. To explore strange New Worlds, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” he declared. ”Well European man anyway. We’re following it up with the introduction of Ocean Going Sailing and a papal bull urging the conquest of new lands and souls for the faith.”

Saturn looked alarmed, and began to whisper urgently in Jupiter’s ear.

“What wood are you using for the ocean going boats?” asked Joseph with sudden interest. Mrs Carpenter looked poised to quell him, so once more Saul hastened to speak.

“Well maybe you could recommend a type? It’s your area of expertise isn’t it? After all, that’s one of the roles of an investor, to bring valuable outside expertise to the table,” he said smoothly. Mrs Carpenter closed her mouth again. “What part of Europe are you building the boats in?” asked Joseph.

“Portugal,” answered Saul. And Spain later, he thought, but taking a look at Saturn still whispering to Jupiter, he decided to keep that to himself.

 

“Oh, oak then, definitely. There’s good quality in Portugal.”

 

“Well thank you Joseph, we’ll certainly take your advice,” said Saul smoothly.

 

Saturn spoke up suddenly. “Where are you planning to get them to sail to?” he demanded.

Saul decided to let Saturn commit himself first. “Well, the main possibilities are go head for the Americas, or try round Africa and see what we can pick up in the East.”

“The East’s mostly Gautama’s territories isn’t it?” said Mrs Carpenter. “I think you’ll have difficulty moving in there, Saul.”

 

“We suggest East,” said Jupiter firmly, before Saul could answer.

“The Americas do…” he glanced at Jupiter …”at first glance seem to offer the superior opportunity, Mrs C…” he looked again at Jupiter, whose frown was deepening “… but on the other hand there is a much greater population base in the East,” he finished.

“East,” said Jupiter with some finality. I wonder why he’s so concerned to stop us heading west, thought Saul.

Mary decided she had a job to do as chairman. “Fine, let’s take to the tablets that Ocean Going Sailing will be, er, launched, using oak ships, and initially heading East. Everybody OK with that?” They all nodded.

“However,” said Mercury heavily. “However, that still doesn’t answer the main question. We’re here to discuss closing down. We’d like to vote on it.”

Beelzebub spoke. “It still looks pretty good to me, Merc.” He gestured at the Mary’s financial reporting. “I kinda feel closing down could be a little premature. The plans sound OK. I know the demographic projections look bad, but it isn’t quite comparable with what happened at Pantheon is it? The customers haven’t lost faith in the concept have they?”

“With Constantinople about to fall, and Sonny and Shia still active in Spain? The boys feel it’s just a matter of time. We should dump it before the market spots the trend.”

“Well I think we should give it a bit longer,” said Beelzebub. “I propose we give this outfit until say…”

 

“1600?” suggested Saul.

 

“1500,” countered Mercury.

 

“How about we compromise on 1550?” said Saul.

 

“OK, Saul, you got it. 1550AD,” said Beelzebub.

 

Mary moved in quickly. “OK, the proposal is to continue operations until 1550AD and review the situation at that point.”

 

“With the intention of a quick sale or closure if the downward trend is continuing,” said Mercury firmly.

 

“With that intention,” said Mary. “In favour?” She looked around the table. “That’s myself, Saul, Peter?” Peter nodded. “Mr and Mrs Carpenter?”

 

After a brief pause, Mrs Carpenter spoke. “In favour. But you watch it Saul. If you mess it up, I won’t forgive you.”

 

After Mrs Carpenter had spoken, Joseph’s response was automatic. “In favour,” he said shakily.

 

“And I’m in favour too,” said Beelzebub.

“That’s fifty-five percent in favour,” said Mary, unsure whether to be relieved that the vote was in their favour or to panic about the 1550AD deadline. “We need the Pantheon vote for the record.”

Saturn whispered briefly to Jupiter. “Abstention,” said Jupiter shortly. Moses etched a note.

 

“Good. Item number three, possible soulminers union militancy,” announced Mary. “Bubba, your point I think.”

“Well, y’all, like I said at the party, there’s gonna be trouble sooner or later,” said Beelzebub. “With that spineless idiot Charles at the labour ministry, I’m guessing sooner. What plans ya got?”

“Well, we’re smoothing out our soulflow using Saul’s new purgatory concept,” answered Mary.

 

“Saul’s concept?” demanded Mrs Carpenter.

Peter decided he ought to return the favour to Saul. “It runs like this, Mrs C,” he began, and continued with a detailed explanation of the operational management of purgatory. As usual with matters of internal operational detail, he was excellent.

“Wonderful, Peter, it sounds very well organised,” said Mrs Carpenter.

“The idea is, it gives us some reserves so we can stand a short disruption by the unions,” added Mary, carefully omitting that it was really an emergency measure to deal with the sudden under-capacity in Peter’s department.

“How about a long disruption?” asked Mercury. “Have you met the Winter woman yet?”

 

“Well, er, yes,” said Peter. “We did have a formal meeting. She outlined the union’s wage demands. Quite impossible of course. I told her so.”

 

“The Queen of SOUL,” chuckled Beelzebub sardonically. “You mean she ate you for breakfast Peter?”

“Mary was there too,” squeaked Peter.
“Oh thanks very much Peter,” said Mary. “Yes I was there. Not that I managed to squeeze a word in. She does seem a bit fierce, doesn’t she? Have you met her then Bubba?”

“No thank goodness,” answered Beelzebub. “But I’ve heard the rumours, same as everyone else. Like I said at my party, we gotta stick together when it happens. I got just as much to lose as you do if there’s no souls coming in to my refineries. Costs me a fortune whenever Hell freezes over. Meantime, you get on to your bankers, make sure you’ve got a facility in place.”

“I’ll call Croc Cayman this afternoon,” promised Mary.

 

After the meeting was over, Peter, Saul and Mary stayed in the board room. Peter and Mary looked shaken.

 

“1550AD,” Peter kept repeating to himself.

 

“How in heaven’s name are we going to turn it all around by 1550?” asked Mary.

 

Saul appeared rather more confident. “Relax darlings, it’ll all come right. Have a little faith.”

 

“In what?”

 

“In Ocean Going Sailing and expansion into new territories, darling.” “I wonder why the Pantheon guys were so dead against you sending the punters off to the west?” wondered Mary.

 

“I don’t know. I’ll try to find out. In the meantime, we’ve a reformation to sort out. We can decide whether to head east or west later.”

 

“You mean go directly against an All Investors Meeting instruction?” asked Peter, aghast. “We can’t do that.”

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we. It’s not ready yet, I’ve got to go off and get them working on the oak idea. Joseph really does know about wood you know, it would be silly to disregard his advice.”

“We really cannot go against a Meeting instruction,” insisted Peter again. “I’ll put it on the next board agenda.”

“If you must,” said Saul. “Anyway, we’ve all got work to do. Come along Saint, we need to check out how reunifying the papacy is going. Mary, you have a banker to call, I believe, if you can make a little time on your phone without Apollo on the other end of it.

Mary looked dreamy. “You’re just hanging on the telephone?” suggested Peter.

 

“He can call me, call me anytime,” said Mary.

 

“Going better than with Gautama then?”

 

“He just had a heart of glass,” said Mary.

Peter had returned from the ministry of Labour. The minister, Charles Stuart, had organised a meeting with leaders of the soulbroking industry to discuss the Soulminers Organisation of Unionised Labour’s wage demands, and the threats from the Queen of SOUL to back it them with strike action.

“How did you get on?” asked Mary.

“Well, he was a bit too cavalier about it for my liking,” answered Peter. “He seemed to think it was all just a quarrel about ‘shit money’ as he put it so elegantly. However, he did promise that the Divine Right would take a stand.”

“What happens next?” asked Saul.

 

“He was going to meet with the Winter woman this afternoon. We might as well watch the news, she’s bound to be on, even if he isn’t.”

 

Mary switched on the television and found a news channel.

 

“The Soulminers Union has announced that it will come out in a Planeswide strike over pay…” began the newsreader.

 

“It went well then evidently,” observed Saul dryly.

The television switched to the soulminers leader. “We’re coming out,” she began. “We want the world to know, got to let it show, we’re coming out.” Peter watched horrified as the Queen continued. “There’s a new us coming out, and we just have to live, and you gotta give, we’re completely positive.”

“What do we do now?” he asked rhetorically.

 

“Shhhh,” said Mary. “Let’s see her finish.”

 

“Somehow, we’ll have to make them just understand. We’ve got it well in hand, and oh how we’ve planned,” continued the Queen.

 

An interviewer asked about her meeting with Charles Stuart. “I think this time around, we are going to do it like he never knew it,” she replied. “The minister was unavailable for comment,” continued the newsreader.

 

“He’s burying his head in the sand already?” asked Saul incredulously. The phone rang. “It’s Beelzebub,” said Mary answering it. “He wants to know if we’ve seen the news, and how we’re planning to respond.”

“Well Bubba, we’re having an emergency board meeting tomorrow morning to assess the situation, and we’ll get right back to you… Yes, yes, I agree, we’re all in this together, just like you said… Yes, we’ll get you the current stock position in purgatory… yes, and you. Keep the home fires burning Bubba!” she finished, putting the phone back.

The newsreader was continuing. “Today’s other news. The Foreign Minister, Scheherezade, announced today that there had been a large number of arrests of suspected smugglers through the Ether.”

Scheherezade appeared on the screen. “This is a story which is just beginning,” she declared. “The tale of arrests has risen this afternoon to over fifty. Our novel approach is clearly working.”

“Scheherezade has promised that the all their stories will be released to the press as soon as the suspects have undergone questioning,” resumed the newsreader. Peter switched off the television.

“I gather we’re having an emergency board meeting tomorrow then,” said Saul.

 

“Good call, Mary,” said Peter. “Saul, your turn to chair I think?”

That afternoon, Mary and Peter were in the middle of a routine meeting to discuss the financial modelling of the purgatory process when Peter looked suddenly at his watch.

“Mary, do you think we could finish this later this week?”

“Of course Peter. Rushing home to see the wife and kids for once?” Mary knew Peter was devoted to his children, and probably frightened of his wife, and had been working late in the office a little too often recently.

“No, unfortunately. No, I got a call from Shia. She’s asked if I could go over to their offices and talk about this strike.”

“Sounds interesting. Let me know how you get on then,” said Mary, as Peter tidied away his papers and headed for the door. She watched through her windows as Peter appeared in the car-park, headed over to his large black executive saloon, and drove away. I wonder how he affords those new cars every year, thought Mary idly to herself. She and Saul believed Peter to live at the limit of his available credit at any moment, but of course they could hardly ask. The executive car was symptomatic. To Peter it represented his aspiration to be seen as major player in the business world.

After a tedious journey, Peter pulled up at the offices of Sonny and Shia Ltd. He presented himself at reception, where it was clear he was expected. An elaborately uniformed man approached him.

“Mr Peter Fisher?” Peter nodded. “Madame Shia is expecting you in her private wing. My name is Abdul, I am one of her personal mamelukes. Please to follow me.”

They took a lift to the top floor, and Abdul led the way along decorated passageways, and through numerous archways, until he stopped and knocked softly on a padded door. It was opened by a young woman, clad in a long flowing skirt. She was bare to the waist, save for a tassled, silken breast-scarf, knotted in a bow at the breastbone.

“Please come with me,” she said, and led Peter through a hallway. Abdul did not follow. From behind, Peter had the chance to study her unobserved. She was really extremely attractive, the curve of her bare back flowing sinuously down to the long skirt which hung low on her full hips. “I am Salima. On behalf on Madame Shia I welcome you to Sonny and Shia Limited.” She led the way through another arch, and into a large room, whose floors and walls were covered in thick Persian rugs. Large cushions were scattered around, and on one of these, at the far end of the room, reclined Shia, elaborately berobed, and wearing a formal headscarf.

“Mr Fisher, how kind of you to visit us. Please, make yourself comfortable.” She clapped her hands. Another young woman, dressed identically to Salima appeared. “Fatmeh, cushions for Mr Fisher,” commanded Shia.

Peter lowered himself awkwardly to the floor, and attempted to sit crosslegged on his cushions. His fatness made it a complex manoeuvre. He winced slightly as he landed a little too hard on a cushion, and rubbed an over-stretched knee.

“Oh, you are stiff from your drive?”

“Well…” began Peter, but Shia forestalled him by clapping her hands once more. “Mr Fisher has driven far, Salima,” she said as the beautiful girl approached in response. “He is of course stiff from the journey.” Immediately, Salima knelt down behind Peter and began to knead his shoulders. Peter stiffened, and then began to relax. Salima clearly knew her business, and it began to feel rather good.

“This strike affair, terrible is it not?” began Shia. They talked around the subject without reaching any conclusions for some time. Salima began to work her way down Peter’s back. He struggled to concentrate on what Shia was saying, especially as Fatmeh who, now he had a chance to study her too he could see was even more attractive than Salima, kept distracting him with dainty pastries and sweets proffered on silver trays.

“So,” finished Shia. “It seems we must watch the strike together. However, that is not all I wanted to discuss, Mr Fisher.” Peter focussed hastily.

“It seems Constantinople must fall to our forces,” she began. “It is inevitable. But El Hajj Sonny and I, we thought perhaps we could expedite matters. You accept of course that it is inevitable?” Peter nodded.

“Perhaps we could arrange its capture between us, very soon, in exchange for a small payment to your company?” suggested Shia. She clapped her hands again. Fatmeh appeared with a bottle of wine and a glass. “Of course you must need a drink. How forgetful of me. This is Tokaj, it is from Hungary. We are very interested in Hungary.”

“How small a payment?” asked Peter.

“Oh really a very small payment. Of course, such a decision, such an important decision, needs a little reflection to make. Reflection is best when you are relaxed, do you not think?” Shia signalled with her hand Salima, who moved her attentions up to his neck. Her delicate fingers began to stroke the skin above his collar. He felt her edge closer until her knees were digging into his buttocks spreading over the edge of the cushion.

“Oh yes,” said Peter weakly.

“Salima and Fatmeh will help you to relax a little. Then you can reflect, and perhaps we can make a deal. So?” finished Shia. She rose suddenly, and disappeared through a door, closing it behind her.

Fatmeh, in front of him, tugged at the scarf around her breasts and it opened and dropped to the floor. She began to shimmy out of the long skirt. Salima stopped stroking his neck, reached for his hand, and put one of the ends of her breast-scarf into it, smiling encouragingly. As he turned to look, dragging his eyes reluctantly from Fatmeh, she motioned him to pull open the bow. He hesitated. He had been married almost twenty years, and never once strayed. But after the third child was born, his wife was tired all the time, and she never seemed to have the energy for… Salima pulled back slightly. He felt the tug from the scarf in his hands. To let go, or to grip tighter? He glanced at Fatmeh who was stepping out of her last item of clothing. He gripped tighter, and pulled…

~

 

Rather later, fully dressed again, he was trying to slip out without meeting Shia again, but she appeared suddenly from a side room.

 

“So, are you relaxed? Have you had a good chance to reflect?”

 

“You must call Mary, our FD, and agree a price,” mumbled Peter, reaching for the door.

 

Shia nodded, pulled briefly on a small rope, and the door was opened immediately by Abdul, who had apparently stood guard at the door. “So, until next time, Mr Fisher. We are really most interested in Hungary. Perhaps you would like to relax here again and discuss it?”

 

“Perhaps,” muttered Peter, and headed hastily down the corridor.

 

Chapter 16

 

“So,” began Saul. “Item One: For The Money. Mary, how’s the great grey green greasy Limpopo of finance?”

 

“Full of Croc. And Croc Cayman’s full of…”

 

“…himself?” finished Saul.

 

“Amongst other things, yes,” answered Mary. “Anyway, I called him like Beelzebub suggested, to discuss an emergency credit facility if we need it.” “When we need it, I suspect Mary,” put in Peter lugubriously.

“Let’s just hope it’s if. We discussed interest rates. He asked me to suggest a figure, so I proposed our usual rate plus two percent. It seemed reasonable enough to me. Anyway, he said ‘call that an interest rate? This is an interest rate, Mary’ and came back with usual plus fifteen percent.”

“Fifteen?” screeched Peter and Saul together.

“Fifteen. So I suggested he should bring it down in exchange for stronger forfeit clauses. And he said that rate was already ‘down’, and that was assuming the forfeit to be…” Mary stretched her mouth into a passable imitation of Charles Cayman’s tooth-filled smile. “Let the forfeit be nominated for an equal part of your fair shareholdings, to be cut off and taken in what part of your stock pleaseth me.”

“Go on,” said Saul, faintly.

 

“How much?” asked Peter.

 

“An equal part, Peter. That means half,” cut in Saul acidly.

“Thank you Saul, yes half our stock if we default on a payment. So I said he was being totally unreasonable, and we’d find another banker. He just laughed.” Mary made her Cayman face again. “‘Hath not a Croc eyes, hath not a Croc ears, doth not a Croc watch the news on the television?’ he said. ‘You don’t stand a chance of getting support from any other bank, not with the new government and the strike and that hopeless fool Charles Stuart in charge of labour relations. Take it or leave it Mary.’”

“So which did you do?” asked Saul.

“I said I’d call him back on Monday,” answered Mary, “after we’ve had time to discuss it. He just laughed. ‘I’ll set the facility up anyway, and wait for your call then’ he said. He knows we haven’t much choice. And he’s right, no other bank’ll touch us with a ten foot crucifix.”

“Bastard” said Peter, with some feeling.

 

“I really don’t think that kind of language is appropriate in a formal Board meeting, Peter,” said Saul with a grin. “Moses, put an item on the next age…”

 

“Shut up Saul,” said Mary forcefully.

 

“Sorry, anyway, what do we think? Do we go with it or not?” said Saul. “Doesn’t seem like we have any choice, if I understand your figures Mary?” asked Peter.

 

“I think you’re right. We have to have the emergency facility in place, unless you think the strike’ll be over quickly”

“You met the Winter woman too. And you heard about the meeting. Even if this one’s over quickly there’ll be another, and another. We’re going to need the all the credit we can get I’m afraid,” said Peter.

“So, Mary, you’ll set it up then. We’ll just have to try not to use it,” concluded Saul. Mary nodded reluctantly.

 

“OK, moving on, item Two: For The Show. Peter, how’s it going?” Saul began the next agenda point.

“Well, we’ve got the antipopes back in the bag. Some bloke called Martin the Fifth is now in charge of the whole shebang,” started Peter. “Where are you up to with preparations for the reformation Saul?”

“Well, we’ve got this chappie Luther up to eighty-seven theses at the moment. It’s pretty well ready to go. My guys said he seems to have set his heart on reaching a hundred, and we don’t like to give him the ideas too often, so it could be about a few years yet I suppose.”

“Could you hurry it up a bit?”

 

“Maybe. Perhaps if we give him a few more quickly and then suggest to him that ninety-odd would do just fine.”

 

“Then what?” asked Peter.

 

“Then we take him out of UHT, run the substitution, get him to nail them to the door and start the fun and games.”

 

“Substitution?” asked Mary.

 

“Yes,” said Saul. “If you do a longlife job on someone, then naturally you’re planning to make them rather visible later on.”

“So people will tend to get rather interested in their background, place of birth, parents and so on,” said Peter. “So it’s normal after UHT-ing someone to find a kind of doppelganger, someone with the same name and a plausibly similar childhood.”

“Who you then eliminate and put your longlife guy in his place, once they’re about the same physical age. Can’t have the punters noticing someone apparently living to be 150 years old, can we darling?”

“Sounds like a job for my Special Operations on Earth team,” proposed Peter. Mary winced.

“Absolutely Peter,” said Saul. Mary looked surprised. “We need a big fuss, lots of noise, plenty of papal bull in response, just your kind of thing,” continued Saul as Mary nodded her understanding. “Especially since you’ve got the contacts in the papacy at the moment,” he added pointedly.

“We’ll get right on to it as soon as you’ve got the Luther guy set up then. I’ll wait for you to send the papers over. Er, there is some documentation this time, Saul, isn’t there?”

“Oh yes of course Saint. Difficult to keep track of where you are on dozens of theses without a few records. I’ll get them up to you.”

“OK, then, item Three: To Get Ready. Ocean going sailing update,” said Saul. “Right then darlings, we’ve followed up on Joseph’s oak idea, seems to be excellent, must drop him a thank you. We’ve got the Portuguese on with something called a Caravel, lovely new kind of boat, and all ready to sail the ocean blue. So now, the 64-verse question, which way? East or West?”

“What are the arguments Saul?” asked Mary quickly, seeing Peter beginning to huff.

“Well, West is riskier, it’ll take them longer to work out how to sail all that way across the Atlantic. And when they eventually get there, the population’s less, so fewer prospective converts. On the other hand, they’re still on old fashioned religions, you know, animism, sun-worship, pantheism, idols, that kind of thing. And technically they’re pretty backwards so they ought to be pretty easy game for our lot once they get there.”

“And Jupiter explicitly banned us from heading that way,” puffed Peter.

“East, on the other hand,” continued Saul, ignoring him, “will be easier to reach, loads of potential converts. But, and it seems a pretty big but to me, it’s straight into Gautama’s territory, and I’m really not sure we’re in a strong enough position to take him on. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever be that strong. Of course, if we could get even further there’s China and Japan where we might do better conversion-wise. But I don’t see how we can get enough of ours guys out that way to deal with the military side of things. There’s too many of them, and too many miles of sea for us.”

“And the All Investors Meeting insisted that we go East,” said Peter. “We simply cannot ignore the Meeting. There’s no option, we have to go East.” “How about…” began Mary, expecting to have to find a compromise.

“Of course, you’re absolutely right Peter,” said Saul before she could get any further. “East it is then. We’ll get right on to it.” Peter looked satisfied, while Mary stared at Saul bemused.

“Good that’s it then. Meeting over, so Go Cats Go!” chanted Saul. Peter headed out quickly. Saul was departing with surprising speed too, but Mary moved fast enough to block him in the doorway.

“Saul, you are well, aren’t you? That’s twice you gave in to Saint on important points in that meeting.”

“Relax Mary darling,” said Saul. “Look,” he said lowering his voice. “West is obviously a lot better prospect. So I’m going to set that up anyway, but it really will take a lot longer. Meantime Peter needs distracting doesn’t he, so he doesn’t fuss about the odd westbound boat? Sorting out the reformation hubbub should keep him lovely and busy, especially while he’s dealing with SOUL and the strike. Have a little faith, Mary, have a little faith.”

“OK, Saul, OK, you do know what you’re doing, I give in. Good luck.”

Saul grinned. Thank goodness she didn’t notice the slip about the sunworship, he thought to himself. “How’s it going with Apollo?” he asked aloud. Mary grinned back.

“Tell you on Monday,” she answered, and headed out.

Mary sat happily in the restaurant around the corner from her flat. Things were going rather better than last time. She beamed at a waiter, remembering him from the election night party, and he began to head towards her table.

Opposite her, Apollo was telling her about his place in the Greek hills. “It’s just near Delphi, with fantastic views over the plains and down to the sea. You’d love it there Mary, you really would. Maybe you could come stay there for a while? After everything you’ve been telling me you’ve been up to recently, it sounds like a break would be good for you.”

A break certainly would be good, she thought. But not tonight, oh no. “Sounds fantastic, Apollo, I’d love to visit it” she said. It had altogether been a much happier experience than her date here with Gautama. Apollo had managed to listen to her at least some of the time, and not talk about business all the while either. They’d talked about what food they liked, and where they’d been on holiday. Apollo, in fact, had been everywhere on holiday, and made a very successful business out of it too. It seemed there were Sunworshippers places on every continent, and in every desirable place you could think of. But he hadn’t gone on and on and on about it like Gautama.

The waiter arrived at their table. “Coffee Madam, coffee Sir?” he enquired. Apollo looked at her. “Maybe we could have coffee in my flat?” she suggested. “It’s just round the corner.”

“Is it? I didn’t know you lived round here Mary,” said Apollo innocently. “Coffee at your place would be great.”

 

Mary turned to the waiter, who watched smiling. “Just the bill then?” he asked.

 

Mary looked at Apollo. “Just the bill,” she said firmly.

 

“How’d it go with Apollo on Friday evening then, Mary?” asked Saul over coffee in his office on Monday morning.

 

“He left on Sunday afternoon,” answered Mary with a smile.

 

“As good as that?”

“Better. He’s…. Well anyway, do you know, he asked me over dinner how I got started working with you. So I said to him I’d joined up with you because you were the only guy recruiting at the time who was more interested in my finance skills than in my body.”

“I hope that doesn’t apply to Apollo too,” observed Saul with a twitch of his eyebrows.

“Not on the evidence of this weekend. I think he likes me as a person though, the body’s kind of a plus… Anyway, that’s not the point, Saul, that’s not why I’m telling you. It was true though wasn’t it? You chose me as a business partner because you thought I’d be good at business didn’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“There’s nothing wrong with your body, darling,” said Saul. “But as you knew perfectly well at the time, it just happens to have the wrong bits attached to it for my tastes.”

“Yes I know. But what I wanted to say was, well, it’s been great, hasn’t it, our partnership. I know Peter’s a pain sometimes, but he does know how to organise operations. And we get on most of the time. And I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it.”

“Me too, darling, me too.”

 

“And we’ve been successful too, haven’t we?”

 

“We have Mary, we have. Where is this leading to?”

“So I damned if I’ve going to have it mucked up by Jupiter and his mates, that’s where it’s going. I just wanted to say that. I really want Peter Saul and Mary to carry on and on.”

“Has all this been prompted by long-terms personal plans involving Apollo, by any chance Mary?”

“You always know, don’t you Saul? I think you can read Saint and me like open books.” Saul began to demur, but Mary continued doggedly, “yes it has really, plus the mess we seem to be in at the moment. I just want you to know I’m in it for the long-term, for the future. I won’t chicken out now the going’s got a bit tough, even if things keep going well with Apollo. I just wanted you to know that Saul.”

“Thanks Mary darling, I really appreciate you telling me.” He walked over and put an arm briefly round Mary’s shoulders. “I did wonder, you know, just for a moment when you went out with Gautama…”

“Oh Saul, I’m sorry…”

 

“Never mind,” Saul decided it was time to move the conversation on. “When’s Saint due back from that meeting at the ministry?”

 

In answer there was the jangling sound of a bunch of keys from the corridor. “Here he is now I think.” Peter peered in, and then entered without knocking.

 

“Hi Saint, how did it go?”

“Tell me why I don’t like Mondays,” answered Peter. “First of all, the Winter woman spoke. She said ‘the soulminers job inside my head is switched to overload, so nobody’s gonna go to work today, I’m gonna make them stay at home. And Charlie doesn’t understand it…’”

“So what did Charles say to that then?” asked Saul.

“‘I always thought you were good in SOUL, and I can see no reasons, cos there are no reasons’ was his response”, continued Peter. “So then Sonny – he was there representing Sonny and Shia – looked straight at Charles Stuart and asked him ‘what reason do you need to be so…’” Peter paused.

“Spineless?” tried Saul.

 

“Headless?” suggested Mary.

“Charles stepped in at that point. ‘I am the Minister, representative of the People’ he said. ‘Sorry,’ Sonny muttered, rather pathetically I thought, and Charles continued ‘Never make a defence of apology before you be accused. Be that as it may’ he continued. ‘This government has decided that, although it does not accept the reasons for this strike by the Soulminers Organisation of Unionised Labour, in the interests of the continued Essoul supply to the Great Planes, we should concede to their demands.’”

“What??” shrieked Saul and Mary together. “All of them?” pursued Mary.

“All of them,” answered Peter flatly. “We’d obviously just been summoned to be told that our labour costs are going to double overnight, tough luck, off you go guys, keep supplying the souls. Of course there was uproar, but Charles just said ‘thank you, ladies and gentlemen’ and walked out. The Winter woman sat there with a huge smile – it reminded me of Croc Cayman actually – and we all filed out.”

“So now we need to work out how we’re going to pay the extra wages?” said Mary.

 

“It’s a cash trap, Mary, and we’ve been caught.”

At that moment, the phone rang. Mary picked it up. “It’s for you, Saul, Croesus answered the call, he says he’s not allowed to say who it is but you’d better take it.” They all looked mystified, as Saul hurried to take the receiver.

“Saul Tarsus speaking…. Hello, yes?” in a very surprised voice. “Thursday evening 7pm, go in via the rear entrance, try and make sure no one who might recognise me sees me, OK got it. I’ll be there of course. Goodbye.” “Well?” said Peter.

“I’m summoned to a secret dinner with Livia, it seems.” “I wonder if it’s connected with this morning’s events at the ministry,” wondered Mary.

 

“Let’s hope so. Have to wait and see, won’t we?” said Saul.

 

“Livia?” said Peter. “Careful what you eat and drink then. People have been known to have acute digestive problems after meals with Livia.”

 

“I haven’t forgotten,” said Saul. “But I can’t exactly refuse can I?”

 

“Look after yourself, Saul,” said Mary. She turned to Peter. “By the way, I had a call from Shia…” she began.

 

Peter went very white and sat down suddenly. “Oh yes?” he said, trying to sound innocent.

 

“How did your chat with her about the strike go, by the way?” asked Mary. “Doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the outcome.”

“No, no, she didn’t have much to say,” said Peter, remembering. A vision of himself pulling the scarf from Salima’s oh-so-perfect breasts rose unbidden into his mind. He could feel himself colouring. “Really she wanted to talk about Constantinople. She was offering to…”

“Buy it? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Er…” mumbled Peter. He could see Fatmeh dropping the last of her clothing to the floor and reaching to unbutton his shirt and unclip the keys from his belt.

“Well not to worry,” continued Mary briskly. “Although I must admit I was a bit surprised, I agreed with her that, since it was bound to fall anyway, we’d just stage a bit of a resistance for show, but otherwise she could have it.”

“How much did you get for it?” asked Saul. He was watching Peter carefully as he spoke.

“Oh a very good…” Mary changed her mind “…a quite good price. Half a million credos.” She stared pointedly at Saul, who noticed and stifled his objections: only half a million? “Don’t you think that’s a good price Peter?”

“Oh yes Mary, absolutely. Very well done, brilliant negotiation,” said Peter firmly.

 

“Then she asked about Hungary. Of course I told her absolutely no way.”

A strange series of emotions seemed to cross Peter’s face rapidly: hope, relief, disappointment, before he pulled himself quickly together and said firmly “Of course not. Constantinople’s one thing, it was just a matter of time, but we can hardly have them at the gates of Vienna can we?”

He was getting up, and making hurriedly for the door. “No I think you did a great deal, anyway must get back to the grindstone, lots to catch up with,” he said, and rushed out.

“What’s up with him?” asked Mary as the door closed rather too firmly. “Did you say he visited Shia?” asked Saul thoughtfully.

 

“So?”

 

“So, there are interesting stories about, how shall I put it, her ‘companions in her harem’ and what can happen to the unsuspecting visitor,” said Saul. “Peter?! Surely not? He’s so straitlaced,” said Mary. “On the other hand, he did behave awfully oddly just now.”

 

“Shall we ask him?” said Saul mischievously.

 

“I don’t really think that’s the best idea you’ve ever had, Saul,” said Mary. “Anyway,” she continued, “about Constantinople…”

 

“Couldn’t you have done a bit better than half a million credos?” asked Saul. “It must be worth at least twice that.”

 

“Of course it is. Actually I got a million and a half.”

 

“Fantastic! But why didn’t you say so just now?”

“Well, I thought you might need a little, er, fund to help the westbound boats along without Peter spotting it in the financial reports,” said Mary, a little shyly. After all, she had spent years being trained not to cook the books.

“Mary!” said Saul admiringly.

 

Chapter 19

Augustus and Livia’s official country residence was a large, Elizabethan mansion located on a windy hilltop. According to rumour it was so old that the windows and doorways were all slightly askew, and did a poor job of keeping the wind out. It was known to the press and public as Draughts.

As Saul parked his small yellow sports car, he was surprised to see Beelzebub emerging from a rather battered old Landrover. Better the devil you know, I suppose, thought Saul as he headed over to greet him.

“Hi Bubba, is this just a coincidence?”

“How’re ya doing Saul? No of course it ain’t. You’re here on my suggestion Saul. Livia wants to talk to you about an idea of yours. I told her about it at some official ‘refiners and energy producers dinner’ thing I had to go to the other week,” he said, rather opaquely.

A uniformed policeman approached, checked their ID, and showed them into the mansion through a discreet door. Livia was there to greet them. Exquisite and petite, tastefully dressed, over-bejewelled, were Saul’s first impressions. She had the rare gift of being able to remain quiet and still, contemplating the person in front of her, without giving offence.

Finally she spoke. Her voice was soft and damped, and seemed to leave a small silent hiatus after each utterance. “Beelzebub, nice to see you again, thank you for suggesting this meeting.” Another lengthy pause while she studied Saul again. “And you must be Saul Tarsus. I’ve heard a lot about you. Thank you for agreeing to come here at such short notice. Welcome to Draughts.” She smiled slightly.

A side-door opened, and another woman entered. “Scheherezade, this is Beelzebub from Hell Refineries, and Saul Tarsus from Peter Saul and Mary, the soulbrokers,” said Livia, making introductions.

“Livia and the Foreign Secretary?” thought Saul to himself. “What have I done that merits this all of a sudden?”

They made small talk briefly before Livia led them through to a small, elegant, dining room. Its elegance was rather spoiled by the electric heaters in each corner, which just about kept the temperature bearable.

As the starter arrived, Scheherezade turned to Saul. “Pantheon Fund Managers Alliance is one of your biggest shareholders, I believe?” “You’re very well informed.”

 

Scheherezade smiled slightly. “Well briefed, perhaps” she murmured. “Well yes they are. When we first got started, we needed investors, and they’d just sold Olympus Souls and had the money.”

 

“How well do you know their executives, Mr Tarsus?”

 

“Please call me Saul. Jupiter and Saturn you mean?”

 

“And their Public Relations manager. The one with the sandals?” continued Scheherezade.

“Mercury. I hardly know them at all, other than professionally. I mean, they come to our AGM, and occasionally to other special meetings, but otherwise, they tend to keep themselves to themselves, as long as we’re making decent returns for them,” replied Saul, wondering where the questions were leading.

“I see. Perhaps you saw on the news that my new border patrols have arrested a number of smugglers?”

 

“Yes, yes I did. What were they smuggling?”

“They’ve begun to tell us their stories. They were smuggling Ginseng as it happens, Saul. As you no doubt know, it’s one of several, err… ‘herbal substances’ which don’t grow here on the Great Planes and can only be imported from Earth. Perhaps you know of some of the others?” Scheherezade’s voice had a lilting, hypnotic quality.
Drugs, thought Saul. But where’s the connection…

“They claim they are ‘employees’ of Pantheon. Or perhaps I should say more accurately that they claim allegiance to Jupiter.”

So it is true, thought Saul. That story Mary had from Gautama wasn’t just a rumour after all. I haven’t been asked here because of that, surely, thought Saul, beginning to panic at the stories about Livia’s cooking. He kept his face blank while he thought for a few moments.

“That’s interesting,” he said carefully.

 

“Isn’t it just” said Livia. “You don’t seem very surprised Mr Tarsus?”

“Actually,” he said slowly, “it isn’t the first time I’ve heard the rumour. Someone else said the same thing to me a few weeks back, just around the time of the election.”

“I think it might be a good idea if you start looking for a different investor,” said Livia flatly. Saul was considering how to reply to this when Livia continued, “But that isn’t the reason we asked you to dinner. Tell us about your Purgatory idea. Beelzebub here mentioned it to me last week, and it sounds very interesting.”

Saul glanced at Beelzebub, who nodded encouragingly. “Stroke of genius, Saul, and I told Livia so at the time. Come on Saul, talk to the lady.”

Saul explained the workings of purgatory. They were particularly interested in the stockpiling and temporary soul-holding aspects, and plied him with quite detailed questions. “Peter Fisher, our Operations Director, could explain the workings to you better, I’m sure,” finished Saul.

“Oh no, I think we’ve got the picture very well thank you Mr Tarsus,” said Livia. She glanced at the clock, and then meaningfully at Scheherezade, who nodded in return. “If you’ll excuse me for a few minutes, I have to make a telephone call.”

As Livia left the room, Scheherezade appeared to relax and began to tell them what seemed to be gossip. Saul wasn’t so sure. He’d noticed the exchange of looks between the two women.

“Charles Stuart’s going to get the chop. Livia’s gone off him, so I’ve heard. Leaving aside the fact that he made a kingsized mess of the soulminers strike business, and Augustus is hopping.”

“That’s gotta be good news,” said Beelzebub.

“Livia’s new squeeze is supposed to be Rasputin,” continued Scheherezade, her deep brown eyes the picture of innocence. “Just a rumour of course. You saw the announcement about his new drugs czar I presume. The crackdown is going to get serious with Livia backing him too. I should expect a speech or two by Augustus pretty soon.”

“You don’t say?” put in Beelzebub encouragingly.

“Good idea. Do go on” put in Saul. He and Beelzebub exchanged looks. Scheherezade talking off the record about the inner workings of the government? This was gold-dust, and they both knew it.

“We’re choosing a new minister at the moment,” said Scheherezade. “We want someone who’ll take a somewhat ‘firmer’,” she framed the word, “line with the soulminers and their leader.”

At that moment, Livia returned, and Scheherezade seemed to focus again. Is it just an act, wondered Saul, an excuse to tell us a few things we need to know without it appearing to come from Livia?

“The refinery inspections are fixed up, Beelzebub, you’ll get the tax rebates we agreed,” she said cryptically. Beelzebub just nodded. Saul tried not to look baffled.

“So, Mr Tarsus,” said Livia, smiling at him. Saul just waited.
“The Soulminers’ strike was very worrying for Augustus, very worrying indeed,” she began. “He does not intend that it should be repeated with the government in such a weak position to fight it. We would like to see you build up the stocks in your Purgatory to a level where they represent many months normal flow to the refineries.”

“I see,” said Saul non-committally.

“To help you, we have arranged that some of Beelzebub’s refineries that would normally take their supplies from Peter, Saul and Mary, will be closed down for ‘safety inspections’. Beelzebub will have to purchase fewer souls from you, and your stocks will presumably increase,” said Livia. It was not a question, but Saul nodded in response.

“Of course this will not be good for your cashflow, or your profits in the short term,” said Livia in the same even tone.

 

“No it won’t,” agreed Saul, trying to keep his voice as expressionless as Livia’s.

“Officially of course, there is nothing we can do about that. Unofficially, however, here is my private telephone number, and here is Scheherezade’s in case you cannot reach me.” Livia placed a small card on the table in front of Saul. “Should you request some assistance in the future, you can be sure that you will receive a helpful response.”

“Take it Saul,” said Beelzebub. It was almost an order.

 

“Do we have a deal, Mr Tarsus?” asked Livia, looking Saul in the eye.

 

Saul considered for a moment, remembering the alarming reputation of Livia’s dinners.

 

“I should like your answer before the dessert course arrives, Saul” smiled Livia.

“Of course, Livia. We have a deal. We’d like to see the Soulminers Union humbled even more than you would,” said Saul firmly. What choice did he have anyway? He picked up the card, and put it carefully into his wallet.

“That’s marvellous. Ah, here’s pudding. Oh dear, what is the matter with these grapes, they really don’t look healthy at all. I wouldn’t try them if I were you. I’ll have them removed immediately.” Livia gestured to a servant.

“Sorbet, Saul?” asked Scheherezade.

 

“Sorbet would be lovely,” said Saul faintly.

 

Chapter 20

“So then they agreed that I would have to tell you two what was going on.” They were gathered in Peter’s office, where Saul was filling in Mary and Peter on his evening at Draughts. “But they asked me to make it extremely clear that it’s to go no further, darlings. Livia said something about the grapes of wrath, and waved her arm in the direction of that poisonous bunch she’d had removed before I could tuck in.”

Mary was agog. She shuddered a little at the thought of being mixed up in business of this kind. “Did they say what kind of help we might expect in return in the future?”

“No darling. Just to call if we get really stuck.”

“We’re going to be really stuck pretty quickly at the current rate of progress. Double the wages, halve the sales, it’s not exactly a recipe for success in business.”

Peter wasn’t concentrating properly. He’d had a dreadful thought on the way in this morning. What if Shia’d had a video camera in the room? Any moment she might call him with some kind of blackmail demand. How could he explain it to his wife? What if the pictures leaked? He’d look ridiculous. He’d be ruined.

The phone rang suddenly, interrupting Peter’s fretting. He sat down heavily, and picked it up with unsteady hands.

 

“Hello?...It’s for you,” he said, his voice lowering two octaves as he handed it to Mary. “Gautama.”

 

Ignoring Saul’s “oh ho” eyebrows, Mary took the phone. “Hi Gautama,” she began warmly.

During the opening small-talk, Peter’s thoughts began to drift again. Maybe Shia hadn’t videoed him after all? Maybe he was OK? But what about next time? Next time? Of course there wouldn’t be a next time. Peter sat with his arms folded. As he remembered the moment when, kneeling astride him, Fatmeh had clenched her internal muscles, he unconsciously tightened his biceps. If only there could be a next time. There had to be a next time. But how could he possibly manage that? Could he get in touch with Fatmeh and Salima without Shia knowing? How could he conceal it from his wife? His thoughts were brought back to reality by Mary reaching across him to replace the handset.

“I take it that wasn’t much of a lovers chat then darling?” said Saul. Mary was flushed and angry looking. Peter was failing in his attempts to recall any of the conversation when fortunately for him Mary recapped it tersely.

“Gautama said to say he’s noticed the caravels have reached the Cape of Good Hope, and strongly suggests they don’t round it.”

Saul sighed. “No surprise there then darlings. Some lovely chappie called Bartolemeu er… Dias that was it, got there a little while back. Gautama’s even more on the ball than I thought if he’s spotted young Bartolemeu already.”

“What are we going to do about it?” put in Peter, anxious to appear focussed on events and not on the inside of his head.

“As you stressed so eloquently in the last board meeting,” replied Saul with more than a hint of acidity, “we’re disbarred by the All Investors Meeting from going the other way. So, we’ll just have to sail on and hope for the best, won’t we?”

“Fine. Let’s review it in the next board meeting, shall we?” said Mary, a little wearily. She was beginning to tire of her role as peacemaker.

She and Saul stood up and headed out and back down the stairway to heaven. “How’s the westbound sailing going?” she asked quietly once they were safely out of earshot.

“All primed and ready to go. Some guy called Colon or Columbus or something like that. He’s sitting around at the court of the Queen of Spain at the moment, trying to get a grant. I think I’ll just go and arrange it.”

“Good luck!” called Mary after him as Saul hurried off.

 

Chapter 21

 

Mary was working on the month-end figures, when Moses appeared outside her office, and knocked rather tentatively.

“Come in,” shouted Mary without looking up. Moses shuffled in, holding a sheet of paper close to his chest. Mary looked up, read Moses’ expression, and held out her hand.

“This looks ominous,” she said, as Moses handed over the paper.

“Just a formality, I think, Ms Magdalene,” he replied. They’d never been able to get Moses on to first name terms. He remained an official of the old school, but he was very efficient at his job nonetheless. “As Company Secretary, of course I must reply to this letter, and I’d appreciate an outline response from you.”

Mary glanced at the letter. It was a formal request from Pantheon Alliance for a shareholders’ project report, specifically on the progress of Ocean Going Sailing. Mary paled slightly, before saying firmly to Moses, “I think I need to discuss this briefly with Saul first. I’ll get back to you later on today. Thank you Moses.” It was a dismissal and Moses shuffled back out again, closing the door behind him.

As soon as it had clicked shut, Mary was on the phone to Saul. “Are you free, Saul? We’ve got a bit of a problem I think. Can I pop up? You’ll come down? Great, see you in a minute.”

Saul appeared moments later. “A teensy problem? Tell me all about it Mary dear.” Mary passed him the letter. “Hmmmm, things are moving a bit quickly for my taste darling. Anyway, I think it’s pretty obvious what to do. We just reply officially, mentioning Bartolemeu Dias reaching the Cape, outlining the next objective of getting a ship all the way to India, and leave it at that.” “It’s a bit economical with the truth, isn’t it?” observed Mary.

“Given that even Saint doesn’t know about the Spanish and their westbound ambitions, we can hardly tell Jupiter and Saturn, can we?”

 

“Fair point, I suppose Saul. When are we going to tell Peter anyway? I’m getting just a bit tired of calming him down.”

 

“When there’s something to actually say,” replied Saul rather morosely.

 

“What do you mean? I thought your Columbus chap was already to go?”

“I still can’t get him a grant. Ferdinand and Isabella are all tied up with the Reconquista. It’s taking them bloody ages to recapture Granada, and they just don’t seem interested in this boating trip at all.”

“How about if we bought Andalucia back off Sonny and Shia?” suggested Mary.

 

“It’s an idea,” said Saul, brightening. “Can we afford it?”

“We’ll just have to use the money we made from the sale of Constantinople I suppose. Peter still doesn’t know about the other million credos I got for it. Come to think of it, since he’s got the contacts with Shia, maybe he could negotiate the sale. I’m sure he could keep the price under the million mark.”

“Send Saint back to Shia? That should be entertaining,” replied Saul. Mary looked intrigued. “Why? What’s really up with Peter and Shia?” she asked. “Anyway, shall we call him and ask him to sort it?”

“No, no,” interjected Saul hastily. “Let me have a private chat with him. Otherwise how are you going to explain why we’re so interested in a quick purchase of Andalucia?”

“How are you going to?” asked Mary. It was obvious that Saul was up to something.

 

“Just leave it with me Mary love,” answered Saul.

Mary considered pursuing it further, but decided against it. She’d probably just end up umpiring another Saint versus Saul rematch. Anyway, Saul seemed pretty certain, so she might as well let him get on with it.

“OK, Saul, I’ll trust you again. Just don’t stir Peter up OK? He seems really edgy at the moment. I’ll get Moses back in and sort out that letter to Jupiter.” She reached for the phone, as Saul rose and headed out with a wave. He stopped suddenly, having thought of something.

“Mary, do you mind if I tell Saint it was your idea to buy Andalucia?”

 

“As long as you handle it when he finds out about Columbus, and more specifically that we’ve been concealing it from him.”

 

“You’ve got a deal,” called Saul, heading out again.

Mary stared after him, wondering what on earth he was up to. The phone was answered and she dictated the gist of a letter to Pantheon back to Moses, while continuing with half her mind to try to fathom Saul’s rather strange insinuations about Peter and Shia. It seemed bizarre. Surely there couldn’t be anything going on between them? Shia was several years older than Peter for a start. Anyway, he was so straitlaced, and apparently devoted to his family, even that dragon of a wife of his.

Giving the matter up, she returned to her spreadsheets.
Peter sat at his desk, staring gloomily at several pages of charts describing their stockholdings of souls at various stages in purgatory. The sheets of paper, covered in coloured graphs – excellent documents, he had to admit, Croesus’ work again – were neatly tessellated in a perfect rectangle across the otherwise empty desktop.

Peter was having trouble concentrating again. His mind kept drifting back to Salima and Fatmeh. How could he find them again, without being traced? How much would they cost? How could he keep it secret (especially from his wife?).

I liked to think I was immune to the stuff, he thought to himself. But it’s closer to the truth to say I can’t get enough. Gonna have to face it, I’m addicted to…

“Might as well face it,” said Saul’s voice suddenly in the doorway. Peter jumped.

 

“Hi Saint, sorry I startled you,” began Saul. “Your lights were on.”

But I’m not home, thought Peter. My mind is not my own. My heart sweats, my teeth grind. He pictured Salima again. Another kiss and she’ll be mine… Saul’s voice returned him urgently to the present.

“You don’t look good Saint. I thought I should drop by and see how you were. I know the finances aren’t too great at the moment, but it’s not that bad yet, surely?”

“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, there’s no doubt, we’re in deep,” answered Peter.

“I see the signs, I can read, you’re running at different speed. Anyway, I might be able to help there. Mary’s had an idea. She’s been looking over the business case for Andalucia and she thinks we should try and buy it from Sonny and Shia. So since you’re the one with the contacts there, we thought maybe you could make another visit to Shia and see if she’ll do the deal.”

Peter’s heart beat in double time. Another kiss, and she’ll be mine, he thought again.

 

“Might as well face it,” Saul was continuing. “Mary reckons that if you could get it for less than a million credos we’d have a profitable deal.”

Saul was watching Peter carefully. Peter’s face was lighting up. So it’s definitely true, thought Saul to himself. Peter did get up to something in Shia’s little harem, and he’s about to leap at the chance of another round. He can’t be saved, oblivion is all he craves.

“Of course if you can get it for less…”

Peter nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll call her right away and make an appointment. Probably best if I go to her place again, it’s more discreet that way.”

Saul eyed him again. “Anything under a million,” he said. And if there’s some left for you, you don’t mind if you do, he thought, watching Peter carefully again. “Might as well face it,” he repeated.

Peter was practically skipping round the room, before collecting himself and reaching for his address book.

You’re addicted to love, finished Saul to himself. Well probably not love, but I guess Shia must have laid on the dancing girls in a pretty big way for your last visit. It’s a good thing it was Mary who did the price negotiations. Addicted to Shia’s harem anyway.

“I’ll get right on to it and call her now,” said Peter, grabbing his phone. “Might as well face it,” he echoed to Saul.

 

You’re addicted, thought Saul once more. “Might as well face it,” he smiled, and headed out. Peter was already dialling…

As he climbed into his car, Peter could feel himself shaking with excitement. Perhaps wobbling with excitement would be more accurate, as he had continued to put on weight recently. His hands were quivering so much he had some difficulty fitting the key into the lock, a problem he hoped would not repeat itself later with Fatmeh and Salima.

Fatmeh and Salima… The blue-movies in his head became more vivid, and he had to force himself to concentrate. First he had to conclude a successful deal with Shia, Andalucia for less than a million credos. And hopefully, (please please, he said aloud), Fatmeh and Salima would be part of the deal. At least Shia had been encouraging on the phone when he’d called to suggest a discussion around “some other commercially advantageous territorial adjustments.” The appointment was certainly prompt. And better still, it was mid-afternoon, which hopefully meant enjoying Fatmeh and Salima’s attentions and still getting home on time.

As he drove on, in amongst the fantasies of what might happen again in Shia’s private quarters, he began to wonder about his discussion with Saul. Hadn’t it just seemed a little bit too pat, almost as if Saul knew about what had happened last time he dealt with Shia? Surely that wasn’t possible? It was hardly in Shia’s interests for Saul or Mary to know what had happened. Unless Fatmeh or Salima had been indiscreet. But how could they have been? Sonny and Shia did not have reputations for being forgiving employers. Why should Shia’s personal staff want to jeopardise what were (presumably) good positions. Positions… ahhhh, his mind began to drift again.

Sometime later he walked into the reception of Sonny and Shia Ltd, to be greeted once more by the uniformed Abdul. “Welcome back, Mr Fisher,” said Abdul, his consonants thick and heavy as Peter remembered Salima’s had been. “Please to follow me.” They stepped into a lift, and Abdul pushed the button for the top floor.

As the lift rose, he turned to Peter. “I trust you found our hospitality most excellent on your last visit,” he said, with a half smile. Peter stiffened, folded his arms instinctively high across his chest, and said very formally back “yes, thank you, it was excellent. And Madame Shia and I made a very good deal for both our companies.” He attempted to assume the stern visage of a senior executive dealing with a minion. Abdul continued to smile, and his eyebrows twitched as he answered “that is very good sir. This way please,” he continued, and led Peter down a familiar corridor.

After walking through the same endless archways, Abdul knocked on a door, just as before, while Peter tried to calm his excitement at who might answer. He felt his stomach churn when Salima appeared, dressed exactly as he remembered (at least for the early part of his previous meeting). Her smile went right down him. “Good afternoon again Mr Fisher. Madame Shia is once more expecting you. Come this way.” She put her hand on Peter’s arm momentarily to steer him from the lift, and Peter almost missed his step.

Shia was reclining, as before, on a cushion on the thick silken carpets. She rose to greet him, and returned to the floor. Once again, Peter tried unsuccessfully to find a way of being both comfortable and dignified on his cushion. His efforts were not helped by his trying surreptitiously to spot Fatmeh.

“So, Mr Fisher, I understand you wish to make another territorial deal with us,” began Shia after a period of small talk.

Peter outlined his proposal to purchase Andalucia. As he finished Shia rose to her feet. “Please wait one moment, Mr Fisher. I must speak with my partner before we continue.” She clapped her hands, and to Peter’s poorly concealed delight, Fatmeh appeared, bearing a silver tray of mint tea and cakes. Shia watched him intently, nodded briefly, unnoticed by Peter who was focussed on Fatmeh and the cakes, and left to call Sonny.

She returned after a few minutes. “I have spoken with El Hajj Sonny,” she said, “and we have agreed that we could make a deal. Perhaps you have a price in mind?”

Peter mentioned an opening figure of half a million, and they discussed it back and forth for a while. Eventually they stuck at eight hundred thousand. It was clear the Shia was unhappy with this figure, but, despite the distraction of Fatmeh kneading his shoulders, Peter was remained focussed on securing his planned outcome.

Shia sighed. Peter sighed too, but for different reasons, as Fatmeh’s fingers gently stroked at the skin above his collar. “It seems, Mr Fisher, that we cannot make a deal. I cannot sell you Andalucia for a mere eight hundred thousand. El Hajj Sonny is quite clear on the point.”

This mention of Sonny made Peter tempted to ask if he was dealing with the monkey or the organ grinder. A glance at Salima, bending over with another tray of cakes, made him decide against: she might decide he was insulting her.

“Fatmeh, Salima, it seems Mr Fisher and I will not be able to conclude our business. Mr Fisher of course will wish to return to his office urgently to tell them the bad news. I think you will not be needed further today,” said Shia, suddenly, clapping her hands imperiously. She began to rise. Peter saw his moment.

“Perhaps…” he began. Shia subsided, and signalled with her fan to her girls. “Nine hundred,” said Shia firmly.

 

“Eight hundred and fifty,” replied Peter.

 

“Eight hundred and seventy,” countered Shia.

 

Peter yawned elaborately. “Goodness me I’m tired. It must be the stress of our negotiations. Eight six five?”

Shia saw the point at once, as Peter had expected. “Fatmeh, Salima, Mr Fisher is in need of some rejuvenation. Fetch hot towels, Salima go fetch the oil. OK, Mr Fisher, eight hundred and sixty five thousand. It must be transferred to our account within 10 days. Our forces in Andalucia will then be beaten rapidly. And now, of course, you need to relax after the strain of our deal-making. I will leave Fatmeh and Salima to make you comfortable. It has been a pleasure, Mr Fisher.”

She rose, shook Peter’s hand, and left. As she exited, Fatmeh and Salima appeared again, smiling. Salima reached for Peter’s hand and guided it to the bowstring beneath her breasts. Fatmeh reached around and began to loosen his tie. Peter sighed, and pulled the string.

In another room Shia checked the video carefully. The camera was focussed clearly on Peter, who was being helped by Fatmeh to undo his shirt buttons. Shia smiled to herself. Men, she thought, so easy to manage. She checked again that the tape was running and left.

Chapter 24

 

Saul came fluttering urgently into Mary’s office. “Mary dear, what year are the lovely people of earth in?”

 

Mary looked at the grin on Saul’s face and decided to humour him. She glanced at her parallel calendar. “In fourteen hundred and ninety two.”

 

“Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” capped Saul. “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” he repeated excitedly. “Peter did it then?”

 

“In more ways than one,” grinned Saul.

 

“Oh come off it Saul. No way could our Saint get up to anything like that. He’s too scared of his wife.”

 

“Strange things are rumoured about Shia’s harem, Mary, strange things. It can turn a man’s head, so I’ve heard.”

 

“Do you actually know something, Saul, or are you just making malicious gossip as usual?”

 

“Malicious? Me?” Saul protested. “Gossip, of course, malicious gossip, not I!” he cried virtuously.

 

“Bollocks,” said Mary firmly. “Anyway, how much do we have to pay?” “Eight six five, darling,” answered Saul.

 

“Eight hundred and sixty five thousand credos? That’s not bad, for Andalucia on a plate.”

 

“Personally, I think he could have got it for seven fifty really. A hundred thousand plus must make it the most expensive shag in history.” “Really Saul. I just don’t believe it. Anyway, eight six five is pretty good, when you think we’ve got your Columbus venture going at last.” “How are the finances actually, Mary?” asked Saul, becoming serious.

“Dreadful, actually, Saul,” she answered. “We can scrape the price together for Andalucia, but after that, we’ve reached rock bottom. We’ll be having to use that ghastly facility that Croc Cayman offered us if we need any more in the short term.”

“Don’t forget our ‘friend’ Livia.”

 

“I haven’t forgotten. I think that’s a last resort, don’t you?”

 

“Are we really absolutely at rock bottom?” asked Saul suddenly, after pausing for thought for a few moments.

 

“Well, scraping the barrel anyway. Why?”

“Well, once Columbus has safely discovered America and the fuss has started, we’re going to need to conquer it. That’s the point of the whole thing after all,” answered Saul.

“And?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that. Of course the real prize is South America. Big civilisation spread across the whole of the west of the continent. Not much in North America, although we ought to pick that off in time. But there’s a juicy morsel in Mexico. I thought we might do a pilot project there, make sure we’ve got it all worked out before we tackle the south.”

“And I suppose the pilot project needs funding?”

 

“Absolutely darling. Not much I don’t think, but a bit of course.”

 

“Well, there’s the change from the million we said Peter could spend. That’s about it.”

 

“So, a hundred thousand credos, give or take?” verified Saul.

 

“That’s about your lot.”

 

“I think that should do it actually,” said Saul. “Time to start planning I think.”

“In fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus may be sailing the ocean blue, but in fifteen hundred and fifty we’re going to be voted out of existence in the All Investors Meeting, unless we’ve improved things an awful lot. Definitely time to start planning. Fifty-eight earth years! I’m really worried, Saul,” confessed Mary sadly.

“That’s ages, darling, absolutely ages. You’ll see. Dry your eyes, find the cash for me, and let’s get to it,” said Saul comfortingly. “I have a cunning plan…”

And with that, he turned and left. Mary followed him with her eyes, unsure for once if Saul was overconfident. Generation after generation she’d seen him deliver what he promised, however far-fetched, right from the first Letters to the Romans and so on. But there’s always a first time to fail, she told herself. Cash reserves at rock bottom, income at rock bottom, costs spiralling, and fiftyeight earth years to sort it all out. She sighed deeply. Her mobile rang, she answered it, and brightened immediately. It was Apollo, calling to invite her to his place at Delphi for a week’s break.

A little later they had agreed some dates. Mary called Saul and explained to him. For some reason Saul seemed particularly to approve of Mary’s blossoming relationship with Apollo. “So could you deputise for me that week, Saul?” she asked.

“Off with Apollo to beautiful Delphi? How marvellous darling! Of course I can deputise. You can tell Peter though! You know he thinks I can’t be trusted with money.”

“I’ll sort it Saul. I know it’s really short notice, thanks ever so much,” said Mary, trying not to gush.

 

“It’ll be a pleasure darling. I take it Croesus will be around that week to… help out,” said Saul meaningfully.

 

“You leave my Croesus alone, Saul,” teased Mary. “But yes he will be, so I’m sure it’ll all be in safe hands.”

 

“Oh it will, darling, it will, especially Croesus. My hands are ever so safe,” said Saul archly.

 

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t,” replied Mary, giggling.

 

Chapter 25

Peter had been at a rather tedious conference about operational legislation. It had finished early so he decided to pop into the hotel bar for a swift half before heading home. He bought his drink, picked up a newspaper, and sat down in an armchair to read it.

“Do you mind if we join you?” a deep voice rumbled suddenly in his ear. He looked up and was surprised to see Jupiter and Saturn standing over him, each with a small cup of espresso. He put quickly put down his newspaper saying “of course not, be my guest,” but it was clear they were joining him whether he minded or not.

“So how are things with you?” asked Jupiter, his Italian accent even more noticeable than in the investors meeting.

 

“So so,” said Peter non-committally.

 

“As bad as that?” said Jupiter. “I think perhaps you will be needing another position after fifteen hundred and fifty, no?”

 

“Maybe,” said Peter carefully.

 

“By the way,” put in Saturn, “we heard some guy sailed from Spain westbound to America. You know anything about that, Peter?”

Peter was genuinely surprised, and it showed. “No nothing at all. We agreed we’d go eastbound with the ocean going sailing, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

“This guy, Columbus or something, he is Italian, from Genoa. So of course, we heard what he is up to,” said Saturn. “You sure you’re not involved?”

“Absolutely,” said Peter. “We’ve not been using the Spanish, all our sailing has been from Portugal. In fact we’re getting a bit of friction from Gautama about our guys appearing on his coastlines.”
“No Spanish sailing west?”

“No Spanish sailing west,” confirmed Peter firmly. It was self-evident he was telling the truth. Peter was known to be a poor liar in any case. Saturn said something briefly in Italian to Jupiter, who nodded in response.

Jupiter resumed his own line of questioning. “So, what about fifteen fifty then Peter. How will you be voting?”

 

Peter considered. “I guess it depends on the situation.”

“For the company?” Peter had never heard Jupiter say so much before. Normally he left the talking to Saturn. Peter had always suspected that Jupiter’s English was so poor he had to use Saturn as an interpreter. It was evident that this was not so, although his accent was very strong.

“Yes. And of course, for me personally,” answered Peter carefully. He was sure Jupiter would take the point, and his next words confirmed that this was so.

“We hear the Operations Director at Shinto Express might be retiring soon,” said Jupiter.

 

“Due to ill-health,” amplified Saturn. Peter looked surprised. He’d been talking to the guy during the conference and he hadn’t seemed unwell. “Maybe he doesn’t know it yet,” added Saturn, reading his expression. “Of course it might not happen that way. You never can tell with ill-health.” “Guys who look quite healthy can suddenly come over real bad,” observed Jupiter.

Peter looked from one to the other. “Well, I don’t know, I mean, Shinto Express is about the same size job as I’ve got at Peter Saul and Mary. I was kind of thinking I was ready for a move up.”

Saturn looked over at Jupiter. “Hey Don Jupiter, I heard Gautama’s guy might need an operation around fifteen-fifty,” he said, not looking at Peter. “Might not be able to work again.”

“Is that so, Saturn?” replied Jupiter. “That’s a pretty big job we’re talking about there, I’d say Saturn.”

“It is Don Jupiter, a real big job. Of course he might not need the operation.” In their identical dark suits and waistcoats, throwing lines back and forth to each other, Jupiter and Saturn reminded Peter of a music-hall act he had been taken to once as a child.

“And there might not be any suitable candidates, even if he does,” said Jupiter, looking back at Peter.

 

“It’s all a question of timing, I suppose,” put in Peter, playing the straight man between the comedians.

 

“Right place, right time, that’s always the story,” agreed Saturn.

 

“And of course, it’s who you know, not what you know, that counts,” observed Jupiter.

 

“They say you can tell who are man’s real friends are when the votes are all counted,” added Saturn pointedly.

In an attack of boldness, that he later came to wonder might have been a poor idea, Peter decided to check a few implications. “I heard some of your guys are having trouble with Scheherezade’s patrols.” he said casually.

Jupiter’s dark brows furrowed very slightly. “You want to be careful, listening to rumours like that. Pantheon is an investment company, not a tour agency. Saturn, help me here, I was never too good at arithmetic. What’s ten percent of minus nothing worth?”

“A lot of nothing, Don Jupiter.”

 

“You want to look after your ten percent of Peter Saul and Mary very carefully Peter, very carefully indeed,” said Jupiter dangerously.

“Of course, being in charge of soulmining for a big, reputable outfit, soulminers going back and forth between the Great Planes and Earth all the time, that’s a job with real prospects,” commented Saturn.

“Not many prospects in an outfit that might not be there in fifty-odd years though, are there Peter?” With this, Jupiter and Saturn both turned and stared hard at Peter.

Peter stared back. Perhaps it was his beer talking, but he had decided he wasn’t going to be intimidated by all this. And he certainly didn’t want to get mixed up in some sort of drug-running with Jupiter and Saturn. On the other hand, the prospect of the Operations Director job with Gautama was too good to pass up. He’d always wanted a bigger job, something with more respect, in a properly run organisation. Saul was just so amateur somehow. That fuss over applying the proper Great Planes standards for the schism, for example. He couldn’t see Gautama getting mixed up in anything dubious like drugs. Gautama certainly didn’t need to, with all his success. Maybe he could land the job and then ignore Pantheon. Gautama would protect his key staff surely? They must be able to find an easier target than Gautama’s operation. Hadn’t they already mentioned Shinto Express?

“Well, there’s certainly plenty to think about, isn’t there?” said Peter, trying to sound casual.

 

“Don Jupiter thinks you should put your thinking cap on real hard,” said Saturn. He and Jupiter both rose to leave.

“Nice talking to you Peter,” continued Saturn. “Maybe you should take a nice little break in that villa in Paradise you got, and think it all over.” He and Jupiter shook hands with Peter, and left.

Chapter 26

It was Mary’s week off with Apollo. Saul was deputising for her, a fact which Peter had inevitably taken rather badly. To exacerbate matters, the expansion of Purgatory, needed to hold their ever increasing stocks of souls while the refinery inspections continued, meant that Peter needed more staff. Technically this required sign-off from the Finance Director, which meant Peter needed Saul to sign. They were sitting in Mary’s office discussing the figures.

Saul put away the temptation to toy with Peter by being difficult over his requirements. As usual with Peter’s activities, it did seem a little over-engineered to Saul, but it wasn’t an issue worth fighting over. He was too busy making the plans for the pilot conquest of Mexico, for one thing, and he certainly didn’t want to have Peter coming down to his department to argue about his staffing and maybe seeing the plans at this stage.

Saul was just in the process of saying “no problem Peter, I’ll get Croesus over to you with the forms later today,” when there was a knock on the door and Moses appeared. “Hi Moses darling!” said Saul brightly.

Moses winced. “There’s a call from Mercury, Mr Tarsus. He’s passing and wonders if he could drop by.”

 

“Sure Moses, send him right in,” said Saul. “What’s this all about I wonder?” He turned to Peter.

Peter shrugged. “I bumped into Jupiter and Saturn at that boring conference last week, and they asked if we were behind some bloke sailing to America. Name began with C, Italian apparently which was how they knew of course, but sailing from Spain. I told them ‘no’, obviously, and that seemed to settle it.”

Saul kept his face guileless. He was about to reply when Mercury himself appeared at the door. The white tuxedo was back in place, and he appeared to have purchased new sandals, white with intricate gold buckles.

“Hi Merc, good to see you, what brings you to our humble offices at this moment?” said Saul.

“Hello Saul, morning Peter.” They shook hands, and sat down around Mary’s meeting table. “The boys asked me to drop in, give you a bit of news one of our guys just picked up on Earth.” He handed over a sheet of paper.

“Great news for you guys I think,” added Mercury, as Peter unfolded the document. It was the scanned image of a something official looking, with many important seals, written in Latin.

“Pass it over, Peter,” said Saul. “I know languages aren’t your thing.” Peter looked annoyed. He didn’t like reminding of the deficiencies in his education.

“Treaty of Tordesillas, Year of Our Lord 1494,” began Saul. He scanned the rest of it. “It appears to divide the new world into two halves. Everything to the west of a line of longitude, errr, through the Atlantic I think, for Spain. Everything to the east, for Portugal. At least that’s the gist of it as far as I can tell. I’ll get Moses to translate it properly later.”

“Fantastic for you, isn’t it?” said Mercury. “Saturn heard they were starting to discuss it, and kind of nudged them along. The boys thought it would be helpful if your Portuguese ships had a clear run east.”

“It’s great,” said Peter, genuinely. “Say thanks to Saturn for us. In fact I’ll drop him an email myself.”

He’s going to be pretty cross when he finds out, thought Saul, knowing it would probably be himself who ended up telling Peter. He could hardly ask Mary to do it.

“Of course, the boys’ll deal with the Spanish, if that’s OK by you. Slow them down a bit,” said Mercury.

“Oh, I think that’ll happen by itself anyway,” cut in Saul. “Maybe we should just let it take its course. With all our efforts going behind the Portuguese chaps, I don’t think the Spanish will get anywhere fast, do you?”

Jupiter and Saturn have moved awfully quickly, he was thinking to himself. Columbus only got there two years ago and they’ve already sorted out this treaty to try and make sure we don’t follow him up. I think I might just risk talking to that cousin of mine, that disreputable young Lebanese lady who always seems to know so much. She always has a price for everything though, and there’s really not much cash to go round.

Mercury was excusing himself, and Peter said he would show him out. Saul closed the door behind them, and began to search through his address book. Finding what he was after, he picked up the phone, and called a private mobile number.

“Salima? Hi, sweetheart, cousin Saul here… Yes, I’m fine, how are things going with you. Still in the information profession?... Good, well I’m buying darling. I need to know a few things… Pantheon Alliance and their, errr, smuggling interests in the Americas… Yes, I know it’ll cost me, it always does with you darling doesn’t it?... OK, call me back when you’ve got some news. On my mobile sweetheart, not the office phone. Talk to you later. Toodlepip darling.”

While I’m waiting, he thought, I might as well just catch up with the state of a few more routine things. He opened the door again. “Croesus, could you come on in now. I’d just like to go over a few things with you.”

He spent some time with Croesus, reviewing the potential costs of launching Luther and doing the schism. It was rather expensive, and with the Portuguese and Spanish both launched, and apparently competing over spheres of influence already – the Ocean Going Sailing project had all happened much faster than they’d expected – it really didn’t look like Luther was going to be needed after all. Maybe they could cancel the schism. He called Moses, and asked him to add to the agenda for the next board meeting.

“Do you want to go over the progress on the Printing project,” Croesus was asking.

Saul eyed him up. Mary and Peter both seemed to be getting their share of action, he thought. Why shouldn’t I? “Yes, but I’m really terribly busy for the rest of the day, Croesus. Maybe if you could spare the time, we could go through it in the bar over the road after hours?” He looked Croesus significantly in the eye.

“OK Saul,” said Croesus. “I’ll see you there.” He stood up, ran his eyes carefully over Saul from head to toe, turned, and left the room.

 

Later that day, Saul’s mobile rang. It was his cousin, Salima. “Ten thousand,” was her opening greeting.

Saul sighed. “Give me the account number, and I’ll get it transferred now.” Salima read out a number. “Call you back in five, my dear,” said Saul, and stepped back out into the Finance department. Thank goodness he was covering for Mary. There was no way she’d have approved a ten thousand credo transfer to an unknown bank account with no strings attached. Fortunately, he could authorise it himself this week. He spoke briefly to Croesus, who nodded, did something on his computer, and gestured to Saul to enter his approval password.

Walking back into his own office, Saul called Salima back. “All done, darling. It had better be very very good, for that kind of money.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find that it is, Saul,” came Salima’s voice back. She had kept a hint of the middle-east in it, a hint which Saul had long ago erased from his own speech. “There’s a little bonus item in it which I’m sure will make it worthwhile,” she continued.

“Go on then darling,” said Saul. “Give.”

 

“Pantheon and the Americas: Cocaine smuggling, Saul,” said Salima.

 

Saul nodded. “It’s what I suspected. Ten thousand’s an awful lot for just that.”

 

“That was just your starter for two. Your bonus for eight is that I was entertaining one of your executives recently.”

 

“One of mine?”

 

“One of yours. Well not executives. Partners really.”

Saul decided he had better pretend this wasn’t also what he’d suspected, although it hadn’t for one moment occurred to him that it would be cousin Salima that Peter had been seeing. “Good grief!” he said. “Did he pay himself?”

“No he didn’t.”

 

“Who did then?”

 

“Professional secret, Saul. I really can’t tell you that.”

 

“A lot of times?”

 

“Twice.”

 

“A fat man?”

 

“You said it Saul, not me.”

 

“OK, Salima, you’ve earned your ten thousand. Any chance of us meeting before the family get-together?”

They exchanged a few items of family gossip before hanging up. Saul sat down to think through the confirmation that Jupiter and Saturn were trying to keep them away from the Americas because they were smuggling cocaine. As far as Saul was aware, it only grew on Earth in South America. It wouldn’t grow on the Great Planes at all. Pretty obviously Pantheon were keen to stop them spoiling their operations. Presumably they had already become more difficult with Scheherezade’s new patrols in the Ether. In any case, it was clear that Jupiter and Saturn might well continue to get in the way of any initiatives they might take in the Americas. Saul pulled out his Conquest-of-Mexico pilot project plan, and made a few alterations.

He glanced at his watch. It was time to meet Croesus in the bar.

 

Chapter 27

Mary was going through her in-tray after her holiday when she came to a very disturbing item. It was a envelope marked Urgent, Private and Confidential and it bore the logo of Gautama’s company. Uneasily she opened it and read the letter. Then she picked up her phone and called Saul and Peter in rapid succession, asking them if they could pop down for a brief meeting.

Saul was first to appear. “Hello, Mary darling, you look simply marvellous with that tan. How was your break?”

 

“Gorgeous, Saul.”

 

“Delphi, Apollo, or the holiday in general.”

 

“All three!” grinned Mary. “Apollo is such a great guy, really caring and considerate, but intelligent and astute and…”

 

“And Delphi?” interrupted Saul, smiling.

“His place at Delphi is just fantastic. High up on the hills, looking down across the olive fields to the blue sea. You know, Saul, I could really see my future there.”

“I think that’s what happens at Delphi, darling,” said Saul sardonically. Mary was saved from replying by the entry of Peter.

 

“Morning Saint!”

 

“Morning Saul, morning Mary, good holiday?”

“Great thanks Peter. Anyway,” Mary became serious, “I think you should both read this, and then we have to decide what to do.” She passed over the letter. It was an official objection from Gautama to the voyage of Magellan and his landing in India. It gave them two weeks to cease supporting Portuguese activities or else face legal action ‘or other appropriate measures’.

“That seems to settle it then,” said Saul. “We have to abandon the Portuguese and these pointless eastbound voyages. No way can we afford to take on Gautama, especially with business the way it is.”

“But we simply cannot go west without a formal resolution from the All Investors Meeting. Which I personally do not think we will get,” countered Peter. His arms were folded high on his chest, and he was declaiming from behind them.

Armed with his call to Salima, Saul decided to bite the bullet. “Well, actually Saint…” he began.

 

Peter’s eyebrows knotted. “Go on,” he said, ominously.

“Actually we are already going west. I’ve a lovely chappie called Columbus reached the Americas a few years back actually, and we’re already following it up.”

Mary sat very still, waiting for the explosion.

“And you didn’t see fit to involve me in this decision?” began Peter. “Only weeks back I was denying directly to Jupiter and Saturn, to our biggest shareholders, that we had any involvement in Columbus and his Spaniards. And now I find that I have been put in the position of lying to them, because, despite my share in this business, and position as Operations Director, I have not been kept informed about actions you have been taking in the company’s name! Mary, did you know about this escapade of Saul’s?”

Mary coloured slightly, and was about to answer when Saul cut in.

“I know it’s changing the subject briefly, Saint, but just while I remember it, my cousin Salima asked me to give you her regards. I was talking to her yesterday you see and…”

“Cousin? Salima?” said Peter faintly.

 

“Yes, she said you’d met at Sonny and Shia’s. She does some PA work there I think,” said Saul, backing his hunch.

 

“Oh yes, Salima, yes,” said Peter, attempting to cover. “Nice girl, Salima, yes. I think I remember her.”

Mary looked on bemused, as Saul continued firmly “Of course, I take full responsibility for Columbus. Maybe I could come up to your office in a bit, and try to explain and apologise?” He looked meaningfully at Mary.

“Oh, err, great deal you got us over Andalucia, Peter,” she said. “Eight hundred and sixty-five thousand was a fabulous price. Brilliant negotiation, I never thought you’d get it for less than nine fifty.”

“Thank you Mary,” said Peter faintly. He looked at Saul. “Yes, yes, do come up to my office when we’ve finished here, perhaps we could talk it over a bit more first. Absolutely.”

“I think we’re going to need a Board meeting rather soon,” said Mary brightly. “Later this week perhaps? Bring forward the quarterly one to Friday? We could discuss how to respond to Gautama in that.”

“Good idea Mary,” said Peter, beginning to recover, although his mind was racing. What did Saul really know?

 

“Did you see the news this morning, by the way?” asked Saul, deliberately changing the subject.

 

“No?” said Mary.

 

“They’ve finally chosen a new Labour Minister. A Chinese name, Mr Deng, I think. Deng Pao Shing, or Deng Shing Piao, or something like that.” “Deng Xiao Ping?” said Peter, with raised eyebrows. “Well, it’s certainly a change from Charles Stuart.”

 

“Why?” asked Mary.